Frau Bienkowski’s cousin

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t heard from her cousin in a while. As far as she knows though, she’s still living independently. The evidence comes from an acquaintance who passed by the house and noted that her name was still on the doorbell.

“Perhaps she just no longer answers the phone,” Frau B says.

The woman in question is about the same age as Frau B. In the family photograph that hangs on the wall, they are both little girls. They are sitting next to each other, in fancy dresses and buckled shoes. Frau B sports a short haircut, while her cousin boasts a mass of curls.

“My cousin always thought she was better than everyone,” Frau B tells me. “More intelligent, more beautiful; you name it.” “Even as a child, she had nicer dresses than me. I was jealous of her.

“I still remember, we were on a family outing once. We were about nine at the time. My cousin was wearing a beautiful dress, with short puffy sleeves. I’d never seen anything like it. The road we were walking on was being re-done. My cousin picked up some tiny balls of damp concrete, and rolled them around in her hands. Her mother told her to get rid of them. I guess she didn’t know where to put them. So, do you know what she did?”

“What?”

“She placed them inside the puffy sleeves of her special dress! I thought it was a bad idea but I didn’t say anything. Of course, the concrete melted and the sleeves were ruined. Her mother gave her a thrashing. But do you know what I did?”

“Go on..”

“I laughed. I laughed because she was getting a beating and not me. I was mean. Her mother said she’d beat me too if I didn’t stop laughing. That kind of thing was allowed back then.”

“What became of your cousin?”

“Well, she was single until late in life. No man was ever good enough for her. But she was widely admired for her looks. Men always gazed at her. My husband too.. he was no angel when it came to that kind of thing.

“There was one man in particular, a civil servant, who lived in her building and who liked her very much. He had a wife though. My cousin would never have contemplated going near him. But then, when my cousin was in her early fifties, his wife died of cancer. At the time, it was customary to spend a year mourning a spouse before moving on.

“A couple of months after his wife’s death, the civil servant sent my cousin a letter containing an offer of marriage. He explained that he had long been an admirer of hers. My cousin came to me for advice. I asked her whether she thought he was a decent person. She said she did. I told her that was enough. Attraction might come later. But at the end of the day, it was she, not me, who would be marrying him. I did warn her though. As a newly widowed civil servant, he would be in high demand. If she dallied too long, she might miss her chance.”

“So, what did she do?”

“She wrote back and said yes. He didn’t even wait out the full year before marrying her.”

“And did they have a happy marriage?”

“Like you wouldn’t believe!” says Frau B.“He lived to be in his nineties and she’s still going. “I do wonder what happened to the dress though. Perhaps it could have been salvaged, if they’d just cut off the sleeves.”

Frau Bienkowski on contentment

“Frau Reiter can be so mean,” said Frau Bienkowski. “At lunch earlier, I was trying to take my pill but missed and dropped it on my lap. Frau Reiter saw what happened and piped up,  ‘That never happens to me! You don’t even know how to take a pill!'”

One of Frau B and my favourite books. Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

One of Frau B and my favourite books. Image source: Wiki Commons (c) H.-P.Haack

“It’s not even true,” continued Frau B. “I’ve seen it happen to her too. Once she dropped her pill and we found it later at the back of her seat..”

“She sounds like a very discontented person,” I said. “Maybe she’s jealous of you.”

“I think you’re right,” said Frau B. “Jealousy is a real issue here, particularly among the women. Frau Reiter is exactly the same age as me. She uses a horribly dismissive gesture when she’s talking to me. She sort of waves her hand in front of my face and says ‘Ach, what do you know?'”

“That’s nasty. I think it’s wonderful how nice and friendly you are even when other residents treat you like that.”

“The thing is Katechen – I’m contented. Even though six years is too long to be here and I really should have died by now, I’m not dissatisfied.”

“I think that’s part of what keeps you in such good health.”

“Perhaps. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things that aren’t ideal. For one, I don’t even have a spoon to my name here. I had such lovely things at home. So much beautiful silver. But I cleared everything out before I came here.”

(Frau B has often lamented that she didn’t get to know me in time to give me all her stuff.)

“I think your contentment is wonderful. Some people spend their whole lives searching and never find it.”

She paused, then nodded. “Yes. And it’s not their fault that they don’t.”

