Monday, April 1, 2013

This blog has been in hibernation

Due to the extended winter that we have been suffering this blog has been taking a long rest. Well, that’s my excuse. I realise that I broke my New Year’s resolution extremely fast. And I can only apologise for that fact.

This year started off with an enforced house move. To be more accurate, flat move. I had to move out of my old flat in a bit of a hurry into a new, smaller one where I cannot fit all my furniture and possessions. I was almost a week with no internet connection following the move. There’s been a bit of stress; writing has had to a take back seat. I also had a large translating job. That took up most of my time and it was difficult to find time for writing.

Excuses over. I don’t know where you are, but in this part of Germany as in much of Europe winter is dragging on. Easter is upon us, there is still snow on the ground, everything is frozen, I am burning logs at an incredible rate to keep warm and there is no sign of spring appearing. I really wish I could hibernate. However, since that isn’t an option, we all have to make the best of it.

Despite planning to write another book along the lines of the last three I have now started the one that I was meaning to write later. This book is not just pure romance, but a more mature story centred round a slightly older woman, divorced with children and a complicated life. I am just getting into the writing now, which is the hard part for me. It’s all in my head already, but until the action starts in earnest I have to lay the ground for the story. I know from experience that once I am really into it the writing will flow fast. In the meantime my life involves trying to collect wood, exercising the horse and the dog, and teaching. But teaching has taken a two-week break due to the Easter holidays.

Today I decided I was going to do something I very rarely do, and I am going to bake a cake especially for Easter. Also, since I’m running out of logs, I decided I better go and find something to burn as well. So I drove to the local supermarket. It’s Easter Saturday and, of course, the place was heaving. The old supermarket was recently knocked down because they had built a new one behind the old. They have been digging out the place where the old one was and making a new car park. Parking was a bit limited today since half the village seemed to be out shopping. I had to put my car on a rather rough bit of ground. I duly collected a trolley, went to the place where they keep the coal and wood briquettes and loaded my trolley up before I went into the supermarket itself. I needed to get the ingredients for my cake. After picking out a few fruit and veg, including some nice firm bananas, just as I like them, no brown bits no bruises, I went to find the eggs. I don’t eat eggs, so I rarely buy them. My recipe called for four eggs. Unfortunately, I could only buy a box of 10, unless I bought some overpriced, but pretty, dyed eggs. So I picked up a box. I found the icing sugar and the other things I needed and made my way to the checkout. The trolley was heavy. Despite the large number of people in the supermarket I didn’t have to queue for long. So I wheeled the heavy trolley back out to the car park. I arrived at my car. I pushed the trolley off the tarmac on to the place where my car was parked, which was a little uneven. The trolley tilted, a few items fell off the top, and slowly the whole trolley fell sideways. Well, that solved the problem of some of the surplus eggs. My nice firm bananas were squashed. One bread roll had fallen on the car park out of its bag, the other had landed underneath a pack of wood briquettes and looked rather flat. The butter and the sugar had survived. A man driving his car passed me stopped and grinned, but nobody offered to help. So I opened the boot of my car, picked up the first few items and put them in the boot.


It is now two days since I wrote the above. Having just finished the last sentence I had a major software problem and my computer locked out, so as you can imagine the train of thought was not the only thing that was lost. Anyway, as I was trying to close things down my phone rang. “Are you coming riding?” I was asked. So, after a few Alt+Control+Delete efforts I finally shut the computer down, gave up with it and went riding. Then I stayed for a barbecue – in the snow. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, was also busy, so the computer had to wait yet another day to be sorted out. And the cake only got made yesterday evening, in time to be taken for the Easter ride today (food and drink were carried on the carriage, and were merrily consumed by the passengers, while the other riders and I largely missed out). Since seven of the eggs had miraculously survived I had at least had plenty for the cake, which proved very popular.

We were lucky enough to ride in the sun today. No snow falling, after yesterday’s white Easter. My horse has decided spring is finally on its way; she, along with all the other horses, is losing her winter coat so grooming is a never-ending task and our clothes are permanently covered in horse hair. She has also come into season; another sign of spring since, in case you didn’t know, mares do not naturally have seasons in the winter. There are two stallions on the yard and I try to keep well clear of them with her, but she is a terrible flirt and puts the brakes on when I am trying to ride her past them whether on the field or inside. She then has to be persuaded to move further on. The lovely weather obviously cheered her up today as she was very full of herself – no bucking, though, having spent weeks earlier this year bucking every time she was ridden.

