Best Prenz Forever

In Prenzlauer Berg, graffiti artists simply tag buildings with helpful signs and directions.

When I used to work in Oxford, I sat all day in a cardboard cubicle lined with school-blue artificial felt, pounding at an old Dell keyboard that appeared to contain several primordial stages of life developing between the keys. At lunchtime I would shove my tupperware into my bag and march outside as quickly as I could possibly move, simply to get out and away from that stuffy little enclosure. 

Sadly, there wasn’t much to escape to outside the office. A grey, long and dull walk alongside some uninterestingly pristine hockey pitches, a wander around the edge of a park so waterlogged that you had to wade through the middle of it, and finally a bench overlooking some dying border flowers or, if you had time, a more distant bench where you could observe a depressed duck in the pond.

I’m now fortunate enough to be working in Prenzlauer Berg, or Prezzy B as the cool kids call it. I used to live in the district but that was during a long and very oppressive, so it’s rather a privilege to come back to it and experience it in the midst of its lazy summer glory. The office barely looks like an office but is inside an old and kooky Wohnblock with an enormous winding staircase that is very Hogwarts indeed. I sit in a comfy, airy room with two hilarious and generally excellent people and the soothing sounds of intensive building work drifting through the window. And the best part is that at lunch I can go for a curious little mosey around the streets of Prezzy B.

A lot of people rag on P-Berg because it’s like totally ‘gentrified’, which essentially means that they’re annoyed because it’s not ‘gritty’ (i.e. violent and falling down) anymore and instead has been filled with lots of nice cafes and organic delis. Gentrified or not, the district has simply developed into an insane patchwork of people and ideas, and because it’s all a bit posh these days everything is just a bit…well, nice. Even the bloke who runs the local Späti is a pleasant and bright-eyed young gentleman with a polite, intelligent air and a crisp clean poloshirt. 

But I did say it was insane for a reason. There are just so many shops around the place, and if you can dream it you can buy it in Prenzlauer Berg. In our little nook around the office we have some great specimens, including a gay clothes shop, a shop specifically selling ‘world musical instruments’ (I don’t think they stock vuvuzelas, however) and another shop which I was going to photograph because of the cool multicoloured plush ostrich standing by the entrance until I realised that the ostrich’s neck and head were actually an enormous rainbow fake fur penis. There is a shop that sells organic fabric – no, I don’t know why – and another that sells food portioned into exact quantities (half a lemon, three teaspoons of paprika, a little vial of soy sauce) for people who want to cook and don’t want to have a single TRACE of leftover ingredients. Near the office is also something which frankly took my breath away: a bad bakery. I have bought bread rolls there three times now, hoping that their family-run, hand-made-from-scratch promise would one day give me what I’m hoping for, but alas. I asked for a pumpkin seed roll and they handed me something so flat I thought it was a large cookie.

In between all the shops are more restaurants than you could ever hope to split the bill in. One of my favourites is ‘Links vom Fischladen’, a micro-oasis of incredible seafood in the middle of a city whose main dietary seafood intake is in the form of small salty fish-shaped crackers. There’s the usual obligatory slew of ‘Asian’ places all selling identical and cheap ‘crispy’ types of poultry, but there are also some truly spectacular ‘Asian’ places such as Mr Ho, who does Vietnamese food so fresh and aromatic you almost forget to make jokes about the unfortunate name of the place (almost). On the way up to the beautiful graveyard where I sit to eat my lunch, I wander along Pappelallee, a gorgeous little street which has several – sigh – macaron and cupcakey places, but also a curious pasta restaurant that advertises ‘Nudelkunst’; literally ‘noodle art’, although I suspect this sadly does not mean they will swirl your spaghetti into a representation of Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses. Slightly further up, on Kollwitzplatz, you will find Lafil and the most delicious Spanish brunch imaginable; there’s fresh tortilla, crab gazpacho, chargrilled vegetables, tiny vanilla-y bowtie pastries and a big tureen of homemade waffle batter so you can make your own fresh waffles to order. 

