Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Feeling Horizontal

I’ve just come back from a week in Mallorca, having found its quiet, laid-back corner (it still exists) and am feeling horizontal. I wonder if my sun lounger misses me?

Life is going up a gear for me, however, as I start work in two weeks’ time – a real, fulltime job – just as my children start their summer holidays. We’re having to import our favourite au pair from South Africa (Granny) in order to cope with the timetable clash. And in the two weeks between then and now, I plan to finally complete the novel revisions and submit them, so I’m not sure how often I am going to be able to post here at Charlotte’s Web.

While I’m writing and contemplating my work wardrobe, here are some pics from Mallorca upon which you can feast your eyes:

Finca Sol Rose: view from the kitchen to the lovely blue pool and mountains

Blue sea, blue sky

Craggy mountains, blue sea

Blue coves

Blue flowers

Contemplating lunch, while wearing blue

More damn blue

Formentor Beach blues

As you can tell, it was very, very rough, but someone had to do it.

Au revoir,

Your intrepid correspondent


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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.


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Camping Les Ormes

My husband is a cyclist and likes holidays that involve immense amounts of pain. I am a sybarite and like holidays that involve beautiful things to eat, drink, read and look at. This is why our holiday at Camping Les Ormes in the Dordogne valley was perfect for us both. From the minute we arrived, I knew I was going to be happy:

Our tent was perched on the lip of a hill, with a view of the pool:

Inside, wine and roses waited for us:

As did crystal tea light holders:

Bright white linen:

A piano:

A chandelier:

And thoughtfully chosen books:

Everywhere I looked, there were strong design values:

And places of beauty for the eye to rest:

Best of all, no-one seemed to mind that after about 20 seconds our perfect pitch looked like this:

The campsite has 100 pitches on 25 acres of landscaped terrain. It has a pool, a bar and a restaurant and enough space for posses of kids to run around happily while their parents sip rose and contemplate reading a book. Staffed by two industrious Dutch couples, who have imbued it with their flair for design and people’s happiness, Les Ormes attracts campers from all over Europe. We met German, Spanish, British and Dutch families, all of whom were equally friendly and happy for their kids to run around with ours. One of my favourite things about Les Ormes was its non-sexist staffing – the teams of students working there ran the bar, worked the restaurant and cleaned the tents regardless of their gender. My other favourite thing was the price – it cost slightly more than other campsites we have visited, but at just under 500 Euros for one of the very chic safari tents for a family of four, I think it’s very good value. A Les Ormes holiday comes highly recommended!

(PS As a novice mystery writer, I have placed a red herring somewhere in this post. Can you find it?)


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Journey’s End

So I’m back from my journey. We took a 12-hour drive to the Dordogne Valley for a week’s glamping at the unequivocally fabulous Camping les Ormes. This is a camping site that actually lives up to its website – it is that beautiful. While strong design values don’t make an iota of difference to my kids’ holiday, or for that matter, my husband’s, they do to mine. I loved sleeping in a tent with a chandelier and an antique piano, having crystal tea light holders and fresh roses on the white kitchen table. Pictures and a full report to follow.

However, we came home to the news that France is the world’s most expensive destination. So we may not be going back for a while.

Today is South Africa’s big day, and we are off shortly to celebrate the start of the World Cup with all the South Africans who live in Germany. Since there are only 14 of us, some Germans have also been invited and we are looking forward to teaching them how to blow the vuvuzela. Though I hold with good design values, I may break from those for today and wear my green Bafana Bafana t-shirt. Because, the boys, you know, we want them to win.

I watched some of the concert last night and cried in the dark in front of the telly. The atmosphere was amazing, the musicians outstanding and I felt proud, patriotic and very far away. Still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.

My novel is progressing well. I am close to the finish line of draft four and have promised myself and my husband to start approaching agents by July at the latest. I wrote a car chase scene last night that included references to BMW model numbers and felt like James Bond, just for the day.

This was our family theme song for the holiday. Yes, we do allow our children to sing songs about ‘blowing the bad guys away’. We also let them play ‘I kissed a girl and I liked it’ on their recorders.

Hooray for Barbara Kingsolver winning the Orange Prize! I ordered The Lacuna from my DH who flew in from London last night, and as I wiped my tears and read the first pages at midnight, I discovered that Kingsolver has stolen a phrase of mine. Goddammit, don’t these published authors have any respect for great unpublished? It’s a phrase I’m proud of, that my beta readers have all circled and given me a gold star for. Now I have to decide whether to get rid of it, or let it slip in there.

Which is all grist to the finishing mill, so I’ll bid you another farewell. See you at the end of Draft Four!


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Staycation Interruptus

Attention! Nous allons dans la Suisse, parce que le Papa veut faire son bicyclette dans les Alpes, la Maman veut faire le swimming dans les piscines et les enfants voulez manger le chocolate et beaucoup, beaucoup de Gruyere. Alors, nous avons Staycation Interruptus pour une semaine. A bientot.

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Achtung! Wir gehen in die Schweiz weil Papa moechte Fahrad in den Alpen fahren, Mama will in den Seen schwimmen gehen und die Kinder wollen Schokolade und sehr viel Kaese essen. Doch haben wir eine Woche Staycation Interruptus. Bis Bald.

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Please note! We are heading to Switzerland so that Daddy can ride his bike up the Alps, Mummy can go swimming in the lakes and the children can eat chocolate and tons of cheese. It appears we have a week of Staycation Interruptus. Back soon.

1796022433_635942e5a2(suavehouse)


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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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Cretan Photo Essay

I’m making a brief layover here en route to Berlin, just to share some images of Crete.

My brother got married here on a balmy Cretan evening:

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The monastery at Aptera

The flower-girls wore wreaths of jasmine and carried:

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Baskets of rice and lavender

The groom and his dudes wore black tie and:

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Chucks

Your correspondent wore:

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Black, and a statement necklace. Also, statement grasses attaching themselves to the hem of her very long gown. A good look.

On Crete, there are many women dressed in widow’s weeds. We saw one driving a Vespa with walking stick in hand, a fat bandage on her leg and no helmet. After having heard the explanation that the term “crone” is sexist and misogynist, my daughter came up with a word for the male equivalent:

IMG_4726Meet the moan

On Crete there are:

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Very small churches

IMG_4506Beaches that look like Cape Town

IMG_4502Beaches that look like Barbados

IMG_4814Beaches that look like nowhere else on earth

IMG_4997Tavernas

IMG_4947Wildflowers

IMG_4728Horses

IMG_3951Giraffe

Now that I’ve really got your attention, I’m off to Berlin. I think it’s missing me.

And my sophisticated sense of humour.


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Our Big Fat Greek Wedding

I’m taking a two-week blog break. One of my step-brothers had the brilliant idea of getting married on Crete, instead of in England where he lives, so we are off to celebrate. My other two steps are coming with their girlfriends, whom I have never met, the soulful one is coming from South Africa and my mum and stepdad will be there too. Apart from the fun of the wedding, we will also be having our first family reunion in over a decade. All this happiness in the land of beachside tavernas, azure seas and white mountains.

If you happen to think this good luck is too much for one set of shoulders to bear, let me assure you that it will slightly offset by our six-hour stopover in Athens tomorrow afternoon and our return flight which leaves Chania at 0655, requiring us to wake up at 0400. Being in Greece will be wonderful; getting to and from is a little more strenuous.

The day after we return, we are briefly visiting Berlin, just to make sure it is still there and surviving without us. I should be blogging again by the second week of June.

Till then, I wish you sunshine and happiness. While I am gone, feel free to meditate in the olive grove:

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Grateful thanks to Arielle for the image


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Which Book Shall I Take to New York?

In four sleeps’ time, I depart for my long-awaited holiday in New York with my dear friend, V. Not the world’s lightest packer, I am beset with decisions: what clothes to take, which shoes, do I need a cocktail dress, what to leave behind, laptop or no laptop? When I get there will my first drink be a Manhattan or a G&T? What’s in a Manhattan anyway? First Avenue or Century 21? Big Broadway show or little smoky dive? Pastrami or lox? You can see, dear reader, that I am troubled. In a good way. But the one question that is literally keeping me awake at night is: which book to take on the plane? And you can save me by voting in the poll below.

Do I take the latest Candace Bushnell novel, to get me into major retail-therapy, Carrie Bradshawesque Manhattan mode? Do I take my teenage favourite Catcher in the Rye for a taste of Fifties New York noir? Or should I take a classic in order to picture the city in a more innocent and genteel time?

In order to ensure that I arrive in the city fresh, without disfiguring bags under my eyes from lack of sleep, please help me decide which novel should accompany me on the plane. PollDaddy will allow you to make another suggestion, if you disparage my choices. Enjoy testing out WordPress’s new poll functionality, to which I potentially could become addicted. (I imagine future polls: “Reader, should I get up or stay in bed?”, “Wine or chocolate?”, “Love-god: Barack Obama or Colin Firth?”)

So without further ado, I give you the big question:

Thank you for voting! I’ll be so glad you did.


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The Life of Others

After I graduated from university at the end of 1989, I left South Africa and went travelling. My stated goals were to bring home a piece of the Berlin Wall and Christian Slater. It was quite something launching myself into the world in 1990, a world where Nelson Mandela had been released and the Berlin Wall had fallen, a world of thrilling potential and opportunity. I came home without visiting Berlin, because I ran out of money in Italy after ten months of waitressing and travelling, and I needed to start my journalism degree. I also came home without Christian Slater, but brought with me instead an English boyfriend who horrified everyone by hitch-hiking across South Africa alone, while carrying all his belongings in a plastic Spar packet.

While my need to be around dubious men has disappeared, I have always nursed the dream of Berlin and I finally got there last year in April. Since then I have been back three times, and I will continue to go at every opportunity I get because there is something about Berlin that makes me feel alive. As a South African, I think I relate to a city that is coming to terms with its divided past. Just one walk around the Jewish Museum demonstrates how Berlin looks backward with respect, sensitivity and compassion. At the same time, the many new buildings in the city, the sites with their looming cranes, and empty lots still waiting for development are testament to the city’s future. The Berlin of right now makes the word vibrant redundant; it is pulsing yet relaxed, colourful but with bleak pockets, hysterically busy yet relaxed, edgy but friendly. Berlin is not always beautiful, but it is welcoming and it doesn’t judge. I feel at home there, more than anywhere else in Germany, a country that has been good to me but is often still alien.

Today is Germany’s 18th day of National Unity, a public holiday celebrating the country’s reunification. According to Wikipedia, an alternative day to celebrate would have been November 9, the day the Wall came down in 1989. November 9 has other good resonances for Germans – it coincides with the anniversary of founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918 and with the defeat of Hitler’s first coup in 1923. However, November 9 was also the anniversary of Kristalnacht, so the day was considered inappropriate for a national holiday. This year the Tag der Deutschen Einheit is being celebrated in Hamburg, but Berlin will always remain the symbol of the Cold War, the division between East and West and the fall of communism.

All this is a long preamble to a movie I want to talk about: the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Directed by the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is set in East Berlin in 1984 and centres on a Stasi loyalist Gerd Wiesler who is detailed with spying on playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The pair, who are suspected of disloyalty to the state, are placed under 24-hour surveillance, their every word and deed recorded, right down to when and how they have sex. Wiesler, whose life is dedicated to the Stasi and who returns every night to his own depressingly empty life, slowly grows fond of the pair on whom he’s spying. Their vivid love-life throws his own sad use of prostitutes into relief, and their warm, friendly home makes his lonely flat seem increasingly cold. Theirs is a life of literature, love and ideas, which they manage to enjoy despite the Stasi net that tightens around them.

After the suicide of another playwright whose right to work has been taken away by the State, Georg and some companions write an article on East German control of the arts, which they smuggle to the West for publication. Wiesler is aware of what they are doing, but is torn: does he reveal their actions to his Stasi bosses in exchange for promotion, or does he protect the people to whom he is becoming more attached? The decision he makes sets in motion a series of events, some of them tragic, others redemptive.

Das Leben des Anderen is a slow burner, but it is gripping. Ulrich Mühe plays Wiesler with a buttoned-up, blank intensity, conveying his volte-face in creeping degrees. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are excellent as the lovers, while Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s boss is in turns ebullient and despicable. It’s a small, strong ensemble cast.

In many other Berlin movies (Wings of Desire, Goodbye Lenin, Lola Runs), the city also plays a starring role. It must be hard for a director to resist shots of the iconic Brandenburg Gates, the TV Tower or Checkpoint Charlie, but Henckel von Donnersmark does, restricting the action to the inside and outside of Georg’s flat, Wiesler’s apartment, one pub, a couple of theaters and some anonymous Stasi buildings. I don’t know whether these were artistic or budgetary restrictions, but they work. By keeping the locations intimate, and avoiding the sweeping views of Berlin, he recreates the intense, cloying atmosphere of late-era East Germany, where neighbours spied on neighbours and no-one was to be trusted. There are no ecstatic Wall-breaking scenes, just a voice-over on the radio that underscores how the fall of the Wall, while symbolic for the world, was for Berliners an intensely personal event.

Das Leben der Anderen is a testament to the human spirit. In the bleak days of surveillance, spying and thought control, it shows how there will always be those who do not allow their spirits to be broken, and who pursue the dream of free speech and liberation on behalf of the greater population. Today, in Germany, those people now live free, and we give thanks for that. They have earned their freedom. As a citizen of a land where freedom is still new, that speaks volumes to me.