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
 

Summer days in Pleasantville (population: mowers)

Apologies for the unseasonal photograph; just imagine it’s marshmallows, not snow.

I grew up in a mansion. This is true.

My first house in conscious memory was a poky little box on an infamously cat-pulverising road, but I was only there for a couple of years before we moved to my official childhood home. And yes, it was the building above. To clarify, we didn’t live in the whole building – we lived in the largest segment of it, the bit denoted by the glowing front door and all the windows to the right of the black dormers. (To clarify further, the crouching figure in the doorway is my brother adjusting his salopettes, and don’t ask.) It was an ancient house with draughty halls and a real stuffed deer’s head hung in front of the main staircase which spanned the three floors. We had a five-acre garden, which had an enormous square lawn and pond and was surrounded by acres of mostly untended woodland, full of deer, rabbits and the occasional creepy stranger who would sneak onto the grounds and nose about the place. Our neighbours were mostly quivering geriatrics who used to largely leave my bother and myself alone in favour of bothering my poor father on a constant basis to ask him whether the gutters/windows/roof/boiler/plumbing needed cleaning/replacing/repairing; however there were a few kids our age around, mostly boys with whom we crashed about the place on our miniscooters and constructed complex settlements in the woods complete with a financial infrastructure and class system. 

As you can imagine, it was a dream location to spend your formative years. The old bricks were porous enough that in times of high wind the carpets would inflate until each room resembled a bouncy castle. The enormous staircases allowed for excellent flight practice, and the sofas we inherited with the house provided a fantastic landing pad after my mother had finally tired of their hideous ugliness and taken an axe to them, leaving us with the huge foam chunks from their padding. The eternal driveway was smooth and had the perfect gradient for one to soar down it on one’s miniscooter at a speed close to terrifying. It also meant that we got used to a lot of things: isolation, for one. The house was on a hill in the middle of nowhere; there was little traffic noise, wildlife roamed free in the fields surrounding us and the only bus to anywhere was infrequent, unreliable and manned by surly old men with mustaches and a vehement hatred of children. We got used to an environment of gentle but ever suspicious surveillance; the aged neighbours would watch us out of their windows or regard us with dismay from their gardens, which faced directly onto ours. My dad stopped coming home from work for his lunch hour because one ancient lady would watch all morning for his car to arrive, wait two minutes from him entering the front door and then, without fail, phone him to complain about the gutters and windows and roof and boiler and plumbing. This treasure of a woman was ironically named Joy.

We absolutely had to leave. Over time, our quaint old creaky castle seemed to become a crumbling, hostile crypt. The entertainingly draughty walls also meant that room temperature in winter was always perishingly cold; you could see your own breath and I used to wear my ski jacket indoors every day from November until March. The neighbours gradually wore my father down to a shred of a man. We weren’t allowed to build or change anything because the place was protected for historical posterity. While I was in Germany, trying to find a place to live, my family finally upped sticks and found a new place to live. 

The second house was similar, a smaller, boxy sort of terrapin quite literally in the middle of a working farm, complete with electric security gate. It was even more isolated than the last. We were eons away from everything and our windows looked out onto nothing but fields and garrulous-looking crows fighting with each other. There was an unused boathouse in the garden edging onto a stretch of river and a scrap of woodland inexplicably full of junk – we found a hammock, thousands of plant pots, bits of discarded metal, odd handfuls of some kind of shredded plastic wool that looked like afro clippings and hundreds of pieces of ugly and decaying flotsam. Again, we were surrounded by nothing but silence and birdsong and blood-sucking insects.

But now, finally, for the first time in my life, we are in the suburbs, and this is the longest stretch of time I have ever been living in this, our new house. It is brand new. It is one of lots of nice, appropriate houses facing onto an appropriately leafy and child-friendly street, appropriately close to a corner shop and a bus stop and a playground and a pub. It’s the kind of place where the vast majority of Brits spend their lives and yet to me it is utterly foreign. The novelties of suburban life are strange and charming, as if I were an ex-marine living with an indigenous tribe in the Bornean rainforest for a TV documentary.

