Monday, 29 December 2014

Rückblick auf 2014

Koloniestraße, Wedding

These end-of-year round-ups tend to all sound pretty similar once you've read a few of them, so I won't make this too long (kind of unnerving how our lives are individually not that different when you boil them down to a few points, isn't it?).

2014, for me, was the year of metamorphosis. It started with a bang, then I had several months to heal and figure out where to go from there. It was certainly not an easy process, and giving up was often tempting. Despite all the anguish and doubts, I did eventually work myself up into a position where I could follow my dream of moving to Berlin. And that in itself is pretty commendable, I think.

I've been here about four months here now, each of which has been quite unexpected in its own way. This year - and especially since moving here - I have made huge strides in feeling more comfortable in my own skin than ever before. The future is on the horizon, which is scary, but now is the time to just go for what I want without hesitation.

My life in Berlin is currently far from perfect, for reasons I've already gone into (did I mention that I also lost my glasses? So anything involving staring at a screen is pretty uncomfortable right now). In fact, the next couple of months are going to be very tough.
Yet as I sit typing this from a gorgeous, light room in Wedding, last night's snowfall making everything outside prettier, certain things indicate that I can't be doing that bad: I have a monthly income doing something I generally enjoy, I have people I can call and ask to go for coffee or lunch, and I have the chance to partake in additional projects that will increase my experience in areas I am very passionate about.

In December 2013, it absolutely terrified me that I had no idea what I would be doing in December 2014. Now it's December 2014 and it bothers me little that I don't know what I'll be doing in December 2015. Maybe it's because I know I am at least halfway on the right track.

So, onto my best of 2014...


Sisyphus - Sisyphus
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any project involving Sufjan Stevens is way beyond average. With his last full-length record, 2010's Age of Adz, he took a surprising step away from the banjos, gentle acoustic picking and whispery vocals that got him his break, instead embracing this jagged, apocalyptic stuff. That was only a foretaste of this collaboration with hip-hop artists Serengeti and Son Lux, which is a gift to the world.
Listen to: 'Rhythm of Devotion'

St Vincent - St Vincent
Dark and twisted, funky and jarring, it's everything we'd come to expect from a record by St Vincent (moniker of Annie Clark), yet it still makes us jump even after multiple listens. I admit that I've only been able to fully appreciate her past couple of albums - this eponymous record is a far cry from her debut, Marry Me (released a whole seven years ago!) - but now I get it completely and she keeps getting better and better with every release. This music makes me feel like I can do anything. To quote my friend Bobby, Annie Clark can fucking murder you with a guitar.
Listen to: 'Huey Newton'

The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers
This band gives me many, many feelings, so I may be a little biased putting it straight up here at third place. But seriously, listen to it. In the future, I'll remember it as a nostalgia album for my first month or so in Berlin, when it was still sunny! It's basically more of the same - catchy singalongs, lyrics that manage to be simultaneously bizarre and spot-on - but I can't get enough of The New Pornographers and I hope they keep making records forever.
Listen to: 'War on the East Coast'

FKA Twigs - LP1
This music is the definition of sensual. Best enjoyed with headphones.
Listen to: 'Video Girl'

Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains - Piano Ombre
The best pop band out of France right now, no question.
Listen to: 'Réveil inconnu'

Les Hay Babies - Mon Homesick Heart
These Acadian ladies were the perfect pop antidote to "mon broken heart" when leaving Canada last spring. Music for people who aren't scared of banjos or mixing French and English.
Listen to: 'J'ai vendu mon char'

Braid - No Coast
All the 90s Midwestern emo bands are reuniting these days, but how many of them are making records as good as this while approaching middle age?
Listen to: 'Damages!'

Kaja Gunnufsen - Faen Kaja
This is breezy pop music, and unlike most of the Scandinavian pop music that reaches external ears, it's entirely in Norwegian... except when she's namedropping Instagram.
Listen to: 'Desp'

A.C. Newman - What If Soundtrack
I went to see this film before I went to Berlin. It stars Zoe Gavan and Daniel Radcliffe and I was bowled over by its cuteness. Furthermore, I was thinking the whole time that the harmonious soundtrack sounded a lot like A.C. Newman, leader of The New Pornographers (see above). It's gorgeous, late-summery, yet bittersweet - sort of like when you realise you missed your chance to go for it with someone you like. It should also be noted that this soundtrack also features the gorgeous 'Lighthouse' by Patrick Watson (another great Canadian artist).
Listen to: 'Beach Bummer'

Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Of a summer evening, Angel Olsen's music can make you feel that sort of sharp loneliness that you mostly keep hidden during the day.
Listen to: 'White Fire'

Spaceman Spiff - Endlich nichts
I'm hoping 2015 will be the year that German indie-pop will finally get big outside German-speaking countries (in the way that French and Scandinavian pop have). Especially thoughtful, relaxing German indie-pop like this. It's such a nice way to learn the language.
Listen to: 'Teesatz'

Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
Californian, nostalgic and fabulous. And I mean, have you seen the video to 'One of the Guys'?
Listen to: 'She's Not Me'

Alt-J - This Is All Yours
I must admit, when Alt-J first got big, I was rather sceptical of them - I thought they were just another set of NME darlings. But this album got under my skin. It's great to work/write to on a dark autumn night. Comparing them to Radiohead, as many seem to be doing, is a little too obvious, but I have a feeling Alt-J are a band that are going to come into their own.
Listen to: 'Every Other Freckle'

Joyce Manor - Never Hungover Again
Over the past year, I've generally been feeling burnt out on the whole neo-pop-punk thing. But Joyce Manor? I never get tired of them, somehow. Perhaps it's because their albums are short and snappy. Perhaps it's because they're from California, and not Philadelphia or upstate New York, like the vast majority of these bands seem to be.
Listen to: The whole thing! Each track is under 2 minutes 30 seconds, after all.

Special mention...
Coeur de Pirate, who released two things this year: first of all, the soundtrack to Canadian medical drama Trauma, which consists of subdued covers of songs like The National's 'Slow Show' and Amy Winehouse's 'You Know I'm No Good'. Then was the instrumental soundtrack to the game Child of LightIn regards to the former, her voice is just a delight. In regards to the latter, it's a lot of pretty piano and lush strings and really just music for going on adventures (or dreaming about them, at least...).


In 2014 I read 82 books (mostly totted up during those long months of unemployment). Here are the ones I would particularly recommend:
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah
  • Jonathan Franzen - Freedom
  • Emily St John Mandel - Last Night in Montreal
  • David Bellos - Is That A Fish In Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation
  • Rita Mae Brown - Rubyfruit Jungle
  • Adam Gnade - The Do-It-Yourself Guide To Fighting the Big Motherfuckin' Sad
  • Emma Donoghue - Hood
  • Dessa - Spiral Bound
  • Jacques Poitras - Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border
  • Greg Sestero - The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made
  • David Foster Wallace - The Broom of the System
  • Janet E. Cameron - Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World
  • Heather O'Neill - The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl
  • Anna Funder - Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
  • Natalye Childress - The Aftermath of Forever: How I Loved and Lost and Found Myself

Monday, 22 December 2014

The only way out is through

I was all set to publish a Best of 2014 post - which I will still do! - but I had to address something important first.

