Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Three Reasons Why I Love Germany

Reason number one:

 

Reason number 2:

Police help a mother duck and her 10 ducklings to cross a motorway.

Reason number 3:

I love diversity, ducklings and great soul singers – best of all, I’m off to see her in two days’ time!

 

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2011 in First Lines

It is traditional here at Charlotte’s Web to review the past year in blogging by posting the first lines from the first post of every month. Having scrolled through my 2011 posts, one thing is clear to me: life took over from blogging this year. After moving house in January, I spent many long hours revising Balthasar’s Gift, many hours pounding the pavements training for the Mannheim team marathon, many hours planning and giving two weekend-long creative writing workshops at Heidelberg University and then, in July, starting a six-month job posting at one of my customers replacing someone out on maternity leave. It was quite a year!

January: So I’ve reviewed my goals for 2010 and found them to be good.  Ten Things for 2011

February: One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by.  Cafe Society

March: Today is the anniversary of the death of Herbert James Downs, who was murdered in South Africa a few weeks after his 100th birthday.  In Memory of Herbert James Downs

April: Life has taken over from blogging – nothing serious, but an accumulation of things over the past three months that have left me exhausted.   Hiatus

May: May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic.  May Madness

June: While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up.  More on Voice

July: I’ve just come back from a week in Mallorca, having found its quiet, laid-back corner (it still exists) and am feeling horizontal.  Feeling Horizontal

August:  So I’m back in full time work for the first time this century, and I am loving it.  Three Things I Love about Work

September: Still loving work, so that’s a good thing.  On Women and Work

October: My grandmother was not only an angel, but she was more than a little fey. Survival Skills

November:  My life has changed exponentially – and for the better – since I re-entered the working world. What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)

December: The theme of today’s World AIDS Day is ‘Getting to Zero’ (zero new infections; zero discrimination; zero AIDS-related deaths)’.    World AIDS Day 2011 – Are There Any Good News Stories?

What was your 2011 like?


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On Women and Work

Still loving work, so that’s a good thing. My kids are on summer break and I have imported my lovely mother from South Africa to be au pair. She is doing a stirling job: they get up around 9am, lurk in their pyjamas until lunch, eat and then head out at a leisurely pace to – depending on the weather – the library, the pool or the water playground on the banks of the Neckar. It is entirely stress-free.

It’s also stress-free for me. I waltz out of the door in the morning, knowing that all is well. If someone falls and hurts themselves (or like yesterday, get a thousand tiny splinters in their elbow), their grandmother will kiss them better and offer comfort. If someone is hungry, an appropriate snack will be found. If clothes are dirty, clean ones will be provided. If a new entertainment is required, it will be found.

But more than just providing an efficient baby-sitting service, their grandmother loves them. And what privilege it is for me to go to work knowing they are in the care of someone who loves them as much as I do.

This is the privilege women have been providing men for generations, and nowhere more than here in west Germany where an idealised form of motherhood has dominated the culture. Women stay home with their small children, punkt.

Getting back into the workplace in a meaningful way in Germany is hard. In an article in The New York Times, journalist Katrin Bennhold says that only about 14% of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6% of those with two.

Many things stop mothers going back to work fulltime: the lack of proper fulltime affordable childcare, school that close their doors at lunchtime, a tax system that subsidizes income inequality. Most of the women I know work, but it’s almost always part-time.

So if we can’t get women back into full time work, how do we get them into management?  Despite a “decade of earnest vows from the corporate sector” (including Deutsche Telekom’s very laudable voluntary goal of 30% female managers by 2015), Deutschland AG remains male-dominated: women make up 2% of corporate boards, all 30 DAX companies are run by men and there was only one woman on a supervisory board, but she recently “resigned”.

There is furious national debate about quotas. Politicians moot it, Deutschland AG pays lip services to equality but resists and the few women in high-profile positions swear that the only way to get there is merit.

Bennhold quotes German anthropologist Julia Allmendinger, author of several studies on women in the former East and West, who says that state intervention appears to be most effective in battling stereotypes. Women in east Germany – where the former Communist system established full time daycare and encouraged women the work – are more mobile, more likely to have babies and reach management positions than women in the west.

Allmendinger calls for strong legislative signals.

I do too. After all, it worked for Norway.

And now, I really must go to work.


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Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

Charlotte Otter in Paris*

Last night I had the honour of hearing Siri Hustvedt read from and talk about the ideas that informed her new novel The Summer Without Men. Heidelberg doesn’t get many visits from major literary celebrities and Hustvedt is up there in my top five favourite authors, so despite having a husband out of town, babysitters canceling at the seventeenth hour, a parking snarfu in the city centre, I made it, clutching my little blue ticket like Charlie gaining admittance to the chocolate factory.

