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…

50th Post!!! The Adventure So Far…

At our Kita, we pride ourselves on keeping your children as safe as possible. Therefore we only use the largest and most ostentatious Alpine cow-bells in our fire alarm system.

Wow, we have reached our fiftieth post on Guten Morgen Berlin and I am so pleased with the way it has gone so far. The number of readers per post is more than ten (by a somewhat considerable amount), which was my secret hope for this project at the beginning, and I have kept it going and not allowed it to pathetically shrivel and die like a LiveJournal. I have now been in this city for seven whole months, give or take a few days here and there for toddler-detox, I have witnessed it struggling through two seasons, one meltdown and a variety of minor panics. I have lived, spoken, shopped and eaten like the natives (excepting the daily Wurst) and deeply enjoyed all the little peculiarities and differences between big burly Berlin and drab twee Britain. 

What are my conclusions thus far? First of all, that you clearly need to live somewhere for a good few years before you can even start to get used to everything to the extent that you feel fully ‘at home’ there. God knows it is so much fun to discover all the idiosyncrasies from day to day; I mean, look at the photo above. This Kindergarten genuinely has a cow-bell as its alarm system. There are great sweeping realms of things here that I think you have to be a German from birth to understand: sweetcorn flavoured joghurt, currywurst pretzel-pizzas, Berliner Weisse (a pale beer which you drink with either a radioactive green or acid pink syrup mixed into it and which I first saw being drunk by a troupe of nuns), or the inexplicable way that the most revered and famous institution in the whole city is the Blue Man Group. However, for every time I find myself standing open-mouthed in Aldi wondering at who would want to buy an electric stomach-toner as part of their weekly shop, there are moments where I realise quite how much of this culture I have already taken on and become a part of as much as they have become a part of me; the crazy rainbow-spectrum of fruit and herb teas, the pyromaniacal need to have candles everywhere all the time, the innate knowledge of exactly which supermarket I will need to go to for every specific thing I need to buy, a profound love of Kartoffelknödel…As strange and new as everything still seems every single day, I somehow feel like a member of the club now rather than the bespectacled and square inspector wandering around with a clipboard. 

I have to leave in just over three months, and that thought is indeed tragic but twinged with a very definite excitement at the things I will finally be able to rediscover after life outside the UK:
– ‘good’ television. Yes, this term does require air quotes because a colossal tranche of British (and by extension American) TV is so bad that you would better spend your time using tweezers to braid the hairs on your wrists into organic cufflinks. But good grief, the television here is terrible. The sheer number of cookery shows is amazingly huge and yet they all only seem to ever teach how to make Auflauf, a version of lasagne/casserole where you essentially just layer things up in a dish until it most effectively resembles the primordial ooze and then smother it with cream and cheese. An array of chefs with startling mustaches or unlikely-seeming blonde bobs shoot their piercing glares at the screen whilst demanding that you ladle more butter over your roast duck and throwing great fistfuls of salt into whatever it is they are boiling the heck out of. On other channels, we have the treat that is non-stop back-to-back dubbed episodes of Two and a Half Men, a sitcom so lame it makes a three-legged donkey look athletic, we have MTV-style dating and reality shows which feature people who look like they are entirely made out of polyester and who talk in ‘real’ conversation which is so patently scripted that they even know when to turn to the right camera, and occasionally something ‘hilarious’ featuring Stefan Raab. (To be fair to the Raab, this is a rare moment of greatness.)
Marmite. Oh, Marmite. You deep brown glossy goddess of toast. How I long to savour your salty deliciousness on my bread and adorning my Ryvita. I yearn to crown you with cheddar, stir you into my chile con carne or tentatively drizzle you into simmering minestrone. I resent that you cost about 7 euros a pot here, and no amount of heinously nasty Brotaufstrich (odd and oily purees designed to go on your daily Brötchen) will replace you.
– The colour green. I am pretty sure this exists, as I seem to vaguely recall it in the dark abyss of my memory, but there is no evidence of it as yet here in Berlin. Ever since The Great Freeze this winter everything has been a uniform shade of graun (grey-brown) and this makes even the cool and edgy graffiti look less like anarchistic celebrations of artistic freedom and more like a million dingy charity-shop window displays of dead people’s clothing. This weekend my dearest mother was visiting, and I took her to the Botanical Gartens since the weather was for once pleasant enough to allow scarf-free outfits; the gardens could not have looked more dead, the turf brittle and grimy and the trees contorted and cracking from what they had suffered through. Perhaps spring will come soon and I shall see living plant life again before I leave. I shall keep on sacrificing small animals at the altar in our Hinterhof and see if this helps.

But of course this is all small fry and the things I am looking forward to seeing again are nothing compared to that which I will miss. The things that you first of all learn to live with and then learn never to live without, and the things that never stop giving you pleasure and hope regardless of how tired or homesick you are.

