travel

travel: food, drink and inspiration in Berlin

kreuzberg

When you think of Berlin, perhaps you think of the Wall, the Reichstag, or Checkpoint Charlie. Every city guide will mention those, and with good reason – they are must-sees. But Berlin is also a paradise for creatives, dotted with artisan coffee shops, funky bars and galleries, cutting-edge restaurants, eye-grabbing street art, green spaces, museums, food stands and flea markets. The spirit of reinvention and possibility permeates every corner of this city. Whether you’ve got a week or a weekend in Berlin, if you want to be inspired, you’re in the right place.

kadewe-leuchturm-notebooks

Stationery lovers will be in heaven at KaDeWe, Europe’s second largest department store after Harrods, where there is a whole floor of notebooks, cards, paper and every writing implement you can imagine with which to pen a masterpiece. We spent ages trying to pick which colour Leuchturm notebook we wanted! And foodies, make your way to the sixth and seventh floors where you’ll find the food hall to end all food halls.  

cookies-cream-berlin-experience

Cookies Cream leads the way in the ‘cordon vert’ trend, serving edgy and extravagant vegetarian food – expect dishes like apple gyoza served in celery, walnut and thyme broth, and yellow beetroot gnocchi with olives. What’s more, you’ll feel like you’re in a spy film trying to find the hidden entrance to the restaurant in the car park at the back of the Westin Grand Hotel! We had the set menu which was a bargain €55 for four courses and included all their signature dishes. It was a meal to remember. We still talk about it.

schillerburger-berlin

Even your burger comes with a side of philosophy in Berlin. We thought the best veggie burgers were at Schillerburger, full of mustard and pickles in traditional German style. They have branches dotted all over the city. We frequented the one across the street from our favourite bar! 

coffee-and-cake

If you’re a cake lover, Berlin is your city. Kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) is a German institution and any neighbourhood café will have something freshly baked and delicious – espresso bar Café µ in Friedrichshain served a carrot cake that was even better than my grandmother’s; The Barn in Mitte is a world-renowned coffee roastery whose flat whites are strong and essential pre-shopping refreshment before you hit the arty boutiques of Schönhauser Allee; and even vegans don’t miss out, as Goodies Vegan Café has a sumptuous selection of cakes as well as excellent coffee.

hops-and-barley-beer
hops-and-barley-bar-berlin

Friedrichshain is my pick of the trendy neighbourhoods. The streets are lively and colourful, practically every block of flats has a mural painted on it. After a walk and browse through its many unique shops (no chain stores in sight here), unwind with a halber liter (a bit over a pint) of one of the beers or ciders at Hops and Barley, where they brew everything on the premises. Their pilsner is incredibly tasty, with a zesty citrus flavour.

Don't forget to visit a photo booth! They're great fun.

Don't forget to visit a photo booth! They're great fun.

Getting around is a cinch – Berlin is a cycle-friendly city and you can hire bikes very easily to zip around on. There’s also the U and S Bahn trains, which will get you from the outer neighbourhoods of the city into the centre of things in about 15 minutes. It’s also one of the most walkable cities in Europe. Wear comfy shoes and don’t forget your Fitbit!

michelberger-hotel-berlin

We liked staying at the funky Michelberger Hotel – a former factory complex, where the décor is a delightful eclectic mixture of vintage and warehouse hipster. I wouldn't recommend staying in the loft room, however - it was a rickety wire ladder to get up to the bed, which was too much like a mattress on the floor for my liking. Which was a shame, as the rest of the room was very comfortable. Worth double checking when you book that you have an actual bed! But otherwise, there’s an excellent bar and restaurant on site and the hotel is mere moments’ walk from the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall and, if you’re in town to catch an international music act, the Mercedes Benz Arena. I would stay here again quite happily.

Berlin Wall, East Side. 

Berlin Wall, East Side. 

 

One thing’s for sure, you’ll be plotting your return to Berlin before you’ve even left - however long you spend there simply won’t be enough.

Have you been to Berlin? What are your top tips for enjoying this wonderful city?

departed australia

Ten years ago, I took the biggest leap of faith of my life.

In the lead up, I was permanently anxious, trembling inside, terrified of it all going wrong.

But I chose to push through that discomfort, for underneath it all was a wise, calm voice that told me I simply had to do this.  And I trusted that voice.

I couldn't have told you why. There was only a knowing that I had to listen, I had to trust. I couldn't explain it. Sounds dramatic, I know - it felt dramatic at the time. I was reeling from the breakdown of my marriage the year before, feeling restless and shaky-footed in Melbourne, like a baby giraffe learning to walk. Every step towards this dream felt so freaking hard. 

But healing is hard. Change is hard. Finding out who you really are is hard. Moving away from the familiar and into the unknown, alone, is hard. 

