Monday, 29 December 2008

Christmas in Deutschland

Simon and I have just spent our first Christmas ever away from our respective families. We would have liked to go home but it wasn't possible because Alexander is a little young to travel and we haven't been able to get him a passport yet.

I have always gratefully enjoyed my Mum's festive cooking (and last year my Mother-in-Law's) so I'd managed to reach the age of ~ahem, cough, ahem~ having never cooked a full Christmas turkey lunch. I was a little anxious abut how my attempt would turn out. Luckily my only judge was Simon and he wouldn't have complained if I'd served up beans on toast*.

chocolate eurosSome planning ahead ensured I had all the essentials for an English Christmas: I managed to source Christmas crackers and cranberry sauce from an expat supplies shop in the centre of Cologne and my Mum brought over a Christmas pudding when she visited earlier in the month.

In my humble opinion I think the lunch turned out okay. Unfortunately April wouldn't touch her portion - instead she sat for the entire meal fashioning rudimentary hats out of the remains of the Christmas crackers. In fact, all she ate for her Christmas lunch was a couple of chocolate Euro coins. They were our nod to the fact that we were spending Christmas on the Continent.

*One of his favourite meals, but only when accompanied by salad cream.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Christmas joys

Christmas decorationsAlexander is now 3 weeks old. He's managing to stay awake a bit longer in the daytime now and is more inquisitive about his new world. Both sets of grandparents have been to visit the new little man and his sister.

Neither my parents nor Simon's had been to Cologne at this time of year before so we were able to introduce them to the joys of the Christmas markets. market stalls

There was some sampling of mulled wine - which resulted in squiffiness in the middle of the day - and the purchasing of treats to eat and spangly things for the tree. These photos of the market stalls were taken by Simon.

I hope the man in the fetching blue coat (see the photo above) isn't picking his nose...

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

O tannenbaum, O tannenbaum

I suspect that April is now learning German at a faster rate than her parents. Yesterday she pointed to one of the Christmas cards on our window sill and I could have sworn she said 'tannenbaum', which is German for 'Christmas tree'. She does have quite a few German toddler mates so perhaps she's learning from them.

Christmas treeOn Sunday I ventured out for the first time since Alexander was born. I left him with his daddy for a bit while I took April to the local Christmas market. I had only been meaning to browse but I ended up buying this little Christmas tree to adorn our sideboard. I wanted to have something quintessentially German to bring out every year at Christmas - so that when we are eventually all back in England we will be reminded of our time here.

N.b. I also bought a BIG bag of pink candyfloss at the market (it smelled so good, how could I not?). I shared some of it, but mostly ate it all by myself. Well, my midwife did say that I need to keep my blood sugar levels up...

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Great news

Alexander JamesBaby Alexander was born on Friday morning, just before breakfast. I managed to escape from the hospital in the afternoon, so that by the evening Mr Harris and I were able to celebrate with some 'fizzy pop' in the comfort of our own home.

What can I say about the new addition? Well, he's a decent weight and height and has fairly big feet. He's wrinkly, red and blotchy. He still manages to be cute.

Labour was hard and fast, with no pain relief. That's fairly normal here - the only pain relief option most hospitals seem to offer is an epidural and they only give that when circumstances really call for it. Sadly, laughing gas isn't provided (are they having a laugh?). Still, now I am over it all I am quite chuffed with myself for getting through labour with breathing techniques and visualisation. So, whatever life throws at me I'm going to feel strong enough to say 'Bring it on!'

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Christmas is coming

April and I took a stroll this morning. Well, it was more of a waddle for me. Junior Harris is now 5 days late and every day he delays his appearance my mobility decreases.

On the walk I passed the local Christmas market which was being set up ready for the grand opening on Monday. Chippies were constructing the stalls and others were busy decorating them with lights, garlands and huge Christmas figurines.

Monday is also the day when my labour would have to be induced. So, is Junior going to arrive before the Christmas markets open, or is he going to pop out that day as a seasonal greeting? Christmas is coming, but is he?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

11th November

Two airline pilots, a monk and a goat herd were chatting outside a coffee shop…

squawsNo, this isn’t the start of a joke. It is what I saw at 8:50 am today. I wasn’t too surprised though. You start to think fancy dress is fairly normal after you’ve been here a while (the photos show just a few of the characters I passed today).

No doubt the coffee shop gents were on their way to celebrate the official start of the carnival season - which kicks off at 11.11 am on the 11th November and runs all the way through to Ash Wednesday, with a little bit of a break for Christmas. The 11th November is traditionally important as it is the festival of St Martin, a patron saint of the poor.

All this fun is a big contrast to what happened in England today – the traditional observance of a two minute's silence in honour of Armistice Day. The celebrations felt a little odd to me, especially as this year marks 90 years since the end of 'The Great War'. witch and prince[The Germans have their own event to commemorate those who died in war. It is known as Volkstrauertag and takes place on the Sunday nearest to the 16th November.]

Anyway, as I had a doctor's appointment near the city centre, which ended about 11, I hopped on a tram to get into the centre in time to see what actually happens at 11.11 am. From what I could see, it seems that the time is the cue to start singing songs in praise of Cologne and its carnival and to begin aimlessly wandering the streets drinking beer. There are also numerous parties organised by clubs in the city, for those who really, really want to get into the spirit of things...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Strung tight

I had my last physio session on my arm today. The practitioner kept asking me to relax. Now, that’s not easy when you have a small human smuggled inside your central body cavity, kicking and shoving and causing your vital organs to move out towards your extremities.

comforterWhen it was clear that I was not going to relax any time soon, the physio commented that I, ‘was as relaxed as a bow talking to an arrow’. Ie, not at all. The mental image conjured up by this German expression did make me laugh though, which broke some of the tension.

bagI already knew I was just a little stressed. I have been trying to relax and take my mind off things (labour anyone?) by throwing myself into a couple of sewing projects. Sewing is good because it’s a sitting down activity and it can be very absorbing. I’ve just finished making a cheery bag for myself and a little fluffy comforter for Junior Harris (see pics).