Now Easter is over (although not the school holidays) I need to get stuck into the writing more seriously. And the blogging. Hopefully I shall have something of a more interesting nature to write next time, and hopefully there will not be such a long gap before the next time. A belated Happy Easter.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How not to make Chocolate Vodka

Note to self: this blog is getting seriously neglected; I must try harder. So my New Year’s resolution is to keep it up-to-date.

Today I was given a nice new recipe – for chocolate vodka. It sounded too good to resist. Since I had to go shopping anyway, I added to my shopping list one bottle of vodka (cheap) and some Mars bars. In the supermarket I found a suitably cheap bottle of vodka, brand Gorbachev, and a five pack of Mars bars. Once home I made my preparations. The Mars bars had to be chopped up into small pieces. Then they had to be melted. After that they had to be incorporated into the vodka. The chopping up went fine. The melting went fine. Then I think I added a splash too much vodka. The incorporation didn’t go as planned. Some of it mixed in quite well. Unfortunately I ended up with quite a few chunks of un-melted sticky chocolate. Hmmmm. So, I fished out the chunks and put them into another bowl. Back into the microwave with them. Out again, pour into the vodka. Mistake. Later I learned what I had done wrong, but at that stage I didn’t think it through properly.

So here I was, with a bowl full of brown liquid and lumps of solid caramel chocolate. I fished out the lumps again and put them back in the microwave. Repeated the process. Got the same result. Now when I was in the supermarket, beside the normal Mars bars, I had noticed some special edition caramel Mars bars. Having been unable to resist them, I had a spare pack of Mars bars. The recipe had said 5 to 6 Mars bars. By now I estimated that I had incorporated probably three of them into the vodka while I had a number of lumps of solid Mars bar that weren’t going to be mixed in whatever I did. So out of the cupboard I got the caramel Mars bars. I chopped a couple of those up, put them in a clean bowl, and into the microwave they went. Then the phone rang. I answered it. Another mistake. Well, now I’m going to a hen weekend in the Herz mountains later in the year. A friend of mine is getting married near the end of May. And the phone call was inviting me to a hen weekend. It wasn’t very long phone call, but long enough. There was a nasty smell emanating from the microwave. Two caramel Mars bars were beyond melted. A revolting, smelly, black mess lurked at the bottom of my bowl. The dog looked very unamused and moved as far away from the microwave as she could. I opened the window. I turned on the extractor. I got out two more caramel Mars bars. I broke them into small pieces. I put them in a clean bowl. I put them in the microwave. (Note to self: do not start your sentences every time with the word I). Monitoring the microwave carefully, I ensured that these Mars bars melted nicely and I took them out. This time I did things slightly differently. Instead of putting these new Mars bars straight into my vodka mixture, I poured a very small amount of vodka into the Mars bars. At last I had found the way to succeed. I carefully stirred the vodka into the melted chocolate and lo and behold I had a vodka chocolate mix. This I poured into my previous mixture. Somehow I had done it. Along the way there was a lot of licking of spoons and crunching up bits of caramel chocolate that was of no use in the vodka. And now I had four bowls, one of which contained a brown alcoholic mixture and three of which contained various lumps of chocolate. The worst lump was the burnt one. It had solidified in the bottom of the bowl and was not going to come out without a fight. The other two bowls, to be strictly accurate, just had smears of chocolate on them. They went in the washing-up bowl. Next, I had to pour the mixture back into my vodka bottle. My funnel came out of the cupboard and I inserted it into the neck of the bottle. Picking up the biggest bowl, and leaning things over another of the bowls, I poured. I did better than I had expected I would. There was only a small puddle of chocolate vodka on the work surface. The bottle filled, there was a little remaining in the bowl. This was poured into a glass for later. The bottle of vodka went into the freezer where it has to stay for 24 hours before going into the fridge. Later on this evening I shall get out some ice and sample a glass of chocolate vodka.

My next dilemma is whether or not to introduce my friends to my chocolate vodka. If I do, it will probably not last very long at all. If I don’t, it will be only my liver that suffers. Apparently you can use all sorts of chocolate to make this vodka. But since much of the chocolate available here is not very nice and the chocolate that is tends to be expensive, Mars bars seemed like a good bet. Although I suspect that the caramel did make my task a little trickier. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. At least now I have one bottle of tasty chocolate chocolate vodka (I may not drunk my glassful yet but I have licked my fingers a bit) to show for my efforts. Time to get something to eat before I drink any of it.

