Goodbye to Berlin, Part 2

Despite the best efforts of Talixo and Schönefeld airport, I made it back to England only vaguely on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s my third week back in God’s own country, and I am already desperate to get away. This might be due to the fact I live in the middle of nowhere, or simply because after a year of living alone, returning to the family home was always going to be a stressful experience. Luckily, I am writing this post whilst on the train to Edinburgh where I’ll be spending a week working at the Guardian International Television Festival.

The week leading up to my departure was characteristically stressful, filled with ironing out bureaucratic nightmares, cancelling a gym membership that proved harder to get out of than the mafia, and of course, saying goodbye to the host of brilliant friends I’ve made this year. I’ve never been one for goodbyes- I advocate the French exit wherever possible- but apparently when you spend a year of your life with people, it’s just not acceptable to sneak off at the end of it. 

There aren’t an awful lot of life lessons I can share, particularly since I extolled much of my ‘Erasmus Student Wisdom’ in a previous post, which was cathartic but perhaps made the actual act of leaving a little anti-climatic. I’d also been meticulously planning my departure for weeks, so when the big day came it was really just a case of getting in a taxi and swanning through the airport like it was all second nature to a globe-trotting bright young thing like me. Truth be told it didn’t really hit me that I was actually living until I was (finally) in the taxi to the airport, staring out of the window on an overcast Berlin morning, and I had to have a stealthy cry behind my strategically-placed sunglasses.

Our last night out in Berlin was at the first club that actually accepted us. We queued for forty-five minutes and spent the whole time wondering if we’d get in, so really little had changed. It was a warm night that turned into a blisteringly hot morning, and by ten am we were sprawled out on deckchairs in the club’s garden (Take that, Wire and Warehouse!) and even then it didn’t feel like the end. It felt like second nature.

The fateful last three days were spent in a variety of ways. First came the departure of Walt and Jesse, who left Berlin on Monday morning in a transit van. Their road trip home came at considerable cost, but as I am a blossoming crazy cat lady, at least it will someday make a good story to tell my therapist. After they had left I began the horrible task of cleaning the flat from top to bottom, which took forever. I also realised that despite having three suitcases with a combined weight limit of 60 kilos, I had far too much stuff to take home, thus began a day where strangers turned up to claim all my unwanted crap, and I felt vaguely good about doing something useful with my discarded junk instead of being tempted to just throw it in the bin.

(I was still over the weight limit when I got to the airport, but for some reason, the lovely lady at the check-in desk didn’t charge me anything. Sometimes life just hands you a win. That, or she could tell I was having the morning from Hell and decided to take pity on me.)

I also repainted the wall where my cats had kindly scratched it, cleaned the bathroom and kitchen until I could see my face in various shiny surfaces, and studiously avoided thinking about my departure. On Tuesday there was a barbeque to attend, so naturally the rain began the second we pulled out the disposable grills. I did remark on more than one occasion that this is part and parcel of being British; so much as mention the B word and God will strike ye down with glorious floods. We did the British thing and just got drunk instead.

And I ended the year very much how I started it, sitting at 6am in the McDonalds near my house, slightly tipsy with three people who I consider myself exceedingly lucky to have met. They make me more interesting by association, and it’s never a bad thing to have friends like that.

Since returning to exile in Yorkshire I have little to report; I’ve been busy with my new job (night shifts are, as many might suspect, awful, even in the media) and just signed for my new flat in Leeds. I’m looking forward to returning, if only to see the posse of friends I’ve come back from Berlin with (who may disown me for referring to them as a posse).

This blog was intended to be a whimsical narrative about my adventures in a foreign land, and in all honesty I expected to fill it with slightly bitter barbs about being lonely in a city where everyone seems to belong (my natural predilection to pessimism is tragic, but often accurate) but for once, I’m happy to admit I was wrong.

From getting lost on the tram and ending up in Lichtenberg at two in the morning within days of arriving, to sitting in minus twelve cold and drunkenly translating ‘We Are The Champions’ into German, and of course, witnessing Germany win the World Cup in Berlin, this has been the most surreal, ridiculous, insane year of my life and I wouldn’t trade a single minute of it.

To those who made it what it was (and you know who you are) thank you for the ‘quiet drinks’ that ended at six in the morning, for letting me drag you to the cinema all the time (3 Days To Kill is all I have to say on that matter), for thinking my neuroticism was endearing (or just not letting me think otherwise), for the ballet and the ridiculously long club queues, for giving me the best birthday I’ve had in years, for dinner parties and deep conversations, for getting lost and finding something even better around the corner.

You collectively made an anxious girl from the backend of nowhere realise that life being scary is no reason not to live it.

Thanks for being bloody brilliant, Berlin, and the people that called her home, even for a little while.

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Goodbye to Berlin, Part 1

Just a quick note: I’m writing this in the departure lounge of Schönefeld airport having not slept in over twenty four hours and staring down a two hour delay for my flight home. Teamed with the fact my pre-booked taxi kindly decided to not bother showing up this morning, it’s been a stressful series of events that led me to burst into tears about ten minutes ago. This really isn’t how I pictured my final few hours in the city; extremely tired, an emotional wreck, and privately bargaining with any willing entity that might make my plane arrive a little quicker.

