Thursday, 10 October 2013

So Long Berlin, Hello Meribel

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Our time in Berlin drew to a close just over a week ago.  Toby and I were acutely aware that we had work to do on our van and things to prepare for the winter, and the longer we stayed in Berlin, the harder we’d make it for ourselves.  We packed up our belongings and moved house yet again.  But for once in our lives, the moving day wasn’t stressful.  We weren’t faced with hours of packing and re-packing and losing and finding and squabbling and cleaning…..we just put our few things into our few bags and drove away into the sunrise.

All my worldly possessions fitted into 5 small bags: a rucksack full of clothes; a carrier bag full of Icelandic wool; a carrier bag of shoes; a shopping bag of French and English teaching books, camera, kindle and computer; and my knitting machine.  Woweeeeee I am so minimal, I thought.  (Little did I know that 3 more bags of wool would face me in Meribel.  The long and the short of it is, I have TOO MUCH WOOL.  It’s true.  I am so lucky to have friends with garages here who have offered to store it there for me.  It’s like having a personal wool shop in which the stock is already paid for.  It’s a good way to make me knit through the stash over the next few months to free up their space, without cramming more stuff into our 8m square of van).

We arrived in Meribel last Sunday night, and were greeted warmly by good friends and copious amounts of red wine.  The next day, we checked out our beloved van home.  Some water and a mouse had got in, but there was no major damage.  The mouse had gone to town in one of our food cupboards where we’d left dry packets of sausage casserole mix….he’d eaten the lot, including a half kilo of popping corn.  He had then proceeded to replace the food in the cupboard with his own shit.  In essence, leaving it all exactly where he found it…..Fortunately he didn’t eat any tea, wool, or chillies - all of my favourite things!  Not even the rain from the leaking roof had damaged my wool - some of it had a faint aroma of damp, but it was all fine.  We found a €20 note right in the middle of the floor of the van - I don’t know how we could have left it there when we left at the end of the winter; so we decided that Oliver the mouse must have left it there as rent! :)

What a change it is to be in Meribel again - the beautiful, vast mountains looming all around with the colours of autumn starting to show.  Nature replaces culture and silence replaces the sirens.  Friends replace strangers, and knowing the languages spoken here (French and English) make everything seem so much easier.  I certainly learnt some German during my time in Berlin, but not enough to ‘get by’.  I could almost have a very basic conversation, but not really.  Even though Berlin is a very international city and practically everyone I encountered spoke fluent English as the common language, I didn’t want to take the easy option for me and speak English.  When I couldn’t say anything in German, I would remain silent: rather be language-less than resort to my native language.  

I will miss the lawlessness of Berlin - the fact that anything goes; that whoever you are and whoever you want to be is accepted without question.  I like the air of excitement and protest, and the laid-back attitude of every day life.  The feeling that the city is one big festival - abandoned and reclaimed by the people, with graffiti covering every last inch of wall spaceEveryday was an adventure, I went out into the city on my bicycle, my trusty steed; and photographed what I saw with my camera - everything new and everything noticeable.  Everything worthy of being framed and captured through my lens.  

I loved discovering a Wagonplatz (Pikey Park sites) right in the centre of the city!  And Garden Communities where people live in their tiny shed homes next door to their allotments.  How amazing that you can live for free in the middle of a European capital city!  I was delighted by the lack of chain shops, and the abundance of independent shops and cafes; and the enormous variety of cheap and delicious food on offer.

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I enjoyed going to Victoria‘s classes in Yellow Yoga every week.  I loved hanging out with my friends, and meeting their friends - my friendship circle growing rapidly everyday; and I liked how it was possible to spend very little, even on eating out.  I liked buying a pint of beer in a bottle from the ‘späti’ (Berliner word for ‘off-licence’) for 60 cents at the end of every day, and drinking it in the huge living room of the flat we shared with about 8 other people who came and went and swapped places with each other.  I had a weird and wonderful time writing at the Sensa Nostra office, creating ‘alternative media’.  Whilst many writers wrote about sex, drugs and rock & roll, I wanted to write about ‘alternative living’ and tiny homes, which sparked many conversations with my editor Kyra, who has become a friend of mine. 

I liked going out and hearing new music, GOOD music, and the fact that there are no closing times for bars and clubs.  Despite that, there is no crazy drinking culture - I never saw anyone really drunk or being stupid - everyone just does what they want all the time, and everyone has the opportunity to be more free and happy.  There are a million other reasons why Berlin is my favourite city in the world, and has given me much food for thought, and many ideas to write about.  I’ll definitely return to this city, next summer methinks :)

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In Meribel, we discovered the reason for the dampness inside the van: the window that we’d so brilliantly installed in the roof many moons ago, had collapsed slightly on one side and rain had come in, soaking one side of the van.  Out came the window, once and for all, and we went about patching up the hole.  We had quite a lot of bad luck that day and what could have been a very easy job fixing the roof turned into a monstrous nightmare.  However, we succeeded in repairing it at last in time for the rain to come again. 

