Monday, 31 January 2011

Thinking Of Me

One of my first memories has more to do with sound than with sight, and the moment this memory is based on must have taken place in 1971, when I was three years old.
Back then, we lived on the top floor of a three storeyed house. Our flat had a balcony, and I was on that balcony on a sunny day. Now, human memory is a tricky thing, as we all know, and I can not remember what I was doing on the balcony; most likely I was sat there, playing with some toy or other.

What I do remember though is the sound of a woman's heels walking past far below on the street. The click-clack of her heels on the pavement caught my attention, and although I don't think I went to look, the sound gave me a feeling I can only describe as a rather vague longing: it sounded grown-up, elegant, determined, and beautiful. Of course, I wouldn't have been able to put my impression in such words at the age of three, but from that day on, I would always associate the sound of ladies' shoes on pavement with being grown-up.

Many years later, I am grown-up and can wear clacking heels as much as I like, and they do not give me quite the same thrill anymore.
But the other night, I was reminded of that moment in 1971 on our balcony.

It was between 11 and 12 pm, and I had just switched the light off after having read for a while. The night was comparably mild, and one of my bedroom windows was open just wide enough to let some air in - and the sounds from the quiet area where I live. As I was about to drift into sleep, a woman walked by, and her heels made that familiar clacking noise on the pavement.

For the fraction of a second, I felt being in two places at once: I was that woman, returning alone from maybe a night out with friends or a meal in a posh restaurant in male company, looking forward to reaching home and get ready for bed. And at the same time I was here, in the comfort of my own bed with my duvet and a woollen blanket keeping me warm.

Was anyone right now thinking of the woman, walking out there all alone in the dark? Would she find someone at home, still up and waiting for her, happy to see her safely back? Or did she just leave someone who had been enjoying her company that evening and was looking forward to their next encounter?

I had no way of knowing, and actually I could not even be entirely sure that it was indeed a woman whose shoes were causing that sound, just like I had no way of knowing if anyone, at that moment, was thinking of me.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Read in 2011 - 3: Vergebung

For my 2nd read in 2011, you can click here or simply go to "older post" at the very bottom of this posting.

a friend of mine had recommended Stieg Larsson's trilogy to me. I had come across his work before on a small internet forum about books where I am one of the moderators, but what some of the group members there wrote about the books did not pique my curiosity enough to make me read them. I do trust my friends' recommendations, though, and therefore when, some months ago, I was not sure what to read next, I decided to give them a go.

Normally, this kind of thriller is not my type of book. The terrible things people do to each other are described in much detail, but somehow the author has managed not to descend to a level of gory vulgarity that would make me close the book in disgust.
The characters do not always do what the reader expects them to do - which is pretty much what people are like in real life.
The storyline is very complex but, again, the author somehow managed to keep the threads all going at the same time without getting into a muddle that makes it impossible for the reader to follow.
As the events succeed each other (the books are written mostly in a very clear chronological order, with calendar dates given at the start of each chapter), the reader can't help wanting to know what happens next - and once we know what happened, we want to know how those who have set themselves the tasks of finding out the truth get about their search and research.

This last part of the trilogy picks up exactly where the 2nd part left off, as if no time had elapsed in between. There are some sidelines which have nothing to do with the big picture, but are followed through in an interesting and rather surprising manner.
Some of the characters I quite like; others I don't think I would want to know in real life, if they existed.

A short note about the author:
(more can be found out
here if you are interested)
Prior to his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 50 in November 2004 he finished three detective novels in his trilogy.
Before his career as a writer, Stieg Larsson was mostly known for his struggle against racism and right-wing extremism. Starting in the late 1970s, he combined his work as a graphics designer with holding lectures on right-wing extremism for Scotland Yard. During the following years he became an expert on the subject and held many lectures as well as wrote many novels on the subject. In 1995, when eight people were killed by neo-Nazis in Sweden, he was the main force behind the founding of the Expo-foundation, a group intended on exposing neo-Nazi activity in Sweden. From 1999 onwards, he was appointed chief editor of the magazine Expo.
During the last 15 years of his life, he lived under constant threat from right-wing violence.
(Excerpts from the website linked above)

These books are not what I'd call an enjoyable, relaxing read. They make you think about the dark depths of human nature and what one person is capable of doing to another person.

