Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


A Cast of Characters

For inspiration in fiction, we don’t have to look much further than real life. This weekend, my family and I moved house and to help us do so, we hired a firm of movers. I am growing to love and appreciate German efficiency in more ways than I can enumerate. They moved us door-to-door in a sleek and streamlined seven hours, while taking extreme care over both our precious and our less precious belongings.

During those seven hours, my main job was to stand at the front door to direct them to the relevant room, occasionally running up behind them to ensure that they put each piece of furniture in the right place. All this standing around gave me time to observe the different personalities at play. These were:

Boss guy: short, efficient, slightly ratty or terrier-like, with a belly that indicated how much he liked his beer and some two-day old growth. He took great care of his team, telling us when it was time to get them coffee or other drinks and when they required lunch. Didn’t get involved with the banter during the smoke-breaks. Clearly in control, but lifted just as many heavy objects as the others.  A hands-on manager, whom everyone seemed to respect.

Second boss guy: Taller, more interestingly bearded. Main role to stand inside the truck and hand furniture or boxes to the team. Left early to take his wife to a concert and happily engaged in idle chit-chat with me. Liked his roll-ups and engaged in banter with:

Stern guy: One of the heavy lifters, very tall and bulky. Had a comment about everything, all delivered deadpan. At first, quite intimidating because of his size and running commentary, but when I realised what a good sense of humour he had, I started to enjoy his company. When it time to lift the really heavy stuff he called on:

Baby: Medium, balding, baby-faced with blue eyes. Number one heavy lifter of the team. He and stern guy did complicated things with ropes and got some large pieces of furniture up two flights of stairs without touching or scratching the walls. Baby sang out of tune constantly, chatted to himself and didn’t always understand instructions, but was gently put right by one of the others.

Goth guy: Also large, with complicated facial hair and head shaved on both sides. Of all the team, his personality emerged the least.

Jolly guy: Full of commentary like stern guy, but always with a smile. Was happy when he got to deliver to the ground floor and particularly enjoyed carrying a toy castle. ‘I carried that castle all by myself,’ he told anyone who would listen. Was equally happy to carry heavy stuff. The smile didn’t leave his face for seven hours.

Old guy: I had the feeling he was perhaps the former manager, because he got to drive the second truck and was treated respectfully by everyone. Second boss guy made sure he gave him the lighter stuff to carry.

Cool guy: his main job was to dismantle and reassemble furniture, and he helped me estimate if certain pieces would fit into the smaller rooms. Not a smiler. Hair stayed rigidly gelled in one place all day. When he wasn’t taking furniture apart and putting it together, he hefted along with the others. Didn’t join in the banter during the smoke breaks and kept himself slightly apart from the gang.

With all these fabulous characters in place, all a writer needs is a murder, a love triangle or the surprising arrival of a space-craft.


The Joy of Being Older

I have been spending time with a friend who has an adorable nine-month-old baby. I love this baby for her cleverness and charm, and the sweetness of watching her discover the world. Being with them has brought home to me how my childrens’ baby time is over, and, while I loved it, how grateful I am to have moved on to the next stage. I am 40 and my youngest is four. I’ve just traveled with him to South Africa and Greece, and didn’t need to pack any special equipment – no prams, no special food, no nappies. He pulled his little roll-on suitcase and walked with his sisters the length and breadth of many airports.

I have spent the last ten years in dedicated service to small children. I adore my kids, and now I especially love their growing independence from me. I am no longer essential to their physical survival – any other kind adult could do my job. As they grow and shed their extreme neediness, I feel as if I have also emerged from a chrysalis. Their independence is perfectly matched to mine.

I spent all of last year in preparation for turning 40 in December, and then spent the next six months celebrating that birthday. It was a huge psychological turning point. I turned my mind to fitness, healthy eating and writing – doing things for me, my body and my psyche. At the risk of sounding smug, I feel as if I have arrived. I am not becoming, but being. And the best thing is, I have got at least 40 more years ahead of me to feel this way.

Today’s Observer has a brilliant focus on old age. The people they report on are extraordinary – a 98-year-old marathon runner, a 71-year-old yoga teacher, an 85-year-old sculptor – and what comes across is the fun they have in living. Of course, what  they share is the luck of good health, the fortune of living in the privileged West, but even so they have survived world wars, epidemics and economic disasters.

Here are some quotes:

For Mary, aspects of growing old are met with relief, even joy. “In a way, emotionally, you change back. I am freer now to feel intense excitement like I used to as an adolescent – being out of doors, for example, or listening to music. I somehow didn’t have time for that when I was bringing up my children and working full-time. I have been able to spend much more time with my youngest grandchild than with the older ones, and that’s been wonderful, too.” Jean Crossley, grandmother, 100

“Yoga can have a tremendous effect on you, whatever age you start,” she says, “but I find I don’t need to do much practice to keep supple, as my awareness of my body posture has become second nature over the years.” She reveals that yoga has a more meaningful message, too. “I’m aware of the fragility of health and that it can change without warning. So I always retain a sense of detachment – I’m not pleased with myself if I do a complicated yoga pose, I’m pleased for myself. You’ve never got life cracked. Yoga teaches you that.” Pam Horton, yoga teacher, 71

The key to a healthy old age, he says, is continuing to work and “doing something you like doing. You’re so much more likely to go on living if you’re happy, and making art makes us both happy.” London, where he has lived since he married Sheila 60 years ago, has been another important factor. “Old people are really a pain in the neck and one of the joys of living in London is that you see young people. You could isolate yourself and be less stressed, but one of the pleasures is seeing what’s going on.” Sir Anthony Caro, sculptor, 85

And for Fauja age isn’t even a consideration: “I do not consider myself to be old. From the moment I do that, I would lose everything, because age is a state of mind – as long as you’re positive you can do anything.” Fauja Singh, runner, 98

Apart from luck, the common denominator amongst these amazing people is joy. I’d risk saying that their wisdom, joy and pleasure in life has been partially responsible for their health and longevity. Their stories increase my belief that I have every chance of being a joyful 85-year-old yoga-practising writer.


An American Frau Interviews Me

Remember the Interview Meme? It’s coming around again, just like the old Random Things About Me meme that’s turned up on Facebook recently and caused the Times Online to write a whole article about it. Really, do these journalists have nothing better to do than nose about on people’s Facebook pages and write about phenomena that are decades old in blogging terms? Anyway, this old blogging dinosaur decided to get herself interviewed again, and the lovely American Frau has offered up her questions. If you would like to be interviewed by me, say so in the comments below. If you would like some rules, they are up at the end of the post.

The Interview

1. What brought you to where you live now? Where do you see yourself living ten years from now?

I live in the Burg, Germany, and we were brought here by my husband’s burning desire to return to Germany after a stint in London, and a great offer back at his former employer. The Burg is a small town of 10,000 people where everybody knows everybody else’s business and what they have in their bins. Lace curtains are de rigeur, and since we are without, we are regarded as the strange foreigners who are never going to fit in. Believe me, we will NOT be fitting in nor living here in 10 years’ time. We dream of Berlin, Barcelona, Melbourne – but it’s all fantasy and we truly have no idea where we will be.

2. Why did you start blogging? How many other blogs do you read a day?

I started blogging because I like attention! I also like writing. My husband started a blog and I thought, “If he can do it, then so can I.” So I did, and now I’m heading for my third year of blogging. I have 143 blogs in my feedreader, which I check daily and sometimes – embarrassingly – two or three times a day. I am not always a committed commenter, but I am a committed reader.

3. Describe your ideal weekend.

On Friday afternoon, I go for a walk on Robberg Beach, Plettenberg Bay, and see the whales. That night, I have dinner in Cape Town with all my lovely friends, including the ones from Durban and Johannesburg who have flown down to be with me. On Saturday morning, I go shopping in Paris with my mother and that night I go to a concert in London with my husband and our friends G and B who have flown in from Dubai. Sunday morning finds my love and me brunching in Berlin – probably in the Tiergarten – with our mates and then we go strolling in Prenzlauer Berg and doing some idle window-shopping. By Sunday night I am cuddled up at home with my darlings, eating a delicious meal cooked by someone else and watching a DVD together, before I kiss them all and put them to bed.

4. Name another culture besides your own that you find fascinating and tell us why.

I can’t name a particular culture, but I love the way Italians are so loyal to their regional food traditions. I’d love to live in a culture that combined that with French style, British humour, American enthusiasm, South African hospitality, Irish wit, Polish warmth, Argentinian banter, Indian humility and lascivious South American dancing. Seeing I’m making up a culture here, I’d like one without misogyny, and no dominant groups with privileges over other groups. Basically Utopia with good food and sexy dancing.

