Notes on Predator and the State of the Blog

The astute among you will have noticed that this blog got reactivated a couple of weeks ago. Not that it ever got officially deactivated; it just slipped out of use, as blogs are wont to do. The decision not to make a big song and dance about my sudden new entry – to simply post what I wanted to post – was a conscious one: having been off the radar for over a year, why waste anyone’s time with apologies and excuses?

My little flash-fiction ramble on predators attracted a pretty good reception while left to fend for itself, but it’s probably about time I offered a bit of background on the thinking behind it. For a short piece, it has quite a few layers, and the fortnight away from it will hopefully have given me the distance to look at my writing a little more objectively and try to understand where I can improve my process. At the same time, I hope that my ramblings can add another layer of enjoyment for you, the reader.

If you’re less interested in the motivations for my flash fiction and just want to know why I’ve suddenly started posting again, why I wasn’t doing so for so long or what on earth happened to my language analysis articles, then you can skip the next few paragraphs and go straight to Section 2.

Analysing Predator

First things first: if you haven’t read Predator yet, you can do so here. It won’t take a minute. Really, it probably won’t.

Finished? OK, let’s have a look at how this snapshot story came to be and what it means to me. I was thinking about birds of prey, and it struck me that there is a great contradiction in their being: we see them as creatures of beauty and grace, yet in effect they are nothing more than perfectly designed killing machines. They are rarely seen in the wild and barely ever close-up, and this sense of distance probably adds to their air of majesty. What do we really know about how they think? I wanted to try and get inside such a creature’s head and explore what might be going on behind that regal veneer.
As I began to flesh out the idea, it struck me that these hunters were perhaps, in a way, victims of their own perfect design. The splendour of their plumage hints at an animal that could bring so much joy to the world, yet all it does is wreak havoc on those below it in the food chain. Over the centuries, the skills and instincts that have allowed them to thrive have been honed to the detriment of all other characteristics, leaving a cold, unfeeling monster trapped in a beautiful outer shell.

The juxtaposition of this idea felt somewhat tragic, and I started to wonder whether it was also reflected in other predators. In the natural world, there were certainly parallels: the proud lion, the romantic lone wolf. But what of man-made hunting machines? Might a sleek drone hovering far above a desert village, waiting for the command to unleash its payload, evoke the same sense of longing for a more meaningful existence? Perhaps the international mega-corporation that swallows up smaller competitors in hostile take-overs is also simply expressing its innate nature? True, these actions require the input of a human mind – but are these arbiters of our desires not simply extensions of our own destructive instincts?

These were the thoughts that bounced around my head as I sat down to put pen to paper. It seemed sensible to frame the whole concept in its original context – that of the bird of prey – but I also wanted to add hints of the wider notions of the term “predator” that the action might equally be describing. As a writer, for me the piece was also an exercise in description itself, an area that I fell I still need a lot of practice in. I hope it was a successful one.

The future of this blog

This page started three years ago as the first pillar of my new project: to become a writer. This was something I had wanted to do ever since I started school, but as the years went by, the ambition had faded in favour of honing more practical skills. I had become a translator, moved to Berlin and set up my own business, which by this point was going rather well. But the creative side of my brain had been left unurtured for too long, and was starting to get restless. Life had become routine – I needed an outlet. I took a travel break, and was on a night bus weaving through the Peruvian Andes when I looked at the journal in my hands and realised: this is it.

This is what I need.

Memories came flooding back: my first Roald Dahl book, the story I wrote about a missing silver elephant on the planet (as it still was back then) Pluto, the adventures my imagination would take me on to escape the mundane real world. And I resolved that I would honour those memories and revive the ideal.

One of the most common nuggets of advice offered to budding writers is to “write what you know”. I am a linguist; what I know is words. I had also been living in a foreign culture for a good number of years, during which time my analytical linguist’s brain had made numerous observations on the quirks of language and the way these influence and reflect society. So I started a blog on language, culture and society.

This was fun, and the response to my site was generally pretty good. Soon I had started writing articles for a couple of other sites (most notably Slow Travel Berlin), and by the end of the year I had even been published. One of my articles went semi-viral among a group of Dutch Linguistics students. Everything was going quite well.

But although it remained a pet subject, I soon found writing about language was no longer enough to scratch the itch. I began thinking about what “becoming a writer” actually meant to me. It wasn’t anything to do with money – I was still quite happy to be earning my bread and Bierwurst by taking words from one language and magicking them into another – but nor was non-fiction what I’d had in mind at the birth of this ambition 12 months earlier (or 25 years ago, for that matter). I started to ponder about some of my favourite writers and the kinds of books I was reading, and my articles reflected this. Then, at the start of 2015, I decided I was Finally Going To Start Writing Fiction.

And the blog all but stopped.

I posted one of my first short stories, The Cactus, and a tribute to one of my literary heroes on his passing, then nothing. Nada. It wasn’t deliberate – I had intended to keep posting the odd book review or linguistic observation now and then, but events overtook me. I worked a lot on the next couple of STB books (one of which is still underway), and when I got chance to write for myself, I discovered that the old-fashioned pen-and-paper approach suited me much better when it came to fiction. I told myself I would type up some of my shorter pieces now and then, but when I got the time, I found I far preferred to simply let my imagination loose again rather than transferring already written words to a computer screen. On top of that, a lack of focus between all my ideas crept in, and many of my stories have remained unfinished as a result. There’s one good one I keep coming back to that I hope might become a book one day, but it’ll be some time before that becomes a realistic goal. First and foremost, I need to write for myself – to discover my voice.

As things stand, this is still an ongoing process. I work on my tales when I can, and occasionally something good enough and polished enough for the attention of the world will come out of it. When that happens – which will hopefully be more frequently in the future – I’ll post it on here for your approval. If things really take off, I might even find another, more dedicated web outlet for my shorter fiction. I may also rustle up a new language piece or book review if the fancy takes me. In one way or another, this will remain a blog about words, be they my own, other people’s or everyone’s. I can’t promise it will be updated particularly frequently, but I will strive to stop it from slipping back into the level of neglect it has for the past year or so. And whatever I post, I’ll do my damnedest to make sure it’s worth the wait.

Thank you for reading.


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I am a speck in a cloud.

A machine of death. Continue reading

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Sir Terry Pratchett: In Memoriam

How do you deal with the death of one of your literary heroes?

It’s not a question I’d ever asked myself before. My first literary hero, Roald Dahl – the man whose work first inspired me to become an author – died when I was aged four, just after I had discovered his books and long before I truly understood the concept of Death. Douglas Adams, another favourite, passed away shortly after my fifteenth birthday, by which point I had read all five parts of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide trilogy several times over and accepted that no further additions would be forthcoming, considering his strained relationship with deadlines. Both events upset me, yet neither felt like it would have an immense effect on my young life.

It is now three days since the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett, beloved author of the Discworld series, The Carpet People and many of my favourite reads over the past twenty years or so. I have burst into tears four or five times since Thursday, and am still feeling a little weepy now. So what makes this time different?

Terry Pratchett was a rare kind of creative genius: a man who, like Adams and Dahl, had his head in the clouds, yet still remained firmly grounded in the realities of everyday life. He created an entire magical world in the shape of a Disc balanced on the back of four elephants who were carried through space atop a giant turtle, yet somehow managed to use this absurd premise to reveal to us more about our society than any more “serious” writer I have ever read. He was one of the best-selling authors of all time, yet seemed, by all accounts, a thoroughly down-to-earth, friendly and welcoming chap.

Pratchett’s works have accompanied me throughout my life, from the age of about seven or eight onwards. I had always loved the fantasy genre for its escapism, its epic quests and relief from the mundane world around me. Yet Pratchett showed me that it could offer so much more. It could be funny – hilarious, even – and, better yet, it could be used to improve my understanding of real life outside the book.

They called themselves the Munrungs. It meant The People, or The True Human Beings.
It’s what most people call themselves, to begin with. And then one day the tribe meets some other People or, if it’s not been a good day, The Enemy. If only they’d think up a name like Some More True Human Beings, it’d save a lot of trouble later on.

― Terry Pratchett, The Carpet People

Terry Pratchett opened my mind to different perspectives on life. Somewhat ironically, considering my feelings of the past few days, the first character to truly endear himself to me in the Discworld was Death. Rather than the threatening, impassive spectre of yore, in Pratchett’s hands the Grim Reaper became a chatty, well-rounded character with his own drives and opinions and a fondness for cats. He was also often the soul of the books, offering guidance and moments of sage wisdom when the more human characters needed them most:


 At least one new Discworld book has been published almost every year of my life. I may have gone through phases of not reading them, but there was always comfort in knowing that Terry would still be there, that I could come back any time I wanted and a gateway to another corner of the Disc would await me. Even after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007, he managed four more volumes before finally leaving us to meet his old friend the Reaper Man. The final instalment in the series was completed last summer, and will be published later this year.

He took inspiration from myth and folklore the world over, using figures and tropes familiar to us all, and somehow managed to create his own unique universe without ever becoming clichéd or unoriginal. He was the kind of author you felt you knew; whose personality shone through the pages of his books as you read them. He inspired me as a writer but, more than that, he inspired me as a person.

 Farewell, Sir Terry. You shall be missed.

…no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away… The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.
― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

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The Cactus

A short story for your perusal, conceived last week as part of my new drive to write more fiction. Enjoy.

Stoic, the cactus sits on the windowsill. Its life is a paradox: bought as a house plant for someone who isn’t good with plants, its main redeeming feature is its lack of neediness. For weeks it can go without water, unperturbed, while its brothers and sisters wilt and curl, crying out for the attention they were promised so naively when brought in to ornament the new home.

The cactus is spiny and cynical; it never had any illusions as to how its life would be. It came into the deal eyes wide open. For centuries, its kind have suffered the same fate, destined to provide the bare minimum of greenery in a landscape otherwise devoid and uncaring. Yet they do not complain. The cactus does not need to be noticed. It is content in knowing that it does its job well.

Nevertheless, there are times when the cactus yearns for companionship. On sunny days, when its neighbours excitedly tilt their leaves and heads to the window, displaying themselves to the world, the cactus sighs wearily, knowing only too well that their joy will pass. “How can they not see this?” it asks itself. “I am surrounded by idiots, slaves to the teasing of the ultra-violet rays.”

But there is one, the cactus knows, who understands his plight. Sometimes, when the reflections in the windows are just right, he can see across the courtyard a kindred spirit. She is beautiful and wild, her leaves green tongues sprouting every which way, her spines small and delicate. Like the cactus, she is uncaring for the whims of the sun god, and like him she complains not if her soil is left to dry. And he knows that she sees him too.

Like the cactus, the aloe vera will still be standing long after the other house plants have gone, their flirtatious beauty swept away like pollen on the breeze. Then, the courtyard shall be theirs and theirs alone, and they shall have peace from the preening peace lilies and their careless owners. Unspeaking, they shall gaze at each other across the space between the houses, satisfied with a job well done.

There is comfort in this.

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Breaking radio silence

Well…it’s been a while.

A good, long while, in fact.

This blog has been in limbo for the best part of half a year, and that’s not really on. The truth is, my writing landscape has changed a little over the past few months. I’ve been involved in a couple of exciting new projects for the wonderful Slow Travel Berlin, of which more as and when said projects come to fruition. But I’ve also been venturing outside the world of blog-style writing and into more of what the little boy in me who idolised Roald Dahl always wanted to write: fiction. I’ve no idea where it will go, or what I will do with it, but I’m a big believer in not believing in those kinds of things. I think that to gain satisfaction from writing – or, indeed, any form of art – you need to make it first and foremost for yourself. You are the only person that you know how to write for; if you are aiming your work at any other target group, you will always be trying to second-guess what they want to hear. If you take pride in your work and enjoy it, this in itself will become obvious in the text and, if you’re lucky, attract the interest of others.

With that in mind, it was my new year’s resolution this year to make a regular habit of writing for myself. Inspired by this wonderful blog, I was originally going to try and write 300 stories of 300 words or less in the space of a year. This would have been a good exercise, but I quickly realised that it was incompatible with another of my resolutions: not to put too much pressure on myself. By the second story, I also felt I was going to have regular problems cramming everything I wanted into my tales. Being concise isn’t my strong point.

So I dialed it back a little, and decided to give myself and the stories room to breathe. The 300 Stories exercise is an excellent idea, and would undoubtedly also help me cut back on my verbosity (George Orwell would surely approve), but it doesn’t fit with my current priorities. For now, I just need to start writing; the fine-tuning can come later.

So far, I’m doing pretty well on that front. I’ve sat down and done some writing at least once every week, and there’s some nice material coming together. At least one of the ideas has the potential to become something much bigger, but nothing’s certain at this stage. By this time next week it may have been reduced to a haiku. That is the joy of writing for yourself: there really are no rules.

So what now for this blog? Well, it’s going to stay put, and for the most part will remain a place for my linguistic musings and the occasional book-inspired piece. I may even use it to publish some of my fiction – I’ve not decided yet. But one thing I’m certain of is that I will be keeping it alive. Over the past two years, it’s become a great place for me to put in writing those thoughts that flit through my head on a day-to-day basis, and I’m still going to need that. Obviously, it’s now competing for my attention with several other projects, so I may not get around to adding new articles as often as I’d like, but it will still remain a central hub for all my written work, which means I’ll be using it to inform you all of progress elsewhere, too. So check back in now and then, follow me on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll be sure to see something new sooner or later.

In fact, I’ve got a lovely little politico-linguistic piece brewing as we speak…

Thanks for reading folks. Hope to see you all back here soon.

Ian out.

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A Guide to Berlinerisch

Ian Farrell explores the origins and development of Berlinerisch – and shows us how to speak ‘like a local’…

This is an excerpt from an article originally published on Slow Travel Berlin. The full version can be found here.

Moving to Berlin is a big step in anyone’s life. No matter where you’ve lived before – Paris, Rio, Stockton-on-Tees – Germany’s capital is guaranteed to be a new experience for you. Every day holds a new discovery: a future favourite bar or café, stumbling upon a spontaneous live concert or dance performance, or simply making friends with some of the many colourful folk on the streets of your adopted home.

If you want to make the most of this life-changing decision, you’re going to want to learn the language. Maybe you studied German at university in your home country. Maybe you’re planning on doing a crash course when you get here. Maybe you are German (or Austrian, or Swiss, or another native speaker of Deutsch).

Either way, you’ll settle into it sooner or later. The grammar might be a bit tricky for beginners, but after a month or two you’ll probably be able to hold down a half-decent conversation, and this multi-kulti metropolis is generally pretty tolerant of your mistakes.

An Urberliner. Image by Paul Sullivan.

An Urberliner. Image by Paul Sullivan.

At some point, you’ll stumble across one of those elusive creatures: a born-and-bred Urberliner. Maybe someone will come round to read your meter, or install a new boiler, or perhaps you’ll make the mistake of trying to strike up a conversation with your bus driver when buying a ticket. You greet them with confidence and the opening gambit you had prepared in your head trips relatively smoothly off your tongue.

You prick your ears up for the response…but wait, what was that?! Was it even German? It sounded like something between a grunt and a mutter, far too fast for you to understand, and now they seem to be laughing and/or scowling at you! Did you say something wrong? You are very, very confused. Welcome to the world of Berlinerisch.

What is Berlinerisch?


Berlinisch ist eine Art von Nuscheln mit eigenartiger Intonation, wobei der Hörer das Gesprochene kaum versteht” / “Berlinerisch is a type of mumbling with a peculiar intonation whereby the listener barely understands what is being said“ – Helmut Schönfeld, Berlinisch Heute

Contrary to what some natives would have you believe, Berlinerisch, or Berlinisch, is not a language in its own right. It would be easy to mistake for an accent or dialect, but is in fact neither. An accent would simply involve pronouncing some words differently to standard German (Hochdeutsch). A dialect would do the same, but also include new words of its own and maybe the odd tweak to the accepted grammar rules. Berlinerisch does all these things – but there’s more to it than that.

Strictly speaking, Berlinerisch is a metrolect – a mixture of different dialects all piled together in one big urban area, usually due to a long history of immigration into the city, from both elsewhere in the country and further afield. There is no one “standard” form of Berlinerisch; everybody speaks it differently.

A rough equivalent in English might be the Liverpudlian “Scouse” dialects spoken in the Merseyside area of North-West England. Until the mid-1800s, the way of speaking in this region was similar to the rest of Lancashire. The situation changed radically following an influx of Welsh and Irish immigrants, whose accents (and languages) combined with the native tongue and those of other passing sailors and merchants to create a number of variations on a theme, which then spread further beyond the city’s boundaries following slum clearances in the inner city in the 1950s.

Different varieties of scouse can now be found as far from urban Liverpool as parts of North Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire.

Origins Of Berlinerisch


So how exactly did this acerbic group of dialects come about? As with so many aspects of Berlin’s culture, the answer lies in the city’s mottled history. In the early stages of its existence, Berlin’s local lingo was defined by its trade links. In the 15th century, as a member of the Hanseatic League that traded across northern Europe, the city adopted the Low German dialect used by its business partners.

Way back in the thirteenth century, before Berlin as we know it really existed, the simple folk who lived down this way spoke a form of East Low German, a dialect still used today in much of the north-east and even by minorities in Poland. As the towns of Berlin and Cölln began to grow through the influence of the Hanseatic League and the Holy Roman Empire, their populations were boosted by a high influx of outsiders.

Flemish settlers brought their own language, which was closely related to the local way of speaking, while merchants from Saxon cities such as Meißen added the slightly different East Central German dialect. Others also came from further afield, adding their own linguistic flourishes. This mixture of tongues quickly melded together into a mutually intelligible metrolect – the basis for modern Berlinerisch.

