The perfect friend

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  • I’m high street and he’s haute couture
  • He loves Downton Abbey and I much prefer Gosford Park
  • I’m devoted to Chanel No 5 and he’s in love with No 22
  • He adores the screwball films from the 1930s and I have a weakness for ‘40s and ‘50s noir
  • I don’t understand Top of the Lake and he doesn’t like Orson Welles
  • He loves costume drama and I love The Sopranos
  • My china is Lomonosov and his is Royal Copenhagen
  • He lives for nuits blanches and I never paint the town red
  • He only has eyes for Maurice Ronet and I go weak at the knees for Alain Delon
  • He dreams of riding the Tube and the Métro and I long for the Berlin U-Bahn

But we share a love for the people and things that really matter, like Matisse’s work, films by Woody Allen, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut and those with Bette Davis and Romy Schneider.  Not forgetting Niederegger Marzipan, books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Saki’s stories, Paris and the Café de Flore, Café Florian in Venice, Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet, Hermès Parure de Samouraïs scarves, Raymond Chandler novels, strolls along the Kurfuerstendamm and macarons from Spruengli. Most of all, there is nobody witter or more charming I would wish to share a pot of Afternoon Blend Tea with than Jan, especially as he also puts the (cold) milk in first. He also now lives in Berlin, one of my favourite cities, and if we cannot meet regularly  at the Literaturhaus for coffee or have bouillabaisse at Galeries Lafayette, then at least I have his blog to console myself with until our next meeting.

Below are some highlights from my recent trip to Berlin.

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Spring past and present

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One of the things I miss the most about living in the city, especially one as green as Berlin, is that element of surprise. My favourite thing has always been to get up very early at the weekend and go out to walk and take pictures. Riding in the S-Bahn, I would often look out of the window and spot a group of trees in blossom, or some lilacs, or particularly beautiful light on a favourite building that would make me rush off at the next station, even if it was nowhere near my planned destination. The light changes by the minute, the sunny morning can turn to rain and dash the blossom so you’re forever chasing shadows and fleeting beauty. Catch joy while it flies. And then there are the markets. I was lucky enough to live close to an amazing one in Charlottenburg on Karl-August-Platz that took over the whole square twice a week. Saturdays were always something special and I would return laden with bags packed with magnificent seasonal fruit and vegetables, bunches of flowers, French cheeses, apple croissant and huge eggs which often had double yolks.

The setting has changed of course, but my habits remain the same, never sleeping for more than 6 hours so I can get up and catch a glimpse of the sunrise which is more and more elusive. Each day, I walk in the garden to make a note of the smallest changes which I’m sure I’ll remember but never do. But I still dream of returning to my favourite cherry trees in the Buergerpark in Pankow and lingering to talk with them for a little while, just like Proust’s narrotor does with the hawthorn blossom.

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Schloss Schoenhausen in Pankow

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At the market on Karl-August-Platz in Charlottenburg

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My place (almost)

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Spring unfolding in the park outside my old building in Pankow

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French connection

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Shortly after I had moved to Charlottenburg, I placed an ad on the Connexion française website for a language exchange so that I could practise my French conversation with someone and they could learn English in return. I had a few responses but the meet-ups weren’t really successful because we didn’t have much in common. But on the verge of giving up hope, I received a message from a young French woman (let’s just call her J.) suggesting  we meet at the S-Bahn station at Hackescher Hoefe.

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Dressed in jeans, a white sleeveless top and gold Nike trainers, she was instantly recognisable on the platform. I can’t remember where exactly we went that first evening in this rather touristy area with generally mediocre and overpriced places to eat but thereafter, we met once a week, at first to speak French and then English and then just French which suited us both better. Sometimes we would head  to Datscha in Friedrichshain, a Russian café-bar with a Soviet style living room lined with pictures of Lenin and other communist memorabilia, where we ordered borscht, followed by Russischer Zupfkuchen, which isn’t actually Russian at all, or the warm blinis with quark and blackcurrants. Despite sharing a love of exercise, we both had a weakness for any rich desserts (rather like Diane Keaton and her neighbour in Manhattan Murder Mystery). Other times, we went to see French or English films at the Hackesche Hoefe Kino, the Sony Center or at my favourite Arsenal Kino on Potsdamer Platz.

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Our tastes didn’t always coincide. She hated Juliette Gréco and Jacques Brel and found the attitude of Mersault abhorrent after I gave her a copy of Camus’ ‘LÉtranger’. But the only really awful thing about being with J. was that she is stunningly beautiful. Next to her, I knew what it must have felt like to be friends with Lana Turner. In a city where no straight men ever look at you unless you’re wearing an evening gown and heels (speaking from personal experience), all the heads turned whenever we walked into a place and I was completely ignored. Alongside someone blonde, tanned and super slim, I felt plain and badly dressed. Even my all my male friends admired her looks and constantly pestered me for her number which I had to somehow diplomatically refuse.

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After a few months, we started hanging out at the Insitut Français on Ku’damm which has a wonderful cinema and exhibition rooms on the ground floor with large windows shining light across the pavements as dusk falls, reminding me of the aquarium like ones at the hotel in Balbec through which observers could watch the dinner guests in Proust’s Recherche. Afterwards, we always headed for the one cheap place to eat round there – an Italian pizzeria on Uhlandstrasse where you sit on wooden benches and they announce when your order is ready to collect in garbled Italian which meant listening out closely in mortal fear of missing it. The owner was rather un-Italian looking, bald with glasses, but he was clearly smitten with J and asked her out. She told me about their date – how she waited until 2 am for the restaurant to close, then they went to a nightclub owned by his brother where they started dancing. Gradually she became aware that he was giving directions for other couples and dancers to clear the floor until they were completely alone with the music.

Despite that, J. decided that she didn’t want to see him again which meant we could never return to the pizzeria. She told me she was bored with the city and that, “Berlin me semble fade”. A little later J. returned to Paris where she still lives to this day. Our paths have crossed only once since then when she invited me to stay in her tiny apartment in Montparnasse. I think I annoyed her with my large suitcase and inability to be tidy, even in such a small space. At a party with many of her friends who gathered to eat Galette des Rois, nobody spoke to me all evening and I felt hurt when she asked me if I hadn’t found it too boring. I decided then that she was probably just too cool to be my friend, that things weren’t the same and that I was OK with that. After returning to Berlin, I picked up my copy of ‘L’Étranger’ and had dinner at the pizzeria on Uhlandstrasse.

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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.

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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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More photos of Berlin

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No film review tonight but some more photos from my trip to Berlin, taken with the iPhone. Have a great weekend!

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My friend’s apartment where I stayed, early in the morning
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A furry friend waiting for me
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The garden at the Max Liebermann villa
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Carrot cake and cheesecake at the Max Liebermann villa
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On Wannsee
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Potsdamer Platz
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Boat trip on the river Spree
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In Tiergarten
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Tiergarten
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The Siegessaeule
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The Soviet War memorial
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The cinema at Hackesche Hoefe
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At Zoologischer Garten with the new Bikini Haus
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Enjoying a bibimbap with a friend in Charlottenburg
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The last remaining plane at Tempelhof
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Much needed refreshments after the tour of Tempelhof at Zimt und Zucker
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Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island is just a short ferry ride away
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On Pfaueninsel
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Buffalo on Peacock Island
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The end of a wonderful day on Peacock Island
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Friedrichstrasse

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One week in Berlin

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At the Max Liebermann villa, Wannsee

 

Four years after I packed my bags and moved away from this wonderful city, I finally went back there last autumn. It’s strange to return to a place where you lived for so long, whose streets are so familiar, you can trace them with your eyes closed. In many ways, it felt as if I had never left. The only thing that struck me was how crowded certain spots have become – heaving crowds at Hackescher Markt, waiting in line for the Siegessaeule to open, the grime and seediness of Kottbusser Tor replaced by large groups of tourists, wandering from bars and restaurants where everyone automatically speaks English. But it’s still one of the few cities where you can find space to be alone and find your own way, where eating out is cheap and the bread is to die for. A week wasn’t nearly enough to see all the friends and places I wanted to – a perfect excuse to get back there again soon.  In the meantime, here are some moments to share with you.

IMG_9655The beautiful garden at the Max Liebermann villaIMG_9663WannseeIMG_9661LunchIMG_9680Early morning view from the Siegessaeule, direction Brandenburg GateIMG_9684View over the Tiergarten towards Potsdamer PlatzIMG_9651Café terrace at Zoologischer GartenIMG_9702I also went on an amazing tour of Tempelhof airport – so many interesting things to see!IMG_9703A raisin bomber – the only plane allowed to remain at the airportIMG_9710The check-in desksIMG_9739The famous eagle outsideIMG_9727

IMG_9754Finally made it to the Pfaueninsel – Peacock island – accessible via a short ferry ride. It was such a magical day.IMG_9756

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IMG_9778Home made plum cakeIMG_9785I turned a corner and discovered a fountain among the palmsIMG_9786One last look at the peacock and then time to head home.