Schönefeld Airport is, by the way, the most dismal place on Earth. No wifi access, the choices of eating confined to a stand-up Burger King or permanently packed café. There’s also an Irish pub but I can’t think of anywhere I’d like to be less right now than an Irish pub in a Berlin airport.

What Studying Abroad Has Taught Me

As I approach my final month in Berlin, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘Life Lessons’ to take away from my time abroad. It’s not easy to do this without sounding like a Gap Yah stereotype, but I’ve given it a go. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

1. I am not a natural athlete

I didn’t actually learn this from studying abroad, but undoubtedly the suspicions of every PE teacher that ever taught me have been confirmed. In attempts to naturalise myself to the city I bought a bike. I am yet to ride the bike without crashing into something or someone. Last week I managed to cycle straight into a pile of discarded building materials despite going at a speed of about one mile an hour. Whilst I lay there pathetically contemplating all my regrets, I thought that maybe cycling is not for me. Neither is bowling- on the two occasions I’ve been since moving to Berlin I have consistently managed to avoid knocking over any of the pins. I am however surprisingly good at UV Glow-in-the-Dark Crazy Minigolf, but I doubt Tiger Woods has much to worry about. Yet.

2. It’s okay to be scared

I am, on any given day of the week, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m pretty good at maintaining a glossy exterior that only hints at this fact, but those that know me well are probably aware that I am anxious about everything and anything. Even for an ordinary person moving alone to a foreign country is a pretty stressful experience, but when you get anxiety attacks just thinking about something as seemingly simple as making dinner, it seems completely incomprehensible to throw yourself into another world.

I was worried about not making friends, not understanding the language, not being able to keep up with the workload, getting hopelessly lost somehow in the outskirts of Berlin and being attacked by wild boars…but regardless of how crazy it seemed, I got on the plane and I came and everything went better than expected. What’s more is the fact I discovered that pretty much everyone was more or less as terrified as me about spending a year away from wherever they called home, which was comforting. Some of the best friendships are formed out of mutual fear. Yes, it’s scary, and once you admit that, it’s easy to laugh about it, and a few months later when you’re drinking beer with your new friends in a bar, you’ll look back at those tentative first few days (or weeks) and wonder what on earth you were thinking.

3. British supermarkets are the best

I don’t have much to compare them to, and I’m sure Asda and Tesco pale in comparison to the likes of Walmart and Trader Joe’s, but until I make to America, I’m going to go ahead and say Britain has the best supermarkets in Europe. As an insomniac I really enjoy being able to mosey around Sainsbury’s at two in the morning, and the fact no supermarkets are open on Sundays here can be a pain in the backside if you’re as forgetful and unprepared as I am. Supermarkets in Germany also tend to be a very stressful affair, with far too much crammed inside far too little space, confusing layouts and usually a horrendous queuing experience in store once you battle through the aisles and get to the tills. Although I’m all for consumer choice and love the fresh food markets that Berlin is so fond of, I really have missed this shamelessly consumerist part of British life.

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German supermarket Edeka had this as their advertising campaign for quite a while this year. There is an accompanying rap video that I highly recommend.

4. England is pretty poor at partying…

In Berlin pre-drinks don’t start until 11pm at the earliest. If you’re at the club before 2am you look too keen. If you leave before 10am the next day, the night’s been a quiet one. This really puts Leeds nightlife into perspective, where the latest you’ll be getting home is around 5am after a cheeky post-club meal at one of Leeds’ fine takeaway establishments. Berliners and the thousands of people who have immigrated to the city know the night was made for more than sleeping, and as I’ve always been practically nocturnal, this has suited me perfectly. It’s no secret that the majority of clubs cater for the techno and house crowds, meaning if you want to sing along to the latest chart toppers you’ve probably come to the wrong place, but if you approach Berlin with an open mind you’ll probably have the time of your life and find a new love for something you never would have experienced at home.

(Not to say I don’t miss Wire and Hi-Fi. Because I do. A lot.)

Arty folk looking to party will turn anywhere into a club, from ex-office blocks and boats to old power plants and swimming pools, meaning when it comes to unique experiences on a night out, Berlin’s pretty hard to beat. There are a few drawbacks of course; you’ll rarely be looking at less than 10 euros for entry to a big club, and the door policies in the city are legendary for being exclusive, but if you don’t take it personally when you’re turned away (and pretty much everyone experiences a rejection at least once) and remember that in Berlin there’s always another party round the corner, these are only minor details.

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The view from Watergate’s terrace at 8am. not exactly what you’d get in England…

5. …And public transport

24 hour tubes on Friday and Saturday, regular and simple night buses the rest of the week, and students pay a termly fee for a pass that lets them use any public transport in all three Berlin zones. The Berlin transport system is a thing of beauty. Granted, living outside of London and only having visited on three occasions, I’m comparing it to the woefully underfunded bus and tram systems in the North, but the old German efficiency really does win out.

6. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

I may not have paved Paradise and put up a parking lot, but Joni Mitchell’s old line is still appropriate. Time away gives you the space to really appreciate everything you love about home. You find yourself missing the strangest things- hearing your siblings in the bedrooms either side of yours arguing about computer games, watching terrible Sunday night television with Mum, bumping into people you went to primary school with in the supermarket and the ensuing awkward small talk. I don’t need to express my feelings about missing British food again- it’s still a sensitive subject. Emptying a vacuum, changing a light bulb, putting a new screw in the wall: all tasks I never had to do in Leeds or Sheffield that I’ve become accustomed to living alone in Berlin. Somehow I think living alone will actually make it easier for people to live with me in the future, and living in a foreign country is definitely an adventure even in the most mundane of ways.

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I particularly miss dressing up our cat, Tilly. Tilly probably does not.

7. German university is pretty great

I haven’t actually sat an exam in over a year now, since the end of second year in Leeds. Every class I’ve taken here is assessed through a long essay (which ranges in length from 3000 to 7000 words depending on the tutor) and perhaps a presentation or a few response papers, which is great for those who suffer from chronic exam stress and has also given me some practice for the dreaded dissertation next year. Essay deadlines tend to come a month after the end of the semester (at the earliest) and there’s often a lot of support available from your tutor. The biggest difference has to be the style of teaching; I haven’t had any lectures here, only weekly hour and a half seminars, with class sizes ranging anywhere from five to fifty students depending on the popularity of the course. It’s great in that you can pretty much take any course that takes your fancy without worrying about class size limits, but at the same time, it does mean you could have a very packed seminar.

Classes are also open to students from all years, so you can take a Masters class as a BA student if the subject interests you, and if you don’t want to take the exam or write the final essay, often tutors will allow you to just receive a minimum number of credits for attendance and participation. Many tutors are keen on very active seminars where everyone contributes to discussion, and it feels a lot more like a conversation than a lesson. As for content, I’ve found the English and History departments at the Freie Universitat to generally teach more specialised classes on a specific theme or one author, which is perfect if you find a course that piques your interest, not so good for giving general overviews of a subject, but it’s been a perfect system for me. There’s a lot that the Germans do right that England could really learn from.

8. Living in a capital city can make you lazy

Berlin is one of the most vibrant, interesting and exciting cities in the world. This isn’t just opinion- it’s fact. There’s more history running through any given street than I’m capable of comprehending, everywhere you look there’s some gallery or museum crying out to be explored, and that’s without even mentioning the incredible food, insane nightlife, thriving theatre and opera, and multitude of other delights that it has to offer. But after the first few months you get used to the fact you live in a super cool metropolis, and often thing ‘Oh I can go there anytime’ in regards to just about any exciting cultural establishment. I’m guilty of this to the extent I now have a very long list of places to go in the next month before I live. Carpe Diem- Seize the Day. A year isn’t as long as it seems at the start.

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An example of some excellent German art

9. The right friends will make everything alright

I’m not good at showing my emotions. I’m quite a stoic Brit, unless you sit me in a film and then I will probably cry because I get overwhelmed at cinema (I cried watching The Monuments Men, and not because of the woeful historical inaccuracies). I joke about how unaffectionate I am because I find hugs difficult (but I’m warming to the idea). But time and time again on this blog I’ve mentioned the friends I’ve made in Berlin, and I have to mention it here because it’s such an important part of studying abroad. I can’t work out if it was sheer dumb luck or all the stars aligning, but the friends I’ve made in Berlin are people I would be happy to remain friends with until we’re all old and senile talking about our year in Berlin as if we changed the world by our sheer presence. I didn’t have many friends in first or second year at university, and was actually facing third year in Leeds not knowing a single person before I came to Germany.

But I got lucky. I met some of the most interesting, fun, caring, intelligent folk ever. People that know how much of a neurotic wreck I am and hang out with me anyway. I doubt this year would have been half as brilliant without them, and I’m looking forward to the next because I know even if we’re scattered around the country or the continent and aren’t knocking back drinks every night in the big city, these are people I refuse to let escape out of my life. Like a human Hotel California, you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

10. Rushmore was right

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For those that aren’t familiar with the Wes Anderson film Rushmore, it’s one of my favourite films ever and without wishing to sound incredibly cheesy, my year in Berlin has confirmed to me that one of its central quotations was incredibly accurate:

Herman Blume: What’s the secret, Max?
Max Fischer: The secret?
Herman Blume: Yeah, you seem to have it pretty figured out.
Max Fischer: The secret, I don’t know… I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then… do it for the rest of your life.

I’ve always wanted to write. Writing is the only thing I’ve ever consistently enjoyed, and as a result, it’s where all my aspirations have always been focused. Berlin is the kind of city where you feel you might be able to do the impossible, and for a girl from the middle of nowhere who grew up poor and struggles incredibly with procrastination, being optimistic about the future does not come naturally. I can only speak from personal experience, but my year abroad has confirmed to me that when you find out what it is you love to do, you should find a way to do that. When you love doing something, everything else has a way of falling into place. Or at the very least, it’s worth giving it a try.

