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.

 

Freshly Pressed

For most people, “freshly pressed” means a glass of orange juice with pleasing bits of pulp, possibly accompanied by a croissant or lakeside view.

But for bloggers at WordPress, “freshly pressed” is an accolade.

It means that a WordPress employee has decided to feature one of your posts on their homepage, exposing you to lots of other bloggers, some of whom decide to “follow” your blog and a few who take the time to leave you kind and thoughtful comments.

Image source: www.ulaola.com

Image source: http://www.ulaola.com

For an introvert, it’s like winning a year’s supply of networking.

It’s like being at a writers’ conference, with sweaty palms, about to approach a stranger with an awkward, self-deprecating introduction, only for the entire spiel suddenly to be rendered completely unnecessary, paving the way for a return to the happy corner where you were munching a canapé and starting at animated people self-promoting.

Today, I was “Freshly pressed.” It made me very happy indeed.

It also made me think about encouragement and success.

I’m no neuroscientist, but sometimes I wish I were.

When I am sad or frustrated or overjoyed, I like to imagine the neurons in my brain squirting coloured impulses, which travel across convoluted chemical tracks at reckless speeds.

When some one says something kind or complimentary to me, a little cluster somewhere behind my forehead ignites,like a flickering light bulb finally screwed in right. I might respond awkwardly, by fumbling with my hands or countering with disproportionate (but heartfelt) praise.

But all the while, inside a little squirt of something which I’ll call adrenalin for want of an MRI, has begun to gush about my head, leaving me feeling unusually motivated.

Kate Katharina poses as an introvert suddenly relieved of the duty to self-promote.

Kate Katharina poses as an introvert suddenly relieved of the duty to self-promote.

It’s like magic, really.

Except it’s magic that anyone can perform, any time.

Encouraging people is deeply satisfying. My mother is so good at it, that she could probably turn professional.

My favourite people to encourage are humble types, whose faces immediately display a strange guilt when you tell them that they are wonderful and who can’t think of any words to say back.

Or people who have a secret dream that isn’t quite so secret and whose faces melt strangely when you casually remark that they could achieve something they’ve never admitted to desiring.

Fortunately, you don’t need a top hat or a bunny to encourage, though in some cases either or both could come in useful.

You can encourage with words or gesture, or even by keeping your dissent silent.

And like an alchemist, you can cause a little light to go on in someone’s mind, giving them the energy necessary to finish a painting, or take an exam, or learn to swim or ride a bicycle or sing a song.

Thanks to all my readers, old and new, for encouraging me to cultivate this little patch of blogosphere.

I wish I could say that being “freshly pressed” hasn’t gone to my head, but I’ve already told you all about the little light bulb that lives behind my forehead.

“Freshly pressed” or not, I promise I’ll try to keep my writing free of pulp.

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If you want to join in the fun on Facebook you can find Kate Katharina here.

And if you’re more of a Twitter-er, you can find links to my latest posts here.

Blogileaks: Kate Katharina rocked by sell-out scandal

If you want to be rich and famous, you should definitely start a blog. It’s the only way to keep up with the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world.

Katekatharina.com is a case in point.

From the beginning, my sober treatment of issues such as my talent for gibberish, my reputation as a creep and my savant boyfriend left readers crying for more.

I had to purchase extra electronic storage to cope with all the fan mail I was getting. I rejected several offers to write for renowned publications on the principle that Katekatharina.com was a more reputable source than say, The New York Times.

After some time, it became impossible to walk the streets of Dublin without being accosted by an admirer of my prose. The effort of gazing at my feet modestly every time a particularly apt turn of phrase was repeated to me by a stranger became too great. I decided to move to Berlin, where I thought I could descend into relative obscurity and focus on my art.

A rare moment of calm from the crowds as I climb a tower in the early days of my time in Berlin.

A rare moment of calm from the crowds as I climb a tower in the early days of my time in Berlin.

But it was not to be. Here too, passengers on the underground tap me nervously on the shoulder and say “If you don’t mind me saying so, you look really like Kate Katharina from Katekatharina.com. Others are more aggressive, pushing through crowds to thrust a pen and a print-out of my latest post into my hands, crying “Bitte, bitte, ein Autogramm fuer mein krankes Kind.”

Yes, my route to fame and fortune has been paved with widgets and clusters of html.

Or possibly, it’s been a bit more like this:

I’ve written over 200 posts here. Sometimes I spend hours writing a serious piece contemplating the meaning of art, or describing a tiny dead mouse whose death still haunts me, while other times I chronicle my developing relationship with a 93 year-old woman or defend pigeons.

The mouse that haunts me still

The mouse that haunts me still

The effort has paid off. Last summer the embassy of a wealthy middle eastern country offered to pay me to write a piece outlining – among other facts – the wisdom of its ruler and the progress the country has made in the areas of human rights and gender equality. When I replied saying that I did not feel I could write an impartial piece given the requirements, they promptly reassured me that I could be “reasonable and objective,” as if I were simply displaying modesty.

They’d found my contact details through a referral to the blog from an article I’d written for The Journal. That particular article paid me handsomely in… exposure (?) and afforded me the pleasure of trawling through a host of comments, most of which misinterpreted my article to conclude I was a Paparazzi fiend.

A more recent success occurred when the Past Pupils Union of my secondary school read a post I had written reminiscing about audible peeing in the school bathroom. They posted it onto their page and my hits rocketed.

I rejected numerous offers from prestigious publications

I rejected numerous offers from prestigious publications

And then recently, someone working on behalf of the company X contacted me, offering me a modest sum in exchange for linking to their site.

I had a drink with my friend, another freelance journalist in Berlin.

“You’ll be compromising yourself,” she said. “And for €80?”

A niggling part of me thought she was right. “But,” I argued, “They said I could write about anything; I just have to link to their site.. I mean I link to sites all the time, many of them happen to be commercial! And Y is not immoral!”

“And,” I continued, ever more desperate. “Every time I want to watch a video showing death and destruction on the BBC website, I first have to watch a stupid ad telling me to ‘invest in reMARKable Indonesia.'”

“I know,” she sighed. “It’s terrible the Beeb does that.”

So, here I am, “selling out” for the first time. The compensation is €80 (I hope!) which will pay for my monthly transport. For the amount of hours I’ve spent thinking about how NOT to make this read like a sponsored post, it’s pittance.

If I were living in a time when people still paid for writing, I’d have earned a couple of hundred for this 800 odd-word piece.

But I’m not. I was born into the digital revolution.

So, for all the would-be bloggers out there, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to take yourself excessively seriously. Just like me.

Otherwise, the attention from the fans can get too much, and you begin to crave the days when your blog had a small, loyal readership and when you deliberated for days over whether to post a link to a website offering to help people see again.

Shine, Jesus, Shine.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it became cool to join the Christian Union at school. All I know is that one day people were carefully tearing away the threads that bound their little blue hymn books together and the next you were being shoved out of the way for a go at the Prayer Wall.

Testimonials became all the rage. Powerful, popular student speakers would address school assembly and describe their conversion at pop concerts. The Christian Union band became a staple feature of morning gatherings and suddenly everybody was belting out Shine, Jesus Shine as if their lives depended on it.

My best friend and I set out on a surveillance Mission. One Friday after school, we walked in on an Open Mic prayer session. The cream of the crop were gathered in a circle, waiting patiently for their turn with the mic. A tall brunette girl with ringlets finally got her go. She clutched the microphone, shut her eyes tightly and said “Dear God, please help me not do something I regret on Junior Certs results night.”

I was amazed, because I was doing all I could to prevent divine intervention on Junior Cert Results night.

The Junior Cert is a set of exams that Irish school children take when they are 15. They sit in sports halls with no windows and answer questions about Romeo and Juliet, Pythagoras’ theorem and volcanoes. During the exams, the sun comes out and shines all over the country. Flowers blossom and birds sing. When the adjudicator says “Pens down” after the final exam, it begins to rain.

