Cafe Culture Working

Working in CommonGround cafe in Berlin today, cool inside with good music and coffee and looking out through the open doors to the passing trams on the street and people enjoying the 29c weather today.


From Visiting to Living

I've been here in Berlin for 7 weeks of the 18 weeks I'll be here, and at some stage, I'd say around 3 or 4 weeks in, I moved psychologically from visiting here to living here and it happened without me noticing it. 
When you visit a place you tend to run around and see and do everything that's available in the city because you won't be there long. But when it's for a longer period, and in my case 4 and possibly 5 months, you tend to develop living routines as if you are at home. I'm no longer frantically trying to go to everything instead I'm pacing myself to see them over a longer period. Laundry, shopping and cleaning routines click in and also as I'm writing every day, it's become my work schedule. Making friends at the writers meet-ups, who I see several times every week is also a development that doesn't happen on a visit but is part of a longer stay. 
One of the most notable things is the fact that I brought so few possession- a small set of clothes, toilet bag, 2 cameras, an iPhone, a MacBook and some basic painting materials, and I'm surviving quite happily with those items and it makes me think how little we really need to live and work comfortably. So many other things are superfluous, more a product of consumer society than a real need. It fits in with the minimalism approach which I had started several months before I left for this trip. I've no desire to adopt Buddhism (and lose all desire for material possessions) but needing less things certainly has its benefits.  
But I'll have to wait and see if this non-materialistic approach develops over the 4/5 months. Now if only I could apply this to food then I might lose some weight. :)

Bubble maker at Alexanderplatz

Bubble maker at Alexanderplatz

Axel's Letters

Here's a excerpt from one of the chapters I've written in the last few days, part of the new book I'm writing "The New Frontier":

Axel’s Letters

One of the places which Axel had been working was near Kreuzberg. Under darkness, and having managed to give their tail the slip Amy and Ethan took the U6 to Mehringdamm and got out and walked the streets along Zossener strasse. It was hot and the streets smelled of the oil and dust and sweat of the construction workers. Looking across the street under the ubiquitous linden trees, were the never ending road works and scaffolding against the buildings, with dirt in the gutter, and a plague of graffiti tagging covering virtually every building like a rash that was slowly enveloping the city, choking it and gradually bringing it to it’s knees. The hideous black and luminous red and blue daubed everywhere, scrawling on top of scrawling, posters pasted on walls advertising countless bands, and parties and events of all types in many different languages, posted thick on top of each other, fighting for attention, and the top most posters obscured by more sprayed scrawling. Amy imagined that every night as people went to bed, after midnight, an army of scrawlers crept up out of the drains, the manholes, and the subway passages from their deep, dark lairs and with spray cans in hand, began their nightly job of spreading the graffiti, tagging, marking of streets, corners, lampposts, defacing street murals, anything that was in their way, was covered. It was like a plague of locusts leaving destruction in their path. These nameless, faceless people, these fake artists wanting their moments of fame, were capturing the city, making it theirs and dragging it down into a swirling scribbled mess.

As they walked passed the young men and women standing at corners, talking, laughing and smoking as if was mandatory to do so, in some unwritten law of social interaction, they saw there were also older men sitting behind them at small tables outside the restaurants, drinking beer or expresso and talking, often in other languages, possibly Turkish as there were generations of Turkish people living in this area although many had abandoned their original heartland streets in Kreuzberg for the further, more southerly area of Neukolln. Nevertheless these streets were still marked with the indelible signature of Turkish influence, the small cafes, the markets, the traders shops, the distinctive black haired and black bearded men, small and thin, with light tan skin and the beautiful women with shawls on their heads and children, on their hips or in prams or running along beside them, playing and dancing and full of life and activity even long after dark when Amy thought they’d be in their beds, but no, they were out there on the sidewalks, swinging out of the scaffoldings running, shouting and so very alive.

They crossed and turned into a smaller street with Nepalese cafes, with families eating at the tables out on the streets, the food looked delicious and invited them in but they continued on their way and as they walked they kept a lookout, stopping a while pretending to be looking in the windows but actually scanning the reflections to see if anyone was following. Then they’d retrace their steps for a block, then suddenly turning around and walking quickly in the opposite direction and then back again, Anyone following would have had a difficult time not being spotted and to avoid being followed by a car they ducked down alleys into courtyards, which could only be walked and slipped back out again after a few minutes making sure no one was there.