However, these were hardly the last peoples to immigrate to Berlin – nor even the first. The name Berlin itself comes from the Slavic tribes who set up shop in this area as far back as the 6th and 7th centuries (it literally means “swamp”, in reference to the natural landscape they found on arriving here). They also named many of the surrounding areas – Treptow, Teltow – and some of their terms hung around long enough to find their way into the common slang when the area was finally urbanised over a millennium later. The popular Berlin term Kiez, for example, was a Slavic word for settlement often used to describe small fishing communities (Berlin-Köpenick being one local example).

Later contributors to Berlinerisch included Jewish people from eastern Europe, whose Yiddish phrase for a strong wind, hech suha, got mangled into the endearing Berlin complaint “Det zieht wie Hechtsuppe” (literally “There’s a draught like a pike soup in here!”). However, perhaps the most surprising influence on the way Berlin natives speak today is that most sophisticated of tongues, French.

Much like with English today, it was very fashionable for Germans in the late 17th Century to throw French words into conversation in order to seem educated and posh. The trend increased in Berlin when The Great Elector and Duke of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm, offered sanctuary to 20,000 Huguenots who had been hounded out of their homeland by the Catholics.


These well-educated religious refugees thrived in Protestant Brandenburg, comprising up to a fifth of the capital’s population and integrating well with the upper classes. Soon, French had become the official language of the royal court, and the Academy of Arts was instructed to put on all its performances in French, with Berlinerisch now seen as somewhat vulgar by those in charge.

Those not in charge, however, barely batted an eyelid, instead simply taking the words being spoken around them and using them to add a little French panache to their linguistic hotpot. A Frikadelle became a Boulette, and the typical Berliner on the street took to ordering them “aus der Lameng” (à la main) when they were eating on the go (a little further down the line, the same phrase became common parlance for the act of proposing an idea off the top of one’s head).

This trend continued through Napoleon’s invasion in 1806, a period which gave birth to the popular urban myth that the Berliner phrase “mach doch keine Fisimatenten” (don’t make such a fuss/stop giving me excuses) came from French soldiers propositioning impressionable young German ladies with the words “visite(z) ma tente” (“come back to my tent”). Unfortunately, fuddy-duddy linguists no longer belive this to be true. The overall effect of French on Berlinerisch, however, remains undisputed.

The Berlinerisch Wall


Heinrich Zille: Konsum-Genossenschaft, 1924 Bildtext: „Frida – wenn Deine Mutter ooch in’s ‚Konsum‘ koofte wärste schon lange een kräftiges Kind – sag’s ihr!“

When the industrial revolution hit Germany, Berlinerisch was already well-established among the local workforce, especially in what we now know as Mitte and Kreuzberg, the centre of the Berlin at the time. As the city’s population boomed, so did Berlinerisch. What had once been confined to the heartland of the Prussian empire now spread rapidly to surrounding Brandenburg, pushing out the East Low German those in the countryside had still been speaking before.

For several decades, Berlinerisch thrived, remaining the go-to lingo of the average German on the S-Bahn. It survived two world wars in relatively good shape, but the uneasy peace that followed was a different story. The city’s two regimes had differing ideological attitudes to Berlinerisch from the start, but it wasn’t until the wall put an end to mingling among normal folk from both sides that the signs really began to show.

As money poured into West Berlin in an effort to rebuild and establish a capitalist economy, competition for jobs led to people dropping their accents in order to seem better educated. At the same time, there were people moving into the city from elsewhere in the Federal Republic for a myriad of reasons: work, sympathies for the East German regime or simply to avoid conscription (as an occupied territory, West Berlin had no German army presence). Berlinerisch began once more to be seen as a vulgar and lower-class, an attitude that was only strengthened by West Berlin’s isolation from its more provincial surroundings.

The GDR, on the other hand, with its emphasis on hard work and equal social standing for all, provided the perfect environment for a working-class way of speaking. Berlinerisch was used not just informally, but also in many public situations. Indeed, it was often seen as impolite or pretentious to speak standard Hochdeutsch. Speaking Berlinerisch was a sign of solidarity; it showed you were one of the normal, everyday Volk. The rude health of the dialect was also maintained by direct and constant contact with East Germans from smaller towns and villages around Brandenburg, who rarely had any reason to posh up their accents for anyone else.

