Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bonfire Night

This is our beach. Seriously. It is within spitting distance from our house. It's not on a lake or the sea, but on a big river called the Elbe, just downriver from Hamburg.
Without the fire and with a ship on it, it looks like this.

Our little town lies nestled into a wide, open country called "Marsch", flat lands that go on and on all the way to the North Sea, soft, rich meadows veined with little rivers and interrupted by copses of gnarled willow over which the wind blows without hinderances. if you find a place that is only a little higher up, like a dam, you can see forever.....

We moved here twenty-two years ago, from Southern Germany. The landscape there is so different.
There are forests and hills and mountains and rich fields with golden corn, and well, there are forests. Deep, dark, huge forests.
Here, there were none. Only these meagre stunted trees and the endless green.
And if ever a tsunami should hit this coast, it will roll all the way to our doorstep.
It was not easy getting used to this landscape, and to its people.
The landscape is rough, and the people are taciturn, gruff, with a very special kind of humor. They don't make friends easily, and they are not easy-going, either. On the upside, once you get to know them and they accept you, they'll stick with you for life. They won't talk a lot, but they sure know how to party.

Today is Easter Saturday. The one day in the year when the Marsh lights up with the fires.
In the morning, there will be no more than this: a big heap of wood, consisting of assiduously collected Christmas Trees and and garden cuttings. brought together by the local firefighters. Stands will be set up, and porta-potties, and a First Aid tent.

There were church services in the late afternoon, and now, after darkness has fallen, the fires are going up.
A ship  on its way upstream to the Hamburg Harbor will see our bonfire, and many others like it along its way, since the land is so flat.
These fires are a promise, and a welcome signal.
They promise us that winter is finally over, and they welcome the coming warmth and light of summer.
On a more mundane note, this are also the first official barbeque event of the year. The sausages are a little better smoked than normally, but they are delicious.
Right now, I'm sitting on the couch, in our living room, with the terrace door open to catch the scent of the fires, even if we can't see them.
The night is dry and not too cold. There will be a lot of people down by the beach, and many of them will be there to see the dawn.
Some of them will end up in the ER because they are drunk, or burned a hand, or fell into the water.
But in the end, once the sun is up, it will be Easter Sunday, and spring will be here.

Monday, March 29, 2010


It's this time of the year that makes me restless.
The reason for this, I think, is the fact that I first read "The Lord Of The Rings" in early spring, and that is the ultimate travel book, right?
So my own favorite travel time is spring, too, and a couple of years ago, we went to London.

We went to London by bus, and we took 22 9th graders along, for where would be the fun in traveling alone, right?
So this is what a teacher couple looks after a night on a bus with 22 teenagers, in Calais, waiting to board the ferry.

In good spirits, but slightly disheveled. There was no coffee, either.
Or yes, there was, but it was really bad, and it did not have the desired effect.

When we started out from home, I still looked like this.

A wee bit more awake and relaxed, right? That was at 3 am in the morning.

But we made it to London safely, and checked into our hotel north of Hyde Park, in a very nice neighborhood too,  with a Starbucks not too far away and an Indian breakfast place right next door.
I don't recall the name of the narrow street, but our place was only a few steps away from Bayswater, and we could see the green rim of the park when we stepped into the driveway.
That hotel was a hovel, really.
The first thing the kids noted when they took up residence, as it were,  were the roach traps under their beds. And the dead roaches. And the dead rat on the window sill. And the empty booze bottles in the flower pots in the tiny yard. They were housed in the basement, and their breakfast served in paper cartons.
We, being teachers, lived a lot better. Our room was clean, airy, on the second floor, and we got a full English breakfast, served in the lounge. The children thought that was unfair. I thought it was great.

This is a thing I like a lot:
Going out in a new town early in the morning.
You step outside, and there is a different kind of sound, of smell, of feel around you,  and in big cities, a hum as if the soul of the place is singing to itself.
Humming to itself in praise of its own history and in welcome of another day, and this is especially strong when the sun shines and the world looks good.
As it did when we were in London, in May.
One of our students discovered the Starbucks close to the hotel, so this is what we would do:
get a tall Latte with a double shot of espresso and a poppyseed-lemon glaze muffin, get on the bus again and let it take us to some wondrous destination somewhere in the metropolis.
The first morning, we went here:

Brick Lane, because I had read the book and wanted to see the place.
The kids, because there were bangles.

We lost these two (Cathrin and Derya) to the bangles, and the Hubby and I sweated bitter tears until they showed up again in the evening, at the hotel, after a day on the town and a visit to the Hard Rock Café.
After that, we were a lot less afraid of letting the kids go out on their own. They knew how to find their way back, and it did a world of good for their self-esteem.

We went for a ride on the London Eye.
You can't go to London these days and not do it. Honestly, the prospect had me scared shitless, but the kids would not hear of it. They MADE me go, and I'm eternally grateful.
Did you know that thing never stops and you have to get on and off while it moves under your feet, and that there is a gap between it and the outside through which you can look down into the river? True!!!

But my reward for overcoming my fear of heights was this view of the city.
It gave me the feeling that I could see all the way to Scotland and to the Channel, and despite the kids in the gondola there was a kind of silence there, too, that had nothing to do with the noise around me.
This impression I saved very well, and used it later in my novel when I wanted to describe a scene there.

Driving back to the hotel later, we went across the bridge and the kids started screaming.
On the curb, a stretch-limousine with tinted windows was parked, and out of it climbed a person that made all the girls yell for our bus to stop and please could they get out, because that was "USHER!!!!!"
To this day, I have NO idea who that is or why he was the reason for such a rage, but it was funny, and memorable, and the bus nearly tipped into the Thames.

I told them that even "Usher" had the right to spend a moment looking out at the scenery and no, the bus would not stop for them to descend on the poor guy like bats out of hell.
The same way I would NOT make the bus stop and get out, even though the girls would have loved it, every time we went by the Dorchester, which was daily, to sneak in and try to catch Neil Diamond, who was residing there at that time.
There were groups of fans hanging out outside that hotel, we could see that, but I would not be one of them.
Disdainfully, I said that. They did not understand. No matter.

This pic was taken from the riverside in Greenwich, right outside the Cutty Sark Museum.

It's not the best pic in the world, but it was taken by me, and it shows the o2 Arena, where Neil was going to perform a few weeks later. So there.
I recall that was an incredibly serene and beautiful day. We had seen the lovely village, some had gone to the Observatory (not me; I had to find and pick up some lost souls again), and there was some time to dawdle away.
So I got some coffee at Starbucks, and a lemon/poppyseed muffin, again, and sat there in the sun and watched the teenagers on their skateboards and the dome of the o2 shimmering in the distance, and I thought:
Life is good. Life can be as sweet at lemon glaze, and all you need to do is let it melt on your tongue to enjoy it.
That is all.