Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften: come out, little nerds, your time is finally here

This is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from the storerooms of a natural history museum, isn’t it.

I love science, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Ok, I am a little ashamed having written that sentence. But ever since I read my first ever Horrible Science I have always had a not-so-secret love for labcoaty things, and over time this has extended to philosophy and geology and everything else that involves the use of the word ‘hypothetically’. 

Berlin loves doing big events, and in particular has a tradition of holding “Long Nights of X”, where X might be art or museums or theatre or bakery products (it’s more plausible than you think). On these occasions one purchases a ticket and from midday until about 1am the following morning you can romp around the city going to various exhibits and shows to do with the overarching theme. I missed the long night of the museums and the long night of the opera and theatre to my great annoyance, so it was a true moment of excitement when I found out that Berlin had heard my cry and was holding a ‘Long Night of the Sciences’. One has to buy a ticket, but they are ludicrously cheap considering that they are an open pass to everything happening for the event as well as unlimited travel on the public transport until 4am. This Frida, therefore, I checked the time of the first thing I wanted to visit, marched down to the train platform to buy my ticket and got ready to start the fun. Well, until I realised that the reason why my ticket was a little cheaper than expected was because the thing didn’t start until tomorrow and I had got myself all pepped-up a bit too early.
You have got to plan your Long Night because there are literally hundreds of events and exhibitions all over the city extending kilometres into the countryside (i.e. Potsdam) and it isn’t so much a case of simply meandering around hoping you stumble around on something good. However, to plan your Long Night you yourself will need to have a Ph.D or at least a basic understanding of calculus. Trying to figure out how to time all the various things you want to do and the travelling time and waiting time in between (plus a good 15 minutes here and there for faffing) is so difficult I found myself staring wildly at the website for hours with the facial expression of the professor in Back to the Future (“ONE POINT TWENTY-ONE GIGAWATTS??”). While researching it also became apparent that this ‘long’ night is actually shorter than they brag about, most of the exhibits closing around 10 or 11pm. On closer inspection of the transport information it also became clear that not even the transport guys understand the transport. So, with absolutely no idea what I was doing and where I was going and why, I set out into the depths of the Long Night.


The first thing I had on my list was a tour of the coral collection of the Natural History museum, a place worth visiting if only to see the quite breathtaking archaeopteryx fossil which honestly really is, like, way cooler than it sounds.  A friendly and interesting woman delivered a brief and interesting lecture about coral reefs before taking us through endless atmospheric corridors full of empty display cases and pickled fish, accompanied by her colleague and her disarmingly affectionate boyfriend (look dude, she’s trying to give a talk right now, do you think you could wait and spoon her later?). The coral collection of the museum is really spectacular and features examples that would be highly illegal to take to a museum nowadays, which is why it is all now locked away and not available for viewing by the general public. Why? I don’t quite know, but it wasn’t always like that and hopefully might someday be brought back out again. I do hope it’s not just to show kids what coral used to be like before it all died out.

The next thing on my list was a talk about youth fashion at a university for fashion and design. It was delivered by a woman who must have been made up by my own imagination; she was all dressed in skin-tight black with a scraped-back bun, thick Andy Warhol glasses and the kind of stiletto boots you could stab a turtle with. Disappointingly she spent twenty-five minutes telling us what she certainly wasn’t going to talk about during the lecture, ten minutes wrestling with her laptop and croaky throat, and the rest of the time telling us things we already knew – “Young people like to wear alternative clothes and get piercings??? I’ve been so blind!!!” 


I then decided to stop by a robotics exhibit before my next thing, and this is where another problem of the programme became evident: everything is listed as having the same importance despite the levels of quality and ‘worth-it-ness’ being very variable. Thus the robotics exhibit turned out to be less of an exhibit and more like one small trestle table with a single robot and a sad-looking research student. I asked an awkward question to make her feel better and ran out before the creepy-as-all-hell robot made eye contact with me again.


Then I came to the nucleus of the thing, the big science event at the TU. There was a vast stage with breakdancers (yeah, it’s like physics or something innit) and a bunch of stands selling stuff to eat and lebkuchen, inexplicably. I was starving so invested a despicably huge sum of money in a pretzel which went directly into the bin the minute they handed it to me and it turned out to be cold, very wet and mottled with tumors of congealing butter. However, inside there was plenty to sate one’s hunger as there was a stall of scientists who had just invented a type of bread which was 65% water for people who have dry mouths. Yes. And they had free samples. There was another stall featuring non-alcoholic beer tastings, another offering samples of a miraculous microwaveable cake and one very disappointing one which had an entire buffet of delicious real food – for display purposes only. It was to show the kind of good food you should be eating for lunch at your workplace, and since it was real but not to be eaten the long hours had taken their toll and the smell was really quite disgraceful.


My last thing was a talk on philosophy and how it is therapy for the brain to consider philosophical questions and paradoxes such as: “The barber is the person in the village who shaves the beard of everyone who doesn’t shave their own beards. Does the barber shave himself?” I’ll give you a minute.


