Wednesday 28 February 2024

Read in 2024 - 4: A Pen Dipped in Poison

A Pen Dipped in Poison

by J.M. Hall

In 2022, I found "A Spoonful of Murder" among donated books for sale in Ripley church, left some money in the box and took it home with me. It turned out to be a really good read (click here for my review), and you can imagine my delight when I found its successor at The Little Ripon Bookshop last summer.

Retired school teachers and friends Thelma, Liz and Pat are still meeting at Thirsk Garden Center for coffee on Thursday mornings. Some things have changed in their home lives, and they are not entirely open with each other, trying to pull through problems by themselves without bothering their friends.

Then they learn of nasty anonymous letters starting to turn up at their old school, and before they know it, all three of them are more than knee deep in a puzzling mix of nasty letters, dodgy (or not?) school accounts, a mysteriously over-heating biomass boiler, school supplies disappearing from the stock room and other funny business.

One of the letters effectively ends someone's marriage, another one leads to a near-suicide, and others claiming that nobody wants the efficient Head there seems harmless in comparison.

What did said Head of the school spot at the summer fête that made her look so shocked for a moment? And who would bother typing letters and hand-delivering them at the risk of being discovered when you could do it all much easier and more effectively on Social Media?

In spite of their homelife situations demanding attention, the three friends combine their efforts, and of course one of them works out the mystery. Not all is well that ends well, but some wrongs are righted, and the old closeness between the three and their husbands is re-established.

Just like the first book, I very much enjoyed this one, last but not least because I know so many of the places mentioned. Even my and my sister's favourite place for eating out in Ripon, Oliver's Pantry, makes an appearance!

I am certainly going to have a browse at The Little Ripon Bookshop this summer - sure that I will find #3 waiting for me.

Monday 26 February 2024

Exhausting Week

Most of my weeks are busy, some more than others; often, the "busy-ness" is of my own choice, what with after-work activities, socialising and so on - but that does not mean I get less exhausted.

Last week, my activities were as mixed as the weather. By Friday evening, I was rather exhausted and welcoming two days of not having to get up early.

Taking my usual trains back from Offenburg on Monday (19 Feb.) morning meant the usual early start for O.K. and me; on such mornings, the alarm goes off at 5:15. 

My breakfast aboard the train.
Tentative signs of spring in my flat; I found these twigs broken off on the ground near a recently cut hedge during our Sunday walk.
All went well and I was home in time to start work at 9:30. After a quiet morning, the entire afternoon was one long online meeting with my professional association. It wasn't boring or unnecessary, just LONG with only a 15 minute break half way through to give everyone the chance to get a coffee. Of course, no walk was possible that day - it was dark by the time we finished, and I was too tired to contemplate anything else but something to eat and watching TV.

Tuesday (20 Feb.) was windy and chilly in the morning (4C/39F), but milder in the afternoon at 10C/50F. I spent my lunch break getting a hair cut (good job my hairdresser is literally just round the corner from my house) and finished work shortly after 4:00 pm. Now that sunset is considerably later than a month or two ago, I knew I had enough daylight left for my standard walk to Benningen, which I really enjoyed.

Plum tree starting to bloom - in February!!

Met this cat in the middle of nowhwere (actually, not far from a farm)

No matter what I tried, he didn't want to face the camera. Cats!
The weather was pretty much the same on Wednesday (21 Feb.), when I was working at the office. An hour before I was due to leave, my Mum texted me and my sister that our Aunt W., one of our Dad's sisters, had died that morning. She was 84 years old and had been very ill for some time; still, it came as a surprise, and although unlike my sister I wasn't really close with her, I was sad nonetheless and had a little cry in the privacy of my office.

Pastel sunrise that morning, as seen from my kitchen window.
Some time after 6:00, I left work and took a train into Stuttgart, where I was meeting a group of fellow Privacy Officers at a restaurant for informal exchange. This particular group meet once a month, but I went for the first time. It was nice and the food really good, but I am not going to join them every month - a few times a year will be enough.

