Felix commandeered the camera while we were getting the house ready to eat plum cake with our friends this morning. The photos are exactly as he took them – I haven’t altered them at all. I think they are rather charming – screaming toddler and all. (She will not tolerate the vacuum cleaner.) You don’t normally get photos of this stuff. The plum cake was delicious – my first attempt at a german style cake, made with plums from my colleague’s garden.
We’ve been staying in a holiday apartment in Kassel, but spending a couple of hours every day with Michael’s folks. They’ve loved having us around for so long. We took these pictures in a restaurant known as the Waffle Queen, which serves the most remarkable array of waffles. They took me here the first spring I was in Kassel, ten years ago. Michael says he doesn’t remember it, but I have been itching to get back every trip since. I had a lebkuchen (christmas gingerbread) waffle with chocolate icecream and sour cherries. It did not disappoint.
We normally go away for Easter, and so, for that matter, do most of our friends. This time, we all stayed put, and it has been so nice. I’ve made hot cross buns (twice), done Easter crafts with Felix, lit candles, chilled out with the family, dressed Antonia up like a little bunny, and taken the kids on a walk to look for beavers. And today we went around to our friend’s house for an Easter egg hunt – four little boys careering round the garden collecting their sweets were a sight to behold. Happy Easter!
Felix and Mala take a much needed break after the excitement of opening all the presents.
We had the most wonderful visit from my Aunty Annie last weekend. We only found out a couple of weeks ago that she could come – she had a conference in Paris and managed a side trip to Norway. We were too busy enjoying ourselves to take many photos, but she is of course immortalized in our video of Felix’s first steps. (I think she felt a bit sheepish that she got to be here for that – she said my Mum had already had to forgive her for coming!) Felix absolutely adored her and we had the nicest time. Despite uninspiring weather we managed a whirlwind tour of our favourite spots in Halden, Fredrikstad and the shopping centre across the Swedish border.
When she left I felt bereft, but after spending some time with my favourite Halden friends this week I feel a bit better. Sometimes it is just wretched living so far away from family, though of course if we didn’t live so far away, we wouldn’t be able to have such nice visits.
Every weekend, whatever the weather, Norwegians go into the forest, make little fires and cook their lunch. Last Sunday some of our friends invited us to join them, and it was a lot of fun. Remember these photos? It was so sweet to see the little guys together again a year later.
Just how do I get to that truck?
And after reading Blue MIlk’s post about photos of the invisible mother, I just have to include this photo too. It may look like the babbies are pretty self-sufficient in the above photos, but that is an illusion!
Our friends cooked us pancakes.
After their lunch, the little guys slept in their prams while we ate more pancakes.
After that a couple of intrepid Norwegians changed into their running gear and went for a run (did I mention it was freezing?). Felix woke up and practiced his walking. All in all, a pretty perfect day.
If you’re planning on staying up all night with a teething baby midway into a 1000k car journey, this is probably the place to do it. (Even better would be to stay here a week, completely alone, and write a novel, but that’s not on the cards right now.)
We left feeling refreshed and thoroughly spoiled by our lovely hostess. And the breakfast was something else.
I was going to write a post entitled ‘slog’, and it was going to be about how hard we have been working. Clearing out the spare room in the evenings once Felix has gone to sleep (after we have worked all day) has been tough. There is still more to do, but we have cleared out enough now to get him in there. And then of course the poor fellow starts teething again, so settling him into the new sleeping arrangements has been more difficult than it otherwise would have been, and we are still not getting nearly enough sleep. So we are tired. But I have changed my day off from Friday to Wednesday, and that is better, much better. This afternoon the sun shone and Felix and I had a picnic on the lawn.
Lying for half an hour in the sun with my favourite boy and my favourite creatures was more than enough to restore my spirits.
Also I’m very proud of myself because I knitted the little vest Felix is wearing, all on my own. The pattern is here. I started it a few weeks back, when I had my ear infection, at which point I knitted all night because I was in too much pain to sleep. It took me a while because I had to undo bits when I did them wrong – if I do another one I’ll be much faster. But isn’t it great! I’ll try to show you some pictures sans bib another time.
Felix chased the cats around for a bit, bounced on the trampoline with me, then made some calls. It was a very nice afternoon indeed.
Sunday afternoon with friends and scones.
A little boy who has learnt to head-butt the kitties with great affection.
A knitting project slowly materializing.
Soft warm black cat, purring.
Ear no longer leaking noxious goo.
It’s looking up.
Today some close friends came over and we had a little birthday party for Felix. Good friends are so precious. In this photo you can also see: Felix’s lion, which was a hand-me-down from a very lovely lady in Idaho Falls, who has a son a couple of years older than Felix (Felix adores this lion, so my cake was an attempt to approximate it); the curtains my Grandma gave us; the coffee cups and milk jug my Nanna gave us for our wedding; tulips which reminded me of the ones you can see here; a vase which was a birthday present from the barnehage; a delicious cheesecake made by my lovely Norwegian friend; a colourful bowl that my parents gave me when I moved to York; a candle holder that Michael acquired many many years ago, long before I met him; and the gorgeous cardigan that my Mum knitted for me while we were in Australia, shortly after these photos were taken. So although we are a long way away from our families, we were pretty much surrounded by love. And Felix seemed to like the cake.
