Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Happy Birthday, dear Blog

It’s my blog’s birthday today. Three years of mind burps, fairytales, rants and soul-revealing. Three years of making friends (some of whom I’ve now actually met). Three years of laughing at the Germans (Germans, I love you, truly I do, but sometimes you are funny. I mean who else would call a hair salon “Hairkillers”? Or a ladies’ evening “Ladydinner”?). Despite trying to bring you depth and resonance (you know, because I’m like that), I find that my top three posts are about Valentine’s Day, cakes and children’s birthdays. And the top three search engine terms that brought people here are “charlotte’s web”, “writing strengths” and “lemon drizzle cake”. Which goes to show that when it comes to blogging, you don’t always know it all.

I have not strayed from my initial blogging goals, which were to write regularly, to aim for quality over quantity and to avoid topics like the laundry, my latest head-cold or why I haven’t been blogging lately. I don’t believe in making excuses, but when I do post, I try to make it worth your while. I also aim to be positive rather than negative, so while I love reading biting snark, I don’t really snark myself (unless it’s to do with the Germans).

So, dear readers, on this third anniversary of my blogging life, I hand it over to you. Tell me what you like best about Charlotte’s Web, and in future I will try to oblige.

PS Happy Birthday to my blog-twin, Dorothy.


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Channelling Mrs Prothero

I am not one for fits of rage. If I am angry with you and you are not one of my children, I indulge in a little judicious slamming, some quiet muttering and a style of loud walking that I inherited from my mother and which has earned her the nickname of “Captain Footsteps”. At my angriest, I might give vent to cutting words. The same goes for my depressions. When I am down, I am not extreme. There is no breast-beating, I don’t go off my food or stop sleeping. I have very gentle declines, so mild as to be hardly noticeable.

Which is why it took me three days to realise I was having one this week. Vital clues to a decline are: engrossed reading (2000 pages in 2009), slightly increased chocolate intake, heightened need for sleep and an inability to leave the couch. So far, so enjoyable. What awoke me to the fact that I was having a decline was one afternoon, while the children were having a post-prandial game of Wii tennis, when my husband called up the stairs, “Where is the Queen? In her parlour, having another little lie-down?”. I thought God, I have been lying down for a week. Just like a Victorian lady, having a fit of the vapours.

I’ve just finished reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group (487 pages) and in it Mrs Prothero has to cancel everything on discovering that she once entertained a man to dinner who has since had a night in jail:

“A jailbird!” she repeated indignantly, with a wobble of her receding chin, so loud that Yvonne, coming down the stairs, could hear her. Clutching her wrapper around her and holding Yvonne’s arm, she retired upstairs to her bedroom and canceled the car, which was to take her to the hairdressers at eleven.

Clearly I have been channelling Mrs Prothero. Needing to lie down and cancel the car. On reflection, I think it is because December looked like this:

img_1482

In a few short weeks, we had a 40th birthday party, a seventh birthday party, Christmas to plan, prepare and shop for, a New Year’s lunch for 12, multiple social engagements, adorable house-guests who were sleeping in our bed necessitating us to sleep in the cellar, parties and end-of-year engagements for the children to attend and a slew of disgusting ailments, including the flu (all four grown-ups, one child) and a stomach flu (all three children) that required frequent wiping of puke and poo. Apart from the illness bit, I love it all and throw myself into the planning, preparation and jollity that makes the season fun.

Then January came and I was tired. So I lay down and cancelled the car.

I’m glad to say I can feel my energy creeping back. I got off the sofa and took the kids to see Madagascar Two a couple of days ago, and yesterday we went toboganning. My creative juices are churning and I am looking forward to school starting on Monday so that I can attack the last quarter of my novel. I want to get back to my healthy eating and get back on the treadmill. I am thinking of ways to generate new editing work. I am full of resolve.

Mrs Prothero is no more.


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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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Giving Thanks

Today my daughters dragged me to church. I have religious beliefs, but they are private ones, and I don’t feel the need to worship communally. I also have a suspicion of organised religion that stems from the days when my family used to go to church with another family whose mother my father ran off with. That didn’t seem like very Christian behaviour to me. I’m also not keen on the concept of a Christian God who presides over a Christian Heaven to the exclusion of everyone else, and neither do I like being lectured to. However, D had received an invitation to an Erntedank or Harvest Festival service at the Evangelical church (that’s the Protestant one) here in the Burg and with, the fervour of a new schoolgoer, believed that it was compulsory not optional. L likes singing and “being in God’s house”, so we went, the two girls with joy in their hearts and mother sulkily kicking at lamp-posts along the way, saying “Do I have to go?” in a whiny voice.

