Monday, May 23, 2011

Free Advice

I've often dreamt of opening a cafe. Or a shop. Preferably an emporium. Stocked with lots of pretty and useless things - a woman's shop, my husband hisses. He hates shops like this: when I drag him into one, he plonks his considerable height and, (after a week of unbridled Snickers-noshing while I was in Scotland,) his not-inconsiderable girth in a corner and buzzes with disapproval, like a wasp in a jar. Obviously, I haven't shared my Post-Lottery-Win-Plan # 7 with him yet (= Open Shop Full of Handmade, Organic, Once-Off Crafty Items. But this plan only works if you've won the lottery and are under no pressure to make anything nasty, like, say, a profit.)

However, whilst in Scotland, I had a brainwave. I could still open a shop, but by choosing the right kind of shop, I could dispense with capital and inventory - I could sell advice! Look, see, someone's doing it already!
This is a true reflection of the weather in Scotland. If this were my shop,
I'd be outside saying, "You should've brought an umbrella!" and pocketing 50p for my wisdom.
The shop owners ought to recognise these opportunities.
I've started compiling some of the gems of my wisdom on Post-Its and random bits of scrap paper, but I thought I'd give my loyal readers a kind of foretaste of what folks will want to pay big bucks for in the future:

No Matter How Many Eventualities You Think You Have Covered, Something Unexpected Will Still Happen
Par exemple: today the US President, Mr Obama, paid a flying visit to Moneygall (the 300-soul village his great x 3-grandda came from) and Dublin. Hot on the heels of Queen Elizabeth, who popped over for her first visit to the Irish Republic last week, security was on red alert. The American secret service had been combing the Irish countryside for weeks in advance (no lie) and poor Mr O had to deliver his speech to the crowds in Dublin in a goldfish-bowl of bullet-proof glass. Everywhere he went, he was surrounded by security, his team were prepared for attacks of every possible kind - chemical weapons. Snipers. Bomb threats by all manner of radical groups. Over-amorous senior citizens.

Despite WEEKS of preparation and MILLIONS spent on creating a safe little bubble for the American visitors, the presidential car couldn't make it over the ramp at the American Embassy. In fact, to the delight of the waiting crowd (who laughed and cheered, and shouted, "Do yiz need a push, Barack?"), the Fancy Car was scuppered by a simple ramp. I bet that's one thing the combined forces of the Irish and American Secret Services had not thought of. (And I could've charged them for that advice and made a packet! Darn it! Opportunity lost!)

Evidence on YouTube here!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Crochet Tartan

First of all, let's look at a nice photo of Edinburgh to put us in the mood:

Purdy, eh? Don't be fooled by the clear, blue sky. It was flipping freezing. There are no people in the picture to attest to this fact, but believe me, everyone was blue with the cold.

I was never particularly a fan of tartan - possibly because it's an integral part of most school uniforms, and nothing will put you off a colour (bottle green! burgundy!) or an item of clothing (knee socks! pinafores!) or fabric (gaberdine! tartan!) more quickly than a school uniform. Twenty years on, and having obviously recovered from the trauma of trying to keep a kilt down in gale-force winds, I was fascinated by Scottish tartans - and Edinburgh's Royal Mile is awash with tartan. I even escaped the clutches of a 40-strong group of students to go and have a look at a tartan weaving exhibition. It was very interesting:  big machines and bolts of material - and cones of yarn everywhere. While the rest of the tourists tried on tam o'shanters and cashmere scarves, I fingered the yarn cones and admired the pretty colours.

Big machines!
Spooky mannequins demonstrating Ye Olde Dyeing Process. Given my extensive Kool Aid experience,
I could've given them a few tips - e.g. don't wear a white coat while dyeing. Just sayin'.

So when I got home, I was struck by a notion: would it be possible to crochet tartan? After all, I actually discovered that my clan (well, clan related very distantly) has a tartan - rather bizarre, when one considers that we're not actually a Scottish family and not even an Irish one originally: our behorned ancestors hopped off a Viking boat a thousand years ago, swinging their axes and looking for stuff to pillage. In any case, I knew crochet tartan was theoretically possible, because I even had a book to prove it.

In fact, this picture of the tartan blanket nonchalantly flung over wicker garden furniture was the main reason I forked out two whole deutschmarks for this book ten years ago. In my mind, I'm actually the type of person who wears straw sunhats and wanders around my charming country garden gathering fruit in a basket, before returning to my seating area (naturellement, we don't say 'patio' - it's common, darling) to enjoy a gin and tonic. Up till now, I never quite understood the technique involved in making tartan crochet, but last night when I re-read the instructions, it suddenly clicked.

