You are as delicious as gnocci

This week it occurred to me that I’ve been living here a month. I’ll do something lovely for Dan to celebrate, I thought. But when I looked up on my calendar to find the exact one month anniversary, I realised I’d already missed it. Time goes so fast out here.

The weekdays pass with reading and writing and coffee and cooking and the weekends are Dan time. I find I’m never not looking forward to tomorrow.

Last Friday morning, Dan and I caught the first U-Bahn. We spent the weekend in Hannover attending an exhibition at the IAA of Dan’s work for Mercedes and hunting for Indian food. We stayed in a ridiculously cheap Airbnb with a ridiculously comfy bed and a gorgeous view.

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It rained constantly and was freezing. Stuttgart is in a big dip and therefore never has any wind, which we realised we’d been taking for granted when we had to buy coats and jumpers over there. When we arrived we sought shelter in a simple and beautiful Italian restaurant and I had my first glass of red wine since last winter with a seafood pizza.
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Obscurely, I’m learning more Italian out here than German. Angela, who lives next door to Dan in Stuttgart has been teaching me the language over beers and introducing me to her Italian friends. My very favourite thing to say is, ‘tu sei gnocco’. It means (when said to a man) ‘you are as delicious as gnocci’.

We’re going to her flat tonight and she’s cooking us a traditional Italian meal. We’re bringing extra plates and cutlery, flowers and, of course, prosecco.

I still have no idea what I’ve done to deserve this life of free rent, Riesling, creativity and self-care. I’m so extremely aware of how fortunate I am. It’s the first time I’ve not had a job since I was thirteen.

Someone pinch me.

Aside from our apartment, there are three places in Bad Cannstatt I love to write. For my early morning sessions, an Italian café, for mid-morning and lunchtime, a French bistro, and for the afternoons a German brauhaus.

This new story I’m writing I get more and more interested in every day. Angela says when I talk about it there’s a light in my eyes and Floss and I have been laughing about the characters like they’re our friends.

With any luck, there’s something wonderful brewing, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned since being here is that wonder breeds wonder.

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DAS WAR LECKER

“DAS WAR LECKER!”

Compared to its much softer English equivalent: it was delicious, the hard consonants make it so aggressive, or as I like to think of it, passionate. The louder you say it, the truer it is.

It’s my favourite German phrase (out of the 6 I know).

I learned it to make sure that when I’m eating and drinking out I can use it to compensate for my lack of language knowledge of everything else.

Restaurants and bars are where it started, but it’s also wonderfully applicable to cold showers on hot days, fresh morning walks and my time so far with Dan in Germany.

I haven’t worn make-up in a week. No one does here. My beautiful boots are gathering dust and I’m living in trainers. My hair has been treated to bountiful and cheap conditioning treatments and is softer and shinier than ever, rolling down my shoulders like silk. I’m fitting in. Not because I want to change myself, but because my mindset has been purely ‘explore and embrace’. It’s not a question of why, as much as why not?

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For a few hours each day, I visit Sophie’s Brauhaus. The waitresses bring me coffee and help me with my German (just this minute she’s told me we’re only speaking in German from now on). I write and write.

My new book is brewing, bubbling and steaming at the back of my head. It’s gradually making its way forward. I’m doing the research and prep I can to coax it closer to the front of my head, so I’ll be able to shut my eyes and watch it play out.

Quitting my job and giving up our lovely flat was really difficult. For the few weeks after when the whole ‘I’m voluntarily unemployed what am I doing??!’ doubts were loud and harsh, I was so worried I’d not made the right decision.

Now I’m here and so totally happy and relaxed, eating, drinking, reading and writing all day, I’m still just a tiny bit worried because it’s so perfect and what on earth have I done to deserve this life? Will I wake up to discover it was just a few too many glasses of wine that lulled me into a long delirious dream? Even now, writing this, I’m beaming.

Stress has always been a driver of mine. Heat and pressure have made me thrive. Before I arrived I was terrified of boredom and slowness to the point of stopping, but Germany has even given me an answer to that: there are wasps everywhere. I just moved my bum further backwards onto the bench I’m sitting on and felt a sting. Happily it was just a prickly hedge.

Granted, the goosebumps I get when I can feel a wasp land on my hair aren’t quite of the same calibre to when I get a tricky brief and a tight time limit from a client, but goosebumps are goosebumps (right?).

But the very best part of being here? Every day for the last seven years Dan’s asked me the same question ‘how was your day?’

And every day for the last week and a bit, my answer has been truthful, instinctive and unfaltering.

‘Lecker. Absolutely bloody lecker.’

