Asparagus Fest!

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Asparagus Fest!

I can’t go anywhere in Berlin without meeting a bundle of asparagus. It’s “Spagel” season, and locals are going to town with asparagus recipes.. and festivals.. and newspaper stories.

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Three Ideas That Have Changed The Way I Think

1. Creativity Is Not What You Think It Is

If you are struggling to think of what to say, or how to say it, or of what to bake or how to dress, you probably need to stop worrying about being “original.” One of my favourite realisations last year was that stealing is okay, and that without it, there’d be no such thing as the “creative process.” I used to think “original” meant “never been done before.” Now I know it means “never been done in this way before.”

Austin Kleon, a young artist whom I have written about before, couldn’t think of anything to put into a short story. He sat in his home in Texas, dreaming of being an artist but his mind felt like blocked toilet. Then he took a copy of the New York Times, and with a marker, started to blot out the words he didn’t like. Before he knew it, he was choosing the words he blotted out very carefully. He had become a poet, and now his books “Newspaper Blackout” and “Steal Like An Artist” are bouncing off the bookshelves.

2. Encouragement Is A Gift

My mama is magic in a lot of ways. But one of her special powers is in her capacity to encourage. When I was young and scared she held me in her arms and said “Ich kann es und ich will es auch.” (I can do it and I want to do it too). So I learnt to swim and climb and jump and to take nearly everything that people told me with a pinch of salt. Encouragement works like a magic powder added to water. The second you release it, it moves through you, opening up, spreading out like a flower burst from a bud. It can change your life. And usually it’s only a few carefully-chosen words or a little smile away.

3. Too Many Choices Is A Bad Thing

What will I buy? What shall I wear? Who will I marry? Where will I go? What should I become? What should I write my novel about? We’re overwhelmed! Freedom is precious and good but too much choice can stifle us. Here is Barry Schwartz explaining it all:

What ideas have changed the way you think?

Eye Candy

A few days ago I found a note from DHL in the letterbox. It said that a package had been left for me in the shoe shop next door. I had to wait until Saturday to pick it up as the store closed before I finished work. The package was from LSB. I think you’ll agree that it was worth the wait?

The Graveyard

My parents brought me running shoes when they visited me at Easter. Yesterday I tried them out. The day was mild and dewy.

I was looking for a park, but instead I ran into a graveyard.

Inside it was still; the birds were singing. Daffodils peeked out from under little heaps of earth. Leaves rustled. A red squirrel skirted past me.

Plastic pots and watering cans lay in a pile of withered flowers.

I passed some buried children; tiny mounds, close together. Words and prayers and a teddy bear.

A woman pushed her bicycle past the graves. The wheels crunched against the gravel.

Further on, I found enormous iron casts from the 1900’s. Whole families were resting there: soldier sons, an 18-year-old girl ripped away from her widowed mother. A family’s heartbreak documented into thick stone slabs. Always the same word: Unvergessen; “unforgotten.”

Then from the trees, slowly a withered old man pushed his Zimmerframe and got down on his knees to tend to a grave.

I watched his tiny frame crouched over a tombstone and his wrinkled hands shovelling the earth in little scoops.

My tears fell like unexpected rain. I was ashamed.

I turned and ran away, past the graveyard shop where they were selling over-priced potted plants, past the red-brick church on the roadside, past the cinema and grotty record store, past the kebab stand.

In the park, dogs bounded through the woodland, toddlers dipped their hands into the water fountain and families played catch. And the birds sang.

Can you remember the last time you got lost?

The Stress Test

Katekatharina stressed (I couldn't open my tin of tomatoes.. I'd been trying for weeks)

I was walking down Kudam, west Berlin’s main shopping street, yesterday when a man with bulging eyes stopped me in my tracks. He smiled sweetly.

“Would you like to take a stress test?” he asked.

“Yes please!” I replied.

He was delighted.

“What’s your name?”

“Kate.”

“And where are you from, Kate?”

“Ireland.”

“Ireland?”

“Yes.”

“Do you speak English?”

“Yes, but German too of course.”

He laughed. “Oh yes, of course!”

A moment of awkwardness passed as he peered at me.

“Let me introduce you to my colleague,” he said.

“Oh, sure.”

“Em, kkKarl,” he called nervously to his superior. “This is Kate.”

