Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Rambling Day in (Imaginary) 1904

This morning I woke up earlier than usual, and prepared to spend another day in Edwardian England, this time in the year 1904.

It began with sweeping and scrubbing the kitchen floor, then took a nicer turn once the brothers were awake and I had a moment to dig out a piano transcription of Edvard Grieg and play the morning part of his Peer Gynt suite, and then we ate breakfast: croissants and bread buns, and coffee.

After that, we walked to the Kreuzberg. It was a pleasant day and not too crowded yet. The grass has grown lusher these past weeks, and is often speckled with starry white daisies and sunny larger dandelion flowers. I also like seeing the purple leaves and blossoms of red dead nettles, which generally accompany dandelion flowers in my mind. Pink, white and yellow blossoms are emerging on trees large and small, especially on the forsythia bushes; and a green haze hovered amongst the trees that are growing their first leaves.

The waterfall has been turned on again in the Viktoriapark, the danger of frost and burst plumbing apparently being past. That said, the brush is still very thin and so dumpsters, garbage and other things that will be screened by leaves later are still evident.

'Edwardian' Marketing

I left my mother and two of my brothers at the edge of the park, and walked on to visit a market hall in the Bergmannstraße.

Past times I've been on that street have made me think it's not my favourite part of Berlin. I feel a bit like I need to eat kale, wear home-knitted sweaters, buy organic, scold 'lowly' service workers for not doing things Properly, over-parent a child according to half-a-dozen different schools from Montessori to Rudolf Steiner, and preferably free Tibet every time I'm there. Not that most of these things are wrong per se, it's just that put together they're a little much for me. But I appreciate what it was like before a lot more, now that I've experienced what it's like during the social distancing era, which is more uncanny and with fewer people.

When I entered the hall, a grey-haired man in an ex-rocker outfit of black leather jacket and skinny pants was holding out a cup at the entrance and asking for money, as shoppers pushed through the narrow entrance of double doors — one side a wheelchair ramp, the other a low set of steps. After the antechamber with its hand disinfectant dispenser and mask warning, we reached the white-walled, much more spacious hall itself.

A florist's stand is at the entrance, and bristly globe thistles in foggy bluish-purple greeted our eyes. So did a fluorescent security-vested young man who was ensuring that the rules were being respected; for example, nobody was supposed to leave through this entrance, so that foot traffic was circulating and no jams of people were causing virus hazards.

There was a newspaper stand that I wanted but forgot to get back to. (Since newspapers seem the most exciting form of entertainment in the Edwardian Age and it's a bit of a pain in the neck to force myself not even to listen to the TV news.) And deli stands with Middle Eastern food — olives and that kind of thing — and cheeses and meats, bakeries. I mostly ignored the shelves of wines, delicious-looking jarred French specialities from mayonnaise and capers to various confits of different meats, pistachio biscuits and teas and pastel-colored bonbons.

Instead I zeroed in on a fruit and vegetable stand, and began trying to work through my shopping list. 

Large lemons with leaves to match imported from Italy and little orange Hokkaido pumpkins from Germany were grouped amongst the latticed plastic bins; honeydew melons and cantaloupes were there too. Then there were leeks, tomatoes (green and red) of which a few were a ribbed heirloom form, thick single white asparagus stems and green asparagus bundles that have become much cheaper since last week apparently, and cucumbers. Then artichoke heads and radishes, ramps presumably culled from the forests near Berlin, fresh dill and basil, chicory, garlic... In terms of fruit, raspberries and blueberries and strawberries, oranges ... the list goes on. I felt a bit nervous adjusting to the indoors market environment, which does sound silly when I write it down, so I forgot to buy a few things.

After I reemerged onto the street, I crossed off everything I already had and then dropped into a grocery store across the street. Outside it had tubs of strawberries for 1.99 Euros from Greece, and I had to wonder who was paying for that low price, and remembered a terrible news story where a strawberry farmer had shot his underpaid workers ... and yet I got one tub, hoping that these had been picked under less gruesome circumstances.

Indoors, beans, leeks, celery, lettuces, cauliflower, etc. were piled up in plastic bins, and I found most of the other ingredients that I needed. Everything was tucked into a fairly compact space, reminding me I think of low-ceilinged stores in old brick buildings in downtown Victoria back in Canada. It was happy and boisterous as one of the employees — a lady in a headscarf — was tending to a little girl while organizing the parsley... What struck me most in the shelves was the Turkish delight selection. I had to remind myself that I wasn't sure how often Turkish delight was eaten in the UK in 1904...

Anyway, hiking the steep terrain of the Viktoriapark with the vegetables and fruit hanging from my arm was a chore, so I decided to sit down for a moment before proceeding, like a Victorian nursemaid in Kensington Gardens. Altogether the kitchen floor scrubbing earlier in the day had also felt like a(n admittedly gratuitous) Cinderella cos-play.

I did appreciate the food more because of the distance and effort of fetching it, and it put me more in touch with the labour that goes into producing and shipping food before it lands on the table. ... Next week I plan to go to a nearby market again, however.