This has been a really tough week because I'm living out of a (several) suitcase(s) again. Moving out was the best course of action on both sides, but for the present moment it still of course is a huge challenge. Over the festive period I'm staying in Wedding, and before that I spent a few days eating peanut butter on toast, listening to One Direction and getting lots of cuddles at Sophia's. For January I've found a room for a month with some super chill people, but after that... I'm not sure what's happening yet. My stuff is currently strewn over three different places, and I'll be spending the days leading up to Christmas shifting that into four walls. I haven't had a "regular Christmas" for a couple of years now, and I guess it's now time to fully accept that my only constant really is change.

You may recall that this isn't the first time I have had to up sticks suddenly: barely a year ago I left Canada early because of my health problems. But I knew my time there was going to be temporary anyway, whereas I plan to stay in Berlin indefinitely. I'm having a hard time knowing that while this city is undoubtedly my home, I don't have a home in the actual, enter-a-building-at-the-end-of-a-hard-day-and-feel-like-yourself-again sense of the word.

So, at the moment, I am keeping a couple of phrases in mind:
  • The only way out is through. It's just a fact of our existence that crappy things happen, for whatever reason. But I do believe that at the other side of it, there is (mostly) something nice, or at least a non-offensive void waiting.
  • It's just a feeling. This is what I tell myself when I find myself being eaten alive by my anxiety. When I'm distracted, it's alright, mostly; but when I get a moment to myself and therefore have no way of hiding my thoughts, it is challenging. The problem is not with the situation, but how it makes me feel. Feelings are temporary. If I change my perspective, it doesn't have to be inherently negative.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Secret Mitte and winter nostalgia

I had a couple of holiday days last week and so, since I won't be able to go to England at Christmas, I booked a spontaneous flight back. It's nothing against Berlin - I still marvel daily at how lucky I am to finally be living here - but Grandma's food and the fresh countryside air were, of course, very welcome. By taking a step back, I also realised just how non-stop the three months I've been here have actually been! I brought back a suitcase of books, clothes and other things that I hadn't known I'd missed. It makes all the difference.

As everyone around me speculates about what this winter will bring, I find myself craving Quebec and its figurative warmth. It's German Christmas Market season now, so the Glühwein is certainly flowing, but I'll be damned if I'm not wanting a good Montreal poutine to insulate the tummy! Mostly though, after spending months under unforgiving Quebec snow (literally: I had a basement apartment), I've been wondering if winter here can really be that bad.
At work recently, there was a guest from Montreal who I spoke to each morning. For her it was a pleasant coincidence to meet someone who'd spent enough time there to have a discussion and comparison of certain things (like what to wear in the burgeoning Berlin cold). And for me, it was just wonderful to speak a French that felt natural and unbridled, i.e. sprinkling my sentences with English loan words and not feeling self-conscious about using phrases that sound odd on European ears, like "ben là!"or "bienvenue" for "you're welcome".

The main contrast I have noticed when it comes to winter is that in Quebec, there's definitely a comradeship strongly attached to it. Despite the fact that roads frequently get blocked due to blizzards and there are days when you can't leave your house without a blanket over your face for a very real fear of frostbite, people revel in it. They know that complaining about winter won't make it disappear. But here in Berlin, people seem to be wishing these months away. 
I try to recreate this time last year by lazing in bed, listening to Julie Doiron, dreaming of the drive from the top of Avenue de la Cathédrale in Rimouski, and wondering whether I'll ever experience such a perfect Christmastime again. I know this all sounds a bit exaggerated - and certainly contradictory if you have been reading my blog since just before I left Quebec - but overall it is an atmosphere that I have found impossible to communicate accurately to anyone else since leaving. It's one that I imagine I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Anyway, I'm still waiting for it to get below -10 to start wearing my parka (although I'll probably give in whenever the snow comes). So far, though, the prophecies of disrupted transport have indeed come true; the U8 towards Wedding will have replacement buses for three more weeks, for example. The days are dark, for sure, and this is most likely the main reason winter is dreaded in Berlin.

This afternoon, I decided to take a walk through what I call Secret Mitte... or, generally speaking, the part of Mitte concentrated within Torstraße, Oranienburger Straße and Hackescher Markt. Of course, it's not really secret  - I believe it's officially called the Scheunenviertel - but it is an area that I find quite fascinating and have meant for a long time to explore. Working in the tourism sector and giving directions to the same five or so Berlin sights several times a day, I forget that Secret Mitte exists - in my mind I tend to file Mitte next to Westminster, i.e. uninteresting, irrelevant except to visitors and politicians. I suppose the fact that it's so bourgeoisie nowadays, yet so recently the heart of Soviet Berlin, makes my mind boggle.

Starting from Rosenthaler Platz, which I pass through every day on the tram, I walked westwards down Torstraße, and then onto Koppenplatz.

I took a peek inside Do You Read Me?!. It's a small shop selling the type of expensive, painfully cool arty magazine that is lovely to browse through, but I would usually never dream of actually spending money on. I'd much rather buy some books that will stand the test of time. However, keeping in mind my recent mood, I got lucky and spotted a Montreal publication called Flaneur. It's based on Rue Bernard, which holds Drawn & Quarterly, one of my favourite bookstores ever. I was quite happy to pay the 15€ for it, as there's even a French section inside - it will be a cosy read and I'll look out for it from now on.

Große Hamburger Straße is a street full of surprises and contrasts, historical in quite an unassuming way (like much of Berlin once you get off the main tourist drag, I've discovered). Check out these Plattenbauten just above the convenience store.

A few steps further, and the street begins to resemble a typical, olde-worlde street in any other town in Germany. There's the Sophienkirche, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech in 1964. Then there's this curious, mustardy building opposite, which houses a couple of restaurants.

The end of Große Hamburger Straße takes you onto Monbijouplatz, and from there I can walk to work, so maybe I will, sometime. There's more to Mitte than what you see on a quick glance, and I'm determined that it does have some character!

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

New routines

Since I last wrote, life has been quite intensely filled, mostly by getting to grips with my new job. So far I've been working morning shifts, meaning that I have to get up at 5:00. I am a receptionist in a hostel that's only a short tram journey from where I am living. I try to remind myself that making a lot of mistakes in the beginning is normal, and am getting gradually better at not putting myself down for it! For the most part, though, I am having fun; my team is cool, the atmosphere is pleasant, I'm learning new skills, and I love the fact that the working languages are German and English. I also get to de-scale my French once or twice a week, depending on the clients.

Last week was nice as Alex and Andrew, my Leicester friends, were in Berlin. I showed them around my area a bit, including going to Dolores for burritos. The best part of their burritos is the smoky peanut sauce... wow. The one I had was called Vegan Lover - it's a little more expensive than Vegan Friend, but it was a special occasion!