– The frothing swathes of flowers spilling onto the pavement from the hundreds of florists all over this city.
– The astounding generosity of the German people; all us women got given free roses at the supermarket the other day for Frauentag, I somehow keep being given gifts by my wonderful German friends here of all ages and whenever I visit people I am fed like a queen, given more wine than I can consume without doing something embarrassing and welcomed with giant grins to boot. Even when I am not expected and turn up by accident the day after someone’s birthday party, for example…
– the public transport system. Germans will deride this immediately as their public transport system comes beside the term ‘Schweinerei’ in the dictionary, but for me it is amazing to use a system which is so frequent, so seldom unreliable and so cheap; Germans, picture this: at home I have a single bus which takes me to my nearest town once every hour or sometimes half hour, and it costs me almost £5 for a return journey on said disappointment. Not to mention the fact that each of the stations has somewhere to sit and somewhere where you can get coffee or a Ritter Sport.
– come to mention it, I will miss Ritter Sport. You just don’t get the same array of flavours in the UK and I do almost feel that the German taste in chocolate flavours shows a slightly more mature palate than that of the British; the Germans have almond Mars bars, espresso flavoured Ritter Sport, affordable and luscious real dark chocolate (i.e. with real cocoa solids in a decent proportion, unlike Bourneville) and the yumfest that is the entire Lindt range. The British have Boost bars, Dairy Milk – a chocolate so cloying and fatty that it cements itself to the roof of your mouth in a tar-like smear – and Galaxy, which I read somewhere is not allowed to call itself chocolate anymore because it has so little to do with chocolate in its actual recipe. Mmmm, Niederegger marzipan…
– The general honestness and easiness of the people here. In the UK one is choked by the neuroses it is your duty to suffer every time you are asked to an event you don’t want to attend or feel obliged to swallow down a vile dish someone has cooked for you or requested to do a favour you would rather sandpaper your eyelids that fulfil. In Britain I bend over backwards to keep people happy and keep life smooth; I cheerfully smiled when people drunkenly leapt through the library fire escape by my room door and thus made the whole building be evacuated, I apologised when people stamped my toes into pulp and I always, always, always ate what was on my plate even when in a restaurant so as not to cause any kind of awkward pall over the evening. Here you don’t do what you don’t want to do and you simply avoid social agonies by being honest and open, you admit what does not appeal to you and suggest a solution or an alternative and generally it works very well. You can tell people what you really think and you can have a debate in which you are clear about your own standpoint on the issue without people thinking you are flagellating all their beliefs and ethics by doing so. I haven’t experienced peer pressure once and I have cried and told my problems to a total stranger at the bus stop. I feel, in a way, that I have grown.

The question is, what will happen to the pseudo-Deutsche when she returns to her native habitat? Stay tuned… 

Oh no, time for a cookery post

As you may have noticed from the minor hints here and there in this blog, I am a rather keen cook and look forward to the making of my dinner even more than the eating of said meal just because the science and art of it it something I find fascinating. In my opinion there is little more satisfying than watching all the various chunks and slices of ingredients slowly meld and mingle into a whole that is almost certainly a lot greater than the sum of its parts; just as interesting is when it goes wrong and you can try to figure out why exactly it did go wrong as you chew your way through a suspiciously sugary stew or weirdly foot-smelling Auflauf. Cooking is the ultimate definition of crafting to live, the process of taking time and developing your skills so that you can produce something creative and pleasing which just so happens to be essential to you getting through the day. Or, to put it less pretentiously, I grew up making cupcakes with my mother and the minute I had to start making full meals for myself I geeked out on it like I do with everything. If, incidentally, you are interested in the mechanics of cooking I heartily recommend the following: Cooking for EngineersCooking Issues and, my favourite, the wonderful American show Good Eats, whose sinewy-faced host Alton Brown addresses one tiny theme each week and talks you through all the various important things you ought to know about that one recipe or ingredient, enacting the scientific bits with sock puppets or men dressed as vegetables. This show is worth watching, if nothing else, for the sheer entertainment of watching him slowly puff up like a baking muffin as he goes through the years of presenting and eating and piling on layers of chub, before suddenly losing them all and, bizarrely, simultaneously recovering from his male pattern baldness. 


However, while I am never averse to spending a good two hours getting elbow deep in a really complicated recipe (thanks a lot, Gary Rhodes), on a weekday after hours of stretching your miserable face into a smile of joyful fun and running around with infants there is not much appeal and what one really wants is something easy, relatively fast and goshdarned lecker. This, my friends, is where my secret weapon comes out: roast vegetables. The most adaptable thing you can ever learn in cooking is to roast veg, and in the rest of this post I will show you how.
 