Karl, an older man with a harder face but equally penetrative eyes turned to me.

“Hello,” he said and shook my hand.

“Hello.”

“Take a seat.”

“Thank you.”

“First of all, look at these metal rods I am holding,” said Karl.

They looked like dumbells.

“Obviously they are not going to give you an electric shock,” he said. “Look, here I am holding them and nothing is happening.”

“Yes,” I said.

He handed me the rods and I clutched them with all my might.

“I am going to ask you a question, Kate.”

“Okay.”

“The energy from your body will flow into this machine.”

“Right.”

“Think of somebody in your life.”

The counter hovered around zero.

He waited.

Finally he said, “who were you thinking of?”

“My mum.”

“What kind of a relationship do you have with her?”

“It’s good.”

“Do you ever have differences of opinion?”

“Oh, sure. But nothing big”

“But there are sometimes disagreements?”

“Yes.”

He paused a while and then said “What do you do professionally?”

“I’m an intern.”

“In what capacity?”

“I’m working as a journalist.”

His mouth flickered unpleasantly.

But he said, “I want you to think about your job.”

“Okay.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yes.”

“Are there ever stressful moments in your workplace?”

“Yes.”

The scales budged a little.

“Do you see that? This is the negative energy floating from your body.”

“Ah, yes.”

He paused.

“Would you like to know how to eliminate negative energy from your life?”

“Perhaps.”

“Would you like to buy a book which will change your life for the better?”

He whipped out a copy of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

“No thank you. I think I’d like to find out a little more before committing to a purchase.”

He handed me a plastic booklet outlining the main tenets of the Church of Scientology. I skimmed it and thanked him without committment..

He snatched it back and flashed me a murderous glance. I continued down Kudam.

Three Women That Don’t Know They’re In My Life

1. The Prostitute

She has white-blonde hair and long, thin legs. She stands by the red-brick buildings of Hackesher Markt. She wears white leather hot pants, tan coloured tights and furry white snow boots. Her cleavage is pushed up by a skin-tight leather jacket, which she keeps half unzipped. She has red lips and cool, blue eyes. Last Saturday night, it snowed in Berlin. She watched a group of Italian men walk up the street. She stood in their way and smiled, casting her eyes up and down their bodies. First they were uncomfortable, then aroused. She put her arms around one and pushed her body towards his. She pressed her breasts to his chest. All the time, she took sidelong glances at his friends. The snowflakes were sticking to her hair. She was cold.

Berlin's Affluent Red Light District

2. The Girl at the Bakery

She sells sour dough bread and pastries at a bakery at an underground station and her red uniform includes a crumpled tie. She has an old-fashioned kind of face, which refuses to be offset by her hoopy silver earrings, lip piercing and the two thick black scrunchies, which hold back her wavy hair. When she serves customers, she is upbeat. There is something naive in her face which I am drawn to. I think she would flair up at injustice and I think that she is happy in her job. Once when I was eating a Nussecke and sipping on a latté at the bakery, I saw her chat quietly to a colleague. The tone was conspiratorial. It surprised me.

3. The “Tickets Please?” Girl

She could be a child but she is not. She is small and has big brown eyes and dark curly hair. She lives at the entrance to my underground station with homeless men and their giant dogs. Her voice rings in my ears. She says the same thing every day. “Tickets please?”. (Fahrscheine bitte?”). She says it like she is a bored train conductor, but really she is a bored homeless person collecting tickets to sell on. She’s not on drugs because her eyes, while large and droopy are alert. She wears puffy clothes from the 80s and she works much harder collecting tickets than her male friends.

The One-Meter Bar Of Chocolate and Katekatharina’s Mega Easter Competition

A few weeks ago I met an important man in his office on Unter Den Linden.

LSB dives into the chocolate Reichstag

The same evening, the new German president Joachim Gauck was being sworn in. The surrounding area was awash with media types clutching furry microphones, adjusting broadcast platforms, parking vans.

I didn’t know the man I was meeting. He was a Spiegel-employee friend of my boss and I was doing him a favour. He was planning a holiday in Ireland and was overwhelmed by the detailed itinerary his travel companion had compiled weeks in advance. He wanted me to amend it.

He made me a latté and we sat down and poured over the meticulous plan.

“You won’t manage all that,” I said. “Not if you want to sleep.”