Unfortunately, even these tasks made me slightly stressed: halfway through constructing my bag I became convinced that I was going to go into labour that night. Bizarrely, I was more worried that I would have to go to hospital with the bag languishing incomplete on the sideboard, than the fact that I might be facing hours of pain…

Monday, 27 October 2008

Shameless plug

My little sister and her band - The Foster Kids - have just released an album. I am sooo proud of her! The album is available online at Letterbox Records - and on iTunes.

My sister is on the album cover, standing in front of my parents' house, back in Norwich, England! It's making me feel all homesick. (I am, of course, very hormonal.)

There's even a tenuous link to Germany as the band were interviewed on German radio recently!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Baby boom time

I know four women due to give birth over the next three weeks - I'm one of them! Another friend gave birth to a bonny baby girl on Saturday. Should we be suspicious that these babies will be making an appearance approximately 9 months after the craziness of the Cologne Carnival?

nativityWith all this baby fun to come and the prospect of being engulfed in a tidal wave of nappies and holed in for the winter, yesterday I took myself off to do something cultural. I visited the Wallraf-Richartz Museum of Art in Cologne. Unfortunately, my body was not feeling quite so enlightened (what with the 'cankles', the heartburn, the lack of body cavity space for adequate lung function...etc, etc) and so I couldn't stay too long.

During my brief visit I found this beautiful nativity scene - part of a 14th Century altar panel from Osnabruck. I only hope that all of us pregnant ladies and new mums look as serene and beatific when our little ones arrive. [Hah hah.]

Friday, 10 October 2008

Super hausfrau

I have five weeks to go until my due date and already there are serious signs of nesting activity. I'm chanelling Kim and Aggie BIG time.

It's bizarre: I feel exhausted and dream of having a whole day of just watching DVDs and eating cheese. However, I get these strange urges to clean things and then I'm off and whipping up a whirlwind with a vacuum cleaner and a feather duster. I'm cleaning things that I have never considered needed cleaning before. Like door handles. Or vents on bathroom fans. Or plug sockets.

I don't remember being quite this fastidious last time I was pregnant and nesting, so perhaps the need to clean amplifies with each subsequent birth? Before you're wondering, there's no way I'm testing out this theory with a further pregnancy!

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

No flies on me

When I returned to the flat in Germany I was surprised to find that Simon hadn't been as alone as I'd imagined. Indeed, there seemed to be an extended family of fruit flies keeping him company. In a jealous rage I declared war on the new residents. I armed myself with fly paper and suspended it from the freezer, by the sink. A week on and I was pleased to see that the fly paper was speckled with little black dots: one-time flies.

Last night Mother Nature got her own back. I was doing the washing up while simultaneously trying to supervise April and prevent her from opening the biscuit tin. As I flicked my head around to look in April's direction, my hair became completely entangled in the sticky fly paper. I swore (so much for my self-imposed ban on swearing in front of my daughter) and Simon came running to my rescue. Once freed, I touched my hair and I could tell that it was matted with sticky residue and possibly some flies. There was only one thing to do - wash it out immediately. 10 minutes later and I was sitting in a bath tub having scrupulously scrubbed my hair a couple of times. The flies that fell from my newly cleaned locks didn't seem to mind sharing the bath water. I minded a little more.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Doctor, doctor..., doctor, doctor...

I've been back for a fortnight and it seems that those two weeks have flown by in a haze of medical appointments all over the city.

Yesterday I used my best German (ie very poor) to book into the local hospital for the birth of sproglet number 2. I've also been to see my 'Frauenarzt' (this is a special doctor who deals with the delicate business of lady health) to check on my antenatal well being. I've seen my 'Facharzt fuer Allgemeinmedizin' (equivalent to a GP in England) for a test on my iron levels. Next week I'll be seeing a physiotherapist for my arm. Oh - and then a midwife!

In Germany it's up to you to find a doctor for your particular ailment. This can be a fiddle if you are new in town and don't know which of the many practitioners in the phone book are:

a) good at what they do
b) have a nice bedside manner
c) and - most important of all - speak English

On the other hand, it's convenient in that you don't have to wait a long time to see a specialist - you just book an appointment in the same way you would a hair cut.

All this running around. It's enough to make one ill.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Culture dash

My left arm is more or less recovered, though I couldn't use it to participate in any strong man competition just yet (those Atlas Balls might be a challenge too far). Anyway, as a result, April and I are flying back to Cologne on Tuesday, to pick up where we left off seven weeks ago.

Intent on squeezing every morsel of goodness out of my unexpected summer vacation, I travelled down to London on Thursday to meet with some friends* who I worked with in my last job. I used to work in a 30-storey office building by the Thames. Its official title is Millbank Tower, but is known to some as 'The Tower of Doom' due to its grey demeanour. It does have one saving grace for me - it's next door to Tate Britain.

Before meeting with my old co-workers I took some time to look around the Tate's galleries, taking in a good dose of Stubbs, Turner, Degas and co. All very cultured. However, what stood out for me was a piece of performance art staged in the central neoclassical atrium. The piece is
Martin Creed's work No 850. In it, a runner dashes through the atrium as fast as his little legs can carry him. This happens again 30 seconds later. And again. And get the idea. (Fortunately there is more than one runner to take on this burden.)

Creed's piece was inspired by a visit he made with friends to the catacombs in Palermo. They arrived just before closing and had to run to see everything. Creed decided that this speedy visiting style was the ideal way to appreciate culture.

I enjoyed this piece of art. Firstly, it is quite amusing to see a succession of people running through a major gallery in their gym vests and shorts. Secondly, Creed has captured how I feel about visiting galleries - that it is sometimes too daunting to think about seeing everything and that a short dash to lift the soul is a much more refreshing approach.

*(Hi Jenny, Lisa and Sophie! It was good to catch up!)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Unforgettable summer

It's now five weeks since I broke my arm. I have just over a fortnight left before I can return to Cologne. April and I have really missed Simon and I am looking forward to us all living together as a family again.

