Although I love being back in Australia, it feels like it part of me now will always have a connection to Germany. While there are things that I do not miss — the cold, the grey skies, the loneliness, the distance from home — as spring begins to take hold in Berlin I am sad to be missing the joyous rapture that is bound to come at the end of a miserable winter. But there are things that I will always miss about Berlin — speaking German, riding my bike in that city, the parks, the canal, the liberal liquor licensing, the German affection for really specific celebrations (Spargelzeit, I’m looking at you). So now as life continues to settle down, it’s been lovely to have time to sink back into the German language. I’ve started practising my German again, determined not to lose all the work I’ve done to come this far and to stick to the goals I had set myself at the end of last year. But beside the language, I’m enjoying engaging in German culture without the pressure of trying to fit in — from a distance I can just dip my toes in and German books and films and music can just be for pure enjoyment. Taking away the pressure of having to negotiate bureaucracy or desperately trying to understand complicated labels on products at the shops, German has become a hobby, and I’m really enjoying it again.
As we were leaving Melbourne back in June, my friend Jess gave me her copy of Judith Hermann’s The Summer House, Later (which I spoke about here), a little collection of short stories which was hugely popular in Germany when it was released in 1998, then in English in the early 2000’s. Hermann’s latest work to be translated into English is Where Love Begins, a book with a terrible title and cover in English (here’s proof the German original is much better) but one of my favourite books I’ve read so far this year.
I don’t often quote blurbs from books but I’m going to here to set you up with the premise:
Stella’s life is unremarkable, but she is content, if a little lonely - her husband often has to travel for work, leaving her alone at home with her daughter. A stranger appears at her door one day, a man Stella has never seen before. He says he just wants to talk to her, nothing more. She refuses. The next day he comes again. And then the day after that. He will not leave her in peace. When Stella realises that he lives just up the road and tries to confront him it makes no difference. This is the beginning of a nightmare that slowly and remorsefully escalates.
Where Love Begins is a quiet, creeping novel. It sets up Stella in such an ordinary setting that the suburban housing development could easily be anywhere in the world. There is nothing distinct about it, yet it is entirely constructed; it is built entirely for function rather than character. Like the stories in The Summerhouse, Later Hermann’s writing carries a foreboding sense of unrest, a yearning for something undefined yet just out of reach. It’s easy to think that Stella wants something to change in her life, that she yearns for excitement, yet this is contrasted against a fear of the unknown.
The success of Where Love Begins lies in Hermann’s ability to construct a literary thriller that weaves in social commentary and criticism. Familiar tropes are covered regarding female safety and misogyny, but it is done with a light touch. It is the stranger’s feeling of entitlement towards female space, of Stella’s lack of privacy, that heightens the page-turning narrative of this story, but which also carries its most rigorous accuracy to the everyday female experience. When Stella recounts her interactions with the stranger to a friend, we see her weariness of these approaches as an animalistic fear of her safety:
Do you think I should let him in? Open the door for him and speak to him?
No, Clara says slowly, and her voice sounds so earnest and profound that Stella suddenly becomes quiet. No, you should not let him in. Shouldn’t open the door for him, or talk to him either. You should look out for yourself, Stella. Will you do that?
Hermann also subtly weaves through familiar societal reactions to everyday experiences —he only wants to talk to you, he’s done nothing wrong, why are you being so rude — as well as the trope of the male as a protector to the weaker female, with the stranger only approaching the house when the husband is away. Without giving too much away, Hermann never relies on graphic violence or triggers, and this is perhaps what makes Where Love Begins so successful. Hermann writes beautifully — her prose is descriptive yet paired back. It is the constant threat and the looming aggression that makes this thriller, and her restraint showcases Hermann as a particularly skilled writer in an often flawed genre.
While I was in Germany last year I spent a lot of time thinking about translated literature and I’m always interested in how much of a place comes through in the prose. Hermann’s setting is deliberately generic with little mention of the natural environment. But still I couldn’t help but remember the parks in Berlin which quickly turn into forest — little pockets of the city that make you feel like you could easily be transported into a Grimm’s fairytale. There is something about the denseness of the German environment which, when combined with knowledge of the country’s recent history, make for a constant foreboding that lingers in the shadows. It is interesting that the English translation is titled Where Love Begins which is a nuanced departure from the literal German translation of Aller Liebe Anfang which is closer to ‘all love begins’, and perhaps this captures the essence of the place and the role of this in Stella’s loneliness as well as the claustrophobia in which it aids the threat: ‘In the dim summery light the gardens disappear, the ordinary streets suddenly look completely foreign to her; something is changing, has already changed.’
Where Love Begins is a subtle, nuanced thriller that never over-plays its hand. Hermann weaves a haunting portrait of both the pursued and the pursuer using tightly structured prose. Her short, punchy sentences are descriptive yet never flowery and create a tense and luring drama that gradually builds without ever insulting the intelligence of the reader or the characters. This is a smart, sophisticated literary thriller that will appeal to lovers of dark northern European crime dramas like Forbrydelsen or Borgen.
Lately I’ve been a little obsessed with leftovers. I’ve always been conscious of not throwing food away and using up every morsel of something (my grandparents passed this down to my mother who passed on some great tips to my brother and I), but lately I’ve been playing around with ways to make this more interesting. Inspired by two cookbooks — Save With Jamie and Love Your Leftovers — I’ve been having a lot of fun trying out new recipes and tricks in the kitchen despite a tight budget. I have fond memories of these parsnip latkes which were inspired by the kartoffelpuffer I saw in Frankfurt, and will definitely be making them again now that the cooler autumn weather is definitely settling into Melbourne. But in an effort to use up some leftover mashed potatoes (and sadly no longer having a waffle iron), I mixed the mash leftover from this comfort bowl with an egg, a tablespoon of flour and some extra salt and pepper, then formed patties and fried them on a medium heat for a few minutes each side until golden and warmed through. They made for a great weekend brunch as well as an easy breakfast-for-dinner after work when served with a poached egg, some cheese and some wilted greens. Using gluten-free flour also means they’re a great alternative to bread as well as being cheap to make. They’ll be a perfect way to spend a Sunday morning as the days get cooler here in Melbourne, taking a little bit of German food inspiration to get through a grey Melbourne winter.
There’s something a little problematic and privileged about the zero waste movement. Although it is certainly something that I aspire to as an environmentalist, there are limits to my ability to do this when I have a very limited income. I really enjoyed reading this piece in the Guardian recently about the unrealistic expectations of zero waste bloggers. For example, I can’t afford to buy (what should be) cheap staples like rice and pasta from bulk bins at health food stores — I buy them like a normal person, in a plastic bag from the supermarket — so I need to dispose of the packaging. But there is also a lot about the movement’s old-fashioned values that can help enormously for someone on a budget. Someone who I’ve admired for a long time is Jack Monroe, who wrote a cookbook from her blog called A Girl Called Jack, which chronicled how she cooked nutritious meals for her and her son while on a single-parent benefit. She provides brilliant resources on her newly-named site Cooking on a Bootstrap including how to use up ingredients to stop throwing them away, or her tips for food shopping on an incredibly tight budget. Her recipes are always cheap but also uncomplicated and easy to prepare — well worth checking out no matter what your bank balance allows.