Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I have tendonitis and a stack of yarn

Yes, I have tendonitis and a stack of new yarn. This is not a happy combination.


Tendonitis starts out like a minor wrist cramp and swiftly develops into agonising pain, the likes of which would make you whimper. After a few days of whimpering (which fell on deaf ears, I might add), my loving husband packed me off to the doctor, who in turn confirmed my suspicion: I'd wrecked my hand.
"Do you write a lot?" he asked.
"I do," I answered with alacrity. I not only write more than most people do - yes, with real pens. Often with ink pens, too - but I'm also famed for my ability to demonstrate complex grammatical concepts with stickmen pictures on the blackboard. My students have even occasionally given me a round of applause for same.
The doctor noted this down and asked if I used the computer a lot.
"A little," I said, lowering my eyes modestly so I could admire my freshly-cut fingernails (all the better for tapping the keyboard.)
"Do you use it for work?" he said.
I'm not sure if intrepid blogging counts as work, but I do take it seriously. I confirmed that yes, my laptop and I are close friends.
Anything else I was doing that might strain my hand?
Phew. Where to begin?
"Well," I said, "My husband and I are renovating an old house, so we often do things like... stripping wallpaper, priming walls, painting, plastering - oooh, lots of plastering - and we put down laminate floors. And tile bathrooms..."
He was impressed. Rightly so. And even more so when I told him that I'd acquired my professional tiling skillz from watching a DIY video on YouTube. Yup. I have broadband and I'm not afraid to use it.

Shaking his head in admiration (I like to think), he asked me if I did anything else that might be a strain on my poor little hand. I stared him down for a couple of seconds, but he returned my steely gaze - and finally I admitted to occasionally doing handicrafts. Just a little. It's not like I have baskets of yarn stashed all over the place. And I don't have a hook in every handbag. Or attached to my keyring. And the fact that I'm practically on first-name terms with the lady in the local yarn shop (a big step in Germany) is no reflection on the frequency of my visits. It's just a little crocheting and I HAVE IT UNDER CONTROL.

The upshot of this is that I'm wearing a wrist brace and I have to take it easy. So I'm trying - but what do people (normal people) actually do when they watch TV? What do you do with your hands? I'll have to find a hobby I can do left-handedly for a while (finally learn to knit properly?) or I'll end up going crazy...

PS: Dr Schmidt: if you're reading this, I am being good, honest. Haven't touched a hook in days.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TUTORIAL: Fleece-backed Crochet Cushion Covers

This is especially for those of you who would sooner crochet a tennis-court-sized afghan than make a teensy-weensy cushion cover and sew on a back. Sewing? Bleurgh.

Anyway, I needed a backing fabric strong enough to take the weight of the crochet. Some people use denim or recycle old sweaters, but I had a thin fleece blanket I'd bought for pittance during a clearance sale. Recycling ahoy!

You will need
a fleece blanket (mine cost €2.99 at a local department store. It has already backed three cushions and I should get another one or two out of it as well)
a sharp scissors
a sharp needle (I usually use a blunt tapestry needle for my crochet sewing, but here you'll need one with a sharp point)
some pins
- and a
thimble, if you have one (I don't and I survived)
- and your finished cushion cover (I edged it in a row of purple and left a long yarn tail to use for attaching the cover to the fleece.)

First of all, you need a template for the fleece back. Measure your finished cushion cover and add a quarter to one side. In other words, mine is 40 x 40 cm; if I add a quarter, it becomes 40 x 50 cm. I cut out a rectangle of paper 40 x 50 cm and then cut this rectangle in two parts: one is appoximately 20 cm wide and the other is 30 cm wide, both are 40 cm 'tall'.

I then place these two pieces on my fleece blanket side by side along the edge of the blanket, with about 8 cm between them. In other words, the 40 cm-sides are lined up along the edge of the fleece blanket, which has already been hemmed by the nice people in the fleece blanket factory. I pin them down into place and use my big sharp scissors to cut out around them, leaving a good 2 cm over on each side, except the hemmed side.

You now have two pieces of fleece, pinned to pieces of paper. One side of each piece of fleece (the bit that's 40 cm wide) will be the hemmed-in-the-factory side and this hemmed side will form the flap on your cushion back. So place your cushion cover next to the fleece pieces and overlap them so the hemmed edges are lying on top of one another in the middle, and the (roughly) cut edges are around the side. This overlapping bit is the cushion closure. If the overlap is big enough, there's no need for buttons (yay!)

So far, so good, eh? Now place the two sides of the cover (the two bits of fleece + the cushion cover) on top of one another, with the 'right' (also known as the 'pretty' sides) face to face. The 'wrong' (or 'ugly' sides - yes, there's a right and wrong side to crochet work, but if you can't see it then it really doesn't matter) should be facing out.

Keep everything from wriggling away by pinning the whole contraption together. You don't need a lot of pins, just enough to keep a grip on it. (At this point, by the way, you can remove the paper. It has served its purpose.)

Now pick up your needle and start whipstitching the fleece to the crochet. It might be a bit difficult - you may have to wriggle the needle a bit - but I find inserting the needle into the fleece from the side (as opposed to directly through the material) seems to work best. Try it out - you'll find a way that works best for you.

Warning: sewing through the part with two bits of fleece (the overlapping part that forms the back flap) is going to be tough, but it's only a couple of centimetres, so bite your lip and get on with it.

You then turn your masterpiece right-side-out and admire your luvverly stitching:

Look at that lovely closure (I like the zig-zaggy side best). Did you hem that fleece all by yourself? (Practise saying it now: "Yes, I did. It took hours. I worked my fingers to the bone. But I'm a perfectionist, moi."

The back of the cushion should look like this:

And this is the front:

Now you place your cushion in a strategically nonchalant but very visible position and modestly garner praise for your wonderfulness.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kitchen Sprucing

Mr Gingerbread and I decided to paint the old chimney in our kitchen. We spent a happy half-hour in the DIY store looking at paint samples ("Purple! Bright purple!" "No, no, look at this one - yellow!") before we finally settled on apple green. It's just a single stripe of green in an otherwise-white kitchen ... and I think it's quite spanky, if you don't mind. We're still at the getting-used-to-it stage, where you walk into the room and get a shock because - oops! There's a big green chimney there all of a sudden (even if you did just paint it yourself this morning) but I'm going through a green phase, so I think it's nice.

Next on my To-Do list is to paint the wooden units white and the back wall of the kitchen - which is also inexplicably panelled in wood - is also going to see the hairy end of my paintbrush. I want a bright, light kitchen instead of feeling I live and work in an inn in the Bavarian Alps. With so much wood and wood panelling, all we need is a mounted stag's head and a hunter's horn, and we'd be ready to open for business.

BoHo Chic Cushion Covers

I love colours and I love granny squares. I think you might have noticed this by now.
Anyway, whilst distracting you all with mesmerising pictures of rainbow-coloured granny squares like this:

I was secretly working away on two stacks of 16 squares that each became a cushion cover. These squares involved very ... um ... daring colour schemes. Wine red with lime green. And sky blue. Plus shocking pink. For example.
Why not?
I have to branch out every now and again and try a few new colour combinations.

The result is this: two cushion covers that are surprisingly harmonious in their colourfulness. I backed them with a purple fleece blanket which I bought for a song, and sneakily found a way to create a neat and practical backing that can be achieved by even the most sewing-challenged - or more accurate for me: sewing sloths.

(I know I'm not alone in this, so never fear, a tutorial will follow in the coming days.)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Granny Square Update

This is what I've been looking at all week: the Reproachful Yarn Basket ("Why are you ignoring me? Why won't you pick up your hooks and do something nice?")

All the work I'd left behind when I went to Ireland was still there when I returned. Despite my wishes and finger-crossing, the Housework Fairies had not visited to do my laundry. And the Correction Fairies hadn't bothered to turn up and correct my students' exams. Very, very selfish, don't you think?

But yesterday I managed to do some frenzied granny squaring, and now I have two cushion covers sewn together and a beautiful little stack of colourful grannies waiting to follow a similar fate. Aren't they just luverly?

All I have to do now is sew the backs on to my cushion covers, which will be tonight's project. So stay tuned to find out what will happen to my gorgeous granny squares...

The Lavender Killer

Phew. What a week.
I finally arrived back in Bavaria after a gruelling 10-hour journey from Dublin, via Amsterdam. When I got back home, I discovered that Mr G had killed my lavender. View the evidence:



When he heard me shriek, he hastened to my side.
"What did you do?" (actually, it was quite clear that it wasn't what he'd done, but rather what he hadn't done: the soil in the plant pot was dry and dusty.)
"What's that?" he said, in shock.
"It was lavender," I said.
"How long has that been there?"
(spluttering) "Ages! For crying out loud, man, you open the blinds every morning! Did you not notice the plant pots on the window sill?"

At this point, Mr Gingerbread - an accomplished actor - makes a big deal of rubbing his scrubby beard and making contemplative "Hrrrmph!" noises. Essentially, this is his way of admitting that although he's opened and closed the blinds at the window daily, although he's had to stretch over them to open the windows, he's never taken notice of the plant pots. Ever.

This is not unusual: many things in our household do not exist to Mr G until I point them out. In fact, if I buy anything new, I have to introduce them to him and him to them several times before he acknowledges their existence
("Husband! These are our new mugs. Aren't they nice?"
"Oh, right. Yeah, lovely."
Next day:
"Where did these mugs come from?"
"Oh, please. You remember our new mugs, don't you?"
Puzzled silence.
"Remember, yesterday? In the kitchen? You were standing beside the fridge and I held them up? Remember? I put them in the sink and I washed them? You dried them and put them away? Remember?"
Beard scratching. Slow head-nodding.
"That sounds familiar. Was that yesterday?"
"Yes. Remember? You made yourself a cup of coffee, then dropped the mug on your foot and bruised your toe? Remember? You spent twenty minutes hopping around the kitchen and cursing? Remember?"
"Ah yes..."
"And remember how you spotted that pigeon on the roof, pooping into the gutter, and you wanted to throw the mug of coffee at him to frighten him away. Remember? And I pulled it away and told you not to use my new mugs as long-range pigeon missiles? Remember?"
Head-shaking. "Was it really that mug? Are you sure?"

Now, if I don't do this, we'll continue to use the objects in question for months till one day Mr G will pick up a random household object and say, suprised, "Where did this come from?" and I'll have to convince him that it's been part of our inventory for X amount of time, retracing the object's life cycle:
"Remember our wedding day? Remember? I was the woman in the white dress, you were wearing a suit? Well, do you know the couple that was there, too, the little blond woman and the big man with the curly hair - the little blond woman gave birth to you. Your parents, that's right. Well, remember the box with the coloured paper that they gave us? You opened it and we all cried. Yes, that's the photo frame they gave us. Yes, we've had it for two years."

And he just shakes his head in wonder.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bye, bye, Ireland...

After a week at home in the bosom of my family, it was time to leave and go back to Gingerbread Germany. Just as I was leaving, the weather started to change:

People always mention Ireland's landscapes, but I love the sense of sky: great, big cloudy skies

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Aunties

The aunties came to visit last night. My mother is the youngest of nine daughters and now, following the death of one of the sisters a couple of years ago, the eight women make an effort to get together regularly. Few excuses are needed: in this case, my homecoming was enough to draw a flock of perfectly-coiffed ladies to my mother's living room, where they sat around a table groaning with the weight of cakes and biscuits and pots of tea.

If you're not part of a large family, this next sequence might wreck your head. But I thought I should give you a flavour of the evening.

"Did you hear about Mrs Burke?"
"Is that Mrs Burke from Foxhill or Mrs Burke from the bank?"
"She's not still in the bank, is she? She must be ninety if she's a day..."
"Would she be ninety? Really? She went to school with Mammy, lordhavemercyonher ..."
(Me: "What happened to Mrs Burke?")
"Of course she's not in the bank, she'd be 93 now. Anyway, I'm not talking about her, I'm talking about Mary Burke from Grange - small woman, big teeth, a bit of a hunchback. Do you remember her? Ah, you do. A small woman. White hair. A little dog..."
"Was she married to Jim Burke, the brother of Sheila Egan from the post office?"
"That's right, he used to drive the truck for the pea factory."
(Me: "What happened to Mrs Burke?")
"But he's not driving that truck any more, not since he lost his leg in a combine harvester."
"So what's happening at the pea factory now? Have they sold the site?"
"No, they haven't. They were holding off for the best price and then, sure, didn't the economy crash and now no one will touch it with a pole ..."
"Wasn't it built beside the river? Wouldn't that land be boggy?"
"Sure and of course it is. You couldn't pitch a tent there ..."
(Me: "What happened to Mrs Burke?")
"Speaking of boggy land, Eileen and Desmond Hennessey - did you hear about them? Didn't they build a house out by Cloney and isn't it sinking away on them?"
"It isn't! Isn't that shocking! And they spent a packet on that house, didn't they?"
"Sure, Eileen spent a fortune on importing tiles from Italy ..."
"She's an awful eejit, that woman. She used to go to London to buy her outfits, would you believe it. And she wouldn't be slow about telling you that either ..."
"And now the whole house is slowly descending down into the bog ..."
(Me: "What happened to Mrs Burke?")
"Did they not get a surveyor in before they built?"
"Of course they did. But it was Frances Mulhall's son, you know the middle lad? The fella who studied in Galway?"
"The red-haired chap?"
"No, no, the blondy-haired chap with the lisp. Married to that nice Scully girl from out the Geraldine Road ..."
"She used to do the flowers in the nursing home, didn't she? Didn't she have an affair with that gorgeous Italian chap from the chipper's?"
And so on.

Within minutes I'm agog, trying to keep up with the information flow. Well, it's not really a flow, it's more of an information stew. I never find out what happened to Mrs Burke. I don't know what they're going to build on the site of the old pea factory. Eileen and Desmond's house continues to sink, as far as I know. The dodgy surveyor and his flighty wife are briefly touched on and forgotten, and, worst of all, no one will fill me in on the gorgeous Italian and where he can be found.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Beast

Warning: this post contains graphic tales about spiders with anger issues. If you have a fear of arachnids, I recommend that you choose a post from the Crochet section on the right.

Oh Emm Gee, as the cool kids say.
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in my parents' sitting room, overdosing on satellite TV (we don't have a television in the Gingerbread House, so I get terribly excited about my parents' 500 channels. I greedily gobble up re-runs of Friends, advertisements for car insurance and reality TV. In fact, I spend hours looking at programmes about other people renovating houses, which is quite sad because I actually flew 1600 kilometres to get away from builder's dust and paint. It just looks so much easier when someone's doing it on the telly.) Anyway, I was sitting in front of the box, transfixed, watching a strident English woman distress a chest of drawers, when I heard a ferocious buzzing from the window sill behind me. I whipped my head around just in time to see an ENORMOUS spider matter-of-factly wrap a big fly in its sticky thread. The fly was buzzing frantically, trying to attract my attention (I think), but I was too scared to intervene. That spider meant business, and I could see by the steely look in its eye(s) that he wasn't open to hostage negotiation. He finished his wrapping and used a hairy leg to push the fly down into the crack between the window sill and the glass pane. Still watching me, he disappeared down into his hidey-hole and left me, shuddering, in front of the TV.

Naturally, I was dying to tell someone about my National Geographic encounter with the Bruce Willis of spiders, but when I excitedly regaled my tale to my family over dinner, they reacted coolly. In fact, they were quite nonplussed. This spider is known as The Brother of the Beast and he periodically emerges to nobble a fly, which he trusses up and carries off to the nether regions of the window frame. My father maintains that there is a second spider that lives under the sofa and this spider comes out at night when my parents are alone in the sitting room: the spider waits till my mother has nodded off, then meanders out to watch my father surf on his laptop. According to my father, The Other Brother of the Beast plonks himself down in the middle of the sitting room floor and calmly watches my father trawl through cyberspace. My father has a creepy feeling that The Other Brother of the Beast is waiting to pounce - perhaps hoping for my father to get distracted by a laughing baby on YouTube so he can jump up and cocoon him in spider silk.

However, the mother of all angry spiders used to reside in my parents' bathroom. This one was called The Beast and - according to family legend - had no compunction about actually launching an attack on people on the loo. Obviously, this spider had figured out that whilst propped on the toilet, in a state of semi-undress, you are fair game for an aggressive arachnid. Apparently my young nephew Liam (a toddler at the time) was actually cornered by The Beast and had to be rescued, sobbing, from the bathroom. Some retellings of this anecdote include claims that The Beast advanced on the child snarling and bearing teeth, but we think this may be a slight exaggeration (and I'm pretty sure spiders don't have teeth). Before my parents could round up a lynch mob, The Beast had scuttled off behind the skirting board and disappeared. He lay low for a couple of weeks before continuing his campaign of cruelty. My brother Robert claims that The Beast then tried to attack him while he was indisposed and he only managed to escape by pelting him with toilet roll. This stunned The Beast for a couple of seconds, during which time Robert slipped off a shoe and used it to defend himself. The Beast might have been big in spideresque terms, but he was no match for a size 12 Adidas.

And thus ended The Beast's Reign of Terror and once again one could go to the loo in the middle of the night, without having to keep a watchful eye on the skirting board, armed with empty toilet roll holders.

Be that as it may, the fact still remains that The Brother of the Beast and The Other Brother of the Beast still live in my parents' sitting room. And since the murder of the fly, I've felt a bit nervous about the sitting room. I find myself glancing over my shoulder, watching my back. A bit creepy, I'm sure.


Back in Ireland for a few days, I’m enjoying fantastic weather. Now, I know you didn’t log on to this blog to read my musings on the weather, but the fact that the weather in Ireland has been so spectacular is genuinely newsworthy.

For starters, the weather in Germany has been awful for weeks on end, while Ireland, on the other hand, has been experiencing a heatwave. Now, I will warn you that an Irish heatwave means that the mercury hovers at about 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), as opposed to the 30 or 40 degrees you might experience in other countries. Still, it’s about 10 degrees more than we’re used to. But rather than be thrilled at this unexpected blast of summer, the locals are pooped.

“Jesus! This weather has me murdered!” one woman exclaimed, as she looked around for some place to lean her tired bulk against.

“We might get a drop of rain at the weekend,” said the shop assistant, peering hopefully out the window.

“Oh, wouldn’t that be great?” said the first woman wistfully, fanning herself with a paper bag.

Irish people seem to be split on the Good Weather Issue. Some people view it with great suspicion. My Gingerbread Mother, for example, thinks it is a curse sent to try her. She reacts the same way a vampire does to daylight, squinting out at the cloudless blue sky and hissing when hit by sun-rays. We suspect that she might melt like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz if someone pushed her outside at noon; there’d be nothing left but a puddle of mother and her Ecco shoes. The Gingerbread Father, on the other hand, would gladly spend the entire day working in his garden

which, thanks to Ireland’s rude fecundity, is bursting at the seams with growth. Father is engaged in a constant Man vs Nature battle and Nature trounces him at every turn.

But it’s not only the humans who’re pooped in this weather. The animals aren’t used to it, either. Both the cat and dog have found themselves choice locations to snooze in:

Even the cows aren’t going very far.

An Irish Funeral

A death in the family meant I had to cut short my convalescence (= copious amounts of tea and medicinal doses of chocolate biscuits) to fly back home to Ireland for the rollercoaster ride that is an Irish funeral. Thankfully, I was able to continue my medical treatment (more tea and even better biscuits), and I now feel right as rain again.

When you live in another country, especially when you’ve made a point of studying its language and culture, you simply presume you’ve become familiar with all aspects of life in your adopted home. But one thing no language and culture course prepares you for is death and funerals. How we send off our nearest and dearest is an integral part of our social behaviour, and at the same time, it’s something people would rather not talk about. And it’s not surprising: I don’t have a copy on hand, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t on Dale Carnegie’s list of recommended chit-chat topics in How to Make Friends and Influence People.

My experience in Germany has been that death is very intimate and low-key. The funerals I’ve attended have been immediate family only, and the ceremonies were quiet and tasteful. I almost committed a massive faux pas by inviting myself to a funeral ceremony, thinking – Irish-style – that it was the correct thing to do. I was gently informed that the funeral was for immediate family only, the subtext being that the presence of strangers – or, in my case, simply non-family members (I did know the deceased, honest, I wasn’t trying to gatecrash a complete stranger’s funeral) – was intrusive and inappropriate.

Funerals in Ireland, like many other Irish events, are basically a big clan gathering. And Irish families are very, very big. Not only are there (literally) dozens of cousins (in my case I have over sixty first cousins. Yes: six-oh. Five dozen plus small change) and aunts and uncles, but these relatives all have spouses and partners and off-spring of their own. An Irish funeral is only deemed a success and an appropriate send-off if it’s huge. Yes, in this case size really does matter. There’s no greater honour for the departed and the family left behind than an enormous funeral - hundreds of people in attendance. Many of the attendees don’t even know the dead person, but that’s okay: you attend the funeral of a friend, relative or colleague’s loved one to show your support for the person you know. And if the funeral cortege manages to stop traffic, if the local Gardai (the police force) have to be called out to direct cars... well, then, the funeral was a smashing success and the family can rest assured that justice was done to their loss.

Re-reading the above, I realise that it all sounds a bit mafioso-like: “Come and pay-a the respect-a to the Family!” but while there are a lot of men in black suits and dark cars, no rings are kissed, I promise. Instead, funerals are just part of life over here and they’re not hidden or sanitised or toned down. The funeral cortege leaves the local church after a funeral mass and the procession slowly makes its way to the cemetery, usually passing down one of the narrow main streets of the town. People stop and bless themselves when the funeral draws level, cars pull aside to let the hearse pass, and shopkeepers rush to turn off shop lights as a mark of respect. It’s solemn and respectful, and it’s wonderful and horrible. It doesn’t make death any easier or more pleasant, but it’s an ingrained ritual that everyone experiences or has experienced, and perhaps this collective empathy makes it easier to bear.