It was delivered by a crushingly cute young philosophy professor with red cheeks and lots of knowledge, and he used Wittgenstein very well to convince us that it’s not just the answer to the question that makes it worth asking, but also the importance of the question itself. He has a point; if you spend your life wondering whether or not the soul is connected to the body, and then one day realise that our concept of the body itself is not what we originally thought, that realisation alone is pretty darn important. There was then a brief debate involving several very odd old men who looked like they’d been living in bins prior to attending the event, and then…well, then I gave up.


I wanted to do so much more, but the trains were running in a ridiculous rhythm at this point which made nothing doable save seeing the straggly end bits of a variety of Wastes Of Time. I was hungry and frustrated. I had missed the fireworks. I had had my fill of science, the night had been Long enough. I went home and left the breakdancers to it.

Berlin Stylin’

Case study: The Japanesey baby-doll on the far right. There were about twenty of those roaming the garden.

One of the overwhelming senses one gets from this city is the tremendous feeling of freedom that seems to breeze through the people who live and work here. I don’t mean freedom of opinion or the freedom to marry any of a number of different genders or any of the other United-Nationsy freedoms which bore us on a daily basis with their endless bloody controversy; I simply mean a sense of pure personal freedom, the freedom to be exactly how we want to be if that is, in fact, how we want to be. People seem, in a way more pronounced than anywhere else I have ever been, to be dressing and expressing themselves and carrying themselves in just the way that they choose. This isn’t to say that Berlin is a utopic society where the Individual has finally found the personal power and spiritual liberation to realise his true expression without being pigeonholed – on the contrary, the sheer variety of different styles you see on the street have just led to a vigorous and hilarious number of ways to judge people and laugh about them – but the difference is that no-one, who might conceivably be being judged, gives a monkey’s.

This means a lot to me when it comes to personal style, because my own style is a carefully honed mixture of clashing bright colours, slightly badly-fitting charity shop finds and as many different patterns as possible. In my own self-indulgent hipster mentality I try to look as non-standard as I can. In the UK this is a risky direction to take because if you are not willing to embrace leggings as your lord and saviour you have already taken the first of the few steps leading to the Dark Place of fashion ostracism. Here, however, everyone is doing their own thing and while it may not often look great I do have a great respect for the people whose external fashioning of themselves is just whatever the hell they like or feel comfortable in: the dudes who wear heavy-duty work trousers all the time even outside of work just because they’re good and practical, the completely straight not-at-all-gay-or-even-leaning-that-way men who wear skin-tight chest-hair-sprouting tank tops and loafers, the women who wear those lovely clothes imported from Nepal which look more like Queen Guinevere costumes…


This freedom of fashion also means that you get some people who just look goddam great because over here you are allowed to do whatever the heck pleases you regardless of whether it just might be ludicrous. I recently saw three young, not at all related and very good-looking men wandering along the street all wearing identical t-shirts, cargo shorts and espadrilles but just in alternating colours – green espadrilles on one, a green t-short for the other – they looked brilliant purely because it was so subtly weird that it took me a good few minutes to figure out What Was Wrong With This Picture. It also means that you can be a lot more slummy in public as you can in the UK without feeling bad about it. You can wear really, really, really dirty or ragged or pajama-y clothes without worrying that people are assuming that you are a terrible and perverted human being. This has the added joy that people accidentally allow their little insanities to shine through without noticing. One woman on the S-Bahn the other day was wearing a very old and clearly much-worn pair of sunglasses which still had the “UVB 400 LO-GLARE” stickers stuck directly on the centre of each lens. Another guy, a beggar who came onto the train and delivered a wonderfully charming speech about how much he would appreciate someone buying his magazine or simply donating some food and even if not he hoped you would have a lovely day, turned around after his sweet and friendly presentation to display a rucksack with a massive swastika on the back. 

There are, of course, certain groups and sub-genres of fashion that pop up in this place, and I won’t mention the hipsters any more in this post since the poor things have such a hard time; it must be pretty tortuous yearning to be defined by your individuality among a social set where everyone is so purposefully individual that they are all homogenously the same. No, my favourite has got to be the one style which you won’t find anywhere else in the world outside of German-speaking nations, and I refer to the style characterised by that legendary brand Jack Wolfskin. It is the ultra-German fashion of the ‘urban-casual hiker’, a brilliant and popular style of dress where you wear highly outdoorsy and hard-wearing clothes simply to trot around the U-Bahn and get a latte with your Kumpels. Jack Wolfskin, Animal, Ripcurl etc.- any outdoorsy brand will do as long as your ensemble is suitable for both city living and a spontaneous romp deep into the forests, possibly with makeshift-rafting included. These urban hikers wear walking boots all the time regardless of time of year and the real hardcores even go for waterproof trousers and windproof jackets. Of course, because the Germans have better skin than us Brits with our complexions of an untoasted pita, they tan and thus look pretty damned good in all this stuff, even – dare I say it – when they sign off their outfit at the bottom with a pair of socks-with-sandalled feet. 

Me, well, I think I’ll stick with my twee little scrapbook outfits until I find something I can wear which neither makes me look fourteen or forty but somewhere comfortably in between, but it’s nice to feel that whatever I do choose to throw on I won’t be being laughed at. And if I am being laughed at, it’s probably just because I remind people a little of Mr Bean.