You see the photo at the top? That is roast veg and goats’ cheese salad. It looks like I spent ages mincing about the kitchen peeling and marinading and slicing and tossing things to produce a vaguely toffish salad. Actually, the whole thing took half an hour to make and was laughably easy, the only difference between this dish and a bowl of casually thrown-together pasta sauce being that this feels like a treat rather than the results of casually throwing whatever you stub your toe on into a saucepan like I do the rest of the time. Here, then, is how to roast any veg you feel like:
 -chop your veg into evenly sized chunks
-throw the chunks into a mixing bowl
-chuck over a lug of olive oil, a good pinch of salt and black pepper, one crushed garlic clove and then stir the veg about until they are all coated and shiny-lookin’.
-spread out on a baking sheet and roast for about 20-25 minutes at about 210 degrees Celcius until they are soft and a little bit blackened at the edges…mmm…
 As a rule of thumb, you can roast any of the following things and I have given the approximate times they take to roast in this way if they are chopped up: peppers (20 mins), onions (20 mins), butternut squash/pumpkin (20 mins or 45 if simply halved), potatoes (30 mins), sweet potatoes (20 mins), courgette (15-20 mins), aubergine (15 mins), tomatoes (15 mins), whole garlic cloves (20 mins – these are great mashed into gravy or salad dressing), mushrooms (15 mins), carrots/parsnips (30 mins), sprouts (15 mins)…there are honestly too many to list all of them. But in case you don’t think this is worth trying, let me convince you. Roast veg are so super adaptable you could cook with them every day and have something different at the end. Slice them big lengthways and stack them up in a bread roll with halloumi or bacon to make a kick-ass burger. Roast a mix of similar veg and puree them with stock to make an excellent soup. Roast lots of teeny cubes and mix them with couscous to make a tasty side dish. Whisk up an egg with some peas and herbs and pour into 10-min-preroasted pepper halves, then bake for another 20 minutes to have an awesome frittata. Toss them with pasta, mozzarella and pesto. Serve them as fancy-looking antipasti. Roast veg in long sticks to make dippers for houmous or sour cream. Hell, roast fruit and eat with vanilla ice-cream for the easiest pudding ever (though use a different oil here, please!). 


For the minimal effort you put in, you get caramelised, soft and crispy wonderfulness every time. You can use different oils or toss the veg with added pesto or balsamic vinegar for more depth of flavour, use dried herbs or even add in some bits of chicken or meatballs for a really great pita bread filling. Are you feeling hungry yet? Me too. It’s time to graduate from boiled carrots and try something far more deceptively fancy, my friends. Guten Appetit!

Please mentally read the following text in the voice of the pubescent boy character in The Simpsons

Butternut squash-chili-ginger soup. You need this soup in your life.

It has been a quiet week on this blog, and for that I apologise. The reason for this is that the flecks of baby-spittle which landed on my tongue at the beginning of last week heralded the beginning of the end for my physical well-being. It began with a cold, which rapidly deteriorated into a godawful sniff-fest forcing me to fill my entire bedroom with used tissues, and then after the weekend deepened in complexity and heft rather like a fine whisky; all of a sudden I was unable to talk in any voice other than a faint quacking noise resembling the voice of that broken squeaky penguin in Toy Story 2. Feeling left out and bored, the rest of my body decided to get in on the action and my big toe began to creak like old wood and explode with acid pain every time I did something crazy like walk or go up or down stairs. “Why didn’t you guys tell us you were having a party??” demanded my teeth, and proceeded to become hypersensitive to anything that is any temperature or flavour outside of completely neutral.  Unable to speak, walk, eat, drink, sing or dance around properly my daily doings are currently somewhat laboured.

But I so seldom take sick days, and at school used to covet my hundred-percent attendance rate as if it were a Victoria Cross medal.I have my gleaming 100% fixed in my mind and will not let it go for anything less than amputation. I once attended an audition during the throes of Swine Flu and passed off my almost-not-there voice by choosing to play a weeping old lady for my improvisation. No pathetic germ or measly inflamed tendon will stop me from marching Thatcher-style through life, and thus with gritted teeth and a pronounced limp I have been teaching my lessons, turning to the dreamy wonderfulness of this spicy, nutty soup with a crusty hunk of walnut ciabatta to serve as my medicine.

