Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Cretan Photo Essay

I’m making a brief layover here en route to Berlin, just to share some images of Crete.

My brother got married here on a balmy Cretan evening:


The monastery at Aptera

The flower-girls wore wreaths of jasmine and carried:


Baskets of rice and lavender

The groom and his dudes wore black tie and:



Your correspondent wore:


Black, and a statement necklace. Also, statement grasses attaching themselves to the hem of her very long gown. A good look.

On Crete, there are many women dressed in widow’s weeds. We saw one driving a Vespa with walking stick in hand, a fat bandage on her leg and no helmet. After having heard the explanation that the term “crone” is sexist and misogynist, my daughter came up with a word for the male equivalent:

IMG_4726Meet the moan

On Crete there are:


Very small churches

IMG_4506Beaches that look like Cape Town

IMG_4502Beaches that look like Barbados

IMG_4814Beaches that look like nowhere else on earth





Now that I’ve really got your attention, I’m off to Berlin. I think it’s missing me.

And my sophisticated sense of humour.


Our Big Fat Greek Wedding

I’m taking a two-week blog break. One of my step-brothers had the brilliant idea of getting married on Crete, instead of in England where he lives, so we are off to celebrate. My other two steps are coming with their girlfriends, whom I have never met, the soulful one is coming from South Africa and my mum and stepdad will be there too. Apart from the fun of the wedding, we will also be having our first family reunion in over a decade. All this happiness in the land of beachside tavernas, azure seas and white mountains.

If you happen to think this good luck is too much for one set of shoulders to bear, let me assure you that it will slightly offset by our six-hour stopover in Athens tomorrow afternoon and our return flight which leaves Chania at 0655, requiring us to wake up at 0400. Being in Greece will be wonderful; getting to and from is a little more strenuous.

The day after we return, we are briefly visiting Berlin, just to make sure it is still there and surviving without us. I should be blogging again by the second week of June.

Till then, I wish you sunshine and happiness. While I am gone, feel free to meditate in the olive grove:


Grateful thanks to Arielle for the image


Berlin’s Ghosts

As a follow-up to my last post, you could read this superb article from today’s Guardian on Jewish visitors to Berlin. I found it very moving. Here’s a brief extract:

I can understand why lots of Jews will never come here. You can see why, for many, it would be too painful to spend time or money in a place that hatched the crime of the century, an attempt to wipe out an entire race, and that has now become Europe’s top party town. But for all the attractions of the contemporary city – the bars, the clubs, the galleries – Berlin is a city full of ghosts.

Jews have lived here since the city was founded in the 13th century. During the Middle Ages they were driven out four times – and four times, they returned. The community finally found a secure foothold in 1671, when the Prussian Emperor invited rich Viennese Jews to settle here, to help restore the city after the Thirty Years War. During the next 250 years, Jews played a leading role in Berlin’s cultural and economic transformation, from provincial capital to metropolis. Jews founded the Berliner Tageblatt, Berlin’s leading newspaper, and KaDeWe, Berlin’s top department store. During the Weimar Republic, Berlin was a hotbed of Jewish commerce and creativity, the New York of its day, and then … Well, we know what happened then.


The Life of Others

After I graduated from university at the end of 1989, I left South Africa and went travelling. My stated goals were to bring home a piece of the Berlin Wall and Christian Slater. It was quite something launching myself into the world in 1990, a world where Nelson Mandela had been released and the Berlin Wall had fallen, a world of thrilling potential and opportunity. I came home without visiting Berlin, because I ran out of money in Italy after ten months of waitressing and travelling, and I needed to start my journalism degree. I also came home without Christian Slater, but brought with me instead an English boyfriend who horrified everyone by hitch-hiking across South Africa alone, while carrying all his belongings in a plastic Spar packet.

While my need to be around dubious men has disappeared, I have always nursed the dream of Berlin and I finally got there last year in April. Since then I have been back three times, and I will continue to go at every opportunity I get because there is something about Berlin that makes me feel alive. As a South African, I think I relate to a city that is coming to terms with its divided past. Just one walk around the Jewish Museum demonstrates how Berlin looks backward with respect, sensitivity and compassion. At the same time, the many new buildings in the city, the sites with their looming cranes, and empty lots still waiting for development are testament to the city’s future. The Berlin of right now makes the word vibrant redundant; it is pulsing yet relaxed, colourful but with bleak pockets, hysterically busy yet relaxed, edgy but friendly. Berlin is not always beautiful, but it is welcoming and it doesn’t judge. I feel at home there, more than anywhere else in Germany, a country that has been good to me but is often still alien.