For the next few hours we teased out the relative merits of Longford and Louth, Killarney and Kilkeel.

“You can give Derry a miss,” I said finally. “Just go to the Giant’s Causeway instead.”

“Is it Derry or Londonderry?” he wondered.

“Oh, that depends on with what foot you dig,” I said.

Joachim Guauck was being sworn in on the television in the background.

“I’m sorry for keeping you so long,” he said as I was making a leave. “Do you drink wine?”

“Yes I do.”

I have a very expensive bottle here.”

“Oh?”

“Alternatively, do you like chocolate?”

“Oh yes, very much so.”

“Well then I have just the right thing for you.”

Out of nowhere he pulled out a metre long stick of Rittersport chcocolate.

“For you!” he beamed, wielding it at me. “As a thank you.”

Loyal readers will know how much of a chocolate advocate I am, but even I was stunned at the scale of my killing. If you are sceptical, examine the chocolate in relation to the medium-sized cat.

Last Saturday, LSB and I went on a chocolate tour of Berlin. We started off at Fassbender and Hausch, where we could afford a single truffle each.

Then we went around the corner to the Rittersport museum and shop. We learnt about the cocoa been, and about Klara Ritter, who invented Ritter Sport because she wanted football supporters to be able to fit a 100 gram bar of chocolate into their pocket when they went to matches.

Choco stack

Then we decided to design our very own bar of chocolate. We chose three fillings from a possible 27. We tasted the chocolate the next day. It was heavenly.

If you become a fan of the katekatharina facebook page, and correctly guess two of the three flavours we picked, I will have a bar of Rittersport personally designed for you and post it to you, wherever in the world you may be. If you can get ten friends to become fans of the page, I will design a chocolate bar for you too.

Entries must be received by midnight Easter Sunday. Just leave a comment on the page with your suggestion. One entry per person. Check out the page for clues until then.

Me at the chocolate Reichstag

LSB and the Great Lockout of 2012

LSB has countless talents to recommend him and among the many, is calmness in the face of austerity. Last Friday was an exception to the rule.

When I got home, I rang the bell of the main building hoping that he would be able to buzz me in from above.

But instead LSB, red-faced and brimming full of nervous energy, emerged from the stairwell and opened up himself.

I was confused.

“I thought you were locked in?” I said.
“No Katzi, I’m locked out.”
“Did you leave the key in the apartment?”
“No Katzi.”
“… well then why don’t you just open the door?”

Silence of the kind before a bull charges.

“It.Won’t.Open.”

I took the key from him. We went upstairs. I opened the door.

LSB employed a string of expletives.

Then, in a tone low and dangerous he said, “I’ve been trying for the last 40 minutes.”

Few things are more insulting than somebody making light of your misery.

I couldn’t help it; I laughed.

He glared at me.

“You just have to turn twice and then sort of tug the door towards you,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it clearer.”

“Let me try again.”

“Are you sure you’re in the right frame of mind?”

He snatched the key from me, shoved it in the lock, tugged and the door swung open.

LSB in less stressful circumstances

“What have you got to smile about?”

Last Friday morning I woke up displeased. The cat was licking my nose and even in my sleepy state I remembered that I had discovered it lapping out of the toilet bowl the day before. I yanked my eyes open and looked at LSB who was fast asleep, wearing an angelic countenance and taking up most of the bed.

We had been to a concert the night before and I hadn’t slept enough. Going to work seemed like a waste of a day, especially when LSB was in town. I rolled to the bathroom, wearily sliced the heads off my strawberries and left LSB a little note explaining how the key worked.

The only person in the office when I arrived was Benji, the curly-haired production assistant. He sits opposite me and I like him very much. He often chuckles to himself at things he reads or overhears and I find he has an unusually pleasant and uncomplicated presence.

“Morning! How are you doing?” I said cheerily, for it is only my nearest and dearest that I privilege to the unbridled version of my morning grumpiness.

“Not good,” he said.

“What? Why?”

“The internet’s down!”

“No?!”

“Yes.”

Internet problems are an inconvenience at the best of times but when you work for a website, it’s enough to..

Take the day off.

It was that simple. At first they were talking about calling me to come back in when the connection was restored but then one of the editors pulled me over and whispered “go out and have a nice day with your boyfriend.”

When I texted LSB to tell him the news, he thought it was a prank.

