mercredi 27 octobre 2010

He came to stay

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A couple of years ago, I had a visitor and one that I wasn't so keen to have stay with me. We had first met a a couple of months before at the language school where I used to work in Mitte. I recall it was late afternoon one Friday when most teachers had just finished class and the common room was filled with the sounds of bits of overlapping conversations. Suddenly my eyes met with those of another colleague J. (not the one I used to live with) I had never seen before. I didn't find him especially good looking but we struck up a conversation easily and before I knew it, we had agreed to go along to a reading of Thomas Bernhard's Der Stimmenimitator (the voice imitator) at the Berliner Ensemble by Hermann Beil. Another friend of mine joined us in the large wooden panelled studio. Afterwards, we spent a few hours in a rather gloomy bar called Van Gogh drinking red wine while J. tried desperately to steer the conversation to German but only got responses in English which I found amusing. It made me sad that he was leaving so soon for Freiburg in the south to begin a course in Linguistics after we had only just met. We said our farewells over a hot chocolate in Schöneberg when the ground was scattered with the lightest of snowflakes.

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Keeping in touch isn't always a strong point of mine but he wrote me a long letter on pink notepaper in tiny, scrawling black handwriting, talking extensively about his passion for Henry James, onion soup and theatre and enclosed some short stories he had written. There was apparently also a novel but it was too much of an uncontrollable stream of consciousness to be interesting. He spoke a strange kind of German, learned mainly at the Goethe Institute and used words like meinetwegen (because of me) which don't feature widely in modern conversation! At the end, he asked if he could stay with me for a couple of nights. Reading those words produced a reluctant feeling for reasons which I can't explain; I just knew it would be a bad idea but there was a kind of obligation to say yes and I replied that it would be OK. He arrived one Wednesday afternoon wearing a felt hat, a black satin shirt bought for 2 euros in a charity shop and jeans and spent a long time going over the collection of books and DVDs on my shelves before asking if he could have my copy of Auslöschung by Thomas Bernhard. He offered to buy me dinner in an Asian restaurant round the corner but in the end, I had to help him out with the bill because it turned out to be more expensive than expected. However, he promised to make me his famous onion soup that weekend. Back then, I lived in a room flat in Charlottenburg shared with my Brazilian flatmate. There was only one bed so I had borrowed an air mattress and a sleeping bag for him. Shortly after the lights went out though, he began complaining that the room was too hot, that the floor was too hard and after that, tried repeatedly to persuade me to share the bed. I refused and spent a sleepless night listening to him explaining why we should go to Munich together before getting up at 5am to teach at the airport.

Sharing a room didn't work out. To my flatmate's exasperation, he flooded the bathroom with water after taking a shower and didn't seem to notice. Moreover, everywhere reeked of an overpowering mixture of strong body odour mixed with Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent. I let him use my computer only to find he had deleted some programmes and when I told him off, he declared that only 60% of the storage space was free and that you wouldn't be satisfied with that result on a test. I felt trapped in my own space, observed and taken advantage of and I told him to leave. He was supposed to meet a Dutch friend in Mitte so I left him to close the door behind him and went out for dinner. According to my flatmate, he tried to persuade her to lend him her keys so he could stay another night and in a last act of exasperation, declared loudly that he was taking his onions with him! I can never cook with them without it bringing a smile to my face. The last I ever heard from him was a letter apologising for trying to force himself upon me but accompanied by a sharp criticism at me for not coming out of my shell more. Inside the envelope was a copy of Washington Square by Henry James which I could never bring myself to read and was put off his other books for a long time before realising how brilliant they are. J. didn't turn out to be 100% bad after all.

This past weekend though, I discovered how nice it can be to have a visitor. The afternoons before spent reorganising the flat, filling the fridge with things you hope they'll like, the excitement of taking the bus to the airport to wait impatiently at the gate where you peer round through the doors through the security zone hoping to catch a glimpse of them. I haven't spent so much time with my brother in years, just a few hours snatched at Christmas on a round of endless visits. For three days, I tried to see my city through fresh eyes, to give into the temptation of doing touristy things. There were trips around all the main sites in the 100 bus which I took all those years ago myself, a stroll along Ku'damm and back to the haunting Kaiser-Wilhelm memorial church, evenings of wine, cocktails, hot chocolate and plum cake, dinner at Datscha and brunch at Einstein café where I regretted being too full to try the famous apple strudel. Late nights watching Chinatown and wishing I could have lived in L.A in those elegant times. It was all over too fast of course and the apartment seemed strangely empty returning alone on Sunday evening.

