In which I want to be better, or The Story of my Life in 250 Words.

I know I’m a shitty blogger. Since launching my second attempt at an internet presence that is not Twitter or Facebook more than a year ago, I have managed to post exactly nine times. Nine. 9. Nein, nein, nein. Not good enough.

As the weather is getting drearier and drearier (it’s officially still summer, and yet I have already bought a new lambswool scarf and thought about asking my parents for a tweed jacket for Christmas), I am once more resolving to write more, and write more regularly. And because inspiration is hard to come by, and everything is copy, I’m shamelessly pilfering once again. There’s the “Blog every day in May” challenge that I’m not going to do (because it’s not May, and after writing 0.7 blog posts per month in the last year, the idea of writing 500+ words every day in a month I’ll mostly spend flat hunting is frankly ridiculous), but which came up with 31 great topic ideas ranging from “The story of your life in 350 words or less” to “A vivid memory”. (Full list can be found here.) So, without further ado, I’m launching into how frighteningly easy it is to recount my life in less than 300 words.

First, a few cornerstones of my existence. I was born almost 28 years ago, in a rural backwater in Catholic Northern Germany, as the first of four children to a pair of left-leaning hippies with surprisingly strict views on all things my peers and I considered elementary to a hassle-free childhood, like access to refined sugar, television, “fashionable” clothes and later curfews, booze and boys. Despite my inarguably strange tastes in music, clothes, hobbies and friends (always managing to veer off the acceptable path sooner or later) and my terrible swottiness, I managed to make it through school mostly unscathed and, surprising no one more than myself, never became the target of the sophisticated bullying campaigns cocked up for some of my less fortunate friends. I did, however, manage to cultivate a reputation of being rather arrogant, which to this day I attribute to the fact that I was too poor to buy contact lenses and too vain to wear glasses, and as a consequence never recognising anyone who might greet me on the courtyard.

As tends to happen with overprotected children, as soon as I moved to the other side of the country for university and no longer had my parents breathing down my neck, I went completely off the rails in my first year. Sick of my reputation as a good girl, I immediately set about launching a new version of myself, but quickly realised that over-the-top debauchery bored me to death and embarked on a relationship with the most stable, reliable person I could find (although I have to give bonus points for still pissing off my parents). It lasted three and a half years in total and ended the way most 20-something relationships end: Messy tears, messy rebounding, messy second attempt, fading of interest, final breakup. Never quite able to keep that promise of being “friends”, but able to look back without hating yourself, or them.

After graduating with no boyfriend and an English lit degree in the middle of a global financial crisis, the next logical step seemed to get the fuck out, STAT. Figuring if I stayed in Germany, I’d spend my next two years hopping from one unpaid internship to the next, I packed two bags and boarded the next Ryanair cattle truck to London Stansted. Found a flat, found a shitty job, found a second job to supplement the shitty salary from the first job. Found a better flat, a better job, quit the shitty job, stopped talking to the shitty flatmates. Found awesome boyfriend. but that’s a story for another day.

Happy days.


A horrible photo, and entirely too much wet-blanket-ness.


My father recently repaired my computer, restored my hard drive and rescued about fifty odd gigabyte of music, Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, uni course work, and most importantly, pictures. I could have hugged him – if we had that kind of relationship. As it was, I hovered anxiously over his shoulder, terrified he’d go through any of the data and discover the very personal folder of Davis Boreanaz nudie shots that I had lovingly accumulated over the years, and when he was done, snatched the laptop from his hands and mumbled something that to the uninitiated may have failed to convey the full extent of my gratitude. But hey, that’s just how my family works.

I don’t use my computer much anymore. I figure as I spend most of my days staring at a screen for eight hours, I have better stuff to do with the time I’m not getting paid for. (Therefore, on a side note, I should probably just accept the fact that I’m never going to be a regular blogger, much as I’d like to.) However, as I had a bit of time on my hands this weekend, I started browsing through my pictures folder, and embarked on a trip down memory lane.

