Monday, July 7, 2014


I'm a language teacher, so I've been following my older son's language learning process avidly. (He's twenty months. I was recently asked by a 15-year-old why people refer to small children's age in months - I guess it's because every month brings a huge jump forward in terms of ability, so you have to be accurate when you're boasting at the playground, or whatever.) Watching a child learn language is really interesting and all the more so if more than one language is being learned. With enormous efficiency, children learn the words that are most valuable and important to them: for example, young John has learned that 'Please' ('Peas', actually, but we're happy with that) gets results, but 'thank you' is an irrelevant chore that only features after he's got what he wants. Pleases are abundant, thank yous are sparse. But we persevere.

He has an extensive vocabulary and often shocks us with what he knows. "Silly Mama," he said to his truck the other day, "silly Mama." I don't think he believes the truck gave birth to him, but he was obviously practising his new vocabulary for a more opportune moment. He knows how to ask for most of the things he likes to eat, in both languages, so if "Cake, peas!" fails, "Kuuuuuchen!" might work its magic. One of the most useful and used words in his repertoire is 'stuck', which reflects shockingly badly on our parenting skills as it's used a LOT. He tends to get stuck quite a bit (toddlers don't really know how big they are) and he has a lot of toys that are remarkably clumsy. Tom, for example.

This is Tom. He's a helicopter pilot on one of his favourite television shows, Fireman Sam (no, he doesn't watch television. What kind of bad parents do you think we are? He watches it on my iPad. Haha. Yes, I know, but you try to change a newborn's dirty nappy while your toddler attempts to climb up your IKEA bookshelf - he needs to be anchored somewhere safe for ten minutes and Sam kindly does the job.) In any case, Tom and his helicopter are his most beloved toys; sadly, Tom is a bit of an eejit and tends to get stuck on a daily basis.

For a start, he has difficulty with the concept of doors:

He seems to nosedive into the laundry basket a lot. Very disturbing - my smalls might be in there.  

He requires a lot of tissues:

But, on the plus side, has proven to be a very capable babysitter. He hasn't become stuck here yet, and we dread the thought that he might.

Friday, July 4, 2014



Happy 4th July, American readers! And belated Happy Canada Day, Canadian readers! Your official leaders had the good sense to place national holidays in the middle of summer, unlike the Germans (3rd October) or the Irish (17th March - I mean, come on. What are the chances of a dry day in Ireland, much less a dry day in March?)

Over here, we're in the midst of the World Cup, the football World Cup - or soccer, as people call it in places where football involves men in very tight trousers and Dynasty-style shoulder pads. This evening, Germany qualified for the quarter finals and a spontaneous street party erupted outside my house. The noise of cheery revellers aside, I'm very glad to see it: Germany has an uneasy relationship with displays of national pride. Their history makes it difficult for many Germans to discern an appropriate amount of patriotism: overt displays of love for the Vaterland often make people embarrassed or uneasy. Like a person who can only show emotion after a couple of drinks, tearful flag-waving often only comes after a victory in one of the big football championships.

And it's taken very seriously over here. Aside from the fact that people have flags hanging from their houses - which is probably utterly unremarkable to a lot of American readers, but extraordinarily rare here -

- news channels  report daily on the players' constitutions. Yesterday, we were breathlessly informed that seven of the players - yes, seven - were suffering from colds. Goodness! The big media groups are given a daily update on the team's schedules, thus we all know that they start training at nine and have a break after lunch for Kaffee und Kuchen. Yes, they might be training in tropical Brazil. but that's no reason not to stop for Schwarzwälderkirschtorte and Donauwelle at 3.30 in the afternoon. 

Were that not exciting enough, an octopus called Regina was appointed the official World Cup oracle.  I don't know what qualified this particular octopus to forecast match outcomes - I wasn't aware of octopuses' footballing talent in general, though having eight tentacles does suggest a certain advantage - but the sight of her flailing around her aquarium warrants a good 20-minute report on many TV channels and a terrible number of newspaper columns. (She predicted a draw for the Germany/USA match, by the way, which might have attributed to the rise of a new fortune-telling star, a pig - as yet unnamed - which is apparently having good luck picking out the winners. We wait and hope.)
 Worst of all, however, are the bandwagon fans, of whom I am the leader. You know who we are - you might even be one yourself. I know nothing about football, neither the tight-trousered nor the baggy-shorted variety. I never watch a football match from one end of the year to another, except when there's some big tournament, like the European Championships or the World Cup - and luckily they only come every four years, because 90 minutes of football at a time is exhausting. All the more so, because I have to support Germany, my adopted home, and Ireland, my real home. Being a supporter of the Irish team is just pure heartbreak: we seldom qualify, we're better known for our ability to sing than to play football. Our fans are universally loved, but our football team seldom qualifies. But when the Germans play, I mutate into the kind of smart-alecking back-seat football player (mashing idioms there, for the laugh) that must make anyone who knows anything about football rolls their eyes.

And I have this from my mother, who - on the rare occasions when Ireland do play - turns into a raging fury: "Come on! COME ON! What the heck are you doing? PASS THE BALL! PASS THE BALL! For the love of God, that was a foul! Is the referee blind?" (alarmingly, in real life, there's a lot of bad language, too. From my mother. Good job it's only every four years.) She knows as much about football as I do, we could fill the back of a postage stamp with our combined knowledge. 

All of which I will proudly demonstrate when shouting at the television next .. um  ... weekend, when Germany plays ... eh, another team. Oh, okay, I promise I'll know a bit more by then. In the next few days, though, I'll make important-sounding noises about the team's form and how well their opponents ... eh, ... France, yes, of course, France - played.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Birth and Other Business

I don't want to insult anyone's deity or anything, but I happen to believe that there are a few basic design flaws in the female body, vis à vis procreation. For starters, pythons manage to dislocate their bottom jaws to accommodate the eating of much larger prey - wouldn't it be spiffy if women could pop their pelvis open a few inches to facilitate the exit of their very large offspring through their nether regions? This would be quite wonderful because - and allow me to put this delicately - giving birth is inconveniently painful.

Such is the inconvenient pain, that one has brief moments of lucidity when one can ponder the ludicrousness of the situation. At one point I looked down at what was happening below my navel and at the assembled crowd of strangers looking expectantly at parts of me that normally never feel the breeze and wondered what on earth I was doing. Five total strangers, to be exact. And, of course, the sixth hovering by the door - who was that? Oh, that was my Dignity. I dumped that before I crossed the threshold of the delivery room, it turned out that I didn't need it at all. It sat outside and drank coffee with Care, who occasionally made an appearance in the delivery room to mock me:
 "Do you know how gruesome you look right now?"
"I don't, Care."
"Do you wonder what all of these people are thinking about you at this moment?"
"Seriously? I don't, Care."
"And what about that noise you just made - do you know you just screamed?"
"Honestly, I DON'T, CARE!"
The pair of them probably twittered updates to Self Control and Modesty, who didn't come anywhere near the building.

To be sure, there are women who have orgasmic contractions and feel empowered by the experience: good for them. Really: well done. I can't talk myself into loving childbirth, I really hate it - and that's despite the fact that I, apparently, am really good at it. I've had two uncomplicated, epidural-free natural births with no injuries to my person of any kind and was walking around, without a care in the world, within an hour of each delivery. Midwives keep telling me that I should have more babies. I laugh my hollow laugh and keep telling them that they're nuts: I've beaten the odds twice, I'm not going to push my luck. Having a healthy child is like winning the lottery. Having a healthy child without great difficulty or lasting distress is a bonus.

See, I hate the word blessed - and it's an irrational hatred. It makes me feel like you've been picked out by Someone Upstairs for being extra special, a reward for your all-round goodiness. (I'm also not keen on it because, to my mind, its opposite is cursed - which is just as random and lightning-bolt-struck as blessed. I know - but I just can't help not liking it.) I prefer the more down-to-earth lucky: I know that my good fortune is random, not a pay-out for my being a better person than anyone else, I appreciate every minute of it and recognise that many other people are much less fortunate. I am extremely appreciative of my two sons and my husband, our good health, our togetherness.
I hope it lasts.
I take nothing for granted.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Barbecues, DIY and Divorce

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I went to the DIY store on a rare, but cherished, child-free shopping trip. I had a short list of things to buy and, mindful of the fact that our toddler was probably in the process of wrecking our kindly babysitter's house, I set about gathering my bits and pieces on one of the over-sized trolleys.

In the gardening section, on my way to purchase any plants that are to be found in the Easy Care section, we passed a display of barbecues. Now, I have a rather nice balcony and a husband with pyromaniac tendencies, so the purchase of a barbecue seemed (at the time) like a no-brainer.
"You go and pick out a barbecue," I said to my husband, "I'll get a few pots of herbs and meet you back here."

Oh, readers, I am so naive. My husband is the worst shopper ever. He's a ditherer, and any household purchase is treated with the same level of earnest marathon dithering, regardless of what it is. He has spent the same amount of time vacillating between new toasters as he has between new cars. It's exhausting. It's exhausting because it always follows the same pattern and I allow myself to become embroiled in it every single time. When I came back from the plants section twenty minutes later on this Saturday evening, my trolley loaded down with a Scarborough-Fair-like selection of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, my husband was in the midst of Phase One, a look of concentration on his face. I whipped out the phone and sent the babysitter a text: we were going to be delayed.

Phase One: Establish That All the Goods Are Of Shoddy Quality
Phase One involves going up to every article on display, shaking/pulling/poking it roughly till it trembles and wobbles, then declaring that these articles are of inferior quality and will not last a single month. They were made by clowns. They'll be on the rubbish heap within the year.
"They will if you keep bashing them about like that!" I shriek, as he violently shakes the barbecue to reproduce the hurricane conditions he seems to think we will be using it in.
Reluctantly, he stops, looking disappointed that the little €29.99 hasn't fallen apart and proved his point.

Phase Two: Rhetorical Traps
Having systematically mauled all of the barbecues on display, he stops at one.
"I think we should probably go for one of these round barbecues with a lid. This one looks good," he says. Finally. A decision has been made, praise the Lord!
"Grand," say I. "They don't take up much space and a lid is handy."
"The thing is, you could burn your fingers on the lid. Do you really think it's safe?"
"Well, barbecues by their very nature tend to be hot. But didn't you want a lid for storage purposes? And I thought you said you wanted a round barbecue because they don't take up much space?"
"But aren't they a bit small?" he wonders sadly. "Do you think they'd be big enough for us? I don't know (shakes barbecue violently) ... this seems a bit on the small side, don't you think?"
At this point you might have noticed that I, apparently, am the one who wanted a round barbecue with a lid, this one specifically. Readers, I do not give a flying fig about barbecues, round or otherwise. I would agree with him on anything, just to get the heck out of there fast. But he outsmarts me every time by making me agree with him and then disagreeing with me. It's dizzying and costs a lot more energy than I care to expend.

Phase Three: Philosophical Klugscheißen with Shop Assistants
In German, klug means smart or clever. Scheißen, as you might guess, means, um, pooping. Together they mean something similar to smartalecking. At some point, my husband will be approached by a bored shop assistant, launching the third and final phases of the shopping expedition: Competitive Smartalecking with a Layer of Philosophical Meandering.

Let me tell you that, by this point, I will have said, clearly and concisely, that I want to go home at least four times - as in: "Please make your mind up. I would like to leave in the next ten minutes." However, overcome by the plethora of shoddy, second-rate barbecues, my requests are disregarded. I have no other option (well, no other option that's any fun) but to resort to passive aggression. When the shop assistant arrives, I heave my pregnant self off and begin a slow perambulation around the store, waiting for Phase Three to finish.

The first time I wandered past my husband and the shop assistant on this particular Saturday, they were trying to figure out which barbecue is most likely to withstand extreme weather conditions and not burn fingers. The second time I puff-puff-puffed past the duo (I am nine months pregnant you see, there's a lot of huffing and puffing involved), they were bemoaning the downfall of German manufacturing and listing the shortcomings of the barbecues made in China. Third time around, they had long since left the realm of reality and were fantasizing about the perfect barbecue, painting pictures in the air of a grill set-up that could survive a tornado, flash-flooding or a blizzard, be easily storable yet kind to sensitive fingertips. I lowered my pregnant bulk on to a stack of charcoal sacks and glared at my husband evilly till he returned to earth.

"Pick - one - out!" I hissed. " I don't care which one. I don't care which shape. I don't care what price. Pick one out in the next five minutes or I will clock you with this pot of thyme and leave you unconscious among the charcoal."
He picked one out - quickly, after all - and hauled me up off the display. At this point I was hot and tired, my feet hurt, my plants were wilting. He, on the other hand, was exhilarated by the thrill of his purchase and on the high best known to bargain hunters and coupon users.

As we drove home, our car jammed with plant pots and the barbecue, it started to rain. And it has more or less rained since then. The barbecue hasn't even been unpacked yet: it sits in its box, looking gloomy on our balcony. But never mind: my husband has decided we need a new sideboard! A shopping trip is eminent.
Readers, I can't wait.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where Did You Go, Gingerbread Lady?

Nowhere exciting, that is. I hung around Exhaustionville for a bit, then I moved on to Pregnancy Grumptown and finally took up residence in Denial. It's been a busy time.

I'm now nine months pregnant and three days overdue. I've reached the stage where people greet me with "Oh, no!" or "Are you still here?" My 19-month-old brought me his football the other day and tried to stuff it up his jumper, saying "Big belly! Big belly!" Yes, son, I know.

But aside from the fact that I'm in a limbo of waiting and am living like someone under house arrest (because husband and concerned friends feel the need to accompany me everywhere, lest my waters should break in line at the bank or next to the frozen foods at the supermarket), I'm doing well and I hope you are, too. Your lovely comments in the past few months have been dearly appreciated and I plan to get myself back on track soon, baby or no.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Never Again

When I was making this blanket, I started crocheting little colourful squares to use up bits and pieces of yarn that were left over. I began to accumulate a lot of squares. And a lot more. And even more.

So I started to sew them together. And at some point, I had a larg-ish blanket that needed to either be made smaller and turned into a baby blanket, or made larger and turned into an adult-sized blanket. Why take the easy way out, you ask? Exactly - just make more squares.

When it was finally finished, I was happy to swap it for ... a rocking chair. The giver of the rocking chair wanted to buy it off me, but how do you put a price on a blanket made up of over a hundred little squares, each with five colour changes, all of that end-weaving and sewing? In monetary terms, you just can't. But a rocking chair is a fair deal.

My assistant.
 "What's the name of this pattern?" a non-crafting friend asks.
"Never again," I say. "It's called 'Never Again'. Or just plain old granny squares, if you prefer."

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Is About the Turnips

On Christmas Eve I found myself in the kitchen, looking out on the shadows in the garden in the Christmas darkness, listening to a radio documentary about church bells. My husband was chasing the baby - well, he's not a baby any more, a toddler, really - in an elaborate game that involved, amid much shrieking and Daddy Bear growls, a dash around the dining room table and a brief dart into the kitchen to circle my knees.
"Goodness me," I thought, turning the radio up so I could hear when the bells of Cologne cathedral were cast, "I'm listening to a programme about bells! I'm really getting old!"

I looked down at my hands, peeling the turnips, amidst the potato peelings and the discarded leaves of the Brussels sprouts and I suddenly saw my mother's hands. I realised that I was doing what I'd seen her do on Christmas Eve for nearly forty years, and my husband, pottering around the kitchen, not finding kitchenware that has been in the same cupboard it's always been, was just what my father always did - albeit, my father was usually attempting his one and only culinary foray of the year, his perfectly engineered sherry trifle, whereas my husband was just trying to find the teapot. Oh, and with a noisy child clambering between us.

And I started to cry, which is not a good idea with a sharp knife in your hand.
"Are you okay?" my husband, said startled. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened," I said.
"Are you sad?"
Incredulous: "Are you crying because you're happy?"
How do I explain it?
"I'm crying because we're all safe and well and content and at home. And I'm crying because I'm doing the same thing my mother did on Christmas Eve, peeling the turnips."
I blew my nose into a wad of kitchen roll and he patted me sympathetically. More like a you're-a-weirdo-but-I-love-you-anyway kind of pat.
"I'm really sorry," he said, "but I can't get emotional about vegetables."

See, Christmas isn't really about the toys and the glitz and the food and the Important Traditions we think we have to uphold, like family photos and turkey dinners and filled stockings on the mantelpiece. Christmas is about the turnips. Christmas is about finding yourself unthinkingly doing the thousand tiny things your mother did and your father did: leading a one-year-old to a little pile of toys and saying "Look what Santa brought you!", even though you know that child has no clue who Santa is. It's about wiping down sinks and countertops to wake up to a kitchen that will be clean for about ten minutes on Christmas Day. It's about lighting a candle in your window on Christmas Eve or lining up the Christmas cards just so. It's about being part of a bigger cycle, a small cog in a clockwork of Christmasses that stretch over decades. It's about the turnips.


And in that sense, I hope you and yours spent a peaceful day today, doing whatever it is that you always do to keep you safe and well, and make you content.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
P.S.: This morning I opened my Christmas present from my husband, a pretty silver ring with little diamonds. I spontaneously clapped my hand to my chest and drew an intake of breath.
"Oh God," he said, alarmed, "We're not going to have a repeat of The Turnip Incident, are we?"
Dear me. I have a feeling it has already become part of family legend.