Eventually they arrived at the first location which Axel had indicated in his notes. It was a second-hand English book shop. Inside was like a cavern with books laid out in a seemingly haphazard way, in boxes, on chairs and tables, in nooks and crannies and some on the loosely categorised book shelves which adorned the walls from floor to ceiling. They wandered thought the shop looking for a specific category in the non-fiction area, it was right up high at the back, a small section on Egyptian Antiquities.

Ethan had to stand on a chair to reach the books on the top shelf and behind the very last book, prised into the corner of the shelf , was a flap, a cardboard flap stuck to the edge of the upright of the bookshelf. When he took out three or four books he was able to fold back the flap a bit and behind it he could see an envelope. Axel’s envelope he presumed.

There was no one else in the book shop except the owner up front, two rooms away andthere were no video cameras so it was safe to say they were probably unobserved. But they couldn’t say for sure, maybe this lack of security cameras and emptiness in the shop was just to get their confidence that no one was looking, or maybe that was just paranoia.

They certainly knew that there were increasingly fewer places where they could be alone and unnoticed. Just as they were about to fold back the cardboard flap fully to allow the envelope to be released, they heard the owner shuffling as he approached from the front rooms of the shop.

Ethan stopped and quickly got down from the chair and pretended to be looking at another section by the time he arrived into the room. He was an old man, wizened with white strands of hair still clinging to his almost bald head.

“Is there something I can help you find?” he said, assuming they were English speakers as this was an English bookshop.

Amy hesitated for a moment, she hadn’t thought about anything they’d say, if asked.

“Egyptian Art” said Ethan.

“Islamic Art” said Amy almost at the same time.

“So which is it?” the little man asked eying them both with curiosity, “or perhaps you are looking for a particular title?”

“I know almost all the books in the shop, and their locations, even if it looks in total disarray.”

Amy smiled broadly. And he responded with a nearly toothless smile.

“We are really just browsing the art books in a few categories. Such an interesting collection you have here."

He nodded.

“Yes but nobody is interested in the books back here. I put the more popular books up in the front two rooms and only the most adventurous browsers like yourselves venture back here.” Amy could detect that he had a slight London accent, obviously eroded by years of living in Berlin. She wanted to engage him and was about to when she caught Ethan’s eyes. He flicked his eyes twice in the direction of the front of the shop. She understood.

“Perhaps you could help me browse some of the popular crime fiction,” she said and she could see the old man’s disappointment that she wanted to move away from the books on ancient antiquities which were obviously his favourites. He turned and shuffled towards the front of theshop with Amy trailing behind leaving Ethan to finish retrieving the envelop. When they were gone he got up on the chair again and removed more books from the top shelf and managed to fully open the cardboard flap and found that there were two envelopes behind it. He took them down and then carefully replaced all but one of the Egyptian Art books: “Tutankhamen’s Treasures”. He put the envelopes in his inside pocket, tucked the large book under his arm, and made his way back to the front of the shop. Amy was in the corner pretending to browse the Jo Nesbo novels and the little man was sitting on his perch behind a small desk covered in books and notepads and some coffee cups.

“I’ll take this one.” He said handing the book to the old man.

He smiled. “That will be seven euros, and it’s in perfect condition.”. He was holding the book now with loving care as if he was going to have to part with one of his children.

“Ethan paid him and then he and Amy made for the door.

As they were leaving the old man cleared his throat, ”You be careful now,” he said, “those envelopes contain secret stuff, Axel told me, and he said only friends of his would know where to find them and what to do with that information. But he said it was dangerous and that he might not be alive if someone else came to get the envelopes. Is he dead?”

Amy was shocked.

“I’m so sorry to tell you but he is dead. He was shot a few days ago.”

“The old man nodded.

“Such a nice man, such a pity to loose his life.”

Amy wanted to to talk more, but the old man had turned and was making his way into the back of the shop with his head bowed.

Ethan placed the Egyptian book onto the front desk, returning it to it’s rightful owner. Then they turned again and left the shop.

They were anxious to find out what was in the envelopes but they had to be sure that their trail had not been picked up again.

They cautiously scanned the streets and parked cars looking for a tail. It seemed like the coast was clear and they headed back they way they had come looking for a little coffee shop on a side street as they went. When they found one which was almost empty they sat at a corner table, ordered some coffee and two heated chocolate croissants and then Ethan reached into his inner pocket and drew out the letters.

