Hello, friends. Here’s my annual(-ish) retrospective. Previous editions are available here.
When I was a kid, my mum would type out a letter about all the things that had happened in the last year and tuck copies into the Christmas cards that they’d send to friends and family (“Fabian is in Year 8 now and started learning guitar”, “Marcus and Mike went on a trip to San Francisco with Marcus’ high school jazz band”). This note is similar but modified – it’s maybe a little bit ’life update’, but it’s also a collection of stories that I probably wouldn’t have written as freestanding posts alone. So. Enjoy some stories.
In January, Pavel was going through a running phase and signed up for the half-marathon, and asked me to come along.
This had been one of my life goals for 2021 – I got into running in 2020 during the pandemic and would drink stupid amounts of coffee during my German classes from 8:30-11:30 and then go for 10 km runs absolutely balls hyped on caffeine and the sheer feeling of exhaustion after was exhilarating.
The plan, in 2021, was to keep running solo and then to have that culminate in a lap around Grunewald sometime - but I’m not very good at committing to things, and so I picked up, and dropped running a few times over the course of the year. It also didn’t help that my running route changed as a result of moving to Prenzlauer Berg, and getting a full time job messed with my habits.
So: In January 2022, Pavel signed up for the half marathon, and asked me to come along; and I had three months to get my shit together and make it work. I was still somewhat fit, and started running three times a week - usually two short, ~30 mins, one long, ~60-90 mins – and that plan worked great until I felt a twitch in my right knee at the 40 min mark on one of these longer practice runs. I got it checked out, rested for three weeks, and then ran the half marathon.
It was fun, and weird, and extremely annoying – you’re dodging people all the freakin’ time – but I felt like I was flying, like I was weightless, like everything was easy, and the path is littered with good bands and slightly terrible bands and funk bands and I finished the 21.05km in one hour, forty-four minutes. As soon as I stopped, it was like my body remembered to feel pain again, and I limped back home afterwards and ate an enormous pizza.
I signed up again for 2023.
It is fun, gruelling, depressing. You write letters, letters, letters. You casually mention that you’re looking to literally everyone you know in the hope that someone has a lead. You set up an alert on ImmoScout (a local property portal) so that you get a push notification whenever a new apartment is listed, and whenever you get a notification you drop what you’re doing to reply with a canned response – you change the address and a few details to make it seem like a thoughtful enquiry. You sign up for an ImmoScout “MieterPlus” account, which requires you to make a decision as to how long you think you’re going to be doing this for - monthly for €30 / month, or yearly for €120? Are we going to be hunting for more than 4 months? Lord I hope not, but we’ve heard stories.
I need to unpack the competitiveness of the Berlin rental market a little here, because it’s somewhat beyond belief.
One of the apartments we applied for had the ad online for a day and received 650 requests for a viewing.
Another – the person who posted the ad was looking for someone to take over their lease so they could move early. She posted an ad online, fell asleep for a couple hours, and came back to 160 requests. She narrowed it down to 16 people, held two rounds of viewings, collected application paperwork for all of them, and then was told by the landlord to throw out the list and start over – they didn’t want anyone who could get pregnant because it’s on the 5th floor without an elevator and the landlord doesn’t want someone to have a kid and move out again (?).
There was another apartment – in a bad location, but cheap – where they just told everyone who applied that the viewing was from 16:00-18:00 on a Wednesday. We arrived there at 17:00, and the place was completely full of people – and by 17:30, while we were on the tram home, we received a notification from the landlord saying that they’d rented it to someone, before the viewing was even over.
ImmoScout’s paid subscription allegedly puts you at the top of the inbox when you contact a landlord. I’ve heard rumours that it also gives you priority for the push notifications for new apartments matching your criteria. It also gives you a breakdown of the types of people who applied for an apartment – of the 500 people writing about each apartment, at least 60% of them have a premium subscription. That is – the premium account is supposed to give you an edge, but the edge it gives you is to put you into the top 60%. And there’s a four-hour delay before they start showing these statistics on listings, and most of the listings aren’t even online for that long 💀
So. It’s awful. But I also said it was fun, at times – the “fun” bit is imagining what your life would be like in all of these places, and trying to convince the landlord that obviously you belong here; the apartment wants you as much as you want it. Who would we be, in a rooftop apartment in Wedding? What would our lives be like in that small apartment in Wilmersdorf, but with a big studio attached to it? What limitless culinary potential would we unlock if we lived on top of the fresh produce market in Kollwitzkietz?
In the end, we convinced a landlord about an apartment that hadn’t been painted after the old tenant moved out. They were looking for someone who was willing to repaint the apartment in exchange for a month’s free rent. Well.
