Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Reviews #26

Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld.

A book group choice, and not a bad read but at 478 pages, in my opinion at least 150 too long.

The story is written in the first person, that of Lee Fiori who is 14 at the beginning, and covers the four years (I think) of American high school, although this isn't just any old high school.
Lee, back in 'small town' Indiana decided at the tender age of 13 that she'd quite like to go to boarding school. Her parents weren't poor, but neither could they afford boarding school fees, so Lee did her research and applied to those prep schools that offered scholarships. But life as a student on a scholarship, as opposed to one as a student who has always had and probably will always have money is very different. Lee goes from being the clever student at her local school who was popular with the staff because she was keen, to being average and at one point so far behind in her understanding of maths that she risks being "spring cleaned" (the pupils' term for those who aren't making the grade and are asked to find another school).

From the very beginning Lee is shy, self conscious and naive, an outsider whose only wish is to observe others, making no attempt to try to conform or even fit in. This is fine, and quite understandable at the beginning, afterall she is only 14. But to not develop at all during the four teenage years as she starts to mature into an adult is weird and also irritating to me as a reader, I felt that I really wanted to slap the girl or at the very least shake her and tell her to try, just try to enjoy herself and the opportunities she'd put within her own grasp. Afterall it was her decision and no-one else's for her to go to boarding school.

This is a well written book, critics have been comparing her to Salinger and Path and according to the Observer it's "The OC meets Donna Tartt's The Secret History". I think The Times review says it all with "it feels like adolescence", there's way too much angst, self doubt, self loathing, self analysis and insecurity in this book for my tastes, maybe my adolescent days are just too far behind me for to want to be reminded of them?

I've been revisiting Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers with my daughter for a while now and I much prefer her take on boarding school with the midnight feasts and jolly hockey sticks approach to life despite the stiff upper (British) lip to this angst ridden American dream.

Monday, October 24, 2011

All Roads Lead to Rome

We're at the start of our Herbstferien* here, we have two weeks ahead of us with no having to get up at stupid o'clock in the pitch black in order to get to school. Bliss, and better yet on Thursday we (the four of us) are off to Rome for a long weekend.

I've been organised this time (the last city herbst trip we did was to Berlin and the children got so fed up and antsy that at one point I refused to go on holiday as a family again) so we have free time to wander about on Thursday afternoon then bright and early on Friday we have a bike tour which should show us bits of Rome that we might not otherwise (by ourselves) find and also give us an idea about bits that we want to go back to. Saturday afternoon we have a tour of the Catacombs (nice and ghoulish for Ben) and Sunday afternoon an Ancient Rome Discovery tour that is targeted at families. Hopefully this itinerary will keep the family entertained so that then they wont whine when I want to peek in some gorgeous Roman boutiques (I have a list, complete with addresses).

I think/ I hope that the weekend will be a success, the weather forecast is good (20+ degrees, that's got to be better than the miserly 14 here) the food is a guaranteed cert - pasta, pizza, gelato and limoncello, a bit of culture and a spot of shopping - what could possibly go wrong...oh yeah, we're taking a 10 and a 14 year old with us, should have thought up a plan B and packed them off to the grandparents...

* Autumn half term (herbst = autumn, ferien = holidays)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Snaps 84

My pet grammar hate is incorrect apostrophe use-age.
This menu at our favourite American style diner gets it sooooooo wrong with item no. 283. How could tuna ever need an apostrophe?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Reviews #25

Snuff - Terry Pratchett

I love TP. I'm fairly confident that I've read every one of his Discworld series, some of them twice, but none of them as many times as my dad, who is a bigger fan of the mighty TP than I am.

This book revolves around Sam Vines who is head of the police force in the capital Ankh Morpork*. His beloved wife, Sybil, insists he take a holiday and packs them off (him, her and their young poo** obsessed son) into the country to her family estate (she was born into nobility, while Sam was dragged up through the streets). Of course from the moment they arrive it is clear that there is something not quite right in the village and Sam can't help himself, he's a copper through and through and will not let injustice go unpunished.

There are fights to the death, plain out and out murder, smuggling, kidnap and slavery, flooding, interspecies love and at the end of the day justice triumphs.

TP hasn't lost his touch, this addition to the Discworld series is as good as any of it's predecessors, only the mighty Terry could get away with naming a river going paddle steamer (driven by oxen rather than steam...) the "Wonderful Fanny" (on account, supposedly of the owner's wife possibly being named Francesca) and then compose the line:
"The deck creaked under his feet as he crept inside the Wonderful Fanny"
And then there's Terry's description of yoghurt, which is so attune with my own thoughts on yoghurt that it was as if TP had been inside my head, for he says that yoghurt is apparently just a type of cheese that doesn't try hard enough.

I love Terry, the world will be a very sorry place when Alzheimers finally claims him.

Long live Sir Terry!

* for those of you who have never read a Discworld book (why?) here are some facts you should know:
  • the Discworld is flat
  • there's magic (proper magic - wizards, witches, spells and all that kind of stuff, we're not talking Paul Daniels here, although knowing Terry there is doutless some cabaret act somewhere on the Discworld where ladies are being sawn in half and then magically put back together)
  • there are trolls, dwarves, werewolves and now goblins living side by side with humans.
  • it's a world out of the 1900's, but with interesting modern technological devolopments happening, so you have horse powered travel, a form of telegraph machine, printing presses...
  • humour is ever present, I doubt TP is capable of writing a single sentence without a trace of humour.
** faeces and not Winnie the.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

America Invades Germany

So I walked into Lulu Bar for the local expats/English quiz night and there were already 9-10 people there - it's a tiny bar (but small is beautiful, right - and Lulu is GORGEOUS) it was early, just after 8pm, so I hadn't expected so many people to be there already (or maybe we expats are just desperate for similar minds) but what was really freaky was that I only recognised one person (and that vaguely) and...they were all...American.

So they were all high 5-ing each other and talking about the latest baseball scores (or whatever it is Americans make small talk about in a country far, far from home) and I sat myself down across/far from the madding crowd* and waited for some people I knew (properly, i.e. English - or at the very least Princie**) to turn up.

In the end, I think Quizie Rascal's Quiz Night was by far, the best attended, although the irony of it is that over half of those there were American and wouldn't recognise an English Pub Quiz if it came up behind them and goosed them. There ended up being three wholly American teams (under strict I.H.*** regulations we were only allowed two or three people per team) but none of them won any of the three prizes up for grabs (hmmmm, maybe next time we should share out the handicap...)

Here are some of the questions Ian amused us with:

1. - in what country is the airport Marco Polo? (we were helped by the fact that Rachael had recently just booked her & Wolfwang's flights there)
2. - in what sport do you play for the Ryder Cup?
3. - between which two countries is the Simplon Tunnel? (we struggled to work out which continent we should be thinking about)
4. - what is the name of the cocktail containing vodka, tomato juice and lemon juice? (the team with Leslie, the bar owner were whooping with glee)
5. - what is the name of the author of "Pride and Predjudice"? (with five members of bookgroup there, that question was a given - or would have been were the five spread evenly throughout the teams)

Our team, Rachael, Wolfgang**** and I, got a whopping 20/25, failed to get the most scored (23, swotty Emma's (of the gold sequined pants) team) and also beaten to 1st line and 1st to get 4 corners...ho hum. We were at least able to walk out with our heads held high, hopeful that we can do better next month - if we join Emma's team!

Answers, apropo the quiz, i.e. in a wonderfully random order:
4. - bloody mary
5.- Jane Austen
1. - Venice
3. - Switzerland & Italy
2. - Golf

* old English, trust me, Thackeray
** expat from Alabama, but we (me, Rebecca & Rachael) are working on her English.
*** Ian Hookham
**** haven't yet tried to get him to answer to "Wolfie"***** but maybe I haven't met him under the influence of sufficient alcohol, this space.
***** Citizen Smith

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gained in translation

I spent this afternoon translating a letter from Jasmine's class teacher, Herr B.

I wouldn't normally go to the effort of sitting down with a pad of paper and a dictionary (OK, electronic translating device) for a note from school but this was a side and a half of densely printed matter (Germans don't believe in short and snappy unless it's made of leather) and it was all about the six days the class spent in Langeoog last week, so I thought that if I just skim read it I'd miss stuff or misunderstand stuff, far better to read it properly and thoroughly and inwardly digest hour or so and four sides of scribbled A4 later I am in full possession of the facts about last week, embellished with Jasmine's personal anecdotes.

I'll give you the leather* version as I see it:

- not a single child was homesick - I'm sure this will have been a HUGE disappointment to some mothers who were wiping away tears as the children left on the Monday and then again when they returned on Saturday.
- there was no mention of any bodyboarding being done, despite a certain child managing to pack both a bodyboard and wet suit, according to my reliable source (that'll be Jas and not Herr B) the child in question "didn't want to".
- the bumper cake harvest** was enjoyed right up until the last day, they never knew what kind of cake they were going to find inside the tin foil, which in retrospect surprises me, I'd have thought the German moms would have labelled their products with ingredients, use by date and place of manufacture at the very least.
- we parents got a stern telling off for allowing some children (no names, no pack drill - although I interrogated my suspect and received a very honest denial, although she did give up a name during questioning) to take with them more than the 5 euro we'd been forced to agree to as pocket money. The comment went "how can children learn that it is important to keep to an agreement, if their parents don't set the example" - ouch!
- the children appear to hae spent the whole of one afternoon packing their suitcases in readiness for the trip home. Really? It certainly didn't look like it, everything was returned, albeit in a much grubbier and crumpled state than it went, but that's to be expected. Maybe the afternoon was spent trying to locate everyone's belongings, maybe that's what he meant?
- there was the essential misuse of deodorant by boys, a couple of whom sprayed one poor child's cuddly toy and bedding - I'm surprised that 10 year old boys had deodorant with them, maybe the mothers thought that it'd hide the lack of washing?
- Herr B took advantage of having two native English speakers on the trip (Jasmine and Jack) and tried to polish up his English, I shall have to ask him next time (in English) how that went!
- things that received criticism from the children were apparently; the local island swimming pool was salt water (and yet they'd have happily swum in the sea, were it not for the fact that it would have been toe numbingly cold) the man who led the island walk talked over their heads meaning that unfortunately the children are still completely in the dark about the influence on the tide of the moon and lastly, they didn't have enough time on the beach - what did they think it was? A holiday?!

In the middle of November we get to spend an evening at school, watching a video of what the class got up to, reading the diaries they were forced to write every day and I guess looking at the photo-montage and all the related debris they brought back with them. The session is scheduled to be at least two hours long, but hey, at least it includes supper!

Word of the day; die Wasserlinse - waterweed

* i.e short and snappy
** every child was asked to bring along a tin foil wrapped loaf sized cake (the Germans are nothing if not specific)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Snaps 83

A clear sign that summer is over. This is area of the river here in Kettwig is where you can rent pedaloes and motor boats, they've all been packed away for winter, to re-emerge around Easter next year. Time to get the thermals out.

Friday, October 14, 2011

This mouse is partying*

This week is quiet in the Evans' household. Two of my cats are away leaving just me and Ben (+ dog and hamster) rattling around a 4 bed house.
Jas is away on a school trip to Langeoog** for six days and Simon is away doing China/Singapore/Jakarta/Thailand***. My days are usually filled by me doing my own thing until lunchtime and then when Jas gets home between 12.30 & 2 (depending on the timetable/whim of the teachers) running around after her, making sure homework is done, overseeing maths/german tutors, ferrying her to friends/ although when asked "what did you do today?" I usually answer "not much". It's not because I didn't do much, it's just that what my time is filled with is 'not much'.
But this week has been different, Ben comes home, between 1.30 and 4pm (timetable dependant - gymnasium level teachers seem to take things a bit more seriously and so even if a teacher is 'sick' there will be a replacement) he demands food and then disappears until tea time when he reappears demanding food again. I literally have to tie him down or stand in his room next to him in order to have anything approaching a conversation. So this week has been almost like a holiday for me!

Monday - took it easy, had no special plans, mainly because Jas wasn't leaving until 8am and last time the actual departure was delayed by almost an hour due to the police check of the coach failing. I really didn't want to have made special plans that I'd then have to cancel so I kept my normal schedule - German lesson, dog walking & food shopping, which left me with time in hand and I'm embarrassed to confess that I did an hour or so of German grammar! Shocking I know.

Tuesday - I took myself off to Roermond a designer discount mall an hour away, just over the border. I got there just after opening and had too much fun. Simon later asked whether I'd looked for summerweight shirts for him...errr, no. Why on earth would I do that? I had one goal in mind and one alone - self gratification. FUN!

Wednesday - met Rebecca and Oscar for a walk in the most hideous weather of the week, before going to the gym for a torture session with my trainer. I'm still trying to work out which particular exercises would have caused such agony in my thighs that although I can walk (haven't tried running) the getting vertical from a seated position is pure pain. Again in the afternoon I had time on my hands so I did some more swotty German grammar.

Thursday - part usual routine (dog walk then yoga) but then lunch with a friend. Bliss. I so rarely have the time to do lunch here in Germany (have to do breakfast instead & they tend to frown at people who order a glass of Pinot Grigio with breakfast) and the weather was so lovely yesterday that we sat outside to eat and chat. Double bliss! Evening was an impromptu expats gathering at Lulu's, leaving Ben home alone and trusting him to go to bed at a sensible time (I haven't asked, on the principle that ignorance is bliss).

Friday - my morning was spent at the hairdressers (sorry, I should say 'haircutters' as Justin likes to call his shop) and then back home to work on the synopsis for a book. Pizza has been ordered for tea and then Ben (once he comes out of his pit for food) and I will watch a film together - one that doesn't have to entertain a 10 year old.

Tomorrow afternoon my life will return to its usual format as Jasmine comes back from Langeoog, so I shal have to cram as much playing into the next 20 or so hours as possible...anyone for a game of Twister?

* while the cat's away, the mouse will play - English idiom.
** of the North Sea German islands that the locals love - just the words "North Sea" are enough to put me off spending valuable holiday time there, I was brought up to associate the North Sea with oil wells and freezing temperatures, not the place I want to go and sit on the beach, add to this the fact that a German friend jokes that every year when they go she comes back with tanned feet and hands because she keeps everything else wrapped up against the chilling wind.
*** although the Thailand leg is currently doubtful due to flooding.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Reviews #24

We need to talk about Kevin - Lionel Shriver

This is a book I'd 'wanted' to read for some time, but could never summon up the courage needed and trust me it needs bucket loads of courage, especially for a parent. All I knew about the plot was that a problem child was involved, otherwise why the need to talk about him? But still I shied away.

Sing at bookgroup suggested it as she loves Lionel Shriver's style of writing, although she did warn us that parents might find the subject matter tricky - that's putting it mildly!

I was so relieved to finally finish this book, I'm really looking forward to reading something light weight and frothy, I have been page counting for the last week as the book got heavier and heavier. Part way through a new character entered the plot line and I blanched, leaving the book alone for a day or so, for fear of what was to come and then in the dying pages of the book there was yet another hideous twist to choke down, a truly tough read.

So here's the plot: set in America in the late 90's, Eva is the mother of Kevin, wife of Franklin, she is reminiscing about their life to date together in a series of letters to her estranged husband. Eva and Franklin were besotted with each other, then they have a baby, Kevin. From the very beginning Kevin is not a 'normal' child, seemingly full of anger with the world, no nanny or babysitter could tolerate him and as time went on his behaviour to others worsened, nothing obvious and nothing proven, his father always believing the good in his son, but Eva felt differently, she could see no goodness in Kevin. It becomess apparent very early on that Kevin at the time of the letters is in prison/young offenders institute due to going on a bit of a killing spree at school and his mother is visiting him every two weeks despite neither of them seeming to want or enjoy the contact.

As a parent of growing children this book made me pause in my life and consider the whole 'nature/nurture' debate, and also the impact that violent video games and films have on growing minds.

It is brilliantly written and Sing promises me that Shriver's other books are nothing like as chilling as this one, so I may go on to read more of hers. I can only recommend this book but be warned, it's tough.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Germans can't party...discuss

As you can see from yesterday's Sunday Snap we went to the Rocky Horror Show this weekend.

For those of you who've never been to the show/heard about it look here for more info. Back in England B.C.* I saw the show at least twice and it is a blast. All of the audience dress up, and we're not talking smart 'theatre' clothes, think trashy/slutty/transvestite and you're halfway there. Part of the fun of the show is dressing up and then going along with everyone else and joining in with the show - the audience is expected to know to shout 'boring' everytime the narrator appears, 'asshole' to Brad and so on. Then there are the supplies that are needed - confetti for the two wedding scenes, water pistols and newspapers for the rain storm, torches, party blowers and hats...this is not just a musical, this is audience participation taken to the max, you do everything but climb on stage and join in - needless to say singing along is de rigueur!

I had booked the tickets months and months ago thinking it would be a great way to celebrate my birthday. There were seven of us all fully primed (having watched the dvd prior to the actual show - afterall not everyone had seen the show before) ready for our second row seats, ready to get down and party.

We anticipated that a larger percentage of the audience than back in England wouldn't be dressed appropriately, I don't think we had thought just how large a percentage it would be. At the shows in England I would say that if you went to see Rocky out of costume you would feel the odd one out, 90-98% of the audience will dress up - and I don't mean wearing a party hat and a feather boa. Most of the men will take full advantage of the opportunity to wear stockings, high heels and a corset plus a full face of slap (I think they all like the chance to embrace their inner trannie!) Saturday night in Essen the percentages were the other way around, we didn't feel out of place because there is, afterall, safety in numbers, and what's more - we knew we were right and they were just BORING! The Friday night before had been sponsored by the local WAZ newspaper, I just looked through their pictures online and it's depressing, the people wearing red shiny party hats only have them on because they were supplied in the 'party participation' bags provided by the paper, some of the audience even made their newspapers into hats - really, no. Yes it would keep the rain off better but that's not how Janet does it and therefore not how the audience should do it.

My friend Rachael who has lived here in Germany for 10 years said afterwards that she finally realised how boring the Germans could be. But what is surprising is that come Karneval (February - yeah, can't wait - not) they're the first to don a silly wig and a corset, so you would think that going along to a show where dressing like a member of the cast is positively endorsed would be a dream come true.

The Rocky Horror official Facebook page has loads of comments from people who've seen the show here in Germany, every night there are people raving about it, saying how it was super sexy and how much 'fun' they had...but the people I feel most for are the cast, who almost every night are singing and acting and dancing their hearts out in front of an audience that sits back, legs crossed, arms folded, pretty much demanding 'entertain me'.

It's a good job we didn't go on the WAZ sponsored night, Rebecca and I seem to get in the paper enough as it is (without trying, honest) and we had enough people coming up to us on Saturday asking for photos, can't imagine why!

* before children

Sunday Snaps 82

How the expats do Rocky Horror, surrounded by lots of locals who don't know how to participate to the max.
Photo was taken by our 'Janet' (aka Muna) whose Brad is begging for mercy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Till death do us part.

I always struggle to buy presents for Simon. Back in the days when we had no cash it was a struggle to match the gift to the available funds, now the problem is that if Si desperately wants something he is unlikely to wait for his birthday or Christmas but will go out* and buy it - around the beginning of December we have to declare a moratorium on DVD and CD purchases, just in case.

Last year I had a great idea for Simon's birthday present and then we booked to go to New York at Easter and that idea got shelved in favour of something in New York (Easter was late and we were acutally in New York for Simon's birthday) - I sent him and Ben** up in a helicopter on a tour of New York. They had a great time, Ben even got to sit up front next to the pilot because he was the lightest. When I'd been booking the flight I read a lot of reviews online of the different helicopter companies and then chose the one that had the lowest accident rate (I know Simon's well insured, but better safe than sorry eh?) It was quite unpleasant to read the news today about a helicopter crashing into the river at New York, I'm glad that trip's behind us now rather than ahead - I think I'd be far more hesitant about risking the lives of two of my favourite men with any helicopter company!

This year's present was another flight, but this time in a Zeppelin - there's a little airport ten minutes away from us that sends a Zeppelin up over the area all through the summer, the tickets aren't cheap but it looks like such fun. Simon went on his birthday flight a couple of weekends ago and so I can now mention the fact that there was a Zeppelin accident earlier this year, June to be precise, and although the passengers escaped the airship itself and the pilot went up in flames. This happened after the planning and giving of the gift, but before the taking of it. I don't know if Si knew about the accident, I certainly didn't tell him, it would have kind of ruined the event don't you think? It's not like I was trying to get rid of him, it's just that the gifts I buy him seem to have a certain element of danger attached to them...the year before last I sent him to the Nürburgring for a ride in a BMW driven by one of the pro drivers there, another adrenaline fuelled gift - maybe I should consider a nice pair of argyle socks for next year?

* more likely to Google it and get it shipped straight from the internet actually.
** I'd have loved to have gone too, but someone had to stay on the ground with Jasmine.

Word of the day; um die Ecke bringen - to bump somebody off.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Two Left Feet

The latest fitness trend has arrived in Germany, well, when I say the 'latest' it's probably quite old hat in America & Britain, you've probably moved onto something newer by now, but here, in slow 'n steady Deutschland, Zumba is the new big thing in calorie burning.

At my local gym, where I go to earn my cake and wine, we currently have a week dedicated to Zumba, lots of extra classes laid on for us all to try out before they slot them into the normal timetable. We've had to sign up for the sessions which gave the impression that numbers would be limited - except that when the numbered slots were all filled in people continued to add their names to the bottom, consequently the class I went to today was jam packed, fling your arm accidentally in the wrong direction, meet someone coming the other way and you could take that person's eye out.

Zumba is like a dance aerobics class with salsa type moves, lots of ass wiggling, tummy gyrating and toe tapping, you certainly work up a sweat - supposedly an hour long class can burn up to 1000 calories, although this would require you to put the effort in, unlike the girl (she was definitely a girl, she was there with her mom & had chosen to wear her badminton skirt - to a gym class? Clearly not her usual habitat) in front of me who barely broke into a sweat, but then she wasn't working at it, the rest of us were dripping with exertion after 60 minutes, the instructor managed to make his stage area resemble a pool, seriously sweaty!

My natural location at a class is at the back, I like to hide out and be inconspicuous, this works fine in yoga as the class is rarely too full and so the instructor can be seen up on his stage even from the back. In a packed Zumba class it was a different matter though. Everyone was shuffling around trying to see what our feet were suppossed to be doing and of course the people at the front are the people who least need to have a perfect view as they're the ones who've done it before, know all the moves and want to show off their proficiency to the teacher, good luck to them, I think he was more interested in the two men who had the nerve to try out the class.

Despite the overcrowding the class was great fun, kind of like going to a disco and dancing your feet off solidly for an hour - while wearing sensible shoes.

I shall have to hope that when they timetabe Zumba it fits in with my (everso hectic) schedule, it'll make a fun change from the treadmill and the cross trainer!

Sunday, October 2, 2011