In Berlin, you sometimes feel as if you are walking in other people's footsteps and yet, it isn't always easy to find traces of the past. I've often taken the underground to Nollendorfplatz and walked down to the building where the writer Christopher Isherwood used to live. In the introduction to my copy of his Berlin stories, Armistead Maupin describes how he and the actor Ian McKellen made their own pilgrimage there. Across the street, a pink neon sign for a gay internet café flickered in the shadows; McKellen apparently smiled in satisfaction and muttered "perfect." Today, the internet café has disappeared but the "deep solid massive street" is still recognisable from Isherwood's time with their "top-heavy balconied facades." Peering in through the glass, I wonder whether those are the same stairs he climbed, if the building has changed much since then. My Berlin is, of course, not the same as his of the turbulent 30s but I like to think there's still that gritty yet inspiring atmosphere for artists he must have also experienced.
The plaque on Isherwood's old building.
This week saw me make a couple of courageous decisions (for me) ; I quit at one of the places I work to make myself find other better paid projects and more importantly, took the plunge and told my flatmate I'm moving out at the beginning of August. It feels exhilerating on the one hand but scary on the other to have nowhere new in sight. Yet I know it's a decision I have to make; biting my tongue to be sociable has only made me frustrated with the situation and ultimately, I realise how desperately I need my own four walls and to be able to close the door from time to time. Without personal space, I don't feel I can truly be myself. I resisted the idea of living alone, fearing it would intensify my taste for solitude but somehow, I don't think things will turn out that way.
There was plenty to think about then as I walked around Schöneberg in a city so sleepy and quiet for Ascension. Funnily, it's an area that's always appealed very much to me but which I've rarely explored. There were the strangely shaped buildings near Winterfeldplatz where you can find a wonderful (but crowded) market on Saturdays. The sky was colourless and the air damp and cold. It seems like a long time ago since I last saw the sun; the new flowers have started to fade before they've even begun. My longing for colours though was satisfied in the form of graffiti, tubs of flowers dotted around the streets with tulips, lilacs and rhodedendrons and amazing shop windows. I spotted a few where I simply must return on a workday; a shop offering cooking courses where you can buy baking tins and cutters in all kinds of shapes, a chocolate shop with old fashioned scales for weighing and its own café, a travel bookshop which could transport you through the pages of its many volumes and Café Sorgenfrei, a place I'd heard of before with its 1950s décor.
The only kind of snake I don't mind.
For some reason, these bikes decorated with flowers leaning against one another seem very romantic to me.
Kitsch but cute lamps
In many ways, Ascension day was like a Sunday with the people crammed into charming little cafés to enjoy brunch. Somehow though, I was drawn to an Italian cheese shop and café with large gerberas suspended in the window. The only other customer was sitting in the corner reading. The cheesecake I spotted in the fridge was apparently no longer fresh and the apple cake she mentioned was apparently just out of the oven and therefore too hot. With the latte macchiato, I chose a pastry filled with vanilla and cherries which managed to be flaky and creamy in the best possible way. On the counter were large glass jars filled with sweets and little cakes so I walked out of there carrying a small white paper bag with two oval tartelettes filled with limoncello cream. Biting into them at home brought back the sunshine of an afternoon in Venice.
Today there is the steady rhythm of raindrops falling; I watch them bouncing off the frame of the balcony outside. It's a day for reflection and flat hunting but also for re-reading Isherwood.
Chocolate almond cake (from Nigel Slater's The Kitchen Diaries)
200g good quality dark chocolate (Lindt, Valrhona and Rausch are all good - minimum 70% cocoa)
a small, hot espresso
200g plain flour
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons very good quality cocoa powder (don't even consider drinking chocolate!)
200g ground almonds
5 large eggs, separated
1. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl placed over a pan of barely simmering water. When it's melted, pour the espresso over, then chop the butter into pieces and let it melt in the coffee and chocolate mixture, resisting the desire to stir.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder.
3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until thick and stiff then gently fold in the sugar with a large metal spoon.
4. Remove the chocolate from the heat and stir so that the melted butter is thoroughly blended in. Beat together the egg yolks and add quickly them to the chocolate mixture until they've just disappeared. Carefully fold in the egg whites and suagr, followed by the flour and cocoa and finally the ground almonds. Take your time here and be careful not to over blend or lose the air. Stop when the last bit of flour is mixed in and pour into a lined and greased springform tin. Bake at 160°C for about 25-30 mins or until a cake tester comes out clean.