For starters, the sheer noise rattles me like a cockatoo with people kicking its cage. Every morning I am woken up by the sound of a different but yet equally loud piece of heavy machinery; no one knows why one might want to take a chainsaw to one’s front hedge at 7.45am on a Tuesday, but it seems to be a popular hobby, when the street cleaners or bin men or Bastard Leafblower Man aren’t out with a vengeance just after sunrise. There are also a couple of anonymous testosteronis around who plough their ridiculously souped-up engines down the road just after breakfast, as well as the sweet and naive adolescents that loiter about in front of each others’ houses right outside my bedroom window shrieking tipsy nothings at each other. Living on a road also means roadworks, and they have been treating me to diggers and pneumatic drills every morning like the atrocious opposite of breakfast in bed. Once all that industrial hard labour is out of the way and the dawn chorus has been appropriately extinguished under the bellows of grinding machinery, the second phase of suburban living begins. Mowing. There is never a day, nor time of day, nor season of the year that does not require at least one person to be mowing their lawn at any one time. It is as if no-one in this area is at all employed, because the mowers’ burring can begin or end at any time from any of the neat gardens surrounding us regardless of whether that house contains a young family with children or a retired couple with a black labrador. 

Suburban living is also a very vulnerable state, it seems. You have to lock windows and doors quite frequently, I am told, when going out, because there are people called thieves that come in and nick your stuff. Because your house is so close to civilisation that people actually know it exists. As a reminder of that fact, the garden fills up with tennis balls, footballs and those holey golf balls tragically lost by neighbouring children. (Not knowing which garden they came from, I try to just evenly distribute the wealth by throwing a few back over each fence.) Because we are now surrounded by real people rather than scrubby wilderness, our vegetables are finally safe from deer and rabbits so that the deserving slugs can have a crack at erasing them all from the earth. The real-life Jehova’s Witnesses even came round once, which made me so happy I was unshakeable for the rest of the day, even though they did ask me if my mummy and daddy were in.

The main thing, however, which I love about these new surroundings is feeling a part of everything. Now finally joined on to our garden rather than separated from it by a long pathway, we can move from street to house to garden without thinking about it, like a glorious and peaceful human osmosis. There are people around enjoying themselves and making noise and walking their dogs, making you feel like you’re not some ostracised Boo Radley figure up in ‘that weird-lookin’ place up the hill’. I can cycle to the gym and back and thus escape that much-loved ironic remark that you leave your bike at home to drive to the gym where you ride the bike. I feel like I am a real member of the world now, and am overjoyed to find that not all convenience is a homogenous symptom of consumer culture but that it’s perfectly usual and harmless to enjoy the ease of taking your lunch onto the patio or walking to town. But goddamn, are the suburbs a loud place. Oh god, there goes another chainsaw.

Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

This place is the Pitts!! Geddit? Because it’s oh ok fine I’ll get my coat…

Leather jackets. Ferraris. Enormous totem poles. Compensating for something…?

One of the most joyous things about neither having exams nor even a degree to speak of any more is that time suddenly spreads out in front of you like a long, luxurious Persian rug, made for you to saunter opulently along it however you please. You don’t have to ration out your fun in chunks or make up for it later with a fierce and long session of compensatory work. You can just do the things you love all of the time for as long (or as little) as you please. This means, for a start, that I can devour a novel in huge swathes for the first time in years (Will Self’s My Idea of Fun, a brilliantly psychotic and very rude book) and also that I can finally spend the hours in the Pitt Rivers museum that such a place needs and deserves.

