Thursday, 31 December 2009

Tirami Su for Dummies :-)

Some of you know that I am rarely to be found in the kitchen; cooking and baking are none of my hobbies. But I do like my food, and there are a few things I can make which always turn out really well.

One of those is Tirami Su, and I have made one today for tomorrow's New Year's Day dinner at a friend's house.
The recipe is my ex-sister-in-law's; sometimes it does pay off that I used to be part of a Sicilian family for ten years!
Tirami Su is a dessert liked by almost everyone. It is very easy to make, but because it needs to sit in the fridge over night, you can not use it as a last-minute thing for a spontaneous invitation.

Right, shall we get started?

What you need:
An oblong plate or tray to put the Tirami Su on; a sip or two or amaretto, cocoa powder (real one, please; unsweetened), 200 g sugar, 500 g mascarpone, 3 eggs (I know - there are 6 on the picture, never mind that!), and the bisquits.

First things first - make a cup of espresso or very strong coffee; do not sweeten it. If you do not own an espresso machine or a proper coffee machine, you can make do with instant coffee - just make sure it is really strong. And, of course, for the real thing, real espresso is obligatory :-)

Spread the bisquits in one even layer on the plate or tray. They should be firmly in place and not able to slide about.

Add a sip or two of amaretto to the coffee. Consider who is going to eat the Tirami Su; if there are children, go easy on the amaretto, and in case you have to totally avoid alcohol for yourself or your guests, simply go without (it won't have the real Tirami Su taste then, but it will still be a very nice dessert).

With a teaspoon, put some of the amaretto-coffee-mixture on the bisquits. One spoonful on each bisquit is plenty; you do not want to drown the poor little bisquits, do you?

Now get a large bowl and measure 200 g sugar in it.

Add the mascarpone and the egg yolks; put the egg whites in a separate bowl.

A word of advice: Please do not be tight with the sugar! I know some people who regularly use only half of the sugar stated in cake or dessert recipes, because they are counting calories. But - Tirami Su is fattening, and it is supposed to be sweet! That's what a dessert is for, isn't it?
No-one will like a Tirami Su that tastes more of cheese (mascarpone) or of the bitter coffee and amaretto than what it should be like - creamy and sweet.
Beat the egg whites until stiff (in German, this is called egg snow - I don't know whether that is a proper expression in English, but I find it quite fitting), and mix the sugar-mascarpone-egg yolk well until it is smooth.

Put the egg snow on top of the mascarpone cream.

Take a large spoon (NOT an electric mixer this time!) and gently mix the egg snow into the mascarpone cream. Do not go hasty about this; if you stir too fast, the fluffy egg snow will go liquid and the whole cream will become too runny. When you're done, it should all be one colour without any white discernible, but it should look more like a fluff than a cream.

Get the tray with the bisquits and distribute half of the cream on top. If you put big blobs of cream there at regular intervals, it will be a lot easier to spread it evenly. Use the back of a large spoon or a broad cake knife or something like that.

Right, put the next layer of bisquits on top of the cream. Do not press them on, simply place them there. Make sure they lay right on top of the first layer, it will make cutting and serving easier, apart from looking a lot nicer.

Again, put coffee-amaretto-mixture on the bisquits, and then the rest of the mascarpone cream.

Almost there!

Put a bit of cocoa powder in a sieve, and dust the Tirami Su with it.

It is now ready to go in the fridge and sit there until tomorrow!
Let me know how you and your guests liked it :-)

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Piece of Art - or Piece of...?

Last week, I went to the Neue Kunstmuseum in Stuttgart:

The building is a glass cube with a restaurant on the top floor and the exhibition / gallery rooms on three or four floors. I had been inside once before, but only to go to the top and have a look at Königstraße (our version of Kings Road) from a different perspective.
(Which reminds me - there is another blog entry brewing in my mind about different perspectives)

My approach to modern art is a cautious one; I can be quite conservative when it comes to modern paintings, music, sculptures, ballet or theatre productions.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the Neue Kunstmuseum shows quite a variety of paintings and sculptures, some of which are (at least in Germany) really famous, like the paintings by Otto Dix.
On their website, they state that they have, with 250 works, the most important collection of Dix paintings world wide.
And that room with the Elger Esser pictures of the Sea and waves and rocks was truly overwhelming! You could almost feel the cold foam of the Atlantic on your skin, hear the crashing sound of the waves throwing themselves against the rocks, smell the salty air and hear the seagulls above!

But I digress.

Downstairs, they show a collection of... objects. One of them is a crumpled up ball of white paper.
Exactly what my cat loves to play with when I throw it around for her in the flat.
The crumpled up paper is supposed to be art.

I am sorry and probably this is entirely due to a severe lack of sophistication on my part - but to me, it is not art.
To me, it is a piss-take.

I do not mean any offence to the artist... but it does not take an artist to crumple up a piece of paper. Even my cat can do that. Maybe I should start make her earn her food and shelter and clean toilet by selling her art.

Do you really see art in everything that is officially declared as such?
Can we still call it art if it has to be explained to us that it is art?

I would quite like to start off a controversial discussion here, so don't be afraid to voice your opinion :-)

Monday, 28 December 2009

I liked the idea...

...when I read about it on Nan's blog, and so, after asking her permission to nick it, I am going to do the same:
Post the first line of each month's post over the past year and see what it tells me about my blogging year.
Right, let's go:

January and February I wasn't here yet, so my 2009 starts with
My friend and I go back a long, long way.

When the train came to a halt, she opened her eyes again, half-smiled in the direction of the man opposite her and, with a visible effort, got up from the seat.

Heavy and weighed down was how she felt that morning.

As of late, I can not help having the impression that I must be going through a rather boring period.

A few nights ago, I have finished reading "The Human Animal", written by Desmond Morris.

Of all the people you walk or drive past, stand or sit next to each and every day while you travel to and from work or go about your daily tasks, some of them could be your friends... if only you knew them.

Today, I did not have an adventure, although there was one practically offering itself to me on a silver plate.

That is what I am telling myself when, as it happens occasionally, I feel sadness trying to overwhelm me: it's just some chemicals in your brain reacting in a certain way.

Today was wet and windy - so windy, in fact, that I was in two minds about taking my umbrella when I left the house in the morning.

Why is it, I wonder, that our attention is best held by morsels of information, snippets of a story, parts of a picture?

I think it is easy enough to tell from the first lines of each entry which ones are short stories and which ones are simply musings and rambling on about some topic or other.
My most "productive" months were April and September; in November, I only wrote one entry - of course, without knowing that my husband was going to die the very next day and I would have neither time nor energy or the inclination to write for some weeks.
Two of the entries in my blog were not written by myself but by my "co-author" on (so far) two stories which we have written together on a different platform.
"How the cat lost its thumbs" is based on an idea that my sister had years ago; I have merely elaborated on her initial manuscript and translated it into (hopefully understandable) English.

2009 was, for me, a year full of changes - some very welcome and deliberate, some less so and totally unexpected.
2010 will be good to me. I think I have every reason to be optimistic.


Why is it, I wonder, that our attention is best held by morsels of information, snippets of a story, parts of a picture?
And those morsels have to be, it seems, distributed in a certain rhythm: wait too long, and people lose interest; give them too many installments in a given space of time, and after a short and intense hype, things will peter out.