Today is Germany’s 18th day of National Unity, a public holiday celebrating the country’s reunification. According to Wikipedia, an alternative day to celebrate would have been November 9, the day the Wall came down in 1989. November 9 has other good resonances for Germans – it coincides with the anniversary of founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918 and with the defeat of Hitler’s first coup in 1923. However, November 9 was also the anniversary of Kristalnacht, so the day was considered inappropriate for a national holiday. This year the Tag der Deutschen Einheit is being celebrated in Hamburg, but Berlin will always remain the symbol of the Cold War, the division between East and West and the fall of communism.

All this is a long preamble to a movie I want to talk about: the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Directed by the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is set in East Berlin in 1984 and centres on a Stasi loyalist Gerd Wiesler who is detailed with spying on playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The pair, who are suspected of disloyalty to the state, are placed under 24-hour surveillance, their every word and deed recorded, right down to when and how they have sex. Wiesler, whose life is dedicated to the Stasi and who returns every night to his own depressingly empty life, slowly grows fond of the pair on whom he’s spying. Their vivid love-life throws his own sad use of prostitutes into relief, and their warm, friendly home makes his lonely flat seem increasingly cold. Theirs is a life of literature, love and ideas, which they manage to enjoy despite the Stasi net that tightens around them.

After the suicide of another playwright whose right to work has been taken away by the State, Georg and some companions write an article on East German control of the arts, which they smuggle to the West for publication. Wiesler is aware of what they are doing, but is torn: does he reveal their actions to his Stasi bosses in exchange for promotion, or does he protect the people to whom he is becoming more attached? The decision he makes sets in motion a series of events, some of them tragic, others redemptive.

Das Leben des Anderen is a slow burner, but it is gripping. Ulrich Mühe plays Wiesler with a buttoned-up, blank intensity, conveying his volte-face in creeping degrees. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are excellent as the lovers, while Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s boss is in turns ebullient and despicable. It’s a small, strong ensemble cast.

In many other Berlin movies (Wings of Desire, Goodbye Lenin, Lola Runs), the city also plays a starring role. It must be hard for a director to resist shots of the iconic Brandenburg Gates, the TV Tower or Checkpoint Charlie, but Henckel von Donnersmark does, restricting the action to the inside and outside of Georg’s flat, Wiesler’s apartment, one pub, a couple of theaters and some anonymous Stasi buildings. I don’t know whether these were artistic or budgetary restrictions, but they work. By keeping the locations intimate, and avoiding the sweeping views of Berlin, he recreates the intense, cloying atmosphere of late-era East Germany, where neighbours spied on neighbours and no-one was to be trusted. There are no ecstatic Wall-breaking scenes, just a voice-over on the radio that underscores how the fall of the Wall, while symbolic for the world, was for Berliners an intensely personal event.

Das Leben der Anderen is a testament to the human spirit. In the bleak days of surveillance, spying and thought control, it shows how there will always be those who do not allow their spirits to be broken, and who pursue the dream of free speech and liberation on behalf of the greater population. Today, in Germany, those people now live free, and we give thanks for that. They have earned their freedom. As a citizen of a land where freedom is still new, that speaks volumes to me.


10 Things My Kids Love About Germany

One of the posts that consistently gets hits here is 10 Things I Love About Germany. It contains reference to cake, walking, coffee shops and great holidays. Today, while sitting in a coffee shop and eating Schwaebsiche Apfelkuchen, I asked my children what they love about Germany, and this is what they came up with:

1. Berlin. The best city in the world, even better and prettier than London (where two of them were born).

2. Swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter.

3. The coffee shops serve very LARGE slices of cake.

4. Being able to speak two languages.

5. Lots of Italians live in Germany, so you get really good pizza and extra good ice-cream.

6. Having lots of friends who speak different languages (English, German, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Greek).

7. Going ice-skating in winter.

8. Our friends P and M who are kind and funny and let us sleep over at their house.

(Please note that the grown-ups love P and M too, for exactly the same reason.)

9. Kika – the children’s TV channel.

(The grown-ups love Kika too. It is advert-free and age-appropriate.)

10. There are lots of different sports you can do – cycling, walking, skiing, swimming, gymnastics.

Germany – the land of outdoor living, great food, wonderful friends and big cake. How can you not love it?


A Woman in Berlin

Französiche Dom, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin

I love Berlin. It is so fresh, vibrant and exciting that you feel you are soaking up innovation, ideas and history through your pores as you walk the streets. Berlin has not papered over its cracks, so you see remnants of the Second World War (the bombed-out carcass of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) and the Cold War (the long, chilly footprint of the Wall) everywhere. I learned that none of the trees in the Tiergarten are more than sixty years old, because the previous forest was razed for firewood in the dying days of the war, and in the freezing winters afterwards.

But this is not about me. During my last visit, I fell upon an amazing book – A Woman in Berlin – a diary of a woman who details her life in the falling city as it was sacked by the Russian army. It starts on 20 April 1945 and ends on 22 June 1945. The writer, who has recently died, chose to remain anonymous when it was published, and the book received controversy, especially in Germany where it was accused of “besmirching the honour of German women.” As you read, you understand why the book might have been hard to swallow in the 1960s. Not only does she describes in exact and excruciating detail what it is like to live in a city under attack: the scrabbling for food, the nauseating fear of being bombed, the chilling anxiety of waiting for the Russians to arrive, but she deals very frankly with the mass rapes that took place, saying that the women began to ask each other not “Were you … ?” but “How many times … ?”.

According to the introduction, over 160 000 Berlin women were raped as the Russians swept through the city. They were considered an acceptable booty for the travails of being a soldier, and all women of all ages are targetted. People in the writer’s apartment building spirited their daughters away in crawl spaces, while only the oldest women ventured out into the streets to fetch water. The writer herself is not spared, and she finally makes a Faustian pact, singling out the most senior – and potentially most cultured and gentlemanly – Russian officer she can find to act as protector. In exchange for sexual favours, she receives food which she shares with the elderly and ailing residents of the building. What Berlin’s liberators come to call “forced intercourse” becomes her only method of survival.

The writer is a journalist and photographer, and her prose builds unforgettable images of war. This means the book can be hard going, since the subject matter is almost unbearable, but it is leavened with her salty sense of humour and astonishing courage.

Here is one excerpt that moved me with its prescience:

I barely glanced at the news from the western front. What does it matter to us now? Our fate is rolling in from the east and it will transfer the climate, like another Ice Age.

On hunger:

I found a letter wedged inside a drawer, addressed to the real tenant. I felt ashamed for reading it, but I read it all the same. A passionate love letter, which I flushed down the toilet. (Most of the time we still have water.) Heart, hurt, love, desire: how foreign, how distant these words sound now. Evidently a sophisticated, discriminating love-life requires three square meals a day. My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.

On the futility of technology:

Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology really is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere. Bread, however, is absolute. Coal is absolute. And gold is gold whether you’re in Rome, Peru or Breslau. But radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates, all these gifts of the modern age – they’re nothing but dead weight if the power goes out. At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.

This is a powerful and heart-rending book. It’s also an amazing piece of social history and now that Germany has learnt to be more open about its past, now that other countries have faced up to their roles in the making of war, this is a good time time to be reading this book. It may deal with a very short and very specific period in German history, but it talks to all of us about how far we will go when we are starving, about the bleak impact war has on civilians and about the small sparks of humanity that help people to survive when that seems impossible.


Gold Star

This is what I am giving myself for achieving my writing retreat goal of 12,000 words – and I did in five days instead of six! I completed a chapter and wrote two more. Very thrilling. And there was an unexpected twist at the end of Chapter Eight, which surprised even me. The tension is growing, my characters are all over the show: confused, ashamed, emotional, seeking guidance and resolution. I am going to have to head on in there and sort the lot of them out, but rest assured, the ending won’t be too neat.

As my reward, I’m off to the Bergmannstrasse yoga studio for an hour and half’s class, after which I’m meeting a friend for dinner. I think I may even allow myself a celebratory glass of wine – my first since I arrived here.

I think it is richly deserved.


Berlin Diary

Please may I interrupt my writing schedule (8,000 words and counting) to tell you a few things, about me and about Berlin.

Firstly, if I lived alone permanently I would talk to myself out loud and eat straight from the fridge without bothering to use a plate, so I am very grateful to my darling family for keeping me on the right side of civilised.

Secondly, I like to shop but very large department stores confuse me and I have to head for the coffee-shop for recuperative chunks of cake. Yesterday, however, I found the perfect department store – just one size up from bijou, it has an excellent mixture of designer wear to just look at and more affordable street-wear from a mixture of French, British and German designers. The Galleries Lafayette on Friedrichstrasse is beautifully designed around a central glass cone, so I couldn’t get lost. It was also conveniently having its summer sales, so I found one or two lovely items at seriously reduced prices. Having enjoyed that success, I then went down to the foodhall and discovered to my absolute joy, that they have a concession for the Laduree macaroons which are, frankly, the most delicious things I have ever eaten in my life, ever. I ordered four small ones – rose petal (!), salted butter caramel (!!), chocolate and pistachio – but only ate the first two and took the other two home. They are a pastel taste sensation. I love this city!

