Monday, 18 February 2019

Spring on Saturday

For a few days in a row now, we have had wall-to-wall sunshine and, after frosty nights and mornings, very mild days with temperatures reaching 15-16 Celsius (around 59 F). Such warm days are not completely unusual for February; we've had them before, but mostly such years have then seen another cold spell, even with snow, in late March or even April. Well, we shall see what happens this year. In the meantime, we made the most of it and spent as much time outdoors as we could.

On Saturday, that meant going up to OK's parents' allotment and getting it ready for an afternoon with the family. We swept the patio, opened the shed, pulled out the home-made wooden benches and table and brushed off the cobwebs. Then, while OK and his dad started the fire, I got my first cautious sunbathing of the year! It was really nice and warm directly in the sun, but I was glad for my padded coat as a blanket.

Once the rest of the family arrived, we started with coffee and cake in the sun and even had a bottle of mulled wine (a last reminiscence of the Christmas season). Later on, we put strips of bacon on the grill and had them in crispy rolls - wonderful! So, everything in a day from sunbathing to mulled wine.

We packed up as the sun was setting, providing us with a beautiful backdrop. I could have taken pictures every few seconds, as the sky was just so heartstring-tuggingly beautiful. As soon as the sun disappeared, it was very noticeably February again, and we were glad to get home and spend the rest of the evening in the warm house. Should I let you know that OK and I each had a large bowl of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, topped with Bailey's, and watched silly stuff on TV? Well, I just have done.

The above two pictures were taken within half an hour of each other: First, the last of the golden sunshine lighting up the trees, and just before six pm, it all had a rosy glow from the setting sun. My photos can not do the real thing justice, but maybe they can convey an idea of how beautiful it was.

This stag's head is made of metal and was put on a pole in a vineyard next to the allotment. I quite liked the sight of its silhouette against the evening sky.

Sunday saw us out in the sun again, this time for a run. Actually, on my part, it was less of a run and more of a series of short jogs with walking in between. This was only my second "run" since late November, and my condition is nowhere near I'd like it to be. But we were out in this great weather, and that was good.
In the afternoon, we met up with a group of friends at a café in a very picturesque village/small town nearby. It being such a lovely day and a Sunday, of course the place was packed, but one of our friends had booked a table and so we enjoyed our coffees, cakes and catching up.

The train ride home worked out alright, but I had to start half an hour earlier than intended, as the first one of the two trains I normally take on a Sunday night was held up with no reliable information when it would arrive. So as not to lose my connection, I took an earlier train, and arrived home around a quarter to 11 at night, as usual.

Since I last wrote about my Dad, he has improved even more, and been out several times on his own; to the shops, to the hairdresser's and even to my sister's, which was the longest walk he has done in many months. I honestly would not have thought it possible, but he showed us all that he can still do quite a lot if he wants! He even brought my Mum flowers - something he used to do regularly when he was still driving, but of course could not do since September. Unfortunately, both my parents are now down with colds, but that is only temporary. 

Less than five weeks now before my sister and I will travel to Yorkshire! Life is very good for me at the moment, but I am not forgetting those of my friends who are less lucky.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Read in 2019 - 4: The Valley

The Valley
Richard Benson
A physical book (for a change) and one that kept me company for months - I only managed to read a few pages in the evenings, although it became easier when I replaced the light on my bedside table.

"The Valley" is the real story of Richard Benson's family. The subtitle says "A Hundred Years in the Life of a Yorkshire Family" - and you can imagine that got my attention!

The book follows four generations of a rather widespread family, most of them living in the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire. Now, my late husband was born and raised in Wath-upon-Dearne; my mother-in-law still lived in the same house where he was born until about 15 yeras ago, when she moved to Ripon to be closer to her daughter (and to downsize). She grew up in Thurnscoe, which often features in the book, too; a typical mining village like many others at that time and in that area.

There is a lot about mining and especially the Miners' Strikes in the book. I knew some of it from what Steve had told me years ago, but even now, after reading it in chronological order, I confess I am still somewhat confused and would not really be able to explain it all to someone else.

Life was certainly harsh there and then, and even harsher to some. But people also were people, with the same dreams and hopes, wishes and needs as us. They worked hard to give their children a better life, and they longed for love and friendship like everyone else. Their plans did not always work out; accidents, politics and other events got in the way sometimes. But they managed by relying on each other and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Because I sometimes let an entire week go by before I picked up the book again, I sometimes had to refer to the very useful family tree in the front of the book, so as not to remind myself of who was who. The author himself features only marginally; his focus switches between the various branches of the family, but he never lets his grandmother Winnie out of sight for long, whose 92 years of life set something of a framework to this impressive book.

No matter whether you have a special attachment to Yorkshire or not, this is a very readable book - not fiction, more like a family history the way probably every one could tell about their own family, if only we could be bothered (and had the time) to write it all up!

My sister gave this to me, but unfortunately, I can not remember whether as a Christmas gift or she only lent it to me. In any case, I was sad to finish it, even though it took me so long, and I would like to read the other book by Richard Benson, "The Farm", which is about the farm (surprise!) the family on his father's side worked and lived on, and where he grew up.
Richard Benson's website is here. Sadly, his blog seems to be hibernating since 2016.

Read in 2019 - 3: Das Erbe der Weisen

Das Erbe der Weisen - Eine Kindheit in Afghanistan
Zahra Hussain

Another book I have read in German, and another free ebook from the Kindle shop.

Only now, doing research for this review, did I find out that this is not an autobiographical account of the author's childhood and youth in Afghanistan, but fictional. However, a lot of it has either really happened to the author or to someone she knew.

- - -

Safia is the eldest of five siblings. She and her family live in a small village in Afghanistan. They are not rich, but they get by with a few animals, growing their own fruit and vegetables and her father training to become a Mullah. Safia is responsible for most of the household chores and looking after her younger siblings, while her stepmother spends her days playing hostess to her female friends, exchanging village gossip, drinking tea and eating too many sweets. 

As a girl, Safia has no access to any formal education, and no right to make decisions on her own. At around 13, her period starts; when her father notices, he beats her and locks her up in the house, as is the custom in the village. She is now betrothed to a much older man she has never met before, and the wedding is set to be in two years.

Meanwhile, the political situation in Afghanistan becomes more and more unstable and confusing. Most of the villagers are Hazara, an ethnic group who are regarded as sub-humans by other ethnic groups in the country. When the Taliban come closer, many flee; eventually, Safia's family also has to flee, her step-mother being badly hurt and one of her younger sisters dying on the way to Bamiyan.

After a long and exhausting flight, mostly on foot, the family find shelter in one of the caves in the Bamiyan rocks. But even there, the Taliban do not leave them in peace; they blow up the world-famous giant Buddha statues in the rock face and establish their regime, forcing the men to wear long beards and the women under the burqa. Of course, life was harsh and unfair for women before that, but now it becomes almost unbearable.

Still, it puts off the dreaded wedding, and Safia even manages to get in touch with the boy she loves, a childhood friend of hers from the old village. He arrives at their cave one day, with his elderly mother in tow. In the years that have passed since Safia's family left the village, he moved to Kabul and studied at university. After many discussion, her father finally allows Safia to marry her friend. Before the wedding, the friend has to travel back to Kabul but promises to return after three days.

A suicide attack in Kabul puts an end to Safia's hopes and dreams - her fiance dies. She moves out of the family cave to an empty cave where a wise man used to live, and dedicates her days to teaching the other cave-dwelling children to read and write as she was once taught by a friend, using the books the wise man left behind.

- - -

Zahra Hussain fled from Afghanistan in 1999 with her three daughters, having to leave her son behind. She lives in Germany, where she founded an organisation to help build a school in Bamiyan. The organisation has its own website here, but it is only available in German.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Read in 2019 - 2: Jahrgang 1963

Jahrgang 1963 - Eine Kindheit unter dem Einfluss der Kriegsgeneration und progressiven 68er
Holger Hähle

As I said in my next-to-last post, I've been reading two German books in a row; quite a change from my usual reading habits.
This one was an interesting read in that the author describes his own childhood and youth, and since he is only 5 years older than I, there is a lot I can relate to.

Much of the book is dedicated to young Holger's struggle with what he perceives as his own inadequacies, and trying to understand the world around him. 
He has an active mind and is interested in many things, but not overly keen on spending his afternoons with the other children of his neighbourhood - he is happiest when he can roam the woodland behind his house all on his own, making discoveries about natural life he is sure the others know nothing about and are not interested in anyway.

More often than not, he is told (at school and home) that he could do better with some effort, and his clumsiness is frequent cause for breaking things and feelings of low self-esteem. Only when he finds out that practise does indeed make next to perfect, this changes somewhat; he excels in sports by sheer tenacity, pushing himself to his physical limits - never to impress others, but to prove to himself that he can do it.

The world around him is confusing and puzzling. He grows up in an era where in this country (Germany) many of the teachers from pre-war times were still teaching, but at the same time a new generation of young, liberal-thinking teachers were starting their work at schools all over the country.

