Number 97

As if it were yesterday, I can remember the very first evening class I taught: what I was wearing, what we did, who the participants were. It was a moment of thinking Gosh, yes, this is what I want to do. What I can do.

I can also remember the moment in 2020 when I realised that there would be no lessons for the foreseeable future, and knew I needed to start this Blog to reach out to my students, not only to help them keep up with their English (I was in the airport in Abu Dhabi, having found out two days before that we could no longer get home from Australia via Changi).

Since March 2020, I have written 96 Blog posts, and along the way gained readers all over the world. I think (hope) I know who is reading in the USA, Canada, Australia and Malaysia, but Ecuador? Ireland? India? Thailand?

Lessons started again in person a few weeks ago. Windows open, CO2 monitors, no group work, no games… I can see that the participants are coming, as they always did, not just to learn English but because they hope to leave the lesson feeling better than they did before. To be honest, I am not sure that is the case right now.

Those of you who subscribe to this Blog may have got a strange notification last week. I hardly slept on Monday night, thinking about my book, and my students, my lessons, and this Blog. What to teach? What to think? What to write?

I came to the realisation that at the moment I have to put all my energy and creativity into my lessons, and decided to put the Blog into hibernation from this week.

The next morning I found I had ideas for my lessons this week (shh! Top Secret!), so that I hope that we all leave the lessons feeling better. Including me.

Thank you all very much for reading. It’s been such fun.

And as we Germans say, “Auf Wiedersehen!”

May be an image of 1 person, outdoors and tree

Who to choose?

Even if I hadn’t known before, a cycle ride for an ice-cream in our local village would leave me in absolutely no doubt that an election is looming. There are election posters and hoardings everywhere you look. We had an election just last week, but that was for our Mayor, and the town and county council. Next week it’s the Big One.

When I first came to Germany I was appalled by the abundance of politics, everywhere. Weekend peak viewing? Political talk shows, where people sit around in armchairs discussing, well, politics. Dinner or coffee with friends? Let’s talk about politics! I found it boring and somehow embarrassing.

I’ve been here so long that I have begun to understand the importance and relevance of a politically-informed population, who know that if you elect a clown you will end up with a circus.

Most citizens of the USA and UK are surprised how limited the power of the German chancellor actually is. Power and responsibility are shared through many layers in the modern German political system, the individual states, called “Länder”, being responsible for some things and the federal government for others.

Here we see, for instance, that in questions of tax & finances, the “Bund” (that’s federal government) is responsible for defence; the “Länder” (states) education and the “Gemeinden” (municipalities) for museums.

Next Sunday, we will have two votes. Our ballot papers will look something like this, although probbaly with far more boxes:

Bundestagswahl 2021. Kurz und knapp

On the left, we vote for a person, a “direct” candidate, who will represent our constituency, on the right we vote for a political party.

Once everyone who wants to has done that, the votes are counted, and then the discussions start.

German politics is built on compromise, consensus and coalition and it may take many months until coalition partners, and the resulting policies have been agreed. There’s even a special word in German for this process: “sondieren”.

We expect the number of seats in the Bundestag to increase.

Whatever happens, and however many members of parliament there are, the era of Angela Merkel has come to an end.

I think we will miss her, not least because we knew we could count on her not to embarrass us in public.

(Yes, I know it’s in French, but it’s really good AND has English subtitles.)

I’m crossing my fingers for the candidates and parties I support, but most I’m crossing my fingers for a big voter turnout.

It’s a shame to take the right to vote for granted.

Planting forward

In autumn some years ago my daughter (already on Borneo) was ill enough to have to go to hospital. I remember the panic of serious illness happening to someone I love, and that she was so far away made it seem much worse. I felt so helpless, so I did what I always do when feeling desperate: I went into the garden.

As it was autumn I had plenty of bulbs to plant and as I put each one into the earth, I thought to myself “By the time this flowers, everything will be absolutely fine again.” (It was.)

