58/100 — I don't know what to read

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I’m in a reading slump, and it’s the worst.

Reading slumps are a very rare thing for me. When they happen, they’re unbearable. My morning routine starts with reading, so every morning I wake up, and my first emotion is dread at the thought of having to pick up a book. Then I face a 40-minute train journey for my commute – each way. It’s felt twice as long already.

I wish I knew where reading slumps come from. Being someone who identifies as ‘a reader’, not reading always brings me to edge of an identity crisis. I read, therefore I am. So if I’m not reading, am I even here?

Over the past month, I’ve picked up and not finished six books.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath? I’ve reached her very experimental phase and I … I just cannot.
Mad Girl’s Love Song? It turns out Sylvia Plath was not a particularly nice person, which makes me not want to read about her.
That Isabel Allende book my dad’s partner gave me? I need to finish that before I visit them next week but, I don’t know. Everything I read in German annoys me, it’s not a pleasant state, but none of this is!
The Time of Our Singing? This one was recommended to me and it did grip me for about 100 pages. But there is a reason I don’t like family histories, and that is because the story is always told from the most boring family member’s perspective. And I really don’t see why I should be stuck in a boring person’s head.
Essentialism? I listened to that one while running and it got preachy. It also got too hot to run with headphones in.
The Terror? Forgot it at work.

Maybe I’ve just watched way too many TV shows this month (The Purge, The Terror, Tuca & Bertie, Game of Thrones season 8, I’m mostly through She’s Gotta Have It, and I’m about to start Chernobyl), and reading is just not my format for experiencing stories right now.

Or, maybe this was all fate. Because 30 minutes ago, when I went to look at my trusted Box of Books I Bought In London to Read in Berlin, I found it – underneath the stack of magazines that live on the Box, I had ‘tidied away’ my April pay slip. The thing I’ve been looking for for the past two weeks, because if you want a flat and you’re the only one who doesn’t have her pay slips together, you don’t get a flat. And I found it, looking for another book to read.

This might have happened:


I’m now going to try The Word for Woman is Wilderness.

57/100 — I don't want to be a movie character (except maybe one)

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I’m just back from another flat viewing, and I’m tired.

A Whatsapp screenshot with only my text bubbles visible that read: ‘The place where I’m now feels like the place I’d live if I was the protagonist in a romantic comedy about coming out of a long term relationship and learning to find your own way. All my neighbours would be quirky characters and one of them would be played by Rebel Wilson. And I just realised I don’t want that’

Flat viewings are fun when you’re just starting out and you don’t have a deadline. But when a month has passed and you’ve been rejected a couple times, the fun considerably lessens. I still don’t have a deadline, and I can choose wisely. But oh man, do I wish I had my own bed and my own curtains.

The place I saw today was newly renovated, smelled of fresh paint, and had the fanciest kitchen I’ve seen so far that I haven’t asked to pay extra for. It was situated somewhere between an adult entertainment area and some of the shiniest houses I’ve seen in Berlin so far, and the staircase alone could be a movie set. (This movie’s Berlin would be crumbling but charming.) If I was a quirky movie character who’s just moved to the city, this is the place where I’d end up. My neighbours would forever be dropping by to chat or cry about their latest heartbreak or smoke weed or something. (I don’t watch these movies very closely, they’re usually my migraine entertainment.)

And this is alright for movie characters, because they don’t need sleep unless the script says so. But I need a lot of sleep. And I don’t need paper thin walls, and the bright and noisy and colourful spectacle of youth playing out in the inner yard, and people walking past my window on their way home from the betting shop or the adult cinema at all hours of the night.

The only movie character I’ve ever wanted to be was Amélie Poulain.

I was 12 when Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain came out, which means that her life has been my ideal for more than half of my life now. Her apartment is enormous, a disturbing shade of red, and filled with trinkets and weird art that sometimes talks.

Most of all, it’s her sanctuary. It’s quiet and cozy, somewhere that looks like it could swallow you up in its warm embrace. It’s a space that is completely hers. It’s where she dreams and creates, and where no one disturbs her. It’s a home.

And when I say I ‘want to be’ Amélie, I mean the life she’d built. I wanted that way of engaging with the world. I wanted that kind of flat (in a different colour), and that space to just be. And, 18 years later, I realise I still do.

