Category Archives: Millennials

Thrifty Afropolitan in Berlin

Earlier this year, I visited Germany’s capital city on a whim. It seemed everyone I knew had been or was planning to go so being the naturally curious kitten that I am, I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.  And it didn’t disappoint.

Travelling solo is good for the soul and forces you to come out of your comfort zone which is a necessary thing to do from time to time. I have travelled alone before, but it is the first time I have visited a place where I couldn’t speak the main language.  Similarly, and rather selfishly, I also decided to travel solo because I just wanted to disappear, immersing myself into another culture without having to compromise – just a straightforward, disappear and do-what- I-want sort of holiday.

The trip was so enriching in many ways; East Berlin is incredibly vibrant with a very youthful and creative energy.  A friend of mine described it as ‘painfully edgy’ comparable to Shoreditch, East London.

Berlin is a relatively multicultural city including a huge Turkish population and is also varied architecturally with some truly beautiful buildings to behold.

Berlin was ridiculously affordable (compared to London) from dining out to the range of touristy activities on offer, many of which were free. I had a whole host of recommendations from friends (thank you) but only managed to do a few things given that it was a short break. I planned one thing a day and then left the rest open to whatever opportunities presented themselves.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Most people I met were friendly with almost all being able to speak English. However I really wish I’d made an effort to learn a few German phrases. I am not fond of the incredibly arrogant way of travelling and assuming everyone speaks English which unfortunately I did on this occasion. Also not speaking the language meant I missed opportunities for meaningful interactions with German natives.

On one occasion I was sat on a train making my way to a friend’s church on the other side of Berlin.  This guy, who looked slightly rough in appearance, kept staring at me. I wasn’t offended or scared as I sensed he was harmless – more intrigued than hostile. Eventually I offered him a sweet just to break up the intense staring.  He refused politely then proceeded to speak in German. I couldn’t answer back and he seemed a little disappointed by it but kept staring at me until I got off. I would love to have known what thoughts lie beneath…

As usual on the arrival I had a slight panic. What am I doing in this city, where I don’t know anyone and I don’t speak the language? But then I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I am a grown woman, only 1.5 hours away from ‘home’ and that the whole point of the trip was to explore, be patient with myself and come out of the ‘known’.

In all honesty I was concerned about experiencing racism (historically Germany has a track record) and not having the language or wherewithal to respond. I was also worried about my inability to speak German. To appease the panic I returned to the familiar and sat in a local McDonald’s for Wifi and for comfort.
With a shortage of tables, a white woman, middle-aged, friendly faced asked to sit down across from me. I said yes and then she began to talk in German to which I couldn’t reply. For the duration of her lunch, she sat and looked at me, my face and hair in particular – with a semi smile resting on her face.

When God just hooks you up

I stayed in a lovely combination hostel and hotel called Plus Berlin which I would highly recommend due to its location (not far from the Eastside Gallery), amenities and affordability. I absolutely love staying in hostels for short city breaks because of the instant community and the potential to meet different people from around the world.

The first of the serendipitous moments happened when I arrived at the hostel. There was a concert I wanted to go to, part of the reason I came to Berlin, but I didn’t book any advance tickets.  Through a chance conversation with the receptionist, one of his colleagues was planning to go and invited me along.  However I did end up going on my own (and met him there)  but I also met some other wonderful people including a young American female drummer and a fellow Nigerian creative (journalist, dancer & curator) who I immediately clicked with. We all swapped notes on the cost of living in our respective cities and what it means to be Nigerian in our various lands (UK and Germany respectively) as well as hopes for the future etc.

I danced the night away and as if things couldn’t get any better, because of these newly forged friendships, I got to meet the legend and Afrobeat pioneer, Mr Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer), who was incredibly gracious and warm. He even tried to talk to me in Yoruba (my father’s native tongue) when I told him my name but unfortunately ( no thanks to my parents but I still love you) I can’t speak the language! Golden opportunity missed.

Awestruck: Sir Tony Allen, Afrobeat legend and I

Awestruck: Sir Tony Allen, Afrobeat legend and I

Some of the other highlights of my short trip included:

Walking tour – Everyone I knew recommended the walking tour and it was brilliant. Different companies offer them – I went with Original Berlin Tours. The tours are free (although it’s courteous to tip the guide at the end) and lasted for 2.5 hours.  Our tour guide was a young, Irish guy who was passionate and knowledgeable about modern European history so the tour was very well informed.

Walking tours are a good way to meet people if you are travelling solo and I happened to meet some wonderful people including a young woman from London who began solo travelling for much the same reasons as I (the freedom and differing ideas of what constitutes a good holiday compared to her friends.)

The walk covered most of the major landmarks including Checkpoint Charlie, remains of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust memorial, the Brandenburg gate, the location of Hitler’s bunker and other weird, wonderful and sobering locations.  Towards the end of the tour I stumbled across the Room of Silence– powerful and thought provoking which I would highly recommend even if just to escape the frenzied tourist activity.

Tiergarten – a refreshing oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle – Tiergarten is the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park – a beautiful sprawling space includes a beer garden, statutes of famous German composers (including one of my favourites Uncle Beethoven) and is surrounded by important landmarks such as the Bundestag and the Brandeburg Gate.

Tasting Turkish food There are lots of Turkish food places with a significant number located near Kotbusser Strasse. I visited several during my short stay the food was that delicious and affordable. I do also recommend trying some German cuisine- a friend of mine who was raised in Berlin but lives in London, recommended I taste a Currywurst- a sausage covered in curry sauce which was quite tasty.

Tempelhof– Formerly an airport, I visited this quirky and wonderful park by accident. It was a hive of activity when I went with numerous sunbathers, cyclists and people having BBQs.  Lovely space and worth visiting to see how the space is being used.

People watching / Bottle collecting – I know it is an odd one ( I promise I am no voyeur)  but on several occasions I noticed grown men picking glass bottles out of bins so asked my friend why this was the case. He mentioned that bottle collecting was common amongst some, usually older people, as a means of supplementing their income. Essentially they can earn extra money if returned to a supermarket as part of a deposit scheme.

Eastside Gallery – you just have to go just because it is so culturally and historically important.

Bundestag– I visited the German parliament building at night and it was spectacular especially the panoramic views from the rooftop. It’s free and really worth going to see especially if you are into architectural design.

Church– I was meant to visit Mauer park, a popular Sunday hangout (again highly recommended) but ended up going to my friend’s church instead. The church was very multicultural – with an American pastor, lovely and welcoming.  After the service, a group of us visited a Latvian restaurant for lunch providing an excellent opportunity to get know them properly.  The group consisted mainly of international students from Ecuador, Canada, Latvia, Brazil and England all developing their German language skills and making the most of the study abroad experience.  I couldn’t help feeling inspired by their experiences- I didn’t study abroad as part of my degree- which I regret, but I do believe it is never to late to cease the opportunity to travel and live abroad (even if for a little while) if that is what your heart desires.

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Can’t be all good, can it?
In terms of travel, Berlin has a good, organised and affordable transport system. It is also a cyclist’s city, so refreshing to see people of all ages cycling around as a way of life. I made a few faux pas during the trip mainly getting confused between the S-Bahn (the  overground trains) and the U-Bahn ( like the London Underground) which led to some frustrating episodes- like missing trains but they were fairly frequent so an easy problem to rectify.

The only down side to my trip was on the third night when the new roommate arrived. A lovely and friendly older woman when awake but a terrifyingly loud chronic snorer by night (resembling the sound of a small freight train) making sleep for the last two nights somewhat elusive. Thankfully I only had two nights of left but at one point wondered if this was part of the hostel’s conspiracy to get guests to upgrade to a hotel room!

In terms of costs I bought cheap return flights for £40 through Easyjet.  My accommodation for 4 nights worked out at approximately 85 euros (£70) which included a shared en suite bathroom. (These prices were pre- Brexit decision) so could be subject to change. And I took a fair amount of spending money but still ended up with a considerable amount left.

In a nutshell:  great city+ great people+ great value = Berlin.

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#BlackGirlsGoCamping?

I’ll never forget the rather infamous last words I uttered during a conversation at a festival a few years ago whilst in the company of mainly young white women (some of which I knew). Despite the festival attracting in excess of ten thousand people over the course of the weekend, there were very few people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds present.

Noting the shortage, I said “Black people don’t really do camping – why would we camp outside in the cold, on the ground when we have a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in at night?” *(Disclaimer: At this point I A) apologise for this crude generalisation although even the Guardian published an article on this matter a few years ago with some equally compelling stats to substantiate the case and B) secondly I know BAME is a problematic term- but just stick with me on both accounts).

Camping, to some, may appear to be complete and utter lunacy; paying to knowingly subject yourself to the elements, sharing toilet facilities with strangers, having no access to electricity, limited water supply and snuggling up to creepy crawlies does not constitute a holiday to most (irrespective of race), it sounds like self imposed poverty.

It’s a similar logic applied by my parents when I asked to attend a slumber party at my friend’s house as a child (‘party’ being the operative word, completely missed them). “Let’s get this straight, you want to sleep on someone else’s floor when you have a bed at home? No, you are not staying over”. My mum only relented when I reached my late teens. Now I understand her objection was primarily fuelled by her concerns over child protection related issues, in addition to her disdain at sleeping on a stranger’s floor.

