Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think

I signed up to Netflix recently. I thought it would be empowering to decide when to invite Don Draper into my living room. After all, how better to embrace the modern trend of Taking Control of Your Life, than by streaming on demand?

Or so I thought. As it turns out, being in control isn’t as much fun as you think.

You’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The idea that being in control is something worth aspiring to is shockingly widespread. In fact, many people seem quite obsessed with it.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine published an article titled Six Ways to Take Control of Your Life. That was one-upped by, which managed to come up with 7 Ways to Control your Life Today. The Huffington Post went even further with its now sadly out-of-date 12 Ways to Take Control of Your Life in 2014.

Apart from the confusion about the exact number of steps required to take control of your life, it’s far from clear whether it’s worth the effort at all.

When I was a teenager living in Ireland, the state broadcaster RTE showed Ally McBeal every Monday night at 9.30 pm. My sister and I would race to the television at the appointed time, curling up beside the fire with a Cadbury’s flake bar to discover the latest shenanigans taking place at Cage and Fish.

It was a ritual made possible by our helplessness. Monday at 9.30 pm was the only time to catch up with Ally. Miss it and miss out. We were prepared to wait a whole week for her. Not like nowadays, when Ally just paces around, ready to appear on demand as soon as I tire of Don.

People tend to forget that being in control means missing out on some of life’s most primal delights. Like the excitement and unexpected pleasure of hearing your favourite song on the radio, for example. Come on, we’ve all been there: you’re washing up, scrubbing a stubborn layer of grease off a saucepan with the radio on in the background, only to shriek in delight, rip off your rubber gloves and have a 3-minute boogie -break to Uptown Girl.

You could have just played it on your phone, couldn’t you? But it wouldn’t have been the same, would it?

Being in control all the time prevents you from committing what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error.”

It sounds like a bad thing, but fundamental attribution errors (in laymen’s terms, blaming anybody and anything but yourself) let you get away with murder.

Back in the day, you could get away with saying things like: “Sorry I can’t make your boring cocktail reception on Monday; I have to stay at home to watch Ally McBeal.” Now, you have to say something like: “Of all the possible times available to me, I’m choosing to stream Ally specifically to coincide with your event.”

It’s hard to argue with the first. Asking someone to sacrifice their weekly ritual is a pretty big deal. Refusing to adjust your streaming habits just makes you sound like a jerk. So much for empowerment.

This kind of conversation is going on all over Germany right now

“Under UN law, they are entitled to go to school!” said the bearded man sitting next to me. “It’s a human right!”

“Yes, but the problem is that they’re not on the books here!” a woman with a long black plait retorted from the other side of the room.

“Look,” said a blonde woman with a biro. “How did they get into the home in the first place? They wouldn’t have ended up there if they weren’t registered!”

The issue under discussion was a home for unaccompanied migrant children which has recently opened in the area. It’s located by a lake in the forest and is currently home to 55 young males between the ages of 15 and 17.

Apparently at least. There’s no way of really knowing their age since they don’t have any papers to prove their identity.

And that’s just the beginning. Assuming these boys are the age they say they are, they could be required to attend school here. Berlin state law requires people to spend at least ten years in school. If these kids have already completed that number of years in their home countries, they wouldn’t be required to do so here.

But then there’s also the Berufsschulpflicht (vocational training requirement). It requires pupils to either continue studying or attend vocational training once those ten years have elapsed.

So, assuming that these kids have in some way met both those requirements in their home countries (or at least, say they have), what then?

Well, then there’s the Schulbesuchrecht (right to attend school). That means that pupils have the right to attend school if they wish but aren’t required to by law.

To make matters more complicated, different rules apply in different German states, making it a logistical nightmare if kids are moved around. And it’s not even clear whether German law applies to asylum-seekers.

So, having got all that confusion out of the way, what about the kids in the home by the lake?

