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.