The Pitt Rivers museum is a collection of anthropological findings from everywhere in the world gathered over centuries of exploring the globe. As you can see in the photo, the ground floor is a bizarre forest of glass cabinets which is almost impossible to navigate in any systematic or all-inclusive way, so the best thing to do is simply to show up and allow yourself to waft around the cases and let serendipity – or roadblocks of groups of small children – guide your way around the exhibit. There are three whole floors, however, as upstairs you have two circle galleries which, in my humble O, contain a good deal of the most interesting things they have to show, such as all of the body modification artifacts they have, which range from scarification tools to forehead-flattening plates to a set of glittery blue plastic false nails from Thailand. The displays are strange in that way, in that they remind you that simply by being a human person you are a part of the study of anthropology; why shouldn’t a Chanel perfume bottle be displayed next to an ancient Venetian scent bottle and Japanese rose oil flask? And yet there will always be something slightly funny about seeing items you could just get down the road put behind glass with a label and made into an ‘artefact’ to demonstrate the difference between inexplicable rituals of facial augmentation or haircare from around the world and through history.



The utter joy of the Pitt Rivers is simply that: nothing is excluded and everything is worth looking at because it all tells us something or is simply curious or sweet. You would need days to see everything, because each cabinet holds shelves bristling with so many items you really do have to press your nose against the glass to get a good look, and even once you’ve exhausted that there is a set of drawers under the main display which you can slide out to see the other stuff they just couldn’t even squeeze into that compartment. Sometimes the drawers feature some of the most fascinating bits and pieces, laid out neatly for those interested, and sometimes there are just a haphazard bunch of trinkets in zip-lock bags ham-fistedly stuffed into the drawer as if the person doing it that day decided to knock off early and go to the pub. You will get your exercise, too, because once you’ve inspected all the drawers and cabinets there are hidden displays under the main displays sometimes, so there is the fun of squatting tenaciously to see them in the middle of a needle-thin aisle while the same small children from before all try to wiggle past you. There are canoes and totem poles and colossal spears hanging from all the walls and banisters, and along the four main walls of the room you find row upon row of beautiful fabrics from all around the globe, sometimes sewn into unbelievable garments or out of unbelievable materials, such as the feather capes from New Zealand or the Inuit seal-intestine anorak. It looks crispy.

It truly is the most mind-boggling spectrum of …just stuff, ranging from the pipsqueak-small to the outrageously large and each piece labelled with a sweetly humble hand-written tag tied on with string and scrawled, I like to believe, in real Indian ink from colonial times. The real crowd-pleaser is, of course, the shrunken heads, which are real shrunken human heads of murdered enemies shrivelled into a voodoo raisin to humiliate the villainous traitor even in death. Most of them aren’t even particularly old, which perhaps raises some questions as to how appropriate or respectful it is to the dead to display their mutilated heads next to some old bits of monkey and a wooden set of gonads – but hey, it’s anthropology and I ain’t squeamish so they can carry right on in my view. Hell, let’s get a few more and do a puppet show!

“Mate, I am so hammered right now…” LOL BECAUSE OF THE NAILS ok move on

    I spent the most absorbing afternoon just meandering through the displays sketching my favourite patterns and shapes to use in my jewellery, luxuriating in the quiet and slightly musty atmosphere of the place. The anthropology section also joins onto a huge natural history museum with fossils and insects and pickled tapeworms, so it really does have everything a young boy needs to stay amused. (That is, if their attention spans haven’t been shot to heck by hours of flashy manga cartoons and computer game violence which of course is a disgrace someone ought to write to David Cameron etc etc).

But the most wonderful thing of all is that entrance is free, so even if you’re not one of the lucky few that have unlimited time, you can simply keep coming back for a brief spurt at a time. God bless the UK’s free museums, and all who sail in their canoes.

The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.

Look before you Leip

“I am Goethe! Look upon me and tremble, future German students!”

On Wednesday morning of my last week in Germany I rose early, packed my bag, bought myself a breakfast pretzel and within an hour was on the train to Leipzig. I had the chance to visit the city because a few weeks earlier I had been at a concert and got to know a girl who just so  happened to be the girlfriend of a guy in the band (yeah, like I just am too cool fo’ skule). She was visiting from Leipzig where she lives in an opulent flat (with low rent and an underground car park for her PERSONAL CAR to boot – man, Berliners have it rough) and generously said I would be welcome to invade her home town if I felt like it. I felt like it.