Our minds are able to process a lot of input amazingly fast, but for some reason, we do not always want to know the whole story or see the full picture at once. Instead, we prefer being fed morsels.
Or how else is the success of seemingly eternal sitcoms and soap operas explainable, of series of books that go on for volumes and volumes about the same characters?

Whether this has to do with the biochemical structure of our brains or with the way the average human psyche works (one to a certain extend conditioning the other), I do not know.
But it is a topic I find intriguing, and it concerns me in quite a personal way.

Every now and then, I make the acquaintance of someone new; be it at work, in one of the online communities I am part of, in the neighbourhood or anywhere else.
Sometimes, I take an instant liking to the new person, and I have a tendency to flood the poor recipient of my attention with a lot of information about myself, to the point of probably overwhelming them with my (rather naive) openness.

Having made this experience several times in the past, I thought I'd learnt my lesson and have become more cautious in my approach, parsimoniously talking about my own background, my job, my interests and opinions.
And yet, I still seem to be too outgoing and too generous towards some of my acquaintances, not getting much (if any) response anymore after a while.

It would be a lie to say it does not hurt when that happens, because it does.
But I only have myself to blame.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Deceptive Appearances

It is nothing new: appearances can be deceptive.
Self-perception and how others perceive us is a topic I find fascinating - not so much the actual perception but how one differs from the other.

There is, of course, a lot going on in our lives other people don't know about, and mostly it is impossible for them to perceive much from just looking at us.

For example, when my husband died and I went to work again a few days later, I walked the same road to the station, I took the same train as usual, and saw a lot of the same people I see almost every day on my way there.

To them, most likely I appeared exactly the same as always, wearing the same coat, carrying the same old handbag. I looked at them and thought, they have no idea.

And just like they had no way of knowing what went on in my life, I had no idea about theirs. What did I know of their sorrows and pains, pleasures and joys? Nothing.

It is entirely possible that some of them were in a similar situation to mine; recently widowed but getting on with their lives as best as they could.

What made me want to write about this topic now, and another example of this difference in self-perception and how others might see us, was my visit to a painter's study tonight, where I was to sit for him.

So there I was, walking along the road in the cold and dark, and to anyone passing me on the way, I looked just like the average middle-aged woman, shapeless in her big padded winter coat, in a hurry to get out of the cold or to complete some errand.

They did not know that this woman was about to have pictures of herself drawn for the very first time in her life, and that she was looking forward to finding out more about the painter, his art, how he worked and what it was going to be like to sit for him.

And of course, I didn't know where those walking past me were coming from, and where they were headed. What adventures did life have in store for them tonight? Where they dreading the next few hours or looking forward to them? Had they had a good day or had it been one of those days that are best forgotten as soon as they end?

The artist, by the way, patiently answered all my questions, and I sat for him for about 2 hours. He made 4 drawings of me and wants to continue working with me soon. He even gave me one of the drawings, and I am looking forward to going back to the study in January.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


This afternoon, I am going to see friends who live about 1 hour's train ride away. It being December, by the time I'll get back, it will be pitch black dark outside, although I am not planning on staying out late.
When we set up our appointment for today, I felt somewhat apprehensive about having to travel back on my own in the dark. And earlier this morning, while I was doing the cleaning, I began to wonder why - there is hardly any difference between leaving work at 6.30 in the evening, when it has been dark for almost two hours already, and taking the train back home on a Saturday night.

It is dark when I get up, and it is dark when I come home, so what's the big deal? Why would I be apprehensive about this train trip and not about the daily one after work?
Admittedly, the general crowd out there tends to be a bit on the rowdy side on a Saturday night, as opposed to any night during the week. But I am not scared of those kids and usually I am invisible to them anyway, being middle-aged, of average-to-ugly looks and keeping quietly to myself.

Why does darkness feel different at, say, 10.00 pm than at 5.00 pm? And different again at 3.00 am?
It is always the same darkness - never really dark here anyway, what with me living in one of the most densely populated areas of Germany, city lights and all.
And yet there is something about our inner clock, I assume, that makes us feel different about being out on our own at different times of the day and night, and year; while I feel a sense of adventure rising in me when I am out during the night in summer, that changes into a sense of danger in winter, and I don't think this is only because of the temperature.

Does that stem from some very realistic sense of danger that our ancestors had, when they were still roaming the savannahs and the sabre tooth tigers would be on the prowl mainly from dusk till dawn?

Or is it to do with our general rhythm of life, active during the day, supposed to be sleeping during the night? And of course, that rhythm must have already been in place quite firmly back then in the savannah, or wasn't it?

Me not being an expert in the evolution of humanoids, I can only speculate.
Maybe one of my precious few readers can enlighten me.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Today was wet and windy - so windy, in fact, that I was in two minds about taking my umbrella when I left the house in the morning.

Once I had reached the long straight stretch of road that leads along the rail track, gusts of wind kept hitting me every few moments, so that I had to grip my umbrella with both hands. Several times, I was literally shoved against a fence or a wall, while yellow, orange and brown leaves were swirling all around me.

By the time I arrived at work slightly out of breath, my hands were very cold, my hair was all over the place and my specs needed wiping before I could do anything else.

Generally, I do not like cold weather. My preferred range of temperature lies between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius, and of course we are nowhere near that now in November.
And yet, getting blown about by the wind has something.

Who has not, some time or other as a kid, imagined what it would be like to be picked up by the storm and been taken to some distant place, high up with the racing clouds, to adventures unheard of and worlds unseen?

Right now, though, at a quarter to eleven in the evening and 6 Celsius outside in the dark, there are only very few adventures that hold much appeal for me.
Going to bed seems the wise thing to do.

Where is my blanket?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

It's just some chemicals

That is what I am telling myself when, as it happens occasionally, I feel sadness trying to overwhelm me: it's just some chemicals in your brain reacting in a certain way.

I am neither really invisible, even though I get that impression from time to time from the non-existent reaction of others, nor is anyone deliberately snubbing me.

When will I finally get the message, I wonder?
What else does it take for me to accept that I will never really matter?

It is a sobering thought, but the simple truth: everyone is replaceable, and easily, too.

Unless you are the only person who can sing a certain song in a certain way, play that instrument, dance so divinely, or safe someone's life because you are the only person around to know that specific method of brain or heart surgery.

And also unless you are the beloved child, parent, partner or spouse of someone whose life would change forever if anything happened to you.

But, essentially, it is just a chemical reaction in my brain, the result of which manifests itself to me as feeling snubbed at first, and sad later.

Sometimes I wish I could just get angry, and literally drive the anger out of my system by physical activity, but regardless of how often I have tried already, I manage to outrun said sadness only very rarely.

There is good news though, too: the sad periods are a lot rarer now than, say, a year ago.

Chemically speaking, I seem to be more balanced these days.

Hopefully, balanced does not equal boring.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


You will rarely - if ever - find me posting in German, but this time, I was looking for a good title to my entry and couldn't come up with anything fitting better and sounding more beautiful in this context than Vergänglichkeit.
It literally means "passing-ness", and dictionaries offer a variety of translations for this term, ranging from momentariness (too technical) to transience (ok, that does sound rather elegant) to caducity (never heard that one before!) or fugaciousness (pompous, somehow).

And so, Vergänglichkeit it is.

On Monday, I was on my way to work as usual, passing the tidy front gardens of the neat row of houses that accompany the road from the train station to the small industrial estate where my work place is located.

These front gardens with their variety of flowers, shrubs and seasonal decoration (that alone is enough material for another blog entry; you wouldn't believe the amount of... erm... decorative items people put on their front doors, door steps and lawns!) often provide me with material for my musings, some of which eventually make it to the virtual pages of this my mental library, and this week's Monday was no exception.

In one particularly well-kept garden, several rose bushes stand close to the fence.

To me as a non-gardener, the sheer fact that there are still roses in bloom at this time of the year is amazing enough, but what I found even more amazing was the butterfly that was seemingly using those very roses as a resting spot.

It had been bitterly cold during the night, below zero, and the day was sunny with a sapphire blue and completely cloudless sky. By lunch time, when I was on my way to work, temperatures were no higher than maybe 2 or 3 degrees Celsius.

And so I wondered, where did the butterfly spend the night? How come it was still alive, and for how much longer was it going to be alive?

I know that butterflies do hardly count among the most persistent members of the animal kingdom, but some of them must survive somehow during winter, or we wouldn't see any in the next spring and summer.

So, how do they do it?

Was this one going to be one of the survivors or would it take only one more frosty night to end its brief existence?

The whole setting - the last roses, dead but very colourful leaves on the pavement, the butterfly in the rays of the bright but cold autumn sun; it all made me feel a bit melancholy and think of the Vergänglichkeit of things and, ultimately, of myself.

Maybe I was just tired after a very busy week with no weekend to speak of.

Friday, 9 October 2009

An Adventure I Did Not Have... Part III

(Please read before you continue; thank you!)

Walter had been here for so long that he had almost forgotten about the world that was out there and up there.
Somewhere deep down in his memory, buried under layers of other memories, there were faint recollections of big open spaces, a bright and warm light called the sun, of birdsong and people's voices, of wind in his hair and grass under his feet.

But there were also memories of gunshots, of hard fists and shouting voices, and of a run that seemed to go on forever and left him so breathless and with every part of his body shaking and in pain that he thought he was going to die.

Die he didn't; instead, he found this place where there was everything he needed.
At first, he had felt apprehensive about using a bed and opening cans of food that were originally not meant for him, but when he realized there was no-one else going to claim any of it, he settled into a rhythm which, unbeknownst to him, still followed the old familiar pattern of day and night, with sleeping and waking hours.

There was not much difference between sleeping and waking here, and certainly none between day and night, and sometimes he was not quite sure whether what he saw and heard was part of a dream or really happening.
Not that he actually cared; his dreams were just as real to him as the rough blanket of the bunk bed and the cold metal of the water tap.

It was no surprise, therefore, that he was sure he was dreaming when the woman appeared.
The sounds of her cautious footsteps he had heard minutes before she reached his place, and squinted in the flickering light from those bulbs that were still intact.

What actually convinced him of her being real he couldn't tell, but the idea of coming face to face with another human after such a long time down here on his own scared him no end, and he decided to hide, slipping out of the room and shutting the metal door behind him.

Trembling, he leaned against the tunnel wall. He closed his eyes - the light still hurt him - and shook his head slowly from side to side.
Now the woman was in there, where HE belonged, not her.
Was she going to make one of the beds her own, like he had done back when he had found the room? Was she going to eat the food that had become his sustainment?

It wouldn't do, no. She was part of that other world, not of this one.
He had to do something.

So, very slowly and carefully, like someone approaching a venomous snake that will strike when it feels threatened, he opened the door again and crept back into the room.

Monday, 5 October 2009


...just below the surface.

A bit like snorkelling, I suppose, even though I have never done it myself, but it is how I imagine it:
Above me is the world of air and sunlight, of noise and wind; below, the water which gets a deeper shade of blue over there where the coral reef ends, and the play of sunlight through water on the sandy ground and the incredible variety of fish and other animals in colours so vivid you wonder whether your eyes would be able to take it all in, were it not for the softening effect of the water.

Instead, I am drifting just below the surface of being awake, with my mind still turned towards the mysterious and seemingly infinite world of dreams.

Just how the snorkelling tourist's eyes catch sight of so many different species, of wondrous formations of rocks covered in corals, of small scenes ripe with big drama, my mind drifts from scene to scene, thoughts flickering up for a moment, only to be replaced by others seconds later.

My former boss, who featured in a dream the other night (one of those dreams you can't actually remember what happened, you only know who was there); the letter I got from the insurance; what am I going to wear on the Friday night after the book fair when I will meet some friends; is there still enough muesli in the cupboard for when I'll have breakfast in a bit?; I wish this bit of duvet on my lower back was his hand; today I must not forget to take that book to work; the pumpkin soup was lovely last night, but R. didn't look very well...


For almost an hour, the drifting goes on. Sometimes I steer my mind deliberately away from one thought and on to another, sometimes I really just let it drift.

My cat wakes me up.
The drifting stops, and just like the snorkeller breaks through the surface of the water, I feel the last remnants of sleep recede from my mind, and I am here.

The day can begin.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009


How wonderful to have so many tools for recognizing and feeling textures!
Our fingertips, tongues, skin, lips, the soles of our feet - the manifold possibilities can make life an adventure in terms of textures.

Have you, for instance, ever touched a snake? In case you have not, do you wonder what they feel like?

A friend of mine had a pet boa. The animal was still a baby and measured only about half a metre in length. One of its favourite resting places was inside the sleeve of my jumper, when I was visiting my friend.
Since it was still only a little boa, and not heavy, I didn't mind it hiding in my sleeve. The smooth and dry warmth felt actually nice against my skin; it was like having a second, somewhat slimmer and slightly scaly, arm in there.

The other day, I stroke the back of a big fat carp in a pond in the castle grounds of my home town. The carp there are, I suppose, older than I am, and their skin is a bit rubbery, firm and smooth, but a little slimy. Actually, I had expected to feel the scales, but that wasn't so.

Small birds like sparrows and tits have often sat on my hands for feeding, and their tiny claws tickle the sensitive palm and fingers; a good method to practise self-control, because giving in to the tickling sensation means the birds get scared and fly away.

Fabrics like satin, silk and cashmere are, unfortunately, not part of my everyday outfits, but when I do wear something made of such luxurious quality, I truly enjoy the sensuous feeling all day.

Polished wood is something I can hardly keep my hands off, and a chestnut that has just fallen off a tree and is still shiny and newborn is irresistible.

On the rare occasion that I make pizza (believe it or not, my pizza is really good!) or any other dough with yeast, I indulge in feeling the smooth, soft, warm texture of the finished dough, and usually knead it for longer than it actually needs, just because it feels so nice.

Oh, I could go on and on about this - there are so many other wonderful textures that I have not even mentioned yet - but those few who read these excerpts from my mental library know that one of my continuous fears is to be boring, so I better stop


Monday, 21 September 2009

Town & Country

Ever since I reduced my weekly working hours from 40 to 35 last year in September, I don't appear at the office on Mondays until sometime around or after lunch.

More often than not, I walk there, and I did so yesterday.

