Charlotte's Web

Charlotte Otter – novelist, feminist, crime writer


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Things To Do Instead of Writing

You can spend time with friends, with old friends, who because you haven’t seen them for so long, seem like new friends, and with new friends, who because you feel so strangely at one with them, seem like old friends. You can drink wine with them in the afternoon, share your kids with them, wander new streets with them, and make extravagant promises to babysit their kids, once they have some.

You can spend an entire afternoon in Berlin looking for the perfect dress. You can look for something whimsical and floaty, with tea roses and cleavage, that looks like Jane Austen wore it to a party where there was croquet and Indian tea, but finally buy a twenty-first century dress, a little edgy, a little sharp, but with its curves in the right places. Also with cleavage.

You can drive long distances, to places you never dreamt of visiting, take trains where your children press their noses against the windows, ride bikes around the city of your dreams, bump into pedestrians and mutter sorry in two languages. You can float down a river, or down a leafy path in the Tiergarten and hear the white wolves howl at the daylight in the Zoo.

You can read A Quiet Flame and imagine the encroaching horror of Nazism in Thirties’ Berlin, and then read No one belongs here more than you and be swept away into an imagination and a sensibility that leaves you shell-shocked, war-wounded, but glad to be alive.

You can eat the best ice-cream outside of Elba in a glass palace of shops and elegance, merguez sausages and couscous in a leafy beer-garden, white asparagus with hollandaise sauce in an achingly hip urban square and the best rhubarb cake you can imagine in the courtyard of an Italian restaurant where you are introduced to the chef and the hostess by name.

You can climb with your children to the top of the Siegesauele, admire them hanging upside down and learning to swing and slide by themselves in playgrounds, watch them falling in love with your friends and weeping when they part, and see them take part in their lives with such spirit and joy that you want to shed tears of your own.

Instead of weeping, you shout, “Who loves Berlin?” and hear them yelling back, “Me Mummy! I love Berlin! I love it! I do!”


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Auf Wiedersehen, Pets

Today I spent at the pool vigilantly watching my threesome, who range from swimmer to paddler to fully paid-up water wings user. Tomorrow I take them to Alsace Lorraine to visit friends who, for their sins, are spending the Whitsun holidays in a camper van in a village that my friend described as “one house” (thank God for satnav). Thursday, we leave for Berlin.

With sunshine and holidays abounding, I bid you a brief Auf Wiedersehen. I am taking a blogging and Internet break for a couple of weeks. I plan to spend the hours that I’m not soaking up the wonders of Berlin and Lübeck working on my novel, which I have been neglecting since the sun arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago. During my last two runs (six kilometres!), I crystallized the action of Chapter Six in my head and now have to get it all down before it vapourises.

I also plan to look for the ultimate summer dress. If I can’t find it in Berlin, then I can’t find it anywhere!

See you at the end of the holidays. May the sun shine on you wherever you are. Tschüss!


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National Unity, Pyjamas and Berlin

Today is Germany’s day of national unity – the day when East and West Germany became one. In this house it is also known as the day Mummy Stays In Her Pyjamas All Day If She So Chooses. And she does choose. (By gumminy, she does.) Having just visited Germany’s monument to national unity – the wondrous Berlin – I should probably talk about my trip last week. I’ve been a bit slow about writing about it, because I’m still holding it close to my heart. I’m not sure if I want to let the secrets out or not.

So when two youngish mothers of a total of seven children hit the techno capital of the world, do they go clubbing? Do they stay out all night, drinking ridiculous cocktails and chatting up younger men? Do they totter about in high heels, whooping and kicking over dustbins?

Umm.

No.

We didn’t.*

What they do is that they carefully and responsibly See Everything. They start by seeing the Berlin State Ballet perform Alice’s Wonderland. With the artful use of matchsticks, they manage to stay awake (having just arrived in Berlin after a six-hour drive from Frankfurt) to appreciate the exquisite choreography, staging and dancing. They leave, stunned by all this superlativeness and by the enthusiastic ovation that Berliners like to give their very own ballet, and eat fresh tomato soup at an outdoor restaurant in the Gendarmenmarkt for their supper, accompanied – for one, at least – by Germanically generous glasses of white wine.

Then they leap out of bed, refreshed, drive enthusiastically to Potsdam, and park at the Schloss San Souci (which their guidebook says is the number one sight in Berlin). They repair immediately to a restaurant and partake of one of those large and languid Sunday brunches which is the number one activity in Berlin. They watch the autumn leaves fall. Then they walk around the Schlosspark, enjoying the sunshine and taking photographs, followed by an impromptu skating session in a pair of enormous pantoffel inside the Schloss itself (they avoid the tour, preferring the whistlestop self-guided version in which you can skate really fast on the polished marble and wood floors).