5. What flavour of ice-cream are you?

Lime and coconut: sharp and tangy, nutty and sweet.

Whoops! Forgot the rules. Here they are:

1. If you want to be interviewed, leave me a comment, and I will send you some questions.
2. Update your blog with the answers to the questions and link back to the original post.
3. Include the rules in your post.


10 Things I Know

Litlove knows that I am given to sharing my wisdom, so she has tagged me for 10 Things I Know, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to resist. And she is right. So, off the top of my head, with very little editing, here are ten things are I know:

  1. My Fair Lady is a misogynist film (I am watching it on TCM as I write).
  2. There’s nothing worse than when bad things happen to people you love.
  3. Asking for forgiveness is liberating.
  4. The simple rule for good parenting is to model the behaviour you require.
  5. The simple rule for good relationships is keep talking.
  6. Ego gets in the way of smart decision-making.
  7. Loneliness is self-inflicted.
  8. Facebook is fun but Twitter is for the birds.
  9. It might be dull for the listener, but sometimes people just need to be heard.
  10. Exercise might not save your life, but it will put you in a good mood.

And now I tag Natalian, Ms Honey Pie, G, Diane, Aphra and Paddy. Got any aphorisms for us?


This is How Old I Am

My parents bought our first television when I was seven. There was one channel, alternating daily between English and Afrikaans for two hours a day.

I owned and wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way.

I peroxided my fringe.

Ultimate romance used to be The Blue Lagoon:


I had a passionate relationship with Duran Duran.

I wrote letters to boys on writing-paper decorated with sunsets and palm trees.

The first album I bought was Madness. Up till then, I danced to my parents’ Abba and Fleetwood Mac records.

I taped the Top 40 with David “Reach for the Stars” Gresham every week on my cassette recorder.

When I was 11, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. Major entertainment was going to the roller-rink.

When I went shopping with my friends, we would share a plate of chips. Drinks were individual. Mine was a double-thick Horlicks milkshake.

The first dancing-party I went to I wore Deely-Boppers.

I remember the advent of drinking yogurt.

My first boyfriend wore brown jerseys and drove a 50cc motorbike.

I thought it was sexist that girls watched boys playing rugby, but no-one came to watch the girls play hockey.

I remember a time when black and white people could be jailed for sleeping together, and when black people were not allowed to buy property in the suburb where I lived.

I watched PW Botha’s Rubicon speech on TV in 1985 and Mandela’s release in 1990, and remember the brutal years in between.

I wrote all my undergraduate essays longhand. For reference, I used books and articles, which I found in a place called the library.

I wrote my first essay on computer at the age of 22.

I wore a meringue for my wedding-dress and we were the first to leave the party.

I went on honeymoon to Zimbabwe, when it was so peaceful and harmonious that I wanted to move there.

In 1995, I wrote an article for a magazine on the strange phenomenon known as the “World Wide Web” or the “Information Superhighway”.

I first used email at the age of 27.

With thanks to the lovely Ms Waffle for the inspiration. How old are you?


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:


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.


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.


The Fairy Godmother Meme

Created by Aphra and also seen at Teuchter, here is The Fairy Godmother Meme, which allows you to count your blessings and possibly go out and hug someone fragrant.

What good gift did your Fairy Godmother actually give you?

Adventurousness. When my new husband was offered a job in Germany, four months after we’d bought our first house and shortly before I was due for a promotion to editor, I said, “Why not? How bad could it be?” and so we left – with two suitcases, four boxes of books and some golf-clubs. He never used the golf clubs, we sold the house eventually, and since then we have lived in three different countries.

What good gift do you wish she’d given you instead?

Foresight. If we’d acknowledged we were leaving South Africa instead of just heading off on an awfully big adventure, we could have had the company ship all our stuff for us. Instead, we thought “We’ll just go for two years and then come back” and five years later crippled ourselves shipping our things to England, where we were then living.

Cart. Horse. Putting. The. Before. The. Rearrange the former into a well-known sentence.

What bad gift did the Wicked Fairy give you?

A tendency to be too diplomatic.

What bad gift do you wish she had given you instead?

Being brutally frank.

But then I would possibly have fewer friends. Mind-burps do not the social fabric lubricate. So I write them instead.