Teaching when you are feeling like death warmed up is a guaranteed disaster. The only classroom situation that suits such a state would be if all of the children had been mesmerised into sedentary contemplation moments before one enters the room. Unfortunately I don’t have any Dido that I can pipe into the classrooms before my arrival so this is never the case. It is fascinating to see how children react to a teacher when we reveal that we are not inhuman machines designed solely to ponce about in front of them; they appear completely aghast that the Teacher should Not Be Untouchable like the guys on TV who are exactly the same every week. It does strange things to their moods and ultimately causes any authority you had to disperse like smoke in a draughty concert hall. Here, for example, is a breakdown of the week’s worst lessons:
Monday
The class with the baby. Sadly the baby is ill, as is one other child who the Erzieherinnen (looker-afterers) tell me (with worryingly dismissive apathy) is actually in hospital. Thus in a class of just two children the youngest spent the entire class sort of sloddling (a cross between slithering and waddling) around the room doing destructive things while the other entered the room, sat quietly in the corner and wept with heart-breaking misery. She wouldn’t do anything I asked or had planned to do so in the end we sat quietly for the lesson and pretended to cook things for an imaginary family of farm animals who were very picky about the colours of their breakfasts.  
Tuesday
One child gets so furious after I ask him not to play catch by grabbing multiple children by the shoulders and dragging them behind him like sacks that he leaves and goes back downstairs; the other children sense that I am physically weak and demand that they should not be made to do anything except hide and seek all lesson. In the afternoon the children are so indifferent to their croaking teacher that they all somehow get hold of huge wads of bubble gum and chew it open-mouthed pointedly in my direction.
Wednesday
Oh sweet Moses. An Open Lesson of French-Revolution proportions. The boys realise that I cannot shout at them and run around windmilling their arms, refusing to sing the songs in favour of going ‘WAA-WAA-WAA’ in time with the syllables of the lyrics. The boy whose mother is present suddenly becomes irate for no reason and spends half an hour sobbing in wet, outraged yelps.The girls are concerned and unsettled. In the afternoon the few children who are not absent reply to my every request with a variation of ‘no’.
Thursday
I sit the children down at the beginning of the lesson and explain in my whisper that because I cannot talk loudly they must be ganz lieb and promise me that they will be good this lesson. They all adorably nod with earnest respect and promise in unison. Never before have so many children injured so many other children in a mere forty-five minutes; near the end I manage to make a loud quack to get their attention, and surrounded by sobbing toddlers I tell them off for being bad even though they promised to be good. They all club together and explain that they all forgot that they promised. In the afternoon the children are late, rude and violent, and one boy who didn’t want to do English bare-faced lied that his mother had forbidden him from doing English. For five minutes, I believed him.

Anyway, as I say, such a week necessitates recovery time and soup. The soup was finally achieved tonight and if I get a few requests I might post the recipe, as it was honestly ladle-lickingly delicious. Recovery time comes in the form of streaming episodes of quality comedy, and so, without further ado, allow me to make some recommendations that you may or may not have yet tried, so that you too will have something to slump in front of when in the throes of illness.
-30 Rock. Starting with this because it is the most embarrassingly mainstream. I was strongly against this show for a long time because I saw it as such a disappointment; a much-lauded example of a successful female comedian in the spotlight which in fact seemed to suffer from Ugly Betty syndrome, that self-massaging worthiness of having a character criticised for being ugly, fat and disgusting when they are in fact highly attractive and desirable. However, it takes a few episodes to realise that the other characters only see Liz Lemon as these things because they are so completely absorbed in themselves and their own perceived awesomeness; once you have made that realisation the show becomes a delight to watch, a parade of self-obsessed twerps who are so oblivious that they are impossible not to be fascinated by. Also, Alec Baldwin is a titan.
-3rd Rock from the Sun. Yeah it sounds almost exactly the same. But this one is about aliens pretending to be humans so they can conduct research on Earth, and it is deliciously over-the-top and wildly silly. It has the fat bloke from Jurassic Park as an obese policeman who thinks he is a sculpture of Sex Itself, and it has a hint of Back to the Future pantomime about it which you don’t find in modern series.
-Absolutely. This is the weirdest show you might ever watch.

Scottish people doing inexplicably bizarre sketches with wild accents and appallingly grimy sets? Yes please, very yes. 
– The Kenny Everett Video Show. This was the daddy of things like The Fast Show and is excellently funny. As a bonus it features completely unnecessary and unexplained dance segments by an erotic and very 80’s dance troupe, Hot Gossip. The sketches are stupid and wild (there is a regular character called Brother Lee-Love who is a Harlem-style preacher with one or sometimes two enormous plastic hands) and a lot of the humour comes purely from Everett’s clear love of the kind of tragic special effects that at the time were the most cutting-edge thing on the market. 

– Finally, The Goodies. This is ideal watch-while-you’re-ill telly. It was Bill Oddie’s big break and unbelievably popular for a time. The theme tune is goofily catchy and while the episode plot set-ups may make you raise your eyebrows so high they’ll get caught in your stylish mohair hat, the slapstick segments are so cleverly filmed and beautifully timed that I sincerely hope you find yourself doing that kind of suffocation laughter that I fall into every time.

So there you go. Now get some soup and you’ll be fine.

The art of sensing danger. Through fonts.

Of course we’re authentically Asian! We have lanterns!