 

The first U-Bahn

Our rooftop apartment is metres away from the U-Bahn stop. It means we can go from sitting on the sofa to sitting on the train within less than a minute. It also means that when the first U-Bahn of the day rattle-hums past, I can hear it from bed. At 5am in the morning, it wakes me up.

I don’t mind. I’m sleeping very lightly here anyway. I’m still getting used to sharing a bed with another human.

I’ve often been a passenger on the last train home. With a high thirst for night-time adventures and a low figure in my bank account, I’m always coming home from London or Manchester at midnight.

Fond is perhaps too strong but I’m accustomed and comfortable among people who have shirts stained with sweat, who have swapped high heels for dirty heels in pursuit of comfort, and where the carriage smells of alcohol and thickness and drowsiness.

It’s the U-Bahn that wakes me up, but as with a lot of things, it’s my imagination that keeps me up.

There’s something about those renewed-by-dawn carriages and their occupants – knowing they’re there, knowing their day has begun, while I’m still warm and only half conscious, that makes me feel something.

The apartment is my safe place here. Particularly bed.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never had the inclination to designate a safe place before, (I’ve started getting a little bit of anxiety exploring Stuttgart with my poor language skills, and returning to the apartment always feels like a small achievement).

I don’t know if I’m explaining this in the right way (but then I don’t quite know what I’m trying to explain either).

In a place and a time that feels right (living with Dan, figuring out my next move), yet still feeling anxiety (what is my next move? Where is it? Oh my god my German is so bad); that 5am train meters away from me pressed up against my best friend, our summer duvet, sweet from the smell of vanilla and lilac fabric softener, is so close, but so far, and in every sense of the word, so foreign.

Today’s Germany has started. And I’ve missed the train.

That frightens and inspires me.

I’m reading lots. This morning I read a character saying to her daughter that to beat fear, you must walk slowly and steadily towards what scares you. That resonated with me because it sounds wonderful, but even more so because after some thought, I realised I had been agreeing with it and living by it since I’ve been here.

My future scares me, so every day I walk slowly and steadily towards the next one.

Not knowing the language scares me, so I walk slowly and steadily into conversation with locals.

It scares me that it’s so hard to make it as an author, and that perhaps my dreams now and always have been too big, but every day I look my dream straight in the face and I just keep typing.

And one day (if it’s not tomorrow, it’s not tomorrow), I’ll leave bed at 4.59am and jump on that first U-Bahn with bed hair, sleep still in my eyes, and my laptop under my arm.

 

Runaway

On Saturday I ran away.

I packed a bag, called a taxi to the railway station, and didn’t stop moving until I was at the sea.

With a notebook on my knee, a pen in my right hand, and a loaded chip fork in my left, I listened to the waves and I wrote.

After a couple of hours, my handwriting became unrecognisable and I needed a new notebook.

A short walk, £2.99, and 200 fresh pages later, I checked into a hotel. It was dated, with stained ceilings and soft, gold fabric. They had Margaret Atwood books on the bookshelf and The Phantom of the Opera played in the lobby.

It wasn’t until my muscles melted into the clean white sheets of the bed, I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I wasn’t tense. The sun came in a triangle through the window and warmed my feet. I wrote until I fell asleep and when I woke up, I wrote some more.

With an alive mind and an exhausted body, I opted to eat dinner at the hotel. At my corner table for one, I was brought farmhouse pate and melba toast, mushroom soup, roast lamb and strawberry cheesecake. It took me several hours and a carafe of chenin blanc to get through it all. I never eat that much, but I didn’t struggle.

On Sunday morning, I walked for miles across the empty beach. I walked until the first beach cafe opened, bought a cup of tea and sat down for more hours still, to write some more.

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And then, just as quickly as this flow of writing had started, it stopped. I had emptied myself of words.

When I stood up, I felt it. Lightheadedness wasn’t just the sensation, it was the reality. The morning sky came through even my closed eyelids as an orange light, shining into my uninhabited mind.

What needed to happen had happened. I checked-out of the hotel and travelled home.

When you start to feel consumed (and I mean that in the very sense of the word: eaten up, bit by bit) by everything that your everyday is, sometimes you have to run away and not stop until you’re at the sea. Sometimes you have to host a controlled word explosion until there’s nothing left to come out.

Self-care, self-love, self-compassion. Always, always, always.

Loner

Last summer I got on a train to Bournemouth and spent three days there on holiday. By myself.

‘You’re such a loner!’ Sadie told me.

‘Yes I am.’ I smiled back.

My beautiful best friend had meant it as an insult. She’d meant it in the same vein as ‘freak’, as ‘tragic’ as ‘poor Mara can’t get anyone to go away with her so she’s going by herself HOW HILARIOUS’.

First of all there was a mix up at the hotel I had booked. The reason I decided on Bournemouth was that it was the cheapest room I could find on the internet. It was £15 a night for a single room with one small window. On the first morning of my solitary summer trip I received a call from Giles, the hotel owner who said, ‘I’m so sorry (really so sorry) but that room doesn’t exist. I don’t know what that silly internet told you but there’s absolutely no way you can have that room.’ He explained that there was only one room left on site. It was a double room with a sea view and a corridor and a bath and he could offer it to me at the discounted price of £50 a night. I then explained to him my position as a poor student, with absolutely no money to spend and return train tickets already purchased.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Just this once. And don’t tell my wife.’

I spent my time walking, writing and watching the sea. I really love the sea – I always have – it’s awe, I think, of how constant it is, how effortless. For food, I hopped between budget supermarkets and budget cafes. I tried bubble tea for the first time – that was pretty great – I’d been wondering about that for ages and ages. On the last night I was feeling a bit rubbishy because I hadn’t had a hot meal or any vegetables for three days so I walked across the road to a very small Italian restaurant. I sat outside at a corner table for one and ate breadsticks and penne arrabbiata with fresh tomatoes and fresh pasta and fresh chilli under the orange patio heater. The restaurant manager must have taken pity on me eating alone because he brought me two free glasses of house white wine. It was honestly one of the best eating out experiences I have ever had (and not just because of the persuasive power of wine).

In the evenings I’d embark on the five minute downhill trail to the waterfront where I’d take my shoes off and walk along the line where the sea meets the beach. There were one or two late night dog walkers but other than that I had the whole place to myself. It was magical. The lack of social interaction and otherwise conversations with friends found an outlet in conversations with myself. Not out loud (I didn’t think I should give Sadie’s jibes any more ammunition) but in my head. In the same way you get to know someone through staying up all night in conversation – I was getting to know myself in a way that I never had. I was starting to like myself in a way that I never had. I liked my independence, I liked my motivation (the best writing I’ve ever done was on that trip), I liked the way that for the first time I had started to put myself first – because for those three days there was nobody else I needed to please.

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I love my friends and I can’t tell you how much I value my family, but I wouldn’t change the company on my Bournemouth experience for anything. When I have the money and opportunity to do it again and when, once again, I hear, ‘loner!’ I will say ‘thank you so much’.

Because what a wonderful compliment – to be happy with yourself. People struggle for lifetimes with that and I’ll never not be grateful for those three days for making me the happiest loner in the world.

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My Travelling Inspiration

I’ve been struggling recently. I so want to write and I know there’s ideas floating about – I’ve just been struggling to find them and pin them down. Last week I decided to be active about this finding expedition. I travelled to Stuttgart, Germany with the hope of finding something wonderful. The novel I’m planning revolves around three people. I’ve sort of got patches of personality, of their histories and of their thought processes. However, I don’t have faces, and the relationships are a bit foggy.

For one reason or another (but most likely the rock hard bed) I was up at 4am on the day when I was going to go exploring in the centre of Stuttgart, and I decided to do some research into the best places to visit. An hour (and several quiet swear words at the dodgy internet connection later) I had my plan. I mean, I say plan, but in reality it was just a singular destination: Stuttgart Library. It sounds lame. There’s a library a ten minute walk away from where I live in England – but this is Stuttgart Library.

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Eight floors of the lightest light and millions of books. Each floor had a different genre: music, life, knowledge, literature etc. I headed straight for the top floor, number eight: art. I was in the lift with a handful of other people. It was pretty small, so you’d think the teenage skinny-jeaned couple in front of me would not be as touchy as they were when we were waiting for the lift in the lobby, but no. Happily they got off at floor zwei (children’s) and allowed me to continue my ascension in solitude. I stepped out of the lift at the top of the library and felt giddy. I’m amazed that that photo turned out clearly because my hands were so shaky leaning over the railings. I walked around for a while and enjoyed the silence. As far as I know there was no instruction for the noise level – the atmosphere kind of just commanded it.

The library was actually pretty busy – so why did it feel like I was the only one there?

Amidst the bright white, there were paintings. Sort of abstract at first glance, but when you stood back and looked at it from a distance they were all images of people reading. This made me think for a little while, because everything I’d seen of German architecture and design so far had been so certain, so sharp and above all, efficient. These paintings didn’t seem to fit in – where was their use, their efficiency? I decided that they could be metaphors for books. You judge it on face value – but then there’s something hidden that you have to invest time in to find out.

Then it turned out that when I thought I’d been a bit clever I was just being massively obtuse because when I showed Dan the photos that I’d  taken of the wall-art he asked what the QR codes were.

“I thought they were wallpaper.” A meek and slightly embarrassing response.

I stayed at the library for a long time. I sat next to a man with inch long eyebrows who had surrounding him leaflets and books all with the same title, ‘Auf  Nackter Haut’. I translated it into, ‘On Bare Skin’. I didn’t look into it any more than that, I quite enjoyed wondering what sort of person he was just from the title. I imagine that place to be wonderful for research – you’re literally on top of everything: information, essays, theorists, stories. What a brilliant foundation.

I left the library and started to make my way back to the apartment. The library was certainly inspiring, but I still didn’t have the missing patches of my characters I was looking for. Then, at the subway stop before mine, something wonderful happened. The train made a false stop – a pause before it was supposed to. A few people stood, including a woman who was sitting opposite me. After the pause the train started again and everyone received a jolt. The woman’s jolt resulted in her falling into the lap of the man next to her. He took her by the waist and carefully helped her once more to her feet. I thought they must know each other because they exchanged a laugh and a few words that I couldn’t make out – and it wasn’t awkward in the slightest. But I don’t think they did know each other. Without even looking back she made her way out of the train. She was turned away from the man, but facing me and she had the biggest smile on her face. She was ten times prettier when she smiled. She got off and I chanced a look over to her shining knight. He too, looking down at his hands was smiling. It faded after a few seconds – but then spread across his face once again.

Right there, right then I knew I’d found my patches. And to think, all I’d had to do was take a train.

And if you’re still awake, here are some more memories from Germany:

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Safer than Sorry

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I was walking back from town this week and it was raining. I was nearly home, ready to turn the corner into the walkway to my house and I was probably walking a little faster than normal to try and minimise the almost unavoidable rain-hair-frizz-grease thing. I was also wearing my big brown boots and carrying three bags of heavy groceries. This was a mission. So there I was, within smelling distance of Kenny’s room, when the woman in front of me quickly turned her head to look at me – smiled apologetically – and continued walking.

I think she was scared that I was someone who might hurt her.

Whenever I walk in the dark I keep my head down and walk fast. When I hear someone behind me it does freak me out – because every day we hear horror stories of vulnerable people being assaulted by total strangers. I can’t tell you how much it felt like a slap around the face when that woman turned around. Not because I was surprised or offended, but because this woman must have been forty years old. When I picture myself at forty the last thing I see is vulnerability. And yet, the look on her face showed exactly that, and there is absolutely no reason why in twenty years I will be any different.

Sometimes I genuinely wish I looked like my father- that is an active thought that goes through my head when I’m walking back from the station at night. I’ll be stepping off of the train and willing myself to grow a foot taller, sprout a big black beard and for my eyes to change from mouldy green into ones that can kill you with just a glance. And then there’s that thing where you can’t put headphones in to listen to music to distract you because you won’t hear anyone who tries to come at you from behind – but with no music it just makes the journey longer and your hear every single footprint within a two mile radius and each one is sent to beat you up. Girls who listen to music in the dark – stupid or fearless? (or both?)

I was walking back from work one evening, it must have been around quarter to ten – it was winter – so it was black and cold – and I heard footprints behind me. After a few seconds of should I? shouldn’t I? Of course in the end, I decided I should, and I did. I turned around and there was a man carrying an axe. I don’t know how on earth I managed not to scream – instead I picked up my phone and faked what I’m fairly sure was a unconvincingly squeaky ‘hello?’. Anyway the man put the axe in his car and went back into his house. I made it home fine, if a little shaky.

Even today, when I said goodbye to my best friend going back to Germany – who I won’t see again for heaven knows how long – all I wanted to do was listen to Adele and let a few silent tears fall down my cold cheeks (in a very dramatic art sort of way). But then I remembered the axe and instead walked to the slightly less emotional soundtrack of the odd car engine and the high pitched siren the people at number forty-nine employ to keep away teenagers.

One of my best friends at school was crazy good at karate. She told me she had dreams where people would break into her house to attack her family and she’d beat them up. I’ve always thought that was wonderful – being so secure in your safety that even in your dreams you’d destroy any kind of threat. There are always exceptions – but I don’t think vulnerability is a surface thing. It’s a confidence thing. And I am confident that by the time I’m forty I will be able to listen to Adele WHENEVER I want to. I am going to learn how to properly protect myself – because I’m not being that woman that turned around to me.

I don’t want to look behind anymore – there’s too much in front of me.