Since I was getting up early, I wasn't able to participate in enjoying Berlin's nightlife with them (which I'm still pretty ignorant about, really, given that this is one reason Berlin is a popular place to visit). It's taking a bit of getting used to, this new schedule. By the time I get home from a shift, usually around 16:00, it's all I can do not to take a nap. Harder still, the days are slowly but surely getting darker! 
This isn't how I envisioned living in a big city, and I feel a bit guilty about it, given that there are so many cool places on my doorstep. It takes a lot of organisation; I actually need to spend a lot of time simply finding things to do, through the internet or otherwise, so that I don't end up feeling like I have wasted an evening. It's quite a challenge, as I am generally inclined towards more solitary activities, but I need to be constantly putting myself out there if I am ever to truly find my feet in this city. Es dauert ja eine Weile, um neue Freundschaften zu knüpfen...

Speaking of which, Jo Moore recently interviewed me for her blog, Twisted Sleeve, which is geared towards shy and introverted girls. I specifically talk about how travelling and learning languages has helped my confidence. Have a read here, if you like!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Found A Job

Next week I am officially starting my new job, which I am excited about! So, I'll report a few things before life starts getting even busier.

I finally got health insurance. I had been avoiding it - relying instead on my E111 card - because I was somewhat under the impression that your employer would take care of it all automatically. And, well, if you don't have an employer...
When I was offered my job, it became a little clearer: all you have to do is pick a health insurer and they will give you a letter to pass to your employer. Then the insurance comes out of your monthly pay. I chose AOK just because it was close by, and was really happy with their service.

Since I may come into contact with food during my work, I also had to acquire a Gesundheitspass. This involved travelling to a centre in Wedding (no appointment necessary), paying 20€ and watching a 30-minute video with about eight other people. It was essentially all about common sense, but I am now the proud holder of a health and safety certificate - my first German qualification.

This week, my parents came to visit! It was really nice, but strange to show them my new turf. We went to the Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße. Tall, rusty poles indicate where the Wall ran along this street, between the French and Soviet sectors. It serves as a sort of outside museum - you walk within the no-man's-land, reading about the people who dug tunnels to escape, or had their houses demolished to make way for it to be constructed. The stories are terribly sad and make you think to yourself over and over again: what was it all for? While other Wall sites around Berlin focus on reunification - like the East Side Gallery - this is all about the human experience during this oppressive time.

We also visited the parliament building, which I had never actually done, despite having visited Berlin multiple times before moving here. It's just a case of booking a visit in advance online, and it's free. It was a stunning experience, especially since we went at night. It'd be nice to get some views of the city in daylight too, one day, so I will definitely go back.

This week I discovered that beds - the comfiest thing in the world! - can be a source of stress in Germany. Square pillows I can cope with, but buying new stuff for your bed can be a nightmare if you haven't done your research.

My bed consists of two single mattresses pushed together. Apparently, this is quite common here, along with two separate duvets, even for couples living together. I have no idea whether this is for duvet-hogging prevention, or what. Anyway, the stuff on offer in shops therefore appears to be mostly for single beds.
I can sum up the German bed conventions by the sizes that IKEA offers: Normalgröße (140x200cm - single), Comfortgröße (155x200cm - slightly larger than a single) and Übergröße (240x220cm - double bed). It required trial and error, but I've determined that an Übergröße sheet and a Comfortgröße duvet cover are optimal for my situation.

Finally, I seem to have made it a weekly habit to go to Two Planets and get a bagel covered with melted PB&J. My fab illustrator friend Katie has a studio in Neukölln where I have been to write a couple of times, making it terribly convenient to visit this bagel shop. The other vegan fare includes freshly baked peanut butter cookies and granola bars. I do wish that non-dairy cream cheese was on offer, but for now, I'm very happy with this heavenly combo. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Prenzlauer Berg: my new home

I have been holding off from publishing any more posts - even though I have so much to talk about - because I wanted to wait until I had some steady ground under my feet. There are some things you don't really want to document on the internet as you go along. I get self-conscious that readers might perceive me as floating around the city all day with my greatest hardship being deciding where I'll go for coffee, when the reality is the opposite. I'll make a specific post about it when I'm ready, but for now, I'd like to introduce you to my neighbourhood.

You may have only heard of Prenzlauer Berg from the Beirut song. Luckily, I'm here to help you put a face to the name.

Forming part of the greater borough of Pankow in north-east Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg has become typically one of the more expensive neighbourhoods in the city, but I'm paying a pretty decent rent price given the amenities. I am absolutely spoilt for choice when it comes to cafés, restaurants and shops. The area is also very well connected; I can get into Mitte, Friedrichshain and Wedding without much bother at all.

Parts of Prenzlauer Berg are quite popular with h*pst*rs (can we have a moratorium on this word?), but it's also got a reputation as being rife with upper-middle-class families. I guess that since parts of it are so kid-friendly, in some ways it cancels out the light pressure that you sometimes feel from people your own age. I guess I am trying to say that I feel welcome here and I don't feel like I have to put on airs when I leave the house.
The main adjective I would apply to Prenzlauer Berg is "laid-back". Yes, this is a word that people tend to associate with Berlin in and of itself, but I find that it's particularly the case with this area. Whenever the train emerges from the U2 tunnel into the daylight, approaching Eberswalder Straße station, I feel this wave of calm wash over me.

My new love is the tram, whose lines, I believe, only run through the former SED-ruled Berlin. Before, I always joked that I don't trust trams and buses because you don't really know what you're getting or whether you'll actually be on time, because of traffic. But I do like how on a tram, you can actually see your surroundings. It brings back fond memories of living in Linz, too (the tram is known as die Bim in Austria).

I have made it my mission to try all the ice cream parlours in the area before they close for the winter months. At 1€ a scoop, how can I resist? Most of them offer sorbets - even chocolate sorbet, which I didn't think was possible before I came to Berlin - making them very vegan-friendly. My favourites? Das Spielzimmer, Naschkatze and Süße Sünde.

While Kreuzberg and Neukölln are home to a significant Turkish population, you see very few Turkish businesses around Prenzlauer Berg. Vietnamese Berliners are based largely around Prenzlauer Berg (for historical reasons, which you can read about in this article). So, I've had the chance to try some Vietnamese food for basically the first time. Chay Asia is an all-vegan maki/sushi place that really surprised me; sushi isn't something I ever crave, but sitting outside on a not-too-noisy-not-too-quiet street on a Friday evening, while sampling sharp new flavours, hit the spot.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Endlich Berlinerin!

That's right, I am finally registered as a resident of Berlin. After two failed attempts (note: don't put your moving-in date as a future date), I guess you could say it had become the bane of my life; being technically still a tourist prevents you from doing quite a lot.
I got up early to travel to the Bürgeramt at Rathaus Neukölln. Unlike most of the city's Bürgerämter, you can be served there without booking an appointment weeks in advance, but you still have to arrive in good time in order to be seen that day. I got there 40 minutes before opening time and there were already a good couple of hundred people in front of me:

After the opening time itself, I waited another 30 minutes or so to get an appointment number. It was set for three hours later, and some people I'd met in the queue - Humboldt students from Ireland, Bulgaria and Mexico - invited me back to their place for lunch!

We got back to Rathaus Neukölln and sat in the waiting room, where numbers appeared on a screen. When I went up to the desk, the person I spoke with was very friendly and even complimented me on my name! Despite the frustrations I have had to go through in order to even get an appointment, the procedure itself only took five minutes. I just had to show my passport and a form I'd happened to have previously filled out (and had asked my housemate to countersign). You may need to take a flat/WG contract with you, though, and I'm only speaking as a citizen of an EU state.

So, all because of a piece of paper, I'm feeling a little more settled in. Looking forward to joining the library and receiving my tax card!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

New friends, new food, Neukölln

Recently, I've been feeling very much as if I'm in a waiting room. The past week or two has been filled with panic and socio-cultural misunderstandings, and I haven't exactly been feeling my best. So, I thought it would be nice to take a look at the people I've met and the food I've enjoyed recently. And a lot of this has happened to take place in Neukölln - specifically in the areas around Sonnenallee (former East/West intersection and also a hilariously styled film) and Karl-Marx-Straße (the name speaks for itself).

First off, I met up with Natalye, a writer who settled here a few years ago from California. She showed me Sfizy, Europe's first all-vegan pizzeria. I had a Hawaiian "chicken" (tempeh) pizza, which was great. Sfizy offers a lot of different Italian dishes, including calzones, which I am excited to try someday.
After that, she took me to the Schillerkiez, a small neighbourhood at the westernmost end of Werbellinstraße. We got delicious sorbets from Mos Eisley and took a short walk to Tempelhofer Freiheit, Berlin's resident airport-turned-park, where the sun was just setting. 

When I finally visited Tempelhof, I still found it hard to believe that someone once thought it would be a brilliant idea to put an airport in the middle of a city, that an airport could be on your doorstep. But once you're there, you realise what a very special place it is. The field is massive - apparently it takes 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other. There's a fenced off area for dogs to play in. There is a cute allotment area. People are riding bikes and doing all sorts of sports on the still-intact runways. It's also historically significant, of course, as it is where the Airlift took place (when the Allied superpowers flew in supplies to West Berlin during a Soviet blockade). Even when I pass it on its southern edge on the Ringbahn, with the Fernsehturm in the distance, I feel this sudden jolt, like this is the spirit of Berlin.

By the serendipity that is already characterising my life here, I came across someone with whom I had three mutual friends - Becca! We both went to the same university, but didn't know each other then. She is now working as a chef here and is passionate about arts in mental health. We checked out Café Vux, a vegan Brazilian-themed café. One remarkable thing about Vux is that it is great to sit outside. The cobbled street - which had recently been rained on - is very quiet, and actually reminded me a little of England, what with its church and a view of a "high street" in the distance. It was an oasis just off the edge of urbanity.
We also popped into Dr Pogo. It's a small vegan co-op whose stock includes cola bottle sweets. I don't know how often I'll go back and support it as I am not living close by, but if I'm in the area I will be sure to check it out again.

Today I moved into my new place, which I will of course make a post about in the near future. There are a couple of other factors in the making that are signifying new beginnings. Bring on October!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Exploring Schöneberg

Fantastic news: I've found a place to live! I will now annoy everyone who has ever hunted for a room in Berlin, by saying that I got it through contacts.
For that reason, I only have a limited time with this area on my doorstep. I'd probably never have thought to explore it otherwise. It sounds really silly to say that I'm surrounded by history around here, because that's precisely what you'd expect from Berlin. But read on...

My mind was blown this week when I found out that I live five minutes away from where President Kennedy gave his 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech: Rathaus Schöneberg, which is essentially a town hall! I mean, I always knew it was there - it's where I tried to register - but I found out completely by accident. I mean, I'd been using the train station named after the building almost every day! It came as a surprise as I'd always expected the place where he gave the speech to be somewhere in Mitte, for some reason (which wouldn't make sense as that was not in the American sector at that time).

The area used to be very Jewish. As well as providing services to residents, Rathaus Schöneberg houses a free exhibition called Wir waren Nachbarn (we were neighbours). It focuses on the lives of individual Jewish locals around 1933.
At Bayerischer Platz station, the underground walls follow on from this exhibition. They are covered with facts - in German and English - about former residents and the gradual destruction of their homes, businesses and places of worship. There have been recent school projects which are depicted on the walls too, with children writing the name and birthday of a person on a brick.
I wasn't expecting to come across all of this when I arrived at the station, and so its effect was rather disarming. It was the first time since arriving in Berlin two weeks ago that I had really faced this aspect of the city's history. It's something that, as a new Berliner, I will have to learn to navigate for myself. I did cry at the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg a few years ago, so it is difficult. But I feel that saying that is making it about me, yet that consciously avoiding it is irresponsible.

Grunewald Straße

Today, I explored the area around Eisenacher Straße station, particularly Goltzstraße. As I walked along the street, I got the pleasant (though not smug) feeling that I was stumbling upon a well-kept secret. Cafés everywhere, little boutiques, a very healthy vibe. Rumour has it that David Bowie - who famously came to Berlin to work on three of his records in the 70s - still maintains an apartment in Schöneberg.

There was a craft fair going on near the pink building

I made quite a discovery: Sorgenfrei Café. Well, it's not just a café; all around the place there are authentic vintage sunglasses, storybooks and other bric-a-brac for sale. The name translates as "worry-free", which after reading the website, seems to be a nostalgic nod to the 60s, a time that some people look back on as "easier".

The little cloths on the tables reminded me of when my grandma used to get out my mum's old Sindy dolls and their accessories, like blankets and rugs. I felt a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, sipping on my coffee while taking in all the weird stuff around me. I had actually come to the area in the afternoon to find somewhere to sit down and work, but I felt too nervous to ask if there was internet there, let alone get my laptop out! It would've been completely anachronistic.

I've heard Akazienstraße is pretty good for cafés and restaurants, too, so I will definitely be back here. I'm going to miss the U4 line when I move. It's yellow and so cute! It is five stations long and only ever made up of two carriages. Plus, I love Nollendorfplatz and its 24-hour Kaiser's store, always got my back.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Things I witnessed on the U1 last night

A man about my age in a shirt buttoned up to the neck, skinny jeans and brogues, with a battered brown leather bag on his lap, reading an thick English novel. Sitting next to him were a group of German teens, making a not-abnormal amount of noise. Every so often, he would look up, roll his eyes at them and tut.

A kid in a wheelchair who got up and started walking when he got off the train, his friend still pushing the wheelchair.

A ticket controller who came on and straight-up said 'Tickets, please', not 'Fahrscheine, bitte'.

A man using his laptop!

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Welcome to Wilmersdorf

As I said in my last post, I was lucky enough to find a room, for the month, before even arriving in Berlin. I am in the southwesterly Wilmersdorf area. It's relatively residential and peaceful; at the moment it feels more like living in Germany than specifically living in Berlin, if you see what I mean. Even though it is lovely and there aren't so many temptations and distractions from what I need to be getting on with right now, I've decided that when I do find somewhere for a long-term basis it needs to be in a more central or eastern neighbourhood - somewhere within easy reach of alternative bookstores, music events, vegan eateries. After all, those are a few of the reasons why I moved here, and I'm already finding the U-Bahn journeys  right across town to be a bit tiring and time-consuming.

In the four days since I arrived here, I've tried and failed to register at the Bürgeramt (no appointments til October!), had an assessment for a job, and opened a bank account. On a social note, we went to my housemate's friend's house in Wedding, and we sat up on the balcony over the night-time street, planes from nearby Tegel Airport taking off over us. This friend was about to move, so was giving away a load of free stuff - I got a couple of books and a jumper even though I'm really trying not to accumulate! Yesterday I met up with Alix and ate a heavenly slice of cheesecake at Chaostheorie, a vegan café in Prenzlauer Berg. And I'm attending a literary reading this weekend, which I'm looking forward to!

I have to keep reminding myself that a) I haven't even been here a week yet, but also that b) that I am not here as a tourist with a time limit. Therefore, I don't need to rush and do everything at once! I have no idea what my situation will be this time next month, but I am just trying to put myself out there, do what feels natural, and hopefully the rest will follow.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Goodbye to England

Autumn - my favourite season - has come early here in East Anglia. It's become considerably cooler (over the past few nights I may as well have been sleeping under the stars) and I'm getting that back-to-school, fresh feeling, which is good motivation for the big changes coming up in my life.

Preparing to move abroad is a headache. I knew this already, of course, but it had gradually lost its impact during the past five months I have spent at home. Orchestrating this move has been hard, sometimes disheartening. I have not been sleeping well this August. The pollen count has been high and there were whole weeks where I would lie awake until 4am hoping my coughing would subside. The news has been so troubling this month that I've been finding it much harder than usual to relax and forget before I go to bed; certain events have literally haunted me.

I'm happy to say, though, that I am now in a very confident and positive position.
For one thing, I've sorted out where I'm going to be living for the next month. Being proactive goes a long way! I was extremely stressed and fed up of negotiating hostels and Couchsurfing for when I arrived. I finally thought, it's a week away, I might as well start putting myself out there (I had been holding off from doing so because I assumed that people already on the ground in Berlin would have the advantage). On WG-Gesucht, the standard site in Germany for finding room(mates), I messaged someone who was subletting a room for a month, and half an hour later she replied asking if we could Skype. After getting to know each other a bit, she decided I would be a good fit, and now I have a room until October!

I must admit that I have had a couple of moments where I've asked myself what the hell I am doing. But then I think, what else would I be doing? What else can I be doing? And nothing really springs to mind.

To say that I'm feeling "nervous" about going would sound a little tired, as well as dismissive of the fact that I'm no longer the timorous girl who went to study in Belgium this time in 2011. I'd call myself a seasoned traveller now, and my concerns are far different. In these last few days at home, I haven't been anxious as such, but it's more like this intense wave of realisation washes over me every so often, the realisation that I'm right on the edge of living in my favourite place in the world, and it makes me want to dance, work off my spare energy.

So it probably won't come as a surprise to anyone that I'm more than ready to leave. Five months ago, when I came back from Canada unexpectedly, I really had to take pains not to retreat back into myself. Sinking back into a cosy, familiar environment, I feared that everything I had learnt and been through over there would just be washed away. I very much knew that staying wasn't an option, not least because I'd long since resolved to move to Berlin one day. There's also the fact that I didn't seem to have any career prospects in this country.
I was lucky enough to get my care job and have a stint volunteering in a local charity shop, so that I was still engaging with the outside world, but there was still always this end goal in sight. I think that's what kept me going during the times when I was mourning my social life. And, you know, I did get out sometimes. I made a couple of trips up to Leicester to see friends, as well as being in Oxford for my birthday with my sister, spending some time in my nearest city, Cambridge, and visiting my grandparents on the Suffolk coast.
This week I've been reading Small Hours by Lachlan MacKinnon. Although he is a Scottish poet, his work reflects on Oxford and Suffolk - so pretty relevant for me lately. It's delicate and personal work; the second part of the book, 'Emma', is about a person he vaguely knew at university who had an early death. This part is not poetry, it's about a paragraph of prose on each page. To be honest, I read most poetry with great difficulty. I get frustrated that you can't read it in a linear way, that if you get to the end of the poem and don't feel or understand anything, you have to go over it again. It aggravates me that you have to read it out loud in your head; I think, who do you think you are, Homer? If you want me to read a poetry anthology, you really have to sell it to me, whereas with novels, it will probably take two seconds of reading the blurb for me to be interested in it. Plus, you can really get lost in a novel. This is different, though, probably because of my personal connections with the subjects.

Good coffee isn't exclusive to Germany, evidently, but I look forward to getting back into the continental coffeehouse culture; sitting outside with your coffee for hours, reading, without the employees breathing down your neck. I can't wait to live in a place where recycling is actually taken seriously. I'm also excited to use urban transit again - yes, I know it can be shit, especially in a city that's as rough around the edges as Berlin. But nothing makes me feel like I'm part of a city's fabric like waiting for an underground train, my hair blowing back as it pulls in, stopping at all the stations and hearing the muffled announcement, reflecting on the millions of people who've also passed through it, before climbing concrete stairs, ready to join superterranean life.

Also, I am really aching to speak German daily again.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Berlin: a new chapter

This blog has been a little bereft of photos lately and I fear wall-to-wall text could scare potential readers off. So, here's me and the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford a couple of months ago.

So, er, in four weeks I'm getting on a one-way flight to Berlin?

You might be surprised to find that I'm 10 times more stressed right now than I was this time last year, when I was preparing to get on a one-way flight halfway across the world. I don't have anything or anyone waiting for me in Berlin, which is a big part of it. But mostly, I think that the deeper something lies under your skin, the more you feel there is to lose.

Let's flash back to 2010, when I attended a German summer school in Berlin. That was the second time I had been in the city. For context, this was just after my first year of uni, and I'd been pretty unhappy. I had made some good friends on my course but there wasn't much else about the whole experience that I liked. There had come a point where I was seriously considering dropping out and just getting a regular job in Berlin, spurred on by the fact it was cheap and arty; I even spoke to a tutor about it, who of course advised me against it.
Anyway, I was staying with a host family for three weeks, commuting to this language school each morning on the S-Bahn, so I was having an experience outside the touristic norm. A couple of my university friends were also there, but I often hung out with these two American guys in my language class. One of them had grown up in Turkey, but moved to the US to study, which had been his dream.
One afternoon we were walking around Kreuzberg after class, chatting and having ice cream. I was complaining about how unhappy I was in my then-situation and how I was dreading going back in September. The guy from Turkey listened diligently, casting no judgement, and responded with his immigration story: how it took him so long to save up and to immigrate to California and everything. He said that I needn't worry: since I was an EU citizen, I'd have relatively little trouble moving to Berlin. I already knew this, of course, but it was the first time anybody had validated it and had made it feel like more than just a silly romantic idea.

On the last day of school, when we were all saying goodbye, he said, 'I hope you get to where you want to be', and I knew exactly what he was referring to. That stuck with me for many years.

It may turn out that my intuition is way off, and everything goes horribly wrong. I'm totally aware of that. But I have to remind myself that these feelings and indeed these circumstances are perfectly normal: how many people moving to a new city abroad have got every single thing sorted out in advance? When I lived abroad before, it was through programmes, so a lot of the practical stuff was taken care of for me. That's something I can only appreciate now that I'm doing something completely independent...

Here's to Berlin, the next chapter of Rose ailleurs.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Which English should I teach?

A post I found in my dusty drafts, which I put together in January 2014. I don't think I really delved very deeply into what I was doing at school while I was there, so here's a little throwback.

School is still going well! There's a rumour going around amongst the students that I'm 'bilingue'; at breaktime I overheard them saying that so-and-so in the other class heard me talking French to a teacher! You see, when I was introduced, the kids were told that I only understood un petit peu of French, so that they felt more inclined to practise their English with me. However, I think the students suspect I know a lot more than I let on, because they also see me smiling when the teacher makes a joke in French. It's difficult, I have a reputation to maintain now!

Teaching English in Quebec was always going to be a little bumpy - you know, what with the French language protection laws and the fiercely proud culture that frequently accompanies that - but what I didn't expect was really having to think about the type of English I speak to my students.
Logically, you would expect them to be learning Canadian English. And in our classroom, that's what is generally taught. Students ask if they may go to the washroom, and the teacher writes favourite with a u and organize with a z. (I think both Brits and Americans alike must be confused when they read a Canadian sentence.)

The thing is, in my particular location in Quebec, the students are probably actually not that likely to visit anglophone places in Canada. We are only a couple of hours from the province of New Brunswick, but you can speak French there. To get to Ontario, well, we're looking at a drive of roughly 10 hours. This has also got me thinking about how ELAs in other parts of Quebec approach it; it must make for a unique experience depending in your town. Some people only have to cross a bridge to get to Ottawa, and teach a lot of students who are already perfectly bilingual, for example.
In fact, the US seems to be the most common anglophone place that people from Rimouski visit. During the winter, Quebeckers flock to Florida for their Vitamin D fix. Like, people actually joke that they've created a little enclave there. Other common destinations for long weekends are Boston and New York City. And of course, most of the English media the students will know about will be from the US.

Still, I falter a little at teaching British English, because awestruck as they were at the photos of Cambridge on my presentation, few of them will probably ever go to the UK. Part of my role is supposed to be helping them to open their mind to other cultures, which is great, but for the sake of practicality, I feel like I should be using elevator instead of lift. What if they say lift while travelling somewhere in North America and they're not understood, would it knock their confidence? Of course, I could be completely underestimating how common it is for people to be familiar with British words and phrases, but from experience, it does not do well to just assume. Similarly, if you used certain phrases from Quebec French while you were visiting France, people might be baffled. But if you're Canadian, it makes perfect sense to learn the French that's spoken in Quebec; not only because Quebec is geographically closer than Europe, but also because it brings you a step closer to comprehending your country's unique political situation. On the other hand, I've heard people argue that Canadians should learn France French instead, because Quebec French is not as "standardised". This is probably very sensitive territory and I don't feel qualified to comment on it anyway, having learnt France French first of all, and now loving the Quebec French I'm picking up.
The reason I'm a little nervous to teach them British English is... my accent. The way I pronounce ask is different to the way the teacher - who learnt English in Canada - pronounces ask. Even in my other school, I learnt to slightly emphasise the r in words so that I would be better understood. But when getting food while I was travelling in the US this winter, I couldn't really fade into the background. My order at Chipotle involved tomatoes and water and the cashier smiled each time. I guess it's just something I feel self-conscious about and need to get over, though. Showing students the various accents of English - and therefore all the opportunities that learning English presents - can only be a good thing!

It also leads me to question whether there is really any such thing as International English. For example, there's the fact that for historical reasons, the English spoken in India leans more towards British English than American English. When I was an ELA in Austria, the school's convention was British English - understandable, given Austria's location in Europe - but conversations I had with the students were littered with American phrases they'd picked up from the movies. I was delighted to find that this often meant they could easily distinguish between British and American vocabulary where appropriate, though!

Universities in the UK traditionally recommend that international students pick one spelling convention for their essay-writing (British or American) and stick to it. However, when I was mentoring Chinese students in my final year, I was horrified when one of them told me a tutor had said that their American spelling was wrong! We may joke about Americans' disregard for the letter u among ourselves, but, since American standards were probably part of the International English the students had spent time and money learning, it's totally unfair to be penalised for that. I wonder if the same goes for cases like obligated, a word that sounds odd on a British tongue (we only use obliged).

Friday, 27 June 2014

Fighting the funemployment cycle

Although I've tried to keep a lighthearted tone on here, the truth is that over the past month, unemployment and no social life had started to really get to me. Yes, it's nice to have Abundant Spare Time, but when you're broke, in a small town and you see people your age maybe once a month, you feel your sanity draining away.
Maybe I'm being a little unfair. It's not like I have no income at all, as I've been doing a respite care job every so often - that I really enjoy - but that's not a living wage. I just thought that by this stage, a year after graduation,  I'd be at least half on my way to getting somewhere.

So I'd been all set to move to Birmingham this weekend, due to knowing lovely people who'd be able to offer me a room there. The idea was that by living in a city, it'd be easier to find a job. In the end - after not really finding any suitable jobs in the area - I reassessed my priorities and the fact there were other people who needed to take that room, and I took a risk: I pulled out.
Why did I do that? Well, in my despair, I'd been messing around one day, looking up jobs in Berlin (where I've dreamt of living since I was 18). I stumbled upon what was pretty much my dream job. At this point, they've acknowledged my application and expressed the desire for an interview, but I am trying to just take the rest as it comes.
I hadn't seriously entertained the idea of moving to Germany for at least one more year yet, but before long I was clinging so tightly to the idea that I couldn't give it up and couldn't imagine doing anything else. I felt it was finally time to go after what my heart really desired. Some might call it stubborn, or naive; I call it realistic. My combination of experiences, especially over the last year, has given me this new and vital perspective that doesn't allow for going around in circles. I needed to do something for myself, take initiative, after the various dung that life has thrown at me this year, not to mention the difficult lessons that I myself have learnt.

Or, perhaps I wasn't just "messing about" when I looked up jobs in Berlin. Since I returned from Canada, I've been busting my butt trying to get work or even experience in the UK - and this not even always in positions that are directly related to my degree. I'm unsure what all those careers advisors meant when they said that employers are thirsty for language graduates, because there is nothing out there unless you want to be a teacher (respect to those who are, though) or you already have a degree in Business and happen to know a couple of languages on the side.
This all led me to finally accepting something I have long suspected: that living in the UK is not really an option for me if I want to really use my skills to the max and follow my dreams. It's a frustrating reality but it's quite exciting at the same time. I have lived abroad enough times now to know that hell no, it's not a walk in the park, but it's what makes me feel alive and useful. Which is what matters, right?
Also, this year's European election result was a major wake-up call; I can no longer take EU mobility for granted, now that my country's place in it all is going to be shaky over the next few years. I was initially angry about it, then I quickly realised how important it was for me to establish a base for myself in Europe, the sooner the better.