It didn't feel particularly brave at the time - it felt exhilarating, terrifying and a little bit reckless. I didn't know what I'd find on the other side. 

But I had to depart so I could arrive.

Whatever your dream, I hope you find a way to face your fears and make it happen. It's so very, very worth it. 

 

i must begin again: a writing retreat in norwich

Serving suggestion for this post: sitting comfortably either with a cup of tea you've just made or on a train that isn't going anywhere.

Years ago, when I was writing the earliest drafts of what eventually became The Latte Years, I would often house-sit for friends for a few days when the opportunity arose, relishing a house as empty as my schedule, where I could completely dedicate myself to writing, away from the daily grind of life. Of course, when you have a deadline and only three months to deliver 100,000 words around a full time job, you suck it up and get it done. But the idea of time – a few days completely free of your usual routine and obligations, stretching out in front of you – to do that work is a really precious and luxurious thing.

I have done wonderful guided writing retreats before, and if money were no object I’d do them far more often. There’s a lot to be said for the motivation of a group setting and an experienced, inspiring teacher to spur you on. But the empty home of a kind friend or relative for a few days does just as well, and is utter bliss for the creative person.

A bit over a month ago, I went to Norwich to a sweet little cottage to house-sit, keep my aunt’s plants watered, to write and recalibrate.

I have a few projects on the go at the moment – the biggest one being what I hope will be Book 2 – but they had all been lacking much-needed momentum. About six months ago, in the midst of the bleak end of winter, I decided I would go away on my own a few days at some point over the summer, to see if I could find that missing ingredient. With all the highs and lows 2016 had delivered so far, I needed to reconnect with myself and my creative practice, without the distractions of daily life providing endless justifications for putting things off, for not making time.

Unfortunately that week at the end of July I had come down with a nasty throat infection, so on the train journey up from London I mostly sipped hot tea, read Oh Comely magazine and eavesdropped on interesting conversations happening all around me. All things I enjoy doing, sore throat or not! But I was unsure as to whether the weekend would be as productive as I’d hoped, given how poorly I was feeling. Many of the businessmen around me were drinking whisky. I considered joining them, I was sure it would help my throat.

Travelling essentials.

Travelling essentials.

I arrived safely, fell on the empty house with gratitude and relief, and went to bed early. I was up with the sun the next day – a rhythm I settled into for the rest of the retreat. Each day began with black coffee made in the moka pot on the stove, sipped in the garden, where toasty warm sunshine beat down on my shoulders, bees and butterflies floated among the flowers and the coffee slowly warmed my sore throat, dry and raw from coughing.

I walked into Norwich city centre nearly every day, mostly to treat myself to a second coffee at Gosling and Guzman. “The secret to a happy life is continuous small treats,” said Iris Murdoch in her novel The Sea, The Sea, which I happened to be reading, so I took it as a sign to get a cinnamon bun too.

Lovely coffee and buns at Gosling and Guzman. And their takeaway cups are so pretty!

Lovely coffee and buns at Gosling and Guzman. And their takeaway cups are so pretty!

I was alone for the whole time, but not lonely. I slipped easily into solitude, wearing it like a comfy familiar sweater. No television, no internet, no email, no social media. Text messages were the only contact I allowed myself with the outside world. It was amazing to realise how disciplined I could be and simply not look at social media – I disabled all notifications so it was simply a matter of not allowing my finger to touch the icon, though it gravitated automatically whenever my phone was in my hand, much to my curiosity. It’s definitely far more of a habit and a distraction than I realised.

Otherwise, I gave everything my full attention – not just my writing, but books I read, music that kept me company, food I cooked.  Choosing to focus, to tune out the usual constant distractions, it was incredible how much more I noticed and took in, savouring everything from the peppery depths of my watercress soup and subtle key changes in the music I was playing, to the smell of the air, the way light changed and the burn of hot tea in my sore throat.

Watercress soup - probably *the* best thing you can eat when trying to recalibrate, it completely detoxifies the body! And it's so yummy. I made Sarah Wilson's recipe in  I Quit Sugar For Life .

Watercress soup - probably *the* best thing you can eat when trying to recalibrate, it completely detoxifies the body! And it's so yummy. I made Sarah Wilson's recipe in I Quit Sugar For Life.

I did yoga daily, something I haven’t done for a few years. Pigeon pose was incredibly comforting. I spent an entire Ludovico Einaudi song in uttanasana. I did my favourite episodes of Lacey Haynes’ Home Yoga Retreat many times.

I sat with my thoughts a lot, my journal open and a pen beside me, to scribble down anything worth remembering.

Sometimes I just sat and watched the light change. The light inside the house was very soft and as it hit the table and my piles of books, it looked milky, like when paint brushes are dipped into a jar of water. My iPhone camera didn't quite capture it so I just watched and took a picture with my mind instead.

I wrote a lot. Not the sort of things I thought I would write, interestingly. As the second day dawned, it became clear to me that this retreat was less about coming away with something to show for myself (which, if you've been reading me for a while, you know I enjoy) and more about getting my groove back.

Snapped while walking the quiet streets of Norwich city centre, sipping coffee. It seemed apt!

Snapped while walking the quiet streets of Norwich city centre, sipping coffee. It seemed apt!

Why did I lose my groove though? I wondered in my more melancholy moments. I didn’t think I’d feel like this. Why do I feel so empty, when my dream has come true? I wrote. Why do I feel so exhausted and, if I’m honest, sad? How did I go from so pumped, disciplined and motivated to can’t-be-fucked and what’s-the-point?

And then I re-read Dani Shapiro’s masterpiece, which I highly recommend to any writer, Still Writing. I found it such a comfort last year, where I mostly read the “Endings” section. This time, the “Beginnings” section was far more resonant.  Reading this paragraph was like a warm reassuring hug:

When I’m between books, I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and…that’s it. There’s nothing left. A low level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to recognise that this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I’ve spent everything. And so I must begin again.
If you have done your job…you’ve thrown your whole heart into this. And now your job is done. And you are bereft.

I wanted to cry as I read this. I had spent months thinking there was something wrong with me. My whole body flooded with relief that another writer, let alone one I deeply admire, felt this way too. 

I gave The Latte Years everything I had. So indeed, that has been the feeling, even though I have so many other ideas and stories I want to explore, over the last six months or so - that I had nothing left, both to say nor the capacity to say it. The Latte Years had been a part of my life for a long time – scratch that, it was my life, literally! - that being without it has been very strange. It's only been recently, staring down the barrel of October, that the tunnel has had light in it again.

The first draft of what became the book that was published in January this year was started in 2010. It wasn’t necessarily the story I wanted to tell, but the one I had to. It was bossy and barged to the front of the queue. Me first, it demanded. It was a story that had been hanging around ever since the events of it had taken place, a story that had me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until I told it. I knew attempting to write anything else in the meantime would be fruitless – and indeed, it was. And now it is done. 

So what ended up happening on this retreat was nothing earth-shattering, just a lot of journaling and several short pieces of fiction. Because after years and years of my writing being about this one thing, I am finding my feet again. It’s strange, like what I imagine training for another marathon might be like. I’m back at the beginning. But this time I don’t have the energy of the first-timer, when you have no idea what you’re in for, and everything’s exciting, and it’s purely the thrill of the unknown and whether you'll actually pull it off spurring you on. Once you know, it’s definitely harder to lace your shoes up.

Writing ingredients.

Writing ingredients.

And something I have to remember is that while, yes, I wrote the manuscript for The Latte Years in three months, I had actually been trying to write that story for nearly five years prior to that. So, in theory, I’m way ahead of schedule for Book 2 and I need to stop beating myself up. Now is the time for thinking, gathering, marinating and, frankly, savouring. I worked so hard. It's OK to enjoy this and take a while before I dive in again. It makes sense to me to cultivate a strong practice, a mixture of discipline and play, so that I can get the juices flowing.

Retreats tend to spark the question "how can I keep this amazing, peaceful, zen feeling going in my life once I go home?" and I was no exception! I want balance and energy in my life, but I get very overwhelmed at the idea of trying to fit in everything I want to do with my time. The answer came very clearly towards the end of my time in Norwich and it felt like it had been staring me in the face all along. I am a fairly motivated and disciplined person but the secret to me achieving anything in life is to have projects, goals and deadlines. Without those things, I flounder. I always have.

Me, doing my best non-floundering face.

Me, doing my best non-floundering face.

But the truth is, I’ve needed to take the pressure off myself this year and have a few less deadlines, goals and to-do lists. The only thing that has stopped me from hiding under the duvet each day has been going gently. Withdrawing quietly from anything non-essential that adds nothing to my life. Writing mostly for myself, filling journal after journal, knowing it will never be read by anyone else and revelling in the thrill of that. Trying not to beat myself up about not doing everything I feel I ‘should’ be doing. Time out from life showed me that I can’t force inspiration. I can’t force a story out of me, it will only happen naturally. And perhaps it has more of a chance of happening naturally if I give myself what I need. Like, nourishing and simple meals. Creative play. Daily yoga. Time out from being ‘on’. Daily journaling of my thoughts. Meditation, sitting, supporting my throat chakra (which needed a lot of help, it was no accident I had a sore throat. More on that in the next post!). Self care. The luxury of doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it.

There was a part of me that thought I’d come away from my days in Norwich with the start of the next book, and that didn’t end up happening. But what did happen was I locked the house on the last morning, walked to the station and sat calmly and happily with a coffee and magazine (no phone!) on the train back to London, and felt flooded with a renewed sense of purpose. I was returning to my life with a bit of clarity, a clearer vision and a new pleasure in my craft; a re-dedication to my practice; and a better awareness of what I need to feel creative and balanced, and to make sure I get those things, because that is the only way I will do my work.

In that respect, the retreat was a complete success.

Reading on the way back to London.....

Reading on the way back to London.....

Next post: how I healed my throat chakra in Norwich (now there's an article for the East Anglian Daily Times!)

Have you ever gone away on your own to retreat, recalibrate, start a new project or get your groove back? What did you discover?

renewal

A chai to farewell my old, expired passport...

A chai to farewell my old, expired passport...

Ask an expat to name their most valuable possession and I’m pretty sure the answer would be their passport. Not only is it usually proof you have the right to be living and working wherever you are, but it’s your ticket to freedom and your get-of-jail card. It can get you anywhere, especially home.

I recently renewed my passport and I was sad to say farewell to the dog-eared one that had expired. That particular passport was issued in 2006 and to say it symbolised freedom to me would be something of an understatement. It wasn’t strictly speaking my very first passport –  that one was issued in my married name at the time, and I had taken only one trip with it, to New Zealand so I hadn’t even got it stamped – but it was the first passport that I ever really put to good use, and the one that I knew would get me where I needed to be, in every sense of the word. 

I reverted back to my maiden name pretty much the week my first marriage was over. It was possibly a knee-jerk reaction but I was so wounded, ashamed and embarrassed about everything that had happened with my first husband. I felt sick every time I saw his name. So I set about obliterating it from anything associated with me, which was a fairly horrendous process. I had my used-once married name passport cancelled and I remember taking all the documents to the post office to apply for a new one. I couldn’t just change the surname and get a replacement free of charge – I could only do that if I had divorce papers and that couldn't happen for another year minimum, as I had only just moved out. None of it was as simple as I thought. I was still legally bound, regardless of the fact I'd put the rings in a drawer and changed my name back. 

That was the time when the enormity of it all started to hit me. I had made a terrible mistake that was going to follow me around for the rest of my life. I had only just turned 25 and was overwhelmed by the mess I’d made of everything. I thought, somehow, getting a passport in my own name might make me feel better, that it might give me the push to actually start seeing the world as I'd longed to do, because now there was no one to stop me. 

So I tried to explain to the woman at the passport interview why I was there and what I wanted to do but my throat kept closing over with tears I was determined not to cry (I hadn’t yet realised that crying in public is pretty much par for the course with a marriage breakdown). The woman was looking at my birth certificate as I spoke (or tried to) and then she reached across the counter and squeezed my hand.

“You’ll always be Philippa Moore,” she said fiercely. “That’s who you were born. That’s who you’ll always be. He can’t take that away from you.” Her tone was heavy with the wisdom of someone who had been there.

My new passport was issued within a few weeks and my first trip with it was also to New Zealand, so in many ways it felt like a reset, like the first one had never happened. My first ever stamp in it was six months later, in April 2007, when I boarded my plane to San Francisco at Sydney airport. “Departed Australia” declared the stamp, and a few pages down was a UK Ancestry visa safely glued in. My adventure had started.

2016 seemed like an age away back then. But all of a sudden, it was here and my beloved passport was useless with less than six months validity on it, so it needed renewing. And not a moment too soon, as it was getting tricky for an immigration officer to find space to stamp it every time I went somewhere, it was so chock full of evidence that I had revelled in my freedom.

Flicking through the pages is like going to an exhibition of the last 10 years of my life. A UK visa long since expired and replaced with an indefinite leave to remain card; a visa to enter India in 2011 (I wish I’d made another trip while the visa was still valid!); stamps from every country I’ve ever visited, every one of them evoking a hundred memories. The photo at the front was a young woman staring blankly into what felt like, at that moment, a very uncertain future. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to see the world. As she began to make those plans, she realised the future was actually wide open and she could decide what happened next.

I will keep that passport forever. I might even frame it. It's an old friend.

My new one feels different - not just because the design and e-features have changed in the last decade, but it really feels like a new era. The pages are blank. Who knows what they will hold by the time the next renewal comes around....the photo of course is still hideous, but I was pleased that I didn’t look too different after 10 years! 

Waiting at Gatwick Airport for our flight to Cyprus two weeks ago...with the new passport!

Waiting at Gatwick Airport for our flight to Cyprus two weeks ago...with the new passport!

It feels fitting that my first real passport expired the same year my first book, which chronicles the adventures I had with it, is now out in the world. In so many ways I’m still that 25-year-old staring into the camera, trying to keep her head straight. Life is unpredictable, that’s for sure. But one thing I know, I’ll always want it to feel like an adventure.  

I've already got my first stamps in the new passport. The new era has started!