Well, for one, they don’t seem to be registered with the local authorities yet. It’s the first thing you have to do when you move to Germany. Without that piece of paper proving who you are, anything from opening a bank account to getting a job is pretty much impossible.

But the waiting list for an appointment seems endless. And without that piece of paper, you can’t get an asylum-seeker into a school. And so the discussion continued:

“So, how about we just go down to the town hall with a group of them and register them ourselves?” one woman suggested.

“Sure, but what are we to say?” asked another. “I mean, it’s not like we can vouch for them. We don’t have their papers either. We won’t be able to answer any of the officials’ questions!”

“Yes, but at least we’ll know what’s going on!” the first woman replied.

Conversations like these are going on all over Germany.

Remember, we are talking here of 55 asylum-seekers out of the close to million expected to have arrived in the country before the end of the year.

It’s not going to be easy. But I sure am proud to be living in a country ready to take on the challenge.

On Sunday, I’m going to meet some of the boys at an event organized by volunteers in my area. The “Advent Sunday” party will introduce the youngsters to the delights of German Christmas biscuits – a staple requirement for successful integration into the culture.

The other hurdles won’t be quite so sweet.

Frau Bienkowski’s ex-boyfriend

“Did you have boyfriends before LSB?” asked Frau Bienkowski.

“I did,” I said. “But I can count them on one hand. Did you have any relationships before you met your husband?”

“When I was a girl,  I had a crush on a lad who went to the boys’ school nearby. He was quite good-looking and certainly the best-dressed among his peers.”

I nodded understandingly. (Who am I to question the selection criteria of a lady with 70 years more dating experience and a vastly superior fashion sense?)

“We were friends for a while,” said Frau B. “But then he went away to do an apprenticeship with Siemens.”

“Did you keep in touch?”

“We wrote each other letters but agreed not to be exclusive.”


Here is a tangential picture of LSB’s sillouette

“What happened when he came back?”

“Well, one night, we all went to a ball. My mother made me a red silk dress; it really was exquisite; a perfect fit.

Months later, the boy told me that he’d always remember how well I looked that night.

Then suddenly,” said Frau B, pausing for effect, “out of nowhere, my bubble burst and he no longer paid me a scrap of attention.”

“Oh no!” I said. “Why not?”

“At first, I had no idea,” said Frau B. “Then finally, one of his friends admitted that he’d told my crush a bizarre story about me hating his guts!”

“What? Why did he do that?”

“I don’t know. Jealously probably. Anyway, we didn’t talk for months but eventually re-established contact. We wrote each other letters for years and years after that – even after we’d both married other people!”

“How did your husband feel about that?” I asked.

“He didn’t really like it,” said Frau B. “I had to reassure him sometimes. Once, when I was out walking with my husband we saw the man again. He didn’t look that great any more. I told my husband that now, were I to meet the man for the first time, I wouldn’t give him a second glance.”

“Did that reassure him?”

“It did,” said Frau B. “You’ve got to reassure men sometimes, don’t you?”

“You do,” I said, and told her all about my dating history in exchange.

Imagine a world without melancholy

My time in Istanbul was drawing to a close and I was feeling sad. I’d been wandering through the streets of the old town trying to find a Syrian family I’d seen begging earlier. I’d walked right past them – then, riddled with guilt – asked LSB to help me find the way back so I could give them some Turkish Lira. When we got there, they’d gone.

Two Syrian refugees sleeping in Istanbul's old town.

Two Syrian refugees sleeping in Istanbul’s old town.

We bought some tea and brought it to a bench. From there we had a view of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which seemed to be competing for magnificence. Above us, a sea gull was being tormented by a man selling laser pointers. The light followed the swooping bird relentlessly, bathing its feathers in a red glow, until the vendor got bored and turned it off.

“I think I have hüzün,” I said, referring to Orhan Pamuk’s description of a particular form of Turkish melancholy, which he ascribes to the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

“Except,” I continued, “I feel sad about the whole world – not just the demise of Turkey’s greatness.”