Finally, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution, I promise I really shall try to blog again soon. Little things like work keep getting in my way. But that’s no excuse is it? A happy New Year to you all and good luck if you want to try this recipe.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The English Language Junkie

Want to win a bundle of romantic novels? Then scroll down to the bottom of this post. Best-selling romantic novelist Samantha Holt, whose interview I featured here in October, has organised a Christmas giveaway. The link to enter is below. (If you don't see any of my books featured, I can assure you that one of the runner-up prizes is a copy of Rules of the House).

As an expat in an area where there is no expat community, I miss the opportunity to speak my own language with other native speakers. The OH (who is becoming more and more of a part-time OH and may well gradually fade off the radar completely at some stage) speaks fluent if ungrammatical English. I try to practice my teaching skills on him, but he stubbornly refuses to recognise his verb tenses and tends to mix up his word order still. I get ratty with him in a way I cannot do with my “proper” students, for whom I have to remain patient – I never used to, but although his English improved for a while after we met it is probably not helped by being back in Germany where he only speaks it with me. Apart from writing, and exchanging messages and sometimes phone calls with English friends, I rarely get to have a real conversation in English. I am now like a drug addict who can’t get her fix nearly often enough and will speak to anyone if they can speak to me in fluent English. An English language junkie, if you like. At a restaurant where I was taken for my birthday I quickly realised that the couple on the next table were also English – a real rarity around here – and eventually I gave in to temptation and spoke to them. We chatted happily away with them for the rest of the evening (they were on holiday in the area).  

In the adjacent village, I know there live a South African couple and an Englishman. I was once, a matter of years ago now, in the local supermarket when a young woman wove her way as fast as she could through the aisles, saying “Schuldigung” repeatedly as she dodged around the other customers. She found what she had obviously forgotten and re-joined a man at the front of the queue as I joined it further back. They then started to speak to each other in English as I stood frustratedly wanting to approach them but unable to do so. I later learned that a South African couple live not far away and they must have been that couple. We’ve never actually met. Two or three years ago a woman came and rode with us a few times when her own horse was out of action. I found out that she also lived nearby with her (then) fiancĂ© (now husband) – who is English. I met him once; I see her occasionally, but never bump into him.

On a medieval market where I was helping my friend with pony rides for children (they were horses, not ponies actually, but horse rides for children sounds odd, somehow) a woman, one of many, brought a couple of children, asked how much, paid, saw the children settled on the horses, took them away afterwards and all was carried out in German – naturally. The market was small and compact, all packed into one street in a village, and we led the horses the length of the market and back, repeatedly. I passed the woman, who called out to me - in English – that someone had told her I was English. In a series of exchanges transacted as I led a horse up and down the street past her, I discovered that she was Canadian, had come over here to get married, had had a child, divorced, stayed in order for the child to stay near his father, worked as a teacher. She found out a few details about me, too. When I was eventually given a break, we sat down and talked nineteen to the dozen. She lives a little way from me and we’ve never seen each other again.

On yet another medieval market, I encountered an American running a stall. He had a sign prominently displayed proclaiming that he spoke only English. Of course we got talking and he told me he lived in the west – a long way away. I asked how long he had lived there and he told me 17 years. My mind boggled. How can anyone live in a foreign country for so long and not learn the language? I realise that here in the east it is probably much more of a necessity to learn German as so few people do speak English, whereas in the west English has long been a standard subject in school. Before the wall came down, the first choice of second language taught in schools in the east was Russian. Few ever learned any English at all. Those who did have mostly forgotten what they learned all those years ago. Nowadays children do learn English, but of course relatively few gain any degree of real competency and many lack the enthusiasm to try and speak it. There are exceptions, of course, but it is impossible to live here and not learn German if you want to talk to anyone. I suppose if English-speaking people move to somewhere where there is a large expat community they feel  less pressure to learn the local language, and for older people it does become increasingly more difficult to learn a new language (as I know only too well, having uprooted myself at a relatively advanced age) so if the pressure to learn is not there perhaps it is tempting to take the easy option   

Once a week I teach in an after-school place where coaching is given in various subjects including English (when I started there I was asked if I could teach maths as well. The answer was an emphatic “no”. Maths was never my strong point, and I certainly couldn’t teach it here where I have no idea of the way it is taught beyond the first couple of years. For the latter knowledge I have my friend’s ten-year-old to thank. I was at least able to help her with her homework when she first went to school). There is another teacher who is, apparently, American. When she is off sick or on holiday I provide cover for her but, like ships that pass in the night, we have never met. In two days’ time there is a Christmas party. I am told that the other teacher is looking forward to meeting me, to which I replied that I was looking forward to meeting her as well. We can talk! In English! There were general groans around the room as everyone knows that once the two of us get talking in our own language there will be no stopping us – and nobody else will be able to join in. There is a small satisfaction in that as that is the way I felt when I was first here.

There are of course, those here who speak good English. The surgeon who replaced my knee a couple of years ago is fluent (which is very helpful as if I didn’t understand the German he could explain properly to me). I met a woman who was part of a television film crew – they were filming in the local butchers’ shop one day and I just happened to go in there to be confronted by lights and cameras and everyone looking their very best behind the counter. When one of the assistants pointed out that I was English (I’m still a novelty hereabouts) the woman broke into perfect English. Turned out her mother is English. But the funniest example happened in Vienna. We were talking to a group of Austrians, who evidently twigged that I wasn’t a native German speaker (that was when my German was much worse than it is now, but I’m aware that nobody mistakes me for anything but a foreigner) and one of them spoke in English. In a broad, southern Irish accent. Apparently his grandparents were Irish and he spent a lot of his childhood over there. Which caused a few problems during more politically sensitive times because he was suspected more than once of being a terrorist carrying false Austrian papers and was almost refused entry to England when he was en route to Ireland. 

Meanwhile I shall get my fix of talking English later this week. I’m looking forward to that more than to the meal.        

Now, as promised, here is the link for the competition:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Day in the Life

Once upon a time I led a fairly “normal” life. I went to work Monday to Friday, getting up early, walking my dogs and cat, cleaning up and making myself presentable for the world before, for the eight years before I moved to Germany at least, driving a couple of miles to the local station to catch a Manchester-bound train full of harassed commuters (except for the times when they closed the lines for work, twice in less than two years, totalling nearly a year in all, when I mostly joined the harassed drivers on the motorway rather than travel to another station). I would then work a full, sometimes over-long, day before doing the journey in reverse, walking the dogs and cat and having a short evening of relaxation before bed. (In previous years I had also mucked out a horse before work and, in the summer, ridden after work. Then there was a long, horse-free pause before I acquired my German equine companion.)

You might wonder why I walked the cat. I had two terriers, pretty much cat-sized, who were initially brought up with my two older cats. They sadly passed away at the respectable ages of sixteen and seventeen, leaving a cat-sized gap in the house. So I went to a rescue home with one of the dogs, to ensure that I found a suitable candidate that wasn’t scared of dogs, and brought home a year-old cat who had recently had the kittens that she had had far too young weaned off her. After the initial settling in period, during which she was spayed, she looked around her, spotted that I regularly went out with the dogs for some mysterious reason, and decided she didn’t want to be left out. For ever after she accompanied us on our walks early in the morning and late at night. It was only when I chose to walk later, at the weekends, that she hid from the other dogs and their owners taking exercise and stayed at home. Meanwhile, while I was at work, the dogs shared the cat-flap for access into the (secure) garden when I was not around. But all this is by the by.

My life now is just a little bit different. To earn a crust I have to resort to all means possible. Which, apart from my writing, means that I teach and I translate. The latter only recently as the majority of my German has been slowly and painstakingly learned in situ. This means that I have had to learn to juggle, metaphorically, to ensure that I do all that needs to be done as well as getting a little time for fresh air and exercise for me and the dog and horse – the poor cat having sadly succumbed to cancer a few months ago. And, of course, my writing has to be squeezed in as well. But that is going rather more slowly than I would like at the moment due to the volume of translation. Yesterday I was told one of the teachers at the after-school place I spend an afternoon a week in wants to cut back on her hours. My boss was very pleased to tell me about this; inwardly I cringed. At the moment fitting it in would be a problem, but if the translation work eases off I’ll need the teaching work. What to do?

Anyway, last night I finished my latest translation and today was the day when the OH checked the final chunk that he had not to date seen. He’s German, he speaks fluent but hopelessly grammatical and incorrect English although his vocabulary is excellent, streets ahead of my German vocabulary, and has a fair bit of technical knowledge. Which, seeing as I’m translating technical stuff and I’m no engineer, is a good thing. Except, perhaps it’s not. Today we spent five hours going through the work I had done; he checked everything and I retyped everything he had corrected with the red pen I had thoughtfully supplied him with. The row started when I realised he had added a chunk to what I had written.

This translation has been made rather more difficult than it should be because the original text was in French. The English is at times reasonable, sometimes dodgy, at other times complete nonsense and, just to complicate things further, sometimes isn’t. Isn’t English, that is. There are sentences that start off in English and suddenly carry on in French. Whole sentences not translated at all. And headings that purport to be English but bear no relation to an accurate translation of the original. I know a bit of French, but have had to resort to looking online for translations of the technical words and phrases, of which there are many. So, by the time I passed over the first draft to him, I was feeling somewhat fraught at the whole experience.

