Anne Thomas goes on a solitary non-food tour in coronavirus times.
The clocks went forward on Sunday, to summertime. This summer is when I am supposed to launch my food tours in earnest.
But now coronavirus has happened.
Who knows what the world will be looking like this summer? Who knows whether restaurants and cafés will be allowed to open? Who knows whether the places I want to take people to will still be in business? Who knows whether anyone will want to go on a tour with a stranger?
So many unknowns.
They say that writing helps in times of confinement, quarantine, lockdown, self-isolation, whatever you, dear reader, want to call this unprecedented situation. Today, I’ve decided to start my blog, beginning with a tour of my patch of Berlin during coronavirus times.
It may not have been summer, but it was at least sunny when I left the flat this morning, for the first time in 48 hours, not quite sure of what to expect. My day - like every day - began with France Inter, the radio my mother listened to when I was a child, the radio my grandparents listened to; now that they are no longer here, it is my link with them, my link with French. Of course, the situation is hardly comparable, though this article in the Guardian is uncanny, in these days of isolation and uncertainty and rising nationalisms, I find myself thinking about my grandparents and their relatives often, about l'exode and about the Occupation. I would like to ask them more detailed questions.
I listened to the latest news, the horror stories from the hospitals, the bleak economic prospects, today’s quarantine recipe tips (it’s what I love about French radio) and just before 9 a.m. I listened as one of my favourite presenters read aloud a letter addressed to Emmanuel Macron by the French writer Annie Ernaux, which questioned the president’s use of martial rhetoric and lambasted him for in the past ignoring the complaints of doctors and nurses, teachers, public transport workers, all those now - far too late - being acknowledged as crucial members of society.
Her anger was real. To me, it seemed right.
Yesterday, I had read the letter of the Italian writer Francesca Melandri to other Europeans from the future. I won’t summarise it, please read it. Melandri closed with this forecast: “When all of this is over, the world won’t be the same.”
She is not the first to say it, but I think that she is right.
As I ate breakfast, a hastily-prepared simple meal of baguette, butter and coffee, I read the journal that the German intellectual Carolin Emcke has written about her first week at home. It all seemed so familiar, as she listened to Bach, played Scrabble, worried about the refugees stranded in Greek camps and questioned the role of Europe now and in the future, walked (alone) around Kreuzberg, cooked a Palestinian dish, while a friend in Jerusalem offered her online advice over her shoulder; I nodded in agreement when she recommended a book by Annie Ernaux (yes the same Annie Ernaux I’ve just mentioned) before finishing with “Passen Sie aufeinander auf und bleiben Sie zu Hause!” (“Look after yourselves and stay at home!”) This has become the new way of saying goodbye, in every language of the world.
Each time I hear it, the words seem right.
CLOSED, STAY HEALTHY!
STAY HOME - STAY SAFE - HUG YOU SOON. I wonder whether Germany will ever re-adopt its hugging culture – I hope it does, it took me so long to get used to in the first place!
These were the words that jumped out at me from closed restaurant storefronts, as I ventured out into my adopted home Neukölln, a district which is among the most diverse in Germany, an area whose streets are full of cafes and bars and usually teeming with people.
In “normal” times, you can have hummus for breakfast, pizza for lunch, cake at any time of the day and drink beer and vodka 24/7. In “normal” times, you will never go hungry in Neukölln and you will never have to prepare a meal. I love to cook and yet often I go out because the falafels down the road are crunchier and zingier than mine, the cappuccino around the corner tastes more Italian etc. etc.
These days, I’m cooking much more and also becoming quickly addicted to Netflix’s food programmes. After binge-watching Unorthodox, which was the “only” reason I signed up in the first place and Unbelievable, I discovered Chef’s Table and fell for two chefs in particular, I'll call them the MBs - Mashama Bailey and Massimo Bottura - who not only share the same initials, but were both imbued with a love of food by their grandmothers (as was I) and now use their skills, charisma and generosity to introduce others to the importance of produce, terroir and history.
I can dream, right?
Food is travel. Granted, I can make hummus at home: I have all of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks. But the hummus at Azzam or Akroum or any of the countless other places on Sonnenallee tastes so much better because it comes with the sounds of Arabic and takes me to Bethlehem or Damascus. I close my eyes and I am elsewhere - at little cost to my wallet or the environment.
Today, most of the places in Neukölln where you usually go to be transported "elsewhere" were closed. The metal doors were rolled down, covered in graffiti. The streets were quiet, like on a Sunday at 7 a.m. Even the canal was dead. I’d never seen it so quiet. So quiet that the orange rubbish bins, usually overflowing with plastic cups and straws, ice cream cups and chocolate bar wrappers, were empty.
It was all so “unheimlich”, one of those German words that so succinctly conveys its meaning and is so difficult to translate, something like uncanny, eerie, odd, surreal all-in-one.
Apart from the odd family, there were only lone souls out and we all kept the mandatory one-metre distance, hardly daring to look at one another for fear of catching something. The only person I spoke with the entire first hour was a rather elderly white man smoking, who felt the urge to tell me - unsolicited - how much better this area was before. I wasn’t going to go there - I’ve had enough conversations with racist bigots to realise you can’t reason with them and right now, I’m steering well away from that “high-risk category”, for their sake and mine!
It seemed safer to engage with the graffiti. Perhaps because of the lack of other stimuli, I noticed it more than I usually would. Today, it felt as if it was talking to me directly, sending out targetted messages and hazard warnings:
PLEASE KEEP A DISTANCE
ISOLATION, ISOLATION, ISOLATION
CORONA. There was an advisory poster on various restaurant fronts on Sonnenallee, written in three languages – Turkish, German and English – but not Arabic. Considering the road has been nicknamed “Arab Alley” and the restaurants and stores are frequented predominantly by Syrian and Lebanese families, this seems somewhat remiss.
WHAT TO DO IN TIMES OF CORONA? What to do, indeed?
OBLOMOV IS CLOSED BECAUSE OF CORONA! BE SAFE, BE CLEVER, STAY HOME! I love this! I wonder what Ivan Goncharov would think if he were to come back from the dead today to find all of us Oblomovs, confined to our homes and many of us (secretly?) working from our beds. Berlin's OBLOMOV by the way is a bar, not a character of fiction.
CLOSED FOR NOW. ALL THE MONEY IS IN THE BANK, LAPTOPS AT HOME. NO CIGARETTE MACHINE. No comment!
CLIT. One particularly enterprising street artist seems to have gone out of their way to plaster this on as many shopfronts as possible. Is it an insult? A term of endearment?
SHUT DOWN BERLIN - LONDON - NEW YORK - AMSTERDAM – PARIS. Now that, Extinction Rebellion, was prophetic. I bet you didn’t in your wildest dreams believe that your campaign would be such a success!
MORGEN KOMMT DER FRÜHLING - TOMORROW, SPRING WILL COME. Well, that was certainly wishful thinking because just as I was reading this optimistic message, it began to snow! No kidding, snow! Summertime, spring, winter?
FUCKED UP. No shit?!
This is perhaps most clearly embodied by the fact that the most vulnerable people in the world are being abandoned, as a message spray-painted on a mattress reminding “the EU and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize that countless refugees in Turkey, Greece and Libya were unprotected from the virus” put it very clearly.
While the world over we are all encouraged to stay at home, isolate ourselves, many cannot, and their hell is just going to get worse. If you want an immediate and easy way to help, make a donation to the World Food Programme.
Like the public workers who also can't "stay home" and are finally getting the appreciation they deserve, if not yet the remuneration, though I hope that this will follow (right now, thinking of what can be done to accelerate this, please get in touch if you have concrete ideas), the efforts of activists, aid workers and volunteers, who continue to do all they can to ensure that refugees, homeless people and others are not left stranded merit much more recognition.
Many say that the world is lost. Many say that the world was already lost. I want to believe that the world can still find itself. I prefer to be optimistic, despite everything.
And I'm placing my bets on food. As the MBs say, food is communication. Through food, we understand and love each other, each other’s cultures and traditions.
There has been a blossoming of solidarity for and from independent food places in Berlin, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Restaurants around the world are cooking for hospital workers. Customers are buying vouchers and making donations so that their beloved haunts are not forced to close down.
My hope is that this crisis will finally push the world to re-evaluate the mass industrialisation of food and work together to save our planet.
I can dream, right?
Eventually, I found three places that were open for takeaway, all of them French. I stocked up! Who needs toilet paper? What we really need is chocolate cake, croissants and orange brioches! (Isn't that exactly what Marie Antoinette said?)
And when it’s snowing, Two and Two's chestnut latte is the perfect remedy. This unique café has long been a favourite of mine; it serves high-quality French classics with a Japanese touch and also sells a delightful range of stationery and pens. What’s not to like?
Today, it seemed strangely surreal to see that customers were requested to come in "one by one" to a store called Two and Two.
Another much loved spot is Bichou, a Franco-Austrian zero waste affair, which offers hearty French dishes made with seasonal and regional products in a beautiful recycled-rustic setting. It was heart-breaking to see the tables piled up inside.
But both Two and Two’s Tose and Bichou’s Marion were upbeat, telling me that there had been a huge outpouring of support from their customers and the local community, and insisting that they would survive.
As I eventually arrived home, laden with soup, quiche and supplies to cook several meals if total lockdown is imposed and well aware of my privilege, I passed the travel agent in the next-door building. I’ve looked longingly at the advertisements for Beirut, Damascus and Cairo in the past, ignoring Paris, New York and London. But today, the names of these cities, where I have so many relatives and friends, made me tear up and wonder once again when I would next see them all. I wonder how many times my unknown neighbours on Sonnenallee have thought the same about their relatives and friends in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo?
It was with this sad thought that I opened my letter box (gingerly in times of corona) and what a nice surprise awaited me! A postcard, with another targetted message:
And an explanation: In Georgian, this word apparently encapsulates the concept of continuing to eat even if you’re already full because the food is so delicious. According to the internet, it basically means "I accidentally ate the whole thing!"
How lovely to receive a postcard instead of a WhatsApp message. Reading it, I began to salivate just remembering my trip last year (or was it last century?) when I “shemomedjamo-ed” at breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the moments in between, so delicious was everything.
Who knows whether I'll ever be in Georgia again, but food can be delicious anywhere; you just need to know where to find it.
I intend to “shemomedjamo” today, tomorrow and in the future.
If I accidentally eat all of the chocolate cake, blame corona!
Be well and if possible stay at home!