A stitch in time

The last time I visited Frau Bienkowski I was wearing a red cotton skirt. The pattern featured lots of identical girls and boys holding hands and strolling past apple trees.

“What lovely material,” she said, motioning for me to come over so she could have a closer look.

“Yes, I love it,” I said. “But the problem is that the elastic at the waist has come loose and I’ve got into a terrible habit of tying it into an ugly knot to stop it falling down.”

“Bring it to me next week and I’ll sew it up.”

“Oh no..”

“Do. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be pretty but it’ll do the trick.”

I called my mother on Skype. I was deeply ashamed of my elastic knot. It stood for both incompetence and laziness.

“You should let her do it, Katzi,” my mother said. “I’m sure she’d love to do something for you.”

So last Friday I went to the Turkish market. And as well as purchasing six avocados and three mangos, I bought some elastic and a little sewing kit.

“Did you bring the skirt?” Frau Bienkowski asked the moment I entered her room last Saturday.

“I did. And pears too.”

“Good. Now, let me have a look.”

I handed her the skirt and rummaged in my bag for the sewing kit and the elastic.

“Can you thread me a needle?”

I tried but Frau Bienkowski wanted a double thread.

I tried again.

“Oh but that’s a little too short, Katechen,” she said.

I tried a third time. This time Frau Bienkowski approved.

“Good,” she said. “Now, how about you either read to me or tell me about your week while I get a start on this.”

I could have told her about my week, which was rather eventful, but I got distracted.

Frau B’s hands were flying. She tore out my ugly knot of elastic and started weaving stitches furiously. The waistband was restored in minutes.

Then she asked me to put my finger and thumb on the flap where she’d placed the last stitch and told me to come over to her armchair so she could measure my waist.

Her hands moved the elastic easily about my waist.

With a few marvellous swoops, she sewed it in. She wasn’t even looking at what she was doing. When she saw how astonished I was, she said: “But Katechen, this was my job. You never lose the feel for it.”

My red cotton skirt used to live at the bottom of a large wicker basket. It shared its home with an enormous plastic nose, several berets and a pair of bee’s wings. I used to match it with ugly purple beads when I pretended to be the Queen of England.

Wearing the skirt while inter-railing in the summer of 2009.

Wearing the skirt while inter-railing in the summer of 2009.

With the terrible dawn of adolescence, my dressing-up basket was cast into the bottom of a basement wardrobe.

Years later I re-discovered it and found that the skirt’s loose elastic made it a one-size fits all. The queen’s skirt had turned boho-chic.

I took it with me when I went inter-railing in 2009 because it was light and didn’t crumple easily. I also fancied myself as some kind of honorary gypsy in it; a fantasy I indulged in while gazing out the windows of the slow trains which hauled me through eastern Europe.

Frau Bienkowsi, her fingers moving like those of a master pianist across a keyboard, broke the silence.

“Katechen,” she said. “I don’t want you to say Sie to me any longer. “I’m not Frau Bienkowski any more. I am Lotta.”

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Let it snow, please let it snow.

It was morning, my least favourite time of day and I was tired. I’d worked until 2 am and was due back in at 10. I was still blurry eyed when I tore open the curtains and was half-way to my dresser-mirror, ready to contemplate the enormous bags that had inevitably festered themselves below my eyes, when I did a double take and let out a tiny squeal.

It was snowing.

I had not seen this coming. Granted, it’s been cold. But given that being cold is my default it would have been a leap to expect snow. I could have checked the weather forecast but with such foresight my life would be entirely without thrills.

I squealed again on the way to the train station and smiled stupidly at strangers, who looked irritated as they battled through the cold.

I sat at a computer beside a window and tried to sound hip as I translated a technology show, known apparently for its ironic tone and trendy catchphrases.

But all I could think about was snow.

Snow is the material which exempts me from adulthood. It is the compound which brings a rush through my body, makes my heart skip and causes me to squeal.

I spent every winter of my childhood in a continued state of daring hope followed by crushing disappointment. I remember vividly rushing into my parents’ bedroom at an ungodly hour to check if it had snowed overnight. I remember the familiar sadness that overcame me as soon as the green of the grass and the bleak black of the sycamore branches in the garden were revealed.

Grown-ups don’t like snow. They say it’s a pain. It causes traffic chaos and turns to sludge.

Two years ago, LSB took me to the Christmas markets in Nurnberg. It was possibly the best move he could have made in our relationship (which would you believe, celebrated its 5th birthday last week; he sent me a card with a crocodile wearing a party hat and blowing out a candle beneath the caption “5 Today”). The snow reached up to our knees and we spent three glorious days drinking mulled wine and hot chocolate laced with amaretto. For those of you nostalgic for my juvenilia, you can read about my experience with the Christmas markets in Regensburg here.

LSB and I at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

LSB and me at the Christmas markets in Nuernberg. That day the snow was not so deep..

By the time I completed my last jazzy sentence for the technology show, the snow had disappeared but the feeling remained. I headed into town and spent the evening wandering around the Christmas markets at Alexander Platz. I treated myself to a little cardboard plate of rosemary potatoes. I even paid an extra 50 cent for Tzatziki. The texture was divine, the rosemary subtle but brilliant. But they were cold.

As I waiting for the underground home, I watched an old woman drinking beer. She was wearing Birkenstock sandals with socks. She had a wide face and a big forehead. She almost looked noble but I suspect in fact that she was very sad.

Why did the three little boys go to the market?

Yesterday LSB and I wandered into a little shop in Crumlin called “Better Value”. It was full of cardboard boxes and handwritten signs in black marker advertising Pringles, Chocolate Chip cookies and washing detergent. It looked like something from a feature film about Ireland in the 1980’s and I liked it very much.

image source: dublin.ratemyarea.com

The man at the counter was tall and thin and had a nice tanned face. He was being bombarded by three little boys, aged about seven. Two had freckles and similar round faces and the third had black eyes and floppy hair. They were hurling questions at the shopkeeper and he said, “Where’s your manners?”

The three boys each bought a bottle of Jones soda. “I’ve never had the blue one!!” said one. Outside, they ripped the wrappers off their bottles and dropped them on the pavement, where they curled up and quivered in the breeze.

image source: compare.productwiki.com

“Are you going to pick that up?” I asked one of the boys with freckles.

“No,” he said loudly. He was defiant and tiny.

I was wearing a black puffy jacket. In it, I was more than twice his size.

“And why not?” I asked him.

“Cause I don’t wanta,” he said.

I told him about dirty streets and the poor people that had to pick things up after litter bugs.

He talked over me to his friends.

LSB was standing a little away from the scene. The boys and I walked towards him.

LSB was wearing headphones.

“Are they beats?” one of the boys shouted at him.

image source :lovefont.blogspot.com

Apparently “beats” are the name of a pair of extortionate headphones produced by American rapper Dr Dre. Harvey Norman sell them for €299.

LSB shook his head.

The three little boys, clutching their bottles of American soda, schooled only in commercialism and brashness, brushed by us in a blur.

On being a creepface

I have the unfortunate habit of staring for long periods of time at strangers I find interesting. Conditions in early childhood encouraged the practice. My bedroom was at the very top of the house facing a busy park and a bus stop. From there I could observe ladies in leggings and ear muffs making their way to the shops and groups of children trying in vain to retrieve shuttlecocks they had misfired into trees.

Sometimes I would sit for so long by the window that I could see the ladies return with their Dunnes Stores shopping bags. It always gave me satisfaction to note the details, like that they’d removed their ear muffs and bought a stick of French bread or two packets of toilet paper.

Some people are interested in living life but I am surprisingly content just to look at it. When I was young, I used to find it fascinating to watch my sister play with her playmobil. She’d set up her toy ambulance, or farmhouse or schoolroom and assign names to each of the playmobil figurines, which she recorded in a special little book which I have preserved for posterity.

She became a scientist; I studied Psychology.

I don’t watch much television because my parents are always watching the Bavarian news or German documentaries about the Pope. When I get the chance though I love to watch people watching television.

My favourite person to watch is my mother.

When she has time, my mother watches sentimental German films, which feature families that seem to making a wholesome livelihood milking cows and running hotels in the Alps, but inwardly battling with deep-seated problems like long-lost loves and corruption in the bovine trade.

In the last thirty minutes of such dramas, my mother’s face changes. As conflicts reach their climax, and true thoughts are expressed, her lips begin to move a little, her eyes grow bigger and she can’t stop the tears that begin to roll one-by-one down her cheeks.

When I turn to look at her, she gets embarrassed and flashes me a sheepish smile. I pretend I haven’t noticed even though she should really know by now that her indiscriminate display of empathy is among the billions of things I admire about her and that her compassion for villagers in complicated love triangles is endearing.

My father’s expression becomes exceptionally benign when he watches trains bounding through glorious British countryside and stuffy antique shows where soft-spoken elderly males evaluate the worth of a 1786 gold-plated pocket watch.

In a domestic context, my bad habit doesn’t get me into too much trouble. Apart from the odd bus passenger sitting on the top deck, whose eye I catch as he’s looking out the window into my bedroom, I seem to keep my creeping quite covert.

It’s different when you’re on the luas though, or taking the bus. That’s a riskier business altogether. There you have to be careful. You see, I find observing people on public transport an indescribabe, insatiable delight. I frequently select my seat on the basis of maximum viewing potential.

The other day a south Dublin boy with a voice several decibels louder than the roar of the engine was making arrangements with his friend on the phone.

“Get us a mixer for tonishe will you”, he yelled. “I’ve got lieke three bottles of vodka but I toshally forgot the OJ in Londis. Ish’s going to be SUCH a laugh tonishe…. Definitely. You’re a star…Definitely. Such a laugh.”

He was speaking with such affectation and lack of self-consciousness that a man at the front of the bus turned around in disgust and stared at him for the duration of his entire conversation, and then again when his friend Lola rang back.

Unfortunately the man who turned had spotted me giggling into my scarf and tried to catch my eye. I didn’t want to catch his eye in case he thought I was only laughing because I wanted to share a special moment with him alone.

Once I was coming home on the last Luas and a group of drunk youngsters were amusing me with their unfathomable babble.

I was the tiniest bit tipsy so my subtlety was at an all-time low. I was caught.

“How are you tonight?” the one sporting a pink shirt with an upturned collar asked me.
“Very well”, I beamed.
“ Where are you from”, he asked.
“Bavaria”.
“Is that in Australia?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful place”
“It is! I love it there”
“People from there are so sound”
“I know, they so are! – Sorry, this is my stop”
“BYE darling! See you in Bavaria!”
“Bye now!”

When I got home, I turned off the bedroom light. As I was closing the curtains, I took a steely glance out at the quiet street below. I saw a couple kissing by the park railings. And I watched a man cycling by, singing to himself.

My scrapes with the violin and the crushes that never go away

When I was young, I learnt to play the violin at the College of Music in Chatham Row, just around the corner from Stephen’s Green. In my later years, it was renamed “The Conservatory” but the Fergusons – staunch Conservatives – continue to refer to it simply as “the College”.

My teacher, a middle-aged eastern European was quirky and sober in equal measure. He was so confident of his methods that he invited parents in to observe his lessons.

Most declined politely: but my mama certainly didn’t. So great was her love for me that every Thursday afternoon for years she endured the hostile scratching of my bow as it glided gracelessly across the four strings to produce sounds that can only be imagined -and excused- when I explain the meaing of: intonation exercises.

Unfortunately the noble purpose of intonation exercises is disguised by their horrendous sound. You see, the thing is: to play violin, you need a pretty good ear. It’s not like piano, where you just bang on a given key to produce a sound. With violin – as with all stringed instruments – you have to find the sound. And in order to do this, you need to be familiar to the very last quarter tone, of the location of each sound on the finger board.

Intonation exercises consist of playing two given notes at once and then slowly, repeadly changing the position of one of your fingers by roughly half a tone up and down to produce a clash which resonates and aims to cement in memory the correct position of your hand. To really make them useful, you have to repeat them over and over and over again….

This level of endurance represents just one of the ways in which my mama is a hero. I could write a pamphlet on her other feats. She deserves at least a series of blogs in her honour.

The best part of Thursdays was right after the violin lesson ended. Mum and I would hurry out into the wind and rain and make ourselves to the newsagent on Camden Street where we treated ourselves to a packet of Sour Cream Hunky Dorey’s each. We kept them in our coat pockets so that we could have a look around the various charity clothes shops on the way home. Sometimes, when mum was looking at blouses in Age Action, I would sneak a crisp or two from her coat pocket, just to be devious.

When we got home, we would have dinner and then get ready for Kommissar Rex. If you know me, you know all about Kommissar Rex. If you don’t you should get informed. Kommissar Rex is a TV series about a detective and his police dog “Rex”, who sleuth around Vienna solving crimes in scenic locations. I’m an enormous fan and the actor that played the detective in my day remains my only celebrity crush. LSB doesn’t like the twinkle that appears in my eye when I talk about Gedeon Burkhard, or indeed the way, when I spotted him playing a minor role in Inglorious Basterds, I nigh jumped from my seat with excitement.

Kommissar Rex is moderately scary and featured a rather disturbing scene of a man trapped in an over-heated sauna which I have never forgotten. When LSB and I were in Vienna, I finally bought the series on dvd. One night, having stocked up on Croatian beer and strawberry cake, we knocked on some Kommissar. I was right back home again, curled up beside my mama, reaping the reward of intonation exercises.

Watching Kommissar in a hostel in Zagreb