vendredi 26 novembre 2010

Somewhere I have never travelled

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The travel documents lie there for months in the drawer until one day those black and white dates and times which represented a day at an indistinct point in the future finally become tomorrow. No matter how often that happens, I always find it magical. On paper things look complicated; plane and train connections criss crossing in different directions and I wondered whether it was all a big mistake. Yet somehow everything worked perfectly and after a night at my brother's place in a cosy flat with a dinner of risotto with smoked haddock and asparagus over a couple of episodes of Frasier, which took me back to the Friday nights of my adolescence when I always used to watch it, I found myself heading back to Waterloo to catch the train down to Portsmouth. London and its outskirts still seem like a foreign country to me with as I gazed at rows of brown brick terrace houses with their patchwork gardens, high rise flats with colourful balconies before Battersea power station and the familiar skyline of the centre came into view. There was still a little time before my train so I paused to buy a cup of tea at the station. In front of me in the queue, a shaggy haired figure in an oversized jumper, with brightly coloured stripes which had seen better days and sandals, stood. I tried to work out whether it was a man or a woman before a strangely aristocratic male voice ordered a large cappucino. English eccentricity can be so charming. I took a seat behind a mother and son who moved between different parts of the carriage to find the best place for him to do his drawing before settling for the one in front. Unfamiliar countryside whizzed past; ploughed fields with large pools of water round the side reflecting the grey sky, meadows where cows and horses grazed. I asked myself what it must be like to live here. It always feels strange returning to a country you know so well where you have no job and no responsibilities. The girls opposite talked of holidays in Ibiza and trips to the country where one of them got a hedgehog inside her jacket and couldn't get it out. In between staring out of the window, I dipped into Diary of a nobody which often made me burst out laughing. Then suddenly, the masts of ships appeared in the distance along with the sea. I remember travelling down here as a child for holidays during which we visited the Mary Rose and the HMS Victory and my parents bought me a shipwreck in a bottle. Now I just felt strange and out of place as my eyes met those of the people waiting to buy a bacon roll on the harbour.

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Last minute preparations before setting off

The day was damp and grey but I was relieved to find I was not the only one waiting outside the theatre for the red double decker bus which would take the wedding guests to the registry office. Familiar faces appeared alongside other members of the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) world and then I didn't feel so lost as the bus pulled into view, decorated with gold and white balloons inside and a bouquet of flowers at the front. We caught the briefest of glimpses of Abbie looking beautiful in her vintage white dress, which we immediately associated with Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, before she disappeared inside for those last few minutes before the ceremony. The room was warm and green and comfortable as the guests exchanged smiling glances. I felt so happy to be there. Abbie was my first good friend in Berlin. We met at the language school in Berlin Mitte and it was always a comfort to find her in the teachers' room where we could commiserate over difficult students, the Underground strike which went on and on or discuss ways of settling into a new city. I was often invited for wonderful meals or brunch at the flat she shared with Jeremy, crammed full of amazing books I longed to dip into. There were homemade scones with jam and cream, Nigella's chocolate cheesecake and Nigel Slater's spiced fish. Plays and walks through different parts of the city together were always charming in her company and I still miss them today. I will never forget hearing the song at the beginning as Abbie entered the room on her Dad's arm, the emotion in her voice as she repeated her vows or the look of happiness in their eyes.

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Inside the double decker bus taking us all to the registry office

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Inside the registry office awaiting the arrival of the bride

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A short but touching ceremony

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Preparing to descend

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The newlyweds

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The shot we all want to get

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We came out to witness floods of confetti being thrown and bubbles blown over the happy couple before climbing aboard the bus again for a tour of Portsmouth. The sea was dark grey by a brown shingle beach. At the Groundlings Theatre where the reception was held, we gathered downstairs next to pillars bound in red and gold ribbons for sparkling wine and the cutest canapes before heading upstairs for an amazing buffet lunch in the main auditorium. The room was lit by a series of chandeliers high up on the ceiling and behind the table for the wedding party, the set for Romeo and Juliet was still visible, ready for the next performance the following night which seemed appropriate. There was roast meat, salmon en croute, aubergine and parmesan bake, roast vegetables and saute potatoes among other things and for dessert, treacle tart with clotted cream, red fruit charlotte, chocolate tart with strawberries and much more. My ambition was originally to try a bit of everything but sadly, I just couldn't manage it! Champagne flowed along with the laughter and the speeches. Evening was falling so the bride slipped into her gorgeous purple and black party gown with a nipped in waist, which I sadly failed to take a good picture of, while the younger members on the guest list rushed downstairs to check out some of the amazing costumes which the theatre has stashed away. The lights were dimmed and the music and dancing began as coloured disco beams appeared on the ceiling. The stars were Abbie's little second cousins who put us all to shame with their effortlessly cool moves. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a wedding and thanks to Abbie and Jeremy for letting me be a part of your big day! I can't wait to see you both again soon.