Anyway, “results night” is when under-age teenagers sneak their way into night clubs around Dublin. The girls are usually naked and the boys wear oversized shirts with their collars pulled up. If things go to plan, the next morning the streets will be lined with neat little pools of vomit.

I had done hideously well in the Junior Cert. So well, that cool boys in the corridor cried my result at me whenever I passed. I thought the way they yelled “12 As” every time I went by was flirtatious, until somebody suggested that I was being bullied, which seemed more plausible.sh

Anyway, as I was ironing my hair that night, I decided it was high time I started drinking alcohol. Contemporaries had been doing it for months, and I felt I was missing out on a developmental stage. I thought the prospects that night were good. I had an invitation to a party at a boy’s house.

I made sure my hair was flat and lifeless before I headed out. When I got to the party, it was still bright and everyone was in the garden, bouncing on a trampoline. I joined them, certain that the illicit activity would begin after dark.

As dusk was settling, I spotted some boys retreating behind the bushes. One of them caught my eye. This was very promising. We exchanged a dangerous glance. I slipped off the trampoline and into the cover of a suburban hedge. An Evian bottle was being passed around. It was dirty and there was murky liquid inside. “It’s a mix,” one of the boys told me.

I thought for just a moment about cold sores, and about how once you got the Herpes virus, you have it for life. But then I remembered that alcohol was a prime ingredient in many household cleaning products, and my spirits lifted again.

I took a swig. I put great effort into appearing underwhelmed. The bottle got passed around. Before I knew it, it was empty and ready for the recycle bin.

I wondered whether it was possible to be so drunk as to not notice any effect at all. I tried hard to identify the symptoms of intoxication. I wondered whether I might be unsteady on my feet, but my legs stubbornly obeyed my commands. I thought it might be an idea to display irrational behaviour, but I was painfully uninspired.

I’ve always been confused by behaviour that occurs while drinking alcohol. You see, you just never know if the behaviour and the alcohol have anything to do with each other. The very last thing you want to do is to mix up causation with correlation. At least, that’s what the Psychology lecturers at college used to say.

Not so long ago, years after I left my school-days behind me, I found myself drifting on the fringes of a dance-floor. I spotted a cool boy I had been to school with. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“Kate!” he said. “SO good to see you!”

“And you,” I said, beaming.

“You know what,” he continued. “You’re just dead on. You are just such a good person. You know, I just have so much respect for you and the path you have taken.”

I was unemployed at the time.

He looked wistfully beyond me, his gaze otherworldly.

“Is that your boyfriend?” he asked suddenly.

I dragged LSB under the disco ball.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’re some lucky fucker,” he said, “you really are.”

We exchanged phone numbers. “Let’s seriously, definitely, actually meet for coffee,” the boy said.

I was delighted. I imagined the conversation would continue exactly where it had left off. I would gaze modestly into my latte, stirring the foam with my little finger and say, “Stop, no really… Did you honestly..? … you really always thought that of me? And all that time I thought you were cool and I wasn’t?! Gas.. No look stop now, you’re embarrassing me..”

In the days and weeks that followed, I thought about bringing my phone for a routine check-up, just in case there were some calls not getting through or something. But as the weeks turned into months, I began to wonder if the boy had been under the Influence.

News Flash

I have 508 Facebook friends. One of them is a girl from Israel and another is a boy from Gaza. I met them both in the summer of 2009 when I went to study for a month at the University of Bayreuth in southern Germany.

This weekend the boy from Gaza posted pictures of destroyed homes, families covered in blood and clouds of smoke in the sky. The Israeli girl posted pictures of the sub-par bomb shelter she had been hiding in.
Some people left comments along the lines of “We stand with Israel” on the girl’s wall. She said it was the worst thing to say because Israel had “started it.”

At work, we’re following developments. The politicians are so tentative. Obama talks about Israel’s right to defend itself and neglects to mention the mounting civilian deaths. The German press secretary reminds us that Israel is firing in response to rockets from Gaza.

We showed footage of an overturned truck carrying tomatoes in Gaza. Three brothers inside were killed when it was hit by a rocket.

The screens showing agency video feeds flitted back and forth between footage of destruction and diplomacy. The UN condemns civilian deaths, western politicians don’t mention them, Egypt says it won’t tolerate them.

Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ retrieved 19/11/2012

Polite conversation skirts around the violence. People don’t like to pass remarks on Israel. They think Hamas is dodgy so maybe there’s no other way. Not many like to defend killing children, and brothers driving trucks full of tomatoes. And when images of wailing women searching for loved ones amid destroyed buildings pops up on the screen, they don’t know where to look.

Meanwhile in Mali, Islamic militants have taken control of the north. Their leaders hold up guns and say they’re fighting with weapons, not words. Women have begun covering their hair. They might make the news tomorrow.

“Reality” Television

I’m a “freelancer” now.

I know, doesn’t it sound exotic?

Actually, it’s a euphemism for “poor” but let’s not allow that get in the way of recording the associated advantages: staying in your pyjamas until all hours of the afternoon, leaving for work at 6 pm, and filling your head and diary with eclectic projects, many of which are yet to come into fruition.

My main job, remarkably, is in television. Would you believe, I translate and write news items, apparently watched by millions. (Don’t worry, there are lots of checks by more experienced people before my words turn into broadcasts).

I’ve only done a few shifts but I am learning rapidly how “news” works.

When I arrive at the office, I sit down at a computer and open a software programme which contains a run-down of all the news items due to be broadcast on the upcoming show.

Reports tend not to last more than about 2 and a half minutes and shorter bulletins are over within 25 seconds. So brevity and clarity are essential.

Kate Katharina reporting from Washington, with foam microphone.

So is understanding exactly what a story is about. It takes an expert to break something down into its barest form.

You have to work quickly. If a story is breaking, you need to sift through the information coming through the wires, distil it, find appropriate pictures and videos to accompany it and finally send it on to somebody who will produce it and fix any technical glitches.

It’s a huge responsibility.

And it’s that responsibility which I have been thinking about.

It’s important to remember how lucky I – and I assume most of my readers – are to live in an area of the world with an independent media and in an era in which information can go global in seconds.

More people have more access to more information than ever before.

As a result of this mass circulation and sharing of information, we can get away with having fewer sources.

And because the media now works like a web, rather than through straight lines as it used to, things can get tangled up more easily.

Since newspapers and television rely in a huge part on “wires” (=news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press) the pressure and responsibility on those reporters to be 100% accurate is enormous.

News agencies are a business. They can’t afford to send their reporters absolutely everywhere in the world, particularly not to every war-torn country with poor infrastructure and hostility to foreigners. So, our news comes from the people who happen to be stationed in certain parts of the world.

The headlines we get are a political, social and economic reflection on western life and values.

And it’s important to remember that we probably miss as many stories as we run.

Having been surrounded by extraordinarily hard-working and intelligent journalists, I’m far from disillusioned by how the media works. But I am becoming more aware of how arbitrary the selection and presentation of news has always been and will remain.

Things are moving in the right direction. Tweets fly off from the obscurest of locations, bloggers are becoming more influential, and technology is advancing in the developing world.

However, manipulation is becoming easier and more sophisticated, and misrepresentations can spread like wildfire.

I’m only starting out in the field and I am young and stupid. My main concern though is a noble one. I want to tell a truthful story well. And if that means staying small-scale and telling you about a a spindly old man and his giant dog, or about the old man who couldn’t stop falling, at least you know that these are things that I have seen with my own eyes, not images which have landed on my screen after rushing through the wires. And no matter how timid a voice I am on the blogosphere, the fact that I have one screams volumes about the democracy which we should never, ever take for granted.

Why our politicians’ private lives matter

At the G20 summit last November, Obama and then French president, Sarkozy, were having a chat. The Israeli Prime Minister came up in conversation.

