Monday, 26 January 2015

The Bicycle Diaries: Berlin

One of my favourite books that I read last year was The Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne.  It’s partly a travel memoir, and partly a ramble around the great creative mind of the author.  David Byrne’s life and work has taken him around the world for over two decades.  He takes a fold-up bike with him on every trip and believes that the best way to explore a city is on his bicycle as the act of moving by bike helps his thoughts to be realised.  In each chapter of the book he explores a different city, and for each city he explores a different stream of consciousness.

I read the book whilst I was in Berlin, and was eager to compare David Byrne’s experiences with my own.  Of course, his experiences were from 20 years ago, and mostly occurred in West Berlin.  I lived in Friedrichshain, in East Berlin, and i thought it would be interesting to so I decided to write my own account of my bicycle journey through the city.  

I talked to some friends about the book and my idea to write my own bicycle diary.  Over the last few weeks i have received some excellent pieces written by them.  It’s been great reading about my friends experiences (written by their own hand) of cycling bikes around lots of different places.  Over the next few weeks I will share these entries on my blog.  If you would like to submit your own Bicycle Diary to be added to my blog, please send it to I'd love to feature stories from all over the world…and hear from more potential friends!!

Thanks for the inspiration, David Byrne, this one’s for you.
  Bike Love       
My favourite way to get creatively inspired is to head out of my flat, into the city of Berlin and pedal around on my bike, taking notice of the small details, sometimes stopping to take photos of things that really catch my eye, and letting my mind wander, as my body moves and the scenery changes.  Then, I like to open my notebook and allow all my thoughts to flow from my mind, through my pen and onto the page.

Every Tuesday evening I cycle south from my home in Friedrichshain, the poor but sexy neighbourhood that was formerly in East Berlin, to a bar called Zatopek in Neukolln, south of the river Spree to attend a German lesson.

I cycle down Petersburger Strasse, dodging young parents and their tiny kids in buggies who are exhausted from an afternoon's session in the adventure playgrounds that are a feature in every park.  I weave between those with messy ice cream mouths and those who are wobbling triumphantly on their miniature two-wheeled bikes for the first time.

I race the tram, which I'm proud to say I've never taken.  I'd be interested to know how much money I've saved by buying my bike and riding it all over the city.  I’ve certainly had more fun than had I been confined to a carriage, as well as a timetable…trying to observe people whilst dancing around their eye contact.  I prefer the freedom of cruising around on my two wheels, people watching for a few seconds as I pedal past, but still with the time to take in everything around me. 

Warschauerstr. station
At the bottom of Petersburger Strasse it becomes Warchauer Strasse, which at the moment is a complete mess.  There are broken sets of traffic lights at every junction which have been supplemented with temporary traffic lights, which are often broken too, this sends everything into chaos and requires the police to be called out to direct the aimless cars and lorries.  Berlin has an exceptionally good system of bike lanes, which even have their own set of traffic lights (which do work!) so that cyclists can get a head start on the cars…but Warschauer Strasse is a little less accommodating for my fellow two-wheeled friends at the moment.  Half the road is being dug up, squeezing both cars and bikes into a tight single lane with everyone jostling for position.  It can get technical.
Street lights line the sides of the roads, their bottom halves swollen to a metre wide, bulging with layers and layers of posters for club nights that have been hastily pasted on top of each other.  I pass the postcard punks on the bridge, who seem happy to spend their entire lives rolling around in the grass by the side of the road, banging drums rhythmlessly, and holding signs asking for money ‘for beer and weed’.

As I cross the bridge, heading south of the river, my mind wanders.  Cycling for me, is a sort of meditation.  With the repetitive action of pedalling to turn the wheels round and round, and the constant forward motion, my mind turns inwards and settles into a gentle investigation of itself.  I'm thinking about street photography a lot, and as I roll down the street, I am taking snapshots in my mind.  I'm framing and capturing and recording without a camera, memories that will fade but will always remain as some sort of dust in my brain, reminding me what it was like to live in Berlin this summer.  My friend Alice gave me a tiny book about tea and mindfulness, it talks about the idea of meditation being about paying attention to the finest, everyday details in life.  Meditation does not come have to come from a spiritual place it can come from allowing your awareness to take over your body, and allowing the anchor that attaches your mind to the real world to dislodge. This is what the action of riding my bike feels like to me.

As I cycle into the heart of Neukolln, the Turkish neighbourhood of Berlin, everything seems to change…the people, the clothes they wear, and the sounds and smells that are all around me…but that’s another diary entry not yet written.

“As long as I live, I'll never tire of people-watching.  On city buses and park benches.  In small-town cafes and crowded elevators.  At concerts and swimming pools.  To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self.  It's to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.”
- Cheryl Strayed.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Welcome 2015

As I sit cross-legged on the bench seat that I built myself, upon the brown caravan cushions that Toby loves for their “original style”, I survey my kingdom.

It doesn't take long to survey.  The kingdom is very small – two metres wide and four metres long.  That's right, we're back in the mountains, living in our “alpine property” - our Ford Transit van – and yes, we are a little bit mad :)

We left Berlin at the end of October, as it started to get cold.  We gave away all the tables and chairs and shelves we'd bought at the beginning of our stay, until we had none of it left, and just an empty room with four white walls.  We drove through the night, across Germany, through Switzerland and into France, back to our dear old van and our dear old friends in the Alps, ready for another round of winter. 

It’s been almost two months since I last wrote on Je Suis Une Monstre, and I have lots to tell. As this is my first post of 2015, I wanted to look back on 2014, as well as forward into the new year.  My inbox is full with lovely and inspiring blog posts and newsletters with annual reviews, intentions for 2015, new year’s resolutions and words of the year.  I am a Virgo and a serial list-writer and plan-maker…however, in recent years, despite my eagerness and good intentions, I discovered that writing something on a to-do list was a pretty good way for me to NOT do it!  As soon as I declare an intention, I feel as though I’m holding myself to ransom and I no longer want to act on it.  I’ve noticed that when I write lists in a frenzy, it’s usually simply to get those ideas out of my head, and down on to paper.  I’ve realised that the things I really want and need to do, don’t require writing down, as they are already inscribed in my mind.  I don’t need to write goals anymore, because I am living them constantly everyday.  Writing, teaching, learning, photographing, exploring, creating, travelling…they’re what I always wanted to do, and I’m doing them (by the way, I do love Elise's post on the difference between goals and to-do lists).

For the first time i feel that i'm not trying to get anywhere...i'm already here.  The last year, in 2014, so many wonderful, unexpected things happened without me having to force them or write them as a list of promises to myself.  Toby and I spent the summer living in Berlin and I went on some exciting adventures to Poland and New York.  The writing courses that I’ve always had on my to-do list came along like buses this year – I’ve been trying to find some for years, and suddenly 5 of them turn up at once!  (I took part in Susannah Conway’s excellent Journal Your Life and The Sacred Alone e-courses and worked with Sarah Peck with some behind-the-scenes work on her incredible The Writer’s Workshop and Content Strategy for Thought Leaders courses.  I also studied at poetry for the first time in Donna Stonecipher’s class in Berlin).

But I’m still a Virgo, and still itching to write down some sort of list or intention, so here goes:
This year I’d like to focus less on planning what I want to DO, but more on how I want to BE, because whatever I do, as long as it’s done with integrity, it’s a success in my eyes.  I want to continue to practice the things I love doing, and be grateful for what I have.  I want to continue on this path I’m on, because wherever it is taking me is making me a happy hippy.

I recently watched a TED talk by Pico Iyer called The Art of Stillness.  Despite being a seasoned traveller with a heart full of wanderlust, Pico celebrates the magic and importance of stillness – wherever he is.  It tied in with my thoughts about satisfaction arising from being happy with your life as it is, with gratitude. 

Here are a few of my favourite New Year blog posts from around the world wide web:
Here’s to 2015.  I hope all your wildest dreams come true. Catch you later, Monstres.  Over and out. X

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pilgrimage to Purl Soho

Purl Soho shop
The Purl Bee is a blog and a website that I hold very dear to my heart.  Years ago when Toby and I were building our van, I started exploring the amazing world of arts & crafts blogs, and The Purl Bee was one that has helped me learn to knit and crochet – and provided continuous inspiration to me.  Their free tutorials made from their delicious high grade craft supplies practically makes me drool every time I see a new post, and as a maker their blog has shaped me – I’ve made so many of their projects, from knitted mitts & cowls, to sewn and quilted blankets.

The Purl Bee has a physical shop that is always all the way over in New York and though I knew I could never travel across the globe just to visit a knitting shop….well hang on a minute, wasn’t that where I was headed?! 

