I want to ride my bicycle…

My parents must have been keen cyclists at one time, I have the grainy black and white photos of their summer holiday in 1953: a cycling tour of Normandy. That must have been an adventure.

My very first bicycle memory is of bring taken to primary school every day balanced on a floral cushion on the crossbar of my dad’s bike – he was a teacher in the same school, and we didn’t have a car, so it was very convenient. When it rained, I was kept dry under his yellow rain cape.

This must have gone on for some time but stopped abruptly when we were pulled over by a policeman, who asked to see what I was sitting on, and told my father that the floral cushion would not do.

I was hysterical by lunchtime, thinking that my father would be whisked off to prison, and it was all My Fault.

There wasn’t an awful lot of cycling going on in Hemel Hempstead in the 60s, or on the Isles of Scilly in the 1970s. I had bikes, second hand or cast off, but actually riding them was unusual. That changed when I arrived in Bremen in 1977; the city is full of cycle paths and lanes:

Cycling in Bremen

And so I bought myself my first new bike, at the Karstadt department store in downtown Bremen. That bike became my trusty friend, and when my daughter was born two years later we fixed a seat on the front and off we went. I loved those rides. By that time we lived in extremely flat Lower Saxony; I didn’t have a car and so I pedalled to the supermarket and around the lake, and to visit my friend who lived in the city, all the while chatting and singing with my dear little girl.

We now live in Thedinghausen, which is a small rural village, part of the Landkreis (Municipality) Verden – and a very flat part of Lower Saxony.


There is really no excuse for not cycling: we have plenty of safe and beautiful cycle paths.

Often I look out of my window and think it’s too cold or too rainy or too windy to cycle, but for the last five days (on one of which it rained all day) I have been clocking up the kilometers as part of our village ‘Stadtradeln‘ project. In English this is called “City Cycling”. It’s a movement all over Germany (and in other countries too) and you can read about it here, in English, of course:

CITY CYCLING – Here’s what it’s all about! (city-cycling.org)

“CITY CYCLING is a competition that involves completing as many daily journeys as possible in an environmentally-friendly manner using your bike over a 21-day period. Whether you ride every day or cycled only rarely until now. Every kilometre counts – and even more so if you would have completed the journey by car otherwise.”

My husband and I have entered as a Team – “Pinguinis” – and (let me just check) as I write we are in position 25 (hmmn) out of 44 village teams with a total so far of 221 kilometers.

Some teams already have got thousands of kilometers to their names; for many people here in the north of Germany, cycling is not only a way of getting to the shops or popping to the Post Office but also a sport and a hobby and they will happily cycle (fast) all day.

Many people spend their holiday cycling for days, along a river – the Weser, for instance, or the Danube, or the Elbe. People even cycle over the Alps!

Maybe something to think of for the Pinguinis…

Dear old Freddie.

Sumer is icumen in…

…Loudly sing ‘Cuckoo’

Cuckoos are sort of tricky birds, it’s hard to feel sympathy for mass-murderers, but for some reason they appeal, maybe also because of the clocks:

Actually I heard my first cuckoo this year back on May 1, and was jubilant as I had a one Euro coin in my pocket at the time, thus ensuring I will not run out of money, this year at least.

There are loads of strange superstitions about cuckoos, my favourite is from the Channel Island of Guernsey, where apparently upon hearing the first cuckoo of the year, one balanced a stone on one’s head and then ran around until it fell off. Hmmn.

BBC – Guernsey – History – A few cuckoo superstitions?

Sumer is icumen in” is the incipit of a medieval English round or rota of the mid-13th century; it is also known variously as the Summer Canon and the Cuckoo Song. (Sumer is icumen in – Wikipedia)

The line translates approximately to “Summer has come in” or “Summer has arrived”. The song is written in the Wessex dialect of Middle English.

Wessex was an ancient kingdom in the south of England, today full of lovely places

and exciting history:

and famous for a King, Alfred, who burned the cakes:

Read the story here: King Alfred and the Cakes (historic-uk.com)

Summer has taken its time cumen in this year, our spring has been too cold and too wet and winter dragged on a long time.

It suddenly got warmer this week, meaning I have to change to the Summer curtains in the bathroom:

And buy strawberries, so that my husband can make a delicious strawberry flan.

