Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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:

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


Recipe for an Eight Year-Old’s Birthday Party

Invite your five best, best, bestest friends.

Tell them to bring their camping mattresses, sleeping bags, pyjamas and toothbrushes, for it is a sleepover.

Play some loud and hysterical party games. There should always be some crying, but not much. Do dancing.

Order Chinese take-aways (get Daddy to fetch them).

Eat birthday cake, preferably the chocolate kind with the silver balls on top.

Have a treasure hunt that takes you up and down the stairs fifty thousand times.

Watch and eat and cuddle your treasure (Shrek DVD, popcorn and teddy bears for everyone).

Colour in princess pictures.

Admire each other’s fulsomely.

Have your toenails painted in a ridiculous mixture of colours, by Mummy.

Change into pyjamas and brush teeth.

Wake Daddy to blow up the mattresses.

Watch a second DVD – Curious George – from your beds.

Pause the DVD on the stroke of midnight for a midnight feast.

Return to the DVD.

When it is finished, switch off the lights and have hysterical giggling fits for half an hour.

Fall asleep and wake at 8.30am, hungry again.

Order rolls and chocolate croissants from the bakery (send Mummy).

Play with your presents, kiss your friends goodbye, spend the rest of the day in happy afterglow.


Birthday Books

Having hosted two birthday parties in two days – my daughter’s and my own – I am extremely relieved that our Christmas is going to be a relaxed one, celebrated mostly at other people’s houses. The best thing about not having to plan, shop for and cook a full Christmas meal (just our contributions) is that it leaves me with time to read my birthday books.

I’ve just finished Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and am already deeply into Alice Munro’s Runaway. I’ve just read Munro’s memoir, so was thrilled when one of my clever party guests brought me some short stories of hers to try. The collection comes with an ecstatic introduction from Jonathan Franzen, who explains why he likes short stories so much:

I like stories because they leave the writer with no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it. I like stories because they’re usually set in the present or in living memory; the genre seems to resist the historical impulse that makes so many contemporary novels feel fugitive or cadaverous. I like stories because it takes the best kind of talent to invent fresh characters and situations while telling the same story over and over.

I’ve never been a fan of short stories, preferring rather to dive into a novel and luxuriate there, but I am loving the Munro book, as Nova predicted I would.

One of my friends gave me Bernhard Schlink’s Die Heimkehr. She told me as I unwrapped it that it might look like it’s written in German, but it’s really, really written in English. She was joking, of course, but perhaps this quiet down time between the years is a good moment to try reading in German again. I have resisted it, because it takes a level of concentration and effort that reading in English doesn’t. I loved The Reader, which is set right here where we live, so I’m sure to enjoy this new Schlink.

My friends seem to formed a united front, because my co-birthday girl has given me a German book that I can’t resist: Küchengeschichten: Die wunderbaren Rezepte meinen Freunde by Kristina Möller. In English that would be “Kitchen Stories: My friends’ wonderful recipes” – and it comprises a description of each of her friends, some of their favourite recipes and some wonderful art.

I love reading about food at this time of year. It’s about having the time to settle down in an armchair with a cup of coffee, or better still a glass of red wine, and dream about new foods to cook in the new year. A dear friend, who was unfortunately absent from the party, sent me Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey & Lebanon, and I am entranced and delighted by the delicacies inside. I may have to take the Turkish yogurt cake to our Christmas Eve celebration with friends.

Other friends gave me wine, bath goodies, Christmas candles and jewellery, so I felt very spoilt. Thanks to all my further afield friends who phoned, emailed and sent messages on Facebook. I had a wonderful birthday. And I know that being 39 is going to be great: a year of reading, writing, cooking, travelling, loving and dreaming.


December Planning

Much as I like to subscribe to a spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants style of operating that would allow me to take up an invitation to go trekking in Patagonia with five hours’ notice, I actually have to be fairly organised. I’m divided. The real me is a dreamy, peripatetic traveller armed with a notebook and some chocolate, but the current me is a busy mother of three, with a job, lots of friends, a husband who would occasionally like my attention and three lunches to pack. Reality is that I vacillate between the two poles, being either relatively organised or utterly forgetful.

