Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


Things Left Unsaid

I’m shamelessly lifting this idea from Ms Bleeding Espresso (she lives in Italy and bleeds coffee!). It is a list of 15 things I haven’t said over the years to various people, for fear of hurting them or making them angry, but also out of embarrassment, shame or shyness.

Here is my list of things – thus far – left unsaid:

1. You were a shining light of talent and beauty; it still breaks my heart that drugs took you.

2. Of all the people I know in the world, no-one deserves a loving relationship more than you.

3. I wish you would stop yo-yo dieting – accept your beautiful body and get on with it.

4. You were a lovely, funny, delightful friend and I wish you weren’t lost to us. Oh, and I still have your book.

5. I am sorry for the situation you are in, but it is of your own making: if you try to control people, they run away.

6. You are a boring narcissist – go away and come back only when you are prepared to show genuine interest in other people.

7. Being infantile is not attractive in an adult: grow up. Also, you are not as wise as you like to think you are.

8. You need to show love in your actions – mild protestations are not enough. Right now, I’m not sure I believe you.

9. Taking anti-depressants will never remove your pain completely – you need to ask my forgiveness for the hurt you caused and then you might start to feel a little better.

10. Thanks for giving me the experience of loving a jerk early in life – it helped me learn what to avoid.

11. I think you have forgiven me, but I am still sorry for that bad thing I did to you long, long ago – it was cruel, under-hand and selfish of me.

12. Living with you is the great joy of my life.

13. Stop living in fear! Have the courage to be your authentic self, and make the demands that you require.

14. Please stop babbling at me in dialect. I don’t understand you and I don’t want to.

15. Being engaged is not the same as being married. Get married already.

That was cathartic! I can recommend it. If you decide to lighten your own emotional load, please let me know in the comments.


A Few Good Rules

I’ve just finished reading Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult’s version of the American school shooting phenomenon, in which she attributes the shooter’s act of vengeance to years of systematic bullying. Picoult spins a good tale, broad, encompassing, but never deep. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with the same subject matter – what makes a teenage murderer, how a community responds, how parents of a murderer feel – but far more provocatively and urgently. Her tale of a mother who fails, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child, is chilling. If I had to choose between the two, I would recommend the latter. I admire Shriver’s brutal honesty and her determination to tackle deeply unpleasant topics.

Shriver’s story posits that Kevin, the teenage murderer, arrives on the planet evil. This alone, without the story’s horrific denouement, is hard to digest. We want to believe that babies are innocent, until we slowly imprint our weaknesses on them. We want to believe that the parents of an amoral child did their best to teach him. And we certainly want to believe that such a child might take revenge his schoolmates but never on his own family.

The murderer in Picoult’s tale starts out as an ordinary child, perhaps one who is more sensitive than most. On his first day of kindergarten, the bullying begins and it never stops. Each day at school is one of humiliation, shame and beatings. One part of the story I found hard to accept is that the adults around him, his parents and his teachers, are never aware of the extent of the bullying. His parents try to make him more acceptable to his peers by forcing him to play soccer, but continually compare him to his brother Josh who is socially competent, academic and sporty. Josh also teases his brother at school, calling him a “freak”, and how this fails to pan out in the family is never addressed.

In comparison to Shriver’s meaty broth, Picoult’s novel is a thin gruel, competent but never entirely satisfying. However, it did make me think a little more about bullying and how children loathe difference. When Lily arrived in her little German school class last year, she was swiftly dumped by the one child from her own kindergarten (they have since reconciled) and was left to face the hordes on her own. After two weeks of hearing that no-one wanted to play with her at break-time, I went on a playdate offensive, inviting children round, baking welcoming muffins and letting them see that while Lily may be a little different from the German norm in that she comes from an English/South African background, she is loved and cherished just like they are. Now she has lovely little friends, from whom she remains slightly independent, as is her way. Had I left it, perhaps she would have managed on her own, but perhaps she would not have. I’m just glad I acted swiftly.

However, with bullying on my mind, it was interesting that she came home today with list of rules for good behaviour at school. The children have cut them out and stuck them in their work books, and they are discussing them in class with their teacher. The rules are:

We listen to each other, and to the teacher

We don’t laugh at anyone when they make a mistake

We don’t blame each other

We help each other

We don’t run in the classroom, only in the playground

We speak politely to each other

We let each other finish our sentences

We keep our desks tidy

We work quietly, so as not to disturb each other

We solve our conflicts without violence

We wait our turn quietly

We put up our hands when we want to speak

I don’t know if this is school policy, or just the policy of Lily’s teacher, but I think they are a great set of principles, ones according to which I’d be happy to raise my children.


Party Pointers for When You’re Next in Germany

Living in a foreign country is full of challenges, especially when it’s party season. Over the years, we have betrayed our own natural politeness by getting it wrong; horribly, embarrassingly and shamefully wrong. Manners were highly rated in my family and I regard myself as a polite girl. While I don’t relish the idea of parties, I have the social confidence that whatever the situation, I will be able to handle it. Living in another country where you aren’t tuned in to the norms can bash that confidence right out of you, and that’s when you adapt, or leave. I speak a German that’s flawed but sufficient to have whole friendships in, yet somehow there are cultural things that hover above language that I just don’t grasp. So in case you’re planning to live in Germany or just visit, I offer here some tips on party etiquette that I have gleaned from hard experience.

Misleading Invitation I, or Assume There Is More Information Than The Invitation States

We went to a Bastelnachmittag yesterday – an afternoon of crafting Christmas decorations for the windows of Lily’s classroom. Basteln is not my forte, but I am happy to do it under adult supervision, and the children adore it. The invitation said “Come at 1530, bring your mugs and some Christmas biscuits.” Dutifully, I did all of the above, but was mortified when I got there to see that each and every German mummy also had a steaming thermos of tea, coffee or hot chocolate and that some had baked cakes. Nowhere did the invitation state “bring your own drinks” but somehow 25 women had managed to intuit that that was the case. Me, the only foreigner in the room, presumed that drinks would be provided. It did not cross my mind for one second that “bring your mugs” could be stretched to mean “bring drinks of your choice”.

Misleading Invitation II, or Don’t Assume There Is More Information Than The Invitation States

When we came back to Germany for this, our second, stint, we were invited to a Sixties party. It was our first month here, I was now a stay-at-home mum rather than a working girl, and I was keen to get out there and meet some people. Thomas and I got ready – he as a hippy, in flared pants, psychedelic T-shirt and sandals. I went the Christine Keeler route – hair teased into an enormous bouffant beehive, black kohl-rimmed eyes and pale pink lips, winkle-picker stillettos, and some sort of clingly black number. We parked in a Heidelberg car park and progressed to the party, self-conscious about being out in public in our dressing-up clothes. When we got to the party, we ascended the stairs, with me feeling slightly apprehensive – would I remember my German? Would I remember people’s names? At the top of the stairs, we looked into a large room full of people, all partying, all drinking and … all … wearing … normal 2003 clothes. We were the ONLY people who had dressed up.

DIY Introductions

At another party, early on in our first German stint, we walked into a room where a semi-circle of guests were standing stiffly, making chit-chat. We smiled politely, waiting to be introduced, but the hosts – our friends – were rushing around pouring drinks and doing party things. There was a pause in the conversation, people looked at us, a couple muttered “Abend” but no introductions were forthcoming. Shortly afterwards, the hosts’ neighbours arrived, with their two children, neither of whom were more than ten years old. We clutched our drinks and watched with increasing embarrassment as the family of four moved around the room, shaking hands with every single person there and introducing THEMSELVES.

When Thanking, Know Your Dictionary

We had a large joint birthday party and had invited some of my development team. These were people who seriously needed to get out – the types who wear Birkenstocks in the snow, eat flat food and don’t know how to talk to girls. Anyway, they managed to bring both Thomas and I spectacularly thoughtful gifts – for me a hardcover copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full in English and for him some beautifully packaged juggling balls. At the party, they mostly stood around eating large helpings of food, but a couple managed to dance and even talk to some girls. On Monday, I went to thank them for the gifts. I opened the door of their office, made eye contact – always difficult – and when I had the full attention of everyone in the room, confidently uttered in German the words: “Thank you very much for presents. I love my book and Thomas is very enttaeuscht with his juggling balls. He’s so enttaeuscht really.” Then I smiled and left the room, accounting the stunned silence that followed to their complete lack of social skills.

Months later, we were listening to the radio in the car and the DJ said something about being “enttaeuscht“. I said to Tom, “That means impressed, doesn’t it?”. “No,” he said, “it means disappointed.”

Other Crucial Things to Know:

1. When an invitation says “Come at 20h00” that is what it means. If you a party-giver, expect all your guests to be crowding into your home at 20h01. If you are attending a party, and you take 20h00 to mean “8 for 8.30”, all the the food will be gone.

2. Germans expect food at parties. It is unlikely that they will offer to bring any, but they will bring armloads of gifts for you, for the children, for your visiting mother-in-law. Prepare to be inundated with hugely generous presents.

3. Germans don’t dance. They may, at a push, late into the evening, get up and dance to “99 Red Balloons”, but if you want to have a dancing party, invite foreigners, especially Latin Americans. They dance. And so do South Africans.