Anyway, I found the extra words. I remarked that these hadn’t been in either the English (which in that sentence was a mercifully acceptable and accurate rendition of the original) or in the French. But he said what he had written was more accurate technically (it was about the degree of tightening or untightening of a screw – I forget which, but the original didn’t mention how tight or loose the screw should be). I pointed out that my job was to translate, not to rewrite nit-picking bits about just how tight the screw should be. After all, the engineers doing the job can probably work that out for themselves. He told me that it was better the way he had written it. I told him I needed a translation in accurate German of the text I had been provided with, not a rewrite of the details. We discussed another sentence where he had cut something out that he told me was unnecessary. I put it back in again because it was in the original and I felt that it is not my place to remove things. He threw a sulk.

Now, my German isn’t too bad, but it’s not brilliant either. As the OH and I had agreed when I took on the job and he committed to helping me with my grammar etc., I could turn out a job which would probably contain all the required detail, but would look like one of those many manuals you get that you just know have been translated from the foreign by someone with an extremely poor grasp of English. Well, maybe it would be a little better than that but it would still look like it wasn’t written by a native. My aim is to turn out an accurate version of the original in good German. Without either adding or taking away bits of the text I am working from.

So the next page I was handed had far fewer red marks. In fact hardly any. The odd “der” was changed to “die” or whatever (for those unfamiliar with German, they don’t have just one word corresponding to our “the”. Oh, no. They have a whole range depending on whether the subject or object is masculine, feminine, neuter or plural and what case the word should be in Something I really haven’t perfected. Yet). I looked at the page. I looked at the OH. And I asked him what he was playing at. He grimly informed me that he wasn’t going to change anything any more because I didn’t want him to. I told him that wasn’t what I had meant. Etc. This continued for some time. He went into his martyred mode. I tried to explain exactly what I wanted and he blocked me out. It’s no wonder it took five hours to get the job done…     

At last we managed to reach a compromise. Which involved him doing what I wanted (my sort of compromise, that), mainly after I pointed out to him that any errors in translation would be on my back not his, and I wasn’t going to take the flak for his amendments. And then he started commenting on whole sentences and paragraphs which I had translated well. The first he told me was perfect and he duly wrote “perfect sentence!” beside it. Then I was handed a sheet of paper which had the words “nicly done!” (sic) written on it. Of course I couldn’t let this go. “What do you mean, nicly done?” I had to ask. I have to admit to being quite pleased with myself that I had done some stuff both perfectly and nicly, given the fiendish nature of German grammar (I spend ages sometimes working out the order of complicated sentences, only to have the words shuffled around when my work is checked), but until I have honed my language skills I shall have to continue to ask for help if I don’t want my words to look like one of those examples that are the butt of linguistic jokes everywhere.    

Finally, grumbling about five hours having been spent on all this, the OH went into the garden to rake up quantities of leaves, of which there are many quantities at this time of year. I spent a further hour and a half inside preparing for the lesson I had scheduled for late in the afternoon before driving off to take said lesson. Oh, boy, am I glad that the next translation to be done was actually written in English.

PS I’ve just realised the date. So, to anyone in the US who might be reading this, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Today I had a “Thank God I’m not Liz Jones” moment

Before I tell this tale, I think I’d better take a small diversion to answer the question that you may be asking: namely, “Who the hell is Liz Jones and why don’t you want to be her?” If you are a Daily Mail reader in the UK you already know so please forgive me for this, but if you are unfamiliar with the British press in general and Liz Jones in particular you need to know the background. Liz Jones is a “journalist” and “writer” who has various columns in the Daily Mail and its sister paper, The Mail on Sunday. The reason I have put those two words in inverted commas is that she is a very poor example of both. Liz Jones has a weekly “Diary” in the Sunday version of the paper in which she catalogues her sad and sorry life. The Diary is supposed to be factual, but who knows to what extent it really is. She bemoans the fact that she has no friends and that her family no longer speak to her, which facts appear to be a direct effect of her reporting every dealing with anyone close to her in minute and possibly (allegedly) inaccurate detail. She moved five years ago from London following the break-up of a short marriage, to Somerset where she proceeded to report on the locals and alienate them. She is a “fashion guru” who believes women should never be seen in public without being fully made-up and dressed in designer gear. She is on a stupendous salary compared to that of many of her readers yet constantly complains that she is broke. This may well be due to the addiction to the aforementioned designer gear, to the fact that she decided to “rescue” large numbers of animals (and leave them under someone else’s tender care while she was working in London), to the fact that she spent £26,000 on a bat sanctuary, another £26,000 on a new floor, and possibly multiples of £26,000 on various other “essentials”, apart from the large mortgage she took out on the country pile. She claims to be hugely insecure about her body (having had a breast reduction years ago) and face (the face-lift was more recent) yet appears in numerous photographs dotted about her columns. Her life in Somerset was so awful she put her house on the market some time ago, two or three years ago, I think: it has recently, after many hitches, sold, and she has moved out – to the jubilation of her neighbours. Whoever bought the house, which Liz readily admits stinks of dog wee (“wee” being one of her words) because her dogs are not house-trained, deserves a medal. Although it is a beautiful house from the evidence of the pictures.  

