We said yes

It was the beginning of August and we were holidaying on the island of Rügen. Again.

Our third year in a row. Our second time staying at Apartmenthouse Anne, located ten minutes away from the beach and run by a straightforward but formidable woman whose disdain for small talk both impressed and alarmed us.

“We’ve become middle-aged,” I told LSB over dinner one night. He already knew. An annual retreat to the Baltic Sea is the hallmark of habits belonging to German couples in their 50s.

“Maybe we should get married,” I suggested.

“Okay,” said LSB.

He was humouring me. In our decade together, we’d had multiple conversations about the institution, most of them featuring grand statements of our indifference. Our relationship defined itself, I would conclude. We didn’t need a ring, or a party, or somebody else’s blessing.

LSB agreed.

But over the past few months, something gravely unnerving had occurred: the idea of marriage was becoming less off-putting.

I couldn’t explain the phenomenon, so whenever anyone asked (which they would, quite often) I would respond in my usual way that marriage was an outdated tradition, which we were in no hurry to embrace.

As my arguments grew in force, so did the suspicion that I was protesting too much.

Restlessness had something to do with it, I suppose.  My career was ticking along solidly but unremarkably, Berlin had become home and LSB and I were embracing the stage of life where spending a Friday night streaming Sabrina the Teenage Witch at home was envy rather than pity-inducing. Amid all this stability, the milestones I’d been conditioned to anticipate from life were becoming more opaque.

swans

Because swans.

Pragmatism played a role too. The bank manager who told me in passing that it’d be easy to buy property with a husband but tricky with a partner had no idea what he was setting in motion.

Add to that the slowly-dawning realisation that if anything were to happen to either of us, the other would be a nobody in the eyes of the law.

By the time dessert came, LSB had raised no objections to my revised attitude.

The topic didn’t come up again until a day or two later, when we were walking along a wilder, stonier part of the beach on the far side of the island.

It was a grey day – the sky a patchwork of ominous clouds ready to erupt.

A family of swans drifted along the shore. Their feathers unruffled by the breeze, they appeared indifferent to the approaching inclemency.

Some couples have a song. Others have a meaningful place, where memories were born.

We have an animal. And it happens to be a swan.

I think LSB invented it but I can’t be sure.

If he did, it was to ward off questions like this:

human swans

human swans

“How do you know you REALLY want to be with me?” I would ask out-of- the-blue, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of insecurity and sometimes fishing for compliments.

I’d remind him that we were young when we met and that he hadn’t really had much opportunity to compare my charms to that of others. “How do I know you’re not just settling out of resignation, or a shortage of initiative?” I would ask, infuriatingly.

LSB would sigh, frustrated and answer: “Because swans.”

Swans: notoriously and unquestioningly monogamous. Unapologetic as they glide along, proudly navigating the world in pairs.

It always shut me up.

“Here,” said LSB, as the sky grew a shade darker and a clap of thunder sounded in the distance.

We moved towards a large rock and as their graceful silhouettes passed us by, we asked each other.

We said yes.

Then the sky opened up and it began to rain torrentially. We found cover at a bus stop and stood huddled together for half an hour.

That evening, to celebrate, we ate a meal at a superior restaurant, where they served us a plate of exquisite vegetables, the most succulent I have ever tasted, prepared sous vide.

The next day, back on the beach, I Googled the cooking technique and discovered that you can get special kitchen appliances for the purpose. We discussed extensively the possibility of purchasing one. In the end, we concluded it probably wasn’t worth it.

After all, one doesn’t have to say yes to everything.

typewriter

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“Had he ever said he loved me?” she wondered.

“Last night I was lying awake thinking about my husband,” said Frau Bienkowski. “And I wondered whether he had ever told me that he loved me.”

“I thought back and realised he never had,” she continued. “I think he would have considered it unmanly.”

“And did you ever say it to him?” I asked.

“No. I think if I had asked him, he would have replied, ‘haven’t you noticed?’”

“Lots of men aren’t good at expressing their emotions,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “And he did bring me flowers.”

I looked over at the windowsill. The carnations, whose longevity has astounded us, were now wilting.

“Do you think I should get rid of them?”

“I think it’s time,” I said.

source: wikimedia.org

source: wikimedia.org

Our conversation meandered.

Frau Bienkowski told me about a carer at the home who earns just €1000 a month. She is a Lithuanian law graduate in her fifties.

We talked about the possibility of Germany introducing a minimum wage, and what the outcome of Sunday’s election might be.

Frau Bienkowski follows politics closely. Last week, I sent off her postal vote.

She’s voted for the same party all her life.

Frau Bienkowski thinks Merkel is machthungrig – hungry for power- but also “ruhig” – or calm.

Even though Germany is in a good place, the poor are getting poorer.

Frau Bienkowski is anxious about LSB finding a job. He has been here for just five days. I told her that he was at home learning German.

“He’s diligent, is he?” she asked.

“He is,” I said. “He’ll find work. But for the moment, he needs to focus on learning the language.”

“Absolutely – there’s no point worrying about it this side of Christmas.”

Frau Bienkowsi says she pities young people out of work. It was the same in 1928, she told me. Unemployment was rampant.

Then Hitler rose and things changed. A man Frau Bienkowski knew had been out of work for ages. Then he got a job building a motorway. His wife was delighted.

Hitler re-built the army, even though he wasn’t allowed.

Men were kitted out in brown uniforms and had work again.

Frau Bienkowski got married just before the war broke out. She got pregnant, then her husband was conscripted. In 1940 her son was born.

“I prefer not to think of the time after the war,” she said. “It was so hard. We had no money.”

She will never forget the generosity of the Americans during the blockade.

“We gathered at Tempelhof airport,” she said. “And they dropped down packets of food for us.”

Then Frau Bienkowski wanted to talk about her winter clothes. They’re stuffed in a large box because her summer wardrobe takes up all the cupboard space.

We agreed to leave re-arranging the clothes until October in case of an Indian summer.

I told Frau Bienkowsi that LSB has complained about my many clothes taking up all the cupboard space and about how his t-shirts hang neatly, discontentedly from the top of the wardrobe door.

She laughed, her eyes lighting up with amusement, and told me to send him her love.

On Love

I grew up in a large, cold house. In the winter, I would curl up beside the gas heater until I became dizzy from the fumes. We didn’t have anything fancy like instant hot water. If you wanted to have a shower, you had to plan at least 40 minutes in advance. Waiting for the water to heat up was an opportunity to work on my juvenilia, or to stare at people on the street below.

It was character-building, nineteenth-century-style.

It was the kind of cold that seeps through to your bones. Sometimes my father would suggest I dip my blue-white fingers into boiling soapy water to get the blood flowing again. Other times my mother would enter the kitchen in mid-summer and drape a gigantic coat over my shivering frame.

Like in all good Victorian novels, love shone through in actions, not words.

Earlier when I was wracking my brains about how to write about love in a way that was not insufferable, a memory – one of my earliest- popped into my head.

I was a small child, well below school-going age. The house was, you guessed it, cold and I was waiting virtuously outside the toilet. My mother emerged and lifted me onto the pea-green seat.

She had pre-warmed it, like a mother hen.

That was love.The Gift of Warmth

In my formative years, I continued to gravitate towards those providing warmth. I became enamoured by electric heater salesmen and canteen staff with large ladles of steaming hot soup.

Romantically too, I have favoured those offering to make me warmer. LSB’s shaggy hairstyle, spare coats and facial hair have proven to be a winning combination.

And I have to give it to him: LSB was quick to pick up on my requirements. Once in our early courtship, I was on a bus on the way to Crumlin. It was a dark and dreary night and we were going to a party. When I got off the bus, I found him waiting with a hot-water bottle.

That went down so well that on the New Year’s Eve just passed, he packed it again for our walk up Calton Hill.

A warm and fuzzy feeling, on demand.

Happy Valentine’s Day. This year, consider giving the gift of warmth.

Bag Yourself A Sister Like Mine

“What does this mean?” I said, thrusting an official letter from the Federal German Post Office at my flatmate.
His eyes darted from left to right.
“You have to go to customs to collect a parcel,” he replied.
“Yes, but why?”
“I don’t know.”

The customs office was far, far away. When I got off the train I saw a motorway, some industrial buildings and a pair of old ladies smoking. It was cold and damp.

As I approached the dreary concrete customs office and a wind began to blow, I began to feel more and more like I was at home. I joined the queue. Two men were working behind the desk. Another fifty or so people were sitting with little tickets, waiting for their number to be called. A waft of inefficiency filled the air.

image source: http://www.yelp.de

It came to my turn. I handed the officer my documents. He had a crinkled orange face and a snide mouth. “Do you know the sender?” he asked.
I did. My lovely sister, who is a geneticist in Philadelphia and says she analyses butt samples for a living, had sent me a parcel back in April and was dismayed that it had not arrived yet.

“What’s in the parcel?” said the man gruffly.
…..
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s a gift.”
“Well I don’t know isn’t going to get you very far, is it?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said “but how am I to know what is inside the parcel?”

He narrowed his eyes. “We need to know what’s in the parcel.”
“Okay,” I said with false breeziness. “I’m sorry, but I’m not from Germany and I’m not familiar with this system. How does it work?”

His lips flickered with hatred.
“Do you think you’re the only one who needs to be served today? Look behind you. Look at the queue.”
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what’s in the parcel.”
“What could it be then?” he said with dull resignation.

I paused. He fumed.

“I’m sorry I don’t know. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or some chocolate. I really don’t know.”

He scribbled something down and issued me with a ticket. On it was printed the number 240.
“It’s a minimum two hour wait. Do you want to accept the parcel?”
“Of course!”
“Well sit down then.”

I took a seat beside a black man, who was swinging his legs with boredom.

I looked at the clock. It was twenty to four. “I’ll chance it,” I thought to myself.

I got out my phone and dialled my sister’s number.

“Hello?”

“Nothing has happened. There is no emergency. I’m sorry for calling so early.”

“Okay?”

My sister, who was settling into a day’s work in her laboratory listened patiently as I told her that I was in the middle of nowhere and that officials were demanding to know what was inside her parcel.

“It’s a handmade bag,” she said.

“Aw!” I said. “That’s so sweet! Thank you so much.”

“Way to ruin a surprise!”

“I know!”

I rejoined the queue.

This time I got the other official.

“Hello,” I said. “I was talking to your colleague earlier.” (The latter snorted over, “It’s true.”) “I have just called my sister in America. And I can reveal that there is a handmade bag in the package.”

He looked at me. Silently.

“Does this help you?”

“It is too late,”he said. “You have been issued with a number already. You must wait your turn. When your number is called, you will open the parcel with a knife in the presence of an official.”

I returned to my seat. Thankfully I had Greg Baxter’s book “The Apartment” with me.

Every thirty seconds my reading was interrupted by a ping announcing a number.

After some time, I became puzzled. The numbers were not being called in chronological order.

I glanced at the noticeboard directly in front of me. Pinned to it was a sign which said “Customers should note that due to our organisational system, numbers may not be called in chronological order.”

Pot luck, then.

One of the girls in the queue was being told that she had to pay €75 tax on clothing from America which she had bought online. She was confused and dismayed.
“That’s the rules,” said the official.

Suddenly there was a ping and the number “240” flashed on the display board. I jumped. Only one rather than two hours had elapsed since my confinement.

I rushed through a little white door and found myself in a large space full of long tables. I made my way to station number 5. The official with whom I had spoken to second was standing behind the table.

The table was the kind that you sit on with one or two others when you are in secondary school. On it was nothing but a tiny package with my sister’s characteristic handwriting on the front.

I let out a little squeal of excitement.

The official handed me a knife.

“Open it.”

I put the knife down and tore it upon with my bare hands.

An envelope and a little package covered in bubble wrap slid out.

I unwrapped the bubble wrap carefully.

My heart skipped. In my hands was the most adorable and charming of cloth bags. It had a brown strap and buckle and the pattern was Berlin-themed. There were little green signs with the names of the city’s famous stations and scattered between them, were little pictures of umbrellas, clocks, suitcases and trains.

The official’s face changed.

He smiled. “That’s lovely.”

“My sister made it,” I said, still gasping.

Then he looked at the envelope. My sister had written “Fraulein Katztilde” on it in purple pen.

Urban U-Bahn Chic

“That’s sweet,” he said.

“I know!”

“No tax payable. Have a nice weekend.”

Chocolate Fesch

“Really!”

I didn’t wait for an answer and dashed outside clutching my precious bag.

I opened the envelope on the train. Apart from all the other lovely things she had written, my sister also finally provided unequivocal proof of her genius.

“I couldn’t decide which fabric was better so I made the bag reversible – just turn it inside out to go from urban U Bahn chic to traditional chocolate Fesch.”*

I looked at the red fabric on the inside of the bag, which featured lots of pictures of traditional German chocolate from times past.

Somehow, my sister, had created a two-sided magnet-drawn fastener which would allow me to sport two super-cool German-themed bags in a city known for both its trendiness and efficiency.

So, not only is she a talented analyser of butt samples, terribly witty, exceptionally attractive, kind, sweet and thoughtful, my sister is also a queen of crafts.

So, if you are reading, Jane Franziska, thank you so much. I absolutely love it. You’re a complete ledgeBAG.

*Fesch is a German word meaning something like “trendy,” which the Ferguson family finds amusing.

Books in Berlin: “How do you meet men?”

Image source: salon.com

He had fine bone structure and an English accent. I put him a little short of his 40th birthday.
He waved a pair of sunglasses from his pocket.
“I’m so sorry to be rude,” he said, putting them on and obscuring half of his face, “but the sun is blinding me.”
“Not at all.” I said.

He was an IT teacher, a former diving instructor and the partner of a Swiss diplomat. Now he was learning German at a language school. It was difficult. He was a science and maths person.

We talked about teaching and travelling. He had a boyish wonder about him, a kind of naivety. He was softly spoken. He was kind. He had seen me alone and sat down beside me.

A lady came up to us. “Rupert!” she said. “I was trying to call you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said.
He turned to me. “Apologies, I don’t know your name.”
“Kate.”
“Kate, this is Georgia,” he said.

Georgia was dark, attractive, with black curly hair. Later, she told us that she was 43.

She was intelligent, expressive, sharp. She watched people carefully as she spoke to them.

The conversation meandered.

And came to sperm donation.

“You know, there was a story in The Spiegel a while ago about a Dutch serial sperm donator,” said Rupert.

“I edited it,” I said.

“You did? How funny!” said Georgia.

The man in question had fathered eighty-two children and ten more were on their way.

He didn’t just deliver his sperm in a container. He catered for women who wanted to conceive the natural way. He visited them, they made him dinner and paid for his transport and then they went to it. There were good and bad experiences. But really, he just wanted to make them happy.

“He wasn’t a looker,” said Rupert, “but by the sounds of it, he was at least of average intelligence.”

“Ha!” said Georgia.

“I have so many beautiful, successful friends in their late thirties,” Rupert went on. “And they’re all single.”

“But where do you meet men?” asked Georgia. “I mean… I’ve been with my husband for twenty years so it’s been a while since I’ve dated, but isn’t it hard to meet people?”

She turned to me.

“What’s your situation? I mean, are you single?”

“No,” I said. “but for me it was very simple really. I met my boyfriend in the university library.”

“Yeah, that’s easy,” she said.

Then Rupert told us the story about how he had met his partner.

“I was a diving instructor in Crete. And I know what you’re thinking… She was not my student.”

She was on holiday with her girlfriends. But what she didn’t know was that this was a “singles holiday.” She had brought a pile of books to read, but her friends said there were more important matters to investigate.

She talked to Rupert, who was used to being flirted with. It came with the job of diving instructor.

But she made him nervous.

“That’s how I knew,” he said.

They travelled around the island together. And now they move around the world, wherever her job takes her.

The story was winding to a close. Somebody started tapping on a wine glass.

The Graveyard

My parents brought me running shoes when they visited me at Easter. Yesterday I tried them out. The day was mild and dewy.

I was looking for a park, but instead I ran into a graveyard.

Inside it was still; the birds were singing. Daffodils peeked out from under little heaps of earth. Leaves rustled. A red squirrel skirted past me.

Plastic pots and watering cans lay in a pile of withered flowers.

I passed some buried children; tiny mounds, close together. Words and prayers and a teddy bear.

A woman pushed her bicycle past the graves. The wheels crunched against the gravel.

Further on, I found enormous iron casts from the 1900’s. Whole families were resting there: soldier sons, an 18-year-old girl ripped away from her widowed mother. A family’s heartbreak documented into thick stone slabs. Always the same word: Unvergessen; “unforgotten.”

Then from the trees, slowly a withered old man pushed his Zimmerframe and got down on his knees to tend to a grave.

I watched his tiny frame crouched over a tombstone and his wrinkled hands shovelling the earth in little scoops.

My tears fell like unexpected rain. I was ashamed.

I turned and ran away, past the graveyard shop where they were selling over-priced potted plants, past the red-brick church on the roadside, past the cinema and grotty record store, past the kebab stand.

In the park, dogs bounded through the woodland, toddlers dipped their hands into the water fountain and families played catch. And the birds sang.

Can you remember the last time you got lost?

KateKatharina’s Online Arabic Tutorial

I wish I could lie to you but I can’t. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, a large proportion of which change shape according to their position in the word. A select few are awkward and refuse to join with letters to their left. Many have the same shape when in the beginning or middle of a word but have a different number of dots above or below them. There’s a special symbol to let you know the absence of a vowel sound. In case you were, you know, in doubt.

I’m just back from my second class and am rather disappointed that there has been no opportunity to practise speaking, given that learning the alphabet seems to take an eternity. For this reason, I’m going to teach what I’ve learnt in the way I would have liked to learn it. I’m really not one to say a bad word about teachers (believe me, I’ve a vested interest) but as one of my classmates mumbled after class “she’s awful serious.. she’d want to ligthen up” and of the homework “It’d put you to sleep alright”.

To get us started, watch this. I dare you not to feel a smile creeping uponon your lips.

The only two things you need to remember from this video:
1.That little boy’s adorable voice (Bieber who?)
2.that Arabic has three vowels, which correspond loosely to ‘A’. ‘E’ and ‘U’. They’re a bit like fadas in Irish. For ‘A’ you put a dash above the letter; for ‘E’ below and for ‘U’ its a little sign that looks like a number 9 above the letter. That’s why in the song they sing ‘A, U, E, Be Bu Beey’ etc.

Okay, enough about the alphabet. (For my sake, not yours).

For those of you who don’t know me (I’m looking at the seven people who googled “smail” and were referred to my blog today. Though on second thought, perhaps it was was just one massively enthsiastic malacologist.)

“ismee Kate Katharina”

Say it.

Go on.

Now tell me who you are.

ismee= I

Your name=Your name

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.

Now, Kayf- haluk? How’s life?

I’d hate to pre-empt you but are you feeling fine, thank God? And are you male? Then say this:

Tayeb al-hamdu lelah

Are you feeling fine thank God but worried, because you are female? Then say this:

Tayeba al-hamdu lelah.

Same? Nope. All adjectives (as here ‘fine’) have genders. How do we make an adjective feminine?

Add A.

Hmmm. There’s a problem, isn’t there?

Some of you are not fine. Some of you are tired. Fine. It’s a late blog post. You have an excuse.

Say this if you’re a man:
Ta-ban, which the stress on the ‘ban’.

If you’re female, say….???

Come on, you know this one.

Yes, you got it Ta-ban-a.

I (ismee) really am Ta-ban-na now..

So I guess I should take my leave from you and say

Mass-salama.

Go on, reply to me. It’d be rude not to.

*********************************************************************

PS- Remember ‘share the luv’ on bebo? Well my lovely blogger friend Clariice over at Reise meines Lebens has shared the luv by nominating me for a Liebster blogging award.
I’m not sure if this is an actual award or simply a way to get bloggers to share each other’s work but I’m going to take the opportunity to link you to some blogs that I really enjoy.

1. Comeheretome: UCD history students writing interesting short pieces about cultutal landmarks. They often include scans of really interesting historical documents they have access to. Warning: also write about football.
2. Inside the brain: Love this blog. Irish neuroscientist summarises latest research in his fields in layman’s terms
3.Broadside New York-based writer and author of Malled: my unintentional career in retail writes short, poignant pieces in beautifully crafted prose
4. Kat Richter: Serial-dater from Philadelphia. What more can I say? Addictive and witty.
5. Last but definitely not least: Clariice herself. She writes wonderful poetry in language that I love. It’s totally unique in that it’s sparse but also satisfyingly clunky. Her words are real, soulful and off-beat.