The day after the evening we arrived, we saw a snake slither across the road - Katie and Toby’s Wildlife Roadshow! The mountains looked like this and the summer was still in full swing.

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Ten days later, the weather has dropped and the first snow has fallen, dusting across the mountains.  One thing that being in Berlin and in the mountains has taught me about photography, is to seize the moment, because nothing is permanent and things can change in an instant.  I snapped a shot of the sign for Oranienstrasse in Berlin, that had skateboards nailed all over it.  A few weeks later, the decks had been removed, leaving just a sign post - I was so happy I caught it!  Here in the mountains, I’ve been strolling around looking at the amazing views with all the colours of pre-winter and clouds dangling above the valley and below the peaks.  I didn’t have my camera and wanted to capture it - and now the snow has fallen making everything a blanket white.  Seize the moment, that’s my new photography motto.

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I’ve been toying with several ideas recently, directions to steer Je Suis Une Monstre and bring together all the things I love the most: writing, photography, teaching, making.  I have decided on a few (to start with!) and am looking forward to spending the next couple of months knuckling down and getting to grips with my knitting machine and producing a line of colourful knitted mitts to keep everyone’s paws warm in the winter months.  Whaddya say, Monstres?  All of that should keep me busy for a wee while.  I’m looking forward to sharing my progress with you all on my blog.  

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What tricks have you got up your sleeves as the nights grow longer? X

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Craft Night at Vendi’s

Take five friends, a load of craft supplies, a few bottles of wine and a kilo of potatoes….welcome to Craft Night at Vendi’s house!

We had so much fun drawing, painting, making potato stamps and printing cards with them.  Oh and did I mention we drank copious amounts of wine??!  It got a bit messy…!  

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What works of art do you get up to with your friends?  Do you have a Craft Night too?  Danke schöne frauleins for a million funs! XXX

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Staring at THE Wall

On my bicycle adventures round the city of Berlin, I noticed I had been taking lots of photographs of walls, in and around Friedrichshain where I was living in East Berlin.  I was getting down on myself that I was taking pictures of walls in my avoidance of making portraits of people.  The idea that I ‘should’ have been doing something else made me overlook that I really liked the photographs I took of the walls.  I have since removed ‘should’ from my vocabulary - it kills the joy in things.

There is one wall in particular in Berlin that deserves it’s own portrait series, and that is of course The Berlin Wall.  The concrete barrier split Germany in half, right down the middle of it’s capital city.  It was opened by communist East Berlin on 9th October 1989 and Germany was reunified for the first time since the wall was constructed in 1961.  Parts of theBerliner Mauer (Berlin Wall) still stand, most notably the stretch by the banks of the River Spree in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.  It is now known as the East Side Gallery, displaying commissioned paintings by 105 artists from all over the world, which document a time of change and express the euphoria and great hopes for a better, more free future for all people of the world.

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These are some of my favourite photos.  You can see the full set by clicking here.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Mauer Park Flea Market

If you go down to Mauer Park in Berlin today, you’re in for a big surprise….

Every Sunday Mauer Park hosts an enoooorrmous flea market.  What does it sell?  Everything, oh but EVERYTHING!  There are stalls and stalls full of junk and treasure, relics rescued from house clearances.  There are handmade stalls and delicious food to taste and savour.  You can pick up a bike for €50 (of dubious origins).  There are stalls of artisan juice, antiques, tat and everything else in between!  It is a sight to behold!  Not only is the there the sprawling market, but the park is filled with people; there are street performance shows in the park’s ampitheatre, and dudes playing basketball in the court.  It’s as if every Sunday, Mauer Park gets turned into a mini-festival site.  (Actually, it’s as if the whole city of Berlin is one huge festival site, all the time!).

Later on in the day, it becomes so packed that you can barely alter your course - you just have to get swept along the market’s course in a throng of people, like an army of ants, heading in one direction.  A couple of weekends ago, I dived in with my trusty Lomo Lubitel camera, and papped some shots with delicious black and white 120 film.  Clickety click.

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What are you up to this Sunday?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Gwlân glorious Gwlân

Hello Monstres, wie geht’s?  My time in Berlin is drawing to a close, and as I pack up my belongings, say goodbye to my new friends, and have one last look around the city, my dear Pikey sister Daisy B has written a guest post to share her love of Welsh Wool.  Do you know about this amazing stuff?  Aside from being a full-blown wool addict, Daisy is also a talented musician and songwriter, and I am lucky enough to have her as my next door neighbour in Pikey Park. Read on friends, and fall in love with Welsh Wool (and with Daisy B!)

