Saturday, 30 December 2017

My Year in Books: 2017

Here are the books I read this year, some of them accompanied by my notes or reviews on Goodreads (linked). My overall top 5 (on the list in blue):

1. Zoe Whittall - Bottle Rocket Hearts (re-read) (4/5)
2. Carson McCullers - The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (2/5)
3. Lorraine Carpenter - The Dears: Lost in the Plot (4/5)
4. Jessa Crispin - The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (4/5)
5. Véronique Grenier - Hiroshimoi (3/5)
6. Lisa McInerney - The Glorious Heresies (3/5)
7. Sabahattin Ali - Madonna in a Fur Coat (4/5)
8. Leopoldine Core - When Watched: Stories (4/5)
9. Vickie Gendreau - Testament (3/5)
10. Rasha Abbas - Die Erfindung der deutschen Grammatik (2/5)
11. Ottessa Moshfegh - Eileen (4/5)
12. Elaine N. Aron - The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You (2/5)
13. Nikesh Shukla - The Good Immigrant (4/5)
14. Édouard Louis - En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (4/5)
15. Sophia Amoruso - #GIRLBOSS (3/5)
16. Elliott Holt - You Are One of Them (4/5)
17. Chloe Aridjis - Book of Clouds (2/5)
18. Ruby Tandoh & Leah Pritchard - Do What You Want (4/5)
19. Lauren Sapala - The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World's Rarest Type (5/5)
20. Pajtim Statovci - My Cat Yugoslavia (5/5)
21. Fleur Jaeggy - Die seligen Jahre der Züchtigung (4/5)
22. Anita Brookner - Latecomers (4/5)
23. Claudia Larochelle - Je veux une maison faite de sorties de secours: Réflexions sur la vie et l'œuvre de Nelly Arcan (4/5)
24. John Darnielle - Universal Harvester (2/5)
25. Otegha Uwagba - Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women (3/5)
26. Virginie Despentes - Apocalypse bébé (4/5)
27. Young-Ha Kim - I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (2/5)
28. Anna Stothard - The Museum of Cathy (3/5)
29. Fatma Aydemir - Ellbogen (4/5)
30. Stéphanie Neveu & Laurent Turcot - Vivre et survive à Montréal au 21è siècle (3/5)
31. Melissa Broder - So Sad Today: Personal Essays (2/5)
32. Ali Eskandarian - Golden Years (3/5)
33. Briohny Doyle - Adult Fantasy: Searching for True Maturity in an Age of Mortgages, Marriages, and Other Adult Milestones (4/5)
34. J.D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye (re-read) (4/5)
35. Fiona Mozley - Elmet (4/5)
36. Roxane Gay - Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (5/5)
37. Susan Sontag - Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (4/5)
38. Meg Cabot - The Boy is Back (2/5)
39. Marie Luise Lehner - Fliegenpilze aus Kork (3/5)
40. Doree Shafrir - Startup (4/5)
41. Kate Tempest - Hold Your Own (3/5)
42. Ali Smith - Autumn (3/5)

This was the year I allowed myself to put books down. There were ones that I didn't particularly like but that I still kept at because they were short, or because they were so bad I couldn't tear myself away. Those are the ones with low ratings that still made it into this list. However, the ones that were just plain dull, or that I didn't have the energy to carry on with, were another story (hehe), and I put them down pretty quickly.

Example: towards the end of the year there were a couple of books in German that I started, that I liked the premise of, but forcing myself to continue reading them would have been an act of self-flagellation that would have only weakened my will to read anything in German ever again.
To be clear, these weren't tomes of Sturm und Drang, but modern literature and also factual-yet-informal books. I'm speaking German for 6+ hours a day now; as a result, it can be hard to admit that reading in it is sometimes not actually particularly conducive to relaxation and pleasure. And as a translator, regular exposure to English prose is crucial, otherwise you end up producing Denglisch sludge.

I decided not to do a Goodreads challenge in 2017, and in fact, I ended up reading just one book fewer than in 2016. I've been thinking a little bit about how I actually find out about new reads, and it goes something like this:
Passively - Twitter (I follow and am exposed to a lot of authors and publishing people.)
Semi-passively - Goodreads (I see what friends are reading, and for most books there is an if-you-liked-this feature.)
Actively - Lithub, Hazlitt (It's rare I'm really searching for something new, as my to-read list is already miles long. But if I just want to hit that literary spot, I go onto one of these sites, where I'm sure to find out about interesting authors who are new to me.)

All in all, this is some good advice: 'Don’t read anything you don’t want to read. Stop trying to impress the imaginary literary masses with your reading lists. There isn’t time.'

Saturday, 25 November 2017

When German Genders Screw You Over

You spend time learning the German genders, whether your preferred method is doing grammar drills or practising out in the wild. You get to a pretty good place with the endings, the cases, all that jazz. You've stopped stumbling so much and that fills you with confidence.
And then something comes up and flips the table over, erasing all your hard work.

Sometimes the grammatical genders totally contradict what you have learnt.

In a way, you probably already know to be wary. You've most likely noticed that the idea that all English loan words are das is a falsehood. There's no hard and fast rule, but often, you can think of what the "true" German word would be and then apply that gender to the loan word. (Example: die Party, because die Feier.)

So, to start off easy, here's a fun example of when genders aren't what they seem.
Balzac Coffee, a German café chain, are doing a seasonal macadamia latte. It's an absolute must: ein absolutes Muss!