Anyway, I've had to learn to treat job applications as a fun exercise. You need a positive attitude for that, and that hasn't been quite as difficult seeing as the positions I've seen advertised around Germany are closer to anything I want than I have found in the UK. I'm also trying to apply the outcome (or the foundation?) of a positive attitude: self-respect. I am becoming less obsessed with checking my emails to see if anyone's got back to me. Most brutally, I have had to learn how to be patient, patient, patient. Being unemployed - especially while you are so far away from the aspects of life that are important to you, like friends and culture - is exasperating. But wallowing in it isn't going to change that. Yes, I do cry about once a week when I feel like I'm going be stuck here forever. The good thing, though, is that I no longer feel like that the majority of the time. Since I've embraced other options - the options truest to my values and passions - I've felt a new lease of life.

By putting this all out there I am being brave, because I may well fail. But the time has come for me to finally give it a real shot.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Cooking experiment: coconut bacon

Ever since I ate the coconut bacon BLT at Aux Vivres in Montreal, I've been thinking about how I could create something similar at home. This weekend I bought a few things in order to try it out.

The main ingredient is, of course, coconut flakes. The recipes I found online seemed to advocate stripping the inside of an actual coconut for this, but that wasn't really an option for me. Instead, I went to the baking section of the supermarket, and picked up a couple of tubes of Whitworths Coconut Chunks. These chunks are about half a centimetre across, but they're too hard for this recipe unless you chop them into little translucent slivers. This is quite tedious and fiddly work, so put on a CD or something while you're doing that. It took me about twenty minutes altogether to get the small amount I needed for this first experiment.

This is a teeny tiny Tupperware.

The next part was taking care of the flavour. The internet consensus was liquid smoke to get a smoky bacon flavour. Huh? Given that this was the first time in my life I'd ever even heard of liquid smoke, and it sounded a bit sketchy anyway, I turned to some dried chipotle peppers we had in the house. I chopped up a whole one into tiny little bits, but next time I'll use half.

I put the chipotle and the coconut into a frying pan, adding a couple of dashes of soya sauce (you don't want too much or it'll be left in a pool in the pan afterwards). I heated it on medium for a few minutes, making sure it mixed and soaked well.

Put it on a pitta which had the lettuce and tomato ready, along with a bit of my new vegan mayo!

I was really pleased with the taste and the texture, although as I said, I'll put less chipotle in next time. There are a few coconut bacon recipes floating around out there, but after looking at a few of them and despairing, I improvised with the ingredients that were available to me. I think it's more budget and less niche. However, I will be looking out for bigger coconut chunks - you know, like you can get bags of trail mix - because I don't want to lose hours of my life chopping coconut slivers.

P.S. It goes without saying that it's not about looks! This isn't meant to look like bacon, it's meant to be a replacement for taste and texture. That being said, my friend Alice has passed me a recipe for fake bacon (facon) that you make in a tin like flapjacks, so I look forward to trying that soon too.

Monday, 5 May 2014


Regarding my situation last time I wrote, Wash put it pretty succinctly:

I really had no idea where I was meant to go from here, what I should be doing, or whether I'd ever even get out of this horrible rut. And while I haven't found answers to every single one of those questions, things seem to be slowly falling into place.

Not gonna lie: I still mentally convert £ into $ and then finally get why visitors say the UK is expensive. I still have Rimouski on my phone's weather app, and I see people instagramming photos of clapboard-housed streets with no snow at all, which I can't get my head around. Above all, not a single one of my dreams since I got back has been set in Europe. When I wake up, I feel an unnerved longing, as if the places I experienced won't let go of me that easily.
On the other hand, I consider how lucky it was that I hadn't booked a spring break jaunt to Toronto (because that turned out to be the week I left my apartment) and that I hadn't bought tickets to Arcade Fire in Ottawa (because that turned out to be the day I flew back to the UK). Yes, these things would have been lovely, but I don't feel too sad about it like I did a month ago. It's taken time but I have faith once again that the future will hold great things, so it doesn't make sense to linger on all that.

Anyway, I think readers are bored of me going on about all that, so let's move on.

I'm finally finding jobs that I can apply for, which gives me a clearer idea of what the near future holds for me. I'll be staying in the UK for the time being, getting experience and making some money. The thing is, I've just spent a whole chunk of time immersing myself in French. I haven't been to Germany in well over a year and I'm out of practice. Admittedly - beware, wild humblebrag approaching - in the scant opportunities I did have to speak with Germans in Canada, they told me I spoke German really naturally and that my accent was sehr neutral.
But it's quite something else when you have to speak a foreign language in a formal setting - like an interview - after stating on your CV that you're fluent.

I applied for a job, and the recruitment agency called me that afternoon. When we spoke German, I kind of freaked out, stumbling over my words, even though I'd been expecting it. I forgot the German for primary school, almost saying "Elementarschule". I apologised that I was in French mode still, and I promised that the more often I would speak German, the easier I'd fall back into it. Luckily, the company itself has offered me an interview next week...!

Some people might be under the impression that you're much more fortunate to get a phone interview than an in-person interview, but those applying for foreign language positions would agree they're wrong. My Quebec interview (over a year ago now!) was in person, and whilst I was definitely still nervous when the interviewers suddenly switched to French, the fact that I could read their body language - and probably vice versa - was a huge advantage.

Basically, it's become very apparent to me that if you've decided to do a degree in languages, you've just signed your life away: you need to regularly and continously keep making sure you know your shit.

Enter Duolingo.

It's a programme where you learn a language step by step using little games, usually in the form of translating or transcribing phrases. I started using it a few months ago, as my friends in Rimouski were raving about it. It was fun, but I was using it once a week if that, because it was too simple and clearly designed for people who were just starting to learn French. I remembered I had the app when I heard I was going to have a German interview. I needed some basic practice to de-rust my German brain. Yes, it was very basic, and frustratingly nitpicky sometimes, but it felt like a useful way to waste some time. And yes, I even learnt some things; it was a surprisingly good memory-refresher.

The best part of Duolingo by far is the weird and wonderful phrases it throws at you.

Sit tight while I write a 5,000-word essay answering that.

I've also been told that Spain needs us, and been asked whether the bear is wearing a dress.

So, Duolingo is available as an actual website, or as an iOS app. The two have their pros and cons. On the website, you can play against your friends. You're also less susceptible to typing errors often made on a fiddly phone keyboard. But the iOS app is really convenient; you can use it to be productive while you're waiting for the bus. You can also play against whoever's online. I also just find the interface cuter on it.

At the moment, only French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian are available for English speakers. I really want to tone up my Russian but it's still being developed (as well as Dutch, Irish, Polish, Turkish, Hungarian and Romanian). A solution to this that I've seen people using is the English for Russian Speakers course, but that would only get you so far.

