Lost in grammar

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Sometimes I have the craziest ideas which even surprise those who already regard me as eccentric. Like the time I decided to buy a glass table top from Ikea in Lyon and bring it home by public transport. It was so heavy I couldn’t carry it more than 5 metres before various kind and strong Frenchmen took it from me out of pity. I ended up leaving it in a shoe shop on Place Bellecour before returning with my flat mate who took it back in his tiny car with the boot open. I never lived it down.

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Then there was my decision to learn Finnish and move to Helsinki. Finland has a lot to recommend it – the Moomins, Iittala, Marimekko, Alvar Aalto, Sibelius, Kaurismäki films, stunning lakes and forests. As an autodidact who speaks French and German, I refused to be intimidated by its reputation as one of the hardest languages in the world. Every morning, I got up at 6, even at weekends, to try and learn all kinds of unpronounceable and unrecognisable words with a seemingly infinite number of case endings. The basics were OK and I loved the sound of this strange and beautiful language. But then once you get on to talking about saunas and Sibelius, likes and dislikes, future, past and subjective possibilities, all the grammar and vocabulary became one big blur. I had to admit defeat.

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But I did make it to Helsinki and even managed to successfully buy a bus ticket and later on a coffee in the stunning Cafe Aalto at the Academic bookshop. I can’t deny that I wasn’t relieved to go home after a week because on the second day, I had the worst food poisoning of my life thanks to the hotel breakfast which not only left me weak but unable to have anything other than tonic water and digestive biscuits (bought from the stunning food hall of the wonderful Stockmann’s department store).

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Picture 280 But I would still recommend Helsinki and find myself dreaming of its architecture and its fiendishly beauty language.

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Paris in the springtime


My friend Jan is currently in Paris, taking beautiful pictures for Instagram (@clovis_sangrail) and writing more wonderful articles like this one which really make you feel you’re there. He was also kind enough to take this picture of this building where I lived for a few weeks back in 2001. So I thought I’d share some memories and old film photos with you from this time.


Leaving my father grumbling about looking after so many cats for so long, my mother and I packed an enormous suitcase and took the Eurostar. Looking back, it seems like a wonderful dream. A place of our own between the Opéra and the Louvre. Each morning, I drew back the curtains to watch the traffic and commuters outside before taking a morning walk in the gardens of the Palais- Royal. There was once an evening trip at the theatre there to see a French farce with Jean-Claude Brialy and Line Renaud, not knowing that this place had been used many years earlier for the final showdown in Charade starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.

On other evenings, I watched the crowds gathering outside the Comédie Française until we finally joined them one night in those plush red seats to see a performance of Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector’.

Of course, that was the year it rained all spring. And rained, and rained. Weddings were cancelled, blossom was dashed, but as you know if you’ve seen Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’, even in the rain, this city is something special. Having so much time here was a true luxury – we visited the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Grand Palais, Les Invalides, the Musée Rodin, the Musée Carnavalet, the Marais, the Pompidou, the islands, Montmartre, the Tuileries and the Jardins de Luxembourg and many more.







Not forgetting the visits to cemeteries – Montparnasse and Père Lachaise where my mother left me alone, only to attract the attentions of a strange man following me who wanted to show me where Yves Montand and Simone Signoret were buried. Once there, he put his arm around me and suggested lunch. “Oh no, not until I’ve found the grave of Maurice Merleau-Ponty”, I replied. He walked away, muttering that he had no idea who that was and I breathed a sigh of relief.




There were also day trips to Versailles, the basilica of Saint Denis and Chartres to admire the magnificent cathedral and stained glass. And when we were not exploring, we were recovering in the Flore, the Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, the Closerie des Lilas, La Coupole, enjoying famous ice cream at Berthillon’s or entering into the magic of Angélina’s where I almost overdosed on sugar from their amazing hot chocolate and the Mont Blanc I couldn’t finish.




One thing we had not considered; every time we visited an exhibition or a place, we bought a catalogue or guide book. Then there were all my French novels and the CDs bought late at night on the Champs-Élysées. Our suitcase was impossible to lift and a sense of dread overcame me.


We spent our last morning walking to the Île-de-la-Cité and the Île Saint-Louis, eating croissants filled with goats cheese my mother had prepared under the statue of Henri IV. It was the 1st of May, a holiday in France, when everyone sells lily-of-the-valley. After buying a large bunch from a friendly seller outside the station, I said au revoir to Paris, so sad to leave but with so many great memories.

And the suitcase? In the pre 9/11 days, security was less rigorous. My panic stricken eyes met those of a French customs officer who waived me through without opening our luggage. I have no further recollection of how I got it home.

A walk by the Thames


Dr. Johnson famously declared that, “The man who is tired of London is tired of life,” but I have never really understood the appeal of the city. Much as I love all the things you can do there, it’s too huge, the beautiful buildings are often overwhelmed by modern monstrosities and the crowds make me feel I can’t stop to breathe for a moment. And then there’s the Tube. As a Berlin U-Bahn girl through and through (accessible stations, quick to exit), I dread taking those escalators to the centre of the earth and joining the ranks of sardines. Paris at least has the most beautiful architecture and poetic Métro names to make up for the hoards of tourists.


But yesterday, I really loved it, even the strangely deserted Tube and can see why my very stylish friend Jan, who writes an equally stylish blog, is always telling me how fabulous it is. I met another very stylish friend, Patricia, at Embankment station which reminded me of trips to the nearby theatres many years ago to see Juliette Binoche in Pirandello’s ‘Naked’ and later Kristin Scott Thomas in Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters’.



We crossed over the Thames to the South Bank and walked past other old haunts of mine – the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the BFI, Festival Hall, Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. Sunshine and a light spring breeze swept over our faces as we looked down at the footprints in the sand on Ernie’s Beach and listened to the waves breaking. We stopped for the most delicious lunch at one of the restaurants at the wharf, resisting with difficulty one of the beautiful large glasses of gin with grapefruit which the woman at the next table was enjoying.







IMG_2616   Continuing our walk by the Thames while chatting about everything and anything, the time just evaporated with the fading light. Some tea, coffee and cake, then goodbye after crossing once more over the river. IMG_0865







Travelling back home on the train speeding into darkness and glimpsing the lights of the windows passing by, I felt torn between people, places and languages and wondered where I belong. But later that evening, curled up with a new book and a pot of Fortnum’s Royal Blend tea, I realised none of that mattered for the moment, that the simple pleasures are the best and that I’m lucky to have such wonderful friends.



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My devotion to my cultural icons has always bordered on the extreme – once I even visited a museum devoted to the socialist politician Jean Jaurès, just because Jacques Brel wrote a song about him. So when my (then) long-term boyfriend suggested a trip to Austria, all I could think of was getting to Ohlsdorf, former home of one of my favourite authors, Thomas Bernhard. I had read his work practically non-stop since discovering the brilliant Alte Meister (Old Masters) some years before. I loved the musical structure of his sentences which makes him surprisingly easy to read in German with frequent repetition of phrases, his black humour and contempt for humanity.

My boyfriend’s idea of a great trip were days devoted to hiking for 8 hours, kayaking and rock climbing, camping in the wild at night as it was free, whereas all I wanted to do was visit museums, take pictures and sit in cafes which didn’t go down well as these things normally involve spending money. However, he did agree to take me to Ohlsdorf. I remember we set off on our trip at Easter and that I was astonished to find all shops open on Good Friday, unlike in Germany. That though was my mistake as the house was only open at Bank Holidays and weekends so as everything else was open, it was completely closed. My boyfriend was absolutely furious with me and refused to stay until the following day and waste another day’s kayaking. Sad and frustrated, I tried to make the best of things by peeking in through all the windows and exploring the countryside around to get an impression of Thomas Bernhard’s world.




I did get to speak to his former neighbour though, a man who unsurprisingly wasn’t much liked by the author. The feeling was mutual as he explained what a misanthrope Thomas Bernhard really was and how he exaggerated everything.  I forget the exact details in Karl Ignaz Hennetmair’s ‘My Year with Thomas Bernhard’, but distinctly remember that this same neighbour figured in the infamous episode where TB almost cut off his own leg with a chainsaw. The man was deeply suspicious of all these literary tourists, especially of me as I had read so much of his work, yet was not an academic, although he did pay me the greatest compliment of my life by asking if I was German so obviously, I spoke quite well that day. I made a serious gaffe, however, when I asked where he was from. His eyes narrowed as my boyfriend whispered that he was a farmer and his family must have lived there for generations.

I won’t deny that I didn’t feel a pang of regret on leaving the village as it seemed unlikely I would get there again anytime soon. Strangely, I haven’t read any Thomas Bernhard novels for several years since finishing the autobiography. The man I found so funny turned out to have had the saddest life. Reading about his illegitimacy, his hatred for his stepfather, the death of his beloved grandfather, his own stay in a hospital for a serious lung condition from which he never fully recovered and then the death and destruction in Salzburg during the Second World War was truly harrowing. Opening one of his other books later, the laughter simply stuck in my throat. But he remains my favourite German language author and I hope to return to his books anew very soon. In the meantime, I’ll always have Ohlsdorf.

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The last nights of Berlin

Bild 134.jpgBerlin really comes alive with the night much more than cities like Paris or London. The trains run late and all night at the weekend, transporting party goers, tourists, groups of friends, cinephiles and many others. Where else could you go and see a midnight screening of Casablanca every Saturday at the tiny Lichtblick Kino, enjoy an all-night Hitchcock marathon and be woken up with Bloody Mary or finish the Long Night of the Museums in the aquarium, watching the sharks swim while a jazz band plays in the early hours? It was at night when I officially moved there in 2007, arriving at Hauptbahnhof from God knows where after travelling all day. It had not been love at first sight when I had visited a year earlier – I found the city so huge and fragmented. How could I ever hope to get an overview of such a place? Yet even after a couple of days wandering through its stunning parks and empty streets, I realised that this city was something special, that it was many things and not just one, allowing you to do what you wanted to follow your own path. Glimpsing the famous dome of the Reichstag, the buildings of the Regierungsviertel and the roof of the Sony Center, I knew that I was home, that this was the best place in the world to live and that I belonged there.


I moved with my then boyfriend into a top floor flat in Pankow with a view over the roofs of Berlin and quickly fell in with a young Expat crowd who were also training to be teachers. We spent our days and evenings studying hard together, releasing the tensions of the week on Friday nights in a mediocre bar across the Spree. Even after the course had finished, rents were so cheap that we all stayed on, doing the round of language schools with our CVs in the day and hanging out together in the evening. Best were the nights out – watching English language films at the Sony Center or at Hackesche Hoefe, drunken evenings at karaoke bars and nightclubs in Friedrichshain, including the now legendary Berghain. The partying began at midnight, we danced until 5 or 6, fuelled by Red Bull and Coke, returning home bleary eyed under the harsh lights of the S-Bahn to crash on someone’s floor or sofa until late afternoon when we would get up for coffee and brunch. We rarely saw much light of day. Once I even returned home just as my bemused boyfriend was leaving for work.

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Of course, with jobs, we had to curb our partying to weekends only. Some members of our group eventually moved away, others returned home until I was the only one left. There were many other great nights out with friends who were just passing through but also others who stayed. But never did I live the night so intensely as in those first few months. Berlin is no longer my home and part of me wonders whether I was right to leave, hoping deep down I can live there again one day. Maybe I will get the chance.  In the meantime, I settle for visiting friends every year and still feel that tremendous sense of freedom and exhilaration each time night falls there.

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The scent of life


As you know from previous posts, I have always been something of a makeup junkie, yet looking at my relatively small collection of perfume (one of my favourites from it is in the photo above), I was struck by the importance fragrances have had throughout my life. My mother, first of all. Always made up and smelling of Guerlain’s Mitsouko for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, my father would go on business trips and golfing holidays, calling us every day before finally returning, usually late at night, with a toy or a CD for me, a bottle of Mitsouko for my mother and so many stories to tell. I can never smell it without recalling the anticipation of our reunions. Some are still in her wardrobe from that time, unopened in pristine boxes. Perhaps they never will be.

On family holidays, we generally took the ferry to France or Spain and to kill time, my mother and I would wander on deck until we were thoroughly windswept and chilled to bone by the cold sea air and then make our way to the duty free shop to test out all the fragrances. My mother never really deviated from her signature scent but I recall one year she bought Guerlain’s Champs Élysées and Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, perhaps for the rather glamourous bottles as much as the lovely scents. My father was never one for fragrance, except for a bottle of Old Spice he picked up somewhere. As a teenager I found it impossibly strong, blending as it did with the extra strong peppermints he constantly consumed but I have a special fondness for it now, particularly compared to the rather dull range of aftershaves on offer.


Then there was my paternal grandmother. Despite having a fondness for Gordon’s gin and smoking all her life which helped her reach the age of 101, she never smelled of cigarettes, only of Max Factor Cream Puff which was kept in her brown leather handbag along with a frosted lipstick, and Yardley’s lavender. As absurd as it sounds, neither of these products really suit me, yet I couldn’t imagine being without them in my home simply because their scent can make me feel close to her again just by opening them.

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Strangely, I cannot be sure of my own first perfume. Perhaps it was Revlon Charlie Red or Blue, spritzed with my teenage friends as we wandered through department stores on a Saturday afternoon. Or maybe Clinique Aromatics Elixir which I seemed to get all the time in a bonus time free gift but which I felt too intimidated to wear to high school. In any case, my first proper fragrance purchase was Cerruti 1881, bought after identifying it as the one worn by Louisa, my neighbour in the German class. She wore skin tight trousers, low-cut tops, rather orange foundation and had long, flowing hair and a boyfriend named Ben who drove a sports car. By copying her scent, I felt sure I could transform myself from an extremely shy and gawky teenager with awful dress sense and spots into something elegant and cool. It didn’t work and smelling it today, I find it too floral and soapy but somehow the sight of the round pink bottle on display still makes me smile, even if it is often marked down to half price.

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The most comic experience related to scent occurred in Berlin several years ago when a former work colleague, let’s just call him J., asked if he could stay with me. At the time I was sharing a flat with a very loud Brazilian woman and her son in Charlottenburg and only had the one room. But I couldn’t refuse and offered him either a small sofa (he was about 6ft.) or the floor. Unfortunately, what I had not taken account of was the fact that he smelled quite strongly of sweat and to disguise this, sprayed copious amounts of YSL Jazz constantly so that in just a few hours, my room, hair, clothes and in fact, the whole apartment reeked of it too. I would probably not mention it, were it not for the fact that he then preceded to flood the bathroom without noticing afterwards and complained loudly about how uncomfortable everything was. The final straw came when he deleted files on my computer without my permission in order to speed it up, then tried to seduce me in the middle of the night and I decided to throw him out. So he departed angrily, leaving just the lasting traces of his personal scent, but not before stealing a couple of my Thomas Bernhard novels in exchange for a Henry James, his favourite writer. “What happened to your Prince Charming?” my flatmate’s boyfriend asked. “He turned into a frog”, I replied. If you are reading this and have a fondness for YSL Jazz, I won’t hold it against you, although I hope the man of my dreams wears something else.

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