I had originally applied to spend my year abroad in the Dresden/Leipzig area as my second choice should I fail to get Berlin, so I was curious to see these cities and find out what I’d missed. Dresden had been fantastic but I would rather have eaten an old lady’s wig than have to walk through the Altstadt every single day. Leipzig, on first impressions, was…small. Compared to Berlin that’s like being amazed that a walnut is small relative to a caravan, but the contrast at the time felt rather jarring. However, unlike Dresden, the first impression was of a very sweet place, where the general atmosphere might be summed up by the facial expression one has after a really good bath. It’s contented and relaxed, not filled with tourists, businessmen and lunatics like Dresden or Berlin but rather simply populated with a comfortable number of laid-back inhabitants who all exude an air of “How are you?” “Can’t complain!”. 

After I had set down my bag and wandered with gaping mouth through my friend’s beautiful flat, which costs 70 euros less per month than my hamster’s cage of a room in Berlin, we head out to see the town.


My friend’s idea was to take a bus tour around Leipzig so that I could see all the main bits and get the requisite information one might need. When we reached the bus tour start-off point we were instantly surrounded by dozens of guides who pressed their pitches and flyers upon us, frothing at the mouth with sheer desperation to get us upon their particular bus. All the tours were exactly identical in price, duration and content, lasted two whole hours, and seemed to take one not only through Leipzig but through neighbouring villages, around the local motorways and over to the busdriver’s nan’s house to see how she’s getting on these days. It was ridiculous; who wants to sit on a kitchly painted open-top bus in the wind for two hours having a smarmy man bark tinny facts about Leipzig at you through a loudspeaker? Under the pretence of having to find an ATM we escaped and decided to do our own tour, starting with the Volkerschlachtdenkmal, the monument to the victims of the massacre in one of the Napoleonic wars. No, I don’t remember which one.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying building. Inside, a circular hall is lined with huge stone faces grimacing with agony and misery. Above the faces there is another circular ledge with statues embodying the virtues of man in the most harrowing way you can imagine, with peace depicted as a distressed looking woman holding two huge and brute-like babies to her naked breasts. The whole place was filled with the echoing roar of building machinery due to the renovation works taking place which made the experience even more unnerving, and it was a relief to finally be on top in the open air looking out on the city and away from the big doom-filled cavern. Up there we met a sweet lady who declared herself to be a history teacher and then gave us a fascinating and enthusiastic talk about the monument and Leipzig itself; she was so generous and interested in her subject that I wanted to take her by the arm, buy her a bus and tell her to go out and make her fortune in the city, but instead we went back down and spent the rest of the day wandering around the nooks and crannies of Leipzig, seeing Goethe’s favourite ‘pub’ and stopping for an Apfelstrudel.

The next day we head over to Halle, the town where my companion had grown up. She wanted to show me her childhood stomping ground, and it was as adorable as such a town ought to be. The buildings are low and have lots of dark beams, and all the streets are narrow and charming. Halle is humming with myths and legends, so as we wandered along the labyrinthine alleys we saw, for example, the donkey fountain where a boy and his donkey supposedly got showered with flowers as they were mistaken for a king (happens to me all the time) and a creepy overgrown pathway which was once closed off to quarantine plague victims and was lush with grass when it was later opened as the sick people all died and created a fertile strip of plant life. A brief stop at the Händel museum was fascinating and very impressive – the musical instrument collection was particularly fun, and if anyone needs ideas for my birthday present I definitely want a violin which doubles as a walking stick – but there was also a confusingly large amount of stuff in the museum which had next to nothing to do with Händel at all. Here is a portrait of the man who drew the portrait of Händel’s mum. Here is a photo of the building where Bach, who is a composer like Händel, once had a sandwich. Here is a coin similar to one of the ones Händel probably used to use when he went out to buy a newspaper. It was rather perplexing but ultimately made for a collection that you couldn’t help but scour thoroughly to work out what all these interesting bits and pieces were actually about. Worth the entrance fee, one might say.

