Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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It’s Staycation Time!

My family are right on-trend with our plan to stay home for the summer holidays. As we drove back from France yesterday – which is not as glamorous as it sounds since it’s less than a two-hour drive and the campsite was one kilometre over the border – German radio was full of top tips on how to enjoy holidays at home. Callers mooted things like having breakfast in your pyjamas, having coffee in bed and not worrying about hotel hygiene as reasons why they enjoy staying at home. Having never given hotel hygiene a moment’s thought, I loved the last one. It’s so German.

After two nights’ camping, I can report that I like staying at home because when you turn a tap, water comes out of it. I also like not having to walk through a damp forest to go to the loo in the middle of the night. And I like not meeting strange men coming out of the co-ed ablutions and wondering if I am going to get the toilet they just used. The campsite was budget-friendly though (€20 a night for a caravan that sleeps four, kitchen equipment, linen for one double bed, a barbeque, gas and a tent pitch) and pretty, and at some point in the holidays, when I get over the water/loo thing, we’ll go back.

The two main reasons mooted for people to holiday at home, or in Germany rather than in another country, are finances and the threat of swine flu. However, Thomas Cook’s new offer for Germans to reserve loungers in advance might be enough to get the population onto budget flights to Turkey. According to yesterday’s Independent, for the first time in a generation more Britons are holidaying in the UK this year than abroad (probably to avoid the Germans and their deckchairs). Marketers have leapt onto the Holiday At Home concept, and sales of picnic accessories and barbeques are soaring.

With my kids on holiday from Thursday this week until mid-September, I’m compiling a list of cool things to do at home. Here it is so far:

* Ride bikes

* Learn to cook something new

* Eat lunch at the river

* Eat lunch in the garden

* Keep diaries

* Go to the library

* Go to the pool

* Hire DVDs from the library or borrow from friends and have movie nights

* Cut up old magazines and make a collage

* Have friends for a sleep-over

* Go for a walk in the forest

* Read in the hammock

* Learn to ride the unicycle

* Bake cakes and invite friends round for a tea-party

* Collect and press leaves

* Go roller-blading

* Camping in the garden

* Pour Mummy a stiff gin and tonic and take it to her in the hammock

Any ideas warmly welcomed.

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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.


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Around the World in 80 Clicks

Here’s a cool blog experiment. Catherine of Her Bad Mother teamed up with her friend David to see if it is possible to traverse the world finding mothers who blog in 80 clicks. Their other aim was to find out if mothers raising children in different places have different perspectives. Kit, who was tagged by Poppy Fields, tagged me. I have to list five things I enjoy about motherhood, and then link to five other mothers who blog, preferably in far-flung lands.

Five Things I Enjoy About Motherhood:

1. The on-demand kiss and cuddle service that my kids provide.

2. Learning to bake. The days of the bought-in birthday cake are gone. The birthday cakes here don’t look as perfect but they taste damn good. And even better, Lily has now learnt to bake, so I don’t have to.

3. Fulsome compliments. Daisy: “Mummy you are the best!”. Lily: “I love you even more than cheese.” Ollie: “Mummy is Fabian’s mummy as beautiful as you?”

4. The feeling that I am building the foundations for three friendships with three fabulous grown-ups. The time that we spend together is so much fun and is only going to get better. I mean they already read (some of them), are not scared of a hike, can be taken to restaurants, converse reasonably at mealtimes, do yoga, like safaris, enjoy a bike ride, happily hang out in bookshops, have great senses of humour and enjoy travelling. In sixteen years time, we’ll be doing all that, plus having a glass of wine together. I look forward to it!

5. The things I have learnt about myself: that I am not as patient as I once fondly imagined, that I can handle only a certain amount of chaos before I crack, that I really, really like good manners, that almost anything goes as long as it is said in a pleasant voice, that I love reading aloud but am bored to tears by Lego, that I don’t mind wearing unironed clothes, that I can tune out fighting but not whining, that I change personality when I don’t get enough sleep, that I actively worry about fruit and veg intake, and that I plan never to sing another nursery rhyme until I am a grandmother.

And now I tag Helen (Australia), Lizzy (Pakistan), Lynn (New Zealand), Lady Fi (Sweden) and Rae (India). If you comment on the original post, you’ll be included in the round-up here.