Wait... that's not actually an "M" there, though. It's an "N", which means the word is in fact Nuss, the German word for nut. Nice pun.
But... it still looks weird because it's die Nuss, so it should be "eine absolute Nuss" instead. But yeah, it's a play on das Muss, so we disregard grammatical constructs.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. (Or the cream atop the macadamia latte.)

It becomes much more unpredictable when proper nouns and titles are involved. That's when things get almost existential.
In English, it's plain odd to refer to somebody as "the Sophie". I remember being weirded out the first few times I heard people say things like "die Sophie mag keinen Reis", or "kannst du das bitte der Sophie geben?". 
This is usually within a familiar context. Yet mentally keeping stock of German gender is a good habit for a learner to develop, because in the following examples, you really have to think about what something actually is, in spite of what seems to be logical (or simple).

Please forgive this sentence and instead consider the grammatical question it throws at us:

"Ich habe es in der Bild gelesen."

Wait, what? Surely it should be im Bild, since it's das Bild?
Well, no. If you think about it it this way, it makes more sense:

"Ich habe es in der Bild-Zeitung gelesen."

Die Zeitung is a feminine noun (die becomes der in the dative) and it gets omitted here because it's assumed that if you're talking in German -- and also, context -- you'll know that we're talking about the publication Bild, i.e. a proper noun. Not Bild as in an image.

"Ich war im Karstadt shoppen."

Now, if we didn't already know that Karstadt is a department store in Germany, we might assume that this sentence should read in der Karstadt, because die Stadt. But since the various words for "store" or "shop" in German are either das or der, we are going to stick to im Karstadt. And we are, after all, talking about a store, not an actual Stadt (city).
I guess there is also the option of just saying "in Karstadt" without an article, but now that I've heard so many native speakers use one when referring to establishments like this, it sounds flimsy without.

To round things off: this is what happened when I tried to ask my German boyfriend what the gender of Österreicher would be if you're talking about an Austrian restaurant, not an Austrian man:

I pushed it and he said he didn't know, maintaining that it would just be "Wir gehen zum Österreicher". This doesn't bring us any closer to knowing whether it's das or der, though. I mean, it could literally be either.
The case for das: it's das Restaurant.
The case for der: it's der Österreicher when you're referring to a person, so maybe it just transfers onto here as well?

I guess that until I find a definitive answer, I will just find ways to avoid saying it. Sort of like when I mumble a mixture of der and das when I say the word Kabel, because I can never remember that one.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mount Eerie

Last night, I finally saw Phil Elverum play live. I have been listening to his music since I was 18. I firstly discovered The Microphones' massive-yet-cosy The Glow Pt. 2, which led me to his more extensive catalogue as Mount Eerie. I'd always dreamed of seeing him in Europe, but had never imagined it would be in circumstances like this.

In July 2016, Phil's wife, Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer aged 35 -- leaving behind Phil and their infant daughter. I happen to own one of her books, so when I realised they were married, I felt doubly sad: for the loss of her, and for the unfathomably unfair loss that a musician dear to me would now have to shoulder.

Phil released the album A Crow Looked At Me earlier this year. It wasn't that I was refusing to listen to it; it was more that I didn't dare go there. I already couldn't listen to most of Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens' last LP that deals with grief of his mother, without flinching -- and there are songs on there that I have to skip altogether. Death is a topic that I keep at arm's length, made worse by the fact that intellectually, there is no point in doing that.

But when I found out Mount Eerie was playing in Berlin, at silent green, no less, there was no question about it. Of course I was going to go.

Courtesy of Linnea Nugent

Phil opened with 'Real Death', and I was weeping straightaway -- specifically at the part about Geneviève having secretly ordered a gift for their daughter when she would eventually start school. 'Ravens' was also incredibly hard to listen to. The music was so understated, so matter-of-fact. Yet it crushed me.

A common theme in the other songs on A Crow Looked At Me is the particular ways in which mundanities, such as taking out the trash, remind him of his wife. In one of them, he confesses that the "conceptual emptiness" he indulged in his younger years is nothing in comparison to this. There is no theorising about what happens after death. This is all very raw, brusque, bare. While he sings 'I love you', he also sings, 'You don't exist'.

After the show, my friend Carrie observed that there was no catharsis to be found here.

'There are moments when you think there's going to be,' I said, mostly referring to a new song that features an anecdote about the absurdity of being in a festival VIP area with Skrillex and Father John Misty shortly after Geneviève's passing. 'But then it's like... nope!'

In the middle of his set, Phil thanked us for coming and asked whether everyone was doing okay, which was met with nervous laughter.

'We're all sad,' I thought, 'but none of it is close to what this man on the stage is going through right now. Yet none of us are immune to this happening to us, either.'

The show ended and Phil ducked through a door offstage. We clapped and clapped and clapped. Everyone must have known it would be grotesque to expect some kind of encore; it would be like forcing a bear to dance. The lights went on and the audience was caught red-handed: red-eyed, dehydrated, with solemn expressions.

My first reflex after walking out of that hall was to reject those songs I'd just heard. I approached the merch table where Phil was sitting, which had various Mount Eerie and The Microphones records for sale. A Crow Looked At Me was there, naturally, but I involuntarily overlooked it. Something inside me wanted to pretend I couldn't see it. This show had been my first exposure to the album. I will have to brace myself before I hear it again. It is challenging, but there is poetry in it (even though death is 'not for making art').

