An eventful journey

Today we explored a windy Monaco. (I mean windy as in lots of wind – but I guess the streets are windy as in curvy too.) There are extremely posh Christmas decorations. The buildings are a strange mix of extravagant and tumble-down. A miniature apartment will cost you two million euros.

There are steps and elevators everywhere. Driving (and helping whoever is driving avoid crashing into cars or pavements or the walls of the underground car park) is terrifying. Locals park their cars on footpaths, half a centimetre away from stone walls and the cars behind them. But the sun shone brilliantly and from the window of our warm apartment it looked positively summery.

Getting here was another matter altogether. We drove up from Barcelona, setting off at about half past four on boxing day, planning to get half way. (What were we doing in Barcelona, I hear you say – cheap flights.) It rained and rained. The motorway was closed because of snow, and we were re-routed around the coast. We drove slowly, taking comfort in the caravan of other re-routed traffic. As we descended into a seaside town, I looked down at the fierce white waves through the blackness. The ocean’s going crazy, I said. We drove lower and lower, towards the sea foam. The road was on a cliff above the sea, but the waves were reaching it. Traffic slowed to a snail’s pace. I was afraid. It was a different fear from a customary – oh this is a bit hairy but we’ll be ok. It felt like there was a small but undeniable possibility that things could go badly wrong. A wave buffeted my window. I decided that being swept out to sea in a little car would not be my preferred way to go. And then another wave, huge, hovered above us before smashing down and completely engulfing the car. The car didn’t budge, but we couldn’t see a thing. When it cleared, we inched forward. Shortly after this we reached the town centre, and it was clear that the worst weather had already passed. The beach and the roads were covered in rubble. Two telescope machines – you know the ones you put money in and then you can look out to sea – were completely smashed. The police directed us onwards, upwards, towards snowy roads that snaked around the cliffs.

We kept passing abandoned cars stuck in the snow. Again the worst had passed, and we travelled on without a problem. The motorway was still closed. The third time we tried to rejoin it, we had to negotiate our way through a traffic jam of cars that wanted to go the other way (the road toward Spain was shut). Finally, we made it on to a near-deserted motorway. On the other side, a long, silent line of at least one hundred lorries had decided to call it a night.

Looking at the bright blue sea, you’d never know.

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Heiligabend

On Christmas eve, there was a Christmas fairy.

And cakes at four.

Stollen and Lebkuchen. M’s brother decorated the table and I was mighty impressed.

M’s brother and his girlfriend gave me a silly hat and angel wings to keep up tradition. And an episode of Ausburger Puppenkiste, to help my German and to make me laugh. (These string-puppet stories are just lovely.)

Actually I did rather well with presents, including the white shirt and green jumper pictured above, and the absolutely gorgeous jumper knitted by my Mum that you can see below. M’s brother gave him some shirts and ties to supplement the one decent shirt and tie that he owns.

M and I were responsible for dinner. We learned a valuable catering lesson – if you’re going to do a starter course, don’t make it all you can eat! (Especially if you have eaten cake just a few hours before.) After two different kinds of cheese, and dried apricots and olives and dolmades and french bread we hardly had room for the roast carrots and parsnips and figs and sundried tomatoes and halloumi and salmon and couscous, and afterwards we could barely move. But we were still smiling.

Happy Christmas to all, especially to my lovely far away family. xxx

Babbies and bairns we’ll always be

Me babbies, me bairns!‘ The immortal opening lines of the York pantomime. I thought I’d better say a few words about it before the moment passes. We went to York especially for the pantomime, before coming to Germany. We love it. It’s been going for more than thirty years. The same panto-dame has had the lead role for thirty years, and the panto-baddy has been in it for twenty-one. It’s just super. We watched it every year while we lived in York, and now still try to get to it. Frivolous songs and dances and silly story-lines and cross-dressing and amazing costumes and local references… Hard to explain really, if you’ve never been to one. This time it was Dick Turpin (famous highway man who was hanged in York – though of course the panto changed the story somewhat). In the past I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty and Sinbad the Sailor and I can’t remember what else. Lovely. This was my fifth panto, and Michael’s seventh. I’m hoping for many more!

Kassel Christmas Market

After one Glühwein we were walking in circles, which seems to be the German term for ‘a little bit wobbly’. I still have the gingerbread heart M bought me four years ago. I loved the little Christmas train, pulled by reindeer, going round and round the enormous Christmas tree. And it all smells so good! Roast nuts, popcorn, waffles… In the last photo, behind the stall selling apple fritters, you can see the top of Christmas tree and the giant Christmas pyramid. Brilliant.

Bingley Footbridge, 8am

On one side of the bridge, the misty moon hazed and floated. On the other, the sun thought about emerging. When I returned, ten at night, the moon had shuffled to the other side, and the sun was nowhere to be seen.