We arranged to meet at Alexanderplatz, the large square featuring the iconic TV tower which was lit up green when I visited it all alone on St Patrick’s Day.

On my way there I was delayed by an old man who wanted to sell me a subscription to Die Zeit, a German weekly. I tried to explain very gently that I had only stopped because I thought he was giving out a free copy but the sweeter I was, the more enthusiastic he became. He positively glowed as he told me about the special money-off coupons I would be entitled to should I sign up. In the end, I apologised and he let me go. He even winked at me as I was walking away.

Since I had time to kill and was in a joyous mood, I decided it was a good time to pay my €40 fine.

“Next,” a dreary voice behind the counter called.

“Hello!” I said to a long-faced man with glassy eyes and a thin, white moustache that fell in an incomplete rectangle over his lips.

He didn’t reply so I continued, “I would like to pay my fine please.”

“Well then what on earth have you got to smile about?” he asked.

“Well..” I was going to tell him the truth about my day off but thought it might be insensitive.

Instead I told him that I had made an honest mistake so instead of feeling guilty, I considered it one of life’s comparatively unimportant annoyances.

“It’s a costly mistake to make,” he said, as if he were a sage tasked with evaluating the severity of my misdemeanor.

“Well, yes,” I said “but as of now I’m free of my punishment and I’m looking forward to returning to normal life.”

I may have been mistaken but a tiny grin seemed to creep its way towards the incomplete rectangle of his moustache.

Back at Alexanderplatz, LSB seemed to be taking much too long.

Suddenly my phone (or Haendy, as the locals call it) rang. It was LSB. And he was upset and agitated.

“Katzi.” he said.

“Yes?”

“I can’t open the door.”

“What door?”

“Your door.”

“Why?”

“It won’t open.”

“What do you mean it won’t open?”

“JUST THAT.”

“Well.. have you tried the key?”

Strangely, the question seemed to irk him.

“Katzi. I can’t get out.”

“Did you see the note I left with the key?”

Silence.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, hoping it wasn’t a prank.

Loose Change

Uncharacteristic affection for the cat

Here in Berlin I sleep in an extremely comfortable double bed in a light, airy room where the sun shines in through linen curtains.

Sometimes the cat wakes me up by jumping in my face or by scratching at the door until I let him in. Other times it’s the alarm on my phone, which goes off at 6.50 am, the exact time it used to ring in Dublin.

I eat breakfast with my flatmate at a little plastic table in the kitchen. I have peach yoghurt with strawberries and he eats a jam or meat salad sandwich. We don’t buy cereal.

He goes to his job in an insurance company and I get the underground to work.

On the way home in the evenings I pick up some scallions or pesto or whatever else I have run out of.

It’s eerie how quickly I have got used to it. To my corner in the office, to the daily news meetings where I pitch story ideas, to the fact that the Brandenburg Gate is around the corner, to calling German museums and asking them about rhinoceros horns.

I talk to my family and LSB almost every day. I tune in to Drivetime on RTE and I click onto the Irish news websites. I’m on Facebook. I know what’s going on in Ireland.

And yet it is as if I have been remade here. As if I have been encased in a little protective shell and rolled across the continent.

I never knew how easy it was to be alone.

And suddenly I’m sitting next to LSB in the train with my placard stuffed back into my bag and I think, How strange.

How strange it all is, the way my life has been transformed and his hasn’t.

“This is a bit surreal,” he says as we change from the train to the underground. “This is all new to me. But for you, it’s.. just commonplace.”

“I know,” I say. “Is it strange for you?”

“A bit,” he says. “I just hope you haven’t forgotten me.”

“Of course not.”

When we arrive in the flat, the boys are still playing poker.

For the next few days, LSB and my flatmate (from now on we shall call him “Klaus”) are much more polite than I know either of them to be. Klaus stops teasing me as he is accustomed to do, and LSB sticks up for him when we have a jocular disagreement.

I sleep terribly the first night of LSB’s visit. Because suddenly a piece of home, and a piece of me is tapping at that little shell. I find myself caught between two places.

But I am so happy to see him.

LSB comes to work with me. At the U Bahn he doesn’t have enough change for his ticket so he puts his Laser card into the machine and asks, “Katzi, what does all this stuff mean? All I want to do is pay for my ticket!”

Tomorrow: LSB’s Chocolate Tour of Berlin