The little guy had a good time playing with his birthday presents and his new friend Pearce.
In the background in this one you can see the walker that we spied in a shop in Adelaide, but Michael’s parents bought for Felix in Germany. It was a happy day. Surrounded by love, indeed.
I am trying to put up lots of beach photos, so I have something to remind me of all this sun when we are settling in to a currently unfathomable Norwegian winter in, gulp, a week’s time.
Last weekend we went down to Port Elliot with my parents on Sunday, and spent a lovely couple of hours splashing around, before devouring the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.
As we walk through the supermarket, you spot the fruit and vegetables. ‘Nom nom nom!’ You declare enthusiastically. When we walk past the dog food aisle you point and squeal in delight at the pictures of the dogs.
‘Shall I make you breakfast now?’ I ask one morning.
‘Nom nom nom!’ you agree.
Your slow tumble into language makes my belly flip over. Yesterday morning we played with a little trumpet your great grandma gave you for christmas. You made me blow into it, then you worked out how to blow into it yourself. Later that day, you spot it on your mat. ‘Brrrrrr!’ you say, and go to fetch it.
You are playing next to the safety gate on the stairs, sticking your fingers through the slats.
‘Where’s your ball?’ asks Aunty Anne.
‘Ba!’ you say, and turn around to find it, your face awash with pleasure. It’s hard to describe just how happy you look in these moments – it was the same when you had just learnt to clap, and clapped whenever we said the word. I understand you and you understand me, your eyes say, look! For a moment you are as amazed as I am.
I am so impressed with your new word for ball that I try to tell the story to Michael. ‘And then he turned around, and said b-‘ But I am stuck. ‘Ba’ is not a word I am used to saying, and it gets stuck in my stammer. There is a small pause. You sit at my feet, watching me not speaking. ‘Ba!’ you say, before I can get it out. ‘Oh no!’ I say, ‘it’s starting already!’
We laugh and laugh.
We met Felix’s second cousin Mala today for the first time. Caitlin and I reminisced about the days they were born, just over ten months ago, on opposite sides of the globe. I was still in hospital when I heard Mala was born; Caitlin was in the early stages of a protracted labour when she heard about Felix. We had announced our pregnancies to our families on the very same day last year, and met up in Berlin when we were both about 20 weeks. It was so sweet to finally see the little ones together.
The babes were oblivious to the significance of the occasion, but were very happy munching their vegemite toast.
I took Felix to my Nanna’s craft morning today.
He ate strawberries, we ate strawberries and cupcakes and pikelets with jam and cream.
There’s quite an amazing story about how my Nanna met these women in the first place, but I’ll have to tell you that another time when I’ve got the details straightened out.
We had such a nice time. The closest I got to doing any craft was showing them the pattern of a cardigan I’ve decided to knit once I find some yarn that will work. They were very encouraging, but I was blown away by the projects they were working on!
Felix enjoyed playing with one of Nanna’s golliwogs.
I’ve had to put my postcolonial qualms aside, for these are truly impressive creations.
Really enjoying having my folks here. We took these photos in my favourite coffee shop in Idaho Falls. We’re in Salt Lake City now for a few days, and are heading down to the parks around Moab soon. Michael is off chasing paragliding flights and hikes up mountains, and we are, well, drinking coffee. Very nice it is too.
There really are a lot of parking spaces around here. Also, whoever designed the decor for our sunless apartment was not having a good day when they decided on brown on brown. All the furniture is heavy dark wood. The carpet is beige. The bedspreads are brown. The bed itself has a huge wooden end to it which has caused me several nasty bruises, all on top of each other (admittedly, not for a while, I must be getting used to it). The apartment is decorated with faux plants, including an entire little tree in the bedroom, which we didn’t even notice for the first couple of weeks. I miss my sunny kitchen.
Luckily the weather is getting nicer around here and we have decided that as an antidote to brown we will spend as much time outside as possible. I see many walks, parks and picnics in our future. We went to a lovely BBQ last night and I spent most of the day making a cake to take along. “The world’s best cake”, to be precise. It lives up to its name.
Such an old-fashioned term. But at the moment it’s just about right. It was a lovely day today, really. Plus 3 degrees, which feels so, so warm. It had rained over night, and the trees were rinsed of their frost. The sun shone through hazy blue patches of sky and the bare tree-tops reminded me of England. But as soon as Michael got to work, he sent me an email entitled ‘ice’, which read: ‘Don’t go out under any circumstances. It’s too slippery even for crampons.’ Which was fair enough, as these three-day forays into the positives only succeed in turning our sloping driveway into an ice-rink. And all the footpaths, too.