It seems far easier to begin and then to maintain any kind of a business here in Berlin, which I assume is mostly down to the whole rule of it being ‘arm aber sexy’ (arm means poor, not an actual arm). If you are just a simple guy with an idea, fifty euros and a pocketful of dreams you will probably be able to fulfil your ambition of owning a vaguely profitable kebab shop, bakery, dodgy Spätkauf, all-polyester clothing shop etc and keeping it on its vaguely wobbly legs for a good year or two before it joins the ranks of the permanently dark and dusty voids that pepper the streets of Berlin like rotten teeth in a pirate’s mouth. 

This is brilliant and one of the things I adore about Berlin, because in the UK you now have to be Sir Alan Sugar or a man of his means and arsehole qualities in order to be able to start any kind of independent operation that is not going to go belly-up within months. This has resulted in the renowned problem that the only people who can afford to pay rent for a shopfront or are able to maintain a business are those who already have huge corporate money machines and therefore every city in the UK is now identical to every other city, boasting exactly the same shops simply in a slightly different sequence. Every company has the same Helvetica font and three-circles-inside-eachother logo because most of the successful corporate graphic designers are just as monotonous as the companies and the shopfronts and the fonts themselves. In comparison, Berlin looks like a complete mess, and it is fantastic. 

Nonetheless, it does slightly worry me that these bright-eyed ambitious entrepreneurs who found and run all these establishments or franchises at no point seem to take the moment to think: “Hey now, hold on a sec, why doesn’t my shop look as cool and shiny and non-food-poisoning-y as H&M’s or Rossmann’s or MediMax? I spent a good half-hour with WordArt to make my shop sign, that’s got to count for something…” Walking around Berlin I am aghast at the parade of atrocious shop design. The sheer number of ‘Asia Woks’ and ‘Asia Boxes’ and ‘Asia Snacks’ and ‘Curry Asia’ and ‘Asia Chunk’ and ‘I can’t believe it’s not Asia’ is a good example. Why should this concept of a generic Asia which when you look at the menu seems to encompass exclusively China and Vietnam be a crowd-puller, why as an Asian person would you choose to make your shop so reductive of the richness of your own cultural background and why oh why oh why would you choose such racist and abysmally ugly fonts as the frontispiece to a business that you would like to be taken seriously? Why don’t these guys ever realise that no successful business has ever won customers by pummelling the theme of their enterprise directly into the retinas of the populace; you would certainly never get a chain of successful New Orleans soul-food restaurants with a horrendous stereotype honky-tonk black person’s face as the logo (although Old Orleans was always teasingly close to being offensive on that score) and KFC is never going to change its name to ‘Redneck Chow’.

Ultimately the issue here is that the customer (well, me) looks at these things and sees the font and the logo and thinks ‘oo-err, I’m not going to risk that’. There is an array of visual cues I use to direct me in what to avoid on a daily basis: never buy from a website or shop, for example, that ever uses Comic Sans (“Ooh look Hans, this font is fun because it looks a bit like something from the cartoons we used to never read – let’s use it because it says we are wacky and fun.”), and never from anywhere that uses clipart as part of their iconography. I will always be put off by WordArt and drop shadows, and when I saw that James Cameron had decided to use Papyrus as his typeface of choice for the Avatar subtitles I almost choked on my own epiglottis with the sheer extremity of my incredulous rage. Come on, James Cameron, you can spend billions of dollars on a hackneyed jungle-book-meet-the-blue-man-group epic but you are too tight to splash a couple of bucks on a slightly less MSWord-default font? Oh wait, sorry, Papyrus looks ‘ethnic’, I forgot.

So I beg you, entrepreneurs of Berlin, please explain this to me: why don’t you see how bad your projects look to the person potentially giving you their money? Why do you think it is enough to draw a logo in felt tip pen, take a photo of the drawing and print the photo on your letterhead for evermore? Do you think it looks just as sexy and professional as SmithKlineBeecham to use an eye-watering rainbow gradient as the background to your website? And don’t you ever ask yourself why you have never been to a successful chain which had any or one of these same qualities?

The exception to the rule: a mountainside cafe which we frequented often in Obertauern was always thronging with customers and utterly lovely to be in as it was full of gorgeous old wood and antique snowshoes and such like; this all in despite of the fact that their chosen logo was, inexplicably, a sunglass-wearing cool-dude hare snowboarding WHILST having arrogant sex with a slutty female hare on the same snowboard at presumably break-neck speed (you can tell from the way their ears are fluttering).

               
Really?

 The poor staff had to wear uniforms emblazoned with this terrible image.

But while we are on the subject of eateries, allow me to offer a few more suggestions that you might also like to take on board if you ever feel like opening an establishment and want me to spend my hard-earned cash there. For starters, bullet points belong on Powerpoint presentations and not the menu. As a colleague of mine pointed out, plastic chairs are a one-way ticket to me walking in and then directly back out of your door. If you think that having dark and far-too-yellow photographs of your meals on the menu is going to make my mouth water, think again; you don’t even seem to have made an effort to stop each and every dish looking like a mountain of puke. Let me at least imagine a beautiful plate of delicious ingredients tossed expertly together before I am presented with my vomcano. And hey, I know grains of rice in the salt shaker keep the salt from clumping but don’t you think they do look a little bit (read: a lot) like dead maggots floating around among the salt crystals? 