***

Academics and Tea

When I arrived home, Mama, Ge., and J. soon gathered in the corner room, looking over a theological paper that Mama had written for university.

In the paper she explored different hymns, Christmas carols, and other songs in the Christian tradition, to gather popular attitudes toward questions of theodicy (the source and purpose of evil in the world) and of free will.

As usual when we read over her university essays, we picked apart most sentences and aimed for the utmost clarity. The sentences felt shorter than usual, which is probably why — despite a running family joke — Ge. for once backed off on the commas and didn't request that we add more comma-separated clauses on every page.

We were drinking green tea and the French breakfast tea that most of us love (I like most teas, so feel more neutral on the question). I also fetched out the chocolate fudge that I had made earlier in the week as a snack. Fudge was apparently popular amongst college girls in the early 1900s, at least in the US, which is why it felt proper. But I didn't really have time to cook the dinner.

I did prepare an afternoon tea, unfortunately popping out often from the essay discussion and popping back in again always at least half a page behind everyone else, inconveniently reading and making comments on something that had already been corrected...

In the end, the afternoon tea was served very late, at 6 p.m.:

Leftover breakfast bread buns and pumpernickel

Assortment of toppings: Cucumber, radishes, celery, boiled egg, parsley, thin smoked ham, cheese

Scones, with and without raisins

Lemon curd and whipping cream

Strawberries

Leftover chocolate fudge.

Then we finished looking over Mama's essay.

Miniature Supper

Finally, for supper I cooked a potato soup: potatoes, chicken stock (psst bouillon powder), onions, parsley and a little butter.

In addition I made an arrowroot blancmange of milk, egg and arrowroot powder, with a little lemon curd stirred in for flavour. But it still hadn't set properly the last time I checked and therefore hasn't been eaten. (I have a huge soft spot for arrowroot because it's mentioned in Jane Austen's Emma. It still seems to have been a popular ingredient when people were cooking food for sick people, a hundred years later.)

Altogether, my menus are half as large as the ones suggested in cookbooks from the early 1900s, and yet we still often have food left over ... It does make me worry, because I don't want to waste anything.

After Supper

To unwind, I hopped onto the warm coal stove in the corner room and read more of the Apartheid essays book. The latest essay just described South Africa's apartheid government being excluded from Olympic Games in the 60s and 70s for its incredibly racist sports practices (it was a big deal that Maori cricketers were allowed to represent New Zealand in a tour in South Africa...).

Besides I read another page or so of an Irish women's fiction book (I'm omitting the title so as not to malign an author or their efforts directly) that I am wrestling with at present. I see that it's partly very well written; especially the first chapter was more disciplined. But then there are passages like this one that tempt me to slam shut the book:

When I summon my eldest stepdaughter to mind now I see a selfie, a distillation, an expression of joy that makes her look so like her father I am haunted at the thought of her inner life. She seems a more exquisite thing than I, better formed and more protected.

Anyway, I also read more of Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, which provided great literary relief after the other book.

Besides I read Beatrix Potter's Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. The Tale of Peter Rabbit appeared in 1902 or thereabouts, so I've taken this as an excuse to read her books again. I think I found Peter Rabbit's story too strict when I was a child, and it turns out that Squirrel Nutkin is entirely new to me. The pictures are really fabulous; they make me feel calm and happy just looking at them.

Bertrand Russell also wrote his Principia Mathematica around this time, and being a Russell fan I wanted to give it a try; but I wasn't able to find it in our home library. Émile Zola also died in the early 1900s, so I presumed that an Edwardian person in 1904 might try to read his backlist and I could try to do the same. But the thought of adding Germinal (which I started because it was prescribed reading for a history course at UBC, but never finished) to my mountainous to-be-read pile was too daunting.

As for non-reading historical occupations, I cut my finger during my supper preparations and had daubed blood on my shirt by accident before I noticed what had happened. So I had an excuse to bandage my finger and not to hand-wash more dishes or to keep mending the pyjama trousers I'd started to mend last week... What. a. pity!

P.S.: My small obsession with my fashion magazine subscription continues; the samples are interesting to me, and the very sparse texts that intersperse the fashion shoots and thinly veiled advertisements are helping me gather knowledge related to work (without traumatizing me by being too work-related).

Saturday, April 03, 2021

A Weekend in 1902

This weekend is a better weekend for 'time travel.' It's a long weekend because of Easter, of course, and therefore I'm not spending a quarter of my waking hours doing housework before plunging back into work.

I started out the day putting on another button-up blouse that I don't wear often. The shade of pale brown underneath my face makes me look like I've had two hours of sleep, but then I find Edwardian fashion was not wildly flattering in general. I'd thought about putting my hair into the strange bumpy halo around the face with a knob of a bun on top, to suit the style of the time, but I was just too vain to risk it. That said, I could have gone to Kadewe and splurged on a massive hat with feathers, to add a dashing My Fair Lady element to the dour governess hairstyle.

My mother was reading the Berliner Zeitung newspaper in the living room and was quite pleased that someone else was finally awake to add entertainment to the morning. Since the brothers were still asleep, and I'd wanted fresh berries for breakfast, I changed into a woollen skirt, a corduroy jacket and a red crocheted scarf, however, and went to the market to buy groceries.

