Monday, 30 July 2018

Various places (including Birmingham & Leeds), UK

In June, I went back to the UK for 10 days: the longest time I have spent there since moving to Berlin just short of four years ago.

As many emigrés will testify, the concept of home gets muddied when milestones start taking place abroad. Scary steps into your career, marriage or cohabitation or an otherwise significant relationship, having a child... whatever it is, you start to see life in terms of your adopted country and lose sight of how it is in your old country. I don't have the slightest clue about council tax, for example, and if I ever move back, I'll almost certainly struggle with and feel stupid about what people consider the simplest tenets of UK adulthood, despite it all being in my first language.
Without really thinking about it, whenever you're in one place you refer to the other as "home", thus confusing family and friends who may expect you to pick just one.
My native country is close by, unlike many people I know here who are from North America or Down Under, for whom a visit to theirs is a biennial or perhaps even rarer luxury. I go back twice a year on average, yet when I meet people for the first time, they tend to assume I go more.
There are two main reasons I don't. Firstly, when I go home, I visit my parents, and they do not live near any major cities, so that means I have to write off a day for travelling from the airport and then recovering from the travelling (because the cheapest flight is always the early flight). I never go back to the UK just to go to London. Going back is very different to simply going on holiday to another country. When you do that, you tend to go to one particular city, and there's its airport right there.
The second truth is that I have almost never really been financially stable. You might think, "Oh, but you had enough to go to Austria and Greece, plus you went to Canada a couple of years back", but it always comes at a price: the fact that I work my arse off and lose my mind trying to make extra cash so that I can get out of here once in a while and give myself things to look forward to. (In general, I wish people would be more honest about this.) Whenever I return, I am back at square one. I don't care what you've heard; survival in Berlin costs money and a lot of energy. If I'm only in the UK for a few days, I can't always incorproate seeing people on the other side of the country, and one reason for this is that train ticket costs are going through the roof.

So it wasn't as if I hadn't been wanting to make a longer visit. It made me appreciate this one all the more, though.

Birmingham


Yep! Mum wanted to go, as her friend (and my godmother) Gillian was putting on an exhibition. It had been years since I'd been to Birmingham; when I was at uni in Leicester, it was the nearest large city, so I had to go there a couple of times to get bigger errands done or catch train connections to go further north or west. In the months before coming to Berlin, we had even talked about me moving into Gillian's spare room because of the better job prospects... so there's that "what could have been" element.



I was surprised at how different the area around New Street Station looked. I used to dread going to that place because those below-ground platforms were... ugh, just so dank. A constant building site, really bad lighting, and the connection times always seemed to be really narrow. The platforms are still dark, but at least the station itself is no longer such a terrible place to hang around in. It's been merged into a shopping centre and rebranded as "Grand Central", very light and bright. We took the bus down to Balsall Heath, which is where this exhibition was.

The iconic Selfridges building

This wasn't the art, by the way. The exhibition wasn't a chair and a plant.
Birmingham skyline from Balsall Heath!

I'd heard there were some nice independent veggie restaurants and bistros in Birmingham, but unfortunately we got hungry at an inconvenient time and ended up going Wagamama at the Bullring. Not a terrible choice, though, as I tried their new vegan katsu curry. It was good. How can I recreate this at home?

Seeing as we were in the area, we ducked into the giant, multi-storey Waterstones. I picked up one title I'd explicitly wanted to buy while in the UK, and another that's been on my Goodreads list for a while but that I really hadn't been expecting to find there.
Can I just say what a bizarre experience it was to actually go into a British bookshop at all? I follow literature pretty religiously thanks to the internet, but I would say most of my sources are American, as are the selections in the English-speaking sections of Berlin bookshops. So when I see people on Twitter talking about new UK & Ireland book releases, I tend to assume it's all obscure stuff, sleeper hits that you have to specially order. I guess it's simply because of the volume of good stuff coming out, books I wish I could have read years ago; the brilliant writing and conspicuously non-overt portrayal of queer women in Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, for example. Actually seeing stuff "in the pulp"? Pretty surreal, and also a wake-up call that publishing is at its peak. (Which is unspeakably inspiring when it comes to tending to my own fiction-writing pursuits, too.)