It is not rational to feel the combined weight of the world’s woes on your shoulders.  As benign as the trigger for your despair might be, this kind of melancholy does not redeem itself by serving as a call to action. Instead, as I sat there, watching men shuffle around trying to sell packets of tissues and stray dogs sleeping under the street lamps, the feeling that coursed through me could best be described as inertia.

Some of Istanbul's many stray dogs

Some of Istanbul’s many stray dogs

LSB and I agree that I probably experience melancholy more often and more acutely than most. The experience encompasses both the general and the particular. While I may begin by grieving the decline of a particular friendship in my life, I am likely to end up lamenting the inevitable death of all relationships. My melancholy is not discerning. Sometimes I cry at a song that sounds sad but whose lyrics I am unable to decipher.

LSB and I share a deep admiration for a friend of mine who I believe distinguishes herself by her ability to – if this is the technical term – “just get on with it.” Her interests are practical – she loves her car, her exercise regime and ticking things off lists. She is not somebody to talk to about ideas or sensations. Her conversations cover familiar ground – they are uncomplicated and comforting – focussing more on mechanical processes, like car washes and the practical details of her work, than on overarching themes – like interrogating the status quo.

The Blue Mosque at night

The Blue Mosque at night

I enjoy her company; our conversations remind me that by focussing on life’s more trivial obstacles, we can regain some control. Even if that simply means knowing the best place to fill up a tank.

“Would you like to be like that?” LSB asked me, his eyes now following a drone which was circling the Blue Mosque.

“Sometimes I really would,” I said.

“But would you really?” he asked, knowing he might provoke me into contradicting myself.

“I guess you wouldn’t know what you were missing,” I said.  “I mean, melancholy bears gifts – without encountering it, you’d never recognize its cousin: poignancy and other relatives: beauty, transience and awe.”

“Life would lose its richness,” said LSB.

“I guess it would,” I said smiling, reluctantly.

Istanbul’s beautiful fragility

In his memoir Istanbul, Turkey’s most famous writer Orhan Pamuk describes the particular kind of beauty strangers encounter in his city:

“A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke – condemned, abandoned and now fallen into neglect – a fountain from whose spouts no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of houses abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews … none of these things look beautiful to the people who live amongst them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless, hopeless neglect. Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins – invariably, we’re people who come from the outside.”

Last week I had the pleasure of being an outsider in Istanbul. The beauty I encountered there was unlike any I’ve experienced before.


Sunset in Istanbul

There is the obvious beauty of the city’s magnificent skyline – particularly at sunset, when the silhouettes of mosques and ancient towers merge with the starker contours of the skyscrapers and cranes– and everything , including the glittering Bosphorus, is bathed in an orange glow.

But there is a different kind of beauty too – a fragile kind, which makes you feel that the entire city is held together by the most delicate of threads and that, if you were to tread too hard or in the wrong place, the entire metropolis could crumble before you.


Istanbul at dusk

This fragility is everywhere. It is in the wooden houses, with their crooked windows and shabby fronts and the chipped paint on the doors. It is in the young waiters outside restaurants, who – having failed to lure you in with a flashy smile and cheeky soundbite, return with resignation to the car-racing games on their mobile phones.

It was in the way our taxi driver whizzed through the city without a seat belt – getting lost in the old town and shouting at other drivers for directions yet saying nothing to us. It was in the way young boys wove through the heavy traffic selling bottles of water in the searing heat.

It is in the chaos at the Grand Bazaar, where the individual spiels of hundreds of vendors selling you the same wares are at once farcical and endearing. It is in the way they make you feel special though you know you are not.

At the waterfront, the cries of men selling Hugo Boss perfume, corn-on-the-cobs, selfie-sticks and even, apparently, Viagra,  compete with the blare of the ships’ horns on the Bosphorus.  It is a clamour suggestive of both hope and despair.

Pamuk ascribes Istanbul’s peculiar melancholy to the decline of the Ottoman Empire – to a collective mourning for what was and never again will be.

If the source of Istanbul’s  beautiful fragility lies in its history – it is nevertheless in the scramble of every-day life on the streets where it is best preserved.

Fragility can take many forms.

Before I went to Istanbul, I consulted the websites of several countries’ embassies to read their advice for travellers. In the days before my trip, there had been violence in the south of the country and gunfire outside a palace in Istanbul. There was also, apparently, a specific terror threat to the city’s public transport network.

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

Controlled explosion at Taksim Square

As so often happens, my fears dissipated as soon as I set foot in the city and became distracted by its magnificence.

But as I approached Taksim Square for the first time, my unease returned. The area had been cordoned off and was encircled by police vans. Crowds had gathered to watch a man in a bomb suit make his way towards the towering statue of Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The explosion terrified the pigeons into flight

The man carried out a controlled explosion – terrifying a flock of pigeons into flight. Its power sent a shiver coursing down my spine.

Moments later, the police were gone

and the square was once again teeming with people. It was if nothing had happened.

Prora – second chance for a dilapidated Nazi resort?

It’s breathtakingly beautiful here, with the leaves glistening as they catch the sun and the ocean shimmering beyond the forest clearing.

Prora beach

Prora beach

Turn the other way –  away from the sea – and you encounter something else entirely.

Crumbling concrete blocks with glassless windows, as far as the eye can see.

Row upon row of grey, with the occasional scaffolding dotted in between.

This was supposed to be Nazi Germany’s holiday paradise.

I’m on the island of Rügen on the Baltic Sea. More specifically I’m in Prora, a haunting beach-side idyll between the holiday towns of Saasnitz and Binz.

In 1936, an architect named Clemens Klotz was commissioned to design a holiday resort here. The project’s slogan was “Kraft durch Freude,” which means “Strength through Joy.” The purpose was to offer ordinary Germans two weeks of seaside rest and restoration so they could return refreshed to their primary function: serving Nazi Germany.

The 4.5 kilometre stretch was to accommodate some 20,000 people and every bedroom was to have an ocean view.


Roadside sign pointing to Prora


“Model homes” advertised

But the War got in the way and building was abandoned. In later years, parts of the complex were used by the Soviets as an army barracks.

A symbol of both Nazi ideology and post-war Soviet aggression, Prora’s image is nothing if not tainted.

But things are changing. 80 years since its inception, Prora is once again in the midst of aggressive development.

On the cycle there, I passed countless signs advertising “Muster Wohnungen,” or “show homes.”


The completed refurbishment in the middle contrasts with the buildings on either side.

Follow them and you get to a Portakabin. Inside, you can view the plans for Prora’s future. The new holiday homes mirror the charmless Plattenbau style of the originals. The biggest difference is their pristine white exterior – a stark contrast to the drab appearance of their predecessors.

Those interested in buying can avail of a private tour of a nearby block.

There was nobody around so I wandered into the dilapidated building. With holes in the walls and dust everywhere, the glossy display boards featuring images of fancy holiday apartments added to the surreal effect.

Inside the building

Inside the building


Before we got kicked out. Photographer: LSB aka Berlin Boffer

It wasn’t long before I got caught though. A middle-aged man with a booming voice charged in – demanding to know whether I could read. Apparently the sign outside clearly described the site as a private property.

I left, but not before capturing some shots inside.

Later, I wheeled my bike along the strand all the way back to Binz. The sun was setting; the light was glorious. A few children were paddling in the water – wading around abandoned sand sculptures and heaps of shells.

A group of teenagers were playing a game of volleyball – their laughs competing with the lapping of the waves.

This, I thought, is how Prora is supposed to be.

sunet at Binz

sunset at Binz

The lonely Berlin taxi driver

I get a lot of taxis in Berlin, mostly at around 4 in the morning, which is when I get off work. I like talking to the drivers. We have nearly the same conversation every night.