A 1902 Trip to the Market

Bushes and small trees are beginning to burst, head to toe, into spring flowers in white and yellow. Winter hellebores are thriving in the shade this late into springtime and the chionodoxa are still out in force, but even the later-blooming tulips are beginning to heighten and their petals are growing from green to warmer hues, and the daffodils have fully emerged in time for Easter. The sky was pouring blue again, and yet again fluffy white clouds spoke of May, June — lazy summer days with airplanes carrying travellers to their holidays far above the trees.

This time I went to a market that reminded me of the Viktualienmarkt in Munich. Produce stalls were partly also locally sourced and organic: they carried ramps (Bärlauch), parsley, radishes, red beets, red cabbages, radicchio, varieties of potatoes, carrots, turnips, leeks, orange Hokkaido pumpkins, and kale that were locally grown. The ones that were not so local carried blueberries, strawberries, oranges, plums, and lemons; as well as green beans, peas that looked like mangetout, garlic, etc. There were clothing stalls, a stall with knitting yarn, a jewellery stand, decorated doughnuts, at least two places with flatbreads and savory pastries, etc., and the flower stands were very tastefully arranged with moss and entwined twigs in springlike arrangements that suggested birds' nests.

I'd felt a not entirely pleasant sense of almost literally going back in time when I was walking to the market earlier and the façade of a late-19th or early 20th-century residential apartment building gleamed in the sunlight. The market and the architecture represented a type of respectable traditionalism of the educated classes — there was an intellectual appeal in the approaches of the stall owners to displaying their wares as well as speaking with the shoppers, as well as a pecuniary and culinary appeal; and the buildings weren't just very solidly and well built, but were partly also showcases of more or less over-the-top sociocultural flourishes — that in my view held late traces of the German imperial time. Even the FFP2 mask that was tucked in my jacket pocket didn't dispel the feeling of atavism. There are quite a lot of reasons why I wouldn't literally want to live in 1902.

Anyway, I ended up finding everything I wanted in the way of groceries, and it was nice to see people chatting who knew each other.

Breakfast

When I returned home, the brothers were awake. We started breakfast with the bread buns that Mama had bought from the bakery. To go with them, I served the blueberries and strawberries I'd bought. Then I unwisely tried to whisk whipping cream by hand. I kept whisking and whisking, and my puny efforts were delaying the breakfast ....  In the end, Ge. helped. After that, with an atypical touch of decadence, I cut a croissant in half lengthwise, and layered in the whipping cream, pieces of strawberry, and blueberries. When I ate it at last, I felt very French — also, like I was going to be in trouble with the Revolutionary Tribunal for eating too much cake. Mama did comment that technically it was not Easter yet! I was a very bad Catholic.

My activities after breakfast were more sober-minded. I played a movement of Beethoven's Sonata appassionnata as well as ragtime pieces on the piano, and quickly checked my messages on the internet so that I wouldn't accidentally be rude during my experiment by ignoring colleagues. I aired my room. And I read an article in the Berliner Zeitung and started a quite good article about the latest former American president in the New York Review of Books.

Then I scrubbed the kitchen floor. I adapted a technique that I'd seen the British historian Ruth Goodman use in the television series Edwardian Farm, during my YouTube session last evening. First I swept the floor with a broom before applying the technique. Then I mentally separated the floor into squares/rectangles. Each square I scrubbed thoroughly with warm soapy water — I used a rough rag instead of a brush — then wiped clean with regular water, and finally went over again with a dry rag.

(I was quite won over by the technique. Because of the dry rag, I didn't need to play the fun-but-risky game of 'the wet floor is lava' when navigating the room. Also, the floor was shockingly clean afterward.)

'Dinner' and Tea

For lunch/'dinner' and teatime I prepared an afternoon tea:

Sandwiches, cucumber, radish, and thin parsley stems,
seasoned with salt and pepper
(kept fresh underneath an overturned bowl)

Eggs, boiled

Scones, freshly baked

Homemade lemon curd

Whipping cream and berries left over from breakfast

Stem-ginger shortbread cookies, toffee and pecan cookies, and chocolate-coated oat cookies
(store-bought)

Espresso
(anachronism, and made from instant crystals; a stand-in for coffee)

Herbal tea

French breakfast tea

Then Mama played a game of parcheesi with me. Last evening I'd rummaged in Ge.'s room to find our board games; after last week's internet-less, TV-less, radio-less disaster I'd vowed, somewhat like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, never to go bored again.

It was quite enjoyable; we rediscovered/reinvented the rules as we went along, without disputing them. The siblings and I used to play it when visiting our Aunt N., I think, so it had been over one and a half decades since we'd played.

But when Mama casually said, 'All right, we can apply that rule in the second round,' during the game, I internally squeaked with horror. At the end I carefully asked her whether she did want a second round, since she showed every symptom of being ready to move on; it turns out that we were both quite satisfied with what we'd had.