I have friends who are really organised, who get their tax returns back in January, who have colour-coded wardrobes, and who have a place for everything in their homes. I admire them, but try not to compare myself. Some of those friends don’t have children (which opens up many gazillions of free hours), others have live-in help (ditto) and others don’t work. When I’m beating myself up for not being perfectly organised, I have to remind myself that everyone’s situation is unique. My strategy is always people over things, so my children get more attention than the kitchen cupboards, my friends get more attention than the laundry and my husband, when he’s here, gets more attention than, say, the mop.

So, bearing in mind that people come first, and that Christmas is no fun when Mummy’s running around in increasingly small circles emitting a high-pitched shrieking noise, here is my answer to BlogLily’s request to share my planning for December:

1. To hand in my last two pieces of freelance work on 14 December, and to not work again until after New Year.

2. To use some of those free hours to work on my new collection of short stories (one in the writing, another six in the planning).

3. To enjoy and relish the week of 17 to 21 December, during which time I must bake and prepare for Daisy’s home birthday, Daisy’s kindergarten birthday and a joint birthday party I am hosting for myself and two friends (potential guest list 50-100?).

4. To have enough, but not too much food, in the house for the week of 22 to 28 December. We won’t starve, even if we don’t have immediate access to stem ginger, mince pies and rum-dipped dates.

5. To relax and enjoy the company of my darling family, especially that of my lovely brother who is making his first-ever journey to Europe to Christmas with us.

6. To buy less stuff.

It’s all about the fun, the love, about some – but not too much – gorgeous food and, if possible, much less stuff.


Bless Me, Bloggers …

… for I have sinned.

I have been led unto temptation and like the weak-willed sinner I am, I have given in. Twice in the last week, I have ignored my Lentenfast and partaken of the white stuff. But if you will forbear, I can justly show that my excuses were good and my reasons solid.

Firstly, our friend the extremely Funky Uncle Mustard swung by from his corner of the USA. He is an old very youthful friend who we only see once a year, if we are lucky. My husband (who has given up alcohol for Lent) said, “Lent be damned, I am going to have a beer with my friend.” That gave me just cause to say, “If you’re having alcohol, then I’m having sugar”. So the Funky Uncle partook of a homemade lemon ice-cream with me. Rather delicious it was, too.

Then yesterday, there was an even juster cause for my sin. My beloved boy turned two. We had a party. I baked Granny Toni’s Sinful and Decadent Chocolate Cake (see the end of this post for the recipe):

without sampling the mixture or even licking my fingers. I also baked 24 lemon drizzle muffins:

without one small scrap of the white stuff passing my lips. We had a birthday tea and at the end – I cannot lie – I sampled both some muffin and cake crumbs. I found them good. Very good. Sin is delicious.

You will be relieved to know that today I am returned to the straight and narrow. I am finding it straight. I am finding it narrow. I am eating many apples.

In other news, Spring IS behaving, and we were able to have Ollie’s birthday tea in the garden:

It was lovely. The children ran, climbed, swung and played. Ollie sat on his new red car, and batted away any guests who came too near with the firm words, “No, Guest, this is Ollie’s car!” I didn’t force him to share. I thought on his birthday, when his car was brand-new, he should be allowed full ownership. So he sat on his car, like a little king, clutching a red Mini under his arm, and eating “‘Marties”. He had a fine day.

Another sign that Spring is here is that the Germans are once more eating ice-cream. I posted about the national obsession with Eis last year, and got a hurt comment from some poor German saying, “Isn’t ice-cream an international thing to eat?” Um, yes, but not to the same extreme. I have never seen adults eating ice-cream with as much gusto as they do here – grown men in business suits strolling down the Heidelberg Hauptstrasse with cones, old ladies tucking into enormously calorific sundaes. A house across the road is being re-roofed (with spectacular German efficiency, let it be said), and today as we arrived home after the kindergarten collection, seven burly builders were taking their break, tucking into chocolate-, vanilla- and strawberry-striped icecreams. With no irony whatsoever.


Towards the End of the Season, Limply

In the novels of Jane Austen there is usually some reference to The Season – where the gentry head to Town, attend balls, horse-races, the ballet, parties and dinners, and try, to the best of their ability to marry off their marriagable daughters to young men of good fortune and pleasant personality. Today the season still exists, and, according to Wikipedia lasts from April to August, and includes events such as Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot, Chelsea Flower Show, Henley Royal Regatta and Wimbledon. Afterwards, today’s gentry head back to their country piles or to France while their children go to Ibiza, where they club senselessly, get photographed for Heat magazine with no knickers on or topless on the beach, and try to return without a husband.

The only season event I ever attended was the Henley Royal Regatta, to which I was invited by my totally lovely and rather posh cousins. I was doing my gap year of waitressing and partying and having inappropriate relationships in London and they took me under their wing, allowing me to arrive at their beautiful Surrey home, where I would warm my bottom on the Aga, be cossetted, fed and then sent back for another few weeks’ wildness in the capital. Thanks to them I am a whizz at croquet. These were the same people who took me to the ballet at Covent Garden (which I would never have been able to afford), and, despite having had a theatre supper beforehand, produced a picnic hamper full of delicious salmon sandwiches and champagne for afterwards, which we sat down and enjoyed at midnight on the Covent Garden cobblestones. They liked to do things in style. Henley was just the same – we cruised there in their Bentley with its cream leather and walnut interior. I was outfitted in a borrowed dress and a small and very cheap hat that I bought at Brick Lane (dress and hat being the appropriate outfit for ladies at the Regatta) and enjoyed an excess of champagne and watching strong men row boats in the rain.

Less glamorous, but equally demanding, is the Charlotte’s Web Family Season. It is six months long, and lasts from October to the end of March. I am relieved to announce that it is now drawing to a close. Since October we have celebrated the following:

  • One wedding anniversary
    • Cleverly planned for 1 October, so that’s it hard to forget. Thus far, we haven’t done so. We don’t go large but the occasion is marked and thusly the season opened.
  • Five birthdays
    • Two of these require full parties, with guests, cake, games, crafts and dressing-up. Since it is winter they are always, regrettably, indoors. The grown-up birthdays usually also require a party but we bailed this season and gave dinner parties instead.
  • Sundry German festivals, requiring the crafting of objects, the sourcing of costumes, the turning-up at and participating in parades, the eating of festival related baked goods, the singing of festival songs and the smiling and conversing with other festival participants. These include the Laternefest and Fasching (Carnival).
  • Sankt Nicolaustag
  • Christmas: the usual insane cookfest and eatfest and giftfest, plus assorted houseguests
  • New Year: ditto except minus the gifts
  • A week of skiing. One of the reasons we are in Europe is to offer our children chances to do things we which didn’t do growing up in Africa. Hence skiing. Last year, I found this such an exhausting experience, that I have avoided it this time, but my saint of a husband has taken his daughters off with a bunch of friends and they are turning into ski bunnies. Less of the snow eating this year, which is a good thing, both for their digestive systems and for the ski resorts. They need all the snow they can get.
  • Easter – two years ago, Ollie was born on 27 March, which was an Easter Sunday, so we include it in our Season. We celebrated his first birthday while skiing (ie he had a cake) but this year we will have to mark it with a party, a home-made cake and by inviting some of his little friends around. If we are very, very lucky they could play outside.

After Ollie’s birthday, we have six months off. No birthdays, no parties, no festivals for which we are required to craft anything. There will be no need to fashion pirate or Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cakes and no requirements for eyepatches or spangly crowns at the eleventh hour. I am looking forward to it – and summer – enormously. If you are looking for me in the six months starting April, this is where I hope you will find me, physically, spiritually, emotionally. Gin and tonic, anyone?



Birthday Party Madness

Nearly four years ago, when we were offered the chance to leave England and move back to Germany, we leapt at the chance. At the time, we were poised to decide whether to send Lily to the village school or the posh little girls’ school ten minutes’ drive down the road. It was an invidious choice: either we’d be paying nearly 4000 pounds a year for an excellent and elite education, where she would have small classes, be able to learn to play an instrument, do art and theatre and meet lots of little girls from “nice” homes or we could expose her to something more normal, distinctly more mediocre and a lot cheaper. Despite being cash-strapped, we were leaning towards the former, because, English society informed us, private schools were the only way to guarantee our children university entrance and good jobs.

What a relief we didn’t have to make that decision. If we had gone for the posh school, this is the kind of madness we might have encountered. It’s an article from today’s Observer about how competitive parents are spending thousands on children’s birthday parties. Imagine if our child had gone to the posh school and we were having to send her to parties with chocolate fountains and Ooompa-loompa tossing Willy Wonkas. Imagine the shame she might have felt when her friends were invited home for some cake, colouring-in and pass the parcel. It must take enormous sanity and strength of conviction (not to mention a more limited bank balance) to refuse to take part in the madness.

The school our child attends here in Germany is the local state school, where she’s in a class of 26. The parents range from Porsche-driving, designer-wearing yummy mummies to parents with a lot of face furniture and tattoos, via book-reading foreigners with funny accents (that would be me). Children learn that society contains a mix, that not everyone is privileged, that not everyone has a car, let alone a house.

Birthday parties here are extremely sane. The kids arrive having had their hot lunch at home, so they are full and not overly interested in party food. I learnt this fast. The first party we gave in Germany was for Daisy’s second birthday. I was nervous to get it right, and egged on by my visiting mother-in-law, completely over-catered. The two-year-olds sat and stared bewildered at the enormous birthday tea we had concocted. They nibbled on a few things and then quickly disppeared to the playroom in the cellar to spend a happy two hours sliding down Daisy’s birthday present – a big plastic slide. I realised then that it was about doing rather than eating.

Every year, for both girls, I have to tone down my tendency to go beserk on the catering, and have now just about got it right. There’s always a birthday cake, a plate of homemade biscuits and possibly some muffins. And we always have tons of leftovers. My memory of birthday parties I attended was that it was all about the food – a huge, sanctioned, sweetie-fest in which I would eat and eat until I could fit nothing more in. But perhaps that was just me. Then I would go home and have an asthma attack from all the preservatives. What a fun child.

However, here in Germany, it’s all very modest. It’s expected that you only invite as many friends as the age your child is turning, so you never have to invite the whole class, which, given that all our birthdays fall in winter and have to be indoors, is a blessed relief. The focus is on the activities rather than the food. We try to find party games that are containable (our sitting-room isn’t big enough to run races in) and not overly competitive (to avoid crying). One day our family will be given credit for introducing pass-the-parcel to Germany. Our little guests love it, although at our latest party, the birthday girl unintentionally managed to win the gift, which nearly caused a riot. We always play a great German game called Flasche Trehen, literally Spin the Bottle, where the birthday girl spins a plastic bottle. She then opens the birthday present from the person at whom the bottle is pointing. This can take up to twenty minutes with uncoordinated bottle spinning, and present-opening and admiring, so it’s a big favourite with me. We always have some dancing and a bit of Musical Statues, and have been known to play “Pin the Crown on the Princess” or “Pin the Tail on the Easter Bunny”, depending on the theme of the party.

It’s an unwritten rule that you craft. This used to stress me out, until I developed a nifty line in princess crowns. My husband also photostats party theme-related pictures from the girls’ colouring-in books, which keep the little party-goers busy for ages. For the last birthday, I found a €2 box of beads at Woolworths, and we made necklaces. Bargain! We had eight happy princesses. I’ve also learnt not to fill up the time completely with games and crafts, because party-goers also like some free time to run around the house screaming. I imagine this ad-hoc wildness will feature more as Ollie grows up and starts to invite his little friends round for parties.

At a German party, one provides supper – something completely easy like pizza or sausages and chips – and then the children go home, clutching an extremely modest party pack that, at most, might contain a few sweets, a page of stickers and some bubbles. The emphasis is on play, on fun and on having a few nice things to eat.

My children have never been to a party with an entertainer, a magician or Willy Wonka and are not the worse for it. Modesty rules, rather than madness, and the children love it.