Why Grocery Shopping Is Better Than Therapy

While I was still living at home, grocery shopping was a pleasant diversion but it was always coloured by a faint association with futility. My parents stocked the fridge regardless and I just bought extra kidney beans to supplement my vegetarian diet.

Now that I am hungry and alone, grocery shopping has become a noble necessity. I could go so far as to say I couldn’t live without it.

Every second day on my way home from work, I wander into my local branch of Netto and greet the three punks, who have inhabited the dirty pavement outside and spend their days drinking beer and enjoying banter with the store’s security guard. For the next twenty minutes, I forget my worldly problems as I navigate my way through bundles of asparagus, the weekly deal of a desktop printer and boxes of instant dumplings.

Image source: yestheyareallours.com

On the occasions that I have felt directionless, grocery shopping has restored a sense of purpose. There is no therapy like it.

While I am not one to write shopping lists, I do like to dash to my post box to snatch the latest promotional leaflet featuring upcoming deals at my local discounters.

It is an exercise in self-control not to rush at every offer of 19 cent bundle of radishes and toilet seats at just €19.99. With time, this kind of restraint may develop into a widely-applicable life skill.

And even if you do succumb to temptation, as I am apt to do when a 100 gram bar of Milka chocolate is offered at just 59 cent for one week only, buying superfluous groceries does not compare to the guilt associated with conventional retail therapy.

Grocery shopping melds our most primal needs with the more sophisticated cognitive processes of reasoning and restraint. We must learn to differentiate between the times when succumbing to temptation is a good thing (for example when Milka chcocolate is on special offer) and the instances when a purchase would be unhelpful (as in the case of the extra toilet seat). Such high-level strategy is rarely taught, let alone mastered at university level.

A tempting offer.
Image source: jonco48.com

For those under the impression that grocery shopping represents mere escapism: it has its challenges too. Sometimes you end up with an excessive quantity of toilet paper; and at other times you come too late for the marzipan-flavoured Milka bar.

Sometimes when I am in a queue, the customer before me places a little barrier in between their shopping and mine. Though such an action is ultimately self-serving, I always thank them profusely. Then they look at me in the bemused way to which I have become accustomed when behaving with excessive politeness. It is the same look I get when I thank a bus driver or wish the man selling me falafels a good day. I can’t help feeling a little peeved when I place a barrier between my shopping and another person’s and I do not even get the slightest hint of acknowledgement.

Such gritty reality must sadly be faced in the world outside and grocery shopping has equipped me with the necessary skills to cope.

None of the self books I used to borrow from Rathmines library taught me as much about the human condition as shopping for food has.

Despite the transformative power of shopping for groceries, I have met individuals that profess not to be advocates. I have even heard food shopping described as “boring” and “stressful”.

I hesitate to entertain the notion, but could I be alone in my enjoyment?

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Is Europe “exotic?”

In 2010, a team of European nature photographers set off on 135 missions to explore the continent’s most spectacular natural habitats. Their expedition lasted a total of 1100 days, spanned 48 European countries, and produced thousands of stunning images of wildlife and animals. An outdoor exhibition featuring a selection of their most capturing photographs, which has been making its way across Europe, is now coming to Berlin.

The “Wild Wonders of Europe” organization is passionate about spreading one simple message: that Europe is a bastion of biodiversity and that its natural beauty has long been underrated. According to the group, too few people know about the success of conservation projects such as “Natura 2000,” a European-Union wide initiative to protect natural habitats, which has succeeded in attracting animals that were formerly under threat, back to their original homes.

“These aren’t your typical postcard pictures” Florian Möllers, communications director of the project told katekatharina.com. Capturing wildlife in its natural surroundings requires patience and tenacity. “There is always an uncertainty factor,” says Möllers. “You cannot stage nature.”

The traveling outdoor photography exhibition, featuring some of the most interesting images from the quest, has to date visited Holland, the Czech Republic and Denmark and will come to Berlin tomorrow (May 22), where it will stay until the end of July. The display will feature 110 photographs from all 48 European countries and will be presented on panels outside the central train station, where they can also be viewed lit up at night. Among the photographs are several high-quality marine images, which organizers hope will draw attention to over-fishing, which Möllers describes as a “major crisis.”

