Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Christmas Eve

Here's something surprising about German customs that I've only just discovered: the main event of Christmas over here is the evening of 24th December ('Weihnachten' or 'Holy Night'). For them, 25th December is simply the 'first day of Christmas' and is a day for visiting friends and family.

On Weihnachten festivities begin in the late afternoon with the opening of gifts. Depending on the region of Germany, people either believe that gifts are brought by 'Christkind' (a fair-haired angel) or a figure called 'der Weihnachtsmann' (who looks more like our Father Christmas).

After presents have been unwrapped it is time for a hearty dinner - traditionally carp. Many families conclude the evening by attending a midnight Christmas Mass.

I often wondered how Father Christmas managed to deliver presents to the whole world in the early hours of 25th - now I know that he has der Weihnachtsmann and Christkind to help him and those guys start a bit earlier. It's that age old method of getting things done: team work!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The Medieval Christmas Market

The Medieval Christmas Market of Cologne - a little montage of photos for your viewing pleasure. You might notice that the photos are a bit above my usual standard. So I'll admit it now. Simon took them, not me.

This market is a cut above because the traders have to dress up in ye olde cloaks and hats and there is an element of traditional culture here: one can see plays being acted out in old German. When we were there we saw a play which involved a pale man being pulled along in a cart - apparently the embodiment of 'Winter'; a real donkey, which hardly needs description; a slightly crazed lady wearing a pretend fox around her neck; and a hotchpotch of excitable peasant folk waving flaming torches and playing whistles. It was quite thrilling! Sadly, you will have to imagine this as we were too dumbfounded by the spectacle to realise we should be recording it for posterity.

You will notice though, that Simon did take a lot of photos of food stalls. Like the olde risotto stall...

Monday, 3 December 2007

More market marvellousness

hatsWe went to a couple of the Christmas markets with friends yesterday.

We didn't let a little bit of drizzle (more like an all-day downpour) stop us having fun.

If ever you find yourself at a German Christmas market I suggest you follow these six simple steps to get the authentic experience:

Sampling the mulled wine1) Annoy stall holders by manhandling the goods: play with the puppets and model the hats.

2) Eat sausage based savoury junk food.

3) Eat chocolate based sweet junk food shortly after step 2.

4) Wash goods consumed in steps 1 and 2 down with a glühwein.

5) Feel a bit ill.

6) Go to play with toys and hats again.
There were quite a lot of wooden toys for sale.

Here are some wooden puppets entertaining tourists with their motor cycle display skills.

Not exactly friendly looking are they? In particular the puppets on the left who have blue irises and no pupils. Ice cold.

I must say though, that if the puppets are scary, at least the rubbish bins go out of their way to look cute and appealing.

Even the bins are quaintObserve the gingerbread style bin on the right hand side of this next photo.

It's raining this afternoon and looks set for the rest of the day so guess what I am planning to do later? That's right - I'm going to the Christmas markets again! Well, it would be rude not to eh?

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Christmas in Cologne

Christmas market at NeumarktThe people of Cologne really, really love Christmas. Each winter the city plays host to not one, but six Christmas markets. On sale are all manner of German baked sweet smelling goodies such as lebkuchen (gingerbread) and stollen (a bread-like fruit cake), as well as wooden toys, decorations and gifts.

The oldest Christmas market is at Neumarkt ('New market') town square and conveniently this is about a 10 minute walk from our flat. Perfect for an amble with a perambulator. So that is where I headed this morning, making the most of the low winter sun.

The entrance to the Neumarkt Christmas market (see top and middle photos) is guarded by two imposing toy soldiers.

At the markets it is traditional to try a little Glühwein - hot spiced red wine. This tradition is taken quite seriously: I visited at 11 am and the wine stand was already fairly busy...Mind you, it can get very cold here in December, so it seems like a pretty practical way to warm up frostbitten toes.

The stalls of the Neumarkt Christmas marketAs I am not sure if I will still be in Cologne next Christmas, I am going to make the most of the markets this year. I shall certainly be partaking of some Glühwein on an up-and-coming girls' night out. I'd also like to fit in visits to the beautiful market in front of the cathedral and the Alter Markt (Old Market) located in front of the town hall. Should keep me out of trouble (ho ho ho.)

More about the Christmas markets...

How to make Glühwein...

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Stuffed for Christmas

jungle sceneI took a stroll into the city centre today. Nothing was open - it's Sunday - but I did come across something noteworthy in one of the shops...

The largest department store has just revealed its Christmas window displays. All I can say is that someone in the marketing team must have taken some unusual substances recently, for the theme this year is the very unseasonal - but exciting nevertheless - one of 'animals in the jungle'.

In each of three large windows visitors are afforded a rare glimpse of an animal utopia in which a small teddy can ride safely on the back of a tiger without fear of maiming (see photo); where a panther will fan a tortoise to keep it cool; where rabbits can feel at ease dressing up in feathers, grass skirts and spotted furs (Furs? Furs? Fake I hope.)...

Most of the beasties are animated via unseen wires and electronics, allowing them to achieve a whole host of impressive actions such as twisting and swaying and um, twisting and swaying...
jungle rabbits
It makes a pleasant change to the usual scenario I write about, in which previously animated creatures find themselves rather static, thanks to the skills of the taxidermist. These jungle critters never knew any kind of animation, until the marketing department brought them to life.