Instead, I purchased the Japanese edition of Lost Wisdom, Phil's collaboration with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire, and one of my favourite albums of all time. I got him to sign it, too, with my shitty blue freebie ballpoint pen.

I hope he sensed that when I looked into his eyes and said 'Thank you', I wasn't just thanking him for signing the CD.

(Edit 28/02/2018: apparently Phil actually hates when fans ask him to sign records at shows because he wants us to be on the same level.)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Gdansk, Poland

I was feeling pretty unhappy this summer (which was ages ago, I know...). One of the the things I find really difficult about that time of the year is that you're expected to be having fun, doing something, being outside, all the time. There's a lot of pressure to go to places. Basically, to me summer signifies a lot of "shoulds" and it's just super annoying, on top of the fact the hot and humid weather just drains my energy and makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Autumn is my favourite season, but it's so short. The weather is cooling down now, so I'm able to carve out more of a routine that suits me and do activities that feel very "me". Now that I'm only working part-time, I've been able to make the most of the daylight hours so hopefully I won't slink into a horrible depression like I did last winter.

When I realised I hadn't really gone anywhere in a while, I booked a short trip to Gdansk, Poland in August. It's a city I'd been interested in visiting for a while. A bit too far away from Berlin for a weekend, too close to take off a week, it had been hard to find a good moment to go, but I'd mainly been interested because Gdansk is multilayered in its history. It was a medieval Hanseatic port, it suffered a whole lot during WW2 (due to being considered part of Germany for a long time) and it was significant to the eventual fall of Communism in Europe (the shipyard workers' uprising in 1980, for example).

The Polski Bus journey took around 9 hours -- not ideal, but I couldn't afford the train or flight. We pulled up in Gdansk at 7am. I left my luggage at the hostel and wandered into the Old Town. My first port of call was Costa Coffee (you can take the girl out of Britain, etc.), then I took a walk around the main square. The architecture was what you can expect from any medieval, central European city: ornate, earthy, colourful.

I walked down to the Vistula River (which is called Wisła in Polish and Weichsel in German).

I got told off for almost not getting off the bridge in time for it to lift up, letting three ships pass through.

I'd been planning to explore Gdansk by foot -- navigating transport in a new city where you don't speak the language is anxiety-racking -- but it turned out the place I'd wanted to go for lunch was in a totally different suburb, one that needed to be reached by train. I was already getting hungry and there was no way I was going to walk for two hours. I had brought some snack bars with me from Berlin to keep me going, so before I explored the transport options, I wandered to a residential area, lay down on the grass and dozed for a little while (cautiously making sure I didn't actually fall asleep; even though it seemed pretty safe there, I did have all my valuables on me).

I made my way to the main station to buy a ticket to Wrzeszcz (roughly "vzheshch"). The station was not laid out very clearly, so I practised pronunciation by muttering it under my breath a few times before approaching various locals to ask if this was the right platform.

I went to a vegan café called fukafe and they didn't have food-food, as I'd thought, but they did have a lot of raw cheesecakes and other goodies.

But that was fine, because there was a vegan pizza place about 15 minutes' walk away, luckily also located in Wrzeszcz! It was called Vege Pizza Port, had a queer and DIY vibe, and they also offered other vegan junk food like döner.

The next day, I was determined to get to Westerplatte, the site of the first battle of World War II (between German and Polish forces). I had to walk a really long way to get to the right bus stop, but it was quite good to see the outskirts of Gdansk proper while hoping those grey clouds weren't harbingers of rain.

I successfully caught the right bus and bought the right ticket using very rudimentary Polish, and then off to Westerplatte it was!

It's a peninsula jutting out into the Baltic, so there were some good views out to sea.

Once I'd entered the actual site, the first thing that struck me was this enormous concrete structure -- barracks destroyed during the war. It was quite impressive, especially inside. It was well-preserved, with metal rods holding debris up to make it safe to enter.

The war memorial

View from the memorial

I would have stayed at Westerplatte longer but I was tired, cold, the end of the day was looming, and buses were very infrequent. There were also a lot of school groups and a lot of visitors in general, plus the bus journey back was packed and on a really bumpy road. I had kind of got to the part of the trip where I was glad to be heading home the next day. I don't even remember what I had for dinner that night (which is saying something, as vegan-friendly eating opportunities were few and far between).

An important discovery I did make was my new favourite treats. They are called Super Krówki, traditional Polish sweets that are now available in chocolate and toffee vegan flavours. So good, so of course I finished them off quickly (I didn't even get a chance to take my own photo). I have not figured out a way to get them delivered to Germany, so if anyone is going to Poland soon, please keep an eye out!

I sort of regret that I didn't see more stuff in Gdansk that I'd written myself in an SEO article for a client a few years ago! But I felt really beaten down by the heat and the non-ideal hostel conditions. It would be nice to visit again when I'm not so rushed; perhaps I'll stay in Wrzeszcz and have more of a chilled city break.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Some Thoughts on Travelling

There's a scratch-off map of Europe hanging in my bathroom, where I've used a coin to carefully rub away the places I've been. I am reminded of how little I get to travel around this continent of mine.

If I see my glass as half-empty: I've never set foot on the Iberian peninsula and I long to wander around a city where signs are written exclusively in Cyrillic script. I keep meaning to visit Iceland (so far I've only managed stressful stopovers at Reykjavik airport). I used to consider that my own little kooky, Björky goal, but the place has in fact burst in popularity among tourists over the past decade.