New from Nivea: Berlin style skin-thickening cream

You’re not so friendly yourself, sign-y boy…

You’ve got to be darned tough to live in this city. It is by no means a place for dreamy romantics or vulnerable maidens; no, in this city, raised by Kraftwerk and Currywurst and G’s that sound like J’s, you must be an industrial terminator-type, a metropolitan-style SAS warrior. You have to be ready to shove your shoulder into wherever you want to stand or move and ready to walk through an open door even if it’s being held open by a struggling young mother holding groceries and two babies. 

Well, not quite, but as an awkward and chronically apologetic English dame I had to learn pretty fast to be ruthless and grasping to get by. If you don’t learn this, you can’t make your way in Berlin and people find you rather silly and quaint – I still get looks of disdain when I apologise for letting the man next to me spill his kebab gravy onto my shoe. It is important to realise that everyone in the city is just doing whatever he or she has to do to get from one place to another, sort their stuff out and generally make their own life work within the practical constraints of the Big Systems like banks, trains and supermarkets. They’re not being selfish, but if you don’t take this attitude too you will end up thrashing about in the gutter like an injured shrimp. Here’s what I have learned in the last few months; I can’t wait to see how it’s received once I’m back to stuttery, blushing, Hugh-Grant-esque Britain.


1. Wherever or whenever you are, be ready to say exactly what it is you want or do not want and don’t apologise for it. Order exactly the coffee you want, as you like it, and if you want to pay for your shopping with a fifty note hand it to the man with unbroken eye contact as if to say, “yes, I know it only costs 3.42euros but you’re either getting my fifty or a punch in the face.” If you don’t do this, things always – always – go wrong. The moment when you hand the fifty over and say “I’m awfully sorry, that’s all I have” is the official thumbs-up for the cashier and all the people in the queue to start sighing and grumbling and rolling their eyes like they’re novelty halloween toys. And why is it important to remember not to apologise? Because these people at the tills and at your table are going to test you to prove your mettle before they give you anything. The last time I used a fifty to pay for an ice-cream (it truly was the only cash I had – why do those notes even exist when they’re so useless?) the man raised an eyebrow so high it went over the back of his head and came all the way round to become a small goatee, and then said “Really??” with US-sitcom-style sass. I stopped going to one cafe I used to like because my sensitive inner Englishman couldn’t take the fact that every time I ordered a cappuccino with semi-skimmed milk the waiter would scoff and bark “Why?”. Recently at a restaurant I ordered my salad dressing on the side and the waitress’ eyes widened: “What? You can’t just mess around with stuff on the menu! Great, now I’m going to get it in the neck from the kitchen thanks to you”, she replied lividly. Fragile non-Berliners, stand your ground and get what you are paying for or you will get spit-foam topping your coffee.

2. Be open and good lord, be ready for when people are open with you. I will admit, I am easily thrown when people say critical things to me. That flaw is rapidly being beaten out by months of true Berlin honesty; just last week I was in a private meeting with my high-boss to discuss me doing some illustrating work for the company when I began to tell her about one aspect of my artwork. She stood up, loudly declared, “That is uninteresting”, and left the room to get her tea. You must get used to people telling you what they think and realise that it is nothing to do with rudeness and everything to do with simply realising that being open and broad about it makes living life so much less of a social-politics quagmire. I often get texts from people who I have agreed to meet up with on that day simply saying that they want to cancel just because they’ve gone off the idea (yes, it’s taking all my energy not to interpret it as a statement of “you are simply rubbish”, too). But so much human life is wasted by agreeing to do things you don’t want to do or are not interested in; it’s hard to muster the courage to reply to an invitation with “no, I don’t like ska-bebop fusion music” but it’s nuts – and very English – to presume the other person’s feelings would be offended by that statement. The reason why no-one wears outdoor shoes indoors over here? Because in Berlin there are no doormats.

3. People will hit on you just because you are alive and in their locus, so be ready with a good response. I am not particularly a babe-magnet and me flirting looks like a 10-year-old giddy from stolen brandy, but since coming here I have been often disarmed or completely taken aback by the sudden and completely inexplicable advances of people who really ought to have figured out that it’s not going to be the romance of a lifetime. Aged greengrocers, aged hippies, skateboarding hooligans who kindly inform me they want my number for their brother, 15-year-old goons who ask if they can MSN me, much-older-than-me waiters who ask me if I like clubbing while my grandparents ARE RIGHT THERE WITH ME…It’s nothing to do with being a hottie or people being more amorous, it’s just that in Berlin there’s a sort of superficial and very faint nudge-nudge wink-wink feeling hovering in the air. I suppose if you spend your whole day handling juicy mangoes you are likely to sense it more than most.

4. In Berlin, there is no such thing as me-time outside your own home. You can be sitting in a cafe with a wall of books around you and headphones on and a do not disturb sign hooked onto your ear and someone will still think they rather fancy coming over and having a chat with you. If you are having a romantic meal for two in a restaurant, you clearly would like nothing more than the greasy sous-chef coming and leaning his back against the wall in preparation for a good long chinwag. This is pretty great a lot of the time because you do genuinely ‘meet people’ in the old-fashioned way where people approached each other just because they thought the other looked interesting or was doing something they were curious about. It also results in some highly interesting banter with waiters or barmen which is entertaining and helpful for vocab acquisition to boot. But if you are in the blackest mood and simply want to sit for a while injecting your hate into the Brötchen you are devouring that is inevitably the time when the leering and bearded baker decides to quiz you about your fingernails.

I live with two girls and I think we have all found this a little alarming in our inaugural time here. But we are Powerfrauen and we are building up our fortifications with every time proper Berlin-toughness is required. I reckon soon we’ll even be ready to chat up the greengrocer ourselves.

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Two things that don’t go together at all

Pictured: science.
Pictured: an urban metropolis.

Go to Paris; gaze at the marvellous architecture, wander dreamily around the romantic streets, be absorbed in the subtle drama of the city’s elegant and artistic past. Go to Rome; see the fantastic historical relics, gorge yourself on the authentic version of the world’s favourite cuisine, feast your eyes on sculpture and art which founded a whole new way of creative thinking. Go to London: experience the sheer opulence of the rich and grandiose shopping regions, giggle at the quirky solemnity of the monarchy, take photos of red buses and black cabs. Or come to Berlin, where you can do any damn thing that possibly springs to mind.

Most cities have a distinct flavour that sets them apart from the others, the specific atmosphere that you seek in that one place above all others. But Berlin has no particular flavour, and if it does, that flavour is the equivalent of shoving an entire fistful of blindly-grabbed pick-n-mix sweets directly into your mouth all at once. It is never, ever, ever boring, and quite often just darned surprising. Thus within the space of just a few days I happened to casually pop down to an exhibit of plastic dead bodies and find myself playing volleyball in the blistering sun on a fake beach on the coast of a real lake. 


Bodyworlds – or Körperwelten – is an exhibit of plasticised corpses made, refined and sculpted by the criminally creepy Dr Gunther von Hagens (no, he didn’t also invent the ice cream). Von Hagens made his name in the UK by carrying out a series of autopsies on live television in front of a live and visibly squirming audience while wearing a terrifying wide-brimmed rabbi-style black hat. The man is obsessed with bodies and with death, and he is clearly completely off his trolley.

         
I will kill you, Harry Potter…

 Just do a quick google of Bodyworlds and the sheer number of photos that come up showing the myriad bodies he has plasticised into the poses of copulation will prove to you just how much of a creepy, creepy man he is. Plastination is the process of submerging dead bodies in chemical compounds which cause their tissues to be replaced by touch plastic, so that the bodies can be moulded and displayed to show the intricacy of their anatomy, the workings of their various systems, or just for the sheer hell of making a bunch of dead people play poker for eternity. The exhibit opened recently in the Postbahnhof exhibition hall and resembles the most grisly PSE lesson you’ve ever had: each body is accompanied by a long and oddly flowery text explaining the dangers of something fun like drinking or smoking or being fat. Hagens has deconstructed the bodies in such a way as to display the most important systems within the human body, meaning that each ‘work’ is jarring in its own way, with stomach skin opening up like translucent wings or a skull expanded into several hovering chunks with a lonely brain suspended in the centre. To show the way the muscles do their own thing he also has a huge variety of bodies posed doing activities like chess or archery or riding a bike (although I failed to see the reason for the bike rider’s natty 1980’s tinted spectacles). Fascinatingly, you can also see the circulatory systems of specific organs minus the flesh, which were almost my favourite part of the whole exhibit as the sheer minuteness and complexity of the capillaries in the lungs or the kidney or a whole rooster, embodied in a bright red fuzz of plasticised fronds, is truly something; it is arresting to realise quite how bloody brilliant and clever biology is. Then you turn the corner and see the plasticised giraffe posed climbing halfway up a giant palm-tree and remember that the man who put this all together is out of his mind.

If you need a little respite and mental repose after something so stimulating, might I then suggest that you do as I did and visit the Plötzensee? It’s a smallish lake in Wedding which features one of the best Strandbars I’ve been to thus far in this fair city. Berlin has a thing for its Strandbars, ‘beach bars’ which are filled with sand and deckchairs and where you can watch the sun set with a drink in your hand and where there is literally no perfect type of footwear for such a venue. Take your shoes off and succumb. The Plötzensee open beach is really something else, however, because unlike most beach bars it genuinely does feel like a beach, being on the coast of the lake and featuring real-life swimming, screaming children and red-trunks-wearing lifeguards who sit miles from the ‘sea’ and yell lacklustre warnings while sipping their mojitos. The green waters are surrounded by beautiful trees and in good weather the whole place feels like a secret lagoon. One can also rent a boat there and row or pedal around the lake, observing the herons and the grebes, or you can do as we did and, in true German style lounge, in the sun playing a good hearty round of Canasta. 

Card games on a beach in a forest in the city. You won’t find that in New York.

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

This weekend was the last weekend of the Baumblütenfest, a fruit wine festival which takes place every year in Werder and is, so I am told, the second biggest Volksfest in Germany. A couple of friends and I thought it was about time for a bit of adventure and an Ausflug, and as the daughter of a wine connoisseur whose obsession borders on psychopathic I simply couldn’t wait. If you’re English, a wine festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste some delicate and rare vintages from charming local producers whilst listening to light jazz and swing music wafting over from white marquees sponsored by Waitrose and some four-star hotel. There are hog roasts and organic quinoa salad buffets and everything is so expensive it makes your wallet leak something which chemically resembles tears. Naturally this was not what I was expecting when I was told that this particular festival is more like a second Oktoberfest, but I still had no idea what on earth was over in Werder waiting for us.