If you had one magical gift, what would it be?

I’d like bedlinen that changed itself on a daily basis. Nothing nicer than sinking into a bed with freshly changed sheets at the end of a long hard day of diplomatic adventurousness.

That was entertaining! I’m not going to tag, but please play if you want to, and if you do, please credit Aphra.


Too Much Time in the Temple

(In which I attempt to write a post that doesn’t continue bullet points or a numbered list. I am horizontal thanks to the rain-again-sun-again summer holidays, so I am not sure if I can manage joined-up thinking. But I am going to try. Because you are worth it.)

So, I have worked out what the Germans do when their kids are on holiday and it’s raining. Do you want to know? They go to Ikea. I found this out yesterday, when I went to Ikea four times and each time I found the whole of Germany there, packed in, admiring the Ektorps and snaffling those maxi-packs of tea lights and little scratchy baskets to put things in. I, however, was actually trying to buy an Ektorp (two in fact) and it took me four visits in one day in order to go from selecting the slip cover fabric to actually slipping the cover over my new sofas.

I made an initial reconnaissance mission to select a sofa model (kids placed in Ikea kindergarten so that I could think without having to pull three-year-olds off sofas or buy large boxes of Swedish biscuits to placate people) last week, but that doesn’t count for the purposes of this post, because it’s, well, so last week.

Let’s focus on yesterday, shall we? Because yesterday was special. (At this point, I am sorely tempted to list, but I’m not going to.)

Visit one was to buy the sofas. The very helpful lady told me that the slip-covers of my choice had run out in the Mannheim branch but that she would kindly reserve me two at the Walldorf branch. I would have to collect them on the same day, otherwise they would be sold to someone else. I paid for the sofas – buying some absolutely essential throw cushions en route – and then headed to the goods depot to get my sofas delivered. However, the delivery fellow told me that is only possible on Saturdays (yesterday was Monday). The depot dudes told me that since I had paid and my sofas were now out of the warehouse and at the depot, I would have to collect them yesterday. Cue multiple complicated phone calls to Germany’s Top Husband (GTH) and babysitter and the next visit to Ikea was planned.

During my second visit to Ikea yesterday, I was accompanied by GTH, who was providing the muscles of the operation. As he was in the process of having a busy working day, in which he had a two-hour window for sofa-hauling and the 40-kilometre round-trip, he was hoping that we would be able to fit both sofas in the back of our bus.

Alas not.

He didn’t really speak to me on the way home.

GTH returned to Ikea with me – his second 40-kilometre round-trip, my third – to fetch the second sofa. He had a nourishing Ikea frankfurter and coffee while I negotiated with the depot dudes, and was a little chattier on the way home.

Then he relieved the babysitter, and I left on my fourth visit to Ikea, this time to the Walldorf branch – a 50-kilometre round-trip, to collect the slip-covers without which I could not live.

Last night I dressed the first sofa in its lovely new covers. This morning, GTH muscled in the second sofa with back-up from me. I dressed it too. I was happy. They looked pretty. The kids played pirate ships with the packing cases. They were happy. Ikea is a good, good place, a temple of earthly delights, of herring, sofas, and candles, bringing happiness to all.

Except for Germany’s Top Husband, who never wants to go there again.


Summer Miscellany

It’s the summer holidays and blogging is going to be sporadic here well into September. I just have a few completely unrelated things to say:

  • Going to Paris for the weekend with an eight-year-old and a six-year-old and the charming godmother of the latter was a lot of fun, but my heart lies in Berlin.
  • My home town was mentioned on BBC News online today. See here how the dorp is famous.
  • I am in mourning since finishing the box set of Sex and the City, but I am looking forward to visiting New York in November where I plan to lunch, wear ridiculously high heels and drink Manhattans.
  • I am excited about meeting someone off my blogroll this weekend. I love it when online and real life collide.
  • I am planning, if my stars allow and the hemispheres are correctly aligned, to have an hour free to do some sport tomorrow.
  • I am waiting for a very special baby to be born.
  • I am reading Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier and it is brilliant.
  • I did an unsupported head-stand in yoga tonight and the endorphins are still charging.
  • I met a dear friend from Cape Town in Paris this weekend and was happy to see her and her lovely children.
  • I am addicted to Scrabulous. Anyone want to play?

With thanks to Ms Make Tea for the loan of her bullet points.