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Litlove’s Parenting Meme

We have just handed over our three children to some wonderful friends for a Saturday night sleepover, and I am soon to don my Berlin party dress and head to another friend’s birthday party, from which we do not have to return till dawn should we so choose. Thusly childfree, it seems like the perfect moment to attempt Litlove’s Parenting Meme.

(And, since there has been a little, just a very very little, bit of daytime drinking, I cannot be held responsible for some of the things I may or may not say below.)

Litlove’s Parenting Meme:

How do you view your role as a parent? What are you there to do?

To love and protect. To guide and assist. To equip and prepare. To model behaviours and be consistent.

In your social circle, are mothers expected to work or are they encouraged to stay home with the child?

I know very, very few women who do not work in some way or another, but I also know very, very few women who have returned to work full-time. The short school day in Germany and the lack of adequate after-school care means that most women only do part-time or freelance work. The few I do know who work a full 40-hour week have live-in help, who collect the children from school, provide meals if necessary and play the role of parent until Mama or Papa comes home. However, the older children are, and the more independent they are able to be, the longer hours most mothers work.

How do you feel about your children’s education? What’s good about it, and what would you like to see done differently?

I am thrilled with the German kindergarten system with its emphasis on childhood, play and learning by doing. I feel it is a privilege in this highly pressurised world that my children have been allowed this gentle, fun and completely non-academic start. We are two years into the primary school system and I am satisfied thus far, though still horrified that our state requires my child to start high school in Grade Five. The school appears to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is probably the case in all state education systems and I can accept it. However, I am unhappy with the idea of my kids staying in German-only education for the rest of their schooling, so we are starting to scout around for bilingual schooling options. They exist, but at a price.

How do you share the childcare with your partner (if it is shared)? Do you tend towards different activities or different approaches to parenting?

I have been opinionated about how I want my children raised, and have been lucky in that my husband shares my views. He accepted potentially divisive things like sleep-sharing, attachment parenting, long-term breast-feeding without a murmur, and says today that our offspring are better off for it. He is a totally hands-on parent and has been from the start. While he could have chosen career paths that meant he would only see his kids at the weekend, he has always avoided what he calls “the rat-race”, and made choices that give him time with them. This is the reason we do not live in London, Johannesburg or New York. While I am still the primary care-giver, we are aiming in the long run towards a model where I work more and he cares more.

What are the most important virtues to instill in a child?

It sounds cliched, but I do think nothing beats a healthy dose of self-esteem.

What’s the relationship like between mothers at the park and the school gate? Would someone you didn’t know help you out in a stressful moment?

While I am not a fan of baby groups and forced mother-child group activities (in fact, I run screaming), the mothers whom I have met via kindergarten and school have been my life-savers. I am not everyone’s best mate, and I think some find me slightly odd, but I have some very dear friends who have kept me sane, make me laugh and love my kids. If I’m at a playground with my children, I have no trouble chatting with other Mamas if I’m in the mood, but sometimes I just want to zone out and look at the clouds.

What do you fear most for your children?

I try hard not to live in fear, but I suppose I fear something terrible happening to them. I also fear that we are making an inhospitable planet for them to live on.

How do you discipline your child and what are the errors you would put most effort into correcting?

I am one of those boring Mamas who cares about manners, and I probably overdo the repetition on that score. I don’t like violence and that is punished with time-outs on the stairs (a bad, bad thing that makes people cry). I am intolerant of whining and one of my oft-repeated phrases is “Say that to me in your pleasant voice.” Like Litlove, I find that aptly-used praise is more beneficial than lots of negative talk.

Do you think the life of a child has changed much since you were young?

Oddly enough, we are managing to replicate our South African childhood, where we spent a lot of time outdoors, walked to and from places independently of our parents and were expected to be social beings who could converse with adults and children alike here in Germany. Having said that, childhood has become more technological and we are constantly monitoring and assessing how well we are handling that. (For anyone who’s interested, Lia of the Yum Yum Cafe has been writing a fabulous series of posts on children and technology.) My kids also have a greater awareness of the world, and have travelled far more, than I ever had or did as a child.

What is the best compliment your children could pay you for your parenting skills?