Would we allow our children to do this?

Hell no!

It’s far too much fun.

Then they whizz back to Berlin Mitte for a show at the Friedrichstadtpalast. Slightly disturbed by the amount of pensioners in the audience and the young man next to them with his trousers up under his armpits, who hums loudly throughout the show, they enjoy a spectacle of dance and acrobatics. There are some scary bits – all of the singing

Ho hum. Could you get on with it please?

and a truly terrifying slippery wet suspended fishbowl affair high up above where two fish

Can we call them dancers?

people try alternatively to drown each other or throw each other out of the fishbowl to plunge down down for many metres in a horrible rictus of what the director must have imagined to be erotic but which was really just a live horror show. They watch this through their fingers, sigh with relief when it is over and stop for grilled tuna on the way home at The Hotel That Has The Worst Service In The World But Which Is On The River Spree, So Must Be Good. They have an early night, tucked up by – oh – 9pm in comfy beds with books.

This big sleep is important because Monday is a big day. Monday is the Day of the Bike Tour of Berlin. One of them is an experienced cyclist, having done four-day mountain bike tours, who likes to spend her spare time careering down mountainsides at high speed. The other is not. She can count the amount of times she has ridden her bike as an adult on her fingers.

That’s not a lot, folks.

The bike tour is fabulous. They see everything. They have their photo taken at (what remains of) the Berlin Wall. They see Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag, the parking lot under which Hitler’s bunker may or may not be, the Tiergarten, all the government buildings on the river, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Brandenburger Tor. They also enjoy an exciting cycle in the bus lane of Berlin and a very rewarding visit to a Biergarten for a late lunch and a large beer. Their tour guide, Ingo, is beyond cute and both cyclists, experienced and not, keep snuggled up close to him in the pelaton, kicking aside any stray New Yorkers or Oregonians who to try to muscle in.

After being returned to the Fat Tire Bike Tour offices at Alexanderplatz

If you go to Berlin, this is the best way to see the city.

It was fabulous.

And the guides are hot fit.

Whatever. You know what I mean.

they consider rest. After six hours of cycling round the city, would two mothers of a combination of seven children head back to their chic Berlin Mitte apartment for a small nap before finding a bijou restaurant for a relaxed dinner?

Actually.

No.

It becomes essential to go to the Haekesche Hoefe for some late-afternoon shopping in the beautiful Art Deco courtyards. Some coffee and cake become of the essence. Some more walking. It becomes night. Still the shops are open. They are shopped. It is dark, and the intrepid mothers decide it’s nonsense to go home when they can go and stand in a queue at the Reichstag for an hour, allow German security officials to accuse them of carrying a sparkly fairy ornament in one of their shopping bags

It was true.

We couldn’t deny it.

and then go up many many storeys in a lift to admire the view from the top of the building. However, they discover too late that they both have late-onset vertigo and an identical urge to crawl the walkway that hugs the glass dome, so they jog down very very fast back to terra firma.

Tuesday is designated shopping day. They head for the Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe), the Harrods of Berlin, and walk around in a daze for a few hours, testing the loos and fingering very expensive articles of clothing. Then they begin to stroll up the Kurfurstendamm, Berlin’s famous shopping street, but quickly become exhausted by all the

a. shops

b. tourists

c. beggars

so are forced to repair to a lovely little sidestreet where an Italian restaurant offers to feed them delicious pasta (salmon and pine-nut with a lobster sauce, and rocket and feta) and shelter them from the rain that has so irritatingly decided to pour down. They then retrieve the car from the Hotel That Serves the Worst Tea in the World

A huge, hairy testicle of a tea bag that has clearly been used umpty times before.

to do some driving around the city Because That is Fun. First driving stop is Schloss Charlottenburg. Next driving stop is the chic apartment in Berlin Mitte because they are tired and needing to nap. Later, after the nap

It was good.

So …

… nappy.

they walk around aimlessly, finally landing at the sushi bar under the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz for a €12 plate of sushi that they can’t finish it is so huge and delicious beers. They walk home, veering briefly into a lamp-post restaurant to acquire ice-creams.

Next day is Dresden day. This is very exciting because it means Driving Again. It is also very sad because it means Farewell to Berlin. However, they are grown women

really?

and manage to leave Berlin without a tear. Dresden is very beautiful. It is filled with buildings. It also has a river. Most importantly, it has a fabulously luxurious HOTEL where they check in, spend the afternoon sleeping, reading, bathing, lounging around in bathrobes, preening, toenail-clipping, dressing, going to the restaurant, enjoying fine dining and excellent wines and going to sleep again. The next morning they glance once more at the beautiful buildings of Dresden

They are so beautiful.