It was worth it. Siri is razor-sharp, witty and incisive. She read sections from the book in English, which a local actress then read in German.

The Summer Without Men – which I haven’t finished yet, but am savouring like a delicious treat – is the story of Mia, a poet whose scientist husband Boris decides he needs a pause after thirty years of marriage.

“The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris had lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions.”

Mia goes mad for a short time, a Brief Psychotic Disorder her doctors call it, and then retreats home to her mother in Minnesota, where she spends a summer in the republic of women, a summer without men.

Vital to the novel is the word “pause”. Boris does not request a stop because he wants to “keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind.” Hustvedt said last night that the novel itself is a pause in the life of the character, the place between Crazy Winter and Sane Fall.

She also said that this was her first attempt at comedy. Comedy is subversive and she was trying to subvert and resist the idea that “the imagination and intellect of women is inferior to the imagination and intellect of men”. Men and women walk around with this unconscious prejudice and she was attempting to unpick it.

Her main tool in doing so was irony. “The tone is the thing. This is a banal situation. But Anna Karenina is banal. So is Madame Bovary. Just because it is a banal story, told with irony, doesn’t mean it is without feeling.” Later, when the moderator suggested that irony emancipates, she agreed, “Totally!” And later, “Where would we be without it?”

I haven’t reached this part yet, but during her summer, Mia takes herself on an intellectual journey through literature, science and philosophy, trying to find a “territory of ammunition” where she can understand what has happened to her. Hustvedt described this as a dance, one in which she herself is also engaged. She talked in detail about how the science of the gendered brain is being undermined, saying that the brain is plastic and changes according to experience. “The idea that women think differently is untenable.” She was not dismissing neurobiology, only saying that it was full of unconscious perceptions about women and much of of these prejudices go unacknowledged.

Her conclusion was that there is a small biological difference between the sexes and not much more. Both Hustvedt and her narrator come to realise that what is important is only “how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it.”

It was all  highly interesting, especially as Hustvedt operates in a literary milieu that damns women’s writing as domestic, while men’s writing is of course about the human condition. If the floor had been opened to questions, this was what I was planning to ask her, but I feel that she answered me anyway: to reverse the stereotypes and prejudices about women, gender and difference we must talk, subvert, mock, play and use irony. We shouldn’t be frighten to question received ideas in literature, science and philosophy and re-present them for our own use. There are many examples of this in The Summer Without Men, but the best is that of a certain Renaldus Columbus, who in 1559 – to the stupefecation of many women – was credited with discovering the clitoris.

To this, Mia pens a limerick:

“When Columbus spied the Mount of bliss,

He stopped and asked himself, “What is this?”

A button, a pea?

An anomaly?

No, silly man, it’s a clitoris!”

It was a fabulous and dazzling evening, only slightly spoilt by the moderator, who had clearly decided not to plan any questions in advance and think on his feet. As a result, he came across as woolly, pompous and arrogant. Which in the light of what Hustvedt is saying about gendered perceptions of intelligence is rather ironic.

*On her tour of Europe, Siri Hustvedt did a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Paris


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Briefly Resurfacing

… to say that one of my posts has been nominated as blog post of the year on Expatica Germany. Click here to see more, and please vote if you feel moved to do so.

In other news, I broke my eight-month drought of not leaving the Rhein-Neckar Kreis by heading to Paris on the TGV with my Mama this weekend. We made three important pilgrimages:

  • Laduree, for macaroons, specifically the salted butter caramel
  • Berthillon, for ice-cream, where the salted butter caramel beat my usual favourite, pistachio, into righteous submission
  • Shakespeare & Co, where we dreamed among the bookshelves and bought some books

Otherwise, we shopped, drank champagne at inappropriate times of the day, hopped on and off buses like Parisiennes, saw the Manet exhibition, visited Monet’s waterlilies at the Orangerie, strolled through the Marais, bought a painting in Place des Vosges and watched the herds of joggers storm the Luxembourg Gardens on Sunday morning.

We stayed in a small but perfectly formed little hotel on the Place de Sorbonne, a small but sparkling square with shushing fountains, a few restaurants and, essentially, a Gap. It was glorious. I love, love, love Paris.

Ditto macaroons.

Ditto ice-cream.

Ditto my Mama.

Ditto Germany’s Top Husband who kept Germany’s Top Kids fed, watered and entertained while we were gone.

Now I’m off again, but I plan to be back on the other side of the Easter weekend. Wishing you chocolate of the highest quality and a weekend of the very best kind of sunshine.