Saturday, 31 October 2015

Eis, Eis Baby

In the past couple of weeks, the idea of leaving my local neighbourhood has become less and less appealing. I don't know exactly why this is, although I mentioned to someone that it felt like riding public transport was becoming more of a chore - turned out I wasn't alone in that sentiment.
When I first came to Berlin, I simply couldn't believe that within 30 minutes I could be pretty much anywhere I wanted to be to eat awesome food, so I didn't mind making the journey. Now it just feels ridiculous and time-consuming, especially given that all trains seem to be delayed these days. Sometimes I get stressed out just by leaving the house and thinking about what would be the quickest route to take.

This week I've been suffering from a number of ailments, not least a sore and scratchy throat - a good excuse for ice cream. However, all the vegan-friendly ice cream spots in Schöneberg have shut up shop, leaving me with limited choices. Despite my reservations about going all the way up to the other side of the city for only one, quick purpose, yesterday I journeyed to Prenzlauer Berg; specifically, to Kontor Eismanufaktur, Berlin's first 100% vegan ice cream parlour.

Pictured is a waffle with delicious Reese's Pieces ice cream and some Schlagsahne (whipped cream - one of my favourite German words!).

As I've said before, the wonderful Brammibal's Donuts are also available here, and yes, you can even have them with ice cream. Follow their Facebook page to find out where they will be sold this Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Kontor Eismanufaktur will be offering up their delights until Christmas. Not sure when they reopen for the new summer season, though.

Unfortunately I'm still ill (which has caused me to miss three social engagements today, frustratingly!) but hoping to get a smooth start into November, my new job and my personal projects.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania

I did already write a post about the food in Vilnius, Lithuania, but my general report is only coming up only now. The summer has all but fallen out of reach so it's not so fresh in my mind. I also don't really enjoy blogging about travel anymore, so I'm not gonna lie: this was a bit of a chore to write. However, I still feel it would be a shame if I didn't have a summary of my trip up on here.

Was there any special reason I was going to Lithuania? No, not really. I hadn't been on a long-distance bus trip since 2013... and I hadn't been on any in Europe since 2012. I'm now not keen to go on another one again, but that's quite a different story that has little to do with the destination itself.

I had completely forgotten that Lithuania had joined the Euro zone at the start of this year, so that took away the hassle of getting travel money. However, since the bus would be traversing Poland, I did make sure I got some Polish złoty. I'm glad I did, too, as it turns out Poland is massive and I must have spent about 12 hours of the whole journey in that country.

Vilnius is a very aesthetically pleasing city. Even if you were just passing through it for a day, I think you would become pretty enamoured in it. Although it's clearly not as tourist-ridden as a bigger, famous more "accessible" city like Paris, there were definitely a lot of tourists.

The hostel I stayed at was called B&B&B&B&B, located inside a big neoclassical building - I think maybe a former gallery. Although huge, there was a lot of unused space. The bottom floor was a bar/restaurant and even a skate park, while the top floor was dorms.

I was reminded of how universal hostel experiences actually are - I mean this in both good and bad ways (let's not forget I worked in a hostel for five months).
The people you meet in such circumstances are not always ones you'd necessarily want to see again. These brief companionships tend to be pretty superficial, but at the time you might feel they mean more because you have the shared experience of being far from home.
On my first evening in Vilnius, a couple of hours after arriving, I went for dinner with a woman in my dorm. On the way there she told me some interesting things about the city - she did, of course, have the advantage of having been here for three days longer than me. But when we got to the restaurant, she was very rude to the staff. I felt embarrassed, giving them apologetic glances, and was relieved that she would be leaving at 4am the next day. I hoped this wasn't going to set the tone for all interpersonal interactions during the trip, as I'd already spent all my energy avoiding gross, aggressive men on the bus.

I hung out a lot at Crooked Nose & Coffee Stories, as it was on the street of the hostel. This is a great little place, bringing a real passion for coffee to the city ("the coffee scene",  so to speak). It could so easily have been pretentious and uninviting, but the people there were really friendly. Each week, they have five guest coffees from different places in the Americas. Some are more chocolatey, some are more bitter. I think I tried just about each one during my stay.

I observed everyday conventions in this country that I'd never seen before, like simply putting an upturned triangle to indicate the ladies' loos, a downturned triangle for the gents'. (In Poland, it's a triangle for the gents' and a circle for the ladies'.)
There was also the common practice of listing days of the week in Roman numerals - Monday being I, Sunday being VII.

I communicated in basic Russian with older Lithuanians, although I didn't feel good about forcing them to use the language of the oppressors. Still, it seemed to be the "second" language and there were a lot of signs in Russian, as well as quite a few Russian magazines available in shops.
On the other side of the coin, younger Lithuanians could speak some English, but again, I just didn't feel good about making them do so as most of them didn't look confident doing so.

Walking around the town, I soon discovered which part was "for show" and which part was where residents of Vilnius conducted their social and business lives. On Gedimino Prospektas, which appeared to be the main shopping mile, I even went to Marks & Spencer and bought some sweets that I miss very much from the UK.

I was actually on my way to visit the Museum of Genocide Victims, on the same street. Unfortunately, it was closed due to it being Assumption Day.
The museum commemorates victims tortured and murdered by the KGB, and before that, by the Nazis. This part of history gets erased so often; we tend to think that "it was all over" by 1945, but this just wasn't the case in all parts of Europe.

Even though it was closed, I could still admire the handmade murals outside about what Lithuania means to its individual citizens.
I was suddenly really empathetic with the fact that this ancient and rich culture, traceable from the first century AD, has been warped by the various invasions and acts of brutality.
In around 2007 - or perhaps even before but I didn't notice - a wave of Lithuanians and Latvians migrated to my hometown. It is not the most cosmopolitan place, but this was when I first became acutely aware of the concept of xenophobia; people started complaining about the "foreigners" and lazily referring to them as "Russians".
The interesting thing about these countries is that their residents get indignant about being called "Eastern European"; they would rather be part of Northern Europe, or simply be referred to as the Baltic States. Once you adopt that view, rather than preconceived stereotypes about Eastern Europe and Eastern Europeans (yes, all 120 million of them), everything begins to seem rather different.

I spent an afternoon at Trakai, a town just outside Vilnius. A minibus departed every hour from the bus station, taking me and five other people down the motorway into some countryside, before stopping at a small bus stop.
For some reason, I'd expected Trakai to be an off-the-beaten-track type of deal that only Lithuanians knew about - in fact, I'd say that it is even more touristy than its neighbour.
Trakai's main attraction is the castle, sitting on an island accessible by a footbridge. It dates from *goes to Wikipedia* 1409 and was inhabited by Gediminas, who founded the nation of Lithuania.
I decided not to pay the 6€ to go inside - if you have parents who had an English Heritage membership and you were dragged to castles every weekend as a kid, I guess you get a bit allergic to them.

Trakai town was small and walkable. There was no transport from the bus station to the castle, so I had to walk. On the way, I stopped by little coves as the whole town is surrounded by lakes. It was lovely.

The other "big" thing I did was ascend Vilnius' TV Tower, which is about 40 metres shorter than Berlin's. I travelled in a very stuffy trolleybus to get there. I got off at Karoliniškės on the 11 route and had to walk along a ring road to get to the actual tower - there were no directions. I had to climb over a (small) wall to get there as the entrance point wasn't entirely clear. You had to enter the tower's reception from underground, where you paid a fee, dropped your bags and were given a ticket to ascend the lift.

It was my first time in a revolving restaurant, which was fun. I didn't eat anything but just had fun admiring the views which, of course, resembled some of Berlin's eastern districts.

The part of the televizijos bokštas where people actually work

All that forest in the distance is Belarus!

I admired more concrete architecture from the Soviet era and the 1990s.

Finally, it was time to go home.

The journey back always seems to take longer, perhaps because on the way there you're full of excitement and anticipation, whereas the way back is a means to an end. Indeed, we did get held up in several Polish villages but I knew that the worst was behind me.
Once we crossed back in Germany via Frankfurt an der Oder (and I could once again use my phone as I pleased) I was overcome by a sense of relief. The journey back from ZOB (Berlin's main international bus station - if you ever get the choice, do not travel from here) while in dire need of a shower and toothbrush was pretty grim, but I managed to get home, freshen up and take a nap before going to a client's office. #likeaboss

Takeaways from this trip:

1. Avoid bus journeys exceeding eight hours if you possibly can.
2. Convince someone else to go somewhere with you if you do not know anyone at your destination.
3. Commit to learning Russian properly!

Friday, 16 October 2015

Writing group

If it's flattery you're looking for, don't join a writing group.

A few ladies and I have formed an "accidentally Commonwealth" writing group (together, we hail from the UK, Australia and New Zealand). We meet once a month and have had two meetings so far. This post is about our second meeting, which took place at the home of one of the members.

All in all, I feel safe in the group because I know these are people who have similar interests, goals and motivations when it comes to writing. Yet there's a definite sense of vulnerability, too; I know that sooner or later, parts of me that even I have trouble accepting are going to be exposed to the group via the medium of my writing.

I had very quickly written a piece clocking up at roughly 2,000 words about an ongoing experience that had unleashed my opinionated wrath. I sent it round on our home-grown submission system (replying all on email, with a document attached).
Honestly, I felt uneasy as I did so. I hated my piece. It's the first time I have really hated something I've written that I then let other people take a look at (academic essays don't count here). In fact, I was dreading the feedback.

That evening, before the feedback part began, everyone was treating me normally. Okay, so at least I didn't piss anyone off with my writing, I thought. We chatted over our potluck meal, featuring tasty dishes ranging from a sweet potato ratatouille to peanut butter triangles with salted chocolate. Then it was time to go over our pieces.

'I liked it,' started the first person, when it came to mine. She then went on to give her reservations about what I had written, while I listened diligently and made notes that I hoped would make sense when I later looked over them during the revision process. This question, though, is what really stood out to me:

'So I now know your situation. But what's the story?'

What I learnt at this month's session is that it's simply not enough to describe your truth. You have to put a twist on it, too, whether that means making it anecdotal, making aspects of the experience into stories themselves or focusing on two or three aspects of the experience rather than the collective thing.
Even if there is the pleasant side-effect of your own catharsis - that is, simply getting it all out on the page - that still doesn't mean much. People find throwing plates at a wall cathartic, or screaming. If your writing is hollow, you're just screaming. Maybe someone out there will relate to your experience because they went through something similar, but again: that's not enough. You may as well just get together and chat about your mutual experience over a beer. Relatability isn't enough because if you're writing about a topic that millions of people go through, what makes your take on it special?

The remarks on my piece were generally unanimous within the group. On this occasion, the point for me wasn't that I had hated my piece yet submitted it anyway, but that I had thrown it out into the air to be hung, drawn and quartered. (Alright, that did sound unnecessarily violent, since we formed this group out of goodwill.)
As the evening's focus shifted to other people's work, I moved on too: I enjoyed giving feedback, I loved hearing different things that had stood out to different people, I was intrigued to learn about the background or inspiration for each piece.

When I got home, though, I didn't want to look at my piece ever again. This was a couple of nights ago now and that feeling has thankfully dissipated (although I don't doubt that it is a totally normal and natural feeling). I do have other writing priorities at the moment, ones that I've already been toiling over for a while, and so I am going to forget it for the time being. Besides, the nature of that particular piece is such that its direction is going to become much clearer with the benefit of hindsight. Then I'll add, delete and rewrite parts, I'll let someone look over it again.

I'll make myself vulnerable again because I want to, because the essence of a writing group is tough love.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Lush essentials

After nearly six months, I've left my part-time job at Lush. While I'm a bit sad because it was a lot of fun and I got to know the best team ever, I am of course so excited about my new in-house editing role.

I thought I would mark the occasion by going into beauty blogger mode and naming five products I'll be returning to buy...

All the products here are self-preserving, and aside from the face mask (which contains honey), are all vegan. Links to the products lead to the UK site, as info will be in English.

Obvious note, just in case: although I was once employed by Lush, I'm not being paid to write this and everything here is my honest opinion!

This photo features Wojtek, who oversaw the making of this product.

Through working at Lush, I can say it's a common misconception that you need to keep all their face masks in the fridge. This is one of the two masks currently available in Germany that don't need to be chilled, and can be used up within three months rather than three weeks.

The smell of Magnaminty reminds me of a delicious tub of mint choc ice cream. It gives you a lovely tingly feeling while declogging the pores. As you rinse it off after the standard 10-15 minute soaking time, you also get a little bit of exfoliation in.

My skin is on the oily side and bows to my hormones, making Magnaminty the perfect go-to whenever things get tough.

I was initially sceptical of this thing, but it's now become my favourite moisturiser of all time. It's chock-full of vitamins and is very nourishing, so I feel great about putting it on my face. It also costs less than any of the Lush moisturisers that come in pots.

It's ideal for use at night, as its appearance is quite slick before it completely sets in. Grace is also recommended as the base to a face mask, as it opens up your pores, allowing the mask to cleanse and detox more deeply.

It did take me a while to warm up to this as a perfume, but now whenever I wear it, I could eat my whole arm. There's something just so delicious and sexy about it.

As Karma is one of the company's signature scents, you can buy it in many other formats. I'm overcome with nostalgia every time I sniff the Karma bubble bar as it was one of the things I bought on my first trip to Lush as a teen, at the now-closed store in Covent Garden, London!

Let's face it, part of my fondness for the Buffy body butter may lie in the name - at one point, the product copy contained wonderful puns relating to "slaying dead skin cells" and "Angel-soft skin". But really... I think skin exfoliators (and the feeling of having exfoliated skin) are underrated. Especially when they rub you up as well as Buffy does!

I like to wash with a shower gel first, then use Buffy in circular movements all over my body. It's also great for softening up the hairs on your legs before shaving, if that's your thing.

When I first took R&B away as a sample a while ago, I wasn't impressed at all and wondered why it was a bestseller - it just made my Hermione hair very greasy.

Turns out I hadn't been using it properly. Although R&B looks pricey from the outside, you actually need only very, very little, making it worth the investment. A quick swab of the custard-resembling, jasmine-scented stuff between my fingertips is enough, then I just massage it into my hair (everywhere below the tops of my ears, for an even look).

Friday, 2 October 2015

September photos

In September, I had a lot going on. To make up for my lack of a blog post, here are a few photos I took during the month (including a few from my Instagram).

Zitadelle Spandau, 16th-century fortress

Cute watering can, near Südstern

Flamingoes at the hotel bar where Fiona and I had a drink after the amazing Sufjan Stevens concert at Admiralspalast

I learnt a polite way to say "Don't let your dog shit here" in German.

Hamburger Bahnhof museum


fuckin' Karl-Marx-Allee

New reads from Curious Fox

Best food discovery this month: Brammibal's. They sell their wares (vegan doughnuts) at different fairs and cafés all over the city, usually on Sundays. So I diligently follow them on social media to find out where they'll be. And I go there.

Ach ja.