Aren’t they just?

and drive up the river, passing all the glamorous Communist villas where happy Communists once came to play landlords, to Schloss Pelnitz for a little stomp around the beautiful gardens, sadly muddying the boots that had been polished overnight by the little HOTEL elves. They shop idly for the last perfect present for lucky husbands and children and mothers, and then depart from formerly East Germany back to the West, which, strangely, looks very much like the East except that it has more hills.

It rained.

And the journey took eight hours.

But it was worth it.

* Any irritating tics and verbal asides that may appear in this post are attributable to the fact that I am reading Darkmans by Nicola Barker at the moment.

I am.

And it’s catching.

Really, really catching.

So, I’m sorry. But I can’t help it.


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Housekeeping

Is what I will NOT be doing for the next six days because I’m off to Berlin and Dresden with my friend, K. We’ve got an apartment, a show and a bike tour booked in Berlin, and a hotel booked in Dresden, and the rest is up to chance. You can’t plan too much. My main goal is not to cook anything for six days, not to fold anyone’s clothes apart from my own, not to worry about anyone’s sleep or nappies or vegetable intake, or having to find a babysitter so that I can go out for dinner and stay up ridiculously late and be as silly as I need to be. I also plan not to touch a computer.

When I get back I would like to do some housekeeping here at Charlotte’s Web. If there’s anyone out there who links to me or has me on their blogroll, and I don’t link back, please let me know. Leave a note in the comments.

With that I wish you a big Tschuess. Berlin, watch out, the Pietermaritzburg girls are coming!


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Glitter, Glitter

That’s what the end of the week is doing. It’s glittering at me. In five sleeps’ time, I’m collecting my friend, K, from the airport and then we’re driving to Berlin (I can’t stay away; I’m addicted) for a week of sightseeing, shopping, eating and non-stop talking. Since we have seven children between us, and they will all be far far away with their daddies, there might also be a little bit of sleeping, reading in bed, working on novels, and stopping off for chai lattes at any moment of the day or night BECAUSE WE CAN.

K and I have known each other for 26 years. I got a little weepy when I worked that out. Twenty-six years is a long time to know someone. Two other friends are supposed to be with us, but can’t for various reasons. One of them I have known for 32 years and the other for 20. Clearly, I am someone who is hard to shake off. Once I find you and decide you’re mine, then we’re friends for life.

Remember what it was like to make a friend at the age of 12? You spent long afternoons together, and then phoned each other as soon as you got home. You discussed every detail of your life minutely. My family lived out of town, so I made it my habit to spend nights at my friends’ houses. They really couldn’t get rid of me. I partook in their family lives, sat around their dinner-tables and listened to their parents talk. I became a bit of a fixture, like a wall-hanging or a lamp. While my parents’ marriage was falling apart and my mother was slowly finding her feet again, both K’s family and that of my friend who I have known for 32 years became my replacement families. They both offered me a place where I could feel secure. So they are more than friends, really. They are sisters.

Last week, someone I know told me that I have let her down, that I have not been a good friend to her. That gave me pause for thought, because I have always considered myself a good friend. I have been known to forget the odd birthday (sorry E), but generally, I make my friendships a priority. It’s much harder now to give my friends the time I used to be able to give when I was 12, given that my life has become exponentially fuller.

My mother always said that you have friends for different reasons and different times of your life. I have old friends, new friends, German friends, expat friends, friends whose children are my children’s friends, blog friends, book friends, writing friends, friends my husband found for me, friends I have stolen from him and friends whose husbands or wives are his friends. Usually friends fall into more than one category, and the more categories the better. I think what happened with this friend who is disappointed with me is that I haven’t allowed her to rise above a certain category in which I’ve pegged her, and she would really like to defy her category and be more to me. I’ve been a bit rigid with her. I see that now.

Now, all you category-defying friends, I need to get back to work. I may manage to post before Berlin, but I may not. Forgive me if I don’t. I’ll be back soon, with stories.


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Berlin Magic

Berlin is the most fabulous city on the planet. Repeat after me: Berlin is the Most Fabulous City on the Planet. Good children. Now, take off your shoes, find a comfy chair, and let me tell you about my weekend of Berlin magic. It was a whirlwind, a rush of images and impressions, of firsts and of shoulda-done-this-a-long-time-agoes. I visited Berlin for the first time on my first-ever weekend alone with my husband since our first child was born, so be warned, any superlatives you may encounter in this post are partially due to the sensation of extreme liberation. This was not just Charlotte does Berlin, but Charlotte does Berlin ON STEROIDS.