It's been very strange only having one functioning arm and asking for help to complete the simplest of tasks, such as cutting up my food or tying my hair in a pony tail. I still bear a 14 cm green and purple bruise where the fracture is and most nights my arm throbs because it is repairing itself.

I don't wish to come across all doom and gloom though, because this cloud does have a silver lining. April has flourished from such close proximity to her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Every day she says new words and seems to understand more. I've benefited from resting my back, which is not a luxury many women get when they are expecting child no 2.

That summer holiday I mentioned back in my last post? Well, that's been quite a success. I've caught up with friends for lunch or down the pub and am planning more of the same. April and I have spent some magical moments with family: we've been to the zoo, petted farm animals, gone to various parks, attended free musical sessions for kids and eaten lots of icecream and cake.

elephant artWe've also experienced Norwich's summer public art event - a display of over 50 artist-decorated elephants placed around the city. This event has been very popular with locals and tourists, especially kids. Here is one of April's favourites. (See for more info.)

Like an archetypal elephant, I'll be unable to forget this summer. It was the first time I broke one of my bones*, but also the first time April sat on a beach and made sand castles.

*Hopefully also the last.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Weekend break

Two weeks ago Simon, April and I travelled back to England for weekend break to attend a christening. April and I are still here.

My weekend break was certainly a break, but not in the way I imagined. So what happened?

Take one pregnant lady and her need to go to the loo in the middle of the night. Add the fact that she didn’t want to wake her husband by turning on a light. Throw in the detail that she was staying with relatives and so the room’s geography was slightly unfamiliar. Finally, put in a heavy Victorian wooden armchair and a very solid wall.

The result? I tripped over the chair and crashed into the wall with a lot of force. The pain was so bad that ten minutes later Simon helped me to dress (carefully) and we set off to join the queue of casualties at Accident and Emergency.

We soon found that Saturday night is not the best time to be visiting A&E and to be sober. We had a four hour wait to be seen because it was so busy. This time probably passed a little quicker for those who were well oiled on arrival, which seemed to be everyone else in the waiting room. There were people there with bloodied heads and hands, claiming they had been beaten up, or boasting about starting fights. There was a bride in full wedding dress, sitting with her new husband and parents. She was holding her arm up like me, so I am guessing it was an arm fracture. I imagine the break was a result of the combination of too much champagne and overly-enthusiastic participation in the 'Time Warp'. A teenage girl was there with her boyfriend. We heard, from their loud conversation, that he had been giving her a piggy back when she fell off his shoulders and banged her head. He had the sense to take her to hospital as she was feeling ‘a little dizzy’. However, she kept saying that she was fine and couldn’t she just go and get another vodka?

I was seen somewhere between four and five in the morning and doctors informed me that I had broken my left humerus. My arm was put in a sling and I was sent home. Being pregnant I was told that I could take nothing stronger than paracetamol. This didn’t prove powerful enough in the first few days. How I suffered - poor me.

Two weeks on and I am still in England. It is going to take six weeks for the fracture to mend and before I will be able to lift April. As I cannot lift her I am having to stay at my parents so they can help. There are positives and negatives. The bad news is that Simon has had to go back to Germany to work and there is a limit to how often he can afford to come back. On the other hand, I haven’t changed a nappy in a fortnight. People have to cut up my food for me, but at least I can still type. I’ve had to spend a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms, but I’ve also been to the beach and am catching up with old friends as a lady who lunches.

The six weeks I will be off happen to coincide with the school holidays. I have decided to look on the bright side and call this period my school holiday. Translating a weekend break into a whole school holiday - can’t be bad, even if have to enjoy it with only one arm.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Photo space holder

Image of Cologne Cathedral from the east side of the Rhine (courtesy of iStock Photography)I haven't written in a while...but I promise, promise, that I am not malingering. I broke my arm last week and can't yet summon up the energy to write a long entry. In the meantime, here's a view of Cologne Cathedral from the east side of the Rhine (it's courtesy of iStock Photography images - because I could never hope to do the view photographic justice).

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Rauchen verboten

no smoking sign
Rauchen verboten = Smoking is forbidden = Vicky is happy

Germany has banned smoking in public places. This brings the country into line with the UK, France and Italy. The ban is a radical move for Germany as it is estimated that one third of the population smokes.

As of 1st July, there is now a risk of being fined if you're caught smoking in a public place or if you are the proprietor of a public establishment where smoking takes place.

The ban hasn't been well received by some smokers - a number have claimed that the new regulations infringe their rights. There have even been murmurings regarding the fact that in 1941 the Nazi regime implemented a national ban on smoking in the quest for bodily purity. (See article from the British Medical Journal for more details...)

Many bar owners are annoyed by the potential loss of earnings as a result of the ban. Some have turned their establishments into 'smoking clubs', while others have tried to create special rooms for smokers or have spread out their chairs on to the pavements.

Myself? I am just relieved that I can go out and not have a coffee or a meal spoiled by inhaling the toxins from other people's smoke. A recent study by the German Cancer Research Center revealed that more than 3,300 people die in Germany every year due to passive smoking-related diseases. Makes you think.

Monday, 7 July 2008


group of stolpersteineMy entry for 19th June was about street signs and furniture in my neighbourhood. This entry continues the theme, but is more reflective.

I walk a lot here. It is very easy to get around on foot and April enjoys having a look around. On my many wanderings I have passed sets of little square brass plaques set in pavements. I often wondered what these were, but never really looked. Recently a friend explained their real purpose.

The plaques are called 'stolpersteine', which literally means 'stumbling stones', though the name is intended to describe the fact that they are designed to encourage us to pause and contemplate rather than trip up. They are the project of the Cologne artist Gunter Demnig and are designed as memorials to all those deported by the Nazis - Jews, the mentally or physically disabled, those opposed to the Nazi regime, Romany and Sinti people and homosexuals.

detail of plaqueEach stone - a four inch square of brass - represents one person. The stone is set outside the home from which the person was taken. Each stone is inscribed with the words 'Here lived', then the name and date when the individual was taken and date of death, if known. This photo shows a memorial to one Viktoria Herz (Victoria Heart).

