Dearest morning cups of coffee,
I was going through my draft posts on Substack, and I found this from August of last year.
Yesterday I found a dictionary in a box on the road. My house guests are getting used to me stopping, staring inside boxes, glancing at bags. Right now, my cousin is staying with me, he has an air of detached amusement as I look at the free things. He’s just packed up his things into one suitcase and is going to travel the world. He doesn’t understand why anyone would want more things even if they are free. I get him to hold my dictionary, the matching set of glass tumblers, perfectly new, each with a different colour at the base. Pretty glasses, I’d buy them. A great dictionary—English to German and vice versa—one I’ve been looking for. Everyone who passes through Berlin and stays with us is subject to a little rave about how great Berlin Presents are, how it’s the ultimate anti-consumerist cycle, you don’t want something and you leave it outside and someone else will take it. Sometimes it’s only junk, but there is a red box outside our front door which I think is the fire safety box, on top of which we have placed objects we no longer wanted, and gone for a walk, and by the time we returned, they were gone. My friend who stayed with us last week got into the spirit of the thing and picked up two scarves. Back home, she realised she didn’t like one of them so much so we left it, folded, on the red box and walked to Hansbach, my favourite local bar, a few blocks away. By the time we returned, swollen with wine and camaraderie, the scarf was gone. Berlin gives and Berlin takes.
The dictionary was published in 1985—it’s in mint condition, meaning no one from 1985 till now has actually used it properly—and it’s full of words that are no longer in public use. You know the ones. The slurs that were commonplace. The ones that have been phased out by more descriptive, less hateful terms.
At the Helmut Newton Museum of Photography, we wandered the aisles, gazing up at his large nudes. Beautiful women in high heels smoking or eating or lying down. Why must they all be in high heels? Why must they all be beautiful?
Berlin Presents. Less than a year later, I’ve learned these things have cycles to them. In the winter, there are fewer boxes, the clothes are mostly woollen and/or useless. Still: the other night, K and I walked to this punk bar called Supamolly, not far from us, it also is on the ground floor of a squat, I think, and there was a rack of clothing outside with some actual nice things, not just nice for the side of the road things. I picked up four—a sweater, an oversized sweatshirt, a dress and another sweater, which turned out to be too small for me, and which I, in turn, passed on to my friend’s son, who likes yellow as much as I do.
I am currently at K’s parents’ home west of us, near Frankfurt, in a small village where no one leaves their junk outside. It’s funny, my idea of beauty is usually narrow cobblestoned streets, buildings with a sense of history no matter where they are in the world, a shaft of sun filtering through a tree dusty from the side of the road, fairy lights in a balcony, that sort of thing, and here I am faced with hills that literally roll, landscape that literally stops you in your tracks to gawp, after a while it all becomes very much Screensaver, you like it, because it’s pretty and it’s there but you stop seeing it, I guess. I did very much enjoy my walk yesterday with K and his mum, looking for sticks* and spotting a beaver in the river (although it could have also been a water rat, either way it was small and plump and cute. The large beavers you’re probably thinking of—as was I—are an invasive species from North America.)
(*Call it penis envy, but when I go for a walk in nature, I always look for a nice stick to wave. I was practicing my German by telling K and his mum this story yesterday: when I was a child on holiday in Hyderabad with my cousins, we’d often compete to find the perfect stick. There aren’t that many perfect ones, and usually the winner—the finder, the bearer—would be subject to jealousy from the rest of us. So much was the perfect stick resented, that the others would try to break it, or take it away from you—boys!—but I always loved when I found The Stick, feeling powerful and adventure-y. So looking for a stick is a habit that has not faded. K also found one, getting into the spirit of things, and in the end we dropped them in the river and watched them float away, a sort of Saying Goodbye to Perfect Stick ceremony.)
Ideally, I wanted this newsletter to go out with a pre-order link but since I don’t have one yet, here is the cover reveal of my new book! Isn’t it beautiful? It was designed by Gunjan Ahlawat at Penguin, whose other cover designs you can see here. Originally we’d gone for green and pink, but there was another book that looked very similar to it, so Gunjan found this glossy grown up grey—unusual and stunning for a paperback. Click to see the description and the lovely generous blurbs by Meena Kandasamy, Karuna Ezara Parikh and Dhruv Sehgal. I tell you what I’ll do, I’ll send you a separate newsletter with just the pre-order link when it comes out so you can be the first to know (and buy it!)