My kids are good at frequent, fulsome compliments, so clearly I model praising really well. If they said I helped them to be happy and be their authentic selves, I would rest on my laurels.

Feel free to play too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a party dress to don …


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Confessions of a Slacker

722 words. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

I’ve also been slacking on the blogging front. This is probably the first time – apart from holidays – that I haven’t blogged for a whole week.

Instead of writing and blogging, I have been doing some living. In the style of the lovely Ms Make Tea, here are some random items of life that have got in the way:

  • A morning at Daisy’s kindergarten, making her Schultüte with her. The Schultüte is a cone-shaped object, decorated according to the child’s fancy, that is filled with goodies and presents, which the child takes to their Einschulungsfest. This is a special day to celebrate starting school. It involves a church service, a walk to school carrying both Tüte and spanking new backpack (the Rantzen), a ceremony of welcome and a visit to their classroom with their new teacher. Then they go home, have coffee and cake with the family, and unpack the Tüte. Daisy’s is beautiful: a winter ice-skating scene with sparkling ice and mountains, all in white, blue and silver. She is clearly moving out of the pink princess phase, which is a relief.
  • A visit to the Auslaenderamt to renew my Aufenthaltserlaubnis. Yes, that is as stressful as it sounds – German officials are very officious and I always tend to arrive minus the one vital piece of paper that would ensure having my residence permit renewed on the spot. However, the guy in charge of surnames N to P, which encompasses us, is the most relaxed official in Germany, and the whole thing was achieved in five minutes. Afterwards, we sat in the sun in Heidelberg cafe and breakfasted. Lovely!
  • Three jogs and a yoga class with my very lovely yoga teacher (I have to say this because she now reads my blog and doesn’t want to be cast as one of the nasty Germans in the drama that is Life in the Burg – and she is very lovely). All my runs have been outdoors and I have loved the sunshine, the green hills and the swift wide Neckar river.
  • Going through the children’s clothes, putting outside the old and outgrown ones for charity (and placed these on the street for removal today) and replacing winter clothes with summer ones. It is lovely to see everyone running around in sandals, short sleeves and sunhats.
  • Planning and booking our family’s visit to Berlin and Luebeck next week. We are staying in holiday apartments rather than hotels, which, I discovered on my last visit to the Hauptstad, is the way to go. I am dreaming of Berlin.
  • Watching DVDs! I laffed my way through the first season of Flight of the Conchords, which is a hilarious programme about two New Zealand musicians trying to make it in New York, with the help of their abjectly useless band manager, Murray. I also watched Babel, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, which is an excellent and sobering film.
  • Discovering the Love Food Not Waste website, which I am plundering for tips on how not to waste food, in light of Emily’s EcoJustice Challenge. Broccoli stalk soup anyone?

And now I’m off to lie in the hammock.


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International Harry Potter Day

OK, it wasn’t, it was International Workers’ Day and in Germany, Father’s Day, but somehow the theme of our day was Harry Potter. Today, the girls mixed magic potions which they poured into little glass jars and threaded onto string to wear around their necks. Lily’s was a potion for luck, and Daisy’s was a multi-functional “do-everything” potion. Then they saddled up the broomsticks for a lively game of Quidditch in the garden. Lily was the Seeker.

At some point, I was up in the bedroom with Ollie, and we had the following HP-related conversation:

Ollie (pointing to a Harry Potter paperback which I have been reading to Daisy at bedtime): That’s my Harry Potter.

Mummy: Oh, do you like Harry Potter?

Ollie: Yes.

Mummy: Is Harry Potter a wizard?

Ollie (laughing): Nooooooo.

Mummy: Oh. My mistake.

Ollie: He saw his Mummy and Daddy in the mirror.

Clearly, he was taking in some of the story as I read it to D. And it would be hard to forget the scene, as both Daisy and I cried when we read it. Then Lily joined us and took part in the crying. As a family, we are very moved by Harry’s orphan status.

This evening, while I was reading a far less interesting book to Daisy, Lily – who is now on HP and The Half-Blood Prince came in and noted that all the baddies in the Harry Potter books are known by their surnames: Voldemort, Snape, Malfoy, Quirrell. She’s right, of course. I forsee a great future for her as a book blogger.

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting on the Literate Kitten’s writing challenge Fess-Up Friday, where writers confess to how much or how little they have written that week. I’d better go and tackle the monster that has become Chapter Five. I call it Voldemort.


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Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition

It’s been a long time since my last edition of Tales from The Web. Things have got in the way, like writing a novel and developing a gym habit. I have discovered that an endorphin high from 45 minutes on the cross-trainer lasts a whole lot longer than the endorphin high from eating a 100 gram bar of Milka. Gym is my new drug of choice, and like any addict I get really crabby when I don’t get my fix. This week I’ve sick kids and have only been able to go twice, which has made me bad-tempered and irritable. My family have been practically forcing chocolate on me. “Eat this, Mummy! Eat this and smile again!”

As a form of virtual chocolate, I offer you the March edition of Tales from the Web. Consider it endorphins packaged especially for you, as feel-good as spring lambs gambolling in acid-green fields. And if that doesn’t constitute happiness for you, then imagine you’ve just come off the treadmill, all wobbly-legged and trembly, and you’re floating out of the gym on a cloud of hormone. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with eye candy. I bookmarked this in December, but these cakes could be Easter cakes too. The blogger African Vanielje is a chef, baker extraordinaire, photographer and writer. Take a look at her Truly Remarkable Once a Year Cakes and wish you were a friend of hers with a birthday just around the corner.

I love the Wallace Stevens quote BlogLily has as her blog tag: “It must give pleasure”. On days when I’ve felt like posting something gloomy, self-reflective and sad, I remember BlogLily’s mantra. I do think it is a good one. I have chosen a classic BL post for your delectation here. It comes from her visit to London earlier this year, where she soaked up a lot of theatre. Apparently in London in January, “it was pouring plays about sex”. Have fun reading Is Eros All?

Now we all know that sex can lead to babies, and babies, though delicious, bring a host of unexpected complications with them. Next up is a post written in response to a desperate plea. I saved it because I was taken with the thoughtfulness and kindness that went into shaping the response, and because I was once that parent, with a co-sleeping, breast-feeding baby who didn’t want to sleep unless using me as a dummy. I know the desperation that went into that original email, and I would have welcomed the same kind of non-judgmental kindness that Bluemilk exhibits here in trying to find a solution. I include this in the March Tales from The Web: The Endorphin Edition because I want to show that the blogosphere can be a good place, not just a snarkfest.

The lovely Anna is trying to work herself out of a job. Her three boys are growing up, and her resolution for this year is to mother them less so that they can learn the life-skills they will need when they leave home. I am a big fan of her blog The End of Motherhood where she is documenting this process with her great sense of humour. The post I’m linking to today is not about parenting teenagers, but is a tip for raising smaller kids. It’s what she calls “a secret sauce for parenting young children” and you can read about it here. Fifteen minutes a day to stop tantrums and reconnect with your child. That’s feel-good isn’t it?

I can always rely on Emily to make me laugh. In this post she talks about how, although she loves writing, she goes through the five stages of grief when she has write a half-page introduction to her company’s maths catalogue. As a procrastinator, I can relate. Read it, then go forth and complete all your admin. You’ll be so glad you did.

Ian is funny. But that’s no surprise since he’s Emily’s brother. Check out his Geekfield’s Guide to English Literature, a hand-drawn compendium of English literature from Beowulf to Dan Brown. Who thought graphic text books could be so much fun?

Helen was considering giving up writing, but then she needed the loo. Read how The Most Inspirational Toilet in Sydney gave her her writing mojo back. Could I have one in Heidelberg please?

For all-around chickeny cuteness, go and check out Mandarine’s new tenants, the Orpingtons. We had bantams as children, and they caused us no end of happiness. Unfortunately, they didn’t last long, because the suburbs of Pietermaritzburg were a cut-throat place even then, and they were taken out by a hardened gang of vervet monkeys. However, that’s not going to happen to Mandarine’s chickens because (a) they live in France, and (b) they have a lovely house. Oh, and if you read French, which I can if I try really, really hard, you can read Mandarine’s new blog where he details his attempt to farm a garden big enough to feed his whole family. (Which means he one day may have to sacrifice an Orpington, but we’re not thinking about that yet.)

That’s the Endorphin Edition for now. If I don’t get to the gym soon, I’m going to have to eat one of these: