Dearest whiskers on kittens,
Have you read Soft Animal yet? I hope so. It’s been a bit quiet since it launched so I’m getting slightly despair-y sitting here in Berlin. This self promotion really kills any sense of achievement you have in publishing a book in the first place. I don’t know what it takes to sell fiction in India, but here I am, asking you to buy a copy of my book for yourself, and if you have one already, maybe for your friends? Here’s a link. It’s very good.
It wasn’t supposed to rain today, my weather app—called, somewhat misleadingly Accuweather—showed a fine but cloudy day. Now, with the rain coming down softly outside my window, Accuweather has changed its prediction but I’m beginning to not trust it very much. I rely on weather apps these days, a summer’s day can go from blazing to chilly with no warning, and often I set out on the weekend in the day time, only to return after sunset (10 pm these days), so I have to know what to carry in my bag. The other day, my local library had a clothes swap party, where you took (up to) ten items of clothing, all washed and in good nick, and exchanged for other people’s. I had some dresses from Delhi I had fondly brought to Berlin assuming I would drop weight around my chest eventually (it just doesn’t happen so I’m giving up) so when I was unpacking my summer clothes, I added them to a bag and took them across.
I love the large American Memorial Library because of its vast selection of English books (divided helpfully by continent, including one shelf for us) but my local, which is called Pablo Neruda Bibliothek has a special place in my heart. It’s a gorgeous building (see photo) with extremely friendly staff.
Friendly staff is important for a library because increasingly, it’s less about books and more about the community services they offer. During the summer, there’s all sorts of children’s workshops and readings, they also have a little “library of things” where you can borrow household tools, a print and photocopy machine, art for your walls, a special music section and a decent English language selection. Enough to keep me going back. I’ve signed up for their newsletter which is how I found out about the clothes swap and on the day, I went armed with my things and was shown how to hang them on racks, each labelled with category of clothes. Having ditched all my Delhi things, I walked around and picked up a selection (mostly H&M, which is a brand that’s following me around, more on that in a bit) including one grey Adidas hoodie. This I took to the back room, where the clever library staff had set up a free screen printing and upcycling studio, where you could have anything you took altered or repaired or add a funky design. I put a white leopard at the back of my hoodie (and was so pleased with the results, I added a white angler fish to a blue H&M dress, that now looks so special, I’m waiting for the right opportunity to wear it) and this is the hoodie that now scrunches up into my bag or I wear wrapped around my waist for the moment the sun sets, the city is cold again.
About two years ago, my mum gave me a pre-loaded cash card for my birthday with euros on it that I could spend here. That card is set to expire soon and I still haven’t spent all the money on it. Not because it was so much money (it was but you know, I can shop) but because it seemed like every time I desired something it appeared to me second hand or free. Sure, it’s expensive to live in Berlin, but a lot of stuff just happens to be there for the taking. Our house is decorated almost entirely second hand—right now just on my desk (a hand-me-down from K’s parents) there’s a laptop stand (found outside a slightly fancy building on the street) and a massive DDR-era globe (K found it when he went out to run errands the other day, I looked it up and it’s worth like 100-250 euros itself, but someone has drawn a face on one side (Berlin) so thankfully, I don’t have to give it up.) Around me are plants, most are gifts from my friend next door who has to keep repotting her massive collection, two I bought (a chilli plant that is flowering like crazy but isn’t giving me any fruit and a monstera deliciosa which is growing to befit its name) and two are free: a rose bush someone threw out (which is probably dying says someone on r/plantclinic) (but hah, just this morning I looked and a bud is blooming!) and a small set of seedlings I grew from the seeds of the Thai chillis I buy at our local Asian shop, which is growing in a free ceramic pot K found downstairs. What else? Past the furniture (second hand and off eBay or more hand-me-downs), there’s a glass terrarium on the dining table (found in a box someone was getting rid of), and I just found two old ceramic jugs with pretty designs on them that I’m going to use as vases. On top of the bookshelf is an ambitious project, two massive rolled up canvases we have to frame, oil paintings of people leaning out of Berlin balconies to look at fireworks, a passed on present from a friend who went to an art residency with the artist of these two who wanted to throw them out, and my friend rescued them and gave them to me. (Ambitious because we have to DIY the canvas stretching ourselves, which is why they’re still on top of the bookshelf.)
(I did actually spend some of my birthday money recently—I bought a new swimming bikini from a physical shop; I like to try on tops to see if they fit and give enough support etc. This is a place called Calzedonia, and I recommend it if you’re looking for swimwear in Europe. Great colours, a wide range of designs and sizes (because I’m heavy chested, I often get stuck with really boring colours, either black or beige, and this time I got a bright orange without padding and with underwire, so I’m thrilled) and you can mix and match for wide bottoms and small tops or vice versa. I bought an orange top and a green bottom and when I told my friend this later she snorted and said, “You bought the India flag!” which, oops, I guess I did.)
(I also spent some money at DM, which is literally my favourite store. It’s a drugstore, American style, so no medicine—those you buy at an Apotheke, which obvs is the root word for apothecary, a much nicer word than chemist or pharmacy—anyway DM has all sorts of exciting things from cat food to toilet paper to menstrual cups to tea for a runny nose and the skin care/make up section is one of my favourites, so I bought a few things, experimenting. Although I have to say I’m a bit disappointed in the shimmer oil, I slather it on expecting to have a little glow, but you can barely see it. Obviously made for white skin not brown.)
The other day, walking home from the station, K stopped to look at some pink fairy wings, obviously left there by a parent. A woman walking behind him stopped to laugh—and then walked home with us, chatting companionably with K the entire time (in German, I think my German is getting worse or else I’m getting more anxious about it which means my brain is just freezing up even at the simplest constructions. I need to go back to classes or I’ll be one of those horrible expats who have lived here for 10 years and can still only say please and thank you). She had not much money, she told him, so she spent her time cruising Berlin streets for what she could pick up, and ours was one of the best ones for free things. “Try two blocks down,” she said, leaving, “It’s even better.”
Many years ago, when I lived in Bombay, I met a visiting tourist, a friend-of-a-friend. He was, he told me, a “freegan.” He only ate what he could find in dumpsters—and all he wore was what he could find. At the time—I was about 25—I was grossed out, and this “freegan” became a punchline to a story I told about “Americans be crazy” for a long time after that.
Indians are weird about second-hand stuff. It’s obviously a caste thing, you can’t eat something off someone else’s plate, hand-me-downs are for “poor people” and the only way to prove your worth is to have new things. For many years, the only old things I bought were furniture from Amar Colony, always reupholstered or polished to become new. Antiques were fine, a rich people thing, but vintage clothes didn’t exist. One of my favourite sweaters now, a basic grey polo neck, is something I found hanging on the rails of a church. This was when I first moved to Berlin, where taking things off the road still felt “icky.” Vintage clothes shops were okay—we were posturing as rich people around the world—but free clothes? Ew. It took me a while to get over that mindset.
Capitalism ruins the world—such an easy truism to bark off and act so superior. Capitalism definitely ruined Delhi. Cheap things are everywhere, refresh your wardrobe with just one click and very little money spent, and throw away everything you don’t wear any more, just to join a landfill. Thanks to plastic being cheaper than all other materials, you see garbage everywhere, single use sachets of shampoo and empty chips packets and Coke bottles littered up and down public spaces. In the past, many years ago, there were still cheap methods of packaging, but these were newspaper bags wrapped around snacks or glass bottles. In Delhi, now, every time we order off Zomato there’s a whole bin’s worth of trash: plastic boxes and cellotape and five different kinds of unusable plastic spoons and forks. What to do? It’s so easy to order something in when you don’t feel like cooking, so much extra effort to research and find only places that do compostable packaging. Life is so much more convenient now, but only short-term, what’s going to happen in a decade or two?