As I view one place after another, the kind of life I want to live becomes more and more clear. There was little I could do about my living situation when I was in London, where you had to take what you could afford, so I just tried to make the area work and find people I could bear to share a house with. I don’t want this anymore.

And of course it’s going to be different. Amélie’s Montmartre doesn’t exist. A space that big is still not in my budget. I’ll probably never have a cat. But I want my own space, to be myself in.

Wish me luck. It’s all you need here, apparently.

55/100 — Things that made me come alive this week

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There was a really sweet post on Cup of Jo this week, asking readers, What Makes You Come Alive?

The replies are beautiful and well worth a read. And since my gratitude journal app has been gathering digital dust on my phone for a while now, I thought I’d make my own list:

  • Rediscovering (and silly dancing to) The Ark, a great early 00’s Swedish glam rock band, especially ‘The Most Radical Thing to Do

  • Painting for the first time in a long time

  • Visiting a printer and geeking out over book production

  • Vanilla soy yogurt, especially with fresh strawberries

  • Viewing a flat and really feeling like it could be home*

  • getting into a good book that challenges me (currently, that’s Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing)

  • my first morning coffee

  • a good yoga session and the realisation of how strong my legs have become in the past few months of running

  • going on Pinterest (for a good reason) and feeling that burst of inspiration from looking at other people’s art

What made you come alive this week?

*this has already happened twice before, let’s not get too excited

53/100 — I'm thinking about ... writing about the bad stuff

Two years ago, I tried NaNoWriMo for the second time. I had some admittedly autobiographical stuff I thought could keep me writing for a month, and see where it goes. About fifteen days in, after my protagonist had remembered a few things I had – for the sake of bashing out a quick first draft – pretty much lifted 1:1 from my own life, I skimmed over what I’d written so far.

And I thought, Bloody hell. This is bleak.

Pretty soon after, I stopped writing. Later I’d condense what I’d wanted to do with the framework of the story into a piece of flash fiction that did everything a piece needed to do for sharing. I don’t know where that novel draft is now; I’m not sure I still have it.

This week, Austin Kleon wrote about writing about the bad stuff, and I’ve been thinking about it for days.

Over the years, I’ve done my fair bit of healing and sharing. Looking back, the way I tell my stories has changed; I leave out a lot of detail, and tend to focus on the basics and look for a positive spin. It’s not enough for a novel or even an essay, but it got me on a storytelling podcast once.

But right now? I have no interest in writing any more dark stories, about myself or others.

As Austin Kleon says:

We all have pain.

It isn’t necessarily interesting.

That includes ourselves. These days, I’m a lot less interested in my pain than literally anything else. Having become comfortable with writing about pain, that now puts me into a bit of a situation where I don’t know what else to write about, but … that’s something I’m working on figuring out right now!

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for the past few days because it feels like I’ve been given permission. It’s hard to shake that old advice about writing what you know. But really, you don’t have to.

Isn’t that nice.

52/100 — Making books

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The past two days here have been quiet because I’ve been away on a press pass.

Most of the time, sending a book to press means giving it to the printer to make magic happen, and trusting that the result will be good. Usually this goes well, too, and a few weeks later your finished book arrives at your desk, in a warehouse, and later (hopefully) on a shelf somewhere, as part of a routine process that, like most things we just accept, is actually somewhat of a miracle.

But sometimes, a colour book is particularly important, or difficult, and that’s when someone like me, or a designer, or an artist, visits the printer to make sure that the book comes off the press looking the way you’re hoping it will. That was my job this week. Colour books tend to be printed on sheets, which fold into sections. So as each section comes off the press, it’s taken to a light box, its ink densities are measured to make sure they’re consistent with the proofs and throughout the run, and someone (i.e. in this case, me) looks over it and approves it. (I can’t share photos of what I’m doing, but this is what it’s like.) It was a long, long day (as they tend to be), and I’m glad it’s over, but also glad it was done.

To be honest, though: this is not the fun bit for me.

This Wednesday, in between sheets to approve, I was given a tour of the factory. This is the fun bit. This particular company is a few hundred years old, so the building houses not only some fancy new machinery, but also traditional equipment, some of which was still in use only a couple decades ago.

