Every day life, food & strangeness in a big city

Month: November, 2012

To shake or not to shake… that is the question

Last weekend, we paid a visit to my in-laws who live in a German city about six or seven hundred kilometers away from Berlin. We had a great time, over-eating, over-drinking, catching the new Bond movie, and an exhibition called the “Birth of Photography” where among other works we clapped eyes on the world’s first photograph. In case you are wondering, this was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce,  Frenchman and inventor. The exhibition is largely based on the private collection of Helmut Gernsheim – an enthusiast and “pioneer” who hunted down Niépce’s heliograph “View from the Window at Le Gras” with Ahab’s single-minded determination in pursuing his whale. Excellent assortment of old and new, classic and experimental, spanning a variety of genres, subjects and techniques. We particularly liked the Victorian hidden-camera section.

With my birthday coming up soon, we gang-pressed Mr. B’s parents in going with us to one of our favourite Greek restaurants for a celebratory dinner. It is one of those places where the food is good, and the service is very (too?) friendly. We were greeted with the usual smile, the more unusual “how are you?” and a complimentary handshake by the lady who we assume owns the place.  All good and well, although I could bet Hans’s wages that she doesn’t have a photographic memory and does not, in fact, remember us as Stammkunden. The problem though, came later, after we finished our dinner, and were about to go, and Mr. B spotted this gorgeous young black Labrador sitting practically next to our table (I mean on the floor, obviously). So he made friends and since it seemed like a lovely and nice dog, I wanted to do that next, so I let it sniffle my hand, and nudge me with her cold nose, and then petted her for a few minutes, to our mutual delight. Once satisfied, I turned around, and noticed our waiter kind of lurking by, so I said good-bye, at which point he smiled and… extended his hand.

The phrase “agony of indecision” suddenly made perfect sense to me. I lived a second of unhappy wavering that seemed an eternity, and I could almost sense my neurons sparking off conflicting messages.

“DON’T SHAKE” -> “appear rude” -> NOT if “you explain you petted the dog” -> WHICH takes some time -> “want to go to the trouble?”

“SHAKE” -> “friendly” -> BUT “might give germs / dog hairs” -> “what if he touches food directly” -> and gives customers tummy aches -> SHOULD explain -> WHICH takes some time -> “want to go to the trouble?”

-> “friendly” -> smile and keep quiet -> can go home quickly!

(do imagine all this in a neat matrix with proper arrows and signs and stuff)

All of this seemed to pass through my head in about half a second (exhibit 1 in the case why the question “do you ever feel like you have no thoughts in your brain?” should translate into “do you ever feel like you have too many thoughts in your brain?” when speaking about Baddie)

Well? what would you do?



Speaking of mental health… how can you ascertain the exact point at which figments of your imagination stop being quirky and become, well, a bit worrying?

Is it:

a) when you share your figment with your partner, in the form of an imaginary servant called Hans that you hired while you were both living in England?

b) when you both start blaming said imaginary servant (butler/maid /chauffeur) for all sorts of unfinished jobs and household tasks, and congratulate each other that at least you are not paying wages to the lazy sod?


c) when you start worrying that if burglars break in while you are away, they will take Hans prisoner and might torture him in order to reveal your secrets?


I was planning to go on, but must dash here, I think I can hear Hans calling from the balcony…

Baddie and the Psycho Study

A few weeks ago, because I am a poor, poor student, I followed a link sent in an email by our university’s medical department and registered on a database for test volunteers. Nothing like painful clinical trials, mind you, more like psychometric tests. And I’d get a little money for it. They said they’d get in touch – and I mentally heard the clinking of coins…

So the day before yesterday, when I got an email letting me know they’re doing an MRI study, I got really excited. They even promised a free scan of my brain, which I could keep – how cool is that? The only thing was, I had to fill in this online questionnaire first, to see if I fitted their requirements. Easy-peasy, I thought to myself. I have a first-rate brain. Who wouldn’t want to take lovely pictures of it?

I clicked with supreme confidence, and was faced with the first question:

1. “Have you ever felt that people say things about you that had a double meaning?” What a strange question. “NO”.