Perhaps I am the only person in the world who thinks these things; perhaps the fact that I allow these visual signs to govern my spending behaviour is a simple sign of the my utter Woody Allen-level neuroticism in that I can’t see any of these various clues without thinking ‘these people are going to steal my money or give me salmonella’. But I wouldn’t want to trust my digestive health to the same people who don’t understand the fundamental drop-dead ugliness of WordArt. These people, in my opinion, should not even be allowed near knives and other dangerous kitchen equipment.

Österreich, part Zwei

To clone out the cables, or not to clone out the cables…?

I promised another post for today, and here for possibly the first time in the history of Guten Morgen Berlin I am living up to my promise. You can feel special and important about this since I am typing through the agony of a thumb which is throbbing after having accidentally let it get dragged into a metal roller today along with the piece of silver I was supposed to be flattening. Like a small child or someone on hayfever medication, I should not be allowed on or near heavy machinery.

Anyhew, I’m still not finished writing about Austria, and I’m also not one to let good anecdotes fester. The focal point of this holiday was, after all, skiing, and I skiied the heck out of Obertauern. I have only had three days of ski school ever, since I found it to be a rather annoying experience; we had an ancient and incoherent ski instructor who looked like a slightly horizontally compressed version of my old maths/PE teacher and knew only one English word which she shouted at foghorn volume every two seconds: “SNOWPLOUGH!!!” I therefore took as few lessons as I needed to be able to do snowplough turns on an actual piste, and from there on taught myself to ski parallel through the long-forgotten and age-old art of ‘falling over a hell of a lot’ and through copying my brother’s cool dude style of skiing have evolved my own style which I like to think resembles how a relaxed gorilla would ski. My mother, as a health and safety advisor, prefers the ‘safety starfish’ approach, where you ski with legs wide apart and arms/poles held outspread like a baby with two lollipops in order to remain the maximum amount of healthy and safe; my father was taken skiing by his crisp-haired and very smart father every year since he was an infant and therefore skis with legs held firmly together and exemplary style only spoiled by his ridiculous skiing glasses which are luminous yellow, perfectly circular and have luminous yellow leather side-guards. We were not an elegant troupe on the slopes. 


However, to ski in Obertauern you don’t have to be elegant; in fact, the opposite is true, as Obertauern skiers are the arctic version of football chavs. The place is swarming with burly, scary-haired blokes who alternate between skiing like champions and downing beers at a remarkable rate. Every bar, cafe or restaurant throbs with apres-ski music, which is honestly the most heinous crime ever inflicted upon the ears of innocent people. It sounds like the air itself is burningly furious with you and wants to demean you; here is proof:

I am sorry to have to do that to you, dear reader. Imagine trying to relax and enjoy yourself after a really bad fall with that in the background. In fact, imagine trying not to succumb to thoughts of violent suicide with that in the background.

Also, in all of these cafes and restaurants, there appears to be some kind of conspiracy circulating, as they each boast an almost identical menu. If you ever go skiing in Austria I can tell you with absolute certainty that you will be eating commensurate quantities either of goulash soup, mixed salad bowls, fried meat with a fried egg on top and/or Kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian pudding which is essentially a mashed-up pancake with apple sauce. The consolation, however, is that these delicacies are also always somehow different and always uniformly excellent, and I could happily suck down that goulash soup until the day I die. 

I also said I would say something about Austrian German, because it’s the one national dialect I really haven’t had any experience of thus far. So far I knew this: German German (Hochdeutsch) sounds like all those tapes you got played of people in train stations losing their umbrellas when you were studying German in secondary school. Swiss German (Schweizer Deutsch, or Schvootzer Dootsch as they for some reason pronounce it) sounds nice and interesting until you get to the ‘sch’s and ‘ch’s, at which point it takes a while to realise they are not choking on a wad of dry oats. Austrian German is sort of round and musical, and it sounds a little bit like if you asked a computer to simulate a language purely from the image of a pair of Lederhosen alone. It’s pretty and hefty and I liked it a lot, despite there being some slight errors in understanding – thankfully ‘Achtung’ sounds the same in all languages so no such errors led to piste-based tragedies. 

Oh, and by the way: there is no German in the entire world that sounds even one iota like the pigs in Shrek. Just so you know.

I guess all the weekend warriors died in combat some time ago

“Fish: a sea of healthiness.” You’re damn right they are, Mr. Abandoned Fish Trailer Dude.

I hate Sundays in Berlin. With every Sunday I experience in this city my hatred grows and ferments, beginning to resemble the kind of simmering whiny hatred only experienced by South-English children in the 1940s who had to spend Sundays being dragged to church and then kissed by hairy-lipped aunties and grandmas. 