Here’s a recipe:

Guten Appetit!

Integrated at last

I have always loved TV. My British childhood was framed by Thursdays with Petticoat Junction

Fridays with The Avengers

And who could forget The Man from Uncle?

Even then I had crushes on anybody who spoke with a foreign accent and so of course was in love with Ilya Kuryakin (even though he was actually Scottish, David McCallum).

I think we can say I was not a critical viewer.

Moving to Germany was a bit of a shock as a) I couldn’t understand enough German to understand the plot of anything and b) I couldn’t deal with the programmes. There seemed to be a lot of political talk shows, interspersed with comedies I couldn’t find funny and shows involving ‘Volksmusik’, where rows of people sat on benches drinking beer while people in dirndls sang songs. I was indeed far from home, and visits to the UK mostly consisted of videoing everything possible to watch when we got back to Germany. For some years, thanks to a giant antenna, we were able to watch BFBS programming. My poor children, when not being forced to eat burnt fishfingers, watched British children’s programmes and must have thought that life in the UK was unfocussed, snowy and interspersed with wavy lines.

Anyway, I then moved in with my German husband, and he brought along a small black and white TV, which he watched in the evenings. It seemed that for Germans, the highlights of the week were a programme on Saturdays called ‘Wetten, dass’ or a police procedural on Sunday evenings, after the main news, called ‘Tatort’.

The former show often had celebrity guests from the US, which could theoretically have been interesting apart from the simultaneous translation into German which overlaid what they were saying in English. This always meant I couldn’t understand either. That programme came to a very sad end some years ago.

Wetten, dass..? – Wikipedia

“Tatort”, on the other hand, still graces our screens most Sunday evenings and in the interests of intercultural understanding I tried to watch. Honestly.

The introduction hasn’t changed for a trillion years.

The word ‘Tatort’ means the scene of the crime, and this series is filmed in various cities in Germany (and further afield), with recurring detectives. So people might enjoy ‘Tatort München’ but not ‘Tatort Ludwigshafen.’ I didn’t enjoy any of them, and this has been horribly embarrassing because everybody else in Germany watches, and loves Tatort. I can’t deal with the portrayal of how life is: the way people speak to, and deal with each other within families and teams. It’s often full of smart-aleck, unscrupulous detectives who trample over crime scenes, drive dangerously and have messy private lives. There’s not much kindness, or, well, fun.

Having loved The Avengers it’s a bit much for me to complain about lack of realism, but there was one Tatort quite recently where a detective ended up handcuffed (key lost) to a woman who wanted to drown herself and they were caught up to their waists in the North Sea tide. Cut to next day, where he is sitting on the beach and she is lying – dead and un-handcuffed – next to him. Hello? What happened?

Anyway, we read last week that our local city, Bremen, would be presenting a new team of detectives on Sunday:

Tatort gestern - Kritik zu Neugeboren aus Bremen: "Ein Reinfall"
Tatort gestern – Kritik zu Neugeboren aus Bremen: “Ein Reinfall” (augsburger-allgemeine.de)

And so I decided to watch: in the meantime the language isn’t a problem anymore (although I do need the volume higher in German than in English, how interesting) and it is fun to try and spot well-known sights or maybe even see my sporty husband pedalling by on his bicycle in the distance.

Reader, I quite liked it. That’s it: 16 years after I got my dual citizenship, I am truly integrated. I watched – nay, enjoyed – Tatort.

Header credit: “Tatort”-Ermittler-Ranking: Münster unangefochten vorn, viele neue Teams auf den hinteren Plätzen | MEEDIA

The spice of life

Casting around for something to do yesterday, I decided to organise my spices and herbs alphabetically. I also wiped each container, inspecting the best before date (oops) and checking how much was still left inside before putting it in the correct place on the shelves in the kitchen,

It was sort of fun, more or less, and as I looked at all these delicious spices I realised that none of them featured in any of the kitchens of my childhood. My mum was a really good cook, but ‘seasoning’ in my family meant salt and pepper until about 1968, when paprika suddenly loomed on the horizon.

Paprika has always been a problem word for my students, as the German word ‘Paprika’ means bell pepper, and the English word ‘pepper’ makes them think of, well, pepper.

Every year we have a Christmas buffet: I provide the recipes and the participants bring the results, which they have made at home. One wonderful year one of my favourite students brought a tuna salad. The recipe required one cup of green pepper: this salad packed a zing as he had added a cup of green peppercorns. Our eyes were streaming that night, but I loved it, for me the spicier the better.

That clip brings back very happy memories of a road trip in the early 1990s: me, my old Honda Civic and a tent and my husband, who was not yet my husband. Out in the flat Hungarian countryside we got stuck in a long, long traffic jam. It was boiling hot in the car, and we got out to look at what was happening. A few vehicles in front of us was a battered open-top truck, piled high with tomatoes and red peppers and seeing us, the driver got out of his cab and brought us armfuls of wonderful juicy red tomatoes and peppers. He didn’t want any money, just to share the produce. We cooked it all up that night on our minute camping stove; it was delicious.

We used to have ‘Curry’ sometimes at boarding school: this was minced beef, boiled up with some curry powder and then scattered with raisins and dessicated coconut. It was horrible and bore no relation whatsoever to the aromatic food I enjoyed much later in Chennai and Kerala, and that my daughter and her husband on Borneo love to eat and cook.

My Mum and her sister hated garlic. A great uncle had married a Malaysian woman, a wonderful cook, who invited us for meals sometimes. Just as I was leaving for their house on one occasion, my Aunt called me over: “Don’t worry about smelling of garlic when you come back,” she said “Because you already do!”

One of the biggest shocks of my life was when my mother told me the food at her sister’s funeral had been marvellous, ‘Especially the Chicken Tikka’. If she wasn’t dead already, my Aunt would have died to think such a thing was served at her funeral reception.

Both of them, Mum Pam and Aunt Kath, were in a permanent panic about cooking smells lingering in the house. They both worried about how the smell would waft upstairs, thereby infiltrating wardrobes and bedding. Deep frying was also a cause for great concern, and when chips were on the menu they donned headscarves to stop the smell of frying getting into their hair.

My children have told me that they associate the smell of burnt fish fingers with their childhood, for which I am truly sorry, and yesterday I wished I could send them not only photos and voice messages, but also smells: our house smelled so gorgeously aromatic. Not a fish finger in sight.

I almost could feel as if I were in a restaurant where I have had many happy times, Naan, at Rasa Ria in Sabah:

I rarely follow recipes, but in Indian cooking I am not sure of myself, and so followed this to the letter and it was absolutely scrumptious.

Pistachio chicken curry | Meera Sodha

Meera Sodha writes for The Guardian, you can find more recipes here:

Meera Sodha | The Guardian

I ate my first pistachio when I was 17; my friend at boarding school came from Iran, and when she got back from the holidays she brought kilos of pistachios with her.

The chicken pistachio curry is full of flavours I now love, and which Auntie Kath and my Mum never even got to try, like coriander and cardamom. Speaking of which:

Funnily enough, Hemel Hempstead (where we lived in my spice-free childhood) is close to Berkhamsted, which is where William Cowper was born. He was a poet, and in 1785 wrote:

‘Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.’

Happy Birthday Father Kneipp

I’ll be blunt: Germans have a very hands-on attitude to their health. I will never forget a woman telling me she was fasting, “Oh,” I said, “Do you want to lose weight?” “No,” she answered, “I’m doing it for the bowel.” It was as if her bowel was an annoying neighbour she needed to keep in good humour.

It is absolutely normal for Germans to have all sorts of supplementary health tricks up their sleeve, including various massages, baths and wrappings as well as visits to Salt Grottoes and drinking waters containing special minerals and elements.

One can only hope the bowel appreciates all these efforts.

Many places have been doing this for centuries, and have built an entire industry around the treatments, as well as the ‘Cures’ and rehabs which are often funded by one’s health insurance. Sometimes these towns or cities can add the word ‘Bad’ to their name, meaning ‘Bath’.

Years ago we visited Bad Elster in Saxony, and drank the waters there (they were not delicious, and we were not even more full of vitality afterwards):

The healing waters of Bad Elster – Crown of vitality – The moor mud and mineral spa – Kultur-und Festspielstadt Bad Elster

Such towns feature a ‘Kur Park’, a beautifully planted park where one can gently stroll. If you’re lucky, there will be a bandstand, where you can attend free concerts, readings and performances.