2. “Have you ever felt things in newspapers or shown on TV were written especially for you?” Errrr…. “NO”.

3. “Have you ever felt like some people are not what they appear to be?” What, like Stepford Wives? “NO…”

4. “Have you ever felt you were being followed?” WTF? “NO” (Although now that I think about it, I did once, but it was a homeless man, and I KNEW he was following me. I ditched him in a bookstore – following the mad secret agent skillz of special literature students everywhere).

5. “Have you ever felt there was a conspiracy against you?” Hahaha. I mean. Hmm. Maybe this test is not for me? “NO”

6. “Have you ever felt you were meant to be someone important?” I wish. “NO”

7. “Have you ever felt you are special or unusual?” “NO” but this questionnaire certainly is.

8. “Have you ever felt you are especially close to God?” Oh for Heaven’s sakes. “NO”

9. “Do you sometimes think people can communicate telepathically”. Uhmm… actually.. a tiny bit “YES” 

-> three further questions appear as if by magic: “Does it make you worry a lot?” (from not really to very) “Do you think about this a lot?” (from not really to all the time) “Do you believe in this strongly?” (from nah to I’d stake my life on it)

10. “Do you sometimes think electronic devices such as your PC could influence the way you think?” I would tend to say yes, in that we may tend to think more logically, like computers, the more we use them, but I’m thinking what they mean is more along the lines “is the little evil voice in the computer telling you what to do” so… “NO”

11. “Have you ever felt you were chosen by God?” Oh boy. 

12. “Do you believe in witchcraft?” I don’t need to, I already have holy powers (see question 11).

13. “Do you often worry your partner could be unfaithful?” Nooo, too busy stealing his passwords to check his mail (joke, Mr. B, joke!)

14. “Have you ever felt you sinned more than the average person?” How could I sin more than the average Joe? I am a chosen of God! (see question 11)

15. “Have you ever felt people looked at you strangely because of your appearance?” Just those times I dreamt I was walking out in public without any clothes on. What? like you’ve never had that dream! or maybe they come only to those…. chosen by God?

16. “Have you ever felt you had no thoughts in your head?” Wait a minute, wait, the thought is coming to me, and it’s a….“NO”

17. “Have you ever felt the World was shortly going to end?” “NO” but if I did, would I be sitting around answering this questionnaire? 

18. “Have your thoughts ever seemed like they didn’t belong to you?” Well, if you ask it like that, then I’d have to say… “NO!”

19. “Have your thoughts ever felt so vivid, you felt others could hear them?” You mean… those times I actually had some thoughts in my head? (see question 16)

20. “Have you ever felt your own thoughts were transmitted back to you?” Wait, what? I don’t even understand that question. Nevermind, will go with my usual reply. “NO!”

This was the end of the test, gentle reader. As I noticed after completing it, there’s a disclaimer above every question stating that the study is meant to survey beliefs and spiritual experiences that occur more frequently in everyday life than is normally believed. They think most people have such experiences during their lives.

I’m guessing I will not be called back for the actual super-cool brain scan. But I’m not too sad, because if I had answered even more than one or two of those questions with a YES, I’d be seriously doubting my sanity. I’m no expert, but don’t these questions seem to create the profile of a paranoid / schizophrenic / mentally disturbed subject?  Or… are my thoughts being transmitted back to me? 

Give Us Our Daily Bread…

Searching for something akin to the Belgian chain Le Pain Quotidien (which has promised to come to Berlin and hasn’t – waaaaaaah!) I stumbled across the information that the best bakery in Berlin is located in Ernst Reuter Platz, and is called (fittingly) Brot & Butter.


We went there to check it out today for brunch and boy oh boy were our tummies grateful!


It is part of an intriguing super-expensive but super-cool store called Manufactum, in which, we established, half of the products are made by some nuns in some monastery or other. Under the supervision of a monk, of course. (Oh, there’s no escaping the dastardly patriarchal rule!) They have everything that can delight, from pencil-sharpeners with a screw for adjustments and own leather etuis, to noodle-pressing benches. And we only visited the ground floor!

The bakery itself is next door, and is more of a Delicatessen shop, with cheese, preserves, liqueurs and the like, but they do offer some meals, like breakfast or light lunches. You can enjoy these (or not) on the communal, blond wood tables by perching on one of the high stools provided for this purpose. (Is there anyone else who hates high chairs as much as I do? Is there anyone who thinks they are not the most uncomfortable seating options in existence? Does everyone agree that every. single. high. stool. out. there should be destroyed with a big axe? Alrighty then. Go get ’em, tigers). The atmosphere is cosy though, with most customers belonging to the well-dressed, well-off but not too snobby category, and the service friendly enough, if a little slow and confused.

We had the “sweet breakfast” (sweet bun, butter, marmalade) and “small breakfast” (selection of bread, cheese, ham, butter and marmalade) and some seriously overpriced coffee. The food, however, is heavenly. There were three types of bread we tried, and they all impressed through taste, texture, freshness, and appearance. So much so that we ended buying some to bring home. Highly recommended.

Note: they are open Mondays to Saturdays only. There is also a bookstore next door, for spending some pleasant time book-browsing.

Bonus: you can also watch the cute young (male) bakers prepare the dough and everything. Ha!

Androgynous Angels

Not surprisingly, Berlin is taking major part in the European Month of Photography, with loads and loads of amazing events happening. Mr. B is passionate about photography, and knows about my own interest in transsexuality / androgyny, so he suggested we go see French artist Bettina Rheim’s Gender Studies exhibition.

Located in the beautiful area of Savignyplatz, with its old buildings, boutiques and artsy spaces, the Camera Work gallery can be reached through a passage way next to the majestic entrance of Kantstrasse 149. Finding our way to the back yard, passing by other visitors in the wintery dark, gave us the impression that we were discovering a well-kept secret, with only a few other people in the know.

It is certainly a secret worth knowing. Over fifteen years old, the gallery not only presents photo icons such as Man Ray, Horst P. Horst, Peter Lindbergh,  Diane Arbus and Helmut Newton, but also exhibits young, up-and-coming artists who are just starting their careers. (Incidentally, Camera Work AG boasts  one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs and photo books in the world.) The space is by no means extensive, but appears airy, and bright. The extra-tall ceiling and the loving way of exhibiting photos, allowing them enough distance between each other, definitely helps. The lighting is perfect, and the white walls frame 25 large portraits which form quite a breathtaking ensemble.

The exhibition’s focus is the topic of transgender, “people who evade the categorization of male and female”. Its posterboy is, literally and symbolically, supermodel Andrej Pejic, by now almost a household name.  Andrej P’s photo is exactly what you would expect: a captivating, perfect blonde sending a sultry look to the camera.  In a way, it sets the tone for the rest of the portraits – they are characterized by almost unbearable beauty, sometimes in a conventional sense, and sometimes less so. The people depicted are all relatively young, and mostly pose facing the camera, engaging through open and earnest gazes.

Not all is perfection though: tatoos, minor imperfections covered up with band-aids, or post-op scars, everything is inscribed in the skin. And yet from a place simultaneously inside and outside, beyond what is written on the body, comes a gentle, encompassing light. Dressed in be-ragged off-white linen, the subjects stare cleared-eyed and candidly, until confidence or shyness becomes irrelevant. From photo to photo, they take on a saintly, or angelic quality. Falling angels, perhaps, with hints of vulnerability in their exposure, their compulsion to still cover up, their chipped dark nail polish.

In a society where the normative and stereotypical classifications of gender still tend to prevail, Rheim’s artistic study, and work in general, is indescribably important. Whether the effect is challenging, electrifying or purely aesthetic, this is an exhibition worth seeing.

It is on until the 1st of December at Camera Work, Berlin.


Fat and Happy

My posts are almost always just for sh**ts and giggles, as they say, so I’m stepping out of my comfort zone with this one. It’s been triggered by the fact that tomorrow’s issue of a widely read women’s magazine will feature an article on one of my friends. I’m proud of that, and very proud of my friend.