Sunday, 11 November 2007


Bread manNovember 11th is St Martins' Day, or Martinsfest, as it's known here.

St Martin was the founder of the first monasteries in France in the 4th Century AD. He is the patron saint of the harvest and the poor.

Hard to believe, but as far as I can ascertain* , St Martin is represented by little bread men like this, which seem to populate the bakeries at this time of year.

I just couldn't resist buying one, once I'd overcome my initial 'What the...?' surprise at being greeted by this strange mix of dough, currants, red lollipop and ceramic pipe on the pastries counter at my local bakery.

Plus, my maiden name was Martins, so we have a connection, bread man and I - and I couldn't pass up the chance to be actively involved in Martinsfest '07.

Bread man later in the dayCoincidentally, November 11th is also the official beginning of carnival season. The carnival season runs right through until February. (These people know how to party.)

Here is the bread St Martin later in the day, having enjoyed his festival and the start of carnival tremendously. Note that he is full of good cheer and (partially) legless.

*Via extensive research which included Googling and canvassing the opinions of my German teacher and our neighbours.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Plug and play

We took our computer to an expert, who diagnosed, in layman's terms, that it was very screwed up and not really worth fixing. Perhaps note the confidence with which I predicted, in my last post, that we would be able to fix the computer. Ahem.

Anyway, it turns out that an invasion of fluff can indeed be terminal for a computer.

So we have bought a shiny new computer which is very fast and has a vast amount of gigabytage to fill up indiscriminately. It was fairly easy to set up. Though we are still going through the chore of reloading all of our old data and programs.

However, the new computer's arrival means that the old computer is destined to become one more lump of landfill. In an attempt to assuage the guilt we will try to re-use some of the innards where possible, like the memory.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Better to have loved and lost...?

It is better to have loved and lost, than have never loved before.

I disagree, if one is talking about a love of the internet!

Our PC broke stopped working over the weekend. The reason? Erm, it overheated because it was invaded by fluff. Nothing to do with my housekeeping skills, I am sure…

Now, I am not even so worried about our PC breaking, for we will find a way to fix it. I am bereft because the consequence is that I now have no internet access from home. I am making do by borrowing access to the internet from other people and entrusting Simon to check my emails. Not having the internet makes me nervous and panicky. I have withdrawal symptoms as it is so useful to me, for so many reasons.

Anyway, the upshot is that blog posts are likely to be less frequent until we get our PC fixed.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007


Pilates: ‘The attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind, fully capable of naturally performing our many daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.’ (Joseph Pilates)

Pilates: ‘Laying on the floor, straining to hold one's body in a series of unnatural positions, trying to remember to breathe and wishing the hands on the gym room’s clock would start to move round more quickly.’ (Victoria Harris)

I have started doing pilates once a week. I am going with friends and we are taking our babies as there is a crèche. I face three major challenges:

• The most exercise my body is used to is reaching down to the bottom drawer of the freezer to get out the ice cream. Hence I am woefully under-equipped in the muscle tone department.
• I do not understand my teacher as she, of course, speaks in German. Now, she may be a very good teacher, but I wouldn’t have a clue. I just copy the moves and hope that she doesn’t catch on that I am not following the more philosophical aspects of the art.
• Even before pregnancy I doubt people thought I was of ‘sound mind’.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

A taste of autumn

toadstoolI say a taste, but I wouldn't recommend you eat this type of mushroom.

We visited friends Claudia and Robert in Eindhoven yesterday. The four of us pottered about filling time with gossip, eating, drinking, window-shopping and a walk in the park. Simon spied this incredibly fairytale toadstool while we were on our walk. Doesn't it just herald the autumn to you?


Rhod shows us how it's doneToday was marathon day in Cologne. We went along as our mate Rhod was running in it and we wanted to help his good woman, Anna, cheer him along. Here's Rhod looking impressively lively considering he had been running for two hours by this point!

Rhod and Anna used to live a five minute walk from us in Essex. Rhod now works in Cologne during the week, so Anna comes out to visit sometimes - it's a fantastic chance to catch up.

Here is a picture of us, having done nothing whatsoever. We take things at a slower pace.We take it easy

Incidentally, this photo was taken shortly before I decided I needed a second lunch - watching all those athletes working so hard made me hungry. I had already eaten scrambled egg on toast at midday, before watching the runners, but after seeing Rhod reach his two hour point we headed home (April needed her bed), making a stop at McDonald's...

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Tag der Einheit

Today, 3 October, is ‘Tag der Einheit’ (literally, ‘day of oneness’). It is a public holiday to celebrate the reunification of Germany and has been in place since 1990.

It probably seems pretty weird to UK readers that there is a public holiday midweek. But that’s what it is like here. There is no such thing as a Monday 'Bank Holiday'. Holidays here happen to celebrate anniversaries of events, religious or secular, and therefore the day of the week on which they take place can shift.

There are lots of public holidays compared to the UK. Technically, not being employed at the moment, I don’t benefit so much from this. Except to say that it is nice when Simon has a day off and can be at home.