Tomorrow, I'll fly to Venice for a few days to rediscover the city that charmed me so much last year. I long for the sun, the fresh sea air and good food. Can't wait to share my experience with you soon!

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At Alexanderplatz

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The site of a former cinema on Ku'damm

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Breakfast or dinner by the East Side Gallery

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The floating hostel on the river

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Oberbaum bridge

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The glowing reflections of a perfect day

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The skyline from my kitchen this morning

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I finally met Sylee last week for lunch at Sasaya in Prenzlauer Berg, a wonderful and astonishingly inexpensive Japanese restaurant. It was so wonderful meeting face to face at last after following her amazing blog for a few months. I hope it will be the first of many.

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Miso soup - a comfort on a cold day

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My sushi lunch

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Japanese style crème brûlée

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You cannot live from art alone

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Around Helmholtzplatz

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At the wonderful Pomeranza shop which I've been dying to get to for ages. I bought some of the Swedish crockery you can see in the windows.

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There was also this linen teatowel which Sylee mentioned a while back.

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Supplies from Goldhahn and Sampson, a must for special and high quality ingredients.

I also made this stunning lemon meringue pie from Fanny's blog. I'm not much of a meringue fan but there's something about the combination of sharp lemon and crumbly pastry with it that I love.

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mardi 19 octobre 2010

City of light

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In the days when I lived in Lyon, I found there were large chunks of time to myself which were mainly filled by walking through the city, visitng the market on the Boulevard de la Croix Rousse just above where I lived and in the Part Dieu library in which I dreamed of climbing dangerous mountains in the Alps and in between, immersed myself in learning German with the Assimil method. Having little money made me appreciate the simple pleasures like stopping off at my favourite bakeries near Masséna métro stop, one of which was called Le Fil de l'ange as I recall (literally The angel's thread) for the most amazing croissants. There were the free lunchtime concerts at the Opéra and evening performances there with cheap tickets for amazing productions of works by Monteverdi, Janeczek and Richard Strauss. Every week, I'd post a new advert on Lyon web offering private English lessons to which I had quite a few positive responses. One of them was a mother of a little boy called N. whose father was Canadian. The boy didn't much enjoy practising English with his Dad so they thought it would be better to have a teacher twice a week. We met outside the Town Hall of Caluire in the suburbs of Lyon on the 1st September, the rentrée. I can still picture N. coming towards us, chatting to his schoolmates, with a large rucksack on his back. He was small, brown haired and wore glasses. My duties would be to pick him up from school twice a week, walk the short distance home with him, prepare his goûter or snack and speak English for an hour. After that we could walk around the grounds of the apartment complex where there was even a tennis court on which we would be able to play in summer. It became part of my natural routine cycling up the steep hills to the Croix Rousse and beyond on my bike I had bought the winter before. Other cyclists made fun of me because of the large BMX helmet I insisted on wearing but I was (and still am) a terrible cyclist and lived in mortal fear of accidents.

The apartment in Caluire was large and full of light. I used to gaze intensely at the bookshelves packed with paperback novels like Le Zèbre which later became one of my favourite films. I would pour N. and myself a large glass of thick guava juice before we settled down to English. He was sweet but from the very beginning, it was a battle of wills because he hated the lessons and would gaze longingly out of the window at the beautiful evening he was missing. Quite frankly, who could blame him? We tried sessions on a grassy bank outside but the cries and games of his friends proved even more of a distraction. Things came to a head one chilly afternoon when he repeatedly turned the television on to watch skiing. Whenever I turned it off, he insisted that his mother would want him to watch because she used to be a monitrice de ski, an excuse I refused to accept and a huge argument developed. Looking back, I can see I was too inexperienced to make the lessons fun for him and didn't do a good job but perhaps his parents were simply too ambitious for him to become perfectly bilingual at such a young age. After a few months, I handed in my notice to take another class instead. Just before that though, I can remember N. and his father taking me back to Lyon by car since my an enormous shard of glass had pucntured my bike tyre and it was cold. The streets were ablaze with lights and full of crowds of warmly dressed people. This was the first week of December, a special time for the Lyonnais as they place a candle in every window to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. Regardless of your beliefs, there was something amazing about seeing flickering lights all through the city as well as the spectacular illuminations of the monuments in different colours. People jostled each other clasping cups of mulled wine and crêpes filled with Nutella to ward off the cold.

