Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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When I Was 35

In 2007, I wrote a blog post called When I Was 25. I had forgotten all about it, until the lovely Amanda visited and left this comment:

I’m so happy I came across this, now several years after you wrote it. I turned 25 eight days ago and I’m kind of doing research on the disenchantment and restlessness one feels around this age. I’ve certainly gained some insight in a different way than I expected from your post as well as all the comments.

I reread the post and realised that making an effort to remember a time long ago brings its own lessons, ones that are worth contemplating. It is now seven years since I turned 35 and since I believe in the seven-year cycle and the spirit of learning more, I give you When I was 35:

When I was 35, I thought my family was complete with two darling little girls. Then I fell pregnant again and our son was born. I learnt that being a parent of three children is significantly different from being the parent of two. A wise friend said, ‘Embrace the chaos,’ and once I did, life became much easier. But much more than that, my heart just expanded to include him and what a feeling that is.

When I was 35, I had never heard of blogging. Now I have a whole alternative, Internet-fuelled life and I love it. I have even met some people off the Internet and came home intact.

When I was 35, the idea of writing a book, finishing it, rewriting it multiple times, joining an online writing community, getting beta readers,  submitting to and signing with a literary agent was only a dream. I made it reality.

When I was 35, I grew tired of buying expensive (though delicious) cakes at the  bakery and taught myself to bake. This happened.

When I was 35, I thought that donning sports shoes and propelling my body in a forward motion was closer to hell than I thought it was ever necessary to go. As an asthmatic kid and an adult with couch-potato tendencies, jogging never entered my personal vocabulary. This year, I’m running in the MLP Marathon relay event.

When I was 35, I was still buried deep in the intense phase of parenting: nappies, bad nights, tantrums. Now that my three spend large chunks of the day in other places being taken care of and taught by others, I have had the luxury to do things like write, run and earn money.

When I was 35, I had never had a migraine. Now, I have worked out my cure: no alcohol for two weeks of the month. It’s radical, but it works.

When I was 35, I had just moved to the Burg from Surrey, England, and was suffering culture shock. I settled down, made lovely friends and a home for my family. The Burg grew too small, so for a while, I considered Berlin, the German city that holds my heart and where I still hope to live one day. Now I live in Heidelberg and love my new life.

When I was 35, I still highlighted my hair blonde. Then I went grey for Obama and it turns out I was leading a major trend. Just call me a rock ‘n roll fairy princess.

When I was 35, I had been married for 10 years and believed that I was in it for the duration. I still do *waves to darling*.

When I was 35, I had no idea what my future held. I trusted that things would work out, that I would be gainfully employed, that my family would be happy and well. Since then I have read hundreds of books, held dozens of dinner-parties, cooked hundreds of meals, written hundreds of thousands of words, written dozens of articles, run a few dozen kilometres, met my girlfriends for book club dozens of times. On the bad days, I have sighed and taken stock and picked myself up and carried on. While I now have an inkling of what my future may hold, I still cannot say for sure that it will turn out the way I have it in my mind. But I won’t stop hoping. Or cooking, baking, reading, wiping faces, loving, writing words, occasionally running, dreaming, sighing and imagining a world where my family is happy and well.

What was life like for you when you were 35?


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What Are You Going to Give Up?

I love it when a Times Online columnist espouses one of my views loudly and publically on a long weekend so as to get the attention of all the reading masses on my behalf.  It means I get the feeling of being validated without having to get out of my pyjamas.

My opinion: Women can have it all, just not all at the same time.

Minette Marrin’s opinion:  Don’t even bother trying.

The esteemed Ms Marrin says the only way to ‘ do a demanding job, pay attention to family and friends, preserve a competitively toned body, maintain an elaborate beauty programme, including trips to dermatologists, depilators and assorted beauty bandits, keep up with tweets, emails, telephoning and aggressive networking, dress stylishly, shop for food, cook elaborately, entertain regularly, attend school functions, keep up with reading, listen to music and remember jokes’ is to be really rich and pay people to back you up. Nigella’s Team Cupcake, par example.

On the one hand, Marrin says the pressure on working mothers is unavoidable (until, Otter says, their husbands and partners wake up to the revolution and start doing their 50%). On the other hand, she says women can decide to ignore the aggressive consumerism that underpins much of the last paragraph and – now here’s the revolutionary part – just let things slide. (After all, Otter says, most of their husbands and partners have been doing the same and getting away with it for generations.)

