Friday, 30 December 2016

My Year in Books: 2016

Here's a list of all the books I read this year. A couple were re-reads. The ones with a hyperlinked rating are the ones I reviewed, or at least wrote a couple of words about. I read more poetry this year than ever before.

I missed my Goodreads Challenge target by two books. I feel okay about it. 43 is still a whole lot! I have a couple of books on the go at the moment, I have many, many books still to be read and I'll still be an avid Goodreads user, but I just don't want reading to feel like a competition anymore.

Another thing I am working on right now is creating a book blog with my reviews, since people have - unsolicitedly! - told me they enjoy them. On a personal level, I would quite like to have my literary opinions in one place. Plus, I sometimes put a lot of care into the reviews and would like to own my content (basically, Amazon bought Goodreads and people have therefore expressly stopped posting reviews on the site).

  1. Joyce Carol Oates - Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (4/5)
  2. Vanessa Veselka - Zazen (1/5)
  3. Chris Kraus - I Love Dick (5/5)
  4. Sarah Maria Griffin - Not Lost (4/5)
  5. Emma Donoghue - Landing (3/5)
  6. Jill Alexander Essbaum - Hausfrau (2/5)
  7. Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad (4/5)
  8. Jane Smiley - The Greenlanders (2/5)
  9. Adam Green - Magazine (2/5)
  10. Heather O'Neill - Lullabies for Little Criminals (3/5)
  11. Brecht Evens - The Wrong Place (4/5)
  12. Thomas Morris - We Don't Know What We're Doing (4/5)
  13. Junot Diaz - This is How You Lose Her (3/5)
  14. Hanya Yanagihara - A Little Life (4/5)
  15. Serge Bouchard & Marie-Christine Lévesque - Elles ont fait l'Amérique: De remarquables oubliés (3/5)
  16. Barbi Marković - Superheldinnen (4/5)
  17. Boris Schumatsky - Die Trotzigen (1/5)
  18. Liz Climo - The Little World of Liz Climo (4/5)
  19. Dorothy Parker - The Collected Dorothy Parker (2/5)
  20. Dawn Foster - Lean Out (3/5)
  21. Maggie Nelson - The Argonauts (3/5)
  22. Sofia Banzhaf - Pony Castle (4/5)
  23. Nina Wagner - Fucking Good: Von Tinder, Online-Dates und wilden Nächten (2/5)
  24. Nelly Arcan - Folle (5/5)
  25. Rachel Kushner - The Strange Case of Rachel K. (3/5)
  26. Greg Zorko - Ghost in the Club (4/5)
  27. Sarah Sutterlin - I Wanted To Be The Knife (3/5)
  28. Amy Liptrot - The Outrun (3/5)
  29. Frankie Barnet - An Indoor Kind of Girl (4/5)
  30. Brad Casey - The Idiot on Fire (3/5)
  31. Guillaume Morissette - New Tab (4/5)
  32. Fernando Pessoa - The Book of Disquiet (3/5)
  33. Louise Erdrich - The Round House (2/5)
  34. Maude Veilleux - Last Call Les Murènes (3/5)
  35. Dorothy Baker - Cassandra at the Wedding (2/5)
  36. Stuart Braun - City of Exiles (4/5)
  37. Richard Siken - Crush (2/5)
  38. Lucy Sutcliffe - Girl on Girl (3/5)
  39. Roxane Gay - Bad Feminist (3/5)
  40. Meg Cabot - All American Girl (5/5)
  41. Anne-Marie Beaudoin-Bégin - La langue rapaillée, combattre l'insécurité linguistique des Québécois (3/5)
  42. Patti Smith - M Train (4/5)
  43. Elena Ferrante - My Brilliant Friend (2/5)

Saturday, 24 December 2016

My FOMO Christmas

Mont-Tremblant was the first Christmas I spent away from home. It also taught me a valuable life lesson: don't go on group holidays. Just don't.

I was working as an English language assistant programme in the province of Quebec. All in all, there were about 30 participants on this programme, most of them like me: fresh from studying French at university and needing to find a way to stave off getting a "proper job" for the next little while.

My home for the next few months was to be a small city on the shore of the St. Lawrence, 500km downstream from Montreal. I arrived with visions of Cape Cod-style houses, azure skies and pine trees. Not the entire truth, as it turns out, but at least those boxes were ticked.

The bittersweet autumn was quickly followed by the first snowfall. By then, I was already feeling burnt out, my social needs unmet. Work managed to be both understimulating and overwhelming, using my French to thrive was an uphill struggle, the activities that normally interested me just didn't exist in that place. I also didn’t have a driving licence, which limited my opportunities in ways I'd been incapable of anticipating back when I had applied to the programme.

Soon, the time came for me to make a decision about how I was going to spend the Christmas break. All I knew was that I couldn’t afford to fly back to the UK - but also, that maybe I wouldn’t want to, anyway.

The assistants shared their common tips, experiences and announcements on a closed Facebook group. Someone pointed out that if there were a few of us who weren’t going back for Christmas, it made sense to spend it together. It felt like a decision had been made for me. A weight off my chest.

It was fear that caused me to say yes - fear of missing out. FOMO.