Berlin is practically the capital of Europe. It’s effortlessly cool and during the week a complete bulldozer of a city; you pulse around the place all day, day after day, driven constantly onwards in waves like blood cells racing through arteries. Everyone has an intense look on their face, whether it’s intense happiness, concentration, boredom, or simply the ferocious intensity with which the myriad people on the trains chew their midday bakery products, the muscles of their jaws straining like the sinewy flesh of a greyhound. Everyone is doing something all the time and something is always going on. There’s always something to buy and somewhere to be and something to look at or look away from. You can’t be waiting at a bus stop without there being at least one person of above-average interest there to gawp at (for example, the astonishingly severely buck-toothed guitar player and his band who were waiting for the Ersatzbus and trying through their unbelievable teeth to repeatedly shout the word ‘Schweinerei’).

Then Sunday comes.

Suddenly the sabbath descends upon Berlin like a mass recreation of the film ‘I am Legend’. No-one is around, save the few dribbles of people on the streets who are almost always dreadlocked homeless people or wholesome young families with toddlers wearing fleece hats. The shops ALL close and might as well board up their windows with old planks of wood and huge theatrical-looking nails since they take on the appearance of a place that has been abandoned forever. The few attractions still open, such as a smattering of cinemas, advertise the fact that they are open on Sundays as if they are offering a sip from the cup of eternal life rather than a crappy chick flick. The fact that cafes and pubs are still open is the one thing that prevents me from spending every Sunday in my room rocking back and forth in a corner.

 This Sunday was no exception, and so after a few pleasant hours browsing through the Lufthansa website not at all getting furious about their lack of decent flight times or prices, I eventually braced myself and decided that a serious and long walk was in order to at least prevent myself from disintegrating into a gelatinous substance. 

















The only few people that were around were a gang of cheery anarchists (pictured) who were putting up bunting between their aggressively graffitied buildings. As only people with my kind of short, hefty legs can, I trekked determinedly onwards towards Volkspark Friedrichshain yearning for some greenery and maybe a sparrow or two to satisfy my deeply ingrained countryside upbringing. 

And now I know where Berlin goes on a Sunday. Everyone was there, blissfully wandering around the park holding hands as if they’d all decided that was going to be the done thing on the seventh day of the week. Volkspark Friedrichshain is a stunningly beautiful park; it has a garden of sculptures, a selection of sweet little ponds and a round hill encompassed by a spiral path which takes you up to a central lookout where you can see the sun set (and be frantically waved at by a little German boy who looks dumbfounded when you finally wave back). It also has a themed oriental garden, and as I walked through this I gawped at all the people I thought were simply hibernating and the lights of the lovely little park restaurant glowing in the dusk and the fake pagoda fading into shadow…and at that moment, no word of a lie, a man on a bench began to play ‘La Vie en Rose’ on an accordion and I thought: Oh come on, this has got to be some kind of an ironic joke. But it wasn’t. On Sundays, evidently Berlin stops and time for oneself begins; people go out with their friends but more likely their families and just wander and drink Holunderpunsch and breathe the air. 

I spent the next hour and a half lesson planning in the Cafe Tasso on Frankfurter Allee with wonderful coffee and three (I think the waitress took pity on me) complimentary delicious little circles of hazelnut shortbread and a fantastically bitter book by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t recommend this cafe enough; they have a huge second-hand bookshop running through and under the place with every book for a euro, they feature live music four nights a week, there are blankets all over the place for maximum levels of comfy and the cakes look ta-die-for. Thank you Berlin. You are teaching me to be lazy.

Coffee no. 6,142,561

Desperation, n : sitting in Landsberger Allee Netto reading Das Glasperlenspiel

Sit down to begin writing a blog post about coffee; decide to make a pot of coffee before starting in earnest; put kettle on; watch cafétiere slip off kitchen counter and explode into a million skin-ripping smithereens; spend half an hour sweeping and hoovering, before eventually settling for a mediocre cup of Redbush. Well, at least my dumb bad luck has a sense of irony.

Anyway, what I was planning to write this evening was to do with the fact that life at the moment revolves around coffee. Not just coffee, but hot drinks in general. Because in Berlin at the moment, when you buy a drink in a café you are not paying 1 euro and 20 cents for the delicious beverage, but purely because you simply have to be somewhere warm right now now NOW. The cold in this city is something different to usual cold, it rasps your skin like rough steel and makes all your extremities retreat into your coat in a manner similar to a tortoise. And when you spend your day running from class to flat viewing, always being early for fear of being late, there is only one alternative to sitting on a bench wishing you were in a duvet burrito. Thus I am spending my life and my savings in cafés – and it’s only October.