We then jumped onto the West Midlands Metro (tram that takes you from Birmingham to Wolverhampton) to visit the historic Jewellery Quarter, but by the time we got there things seemed to be shut and I was in a lot of pain, so we instead made our way back to catch the train back home. Not without a stop at Pret for snacks, of course! I now see why everyone goes on about it!

Leeds


Lovely Leeds! I went there to visit my sister. It had been a long time since my last sojourn to the North, but I'd universally heard really good things about Leeds so I'd been wanting to check it out for a while. Allegedly it's the city with the highest concentration of Germans in the UK, but I didn't run into any evidence of this while I was there.


On my first evening there, we went to Hyde Park Book Club, a cool venue. And when I say "cool", I mean, I felt very old; there were lots of teens and students dressed like 90s throwbacks, as is the trend these days. Anyway, I still had a nice time. A lot of small gigs go on here, there's a little bar/café with mostly vegan goodies, and you can even buy books there (as the name suggests).




While Flo was at work the next day, I went into town and explored a bit. One of the most well-known aspects of Leeds' city centre is the Victorian arcades.





A modernised arcade, I think

I liked the university's brutalist architecture, too. This photo looks like a 3D reconstruction, right?

But I think what I enjoyed most of all was just being in an English neighbourhood again with terraced houses (and bonus rolling hills). That's something that can't be recreated in Berlin.

Houses made from black stone, peculiar to the area


I have to admit that, as ever, one of the aspects I was anticipating the most in Leeds was the food! There was Temple Coffee & Doughnuts, which I'd seen numerous times on Instagram due to their very distinctive aesthetic. They had the most incredible pastel-coloured hot drinks; mine was called Purple Haze, a lavender milk (!) latte. So good. The doughnuts were also amazing. I can't really complain, since I live 10 minutes away from Brammibal's in Berlin, but... this was in a league of its own.



Later that day, we headed to the suburb of Kirkstall to check out Mog's, which is the vegan fast food place. Unfortunately by dinnertime, when we got there, most of their stuff had sold out; I'd been really craving fried "chicken", but it was a really small place. However, the stuff we did get was delicious. I opted for a Philly cheese steak and garlic fries (I was so thirsty that I was even persuaded to get a tin of Sprite).

We were so full afterwards that we walked to to Kirkstall Abbey.

All in all, I had a lovely stay in Leeds and there's definitely much more I want to explore next time!




Leicester & Cambridge

I also managed to see pals in these places, which was really nice! It is lovely to feel like you still have connections. That might sound a bit bleak, but over the past year or so I've really struggled with my identity in relation to the UK and the people there (which is probably rooted in not having sustainable friendships at school).

It was great to see Alex in Leicester! We had a nice lunch at The Orange Tree (whose vegan menu has expanded by miles — spoilt for choice, I opted for seitan popcorn chicken and a Japanese salad!), walked through nostalgic Victoria Park, hung out at her place, and then pootled around the Clarendon Park area, visiting all the old haunts having a look at what my old house looks like now!

In Cambridge, Nikita, Lynsey, and I went to the ever-amazing Rainbow Café, where we each had a different lasagne. I had forgotten how pretty Cambridge is, especially on a June evening. We walked down Trumpington Street and then over the river before sitting down on the lawn outside Queen's College and having a laugh, before Lynsey kindly drove me to my hotel near Stansted Airport.

For personal reasons, I didn't return to Berlin feeling rejuvenated and positive, but look: I did have a really wonderful time while in the UK. For better or worse, there's no place like it.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Salzburg & Linz, Austria

In April, I went to Salzburg and Linz with my mum.

I had pinned a fair few expectations on this trip: as part of my undergrad year abroad, I spent the first half of 2012 living in Linz, Upper Austria, on a British Council assistantship. I liked it a lot, and vowed to come back. It took six years, but there were other places I wanted to check out first!
As well as generally returning to Austria, this was also about showing my mum around the place and sort of act as an ambassador for my family, as they didn't come to visit while I was living there.
We didn't go to Vienna because a) we didn't have time; b) I don't like it.

Salzburg


Mum and I got the high-speed train from Berlin to Munich at 6am. It was a great experience (and if you book far enough in advance on the Deutsche Bahn website, you can snag pretty reasonable deals)! The train made only two stops in between, at Erfurt and Nuremberg, and it was almost empty — I'm guessing because it was a weekday and we took it so early. We then took the little train to Salzburg, stopping at Rosenheim and passing Bavarian lakes like Chiemsee, gradually ascending into the Alps.
I used to travel to Salzburg from Linz quite a lot at weekends, simply because the landscape was more grandiose, the general vibe was quainter, and I had a friend from uni living there. Seeing the stunning mountainous backdrop as I stepped out onto the platform hit me all over again! The station itself had since been done up and looked a lot better than it did before.

It was lunchtime when we arrived, and we still had to wait around a bit before we could check into our accommodation, so we went to have lunch in a part of town I had never been to before, at a tiny vegan joint called GustaV. Pretty much as soon as we got to the flat, we took a long nap. It had already been a long day, and it was so warm in Salzburg compared to Berlin!

This was in the bathroom. I'm going to read it as an anti-anxiety mantra:
"Don't believe everything you think."

When we woke up it was dinnertime, but luckily we'd thought to get some provisions from the trusty Spar in the station when we arrived. We prepared a modest dinner and then went for a lovely evening walk. Spring suits Austria very well.




The next day was all about exploring Salzburg's old town.

Mirabell Gardens, aka "The Sound of Music Gardens"

Starting at €11 admission, Hohensalzburg Fortress is a bit pricey, but kind of a must. You go up there in a little funicular, and then it's much like a little medieval village on top of a mountain. It dates back as early as the 11th century and was commissioned by the Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg. I had already been to the museum before and I didn't think a revisit was essential, so we just wandered around and took in the views.




In the evening we headed to Green Garden, a vegetarian restaurant with a lot of vegan options, for a slap-up meal. I went for a burger and Mum had really yummy-looking beetroot Maultaschen (a sort of Germanic tortellini), which I will learn to make one day! For dessert, I had a delicious brownie with ice cream and caramelised peanuts.


Our digestion walk, looking southwest over the River Salzach, the fortress, and... a mountain.

On the Sunday, we took a trip into the Salzkammergut, which is the name given to the mountainous area covering the state of Salzburg. We weren't really sure where exactly we wanted to go — we just knew our Fenland arses needed to see some Alpine scenery — so we took the train towards Zell am See, stopping in Bruck an der Großglocknerstraße.

I'm guessing this means we were 757m above sea level, not 757,058m.
The town of Bruck, the official beginning of the Großglocknerstraße
My initial, overly ambitious intention was to walk from the town into the Großglockner High Alpine Pass (the standard English translation), which is the highest mountain pass in Europe. Obviously we would have turned around at some point, but at first, it didn't seem unfeasible; there was a footpath, and I'd assumed that we could get the bus for a stretch. However, not only was it a Sunday, but the new term-time bus schedule that would have run on Sundays wasn't going to kick in until the following month! So annoying. We kept walking until we reached the hamlet of Fusch, then gradually made our way back to the station so that we'd make the train to Zell.





Ski season was just finishing up, so Zell was fairly quiet. To be honest, it's not the most characterful of towns, but it's a convenient pit stop between Salzburg and the Tyrol, and the landscape is nothing to turn your nose up at.




Linz


I was pretty nervous about coming to my old stomping ground after all these years! We travelled to Linz on the Westbahn train — so cheap, so fast, so good (I don't want to know what the catch is) — and on the way I was reminded of place names like Attnang-Puchheim! As soon as we touched down onto the platform, though, I was hit by an extreme form of hay fever and could barely open my eyes, so the first stop was the pharmacy for some strong antihistamines.

First glimpse of the Danube!

We took the tram to our (ultimately disappointing) AirBnB, then went to look at one of my two old schools and my old residence in the district of Urfahr, north of the Danube. It wasn't overtly emotional, but certainly felt eerie; everything looked the same as years ago, yet I knew that the people I had met there had all left and moved on, and honestly, I probably never crossed their minds again. It's not a part of Linz with a lot of shops and things, and it's not rural or even suburban, but it still has its own character.

My old residence is the building on the left — my room was somewhere behind that yellow tree.
Ah, the lawn... I can't look at this picture without my eyes itching, though.

Linz does have quite a nice old town, but my photos are so dark that I'm ashamed to put them up here. Sorry! However, I can tell you that I was impressed that vegan banana ice cream was on offer at Hauptplatz, that there are lots of mysterious winding alleys, and that we went and got a load of the view from the Castle Museum (which I'd never been to). The pictures I took from up there will have to do.



The cultural life and hip factor in Linz is pretty good. We went to a Klimt exhibition at LENTOS Art Museum. My absolute favourite café was Friedlieb & Töchter in the old town, and we ended up going there twice. It's odd how there are thousands of twee cafés in Berlin, so you might assume that this one wouldn't have made an impact on me, but it really did and I would love to have this exact place around the corner from me.


We had dinner at Gelbes Krokodil, which I don't think ever changes its menu... but then again, why fix what ain't broken? I had the iconic seitan schnitzel with steamed veg, black rice, and guacamole:


There's also a vegan fast food place that's opened just recently in Linz, called Front Food. It was pretty good, definitely up there with (or even above) similar establishments in Berlin! I had the vegan version of the local speciality, the Bosna: a sort of hot dog with mustard and onions, coined by the local Bosnian population, as the name suggests.


Café Meier: we weren't pleased with the service, but liked its interior

Oh, also, Mum also tried the famous Linzer biscuit for the first time. I was a relatively new vegan when I lived in Linz, and I was beyond delighted to find you could get a vegan version of it there.

On our last night, we headed first to Fräulein Florentine, which is a bar on a boat! Again, coming from Berlin that doesn't sound like such a novelty, but I really appreciated how the vibe wasn't pretentious at all; it was really just another place for the community to gather and hang out. That's the appeal of small cities, I guess. Fewer people will be tourists, and fewer people have a big-city bad attitude, so you feel like you really can just go up and chat to anyone.
Café Strom was also a cool discovery; I'm not sure whether or not it existed while I was living in Linz, and if it did, I was just completely ignorant of it. If it was, then I definitely missed out! It is a bar with a punk ethos that puts on gigs and arts events. Is serious regret for a long period of time many years ago a thing?

Chilling at Café Strom on our last evening in Linz (LENTOS Art Museum on the left across the Danube, ARS Electronica Centre on the right)

The next day we headed back to Salzburg, where we would go our separate ways. I was to take the train back via Munich again, while Mum got the bus to the airport. When I arrived in Munich, though, it turned out not to be the high-speed one! I know that sounds really bratty, but it was hot, it was peak commuter time so I was lucky to get a seat at all, and it stopped in lots of mid-sized Bavarian cities. I got home very late. And then it turned the second leg of Mum's flight, from Cologne to London, was cancelled for reasons not made known to the passengers! It was stressful, but all was sorted out in the end.

Overall, leaving Linz was bittersweet, because I realised that living in a smaller city (pop. 200,000, at least) has its advantages. I have been having a weird and uncertain time lately, as well as a rocky relationship with Berlin, and have been entertaining ideas of leaving my life here behind and having a fresh start.
I was pretty young when I lived in Linz and used to sort of get annoyed it wasn't bigger; specifically, that it wasn't Berlin. It's remarkable how my perspective has shifted. I guess the longer I have been living abroad and the more I have been immersed in German-speaking culture (if such a thing exists...), my priorities and tastes have changed.
I think also, back then, I perceived Austria as a sort of extension of Germany, whereas now I see it for what it is: a central European country that happens to have German as its official language. Apologies to any Austrians reading this!

Anyway it's so close now, geographically, that I'll definitely have to figure out something for some distant point in the future.