My next book will have to be something completely different.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Read in 2011 - 2: The Conjuror's Bird

(If you want to know what was my 1st read this year, you can find out here)

This was a pleasure to read: "The Conjuror's Bird" by Martin Davies.

It is the first time I have come across the author, and it happened quite by coincidence: some time ago, in one of the blogs I regularly follow, the books by Lindsey Davis were mentioned. L. Davis writes detective stories set in Roman times, with a very good cast of characters and a lot of witty humour thrown in. After having read that blog article, I checked the online catalogue of my town's library and indeed found three of her books in English, so I asked my mum to get them for me next time she would be going to the library.

She did - and because Davies, Martin is on the shelf next to Davis, Lindsey, she accidentally took that book as well, only realizing her mistake later.

Such "accidents" often provide one with a pleasant surprise, I find, and this time was no exception.

Looking at the cover illustration, one might expect a romantic love story.
Well, there is a love story (actually, more than one), and it is rather romantic in places, but that is not all what the book is about.

We meet a desillusioned scientist whose interest in lost species of birds is reawakened by events that lead to the search for the only known mounted specimen of the long-extinct "Ulieta bird", a species that was discovered and lost at the time of one of Captain Cook's great expeditions to the South Seas.
What starts out as the quest for that specimen, the existence of which after so many years is very much doubted by the scientist, develops into a veritable detective story, and we learn that there is more to this than just looking for an old stuffed bird.
A lot of money is involved, and several people are trying to track the bird down, all for their own reasons.
The scientist gets help from his tenant, a student; clues from unexpected sources pop up, and while the chapters are alternatingly set in the past and present, the threads of both stories are cleverly brought together only at the very end of the book.

Not everybody is who we think they are, the characters are all portrayed convincingly, the settings well described - like I said, a pleasant read all over, and a book that you can learn something about the time of the great expeditions from as well as about the struggle of today's scientists to preserve endangered species - some of which are on the brink of becoming extinct before we even know about them.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

QUIS - Quick & Simple

Most of you know that I am not much of a cook; although I like to prepare something nice for my guests and am certainly not the worst pizza-maker on the planet, I simply can't be bothered to spend much time in the kitchen when it is just myself, and therefore most of the time, my meals consist of muesli (for breakfast) and cheese sandwiches (in the evenings), with plenty of chocolate and other sweets as well as a regular supply of fruit complementing my diet.

The other night, I actually switched on my kitchen stove and made myself something different for dinner. I had some leftovers in my fridge that needed eating or throwing away very soon, and as I was taught from an early age that food is not to be wasted, I decided to use those bits and fix a QUIS meal - quick & simple.

What I had was a chunk of goat cheese, three eggs, and a pot of basil growing on my window sill, plus a fresh loaf of bread that I had bought that same day.

The goat cheese was diced and some of the basil leaves added:

When the cheese began to melt in the hot pan, I added the eggs which I had spiced with a bit of salt and black pepper.

In no time, the eggs were done, and I enjoyed them with a few slices of buttered bread.

As I said - a QUIS meal!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

An Almost Scary Incident

My regular readers know that I use public transport on a daily base to get to and from work, and that the goings-on at the station have prompted me to write a blog entry more than once.

I have also been in the situation of asking myself whether I should have helped before, as described
Tonight on my way home, I almost witnessed what could have been a terrible accident, and it would have been possible for me to prevent it - I didn't do anything, though, and I am not proud of myself.

When I arrived at the top of the stairs to the platform, I saw a man crouched on the ground, close to the ticket machine. He wore jeans and trainers and a hooded sweater. Because of the hood and his crouched posture, his face was not visible. Between his hands which were loosely resting on the ground there was a small clear plastic bag, empty.

My first impulse was to approach him and ask whether he needed a doctor.
But I hesitated - I was the only other person on the platform, and I admit I was a little scared. If the man was drunk or drugged otherwise, who knows what his reaction might be?

Other people began to arrive on the platform. Everyone looked at the man, but nobody went closer.
He was not asleep; he moved a little, sometimes lifting his head a bit higher, sometimes almost resting it on his knees. The empty plastic bag had maybe contained the piece of white bread he had now started to munch on. He swayed back and forth a little, still crouching.

