Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sock Yarn Hats

Thank you very much for all of your kind enquiries about poorly me and poorly Mr Gingerbread. We're enjoying our state of poorliness as much as we can, drinking lots of tea and taking naps. We're getting better - aside from my taped-together toes and attention-mongering limp - and I fear we might even be getting fond of this wonderful not-quite-well-but-not-exactly-sick state and all its fringe benefits ("Sorry, we can't leave the house to spend the afternoon looking at your holiday photos: we're poorly.")

Because neither of us has to work and not much else is happening between Christmas and New Year, I can watch films and documentaries to my heart's content - and crochet till my fingers fall off. Oh, I am so in love with sock yarn. I have nothing to do but crochet, so I'm churning out a hat per day. Oh, joys (modelled, as always, by My Lovely Assistant Gladys):



Gladys looks kind of jaunty in the bottom right-hand photo, she's sporting this hat with a kind of lopsided insouciance. You wear it, girl! (or cool words to that effect.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

I woke up to a face-slapping.
I was lying on my back, with my husband kneeling over me, gently slapping my cheeks.
"I'm calling an ambulance," he said.
I looked up at the ceiling and saw the horrid faux-wood ceiling tiles of our hall. Why wasn't I in bed? Why was I lying in the hall? And why was my husband slapping my face like an 80s' soap opera diva?

All of these are good questions and can be answered with two words: stomach flu. Despite my rabid disinfecting, I picked up my husband's bug - except mine manifested itself in a series of fainting fits. On the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I fainted. I woke up briefly and found myself amidst a pile of screws, nails and rawl-plugs that I must have pulled off the shelf where we keep our DIY stuff as I fell.
"Crikey," I thought when I came to, "This must be one of those really weird interpretive dreams, where you find yourself surrounded by all kinds of strange objects that have a Freudian meaning. What's up with the nails? What do the screws mean? How do I interpret rawl plugs, for crying out loud?"
After a couple of seconds, when nothing else happened - no flying frogs in rubber boots, no guest appearances by deceased family members - I realised that it was unpleasantly real, so I called out for the Gingerbread Husband ... and the next thing I remember was being woken by a panicked husband who was threatening to call an ambulance.

"Can you feel your legs?" he kept asking, and I wriggled my toes to show I could. In fact, I was strangely proud of the fact that I was wriggling them like a pianist doing the scales - doh, ray, mi, fa, so, la, ti, doh! - but he wouldn't acknowledge my toe-wriggling prowess, he just saying, "We have to get you to the emergency room!" I convinced him not to drag me out in the snow in the middle of the night to the ER, instead I was allowed go back to bed. The next day I spent 5 hours in the ER waiting to have my toes x-rayed - in falling, I not only emptied the DIY shelf, I also scratched my neck (?) and stubbed two toes so badly that they looked broken (they're not, but the pain I am to experience is equal to a fracture, said the ER doctor with some grim satisfaction.)

Anyway, all's well that ends well - however, five hours in the emergency room with stomach flu and suspected broken toes will not count as the highlights of 2010. But we got home and made tea and had a supper of toast and honey - and all was right with the world. Then the Gingerbread Husband (who'd had a tremendous shock: he found me at the bottom of the stairs and thought by the way I was lying that I'd fallen down the stairs and broken my neck), lay down on the floor to recreate the astonishing angles at which he found my limbs akimbo
... and I promptly fainted again.
I probably need a day or two in bed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

TUTORIAL: Hot Water Bottle Cover

So you're looking at this and thinking, "Haw haw! A hot water bottle? How old is the Gingerbread Lady? Ninety?"
You laugh now, readers, but buy yourself a hot water bottle (if you don't already have one - or, like me, two) and I will have the last laugh. Oh, yessirree. You will rediscover love, a love like none you have ever known before. And because you're a crafter, you ought to wrap your new-found beloved in a warm, woolly cover. And that's what we're going to do today.

First of all, what yarn shall we use?
Well, you all know that I'm a big fan of sock yarn (despite having never knit a sock in my life) and this would be ideal for such a project - it's normally superwash wool. Perfect. Unfortunately, it'd take you forever and a day to do it in sock yarn and in the meantime, your little tootsies will be blue with the cold. So I've used acrylics (the one featured in this tutorial is Caron Simply Soft) and a wool/acrylic mix. Some people are afraid that acrylic might melt - well, this hasn't been the case with me so far and I like a HOT hot water bottle.

First, take your hot water bottle (to be hence referred to as the HWB) and chain till your starting chain is the length of the body of the HWB:


Now do a HDC (American = half double crochet) [HTR (British = half treble crochet)] in each chain.
Let's take a moment to extol the virtues of the HDC.

If you're a beginner, you mightn't know this stitch, it's kind of halfway between a single [Br = double] crochet and a double [Br = treble] crochet stitch. It's really fantastic for one great reason: it allows you to make a ribbed effect, like a knitted rib effect. In fact, I've done scarves in this stitch with a chunky wool and have given them to knitters - who didn't realise it was crochet! (And, being knitters, they didn't realise that I had crocheted it in about a third of the time it would take them to knit it, evil chuckle.)

This is a HDC [HTR]:
Begin as you would for a DC [TR]: yarn over, hook through stitch in the row below, yarn over, draw through.

You now have three loops on the chain.

