Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


When I Was 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was life like for you when you were 35?


From the Burg to the Berg

Change is upon me, in all kinds of ways. My novel is sitting with three publishers on three different continents, and I am trying not to refresh my inbox forty times a minute. Patience, I have been told, is of the essence. Luckily, I have all kinds of things to keep me busy. Christmas is one, an imminent hospital visit for one of the kids is another (six days for tonsils, thanks to extreme Teutonic cautiousness), and the third is our move to Heidelberg in late January.

We have loved living in the Burg, but now that two out of three kids are at school in town, with the third to join his sisters in September, the move made sense.

So from 2011, I will be reporting to you from here:

(Pic courtesy Michael Urspringer)

With all that’s going on, I make no promises about frequent blogging in January, but I hope you have a fabulous, food-filled festive season and I wish you all the best for success and happiness in 2011. 


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.


To Fest or Not to Fest

This weekend the Burg celebrated its annual Fest. This is not the Burg’s only Fest – there is at least one per weekend – but it’s the big Fest, the one where residents don’t dare drive anywhere in their cars for two days for fear of losing their parking spaces, where we go to sleep to the thrumming sounds of bass, and where we can’t get into our favourite shops because there are stalls in front of them selling large piles of tat. The Big Fest is looked forward to for months before and is talked about for weeks afterwards. This year was my sixth Big Fest, and it occured to me, not for the first time, that all German Fests exist so that people can drink booze and eat sausages.

Whether it’s the Oktoberfest, or the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt (which is actually a wine Fest where they serve wine in beer-mugs accompanied by, you guessed it, sausages), or any Fest in any German town on any given weekend, the Hauptthema is alcohol combined with pork. In itself, this is not surprising. Germans are committed to their booze and pork products and show great loyalty to them.

After years and years of going to Fests, be it Christmas Fests, Easter Fests, carnival Fests, autumn Fests, balloon Fests, dragon-boat Fests, school Fests, work Fests, tennis club Fests – you name it, I’ve fested it – I can safely say that the two most remarkable things about German Fests are:

a) they are identical

b) Germans are adorably fervent about them

I love the enthusiasm with which people look forward to the Big Fest, which is exactly the same as last year’s Big Fest, and the ones before that. There is an almost innocent anticipation of pleasure and fun, even though the fun is no different to the fun they had last year and the twenty-five years before that. No-one says, “Stuff this Big Fest pork and beer thing. We’re going to show arthouse cinema on outdoor screens and only serve absinthe and herring. That should get the populace going.” No, there is a formula and we stick to it.

GHT and I took a walk around the Fest on Saturday night. It was my first nighttime visit to the Big Fest, since the previous five years I was either breast-feeding babies or protesting too loudly that it was his turn to go out. However, we have MIL in situ, so I had no excuse. Since it was a Big Fest, I was pleased to see there was not only pork on offer, but also fish, doners, Chinese food, Italian and other Mediterrranean delights. Since it was a Big Fest, there were two sound stages, and every street bar had its own music playing. There were many other alcoholic options outside of beer. There were lots of teenagers in shrieking groups saying things like, “I’m going to puke! Right now!”, but there were slightly older people, like us, and there were much older people, all out enjoying themselves. There was a pleasant, non-aggressive atmosphere of a community celebrating together and many different generations all enjoying the same party.

I lasted an hour.

Perhaps you have to be German to get into the swing of all getting sloshed in the street together. Perhaps I didn’t drink enough. Perhaps I have Fest jaundice.

All I am saying is that as a tourist you really don’t need fly to Munich for the Oktoberfest. Pick any German town on any weekend, and you will find a version of the Oktoberfest happening right there, complete with sausages, beer, loud music, puking teenagers, jolly pensioners and people of the middle years all out together having a lovely time.

As for me, pour me an absinthe, won’t you? I’m staying in with a Bergman film.


