Saturday, 22 December 2012

'Anthropology of an American Girl' by Hilary Thayer Hamann

I recently read a terrible book called Anthropology of an American Girl. You can read why I felt that way about it here, but in the first fifth or so, I have to admit that there were some perfectly expressed passages. I wanted to note them here, because I have every intention of passing this book out of my sight and onto a charity shop for some other poor soul to find.
'Boys will be boys, that's what people say. No one ever mentions how girls have to be something other than themselves altogether. We are expected to stifle the same feelings that boys are encouraged to express. We are to use gossip as a means of policing ourselves. This way those who do succumb to the lure of sex but are not damaged by it are damaged instead by peer malice. We are to remain united in cruelty, ignorance and aversion. We are to starve the flesh from our bones, penalising the body for its nature, castigating ourselves for advances from men that we are powerless to prevent. We are to make false promises, then resist the attentions solicited. Basically we are to become expert liars.' (p. 29)

'It's strange to realise you have sustained yourself on a memory of a person that has become untrue.' (p. 40)

'I moved on because I had to, because pain gets heavy when you carry it far from its source, like a bucket of water hauled miles from a stream - it acquires a whole new value, which is the sum of its primary essence and your secondary investment.' (p. 115)

Monday, 17 December 2012

Enfin fini!

I know it is unwise to wish away my last few months of university, especially since this time next year I could well be doing absolutely nothing, but my constant thought of the the past month or so has been "please be over, please be over, please be over". I am so incredibly relieved that Christmas is finally here. I remember around in this time in second year, although it was still quite hard, it was basically just a case of being fed-up of writing essays. In this case, in final year, it is a case of pure exhaustion in every way conceivable.

This academic year has been really, really difficult so far, and I'm aware it's about to get worse when the next semester starts. I have ten hours a week class time, but the workload is indubitably enough to fill up those idle hours. Not only do I have to be reading books for courses about literature and history, doing translations, and all the other things you'd expect from a modern languages degree, but I have to be ceaselessly honing a skill. That's what makes it hard. If you go a day or two without, for instance, listening to a radio programme or reading a magazine in the target language, you definitely feel the burn. If you slack, you have to pick up all the pieces again. Foreign languages will also infiltrate your free time - I do love music and cinema in different languages but it can be unnerving how little you actually consume things in English. You walk around all day with all these words buzzing around your head; some of which you are sure you have never come across before, but automatically know the meaning of. It's sort of magical when that happens, and reminds me why I'm doing all this, but it does take a lot of work to get to that stage. Not only are you learning grammar and vocabulary, but you're learning an entire culture's way of thinking (I mean this in the least generalised way possible). An entire culture's Weltanschauung.

The change is even more shocking considering the relative doss of third year - my friends, most of whom spent semesters at universities in France, Spain and Germany, did not have to do much studying at all and had plenty of time to enjoy themselves. Last semester (so odd to think that - it was over 6 months ago!), I was working thirteen hours a week, if that, and earning enough to really make the most of life in Austria. So we're all completely in agreement that it's taking its toll.

During the last two weeks of term, I was focused on two oral exams, which are given in the form of a presentation. It's funny how I have no qualms about approaching a native speaker of French or German and just starting a conversation, but doing a presentation in either of those languages still makes me somewhat nervous. It's no longer about a fear of making language mistakes - as it was in first or second year - but more about not saying everything I want to say and not expressing myself in the best way I know I can. Plus, everyone around me panics, causing me to wonder why I'm not panicking too (if I've hitherto been relatively calm about it all). Above all, I guess conversations are much more realistic situations, you can use a much wider variety of register, mistakes are more forgivable, and it's not pre-planned. In a presentation - what we call an exposé or a Referat - you have to remember specific vocabulary about a topic, stuff that you would be unlikely to use in everyday situations (or that whomever you are speaking with would be unlikely to care about if you didn't know or got wrong). Evidently you need to have certain things down, but at the end of the day, language is about communication, not worrying about how many marks you lost by forgetting to use the subjunctive mood in the spur of the moment. I suppose that what I mean is I would rather be out in the world applying what I know, than making sure I do everything in a certain way; a very restricted way.

I've identified some areas I need to work on, and I hope I can clear those up soon. I have to do that in parallel to thinking about what the future holds for me. It fills me with anxiety sometimes because it's the first time I've genuinely not known what's going to happen (at least when I left sixth form, for example, I knew I would end up at some university or another). I can't really make any decisions until February/March, when I will know whether I've been shortlisted for a certain amazing position I've gone for. I'm trying so hard not to think about it, but when it's the only thing that's motivating you to get through your work, that is near impossible.

I'm going to try to relax for the next week or so, anyway. It's the holidays, after all.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Albums of 2012

How are you supposed to write a list like this? Unless you're a music magazine or an established music blog (where it's usually more of a collective effort anyway), I don't really believe in listing more than twenty albums of the year. Twenty is a good number because it gives you more leeway than ten, and it is enough to give a broad overview of your year in new music. More than twenty and I think it comes off a bit like, "these are the albums I checked out once or twice this year and didn't find to be completely terrible, please validate my music taste!".

For example, 2012 was the year that No Doubt released a new album after eleven years, but it didn't make my list. The Mountain Goats, who already have a boundless back catalogue, also released something, but I can't have listened to it more than three times so far, so that is not going to make my list, either. Just because your all-time fave artist releases something one year, it doesn't mean it's going to be amazing, and I think people need to keep that in mind when writing these lists.

Anyway, I give you my top twenty:

  1. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...
  2. Grizzly Bear - Shields
  3. David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
  4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
  5. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
  6. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
  7. Tall Ships - Everything Touching
  8. Soap&Skin - Narrow
  9. Lower Dens - Nootropics
  10. Liars - WIXIW
  11. Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery
  12. Beach House - Bloom
  13. Lana Del Rey - Born To Die
  14. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
  15. Shoes And Socks Off - Miles Of Mad Water
  16. Yuna - Yuna
  17. Grimes - Visions
  18. Mount Eerie - Clear Moon
  19. Hurray For The Riff Raff - Hurray For The Riff Raff
  20. Cat Power - Sun

                  Wednesday, 28 November 2012

                  The future

                  In the next week, I have three deadlines for assignments that I am determined to make excellent. Naturally, the best move at this point would be to write a blog post about nothing in particular.

                  You may have noticed that I've changed my theme to something a little prettier, a little daintier, that just makes it a bit more pleasant to read. That was last night, when I was back from the weekly Stammtisch (meet-up for German speakers/students that I organise) at the pub, then stuffing myself with Jammie Dodgers whilst putting together a Powerpoint.

                  A lot of time in the past few weeks has been spent daydreaming about what I'm going to be doing next year... that is, my first year as a graduate in the big, bad world of unemployment. I don't know if this was just a form of procrastination and getting ahead of myself, but I would like to think that this daydreaming was productive and pro-active - I've been checking out job websites and so on, keeping an open mind and trying not to put all my eggs in one basket, as it were. I have already applied for one dream placement, but I don't want to mention it here yet in case I jinx my chances. What I do realise is that I now have to keep this personal development and acquisition of skills constant, on the side of being committed to getting the best degree I can. It's difficult.

                  Future-wise, all I know for definite is that I want to spend some time abroad. After spending most of last year away from home, my appetite for the world has only been whetted. Whenever I returned home for a visit, I would look forward to arriving off my cramped Ryanair flight at Stansted, seeing the familiar words UK BORDER AGENCY in front of me and getting my passport checked, spotting my parents in the arrivals area who would take my stuff and already have some homey food for me to eat in the car. I would feel relieved and cosy for a week or two, but then it just got frustrating. The constant cloud of rainy grey that shrouds this island is startlingly accurate pathetic fallacy, most of the time. There are cities here that I really like, where I would certainly not be averse to someday beginning a career. But at this point in my life, it seems right to continue seeing some of the world!

                  Small note to end on - I've only just discovered an artist called Girlfriends, who released a self-titled album over three years ago! It's excellent - a nice mixture of math-rock, post-hardcore and electronic. It's good motivational music. Don't sleep on it - you can download it for free on Bandcamp here.

                  Sunday, 11 November 2012

                  York

                  I've just spent a nice little weekend away in York! It was mainly to see Alex, one of my best uni mates but who graduated last year, and to participate in activities such as watching Nicolas Cage films. But also, I wanted to fulfil my little resolution of seeing more of my own country - coming back from my year spent in various parts of Europe made me realise how poorly-travelled I was in England, let alone other parts of the UK.

                  I actually lived in Doncaster (South Yorkshire) until the age of four, but of course I remember basically nothing of it. The last time I went Up North was when I was about 15, on a family trip to Northumberland, as my dad's side of the family originates from there. Everyone seems to make fun of southerners so I want to see what's really going on up there that makes us so silly in comparison.

                  Actual street name. It is only 2 numbers long, though. York, you so funny.


                  Vegan hot dog from Goji café - lush!





                  Poster on the toilet door of Dusk, a really cool bar. They sell cocktails called Britney Spears and Barack Obama amongst others!


                  We also went on a Ghost Walk at night, which is where you get led around York in a group by a gentleman in a top hat who shows you some sites where there have been paranormal occurences. It was very interesting to learn about some of the more historic places - I had no idea Guy Fawkes was born there, for example - but a couple of the stories were genuinely quite upsetting so watch out.

                  It was a great weekend and York is truly one of the greatest places in Britain I've visited. Now I am back and I need to get on with writing a literary review for a group presentation I did last week. Final year is not really getting any more enjoyable, but I'm pushing myself more and more to manage my time better because I do find it quite absurd that I find myself having no opportunity at all to just sit down and breathe.

                  Tuesday, 6 November 2012

                  This Town Needs Guns (30/10/12); Godspeed You! Black Emperor (04/11/12)

                  This has been a very good week for shows! First, I saw This Town Needs Guns at Firebug, which is probably the nicest and coolest bar in Leicester. It was great, they played a lot of stuff from their upcoming album which should be out in January or February. Something to look forward to!

                  And of course, something that had had me counting down the days for the past 6 months or so: Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I'd seen them just over a year ago, and honestly had not thought they'd be coming back to the UK so soon.

                  I met up with a couple of friends in London. As we were walking to HMV Forum from the Tube station, one of them said, 'Haha, it's Efrim [Menuck],' in reference to a hairy man walking past us. Then I looked up, and it actually was him, and some other people from the band! Needless to say, we were gutted.

                  We got right to the front - I'd been at the front before too, on stage right, but this time we were on stage left, so I got a close-up of some more interesting equipment - including an iPod for playing samples.

                  None of us were particularly fazed by the support, Dead Rat Orchestra. We were just too excited for Godspeed. At about 9pm, a loud drone started permeating the room, and the band members came on one by one. The drone, with instruments being folded in gradually, led into 'Mladic'. The rest of the show was some older stuff, apart from 'Behemoth', a new, 40-minute... behemoth.

                  One thing that is remarkable about Godspeed's live shows is the projections that constantly unfurl behind the band, overseen by Karl Lemieux, a prominent figure in Montreal's independent film scene. And it's not one of those overhead projectors you get in classrooms, either - it's proper 16mm film, so no flashes of the Start menu or an arrow cursor because you accidentally leant on a button. My particular favourite images were close-ups of blood bubbling up, eerie travelling shots of the Quebec countryside showing isolated houses and churches, and finally, protests for peace.

                  All in all, a very foreboding, sombre performance, as you would expect. And inspiring to some degree.

                  One more thing: HMV Forum, coldest venue ever or what? I actually wished I hadn't left my coat in the cloakroom. What is up with that?

                  Monday, 22 October 2012

                  Liberal Arts (2012)

                  I'm tired, so very tired, and I'm only just starting my third week back at university. I hope things will calm down a bit soon. When I'm not eating, breathing and sleeping French and German (I'm speaking quite literally here - one of the international students I mentor, who's Austrian, very kindly made me some vegan Apfelbeignets. And I've dreamt in French a couple of times lately), I'm trying to keep up with extracurriculars, and also make some time for myself, of course.

                  So what better way to take my mind of all this than going to see a film that's all about university?

                  So far, so Juno
                  Liberal Arts is the second film by Josh Radnor, aka Ted off How I Met Your Mother. It's about Jesse, a 30-something New York professor who returns to his old college town in Ohio, he meets Zibby, a student there played by Lykke Li's long-lost twin, Elizabeth Olsen, and... well, you can probably guess at least some of the rest of the storyline.

                  But I think what stopped this film from basically being Garden State is that it was actually quite intelligent, and addressed some issues that I've been pondering in my life lately. For example, there's a bit where Zibby is reading a Twilight-style book, and Jesse aggressively demands to know why she reads that kind of thing when she's educated and intelligent. She can't explain it... she just likes it. In fact, she gets aggressive about it (and rightly so): 'You think it's cool to hate things, and it's not - it's boring. Talk about what you love and keep quiet about what you don't'.
                  It becomes a bone of contention between the two of them, until in the end he actually finds something it's good for. I feel this is a position I have been in a few times in my life, but most often in the context of music - someone might consider me to have "good" taste, but then I reveal that I like some pop star whom they have never even listened to but criticise anyway, and I have to try and justify myself in a similar way to the one shown in the film. It's tiresome. Being clever and enjoying something frivolous are never mutually exclusive: this is something that I have only begun to accept in myself quite recently and I feel a lot better about myself for it.

                  Another part that resonated with me - and I'll try to make this spoiler-free - was Zibby's realisation that she wanted to feel grown-up, but was trying to fast-forward it. This is exactly how I felt in my first year of university, and it is a valuable lesson I have learnt. Of course, my life has changed a lot since that year, and I do indeed have so many responsibilities to take care of nowadays, and I am only really just starting to feel like a grown-up now that the beginning of my future is on the horizon. But I think that it is something useful to keep in mind for anyone who is about to enter university. You don't have to be perfect, because by the time you graduate, you'll realise how far you've come.

                  Tuesday, 9 October 2012

                  No, thank you.

                  This has had a few days to simmer now:


                  There was, understandably, some uproar straightaway that Caitlin Moran was basking in her white privilege and, well, 'literally' not giving a shit about it - an uproar that is still going on.

                  I'm not really here to talk about Lena Dunham's show Girls, or the alleged lack of diversity in the show itself - there wouldn't be much for me to say, as I have never seen it, and I don't wish to pass judgement on it before having done so. I want to talk about why this has been bothering me so much.

                  I should start by saying I thought last year's How To Be A Woman was a pretty terrible book. I picked it up thinking the title was tongue-in-cheek (i.e. there's actually no singular set way to be a woman, doesn't it suck that society imposes these narrow and damaging standards on us?). Since it was marketed as an accessible, humorous introduction to feminism, and I was interested in finally getting a UK perspective, I was excited about reading it. Instead, my most frequent thought whilst reading was 'did she even have an editor?'. It looked like it had been written when she was drunk and keyboard-happy.

                  The first red flag was when she asked the reader to stick their hands in their pants - and if they found a vagina, they were a woman. From here, I could tell it was not going to be a very inclusive kind of book, but I carried on anyway. The other thing I can immediately remember rubbing me the wrong way was her loud insistence that being a sex worker (unless you were a burlesque dancer, therefore an artist!) inherently meant you were a pawn of the patriarchy and a disgrace to women everywhere.

                  In a nutshell, the brand of feminism Moran advocates is basic, regressive, self-absorbed, and dangerous. In fact, the only reason I can think of why people seemed to like the book so much is because it was presented in a vaguely entertaining way, and that she prides herself on being so outspoken.

                  So I wasn't really surprised when all this happened. Whether you agree with the accusations being thrown at her and Lena Dunham or not, surely we can settle on the fact that the way she handled being told something she didn't like was completely unacceptable.
                  For a long time now, anyone who has challenged Moran on Twitter gets blocked, and that's the end of it. This is the behaviour of a surly teenager, not a 37-year-old high-profile journalist. She did not need to reply to that question in such a dismissive, impudent manner. If she was uncomfortable about answering it, she could have easily ignored it.  She shows no sign of remorse, which I doubt will ever happen when she has people tweeting her not to listen to the haters. I must have missed the memo that people who tell you that you messed up are haters.
                  No doubt that if, for whatever reason, Moran had tweeted a male writer of a TV show asking after the lack of female representation, and he replied saying that he didn't give a shit about it, that would have suddenly been the worst thing in the world. How is it possible not to see the connection between shutting out someone because of their gender and shutting them out because of their race?

                  Reni Eddo-Lodge says in this article, 'Until feminism is for everyone, it will work for no-one'. I find this to be completely accurate. Moran seems to be all for feminism... as long as it's exclusive to white, heterosexual, middle-class women! But she seems to know little about how flawed the movement actually is, how it still needs to be sorted out. It's why so many women are reluctant to assume the feminist label. This is not a truth that can be avoided for much longer.

                  If you are seeking an introduction to feminism, one that's slim and easy to read but leaves no stone unturned, Feminism Is For Everybody by bell hooks comes very highly recommended.

                  Wednesday, 3 October 2012

                  Let's just see what happens when the summer ends

                  Back at university. Lectures don't start until next week, but there's plenty of reading to keep me occupied between rediscovering my bearings and trying to get a social life going. It is so, so odd to be back after a year in a place I considered familiar, yet so much has changed there. And so much has changed about me during my year on the continent. I'm revisiting this city with fresh eyes.

                  I am living in student halls again, which is also weird, but not entirely objectionable. I don't have to worry about things like paying for electricity bills, or not using the heating even on freezing nights in order to save money (although, that takes care of itself here - it's blazing 24/7, and I can't even turn it down. What a waste of energy). Also, I get to meet a whole new bunch of people, the prospect of which is no longer quite as terrifying to me as it would have been a year ago. I'm living in a lovely converted Edwardian house, and sharing a kitchen with six others. I'm in a tiny attic room; teenage aspiration, consider yourself fulfilled. Back in the day, it would have been the servants' quarters. Still, it's considerably bigger than my room at home, and I've made it cosy enough.

                  Summer is well and truly over. It's getting dark at 6pm. I can no longer really get away with not wearing a cardigan when I go outside. It's autumn now, and these moments are precious. Personally, autumn is my favourite season. It's the perfect balance between summer and winter. You can dig out your knitted clothes, but still enjoy shading your eyes from the sun with your hand (until mid-October, perhaps). The colours outside are still vivid enough to put a spring in your step.

                  As I've already mentioned, although wonderful at times, for me, this summer wasn't exactly the face of productivity. That's why I've been particularly looking forward to this autumn. I think I associate it with going back to school, a fresh feeling, a determination that the previous year's problems and challenges are behind me. New ones undoubtedly await, but the positive feeling is fleeting, so it's nice to appreciate it. So, it's pleasant weather combined with having some sort of purpose. Any sort of stress is negated by the prospect of the opportunities and experiences that lie ahead.

                  My nicest (recent) autumn memory is when I moved into my house at the beginning of my second year of university. I mean, it was a proper house, not just student accommodation It was a beautiful, awesome house, too, complete with an authentic fireplace in my room and a basement decked out in Halloween decorations by the previous tenants. And I was living there with some of my best uni friends. That year was certainly not without its problems, but it's a time I look back on with great fondness nowadays. I wish I could bottle the feeling. Luckily, I can do the next best thing, which is listen to autumny music.

                  At that particular time, I was thrashing The New Pornographers' Twin Cinema, the song 'Use It' in particular. Even the colours of the album art - green and orange - are somewhat autumnal. And this is just such a quality band, one that I have really come to love.

                  What makes them even better is that pretty much all the members are prolific outside the group. For one, there's Neko Case, all-round badass (check her Twitter). My favourite record of hers, that I've heard, is this:


                  Yo La Tengo also bridge the gap between summer and autumn well - I find they work best either on summer nights or autumn days. Their back catalogue is huge, and I've only ever listened to three of their albums, I think. Even if you are not going to listen to every single thing they've put out, they're still a pretty essential band.

                  And then, there's a whole evocative genre. 90s emo, or revival of 90s emo. What is it about this kind of music that makes it so well-suited to autumn? I think it's the fact that the evenings still have a little bit of light left in them, and so you can just about make more of the day, and hold onto what's left of summer (assuming you had some good times) with the knowledge it will fade soon. This is perfect for nocturnal, introverted young people, perhaps dealing with unrequited or impossible love - that is, most of the emo demographic.

                  That summer of 2010 was when I got into Cap'n Jazz. As autumn followed, so did a whole influx of bands that I couldn't believe I'd gone without during my teenage years - unsurprisingly, ones that sprang from the ashes of Cap'n Jazz, like The Promise Ring, American Football, and so on. These are not my go-to bands when I am really feeling fed up with life, because on occasion I feel they are bit too "whiney white/straight/middle-class guy". They pretty much only ever sing about girls, or places and times they miss. For instance, if I'm pissed off because I've been contemplating the terrible way women are still often portrayed in the media, and that this is probably how the man who groped me on the bus earlier justifies his actions, I am likely to listen to some kick-ass (female) babes who I feel understand me, y'know? It might be why I love the band Rainer Maria so much - in an unexpected twist for this genre, the main vocalist is a woman, so I automatically feel like I can relate. I suppose it's that I don't have to reverse the "roles" of the people inhabiting the lyrics, and in this sense listening to them is a bit easier - half the work is done already. It's not something I really even consciously think about.

                  Jessica Hopper wrote an essay about it, called 'Emo: Where The Girls Aren't'. Even though I don't agree with everything she says in the essay, it's very much worth taking some time to read if you're wondering what I'm talking about. Long story short, it's one of the reasons I get so excited when I discover predominantly female emo bands, rare as hen's teeth as they are (the now-defunct Rainer Maria, headed by Caithlin de Marrais, being my favourite).

                  My other criticism, though not of the bands themselves, is that in a scene where the name Kinsella is treated as a hallmark of quality, I sometimes feel like there are far too many copycat bands; too many to work at to really love. You have to be discerning. Just because something is considered to be 90s emo (revival), it doesn't magically mean it's good. I find a lot of these bands unlistenable, actually. But it makes it a lot more rewarding when I do find something that moves me.

                  Despite being probably the quietest take on emo around, I'd like to recommend an album to anyone who hasn't listened to it. It's the self-titled from Owen (the pseudonym of Mike Kinsella). The sound is soft, but it cuts right to my core. Take an evening to lay down in bed with minimal lighting, put on your headphones and just listen. It's just beautiful, and it will be the best acoustic music you listen to, if only just because it forces you to confront your insecurities. And of course, I urge you to check out his other albums - his discography is unusually consistent.


                  And with that, I just might head to bed now and fall asleep to this album. I have a busy day ahead of me when I wake up.

                  Thursday, 27 September 2012

                  Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Berlin

                  This is the last travelling post I'm foreseeably going to make for quite a while... this weekend I'm moving back to university, so I'll have to stop pretending I can afford these sorts of jaunts, and once again start coming to terms with the fact I am a penniless student. A tonne of topics aside from travelling exist out there, though, so I'm hopefully still going to be keeping this blog up and running, even if not quite as regularly.

                  Anyway, Berlin. It's my favourite city in the entire world, and this was the fourth time I've been there ('Why don't you just move there?!', said my mum). It was mainly to meet up with a dear friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in ages: he'd spent the past year studying in Tokyo, and we're not from the same country anyway. It was also a great excuse to squeeze in some German practice in before uni, of course.

                  My journey got off to an bumpy start - I had to spend the night in the airport because my flight was very early. I've done this once before and it was pretty grim. This time, though, it wasn't too bad, probably because I knew what to expect. I brought plenty of food and Pro Plus to see me through. I happened to spot this sticker in a café toilet in Berlin a few days later:


                  We were staying in my friend's aunt's friend's apartment (it's all about who you know) in Friedrichshain, an area known for being super hip and quite cheap, despite becoming increasingly gentrified in recent years. It really was lovely. The street was filled with cafés and bars, as well as shops of independent designers.




                  Wahrhaft Nahrhaft, on Revaler Straße 16: a very cute café
                  That's right. A comic book dispensing machine (on Simon Dach Straße)
                  Inglourious Basterds-themed anti-Nazi sticker (there was a Brad Pitt one somewhere else)

                  Here are a few well-known spots in Berlin:

                  Brandenburg Gate, with the iconic Fernsehturm in the distance
                  Memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust
                  The Reichstag, home of German parliament. I still haven't been inside.
                  Panoramic photo montage of the city in Alexanderplatz station
                  A bear, the symbol of Berlin, in Alexanderplatz station
                  Berlin Hauptbahnhof, known to me as the most uncharacteristically inefficient train station ever
                  I mean... whoops! How did this get in here?
                  Since I last visited Berlin in February 2011, some changes for the worse have been made. Kunsthaus Tacheles is no more. If you're not familiar with it, it was a defunct building on Oranienburger Straße that, after the Wall came down, became a venue and a place for independent artists to show their work. There was also a café and bar, set up to look like a beach around the back. Many fun nights were spent there. Anyway, for a while there's been some tension between the building's owners and the artists, and I guess the artists had to give in. There was a lot of opposition, because Tacheles was considered a symbol of the city's post-war and post-Wall DIY mentality. Now I suppose it's going to be knocked down and rebuilt into a place that will be occupied by a big corporation.


                   
                  Finally, it was the first time I'd been to Berlin as a vegan, and the place is a goddamn hotbed for tasty vegan food. Honestly, I was spoilt for choice - even though eating at "normal" restaurants usually isn't as difficult for me as some people might expect, it's just really nice to be able to order literally anything off the menu. I'll just talk about 3 places, though:

                  • Yoyo Foodworld, Gärtnerstraße 27 (U5: Samariterstraße)
                    Located in Friedrichshain, there is a huge menu here - I ended up going there twice to try and make the most of such a place existing. The first time, I had a freshly baked pizza with "cheese" and "salami". The second, I had Spätzle, an Austrian egg/cheese noodle dish, which I'd obviously never been able to have whilst I was living there, so that was really special. I would be interested to know how they concocted it because it tasted awesome. The prices are decent, too, and the staff are super cheerful and friendly. If I were to live in Berlin (a long-term goal of mine), I'd probably end up coming here quite a lot...

                  • Vego Foodworld, Lychener Straße 63 (U2: Eberswalder Straße)
                    As you can tell by the name, this place is affiliated with Yoyo, but the vibe is quite different. For starters, it's located in Prenzlauer Berg, which is a bit more... upmarket. It was pretty quiet when we went in. There were posters from bands like Fugazi, Propagandhi and Latterman on the walls, but Iron & Wine was playing. The whole joint seemed to be run by one guy with an impressive beard. I tried what is probably a bit odd for someone who's always hated the taste and texture of meat - a soya burger, topped with "bacon" and "cheese" (with fries and salad at the side). Probably as McDonalds as you can get, vegan-style. It tasted really good, actually, even if it wasn't the kind of thing I'd normally choose. Worth popping by if you're in the neighbourhood.

                  • Sun Day Burger, Mauerpark Fleamarket (U8: Bernauer Straße)
                    I'd read about this before, and wasn't going to check it out because it seemed a bit elusive (it seemed like there were several potential places it could be, so I couldn't really be bothered making that trip). However, since it was here in the middle of the market, which takes place every Sunday, I thought I would give it a try. They offer one burger - a fried tofu slice with vegetables between wholemeal bread, and then you can choose a sauce. I got the pineapple one. The burger tasted great, it was very flavoursome. But my one complaint would be that it was very messy - I couldn't really eat it properly and it was sort of embarrassing. They also sold nice cupcakes. All in all, a bit expensive, though.

                  The book forest on Kollwitzstraße, Prenzlauer Berg

                  So, there you go. Berlin is an amazing city to visit on a budget, I bet it will inspire you to no end. I feel so damn alive every time I am there, and it is my full, unabashed intention to reside there someday soon. Some have described the city as a perennial building site. Since Germany's reunification, it has been changing so rapidly, and I'm curious to see what the future holds for it.

                  I've been writing this just as a way to procrastinate packing for university. I suppose I'd better go back to choosing which DVDs I'm going to take with me, and say goodbye to reading for pleasure!

                  Thursday, 13 September 2012

                  End of the Road festival 2012



                  At the beginning of September, for the last seven years, magic has manifested itself in a forest on the Dorset/Wiltshire border. It's called End of the Road, and it's quite unlike any other music festival I've attended. I'd say it's one of the best things humans have achieved. The organisers really go beyond the call of duty. This is a place where the food offered is not just a necessary evil, and is actually from the most quality caterers out there - I am always inspired to recreate it at home. It's where you can explore the woods and stumble upon art installations, little libraries, and a tiny stage made up to look like a old-timey living room with a piano so you can play your own songs in front of an audience. And there is a blue double decker bus selling local cider, and a red double decker bus selling tea, coffee and cakes. Recently, I was lucky enough to be here for the third time. It is a lovely transition from summer to autumn. I wish every day of my life could be this festival.

                  Paper models featured in the animation used as a trailer for the festival, including a badger and the cider bus. Watch it here, it's only 1:37 and it's super cute!

                  I'm not going to write in detail about every single band I saw, because that would take forever. But at the bottom of this post, you will find OTHER GOOD MUSIC STUFF, and, more importantly, FOOD HIGHLIGHTS.


                  Friday

                  The line-up for the day was entirely of artists from the Bella Union record label, to celebrate its 15th anniversary. What made me feel slightly startled about how quickly time has flown is remembering that I'd been to Bella Union's 10th anniversary show in London, too - it was my first ever date, actually...

                  My sister Flo and I started off the weekend by wandering into Horse Thief's set in the morning. They were pretty good - their live style reminded me of Frightened Rabbit, the sound was at times like early Death Cab For Cutie. I thought they might be fairly well-known and I just hadn't bothered to check them out before, but I looked on their Last.fm page and they have only 460 listeners. Curious.

                  Then to my first "planned" set - Leif Vollebekk. I discovered him two years ago at this very festival - I was spellbound by his soulful voice and delicate picking, streaked by harmonica, and immediately marched to the Rough Trade tent (that's right, there is a Rough Trade tent) and bought his album, Inland, which has been keeping me warm on chilly days ever since. Moreover, since he is from Montreal, his songs have meant even more to me since my visit there. He was playing on the smallest stage, again, and he played none of the songs I had heard the first time round. This was good, though - he hinted his new album would be out 'in, like, January'. I look forward to that.

                  Another cool thing about this festival was that I finally met up with my friend Alice, whom I'd been talking with via Twitter and Last.fm for a few months, and who'd come all the way from New Zealand! So that was exciting.