Normally, you'd yarn over and draw through two loops, then yarn over and draw through the final two loops - but with a HDC [HTR], you yarn over and draw through all three loops at once:

 When you have done a few stitches in your first row, look closely at your stitches:

There are three loops visible, aren't there? Well, when you come to the end of your row and turn your work, you can create a ribbed effect by crocheting through the two back loops of your work. In other words, I would crochet the next row through loops 2 and 3 and ignore the loop # 1 at the front (for a very pronounced rib, you crochet only through the very back loop, loop #3, leaving loops # 1 and 2 to jut out at the front.)

Anyway, you do a HDC [HTR] in every stitch in your foundation chain, when you get to the end of the row, turn, do 1 chain a HDC [HTR] in the back two loops of the last HDC [HTR] in the previous row. You just crochet back and forth, till you have a long rectangle that covers the HWB when you fold it in two. Then grab a sewing needle and sew it in:

I remove the HWB and turn my work inside out so you can't see the sewn edges. The other nice thing about the HDC [HTR] is that it doesn't produce a 'front' and 'back' side to your work.

Now your HWB should be snugly enclosed in its ribbed cover, with an opening around the neck of the bottle. When the bottle is empty, you can fold it in the cover and wriggle it out through the neck. This will allow you to wash the cover.  Just to finish it off, I crocheted a couple of rounds of DCs [TRs] around the neck of the bottle:

And there you go!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Married to Lazarus

I've known my husband for eight years. For seven of those eight years, he has managed - with a spectacular sense of bad timing - to contract an illness by Christmas Eve. He's had a head cold, the 'flu and a lung embolism. He's spent Christmases in bed at my mother's house, his mother's house, our house and in hospital. This year, I was woken on Christmas morning by the sound of my husband worshipping the porcelain goddess - somewhere on our Odyssey to and from Frankfurt airport, he picked up a technicolour dose of stomach flu and spent the day running back and forth to the bathroom. I spent the day running after him with a bucket of disinfectant.

The thing about my husband is that he doesn't simply become ill - he collapses. He collapses into a sleeping coma and is useless for days. Nothing - no amount of conscientious nursing or annoyed poking - will remove him from his stinky bed. And it's impossible to discern the degree of seriousness of his illness: he deploys the same level of drama (whimpering, tossing, moaning, heavy breathing) for everything from the common sniffle to pneumonia. I simply can't tell how ill he is until he keels over - then I know that he's actually sick, as opposed to just looking for a bit of sympathy.

After two or three days of uninterrupted sleeping - in this case, this morning - I'll hear a stirring from the bedroom and the creaking of the floorboards. The bedroom door opens and my woolly-headed husband appears on the threshold, his jammies wrinkly and his hair standing on end. There's a triumphant grin about his chops, a kind of "Haha! I beat the plague!" He then plonks himself in front of his computer and checks that cyberspace has survived without him. In the meantime, I put on the Christmas dinner - the one that we should've had yesterday, instead of my plate of spaghetti.

Christmas Morning

In a separate post, I'll tell you all about Christmas Day in the Gingerbread House. But let me show you a few pictures of a silent, snowy Christmas morning. I got up to clear the snow with the rest of the neighbours ("Merry Christmas!" "Happy Christmas to you, too!") and then took a little walk through a silent city. You'll notice that there are no people in the pictures: there was only me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What was your best present ever?

My father's photo of the driveway to my parents' Gingerbread House

When we were small, Christmas was the highlight of the entire year. We always had an Advent calendar and our names were pulled from a hat to decide who got to open a little door on which day. Letters were written to Santa Claus – no, sorry, that doesn’t convey the care and thought associated with a letter to Santa Claus. Letters were composed to Santa Claus, after long and careful perusal of toy catalogues and diligent study of TV advertisements. My brother Michael, indecisive and fickle, wrote and re-wrote his letters and even after they’d been sent to Santy, there was no guarantee that his decision was final.

Unlike here in Germany where Christmas Eve is the highlight of the festival, Christmas Eve in our house is the day to go visiting and drop off your presents, the day you spend cleaning your house and preparing Christmas dinner for the following day. You had to be extra, extra good on Christmas Eve because Santy was already on his way down from the North Pole and he’d hate to have to skip your house because of a last-minute bout of naughtiness. Vegetables were chopped and peeled, the (obscenely large) turkey was stuffed, the Christmas cake and a glass of whiskey set out for Santa Claus and a plate of carrots prepared for Rudolf. Then the sparkly-clean kiddies were sent off to their freshly-made beds, jittery and giddy in their new Christmas Pyjamas. 

The next day at dawn we stormed our parents’ bedroom and forced them to get up and come downstairs with us. We weren’t allowed into the sitting room where the tree and presents were, till Gingerbread Mother had checked that Santa Claus had visited –
“He’s been!” she’d shout gleefully (a plate with crumbs and an empty glass in the kitchen were the evidence.) There were a few seconds of stomach-wrenching tension and then one or other of the parents would open the door and let us in, squeaking and squealing and screaming as we fell on our Christmas loot.

As we grew older, Santa Claus continued to come. He was never allowed not to come. As we grew up, the older kiddies were roped into the conspiracy to make it more real for the Little Ones. We painted hoof-prints in soot on the kitchen floor. We found presents for Santa Claus to give to the Little Ones and schlepped them home in secret so they could disappear till Christmas Eve: my sister Eithne transported a full-sized sword across rush-hour Dublin, I came home one Christmas with little more in my suitcase than a Lego train set for my youngest brother. And we didn’t always have a perfect Christmas – we had our fair share of dramas. The Christmas my parents got their first dishwasher was also the Christmas when stormy weather knocked out the electricity for days. You have no idea what a fabulous gift a dishwasher is until you’ve washed up after a dozen people on Christmas Day, dear readers. On Christmas Eve, electricity was restored and we were spared the agony of a two-hour yuletide pot-scrubbing session. Another year my father nearly burst an artery when he discovered a snail in his Brussels’ sprouts (no, we weren’t aiming at a French-themed Christmas). Yet another year several kiddies got food poisoning and spent Christmas Eve night throwing up all over the place.

So what’s my best present ever? Actually, I think it’s less than tangible: it’s fabulously intangible and durable, unlike the Lego sets and Barbie dolls and Play People houses that have long since disappeared. Despite the fact that my parents often didn’t have a lot of money, and more than once didn’t have anywhere near enough, they always give us a lovely, magical Christmas. Every Christmas – despite dramas and upsets – was wonderful. I don’t know how they managed it: as an adult I can only begin to understand the work and the stress and the sheer effort that went into making our Christmas special.

I remember standing in the back garden of my parents’ first house on Christmas Eve – I must have been six or seven, I think.
“Look, Daddy,” I said to my father, who was filling the coal bucket. “Is that the Christmas star? Is that the one the Three Wise Men followed?” 
And I pointed at what might have been the North Star or Venus or a passing satellite.
“It is,” he said, without hesitation.
And that’s my best present ever: my parents’ dedicated and loving effort to make Christmas magic, a conspiracy of absolute love. It was – is – appreciated immensely by all of your children, to an extent that you probably can't imagine. 
Thank you very much, Mammy and Daddy. xxx

An Unexpected Christmas


Hello everyone - and a very merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!
Our Christmas has been very adventurous and unexpected so far. We had a horrid week - just horrible. Heavy snow meant that we had to get up at dawn to clear snow, then I had to trudge-slash-slip-slash-slither to work in snow and ice, teach in wet clothes, turn around and trudge-slash-slip-slash-slither home in the early darkness of midwinter. Our washing machine broke down. My keyring - with all of my keys - was lost-slash-stolen, and I spent all of Wednesday walking from shop to shop in sleet and rain, trying to retrace my steps from the previous day, hoping that some kind soul had handed them in. On Thursday morning, yesterday, I got up early, worked, came home, threw my (actually, our) stuff into two suitcases and we flew out the door to the train, on our way to Ireland for Christmas, leaving behind a filthy house and a dishwasher stacked full of dirty dishes. Oh, the stress. The sickening stress.

None of this was made any easier by the fact that Ireland is under cover of snow. Dublin airport had been closed for days due to heavy snow but reopened yesterday. However, shortly after we arrived in Frankfurt, Ireland's airport authorities closed the airport again due to unexpectedly heavy snow. Our flight to Dublin was cancelled and thus we found ourselves stranded at Frankfurt airport at 11 p.m.

I'll spare you the gory details of being herded through Frankfurt's vast terminal with two or three hundred other frazzled strandees, the endless queuing, or the confusion, just let me tell you that the nice people at Lufthansa put us up for the night and offered to put on a special flight this morning, Christmas Eve, to Dublin. I mean, they offered it, but due to a forecasted blizzard, they couldn't actually guarantee that it was going to take off. The chances were 50-50 that we'd actually get to Dublin. And if we didn't, the chances of getting back to Gingerbreadtown were almost null - nothing much happens after lunchtime on Christmas Eve in Germany, so we had the choice of chancing it and hoping we wouldn't end up spending Christmas snowed into Frankfurt airport's Sheraton Hotel, or just giving up and going home. And at that point, exhausted, sweaty and defeated, we just wanted to go home. Home, home, home. So we got up early this morning and took a train home to the Gingerbread House.

Under normal circumstances, I would have been devastated. And, truth be told, I am disappointed not to be at home in the bosom of my family. But the reports online about travelling conditions in Ireland make scary reading - I'm glad that the Gingerbread Brother and his Lady Wife didn't have to make the hair-raising journey to Dublin to pick us up. I'm glad we didn't end up on a flight that was diverted, like the Lufthansa flight to Dublin before ours (it was diverted to Manchester. Can you imagine being nearly home - very nearly - but stuck far away enough to know you've no chance of making it for Christmas?) And I'm very glad that we had time to get to a supermarket to re-stock the fridge that we'd so diligently emptied (the horrors of this week were compounded by my husband's insistence that we eat all the leftovers in the fridge before we leave. It's hard to cope with stress on a diet of scrambled eggs and pickles.) So now we're in the Gingerbread House, sitting in the reflected light of candles and Christmas oleander, listening to Christmas music and watching the snow drift past the window. It's our first Christmas in our house. And, all things considered, we're very lucky.

In Ireland there's a tradition of lighting a candle and placing it in the window on Christmas Eve. As a nod to the Holy Family who found no room at the inn, it's supposed to show travellers that they'd be welcome to find shelter in your home on Christmas Eve. When you drive through the pitch-dark Irish countryside on Christmas Eve, you can pick out the light of the candles in people's front windows - a beautiful tradition, a lovely symbol.  This evening I lit four candles and put them in our window, thinking of all the people who travelled across rough seas, snowy skies and icy roads to get to their loved ones. And a small token gesture for all the people stranded at airports and ferry docks, spending a Christmas of sorts on a camp-bed or in a hotel room.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Snow Day


Hello there, readers,
Sorry for being so schreibfaul (writing-lazy) recently, but I have been so busy. It's nice to be needed, it's true, but I'm needed by too many people at the minute and I wish they would need me just a little less.