This is the Kurpark Wilhelmshaven, where my husband took a ‘Cure’ some years ago
Kurpark (wilhelmshaven.de)

Anyway, our holidays over the years often included some sort of hiking, and coming down into the valley somewhere in Germany it was not unusual to find a sort of rectangular, tiled basin of cold water at the entrance to a village. You’re supposed to take off your shoes and socks, roll up your trousers and walk through it. It’s good for you. It’s called a ‘Kneipp basin’.

My husband in a Kneipp-Becken in the Sauerland.

And 17 May is the 200th birthday of good old Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest who believed in the healing power of cold water.

Father Kneipp lived and worked in the Allgäu, in Bad Wörishofen. Since then it’s been a centre for his treatments:

True fame in Germany comes in strange ways. Many famous people get a stamp, here’s Sebastian’s:

Sonderbriefmarke zum 200. Geburtstag von Pfarrer Sebastian Kneipp
Sonderbriefmarke zum 200. Geburtstag von Pfarrer Kneipp | BR24

But true fame is only realised when you get your own Playmobil figure.

Excitingly, Sebastian is now part of the Playmobil catalogue. Of course we ordered one immediately, and are impatiently awaiting his arrival, so he can stand on his own platform in our living room, next to Playmobil Martin Luther.

I think I will now go and eat a slice of today’s cake: rhubarb meringue sponge. It will be good for The Stomach.

La douce France

One common mistake my students make is to talk about getting a ‘New kitchen’. When I was first in Germany I couldn’t understand what they meant, as people seemed to do it rather often and I couldn’t imagine all that building work being undertaken so light-heartedly. I quickly realised what they meant was a new fitted kitchen, or built-in kitchen, ‘eine Küche’ in German meaning not just the room, but the appliances and cupboards etc in it. Sometimes I think the ‘new kitchen’ is as much of a status symbol as a car can be.

When we bought this house there was a room which evidently had been a kitchen, in that there was a sink with running water in it, and a place (with chimney) where a range could go. The previous owner, Emil, must have lived spartanically, but as he had lost his home (far to the East) and one of his arms (at Stalingrad), I expect the lack of (for instance) central heating was low on his list of priorities.

Anyway, our very kind and friendly bank manager told us we would need DM20,000 for a fitted kitchen and (not having much money at the time) we looked at each other and said, nope.

I really love to cook and knew what I didn’t need (lots of fancy equipment) and what I wanted ( to look out of the window at the garden while I washed up or stamped out cookies).

And so my clever husband built just the kitchen I wanted:

And I love it, still 25 years later. I can’t tell you how many thousands of meals I have cooked here, often for my students or international colleagues of my lovely husband (including even some from Stuttgart!)

One thing I particularly like is that we have curtains under the shelves rather than doors, and it is always such fun to change these according to the season, or to give the kitchen a new look.

Thanks to Netflix, I’ve been enjoying watching lots of TV series in French recently. I watch with English subtitles, of course, but am agreeably surprised how much I understand. I especially like it when the actors want to express that they are sorry about something, “Je suis désolé!”. It sounds so much sorrier than the English “Sorry.”

Things have been tricky between the UK (more particularly England) and France recently (and I am désolée about that), so in the spirit of the entente cordiale I decided I would like to have a French influence in the kitchen for the next few months.

(Oh dear, fishing was a problem between our countries back then already.)

For various reasons I was thinking about Marie Antoinette recently, and so it was clear that to be French, and summery and countrified, the new kitchen curtains had to be toile de jouy.

There are lots of such toiles to choose from, ( stoffe.de) all sorts of different motifs and colours,

But I lost my heart to this one, so much going on, who could possibly resist?

Jouy-en-Josas is a small town very close to the Palace of Versailles, and in the 18th century Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf set up a factory producing this marvellous fabric. Louis XVI had lifted the ban on importing cotton from India, and Oberkampf used the highest quality cottons and beautiful designs. Marie Antoinette loved the toile, and so it became all the rage.

The fabric was printed using engraved copperplates, a technique invented in Ireland by Francis Nixon in 1752, and (whisper it) such designs had been produced in England before Oberkampf set up his business.

Bromley Hall Pattern Book | Unknown | V&A Explore The Collections (vam.ac.uk)

Oberkampf’s factory produced gorgeous fabrics for 83 years, not only the pastoral scenes but also more than 30,000 floral designs. His designs were so popular they were often copied, and became featured in for wallpaper, ceramics, lampshades and these days even T shirts and pyjamas (Hmmmn….).

Anyway, fortunately my lovely husband has finished pouring over two tons of concrete into the foundations of our greenhouse, and was available for lighter duties:

And as you can see in the header this week, our kitchen has been transformed into the Petit Trianon.

So I will finish now and order myself the matching pyjamas, to wear whilst I dream of la douce France…would it be too much to order matching toile de jouy bedlinen?

Soft Furnishings

Having moved around a lot, and not always having any money to spare, I learned quite early about what I need to make the place I am living in feel like home.

For me this has to do with pictures, lamps, colours, photographs, ornaments, and often in the past had to do with covering up holes in the wall (or broken mirrors) through unusual use of fabrics. And loads of things which are of no value to anyone, yet for us are invaluable.

We all know that tastes are different. My Mum used to moan about ‘heavy dark German furniture’ and I told her I found her magnolia-painted walls boring. I did understand why she insisted on keeping an ancient sofa: it was because my dad had always stretched out on it for forty winks after lunch, the sofa was a connection to him.

It would be hard for me to live in a house like this, but I am sure that I would have it cosy and homey in the shortest of times:

We all want to leave our own imprint on the place we choose to live in. So I sort of understood when I read that the current inhabitants of 10/11Downing Street had redecorated, and brought in new furniture, but…

First, some explanation of the Downing St situation.

The street is named after George Downing, who was (my) Charles II’s ambassador to the Netherlands, helping to cause several wars.

He hired Sir Christopher Wren (as in St Paul’s Cathedral) to design the row of houses which were then cheaply built, on boggy ground.

King George II gave 10 Downing Street to Sir Robert Walpole, who was First Lord of the Treasury at the time, and is considered as Great Britain’s first Prime Minister. Walpole refused to accept the house as a personal gift, asking the king to make it an official residence for him, and future First Lords of the Treasury – Walpole moved in on 22 September 1735.

Find out lots more here:

History of 10 Downing Street – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

And visit some famous rooms here:

Take a tour through the historic rooms of 10 Downing Street – 10 Downing Street — Google Arts & Culture

The British PM also has a country house called “Chequers” (given to the nation in 1921 by Sir Arthur Lee), for the weekend or entertaining guests:

In London, Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street are full of offices and meeting rooms; above, there are separate, private flats for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Traditionally, the PM lived at No.10, the Chancellor in No. 11. This changed when Tony Blair became PM: he and his wife Cherie already had three children, and Chancellor Gordon Brown was a bachelor. As the No. 11 flat was bigger, it made sense to swap, and that’s how it’s been ever since.

As the flat goes with the job, it’s clear that one may need to move out – or in – rather speedily. So there is a (hope you’re sitting down) yearly allowance of 30,000 GBP for each PM, to redecorate the flat to their taste. This wasn’t enough for B. Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds, it seems, and that has caused uproar this week in the UK and beyond. It seems their flat was redecorated using the services of Lulu Lytle:

Lulu Lytle: Who is Carrie Symonds’ favoured interior designer? | Evening Standard

and rumour has it that the soft furnishings – sofas, occasional tables, lamps – and wallpaper at nearly 900 GBP per roll came to a cost of many thousands of pounds more that the 30,000 which was actually available. Oh dear.

Even worse, it seemed that was Ms Symonds especially wanted to get rid of Theresa May’s choice of ‘John Lewis nightmare’ soft furnishings.

John Lewis? John Lewis! My students all know JL very well, thanks to our Christmas tradition of watching UK company Christmas ads. John Lewis is always the funniest, the cutest, the most moving… if I had a euro for every time I had seen tears in my participants’ eyes after watching the John Lewis Christmas ad, I would be buying my own gold wallpaper.

For all those for whom John Lewis furniture is an out-of-reach aspiration, how can this be anything but a slap in the face?

Never mind. Let’s not think about this now. There are so many to choose from, but I would like to share two of my favourite JL Christmas ads, as a sort of mind-cleanser from obscenely expensive furniture.


Have to stop now and go and blow my nose.

On being vaccinated

I remember some lessons extremely fondly, times when I happened to catch the mood and enthusiasm of my students – who can forget, for instance, the time I bought a job lot of Barbie dolls on ebay and took them – with their Kens – together with loads of fabric, rickrack, feathers, sequins, scissors, pins, needles, thread, sellotape and glue to class, and the students (in groups) dressed the dolls as members of the Royal Family attending Harry and Meghan’s wedding?

There were some stunning designs, I can tell you, and when the wedding actually took place we noticed that many of our creations had been spot-on. Happy days.

There were other times when lessons fell absolutely flat, such as the one where I asked each student “What would you save if your house were on fire?” and every single person looked at me as if I were totally bonkers and said, “My papers.”

How continental. Being British, ‘Papers’ never existed in my life. Unlike many of my students, my family never had to flee hundreds of miles, with the grandmother entrusted with a special box containing everybody’s ‘Papers’.

My careless Britishness came to the fore recently when we heard that we could register for the Covid-19 vaccine at our village doctor. All we need do is take along our Impfpass, vaccination record booklet. Real Germans keep this yellow, WHO-approved booklet most carefully. It contains a record of all the vaccinations they have ever had.

When my lovely husband got his out of the file specially designated for such things, he also found the pink certificate (header), stating that as a one-year old baby he had been successfully vaccinated against smallpox. This piece of paper has been carefully kept and filed not only for nearly 70 years but through countless moves and even divorce and re-marriage.

I am obviously the wrong type of German. I did have an Impfpass, when I got vaccinated to go to India in 2002, but even without any moves and no divorces since then, I have no idea where it is. I don’t know where my children’s Impfpass are either, although for several years I could locate the dog’s without too much trouble.

The words ‘vaccine’ and ‘vaccination’ come from Latin vaccinus, from vacca ‘cow’ (because of the early use of the cowpox virus against smallpox).

Here is the story of Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccination:

Since Edward Jenner, vaccines have become part of our everyday life, with many diseases – measles, whooping cough and of course polio more or less banished.

The international race was on at the start of the Corona pandemic to find a vaccine, and in the worry and trouble of the last months it has not always been easy to realise what a tremendous achievement it is that we already have so many vaccines to choose from.

There has been impatience with governments and vaccine companies, and misunderstanding after misunderstanding, sometimes fostered by the same governments and companies, along with journalists who really should have known better.

I am so happy to have discovered the work of Kai Kupferschmidt, a scientific journalist who has become my voice of authority.

I follow him on twitter, and also read his contributions to Science Mag:

Kai Kupferschmidt | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org)

In Germany it began to feel hard to trust that we would really all be vaccinated. It was all so s l o w, vaccine trickling into the federal states. Anyway, this month things suddenly began to speed up, even in Germany. Visiting the Impfdashboard everyday was a cause for joy rather than groans:

COVID-19 Impfdashboard

And last Friday the phone rang and it was our village doctor, offering us appointments: BioNTech on Tuesday for my lovely husband, AstraZeneca on Thursday for me. I ran into the garden (where said husband was pouring more and more concrete into the greenhouse foundations, Chernobyl R Us) to tell him the wonderful news, so excited, so happy, so relieved.

At the same time, I thought of those still waiting, all over the world.

This week, TIME magazine produced a video about the massive new BioNtech plant in Marburg:

And just yesterday the Evoniks company announced their exceptionally fast ramp up of lipids production, a vital ingredient for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine:

Fortunately, I had bought myself a new Impfpass on Amazon, and so, with a feeling of being part of something really momentous, I drove to our doctor’s surgery yesterday and was one of the very many people in their masks, clutching their Impfpass, and got my vaccination.

When I got home, I put my Impfpass (which has special little metal loops for the purpose) into the big white file which also has my birth certificate and German Citizenship papers. And should our house catch fire, we all know what I will be rescuing.

The best foundation

When I first met my lovely husband I wrote to my parents in England to tell them about him. I wrote, “…and he loves visiting open-air museums as much as I do!”

Over the last 28 years we have certainly visited hundreds of such museums, in different parts of Germany but also in many different countries. In the north German museums we often end up in a house which is actually just like ours, and each time I have to pinch myself to realise how lucky we are, that we and our house found each other.

I always find the foundations of these houses both alarming and fascinating: there aren’t any to speak of. The house sits, rather like a table, on large stones.

Hallenhaus – Wikipedia

One reason I find this alarming is that I spent a large part of my childhood in Sunday School singing choruses about what happens to houses (or lives) which are not built on firm foundations.

Zoom forward to this spring, and we came to the idea to have a greenhouse in our garden. Starting by looking at smaller, more simple (and cheaper) versions at Aldi and Lidl, we began to ask ourselves what we wanted this greenhouse for. Growing vegetables? Not really: in the summer here in our village we lock our doors to stop neighbours sneaking in and leaving zucchini on the kitchen table.

We came to the idea we wanted the greenhouse as a place to sit in, to enjoy the winter sun (Oh it would have been lovely in the snow!) and watch the bats and hedgehogs, squirrels and woodpeckers enjoying our garden on summer evenings.

My lovely OH found a company not too far from here which makes greenhouses which have (we think) a rather English flair and before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’ we had ordered the model of our dreams, which will be delivered in June.

Das Gewächshaus Bio-Top t-line mit Fundament
Gewächshaus Bio-Top T-Line aus Glas jetzt günstig bestellen » (hoklartherm.de)

This greenhouse needs what is called in German a ‘Streifenfundament‘, a strip foundation, and the plan was to find a local contractor to do this for us. Many phonecalls later we had to face the reality that nobody had any capacity or desire to this work, and so my not only lovely but noble and talented husband decided he could do it all by himself.

Reader, you would not believe how much concrete is needed for such a foundation. So, the first question is: What is the difference between concrete and cement?

Many years ago we visited New Zealand, and in the north of the south island stayed in a bed and breakfast in a place called Greymouth, where the husband worked at the local cement factory. Of course we were totally fascinated and eagerly accepted his offer of a tour of the facility.

(Because visiting production plants is almost as good as visiting open-air museums.)

So this week, thanks to Click and Collect, my lovely husband could be spotted with his car and trailer fetching sack after sack after sack of cement. He had already dug out the foundation and prepared the wooden cladding.

I get to do the fun parts of all this, which are to think about the decorations and colour schemes; at some stage in the discussions one of us said out loud what fun it would be to have a chaise-lounge in there. A fun fact is that in German these are often called récamière, and I found out that this is named after a very beautiful and sophisticated woman, Julie Récamier, who obviously spent a lot of time lounging on one. Juliette Récamier – Wikipedia

By Jacques-Louis David – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150020

I mentioned this vague desire for a chaise-lounge to our daughter-in-law and in a flash she had found such a piece of furniture, up for auction at a local auction house, starting bid €50. In yellow.

Reader, we bought it!

Choosing to know

Sometimes I can’t sleep for regrets. I am so sorry for all the stupid, wrong, thoughtless, unkind things I have done: to my family, my friends, my students, well the world, really, and would give anything to be able to start again, and get things if not right, then better second time around.

I always loved history and always got very good grades in school, and in exams, but now I wonder that the person I was never questioned what she was being taught.

In my English school in 1972 I learned, for instance, that the famine in Ireland was due to the feckless Irish themselves being unwilling to eat anything but potatoes and so when the potatoes got blight, they either starved or emigrated.

Nobody told me that, for instance:


“More than 26 million bushels of grain were exported from Ireland to England in 1845, a “famine” year… nearly 4,000 vessels carrying food left Ireland for ports in England during (1847) while 400,000 Irish men, women and children died of starvation.

Shipping records indicate that 9,992 Irish calves were exported to England during 1847, a 33 percent increase from the previous year. At the same time, more than 4,000 horses and ponies were exported. In fact, the export of all livestock from Ireland to England increased during the famine except for pigs. However, the export of ham and bacon did increase. Other exports from Ireland during the “famine” included peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey and even potatoes.”

And I didn’t ask.

Part of the problem was the system of absentee landlords:

“Absentee landlords were a highly significant issue in the history of Ireland.

During the course of 16th and 17th centuries, most of the land in Ireland was confiscated from Irish Catholic landowners during the Plantations of Ireland and granted to Scottish and English settlers who were members of the established churches (the Church of England and the Church of Ireland at the time); in Ulster, many of the landowners were Scottish Presbyterians.

Seized land was given to Scottish and English nobles and soldiers, some of whom rented it out to the Irish, while they themselves remained residents of Scotland and England. By 1782 the Irish patriot Henry Grattan deplored that some £800,000 was transferred annually to such landlords.”

Absentee landlord – Wikipedia

And no, I wasn’t told about that either, and didn’t think to ask.

While I was learning for my exams, Bloody Sunday was happening in Derry / Londonderry, and none of my teachers thought to talk about it, and I didn’t ask or connect it to what I regurgitated so perfectly in my exam.

Anyway, I was living in England, or Wales, or Germany, or the USA, and Ireland was far away and more or less irrelevant, except when there was an IRA bomb warning in a mainland English city I happened to be in – or the murder of a prominent person: Gordon Fairley in 1975, Airey Neave, Shadow Secretary for Northern Ireland, killed by an Irish National Liberation Army bomb in 1979, and Lord Louis Mountbatten in summer 1979.

I did pay attention to a news item on my birthday, March 1, in 1981. It was that a man named Bobby Sands had started a hunger strike in the Maze Prison in Belfast; he died 66 days later, aged just 27, having been elected as the Member of Parliament (in Westminster) for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on April 9.

This video is produced by Sinn Féin, which is an Irish republican political party dedicated to the reunification of Ireland and an end to British jurisdiction in the north of Ireland.

Ten more young men died on that hunger strike, and even I began to wonder what was going on.

The whole thing is horribly complicated, such terrible deeds on both sides, angers and resentments which were fostered and polished rather than being laid to rest.

There’s certainly a lot to do with religion, and who better than the Derry Girls to tell us about the difference between Catholics and Protestants?

It’s been much quieter in Ireland over the last years, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

I remember the Good Friday Agreement quite clearly, and that is because I had been in England visiting my family. I drove there with my son, in my old blue Honda Civic and stole a traffic cone.

For those who have never been there, Britain is the land of traffic cones, and I wanted one to bring back to show my students. My son and I spotted one lying obviously unwanted in the hedge near where our family lived, and as we drove past every day and saw it still lying there, obviously unwanted, we decided to steal it.

My son was of an age where he had to sit in the back of the car anyway and so we put the cone, which was much bigger and heavier than we had thought, on the front passenger seat and covered it with a blanket.

This was very well until we got to Dover and had to pass through various checkpoints, due to the Good Friday Agreement being signed that day, and all of England on alert for IRA attacks. In life’s embarrassing moments, being caught by an armed policeman trying to smuggle an old traffic cone out of the country is fairly high. (The proud cone made it onto the continent and can be seen in the header as it is today).

I digress.

The Good Friday Agreement was the achievement of many people who should have their own blog posts, among them Mo Mowlam, Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

And the vital importance of Ireland and the United Kingdom both being members of the European Union.

Oh, wait…

Leave voters were told, again and again, that Brexit would cause problems in Ireland. Theresa May understood this, Michel Barnier understood it too. I don’t know if the current British Prime Minister understood: whatever, he didn’t care.

Here he is, drink in his hand, being ‘misleading’, in November 2019:

This week, the Troubles are starting again in Belfast. Loyalists are furious that what they were promised is not reality.

While Belfast is burning (again), the economy crumbling and companies closing due to Brexit and a pandemic, on the day that an important announcement was to be made about the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, where was the current British Prime Minister, we ask ourselves, choosing to know? Oh yes, he was in Cornwall, on one of his many ‘Away Days’.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson answers Cornwall EU fund concerns before going  on cheese tangent - Cornwall Live

Prime Minister Boris Johnson answers Cornwall EU fund concerns before going on cheese tangent – Cornwall Live

Musa Okwonga: ‘Boys don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, it is where they perfect it’ | Books | The Guardian

We know boys, especially Eton boys, just wanna have fun, after all. But don’t think we don’t know.