As a Brit living in a foreign but very international city, it's weird to constantly meet North Americans and Antipodeans who talk about how close and cheap everything is; how that's the main draw of moving to Europe, you can go to a different country every weekend. It's almost as if they expect Europeans to have emerged from the womb with a passport (or ID card) already clutched in fist.

On the one hand, they make a fair point. Distances are ridiculously large in those colonised societies, simply because the metropolises of today were generally built within the past 200 years (which is "new" in European terms). They are pretty much car cultures. Take it from someone who lived in rural Canada for half a year and was endlessly frustrated at: a) how far my lack of a driving licence got me (not very); b) how expensive buses and trains were to get to other places.

At the same time, despite owning that scratch-off map, I'm not a fan of the type of travel that's for the sake of crossing cities or countries off your list. Thankfully, there's no end of online articles out there about how travel is not an end goal in itself, about how travel doesn't inherently make you interesting or well-rounded, or how travelling absolutely is a privilege. This post sums up most of my feelings on it. This one a few more.

This classist, self-serving mentality needs to die.

Travel. Yes, it's funny how it's become social currency. People place a lot of importance on it, yet say the word over and over really quickly and it'll lose its meaning. Traveltraveltravel. In the crudest sense of the word, I just travelled by foot across the street to the pharmacy to replenish my supply of sanitary pads and toilet roll.

I explored more of Europe as a student while on my ERASMUS year (fuck Brexit forever) than I have as an actual adult with a full-time job. While travelling isn't exactly a priority when you're struggling to put food on the table - which is basically the fearful undercurrent to my frugality - it seems to me that time is a huge preventative issue, more than people like to acknowledge.
You see, if I'm going to go away, I do not want to cram a whole trip into a tiny weekend. The destination in question probably deserves far more of my attention than a couple of perfunctory photos of monuments and a comforting meal in the sole vegetarian café. Unless there is a specific something in or near the city that piques your interest and creates real anticipation, what's the point?
Not to mention that, as someone who is sensitive and thrives on routine, travelling in this way is also really exhausting. It always takes me at least a week or two to recuperate from it.

As a teenager and during uni, whenever I daydreamed about my future life on the continent, I imagined criss-crossing Germany via Switzerland to France by train - using all my languages within a week - then the following month, maybe ending up in some vague destination in Eastern Europe just because it had happened to be a ridiculously affordable flight.
Needless to say, this was a different, more naive time. Not only are we experiencing a political shift that means our freedom of movement may look completely different a few years from now, but sleeper train routes are being cancelled and regular trains are... just plain expensive.
I'm also trying to watch my carbon footprint. You can only take so many flights with Ryanair, EasyJet, et al before you think, "Okay, is this worth the stress if it's not completely necessary?".

I've just booked my first solo trip this year: a long weekend in a Polish city that I guess I will blog about later. I took only one day off work for it, because I want to save my remaining days for going to see my family at Christmas and, hopefully, doing one more longer trip in the autumn.
I'm going there by overnight bus - which, after a 15-hour journey to Lithuania a couple of years ago, I'd sworn never to do again.

But hey. I'm on a budget.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Wonderful World of German Street Names

I was inspired to write this post when on my lunch break, I heard two English-speaking tourists looking at a map exclaim, 'Max-Beer-Straße! LOL! I've got to get a photo next to that sign!'
When you've been speaking German and living in that language for quite a while, you tend to become a bit stiff-necked and immune to the things that foreigners often find funny. For example, even though I had to look up who Max Beer actually was, I knew right away that this street was named after a person and not copious amounts of alcohol. I know that the drink is spelt Bier in German. I know that Beer is a form of the German word for "berry". So it never really occurred to me.

(But let's be real, I'll always love a good Fahrt.)

One weird thing for non-native speakers getting to know their way around a German city is the standard written form of street names and its apparent irregularity. If you are observant and/or an extreme pedant, though, you will eventually see there is method to the madness. All grammatical, obviously. Here are some examples in Berlin that I have picked up on.

1. If it's named after a person (their first name and surname), it will all be hyphenated:
  • Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
  • Karl-Marx-Allee
  • May-Ayim-Ufer
2. If it's named after a person (their first name or surname) or a thing, it will be merged into one word. This forms most probably the majority of street names in Berlin:
  • Alexanderplatz ("Alexander Square")
  • Hobrechtstraße ("Hobrecht Street")
  • Brunnenstraße ("Fountain Street")
  • Sonnenallee ("Sun Avenue")

3. If it's named after a place as a noun, there'll be an -er at the end - regardless of gender of the next word. And it'll be split into two words. This is an easy one, as it's just the same as saying "Ich bin ein Berliner", "Ich bin Schweizer", etc.
  • Kottbusser Tor ("Kottbus" is an antiquated spelling of Cottbus, a city in Brandenburg)
  • Dubliner Straße
  • Große Hamburger Straße (note that groß refers to the street - die Straße - not a person from Hamburg, which would be der Hamburger)
  • Alte Schönhauser Straße
4. And if it's named after a place or person, but in the adjectival form, I'm afraid you'll have to decline the adjective according to the gender of the noun.
  • Hallesches Tor (Hallesch refers to the city of Halle. It's das Tor, so you'd say am Halleschen Tor for "at Hallesches Tor")
  • Hackescher Markt (Hackesch refers to the Prussian Graf von Hacke. It's der Markt, so you'd say "um den Hackeschen Markt" for "around Hackescher Markt")
  • Französische Straße ("French Street". It's die Straße, so "an der Französischen Straße" would mean "on Französische Straße")
5. Sometimes you'll even get a nice little genitive in there, if it's named after a date, group or entity:
  • Straße des 17. Juni
  • Allee der Kosmonauten
  • Platz der Vereinigten Nationen
6. Most weird-looking are streets that are named after a place that ends in an a (how are you meant to pronounce that? I dunno really, I just elongate the last syllable so it sounds like I am saying two words and not one):
  • Rigaer Straße
  • Elsterwerdaer Platz