Reasons to Learn German

When I went for a haircut this morning in the nearby Moabit area in Berlin, it was a small barber shop run, by Eunus, originally from Damascus, but he wasn’t a new Syrian refugee as he had been in Berlin for 20 years. His German sounded pretty fluent as I listened to him chat to another customer, Nelson from Zimbabwe. Nelson who already had pretty short hair before the cut, was getting his head shaved and perhaps I should have taken that as a foreshadowing of my haircut to come. Anyway, when it was my turn I found out that Eunus only had very little English. I explained that I just wanted a regular hair cut. But what’s a regular haircut? especially having just shaved the previous customer’s head. I indicated short hair and assumed he understood, but he obviously had a different understanding and once he’d started there was no going back. He was pretty friendly despite the language barrier and he was never aware that it was much shorter than I anticipated.
So I guess I got value for my money - €10 - an expresso and a very tight haircut. Next time I’m bringing a photo taken after my previous haircut, so there can be no misunderstanding. :)

Four Day Visit

I had such an excellent four days with Niall and Charlie visiting me in Berlin. We took a four-hour walking tour of Berlin, taking in it's history from early settlement to the present day, but focussing on Prussian history, the second world war, the cold war and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. We visited the transport museum (Deutsches Technikmuseum) - planes, trains and all modes of transport. Then we spent some time in Charlottenburg looking a Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Matisse and other 20th century artists  at the Berggruen Museum and it's sister museum across the street, the Scharf-Gerstenberg collection.

Each night we dined on various cuisines in a different areas of Berlin: Potsdamer Platz, Kreuzberg and Kurfurstendamm.

I managed to maintain my daily 1500 words writing early each morning, before the guys surfaced for late breakfasts at their nearby hotel, but other interests were on hold. The time flew by and they've departed now, leaving me to my staple companions - writing, painting, photographing and reading. Such a great visit.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

French Huguenot Church

French Huguenot Church

Top of the Transport Museum

Top of the Transport Museum

At the Wall close to the Topographie des Terrors

At the Wall close to the Topographie des Terrors

Jewish Holocaust Memorial

Jewish Holocaust Memorial

Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz 

Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz 

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

Halfway There Milestone

Today I have broken through 40,000 word point in writing my new novel, "The New Frontier". The initial plan for the novel is 80,000 words (320 pages). This is the halfway point in the first draft and while it’s just a psychological boost to reach it, in practice, once the first draft is finished, I will probably write another 20,000 to 30,000 words in subsequent drafts.

The first draft is always garbage, but it gets the story down from start to finish. The real work will be in refining it the subsequent edits. In my first book, “The House Always Wins”, I did five drafts, refining to a point where I felt it was finished. 

This four month trip to Berlin is hugely beneficial to writing, the change of location, the company of artists and writers at meet-ups and the freedom to get up every day and write for as little or as long as I like, is just the environment I need to get it finished. Enjoy the novel snippet below.

Writing meet-up

Everyone with heads down and writing furiously at this morning's two hour writing meet-up in the Kaschk cafe, Berlin

Travel Charging

I know this sounds like a advertisement but it's not. For years I've been bringing 5 or 6 chargers with me when I travel for - camera, phone, MacBook, etc and finally I decided to buy an Anker PowerPort 6 for €23 from Amazon Germany and they shipped it in one day to my apartment. However, using the German website was a bit tricky. I had to search on the Amazon Uk website first and then search for the same product on the German site and also I had difficulty adding a German address to my Amazon account. But it was worth it in the end. As you can see  from the photo, one small multi port charger, 60% the size of my iPhone 6 plus, can charge my (1) MacBook, (2 )iPad, (3)iPhone, (4)Sony camera, (5) MIFI (portable network) and (6) bluetooth headphones all at the same time without getting hot, in fact you'd hardly know it's on except for the blue LED. Highly recommended.

New Growth

As is becoming the norm, I'm spending a few hours each day working on a painting or a drawing as well as writing. My latest acrylic and pastel painting is "New Growth" an abstract of the spring new growth all around me. I find painting is a foil to writing, when I'm doing one I'm often thinking of the other.

Curvature of the Spline

A new acrylic and pastel drawing for today: "Curvature of the Spline"

(Since I've been asked what a spline is: it's a mathematical function which defines a curve)

Berlin April 2017 Photos, Paintings and Drawings

These are my Berlin photographs, paintings and drawings for April 2017. It's been a very enjoyable first month of the four month trip: Writing, painting, drawing, photographing, architecture, galleries, cycling, reading, blogging, eating, meet-ups, great coffee, and much more still to come. Berlin has been an inspiration to me.