However, the changes were not all black and white. Despite the slow decline in its status in the West, it was during this era that Berlinerisch began to gain more national recognition due to an increase in exposure on West German television. Likewise, covering up one’s dialect could still be advantageous in the GDR. My friend Ralph, who has lived in Brandenburg and Berlin all his life, took this decision at quite a young age in order to help his career.

“In the business world, even in East Germany you would often be taken more seriously if you spoke Hochdeutsch,” he explains. “But it depended who you wanted to impress. I once attended a meeting for the introduction of our new boss, and he made a point of coming up to me afterwards and asking in his best Berlin accent which area I was from. There were a lot of old Berliners on the board, so he knew it was a way of gaining acceptance – though he could obviously speak Hochdeutsch as well.”

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Berlinerisch enjoyed a higher status in the East than the West, and these differences quickly became evident once the wall fell. As citizens from the two halves of the city began once more to mix in the workplace and on the street, the differences in accents served to reinforce the stereotypes that had arisen due to changes in attitude during the Berlin’s decades as a divided city. Easterners still considered their dialect a strong part of their identity, and thought the Westerners snobbish for suddenly acting as if they were somehow above using it. Likewise, those from the old West thought their Eastern counterparts came across as uneducated and chavvy.

In the end though, it was the old Ossis who had to adapt to the Western way of life, and it wasn’t long before attitudes began to change accordingly. Parents and teachers quickly became aware of the advantages of Hochdeutsch in a competitive, capitalist workplace and began passing these values onto the next generation. A study conducted by the Humboldt University in 1998 revealed that Abitur students about to graduate from school at the time had retained an affinity for Berlinerisch, but younger students with little or no experience of the GDR had already learned to prioritise Hochdeutsch in everyday interactions.

Contemporary Berlinerisch

Yet more UrBerliners. Image by Paul Sullivan.

More Urberliners. Image by Paul Sullivan.

As mentioned earlier, these days it may take a while before you truly encounter Berlinerisch, even if you live here. Berlin is now more cosmopolitan than ever before, boasting residents of varying permanency from elsewhere in Germany and all around the world. Sometimes it can feel like there are hardly any Urberliners here to speak Berlinerisch with. But the sandpaper tongue and acerbic wit are still here, especially when you get away from tourists.

Nor is it there a significant generational difference – Berlinerisch may have taken a back seat to Hochdeutsch when it comes to academic and professional interactions, but it remains a popular form of expression among the younger generation, especially those from the old East. My old flatmate, Annika, grew up “janz weit draußen” (an affectionate Berlin term for “out in the Styx”, i.e. Brandenburg) and has spoken Berlinerisch all her life.

“I can’t speak any other way,” she told me over a Schnitzel a few weeks ago. “I Berlinered at home, and so did most of the kids I grew up with. There were some schools in the East that drilled Hochdeutsch into the children, but not mine.”

However, she acknowledges that it is no longer possible to simply address people in Berlinerisch and assume they will understand. “A few weeks ago, my Granddad came to visit and we went out for lunch. He asked the waitress for ‘ne Knacker und ‘ne Molle (a Wurst and a Bier), and she just stared at him and said Wie bitte? – she was probably from out of town.”

Video: Ahne and God discuss the American Tea Party…among other topics (not necessarily safe for work!)

Berlinerisch also retains a cult status in literature and media on both a local and national level. Berlin superstar band Die Ärzte often sing in the local dialect, while Kurt Krömer, a comedian who grew up in Neukölln and has had several popular shows on national television, has built a large part of his act on his local roots and way of speaking. Indeed, comedy seems to be a natural outlet for the love of the Berlin way of speaking, and the dialect can often be heard on the city’s Lesebühnen and stand-up circuit.

One of my own first encounters with it was at the Rakete 2000 prose evening, where local writer Ahne performed several scenes from his irreverent book and radio show Zwiegespräche mit Gott (“Conversations with God”) in which the Almighty is the author’s neighbour and the two engage in the kind of mind-bending, back-and-forth jostling that only true Berliners can deliver.

When he heard I was writing this article, Annika’s boyfriend, Matze, who grew up a stone’s throw from the grand old DDR cinema Kino International on Karl-Marx-Allee, presented me with a volume of Didi und Stulle, a light-hearted comic strip about two slightly chavvy pigs who get into scrapes while bickering in exaggerated Berlinerisch.

Full of running gags, occasionally puerile humour and – somewhat bizarrely – quotes from Nietzsche, it manages to both poke fun at and evoke pride in the capital’s inhabitants and their brusque mannerisms. The dialect may seem a little extreme at first, but once you’ve got the hang of it, there are certainly worse ways to learn how to speak – and act – Berlinerisch.

