The Internet Personified: Stella the First and other city stories
Dispatches from the second month of summer
Monday mornings, I talk to my therapist. She’s in Bombay and has been for the entirety of our relationship, so I only know her office from the little I can see in the Skype background, and I only know the top half of her body. She could have hooves underneath the camera for all I know, or a dog at her feet or a baby in a corner, but really most of what I see is her face, and that too at a side-angle because I don’t really like to make eye contact when I talk about things. I’ve never Googled her because I’d rather she just existed on my laptop, ready to be called up every Monday, but I did hear some construction noises once and another time I actually broke the fourth wall and asked if she had a cat in the next room because I could hear it meowing. I learned very early on that questions about how she was doing or what she thought of what I was saying was met with a Mona Lisa smile and no further response, and once I got comfortable with not having to keep my listener’s attention at all times (otherwise you’re a boring storyteller and will lose your audience) I stopped asking.
Having a therapist is great, but sometimes I do wonder how long this will go on for, will I be talking to her for the rest of my life, will I ever be “cured” and become a completely self actualised person who doesn’t need to have a vent for all her little-little petty thoughts and anxious feelings? Oh well, it’s only been a little over a year, and I am still far from this Earth Goddess (who still eats meat and has her vices) person in grey linen and bare feet with a clean house and definitely no cat poop on the floor.
Speaking of bare feet, the number of people I see from my little aquarium of a study walking around the gross streets of Berlin without any shoes on is quite… disgusting. Yes, I know it’s summer but that also means broken beer bottles on the road and dog (and maybe human?) pee coating every surface. Europeans.
In which I discover public libraries
Oh my god, libraries! They are amazing!
A quick rundown of my own particular library history: as a child I had access to all school libraries but sadly when I hit high school “library period” was sacrificed for more academic classes so even though each of my schools had a well stocked selection, I didn’t take advantage of any of them, simply because I couldn’t. At boarding school I managed to duck in and out when I could, but educators like to over-schedule students’ days, so any free time I had, I was encouraged to go outside (pass) or join an extra curricular activity. Reading was always pushed down, not something people wanted you to do, which is weird for a school to endorse, but they always liked when you were either learning something or social.
When I was even younger, the city we lived in (Trivandrum, Kerala) had an excellent public library with an even nicer kid's section, and barely any people, and so I wandered in and out at will whenever I could. (I remember they had this great series of biographies of famous people as children, I read a bunch of those.) Have you read Matilda by Roald Dahl? There’s a bit in it where she discovers the library and teaches herself to read and I always pictured the Trivandrum library in that bit: the coir floor mats, the tall wooden bookshelves, the musty delicious smell of books in humidity.
In Delhi there are really no good public libraries for fiction readers. Clubs, like the Gymkhana, have a decent selection for their members, others, like the Nehru Memorial library have archives of academic texts and books. But for your average novel-reading fanatic such as myself? Not so much. There’s a great children’s library called the BC Roy memorial that any kid can join (and where I spent several extremely happy hours curled up with a book waiting for my mum to finish work) and there’s the British Council library, of course, but not super accessible, unless you want to drive across town every week or however fast you read.
In Hyderabad, near where my grandparents used to live, was a lending library, basically a little hole-in-the-wall shop that bought used books and loaned them out to “members.” Unlike a public library, you paid monthly and usually a little more than you normally would, but also unlike a public library, they had so many trash books that your every little guilty pleasure was satisfied. Shelf upon shelf of Mills and Boon romance novels, cartons of Superman comics, and best for me: all the Archie comics I could possibly read. I didn’t often buy Archie comics because they were too expensive for such short reads, but I’d stroll down to Mughal library every evening in the summer and take out two, just enough for my night time read.
ANYWAY. Back to 2022 and Berlin. We spotted a public library near our house last winter but never got around to going in. This summer I finally made K come with me and sign up (I can’t, because of this stupid visa business, you need to be a resident to apply for membership.) Four floors of books, okay, mostly in German, but with a decent English language selection (including a very nice YA shelf), graphic novels, cookbooks, comics, books in “easy German” for me to practise, all the latest English novels, and more esoteric offerings like board games and sheet music and also, oddly, framed pictures you can borrow to hang on your wall. All this for 10 euros a month, which lets you use any library in the city (the American Memorial apparently has the best English selection and is not far, so I plan to check it out soon), a streaming service, audio books and language courses. I sound like an ad for a library, but wow. I almost passed out with excitement. (Today I go again to switch out some books.)
OH. Almost forgot one of my favourite bits: everything is automated so if you don’t want to talk to anyone (I frequently do not), you can check out and return books without a word.
In which I discover cycling
Here in Germany (and much of Europe, I think) there’s a bicycle rental service called Swapfiets (it’s from Holland, “fiets” means cycle in Dutch). I quite liked the look of them, they’re these old fashioned heavy cycles with wide seats and comfortable handles, the kind of bike I used to have a child, in fact. You can tell a Swapfiets bike by the bright blue front tire, and they are very popular here, one out of every five cyclists I see going past my window has one of them. Partly this popularity is because it’s a very low commitment, the plan I signed up for is a monthly membership so I can cancel at any time, which means when I return to Delhi, the cycle won’t just be sitting in our basement collecting dust. Another reason is that if you use one of their bikes, you also get access to their services, so if it breaks down or something, they’ll send a mechanic with a new cycle.
I had a very nice man come and show me the ropes, including hitching the seat down as low as it went and adding a little basket and showing me how the locks worked and everything. He told me to watch out for drug addicts who apparently steal the little cap that goes over the air pump valve thingie (?) and sell it for like one euro each so that is literally all I can think about when I leave my bike outside, but otherwise, their theory is that people don’t steal Swapfiets so much because of the distinctive blue tire. Still, I have to be careful, because they do make you pay for stolen bikes.
Berlin is a bike-y city. Sure, I know people who have lived here for years and years and don’t cycle, but that’s because public transport is great and it is also easy to get everywhere on your own two feet. BUT! We live in East Berlin, most of our friends are west of us. To get to their houses, I have to take a triangular sort of route, up to Alexanderplatz (where the TV tower is) then switch to a westward line, even though their homes are a straight line from me. On a bicycle, this would take 20-30 minutes. On a train, it’s more like 35. I’ve gotten used to commuting, I enjoy it, I like the trains and the people, and listening to my audio book while I travel, but sometimes it might be nice to save some time and get there quicker.
[Sidebar for posterity: Friday we celebrated K’s birthday—which was on Tuesday last week—by going to a bar and then a grimy little Berlin club and at around 3 am, when the crowd got too oppressive and the music too grating, we walked all the way home, about 8 kilometres in the middle of the night, watching the early morning light come up. We saw a hedgehog in a little garden outside a building! That was the highlight. That and standing outside the Berghain club, watching people get rejected. And also how quiet and serene Berlin is at that hour, like you’re holding your breath, like everyone is asleep and only you’re awake with the birds (and the drivers of the cars, and some other people like you, walking it off.) It was a whole new way to fall in love with the city. Other adventures: a drunk foreign man, I couldn’t tell where he was from, coming up to us in the middle of the road with his strolley suitcase asking which way the main train station was, and nearly weeping when we told him it would take half an hour by train to reach. K took pity on him and leaped across the road to flag down an available taxi, I said, “Run!” and before he got it, he gave K a hug. He was so drunk and worried, he was slurring, but at least we sent him off to the station. Whether he made his train is a different story.]
Also we’ve been having a heat wave and the trains are cooking and I’m not sure when people stopped wearing deodorant but everyone needs to start again because it reeks in there.
Stella is what I’m calling my current bike, Stella I, because Stella II will arrive after her, if this experiment goes well. Stella for “stellar” for “star” and because “Stell dir vor” means “imagine” in German. On my maroon bicycle, I am ready to conquer the world, well, at least conquer the stretch between the library and home. Why do you think I paid extra for the basket?
In which I discover what my parents generation is called in Germany
I’ve been watching Modern Family again, all the way from the beginning, which fills me with deep self-loathing when I think about it, but is so soothing and pleasurable that I feel great while I’m doing it which is why people take drugs.
I love Modern Family because I am an only child—can one still say “child” if one is forty?—and they have such lovely dysfunctional family dynamics, it’s great. I have a friend here who also has no siblings, neither does K, and when we were sitting at a bar this same Friday night, I discovered both of them called their parents by their first names, like think “Tom and Harriet” instead of “Mum and Dad” or “Ma and Baba” or you know, whatever you call your parents. (I mean, I already knew this about K since we have been together since the dawn of time, but when I sort of questioned it, he waved his hand and said, “Hippies briefly” and that was the end of the conversation but I didn’t realise it was a whole THING.)
I thought it might be a bit hard on the parents, because after all, everyone else calls you “Tom and Harriet” but there’s really only one person who can call you “Mother and Father” but it turns out the post-war generation in Germany also had a subsection of people called the ‘68ers. It was a whole West Berlin student movement which you can read about here but how it affected my friend (and K) was that a lot of the former ‘68ers also believed in raising their children to be equal participating members of their families and society. Hence, the first name basis, so everyone was on the same page, and even, in some cases, collective-formed kindergartens, so they’d call their teachers by their first names and so on. I have probably only skimmed the surface of this, but it was interesting to me, and also felt very typical of German society, so I thought I’d share.
While Googling that last thing, I also came across this fucked up guy called Helmut Kentler who worked with the police around the same time as the student movements were active. This was also a time of sexual liberation, and shared housing and so on, which was a great opportunity for Kentler to push forward his agenda of… resocialising pedophilic men by placing foster children in their homes to encourage them to have sex (???!!?) The young boys who went to these homes were between the ages of 13 and 15 and apparently Kentler said this would make them better members of society? I don’t get it either. Here’s a long New Yorker article about the whole thing.
OKAY! That’s my news for the week. Remember to tip your hostess on the way out. No, but seriously, thank you for reading. Buy me a coffee if you feel like it!
Two stories I liked reading this week plus one I wrote:
Microdosing mushrooms at weddings is a thing now.
Fast fashion has abandoned human taste.
On the rise of the goatee and also Salman Rushdie. (My Auth Couture column is also going on hiatus for a bit, so this is my last piece for now.)
Have a great week!
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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