All public holidays in Germany, apart from Tag de Einheit, are set by the federal states. This means you can get the situation where our area (North Rhine-Westphalia) celebrates All Saints Day on 1 November (Yay, less than a month until the next holiday!) but it isn't celebrated in Berlin. There are 11 public holidays per year in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is pretty good. Bavaria has the most of any state, though, with an exciting score of 13 days. In England there are only 8 per year. I think the Germans have the right idea myself. A little bit of extra time to chill...

Friday, 28 September 2007

Bikes are not the only fruit

Something else I've noticed about the people of Cologne recently...they don't just limit their two-wheeled-human-powered transportation methods to bicycles. Oh no. Grown-ups can also be seen regularly utilising:

• rollerskates
• skateboards
• and push along scooters

Apparently there is no shame in it. Perhaps it even passes for cool?

Today, while I was waiting at a pedestrian crossing with the pram, a man in a black suit (ie unmistakably a grown-up) wheeled up beside me. He pointed to some buttons on the pram's handles and asked whether they were brakes. Er, no, I said, with a note of confusion in my voice. Firstly they weren't. Secondly, why on earth did he feel it was a normal thing to ask a lady he'd just met at a crossing?

Then I was confused again as he hopped on to his push along scooter and sped off. Perhaps he was grateful for his chosen mode of transport - after all, it meant he could get away at speed following his embarrassing question...

Monday, 24 September 2007

Poor man's piñata

No sooner had we turned off the light last night then we heard the sound of an insect noisily bashing against a surface in our room. Unable to sleep for fear of this unknown beastie and its noise, I made Simon get up to investigate. Once the light was back on we realised the racket was coming from inside our round paper light shade (you know, one of those really cheap ones that collapses down flat). The noise was from a fly, bashing itself against the inside of the shade. The fly was trapped, but alive.

In order to make it stop we either had to a) kill it inside the light fitting, b) get it out, or c) or take down the light fitting.

We started with a mix of approaches a and b. First up, we searched for a ruler. The idea being to tap the paper shade and either stun the fly or get it out. All we could lay our hands on was my '2000 years of history by the metre' ruler. (It's great. It folds out to 2 metres and each centimetre is marked with a different event from the last 2000 years. Get one. You won't regret it.) I laid in bed watching Simon repeatedly hitting the outside of the shade with the ruler, like some bizarre late night game of Piñata.

Fly was having none of it.

'Ah-ha', I thought. We don't have any fly spray, but we do have some Lynx. If the ads are to be believed, it's so deadly to those who smell it that they will be stunned into doing whatever you like. Perfect.

I ran to fetch the can of Lynx. Simon sprayed it inside the shade. Yet still the fly refused to die or come out with its six legs up. Weary and tired we needed a new plan.

The plan was simple. It was option c. Simon waited until the fly was in the centre of the shade. He then carefully unhooked the shade from the light bulb, with the fly in it. He collapsed the shade, put it on the floor and covered it with a book. The fly got to live but it couldn't make too much noise in its confined space. We got to go to bed.

It's now 12 hours later. The shade is still collapsed on our bedroom floor and I can hear the fly gently buzzing inside it. I might release it into the wild. So a bird can eat it...

Monday, 17 September 2007

Can't do without IT

I don’t think I’d survive very long as an expat without IT. It’s essential for…

Communicating with family and friends overseas
Email is the main tool I use as it's easy and cheap, but recently I have been taking advantage of the phone software, Skype.
Vicky and April do a video phone in to EnglandWith Skype software and a webcam I can do space age style video phone-ins to my family (but I have to brush my hair first). It's really important to be able to do this so they can see how April is doing (she changes so much and I don't want them to miss anything). Skype also allows me to have long chats with friends and family without spending too many Euros.

Buying stuff
Using the internet I can order expat foods (eg proper English tea) which enables me to cope with living in a foreign landscape. While I have managed to source most of my usual groceries here, there are annoying gaps that only online expat suppliers can fill. I'd be miserable if I had to survive on German tea...


Thank heavens for Google on this one! I can copy and paste blocks of German text into Google translate and ask for it to be turned into English. It’s not fail-safe, but it’s dependable enough to give me the gist.
Also, whenever I have a German grammar question I usually turn to Google to find a quick answer.

I use the internet a lot to find things out. I did this before I moved to Germany, but now I really rely on it. I don't have the benefit of being able to understand local radio, TV, or newspapers and nor do I have a well-developed community network here (yet), so the internet is my first port of call for questions like 'What's the best Thai restaurant in Cologne?' or 'Where can I go for baby swimming classes?'.

I need IT to be able to publish my blog. And what motivates me to have a blog?
1. I need to keep my grey matter ticking over (it could easily turn to mush when pregnancy and new motherhood are taken into account)
2. It's another means of letting my family and friends know what I’m up to
3. It's a great way to record my experiences: I am archiving all my entries and I intend to print and bind them when I return to the UK so I’ll always have a diary about my time here

All hail the interweb!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

German pirating

Avast me hearties, for it be 6 days to International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

I am pleased that even Germans can join in, courtesy of this handy guide to sprechen Sie Deutsche pirate. Read this or you're a 'Küstenschiffer' and I will have to make you 'Über die Planke schicken'.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Oh, the things I've seen...

My parents have been over for a few days which was great as I was really missing them. Plus, it was a good excuse to go sightseeing. The last time ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ (to give them their proper names) were in Germany I’d only just given birth and could barely walk so they had to go exploring on their own. It was good to be able to go to some interesting places together this time.


penguins waddlingWe paid a visit to Cologne Zoo which I had been meaning to do for some time. Dating from 1860, the zoo has quite an impressive range of animals, from honey bears to deer. I think my favourites were the penguins, just because they waddle in an amusing way. It is a great resource for the city and very interesting, although perhaps some of the enclosures could have been bigger.

We also went to visit the Roman Praetorium museum of Cologne. As well as being an interesting place to see Roman exhibits, it is good because from here you can walk down into the underground remains of Cologne’s sewerage system. Roman Cologne had a very advanced water system - as well as the sewerage system for drainage, it was supplied with fresh spring water via an 80 kilometre-long aqueduct which ran from the Eifel hills.


Augustusburg PalaceWe decided to head out for a car trip on Saturday and went to the nearby town of Brühl. It is famous for two 18th Century palaces, called Augustusburg and Falkenlust, built by the powerful Archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August. The palaces have UNESCO World Heritage status. We visited the beautiful baroque confection that is Augustusburg (see photo). It has a stunning hallway clad completely in marble and decorated with frescoes. We didn’t have time to take in Falkenlust, which was built as a hunting lodge for Clemens August to practise falconry.

tiles in BrühlAmbling around the town we came across this lovely piece of wall art on the town hall, made up from tiles. The tiles seemed to be depicting the history of the town. Here is the complete artwork, being inspected by me and ‘Dad’.

carnageHere is a close up, showing one of the tiles.
Don't know what's happening here, but it doesn't look good.

telephone boxNext to the town hall was this old English phone box. At first it seems like a completely normal piece of street furniture, until you remember that you are in Germany, not England. The phone box had a plaque on the front, notifying all about Brühl’s twinning with Leamington Spa (the towns were twinned in 1973).

stuffed animalsThere was a town event going on when we visited. It was hard to make out what the point of the event was, but it seemed to be various hobbyists and charities displaying their interests. I wonder what interest group this display represents? Perhaps the Woodland Tiny Creatures Indoor Climbing Society?

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Our local corner shop

leather corset shopThere is a shop exactly opposite our apartment block. As convenient as you like. It's our corner shop. Except it doesn't sell chocolate, wine, or any other of life's little necessities.

Unless, of course, you consider leather corsets a 'little necessity'. In which case you'd be very happy. You could have your pick of leather under garments. You could drop by every day to peruse the stock. Perhaps buy a little something to surprise your partner.

Interesting, I have never, ever, seen anyone go in there apart from the owner. I guess the owner relies on internet sales...

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Blumen marvellous

Well, I've had a busy and enjoyable weekend. I really feel like I kicked back a bit.

It started well, on Friday evening, with a new mums' night out at a Thai restaurant. We had all spent far too many evenings in. You could tell by the way we enthusiastically embraced the restaurant's cocktail menu. I had to walk home as I left the restaurant so late that my carriage had turned into a pumpkin.

On Saturday evening we had a dinner party. It could be judged a success based on the length of time the guests stayed: we had to start making hints about April's early starts when it got to 2am! Or it could be judged on the high levels of inebriation achieved: as an example, we played Balderdash, making do with a dictionary rather than the proper board game, until one person lost the ability to read said dictionary. (I am proud to say it wasn't me.)

Sunday was a day of rest. It had to be - I'd only had 10 hours of sleep spread over the previous two nights.

flowers_on_balconyI am currently feeling very proud. I just went to our local flower (blumen) shop and purchased this very cheery plant, speaking entirely in German, including describing which plant I wanted and asking the price. My German teacher would be proud.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye

Leaving picnicYesterday we went to a picnic leaving do for a lovely family we were fortunate to meet out here. We met them on a visit around a maternity ward back in January (see 'A fortuitous meeting') and have been firm friends ever since. The lady is American, married to a Lithuanian. Their baby daughter Josie was born just six days before April was born (our daughters actually shared the same due date). They are leaving for New York, for work purposes, but feel that they would have liked to stay in Cologne another year.

As you can see from the photo, loads of people came to wish them goodbye (and more turned up later). The picnic was both a celebration of the year they had here and a sad farewell.

I do hope that when we leave Cologne we will be this sad at leaving as I think that will be proof that what we had was good. I'd also like to think that loads of people will come to wish us farewell.

The event also made me ponder on the types of friendships you make as an expat. I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful people here, of so many backgrounds and nationalities. From a Russian translator, to a German astrophysicist, to an American editor...I have even met and become friends with one lady from Billericay, Essex, where I lived for several years, and one from my home county of Norfolk.

Expat friendships are subtly different to those back home as people tend to come and go more frequently. However, often friendships can become quite deep, quite quickly, as everyone is very open to the idea of making friends. And although friends may move on, I do think that they will remain friends for life.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

High chair

April in her new high chairContinuing on the theme of photos showing April in big chairs, here's one I took this morning. We have just bought April a high chair, to get her used to the idea for when she starts on solids. However, she has decided to cut out the middle man and go straight to eating the chair. Her idea of solids. Children eh?

Sunday, 12 August 2007


Roman goddess Victoria'Victoria was considered the embodiment of victory.' So read the sign beside this Roman figurine. I instantly liked the figurine. (If you read a description like that with your name in it, vanity tends to kick in.) The figurine dates to the 2nd Century AD and is a representation of the Roman goddess Victoria. It belongs to Cologne's excellent museum of Roman life, the Römisch-Germanisches Museum.

And that, dear reader, is my cue for a little history lesson. Those who tire easily may want to take a little pause just now, to build up energy stores...

The museum was built on the walls of an old Roman villa of about 200 AD, which was discovered in 1941, when workers were digging an air raid shelter. Figures from the Bacchus mosaicWithin the boundaries of the villa is a fantastic Roman mosaic featuring scenes from the world of Bacchus, Roman god of wine and intoxication (must have been a fun chap to invite to a party). It is about 70 square metres in size and is made from over a million pieces. The mosaic is very well preserved: when the city was sacked by barbarians in the 4th Century AD the wreckage of the villa fell on the mosaic and protected it from damage over the centuries. In the first photo of the mosaic you can see a couple dancing and in the second a pair of birds hold a cup of wine.Detail from the Bacchus mosaic

The museum houses a fabulous collection of Roman artefacts, including stunning pieces of locally made jewellery and glass, household items and reliefs from buildings. According to the Rough Guide to Germany, the museum's Roman glass collection is reckoned to be unsurpassed in the world. Indeed, Cologne developed as a centre for the manufacture of luxury glass from the 1st Century AD.Roman glass

So, now for a little bit about Cologne's origins. Perhaps you'd like to get yourself a brew?

Cologne was founded by the Romans in 37 BC. In 50 AD its status was raised to that of a 'colonia', the Roman term for a city, by Emperor Claudius. It was given the full title 'Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium' after Claudius and his new wife Julia Agrippa (she was from Cologne, so Claudius was buttering her up by raising the status of her home town). The name of the city exists today in the form of 'Cologne'.

River GodCologne was the capital of the province of Germany Inferior. The position of Cologne on the Rhine gave it two great advantages: the Rhine provided a natural border against attack from hostile tribes on the opposite bank and also provided opportunities for ship based trade. In fact the Rhine was so important to the city that it became personified as a god. This mask, in the museum, is of a river god, possibly a personification of the Rhine.

Here endeth the lesson...for now!

Monday, 6 August 2007

The Eifel Tour

Yes, the Eifel Tour, not the Eiffel Tower.

We spent this weekend on a ‘minibreak’. Our lovely German neighbours had recommended a national park an hour and a half south west of Cologne, known as the Eifel, so that was where we sped off to on Friday evening. The Eifel - www.nationalpark-eifel.de/- covers almost 11,000 hectares and is home to over 460 endangered species of flora and fauna.

Urftsee Lake from Cake VogelsangWithin the Eifel is a place called Camp Vogelsang. It was constructed as a Nazi training school. After the Second World War it was annexed by the US, then British and then Belgian forces. It was used as a NATO training camp from 1955 until 2006, when it was opened to the public and is now being developed as a site both for historical remembrance and for wildlife conservation. From the camp there are fantastic views of the Urftsee Lake which you can see in this panoramic photo (it's better if you click to enlarge, but I don't need to explain that to you).

deer and churnCertainly we were thrilled to catch glimpses of a lot of wildlife during the weekend.
Here is a deer with its natural prey – a churn of milk. See how it has just made a kill and is jealously guarding its prey.

It was exciting to stumble across this group woodland creatures enacting a scene from their natural environment. Normally they kill each other on sight, but here they are being nice to each other, for the sake of the tourist pound.
(I jest of course: actually all these animal delights were to be found within our hotel. They live there. Or at least lived.)

Our hotel was nice. Quite family friendly. At least the staff and guests pretended to be, as April screamed down the dining room when everyone was trying to have a nice meal the Friday night. In the end her father had to take her outside for a chat about her behaviour...which basically involved pushing her pram around until she fell asleep. Meanwhile her mother got started on the wine. Hic :-)

forest_by_hotelThe hotel was set within forest, by a babbling brook. It was originally built as a water mill in the mid 19th century - hence the requirement to be near moving water. On the Saturday I took a walk along a trail leading away from the hotel, following the stream towards the old mill ponds. I was struck by the beauty of these trees along the route. So amazingly tall and graceful.

cheese ash trayEach time we went into our hotel room were were taken aback by the existence of this 'decorative' ash tray. The only way I can describe its mottled attributes would be to say that if cheddar and stilton were to have an illicit liaison, this would be their love child.

Within the Eifel region is a picturesque town called Monschau, where we chose to spend the Sunday. It is a town of half-timbered buildings and narrow winding streets, set within a river valley. It is good for ambling.

spiders Here we visited a 'sculpture park' which turned out to be more like a shop window for a creative ironmonger. But pleasant all the same. These metre wide spider sculptures are an example of how pleasant the ironmonger's vision can sometimes get.

Near to the sculpture park was a man 'playing' a wind up musical organ. Very jolly. But later, when we spied him from behind, we saw him relaxing, standing chatting with a tourist. He wasn't turning the handle, but music was still coming out. We felt slightly conned having previously believed that his job always demanded physical input. All I can say is that he has to live with the burden of his lie every day... Here's a very poor movie showing Simon pushing April along a pathway towards the music man. Let the music be the theme tune to this blog entry.