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar”, said Sarkozy, to which Obama replied, “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day!”

The problem with the conversation was that their mikes were on. A couple of journalists heard the whole thing. Instead of rushing to their editor with their enormous scoop, they stayed quiet in the belief that this was a private conversation which would be damaging to report.

Nothing was said for a few days until the French website Arret sur Images published their remarks. As soon as international journalists got wind of the interchange, it went global and the mainstream French media reported it too.

image source: privateinvestigations.blogspot.at

The media treatment of the exchange triggered an important discussion: what matters to the public and what doesn’t and how entwined are the public and private lives of our politicians?

In all walks of life, the idea that our private and professional selves are separate entities is a myth. Our behaviour might differ from one situation to another but our values do not.

Research suggests that people vote for politicians based more on their personalities than on their policies. They do so in the reasonable belief that the two are unlikely to be widely removed from each other.

Political decisions, like any other are made on the spur of the moment, and under the influence of powerful personalities. If your leader is more eager to be liked than to do what’s right, it matters. If they are impulsive or inexpressive or icy, it will affect their governance. Personality counts.

Since it’s the first responsibility of a politician to act on their values, their behaviour outside of work cannot be logically divorced from the decisions they make on the job.

Take for example Dominique Strauss Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund. Notwithstanding the allegations of sexual harassment against him, which have been well-documented by the media, he’s admitted to several affairs and to attending lavish parties featuring naked girls, who may or may not have been prostitutes. Strauss Kahn chose the institution of marriage and failed to live up to its requirements. Assuming that values do not change fundamentally from one situation to the other, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to question his commitment to other institutions, such as the IMF and the state of France, to which he also pledged allegiance.

Whether or not such speculation is justified, the more we learn about the kinds of people our politicians are outside of work, the more sophisticated our interpretations of their motivations and performance become.

While some might suggest that such a hunger for private lives only encourages the cultivation of a “public” personality, to assume that this wasn’t already the case would be naive. Furthermore, the challenge for journalists is to convey the personality of a politician as it is, not necessarily as he or she would like it to be.

The media have a choice to make between objectifying and subjectifying. Objectifying is talking about Hillary Clinton’s bum, while subjectifying is telling us how her mouth twitched when her daughter failed a maths test.

The future of journalism is uncertain: the overwhelming speed at which news now travels has eliminated much of what the job used to entail.

There is a new opportunity though and it requires us to slow down, to reflect and to write with insight rather than haste.

Demanding of our journalists to be emotionally astute as well as politically sharp will lead to a more complex picture of what is anything but a straightforward job: making decisions that affect millions of lives and the future of our planet.

Journalism may sustain its integrity into the future by maintaining a fine balance between the personal and the political. When it comes to reporting from the private realm, it must replace sensationalism with psychological realism.

It’s what’s missing in the constantly updated, hyper-evolving virtual media landscape.

Unless we begin to privilege the mundane everyday, politicians will stay “out of touch” with it, and the public will continue to see them as little more than worn out political machines; inanimate and inept.

So if Enda Kenny announces that he’s turned vegan, Eamonn Gilmore squabbles with his neighbour about the position of a garden fence or Joan Burton runs off with her secretary, I want to hear about it.

“Disc”overing Ourselves

LSB and I are bookish types. We met in a library, not on a sports field. While he gallops through the classics, I canter along beside him, skimming paragraphs to keep up. Altogether we’re contented.

But ever since our arrival in Vienna, we’ve been committed to a course of self-improvement. When we’re not saving ladybirds or relaxing in the museum quarter, we’re exchanging skills. I’m teaching him German (his progress is remarkable) and he’s introducing me to chess. I now know my rook from my knight and he can distinguish between the genitive and the accusative case.

LSB in a coffee shop off Mariahilfestrasse, where he began teaching me chess

It’s all well and good to study a new language and familiarise yourself with chess; for bookish types like us, both activities qualify as recreational. To really test our commitment to self-improvement, we need to tread outside our comfort zone.

Conversation turned to that very theme last week, while we were walking down Mariahilfestrasse.

“Let’s buy a frisbee,” said LSB.

How could I resist?

We went into a sports shop. I saw some kids trying out the treadmills so I did the same. A shop assistant came over to reprimand the children, accusing them of breaking the machines. Then she came to me wearing a large smile and asked if she could be of help. I said I was just “looking” and ran away as fast as I could.

Eventually we found the section we were looking for. In between snorkels and body boards, we found some large plastic discs.

“There we are,” I said. “How much is that?”

LSB picked it up and gasped.

“20 euro! Forget about it.”

“Sure we could use a paper plate for free!”

We continued down Mariahilfestrasse.

We passed a stamp shop, a furniture store and a hat shop.

Finally we found a toy store.

We found some frisbees inside a basket of Barbie beach balls.

LSB pulled some out.

“Grey or green?”

“What a toughie! Go grey.”

He did. We bounced to the till and paid €2.49.

Since then, LSB and I have discovered talents we never knew we had.

We may have started out unable to toss the bloody disc in any direction at all, and we have certainly hit a good number of beautiful Viennese park-dwellers, who thought they were out for a relaxing afternoon in the park, but you should see the beautiful arcs in the air that we can now achieve.

While I’m content to continue shooting long backhands, which I have mastered, LSB is keen to make swift improvements. In recent days, he has become intent on mastering the forehand. Unfortunately up to now, all attempts in that direction have landed far off target. I swear he’s doing it to make me run.

A few minutes ago, I looked up at LSB, who is sitting at the window with his laptop, looking over the Danube. A strange sound was coming from his computer. It sounded like a chorus of sea gulls.

“What are you doing?” I asked LSB, who is supposed to be preparing for his future life in Edinburgh.

“Just watching an Ultimate Frisbee Game,” he said.

The sun is beginning to set, casting a beautiful orange glow over the water. There’s just enough light left for a quick game.

Update: We played frisbee in the dark outside the national library.

Also, as regular readers may have noticed, I have a new picture as my header. If you become a fan of Katekatharina on Facebook, you can see the complete album of the photo shoot, which I’ll be posting tonight.

Alone in Berlin: Part Two

In late February Berlin was brown and the air was cool. I saw a Chinese man standing by the bin at the entrance to my underground station every morning. He had a blank face and kept a neat shoulder bag slung over his body. At first, I wondered who he was waiting for. Then I learnt that he sold cigarettes, which he kept in tight plastic packaging in the bottom of his bag.

He never moved, but some days when he was feeling bold, he would line up three or four packets of Marlboro on the edge of the bin to eliminate any doubt about why he was there.

His brazen passivity intrigued me. I developed the involuntary habit of staring him right in the eye as I turned to go down the steps to the platform.

I sat in a corner on the eighth floor of a silent office. It was a five-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate. When it became warmer, I would sit by the Spree at lunchtime and watch the tourist boats go by. Sometimes I would read or listen to music, but mostly I just sat.

One night my flatmate came home and said “We’re going out.” It was shortly before midnight. He took me to a rundown sports hall. Inside it was dark. Illuminated figures were racing across a badminton field, firing glow-in-the-dark shuttlecocks at each other. It smelt of sweat and alcohol. Even the nets glowed. Afterwards, a girl offered me a sip of bubble tea. It tasted like lentils and bath salts. Now I’m on the mailing list for “Spedminton,” a sport you play in the dark, while drunk.

Another time, I went to the punk bar down the road. Men and women in their forties, wearing leather jackets and vacant expressions, sat in clouds of smoke. They drank beer and had conversations about life and sometimes death. In the corner of the bar, completely out-of-place, was a foozeball table. My flatmate directed me towards it. I played so badly that his friend told me I must be tired. I thought I was at the top of my game.