And the last real trademark of Prezzl Bezzl is the children. It is a district which students once settled into and made it cool, but have since then got married and had their first kid on a very comfortable income thank you. There are children swarming around the place left right and center, and so many prams you’d think the babies ought to start a car-pool. This makes things fun, for sure. I watched a man today speedily wheel his pram along the pavement and accidentally drive it with full power directly into a large concrete bollard, then I enjoyed his deserved anguish as the baby inside erupted with indignant rage.    

The mix of it all gives the district a really distinct atmosphere, one that is hard to pin down; if pressed to summarise it I would simply describe it as ‘contented’. No-one in Prenzlauer Berg seems stressed or upset or dysfunctional; the kids keep it a safe district and the shops and restaurants keep it endlessly interesting. And the people simply seem utterly relaxed. Each person in his own little cloud of satisfied peace, wandering up and down Schönhauser Allee.

In the graveyard today, there were lots of people sitting around on the soft green grass, writing and drawing and reading for no reason other than pleasure or idle fiddling. An old couple sat beside me, and the man took two books and two juice boxes out of his rucksack. He gave one book and one juice box to his wife, and then they just sat in the sun and read and sipped. I gave them a big grin, closed my tupperware, and headed off back to work.

Like this? Got something to say? Get in touch: ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com
 

The magic of Berlin’s old ladies

Probably the work of another Berlin Old Lady. She didn’t want the poor little thing catching cold.

Apologies, first of all, for taking so long to write another post. This last week has been rather a whirlwind as I have been negotiating a rather complicated and interesting job offer, the results of which I will reveal here as soon as I know what the HECK is going on. In my Verzweiflung, writing a new entry kept slipping my mind, and the time I had put aside to do so on Friday was engulfed instead by my attempt to make miniature pastry tart cases and burning the first dozen to a black, reeking crisp. But a true blogger always comes back, and here I am. Now, on to the post.

As my bank assistant showed me on a rather alarming diagram, the population of Germany is composed of a frankly enormous ratio of people of retirement age. Just like in the UK, the Germans have carefully practised protected intercourse and taken their vitamins every morning leading to the result that there are thousands of people living to age 100 and very few babies being born to man the factories making the cat food for all these ancient people. Well, for their cats, obviously. There are now whole districts of the city, such as Lichtenberg, which have become little havens for the elderly and feature enormous retirement compounds, out of which old people drift into the city like slow, trembling bees meandering out of the hive.

Old people here are often the good ol’ cantankerous type who get angry in queues and complain about youngsters. In the coverage of the flooding across Germany this week the radio station I listen to – a station beloved by older folk because of its purely factual content and occasional items about the history of white asparagus – reported with frank surprise the fact that most of the young people living in affected cities like Halle were joining in with the rescue and clean-up operations, each correspondent or interviewee sounding completely amazed that young people would drag their lazy bodies out of bed and/or put down their vandalism and drugs equipment to help out in a time of genuine crisis. And yesterday, waiting on the platform at Schöneberg station, I watched a furious  elderly woman turn to a child who was happily squeaking in its mothers arms and go “RAAAAAAARRGGH!!!”. To be fair, that child’s innocent glee was rather loud and grating, but it was an astonishing way to get it to quiet down. The woman also managed to silence every other person on the platform.


Beyond the occasional sighting in a supermarket or eruption on a platform, it is not usual for people my age to have much to do with elderly people, so it’s hard to get to know them beyond what we see day-to-day. And this is somewhat strange for me, because I have always seen a lot of my grandparents while living at home and have a built-in expectation to spend social time with people over 70 at least once a fortnight. To only hang out with people below sixty is rather odd for me. But I am pleased to report that I have got to know a few older people in my time here, and I am more pleased to report that the majority of elderly Germans are exactly the same as the majority of elderly Brits: kindly, sweetly, politely mental.

