21 February 2017

Maeve died on Sunday morning. She was 103. For the last couple of weeks, so we've been told, she was mostly asleep. And on Sunday morning she did not wake up. We were expecting this. She did not suffer. Her life ended. It is sad and comforting at the same time.

Maeve was the oldest sister of my beautiful mother-in-law. A strong, gutsy woman. I have written about her here.

Now there is only Nuala left from that generation, the second oldest sister and she is not well, both in mind and body. But she is looking forward to the funeral mass. Nuala is a devout catholic, she believes in miracles. She speaks to her saints regularly on all our behalf. I have a stack of mass cards from her. Proof that she prayed for me. That my soul is safe.

When my mother in law was dying (much too soon, much too cruelly), we were instructed to not say a word and nobody did. And so she was never told that she had pancreatic cancer, that she had only months to live and that we all knew. Even her husband, the love of her life, the ever charming JC, he would not, could not tell her. Not to himself, either.
For short while, I was furious but what did I know, me, the heathen foreigner.

But of course she knew. She prepared her death carefully.

Often, when I close my eyes, I see her on that Sunday morning when I opened the door, her smiling face, would you wait a little while, love, while I finish talking to Sean (the family lawyer). And after Sean had shook my hand and left, I combed her hair and held her hand while we watched mass on the closed circuit tv.
On Sundays, I was always the first visitor and I would leave when the next family member arrived. The grandchildren came after lunch, alone or in twos, bearing paintings and flowers, being ever so good and adorable, everybody loved granny. My father in law had the evenings and on one of these, he brought a priest along and they quietly renewed their vows.
During the week, I'd sneak in a short visit on my way home from work to exchange gossip and take instructions about the dogs or the garden or what to take out or put in the freezer.
And then driving home in the rain, waiting at the traffic lights by Blackrock shopping center, crying while the rain washed over the windscreen and Walking in Memphis on the car radio.

And then that day when I could not reach her any longer, when all I could do was moisten her lips with that lemon scented sponge. For a brief moment, she opened her eyes and said, thank you Maeve. That's when I stepped back. For the next few days, I minded kids, prepared endless pots of tea, cooked dinners nobody really ate, answered the phone, looked after her dogs and did whatever was necessary so that her daughters, her son, her husband, her sisters and brothers could be with her while she was dying.

Later that week, when we visited her laid out in a bed of flowers, surrounded by the letters and paintings from her grandchildren, R showed me her wrists. She had asked for them to be slashed after her death. Why? I asked. To be sure, he said, she was afraid. Just like we are. Afraid of not dying and afraid of death.
For a moment, I felt a sharp pain washing through me.
But we were young then and our lives were stretching out in front of us, endlessly. What did we know of fear, of death.

18 February 2017

and this

Tens of thousands of people marched through Barcelona today calling on the Spanish government to immediately take in thousands of refugees.

 Photograph: Manu Fernandez/AP

16 February 2017

Another mysterious wedding picture from my father's stack of photographs. I can identify three people, my grandmother in the back next to the bride, the little boy in front is her first born and I think she is pregnant with her second child. Her mother, my great grandmother is seated holding on to her handbag in the front on the left.

The date is 1923. I made a copy of this picture and sent it to my father and we had a longish conversation over the phone. He does not recognise anybody else. We agreed that it must have been a once-removed wedding, a distant cousin from my grandmother's side, maybe not even a relative. The groom seems to be a fair bit older than the bride and I think the elderly mustachioed gentleman in the front row could be his brother.

My father thinks it was most likely a day trip, hence the large handbag and the absence of my grandfather. This was before the time of family cars. Living and working in a small provincial town required maybe a truck, tractors, definitely a couple of horse drawn carriages for the business, but families had no need to drive around in cars back then. It is definitely a rural setting. The towns had much better road surfaces. My father thinks his mother and grandmother probably hired a car with a driver for the day.

In the past weeks I have emailed this picture to every country hotel and restaurant within a 150 km radius from my grandparent's address at the time. I found only three country house hotels, as they are now called, with the same (or a similar) name as this 'The golden cross inn', but no, it's none of them.  The managers of all the other country inns and hotels of a similar age that I contacted must think I am slightly mad. One in a rather godforsaken spot replied with a lunch voucher for two.

I also contacted a couple of historical societies and received a few polite replies from what I assume are retired teachers who basically confirmed what my father said over the phone: forget it.
The name of the proprietor is incomplete and I haven't even started to look into this.
Rural Franconia was not dramatically affected by  the war, so it is unlikely that the building was bombed or burned down.  My brother suggests I write to the local papers. Maybe.

This picture is utterly Franconian. I can hear the accent and the noises from the kitchen.  I imagine that they will all sit down to eat Fränkische Hochzeitssuppe (beef consomme with lots of different vegetables and semolina dumplings), Tafelspitz mit Meerettich (beef with horseradish and apples), Eiernudeln (home made egg pasta, fat ribbons), Apfelküchle (apple pie), Franconian wine, the locally brewed beer, coffee for the women. I wish I could sit down with them.

15 February 2017

Halfway through February. The open bedroom window. Birdsong since well before daybreak. Gorgeous birdsong. Now, after I watched R cycle off to work, with his energy and purpose like a sparkling cloud surrounding him (or maybe it was just his shiny red anorak), I am back in bed waiting for my day to find purpose and for my body to gather energy.
I could occupy myself. I could distract myself. I could make a plan, write down all the little tasks and schedules that are waiting somewhere for attention (or not). And in time, I will do all of these. Because that's what will get me through the day. 
But right now I am trying to not remember process what two experts told me yesterday after they had banged their little hammers onto my knees and ran their needles along my legs. Namely, that nerve cells do not regrow. That unlike all other cells in our bodies, nerve cells when damaged are kaput for ever. That muscles need nerve cells in order to function. And that while muscles can be tricked into activity even when nerve cell damage has occurred, extensive damage can also imply permanent paralysis.
Theoretically speaking, I am fucked.
But hey.
It's only one foot and most of the leg attached to it. Actually, one of the experts was quite enthusiastic about cycling, could be possible, he nodded, probably easier than walking. Eventually. 

So here is the plan: In time, slowly, slowly, I am going to get those muscles, hell, all and any of my muscles, into tip top shape, I swear it, here and now.

(As of today, I am on sickness benefits, i.e. my salary is paid the working masses.)

This bit of music, simply for the name of the band:  

14 February 2017

I've had some serious health issues in my time. (As if I haven't mentioned this before.) More than one expert told me in the last six years that I am lucky to be alive, that kind of stuff.
Also, in my almost 60 yrs I have been through some gruesome pain (however and thanks to the heavens above, the almost fatal issues are mostly pain free but just carry the potential to finish me off). The pain that tormented me to date has been due to more benign causes, accidents, inflammations, that whole dental catastrophe, not forgetting childbirth (- which was actually sublime, pain incl.).

I used to feel proud of my coping skills. OK, proud is probably not the correct term, let's say I used to be confident about being able to cope. Eventually, after the jitters and the panic stations, I am not perfect. But. Always falling onto my feet in the end. Breathe in breathe out, that kind of attitude.

