Saturday, 22 July 2017

Some Thoughts on Travelling

There's a scratch-off map of Europe hanging in my bathroom, where I've used a coin to carefully rub away the places I've been. I am reminded of how little I get to travel around this continent of mine.

If I see my glass as half-empty: I've never set foot on the Iberian peninsula and I long to wander around a city where signs are written exclusively in Cyrillic script. I keep meaning to visit Iceland (so far I've only managed stressful stopovers at Reykjavik airport). I used to consider that my own little kooky, Björky goal, but the place has in fact burst in popularity among tourists over the past decade.

As a Brit living in a foreign but very international city, it's weird to constantly meet North Americans and Antipodeans who talk about how close and cheap everything is; how that's the main draw of moving to Europe, you can go to a different country every weekend. It's almost as if they expect Europeans to have emerged from the womb with a passport (or ID card) already clutched in fist.

On the one hand, they make a fair point. Distances are ridiculously large in those colonised societies, simply because the metropolises of today were generally built within the past 200 years (which is "new" in European terms). They are pretty much car cultures. Take it from someone who lived in rural Canada for half a year and was endlessly frustrated at: a) how far my lack of a driving licence got me (not very); b) how expensive buses and trains were to get to other places.

At the same time, despite owning that scratch-off map, I'm not a fan of the type of travel that's for the sake of crossing cities or countries off your list. Thankfully, there's no end of online articles out there about how travel is not an end goal in itself, about how travel doesn't inherently make you interesting or well-rounded, or how travelling absolutely is a privilege. This post sums up most of my feelings on it. This one a few more.

This classist, self-serving mentality needs to die.

Travel. Yes, it's funny how it's become social currency. People place a lot of importance on it, yet say the word over and over really quickly and it'll lose its meaning. Traveltraveltravel. In the crudest sense of the word, I just travelled by foot across the street to the pharmacy to replenish my supply of sanitary pads and toilet roll.

I explored more of Europe as a student while on my ERASMUS year (fuck Brexit forever) than I have as an actual adult with a full-time job. While travelling isn't exactly a priority when you're struggling to put food on the table - which is basically the fearful undercurrent to my frugality - it seems to me that time is a huge preventative issue, more than people like to acknowledge.
You see, if I'm going to go away, I do not want to cram a whole trip into a tiny weekend. The destination in question probably deserves far more of my attention than a couple of perfunctory photos of monuments and a comforting meal in the sole vegetarian café. Unless there is a specific something in or near the city that piques your interest and creates real anticipation, what's the point?
Not to mention that, as someone who is sensitive and thrives on routine, travelling in this way is also really exhausting. It always takes me at least a week or two to recuperate from it.

As a teenager and during uni, whenever I daydreamed about my future life on the continent, I imagined criss-crossing Germany via Switzerland to France by train - using all my languages within a week - then the following month, maybe ending up in some vague destination in Eastern Europe just because it had happened to be a ridiculously affordable flight.
Needless to say, this was a different, more naive time. Not only are we experiencing a political shift that means our freedom of movement may look completely different a few years from now, but sleeper train routes are being cancelled and regular trains are... just plain expensive.
I'm also trying to watch my carbon footprint. You can only take so many flights with Ryanair, EasyJet, et al before you think, "Okay, is this worth the stress if it's not completely necessary?".

I've just booked my first solo trip this year: a long weekend in a Polish city that I guess I will blog about later. I took only one day off work for it, because I want to save my remaining days for going to see my family at Christmas and, hopefully, doing one more longer trip in the autumn.
I'm going there by overnight bus - which, after a 15-hour journey to Lithuania a couple of years ago, I'd sworn never to do again.

But hey. I'm on a budget.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Wonderful World of German Street Names

I was inspired to write this post when on my lunch break, I heard two English-speaking tourists looking at a map exclaim, 'Max-Beer-Straße! LOL! I've got to get a photo next to that sign!'
When you've been speaking German and living in that language for quite a while, you tend to become a bit stiff-necked and immune to the things that foreigners often find funny. For example, even though I had to look up who Max Beer actually was, I knew right away that this street was named after a person and not copious amounts of alcohol. I know that the drink is spelt Bier in German. I know that Beer is a form of the German word for "berry". So it never really occurred to me.

(But let's be real, I'll always love a good Fahrt.)

One weird thing for non-native speakers getting to know their way around a German city is the standard written form of street names and its apparent irregularity. If you are observant and/or an extreme pedant, though, you will eventually see there is method to the madness. All grammatical, obviously. Here are some examples in Berlin that I have picked up on.

