Sunday, 7 September 2014

I get the best seat on the train.

It’s faintly depressing to imagine all of the money you’ve spent in your life and the effort that others have gone to in your short existence to create memorable and worthy occasions, and it’s a train that sneaks up to the top without anyone getting a look in.

This isn’t just any train, though – there’s a little lounge at the front of first class on the ICE trains in Germany where a privileged nine can geek out together in an orchestral display of tragewondrousness. The driver’s little office backs on to said lounge, and through the glass wall you can behold him at work, master of all he surveys out of the long but heavily canted windscreen.

It’s something wonderful, to be pushed rather than pulled on your journey along the tracks. To feel the surge of power beneath your ridiculously comfortable leather seat and feel that however vicariously you are contributing to the magic that is happening. Normally your neck just lolls to one side, taking in everything that has already come to be, but up front, it’s like you’re creating something, consuming it before anyone else gets a chance to taste.

As I type, the outskirts of Cologne are flinging themselves at the windows, the world unfurls itself in the middle distance, waiting to be eaten up and left behind. I must be honest, though – it looks quite boring to be a train driver. You just have to sit there and press about three buttons. I get that you have to have the reactions of a fighter pilot to ensure that a mistake here doesn’t mean an apocalyptic mess six miles down the line, but it’s not particulary theatrical. The driver sits impassive. And if anything happens, I’ll be on hand to bring us in to land safely.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

I make a quick visit to Ikea.

Before I launch into this fleeting anecdote, I will just point out that I simply happened to be passing Ikea on my rented scooter, it wasn’t like I had it on my itinerary. This Scandinavian treasure trove holds a much rarer and invariably cleaner version of the McDonald’s toilet, and I often prefer to stop at an Ikea than a service station when I’m on a long journey. It was out of interest, and a keen awareness of my bladder, that I pulled in.

Essentially Ikea over here is exactly the same, but with some weird German stuff in it. Some observations in no particular order: The chips are better. I was too scared to ask for meatballs. The glasses for drinks are just rubbish. You can order rumpsteak. All of the salads have mushrooms in them. The furniture all comes in weird pastel shades. There is an entire section devoted to smelly candles. The hotdogs have gherkins on top.

That is Ikea in Germany.

On awkward language mistakes.

The Germans are a precise people, and this is certainly reflected in their language. It’s a sizeable barrier to get over, that worry between wanting to get something bang on in your head before you say it and simple expediency. No one has replied to me in English so far this trip – that’s always a fairly damning indictment on your language skills – but I’m really not happy with how I’ve let it all slip.

There are other things – I would also point out that it is important not to get little things like street names mixed up – the difference between Kurfürstendamm and Kurfürstenstrasse could be the difference between wandering past elegant boutiques or scurrying past dodgy-looking cafes getting propositioned for reasonably priced sex by badly disguised prostitutes. For instance. That’s just a hypothetical, I would never make that sort of mistake and end up walking miles out of my way.

Phew, because that would be really awkward.

Friday, 5 September 2014

I visit the Reichstag.

In any other country there would have been uproar about a foreigner coming in and shaping its beating heart, but Germany isn’t an ordinary country. There’s a discomfort to its earnest openness, like watching someone keep punching themselves in the face and asking if everything is OK yet.

There’s a discomfort to the openness of the Reichstag itself, if you’ve ever worked in British politics. Norman Foster has designed the place to be transparent and airy, so the people can see what’s happening. Almost wherever you are in the building you can get a glimpse of the central chamber, where the country’s MPs discuss things in an environment designed to be as unconfrontational as possible.

As you ascend Norman’s famous dome (ooh, matron) there are flags flying atop the parliament, but in a matter of fact rather than a nationalist sort of way. Can you imagine the EU flag fluttering away on top of the palace of Westminster? Unconscionable. But for Germany it shows a willingness to be a part of the European project, that earnestness again, an eagerness to show that it’s being helpful in making sure that the continent never again descends into war.

It’s fascinating inside – the functionality of the Reichstag is like a building within a building, the new and ultra-modern hovering over the ancient and scarred. They’ve not just kept the insults and graffiti scrawled by Russian soldiers at the end of the war, they’ve put a special coating on it to make sure it doesn’t disappear (the choicer phrases have been removed at the request of the Russian government, apparently).

There are strange contrasts between here and at home – the attempted inclusivity of national politics (is it all ultimately the same?), the self-consciousness of trying to paper a new history over the old. If you go to the British parliament you can visit where Henry VIII played tennis, see where Charles I started the civil war by being mean to the speaker, visit the chamber where great issues and great men have debated for the last 150 years. In Berlin’s parliament you can see where the wall once scarred the community, where the Nazis gathered tens of thousands for rallies and indeed where the communist allegedly burned down the entire place. We get bonfire night, they started world war two.

I still can’t tell whether Germans get history foisted on them or they don’t know how to deal with the consequences. It’s impossible to get to grips with – Russian graffiti, people taking selfies on the holocaust memorial, the old-fashioned imperialism of the Brandenburg Gate. I walked through a shopping centre and all the way through the middle was an exhibition on 25 years after the fall of the wall. At what point does too much lead to nothing really at all?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

In which I'll miss Joan Rivers.

I'm genuinely quite sad about Joan Rivers dying, may she rest in pieces. Too often a celebrity goes and they've been past their best for 20 years and everyone still sits their sobbing crocodile tears into their keyboards. What's the point? I'm simply not up for mawkish sorrow over complete strangers.

But the sad thing with Joan is she still had lots more to give. She kept on going, even if she would technically have been classed as medically dead about 20 years ago. I guess her heart was the last original piece left, it had to go sometime. Fortunately the mortician won't have to do too much to prepare for an open casket, she was already wearing the right make-up and used embalming fluid as a sort of base layer.

Joan Rivers redefined too soon, pushed back the boundaries until there were no more boundaries. She gave as much to herself as she dished out, but her real importance was as a sort of cultural watchdog. It was comedy as an international service. Who now to prick the balloons of self-importance, to remind professional egotists that there is someone out there keeping an eye on them?

I'll really miss Joan, she was one in six billion. An icon, a horror, an inspiration.

I have a busy day in Berlin.

What with my scooter, it’s important to see as many things as possible, so I drive all over Berlin looking at things, then nipping off between cars. It’s great fun.

I visit the palace at Charlottenburg, the last great monument to a now-forgotten monarchy. This majestic building goes all the way back to 1699 (although they’ve had the builders in at various points), and is the last decent royal residence in Berlin.

Now, if this was Britain the National Trust would have set up camp long ago, erecting an unsightly café and shop before charging everyone £20 just to get a glimpse of the place. The Germans, though, are a little more pragmatic – it’s free to walk around the gardens, but costs to have a look at the wallpaper. Seems fair.

I must say though, it has always struck me as odd that modern republics are often very proud of their ruler-less status, while simultaneously lapping up the antics of our own royal family with something approaching abandon.

I move on to the Olympic stadium – another monument, but this time a well-preserved one to hubris. You can’t help but be thunderstruck by the blatant ambition of the Nazis. It’s an intimidating building, part of Hugo Speer’s grand plan to recreate Berlin as the capital of Germania, a sickening homage to the ancient Greeks. It’s where Berlin’s ever-present undertones become blatant overtones, and it doesn’t quite sit right in this shiny state.

The Olympic stadium might have undergone some renovation work – there were apparently debates over whether to rebuild it from scratch, let it crumble, or whether to renovate – but the airport at Tempelhof has tried something else entirely. This standing monument to the era of flight has been turned into a sort of inner-city country park, where youths and that come along to cycle, kite-surf and rollerblade up and down the runway.

It’s incredibly beautiful, but terribly sad, wandering round crumbling taxiways and tarmac. This place that has seen Nazi rallies of over a million, air liners, war planes and the noble role of being one end of the air bridge that linked West Berlin with the rest of the BRD in 1948.

Those pesky Nazis thought that their empire would last for 1,000 years – with all of the reinforced concrete they used, parts of it just might. I find myself wrestling with these different approaches the Germans have to their dark past. There’s an awful lot of hang-wringing that goes on before pursuing any of these directions.

I return to my scooter. A bird has shit on the seat.

I am staying in an art hotel.

I always like to find something a bit different when it comes to choosing a hotel – perhaps off the beaten track (although that always comes with a danger of getting beaten up, and then your wallet stolen), something that others might pass by.

In Berlin, I’ve ended up in an art hotel. It’s not nearly as poncey as I feared, mostly – each of the rooms has had a different artist commissioned to decorate it. Mine was done by a woman with about 17 letters in her surname.

The installation is supposed to be a powerful visual example of the way we view the outside world, but as far as I can tell there are a couple of hundred toilet rolls blocking the excellent view of the German parliament buildings.

I got off lightly though – some of the rooms are terrifying, and I’m not sure I could have slept in a room with hundreds of shoes stuck to the ceiling, or giant paintings of people watching you sleep. It marks the transgression of the fourth wall of art, I think – it’s not something you visit to look at, it watches you.

It’s all faintly sinister – you can’t stare at it for 30 seconds and move on, you’re stuck in an exhibit for days at a time. If you don’t get it, you can’t skip it and go straight to the Impressionists. Still, the breakfast is alright.

I rent a scooter.

I decided to rent a scooter while I was in Berlin. It was only a tenner more to rent a Vespa for 24 hours than a bicycle – and that would definitely have killed me. And yet it’s completely terrifying I don’t know how I did this for four years. My first drive ended back at my hotel – completely by chance, I hadn’t a clue where I was going – after about 25 minutes. I needed a lie down.

I pluck up the courage to emerge into the sunshine for another try. By around lunchtime I’ve got to the point where I’m rather more comfortable with the concept, provided there are no corners involved. I’m not that keen on corners.

A man on a motorcycle tells me off for going through a tunnel that I wasn’t allowed to be in, and my extreme aversion to driving on horrid shiny tram rails seems to get taxi drivers in their cream Mercedeses all riled up. I accidentally drive through a red light and I swear I spot an old woman in the wing mirror getting out her phone.

Things I would normally do in the car at home – singing, yelling at things – don’t quite work as well on a scooter. Tourists appear bemused when I accidentally end up on an eight-lane boulevard going in completely the wrong direction with a ‘SHIIIIIIIIT, WE’RE NOT HEADING FOR KANSAS TOTO’.

I finish my 85km day aching all over, with mild sunburn, wind-chapped lips and fairly convinced there’s a fly stuck under my eyelid. Thank goodness I have a car waiting for me when I get home.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

An interlude in Cologne.

I have 40 minutes to kill in Cologne train station. An eternity in this super-efficient world of trains that run on time. It gives me a chance to grab something to eat, to stick my head out of the front of the station and catch a quick glimpse of the famous cathedral. It’s pretty ugly, like a mangy cat, with sticky greasy fur and an obnoxious presence. Hideous buildings are rammed up against it, just to slam home the fact that this particular church likes to hang out with a bad crowd.

I suppose you can admire the architecture and the effort that went into building it, but I fail to understand how anyone can love it. Much the same with Cologne, actually, the dump. What I do love is this McDonalds, and thanks to four years at university I don’t even have to point at the pictures behind the till in this country. That’s not to say it isn’t an excruciating few minutes – this sort of wham-bam exchange is the sternest test of any academical knowledge of a particular language. If only me and the pimple-faced youth behind the till had had the time to talk about national identity in German cinema, I would have been fine.

More existential angst (German word there) comes from lengthy contemplation of the bin. You don’t just get one over here, there are three, perhaps four receptacles awaiting your rubbish, and you’re expecting to break the whole lot down into specified categories. It’s both mind-numbing and terrifying: I’ve already discovered at Cologne station that Germans don’t like you to stand in front of noticeboards – they want to read everything.

I wait until no one is looking and stuff my McDonalds crap in the nearest section and run for it. I still have two plastic water bottles in my bag that I couldn’t work out where to put. I shall throw them in a river.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

I get on a train to Germany.

I’m on my way to Berlin, by train. None of this let’s-just-get-it-out-of-the-way of the aeroplane, why not make the journey as much a part of the experience as anything else? Seven hours in reserved seats halfway across Europe, as close as I’ll get this week to sitting by the beach and doing nothing in particular. I’ve picked Berlin partly because it’s there, partly because I’ve heard so much about the place but never had a chance to really get to know it.

I get on the Eurostar first. Each little tunnel brings with it a little frisson, wondering whether you’ve finally reached le grand tunnel or not, ears popping and whoosh of the train bounced back at you from walls close by. It’s an incredible feat of engineering. A film crew wanders up and down the train I take, filming happy customers for the 20th anniversary of the endeavour, to be toasted by men in suits at a suitably comprised Anglo-French soiree.

The décor has something of the 1970s about it, Brigitte Bardot glamour rather than the racier aesthetic of a Concorde. You feel a little bit cool just to be onboard – that doesn’t normally happen with a train, does it? The 30-minute check-in and passport control adds to the theatre, just enough of a minor inconvenience to remind you that you’re going to a whole another country, making you think you’re getting your money’s worth.

I get on a German train at Brussels, wide-spaced leather seats, sprockets and hooks all over the place – they think of everything, these guys. We course our way across Europe, blurring out towns, landscapes, borders. The dull flat expanse of Belgium, such as it is, gives way to the gently rolling Rhineland – the toy in the box that everyone wanted over the last 300 years. French melds into Flemish, into German. There’s a subtle difference between these places, a passive-aggressive assault on the stamped homogeneity of the EU. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but there’s something in the buildings, the fields, the people.

We surge onwards, all smooth and efficient. I stare out of the window.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Getting away Scot-free.

Well all this arguing over Scottish independence has been fun, hasn't it? I'm rather partial to a bit of square sausage and some tablet, so I hope no one whacks any ridiculous taxes on those whatever happens. Here's my special summary of the two sides:

Yes
It would be kind of fun to have a separate Scotland. I miss the good old days of border crossings, stopping the car to get your passports checked, driving 50 metres and having to do the exact same thing all over again. I enjoy the political ramifications in my head of what a yes vote would entail - the prime minister's resignation, the change in Westminster dynamics with the loss of many influential Scottish MPs. How much fun the close parliamentary vote between September and independence, the inevitable furore over those meddling Scots trying to influence British laws. On a personal note, I'd look forward to the dual citizenship my mother's thoroughbred Scottishness would surely afford me. I'd feel just like Jason Bourne with a second passport. Although it would have to have the same name as my British one, wouldn't it...nuts.

No
It's never going to happen, is it? The Scots aren't a breed apart, they just have funny accents and the men like to wear skirts. As long as nobody messes with their right to bear tartan or new European rules on the contents of black pudding start to appear, everyone's happy, are they not? On a scale of Cornwall to Chechnya, Scotland is clearly aiming for the cuddly end of independence. They don't even really want to change anything - the debate so far as centred more on furniture shuffling than a wholesale revolution. That's mainly because Scotland is marginal on its own - once everything came out in the wash and the two states had reached a marginally amicable solution, what would an independent Scotland have to play with? It's a lot of responsibility to take on when mum and dad still pay the rent.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A jingo ate my baby.

I find it perplexing that Nico Rosberg gets criticised for not being German enough, or not doing enough to win over members of the public to his cause.

Cripes, I always thought Formula 1 was about driving fastest and getting the most points at the end of the year, I didn’t realise that it came packaged with a media onslaught to make everyone else in the world understands that you actually deserve your title.

We’ve seen enough gimmicks in recent seasons designed to boost popularity of the sport – double points in the season finale – perhaps there should be 50 bonus points for whoever is voted Miss Congeniality by international fans.

I find it odd that racing drivers are defined so much by their nationality anyway – it’s certainly not like the Olympics, where state-sponsored teams of amateurs are shipped to a central location somewhere in the world to have their patriotic way with whatever their speciality happens to be.

F1 is a private affair, where young chaps have to make their way through the ranks without any afternoon lessons at school, government clubs or particular subsidies to help them get ahead. It’s a particularly capitalist endeavour – persuade companies to emblazon their logos on your torso or about your head in return for cash and you get to move up a rung off the ladder.

If I’d slaved my way through to Formula 1 I’d be well annoyed at everyone suddenly piling in and claiming the credit. I’m not sure I’d allow them to hoist a union jack above my head on the podium – what on earth would that have ever done for me? They could fly a flag with my face emblazoned across it and the national anthem would be a chirpy little ditty I’d compose on my mac.

Winning over the public? Pff.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

I roast a chicken.

Yesterday all my chickens came home to roast. I say all my chickens – there was really just the one, an impulse buy from the reduced section at Waitrose. It said on the label that it was organic corn-fed, and had watched nothing but French arthouse films during its free time. Which explains the succulence, and made it well worth five pounds. I don’t know if the chicken would agree.

There’s something terribly grown up about sticking a chicken in the oven though – nothing particularly demanding about the endeavour itself, but I guess it takes you right back to childhood memories of mum hammering away in the kitchen for hours at a time on a Sunday afternoon to produce a feast.

Cooking a chicken is like doing a barbecue – everyone has their own little tips and tricks that never seem to work for anyone else. I like to stuff some garlic up it, and leave some lemon juice and water about the dish before I cover the whole affair with a bit of foil to keep it all steamy and moist. After I’ve stripped the carcass bare I shall boil it for many hours and make some delicious soup, while considering how to get the smell of chicken stock out of the walls.

It’s nice to cook a chicken at the beginning of the week – there are so many things that you can do with it. Chicken sandwiches, chicken and pasta, chicken on its own… I’ll probably be sick of chicken by Tuesday.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

I grow a beard.

It always gets my goat when people say that they are growing their hair, or some such nonsense. Like it would simply stop if you weren’t concentrating hard enough. Or gosh, fall out when you weren’t looking. So the fact that I now have a beard where I didn’t several months ago is in reality down to the fact that I have ceased shaving it off on a regular basis, rather than any special effort or talent on my part.

Grammar misanthropy apart, I like to think of myself as being characterised by a certain joie de vivre. Others like to think that I don’t take things seriously – words like immature get bandied about, God forbid – but I do maintain a steadfast approach when it comes to growing a beard. I’m serious like a serious thing when it comes to that. It’s important – a fine line between hipster shame, Open University geekery and the sort of Ewan-McGregor-Long-Way-Down box cut number I’m shooting for.

Actually, if I’m honest, I’ve been inspired by the first world war commemorations. George V rocked a magnificent set of facial hair, with trimmed sides and a wonderful point on the chin. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the point, but by jove I’ll die trying.