This acronym, along with YOLO - you only live once - was just starting to fly around in the juvenile parlance. The Wikipedia definition of FOMO, quoted from a study by Andrew K. Przybylski et al, is this: 'A pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.'

In other words, if I were absent from this gathering, it would be my own damn fault if I ended up having a bleak and lonely Christmas. We're so profoundly conditioned to understand Christmas as a time of year all about family and being sociable that spending it alone didn’t seem like an option. The way I saw it, even if you did it voluntarily, as an experiment, you’d only be inviting pity from others.

An assistant named Gemma (*not her real name) took it upon herself to organise the chalet and we voted for the best one. The winner was Mont-Tremblant: Quebec’s premier ski resort.

We all sent our deposits to Gemma. I don’t recall exactly how much this cost. All I remember is repeating to myself that this was an investment.
I was also trying to convince myself that this would be a good learning and growing experience. I was a pretty socially anxious person, but I reasoned that maybe actually getting to know the people who were doing the same thing as me - and at that, in communities even smaller than mine - would help me to get me out of my head a little and be satisfied with what I had.

The school semester finished. Most of my students, from what I gathered, weren’t going to be doing anything special over Christmas. A good few of them had never left the local area, which, despite its natural picturesqueness, was quite socioeconomically depressed. I’d learned not to show dismay when students didn’t really grasp where the UK was, despite my well-intentioned slideshows of maps and photos of British icons (except for the Queen, whom, I had been advised, was a topic best avoided).
Early the next morning, I met my driver and we pulled up in Montreal that afternoon. I would treat myself to a night in the city before catching the train to Saint-Jérôme, then another carpool to Mont-Tremblant. I hadn’t worked out the logistics of getting to the chalet itself after that - I’d had a look on Google Maps and it was pretty isolated - but I tried to relax. I was on holiday, after all!

The driver from Saint-Jérôme dropped me off at a Tim Hortons not quite in Mont-Tremblant. Since communication between us was already quite awkward, I was loathe to introduce the idea of a wild goose chase, trying to find the ecaxt drop-off point.
Good old Tim Hortons. In my dejected moments, I’d found solace in its coffee and even suspended my vegan diet for its doughnuts. As an outsider, the Canadian language question felt like none of my business, but as far as I could tell, whatever shenanigans the anglophones and francophones got themselves into, the language of Tim Hortons was universal.
Once inside, I phoned one of the other assistants, who drove out to pick me up in one of the designated chalet cars. I walked right to the end of the street to find out the name, dragging my two suitcases through the snow, trying really hard to describe my surroundings. I could only discern a school and a gas station.

The chalet was like nothing I had ever seen before. The balcony looked out onto a large, frozen lake that was blanketed in a fresh layer of snowfall daily. At night, the lights from chalets on the other side of the lake were visible, about a kilometre away. It was beautiful, bewitching and probably the trip’s saving grace.

I had never actually been skiing before. For financial reasons, I’d opted out of buying a ski pass in advance, thinking that if the urge did really strike me, I would buy one on the ground.
The Mont-Tremblant ski village was supremely tacky, but I figured may as well not hold back from getting a perverse enjoyment from it. There were a few different themed restaurants, plus some outlets selling ski wear. Kids were walking around, confidently carrying snowboards. I felt suddenly ridiculous, like a big, adult-sized baby.

Without a ski pass, I don’t know how I’d really envisioned myself spending the coming week, but in the end, each day went roughly as follows: get up, get a ride to the ski village, wander around, get some lunch, see if anyone else wanted to go back to the chalet and jump into the car with them, read books on my Kindle, watch movies with the two others who didn’t have a ski pass, sit in the hot tub. I guess we’d subconsciously constructed identities for ourselves: we were the observers, while the others were the doers.
So no, the days weren’t that bad. It was the evenings that were tough. The gregarious crowd would come back from their day of skiing - some with war wounds - and start the drinking as soon as possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to hang out with people in the evenings, but having a place to retreat to and decompress in is incredibly important for me. On this holiday, I didn’t have that place as I was sharing a bedroom with three people.

I was in a café in the ski village with a couple of others, eating overpriced nachos and scrolling on my phone just because there was free WiFi, when I found out via Facebook that a crush of mine had just got into a relationship. I felt nauseated and no longer wanted the nachos. I was forced to admit to myself that I’d basically fabricated a profound connection with this person. Yes, there’s a time and a place to learn ugly things about yourself. It turns out this is on Christmas Eve, in the middle of a tourist resort far, far away from home.

There was a casino just outside the village, located at the foot of a mountain. I thought this was a good a moment as any to visit a casino for the first time. At the entrance was a coat-check and a roaring fire. I was asked to verify that I was over 18. I didn’t have a lot of cash on me, which I expected you needed in order to make the most of being at a casino, so instead, I went up the escalator to the bar with a view of the mountain. I sat at a table and ordered some kind of whiskey cocktail with blueberry flavoring, noting that bleuets was the word for blueberries in Quebec, rather than myrtilles like in France. I tried to read, but I couldn’t distract myself from this person. It felt as if part of my inner life and my imagination had died. I still needed to give it a good send-off.

I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. There was no private space.