The weekend was rounded off with some food at a cute pavement restaurant. Food always rounds things off for me.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Cycling Cologne, part 2

broken bike
Wherever you go in Cologne you will see stationary bikes. Sometimes in ordered in racks, sometimes chained to posts, or sometimes just left neglected in heaps. neglected and abused

There are actually quite a lot of bikes piled up on street corners, with bent wheels or rusting and it’s a mystery to me, as an outsider, how they end up like that. Who owns them? Did the owners just decide to leave them on the roadside one day in a case of bike abuse? Someone should start a charity…

bikes for hireHowever, I have a theory that some of these bikes may have once been part of a bike sharing scheme: Cologne has several initiatives where banks of bikes are locked up around town. You can text a bike’s number to the initiative’s HQ and they send you a code to unlock the bike and charge you a small fee. You can then ride the bike around and leave it at another bank in a different part of the city.

The people of Cologne rely on their bikes so much that you’ll see them adapted in many different ways, to suit individual needs. For example, you can buy compact three wheeled trailers which hitch up to the back of your bike for carrying small children. Or, you can go crazy and make your bike into a beer wagon, as previously discussed, for if you have a special need for beer.

Read Cycling Cologne, part 1

Sunday, 22 July 2007

odd sign
Went for a little walk the other day. Came across this sign by a pathway. Germans are, according to stereotype, sticklers for rules, but this seems pretty strict even by their standards. Now, my reading of the sign suggests that no people, no cars, no footballing children and absolutely NO HOUSES are allowed to walk down this path.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Home sweet home

We’ve all just arrived back from a very pleasant visit to England. We visited as many family and friends as we could squeeze into a week and a half. April met lots of people for the first time and (thankfully) for the most part wore her happy face.

We took the car, traversing the Channel by ferry. Always one to favour luxury, I booked us into the ferry's ‘VIP Lounge’ for an extra few pounds each way. It was well worth the money. On the way there we shared the vast lounge with just two other people and on the way back it was just us. We had acres of space, privacy (great when you have a hassled baby) and free refreshments. We were very pleased to find that there were complimentary small bottles of wine. Obviously we couldn’t drink and drive, but we stowed some away in my baby changing bag (personal allowances only, obviously, but it’s best to hide it where no one would suspect, just in case…) for when we got home.

April holds forth on business affairs and politicsAs you can see, April suits being a VIP. Here she is in the business zone of the VIP lounge, enjoying the paper. We’re probably going to regret giving her the best, so early. It'll be our fault if she grows into a toddler who just MUST travel VIP class everywhere..

I was very excited on arrival at Dover. However, April, on landing, was less than impressed with her first view of Blighty. She vented her disappointment by crying pretty much all the way from Dover to Norwich, where we were staying with our families. That kid has a lot to learn about gratitude.

The holiday was a great chance to meet many, many relatives and friends. We were lucky enough to be offered some baby sitting by the grandparents too, which meant we even squeezed in an evening out, just the two of us.

On our holiday we munched our way through many traditional English meals – roast dinner, fish and chips, sausage and mash – and some more modern English cuisine – Thai, Chinese, Indian and French!

I got my fix of English shops. Great to go shopping in a country where you know the language - so much more relaxing. Even though I am probably technically too old for them now, I still get a thrill when visiting Topshop and Miss Selfridge. I just have to go when there aren’t too many young ’uns around, otherwise I might get an age complex.

April made great strides while we were in England. She began sucking her thumb, said more baby sounds, rolled herself over for the first time and, greatest of all, actually went to bed in the evenings. We are hoping this last development wasn't just show for the grandparents, but the start of a routine, which would give us evening time together alone! I think all these leaps forward were helped along by all of the attention she received from our relatives and friends.

Better go as the little VIP has just awakened from her nap and is demanding her mother's full attention…

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Cycling Cologne, part 1

stack of bikes
Cologne is very bicycle-friendly. All the main roads have bike lanes and there is a 200km bike lane along the banks of the Rhine. Cyclists are also permitted to ride on the pavement in places where there is no cycle lane.

In fact it seems that cyclists are more important than pedestrians, when it comes to the way the roads are laid out. The bike lanes run adjacent to the pavement and are differentiated by red paving stones and painted bike icons.

cycle lane icon
When a pedestrian wants to cross the road they must cross the cycle lane first and must give way to any oncoming bikes. If they don’t they’ll hear a little bell go ding-a-ling in protest from the annoyed cyclist. Of course, I didn’t know these rules when I arrived and ended up jumping out of the way of a fair few irritated cyclists (I refer you back to English to the core).

Cyclists it seems, are able to get away with cycling up a one-way street. Our street is one-way and a cyclist will often come zooming along in the wrong direction – and it’s annoying as it’s harder to dodge out of the way if you’re crossing the road with a pram. I always take the precaution of looking both ways these days. (It’s best anyway, as my brain is still slightly confused by the whole driving on the right of the road thing. I don’t want to be run over so I am extra cautious!)

Me? I don’t cycle. I hold the opinion that it’s okay for other people and is environmentally friendly but it’s not for me. I’d need therapy before I’d get on a bike again: I lost many of my milk teeth in a spectacular head-over-steering-wheel accident I had on a toddler’s wheeled vehicle aged about 6. I’d rather the reassuring feel of tarmac below my feet than two plastic pedals.

To be continued...

