If you are a writer, and one day find yourself in a classroom with other adults, learning a foreign language, you will not be able to help yourself. You will inevitably—joylessly, even—start to narrate the activities happening around you in the voice of David Sedaris. It will sneak up on you, this tendency, until you are fully submerged in it. You may find that your inner voice has changed accents when you weren’t paying attention. You’ll find yourself giving your classmates nicknames, initially temporary to help you identify who’s butchering the new language alongside you, but then later, because you’ve come to like the slightly waspish nicknames you’ve bestowed on them. “Sharp Italian” will remain as is, and so will “Indecipherable American” and “Serious Spaniard”. You will imagine these nicknames when you tell people how your classes are going.
At this stage in the game, the jig is almost up. I can practically smell London, and I’ve already begun to regain the ability to say ‘sorry’ to inanimate objects. This all means one thing: I’m running out of Berlin road. In a mere two weeks, I will be back in London, eating my mum’s delicious spinach stew with basmati rice, sitting at my kitchen table in jam-stained pyjamas and idling far too long on the internet. So here’s a final installment of my ‘Observations’ posts in the Bim Does Berlin strand.
I know. You’re gutted.
Like dreams, food—the description and study of—is only interesting to the person it directly concerns. When you start the analysis of something that literally no one wants to hear, look closely into the eyes of the person you’re talking to. There, clear as day, will be the manifestation of the internet acronym “TL;DR”. No one cares the way you care, b. And here’s a life lesson for free: no one ever will.
So that’s why I’ve resisted writing about my Berlin diet on this blog so far. In fact, I wasn’t going to write about it at all, because what can you say, really? More importantly, what can you say that anyone is chomping at the bit to read? But then three things happened. 1) I read this essay on The Morning News (which is an ace site, and you should be reading stuff from there); 2) A long and overdue gchat session with a friend in London, during which the following question came up: “how’s the food? Better?” And to which I replied, somewhat sniffily, “Not better. Different”; and 3) I thought, “it’s my damn blog, and I can write whatever I want.”
So this is a post about food, specifically, the food I’ve been eating for the last month and a bit.
On the way to brunch in Prenzlauer Berg, I sat opposite a drowsy young man in maroon jeans and brown suede boots. He had on a fisherman’s chunky sweater, not dissimilar to the type Jim Carrey wore in The Truman Show, with a short black coat.. His hair was brown and curly/wavy/messy, what the lazier elements of my trade might describe as an “appealing mop”. He was also staggeringly beautiful. Just… gorgeous. I want to stress that I’m saying that objectively, by the way. Yes, his was an objective beauty, you see – the kind you can’t ignore or argue isn’t real. His beauty was warmth-of-the-sun real. As real as the long eyelashes, the characterful nose, the curve of his cupid’s bow. As real as the train we were travelling on. As real as my eyes widening when I took in the splendor of his face. Here, at 10:45 on a Sunday morning, was uncomplicated hotness – the kind that makes a girl reach for a line of dialogue from 1999′s magical weepie, Stepmom. He was, in the language of the flighty, sort of flaky Julia Roberts character, “a stone fox”.
Berlin: why is a significant proportion your male population so good-looking?
Last week, I saw a tweet in which the author was marvelling at having spotted the term ‘twerking’ in a song all the way back from 2006. I think the tweet ended on an exclamation point – it was perhaps a jokey way of saying, “Hey! Pop culture, eh? Undiscovered layers like an onion.”
Even earlier in the week, I’d had a Twitter conversation with Mallory Ortberg (of online treasure The Toast), about new movie The Best Man Holiday, a sequel to The Best Man (1999), starring Sanaa Lathan, Taye Diggs and The Flawless Nia Long™ among others. In the course of our conversation, we excitedly squeeed about the new film, and lamented the poor folks who’d never seen the first movie – or indeed Love and Basketball, or Love Jones. To me, these are genre-defining movies, watched around the same time I was consuming Sleepless in Seattle and My Best Friend’s Wedding and so on.
Travelling to German class one day, I go through Weinmeisterstraße station on the U8 line of the U-Bahn. I think Weinmeisterstraße might be my favouritely named station (there’s some history on the station, which was a ‘Geisterbanhof‘ during the Berlin Wall years).
Okay, it’s been considerably longer than a few days of living in Berlin. Here are a few more thoughts.