Link to Berlin April 2017 Photo Gallery



Art, virtual bikes and writing

As the 50 or 60 galleries participating in Gallery Weekend were spread across Berlin I made good use of Lidl bikes to find them, however sometimes trying to find an available bike using the Lidl App became an interesting activity itself, a bit like the game PokemonGo. You see your position and that elusive bike nearby on a map and try and find it but it's not always where you think it is (if it's there at all) and sometimes it could just be damaged and unusable - but mostly I got the bike in the end, and although this searching annoyed me initially, I soon started to enjoy the unexpected detours, seeing buildings, alleyways and other locations which I otherwise would not have found.

Anyway, back to the art: I walked down the very long and winding Linienstrasse and Auguststrasse streets with many galleries on them, and on my journeys I came across good, bad and ugly art (mostly good though), sometimes located in unusual spots - like a small gallery located on the second floor of an apartment located at the back of a garden of another apartment block. It was a voyage of discovery, a treasure hunt with the journey sometimes being as interesting as the destination.

As always looking at art motivates me to draw and paint and this weekend has given me some new ideas for paintings this week.

Speaking of ideas, when I was at the writers meet up on Saturday morning, after the 90 minute writing session, I had a great chat with one of the writers, who writes scripts for Spanish TV productions as his day job, and he told me his ideas for a historic Mexican novel set in the 1920s. Just listening to other peoples ideas and how they approach writing projects is encouraging.

Sketches from my drawing group meeting

This is a collection of the sketches I made this morning at the drawing group. Six 5 to 10 minute sketches, randomly choosing one person from the group as a model for each sketch. We met for two hours at CommonGround cafe at Rosenthaler Platz at 11 am this morning. As you can see, I don't think anyone apart from me was over thirty. It was great to be sketching from real life rather than from my imagination or a photograph or a painting. Also, the pressure to do a sketch in 5 minutes really makes you focus. All drawings were done on my iPad using Adobe Sketch and later I made a composite of all of them.

Gallery Weekend

This weekend is Gallery Weekend in Berlin, a bit like Culture Night in Dublin. All the galleries were open late tonight (Friday) and they are open extra hours over the long weekend. There's about 60 private galleries taking part across four areas of the city. Tonight I went to look at the galleries in the Charlottenburg / Ku'damm area and there was some really good art on show (see below and links to my blog for more). I visited about 10 galleries but of course this is just the tip of the iceberg and I'll see a lot more over the weekend. It's kind of like a Google Maps treasure hunt, finding the galleries and then the reward is viewing the artwork.

Later, on my way walking towards Potsdamer Platz, a large column of cyclists snaked past me. I estimated there was about 5000 cyclists as it took about 15 minutes to pass by. I asked one of the stewarts about it and he said it was a Critical Mass cyclists reclaim the city demonstration. They have them every last Friday of the month in Berlin (and other cities) and I might join the next one on a Lidl bike.

Speaking of which, I picked one up at Potsdamer Platz and cycled home through Tiergarten park; my third cycle today.


More info and pics on my blog:

Critical Mass cycle reclaim the streets demonstration

Critical Mass cycle reclaim the streets demonstration

Critical Mass cycle reclaim the streets demonstration

Critical Mass cycle reclaim the streets demonstration

Biking in Berlin

Hiring a bike in Berlin is mostly quite expensive, on average €12 per day, so as the weather improved I considered buying a second hand bike and selling it again in August when I leave, however many people told me that bikes were constantly being stolen despite being locked. Then I saw some people riding Lidl-Bikes. I don't know why I didn't notice them before because they're all over the place. The best value is to pay a monthly charge of €9 and then 30 minute cycle trips are free if you return the bike to within 25 metres of a U-Bahn station, and other places, but you can leave them anywhere and pick them up anywhere using the map in the Lidl-Bike app. If you don't leave it at a drop zone by a u-bahn it costs 50 cents.

The tricky part was getting registered on the German-only website. I used the Chrome browser which translates every page to English but I still had to call their support line as the SMS activation code wasn't sent to a non-German mobile. Anyway once I got started I went for a Lidl cycle all around Berlin today - three times further than I could have walked - the freedom of the city was mine, for €9.

Wall Irony

I went to view the East Side Gallery today - the 1-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall which became an outdoor gallery, on which hundreds of murals were painted by artists from all around the world after re-unification. Unfortunately, over the last few years it has become a target for graffiti taggers and many of the paintings have been almost totally obscured by mindless scrawling. In the last year, metal fences has been erected in front of the wall and many of the murals have been repainted and also some new ones created. Some of the most iconic paintings like the guy jumping over the wall to freedom and the huge crowd surging and breaking through the wall have been restored (see images below), however I can't help thinking of the irony in those images, that the people have escaped the wall but are still caught behind the newly erected metal fence setup to protect the wall.

Perhaps the wall imagery could be repurposed to depict the wave of immigrants fleeing Syria and being caught behind the new bureaucracy fences Europe is raising or for that matter, the ridiculous Mexican wall Trump is trying the build to stem Mexican immigration. Sure, better screening is needed to weed out the tiny percentage of terrorists embedded in the hundreds of thousands of immigrants but it seems that terrorist attacks in Berlin, Paris, London and Brussels in the last year has turned the tide of public opinion and allowed the rise of populist far right politicians to slam the gates shut.

Across Europe negative population growth is becoming the norm, along with rising numbers of people over 50 and over 65. We need new young immigrants to fill the gaps in the age demographics as there are increasingly less people working, supporting more retirees. The answer is managed immigration. Mass uncontrolled immigration causes problems, however severely restricted immigration is a ticking financial time bomb for people who will retire in the next thirty years.

Building walls are ultimately a waste of time. The human drive and spirit will always find a way to overcome the barriers, just as Berlin's Wall history illustrates a thousand stories of escape despite an army dedicated to keeping them in.

Trabant car crashing through Berlin Wall

Trabant car crashing through Berlin Wall

The famous Socialist Kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker

The famous Socialist Kiss between Brezhnev and Honecker

Another Country

I was at a new writers meet-up last night which was held in a quirky little second hand English bookshop called "Another Country", in Kreuzberg. I was the first to arrive and had a chance to browse the books which were spread across tables, chairs, cardboard boxes and loosely categorised on bookshelves. It was more like going into a book collectors home than a bookshop. The meeting was held in darkened, sparsely lit rooms down a rickety stairs. There was an a mix of Europeans and Americans here with a common purpose: to write. This was quite different than the "Shut Up and Write" meetings which I have gone to in last few weeks, which are held in cafe's often with some music and background noise of other customers coming and going. I didn't need my headphones last night as there was perfect quietness save for the clicking keyboards, for 90 minutes. And when it was finished I had written 1600 words (more than my daily target) mainly because I was prepared and knew exactly what I had to write. Later I chatted with Paul, an English teacher living in Berlin with his wife for the last few years. He was writing a series of political essays for a book. So interesting to get other perspectives on writing and on living in Berlin.

Matisse Drawing

My picture for today is a drawing I made of a Matisse painting in the Berggruen Museum. It was done using an Apple pencil and Adobe Sketch on my iPad pro.


After some preparation for my writer's Meet-up which is on for a few hours this evening at 7pm, I settled in this morning to finishing an acrylic and wax pastel painting "Shells" which I'd started yesterday.

I have to say, having three writers meet-ups each week helps to focus on the writing, otherwise I can easily get distracted like a kid in a sweet shop - with painting, drawing, looking at art, architecture and the history of Berlin my time could be fully used up.

Sunday Surreal Serendipity

I made a mistake this morning when I arrived at Albert's cafe just beside Charlottenburg S-Bahn station expecting to go to a social Meet-up called Sunday Coffee. I'd enjoyed it last week and talked to some interesting people so I thought I'd go again. But I got there at the wrong time. I should have had a Sunday sleep-in because it was not starting until 3 pm, not 11 am, But by happy coincidence they were just starting their Sunday brunch which I can say was the most delicious range of traditional breakfast, lunch and desserts. For €12:95 it fed me for the day and an hour later I needed to burn off some of it, so I walked up to the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection which is a galler of surreal paintings including works by, Giorgio De Chirico, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Man Ray and many others, and today was the last day of the exhibition. What a piece of luck to have happened on it by chance and what a treasure  trove of art. I started out to photograph just a few of the best but there were so many there. I think the surreal sculpture "Capricorne" by Max Ernst was my favourite.

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali

Rene Magritte

Rene Magritte

Giorgio De Chirico

Giorgio De Chirico

Man Ray

Man Ray

Paul Klee

Paul Klee

Max Ernst

Max Ernst

George Grosz

George Grosz