On the fields, there was such a lot going on: the coming and going of heavy agricultural machinery made it feel like rush-hour, the crows were making a racket, and where the maize had already been harvested and some crushed cob was still on the path, flocks of sparrows were fluttering about and chirping in alarm at anything and anyone moving towards their direction.

Not even during July and August, which are supposed to be the busiest months for the owners of wheat and rye fields, have I seen such a buzz of activity.

Many times, I had to leave the narrow field lane and step on the grassy border to let the rattling tractor-pulled machines go past in whirls of dust, and there was more than one situation during which two tractors had to display surprising agility to make sure one could get past the other.

Then, across the railway bridge, it was like entering a ghost town.

For the third and last 20-minute-leg of my walk to work, I saw hardly any cars, and only three other pedestrians shared the pavement with me; a mother with a child, and a man carrying a rucksack.

Quite odd, and so I decided to write about this here.

Friday, 18 September 2009

In The Middle Of Nowhere

From the pavement running along the front gardens of a row of neat town houses, I can see a spider, about 3 cm big, seemingly hanging in mid-air.

A single thread is its bridge, leading from one big rhododendron bush to another. Below and above the spider, there is nothing but air.

And it sits there, or, rather, is suspended there, waiting for any uncautious flying insect coming its way.

Does the spider know or feel or sense where it is? Can it somehow measure the distance necessary from one point in its relatively small universe to the next, in order for it to have a chance for a meal? How and when did it decide to fasten its thread right there, between these two shrubs, and not between the next two, or between the platane trees along the pavement?
Isn't it worried about being so clearly visible to birds, who'd surely appreciate a juicy snack with eight legs?

Life without a frontal cortex must be so much easier.

Yes, there is such a thing as thinking too much (Jonah Lehrer makes that point quite understandable even for the likes of me in "How we decide"). Although that happens to me only very rarely.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A Mystery - Continued.

We have had some news from my cousin (see to know what I'm on about here).

It is all a bit confusing, and I must admit, when it comes to this part of the family, any information from them has always had to be treated with caution as to what was actually the truth and what was what we were supposed to believe.


So, my uncle's visitor stuck to his word and got in touch with my cousin after his return to the US, and she phoned my uncle.
Apparently, her husband went into hiding (probably taking all their money with him plus taking away all her documents so that she could not leave the country) but has since returned; he lives now at his parents' place in the same town as she and her youngest daughter.

At the moment, because she has not got her documents replaced yet, she can not travel, but she wants to come to Germany for good.

The husband sent my uncle an email, asking him for some official confirmation that my cousin is a German citizen (she was born in Beirut and lived in Germany only for a short time), at the same time urging him not to tell her of his request.
My uncle reacted a) by telling him that no way he was going to give him any kind of confirmation and b) by contacting the three German consulates closest to where the husband lives and asking them not to hand out any documents concerning his daughter to the husband, should he request anything from them.

Now, all we can do is wait; I do hope that my cousin will manage to get away from there, if that is what she really wants.
At least she did get in touch with her father, so we know she is still alive.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

An Adventure I Did Not Have... Or Did I? (cont.)

(Please read in order to know what this is about.
Note: This part was written by my "co-author", the same one who wrote a part for my dolphin story.)

After she had a quick bite to eat her curiosity got the better of her and she headed back to the tunnel. Armed with only her LCD keychain flashlight, she crawled over the barricade and cautiously walked down the concrete steps. It turned out that there were a dozen steps in total. When she arrived at the bottom her flashlight came across a metallic box on the wall with a lever on the side of it. She took this to be a power switch and flipped the lever.

She could hear a slight buzzing noise and then some lights overhead illuminated, showing a long tunnel. There were some dark spots which she assumed were due to burnt light bulbs. She was actually quite surprised that there were some that weren’t burnt. With the lights on she could see large arrows painted on the wall pointing inwards to the tunnel. She also saw several large looking cobwebs. She went back outside to grab a stick she had seen lying on the ground. She’d use this to help clear the cobwebs out of her way.

She placed her keychain back in her pocket and decided to see where the tunnel led. She walked roughly 50 meters before the tunnel made a sharp right turn. She was starting to get the smell of something musty. She figured that the air would be stale but it really wasn’t. The further she went in the tunnel the less stale it seemed. She walked another 20 meters before coming across a large steel door that looked more like a door to a vault.

The doorway led into a large room but without all the lights working it was hard for her to see how large it actually was. There were long rows of bunk beds along the walls and a whole bunch of tables and chairs in the middle of the room. There was a sign near the door detailing what to do in the case of a nuclear strike. It was a bomb shelter!

Beneath the sign was a clipboard with some documentation. The shelter was provided by the rail road company, for its passengers. The maximum recommended capacity was 250 people. The documentation also indicated that there was enough food and water for 1 month. There was also a backup generator in case the shelter lost power.

She decided to explore the room further. She ran her finger across the surface of a table and picked up several decades worth of dust. She slapped her hands together to shake off the dust and then wiped the remains on her pants. When she got to the back end of the room she noticed something strange. It appeared that one of the bunk beds had been made and that the covers were in disarray. There also appeared to be several cans and bottles strewn around the base of the bed.

It looked like someone was living in the shelter. Just then she heard a scraping sound from the direction of the door, which was followed by a metallic screeching sound. The vault door had slammed shut. It took her a minute to comprehend what just had happened. “No, no, no, no, no, no, noooooooooo!” She ran to the door and slapped it with her hands; they made a dull thudding sound. “Hey! Wait! There’s someone in here!!!”

After about a minute she realized that the door was too thick for any sounds to get through. She grabbed her cell phone from her purse and cursed. “There’s no signal in here. Oh crap, crap, crap, crap!” She ran around the room looking for another way out. In one corner was a door that led to the supply room and in another corner was a door that led to the washrooms. She tried one of the taps and the water was initially rusty but soon ran clear. At least she’d have drinkable water. She heard the scraping sound coming from behind her. She turned around and let out a high pitched scream.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Undivided Attention

Does it happen to you, too?

There is a customer on the phone, and after some minutes of attentively listening to them, your mind starts to wander. Not necessarily far away from work, but maybe you have just noticed several new emails have come in while you are on the phone, and quickly checking what it is they want from you now won't do any harm, will it?

I have noticed this more and more in myself, and I do not particularly like it.

When I get in touch with someone, no matter whether it is face to face or on the phone, I would like to think that I have the other person's undivided attention - at least for as long as it takes me to get my point across, to ask my question or phrase my problem.
So, naturally, someone who talks to me can expect the same from me.

What does it take, then, in order for me to really stick with the conversation until both parties are satisfied with whatever conclusion has been reached, and then move on to the next task at hand?

It seems that my attention span is not longer than the average clip on youtube, which really makes me sound like a very sad person.
I almost feel ashamed these days when, as it happened today, a customer tells me on the phone that he is really happy with my work for him and that I am very good at what I am doing, and that he has also told my boss last time they spoke.
He obviously didn't have a clue that, while we were talking (or, rather, he was talking and I was - sort of! - listening), I was checking and sorting the contents of several email accounts.

Some time ago, I was home in the evening and my sister called. I had already been on the computer when the phone rang, and some minutes into our conversation, I started to reply to a post on one of the forums where I moderate.
She stopped in mid-sentence, then said: "You aren't really typing right now, while I am talking to you, are you?!"
I could tell she was hurt, and rightly so. She - like anyone else who gets in touch with me by phone or in a face-to-face conversation - deserves my undivided attention. And I was not granting her that, and hated myself for it at the same time, apologizing to her and really meaning it.

