Saturday, 31 March 2007

Foods I miss

After four months in Germany I conclude that these are the foods I miss the most:

Danish smoked bacon
Pork sausages
Salt and vinegar crisps
Cadbury's chocolate
Chinese takeaways
English breakfast muffins

at the supermarketYou will note, of course, that I am not missing any fruit or vegetables. Generally they are the same over here.

Although, bizarrely, I have yet to find the diversity of potato varieties we know and love in England. Potatoes always seem to come as generic and medium sized. I have not found anything as specific as baby potatoes, baking potatoes, floury potatoes, etc...Especially strange as Germans seem to adore potatoes.

So far, the only thing I have found in Germany that I really like is 'Apfelschorle' which is a refreshing mix of apple juice and carbonated mineral water. Maybe the odd 'Berliner' (doughnut). Although, to be fair to my host nation, I haven't ventured too far into the world of German cuisine just yet...

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Sorry, my German is not so good

'Sorry, my German is not so good', is a catch phrase I have used many, many times.

At the weekend we were invited to our new neighbours’ flat warming party. We were good neighbours in that we brought a gift with us. We were bad neighbours in that we brought the gift of being monoglot. In spite of the guest list being a mix of nationalities including German (mostly), Brazilian, Russian and we English, the hosts asked everyone to talk to us in English - so we wouldn’t feel left out. We apologised profusely for our lack of conversational German. (As a nation the English may be poor at languages, but we’re certainly good at apologising.)

At this stage I should point out that we are still taking regular German lessons. Though I don’t know how much goes in, as the lessons are in the evenings when I am generally exhausted from growing a small person inside me and Simon is run down from a hard day at work.

Our German teacher does try some interesting tacks to keep us awake. He is quite obsessed with sex – which I guess is good news for his Dutch boyfriend – and never a lesson passes without him saying something completely obscene, which always sharpens the hearing. Sometimes he is just making a comment and it comes out like that, but other times he weaves sex into his teaching scheme. For example, thanks to his tuition I now know how to say, 'The orgasm was long' in German. Though I've yet to find a good way to use this in polite conversation.

Anyway, going back to the housewarming…it strikes me that we are very lucky to have such friendly neighbours, who have gone out of their way to welcome us. Certainly whenever I have lived in flats in England it wouldn’t have occurred to me to invite the neighbours around. In England I think it’s more typical to leave the conversation with neighbours to chance encounters in the lift/by the front door. And as for talking to them in another language, well, I'd just have to apologise and say my other languages are not so good, unless they want to trade obscenities...

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Stick pins in my legs - it'll be fun!

A short playscript by V Harris

On stage: Senior Midwife and Victoria Harris. Victoria is there to book in for the birth. Most of the paperwork has been completed. There’s just one more thing…

Victoria: I’ve heard you offer acupuncture to pregnant ladies just before birth, to help with the pain. Please can I sign up for these?

Midwife: Acupuncture? I do not understand.

Victoria: Acupuncture - when you use pins. Ac-u-punc-ture.

Victoria rolls up sleeve and mimes stabbing pins into her wrist. Midwife looks confused at first, but then…

Midwife: Ah! Akk-you-punk-tuur!

Victoria: Yes!!!

Victoria is beckoned into the office by a nurse. There are already three women in the room. All are sitting down, with their trousers rolled up to knee height. They have pins sticking out of their legs.

Nurse: (in German) Please take off your shoes and roll up your trousers.

Victoria doesn’t understand the words, but has already guessed that this is the form. Once Victoria is suitably bare-legged the nurse approaches...

Nurse: (in German) Something incomprehensible.

Nurse places six pins into Victoria’s legs – three on each one. Victoria flinches when the first one goes into the skin, but then relaxes so that the others are not so painful.

Nurse: (in German) Something incomprehensible about time. (A theme is developing here.)

Nurse points to clock on wall and then leaves. She comes back 20 minutes later to remove the pins from each of the ladies in turn. Plasters are handed to those who are bleeding. Luckily Victoria has no need of these. She is very strong.

Victoria: Danke schön! Tchuss! (Thanks and goodbye)

Victoria leaves. The place where the first needle went in is still tingling.


The hospital where I am giving birth recommends that pregnant ladies take a course of four acupuncture sessions in the weeks leading to the due date. It is supposed to help relieve stress and relax the body in preparation for the difficult times ahead. A day after my first session I don't feel any different, but who knows what effects it may have over the next few weeks...?

Sunday, 18 March 2007

I got me some culture

With the aim of making the most of Cologne before we become overwhelmed by nappy changing and night feeds, Simon and I popped along to an evening at the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra.

I’d never been to a classical concert before but I wanted the experience. On the itinerary? – pieces by Adams, Barber and Dvorák – out of whom I could only really claim slight knowledge of the latter.