Marrin doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t stop working, stop having babies or doing things that they love. She means they should stop competing with other women, stop trying so hard, drop their standards, do less.

And – here’s the rub – she says ‘fortunately, doing a lot less is quite easy when you try — or, rather, stop trying.’

She says we should think of each thing we give up as an opportunity gain. Giving up two hours at the salon means two hours extra to keep up with friends. Giving up cooking elaborate meals means more time with the family. Giving up fashion magazines means less lusting after and trying to afford inaffordable items.

Living in a land that still expects good mothers to be home by 12.30pm ready to cook the family a hot lunch, I’ve had to give up a whole lot of things in order to make time for what matters to me: writing, working, exercising and spending time with the people I love. Here’s my list of things that have gone out of the window:

1. Keeping up with the laundry. Why do it? So that some housewife in the sky will give me a good report? I address the piles, with the dubious but enthusiastic help of certain members of my family, on a need-to-wear basis.

2. Ironing. We embrace the crumpled look.

3. Sorting socks. Puh-leeze. I put all socks in a large container and then bring them out when my South African friends and family visit for them to sort. It makes them feel useful and they can go home and tell stories about how hard it is living in Europe. 

4. Baking. I’ve taught my children how to do it. One kid made biscuits this weekend, another made carrot cake muffins. Team Cupcake’s got nothing on us.

5. Complex depilation. None in winter; bikini, leg and armpit on a need-to-display basis.

6. Beauty salons. Expensive time wasters.

7. Highlighting my hair. Ditto, plus I get to be cutting-edge grey.

8. Posh creams. Ditto. Nivea is the way forward.

9. Long make-up routines. Nivea’s tinted moisturiser rocks.

10. Soaking pulses. Tins and cans are just as good.

10. Buying fashion magazines. Blogs are better written and more interesting and they never make me lust after a Prada handbag.

I love Marrin’s mantra of Just Do Less. If it speaks to you, then what are things you’ve given or are giving up? I need more time for reading and writing and will gladly accept tips.


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The Joy of Being Older

I have been spending time with a friend who has an adorable nine-month-old baby. I love this baby for her cleverness and charm, and the sweetness of watching her discover the world. Being with them has brought home to me how my childrens’ baby time is over, and, while I loved it, how grateful I am to have moved on to the next stage. I am 40 and my youngest is four. I’ve just traveled with him to South Africa and Greece, and didn’t need to pack any special equipment – no prams, no special food, no nappies. He pulled his little roll-on suitcase and walked with his sisters the length and breadth of many airports.

I have spent the last ten years in dedicated service to small children. I adore my kids, and now I especially love their growing independence from me. I am no longer essential to their physical survival – any other kind adult could do my job. As they grow and shed their extreme neediness, I feel as if I have also emerged from a chrysalis. Their independence is perfectly matched to mine.

I spent all of last year in preparation for turning 40 in December, and then spent the next six months celebrating that birthday. It was a huge psychological turning point. I turned my mind to fitness, healthy eating and writing – doing things for me, my body and my psyche. At the risk of sounding smug, I feel as if I have arrived. I am not becoming, but being. And the best thing is, I have got at least 40 more years ahead of me to feel this way.

Today’s Observer has a brilliant focus on old age. The people they report on are extraordinary – a 98-year-old marathon runner, a 71-year-old yoga teacher, an 85-year-old sculptor – and what comes across is the fun they have in living. Of course, what  they share is the luck of good health, the fortune of living in the privileged West, but even so they have survived world wars, epidemics and economic disasters.

Here are some quotes:

For Mary, aspects of growing old are met with relief, even joy. “In a way, emotionally, you change back. I am freer now to feel intense excitement like I used to as an adolescent – being out of doors, for example, or listening to music. I somehow didn’t have time for that when I was bringing up my children and working full-time. I have been able to spend much more time with my youngest grandchild than with the older ones, and that’s been wonderful, too.” Jean Crossley, grandmother, 100

“Yoga can have a tremendous effect on you, whatever age you start,” she says, “but I find I don’t need to do much practice to keep supple, as my awareness of my body posture has become second nature over the years.” She reveals that yoga has a more meaningful message, too. “I’m aware of the fragility of health and that it can change without warning. So I always retain a sense of detachment – I’m not pleased with myself if I do a complicated yoga pose, I’m pleased for myself. You’ve never got life cracked. Yoga teaches you that.” Pam Horton, yoga teacher, 71