Guess what - a few weeks later, I did the same thing again. Am I a hopeless case?

It is not that I am not genuinely interested in what other people tell me - I am!
With my customers, I really strive to make them happy (in business terms only, of course), and I like my job.
Face to face conversations can not always guarantee undivided attention. When a colleague is telling me about what she's been doing last weekend, this kind of conversation will instantly be interrupted as soon as work (i.e. a customer) demands we be there for them.

Maybe I need to practise more.
At home, I can take the phone away from the computer and speak without looking at the monitor. At work, this is not so easy, since I usually am required to look things like prices and lead times up for the customer as we speak.
But, with a little self-discipline, it shouldn't be too difficult to give my conversation partners what they desverve:
my undivided attention.

Helpful suggestions are most welcome. Seriously.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

About Reading

Of course there has been a time when I did not yet know how to read, but I can't remember it very well.
To re-evoke the feeling of not being able to read is not so hard, though; I simply have to look at anything written in Cyrillic characters, Arabic writing, Chinese signs and so on to remember what it was like before I was five years old and my sister taught me how to read after she had just mastered that art during her first few weeks at school.

The letters that are used in the precious few languages that I do know are very common all over the world, and so I can often "read" something even if I do not understand it.
And although I know exactly that I haven't got a clue about Czech or Hungarian (these two just being examples for the vast majority of languages that I do not know), I am still compelled to read whatever crosses my path.

Whether I am interested or not.

I read, because I know how to.
I read, because something written is there, in front of my eyes.
I read, because the letters do have a meaning and were put there, and in that order, for a reason.
I read, because I can't help it.

The milk carton, the adverts on the train, the cryptic error message on an internet page that does not work properly, the times on a sign that tells you when you are allowed to park at a certain spot in town (I do not even own a car)... all these, and much much more, I read. All the time. There is no stopping it, no un-learning of something as basic as this once I had learnt it.

And so I keep reading.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

An Adventure I Did Not Have

Today, I did not have an adventure, although there was one practically offering itself to me on a silver plate.

On my way home, I loosely follow the rail tracks leading through the small town where I work to the bigger town where I live.
At various points, those rail tracks are crossed by bridges.
One of the narrower bridges was blocked off when I walked past today, and there was a rather big hole in the road in front of it.
Something in the hole caught my eye, and I went back to have a better look.

What I saw were three or four concrete steps, leading from an underground room which had obviously been there all along and was now exposed, into a tunnel just about big enough for an adult to crawl through it, and that tunnel seemed to go right underneath the now blocked-off bridge.
The underground room was empty apart from common building debris, and the steps were clean; the tunnel was a black square with nothing visible in it.

What was the purpose of both the room and the tunnel? Who built it there, and when?
The bridge itself is not very old; it was, if I am not mistaken, erected in the 1950s or 60s, so the room and the tunnel are most likely from the same period.

The road block was only about hip-high, and I could have easily climbed over it and down into the hole to investigate the mysterious tunnel.
As a child, I am quite sure I would have done it.
Now, though, I heard the group of cleaners that had just come out of the big office building I had walked past a few minutes ago, almost right behind me.
And it was late, I had been at work for almost 10 hours and was starving, my stomach constantly reminding me with loud rumbles that I should really go home and get something to eat.

My tummy won.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Accept, Deny or Do Nothing At All?

This is the question that, from time to time, I ask myself in the context of online networking.

Like many other people, my profile can be found on several online platforms, one of which I have joined primarily for business reasons, the other ones for entertainment, fun and in the hope of coming across like-minded individuals and people who give me food for thought and interesting stuff to read, or simply to search for long-lost acquaintances and friends.

Ever since I have begun venturing into and setting up these networks some 5 years or so ago, I have been relatively successful in finding what I came looking for, but there are still some aspects to the whole networking thing that I do not fully understand, one them being the reasons for some people to contact me.

You know how that works: you get a "friends request" or a "contact request" (the naming varies from platform to platform, but you get the idea), and then you decide whether to accept or deny the request - or simply not act on it at all.

On a business platform, the obvious reason for someone to contact me would be because either that person is looking for something that I can offer, or they want to offer something I am looking for (which is clearly stated in my profile).
Not so different, although more subtly, when it comes to social networking platforms.
Someone who wishes to be my "friend" (which is not really what they can be if we have never even been in touch before, let alone met in the offlline world) is maybe of the opinion that what I list as my interests, likes and dislikes in my profile matches theirs.

And yet, I do get requests on both types of platforms that, at least at first sight, do not show any obvious reason for getting in touch with me: our business areas do not overlap at any point, and there are no common interests, taste in music or other such things.

Sometimes, I reply to the requestor, asking them in a friendly and polite manner (yes, I can be both, if necessary!) to give me at least one reason for their request.
More often than not, there is no reply. Ever. To me, that was that then, and after about a week or so, I delete the request.
In other cases, the people thus asked have replied in such pissed-off tone (which was really not necessary), putting into question my own motivation for being part of such a network.
But does it automatically mean I have to be "friends" with each and everyone on such a platform, only because I decided to join a network and create my own part of it?
Not to me, it doesn't.

That many of the requestors have not even bothered to look at my profile properly is evident to me. How else can I explain that I get requests to be "friends" with some heavy metal band or other, when NOTHING in my profile lets anyone believe I am into heavy metal? (This, of course, just being an example. You could replace "heavy metal" with "cooking", "football", "cars", "celebrities" and many other subjects I am not interested in.)
So, if they can't be bothered to look, why have they contacted me?
Are they merely collecting contacts, taking pride in the sheer number that sits next to their name?
If that is the case, then, thank you very much, I politely decline from being just another number.
Do nothing at all seems to be the worst option. I don't particularly like it myself when I am trying to get in touch with someone and all I get as a response is... nothing.

(See )

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Beauty, unexpected

Travelling by train seems to be good for my mind, as those precious few people who read this blog may have noticed, at least as long as I am not stuck for 1 3/4 hours in Fulda and lose my reservation along with the connection or some other such minor hiccup, courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.

My last train trip was to Cologne and back, where I spent the week working at a fair.

The ICE stops, among other places, in Mannheim, and so it was already slowing down when we came through the Handelshafen area there on our way in; otherwise, I would never have come across the unexpected beauty this blog entry is about.

Like all freight harbours (this one being the Rhine/Neckar harbour), it is far from picturesque.
It is surrounded by industrial zones and some rather shabby living quarters; the actual harbour area itself is dotted with dilapidated warehouses and rusty iron structures that once certainly served their purpose well but have long gone out of use.

Amidst all those boarded-up doors and smashed-in windows, sooty brick walls and crumbling concrete pillars, suddenly a tiny enclave of life and colour comes into view.
Someone has created a small garden on top of the flat roof of one of the more stable-looking buildings, complete with white-washed walls and potted plants.
There is even a deckchair, waiting for its owner to sit down and have a rest.
And the plants are not just put there and left to their own devices; they look well cared for and have been placed carefully so that they provide a little oasis of green in middle of all the dusty greys and browns.