1. If it's named after a person (their first name and surname), it will all be hyphenated:
  • Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz
  • Karl-Marx-Allee
  • May-Ayim-Ufer

2. If it's named after a person (their first name or surname) or a thing, it will be merged into one word. This forms most probably the majority of street names in Berlin:
  • Alexanderplatz ("Alexander Square")
  • Hobrechtstraße ("Hobrecht Street")
  • Brunnenstraße ("Fountain Street")
  • Sonnenallee ("Sun Avenue")

3. If it's named after a place as a noun, there'll be an -er at the end - regardless of gender of the next word. And it'll be split into two words. This is an easy one, as it's just the same as saying "Ich bin ein Berliner", "Ich bin Schweizer", etc.
  • Kottbusser Tor ("Kottbus" is an antiquated spelling of Cottbus, a city in Brandenburg)
  • Dubliner Straße
  • Große Hamburger Straße (note that groß refers to the street - die Straße - not a person from Hamburg, which would be der Hamburger)
  • Alte Schönhauser Straße

4. And if it's named after a place or person, but in the adjectival form, I'm afraid you'll have to decline the adjective according to the gender of the noun.
  • Hallesches Tor (Hallesch refers to the city of Halle. It's das Tor, so you'd say am Halleschen Tor for "at Hallesches Tor")
  • Hackescher Markt (Hackesch refers to the Prussian Graf von Hacke. It's der Markt, so you'd say "um den Hackeschen Markt" for "around Hackescher Markt")
  • Französische Straße ("French Street". It's die Straße, so "an der Französischen Straße" would mean "on Französische Straße")

5. Sometimes you'll even get a nice little genitive in there, if it's named after a date, group or entity:
  • Straße des 17. Juni
  • Allee der Kosmonauten
  • Platz der Vereinigten Nationen

6. Most weird-looking are streets that are named after a place that ends in an a (how are you meant to pronounce that? I dunno really, I just elongate the last syllable so it sounds like I am saying two words and not one):
  • Rigaer Straße
  • Elsterwerdaer Platz

7. And then in Neukölln, we get a definitive example of how pedantic German really is. So, there's a whole bunch of streets that are named after rivers in other parts of Germany:
  • Weserstraße
  • Donaustraße
  • Oderstraße
  • Fuldastraße
But... Fulda is not just a river, but also a city. And if the street was named after the city of the same name, it would be called Fuldaer Straße. Not Fuldastraße. Y'know, just so that if you're German, you can immediately be absolutely sure what exactly the street is named after.

I just find it amazing that even a newcomer to a city could immediately know these sorts of things - historical facts, even - just by virtue of the grammar. I also feel like I have divested myself of a whole lot of confusion by writing all this down.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Ab aufs Land: Coconat Workation Retreat

Last weekend, my writing group and I went on our first retreat - to the hamlet of Klein Glien, near Bad Belzig, one hour outside Berlin.
Shamefully, despite being in Berlin for nearly three years, this was the first time that I had explored Brandenburg (the state that surrounds the city). More specifically, we stayed at Coconat Workation Retreat, which had its official opening at the end of April.

It's set within a building that has changed hands many times over the years, but was most recently a hotel and restaurant. The grounds also have barns and are surrounded by fields and woods. The complex is one of just a few buildings around, with a few small neighbouring houses before the road trails off into the countryside.

Coconat was founded with the knowledge that in order to be productive - a loaded word these days - you need to be human. When you're in a creative sector, especially one where days are overwhelmingly spent in solitude, community is important. For that reason, everyone here is left to their own devices but still has the opportunity to get to know fellow guests a bit. The owners are also really friendly and hospitable, curious to know everyone's story. As well as the work rooms, there is a "pub" where you can have a drink, a "library" with a fireplace and some little nooks to sit in outside.

As for our group of five, there was no real agenda; we were all in general agreement that we needed this time out from Berlin and its distractions so we could get on with our writing projects, both private and professional. I really appreciated the peace and quiet. I felt more focused than ever.
I was able to confront my main problem with productivity: the fact that I have a zillion writing projects going on. There's my novel, then there are numerous personal essays, then there are reports I would like to write that are more time-sensitive... it's a lot. Then if you want these to go up anywhere, you need to pitch, which is an art in itself. It can be really hard not to internalise the idea that getting anything published is a miracle. It's easy to fall into that spiral - to think that your achievements to date were just a fluke.

In summary, I used the time to confront my demons (drafts), edit my novel (I recently finally settled on protagonist development that I feel good sticking with), research music magazines and going for walks.

Sometimes it felt charmingly like a school trip, with our group's shared bedroom - though no bunk beds! - and bathroom. There were set mealtimes, with breakfast from 8:30-10am, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 7pm. The hosts make exclusively vegetarian meals, using meat only upon special request. Saturday night dinner was a Syrian special from local volunteers: a chicken and rice dish for the meat-eaters and for me, a spicy rice salad with lots of hummus and bread. (Being one of the only two vegans staying there, I got hummus priority!)

To get there, we took the regional train to Bad Belzig, then a bus was arranged to pick us up from the station. On the way back, we accidentally took the wrong bus, but it was fine and we caught our train back to Berlin.

All in all, 24 hours weren't enough to really get stuck into one project, but then none of us had done something like this before so it was good to see what it was like first. I'd definitely like to come back over a bank holiday weekend! I tend to pick up inspiration for my writing in the city, but then I need the type of peace you get in the countryside to implement my ideas to the full.
That's not to mention time to see places of interest around Coconat which I didn't get around to this time. Hagelberg is the disputed highest elevation in the state of Brandenburg (erm, at 201m) and there is also the abandoned village of Groß Glien.

NB: I wasn't sponsored to write this; I just wanted to talk about my lovely weekend!