According to Wikipedia, by October 2007 Demnig had placed more than 13,000 Stolpersteine in more than 280 cities around Europe. It is a life's work and he is still going. Although he initially donated 600 stolpersteine to the city of Cologne, he now works through sponsorship, creating and laying each piece for a nominal fee. He can never hope to lay memorials to all those who were affected, but if his work makes us stop and think about individual victims, then it has served its purpose.

More about the project and locations...

Monday, 30 June 2008

Enjoying the east

I was greatly in need of a little break. I wanted a bit of culture, but also to get away from it all. A German friend suggested an area south of Berlin known as the 'Spreewald'. It is an area of beautiful lakes and canals, but conveniently only an hour's drive from the capital. So, we packed and headed east.

It's a bit of a drive to get there as Germany is such a vast country. Still, the amazing thing about this country is the autobahn system. We travelled almost from one side of the country to the other, experiencing mostly free-flowing (and fast!) traffic. Regular users of the M25 would be green with jealousy.

We stayed in a holiday park by the Scharmuetzelsee lake. Our apartment was constructed in the alpine style and as an authentic touch even included its own sauna. As I've never had access to a private sauna it was with some regret that I remembered that pregnant women shouldn't take saunas because they are too risky. I doubt that kind of private sauna opportunity comes knocking twice in a lifetime.

sauna rulesAnyway, I was able to get some amusement from the sauna - via this handy 20 step programme for its correct use. This could just be Germans playing up to their stereotype of being sticklers for the rules. I don't know. It made me chuckle whatever the intent.

deer parkOn the holiday there were plenty of chances to engage with the wildlife and the scenery.

We visited a wild deer park on one occasion. It was in the middle of nowhere - in that it wasn't on any road known by our navigation system. Luckily a passing postwoman was able to provide directions. When we arrived at the park we were the only people there. I expect everyone else gave up trying to find it. The park's relative isolation meant we were able to get up really close to the animals.

Simon standing by a piece of the wallWe took a couple of trips to Berlin itself. I really enjoyed the city and would love to return as there were so many sights we didn't get time to squeeze in.

Here is Simon standing by one of the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall on Potsdamer Platz. He was standing on the side which used to be in the east. Several chunks of wall have been preserved as a memorial.

If you look carefully there is a map on Simon's right - and on it someone has scribbled the score of the previous night's Germany versus Turkey Euro 2008 semi-final - a spectacular 3:2 win to Deustchland. These pieces of wall are regularly 'tagged' by tourists saying 'Franz woz ere' or the like. Though a football score is a bit more unusual.

Berlin Wall signThis photo, also from Potsdamer Platz shows the line where the Berlin Wall ran.

The line taken by the wall is described in the city by means of slightly different coloured stones and plaques like this one.Brandenburg Gate

No trip to Berlin would be complete without a peek at the Brandenburg Gate. However, when we went the gate was bedecked with Coca Cola and Carlsberg livery. Was there ever such a harsh juxtaposition of global brands and a city's leading monument?

The reason we couldn't see the gate for all its branding is that it was the focus point of an area designated for football fans to enjoy Euro 2008. Kindly Coca Cola and Carlsberg had provided a 'fan mile' - a huge promenade featuring a stage with performers, refreshment tents and even a big wheel.

Another thing we did was visit the Bauhaus Archive - the museum to the Bauhaus art school (1919-1933) that was so influential in modern design. The school's philosophy was to bring together art and technology to create beautiful, but easy to mass produce pieces - something we take for granted now, but which was quite a radical aim at the time. Unfortunately April chose this time to have a bit of a tantrum. We clearly have some work to do if we want to get her to appreciate good design heritage.

Thursday, 19 June 2008


Here are some signs and street furniture from my neighbourhood. In a train-spotterish kind of way, I thought it would be interesting to document them.

When I first came here they were very alien. Now, they are my normality.

I'm hoping that when I am eventually back in England and browsing through my Cologne photos, they'll make me feel nostalgic.

signs in Cologne

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Medicinal compounds

April has been suffering from a cough for a few days so this morning I took her to see a doctor. This being Germany, she doesn't go to my doctor. No: she has a specialist Kinder Arzt (children's doctor). So, off we went to see Dr Kinder Arzt.

(As an aside, when we first met this Kinder Artz he reminded us of Art Garfunkel, because his hair stood several centimetres proud of his scalp, held up by its frizzy texture. For this reason he is always referred to as Arzt Garfunkel in our household.
I was therefore slightly disappointed to find that he has recently cut his trademark hair. We are sticking with the nickname though.)

Anyway, after examining April, Arzt Garfunkel declared that she did, indeed, have a cough. No surprise to me. I hoped for a prescription for a simple-to-administer medicinal compound. What I got was a prescription for five different homeopathic medicines. The instructions for ingestion were far from simple:

• 1 cough medicine to be taken 3 times a day
• 2 medicines in pill form to be taken - 3 of each - at 7 am and again at 3 pm
• 2 different medicines in pill form to be taken - 3 of each - at 11 am and again at 7 pm

Arzt Garfunkel had to write all this down for me, to avoid confusion (and, let's face it, my brain is too busy making another baby for me to be able to remember all these rules).

Goodness knows what April is going to think of this regime. When she is ill she doesn't approve of any interference to her plans: she gets annoyed if I simply change her pants. What is she going to be like when I try to keep her still to administer all these medicines?

After all that effort, I hope the medicines work!

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Monkey magic

baboonsWe already have a 'little monkey', who goes by the name of 'April'. However, we suddenly had an urge to see some simian primates.

Simon's parents came to stay for the weekend so we took them to Cologne Zoo. Plenty of monkeys there.

The zoo has an island colony of around 150 baboons. We took lots of photos. Unfortunately, because baboons like to take every possible opportunity to display their large pink bottoms, most of those photos will never see the light of day. I have managed to salvage this cute photo of a mother and baby, by cropping out some bottoms that were placed on either side.

unusual birdWe saw lots of other fascinating birds and animals.

Here is a bird who had such remarkably long eyelashes that he could have taken on a career as a pantomine dame.