After that little advertising interlude, let me get back to my LIFE. I’m here and not in Berlin because of pesky bureaucracy (a word I STILL cannot spell so I always write it as fast as I can and wait for spell check to fix it). I might as well tell you, since maybe one of you will do the same move I did, and while there is information available online, in this case you have to know what to ask for? Which is as complicated as knowing the answers, a very philosophical dilemma.
Anyway so once I got my spouse visa—called a Family Reunification Visa—I had three months to change it into a resident’s card. Easy right? Nope. First, I had to get an appointment, which are thin on the ground all over Germany. In Berlin, someone told me recently, there’s actually a Telegram group dealing with black market appointments, ie, you can take someone’s pre-booked slot for like €50 or similar. Over here, in this village and surrounding areas, things aren’t quite as bad but still not great. I booked at the beginning of February and got an appointment for the end of March. I looked at the website and wrote down what I needed, except both K and I completely forgot—or deliberately misremembered? I don’t know, this process is so murky it’s hard to say what we knew and what we didn’t know—that I had to be registered with the local authorities before I got a resident’s permit, ie, the foreigner’s office would not be registering me, that would have to happen in a completely separate place. This was relayed to us at 10.45 am on a Friday, and the local Bürgeramt (fun name, but sadly less delicious than it sounds) closed at noon and refused to see us at all. So, hey ho, I got an appointment for Monday and asked our lovely next door neighbour (in Berlin) to look in on the cats for one more day, only to realise… there’s a transport strike on so I can only return on Tuesday after all, which has nothing to do with my paperwork, I’m just complaining about how the stars are misaligning. (Honestly, German’s biggest PR coup is this idea of “German efficiency,” let me tell you, friends, it does not exist.)
Because my visa runs out next month, now my next step has a part two, where the registration office is going to give me a visa extension while I wait for an appointment either here or in Berlin. This is called a Fiktion, literally a “fiction” which I find funny but also a portent of doom.
All of this just to say that my paperwork journey has not yet ended, even though I was cheerfully assuming that I would walk in and out on Friday, resident’s card in hand. It’s probably lucky that I’m not actively job seeking in Germany right now because I can’t do anythingggggg until this stupid permit comes through.
There’s not much to do here, and so I usually go to bed after dinner, say 9ish and read till about 11.30 and then sleep solidly and wake up bright and early the next morning. Today I woke up at 7.30 am, and finished reading Richard Yates’ Easter Parade in bed, a beautifully written but ultimately depressing story of two sisters in war and post war America, their different steps taken and how eventually it was no use, no use at all. Good book though, would recommend. I’m on a Richard Yates kick this year so I’ve got a lot of his books on my Kindle and am slowly making my way through them.
So this morning, I woke up at 7.30 am—I checked my wristwatch which is just a regular watch, nothing “smart” about it except that it keeps the time which is quite a miracle—and then I checked my phone, and it still said 7.30, and I was a bit confused and then I looked it up and realised the clocks only go forward tomorrow, in the middle of the night. For the last week, I’ve been slightly obsessed with the idea of time just changing, we’re standing there at midnight and suddenly, without us moving, it’s one am! It’s so weird but also so cool, like we’re all time travellers. Everyone here is so blasé about it, they moan and groan about how it’s such a pain. I was at the dining table yesterday talking about how it was kind of exciting, you know? To have time just jump forward like that? And my mother-in-law said, smiling, “You’re so excited about everything” and it’s true, I really am, and I will be sad next year when this moving-without-moving is just another thing for me to roll my eyes over. Like snow. You wouldn’t think I’d get bored of snow, but walking in it is cold. It’s not even Winter in Narnia Beautiful Cold, it’s just slushy and icy and the only romance is if you’re indoors.
There’s this really funny bit in one of the Adrian Mole books, where he calls his mother and says, “Do the clocks go one hour further or back?” and she says, “Spring forward, fall back!” and he starts shouting at her going, “What does that mean?” and she shouts back: SPRING FORWARD FALL BACK!
I tried it on K, who asked which way the clocks go, I said, “Spring forward fall back” and he said, “WHAT DOES THAT MEANNNNN?” so clearly it is a timeless and true joke. (Even though, come on, in spring your clocks go forward, duh, so 11.30 am today is 12.30 pm tomorrow. Good news for me and India time because it’s a little later for me to get you guys at exactly the same time.)