7. And then in Neukölln, we get a definitive example of how pedantic German really is. So, there's a whole bunch of streets that are named after rivers in other parts of Germany:
  • Weserstraße
  • Donaustraße
  • Oderstraße
  • Fuldastraße
But... Fulda is not just a river, but also a city. And if the street was named after the city of the same name, it would be called Fuldaer Straße. Not Fuldastraße. Y'know, just so that if you're German, you can immediately be absolutely sure what exactly the street is named after.

I just find it amazing that even a newcomer to a city could immediately know these sorts of things - historical facts, even - just by virtue of the grammar. I also feel like I have divested myself of a whole lot of confusion by writing all this down.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Ab aufs Land: Coconat Workation Retreat

Last weekend, my writing group and I went on our first retreat - to the hamlet of Klein Glien, near Bad Belzig, one hour outside Berlin.
Shamefully, despite being in Berlin for nearly three years, this was the first time that I had explored Brandenburg (the state that surrounds the city). More specifically, we stayed at Coconat Workation Retreat, which had its official opening at the end of April.

It's set within a building that has changed hands many times over the years, but was most recently a hotel and restaurant. The grounds also have barns and are surrounded by fields and woods. The complex is one of just a few buildings around, with a few small neighbouring houses before the road trails off into the countryside.

Coconat was founded with the knowledge that in order to be productive - a loaded word these days - you need to be human. When you're in a creative sector, especially one where days are overwhelmingly spent in solitude, community is important. For that reason, everyone here is left to their own devices but still has the opportunity to get to know fellow guests a bit. The owners are also really friendly and hospitable, curious to know everyone's story. As well as the work rooms, there is a "pub" where you can have a drink, a "library" with a fireplace and some little nooks to sit in outside.

As for our group of five, there was no real agenda; we were all in general agreement that we needed this time out from Berlin and its distractions so we could get on with our writing projects, both private and professional. I really appreciated the peace and quiet. I felt more focused than ever.
I was able to confront my main problem with productivity: the fact that I have a zillion writing projects going on. There's my novel, then there are numerous personal essays, then there are reports I would like to write that are more time-sensitive... it's a lot. Then if you want these to go up anywhere, you need to pitch, which is an art in itself. It can be really hard not to internalise the idea that getting anything published is a miracle. It's easy to fall into that spiral - to think that your achievements to date were just a fluke.

In summary, I used the time to confront my demons (drafts), edit my novel (I recently finally settled on protagonist development that I feel good sticking with), research music magazines and going for walks.

Sometimes it felt charmingly like a school trip, with our group's shared bedroom - though no bunk beds! - and bathroom. There were set mealtimes, with breakfast from 8:30-10am, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 7pm. The hosts make exclusively vegetarian meals, using meat only upon special request. Saturday night dinner was a Syrian special from local volunteers: a chicken and rice dish for the meat-eaters and for me, a spicy rice salad with lots of hummus and bread. (Being one of the only two vegans staying there, I got hummus priority!)

To get there, we took the regional train to Bad Belzig, then a bus was arranged to pick us up from the station. On the way back, we accidentally took the wrong bus, but it was fine and we caught our train back to Berlin.

All in all, 24 hours weren't enough to really get stuck into one project, but then none of us had done something like this before so it was good to see what it was like first. I'd definitely like to come back over a bank holiday weekend! I tend to pick up inspiration for my writing in the city, but then I need the type of peace you get in the countryside to implement my ideas to the full.
That's not to mention time to see places of interest around Coconat which I didn't get around to this time. Hagelberg is the disputed highest elevation in the state of Brandenburg (erm, at 201m) and there is also the abandoned village of Groß Glien.

NB: I wasn't sponsored to write this; I just wanted to talk about my lovely weekend!

Friday, 5 May 2017

The past few months

Schön aber schwierig.

On the whole, I love living in Germany and the feeling of building up a life here can be really gratifying. Living abroad in itself, however, is very difficult in ways you might not anticipate - even when you have a good support network.

It's not just about the Brexit tension, which started making audible gurgles a year ago and has only been getting worse as we navigate this absurd reality. (Ah, this time last year, we were all babes in the woods. I cheerfully took a selfie of myself sending off my postal vote; my friends and I acknowledged the possibility of a Leave win but were generally pretty relaxed.)
There's also the guilty feeling that I have no right to complain. "Lucky" is a word I hear frequently - and it is one that ignores hard work. People I know from my native country have visited Berlin before, have read articles that hype it up. Some of them seem to think my daily life is a tasty falafel wrap in one hand, an affordable beer in the other, with interesting sights to behold around every corner.

