Dispatches from isolation

I had a friend in college. One of those brilliant, troubled types. A writer and a chemist. He used to make his own drugs. Ordered the  ingredients online. Mixed them in his bedroom. I remember sitting with him upstairs in Bewley’s one afternoon. He told me about roaming around at night, sleeping outdoors.

On the grass in Stephen’s Green another time, describing how it felt when all the colors and sensations around you melded into one. He came from a family of high achievers. His older siblings with their diplomas in frames all over his sitting room.

For his birthday once, he invited a small group of us to his house. We played Balderdash and Piffle in his bedroom. Then he brought out some tubes of paint, and asked us to fling colors at the wall. For years, I had this brown woolen cardigan with a small yellow paint stain that I couldn’t get off. His mother drove us home at 3 in the morning.

“If you had to choose,” he asked me once in Café Sol on Dawson Street. “Between never seeing anyone again but having the Internet. Or seeing a small number of people and not having the Internet, what would you choose?”

Naturally, he was considering the first. And I said, I mean, I know where you’re coming from.

We were young and stupid and dealing in hypotheticals.

It’s been around two weeks now. Most of it spent right here at the dining room table. My laptop and a cup of something. Often, with candles too. Little things. LSH works in the kitchen. He likes the bar table. He’s used to standing in his office. Suits me well. 

“So, we haven’t A/B tested that yet,” he says through the wall. The apartment is now filled with the voices from his conference calls.  Sometimes he comes out and his face is all different. He doesn’t know it. More self-possessed. A little further away than normal. A sense of purpose. His world is in our kitchen now.

Another day, he’s on the sofa, his head hunched over his phone in a professorial manner. I creep up behind him. The closer I get, the surer I am. I know those shapes and colors! I know that concentrated, contended expression. This is what middle-aged Germans do on the train after they have completed all the Sudokus in their flimsy puzzle books.

“You play Candy Crush?!” I say. I am beside myself. I had no idea.

A friend recently asked if there was anything that still surprised me about my husband. Sure, I’d said. But I hadn’t been able to think of a concrete example.

“I only just downloaded it,” he says. “It’s actually pretty good!”

“There’s no need to be defensive,” I say. “It’s just that all of a sudden, I feel like I barely know you.” 

I resolve to play Kebab world again. Make time, for the things that matter.

When we venture outside together, I am insufferable.

“Stop scratching your nose.”

“I wasn’t scratching my nose.”

“You absolutely were. You do it all the time.”

“Stop treating me like a 5-year-old.”

“Stop acting like one.”

“I think it’s because we can laugh at ourselves,” LSH says in bed one night. “I think we defuse arguments that way.”

“So you think that’s why it works? Because even though we are very different we can both laugh at ourselves?”

“Yes, Katzi.” He is tired. He does a good impression of my incessant questioning. Do you think I’m a good person? If you were an animal, what would you be? What two people would you most hate to be stuck in qurantine with? I am maddening to live with. But so is he.

Taking out the bins and hanging up the laundry have become thrilling activities. Sometimes we fight over who gets to do it. Occasionally, we do it together. Slowly, we are becoming better people.

I’ve been writing more. The other day, I was having trouble focusing. Felt all tingly and restless. I brushed my teeth. It changed everything.

“It’s easy to forget,” says LSH. One of the reasons I married him is because he is kind.

I haven’t had a haircut in much too long. I no longer wear makeup. I slouch in front of the computer in the same green cardigan every day. I am startling to look at.

bad hair

Social isolation has made me startling to look at.

In the outside world, people are dying. Across the road, in Rosmann, people line up in a neat, sad, socially distant line.

I listen to music really, really loud now. Sigur Ros when I’m writing. LSH says I hum along, really loud. He hears me through the door. “You must know you’re doing it,” he says.

I do.

The da-da-DING of Whatsapp notifications punctuate our days. We are not alone.

We chat on Zoom with five friends in Dublin. All of us in our sitting rooms or bedrooms. In this strange thing together. They tell us the street traders at home are selling masks now. My friend’s three-and-a-half-year-old teaches us some Mandarin he picked up at preschool.

Watching the news is always bleak. Never more so than now. But I indulge in small pleasures. Examining the travel books on the financial correspondent’s bookshelves. A medical expert’s spice rack. A political analyst’s balcony.

The clocks go forward.  “Look,” says LSH. He points out the window. We are on the sofa, watching Tiger King.  It is 7 o’clock. Still bright. 

I go to Edeka to buy ricotta. It is remarkably cold. I stock up on the essentials: triple chocolate chip cookies and a jar of kale.

Inspired by a friend’s kindness, I scan through a box of Lindt chocolates separately. “For you,” I tell the cashier. “As a thanks.”

Her face changes. I struggle to key in my pin number with my disposable gloves. I step outside.

It is snowing. The day after summer time began.

A winter wonderland. Thick, fluffy flakes, like you see in picture books.

I watch them swirl over the empty playground. Choosing which daffodil to land on.

I return home, disinfect my phone, put the ricotta in the fridge.

LSH is in the kitchen. Looking out the window at the snow.

playground

 

 

February: novelling and anchoring and pigeon watching

There’ve been two developments in my professional life recently.

The first is that I’ve started anchoring the business news on TV. I’ll devote a whole post to that curious world soon.

The second is that I’m still working on my novel and that I’m really hoping to complete the first draft this year. I have 50,000 words. I still have a long way to go to make sure they’re the right 50,000 words, in the right order. Writing a book is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, but also one of the most meaningful.

A long time ago, some very kind readers from different parts of the world volunteered to take a look at my first 20,000 words. Their feedback was invaluable. So, if any of you are still reading, or if anyone – preferably someone I don’t know too well personally – wants to read the entire manuscript when it’s done, drop me a line!

I write from the library, where I have come to know a homeless man in a hat who comes here every day to sit and eat a croissant, which he extracts from a sealed Cellophane bag. He plugs his phone into the socket in the wall and watches videos on the free wifi. Today, he was smiling and drunk. Other times, he seems subdued.

pidge

Check out this INCREDIBLE pigeon family’s nesting spot. 

Earlier, I called LSH to tell him about a pigeons’ nest I saw. It was ingeniously crafted under a stairwell leading to a mosque, where rows of spikes had been erected to keep birds out. But this pigeon family had prevailed, laying a dirty tissue over a bent spike to protect their feet. A perfect entrance mat. The babies were learning to fly by launching themselves from between the spikes.

“That’s nice, Katzi,” LSH had said. I had interrupted him vacuuming.

“Thanks for telling me.”

 

 

 

 

Falling leaves

The doors of the lift slid open and I found Frau B sitting in her wheelchair, waiting.

Heaviness hung in the air. It was a bad day for me to be late.

“I’ve been so sad this past while,” she said when we were back in her room. “I couldn’t hold back the tears.”

We looked out the window at the tree. Its stark crown stood out against the grey sky. A gust of wind swept a handful of orange leaves off its lower branches. We watched them swirl to the ground.

“The weather doesn’t help,” she said.

We’d arranged to clear out the wardrobe, a task I was not looking forward to. Frau B is a back-seat tidier.

“No Katechen!” she will say as I stand haplessly before the wardrobe. “Hang it up so the zip faces left!”

“No!” she exclaims when I do what I’m told. “Put it over there with the blouses.”

We got the job done, and by the time I’d closed the wardrobe door, Frau B’s sadness had morphed to anger.

I found out when I tried to convince her that a sticker might be the solution to an ongoing problem she’s been having with her television.

Frau B’s fingers are crooked and hook-like so she often ends up pressing the wrong button on her remote control.

This results in a maddening situation where she cannot remove the teletext from the screen.

My suggested solution, as with all uncooperative technology, is to turn the offending device off and on again.

But there’s little point if you don’t know where the on button is. So I’d brought along some luminous stickers I thought could be used to mark the right button.

Frau B was having none of it.

“That’s not the on button,” she insisted when I showed her. “It’s somewhere down here.”

I politely persevered.

“NO Katechen!” she snapped. “That’s NOT where it is!” 1478964532403

I put the stickers away.

“You meant well,” she said.

I reached for the book and we continued the story about Rosa Luxembourg, which had captivated Frau B last week.

I was a few sentences in when she asked me to stop. “Let’s just chat instead,” she said.

“Sure.”

Frau B’s sadness-turned anger had morphed into remorse.

“You’re my one and only, Katechen” she said. “You really have no idea where I’d be without you….”

Her eyes were glistening and her gaze reached far beyond me.

“And me without you!” I said, with that false kind of brightness that stops you from welling up.

“And I was so snappy with you!” she said.

“Nonsense!”

“My mother always said I would find someone to take care of me in old age,” she said. “And then you came along.”

“You see, mothers are always right!” I said, and made her laugh.

We sat there for a while, looking at the falling leaves, safe in the knowledge that this kind of melancholy too would lift.

On enountering a tipsy punk

I was on the way to work the other day, preoccupied with global problems, like Donald Trump and the war in Syria. I’d just read a New Yorker article covering these topics and, not uncommonly for the newly enlightened, was energized by the urgent conviction that I must act to better the world. Immediately thereafter I was filled with the foreboding that I didn’t know how. And that even if I did, I probably didn’t have the courage to follow through.

I’d rolled the magazine up and packed it under my arm as I waited to change to the U9 line. The screen revealed I had a three-minute wait.

Enough time for a woman with a large dog and a leather jacked adorned with Tipp-Ex to engage me in conversation.

“Is this the right side for Hansaplatz?” she asked.

I paused to think (I shouldn’t have had to since this is my daily commute but remember, I was carrying the combined weight of the world’s problems as well as my New Yorker).

Punk-27947

By Pax – Transferred from pl.wikipedia.org to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2118607

Then said: “Yes!” a little too brightly, hoping to make up for my hesitation.

“Good,” she said. “I was afraid of getting it in the wrong direction.”

“Oh, I do that all the time,” I said. (It’s true.)

“My friends will be wondering where I am!” she continued. “I spent all night partying in Tiergarten with the other punks.”

I nodded knowingly, hoping to convey mindfulness of alternative lifestyles.

It seemed to work because she kept talking.

“I turned 30 yesterday!” she said.

“You did?! Happy Birthday!” I blurted enthusiastically.

She combed her hand through a mass of hair in the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“Thanks!” she said. “Got my hair done too. Had to, for the occasion.”

“It looks great,” I said, and meant it.

“Check out my jacket,” she continued. “All my buddies signed it.”

She pointed to various names signed in Tipp-Ex. “That’s my best friend Nina .. and my buddy Timo!”

She was the kind of intoxicated we all aspire to: cheerful but not embarrassing, her non sequiturs redeemed by elegant syntax.

As I was nodding along, I couldn’t help but think: we’re almost the same age! And she lives in the park, with her huge dog and all her lovely punk friends, enjoying life instead of obsessing over her failure to make a meaningful impact. And then, because such things are in my nature, I felt inadequate in the presence of such hard-won resilience.

As the train came, she pulled out a bottle of liquor from the inside of her jacket pocket and waved it in the air.

“Breakfast!” she said happily, before ushering her hound on board.

Eleven Tips for Aspiring Writers

I began blogging exactly four years ago, at the age of 22. At the time, I was living with my parents in Ireland. I’d graduated from university a few months earlier and had failed to find a job. Consequently, I had no money to travel or to do any of the other things that make long stretches of free time sound idyllic.

I spent my days refreshing the pages of job websites and crafting applications that got no replies. I would sleep in each morning and stay up until silly hours browsing the internet. Life was dull and I was under-stimulated; at 22, I felt ancient.

I was far too proud to borrow money and rejected outright the idea of my parents funding a Master’s. Eventually though, I allowed my mother to pay for me to do a one-month TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. That led to a teaching position, which changed everything. As most of you know, I’m now in Berlin, doing a job I love and against all odds, being paid to write. It hasn’t been a smooth journey and I thought I’d take the occasion of my fourth blog birthday to share a few things I’ve learned along the way.minime3.jpg

Be humble

An inflated sense of entitlement can not only be personally damaging but can harm your job prospects too. If you’re reading this, the chances are that you enjoy a level of material comfort greater than most people in the world. (See this graphic for more info) Working hard and not getting far really sucks but remembering how relatively lucky you are makes you a more likeable, and hence, more employable individual. Expecting some day to get a well-paid and exciting job is fine, as long as you realize that for many people, wondering how they’re going to finance their next meal is a more pressing daily concern. Keep things in perspective.

Find something else to do

Be realistic – hardly anyone gets a writing job straightaway. And if like me, you’re not divinely inspired, you need fodder to fuel your writing on the side. I was lucky that I loved teaching. Being around international students all day long was not only enjoyable, it also gave me lots of story ideas. The busier I was, the more productive I became. I still frequently suffered from writers’ block but at least I had plenty of things to keep my mind off it. Teaching also made me more confident – I had to embrace a leadership role entirely inconsistent with my personality type. (More on personality below, too) Kat Richter, one my favorite bloggers over at Field Work in Stilettos used to write hilarious posts about her mind-numbing job in a shop in Philadelphia. She’s since become a dance teacher and freelance writer.

Red

This picture of books is here simply to add colour.