That's why I was happy to be woken on Friday by a colleague,who wanted to know if we were going to get a snow day. She'd heard on the radio that schools were closing for the day because the roads were blocked due to the heavy snow. A snow day? In all my years of teaching I'd never had a day off due to snow. She said she'd check and call me back.

I yanked open the curtain and pulled up the blinds. I could see my bike. Just about. The phone rang; it was official - we had a day off school. Whoopee!

"There's been a big fall of snow!" I shouted over to the slumbering Mr Gingerbread. "It's beautiful out! The sky's gorgeous and everything's bright and shiny! And I think I'm getting a day off school!"
No answer. So I pulled my jeans on over my pyjamas, put on a jumper, my winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves and skipped - yea, verily, skipped - downstairs to clear the snow.

In Germany you have to have snow cleared off the footpath in front of your house before 7 a.m. Despite the fact that I loathe - yea, verily, loathe  - getting up early, I love being up alone early in the morning in the clear white freshness of new snow.


Strangely, most of the people who pass me by are inordinately interested in my snow clearing efforts, especially senior citizens. They praise me ("Good work! Keep it up!") or give me sympathy ("Ooooh! Clearing the snow! Don't you just hate it!") and sometimes I even get little weather tips ("I hate to tell you this, young lady, but it's going to snow again later.") 

Most interested of all are small children, who watch my clumsy shovelling with great interest.
"Whatcha doing?" said one little fellow, maybe about three years old. He was wearing one of those all-in-one snowsuits, topped off by a massive woolly hat and a big scarf. He stood watching me, wiping his nose on his mittens, while his mother struggled with his baby sister at the end of the street.
"Shovelling snow," I said. "I have to clear the path."
He looked around and pointed a moist mitten at a patch of snow.
"You gonna clear over there?"
"Yes, I am," I said.
"And over there?"
"And over there?"
"Yes, over there, too."
"And over there?"
"No, that belongs to the neighbours."
"But over there?"
"Yes, over there."
"What about over there?"
(And I might add, we have no garden, just a footpath in front of our house. Who knew there was so much to point at?)

The child had virtually marked the borders of our property by the time his mother caught up. She whipped out a tissue and scrubbed his little face, then pulled him away, giving me that Grimly Apologetic Mother Smile (also known as the I-Know He's-a-Pest-But-You-Only-Had-To-Endure-the-Interrogation-for Five Minutes,-He-Does-This-To-Me-All -Day-Long smile.)

I admired my luvverly work and went off to pick up some croissants from the bakery.

Do I love snow days? Yea, verily, I do!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mr and Mrs Caveman

I know I mention my husband a lot on this blog. He's vaguely aware that he features prominently, but has no interest in reading what I write. In the nicest possible way - he laughs when he sees my blogpage and tells me to behave myself. He trusts me to provide an unbiased and fair portrait of our marriage. Which I think I do.

See, he's a very smart man in many respects. Today he lectured me all the way home from the bakery on the intricacies of distilling pure alcohol. My legs were pumping like pistons in an effort to get home sooner, but he held me back, explaining in detail - oh so great detail - how one would distill pure alcohol, if one wanted (one does not). Anything of a science-y nature excites him immensely; he is uncannily like my own father in that respect. And, similar to my father, this passion is combined with a didactic bent and a burning desire to fill the gaps in my patchy scientific knowledge. To fill the gaps in great detail, readers. Oh so great detail.

My husband also has a glib explanation for many of his idiosyncrasies. He blinds me with science and tries to convince me that his total lack of visual memory is the biological advantage of the male. According to him, Mother Nature bestowed the male species with the ability to espy things from afar, whereas women are able to see and remember detail in their direct environment. According to Mr Gingerbread, our ancestors in the caves would have had the following conversation on a regular basis:

Caveman: Oh, look. There's a woolly mammoth. Due north, with a prevailing wind coming in from the southeast.
Cavewoman: North? Which way is north? Is north over there, where that big tree is?
Caveman: Quiet, woman. Look, it's a whole herd of woolly mammoths.
Cavewoman: Where? I can't see anything. Do you mean those little specks in the distance?
Caveman: Of course I do! Look, I have no time for this. Where's my spear?
Cavewoman: Your spear? It's where you left it. On the large outcrop to the left of the sleeping mats, beside the pot your sister gave us for the last harvest festival.
Caveman: An out-what? Where? Which pot?
Cavewoman:  The outcrop. The ruddy big bit of rock sticking out of the wall.
Caveman: Sticking out of the wall? Is there something sticking out of the wall?
Cavewoman:  Near where we sleep. The huge big flat slab of rock - oh, forget it. I'll just go get it for you.
Caveman: And while you're at it, can you bring me my slingshot as well, please?

Millions of years later nothing has changed. Nothing. Nada. Nichts. Not a thing.
Yesterday my husband wanted a rug to put under his desk chair to stop the wheels from damaging the laminate floor.
Him: Do we have an old rug somewhere? I want to put it under my chair.
Me: Yes, we do. Go out into the hall and in front of the wooden shelves you'll see a box on the floor. On top of the things in the box there's the red rug we used to have under our coffee table in the old apartment.

Husband stares at me brazenly. We are both aware that I lost him after the first conjunction. He would prefer it if I followed him and gave him step-by-step instructions ("Open the door to the hall. Walk towards the loo. Turn left. Look at the bookshelves. Now cast your gaze downwards." Etc.) He doesn't like anything more complex than that. But I return his brazen gaze. The hall is only about 12 square metres big. There is only one set of wooden shelves. There is only one box on the floor. He sighs and leaves the room.

After five minutes of dramatic opening and closing of cupboards, despairing sighs and what sounds like a mini-avalanche, I go out into the hall and - this is not a lie - find him looking for the rug in his toolbox under the stairs. Wordlessly, I point at the bright red rug folded on top of the box on the floor in front of the wooden shelves.
"Well," he says, "I couldn't visualise it so I couldn't see it. I only notice these things when I know what I'm looking for."
"Spare me the story of the cavemen," I warn. "I've heard it all before."
"But it's true," he mutters. "It's biology."
Biology, my foot.

In the interest of fairness, I have to add that he later came in with a packet of butter.
"Why did you put this in the cupboard with the biscuits?" he asked.
Apparently I have the occasional bout of absentminded tidying, during which time I'm apt to distribute foodstuffs in creative places around the kitchen. Mr Gingerbread hasn't come up with a scientific explanation for it yet but I have no doubt that at some point I'm going to get a lecture about how it somehow pertains to our Stone Age ancestors. I can't wait.
In the meantime, I have to try to remember where I put the teabags.

The Hatmaker's Husband has a Chilly Head

"The shoemaker's children run barefoot," my friend May used to say. Whenever she or one of her siblings felt unwell, their father would tell them to drink a glass of water and take an aspirin. Sound advice, except that their father was a doctor and while he doled out premium healthcare to all his patients, he cured most of his family's ills with off-the-shelf painkillers and a great big glass of still water. My parents sell - among other things - office supplies and paper, yet ours is perhaps the only telephone in the country that has no message pad or pen beside it.

So it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that Mr G and I found ourselves scuttling home in the snow and ice on Saturday afternoon, unable to withstand the freezing temperatures after only twenty minutes outside. Neither of us had a hat (yes, I know, you lose 90% of your body heat through your head. We felt it escaping with every passing minute.) Not having a hat would have been bad enough, except that I had made half-a-dozen hats between Wednesday and Saturday for our charity bazaar - the irony was not lost on either of us. We slipped and slithered home to a hot tea and I dug out my Red Heart Super Saver (yes, this calls for Big Tough American Yarn) and made us both hats. And I'll have to make us a couple more as well, I think. I've already lost one (sniff) and have had one stolen (sigh) this winter.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Not Meant for Me

Once upon a time, many years ago
(Oh, no. It's going to be one of those posts.
Yes, it is. Sorry about that)
I lived in a student residence with four Spanish girls: Rocio, Mai, Conchi and Monica. Monica had a beautiful designer cardigan, a crocheted cardigan made of colourful granny squares in thin cotton.
"I can make that!" I said and borrowed her cardigan to have a look at it. I bought myself some thin yarn in black, a deep pink and a luscious purple, and started to crochet a stack of squares. It became a bit of a community effort: the other girls in the halls of residence kept tabs on my progress, and there was great excitement when I sewed the squares together and single-crocheted along the edges.

Finally, after a month of crocheting, it was finished.
"Try it on!" someone said. And I went out into the hall next to the common room and tried it on in front of the full-length mirror there.
"Ooooh!" said the little crowd of onlookers. I preened a little; it was very nice.
"Can I try it on?" Conchi begged.
"Sure," I said and handed it over. She slipped it on and turned to look at herself in the mirror.
"Aaaaah!" the onlookers said - realising, as I did, that the cardigan was ...
Not Meant For Me.
It was not meant for me. That's all that needs to be said on the subject: it looked infinitely better on small, dark-haired Conchi instead of big, red-haired me. In fact, it looked as though I had actually made the cardigan for her. On purpose. Rather than by accident.
"Keep it," I said, a tad sulkily.
Essentially, I had no choice. How could I wear it, knowing it was actually ... destined to be hers?

That's one of the things I have learned about making things: sometimes they are Not Meant For You. This is an example of this phenomenon:
I crocheted beautiful (I thought) African flowers from sock yarn.

I crocheted about a hundred of them, wanting to make myself - that's right, me - a set of cushions for my couch. I bought the cushions. I sewed the little flowers together. I devised ways to make half-flowers and quarter flowers to create corners and edges. I edged the top, I sewed on buttons, I put the cover on the cushions and I realised that they were
Not Meant For Me.
Oh, they were very nice - but not right. Just not right. I don't know what the problem was, but I just wasn't happy. So I wrapped them up and attached a label (which my little sister made for me - gingerbread ladies ahoy!)


and added them to the cushions I donated to the Christmas bazaar.
What else could I do? If the Crafting Fates decide that what you make is Not Meant for You, you have no choice but to give in.

Bizarre Bazaar Parting Pangs

How the Gingerbread Lady beat her inner scrooge

One of my colleagues has held a bazaar on the main square of our little city every December for the last twelve years. They're a bunch of chirpy but determined little ladies: they set up a stall in the centre of town every Advent Saturday and spend the day in the freezing cold, stomping their feet to keep warm, selling homemade jams and hand-knitted scarves. They have an arrangement with the local children's clinic: the clinic donates the time and resources to operate on children from war-torn countries if these ladies can raise the money to pay for the flights and accommodation for the kids and their parents. So every summer they start making jams, chutneys, hats, scarves, lavender sachets, dolls, teddy bears and Christmas decorations. When the first Saturday in Advent comes around, a little army of volunteers gathers on the main square to sell their wares.

I donate a couple of boxes of crocheted items every year. Every year my colleague and I have a fight about my donations: she feels she has to pay me for the cost of the yarn. Every year I explain that the point of donating is that I give her the stuff for free: I choose not to make a donation to a big charity, I prefer to support a small one in my local town. Besides, whatever I donate to her is sold at twice or three times the price of the yarn, so my donation increases in value. In any case, the act of donating is good for my soul. Last Thursday I emptied my box of crocheted hats and scarves and sorted them out. I had pangs parting from a few of the things, pieces that I was especially proud of. But what's the point of keeping them, neatly wrapped and pristine in their plastic bags? Away they go. My little stack of  blankets, scarves and hats grew, till I'd filled a laundry basket (yes, that's only about a third of the stuff I produce in a year. I'm a one-woman factory, I'm telling you.)

Then I came across the cushions I had made in the summer: neatly wrapped in cellophane, stacked at the bottom of the wardrobe.

"They're too pretty to give away to charity," I thought. "I might give them to someone as a present."
So I quickly closed the wardrobe door and carried my box of donatables downstairs. I sat admiring my box o'goodies, feeling smug and virtuous ... and then I decided I needed to get over my smugness and virtuousness and part with something that really needed to be parted with, so I went back upstairs and fetched the cushions from the wardrobe. Before I could change my mind, I stacked them under a pile of baby blankets so I couldn't see them any more.

I handed my crocheted goods over the next day: Mr Gingerbread had to help me carry the boxes in the end. The army of chirpy ladies ooh-ed and aah-ed over my bits and pieces, and the cushions were passed around.
"They'll look so pretty and colourful on the stall!" said my colleague. "You'll have to come by and see them!"
And I did. The next morning, on the way to the bakery, I dropped by to look at my cushions. One had already been sold, something which - strangely - made my heart twang. (We didn't even get to say goodbye, cushion!) When I passed the stall again after lunch, the others had been sold to different people. My colleague was beaming.
"We were able to sell them for a great price!" she said, "And everyone who bought them really admired the amount of work that went into them!"
Which made me feel a lot better, of course. Though I'm still sad we didn't get to say goodbye.
Get over yourself, Ginger, I thought. You'll just have to make some more!
Oooh, I might even have to buy more yarn!

Bye, bye, cushions. You were a lot of fun to make. I hope your new owners love you as much as I did.

Advent in Bavaria


In my part of the English-speaking world, Advent kind of slips by without much of a fuss. No, that's not true: but it's a different kind of fuss, a fuss that - more often than not - is centred around shops and shopping and buying stuff. A Bavarian Christmas is different: slightly more traditional and slightly less commercial. The Thursday before the first Advent Sunday (last Thursday it happens), the Christmas markets open for the first time in the late afternoon. Within an hour, people have gathered around the braziers, drinking mead and mulled wine in the crispy darkness of a winter evening:

And everything smells so good - stalls with toffee apples and roast nuts, boiled sweets, mulled wine and loads of gingerbread:

Last year Mr Gingerbread and I didn't decorate our house and we celebrated Christmas at our respective families, but not together. It was a hard year and by the time Christmas rolled around, we were exhausted. This year, 2010, has been a tough one but we've just handled it better. So this Christmas, we (well, I - Mr Gingerbread just agrees to keep the peace) are going to celebrate with a vengeance.

First, I bought a traditional Advent wreath. I didn't make it myself, but bought it at our Christmas bazaar:

And we decorated a tree. It's not actually a fir tree but an oleander bush that my mother-in-law gave us (she called it a 'plant' but it's clearly a tree) but the addition of shiny baubles and crocheted snowflakes give it a festive air:

The snowflakes aren't mine, they were a present last Christmas and I've been looking forward to hanging them up all year. My husband is a bit bemused by the (un)timely decorating but plays along in good spirit. So I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the season!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In which the Gingerbread Lady makes Christmas cards ...

This mightn't mean much to you -

but it means a lot to us. This is our mediaeval Advent Market - or what will be the mediaeval Advent Market. At the moment it's just a crowd of chain-smoking chappies in blue overalls, hammering the little wooden houses together, but in a matter of days, it'll be a little village full of hairy locals in hemp robes, selling hot chestnuts and wooden swords.

The pre-Christmas period is always jolly nice, but nowhere nicer than in Bavaria. This part of Germany is known for its Christmas gingerbread - yes, really, that's why I chose this name (I've ginger hair, too. A happy coincidence) and its Christmas markets. Nuremberg's Christkindlsmarkt (Christchild's Market) is world famous and almost eye-poppingly picturesque. You could happily guzzle your way from one end of the market to the other: slurping candy-floss, sucking candied ginger, munching toffee apples and swilling mulled wine. And rest assured, dear readers, we do this once a year as a matter of tradition.

Anyway, before I get carried away with a rhapsody of Christmas treats, let me tell you about this week's trauma:
I turned (whisper it) thirty-six. Thirty-SIX. I've spent the last five years recovering from the shock of turning thirty, so it came as quite a surprise when I realised that I was rapidly sliding towards the big four-oh (whisper it) - yes, forty. My pain was eased slightly by the arrival of pretty cards (look at the cards my little sisters made me. Aren't they purdy?)


and the appearance of presents. Obviously, I'd like to think that I'm the kind of person who eschews presents in favour of good deeds (e.g. a donkey donated in my name to a Third World village), but I cannot tell a lie: donkey, yes, and a skein of yarn for me.

No, actually, my attitude towards presents has changed. I've become a rabid re-gifter: despite being surrounded by stuff, I hate it. I don't like all these things. I have very little sentimentality, I don't attach great meaning to very much.  Use it or lose it has become my motto. I don't keep fancy glasses for A Special Occasion, I don't save handmade soap for Sometime in the Future, I don't put expensive wine aside to gather dust. Essentially, my possessions are either Mine (I use them and love them) or On Their Way To Someone Else - and that's good, too. In my peculiar view of the universe, everything has a home and everything has an owner, and the things that are currently resting in my possession might really be destined for someone else who will love them more.

In this spirit, I've tried to re-examine what I gift. For example, I spent yesterday afternoon making my Christmas cards.

I started making my own Christmas cards years ago. I thought it was going to be a one-time thing but it's become a kind of Christmas tradition as well ... along with a growing Christmas card list. A couple of years ago, I ran out of steam after a long afternoon chopping and sticking tiny pieces of paper and affixing intricate little shiny stars, so I gave up and and bought a few Christmas cards for colleagues. They hated them. Well, no, they didn't, but they each made a point of remarking that they really missed my handmade cards - and I realised then that actually the handmadedness was really the gift, not the card. They actually appreciated the effort, the uniqueness and the slight wonkiness of my handmade offerings. So back to the drawing board (desk) I went, armed with my glitter glue and wooden reindeer. They each got two cards that year and a crisis was avoided.

This year, I've even made little parcels with a half-dozen handmade Christmas cards for my favourite friends and colleagues - an Advent present, not a Christmas present. Fingers crossed that they'll like them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

And they call it Zuppy love...

Christmas has become a complicated event. We have to tread carefully, so as not to insult any family members - and inevitably we fail. Neither my mother nor my mother-in-law is willing or able to understand why we cannot (will not) spend Christmas at their respective homes. In the interests of fairness, we divide our Christmasses up between countries. This year, we're going home to Ireland for Christmas. One of the reasons for this is the encroaching seniority of Zuppy, my parents' dog.
"He's twelve, you know," says the husband. "He mightn't be around for much longer."
And a tear glistens in his eye.
Okay, maybe not, but I cannot emphasise enough the special bond that Mr Gingerbread and Zuppy share. It's astonishing that Zuppy even recognises me - after all, he only sees me two or three times a year for a week or two at a go, but he knows who I am and knows that I'm a soft touch for treats. And although he's pleased to see me, this is nothing compared to the near-orgasmic joy when he's reunited with my husband, whom he sees even less frequently. And the joy is mutual. As the car pulls down my parents' driveway, Mr G's nose is pressed up against the windowpane, waiting for the sight of the dog.
"Zuppy!" he hollers.
Zuppy freezes, then - bang!
Off he goes, bounding down my parents' yard with ears flapping, tongue lolling out and teeth bared in a joyful grin. And that's just my husband. The dog looks just as happy.

It's been like this from the start. Back then, when dog and man were younger, fitter and more energetic, they liked to play together in the yard. It was quite an extraordinary sight: Very Big German Man and Very Small Jack Russell. Their favourite game was 'That's My Stick!': my husband threw the stick, the dog caught the stick, then they spent twenty minutes playing tug-o'-war with aforementioned stick.
"That's my stick!" my husband would yell, waving the stick (and the dog attached to it) in the air.
"That's going to end badly," said Gingerbread Daddy one day, looking out the kitchen window. Husband and dog were nose to nose, husband on all fours on the grass.
Gingerbread Daddy looked over at me. "That's going to end badly," he repeated in A Significant Tone.
"Don't worry about husband," I said, "He won't let the dog hurt him."
Daddy rolled his eyes. "Yerra, I'm not worried about that eejit," he said, "It's the dog. He might lose a tooth hanging out of that stick."
"I'll talk to him," I said. To the dog or the man? Probably both, I thought. I looked at the window: at that point, dog and man had become a tangle of limbs and I just didn't have the heart to break them up.

Which is a pity, because seconds later my husband ran into the house, his hand aloft. He was bleeding heavily from a gash in his hand.
"It wasn't his fault!" he said, "I swear, it wasn't his fault. I put my hand in his mouth. He was expecting the stick - he was just over-excited."
I cleaned the wound (it wasn't deep) and affixed an appropriate plaster. Obviously, I gave him a telling off for playing rough: husband hung his head in shame. That done, I went outside to give the dog a telling off - but Zuppy had gone underground, hiding in the woodpile with only the stick for company.

They were not allowed to play together for a while till they'd both clamed down and learned to play nicely. Then they skipped off down the yard, waving the contentious stick, and within minutes they were rolling around the grass again.
Oh, the joy. Mr Gingerbread just can't wait.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Scrub Up Well

My little sisters and I decided to start compiling ideas for crafty Christmas (or general) gifts.We set up a blog called The Christmas Craft Collective, which is still rather empty (get your skates on, girls.) Anyway, I've always been a bit sceptical about the value of handmade washcloths. I mean - really? Why not buy a flannel facecloth like everyone else?

I'll tell you why: because a handmade one is fabulous. Sturdy and soft, thick and squidgy. And I designed mine with puff stitches/clusters to maximise the scrubbing. So excited was I that I promptly made another set (these work up fast.) Now all I have to do is write up the (very simple) pattern!


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small

Growing up in Ireland, choir lessons with one of the good Sisters of the local convent were an inevitability. Sr Rosarii had the dubious pleasure of teaching me and sixty other uniformed wee ones to chirp out a selection of hymns in English and in Gaelic for all manner of liturgical events.
"All things bright and beautiful!" we'd yodel enthusiastically.
"All creatures great and small!
All things bright and beautiful,

The Lord God made them all!"
Which I always felt was kind of unfair, because anteaters, blobfish and komodo dragons are neither bright nor beautiful (and, certainly in the case of the blobfish, you wouldn't want to be stuck next to them at a dinner party as far as scintillating conversation is concerned) but they never got a mention in any of the hymns we sang. But that's another post.

Anyway, the mental picture of Wee Gingerbread swaying in time to Sr Rosarii's baton unexpectedly popped into my head at 3:48 a.m. this morning.
Oh my goodness, you say. How did you know that it was 3:48 a.m precisely?
I'll tell you how, readers. Because I pulled a muscle in my back* and simply couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned (in a very careful fashion of course), listening to Mr G's nocturnal symphony. Drifting off to sleep, only to wake suddenly when I turned the wrong way. Fretful, horrible, half-sleep. I was exhausted. Too exhausted to sleep. Too exhausted to get up. I looked at my watch. Quarter past three.
Right, I thought, one concerted effort to relax. Switch off. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
I closed my eyes and ... finally ... dosed off ...

Weeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh Weeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh
Wide awake, every muscle in my body tense.
Not really. Not seriously. Oh, puh-lease: I was being attacked by a flipping mosquito in the night of the first of November. I banged on the light - 3:48 a.m.

So yes, a vision of Little Me in her bottle-green school uniform briefly entered my head as I whacked the mosquito to Kingdom Come to meet his maker, the same one who made all the other things bright and beautiful, all those creatures great and small. Sorry, Almighty Being, but you can keep your mosquitos. If you really must, send me an anteater at 4 a.m. instead.

Edited to add:
Sensing a lack in the canon of hymns, I've penned another verse for the one above. Feel free to add it, if you wish:
All things strange and interesting,
Including blobfish and anteaters,
Komodos and pesky mosquitos,
Are also the Lord God's creatures.
You might have to play about with the melody, but I'm sure no one will notice.

* Yes, Mammy Gingerbread, arnica has been applied.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Domestic Bliss

Let me preface this by saying that I love my husband. I really, really do. He's big, friendly chap who laughs a lot and is generally both a gentleman and a scholar. That notwithstanding, he occasionally careens close to death without even knowing it.

Take last Friday, for example: I was heading to Munich straight after work. I didn't have much time between getting home and leaving the house again, so I was twirling like a dervish, gathering up papers and folders and memory sticks and pyjamas and toothbrush. Seeing my distress, Mr Gingerbread decided to "help" by making me a cup of tea - but his idea of helping is to direct my attention to his solicitiousness by engaging me in a no-win game of Twenty Questions:

"Would you like a cup of tea, my little gingerbread sweetheart?" he says, as I rush by, trailing a pair of tights and an armful of books.
"No thanks, honeybunch," I reply.
"Are you sure? I can make you one if you like."
"No, no thanks, really."
"Are you sure? Really? Because it's no trouble."
"No, honestly, I don't have time for a cup of tea."
"I could make you one and just put it down beside you."
"No, seriously, no, I don't have time. I have to leave in five minutes."
"In five minutes? When does your train leave?"
(note that I've told him about four times in the past 24 hours when my train leaves. Seriously.)
"At 12:15. It's ten to twelve now. I don't have time, thanks."
"No time for tea, then?"
"No - look, I'm too stressed for tea."
"Right. That's a 'no' to tea?"
"What? So you do want tea?"
"No!" I snap.
Miffed, he withdraws. Then sticks his head back through the door:
"How about a coffee? A quick cup of coffee?"
"Okay. No tea. No coffee ... Juice?"
White-knuckled, I turn to him and hiss, "I! Don't! Have! Time! For! Beverages!"
And he turns his huge, bright blue eyes on me and looks hurt. I instantly feel like a piece of poo. So I apologise profusely for being an Evil Gingerbread Lady. He gives me a hug, then holds me at arm's length, looks me deep in the eyes and says, completely earnestly:
"So you really don't want a cup of tea, then?"


But here's something I learned the hard way:
Mr Gingerbread snores like a tractor. It's a deep, vibrating snore that makes the entire bed shake. I've developed a way of turning his not-inconsiderable bulk over in bed so that I don't even wake him: first a poke in the ribs, then a swift roll over on to his side. I often used to lie in bed in the middle of the night, listening to his nasal trumpeting, wondering whether marriage vows prohibit pushing a snoring spouse out of bed at 4:13 a.m. Then last Christmas he ended up in hospital with a pulmonary embolism and a nasty bout of pneumonia. I lay in a silent bed in a silent bedroom - and guess what? I really missed his array of nocturnal grunts and snores, the cacophonous build-up to the final snort before starting again with a contented little wheeze. And as I lay there in the deep darkness, I realised that I loved his snoring. All things considered, I really did. So if he decides that the most appropriate way to demonstrate his love for me in situations of high stress is to follow me around with a teapot, I really should appreciate it, because a day might come when I'll regret all the cups that went undrunk.

PS: When I returned from Munich on Sunday night, he met me at the door with open arms.
And a cup of tea.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Using what I have

Since I started to show my true colours, i.e. as a crafter, I've got a lot of yarny presents. Most are odd skeins found by the gifter when tidying up, some even come attached to a half-knitted sleeve or with needles or hook still attached. More often than not, they're fun fur or other novelty yarns:


So I've decided to use them up. Just destash and use them up for Christmas presents or charity donations. Take, for example, the lavender mohair yarn: this was passed from knitter to knitter before it ended up with me. The yarn is very nice, but incredibly fine - a nightmare to knit or crochet with.


Teamed up with a soft acrylic of the same shade, it produces a soft scarf that's slightly furry to the touch: