Well, we’re here. We made it. We keep reminding ourselves that for the last two years we’ve talked about doing this, dreamt of it, worked our butts off to do it, and now, we’re here in Berlin. The last four weeks have been incredibly overwhelming in many respects. We spent the first three days recovering from the twenty hours of flying it took to get us here, sleeping, eating amazing buffet breakfasts at our hotel and getting to grips with the fact that we were actually here. Since then we’ve moved into our temporary home in Kreuzberg and started to build our new life here. There have certainly been challenges — language difficulties, understanding a new culture, navigating German bureaucracy, enrolling in language school — and smaller day-to-day issues that at home we can do almost unconsciously like go to the supermarket, here take far more concentration. But every day is getting easier.
This week my partner goes back to work, while I will start a month of language school in the morning and writing in the afternoon. While of course I will miss sleeping in every day and lounging around reading whenever I wish, I’m also excited to start what feels like the next phase of being here, of having a routine. There is still plenty of administration and paperwork ahead of us to ensure we will be here for the time we plan to, and there will certainly be plenty of challenging moments as we find our place within this city. But those of you who have been following my daily Instagram postcards will know, we are completely head-over-heels in love with Berlin.
As I’m easing back into day-to-day life and struggling to push my lazy holiday brain, I thought I’d use this first post as a bit of a holiday reading recap. I’ve been reading pretty prolifically since we arrived and have some great reads to share with you over the next few weeks, but here’s a little summer reading stack to get us started.
I chose Mary Norris’ Between You and Me as my plane read, and though I inevitably spent most of the time sleeping or watching movies, this charming memoir was a perfect book to dip in and out of while I was coming back to life and ridiculously jet-lagged. Mary Norris has worked in the editorial department of The New Yorker for thirty years and uses Between You and Me to share stories from behind the scenes of the magazine, as well as personal anecdotes from her experience with the literary institution. The subtitle — Confessions of a Comma Queen — announces the other side to this book, which are interesting essays on the use of grammar and punctuation in the context of the magazine with all it’s quirks, as well as the history behind these elements of the English language. My favourite chapters come towards the end of the book when Norris tells us of her favourite pencils and pencil sharpeners, as these are perhaps the most personal and help the reader to understand her place within the magazine. A fun read for language nerds.
Whilst reading Between You and Me I was also diving in and out of two smaller collections: Liam Pieper’s Mistakes Were Made and Judith Hermann’s The Summer House, Later. My dear friend Jess gave me the latter as a farewell gift, as she thought this collection of short stories would be a good introduction to German literature. Though these stories are dark and brooding, much more reminiscent of a solemn northern European winter than the beautiful bright summer we are currently experiencing (for the most part, anyway), they are composed so eloquently that I wanted to curl up and savour them. At the same time I was also dipping into Liam Pieper’s wonderful Penguin Special, a collection of four short essays which act as a sort-of follow up to his memoir in 2014, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year. Pieper’s ability and willingness to laugh at himself and remain self-aware whilst reflecting on the ups-and-downs of the memoir’s release and subsequent media attention is admirable, but where these abilities are most powerful is in his beautiful essay ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Being’, which is one of the few pieces I’ve read which manage to hit on the uncomfortable feelings of privilege and shame felt by so many white Australians.
I had been promised big things from Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands and though I enjoyed it, I didn’t have the same rapturous response as some friends and colleagues. A book of short stories about young women, I appreciated the structuring of the collection by the rough age of the central character of each story — it helped to add a narrative structure to the book. While ‘Warm Ups’, ‘Head to Toe’ and ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You Here’ all struck through to me as cleverly weighted emotional short stories that felt completely original, the rest of the collection sadly just didn’t click with me. Tim Parks’ Where I’m Reading From similarly had moments that struck, and many that passed me by. This book acts as a collection of Parks’ regular essays for The New York Review of Books’ online blog (you can find his contributions here) and centre largely around translation and world literature, Parks’ topics of interest and also the subjects he teaches at an Italian university. There are some fantastic comments here on the globalisation of literature, and how the translation of novels from American authors in particular is shrinking the market for locally produced literature in Europe. However there is a lot of doubling up of content spread across these essays, and at times the writing felt a little too stand-offish to me personally. While there are certainly some interesting things to be learnt about translation and world literature from Parks, I’m not sure that I’d recommend this collection to those who don’t already have an interest in the subjects at hand.
Murray Middleton’s When There’s Nowhere Else To Run was the winner of the 2015 Vogel’s Literary Award and one of the strongest collections of short stories I can remember ever having the pleasure to read. Middleton’s stories are unapologetically Australian without ever threatening to become jingoistic, and I know as this year goes by if I ever want to surround myself with a little piece of home, I’ll be reaching back to this book for a little slice of Australian life. These stories are odes to the outsiders, every day people who’s lives are unravelling and the people around them held back by a sense of helplessness. But these stories are also heartwarming, hopeful and honest. A group of friends saying goodbye to a dying friend, stories of divorce and custody and all its messy difficulty, and of sitting with a veteran on a long distance train trip. The first story of the collection, ‘Open Misère’, tells of a family friend who comes to stay after losing his house on Black Saturday. Playing cards, going for walks, trying to piece himself back together, the story is incredibly powerful and hits the reader with a punch to the chest that sets the tone for the rest of the collection. But Middleton is never overwrought or over-written, his stripped back prose is tightly controlled and leaves room for the reader to find their own emotional response. Quite simply, I adored this book.
So here we are. Slowly settling into life in Berlin and very slowly starting to feel at home. While there have been a few supermarket meltdowns, we are very lucky to currently be living very close to Neukölln’s Türkischer Markt, where every Tuesday and Friday Maybachufer Straße comes alive with vendors selling fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, dried fruit and nuts, hot food, fabrics, homewares, flowers and everything in between. But what I had been craving most when we first arrived here was fruit. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s my body’s way of seeking extra moisture to replenish itself from all that flying. On our stopover in Doha I went searching for a snack and came back with the biggest bottle of water I could find and a tub of pineapple pieces mixed with chopped mint and a little sprinkling of sugar. At the time it felt like little bites of heaven. The sugar wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, just enough to encourage more juice from the fruit, and the mint left a cooling sensation amidst the freshness of the tart pineapple. After our first trip to the Turkish Market I couldn’t wait to make this at home and it hit the spot perfectly again. A brilliant snack on hot afternoons, or a light dessert when you need a little bit of sunshine. Inspired by this combination, you could also make a more refined and spicy treat with this Chili Mango, or for a salty sweet combination you could try Melon with Lime, Salt and Mint (both recipes from Trotski & Ash).
So there’s my summer reading, European edition. Next week book-plate will go back to it’s usual format, so thank you for being patient while I took this much needed break. Please keep in touch on Twitter with your recommendations, or if you live in Berlin or have any tips for bookstores I should check out, or literary events I should attend while I'm here, I’d love to hear from you.
I have finally been catching up on some favourite podcasts over our break too, but the one that’s had most attention is Lit Up. Hosted by Angela Ledgerwood and Emily Gould, each week features a conversation with a different author covering their book, their practice as a writer and their life. It’s intimate and a pleasure to listen to, and after almost every episode I want to go out and by the book they’ve been discussing.