The first that I ever really became acquainted with were the parents of my first flatmate, who was a lovely divorced lady living with her twenty-something daughter in Charlottenberg. The grandparents would come over from time to time and seemed to find me charming as almost all old people do due to the fact that I have the face of an innocent eleven-year-old and the accent of Hermione Granger. I thought they were terrific; the grandfather was an ancient dude with authentic liver spots and dapper suits who had quite literally read a self-curated digest of all human knowledge. In his lifetime he had read enough to teach himself complex legal theory, Yiddish and Jewish cultural history, several languages, the full spectrum of philosophical thought and a thorough understanding of the foundations of the sciences and engineering. At the time I met him he was half-way through reading the Koran, as his newest project was to have read all of the key holy texts. He used to tell me excellent Jewish jokes over dinner and was so delighted to find that I am also a keen reader that he gave me a selection of books from his own private library. He was also a right mardy-arse from time to time with a deteriorating mind and used to occasionally resort to unbelievably strong emotional blackmail, seemingly from nowhere, which used to come at my flatmate and her mother out of nowhere and knock them sideways. They loved him, but occasionally he would get confused and become Hyde out of Jekyll. He sadly became much more unwell after I left Berlin for the first time and died shortly after; it was truly sad news which I felt acutely.

The grandmother, on the other hand, was a beaming and slightly wild old lady who simply took everything in her big Amazonian stride. You could tell she had always been a real winner. When I was invited to the family’s Sunday roast on Hallowe’en, she spied my ghost ‘costume’ (read: a pillowcase with two holes chopped into it and facial features drawn on in felt pen) hanging out of my English-teacher bag, abruptly yanked it on over her head and cloud of curly white hair, and flung open the door to a little clan of trick-or-treaters to scream “wooooOOOOOOOOoooooo!!!” She had never even encountered trick-or-treaters before and we didn’t have any sweets to give them but she enjoyed her own ‘trick’ so much she carried on for the rest of the evening every time there was a knock on the door. 

She was a woman who knew that life was to be lived – so stop whining. When we went en famille to the Christmas market, we walked past a Glühwein stall and she announced that now was the time for us all to drink a large Glühwein, even though it was only 3 in the afternoon. My friend began to say “No, maybe not…” but this magnificent woman simply cried “Don’t be ridiculous!” and bought us all steaming hot mugs of pure booze, followed by finger puppets, followed by a giant bowl of soup for me when I casually mentioned that I had never tried Soljanka before. Because what is the point in being alive if you don’t just respond to curiosity or temptation with a ‘what the hell, YES.’

There was also the grandmother I stayed with in my first visit to the Baltic coast, who generously supplied my friend and I with so many deviled eggs I feared the cholesterol would start seeping out of my nose. Every five seconds she would cry “Komm schon, NASCH MAL ‘n bisschen!!!!” (“Come on, have a nibble of something already!!!”) until we were so full we could not move. She showed me all 350 of the photos of her holiday to Miami – the only time she had ever been abroad – and also introduced me to her amazing collection of napkins, which she collected in different designs to accompany every season, holiday and type of guest.  

Not to mention the woman who lives to the right of me in my new building. She’s a bit of an old hippy. Sometimes my door sticks closed even after I unlock it and I cannot open it even when I run up against it and smash it with my shoulder like a fireman. But this lady hears my struggles when this happens, and placidly opens the door to see if I need help. She turns the key in the lock once to lock the door, and once in the other direction to unlock it again, and every single time the door then sighs open with casual ease. She doesn’t know how she does it, and nor do I; we both simply agree that she has ‘the touch’ whatever it may be, and I am grateful that she also evidently does not go to bed before 2am.

And then there’s the other old lady who lives to the left of me. Who inspired this post, because she noticed my front door was ajar and called into the flat to make sure there was someone there. 
 “Ah, you’re renovating,” she said to me when I answered.
“…um, no…? I’m just renting this flat here for three months.”
“Ah well, in that case it’s good to meet you. You know, I have a slipped disc. It’s agony!!”
“Oh gosh, that sounds horrible, I’m sorry!”
“Yes, I’m supposed to have an operation soon, but I don’t want it, I’d rather have physiotherapy but you know they operate far too much over here and there are far too many hospitals.”
“Oh right, I really am sorry. Would you like some ibuprofen?”
“Ohhhhh, do you have some? That would be wonderful. I’m off to visit my divorced husband who has Alzheimers. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes, I do, how awful, I truly am sorry.”
“Yes, it is very sad. I’m divorced, you see. My daughter is living with me at the moment, she is divorced too. She’s living with me but it’s not working at all. We are not getting on at all.”
“Oh no, that’s difficult, I’m sorry…um…so here are some ibuprofen tablets for you.”
“Thank you. You are a very sweet young woman. Now I must go to my divorced husband because he has Alzheimers, have a good Sunday.”