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Housemate Heaven

Moving out of my parents’ house was the best decision I ever made.

I have now settled in to my new abode. The rent is reasonable at £375 a month. For that I pink-new-home-cards-simple-new-house-classic-ideas-wonderful-sample-animal-love-spread-doorget the run of the whole house, next day service on any repairs, a TV with two channels, all bills included and the perfect housemate.

Helen is my age, a lovely, bubbly, tidy, respectful and relaxed tenant with shoulder-length dark brown straight hair and blue eyes. She works at a local hospital organising heart operations, but she wants to be a personal assistant.

She should really be a counsellor, she is so good at listening. Her brother is a psychiatrist so it must run in the family. She will patiently listen to any drivel I spout and look like she is interested. We both like rugby, drum and bass (minus illicit substances) and watching crap on TV (First Dates). That was until my boyfriend “fixed” it. We lost Channel 4 and 5 and now we just have BBC 1 and 2.

So far the landlord’s mum has provided a brand new toaster the day after the old one blew the electrics. I thought I would need to replace the fuse but thankfully it was as easy as switching it back on (thanks Google and the flashlight on my phone). She also does all the washing up and the dishwasher whenever she pops round (once every couple of weeks).  What more could you want?

Credit: Chic On A Shoestring

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Well there is one thing, a washing machine that you can use on any setting. Currently it only works on 40 degrees, delicate cycle and a quick spin. But I am being fussy. The household appliances are a strange combination of 80’s retro (literally from that decade if not older) and brand new, with the “replace it when it’s broken” philosophy. The dishwasher is safe enough but put the washing machine on the wrong setting and you get water all over the floor when you open it. Without a mop it took about an hour to sponge it all up…

It is peaceful here. No nagging from my mother (which was constant and caused headaches), just freedom. I can do no wrong in Helen’s eyes except when I half finish chores (a bad habit).

I have yet to use the complimentary garden herbs – rosemary and lemon thyme. I cooked a meal for Helen the first Friday. I got a discounted pork shoulder joint (only £3.50) and roasted it for an hour with white wine and potatoes. It was delicious.

The landlord is about my age, chatty and excitable with dark brown curly hair and bright eyes. She is a primary school teacher who lives in Bristol. Her parents help her manage the house they helped her buy (worth about £250,000 with a mortgage of just over £500 a month). They hoped she would stay in in the city but she went about four hours away to live with a boyfriend. That did not work out and she ended up staying there for the job which was better.

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Credit: Cardiff Caerdidi Tours courtesy of TripAdvisor.

I spent some quality time with her this weekend. She is also interested in rugby because her father was in a local team. Unfortunately rugby is a risky sport and he broke his ankle, shattering the bones in his leg. He never played again but kept it in his life by being the Chairman of the club and the ticketing association. We watched the Cardiff Blues lose narrowly to Munster (Ireland). I also went round the castle in Cardiff (Wales) and the National Museum. Apparently there isn’t much else to do there but it kept me entertained all weekend.

In other news I failed my automatic driving test for the second time. I failed the first one in February and the second one two days ago. The first time was because I had not had enough practice at parallel parking on a hill and was so shaken up after doing it correctly that I tried to get closer to the kerb wrongly. I ended up reversing out into the road. I forgot to put the car back into forward gear and then turned the wheel the wrong way. I got three minors (for going 40 in a 60 on undulating hills, for not being far enough into the middle of the road when turning right and for not looking ahead through the window before setting off).

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Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The second time I was nearly back at the test centre (at that stage I had passed) when I lost concentration and thought it would only be a minor if I followed a van round a parked car. The man in the car waiting on the other side of the road was livid, gesticulating wildly. Of course it was a major – I should have waited. I got 7 minors including speeding (30 instead of 20), steering (not passing the wheel through my hands correctly) and going through an amber traffic light instead of stopping. If you are preparing for the test please click on this link for some advice.

As for my accommodation, it will probably be sold in a year or so but for now I am quite happy to stay where I am – this living arrangement works.

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Filed under Days out/nights out, Driving, Life of Lydia, Travel, Uncategorized

New Year New Start

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I started 2016 on the beach in New Zealand but the peace and happiness I returned with didn’t last long.

By October I realised something had to change. After having a good ponder I realised that there were areas of my life that I needed to change and improve.

Mission Move Out house-search

I have started but it is not going well. I spent December looking for a house-share in a desperate bid for independence.

In my city, the average rental price has risen by 4% in five years. It has stayed expensive in my area, with the monthly cost adding up to a third of my salary. In comparison, house prices have risen by 7% in five years. Although this is a modest increase, I still could not afford to stay in the area if I bought a house on my own.

On two occasions I requested further viewings only for the house to get snapped up the same day. I realised I was  going to have to change the game and go with my gut (and not just metaphorically, see below). I tried it today and got “OK, I have a few more viewings this week so I’ll let you know.”

I am new to the househunting game so I was stumped. Maybe I had said too much and she had decided we wouldn’t get on? I said I could be tidy but I wasn’t naturally. Was that the clincher? Did this mean she was politely telling me where to go? Did she need more time to make her mind up? Could it even mean that she liked me but didn’t want to let the other potential tenants down?

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When I have a house my living room will be similar.

The place was perfect. Flowers decorated every surface and the lady, Olivia, had impeccable taste, with arty prints decorating the walls and vintage leather sofas. The place was spotless and homely.