*

I'd also thought of a sewing project. While I have tons of holey socks, the prospects of fixing them are dim because the yarn supply is running out. Besides the last time I spent time darning socks, the (literally and figuratively) darned parts were worn through the first time I wore the socks again. It was like a Sisyphus effect with super-speedy boulders. Instead I tried to repair a skirt by hand-stitching a patch onto a hole. It went reasonably well and, ingloriously or not, at least I finished it.

Supper

For supper, I prepared a vegetable broth according to a Dr. Oetker recipe: onion, a hint of garlic, white cabbage, carrots, a leek, parsnips in lieu of parsley root, celeriac and parsley.

There was a ton of white cabbage left over, because I only needed 200 grams of a whole head. So I also made a kind of milky casserole or gratin: salt, pepper and herbs on the bottom, a few slices of garlic, maybe three tablespoons of butter, and then thinly sliced or coarsely julienned or chopped onion, white cabbage, leek, savoy cabbage, and celery stalk, then more salt, pepper and herbs, fresh parsley, and milk mixed with water so that it wouldn't burn. (Unfortunately, half the white cabbage and half the savoy cabbage are still left over, and the savoy cabbage hasn't taken well to the warming springtime temperatures so time is pressing.)

In the end I didn't make pommes duchesse or any of the other accompaniments to the supper that I'd been planning. It would have been too exhausting and I doubt the others would have had enough of an appetite. I just toasted a leftover bread bun from breakfast and sliced it into four pieces, and we ate it with the soup and the casserole.  The casserole turned out to be very, very beige; all the colour had leached out of the vegetables. Perhaps I should make it again on Halloween as a Ghost Vegetable Casserole.

As a dessert, we had leftover cookies from the afternoon tea, and roasted chicory coffee, and I finished the whipping cream left over from breakfast. I found out yesterday that substitute coffee is still period-appropriate, since it was recommended in a 1902 cookbook's recipe as a child-friendly swap-in for regular coffee. The old cookbooks I'm finding online are pretty fabulous, incidentally — although the nutritional advice in them is partly hair-raisingly terrible.

After clearing the table a little together with Mama, I read bits of books again and finished knitting a row in my scarf and reached the end of a second article in the New York Review of Books. Then I switched over to the 21st century at a little past 11 p.m.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Time Travel of Sorts to 1901

In the past week I've taken to watching Supersizers Go..., Supersizers Eat... and Further Back in Time for Dinner, all educational British television series produced in the past 20 years that are about changing eating, interior decorating, leisure, and other social habits throughout history. Mostly British history, but also sometimes French or Roman. (In these series, hapless modern guinea pigs agree to dress, play, and eat for a few days by the mores and habits of a given decade or era. My sister once called it 'method history' as a nod to method acting.) To be virtueless but honest, watching entertaining videos is less stressful than reading good books.

I also managed to consistently get over 7 hours of sleep. Perhaps this is due to my changed relaxation habits or not; either way, despite working, in one case, until a few minutes before midnight, I feel a little better. That said, during the voice coaching on Friday evening, my voice wasn't where I left it the previous week; perhaps it was because of exhaustion, but in retrospect I'd probably accidentally eaten too little. A banana for breakfast, a bowl of lentils with butter for lunch, and a serving of potatoes with carrots for dinner, with milky coffee perhaps, is I suppose not really all that's needed before a brisk bicycle ride. So the voice coach kindly brought out chocolate and waited until I'd eaten it, worried I think that I was starving myself since I've grown considerably thinner lately (thanks to work stress, methinks). The chocolate and sugar at least restored some of the lower notes of my vocal range. Anyway, all of this can be filed under My Stupidity rather than under Unsafe Work Environment.

As a result of the Supersizers etc., a storm of experimentalism was brewing internally. Besides I had reached the point where I've spent so much time on a computer that I was absolutely satiated. The family failed to notice The Signs — perhaps they were too well hidden — but I showed up at breakfast more formally than usual, in a white button-up shirt I hadn't worn in over 1 year, and made the grand announcement that I would be living in the year 1901 for the rest of the day. To mildly mixed reactions! I'd done the research I needed before going to sleep, reading up on historical events and watching the splendid short black-and-white films you can find on YouTube to get an idea of clothing trends etc. The puff sleeves on women's blouses were definitely very aujourd'hui.

1901 Breakfast and Shopping

At breakfast I ate a tin of sardines with the bread rolls, as eating fish for breakfast seems to be a British Edwardian thing. It was so filling that it took me ages to finish it. After that, I spent a heinous (from my perspective) amount of time handwashing the dishes that don't belong in the dishwasher. Then I read one or two articles in the Berliner Zeitung to reflect the fact that all of the news would have come from print newspapers 'back in the day.'

Then I went to a street market for groceries, as market-going was far more historically accurate than going to a supermarket (popularized in the 1960s).

I like the limited social interaction of shopping in a supermarket. Almost everyone is a stranger, I make only the briefest of conversations with the cashier — it's not clear to me why I find this less awkward, but likely it is because the time pressure encourages laconic interactions — and I avoid the meat, fish and cheese counters like the plague.

But the market was fun, after all, this time. The last time I went there to shop was for a 'living in the 1950s' experiment in 2015.

It's oriented toward the German-Turkish community and you can hear Turkish-accented German where the male sellers shout '1 Kilo Orangen - 1 Euro!' etc. at passersby, and there's more a sense of social curiosity and exchange because people actually want to interact. People stream in, then stream out again with white and salmon-red plastic shopping bags. Crates and pallets and flattened cardboard boxes are piled helter-skelter around a periphery of delivery vans — and there's seemingly always a tattered cauliflower leaf or a fallen banana or some kind of produce afterthought there like a diamond in the rough — parked cars of people who live nearby, and dumpsters to take the waste.

It reflects the way in which grocery shopping probably works for a lot of people everywhere else in the world, whether in China and Vietnam, or Indonesia, Ghana or Nigeria, Iraq or Syria or Turkey, and makes me very slightly expand my mental horizons beyond British Columbian and supermarket-going-Berliner customs. And I guess that because of Covid I've learned to better appreciate the worth of mass chaos that otherwise I'd find intimidating and kind of hate — Christmas markets if they are too crowded and Reunification Day events on Berlin's Straße des 17. Juni etc. give me the heebie-jeebies.

Today, seasonal spring and unseasonal summer produce like fresh herbs, green beans, spinach, oblong cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, lettuces, huge dandelion greens, strawberries, mushrooms, lemons, purple grapes, garlic bulbs, etc. etc. were stacked and heaped on the wooden market tables in most of the stalls, with the cash registers and plastic bag supplies and electronic scales and sellers tucked behind. (The flower stall did have tons of tulips.) At last I found the fennel bulbs I wanted, after worrying that they weren't there.

We were wearing flat surgical or bulging FFP face masks. This time I saw more guards than I remembered the other times I'd passed through the market. They were clad in fluorescent yellow safety vests and likely were tasked to enforce anti-Covid safety regulations; they seemed pretty vigilant. Two police officers from the 'Ordnungsamt' were also strolling around in a circuit, talking to each other.

Altogether the best part of entering the 1901 'headspace', every now and then today, was that these times were Covid-19-free. Mama astutely pointed out, however, that there was no shortage of epidemics in the early 1900s.

Anyway, after finding oranges and fennel bulbs, I went on to get twigs from a florist's: now that florists' shops are open again and spring is coming, I am on a major flower kick.

1901 Promenade and Lunch

When I returned, hot and frankly perspiring after an extra wild goose chase in a warm sweater in balmy spring weather, I was a little taken back when Ge. suggested walking to Tempelhofer Feld with him and J. But I agreed, since walking around the city in a park on a weekend for over an hour seemed a very 1901 thing to do.

Sheep-like billows of white summer cloud were wandering along in a beautiful, intense blue sky at that point, and at the same time the excessive warmth was gone. I was glad about the weather, but wasn't feeling 100% strong and was glad that I'd eaten the breakfast sardines after all, since eventually they'd fortify me.

We walked onto the field; a dark grey cloud mass (spires and tufts at different levels building a gloomy palace of sorts) that resembled the skies of Kansas shortly before Dorothy Gale was transported to the land of Oz was gathering over the former airport terminal. I observed and yet did not draw conclusions.

But a wind kicked up. Ge. was suggesting that I put on the raincoat I'd draped over my arm. I had just pish-poshed that when the first hard little bullets of hail began to drill into our faces.

I wrestled into the coat, the wind flapping it away from me as Ge. documented the photographic evidence on his inconveniently handy smartphone. The flapping and the wind itself was so loud it was hard to hear each other even when we shouted. As we kept walking, the cold precipitation melted onto the back of our trouser legs, plastering the fabric to the skin. On one of the main former runways, we saw gusts of hazy white hail, like the foam on ocean waves.

Everyone seemed to look as beleaguered as we felt except for our new hero: a jogger. The hail was biting his face and his bare legs too; he was only wearing a red sweatshirt and loose athletic shorts. But he was as steadily and easily proceeding along the walkways as if it were a warm summer morning, the hard asphalt were gentle turf, and buttercups and rosebushes were glowing at him from the hedgerows.

After I returned home, our clothing had partly dried but I was glad to change it. I made hot cocoa for everyone and one of the brothers brewed coffee, to warm us up. Cocoa butter is my new 'secret' ingredient — stolen from a recipe for white hot chocolate by Kirsten Buck — when it comes to making hot chocolate, as it makes any warm or hot milk taste more satisfyingly rich; that said, the tub I found is so expensive I wouldn't necessarily be eager to buy more.

Then I prepared a dinner that turned into a supper due to the late hour. The menu was steamed fennel bulbs with browned butter, rice, boiled eggs, and crudités of celery, fennel stalk and cherry tomatoes. This was much lighter than a true Edwardian meal often seems to have been, and I'm afraid I cheated and used electric scales. But these dishes fit with the cookbooks published in 1901 that I'd browsed in the Internet Archive. I brought out a bottle of white wine to drink with the meal, and (mandarin - probably less period-authentic) oranges for dessert.

To make the meal fancier and more period-appropriate, I set the table with plates, knives and forks, and set out napkins and wine-glasses.

I was the only one interested in trying out a finger bowl. I put two slivers of lemon peel into water in a shot glass. After the meal it really was nice to dip my fingers into it and then wipe them on my napkin so that they'd feel less greasy. It was like the steaming lemon-scented washcloths that flight attendants sometimes pass around to airplane passengers. Ge. kept telling me that it was anachronistic, poor etiquette for me to comment on using the finger bowl during the supper — along the lines of 'OK! I'm trying the finger bowl now!' and he was probably right.

In between cooking I read bits of a book and played the piano. As Ge. noted a little snidely (but very fairly!), the music I play is likely period-appropriate anyway. In the end I went for one and a half Chopin waltzes, 2 ragtime pieces by Scott Joplin, and the third movement of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata. I spotted a collection of Edith Piaf's greatest hits lying at the side of the music rack and thought triumphantly, on the thin basis of playing two of the piano arrangements sometimes, 'Aha! That's definitely not older than 1901.' But of course that's still not evidence that my musical tastes are hip.

1901 Evening

That said, the time after dinner was The Worst. I'd re-read the first chapter of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn earlier that day, read the first chapter of Henry James's The Europeans for the first time, and also read more of the end notes of Barack Obama's A Promised Land, the end of an essay on the militarization of the apartheid-era South African government, and the first chapter of Colson Whitehead's Nickel Boys. And I read more of Elle Germany.

But, in a disappointing departure from the 1950s experiment, my 1901 experiment shut me out from watching television or even listening to the radio. I was going to read the beginning of a book by Nietzsche (reluctantly, but for historical verisimilitude because his Superman ideas were apparently very 'in' at the time). I hoped that I'd feel more like reading if it had a philosophical element, even better a philosophical element I disagreed with wholeheartedly and that would inspire rage that would make me less sleepy. But my mother kept telling me to turn on another lamp because the light was too dim, and so I thought that rather than give in and do what would probably seem logical to most people, I'd prefer to stop reading and do something else in that case. It was a polite dispute with no real heat, but at that point I just realized in general that I was dangerously bored.

Knitting or sewing would have been an option, although the sewing I didn't think of until it was too late. The scarf I'm knitting has now been dedicated to passing the time during work video calls, however. (A teammate pointed out that multitasking during meetings had made me absentminded and prone to asking for questions to be repeated, and so I've tried to restrain myself by filling my hands with knitting needles and wool.) So I didn't work more on it.

Besides I suspect I have a heady internet addiction after all, and a little online time-wasting really is just the thing when my brain tells me it wants to go on holiday for the rest of the day. So at around 8:30 p.m. I gave in, pressed the Power button on my computer, exchanged my button-up blouse for a 21st-century hoodie (now that was a gratifying feeling), and ever since then have been typing madly to create this blog post.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Covid, Toil, and Breakfast

 On Friday evening I succumbed again to a mistake I'd made last fall, which is sitting in a cold room, developing a mildly snuffly nose and sore throat because of the atmospheric conditions, and then worrying that I'd caught the coronavirus after all. I also had the feeling of not having strength in my legs that I'm reasonably familiar with and had presumed is either a pre-diabetic thing or a symptom of stress or blood pressure problems.

After getting a good night's sleep, I realized that the day before I'd gone on two brisk bicycle rides without the slightest symptoms of shortness of breath, so it was probably wrong to suspect Covid. But to make the rest of the family feel more at ease, and because on top of all the other nonsense lately I did not want to self-quarantine, I went to the pharmacy and bought a coronavirus self-test for 9.95 Euros. I read through the instructions a few times before going through the steps, then waited 15 minutes as recommended for the results, and only got one line on the test strip: the control bar.

Now that I've finally been tested for Covid-19 in one form or another, I feel morbidly trendy.

Later in the day I made potato cakes to go with a less-full Irish breakfast: baked sausage and potato cakes, along with a fried egg, bacon, and tomatoes. As we did not have Guinness, I committed a diplomatic faux pas, and set up water for a more British pot of tea. It was a belated nod to St. Patrick's Day, earlier in the week.

*

In general I don't feel so great.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I'd put in ~4 hours each of overtime, toiling away with a few breaks until 11 p.m. or 12 a.m.

On Thursday I reserved a half day off, which turned into more of a quarter day off...

And I put in overtime yesterday.

But it's all small peas and I'm reasonably hopeful that matters will improve. Two new teammates will join and, for the first two months at least, will reduce my team's severe short-staffing.

I will also need to schedule a pep talk for my team on Monday. The company was bought up just last week, and I want to reassure them that we'll still be valued and employed in the new company order.

*

Today I woke up at 11 a.m., as the church bells were tolling after the morning service. The streets were relatively empty; the sky was grey. Mama popped out to fetch croissants, Schrippen, and other bread buns from the bakery. When she returned, Ge. had begun to grind beans for our morning coffee. And then we had a 2 hour breakfast where we talked about politics and so on.

Three of us then adjourned to the corner room. There Ge. read the Berliner Zeitung and Mama dove further into an academic book about the Visigoths etc., and I leafed through the April issue of Elle Germany and extracted a perfume sample.

Right now I'm about to prepare a batch of boxty, to take up the household trend of Irish cookery again. And I might play the second movement of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata on the piano, since like vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her far-ranging taste in newspapers, I am taking a completist approach to his later sonatas and trying to play 'all of them.' And J. is playing his mandolin repertoire: a tarantella by Saint-Saëns that does drive us slightly nuts, as a tarantella should; and Baroque pieces by Bach and Vivaldi.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Spring Tempests, Canadian Book Competitions, Etc.

It's a changeful spring day, after a changeful spring week.

Yesterday I was riding my mother's bicycle around Alexanderplatz, minutes after a hailstorm. A grey cloud front barred the sky in front of me, but a huge rainbow with colours straight out of a picture book was arcing across it, and after a while a pale outer rainbow appeared too. In the distance the sun shone brightly, however, on a modern apartment or office tower. And then a minute or two later the sky cleared, white summery clouds heaped in an otherwise clear blue sky, as wispier clouds zipped by at a lower altitude, and a jet streamed its trails.

The crocuses are out — pale autumn crocuses with white stems like fondant and lilac-purple blossoms in the lawns of the Karl-Marx-Allee, deep purple and golden elsewhere. But the last snowdrops, a few of them thriving but a few of them looking as if a passerby dog had gnawed at them, and bleached yellow winter aconites are lingering. The flower buds are thronging on the Oregon grape bushes, but mostly haven't burst open yet, and the lilac leaves and forsythia flowers are (depending on how much wind shelter they have where they're growing) beginning to emerge. Last year's vegetation is still, however, incredibly dead — there's little green undergrowth, likely due to the deep frosts.

*

From a human perspective, I feel that these are uneasy times. I don't feel happy that coronavirus infection rates are rising again in Berlin and in Germany at large. It was nicer when one could feel that there were fewer unnecessary deaths, fewer people offering the lives of others to their own stubbornly stupid impulses.

But the vaccination programme is proceeding; over 7% of Berlin's population has received a single vaccine or more, and half of those have received two doses.

*

Last week I followed this year's Canada Reads competition, in which five Canadian public figures debated five different books by Canadian authors over four days, on television, and at the end one book was declared the winner.

The jurors this year were an actor-director, television actor, chef/musician, Olympic athlete turned radio broadcaster, and a songwriter.

Butter Honey Pig Bread, I'd already almost finished reading before the competition broadcast began. It's a magical realist family novel from 2020, by the debut author Francesca Ekwuyasi.

Its main characters are three women who were born in Nigeria: a mother and twin daughters. The mother is an ogbanje, or 'witch,' who is always torn between her real-life existence and the demands of her Kin, the spirits who torment her in a weirdly comforting analogy of mental illness. Her daughters have a little of her magic, but mostly live like everybody else. They move to London and Canada and Paris and other places, going apart due to a horrible event, but try to find each other again in Nigeria, where their mother has settled.

I found the book good — I told Mama that it was like a cross between Toni Morrison and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I felt that some things that I hadn't liked in the two other authors I did like here. (For example, Adichie's sex scenes always made me feel like I was searching through a stranger's underwear drawers, whereas Ekwuyasi's feel much less voyeuristic.) But I don't know if I'd want to reread the book; the themes of death, mental illness, etc., although well handled, were heavy.

Jonny Appleseed was published a year earlier, in 2019. Writing in an engaging, mercurial style, the author Joshua Whitehead represents the life of a young Indigenous man who grows up on a reservation. He returns to the reservation for the funeral of his stepfather. Jonny is gay and proud of it; and he refuses to feel guilty about making his living from sex work. That said, I only read the earliest chapters, so my summary of the plot might be wrong.

Regarding style, I'm not sure if every reader would pick up on pop culture references like Grindr, or Indigenous cultural references like the word kokum for grandmother. I also felt that Whitehead's style was more heterogeneous than Ekwuyasi's, mixing literary phrases that are reasonably good Creative Writing Course, with less self-conscious slang. But Jonny Appleseed really is, as the book's champion said on Canada Reads, easy to read; it flows, and the chapters are brief and to the point.

An idea behind Jonny Appleseed seems to be that gloomy, heavy narratives of Indigenous and gay lives are more depressing than cathartic for readers who know these experiences anyway. (In last year's Canada Reads, an actress argued that Indigenous readers might not want to explore topics like intergenerational trauma due to child abuse in residential schools yet again. This year, the Olympian/broadcaster also pointed out that she was weary of reading about the abuse of Black female bodies.) So this book is meant to be a more inspiring, happy departure.

Like Butter Honey Pig Bread, the book is more graphic and explicit than what I'd usually read in literary fiction. But it is wholesome at heart. I only felt uncomfortable that the book glosses over relationships where Jonny is badly exploited. — Just because fictional Jonny chooses to move on, doesn't mean that there isn't a problem, one that would affect many real-life people very differently.