Join the Club

Germans love their clubs. If you want to play football, raise canaries or walk Nordically, and you live in Germany, you automatically join a club, known as a Verein. That gives you instant friends, a place to go on a Saturday night if you’re feeling lonely, and it adds meaning and purpose to your life.

As parents, we have already joined an athletics club so that our children can run around a track with other kids and attend gymnastics classes. We believe that we will be joining a football club in the next year so that our small fellow can run aimlessly after a ball with others of his ilk. If any of our kids wanted to play tennis, hockey, rugby or netball we would have to join a club. This means paying a modest yearly fee, and getting involved on some level, whether it’s tending the herbaceous borders at the tennis club, lift-clubbing small hockey players to away games or turning up at various fests and ordering alcohol (my speciality).

We are broken, though, that there are no cricket clubs in Germany, except the casual one that takes place in our garden most weekends. It’s fairly relaxed, and closely tied to our regular weekend barbeque. There is no joining fee, no pruning involved and the requirement is the ability to hold a bat, however badly, and occasionally make contact with a ball. We are a small island of cricket in the large German sea of football.

Today, after a long bike ride, we stopped at a restaurant for a bit of lunch. We were lucky enough to be sitting next to the Sunday meeting of an unusual club.

The facial hair Verein. Twirly moustaches everywhere. We giggled, tried not to stare or do this:

We have to be careful. People take their clubs – and their facial hair – very seriously here.


A Neighbour Apologises


In an unprecedented move, a Burg neighbour has apologised to expat Frau Otter for stating baldly in public that her children are bringing rats to the suburb. Frau Otter says she is still recovering from the shock.

“I was amazed,” she says. “I have been accused of many things by my neighbours. But this is the first time, someone has apologised to me. It’s just a pity that her apology, unlike her accusation, wasn’t public.”

Frau Otter says that she had been in the crowded local bakery one Sunday morning, when the neighbour, who we will call Frau A to preserve her anonymity turned to her and said, “‘A rat ran over my husband’s foot yesterday. I spoke to Frau G, who denies that the rat has anything to do with the three compost heaps in her garden. She said maybe your children have been picknicking in the corner near our garden, and that’s why the rats are there. It’s pretty disgusting.'”

“I was so stunned I couldn’t say anything at first. Then I told that my children very seldom eat in the garden, especially as it has been winter, but if they do, they have a chocolate or an ice-cream which they eat up. They never leave food remains in the garden.”

Frau Otter reports that on recently meeting Frau A again outside the bakery, her neighbour apologised to her.

“She said, ‘I didn’t mean to insult you, I just wanted to warn you about the rats. I don’t want one of the children to be bitten.'”

Frau Otter says that having been accused of having stinky bins and offensive barbeque smoke by neighbours, it was appalling to have her children accused of bringing rats to the Burg.

“I feel vindicated now,” she says. “Clearly not all my neighbours are insane lunatics.”


The Secret Handshake

Today on the street, I received the secret handshake. After living in the same house for five years, I have finally been initiated into the neighbourhood. The ceremony was brief and simple, but moving nevertheless. It was lead by Frau S, a widow, who lives next door. She has always been very kind to our family, remembering the children’s birthdays and giving them small Easter and Christmas presents. She has also been kind to us, telling us to how to improve the nature of our bins when other neighbours complain about them, sympathising when still other neighbours complain about our barbeque smoke and claiming that she loves the dulcet tones of our children screaming at each other, or indeed me, in the garden. She even goes so far as to say that it is quiet and boring when we are away, and she is always happy when she sees our bathroom light left on all night (sorry planet, but it stops nightmares) because that means we are back making the neighbourhood colourful and interesting once more.

At a recent dinner-party, we discovered that many of our habits are of such exceptional interest to Frau S, who it must be emphasized is a lovely lady, that she shares them with one – probably more – of her best friends, who happens to be the granny of Ollie’s best friend, whose parents came to dinner two weeks ago. Our habits of not rolling down our kitchen blinds at night, of leaving the aforementioned bathroom light on all night, our refusal to fit in with the neighbourhood lace curtain policy or the local manicured garden ordinance, are all newsworthy. But the main thing about Frau S is that she is kind and nice, and if we give her something to chat about with her other granny friends, then we are pleased. Not many grannies get to be neighbours with foreigners after all. We provide Frau S with special status in this corner of the Burg.