The Baumblütenfest is simply wild. On the one hand, it’s rather rural and very sweet; farmers sell their fruit wine from alchemical-looking glass jars whilst wearing straw hats and there’s a Baumblütenkönigin (queen) who is chosen for her beauty and ability to represent a two-week festival of getting completely sloshed. But there’s the rub, to put it pretentiously: the wine costs 2 euros a cup at its most expensive, 1 euro per cup if you’re going for the rough stuff, and is so sweet it’s like drinking alcoholic jam. Thus the majority of people who attend the festival are party-hungry youths who chuck the stuff down their necks and have fights with each other. The stalls that don’t sell wine are flogging (apart from the essential Wurst selection) brilliantly tacky festival accessories like flower necklaces and comedy hats, the ‘live music’ is good old-fashioned German power-dance music and one can participate in all kinds of wonderful vomit-inducing activities like fairground rides and bungee-jumps. 

Yes, it’s intense and the heat made it feel like being inside a cheerleader pompom someone had stuck under a grill. But I had the most brilliant time. I am a country lass, not particularly experienced in the world of festivals that don’t involve ‘best cow’ competitions and live sheep shearing, and that Saturday afternoon this lucky girl got to see real fights and for the first time heard a real, genuine, hearty Berliner accent (‘juuuuuuuuuuut!’). We were approached by an ancient taxi driver and his entire circle of friends and relatives; his skin looked like old leaves, he had clearly already had a good few bushels worth of wine and he chatted us up like an old pro. The wine is sweet but delicious, in particular the dark purple varieties which are so sugary and thick your mouth will pucker up and your tongue will sizzle. Traditional German food is at these times just the ticket, and my giant pretzel was as big as an elephant’s ear. To buy, the wines are incredibly cheap – just £6 a bottle – and would be a great gift if you are sick of forking out for Lebkuchen and fake Lederhosen to keep your friends’ lust for genuine German trinkets satisfied; I particularly recommend schwarze Johannisbeer and Rhabarber-Pfirsisch flavours. You should definitely, definitely go. And when the festival isn’t on, go to Werder. Under the thick layer of drunken crazies, retina-searingly bright knick-knacks and grilled sausage it’s a charming town which seems almost Grecian with its leafy cobbled streets and corny-looking restaurants. As my time here trickles slowly away I am glad to have done this truly German thing, and who knows; next time I might crank it up a notch and have a good old hearty fight.

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Pinch, punch…

You should see the size of the Jenga…

It was the first of May yesterday, and in Berlin that can mean only one thing: time to take to the streets. May the first is traditionally a ‘worker’s day’, a day when employees in Germany have the day off; in olden days they used to do the appropriate thing and stick poles in the ground, ponce around with ribbon and give flowers to pretty young maidens, but since then the grand old customs have slightly changed to mean that people in worker’s unions protest in droves, swarming around cities claiming various worker’s rights and condemning wrongs against the working man. I am told that this is particularly popular in Berlin, to the extent that people from all over Germany pilgrimage here to demonstrate with the hordes. It gets incredibly heated and sometimes violent; I have also heard that for this reason policemen also pilgrimage from all over Germany to have the fun of keeping all the rabble in line. While my flatmates were reluctant to go near our local Kiez in order to avoid getting into any scrapes, I had been obliviously roaming around the city for the entire morning completely unaware that at any moment I could be swept into a giant procession of furious demonstrators; it is incredible the amount you can miss in this place if you are not officially down wit da hood.


However, later that evening I finally encountered the Great Uprising I had been promised. In Neukölln, marauding down Karl-Marx-Allee, were thousands of people, all shouting so that their combined noise became just a hoarse roar. I walked past a row of police vans and an ambulance crew tending an unconscious figure lying in the street, whilst trying to dodge the huge shards of glass strewn all over the pavements and gawping at the spectacle of the mob in front of me. There were so many people and they were marching in such a steady and driving stream that for a while I assumed they were all riding on floats, it looked like a fast-streaming river of bodies. They eventually moved on in their column and left behind a kind of exploded-flea-market assortment of broken stuff and torn clothing in the street, while a few of them stopped off in the Thai Imbiss my friend and I were in, presumably to fuel the enraged fire of their protest with a mild green curry. 

What were they protesting for? Don’t think I didn’t ask. No-one, in fact, knows what they were protesting for; the best answer anyone could give was ‘worker’s rights’. It seems that on the first of May you protest, no matter what for. The day is simply there to show that you want things to get better in general, an all-purpose battle against The Man and Capitalist Pigs and all that oppressive jazz. These demonstrators are simply here because they’re here because they’re here because they’re here. Because they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Good for them, I say; just look how much progress the protest have made so far in the name of improving the state of employment in Germany. Err…

Anyway, there was another reason why I was so shocked to hear about this apparently infamous May Day tradition after my morning of wafting around Berlin’s windy streets, besides having not even detected the faintest hint of civil unrest in the atmosphere in the hours I was outside. This second reason was the adorable and cheery church-fête-like Fest that was being held in a park just outside the Ring Center and which could not have been less evocative of anger or protest if it had tried. The closest I got to seeing any violence was the karate demonstration they had on the main stage in between the Dixieland version of ‘Crazy Right Now’ and the sweet young girls’ talent display. There were people selling Quark balls and old men playing giant chess. At little trestle tables one could be taught how to do origami, paint plaster of Paris or decorate biscuits with icing. The lower end of Möllendorfstraβe was closed off so that a school basketball tournament could take place. The only thing strewn around the walkways was a plethora of bouncy castles. How could most of the city be rioting when Frankfurter Allee was hosting such a sweet little afternoon of innocent fun and jollity? 

