I hadn't spent Christmas in the UK since 2012. In contrast to the stress of last year, the Vorweihnachtszeit (Christmas run-up - though that's hardly an elegant translation) in Berlin has been really nice; I visited four markets and enjoyed the general warm spirit around the city, although I wasn't exempt from that tiring end-of-year-rush feeling that comes with it.
It had been nine months since I'd last been in the UK and I hadn't even realised it. My life in Berlin has changed a lot since my last visit and there are many great people I know there now whom I didn't know back then.
All in all, Christmas has been rather good this year; this probably has a lot to do with the fact it's the first one where I've had a salary and therefore actually been able to get people gifts (which I really enjoy doing, by the way). In general, I am glad it comes once a year and lasts for one day. Feels about right.
When I was eight, I had a few pen pals. I had put an ad in Girl Talk magazine (now unrecognisable from what it used to be, btw) and got, no joke, 20 replies. I had to make that my after-school project for a couple of weeks - replying to all my letters. At the zenith of my pen pal career, I had about six regulars. By the age of 15 or so, the number had petered out to two or three. I'm no longer in contact with any of them, but I am pretty sure this set the ball rolling for hiding out on the internet, making friends on there and even meeting them in real life, long before this became more widespread and socially acceptable in the past couple of years.
Anyway, each year, I would of course send them all Christmas cards. In my early teens, after Christmas, I would follow up my cards with a letter listing all the presents I got. I'm not really sure why I did this, apart from to seek validation from faraway peers. It reached its peak when one pen pal and I, whom I felt a particular kinship with, swapped Bang On the Door for Emily the Strange, and got into pop-punk. We discussed how annoying people at school were and related our CD collections and wishlists to each other.
You know what? I don't know if I can quite say I am less materialistic now, 10 years later. For sure, I love stuff. Not the kind of stuff that's flashy, takes up a lot of physical space and that you need a warranty for, which I think is what most people are talking about when they say the word "materialistic", but bits and bobs that make me feel like home. Books, for example. I do have a Kindle, which I enjoy a lot, but I'm never going to fall out of love with books.
When I was moving about a lot in my first months of Berlin life, it was important to have things on hand that would help me maintain a sense of consistency and at least pretend to feel at home. I bought a lamp in the shape of an owl and my own duvet cover set that would help me feel settled no matter where I laid my head.
In the months since I had last been in the UK, I had been grappling with my feelings about this country whose latest developments I now basically only heard about over Twitter - things that felt surreal but also weren't exactly surprising (5p for plastic bags, Cameron and pig, floods). Berlin is an extraordinary place in several respects, so you can't really compare it to certain countries as a whole. My experience of Germany would be quite different if, say, I was somewhere in Saarland.
To quote a Neko Case song, 'I've lost my taste for home, and that's a dirty, fallow feeling'. I've no desire to return to live in the UK, but my connection to it can't exist without my family, and vice versa. There have been certain things that I have appreciated during my days here over the festive period: cooking with my mum; affordable and tasty hummus in supermarkets (sorry, but it's just not the same in Berlin); free cash withdrawals; cashiers greeting you while they're still scanning stuff from the person in front (this took me by surprise and I'm not even one who grumbles about the mythical rude German customer service).
More recently, I've begun to recognise aspects of Berlin that get on my nerves. I've discussed them with others at length and it has been validating to know that I'm not alone. Still, I realise I am the mistress of my own destiny and it's up to me to make changes that will make me feel less annoyed in the New Year.