He was making the most of his beauty - an artist was there painting his portrait and he was standing helpfully still. Showing his best side. I bet he was glad he'd booked that eyelash tint last week. Sadly I didn't get his name.

meerkats - where'd he go?There were also many meerkats in residence.

This grouping amuses me because it looks like they've lost someone and are trying to decide which is the best direction to go in which to find him.

He went that-a-way!

Friday, 30 May 2008

Day as black as night

What an unusual week it has been for weather in these parts. In the last week an area of high pressure, which meteorologists are calling 'Otto', has caused it to be oppressively hot and humid.

black dayThings came to a head yesterday morning in bizarre fashion: the sky turned black for about half an hour before a storm. Simon took some photos of what it was like outside his office at 10.30 am, one of which you can see here. All the birds stopped singing and someone had to switch on the external lights. Simon rang me because he'd never seen anything as strange before and wanted to check if I was experiencing the same phenomenon. At our flat, things didn't get quite so dark, but it was still eerily dusky.

This momentary blackness was preceded by a dust storm which left many cars covered in a layer of dark yellow Saharan sand.

Apparently there has been other strange weather in Germany this week. There was a storm in northern Hesse on Wednesday which brought so much hail it had to be cleared by snowploughs. Areas in the south west have suffered mudslides due to heavy rain. In Krefeld, tennis ball sized hail stones smashed car windscreens and windows.

It is horribly hot again here today. I am hoping for some cooling rain - but I also don't want my wishes to bring showers of monsoon proportions. After the weather we have been having, I wouldn't rule out a monsoon!

Monday, 26 May 2008

Treats to eat

I have just been back to England for a week to catch up with family and friends. But also, I will sneakily admit, I had another item on my agenda - to indulge my cravings for some good old English grub.

Isn't it strange that one never misses really healthy foods? The things I had been missing included proper fish and chips from a fish and chip shop, my mum's cheese and potato pie (it contains cheese and potato!), English sausages and the best of all - a roast chicken dinner.

I was lucky enough to find opportunities to satisfy all of these indulgences. Well, as I am now pregnant with baby number two, I can use the 'eating for two' excuse...

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

On fire

graffitti wallAt the start of the year I joined a group of female writers here in Cologne. We meet twice a month to spur each other on with our creative endeavours and to provide constructive criticism. It's been fantastic as it has prompted me to write some short pieces, having merely talked about doing so for several years.

graffiti wallWe meet in a very inspiring space - an old fire station which has been converted into a lively centre for the arts and community groups. The fire station dates back to the 1890s, but thanks to local graffiti artists it has a very modern feel: they have been given the opportunity to make their mark on several of the walls. You can see a couple of examples here.

I feel that with the help of the writing group, I am also now making my mark, albeit on the page rather than the wall. Simon always said that he thought moving here would help us to be more creative. I hate to admit it, but he was right.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

May Day love tokens

ribbons on twig
Last Thursday afternoon (30th April) I was amused to see a man dragging a wispy looking tree branch, which was taller than he was, along the pavement. It was covered in brightly coloured streamers made of crepe paper. I was more than a little puzzled. As I proceeded on my way home I spotted more people engaged in similar pursuits, many of them cyclists, balancing twigs and branches on their handle bars.

The next day, May Day, was another of Germany's wonderfully frequently occurring public holidays so I went for a little walk. I couldn't help noticing that many buildings were now adorned with these colourful boughs.

My curiosity was roused and so I did a little online research to find out what it all meant. Apparently it is a May Day custom. The tradition states that the bedecked boughs should be delivered by a male admirer to the house of his love interest on the eve of 30th April. On leap years, females have to take responsibility for delivery of the trees. As this is a leap year I guess I should have got one of these lovely gifts for Simon. Oh well. Until 2012 then...

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Two castles and one dragon

As my folks have been here for a visit we decided to do some sightseeing. We took a little car trip out to the neighbouring Rhineland town of Königswinter. The town is overlooked by a very steep, 1053 foot high hill known as Drachenfels (meaning 'Dragon's Hill').

The hill earned its name from a legend - it is said that the last dragon lived in a cave on the mountain until it was slain by the hero Siegfried. Apparently, after taking a bath in the slain dragon's blood Siegfried became invincible.

DrachensfelbahnWe travelled up the hill courtesy of the Drachenfels railway - said to be Germany's oldest railway track. View from Drachensfel

The journey upwards was a little scary at times because the gradient is so steep (22% in some places). However, it is well worth the worry as the view from the top is spectacular. Below, the Rhine snakes out in all its beauty. The view is meant to have inspired the opening lines to Lord Byron's work, Childe Harold.

Drachensfel ruined castleThe hill is topped by the ruins of a 12th century castle (see in the middle of this photo).

It was built by Archbishop Arnold of Cologne around 1140, to protect his property. Sadly, it was destroyed in 1634, during the 30 Years War.

Drachenburg CastleStill, that's not the only castle you'll find here - for halfway up the hill is the 19th century Castle Drachenburg. This is all you could ask for from a German castle. It has the trademark turreted towers you'd expect and seems to be a mad confection of lots of different architectural styles. Drachenburg was built by Baron Stephan von Sarter (1833–1902), a successful stockbroker, between 1882-4. It is said that the Baron hardly spent any time in his castle, as he preferred to live it up in Paris. Tough call isn't it? Relax in one's castle, or enjoy high society à Paris...?

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Growing old without dignity

Over the last week I have been musing about my age. It is a sad fact that I am definitely in the wrong half of my thirties. With that in mind I realised that I should do a few more 'young things', before it is too late. Cologne is quite a good place to put that operation into practice, what with it being a party city. Also, no-one I know from England need find out if I get into embarrassing situations along the way.

So, last night I went to my first gig in years, with Simon. The gig was held in a very small venue a convenient ten minutes walk from our flat. The act was a singer song writer from England, with the fantastically creative name 'Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.' I only ever saw 'Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly' from the eyes up because the rest of him was obscured by other punters. His music was very good - he had some great songs and performed them with gusto. I enjoyed myself. Well, apart from the discomfort which comes from the raised expectations of the older person - you know, like wanting a nice sit down and a smoke-free atmosphere in which to enjoy my music - not a standing-only, acrid-smelling hall full of sweaty youths.

When Simon and I got home we told our babysitter about our evening out and why we had gone. She decided that it is her personal mission to get us to go to one of Cologne's many night clubs for our next challenge. She is only 21 and she has the energy levels to match. Somehow, I think that this is a 'young thing' task too far...

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Green bottles

Germany has a deposit system for many of its glass and plastic bottles and cans. The deposit is called 'Pfand'. If you take a qualifying bottle or can to the supermarket you can feed it into a machine (delightfully named the 'Pfandflasche Rücknahmeautomaten') that reads the barcode and gives you a voucher back, which you can put towards your shopping.

The system is very popular. In supermarkets you will normally see a queue of people waiting to post their bottles into the Pfandflasche Rücknahmeautomaten (just wanted to use that name again).

More pitifully, in the evenings you can often see homeless people walking around with shopping trolleys full of empties that they have collected, in order to get money off groceries. Also, on refuse collection day you can see others going through bins to find any bottles that they can hand in. This latter situation is quite unnerving if it is your bin, especially if you have a paranoia about identity theft (I saw someone doing this to the communal bins of our block of flats today).

The system is a fantastic way to encourage recycling and to keep litter off the streets. There was a similar system for lemonade bottles in place in England in the 1970s as I can remember taking bottles back to the corner shop to collect the deposit when I was very small. It's a shame that nothing like it is in operation in England today.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Fallen angel

angelIn this photo you can spy an angel, hanging around by the west front of Cologne Cathedral.

He had with him a little hat for donations. I guess he must have fallen from God's grace and on to hard times.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Could they cut it?

Yesterday I did a brave thing. I went to a German hairdresser's shop for the first time. I have lived in Germany for 16 months and managed to avoid the experience until now.

I had been getting by with trims from an American hairdresser I know here. Last month she broke the news that she has decided not to do hair anymore. There was nothing for it but to visit a native snipper.

Now, fortunately I have a very wised up German female friend who has a well maintained head of hair. So I asked where she had it done and that is where I went.

I was relieved when I walked into the salon because all the stylists had good hair. It was clearly not a place used to doing bright red rinses (a favourite barnet choice for the slightly older German lady) or mullets (a style that can still be spotted from time to time around these parts). I immediately felt more at ease.

The experience was all very familiar and yet slightly out of the ordinary. The process was the same: consultation, hair washing, cutting, drying, then straightening.

The language barrier was obviously the major difference for me. My stylist did not have much English and I did not have much German, so we had to use one of the other stylists as interpreter to discuss the finer points of snippage. I became slightly nervous that my requirements might be lost in translation. I held my breath when the stylist starting chopping.

Once the process was in full swing there was no possibility of small talk - I found it a bit unnerving to have someone in my personal space but for there to be no chit chat. When I am in England I always book in a haircut with a hairdresser I have used for about ten years. We've done a lot of gossiping in that time, so we have an easy familiarity.

Just one other unusual thing - to save money customers can opt to dry their own hair, using the hairdryers in the salon. This is something I have never seen in England. Now, the only time my hair is ever straight and smooth is when I visit the hairdresser so there is no way I would forego this joy for the sake of saving a few Euros. However, the Germans are known for being very careful with their money.

Anyway, I won't keep you in suspense any longer - the haircut was a success. My 'do' is really neat and shiny. I am still enjoying swishing my mane around today. It is a shame that over the last day it has absorbed lots of cooking smells, but at least it is glamourous if you don't get too close.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Easter snow

It has been snowing today. It's very pretty to observe. Yet, I cannot help thinking it is a little odd to look out on falling snow at the same time as tucking into chocolate Easter eggs.

snow on forsythiaI sent Simon out on to the balcony to take some photos in the freezing cold. There were three reasons it was better for him to go out than me:

1. He has a very fancy camera
2. He has much more photographic skill than me
3. Finally, isn't it better if someone else suffers for my art?

Here is a lovely photo he took of the forsythia plant, its flowers weighed down with snow crystals.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Living it up in town

What I do quite like about my life in Cologne is my proximity to where stuff happens. I live about 10 minutes walk away the centre of the city and there are plenty of bars and restaurants lining the way. Before Cologne I was always a suburban lass, so expeditions into the interesting zones were always carefully planned to coincide with train and bus timetables.

Simon and I do try to take advantage of our exciting location as much as possible. Sometimes we book a babysitter so we can enjoy an evening out. More often though, we just meet friends for weekend lunches or coffee and cake and take little baby with us (baby April really enjoys people watching).

On one such weekend rendezvous a friend suggested meeting in a gastro bar. I was very impressed with the bar on two counts: 1)It had four large chandeliers (one of which is pictured) made out of kitchen paraphernalia, thus making it feel grand yet cosy and domestic 2) It also produced one of the best club sandwiches I have had the pleasure to eat. I will be going again as German eating establishments do not often have club sandwiches on the menu!

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Corsets and curtains in the Café

Last night I found myself face to face with Madonna’s iconic pointy bra corset. She was not in it. If she had been, I doubt whether I would have stared so boldly.

Let me explain.

Last night I went to the Hard Rock Café in Cologne with a group of friends. We sat upstairs, in an almost empty room. On the wall facing me was a glass case containing the corset. It was gold. It was laced. It was boned. It was engineered in such a way as to suggest that the wearer would have undergone some discomfort. The caption under the case explained that the corset was one of those that Madonna wore on stage for photographers prior to performances. One passer-by thought the item of such significance that he took a photo of it on his camera phone.

