It was only just beginning

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would be begin; and it was clear…that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.

Chekhov, Lady with a lapdog.

Dressed as a wasp or Viking

My second writing shift starts after dark. When the children were young it was the way I could get in a 12-hour day: 6am to 2pm (cycle home, spend a few hours dressed as a wasp or Viking – the things that being a parent requires), then back at my desk 9pm to 1am. I’d like to think they didn’t notice I was absent in my head, working, but they called my Helen of Troy, “that treacherous book”. The perfidy of writing is ingrained.

Extract from an excellent interview (it was published about a year back in the Times or Telegraph, I think), with the history Bettany Hughes. I’m sure quite a few mothers (I’d like to say parents) recognise this…

Bread and ashes

Tabasarn, in south-eastern Daghestan, spoken by about 90,000 has, I was once assured by a tipsy linguist, eight genders. Scholars, he assured me, enjoyed introducing new, unfamiliar objects to the Tamasars to see which gender might be assigned. Apparently a samovar was unanimously assigned to the seventh gender, though no one could say why.

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A typically hitchhikers-guide-to-the-galaxy type intervention from this delightful book that talks you through the politics, landscape, history and languages of this region, along with a good smattering of rollicking travel tales (Tony’s friend Chris generally sleeping upright in his green sleeping bag like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and staring at the local cheese trying to decide whether it would make his hangover better or worse.)

Here’s some more on the local linguistic melting pot:

Many languages here have a prolix proliferation of cases: one analysis of  Tsez identified forty-two different locative case markers, which can describe precisely what space someone or something is in, at, under, by, near, away from: a hollow space, a flat space, a space that might be a trifle uncomfortable or sadly lacking in alcohol…Abkhaz, a notoriously difficult language, has fifty-eight [consonants] ; one of its dialects, Bzyp, has sixty-seven…Essed Bey insisted that Tabarsarn was so difficult that the Tabasars…preferred to speak an easier, neighbouring tongue.

Eating dresses

Talking of pockets – this time I mean pockets and not votes/social justice –  I think this piece by Sali Hughes is brilliantly spot on. “Eating dresses” – “neat at the shoulders, sleeves and neck and shoulders, but with enough fabric around the middle to invisibly conceal a bottle of red and more than 19 calories” are a genius description for what I’ve mooched up and down shop aisles looking for, ditto Sali’s call for the kind of occasion wear that is basically whatever you need in the day but will look good with red lipstick and a funkier pair of shoes than what you’ve worn at the office.

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Finally, check out Sali’s list of dresses every middle-class woman of 35 and over wants. It’s probably the only time that a capsule wardrobe has made sense and is exactly what the fashion industry ought to lobby retail for.

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Photos: Oliver Bonas shift dress snapped by me – would be a good weekend dress though ideally more colour please, and possibly even pattern. Libby London dress from their website – a good 15 hour dress, but not really enough waist room for an eating dress & pretty pricey. Their shirt dresses are good though, if you suit that style.

Because buttons are not a natural right.

Try this any time someone tries to fob you off. The brilliance is that translating the bullshit to an argument over pockets exposes the full nonsense of “oh no, X doesn’t need a voice at the table because if they did they’d already have it [ignores massive power differential and access to influence.]”

This list is from the American Suffragist , journalist and eventual White House speechwriter, Alice Duer Miller, and you can download her book “Are Women People?” for free from the lovely people at Project Gutenberg.

Why women should not have pockets:

1. Because pockets are not a natural right.
2. Because the great majority of women do not want pockets. If they did they would have them.
3. Because whenever women have had pockets they have not used them.
4. Because women are required to carry enough things as it is, without the additional burden of pockets.
5. Because it would make dissension between husband and wife as to whose pockets were to be filled.
6. Because it would destroy man’s chivalry towards woman if he did not have to carry all her things in his pockets.
7. Because men are men and women are women. We must not fly on the face of nature.
8. Because pockets have been used by men to carry tobacco, pipes, whisky flasks, chewing gum and compromising letters. There is no reason to suppose that women will use them more sensibly.

Berlin nights

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After hours of strolling in the heat, the cold glass of sour buttermilk was just the thing we both craved to quench our thirst. The clean, pure flavour and its thickness cooling my throat lingered with me long after we pushed back from the table, said goodbye, and walked home, sandals slapping gently against the sidewalk.

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Muck had told us to bring dessert, so I sifted through my recipes cookbooks searching for something to make, both relishing the task and feeling indecisive as I always did…

I could bake a cake, something simple and rustic, topped with fruit. But in Germany, cake was eaten mainly in the afternoon served with a cup of coffee or tea. And although I used to bake cakes for dinner parties in New York, the idea of a slice of cake after dinner no longer appealed to me…

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I thought about slicing peaches and slipping the wedges into wine, but the truth is that good peaches were not so easy to come by in Berlin….A pavlova sounded pretty good too: marshmallowy mereingues topped with whipped cream and berries.

But pavlova felt too fussy for this languid afternoon. I leaned back on the couch and closed my eyes, hearing the faint hum of traffic from the outdoors and thinking about our day. I remembered the buttermilk we’d shared, creamy and sour. It occurred to me that buttermilk and berries would make a perfect summer dessert…

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The panna cotta was simple to make, but when the time came to unmold the set cream from its ceramic mold, I struggled to loosen it from the sides. Max came into the kitchen just as I was starting to lose my cool and ended up helping me, the two of us giggling at the panna cotta’s luxuriant wobble as it settled into its serving plate. Then I spooned the juicy berries and their syrup all round the panna cotta, almost obscuring the creamy mound. As Max drove us to Muck and Jurgen’s house, I held the serving plate gingerly in my lap as the fruit slid precariously back and forth.