(And you all come here for photos of the same places in different lights, don’t you?)

The footpaths are sparkly with frost.

Yesterday, as I walked along, thinking of dear friends, a stranger told me I had a beautiful smile. Which made it all the broader.

I had a two hour meeting with my brilliant (medievalist) supervisor. She identified a couple of places I’d been tying myself in knots, and corrected a couple of generalisations. I felt exhausted afterwards, but now I know exactly where this chapter needs to go, which luckily is not all that far away.

I talked to some fellow phd students and graduates about hopes and fears.

I am on the cusp of something new, standing on the bridge in the changing light.

Chimneys and words and packages

Here’s another view of the Bingley chimneys. And the semi-frozen canal. The ducks promenade around here much as they do in Halden. The thesis chugs along. I reckon I’ll get it finished in early February, or possibly late January. I got my chapter one (extension of intro) nearly written. I felt like I was juggling so many balls so beautifully, and then I tripped and dropped them all, and couldn’t fathom the energy to pick them all up again. But it is nearly nearly there. I have sent it to my supervisors and will meet with them both individually this week – one tomorrow, and one on Thursday.

Over the past couple of days I’ve been getting back to the first chapter I wrote – the one that’s always caused me the most trouble. I still feel like I’m somewhat awkwardly hanging my argument on my textual analysis, rather than boldly using my textual analysis to advance my argument. The problem with this poet is that he says one thing and then he says the opposite – it’s really hard to pin him down. Anyway, pinning poetry down isn’t my ultimate aim, is it?

My technique this weekend has just been to write the paragraphs that need to be written, without wasting too much time about whether they fit on page eight or page twenty-eight. It’s been working, this close attention to detail, but I’m beginning to feel like printing it out and coming up for air. Tomorrow.

Vic has been a great encouragement. She keeps reminding me that I love this stuff, really.

And it is nearly Christmas which I am very very pleased about. Michael’s coming over to the UK on Wednesday, and we’ll have a few days here before heading across to Germany on Sunday. Good good good. (He’s had some horrible adventures in Norway this week – the valient snuggle-car does NOT like the cold. It got frozen, snowed under, and refused to get going in the Oslo airport carpark, but it’s ok now. I think in winter we’ll keep it to the temperate south from now on.) And oh – Mum and Grandma – all your parcels/cards have arrived in Germany safe and sound! Thank you thank you thank you! Apparently the postman was very excited to be delivering parcels from Australia.

Walled Cities

I finished reading the most beautiful novel the other day. Gatty’s Tale, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I first realised what a lovely writer he was when I read his translations of Norse Myths, and I vowed to get hold of his King Arthur trilogy. I did, and have read the first one so far, and loved it. Gatty’s Tale is a spin-off from that – a thirteenth-century girl joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There it was!

Jerusalem!

At once Gatty reined in.

There it was, waiting for her.

No need to ask. She recognised it like a home from which, long ago, she had strayed. Its contours were her own heart’s and mind’s contours. She felt like a little girl again. No need to say anything.

The Holy City, golden, grew out of the gentle slopes on which it sat. Or was it the other way round? Did the Holy City, Gatty wondered, come down from God, out of heaven? And did the hillslopes and the valleys and everything else on the earth grow out of it?

All that stood between the pilgrims and the golden domes, the clustered towers and columns and walls was one last shallow valley, dark with olive groves.

I read this on the train, on a very tedious journey from Stansted Airport up to Bingley. Finish the damn thesis, I told myself glumly as I stood in the cold in Peterborough station, waiting for a train that didn’t come, you’ve got to stop doing this. I ended up catching a train up to York, and then another train to Leeds, and then another train to Bingley.

As I waited in York station, I thought about how usually I would feel very sad just to be there. I lived in York for three years. I loved it. It was home. I met Michael there. We lived together in the sweetest little house. We cycled everywhere – to the shops, to the pubs, to the wonderful Baroque concerts with two pound tickets for students. I did my masters there. I finished my novel there. I started my PhD. I would walk on the stone walls, and hang out in my favourite bookshop (now sadly closed). Every time I returned there, after being away, as the taxi swung past the walls and the gates to the city, I would feel a tangible surge of at-homeness. It was so sad to leave.

But – this time I didn’t feel sad. I felt content, in myself. I have a new home now. I am building a new home.

And then, on the train, I read about Gatty in Jerusalem. And my heart surged. I have been there – the centre of the world, as they thought in the Middle Ages. I have stood inside this other walled city. Michael had a two month scholarship to be in Israel, and I went to visit him, and we went to Jerusalem together.

Like Gatty, I had heard about it all my life. The Bible was a big part of my childhood and my early adulthood – I have read the stories over and over. My parents went to Jerusalem when Mum was pregnant with me. Dad bought a little statue of Moses, which has sat in the corner of the lounge room all my life. My Mum bought a big brown coat, like a monk’s cloak, which I wore for a while as a teenager. And there I was, again, the centre of the world.

For Gatty, part of her has always been in Jerusalem, and part of her will always be there. And when she prays inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – that mazelike, burrow-like place where I too have stood – she prays for all her friends and family at home, for those who could not come to Jerusalem and never will, but when she prays they are there anyway, with her, safe inside the walled city.

And I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, but I like that idea – of being together even when you’re not together, of being at home even when you’re far away. And there, on the train, between York and Leeds, the journey was a burden no longer, and I gripped the novel firmly, with tears in my eyes.

Ladies’ Christmas Party

Last night I was inaugurated into the Halden Ladies’ Club. (It’s associated with M’s work, but not exclusively.) They are an international bunch – Belgian, Japanese, Thai, Danish, Greek, Russian, English, Norwegian, Italian, and I’ve probably missed a couple. They are doctors, nurses, researchers, IT specialists, mothers (usually combined with one of the above). They live here. They like it.

We had a seriously amazing dinner – sushi, tzaziki, greek salad, shrimp curry, Swedish potatoes, Thai noodle salad, Roman gnocchi, tofu spring roll thingies (completely amazing and unlike anything I have ever tasted), pink layered Russian salad, cheesecake, chocolate pie, hazelnut cake, cloudberry cream, and other delicacies.

My contribution was a chocolate version of my grandma’s sponge roll. I just added two dessert spoons of cocoa to the sponge mixture, and, er, one hundred grams of melted 70% cocoa-solid chocolate to the cream. And some raspberries. M told me I’d give all the ladies heart attacks. And he rudely suggested that its gooey brown tubular appearance reminded him of something less than savory.

It was intense. I think next time I will only add chocolate to half of the cream, and have a mix of chocolate and plain cream… And maybe a few more raspberries. Still, it went down well.

We played some silly games, and I won a shiny spaghetti scooper. There was a kris-krindle and I got a red breadbasket with teddybears on it. One of the games involved getting a piece of card with an animal name on it. You had to make the sound that animal makes, and find the other person in the room who was being the same animal. With everyone coming from different countries, it was impossible. I said ‘quack’, and got mistaken for a frog. I said ‘oink’, and no one knew what I was. My fellow pig was not very helpfully saying ‘boo boo’. It was hilarious.

Anyway, it was soooooo nice to meet some new people, and laugh, and talk, and eat too much. By the end of the night, I decided that a lady wasn’t such a bad thing to be, after all.

December in Halden

Is quite lovely really. It’s pitch dark by four, and pretty dark by half past three, so I try to venture outside while the sun shines and the ground sparkles. I solved the final structural problems with my introductory chapter today, but my brain is too tired right now to fill in all the gaps. Tomorrow morning will do. Am frustrated with how long this is taking, but if I compare it to my usual progress it’s coming together quite quickly I suppose. Anyway, I’ve turned a corner with it. (Must only think about one bit at a time, if I think too hard about everything that still needs to be done I freeze up completely.)

It’s funny, structuring. For me, it’s never something I can fully come up with in advance, or impose with too harsh a hand. These days I usually have an idea of a structure, but it often morphs into something slightly different. Finishing the chapter requires a combination of hard slog and quiet contemplation. If I am rushed it feels like I’m trying to force pieces of a puzzle together that don’t fit. But if I rest for a day, and come back to it slowly, not hating it, reading it carefully instead of wishing it looked different, the pieces slide into place almost without effort.

Snowing!

On the first day of December! No photos yet, but if it makes the ground all pretty I will be out there this afternoon. Right now I am happy with the fat flakes of whiteness tumbling down outside. I think it bodes well for serious thesis writing.

I put up our Christmas pyramid last night. It was a present for me from Michael’s Mum two years ago (it’s German). This is the first time I’ve actually been at home close enough to Christmas to use it. I love these things. Warm air from the candles turns the windmill, which in turn makes all the little figures inside the pyramid go round and round. Wise men, shepherds, angels. (And don’t forget the donkey and the sheep and the lambs.) I love how this one looks so Persian, with the arches and mini gold domes.

The other Christmas creatures are: the blue Swedish horse I bought with my Grandparents in Stockholm a few years back, because it reminded me of the red Swedish horse that sat on their bookshelf all through my childhood; a Russian icon of St George that I bought also with my Grandparents (on the same trip) in St Petersburg; and the Russian dolls I bought with my cousin Hannah in Prague, nearly five years ago now. I was sorely tempted to buy a gingerbread house kit from the co-op on the corner (only 25 kroner!). I resisted, as we’re only here another week and then away for a month, and I wouldn’t want to invite a bunch of mice over for a party while we’re gone.