We lunched at a strange “Asian” place where I paid an extravagant 3,50 euros for a bowl of instant noodles with a single prawn proudly perched on top and then simply schlenderten through the town, idly drifting through the shops to kill the time before the real event of the day: Harry Potter. Heart-breaking as it was to see the end of my childhood epic mangled into German (eurhgh, vile language) I was so excited I hyperventilated my way through the ads and – nearly – wept at a few tender parts of the action. It’s a brilliant film, if you haven’t already seen it. The kids are admittedly all grown up now; the Weasley twins in particular look like they’ve been briefly let out of the old folk’s home to do their part before afternoon tea, but no matter how big and burly Harry and Ron look these days to me they will always be the goofy acne-dappled youths who seemed to have come straight from the Beano fan club into showbusiness. I was disappointed that Helen Mirren didn’t have a cameo in this film because if she had that would have made the series a complete catalogue of every single British actor living (and recently deceased) within our generation (as part of our 2010 collection, this rather tasteful Bill Nighy, set within a hopeful but pointless and ultimately wasted role!). But oh, it was the end of Harry Potter. It was the closure to a decade of obsession and anticipation. They did a spectacular job, and didn’t even make the epilogue too cringeworthy as the older and now married characters wave their children off on the way to Hogwarts. Although I did feel sorry for Ron, who was the only character to have been made a fat, balding and embarrassing parent as opposed to the chic and well-kempt others. Go and see it for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.

Oh, and don’t waste your cash on 3D; I didn’t feel like I could reach out and grab anything.

The beginning of the beginning of the end

And it seems to me you’ve lived your life like a lampshade in the wind…
My odyssey in Berlin is coming to a close, but I specifically booked two weeks after the end of my contract to have the time to do all the things one inevitably always says one must unbedingt machen but never actually finds the time or lust. The first of those days was utterly consumed by the sheer mesmeric euphoria of being in bed for hours and hours and hours without having to do anything or, most importantly, without having to see or interact with a single toddler. The second day I remembered that I did indeed have work to do and spent hours and hours at the computer drawing the last of the illustrations for the company’s new workbook, trying to figure out how on earth one can possibly depict ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ as a simple colour-in picture; it turns out that this song is deeply Descartian-philosophical when one thinks it through for long enough (“I am happy, but do I know it? What happens if I don’t know it? Can I know I am happy without being happy? I clap, therefore I am…”)
But the third day – after I had dumped a year’s worth of clothes stretched by tiny hands into amorphous sacks at Oxfam – everything ging los. I had my list of things to do, some respectable and some less so, and I strode off into the wind to explore my honorary Heimatstadt one last time. First off I finally devoted a good amount of time to exploring Tempelhof park, one of Berlin’s most underrated and undermentioned offerings. Tempelhof is unlike any other park in the world, primarily because it’s not a park; it’s an airport. The old airport is not only the place where the first ever flight demonstrations took place decades ago but also was used during the Luftbrücke, when allied planes flew food into the seriously deprived West, suffering despite being an island of non-communism within the communist mire. It was finally, sadly, closed, but unlike in the UK where it would either be made into a tacky concert hall or most likely razed to the ground and rebuilt as a Tesco, here it was simply kept as it was to serve as a park for the general public. Nowadays it is full of kite-flyers, dog-walkers and roller-bladers making the most of the beautiful, huge, flat and mile-long runways.

They have done a tremendous job with this place, simply by barely touching it. The middle strip of land has been turned into a Wiesenmeer (sea of meadows) where wild flowers grow and larks and butterflies can go forth and multiply; there are nicely trimmed BBQ areas with excellent bins and, best of all, right at the back there’s the Tempelhof-Schönefeld Gemeinschaftsgärten. From far away, as I walked around the runways, it looked simply like a big pile of rubbish, and in Berlin this would never be implausible, and as I approached the only two thoughts in my mind were:

1) Typical Berlin. You have something as great as this park and ruin it by letting people wang a load of trash in the middle of it and shove anti-nuclear stickers all over the trash.
2) When will that creepy man stop trotting up to me whispering “Hallo, Kleine” and asking if I can hear him?
But when I got to the trashheap what I actually found were hundreds of wooden crates, old paddling pools, suitcases, clothes trunks and other receptacles which had all been lovingly filled with compost and beautifully flourishing fruit and veg plants.
Not being permitted to plant directly into the airport soil, the members of this community garden project have assembled their gardens on top of the soil and made it truly Berlin by furnishing it with vintage upholstery and faux Wild-West outhouses. Naturally. Once again I simply marvelled for a moment about how much I love this brilliant city, and then allowed marvelling to give way to rage as a bunch of American hipster dweebs cycled up on their rented choppers and started drawling about how “Man, this is like, so Berlin, like have you been to that bar in Kreuzberg where all the drinks are mixed with nutritional yeast and served in urine sample beakers? Have you been to that club in Neukölln where you have to dance with handcuffs on and the DJ is a rabbi? Have you been to that café in Wedding where the coffee is ground under the wheels of a Nazi-Germany tank?…” I left in disgust.
Hipsters (and people slightly too old to be rollerblading in hotpants) notwithstanding, Tempelhof is a great place to spend a sunny day and simply astonishing in its vastness and relative untouched-, gimmick-free-ness. And it was also conveniently near to my next destination, something I was determined to visit from the minute of my arrival and which had my heart beating slightly quicker as I drew ever nearer to it.
Dun-dun-DUUUUUUUUN!
What the heck is that, I hear you cry. Why, it’s Hauptstrasse 155 Berlin Schönefeld. The very building where DAVID BOWIE (and Iggy Pop) genuinely lived for a good long while in one of their most awesome periods. Good grief! Why has no-one profited from this? Why is there no plaque, no commemorative graffiti mural, no themed café next door called “It’s hard to be a saint in the Latte”? It is nothing but a nondescript door with a dentist’s practice. Blasphemy, thy name is Schöneberg. That’s the last pilgrimage I ever make.

Berlin: Where “rest” is nothing more than a type of rubbish

And what do you find when you go looking for peace and quiet? Men on sticks, of course.

I’m a country lass, born and bred, as I believe you already know. Brought up surrounded by fields, farms and circling red kites, where the only traffic noise you could hear was the aggrieved squawk of a pheasant who had another pheasant standing in its way. It’s deadly dull when you’re little, of course, and you find yourself whiling away endless days making anything and everything out of sticks and rocks in order to pass the time, but once you’re older the true blissfulness of the situation begins to become obvious. It’s just so quiet, so relaxed, and the distance from any centre of urban activity is only annoying up until the point where you realise it is a sacrifice worth making in order to have the joy of seeing sheep and partridges out of your bedroom window.

Berlin is not like this. Berlin is noisy. Good grief, it’s the noisiest place I have ever been for more than a fortnight (I say this as I was once in Hanoi and being in that city is like having your head inside a metal bucket while someone hammers it with a pole from the outside). As I write, the builders who have for no evident reason overtaken our building to renovate it are apparently just throwing heavy things around for fun and dragging other heavy things along a stretch of corrugated tin. These cheerful men arrive every day around 6.30am to begin their work, a lot of which seems to involve a large and powerful flamethrower which I had thought I was simply dreaming until I saw the weapon lying by the Innenhof door. I am glad that our Hausmeister is ensuring that the building stays in good nick, but on the other hand I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in about a month and I am starting to develop a psychotic twitch. 

I also have the good fortune to have the bedroom facing into the Innenhof. In Berlin flats, every building has an interior courtyard where all the bikes and bins are parked and where the windows all face each other. Thus my bedroom window looks out into everyone else’s flat and vice versa, and now that it’s summer and everyone’s windows are casually left open the entire Innenhof has become a gallery of people’s private but very LOUD goings on. Thus complimenting the jolly morning builders I am subjected to a throbbing techno rave from one of three different flats every single night at sleepytime, which occasionally gives way either to the Dolby Surround(TM) thunder of the next-door neighbours’ action film evenings or the equally loud and unignorable sounds of them doing it like they do on the Discovery channel, if you get my drift.