Apparently there were little May Day parties happening all over the place, and Kreuzberg even started their own massive May Day almost-carnival tradition in 2003 to try to cheer up all the workers of the coolest district enough to give up their plans of violence and rage and simply be happy with balloons and a big slice of cake. It’d work for me. But if the Kreuzberg festival was started to negate the demonstrations, I would love to know which thing came first: the fun or the frenzy? In England when we have a bank holiday we stoically have picnics in the drizzle or go for a pub lunch somewhere suitably rustic; in Germany apparently you do the two most opposite things you can think of within mere metres of one another. God, this place is mad. I love it. 

Guten Appetit Berlin!

For those of us blessed with both a stomach and a tongue, Berlin is the best place to be. For all the stick Germany gets for its cuisine (which, incidentally, can still be brilliant) the sheer variety and quality of produce and cookery one enjoys here is truly luxurious; going to any one restaurant always has me feeling a slight twinge of regret simply because to eat at one inherently involves not eating at one of the thousands of other incredible places in the immediate vicinity. Germany has done the same as Britain in that while its own cuisine is still there and available, being dutifully revisited and upheld, they are doing their best and most exciting things in embracing all other genres of cooking and doing them really, really well; the photo above is of a bruschetta stand at the market where they slice you a surfboard-sized plank of fresh bread, load it with tomatoes and parmesan and rocket and roast veg, add a glossy slick of really good olive oil and present it to you with a beaming grin for just 2.50 Euros. I’ll wait a moment while you mop up your drool.

The Friedrichshain/Boxhagener Platz farmers’ market every Saturday is close to torture because it is simply four long rows of things like this arranged into a neat square and heaving with hungry people. Among the homemade tortelloni and glistening stuffed olives and myriad Wurst-hawkers you will find the fish smokers, creating a smell so divinely fishy it made me want to buy an Aran sweater and a pipe.

  There is a man selling eye-wateringly delicious-looking savoury tarts and a woman wearing multiple chiffon scarves who makes her own mother-of-god-that’s-good-marshmallows. I bought a bunch of radishes as puce as a smacked buttock for mere pennies and then met a man who makes his own barbecue sauces from scratch; the steak sauce was so good I have to put his website on here so that you will all go and buy some for your dads immediately.

Eckart Sossen – just, so… yumsville.

But it’s not just the ultra-yuppie domain of the farmers’ market where you’ll find the good eats, and of course it’s not the kind of place where poor self-pitying students are likely to go for any real food shopping unless you count casually trying free samples of everything on offer until you’ve eaten enough to sustain you for a couple of days. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter what your budget is in this city, for your two Euro buck you can still get a hell of a lot of bang. Case in point: Mio. This minuscule bistro will take your spare change and in return give you a huge segment of Turkish Fladenbrot heaving with (get ready for it): vegetable croquettes, stuffed vine leaves, walnut paste, houmous, couscous salad, sheep’s cheese, yoghurt dressing, olives and sheer bloody human good will. Mercy, it’s tasty. If you want something sweet go to Olivia on Wühlischstraβe, where the hand-made chocolate truffles cost less than at Fassbender and Rausch and will make you see god or whichever deity you choose to hallucinate at the time. The tables in the Turkish markets all over Berlin have bow-legs from the sheer weight of the glorious vegetables piled high and sold cheap, and I may have already mentioned that there are one or two places around where you can get some fairly good bread too.

If you’re eating out, you will quickly learn a whole new level to the meaning of ‘spoilt for choice’. Here are some of my personal recommendations; try them, love them and wink at the Maitre D’ for me.

Sigiriya – lip-smacking and hilariously complicated (there is a two-page key to the spices they put in the various dishes and it took me about four hours to read the menu to my friend visiting from the UK) Sri Lankan food served in portions so huge you will start squeezing food into your kidneys just to make room to finish it all.
Schwarze Pumpe – a reassuringly small menu packed with hearty and delish food and completely without fuss; also features a charismatic and cheeky waiter/barman who one imagines listens to people’s wife troubles as he polishes the drinks glasses with a rag close to last orders. 
Pizza Pane – ok, pizza places are a dime a dozen, but this one’s worth a dollar at least. You can watch your pizza in the making from conception to birth and they are so crisp, so thin and so delicious they make my heart ache with joy.
Papaya – oh, the wanton soup. Fast, delicious, reasonably priced Thai food that comes in enormous buckets and with adorable carrot flowers because I’m easily pleased like that.
Knofi – some of the things in this Turkish deli-restaurant may cause scenes similar to that one in When Harry Met Sally, except this time she’s not faking it.

