Watching the shopping channel and drinking gherkin beer in the Spreewald

Last weekend, LSH and I took a trip to the Spreewald, an idyllic forest landscape  best known for its picturesque canals and high-quality gherkins.

We brought our bikes on the train, and cycled to a campsite where we rented a wooden lodge with a lakeside view. There was a small shop nearby that sold gherkin beer. On our  first evening, we cracked open a couple of bottles.

gherkin

It’s not that bad.

LSH practically spat his out in disgust, but he was just being melodramatic. If you’re wondering, imagine a bog-standard lager with a cucumber floating in it, and you have the flavor.

We toasted to a restful and restorative weekend that would leave us ready to embrace the challenges of everyday life with a fresh sense of purpose.

Less than twenty-four hours later, we were back in the lodge, splayed on the couch with a pain known only to those who spend 364 days of the year sedentary and then cycle for ten hours straight.

We turned on the television – yes, we were glamping – with the innocent intention of unwinding briefly while we rested our weary limbs.

There was no way we could have known that we would spend the next several hours transfixed by the shopping channel and that I would return to Berlin not rested and restored but fixated on the idea of buying “WC Zauber Pulver,” an extraordinarily potent powder which turns into a magnificent blue foam when you pour it down the toilet.

dweebs

Proper dweebs wear helmets in the Spreewald.

It was mesmerizing. I’d never seen anything like it! Just fifteen minutes, the woman said for a deep clean of your most poo-encrusted lavatory.

Well, she didn’t actually say the last bit, but it was heavily implied.

“Drop it all in in one swift motion,” she said, tipping the plastic cup into the toilet with all the confidence of a person who sells WC Zauber Pulver” for a living.

The transformation happened before our eyes.

“Why not deep clean the toilet brush while you’re at it?” she asked, popping it in.

As the foam filled the entire toilet bowl, an animation showed the deep cleaning taking place beneath the rim, too subtle for the naked eye to perceive.

“Just one bucket will last you a whole year,” the evangelist said. “And why stop at toilets? You can use WC Zauber Pulver to clean any kind of drainpipe!”

She popped some powder into a lonely free-standing sink in the middle of the studio.

“There’s nothing that cleans like it,” she said. “And available only today, for just €19.99, what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone. Oh no, stop! What’s my producer telling me? They’re going fast! We’re nearly sold out! If you want to get your hands on this product, you have got to act fast.”

The number on the screen was dropping faster than I could dial.

My heart was racing. In the background, the foam in the toilet had reached the rim.

“We need to get some WC Zauber Pulver.”

“No we don’t,” said LSH.

“We do.”

“We absolutely don’t.”

The woman returned to the toilet, and flushed. As if it had all been a dream, the foam disappeared, leaving the inside of the bowl as sparkling and pristine as freshly fallen snow.

“That’s incredible,” I said.

“You’re not actually serious?”

“I am deadly serious.”

“I can’t believe you’re falling for this.”

“It’s amazing!”

“Sleep on it.”

I did.

I still want to order an industrial-sized bucket of WC Zauber Pulver.

This is not a sponsored post. 

affe

I was much too enthralled by the WC Zauber Pulver demonstration to take a picture. But the shopping channel was also selling this worried-looking decorative monkey, which I thought to snap.

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On bonnets and bunnies

For the last three months, LSH and I have been washing our clothes and dishes in the bathtub.

At first it felt kind of rustic. I imagined myself in a bonnet, whistling as I wrung out a sopping pair of jeans.

But the glamor faded faster than the stains.

“This moving-apartment-melarky isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I grumbled as I watched LSH arched like a cat over the bathtub.

“What?”

“This moving-apartment mel…”

But I didn’t finish because LSH likes to listen to podcasts as he scrubs the saucepan ferociously with a scouring pad.

haiku

This poem is about a very weird experience we had when looking for an apartment.

I took to writing poems instead.  Some are deeply personal accounts of ringing internet providers and power companies. Others chronicle the 76 times we traipsed between our old and new apartment with suitcases full of books we will never read. A select few are odes to the hot plate we borrowed from a friend.

Poetry can help but it is no replacement for the Internet, and so I kept calling 02. Months later, a young man from Bavaria arrived at our door.

He loooked exhausted.

It was hot that day, and there are 92 steps up to our apartment.

I should have mentioned that in one of my poems. Pathos is one of literature’s greatest powers.

“I’m not from around here,” he said, pausing to catch his breath.

“I know,” I said. “You’re from Bavaria. You sound like my relatives.”

“They’re so short-staffed in Berlin, they had to bring us up.”

Demand for basic digital infrastructure is high in the German capital.

But if you want something done, ask a Bavarian.

Within fifteen minutes, he had re-connected us to the world.

I didn’t think he wanted me to hug him though, so instead I asked: “Can I give you a Lindt bunny as a thank you?”

bunnies

LSH is excellent at displays.

“Pardon?”

“Would you like a Lindt bunny? As a token of my appreciation?”

“I don’t really like sweet things,” he said, his eyes widening in fright as he discovered the army of chocolate bunnies on the table behind me.

Let me explain.

A while back, I was having a tough day. In desperate need of attention, I fired off a flurry of self-pitying messages to LSH on Whatsapp.

He sent the right kind of emoji back and so I thought the matter was resolved. I was working a late shift and when I got back home around 1 am, I tiptoed into the bedroom, where LSH was in a sleepy stupor.

“Katzi,” he murmured. “I think I left the radiator in the living room on. Would you mind turning it off?”

Ugh, fine, I thought to myself. But does he remember what a tough day I’ve had? How emotionally exhausted I am?

I flung open the living room door and made a beeline for the raditator.

And then I saw them.

An army of bunnies. Lined up as if for a school photograph. Flanked by nougat eggs.

The radiator was off.

“You said you had a tough day,” LSH murmured as I burst back into the bedroom.

“How did you…. ”

“They were on special offer. Got some fierce weird looks on the S-Bahn though. The big one comes in a transparent box with a handle.”

There were always many reasons to marry LSH, but this is now officially in my top three.

Anyway, all that was a few weeks ago. Since then, even without the help of my Bavarian hero, my army has shrunk dramatically.

Now it’s only “Big Berta” who remains standing. Her bell is so loud that we used it to entertain the cat we recently babysat.

Berta watches us as we wash our clothes, and cook yet another batch of tortelli on the hotplate. She was there when the hat stand was delivered and when LSH heroically proved his masculinity by bleeding the radiator. She will possibly still be there when our kitchen is delivered.

She is a reminder, in more ways than one, that good things come to those who wait.

 

How building a kebab empire has changed my life

Some people spend their free time mastering new skills: Swahili; the piano; embroidery. You know the type.

I play a game on my phone called ‘Kebab World.’ It’s taught me more than any of the above ever could.

In Kebab World, you’re in charge of a fast food joint. And when I say fast, I mean it. Especially as you advance through the levels.

It’s a one-woman operation. You’re in charge of cooking the chicken, preparing the salad and maintaining the drinks machine. And of course, keeping the customer satisfied.

It can get pretty stressful! But it’s in times of adversity you learn the most. Having made it all the way to level 27, I’ve acquired a fair few life lessons along the way. Apply the following hard-won tips to your own life for a happier, healthier you:

You can’t please everyone! Sometimes, when my kebab joint gets really busy, the customers begin to sulk. Their expressions become dour, and – sometimes if you’re not quick enough – they walk out before you’ve finished preparing their order. Of course you don’t want that to happen! But if you’re doing your best, don’t sweat it. Focus on pleasing the customers who still have smiles on their faces. You’ll make your losses back in tips.

kebabs

Cut your losses! If you mess up an order, don’t hold onto it in case the next customer wants your messed-up meal. Assume no one will. Bin it and move on.

Invest in yourself! If – like me – you are naturally frugal, this may be the most important lesson you learn. As you make money in your kebab shop, you’re given the option of upgrading your operation. You can buy a new Ayran dispenser, or invest in an additional grill. You can even buy larger quantities of parsley to give your kebabs a healthy twist. Do it! As well as enabling you to work faster and more efficiently, the upgrades will keep your customers intrigued. Meaning more tips, and more money to invest in exciting things like additional serving space.

Rest and recharge! Sometimes, when I’m on the U Bahn home from work, I subject myself to a second shift at the Kebab joint. This is rarely a good idea. Without a clear head, it’s impossible to make smart business decisions and offer service with a smile. Double-jobbing is a no-no. Go to work well-rested and motivated, and before long, you too could find yourself in command of a kebab empire.

First Dates Germany: bluntness at its best

Words can’t describe the joy I felt when I discovered that First Dates Germany is a thing. It was yesterday, and my life hasn’t been the same since.

If you’re unfortunate enough never to have heard of this show, here’s a quick summary: strangers meet for a date at a restaurant owned by a flamboyant, semi-famous chef; the encounter is filmed and dissected by a snarky voice-over with a penchant for puns.

The Irish version debuted on RTE back in 2016 but tragically – while the episodes are available online – you can’t watch them from abroad.

That said, I have (obviously) seen enough episodes while back on the old turf to make a meaningful comparison with the German version.

Here, based on several glorious hours of binge-watching,  are my first impressions of First Dates: Ein Tisch für Zwei:

The Teutonic reputation for bluntness and practicality?  Firmly upheld. One woman praised her date for his attractive personality but rejected him on the basis that he simply wasn’t “optically” up to scratch. Another factored in the cost of the airfare that would be required for a long-distance relationship between Cologne and Zurich.

And when it comes to paying, there is far less beating around the bush. One young man leant back luxoriously when the bill came, waiting for his date to pay up. “I like to be treated,” he said simply, as if this was all that was required for a free dinner. It worked.

“Can I pay?” another man asked his date.

“Sure,” she said.

No “Ah, God no.” “Ah go on.” “No, we’ll split.” “No I insist.” “Oh go on then.” “Are you sure? Next one’s on me.” “If there is a next time: oh God. How presumptuous.” “Thanks ever so much. You’re too good.”

If you think it’s all about reason and logic on the German dating scene though: think again! These people are obsessed with star signs! In fact, asking prospective love interests their Zodiac sign appears to be a standard first-date question. This, of course, presents plenty of opportunities for some astrological banter too. Take last night – for example – when a Pisces (the German word for it is Fisch) ended up ordering – you guessed it – fish.

Staring blankly in the face of compliments is also common among participants in First Dates Germany. “You have lovely eyes,” one date said to another last night. No“ah stop” in response. No “yours aren’t bad either.” Not even an embarrassed glance to the side. Just silence and a long, impassive stare back at the admirer.

Altogether, First Dates Germany does not have the delicious appeal of the Irish version, with its self-deprecating and often highly witty participants. But the candor offered by the Germans offers its own unique comedy and charms.

Consider me hooked.

 

‘Men are absolutely useless’ says LSH

We were holidaying in Ahlbeck, a seaside town near the German-Polish border. It was our last night and we were in an Italian restaurant, waiting for the enormous pizza we’d ordered to go.

All of a sudden, a look of panic spread over LSH’s face, and he began tapping his pockets frantically. Then he emptied the contents of his bag on the table.

“I don’t have my wallet,” he said.

“It’s probably in the apartment.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Go back and check,” I suggested. “I’ll wait for the pizza.”

I couldn’t wait to tear into its cheesy, spinachy goodness.

It came moments after LSH had left. The heat from the box radiated through to my fingertips as I crunched through the snow back to the apartment. Giddy with greed, I expected to find LSH sheepishly reunited with his wallet, and ready to crack open a few bottles of the local beer we’d bought in Edeka earlier.

Instead I found him stony-faced.

“It’s gone,” he said.

We turned the apartment inside out, tearing open drawers, accessing nooks and crannies we hadn’t known existed. We even turned the couch upside down, as if we expected the wallet to tumble out with a guilty “alright, you got me!”

“I had it in Edeka,” LSH said later, miserably munching a cold slice of pizza. “I paid with exact change. I must have set it down when I went to pick up the bottles.”

“We’ll go back first thing tomorrow morning,” I said. “But until then there’s nothing we can do.”

“All my bank cards,” said LSH. “My BVG travel ticket. My Trinity College graduate library pass.”