To my dear readers, sorry if I haven't been around much on your blogs but I hope to catch up in the next few days and reply to your comments too. In the meantime, have a wonderful weekend and next time, I promise you some photos of my stay in Britain.

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Next in line at the registry office but where's the groom?

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Some details of Abbie's beautiful vintage dress

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Abbie looking beautiful on her big day

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The remains of the set for Romeo and Juliet at the Groundlings theatre

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Red fruit charlotte

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Cutting the cake...

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...or is that cheese?

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Abbie's lovely watch made of teaspoons

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Dressing up in some of the theatre's many costumes

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Aslan from the Narnia stories

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Party time

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Inspired by Abbie's example, I now never travel without my bear. This one's called Bertie (as in Jeeves and Wooster), bought at Oxfam in Schoenhauser Alle. Isn't he lovely?

mardi 16 novembre 2010

In Berlin by the wall

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For every non-native Berliner, there are certain clichés to inevitably confront; Cabaret, the bombed out shell recontructed from scratch, the gentrification of the old East and of course, the Berlin Wall. Yet behind those freshly renovated facades of Mitte there is still so much history and I often long to hear the stories of those who once lived there. On the table on the teachers' room the other day, a headline of the local paper claimed many people from the former East would prefer to forget their old lives, wanting to move on and bury the past with silence. One of the best resources for a way back into that time would be the students I teach but I often feel shy about asking them directly about that time and prefer to wait until they feel comfortable enough to share their memories with me. I hear different accounts, some full of "ostalgie", others mentioning darker aspects. One of my first classes in Berlin was at an I.T company where I was served a cup of poisonously strong coffee which made you feel like it was burning a hole in your stomach whenever you politely swallowed a mouthful. In the group, a woman explained how she and her female colleagues had a right to a day off work in the GDR for housework. She regretted the demolishing of the old Palast der Republik as this was the place she got married in but still made a pilgrimage there to the old site with her husband to celebrate their anniversary each year. Another student thought back to a time when he never needed to worry about being unemployed in a country where everyone had a job and the future was laid out before you.

From my Monday morning class, C. told us about a friend living in the East who became pregnant by her West German boyfriend. She applied to leave but heard nothing until a month before the baby was due when she received a letter telling her to leave the country within the next 24 hours. For the East German government, she had ceased to exist and her family who remained there could only meet the child with her boyfriend who was allowed to visit. There are the glimpses into the practical everyday life, waiting for 20 years for a Trabi and how many "Ossies" carried a special cloth bag around with them everywhere because you never knew where you would find something worth buying so always had to be prepared. They even brought it with them when the Wall fell.

The last few weeks have been monotonously grey but then last week, the sun reappeared on a day so warm, you could be forgiven for thinking it was spring. I went on my own search of the past, starting first at the Mauerpark which marked the border between East and West and where there was once a famous viewing platform for Westerners to get a glimpse into the East. The afternoon was full of music, people sat chatting, soaking up the golden rays or reading on the grassy banks. From there, it's just a stone's throw to one of the last remaining parts of the Wall at Bernauer Straße. I visited this place a couple of years ago but was astonished to see how much the site has expanded, with memorials for those who died trying to cross over, stands with audio commentaries, rusty posts representing the metal structures of the Wall that kept people in. I walked in the cemetary which was once cut off from the world as it was directly behind the Death Strip. no more burials could take place and people were not allowed to visit the graves. In a city with an ever changing face which is still forging its new identity, I find it hard to believe that such things took place, even when confronted with the harsh reality.

Tonight I'm cocooned in the living room with the heating on full. The rain is lashing down ferociously against the windows and soon I'll cook a meal with the vegetables I paused to buy from the Turkish stall by the entrance to the S-Bahn. While writing this post, a marching band stood outside the building playing a few military tunes but now the neighbours' little red haired girl is practising the piano in the room next to mine. Somehow I always find it soothing to hear her in the evening. In a few days, I'm flying to England for Abbie's wedding and then staying on to see family and friends. I feel a sense of excitement already at the idea of seeing everyone again. In my suitcase, I'll pack a copy of Anna Funder's amazing Stasiland which Abbie introduced meto years ago and which I'm re-reading, seeing the GDR through the eyes of its citizens and feeling glad that I can be part of the new Berlin story.

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On the streets of Prenzlauer Berg on the way to the Mauerpark

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In the Mauerpark

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At the Chapel of Reconciliation on the site of the Church of Reconciliation which was demolished as it was too close to the Wall.

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One of the few remaining watchtowers

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The visitor centre

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In the corridors of Nordbahnhof

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The evening sky from my kitchen window