I just looked out of my office window and there was a herd of deer crossing the courtyard just outside.
Now I know who has been nibbling my courgettes!
I just looked out of my office window and there was a herd of deer crossing the courtyard just outside.
Now I know who has been nibbling my courgettes!
There is a lovely rainbow over my garden office this morning.
I hope it’s a good omen for a great week!
I am addicted to maps. I love them… I collect maps wherever I go. It must be related to ex-patism and travel-buggishness. Or maybe just a need to reduce my ignorance level of the places where I ended up with no prior local knowledge.
Once I bought a giant map at a flea market in Germany. It was one of those enormous scrolls that used to hang in schoolrooms. I had to haggle like crazy with the stallholder to get it down to a reasonable price… and then spend an evening pacifying my map-sceptic family who wanted nothing to do with this monstrous item which threatened to dominate the living room. I ended up hanging it in a storage room, but whenever I’m going somewhere I sneak off and consult it.
On our kitchen wall is an old map of the Rhine which was another flea market find. It shows the Rhine from its source all the way to where it reaches the sea – with pictures of the main cities it passes on its way. It’s a little difficult to read at first, because it is horizontal – so the North is to the right. But you get used to twisting your neck round and trying to visualise which way you need to go.
Some of my favourite maps, though, are in old atlases. These you can often find in second hand bookshops and junk stores. Of course, all the borders have changed nowadays – so often the places you find in the maps are no longer even in Germany. Regions like Prussia change shape and size depending on the date… and different cities take on new prominence over time.
As for my own little town…well, in this map from 1901, it is not even shown. Was it really such an insignificant place in those days? The village up the road warrents a mention though… even though nowadays it’s relatively much smaller.
Oddly enough we do, however, get a mention in a map around same period showing the region’s coal mining assets. Which is odd… because to my knowledge there has never been any mining in our immediate locality. From all the local history books I’ve read, we have always been pretty much a farming community.
Perhaps I should start excavating the back garden… maybe there’s black gold to be found here after all!
One of the strangest things about travelling on the German motorways is that every now and then you will pass a sign which looks like this.
Germany, it seems, has an entire network of specialised churches for the use of drivers on the Autobahn.
Now, given the way that some Germans drive, there is an obvious logic here. Before setting off into the maelstrom of grannies and boy racers, Dutch caravans and Polish trucks… including substantial stretches where no speed limits apply, it might be prudent to have a quick word with the Almighty regarding the afterlife.
I do worry though, that German road users on the vast high-speed Autobahn network might be putting a little too much faith in divine intervention.
Many years ago, I once accepted a lift from a German nun, who was a case in point. Her vehicle was a tiny light blue VW beetle with a rosary dangling from the rear view mirror and a small statue of the Holy Virgin on her dashboard. Before setting off, the good Sister uttered a cursory prayer to the Virgin to keep us safe on our journey. Having ensured our safety in this manner, she clearly saw no further purpose in using secular means to get us to our destination in one piece…. things like mirrors, brakes or indicators. No, at a speed which was clearly inspired by the angels rather than VW’s engineers, we hurtled along the Autobahn, swerving from one lane to the next with only an occasional Hail Mary to see us safely around the next forty tonner. Only the sheer strength of her faith got us to our destination in one piece… it was certainly nothing to do with any driving skills. My nerves have never recovered.
Recently I have noticed that many Germans put a discrete fish-shaped sticker on the back of their vehicle, which shows that they are practising Christians. Clearly, this is intended as a warning to other drivers. A car with a fish-sticker will pull out without indicating because a higher power is protecting it. A fish-sticker car can travel at whatever speed it likes, because speed cameras will miraculously not blitz them. I have become very wary of fish-sticker cars.
So I am planning to develop a range of bumper stickers which say atheist. These will be used to denote that the car relies on the driver looking in the mirror, indicating, travelling at an appropriate speed for the traffic conditions and generally obeying the rules of the road.
Anyone want one?
Followers of this blog will know that I have become a fanatical vegetable gardener this year, much to the dismay of my family.
The displeasure on their part is because I will not stick to growing things they actually like. No, I plant all kinds of “vile” items, such as turnips, courgettes, beans and kohlrabi. However, there is one vegetable which even I knew I’d have to hide if I were to plant it. The pumpkin is the most despised of all vegetables in our house. Nobody likes it… except me. So early in the spring I secretly got up a dawn and snuck a couple of seeds into the soil right at the back of the vegetable patch. Carefully hidden behind cabbages and califlowers, beans and peas.
The pumpkin plants clearly had other ideas though. Oh they came up discretely enough at first… but all of a sudden, after a week of heavy rain, they took off across the garden and the next thing I knew they’d even reached the path. Not only were they trying to trip everyone up with their leaves and tendrils… they actually decided that the path was the place to deposit their pumpkin fruits.
Of course I’ve been rumbled. How could all my family not notice these bright orange items the size of footballs? I tried the “Oh, it’s just a big tomato!” line… but it fooled nobody.
Tomorrow I’m planning to make pumpkin soup. This will be noticed by the hawks. They all know that there are pumpkins on the premises… and as soon as they spot the absence of the pumpkins on the path, they’ll all be making playdates and other Termine just to avoid eating at home until they know the soup is finished or thrown away.
But they haven’t reckoned with my cunning. You see… I have a freezer…Muhahahaha!
Nothing when travelling in a foreign country, is ever as daunting as that first trip to the lavatory.
German toilets are among the scariest. You see, on first sight, German toilets masquerade as normal toilets. This creates a false sense of security in the unsuspecting foreign user, who then lifts the lid and finds…. the inspection shelf.
German toilets are modelled back-to-front. Anyone sitting normally on the device cannot aim last night’s digested curry squarely down the hole. One option would be to straddle the toilet while facing the cistern, however this requires the user to divest all their lower clothing. Obviously the time taken to do this means that the queue of Germans outside the door becomes restless. People start banging and shouting: “Sind Sie immer noch nicht fertig?” in an increasingly hostile manner.
What the locals do is to sit on the seat as though it were a normal toilet … and emit their excrement straight onto the shelf. SPLAT.
The shelf, I am informed, plays a key role in the health of the German nation. The user, on rising from the throne, will inspect (I’m not sure whether with satisfaction, disgust or curiosity) the resting turds and make a note of the consistency, shape, colour and any abnormalities. Once the inspection is over, the toilet will be flushed… and the bowl cleaned as necessary using the brush provided.
The scatological information gleaned from the study of this morning’s dump can be passed on to a member of the medical profession if anything untoward were found (possibly with accompanying photo). Alternatively the experience will form part of the cheery response if any unsuspecting English person is silly enough to enquire after the Teuton’s state of health.
So when in Germany, remember to take your camera to the toilet… and never ever ask a German how they are. Especially when they’re just emerging from the bathroom.
It’s my favourite time of the year again. As the summer draws to a close the shops and the market stalls start to fill up with mushrooms.
Of course proper Germans don’t buy mushrooms. They put on their hiking boots and head off to the fields and woods to pick their own. Good mushrooming locations are passed down like guilty secrets in families, told only to trustworthy members of the next generation, who are sworn to eternal secrecy.
Germans also tend to be fairly well versed in the identification of edible versus non-edible varieties. While unsuspecting Brits would probably wipe out three generations of their family with one home-picked mushroom omelette, Germans usually survive the experience to tell the tale. If in doubt, the local Apotheke (pharmacy) will offer a professional mushroom identification service.
Being an ex-pat Brit, I have to admit that I just buy my mushrooms at the local market, fry them up in butter with a hint of garlic and some fresh herbs and serve with a fresh salad from the garden.
But one day… if I ever become German enough to be initiated into the secrets of the mushroom pickers… I shall join the ranks of the elite.. the teutonic mushroom harvesters.
Baskets at dawn?
When I was in Münster at the weekend with Eldest Daughter, we went to visit the university’s botanical gardens. In my defence, I should state that this was, in fact not the cruel act of a heartless parent… dragging a reluctant teenager around the most boring sightseeing available. No, Eldest Daughter actually wanted to see the botanical gardens. Of her own free will. Really.
You see, as of October, she will be studying biosciences there and her course will involve her making the acquaintance of plant life for the first time.
Like most teenagers, Eldest Daughter’s knowledge of plants to date has been pretty much limited to a life-long mission to avoid broccoli or sprouts. So the Münster University Botanical Gardens will have its work cut out to fill in all the gaps.
The entire park is laid out like a massive pop-up botanical textbook. The plants are lovingly labelled and huge notices provide more information than you could ever wish to know.
Parts of the gardens focus on particular families of plants and particular habitats….such as the moorland section or the sand dunes. These areas are actually laid out to look like natural heathland or scrubland. There are no tidy flowerbeds, just swathes of moor, with heathers and sedges… or rolling sand dunes with tufts of scrubby grass or spiky plants clinging to the sheltered side of each hillock.
There are also swamps…
…and wooded streams.. to name but a few.
Then there is the medical section. This includes extensive information on the medicinal uses of plants – grouped according to the ailments which they cure… here, for instance, an exhibition of plants used to cure sex-specific diseases.
Each plant is carefully labelled, not just with its name and basic botanical data, but also a set of symbols outlining how it is used. I can see that students will never again need to visit a doctor or pharmacy… they can just pop down to the botanical gardens and find out which flowers or leaves to steep into a healing potion!
I was very excited to see that courgettes (of which I still have several billion growing in my garden) have significant uses in the cure of ailments relating to the prostate.
I shall make a note to renew my efforts at offloading them on my elderly male neighbours. Citizens of Meerbusch…I come to heal your prostates…
Do you ever sneak up on a town unannounced… you know, just to find out what people get up to when they don’t know you’re coming?
Yesterday I paid an unannounced visit to Münster. I went there with Eldest Daughter, because she has just been awarded a place at its university, and she wanted to get an impression of the town.
Despite the unannounced nature of our visit, I’m convinced that they’d found out we were coming. Someone must have been tracking the car, and the minute we turned onto the A43, the phonelines must have been buzzing with the news: “Achtung Münster! Middle-aged British comedy writer approaching…”
When we got there, even before we’d parked the car, we were held up by what appeared to be a procession of people dressed as chefs, waving banners and being afforded police protection to allow them to pass.
I already saw this as a bad omen. You turn up at a city and all the chefs have taken to the streets. A protest at being asked to cater to British tastes perhaps? What if they are actually on strike? Whatever will we do about lunch?
Pushing these worries to the back of our mind, we parked the car and set out to explore the city. Münster, we learned, is a scenic place with a dark side to its history. Take the pretty St. Lamberti church with it’s lacy spire. Closer inspection of the area above the clock reveals three iron cages which once held the tortured bodies of some anabaptists who the city fathers had taken a dislike to. Clearly not a town council one should annoy. From this point on, we were very careful not to drop litter.
The town itself was packed. Not only was it market day… but, we soon learned, the entire city was full of horses. And not just any old nags… no, we’d inadvertently landed in the middle of Germany’s horsing event of the year. The Deutsche Meisterschaft for show jumping and dressage.
The horses, it seemed, were camping in their hundreds. In supersized special horse-tents. A sort of equestrian refugee camp slap bang in front of the Schloss. From the smell of the place, it wouldn’t surprise me if some ponies found themselves dangling in irons on the church spire for fouling the pavements before the weekend’s out!
Show jumping is a sport I can sort of understand. But dressage is just weird. It seems to be a form of Strictly Come Dancing done by horses. I assumed this was all part of the City of Münster’s plot to make a comedy writer feel at home, by picking the least appropriate animal available to try and waltz to the Blue Danube.
Moving back into the city, we tried to visit the cathedral. This was tricky, first because the world’s largest market appeared to have sprung up around the building itself, so we had to battle through crowds lugging baskets of vegetables and wielding salamis and cheeses to get there. Once inside, the entirety of the cathedral turned out to be occupied by the striking chefs.
It turns out that they weren’t on strike at all. In fact, there were around 800 of them in Münster for some kind of annual competitive Bake-Off. We’d caught them in a moment of solemn contemplation, following which they would be wielding their cleavers and meat tenderisers in anger, each trying to out-cook their rivals.
Now, call me a conspiracy theorist, but I see more than just a casual coincidence here. First, the town is filled with hundreds of large farm animals, all herded together into what on the surface seemed to be a camp site for horses, but could equally serve as a canvas abbatoir. Second, several hundred chefs with their pots, pans and kitchen knives gather only a hundred metres away for a cookery contest.While I confess I didn’t see a written menu anywhere for the huge feast which was to be held at the Rathausinnenhof that evening…. I rather suspect Kebab de Cheval might be on the menu…
Can I have fries with that?
Lovely rainbow over the house this evening…. I shall be checking the fireplace for a crock of gold later…