Purl Soho yarn wall
As you can guess, with much excitement and a silly amount of anticipation, my sister Ellie, my friend Elsa, and I made a plan to visit the holy grail of arts & crafts shops on our recent trip to New York.  The shop is called Purl Soho, as it’s located in the sophisticated Soho area of New York.

Purl Soho ribbons
Stepping inside the shop was like stepping into Santa’s grotto.  Beautiful fabrics are displayed on the wall of the entrance, framed in embroidery hoops of different sizes.  Next to that, an entire wall boasts skeins of yarn of every colour, thickness, texture and natural fibre imaginable.

Purl Soho Ellie & wool
Everywhere you turn in the shop, you are greeted with flashes of mouth-watering colours – pure wool felt in the colours of a crisp, autumn country walk.  Fat squishy skeins of handspun wool with flowers and glitter spun into them, everything demanding your attention,  everything begging to be touched, turned over, considered, held, loved.

Purl Soho autumn felt
As I was rifling through a bowl of Liberty’s fabric off-cuts, unable to decide – the agony of choice – one of the shop assistants came to add more pieces to the bowl, and I told him I just love them all.  He turned to me and confessed, “I know – me too!”, with genuine love for these fabric scraps.  He is one of us – a craft nut!  I told him about our pilgrimage and he was delighted, and welcomed us warmly to the store.  We received a few admiring smiles and thumbs up, signs of acceptance from these crafty New Yorkers to us intrepid and determined explorers from Europe!

Purl Soho wall of yarn
As we browsed the stunning, carefully curated collection of fabrics that had the loveliest patterns and designs on them, Ellie decided then and there that she is going to become a seamstress, because she simply cannot leave (or live) without purchasing some of these fabrics.  “I CANNOT LEAVE THIS SHOP…EVER!” I howled, as I discovered maps of cities that you can embroider on and make into a quilt.  We all experienced a pang of longing and desire – not ready to go until every single item in this shop had been carefully inspected and the correct choices made for our purchases and future projects.  “You don’t even have to leave, not for like two and a half hours – that’s when we close!” calls out one of the friendly assistants, “you can just come and hang out over here with me!”

Purl Soho felt
I eventually completed my tour of the shop, content with having tried to commit the entire contents of it to memory.  There seemed to be a general air of warmth, of contentment, craftsmanship and well-being in that store – a creative haven where dreams can be realised!

Purl Soho shop 2
I decided on a huge skein of chunky forest green yarn, and a thinner kettle dyed skein, to make new winter hats with – and one of the pieces of Liberty’s fabric (possibly to make notebook covers or pouches with)

Purl Soho Elsa yarn
We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from the shop – taking away a small piece of it in the form of a yard of fabric, or a skein of wool, as a souvenir of this magical place.

Purl Soho shopfront
You can visit the wonderful folks at Purl Soho at 459 Broome Street, New York; or visit them online at The Purl Bee.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Thoughts on Photography

I find no photographs superior to the decency of a man’s feelings and his right to those feelings.  When there is such a conflict, I…put the camera down and take no pictures.” – W. Eugene Smith (photojournalist)

An internal debate has been raging in my head about the street photography I admire and crave to do – but am so terrified of pointing my camera’s into people’s faces.  I take my best photographs with my eyes, without my camera – whether it’s because the moment passes too quickly to capture, or that to take it would be too much of an intrusion.  I think this quote is the external permission slip I needed to confirm what I had decided on the matter.  Just because I have not captured a moment with my camera, does not mean that it didn’t happen.  It does not mean that I didn’t witness or observe it. 

Last month I took an online photography course with Kellie Hatcher and a real-life poetry course with Donna Stonecipher.  Taking both classes at the same time has helped me to “see” and observe more – and both crafts are worth working on – most importantly because I love them both, but also because they compliment each other: what I cannot capture on camera, I can describe with words.  What I cannot say with words, I can capture with an image.

In the 10 years that I have been making photographs, I have learnt a lot from photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.  He says “I try to reveal, but not to interpret.  I observe but do not intrude".

The Define School held a competition on Instagram to win a place on Kellie Hatcher’s photography course Light + Life.  They asked for submissions of awkward childhood photographs.  I have a photo album at home that my parents put together, of photographs from the first few years of my life.  There are a lot of shots with me with my face painted, I guess I went to a lot of parties in those days!  There is one in which my face paint is not so professionally done – as I did it myself – and look very pleased with my decision to have coloured in each part of my face a different colour.
When Toby saw this, he couldn’t stop laughing, and suggested that in black and white, I might look like a bloke who owns a kebab shop!…..

Well would you believe it – this picture won me the spot on the photography course!  I learnt so many things about finding the light and using the quality of it to tell a story, as well as the narrative itself.  I learnt things about my camera that I didn’t know about before, like metering and how the camera “sees” light.  I had so much fun with Kellie’s lessons and assignments and I highly recommend the course to anyone who wants to capture light and life!  The moral of this story is, ensure that you always keep a photo handy of you looking like a kebab shop bloke!  Here are some of the shots I took as part of the course:

DSC_0079 Toby  bikes dog stairs  Jameswash 2
Just before taking these photographs, we watched the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” which is a totally brilliant story about discovering the photographs of an unknown photographer, Vivian Maier, and trying to piece together the details of her life and who she was.  She shot the most amazing street photographs on a twin lens reflex camera, so as soon as we’d watched the film, we all set our cameras to monochrome and ran out to the park to shoot photos of each other.

I think I realised that I feel more comfortable taking photographs of people when they are allowing me to interact with them.  When I was in New York, I spent a day with Helen’s friends PJ and June.  PJ is a photographer and film maker who encouraged me to get my camera out on East 9th Street as it was such a good looking area.  I felt shy, but he coaxed me into it, and even offered to back me up if I wanted to try some street photography.  We went into a shop called Mr. Throwback (a vintage sportswear detective!) and The Upper Rust which sells antiques and curiosities.  I started chatting with the shop owners.  I was framing photographs with my eyes, so I asked if I could take a photo or two.  Both shop owners warmly invited me to photograph the whole shop, that they loved seeing people’s photos of their wares!  That made me feel much braver, so I took my time composing photographs in the shops, and even made portraits of the shop owners too.

Mr Throwback
Mr. Throwback2  Mr. Throwback PJ & June in Mr. Throwback
The Upper Rust 6  The Upper Rust2
The Upper Rust

Friday, 7 November 2014


Manhattan Skyline  
Ellie and I stayed in an Air B&B in Brooklyn for three nights, right next to Prospect Park.  We had a fine time romping through the beautiful park in the hot autumn sun, and decided it was our favourite park in the world.  We met up with Eloise, another dear friend of mine, who is studying for a Masters in Art History in New York, and enjoyed a culinary tour of Brooklyn together.  One day we met her in Park Slope where we ate delicious vegetarian wraps in S’nice and ate amazing gelato from a cafe nearby. Another day we sampled gorgeous tacos and cocktails at a Mexican restaurant and finally we ate ourselves silly at a Cajun restaurant where I ate biscuits & gravy (which strangely enough, are neither biscuits, nor gravy), cornbread, grits and chicken fried steak!!!  mmmMMM!!!  All washed down with a pecan harvest ale. 

Bosher and mushrooms
We caught up with my Berlin flatmates Elsa and Joey in Williamsburg and ate delicious Japanese food together.  We explored the handmade boutiques and admired the Manhattan skyline.
fill a jar with candy
squirrel graf
coffee love
Essex whadizzon

Brooklyn Bridge
Ella and meSpending time with Eloise on three consecutive days was an absolute treat, and we realised that it was the longest time we had spent together since we were at school together, 15 years ago!  I was so glad that I made the decision to buy a plane ticket to New York, because even better than exploring this amazing city, I got to spend time with my best friends and my little sister who I rarely see in person.  I made a promise to myself to take every opportunity I can to see my friends and family, and keep in touch with them, even if we don’t live in the same country. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

New York: Books, Bikes and a circus in The Bronx

On the 7th of October I took my first ever solo long-haul flight, from Berlin to New York to visit my very dear friend Helen, who has been touring the East Coast of America for the past year with the circus!  We missed each other at the airport as she had to get back for a show, but I managed to figure out the subway (which is not as complicated as I first thought!) and made my way over to The Bronx and found Helen’s trailer in the circus camp – which was a bit like Pikey Park on glittery steroids!

My sister Ellie arrived from London and we watched the circus show – it’s so glitzy and exciting, and I was definitely squealing at the trapeze act!  It was funny getting to see the show from the audience and from back stage.  The music and the lights and the costumes and the humungous smiles make the show so exciting.  The acts make your eyes boggle – there are a pair of sisters who balance each other on top of their heads and a trio of contortionists who tangle themselves into gravity-defying positions.  I loved the clowns because they made me laugh so much with their expressiveness and slap stick comedy, and it was amazing to see my friend Helen dressed in full feathers and showgirl regalia.  Backstage, she was in her tracksuit, sipping tea and giggling with us in her trailer.  In between acts we all contributed our artistic talents to Helen’s colouring in book – it’s very therapeutic!  Every Sunday the circus performers take it in turns to deliver a motivational speech.  They’ve been touring the US for the past year, doing 11 shows a week and not many days off.  The end is in sight, and to keep everyone’s spirits up, Helen made a silent speech by holding up paper that she’d written on, celebrating the crew of people and the mixture of nationalities that come together to make the magic of the circus.

Clowns  Hula slinky
Melon colouring in 
Ryan the Clown
Showgirls and Clowns Helen's speech
The following day, Ellie and I took the subway to Manhattan and hired bike in Central Park.  The park is huge and lovely, and it was fun to ride a bike – except you’re not allowed to actually ride inside most of the park – you have to stick to the road that runs around the park, and you’re only allowed to cycle in one direction!

Manhattan buildings
We walked around Manhattan all day, people watching and absorbing the city.  I felt like I recognised so many people because of seeing people like them in films!  We met up with Helen and her brother David to visit the Museum of the City of New York, which has an amazing chandelier of lights in the lobby.  Here, we watched a film that showed how New York came into being, from its geography as a port, to the different groups of people arriving and spreading out into the different “villages” of Brooklyn and “The Bronck’s” which later became The Bronx.  The city was originally Dutch, and called New Amsterdam, but the English came in and renamed it New York after the (grand old?!) Duke of York.  In the museum there is a quote from Abraham Lincoln which reads “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.

One day we took the subway to the East Village.  We weren’t heading anywhere in particular, but someone had mentioned it as being a cool place.  When we popped out of the station, we spied the Strand Book Store that over 4 floors, boasts 18 miles of new and second hand books.  Before I went to New York, I was looking at my tiny bookshelf in Berlin (which is full of books that I can acquire faster than I can read!) and was ruthlessly downsizing in my head.  Toby helped me realise that some books are keepers.  The ones that you can’t get on a kindle, or ones that are special editions, or with beautiful pictures in it.  The few books I do own in physical format are special to me, and act as reminders of times and places – books I bought in my favourite bookshops in Paris and Berlin; books that have been given to me as gifts by other people; and my own well thumbed and heavily annotated copies of books like Women Who Run With The Wolves and Bird by Bird.  These books lend themselves to the paper form and demand to be held, and have a pen taken to their margins.  These books which give such feeling deserve to be manhandled!  He also pointed out that if I was to start letting go of books, then I should make sure I’d at least read them first (!) and only give away books that are “just” books – that are replaceable.  The rest are treasures, to be treasured.

I was happy to add four new treasures to my collection today: The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky, which is a deeper explanation of the things I have learnt in the poetry class I took in Berlin.  “Words for Breakfast” is a collection of prose & poetry from the National Book Foundation’s summer camps – I love to read collections of amateur writing because it makes me think that I could achieve something similar.  I found a second hand copy of The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg, which has been pre-loved and well thumbed and is full of notes, highlights and underlining.  I had to own it, and be part of a long distance handshake with a stranger.  I also found a beautifully illustrated copy of Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself, which is full of colour and captivating graphic quality.  Four new treasures :)

After delighting ourselves in this wonderful book mecca, Ellie and I dived into the streets of the East Village, where we discovered East 9th Street that has lots of little boutiques selling clothes, antiques and all sorts of wonders.  At the end of the street was a shabby, cosy little cafe called Pick Me Up Cafe, where we rested and recharged on tea and green juice, and chilled out a while, exploring the worlds of our new books and having lovely conversations.  It occurred to me that during this 10 day trip to New York, I would get to spend more time in the company of my sister and my best friend than I had in about the last 7 years.  I treasured these moments.  The day was exactly how I wanted it to be – to explore a cool neighbourhood with Ellie and hang out, and observe the New Yorkers around us.