Whoever lives in that house has probably, at some stage, taken the decision to stay instead of moving to some nicer quarters, but instead of resigning themselves to the surrounding shabbiness and neglect, they have claimed this their very own corner of the earth, and have done well at that.

Sometimes there is beauty to be found in the most unexpected places.

Thinking of Pripyat now and wishing I could go there and see it for myself.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

A Mystery

While I was sunbathing today, enjoying the typical Sunday afternoon lull in outdoor activities which generally keep my neighbours rather noisy at all times of day and night, I replayed something in my head that my mother told me yesterday.

It was her birthday last week, and her brother (i.e. my uncle) called. After expressing his best wishes and going through some of the usual, polite (genuine to a certain extent) exchange of news about family members, state of gardens and houses etc., he suddenly asked her whether I or my sister had recently been in touch with his youngest daughter, our cousin.

Now, this cousin of ours is in her early forties, has three children ranging from early to late teens and early twenties, and lives in Arizona; none of us have ever been there to visit, nor has she been over here in Germany again ever since leaving with her husband, who, as part of the army, was transferred back to the US after the first Gulf War.
Our only communication with her consisted in one or two letters soon after she had left (we did not have email at that time yet) and the odd piece of news we would hear about her through my uncle and aunt.

My mother knew that neither of us had been in touch with C., and told her brother so, asking why he wanted to know.

Thing is, he told her, that she has disappeared. Vanished. Become invisible. Gone off the planet.

C.'s husband has been given to gambling and drinking for years, and caused her and the children much grief in the past. There were, apparently, times when things were looking up for them, but my uncle said that recently E. had taken once again a turn for the worse and got into serious trouble due to his gambling debts (and who knows what else).

As she, being his wife, would naturally be held accountable for his debts along with him, we now assume that they have left the state and have gone into hiding somewhere.
My uncle says she has not replied to his emails for several weeks now, and the phone is dead (probably disconnected because they did not pay their bills).
We have no clue about the family's whereabouts and hope they are going to get back on their feet, and that the silence is voluntarily from their side and nothing worse has happened to them.

There is an unexpected twist to this matter:

My uncle lives in a very old house in a small village in the area that in Germany is known as Hohenlohe. This house once belonged to a baron, and since my uncle bought it, he became interested in the history of the place and of the family that used to own it and much of the surrounding land.
The other day, there was a summer fête at the village, and my uncle had been watching the comings and goings of villagers and visitors from his garden.
Late in the evening, someone rang his doorbell.
He had not been expecting anyone and was surprised to find two men at his door, one of them maybe in his 70s, the other one a good 20 years younger.

They apologized for intruding on him like this and explained that the older man was born in this very house, had come visiting with his son for the village fête and, curious about who lived in it now, had persuaded him to go up to the house with him.

This alone is not such a strange thing to happen, I guess.
But, once my uncle invited them both in and showed them the house and the modifications and renovations he had made, and he asked the older man where he lived now, it turned out that he lives in a trailer park in Bullhead City, AZ - the last known address for my cousin and her family!

The man did not know the family personally, but he promised to try and find out about them when he is back there, and stay in touch with my uncle.

I like a good story, but this is much more. Real people, people I know and who are part of my family, are involved. Still, I feel strangely detached, maybe precisely because it is such a story-like set-up.
Will we ever hear from my cousin again, I wonder?

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

We Could Be Friends

Of all the people you walk or drive past, stand or sit next to each and every day while you travel to and from work or go about your daily tasks, some of them could be your friends... if only you knew them.

Walking home from work today (you guessed it - across those often-mentioned sunlit fields again), I thought about that. And not for the first time.

While I was moving along the path towards my hometown, a woman came cycling the opposite direction.
When she was close enough, for some reason, we smiled at each other, and that was it.
The encounter, if you can even call it that, lasted for the blink of an eye.
Or the length of a smile.

There are usually several cyclists on the fields when I am out there, as well as people who walk their dogs, push a pram, go for a run or simply walk, like I do.
But only occasionally, a brief and fragile link is formed by that most universal of human facial expressions, the smile.

The woman on the bike was, I guess, maybe 10 years younger than I, with more-than-shoulder-length dark brown wavy hair, beautiful skin the colour of milky coffee, wearing a green t-shirt and jeans. Her face was pretty and made even prettier by that smile - something I am always ready to admire in other people, especially since my own smile is a rather unpretty sight.

Why did I think of her as a possible friend? Just because she was really good-looking?
I am shallow, but not that shallow; certainly only very few of my friends have been grown on a beauty farm.

The term "friend", in itself, has to be used with discernment here.
Being a sociable animal like all humans (some more, some less so), I have a wide circle of friends and acquaintances; in more modern terms, my network for socializing is quite big.

Close friends, though, are something else; here, the number goes down to a one-digit-figure.
And closest friends I have two, determining the "closest" factor by how much I trust them and the amount of personal (very personal, indeed) information I have chosen to reveal to them and they, in turn, to me.

One of these is, hardly surprising, my sister. She naturally knows a lot about me, having grown up with me and lived in the same house for 18 years.
But she does not know everything about me, nor do I know everything about her.
The other one knows some of the things about me that not even my sister knows.
Still, he does not know everything about me (nor does he need or want to).

So, how and why do we choose our friends, and they us?
Is the closeness we feel on our side of the friendship the same that they feel?
Could we be totally wrong in thinking we are close friends with someone, while they, at the same time, merely see us as "one of so many", as an acquaintance?

The woman on the bike has, most likely, forgotten about me seconds after she was past me; she is probably simply a friendly person with a ready smile.
But she could, right now, just as well be sitting at home at her computer and writing a blog entry about friends.
Yes, I like that idea!

Friday, 31 July 2009

Fact or Fiction?

A few nights ago, I have finished reading "The Human Animal", written by Desmond Morris.
Not all of what he wrote was new to me, but there were some surprising insights, and one theory I had admittedly never heard of before:

The Aquatic Ape.

Now, this is not Mr. Morris' theory, but was brought up first in 1930 by marine biologist Alister Hardy.
In short, the theory says that, at some stage during our evolution from ape to human, there was possibly a period which saw us living so close to the water that we were practically living in it.
His idea was of an early primate who settled on islands close to the East African coast to get away from predators, and lived there in small colonies, more or less leading the lifestyle of some sort of "tropical penguin".
The body changed to become a veritable swimming "machine". The "aquatic ape" would have been, like a penguin, very agile in water but rather clumsy on land.

Hardy uses some facts about our bodies to underline his theory:

- Our spine is more flexible than that of the other primates, which enables us to swim more like an otter than like an ape.
- We shed tears, just like many other sea-living animals, but none of the other primates do.
- Our sense of balance is as good as that of a sea lion, and much better than that of the other primates.
- We have shed our thick furs, which is typical for primates but not for sea-living animals. Those always have very short or no fur at all. Being streamlined like this makes moving in the water a lot easier.
- We still have remnants of webbing between our fingers and toes. Some say that this is simply how all primates' hands are built, but the chimpanzee (our closest relative, genetically speaking) does not have them.
About 7 percent of humans alive today have properly webbed toes.
- We are still quite capable swimmers, whereas the big apes can't swim at all.
- We can hold our breath up to 3 1/2 minutes under water. No other primate has such control about their breathing, not even remotely.
- Like other sea-living animals, we have a diving reflex. As soon as our face is covered with water, our automatic reaction is to close our respiratory passages, and the tiny bronchial tubes contract, even if the rest of our body is totally dry.