The continuation of this article – including my guide on how to speak Berlinerisch – can be found on Slow Travel Berlin here.


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Books to travel with

A little light reading material

A little light reading material

So, this blog has been dormant for a little while, and I’m sorry about that. But there’s a good reason (or two). Firstly, the world cup has been on, so I’ve been spending a lot of time watching football and not a lot reading. And even less writing. Secondly, I’ve been on holiday.

 For three weeks over May and June, I was travelling in the Rockies and British Columbia, Canada, with a few days in Seattle tagged onto the end. I wanted to get away from the city and be in big, open spaces with lots of beautiful scenery. I was visiting friends for the first week, but for the rest of the time I was going to be on my own. This was fine by me; I needed the peace and quiet.

 Solitude is good. Everybody needs it once in a while. And in today’s society, full of deadlines and requests and instant messages in a thousand different forms, that can easily be forgotten. We are connected to the world in so many different ways for so much of the time we spend awake that our first feeling at not having phone reception or Internet access is often one of panic, at least internally.

 But the flip side of being used to having constant access to the world is that the world also has constant access to you. And every now and then, that’s something we all need to get away from. So I did. I had my phone with me while I was travelling, and still connected with the world occasionally, but I was also determined to make the most of having time to myself in my peaceful surroundings.

 Travelling by yourself can be a wonderful thing. Whether it’s a few weeks exploring a new part of the world, a day trip out of town or an eight-hour journey across the country to visit an old friend, at no other time is your mind most free to loosen up and wander, leaving behind it the constant bustle of day-to-day life. An extended period of travelling can be like one long meditation, allowing you to take in new ideas, process old ones and discard the mental baggage you’ve suddenly realised you don’t need anymore.

 However, this isn’t something you can go into completely unprepared. You need the right tools. As good for the soul as solitude can be, it can still get lonely. And sometimes you’ll need a kick-start for your meditation, a prompter to take you into another world. Sometimes, you’ll need a book.

All you need now is a good book

All you need now is a good book

Weeks before I jetted off to Canada, I was planning what reading material I was going to take. I try not to indulge my habit too much, but despite my best efforts there are always a good number of enticingly unread books on my shelves, just crying out to opened and explored. I needed variety – too much of the same genre or writing style might wear after a while. I also needed a mixture of easy-going entertainment and things that would get my brain ticking, to allow the perfect balance of relaxation and rumination.

 I was going for three weeks, so I selected three books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and the brilliantly titled How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by enigmatic guitar legend John Fahey. Each a different type of story and all by authors new to me (even if I was familiar with Fahey’s music) – this promised to be a holiday of exploration on many different levels.

 In its own way, each book turned out to be perfect. I began with The Night Circus, as fantasy has always been my go-to genre when I’m looking to escape the real world. I’ve always had vivid imagination, and these kinds of tales always take me back to my childhood state of believing anything was possible. In that respect, Morgenstern’s first novel is a masterpiece: a tale of two sorcerers’ apprentices whose whole lives have been twisted into an elaborate game as a bet between their respective masters. As the main characters trump each other with a series of fantastical feats, each more breath-taking than the last, it becomes clear that the author also has a lot to say on the influence of parents and teachers, and the importance of making our own way in the world.

 I read The Night Circus throughout my week among the shimmering lakes and jaw-dropping peaks of the Rockies, and finally finished it on the overnight train from Jasper to Vancouver. Returning to the big-city atmosphere, I now felt peaceful and, at least to some extent, ready again for a more bustling sensory experience. I didn’t stay long, but over the next two days I found myself always heading away from the busy main streets to seek out the magic in the corners of the city.

 Despite the throngs of visitors from far and wide, Granville Island’s esoteric market hall seemed to me to have been touched with a sprinkling of the Circus’ fairy dust. A mecca of exotic teas, fragrant cheeses and sparkling local artwork reached by a tiny ferry from the mainland, it reminded me very much of the book’s distinctive black-and white tents, a new wonder around every corner.

 A stone’s throw away, I found a street musician playing an otherworldly instrument: a single stick that appeared to contain a whole universe of sounds. I bought his CD, and saw him the next night in concert with two of his fellow mages. On my final morning, I also managed to stumble into the thousand-acre-wood of Stanley Park, a gigantic patch of temperate rainforest bordering the Vancouver seawall. Looking back, it’s clear to see how my first holiday book had affected my mind-set.

 I began reading my second book on the ferry to the wilderness of Vancouver Island. Having now been away from my normal life for over a week, this turned out to be the perfect time to dive into A Visit from the Goon Squad, an exploration of the relationships and private thoughts of an intertwined group of friends and acquaintances based loosely in New York. I’ve always had the impression that life in New York can be similar to that in Berlin, and there were certainly echoes of my own experiences here. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character at a different point in the group’s timeline, an ingenious literary device that allows the reader to gradually fill the gaps in each protagonist’s narrative and thus gain a much greater perspective on both the events in the book and the way their own lives fit into a larger whole.

 This is where I read Jennifer Egan's "A Visit fromthe Goon Squad"

This is where I read Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit fromthe Goon Squad”

Reclining on the sunny shores of Tofino and admiring the wind-whipped rocks of Ucluelet’s wild Pacific coast, I was reminded by this book of all the good people I have met, both in Berlin and elsewhere, and came to appreciate the effects we have all had on each other’s lives. I often think about how much we each approach life as the star of our own play, and it helps every now and then to remember that everyone else’s life is just as colourful and important as your own.

 Finally, as I headed to Victoria for my last couple of days on Vancouver Island, I cracked open How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. A more difficult read, it perhaps didn’t fit my current mind-set quite as perfectly as the other two books, but at least I came to it at a point when I was more ready for a challenge after two relatively easy starters.

 Part biography, part short story collection, this is a bizarre blend of fiction and fantasy that allows the reader some insights into the mind and life of one of the most unique musicians of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is fitting that the facts of this book should be so hard to separate from the fiction, given the way Fahey’s music defied genres (he saw himself as a blues musician, but was often asked to perform at folk festivals and was also heavily influenced by classical music). It is in parts shocking, confusing and downright hallucinogenic, and reads like the kind of tales you might hear from a mad old uncle when he’s had one snifter too many of his finest brandy.

 Despite being difficult for me to wrap my head around, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life suited the latter stages of my trip in two ways. Firstly, I found Victoria an odd place: heavily touristy and with a big-city attitude, yet still with a twinge of olde-worlde feel to it and a downtown you can walk across in 15 minutes. Fahey’s ramblings reveal a similar flaw: here was a man obsessed with weaving his own myth, even if only to confuse others for his own amusement. Each was a riddle to me, in its own way.

 Secondly, the musical themes of Fahey’s book linked in nicely with my final destination, the unexpected gem of Seattle. I had tagged this corner of the U.S. onto the end of my trip primarily because of its links with cult 90s drama Twin Peaks, and I was hoping to get a look at the stunning Pacific Northwest scenery that featured so heavily in the series. However, it was another aspect of the city’s cultural history that really endeared it to me.

 Unbeknownst to many, or at least to me before I headed out there, Seattle was the birthplace of one James Marshall Hendrix – Jimi to his friends. All things considered, not that big a deal is made of this fact; there’s an unfinished park with his name and an exhibit at the excellent EMP Sci-Fi + Pop Culture Museum, but that’s about it. However, his influence can still be felt in the city’s bustling live music scene.

Jimi Hendrix exhibition at the EMP museum in Seattle

Jimi Hendrix exhibition at the EMP museum in Seattle

Having met a couple of fellow blues enthusiasts at my hostel, we had been wandering the streets for some time looking for live music and somewhere to eat, before eventually giving in to our hunger and simply settling for the next sports bar. We could find music afterwards, we reasoned. But as it turned out, we didn’t have to – the music came to us. After about an hour in this unassuming establishment, we were surprised to see the raised platform next to us turned into a proper stage and graced by a highly accomplished blues-rock trio. About four songs into the set, they rolled into one of the best versions of “Little Wing” I’ve ever heard, thus exemplifying far better than any museum could what Hendrix and live music means to the city. The fact that this performance was outdone again maybe an hour later by a few of the regulars having their “standard” Tuesday night jam session just proved the point even further.

 As I edged towards the end of my final book, I realised that, despite my initial misgivings, I had in fact once again stumbled upon the perfect reading material at the perfect point of my trip. In a city where Hendrix, Nirvana, Queensrÿche, Soundgarden and many more cut their teeth, I was finally beginning to understand John Fahey’s own story of how he discovered the music he gave to millions. It was the least accessible volume I had taken with me and, in retrospect, not the best choice, but it found its place in the end. This made it all the more rewarding: a satisfying conclusion to three weeks of exploration, both inside and out.

 What are your favourite holiday reads? Would you recommend any particular book for a specific destination? Please leave a comment below!

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