The article is in the magazine’s section on Health, although it should rightfully be in Beauty. My friend is very pretty, and very feminine. She is also, and I use a word she has reappropriated and uses, fat. Not plump, or chubby, or corpulent. That, as my friend would say, is beating around the bush. People using those words make her feel worse about herself. I can’t help but agree. I myself am less than slender, and have been so almost since I can remember. And I always, always hated it when someone, usually a well-meaning member of my family, called me “well-developped”. What the heck is that, if not saying I am unacceptably fat?

My friend talks in the article about how her body is less of a problem than people’s reaction to it. I must confess, that when we first talked about it, and she told me how people more or less insulted her to her face, or looked at her critically when she wore a nice dress or ordered a cake in a restaurant, I did not take her as seriously as I should have. I didn’t really think she was making it up, more like … she was over-sensitive. Although I should have known better. Then came the day not so long ago when we were both shopping and wanted to go into a second-hand store down my street. Yes, I know it is Berlin and people are rude and strange (see my gazillion other posts). But still. While we were still in the doorway, the owner called to us from the shop, very loudly, staring at my friend: “Sorry, we don’t have clothes in your size here!” We froze, more or less paralyzed in shock. “Sorry,” she repeated in a shrill voice “no clothes in your size here. Soooo…”. What I said, once I recovered a bit, was that I wanted to know the size of a dress on a mannequin outside the store. “For you?” “For me, or for a friend” I replied, not wanting to back down. And then, dear reader, the lady went out, briefly looked at the dress, and muttered that she should take that inside. And she physically carried the mannequin in and more or less closed the door in our faces. What I should have said while she was carrying her precious, not-to-be-soiled-by-fat-people-dress inside,  instead of inanely talking of imaginary slim friends, was that her behaviour was appaling and discriminating. That obviously she had more than clothes in her store, and shoes and bags tend to fit any body type. And that she was not helpful, but extremely hurtful to two strangers who, in effect, were able to help her make a living.

My friend was not exagerating. But maybe I tended not to take it seriously because that has been my own coping mechanism. Ever since I was a teen, I knew I weighed more than my friends. I have learned about various diets from my close family, and my female relatives, directly or indirectly, reinforced the idea that thin is good and fat is … well, undesirable to say the least. It is something that you should hate about yourself, and try to change. Doctors have plied me with WeightWatchers plans, and osteopaths told me how losing even 5 kilograms would do wonders for my back pains. It is always, always about the weight. As my friend says, you cease to be a person, and instead, all many people see, is a lump of fat.

But I don’t really like dieting. I love cooking, and I eat balanced meals. I don’t overdo it on sweets, or eat crisps or any other myth about overweight eating habits you can think of. True, I don’t exercise. I know it’s good, and important, and I feel great about myself those rare times I manage to do it. I’m lazy, and I admit it. But exercising also takes time, time I’d rather spend doing something else, like reading. And that’s my issue with this. Trying to lose weight, and change your body dramatically, takes an awful lot of time, energy, and emotional investment. And it is, as my friend likes to say, not simply a matter of will-power. It is policing your every move, bite, every action and every second in a way that I, frankly, find neurotic. Give me lack of control anyday, if that is the alternative. It is also, sometimes, an exercise deemed to failure. On the one hand, because you might not lose the weight, or once lost it may not stay off. On the other, being “thin” it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, people will stop giving you dirty looks when you have that sundae, but your other problems will all still be there.

That is the crux of it, though, isn’t it: with losing weight comes the promise of happiness. If only you’d lose those extra pounds. But it goes much further than that. If only your hair was shinier, or longer. If only you didn’t have to wear glasses. If you weren’t so fat. If you weren’t so thin. If you weren’t so short, so tall, so freckled. Who are we really trying to become? who is this imaginary, Ford-assembly-line ideal that we are all striving towards, buying shapewear, contact lenses, heels, bleaching creams, stooping, sweating for, starving for, throwing up for, crying for?

I say stop living in the future, and start liking who you are today. Easier said than done though, especially when well-meaning others don’t hesitate to make you feel like s***t now. Maybe it’s time to speak out, and the next time someone gives you advice to change because it will make you happier, point out that the only reason you are not happy NOW is because they won’t let you. Stop allowing other people to pass judgement on you. Stop allowing them to see you only as your body. Be yourself. Be happy.