My fried mushrooms with herbs came on a bed of roast spuds with Brezel crumbs - delicious!

It rained all day on Thursday (22 Feb.) and was very windy but mild at 11-12C/51-54F. For lunch, I met up with my Mum and her friend R at the "Vesperkirche". I posted about this particular charity project in 2012, when my Mum wrote this guestpost. Now that my Mum can't physically do the volunteer work any longer, at least we go there for a meal, and instead of the symbolic price of 1,50 € per meal, we pay 10 € and contribute in a small way.

The food was alright (you don't go there expecting a gourmet meal anyway) and the cakes for dessert were delicious. I walked there in the rain and back with only a sprinkle, so I had at least a bit of exercise on a day that was otherwise completely spent indoors.

On Friday (23 Feb.) I only worked a couple of hours early in the morning. Shortly before 10:00, my sister came to pick me up for the drive to a village about 30 km from Ludwigsburg, where we attended the funeral of a friend's mother. Never having met the deceased woman, we were there for our friend's sake, who appreciated our presence very much. Still, it was odd to sit in the small but packed church, listening to the non-religious speaker talking about a person we never met and knew very little about. 

At a quarter past 6:00 pm, the moon rose in the East - it was a lot "bigger" and more luminous really.
Back home at around 2:00 pm, I had ample time to do my weekly cleaning, shopping and get everything ready for the weekend. O.K. arrived at 8:30 pm.

Saturday (24 Feb.) was one of those days of fast-moving clouds when the light alters every few seconds. 

O.K. and I had a leisurely breakfast and then walked into town where we met my Mum and friend R at a historic palais, once belonging to an infamous (= unpopular) mistress of Duke Eberhard Ludwig, the founder of Ludwigsburg. Of course the building changed hands and use several times; it was lovingly restored to re-create some of its original character and is now the administrative seat of the Ludwigsburg Festival, an annual series of events spanning everything from theatre to opera to ballet to concerts.

They were having an Open House Day, and the offer of a guided tour with a historian was what we were most interested in. 

Grand staircase, heavily altered but still looking impressive.

Largest of the reception rooms, spanning the entire length of the upper floor.

One of the offices that used to be a smaller reception room.

Another office.

Manager's office. Not sure I would want to work surrounded by such vivid walls all day, every day.

After the tour and listening to live music from a (really good!) jazz trio, O.K. and I crossed the road to the palace grounds while my Mum and R walked the short distance to the shopping mall where my Mum had not been in a long time.

Back home from our walk in the park, O.K. and I had a little rest before I made dinner. Later, we watched a biopic about J.K. Rowling, "Magic Beyond Words".

Another luminous moonrise

The same view zoomed in

About two hours later, the moon was high up in the sky. To the naked eye, it looked perfectly round with a very clean-cut rim, not as fuzzy as my picture.

Because we had gone to bed relatively early the night before, we were up early-ish on Sunday (25 Feb.). It was mild, windy and sunny again, and after a brunchy breakfast with scrambled eggs, we set off to a walk along the top of the vineyards above the river valley to Marbach.

View from the footbridge to the railway bridge across the Neckar

A short stroll in Marbach's picturesque old town followed, with a little rest and coffees in a sunny spot, before we took the train back to Ludwigsburg. 

One stop before ours, it was announced that the train was stopping here for an unspecified time, "thanks" to people on the tracks. We did not feel like waiting without knowing how long for, and got off the train to walk the rest of the way. All in all, we had around 15.5 km under our belts that day - exhausted, but happy.

For our Sunday dinner, I cooked pasta and made a salad of baby spinach leaves, feta and tomatoes. O.K. left at 8:30 pm and was home in well under two hours. I am always relieved to get his "I'm home" message on those Sunday nights!

Thursday 22 February 2024

Read in 2024 - 3: All Teachers Wise and Wonderful

All Teachers Wise and Wonderful

by Andy Seed

This is the 2nd book of Andy Seed's memoirs about his life as a primary school teacher in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1980s. I read the 1st one in January and reviewed it here.

Once again, the book follows an entire year from the beginning of the new school year, the 2nd at Cragthwaite Primary School for the young teacher who has only moved into his first own home the previous year and started a family of his own with his wife Barbara.

Their son Tom is now a toddler and soon becomes big brother to another baby boy. The young parents experience all the lack of sleep, worries about colics and how to fairly divide work in and outside the house that I suppose all young couples are familiar with.

As before, Andy comes up with all sorts of great ideas for his class. Activities in the classroom are sometimes as adventurous as out - be it the launching of bottle rockets in the field next to the school or a trip to Whitby (complete with Dracula experience). An Egyptian mummy plays an important role, and Sports Day is made really successful by an additional event a week or two later. 

One new girl is very different from the rest of Andy's class in that she causes trouble for herself and others constantly, and no approach seems to reach her. What she gets up to and how her teacher, the Head and even some of her long-suffering classmates try to help her runs through the entire book.

Just like before, each chapter has the name of one child as its title, and while the chapter may cover many other events, the focus is on that child. I enjoyed this way of writing about a school the first time round, and it was no different this time.

The third book is already on my kindle, but I am reading something else first, to make a change.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Office Week

Years before the Covid pandemic meant an almost total retreat into working from home for many people, I had been working from home quite a lot, sometimes for weeks on end, travelling to a faraway office only once a month. I was used to this and never had a problem structuring my day or organising my tasks, unlike some who kept telling me if they were to work from home all the time, they would never get out of their PJs.

The end of the regulations in connection with the pandemic saw lots of people returning to their offices while still working from home one or more days a week.  I usually work on-site on Wednesdays, since my department's Jour Fixe is that day, and often I manage to organise other "live" meetings (as opposed to online) for that day to make the most of the trip.

Last week was an exception in that I went to the office the full three days I work for this employer (my second employer does not have an office for me). I had a hot lunch at the canteen on each of those three days, something I am not used to. Some important stuff was finished, but I actually get more done when working from home - fewer interruptions, a much earlier start and no time lost on the trips to and from the office.

Monday, 12 February, was a quietly efficient WFH day (for my 2nd employer). I also rang my former neighbour who moved to a Senior Residence last autumn. She is 92 years old, and while her body is getting frailer, her mind is as sharp as ever. We had a good chat and agreed that I shall come visiting her again some time soon. Her garden and house are what I see every day when I look out of my kitchen window; it is sad that the house stands empty, but good to know her nephews (my age) take turns in looking after it.

I ended the day with a walk not long before sunset.

Tuesday, 13 February, was a typical early spring day: 4C/39F in the morning, 11C/52F in the afternoon and plenty of sun. 

After work, I got off the train in Zuffenhausen and walked the rest of the way, taking in the cemetery where my Dad's and friend R's resting places are, and arriving at my Mum's a little before 6:00 pm. It was good to see her and catch up on the latest goings-on.

I was back at the office on Wednesday, 14 February. Valentine's Day is not something I observe, but our canteen had a special dessert on offer, shaped like a swan; apparently really delicious (one of the ladies said she'd had two, and bought more to take home) but not something I was keen on.

In the afternoon, a young colleague fell ill very suddenly. I found her on the floor in her office, clutching her tummy and moaning with cramps. At first she did not want me to call someone from the company's emergency team, but eventually I did, as I was really concerned for her. She said that she often has stomach cramps and all she needs are her tablets and a rest, but when her face became paler by the second and it looked like she was going to faint, I called for help. Once they arrived and I knew my colleague in competent hands, I went back to my room and waited for news; a couple of hours later, she was well again.

Thursday, 15 February, was the warmest day of the week so far at 15C/59F. It was cloudy but remained dry so that I was able to walk home from Kornwestheim, one stop before mine. At 7:00 pm, I attended an online meeting in connection with my volunteer work. It was a long day with many hours spent sitting at desks and staring at screens, and I was glad I had at least walked that bit after work.

It was even warmer on Friday, 16 February, but very unsettled with a mix of clouds, sun, rain and wind. Luckily, it remained dry for the time it took me to walk to my Mum and back; she had invited me, her friend and her friend's brother for lunch. The four of us enjoyed a delicious Szegeden goulash and coffee with shortbread afterwards.

Back home, I finished work, did my usual cleaning, packed my little red suitcase and was off to the train station just after 6:00 pm. My long-distance train was on time, but the overall situation around Stuttgart main station was chaotic, and for a little while it looked as if I was not going to make it. But I did, and O.K. and I rang in the weekend with our customary meal of salad, cheese, bread and wine.

We were expecting a group of friends for the evening on Saturday, 17 February. Preparations of the room (shifting the table to the middle of the room, setting up more chairs etc.), the food and drink began at 3:00 pm. That way, we still had time for a little walk around the village around lunch time, and even a brief rest afterwards - often, 20 minutes of closing my eyes is enough to restore my energy.

One of three such trays ready to go into the oven. We cut rolls in half and spread them with three different mixes, containing grated cheese and other delicious things that work well when baked.
The evening was fun and relaxed with everybody enjoying our food and their contributions, drink, chat and laughter.

Sunday, 18 February, was another mild day, not quite as warm at "only" 12C/53F and very windy, but dry after some rain during the night and early morning.

After a good, late breakfast, O.K. and I were off for a walk, part of it leading along a winding beck where plenty of snowdrops grow. The look of the fields, trees and gardens as well as birdsong and plenty of avian activity made for a definite spring feel, and those two hours outside felt very good.

It was not as dark as it appears in this picture - in fact, we had been walking with the sun warming our backs less than an hour before.
Back at the cottage, we had coffee and cake, a brief rest and then a cosy afternoon and evening, eating yesterday's leftovers and watching a TV documentary about the Bavarian Forest where we'd been for a hiking holiday in September 2018.

Monday 12 February 2024

Rainy Week

Last week, it rained on four out of seven days, and strong winds made umbrellas useless. Most days saw a high of 10C/50F; according to the meteorologists, too warm for this time of year.

On Monday (5 February), the two trains taking me from Offenburg to Ludwigsburg were on time, and I started work as usual. The afternoon was sunny, and my sister suggested we go for a walk. We met a little after 4:00 pm and walked across the city centre to the palace grounds, happy to spot many a sign of early spring. (But we are realistic enough to know we will probably get a few more frosty days and nights as well as possibly snow and ice before spring truly arrives.)
Ludwigsburg Residential Palace under a glorious blue sky.

Snowdrops in the palace grounds.

The blossoms of the shrub on the left give off a very sweet scent.

This is not a snowdrop, but what in German is called Märzenbecher ("March's cup") and usually appears about a month after the first snowdrops - I didn't expect to see them out already.

And I certainly did not expect to see the first daffodils in bloom in this sunny, sheltered spot!

Working from home on Tuesday (6 February) and starting very early made an afternoon walk to Benningen possible while still allowing for a brief rest at home before I set off again, this time to the pub: My team and I were playing the quiz for the first time this year, and for the first time since October.

You can see why I simply HAD to go for a walk before it was too late, can't you!

Four of our original team (including myself) made it to the pub this time, and I also recruited a friend of mine who had come along two or three times before.
We had a lot of fun and were doing well - but so were many other teams, and we ended up fourth, so did not carry home any of the three prizes.
Never mind; it was good to see everybody, and we have booked our usual corner table again for March 12.

Wednesday (7 February) saw me working at the office. It was a blustery day of very fast-moving clouds and changing light, and started to rain by the time I left work.
Sunrise from my kitchen window on the 7th.
The warmest day of the week was Thursday (8 February), but again wet and very windy. 
My sister and I were at our Mum's after work, first helping to stow away the remainder of her Christmas lights in the attic (we prefer her not to climb the ladder up there, especially not while carrying boxes) and then sitting down to a delicious meal of savoury pancakes, rolled up and stuffed with all sorts of good things, such as ham, chopped avocado, spring onions and so on, then topped with grated cheese and baked in the oven. A fresh leafy salad garnished with radishes and mushrooms matched it perfectly.

I worked from home again on Friday (9 February) and then did my weekly cleaning before packing my little red suitcase and heading for the station. I took an earlier connection, arriving in Offenburg an hour earlier than usual. 
We went to see O.K.'s parents briefly before having a quick snack and getting changed for the annual Preismaskenball ("costume contest dance"), a tradition in the village I quite enjoy: 
It's easy for us to reach, no car needed, no cost other than what we drink or eat, and we always meet fellow musicians from the village band, neighbours and others for a chat. The music is far from brilliant, but I do get to spend a bit of time on the dance floor, and generally have fun.
Every year there is a different motto for the event. This year it was "Urlaub" (German for holiday or vacation). I had two ideas for a costume: Wear PJs or a nightdress (since holidays mean for me to sleep in), or dress up in a classic hiking outfit (since holidays for us usually mean hiking, preferably somewhere in the mountains).
Of course it may seem a little boring to choose a hiking outfit, since apart from the trousers it is not so very different from what I really wear, but it was what it was, and since O.K. and I never enroll for the competition with our costumes, we were fine anyway - it was uncomplicated, comfortable and didn't involve buying anything extra for those few hours once a year.

Officially, the party ended at 2:00 am, and we were home about 20 minutes after that.

Saturday (10 February) it did not rain, and we took advantage of that and went for an afternoon walk around the village. After coffee and a little rest, we spent the evening in Offenburg with friends, catching up and enjoying an informal meal of home-baked bread, cheese, salad and other good things.

It was time for the annual Carnival parade in the village on Sunday (11 February), which means O.K. as a member of the village band was to participate in the parade. 
His Mum had made two big pots of delicious goulash soup, which we ate with crusty rolls. O.K.'s sister and her husband were of course also there, and after O.K. had left for the band's gathering for the parade and we had washed the dishes, we went to stand by the village road to watch the parade.
The village band were first, opening the parade.

The witches were next.
Just like last year, the very young and the not quite so young were together.

One of the witches suggested a selfie with me - I guess it was someone I know, but I have no idea who was under the mask and did not recognise his voice. In any case, his teeth look much better than mine :-D

Then followed the Beiabsäger (literally "sawers-off of legs" - don't ask!)...

...and the Dominoes, the oldest of the village's traditional Carnival characters. I find them spooky.

Another band, the Gletscherfleh (literally "glacier fleas" - again, don't ask!).
The parade was over after about 10 minutes, and we followed them to the square behind the village hall where the music groups performed some more and a few speeches were made (some in verses), as is customary on Carnival Sunday. 
It kept raining on and off, but there was also sunshine, and we even spotted a rainbow just before the parade started.
Me in my 80s outfit for the day. I don't even know the name of the young man, but his pink-yellow-green-white 80s-style track suit was just too good NOT to be photographed!

A drink at one of the venues open only for that occasion followed, and around 4:00 pm, O.K.'s sister and her husband drove me to the station in Offenburg where I took three trains back to Ludwigsburg - all of them on time. At almost exactly 6:30 pm, I was home.
(On Carnival Sunday and what in Germany is called Rosenmontag - "Rose Monday" - O.K. is busy non-stop with the village band, which means it does not make sense for me to stay longer than the parade and a little afterwards.)

I had fun dressing up and taking part in the Carnival activities, but I am not sad that it's over for another year, and things can return to normal :-)