None of the other primates has this reflex.
- Our noses are formed in a way that no water gets in when diving. No other primate has a nose formed like this.
- Newborn babies automatically hold their breath under water and swim without fear.

This is, of course, only a very concise summary of the points Desmond Morris mentions in his book.

Within seconds of research on the internet, I found a site which examins the Aquatic Ape Theory in a scientifc, critical manner:

Have you come across this theory before?
And what do you think?

Don't worry - I'm not looking for an outbreak of fierce pro-and-con-arguments; I am just - as usual - very curious :-)

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Loneliness Deserved

(This is the continuation of my "Dolphin" story: )

The storm had long blown over, and, in retrospect, life had gone back to normality at a surprising speed; daily business was soon resumed by almost everyone, including herself.
There was work and there were her walks along the beach which she had taken up again only a few weeks after the storm, always looking out for her friend, the dolphin.

As before, the dolphin was sometimes there and sometimes he wasn't; she was used to the erratic pattern (wich really wasn't much of a pattern at all) of his visits to "her" part of the beach.

Then, there came a period of prolonged absence.
Such periods had been there before, and when at first she had been terribly worried about the dolphin's wellbeing, she now knew that those periods were necessary and natural; a dolphin did, after all, have to do dolphin things from time to time.

But this time, when the period of absence ended and the dolphin came within her eyes' reach again, she had the distinct impression that something was different.
She could see the dolphin, and see that he was looking well and healthy, happily playing with those of his kind, but he would not come closer, as had been his habit before, or acknowledge her presence in any other way.

This went on for several days, and days turned into weeks.
At work, she sought to finish her tasks early so that she could hurry to the beach as soon as possible, always thinking "today he'll be there again!", only to see her hopes crushed once more.

She searched within her memory for anything that she could have possibly done to make the dolphin angry at her - could dolphins actually get angry? at humans? - but did not find an answer.

One evening, she had dashed to the beach again, and saw the dolphin in the distance.
Suddendly, exhaustion flooded her, and she sat down on the sand.

The old familiar feeling of being rejected was no surprise to her; too often in her life she had already been confirmed in her conviction that she must be, as a human, so faulty nobody could stand being around her for longer than necessary, and so boring that she could not hold anybody's attention long enough for friendships to grow properly (family not counting - they didn't have a choice).

If I disappeared off the face of the earth, she mused, what would happen?
The three or four family members that lived close by would most likely be the only ones to try and find out where she was; at work, people would probably be talking about her sudden disappearance for a while, and when someone new would be employed in her place, they would forget about her; and as for the other people who knew her in the way neighbours usually know each other, they wouldn't even notice her being gone.

Face it, she thought, you simply do not matter. You have never mattered and never will, and that's the long and short of it.

Grow up.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Sound of Summer

The hour-long walk from work to home is something I have mentioned on here before, for instance in this entry I wrote back in May:

Today was one of the rare finer days we have had this month.
Overall, July was way too wet, and sometimes too cold, for my liking (and not only mine).
So, every chance I get, I am out there, enjoying the time and space I have almost entirely to myself between leaving work and arriving home.

As soon as I reach the edge of the fields, the sound changes.
Instead of cars, trains and people, all of a sudden, the sonic world seems to consist of the dominating sound made by the omnipresent cricket.

It is the main thread for the acoustic carpet covering those fields, and it has a pretty pattern weaved in, of lark song and softly rustling leaves in the hedges and the less soft rustling of the stems of wheat and rye alongside the whispering of the dark green maize leaves.
Every now and then, it is punctuated by the call of a buzzard, or the barking of a dog far away.

Have you ever listened to - really listened to - the Summer-part of Antonio Vivaldi's much-abused "Four Seasons"?
If you have, you have heard the crickets, providing the sonic canvas for the image of an exhausted and dusty landscape, breathing heavily under a merciless sun, until its power is temporarily broken by a mighty thunderstorm.

Such is, for me, the sound of summer.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Every day, we catch glimpses of other people's lives. Sometimes, a whole scene is acted out in our view, as if we were spectators to the play that is their lives, but more often, we catch only the briefest of moments, as if we were flicking through a photo album showing different people set in different backgrounds on every photograph without knowing who the depicted people and where those places really are.

Not all of those glimpses are nice (see; some leave us indifferent, and a precious few make us smile.

Here are the last two that made me smile:

During my usual lunch break walk, I came past a young woman, almost a girl still. She was pretty and curvy, with long curly hair, and wearing tight-fitting jeans with a t-shirt in the Brazil colours green and yellow. A young man was walking the opposite direction. He had ultra-short hair and a lanky walk. Once the two of them were past each other, maybe 20 steps apart, they both briefly turned their heads back to look at the other one, and immediately back again, when they realized they were both looking.
It was such a normal thing to do - to cast a second glance at someone who strikes you as attractive - and yet somehow... charming.

I walked on, and my mind started spinning a possible continuation of that micro-story, how those two could eventually act on that instant of mutual attraction, stop and talk to each other, and take it from there.

The second glimpse I caught at the station where I wait for my train every morning (stations are a good spot for observing people and later writing about them, it seems).

A train that does not stop at the small town where I work was in before mine, and people went on and off as usual. Just when the doors were closing and the train was set to depart, an elderly man came rushing up the stairs. When he saw the closing doors, he stopped in his tracks and gave a resigned shrug, his shoulders visibly drooping now.
The conductor saw him, calling out and waving him to the one door he was still holding half open, and then extended his hand, helping the now smiling man up the steps and onto the train.

This time, my mind was making up a background story for both the man and the conductor, with the reasons why the man wanted to catch that train, and what made the conductor stop, wait for him and help him.

None of these glimpses will ever make it to a full story, I suppose, but at least the young woman in the Brazil t-shirt, the young man with the short hair, the elderly train passenger and the conductor have now all been eternalized in this here my blog.

And who knows - someone might even read it.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Keep Walking

We have had some truly wonderful sunny days, with temperatures reaching 28 to 31 Celsius in the afternoons. I love summer and positively thrive in hot weather, whereas I find it hard to deal with the cold.

Today was yet another one of those fine days, and my turn to mind the phone at the office until 6.30 pm.
Of course, at that time, there are still about three hours of daylight left in early July, and to make the most of it, I decided to walk home across the sunlit fields from the small town where I work to the slightly bigger town where I live, which takes me about one hour at a leisurely pace.

Alas, shortly before I was to leave, a rumbling of thunder, a sudden darkening of the sky, and an almost tropical rainfall started.

Nobody was left at the office who could have given me a lift to the train station, so, sticking to my original plan of walking home, walk I did, simply taking my sandals off and splashing my way along the road, where the heavy rain was causing bubbling rivulets to rush past.

Hardly surprising, there weren't any other people out and about, but those who sat in their cars all looked at me and my soaking wet dress, bare feet and dripping hair.

By the time I reached the place where I can choose between going right to the station or straight ahead towards the fields, I went straight ahead.
I was so utterly, totally and completely soaked to the skin that it did not matter if there was more water coming from above, and besides, the rain was warm and felt nice and not cold and hard as I had expected.