Fear, yes of course, I know fear. Before and after fear. I may have lived the comfortable life of a white middle class college educated happily married woman with really decent health insurance (socialist to some), but I have also flown in an airplane that was evacuated upon landing because of a bomb scare (the bomb was discovered on the plane hours later), drove downhill in a car with failing brakes (gears, gears, gears), presented my battered German passport to uniformed men with bloodshot eyes and very large machine guns, got stuck in a lift for an eternity, almost drowned in a freak surge, got showered in sharp glass when the train window I sat under was shattered by one of several massive rocks that missed my head by a fraction, ran out of a burning building, that kind of fear.

The summer before I started university I went wild. Nothing seriously bad or too illegal, mostly tasting-freedom-like-never-before wild. Part of that freedom was a brief love affair with a poet. How could I, with an A in German literature, resist a poet? (I would now, looking back, but not at the time.) 
After the first week, he sent me this poem by Bertolt Brecht, handwritten by himself on fancy paper:

To be Read Mornings and Evenings

He whom I love
Has told me
That he needs me.

That's why
I take care of myself
Watch my step and
Fear every raindrop
Lest it strike me down.

It was only a brief fling, his own poetry was somewhat unconvincing and he also quoted too much Rolling Stones lyrics.  But I always loved that Brecht poem and two years later, I actually stood in Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford and read it out loud and in English to R, who, in his dirty mountain boots and his wild hair swirling around his head, looked quite out of place in the poetry section but grinned at me just the right way.

Anyway, my point is: I am now officially terrified, scared shitless, of all the raindrops and the way I cannot move my right leg properly and whether this rehabilitation will be a failure and too late and I could go on and on.

11 February 2017

We woke up to strange white stuff covering the world outside. We decided to stay indoors and my old friend vertigo arrived for a visit. I could dwell on how I pushed all the misery buttons at once, incl. weeping and gnashing of teeth, but, well, old hat.
After lunch, big white sheets of sleet were coming down outside. The man who had consoled me earlier started to make marmalade from scratch in the kitchen. I sat down with him while he separated the pips from the flesh. I lamented that I have to be better by Tuesday for my appointment with the rehabilitation center - on which I am focussing all my hopes and dreams right now - and he put his sticky hands and arms around me, which was nice, and assured me that whatever happens, it will not be the end of the world.

Then I listened a couple of times to Frazey Ford singing about the Indian Ocean. The best ocean on the planet, I loved it from day one and cried very very hard when the plane carried us away from it for the last time.

10 February 2017

Today, I was walking past the bus stop where I first taught S how to get home from school by herself. She was a skinny little 10-year old waif, shy and quiet in public. All afternoon I have tried unsuccessfully to remember what school bag she had at the time. But I remember the yellow jeans and the lilac sweater and her hairband. I can see her standing at the bus stop ready to come home just as I taught her during the days in the previous week when we travelled together every day. I am watching from across the road behind that big tree as the bus comes along. She doesn't know I am there but she is doing all the right things, carefully and seriously, the way we had practiced.
In those days, I was probably the one who was scared most.
Come to think of it, I still am.

09 February 2017

you fool

The old bastard is back, sneaked up quietly and suddenly last night.

"Surprise! Hello?!
Here I am again. Did you miss me? Did you think I would stay away while you kept yourself busy with physiotherapy and all this silly walking around the garden, slowly building up stamina every day?  
It looked like a nice old game for a while. You had me in stitches.

Well, here is the thing. I want it now. Your energy, attention, your ridiculous concept of health and recovery. Hand it over. There's a good girl.

Remember: I am your chronic disease. We are buddies forever.

Dole out the cortisone for all you want, go on, you do that now,  but it will just patch things up, poorly and let's not forget my special treats. Yes, clever girl, the side effects. 

I rule supreme."

07 February 2017

grandmother, never granny

My grandmother died in 1995, a few weeks short of her 103rd birthday. On the motorway driving home from her funeral, we had an accident and as a result I had to have spinal surgery, the long term effects of which are probably -  to some extent - the reason why I had to have this somewhat similar surgery almost five weeks ago.

It has nothing to do with my grandmother - it was a freak snowstorm, poor visibility and the usual speed limit transgressions on German motorways - but I had to get this in somewhere, self pity and still not able to walk properly etc.

Here she is in 1905 on the day of her confirmation, 13 years old.

and here with her siblings, three years later:

She is the oldest and all through her life she maintained a close relationship with her sister and her brothers. Indeed, she bossed her nieces and nephews around just as much as her own children and grandchildren. These two boys are the brothers who started the family feud after WWI. Hard to imagine. My father told me this morning that as a school boy he would cycle from one uncle's house to the other's, delivering messages and papers to sign, eating two dinners and bringing home treats for his mother, each bigger and better than the other. His uncles adored my grandmother and were always there when she needed help, but never at the same time.
There is no proper explanation for this feud. They had different ideas about the business, one was the crafts man, a skilled blacksmith who eventually became quite famous for his ornamental iron work. The other one was the manager. But that surely is the perfect combination for success? At a push, my father suggests it could all be due to their wives arguing and competing in the stifling social circles of the 1920s in a provincial town. There is a second and a third generation working hard on keeping it alive these days.

This is my grandmother in 1914, she had left school for good and was now attending a 'finishing institution' for young women in Augsburg, where she was to be instructed in the various important social graces incl. designs for dinner settings and pastry baking.

The beginning of WWI put an end to this. Her brothers went to the front and she came home to run the family business with her mother.  I am not sure about the role of her father, I think he was ill. From what we have been told, she was a very successful businesswoman. And she loved to talk about that time, how deftly she handled the competition. Often she told us that she 'showed the men' that a woman could be just as successful and ruthless if not more so. And ruthless she was, all her life.

By the time WWI was over, she was getting on, she was almost 25, with her brothers back running the business (and arguing about it), she had to concentrate on marriage. And as the oldest daughter of a successful local merchant and land owner, i.e. money, there was a fair selection of suitable candidates, despite the effects of the war.

When I was a small girl, I often sat in her kitchen, drinking black tea with hot milk, dipping in one of the very hard biscuits she kept in large tins, while she counted her suitors on the fingers of her hand, giggling like a shy young girl. There was the teacher who unfortunately was slightly cross-eyed, the pastor with an overbearing mother, the forester who always tried to look under her skirts when she was cycling past his house in the woods (why was she cycling there? I would ask, to check whether he was meeting other young women, she replied briskly), the son of the local brick factory owner (he later married her sister) and so on, until this dashing one arrived, posted to the province to run the finance department, with a law degree from Munich and a truck load of bespoke furniture. He was the best catch, obviously. Never mind that he was 17 years older, he came with dramatic career prospects and the war was over. They married in 1919.  Their honeymoon was a trip to Vienna on a pleasure boat on the Danube. Every afternoon, so the story goes, my grandfather went for a swim in the river to exercise his healthy athletic body while she had to sit and watch him. Until one hot day, she had enough of this showing off and jumped right off the boat to join him.

With my grandfather's next promotion came a house - that she designed and built. Or rather, supervised as it was built. People still shiver when they talk about it. My father moved back there after he left my mother in 1988. He lives there now among his father's bespoke furniture, a place full of stories.

