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!