To make the most of the experience we’d purchased seats near the front. The orchestra was arranged on a raised circular stage, slightly above the front row. In the first half of the performance a massive Steinway piano had been placed at the front of the stage. So, for the first half I had a really good view looking up at the feet of the piano and the feet of the concert pianist. From my vantage point I learned that male members of the orchestra have unfeasibly shiny shoes. Through the legs of the piano I could see the lower half of the conductor. He bounced a lot on his little platform– he was almost dancing. You don’t appreciate that on the telly. You notice the wildly gesticulating arms (and, if you’re me, you mock them), but you never really look at what the feet and legs are doing. It was very educational.

The conductor and the concert pianist both ran with sweat at the sheer physical effort of their performance. (We were so close to them that I could see little droplets of sweat flying into the air and was slightly concerned about some heading my way.)

For the second half they removed the piano, which meant that I was face to face with the full orchestra. This was much better. Being in such close proximity brings a great appreciation for the skill involved. For example, one of the percussionists played a short solo on a block of sandpaper – and made it sound rhythmic and meaningful. At times baby H joined in with the rhythm by kicking me in the ribs.

I really enjoyed my grown-up evening. The Dvorák was especially good. I came away with a huge amount of respect for the musicians and the talent of the conductor in bringing them altogether.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Park life

Cologne is bordered by a ring of linked parks which were formed after the war. According to the city’s main tourist information site, for each of its total of over one million inhabitants, there are 75 square metres of municipal park or garden.

Today I decided to check out the area closest to me: the park known as Volksgarten, or ‘People’s Garden’. It’s only right that I claim my 75 square metres worth. I’d heard the Volksgarten was good and I was not disappointed. It has many of the attributes you want out of a park such as large expanses of green grass, woodland, play area; plus bonus items like a boating lake and a café. I figure that when Baby H comes along, I’ll be making good use of this lovely green space. Summer ice creams feature heavily in my plans.

Mr Goose and friends/subjectsOn my circuit around the park I came across this haughty looking goose. A species I’d not seen before, it had a hard crest on its head and flap of skin under its beak. These armoured add-ons served to make it look even more formidable than the geese back home in England, which is saying something, as some people use geese in place of guard dogs. Rapid research on the Interweb has revealed that it is an ‘African goose’. There you are then. You have been warned. Incidentally, the sign reads ‘Do not enter’. No need to worry on that score; not when Mr Goose is on guard.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Maastricht with no restrictions

River Maas
Yesterday we went on a trip to another country to meet some friends. In one hour and ten minutes - the time it would take to get from my home town of Norwich, Norfolk, to neighbouring county town and arch nemesis, Ispwich, Suffolk, we had crossed the border from Germany to Holland. And with considerably less suspicion. We had packed our passports, but nobody wanted to check them. Now, I know that a lot of Norfolkers - and I dare say Suffolkers - have suggested that a passport control system between the two counties could be a beneficial thing. Here, it seems, there is a more enlightened attitude.

Our destination was Maastricht. A beautiful Dutch city on the River Maas. While we travelled there from Germany, our friends travelled there from Belgium. So Maastricht proved to be a useful mid-way point.

If you're around my age or older you probably think of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992* when this town is mentioned, but actually it has much more going for it than that. It's a very old town and as such has beautiful architecture. For example, a 13th Century bridge spans the River Maas; there is a magnificent Romanesque church in the main plaza; and Dutch gables abound.

We spent a beautiful day walking around looking at the sights. But mostly sitting down in sunlit plazas, sampling Dutch refreshments, including traditional apple flan. Yum. It was so warm that my freckles came out.

All in all, a very continental Sunday!

*In the interests of good journalism I did actually look up the details of the treaty, but I must admit that within two minutes of commencing my quest I felt like I was ready for a nice sleep. It was only 10 am. However, if you want to find out more, here's a useful site: Eurotreaties. Don't all rush at once now, or you'll bring the site down!

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Is Ludwig at home?

It is generally acknowledged that Ludwig van Beethoven was fairly good at music. Which is more than you can say for me. In the spirit of culture-seeking I recently took a trip to Beethoven’s home town of Bonn with some friends.

We went to his house. Sadly he wasn’t in. But we did have a nice look around as the house is now open to the public as a museum.

Here are some facts we learned:
• Beethoven was born in 1770.
• In 1782, when he was just 12 years old, Beethoven joined the court orchestra. (By this age I had graduated to the triangle.)
• The same year, being something of a show-off, he published his first composition.
• Ten years later, in 1792, he left Bonn in order to study composition with Joseph Hadyn in Vienna. He was never to return.
• By 1800 Beethoven was having difficulty with his hearing. This later developed into almost total deafness. We saw some of his ear trumpets – impressively large they were too. His deafness is blamed on a number of causes, including: syphilis; a tendency to immerse his ears in cold water to wake himself up; lead poisoning; and typhus.
• In spite of his hearing problems, his output was immense: symphonies, concertos, overtures, quartets, duets…
• He died in 1827. A death mask was taken of his face and this is on show in the museum.

Find out more…