Anecdotes and memories, hearsay and family folklore. I am no closer to my grandmother than I was when I was small and scared of her. She was a hard person, no cuddles, no wiping away of tears and there were many. She always had work for us, picking fruit, sorting through the apples and quinces in the basement, folding laundry, drying the dishes. No treats or sweets. No time for fairy tales or lullabies, instead, she read to us from her favourite tabloids, Grace Kelly, Jackie, Frank Sinatra, Maria Callas, all the adventurous European royals, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper when it came to pregnancies and betrayal, divorce and - shock! - adultery. Most of it I did not understand (what does pregnancy mean, grandmother?) and she was not a person you would ask.

Once before I started school, when my mother was going through a bad patch, I was to stay with her for a few weeks and after the first few days and tears, I decided I would leave and walk back home by myself (about 50 km). All night I tried to remember the exact route and the names of the villages along the way and after breakfast, I packed my toys and told her I was off. She opened the door and never said a word. My aunt picked me up from the bottom of the road hours later.

And yet, I know she was proud of us, proud of me. She would never ever say it to my face, of course not. When S was born, her first great-grandchild, she softened, danced through the room holding her, singing and laughing.

04 February 2017

with the appropriate soundtrack

 After lunch, in a brief moment of mental derangement I decided that I was fit enough to walk down to the river and back. So while R ran after me, cursing under his breath, I marched on until exhaustion caught up with me and forced me to sit on a low wall by the cemetery until I had recovered for the slow crawl back home. There, in the cold damp February drizzle, nostalgia joined us with memories of our tropical past.

This is the view to the west across the Indian Ocean after slowly driving upwards on seemingly endless and very narrow hairpin bends through the rain forest. Further on and up, through ever deeper forest, there is a small tea plantation, a deserted Capuchin mission and then the road starts to dip down towards the east, the harbour and the airport.
It is late afternoon, definitely a Saturday or Sunday, on weekdays we would not have had the time to go for such a long drive after work and before sunset at 6pm. I think this picture was taken in November 1988, because sometime before xmas that year, this car caught fire and quickly burnt down to a pile of stinking rubble. The school holidays had started and R was driving three little girls, S and her two Swedish friends, to one of the beaches on the west coast for the day. They got out in time, laughing and singing, all unharmed.

I was working that day and soon after this happened - miles away - one of the government drivers, who considered the air conditioned office as their lounge, quietly walked up to my desk and waited for me to look up and
ask him what's the matter before he explained, very politely, that everybody except the nice white expat car was fine. And when I looked up and around the office in disbelief, I realised that everybody had known for a while, that in fact, this was the reason for all the annoying whispering earlier that had made me so nervous (I was new at the job and under constant observation). And while I sat there, at a loss and quite shocked, every one of 'my staff', one after the other, walked up to me, shook my hand, and Jude and Pascal, the magical twins, told me that they would take care of it. And they did. They always did.
These two watched over me, they spoiled me, they drove me nuts, they danced and sang during work, we hated each other and we loved each other. Some mornings, I would find my desk decorated with fresh bougainvillea and heaped with pink mangoes, while they both carefully explained why today, a small amount of money may be missing - temporarily of course - from the petty cash. Things always worked out in the end.

I never drove that car, it was too dodgy for my nerves, too many tricks to get it started, too neglected by too many previous owners who would pass it on like gold dust after their two-year expat stint. Then of course, the roads made me nervous for a long time, miles and miles of steep bends, sheer drops and no hard shoulders, thick forest and then the rain, almost daily, torrents, steaming floods. 
The car we got after that was even more dangerous but soon I had gone native and wild and could drive those hairpin bends with my eyes closed.

The twins are both grandfathers by now.

01 February 2017

the first day of spring

is a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 1 February, or about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
It is believed that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid and that it was christianised as a festival of Saint Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bríde)
The etymology of Imbolc/Imbolg is unclear. The most common explanation is that is comes from the Old Irish i mbolc (Modern Irish i mbolg), meaning "in the belly", and refers to the pregnancy of ewes. Another possible origin is the Old Irish imb-fholc, "to wash/cleanse oneself", referring to a ritual cleansing. 
(thanks to Wikipedia)

We cut a few hazel branches for the kitchen window, no frost, the birds are busy. We are neither pagans nor catholics, never overly fond of Oirish rituals, but this is the best day of the year. The most hopeful day of the year. By the weekend, rows of little seed pots will line the sitting room windows. We will start with the peppers.

31 January 2017

After my first forays into the magic realms of physiotherapy and osteopathy, I am exhausted enough to resume my stranded beetle position and crawl into the tunnels of the interwebs where the people of the world are screaming and lamenting and analysing and explaining. I follow the links and remarks from friends and poets and writers and scientists and aging hippies and old comrades from my rebel days.
I even dusted off my almost defunct twitter account. I know, desperate times.
From time to time, I click here to watch the numbers pile up. Of people in Great Britain petitioning for trump to be prevented from visiting the UK. The numbers are climbing so rapidly here that the UK parliament has to debate this petition on 20th Feb (live). Nice.

Then there is this here:

(by historian Heather Cox Richardson (Boston College) who is probably right in assuming that Steve Bannon is behind trump’s recent Executive Order on Muslim refugees)

What Bannon is doing (. . .) is creating what is known as a “shock event.” Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

(The) Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.
Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.
My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like. I don’t know what Bannon is up to– although I have some guesses– but because I know Bannon’s ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle– and my friends range pretty widely– who will benefit from whatever it is. If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.

But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event. A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines.
 If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings.

And rather more intriguing this here:

(. . .) a story that many people haven’t noticed. On Wednesday, Reuters reported (in great detail) how 19.5% of Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, has been sold to parties unknown. This was done through a dizzying array of shell companies, so that the most that can be said with certainty now is that the money “paying” for it was originally loaned out to the shell layers by VTB (the government’s official bank), even though it’s highly unclear who, if anyone, would be paying that loan back; and the recipients have been traced as far as some Cayman Islands shell companies.
Why is this interesting? Because the much-maligned Steele Dossier (the one with the golden showers in it) included the statement that Putin had offered Trump 19% of Rosneft if he became president and removed sanctions. The reason this is so interesting is that the dossier said this in July, and the sale didn’t happen until early December. And 19.5% sounds an awful lot like “19% plus a brokerage commission.”
Conclusive? No. But it raises some very interesting questions for journalists to investigate.
The (. . .) theme is money. Trump’s decision to keep all his businesses (not bothering with any blind trusts or the like), and his fairly open diversion of campaign funds, made it fairly clear from the beginning that he was seeing this as a way to become rich in the way that only dedicated kleptocrats can (. . .).
This gives us a pretty good guess as to what the exit strategy is: become tremendously, and untraceably, rich, by looting any coffers that come within reach.

 And finally, there is Dutch humour:

30 January 2017

One day we will ask ourselves how life could proceed in such an ordinary way in the face of what was going on. This will feel even more unbelievable because what is happening isn't a natural catastrophe, a volcanic eruption, a massive gas leak, a killer virus  etc. but something caused by careless people and without any need.

And we all know it.