So I washed the floors, and baked rosinboller. (My recipe wasn’t as fancy as that one. I got it straight off the sultana pack. But check out that blog! She lives in a much prettier part of Norway than I do. And has a cute baby boy. And I think I might be clicking back over there to try out some of her other recipes…) Over the weekend I had a serious craving for hot-cross-buns, so I bought some yeast and sultanas on Saturday morning. When I got home, though, I discovered it would take several hours to make them, so I made scones instead. (Which were amazing, by the way.) Anyway, today, having the whole day to myself, I thought I would have a go at the boller. It’s the first time I’ve tried cooking with yeast on my own. (When I was a kid, Mum and I would do it all the time.) And it worked! They rose! The living room smelled all warm and yeasty as they sat in the windowsill. They were very nice, though next time I’ll have to add more spices. I ate four of them straight out of the oven. Michael liked them but said the scones were better. But now I’m thinking of all the other things you can do with yeast…
I’m pleased with the photo I took today. I’m getting quite fond of this bump of mine. It is nice to feel round and full of life. (Also if you’re planning on getting pregnant I recommend being extremely tall. You get much less squashed.) 38 weeks tomorrow. When I see photos of myself not pregnant it feels like that’s not really me. Right now, this is me, and I am grateful for these few last weeks. I like that I am looking out of the window, and that the windows are full of light but that you can’t see through them. I like the crib stacked in the corner behind me, with my maternity bag inside it and a box of baby things. And for me, the photo is strange, because the room is reflected in the mirror, and it is all the wrong way round. Everything is stilled in the strange light. It captures perfectly this deep breath, this pause, this readiness. This quiet, hopeful time of looking straight in the face of a future I cannot yet clearly discern, and saying, despite this, yes. Yes.
We drove past the stone ship and down to the coast, where we got our fill of sun. But the real fun started when we got back to Norway, and our Swedish friend put on a traditional kraftor party at our house.
It involved silly hats, lots of these clawed creatures, and just as much snaps, augmented with wine and beer. Oh, and songs. You were supposed to eat a crayfish or two, sing a swedish song, and knock back a shot of snaps.
I joined in the singing even if I couldn’t indulge in the snaps. It was quite entertaining watching everyone else get more and more plastered. As Michael put it – ‘The party was great. Rocking up at work the next day – not so much.’
At some point we had to sing the Swedish national anthem. All well and good. Until someone translated for us and we realised we’d declared a burning desire to live and to die in the North. This is all very nice for now, but can we take that back?
Last night I stayed up till midnight, for the first time in nearly four months. I did feel like crawling into bed around 10, and I was slightly ill with tiredness by the time I got there, but still – midnight! We had some of Michael’s international work colleagues over for dinner. I made roast tomato and carrot soup (yum), and then we had falafels, homemade hummus (I think I’m perfecting the recipe, and topped it with toasted sesame seeds), fried halloumi, roasted peppers, tzaziki, olives, sundried tomatoes, pita bread, potatoes, and a green salad with lettuce, cucumber and avocado. (It was fun expanding the cheese horizons of the Americans – one of our guests had never tasted Halloumi before, and I also gave her some Norwegian brown cheese to try, which she was pleasantly surprised by.) Then at Michael’s insistence (and after a decent pause), I made my childhood favourite: chocolate self-saucing pudding, which was appreciated by all. The kitties were the stars of the show, and enjoyed trying out the different laps, and cavorting with a toy mouse in front of an audience.
This morning Michael’s off at yet another meeting. I’m deciding whether to head off to the shops in Sweden (to be sucked in by a sale at my beloved Iittala outlet), or just to bug down here. Most of all I’d like to go for a coffee with one of my Adelaide friends, or cousins, or Aunts, or my Mum or Dad or brother. I wish there was a fairy who could whisk up our house and our lives and plonk them down somewhere in the Adelaide hills.
My Grandma had a knee replacement operation this Wednesday, and she is recovering well to our great relief. It was a really annoying operation, as she had it done a few years ago, but they discovered they had put in a faulty part that was shedding bits of metal into her knee, so had to take it out and do it again. The first time she had a quite a scare with clotting problems, but this time they were keeping an eye on that from the outset, so it’s all going well. I send her and Granddad all my love and I’m so glad it’s all going smoothly. (In true G&G style, they spent the two weeks before the operation on a bus tour of outback Queensland!)
And two more of my dear Adelaide friends have had a daughter! My poet friend and his wife now have a little Beatrice! (So four of my best friends have, between them, a Beatrix and a Beatrice, born only a couple of weeks apart.) I know my poet friend really loves the Paradiso, and listened to it on audio-book when he was recovering from his stroke. Beatrice is a lovely name – all light and hope and exploration.
So most of all I’d like to see my Grandma, and meet the little Beatrices, but there will be time enough for that next year. In a couple of weeks I get to meet my cousins and my Aunt for a weekend in Berlin, and the Michael’s parents are visiting, and in October I’m zipping across to the UK for a weekend to see my Leeds friends. And my family are with me here, even in the food I cook: Mum’s and Grandma’s chocolate pudding, Dad’s hummus, and the roasted peppers that my cousin Sal learnt how to make when she worked in a cafe.