All this is mere background: Liz also frequently writes about occasions when she has to shout at shop assistants to get attention (she has trouble with her hearing but that doesn’t excuse sheer rudeness) and is, as she reports, astoundingly rude to many people she has dealings with. Call centre operators get short shrift as does any poor innocent worker in a shop that doesn’t stock her preferred coffee.

So, back to the main topic. At the weekend I went riding wearing my winter jacket – no designer label, bought a couple of years ago from a catalogue produced by a major horse supplies company. For the purposes of practicality, I bought a jacket with zips on the pockets so I can keep keys, money, mobile phone, gloves, tissues, horse treats – you get the picture - secure. Not so long ago I went on a nice ride with some friends and the owner of one of the cars found, when we returned to the field, that she had lost her car key somewhere along the way. Unfortunately the other car driver had given her key to the first car driver, who had locked the second key safely in her car. We had to wait an hour or so before we were rescued. I like to minimise the risks of a similar scenario. But, going back again to where I was, I found at the weekend that one of the zips on my jacket was broken. Everything of value had to be transferred to another pocket. Then someone mentioned to me that there is a shop in Gotha where they mend and replace zips and don’t charge the earth. Great, I thought. I work in Gotha on Tuesdays (Gotha is the Gotha part of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, where Prince Albert came from, by the way. In case you were interested). I can take the jacket in and, if I’m very lucky, I may get it back by Wednesday, when I pass by Gotha on the way to working elsewhere and could pop into town if necessary.

Today I emptied all the other pockets of the jacket, brushed it off (I wore it riding this morning and haven’t had time to wash it) and took it into town with me. The shop is conveniently situated on the road I walk down to get to work. Couldn’t be better. I walked in and was greeted by a smiling woman standing behind the counter. I produced the jacket, apologised for the fact that it was slightly grubby (I had wiped off the slobber my horse had deposited on it earlier, so it wasn’t too dirty) and showed her the problem. Oh dear, she said, it was a tricky one. They couldn’t put in a zip of the right colour and it would cost a lot. £26,000 at least. No, ok, I tell a lie. She quoted €14. But still. Now, had I been Liz Jones, the appropriate reaction here would no doubt have been to stamp my foot, shouting loudly that this was not good enough and what has happened to customer service nowadays? Keeping a snarl on my face the while. Although, I suppose, had I been Liz Jones I wouldn’t have taken my designer jacket into such a shop in the first place. In fact I would have thrown it out and bought a new one because the zip on one of the pockets was broken. However, assuming the theory that she would take her jacket into a shop to have it repaired, she would have thrown a major wobbler at being told that a new zip was possible but impractical and wouldn’t look 100% right. But no, I restrained myself. The smiling woman then asked whether I really needed a zip. I explained that it was my riding jacket and yes, I needed secure pockets to hold the already mentioned keys, mobile phone, cash etc.  Hmm, she said (or the German equivalent thereof), since £26,000 (sorry, €14) was a lot of money for a zip that didn’t even match, would I put up with a couple of buttons or similar, making the pocket secure enough for a mobile phone or a glove. Yes, I said, I could live with that. Good, she said. And could I come back in a little while? I said that I was working round the corner until five and would happily come back then. Are you English? she asked? Yes, I said. And do you live here in town? she asked. Nearby, I replied. Then we said our goodbyes and I left, promising to come back later to collect the jacket. As I went out of the door I could hear her excitedly telling a couple of colleagues who were seated busily making repairs, She’s English, you know. I left with a smile and went off to teach bored teenagers who would rather be anywhere other than stuck inside learning English after school.

Later on I went back to the shop and the smiling woman recognised me immediately. She retrieved my jacket and showed me the two press studs that had been neatly sewn on the pocket and looked absolutely in keeping. My mobile and a glove will be perfectly safe in the pocket once more. Then I took out my purse, looked at her with that sort of “how much” look that needs no words and she waved me away. She really waved me away and didn’t ask me for a single, solitary Euro cent. Now there’s a shop I’ll go back to the next time I have a broken zip, and I’ll be happy to pay what it costs next time. As I left the shop, with a big smile on my face, my first thought was along the lines of the milk of human kindness and all that. And my second thought was – Thank God I’m not Liz Jones.      