I checked the sign to see how much longer until the train was due, and when I looked back to the man, he had gotten up and was staggering about on the platform.
Now I could see his face; I find it difficult to estimate people's age at the best of times, but when someone is very skinny (like this man) or very fat, and they are quite obviously leading a rough life, it is nearly impossible to guess someone's age. Still, something in the way he was dressed and his face made me think that he could be a good 10 years younger than I, maybe in his early 30s.

He kept staggering about, not talking to or approaching anyone, and I realized with a sudden shock that he was getting closer to the rail tracks with every step of his crooked, skinny, wobbly legs.
Closer and closer he got, crossing the white line that indicates the safety distance one should keep in order not to fall down on the tracks, and when one of his feet got to the rim of the platform, I took a sharp breath, moved forward and braced myself to call out to make him stop, or even grab his arm and pull him back.
By that time, the train was already approaching, and had the man indeed fallen down on the tracks, there would have been no chance for it to stop in time; I and all these people watching would have become witnesses to a certainly terrible, deadly accident.

Miraculously, though, the man staggered back before his next step would have taken him over the edge, and when the train stopped, he patiently waited for the passengers to get off before he got on.

I felt relief - and shame.
Again, I had not helped where I could have done so.
It was not my merit that the accident had not happened and the man was still alive and - at least in that respect - unharmed.

There he was now, sitting comfortably on the train a little further down the same carriage as I, completely unaware of the fright he had given me and the mix of being scared and having a guilty conscience he had caused me to feel.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Mannheim Twins

My sister and I are not twins; in fact, there is a gap of 14 months between us (me being the younger one), and we do not resemble each other much physically at all: While my sister has beautiful, thick, wavy hair in abundance, I've always had thin, straight hair that does not lend itself to much in the first place. Her eyes are a greenish-grey, while mine are blue. In context, I look more like our dad, whereas she has more in common with our mum.
This did not stop our mother from dressing us in the same or similar clothes when we were little; in fact, we liked having the same dirndls or other outfits. I vividly remember one summer when our favourite cousin came to stay for part of our school holidays and mum made us skirts of the same red and white cotton print fabric and bought the same white t-shirt with a small lace flower on the front for all three of us - we loved dressing identically!

Look at this picture, taken in 1970:

My sister, the girl sat in the kettcar, and I are wearing the same little dresses there, and it wasn't a rare occurrence in our childhood.

What's cute for little girls can seem a bit weird on grown-ups, though, and something we observed yesterday in a café prompted me to write this entry about twins.

We spent the day in Mannheim on occasion of my sister's birthday, visiting an exhibition first and then retreating to an old-fashioned plushy café for coffee and cake.

At a neighbouring table, shortly after we were seated, two elderly ladies in (I estimate) their seventies took their seats.

Nothing special about that, you say?
Well, think again:
The two of them were, from head to toe, dressed identically in black and white striped jumpers, black trousers and black shoes. They wore their hair in exactly the same style, and the only visible difference between them was that one of them had glasses on and the other one didn't.
After a while, she took her glasses off and now there was no difference at all anymore.
It gets even weirder: they ordered precisely the same! One coffee, one coke and one piece of the same kind of cake each...
By then, we were all casting covert glances at them (trying not to be too impolite and obvious, of course), and we were waiting for them to eat and drink at the same pace. But there they disappointed us; one of them had finished her cake long before the other one, and the drinks didn't go down at the same time, either.

I know they say twins share a special bond, and I am now more than ever inclined to believe it!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A Promise

We've had our fair share of snow, photographic evidence of which can be found in my blog, for instance here and here.

This week, things took a dramatic turn temperature-wise when, in less than 48 hours, the thermometer climbed from -9 C (15 F) to +10 C (50 F) - that's right, from 15 to 50! (It somehow sounds more impressive in Fahrenheit).

Now, the only snow left is in ugly greyish-black heaps in the corners of the supermarket's parking lot and along some roads. When I look out from my kitchen window, the view that prompted me to report directly from Winter Wonderland shows a very different picture: bare trees, true, but green grass and brown earth.

During the afternoon, I was out in town, my coat wide open and feeling the sun on my face. When I came back, my living room and my bed room (the one where I so often sit sunbathing on the
window sill, as my long-term blog readers will know) were sun-filled and beautiful, and I opened the windows wide to let the warmth and the birdsong in.

At 13 Celsius (it's incredible, isn't it! That is 55 F), this 8th of January already carried a definite hint of spring. The birds were feeling it, too, and when I saw the neighbours' cat down in the small garden that belongs to our house, he was obviously a very happy cat, rolling around on the paved path and rubbing his head against the wooden board that acts as a miniature fence for their tomato beds.

I know that this pre-spring is not going to last. By the middle or end of next week, more snow is expected, and the temperature will drop again.

But for today, I had a promise of spring, and it soothed me.

One day, it will be there, and I will be out again in the sun, legs bare and with no coat, and life will have a lightness about it that I seem unable to achieve during winter.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Read in 2011 - 1: Die Zarentochter

Some of my fellow bloggers on here have such impressive, interesting and informative lists of what they read in 2010 and what they intend to read this year that I thought, why not?
And while I can not and will not plan ahead for most of my reading material, I can certainly keep track of what I have read.
The first book I finished reading this year was "Die Zarentochter" by Petra Durst-Benning (literally: "The Tsar's Daughter").

It is a historical novel, based on Princess Olga Nikolajewna Romanowa's life up to her marriage with Prince Karl von Württemberg, later to become Queen Olga and King Karl of Württemberg. They spent part of their life as monarchs here in my hometown's castle, and we still have streets, hospitals and other institutions named after Queen Olga.

The book's cover shows her portrait as it was done around 1856, when she was about 34 years old.

Olga was very popular with the people of Württemberg for all the good deeds she did; she was socially engaged in many projects and not just had her name put on top of the institutions but really worked for them.

The novel depicts her childhood and youth, and how politics were almost always put before private life, making Olga a rather unhappy young woman for many years, who saw herself as being doomed for life as an old spinster. Later in life, she wrote her memoirs, and the novel is largely based on those. We get a chance to glimpse life at the Russian Tsar's court, how the young members of aristocracy were raised and educated, what was expected of men and women in that society, and the cultural and political differences between Russia and Germany in those days.
I enjoyed reading it, but to be honest, mostly because I like to learn more about the history of my home town and the people who had a part in shaping it. While I appreciate the author's effort in terms of extensive research, her style is pleasant but not so overwhelmingly great that it makes me want to read each and every book she has ever written.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Small Pleasures

For some people, household chores are just that; chores that need doing and are often done grudgingly, cutting in on one's spare time during evenings and weekends.

Of course, there are things to do around the house that I prefer to other things, but generally, I do not mind doing housework at all. Well - I can say that easily, as I do not have to clean up the mess other people make; the way I leave my flat in the morning is exactly the way I find it again when I return, except for the odd cat hair that wasn't there before.

Still, I do actually like my usual Saturday morning cleaning (as I have
mentioned before in my blog.) I do this for myself, so that I can keep enjoying a tidy, clean place which is crucial for my wellbeing, seeing as I seem to need the neat outer frame in order to keep the inner wilderness under check (I deliberately am not saying "at bay", as I quite like to indulge in that wilderness sometimes, and if I kept it at bay, that wouldn't be possible, would it!).

One of the chores that are not on my mental list every week is polishing my shoes.
Yes, I really like doing that!

When my husband was still alive, and also during my first marriage, it was always me volunteering to clean our shoes, his as well as my own.
What exactly is it I like about it? There's the smell of the shoe polish, the smoothness of the leather, the softness of the cloth, the shine I can bring on by the use of a brush, and the satisfaction of having done something relatively useful with my hands.

If I had to do this for a living, I doubt I would still feel the same way. But, thankfully, I can indulge in polishing shoes just for fun and, of course, when it is necessary - I hate walking about in shoes that are not clean, and these days with the snow and the sludge and mud out there, they look awful enough to actually deserve a good scrub every day. That would be too much even for me - and having recently invested in a pair of wellies, it remains something to be done only every now and then.