“Frau Ferguson?” they say as I open the door.


We cover familiar topics like traffic diversions, whether it’s been a busy night and what the news items of the day have been.

Often we talk about where we’re from too. Most of the taxi drivers have Turkish or Middle Eastern roots. That’s led to some interesting exchanges, like recently, when a driver compared the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland to Shia-Sunni sectarianism.

The other night was different though. My taxi driver had a flat Berlin accent. Instead of asking where I was from, he guessed.


“Nope. Ireland!”

“Ah! Kerrygold!”

“Yes,” I said, only mildly surprised. “They have an excellent marketing team.”

“What do you mean?” he said. “Irish butter really is better.”

“I rest my case!” I said, laughing. “Anyway, what about you? Are you a real Berliner?”

“Yes,” he said, a little tensely. “One of the few left!”

Attribution:  Matti Blume via Creative Commons

Attribution: Matti Blume via Creative Commons

He’s right, you know. Berlin is not the place to meet Berliners. I can count the number I know on one hand.

“But where have they all gone?” I asked.

“To the outskirts of Brandenburg. I’m dying to go too. Only I’m stuck here working.”

“Why are they all leaving?”

“Because it’s no longer their city. Everything’s changed.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I mean, I’ve only been here three years and I can see the city change before my eyes. Often, when I go to bars or cafes, people automatically speak English to me. I mean, I can imagine that can get pretty annoying if you’re German.”

“Sure. Sometimes you forget where you are.”

“I guess that’s down to people like me, isn’t it?”

“Ach, no.”

But I could tell that he agreed.

Picking herbs with a bunch of strangers on an island

Last Friday I had one of those days you think feature only in fairytales.

I set off from home with a wicker basket, wandered through a forest, took a boat to an island and spent  the day picking herbs with strangers in their fifties (my preferred demographic). Then we made nettle soup and a giant bucket of pesto, which I took home in the empty glass jar our course instructor had advised us to bring along.

There were no big bad wolves but there were apparently two families of wild boars residing on the island.

All the humans were lovely, which makes sense given that they’d elected to spend their time picking herbs and making pesto.

Altogether it was an idyllic day and exactly what I’d needed after some stressful days at work.

For curious Berliners, the island’s located on Tegeler See and the one-day herb-picking course was offered by the Berliner Volkshochschule. Right now, I’m trying to decide on my next one. It’s a close contest between acorn-picking and apple-ring roasting. If my hectic work schudule allows, I’ll simply do both.

For international readers, random Internet visitors and my loyal blog troll, here’s what the island of Scharfenberg looks like:

Frau Bienkowski breaks her leg

Last Saturday, I took some visiting friends to the Grunewald forest. After enjoying a lakeside picnic, we made our way up Teufelsberg hill, where we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city.

I decided to call Frau B from the top of the hill. I wanted to describe the view but I was also keen to share some good news. My friends had got engaged the day before. Knowing what a fan Frau B is of romance and weddings, I knew she’d be happy to hear.

She answered after a couple of rings, indicating that she was in bed, rather than in her chair.

Attribution: Axel Mauruszat via Wiki Commons

Attribution: Axel Mauruszat via Wiki Commons

“How are you, Katechen?” she asked.

“Good,” I said, about to launch into a description of the view and my friends’ upcoming nuptials. “How are you?”

“I’ve been in hospital,” she said.

My stomach lurched. Frau B hates hospitals. She will go to significant lengths to conceal ailments in order to avoid going.

“I broke my leg,” she said.

“Oh no! When?”

“Last Thursday. In the corridor. I lost grip of my Zimmerframe and slipped. But I yelled and one of the carers came straight away.”

I arranged to come around the next day.20150322_111937[1]

When I arrived I found Frau B in her usual spot by the window. She was in her nightie, resting her leg on a stool.