All this to say that time is a social construct, which drinkers have known for ages, which is why the old saying: “it’s 5 pm somewhere.”
Speaking of spring, for the past few weeks, a pair of crows have been busily making a nest in the tree overlooking our living room, which means we can see them very clearly. I have named one of them Crow Mama (because I liked the pun) so then obvs the other one was Crow Papa—or at least, he is on days I’m feeling gender normative. On others he (or she!) is Crow Mama’s life partner of either sex. They’ve been taking a long time with this nest: first they had to get all these twigs, fuck knows where they found them, and build a little base, which they kept adding to, making walls and a floor, high walls so the chicks won’t fall out, and now they’ve begun lining it with leaves and soft things they’re finding in mysterious places. Every now and then, one of them will sit down in the nest and sort of fluff out their bums, do a little shake so that everything is tamped down nicely, a little circle like a cat settling down in her bed.
Europe has many different kinds of crows, and I was interested to see that these two were very different from the birds I’d seen back in Delhi. The most common crows in India are the house crows—smaller, blacker, with shiny grey feathers. These ones, the ones nesting outside our flat, were much larger and had more grey on their bodies. Turns out they’re the hooded crows, but wait, it’s even more interesting than that. Europe also has a large population of carrion crows, which are all black and more in the West, while hooded crows live in the East, where they have been slowly evolving into two completely separate species despite starting out as the same one.
Now normally, in speciation, two species become one, but in the case of these two kinds of crows, they were forced to split up during the Last Glacial Period, where one set became more grey and the other more black, and then it turned out they didn’t want to mate with the crows of a different colour! So very literally, prejudice has turned these crows from one into two, and you can read all about it in more detail over here.
Then the other day, while both the crow parents were out doing their crowly things, a black and white bird with a bright blue side came and stole one of the sticks holding the nest together. This being too long for it, it broke the stick off and then flew away with its half stick.
I got very into birds when we had our small rental in Goa, because that garden was wild and full of them. I had to special order a copy of Salim Ali’s Birds of India, an invaluable (but also sadly very heavy) guidebook, which I kept by my desk and looked up all the different birds I could see. I’m having to start all over again in Europe, I don’t even know the basic names for trees, let alone birds (and most people know the German names for all of those things, which is not especially useful when you’re trying to gain knowledge in the nature section and not the language section). But this bird was common enough for K to know what it was: “that bird that likes to steal shiny things” he said, and sure enough, it was a Eurasian magpie, also part of the general crow family, so really, he was borrowing from cousins.
Now this bird is super intelligent, one of the smartest species, a conclusion scientists have reached, because it’s able to recognise its own face in a mirror, which is kind of remarkable when you consider that Olga da Polga, an extremely intelligent, almost human cat, hissed at her own reflection for three months after we adopted her. Other non-humans that recognise themselves are chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants. I don’t have a follow-up story about my particular magpie doing something smart, but I do have an anecdote that proves how dumb people are. Originally, the magpie was called just the “pie” but people added “Mag” as in “Maggie” as in “a woman’s name” because they chattered all the time. Ho ho ho, the joke’s on you now isn’t it? I’d like to see a smart bird named after a dude.
They also feel sad, which makes me sad. Better to think of animals as constantly living in the present than to imagine them mourning and in grief.
Reminder to BUY ME A COFFEE if you liked this little newsletter or any of the ones previous. Your support means everything!
On book three of my Game of Thrones re-read which is going so well, I’ve also started rewatching the show. Odd to be on book three but to be watching season one, but nice to have some RETROSPECTIVE THOUGHTS.
After I finished Richard Yates on my Kindle, I decided I wanted a soft family story with hard truths again so I’m going to re-read some Anne Tyler, who I love. In the same vein, I pulled out Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout from the library, which was so good, and yet so short, I was sad when it finished.
Links you should read
The better you write, the more you will fail.
Bird-related: the biggest celeb in New York.
Visa-related: Germany denies entry to foreign spouses (who can’t pass the language requirement.)
What happens to the pets that happen to you (by Anne Fadiman, another favourite essayist.)
On blurb-writing, hard relate as I’ve recently been doing a few.
Hilarious: inside the virtual world of Meta.
Last time I had put a bad link to this long read about drinking, so here it is again, fixed. (Although I did fix it in the comment section, but I’m not sure how many of you checked.)
Well, it’s nearly lunchtime by my body clock which should really be the only clock that matters. What a wild idea!
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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