The not-so-secret gardener

A year ago I declared myself an insufferably smug gardener. After a punishing winter which saw most of my plants die, I’m now ready to gloat once again about what’s sprouting on my tiny, north-facing balcony. This spring, my prime focus has been on planting supermarket vegetables that have passed their peak. A few weeks ago, I plopped a wrinkly potato that had already begun to sprout into a pot of earth. It took a while for it to do anything but now it looks like this:

potato

All I did was plant a wrinkly, sprouting potato!

I did the same with an onion:

Looks like a second onion is sprouting!

Looks like a second onion is sprouting!

And in an ongoing experiment I’m very excited about, I cut a stem off a basil plant and placed it in a glass of water on my kitchen window sill. For weeks, it did nothing. Then one day, I walked into the kitchen and let out a little shriek. Just like the Internet had promised, it had begun to grow roots. In a few days, I’ll transfer it into a pot of earth and hopefully end up with a whole new basil plant. Isn’t nature wonderful?

You can also grow more scallions by placing the roots in water!!

You can also grow more scallions by placing the roots in water!!

Look - roots!! The same doesn't seem to apply to parsley... but who knows? The experiment is ongoing.

Look – roots!!

My gardening ambitions far exceed the confines of my tiny balcony. As a result, I’ve resorted to piling beer crates on top of each other to increase real estate. I feel a bit like a greedy property developer building high-rises on a tiny patch of land. Partial as he is to a Weissbier though, LSB has been most helpful in providing me with construction material.

So despite an acute lack space, I have been unable to resist planting the pumpkin seeds I impulse-bought. Nor have I managed to refrain from purchasing gooseberry, raspberry and red currant plants. Sure, I might be turning into a mad gardening lady. But the great thing about this habit is that when you feed it, it feeds you back. Can’t say the same thing about other cool habits.  Like drinking, smoking, gambling or crocheting. pumpkinbalkon

My new favourite social network

It’s called Ideapod and combines some of my favourite things: ideas, people from all over the world, and succinct writing.

The concept is pretty simple. You have 1000 characters to present your idea. (You can also use videos, graphics or images). People can share their thoughts in the comments section and link related ideas. The ultimate aim is to enable people to collaborate to implement some of them in real-life.

In a recent blog post, Richard Branson said Ideapod “can only increase the chances of society coming up with more game changing concepts.”

Ideapod results in a network of thought-provoking, easily digestible and thematically linked posts – some of which actually contain some pretty good ideas about how to make the world a better place.

For the moment, I’m going to be writing my “big idea” posts on Ideapod. (The 1000-character limit is so much more appealing right now than the idea of writing a whole blog post!) For those of you who don’t feel like joining up, I’ll be posting links to the pieces in the “Big Ideas” section.

Happy Friday! I’ll be back to conventional blogging soon! :)

That middle-class guilt at the recycling centre

I can’t seem to make it all the way to the recycling centre in Charlottenburg.

The first time I tried I was carrying a broken television. Like all people who ferry things in the belief they are personally curtailing the effects of global warming, I was feeling pretty smug.

But as I approached the centre, I was accosted by a teenage boy.

“Are you dumping that TV?” he asked.

“Yes!” “Can I have it?”

“Unfortunately it’s broken.” “That’s okay. I’d still like it!”

“Well, sure,” I said brightly, handing it over, pleased not to have to lug it the final few meters to the entrance.

Some weeks later, I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to question my smugness.

It was all because of a report produced by one of my colleagues about how German electronic waste (even that brought to recycling centres) often ends up in scrap heaps in Africa. The workers there endure hazardous conditions sifting through the rubble, all while breathing in dangerous fumes produced by burning metals.

The protagonist

The protagonist

(You can watch that report here: Dumped in Africa: The final journey of a TV )

My second attempt to make it to the recycle centre took place this morning. This time, I had a broken Hoover in tow.

I’d inherited it from the previous occupant of my flat but decided its time had come when it began emitting smoke. I pulled it by its nozzle all the way down Schlossstrasse, attracting the bemused interest of passers-by.

As I turned into the street where the recycling centre’s located, I was approached once again by a teenage boy, possibly the same one.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you dumping that vacuum cleaner?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it’s broken.”

“That’s no problem,” he said. “I’d still like it.”

“What do you want it for?” I asked.

“To send to my people in Bosnia. There is lots of poverty there.”

“What are they going to do with a broken Hoover?”

“The people there are very poor. They will find a use.”

“In principle, I don’t mind giving you my broken vacuum cleaner,” I said. “But what I don’t want is for it to end up being transported to a scrap heap in Africa.”

Um Himmels Willen, nein!” he said, not without irony. I think we both realised that I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

I thought about what a truly ethical person would do in this situation. Even I knew that the chances of the broken TV bringing a glimmer of hope to the impoverished in Bosnia was slim to none.

I could have refused to hand it over, gone into the centre to enquire about the kids hanging about outside and demanded to be informed  of the fate of a conventionally dumped Hoover.

But I didn’t want to be that person. I tried to justify my inertia by thinking about all the potentially criminal things other teenagers not at school could be up to.

Hanging around outside a recycling centre soliciting passers-by dumping their used electronics didn’t seem to be the worst way for teenagers to spend their time.

So I handed my vacuum cleaner over and toddled home, feeling that oh-so-familiar blend of middle class guilt and inertia.

Three socially awkward situations we urgently need to address

1. Sneezes that happen in quick succession

Or more specifically, how to acknowledge them. We’ve all been there: you’re in the office and a colleague sneezes. There’s a chorus of “Bless Yous” or “Gesundheits.” Then they sneeze again. Half of the original well-wishers say “Bless You” again. This time though, it’s a little less enthusiastic. By the third Achoo, the afflicted is lucky if they’re acknowledged at all.

Here’s the question – what is the appropriate way to respond to continuous sneezing? Do multiple well-wishes draw undue attention to the sneezer? Do they feel maligned if you pretend you didn’t hear their second, third and fourth outbursts?

This needs to resolved as soon as possible.

2. Giving up your seat on public transport

I’ve had women I thought were old snap at me for offering them my seat and I’ve been glared at by those I deemed not yet to have passed the giving-up-your-seat threshold. I’ve felt the sharp sting of guilt when the person next to me successfully gave up their seat to someone I was on the fence about. I am at an utter loss as to the appropriate behaviour.

Please, someone, put me out of my misery.

3. Holding doors open: a question of duration

Look, I’m not the only one who worries about this. This cartoon I found on Reddit  says it all. Where is the line between being a nice person holding the door and a nasty person playing mind games? I mean that absolutely literally. How many meters away from the door is a-okay?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Buckthorn. Nothing but buckthorn.

We arrived in Rambin famished so as soon as we’d parked our bikes and dumped our bags, we set out in search of food.

Our holiday cottage was located on Hauptstrasse, or “Main Road.”

Such terms are, of course, relative.

The street did boast a bakery, which was shut when we arrived and appeared to sell little more than herring sandwiches anyway.

The other option was the farmers’ market a few doors down.  LSB and I had been hoping for a hearty meal to round off our day of travel misadventure with Deutsche Bahn.

Housed in an expansive building with traditional roofbeams, and featuring several aisles of attractively packaged products, it would surely satisfy our needs.

But the more we browsed, the more we encountered the same word: Sanddorn.

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

Buckthorn Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution: Svdmolen http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippophae_rhamnoides-01_(xndr).JPG#file

It was printed on jam jars,  bottles, tins and boxes.

“What is Sanddorn?” I asked.

LSB wasn’t sure either but we agreed that we recognised it from a health-food context and that its properties were generally considered benign.

We didn’t have an Internet connection, so it wasn’t until the next day that we learnt that Sanddorn was in fact: buckthorn – a regional specialty which grows on chalk cliffs and promises to cure all kinds of bodily ailments.

We didn’t exactly fancy a meal of over-priced condiments and sauces  anyway so  we decided to find an alternative eatery.

We’d passed a few signs advertising a “Pirate Restaurant” on the way to Rambin.

We weren’t sure whether it served anything vegetarian but figured it’d be a safe bet for a plate of chips.

The signs led us through a  little row of houses somewhat off the beaten track.

Every few hundred meters we’d encounter another large arrow pointing in the direction of the pirate restaurant.

After walking for about 20 minutes though, we began to suspect we’d gone wrong somewhere.

Then, finally, we spotted another sign.

Nailed to a fence it read: “PIRATE RESTAURANT – 6 KILOMETERS.”

Displeased and with our stomachs growling, we made our way back to the farmers’ market.

That evening, safely ensconced in our cottage on Hauptstrasse, we feasted on a meal of bread and buckthorn mustard.

Stralsund to Rambin: A tour de force

“Do you have a navigation system?” the man behind the desk at Stralsund station asked. I sensed he was beginning to feel sorry for me.

Unsure whether he was referring to the Google maps app or an elaborate set of compasses, I figured “no” was the safer bet.

“Leider nicht.”

He sighed.

“You need to take a right when you leave the station,and another when you get to the crossroads. Eventually, you will reach two bridges. The bigger one is quite dangerous for cyclists, so you would be best advised to avoid it.  However, the other might be difficult to navigate too because of the many fishermen who congregate there in the hope of catching herring.

Our route from Stralsund to Rambin

Our route from Stralsund to Rambin

Once you have crossed the bridge, you must take a left turn which will lead you towards a village. After you have passed through it, you will find a cycle path to Rambin. It shouldn’t take much more than an hour or two, though in this wind, who knows?” He paused briefly before continuing cheerfully: “Do feel free to send a complaint to Deutsche Bahn. After all, nothing will change if people don’t complain! Auf Wiedersehen!”

At this point, it is only fair to pay tribute to LSB’s restraint. Despite his protestations earlier that  morning, he did not launch into a “I told you so” speech, nor did he accept my (what I considered very gallant) offer to abandon the bikes at the station and pick them up on our way back from Rambin.

At the same time,he didn’t exactly seem very pleased about the situation.

Nevertheless, we got on our bikes full of resolve to make the sea-crossing as smooth as possible.

After passing through the village of Dänholm, we came to the two bridges the man at the station had told us about.

One look at the scores of trucks whizzing along the top bridge convinced us to follow his advice and take the one below.

And truth be told, it wasn’t half bad, riding along with the wind in our hair, breathing in the Baltic Sea air…

Except that the Baltic Sea air reeked of herring.

Despite the near-freezing conditions, the fishermen really were out in force.

Positioned about a meter apart from each other, with identical buckets of herring by their side, they swept their rods in a giant arc behind them, causing me to swerve more than once to avoid being hit by their hooks.

Once we had crossed the bridge, we followed the signs pointing towards Altefähr which we had learnt was nearby.

This thatched roof was so impressive I got off my bike to see it.

This thatched roof was so impressive I got off my bike to see it.

We got to a cobble-stoned village, full of pretty thatched cottages and trees bearing elaborate displays of hanging Easter eggs.

One thatched roof impressed me so much that I got off my bike to take a picture of it.

When we got to the outskirts of the village, we stopped to consult Google maps once again. An elderly woman walking her dog took pity on us and asked us if she could help.

We told her we were heading to Rambin. Thankfully, she’d heard of it.

“See those windmills in the distance,” she said. “You need to ride all the way to them. Once you get there, turn right – then it’s a cycle path all the way to Rambin.”

I thanked her profusely.

LSB and I had never been so close to windmills before. As we rode past them, we agreed that they really were pretty magnificent.

It is difficult to describe the joy we felt when we finally reached the signpost telling us Rambin was only two kilometres away.

After a day of unexpected exertion, our biggest priority was getting food.

But we soon realised that Rambin is not known for its culinary offerings.

As the hunt for sustenance took over the evening, it became clear that the day’s challenges were far from over.

To be continued

Calling the bicycle hotline: the truth about Ersatzverkehr

A few weeks ago I decided to treat LSB to a weekend away on Rügen (Germany’s largest island) for his birthday. I did a quick Google of accommodation and stumbled upon a nice holiday apartment at an attractive price.

I booked it immediately and told LSB not to worry about a thing; I had this whole trip under control.

Shortly before we were due to leave by train on Friday morning, it occurred to me to bring our bikes.

LSB looked out the rain-splattered window at the black clouds and reminded me that SNOW had been forecast for the weekend.

I told him not to believe everything he saw on TV. (I’m an insider, so he had to listen.)

Next,  he expressed concern about the regulations governing bicycles on trains.

(As you can see, LSB has integrated very well into German society).

Defiant (because I wanted to bring the bikes) and grumpy (because it was morning) I grabbed the phone and called Deutsche Bahn’s Fahrrad (bicycle) hotline.

What – you haven’t heard of it? Rest assured; it exists. An entire service dedicated to urgent enquires about bringing bicycles on German trains.

After waiting on hold for several minutes (evidently they are very busy) I got through to Bicycle Hotline Lady (BHL).

“Where would you like to travel with your bikes?” she asked.20150323_102144[1]

“Rambin.”

“I’m sorry. Where?”

“Rambin.”

“Could you spell that?”

“Sure… R-A-M-B-I-N.”

“Um, okay. I haven’t heard of it. Give me a moment please.”                                                                                                                                                                                                At this point, it may be worth pointing out that I do not have a reputation for consulting maps very carefully.

I chose to stay in this town (“town” is, in fact, a  remarkably generous description) because, unlike Bergen (Rügen’s so-called capital) Rambin is by the sea. Also, the charming holiday apartment there may have been one of the first on the list of Google search results.

Anyway, the BHL told me that although she had not heard of my destination, she was sure the same rules applied as to all other places on the island. Taking the bikes on the train would be no problem though we would have to purchase tickets for them.

Feeling considerably more gruntled, I told LSB the bikes were coming with us.

Several hours later, the four of us were safely installed in a  train compartment. Like a model Deutsche Bahn couple, we cast our glances away from our bicycles only to admire the passing northern German scenery.

We were nearing Stralsund, a few stops away from our destination, when an announcement on the intercom told us that we must get out and avail of Ersatzverkehr (replacement transport) for our onward journey.

We disembarked awkwardly and followed the signs pointing to the Ersatzverkehr.

They led us to a bus outside, where a line of passengers from our train had already formed. Seeing us approach with our bikes, a woman in front of us said: “Boah! Are you going to be let on with those?”
“I’d better be!” I reply. “I have a Fahrrad ticket!”

“My best advice is to flirt with the driver,” she said ruefully, living up to the German reputation for practicality.

I approached him tentatively.

“No bikes,” he said.

“Really?”

“Yes. The plans for Ersatzverkehr have been well publicised in the last few weeks.”

“But what about my Fahrrad ticket?” I asked.

“It does not cover Ersatzverkehr. If you would like to complain to Deutsche Bahn for providing insufficient information, you can contact them via these channels,” he said, slipping me a card.

This flirting thing was not going well.

“There is nothing we can do. This is company policy,” he continued, climbing into the driver’s seat and shutting the door.

It was only when the bus drove off and the wind began to howl that it really hit us.

We were stranded.

And headed for a place no one seemed to have heard of.

To be continued 

Frau B takes on “the modern condition”

“Nice haircut, Frau B!”

She pats the sides of  her head, self-conscious and pleased. “Like it? You’re the only one who bothers to notice.”

There’s a knock on the door. A young woman, slight and dark-haired, sporting a pale green uniform, walks in.

“Julia!” says Frau B. “Now you can finally meet Katechen, my little Iren.”

Julia and I greet each other.

“Julia comes from Spain,” says Frau B. “Don’t you?”

“Yes, ” says Julia and hands us both a cup of coffee.

“She speaks very good German,” Frau B says after she’s left. “She came here because there were no jobs at home. Just like you did!”

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00134 / CC-BY-SA via Wikipedia Creative Commons

We talk about mass unemployment and the effect it has on the political landscape of Europe. Frau B was a child when Germany was in its deepest ever financial crisis.

“1929 and 1930 were the worst years,” she says. Even my father was unemployed for nine months. People said that if he had no work, it meant there really was none.”

“What did he do?”

“He was a precision mechanic. He was very good with his hands.”

“Something you inherited!”

“I sure did. I got his feet too. He had tiny feet, for a man.”

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

Screen grab from Daily Telegraph article of 27 January 2012

She takes a sip of coffee and continues:

“Hitler would never have come to power were it not for unemployment. See, he re-built the army and got people back to work.”

I tell her about Ireland’s Republican party, Sinn Féín, and how they’re currently enjoying a rise in popularity.

We agree that mass unemployment and disillusionment add to the allure of extremism.

Sometime later, when we are done talking about politics, Frau B mentions her grandmother who was born in 1838.

As a child, Frau B would spend long afternoons reading the Bible in her grandmother’s rural home. But it is a detail related to her Oma’s appearance rather than any biblical verse, which has stuck most in Frau B’s mind.

“My grandmother used to be bothered by a few little hairs, which sprouted above her lips. She’d tear at them with her hands until they came out,” she says.

Now Frau B notices a few hairs growing above her lips. “It comes with age,” she says. “I pluck at them when I can’t get to sleep.”

“Some people believe vanity is unique to the modern condition,” says Frau B. “It’s really not.”

As I observe Frau B rearranging her hair-do, and think about the events which led up to the horrors of World War II, I feel both comfort and unease at how relatively small our 70-year age-gap really is.