1. Smoking. I’ve been to Paris a couple of times, and both times, was overwhelmed by the smoking. Parisians do not dick around with their fags. They will smoke everywhere they can, and I thought they were the world’s best – until I moved to Berlin. Every single Berliner smokes. Men, women, olds, youngs, toddlers, teens, market traders, IT guys, cats, dogs, tables, chairs – THEY ALL SMOKE. It is disconcerting, it is bad for my clothes, and the smell lingers in my afro. I’ve even seen a couple of people just light up on the U-Bahn. Like, “I can’t even be arsed to go overground for this nicotine hit. Fuck you and your genteel sensibilities, pass me that lighter.” Berliners really dig smoking, is what I’m saying.
Everyone – and I mean everyone – warned me about the cold. The Brits at home before I left: “Berlin! Ooh, they’ve got proper cold winters, you know”; the Berliners themselves when I arrived: “Only last week, a fierce Siberian wind carried away most of the city’s children”; even the internet-at-large joined in: “You’re going to need a killer winter wardrobe of fur, capes, long johns and serious boots…” Well, okay. I bought and packed extra jumpers, fleece and fur-lined tights, and thermal leggings and long johns. I packed three pairs of boots (jettisoning the velvet pair at the airport thanks to an overweight suitcase) and 15 pairs of socks. I bought a new hat, and rolled seven scarves into my hand luggage. I got to Berlin and I… sweated like Seabiscuit after a hard day at the racetrack. It was all blue skies and fluffy white clouds. A couple of days at 18-20°C, even. The Germans in the office cheerfully told me I was experiencing a blip: “This sunshine is very unseasonal,” they said. “It will soon go back, don’t you worry.” But it didn’t.
And then after a couple of weeks of walking around with my coat wide open and my emergency scarf jauntily tied around my bag strap, winter descended very suddenly. I felt it all the way through my layers, clear to my bones. The rain felt icy, the drops as sharp as tiny Nazgul fingers. “Ah, shit,” I thought as I jammed my hands into my pockets. “Winter is here.” Also: “I should’ve worn my gloves this morning.”
A few days into my Berlin sojourn, over-confident with the initial navigational successes of the previous couple of days, I took a wrong turn out of the station and got briefly but not scarily lost. Like many Londoners, I am an enthusiastic but non-professional walker – like piano players who can’t read sheet music, but know all the keys, I often know exactly where I’m going without being able to tell you if that’s north or southwest. The confidence I feel when walking is unmatched in any other form of transportation. My mum in the kitchen is the same way. Her recipes are basic – lists of ingredients, really; what you really need is the years of accumulated experience she has. She has an ease in every kitchen she ends up in, and incomplete recipes pose no threat to her. That’s me and walking. I hate when a friend gives me directions like, “get the bus for seven stops…” because what the hell is “seven stops”, especially in the hands of a London bus driver? I can’t drive, so that’s all the way out, and I don’t cycle – something which so profoundly dismayed the two Berliners I told that I’ve now taken to saying “Oh, I’m just not very confident on a bike”. It’s being creative with the truth, sure, but it garners concern for my safety on Berlin’s streets, rather than uncomprehending, blind disgust that I have not mastered the skills a child could.
Walking implies a kind of certainty, is what I’m saying. And in this ever-changing world, I find I need that.
This morning on the way to work, I saw a tiny brown mouse at Mehringdamm station. I thought it was a smooth brown stone at first, one of the millions of brown rocks that sit around the tracks up and down the U-Bahn network. But then, like the little grey ones (darting around the grey steel and grey stones) in London, this rock moved. I warmed to Berlin just a little more – over a stupid arbitrary thing like this, yes. This city and my city have small rodents that make a good-enough life in the transport systems. Tenuous at best, but there you go. Being away from home reveals layers, and they’re not all deep or profound.
Just a few observations after more than a few days of being here.
1. Your bogs. What is up with your weird ‘shelf’-toilets, Berlin? Who needs a tray mechanism in the loo? Is it there to survey the contents of one’s bladder in closer detail? Or the other thing, even? You may have windows that close properly (good for you, Germany!) but this toilet thing? Unpleasant. Honestly – shelf-loos! What will you think of next? Stirrups for arms at sinks?
Yesterday was my full first day in Berlin. I discovered that I have a cold, that I am woefully unfit (ssshhh – this is not exactly breaking news), and that I did not pack an umbrella, having left mine at the fancy London restaurant where we had our farewell dinner. I bought that basic black umbrella for 12 quid in Boots. Today I replaced it with a snazzy (basic) red one for 2.90€. So I can sum up my 24 hours in Berlin as follows: up your game, London!
Well, I got it.
I GOT THE JOURNALISM FELLOWSHIP I APPLIED FOR LAST MONTH!
I’m off to Germany for a coupla months, friends, and I am dead chuffed. Thanks to the lovely people who wished me luck on here, and thanks to the selection panel who saw in my application what I hoped they would see, and thank God and all the ancestors who made it all come to pass.