Some of the elderly men had not changed. WWII may have been over decades ago, but they were still sticking to their old ideas of discipline and racism, acquired during the Nazi years when they were studying to be teachers. In contrast, the new teachers were anti-authoritarian and did not want to teach discipline, but free thinking. A perfect mix to confuse any student!
For young Holger, it means he can not find anyone he really sees as a guide among the adults; his family members and neighbours are just the same as the teachers. Their contradictory claims on what is right and what is wrong is inacceptable. There is only one way - he has to find out for himself, and make up his own mind, his own set of rules and values to live by.

He comes to love mathematics and natural sciences, as they are so clear and logical; there is no confusion in maths about what is right or wrong, and the natural world follows its rules without constantly changing them.

I liked this book, even though I found it unnecessarily lengthy in places. The author obviously tried really hard to convey what he was thinking, and why, but repeating the same thought several times just in different words does not necessarily bring home a point any clearer. Also, there are quite a few bits where he uses a term or expression wrongly, but I should not be too strict - at the time of writing, the author was obviously not (yet) a well-practised or trained writer.
And besides, this was of course a free ebook - one more reason not to complain.

Monday, 21 January 2019

An Update on Plans, the Weather and Family

Sometimes I wish my eyes and my weekly schedule would make blogging as easy and frequent as it used to be. But instead of starting a whiny post, moaning and complaining about things I can not do all that much about, I'll give you an update on my plans for this year, the weathere and my family.

First things first: My Dad keeps making progress! Last week, he has been on a short walk entirely on his own for the first time since the end of September/start of October. It was really only very short (I would not even think twice about it if it were me to walk from my parents' house to where my Dad had an appointment), but he really wanted to go on his own, and he did. One small walk for me, one big step for my Dad after all he went through the past months!
Also, he has started to cook again. Both my parents have always been good cooks, and when he still worked, my Dad enjoyed cooking on weekends, either on his own or with my Mum. We loved almost everything they put on the dining table for us, and thanks to my Dad's taste, we were familiar with hot, spicy food from an early age, and there was little we would not eat. No such thing as NOT wanting anything green, hating spinach or cheese! When I was little and other kids in kindergarden or at school said they did not eat this or that, I was always puzzled as to how come they didn't love spinach as much as I did, or enjoy bread and cheese.

I digress; I said I was going to tell you about plans for this year.
Because of my Dad's illness, my sister and I cancelled the Yorkshire Holiday we were supposed to go on last October. We have finally managed to re-schedule and are now going at the end of March. It will probably be too early for the bluebells, and possibly the weather will not always be walk-friendly, but we are always happy to be there in "our" cottage, see the family and friends and (re-)visit places we love, such as Fountains Abbey.
We'll be away on my birthday, something that has only happened twice before, if I remember correctly: Once when I was 10, we were on Easter holiday in France, and when I turned 20, I was at Librarian School. I remember my sister and a friend sending me a telegram together - the first (and so far only) telegram I ever received!
Anyway, this year, I have booked Champagne Afternoon Tea at Swinton Park Hotel for my birthday. We've been to this beautiful place in 2017; you can look at the pictures and read about it here.

Now the weather: We've had snow (as you know from my next-to-last post) for a few days, but it was soon all gone.
Last Thursday on my way to work, I saw this beautiful pink sky in the morning:

View from the office window later that morning:

The day was mostly sunny, and when I left work at 5:00, it was still almost daylight! Friday morning was a different story, though... it snowed again (but did not last long):

I arrived at O.K.'s after an uneventful and punctual train trip on Friday evening. Saturday was the most beautiful day we've seen yet this year, with wall to wall sunshine. It was cold, but the kind of cold you can dress against easily. It would have been a shame to stay indoors, so we had only the briefest of breakfast and headed out for about 4 hours of walking, somewhere between 16 and 17 km altogether.

Here are some pictures of that walk.
This is Schloss Ortenberg (Ortenberg Castle), where we've been before (as seen on this post and others):

Panoramic view of the vineyards where we were walking, taken by O.K. Clicking on the picture will enlarge it. On the horizon you may just about make out a chain of mountains; these are the Vosges (in France).

I was surprised to see this ilex still so full of berries:

On Sunday, it snowed again, and I worried about my train trip home - unnecessarily, as both my trains were punctual, and I was home at 20 to 11 pm after a very cold (but short) walk from the station to my flat.

The view on Sunday morning from O.K.'s balcony:

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Read in 2019 - 1

For a change, I read two German books in a row. They had a lot in common: Both were easy and interesting reads; both were written by authors who have no formal education or training as writers (and it shows in their choice of words and use of grammar), both books are non-fictional real life stories, and I found both for free on Amazon's Kindle store.
This was the first one. 