Photographer: Markus Varesvuo


Berlin, with its vast open spaces, is ideal breeding ground for threatened species, according to Möllers. 10-12 pairs of cranes have returned in recent years and raccoons have been spreading rapidly in the city, sheltering mostly in garages, boat sheds, shacks and on private allotments. One male racoon even chose to nest for six months in the carpark of a hotel on Alexanderplatz square, in the east of the city. The city’s history has had a big influence on its wildlife. The hunting grounds reserved for dignitaries brought a large stock of game animals to the city: at Potsdamer Platz in the west of the city, foxes and rabbits are known to roam. Wild boars populate suburban areas and one bold boar was even spotted close to the Alexander Platz square.

The opening of the exhibition will coincide with The United Nations International Day for Biological Diversity tomorrow. The German environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, who resigned last week had been due to inaugurate. The United Nations has officially named 2011-2020 the “decade for biodiversity”.

Photographer: Solvin Zankl

You can read more about Wild Wonders of Europe here.
You can read about how to make smart and ethical choices in your fish purchases here.

“Have you ever had a wet arse, Herr Schafner?”

The intercom on the slow train from Hof to Leipzig crackled. I slid my suitcase onto the seat next to me and took out my tattered book. A man’s voice spoke with perfect diction:

“For the attention of passengers recently boarded: Due to an act of vandalism, the lavatory at the back of the train is out of order for the foreseeable future.The damage has been caused by a blockage of material which is considered unsuitable for a toilet. Those passengers with the desire to make use of facilities must venture forth to the front of the train where an alternative lavatory is available. However, said lavatory may only be used while the train is stationary. Those with questions about this issue are advised to approach train personnel. I on behalf of Deutsche Bahn apologise for this minor inconvenience…”

The old lady across from me began to chuckle. The voice continued.

“To summarise, of the two available toilets on board, the one primarily intended for ordinary passengers is currently defective. An alternative loo may be used provided the train is not moving. Such a situation occurs at times when the train stops at stations along the route. I, on behalf of Deutsche Bahn apologise for this occurrence, which is the result of vandalism.”

Suddenly an enormous Saint Bernard, approximately the size of a small pony, bounded down the corridor. It paused briefly to greet my knee with its expansive snout.

“LOTTA,” a voice yelled behind the dog. A woman with a limp peroxide pony tail hanging from an otherwise shaven head stumbled past me. She was wearing dungarees and smelt strongly of beer.

“COME BACK, LOTTA,” she yelled. She clicked effectually and the gigantic hound returned. The woman grabbed it by the collar. Then she let out an almighty roar. “MY BEER!!!”

On the seat directly behind me, a bottle of beer had unturned. Liquid brew was seeping into the cover and a trickle of beer was making its way towards my feet.

The woman began to scream. “MY BEER. I PAID FOUR EUROS FOR THESE BOTTLES AND I’VE ALREADY LOST THREE. I FUCKING HATE DEUTSCHE BAHN. WHY ARE THEY DRIVING CRAZY LIKE THIS?I CAN’T BELIEVE THEY KNOCKED OVER MY BEER WITH THEIR CRAZY DRIVING. THOSE SONS OF BITCHES DON’T KNOW WHAT’S COMING TO THEM.”

The slow train continued gently through the rolling Franconian countryside.

Her drunken companion entered the carriage. If he had been cleaner and less intoxicated he could have passed as a hipster. He was barefoot, in blue jeans and black horned glasses. And he had a beard.

“Woah,” he said, holding on to their second dog,a kind of grey hound.

The woman with the rat’s tail stumbled to the toilet to get some tissues. A terrible scream followed.

“THIS TOILET IS BLOCKED. WHAT THE HELL? I NEED TO PISS”

This refrain (“Ich muss pissen” in the vernacular) became a recurring motif.

At this point, the old lady who had been chuckling made a tactical move which I was to envy for the next two hours.

She turned to them and said sweetly, “Would you like to sit here? My seat is nice and dry.”

They responded indecipherably in the affirmative. The old lady grabbed her bags and disappeared.

The woman with the rat’s tail sat on the wet seat and jumped up, disgusted. “MY TROUSERS ARE WET,” she yelled.

Her companion, who was bent over the more demure hound, who had managed to fall asleep, began to laugh.

“WHAT’S THERE TO LAUGH ABOUT?” she yelled, pressing her nose against his face. “DO YOU HAVE A NASSER ARSCH?” (wet arse)?”

He was silent.

“Well DO YOU?” she repeated.

He said nothing. She moved away, and summarised her plight.

“I HAVE A WET ARSE AND NO BEER AND I NEED TO PISS.” She took a breath. “Just wait until that conductor comes,” she said, seething.

For the next forty-five minutes, I pretended to read East of Eden while the intoxicated couple discussed sending a letter of complaint to Deutsche Bahn for not providing drinks holders. The woman said she would demand a reimbursement for her beer.The man said that the “welfare state” was retarded. And that the bastards were getting richer, while their welfare was going down.

“GENAU,” (“exactly”) cried the woman.

The woman said she had once been issued a handicapped pass. But that it was the System, rather than herself that was handicapped.

Image source: db-loks.de

The man blamed the System for not providing windows in the carriage that he could open. He took it personally and said “don’t they fucking trust me to open a window? That’s how far we’ve come. Germany is a joke”.

A little while later, a Schaffner with a neat haircut, a Deustche Bahn uniform and an emphatic walk made his way to our compartment. “Tickets please?” he said to the passengers down the way.

The Saint Bernard, who had been lapping up beer close to my feet bounded free again. The woman slunk away and the man said “HEY, LOTTA. Oh MANNO, Lotta not now.”

The Saint Bernard returned and the conductor pretended he had not noticed.

He approached the man with a hearty “Good Afternoon!” in the effusive manner which I too employ in an effort to mask my preconceptions.

The woman burst into the carriage and brought her red face very close to the conductor’s.

“What. the. FUCK is wrong with the toilet?” she screamed. Do you never need to TAKE A PISS?”

His lips flickered, indignantly.

“Madam. I made a clear announcement to the effect that one of our toilets was defective,” he said. “I explained that due to an act of vandalism, a blockage had occurred.”

I turned to the window to hide my laughter.

He continued.”To be more precise, some aluminium foil has been dropped down the toilet by unknown perpetrators. This led to the blockage of the system. It costs three thousand euro to get a Deustche Bahn toilet re-fitted.”

“I don’t give a shit,” said the woman. “Do you have a wet arse?”

“I believe you have a wet “arse,” as you refer to it because you have consumed an excessive amount of beer,” said the conductor, in the style of a revelation and with an accompanying satisfied smile.

The almost-hipster intervened.

“We really need to discuss the issue of drinks holders,” he said with tactful measure. “We’ve lost a lot of beer. And we spent four euro on it.”

“That seems like too much,” agreed the Schaffner.

The conversation meandered from the aggressive to the sublime. The Schaffner responded to queries about Deutsche Bahn’s “blatant discrimination” against those with invalid tickets and explained again about the aluminium foil.

The woman with the rat’s tail let out an occasional roar but was calming down, like both her hounds, who were now in a hazy stupor at her feet.

Her companion produced some kind of ticket, which the Schaffner accepted before moving on and wishing them a nice day.

Three minutes later, the intercom crackled. The Schaffner’s voice spilled once again into the carriage.

“For the attention of passengers recently boarded: Due to an act of vandalism, the lavatory at the back of the train is out of order for the foreseeable future.The damage has been caused by a blockage of material which is considered unsuitable for a toilet. Those passengers with the desire to make use of facilities must venture forth to the front of the train where an alternative lavatory is available. However, said lavatory may only be used while the train is stationary. Those with questions about this issue are advised to approach train personnel. I on behalf of Deutsche Bahn apologise for this minor inconvenience…”

“Fucking fat cats,” said the woman sleepily.

On Carving Your Niche

There is a men’s magazine called Beef! available at all good news stalls in Berlin.

“Beef” is not a euphemism for female flesh or motor sports: this publication is entirely devoted to men looking for the latest tips in cooking, marinating and serving cow. It advertises itself as “the magazine for men with taste.”

A couple of months ago, while I was weathering my quarter-life crisis I read some encouraging advice from a journalist whose name I promptly forgot. He said: stop trying to please, do what you love to do. And wait for others to come to you.

In a journalistic context, this goes against conventional wisdom. If you are a nobody, like Katekatharina, you should devour the publications you’re interested in writing for, you should find out what they like, you should obsessively pitch to try to meet their wants.

Pitching articles for publications who already have a surplus of highly talented writers can be soul-destroying.

The best antidote I have found to this kind of trauma is to start a blog.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post about education. I argued that evaluation was a much less important feature of the system than we acknowledge. And that constantly aligning ourselves to a standard which we had no part in setting can confine our creative thinking.

If you are suitably self-critical, your own standards might be those that best help you to improve.

At Katekatharina, I write for an editor who is her own worst enemy. But she has little moments, where she’s proud of the little home she’s created on the outskirts of the inter-web.

Recently, I’ve had some small successes in getting work which originated at Katekatharina published.

If there is space in the market for a male magazine just about beef, then maybe we all have little spaces to discover where we can thrive. It’s just a matter of “carving” the right one.

Daniel O’Donnell: Charms To Which I am Immune?

This morning, news reached Berlin that a Daniel O’Donnell museum had opened in Donegal, northern Ireland.

In an interview with the state broadcaster , Daniel said that the collection included “suits I would have worn through the years”, his “Donegal Person of the Year” trophy from 1989 and the school-bag he used 40 years ago.

At lunch I went to the bakery in the underground station beside my office and bought a latté from the woman that doesn’t know she’s in my life.

I sat down on a little red plastic seat and surrounded by the buzz of Berlin commuters, I began to think about Daniel O’Donnell.

I even took some notes.

If Daniel O’Donnell were to appear in fiction I decided, I would accuse his character of lacking credibility.

And that, perhaps is exactly what lies at the heart of his success.

Daniel is softly-spoken and meanders effortlessly about attempts to get a rise out of him. His eyes have the characteristic hazy, other-wordliness of an evangelical, but none of the accompanying conviction.

He is the ultimate wish-fulfilment of Irish women of a certain generation: he is the priest that croons, the priest that can marry, the priest that doesn’t tell you off.

Last year, when Ireland’s flagship late-night chat show dedicated an entire program to celebrating his 50th birthday, I thought that in spite of the comedic value of such an event, something extraordinary was happening in my country.

The Late Late Show had become Father Ted and nobody seemed to be batting an eye.

My father has a great phrase he uses to describe someone he knew long ago: “He was known for his humour;” dad says, pausing before he adds, “some of it conscious.”

The official Daniel O’Donnell fan page features what is described as “the perfect gift”: a digitally signed and personalized photograph of Daniel. Fans can choose a message and clever technology will re-master it to look like Daniel’s handwriting. The sample photograph reads: For Bev, the best mum in the world.x

Daniel’s website, which is run by his wife Majella, features a fact file similar to the ones you’d find in the “unofficial biographies” of 90’s pop groups like Steps or Five, which are directed at the pre-teen market. It looks like this:

Name: Daniel Francis Noel O Donnell
Date of Birth: 12th December 1961
Place of Birth: Dungloe, Co Donegal, Ireland
Mother: Julia O Donnell (nee McGonagle)
Father: Francis O Donnell
Siblings: John, Margaret (Margo), Kathleen and James
Colour of Eyes: Blueish Green
Colour of Hair: Brown
Height: 5ft 10in
Weight: 12st 13lbs (Too much!)
Marital Status: Married to Majella
Children: 2 Stepchildren – Siobhan 17yrs & Michael 15yrs
Currently Residing: Kincasslagh, Co Donegal, Ireland
Favourite Colour: Yellow
Favourite Foods: Mince and Potatoes and some Chinese dishes
Best-loved Artists: Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride and Sir Cliff Richard
All time favourite Song: There are so many but I love “Miss you nights” by Sir Cliff Richard
Worst Habit: Now, would I have any bad habits??!!!
Best Habit: Where do I begin!
Worst Asset: My growing love handles!
Best Asset: My teeth
Pet Hates: Smoking followed by gossip
Favourite Passtime: Playing Cards and Golf
Fondest Memory: The first time I met Loretta Lynn. Wow!
Worst Memory: The night I lost my voice in December 1991
Favourite Holiday Destination: Tenerife
Favourite Movie: Gandhi, The Sound of Music and Calamity Jane
Favourite Saying: Up ya boy ya!
Happiest Day of my Life: 4th November 2002 – The day I married Majella

I have written before about the blend of wily opportunism and endearing naivety that characterises many an Irish success story.

I believe that beyond the softness of the Donegal lilt and the string of attractive clichés that bounces so effortlessly from his tongue, lurks a very shrewd man, trying to conceal his bemusement at the fact that the pile of stuff that he would otherwise have dumped into bags destined for Oxfam, will instead be displayed behind glass cases in a lucrative personal shrine. Or “visitors’ centre,” as he would have us call it.

You’ve got to hand it to Daniel: he has a fine appreciation of the ridiculous.

And as thousands rush to caress the fine silk tie that Daniel wore on tour once or queue up to marvel at the honorary MBE he was awarded in 2001, it’s fair to say that the joke’s on us.