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Surfeit of Dogs

Due to having rather too much work of the kind that is guaranteed to pay money for me to keep up with settling the bills, as opposed to the writing kind of work that has no certain pay cheque attached to it, I’ve been a bit lax about writing blogs of late. But since I have just finished something and am taking a short breather before going on to the next thing, I decided I had better squeeze in a new post. I don’t want to get out of practice.

My house (actually it is a flat, but never mind semantics) has been invaded. I am playing host to two small dogs for a few days and they have taken over my space and my time. My own dog, a mixture containing some German Shepherd, at least a little Husky and I’m not sure what else – she was given to me and I never saw her parents, but she is a lovely dog whatever her breeding – is settled in her ways and has her own place and routines. One of the two visitors has stayed here before, but although the other has been here for the odd evening this is the first time she has stayed overnight. The owners, who have gone away until the weekend, have four dogs and share them out amongst friends when they need dog-sitters. One of the other usual volunteers is herself on holiday (that is another story. She and her husband went to New York for a fortnight a week ago. I believe they have upped sticks and moved on to Niagara Falls, but I’m sure they will have some interesting hurricane stories when they get back) so this time I have not one but two extra mouths to feed, and dogs to walk.

On the other occasions I have hosted visitor number one the weather was warmer. Ten days ago we had temperatures in the 20s (Celsius, of course. Not Fahrenheit – they don’t do Fahrenheit in Germany, although the temperature scale was named after someone with German antecedents. Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, in case you’ve ever wondered) then early last Saturday I opened my front door to let my dog out and was greeted by two inches of snow. That has melted, but it is still pretty chilly. So my wood burning stove is burning merrily and keeping the flat warm and cosy. My dog has never been allowed in the sitting room, where the fire is (although it is next door to the kitchen and the heat permeates through the open door), but the two visitors have taken up residence on the sofa in front of it. Number one visitor occasionally growls, mainly because she suffers from the Napoleon complex that haunts many small dogs. She is noisy – the noisiest of my friends’ four dogs, as well as the smallest – and can be aggressive with strangers. As well as with other dogs who want to take her toys off her. She is also fiercely loyal to those people she had decided to attach herself to and will guard their possessions, growling at all who approach as she sits by a pair of shoes or a rucksack belonging to one of the girls who stays sometimes with my friends. So now she lies on the sofa warning her companion away from the chew bone she has adopted. My own dog’s nose is rather out of joint as a result of this invasion.

Last night, I took all the dogs out – no letting them run free in the garden, since the fence is not totally secure for such small dogs (have I mentioned their size before? Sorry. But to explain, number one is a Chihuahua x Dachshund and number two is Bichon Frise x Jack Russell, both rather hairy, both very cute) so I have to get up and dressed early as well as going out late with them all – then brought them back in for the night. My dog has her bed in my large hallway, and number one visitor understands the system. Number two, however, made it quite plain that she wasn’t happy with that. She barged her way back in from the hallway and took up residence once more on the sofa. So I gave in to her. I’m now worrying whether tonight number one visitor will decide that she is being discriminated against and insist on joining number two visitor on the sofa. Or, worse still, she will decide to move onto my bed, since I keep the bedroom door open in order to keep the room warm. If she stays on the sofa, I shall probably be kept awake by intermittent growling, but I’m not keen on having her on the bed; that may encourage number two visitor. Coupled with which, I would then start feeling guilty about shutting out my own dog. And that would never do.

To give my own dog a bit of time away from the interlopers, and because I can let her run free without worrying about her, which I obviously can’t with the other two, I took her when I went to check on my horse today (no time for riding, sadly) but left the other two behind. I returned home to be greeted by barking. Number one visitor, of course; number two is not generally a barker. Settling at the computer, where I can swivel round to the table piled with dictionaries (standard German-English / English-German, Technical English-German, Technical German-English) and files of machine operating instructions that I am translating, I had to fend off dogs who wanted to sit on my lap. When this failed I had to type with one hand. After a satisfyingly productive time I decided to walk all the dogs before it got dark. The clocks went back last weekend. I swear that last week it wasn’t dark until seven, but now it is more like five o’clock. How can this be when the clocks only moved back one hour? Anyway, it seems that half the dog owners in the village had the same idea. I am fortunate in that I can go out of my back gate into the local park and from there I am soon in the fields, so I don’t need to walk along the roads. Which was a good thing as the two visitors were whizzing around causing the three leads to plait themselves. I wasn’t able to let my own dog off the lead, which would have made the situation at least a bit easier, as walking along the field were several of the more aggressive of the village’s dog population. Having been supplied with a very short lead for number one visitor, I had substituted it with an extending one of my own (which used to belong to my one of own small dogs, now sadly no longer with us) and she hurtled around from side to side and forwards and backwards until she reached the full extent of the lead and sprang backwards, then she repeated the exercise. Number two dog, who is rather more mature, and my own, bounded around with almost as much enthusiasm but a little less velocity.  