Maybe everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other.

At twenty-one years old it feels strange to admit my woeful lack of romantic escapades. Politely putting it I’m a late bloomer, accurately termed I’m socially awkward and emotionally distant, not two qualities the male populace are falling over themselves to find in a girl. I imagine dating me would be like dating a chubby, less-fashionable Annie Hall crossed with Enid from Ghost World. Awkward, occasionally amusing, distrustful of humanity and a shameless product of years of exposure to popular culture. But since I never have dated, we can’t ask anyone. Whenever people ask why I’ve never had a boyfriend they’re probably well meaning (I imagine they mean ‘But you’re not ugly! But you’re nice! You’re not a complete sociopath!’), but it’s a really horrible question that there isn’t an answer to. What am I supposed to say- that my relationship with pizza is too serious for any man to come between us? That my impossible standards brought on by the first time I saw a Paul Rudd film mean I’m going to be single forever? There are probably a thousand reasons I have a more intense relationship with my cats than I do any actual human.

One might be my crippling lack of self-confidence with men, possibly brought on by having a really shitty Dad, possibly a result of being a fat kid who got called a lesbian just about every day by a group of boys in her first two years of high school. I don’t approach boys because I’m absolutely terrified of rejection. I’ve said countless times that I think flirting is a conspiracy that Cosmopolitan magazine started to make me feel even more socially inept. I have spent months pining after guys I have one conversation with because I can’t bear the thought of actually trying to initiate some form of further contact. On the few occasions that a boy has come up to me and started a conversation, my first instinct is to get embarrassed and run and hide and try to forget the whole thing. Of course, the fact that it isn’t charming young gents approaching me, it’s grabby pilled-up weirdoes, probably doesn’t help matters.

For someone with so little experience in the field, I am a hopeless romantic. I know deep down life can’t be like When Harry Met Sally, as wonderful as that would be. So many people say you don’t enter a relationship because you’re in love with someone, that it’s not like a Hollywood romcom, that it’s sort of secondary. If that is true it’s even harder for me to work out how the hell people get into a relationship in the first place. I’m not exaggerating when I say I just don’t understand how the process works. Even though I’m pretty sure I’m overthinking it, hearing the phrases ‘You’ll know when you know’ or ‘You’ll meet someone eventually’ does nothing to alleviate the sad reality of being alone and – not always, but often – lonely.

My year abroad has highlighted to me how little comprehension I have of the matter. I guess in Leeds I spent so much time either in my bedroom or at work I didn’t have much time to process how I felt about the subject of relationships, or maybe I just ignored it, because I’m really good at doing that too. But Berlin is the kind of place where you think anything might be possible, and whilst I’ve been here I have realised a few ambitions and generally feel a thousand times more positive about the future than I did this time last year. I should be grateful for an amazing year in which I’ve made friends who mean the world to me and experienced things I never would have back at home, and I truly am, but perhaps the naïve romantic who’s seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s too many times just thought moving to a foreign country would also mean meeting the love of my life. Or at least one of them. I think I’d even settle for a fling with a forgettable but ultimately well-meaning German boy.

Whatever happened to Kate Nash? She spoke to me on such a spiritual level…

It’s not easy for me to talk about my love life, or its non-existence, and when people ask me about it in person I get cagey and will have to try not to burst into tears. I’m incredibly conscious of the fact by my age most girls have some sort of romantic history. Writing these things down, venting about them on my garish green blog, is cathartic and a lot healthier than eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream and watching every episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

I suppose like all things, self-confidence requires practice, and if I can practice writing an objective review of a Nicolas Cage film until I’ve got it down to a fine art, it’s probably not beyond my grasp to try and put myself out there more. I don’t fear rejection in many other places. I’ve faced more ‘Thanks but no thanks’ from employers more times than I can count and I was only mildly embarrassed when I went bowling and asked for the gutters to be put up only for the manager to scowl and inform me “Those are only for kids” but there’s something about asking a boy out, admitting that you like them and that you hope they like you too, that is altogether more frightening to me.

But until they invent a cure for Bitchy Resting Face (BRF, a very real affliction affecting me and thousands of other young women) and I learn that starting conversations with facts about wildlife probably doesn’t impress other people as much as it impresses me, I can’t really see a light at the end of the terminal singledom tunnel.  Occasionally I’ll open up Tinder and half-heartedly swipe at the screen and feel my heart lift a little when there’s a match, but nothing comes of it. It’s like eating sherbet. You feel great for about five minutes then really flat and sorry for yourself.

For the time being I can live vicariously through Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal and try to think of other things. The holy trinity (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling) probably didn’t get where they are by worrying about being weird and single, and at least there’s the chance that my lack of romantic prowess could make for an amusing sitcom premise someday. 

waiting for the gift of sound and vision

I’ve been thinking about David Bowie a lot this week, which is undoubtedly since his face is everywhere you turn in Berlin at the moment due to the launch of the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition here in the city. I didn’t get a chance to catch it last year at the V&A in London and was rather miserable about that, so when I found out it was heading here I did everything I could to ensure I was there on opening day (sometimes being an unpaid media intern has its perks).