Some really kind people recently gave me a voucher for a local garden centre, as one of them said “Maybe for bulbs…” and so last week I zipped off and filled my trolley, as you can see in the header.

We moved to the Isles of Scilly in January 1969. It was stormy in a way I had never known before: gales and driving rain, but mild and warm. This weather is the basis for one of the islands’ main industries: growing early narcissi:

They have the most beautiful, heady perfume, and in those first weeks on St Mary’s when we lived in a holiday flat, my mum filled the house with bunches of “sols” (soleil d’or). Those blooms which for some reason had not left the island were left in buckets outside the Post Office for everyone to help themselves.

It is such fun to try and find exactly the right bulb for the right situation in the garden. I well remember the triumphant moment a few years back when the male pheasant who comes to feed in our garden managed to stand exactly next to the”pheasant’s eye” bulbs I had planted.

As you can see from my shopping trolley, this year I will be planting bulbs for a wildflower meadow, and Rembrandt tulips around Haus Ferdinand.

Tulips just love long, cold winters and so do very well indeed here. They are so showy, so exotic, the Freddie Mercury of the garden world, and I have grown to love them.

A bulb itself is such an unassuming, plain sort of thing. Planting bulbs in autumn feels like an investment and belief in the future: planting forward.

When I was about five years old, I played the role of a snowdrop at a church service. I had a green crepe paper collar tied around my neck and had to start kneeling down, and then “grow” up into a snowdrop. Whilst singing. I remember the lyrics (written by Annie Matheson, 1853 -1924) as if it were yesterday, and found the very song on youtube:

“It’s rather dark in the earth today,”
said one little bulb to its brother,
“But I thought that I felt a sunbeam’s ray.
We must strive and grow ‘til we find our way!”
and they nestled close to each other.
They struggled and strived by day and by night,
‘til two little snowdrops in green and white
rose out of the darkness and into the light;
and softly kissed one another.

(Another girl, called Janet, was also dressed as a snowdrop, and sang and grew with me but I am sure I was the Chief Snowdrop.)

Germans say: “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude“, which means (roughly) “Anticipation is the greatest joy”. That in turn reminds me of the Inuit word “Iktsuarpok” which describes how you feel when you are waiting for someone you love to arrive, and you can’t stop running to the door to see if they are already in sight.

That will be me, next spring.

Perle des Nordens or: how I learned to love margarine.



It has (mostly) been such fun, the last 40 years, teaching English to German adults. I learned so much from them all, and entered worlds I had never even imagined – among others the surprising world of margarine.

We only ever spread butter on our bread, when I lived with my parents, and it was always Anchor butter from New Zealand. That yellow saltiness piled onto toast, or a potato or fresh crusty bread was my favourite foodstuff for many years.

A small revolution occured in our fridge in the 1980s with the introduction of the ‘All in one sponge cake’, which used soft margarine, from a tub:

But for most of my life I snobbishly thought margarine was an inferior product.

How margarine is actually made was one of the many things I had never thought about until the day some years ago when I drove to a nearby town to teach English at a company now called CSM. Margarines – including many famous brands – have been produced there since 1910.

Margarine was invented in 1869 by Hippolyte Mège Mouriès, a French food research chemist, in response to Napoleon III’s request for a wholesome butter alternative. Mège Mouriès solidified purified fat, after which the resulting substance was pressed in a thin cloth that formed stearine and discharged oil. For the new product, Mège Mouriès used margaric acid, a fatty acid component isolated in 1813 by the Frenchman Michel Eugène Chevreul. Analyzing the fatty acids that are the building blocks of fats, he singled out one and named it margaric acid, because of the lustrous pearly drops that reminded him of the Greek word for pearls i.e. margarites or margaron.