She was also perfect. We liked all the same things and had identical schedules that somehow did not conflict with each other.

She even had the same personality. I didn’t think it was possible to find someone even more bubbly and excitable than me.

After a month of touring dismal dumps and meeting oddballs and eccentrics this was a breath of fresh air. Finally, somewhere I could call home if I’m lucky.

I told Olivia about my viewing experiences. There was a hovel with two young male tenants resembling hippies. The living room looked like it hadn’t changed from the 70s. 21231169There were grubby fabric settees and an old television on stilts. Smoking paraphernalia littered the table and street light filtered through the gaps in the blinds.

The kitchen was the only nice thing about the place. I was shown upstairs to a bedroom with such a sloping ceiling in that I couldn’t actually get to the bed. A naked light bulb blinked weakly through the gloom. I went upstairs hopeful for better things and was greeted with another severe sloping ceiling. This time I managed to get to the bed, sat down and nearly went right through it, the mattress was that old. Again it was lit with a single bulb. The only furnishings in both rooms were the threadbare curtains hanging limply across windows which were so tiny and so elevated that you couldn’t see what would have been a great view.

I thought I’d seen it all until they led me outside to the “garden” – a patch of grass with a massive black block of wood over it which they explained had been a door. The builders had ripped it out so the landlord said it was not her responsibility. It had been there for months. I tried to open the “shed” and a mountain of junk threatened to burst its way to freedom and join the door on the “lawn”.

If the house wasn’t ridiculous, the inhabitants were. I visited a property with a live-in landlord. I imagined that we’d have a good natter in the living room over a cup of tea, maybe cook dinner for each other, watch films together…I opened the door to a business-like lady in her 60s. She marched me up to the room which was lovely, so far so good. Then she took me downstairs and explained how I would be expected to stay in my room as the rest of the house was hers.

I asked whether I could possibly share the living room occasionally and she politely but firmly declined. She said I could cross her other living room to use the kitchen. She had forced herself to accept that her tenant would have to go through her living room to get through to the (thankfully shared) kitchen. Having proudly declared that the house was out of bounds she asked when I could move in. She hoped it could be soon because she needed the money. I politely but firmly declined the offer.

I want to move out because I don’t like living alone, it’s too quiet. I don’t like living with my parents either as I want more privacy and we don’t always get on. Currently I am getting comments about my accumulation of some winter insulation – I am 5 kilograms overweight, which brings me on to my next point.

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Mission Minimise

I need to minimise my fat/sugar intake. I can no longer spend the day guzzling from the sweet tin at work. No more cheeseburger snacks either. I don’t burn any calories with my sedentary job so I need to ensure my intake matches that or do more exercise. I have a medicine ball in my room that I hardly use which will come in handy for toning up. It’s easy to be lazy but I plan to get more involved in the walking group at least and do the odd run. There’s nothing like running for cutting the kilos.

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Mission Motor

I will pass my driving test. Automatic lessons are great and I know it will happen if I just put my mind to it.

Lessons are hit and miss (literally if it wasn’t for dual controls) but I feel like I’m nearly at the end of the road. My general driving is usually good but my manoeuvres need some work. I feel like I cracked parallel parking today but unfortunately I was so elated after that I set off without looking. Thank goodness it was a quiet road.

Once I can drive I will be more independent and I won’t have to beg for lifts all the time.

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My First Automatic Driving Lessons

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I have been learning to drive for over two years.

I booked my first lesson after I was unable to get to a friend’s wedding. It would have been easy to drive there and surely wouldn’t have cost the £40 taxi ride in petrol. The fare was fine but I was weak, wheezing and coughing every 5 minutes, so they probably wouldn’t have been able to hear their vows.

Two months ago my exasperated instructor suggested I try an automatic car which does not have gears. After asking whether I was ready occasionally, I was delighted to do a mock test and get no serious errors. You only have to get one serious error to fail and I would regularly get three. Something clicked and I put into practice what I had learnt. I had booked my test for this month. But as time went on and it got closer to the test and we started talking about it, my skills slipped. I had a lesson a month ago where I couldn’t work out what had gone wrong. I knew how to drive so why wasn’t I able to? It was really grinding my gears.

I called a driving school and asked for an automatic driving lesson. If you pass on an automatic you can’t drive a manual car. I was warned that the cars are more expensive to tax and use more fuel. After I accepted this briefing I was given the number of the instructor. I would recommend checking the website first as I was not told about a special offer and I didn’t know that an electric car was available.

“There was a bang as we hit the red blur of a car. It happened so quickly I couldn’t process it.”

I was very nervous about my first lesson because I have heard of so many accidents and been part of one as a passenger. We were leaving the pavement. We looked past a parked car and the road was clear, so mum drove out. There was a bang as we hit the red blur of a car speeding past.

He stopped a car length and a half down the road with a scratched door. It had happened so quickly I couldn’t process it. Mum noticed that the man said “got to go, I’ll call you later” as he dropped his phone into the door pocket, before coming over to get insurance details. Dad spoke about the driver who rammed a parked car outside our house last week while on the phone to his girlfriend. He hit the car with such force that a wheel came off and bits of bumper and brake light were scattered on the road. He called the police but as no one was hurt they didn’t press charges. A friend of a friend was coming out of a junction and a sign was blocking her view. She looked past the sign and the road was clear. She then entered the road and hit and killed a motorcyclist. Another of mum’s friends accidentally reversed into her dad, breaking his legs.

