It might not be pertinent, but I feel like it might be: I started writing this post last August, a week or two after finishing a lovely, longish stint of work at a newspaper. Clearly the euphoria of working in jam-stained pajamas again got to me, because I went on to not finish it for another eight months. In a way, though, that’s a core part of what this post is about. Prioritising and realising what you want to be spending your time doing, but more importantly what you don’t want to spend your time doing. Last August I wanted to go out and enjoy the warmth and sunshine (remember how great that was?), apply for fellowships in Germany, write for a magazine. I didn’t want to write a blog post about priorities. And now I do.
A few weeks ago, I was very kindly invited by the good people at BET to a screening of their new original drama, Being Mary Jane, starring the talented and ageless Gabrielle Union. After nibbles and drinks in one of the bars in the Soho Hotel, we settled into one of the screening rooms to watch. I have thoughts – and feelings – about Being Mary Jane, but let me point out three things real quick. These three things are small but telling – and they could not have been written except by the hand of a black woman (in this case Mara Brock Akil, the creator of the much missed characters of Maya, Toni, Joan and Lynn in sitcom Girlfriends). Here are the three things:
- Mary Jane mentions her edges;
- At the gym, Mary Jane pulls on a shower cap en route to the shower;
- At work, in a discussion with another woman of colour (her Latina colleague Kara, played by Lisa Vidal), Mary Jane calls up and calls out the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’.
I first watched She’s All That back in 1999, at the Stratford Picturehouse some weekend after school. I remember loving it, because it hit all the spots it was supposed to: boy and girl got to have each other at the end, and bad guy kind of got his comeuppance, which is as it should be in real life. The 90s – especially in the mid-to-late period – was a significant time for teen movies. It was a golden period, during which the industry enjoyed a purple patch starting around 1995 with Clueless, continuing into 1996 with The Craft, and exploding in a high point of acne, prom and hormone-fug in 1999, which saw the release of 10 Things I Hate About You, Cruel Intentions, Never Been Kissed, Election, American Pie and of course, She’s All That. In 2000 and 2001, we saw movies like Bring it On, Get Over It and Save The Last Dance, but largely, the boom was over. There would be no real, big, all-encompassing teen movie moment for a few years, when Tina Fey’s triumphant Mean Girls reared its plastics head in 2004. Here, in 2014, we still have not seen as rich a spread as the late 90s gave us.
And so one one icy evening in Berlin last autumn, I powered up my laptop and cued up She’s All That. I was feeling nostalgic, perhaps a little homesick that night, which is probably why the movie appealed so strongly. Prior to this, I don’t think I’d watched it in almost a decade, and my recollection went something like this: vague Pygmalion references, popular guy, outsider girl, a bet, a makeover, a misunderstanding, prom scene, resolution, Kiss Me by Sixpence None The Richer, FIN. Turns out, it was all of these things and so much more. It seems obvious to say, but watching a film at the age of 16 or 17 yields a vastly different return to the one you get when you view that same work in your 30s. For one thing, life at 16 was an infinitely simpler thing. I had sixth form, little to no money, and a head filled with teenage mush alongside the standard issue brain. In my 30s, on a journalism fellowship in a foreign country, and thoughts of the bills I would face upon my return to London, life is a little more lived, less shiny. I do not say this to sound wise and fat with experience – it is just the truth. I may not be old, or been to war, or birthed a child. But I have been paying council tax for ten years now, and filing a tax return for four, and let me tell you – that shit will change your outlook.
Before we go any further, I want you to know that according to Wikipedia, this movie cost $10 million to make, and made more than $100 million at the box office. I also want you to know something I discovered only last summer: this movie was apparently co/ghostwritten by M Night Shyamalan. Chew on that for a second. Masticate the thought until it is a pulpy mess. Now swallow. Your mind has just been blown.
Anyway. She’s All That. Below is a kind of recap of the film, plus my feelings upon watching it again, 15 years after its release. It’s a ramble and at just over 5,000 words, a bit of a slog. You have been warned: bow out now, or forever hold your peace.
Most Fridays for the last nine-ish months, I have been putting together a list of things I like, and posting them on Twitter. With trademark wit, the list is called “#Bims10Things” and I am delighted by the number of people who are genuinely into the things I share. The formula is not set, but includes staples: old Hollywood glamour, previously unseen photos of personal faves, music, videos, vintage ads, gifs, very good-looking men and women and always, always, a photo of my obsession, Solange. The exclamations of joy at the list usually take the form of retweets, perhaps with a little note at the beginning or end. People cc in their friends – “look! You’ll love this kitten in a sporran” etc – and others drop me out completely, leaving only the hashtag as a marker of its origin. There is a loudness to their consumption of the list – “come, share this further” is the feeling I get – which marks it as a clearly public activity.
Earlier this week, back in the old year, I tweeted about how full the gyms would be in the next couple of weeks. I joked about sitting at home, caressing a gut (nicknamed Ira) and laughing. I didn’t mean to downplay the relative importance of fitness or imply that those in possession of a sizeable gut cannot be fit. I was just pointing out my own laziness and lack of motivation when it comes to a ‘right-and-tight’ body. I was also, in a sort of cowardly way, laughing at the clear display of hope over experience. The scene at the gym is nothing new – every January, driven by the overindulgence at Christmas, swimming pools and gymnasiums fill up with enthusiastic punters, either luxuriating in a shiny new membership, or a holding a renewed commitment in their hearts and minds. The queue for the treadmill and the wall of occupied lockers is a physical manifestation of the thought: “I will be better.” The gym is a handy example, but it’s everywhere you look, this reckless, no-basis-in-reality optimism. I mock it, but deep down, I love the hope that needs to exist in order for the scene to occur. The hope of a new year is magical, transformative. It is, in my limited view, one of the things that makes us human.
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.