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You can never have too many blankets…

Last year my boyfriend and I moved to Pembrokeshire in West Wales.  I have always been interested in crafts but moving here that has really set me off on a bit of a wool addiction.
Last summer a good friend of mine showed me a blanket that had been handed down to her from her Granny. Her family were from North Wales and she told me all about how Welsh Blankets or Cartherns were made at the mills in Wales, and often given as gifts that were passed down through families. Hers was a beautiful double blanket in golden Autumn colours with a striking black geometric pattern. It was cosy, well made and she loved it because it was part of her family’s history.

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I don’t know if it was the patterns, the cosyness or the story, but from then on I had an eye out for blankets!  The patterns were beautiful with different shapes and motifs to signify where and when they’d been made.  Having had a bit of a boom through the 60s and 70s there are also some pretty adventurous colour combinations!  Most Cartherns are double sided, repeating the pattern with the colours inverted on the reverse side. What’s more there are now only a handful of wool mills in Wales that are still in action, so the blankets are even more of a find.  I was hooked.   And what did I stumble upon in our local town? THE MOTHERSHIP. So many blankets. Wool, everywhere.

There are a couple of working wool mills left in Pembrokeshire: Melin Tregwynt is one of them, which is world renowned for it’s textiles, having designed exclusive ranges for Mulberry and Margret Howell; as well as collaborations with The Tate commissioning artist Jacqueline Poncelet to create a textile design that was exhibited in the gallery.

Solva Wool Mill is another working wool mill specialising carpets, weaves and rugs.  I now have a small collection (they come with a pretty hefty price tag in most cases so I’ve had to bargain and barter my little woolen socks off). Here’s a couple of them:

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They are the cosiest things I own, and they brighten up the tiny spaces I live in. Whats more they repel water, are flame resistant and are made from100% natural fibre with the wool being sourced and spun in the same county. Isn’t wool amazing?

So what would you expect in a country that has more sheep than people and a woolly craft history?  That’s right - The National Wool Museum! It’s based in Camarthenshire in the Teifi Valley an area that had the largest concentration of the country’s wool mills in it’s hay day. The museum now own the Cambrian mill and have weavers, spinners and other crafty groups as well as rooms full of the history of the area and the industry. What’s more they had a WALL of blankets.

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Needless to say it was a good afternoon of feeding the wool habit and learning more about the history of the country we’d moved to. It’s set in a beautiful area just by the river Teifi and has so many interesting pieces in the collection. We were even joined by a whole bus load of pensioners…Grandmas know good crafts!  I love living in a country that’s so proud of it’s heritage and maintains places like the wool museum as a testament to it’s past. So have I got room for another blanket? Well you can never have too many, right?

Thanks a million Daisy B for your super words and pictures.  Daisy and her boyfriend Tom are in the middle of a house-building project.  They are converting an old stable into a beautiful home.  You can read more about her home-building adventures here.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Back to Basics: Why Living Off The Land Is Good For The Soul

This article was written for Huck Magazine, but only enjoyed a few minutes of fame, due to them having technological issues.  Whilst they are working to get their site back to normal, and the backlog of articles re-posted, you can enjoy it here on the Je Suis Une Monstre blog.  This is about my time I spent in Spain in May, and why living off the land is good for the soul.  Enjoy! X

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Think Outside The Box
In May, I spent fifteen days with a group of six people in Spain who live off the land and sleep in yurts. These structures are the most effective DIY/ nomadic style housing that can be built.  They are super low impact on the environment and on the wallet. To build each 6 metre yurt cost less than 2000 euros. All the materials to make the platforms and structures are sourced from the trees that grow on the terrain.  Living in the round frees you from the boxiness of modern housing. The only boxes around there were the beehives, which would soon be producing honey.  Sweet.

Time
Living off the land is a revolution in slow living. Without the grind of a daily job you stop rushing around physically, and your mind calms down too. Staying here provided me with an enforced digital sabbatical, which came as a pleasant alternative. My spare time was actually mine, instead of belonging to the internet. I romped around, exploring the enormous terrain and I discovered the pleasures of reading a whole novel in one sitting. I filled a notebook with ideas, and had the chance to focus on one project at a time.

Community
My new friends live in an intentional community, in which they work together, sharing ideas and values about living self-sufficient, low-impact lives. Further afield from this small group, are more friendly collectives living in similar ways.  There is a real solidarity between the communities, and when someone has a big project (like building a new yurt), everyone comes round to help. 

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Work
In guerilla gardener Ron Finley’s words, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money”. The group have traded 9-5 jobs, for self-sufficiency. Everyone works for about 20 hours a week, whether that’s weeding the strawberry plants or hauling cow shit up a steep bank using an ingenious pulley system. Collectively they run a yurt-building workshop once a year to raise money to buy essentials and open their doors to curious like-minded folk. Building your own forest home frees you from paying rent. Growing your own food means you don’t have to buy it.

