Two British Institutions: Charity Shops and Driving Rain

This photo broke the 2012 Guinness World Record for greyest photo on the internet.

It’s the Royal Jubilee weekend, celebrating our beloved queen. Streets, villages and parishes are getting together all over the country to have parties to celebrate; there will be Pimm’s, barbecues, fetes, bouncy castles, victoria sponges and children’s games. The trestle tables have been laid out, the gazebos have been hired and the cucumber sandwiches are chilling in the fridge. Therefore, and with relieving reliability, it is raining with the kind of dogged persistence that can saturate a duffel coat in fifteen minutes. Nothing is sadder than streets lined with gently dripping bunting and people wetly licking the ice cream they are determined to enjoy because It Is Summer.

On days like this, when you’ve already been to all the museums and visited all the galleries and drunk all the coffee in Oxford, the perfect day out can be found in the good old tradition of charity shopping.

Charity shops are rare and special beasts in Germany; second-hand shops are ten-a-penny, but they come in a wider range of common breeds. You have the Second-Hand-Laden, the second-hand shop where all the stuff is branded ‘vintage’ and then sold for three times its original price, four times if it’s really really stained. Typical fare includes large and shiny 1980s jackets with elasticated cuffs, enormous nightgowns that smell of death and old dresses with giant padded shoulders, yellowed with nicotine. Then there is the Antiquariat, a second-hand bookshop typically festooned with books in cardboard boxes and aching shelves, stacked up to the ceiling and sorted into strange categories like ‘Greek fashion’ or ‘Religion/photography’. They are brilliant and the books usually cost a euro each at most. My favourite Antiquariat of all time is Cafe Tasso in Berlin, where the bookshop merges with a small but deeply friendly café where the drinks come with a tiny disc of homemade hazelnut shortbread, and the books sprawl through the building like a fungal growth. Then you get the Trödelladen, which is like the Second-Hand-Laden but sells proper Trödel, i.e. junk of all descriptions. Old used handkerchiefs, broken handbags, and unnervingly huge amounts of army paraphernalia. It’s dirt cheap, and it’s dirt cheap because it’s dead horrible. These shops are always brown. They even smell of brown.



Sadly, and oddly considering the general philanthropy and world-friendliness that the Germans possess, most of these shops have their profits going to the man in the beige vest behind the till. It is rather strange that our charity shop culture hasn’t picked up there yet, while here the charity shops flourish in the credit crunch with rich fertility. In the town where I live when not at university, most of the real shops have gone long ago, having found it difficult to squeeze a living out of the ancient spinsters that seem to form 95% of the town’s population. They have been replaced by endless charity shops, not just the Big Players like Oxfam and British Heart Foundation but also the more mid-range charities like Sue Ryder and even some real curiosities, whose charities I have never encountered beyond that one shop: one doesn’t even seem to have a name but is definitely in support of The Aged in some capacity, I think. They tend to sell a lot of jeans, wool and ties heaped into bins and unnervingly faded plastic toys. 

Charity shopping is a joy and a skill. It’s a joy because it’s utterly guilt-free and endlessly colourful; your money is always going to a good cause and the stock can vary between real gems and hilarious items you are simply overjoyed to have found for their comedy value. I will never forget the onomatopoeia-themed tie I picked up once for my English teacher at secondary school, for example. One thing you must have above all else is zero expectations; the likelihood is that you won’t find a vintage Dior halterneck gown for three quid down the Help the Aged, and you mustn’t feel betrayed or disappointed when that continues not to happen. You will, however, frequently find brilliant small things that are like life’s stocking-stuffers, the bits and pieces that cost three quid and just perk you up when you can close your grubby little fists around them. Yesterday: a lime-green batik T-shirt with fish on. Before that: an old printing die drawer from a newspaper press in London way back when they used to be printed semi-by-hand. Worth it.

There are several things one has to put up with, of course; predominantly the issue that as time goes on most charity shops seem to be becoming little more than galleries of old Per Una ranges overflowing the racks. Per Una, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the brand, is Marks and Spencer’s ‘mode’ range which was originally meant to appeal to young adults but swiftly became the preferred look for retired ladies and geography teachers, meaning that no young adult would ever consider touching any of that stuff with a bargepole. It’s all textural fabrics and kooky buttons and square cardigans, and it’s now spilling out of the doors of charity shops as if the stuff reproduces by mitosis or something. Another thing that you have to come to terms with is the slightly jarring audacity of some of these places – Oxfam in particular are starting to get incredibly cheeky with their pricing and will happily charge £5 for a t-shirt that was originally from Primark for a scant quid. “Uh yah, but it’s like vintage, so yah.” No. Vintage is not a synonym for ‘already worn by someone else’. The best charity shops recognise that and simply sell everything as is, reeking of dust and dispensed from a huge basket or repurposed old bin labelled “EVERYTHING £2-POUND’S”.