On Christmas Day, people were trying to Skype their families in the UK. They had to arrange a schedule, as the chalet’s internet connection was so weak, but still couldn’t sustain a quality phone call, causing some to cry. I was asked why I wasn’t trying to call mine. I said that it was okay, there were people who wanted to do it more than me and that anyway, an email would suffice for my family.

We had the meal around 4pm, which always seems to happen with Christmas dinner. In the evening, people got drunk. We had put our beer outside overnight to leave more space in the fridge, but they’d ended up freezing into blocks of tin-coated beer-ice, so we tried to shotgun them.

Hanging around the chalet were a few taxidermied moose heads, which were a bit creepy, but I guess they were there for authenticity’s sake. Someone had brought a fake, adhesive ginger beard with them, for some reason, and they hung it onto a moose head. Everybody found this pant-pissingly hilarious and decided to take a group photo in front of it. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t the only one - one of my fellow observers also thought it was a bad idea - but it still took me back to being 14 at school and not getting a dirty joke somebody had made.

I left the chalet on Boxing Day, a couple of days earlier than planned, because I could foresee only misery. I was flying to Chicago on the 30th and wanted to make sure I had a day or two to recover (and do my washing). I criss-crossed back through the province via carpool and bus. After the last taxi from my city’s bus station to my small, basement home, I collapsed onto my bed in relief and gratitude.

On New Year’s Eve, after the chalet had been vacated, Gemma made a long, worried post on our Facebook group. I distinctly remember reading it on my phone while sitting on the floor of my friend’s apartment in Chicago and feeling like this would now ruin my time there.
The chalet’s owner claimed we had caused a lot of damage and now wanted us to pay reparations, even though he refused to provide photos or bills evidencing this. He’d made a long list of supposed costs, ranging from the feasible (broken glasses) to the absolutely made-up (marks in the floorboards, which he believed to have come from stilettos - the obvious choice of footwear for three feet of snow and -30°C weather!).
Not only those costs, but he also wanted to keep the deposits from each of us. A deposit I’d been counting on so that I could live through the month of January.
It scared me. I thought about the moose head. I hadn’t done anything rowdy while staying there - I’d even left early. Now I had to pay for other people’s thoughtlessness. I wanted to assert the injustice of it all, but I also didn’t want to come off as holier-than-thou, like I was more sensible than those who had dared to enjoy themselves.

I panicked and sent Gemma a long email, saying I thought she should contact our program’s organisers for advice, asking if she really thought getting in touch with a lawyer was a good idea; seeing as we were foreigners, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.

Of course I’ve thought about it, she replied. It’s all that’s been on my mind the past couple of weeks.

I’m not sure what exactly happened in the end. I lived in a state of unabating anxiety for a few weeks, lurking on the Facebook group to follow the developments. For the sake of my health, I eventually quit the group, reasoning that if the worst happened and I was needed, someone would contact me.

Spending about $1000 on a holiday I didn’t enjoy that much is now hardly thinkable. Two years later, I live in a big city with lots to do and where one can be easily self-sufficient - meaning FOMO is still part of my life, but in different ways. This is not in the sense that I’ll say yes to everything - an injudicious way to live, in my opinion - but that if I’m sitting home instead of indulging in the wealth of events Berlin offers, I sometimes berate myself.
At the same time, I've cultivated the inner strength and the integrity to be able to know (my limits) and to say no (to myself and to others). I have learnt that part of living in a city isn’t just giving yourself to what’s out there, but also taking the time to seek respite from it, because if you’re not careful, it will sap you away. You have to respect your time, use it wisely.

So, when FOMO comes calling, let it say its piece, but then let it go.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Albums of 2016

Particularly in the final stretch of the year (from around October), a lot of good albums came out. And by the time mid-November rolled around, we needed something to keep us from thinking life was actually completely hopeless and miserable.

This isn't a ranking of albums, nor is it exhaustive, it is just a bunch of 2016 albums I remembered that I have enjoyed. I will almost certainly stumble upon great 2016 albums in 2017.

Into It. Over It. - Standards
I loved this album because it marked IIOI's transition from an artist I found pretty alright to one I would veritably sit down to listen to and get lost in for days.

Solange - A Seat at the Table
Rich, very contemporary and deserves every bit of attention it gets.

The Burning Hell - Public Library
Just fun and smart goodness that will make you feel better about life and about the weird tangents your mind wanders off to that you should listen to immediately. Also a really, really delightful live show.

Lisa LeBlanc - Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
If this doesn't make you want to road trip through Canada, I don't know what will.

Les Hay Babies - La 4ième dimension (Version longue)
I've mentioned Les Hay Babies before. They're French-English space rock. I can't express how perfect this band is to me!

Groenland - A Wider Space
Catchy and colourful, yet remorseful.

Mitski - Puberty 2
We all need more Mitski in our lives. Just in general.

Camp Cope - Camp Cope
Imagine a(n even) mopier Courtney Barnett. I want more of this kind of stuff in 2017, please.

Weird Lines - Weird Lines
This is a supergroup that features Julie Doiron and therefore I am right on board with that.

Tancred - Out of the Garden
Super summery and gutsy and lyrically kind of dark and everything my 15-year-old self wanted in a band, I think, right here aged 25.

Slingshot Dakota - Break
It sounds like Rainer Maria for the 2010s which is very, very fine by me!