Robert Birch

The author describes his own experiences during a week's internship with an ambulance crew. He already is a surgeon and works long, busy hours at a hospital in a city in southern Germany. The city is never named, and road names were changed, but a lot in the book makes me think it could be Stuttgart, the big city next to my home town.

He needs to get a certain number of critical missions with the ambulance under his belt in order to qualify as an emergency practitioner. Critical in that context means that the situation they are called to is a real medical emergency, life-threatening for the patient, and that what the doctor decides to do on-site saves the patient's life.

One would expect the young doctor to find his week of emergency missions exhausting, but he describes it as feeling almost like a holiday - away from the stressful long hours on the hospital's ward, and a lot of just waiting in the ready room for their beepers to go off. During those waiting times, there is some friendly (and some less friendly) banter with the other doctors, nurses and emergency crew; they share meals, have naps or read.

The moment their beepers go off, all is action. It is really interesting to read about how they manage within minutes to be where they are needed, and what happens once they arrive. The situations they are called to during that week greatly differ one from the other, and they never really know what to expect beforehand, in spite of the basic information given from the control room.

Sometimes they need to break their way through the door of an apartment, only to find that the person they were supposed to help has died days or weeks ago. At other times, upset relatives already expect them, and some patients seem to think the ambulance is a taxi and the crew's job is to help them moving their bags for a long-planned stay in hospital.

On the way to their missions, the driver gets regularly mad at other drivers - the city roads are very busy, and not everyone seems to understand that when an ambulance car comes racing along, with sirens on full blast and flashing blue lights, you better make way - and fast.

The reader learns next to nothing about the young doctor's private life, but a lot about the professional lives of those working in and around a hospital. We all may, at some point in our lives, depend on them; be it on their skills as drivers so that we can be taken to hospital within minutes after an accident, or as paramedics, assistants, nurses,
doctors - they all have their own defined set of tasks and competences, all important, and we should be grateful if we are lucky enough to live in a country with a functioning healthcare system and not take it (and the people who work in it) for granted.

As mentioned above, the writing style is not that of a "proper" author. But that does not make this (relatively short) book any less worthy of my reading time. I now understand better what the work of an ambulance crew involves, and next time I hear an ambulance's siren (and we hear them a lot in my home town), I can imagine what's going on right now and what could be happening next.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Last Week

For myself and O.K., work began again last Monday after the Christmas/New Year break. It was good to see everyone at work again, and the first days were not so busy as to already erase the feeling of being well rested. 
Still, I was surprised at how knackered I felt on Wednesday night - with only three working days under my belt!
It started to snow on Wednesday afternoon, and my neighbours' gardens and houses looked like this on Thursday morning around 8:00:

I loved the blue-ish morning light before proper daylight.

Just before lunch, this was my view across the Eastern half of Ludwigsburg from my office on the 9th floor:

It snowed again on Friday, so much so that visibility was very limited:

By the time I arrived home shortly before 5:30 pm, this was the view from my kitchen window:

An hour later, I was on my way to O.K.'s. The train trip there went a bit different than planned: Instead of taking a local train to Stuttgart and from there, an InterCity which would take me directly to Offenburg with no further changing of trains, I found out that the local train I meant to get on was cancelled and the IC 90 minutes late. 
The alternative offered required two changes, but I was glad for the opportunity to end up with a total delay of only half an hour by taking a different local train to Stuttgart, from there a TGV (Train Grande Vitesse, a French high-speed train that reduces travel time between Stuttgart and Paris to about 3 hours!), and for the last bit from Karlsruhe to Offenburg, an ICE (InterCity Express).

I must admit I was rather exhausted by the time I arrived there, but O.K. made it well worth by serving a delicious evening meal of salad, bread, our favourite types of cheese and a bottle of red. (Of course it would have been well worth even without anything to eat - just seeing O.K. is enough reason for me!)

Saturday saw the snow being washed away by rain, and when I arrived home on Sunday night (with both my trains being punctual on the dot!), there was not a single snowflake left to see. 

On TV, we see the masses of snow in other parts of Germany and Austria, with thousands of skiing holiday guests being stuck in small towns and villages where all roads leading to and from those places are blocked by snow and fallen trees. Some people have been unwise enough to go skiing off the official slopes, and several have died in avalanches. 
We were talking about this yesterday, and I said that I'd probably not even start my holiday right now if I had booked something in one of the places so badly affected. The firemen, Red Cross staff, volunteers and other helping hands are busy enough as it is.

Today is a mix of cloudy and sunny; not very cold. It gives us a welcome break before more rain or sleet forecast as the week moves on.