Is it expensive, painful and time consuming? Oh, then of course it will make you beautiful!

“Try pinning your list of beauty goals directly onto the skin of your chest so you don’t forget them.”- Grazia

I suppose I had to finally bite the bullet and admit I would be writing some “women’s issues” posts after I read this article here. Although it’s something that deeply interests me, “women’s issues” (which, by the way, shall never get promoted beyond sceptical quotation marks until it stops sounding like another euphemism for menstruation) is something I have generally avoided speaking about in my blog because:
1. I don’t want to be branded a militant feminist or a mouthy nag for suggesting something like the fact that waxing is definitely cruel and horrendous.
2. I don’t want you guys – whom I love, by the way, and am endlessly touched that anyone reads this at all – to stop reading afraid that every post will be about the evils of Cosmo and 
3. So many blogs – see above, or The Hairpin – have this field very well covered and have managed to cultivate a nice tone between serious polemic and playfulness which is certainly an art to develop. 
But yes, this post made me want to finally be courageous enough to write about the things that occur to me speaking as a woman (cue birdsong, rose perfume, misted lens, soundtrack from a 1980s tampon advert). 

If you’re female, when was the first time you realised you were making a larger-than-logical effort to reflect ‘the ideal’? If you’re a bloke, when was the first time you noticed the girls around you making this larger-than-logical effort? For me the real moment of clarity came in a moment of sudden and unfamiliar agony when I was having a go with eyelash curlers for the second time in my entire life and accidentally lost my balance in front of the mirror. Amazingly I didn’t manage to actually tear all of my eyelashes off the lid but good god. I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the image that instantly popped into my mind of me standing there with gaping mouth staring at my own bleeding eyelid held in the curlers like kitchen tongs holding a piece of bacon. I threw the eyelash curlers away. Clearly a girl who regularly manages to fall of her bike while completely stationary is not meant for such tools.


Apparently now 90-95% of us indulge in removal of armpit, leg and pubic hair all year round. We don’t know, of course, how many hairy but shy people there are out there who just didn’t feel confident taking the survey, but this seems startling to me. Do you need to be smooth all the time? In Winter? In Britain, come to think of it, where we only get three days of pleasant weather a year and celebrate these days by wearing as many different pairs of hotpants as we can conceivably put on and take off within the time frame? 

And yes, lots of women shave or wax because they prefer the aesthetic and the feel of it, but I am inclined to side with Prof. Anneke Smelik who theorises that it’s becoming such a social obligation now that we feel compelled to do it whether it will be seen or not seen, like brushing your teeth twice a day or covering your mouth when you yawn. Shaving’s not so bad of course, because I’m sure any capable person (myself excluded, who tends to leave the shower looking like she’s come from the slow-mo blood deluge scene in The Shining) can do it with minimal pain and stress, although of course the time it takes is still annoying and could be spent doing something like learning a new language or debating EU financial policies. But waxing is, like the eyelash curlers, the cut-off point for me. The point where that ‘aesthetic’, the desire to be the smooth and gorgeous woman, supersedes the desire not to have hot tar smeared onto your naked skin – or genitals shudder shudder – and then gleefully ripped off, liberating millions of little innocent hairs from their follicles each with a tiny (but formidable when united) bolt of agony. It’s probably still more painful than imagining the money trickling from your account to pay for this.

And the more I think about it, the more sad and worried I am that we all make decisions and do things on a daily basis that are hugely inconvenient, expensive and time-wasting just to be gorrrjus. We skip lunch and wait trembling hours until the huge dinner out we know is in the evening. We put chemicals near and on our most sensitive and most useful  and most vulnerable bits; I love my eyeballs and am indebted to their service and yet still gloop mascara and kohl around them haphazardly every day. We allow ourselves to be AS COLD AS PERMAFROST in a skirt and semi-transparent tights because a formal event necessitates a small silken sheath to be worn despite it being the dead of winter. And I know this is a very British thing, too, because in Germany when it’s cold you march happily about in enormous coats and thick hiking trousers, while all my German friends here in the UK repeatedly ask me with tearful, concerned eyes: “Rosie, it’s minus 6 degrees outside, tell us, why are the girls still walking around in shorts and ballet pumps?” We do it because we have no choice. It’s the uniform. You would look like an idiot going to a May Ball in a jumper and trousers. People would think you were Making a Stand. 