This week Autumn has arrived – a chill in the air, a smell of apples and woodsmoke, and torrential, flooding rains. I’m loving our little house at the moment – I’ll post some ‘after’ pictures of all the work we’ve done soon. In other news, I’m 17 weeks now, and I don’t feel pregnant at all! In fact I feel better than I did before I got pregnant… We have another scan in a week – it will be nice to confirm that the little thing is still in there! Love to all. xxx
Dad cooking dinner.
Hummus! (And you can see our partially installed dishwasher in the background. It worked but tipped over if you weren’t careful, and we hadn’t taken off the bright blue protective plastic. Dad helped Michael to get this fixed – and propped up to the proper height – before they left.)
Yum! Veggie curry with hummus, coriander, and rather good South Australian white wine.
Mermos trying to help.
Mum patching holes after we removed the green kitchen door that the previous owners had decoratively hung on the wall.
Dad moving the power-point so we could put a bookshelf next to the sofa.
Mum painting our kitchen wall after patching the long narrow crack.
Dad installing the kitchen door back where it belongs. (Which means this winter the kitchen won’t resemble a freezer – hooray!)
When they left, Dad left behind two huge boxes of chocolates (which sadly didn’t last for long), and Mum left behind a gorgeous blue and white fruit bowl with two matching tea mugs, also buying two of the mugs for herself so that we can have matching cups of tea, hemispheres apart.
Now if only they lived a bit closer…
Maybe what happens when you turn 30 is that you turn into a food-blogger.
Anyway, I made the most amazing dinner tonight and I’m so excited I just have to tell you about it. We had baked sweet potatoes (M’s idea) with lentil salad. The salad consisted of green lentils boiled for about twenty minutes, finely cubed cucumber and cherry tomatoes, finely sliced snow peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, and a dressing of olive oil, balsamic, soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, fresh garlic, oregano, paprika and a tiny bit of cumin.
The soft squishy practically caramalised sweet potato contrasted perfectly with the crunchy-vinegary-garlicky lentil concoction. It was pretty too but I couldn’t find the camera. I know I’m not the first one to have thrown together something like this but I think I’ve discovered a new staple.
We went to Sweden yesterday, home of all good things. Or, at least, affordable groceries. We bought six kilos of couscous, at half the price we would have paid in Norway. A huge bag of red peppers. An equally huge bag of fat sweet potatoes. (A craving for sweet potatoes on Friday led to us staring sadly at the tiny shriveled mouldy dregs masquerading as vegetables in our local supermarket.) Snow peas. Frozen spinach. Halumi cheese. Several cans of tuna. And two small boxes of veggie burgers. (Although veggie burgers have the privilege of existing in Sweden – we have never seen any here – they are not cheap.)
I felt a bit strange this week. There are too many balls in the air, or, to swap metaphors, I’m standing on the brink of too many things. Too many possible pathways, tangling outwards. Too many places demanding attention, both near and distant. Too many words to be written. Too many people to be – I fear if I commit to one, I will lose the others. I fear if I step down one path, the others will be barred forever. Which, of course, is not the case, and nothing is to be gained by standing still.
Last night we went to a bbq and watched the sun set over the fortress. And today we ate veggie burgers and teriyaki mushrooms and lompe bread for lunch, and they were just marvellous. And today the sun is shining, madly, brightly, and we will ride our bikes past the glittery lakes. The many words that need to be written will be written, one by one. I will not hover on the brink forever. I will jump. Again and again and again.
I walk the long way back to the train station. The street is wide and the Victorian shopfronts glow faintly bronze in the fading light. The sky is opaline, scalloped, pink and blue. Two aeroplanes pencil bright orange trails beside the crisp white rind of the moon. My belly is just slightly too full of Hansa’s curries, mango lassi, white wine. My head whirls with the discussion about openness and uncertainty with three sweet Danish girls. Happiness is curry and wine and the slow evening sky so close to the city. I remember the first weeks of my phd, in October, hurrying back to the train station as the sun set earlier every day, watching the fiery clouds touch the buildings. Four winters have passed since then. Now the plane-trails broaden and turn pink. Like paths I could tread.
On the train, I realise I’m still carrying the thesis. The window takes on a sheen because it’s finally dark, though I hardly notice. I take out the manuscript – fat heavy green thing that it is – to read my favourite poem about the river. But I don’t open it. I hug it. I hug it tight.
Monday: 12pm, lunch with grandparents, great aunt and cousin. 1.30 pm, outing with Grandma. Cherry cake in the French cafe. Order new glasses. 7pm, dinner out with Mum, Dad and brother.
Tuesday: 11am, make strawberry pancakes for brunch with Mum. 12pm, phone calls to friends. 1pm, walk in the park and coffee at the corner cafe with Mum. 3pm, meet with lovely writer and her husband. 6.30 pm, dinner with Mum and Dad. 8pm, phone calls with old friends. Invite them all over for Saturday. 9pm, bake two sponge rolls for Dad to take to work for a leaving do.
Wednesday: 11 am, meet old friend to look over poems. 1 pm, lunch with said friend. 3pm, coffee with lovely medievalist. 4pm, pick up new glasses. 4.30pm, coffee with another lovely academic. 6.30 pm, dinner with Mum and Dad. 7.30pm, phone calls to old friends. Invite the rest of them over for Saturday. 9pm, walk with Mum.
