Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Berlin Diary

Please may I interrupt my writing schedule (8,000 words and counting) to tell you a few things, about me and about Berlin.

Firstly, if I lived alone permanently I would talk to myself out loud and eat straight from the fridge without bothering to use a plate, so I am very grateful to my darling family for keeping me on the right side of civilised.

Secondly, I like to shop but very large department stores confuse me and I have to head for the coffee-shop for recuperative chunks of cake. Yesterday, however, I found the perfect department store – just one size up from bijou, it has an excellent mixture of designer wear to just look at and more affordable street-wear from a mixture of French, British and German designers. The Galleries Lafayette on Friedrichstrasse is beautifully designed around a central glass cone, so I couldn’t get lost. It was also conveniently having its summer sales, so I found one or two lovely items at seriously reduced prices. Having enjoyed that success, I then went down to the foodhall and discovered to my absolute joy, that they have a concession for the Laduree macaroons which are, frankly, the most delicious things I have ever eaten in my life, ever. I ordered four small ones – rose petal (!), salted butter caramel (!!), chocolate and pistachio – but only ate the first two and took the other two home. They are a pastel taste sensation. I love this city!

Then I went into bookshops and flirted dangerously with buying more books than I could carry. Next, I walked up Unter den Linden to Bebelplatz – scene of the Nazi’s first book-burning in 1933 – where there was an open-air book fair. I bought some more books, this time for my kids. There were white marquees up, with writers giving readings, and a children’s tent with books to read, pictures to colour in and a man doing a reading from a pirate-book. I also picked up a flyer to LesArt, a centre of literature for children and young people based in Berlin, that arranges literary events for kids and trains adults, whether parents or professionals such as librarians, how to foster a love of literature in the young. Did I mention that I love this city?

Then I went for a very long walk to the Jüdisches Museum in northern Kreuzberg. It chronicles 2000 years of Jewish history in Germany, and is stunningly detailed, with interesting multimedia effects that even the youngest visitors could enjoy. There is one section dedicated to the Holocaust, and this is reflected in the architecture – an imposing steel-clad building designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind. Inside, the building is divided into three axes – the Axis of the Holocaust, which leads to the empty and haunting Holocaust Tower; the Axis of Exile which leads to a garden of tilting concrete columns that left me feel nauseous and anxious and which is supposed to evoke the discomfort of exile, and the Axis of Continuity, which leads to a very long, steep staircase and the rest of the exhibition. It was very impressive, and tiring.

This morning I took a walk along the Landwehrcanal, zigzagged through various Kreuzberg streets, and ended up in the Hasenheide park on the border of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Then I strolled back to my favourite Kreuzberg hangout, Bergmannstrasse, for an early lunch of salad, carrot juice (we writers have to keep our strength up) and hummus at Knofi.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some writing to do …


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Confessing in Berlin

Coffee + keyboard = slightly f*cked writing retreat

It also means a severely damaged computer. Don’t take coffee lightly, writing fans! It is a danger to your livelihood. Luckily, my lovely hosts have left their computer for me to use. It’s also been a great excuse to spend many delicious hours in the hosts of fabulous Berlin cafes, drinking chai teas, and writing in my notebook. Then I come home at night, transcribe my notes and make improvements.

My output has been excellent: so far I have transcribed 3,000 words and I have at least another 1,000 from today to add to that. I have completed the tricky final scene of Chapter Six and am well into the action of Chapter Seven. I also have a firm game plan for Chapter Eight.

I am loving my retreat, from the protestations of love I receive when I call home, to the unfathomable freedom of wondering the streets of Berlin, not having to be home at a promised time. I am enjoying not cooking and walking everywhere (though today I mastered three changes on the U-Bahn in order to go and fetch my very sick MacBook in Charlottenburg). This morning I lay in bed and read from cover to cover the faintly irritatingly titled, but astonishingly good, Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenburg. Then I got up and went to do a wonderful yoga class in the Bergmannstrasse studio of my yoga teacher’s teacher (see here for pictures). Tomorrow I may run. Or go shopping. Or visit a museum. Or sit in cafes, drink chais and people-watch.

One thing is for sure though. I will write.

(RIP, MacBook. You were a good friend.)


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Friday Already?

Here be my confession:

This week I have been addressing the sponginess of Chapter Six and trying to give it some backbone. I realised that I have been inadvertently giving the character to whom this chapter belongs watered-down reactions. She was being fuzzy, not true to herself, and far too reasonable. So I spent a bit of time writing about her in my notebook. I find that writing with pen and paper helps me to be more intuitive and free. Writing on the computer is good for shaping and arranging, but most of my best creative ideas come with pen in hand. (A chai latte helps too.) I wrote in the first person, trying to find the lies that she tells herself. That helped me rescue the first two-thirds of the chapter, but I am going to have to do it again in order to raise the level of crisis in the last third.

Why do I want my characters to be likeable? Two of my three main characters have been deliberately chosen because they are struggling with ego, and that means that they can be selfish, thoughtless, cruel and hurt people around them. This character is being too damn nice. I need to free-write again tonight, find the hooks and barbs in her personality, her limitations and boundaries. I also need to flesh out one of the secondary characters, who is being a bit bland. His nuances need to shine.

Next week, I leave for my six-day writing retreat in Berlin. It is now booked into the family calendar, and my unofficial writing cheerleader, my husband, has signed on for duty. He will have secondary back-up in the form of Grand-dad. I hope the five of them will have fun while I am gone.

The current word count stands at 40,601 and I plan to be able to tell you in two weeks time, when I confess again, that that number has increased significantly. I’m hoping that six days dedicated to writing, with no Internet access, will mean great chunks of writing.

Good luck with your writing, Friday ‘Fessors, and other writers out there. I hope the next two weeks bring you inspiration, energy and above all, time to write.


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Things To Do Instead of Writing

You can spend time with friends, with old friends, who because you haven’t seen them for so long, seem like new friends, and with new friends, who because you feel so strangely at one with them, seem like old friends. You can drink wine with them in the afternoon, share your kids with them, wander new streets with them, and make extravagant promises to babysit their kids, once they have some.

You can spend an entire afternoon in Berlin looking for the perfect dress. You can look for something whimsical and floaty, with tea roses and cleavage, that looks like Jane Austen wore it to a party where there was croquet and Indian tea, but finally buy a twenty-first century dress, a little edgy, a little sharp, but with its curves in the right places. Also with cleavage.

You can drive long distances, to places you never dreamt of visiting, take trains where your children press their noses against the windows, ride bikes around the city of your dreams, bump into pedestrians and mutter sorry in two languages. You can float down a river, or down a leafy path in the Tiergarten and hear the white wolves howl at the daylight in the Zoo.

You can read A Quiet Flame and imagine the encroaching horror of Nazism in Thirties’ Berlin, and then read No one belongs here more than you and be swept away into an imagination and a sensibility that leaves you shell-shocked, war-wounded, but glad to be alive.

You can eat the best ice-cream outside of Elba in a glass palace of shops and elegance, merguez sausages and couscous in a leafy beer-garden, white asparagus with hollandaise sauce in an achingly hip urban square and the best rhubarb cake you can imagine in the courtyard of an Italian restaurant where you are introduced to the chef and the hostess by name.

You can climb with your children to the top of the Siegesauele, admire them hanging upside down and learning to swing and slide by themselves in playgrounds, watch them falling in love with your friends and weeping when they part, and see them take part in their lives with such spirit and joy that you want to shed tears of your own.

Instead of weeping, you shout, “Who loves Berlin?” and hear them yelling back, “Me Mummy! I love Berlin! I love it! I do!”


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Auf Wiedersehen, Pets

Today I spent at the pool vigilantly watching my threesome, who range from swimmer to paddler to fully paid-up water wings user. Tomorrow I take them to Alsace Lorraine to visit friends who, for their sins, are spending the Whitsun holidays in a camper van in a village that my friend described as “one house” (thank God for satnav). Thursday, we leave for Berlin.

With sunshine and holidays abounding, I bid you a brief Auf Wiedersehen. I am taking a blogging and Internet break for a couple of weeks. I plan to spend the hours that I’m not soaking up the wonders of Berlin and Lübeck working on my novel, which I have been neglecting since the sun arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago. During my last two runs (six kilometres!), I crystallized the action of Chapter Six in my head and now have to get it all down before it vapourises.

I also plan to look for the ultimate summer dress. If I can’t find it in Berlin, then I can’t find it anywhere!

See you at the end of the holidays. May the sun shine on you wherever you are. Tschüss!


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National Unity, Pyjamas and Berlin

Today is Germany’s day of national unity – the day when East and West Germany became one. In this house it is also known as the day Mummy Stays In Her Pyjamas All Day If She So Chooses. And she does choose. (By gumminy, she does.) Having just visited Germany’s monument to national unity – the wondrous Berlin – I should probably talk about my trip last week. I’ve been a bit slow about writing about it, because I’m still holding it close to my heart. I’m not sure if I want to let the secrets out or not.

So when two youngish mothers of a total of seven children hit the techno capital of the world, do they go clubbing? Do they stay out all night, drinking ridiculous cocktails and chatting up younger men? Do they totter about in high heels, whooping and kicking over dustbins?

Umm.

No.

We didn’t.*

What they do is that they carefully and responsibly See Everything. They start by seeing the Berlin State Ballet perform Alice’s Wonderland. With the artful use of matchsticks, they manage to stay awake (having just arrived in Berlin after a six-hour drive from Frankfurt) to appreciate the exquisite choreography, staging and dancing. They leave, stunned by all this superlativeness and by the enthusiastic ovation that Berliners like to give their very own ballet, and eat fresh tomato soup at an outdoor restaurant in the Gendarmenmarkt for their supper, accompanied – for one, at least – by Germanically generous glasses of white wine.

Then they leap out of bed, refreshed, drive enthusiastically to Potsdam, and park at the Schloss San Souci (which their guidebook says is the number one sight in Berlin). They repair immediately to a restaurant and partake of one of those large and languid Sunday brunches which is the number one activity in Berlin. They watch the autumn leaves fall. Then they walk around the Schlosspark, enjoying the sunshine and taking photographs, followed by an impromptu skating session in a pair of enormous pantoffel inside the Schloss itself (they avoid the tour, preferring the whistlestop self-guided version in which you can skate really fast on the polished marble and wood floors).

Would we allow our children to do this?

Hell no!

It’s far too much fun.

Then they whizz back to Berlin Mitte for a show at the Friedrichstadtpalast. Slightly disturbed by the amount of pensioners in the audience and the young man next to them with his trousers up under his armpits, who hums loudly throughout the show, they enjoy a spectacle of dance and acrobatics. There are some scary bits – all of the singing

Ho hum. Could you get on with it please?

and a truly terrifying slippery wet suspended fishbowl affair high up above where two fish

Can we call them dancers?

people try alternatively to drown each other or throw each other out of the fishbowl to plunge down down for many metres in a horrible rictus of what the director must have imagined to be erotic but which was really just a live horror show. They watch this through their fingers, sigh with relief when it is over and stop for grilled tuna on the way home at The Hotel That Has The Worst Service In The World But Which Is On The River Spree, So Must Be Good. They have an early night, tucked up by – oh – 9pm in comfy beds with books.

This big sleep is important because Monday is a big day. Monday is the Day of the Bike Tour of Berlin. One of them is an experienced cyclist, having done four-day mountain bike tours, who likes to spend her spare time careering down mountainsides at high speed. The other is not. She can count the amount of times she has ridden her bike as an adult on her fingers.

That’s not a lot, folks.

The bike tour is fabulous. They see everything. They have their photo taken at (what remains of) the Berlin Wall. They see Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag, the parking lot under which Hitler’s bunker may or may not be, the Tiergarten, all the government buildings on the river, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Brandenburger Tor. They also enjoy an exciting cycle in the bus lane of Berlin and a very rewarding visit to a Biergarten for a late lunch and a large beer. Their tour guide, Ingo, is beyond cute and both cyclists, experienced and not, keep snuggled up close to him in the pelaton, kicking aside any stray New Yorkers or Oregonians who to try to muscle in.

After being returned to the Fat Tire Bike Tour offices at Alexanderplatz

If you go to Berlin, this is the best way to see the city.

It was fabulous.

And the guides are hot fit.

Whatever. You know what I mean.

they consider rest. After six hours of cycling round the city, would two mothers of a combination of seven children head back to their chic Berlin Mitte apartment for a small nap before finding a bijou restaurant for a relaxed dinner?

Actually.

No.

It becomes essential to go to the Haekesche Hoefe for some late-afternoon shopping in the beautiful Art Deco courtyards. Some coffee and cake become of the essence. Some more walking. It becomes night. Still the shops are open. They are shopped. It is dark, and the intrepid mothers decide it’s nonsense to go home when they can go and stand in a queue at the Reichstag for an hour, allow German security officials to accuse them of carrying a sparkly fairy ornament in one of their shopping bags

It was true.

We couldn’t deny it.

and then go up many many storeys in a lift to admire the view from the top of the building. However, they discover too late that they both have late-onset vertigo and an identical urge to crawl the walkway that hugs the glass dome, so they jog down very very fast back to terra firma.

Tuesday is designated shopping day. They head for the Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe), the Harrods of Berlin, and walk around in a daze for a few hours, testing the loos and fingering very expensive articles of clothing. Then they begin to stroll up the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s famous shopping street, but quickly become exhausted by all the

a. shops

b. tourists

c. beggars

so are forced to repair to a lovely little sidestreet where an Italian restaurant offers to feed them delicious pasta (salmon and pine-nut with a lobster sauce, and rocket and feta) and shelter them from the rain that has so irritatingly decided to pour down. They then retrieve the car from the Hotel That Serves the Worst Tea in the World

A huge, hairy testicle of a tea bag that has clearly been used umpty times before.

to do some driving around the city Because That is Fun. First driving stop is Schloss Charlottenburg. Next driving stop is the chic apartment in Berlin Mitte because they are tired and needing to nap. Later, after the nap

It was good.

So …

… nappy.

they walk around aimlessly, finally landing at the sushi bar under the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz for a €12 plate of sushi that they can’t finish it is so huge and delicious beers. They walk home, veering briefly into a lamp-post restaurant to acquire ice-creams.

Next day is Dresden day. This is very exciting because it means Driving Again. It is also very sad because it means Farewell to Berlin. However, they are grown women

really?

and manage to leave Berlin without a tear. Dresden is very beautiful. It is filled with buildings. It also has a river. Most importantly, it has a fabulously luxurious HOTEL where they check in, spend the afternoon sleeping, reading, bathing, lounging around in bathrobes, preening, toenail-clipping, dressing, going to the restaurant, enjoying fine dining and excellent wines and going to sleep again. The next morning they glance once more at the beautiful buildings of Dresden

They are so beautiful.

Aren’t they just?

and drive up the river, passing all the glamorous Communist villas where happy Communists once came to play landlords, to Schloss Pelnitz for a little stomp around the beautiful gardens, sadly muddying the boots that had been polished overnight by the little HOTEL elves. They shop idly for the last perfect present for lucky husbands and children and mothers, and then depart from formerly East Germany back to the West, which, strangely, looks very much like the East except that it has more hills.

It rained.

And the journey took eight hours.

But it was worth it.

* Any irritating tics and verbal asides that may appear in this post are attributable to the fact that I am reading Darkmans by Nicola Barker at the moment.

I am.

And it’s catching.

Really, really catching.

So, I’m sorry. But I can’t help it.


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Housekeeping

Is what I will NOT be doing for the next six days because I’m off to Berlin and Dresden with my friend, K. We’ve got an apartment, a show and a bike tour booked in Berlin, and a hotel booked in Dresden, and the rest is up to chance. You can’t plan too much. My main goal is not to cook anything for six days, not to fold anyone’s clothes apart from my own, not to worry about anyone’s sleep or nappies or vegetable intake, or having to find a babysitter so that I can go out for dinner and stay up ridiculously late and be as silly as I need to be. I also plan not to touch a computer.

When I get back I would like to do some housekeeping here at Charlotte’s Web. If there’s anyone out there who links to me or has me on their blogroll, and I don’t link back, please let me know. Leave a note in the comments.

With that I wish you a big Tschuess. Berlin, watch out, the Pietermaritzburg girls are coming!

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