Thursday, 28 June 2007

English to the core

Just speculating, but is it a mark of my Englishness that my most used German word is 'entschuldigung', which means 'sorry'?

As in:
'I'm sorry I bumped into you.'

Or, my more English:
'I'm sorry you bumped into me.'

Monday, 25 June 2007

Bringing up our baby right

An hour and a half from Cologne there's a Grand Prix race track called the Nürburgring. When it's not being used for races, anyone can pay to do laps around the track. As a group of friends from England ('Hello guys, you know who you are!') planned a trip to the track for the weekend, we said we'd join them, in order to catch up.

looking out on the trackWe only have a Clio and the other guys had more powerful cars, including a Subaru and a Lotus. So Simon took a few lifts around the track with the boys. I, on the other hand, took to driving a perambulator around the local cafés* with the girls...

We all stayed in a hotel which looks out on to the start of the track. Here you can see April and me on the balcony of our room. April is doing her, 'Wait 'til I get my hands on that paparazzo!' pose.

On the Sunday morning we watched a motorbike race from our balcony. You can see the start of the warm up lap here:

See the man waving the flags. Running towards powerfully fast vehicles, flapping his arms like a bird? What an unusual way to make a living.

PS *And no, I still haven't got bored of my new hobby of visiting cafés.
PPS Here is an account from one of the couples who went on the trip too.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

It's raining...let's do icecream!

You may have noticed a sweet-toothed theme running through my blog. To do with ice cream and chocolate and my liking of such things.

Anyway, the weekend just gone, our friends Claudia and Robert from Holland ('Hello!' Claudia and Robert if you're reading this) came to see us. As it was sunny we decided to go for an ice cream sundae at a good ice cream parlour I know. When we arrived there were no free tables. We had to space ourselves strategically in order to pounce when someone vacated a table. Claudia found a free table so she wins the prize.

We ordered some fantastic sundaes. However, no sooner had they arrived than the heavens opened. It turned from being sunglasses bright to torrential downpour. 'Safe' under a flimsy parasol, we decided to be very British and stuck it out. Not that the parasol was a defence when the rain started coming down sideways.
ice cream in the rain
Halfway through our desserts we realised that we were the only customers left. As you will see from the photo with the empty pram, even April seems to have scarpered for more substantial cover. She's probably already more German and practical than us...

Friday, 15 June 2007

Learning German

'Harris and I had been hard at work on our German during several weeks at that time, and although we had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance, for three of our teachers had died in the mean time. A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.'
Mark Twain. The Awful German Language, Appendix D from the book 'A Tramp Abroad', 1880.

I have been struggling with my German - grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. It hasn't improved much since the entry 'Sorry my German is not so good'. I feel that every time I enter a shop, I am reliving the awkwardness of my French GCSE oral exam. Each transaction is reduced to a role-playing scenario. Along the lines of, 'Hello mister baker man. I'd like a kilo of oranges please.' If you would say such a thing to a baker. I have to work out in my head ways to say what I need before I reach the counter. So, I was pleased to find that a literary genius no less than Mark Twain* found German very difficult during a tour he made of Europe...

  • 'I never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.' Notebooks, 1870s
  • 'I don't believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can't learn in Berlin except the German language.' Notebooks, 1870s
  • 'In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife is not - which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter.' The Awful German Language

*Born 'Samuel Langhorne Clemens', American writer, 1835-1910
More on Wikipedia...

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Someone's happy

April, at six weeks old
Someone's happy! But why?

  • Perhaps because she just received the exciting news that she has a new baby cousin? He was born yesterday lunchtime and he's called William. He's the second child of my brother-in-law and his wife. Congratulations Phil and Liz! This means April now has three young cousins: William, aged 1 day; Blake aged 8 weeks; Lily aged 3 years. April hasn't met any of them yet because she has never been to England, where they all live. However, that leads me on to possible reason 2...

  • She has just received her passport...at only six weeks old. It was a bit of a tricky process getting the passport as there was paperwork we had to get from the UK and then we had to entice her into posing for a passport photo that was good enough to pass the strict standards required. Anyway, the cute baby passport means April can go to England. And she will, as we are planning a trip back in the summer. Very exciting :-)

  • Of course, it could just be that she has passed wind. Again.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Hollywood, Lollywood

Yesterday was a public holiday so we had a relaxing family day. In the afternoon we took a quick stroll around the block to get some fresh air. We were intrigued to see that our local grocery store had been invaded by a film crew, making the most of the fact that all shops close on public holidays here. There were three large trailers parked outside and lots of people making themselves very busy, rushing between trailers and the store. Inside I could see more people going hither and thither. A couple of people were crouched down inbetween the aisles, going over their scripts. The aisles were elaborately lit with big lighting rigs. Obviously I played it cool and pretended to be more interested in the flower shop next door. We carried on walking.

Early that evening our door buzzer rang. It was people from Sony Pictures. They wanted to know if our balcony faced the road - because if it did they were willing to offer us money to use it as a place to fix some lighting for the filming. Now, it's not every day that film people come to your door and offer you money.

our balconyBut guess what? Our balcony doesn't face the road. It faces other flats and an office block across a courtyard (see pic of the view from our balcony). So we had to turn down the offer of some free lolly...

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Lady lunches

In the last five days I have visited two ice cream parlours, two cafés and one cake shop with various friends. I feel I have truly arrived as an expat ‘lady who lunches’. I have various excuses for such excess, such as that the weather is nice and you have to make the most of continental al fresco eating while you can; or that I need extra calories to feed my baby; or that the cake shop has a deal on…

At the weekend Simon and I spent some time with our friends Rhod and Anna from England. They have a house 5 minutes walk from our house in Essex. However, in a bizarre twist of fate, Rhod recently accepted a job in Cologne. He now spends his week days in a hotel 10 minutes walk from our flat. Small world. Rhod – should we be scared that you’re stalking us?

Pink DavidOne of the cafés we visited with Rhod and Anna is outside the modern art gallery. We spent a very pleasant Saturday afternoon there, to the sounds of a string duet which had been laid on for entertainment. From the café there are good views of the plaza which leads to the river, the main feature of which is this rather *cheeky* statue which is a modern take on Michelangelo’s ‘David’. (See the dark haired lady and the lovely man-shaped 'hat' she is wearing.) You will see April’s pram in the picture, to the bottom left. Obviously we made sure she was facing away from said statue. You can be too liberal with your child’s education you know…

PS – The sculpture is by Hans-Peter Feldmann. It is 6m high and stands in front of the Museum Ludwig and the Cathedral. It seems the 'Pink David' has caused quite a stir on Flikr.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Baby language

Having a baby I expected the difficulties to include a loss of sleep, mental faculties and control.

I expected the happy gains to include experiencing feelings of unconditional love and contentment. I did not expect to see ‘developing conversational German’ on the list of gains, but it definitely needs to be added. For, when I take April into town in her baby sling, she is like a magnet for German females who want to engage me in small talk about her size, age and general cuteness.

Take yesterday for example:
• On the up escalator coming out of the tram I found myself surrounded by a group of über trendy teenage girls cooing over April.
• At the counter of a parfumerie a group of young mums came over to engage us in conversation.
• As April and I waddled through a department store there were audible ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs’ from assistants.
• On the tram home a lady sitting opposite me grabbed April’s tiny hand and exclaimed that it was cold. (This made me feel like a bad mum for not kitting April out in gloves.) The lady went on to make all of the usual exclamations about April being small and sweet, until we both had to get off at the same stop. At this point she asked if I knew where such and such a street was. Fat chance that I could answer her query (due to poor knowledge of the local geography and the local language), but I was chuffed that she hadn’t twigged that my German was so inadequate until that point. The lady then grabbed April’s hand again to make a special point of saying goodbye to the little one.

If only April could understand her public...although as her outfit shows, she is trying to embrace the lingo. These garments were given to us by a couple of Simon’s female colleagues. ‘Statt Karriere’ means ‘Instead of a career’ (nice joke ladies) and ‘Mit Liebe gemacht ’ means ‘Made with love’.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Nice ice

Cologne has an abundance of ice cream parlours. A speciality around these parts is ‘spaghetti eis’ which is ice cream that has been pushed through a press to make it look like a bowl of spaghetti. It is topped with strawberry sauce to give the appearance of tomato sauce and white chocolate shavings to represent parmesan cheese.

The parlours generally have lots of lip-smacking flavours of ice cream to choose from such as mango, chocolate, coconut and pistachio. All ice cream dishes are flamboyantly decorated with nuts, pieces of fruit, wafers and sweets then drizzled with sauces and, if you’re in the mood, liquers.

Luckily for us there is an ice cream parlour 5 minutes walk from our flat. Yesterday, as it was sunny (Who am I kidding, saying it's because it was sunny? The real reason is I have a sweet tooth!) we decided to potter along and ordered the biggest, chocolatiest sundaes on the menu – see video evidence.

This particular dessert has a thought-provoking name: it is called a 'Nuss (nut) Knacker'. It contained chocolate ice cream, chocolate truffles, chocolate sauce, chocolate coated nuts...ah, you get the picture...

Please note, I have just realised that my off screen video commentary is reminiscent of the Jamie Oliver programmes. Sorry about that everybody.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Bier wagen

I was walking along minding my own business the other day, when I heard some music blasting out from the road behind me. It was very D * I * S * C * O in genre. Not wanting to give the source of said music the pleasure of too much attention, I very casually glanced around, trying to give the impression I was looking at something else. (Could be a spy, me, with such skills of suberterfuge...)

I was expecting to see an open topped car with a pimped up sound system. But no. What I saw was a nine person bicycle beer bar. Let’s call it a ‘bier wagen’ for argument’s sake. The vehicle had the following attributes, which you will need to piece together in your head like an imagination photo-fit. (I didn’t have a camera on me...)

• The body of the vehicle was made of a portable long bar with a thatched pitched roof
• The bar had its own beer kegs
• There were four men sitting on one side of the bar; four on the other - all drinking and all wearing hats and lederhosen
• Below the level of the bar all men were pedalling!
• One man at the front end of the bar was pedalling and steering

The motley crew of nine seemed to be having a great time combining the joy of an outside active pursuit with that of daytime drinking. Sums up the stereotypical German, I thought to myself...While the choice of disco music was perhaps very characteristic of Cologne – a town where many have told me, ‘It’s good to be gay!’

Monday, 14 May 2007

Gratuitous baby photo

This is how childhood nightmares start...April week 2