The only other person in the room with us last night was a lady running up a pair of curtains on a sewing machine. She was tucked away in a corner, in the gloom. While I might have expected to see some rock memorabilia at the Hard Rock Café, I certainly never expected to see a seamstress toiling in the dark in such a Dickensian manner.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


Like the English, Germans seem to enjoy the company of dogs. Unlike the English, they also enjoy the company of dogs in shops, restaurants, and other places you’d expect to be dogless if you were in the UK. This came to me as quite a surprise – not least because I nearly tripped over a little dachshund in the jewellery section of a department store during an early visit. I did a double take and checked to see if anyone else noticed this oddity, yet nobody else seemed surprised. After this had happened a few times I realised it must be normal – so I stopped pointing at them as much and began to tread more carefully.

I find it even more surprising that dogs are accepted in many restaurants. One evening I was in an Italian restaurant with a group of friends. I was happily tucking into my main course when I stopped, fork in air, as I saw a couple entering the premises with a wolf hound. I assumed they would be told to tie up the dog outside, but I was wrong. Instead, the waiter cheerfully greeted the couple and their dog and showed them to a table. I began imagine some farcical scenarios in my head involving said dog:
• Dog chases waiter carrying a bowl of meaty Bolognese sauce
• Dog knocks down patrons in enthusiastic displays of affection
• Dog jumps over tables to locate the source of the scent of a rabbit risotto
What actually happened? The wolf hound just curled up on the floor and we hardly heard a peep out of him. Now, in the face of all that temptation, that's what I call a well-trained hound!

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Without a song or a dance what are we?

April and I go to a little session known as ‘Baby Musikgarten’ once a week. It’s an hour of singing, dancing and bashing of musical instruments for little ones. April really enjoys it. I guess that is because she has yet to learn about shame and embarrassment. Her mother knows all about these though, for her mother was the sister who couldn’t sing*.

As the sister who couldn’t sing I have traditionally held back from public singing whenever possible. I am afraid this even counts in church, where I admit to miming and standing next to those with all the talent.

It is curious that in this country where I have no past, I have now been able to reinvent myself as a woman who will sing in public (albeit sotto voce). Furthermore I will sing songs to which I do not know the words and cannot even guess what they look like, what with them being inconveniently 'in foreign'. I must sound quite awful.

Now that I am overcoming my fears I am finding these musical sessions interesting for myself, rather than just as April's responsible guardian. I am certainly learning a lot of basic vocabulary, both through the songs and small talk with the other mothers (one has to be able to apologise when one’s baby sticks her fingers in another little darling’s eye). I am also building up a repertoire of German songs.

Here is an example of a refrain we covered in today's group:

Hopp, hopp, hopp,
Pferdchen lauf Galopp!
Über Stock und über Steine,
aber brich dir nicht die Beine!
Hopp, hopp, hopp,
Pferdchen lauf Galopp!

It is a song about a little horse (a Pferdchen) galloping along over sticks and over stones. All well and good until the fourth line, where it warns the little horse: ‘…but don’t break your legs’. So, it isn’t just the English who can lay claim to darkness in the nursery is it?
Listen to the rhyme here…

*In stark contrast my sister is so good at singing that she sings in a band.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Food for thought

Isn't it amazing what we humans find to eat from our large and bounteous planet? I guess, if you wait long enough, whatever it is, someone will eat it.*

Last night we went to an Italian restaurant near to our flat. I selected a dish described as 'angler fish in a truffle sauce'.

Let's break that down.

Angler fish: a predatory large and ugly fish which lives in the very deep sea. It lures its prey into its mouth by means of a fleshy protusion from its head, which it can twitch to look like something small and appetising (ie bait). Sometimes the protrusion can emit light to make it even more fatally attractive.
(As a point of interest, in some species of angler fish the males attach themselves to females like parasites and then the two fuse to such an extent that the male exists only as a pair of gonads, ready and waiting to deliver sperm whenever the female should be ready for such romantic attentions.)

So far, so yummy.

Truffles: fungal tubers which grow underground, near tree roots. These growths produce a smell which is meant to be a bit like that of the male pig sex hormone. Truffles are particularly unattractive lumpy blobs - in that sense, not much different to angler fish then.

Double yum.

Why did I choose to eat this? Basically because I couldn't remember having knowingly tried angler fish or truffles before. And truffles were a speciality of the house.

What was the outcome? Well, it was actually rather good. The truffle sauce and truffle shavings were delicious and really brought an earthy, meaty, flavour to the fish. The fish reminded me of scallops, which I like (although research online today reveals that the received wisdom is that it most resembles lobster).

I guess I was a little disappointed that it didn't arrive on a platter with its little fleshy fishing rod intact, perhaps deep fried, with a sparkler to resemble the light. But that would have been asking too much. Anyway, the spectacular chocolate mousse I had for dessert soon put paid to any lingering regrets.

More about angler fish...
More about truffles...

*Indeed, only yesterday my daughter attempted to digest mouthfuls of a foam ball.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Carnival reflections

I had been planning that this blog entry would be all about my wild long weekend of carnival revelry, culminating in a description of my attendance at the big Rosenmontag carnival parade yesterday. (Rosenmontag is a public holiday. The term means 'running Monday'.)

Sadly I had a stonker of a migraine yesterday and had to stay in bed. Instead of the beat of drums and tambourines, the only percussion I encountered was as my grey matter pounded against the white.

It was such a shame. I had been looking forward to dressing up the whole family, as is the tradition for carnival attendees. We were to be a cat (moi), a devil (April) and a convict (my dear husband). Sadly, I think it will be some time before I can persuade Simon to try on his newly purchased convict's stripy attire.

April and I did manage to make it to a kiddie's carnival party on Friday though. It was cute seeing all the little ones dressed up. My prize for the most inventive costume goes to the mum of the baby boy dressed as Axl Rose, wearing an AB/CD (geddit?) rocker's T-shirt and bandana. Apart from the enjoyment of seeing all these helpless little ones in fancy dress there was another highlight for me: someone had brought along chocolate iced buns. Hmm, methinks I might try to attend more children's parties...

April wore her little devil outfit. I learnt that 'little devil' in German is 'teufelchen' as one of my friends was called this on Thursday night by a native in a chat up attempt. It's amazing how you pick up the lingo isn't it? (Still, the native didn't get to pick up my friend.)

Friday, 1 February 2008

Everyday crime fighters

Carnival kicked off yesterday at 11.11am. It is a week long festival of street parties, processions and balls and ends on Ash Wednesday. The first day of carnival is a very rowdy affair, with all day drinking and pretty much compulsory costume wearing.

I went out with friends Sarah, Nina and Ros - we were two devils, a gypsy and an angel. We saw some great costumes spanning all genres from historical, to fictional characters, to members of the animal kingdom. While out I saw these chaps, who I think deserve a mention.

SherlockSherlock Holmes queues patiently outside a bar. Or perhaps he is doing a stakeout on a dastardly villain...

If you look closely you'll notice how he seems to have abandoned the traditional pipe for a sneaky draw on a cigarette.

ZorroZorro prepares to fight injustice on the late night tram.

Or, perhaps he is hoping to sneak up on one of those short-skirted young ladies and envelop her under his cape?

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

I love in Cologne

Yesterday morning I contacted a German lady.
I wrote her an email in my best German.
I started by explaining that I live in Cologne.
Or so I thought.
It was only in the afternoon when I realised I had made a common error and had mixed up the verbs 'leben - to live' and 'lieben - to love'.
I had actually written that 'I love in Cologne'.
Which is more information than she probably wanted over her morning coffee.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008


Has my humble little blog found some kind of fame?

This is what I am currently pondering. For this afternoon I 'Googled' my site - under the blogs section - and found that one of my posts had been quoted in the blog. I hadn't known there was a blog specially devoted to gluhwein until this point, but I guess I am glad someone is out there giving gluhwein good PR.

I did go on about gluhwein quite a lot over the festive season, so perhaps it is no surprise that they saw me as some kind of kindred spirit.

Is it wrong to achieve a small amount of fame from one's drinking habits? (Hic.)
Link to the quote...
Gluhwein recipes...

Medieval grizzliness

At the weekend I visited a local museum of medieval art. I was most taken by the deathly pieces you see here. I have chosen to show them in order of 'deadness', from just killed, to several days dead, to decomposing with worms. Which suggests that either I have have a rather grizzly outlook, or that the majority of the art on show was morbid. It's both really.
Beheading of John the Baptist
First up is this wooden relief showing the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It is dated to the 16th Century and originates from southern Germany. It shows the point at which the dancer, Salome, is presented with John's head on a silver platter. John had been held as a prisoner by King Herod. Salome attended a party at the royal palace and danced for the king. The story goes that Herod was so entranced by the dance that he granted Salome a wish. On the advice of her mother, Salome requested John's execution.

Here the story is represented in a very matter of fact way. See the very clean wound. No evidence of any severed veins of arteries there.

PietaNext is this piece dating from around 1460, which was carved in the Netherlands. It is a type of art known as a 'Pietà' (Italian for pity) - a representation of the moment Christ is brought down from the cross and is mourned by Mary.

It is quite rich in colour, with strong blues and reds. Reds are used to show Christ's wounded hands and body. Seven figures circle the central figure of Christ and all the action takes place in a very compact space.

Finally, here is a miniature sculpture from Aachen dating to around 1520. This sculpture is of a type known as 'Memento mori' (Latin for 'remember you will die'). Typical memento mori pieces include evidence of death - whether that be a painting showing a skull, or something more gruesome, like this 3-D rotting cadaver. The point is to remind the viewer that, whatever status they hold in life, everyone dies in the end. Such pieces were extremely popular in the middle ages, as death became more common due to plague, pestilence and warfare. Memento mori

This particular sculpture shows a corpse in a beautiful chequered casket. It is made from ivory. The corpse is feeding a whole host of wildlife including worms, lizards and possibly rats (it's a bit hard to make out).

Now, I have to confess to a special interest in this type of art, having done my degree dissertation on medieval tombs depicting decomposing cadavers. I really got into it. (As you can probably imagine.)

All the pieces are from Museum Schnütgen.

Sunday, 20 January 2008


I got very excited this week as I found they were selling Cadbury's Crème Eggs in the English Shop in town. At a rather steep 79 cents a pop. Of course, price does not always stop an addict/aficionado, so I bought and devoured one as a special treat to myself. Simon is going back to England on Tuesday, to attend a workshop, and so I’ve already asked him to bring back a multi-pack of Crème Eggs from the airport.

Now, I know shops tend to get ahead of themselves with their seasonal merchandising. However, this year Easter really isn’t that far in the future. In a fortnight the massive Shrovetide annual carnival of Cologne will already be in full swing. It heralds the 40 days of Lent. Then hey ho, what do you know? Easter will be upon us.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Marco, who loves ya baby?

Ich liebe dichToday April and I went to the park to stare at the geese, ducks, swans, families, joggers, tramps and the crazy guy pretending to box with an invisible opponent...

While there I saw this piece of graffiti. Possibly one of the most romantic I have seen. If a bit illegal.

So many questions spring to mind. Who is Marco? What is about Marco that makes him so desirable? Did this piece of artwork win his heart? Did Marco and his admirer end up cohabiting and bickering over whose turn it is to walk the dog?

Saturday, 5 January 2008

My little holiday

I have been on a little Christmas holiday to England. Two weeks of chilling out with family and friends. With a lot of a) eating and b) drinking. The break was just what the doctor ordered. (To be truthful, he actually ordered a round of antibiotics to fight a particularly nasty bug I had. But that didn't stop me from carrying out a lot of b.)

It was April's first Christmas. She really enjoyed all of the attention. Oh - and the presents! She gave me a gift too: a few days before Christmas she started to say 'Mum'. I am assuming that she doesn't know what it means yet, but to me it means everything.

Me in my New Year's Eve outfitThe Christmas period was also characterised by some silliness. Simon and I were invited to a 'murder mystery' party for New Year's Eve, which involved dressing up.

My character was supposed to be a dame, romantic novelist and lover of overstated clothes. Here is a photo of me dressed for the event. Hopefully the overstated part of my character - at least - comes across. Or maybe you just think I always dress this way.

It was fun to be blonde for a night. I found myself twizzling my golden locks round my fingers quite a lot.