The only reason we manage like this in Berlin—and we never order in—is because everything is already built into a culture of reuse and recycle. Ordering in is expensive and the food is rarely very good, so I prefer to cook. K has started to insist we only use organic meat which is so expensive that we only cook with 250 grams at a time.
Meanwhile I’ve started refreshing my wardrobe using a second hand website called Vinted. It’s exactly like all the various ecommerce portals except it’s people selling their old/unused clothes. I did a little research on brands and bought a pair of & Other Stories high waisted blue jeans as well as a COS white dress and since the seller also had a nice striped cotton blazer from H&M, I bought both. Remember how I said H&M was following me around? Turns out all these nice “fancy” brands I thought I was supporting are all subsets of H&M. I wasn’t supporting independent labels, I was just rewarding H&M’s idea of breaking off into little “designer” nooks to appeal to a wider audience. I tried to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s but the lady messaged me saying her son was very sick and she couldn’t send them on time and then she cancelled the transaction and never wrote back to me after. I hope her son is okay.
Finally, last week, admiring a friend’s bag, large enough for picnics (fit a bottle of wine and a book and other things easily) and light enough to go across your body without pulling, I asked her where it was from. “Weekday,” she said, “But it’s really H&M.” I decided to try and get away from their clutches and do a little research online for a good travel cross-body for summer days, when I wind up carrying much more than I anticipate. (Water bottle, umbrella, hoodie, Kindle/paperback, earbuds, a pen, a notebook, chilli flakes and hot sauce in case I’m eating out (this is a Berlin hack I learned from the same friend), my phone, my keys, my wallet etc.) I found great reviews for a brand called Baggalini, and searched for it on Vinted. Someone was selling the same bag I’d seen for 8 euros. I bought it and now it’s going with me everywhere. (It’s not the world’s most stylish handbag but it is extremely practical and theft-proof, which is important because this city is crawling with pickpockets.)
We had a chat, me and the seller, because Vinted has built in a translate option into the chat, I could speak in my language and she could in hers. “I want to take it to the park,” I said, “Will it fit a bottle of wine and a book?” and in return, she sent me back these photos.
Try getting that service off Myntra or Amazon!
Anyway, maybe this weekend you can have a clothes swap in a public place (your local bar where you know the owner? The park across the road? That last one may not feel exclusive, but sometimes it’s not about exclusivity either.) It’s always fun to see what people bring, and what you can go home with. Don’t feel guilty, the world is doomed, we might as well have beautiful things.
If you liked this post—or any of my others—would you buy me a coffee? Your support means the world, and means that I can keep the lights on on this erratic newsletter for many months to come.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle vol 1 for my new novel, which is very good, if a bit slow. Reading it with post-it notes for jotting down things whenever inspiration strikes, which is plenty. This has also sent me searching for the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Lost Time, which I got on another second hand website called World of Books which is UK-based (they have a German website too) and buys up unsold books from charity shops to sell online. Really fast and easy to use and doesn’t give Amazon any money, so hurrah. (We also experimented with a Vinted-style bookstore called Booklooker to buy Gunther Grass’ Tin Drum, which K recommends highly, but that hasn’t arrived yet and is a bit more fiddly to use because you have to send a bank transfer before the person posts it.)
Obsessed with burrata, best of all summer cheeses. Bought some last week to put in a salad, but then we just started carving off chunks and lowering them straight into our mouths with the back of a knife. I’m currently burrata-less, but that shall soon be amended. My friend served it to me last month with fried eggplant on the side and some chilli flakes to sprinkle on top and it was cool and delicious.
Was the world’s oldest woman a fraud?
Bad waitress, a personal essay.
The casual ignominy of book tours of yore. (Hard relate.)
How to tip around the world. (The USA looks too complicated for me to even attempt it.)
Today’s the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and also Fete de la Musique, which means free concerts across the city if you happen to be visiting. I’m checking out two round the corner from me with our house guest, an old friend from Delhi who happened to spontaneously plan a visit this month.
That’s all she’s got! See you soooon.
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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