Once I was on the fields, the rain stopped.
My dress slowly dried, my skin and my hair more quickly, and when I arrived home, nobody would have guessed that I had just been through a tropical shower.

Maybe there is a small lesson in all that for me.

Next time life soaks me, I will simply keep walking.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Networking of Maize

Months ago, a friend sent me an article about how people who are part of the same social network - even if they do not know each other personally but are friends of friends - can influence each other when it comes to happiness, weight, health issues and so on (you can read the full articlet here: )

While I was walking home from work across the sunlit fields the other day, I was wondering whether plants know some form of networking, too.
Of course they do, to a certain extent, "network" when pollen is passed from one plant to the other. But is there more?

Looking closer at the field of maize I was walking past, I noticed that, in spite of the field having been worked on with the most efficient and modern machinery agriculture knows in this part of the world, the plants were far from uniform.
The rows were not entirely regular; the single plants seemed to be spaced at intervals resembling a barcode with some narrow bars closer together and then a gap slightly wider and then maybe only two bars close before the next gap, and so on.
No obvious pattern that I could detect there and that could have been caused by, say, the rhythm at which the sowing machine had dropped the seeds into the soil earlier this year.

Also, there were whole clusters of plants that did not grow as high and did not look as healthy as the others. None of those smaller plants stood single, there was always a patch of other, similar-looking ones around, as if they had been grouped according to size and health on purpose.

No other obvious factors were present to explain the (mostly oval or round) patches; no nearby tree was casting its shadow across, no pieces of rocks broke the uniform brown of the soil, and they were too far from the path and too big in size to be caused by dogs leaving some unwelcome chemicals behind in their irrigational efforts.

Now, of course I know that plants do not walk about and choose freely among their fellow plants where they want to take root and grow.
But still, the grouping is there, clearly visible even for someone like me who does not know much about plants in the first place.

So, is there such a thing as networking for maize and other crop?

If anyone knows, please tell me. It sounds like it could be a fascinating topic to follow up on.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


...comes in various forms.

Sometimes it is about things that seem so irrelevant they are hardly worth mentioning, let alone writing about them, like going to a party you were really looking forward to and then it was all a bit dull really, or you went to this fancy restaurant, expecting a delicious and outstandingly excellent meal and instead were served, at best, average food.

We can tell our friends, family members and colleagues at length about such minor disappointments, and most people will readily contribute with similar stories or recommendations about what they would have done and what you should have said and so on.

Then, there are those incidents when life itself throws a stick in between the wheels that we like to think we keep running so smoothly; when things happen (or, in some cases, do not happen) and occurrences occur which thwart our plans and intentions.
These disappointments cut deeper, leaving us with futile preparations and crushed hopes, when the barbecue we had been shopping for can not come about due to bad weather, or the far-away living friend we were so much looking forward to seeing on a certain day can not make the trip because other obligations take precedence.

The more or less helpful comments of well-meaning people on how to deal with this kind of disappointment are usually not very welcome, and so we tend to talk a little less about these.

But the disappointment that - at least for me - truly cuts to the bone is when I am disappointed with myself.
There are no extenuating circumstances and there is no such thing as mercy when it comes to me having let myself down, truly or merely in my imagination.
This does not happen often, mainly because I do not have very high expectations towards myself, but it did happen last week. Combined with the not-so-good news from a friend and some harsh words spoken at home (all three completely unrelated to each other), it was enough to almost reduce me to tears, something that happens very, very rarely (yes, the cold-blooded thing again: ).

Why was I disappointed with myself?
Because I did not feel like running. I found it a drag. I found it too wearisome and arduous. It wasn't as much fun as it usually is, I felt unfit and, in simpler words, just couldn't be arsed.
So I walked about half of the time I actually had meant to be running, and came home grumpy and angry at myself (there really was no-one else I could have blamed).

The remedy?
On the next day, I was out again, and this time, the joy was back, the motivation was all there, the fitness level what I have come to realistically expect of myself. It was fun!

Sometimes I suppose I just have to give myself a chance. A second and third one, if necessary.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Should I Have Helped?

Two incidents, both happened yesterday, and while I mentally shrugged off the first one, for some reason I do not fully understand myself, the second one is still niggling at my conscience (or, what's left of it - I've never been very good at this part of the average human's mental make-up, I'm afraid).

On my way home from work, I had to wait at the train station a bit longer than usual, since it was a bank holiday in my part of Germany, with trains running less frequent than on a normal working day.
The other people waiting on the platform were mostly cyclists and grandparents with small children, turning in from daytrips that had probably been quite adventurous, judging from the excitement in the kids' voices, the tiredness on the grandparents' faces and the mud splashes on the bikers' legs.

One youngish woman stood a little apart from the rest, next to a bench where she had placed her handbag. She stood there at an odd angle, not unlike a tree that will fall down with the next gust of wind. And she did not stand still, she was swaying. Sideways.
Then some coins fell out of her hand, and she slowly bent down to pick them up. She didn't get back up, but instead first knelt and then sat on the ground, her head slowly sinking to her chest.

People did look in her direction, and then quickly the other way. Those with children pulled them a bit further along the platform.

I walked up to the woman and asked her whether she needed help.
She shook her head and, the effort visible on her rather pale face, scrambled back up to her feet, not taking my oustretched hand.
Once again, I asked whether there was anything I could do for her. No, was the answer.
So I suggested she sit down on the bench, next to her bag. Again, no. "I get dizzy when I sit down." Oh yeah, right. Logical, that.
She did not smell of alcohol, but she was clearly drugged up with something, and apparently there really wasn't anything I could do for her at that moment, so I went back to where I had stood before.

When the train arrived, I watched to make sure she was actually getting on safely and not falling down the gap between train and platform, and when I had to get off, she was still on the train.

Later at home, the doorbell was rung. Not once or twice, no, three times in what I can only describe as a frantic manner.
I didn't expect anyone, and our front door is not visible from the street, so it is normally just people who know either me or my neighbours, or the postman to find their way here.

Looking out of the window (because no-one replied when I pressed the intercom and asked who was there), I saw a man with Asian features, who in almost unintelligible German tried to explain something about a restaurant, a train ticket, and money. At least those were the words I thought I made out. He said a lot more, and the most clearly understandable two bits were "Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut" and "No, no English, solly" (he really said "solly").

When I thought I'd understood he urgently needed money for a train ticket, I asked "Wollen Sie Geld?", to which he replied with yet another stream of words, which sounded almost exactly like what he had said before, so I still wasn't any the wiser.

In the end, I just watched as he, obviously frustrated by his lack of success in explaining or my lack of success in understanding, threw his arms up in the air and left.

It still puzzles me why, if he really needed money for a train ticket, he rang my doorbell. I live about 10 minutes from the station, where there are plenty of people hanging about he could have asked, and like I said, our front door is not even visible from the street.
He probably was asking for help with some entirely different matter, and I just got it completely wrong.

The man did not look like a criminal (now, I know criminals rarely have "I'm a criminal" stamped on their forehead), his overall appearance was normal and clean, and yet I did not even go downstairs to try and work out what he really wanted by talking to him on the same level.

I wonder whether I should have simply gone down and give him a tenner and see his reaction.
It wouldn't have killed me.
Should I have helped?