Finally 70!

Last year, my cousin and I turned 70. Together, that is. So we decided to use the chance to bring together the family for an extended Sunday brunch at the end of April (which is a long time after our birthdays, but autumn and winter are not the best season for travelling long distances). Not everybody could make it, but in the end, about 18 people gathered in a restaurant in Bremen … and, judging by the laughter, had a really good time.

Im letzten Jahr wurden meine Cousine und ich 70 Jahre alt. Zusammen, versteht sich. Also haben wir die Chance genutzt, um unsere Familie Ende April zu einem ausgiebigen Sonntagsbrunch einzuladen (mehrere Monate nach unseren Geburtstagen, aber der Herbst und Winter sind nicht die besten Jahreszeiten, um große Entfernungen zurückzulegen). Es konnten nicht alle unserer Einladung folgen, aber letzten Endes haben sich 18 von uns in einem Restaurant in Bremen getroffen … und, gemessen am Gelächter, jede Menge Spaß gehabt. 

“It’s the Ciiiiiiiiircle of Liiiiiiiiife …”

I went to Hamburg again; it was not purely a family visit, as I had an appointment set up for the afternoon, but Anna needed to cancel it last minute due to health issues.

My stay was still put to good use: First, I visited my uncle and aunt for a couple of days and then stayed with Jen for a further two days. We did something I had never done before – we went on a harbour tour, spending a sunny afternoon ferry-hopping, commenting on other passengers, and laughing our heads off (Jen was particularly amused by me reenacting Simba’s introduction scene from The Lion King with a bag of M&Ms whilst singing “The Circle of Life”).

Even though my appointment fell through, I had yet another great time in Hamburg … and Anna and I will have the second try in about two weeks.

Und wieder stand ein Besuch in Hamburg an; ausnahmsweise ging es mal nicht vorrangig um meine Familie, da ich heute Nachmittag einen Termin gehabt hätte, aber Anna musste aus gesundheitlichen Gründen kurzfristig absagen.

Meinen Aufenthalt habe ich trotzdem gut genutzt: Zuerst besuchte ich meinen Onkel und meine Tante für ein paar Tage und blieb dann noch zwei weitere Tage bei Jen. Wir haben etwas unternommen, das ich noch nie gemacht hatte – wir gingen auf eine Hafenrundfahrt und verbrachten einen sonnigen Nachmittag auf diversen Fähren, lästerten über andere Passagiere und lachten uns immer wieder scheckig (Jen hat sich köstlich darüber amüsiert, wie ich die erste Szene von Simba aus Der König der Löwen mit Hilfe einer Packung M&Ms und gesanglicher Untermalung von “The Circle of Life” nachgestellt habe).

Obwohl mein Termin ins Wasser fiel, hatte ich mal wieder eine schöne Zeit in Hamburg … und Anna und ich werden in ca. zwei Wochen einen neuen Versuch starten.


The weekend brought along a quick trip to Hamburg to see family and organise some appointments (travelling one day later than planned, as a lovely stomach bug had gotten the better of me and made me faint twice). After first stopping at Jen’s place, we made our way to the stadium to stock up on some merchandise from our favourite team, finishing the day with a little home-made food orgy.

The next day, I travelled on to my uncle and aunt; my aunt and me spent a rather lazy Saturday evening and Sunday morning watching quiz shows and biathlon respectively, while my uncle prepared some rather delicious dinner and breakfast. After 48 hours, I caught the train home, but the next trip to Hamburg is already booked.

Bad Cop.

The new year started well: Fredi and Jasper came by for a 24 hour whirlwind visit. Their stay wasn’t as exhausting as I had it imagined to be; it was actually quite nice to have them around – playing with Jasper, talking to Fredi, cooking and eating together, having some glasses of Licor 43 and milk (Fredi and me, obviously).