Oh, Danny Boy.

As if I didn’t have enough reasons to come home.

Books in Berlin: Red wine, dim lighting, dignitaries and … katekatharina.

“Tap, tap, tap,” went the bookseller with big eyes and black skin, patting her spoon on the rim of a wineglass. “Let’s all gather inside.”

Rupert, Georgia and I got up and made our way through the glass doors of the balcony. Georgia found a seat at the far side of the room. Rupert and I were too slow. We had to stand.

“Sure we’ve been sitting all evening anyway,” whispered Rupert.

The bookseller and the author sat on two seats in the middle of the room. The sun was setting. A glorious red shone through the penthouse.

“I can’t stop gushing about this book,” said the bookseller. “It’s my favourite of the year.”

She talked for some time about The Apartment and a little bit about Greg Baxter.

He maintained the kind of blank expression that is necessary when you are naturally modest and somebody is praising you in front of others.

The bookseller had an organic enthusiasm, completely free of pretension. As she talked to Greg, she seemed to forget that there was a room full of people watching. They talked about art and America; about writing and reading.

“I like Chekhov but not for the reasons that most do,” said Greg. “Chekhov gives no answers. There is no resolution. We don’t know why or how. That’s what life is like. We don’t have neat explanations. That’s why I hate psychology. It always tries to categorise everything. She is this. He is that. It’s not real.”

Later on, when the conversation was drawing to a close, Greg said “I just realised I haven’t said a single interesting thing. You are all so bored.”

He was wrong.

I had been listening intently to everything that he had said and he had made me think.

But I had also used the opportunity to scan the room to see if I could guess who the editor who had invited me might be.

My eyes alighted on a man wearing a patterned shirt and a cartoonish countenance.

I had seen him before, at the launch of a wonderful book written by Molly McCloskey, who ran a creative writing course I took at college.

I knew they were friends.

I shuffled over. Approach behaviour is not my strong-point. I am part shy-and-retiring, part outrageous-and-cheeky but when it comes to imposing my presence upon the unknowing, I am stubbornly reluctant.

I asked him whether he was who he was.

“Yes,” he said.

He was friendly and introduced me to some other guests.

“Kate, have you met Greg?” he asked.

“No!” I said.

Greg was smoking on the balcony, like a deep-thinking author should. I considered whether to take up the habit for the sake of my career.

“This is Kate!”

“Hello Kate,” said Greg.

We talked a little.

“So you’re a journalist?” Greg asked.

“Erm, aspiring at best,” I said.

“I’m jealous that you’re bilingual,” Greg said.

It’s nothing compared with writing a book, I thought.

“We should meet for a coffee sometime,” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

The editor was feeling a little awkward. “There’s a restaurant booked,” he said. “But I’m not sure for how many people…”

“Oh, dear me,” I said. “I’ve no intention of staying. I have to go to work tomorrow!”

I slid away to buy the book.

Greg signed it. “Oh no!” he said as a drop of his red wine fell onto the cover page.

“It adds character” I said, which is a phrase I have borrowed from LSB.

I was introduced to some embassy people. One lady said “Here, let me give you my card.”

I thought I had made it in life.

By now it was dark. Red wine, dim lighting, dignitaries and … katekatahrina:cinematic and surreal.

I made my leave and walked down the hill. It was quiet now, and cooler. Droplets of rain began to fall.

The underground station was empty and silent but for the slow shuffle of a man dragging his bag along the platform.

The Loo Roll That Wished He Wasn’t

A few weeks ago, we ran out of toilet paper. I went to Lidl, hoping to find recycled paper that respected the reality of my sensitive rear. Most “second-hand” stuff is unfortunately scratchy. I wanted to buy about six rolls of soft, ethical loo paper. Unfortunately all that was left were packs of twelve. They came with a handy carrier handle, so I wandered home swinging my toilet paper beside me. When I got into the kitchen I realised that we were also out of “kitchen” paper. Rather than going out, I decided to ask some hard-hitting societal questions. Should tissue paper really be room specific? Where does it end? “Bedroom Paper?” “Sitting Room Paper?” “Utility Room Paper?” I decided to separate one of my loo roles from the pack and hang it up in the kitchen. Since my flatmate is rather a conventional type, I felt I owed him an explanation. I began writing a story on the toilet paper about a “loo roll that wished he wasn’t”. Now, we take it in turns to write the next chapter and we have too much respect for the narrative to tear a piece away.