29 January 2017

During our quick Sunday morning phone call, my father, as always eager to get back to the winter sports competitions live on tv (biathlon is his favourite), shouts his disbelief down my ear, do they not have schools? Where do they get these harebrained ideas from? 'They' being the people who voted for trump. As usual, he is convinced that everything boils down to a decent enough education. He has a point. But neither of us knows much about the US or its school system, so we just change the subject. Admittedly, I am still fairly perplexed by it all. And I don't want to come across presumptuous, we have a similar populist movement here (albeit hovering around 12%). But 'alternative facts' without a great outcry?

Before I crawl back into my thick warm layer of self pity and continue with the general theme of big-time whining (believe me I am aware of it), some interesting thoughts :
I think Trump ultimately is going to do America and the world a service by becoming the vehicle that will finally take down right-wing conservative politics for a generation or two. He is getting the entire Republican conservative establishment to buy into his regime. He is creating an administration that is blatantly all about rule by — and for — billionaires, sold out to the oil and carbon industries, and celebrating an out-of-control corporate capitalism. It will be a caricature of conservative policies. In short order he will completely and irrevocably alienate all the growing political constituencies of the 21st century: the Millennial Generation, people of color, educated professionals, women. He’ll eventually do the same for a significant number of more moderate Republicans. And does anyone out there really think Trump will do anything for the white working class that got him elected? Watch as repealing Obamacare blows up in his face.
I think the backlash will be fast and furious. And it won’t just be Trump that goes down — it will be large swaths of conservative Republicans who will be almost helpless to stop Trump or distance themselves from him. They will pay the price for creating the conditions that created him. I think the next 4 to 8 years are going to see a serious sea change in politics — to the left, not the right. The analogy is closer to what happened to the conservative Republicans coming out of the 1930s — they were out of power for the next 50 years.

Peter Leyden (just a tech person) 

and this from Garrison Keillor:

What we know so far is that the man is who he is. There is no larger, finer man inside him trying to get out. Everyone who is paying attention knows this.
The man is clueless, tightly locked inside his own small bubble. A sizable minority of Americans, longing for greatness or wanting to smack down an ambitious woman and to show those people in the hellhole coastal cities what the real America is all about, has elected him. To him, this minority is a mass movement such as the world has never seen.
Everyone knows that the man is a fabulator, oblivious, trapped in his own terrible needs. Republican, Democrat, libertarian, socialist, white supremacist, or sebaceous cyst -- everyone knows it. It is up to Republicans to save the country from this man. They elected him and it is their duty to tie a rope around his ankle.

And another not so pretty picture (source):

28 January 2017

Cabin fever day.
Last night a friend called who had a similar experience, surgery, lengthy recovery etc., two years ago. She was on her way to an office party, out for the night. There are so many voices hissing and shouting in my head trying to debunk her sound advice and recommendations. Never mind her healthy self jiggling her car keys as she skipped out the door.
I am my own worst enemy.

Almost no frost and warmer, wetter weather coming. The wisteria has started to come alive.

26 January 2017

Every morning I get up charged with another load of enthusiasm, or rather, I carefully turn from my back to one side and lift my body en-bloc to crawl out of the bed that R has raised (using four small concrete blocks) to the level recommended by the trauma surgeon.

I am half way through the six weeks of life as a stranded beetle and well, let's be patient. The stitches are out, the wound is healing. I am shaky and shattered. Of course I wonder if there is something else going on, after all that's my strength, waiting for signs of the volcano to erupt and yes, there are some signs.  But generally, I am fed up to my teeth of having to lie flat on my back - for another 21 nights, after which I should be better equipped to handle another autoimmune flare.

Sometimes I do dramatic things like standing upright for a much too short while with my laptop resting on a pile of books so that I can edit a paper on chronic liver disease management, or I slowly walk downstairs and make coffee and microwave-cheat chocolate brownies, followed by a brief walk through the winter silence of the garden.

There are tiny moments of amazing rest and clarity, when I see it all before me, recovery and so on. But mostly and despite my careful attempts of regular patterns (shower, relaxation, reading, tea and hours and hours of online tv)  I am swirling through chaos. Well, at least there's a certain because surely we all know that there is no way to order chaos. Nothing can be charted, ordered and predicted.

I sent the man out to show me that the world is still waiting for me and he came back with fresh fruit and this reassuring picture.

24 January 2017

My paternal grandmother is sitting in the front row, the fifth child from the left. The year is 1897. The school is in Feuchtwangen, a prosperous Franconian town in northern Bavaria.
This is the oldest picture I have of my grandmother. A cousin (from my mother's side of the family), a retired historian, tells me that the children in this picture are all from prosperous families. How can you tell, I ask him. Look at the shoes, the white lace collars, the aprons.

My grandmother's family has lived in this town forever. I have many cousins there, all I need is to knock on a door and ask. Apparently. I never have. We meet every couple of years, birthdays, jubilees, funerals, and everybody is polite and friendly. We promise to visit each other. But we never do. This family is utterly divided, there are feuds that go back generations, about land and money, brothers returning from WWI unwilling to talk to each other, the women whispering mean gossip behind closed doors, my grandmother in her element.
I only know of the feuds because she always talked about them. Endless stories.

Here, she is just a small girl. I don't for a moment believe she was ever shy.

22 January 2017

from my distant observation point

On BBC Radio 4, English writer Robert McCrum talked to six American writers about the new president.
Of the six, these two, I found most informative, if not inspiring:

Marilynne Robinson (the complete interview here):
I think he embodies something dark in the universal psyche, you know, it's terrifying to see how willingly he will divide a country that (. . .) historically, depends on the fact that we don't dwell on these kinds of divisions. And I think that if he really puts his imprint on American culture, it will look a lot more like a lot of the unhappy or failed states in the rest of the world.  
I think we can look to the people who did not vote for Trump, and they are the majority by a considerable margin, to be a very meaningful resistance.
The thing that bothers me so much (. . .) is that the apparent tendency of his government will be to undercut social supports that have helped exactly the people who voted for him.
I blame the churches (. . .) for radically misstating what are in fact Christian values, that the great opposition that has developed in this country against helping the poor, against, God knows, doing justice to the foreigner, all these kind of things that are ancient classic biblical values have been swept away by people who claim Christianity as if it were a tribal membership rather than as if it were an ethical, moral, metaphysical system of understanding.
When you watch this man with his ridiculous gold plated everything and so on, you get the feeling that perhaps we really have fallen back into (something) primitive.
Meaningful democracy is built on a very deep and wide ranging integrity of individual people (. . .) and that's what we have to make sure we have secured, that's what people have to be very serious about.
The future is a strange beast. The word optimism I am not quite comfortable with. The future will be as good as we make it. And a huge burden has fallen on us.

