mardi 28 septembre 2010

Catch joy as it flies

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Perhaps the strangest thing about me is that although I have spent the past 6 years living in two different countries, hearing languages that are not my own, I'm not much of a traveller. Years ago, a feeling of empathy came over me when reading Huysmann's A Rebours about the narrator is packed and ready to leave on a long journey, only to stop when he thinks of the inconvenience of getting to the station, how tired travelling will make him and that it would be far more enjoyable just to stay at home and travel in the mind. I wonder why I have that feeling.

Long school holidays were interminable for me, spending most of the days at friends' houses, inviting them over to mine or going away with my parents. My closest friend back then was probably C. who had incredibly long hair put back into a plait. She lived in a semi-detached house just down the road from the school with a pink bedroom and a garden at the front. There were mornings of watching TV programmes or walks into town to buy filled baguettes from a place called the Deli which has since closed down or occasionally fish and chips drowned in salt and malt vinegar from the Crest of the Wave which we would eat perched on top of a wall opposite some offices. Once one of the employees even asked us for a chip. I'm sure the quality of the food was awful but to us it seemed something special.

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There were also the trips away with my parents, often to France or Spain. We took the ferry because my mother doesn't like to fly and one of the nicest things was suddenly seeing the sea on the horizon, hearing the shrieks of the seagulls overhead and getting out of the car to breath the fresh, salty air. I loved watching all the people standing on the piers waving goodbye as we pulled away and later on walking up the cold metal stairs to the deck where it was always a struggle to open the door because of the strong wind. In the restaurants, fellow passengers munched on greasy hamburgers and it seemed exciting to wander round the gift shop which sold large bars of Toblerone or Milka chocolate, as well as teddy bears. The longer trips to Spain though made me seasick and I hated lying in the tiny cabin, desperate to arrive. Other passengers would tell me I looked like death because of my white face. To pass the time we went to the cinema which is strange with the movement of the waves as you look up at the screen. Admittedly, some of the films were not so bad; As good as it gets with Jack Nicholson and Spiderman but City of angels got on my nerves, even if there is a nice scene with pears, especially after watching the original Himmel über Berlin. All that was forgotten though the moment we pulled into the the harbour and were in the car, ready for those first moments on foreign soil. Yet as much as I loved the excitement of other countries, there was no feeling like coming home to my own bed. In a way, I guess that experience has stayed with me and I'm often reluctant to leave the comfort of my surroundings and disrupt the routine I need.

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For the past few weeks though, I've been journeying through Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin's book as well as reading an amazing biography of him by Nicholas Shakespeare, both of which have made me hungry for travel. I can't remember when or how I first heard of Chatwin, the goldon haired, blue eyed writer of books that tread the line between fact and fiction without fitting into any category. Today he's less read, suffering perhaps from a backlash that comes from being popular in his lifetime but people still tend to have strong opinions about him, either liking or loathing him. Even if his sentences are smooth and cold as glass, there's still something inside me that clicks with the spareness of his writing and wonderful stories, perhaps because I have a weakness for storytelling myself. For two weeks I dreamed of giant sloths, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's adventures, a Frenchman who crowned himself King of Patagonia, shipwrecks and Tierra del Fuego. Writing of Argentina:

It was lovely summery weather the week I was there. The Christmas decorations were in the shops. They had just opened the Peron Mausoleum at Olivos; Eva was in good shape after her tour of European bank-vaults. Some Catholics had said a Requiem Mass for the soul of Hitler and they were expecting a military coup.

By day the city quivered in a silvery film of pollution. In the evenings boys and girls walked beside the river. They were hard and sleek and empty-headed, and they walked arm in arm under the trees, laughing cold laughter, separated from the red river by a red granite balustrade."

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Last week was both the beginning and end of an Indian summer. Warm enough to go out without a jacket and sit outside in the evenings, you could forget the grey weeks full of rain that went before it. The light in September has a special quality now that the trees have begun to turn yellow in parts, as if someone had dabbed them with a paintbrush. It seemed cruel that all of that sunshine disappeared into relentless rain that fell all weekend. I awoke on Sunday to see small figures of children dressed in brightly coloured macs bending down to hunt for the fallen conkers from the chestnut trees down in the park below. Sunday was only good for thick, hot soups (see recipes below) and epic films for rainy afternoons on the comfort of your sofa. Patagonia is still on the wish list of destinations but there are a few days booked for Venice at the end of October where I hope to fall in love with the city as much as last year.

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Probably the last hot chocolate outside this year in the lovely café in the Bürgerpark

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Perfect autumn days

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The view since Saturday night.