For sure, Berlin does have some very attractive aspects. But when you have been living here a while you notice that these tend to be superseded by:
  • what grey, oppressive weather for half the year can do to your mental, emotional and even physical well-being.
  • the piles of paperwork for every little thing. The reflexive fear you gradually develop that somewhere, there is something you haven't seen to, some bill you are unaware of that you need to pay.
  • the gratuitous local rudeness that can have you leaving a government office in tears. Alright, that only happened to me once. Some people make the excuse that Germans have a different concept of politeness, but I'm not stupid; I can tell when someone is being direct, when it's Berliner Schnauze (grumpiness with humorous undertones) and when they are just a jerk.
  • how everything being closed on Sundays makes you feel like the weekend isn't really yours. Yes, I know Germany is not the only European country that's like this. But in the UK and Canada I would take Saturdays for chilling out and starting the weekend slowly, then do my shopping, errands, homework and chores on a Sunday. Here, it feels like you get 0.5 of a Saturday because you have to spend at least half of your day doing the annoying stuff. Then Sunday, obviously, is just pre-Monday. It just... doesn't need to be like this anymore. Even devout Christians don't give that much of a shit about resting on Sundays, I'm sure.
  • how no matter how well you master the language and "act like a German", in the end it's a façade. It's a survival tool. Some people will respect you for it and be interested in your story, whereas others will perceive you as fully integrated and therefore treat you as having no excuse not to do what you are expected to do. It means having to be switched every minute of the day.

That's to name a few frustrations.

I go through phases where I can pretty much gloss over these things and know that I have it pretty good. Then it will all come crashing down at once and everything feels absolutely impossible.
Since the beginning of the year, I have experienced an ongoing stream of the latter. Since the beginning of the year, I have been in a constant state of Anstrengung.
At times, I wonder if I am extremely naive in my intention to live here forever. I don't even mean in terms of whatever the UK and EU authorities decide in the next couple of years; rather, I wonder how much I am going to let Berlin wear me down. On my first enchanted visit, in 2008, I sensed it was a place unlike any other. Now that I've lived here for nearly three years, I know for sure that it's a place unlike any other - in a negative sense, too.

But thanks to Brexit, I also do feel quite stuck here - stuck in uncertainty (I wrote an article about that last year). If I wanted to return to the UK, I couldn't; if I ever wanted to try out another country, I couldn't. Why? Because I feel the need to bank up the years in Germany - i.e. a single EU state - in case I end up having to apply for some kind of official permit that will allow me to lawfully reside in the EU.

So am I the problem, is it Berlin or is it even Germany? We'll see. For now, I'm trying my best to take each day at a time, focus on the positive and keep my head up. Alles neu macht der Mai, so they say - even if it is still gloomy outside.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Paris au printemps

The last time I had been to France was five years ago, when I visited my friend Sarah, who was studying in Besançon. The last time I had been to Paris was 12 years ago, on a day trip from Picardy on a family camping holiday.
If you know a little about my educational background - half of my BA was in French - this fact may surprise you. But having had a horrible time on the French half of my year abroad (Belgium), a fantastic one on the German one (Austria), then finding something resembling happiness in Berlin, I was not in a hurry to revisit the European francophonie. I just didn't feel welcome there and there wasn't really anything that excited me about it. At least the time I've spent discovering Quebec is making sure that over a decade of French lessons and tens of thousands of pounds of debt doesn't go to waste...
As for Paris, aside from the period of my late teens where I got into New Wave cinema, unsure whether I wanted to be or be with Anna Karina and Jean Seberg, I had always perceived the city as a bit overhyped... and maybe even cheesy. I probably wouldn't have chosen to go of my own accord, which is why I was glad when one of my friends from uni suggested our little gang have a reunion there.

So on a personal level, there was quite a lot resting on this trip.

I spent the first one-and-a-bit days on my own, adrift in Paris. I wanted to defy its notorious priciness; sometimes in big cities, it feels like you have to pay for the privilege of breathing its polluted air. When I stumbled across a falafel shop and got a hefty pitta plus a not-insubstantial side of wedges for €6.50, keeping me full for the whole afternoon, I felt like I had cheated the system.

I had bought a pack of 10 metro tickets for €15. In another attempt to cut costs, I stubbornly managed to go almost a whole day without using a single one of them, walking down Rue Faubourg St Denis until I could no longer ignore the pain in my feet. I guess I had it in my head that unless it was more than two stops away, using one was a waste - which is sort of true, especially since distances between metro stations in Paris are extremely short (I remember at one point I could see the previous station through the tunnel while I stood on the platform...)

I went to the famous English bookshop on the south bank of the Seine, Shakespeare & Company. I'm sure it can be a magical experience, but it felt a bit obnoxious just because of all the school groups in there (whatever, I'm grumpy). I stayed in there for an absolute maximum of 10 minutes.
I sat in the Jardins du Luxembourg for a while. It was quite sunny out. I liked how there were chairs all around the fountain and nobody seemed to be stealing them. I visited a bookshop I liked more - the Librairie du Québec - and was hard-pressed to choose just two books to buy.

A little unsure what to do next, I took the metro to Jussieu and liked the area a lot. I drank a homemade lemonade in a nice café called Nuance. I visited the Arènes de Lutèce, which is one of the few elements of the Roman history of Paris that you can still see.

I walked a little way up towards the Latin Quarter, then back down again. I sat in the Jardin des Plantes for a bit, took a picture of the Grand Mosque around the corner, then went back to my hostel and had a rest. I went out again in the evening with the intention of buying some fruit, but got distracted by a bar/record shop called Walrus. I drank a hibiscus tea there while reading Magic, Revue Pop Moderne, a cool French music magazine that happened to have a feature on the Montreal indie scene.