There are so many places I want you to try that I shall have to stop there to save myself looking like a hog; us poor gourmands have a hard time keeping our figures in a place like this. And don’t even get me started on the breakfasts…

I’m going shopping guys, see you in a week…

Puke Music: purveyors of fine wines and antique encyclopedias since 1924.

Yesterday I was gripped by sun and joy and the impending weekend glee and suggested that my flatmates and I make fajitas together before going to a film. After somewhat unsuccessfully trying to explain to them  what fajitas actually were I emptied my rucksack of teaching materials, packed it full of smug-yuppie cotton shopping bags and set off to buy the things we’d need plus a few essentials for myself. The shopping list was around ten items long. I was gone for two hours.


Shopping is an activity I have never untertaken gerne; in my view there is very little appeal to trudging around mini empires of tat which I either don’t want or cannot afford, clothes shopping is painful because it involves gazing at one’s pasty, doughy self in front of a fluorescent-lit mirror feeling like mutton dressed as no kind of meat anyone would want to encounter at a barbeque, and I believe I have already expressed my world-melting fury at the state of German supermarkets. If not please do remind me and that can be my next post.

But shopping in Germany is like a puzzle adventure computer game. Every new shop you enter provides you with new questions to answer, places to visit and mysteries to solve before you can eventually find that elusive deodorant or book that you were looking for in the first place. It is genuinely mentally stimulating, as you have to keep your mind fully engaged to be sure that you are on the right track for the things you need otherwise you will make a mistake and end up wasting a good hour in REWE for no reason.
Part of the reason for this is that there is such a variety of German shop genres that simply don’t exist where I come from, and until I understand what they are for and how they can be put to my advantage I fear I will never know the secret to buying that thing you need in under one hour. The place is littered with these:


‘Yuppie-life shops’ – I have no idea what else I could call these shops since they seem to sell nothing but the things you need to be healthy and smug in the modern world. These are shops like Rossmann, Schlecker and DM which stock a baffling selection of things but, bizarelly, always the same selection as if the world is crying out for shops that sell this precise variety of stock in the same floorspace. In any of these shops you will find cosmetics and hygiene products; rubbish bags, sandwich bags and teabags, all together; a small selection of organic food and wine; seeds and bulbs for planting in your charming allotment; anything that is made out of tissue; diet, gluten-free, soya and lactose-free things, and small gifts. I do not know why anyone would need to buy all or any of these things together but there they are and the fact that multiple chains supply this need suggests there is a deep-seated human requirement for the above products in close proximity to each other. Either that or it’s something to do with the fact that you cannot buy any medication, no matter how harmless, without going to a pharmacist; these shops are simply Superdrugs and Boots’s where they had to fill the drugs aisles with something, anything for Christ’s sakes…


Änderungsschneidereien – Tailors which adjust your clothes for you, in other words. These quite literally are everywhere, peppered along every single street, and it is beyond me to imagine that any single one of them earns more than a couple of euros a week. Who gets their clothes adjusted? Outside of 1920’s businessmen who need their suit taken out a little for an interview they have with an insurance firm in a week’s time (and besides, Maude said she wants him to wear that suit for when the Harringdales come by for dinner next week and it won’t do while it’s so tight around the posterior)? Often therefore these undertakings combine with something else to make it all worthwhile and make sense; you get Änderungsschneidereien which are also kebap shops, cobblers (and who uses cobblers anymore too, while we’re at it), florists, sexy shops…again, it’s a mystery.


Crazy Asian Everything Shops – Always run by the same people who run the ‘Asia Snack’ restaurants. These shops do honestly sell everything, in a kind of frantic colourful billowing explosion of sheer stuff – the one around the corner sells wheeled shopping bags, kitchen supplies, stationary, novelty toilet seats, bongs and smoking paraphernalia, children’s party accessories, rugs, snacks and drinks, flashing shop signs, underwear, bamboo house slippers  and jeggings. None of those are made up, nor does that make an exhaustive list of what one can buy in this shop. These places are also everywhere and all sell an equally startling array of bizarre and unrelated items; whenever I enter one I expect all the things in the shop to suddenly levitate and begin spiralling around me while the man at the till spookily exclaims “You’re travelling through tiiiiiiiiiiiimme….”. Nonetheless these shops are actually surprisingly useful because everything is dirt cheap and occasionally you’ll stumble on a real wildcard and find something truly excellent. Like bamboo house slippers.


Trödel-shops – Anyone who has ever been to Berlin knows that this place is obsessed with Trödel, the kind of junk found in flea markets and bins the world over. ‘White Elephant’, I suppose we would call it. The shops are much like the flea markets in that they all have the expected selection of giant old beer mugs and antique coffee grinders but are slightly cheaper because they aren’t so much of a hipster hang-out as the flea-markets and because they accept the fact that they are simply ‘junk shops’ there is absolutely no attention to interior design, which makes them resemble the back room of Bernard’s shop in Black Books. Also, the people who run them are equally junk-y most of the time; the woman who is in charge of my favourite Trödelladen has poufed peroxide hair, wears fuscia pink leggings and platform stilettos that make her look like an extra from Priscilla Queen of the Desert.