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Out on their deck at dusk, we ate pink-fleshed lake trout poached gently in fennel broth, small boiled potatoes, waxy and sunflower yellow and dusted with chopped parsley, and a little salad of soft greens studded with toasted sunflower seeds. There was a cold bottle of Riesling and a sharp and creamy horseradish sauce mixed with grated apple for a bit of sweetness to dollop on the fish…

The table soon fell quiet and as our spoons scraped against the china and I saw the light draining from the sky, my life suddenly felt so complete, so rich and full and just as it should be, that I almost lost my breath.

Luisa Weiss, My Berlin Kitchen

Your email back, however

Synaesthete would like to meet

Other synaesthetes describe their experiences as pleasant whilst for me it is a constant sensory overload…. pick up any cheap paperback that uses too many mixed metaphors and that is my day to day, with all attempts at clarity squandered by confusing, muddled leaps of imagery. I see fireflies when a tyre screeches, smell fried onions when I step on an upturned plug…

Online dating marked a huge step. At first I found the profile I created absolutely disgusting. Reading through it, the paragraph smelt of tar and vinegar and was full of sticky, tooth-chewing words. I had no hope of response to such a squalid, acrid thing, and imagined that anyone to whom it might in any way appeal must have some kind of perversion I did not want to share. You must understand that it was not just that I did not have high hopes, I actively dreaded who would be interested in such a thing. I gave it to my doctor to edit, and he gave me two thumbs up, but I could tell by his tweedy, neoprenaged vowels, he was just being kind.

Your email back, however, smelt like a sea breeze: that was all it took. I didn’t have to read about the interests you listed, your hobbies or your star sign. It was that sea breeze smell, cutting through the snow and mown grass, that convinced me this was a chance I had to take. I organised a meeting.

You chose a spot at Piccadilly, within sight of Eros and the Criterion. I like Piccadilly Circus; the exhaust fumes and the chatter present me with a fresh inky blue, it’s almost precisely the colour of the line on the Tube map. To me the flashing neon adverts are a barbershop quartet suffering the giggles, which pleases me, and the tourists’ interbraiding accents cause a firework display of neurological responses. The taxi drivers’ swearing is accompanied by different shades of silver, squeaky and lickable.

As I waited, the rain made a pink overture against my jacket. And your colour, when you introduced yourself? You must not be insulted, but you were blank. A soundless, tasteless, brilliant blank.

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From “Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams”, a book I’m rushing to buy after hearing this extract read aloud on the Backlisted podcast.

The art of an interview

That’s when I would find out that yes, they did get their PhD in physics, back when women were barely allowed in college, and as a matter of fact, it was them who single-handedly oversaw the Capitol renovation, and technically they do they an individual birthday party for every single person in the city every year, but they have so much help, you know? Besides, everybody loves a birthday, and it’s just no trouble at all to throw one.

Inspiring tales from Kelly Williams Brown, who’s also written a long-form essay on the rodeo queens (even harder work than the beauty queen circuit), and a spot-on spoof of House of Cards.

I like these women best though – this is how my school raised us to be.

Sharpening the edges

There is something poetic about this September salad of two vine fruits. The last of the tomatoes, heavy with sun, with the first of the grapes, the onion and vinegar sharpening the edges like a heavy pencil outline.

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I’ve posted quite a lot about / from Rachel Roddy recently, but sometimes you just find writing that slots into your head and gets you. I can think of at least two friends I want to give her cookbook too, whilst the recipes posted online with the Guardian satisfy me.

The lemon cream is typically southern Italian, and therefore thickened with a little flour, which gives it an old-fashioned and homely feel, especially if you are used to more elegant, butter-rich lemon curds.

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The mix of lightly-worn food history and anecdote reminds me a lot of Nigella Lawson in her glory days, and she knows how to turn a phrase:

You know how we are often reassured that the fussiness of anchovies will slip away like an obedient manservant, leaving just the wonderful seasoning? This is not the case here. The anchovy flavour remains indignant, its fishy saltiness producing golden crumbs that shout “I am an anchovy breadcrumb!” There no doubt, if you hate anchovies, you will hate these breadcrumbs. If you like anchovies, I suggest you make this for lunch tomorrow.

A language of the gods

In those days not many language teachers played gramophone records to their class, but Mr King did. They were old and very precious to him and us, and he kept them in brown paper bags in a satchel that he put in his bicycle basket when he rode to school.

The blog’s most proflific researcher (aka my mother: sorry there’s no pay-rise this year, but I’ll give you Christmas off that zero hours contract) found me John Le Carre’s address on why we should learn German. You can hear both the novelist’s view, and also an entirely genuine pleasure at learning.

What did they contain, these precious records? The voices of classical German actors, reading romantic German poetry…And I discovered that the language fitted me. It pleased my Nordic ear.

In between musings on the connections and sympathies that come from learning language, and an appreciation for the fierce attention to truth that German can provide, there’s still time for a joke.

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown-out-of-the-window-PlayStation” And…you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Holderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it for many of us, a language of the gods.

Three cheers for this speech! I’m still grateful every day for the amazing – and eccentric! – German teachers I had. They gave me so much, even when my language was learned rather than instinctive: fun, new authors, a way of understanding my own language, and friends.