So unsurprisingly, God taught me a lesson to banish my ignorant, stereotyping mindset. A friend and I recently went camping. Both of us are Black women in our early thirties and are first time campers. (Well I have been once before but when I was thirteen and on a school trip which doesn’t really count). I have attended festivals before but usually on a day basis or if over the course of a weekend, sleep at a nearby hotel (perks of work!).

The opportunity to camp arose due to the kindness and persistence of a friend who for the umpteenth time asked me to attend a festival he has organised for several years. After much deliberation, I finally relented and am glad I did because it was such a positive experience; it’s true what they say that life begins on the edge of your comfort zone.

Festival essentials: love my wellies.

Festival essentials: love my wellies.

In true thrifty fashion, I volunteered, saving on entrance fee (which, might I add, was VERY good value at £50 for three days) but primarily to keep me preoccupied whilst still enjoying the delights of the festival. I was given role of ‘Artist liaison’ which basically entailed running round and schmoozing with artists ensuring they got paid, fed and watered. In reality, I did very little but it it felt good to be involved, supporting my friend in some small way whilst finally experiencing this event he’s been harping on about for almost a decade!

Located in beautiful Wiltshire countryside, the festival attracted 3,000 people throughout the three days. The weather was equally glorious aptly embodying this year’s ‘Club Tropicana’ theme. There was a wonderful variety of music, arts and cultural events / workshops including Latin themed Brazilian samba bands and capoeira workshops. More traditional festival entertainment was also on offer such as folk music, rock and roll, dance and cheesy pop sets alongside new and interesting sessions on how to take care of chickens, painting, carpentry, short films, yoga and meditation.

We survived: My friend and I dancing our hearts out to Congolese music. (Copyright. Richard Shakespeare.)

We survived and thrived: My friend and I dancing our hearts out to Congolese music.
                                               (Copyright. Richard Shakespeare.)

Determined to reduce costs, I managed to borrow a tent, sleeping bags and roll mats from brother’s girlfriend- a six man tent, which weighed a ton but kept out all the bugs and was such a blessing on many levels (thanks Jodie!). Similarly, as volunteers my friend and I were entitled to free meal vouchers, which we didn’t always use, but were helpful on the odd occasion for saving money.  Adding our own thrifty Afropolitan twist we also brought along some snacks from home including chin chin and plantain crisps (lol #keepingitNaija).

I am ashamed to admit that for my friend and I, our biggest fear was not being able to shower properly over the three days and using public toilets. Let’s be honest – personal hygiene is a big deal but especially in hot weather, so we came prepared bringing copious amounts of baby wipes, Dettol, antibacterial spray and packet tissues to compensate. In fact my friend even bought a small basin to collect water for bathing purposes which came in very handy.  By the end of the weekend,  I had perfected the art of squatting in public loos to avoid contact with the toilet seat, overcoming any irrational fears I had (which were plenty).

It was a positive experience on many levels but particularly because it:

Allowed me to switch  off and be present in the moment- no distractions in the guise of social media, TV, Internet and the like.
The instant camaraderie, community and free spiritedness were infectious – I am convinced this is where all the adults come to retain their sense of youth and playfulness.
Lots of dancing until the early hours- cheesy pop or Congolese ‘happy’ music = #fun!
Random, funny encounters with strangers including an inebriated man calling my perfume, a love potion then bowing down to me! (I promise this rarely happens!)
Enjoying the simplicity of country living- we don’t need as much as we think!
Stunning natural scenery – so much open space and beautiful fields of green and gold.

As a self confessed Crack-Book addict, the festival forced me to digi-detox because there was almost nowhere to charge your mobile phone. The only place which did was the stand of a Bristol based charity called Temwa, which runs a number of sustainable community development programmes in Malawi-one of the poorest countries in the world (www.temwa.org). Someone came up with the genius idea to make people pay a fiver each time they want to charge their mobile phone with donations going to the charity!

Changing lives in Malawi: http://www.temwa.org

The only downside of the camping experience was that I ended up with the flu the following week, due to a rookie error. I completely underestimated the number of layers I would need to keep warm at night ( I forgot the temperature dropped so dramatically), so ended up with cold in my bones rendering me bed-bound for almost the entire week.

With this exception, I can say that I am a camping convert and look forward to doing more of this in the future but perhaps better prepared.

Would love to hear from you re. Your experiences of camping. Is it something only particular groups of people do? Would especially love to hear from women of BAME backgrounds who camp regularly, what are your experiences? X

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Mind the Gap: “You want to take a what?”

“Dad…I’m going to take a gap year.”  “You want to take a what?” He replied, his perpetually smiling face instantly morphed into a frown. “A gap year.” I said rather boldly (have I lost my mind?!) “OK…OK…OK” he said repeatedly as I became increasingly unnerved with each utterance, then it stopped. Silence. What seemed like an eternity passed. “So you are not going to go to university?” he said. Oh dear I could see where this was headed. “Yes dad I will be, just not this year but definitely next.””OK…OK…OK… So what does that mean?” His words mingled with sadness and restrained anger.  This conversation went round in circles for quite a while and as you probably guessed, it didn’t end well.