The modern margarines and fats produced at the factory in Delmenhorst are intricate, sophisticated products especially created for specific purposes and supplied to bakers and food producers all over the world, and every week my students updated me on their latest projects, the challenges and successes. Others at the company develop innovative toppings, coatings, fillings and all those other delicious extras, many of which are used in the neighbouring bakery products factory, which houses the biggest doughnut line in Europe.

I loved listening to what they had to tell me every week. But then came Corona, and then came my decision to have a sabbatical.

Last weekend, for the first time in a year, I met up with some of my CSM students. It was wonderful. Although their company has changed, they haven’t: still passionate about their work, and the ingredients they develop for us all. I could hardly sleep after it: my mind whirring about the mysteries and miracles of margarine.

A penguin of one’s own

I was already teaching eager Germans to speak English when I met my lovely husband. I knew what I was doing from the language and teaching point of view, but was sadly ragged when it came to the presentation of my materials, or knowing how to swim in the ocean of German business life. The second thing he did, after showing me how to make my copies much more professional, was to tell me I ought to have a logo, what would I choose?

Hmmn, well… many years previously I had bought this poster:

The penguin in the top left, in the yellow pullover, reminded me of how my dad looked in a pullover I had knitted him for Christmas years before. I loved the silliness of the painting, and so said, à propos of nothing really, that I would have penguins as my logo, and the die was cast.

Since then I have collected penguins, been given penguins, thrown cuddly toy penguins around classrooms encouraging my participants to speak. My students have dressed in penguin suits, brought me penguin clocks/ornaments/hats/candles/thermometers/pullovers etc etc from their holidays – it’s all been great.

Last year I told all my groups that I was planning to take 2021 as a sabbatical, to write a book. They were all so lovely, and supportive and excited for me – although we knew we would all miss our lessons.

Two groups from the Fraunhofer Institute in Bremen clubbed together and gave me a marvellous surprise Goodbye present – as you can see from the header, thanks to them I became the proud sponsor of a Humboldt penguin at the Zoo am Meer in Bremerhaven. I was thrilled. And even more thrilled when, a few weeks ago, an invitation arrived to a Sponsor’s evening, where I could meet my penguin, chat to his/her keeper (hard to tell with penguins) and then enjoy a sausage and a glass of wine at the Zoo.

Humboldt penguins are named after the cold sea current that runs along the west coast of South America from Chile to Peru – which was in turn named after the explorer Alexander von Humbold:

We zipped up the motorway yesterday evening, and had time for a blustery walk along the dyke to the North Sea before the Sponsors’ evening started.

Then, off to the Zoo:

We marvelled, watching the seals and polar bears underwater, observed the Kea enclosure, spotted Malaysian chickens, and mountain lions.

Most importantly, we learned a whole lot about my penguin from their keeper, and had plenty of time to visit with him. (I’m sure it’s a boy.)

Afterwards we went up on the terrace looking over the North Sea and ate our sausages and drank our drinks.

The Zoo’s 24 penguins (some of which are at least 39 years old) were already settling down for the night in their caves when we left.

It was a beautiful evening and a very special treat for us, so thank you to the Zoo am Meer for organising the event, and for taking such good care of their animals, and of course to my dear students… hmmmn, maybe you can invite the penguins to visit the Institure? I’m sure they’d love it!

Ordnung ist das halbe Leben*

It was our wedding anniversary last week. As one British message said, “19 years and your patio is still intact” (i.e. neither of us has murdered the other and buried them under our terrace, which many British people call a patio – it’s a Spanish word which originally meant an interior courtyard.)

Living together is full of pitfalls, especially for partners who come from different cultures and think in different languages, and one of the cultural differences which nearly landed me under our patio was my British ignorance of the importance of the Leitz Ordner.

A million years ago I taught English at a very famous German car company. I parked my car in their own multi-storey carpark, fascinated and perplexed by the slogan on the wheelie bins which stood on each floor:

“Ordnung + Sauberkeit = Qualität”

(Order + cleanliness = quality.)