Tuesdays are also generally painful due to the lesson I teach every week on Tuesday afternoons, which takes place in a school so distant from the heart of Berlin that it is next to genuine arable farmland. The children in this class are fairly old, around six years old, and therefore are savvy, rude and so brilliantly cheeky you want to hug them and throttle them simultaneously. They seem to have learnt their backchat from precocious children in 90’s sitcoms; when I asked one girl when her birthday is, she sarcastically replied “Every year.” She is six and a half. One boy arrived early to my lesson because he wanted to help, announced to me that he had practised and learnt the Rainbow Song off by heart for me, gave me an eye-wateringly sweet rendition of it all by himself, and then proceeded to spend the whole class being as naughty as his little flailing limbs would allow him. One kid spit at another’s face; another stole my elastic bands keeping my flashcards together; and when I was getting them to move about a bit to get their energy up and told them all to hop up and down, they all just stood there and cynically asked, “Why?” 

I feel sorry for these kids, because it’s not their fault that they’ve been forced to sit in a classroom learning boring stuff with a short and shrill student from the British Isles, and it’s not fair that their friends are outside having a laugh and playing and not learning the months of the year. The paradox of the ‘fun lessons are productive lessons’ philosophy is that when the children are not willing, the most you can do to scold them is to say, “CHILDREN!! STOP TALKING AND LAUGHING AND MESSING ABOUT! SIT DOWN AND BE QUIET SO THAT WE CAN HAVE FUN AND PLAY TOGETHER!” Something always jars in my mind when I look at my lesson plan and think, “Oh God, we’ve got so many games to get done today we won’t even have time to blow bubbles or play with the dolphin hand puppet…” The concept of organised fun is such a precarious idea and in the realm of education I am not sure how much of a place it really ought to hold. Doubtless entertaining and interactive teaching will get an idea across infinitely more effectively than droning repetition, but I wonder if fun activities during a lesson are only truly effective if they have something more mellow to act as a contrast to; when playing becomes as much of a pedagogical demand as sitting still doing sums, even a game might feel like a chore. I see it in the kids’ behaviour, and I wonder if perhaps we are doing too much, once again, to focus on children’s love of ‘fun’ and ignoring their underappreciated curiosity and capacity to be purely interested instead of shallowly entertained. But then again, perhaps this is just me finally leaving childhood for good.

Besichtigainandagainandagainandagain…


















Yes, so I may have mentioned this briefly at length in my last post, but it is hard to find a place to live in Berlin. Let me give you an idea of the process:
1) Wake up. Immediately put kettle on.
2) Whilst the kettle is boiling for the strengthening cup of what the Germans think Earl Grey tastes like, immediately turn on laptop and open the internet.
3) Go to WG-Gesucht.de and spend the following hour and a half writing approximately twenty application emails to various room offerers, drinking your body weight in tea in an attempt to forget the fact that out of these twenty applications you will probably get one reply on a good day.
4) Shower, dress, plaster concealer over livid purple under-eye circles (a condition which I like to call ‘Laptop Eye’).
5) Leave the house for the first of many room viewings that day. Spend day traipsing around the boroughs of Berlin like an ambitious vagrant.
6) Return at the end of the day. Eat. Sleep.
7) Repeat steps 1-6. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repea… 

The success rate relative to the effort and time put into the WG search is astonishingly small. I like to think of each application as a baby seahorse: six hundred baby embryos find their way into their dad’s stomach pouch and are later squirted into the ocean waters, but in the end only three survive, the rest having been unceremoniously eaten (i.e. rejected) or simply having died of sheer patheticness (no response at all). Of the final three, two die for the sake of pathos, and the one left has a preposterous deformity which doesn’t even result in a heartwarming adventure starring the daddy seahorse and an irritating but lovable fat blue fish.
Once you have sent your applications you move onto the Besichtigungen (viewings), where you go and visit the place and try your best to make a good impression/conceal your disgust at the sheer vileness of the place you’re supposedly applying to live in. Today I was in three separate flats: the first was beautiful but the furniture was to be removed on my moving in, and for some reason the other tenants make the new tenant have a fully separate contract which means I need a letter written by my parents in German (they don’t speak a word) assuring the landlord that if I drastically break something they will pay for its repair. The second was pleasant, but I would have to buy the furniture in the room off of the current resident. The third…well, the interview was conducted with one of the flatmates lying wrapped in a blanket and the other with his eyes glued to the TV. Although I did impress the blanket man with my knowledge of robotics.
Nonetheless, it gives you a chance to really see Berlin, and not just the overdone touristy bits. It also gave me an excuse to have lunch in one of my favourite places here, the Blumencafe. The Blumencafe is filled from floor to ceiling with plants, the walls bristle with bromeliads and in the cafe itself luscious and glistening cakes stare at you through fruits and shiny green leaves. Two parrots (one pictured) mumble about and occasionally fight in the shop area. The soup is hold-on-to-your-lugnuts good and the bill always comes with a real flower on top. 
One more week to find a new place before I have to leave Charlottenburg.