 

Don’t be too proud

This is something I still need to work on. After I graduated my sister offered to lend me money so I could move away and try my luck elsewhere. I point-blank refused. As I mentioned above, I also turned down my parents’ offer to help finance a Master’s. (That turned out to be a good decision, though at the time it was pride, rather than principle that guided the decision). Allowing my mother to pay for the TEFL course was probably the best thing I’ve ever done for my career.

 

Embrace failure

There’s a reason that Resumes of Failures are such popular reads. I’ll write my own sometime but in the meantime here are some of the things I tried really hard for but didn’t achieve: getting an internship at The Irish Times; a job at my local stationery shop, a scholarship to study journalism at Dublin City University; a position at a media start-up in Dublin. In all cases but the stationery shop I came really close. I was in the final six out of 600 applicants for the Irish Times internship; second in line for the journalism scholarship and received a nice phone call from the guy who rejected me from the media start-up telling me that but for my lack of sufficient experience, I’d have been perfect.

 

Know your personality

Being introspective is key to figuring out how to get to where you want to be. I’ve known for a long time that being fairly shy and risk-averse might not be ideal qualities for a journalist. But equally, being sensitive and spending more time listening than speaking makes you a desirable friend and someone people tend to open up to. So while I might never be good at cornering a person and sticking a microphone under their nose, I’m likely to get equally interesting sound-bites by giving people the space and time to open up. And while I’m not particularly assertive, when it really matters, I always speak my mind.

Help others

Helping others get to where they want is the best feeling. If you’ve achieved something, give back by offering someone else a helping hand. My favorite people to help are those that are almost too shy to ask. Those I’m not so fond of tend to be leech-types who attach themselves to you only in the hope of getting something. Last year, for example, I agreed to meet someone I’d never met who’d found me through my blog and wanted to “network.” I took time off work to meet her; she arrived an hour late, slipped me her business card immediately and subsequently sent me several texts and e-mails trying to convince me to leave my current job (and boyfriend) and partner with her in applying for a reporting program abroad.  That didn’t go down too well with me.

Find an alternative income source! (Mine was teaching which I loved and still miss)

Find an alternative income source! (Mine was teaching which I loved and still miss)

Your blog matters more than you think

I don’t make money directly from this blog (although I do get intriguing advertising offers from time to time) but I’ve had articles here republished on news sites. The article I wrote for the Irish Independent last year was a result of an editor finding me online. Although I’m sometimes embarrassed when work colleagues find my blog, it’s a good way to show your commitment to writing and a more personal side to your work.

Write about what comes naturally

I wish I were good at writing political opinion pieces or snarky responses to bad movies but I’m not. (I still try sometimes though). I find it much easier to write about my friendship with Frau B, people I see on trains and things around me that make me think. It’s good to use your blog as an experiment in writing styles but be careful not to try to become something you’re not. Never try to sound smarter than you are.

Reward yourself for your effort, not your success

There’s a growing body of research indicating that praising children for their effort is more effective than complimenting them for their intrinsic merits. Same goes for yourself. If you’ve managed to scribble something together despite a case of writers’ block, pat yourself on the back for putting in the effort and consider its potential shortcomings afterwards.

Working for free

I did, a lot. Every article you see in my clips for The Journal was unpaid, as was anything I wrote for Generation Emigration. The articles I wrote for Spiegel Online were on an intern’s salary. Did it help me get my current job? Yes. Were they all necessary? Probably not. Would I do it again? Yes. Do I think there are major ethical issues with writing for free? Yes, but only when you’re motivated by desperation rather than opportunism. If you want to write for a living, the chances are you’re going to be working for either a dying medium (in my case television; for others print) or a rapidly-changing one (online). Getting a foot in the door is invaluable and generally unpaid. Know your limits though; in hindsight, I need not have offered to edit a romance novel for free. Once you do start getting paid, be frugal. Writing almost always means embracing an insecure Lifestyle. Always consider alternative income sources.

Be Persistent

I applied for an internship at Spiegel Online after experiencing all the failures listed above. After waiting six months for a response, my mother advised me simply to send it again. I heard back within a week, got a phone interview and moved to Berlin shortly after. Sending that second e-mail radically altered the course of my life.

 

Once upon a time in leafy Charlottenburg…

“Did you ever have any interesting neighbours?” I asked Frau Bienkowski.

She paused to consider.

“I used to live next to a woman who worked as a newspaper deliverer. She would get up at the crack of dawn and go from house to house with her Berliner Morgenpost cart. She earned pittance; I felt very sorry for her.

Then there was the man acoss the way on Nehringstrasse. He had a wife, a mistress and a six-year-old boy. The woman he was having an affair with wanted him to leave his wife. But he said no, because he didn’t want to abandon his child.

Early one morning, when the man and his wife weren’t at home, the mistress came by and murdered the little boy.

She took his body to the grounds of Charlottenburg Palace and threw it into the lake.

When the police got there, they found a Berliner Morgenpost cart on the bridge.

They drove around the area blaring their sirens asking if anyone had seen someone with it.

My neighbour was missing her cart. She’d left it in the foyer of the house across the road while she was delivering the papers.

By Axel Mauruszat (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

By Axel Mauruszat (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

She was an obvious suspect. But in the end, the Police believed her when she said her cart had been stolen. They arrested the murderer; she went to jail for many years. The man and his wife moved away.”

Frau Bienkowski paused.

“Now I come to think of it my poor neighbor really had terrible luck in life. One day when she was delivering the papers, she slipped on some ice and seriously injured her leg. A binman who was passing by carried her home, put her to bed and called a doctor. She could never work again. But because she’d been taken home, rather than left on the street, her insurance wouldn’t cover it as a work-related injury and she didn’t get a pension.

Awfully unfortunate. But enough about neighbours Katechen. When are we having beer?”

 

Kate Katharina appears in rag, LSB brings home bottled water

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been blogging less since LSB moved here. But, as my psychology professor used to enjoy pointing out, correlation does not equal causation.

I mean, of course we do spend the occasional evening in streaming epsiodes of 7th heaven. (We’re on Season 5 – Mary is in big trouble because – instead of going to college – she’s working at a pizza joint where she makes unsuitable friends who smoke pot and have premarital sex).

The Camdens of 7th Heaven. Image source: Wiki Media

The Camdens of 7th Heaven. Image source: Wiki Media

But, truth be told, most of the time we are awfully busy having our own lives and co-habiting on the side.

Take this week for instance. LSB started an internship at an advertising agency, where he gets “thinking time,” free yoga classes and and an endless supply of bottled water. (His interview for the position took place on a bean bag).

I, on the other hand, made it into the notorious BILD tabloid – Germany’s equivalent of the Daily Mail – with the seniors’ blogging project I co-founded last year. The blog – Berlin ab 50 is a place for the over 50’s in Berlin to share their experiences of getting older in the city.

Safe to say, I was a little bewildered that BILD – the world’s second best-selling newspaper with a circulation of nearly four million requested an interview with us.

And cynic that I am (in fairness, BILD is a rather nasty publication) I wondered whether my group of senior bloggers – three of whom are in their sixties – were sitting on a big dirty secret. Had they been in the Stasi? Had an ill-advised fling with a high-ranking official?

With a gulp, I wondered whether perhaps I was the villain of the story. However, I quickly realised I was far too much of a square to make it legitimately into the pages of a rag. Bloggers in BILD! source: http://www.bild.de/regional/berlin/berlin-aktuell/drei-seniorinnen-haben-einen-internet-blog-34082682.bild.html

Well, as it turned out, the BILD journalist was a very nice young woman who spent a whole hour asking us questions about our blog. Her colleague – a thin photographer who tried not to look bored during the interview – got the three seniors in the group to pose with laptops and smart phones around a table on which he had strategically placed some coffee cups.

The article, which you can see here, leads with the bold headline “We are Berlin’s oldest bloggers.”

Of course, our hits went through the roof. And then we started getting media requests from everywhere. We’ve even been invited to go on television.

I know.

Speaking of television, you’d be surprised how many people write to it.

You see, another reason I’ve been awfully busy in the past few months is that I’ve taken on additional job at the international broadcaster where I work. It’s in the Zuschauerpost or “Viewer Correspondence” department and it’s my job to answer the e-mails and letters people send to the television station. When I took the job lots of people said: “Why on earth would you want to do that? Only crazies write in to TV stations.” To them I say: perk of the job.

I get some very sad mails from people in developing countries who have access to a television but not to adequate medical care. And I get some very entertaining complaints. I derive a guilty pleasure from composing eloquent replies to ridiculous requests.

But it comes on top of my regular job as a writer and translator at the company, my shifts at The Local, my senior’s blogging project and my treasured visits to Frau Bienkowski.

Oh, and did I mention LSB and I found a flat? And moved into it?

preparing for a 7th Heaven session.

preparing for a 7th Heaven session.

Well, we did. More on all of that to come. But for now, it’s time for beer and a bit of 7th heaven. Got to get our priorities right.

(By the way, this post from The Atlantic about the worth of blogging as a medium, inspired me to finally sit down and write a post again! Check it out- it’s definitely worth a read)