The next day, my first port of call was getting some good coffee. I went to Café Coutume in the 7th arrondissement - the first remotely hip coffee shop I had seen so far. It was chemistry-themed. It seemed to have a lot of English-speaking visitors, drawn in by its offer of brunch.

I then walked back across the Seine to the Grand Palais, where a rare books fair was taking place. In the end, I felt a bit annoyed for paying the €10 entry, because it was just full of old books I couldn't afford or take with me anyway - the whole thing wasn't really what I had gauged from the website. Or maybe I just didn't want to spend very long there because it was so hot and my shoes were pinching my feet more than ever. I guess I'm glad I got to go inside the Grand Palais?

Then it was off to Hank Pizza - a vegan pizza place! Yay! This salad and slice of pizza cost €8. I went for a pineapple and ricotta one, but it was so hard to choose between them all.

I went to meet Nikita next; she was at a hairdressers' with her head in a basin, which was a very funny way to see each other for the first time in a couple of years (she'd been passing through Berlin with a friend and we got lunch). Sarah was due to arrive soon at Gare du Nord. After a mad dash to get onto the bus from there to Jaurès station, we checked into the hotel. It was Ibis Budget - pretty good if not for the transparent shower door, paper-thin toilet door and hard mattresses! We sat on the bed eating tortilla chips and salsa, chatting and laughing. It was the first time I had managed to see Sarah since graduation and it was pretty nice.
We still wanted to get some proper food, though. The plan was to go to Belleville. It was a spring evening, we were young, gorgeous and strolling down a Parisian avenue, everything was wonderful. As we descended into the station, we witnessed a fight between two men. We tried not to gawp as we slotted our titres de transport into the barriers and they popped open.
At the bottom of the stairs, ticket controllers were stopping people. It was Friday night, after all. I reached into my pocket and gave the man mine. He scanned it and said bluntly, 'This is from the bus, not the metro'. I could barely speak as I realised what had happened: I'd put one clean ticket in my pocket ready for the barrier, oblivious to the fact I hadn't thrown away my used one, which was in the same pocket. So then why had the barrier accepted it? I still had to reckon with a €35 fine. Petulantly, I paid it, then started crying in front of my friends.

Drawing a line under that day, on Saturday the rest of the group had arrived in Paris. We walked along the Bassin de la Villette, a canal, and Nikita led us to Le Pavillon des Canaux, which she described as a dolls' house café. I hadn't been expecting much, but wow! It was super cute. Google will be better for photos, but there was an Alice in Wonderland-esque kitchen, a dreamy bedroom and so on. The other significant aspect was that this was the only place I encountered in the whole of Paris where I could get soya milk with my coffee...

Me in the "kitchen" at the Pavillon

Afterwards, we walked up to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and had a picnic with lovely views on a perfect spring day.

We met up with Reema, who'd just arrived on her own, and had a drink at Moncœur, which was a nice outdoor bar in Belleville. I went off on my own and ended up getting off at République, where I was desperate to drop into the nearest espresso bar. Unfortunately, I was starting to feel a little fed up of it all, but was trying to keep my spirits up. Wandering around, there were a few things going on that Saturday on the Place de la République, including a trans* and sex worker rights demo and a Sikh stand offering pay-what-you-want vegan curry.

I met up with my friends again at Saravanaa Bhavan, an all-vegetarian Indian restaurant. It was pretty good and not too expensive, either. The plan was to go out that night but I just wasn't feeling it; I think a combination of the sun beating down on my face the whole day, the emotional shock of seeing friends from long ago all at once and generally processing this bustling new city.

On Sunday, I went to Musée de l'Homme, which was good as far as museums go. For lunch, it was time to try out Hank Pizza's counterpart: Hank Burger. That was also very nice! I walked past Le Potager du Marais afterwards, another vegan place, but decided I was too full to get anything (crème brûlée, though!). I then headed to Marks & Spencer at Gare de l'Est to pick up some of the food I miss so much for the journey home.

After a stressful time in Charles de Gaulle airport, I was relived to be home in Berlin. I'm trying to work out how I feel about Paris; I think maybe it would be worth visiting again at another time of year, when it's not so hot and I can allow myself time to discover it at a slower pace. But to be honest, I don't really feel the pull and would prefer to discover other places. Aesthetically, it is a beautiful city, but not very much underneath interests me. All in all, I found being in Paris very overwhelming. I don't want to dislike it, but at the same time it's not trying very hard to win me over...

Vegan in Paris

I must admit that one huge factor that had been holding me back from returning to France and Belgium was the fact I had had a very poor time as a vegan - and even as a vegetarian - in those places. I was hopeful to see if anything had changed over the years.
Well, yes and no. There certainly isn't an oversaturation of vegan restaurants in Paris. But I had done a bit of research online, so I had an idea of where to go when hungry.
In the reviews I had read of the restaurants I ended up not visiting, almost everyone had written "book a table" or "it gets crowded". This was quite off-putting to me, as I didn't want to make the effort to go all the way to a certain place only to be unable to eat there. It seems that there is a vegan community in Paris, but since there are so few places that cater them when they want to go out to eat... well, all of them go there at the same time. I got the feeling veganism is viewed as more of a fad there.