In the midst of immersing myself in a celebration of all things Bowie, I did however get to some deeper philosophical musing. I’ve loved David Bowie pretty much for as long as I can remember. I went as Aladdin Sane for Halloween when I was fifteen. Few songs mean as much to me as ‘Five Years’. My mum made sure I was raised on a plethora of good music, and I think Bowie might be the one I’m most grateful for. I associate such strong memories and emotions with his music, it’s really weird to think how much I invest in a person I’ve never met and am never likely to.

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I was an exceptionally cool teenager, clearly.

Bowie was about thirty years old when he moved to Berlin and subsequently created what is arguably his most famous album, Heroes. He saw Berlin as a chance to get clean of his drug addiction and immerse himself in Germany’s up and coming music scene. He shared an apartment with Iggy Pop in what was possibly the coolest flat share ever, and wrote music about the city that has moved people all around the world.

I share a flat with two cats and write blog posts about the city that don’t do anything except maybe feed my ego.  If I was going to be a musician things would probably turn out like that ‘Needs More Cowbell’ sketch from Saturday Night Live. I tried playing guitar for a month when I was fourteen and my tiny hands proved ill-suited to it. I’m not very good at singing either, but if you dangle a copy of SingStar in front of me suddenly I turn into Barbara Streisand.  The similarities between me and Bowie aren’t exactly compelling.

People have asked a lot why I moved to Berlin, and I’m not any closer to having an answer nine months later. Maybe it was because it seemed like nowhere else on Earth. Maybe it was because I desperately needed to get away from everything and everyone in England. Maybe because it seemed like a cheaper version of Paris and I naively thought my GCSE German would enable me to assimilate seamlessly into life on the continent. It’s entirely possible that it’s a combination of all these reasons and more. Whatever the reasoning, it’s not something that I can easily put into words.

The Berlin of today isn’t the famous Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Cabaret. It’s not even the Berlin of David Bowie. It’s a gentrified, hipster Mecca where every second person you meet is apparently a DJ and you can’t walk more than ten metres without seeing a bratwurst for sale. Technically small but with every nook and cranny home to some experimental art space or inexplicably well-preserved woodland, it’s one of the most chaotic, confusing places I’ve ever been, let alone lived. There’s no way that Sheffield or Leeds could even compete with somewhere like Berlin.

And I’m not being overly sentimental when I say I’ve had the best year of my life here, even if that might not be much of a victory considering how shitty the last two were. I moved out with the expectation that I would spend a year in solitude, consoled only by my cats, enjoying cultural outings solo and cooking lonely meals for one every evening. Perhaps I was being pessimistic, which is something I tend to excel at, but I do think I’ve also had remarkable luck in meeting the right people at the right time in the right place. And I think maybe that was true of Bowie too.

I never expected to call Berlin ‘my’ city. Berlin doesn’t belong to anyone, rather people belong to it, misfits and waifs and strays from around the world who come and go as they please, attracted by its perceived liberalism, comparative cheapness, and of course, the wealth of culture.  I think some of is a false economy. Berlin is liberal in some respects, positively old-fashioned in others, its ‘poor but sexy’ vibe has less of an emphasis on poor nowadays, and whilst culture is something that Berlin has in troves, sometimes you get the impression everyone is recycling rather than innovating.

David Bowie said of moving from Berlin to New York after three years, ‘I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away. Maybe I was getting better.’ Of course I know my days in the city are numbered, and there’s only eight weeks of them left. I’m anxious about leaving, anxious about finishing my degree, anxious about most things in life (but that’s nothing new). Yet I couldn’t live in this city forever where nothing feels quite real. I’m comfortable here, I love Berlin, but it’s not home, although I’m not entirely what that means anymore. This is a city that is intense beyond all belief, and nowhere calls into question your identity more.

But maybe I’m getting better.

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May-be This Time

(I’m finding it increasingly hard to come up with titles for this blog. I apologise for the terrible pun on an excellent Cabaret song this month, it really is the best I could do.)

The fact I only have two months left in Berlin before I head back to England is beginning to weigh on my mind. I honestly have no idea how I’ll get used to life either back in Leeds or at my family’s house (a small place between a village and town on the outskirts of Sheffield) as Berlin really does feel like home after spending half a year here. My German skills are still dubious at best, but I love everything about the city, from the efficient transport system and plethora of museums and galleries to the strange folk you only meet on the train platform at five in the morning and Germany’s frustrating bottle recycling system.

