Food-lovers delights and sights of York (not Berlin)

Have you checked the expiry date on your passport recently?  In case you were wondering, no, you will not be allowed to travel with your expired passport, even if you pack your bag, check-in online and turn up at the airport ready for your birthday-treat short break in Berlin, with hotel booked and Pearl Jam gig tickets in hand.  You are not leaving the country anytime soon!

My partner was devastated on discovering her passport was invalid – especially as the whole trip was planned for my birthday and I’d been excited about the holiday and about seeing Pearl Jam play live for months.  On top of that I was run-down and exhausted from the final year of my PhD studies, and was desperately anticipating this trip as a much-needed break.  Yes – there were tears, but they didn’t really change the situation, as we stood forlorn in Liverpool John Lennon Airport.  The only sensible thing to do was to say ‘hey – we have time booked off work, we have a bag packed with clothes – lets go somewhere else!’  A quick scan of the internet to find places accessible by train and within a 3 hour radius of home, and we were off and traveling again – on our way to a short break in York.

The Dalai Lama once said “remember that not always getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck”. 

My disappointment about Berlin was a direct result of unmet expectations about what I thought I was going to be doing that week – I had denied the possibility of there being circumstances that I couldn’t control.  My visit to York however was unexpected, and therefore unanticipated – how could it disappoint?  There were no expectations or preconceived ideas about what we would find, what we ‘should’ do while we were there and no planned itinerary to stick to.

We could discover the city as it unfolded before us.  We were free to decide where to go and what to do from one minute to the next.  When we arrived off the train, tired and hungry, with no idea of where to find the city’s main restaurants, we discovered quite by accident the best curry we’ve ever eaten outside India.  The Kings Ransom curry house wasn’t flashy or expensive, but impressed with its soft fluffy naan bread, fragrant pilau rice and their willingness to make a vegetarian version of any dish on the menu (I’m reliably informed their Rajasthani Tikka Gosht was pretty special too).  Actually that is the only bowl of rice that I have ever wanted to eat completely on its own, just to enjoy the flavours and spices skilfully woven into it.

When the heavens opened, we dashed into the nearest pub for shelter, enjoying a spontaneous pint in what turned out to be Guy Fawkes’s birthplace (although I recommend the pub we found in similar drizzly circumstances the following day – the friendly Three-Legged Mare with its fantastic selection of real ales).  I had time to settle down with a (non-academic) book for the first time in months, and made the most of the browsing opportunities in the multitude of bookshops we stumbled upon.

The next day we couldn’t get a seat in the first cafe we chose – so continued up a quiet street only to discover the most amazing deli stocked wall to wall with barrels full of every type of olive oil and balsamic vinegar imaginable.  We squeezed into the last available table in their tiny back room cafe.  If that first cafe hadn’t disappointed us with its overcrowding, we’d never have discovered the gastronomic delights served up at the Hairy Fig – one of the most satisfying lunches I’ve ever enjoyed!

Oils and vinegars at the Hairy Fig Deli

One of the highlights of the trip was the moment the sun came out – after weeks of incessant rain and heavy flooding in that part of the UK.  We simply sat in a park, determined to make the most of it.  That hour of people-watching and sky-gazing was the most relaxed I’d felt in weeks.  And I know myself well enough to realise I don’t ever ‘plan’ to do ‘nothing’ – so I wouldn’t have enjoyed that sunshine break had I been consciously trying to pack the most into my trip.

It turns out that York, England is quite a different place from Berlin, Germany.  But its independent shops, foodie-delights, real ale pubs, bookshops, city walls walks and medieval streets offered something new to discover on every corner.  You just need to be open to enjoying the moment, rather than missing something you never had.  I could have got angry with my partner about the passport or I could have spent days moping around feeling sorry for myself because I missed out on the trip I’d been expecting.  I preferred to enjoy time together in a new place, seeing new things, and remembering what holidays are actually for – relaxing!  The sky over York was filled with clouds that week, but they definitely shone brightly with their silver linings.  If you ever happen to find yourself without passport but wanting a nice weekend away – I would recommend York without hesitation!

Voice Recognition

If you speak English, Berlin’s a good city to find yourself in. A high proportion of Berliners can speak English, and most enjoy using it. No surprise that it’s a popular destination for British tourists. However, I spent the last year there and discovered that beyond customer service and railway announcements, there was a strange, mysterious language people were speaking… called German.

Customer service aside, conversation is conducted in German. Outside of ‘The Ring’, the railway line which encircles the inner districts, it’s unusual to hear any conversations in English at all. The Berlin accent is considered quite strong and comes across as a slightly gruff mumble. It’s been described as the equivalent of a Glaswegian or Liverpool accent, but I personally didn’t find it too different to the Hockdeutsch I’d learnt before I moved to Berlin.

Moving to Berlin with only an intermediate understanding of German had a dislocating effect, but at a time when I was happily unemployed (reflecting on 11 years of being unhappily employed), the number of bonuses outweighed the number of issues. The subtleties of advertising campaigns were lost on me. Mild insults that may (or may not) have been directed at me, washed over me. Not being able to understand complex sentences or to deal with more than one conversation at a time influenced the way I saw the city and the way I interacted with society as a whole. This lack of detail made every walk or train ride a fantastic people-watching experience.

“Es tut mir leid, aber Ich kann nicht verstehen Sie.”

Most public conversation never registered with me, my emotions were less swayed by those around me. I learnt less about other people’s petty squabbles and the ‘he said, she said’. I saw people arguing, but understood that I’d never know what they were arguing about. One argument between a bus-driver and a passenger, evidently about something that had just happened, appeared to be over nothing significant at all. What struck me at the time was that the argument was probably not worth having.

The biggest benefit was the removal of what I’ve termed ‘compound distraction’, this is the ‘national conversation’ of pop culture and gossip over sporting contests, politics, scandals, TV or celebrity lives. These compound distractions become harder to ignore with every passing iteration and have a way of completely invading your consciousness. Absence of these distractions had a really positive affect on my concentration. During the last year, I’ve read the books I’d wanted to read for years and had the ‘brain space’ to mull over the finer points as I ambled around… I had a much less cluttered mind, empty of the chatter of other people’s day to day grumbles. There had been odd occasions in the past where I felt overloaded by conversations in crowded rooms, but I never once realised the effect it could have on concentration.

I returned to UK the day before the Olympic torch toured the city, which was also the day before the Jubilee weekend. I doubt I could’ve timed it any worse. I walked along Liverpool’s dock road an hour before the torch was scheduled to pass and found myself wading against a tide of chattering, excited people. I don’t know if the part of my brain that filters out background chatter had shrunk like an unused muscle, but I felt like I’d lost the ability to block it all out. This experience has left me wondering how much is worth knowing. How valuable is the five minutes of chit chat between contestant and quiz show host?

A new surveillance technique is under development based on global speech recognition. The technology would employ supercomputers and artificial intelligence, coupled with face recognition technology, to identify individuals in crowded spaces such as stadiums or busy railway stations. Analysis of the data collected would allow conversations to be reconstructed, essentially making any individual conservation transcribable. Much of it sounds like crazed paranoia of conspiracy theorists, but there appears to be a whole industry working on it. Apparently we want to give the machines Artificial Intelligence so they can be as bored as we are. If we want the machines to remain compliant and not turn our nuclear weapons on us (or on themselves) through abject despair, perhaps we need to start talking about more interesting things.

After my experience in Germany, I wonder if there’s much to gain from having access to all this information. All my friends know how much I love conversation, but to use a cliché, it’s quality, not quantity that matters.