The whole city is a frenzied exhausting mess of noise, from the punks on the street yelling at each other’s dogs, to the church bells which ring whenever the hell they feel like it, to the over-cheerful “boooo-BEEEE-booo” of the S-Bahn doors which is starting to have the same effect on me as the “boo-bee-boo-boo-bee” in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘. Children screech around the streets like gibbons in the rainforest and terrible amateur indie-rock-folk bands spontaneously start three-hour grunge-jam sessions mere metres away from the bar you and your friends choose to have a quiet after-work drink. Buskers lodge their bongos directly in your ears and bicyclists yell at you for having a mass and a circumference. I feel like I have a miniature television glued to each of my shoulders permanently switched to full-volume MTV Cribs/Pimp my Ride marathons. Us country types are gentle and fragile souls, so we are. Sometimes the need to and impossibility of escape gets a bit much. My curtains are transparent orange gauze, so my bedroom offers no repose. This morning on the bus I closed my eyes and tried to retreat into a quiet inner oasis when the bus driver suddenly pumped the brake on and off repeatedly, making the bus lurch around like a breakdancing camel, before he then looked at me in the rear-view mirror and made the following announcement over the loudspeaker: “NICHT schlafen!!” 

So where does one go when one needs a bit of time out of the Gewimmel? Luckily the genius of Berlin is that its sheer rambunctious noise is well-recognised and antidotes are provided here and there for those of a more sensitive disposition. The Botanicher Garten is a wonderful place to spend an entire day, requiring nothing more than a tiny entrance fee to allow you to dopily drift around the gorgeous wild-flower meadow and romantic Italian garden and steamy glasshouses for as long as you like into the early evening. There is an incredibly brilliant bakery on the way from the S-Bahnhof to the gardens where you can pick up little bags of shortbread covered in butterscotch and seeds or puff-pastry diamonds dusted with spices and cheese, and with those in your pocket there’s little more you need for a perfect Sunday. 

Berlin is also surrounded by its many Sees, lakes which range in size from the massive kind which lend themselves to wholesome activity days of bike riding and bird watching to the smaller kind which are simply big ponds and perfect for a good long reflective wander. The Lietzensee in Charlottenburg is particularly sweet, cut in half by a mysterious-looking bridge-tunnel-thing and with a cafe on one end where one can sit and regard the ducks and resist the urge to go and throw bread at them and giggle like a five-year-old. The Plötzensee, as mentioned in a previous post, is ideally suited for a beer and a sunbathe, while the Wannsee has canoe hire on offer, among other things. If you are a wandering or nature-type, you won’t be short of places to escape to here.

But this is all dependent on the weather not being as it is right now, namely rainy and windy and petulantly impulsive like a spoilt little girl. Where do you go when the idea of being outside makes your soul shiver? That’s a tricky one, but there are still options. Most café owners in Berlin seem to think that the average customer likes eardrum-quaking blasts of 1980’s classics while they nurse their espresso macchiato, but Berlin’s libraries are often fantastic places, busy but quiet and often featuring somewhere to get a coffee or ice lolly (which we all know is crucial to the reading process). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally pop to the library simply for a good hour of reading books I would never dream of actually loaning, such as books on quilting or vegan shoe production or (nostalgic sigh) good old Asterix and Tintin. Hey, if it’s in German it counts as education. The Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek has a particularly good book selection and a friendly man who helps you with the stacks orders, while the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg library has a huge array of music and CDs. If being in a labyrinth of fingered books isn’t your bag and you just want to sit somewhere a surprising pocket of calm can be found in the smaller bakeries, where there is usually no background music, one or two little shaky plastic tables and a friendly lady who’ll brew you up a peppermint tea for a few cents. 

Alternative moments of meditation can be found riding the escalators all the way up to the top of the eight-story Galeria Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz and back down again, accidentally riding the train all the way to somewhere remote or drifting around pet shops being mesmerised by the lizards and baby rabbits. I have also heard on the grapevine that the holy grail of quiet time-killing is any Apple store, where you can go and play with the iPads/Pods/Puffs for hours without any of the hipster staff telling you to shove off. But don’t quote me on that; who knows what those people have been trained to do…