Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Season’s Greetings

To all my blog readers, old and new, I wish you a happy Christmas season, surrounded by family, friends, fabulous food and a mountain of new books.
See you on the other side!

A snowy Heidelberg (thanks to siutung on Flickr)

 


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Reading Firsts

‘Tis the season to be unbelievably busy and my attention span for reading is like that of a fruit bat in an apple orchard. I’m swooping from one thing to the next, discarded books in my wake (first 20 pages of The Finkler Question, opening paragraph of C, first half of a Phillip Kerr) and a strong sense of dissatisfaction. It’s a bit like being faced down by a plate of Christmas cookies: everything looks delicious but nothing I eat can placate my appetite.

Until my 10-year-old handed me a book. ‘Here, Mummy,’ she said. ‘Please read this. I think you’ll enjoy it.’

My history with German books is not good. I have read the first couple of pages of Der Vorleser and the first chapter of a Charlotte Link novel, but I gave up through sheer laziness. Reading in German is work and I like my reading to be pleasurable. However, when a book comes with L’s strong recommendation – it being one she selected and bought with her pocket money and during the reading of which she made happy noises – I had to give it a go.

Luckily, Als die Steine noch Vögel waren is a slender book, coming in at 122 pages. Marjaleena Lembcke tells the story of growing up in Finland, as one of seven children in a household that struggled to make ends meet. One of the children is Pekka, who loves everything: his bed, the moon, the smell of his mother and all the birds of the world. Pekka believes that all stones were once birds and could one day fly again so he spends much of his time throwing them, hoping to encourage them to fly once more.

Pekka was born mentally and physically disabled and spent the first two years of his life in hospital, having multiple operations. When he finally joins his family, he has to learn how to walk and speak. When he does, however, the family find a joyous soul bursting with love.

But Pekka didn’t just love us, he loved everyone and everything. When people came to visit us, Pekka would sit opposite the visitor and watch him carefully for a while. Then he would say, ‘I love you.’ Our guests would either be embarrassed or would feel as if they were melting. They couldn’t know that Pekka loved everything. He loved the chair on which he sat. He loved his bed, his socks, the carpet and Grandmother’s apron. He loved Mother’s smell and Father’s beard. (My translation)

Pekka’s joy infects his family and sister’s story. He views the world differently and his alternative philosophy helps the family keep their spirits up when money is tight and Father considers emigrating to Canada. He is also a survivor, who emerges unscathed from a choking incident, being knocked out several times and having a bout of leukamia, which turns out to be wrongly diagnosed anaemia.

This is a lovely, gentle, sweetly written book which I enjoyed immensely. It was a light and satisfying read and a perfect antidote to my reading troubles. A cucumber soup, perhaps, to those heavy and overly sweet Christmas confections.

So, I’ve read a whole novel in German! And in October, I read my first e-book. I have yet to devise an e-book strategy, but I thought for my first experience, I had better select a page-turner to ensure that I actually read the thing. I choose Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, a much-acclaimed crime debut, and while it was a great read, I now feel a sense of sadness that I don’t own the physical book. I feel cheated.

Despite the instant gratification of selecting an e-book and downloading it on the spot, at the moment I have no great desire to read another one. I have friends who travel frequently and download books for their journeys, and  I can see the logic and convenience in that, but right now my life doesn’t require huge travel (though I live in hope). Some of my Litopia pals have published e-books and I plan to read them over the holidays, but let’s just say that for now, I’m not convinced.

Do you have an e-book reading strategy? Are there books you need to see on your  bookshelves and others you are happy to have as digital copies only?


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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:

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


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Happy Christmas

I’m going to take a little blogging break while I enjoy Christmas with my family. The Forest Maker has arrived, after some airport complications, and I am loving spending time with him. I am reading, making stuff with my kids, wrapping presents, planning desserts for various parties, sipping red wine in the evenings with my husband, watching DVDs and relaxing.

Happy Christmas to all of you. I leave you with an image of Christmas in Germany:

Gingerbread in the window


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Alcoholic Christmas Muffins

Has anyone else noticed how much fun Christmas is for the children? They’re the ones getting stockings filled with treats, presents under the Christmas tree, and, if they live in Germany, daily mini-treats in their Advent calendars. Children get to decorate the gingerbread men, decorate and eat the Christmas cookies and in our house, they even get to decorate the tree. The grown-ups don’t get a look-in.

Here’s a German muffin recipe to console the grown-ups and bring them a little Christmas cheer. It contains amaretto and dark chocolate and is not for children, unless they have very sophisticated palates.

Amaretto and Chocolate Muffins:*

Ingredients:
150g flour
100g ground almonds
2 tsps baking powder
1 pinch salt
2 tsps vanilla extract (or if you live in Germany, one packet vanilla sugar)
2 eggs
120g sugar
150g softened butter
2 tbsps amaretto (I doubled this)
60g dark chocolate shavings

Method:
Heat the oven to 180°c.
Prepare a muffin tray with 12 muffin cases.
Pour yourself a generous glass of red wine and commence sipping.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt.
Have another large sip of red wine.
Beat the eggs with the vanilla extract, sugar and amaretto till it’s creamy.
Slowly beat in the softened butter.
Mix the wet and dry ingredients.
Taste, with bare finger.
Taste again, to ensure it’s adequately alcoholic. If not, add more amaretto.
Mix in the chocolate shavings.
Eat the leftover 40g of chocolate.
Fill each muffin case two-thirds full.
Bake in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.
While you wait, eat any remaining muffin dough and sip your red wine. If necessary, pour yourself a second glass.
Remove the muffins from the oven. Allow to cool (about a minute will do) and then eat with your red wine.

I had one for breakfast this morning with coffee. I think I have a hangover.

* Apologies for the metric measures.


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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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The Forest Maker

I have this little brother, Andy. He is big and quite funny. He is also kind, dreamy, hard-working, full of empathy, sporty, outdoorsy, loyal and committed. For a living, he makes forests.

When he was growing up and in his early twenties, it was never clear what Andy was going to do for a job. He tried his hand at insurance and while his boss liked him, Andy found the relentless daily grind of office work unbearable. He also became bogged down by office politics – as a non-political animal, he just couldn’t understand it and was often hurt by people standing on his head to climb onto the next rung of the ladder.

He knew it was not for him and he left. He began making my mother’s smoked trout pate and selling it at local markets. This work suited him better: he was his own boss, he could work at his own pace and it allowed him more time to be outdoors. Andy’s smoked trout pate became very popular in KwaZulu-Natal and he even started selling it to a few shops, but it still wasn’t The Thing he wanted to be doing with his life. The family, as you can imagine, were wringing their hands. What was he going to do? Who was he going to be?

What nobody knew was that, in his heart, Andy knew what he was going to be. In his time off from the smoked trout pate business, Andy took his beloved black Lab Billy for walks in the indigenous forests of KZN. While there, he would collect seeds off the forest floor, take them home and nurture them. Achingly slowly, over a period of years, Andy developed a nursery of 4000 trees in his garden. He found he was spending more time looking after his trees than making trout pate. He joined local environmental groups, made contacts and began to be known as someone who knew a lot about indigenous trees.

Going indigenous is a big trend amongst South African gardeners because plants that are local to the area attract more birds and insects, whereas exotics leach the soil of precious nutrients and can be destructive. Andy began to sell a few trees from his home nursery, started to advise the lady gardeners of Pietermaritzburg on replacing exotics with indigenous and participating in drives to replace exotics in public spaces with beautiful indigenous trees.

And then his miracle happened. He was offered tenancy at the nursery of the local Botanical Gardens. He carefully transported his 4000 trees from the garden at home to the Gardens, where he now has a shop, staff and a public venue for his skills and knowledge. He is also involved in wholesale indigenous tree sales, participates in tree fairs and has become known as one of KZN’s top tree people. He still landscapes for lady gardeners, but he has also worked on golf courses and larger projects, removing hillsides of exotics and replacing them with indigenous. He is the forest maker.

My brother inspires me because he didn’t take the traditional route into the working world, but followed his heart. He ignored all the naysayers and did what he had to do. When he found his true calling and began to live it, his miracle happened. He is not an arrogant boss; he labours with his team, digging and hacking and hauling. He speaks brilliant Zulu. His employees love him. His employers love him. He is the gentle tree-man of KwaZulu-Natal. I am so proud of him.

And the best news of all, selfish sister that I am, that he is finally earning enough money to buy himself a ticket to come and spend Christmas with me and my family. This is his first visit to us ever and the best possible Christmas present I could have.


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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?

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