Finally, there was the driver the year above me at school  who killed her friend. She had just passed her driving test and her A levels. She reportedly went over a hill up the road from us too fast and lost control of the steering, hitting a brick wall next to the road. Her friend in the passenger seat had just passed her A levels and had a place at university. When I started sixth form the common room was quiet and sombre. That is why I didn’t drive at 18.

I live on a bus route to the city so I was able to get most places without needing to ask for a lift or get a taxi. In London the public transport is so good that there is no need. However, the buses to the Peak District only stop at the villages and are once an hour so it would be lovely to go somewhere off the main roads at a time that is convenient for my friends.

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The instructor got out and shook hands. I got into the driving seat and panicked. There was no third pedal, there was one massive one and one smaller one. ABC so that was the brake and the clutch. I couldn’t see past the car in the mirrors, the steering wheel and the pedals were too far away and I didn’t know how to adjust them. I couldn’t do the cockpit drill of making sure the car was set to my specifications.

The instructor was bemused. He knew I had driven for two years and I was sitting there doing nothing. “So, what do you do first?” he prompted. I told him and he waited for me to sort things out. I explained that this car was different from the Vauxhall Astra I’d driven previously and I didn’t know what to do. He smiled and helped. “What do you do next?” he prompted. “Put the clutch down and put it into…” I replied before I remembered that there was no clutch and no first gear, just a gear-stick. What did you do with it?

He demonstrated that you flicked the gear left to put it in gear and right to put it in neutral. He demonstrated that he had added plastic additions to the wheel to allow you to switch to manual if necessary. I frowned at the extra confusion this might cause and was relieved when he said we wouldn’t need them.

The ignition was higher up in this car and the key was in a different direction, so I wasn’t sure which way was on. The instructor had to show me how to switch the engine on. I was so embarrassed I struggled to remember the handbrake and indicator. The instructor wanted to laugh but smiled politely instead.

I hadn’t come out of the drive before but had only left from the side of it, so I did have a brief flashback of our collision, especially as we had just been talking about it. I nervously sat higher in the seat as I scanned the edge of the road on both sides quickly a couple of times before pressing the accelerator gingerly, inching out. He indicated and off we went.

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The accelerator required a steady and increased push to increase speed and the brake was really responsive. The slightest touch and the car would slow quicker than expected. I stabbed it gingerly, jerking the car to a quick stop instead of a slow gradual one. He said “I like to push my students so I might get you to do manoeuvres you aren’t that comfortable with.” “That’s fine”, I said. I had no idea what that would entail but I was about to find out.

At first the instructor was quiet. It was quite a change from my last instructor, who was chatty. I felt like I was being tested, which made me more nervous but I wasn’t driving as badly as anticipated. Or at least it didn’t feel like I was, until he said “mirrors…..mirrors….do you know what MSM means? No switch that off, what haven’t you done?……did you look in your mirrors?…..and then I heard a sigh. But I still forgot to check the mirrors before signalling. Embarrassed, I apologised again. I needed to get out of that habit for my instructor’s sanity.

After about an hour I did a few successful checks. His repetition had paid off. Then he said “I’ll give you instructions from now on.” I still drove like an idiot. I knew what to do, I was just driving like a boy racer. He said “what’s the fastest you’ve ever driven?”. “50” I replied, checking my speedometer. That was fine. He directed me on a roundabout to the start of a dual carriageway. I expected to go off but we kept on it until the speed limit was 60. I felt surprisingly comfortable doing 50 but was quite nervous about 60. It felt like the first time I went above 30 and felt like I was flying. I slowed as we approached a roundabout and I didn’t know what lane so I guessed and then indicated and changed into the correct one.  He asked how I knew what lane to go in and I told him how I went in the left for the first and second exist and right for the third onwards. He directed us around multiple roundabouts until I started to feel more confident. Then I was coming up to a roundabout when he said “what lane do we need to be in?” I guessed that I was in the wrong one. “I don’t know” I replied. “Look at the road markings” he said. I looked ahead and couldn’t see anything further in front. “Look further down” he said. There it was. I was in the wrong lane again.

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Then I saw a car coming towards me on the roundabout and drove forward. I was on autopilot thinking about how I was in the wrong lane and I didn’t think about anything else. The instructor braked for me and looked at me, scared.

“What would have happened if you’d gone out then?”

“I would’ve crashed.”

“Yes you would have gone straight into that car coming towards us. Why did you do that?”

I paused. Why did I? I won’t be doing that again. It was like the first time I went on a dual carriageway with my first instructor (I’m on my third) who also liked to push his pupils. I thought I could turn the indicator off with the wheel at 50 miles an hour. I was surprised as we almost swerved into an oncoming car and my instructor grabbed the wheel with lightning reactions.

“You did three dangerous” the instructor announced. “I’ll drive us back”. Now it was my turn to sigh. I was never going to be able to drive. Ever.

“I can get you passing by the end of November” the instructor said. Well, maybe there was hope on the horizon. If I could just drive towards it safely and slowly enough.

On the way back the instructor imitated my driving a little until I giggled uncontrollably. He looked at me. “What?”. Realising that I could laugh at myself and wouldn’t be offended, he proceeded to show me what I was like. “I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea.” He smiled.

Nana Joan with my second cousin, Maliko.

Nana Joan with my second cousin Maliko.

I saw that I was driving with my arms stretched stiffly in front of me, my eyes mostly fixed ahead, occasionally looking down my nose at the door mirror as if I was looking down through spectacles and then quickly staring ahead again, then occasionally flicking my eyes to the other mirror. I was jerking the brake in a stop/start manner,scared-learner-driver-main holding the wheel gingerly with the edge of my fingers, flicking it to make it turn. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” The instructor said, bemused again. “Do you have a grandma?” he asked. “Yes” I said, smiling at the memory of Nana Joan in New Zealand, with her kind eyes, wide smile, curly brown hair (she still hasn’t gone grey at 89, I hope I have those genes) and laughter lines. “Would you drive like this with your grandma in that seat?” he asked, jerking the car to a halt repeatedly. “No.” I replied. I also had a bad habit of looking at my instructor when he was talking. “Eyes on the road please!” he reminded me.

My instructor explained that he used to be a taxi driver and that when he took the instructor’s test he realised how shocking his driving was. He said he passed second time because he was too cocky the first time and didn’t show the instructor that he was looking in the mirrors.

“I got honked at and apparently got a rude finger gesture but I was completely oblivious in my learner bubble.”

I thought he wouldn’t want to see me again, after moaning about how a student nearly damaged his car, but he later said that he enjoyed the challenge of teaching me.

At the start of the next lesson the instructor had me reversing out of a drive onto the main road. I was terrified but I was driving under his instruction and at snail speed. That was smoothly done, as was a turn in the road. However, I went off a roundabout into the wrong lane and the instructor corrected me. I got beeped at and apparently got a rude finger gesture but I was completely oblivious in my learner bubble.

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Later, when I went to change lanes I thought I had space to move in front of an oncoming car and I didn’t. I forgot that I didn’t have the right of way and expected the oncoming car to slow down for me. Not so fast. Taking time to judge distance and the rules of the road is more important than speed. Having road experience from being a cyclist I drive defensively in that almost every time I am on the road as a (mostly safe) driver or a passenger I witness dangerous driving and therefore I expect the worse.

Every driver should be a cyclist to get experience of what it is like to be a vulnerable road user having to go into the flood of traffic to turn right or trying to turn in front of you into side roads. I see dangerous drivers much more often than dangerous cyclists. I expect a driver to emerge from a side road without looking. This almost happened today and my mum was ready for it, swerving and beeping (only to announce her presence of course). I now even expect a car to park in the middle of the road on a blind bend.

If you are struggling to learn on a manual try automatic lessons. It should make you a safer driver and automatic cars are the future.

In a new suburb being planned in London I learnt that the area is being planned around driverless cars picking up and dropping off passengers. Just when I was getting used to the idea of Uber taxis, technology advances yet again. If I still can’t pass my test I will wait for the new dawn of driverless cars.

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Beer-lin at Christmas

December was a busy month with trips to Birmingham, Berlin, Lancaster, Norwich and Great Yarmouth and a visit from my cousins, where I cooked for five for the first time.

I learnt that you need to have everything prepared and ready to go for the day of the visit. I spent that morning scouring local farms for turkey, only to be told that it had to be ordered in advance. I was saved by a pre-prepared one at Waitrose.

There was so much to see and do in Berlin. The city had a festive atmosphere with Christmas lights and markets. Temperatures were close to zero so my thermals came in handy.

Hotel Indigo was comfortable, clean and stylish and was lovely to return to after a day on our feet. We had an executive room with a balcony and we wrapped up to admire the view.

It was easy to get around using the S-Bahn and U-Bahn train systems. The U-Bahn is the Underground. You have to get your ticket stamped by the machine or you can be fined.

Transport links from Schönefeld airport were dismal, perhaps the reason for its rating on Google of under 3 stars. We were shattered after our budget airline experience featuring the usual lengthy queues. I nearly fell over as I had labyrinthitis – an inner-ear infection causing balance issues and disorientation. I had just started swimming again and medical opinion was that it had pushed infection further into my ear. Luckily it was the last 24 hours of it.

There was a long walk to the train station which was a vast concrete space with confusing German signposting to unfamiliar areas and some omnipotent machines. You needed to have the right amount of coins as they did not take cards and most did not like notes. Perhaps this is to encourage those in the know to buy at the airport. There were no officials and no information desk. In England there are information points at almost every major station so it was a culture-shock. I’d already been jarred by the lack of warm water in public toilets. Economical efficiency at its best but punishing in winter. Hand-warmers are recommended.

Berlin Photo Tour

Many meals centred around sausages (wurst). This is tasty currywurst.

Many meals centred around sausages (wurst). This is tasty currywurst.

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This pint features the German bear in front of the dome of Berlin’s parliament or Bundestag which is one of the subjects of my next post. Bears first appeared on a city seal (emblem) in 1280. The earliest city seal from 1253 didn’t feature a bear but an eagle, which was the symbol of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, an important part of the Holy Roman Empire that included Berlin. In 1280 the second emblem featured a Brandenburg eagle flanked by two standing bears. When Cölln and Berlin were merged into one city in 1709, the coat of arms featured the bear below two eagles -red for Brandenburg and black for Prussia. By 1875, the bear gained a crown signifying Berlin’s status as a free city.

 

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Schnitzel was nothing special.

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The apple cake was delicious.

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Our walking tour started in front of the Brandenburg Gate, outside Starbucks. It was free if you were heartless but our charismatic guide explained that he lived on donations and 15 Euros was the going rate. It was well worth it as we felt we had seen all the key sights and were fully briefed in the history. All questions were answered.

Just past the Gate on the road is the dividing line of the Wall that divided East and West Berlin until 1989, stretching off into the traffic. Division seems a distant memory, one that many would surely rather forget.

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Today is the 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz where over 1 million people died. An estimated 90 per cent of these victims were Jews, with Poles, Romani gypsies, Soviet Prisoners, homosexuals and others deemed “undesirable” making up the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish victims that were killed at the hands of the Nazis. The death toll is inconceivable. I thought of my grandfather, who liberated and dealt with the aftermath of Bergen-Belsen. Hell on earth. He never spoke of it and it must have been easier to repress than think about. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish Auschwitz survivor, writer and chemist, remarked  “I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man” quoting the Robert Burns poem “Man Was Made to Mourn”.  

The Jewish Memorial in Berlin was quite an experience. It was a series of concrete blocks gradually getting taller until you were engulfed by oppressive blank columns trapping you on all sides. You are suddenly in a narrow space overshadowed by heavy grey monoliths leaning towards you which blocked out the light.

It was even more powerful at night. I couldn’t see anything but a gloomy, shadowy passage in front of me. It was eerily silent and you could hardly see the sky.

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You could go on a “Trabi” tour. Trabant cars, affectionately termed “trabis”, were iconic vehicles used by the Soviets of East Berlin. There is a museum for almost everything in Berlin, from those cars to computer science.067

Balloon sightseeing looked fun but freezing. We didn’t get a chance to see the Berlin Wall art but click here for a good website with it.

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Source: ampelmann.de

The East side still retained some differences such as the pedestrian crossing signs which featured a large man in a hat. The design was conceived by a traffic psychologist, Karl Peglau. The thinking behind it was that we react more quickly to appealing symbols.

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The history of a divided East/West Berlin reminded me of North/South Korea. The Russians called the East the Federal Republic and the British, French and Americans named the West the Democratic Republic. The wishful thinking post-War was that both halves would be run harmoniously. But the 1950s saw the fear of Communism explode in the States with witch hunts including even Charlie Chaplin. There were uprisings in the East which were dealt with by the Stasi, the secret police. Around 2.7 million East Berliners defected from 1949 until the Wall was built, with 200,000 leaving the year before in 1960. Reasons for escape were economic, social or political.One reason was the introduction of a collectivization policy in the 1950s. The goal was to consolidate individual land and labour into collective farms in order to increase food supply. But this meant that profits decreased and there were food shortages and riots instead.

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The Wall was publicly built to prevent a war for the city but privately it was

Walter Ubricht (Wikipedia)

Walter Ubricht (Wikipedia)

also to stop the East-West exodus. The East-German leader Walter Ubricht termed it an “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart” protecting the Federal Republic from “military adventurers”.

The photo above shows border guard Conrad Schumann who left two days after Wall construction began. His fellow soldiers were distracted and he saw his chance. West Berliners encouraged him to jump and after deciding for a moment he went for it. The moment was captured by passing photographer Peter Liebing. The iconic photograph was used as propaganda.

There were some unusual escapes, such as by tightrope-walking and with a car converted to go under the crossing barrier. Many who succeeded were guards, with over 1,300 fleeing in the first two years of the Wall’s construction. This led to the installation of locks and further walls requiring several soldiers to open them.

There was a good exhibition at Nordbahnhof S-geisterbahnhof_21_01606Bahn station about the division of the Underground. Tube trains from the West could pass through Eastern stops but they could not be used and became “ghost” stations. Even here soldiers escaped, so they would be locked in a platform bunker until the end of their shift.

Officially, 136 Berliners died fleeing to the West. Some wanted to earn more money, others were trying to join family members. Friedrichstraße station was nicknamed “The Palace of Tears” as it was the station where East Berliners would have tearful goodbyes to West Berliners returning, unsure when they would be allowed to see them again.

Many casualties were not recorded by the secretive Soviets. But a victims research group called “August 13 Working Group”  has claimed there were more than 1,100 fatalities linked to the division of states. West Berliners used it to fly-tip.

The photo above captures the worst Wall stand-off caused by a senior U.S. diplomat, Lightner Jr (American for Junior, which means son of) wanting to go to the opera in East Berlin. The East Germans demanded to see his passport, which he insisted only Soviet officials had the right to check. He was forced to turn back. Due to the tank stand-off and fervent diplomacy that ensued, officials on both sides were allowed to attend the theatre and the opera over the border. As for Lightner Jr, he went to the performance days later.

This month Stasi records became available online for the first time. The Stasi were Soviet secret police. Their files have been available to their subjects since 1992. But you had to write out for them and there were delays in release. The records were saved by East German citizens who stormed Stasi offices when the Wall fell in 1989. They include the harrowing case of Manfred Smolka, a former East German border guard who was seized, thrown in solitary confinement and guillotined after he escaped to the West.  The Stasi even attempted to recruit Prime Minister Angela Merkel when she was at University.

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Our tour guide was fantastic and we felt like we had been fully briefed on the key history and sights of the city centre.

The German market looked fantastic. To the left is the Concert House where we enjoyed an orchestral and choral Bach performance.

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All photos on this page Copyright literarylydi. Please ask for permission before using. Thank you.

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You must visit Fassbender and Rauch. It’s a chocolate shop with green awnings like Harrods and has confectionary which is just as fancy. There were several iconic buildings made entirely of chocolate. Upstairs in the lift is the restaurant where they do a main meal in chocolate on Monday-Friday. There can be a queue early in the afternoon but it is worth the wait. Their petit-fours look exquisite and are delicious.

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Christmas decoration in Pottsdam, copied nicely in chocolate in Berlin. That city is the subject of my next post, along with more of Berlin.

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January 27, 2015 · 9:21 pm

My First Driving Lessons

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I have always avoided driving lessons as I live on a bus route into town and it’s expensive. But I was fed up of being stranded at bus stops and train stations.1341319584

The last straw was missing a friend’s wedding due to the three buses there and back.

Luckily around this time an acquaintance was overjoyed at passing her test. She gave me her instructor‘s number and I nervously called him up. He was booked up for the next month but came highly recommended so I said I’d wait.

I’d forgotten all about it when he rang. I booked for that Saturday afternoon! Watch out drivers, and pedestrians for that matter.

I had visions of me swerving all over the road, stalling multiple times and possibly doing myself and the instructor permanent injury. The last time I’d driven had been bumping along a farmer’s field in a battered Bedford van, with my father clinging to the door handle shouting “SLOW DOWN!!!” “CHANGE GEAR!!” and it culminated with me forgetting the braking procedure and flooring it with the clutch down. But that was ancient history…

I wasn’t expecting to drive as my friend said she had just been spoken to for her first hour. I had waited so long to start learning that I wasn’t anxious, just excited. I met the smiling grey-haired, smartly dressed man and he drove off. So far so normal. But then we stopped behind a parked car. He got out. What on earth was he doing?!

After seeing this picture I wouldn't drive with BSM! They don't have a good reputation.

After seeing this picture I wouldn’t drive with BSM! They don’t have a good reputation.

“Well get in” he said, grinning. Did he not value his life? I hoped this wasn’t some kind of crash course. Shouldn’t we be wearing helmets?

I was now nervous and went round to the previously forbidden seat. It felt weird to be behind the wheel instead of beside it.

John explained the moving off procedure. We were to go round a parked car and stop in front of it.

When I’d watched people drive it just seemed to be a case of accelerating to go faster, braking to stop, steering and putting the clutch down to change gear. How hard could it be?

But suddenly he started talking about the side mirror, the “sense” mirror, cyclists, pedestrians, biting point, changing between the gas and the gear pedal, indicating, steering, watching for oncoming vehicles and my heart started pounding and the sweat started running down my neck.

Following his directions I checked the mirrors, waiting for a clear road. I could already imagine a car coming up unseen while I was trying to work out what to do with the pedals. That would be it, my life over on the first lesson. Game over. The end.

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This learner driver in Aberdeen crashed into someone’s cellar.

I pushed the indicator the wrong way. How were you supposed to remember whether up was left and right was down? He changed it for me. My arms were so stiff with nerves that I couldn’t steer gently. I swerved out and he corrected the wheel for me. He helped me steer round the car and then told me to stop. He put the indicator on the right way for me and I checked my mirrors. He hadn’t mentioned how hard I needed to brake so naturally I just assumed that you simply press the pedal fully-down immediately.

There was a pause. “I think I’ve got whiplash” he said, a little rosy-cheeked.

Surprisingly he persevered and I learnt to brake gently and gradually and co-ordinate the clutch with the accelerator. We even went up to 30 miles an hour from 15. Every time I was on the road some impatient driver would be tailgating, angrily glaring into my mirror. I jerked the accelerator a bit to get away from one and John said “look, I don’t care if they honk their horn, you maintain your speed and forget about them, everyone was a learner once and they can overtake if they want.” Still, I didn’t like it. We headed out to the countryside and I nearly had a heart attack when a tractor appeared out of nowhere over the hill towards me.

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“Hang on, you’re going into the ditch” he said, helping me with the wheel. I was terrified. My arms were as flexible as tree branches and glued to the wheel in the quarter to three position, my eyes fixed on the road in front, my ankles aching with tension, my clothes sticking to me. I was yanking the gear-stick about madly and the clutch kept disappearing from my foot as the instructor took over.

“Careful, you’re going into the side of the road again” he said. “You don’t know how deep that puddle is so don’t go there.” From the passenger seat it looked like the car was always on the left of the middle line. It isn’t. It’s right on it. It looks like you’re driving in the middle of the road but the instructor assured me this was correct and you aren’t. Every time a vehicle came towards me I thought it was going to hit me.

“You were scared of that tractor weren’t you” he said grinning. I nodded.

“Keep your eyes on the road” he said, grabbing the wheel as I relaxed a bit and looked at him. I didn’t do that again.

Then he tried to teach me how to come out of a closed junction. I don’t like them as there’s so much to keep in your head to do. There was someone tailgating again and he was saying a string of instructions, something like “clutch, brake, mirror, look, indicate, slow down, go further forward you’ve stopped too soon again”. I had a brain freeze so he took over.

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It was much faster than a bicycle and more responsive. I had the sensation of being on a horse when it jumped and felt pretty powerless, trusting that I was doing it right. It is pretty scary when you’re in something which appears to move of its own volition with very little direction from you. It had been drilled into me that cars were dangerous. They killed you or other drivers. When I was in sixth form a girl killed her friend by going too fast over the hill I was going over now, crashing into the wall at the side.

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The second time I got in the car I felt more confident and couldn’t wait to have another try. I’d almost mastered clutch and accelerator control so we did more complicated manoeuvres. I went round a deserted landscaped island to get roundabout practice. These back roads were nice and quiet. I didn’t like other vehicles. You didn’t know what they were going to do and that scared me. You knew where you were with an empty road, no need to panic.

We did turning right across oncoming traffic. I realised that once again my clothes were sticking to me. I was particularly scared of cyclists and waited for them to whizz past, checking that there weren’t any more anywhere. I stopped in the road to turn and he put the indicator on and took the wheel off me, steering us in.

“We could have crashed there” he said, “someone could have gone into us because you slowed down but didn’t indicate”. pa-7654772

My heart sank. There was still a long way to go but it was only the second lesson. There was another risky moment when we came out of a side road and I swerved a bit, not knowing to move the wheel back earlier. Then I over-corrected and almost went into a car waiting in the side road on the left.

I realised there was a lot to think about. People make it look easy but it’s not until you’re doing it yourself that you see there is quite a bit of preparation to do to pass a test.

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Apart from that all went well and I got unintended hazard perception training when someone almost stepped into the road without looking. Luckily I’d anticipated that and had already slowed down. It could’ve been much worse – a learner driver was actually caught up in a shooting in August. Driving is a lot about anticipating and as a cyclist I was good at assuming that all people, pedestrians as well as drivers, were thick.Henderson-Road-Crossing-2-300x195

We went up to fourth gear with me happily cruising at 40 miles an hour. “You’re at the upper limit, no faster than that” John said. “You’re a thrill-seeker aren’t you, you love a bit of speed I think.” I was surprised to hear that, going fast was scary because I had turned the wheel a bit too sharply before and the car had veered out a little in my lane, something which didn’t happen at lower speeds.

I did two types of hill starts beginning in first and second gear. They were nice as you didn’t need to find the “biting point”, the sound the car made when it was ready to go.

At the end of the lesson the instructor commented that I wasn’t ready for my test yet (that much was obvious) but that I’d made a lot of progress.

He is putting his car in for a service due to learner drivers (he also has physio every three months for whiplash) who drive him up the wall (and round the bend), but hopefully I’ll have my third lesson on Saturday afternoon.

I might watch the BBC’s “Barely Legal” drivers programme for tips.

Watch out road users…

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Filed under Driving, Life of Lydia

A night in Essex

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Surprises always carry some element of risk. So when I headed off down to Essex I just had to cross my fingers and hope for the best. But that made it exciting.

It required careful planning and some subtle questions. I booked time off work and the ticket. Then I asked where to send a birthday card, and whether it would be ok if it arrived a day early. I was arriving then as I had plans on the Friday – my friend had booked time off work to visit me and as she lived in London had kindly agreed to make it a road trip. I knew which station was closest as I had visited my boyfriend before. Then I had to find out what sort of birthday cake he wanted. So I said I was going to buy him a cake slice after work, what sort did he want. He was home the weekend before, back from working down in Essex. We had a rather heated discussion with him saying he didn’t want me to buy anything and with me still trying to find out what he wanted. I probed further at Birmingham, when as chance would have it we walked past a Patisserie Valerie counter in the Bullring shopping mall. I had already decided this was the most suitable option. I had previously spotted the cafe whilst trying to locate Boots in both stations to get an urgent product for a friend. Instead of having a cake going off on the train journey down I could buy it fresh there. Perfect! I love Patisserie Valerie. It’s so pretty and tasty and the cakes are unlike anything else I have seen.

So once at St Pancras I walked over to Kings Cross as the cafe is larger there. I picked up the fruits of the forest tart which I had discovered was the ideal birthday dessert. I was a bit worried it would get squashed on the connecting tube journey but luckily it was fine and in good packaging. Five hours later I was at a station in the middle of nowhere. I tried to call my boyfriend and it went to voicemail. I paniced a little. Plan B had not been settled upon, as I knew where my boyfriend was staying and what time he finished work. So I text him and then read a book about walking through Istanbul. It recommended the Galeta Bridge for a view of the ancient buildings. I decided Plan B was waiting until 9pm when he would have finished work at the latest and then getting a £25 taxi. This would cost as much as the cheap advance fare down covering two trains and the tube, for what was a 40 minute bus journey.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw my boyfriend calling. He didn’t sound as delighted as I had hoped, but that was due to a 6am-6pm day. He assured me in the car that he was delighted and seemed surprised by the Patisserie Valerie bag. He said he had no idea what it was. He’d obviously forgotten our discussions on two occasions on the subject with the amount of 12 hour days he had worked.

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We checked in to his lovely four star hotel and had a family room with two double beds. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep without the covers being pulled off me or being rolled into or trying to fit around a sleeping starfish. Like the Marriott the bathroom was all marble, with gold taps. They could have been cleaned a little better but after 027reading a microbiologist’s recommendations on hotels I knew that didn’t really matter, walking round in my flip flops. I was annoyed I’d forgotten antibacterial wipes which the article had said should be used for wiping down door handles and remotes. I’d checked it when I last stayed at the hotel when wondering whether to use the bath, and in the absence of a “chlorine bleach wipe” decided not to.