The key to a healthy old age, he says, is continuing to work and “doing something you like doing. You’re so much more likely to go on living if you’re happy, and making art makes us both happy.” London, where he has lived since he married Sheila 60 years ago, has been another important factor. “Old people are really a pain in the neck and one of the joys of living in London is that you see young people. You could isolate yourself and be less stressed, but one of the pleasures is seeing what’s going on.” Sir Anthony Caro, sculptor, 85

And for Fauja age isn’t even a consideration: “I do not consider myself to be old. From the moment I do that, I would lose everything, because age is a state of mind – as long as you’re positive you can do anything.” Fauja Singh, runner, 98

Apart from luck, the common denominator amongst these amazing people is joy. I’d risk saying that their wisdom, joy and pleasure in life has been partially responsible for their health and longevity. Their stories increase my belief that I have every chance of being a joyful 85-year-old yoga-practising writer.


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40 Things for My Birthday

I know I have been going on about my birthday for some time all year now and now the actual day has arrived. Hooray! Bring on the champagne! To celebrate, and taking a leaf from Jen’s book, here are 40 Things for my birthday:

1. It’s never too late to read a good book.
2. Procrastination always exacts a payment.
3. Sugar is the crack cocaine of the food world (thanks, India Knight).
4. For the nameless blues, getting moving is the best medicine.
5. No-one likes a queue, so don’t take it personally.
6. Being alone is essential.
7. Having good friends is also essential.
8. Bacon is God’s gift to us. Use it wisely.
9. Going into Toys R Us one week before Christmas is like entering the seventh circle of hell.
10. Nothing beats brunch, especially if it involves champagne.
11. Love feeds on itself, but so does fear (thanks, Jen).
12. Trust is a gift.
13. Blogging is an addictive time-sucker but I love it.
14. Having the next holiday planned is critical to my peace of mind. Roll on South Africa 2009!
15. Worrying is a waste of time; make a plan instead.
16. Skiing is my nemesis, but for my family I face the fear and do it anyway.
17. Skills are empowering – teach children cooking, sewing, knitting and any other crafts you have to share.
18. It is possible to live without TV.
19. It is possible to live without the Internet, but would I want to?
20. Grown-ups need toys too.
21. Good dietary fats are not the enemy. (Sugar is.)
22. Love your special people like there’s no tomorrow.
23. Question beauty products – is it really necessary to slap on all that chemically-enhanced gunk?
24. However, try separating me from my mascara and lippy.
25. Loving my non-coloured, brown-to-white hair is a work in progress. But I’m getting there.
26. It wouldn’t bother me if all razors and hair depilatory products disappeared from the earth tomorrow – I don’t mind going hairy.
27. Though that would put paid to fishnet stockings, which I rather love …
28. Dancing wildly is good for the soul.
29. Yoga builds beautiful muscles. I know mine are there; I just haven’t seen them yet.
30. Learning to run has been the most empowering thing I’ve done this year.
31. I couldn’t do it without my iPod. Or the playlist my darling devised for me.
32. Age doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom. Actively learning from our mistakes does.
33. In order to grow, we have to separate ego from our true selves.
34. Some people can do that easily; for others it’s a long, hard struggle.
35. Going to church, synagogue or mosque regularly doesn’t automatically confer wisdom either. It may provide comfort though.
36. Intolerance of any form – religious, gender, racial – is poisonous.
37. I think the point of being here is to learn to love.
38. Loving selflessly and loving needily are two very different things.
39. On a grand scale, it’s time to love our planet selflessly now.
40. It’s also time to see the human spark in everyone, and not dismiss them as part of a mass. Even those in the queues at Toys R Us.


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Welcoming in 40

On Saturday night, Germany’s Top Husband and I celebrated our 40th birthdays. The high point was dancing till 3am to a fabulous ska band with my friends and family. The low point was falling off the stage while holding my three-year-old and landing on him (he survived, but my dignity was impaired). Mostly I looked like this:

img_09227Sometimes, I am impossibly cool.

If you find that image disturbing, I can redirect you to a video of the band, Ngobo Ngobo, playing a medley of their songs:

And if that’s too stimulating, you could meditate on an image from the local Christmas market:
img_1024

If Christmas doesn’t end soon, I’m climbing that statue.


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New York, New York

I thought I’d better write about New York before the last blister heals. It’s taken me a week to process the cacophony of images from my seven days in the city that never sleeps, but I am about ready to say something. I’m going to distill it under headings otherwise my post would read something like this: “Ooh, shops! BARGAINS. New shoes, see friends, meet bloggers. Shops! Drink red wine this instant. BIG buildings. Where’s the sky? Oh, the Park, lovely. Shops! Mani, pedi, wax and go. Shops! Flashing lights! Bring on the entertainments. I want the finest wines, $10 a GLASS?! …. no, sorry, just the cheapest will do. Shops!”

New York – The Literature

43% of poll respondents voted for One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell as the book I should take to New York, and I was secretly hoping it would be so. Unfortunately, it contained on page 23 the line “That was the defining moment of great sex – when the penis met the vagina” which I found unbearably irritating. So I packed The Age of Innocence instead, a lovely book where there are no penises and no vaginas and very few defining moments. Afterwards I read Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger, which was the mix of humour, chick-lit and Sex and The City wisecracking I had been expecting from the Bushnell book.

New York – The Bloggers

On Day Two I met Emily, the Hobgoblin, Dorothy, Cam, Becky and Zoesmom at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam. There was the usual five-minute dissonance between the person and the blog that I am learning happens when I meet people off the Internet (including remembering to call people by their real names), and then that faded and we got on with having a lovely day: eating pastries, book shopping at The Strand on Union Square followed by a late and boozy lunch at Chat ‘n Chew, which is much better than it sounds. I had a fabulous Caesar salad. Then I started swaying on my feet, so pleaded jet lag and headed home while the others proceeded to another bookshop. I was really thrilled to meet everyone, and touched by how far some had travelled to be there – Americans have no fear of distances. It’s that pioneer spirit.

New York – The Shopping

Oh my God, how I love Macy’s. I could move in there – make myself a little nest in the handbag department and fall asleep every night to the comforting smell of leather. I have brought home a Macy’s handbag just to remind me of my spiritual home. Apart from the shopping, I love their pick and mix salad bar in the basement, where the salad associate created a bacon, avo and feta salad on baby spinach leaves for me. I am also in love with Anthropologie, a shop where I could own everything, but from which I have one fabulous T-shirt. We had a morning in Century 21, a downtown discount store full of designer bargains. My best shopping blow-out happened at the Designer Shoe Warehouse on Union Square, where I bought three pairs of utterly fabulous shoes. On Fifth Avenue I entered many shops – Tiffany’s, Harry Winston’s, Bendells – and just looked, but at Bergdorf Goodman’s I had a make-up accident at the Bobbi Brown counter.

New York – The Tourism

Immediately after our Bobbi Brown makeovers, V and I got on the Sex and The City tour bus, which visits 40 locations from the show (thanks for the hot tip, Ms Make Tea!). Most of the locations you see from the bus, but we got off at the three places – the Pleasure Chest, where Charlotte buys her Rabbit; the Magnolia Bakery, where Carrie and Miranda eat a cupcake; and Steve’s bar Scout, where we finished off the tour with a Cosmopolitan. For mild to strong SATC fans, I can really recommend this tour – it gives you a great idea of the city and the neighbourhoods you might want to go back to, it’s a lot of fun (the atmosphere gets very giggly after the visit to the Pleasure Chest), and the tour guides are actresses with a good line in patter. The cupcakes and the Cosmopolitans are thrown in too.

Some out-of-town friends fed me wine on the Sunday and got me up to the top of the Rockefeller Centre (70-something storeys). I didn’t want to go, because I’m not one for heights, but I was glad I did as the view was wonderful and my internal Manhattan map clicked into place up there. Later, we visited Grand Central Station to admire the ceiling, had a brief altercation with the Angriest Cop in New York, got on the subway and headed for the Village where we spent the afternoon strolling the streets and looking at everything.

I went to MOMA. It was amazing, and very digestible, I found. I didn’t get overload, which often happens to me in museums. I particularly enjoyed the Van Gogh exhibition, which focuses on the artist’s depictions of the night.

New York – The Cakes

Low carb, what? I had cheesecake at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, pecan pie at downtown Cipriani’s, sachertorte at the Neue Galerie and a cupcake at the Magnolia. They were all good, but I think I have become German in my baked goods tastes because I found them all far too sweet. V and I decided that our own cupcakes are better than those of the Magnolia Bakery, which have just too much frosting. Sickly. On the way uptown in the bus, I won an extra cupcake in the SATC trivia competition and I Left It On The Bus. Perhaps I have finally grown up.

New York – The Three Top Meals

Vegetarians, avert your eyes – I had to have a steak at Morton’s. It was unbelievable. We put on our cocktail dresses and went to the China Grill for an Asian fusion feast. The only downer was an extremely disgusting apple martini, which we quickly exchanged for a Cosmopolitan, because we were being very, well, cosmopolitan. We also had a fabulous late and boozy lunch at downtown Cipriani’s, which was seasoned with some flirty French waiters.

New York – The Pampering

We had a mani-pedi on Fifth Avenue, late one afternoon after shopping, and it was a mistake! Far too ridiculously expensive! We got the giggles, because they offered us the champagne spa, not to drink, but for our feet. I did enjoy see all the New Yorkers getting their weekly polishings on Sunday evening in the Village before the working week – men and women alike. I met the wax for the first time, and let me just say I’d take childbirth any day. The pain! The agony!

New York – The Shows

We saw the Rockettes in the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, which was just that, spectacular. We also saw Billy Elliot, which has just started on Broadway after a successful season in London. I cried, I laughed, I watched in awe.

New York – The Characters

We met the J Sisters – wicked wielders of the wax, the Angriest Cop in New York, Rickshaw Man, the Flirty French Waiter, the Undercover Cop to whom we tried to give our leftover Asian-Fusion and who told us that he didn’t “eat just anything”, sundry Grumpy Taxi-drivers, the Fifth Avenue Rip-Off Artists. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a single celebrity, though the Hobgoblin claimed to have seen Julia Stiles outside The Strand, and Denzel Washington had apparently eaten at downtown Cipriani’s two months before us. I loved the witty New York sense of humour, and the way everyone in America is an “associate” – the salad bar associate, the elevator associate, the till operating associate. I found almost everyone we met charming and helpful and though Germans love to claim that Americans are not sincere, I found the interchanges we had extremely pleasant compared to the Germans’ more businesslike style.

New York – New York

New York is exuberant, bold and flashing. I’d go back tomorrow. I never left Manhattan, but next time I will take to the river, cross the Brooklyn Bridge and try to see more shows. I also need to drink more Cosmopolitans. When you are forty, that is what you do.


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Project: Thin, Grey Novelist

So my goal for this year, my 39th as it coincidentally happens to be, no smack of a midlife crisis in this corner, is to get fit, learn to accept my grey hair and finish my novel. I thought you might like an update.

Getting Fit

I am attending the gym regularly (three to four times a week), despite having been called a Teletubby by a fitness instructor. I’ve attended two more of his classes since then and he tore a strip off someone for being five minutes late, and the next time gave someone else a lecture for chewing gum in class (admittedly a dumb thing to do in an aerobics class). I clearly got him on a good day. I also do my circuit and am getting stronger, and can go for longer and faster on the treadmill and cross-trainer. I have only attended one spinning-class and I loved it, but have not gone back. I must because it’s a brilliant fat-burner, but I do get sore nethers.

Writing a Novel

I have just submitted my difficult and by no means perfect Chapter Four to my writing cheerleaders. Their job at the moment is to say “Yay! You did it! I love this bit.” Later on, when there is a full novel to read, they will be allowed to provide critique. I am now starting Chapter Five, which in theory should be a breeze because it’s a part I wrote three years ago, but we no longer have the computer it was on and I’ve lost the print-out, so there’s a chance I’ll be reimagining it from scratch. Also, I am planning a writing retreat on my own, probably in the Black Forest, sometime in June and I am very excited about that.

Going Grey

This part is going well. My hair is doing the job all by itself with no input from me. I had a moment in a department store in Karlsruhe when I saw a lady with multi-coloured hair like mine fixed into a rigid helmet with a pouffe-like thing going on front, and my mother-in-law had to forcibly restrain me from running into the nearest hair salon and shrieking for highlights. A couple of days ago I heard an insert on my favourite source of information, Woman’s Hour, that as more and more women of a certain age are refusing to go grey and are dyeing or highlighting their hair blonde, that blonde is becoming seen by the young (see how that ages me) an older woman’s colour. Young women now favour chocolate brown red and black as their hair colours of choice.

Well, mine is neither blonde, brown, red or black. It is, as you see below, stripey:

But, because I am growing up, I am happy about that: