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.
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
Leftover chocolate fudge.
Then we finished looking over Mama's essay.
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.
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).