Malcolm Gladwell (the complete interview is here):
If you are someone who is unwilling to engage with the normal institutions of government, one of two things happens: One is that you create a revolution. The other  is that the institutions govern without you. Were Trump a more  dynamic, effective, charismatic, disciplined person, I would fear the former.  That he might actually usurp the existing institutions.  
What I suspect is that he is simply too lazy and undisciplined to have anything happen.  (. . .)  the tweets don't really mean anything. (. . .) They are the kind of half baked thoughts one has at two in the morning. I don't think they represent a clearly articulated ideology. He doesn't have a clearly articulated ideology. (. . .) This is a man who two or three years ago in public said how much he loved Hillary Clinton and how he thought the economy was in fine form. (. . .) Virtually any position he takes now, he didn't take a couple of years ago. He doesn't have positions, in other words.
So in the absence of any kind of coherent political philosophy, personal philosophy, what happens is that the permanent government takes over. (. . .) 
A man who has a kind of murky past, who has done all minds of questionable things (. . .) this is the last guy who should be crossing the CIA. This just suggests that he is someone who hasn't the slightest clue what he is up to. Trust me, we will see the consequences of him anatgonising an  organisation like that. Let's just start with leaking. They're going to very quietly embarrass him any chance they get. 
So does Trump set an example of vulgarity, coarseness, superficiality, does he lower the bar or does the opposite happen? That by finally exposing the kind of emptiness of that kind of politics, does he create a backlash which says, it's time for us to elevate politics once again. I don't know. 
The last experience with a true American bully, someone who was this crass and vulgar, was Joe McCarthy. And the Joe McCarthy experience is incredibly instructive. What happens is, for a number of years,  everyone goes along with it and by being so coarse and vulgar and by being willing to go places where no one else will go, he has enormous political success in the short run. And then what happens: people finally get sick of him.
This kind of rhetorical strategy has a very limited lifespan. After a certain point, people long for a return to some kind of dignity. I think (. . .) those people on the religious right who voted for Trump and who have given him a kind of tentative support (. . .), they know he is not one of them, their patience for his vulgarity will be limited. There is only so long that people who have been raised in the genteel culture of the church will put up with someone who is so profoundly other. That's what happened with McCarthy. Fundamentally decent people who were willing to put up with that for two, three years, finally said, you know what, not doing it anymore. 
That same kind of thing will happen. I think someone's going to stand up and say, you know what, enough. And my guess is that when that happens, there will be a surprising wave of public support, in favour of it.

20 January 2017

this is the end of the world as we know it

aerial shot of the lakes forming on the Arctic ice cap

The (photographs are) beautiful, but what you’re looking at is climate change at its worst. My favourite is the one that looks like an eye. It’s a half-circle of concentric blues at the top of the image – it’s almost as if global warming is looking right back at you.

Timo Lieber

19 January 2017

Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.

 Aimé Césaire

16 January 2017

Here is another photo from my father's stash. The box I was allowed to take as my share of his estate. He thinks these are useless mementos or maybe he imagines I sell them and make lots of money.
It's all in my head anyway, he says, what do I need old photographs for.

The year is 1943. The location, a Franconian town in northern Bavaria, first history records dating back to the 13th century, dominated by a large Baroque castle with impressive grounds. Napoleon's troops passed through it on their way to fight the Prussians. The group is standing on the stairs to the back entrance of their school, which was founded in 1528.

It is the last day of school, not because the boys are about to graduate (they are barely 13 years old), but because of the war. The school will shut down, the last remaining teacher is posing here with his class. He taught the Classics, Homer and Tacitus, rhetoric, logic, debating. Unlike his colleagues, he is too old to be drafted. However, in less then two years, he and all of these boys, will be put into ill fitting uniforms, armed with the dregs of the remaining weaponry and sent off to utterly and completely unsuccessfully defend their hometown against the approaching US army. But that is another story.

My father is the tall one on the right in the front row. When I asked him about the pins on some of the lapels, including his, he was not sure. There was so much you had to be careful about, even in this sleepy town, he said shaking his head. We were reciting the Iliad, debating Plato, what did we know.
They all survived the war but today, my father is the only one still alive. The small one in the front was my father's best friend, an artist and professor of fine art at the university of Munich, a member of the Munich Secession. When I last met him three years ago, he was wearing a handwoven tweed jacket with a dramatic pink silk scarf, his leonine hair like a white crown. He kissed my hands and told me to always wear something blue to match the colour of my eyes.
After his death two years ago, my father almost cried, little Ernstl is dead, now I am all alone.

15 January 2017

in which I try to come up with a positive outlook

I just wrote another whiny post about my life as a stranded beetle in pain and halfway through writing it, I knew. This. Won't. Do.  All my pep talks about how my body constantly produces new cells striving for health. Useless at 3 am. Anyway, it is down below as a record of this cloudy January morning with a few snow flakes here and there. 

For now, let's take a look at this:

I found this in my father's sideboard last summer. Apparently, this is the wedding of someone from my paternal grandfather's family, maybe his sister's. I recognise nobody, my grandfather is not in it, so it must have happened before my grandparents got married in 1919.

This was the Munich branch of the family, the wealthy educated bourgeois members of a wealthy society. They had salons and debating clubs and musical soirees. These men were judges, attorneys and senior civil servants. The women were wives and sisters and daughters. They did needlework and played musical instruments. To my eye, the picture looks like a game of charades, the "crying" girls, the "angel" holding her hands above the couple. I wonder if they were ready to burst into laughter. Or maybe it was a fashionable thing young people did at the time, barely tolerated by the more elderly (female) family members. 
But maybe it simply was like that, two upset little girls, the sister of the bride a bit tipsy on a chair in the back, playing up. The spinster aunt on the right not amused. The protestant pastor on the left keeping his distance.
Actually, I think this picture was possibly taken before the first world war. If so,  Munich was still the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria.
I wish I knew more about photography and fashion and eye glasses to date this picture.

Whereas the lament earlier was as follows:

Once again I wake at 3 am with that pain all along my right leg.  And my mind goes into overdrive. Before I know it I see myself battling a future life with chronic pain. Jeez. This is night 10 after surgery. Early days. I hope.  

Thing is, I recognise nerve pain. It's bloody obvious. Ten years ago I lived through the great dentist disaster and although I eventually came out at the other end alive and well I very much don't want to have a repeat experience elsewhere in my body. 

R is grumpy and worried and coughing and insists on me eating some toast, which I find almost impossible. My brother calls and again, we compare notes on our various surgeries and injuries. Stay on top of it, he tells me. Distract yourself. 

Make yourself small, says the tiny voice in my head. The world is enormous and this is a small event. Watch yourself cope and remember that millions are also coping, mostly under worse circumstances. But also: prepare yourself and seek help. 

I am scared. It's the easy option for now. I am not proud of myself.

13 January 2017

First things first: 

Thank you, thank you, thank you, wonderful readers. Thank you for your supportive and kind comments, for your suggestions and your encouragement, for reading and letting me know that you are there.

Woke up at 3 am tossing and turning with aches and increasing pain and after that, little sleep and working hard on keeping all that miserable worst case scenario thinking out of my mind. I eventually settled on the theory of the two steps forward, one step back recovery road and argued for a while with my impatient self. In the end, I saw my daughter's feverish face, aged 9, during a week of a nasty childhood illness, and I could hear her tiny voice whispering: right so, I have to get through this and then it's over, yes?
She doesn't remember but I do. She did say this.

I took one ultram from the emergency pack they gave me when I was discharged and it had no effect, which is a relief in a way. It is not a nice drug. 