So it was especially meaningful that Frau S. chose to conduct my initiation ceremony today. It was also a surprise occasion, timed perfectly for the moment when I was dashing home to grab the pram with five minutes to spare before dashing out to collect Ollie from kindergarten. If I was breathless to begin with, Frau S’s guerilla induction into Burg society left me stunned. Socially, I have made it. I am there. My hand has been secretly shaken and I am one of us. My cruelty to lace curtains and my laissez-faire garden maintenance no longer count against me. I am practically family.

Dear readers, Frau S asked me to call her by her first name. I think it’s time to drop all pretences and apply for my German passport.


If I Were the Chancellor of Germany …

… here are some of the rules I would impose:

1. On-the-spot fines for public spitting.

It’s gross and I don’t like it. If you have to expectorate, do it in a tissue or into a toilet, but not on the street where my children and I have to (a) listen to your revolting noises and (b) step in your revolting fluids.

2. Doubled salaries of teachers and carers.

Having just spent two days in hospital with a child, can I just say that nurses are wonderful? Teachers are wonderful too. They should be well-paid so that they are happy and continue being so wonderful.

3. Compulsory charitable donations of 15% of yearly income for anyone who earns over €2 million per annum.

It’s ridiculous! Who needs so much money all to themselves?

4. Immediate cessation of movie-dubbing.

The Scandinavians speak perfect English because they watch English movies in English, but the Germans dub every film into German. Leave the movies in English, which will allow children to learn English easily and quickly and allow me to enjoy films once again. All out-of-work voice-over artistes can be compensated out of the Spittoon Fund. Or they can become teachers.

5. Mandatory provision in all supermarkets of the following products:

Marmite, self-raising flour, Golden Syrup, baking powder in sensibly large containers not those ridiculous little packets, Maldon salt, silver balls for cake decoration, coriander, lime leaves, ginger biscuits, biltong and Nik-Naks.

6. Immediate cultural acceptance for people who want to pack their groceries into their own bags (brought from home) While Still At The Till.

I’m all done with packing my bags at the car in driving rain or icy snow. I want to do it inside. That’s not so strange is it?

7. Immediate cultural approbation for shops that consider having one till open to be acceptable business practice.

Open more tills! Let the people shop! And while you’re at it, let them pack their bloody bags before they pay.

8. Have my state inventors concoct a Pause Button for the Elderly.

I have developed a reputation in my street as a gimlet-eyed, clenched-jawed fury because just as I emerge from my home en route to getting someone somewhere on time, having wrestled a just-awakened toddler into a snowsuit, dragged two other people away from their homework or very important craft project, we get accosted by an old person who wants to air their opinion on Lily’s new haircut. If I could only pause them, and return later when things are calmer to enjoy the conversation and all its nuances, I would be so much happier and the Elderly would be so much more fulfilled.

This post is written in honour of Angela Merkel, who is my new hero for publicly taking Robert Mugabe to task for human rights abuse at the Lisbon Summit. Go Ange! You tread where no African leader has yet dared to tread.

It is also written with thanks to Chantelle of the Quiet Room who had the idea first.


In Triplicate, Bitte

May I mock the Germans? Oh please, please can I? It’s been so long.

This year is Daisy’s last year in kindergarten, so I thought it would be nice to offer to be on the PTA as one of her group’s two representatives. I did it when Lily was in her last year at KG, so I wanted to do the same for Daisy (plus the head teacher always cooks great food for PTA meetings). However the parents’ evening fell on a night when I was away in Berlin. I asked Daisy’s teacher to offer my name as a candidate, after which the group would vote. Since it’s a job no-one usually wants, I presumed merely by offering that it would be a done deal.