The unexpected consequence of their visit, however, was the realisation that I might not be as motherly as I had thought: When playing a game with Fredi and Jasper, I realised that he was trying to cheat. He didn’t do it on purpose; he was just so excited that he did not wait when lifting a set of cards before we had turned ours over. This gave him an advantage in the game, so I gently told him to wait for 2 more seconds before flipping his cards. 3 minutes later, he was doing it again, so another quiet reminder from me. After 5 minutes, I told him that it was not ok to play the game that way. Fredi agreed with me, but it was too late: Jasper was visibly upset and demanded to finish the game without me, as I was “mean” to him (much to my amusement).

Jasper is generally a very kind and sensible boy, but like any child, he has his moments; Fredi usually tells him off, but she is very unassuming, almost aloof when doing so, so it takes some time before Jasper reacts. Now, I am certainly not a fan of being harsh to children, and I also believe that the quiet method works better than shouting. However, I was rather surprised at how annoyed I could get when Jasper did something I considered to be ‘unfair’ (and yes, I do realise that he is 5 years old and does not yet have a comprehensive grasp of the concept of fairness). It did not bother me that he was jumping on the sofa, running around the flat, being noisy, or overly jealous of me talking to his mum at times; but him not abiding by the ‘societal’ rules of fair play meant that Fredi and I inadvertently acted out the “good cop, bad cop” routine, with her being the calm, understanding part and me taking on the role as the spoil sport.

I actually did not mind being the strict one, even if it led to him refusing to play with me from time to time (as it left me, in turn, with more time to mark some papers). It was, however, rather interesting for me to realise that regardless of any maternal feelings I usually have towards children, I can get really persistent when somebody does not adhere to certain rules, at least when these rules try to foster just behaviour towards others. Turns out I am more of a bad cop than I thought.

Blessed Are the Hearts That Can Bend.

I often use the last day of the year to reflect on what was important in the last 12 months: What are the things I will remember? What kind of memories will bubble up when someone mentions the year 2016 to me? At the moment, only time can tell what events, feelings and people my brain deems relevant enough to tag and put on a shelf, where they will lead an inconspicuous existence, only to suddenly explode back to life at the most unlikely trigger. But I have the odd feeling that most of my memories from this year won’t be happy ones.

Looking back at 2016, I find it difficult to see many positive things; of course it was not all bad, and I have met some great people, did amazing things, felt happy and loved. And yet, the main topic of 2016 was apparently “saying goodbye”, as there are a couple of people who no longer take part in my life; some of them decided to leave or were taken, some I walked away from. I can’t really change the former, but the latter is something I have thought about for a good while this year.

I don’t really have any friendships that are older than 15 years (Robert and Neil being the sole exception). There aren’t many people out there who can claim that they have known me for 10 years or longer. I have realised this year that I seem to “shed” people after a while; in the last 20 years, there have been quite a few friendships and even family relations which crumpled after a couple of years. Occasionally there was a fallout, but mostly we were just drifting apart; things changed in a way that there was no longer some common ground to walk on. At least that’s how it felt like for me, as with the majority of these fading relationships, I was the one walking away.

Now, there is nothing unusual about people moving apart; a job change, a relocation, a new lifestyle, and suddenly you don’t have the time, the energy, or the resources to meet up with your old friends anymore. But it has dawned on me that I am “leaving” people without any of these things happening; even though my life stays (mostly) the same, I decide not to interact with them anymore. The problem is that I often do this without informing people about my decision; apparently, I am really good at ghosting (and when I say “really good”, it is not supposed to sound like an achievement): Without any further explanation, I don’t meet, call, write, or text people anymore who were really close to me.

In my defence, I should add that before my disappearing act, I had usually made it clear that there was something bothering me; I am fairly communicative, do reflect a lot on how I feel and why I feel that way, and I can express myself in a rational and calm way (or so others say). But while I like to think that I am a rather loyal person, it seems that my attachment to other people only goes so far. At some point, I just give up on them and on our relationship; the rational part of me, the one which is so great at dissecting my emotions, takes over and overrules any feelings I might still have for that person.

The weird thing is that I am actually an idealist when it comes to relationships: I do believe that love, in whatever form, can last forever, which is a bit rich coming from somebody who effectively disregards people as soon as I have reached the point of no return. I am very aware of how hypocrite my behaviour is, and I am not exactly proud of it. But when contemplating my conduct the other day, I came across a quote by Albert Camus which had me thinking: “Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken”.

Initially, I thought that this was indeed a smart mantra to live by, but now I am not too sure if I actually want to have a “bendy” heart. My reaction to a lack of understanding and trust might not be a charming one, but it is one I have learned the hard way: For my heart was broken in the past, sometimes also thanks to my loyalty and idealism. The good news is, however, that it has also healed, and with the healing process, there was a learning curve. I still believe in love and friendship, but I know now how much my heart can take before I have to step in and protect it – by moving it out of the line of fire. If only I could learn to communicate that in a better way than by sealing myself off.

They’re creepy and they’re kooky.

My parents came over for dinner on Christmas Eve. While I was busy preparing the starter in the kitchen, Dad had a look at the family photos which are on display in my living room.

When I entered the room, he suddenly turned to me with a framed picture in his hand and asked, rather confused: “I can identify most of them, but who are these guys?”
Me: “Dad, that’s a picture of the Addams Family!!”
(At this point, my Mum started laughing)
Dad, now utterly baffled: “Why the heck do you have a picture of them standing with the family photos?!”
Me: “Because they rather accurately represent the family spirit!”

(To be honest, it was a flea market find about 15 years ago, and I just like how it looks among the other pictures – but there are some similarities to the crazy bunch I call “family”.)

Addams Family.

Pay It Forward.

I generally don’t really care about money, which is probably due to the fact that I actually have some now and don’t need to worry about every single cent anymore. But there were times when my finances were very, very tight, so when friends are getting upset about amounts they need to pay because they just don’t have the money at the moment, I can certainly relate. I know where they are coming from, so I appreciate the fact that nowadays, there is enough money in my savings account that unforeseen expenditures do not throw me off track that easily.

Having some money has given me the freedom to obtain things I wanted to have; at the same time (and this sounds very cliché), the more money I have earned, the more I have come to the realisation that there actually aren’t that many things I need or even want. For example, I don’t really see the point in spending money on a huge TV, as I don’t watch that much television anyway and the current one works just fine; my dad keeps on nagging me about getting a new car, but the car I have is just 7 years old, runs smoothly, and is rarely used, so why should I get a new one?

The things I am interested in are, among others, travels, learning new things, or going out with friends. These are experiences that cannot be “bought” but have to be made, and I think these experiences are more important than buying a new flat-screen TV or the 16th pair of shoes. What I do like to spend money on, however, are things that make other people happy. Even at times when I was basically broke, I have always been quite generous with my friends, family, even people I hardly know: Sending flowers to a friend who is going through a rough time, giving small presents because I saw things in a shop and knew the other person would like them, inviting others for dinner, planning little surprise trips. It is a corny thing to say, but: I do like to see other people smile and being happy, and I like being the person who makes them happy.

So what I have been trying to do for the last couple of months (now that I have the financial means) is to make more people happy: Every month, I aim to spend money on somebody else – not only on people I actually know, but also on strangers. The easiest way would be to donate to charity organisations (which I also do), but I believe that every day, you meet people who could need a bit of cheering up. This does not only include people who live on the streets, etc., but also people who just go about their day and are not expecting anything “nice” to happen to them.

To be able to see if somebody needs some happiness, you need to walk through life with open eyes; these days, I am always on the lookout for people that could do with a smile. Back in May, Susanne and I were having dinner at a restaurant where we shared a table with a young couple in their late teens; as we were sitting so close, I started chatting to them (much to Susanne’s amusement/embarrassment; I still don’t understand why Germans are so aghast when somebody is trying to do small talk), and it turned out that they were celebrating their first anniversary. Susanne and I left a bit earlier than them and went to the counter to pay; while we were standing there, waiting for the bill, I thought back at how going to a restaurant with my boyfriend at that age was such a special occasion, as it usually meant spending a month worth of pocket money on a single meal.