At the weekends I went walking in the city. I watched teenagers nodding their heads to beat boxes, homeless men reaching into bins and Roma girls with clipboards approaching tourists, always with the same high-pitched greeting, “Speak English?”

My flatmate asked me to wipe the tiles dry after I showered. He had a special scraper for it. I would stand there, naked and dripping, pretending I was a window cleaner. A few weeks later, in a moment of rebellion, I simply stopped.

Overnight, I became a journalist. I made phone calls to surly trade unionists, government representatives and natural history museums, from a little sound-proof glass box, where my colleagues couldn’t hear me.

Still Alone in Berlin, still reading Alone in Berlin

Once I met a man who thought I was more important than I was. He invited me to his office, which overlooked the Brandenburg Gate and he said, “So are you going to become a TV presenter?” I looked at him incredulously. And he said “You have the personality for it. You’re charming.” I told him that I was shy and didn’t want to be famous.

The dizzy feeling of accomplishment I got from publication made me afraid. I learnt that I am equally scared of success as I am of failure. Sometimes to atone, I would buy a newspaper from the crippled homeless man on Friedrichstrasse. I made a point of reading it on the way home, in case the emptiness of achieving my dream overcame me.

Alone in Berlin: Part 1

At first it was exhilarating.

I wanted the hostel, where I stayed the first few nights, to be my home forever. I loved the anonymity of the place – the backpackers waiting for a leftover packet of pasta to boil, the discarded tea bags, the little laminated signs asking travellers to consider the environment before throwing away their rubbish.

There were two Asian-looking girls in the kitchen one evening. One had an American accent, the other was British. They had met at the hostel and now they were friends. The American wanted to go to “school” in Europe. The other nodded and made dinner.

Alone in Berlin, reading Alone in Berlin

In the evenings I bought a falafel sandwich or a slice of pizza on the main street which was soon to become my neighbourhood.

One morning — my first in Berlin, I took a bus tour of the city. On the top deck, a round lady with red-painted lips and peroxide hair gripped a microphone and gave a commentary of the city in English that was so broken that a tourist behind me muttered that he had more chance of understanding German. Her smile was fixed to her face like a stubborn mole, her face was wrinkled. If she had had no folds on her face, she would have looked like a doll. I knew she had grown up in east Germany. She learnt Russian at school. No west German tour guide would speak so little English.

I scribbled down the names of places that looked interesting from the bus. I saw pink water pipes all over the city, the president’s house, the parks, and a beautiful square.

I found my workplace and my heart jumped when I saw that it was five minutes away from the Brandenburg Gate. I found a little photo booth and got a picture taken for my student travel card. I followed the instructions for getting a passport photograph taken. “Don’t smile” said the machine. “You must not tilt your head, or obscure your face with your hair.”

I look so stony in the picture that weeks later, when the secretary at Spiegel looked at the card she said “but you are so cross!”

After I checked into my hostel on that first night, I went out to try to find the apartment I would be moving in to.
It wasn’t far from the hostel. It was late February and it was dark. I approached the flat from a direction I never walk now. I found the shoe shop and the children’s book store that Google Maps had promised me. The street was quiet and I was alone.

Obeying The Machine

I found the number and glanced up at the building. It was too dark to see anything.

I walked past a church, back to the main street. Next to my hostel was a photocopying shop and a video store. All rentals one euro. There was a large adult movie section on display in the window.

The day before I moved into my new flat, I met a book vendor outside Humboldt University. He had wild white hair and a black hat. He said: “You don’t think I have mornings when I wake up and say ‘Fuck this shit. I don’t want to stand at this fucking table selling books all day? And then you know what? I see children laughing and playing and nothing matters any more.”

I nodded at him, I think I smiled. I thought we were the only two people in the city. The sky turned midnight blue and the TV tower was lit up in the distance. I bought a book called “Der Steppenwolf”. The cover is blue and there are bits of paper still stuffed inside a page in the middle of the book, where I stopped reading it.

As the lights came on and I got into a grubby underground train, something danced in my brain. Now I realise it was the taste of freedom.