My Grandpa and Great Uncle visited for Easter which resulted in a lovely five days of dining out and finally getting around to some sight-seeing. At long last I ate some German ‘Apfel Strudel’ and a schnitzel, though I definitely preferred the former. We also dined at what is believed by many to be Berlin’s best burger joint- The Bird. With a sarcastic menu and décor that makes you feel like you’re dining in Brooklyn rather than Berlin, it’s a little more pricey than the likes of Burgermeister or Berlin Burger International (Berlin loves its burgers) it’s bloody brilliant. Also, their cheesecake is unforgettable. Equally important is the fact my Grandpa arrived with a suitcase containing such British staples as Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, Maltesers, and HP Sauce. My life has improved drastically since his visit.

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The 1st of May is celebrated in Germany as Labour Day, and whilst the date has and long and somewhat dark history due to its past appropriation by the Nazi Party, nowadays there is an annual street party in Kreuzberg where seemingly everyone in the city descends on Gorlitzer Park with beverages and food for a day of music, dancing, and general fun. There are still some demonstrations, but in recent years the mood has become decidedly less political, possibly due to the violent clashes between police and demonstrators in previous years. The rain held off until the late afternoon and it was by far one of the most fun days I’ve had in the city so far- next up is June’s annual carnival, which I am even more excited for largely due to my love for an excuse to dress up.

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Between dissertation proposals and trying to figure out module choices for final year back in Leeds, I’ve also made headway on my long list of ‘Things to See in Berlin’, starting with the Technology Museum (not as exciting as it sounds, which is some feat) and the Ai Weiwei exhibition currently running in Berlin, which was great. I think one of things I’m going to miss most about Berlin is the sheer volume of things to do and see less than half an hour from my front door. Whilst Yorkshire has its fair share of excitement, what my year abroad has really taught me is that I’m never going to be happy living anywhere but a big city.

Thus concludes another month and what I think is probably the most dull of my blogs so far. Hopefully next month will be more exciting- with the promise of carnival, karaoke, swimming on a barge and hopefully forgetting how little time is left.

On British Food in Germany

This post is a little less personal than the last but no less important, as it is a subject close to my heart.

Why is it so hard to find proper vinegar in Berlin?!

I’m not talking that balsamic stuff that is only good for salads and dipping bread in. I don’t want your pickling vinegar, Germany! Isn’t it bad enough you try to pickle every vegetable in sight?  No, I mean the acidic, possibly ascorbic brown liquid that transforms the humble chip into a thing of beauty. That elevates the fish finger sandwich to godliness. That stings your nose and burns your throat. I’ve trawled the supermarkets for months, but to quote Bono, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

But it’s not just vinegar. I’ve compiled a list of my most-missed foods from home that have had me hankering for the likes of Asda and Tesco.

HP Sauce

On the subject of condiments, why is it I’m able to find five different types of Heinz’s tomato ketchup, but no HP Sauce? The only place I have seen it was KaDeWe (the Berlin equivalent of Harrods) and whilst I love HP Sauce, there is no way I can justify a fiver on 200 millilitres. I’ve seen the other HP sauces, the ones we don’t talk about- the ‘BBQ’ and ‘Fruity’ bastard cousins, so it’s not a case of Germany not realising what they’re missing out on. I’m beginning to suspect they’re mocking me.

Cider

For a country that loves its alcohol, Germany really doesn’t do cider. It’s considered a miracle when you find a place that serves it, which means you’ll inevitably be paying four euros for the pleasure. It was 5.50 for a pint of Magners in one restaurant I went to. The other rare chances for appley goodness come in the form of the French cidre that is sometimes on offer (which is an entirely different beast to good ol’ cider) or ‘OBC’ which is Original Berliner Cider- not unpleasant stuff, but it’s expensive. And it’s no Rekordlig.

Cheddar Cheese

Want cheddar cheese? Forget about it. Unless you’re willing to pay four euros for 200 grams of Cathedral City…which I have done a number of times, leading me to feel like some sort of cheddar junkie who will pay any price to get a fix.

Potato Waffles

I tried to eat some McCain’s Potato Croquettes here. They were absolutely foul. I miss the potato waffle more than I ever thought possible. It’s true what Joni Mitchell said. You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.

Quorn

As a vegetarian of seven years (before my reversion back to omnivore at the beginning of 2014) I love quorn. I think quorn is a miraculous invention. Germany, on the other hand…doesn’t really ‘get’ vegetarian food. There are sometimes sad looking faux-sausages or meatballs in the fridges of supermarkets, but they’re never as appetizing as Quorn. Or Linda McCartney’s frozen foods for that matter. Instead everyone eats tofu, which when prepared right is great, but when it goes wrong (which happens a lot) it’s like eating a damp sponge.

Cadbury’s Creme Eggs

Enough said. It’s not Easter without them.

 

I know, I know- you move to a foreign country, you have to embrace its unique culture and charm, including the cuisine. The problem is, and I hate to admit it…German food isn’t all that appealing. It’s hard to find it in Berlin for a start, and even when you go to a German restaurant, the only things they can really offer you are unappetizing-looking sausages or slabs of breaded meat the size of your face (the famous schnitzel) with fried potatoes of some sort and sauerkraut on the side. So half-hearted their attempts are at keeping German cuisine alive, I had baked camembert in one restaurant. To be fair, it was delicious. But that’s not the point. Of course I can’t tar all of Germany with the same brush and I’m sure in other regions there are delicious delicacies to be sampled, but in Berlin it’s just not happening. Luckily the wealth of other cuisines available mean it’s hard to really dwell on the subject; it’s almost impossible to go hungry in Berlin.