On with the superlatives then …

Berlin is a city of staggering proportions. Even the Hauptbahnhof where our train arrived is a sparkling monument of glass. Berlin has giant boulevards, enormous buildings and a huge spirit. Berlin is relaxed. Berlin is a laugh. Berlin is spontaneous. Berlin is old and new, East and West, prewar and postwar. It is tragic. It is humbling. It is humane. It is the best fun I’ve had in years.

We arrived at our beautiful Friedrichstrasse hotel at 11pm, dropped our bags and went out for dinner. We strolled down the Oranienburgerstrasse, which is a stunning mixture of hip hotels, restaurant, bars, open lots full of weeds and graffiti-ied walls, imbiss stands, working girls in thigh-high boots and crowds of people. This street falls in the district of Berlin Mitte, which my Lonely Planet guide describes as “the glamorous heart of Berlin, a high-octane cocktail of culture, commerce and history”. It’s also former East Berlin, so the tang of freedom and laissez-faire was particularly envigorating. We had a stroll, a curry and then retired.

On Saturday we – ahem – slept late (this is a family blog after all), enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the banks of the Spree river. Then we caught a boat tour, and admired the Reichstag with its new glass cupola, the new parliamentary buildings, many monumental museums, the Berlin Dom, the bizarre skeleton of the DDR governmental building (which is being pulled down) and lots and lots of happy Berlin people sunbathing on the banks of the river.

Boat trip on the Spree – courtesy of Lia (more of her later)

Then I achieved another first, and only out of journalistic curiousity, mind. Back at the hotel, we stripped (none of that now), put on our chunky orange matching dressing-gowns and proceeded to the day-spa where your correspondent bravely plunked herself down on the hot benches of her first-ever co-ed sauna. Correction, first sauna ever. I was so busy trying not to faint I forgot that I was nekkid that my mascara might be running and that any moment someone might come in and notice that I was looking like a sweaty raccoon. We showered, had some kind of watery Dampfbad, showered again, lay on chaise longues in our orange gowns and viewed the scene over the Spree through the one-way glass. It was SO decadent and SO Berlin.

Later, we walked, saw sights, got caught in a thunderstorm, saw more sights, window-shopped and went out for dinner at a Spanish restaurant under the railway bridge at the Haekeschemarkt.

The next day, we moved from our hotel to our friend Martin’s apartment in Charlottenburg. When I grow up, I want to live in Charlottenburg. It’s a fabulous district, with leafy avenues, a famous schloss, museums, lots of children and playgrounds. People play boules there. Martin took us for breakfast in the Tiergarten (yummy food and celebrity-spotting) and then on a spontaneous tour of Potsdamerplatz and the Holocaust monument and museum. This was the humbling part of my stay in Berlin. The monument moved me with its chilly blocks of concrete set at various heights. It felt a little like a cemetery. I wanted to be still and listen for distant voices.

Holocaust monument (courtesy of Lia)

Then I achieved another first and a wonderful one. I met my blogging friend Lia face-to-face for the first time. We encountered each other in November last year during NaBloPoMo and since then have emailed and talked on the phone a little. We met in a cafe in Charlottenburg and drank tea and talked until it closed, repaired to another cafe and talked some more. It was a completely delightful experience meeting lovely Lia in person. Here is a photo of us both smiling so hard our eyes have disappeared:

Charlotte and Lia in Charlottenburg with tea (picture also courtesy of Lia)

After bidding farewell to Lia with a pang, I went to meet my lovely husband and the ruinously party-happy Martin in the lively Kreuzberg district, which was holding its annual Karneval der Kulturen. This weekend-long street party celebrates the immigrant communities of Berlin, of which there are about 150. Each community has stands of food and crafts, there are street buskers, shows in churches, much drinking in beer-tents (Berlin may be deeply cool, but it is still Germany) and the highlight: a parade of trucks blasting music specific to that community. You choose the truck whose music you like and dance behind it. Readers, I danced on the streets of Berlin for four hours, fuelled by cocktails and the most relaxed, non-threatening party atmosphere I have ever known. I moshed in the mosh-pit, shuffled happily behind the Jamaican truck and raved to techno. I rediscovered my inner party animal. It was fabulous. Later, with Martin and our New Best Friends Tina and Gunther (whom we met in the beer tent), we went bar-hopping till dawn. Berlin is SO dangerous. It can turn a staid mother-of-three from the Burg into all-night party binger. Liberation felt very very good.

Party central (picture courtesy of Moritzwade)

The next morning, we felt very very bad. Martin, the best tour guide two provincial Burgers could ever hope for, ignored his own hangover to drive us to Potsdam. There we strolled through parks and admired a variety of beautiful castles, lakes and villas before having one last langorous (non-alcoholic) Berlin drink and getting on the train to come home.

Berlin was magic – the perfect antidote to life in the Burg.

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