It will soon be time for bed and before that I will be going out again. It is drizzling now. Or it was an hour or so back, but since the forecast is for heavy rain it may be worse by the time I go out. I really like my friends’ dogs, and I’m happy to look after them for a short while, but it will be so nice to get back into my own routine and not have to go out in all weathers in the pitch dark. (Before you jump to the conclusion that I am a cruel dog owner who is too lazy to walk her dog, that is far from the truth. On the days when I don’t ride, I make sure we go for decent walks. On riding days we can sometimes be out for many hours, so my dog is extremely well exercised.) The two visitors now have started a growling duet. I’m not sure what that is all about, so I suppose I’d better go and check on them. Next time I manage to post, I should be back to the normal complement of dogs. Or dog, to be more accurate. She will be happy about that, I’m sure.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Guest author - Samantha Holt

As mentioned in my last post, I have been lucky enough to secure an interview with Samantha Holt, best-selling author of historical romances including her latest, The Angel's Assassin.

And so, without further ado, here is the interview:

What is your name and where do you come from?
Samantha Holt and I come from Warwickshire, England.
You write medieval romances. What is your absolute favourite time during the medieval period, and why?
I enjoy writing around the era of the Third Crusade - late 1100’s to the early 1200’s, though my writing spans from shortly after the Norman invasion, up until the 1400’s. But for me, those times were so full of turmoil and life was still quite gritty, so it adds an extra edge to my stories. I don’t like my characters to be too comfortable perhaps!
When and how did you initially become interested in this period? Have you studied it formally or did your interest spring from other roots?
I studied history and archaeology in college but didn’t resurrect my love for history until I was older. I can’t really say what drew me to the medieval era so strongly - again, the turmoil is a big pull for me and the fact that life was so very different to what it is now. Although I adore the Regency/Victorian periods, life was not as raw as it was in medieval times. I like the added excitement that a sword fight or a castle siege can bring in.
Where do you do your research? Libraries, record offices, or mainly on the internet? 
The internet is great as you have information at your fingertips but you do have to be careful as not all sources are trustworthy. I have a few very trusted sites that I use and several large books that I refer to a lot. Ideally, I like to visit places. We’re lucky in Warwickshire to have some wonderfully preserved castles and sometimes that is the best way of doing research. To feel the chill in the air as you step into the stairwell of a tower is just amazing and I love to draw that experience into my stories.
Does your research inspire new ideas, or do you stick clearly to the object of the research you are doing?
It varies. My most historical book so far, A Summer Siege, was written entirely around one event in history and that story only developed through my research of that moment in time. Certainly ideas spring up when I’m researching something but generally I remain focused on the task at hand. People don’t realise quite how much research goes into the books sometimes - it’s the smallest of things that count - and if I tried to write a story off everything I researched, I’d be writing for an eternity!
 What makes your book different than others in your genre?
My use of language is different. I know my native English tongue differs slightly but I hope that brings a sense of realism, particularly when it comes to dialogue. I love writing dialogue and I think that comes across. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to visit places featured in my books (castles etc) and I hope to bring a sense of realism into my stories by blending my experiences into my tales.
How long did it take you to write your book?
Generally I take about three months. I write full time so I put in anything between 4-6 hours of writing a day.
What are some writing goals for the future?
I’d like to perhaps expand into a different historical era or even write some contemporary romances. For the moment, I still have some untapped medieval stories but I imagine there’s only so many you can write. Having said that, I’m always sure the one I’m working on will be my last one and then another miraculously comes along.
Samantha Holt resides in Warwickshire, England, with her twin girls, having followed her soldier husband around the UK for nearly 10 years. Growing up in Hampshire, she was inspired by the authors Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell, both of which lived and wrote only miles from her home town.
Samantha loves the romance genre and has been devouring romantic literature for as long as she can remember. History is another passion of hers and she loves to combine her love for history and romance into exciting and passionate tales.
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