The above picture was taken in early 2006, shortly after my twentieth birthday, in the first flat I moved into after leaving my parents’ house on the other side of the country, with two of the best friends I will ever make in this life. It’s not a great photo – Tessa’s face is half obscured, we’re quite obviously hammered, Jenny hadn’t quite got used to German cuisine yet and is about two months away from shedding twenty pounds, and I look every bit the chinless wonder that I am – and both will probably have some serious words with me about publishing it on this public a forum. But it’s the only photo I can find that has only the three of us in it, and no other people that we subsequently fell out with, or just stopped talking to without ever really noticing, or caring to find out why it happened when we did.

A lot of stuff went down in 2006. I decided that after refusing to consider any different career options for four years, I was no longer interested in becoming an interpretor. I switched my major to English against my parents’ wishes and had to live with their disapproval. I met, and subsequently started dating, someone they disapproved of even more than my career choice, which didn’t make the next three years easy, as every argument about the one (career) would invariably turn into the other (relationship), and vice versa. I had to accept that my parents had an idea of what and how I was supposed to be, and that this idea wasn’t congruent with my own. I, the notorious people pleaser, had to learn to put myself first. And I was mind-bogglingly lucky to have these two ladies by my side to see me through.

Of course the relationship didn’t last, and there were moments (days, weeks) in 2011 when I was working the most soul-destroying job imaginable, which was so pitifully paid that I was working extra hours at my local pub, and I thought more than once, this could have been avoided if I’d gone for a major in accountancy. With the benefit of hindsight I’m not loathe to admit that my parents were right about a number of things, and I could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I listened to their advice. But I would have missed out on a lot of things, experiences,  people that have shaped my life and made me the person I am today – I would be a different version of me, and with all the modesty I can muster – I quite like myself.

The day I decided to go for an English Literature degree, I accepted that I wouldn’t have a career path cut out for me, the way my lawyer brother does. As my final year approached and random third cousins felt justified to ask me what was next, I replied honestly that I had no idea, but that I would take any job to pay the bills while I was figuring it out. I gave myself a year. A month before my deadline expired, I had an excited call from my recruitment agent, and the rest is history.

I can’t know how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t met Tessa and Jenny. What I do know is that I listened to Tessa when she said to me, over and over again, the important thing is that you do what makes you happy. And I breathlessly stood by and watched as Jenny romped her way to an MA with distinction, all the while juggling three jobs, an ERASMUS semester and various unpaid internships, and somehow still finding time to occasionally force-feed me tequila at the Moritzbastei, and I thought, she makes it look so easy.  And I look at her today, with her hot job and her beautiful flat and her lovely boyfriend and the half-marathon she ran last month, and I think, I want to be her when I grow up.

And that’s why it’s a great photo after all – because it was taken in 2006, and it has us three in it, and we’re happy and excited and hopeful, and we’re just at the beginning of that journey. And today it’s 2013, and we’re scattered all over the place, and we’ve changed and we’re older and a little wiser, and I’m stuck with the overwhelming feeling that I wouldn’t be where I am today, nor as happy, if it hadn’t been for these two.

I owe you, ladies.

My Awful Childhood, Episode One.

As the oldest of four, I could never quite shake the feeling that my parents considered me as something of an experiment – something to shape and mold In Their Own Image, if you will. To a certain extent, that probably holds true for most firstborns, but it is also true that if there was an awards show for The Most Hilariously Ill-Advised Things Parents Do In Good Faith, my folks would probably take home a large percentage of the trophies, and the organisers would still have to introduce several new categories just for them. Over the years I have discovered that many of the more traumatising events that took place during my formative years make for excellent small-hours conversations with strangers in kitchens around the globe, so I have decided to treat you to a (heavily edited) version of the more noteworthy paedagogic measures. So, without further ado, I shall launch straightaway into the story of how my mother and father thought that a tee-total approach to refined sugar would somehow result in a sensible child that would Just Say No.

As my extended (less Hippie-inclined) family never tires of telling me (or the various humanoids I have over the years introduced to them), I had my first piece of (very dark, unsweetened) chocolate when I was about four years old. Any attempt on my grandmother’s side to slip me “regular” (i.e. supermarket-bought) sweets was met with suitable disapproval, and any exciting, glittery-wrapped wonders were quickly pried from my chubby hands and replaced with rock hard, home made “biscuits” or, worse, apples. Delivered, of course, with an educational lecture on the dangers of rotting milk teeth and childhood obesity. What joy. However, even the keenest of all eagle eyes are sometimes averted, and thus it came to pass that on one blessed day, my sneaky gran managed to press  a chocolate lollie into my eager hands. In the two seconds that it took my mother to discover her mother-in-law’s outrageous audacity, I had already ingested about half of it – the damage was done, I had tasted the rainbow and I wanted more.

With almost tedious predictability, I became obsessed with sugar. Because my parents’s disapproval of sweet things didn’t extend to their own consumer behavious, I knew there was shedloads of the stuff hidden all over the place, and I conducted regular searches where I would scour the entire house for anything glucose-related. Nothing was safe: if I could find them, I’d eat cough drops, rock candy and even my dad’s disgustingly strong Fisherman’s Friend mints. My mum’s hiding places were always a bit rubbish, maybe because she prefers savoury, but my dad’s were usually pretty sophisticated – I reckon he got tired of finding empty bags of his favourite liquirice allsorts in the drawers of his study, so he decided to up his game. (A routine that would repeat itself in years to come, although the desired commodity was now booze.) Looking back, I can’t quite work out why I never thought of disposing of the evidence – I’d always leave the empty bags behind, got found out and was consequently grounded. Being the reality-negating hippies they were, Ma and Pa Damsel were also very fond of that old favourite of all liberal parents, the “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed” routine. “We thought we raised you better than this”, they would say, and shake their heads sadly.

Either way, my relentless pursuit finally broke them, and I remember the event that triggered the eventual agreement with astonishing clarity. I was six, and I had somehow managed to obtain an invitation to the birthday party of Jule, the coolest girl in my primary school class. (How my nerdy, bookish, teachers-petty self achieved that, I’m afraid remains a mystery to this day.) Anyway, for the very first time I was exposed to such a mountain of freely available chocolate that I have to give myself credit for not fainting on the spot. Alas, that was as far as my restraint went, because for the rest of the party, whilst my friends were playing musical chairs, hit the pot and other lark, I was busy making my rounds around the glorious chocolate table, stuffing my face with everything that was on offer. I made major inroads, and even my friends (who were no strangers to  the delights of industrially refined sugar) were asking, with increasing degrees of puzzlement, how on earth I hadn’t upset my tummy yet.  But I was oblivious. I had to make the most of that day, even if it hurt – I knew that something that good would never, ever happen again.

End of the story was, when my mother picked me up in the evening, I vomited all over her environment-friendly cotton overcoat. And over the driveway at my friend’s house. And down the side of her bicycle, on the back of which I rode until I was 7, because she didn’t trust me in traffic (in hindsight, probably a wise decision). With alacrity I continued to spew half-chewed Maoam in cheerful fountains the whole way home, and I had never felt so good in my life.

The next day, we came to a truce, and weekly rations were introduced. The quality of the products provided was still poor, and I had issues with the percentage of health store produce among the regular stuff, which was higher than strictly desirable. But it was a start.

Thoughts before reading The Casual Vacancy, and an unexpected revelation.

Has it really been five years? The other day, I was watching The Culture Show special on JK Rowling’s new book, and they casually mentioned that it took her five years to write. Five years! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in July 2007, so I suppose that yes, my chiildhood ended five years ago.

Now, before you roll your eyes at me for being melodramatic, let me quickly explain what Harry Potter means to me. (Stay with me, I won’t be long.) When I picked up my first Harry (God that sounds sinister), I was thirteen years old (dear Lord.) and laid low with the flu. I had watched All The Telly and I was too weak to walk anywhere, and among a mountain of crumpled-up hankies on the coffee table, there was The Prisoner of Azkaban. Everybody else was already reading it, which was precisely why I had refused to so far. But in my feverish state, my teenagery resistance was crumbling. It can’t hurt to have a peak.

Ten pages in, I was hooked. I had no idea what a Gryffindor was, or why they were being awarded points. Before I started reading it, I hadn’t even been aware that Harry Potter was about wizards – I had been under the impression that he was simply a boy detective. But I read on, and when I finished, I picked up the first one, and a lot of things that hadn’t made sense began to become clear. By the time I finished the Philosopher’s Stone, I was well enough to go back to school, but that didn’t deter me from reading The Chamber of Secrets under my desk. And when I finished that, I picked up The Prisoner of Azkaban again.

A year passed, in which I didn’t really read anything else. It being 1999, the first three were the only ones that had been released yet, but I rotated them until my parents had to get another set because my siblings and I were constantly fighting over who would get them next. (Those were the days when I could still resolve any argument by sitting on them. *nostalgic face*). In fact, they were reading them as much as we were. The wonderful thing was that as my onsetting puberty was leaving my hitherto healthy relationship with my parents in tatters, Harry was the one thing we had that we could still talk about over supper, that didn’t result in me threatening to run away, and them responding in spirit by introducing curfews or taking away pocket money. When the film came out, all of the clan went to see it on the first night, and I remember the drive back – no squabbling over who got to sit in the front and who was taking up to much space in the back, only unanimous agreement that Hermione was miscast, we had all expected Snape to be skinnier and they couldn’t have found a more perfect Professor McGonagall had they allowed JK Rowling to breed one.

But that’s not even what I meant. The real love story began in the summer holidays of 2000, when The Goblet of Fire was released and my father, in a desperate attempt to improve his daughter’s mediocre English grades, bought her a copy before the German version was released. I don’t think I had ever loved him more. The first chapter was a struggle – I remember being sat there for ages, almost straining a neck muscle from constantly looking back and forth between the book and my Cambridge Advanced. But then something clicked, and I read the whole thing (500 pages!) in less than a week. And then read it again. Etc. And then I bought the other three in English. At some point that following year, I went to boarding school in Bedford for a short while – the first time I ever went to England. Stuck in a grand old house with forty other girls from all over the world, but mostly Hong Kong and Russia, and the strictest house mistress in the world, I don’t know what happened, but I felt more at home than I ever had anywhere else, including at home. My awkwardness, which made me stick out like a sore thumb at home, suddenly made sense, because everyone else was just as weird. These days I have a lot of issues with private education, but I do think that separating hormonal teenagers from their despairing parents is a fundamentally healthy thing (and should be government-subsidised.) If Miss Darbon had been made mandatory for the whole of the UK, last year’s riots could have been prevented.

I’ve been what is commonly regarded an “anglophile” ever since. I went on to study English to degree level, spending what little money I had on trips to London and PG Tipps from the British Shop in Leipzig. When my ex and I broke up after a three year relationship, the only hopeful thought that made it through the fog of my devastation was that I was now free to move to London after graduation. By the time we got back together I had already organised to write my dissertation in the British Library, and we half-heartedly talked about “making it work”, but in hindsight I don’t think I ever intended to come back, not really.

Maybe I can’t blame Harry for all of this. Maybe I would have found my way here anyway. There is no coulda, woulda, shoula, and I really don’t want to find out that I could have been just as happy in Castrop-Rauxel, teaching fourteen-year-olds the difference between I will and I’m going to. My point is that this is what Harry Potter means to me. And if only a tenth of the series’ fans associate something of similar weight with it, how the FUCK will The Casual Vacancy live up to that?

So far I’m about 60 pages in, and I’m enjoying it. I wasn’t gripped until the scene between Krystal and the school counsellor, and to my eternal shame I have to admit that I wince every time she uses a four letter word. (With the words of Soldier Boy, it’s a bit like turning over a page to find Hagrid sodomising Hermione.) I’m determined to keep an open mind and try to separate between Harry’s Jo and the adult Jo, but it’s proving a hell of a lot more difficult than I expected.