So I turned to the waitress and told her I would like to pay their bill as well; the waitress as well as Susanne looked at me like I had lost my mind. The waitress confirmed about three times whether I was really sure about this, while Susanne asked me why I wanted to do it. I told her that it would make them happy, and that’s all the reason I need. The waitress then made an attempt to go over to tell the couple I had paid their meal, so I stopped her and told her that she was only allowed to say something once we had left and they were asking for the bill. That confused Susanne and the waitress even more: “But why do you not want them to know?” – “Because that’s not what this is about.” I had no interest in becoming all stalker-ish and hide somewhere in the corner to watch their reaction; I know that this was coming as a pleasant surprise for them, which is all I wanted. So much to Susanne’s chagrin, we left the restaurant while the couple was still blissfully unaware that they had just eaten for free.

A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the hallway at uni when a young lady suddenly stopped me; it took me a couple of seconds to identify her as the waitress from the restaurant. She handed me a note that the couple had given to her, in the hope I would one day come back to the restaurant; unbeknownst to them (and me), the waitress is a student at our university and managed to track me down. In the note, the couple profoundly thanked me, saying that it was the best thing that had happened to them in quite some time, ending with “… and the next time, we will pay for your meal!”. The thing is: I don’t want them to pay for my dinner; I would rather have them pay it forward and make somebody else happy, in whatever way they deem suitable.

When I give to other people, I am not interested in getting something back in return. I am as happy as any other person about presents or being attended to, but for me, the idea of giving is just a way to spread the love. I know this sounds really “leftie” (I can almost see Robert rolling his eyes reading this …), but I truly believe that this is a small, easy way of making the world a better place.

Three weeks ago, I watched a busker in Birmingham, playing her heart out on the guitar while standing at a draughty, cold corner of the city centre; I went to Starbucks and bought a hot chocolate for her. When she did a short break, I gave her the hot beverage; she was really surprised and asked me, “Why are you doing this?”, and all I could say was, “Why not?”. I am trying to put myself in the shoes of people I see and reflect on what would make me happy if I was in their position. In her case, I could not offer her a record deal, but at least something to warm up while she was trying to earn some money.

Most of the things I do are tiny and nothing worth mentioning, but maybe a bit uplifting for the people I encounter. I think it is important to give people a feeling of “Actually, life is not too bad, and there are some good people out there”, because I do believe that. The concept of paying it forward does not mean that I expect great things to happen to me in return just because I am nice to others. To me, it means making people aware that there are others out there who do care and who do watch out for them and try to be nice to them, regardless whether they know them or not. There are a lot of things going on in world politics at the moment which are utterly depressing; so why not make people believe in the good in man again?

So I spent the last weeks organising and creating Advent calendars for the people I love. On Monday, I sent off several parcels to my cousins as well as my friends abroad; …

Postal happiness.

… I bought many little surprises for my parents, who will get their first ever Advent calendar this year, …

Thinking of you.

… and I also made sure that my favourite colleagues will have something to celebrate in the days leading to Christmas.

Charlotte, Bert, et al.

I am too realistic to truly believe I can change the world; while one person can make a difference, it takes a whole society to keep the momentum going. But as one of my favourite German bands once sang, “It is not your fault that the world is like it is; it would be your fault if it stayed that way”.

Antipasti and Bolognese.

The Sunday which would have been H’s 35th birthday was approaching; I had texted my uncle and aunt a couple of weeks before and asked whether they wanted to have some company at that weekend. They did, so after consulting some of my cousins, Chris and I decided to drive up north on Saturday. We spent the evening having a prolonged dinner with homemade antipasti, reminiscing about anecdotes from the 1970s, family tales, and of course the boys. Even though it was (and will always be) difficult to speak of G and H in the past tense, it was nevertheless lovely to talk about them, especially as it clearly meant so much for their parents.

