Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


When Germans Go Wild

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the pool, a great arena to observe the natives at play. My theory is that Germans love nothing better than a controlled situation where they can rampage. There are the rules, which they observe, but every other possible human nicety is ignored and/or flouted wilfully, carelessly and joyously.

The rules of the pool are thus:

1. Take a shed-load of stuff: a blanket to lie towels upon, second swimming-costumes, towelling dressing gowns, tents, inflatable items, drinks, food, chairs.

2. Find a place to sit as close to another family as possible that you can tell what they had for breakfast.

3. Undress your children, place them in their swimming-gear and cover them in cream.

4. Head for the pool together, bearing your inflatables.

5. When children are tired/wet, remove them from the pool, strip them and place them either in the dry replacement costume which you brought along for this very purpose, or in their towelling dressing-gowns and order them to lie in the sun and warm up.

6. Purchase vast amounts of fried protein and carbs from the restaurant and eat these sitting in the sun.

7. Repeat from point 3.

You will note that the pool rules only cover extra-pool activities. It’s what goes on in the pool that constitutes the wild, where Germans unleash their inner iconoclasts.

Today, we got to the pool early, found a precious place in the shade under the conifers, not too close to anyone else, and went for a swim. There are three pools here in the Burg: the baby pool, the non-swimmers’ pool and the swimmers’ pool. Knowing that the two former would be heaving with children, I headed for the latter to do some laps.

Unfortunately, there was anarchy in the water. You’d think with the way this society embraces rules, the concept of the up lane and the down lane would be firmly in its grasp. You’d be wrong. The swimmers’ pool has ten lanes, which the swimmers gamely ignore. It’s a swim-where-you-will, any-direction, any-speed, random free-for-all. The serious swimmers, and I don’t include myself here, have to overtake embracing couples practising positions best kept for the bedroom, German grannies swimming three abreast and chatting, wild children leaping from the sides onto their heads and clumps of middle-aged people socialising in gangs.  

Leaving the herds of swimming-caps dominating the middle lanes, I headed for the outer lanes. Here children plunged and reared and leapt onto my head and teenage boys made no pretence about ducking under the water in their goggles as I swam past to check out my bikini form.

Now that I think about it, those two large, tattooed, muscled creatures who took breaths and headed under to ogle me submarinely weren’t exactly teenagers. Age aside, it was the blatancy of it, the shamelessness. They could not have been more obvious if they’d tried.

The pool was a great heaving mass of happy German flesh, bounding, leaping, diving, ducking, swimming, chatting, ogling, gossiping, screaming, yelling, and generally having the time of its life. Within the accepted boundaries, there is complete and joyous anarchy.

My children adore the chaos. I’m going to have to find another time to do my laps.


Awakening the Inner Cave-Dweller

We’re down to one car here at Fun Central. My 12-year-old Renault Scenic died unceremoniously a few weeks ago and we decided not to replace it, because we are good Germans and like to think about the environment. This does put some pressure on me and Germany’s Top Husband, though, in terms of negotiating who gets the car when. I was fondly imagining I’d go grocery shopping this morning until he pointed out that he had a suit day in Heidelberg and the car was his. Off  he went, leaving me staring into the empty fridge wondering what the hell I was going to have for breakfast.

Turns out, it was a peach. Not a peach that was lingering in the fruit-bowl, but a peach that I had to hunt down by foot and then drag home, skin and eat.

There is something intensely satisfying about bringing your food home on foot. Here’s what I managed to scavenge by going into the Burg’s thousand-year-old town centre and walking around the shops there, instead of driving to the supermarket outside town:

1. Butcher: Thuringer sausages, both plain and spicy; marinated lamb chops (got the fourth free just by chatting to the lovely lady – that wouldn’t have happened at the supermarket); free-range eggs.

2. Greengrocer: a butternut (never to be found in a German supermarket), peaches, apples, grapes, cucumber, red peppers, a tin of marinated giant beans, a lettuce.

3. Schlecker: muesli, cleaning cloths, bin bags, snacks for the kids.

4. Bakery: Brezeln, both plain and cheesy, and a free chat about Germany’s chances for Saturday.

Then I dragged the whole lot home and pounced on my peach.

I have become a fan of the caveman lifestyle idea. Those of you who have been with me a long time know that diets have come and gone. There was Shangri-La, there was low-carb and long, long ago in the mists of time, there was Weight-Watchers.

But the caveman diet, I’m telling you, is the way forward. It has various names and proponents (paleolithic, caveman, primal blueprint), but the basic idea is the same: eat the way our ancestors ate, move the way they moved, and rest the way they rested, thus becoming fitter, leaner and healthier. It makes a lot of sense to me. Without wanting to repeat what the experts say, I point you to the best blog I’ve found on the caveman lifestyle: Mark’s Daily Apple. Check out his About section for tons of useful background information.

I’ve been acting the cave-dweller for the month of June. I’ve lost kilograms and centimetres, which is always pleasing. I am also happier, better rested and far less grumpy. And right now, I’m off to the pool in my mammoth-skin bikini for some caveman-like romping.

Want to join me?


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.


Sunshine and Chandeliers

Can I just say that Italy is lovely? And if anyone ever says to you, “Want to visit Lake Garda?”, your appropriate response should be, “When do we leave?”. Do not hesitate, not even to finish the ironing or the next page of your book, but go straight there. The combination of balmy weather, mountains and a crystal-clear lake all set about with chic little towns and pebbly beaches is a winner. We had eleven straight days of sunshine, enough to get a tan, swim in the pool or in the lake seven times a day and not even once contemplate a cardigan.

Our campsite, the appropriately named Campsite Eden, had two pools, a private beach and was in walking distance to Portese, a dinky little port with a great swimming beach, a couple of restaurants and an ice-cream parlour. We were housed not in a tent, since we have not yet reached those levels of self-sufficient derring-do (plus I like to have my own toilet), but in a well-equipped mobile home that measured seven metres by three. Minature, but perfect since we spent most of our time swimming and eating ice-cream and admiring chic Italians and little time pacing the tiny parameters of our accommodation. The big deck helped to make it seem larger, as did the fact that we were situated in an olive grove, with mint growing in the grass and semi-tame bunnies gratefully accepting carrots.

The campsite was mostly filled with Germans, Dutch and British tourists and my hours of pooltime watching my three avid swimmers gave me some time to form completely scientific conclusions about the different nations. The German and Dutch parents got into the pool and actually played with their children, while the British lay on loungers and ignored theirs. I believe the fact that the British parents were the lardiest is not unrelated to this fact. In order to not be tainted, I played with my children, and while GTH was not out climbing mountains on his bike, I went for runs along the lake, but I was not above bribing them for moments alone on my lounger by sending them to the shop with money for ice-cream.

One morning Ollie woke up, sprung into our bed declaring, “Mummy! I had a good dream! I was sailing in a boat – with you!” so we made his dream come true by getting onto a ferry at Salo and taking a trip to Isola del Garda, a private island owned by the Cavazza family where we were taken on a guided tour by a nice German girl from Liepzig. Apparently the Countess is called Charlotte, which my family found most appropriate. The children liked the Cavazza family cats which followed the tour, and I liked the snacks provided at the end. The island and the villa were lovely too.

After eleven days of five people sleeping in the minature mobile, we packed up and drove 1,200 kilometres to the Uckermark in northeast Brandenburg for a wedding at Schloss Herzenfelde. This is another place to which, if ever offered the opportunity to visit, you should unhesitatingly say, “Let’s go!”. Surrounded by 20 hectares of parkland, and then by the forests and farmlands of the Uckermark, the Schloss has been restored by its present owner to high standards of comfort and luxury. The lovely bride, who did the room arrangements, had warned us to bring mattresses and sleeping-bags for the children as there was only one double bed per room, but when we arrived we found ourselves in a suite with three double beds and a chandelier-bedecked bathroom that was bigger than our Italian mobile home. After eleven days of edging sideways round our bed and still getting knocked on the head or ankles by our belongings, it was bliss to have space, sleep on fresh white linen and admire the statuary in the park out of the bathroom window.

The wedding was gorgeous – an appropriately in love couple, a service in a quaint village church, lots of Sekt, babysitters for the children, an exquisite meal, great people to talk to and dancing until the early hours of Sunday morning. After hauling ourselves out of bed and enjoying one last lovely breakfast under the chandeliers, we drove the 700 kilometres home.

It’s good to be back, but I’m missing the olive grove and the chandeliers. And my family are growing tired of calling me Countess.


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.


Auf Wiedersehen, Pets

Today I spent at the pool vigilantly watching my threesome, who range from swimmer to paddler to fully paid-up water wings user. Tomorrow I take them to Alsace Lorraine to visit friends who, for their sins, are spending the Whitsun holidays in a camper van in a village that my friend described as “one house” (thank God for satnav). Thursday, we leave for Berlin.

With sunshine and holidays abounding, I bid you a brief Auf Wiedersehen. I am taking a blogging and Internet break for a couple of weeks. I plan to spend the hours that I’m not soaking up the wonders of Berlin and Lübeck working on my novel, which I have been neglecting since the sun arrived in Germany a couple of weeks ago. During my last two runs (six kilometres!), I crystallized the action of Chapter Six in my head and now have to get it all down before it vapourises.

I also plan to look for the ultimate summer dress. If I can’t find it in Berlin, then I can’t find it anywhere!

See you at the end of the holidays. May the sun shine on you wherever you are. Tschüss!


Musings from the Pool

In the last two weeks, I spent a lot of time here:

It gave me the chance to examine closely and at length other people’s bodies. Let me say this, there is almost no such thing as a perfect body. Flaws are everywhere. While looking at bodies large and slender, I was also able to examine my own weight madness. I think my attitude to weight is odd and skewed, coming as I do from a family who believe on seeing one another that it is acceptable to say things like, “You look like you’ve lost some weight! Last time I saw you you had buttocks like a zebra.” Or who like to fling an arm around a pregnant woman and announce to a group of 12 people that, “Charlotte will lose all this weight as soon as the baby is here.” Or who think it is helpful to say to a pubescent 12-year-old, “I see you have inherited the Von Mengershausen (read: Teutonic and large) thighs.”

As grown-ups we have to own our madness and not still blame our families for every single one of our failings, but having had such a fertile start, my twisted attitude to weight has grown apace like a feral and overactive vine. While I relaxed reading in a lounger stood in the shallow waters of the pool watching my small people cavort, there was a dialogue between my weight madness and my sane mind. It went something like this …

Weight madness: Fat people shouldn’t have tattoos.

Sane mind: Anyone can have tattoos. Even if I don’t like them much, it’s anyone’s right to decide how to decorate their bodies.

Weight madness: Oh God, look at the size of her. How can she bring herself to put on a bikini?

Sane mind: She is relaxing and enjoying her holiday with her family. Isn’t that lovely?

Weight madness: I’ve never seen so many fat teenagers. Look at that brazen one.

Sane mind: Yes, there are a lot of fat teenagers. Children nowadays have different pressures to face. It’s better that she’s out there having fun with her friends than cooped up at home feeling sorry for herself.

Weight madness: I wish my thighs were thinner.

Sane mind: I’ve had three children. My thighs are a badge of pride.

Weight madness: Yes, but look at my stomach. It’s gross.

Sane mind: My stomach could be a little trimmer.

Weight madness: I’d better lose all this weight before I go to Berlin in September. I don’t want (dear and accepting friend) to go back home to South Africa and tell everyone how fat I am.

Sane mind: She loves me for who I am not for the size of my thighs.

Weight madness: True, but she’ll still go home and tell everyone how fat I am.

Sane mind: South Africans are more weight-obsessed than anyone else I know. Look at all these happy fat Italians. They’re having a lovely time and no-one’s feeling self-conscious at all. I could let my stomach hang out a little more if I wanted to.

Weight madness: No I musn’t! I won’t be able to see my feet. I’m going sit down in the water so only my thin bits show.

That bit of internal insanity aside, here are the facts:

1. I am 10 kilograms heavier than I was when I left school in 1986.

2. When I left school in 1986 I had the beginnings of a food disorder, during which I ate an apple for breakfast, a Slim Slab for lunch and only the vegetables at supper. No-one noticed that I was not eating enough, and everyone congratulated me for looking so thin. The disorderette went away after about six months when my hunger thankfully returned.

3. There is a five-kilogram window in which my weight radiates up and down, depending on mood, season and hormones.

4. I wear the same size clothes as I did before I was pregnant. The clothes are sometimes a little tighter, sometimes a little looser.

5. My husband and my children think I am gorgeous.

6. I have never mentioned weight to my children. I tell them they are beautiful, and they are. My weight madness dialogue is completely internal.

Despite knowing all of the above, I still believe – when I am at wrong end of that five-kilogram window – that I am out of control and shameful. How mad is that? I sucked in all those weight messages my family sent my way like a thirsty camel hitting the oasis. The messages were thin = good, fat = bad; thin = good girl, fat = shameful girl; thin = stand up and be proud, fat = run away and hide and don’t come out until you’re thin again.

The sane part of me has completely accepted my Von Mengershausen thighs, but the weight madness stills scrapes away in the back of my head critiquing myself and those around me who dare to wear a bikini when they clearly shouldn’t. I need to send the weight madness for re-education, from whence it can come back a Beth Ditto fan, shouting “Love me, love my zebra buttocks”. Most importantly, it needs to look at other people and not run through an exhausting checklist of how they could look better. At best, it’s superficial, and at worst, it’s cruel.

Thin-propaganda free, I could relax a little more at the pool. It takes a lot of energy being mean.


Recent Reading

Soon, we’ll be driving to Tuscany for a couple of weeks on the beach and the best thing, apart from sun, sand and Italian food, is that I can pack the boot of the car with as many books as I want to. I don’t have to worry about weight or select a few – I can take the whole damn lot. While I’m there I also intend to complete my novel outline for the first meeting of my writing group in September, flesh out some of my characters and maybe compose some offline posts about Tuscan beach culture (Are hoop earrings de rigeur?/ Is there such a thing as too little bikini?/Sandcastles I have known).

I realise I’ve been remiss about reviewing my recent reading. When I have big work projects on and house-guests, as I do now, I don’t stop reading but I don’t really have time to write in-depth reviews. While I await comment from my editor, and while my charming house-guests entertain my children, here’s an overview of the reading that’s been going on chez Charlotte recently.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

I love Seth’s novels. He writes them big and fat and packed with characters, which is my favourite kind of book. Two Lives is a memoir and biography, and it is just as large and satisfying as one of his novels. It details the lives of Seth’s great-uncle Shanti and his wife Henny. Shanti moved to Berlin from India in the 1930s to study dentistry, and found rooms with Henny’s family. Henny managed to escape to England from Germany in 1939, but her mother and sister were unable to leave and eventually were murdered in a concentration camp. Seth researches the memoir after Henny’s death, so he pieces her story together through Shanti Uncle’s memories and Henny’s vivid correspondence. What was fascinating for me was the vibrant picture of Thirties Berlin, and Shanti and Henny’s glamorous and various group of friends. After the war, the group is of course shattered, with some members dead, others shamed by their Nazi connections and others trying to survive the depredations of postwar Germany. Henny’s Berlin friends were always deeply grateful for her care packages of chocolate, stockings and cigarettes. At one point, Seth travels to Israel to research state records of the Holocaust in order to find out how and where Henny’s family were killed, and is overcome with horror at the understated cruel efficiency of official German as it describes the removal of people from society. He writes, “I grew to hate the verbs”. That resonated so strongly with me. The German that I use every day is the same German that wiped out millions of people with its cruel deathly verbs. While parts of this book are difficult to read, Two Lives is written with sensitivity, affection and humour. I loved it.

The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. This is apparently a bestseller, but that hadn’t crossed my radar when I picked it up. I suspect I may have read about it on someone’s blog – my usual method of collecting recommendations. The storyline was intriguing: a couple have twins but when the husband, who is a doctor, sees that his daughter is a Downs baby, he hands her to a nurse with directions to remove her to a home. He then tells his wife that her daughter has died. The nurse takes the baby to the home, but when there, changes her mind and decides to raise the child herself in another city. The novel tells the parallel stories of these twins growing up in different circumstances. It was well-told and the characters were well-drawn and believable. I felt compassion for the wife who mourns her dead daughter, compassion for the husband living with his terrible secret, and admiration for the nurse who loves the little girl as her own. It’s a competent story and well-told. I think it would make a good beach book.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walsh. This is also a memoir and a gripping one. Walsh is one of four children raised by a pair of completely feckless parents. The father is a dreamer and and an alcoholic, and the mother is an artist who doesn’t see the point of cooking a meal, because it only lasts 15 minutes, while a painting lasts forever. Walsh’s first memory is of standing at the stove at the age of three cooking hotdogs because she is hungry. The boiling water spills on her, and she has to spend six weeks in hospital, from where her father “saves her” because he doesn’t want to pay the bills. This is only the beginning of a litany of stories about her parents which I read with my mouth hanging open. Despite neglect on a spectacular scale, three of the four children manage to survive relatively intact – Walsh herself becomes a successful journalist in New York. She writes of her childhood without bitterness and of her parents with affection. As a reader, I followed her trajectory of warmish feelings towards this astonishingly unconventional couple – until the scene where the children are picking through the bins at school for something to eat and when they get home, the mother dives under the comforter on her bed (where she spends most of the day) to take large bites of a chocolate bar she’s secreted there. I lost patience with the father even earlier. I think Walsh wants to present a non-judgmental picture of her parents, but merely by telling her story she does invite her readers to judge. I judged, and I found them guilty of extreme neglect.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. This is the second mystery story by the writer of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the second featuring grizzled detective Jackson Brodie (the first was the acclaimed Case Histories). Atkinson is at the top of her game. One Good Turn is an excellent read, with a host of superbly-drawn characters, a great mystery and a wonderful twist at the end. If anyone’s looking for the perfect summer book, I’d say this is it. I seldom re-read, but I’m tempted to take this on holiday with me because I’d like to pay more attention to her style. She is so damn talented.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I’m not going to write too much about this book, as there are many acres of text on the Web already, but I loved it. It was beautiful. It’s terrifying portrait of a country, a poignant study of family and a testament to loyalty.

The Ice Storm by Rick Moody. I saw Ang Lee’s superb film a few years ago, so it was his images that were in my head when I read the book. Perhaps my slight disappointment stems from the disjunction between the film and the book, but I found the book’s preoccupation with male masturbation and overly knowing teenage girls a bit tiresome. It’s not intended to be comfortable reading, and it isn’t. Let’s just say that Moody draws a particularly unappealing portrait of the American male and his preoccupations, circa 1973.


Right now, I’ve got two books going on. For fun, I’m reading Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, a great thriller set in early twentieth-century New York. For intellectual challenge, I’m reading Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a bold and fascinating book and it’s sure to spawn a blog post or two.


Today Charlotte Will be Modelling …

… her very own sweat.

(Just thought you’d like to know.)

It’s been hot. Hot, hot, hot. It’s been so hot, I cleaned off the six weeks of mould that had accumulated on the paddling pool during our monsoon, stripped my three children down to their nethers and threw them in.

It’s been so hot, that we have scraped the rust off the three fans that languish unused like white suits of armour in our bedrooms, and switched them on.

It’s been so hot that I washed down our trailer trash garden furniture, dried it and arrayed brightly coloured tablecloths upon the tables to make pretty.

It’s been so hot that I swept the terrasse and hosed it down to prevent it from dehydrating.

It’s been so hot that our universally retired neighbours are scaring us by wearing their vests and skimpiest bathing costumes in their gardens.

It’s been so hot that apart from the sound of happy neighbours chatting in their gardens, all I can hear is the shush-shush of hoses as they water their well-manicured lawns and flowerbeds.

It’s been so hot I can hear our own lawn growing, along with its very good friends, the weeds.

It’s been so hot that lemon beer has been the only thing to drink.

It’s been so hot that salads have been the only thing to eat. And ice-cream.

It’s been so hot that Burg has a party atmosphere. People are jollier than the Professor of Jolly at Oxford University.

It’s been so hot that I’ve seen loads of friends, eaten lovely food, paddled in a brook, watched my kids wave sticks at pinatas, lounged on a rug under the shade of a large umbrella, enjoyed a braai at home, strolled into town and walked home with an armful of roses as a present for myself and a new vase to put them in. Best of all, on the way to and from the supermarket, I rolled down the window of my car and played Bob Marley and the Wailers loudly for the benefit of all humankind.

Every little thing IS going to be alright.