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.

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Ladies Who Brunch

Winter in Berlin arrived not with a bang but a whimper. From the balmy January temperatures of five degrees to minus twelve in the space of a week, finally my snow boots got an outing and I got used to resembling Bambi in his first tentative steps on the ice. Having fallen down all the steps at one S-Bahn station already (Thanks a lot, Hackesher Markt) I was taking no chances. Dressed like an Arctic explorer prepared for the harshest of winters, I was greeted on my first icy voyage to university by a sea of Germans dressed in stylish ankle boots and beautiful Fjallraven jackets. I looked like an idiot, albeit a very cosy one. Germany: 1, Hannah: 0.

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The view from my window…

However, my experiences of the Berlin winter thus far cannot detract from the utter revelation that is the German institution of brunch. Brunch isn’t just the meal you have to make a hangover seem less disgraceful; it’s a work of art. Admittedly, my favourite brunch spots in Berlin so far are respectively American and Australian, but I don’t think that takes away from the fact that brunch in Berlin is one of the greatest things a student can experience. Where else is it acceptable to order a beer with your meal at eleven in the morning? Cheery waitresses, prices that mean it’d be rude not to order seconds, and an overall ambience that invites the weak and weary, Berlin on a Sunday is made for eating.

2 (1) Brunch at the California Breakfast Slam

Aside from the chill of winter and warmth of brunch, my January has involved a haze of panic about impending final essay deadlines, a bewildered ponderence of what on earth I’m going to do with the eight weeks I have off university between first and second semester, and several moments of despair when I thought I’d lost one of my gloves. Luckily two of my Thursdays have been spent at the Gortlizer Bahnof ‘Street Food Thursday’, which is essentially a large market hall full of independent vendors selling artisan versions of global street cuisine. My only complaint is that the ‘Fish and Chips’ stall was actually a bread and fish stall. I did feel in some way England was been doing a disservice, but one ice cream sandwich and the best Philly cheesecake I’ve ever had later, and it seemed rude to argue about the way they do things in Berlin.

3 (1)5 Elephant’s sublime Philly Cheesecake

Club nights have turned into house parties, trading 10 Euro entrance fees for standing in the kitchen sipping German beer and trying to sound like a native rather than the foreigner everyone instinctively knows I am. It’s hard to not miss home in the midst of winter, and whilst absence makes the heart grow fonder, Skype lets you know what you’re missing. Even the English café I visited last week was a pale imitation of all that puts the ‘great’ in Great Britain, not least because they served generic brown sauce instead of the Holy Grail of HP.

With two weeks left of my first term abroad my paranoia about ‘not doing enough’ with my year abroad appears to have hit critical mass, and two internship applications, one awkward German phone interview and several existential crises later, I’ve settled for a ‘To-Do’ list that mainly involves an abundance of museum and gallery visits, checking out more German cinema, and learning to say something other than ‘Do you offer student discount?’ in the native language. Any plans for a modern day Grand Tour may be dashed by money woes, so the two months off between first and second semester will likely be spent in Berlin, watching Parks and Recreation obsessively, patiently waiting for the temperature outside to crawl back above zero.

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Planes, Trains and Catherine Wheels

December has passed by in a blur of mulled wine, Christmas lights and general festive merriment. Sitting down to write this post I was actually confronted with the thought ‘Where did the time go?’ which makes me feel like a nostalgic fifty-something reminiscing about her bygone youth. As always at the beginning of the month December seems to stretch on infinitely, and opening the first door on my advent calendar (because those things don’t come with an age limit despite what our parents have been trying to tell us) presented me with the feeling that there was still almost a month before I boarded my plane back to Merry Old England for the holidays.

I was wrong.

Between my entire family descending on Berlin to visit, presentation deadlines for classes and a sea of ‘goodbye drinks’ with those departing a bit earlier, there was barely time to breathe. By the time I was checking my bag at Schönefeld Airport on the 22nd, I couldn’t really remember how I’d got there. I’m now into my fifth month in Berlin, 622 miles from Sheffield (as the crow flies) and the Christmas holidays didn’t seem entirely real. Maybe it was the bizarreness of being back in my rural village outside of the city, where about the most exciting thing that happens is a tree falling on the main road causing a bit of a traffic inconvenience, after so long in a place where there’s always something to do, see, or accidentally stumble upon.

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Walter investigating the sweets from Herr Nilesson Gotliebb.

That being said, Christmas was great. I returned with gifts of Swedish pick n mix and German ginger bread, hugged my completely indifferent cats, beat the family at Cluedo, and had the usual festive row or two; not to mention experienced the utter joy at being able to open a fridge, eat what I want, and not worry about having to go to the supermarket. Come the 31st I was back at Manchester Airport though, bound for my first new year abroad. We decided to keep it a traditional affair; getting drunk at a friend’s house, dancing around the room to such hits as Jump On It and Get Down Tonight. New Year (or Sylvester, as is the German name) is the rarest of nights where everyone on the street wants to be your best friend and walking down the street is like taking part in a war film, with people setting off fireworks in the middle of the road. We were subject to a great firework display from the balcony, as five people decided to let off an impressive set of rockets of every size and colour on the pavement opposite (I get the impression the Germans don’t have an equivalent to the Firework Code.)

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Sparklers on New Year’s Eve

There’s about five weeks left in my first semester at Freie Universität, then comes our rather oddly timed five week break before the summer term. Student loan permitting I’ll get a chance to see more of Germany and more ambitiously, Europe. I’ve got my eye on Dresden, Munich and Hamburg, as well as Copenhagen, Prague and Budapest. If I can get through the German winter, that is; so far we’ve only seen a light dusting of snow and a bit of rain, but that doesn’t mean I’m not slightly concerned. In a pre-emptive strike I lugged my electric blanket back in my suitcase which I think might be the wisest decision I’ve made in a long time. Perhaps in fact since deciding to come to Berlin in the first place.

Without sounding too eager (since Berlin is the height of edgy and cool) if the last four months in Deutschland have been anything to go by, 2014 should be ein ziemlich gutes Jahr.

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A very attractive NYE photo

The Fairest of the Seasons

Some things remain comfortingly consistent on the continent: the presence of pumpkin spice lattes in Starbucks the second leaves start falling off trees, the pointless academic bureaucracy whilst trying to complete the seemingly simple task of enrolling for modules at university, and the fact it is indeed possible to purchase the Cadbury’s chocolate bar that comes with generic smarties, jelly beans and popping candy, albeit rebranded as Milka and available in bars twice the size. Autumn is upon us, and the semester has at last begun.

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Home for the next academic year!

Two weeks into classes I’m discovering that German academics seem far more laid back than their British counterparts. There’s no real requirement to buy texts, much less any specific edition, and almost all of my secondary reading is available on Blackboard saving students hunting through journals every night just to find one article. That being said, Blackboard is a minefield of frustration worthy of rivalling Leeds’ module enrolment.

Whilst the reading for an English and History student (or, American Studies and Englisch Philologie whilst I’m here) is comparable if not more to Leeds, assessment is based entirely on class participation, presentations, and the completion of a final essay ranging anywhere from 3000 to 7000 words. There doesn’t seem to be much method in the way this is decided; I take a BA class worth 5 ECTS credits (a must for ERASMUS students) for which I have to write a 7000 word paper, and an MA class worth 8 which I only have to write 4000 for. Still, I can’t complain, since I do have until March to actually write them. Seminar sizes are often far bigger than Leeds, with anywhere from fifteen to forty being regarded as absolutely normal. Having said that, last week sixty eager students turned up to my ‘Representations of Britishness’ class and I thought the tutor was about to have an anxiety attack when he walked into the room. After five months away from academia, it’s a struggle to turn my brain back into critical analysis mode, but so far, so gut.

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And actual home…

Still the subject matter is proving interesting. My classes include ‘The Dark Side of the Screen: Portrayals of Dracula and Frankenstein in Film’ and ‘Cultural Narratives of the 1980s’ whilst friends of mine are studying ‘The Spy Novels of Joseph Conrad’ and ‘What Was the Beat Generation?’ The scope is far narrower, which is great if you find a class centred on a topic you’re particularly interested in, and provides a refreshing change to the catch-all studies of first and second year in Leeds.

Highlights of the past month include a sterling game of 3D UV Mini-Golf (which we had to book a week in advance due to demand), hanging around a technically illegal cellar bar, and discovering a fantastic sushi place ten minutes’ walk from my front door. I’m still experiencing a love/hate relationship with Berlin’s pounding techno and house music, but the fact clubs stay open pretty much all weekend is a novelty. Last Friday night out finished at 9am Saturday and culminated in much-needed Eggs Florentine and fresh orange juice at an Australian breakfast joint. Much more civilised than the standard post-club falafel; not to say that hasn’t happened more times than I’m proud to admit…

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The very definition of crazy golf

I’m also -in efforts to improve my German- now working in the John F. Kennedy Institute’s ‘Cafeté’ for two hours a week, which consists of making coffee, checking no one’s stealing the float- it’s an honour based payment system- and providing the café’s playlist. So far every customer has spoken to me in perfect English, leading me to suspect my nationality is so visible I might as well be wearing a Pearly Queen’s getup whilst I’m wandering around campus. Nevertheless I’m holding out hope I can assimilate myself and by the end of the year convince everyone I’m a native with impeccable German skills, and not, to quote Sting, an illegal alien.

The weather is comparable to England in October, a mixture of mist, rain, cold and occasional sunshine peeking through the clouds, though I did take the plunge and buy my snow boots and winter coat this week. The looming threat of a German winter is something that’s always at the back of my mind, though the temptation every morning to stay in bed huddled with my kittens (Walter and Jesse, two more strangers in a foreign land) and watching Futurama on Netflix is already present. Yet living in a foreign country has made me entirely more productive than I was at home. Perhaps it’s the sense I get that I’m always missing out on something when I’m staying in; after all Berlin waits for no man. Or woman. I’ve discovered that enough times at the pedestrian crossings here to attest to its accuracy.

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Best post-club meal ever

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome…

Sunday marked the end of my first month in Berlin. Whenever anyone from England asks how long I’ve been in the city and I reply ‘Oh, a month or so’ they seem amazed- the response is always the same. ‘You must know the city really well by now!’ Of course by British standards, four weeks is long enough to get to know a city. Long enough to scope out the clubs and bars, find decent restaurants, replenish your wardrobe. But Berlin? A month doesn’t even come close. Increasingly I get the feeling this achingly cool metropolis is somewhere you could live your whole life and never quite figure out, but that doesn’t seem to matter. You don’t have to know Berlin like the back of your hand to live there. There’s a lot I’m yet to learn about Berlin, but from where I’m standing, it’s easy to see why misfit pilgrims have flocked here in droves for decades, from Isherwood and Auden to Bowie and the Ramones.

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Mauerpark in Summer

Dive bars based around group games of ping pong, open air swimming pools on converted barges, karaoke in front of crowds of hundreds in a park. No one bats an eyelid in Berlin. Whoever said the Germans don’t have a sense of humour? There’s something new opening up every week; galleries in squats, theme restaurants. Back to basics, good beer and good food are not only readily available but cheap, and whilst the only Topshop in the city is overpriced and tiny, it’s hard to miss the British high street when you’re surrounded by so many affordable independent designers in one of the world’s fashion capitals.

On to the legendary night life, based in disused factories and smoky basements covered top to bottom in graffiti. The clubs are shrouded in secrecy, with towering Eastern European bouncers who take one look and you and give you a nod or a shake of their head, sealing your fate without so much as a second glance. Come in a group of more than three and there’s little chance you’ll make it as far as bag check. Yet despite the rigmarole of actually getting into a club, the environment inside seems so different from the sweaty sardine cans I’m familiar with. Less people means more room to dance away to the pounding house and techno Berlin favours. Alcohol etiquette is very different; particularly to say drinking on the streets is an acceptable social pastime. You don’t see droves of people staggering out of clubs drunk, men picking fights in the streets and girls walking barefoot cradling their heels in their arms (heels in clubs altogether seems to be a very rare sight). When Berliners party, they party hard, but they do it with a certain effortlessness that shows just how much we still have to learn.

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Enjoying Berlin’s classic Photoautomat

Do I miss Leeds? I miss my friends, all currently lamenting dissertation deadlines whilst I sip weissbier and try to not look smug over Skype. I miss the Hyde Park Picture House and I miss M&S; buying tights in a foreign country is an ordeal I was never prepared for by my ‘Get Ready to Go’ guide. But I wouldn’t trade Berlin for the world. I’ve met fantastic people from all over the world, bonded over kebab shops and photo charlottenbergbooths, and done more in four weeks than I did all of second year. University doesn’t even begin for another month, though my intensive language course has taught me many things, perhaps the most useful being ‘Ich verstehe das nicht. Kannst du wiederholen?’ (I do not understand. Can you repeat?)

Berlin is surreal, slightly unhinged, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but I’m here, and I’m happy to say I’m loving every bloody minute of it.

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S-Bahn in Charlottenburg