Fear and Loathing in West Berlin

“I think I’m getting the fear.”

Here’s the thing:

I’m twenty-one years old, of relatively sound mind (most days), not entirely beyond reproach, though I’ve made my fair share of stupid decisions. I’m not exactly warm and fuzzy. I’ve been told I make people nervous. Until recently I didn’t really ‘do’ hugs and honestly I still don’t really know how they work. I’m flighty, I’m insecure, painfully shy in the presence of strangers, emotionally distant, neurotic beyond it being comparable to any charming Woody Allen heroine. I am an expert on animal facts but human nature evades me. I’m constantly afraid of being a burden or annoying people to the extent I’m terrified of instigating plans out of fear of rejection. I’ve been on one date in my entire life and it ended with the boy sending me an angry Facebook tyrade because he thought I was rude. I’ve never had a boyfriend, period. Not even in that cutesy way little kids have them. I was a chubby schoolgirl with crooked teeth, go figure. I never know how to talk to people so I keep quiet or I’m far too loud and everyone thinks I’m either a bitch or I’m a complete psychopath. People have said “pull yourself together” more times than I can count but I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, like it’s so easy to just change twenty-one years of self-inflicted loathing in one Eat Pray Love moment.

And then I’m lazy. I procrastinate. I turn down invitations because I’m afraid people will regret inviting me and then they stop inviting me because I turn them down and I feel upset I’ve not been invited and then I’m alone and think that I’m better off but then I’m lonely and it’s all my fault. People stop telling me things because I don’t open up to them (unless it’s 3am and I’ve had a little too much to drink and I’m crying on a barstool clutching a wilting cigarette in shaking hands). I fall in love daily with boys who show me the slightest kindness which might be a result of deep-seated daddy issues or might just be who I am. Not that it matters because I never put my heart on the line anyway because I’m scared of rejection, embarrassment, of losing friends, of the remote possibility they might like me too. Because why would they? Why would anyone? And years down the line when they have a girlfriend and I’m sat in a foreign country alone inevitably staring at my computer screen I’ll think about the relationship we never had. Even if there was slightest interest I wouldn’t know because I’m suspicious of the slightest kindness and I’m strongly of the opinion that flirting is a secret language I was never taught to understand or speak.

I worry about what to say every moment of every day until it gets to the stage when I’m lying awake at three in the morning replaying conversations with everything I should have said instead. I fill silence with inane questions, inane babble, fishing up facts from the back of my mind that no one really wants to hear, so there’s polite smiles, awkward laughter, awkward silences. I’m worried all those jokes about me being a crazy cat lady might actually be true and I don’t want to be a joke. I’ve always been a joke. I’m worried no matter what I do I won’t be happy.I’m nostalgic for a past life I never had. I hate that I never know how to react when someone is upset, especially someone I care about,  I hate that I have deep-seated trust issues, I hate that I’m paranoid, I hate that I’m afraid to say what I think. I don’t know why my friends want to be my friends and it disconcerts me because I like knowing things. I’m suspicious of the slightest nicety. I take things and people for granted. I live inside my head. I don’t know a thing about loss which only serves to make me terrified to experience it because I feel like the world will fall away and I’ll fall away with it, just collapse into nothingness.

I am, at best, damaged goods, a silly girl with a blog and more words than she knows what do to with, uncomfortable in her own skin, fully aware of how insignificant she is in the grand scheme of things but hopelessly human and bound to spill her guts as self-indulgent as it seems because writing is cathartic and writing is the only way out. I don’t have all the answers, in fact I don’t think I have any of them at all. And on a daily basis I tell myself it’s okay at twenty-one to be a mess, it’s okay to eat cheesecake for breakfast, to drink before noon, to think that everything can be solved with a shopping spree, to chain smoke and pretend your problems don’t exist. It’s not mature. I’m not mature. I sleep next to a stuffed toy of Mike from Monsters Inc. I don’t know a whole lot about maturity.

But this is me.

And this is a testament to every damn stupid little idiosyncrasy that makes me who I am, whether I like it or not.

March Madness

I’m writing this at my desk, staring at storm clouds and rain dripping down the window pane, with my portable heater on maximum. This serves me right for being smug about Berlin’s lack of winter and the glorious sunshine we’ve had the past few weeks. I also suspect it’s because I bought a bike last week and the powers that be don’t want to release me onto the cycle paths and roads of Berlin as I am bound to be a public menace. To be fair, on my first day of riding the bike, I fell off four times resulting in a severely bruised ego and moderately bruised knees. I feel this has something to do with the fact it’s a men’s bike and as such the saddle is a bit high for little old me, meaning riding the bike provides a Penny Farthing style experience. Many old German men have stopped to laugh at me as I peddle furiously past them on the street. Maybe the rain is a blessing in disguise.

