Sticky summer evenings – time for Tzatziki Tzalad!

Three seconds after this photo was taken, the entire bowl spontaneously burst into flames.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hot. Sad-dogs-lying-on-the-pavement hot. People-eating-ice-cream-at-10-am hot. Invasion-of-psychotic-fruit-flies-everywhere hot. After months and months and months of perpetual greyness, Europe is being rewarded for its patience with an intense burst of all its missed summers delivered in one portion. People don’t know whether to be overjoyed or to succumb to the misery of being so very, very sweaty. Children have started quietly dissolving into tears on the S-Bahn, confused and upset that they are simply so uncomfortable and why the hell can’t mum do anything about it like she usually does?

But the worst thing about dealing with the heat in Berlin is that it’s a constant toss-up between two very different, very potent and very annoying evil forces. On the one hand, you have the hot summer, damply packed into every room like wads of cotton wool. The unmoving air which makes the excel spreadsheet swim in front of your eyes until you feel like hurling the Macbook against the wall and running away, laughing maniacally. That humid heaviness on your skin, like someone’s warm hand pressed against your face.

But on the other hand there’s the bloody godawful NOISE of the place. This city is a cacophony, so obnoxiously loud that you sometimes wonder whether things aren’t being deliberately amplified just to make this effect as overwhelming as possible. You cannot imagine the noise; it’s like putting your head inside a metal bucket and having someone beat the outside of it with a massive frying pan. The eternal dilemma is whether or not to have the window open. In the office, it’s an impossible decision. Directly outside our windows – I mean directly, insofar as I could pat one of the builders on the head without even stretching – there is a colossal building works happening on the side of the neighbouring block. 


The loudness verges on being comical. The builders use a lift to go up and down which makes a noise like seven pneumatic drills switched on and thrown into an empty petrol tanker. They chuck large pieces of equipment about, vigorously hammer everything in sight, and – which is probably the worst part – raucously wolf-whistle and banter, probably roused by the beer which all German builders are for some reason allowed to drink while on the job.

At home, the situation is not much better. I live on an astoundingly loud street, where people regularly have fights below my bedroom window and where the local homeless man has a nightly mantra which sounds a little like this: “BAAAAAAAA! AAAAADABABAAAAAA! MNPHNMAAAAAAA! GRRRRAAAAA!” (repeat until dawn) Last night was something special. Despite it being a narrow and rather short little street, it sounded like they were replaying every film in the Fast and Furious series directly under my window. From what I heard, I am certain that at least three trucks did donuts in the middle of the road, then some guys came with low-riders and did drag-racing up and down the street, and then everyone had a big gangsta fight while their hos revved the engines to provide atmosphere. And, as usual, just as I was finally able to blissfully slip into a prayed-for sleep, some men in overalls came with a giant van and started throwing large bins full of glass into the back of it. Cheers guys, thanks for keeping our city green, even if it is 6.30 in the morning.

But to the point: the heat isn’t making things easy. Cooking in particular is pretty much out of the question at the moment in this flat; with a gas hob and an oven whose door droops open like an idiot’s mouth, any attempt to actually cook raises the temperature in the flat to centre-of-a-volcano levels. At times like this, all you can do is make something cool, crunchy and with as little gas involved as possible. And then follow it up with a giant slice of chilled watermelon and a therapeutic session of screaming back at the local homeless man.

***Chilled Tzatziki Tzalad*** 

This is such a perfect summer-night dinner, and I really recommend making it half an hour before you need it so you can stick it back in the fridge and let the flavours broaden a bit while everything gets nice and cold (did you know that cold temperatures increase the tongue’s ability to experience flavour, making tastes seem more intense?). Serves 1, so just multiply as required.

1/2 large red pepper
1/2 cucumber
1 stick celery
1/4 red onion (optional, but I like my quasi-Greek food stinky!)
3-4 generous tablespoons Greek yogurt/quark
1/2 garlic clove
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp mint leaves, chopped
Very generous pinch of salt (don’t skimp, this needs to be well-seasoned)
A few grinds of black pepper
*I made this with a bit of chicken I had kicking about in the fridge, but it’s just as good with some chickpeas or white beans instead.

1. (optional) Slice the chicken into chunks, season with salt and pepper, and lightly sauté until cooked through and golden. Put aside to cool, it cannot be used hot.
2. Chop the pepper, celery, cucumber and onion into bite-sized chunks.
3. Mince the garlic. TIP: this is super easy if you lay some clingfilm over the rasp part of your grater and rub the garlic over the top – you can then just peel off the clingfilm with the garlic and scrape it off without getting most of the garlic eternally stuck in your grater.
4. Mix the garlic, yogurt/quark, salt, pepper, mint and lemon juice in a large bowl.
5. Throw in the veg and chicken/chickpeas, then stir everything together well.
6. Pile into the serving dish and chill for 30 mins before serving. Eat with flatbread/pita.

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
 

Die Vögel (The Birds)

Berlin wildlife: sparrows and techno-beetles.

In the UK, you might see the occasional pigeon. Wandering along the high-street…picking up bits of old chip in Burger King carparks…limping one-legged around train station platforms like a pathetic Richard III impression…making obscenely loud noises on your windowsill in the wee hours of the morning…accidentally flying down your chimney…clustered under picnic tables in parks…dumbly standing on a car roof…dumbly standing on the spikes put on buildings to repel pigeons…

Yes, pigeons are everywhere. There is a reason why we call them flying rats, and it’s not just because they are like little hors d’oeuvre crackers, carrying a selection of diseases and bacteria rather than smoked salmon and cream cheese. It’s also because you are never more than a couple of metres away from a pigeon at any point; even in your house they are often actually in the roof, their feet skittering away on your ceiling both hauntingly and annoyingly. And the Brits hate them, dear god we hate them good. We teach our children that it is a fun game to swing huge kicks at them to make them fly away (I used to enjoy a variation on this game where you walk at a brisk pace directly behind a pigeon, which simply freaks it out a little and makes it shiver its wings about so it looks like a dweeb). And, of course, they swarm about in Trafalgar Square in a frothing grey sea, fed enthusiastically by tourists and accused of harbouring nuclear radiation (remember that? Who came up with that hilarious idea?) by non-tourists.

Full disclosure, however: I happen to rather like them. I raised three pigeons from tender ages because they were brought to my dad, a vet, by people who had thought they were abandoned. I taught them to fly, which mainly involved chucking them into the air and occasionally poking them out of trees with a long stick when they got stuck in the branches. But as far as ‘urban wildlife’ go, they’re not the coolest things to see mooching about every square metre of a town. In Berlin, of course, we’re a bit more alternative.

Berlin’s speciality is its sparrows. Sure, there are pigeons, but they are almost a novely in comparison to the sparrows, who pip along every pavement like teeny little brown tiddlywinks. There are sparrows in tremendous quantities, great bushels of them, and the noise of them fills the sky with endless cheerful tweets (hashtag: peep peep peep). Speaking of bushels, that is where they like to get together for social events; you might be sitting on a bench one day when suddenly the bush behind you will erupt in frantic cheeping, although there will be no bird visible to the naked eye when you then turn to the bush in terrified curiosity.

I love the Berlin sparrows, despite the city’s half-hearted attempts to keep them under control. “Don’t feed the sparrows!” a bakery will signpost, while there are always three or four sparrows sitting directly on the sign enjoying the crumbs of some leftover Vollkornbrötchen. They are completely adorable. The males look stern and commanding with their dark-stained faces and rusty wings, and the ladies are sweet and soft in fawn brown. Unlike pigeons, their noises are charming and life-affirming, so cheerful and endless that they almost seem like background sound effects to a life-simulation-style computer game.

The sparrows enjoy the children’s playgrounds as much as the kids themselves. While the little Berlin babies smash around the climbing bars and slides causing distress and harm to themselves and other children, the tame little sparrows calmly use the sand as their feather-bath, whiffling around in little hollows in the dust to clean their wings. Sometimes they will hop up to you if you are on a bench and cock their head at you, musing about philosophical questions relating to the presence and availability of crumbs on your person. And unlike with pigeons, I almost always wish I had a few crumbs on me to give them; bless the tiny darlings, they deserve a treat.

So Berlin does urban bird-vermin better than the UK. Go figure. But did you know that they also have the squirrel sector totally covered? UK squirrels, as most of you will know, are grey (pigeon-grey, you might say…) and sassy and often, as we saw on the Great British Bake-Off, remarkably well-endowed. But I will never forget the first squirrel I saw in Berlin. I couldn’t breathe when I saw it and turned around in a silent appeal to the strangers around me expecting them to be equally floored by the sight: walking through Tierpark, I saw a beautiful, golden-red squirrel with tufty ears scruffling about on path in front of me. 

When I explained this astonishing and mythical sight to my friends, they looked at me as if I had just proposed that we all fill our trousers with jelly. “That’s what all completely normal squirrels look like, dear.” In the UK, red squirrels are notoriously rare and have the kind of sacred status otherwise reserved for peregrine falcons or unicorns. In Berlin, red squirrels casually mosey about, keepin’ it real. They wouldn’t know what to say to a grey squirrel if they met one. They keep their wobbly bits to themselves.

Sometimes the differences between place A and place B are huge and disorienting when you move to a new city. But sometimes they are little, and sweet, and make you glad to be experiencing a new version of normal.

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.

Welcome to number 10

I promise, very few blog pictures will be as dull as this one.

Every story needs a setting. You, the reader (and I’m going to assume there’s only one of you out there), need to be able to imagine the place where the plot plays out, where your tortured writer sits hunched over her great work with a glass of absinthe and definitely not a Tunnocks marshmallow teacake but something much more bohemian. I thought I would use this first reunion post to set the scene and give you the ‘Monica’s apartment’ locale for the next few months’ worth of storyline.

I am a student at a college in Oxford – it’s a secret which one, because I want to stay anonymous to protect me from stalkers overwhelmed by my staggering beauty (ok, ok, I look like a beardless BeeGee) – and this photo above is the view from my window. I like to think of it less as a view and more as a sort of squirrelarium, as there are so many squirrels scampering up and down those trees all day it’s like one of those time-lapse videos of train platforms they sometimes show in the news for no reason. As you can see, even though it’s spring the tree on the left, my favourite of the two, has sprouted its leaves and they have already started to turn brown and die off. It takes a lot of effort not to interpret that as a metaphor for something bleak. What’s that fancy-looking balustrade in front, I hear you ask? That is my balcony. I cannot actually use it, of course, for the minute the room was awarded to me the college blocked up the windows to prevent people going onto the balcony for a relaxing chilled glass of Riesling and then spontaneously plummeting one storey to their death. The person who was here before me could use it, though, so it is now just a large and inaccessible collection of oddities (some might use the term ‘garbage’). Five thousand cigarette butts, one bud from some headphones, an old flowerpot, and a large metal coffee-bean scoop. What I want to know is whether all those items were used separately or were all used together in some kind of incredible party.
  

 

  This is the nest area, featuring the remnants of this morning’s revision and a zodiac pillow. The enormous hanging cloth is a giant batik sheet I got at a Berlin flea market from a lady who was determined to give me the hard sell for fifteen minutes despite the fact that I really wanted it and it was three euros and I already had the money there in my hand: “Drei!! Nur drei euros! Es ist doch echte Baumwolle! Nur drei! Drei nur! Baumwolle!” I have hung the sheet up against my wall as chic décor and a memento of better days but mostly to hide the huge and disconcertingly greasy stains smeared all over that wall which is already a shade I like to call ‘Infectious Dried Pus’. And yes, the elephants look like they’re ascending to heaven in some kind of Sri Lankan version of the Rapture but that’s the only way around that it will fit. One final point to be made is that it isn’t attached to the ceiling very well and so there have been nights where I will be watching a film or sleeping and then unexpectedly be draped in a huge blue tent which then takes an age to put back up and involves balancing a computer chair on a broken mattress.

 There isn’t much space in here, and the room is a divided poky compartment of what used to be one large and opulent room so everything is on a sort of slant. My bookshelf is diagonal and also leans forward at an alarming angle, and my ‘wardrobe’ might better be termed a ‘storage coffin’. It holds two dresses and a box of cereal. As you can see, the carpet is a colour which I think Dulux simply calls ‘Malaise’, and the curtains are long swags of gold velvet. There is a sink, a desk, and a mirror propped in front of the mirror because the original mirror is too high for me to actually see into. I am short.

The earring box is actually a drawer for old newspaper printing press dies from Fleet Street. It is the best thing in my entire room.

This is where I spend most of my days, and all of my nights. It is not just a bedroom but a study, coffee-shop, dining room, toast emporium and Grandma’s attic. The neighbour above seems to spend his days throwing mallets, the neighbour next door is brilliant and I’m sure more annoyed by me than I am by her, and breakfast is served between 7.30-9am following your complimentary wake-up call of the street sweeper bellowing past the window at 6am. Shoes optional, tea compulsory. This has been my life this year, and soon it won’t be any longer. Welcome to number 10.