Tschibo – Oh, Tschibo. A couple of friends will recognise this post topic from a converstation we shared recently over excellent roasted stuffed peppers. Tschibo is the epitome of strange German shopping. What is it? What does it do? Why is it? No-one knows. It appears to sell coffee, but it also sells clothes and high-quality kitchen utensils. Occasionally they will have a special offer on a cross-trainer or box of Easter chocolates. Sometimes you can buy pre-ground coffee there and sometimes you can only buy it in cups to actually drink. It also sells towels a lot of the time and I believe I am right in suggesting it also offers home decor supplies. Bizarelly it is one of the most fundamental and solidly-established chain stores in the whole of Germany and every single mall has one, and equally bizarelly your local Tschibo will always be astonishingly full of people apparently buying things. I suspect they actually sell none of that which is on the shelves and that it is in fact a covert pornography supplier where you have to share a password with the cashier and in return receive a key telling you where in the store to find the ‘stuff you’re looking for’. That would at least explain why the logo looks like a spermatazoa.


Shopping has become the most harrowing and dizzying experience for me since I moved here, and I believe the time I have spent drifting in a mesmerised confusion from store to store has accumulated to entire weeks in its sum. It is bizarre and expensive and time-wasting and exhausting, I get stressed and amused and bemused and a headache. I’ll say one thing though: it’s never boring.



It’s not perfect, but it’s mine…it’s where I spend the vast majority of my time

Note the man peering around the barrier behind the table; he is wearing a padded helmet.

Thanks to Tim Minchin for today’s title.

This is a bloody brilliant place. The thought occurs to me from time to time just as I’m walking along the street or waiting on a train platform. But Berlin has a great way of simply giving you things to be grateful for, shoving them in front of you so abruptly and with so little warning that you almost trip over them. Thus it was that when I got onto the Ring-Bahn on Wednesday to get home from Schönhauser Allee I found that the one carriage I had got into had been decorated with wild and colourful party decorations. Noticing that people were giving me funny looks over my shoulder, I turned around to see that right in the centre of the aisle the same people had arranged a picnic table displaying a homemade orange-drizzle cake, baskets of sweets and chocolates each individually hand-wrapped into take-home packets, another basket filled with little bottles of champagne and an array of champagne glasses so you could properly toast whatever you felt appropriate. Next to all of this was a disposable camera with ‘Please use!!’ written on in German. The men on the carriage all took cake; the women all shyly came and rifled through the baskets as if out of pure scientific interest before giving up the pretence and taking a handful of chocolates; the kids on the train all yelled ‘Geil!!’ and grabbed things in fistfuls. I don’t think I have ever felt such gooey-happy energy bubbling frothing around a train carriage before and I don’t suppose I will again. No-one knew who had done it or why, but for whatever reason it had happened and it wasn’t even that surprising because in this city weird and entertaining things happen on a near-daily basis.

I think essentially all Berlin residents are, to a certain degree, simply a little bit barmy. You absolutely cannot get on a train without there being at least one person in the carriage who is talking to themselves and another person who is sporting a hairstyle which looks like it was created by Salvador Dali. Bizarre things happen so often that your entire bizarreness measurement system is thrown out of whack; when you encounter three dogs wearing sunglasses in one day you just cannot live with a normal spectrum of weirdness as your reference point because you will never cease wandering around astonished and mesmerised to the point of mental collapse.

I love this city because it seems almost like it is trying to make me laugh, and more often than not it succeeds. Just the little things are beautiful and fantastic in their simplicity. I will never forget sitting outside a bakery in the Alexanderplatz train station and watching a train driver come out of the bakery with an enormous strawberry-jelly cake (breakfast, we assumed, it being 9am) and with dignified clumsiness and a quiet muttering of “Scheiβe.” throw it directly onto my bag. It is sweetly hilarious that my local bakery offers to give you a whole free bread roll if you collect 75 Euros worth of receipts from the store. There is almost always something to laugh about or at the very least raise an eyebrow, from the guy at primary school reception who takes off his jacket and pretends to the kids that he’s doing a striptease, to the guys on the U-Bahn who I see every week playing a Turkish version of ‘Hit the Road, Jack’. 

Everything here is just so interesting, and I don’t mean that in the ‘fascinating’ sense but in the ‘cannot be indifferent to it’ sense. I have found that everyone I meet has something strange to say to me, the latest being a woman I encountered today who spent the whole journey from west to east telling me about her career as flick-book artist and world’s leading flick-book scholar. She has just written and released the world’s only specialist book about flick-books and it has flick-book animations printed into the margins which show how a flick-book is made and used. (Flick-book sounds cooler in German: ‘Daumenkino’.) And I met this woman by pure accident! In my hometown you are lucky to see a pigeon fly a bit wonkily to brighten your day. 

It must be that in such a vast and contrasting metropolis the people are simply so varied and extreme that their sheer proximity to each other causes them to be unusual and do unusual things. Perhaps it is because we all spend our days shunting into high-speed metal tubes and pouring out into Crayola graffiti explosions. Maybe it has a little something to do with the fact that drinking in public is legal and widely accepted at any hour of the day. I have no idea; all I know is that I am addicted and I am definitely coming back to this nuthouse after graduation…