Broccoli and feta soup from A Celebration of soup by Lindsey Bareham

The idea of cooking soup used to terrify me. All the ones I made were tasteless or slushy so I preferred to wait for a good restaurant for a bowlful. Then in the summer, my mother gave me a set of Penguin cookery books by people like Nigel Slater and Elizabeth David but also one called In Celebration of Soup by Lindsey Bareham. I have a miniscule collection of cookbooks but this is really one you want to have. It has every soup recipe you could ever need with all possible ingredients and only a minimum of equipment required. I've rarely felt so inspired in the kitchen! Everything I've tried has been wonderful and this is defintely my book for winter. Here are two recipes to get you through a rainy weekend:

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1 head of fresh broccoli
25g butter
1 medium onion
some fresh tarragon, chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1.75 litres vegetable stock
200g feta cheese, crumbled (the original recipe calls for Cheddar which is also nice but I somehow prefer the flavour of Feta with broccoli)

1. Melt the butter and fry the onion in it until soft. Add the potoatoes, herbs and seasoning. Pour in enough stock to cover everything. Leave to simmer for around 10 minutes.
2. Cut the broccoli up into tiny florets and boil in the rest of the stock. Only cook the broccoli until no longer hard, you don't want it too soft.
3. Liquidise the broccoli and potato mixtures together with a hand held blender or in a food processor and return to a clean pan.
4. Add more seasoning if you like but remember that the feta is salty. Crumble in the cheese and some more harbs if you like. Heat the soup without boiling it and serve with crusty bread.

Pumpkin and ginger soup (adapted from the same book)

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1 small pumpkin or squash
1 small leek
1 medium onion, choppped
1 small piece of fresh ginger, with the outside removed and chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1.5 litres vegetable stock
some butter for frying
150ml double cream
salt and pepper

1. Slice the pumpkin open and remove the seeds and pulp. Cut into small pieces and simmer in the vegetable stock until soft.
2. Cook the leek, cumin seeds, onion and ginger in the butter in a large saucepan until soft. Add to the pumpkin mixture and liquidise with a blender. Return to the heat, add some salt and pepper and leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the double cream just before serving and allow to blend into the hot soup.

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What better way to finish off with Heidi's limoncello macaroons as dessert to make you think of sun drenched days in Italy?

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mardi 21 septembre 2010


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Occasionally, I get a glimpse into a part of myself that I thought was lost forever. Coming back from the supermarket when evening had started to fall, I felt a damp chill in the air and could see my breathe. Some yellow leaves were starting to fall and there were conkers on the ground. It reminded me of the week the fair came to my home town in Britain. I'll never forget going there as a small child, wrapped up warm with coat, gloves and scarf, tightly gripping my father's hand. The air smelled of toffee apples and candy floss and at regular intervals, there would be screams from those brave enough to get on the rollercoaster which always had more exotic names as the years went by like the Kamikaze. Secretly, I yearned to win one of those fluffy rabbits by successfully playing "hook a duck" or better still, a goldfish in a plastic bag. Most of the rides were too frightening so I was only able to go on the Dodgums, which as anyone who's seen Annie Hall will know, are great for releasing your aggression. Once though I did find the courage to ride the Ghost train, even if after the sight of a man in a skeleton costume, I spent most of the trip with my hands over my eyes. I can only imagine how ridiculous I'd find the whole spectacle now, like the man in Amélie who says "Oooooh" in her ear.

Autumn should be a season of comfort, of hot chocolate with whipped cream, thick soups topped with cheese and croutons and warm apple pie. At the moment though I'm finding it very difficult to focus. Letters remain unwritten, emails unanswered, the bad weather last week meant that I haven't taken photos for quite a while. I'm currently torn over making an enormous decision abnout my future, whether to stay in Berlin after 2012 or return to the UK to find a steady job. You might wonder why I have to decide now but it involves doing some diplomas in the next few months before I can apply to do my training in autumn next year. I'm one of those hopelessly indecisive people who barely even knows what they want to do in two weeks, let alone two hours. Can I really live full-time in the UK again after so long away? In a way, it seems as if I have failed to fulfil the goal I'd set myself of creating a life abroad, as if everything I've worked for up to now doesn't mean anything if I go back. Would I really be any good teaching languages in a secondary school? Most of all there's the question of whether I can really bring myself to leave Berlin. Over the years, a place becomes part of you unconsciously and I'm aware that what I have here is really unique. It still surprises me to travel down towards the Brandenburg gate, seeing the lamps of the Tiergraten shining like fireflies in the night or simply to see the silhouettes of the trees against the buildings. How could such a grey city capture my heart? I could leave beautiful places like Annecy and Lyon without feeling a thing so surely, it should be a piece of cake walking away here.

I can't expect anyone else to make my decision for me or realistically think that I'll soon have grown tired of Berlin to be able to say goodbye without heartbreak, even if I know that being a freelancer here forever would be difficult. But sometimes I wish that thing didn't have to be so complicated, that I could simply "be" instead of always planning, worrying, reflecting as the world spins around me. I long to be back at the fair again, standing still among the noise and lights.

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At the Swedish shop near Bundesplatz

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Still warm...

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Helmut Newton's grave

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Coffee and cake at the wonderful
Inka Eis café in Schöneberg

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The last of the summer

I'm sorry for the downbeat post but to make up for it, some photographs from Schöneberg before autumn arrived. I finally made it to the cemetary in Schöneberg where Helmut Newton is buried. Close to his is the grave of Marlene Dietrich which was being cared for by a young man. Mistakenly believing I was a photographer, he aproached me to ask if I would take his photo standing next to it and I discovered he had come all the way from Rome just for Marlene, visiting the place where she was born and the film studios before ending up here. I found the idea so charming.

You can find another post I've just written on a wonderful blog begun by my friend Magda, called Berlin is not for sale.

Finally, a recipe from a copy Elle à table that Pia kindly sent me a few weeks ago. I honestly haven't stopped using it since and one of my favourite recipes is for a Torta Caprese.

Torta Caprese (from Elle à table)

200g ground almonds
150g butter
200g dark chocolate
50g superfine sugar
50g icing sugar, plus some extra to dust over later
5 eggs

1. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Grease a springform tin and line it with baking parchment.
2. In bowl, mix together the almonds with the icing sugar. Chop the chocolate finely with a knife and melt it together with the butter in a small saucepan over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat but leave the saucepan resting over the other one.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the superfine sugar with a handheld mixer for 5 minutes, gradually increasing the speed so that you get as much air into the mixture as possible.
4. Using a spatula, carefully blend in the almonds and icing sugar with a circular motion. Stop mixing as soon as the batter is smooth and thick. Add the chocolate and butter, blending well so that everything is perfectly mixed in.
5. Pour into the cake tin and bake in the oven at 200°C for 5 minutes before turning the oven down to 160°C and baking the cake for a further 25-30 minutes. The torta should be damp and not dry in the centre so don't overbake.
6. Leave the cake to cool before turning it out onto a plate and leave at least 2.3 hours before serving. Apparently, the torta is even better the next day, although mine didn't last that long.

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jeudi 9 septembre 2010

I heart Pankow and the Proust questionnaire

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Since moving back to Pankow a whole month ago, it's as if the last two and a half years in a shared flat never existed. Those old familiar streets, deciding in the evening whether to walk to the Bürgerpark or the Schlosspark, the Rosenrot café where the owner called me the familiar "du" and told me I speak good German before bringing me a tall glass of Latte Macchiato and a generous slice of blueberry cake, late night trips to the Kaufland supermarket and hearing the church bells ringing on Sunday mornings. In many ways I think I was meant to live on my own; no loud TV programmes blasting out or ear piercing phone calls in Brazilian Portuguese while I'm trying to read, the delicious anarchic freedom of leaving the dirty dishes in the sink until the next morning and no danger of anyone else eating my food. Of all the rooms in the flat, perhaps I love the kitchen the most which won't surprise you! The heavy door is still propped against my bedroom wall, waiting to be fitted by my landlord, there are worktops and cupboards on the left, along with the oven and stove and on the right side a round wooden table with two Ikea chairs left by J. where I eat all my meals sometimes over a book or otherwise simply soaking in the evening. I'm already imagining baking all the Christmas biscuits here in a few months! The dark grey floor tiles are cold underneath my bare feet in the kitchen and bathroom while the gleaming floorboards creak a little at every step in the hallway.

The windows are small and thin so the apartment is cold in winter and hot in the summer but I don't care. As the evenings draw in, I make myself tea or cocoa, wrap a blanket over myself and curl up on the plush red sofa where I often fall asleep with the book still in my hands. Most friends who visit me here are astonished to find that I live in a beautiful building which reminded one of them of Charlottenburg in the 1920s. Pankow isn't a cool area but I love the way my flat is tucked away up among the chimneys; there's the moaning of the wind overhead and on days of heavy rain, the drumroll of the drops beating against the gutter. Often, I don't feel like going out, cocooned up here with my books, films and photos around me. Around a week after I moved in, M. asked me what I dreamed about that first night but I couldn't remember. Hopefully it was something good because apperantly it comes true. Here's to my life in the East!

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One of the first evenings here as the sun was going down.

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On the way to the Bürgerpark

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The rose garden of the Bürgerpark where I sat breathing in the smell of the flowers and reading my book in the late evening with the last rays of the sun on my face.

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Dramatic skies seen from the kitchen

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The town hall and main street of Pankow


My friend Magda (check out her wonderful blog Ce que tu lis or the equally wonderful new collaborated effort which I hope to contribute to in the next week, Berlin is not for sale) asked me to reply to the Proust questionnaire. Given my love of Proust and the fact that I cannot refuse her anything, I was happy to agree. This is not a questionnaire written by Proust himself but one that was distributed in his youth by his friends. I can't pretend my answers will be as poetic or well written as his but here goes...

Questions translated in Vanity Fair

What is your most marked characteristic?

A contradiction between discipline (obsessive punctuality, need for routine) and chaos (total lack of organisation and any sense of order in my posessions).

What is the quality you most like in a man?

It's a tie between intelligence and humour.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?


What do you value in your friends?

Patience ( I can be frustrating!), loyalty, empathy, supportiveness.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

The inability to ever be satisfied and look for the best in others.

What is your favourite occupation?


What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be honest, I'm not sure I really believe in that. Happiness scares me a little because I'm aware of precious and fragile it is, that it ultimately can't last forever. To feel understood would be something nice though.

What would be your greatest misfortune?

Never to have plucked up the courage to learn another language which has made it possible for me to have the life I have now.

In which country would you like to live in?

I often dream of Italy with its cyprus trees, colourful facades and magical light for winter and in summer, Scandinavia, perhaps the island of Faro off the Swedish mainland where Bergman had a house. Somewhere I could walk by the sea. Although having said that, there's also the magic of New York, a city I feel drawn to despite never having been there.

Your favourite colour?

Red or black.

The flower that I love.

Peonies or poppies.

Who are your favourite writers?

Sigh, I have so many. Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, Scott Fitzgerald, P.G Wodehouse, Kazuo Ishiguro, Georges Perec, Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, Bruce Chatwin, Truman Capote, Thomas Bernhard, Christopher Isherwood, Raymond Chandler, Marguerite Duras, Giorgio Bassani, Evelyn Waugh, Geoffrey Willans (Molesworth), A.A Milne, Julian Green, Gerard de Nerval, Patrick Modiano, Stendhal, Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, Jacques Rivière. I should stop now!

Who are your favourite poets?

Baudelaire, T.S Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Ingeborg Bachmann, Yeats, Heiner Müller, Paul Celan, Paul Eluard, Keats.

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

Piglet from Winnie the Pooh because he's sweet but a coward and I can identify with that.

Who is your favourite heroine of fiction?

Lulu from Wedekind's play Pandora's box. The story fascinates me how she destroys all those she loves and also herself.

My hero in real life

Directors like Godard and Rivette who still feel inspired to make great films even when they're old.

My heroines in history

Simone de Beauvoir

Who are your favourite composers?

Eric Satie, Chopin, Berg (especially the opera of Lulu!), Berlioz, Verdi, Marin Marais, Janeczek, Stravinsky, Debussy.

Who are your favourite painters?

Canaletto, Vermeer, Rothko, Nicholas de Stael, Paul Klee, Vilhelm Hammershoi, Eugène Boudin.

What are your favourite names?

For myself? I don't want to reveal them because I have several, each for different people and I like that to be my secret - sorry.

What is it that you most dislike?

Feeling a lack of achivement.

Historical figures that I dislike the most

Obvious ones like Hitler and Stalin, any dictators.

The military event that you admire the most

T.E Lawrence's revolt with the Arabs.

The reform that you most admire

Giving women the vote.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Either the eye of a great photographer, like Cartier Bresson or a natural writer's gift of someone like Fitzgerald or Chatwin.

How would you like to die?

Hopefully not soon and in any case, quickly and painlessly.

What is your current state of mind?

Wondering how to warm my fingers in this icy room.

What is your motto?

I don't really have one, except perhaps not to overlook the little things.


I'd feel bad leaving you after such a long, self-indulgent post without giving you a recipe. Summer has all but fizzled out and the crisp autumn days are upon us but let's enjoy the sun and colours for a little longer with a red fruit tiramisù.

Strawberry and raspberry tiramisù

Serves 6

Around 30-40 ladyfinger biscuits
470ml espresso
110g sugar
500g mascarpone
500g strawberries, washed and hulled
200g raspberries
3 cold eggs
4 tsp icing sugar
50 ml marsala wine

1. Make the espresso and mix in the sugar in a shallow dish. Leave to cool.
2. Begin by placing half the strawberries and raspberries in a layer so they cover the bottom of your dish (it doesn't matter if there are some gaps).
4. Dunk each ladyfinger biscuit in the espresso mixture very quickly, around just 1 second each side. They shouldn't be soggy. Place a layer of biscuits on top of the fruit (you should have around half of each left).
5. Separate the eggs.
6. Beat the egg yolks with the marsala or amaretto until thick and frothy. Whisk in the mascarpone until smooth. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks then carefully fold them into the mascarpone mixture with a metal spoon until fully absorbed.
7. Spread a layer of the mascarpone mixture over the biscuits and fruit, then follow with the rest of the biscuits, the rest of the fruit and finish with a layer of cream. Cover with foil and chill in the fridge for at least 8 hours, even better for 24 hours. Sprinkle with cocoa powder just before serving.