For all those in the same boat - because I know now that you exist! - HAVE CONFIDENCE.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Pianta pizza

Just checking in to say I went to Pizza Express tonight and had their all-new vegan pizza! It's called Pianta, and the toppings are rocket, spinach, mushrooms, artichokes and pine nuts. The base is a spicy arrabbiata, which might be a bit much if you're not used to spicy food. Overall, I was very impressed; usually I am a bit iffy about simply ordering a pizza without cheese (most restaurants don't offer vegan cheeses) because it's never quite the same, but in this case, I hardly even thought about the fact that there was no cheese because it was so flavoursome. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's the olive oil that gives pizzas their great taste. I'll definitely bear that in mind when topping making my own cheeseless pizzas at home!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Not quite back on the horse

Apply for a job.
Go out for some fresh air, because that'll probably put things into perspective.
Rinse, repeat.

We're consciously uncoupling, the past half-year and I. When the surface-mail packages containing the rest of my books and clothes arrive (the ocean is considered a surface), when I get some work, when I shake off my raging FOMO, that means I will finally possess the necessary cognitive tools to deal with running into the past half-year in a mutual hangout spot, smiling and making small talk like we didn't have this thing that started off with the sweetest of intentions yet ultimately brought out the worst in each of us.

The main obstacle so far has been finding jobs around here that I can even apply to, i.e. jobs that are not managerial positions or involve driving. Obviously, my eventual goal is to get out of my parents' house in this town where I don't have any friends, but I've kind of accepted that I probably need to keep looking at local jobs until I get enough money to go far away to the big city and follow my dreams à la Christina Aguilera in Burlesque.

I am also trying to settle back into actual veganism, which I haven't been too strict about for roughly a year. And I mean, that allowed me to enjoy local delicacies like crêpes. Unfortunately, while all my groceries were vegan, I had started actively buying things like chocolate whenever I was feeling down. Even though that remained pretty much my only vice, it straddled the line between "occasional treat" and "harmful habit".
I think back to how great both my mental and physical health were when I was fully vegan (a two-year period). I'm trying to recuperate those things, so it makes sense to go back to being fully vegan. I'm tired of feeling crappy, especially when I need to take extra care not to stagnate at this point in my life!
I've been doing some cooking. Artichoke pasta (best). Curried apple and onion soup (very nice). Udon noodles with broccoli and tofu (not bad for a rookie). Courgette and carob cake (I've done this before and it was good but something was off this time. At least it looks cute, get a load of that pastel).

On that health note, I'm working on my anxiety. It's something I find hard to talk about, because a lot of the time I get a "just stop worrying!" response (like it's that straightforward), or "yeah, I get stressed too, before exams" (how about basically every single day?). I don't think there really is a long-term cure... it's something you have to try to bridle for the rest of your life.

Having said that, here are some tips that tend to work for me on a short-term basis:

  • Bach Rescue Pastilles
    Manufactured in Massachusetts, purchased from a co-op in Rimouski, and Google tells me they are also available in this country. It's a natural stress remedy, a pastille that you chew. I'm not sure whether it actually works - it's certainly not a replacement for anti-anxiety medication - but it certainly doesn't make me feel any worse, and chewing something kind of forces me to think of other things.
  • Tea
    To me, tea is a great investment. There's a tea for every occasion! You'd have thought that being back in England would mean savouring a "proper cuppa", but I've actually come to prefer the endless selection of fruit and herbal teas out there. I gave up coffee a couple of months ago because I found it was making my heart race in a not-good way. Also, tea has a fresher feeling in the morning. My favourites right now are Twinings Camomile & Maple, and Teapigs Super Fruit.
  • Writing
    I've kept some sort of diary since I was 11. I find it very helpful to write down the things that are causing me anxiety. In particular, it can highlight your patterns or triggers. When I am in the grip of one particular worry, that horrid feeling can last from a day to a month - whatever time it takes to assure me that my worst fear isn't going to come true. You just have to ride it out, but making your worry somewhat tangible and knowing you've had a similar one before can remind you that it most likely is your mind playing tricks.
  • 'Calm It Down' by Sisyphus
    This is the latest Sufjan project (with Serengeti and Son Lux), and for some reason I find this song more calming than any self-proclaimed "chillout" music. When you feel / like driving your car / into a telephone pole / just stop it, you got it! It goes without saying that the rest of the record is awesome and I'll be hard pressed to name a better one in 2014 even though it is only April. I'm also really into FKA Twigs at the moment. Her music is calming and sensual and refreshing.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

20 things I learnt over the past six months in Quebec

  1. Actually, not everything in shops carries hidden taxes, but it is better to assume it is than to rely on having exact change.
  2. If you don't know how much to tip someone, add up the federal tax and the provincial tax on the receipt (unless, of course, you want to tip more than 15%). Thanks Andrea!
  3. Snow isn't a magical, powdery occurrence that cancels school and makes everything look pretty for a week. It's this hideous thing that gets all muddy and gets piled up on the sides of the roads as a snowpack for literally half the year and you just have to deal with it.
  4. Any temperature above -10°C is tropical.
  5. You will accept Tim Horton as your one true lord and saviour.
  6. Wash your hair the night before. Frozen hair is cool at first but then it's not really worth it.
  7. Banking is a pain. You have to pay to use a cashpoint that's not from your bank. You are only allowed a certain number of transactions per month. You have to go to the bank in person to ask if you can set your account up to make international transfers.
  8. The winter boots you choose will make or break your year. Don't skimp on them; make sure they are sufficiently waterproof and not too heavy to walk in.
  9. The more you travel through towns of Quebec at night, the more you will realise that huge, illuminated crosses are a thing.
  10. Hockey haircuts are also a thing.
  11. Many francophones pronounce "Macklemore" the same way as an anglophone would pronounce "Michael Moore". This can cause confusion for both parties.
  12. If someone describes someone else as "English", they usually don't mean the person is from England. This word is politically loaded in Quebec, meaning an anglophone.
  13. In Canada, pitta bread is not oval, but circular?! Which is why pitta pizza is common. Not that oval pizza is against the law, or anything.
  14. Some people at home asked me whether milk-bags-in-Canada is true. I can't personally confirm this, as I buy non-dairy milks, but in the culinary section I did see a jug specifically for the purpose of pouring milk from a bag.
  15. You will spend many long-distance car journeys in the company of complete strangers and this is completely normal.
  16. No matter how good you get at French, don't be surprised if someone in Montreal replies to you in English. Probably best to go with it if they don't appear to be struggling.
  17. Primary school students will get surprisingly excited if you offer them stickers from England as an incentive to finish their work. As in, they dance and they chant.
  18. Secondary school students will shyly approach you and ask if you've met their favourite One Direction member.
  19. Back home, you will pay £40 for a plaid shirt. In Canada, you probably won't pay more than $15.
  20. When you fly home via a country where English is not the official language, and you see a poster in the airport exclusively in English in huge type, you will subconsciously wonder why it's not also in the official language in bigger type. (On Quebec signage, if there is an English translation it is required to be a lot smaller than the French.)