I was determined not to spend too much on food anyway and it was fairly easy to find things in supermarkets that were "accidentally" vegan. One day, I got a reduced bulgur salad, a tub of hummus and some bread for lunch from Carrefour, which came to just under €4. I later spotted some coconut milk yoghurts there. There were quite a few Lebanese falafel places around. I saw one organic shop chain, Naturalia, though there are probably more; there, I got a pack of 10 delicious chocolate biscuits for €3. I must admit I had also brought provisions from Berlin and in the end, was really glad I did.
One of the most disappointing things about the trip was missing out on the famous French café culture, as sitting drinking coffee while reading is one of my favourite ways to pass the time. As I said, I encountered just one place that offered soya milk with coffee, so I was limited to drinking espressos, rather than spending an hour sipping a larger drink. I really wanted to find a vegan pâtisserie, but this wasn't straightforward either. On the day I woke up back in Berlin, I got a vegan croissant from Bio Company and had to appreciate the irony.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Thessaloniki, Greece

Greece has been one of my dream destinations for a very long time. It's not the islands that fascinate me (though I was always jealous of classmates' holidays to faraway places with names like Skiathos and Corfu), but the historical sites which are more concentrated on the mainland. I would daydream about climbing for hours over chalky monuments under blazing blue skies, unable to comprehend how humans could have ever erected columns that tall.

My real-life introduction to Greece was Thessaloniki (or θεσσαλονικη or Salonica). And yes, I did fall in love with the country.

Even though most of our stay was chilly, windy and grey, Thessaloniki welcomed D. and I upon arrival with its sun - and palm trees. There were even trees bearing oranges lining the streets!

When you're on the Aegean Sea but it's chilly and windy
The Byzantine-era White Tower and main promenade
Ancient Agora of Thessaloniki
I noticed deeply how very few things felt overtly capitalistic. Yes, Greece has its own franchises, as well as stores that can be found in many other European countries, but I never sensed the need to buy, buy, buy.  I saw nobody begging on the street, which is a frequent occurrence in Berlin. The various facets of political and economic turmoil that Greece has seen in recent years wasn't concealed, though. There was a lot of anti-fascist graffiti, encouragingly.

After exploring Thessaloniki for a day, we rented a car and drove to the Kassandra peninsula - the westernmost claw on the hand of Haldiki:

After driving through mostly nothing, we ended up down some random track and the view was quite lovely. It was t o t a l l y s i l e n t.

We continued down the coastal road, with the GPS freaking out a little. It was a rather uncanny experience to drive through villages that in the right season would be heaving with tourists, but hotels and holiday apartments were all boarded up. Cats were the only ones wandering the streets. Not even bars and cafés were open.

Finally, we made it to a spot on the western coast of the peninsula.

It was getting dark, but on the way back, on the eastern side, we still got some of the gorgeous blue we'd been chasing.

The second day, we drove out west - first destination, Vergina. There is a big archaeological site here, the most notable of which is the Royal Tombs of Aigai (including the burial cluster of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great). This museum, located under a burial mound, was simply incredible. It was deliberately all dark down there, with minimal lighting for a spooky atmosphere. There were original painted gravestones, jewellery, cooking pots, weapons, some of which were still in excellent condition - symbols of decadence accompanying the king to the afterlife.
Aside from the artefacts, there were steps you had to descend to the door of the tomb. Just wow: complete silence, aloneness, and behind the glass this astonishing structure made of marble, dating from fucking 336 BC. I can't explain why, but it was one of the most perfect moments of my life.

Exiting the museum, back into daylight

A couple of hours away from Vergina was another special site - Mount Olympus. It was getting dark quickly and it took a while to get untangled from the villages and onto the main road again. But sure enough, we began our ascent.

In the foothills
View over the town of Litochoro
In no time at all, it went from this... this (by the way, there was no railing here, just trees)
We didn't reach the very top - it was already freezing and dark, plus the mountain is nearly 3,000m tall - but we reached a pretty respectable height. There was a little chalet there. Driving down really scary, but overall I was really glad that we did it. I was pretty worried I was going to die but took solace in the fact the gods would be there to catch me.

As for the food in Thessaloniki? Well, it's not like there was an abundance of vegetarian restaurants, but there was one mostly-vegan place called Roots with a full menu in English. I had lentil mousse and tomatoes on rusks - a regional starter - then the curious "Mexican-style penne" as a main, which consisted of soya cream and tofu chunks with pasta. Dennis had a vegetarian gyros. A Greek girl sitting nearby nervously asked us whether we regularly ate vegan food, because she'd been dragged there by her vegan friend and she still felt she needed meat!

There was one place that was 100% vegan - Falafel House. There was no English menu and staff had limited English, but we got big falafel wraps. They weren't remarkable compared to the ones I am used to in Berlin, though.

My food highlight was at Basilico Pizza. I'd read online that it offered vegan cheese on request. And that's what I got: a huge, vegan-cheesy pizza with a perfect crust.

We also stopped by Boccone Pizza, which had the motto "Pizza is eternal". We split a pizza - one half margherita for Dennis, one half vegetables for me. It's always nice to come across places that already offer pizzas without cheese on the menu, rather than giving you a weird look when you ask for one.

In conclusion, I sustained myself on salad and chips, which are okay to avoid starvation, but they are not exactly nutritious. The short amount of time we spent in Thessaloniki, plus being out and about, didn't really justify grocery shopping - otherwise, I'm sure it wouldn't been a problem to make decent vegan dishes at the apartment we stayed in.

All in all, I can't wait to go back to Greece!