Xarah Dion - Fugitive
Spooky French whispers over wintery, electronic sounds.

Agnes Obel - Glass Citizen
I found that this was perfect late-night writing music - this year's ersatz Julia Holter.

Sarah Neufeld - The Ridge
Makes me dream of beautiful autumn walks.

Gurr - In My Head
This is like, the Berlin success story of the moment. I think I preferred the EP for the individual songs, but as an album this is very solid.

The Wave Pictures - Bamboo Diner in the Rain 
My Leicestershire kings have nailed it again.

Xiu Xiu - Plays the Music of Twin Peaks
Self-explanatory, really - if you thought the show's soundtrack couldn't get more haunting, you were wrong.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tinyletter!

Reminder that I'm doing monthly general updates via email newsletter, sent out on the first Sunday of each month - it's like a blog post straight in the comfort of your inbox! You can check out the archive here.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Tuesday/Wednesday

If only most Americans knew, as they voted, how powerful their country actually is. That whatever its government does goes way beyond their backyard; that the whole world is on tenterhooks as they vote for their President; that a vote for US laws and acts is a vote that will affect the whole world. If only most Americans thought that if their country is half as great and special as they are raised to believe, this means in turn that whatever it does will create shockwaves elsewhere. And that if it is great - and even better! - doesn't it make sense to share it with others?

It goes without saying that this is going to make life even harder and more precarious for so many people. From afar I felt the impact, first and foremost as a woman. On 8th November, having only followed it all very vaguely, it occurred to me how meaningful it would be to have a female US President and how close we were to that. No, not the first female leader of a nation by any means, but of the most powerful, high-profile nation on the planet (whether you agree with its imperialist politics or not, this is just a fact). I was tearful as I considered what kind of message this would put across. Some part of me did, yes, subscribe to the idea that if a woman could become President, I could do anything and magically be taken seriously in the same way men are. I thought back to when I stayed up at age 17 to see Obama win for the first time. I was tearful then, too.

The past few days on the internet have felt fragile like never before, as everyone tries to make sense of it and cope in their own way, whether that's making Harry Potter analogies (ugh), making petitions for Hillary Clinton to be President (not gonna work guys) or Obama/Biden memes (okay, this I can get on board with). It has also been thinkpiece city and in a weird way I can't look away. I lurk on Twitter when my mind wanders and see everyone argue about what they are supposed to think and the correct way to react.

I have witnessed straight white dudes IRL earnestly put the President-elect's compulsive sleaziness and sexual assault habit on the same level as what Mr Clinton got up to - that's right, not the actual candidate, but her husband! - and suddenly care so much about women in "third world countries" who "have no rights". I have felt inward anger as I see straight white dudes mansplain on my female friends' Facebook statuses about how the whole sorry affair is not misogynistic - or, they even take it one step further and tell them to calm down. You know exactly the type I mean; the type who like to play devil's advocate. They like to say he's not actually going to enact any of the horrible policies that defined his campaign. Well, how do you know that? And more importantly, why are you excusing a person who says those things in order to incite hatred? I know for you it's all just fun and memes, because you never have to really think about any of this stuff in your real, day-to-day life. You don't stand to lose anything.

I hate how during the campaigns there was so much of this "better of two evils" rhetoric, that people couldn't bring themselves to mention Clinton without saying "yeah she's corrupt but what can ya do". I hate how people compared the two candidates as if it was even a fucking question.

I hate how even over here, in Berlin, there is such a sense of smugness, exactly as there was with Brexit. In the run-up, walking around, I saw signs saying stuff like "AmeriKKKa was never great". Run along back to Rigaer Straße. Also yeah, most people living in Germany can't do a thing to change the situation in America.

I don't know if I will ever set foot in the United States as a visitor again in the near future - for financial reasons, mostly. It feels incongruous with its good cultural exports I have enjoyed my whole life, the good people I know from there and the good times I have had there. I suppose it is the same when people think about times they've visited the UK and what they enjoy about it. That is sadly just a small corner of what a country is about.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Rimouski & Trois-Rivières, Quebec

(Accompanying post on Montreal here - read first!)

The régions of Quebec are a special place. They are the province's biggest power reserve - in more senses than one - and in my opinion, a society nigh on impossible for an outsider to truly comprehend. The further you get away from Montreal, the less likely it is anyone will come to your rescue in English; the more you feel that the odd clues here and there hinting that you're still in Canada (Postes Canada, Radio Canada) are little more than niceties put there by some well-meaning old soul who sincerely believed in a truly bilingual Canadian Dream; if you don't have a car, your self-esteem pretty much drops below the negatives, because there is some gorgeous stuff out there but there are no buses or anything so you can't help but feel like maybe you're not allowed it.

The province is so vast that of course I haven't been everywhere. But I was keen to revisit one place and try out another.

Rimouski

As explained here, I lived in Rimouski for a little while around three years ago and left abruptly. I approached going back like visiting an ex I had some leftover beef with.

My carshare driver from Montreal was 30 minutes late arriving at the pick-up point and on the way, made jokes about me needing bathroom stops and whose slapdash driving caused other drivers to make wtf motions with their hands (luckily there was another, equally bewildered passenger in the car to witness the antics).