That was the apartment we got. It’s also got textured woodchip wallpaper on the walls - Raufasertapete. When we moved in, we asked the landlord if we could remove it before we painted, and he said… “sure, but… I don’t know what you’re going to find underneath”. We’d budgeted for a 2-3 month overlap with the old apartment, thinking we’d also redo the kitchen in that time.
We were very very wrong. There are so many steps, even after you’ve removed all the wallpaper (which, to be clear, is not fun):
- get the rest of the glue off
- plaster the walls (this is probably not the right English word, the German is Spachteln)
- then sand the walls to make them smooth
- silicon the gaps in between the walls and the windows that were previously covered with the woodchip wallpaper
- paint with a primer
- paint for real
We’ve done two rooms since. They took forever, but they look great. And it’s satisfying to know the bones of the apartment you’re living in; you can see evidence of where there used to be a door between two rooms, and where they retrofitted the electrical system; you can see the weird green stuff that they used to paint the walls with (probably nontoxic?) and the attempts to smooth things out from decades ago. We are still going, though, and we’re pretty over it at this point.
I’ve been meaning to write about this separately for the whole year, and I think I will. We had a small patch of field outside the city as part of Slowgarden. We grew so many tomatoes and some of the best tasting carrots I’ve ever eaten in my life.
And we were on national television as stock footage somehow.
In 2021, I did some casual mushroom influencing on Instagram and now I’m apparently the “mushroom guy” and people associate that with me and buy me mushroom paraphernalia for gifts and things.
I branched out a little this year, though. It started on a hike in the early spring, when I found myself wondering about the young leaves on the maple trees I was walking past – yes, you can eat them, just don’t get them confused with plane trees. There’s something incredibly satisfying about picking the young leaves off the trees and sticking them directly into your mouth like you’re some weird, wandering herbivore.
Or at least, that’s how I thought about it at the time. A week ago, a still from The Land Before Time was floating around Reddit, and now I’m wondering what other latent fetishes I’ve got from the movies I watched as a kid:
And then, at another point on the same walk – walking past a big field of Brassica Napus / Rapeseed, breaking off a stem or two and eating them directly. They taste vaguely like broccoli / cauliflower. I dunno that I’d recommend doing this regularly; I have no idea what they’re growing them for (might be Biofuel) or what pesticides they’ve been sprayed with. But maybe I’d consider growing some next year.
On the field, we discovered that the vast majority of our weeds were actually Orache – edible, a little like an heirloom spinach – according to the woman on the plot next to us. I wasn’t brave enough to try eating it until I saw a plastic bag of the stuff for sale in a tiny supermarket in Archangelos, Greece, in July. The weekend after we returned I harvested a lot of it1 and baked it into a Spanakopita.
Our field also saw a lot of amaranth and wild rocket. Once you know what they are, you start seeing them everywhere – in construction sites, in the gaps in the pavement, in the exposed bits of soil around trees on the street. I’ve seen all three of them growing between the tram tracks on Wisbyer Straße in Berlin.
And of course, the construction site across the street from us had a hop vine growing all over it.
My Dad’s side of the family is – a long time ago – from a tiny Greek island named Kastellorizo. Ten years ago, my cousin Stewart met a lovely human whose family is also from Kastellorizo, and they married there this year. It is very beautiful and also a huge pain in the ass to get to.
I think I was expecting to find something relevant to my identity there? There has been a complicated thing around Greek-Australian-ness in my family, and I went thinking I’d maybe find some answers. I did, though it was less about the place and more just that it was really nice to be around extended family who I haven’t seen in four years, and with whom I really haven’t spent much time as an adult.
I did also think about the Greek-Australian-ness a little though. I haven’t heard so many Australian accents in one place for a long time – it sounds hilarious to me now; I cannot believe that we speak like this; the Australians that I know here have had their voices and their vocab softened through years of living abroad – and there are small plaques affixed to houses across the island, in appreciation of various Greek Australians who came back from Melbourne or Kingsford (in Sydney) to rebuild their ancestral home.
Stewart had been here twice before, and in 2014 had brought a photo of our old family home, asked around, and found his way to the place (it’s a really small island). He told his sister about it, who texted us a photo taken from across the bay with an arrow pointing to the building. On my last day, with great intention, I walked back across the bay to take my own photo:
And upon arriving back in Berlin, I showed it to my second cousin Costa, who wasn’t convinced that it was the right building: he had seen it as a child, it had been a shell, there had been goats walking through it, and it was apparently not directly on the water, but a bit further back. And so I asked Stewart again, and his info disagrees with Costa’s, but it turns out I didn’t even have Stewart’s version right – the family home is part of a duplex and has been restored; my family used to (a very long time ago) live in the yellow house behind, but attached to, this one. Which I just happen to have a photo of by accident, from the steps that lead up the mountain.