“It’s expired,” I said gently. “We moved away six years ago.”

“The existing pass is required for renewal,” LSH said tersely.

The romantic, gorge-ful evening we had envisioned was slipping away.

“I just have to sleep it off,” said LSH, and went to bed, leaving me to nurse a flat regional beer.

The next morning the snow sparkled under brilliant sunshine. It has to be in Edkea, I thought, though I was careful to conceal my optimism.

The shop had just opened. A young man sat at the till.

“Good morning,” I said. “We’ve lost a wallet. And we think we left it here, on this very ledge, last night. Could you check to see if you have it?”

He shook his head vigorously. “Nope,” he said. “No wallet here.”

“Go to the department of lost items,” the customer behind us chipped in.

“Oh?” I said. “I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

“It’s in the town hall,” he said.

“This is very odd,” I said as we made our way down a long and narrow yellow-walled corridor, passing glass cases that featured posters outlining the requirements for passport photographs due to come into effect in 2004.

20180203_154630

How LSH and I feel about women everywhere

“It is a sleepy town,” said LSH.

We found a door labeled “Office of found items” We could hear a radio on in the background.

We knocked.

There was no answer.

A young woman swept past us on her way into another room.

“Can I help you?” she asked pleasantly.

“Sure,” I said. “We’d like to declare a missing wallet.”

“You’re in the right place,” she said, sympathetically. “But the office might not open for another few minutes. Why don’t you just take a seat?”

“Thanks,” we said.

We sat down outside the Lost and Found office, and became aware of a male voice coming from it.

We agreed that this time it wasn’t the radio.

“I’ll knock again in a while,” I said.

Fifteen minutes later, the same woman emerged again from her room.

“Still no answer?” she asked.

We shook our heads sadly.

Forty-five minutes later, during which time no one had actually entered the room, we knocked again.

“Come in,” said a gruff voice.

An old, bearded man was sitting at a desk. Judging by his expression, he was not happy to see us.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“My husband has lost his wallet” I said.  “Has it possibly turned up here?”

“No.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Perhaps we could report it missing?”

The request appeared to pain him.

“I’ll need your ID.”

“It’s in my wallet,” LSH said helplessly.

The man sighed.

“Perhaps I can give you my passport instead?” I suggested.

He agreed, reluctantly.

He typed my details –  painstakingly slowly – into the computer.

I asked if I could provide an e-mail address so he could contact me if the wallet was handed in.

He squinted at the computer.

“There’s no box on this form for an e-mail address,” he said. “There has to be a box.”

“Oh, hmm perhaps you could just take a note of it then?” I asked.

He continued to gaze at the screen.

“Actually, there is a box,” he said. “So you can give it to me after all.”

He printed out a document to confirm that LSH had lost his wallet.

We thanked him profusely and left.

“I’m going to have to cancel everything,” LSH said, crestfallen. “So many phone calls.”

(We hate phone calls.)

On or way back, we passed Edeka again.

“Come on,” I said, suddenly determined. “We’re going back in.”

We passed the young man at the till and made our way up and down the aisles until we found another member of staff: this time, a woman stacking shelves.

“Excuse me,” I said, with a hint of desperation in my voice.

“My husband thinks he left his wallet here last night. Is there any chance it’s been found?”

She smiled.

“What does it look like?”

“It’s black!” LSH blurted out. “Bulging with receipts.. a ton of cards!”

She nodded.

“And look,” LSH said, brandishing our document from the man in the town hall. “We’ve even got an official document declaring it missing!”

She glanced at it, bemused.

“One moment,” she said.

She disappeared to the back of the shop and came back with the wallet.

LSH clapped his hands together in adulation. I called her an angel.

She looked at us with the kind of sympathy reserved for the deranged.

“You’re welcome!” she said and returned to her tins of soup.

As we left the shop, passing by the young man at the till, LSH turned to me and said:

“Katzi, men are absolutely useless.”

“Go on,” I said, happily.

“The tosser at the till, swearing blindly that he didn’t have the wallet. He didn’t even look. Or ask someone!” He paused, then continued, “that old man in the town hall: zero help!”