Somewhere along the way of those 19 years in a Teutonic marriage, I began to see how convenient it was when one could find exactly that piece of paper, that document, that invoice or that international vaccination certification in an instant. My immediate family had never been able to do that, in fact my father once threw an envelope containing one hundred pounds of school funds (in bank notes) on the fire, by mistake. Of course he repaid the money, but – if only he had had a Leitz Ordner!

Germany was an exciting place to be in 1871, everything was booming including industrialisation and bureaucracy. Within a short time there were millions of important pieces of paper fluttering around the Reich, which all needed to be organised. Up stepped Louis Leitz, who founded a “Werkstätte zur Herstellung von Metallteilen für Ordnungsmittel” ( Workshop for production of metal parts for organisation) that very year.

Bauprojekte in Stuttgart-Feuerbach: Das Leitz-Areal soll mit Leben gefüllt  werden - Feuerbach - Stuttgarter Zeitung

At the beginning, the Leitz Ordner was an arrangement whereby paper was simply spiked in a file. The lever mechanism was added in 1893. 1911 saw the the handy hole in the spine being integrated, making it much easier to pull a file off a shelf, and Bob was their uncle.

Eines der ersten Leitzplakate um 1900. Abbildung: Leitz

The hole punch had been patented by Friedrich Soennecken in November 1886.

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres alt-Attribut; sein Dateiname ist soennecken-p-locher_drucker-1024x760.jpg.

Leitz started production in 1892:

Dieses Bild hat ein leeres alt-Attribut; sein Dateiname ist cbt21903_oth_web_first_punch_195x208_v1.jpg.

And has been making improvements and developments in organising papers and offices and departments ever since. Germany loves being organised, and after all these years I have begun to see that maybe those wheelie bins had a point.

This year, we actually got each other anniversary presents.

My husband gave me a bottle of gin.

My presents to him?

Chacun à son goût, so to speak.

*Ordnung ist das halbe Leben is a German saying, literally ‘Order is half of life.’ Other translations include “Tidy house, tidy mind” and ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness.” But I think it’s one of the idions which should be classed as incomprehensible to non-Germans.

You shall have a salmon…

Somehow, it was always clear that if my children went to university, it would be in the UK. It must have been a dreadful culture shock for both of them, because I had indoctrinated them with a view of the country as I knew it when last living there, which was 1977. It must have been a sort of reverse Life on Mars.

Anyway, in autumn 1998 off my daughter went, to study marine biology in Hull. There was no WhatsApp or FB in those days, but I was so happy for her to be jumping with both feet into the wider world (little did I know).

In 2001 she and her friend – and fellow marine biologist – Josie decided to come and spend Easter with us. We drove to Hoek van Holland to fetch them from the ferry. Stopping for a break on the way home Josie ordered a cup of tea. I will never, ever forget her face when the Dutch waitress brought a glass mug of hottish water, an envelope with some sort of teabag lying next to it on the tray.

We, and our friends here, so enjoyed that visit. It was a delight showing Josie our lovely city. We drove with the two of them to the Harz mountains, and rode in the cable car up with the Hexentanzplatz.

During that visit, they painted our bathroom door, which you can see as this week’s header. That door is still one of the most precious things in our house.

Then off they went back to Hull, and after getting their degrees their lives took different paths. Both of them still love their science, the oceans and their fish and molluscs.

My daughter – after stages in India, on the Atlantic and in Ireland, ended up on Borneo:

And a few years ago Josie buzzed off to South Africa, where she works at the South Africa Institute for Biodiversity. She tells me it’s funded by the National Research Foundation ( the South African Government), and celebrated its 50th Birthday as an institute in 2019.

From Josie:

“SAIAB isn’t based near the sea which confuses people but the reason why it’s where it is is because JLB smith the man who described the Coelacanth was a prof at Rhodes University which is our neighbour…

“My primary research at SAIAB is an investigation into the biology and impacts of common carp Cyprinus carpio in South Africa. I am carrying out life-history assessments and field surveys to determine biology, abundance and impacts, and I am using stable isotope analysis to look at trophic interactions with native fishes, plants and invertebrates. In addition I am examining the value of carp as a food and sport fish.”