As Chris and I shared a bed, we ended up chatting way past 2 am; Chris was wondering how I managed to know so much about our family history, but also about G’s and H’s friends and life events. I don’t really know – I guess I just listen very carefully when my uncle and aunt tell stories. Plus, I keep on asking them questions; for one thing, I want them to talk about things that make them happy, to take their minds off the situation for a couple of minutes, but I am actually quite interested in what the boys were like – there is only so much that you know about somebody when you see them once a year for a family meeting.

On Sunday, several friends came round; we went to the cemetery and laid down some flowers on their grave. For Chris and Mika, it was the first time they saw the finished grave, headstones and all; it was a bit too much for Chris, who cried in my arms, but I was somehow glad that she did – she had bottled up a lot of feelings since H’s death, and it was a relief to see her letting it all go. We went back to my uncle’s and aunt’s place, ate Spaghetti Bolognese (H’s favourite food), had some coffee and cake, and made our way home at about 5 pm.

I hope that us staying with them made it somehow easier for my uncle and aunt to come through the day, but I know that the pain will never subside. They cope in their own way: by spending time with H’s friends, painting pictures of their sons, reading crime stories, watching TV to kill the time, and trying to organise their life around that massive hole that nothing will ever be able to fill. I just wish there was something I could do to make it all more bearable.


“Don’t put this on Facebook!!”

My mum has been at a health resort about 120 km away for the past 4 weeks, and I decided to visit her one last time before she comes back home on Wednesday. We had lunch together, went shopping, and took a stroll through the spa gardens, all the while talking about family life and friendships.

Spa garden.

I travelled back home at about 5 pm, just in time to quickly change and meet the girls at a Japanese restaurant: Maureen is returning to the US after 12 years in Germany and had asked us for a farewell dinner.


Shadow Dragon.

It was the first time Laura and I met, and given that she is a rather quiet and reserved person, I started to worry that I might be too much for her (since my humour needs an acquired taste). Luckily, she assured me that I was “hilarious” and right up her alley. The fact that she was the first to leave is surely purely incidental.

Melissa was keen on taking pictures as a memory for Maureen, so she happily snapped away; the results were rather amusing, as she managed to catch us in the weirdest situations imaginable. The following photo has been christened “The Last Supper”.

The Last Supper.

We went on to the local wine festival and sampled some quality booze (my alcohol intake in the last four weeks has been on the same level as my alcohol intake for all of 2015; I mostly blame the family weekends in Hamburg). Positive side effect: The more Maureen drinks, the more she lets her hair down. Figuratively.


We also somehow came up with an in-depth talk about how to make dead people “disappear”, which led to me discussing (at length) how you can identify bodies even after a prolonged period of time, rattling off bone marrow extraction, radiocarbon dating, and x-ray analysis of injuries and diseases. It was around this time that Maureen asked me why I was teaching English and not forensics. Long story, Maureen.

At some point after midnight, we ended up in a bar, where more pictures were taken and expressive dance moves were observed …

M and S.

I was home at 4 am, but still somehow managed to get up at noon to have lunch with one of my former Master students, assemble some new furniture in the afternoon, and attend a West Coast Swing workshop in the evening. A very entertaining weekend, but if I did this every week, I would need an oxygen tent by the end of the year.

Zsa Zsa, the Rustle Queen.

We had arranged the meeting months ago, long before we knew of H’s condition, but now it felt like the perfect timing. Justin was ill, but the girls and Jasper all travelled to my place on Saturday to spend the weekend together.

So I picked them up at lunchtime from the bus and train stations; it was then that I was suddenly assigned a new moniker. Jasper’s inability to pronounce Chris’ name when he was younger led to him calling her by a shortened version of her middle name: JuJu. Given that Louise is sometimes called LouLou, Chris jokingly said that maybe we should all call each other by the abbreviated version of our (middle) names, which would mean “SaSa” for me – to which I replied, “I am definitely more Zsa Zsa than SaSa”. I am not sure why, but … the name stuck. I was suddenly Zsa Zsa for the rest of the weekend (the fact that the girls found out that I have a feather boa in my wardrobe did not help), and by midnight (and after a copious amount of alcohol) they had even chosen a theme song for me. I am supposed to work out a choreo for our next meeting, with the incorporation of the feather boa being a given. The supplement “Rustle Queen” actually derives from a conversation we already had at H’s memorial ceremony, but the explanation is too convoluted to be detailed in a blog post.

And yet, Zsa Zsa is still better than Jen’s new name: When we realised that Jen is the only one without a middle name, we quickly re-christened her “Jen Nifer” – with the short version being “Niffy”. Fredi also accidentally renamed herself by stating that Jasper is known for being “Annakova” (it was a bit of a mondegreen, actually), so the girl group line-up is now complete: Niffy, Zsa Zsa, Annakova, JuJu and LouLou are available for bookings; dance moves require an extra fee.

After the luggage had been safely stored at my place, we went to the city centre for lunch; it took the others just about 30 minutes to finally decide on their meals (in their defence, the menu was about 15 pages long and full of interesting stuff). The waitress displayed an impressive amount of patience, but considering that she suddenly switched to another area after our order, it was maybe a sign that we had tested her to the limit. When it came to splitting the bill, the others mocked me when I started reciting Fredi’s order – only for me to actually come to her (and Louise’s) rescue when neither of them could remember what they had ordered. Yes, you may make fun of me, but at least my short-term memory still works!

We bought some alcohol in a supermarket where Jasper apparently found us by our smell; usually we are detectable by our noise, but this time I would put the blame squarely on “Niffy”. After getting some ice cream, we walked home along the Lake Aa; it was a beautiful day, with sunshine and temperatures in the high 20s, so after arriving home, we moved my dining table to the balcony and sat there for the next 7 hours. Drinks were mixed, new beer brands were tried, pizza was ordered, chocolate was consumed. I had explained to the others that this was my “cheat day”, something Fredi understood as “shit day”; given the food I consume on these days, she is not too far off.

We googled holiday homes for the next big family meeting, realising that it is rather tricky to find a house for 25+ people; we then moved on to bands and lyrics (with me mixing up Blur and Radiohead; I blame the carb binge). To practice for our upcoming world tour, we belted out some tunes from the 80s and 90s, starting with Bonnie Tyler, moving on to the Spice Girls, and somehow ending with a heartfelt rendition of “Barbie Girl”. We stopped when the neighbours started to noisily let down their shutters.

I had been fretting about the sleeping arrangements, but in the end, everything worked out just fine: Jen and I shared my bed, Fredi and Jasper took the guest room, and Lou and Chris set up camp in the living room. What I hadn’t expected, though, was Jen’s ability to a) fall asleep within 2 minutes of going to bed (I need at least 20 minutes to even settle in a comfortable position when trying to sleep) and b) start snoring immediately afterwards. Yes, she had told me about her snoring beforehand, but I had no idea it was that bad. I tried every trick known to mankind, but she steadily soldiered on, driving me insane in the process. I finally fell asleep in the early morning hours, after contemplating whether I could suffocate her in her sleep if I based my defence on mitigating circumstances.

I must have expressed my discomfort more adamant than I was aware of: The next morning, Jen told me that I had hit her repeatedly on the back of the head, “while you were sleeping – your right arm across my face and your head underneath your pillow!” I honestly have no recollection of that. What I do remember is me kicking her almost out of the bed in my dozy attempts to silence her – though this is something Jen can’t recall.

While this makes us sound like the most dysfunctional family ever, we actually have a fantastic bond: There was a Mexican wave for Jasper and me by the other four when we waited for them at a traffic light, and a happy dance performed for Fredi (and several amused pedestrians) when she tried to clean the chocolate ice cream off Jasper. There were also lots of hugs and kisses, especially by me; I am definitely the most tactile one, bordering on touchy-feely behaviour. Our relationship can best be described by a sign we saw when we walked past a little shop downtown: “We are family: Always remember that when you fall, I will help you to get up – as soon as I have stopped laughing”.


Barefeet Ladies.




Jas is at it again.