My favorite things of 2018

Normally the freelance journalist’s life is an endless cycle of pitching, waiting, scrambling, panicking and pitching again. This year I’ve been spoiled with ongoing engagements with select editorial and corporate clients that have allowed me to mostly avoid pitching panic altogether. I dare say it’s been the best year of my freelance career so far, in terms of both finances and fulfillment, and I hope 2019 continues just the same way.

I love how everything slows down at the end of December anyways (and after being full-time freelance for six years, I know to lean into it and prepare for it rather than fight it). I’ve been looking back at what I’ve accomplished in the past year and thinking about what I want to achieve in the next. Here are some highlights for me from 2018:

My favorite stories I wrote

All of my favorite stories this year appeared in the English edition of Handelsblatt, where I’ve been a freelance editor since last summer. Handelsblatt is Germany’s leading business daily newspaper, and my editor there has given me a lot of room to explore topics interesting to me and other expats:

My favorite stories other people wrote

Assorted other favorite things from 2018

The best books I read this year

  • John Carreyrou, “Bad Blood: The true story about the rise and fall of Theranos — yet another addition to the scammer canon.
  • Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk About Race: I want every American to read this book.
  • Michael Idov, “Dressed up for a Riot: A very funny memoir about a Russian-American who moves back as an adult to run GQ in Moscow.
  • Virginia Eubanks, “Automating Inequality: Real talk about how algorithms perpetuate existing subconscious bias.
  • Camille Perri, “When Katie Met Cassidy: It’s a romantic comedy about two women, and it’s just begging to be turned into a movie.

What were your favorite things you read this year? Let me know in the comments — I have not yet maxed out my browser tabs.

Deciphering century-old postcard drama

I have a habit of falling down rabbit holes. This week it was deciphering a 100-year-old postcard in old German script that a friend of a friend posted on Instagram:

What nosy person can resist reading a tiny message hidden under a postcard stamp a hundred years ago?? I could make out a little bit — last night, please please, sad — but I thought seeing the rest of the postcard up close would help me get a better feeling for the writer’s hand. I asked Pamela to send me an image of the full postcard so I could get a little closer, and she obliged.

deciphering and translating handwriting on an old german postcard

I spent a good two hours trying to figure it out, using a book of old German handwriting examples to guide me. I made some progress, but only solved about half of the puzzle. Contextual clues can help you a TON with deciphering old handwriting, so my knowledge of German really helped. But the letterforms of old German handwriting like this, called Kurrent — or the even weirder Sütterlin — are so vastly different from modern English letterforms that I made a lot of wrong turns and had to backtrack. For example, I at first read the city as Wien — German for Vienna — but she determined it actually says Hier — here, meaning the same city! Also, the name on the address, Gretel Schardt, is written in a slightly more French script than the rest of the postcard, presumably for fanciness.

Then I happened to go to a hand-lettering and calligraphy meetup here in Berlin just for fun, and one of the attendees turned out to be studying old forms of German handwriting. Jackpot! With Petra‘s help, I was able to achieve a nearly full transcription.

deciphering and translating handwriting on an old german postcard

Here is the German transcription:

Mein Liebling!
Bist du mir noch böse weil ich Dich
Gestern Abend so lange habe warten
lassen? Es tut mir so leit (sic) daß ich
nicht früher bei dir war, falls ich mir
ein wenig Ahnung darum gehabt, dann
hätte ich mich viel mehr geeilt. Gestern
Abend war ich nach langer langer
Zeit auch mal wieder so recht traurig,
und bin es auch Heute morgen noch.
Ich umarme und K dich inniglich. Empfange
viel tausend herz[?]. Grüße [many initials]

And here is an English translation:

My Dear!
Are you still mad at me because I left you waiting for so long? I’m so sorry that I wasn’t with you earlier. If I had known I would have hurried much more. Last night after a long, long time I was so very sad again, and I still am this morning. I hug and kiss you closely. I’m sending you thousands of hearts. [And then who knows what the initials translate to!]

And under the stamp:

Gestern Abend
stand mir
das Weinen
näher als [?]
[?]. Mach
doch bitte bitte nicht
mehr so ein traurig
Geschehen. Ich kann
es nicht sehen.

And in English:

Last night the crying came closer [??]. Please please don’t make such a sad event. I can’t see it.

wiesbaden marriage recordSo dramatic! It really made me want to know whatever happened to those crazy kids. Did Gretel ever forgive the nameless writer? The date on the postmark was removed with the stamp, so we don’t have an exact date for this postcard, but from the handwriting and what I can see of the mark, I believe the postcard was written in the decade of 1910 and was posted from Wiesbaden.

Thanks to my Family Tree Magazine connections, I did a little digging for Gretel Schardt of Wiesbaden. No good results came up on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch, but then I remembered Gretel can be a nickname for Margarete in German. A new search returned a woman named Maria Margareta Katharina Aloisia Schardt, born 1895 in Wiesbaden, who married Peter Josef Jung there in 1921. (Click on the photo at right to enlarge the scan of the marriage record.) Could these be our lovebirds?? I hope they made it.

You can see more examples of German handwriting here, learn Kurrent yourself, or try Stephen P. Morse’s autotranscriber.

PS I moved to Berlin

teufelsberg berlin

Though it’s been a minute since I last posted, I’ve still been updating my reading list and linking to my recent work. There’s been a reason for my radio silence: I moved to Berlin this spring! After nearly a decade in Cincinnati, I sold all my stuff, packed up my cat and crossed the Atlantic to build a new life in Germany.

My whole life had been leading up to this point, really. I lived in Germany before, as an exchange student in high school and again for a year of university; I loved the language and the people and the bread. But then I didn’t go back again for 13 years — side effects of being a broke student and then a broke journalist. When I went freelance, I started thinking about living abroad again, and I spent the last two summers in Germany, staying with my former host mom and testing the limits of the Schengen Agreement. When I returned to the US last August, I realized I needed to go back to Germany, but for real this time. I set a goal of being in Berlin for my 35th birthday in March, and reader, I did it.

Despite the stress that comes with moving abroad in a completely DIY manner, it was totally fine. I don’t know why I ever thought I couldn’t do it! A friend of mine who’s lived in Berlin for many years told me that the city will tell you if it wants you, and I think Berlin thinks I’m a keeper. Within the first months of the summer, I got a little apartment surprisingly much more quickly than anticipated, got a freelance work visa for two years, and got a freelance gig with Handelsblatt Global, the English edition of Germany’s leading financial newspaper.

Moving internationally is not for the weak of heart or for the easily frustrated, but it was exactly what I needed. Going home to Ohio for two weeks at Thanksgiving was great, but upon my return to Berlin I felt like I was home again. This city is weird and vibrant and frustrating and absolutely lovely, and I’m glad that it has me.

favorites for the year

I really enjoy taking care of business in the latter days of December. My inbox and apartment are never cleaner; my goals for the coming months and year never so precisely defined. In the spirit of reflection and goal-setting, I decided to round up some best-of lists for myself:

My favorite books of the year:

I read nearly 50 books this year, but these three, listed in the order I read them, were the ones I couldn’t stop raving to friends about. Reading Sarai Walker’s “Dietland” was like finding a revolutionary manifesto inside an issue of Cosmopolitan. Egged on by an episode of This American Life, I found and devoured Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test,” which led me to even more books, including Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”, which I’ll probably be talking about for years to come; his dedication and research are an inspiration to me as a writer.

My favorite stories I wrote:

I wrote fewer stories overall in 2016 as compared to 2015, but that can largely be attributed to my contributions to a forthcoming book by Autodesk on the future of design, as well as a renewed focus on long-term projects. It’s really tough as a freelancer to pursue those front-loaded, research-heavy moonshot projects and still pay the bills. I’m still figuring it out.

My favorite stories I read elsewhere:

These were the stories written by other people that made the biggest impact on me this year, for various reasons:

my german reunification

munich rooftops as seen from alte peter

I’ve felt kind of radio silent this summer, and there’s a good reason for it. I’m in the middle of three months in Europe, with my headquarters in Germany. To the casual observer, it might seem like this trip came together quite quickly (I first mentioned it to friends in the beginning of April and had arranged it by the end of the month), but it’s actually been in the works for 17 years.

When I was 16, I received a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange scholarship to spend my 11th grade year abroad. The family I was paired with was wonderful, and my time there opened my eyes to a lot of things and gave me an incredible education. I returned to my small town in Ohio with a new understanding of the world and its possibilities, along with near-perfect German and a well-overdue IDGAF attitude in regards to my final year of high school. (After my first year of college, went back to Germany for a year, but that’s another story for another time.)

This summer, I’m back in Gelsenkirchen with my former host mother, Ursula, even sleeping in the same room I occupied for a year as a teenager. Everything is simultaneously the same and different. The house is just as it was, but her two younger children are now grown and out of the house, and her husband, Hans-Josef, died a few years ago. I immediately remembered the walkways from the main street through the Siedlung to the house, but the streets seem much smaller than I remember. My concept of a big city has evolved quite a bit since I was 16, when in comparison with my hometown of 5,000 people, Gelsenkirchen (about the size of Dayton) seemed very large to me.

How do you afford three months in Europe, you might ask? Well, for one, it isn’t a vacation. I’m working as normal, just from a different time zone. I sublet my apartment in Cincinnati so my rent is covered and my cat has people to hang out with. The money I’m saving on rent more than covered my flight out here, and my housing in Germany is free. I’m sharing the costs of groceries (which are already very cheap here) with Ursula, and trying to pair up my excursions with assignments so I can write off the travel and keep getting paid. I’m basically saving money by living in Europe.

From this vantage point in northwestern Germany, I’m actually finding more stories to pitch — Quartz, which I regularly write for, is focused on international business, so being outside the US is advantageous. The rest of my freelance work is running as usual; I just had to ensure direct deposit was set up for payments for all my accounts or that clients were willing to mail checks to Germany (and I can then deposit them with my credit union’s app).

Where am I going this summer? Where aren’t I going? So far I’ve been to Berlin for a week, which was just as rad as everyone says, and then I flew back to the states for five days for YxYY in Palm Springs, which was totally worth the jet lag. The area I’m living in is close to Essen and Düsseldorf, which are also cities worth seeing, and I’m planning trips to Reykjavik, London and probably Berlin again before the end of the summer.

This past weekend I took the train to Munich, where I was writing a travel story for Cincinnati Magazine. From there I took the train to Friedrichshafen, where I wrote about the largest amateur radio meet in Europe. And then, just for kicks, I took a ferry across the Bodensee (Lake Constance) to spend a day in Zürich before flying back to Düsseldorf last night. The two stories I wrote just about paid for the entire excursion, so basically free trip!

Before I booked my flight, I was scared. I reached out to a Facebook group of women freelance writers I’m a part of for encouragement. Their general reaction was: “This sounds perfect, you’d regret not going, and if you don’t want to go, we’ll go.” Point taken. The stars aligned perfectly for this to happen, and it would be a smack in the face of the universe if I didn’t go.

From quitting my job to go freelance three years ago, I realized that I’m not afraid to shake things up in my life sometimes. I actually get antsy if things stay the same way for too long. “Great things happen outside our comfort zone,” one of my fellow ladywriters told me. And it’s so true.

my ’90s music zine, or how i became a writer

music news 90s zineThe earliest sign I was meant to be in magazines came in junior high school. One of the English teachers’ flagship assignments was the magazine project: Each of us had to create (in the pre-computer era) a 24-page magazine on a topic of our choosing with articles and advertising. I made mine a music magazine from 1985.

The cutting and pasting really resonated with me, and I started making a monthly music zine, which I continued for two years, eventually reaching a circulation of about 30, including the school librarian.

When I was home for Christmas, some high school friends brought up Music News and asked if I still had any copies. Oh boy, do I ever. I scanned the whole shebang and post it here for you as an annotated PDF for your enjoyment.

I’d describe Music News as a time capsule of what it was like to like alternative music as a teenage girl in the Cleveland area from 1996 to 1998. It also includes some really bad clip art. But looking at the back issues I’m blown away at how much of a writing voice I already had as a teenager. My punctuation and style have improved, surely, but it still sounds very me. And my taste in music hasn’t changed that much, either. I made a Spotify playlist of the best 1996-1998 jams mentioned in my zine. Hope you like time travel!

And PS: I started making zines again a few years ago. Check ’em out here!

comparing e-commerce platforms for makers

emoji stamps in progress wipAfter more than eight years, I’ve decided to close up my shop on Etsy. Lately I’ve just had more negative things to say about the service than positive, and I figured it was time to put my money where my mouth was and move on. (I’ll probably write something more about while I left later, but Abby Glassenberg — who loves Etsy, for the record —has a comprehensive list of the common Etsy complaints here.)

To find a new home for my handmade shop, I spent the last few days creating this chart comparing ecommerce options for makers & designers. It includes the major craft marketplaces as well as standalone ecommerce platforms that let you set up a standalone shop fairly simply, without needing your own website or host. I also calculated the fees each of the various platforms charge for four separate sales scenarios. I found it very interesting to dig into the numbers and check out my options, and there are definite trends that come up when you compare the fees for small volume sales to high-volume sales.

Dec. 22 update: I’ve added a column noting whether the service has made any statement or offered advice about VATMOSS and the 2015 European value added tax rule changes.

February 2015 update: You likely arrived here from my piece on Wired.com: How Etsy Alienated Its Crafters and Lost Its Soul. Welcome! I hope you find the information useful. 

October 2015 update: Amazon just launched its Handmade vertical, so I’ve added that to the list.