                  Beach House, who were headlining that night, were only okay. It was nice to hear some songs from their latest record, Bloom, but otherwise there was nothing really... personal about it. It probably wasn't entirely the band's fault, but perhaps their music just don't translate well to an audience that big. Also, there were some people in front of me chatting through the whole thing.



                  Saturday

                  Seth Faergolzia, of the band Dufus, was a treat to watch. His performance incorporated bizarre guitar loops, songs made entirely of him nattering gibberish, and even gargling water at one point. If you're into all that New York anti-folk stuff, I would encourage you to check it out.

                  Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains were one of our most eagerly anticipated acts of the weekend. I like them well enough in the studio, with their sweet, tropical, groovy sound, switching between English and French lyrics; but live, they really exceeded my expectations. For one thing, I wasn't expecting them to dance so much! And I was dancing a lot myself. They were just perfect. Just see them if you get the chance, you won't regret it.



                  As the sun began to set, I went to see 2:54 on the Big Top stage. The sound in there really isn't the greatest, but I enjoyed their performance. Afterwards, they were doing a signing in Rough Trade, so I went along, bought their album, and had a chat with them. Hannah and Colette were really down-to-earth ladies. Listen to them if you're a fan of the Cocteau Twins!



                  Even though I am past my initial obsession with them a couple of years ago, Grizzly Bear are a band still very close to my heart. We got pretty close to the front and I was very excited. This was the second time I was seeing them. When they opened with a new song ('we know it's weird to start with a new one but sorry, we couldn't resist') I was just filled with joy. When they played some of my older favourites like 'Little Brother' and 'On A Neck, On A Spit' I may have seen heaven. They have a very compelling, transcendental effect. At the moment I'm exercising some self-restraint and waiting for their new album, Shields, to be released, even though it's being talked about everywhere on the internet!


                  Sunday

                  When it's coming from the right person, I am fond of a southern US accent. Alynda Lee Segarra, singer/songwriter of the band Hurray For The Riff Raff, all the way from New Orleans (as she kept reminding us), is one of those people. The set beginning at 12pm sharp, she drawled, 'It's a little early for us', and from there I was hooked. I guess you could call it country - a genre that few people are keen to admit being a fan of - but with a latent punk attitude. I bought the self-titled album at the festival. I can easily say, after also listening to this year's Look Out Mama, as well as the earlier records, that this is my new favourite band.

                  Inside the sleeve of Hurray For The Riff Raff. Check out the graffiti that says 'sexist shit = small penis'. Amen to that, Alynda.

                  A written piece on the back.

                  Next on my must-see list was Willis Earl Beal. One word to describe him: performer. I was right at the front, and he came on wearing jeans, boots, a vest, a leather jacket, and sunglasses. A flag was draped over his tape machine. During the first song, he had already ripped off his jacket, flung it onto a chair, and put the flag over him like a cape. I can't verbally articulate the passion in this man's performance. The delivery of his songs is quite crude, but the actual content tugs you in all the right places. It's worth getting hold of his album Acousmatic Sorcery. The edition I own includes a small book that he wrote himself, which gives a lot more insight into the songs. (P.S. Damn, he's a sexy man.)

                  An obvious draw to the festival, although announced relatively late, was Patti Smith. We only stuck around for four or five songs, but - in case any kids are reading this - she had eaten a lot of sweets and was having a lot of fun.

                  Finally, Grandaddy. I was all on my own since the others had gone to see Villagers (what an annoying clash). It was just wonderful, despite the fact that their projection show apparently wasn't working. They recently got back together, so it was a very special performance, one that made me like them even more than I did before.






                  OTHER GOOD MUSIC STUFF:
                  My Sad Captains
                  Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard
                  Veronica Falls
                  Dirty Beaches
                  Woods
                  Patrick Watson
                  Gravenhurst
                  The Antlers

                  FILMS WATCHED IN THE CINEMA TENT:
                  Scream
                  The Shining
                  L.A. Confidential

                  FOOD HIGHLIGHTS:
                  Pizza Tabun (now with the option to substitute cheese for tahini!)
                  Tibetan Kitchen (momo dumplings!)
                  Wide Awake Café (everything here is 100% vegetarian/vegan and delicious!)
                  Luardos (spicy burritos and nachos!)

                  Saturday, 25 August 2012

                  August blues

                  The bulk of my summer holidays has been uneventful, mainly due to the fact I have no money (well... I have a little bit, but I desperately need to save it). In spite of this, I've tried to keep my chin up and remain productive. It's rare that I'm bored, as I actually have a lot to do at home. But things are just seeming rather drab now, following my exciting trip to Canada.

                  For instance, I've been stuck indoors working on my German report about my placement in Austria (which is how I will be assessed by my university for this part of the year). I had a head start because I began writing it whilst still there, when it was all fresh in my mind. But ever since I've been at home, it has been getting increasingly difficult to write something coherent in German. It's sad to say, but when you stop practising a language as often, you become less fluent and have trouble forming sentences that are "correct". Instead, you start to translate them, literally, from English. Which is a recipe for embarrassment if you're chatting amongst natives, or for disaster if your grades are counting on it.

                  There is a word in German, Sprachgefühl, which describes the natural feel you have for a language; for example the instinct that you use a certain preposition in a certain phrase even if you haven't encountered it before, or even syntactic word order (if you've ever learnt German, you will be aware that this can be treacherous territory). When you're in an immersion environment, you get this pretty quickly. And it appears I have already lost some of it. Oh well, I'm sure I will get back into the swing of things once I'm at university again and being cornered by it left, right and centre.

                  I have begun a hobby, and perhaps it's a little laughable... stamp collecting. I have so many letters and packages lying about, and I can't bear to throw away the pretty stamps. This is is probably just going to end up as another addition to my endless pile of tat, but here is my fledgling collection:

                  So far: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia and the USA.

                  I used to be really into penpalling (is that a verb?). It began when I was eight, and put an ad in the penpal corner in Girl Talk magazine. I got loads of replies, mostly from the UK and Ireland, but one from South Africa, too. Hardly any of them kept up after one letter, and it comes as no surprise that I am not in contact with a single one of them these days, but it did really introduce me to the joy of letter-writing. It's a wonderful way to express yourself - for me, at least, it's often easier to say things on paper than it is out loud. And it's so much nicer than getting an email, or a message on Facebook. Plus, you can take all the time you want to think of something good to say (within reason, obviously). I was also on the site Interpals for a while, and there were some nice people on there with whom I exchanged a couple of letters, but to be honest, I wouldn't recommend that site because for every cool person, you will get 15 creepy men asking you to marry them.

                  Aside from sticking stamps, essay-writing and watching TV (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Suburgatory and Wallander), I've just been trying to appreciate where I live, even if it isn't ideal and I certainly wouldn't want to settle here. At least we have a good rail connection, so I'm not really that far from most places, it's just money that stands in the way. However, one advantage of staying with your parents is that they have a car (nope, I can't drive; nor can I ride a bike, in case you were interested). So I can tag along to wherever they may be going, just to get away from the house.

                  We headed up to Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast. Hunstanton is a seaside town, and there's nothing particularly special about it. In summer the town itself is a bit touristy and tacky, and in winter everything is closed up - it's a bit glum, coupled with the wind and the rain.

                  I realised it was actually the first time I had seen the sea since I went to Latvia, during the bleak winter there. I wish I could change that, because visiting the seaside is always very refreshing, but I'm always living so far inland. The beach at Hunstanton is quite nice.

                  According to my dad, this is the result of some sort of unique geological phenomenon, but I can't remember the ins and outs of it. Sorry! There were lots of little bits of fossils tucked into the rock if you looked closely, though.




                  We've also been to down to south-east Suffolk, where my grandparents live, and personally one of my favourite areas of England. I lived in the county of Suffolk for most of my childhood, and despite all the places I've lived, this is the one I truly feel a connection with and consider home. Both my grandparents hail from the area, and have lived around there all their lives. The history is really quite interesting - due to being the first place in Britain that boats would have reached from modern-day Germany, lots of Anglo-Saxon relics have been found around there, and there is quite a distinct Dutch influence, due to 15th century immigrants. The local dialect is great, too - my favourite phrase is 'on the huh', which means that something is wonky ('that shelf is sitting on the huh!'). Apparently the accent is so strong that, when on holiday, my grandparents have been asked whether they were Australian.





                  Next week I'm going to End of the Road festival, which I am looking forward to immensely, so I will have lots to report back. Til then!

                  Saturday, 28 July 2012

                  Transatlanticism (pt. 2)



                  Read the first part here...

                  After spending a few days in Montreal, I took a weekend away to Quebec City. The first thing I learnt from this is how different North American railway systems are to European ones. I can now better understand why everyone drives a car there...

                  What I drank as I waited for the train.

                  I checked in and collected my tickets, which I had wisely pre-booked online about a month in advance, then interestingly, we had to wait in a queue near a gate for about 15 minutes before we were allowed to board. So it was quite like an airport, compared to the European style where you can just buy your ticket from a machine and hop on the train as easily as if it were the bus. Once on the train, it occurred to me how slow it was. The journey took four hours - for the same distance, this would take about half the time in Europe. This was no ICE or TGV. Considering how crazily expensive the tickets were - $90 was the student price for a return ticket - I'd expected it to be pretty speedy. On the bright side, it allowed me to get a good look at the beginnings of the Laurentians, the oldest mountain range in the world! I also really enjoyed seeing the pretty, picture-perfect houses dotted around that we passed. They were in an adorable maritime style, a bit like on the cover of the book below. Also, the huge amounts of forest we passed through, and the little bodies of water, were exactly how I imagined Thoreau's Walden (not too far off from where I was, I guess).


                  (x)
                  By the way, it's a murder mystery set in a village in northern Quebec. Actually, I bought it when I was living in Belgium, but only started reading it on my trip, as the location was fitting.

                  When I was booking the trip online a few weeks before I left, I  had no idea that weekend was St. Jean-Baptiste, the national holiday of the province. The lady who was hosting me at her place was still at work when I reached Quebec City, so we planned to meet at a café in the Limoilou neighbourhood, where I sat for around two hours before she arrived. In honour of the holiday, there was a street concert going on. The evening was setting in so the sky was a beautiful colour, there was music, kids were skateboarding to their hearts' content since the road was closed off, and I was sitting there with my drink taking everything in. It was a perfect start.

                  Gare du Palais - the railway station in Quebec City

                  In the morning, I ventured into the old town. As to be expected, it was packed with tourists, mainly American. I even heard some English people, which was really weird. When I arrived, it was just as boiling hot as it was in Montreal, then it started raining. Because of this, I will always look back on Quebec City as rainy.


                  Chateau Frontenac
                  Mouth of the St. Lawrence river





                  It was so odd to consider I was thousands of miles away from home, because everything around me seemed so characteristic of Europe. If I'm completely honest, I didn't feel the architecture in Quebec City was particularly special in itself, yet I would still maintain that it is a pretty unique place. I feel there is a certain mentality, an indisputable joie de vivre (however cliché that sounds) that doesn't exist in quite the same way in Europe.

                  But I constantly found myself taken aback that this was where it all started, and that Quebecers seemed to be still fiercely proud of all that. I feel it lives on in their accents (which allegedly resemble the way French Royalists spoke centuries ago), their Catholic swear words (tabarnak!), and that they do, in fact, use some English loan words, but they are not the same ones you'd hear in France. I apologise - I really don't like using the word "they" to denote groups of people generally, just as much as I'd hate people saying "the British" to describe a perceived national characteristic, but this was really novel and exciting for me.

                  I can't really put into words how much more enlightened I felt after I visited this city. I went to the Musée de la Civilisation, and looked at an exhibition about the history of Quebec and what lies in its future, including video interviews with residents of many different backgrounds. It just put everything into perspective. And I'm so glad I decided to couchsurf (which I'd done a few times before), because it's an instant immersion into the local culture and language, and you get a feel for what it would be like to live there. It was also a pretty bizarre feeling - like it was the moment I'd been waiting for after years of pondering.

                  On the weekend of St. Jean-Baptiste, we went up a steep hill to the Plains of Abraham - the French and English battled there in 1759, setting the fate of Canada - where there were some celebrations taking place. Apparently, people were a lot more boisterous than they had been in previous years, and there was a lot of security. Here are a couple of photos I took on the way up:





                  We also went to a free performance of Quebec's very own Cirque du Soleil! The show was bizarre, but the gymnastics and lights were very impressive.
                  The whole atmosphere was really nice, everyone was so proud to be a Quebecer, with their fleur-de-lis flags and saying 'Bonne St. Jean!' to the bus driver. I guess I was lucky to be there during the festival, but it got me wondering what it's like at other times... in the snowy, brutal winter, for example!

                   


                   


                  I returned to Montreal absolutely knackered (I slept for most of the train journey back). I came to the startling realisation that I didn't have much time left. I do sort of regret that I never went to any of the museums there, but mostly I just wanted to take in the atmosphere of the city and see whatever I could from the outside.

                  I took the tiny yellow line on the metro over to St. Helen's Island. After seeing a load of ticket inspectors at the station seemingly waiting for people to disembark, I had a minor panic that I had the wrong ticket and I'd get fined (a fear engrained in me ever since the close shave I'd had in Budapest). But it was alright.
                  One of the main features of the island is the Biosphère, which you could maybe call Montreal's Eden Project (a huge climate museum inside a dome). I didn't go in though, because it was a bit pricey and my feet were killing me.




                  One of the reasons I had been so excited to come to Montreal was the abundance of vegan-friendly food establishments that I'd read up about and planned to sample. So much fancy, pretentious-sounding food to treat myself to, that I don't find every day!
                  Actually, I mostly ended up going to places like Subway and various noodle bars before I even touched any pre-planned places. I read somewhere that Montreal has more restaurants per square kilometre than New York. And of course, there are so many influences from around the world that generate great cuisine in this city.

                  Here are some bastions of the Montreal veg scene:

                  Right in Mile End, I came in at lunchtime and only just managed to find a stool to perch on. I picked out a salad of artichoke hearts, quinoa, bulgur, spinach and pine nuts. It was refreshing, and very filling (which I don't find too often in a salad). I also got a brownie, which I had planned to save for later, but ended up scoffing ten minutes later on a bench opposite the lovely St. Michael & St. Anthony church.


                  The most well-known, and the first vegan restaurant in Montreal. It would seem that you have to show up at a non-meal time, because in the early evening it was absolutely packed. I ordered at the takeaway counter, then noticed the table area, and realised that I could have indeed played the waiting game (this would have actually been more preferable, since it was raining outside). Oh well. There was so much choice there, I wish I could have tried all of it. In the end, I decided on a tempeh burger with potato wedges. It was wonderful, my stomach was very happy. I dearly wish that I could order it to my door from here...

                  Located in several places around the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, there are three branches in Montreal, but I only went to the one on McGill (and the one in Quebec City). It markets itself as a vegetarian buffet, but I'd say about 85% of the food on offer is vegan. There are various salads, beans, tofu/tempeh/seitan, avocados (oh man), spring rolls, wraps... and you pay by the kilo. On average I probably spent $15 for a meal, but it was just too delicious to not try a bit of everything. The customers were a mix of businesspeople and students, and I sat with a cool view of downtown Montreal going by. (Edit 17/08/13: This place is no longer even vegetarian! I've heard it now has meat and seafood dishes, which doesn't guarantee it being good to go for vegetarians and vegans - I've read some negative reviews of all the branches. It's your call, though.)

                  Here, I stocked up on a few Go Max Go chocolate bars to take home and gobble steadily. My favourites were the Jokerz, which is similar to a Snickers bar, and Twilight, which is like a Mars bar. Wish I could get these more easily at home, because I miss chocolate a lot. I also got a nice little raspberry cupcake. The icing was pretty dense, though - not to be eaten too quickly! (Edit 17/08/13: I was sad to discover that this place is no more.)


                  On my penultimate night, I went to see Japandroids at La Sala Rossa. Again, I went alone, but by total chance, I got chatting to a guy who was also English, and had been travelling across Canada.
                  Cadence Weapon was the support act. I had listened to him a bit beforehand, and hadn't been especially blown away - but live, he was awesome, really engaging with the crowd. Because of this, I guess I was more inclined to pay attention to his lyrics. Also, turns out he's pals with Grimes - whom he described as 'Claire, with pink hair and a high-pitched voice... she's everywhere' - and performed a remixed version of her song 'Eight'. If you like hip-hop in any way whatsoever, I'd recommend him.
                  Then Japandroids came onstage (the two members of whom had been wandering back and forth through the crowd before the show). Brian, the guitarist, was wearing a Cat Flag T-shirt; David refuted the in-the-background drummer stereotype by stealing as much of the show as his bandmate was. They began with a fuzzy intro that soared into 'The Boys Are Leaving Town' and it was so intense, one of those goosepimply, I-could-die-right-now-and-I-wouldn't-fucking-care feelings that you don't come by at every gig. And it's a feeling that Japandroids embody entirely, I suppose. Singing along to the lines 'it's raining in Vancouver, but I don't give a fuck, 'cos I'm in love with you tonight' was a golden moment (one that would have been bettered perhaps only by actually being in Vancouver, not Montreal - next goal?). By the end, I was a tiny bit disappointed only that 'I Quit Girls' wasn't played, but can I really complain at all? The key word that night was adrenaline.



                  In a shocking twist, I spent far too much money on books on my trip. Hey, it's conducive to my studies and it's hard to find Quebec literature in Europe, okay? (I may or may not have also splurged on lots of books in English.) Two highlights of my purchases:

                  A graphic novel, set in Montreal (note the cover), about Weezer's 1996 album Pinkerton
                  A guide for people who want to understand the unique language spoken in Quebec. My favourite phrase? Caller l'orignal, which means "to vomit", and literally means "to imitate the call of an elk".

                  On my last day I was short on cash, so I spent my last few hours in downtown Montreal relaxing and drinking coffee before I hopped on a bus to the airport to get my connecting flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I would board a midnight flight that would take me back to the UK.
                  It's taken so long to put together this behemoth of a post, so thank you if you have read all of it! This was definitely one of the most exciting experiences of my life, and I really wish I could have stayed longer. But hopefully I will be back there in the not-too-far-off future. The whole thing has definitely motivated me to push on with French (I've always been better at German), which I hope will be reflected in my grades next year. It began to satisfty my curiosity about the way French is used across the Atlantic, certainly.