Thursday: 10 am, visit Nanna. 1 pm, lunch with Dad in beautiful seaside cafe. 6.30 pm, dinner with grandparents, parents, brother. 8pm, cakes and coffee with family and cousins.
- This week I ate porridge for breakfast every day
- There is thick snow outside and it’s still snowing
- My three day plan became a five day plan
- I went for a swim for the first time in years (not counting splashing around in lakes and beaches)
- We found and lost the house of our dreams
- I decided two warm jumpers are the way to go
- When I walked out of the bathing hall at five pm, my hair still wet, it was dark. The ground was covered in a not insubstantial layer of whiteness that hadn’t been there when I went in. The clean blank footpath glinted like diamonds. Tiny, tiny flakes swarmed down. If you looked up beneath a streetlamp it seemed the air was made of glitter.
A week or so ago Michael loaded some games onto his iphone. This is the best one. Last weekend I got seriously addicted. The little people come in and order their chocolate, and you have to run around making square or round or triangle boxes, wrapping them in blue or red or green as appropriate. They say things: ‘I’m late for my wedding!’; ‘I want some chocolate!’ And, the policeman: ‘These are better than donuts!’ There are chocolate shapes – about eight different sorts – which you can ice in a variety of colours. You have to stop the thieves from stealing your money. And answer the phone. And you have to serve the customers before they get angry and leave. You can placate them with candy.
When I play, my whole body tenses up. Attempts to distract me (which are many, as M finds it hilarious) are met with less than wholesome language. Last time I played was Sunday night. Just a couple of games before bed… beep beepitty beep went the music. The machines pumped out the chocolate into little boxes. I almost finished the thing… and then I got my come-upance. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes there were orders for chocolate. Square, triangle, rabbit, fish, red – no – green. Hurry. Run. Quick, press that button. It was torture. beep beepitty beep. Calm down Mel, I told myself, by the time the morning comes they’ll all have gone away and you’ll be sleeping soundly. Green triangle, red circle, run… And then the alarm went off. I’d been frantically making chocolate all night. I haven’t touched it since (the game, that is, not chocolate).
In other news, to offset my necessary chocolate intake, I’ve joined the gym. It’s quite a nice gym, really, and about a thirty second walk from our house. I like exercise. As a teenager I hated it. But I like the feeling of being out of your head and into your body, away from thoughts that circle and twitter, and into your breath, your muscles, the warmth and rhythm of it.
On Thursday I went to a pilates class. Last time I did pilates, years and years ago before I moved to England, it involved lying on the floor and sticking your legs and arms into the air at varying angles. And push-ups. This was a bit different – a blend of yoga and pilates and tai chi. Mostly tai chi. I couldn’t understand a word the instructor was saying, so I tried to watch closely. This was complicated by the fact that I wasn’t wearing my glasses (I tend to leave them off for exercise). I was surrounded by a foreign language and blurry bodies swaying and flicking and bending at frightening speeds.
Despite this, I think I did quite well (drawing on moves I learnt in yoga and bollywood dancing last year), and I left smiling. Now I am in so much pain I can hardly move.
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
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.
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.
I’ve been writing and thinking lots. Haven’t felt like blogging. In other news… We went to a grand reception in Oslo last night, for the sixtieth birthday of the institute M works for. There were four different kinds of wine. You’ve got to take the free alcohol when you can get it in this country. We bought a couple of drinks before it all started (a g&t and a glass of beer), and they cost 160 kroner. That’s 16 pounds. I don’t even want to know what that is in Aussie dollars. They also served us one of the strangest vegetarian meals I’ve ever eaten. There was a spring roll, roasted chestnuts, pickled onions, roasted cherry tomatoes, a zucchini and red pepper stack, warm pineapple and a baby carrot. Still, it was a good night. Hundreds of people were there, in a room painted to look like a circus tent with huge chandeliers. There were some inspiring speeches, of which we understood very little. There was a famous Norwegian comedian. And I got to wear the best dress ever.
Well, leapards and elephants and buffalo… Vic came back from Namibia with these amazing South African chocolates. According to the box, they are white chocolate cape rose geranium caramels. And they are! They taste just like roses and geraniums in the nicest way imaginable. Like eating a flower garden.
They lit the Christmas lights in Leeds last week. There was a party on the street. On every corner you could buy plastic lazer lights or sparkly butterflies. The lights are great. There are giant champaign bottles, and glasses filled with fizzy gold. I overheard some people complaining that this was too early for Christmas. No, no, no! Christmas means so much more up here where it is dark and cold. We know winter’s not going away for six whole months (sad but true) but the sparkly lights say – we don’t care! We will dance and shine and glitter anyway.
The German Christmas market opened today. On the way the way back from the library tonight, I was drawn like a moth to a flame. I managed to resist the gluwein and just stayed long enough to purchase some horribly overpriced domino stones. Ah, domino stones. I must have been grinning like an idiot, because the man who sold them to me said: ‘You are smiling!’ And I was. And I am.
Update: This post is frequently in my top posts and has received more traffic than anything else I’ve written (a bit embarrassing for a bunch of holiday snaps), because a certain spammer keeps trying to leave links to his Austrian holiday apartment. Note to spammer: I have deleted your comment each time you have left it, and will continue to do so. There are thousands of cheap and comfortable holiday apartments in Austria, and I’m sure my readers can find their own if they ever intend to go… Oh, and if you want the real reason to visit Austria, go here.
I haven’t been much fun to be around lately. Irritable, panicky, emotional, distracted. Luckily the one person who has to put up with me is doing an okay job. So anyway, instead of complaining about how stressful this writing up business is or composing posts about how I can’t concentrate (er, didn’t actually write that post, just thought about it), I thought I’d inflict more photos of Austria on you. And explain why it really is one of the most relaxing and affordable places to go on holiday.
(I’m actually feeling quite a lot better now. I’ve made some steady writing progress over the weekend, and more is planned for this afternoon. And the weather has allowed cycling both days, which always cheers me up and calms me down. What’s not quite so cheering are the first yellow leaves on the birch trees. It’s not that time yet, is it? Anyway… )
Reasons to visit Austria.
1. Extremely cute cows.
With mohawks, and real cowbells, that jingle and jangle.
This one longed for a paraglider.
Overflowing all the balconies. These were at our guest-house. Which is another reason to visit, because the villages are stuffed full of bed and breakfasts and apartments for rent, at about 13 euros per person per night. Bit different to Norway…
3. Cakes and ice cream.
Yum yum yum yum yum. What can I say. The German and Italian tourists love it here. They do their walks in the morning, and then sit in the cafes all afternoon, indulging. Everybody is so happy you can’t help but smile. And if it rains, there’s always the indoor swimming pools and saunas. If Austrian food isn’t your thing, there’s seriously good pizza available. And cheap beer. And did I mention cake?
One of the things I miss about Adelaide is not being able to make cakes for my friends. So when we were invited to a BBQ last night, I jumped at the opportunity, smiling with glee. The cake pictured above had already lost six fat slices (I was too excited by the prospect of eating it to remember to take a photo), but you get the gist. The remaining two and a half slices didn’t last for long, either.
Sponge rolls are one of my Grandma’s specialties. She makes two different sorts: one with passion-fruit mixed with the cream, and one with strawberries and cream. Strawberries and cream in a sponge roll are amazing. There’s something about the slippery texture of the strawberries contrasting with the smooth cream and the cloud-like cake… Heaven. I was immensely proud of myself when I mastered the art of making these, and I’m sure in the old Adelaide days it secured me many invitations to dinner. But M doesn’t really like strawberries, so devoted girlfriend that I am, I bought raspberries instead (and what fat juicy raspberries they were). I’ve used raspberries before, and it was good, but not as good. I was musing on this as I carried the ingredients back along the river to our flat, and I was suddenly inspired. I would squash half the raspberries and mix them with the cream! It would be amazing!
Now, because the recipe is so simple and so short, I’m going to share it with you. There are only three ingredients:
1/2 cup castor sugar (normal sugar works too; you just have to beat it for longer)
1/2 cup self-raising flour
Beat the eggs and sugar with an electric hand beater until the mixture goes light, creamy and fluffy and the sugar is dissolved, in my grandma’s words: ‘the mixture should be quite firm in that you can make a pattern with a stream of it if you hold the beaters up’. Nowhere near as thick as you’d get with meringue, but you’ll notice a definite difference in colour and consistency. Then you stir the flour in very gently with a metal spoon. Pour into a sponge roll tin lined with greased baking paper, and cook in a moderate oven (that’s about 180C) for twenty minutes. (I didn’t have a sponge roll tin, but used a large baking tray.)
Tip out onto a tea-towel sprinkled with sugar, and roll up while it’s hot. After leaving it for a minute or so, you can unroll it to let it cool down. When it’s completely cool, spread with your desired combination of whipped cream and fruit, and roll it up again!
So why does it make me happy? They are very quick and simple to make, but you have to pay attention and do each step properly – the whipping, the folding in the flour, the baking, because the joy of these things is that they’re mainly air. If you make several in a row you can experiment with oven temperatures and baking times and get them just right… And you should have seen the glossy glowy mixture of the squashed raspberries before I stirred them into the cream along with a sprinking of vanilla sugar. I tried to show them to M but he laughed and said it was more fun watching me, and that if I smiled any more my head would explode. Here it is before I rolled it up. Just for you, I uploaded this picture in full resolution, so if you click on it, you’ll get the most delicious close-up of the raspberries and cream. Go on. I know you want to.
I appear from the inner world, singular and many, I am
the animals of my tree, appointed to travel and be eaten
since animals are plants’ genital extensions, I’m clothed in luscious
dung but designed to elicit yet richer, I am modelled on the sun,
dry shine shedding off mottled surface but having like it a crack seed. . .
. . . I am streamy inside, taut with sugar meats, circular,
my colours are those of the sun understood by leaf liquor cells
and cells of deep earth metal, I am dressed for eyes by the blind,
perfumed, flavoured by the mouthless, by insect-conductors who kill
and summon by turns, I’m to tell you there is a future and there are
consequences, and they are not the same, I emerge continually
from the inner world, which you can’t mate with nor eat.