In my job (and outside of it) I’m forever meeting people who seem to have no awareness of the many steps involved in making a book. I’ve been asked to make books happen within days more often than I can remember; as if printers only sit around staring at the wall until they’re given this one job, or paper grows out of the floor right where and when it’s needed. With all the progress technology has made in the past decades, producing books is still a physical process. Many, if not most books we see in bookshops today are still printed on offset presses. This means ink smudges, damaged plates that produce odd little blots; then there are boards that bend because of the weather and foil that flakes off because of the board, and all kinds of possible issues I can’t even imagine with my mere 5 years of experience. And then, of course, there’s the human element. (Making books would be so much easier if it weren’t for the people.) How so many books make it out into the world is a marvel, given everything that could (and does) go wrong. Seeing those old machines put everything into perspective a little. Imagine typesetting every page by hand. We’d have fewer typos, and much fewer books.

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Every time I visit a printer, I’m overcome with awe and envy at everyone’s skill.

I envy the customer service people with their many years of experience, who know the materials and have made the mistakes and can advise you on anything.
I envy the press minders, with their incredible colour vision and knowledge of ink and paper, these machine whisperers who know how to coax just that shade of green out of the roaring, sometimes hissing beast that fills half the room.
I envy pre-press and lithography, with their knowledge of colour and colour separation, who know how to best write the instructions for just that shade of green in the language of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
And, leafing through the guestbook at the printer and reading the words of so many who have visited before me, I envy the artists who make the works worth printing, and the designers who arrange those words and images on a page. I wish I could do all of these things.

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Earlier this year I went to a choir concert that centred around the topic of reading. Their programme invited the audience to listen to the songs and reflect on ‘the role that books play in [their] life’.

I don’t know what kind of life I’d have without books. There not an aspect of it that I can imagine without them. That I get to be around them every single day is a little miracle in itself.

49/100 — A headache day

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The weather is being funny right now, so of course I went to bed with a headache yesterday, and am going to bed with a different headache tonight. It’s been a long day of trying to stay on top of things; I got an email about how the flat I’d applied for last week wasn’t ‘available anymore’ – the email was so impersonal it landed in my junk folder, despite me having been one of only two applicants.

So I’m a bit down tonight. Tomorrow I’m traveling ahead of one really long day of work on Wednesday. I hope I’ll get something worth blogging about. It’ll be 50 days tomorrow!*

*I mean, I know I missed two days so far, but it’s half time for someone

48/100 — Saturday

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For the first Tinder date I went on in Berlin, we went for food in Kreuzberg. I’d never been anywhere near there, so I let him lead me to food and then to the river.

As we crossed the Spree in the golden light of a stunning sunset, I was beginning to get the impression that my date was that kind of person who hasn’t quite made peace with the fact that life among other people isn’t always easy.* I remember us almost fighting over whether people in general might be appreciative of him and the work he did (I suggested he see it that way; he didn’t want to). I remember listening to a much-too-long story about a date that had gone wrong a year ago.

But mostly I remember him saying how much he disliked Berlin, and how ugly and noisy it was, and how impossible the people are. He told me this sitting on a dry patch of ‘grass’ in front of the Mercedes-Benz Arena, watching the hideous advertising sign next to us illuminate houses across the river, while bottle collectors swarmed around us. I knew very little about Berlin at that point, but even then I thought that if this place was the best he could come up with for a date, maybe he was not an authority on the beauty of Berlin.

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I had to think of that guy yesterday, when I found myself in Kreuzberg again, walking in the other direction. After having some heavenly ramen for lunch and then wanting to buy half the market on Maybachufer (where I’ll need to go again once I find myself in possession of money), I headed west along the canal, towards Böcklerpark.

Böcklerpark, it turns out, is a lovely piece of green with playgrounds, an outdoor gym, and a lot of swans sharing the canal with rowboats and a restaurant ship. As evidenced by the number of young (and beautiful) people I saw lounging on the green or paddling on the water, it’s probably a good place to take a date or a friend. Or ‘just’ yourself. I had to be in Schöneberg to meet that lovely group of creative international people I’ve been hanging out with, or I would’ve sat down to read for an hour or four. So I just kept walking and watching, and enjoying the sun.

I mean sure, it’s busy. But is it loud and ugly and impossible? Not the Berlin I’ve seen so far.

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*I’m trying to be kind, but given that I never heard from this self-declared romantic idealist again after agreeing we’d text the next day, you might forgive me for not feeling all that kind.