“Yes,” I said. “I can certainly see where you’re coming from.” But then, for the sake of diplomacy I said, “Not all men though. You, for example, are alright.”

“Katzi,” he said.  “I’m the one who lost my wallet!”

“True,” I said. “And I’m the one who got it back.”

We crunched through the snow back to the apartment, singing the praises of women everywhere.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Why you should keep your mouldy shower curtains

Last week Frau Bienkowski and I got talking about how best to dispose of Christmas trees.

I was telling her about how I’d been über-enthusiastic in undressing my tree only to find that the recycle people wouldn’t be coming to collect it until the following week. Since I live in an intimidatingly law-abiding neighbourhood, I figured I might face ostracisation  if I dumped it outside prematurely. As a result, I’d lugged it to the balcony where it was now in a sorry state of limbo, having left thousands of pine needles (perhaps out of spite, I thought) in its wake.

Nothing says "January blues" more than a pile of sorry-looking Christmas trees.

Nothing says “January blues” more than a pile of sorry-looking Christmas trees.

“I insisted on non-shed in my latter years,” said Frau B. “I just couldn’t deal with those needles.”

“So how did you get rid of your Christmas tree back in the day?” I asked.

“I just threw it out the window.”

“What?”

“Yes, would you not consider doing that?”

“No!”

“Why not? That way, you won’t have to clean up all the pine needles from the stairwell. After all, you don’t want to annoy the neighbours!”

I wonder if this individual removed all the needles of their tree one-by-one.

I wonder if this individual removed all the needles of their tree one-by-one.

“I can’t just throw my tree out the window! What if I hit someone? Like my crazy neighour? Or the 86 year-old Hausmeister?”

“I used to recruit children to keep watch,” said Frau B. “They’d stay below and give me a signal when the coast was clear. Then they’d carry it to the side of the road. I gave them chocolate in return. It was win-win.”

“I’m not doing that,” I said.

Fast forward a week and it’s Christmas tree removal day. A heap of sorry-looking Christmas trees has accumulated outside the apartment building. One individual, presumably with the admirable intention of not dropping a single needle in the stairwell, has even shorn their tree, leaving behind nothing but a creepy-looking skeleton of branches.

I enlist the urgent help of (resident savant) LSB.

LSB and his genius mouldy-shower curtain contraption. (MSCC)

LSB and his genius mouldy-shower curtain contraption. (MSCC)

He immediately makes his way to the bathroom, from where he emerges wielding the mouldy shower curtain we recently got around to replacing.

“Watch,” he says.

He lays the mouldy shower curtain on the floor of the hall and instructs me to lift the tree onto it. As if he were tucking a child into a hammock, he covers it gingerly, finally securing it with two firm knots.

Keen to get the credit for the ingenuity, I insist on carrying it down to the street myself.

I don’t shed a single needle on the way.

Later, when I relate the event to Frau B, she appears suitably impressed.

How to turn flat-hunting into a hobby

Regular readers know I’m more than a bit of a creep. I stare unashamedly at strangers and note down snippets of conversations I hear on trains. And – no I am not joking, LSB got me a periscope for Christmas.

So, despite the well-documented tedium of finding a flat in Berlin and a certain Mr Humphreys who tried to scam me into moving into a restaurant, looking for a flat over the past few months has provided me with a welcome opportunity to poke around thirteen strangers’ homes without getting arrested.

Prenzlauerberg  Source: Wikipedia

Prenzlauerberg
Source: Wikipedia

One such stranger was Jürgen. He and his wife were giving up their apartment in Prenzlauerberg to move into something bigger. Their neat second-floor flat overlooked a street full of restored period houses which had been painted green.

LSB and I were only vaguely interested in the flat because the advertisement had mentioned that applicants willing to buy the in-built hall cupboard for €1300 would be preferred.

The moment we walked in we knew it was not for us. The flat was oddly misshapen – a hexagonal kitchen jutted left off the hallway and the bedroom straight ahead was small and windowless. It looked vaguely like the nearby bar dedicated to life in the GDR.

But we continued on anyway, browsing awkwardly and exchanging false smiles with our prospective competitors. As we were trying to make a beeline for the front door, Jürgen – bespectacled, earnest and thoroughly decent- caught us.

