Congratulations! Your life now no longer has meaning!

Hey dude, sup. Just chilling. Word.

So, I did it. I sat a full degree’s worth of final exams and they are now completely behind me, never again to be touched until the examiners get their mitts on them. I revised for about 11 weeks, got through three books of lined paper, developed a variety of stress-related illnesses and wrote a blog entry about cheese graters. It was like wading through a swimming pool of congealing cold porridge, desperately trying to reach the sympathetic-looking lifeguard beckoning from the other side of the pool; and when you finally do get to him, you realise it was just a high-visibility vest propped up on a broom. The problem is that Oxford was always perfect for me in one way, in that I have to be busy and partially under stress at all times in order for me to really do or be anything worthwhile, and four years of marching about producing essays and library-hopping and running societies was the ideal habitat for a busy-body like this. Revision and exams was just a slight elevation of this, really. Then there is a sudden and almost surprising spurt of exhausting activity which really does feel like a spontaneous purgation of built-up mental fluid, and then all of a sudden, you’re on your own. You can relax!!


Except: what does that mean? For a start, it means gazing watery-eyed around my room regarding the sheer casualty of living that developed while I was glaring at irregular verbs. There are sacks of laundry, dirty and clean, everywhere; piles of mugs in every corner; incongruous things in all kinds of incongruous places (hiking boots in the recycling bin, mp3 player in a slipper, gloves in my bed); folders and notebooks smeared all over the floor and desk like the residue of autumn leaves that cover the street. My supplies-cupboard (which I like to call ‘the pantry’) used to contain most of my food and ‘supplies’ but now has been reduced to some Ryvitas, half a jar of pickles and thousands of dark chocolate Tunnocks teacakes which my mother brings me every time she comes to visit once a fortnight. My right eye is a large throbbing growth which arrived the day before my last exam and apparently is going to hang around for a few more days to soak up the atmosphere before it leaves me alone and returns me back to looking like a real human being and not half of Admiral Ackbar. Needless to say, some things need sorting out here before we can properly move on.


Then I suppose I’ll just be doing everything I’ve wanted to do for the past two months and haven’t been able to. I’m going to go to the garden and dig some things, go to the shops and buy more than just milk, maybe even find the time to treat myself to a trip to the doctors to deflate my eye. Go punting and visit the botanical gardens. Make some jewellery and paint my toenails. Collect some stories for you lot.

And beyond that, what? Are we adults now? Was that the poison-arrow-frog initiation test? You’d think it was from the way you emerge from the final one: blinking in the sunlight and hand still aching, you find a thronging crowd outside the exam building held back by riot gates, poised with tubes and bags of silly string and confetti and gooey things and powdery things and stainy things all waiting for their own one friend to come out so they can smother them with the stinking, crusty coating of ‘trashing’ ingredients that is their own way of saying ‘We love and admire you for your bravery’. The medics finished with me and of course got the royal treatment, which I can only imagine was the precursor to sheer apocalyptic hedonism because we all know what medics are like. I got flower garlands and one made of lined paper because I’m a classy gal and because we were once sent a very threatening email from our college warning us not to use food products for trashing because it’s offensive to homeless people who might look on in jealous peckishness (“I’d give anything for a raw egg mixed with cocoa powder right now…rich bastards…”). The weather is blistering, the day is young and there’s still one more box on the exam schedule that needs crossing out with a big red pen. I’ll catch you all later, bunnies.

The high life

If I were a Times reporter I’d make a joke about royal wedding hats right now.

I know, I’ve not been around for a while and I’m sorry. Last week was a frenzy of activity as I completed entirely unvoluntary voluntary work, went to a bizarre exhibition (more on that in the next post) and saw my friends for the last time before the main event of the week: my grandparents came to Berlin to see my new turf for the first time. Unlike friends or parents, grandparents have a kind of dignity and connoisseurial eye that means that you are driven by self-inflicted terror to find not just good things to show them and do with them but to find the perfect things; the sights they will regard with their experience and knowledge and find worth the effort. It’s not an easy task in this city because my grandparents are, you might say, gourmet tourists. They have been to almost every country in the world, they have certainly been to every continent and they have seen enough walls, cathedrals and museums to know that the ones you might take them to in this city are going to have to work very hard to compete. Being so refined, they are also unlikely to enjoy the kinds of ‘rrrreal, grrrritty Berlin’ things that younger friends or my thrill-seeking mother might like, things like the Kunsthaus Tacheles or the Zielona Gora squat. With all this in mind I have been putting most of my energy and tour-guide zeal into assembling a weekend of the best Berlin has to offer for the distinguished tourist. And where did we begin? With lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the one and only Fernsehturm (TV tower).

You can go up the TV tower without going to the restaurant, of course, and this is fun and exciting and interesting but with a couple of downsides: you have to revolve yourself, and you have to wait so long to get up there that you might just mistake the eventual ride up in the lift as your final ascension to heaven. If you book a table at the restaurant, you can jump the queue, and…well, that’s where the benefits end. We arrived at the tower to be made to buy our tickets for the lift up, as if they weren’t going to squeeze us dry enough with the ludicrously expensive food, which I thought quite unfair; if we were unwilling to pay an extra fee on top of our lunch and the premium put on it for the location we could hardly stand outside, open our coats and hope a gust of wind would carry us up instead. We had also arrived early so that we could wander around the gallery and look at the view before taking our table, but the woman at the counter gave us a specific time at which we were permitted to arrive and NOT A MINUTE SOONER, meaning my poor grandfather was forced to shuffle behind us as we looked at handbags in the Galeria Kaufhof for 20 minutes to kill unexpected extra time. Finally the moment came and we took the lift to the main gallery.

The TV tower features a large round gallery of windows overlooking the city from the most incredible height. The view is spectacular; you can see the incredible straightness of Unter den Linden, the remarkable hugeness of Tierpark and the strange incongruity of the Reichstag dome with almost birds-eye perspective. Helpfully there are also keys under the windows to explain what it is you are actually looking at, the history behind it, and whether what you are looking at is actually a thing or is just a drab building which you have overconfidently assumed is the headquarters of the East German Secret Police. It’s good fun, and interesting, and for 11 euros a ticket it ought to be; you can also enjoy watching people frustratedly trying to take photos without reflections of themselves in the picture thanks to the way the light works on the windows and if you feel decadent even splash out on a TV-tower-shaped lolly or bottle of schnapps. 

But of course that’s for the plebs. Those of us who were reserved into the restaurant were allowed access to an even (slightly) higher floor, a revolving donut of restaurant with a stationary kitchen in the middle and tables lining the windowed circumference, turning at a leisurely pace over the sunlit city. Cream tablecloths and soft smarm-jazz music assert the fact that this is a Nice Place. This illusion, however, did not last long. Our waiter came to the table after a half-hour wait while we sat, read the menu from cover to cover and eventually wrote a good long chapter of our memoirs. With arrogant charm that did not seem to correspond to the fact that his face was covered with some kind of odd yellow crusty ooze he took our order and then disappeared, not to be seen again for another eternity during which time we tried using various methods to calculate how many revolutions per hour the restaurant does. Eventually my grandparents’ antipasti plates came, huge black glass sheets dotted with a sad-looking row of wrinkled marinaded vegetables and a couple of mottled handkerchiefs of proscuitto, followed by my salad, which they had got wrong, so they took it away, evidently grew all-new salad leaves from seed, and brought a new one, which was also wrong, so they took that one away too and replaced it by which time we were ready to eat each other. The bread we had also asked for eventually materialised too. Foolishly we ordered coffee which arrived sometime around sundown and I believe they finally came to let us settle the bill just before the apocalypse. The jovial and infection-y waiter joked around with my grandparents and told me in discreet German that my grandfather is a ‘charming old man’ as if to make amends, and we finally were released back into the wild to make our way to the botanical gardens. Which are spectacular. And at the moment the Titan Arum is flowering. It is an incredible plant, the largest flower in the world, and when it flowers it smells of rotting meat. It was definitely a highlight. 

Crucial cultural experience. Also, booze.

Discerning wine tasters.

This weekend was the last weekend of the Baumblütenfest, a fruit wine festival which takes place every year in Werder and is, so I am told, the second biggest Volksfest in Germany. A couple of friends and I thought it was about time for a bit of adventure and an Ausflug, and as the daughter of a wine connoisseur whose obsession borders on psychopathic I simply couldn’t wait. If you’re English, a wine festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste some delicate and rare vintages from charming local producers whilst listening to light jazz and swing music wafting over from white marquees sponsored by Waitrose and some four-star hotel. There are hog roasts and organic quinoa salad buffets and everything is so expensive it makes your wallet leak something which chemically resembles tears. Naturally this was not what I was expecting when I was told that this particular festival is more like a second Oktoberfest, but I still had no idea what on earth was over in Werder waiting for us.



The Baumblütenfest is simply wild. On the one hand, it’s rather rural and very sweet; farmers sell their fruit wine from alchemical-looking glass jars whilst wearing straw hats and there’s a Baumblütenkönigin (queen) who is chosen for her beauty and ability to represent a two-week festival of getting completely sloshed. But there’s the rub, to put it pretentiously: the wine costs 2 euros a cup at its most expensive, 1 euro per cup if you’re going for the rough stuff, and is so sweet it’s like drinking alcoholic jam. Thus the majority of people who attend the festival are party-hungry youths who chuck the stuff down their necks and have fights with each other. The stalls that don’t sell wine are flogging (apart from the essential Wurst selection) brilliantly tacky festival accessories like flower necklaces and comedy hats, the ‘live music’ is good old-fashioned German power-dance music and one can participate in all kinds of wonderful vomit-inducing activities like fairground rides and bungee-jumps. 

Yes, it’s intense and the heat made it feel like being inside a cheerleader pompom someone had stuck under a grill. But I had the most brilliant time. I am a country lass, not particularly experienced in the world of festivals that don’t involve ‘best cow’ competitions and live sheep shearing, and that Saturday afternoon this lucky girl got to see real fights and for the first time heard a real, genuine, hearty Berliner accent (‘juuuuuuuuuuut!’). We were approached by an ancient taxi driver and his entire circle of friends and relatives; his skin looked like old leaves, he had clearly already had a good few bushels worth of wine and he chatted us up like an old pro. The wine is sweet but delicious, in particular the dark purple varieties which are so sugary and thick your mouth will pucker up and your tongue will sizzle. Traditional German food is at these times just the ticket, and my giant pretzel was as big as an elephant’s ear. To buy, the wines are incredibly cheap – just £6 a bottle – and would be a great gift if you are sick of forking out for Lebkuchen and fake Lederhosen to keep your friends’ lust for genuine German trinkets satisfied; I particularly recommend schwarze Johannisbeer and Rhabarber-Pfirsisch flavours. You should definitely, definitely go. And when the festival isn’t on, go to Werder. Under the thick layer of drunken crazies, retina-searingly bright knick-knacks and grilled sausage it’s a charming town which seems almost Grecian with its leafy cobbled streets and corny-looking restaurants. As my time here trickles slowly away I am glad to have done this truly German thing, and who knows; next time I might crank it up a notch and have a good old hearty fight.

Springtime for *cough* and Germany…

There are queues outside every ice cream parlour in the city and people are showing off their knees with gay abandon. It must be officially spring in Berlin. By the looks of what’s suddenly filling all the clothes shops we are in for a long period of yet more bloody maxidresses, dungarees and – *gulp* – neon hotpants. Everyone is in a cheery and celebratory mood and therefore the time has come for every German to participate in what is both a homage to the true backbone of German culture (Wurst) and probably one of the main things English and German people love as manically as each other. I am speaking, of course, of Grillen, the noble BBQ. When it comes to Grillen the Germans go just as mad as the British, wheeling out their apparatus the minute a fleck of sunshine appears through the clouds and barbecuing everything from the traditional sausage to pesto-flavoured tofu. You shoot the Scheiβe, drink a brew or twelve and stay out with your barbeque until it gets dark or you get thrown out of whichever place you’ve chosen to grill in. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds well and good, but this is Berlin! Couldn’t it – hell, shouldn’t it – be a bit edgier?” Why yes, yes it can. And therefore I ended up going to my first German Grill of the season illegally on the rooftop of one of the edgier buildings in one of the edgiest districts, Neukölln.


I knew from the minute I stepped out of the S-Bahn station that it was going to be a good evening when I saw a beautiful Berlin moment happen right before my eyes like a small present from fate. A tweenie girl licked her giant ice-cream too hard and both scoops thudded onto the pavement. She groaned and walked off licking the creamy residue off her sad-looking empty cone. Milliseconds later a homeless man came along, kicked the ice-cream boulder like a football and then sauntered off roaring with laughter. It was so sudden and hilarious I couldn’t have been in a better mood by the time I reached this incredible place.

The block of flats my friend lives in has an amazing loft space under the roof. It is a truly cinematic space, full of echoey eaves and dusty rafters. Inset into the roof are little porthole-style windows and one oval window with light mint-green glass, and in the main loft space there is nothing on the floor save one abandoned roll-top desk. We all climbed the rickety ladder to emerge onto a wonderful flat rooftop deck which looked out over the whole city. It was exactly as brilliant as it sounds. From the rooftop you could eat your kebab and regard the city as if it were your kingdom; the view from a roof is somehow so much better than from the Reichstag or the Fernsehturm because everything is still so near, you can thoughtfully regard the lights of Alexanderplatz in the distance or just annoy an old woman by watching her and waving as she does the dishes by her kitchen window. As if it weren’t mushy enough, when night fell there were fireworks in the distance as if daring us all to hold hands and start singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ or something. 

And thus ended my first week of May, the first week of the last two months of my time here. Only seven more weeks left of my contract to go before I am no longer forced by contract law to go into schools and pretend to have fun with small children. The end couldn’t come sooner, for while I am in love with this city and having what will probably be one of the best years of my life here the work hasn’t got any more pleasant or less gruelling; my voice sounds like the secretary slug-creature from Monsters, Inc (you didn’t file your paperwork, Wazowski…) and thanks to walking around the entire city every single day my feet have come to the conclusion that there is no pair of shoes comfortable enough that they won’t slowly but agonisingly remove all the skin from your heels and toes if worn too much. I spend my days nowadays playing ‘the family game’, a game I invented which the kids love so much they quite literally squeal with anticipation the minute I wink and suggest that they all line up by the wall. Each of the kids is made into a member of the family and I play the role of the gross old grandpa who wants to give his family members a big embarrassing hug. I call over various members of the family and they have to try to run from one side of the room to the other while avoiding my grabby grandpa hands. For some reason this pushes kids’ buttons in a way no other game ever has, and they get ever so creative and hilarious when they play it: some of them will point to the ceiling and go “Look! A pig/bird/policeman!!” to make me look away in confusion while they run past, some of them run round and round in circles for about fifteen minutes until I have to remind them that at some point they will need to get to the other wall otherwise we’ll be at it forever, and some kids are oddly resigned and simply walk slowly and with melancholy sacrifice into my open arms. It’s an exhausting game, but it gets me through the days and it seems to make the kids’ days when I inevitably fall over. You gotta give the people want they want.

Pinch, punch…

You should see the size of the Jenga…

It was the first of May yesterday, and in Berlin that can mean only one thing: time to take to the streets. May the first is traditionally a ‘worker’s day’, a day when employees in Germany have the day off; in olden days they used to do the appropriate thing and stick poles in the ground, ponce around with ribbon and give flowers to pretty young maidens, but since then the grand old customs have slightly changed to mean that people in worker’s unions protest in droves, swarming around cities claiming various worker’s rights and condemning wrongs against the working man. I am told that this is particularly popular in Berlin, to the extent that people from all over Germany pilgrimage here to demonstrate with the hordes. It gets incredibly heated and sometimes violent; I have also heard that for this reason policemen also pilgrimage from all over Germany to have the fun of keeping all the rabble in line. While my flatmates were reluctant to go near our local Kiez in order to avoid getting into any scrapes, I had been obliviously roaming around the city for the entire morning completely unaware that at any moment I could be swept into a giant procession of furious demonstrators; it is incredible the amount you can miss in this place if you are not officially down wit da hood.


However, later that evening I finally encountered the Great Uprising I had been promised. In Neukölln, marauding down Karl-Marx-Allee, were thousands of people, all shouting so that their combined noise became just a hoarse roar. I walked past a row of police vans and an ambulance crew tending an unconscious figure lying in the street, whilst trying to dodge the huge shards of glass strewn all over the pavements and gawping at the spectacle of the mob in front of me. There were so many people and they were marching in such a steady and driving stream that for a while I assumed they were all riding on floats, it looked like a fast-streaming river of bodies. They eventually moved on in their column and left behind a kind of exploded-flea-market assortment of broken stuff and torn clothing in the street, while a few of them stopped off in the Thai Imbiss my friend and I were in, presumably to fuel the enraged fire of their protest with a mild green curry. 

What were they protesting for? Don’t think I didn’t ask. No-one, in fact, knows what they were protesting for; the best answer anyone could give was ‘worker’s rights’. It seems that on the first of May you protest, no matter what for. The day is simply there to show that you want things to get better in general, an all-purpose battle against The Man and Capitalist Pigs and all that oppressive jazz. These demonstrators are simply here because they’re here because they’re here because they’re here. Because they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Good for them, I say; just look how much progress the protest have made so far in the name of improving the state of employment in Germany. Err…

Anyway, there was another reason why I was so shocked to hear about this apparently infamous May Day tradition after my morning of wafting around Berlin’s windy streets, besides having not even detected the faintest hint of civil unrest in the atmosphere in the hours I was outside. This second reason was the adorable and cheery church-fête-like Fest that was being held in a park just outside the Ring Center and which could not have been less evocative of anger or protest if it had tried. The closest I got to seeing any violence was the karate demonstration they had on the main stage in between the Dixieland version of ‘Crazy Right Now’ and the sweet young girls’ talent display. There were people selling Quark balls and old men playing giant chess. At little trestle tables one could be taught how to do origami, paint plaster of Paris or decorate biscuits with icing. The lower end of Möllendorfstraβe was closed off so that a school basketball tournament could take place. The only thing strewn around the walkways was a plethora of bouncy castles. How could most of the city be rioting when Frankfurter Allee was hosting such a sweet little afternoon of innocent fun and jollity? 

Apparently there were little May Day parties happening all over the place, and Kreuzberg even started their own massive May Day almost-carnival tradition in 2003 to try to cheer up all the workers of the coolest district enough to give up their plans of violence and rage and simply be happy with balloons and a big slice of cake. It’d work for me. But if the Kreuzberg festival was started to negate the demonstrations, I would love to know which thing came first: the fun or the frenzy? In England when we have a bank holiday we stoically have picnics in the drizzle or go for a pub lunch somewhere suitably rustic; in Germany apparently you do the two most opposite things you can think of within mere metres of one another. God, this place is mad. I love it. 

Spring Awakening

An old abandoned brewery, a huge graffiti mural and a startling blue sky. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

We have had sunny skies for more than three days in a row, there are people on the streets wearing shorts and all the cafés now have tables and chairs outside as well as inside. All signs would point to this officially being the start of Spring, or rather the end of the longest and most gruelling Winter of my life. I headed over to my afternoon’s lessons to find the school unexpectedly shut and as echoingly empty as an abandoned amusement park and thus found myself with a whole glorious afternoon in Berlin all to my disposal. In celebration I immediately went to the nearest shopping centre, bought a pair of sunglasses (in itself this was a risky manoeuvre as every pair of sunglasses on the market makes me look like an electron microscope image of a fly’s face) and went marching around the city in the manner to which I have become partial. 


The minute the sun shines on this city it truly does metamorphose; suddenly the grey concrete blocks surrounding you are no longer imposing but exciting in their sheer bigness, the graffiti seems like a wild anarchic doodle as opposed to a gritty rejection of society and the people begin to be softer, kinder, more spirited. On the S-Bahn a terrifying-looking gangster man with a trucker hat perched atop his scalp, an array of gangsta accessories splayed on the seat next to him and drinking from a bottle of beer which itself managed to be threatening in being covered with German flags and nationalistic slogans, was taking up the only free seat on the train with his flotsam and jetsam. Being exhausted and dizzy I eventually plucked up the courage to ask if I could use the seat he was using as a cloakroom and was delighted when he turned to me and with a huge and glittering white smile gently uttered ‘Auf jeden Fall’ and cleared his things away. And sure, so he then kicked his beer bottle along the train aisle before he left the carriage, but you could tell that even this man was fundamentally a Good Egg.



My wander took me past old people drinking espressos on the street, past young people sitting on a bench which was actually an old bathtub missing one side, an abandoned brewery basking in the afternoon sun like a big elephant seal, past beach bars gearing up to put their deckchairs out for the start of the season, through parks where puppies and babies scampered around in the only way they know how…cheek-chewingly cliché as this all sounds, it all got my heart beating a little bit quicker because there is just a general sense in this city at the moment of something great coming on the horizon. 


Particularly lovely is the beginning of preparations for German Easter, which very much like Christmas is exactly the same here as in the UK but about 25% more cute. The selection of Easter chocolates is so much nicer; you can buy multicoloured and adorable little eggs filled with marzipan, lovely coffee goo, chocolate truffle, nutella, that strange beige Kinder Bueno gubb, and a million other flavours, the chocolate rabbits are available in every hue and pose from sporty to studious to sexy and there is not a single trace of those disappointing chocolate-bar themed big eggs that promise to be ‘filled’ with what turns out to be just one risibly small sample-sized version of the thing emblazoned all over the packaging. Easter decorations are also a big deal. Every shop in the place sells ‘Ostergras’, a lurid green hay which I love for its all-purpose purposelessness and the fact that actually, when you really look at it, it honestly does just look fun and pretty and sweet, which is exactly what a festival about chocolate and baby animals ought to do. The array of little decorated eggs and mini pipe-cleaner chicks you can buy is impressive and I am already greedily eyeing them up for a Harvest Moon-themed set of jewellery. 


I have been in Germany for the Easter run-up three times now and it never fails to get me squealing a little inside. It’s just so sweet! I will never forget being given, in a shop in Köln, a tiny sugar Spiegelei (fried egg, and by the by one of the absolute greatest words in the German language; who couldn’t love a populace who call fried eggs ‘mirror eggs’??) alongside my change when I bought some Easter goodies. The kids are, of course, sharpening their little teeth ready for the day in question and are unspeakably excited whenever I mention that they might be getting an Easter present if they are good; one group who are always late to lessons have been earning points for every time they turn up punctually and know that the kids with the most points will get an Ostergeschenk. They are truly so hopped-up about this idea that they have started coming to class half an hour early and waiting cross-legged outside the locked door before I even arrive, like Star Wars fans waiting for a seventh film a week before its release.


Not to mention, as I have already touched upon above, the fact that these little and barely-warm licks of sunshine have transformed everyone here into smiling and cheer-spreading versions of their former selves. This is why seasonal affective disorder is in my opinion a complete pile of bollocks; you’re telling me you feel depressed when you have to rip yourself out of a heart-breakingly warm and comfy bed to venture out into the wet and sin-dark morning wrapped in a million layers of itchy wool? And that you feel suddenly less depressed when you peel the duvet off to discover balmy temperatures, fresh sunshine and jewel-blue skies? CALL THE CLERGY. Honestly, everyone is depressed in Winter and conversely everyone suddenly recovers the minute the sun shines. The streets seem somehow wider and you can come home from work to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening light rather than mummified in your six dressing gowns in front of drab Winter television. 


And if all this wasn’t enough to get you feeling giddy with anticipation about the coming months, here are some words that will do the trick: barbecues. Bellinis. Swimming. Cream teas. Lambs. Skirts. Flipflops. 


I for one couldn’t be more excited. Finally the city I love is showing me that it loves me too and I can even stay out for over an hour looking at it without tiny ice crystals whipping at my face. 


And despite the fact that when I first wore them to a school, the man at reception declared in front of a drift of children and coworkers that I look like a porn star, I also love my new sunglasses.