Les Murray, ‘Stone Fruit’
I don’t think anyone has imagined stone fruit as perfectly as Murray. I ate this peach, ‘streamy inside, taut with sugar meats’, yesterday. Two of them, in fact. I’m planning on eating more today. Peaches were always my favourite at a child, but I gave up on them years ago. They were never as I remembered – often floury, often small. But in the supermarket yesterday, I saw them, and I could tell. Sweet but bright. Its juice ran down my chin and my hands and squirted out over the wooden steps as I ate it. Liquid sunlight, all the way.
(And another gratuitous cake photo.)
I was going to write a long reflective post last night, but found I was completely exhausted, and went to sleep instead. So.
1. Birthday conversations.
M (on skype): happy birthday!
me: Thanks! My housemate made me a cake.
M: I made you a cake too.
me: oh did you? What kind is it?
M: um, it’s a very nice cake. A chocolate cake. Very light and delicate, filled with – er – cloud-cream. Yep, cloud-cream. And it’s transparent, too.
Grandma (on the phone): happy birthday!
me: thanks! and thanks for the present – I got it early. I haven’t spent any of the money yet, but I’ve eaten all the chocolates [completely amazing Swiss Glory truffles].
Grandma: oh, Granddad knew you would have eaten all the chocolates.
My brother (on email): happy birthday mel. i have to go to bed now. working at a book sale tomorrow. if only i had read as many books as you. love j.
2. The day.
My parents are here at the moment, and they completely spoiled me. We went to the David Hockney gallery in Salt Aire (something Dad has been dreaming of doing for years), and had dinner at Betty’s in Harrogate (brought back memories of last year, G&G!). I had rosti with smoked salmon, a glass of pimm’s, a glass of raspberry lemonade, rose-petal tea and a vanilla slice. And the icecream and chocolate sauce from Mum’s dessert. Yum yum yum yum yum. And then we went for a walk by the river in Knaresborough. Mum remembered taking me for evening walks in an English pram in Birmingham when I was a few weeks old.
My parents gave me aeroplane earings made by my cousin’s boyfriend and a green walking shirt. Because I got these early (a technique I recommend) they gave me more presents on the day – a veggie cookbook, socks that don’t match, and a green spoon with a hole in it. M’s giving me the best present ever – a new reserve parachute. Cool.
Usually, on a birthday, I think back over the past year. But as 29 is so close to 30, in the way that, in marking undergraduate essays, a 69 is practically a 70, I’ve been thinking more about the decade. The past year has been a wonderful blur of travel, work and play. So, I suppose, has the last decade. Ten years is quite a long time. I’ve spent half of it in England. I’ve spent most of it at university. I’ve changed a lot. I have a feeling the next ten years might be very different. Bring it on!
Today, despite growing panic about my neglected thesis, I’m off to do one of my favourite walks with Mum and Dad. Then I’m going to get hold of some new scales (because my old ones broke and I need to weigh the boxes) and finish packing the boxes to send to Norway. And next week, I’m going to squeeze all the stuff I need to organize to the edges of the day, and I’m going to make some progress on this thesis.
Mum’s here – hurrah! For someone who’s just flown across the globe with two broken arms she’s in astoundingly good shape.
Marking is done and dusted.
My wonderful and never tiring supervisor has told me that September is the month. We shall see… Secretly, my money’s on November. But either way, it’s coming together – hip hip, hooray.
It’s still warm, if not sunshiny. The new leaves put on quite a show.
I got lots of early birthday presents (thanks Mum & Dad! thanks G&G!), without even having to turn 29. I approve of that.
Sometimes a latte and a very chocolaty muffin really do solve the world’s problems. Well, maybe not the world’s problems, but definitely my own stubborn writerly problems. After slogging away at my chapter all day (with, admittedly, fluctuating levels of concentration), by half past three I couldn’t bear another moment at my desk. I trecked up to Headingley with my notebook and my printed draft, but without Webb’s Collected Poems. I have more than enough textual analysis, and always fall into the trap of doing more and more. Anyway, after ten minutes browsing in the second hand bookshop (without buying anything, phew), I settled down with aforementioned treat.
I made some lists. I ate some muffin. I wrote down some questions. I smiled at the babbie on the next table. I wrote a short paragraph comparing Webb with the writer I talk about in my previous chapter. I stirred my coffee. I was looking for something to tie this chapter together. I first wrote it two years ago, and my work on it over the past six weeks has involved chopping out vast portions of it, writing at least 8000 words of new stuff, and condensing four rambly pages into one rather nice paragraph. It was coming together, but it wasn’t there yet. I needed something else, something new, something that would bind the different sections into a coherent whole. Something that would enable me to engage in a productive way with the very good work that’s already been done on this poet. I wrote down my key words and looked at them sideways.
And then I realised. ENCOUNTER. It had been there all along, but I just hadn’t been able to see it. Hiding within my ghastly old conclusion (that one of my supervisors had been kind enough to describe as possessing a ‘certain eloquence’) were the words: ‘above all, they are moments of encounter…’ My other supervisor had already mentioned that this term might become more important, but it just hadn’t clicked.