Nothing wasted
Here, food comes directly from the ground outside and very little ends up in the bin. Paper rubbish (newspapers, egg cartons) were used as kindling to heat the yurts. Grass was grown long, cut and added to the haystack or to the compost heap to help cultivate more plants. After using the composting toilet, you throw a handful of sawdust down the hole. The sawdust soaks up everything and turns it into a rich compost, which is spread over the plants. Composting toilets = No smells, no water, no waste (but delicious strawberries!)

Slow Food
The group in Spain slow-cook all their meals from scratch. Meals are fresh, organic, and usually vegetarian. Every week, loaves of luscious wholemeal bread are baked in a handmade clay oven. The relationship with food in the yurt community is shaped by the seasons, something that is lacking from many supermarkets and food products that we’re used to buying. Natural, local produce is the healthiest option both for humans and for our planet. Growing our own food is a peaceful revolution and I truly believe that a little more gardening can change the world.

Happiness!  Less is more.
My friends in Spain may not have all the “essential” trimmings: No TV.  No internet.  No…nothing, according to our modern disposable culture.  However, in the midst of this culture of “never enough”, they had an abundance of the things that really matter: relationships; being self-sufficient; cultivating organic vegetables; having free time. They appreciated the small things in life like fresh running water that came directly from a source. The sun itself generated electricity via solar panels and bathtime was particularly fun. I didn’t consider them to have less - just different, greener, more FUN ways of doing things! Living in this community taught me to savour life experiences instead of material possessions, and in this sense, we were rich beyond our wildest dreams.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Hi-Tech Analog Post

Hey friends, how do you do?  Toby and I received some cool post recently.  He ordered the Futur II compilation on vinyl from German record label Giegling.  The music is delicious, you must feast your ears upon it.  It arrived promptly, and was full of delightful surprises that you don’t get with digital files.  Artwork, hand stamped paper sleeves, stickers, a beautiful physical product (no matter that we have nothing to play it on….YET!), and limited availability.  What a beautiful object to have.

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Fortunately it seems that the German postal service is much more efficient than the French Poste.  He wasn’t at home to receive the package, so he took his delivery slip along to the Pack Station.  This is what happens: 

“German Pack Station’s are cool! You don’t go to a dusty old sorting office like in the UK: you go to one of hundreds of pack stations that are run by DHL.  To collect your package, you go to a massive sideboard with 20 or more different sized doors. In the centre of all the doors is a small screen where you scan the barcode that the postman leaves you when he can’t deliver your packages. You sign your name on the touch screen with a finger and the door containing your parcel pops open like a massive yellow technological advent calendar. The door that held the record was 3 inches high by 12 inches wide and was 12 inches deep. Almost the perfect size to hold a record. I extracted my record and pushed the door shut, ready for the next lucky record buying recipient.

Its a really friendly way to receive your post. It doesn’t get left with neighbours, it gets put in a nice secure, metal, locked cupboard, and waits for you to come and pick it up. Open 24 hours a day, you can come at your own convenience, and it stays there for seven days before getting returned to sender.”

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As for me, I treated myself to four new…...CLAIREFONTAINE NOTEBOOKS!  Oh I know, so exciting!  Haha.  I really do get disproportionately excited about a nice stationary display! (But don’t you too?!)  You can pick up these beauties from Bureau Direct.  If you subscribe to their newsletter, they’ll send you an email every wednesday with discount codes on certain products - yippeeeee!  I figured if I write 4.8 pages everyday, I’ll fill an entire notebook by the time I leave Berlin.  That’s a lot of good writing practice :)

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I always start every new notebook with a list, or a dedication to what it’s pages will contain.  This time I wrote a list for what I want out of the last few weeks we have left in Berlin.  We’re staying til the end of September, then heading Meribel-wards for the start of October, when the leaves turn golden, to fix up our van for winter.  So what do I want to do in my time here?  I want to WRITE!  In my notebook, my blog, at Sensa Nostra(where I am writing some articles about tiny living).  I want to photograph everything I see in this amazing city, and am particularly excited about the imminent arrival of my new camera (Happy Birthday to me!).  I’ll continue to explore everything Berlin has to offer - history, art, music, culture, people.  The lot.  I’m going to read lots of books and blogs when the weather is grumpy.  I love riding my bike EVERYWHERE!  I’ve got some knitting projects lined up (more on that soon!) and I’m slowly but surely picking up some German.  Very basic, but it’s very fun trying to get my mouth around the words.

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Did you get any exciting packages recently?  What are your goals for the rest of this month?  Tell me in the comments below.  XXX