We went out to a Chinese restaurant, as the hotel’s restaurant menu is a bit limited. It looked like a former pub and had the words “Chinese, Thai and English cuisine” plastered on the front. The decor was lovely, all red Chinese lanterns. I chose the Thai menu and had a lovely creamy coconut and green curry soup with prawns and some rather 042interesting meat that tasted a little too slimy to be chicken. It was delicious though. Then I ordered pork sweet and sour. I imagined thin beef sirloin strips but instead I got fatty deep fried pork. I struggled through it as I didn’t want to cause a scene for my boyfriend’s birthday meal. An hour or two later I felt quite queasy- as I have IBS my digestion doesn’t cope well with fatty food. I made myself try a bit of the birthday tart – I wanted to see whether it was value for money. However it was just a biscuit base, some cream and some fruit. I was a bit disappointed but it looked great and my boyfriend enjoyed it. He saved some for work in his hotel fridge.

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When I settled down onto the bed once again I was disappointed that it was a firm mattress. This meant I couldn’t sleep. My boyfriend can sleep whenever he wants to, as long as he’s not too hot or cold. But I woke up every hour or so and in the morning awoke after a fitful sleep with a sore back. A double-blind study has confirmed this link. Jonny rushed off in the dead of night taking the tart for his colleagues to enjoy.

I now had the mission of getting to Edgware station. I had to take a bus in the middle of nowhere. Google said it was opposite the hotel but after walking around for some time I couldn’t see a stop. So I waited on the grass verge with cars whizzing past, one honking its horn at me. I started to feel a bit silly and wished I could hitch a lift. But miraculously the bus appeared from nowhere. The first one had not been until 9am, so I had told my friend the earliest I could arrive was midday. This meant we had more motorway traffic. I was the only person on the bus and told the driver to tell me when we got to the destination. I got off on a narrow country lane and walked round the corner to the next stop. Thankfully this time there was a bus shelter. No information though and I was unsure if I was on the right side of the road to do the next leg of the journey.

Then some old ladies turned up, all made up with bouffant dyed hair, talking about how they were going on holiday and how one of them had been exploring the local area with her free bus pass. It was a small village and they clearly knew everyone. I relaxed a bit when I heard one of them say that she was going to the station I was going to.

After winding round country lanes I queasily arrived at the station and felt proud of myself for getting there and saving £23.50 in the process. I did miss a train due to a typically slow bus but luckily the next train was delayed by a minute, arriving just a couple of minutes after my scheduled one. Then I took two tubes to complete the three hour journey. It was wonderful to make it to Edgware solely on public transport and to be able to plan with accuracy using transportdirect –  I had reliable times, maps and plenty of details.

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My friend then drove us with her friend for five hours up to London. It was a Friday and traffic meant a stop-start 071ride. I ate chocolates as I watched the entertaining sight of a bus going backwards – it looked like it was being driven instead of towed. I also enjoyed a hot spiced apple drink with cinammon and star anise in Costa Coffee, my favourite drink.

I had a lovely time in Essex although next time I think I’ll order something different at the Chinese, or perhaps try pub food.

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Filed under Days out/nights out, Food, Life of Lydia

Crossroads

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I come from a background centred around achievement. It’s a matter of family pride and the most common question people ask is “what do you do [for a living]?”

We’re judged on the job we have and stereotypes surrounding it, the jobs our children do, our homes, our cars and 44543483784241483TSzh5a2Qcthe clothes we wear. We’re all expected to have ambition, a drive to succeed.

But what if our dream turns out to be a misguided fantasy? What if we lose our drive and/or just want to enjoy ourselves after work? Is that really so wrong?

I dreamed of being a journalist from a young age. I desperately wanted to join the fast-paced exciting world of newspaper journalism. Or at least I thought I did. But when I did extensive work experience I realised that the glamourous images in my head were vastly different from the nitty gritty reality, as I saw that actually, print journalists were low-paid, stressed out and had dubious morals.

I have an administration job and have just applied for one with a company PiggyBank-About-to-get-Smashedrather than an agency, offering just £15 000 a year. Is that even enough to live on? I don’t think I can save for a house or drive a car on that. Unless you want to go into management, administration does not offer much in terms of salary or progression.

What if our goals do not fit into the vision that our family/friends/society has for us? What if we just want a happy life? I am expected to be a librarian, a teacher or an administrator. Mum says “just write a bestseller”, “be the next J.K Rowling”. If only it was that easy.

When I declared that I wanted to be a nurse, all hell broke loose. My family told me they were stressed-out, low paid and bitchy. My nursing friends told me this was indeed true, but that little things like making a difference made it rewarding. All my friends told me to go for it and that I would make a great nurse. So I did, but sadly was unsuccessful. And as another of my dreams falls by the wayside, I’m taking stock and wondering what to do with my life.

Sure, if I moved to London I perhaps would have got somewhere. There are many large creative companies there offering positions with good experience and progression. But I strongly dislike London. It’s dirty, smelly and stressful. I feel claustrophobic with all the people pushing, shoving and coughing in my face. I feel the soot in the Underground sticking to me, and when I wash my face in the evening the water turns grey. I dislike the cold way people brush right past me, noses in the air, wrapped up in something I could never afford. On that note (literally), I dislike the sky-high prices blowing holes in your wallet.

So I’m left asking myself…

What do I do now??

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Filed under Life of Lydia, Work