Of course, when I got there, I enjoyed it. The reverend, or whatever Anglicans call their leaders, is young and kind of vibey and didn’t lecture. The church was filled with people I know. I sat next to a woman whose kid was in the same kindergarten class as L, and who has a voice like an angel, so I enjoyed listening to her sing. Since it was a children’s service, the hymns were easy and rousing, and although I didn’t know most of them, I managed to sing along. The church was prettily decorated with pumpkins, apples and other produce from neighbouring farms, and with bread baked by local bakers, while the sun streamed in through the stained-glass windows. Apart from the moment when D spoke loudly to me during a prayer, it was a pleasant hour and a half.

Later, I delivered D to a birthday party. All the attendees were little girls with whom she was first at kindergarten and with whom she has started the big adventure of school. We went to scout a local restaurant as a party venue for our fortieth at the end of the year, where the manageress is a friend of our babysitter. Later I went for a run, passing a family I know flying kites in a field, and towards the end, coming across the partygoers hunting for treasure at one of the playgrounds. After my shower I went to fetch her, but the party was running late, so I went upstairs to another friend for a cup of tea while we waited for it to come to an end. As D and I were trying to leave, the parents were flooding in to collect their kids and three of them stopped me to arrange play-dates.

Today in the church, we gave thanks for the harvest, for having enough food to eat, clothes to wear and roofs over our heads.

I also want to give thanks. I am grateful for community. However much I might see myself as a foreigner, alien to the Burg and various German habits that I find touchingly odd, it turns out I belong.

We have made friends, a place and a life for ourselves right here in this little Burg, and I give thanks for that. I am also grateful for my wider community in Germany, my community of expats and past and present work colleagues whose broad world-views I inhale eagerly. I am grateful for my friends and family around the globe, in South Africa, England, Dubai, the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland, who provide a backbone of support and the knowledge that while we may be far away, we are still loved. I am grateful for my online friends, some of whom I have already met and others whom I am about to meet, who are just as real and just as wonderful.

Today as we came away from the restaurant, L said, “You want to have a party for 120 people? You have a lot of friends.” I said to her, “Well, we are nearly 40, so we have had a long time to make friends. We have also lived in lots of countries, where we have met lots of people. And we like having friends.”

It’s true. I love my friends. Thanks to each and every one of you, near and far, who make my life so special.


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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.


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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.


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39 Things I Have Learnt

Next week, I will be 39. I am thrilled about 39. Really, I am. I’m convinced that my fortieth year is going to be the most exciting year of my life. I feel it in my bones. I sense adventure, success and happiness and I’m embracing it all with joy.

To celebrate my birthday, here are 39 Things I Have Learnt:

1. If you don’t have the time or inclination to polish your boots with polish and a brush, a baby wipe will do just as well.

2. Cooking, if you have time and sufficient inclination, is not drudgery. It is relaxing, calming, recuperative, creative and feeds people.

3. We all breathe too shallowly.

4. Walking is better for our bodies than jogging, but swimming is best.

5. The only way to keep weight in check is to balance input and output. Eating fewer carbs helps too.

6. We can’t all be famous, but if we blog, we can pretend we are.

7. Writing every day leads to writing every day.

8. There is no such thing as “finding your other half” or “being completed” by someone else – the only way to have a successful relationship is to be a whole person already.

9. Living for your family, while satisfying at the time, can be pointless if you carry on doing it after they have left home.

10. Even very old people want to have sex.

11. Empathy is more useful to another person than sympathy.

12. No one person can be “everything” to another person. We get what we need piecemeal from all the people around us.

13. Love is all around, actually.

14. Children need time and laughter from their parents far more than they need expensive stuff and trips to fun-fairs.

15. Women should stop judging each other’s choices and stand up for each other – if someone’s anti-fashion or obsessed with her looks or works or stays home with her kids or breast-feeds or bottle-feeds or eats local or eats vegetables from Kenya, you don’t have to be her friend but don’t judge her.

16. We can’t protect our children from every little hurt or wound, but we can provide a safe place for them to come home to and talk about it.

17. I am scared of global warning and the aftermath of AIDS, but I am angry about patriarchy.

18. I don’t think any woman anywhere will be truly free until no woman is raped, abused, forced to wear clothing to hide her body from the gaze of men, prevented from getting educated or expected to carry out all the home and child-care in exchange for men’s benevolence.

19. Getting out of bed to care for the children when you’d rather lounge there, eating chocolates, filing your nails and watching Friends reruns hurts, but is also rewarding.

20. Speaking your truth is brave.

21. When you do speak your truth – without the intention to wound or hurt – you are not responsible for the reaction of others.

22. Fear is a bad philosophy of life.

23. Children get far more joy out of paper, glue, scissors and paint than they do out of big shiny plastic things from the toy-shop.

24. Being passive-aggressive is abusing the truth.

25. Whether you’re a man or a woman, earning a salary is only a small part of your responsibilities.

26. Whoever earns the most money does not own the remote control.

27. Partners who ask “What can I do to help you?” are very, very sexy.

28. What goes around, comes around.

29. A half-finished household task makes a job for someone else. Always complete.

30. We don’t have “one chance to accept God into our lives”. God, or the divine, is already there – whether we like it or not and whether we believe or not. And if you don’t believe me, climb a mountain, listen to music or hear a baby’s gurgling laughter.

31. Gossip hurts both the gossiper and the gossipee.

32. Using children as a weapon is low.

31. Having good friends, even if it’s just one or two, is essential to a happy life.

32. People who use others as audience, or mirrors in which to view their own reflections, are bores and best avoided.

33. It’s better to have a warm and friendly home than a perfect one.

34. Money, while great to have, is not the be-all and end-all. Love is.

35. Shopping destroys, in more ways than one. It’s soulless, bad for the planet, addictive, pointless and far too much fun for its own good.

36. Those who abuse apostrophes should apologise.

37. People who have benefitted from an iniquitous system – Apartheid, patriarchy, national socialism – should find a way to give back.

38. There is no such thing as too many books.

39. The only way forward is with love, and a sense of humour.

(I pinched this idea from the lovely Sognatrice of Bleeding Espresso, who recently turned 31.)


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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.


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Me Got Skillz

I can actually spell my very own, rather long name. I’ve always liked my name’s literary connection, however, I’m not here today to talk about Brontes or pigs. I’ve been tagged by Bine for a meme. Bine says the rules are:

List one fact, word or tidbit that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your first or middle name. You can theme it to your blog or make it general. Then tag one person for each letter of your name.

C: Cake. I am very fond of cake. Making it, eating it, dreaming about making it, reading about it, dreaming about reading about it. Right now, I’m planning my next one – a rosemary loaf cake for my husband’s birthday tomorrow. Cake is good stuff.

H: Heidelberg. Not where I live, but almost. A happy place where I have favourite views, favourite shops, favourite restaurants and favourite bookshops. A place where I like to eat cake in restaurants while reading a book and looking at a view.

A: Angels. I believe in them. See “E”.

R: Reading. My favourite pastime, a little higher on the list than cake. If I had to choose between the two, reading would win, but only just.

L: Love. I’ve got a lot of love in my life, and that makes me very lucky.

O: Otters. I loved them and then I became one. I remember reading Ring of Bright Water and sobbing my heart out. There’s an otter sanctuary in Alsace where I often take visitors, except the regulars have taken to begging me, “Anywhere but the otter park, please.” Becoming an Otter meant that my initials are now CEO, which is a very satisfactory state of affairs. I am the Chief Executive of cake.

T: Thomas. It’s his fault I’m an Otter, and that there is a brood of little Otters. Happy birthday for tomorrow darling. Hope you like your cake.

T: Oh, look, another T. Toni. My darling mother, otherwise known as the Queen. She’s not scared of a good cake.

E: Elise. My maternal grandmother, who was a wise soul and teacher. I take my second name from her. How lucky I am to have had her guidance when I was young so that I don’t have to crash around looking for the answers now. She equipped me with many of the life skills and beliefs I have today. And she loved cake too.

Now, I’ve got nine bloggers to tag. I’m going to focus on the ones doing NaBloPoMo so that they gain an extra day’s content. That would be:

(un)Relaxeddad

YogaMum

Kerry

Lia

Kerryn

Helen

Kate

Noble Savage

Wendz

Ms Magic Hands

Aphra

Lizzy

Dorothy

Whoops, that’s thirteen. I said I could spell; I didn’t say I could count. Feel free to spell your own name, if you want to …