You see, it's a three-part technique: you crochet a net of chains and double (treble) crochets. Then you crochet strips of chains, which you finally weave through the net. You have to take note of the number of rows you do in any given colour, because the tartan effect is achieved by weaving chains of colour in the same order. In other words, if I crochet 6 rows of red, one white row, 4 rows of green, then I weave through 6 chains of red, one chain of white, 4 chains of green.

The basic net: DC, ch 1, DC, ch 1
Weaving through the chains to create a tartan effect.
Half-way there: the work has to be pulled into shape, as the chains are quite elastic.
It creates a firm, cushiony fabric that still has a bit of drape (I used mercerised cotton for mine.) The disadvantage of this technique is that it's ... well, kind of dull. Crocheting the net is dull. Crocheting the chains is tremendously dull. The only real excitement is seeing the tartan pattern appear when you weave them through - but even that loses its appeal when faced with the knowledge that you have to crochet enough chains for another twenty rows. I simply cannot imagine how you could do this on a much larger scale than a 40 x 40 cm cushion cover without losing the will to live. But I'll plod on and finish this for you, dear readers, and maybe I'll be so overcome by pride that I'll be inspired to try it on a larger scale.
Just don't hold your breath, though. There has to be a more entertaining way to do this!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Back from Bonnie Scotland

Cripes. What a week.
We'd only been in Scotland for 45 minutes, when our Fearless Group Leader slipped in a well-known British supermarket, fell over and broke her kneecap, leaving the three remaining teachers in charge of 40-plus students. We gathered our nerves and left her in the care of capable Scottish medics and on we went to Inverness.

Scotland is lovely. It looks very like Ireland in places. The people look like Irish people: hardy, red-cheeked people inadequately dressed for the inclement weather (well, so were our German students, but they'd just underestimated how darned chilly the Atlantic winds can be, bless their little cotton socks. You have to experience them to believe them.) The Scots also share our Celtic easy-going attitude to ... well, life, really. (If you've been living in Germany for a while, you become accustomed to a very straightforward way of dealing with things: if you say you'll be somewhere, you're there at the appointed time and place.) But, hey, we adapted and rolled with the punches and enjoyed a lovely week oop North:

Eilean Donan Castle

One of hundreds of lovely lochs

Loch Ness - don't get excited, that's a boat, not a monster.

Yes, there were standing stones! Yes, I went up and had a grope! No, I was not transported back in time. Sadface.

Beach at Skara Brae, on Orkney

Unfortunately, though, I missed the wedding of my sister-in-law to her fiancé. I also missed several fantastic parties in its celebration. If you want to celebrate, find a group of Germans. Honestly. These people invented Kirchweihe - beer festivals to celebrate the consecrations of new churches (our local Kirchweih is a week-long carnival that has been going strong for 254 years. The church itself is long gone, by the way.) Sister-in-law and new husband had a two-day, three-party wedding. Hats off to the newly-weds!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Scotland, for the brave

Hello, readers!
Or: Och aye the noo!
which is what non-Scottish people presume Scottish people say all the time, the same way all Irish people like to wear green breeches and holler "Top o' the mornin' to ye!" at unsuspecting strangers. As the latter is sadly not true (though my comely calves would look very fetching in a pair of breeches), I have to come to terms with the idea that no one in Scotland will be enquiring about my noo.

Yes, that's right - I'm off to Scotland for a week! You might remember hand-rubbing anticipation at the thought of being amongst my Celtic homies, - well, the time has come for me to pack my suitcase and usher forty young German adults on to a bus bound for Edinburgh. Being a teacher-slash-chaperone-slash-babysitter-slash-substitute-mother for a group of students is not my idea of a holiday, so don't envy me ... too much. My preparation for this trip has sadly been very limited: I've been working hard, so I've only managed to dip in and out of my guidebook. I did, however, finish Outlander (yes, we talked about this already). Thus, I must conclude that one of two things will happen in Scotland:

a) I will simply escort giddy teens around sights of historical interest, or,
b) based on my reading of Outlander, I will be transported back in time to the 18th century, where I shall meet, marry and instruct a handsome young Scot in the Art of Lurve. Awed by my amazing Kama Sutra skillz, he will fall desperately in love with me and we will discover we're soulmates.

I have, of course, informed my present soulmate about the possibility of his wife time-travelling and ending up in a bigamous marriage with a fellow Celt - he is strangely unmoved at the prospect. In addition, my stress at work has deterred me from actually studying any last-minute Kama Sutra moves, so my skill-level remains rather lacking. In fact, I find that the primary requirement for this kind of thing is a level of bendiness that I simply do not possess - I can't even touch my toes. Thus, I sincerely hope that my future Scottish husband-in-the-past isn't expecting me to put my ankles behind my ears in the bed-chamber. Or whatnot. My hips aren't able for that.

How did I get to this point?
Oh, yes - Scotland.
As you all know by now, Very Bad Things happen when I travel - I personally caused a volcanic eruption last April, severe blizzards at Christmas and a tsunami, earthquake and nuclear meltdown in March. Please brace yourselves. I reckon this time it might be an alien invasion.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Irrational Fear of Onions and Other Inherited Quirks

Turning into one or other of your parents sometimes sneaks up on you.
I was lining up ingredients in the kitchen recently, getting ready to bake, whilst my husband was hacking an onion to death on the other side of the room (I love him, but Jamie Oliver this man is not.)
"Don't let those onions get near my baking!" I warned - and clamped a hand over my mouth in horror:
Once again I realised that ...
... I Am Becoming My Mother.

See, my mother has an irrational fear of onions in the kitchen. Whenever one of her minions children is assigned the task of chopping onions, she emphatically warns the chopper at least twice to Keep Them Under Control. You cannot take your eyes off the onions for a single second. In fact, onions deliberately make your eyes water to distract you momentarily so they can sneak into your chocolate cake or smear themselves on your jam sandwich.
 "Don't let those onions get into my apple pie!" or "I'd better not get a taste of onion off my scones!", my mother shrieks, making wavy motions with her hands to disperse phantom onion juice that's somehow spraying all over the kitchen and into her sugar bowl.  For years I suspected that she believed onions had a mind of their own: turn your back on the little blighters and they'd make a dash across the countertop - nay, across the kitchen - to inveigle their way into your fine baking.

Despite the alarming realisation that I have inherited my mother's Irrational Fear of Bulbs That Have Minds of Their Own, I am nonetheless glad that I have reached this realisation. It's only when you live with someone else that you realise that the way you do things isn't necessarily the only way to do things, however astonishing (or, quite frankly, unlikely) this may seem. I almost drove my in-laws crackers (and continue to perplex them on a weekly basis) because I did things Wrong (or Wrongly. As you wish.) On our first Easter Sunday breakfast together, I sat down with relish to a hard-boiled egg. I took up my knife and whacked the top off it with gusto - a nice, clean boiled egg execution. My in-laws were - and I do not exaggerate - horrified at this display of barbarism.

Put. The. Spoon. Down.
 "Chopped the top off her egg!" said my father-in-law, shaking his head in dismay.
I looked around - my parents- and sister-in-law were delicately tapping their eggs, picking the shell off, piece by piece. A lot more head-shaking ensued.
"She's so strange," I could see them think. "She's doing it wrong!"
Not that I minded, because I was observing their egg pickery with disdain:
"You're all nuts!" I thought silently. "This is the way we do it in my house. This is the right way!"

Years ago one of my former teachers told me a story about a visit she paid to a friend's house. While she was there, her friend started to prepare dinner. She was making bacon and cabbage - a typical Irish dish. Normally, you boil a loin of bacon in a large pot and serve it with mashed potatoes and cabbage (I won't comment on the gastronomic value of this dish or I'll start a flame war among the Irish readers - there are Love It and Hate It camps). My teacher watched as her friend cut a hank off the meat and set it to boil in a separate little saucepan.

"Why are you doing that?" she asked.
Her friend was astonished. "Because that's the end of the loin," she said. "That's the best bit. You always cook it separately, it has the most wonderful flavour. Don't you do it this way?"
And my teacher had to break it to her gently that not only did she not do it that way, but as far as she knew, no one else prepared their bacon that way.
"That's weird!" said my teacher.
"That's bizarre!" said her friend. "Everyone should do it like this - it's the best part of the meat, honestly!"

A couple of weeks later, when they next spoke on the phone, her friend said,
"By the way - remember you were asking about the bacon? Well, I asked my mother why you cook bacon that way, and she said, 'Well, it's the best part of the loin! You cook it this way to preserve the flavour!' Which was fine - except that a couple of days later, my mum phoned my grandmother and happened to ask her why she prepared bacon in that way. And granny said, 'Because I never had a pot that was big enough to cook a full loin of bacon.' It seems you were right."
She was a bit upset. "But it's the best part of the meat! It tastes better when you cook it in the little saucepan!"

Back in 1951, Mrs Brennan solved the Inadequate Saucepan Dilemma by cutting her loin of bacon to fit the saucepan she had. Sixty years and two generations later, her female descendants continued to do the same because no one stopped to think about whether the way WE do it even makes sense.
I wonder how many of us are doing things like this, without being fully aware of it?