Oh, and the expense is heartbreaking. Why is shampoo more expensive than a whole roasting chicken?? Why do tweezers cost two quid but the ‘good, professional’ tweezers cost thirty? Even a new pair of shoes is an investment, and not in the ‘statement piece oh my god grazia grazia mwah’ kind of way: even a modest thirty-pound pair costs seventy pounds in the end when you factor in the acres of plasters you go through covering all the parts of your feet that are bleeding or blistered, the re-heeling when the heel wears away after the fourth time out, and the various pads and insoles you buy to stop the throbbing pain in between your foot bones.

Writers like Susie Orbach and co point out that we now see the human body as perfectible, particularly in the case of the female. We are encouraged to identify, isolate and annihilate every thing that may not even be a flaw but simply not adherent to the preferable adjective for that body part: “Get the perfect curve for your eyebrows!” “Make your neck look longer!” “Make the whites of your eyes really POP!” But we are clever and realistic people; I’ve always been well aware that an essay isn’t perfectible, there’s no such thing as the perfect pair of trousers and despite honing it since I was fourteen my private chocolate cake recipe is still a long way from being the Platonic Chocolate Cake. (But getting ever nearer…) We’re smart and logical and reasonable enough to know for a fact that nothing can ever be perfect, so it is odd that we hold this incredibly harsh and unreasonable goal for our bodies, of all things. If anything the human body is the least likely thing to ever near perfection because it’s a big, gooey, squashy skinbag of pores and follicles and organs all trying to do the rough equivalent of what they did back when we were all much more gorrilaesque. The devil isn’t really in the details, since no amount of curled eyelashes will distract people from my lump-of-cheddar nose, for example. If we all devoted our energies and emotions towards finding the perfect sandwich or sofa instead the world would be a miraculous place.

But I don’t want you females (or the males reading this and just thinking ‘well then don’t do it and shut up’) to leave this site thinking that I’ve just given you all a Strafpredigt (a lovely German word that means ‘punishment sermon’). I’m not saying we have to stop, because as I say, you leave yourself very vulnerable to unpleasant things like mockery and behind-back criticism, the protection from which is (as someone who was teased mercilessly when little) worth the expense. Not to mention the fact that it really can be quite good fun, like putting on an incredibly subtle costume for a reeeeeallly understated fancy dress party. What I am saying is that we should embrace this hobby-aspect of it and make it so, make it fun from start to end and, like a hobby, leave judgment out of it if you choose not to be into train sets or hook-rug making or hair-straightening. What I am asking is whether we can’t make this expense less…well, expensive? Not just money-wise but in terms of everything; can’t we make the rituals less of a pain? Couldn’t we make shaving cream smell like God’s garden to make those boring fifteen minutes a bit lovely? Could someone make a slightly narrower and curved razor sold with the other ones because armpits are a complex and voluptuous cavern that simply can’t be done with a straight potato-peeler thing? Could mascara be packaged differently so you can use up the whole tube rather than just the two millilitres those brushes can actually access? Could we just conceal our spots and accept that the rest of our face won’t be flawless skin but will be varied, textural and fundamentally anatomical, like the skin on our arms or ears – which for some reason we feel no need to cake with a uniform shade. Beauty companies should be putting their arses into inventing new ways to make the whole ritual as joyful and comfortable and safe as is possible, rather than expecting us to grin and bear it. I’m not sure I like being female – I’m certainly never glad to be, as I much prefer striding to walking and high-fives to cheek-kisses – but I know I want to be comfy and happy and relaxed. And still have all of my eyelashes in place.

Berlin: Half the time, when we talk about chain stores, we literally mean stores where you buy different kinds of chain

Yeah, the windows are lined with the colours of the German flag. And what?

One thing I simply had to visit one more time before I move back is the fabric shop Hüco Stoffe, near the station Jungfernheide in the west of the city. I had three reasons for this: one, I am a sewing-crafting-making-everthing nerd and a trip to a fabric shop is like visiting a fantastic gallery to me; two, Hüco Stoffe is one of the most breathtaking shops, fabric or otherwise, that I’ve ever set foot it; and three, in the UK when you want to buy fabric or any craft supplies you are limited to one or two minute little dusty bunkers run by ancient ladies who charge sixteen pounds for a small ‘kerchiefs-worth of cloth. When I shop for craft supplies in the UK, my selection is always disappointing, small, and temporary, as every new shop that springs up inevitably closes down after about three months, the staff still reeling from the shock that you can’t make a living selling rickrack for the price of a black-market vital organ. 

Shopping in Britain has become one of the most soul-bleedingly dire activities we have to subject ourselves to. The cause of this is the fact that every town worth its salt has raised its shop rents so high that poor old schmoes who have little more than an idea and a pocketful of dreams can’t afford to keep anything going for more than a couple of weeks before the rent catches up to the meagre profit and long before they have had time to collect an interested and loyal customer base to keep them going. The result of this is endless stretches of identical streets, in every town, in every county you might go to. Every city looks the same, with exactly the same shops containing identical products, and one finds onesself asking why there is any point at all in trying to look for new and original things to buy when everything is getting so homogeneous we might as well all just start wearing grey smocks and calling each other ‘comrade’. 

Meanwhile, come away from the awful shopping nuclei of Berlin (Alexanderplatz, Wilmersdorfer Straβe, good god don’t even touch KuDamm) and within seconds you are stumbling over countless beautiful and individual shops run by fascinating individuals and selling an incredible array of things.

Just in my Kiez there’s a fashion shop that also features a vintage food counter where they sell a remarkable selection of hand-sewn cuddly meat products: squishy legs of lam, fluffy salamis, felted bacon… There’s a shop selling vintage eyeglasses, a pirate-themed ice-cream parlour, a luxury vegetarian delicatessen, there’s proper toy shops and Jamaican mini-markets and graffiti supplies stores. The idea that we’re all used to of the Starbucks on every corner is thought to be remarkable here; while in Reading we have 5 Starbucks among 13 other well-known coffeehouse chains, the independent café reigns supreme here, each offering their own hook such as the incredibleness of their cakes or the superiority of their breakfasts or the rad posters on their walls. Going to Starbucks is a treat here, something you only ever do if you’re feeling rich and want a drink that is also a pudding and a cardinal sin. Enter the Frappuccino.

So, Hüco really does it for me. It’s an incredible place. After a longish walk from the station one approaches the most unwelcoming and unlikely looking grey concrete chunk of a building and after spending half an hour looking elsewhere certain it can’t be here one eventually enters. After two flights of grey dark staircases and vaguely cryptic signs pointing the way you arrive at a door which is unlabelled but is presumably the portal to a cloth shop given the mannequin draped in sequinned polyester in front of it. But the door is locked. One nanosecond before giving up you spot a tiny scrawled message on the doorbell that announces that customers must ring the bell to be let in but should only ring ONCE and NOT A SINGLE RING MORE. One rings, and is finally admitted into cloth narnia. It’s a labyrinth of fabric, of every colour and fibre known to man, some of which are beautiful and some remarkable purely because of their ridiculous patterns; anyone fancy trousers made with a kittens-and-sweetcorn print? When you’ve picked your cloth you take it to the brusque but friendly lady at the counter who cuts it for you and writes your receipt by hand on old-fashioned receipt paper before then working out the VAT on a respectable CASIO brick and sending you off to the woman in the paying booth, who takes your money and offers you a biscuit. You can then return to woman number one, who hands you your now folded and bagged fabric, and you drift out of the store and back to the future. 

Anything goes here in Berlin, and the joy of it is that those people who do give it a try seem to plummet into failure almost never compared to in Grey(t) Britain. You can be who you like and sell what you like and despite the chains being there, despite the masses and majorities and trends, you can make your own way and make a life out of it. It’s part of the endlessly accepting and embracing nature of the city, and it never ceases to be remarkable to me. It’s also the reason why Berlin is the best and most fun place to be a minority.

Yesterday I was spontaneously invited along to an unexplained barbeque in a park on my side of the city. You only have to cough here to give people the idea to hold a barbeque, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by the invite or expecting anything out-of-the-ordinary, but when I arrived what I found was not five or six relaxed Germans turning sausages on a grill but a huge gabbling mass of men, meat and picnic blankets. Ah, thought I. A gay BBQ. Of course. The gay ex-pat community of Berlin come together once a year for a collossal barbeque in the park and being there made me seriously consider batting for the other team myself; the spread of food was endless and unbelievably good, and the relaxed, generous atmosphere was a real joy. Berlin is the gay capital of Europe, clearly for the reason that here you needn’t fear a single lick of prejudice or spite for who you are, and it shows in the sheer comfortableness of the people in this group. Whether they had been here for two months or two years, everyone I met was singing the praises of the city and saying they never wanted to leave without the knowledge that they’d be coming back. 

Naturally everyone wants to be here. I want to stay here. Whether you’re into cloth or crafts or coffee or a specific gender, there’s a place for you in Berlin. 

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.