Here she is:

Thanks to facebook I see that she and her students are offering five-minute talks, “Showcasing the freshwater enviroment”:

Here is Episode one, you will need to brush up your SiLozi, which (Josie tells me) is one of the 72 languages of Zambia!

Just in case you’re wondering about the title this week, here you are. For everyone who cares about fish, and fishermen:

Insect of the week

How I laughed last week during an online session with one of my VHS groups.

The VHS is the Volkshochschule, the German institution which is in charge of organising adult education all over the country. People who have something to teach – whether it’s English, or pottery, or babysitting, or IT, or yoga – offer a course and hopefully lots of participants join up. You can also attend classes to achieve high school or professional credits. Or you can learn to read. The charges are modest and to be honest the pay is too, but I have taught for the VHS since the 1980s and cannot put a finanical value on the wonderful people I have met and the personal stories I have been privileged to hear.

(Honesty compels me to mention that our VHS does not offer welding courses, much to the chagrin of my husband.)

It looks as if we will be meeting in person again in September, and so I asked this group what they had liked most about our lessons, pre-Corona. Several participants said they liked that the lesson is unstructured and has no concept.

Ha! If only they knew.

When I trained to be a teacher, a million years ago, we had very strict and clear rules about lesson planning, which I have stuck to ever since. I was always proud that I neither overran nor ran out of material during the 90-minute session. I knew that structure, rituals and patterns were vital; I always finished by saying,

“Well, that’s all we have time for today. Thank you for coming and look forward to seeing you next week.”

Years ago, I read that a teacher should imagine every student entering the room is carrying a rucksack. In that rucksack are all the things which have happened to them that day, good and bad. They have to be helped to remove the rucksack before they can open themselves to the subject you are teaching: in my case, English. (Although I remember my father, who was also a teacher, being asked what he taught. His answer was ‘Children!’)

Some years ago I began to start every lesson with a short “….of the week”. First we had King or Queen of the week. Henry VIII, Queen Victoria etc. It was a roaring success and when we had finished, the students begged for more. So we had Prince and Princess of the week. Then Prime Minister of the week. UK county of the week. Famous scientist of the week. US state of the week. I was beginning to scrape the barrel when I came to the idea of “Insect of the week”.

This was far more interesting than one might think. Who knew that ladybirds fight off enemies using excretions from their knees? Or that there are 1,700 species of earwig worldwide? That aphids may be born already pregnant!!!!!

Anyway, insect of the week at home this week is the caterpillar, more specifically this one,

dozens of which are eating my nasturtiums, as the header shows. It’s hard to be angry with them, as they will become cabbage white butterflies.

When I lie on my recamière in Haus Ferdinand in the afternoon, cabbage whites (and other butterflies) flutter in and out. Sometimes they come and alight on my book. It is as if we are in a space which belongs to both of us, and we look at each other for a while and then the butterfly flies back out again, to the nettles and buddleia and, well, nasturtiums.

They’re welcome!

For those in peril on the sea

Just as in our rural village we know that the members of volunteer fire brigade will drop whatever they are doing and rush to help when they hear the sirens, the people I used to know on the Scillies listened for the sound of the lifeboat maroon, counted the number of booms and knew that the men (it was only men at that time) of the island would be launching the lifeboat, often into dangerous seas, hoping to rescue people in peril.

Here’s the St Mary’s lifeboat assisting a lone French sailor:

Every year the island churches held a special Lifeboat Service. I’ve found a recent video and gosh, I recognise some of those people!

There are lifeboats all around the British Isles, part of the organisation called the RNLI – the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. This was founded as the “Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck” (King George IV granting the ‘Royal’ prefix) in London in 1824 by Sir William Hillary. In 1854 it became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

RNLI Station Map | davidsberry

Today’s header shows Grace Darling, an early heroine of rescue at sea.

Britain, or maybe England, has become a strange place, one which I don’t recognise of late. It feels as if those who shout loudest, saying the most hateful things, have taken over – often led by a man whose name I refuse to type. This person, having achieved Brexit (partly by drumming up hatred against EU citizens), is now a sort of pathetic rebel without a cause and has decided to turn his attention to asylum seekers crossing the English channel by boat – the numbers of which have increased recently. These boats – mostly rubber dinghies in bad repair, loaded with too many people – sometimes come into difficulties in the channel and, of course, the RNLI goes out and saves the passengers from drowning.

The frog-like person now has his own TV show on the new right-wing British TV channel GBTV and took the opportunity this week to blast the RNLI for acting as a ‘taxi service’ for migrants. This led to RNLI volunteers being verbally abused by members of the public, and some RNLI supporters withdrawing their support.

The RNLI fought back:

Actually, they didn’t need to. The country had their back, and within 24 hours the RNLI had seen an increase of over 2,000% in donations, including long-term covenants and flocks of new volunteers. This cheered my heart.

The maroons are a thing of the past; lifeboat crew are now alerted differently, but I am remembering one Sunday evening at church on St Mary’s many years ago when, towards the end of the service, the maroons went off. There were several lifeboat men in the congregation and without any fuss at all they just left their places in the pews to go to the slip and launch the lifeboat. I don’t remember which hymn we should have been singing to close the service, but Reverend Adams – looking up at my father, who was the church organist – said:

“We’ll close this evening with hymn number 933”; we all knew which one that was:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.”

Find out more about the RNLI:

RNLI – Royal National Lifeboat Institution – Saving Lives at Sea

St Marys Lifeboat Station – RNLI Lifeboat Stations

Climbing every mountain

Picture the scene: it’s a hot afternoon in August 1965. Little Carys and her parents are spending the holidays – as so often – with the Welsh grandparents, and one afternoon decide to go to the cinema. The film showing is The Sound of Music, and little Carys, always easily moved, is blown away by the movie and in an instant becomes Maria (or Julie Andrews), and liable to fall in love with any passing German-speaker. Ahem.

After the film has finished, little Carys and her mother meet Carys’ father for tea in a nearby café. He has chosen to watch ‘Von Ryan’s Express’.

Carys, who is nine years old, is a quivering heap of emotion. She cannot stop crying. Yet her parents want her to choose something from the menu. She can’t, for snivelling.

“Seen The Sound of Music?” The waitress was kind and understanding. “It takes some of them like that…”

Carys’ parents order her egg on toast. If she had liked egg before, that was the moment when she started hating it.

Anyway. Here’s one of the songs from the film:

I used up all my holiday money to buy myself the LP, and within a few hours knew every song off by heart. I didn’t have a dirndl and had never seen a mountain, but in my heart I was Maria/Julie. The song “My favourite things” has the line “Crisp apple strudels” and I am sure that I had no idea at that time what a strudel was.

Fast forward many years and I have actually managed to marry a German and spend my life surrounded by my favourite things (although strictly no kittens), and so decided, as one does, to make a strudel.

My strudel used cherries rather than apples, and when it came out of the oven it was many things, but crisp was not one of them. It didn’t look like any strudel I had ever seen.

It tasted much better than it looks.

I do have a dirndl now, in fact wore one for our wedding, but have yet to climb a mountain, and to be honest don’t really want to. But when I rewatch the film – which still moves me every time – I see those outfits the von Trapps wear to climb their mountain and now have the feeling my husband may be upstairs weaving me such a cape as I type…

PS: This week’s header shows Prof. Bhaer, the one Jo marries in Little Women. Another German I loved from an early age…

Houghton AC85.Aℓ194L.1869 pt.2aa – Little Women, vol 2, illustration 142 – Little Women (Roman) – Wikipedia