My old chapter title was ‘Difficult Epiphanies: Francis Webb’s Middle Ages’, and I quite liked this. In fact, I was inordinately proud of it. What a lovely term, I thought. It gave me shivers. But this old title caused all sorts of problems. What has annoyed me most in my attempts to rework this chapter is the naive way I wrote about temporality, epiphany, revelation. Yes the poems do strain towards epiphanies, but they more often than not don’t get there. (And sometimes, when they do, they’re not quite convincing.) This was why I’d called them difficult epiphanies. But encounter is so much better because it encompasses so much more. And as soon as I’d latched on to it, I realised it works for every single section. Because he writes about all sorts of encounters: temporal, spatial, cultural, religious…. And there’s some really good stuff that’s been written about ‘encounter’ in an Australian context. I read it a couple of years back but it didn’t sink it. ‘Difficult encounters’, here I come.
I made some more lists. Happy, springy lists that refused to stay put on the lines. I drew smiley faces in my margins. I finished my coffee. And grinned like a Cheshire cat, all the way home.
General consensus says that my small but devoted readership must be sick to death of Halden photos by now. Especially as they are, according to general consensus, all a variation of about two and a half views. Well, it’s a small town. A small town with a river and a harbour and a fortress, which is all a small town needs and more. And at least this one’s colourful, right?
I made up for my muffin-flop on Tuesday by making yesterday what was, without a doubt, the yummiest veggie-chilli in the whole world. Diced, fried carrots, kidney beans (half of them squashed), peas and char grilled red peppers. Or capsicums, as we say in the land of sun. Mixed up with tomatoes and spices and garlic. Oh my.
And I made brownies from a recipe on the cocoa box. I thought maybe if I used a Norwegian recipe the Norwegian ingredients and measurements would contribute to my success. Well, it was a success, but more like a cake than brownies. Still.
I just got back from my first bike ride of the season. Today it was ten degrees! Almost tropical! The enthusiastic donning of my sunglasses turned out to be unnecessary. But so, thankfully, were the gloves. I stuffed them all into the pockets of my fleece, and zoomed along though 30k of hills and lakes and pine forests. The light was milky, and so were the lakes. Some had patches of ice, but they were melting fast.
I love my bike. It’s sleek and powerful, and changes gear with the flick of a finger. Not like the clunky thing I get about on in Leeds, which requires the handles to be twisted and held in place to change gear – difficult when they’re slippery with rain. No, cycling here is something else. Plus there are hardly any potholes and buses and drunk pedestrians.
Anyway, I got back around 6:30 and the man was no where to be seen. There was a note, saying he’d got a dinner invite for 6. Now, in over a year, we’ve only ever had two dinner invites, and they were on the same night. Sigh. At least I have my brownie cake.
Today I gave into a serious cake craving and made some of these. Bleh. Horrible things. Tasted like sour Yorkshire pudding. Not that I have anything against Yorkshire pudding, in its proper context.
In other news, writing is going well. Sitting at the desk all day, one sentence at a time, begins to make headway in the end. In the evenings we’ve been watching lots of Inspector Morse, including the final tragic episode that left us still feeling sad the morning after. And my cousin is the only person I know who’d resign his job as an April fools’ trick.
Teaching went much better this week. In fact it was fun. I found a table in the corner of the room, moved it to the centre of the room, and we all squeezed round it. That was part of the problem last time – no table. It’s much easier to relax around a table (for the students as well as me). We discussed a very old poem based on a very old bible story, which included a feisty lady and some serious head-chopping action. So no surprise, really, that it held everyone’s attention!
I’ve been going Eastern this term in an attempt at a more active lifestyle. Bollywood dancing and yoga. Heh. I’m pretty uncoordinated at the dancing, and yoga has left me with seriously sore shoulders, but also energy and focus and confidence. It’s quite amazing. I’ll keep it up.
This little creature has been guarding our doorstep. Looking much happier today in the sunshine than she has for a while. I wish I could kidnap her. (In reference to a previous discussion, yes, she’s a she!)
I’ve been revising the first chapter I wrote for my thesis, on Francis Webb. His poems are pretty tough, so it’s not surprising that I had trouble with it to begin with. It’s so much easier now to see where I went wrong, and how I can transform the chapter into something quite exciting. So. That’s good too.
The worst thing about being so far from home is missing out on things. The first two members of a new generation of my family arrived the day after I left Adelaide. And an invitation to my cousin’s wedding arrived this week. I would have loved to be there.
My brain’s a bit funny tonight. Must be all the exercise. The only other thing of note this week is pancakes. Tuesday was pancake day. We ate pancakes with mushrooms and spinach and feta, pancakes with warm cherries and greek yoghurt and hot chocolate sauce, and, best of all, pancakes with lemon and sugar. No photos, we were too busy gobbling.
Well, my Grandma’s chocolate cake is. Quite rightly, it is very tasty indeed. A dear friend who I lost touch with for nearly fifteen years remembers it.