Anyway, Jonny Appleseed is a 'pain eater,' who tries to take pain and give back happiness in its place; and I guess the book mirrors his mindset.

The other books in Canada Reads were The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk, a feminist fantasy set vaguely in a Regency world if I remember correctly; Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, a dark comedy about a villain's henchman who takes up a crusade against the overzealousness of superheroes; and Two Trees Make a Forest, a memoir of a Canadian woman visiting Taiwan inspired by a letter that her grandparent wrote, and connecting to the natural landscape. I haven't begun reading them yet, but they all sound appealing.

***

Aside from that, I am still reading other books.

A few of these books are cookbooks: so for the past two days I've been baking peanut butter cookies, blending cherry-chocolate smoothies, and getting a few ingredients for another round of trail mix with dried goji berries and mulberries. It does feel good to be able to afford these ingredients thanks to my job, even if ideally I do want to cook much more local and seasonal food that is less expensive because its production and transport are more sustainable.

I also cooked a Palestinian soup from butternut squash, lentils, onions, etc., flavoured with a lovely spice mix with toasted coriander seeds and cinnamon, and topped with croutons, which I'd bookmarked from the Guardian's food section many years ago. This is a little closer to the ideal of local-ish food; at least I'm pretty sure that the butternut squash didn't travel too far.

I can hardly wait for the springtime glut of local-grown rhubarb and asparagus, then strawberries,... etc.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama is almost finished, and I want to move on to Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys next. It's from a book subscription that my aunt gave me as a birthday present. And after that I still have a few gifts to read through!

And I'm still reading the first volume of Nelson Mandela's autobiography with my voice coach, and listening to/reading other South African books at home, as part of my literary trip around the world. I'm looking forward to reading South Korean books by way of change soon. But reading about apartheid feels important, not so much of course for literary reasons, as for reasons of learning how to be a good citizen in dramatic scenarios: understanding the extremes to which our societies can go if we're not careful.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent...

For a few weeks there were below-zero temperatures in Berlin and Brandenburg that reached as far as -17C.

In longer-distant past years I hadn't heated my room at all in these circumstances: I could barely function because I felt so cold, and walked around in a blanket for weeks. Fortunately this time has ended (although it did give me a far greater historical appreciation of the presence of coal in the Berlin Airlift after the Second World War) and I've been feeding the stove with coals pretty constantly.

A trick that Papa taught us is to prop up coal bricks in a fire so that only one end of the bricks touches the fire, gradually burning down over time instead of blazing up at once. Being a maximalist, he'd use five or six coal bricks for this, while I range from one to three. Either way, it's a good way to make sure that I can sleep or get lost in a fog of work ... and still see embers in the stove by the time I wake up literally or figuratively and think of the stove again.

Aside from tricks for tending fires, another Canadianism that I have retained is a wholesome fear of stepping out onto 'frozen' waterways. A good course of reading Jack London in childhood makes one less likely, I think, to venture out onto unproven surfaces in the wintertime; but other Berliners have been more enterprising about it, not always with good results.

With great dramatic irony, the hyacinth bulbs that Mama has been raising on the windowsill were happily sprouting and heightening in the middle of the cold, as if it were the middle of spring. Now the first flowers have appeared amongst the spear-like leaves.

Anyway, then this week the Great Thaw set in. The snowmen that my youngest brother constructed on the windowsill outside his room began to thin out, bend and topple in agonized Dali-esque fashion, a little horrifying to behold; and soon only the sticks for the arms were left amidst a dark grey tide of meltwater. The rain also 'ate away' at the snow cover that had lasted for days and days.

*

As for work, it appears as if not just our new clients but especially longtime clients are filled with springtime zeal, happily sending us horrendous data that have all the hallmarks of the messy mistakes of a new season that haven't been ironed out yet.

Because we're too far behind deadlines, I suspect that the colleagues who talk with clients have not been smushing the clients' egregious missteps in their faces as I'd like — not just out of an Old Testament love of punishment of the evildoer, but also because it will make our lives so much easier not to chase after and correct these glitches ourselves.

In most years March just means an increase in day-to-day work. But this year February has been so terrible that the mind boggles at the thought of next Black Friday season. This might be because of a coronavirus-related transition from brick-and-mortar shopping to online retail.

I've begun working on the weekends, as well as long hours during the week, and feeling very, very cranky or in a kind of wilted-flower stage that I think is very irritating for onlookers. It's not just me: I've noticed teammates working long hours; the teams I work with most closely are also overloaded. What's pretty unusual is that teams have started pointing fingers at each other when things go wrong, and I wouldn't say that my team or I are innocent.

Yesterday a colleague asked for a quick meeting, which we held today, to talk about how to mend faltering morale. To be honest, I'm out of ideas.

So I can't say that the 'winter of discontent' has been 'made glorious summer' yet.

I think I'd be happier if I felt that we were still in service to each other, not in service to The Idea of the Company as held out by a very small and very distant (I know they take pains to be transparent and accessible, but maybe not the right ones) circle of decision-makers.