Pit stop at the famous fromagerie in Trois-Pistoles, an hour or so from Rimouski

Nevertheless, we all arrived in Rimouski alive and I checked into a motel. Yes, a motel. That night, I went to François' place for a big vegan Indian dinner with some people which was really nice and fun and helped me feel a little less lost.

I count scratchy motel decor among life's little luxuries.

I spent the next day wandering around Rimouski's main thoroughfares, checking out old haunts and doing exciting things like laundry.




As always, with the evening came the most spectacular sunset - the kind that makes you think the world is ending. I recalled how I used to walk along the littoral in the evening, looking at the colours in the sky when things got too much, telling myself that even if I wasn't happy, at least there was this beautiful nature. For this reason it was even a little distressing to sit there, listening to music that had been released since I had left Rimouski and therefore hadn't yet had the chance to get melancholy associations stuck on it.




I returned to Montreal very early the next day and was kind of glad. I am now able to view Rimouski subjectively, which I suppose was the goal.


Trois-Rivières

"Why are you going there?" people asked me. True, Trois-Rivières may be unassuming to those who are either more urbanly inclined or want stunning natural sights. My original plan had been to go much further north, such as to Rouyn-Noranda, but my budget was fading fast. I'd heard talk of Trois-Rivières, though, and was curious. It's located smack bang between Montreal and Quebec City.

I got a carshare again with possibly the nicest, most uncomplicated driver I've had (even from carsharing all the time when living there). I stayed in the HI Hostel.

Trois-Rivières was bigger than anticipated. There's the downtown and old town bit, next to the river - but that's only half the story. A lot of stuff is actually at the other side of the highway that runs through, near to the university. This made things a bit difficult to plan, admittedly, so I only ventured out there once.

View over the St Lawrence looking west


I came to Quebec in September for fall foliage. Apart from these, I left empty-handed.





Femme American Football LP

As you can see from these impressions, it's a nice place; I found it quite atmospheric.

Café Frida (15 Rue des Forges)
No joke: this is one of the loveliest cafés/restaurants I have ever been to (just got done writing an email to the owner to let her know this). I think this is because of the lovely staff and its kind of maritime-meets-hip vibe. The food is all vegetarian so I went there for brunch. In the evening I returned and drank a couple of craft beers while writing. There was a screen projecting The National's documentary followed by the latest Nick Cave one. Just so nice.

Vegan huevos rancheros as part of Café Frida's amazing veggie brunch range menu 

Éléphant (830 Boulevard des Recollets)
I literally trekked 4km - crossing aforementioned highway - to get to the only Indian restaurant in the region of Mauricie. The servers were amazingly friendly and curious about where I came from, but not in an imposing way. I had roasted chickpeas to start with and rose petal lemonade - both of which were absolute firsts for me and both of which reignited my faith in, well, food. Then I had a curry. Then I walked 4km back to my dorm.

Le temps d'une pinte (1465 Rue Notre Dame Centre)
A microbrewery I came across quite by accident. It was a good place to get a midday beer - a Berliner Weiße, specifically. Ha.

I thought about it and if I had to return to la belle province - and wasn't allowed to live to Montreal - this would be my pick. Getting to either surrounding bigger city takes less than a couple of hours and is quite affordable (around $30 one way by bus - a mode of transport usually notoriously expensive). Going by all the posters around town, there is a scene, too; it was just too bad it was all happening just after I left! Also, its inhabitants are called Trifluvien(ne)s! Mark my words, guys. Trois-Rivières, next big thing.

Trip summary

In general, I was reminded of inconvenient things about day-to-day life in Quebec: the complicated politics tipping in basically any customer service situation; the need for a car; drinking outside of a licenced establishment being frowned upon. I seemed to remember that living there gave me a kind of muggy feeling in my brain all the time. So I was absolved of negative feelings and happy to be living where I am living now. I did hurt my neck looking desperately down out of the plane window at the night lights of Montreal as I left, though, aware that this might be our last goodbye.

Quant à mon français? Well, I only really got used to speaking - and thinking - in French after about a week. Up until then, whenever I searched for a French word, I got a German one instead. Or sometimes I said sentences with French words but a German construction. I found it maddening and I had a lot of self-doubt; what if it's impossible to be truly trilingual?
After I felt reasonably comfortable in French again, a few days later, it was time to return home. Annoying. One observation I can make is that in smaller places, people won't ask if you'd prefer to speak in English - but rather whether they should speak to you in French slower. I think this is a solution that makes everyone happy. I brought back some Québécois literature with me to inspire me to keep up my French when I arrived back in Berlin.

Overall, there is the knowledge that this was the last big trip I'll be able to take in a long while. As I go further into my 20s, life is costing more: various direct debit payments, contributions to my pension fund now being taken from my paycheque, even my bank sent me a letter the other day saying my current account will now cost €3/month. A measly amount, I suppose, but what the hell is the alternative? Request to get paid in cash and store it under your mattress?