Costa and I are now wondering if we’re talking about different houses, about different sides of the family. Maybe one is the family home on my granddad’s side and the other was the family home on my grandma’s (they met in Australia).
The uncertainty here – the back-and-forth, and the fact that I’m only doing the research now, months after being there – is somehow emblematic of the experience generally. It feels as if we have some knowledge that this is a place that we were connected with, but we are not really sure how it goes anymore; we don’t know the specifics.
Two days before the wedding, the men were supposed to climb the mountain to collect some sacred herbs to be used in the ceremony. We’d been told we were looking for βότανα (Vótana), and on the way up realised that nobody knew what Vótana looked like, though someone in the group remembered the smell. At one point, someone asked for the spelling, googled it looking for images, and then realised that Vótana just refers to ‘herbs’ generally, rather than the specific one we were searching for. We came back down empty handed; apparently the herb in question is pretty sensitive and doesn’t handle the heat on top of the mountain particularly well, but someone grows it down below in the town specifically for weddings. Two days after the ceremony involving the herb, Jackie and I climbed the mountain together again, and discovered a small quantity of it growing at the very base of the path up.
In both of these cases – the house, and the herb – it would have been totally possible to learn the specifics ahead of time; to prepare. I wonder if part of the reason why we didn’t is because we didn’t realise how far we were removed from them. I also wonder if it’s just that the specifics don’t matter that much to us anymore – there has been a lot of history since; this island is still part of the family identity, but less so than it was 80 years ago. Not to diminish the experience, or the connection! Just to say that it is very different from that of someone who lives there today.
You can probably tell that my thinking here is underdeveloped. The reason why this New Year’s Note is a week late has been entirely trying to figure out some of the pieces around this trip to Kastellorizo; I can talk about them only literally and inaccurately, and I probably need to have some long conversations with a bunch of my relatives back home (and/or, people who live on Kastellorizo today).
I will say that I find it particularly expressive and somewhat endearing that the Aussie Greeks from Kastellorizo are often described as “Kazzi Greeks”. And that it is a very beautiful place.
I guess I should talk about seeing a psychologist
I’ve been seeing a psychologist weekly since 2021 sometime – taking a depth/psychoanalysis approach instead of the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that I’ve done a couple times in the past. It started because my work offered to pay for 15 sessions as a way to help people get through COVID, and I’d been meaning to do this for a while – I’d been having panic attacks more since 2019, and wanted to do something about it, but the process of finding someone is exhausting. Having that initial financial / logistical barrier removed was what tipped me over2. I remember telling the therapist that I wanted to do 5-10 sessions to kick things off and then meet once a month; thinking that’d be enough to stave off the demons or whatever. They said that they don’t really work like that; it’s once a week and usually takes years. Alrighty then, what have I got to lose?
It has helped with the anxiety, but that’s not what I want to talk about. An unexpected benefit of all this has been: whenever it seems like I’m avoiding talking about something, my therapist notices, and then pushes on it. I’m starting to internalise that – noticing when I don’t want to think about something and then asking myself “hmmm why am I reluctant to think about this”? That is a very useful sense to have. A former colleague writes about something similar-ish as how staring into the abyss is a core life skill3, and this is a core tenet of 4000 Weeks, though true to form, I’m pretty sure I glossed over that entire section of the book and don’t remember any of it.
All of that is to say: I went looking for a band-aid fix for anxiety, and instead am slowly (slowly) learning some life skills that I didn’t know I was missing.
A Plan for 2023
Ha! I don’t know, there isn’t one.
Well, not a complete one. But there are some directions; there are some things I am thinking about:
- I am doing the Berlin half marathon again in April; I’m gonna try to shave five mins off my time. And also the Müggelsee half marathon in October, which seems much more chill.
- I am working four days a week this year – the other day is for creative work; building things, writing things. First up is a small indie-web-adjacent project.
- Two hikes – one solo, as always, and one group hike for a small number of friends – probably the Rennsteig, maybe in the Schwarzwald, maybe in those mountains on the German / Austrian border that I always find myself in.
- I will definitely go to Australia this year, it will have been five years next month.
- Continuing some 2022 themes: we are doing the field again, we are doing renovation again, but both less intensively this year.
Hope your 2023 started well, strangers and friends ❤️
The round container in that field harvest photo is full of it. ↩︎
You can also get this for free in theory in Germany, subsidised by your health insurance! But it’s logistically complex, and you have to prove that you need it, and it is apparently hard to find someone English-speaking, see this post. ↩︎
The examples here in this one are mostly business- or tech-utopian, but this resonates with me in part because I know the people involved. Another reader leaves a comment about how fiction can teach you some of this and I loved that. ↩︎