The snow chaos has not (yet?) happened. My man went to work coughing. Life goes on.

When R was 20, his mother, my beautiful future mother-in-law, had a terrible accident. Her car was hit by the delivery van of her local grocer and pushed against a wall. She just about survived it and spent six long months in traction, unable to move, staring at the ceiling.
Many years later, when I had become a member of that family, I was told various versions of this time, bits of memories here and there. The main story was always that her hair, her beautiful thick dark brown hair, after it was shaved off grew back white. She had just turned 51.
Whenever I ask R about the time, he tells me that his memories are all very vague, hazy. That he was busy being young and wild, ready to move to England for the summer. I ask him if he spent time with her in hospital and he replies, Oh I'm sure I did, and I love the certainty in his voice. 
And occasionally he mentions her shaved head with the holes in it for the traction cables and how close she was to being paralysed. He also remembers quite vividly the white leatherette sofa in the grocer's sitting room where they all sat that evening, crying, the two families, neighbours, a priest. Imagine, white leatherette, R says, shaking his head.

I always have a hard time imagining this. My wonderful mother-in-law was such a lively and energetic woman, talking, laughing, singing, dancing. And playing. On the rare occasions of actual snow in Dublin, she had us all, dogs included, tobogganing on bin bags and dinner trays down to Saval Park Road from the Killiney Hill car park, with a massive snowball fight at the end. 
Six months in traction. What have I got to complain. 
I loved her dearly, she changed me, she helped me, she loved me back. She died much too young. That bastard, pancreatic cancer, swept her away in three short months when she was 67.

12 January 2017

The key instruction is to stay in the present. Don’t get caught up in hopes of what you’ll achieve and how good your situation will be some day in the future. What you do right now is what matters.

We are both not well, R is coughing his lungs out every night and I am doing my best to encourage him to stay home. But the man is so dedicated and after a lifetime of almost never being ill, he is finding this difficult to admit. Right now he is contemplating staying home at least tomorrow, resting on the weekend.
Heavy snow forecast for today and tomorrow. Hard to imagine, the evening air so mild, a soft rain. This morning I was watching the first blackbirds checking out the hedge for their nesting places.
The days are getting longer.

(this wonderful music is from Sweden)

11 January 2017

One week post surgery report

The day will come when I will look back on all this with a slightly bemused or possibly even blasé expression on my face before I completely erase it from the part of my brain that stores the really important stuff.

Today's achievements include a short and very tiring walk through the very soggy garden, cancelling a whole lot of stuff like the train tickets to my father's 88th birthday celebrations later this month, the qi gong with the muslim women, various suddenly unnecessary dates and appointments here and there, but most importantly, securing an outpatient follow-up MRI for next week AND keeping my breakfast down.

I still have to figure out the logistics of how to get to the MRI and back without asking R to take half a day off. Our reliable circle of friends includes only people tied to work commitments or currently battling various seasonal infections.

My energy levels are dragging way behind me. I could find this alarming but I am too exhausted to give a damn.
Pain comes and goes and while I try to handle this like a proper grownup it freaks me out totally. I kind of get the idea but the mind is weak.

The right foot is still a lead weight and most of the leg remains stubbornly numb but I can report some tiny improvements in my walking skills.

My steady companion is this nifty grasping tool for picking and lifting things,  incl. pulling up my pants. Actually, I am forever forgetting where I put it last and as a result I am kind of relieved that I am alone at home during most of the day.

Otherwise, I am resigned to accept life as it is right now as long as the wifi works.
Yesterday's therapeutic distractions included a documentary of George Michael  (fell asleep after 20 mins) and the excellent two part BBC drama of Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution.

Of course, I also read the news and keep myself informed, i.e. trying to be a serious, resonsible, informed and involved citizen who is just going through a tiddly bit of health bother.  OK, OK, at least some of of the time. It's a work in progress here.

One week done. Five more to go through until officially predicted recovery. I will believe it when it happens.
Isn't this exciting?

08 January 2017

Home and struggling in my familiar surroundings.

I feel like an invalid, I said to R last night,
Well actually, you are an invalid, he smartly replied, but a valid one (this in response to me hissing with mad fury).

That whole healing business is bloody hard work. I should have known but I am the last to face reality. Not fair, I want to shout out the window. But the place is deserted and utterly still with heavy frost. At 5 am we got a black ice warning from the local authorities. So I cancelled all plans to be active today. Ha ha.

Picture me mostly lying flat on my back or on one side, trying to keep a straight STRAIGHT back, occasionally standing upright or sitting - briefly - on a hard chair fitted with a slanting foam seat, shitting on the upstairs toilet only because this one has been fitted with a raised toilet throne, forever looking for that gripping tool to pick up stuff that requires bending, plus nausea from painkillers - or maybe a bug I picked up at the hospital. 
Every two hours or so I get up and try to walk for ten minutes, or until I get the shakes, forcing my daft right leg to move and trying not to plop that right foot down like a sleepy brick with each step. 

I am fucking exhausted, typing this makes my hands shake.  You have no idea how sorry I feel for my miserable self.

Yet, every once in a while I reassure myself that all this will get better, trying to picture the cells of my flesh and tissue and skin at the two large incisions in my back weaving and mending and meshing away, doing what they are supposed to do. Hurry up, I whisper, get it done. But they just send a few shivers in response.


07 January 2017

a very cold day, no sun
R brought me home, he drove extra carefully
I chatted like a silly teenager and then I sobbed my heart out
and now it seems all my energy has gone

06 January 2017


Healing hurts. I guess. I am not good with that pain. Not yet. At least I hope it's healing pain. Gosh, I am an impatient mess.

05 January 2017

So much to figure out. So much to remember and to trust. I used to be much better at this.

All that coping with a rare chronic illness does get in the way now.

Suddenly I am in a situation where the doctor produces the evidence, explains procedures in precise sentences, expertly circling shadows in the MRI printout, almost bored he stresses how often he has performed this surgery in the past.

Whereas the usual scenario is that baffled questioning look. ANCA vasculitis, yes I heard of that one but never met a patient etc. And I usually provide the prompts and watch them taking notes or doing a rapid search online.

So strange being a normal patient with a common and garden sequestered  disc that had to be removed from the spinal canal to release the trapped nerve and halt the advancing paralysis of my right leg.

Last night after surgery as I was lying flat on my back attached to various tubes I was unable to sleep for sheer delight that I did it and that the most awful pain was gone. I silently cheered my healthy self for her unexpected reappearance.

But now, 24 hrs later, I am again in familiar terrain, battling with the constant undercurrents of a chronic illness, the what if dragons, the supersensitive nerves and the overactive inagination of all the worst case scenarios ever.  There is a slight nagging pain in my right shin.  Possibly the end of the world. Etc.

It's hard work. But this is only day one.

For the next four weeks no lounging, cycling, driving, curling up in R's arms. But also no laundry, no filling or emptying the dishwasher, no housework. Period.
I am not allowed to bend or turn or lift anything. And lots more don'ts and no nos.

All I have so far figured out is the basics: getting in and out of bed and brushing my teeth with a straight back. And pouring a cup of coffee.

They tell me I am doing very well and that I can go home on Saturday. Maybe.

Must get ready to climb my very own Everest.

There is a world out there after all

My brother calls on his way to work and explains to me all he knows about the slow healing of deep gashes and cuts and tendon surgery and all the sport injuries he has survived and he makes me feel so much better. There are two deep wounds on my lower spine and I am slowly convincing myself that they will indeed heal. But I am a wimp when it comes to pain. That much we know.

John Berger has died. I don't know how to insert a link to his bio but do look him up. Read his quotes on women as art objects.  Watch "Ways of seeing" on youtube, esp. episode two. Or read his 2015 lecture on hospitality as a human right.
It's all out there to lift us up and open our eyes. He was an inspiration, he still is.

"The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing."

John Berger

04 January 2017

The rain is pelting on the large window of the hospital room. There is a storm coming apparently.
I accepted the sleeping tablet last night and now I am still drowsy. Waiting for the day to unfold.
After 10 days of conservative treatment, cortisone infusions and being wrapped in sheets of hot clay and electric currents running through suction pads along my leg (very nice!) and mysterious injections in my spine, the wisdom of the MRI images has won and around noon today I will dress myself up in that gown and hold R's hand until they wheel me on this bed down into the underground operating center.
This will be the fourth general anesthesia in my life. Someone once told me that we lose a certain amount of brain cells every time.
All I know is that I was much calmer and blue eyed on those previous occasions. Well, I was years away from editing medical research and interpreting risk statistics.

Then, I knew all would be well because I had child that I needed to raise and so many adventures waiting in my future. Contemplating risks or complications would have felt almost insulting to my sense of entitlement.

Now I am not so confident. But there is nothing I can do apart from chickening out which is definitely not on. Because I don't. Not in my repertoire.

So. It's: Roll it there, Colette.
(This is another of our family sayings, based on Gay Byrne - a very popular Irish tv and radio personality with a weekly chat show on Friday nights watched by the nation. He said this to introduce a film or a piece of news or a song. Colette was his long time assistant. My father in law would call it across the hall when he had the sherry ready before Sunday lunch. My mother in law would whisper it when she rolled the dice playing boardgames, R says it when I pour the tea and he fiddles with the remote to start the film we are going to watch together. We both say it when we take/drive/cycle off towards an adventure. Etc.) 

01 January 2017

Happy new year

Another first. Served by this life of mine. Or circumstances in general. Or maybe it is all a result of my mother's faulty genes, according to my father (who has developed a liking of superficial genetics when it suits him).

Anyway, watching the fireworks at midnight from the large window of a dark and silent hospital room. That's a first. And yes, it was a lonely watch. Oh never mind. I am not alone in this world. But a week of sleepless nights has screwed up my mind somewhat. Producing deep waves of miserable self pity etc.

In the early hours,  the night nurse added another drug to the cocktail and we discussed the relationship between nighttime and pain and low cortisol levels.

And so here I am. Watching the January morning sky turning pink. Hoping for miraculous pain relief. Trying to sort through my fears and hopes for surgery which appears by now most likely.

Above all the thought that this new year could be amazing and wonderful.

31 December 2016

Hospital essentials

"Who was it, anyway, invented the cool side of the pillow?"

Colum McCann
Thirteen ways of looking

30 December 2016

Calling Dr Clooney

I call this raw pain. I was warned that it may be severe after today's final attempt if conservative therapy. Strong the doctor said. The literal translation of the German stark can mean severe or strong. I wonder if google translate knows the difference.

But strong means strength and this
pain makes me weak. During the days I could concentrate on all the various tests and treatments and visitors and hospital routines. At night I have exhausted the repertoire of painkillers the nurses are permitted to administer - bar opiates which I just declined again. And worse, no drip tonight. My last remaining venous access on my black and blue arms and hands collapsed this afternoon, while my left leg was still pain free and paralysed after the early morning injection into my spine.

I spent a giddy afternoon showing off the dead weight of a painfree leg to my visitors. I should have used my time better, should have slept while the pain slept.

Another night to wait, wade through all my tools and skills of distraction and concentration. Slow breathing and humming. A damp cloth to wipe over my face and hands. I would love to sit under a cool shower except - the risks, the rules. It is 2:43 am after all, at the trauma surgery ward. I have the room all to myself.

Calling on memories of floating in a volcanic crater lake, deepest black water carrying my body while my eyes follow the course of sharp white clouds in the summer sky above.

Remembering family xmas days and Sunday afternoons picking raspberries and walking along the east pier on a windy evening.

While the pain, a knife, a snake, a hot stream of molten lead runs from my spine into my toes.
And I recall the MRI printouts they showed me two days ago.
See that dark area, they said. We take it out if all of this doesn't work. Early next week.
Four more nights. Five maybe.

27 December 2016

Shit happened at the ER

When we drove through the dark and empty city early on xmas day I expected to be sent home with the usual wait and whatever needed to be excluded as possible scenarios after 48hrs of quite awful lower back pain which dr google had diagnosed as mere sciatica. 

Little did we know.

On a scale from one to ten, the pain last night hit 25 and I was drugged out if my wits. My right leg is a furry lump and most reluctant to participate in the business of keeping an upright stance. My right foot refuses to lift which renders my attempts of walking to a silly duck-like plop plop shuffle.

The long road of diagnostic work up so far has excluded any fracture. I should be so cheerful. Most of all I would like to have less pain and a good few hours of sleep. Somewhere down the line this is waiting for me. Keep your fingers crossed.

From the large window beside my bed I can see the sky and the tree tops.
And the unlimited supply of coffee is decent.

26 December 2016

Jitterbug with George Michael

We are upstairs in the cozy room with the woodburning stove. The little black and white portable tv is on the desk chair. We are dancing to Top of the Pops. My toddler is doing elaborate jumping moves on the big sofa while I display my repertoire of shakes and fancy steps. Together we clap and snip our fingers and sing along at the top of our voices:


Downstairs the big front door bangs shut and I can hear A walking upstairs. He leans on the door frame, hands deep in the pockets of his corduroy pants watching the scene and when I see the smirk on his face I call, hey what?
Agh, he says almost angrily, here is another one who has to pretend, another one of the millions who won't dare to come out.
But his feet are quietly tapping.
The music is crap, he mutters and with a sudden smile he turns to the jumping toddler, did you leave any dinner for an old man or do I have to come up on the sofa and dance for it? And S explodes into giggles.

23 December 2016

After a lifetime of proper German holy xmas, all the beeswax candles and playing the recorder in the family carol quartet, the hushed atmosphere of quiet rituals (no tv, family only, classical music etc.), I walked into the hurricane of an Irish xmas.

The first thing that threw me was the tree. In my future in-laws house, the tree was situated in the corner of the front room. The front room, decorated in my mother-in-law's favourite pink, was only used for special occasions. For everyday family life there was the cramped tv room - or 'den', as it was renamed after  my future in-laws had visited the US.
From the first of December, however, the front room was opened and remained so in order to allow visitors to view the tree. This was a small white plastic affair, hastily decorated with blue, red and pink tinsel, gold baubles and a couple of ancient play-do decorations from R's distant childhood. A string of multi-coloured electric lights kept on flashing irregularly and on my first viewing, I suspected a faulty connection somewhere - which was received with great laughter all round.

Throughout December, the regular string of visitors to my future in-law's house increased dramatically, and every visit included a viewing, a glass of sherry, a mince pie, the exchanging of xmas cards and the placing of a wrapped gift parcel under the tree. By mid December, the tree was more or less covered by parcels. These were daily lifted and shook by passing family members to guess their contents. Even bets were placed.

While the tree as such had been a slight disappointment in comparison to my mother's, I was more baffled by the card business. This is how it looked to me (and still does): People write seasonal sentiments on xmas cards and then proceed to exchange these cards in person while verbally repeating the exact same seasonal sentiments written on these cards.

I was told that there would be no stockings on xmas morning as these were reserved for small children only. It took me a while to get the hint and we provided one small child two years later.

There was also no chance for breakfast in the morning as all female members of my future family-in-law, in their dressing gowns, were working their way through items on a secret task list in the kitchen, before getting dressed in splendid finery and leaving the house, in stages, to work their way through more secret tasks, such as going to mass, chauffeuring old folks to church, singing carols in some hospital ward, buying more cream (shops were open!!) and dropping off last minute presents and, yes, personally handing over more xmas cards.

By midday, the family was once again at home and for the next two hours or so the house began to fill up with a seemingly endless stream of coming and going visitors. Neighbours, colleagues, cousins, friends, friends of friends home from abroad, and a couple of priests. I was sent around with plates of canapés and R was taking orders for drinks. There was laughter and gossip and singing and yes, more xmas card exchanges.

When the last visitors had left, the family sat down for xmas dinner.

The menu:

1 smoked salmon on soda bread
2 soup with Melba toast
3 turkey and ham, stuffing, gravy, mashed and roast potatoes, celery (boiled, unfortunately), Brussels sprouts
4 sherry trifle
5 xmas pudding - with flambé whiskey (?)

Before the trifle, strange longish parcels wrapped in shiny paper were held in a complicated cross-over chain of hands around the table and pulled resulting in small plops (or not). This produced great hilarity with funny little trinkets and small slips of paper, which were unfolded and found to bear important jokes to be read out loud.

By now I was totally lost.

After dinner all proceeded to the front room and after much debate a Santa was chosen, who, wearing a Santa hat of course, would spend the next hour lifting one parcel after another from under the tree, reading the gift tag and throwing it across the room to the recipient, while the dogs tried it catch it midair.

Parcels were unwrapped immediately with much shouting, running or crawling acros the room and hugging etc. while the dogs sniffed their way through the growing pile of torn wrapping paper in the middle (the coffee table had been thoughtfully removed).

That over and done, it was now time for a good cup of tea and the last mince pies.

After a brief interval, glasses of bubbly were passed around and the birthday cake for R's sister (who for obvious reasons is named Noelle) was carried into the room and the next party began. You know, candles, singing, cheers, presents etc.

This is only a glimpse. There was much more, incl. charades, reciting, singing, children dancing and crying. But this should give you an idea.

22 December 2016

don't play dumb

In case anybody has blanked out the fact that both poles are rapidly losing ice, here is a graphic of the Antarctic ice loss as published by NSIDC. After years of increases the current loss of ice is massive. This marks a huge reversal in trend that is not only quite unexpected but also extremely worrying. Big ice shelves now have massive cracks and the glaciers behind them are melting into the sea.
This will lead to an acceleration in sea level rise in a few short years .

There is no way of reversing the trend.

21 December 2016

Midwinter, darkest day, longest night.
Cold frosty air.
A short hour of sunshine.
Now find the metaphor.

And this:

  (You will not get our hate in Berlin either.)

20 December 2016

There is ground beneath my feet again, knees still shaking though. I can look at the windows  from my horizontal position and the world is no longer turning. I am still struggling to get out from under the big wave that's been knocking me about for the last three weeks, my physical activity level is a laughable slow-motion at best. Actually,  I prefer to not move at all. Apart from getting all shaky and shivery when I do get up, there are new and interesting whooshing noises in my ears when I am vertical and R has started a spreadsheet tracking my miserably low bp  (I secretly believe that the measuring gadget he brought home from school is not working). 
In other words, I feel like shit. 
At least, R is as good as new and we have devised a cunning plan based on my various past emergency health scenarios and potential what ifs. Basically, we are ready for whatever will hit the fan but won't be disappointed if I just get better without much fuss.

Meanwhile, xmas. 
(This is mainly for Colette)
Even without being able to provide substantial proof I feel certain that in my neighbourhood - and in most German households - as of today, there isn't a single tree standing. There well could be one, wrapped in mesh, hiding in the basement, on the balcony or behind the garage. But indoors four days before xmas? No way. There are lots and lots of boring and/or hideously decorated trees in public spaces, schools and shop windows of course. They don't count, they are only for show, not the real thing. Right now, the good Germans at home will light the four candles on their advent wreaths and nibble Dominosteine, Spritzgebäck, Vanillekipferl and Springerle. More traditional households may also provide dried figs and dates. And juicy clementines of course.

The real xmas tree is brought in on xmas eve and absolutely not a day earlier. I can also vouch for the fact that in households with small children, the tree will come inside under cover of darkness and will be decorated in secret, possibly by angels, elves or any other of the Christkind's helpers. Once the children have reached the age when they have figured out the whole shebang they may help decorating - to kill time on xmas eve. Public viewing will commence on xmas eve when it gets dark or when the family returns from their annual church visit (which could well be the once annual visit for many).

Again, despite the absence of actual statistics, I contend as follows:

95% of trees will be real trees
75% will have real candles, mostly beeswax
100% will be decorated, inter alia, with these little chocolate sweets
(The things about these chocolates is that you can quietly pull out one of them and eat it and nobody notices until all of them are reduced to two or are gone all together.)

On xmas eve, shops start to close from noon onward. By late afternoon, there is a hush and by the time it gets dark, the first trees in their full shiny candles glory can be seen through the windows. By now, everybody is dressed up and it's time for the gifts. (Yes, on xmas eve.) We call this Bescherung (giving of gifts) and there are as many different rituals as there are families.
(I wrote about my childhood xmas here.)

Same with the food served on xmas eve. Potatoe salad with wieners is very popular. My mother went for the more elaborate, little gratins in real oyster shells, smoked fish and Melba toast.

The real food comes out over the next two days. There is no traditional German xmas dinner as in turkey and ham. Game is popular, carp is traditional for some, roast goose, anything fancy with large whole fish. We mostly had roast saddle of venison, cranberry sauce, dumplings, red cabbage. Tons of different desserts.
And since for every child there is a Bunter Teller under the tree, the first tummy aches start on day two, latest.

The tree stays there until early January. There are fixed days for tree collection and tough luck if you miss the date.

The last xmas tree in this house was maybe in 2005. I vaguely remember S coming home from university and throwing a temper tantrum because we hadn't prepared anything and in fact had no intention to. So in the end, she went out with R and got the whole show on the road. The cats messed with the baubles as usual. But no fear, we used to have lovely trees, we were proper xmas champions. More about that maybe later.

This is one of my mother's trees, ca. 1966. White xmas and all.