I return from Berlin, go to kindergarten the next day all curious to see if I indeed am on the PTA again or not. There’s a gaggle of mummies outside the classroom and I ask them what happened at the parents’ evening the night before. “No,” they tell me, “Mummy A and Mummy B have been chosen as the class PTA representatives.” Mummy A and Mummy B are none too pleased and look daggers at me.

“But, but,” I splutter, “I offered. I told Frau S (the teacher) that I would be happy to be one of the class representatives.”

They look at me witheringly. “We couldn’t consider your offer, because you didn’t submit your application in writing.”

Need I say more?


Let Them Have Time

A friend visited me from England this summer with her three children. Since there were eight of us and our car fits seven at a push, we were forced to spend all week just hanging out with our kids at the various places of joy and thrillification that The Burg has to offer for the under-thirteens. We did the pool, the mini-golf, the walks along the river, the ferry trip, the skate-park, the multiple playground visits and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese restaurant. We also held some in-house events: the High Tea with face-painting, the Abba discos and a lot of Tearing Round The Garden While Screaming at the Top of Your Voice (a favourite with the neighbours). Anyway, after a week of observation, she noted that Germans actually play with their children. “In England,” she said, “people take their children to the playground, but then they spend the entire time on their mobile phones or chatting to the other parents. They ignore their kids.”

Another friend visited, this time from South Africa, and she observed with astonishment how much time German men devote to their children (German mamas do too, but she was particularly taken with the hands-on papas). Here, weekends are designated as family time and parents take their children for bikes rides, go swimming with them or head down to the river to fly a kite or knock a football about. Most of the South African men I know and love spend their weekends watching TV or indulging their own sporting interests, with nary a thought for what their kids would like them to do (and here I am speaking as a child who grew up spending alternative weekends at the edge of a golf course or watching the distant speck of my father casting a fly into a river). Here, all the fathers (and mothers) I know give their kids their time. And, best of all, they enjoy it.

With those two comments in mind, it was interesting to read this excellent article in this week’s Observer. The writer attributes the fact that Britain has the unhappiest children in the Western world (from a Unicef report) not to failure of government or the gap between rich and poor, but to failure of their parents to provide them with a basic need: their time.

I am very suspicious of “busyness”, to which people of my generation love to subscribe. Sure if you’re a fulltime working mother or father of three children, then you’re busy. Sure if you’re a single parent, then you’re busy. Sure if you’ve got multiple looming deadlines, three small kids and a messy house, then you’re busy. Are you busy if you go to the gym more than three times a week? Are you busy if you have frequent coffee mornings? Are you busy if you’re on Facebook or Twittering rather than actually working on that laptop?

I’m not saying we all have to be perfect parents, and neither am I saying that a little recreational Web use is a bad thing, but I am saying to those parents who sit in the playground glued to their mobiles that you ignore your children at your peril. I am saying to parents who chase their children out of the kitchen so that they “can get on with things” (and I am guilty here), you will regret it one day when you try to get your teenagers to help you cook. I am saying to parents who won’t let a little person “help” with bed-making, the chances are in ten years’ time you’ll be begging him to pull up his duvet and he just won’t. I am saying to parents who text during family mealtimes that you won’t have a leg to stand on when your teenagers start doing the same. I am saying to fathers who work all week long that if you don’t put the time in with your children now, while they are young and unable to craft a sentence on the outcome of today’s football match, they won’t be interested in talking to you once you decide you’re ready to talk to them.

Small children can be bothersome. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to play Lego with them when you’d really rather check your blog stats. They want you to have illogical conversations with them about the existence of fairies when you’d rather talk to a girlfriend on the phone. They want to tell you in Three Different Ways how wonderful school was today when you want to zone out with a cup of coffee. They can be repetitive. They can be a little dull. But apart from ensuring that they get regular food and sleep, the most important need we can fulfil is to show them that we enjoy spending our precious time with them. That’s how they are going to grow up as well-adjusted, confident adults who believe they have something valuable to share with the world – themselves.