(We had decided that when looking for flats, we would play by ear whether to tell people that LSB was only beginning to learn German. In some cases, I simply translated and in others, people were all too eager to practise their English.)

Jürgen however was unconcerned about LSB’s language skills. All he wanted to talk about was his hall cupboard.

“Schau mal,” he said, opening a long mirrored door. “I built this myself. It is a perfect fit.”

“Mmm” said LSB appreciatively.

An entirely different cupboard which I probably would pay for. Source: Wikipedia

An entirely different cupboard which I probably would pay for. Source: Wikipedia

“And take a look at this!” he said, showing us some shelf fittings.

We listened politely as Jürgen continued to speak extensively about his carpentry.

Every now and then, LSB nodded in confusion and said: “Ah!”

Jürgen, delighted with the enthusiastic, if deferential response, pulled open yet another door.

This went on for ten minutes and concluded with: “A better cupboard for this spot you will not get.”

Back on the street, LSB said: “I didn’t understand a word of that.”

I didn’t understand much, either.

But I liked Jürgen. He was an uncomplicated, dignified kind of person who took great pleasure from his work. There was nothing cynical about his spiel. He really just wanted to speak at length about his self-built cupboards.

Tania from Tiergarten, on the other hand, did not wish to speak at length.

When we arrived for a private viewing of her apartment, she opened the door slightly and said: “Schuhe aus!”

LSB and I almost tripped over each other in the attempt to remove our shoes at speed.

We proceeded in and received a swift, efficient tour of the airy apartment, which we learned was to be rented out unfurnished.

The most remarkable thing about the bedroom was a colossal square of purple on the otherwise white-painted wall.

Tania motioned to a large tin of paint sitting on a table.

“Should you take the place, you will be contractually obliged to paint over the purple square. I have purchased paint for the purpose. I don’t have time to do it.”

We nodded. We would learn to do a lot of that as our flat hunt continued.

Next up was a flat in Friedrichshain, a punk-friendly area in the east of the city where I lived when I first moved here.

Tim, the young man offering the flat, was a DJ who was going travelling for a year.

The entrance hall of the large front house was like a cringeworthy movie set dedicated to Berlin’s “alternative scene.” No centimetre of the wall was free of graffiti, which featured slogans such as “Fuck the police,” “The revolution begins now” and “Go vegan.”

A house in Friedrichshain (not the one we went to) source: Wikipdia

A house in Friedrichshain (not the one we went to) source: Wikipdia

It was horribly dirty. To get into Tim’s flat, we had to cross a pitch-black yard. As we were making our way to the door, a large terrier bounded at us out of the darkness. I didn’t scream. When I am terrified, I go mute.

We made our way up the graffitied stairway to Tim’s place and rang the bell.

Tim had shaggy hair and glasses.

“Hey, you guys,” he said. “You found it! I know the buildings are pretty run-down man, but you got the best one here.”

The flat stank of smoke. Tim led us past the kitchen, where a pile of dirty dishes towered next to the sink. There were hundreds of records on the shelves in the hallway.

In the living room was a tatty armchair and a fridge. “For the beer! Nothing better than having a nice beer ready for you when you stumble home at 4 am!”

LSB and I nodded excessively.

“Cool,” I said.

“Very handy,” said LSB.

“And of course you guys can smoke in here! No problem at all,” said Tim.

“Brilliant!” I said.

(LSB and I do not smoke.)

“The only thing really,” said Tim – “don’t touch the records. At all. They are my babies.”

We saw ten other places. Writing about them all would be boring.

Suffice it to say, one of the strangers became our friend. It’s unsurprising really because she has a corner couch and a Goethe quotation painted on the wall. I’d be lying if I said I’d always wanted a Goethe quote, but the corner couch has been a dream of mine for quite some time. She also has a copious supply of kitchen utensils.

She left us a crate of beer, a charming welcome note and plenty of shelf space.

LSB and I have colour-coded our books. We have a red, blue, green and yellow section.

And even though our small, north-facing balcony overlooks a car park, there is a school building across the way.

Some mornings, I peek out from behind the curtains and try to make out the teacher’s power point presentations.