There is one more thing I feel it's important to mention: I flew with WowAir and I wouldn't recommend it - not for a transatlantic flight, at least. Its two big pluses had been the low price and flying via Iceland (which I have always wanted to visit and even though I wouldn't actually be in Iceland I still wanted to see it from up in the air). My flight from Berlin to Reykjavík had been delayed, but what was worrying was the window to catch the connection to Montreal was extremely slim - one hour. Factor in half an hour of delay and I had to sprint to get on there. There were no complimentary refreshments at all and prices were in Icelandic Krona. Unless you are an Icelander, you probably don't carry this currency in your pocket, meaning you invariably use credit card to pay, i.e. more fees. The leg room is also about the same as on Ryanair, which is fair enough if you're only flying a couple of hours. But for five to six hours? Just no. Also, there was no fun flight path map on the back of the seat!

Montreal might eat its young but Montreal won't break us down

(You bet I went there with that very 2007 title!)

Not the worst problem to have by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm not yet feeling quite at home back in Berlin after my trip to Canada. Maybe it's because I haven't really processed the whole thing; it's been three weeks since I got back and I've only just opened my phone's camera roll for the first time to look at pictures I took and think about uploading them. Was I just avoiding it because it felt weird to do stuff like that on my lunch breaks? I don't know. It even feels to soon to open up Google Maps again and look at a freaking map of Montreal.

To set the scene...

When I was doing A-Level French, I stumbled across the fact that French was spoken in Canada and was blindsided/fascinated. I also realised that a lot of the indie bands I was into were from Montreal. Years later, when I had a bit of money for travelling, I went to Montreal and my suspicions were confirmed: the place did have its qualities. I applied to the Quebec language assistant programme after I graduated with my French & German degree. I was placed in Rimouski, 550km north of Montreal. It was beautiful, rather secluded, but for personal reasons I ended up returning to the UK before the programme finished. I was determined to return to Quebec one day, though, and make some nice memories. So there was a lot resting on this, but I got the closure I had been craving and came back with a notebook stuffed with precious observations and feelings.

I spent most of my trip in Montreal. I made the pilgrimage back up to Rimouski. I made a spontaneous trip to Trois-Rivières. (You can read about those two places here.)

Montreal

Having been to this city many times before - mostly as refuge - and having pined for it for the past couple of years, it was interesting and jarring to come back. When I landed I didn't feel that emotional, though. More just pragmatic, wanting to quickly settle in. Apart from a couple of spots, I wasn't overly keen on revisiting the places I knew already. I stayed with my friend Andrea in the new-to-me neighbourhood of Villeray (near Jarry/Jean-Talon stations).






Montreal acted as my base while I spent a few days here and there in other places. Turns out that when I was there, though, I spent a lot of time around the green metro line. I discovered Saint-Henri, briefly; Verdun, a whole morning. Actually, I'll tell you what. I liked Verdun a whole lot.

Verdun metro station

I wandered around there on a Saturday morning, on Rue Wellington, which has a very unpretentious, High Street vibe. I sat in two cafés, I hung out in La Librairie de Verdun. I wandered off towards the canal and sat around for a bit.





I would say the biggest triumph of this trip to Montreal, though, was discovering downtown! I know it is considered a bit naff to like the downtown of a city. But if you think about it, Montreal is unique in that it's North America's only francophone metropolis. God, its downtown wavers between tacky and seedy and dull and cool. You keep reminding yourself that this is the commercial epicentre of the whole province. I love it.

The most pleasant surprise downtown was Anti-Café. Tucked away on Rue Sainte-Catherine, I walked past it like three times while trying to look for it. Broadly speaking, it's a café where you can bring your laptop, but you don't feel like you have to keep buying a new latte - you pay per hour. It starts $3, if I recall correctly, and gets cheaper the longer you stay. This is an absolute steal, considering you also get unlimited hot drinks and some snacks. As a space, it was really cool too - a mishmash of fancy drawing room and weirdo art. You would think a place like that would want to remain all hidden but in fact they really encourage you to leave reviews and stuff!

Also visited Musée des Beaux Arts and saw the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which was amazing. It brought Patti Smith's Just Kids to life.


I walked from Place Ville Marie down the hill towards Griffintown. Here it starts to get a tiny bit industrial, a lot of empty lots with some condos. The Lachine canal is also here.



Iconic Farine Five Roses mill in the distance


But I did hang out on the Plateau still. I found two new spots on Rue St Denis.


Café Venosa 4433 Rue St-Denis
I'd always been a little lukewarm about cat cafés (never having been in one). I don't know what turned me off exactly. Hygiene? Animal welfare? Animals being used as a commodity? I kind of only popped into here because it was raining and I had a nice time. It was just like a normal café, having a coffee, just with a couple of cat coming over to say hello every so often.



Sushi Momo (4669 Rue St-Denis)
If you time it right, you could follow your cat café excursion with a tasty meal here. Sushi Momo is a VEGAN SUSHI RESTAURANT with weird opening hours. The dîner à deux has a set price of $46 for two people and includes starters, fuckloads of delicious sushi and then dessert. It's rare that I think of food for weeks afterwards, but this? This.

Another important food thing: I had vegan poutine in several places! Here is a short review of each:

La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel E) is the go-to drunk poutine place in the Plateau. It does have vegan poutine but it's not really that squeaky cheese curd, it's more like grated "mozzarella". Made me feel sick after. There was also a big queue outside and awkward moment with cashier where I thought he said six when he said dix. Copper Branch (several locations) was very handy when I was spending days in the cafés of downtown Montreal writing. This is very much a health poutine, with coconut milk sauce, roasted fries and it's... not really a poutine? But it's still a good snack. They have other tasty, fairly affordable food on offer. Lola Rosa (4581 Ave du Parc - only one with poutine) again just has grated "cheese". But still really nice and the portobello sauce is truly tasty. Especially when followed by heavenly choco caramel pie for dessert:


Finally, we need to talk about L'Gros Luxe (3807 Rue St-André - only one with vegan poutine). Wow, I died. Excuse the awkward flash picture below (with beer in background and amusing "knob" beer mat), but this is the closest to real squeaky cheese curds that vegan poutine has ever got. I did some research and apparently it's cashew cheese, unfortunately locally sourced. Still, this has inspired me to get my own experimentation on. I just remember eating this and thinking "life is really, really good".

Continue here to read about my time in other parts of Quebec.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Summer update

Wow, I am feeling summer social burnout quite hard. Here are some things I've recently written:

  • My latest TinyLetter about the connections we feel to other places and how we keep them, as well as some general life updates (receive these every first Sunday of the month here!)
  • Recommended you read the TinyLetter first for context, but here is an analysis of what Brexit might do to language learning in UK schools and universities. I put a lot of care into this.
  • 'Listing My Disappointments', a poem of mine published on the blog of wicked alt-lit publisher Metatron.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Luisenstadt Canal

Is it woeful that after coming up to two years of living in Berlin, I still got very lost around Kreuzberg until about a month ago? Even now I that I pretty much live in it - and certainly work in it - I still can't exactly claim to know it.
Yet it's the most mythical part of Berlin; even people who haven't visited the city have heard of it and maybe even know a little bit about it. I think it is hard to disagree that the spirit of Berlin is encapsulated inside the 10.4 km² of Kreuzberg.

I wander around those criss-cross streets of the Wrangelkiez, hemmed between Skalitzer Straße and Köpenicker Straße, and think, 'Where the hell am I?' Seriously - if I don't have a pre-planned destination, there's no way of orienting myself. The streets reach North American levels of criss-cross that make it very confusing if you don't have a map to hand.

Wrangelstraße (St Thomas Kirche in background)

Mariannenstraße

Waldemarstraße

Waldemarstraße/Adalbertstraße

Yet the part of Kreuzberg I find myself the most drawn to is the Luisenstadt, which shares a border with Mitte - i.e. the former East/West border. I find it supremely unattactrive yet fascinating - the only classic exception to its ugliness being St Michael's Church. (For a while, I thought this was the same thing as St Thomas' Church on Mariannenplatz, which also imposingly skims the Wall trail nearby.)

What's more, there is a spooky, parallel existence around here that predates the Wall era. As you admire the Michaelkirche and the stark contrast in the architecture flanking it due to post-War division, you may be standing or sitting right where water used to be: the Luisenstadt Canal.
I don't find that anybody ever talks about it. I guess that everything else that went on in Berlin after 1926 - when the canal was filled in - sort of eclipses its existence. But gosh, how differently would we be looking at Kreuzberg if there was still this waterway running through it?

I had always been curious about why there were so many Damms in Kreuzberg - Engeldamm & Bethaniendamm, Leuschnerdamm & Legiendamm, Segitzdamm & Erkelenzdamm. Funnelled between each of these partner Damms, running between the Spree and the Landwehrkanal, was this fabled Luisenstadt Canal. Of course!

The Engelbecken is the dark blue square, the light blue is the former Luisenstadt Canal, the red line is the path of the Wall dividing Mitte and Kreuzberg (x)
The former Luisenstadt Canal slices Kreuzberg in two - it demarcates Kreuzberg 36's western boundary (x)

Luisenstadt Canal in 1900, looking south over the Engelbecken (x)
Alevite meeting place (mystical Turkish branch of Islam) on Waldemarstraße, metres from where the Wall stood

Today, the portion of the old Luisenstadt Canal between the Engelbecken and Oranienplatz is a lovely garden that floods a little when it's been raining - like flashes of the past.

Looking north from Oranienplatz - the Wall ran just parallel behind the bridge

Gardens down in the old canal
View looking northwest: St Michael's Church, Heinrich-Heine-Platz
Leuschnerdamm/Bethaniendamm - a twilight zone in every sense
Account of living on this intersection in the Wall era on Café Deutschland (in German)

Wedding cakey buildings on Heinrich-Heine-Platz

Sometimes I do a slightly longer cycle home, going from Kreuzberg into Mitte back into Kreuzberg again (Köpenicker Straße, down Engeldamm, then down Adalbertstraße to Kottbusser Tor). There is still so much for me to discover in this city and endless inspiration for starting some kind of psychogeography project.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

TinyLetter: July 2016

Pssst - are you thinking I haven't posted anything in a while? On the first Sunday of each new month, I'm posting a TinyLetter with my personal updates. Go read my latest one, Flux!

In the meantime, keep checking back here, the blog, for more conceptual posts coming up.

Friday, 17 June 2016

On coming out

Cœur de Pirate (x)

Yesterday one of my favourite musical artists, Cœur de Pirate, came out. Not only am I thrilled for her (I finally saw her live in April and she liked my selfie, whichtotallymeansihaveachanceright), but I've also been thinking about the whole business of coming out.

So, I ain't straight. Men are not my only interest - not even my default interest.

I have been feeling this fact much more intensely this year - and especially this month. I think a lot of people who never have to come out don't realise that you don't do it once and then BAM!, that's it. It's not about realising at a young age that you are different and then unapologetically being yourself and sticking it to the bullies, as if real life were Glee. Some people realise way later on. Why? Because we are all conditioned to embrace heteronormativity. Because human love and attraction can't be quantified by gender anyway.
It is a journey; a painful journey with exciting prospects, such as your first crush, your first kiss, your first sexual experience, your first rejection. Yes, these things happen to straight people too, but when it's with someone of the same gender, there is loads more at stake. Especially if your community is not exactly supportive or diverse. And if you've had those things with the opposite gender and you then go through them again but with the same gender, it is doubly bewildering.

That being said, even if you never live out these things and never come out to anyone, you are still queer as hell and it's all valid! The point is, it is each and every human's right to have the opportunity to live out those things and not feel threatened.

In general conversation, it's a case of simply mentioning a date I went on with someone who has a female pronoun. Or, when I can't be bothered with potential discussions, I just use the gender-neutral "they" or "this person" and it's on my interlocutor's head if they automatically think that's a man. In my writing group I revealed myself through a piece about my bittersweet feelings for a woman. The relief I felt afterwards was immense.
Only a handful of times have I deliberately sat someone down - or sent them a message - to come out to them. Each time, I felt nervous to the point of sickness, agonising over how to say it; not only in a way that didn't sound like a teenage character on a daytime soap, but also finding the just-right combination of words to do justice to my true self. I've figured out this approach doesn't work for me, which is why I now tend to just go for the first method.
So far, I have only had positive reactions. Some did say stuff like "I knew it" or "I'm not exactly surprised". If I was close to the person who said it, this made me feel happy that they had respected me enough to not push me before I was ready. However, I think people would agree this is generally an unhelpful thing to say, as it might make them feel scrutinised and insecure, so it's best to avoid responding that way. And definitely never out anyone else to another person without their consent. Bloody hell.

This doesn't change the fact that for years, I was confused, terrified and unable to own who I was, because I just didn't know. Most of all, I was scared of disappointing my friends. Not because I thought they hated queers, but because they would think I had been lying to them all this time.
But as I said, you don't come out once only. Sometimes it doesn't even occur to you to do so. So if your friend "forgets" to come out to you, or you feel like you were the last to know, don't make it about you, please.

Readers of my blog, followers of my Twitter: I've never concealed my queerness. At least, I haven't in the past couple of years. For a while, I sort of had a don't ask, don't tell mentality. (What this really meant: weighing up whether or not it was worth the exhaustion, in that moment, of correcting someone if they made assumptions.)
Again, as time passed, I found this didn't work for me. I found myself growing resentful of those who were loud and proud about their sexuality - especially if they were able to pigeonhole themselves 100% into one label. This manifested itself as my own self-loathing and it has taken me a long while to work through that. I thought that active queer behaviour and involvement would make me feel more confident and therefore expedite that process, but I was wrong.

I'm fortunate enough to work - and to have worked - in companies that take an extra step to make their non-hetero and non-binary team members feel welcome. I have awesome people in my life I can talk with for hours and not have to hide anything. I finally, finally feel like I've got nothing to lose.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Lakenheath

I've been writing a piece about an unusual place I grew up in, which I've just sent off to my publication of choice. To jog my memory, I stopped by there when I was in England last month.

I lived in Lakenheath, Suffolk between the formative ages of 4 to 10. It's a place that has a real X-Files vibe, in that it's right next to a US air base, one of the only ones left in England. It started being used in WW2 as a European base for the Americans. Since 9/11, however - which happened a couple of weeks after we left Lakenheath - it's been the place where bombing missions to locations including Iraq have started. Not a fact I am at all comfortable with.

To be clear, there is Lakenheath the village, then Lakenheath the air base right next to it, which is inhabited by servicemen and their families. A lot of these kids went to my school, so I had a weirdly transatlantic primary educational experience (featuring a lot of novelty candy, with possibly-illegal-in-the-UK E-numbers). I have fond memories of going onto the base with friends sometimes, as a visitor on their parents' passes, to go rollerskating, or going to neighbours' who had satellite dishes that could pick up US TV.

Lakenheath also has an incredibly interesting ancient history; it's the site of prehistoric geological sediments, as well as many Anglo-Saxon archaeological discoveries. All this comes together with my subjective childhood memories to create this place that almost transcends time and space.

I hope to soon be able to share the piece I've written, but in the meantime, here are some photos I took of the Warren.






The base in the distance, behind a tall fence. Some craters (once Ice Age pingo ponds) in the foreground. The word "pingo" has its origins in an Inuit language and can mean "hill" or "pregnant woman"!




I am impressed; I think I only learnt the word "elusive" in 2011, so kids are doing well these days

Mum in the ferns

P.S. If you're looking for my personal updates, from now on I'll be sending them out in an email newsletter. Why not sign up here?