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Me, on a bike, unusually vertical.

In other news, two of my friends from back home came to visit, making March already one of the best months I’ve had in Berlin. During their stay we managed to cram in a lot of sightseeing which for me combines exploring Berlin’s cultural history with pointing out every place I’ve ever been to eat. Food was a major part of their trip, but that’s never a bad thing. We wandered aimlessly around Tiergarten, took a tour up the Reichstag (German’s very impressive parliamentary building) and in more exciting news, ate a pizza that was a meter across, had religious experiences over superb pasta, and I surprised myself with how much I actually know about the city.

I also got to use my rubbish German quite a lot. The rule of thumb in Berlin tends to be as long as you made an effort, it’s okay. Whilst most people in the city do speak English and will switch to speaking it the second they clock the look of fear on your panicky foreigner face, there actually are marks for trying. Germans are far friendlier when you at least attempt to convey your message in garbled Deutsch rather than giving in straight away and reverting to English.

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Me, casually ruining a photo of the Reichstag

With less than a week to go until April there is also not much time left before the summer semester starts. After writing a 7500 word essay for one of my classes I am in no mood to complete the other three I still have to write, and find myself missing the Brotherton and Eddy B, which for all their faults are so, so much less confusing than the libraries at university here. You have to lock your bag and coat away before you enter, a lot of the books can’t be checked out, and any sort of database where you can search for what you need appears to be a completely alien concept. Thank God for JStor.

And finally- because I revel in making my life needlessly complicated- I’ve started an internship here in Berlin to do alongside studying. It combines my love of film and writing about film with the glamour of unpaid work and being thrown headfirst into the German hipster scene, so I’m a happy, if not overworked and stressed, bunny. It is however nice to be back in some semblance of a routine and be filling my days with more productive tasks than watching Eastbound & Down obsessively or binge eating Haribo Smurfs. I don’t think either of those count as transferrable skills.

Top Eats in Berlin

  • The California Breakfast Slam (CabSlam, U-Bahn Rathaus Neukolln)

One of the things I’ve learnt about myself during my year of living dangerously is that I love brunch. I love pancakes, I love waffles, I love eggs, and I love eating breakfast food at lunch time. Berlin is big on lazy weekends spent eating a late breakfast and strolling idley around the city, and it’s a part of the lifestyle I’ve wasted no time getting used to. CabSlam is a bit of an American import, at the name may suggest. Originally a pop-up brunch spot they have now put down permanent roots and are working on expanding their weekend breakfast menu into a seven day breakfast, lunch and dinner extravaganza. The portions are huge and the food is amazing, but what’s more is that the staff are some of the loveliest I’ve ever met.

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  • Shisho Burger (U-Bahn Rosenthaler Platz)

Up until January I was a herbivore of six years, and finding good vegetarian fair in Leeds and Sheffield was always pretty difficult. Luckily Berlin is way ahead of the game, and the best vegetarian burger I’ve had was in Shisho Burger, a Japanese joint in Mitte. There’s only one veggie option on the menu, but it’s a divine creation with perfectly prepared tofu and grilled eggplant. Teamed with fresh edemame and amazing homecooked fries, Shisho is so far more favourite burger spot in Berlin. But as I’m yet to eat my first beef burger, maybe I’ll report back on my new findings in a few months’ time…

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  • Musashi (U-Bahn Schonleinstr)

I discovered in my second year of university that I really like sushi, but I’m a bit of a wimp and tend to limit myself to the vegetarian selections on offer. Mushashi has some of the best sushi going, and I have it on good authority the stuff with actual fish in is pretty delicious too. Most importantly for a penniless student, it’s super cheap. Ten euros will buy you a miniature feast. The Inside-Out Maki with Philadelphia and Avacado is heavenly and the vegetable tempura is a behemoth; I’ve had it twice and both times been defeated.

Sadly I don’t have any photos of their food…because I tend to just devour it as soon as it arrives. Oops.

  • Princess Cheesecake (S-Bahn Oranienburgerstr)

This is one of Berlin’s worst-kept secrets, but when the cheesecake’s this good, everyone should be shouting it from the rooftops. Tucked away between the art galleries that occupy so many of the buildings near Oranienburgerstrasse is this gorgeous little café, packed with some of the finest cheesecake in the city (and I’ve sampled a lot). The prices for takeaway and eat-in are the same, so if you have a little time you might like to get comfy and enjoy some people watching. If not, take a slice home to enjoy later in the comfort of your own home. Equally delicious. There are regularly new offerings to try based on the season, though my personal favourite is the New York Cheesecake with Dulce de Leche.

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  • Lemon Leaf (U-Bahn Samariterstr)

Another thing I’ve discovered about Berlin is how much they love fusion cuisine. Lemon Leaf is an ‘Indochine’ restaurant that serves some of the most amazing dishes I’ve had yet in Berlin as well as amazing cocktails. It’s not too pricey either; 15 euros will get you a starter, a main and a drink or two. But my favourite thing on the menu are the pumpkin fried dumplings. They. Are. Fantastic.

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