Dad's expression: "You want to take a what?"

Dad’s expression: “You want to take a what?”

My dad was one of the most liberal, free-spirited people on the planet whose abiding mantra was ‘live and let live’. I could have told him I was a lesbian, entering a nunnery, joining the circus or any other random scenario and he would have been perfectly fine with it as long as it ‘made me happy’. However the concept of a gap year didn’t compute.

To be honest, I was fairly surprised by his response because our household was not especially traditional. However looking back there were elements – no matter how liberal – which will always remain such as respect for your elders and reverence for education.

I should have known no matter how ‘open minded’ dad was, in an Afropolitan household – especially a Nigerian household – gap years are as elusive as unicorns. Things may have changed now (though I doubt it) but over ten years ago, it wasn’t very common amongst the British based West Africans I knew. Gap year for what? For who? What have you experienced in life which warrants a ‘break’? What are you going to do? All these questions would be swirling round in a Nigerian parent’s mind in response to such a ridiculous proposition.

Getting a good education was and still is of the upmost importance because it equates to securing a good future for you and your family. Go to school, go university, study something sensible (Law, Accountancy, Medicine), get a good job, buy a nice home, start a family, take care of your parents in old age – the usual trajectory in any traditional BME household which highly prizes education as the route of all self betterment.

I could now see that my poor dad thought his super academic daughter was ‘going off the rails’ and with it all his hopes and dreams for me. What was he going to tell his friends and family? How could he explain this decision to them? I felt like such a failure in his eyes which I had never experienced before. My dad and I were extremely close, in fact he delivered me at birth and our bond had been apparent ever since. But this was one of the very few times in my life where I had disappointed him, almost to the point of disgust. He would not talk to me for weeks afterwards and refused to give me eye contact – he was that upset.

Daddy's girl lol

Daddy’s girl lol

Dad didn’t even particularly care what I studied as long as he could say I went to university. He himself didn’t go to university so was not so focused on what I studied as long as I went. I planned to study English and History (which is an entirely different conversation altogether and something which still confuses my maternal grandmother until this day) but in his mind, at least it meant a move towards progress. He wanted a better life for me than he had for himself and education was the key to securing this. Why would I make such a selfish decision as to delay it?

I didn’t take a gap year because I had grand plans to travel the world. I did it out of embarrassment and because, in my eyes, I had no choice. I received my A Level results and though I got an ABB, unfortunately it was not the right grades to allow me to study on my preferred course at a prestigious Red Brick institution. I remember results day like it happened last week – I didn’t realise how arrogant I was or how much my identity was bound up in my intellect until the day of the ‘rude awakening.’

After realising I got the wrong ABB (the A was neither in English Literature or History) I instantly ran to the careers service to see what could be done to ensure I could go to my first choice placement. I managed to meet the main careers advisor, who had a horrific reputation for being brutally honesty and in a nutshell, crushed any hopes I had. “Well judging by how competitive the course and institution is you won’t get in this year. If you are lucky they may offer you another course which you can take and hope someone drops out mid way on your preferred course so you can change over but it’s not guaranteed and quite unlikely.” All I could hear was bla bla bla and at one point I said to her: “But how can I not be going to university? I mean it’s me! I got all A’s last year.” My pride was completely crushed as a cloak of shame covered me, how could I explain to my friends and family that clever kem kem was not so clever after all?

My response to not going to university that year.

My response to not going to university that year.

In retrospect taking a gap year was the best decision of my life. I developed a strong work ethic – working two retail jobs, six days a week including one at GAP – (yes you couldn’t make it up); took up another A level because I always wanted to study that particular subject (super geek), took up singing in a choir, met some amazing people including session singers and actors who had to do retail when their craft couldn’t pay the bills, found my faith (in fact it was the first time I truly spoke to a God and He answered!) … It was nothing like I expected it to be but I grew so much during this time and saved quite a bit of money towards University too! And when I did eventually go to University the following year, God provided the right group of friends, the right course and I had such an incredible experience as a result.

Gap year employment: You couldn't make it up if you tried!

Gap year employment: You couldn’t make it up if you tried!

There are untold benefits to a gap year but one in particular, is that you realise more than ever whether university is for you or not. For some people taking the time out allows them to come to the realisation that they are ready to enter the world of work rather than accrue debt which might or might not lead them to their dream job. For others, myself included, I realised that I wanted to go to university, but for the right reasons this time (not just to party and be promiscuous as popular culture loves to remind us.) I didn’t want a life of low paid work to make ends meet – university was my route out of poverty and I was going to grasp it with both hands.

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