I was reminded of all this with the Berlin festival of lights which started last Thursday. It's not quite as romantic as Lyon but still a special feeling as you travel round the city, seeing the floodlights at Alex in the distance as you try to warm your fingers in between taking photos and finish the evening in a café where the only free seat is tucked away in the corner to drink hot chocolate. On the way home, you pass by partygoers whose evening has only just begun; they'll be there in the early hours, bleary eyed under the pale rays of the moon but I didn't feel I was missing out in the warmth of the train back to Pankow.

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Bright lights at the Brandenburg Gate

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On Potsdamer Platz

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Some of the beautiful but heartstoppingly expensive furniture on my way to Gendarmenmarkt

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At Fassbender und Rausch chocolate shop

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Personally, I prefer the chocolate Brandenburg gate to the real one!

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On Gendarmenmarkt

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The cold evenings are closing in and today the sun has deserted Berlin, with nothing but a mass of soggy leaves on the pavement and lingering regrets for all those wasted moments last summer. I've already been stocking up my bookshelves, ready for those days when it's best to keep the curtains closed and stay in pyjamas drinking tea. There's Orhan Pamuk's Snow (obvious for winter, I know), Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Claudie Gallay's Les Déferlentes for Venice and the Adriatic in 10 days and Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. What's on your list and do you have any tips?

To finish with, a recipe i tried for the first time yesterday and immediately feel in love with, as did everyone else who tried it; Julia's Blueberry and Almond Cake as adapted by Patoumi.

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Blueberry and almond cake

4 eggs
200g sugar
120g almond paste
190g flour
60g butter in strips
500g blueberries

1. Beat the sugar and eggs together until pale and frothy.
2. Grate the almond paste into the eggs, followed by the flour and blend well.
3. Pour the batter into a greased and lined springform tin.
4. Scatter the fruit on the surface, pushing them in slightly, place on the thin strips of butter and sprinkle a little sugar on top.
5. Bake in the oven at 200°C for 45 minutes.

lundi 11 octobre 2010

Waiting for the sun

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I woke up shortly before the alarm went off, conscious of how early it was for a Sunday morning. The sun was warming the kitchen with its first rays and I thought that I should already be out there, taking photos, not wasting a minute of what might be the last fine day of the year instead of sipping hot tea and munching on white toast with apricot jam. The morning air was crisp and chilly with the only warmth in the flaming colours of the trees. I could see my breath as I made my way to the S-Bahn, fumbling for my gloves in my pockets and wishing I'd exchanged the ankle boots for knee high ones. On the platform, the odd travellor headed for Schönefeld airport with small suitcases, perhaps off to some hot destination. Yet I didn't feel in the slightest bit jealous as the train rattled on via Treptower Park, Ostkreuz and I saw the golden tones of the sky reflected in the Spree. Part of me hestitated whether to get out there but I had decided to travel all the way to Grünau, a place I had last visited at least two years ago. There is still the familiar Imbiss or snack bar opposite the station and the tram rails which disappear into the forest. Some modern villas occupy the lakside, competing for the space with watersport clubs. Yet I could not help noticing a number of buildings standing empty, their windows broken or boarded up and gates in front of overgrown gardens padlocked. I wonder what they were before; former post offices, schools, restaurants and whether they shall ever be brought to life again. I'd optimistically wandered down to the pier, deserted until next summer, hoping to begin a walk by the lake but had to continue for what seemed for miles through streets. At the empty beach, a line of Strandkorbs took in the Indian summer and just after, a small path finally veered off, taking me deeper into the woods and down to the water's edge. From time to time, silhouettes of joggers dressed in black came towards me in that hazy light where sunshine and shadows mingled equally. The further I went along, the lovelier the walk became; the tracks of cyclists in the sand, the view of the lake on which rowers occasionally glided by. Pausing to take some photos at a small beach, a man sitting out on his boat waved to me. Families and couple were just beginning their Sunday walk as I emerged out close to the tramlines again and back in civilisation, wishing my time away could have lasted a little longer.

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It's a pity this place was closed. I can only imagine the kind of food that's served in a restaurant with a carved native Indian on the roof.

Later on that day, I was seized by a desire to take more photos and watch the sun go down over the city. Normally, I avoid tourist traps like the Brandenburg Gate but I had a feeling this was the place to go. Berlin had never looked lovelier; even the most charmless, modern buildings were tranformed by the gentleness of the evening light and the colours of the leaves stood out like glowing embers in the fading afternoon. As strange as it may sound, it suddenly seemed amazing to me that I live here, how far I've come from the small place I grew up in and how lucky I am to be able to stay. At that moment, it all felt so easy.

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Blowing bubbles on Pariser Platz

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Trees and people cast long shadows at the end of a glorious autumn day

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A memorial outside the Reichstag for the murdered politicians of the Weimar Republic

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About ten days ago, I decided to watch The Railway Children, the film of my childhood about three siblings growing up in Edwardian England. I had not seen it for maybe twenty years but simply hearing that familiar music at the beginning brought tears to my eyes. Those landscapes of London and Yorkshire, the excitement and significance of the trains, the rain beginning to spit at the most dramatic moment. So much from my time growing up came flooding back; matinees at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham with its chandelier and green and gold interior where I would get a choc ice at the interval, returning home from swimming club on Sunday evenings starving before tucking into a boiled egg with soldiers, walking barefoot in the garden. The film left a lump in my throat in a way that would perplex an outsider seeing it for the first time. Another link with the past for me is re-reading Le Grand Meaulnes which I first discovered at the age of 20. I came to the final chapters while travelling down to London on a National Express coach just before Christmas and can still recall driving through the suburbs on a cold, grey day, fighting back the tears at the sadness of the story. I found it poignant too because it's about saying goodbye to our true youth, becoming an adult, abandoning those days of illusions and dreams. We may never lose it completely but it's difficult to escape the constraints of harsh reality sometimes. Even back then, I felt as if I had passed beyond that point and wished that I had read it a few years earlier. Coming back to it now, I find easier to lose myself in its pages, imagining myself in those frosty landscapes, awakening in a room filled with Chinese lanterns where you can hear the distant music playing. Even if the past is still a closed book into which we get an occasional glance, I'm glad to have those links with it, to feel that those moments still belong to me even if they are tinged with regret or nostalgia sometimes.

Lately, I seem to spend time in the train on the way home craving some particular flavour or dish, especially chocolate cake. I had an idea of how it should be; light but intense, fluffy but not moussy with some kind of icing. No recipe I had tried so far satisfied me and neither did rummaging through all my cookery books until I picked up one bought on my holiday in Scotland this year. I also grew up watching the Moomins, an animation based on the Finnish writer Tove Jansson's books. I might cringe at the English dubbing today but still have a fondness for their adventures, the fact that they use a rope ladder instead of stairs to come down from their tall, house, the fact that Moominmama always has an apron and handbag, prepared for anything. You can picture my excitement then when I discovered a cookbook featuring them. The book is divided into different sections; for example, winter, summer, harvest, picnics, lunchtime, dinner, garden parties and birthday parties. Although the Moomins are popular with children, the book is for the young at heart, rather than just the young since it features recipes for grog and some dishes which would be a little complicated for children. They're also accompanied with charming illustrations (see below!).

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My eye immediately lighted upon a chocolate cake recipe. It managed to be amazingly simple, fast (around 5 -10 minutes prep!) and has to be one of my absolute favourite cakes. I made some little modifications, reducing the amount of sugar since 240g seemed rather a lot (those Moomins obviously have a sweet tooth) and upped the amount of cocoa. Reading about Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain on Luisa's blog a while back made me keen to try out baking with spelt flour which I used here instead of the wheat one in the original. I was pleasantly surprised by the results and felt it enhanced the chocolate. Use the best cocoa you can get your hands on; I know it may seem extravagent but I bought Valrhona 100% cocoa (for Berliners - you can now get this at Kaufhof on alex as well as KaDeWe) and frankly, it's the best I've ever tried.

Moomintroll's delicious chocolate cake (slightly adapted)

2 eggs
100g granulated sugar
150ml milk
150g melted butter, cooled slightly
180g spelt flour
40g good quality cocoa
2 tasp vanilla sugar
2 tsp baking powder

For the icing

200g icing sugar, sifted
1 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla sugar
4 tbsp cold espresso
4 tbsp melted butter, cooled slightly

1. Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick. Add the milk and melted butter.
2. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, vanilla sugar and baking powder) together and carefully blend with the eggs and milk.
3. Pour into a greased and lined springform tin and bake at 200°C for 50 minutes.
4. Leave the cake to cool.
5. For the icing, measure the icing sugar, cocoa powder, vanilla sugar, coffee and melted butter into a large mixing bowl and belnd until thick and smooth. Spread it over the top.

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Moomintroll's birthday cake

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