Then I went into bookshops and flirted dangerously with buying more books than I could carry. Next, I walked up Unter den Linden to Bebelplatz – scene of the Nazi’s first book-burning in 1933 – where there was an open-air book fair. I bought some more books, this time for my kids. There were white marquees up, with writers giving readings, and a children’s tent with books to read, pictures to colour in and a man doing a reading from a pirate-book. I also picked up a flyer to LesArt, a centre of literature for children and young people based in Berlin, that arranges literary events for kids and trains adults, whether parents or professionals such as librarians, how to foster a love of literature in the young. Did I mention that I love this city?

Then I went for a very long walk to the Jüdisches Museum in northern Kreuzberg. It chronicles 2000 years of Jewish history in Germany, and is stunningly detailed, with interesting multimedia effects that even the youngest visitors could enjoy. There is one section dedicated to the Holocaust, and this is reflected in the architecture – an imposing steel-clad building designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind. Inside, the building is divided into three axes – the Axis of the Holocaust, which leads to the empty and haunting Holocaust Tower; the Axis of Exile which leads to a garden of tilting concrete columns that left me feel nauseous and anxious and which is supposed to evoke the discomfort of exile, and the Axis of Continuity, which leads to a very long, steep staircase and the rest of the exhibition. It was very impressive, and tiring.

This morning I took a walk along the Landwehrcanal, zigzagged through various Kreuzberg streets, and ended up in the Hasenheide park on the border of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Then I strolled back to my favourite Kreuzberg hangout, Bergmannstrasse, for an early lunch of salad, carrot juice (we writers have to keep our strength up) and hummus at Knofi.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some writing to do …


Confessing in Berlin

Coffee + keyboard = slightly f*cked writing retreat

It also means a severely damaged computer. Don’t take coffee lightly, writing fans! It is a danger to your livelihood. Luckily, my lovely hosts have left their computer for me to use. It’s also been a great excuse to spend many delicious hours in the hosts of fabulous Berlin cafes, drinking chai teas, and writing in my notebook. Then I come home at night, transcribe my notes and make improvements.

My output has been excellent: so far I have transcribed 3,000 words and I have at least another 1,000 from today to add to that. I have completed the tricky final scene of Chapter Six and am well into the action of Chapter Seven. I also have a firm game plan for Chapter Eight.

I am loving my retreat, from the protestations of love I receive when I call home, to the unfathomable freedom of wondering the streets of Berlin, not having to be home at a promised time. I am enjoying not cooking and walking everywhere (though today I mastered three changes on the U-Bahn in order to go and fetch my very sick MacBook in Charlottenburg). This morning I lay in bed and read from cover to cover the faintly irritatingly titled, but astonishingly good, Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenburg. Then I got up and went to do a wonderful yoga class in the Bergmannstrasse studio of my yoga teacher’s teacher (see here for pictures). Tomorrow I may run. Or go shopping. Or visit a museum. Or sit in cafes, drink chais and people-watch.

One thing is for sure though. I will write.

(RIP, MacBook. You were a good friend.)


Friday Already?

Here be my confession:

This week I have been addressing the sponginess of Chapter Six and trying to give it some backbone. I realised that I have been inadvertently giving the character to whom this chapter belongs watered-down reactions. She was being fuzzy, not true to herself, and far too reasonable. So I spent a bit of time writing about her in my notebook. I find that writing with pen and paper helps me to be more intuitive and free. Writing on the computer is good for shaping and arranging, but most of my best creative ideas come with pen in hand. (A chai latte helps too.) I wrote in the first person, trying to find the lies that she tells herself. That helped me rescue the first two-thirds of the chapter, but I am going to have to do it again in order to raise the level of crisis in the last third.

Why do I want my characters to be likeable? Two of my three main characters have been deliberately chosen because they are struggling with ego, and that means that they can be selfish, thoughtless, cruel and hurt people around them. This character is being too damn nice. I need to free-write again tonight, find the hooks and barbs in her personality, her limitations and boundaries. I also need to flesh out one of the secondary characters, who is being a bit bland. His nuances need to shine.

Next week, I leave for my six-day writing retreat in Berlin. It is now booked into the family calendar, and my unofficial writing cheerleader, my husband, has signed on for duty. He will have secondary back-up in the form of Grand-dad. I hope the five of them will have fun while I am gone.

The current word count stands at 40,601 and I plan to be able to tell you in two weeks time, when I confess again, that that number has increased significantly. I’m hoping that six days dedicated to writing, with no Internet access, will mean great chunks of writing.

Good luck with your writing, Friday ‘Fessors, and other writers out there. I hope the next two weeks bring you inspiration, energy and above all, time to write.