She looked as radiant as ever.

“Hello, Katechen” she said. “Are you alone?”

“LSB will be here in a while. He’s getting you your strawberries.”

“Ach! How nice.”

I asked Frau B about her hospital experience.

“I was on a trolley for two hours!” she said. “There was a man who got seen before me just because his wife made a fuss.

“When I did get seen, the first thing they did was an XRay. The doctor told me it was a clean break. Since I have a hole in my other foot, I asked him whether he could arrange a wheelchair for me.Do you know what he said?”

Frau B was looking pleased.


He said: ‘Not a hope! You’re still doing so well. If I stick you in a wheelchair now, you’ll never get out! You’re going to walk again. Bit by bit.”

“He’s right,” I said. “You’re only 96! Much too young for a wheelchair.”

Frau B laughed.

There was a knock on the door and LSB popped his head in.

“Andrew!” she said.

“Hallo!” said LSB, placing a punnet of strawberries on the table.

We filled Frau B in on our friends’ engagement.

“Everyone’s getting married except you two!” she said.

We explained our mutual lack of excitement at the prospect of rings, dresses and event planning.

But I did make one big promise.

“If we do get married,” I said. “You can be my bridesmaid.”

Frau Bienkowski’s cousin

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t heard from her cousin in a while. As far as she knows though, she’s still living independently. The evidence comes from an acquaintance who passed by the house and noted that her name was still on the doorbell.

“Perhaps she just no longer answers the phone,” Frau B says.

The woman in question is about the same age as Frau B. In the family photograph that hangs on the wall, they are both little girls. They are sitting next to each other, in fancy dresses and buckled shoes. Frau B sports a short haircut, while her cousin boasts a mass of curls.

“My cousin always thought she was better than everyone,” Frau B tells me. “More intelligent, more beautiful; you name it.” “Even as a child, she had nicer dresses than me. I was jealous of her.

“I still remember, we were on a family outing once. We were about nine at the time. My cousin was wearing a beautiful dress, with short puffy sleeves. I’d never seen anything like it. The road we were walking on was being re-done. My cousin picked up some tiny balls of damp concrete, and rolled them around in her hands. Her mother told her to get rid of them. I guess she didn’t know where to put them. So, do you know what she did?”


“She placed them inside the puffy sleeves of her special dress! I thought it was a bad idea but I didn’t say anything. Of course, the concrete melted and the sleeves were ruined. Her mother gave her a thrashing. But do you know what I did?”

“Go on..”

“I laughed. I laughed because she was getting a beating and not me. I was mean. Her mother said she’d beat me too if I didn’t stop laughing. That kind of thing was allowed back then.”

“What became of your cousin?”

“Well, she was single until late in life. No man was ever good enough for her. But she was widely admired for her looks. Men always gazed at her. My husband too.. he was no angel when it came to that kind of thing.

“There was one man in particular, a civil servant, who lived in her building and who liked her very much. He had a wife though. My cousin would never have contemplated going near him. But then, when my cousin was in her early fifties, his wife died of cancer. At the time, it was customary to spend a year mourning a spouse before moving on.

“A couple of months after his wife’s death, the civil servant sent my cousin a letter containing an offer of marriage. He explained that he had long been an admirer of hers. My cousin came to me for advice. I asked her whether she thought he was a decent person. She said she did. I told her that was enough. Attraction might come later. But at the end of the day, it was she, not me, who would be marrying him. I did warn her though. As a newly widowed civil servant, he would be in high demand. If she dallied too long, she might miss her chance.”

“So, what did she do?”

“She wrote back and said yes. He didn’t even wait out the full year before marrying her.”

“And did they have a happy marriage?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe!” says Frau B.“He lived to be in his nineties and she’s still going. “I do wonder what happened to the dress though. Perhaps it could have been salvaged, if they’d just cut off the sleeves.”