as the sun illuminates
in the grass
and bluebell hoods
carpet the woods
as the Spring phoenix dashes
from winter’s dark ashes.
as the sun illuminates
in the grass
and bluebell hoods
carpet the woods
as the Spring phoenix dashes
from winter’s dark ashes.
December was a busy month with trips to Birmingham, Berlin, Lancaster, Norwich and Great Yarmouth and a visit from my cousins, where I cooked for five for the first time.
I learnt that you need to have everything prepared and ready to go for the day of the visit. I spent that morning scouring local farms for turkey, only to be told that it had to be ordered in advance. I was saved by a pre-prepared one at Waitrose.
There was so much to see and do in Berlin. The city had a festive atmosphere with Christmas lights and markets. Temperatures were close to zero so my thermals came in handy.
Hotel Indigo was comfortable, clean and stylish and was lovely to return to after a day on our feet. We had an executive room with a balcony and we wrapped up to admire the view.
It was easy to get around using the S-Bahn and U-Bahn train systems. The U-Bahn is the Underground. You have to get your ticket stamped by the machine or you can be fined.
Transport links from Schönefeld airport were dismal, perhaps the reason for its rating on Google of under 3 stars. We were shattered after our budget airline experience featuring the usual lengthy queues. I nearly fell over as I had labyrinthitis – an inner-ear infection causing balance issues and disorientation. I had just started swimming again and medical opinion was that it had pushed infection further into my ear. Luckily it was the last 24 hours of it.
There was a long walk to the train station which was a vast concrete space with confusing German signposting to unfamiliar areas and some omnipotent machines. You needed to have the right amount of coins as they did not take cards and most did not like notes. Perhaps this is to encourage those in the know to buy at the airport. There were no officials and no information desk. In England there are information points at almost every major station so it was a culture-shock. I’d already been jarred by the lack of warm water in public toilets. Economical efficiency at its best but punishing in winter. Hand-warmers are recommended.
Berlin Photo Tour
This pint features the German bear in front of the dome of Berlin’s parliament or Bundestag which is one of the subjects of my next post. Bears first appeared on a city seal (emblem) in 1280. The earliest city seal from 1253 didn’t feature a bear but an eagle, which was the symbol of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, an important part of the Holy Roman Empire that included Berlin. In 1280 the second emblem featured a Brandenburg eagle flanked by two standing bears. When Cölln and Berlin were merged into one city in 1709, the coat of arms featured the bear below two eagles -red for Brandenburg and black for Prussia. By 1875, the bear gained a crown signifying Berlin’s status as a free city.
Our walking tour started in front of the Brandenburg Gate, outside Starbucks. It was free if you were heartless but our charismatic guide explained that he lived on donations and 15 Euros was the going rate. It was well worth it as we felt we had seen all the key sights and were fully briefed in the history. All questions were answered.
Just past the Gate on the road is the dividing line of the Wall that divided East and West Berlin until 1989, stretching off into the traffic. Division seems a distant memory, one that many would surely rather forget.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz where over 1 million people died. An estimated 90 per cent of these victims were Jews, with Poles, Romani gypsies, Soviet Prisoners, homosexuals and others deemed “undesirable” making up the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish victims that were killed at the hands of the Nazis. The death toll is inconceivable. I thought of my grandfather, who liberated and dealt with the aftermath of Bergen-Belsen. Hell on earth. He never spoke of it and it must have been easier to repress than think about. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish Auschwitz survivor, writer and chemist, remarked “I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man” quoting the Robert Burns poem “Man Was Made to Mourn”.
The Jewish Memorial in Berlin was quite an experience. It was a series of concrete blocks gradually getting taller until you were engulfed by oppressive blank columns trapping you on all sides. You are suddenly in a narrow space overshadowed by heavy grey monoliths leaning towards you which blocked out the light.
It was even more powerful at night. I couldn’t see anything but a gloomy, shadowy passage in front of me. It was eerily silent and you could hardly see the sky.
You could go on a “Trabi” tour. Trabant cars, affectionately termed “trabis”, were iconic vehicles used by the Soviets of East Berlin. There is a museum for almost everything in Berlin, from those cars to computer science.
Balloon sightseeing looked fun but freezing. We didn’t get a chance to see the Berlin Wall art but click here for a good website with it.
The East side still retained some differences such as the pedestrian crossing signs which featured a large man in a hat. The design was conceived by a traffic psychologist, Karl Peglau. The thinking behind it was that we react more quickly to appealing symbols.
The history of a divided East/West Berlin reminded me of North/South Korea. The Russians called the East the Federal Republic and the British, French and Americans named the West the Democratic Republic. The wishful thinking post-War was that both halves would be run harmoniously. But the 1950s saw the fear of Communism explode in the States with witch hunts including even Charlie Chaplin. There were uprisings in the East which were dealt with by the Stasi, the secret police. Around 2.7 million East Berliners defected from 1949 until the Wall was built, with 200,000 leaving the year before in 1960. Reasons for escape were economic, social or political.One reason was the introduction of a collectivization policy in the 1950s. The goal was to consolidate individual land and labour into collective farms in order to increase food supply. But this meant that profits decreased and there were food shortages and riots instead.
The Wall was publicly built to prevent a war for the city but privately it was
also to stop the East-West exodus. The East-German leader Walter Ubricht termed it an “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart” protecting the Federal Republic from “military adventurers”.
The photo above shows border guard Conrad Schumann who left two days after Wall construction began. His fellow soldiers were distracted and he saw his chance. West Berliners encouraged him to jump and after deciding for a moment he went for it. The moment was captured by passing photographer Peter Liebing. The iconic photograph was used as propaganda.
There were some unusual escapes, such as by tightrope-walking and with a car converted to go under the crossing barrier. Many who succeeded were guards, with over 1,300 fleeing in the first two years of the Wall’s construction. This led to the installation of locks and further walls requiring several soldiers to open them.
There was a good exhibition at Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station about the division of the Underground. Tube trains from the West could pass through Eastern stops but they could not be used and became “ghost” stations. Even here soldiers escaped, so they would be locked in a platform bunker until the end of their shift.
Officially, 136 Berliners died fleeing to the West. Some wanted to earn more money, others were trying to join family members. Friedrichstraße station was nicknamed “The Palace of Tears” as it was the station where East Berliners would have tearful goodbyes to West Berliners returning, unsure when they would be allowed to see them again.
Many casualties were not recorded by the secretive Soviets. But a victims research group called “August 13 Working Group” has claimed there were more than 1,100 fatalities linked to the division of states. West Berliners used it to fly-tip.
The photo above captures the worst Wall stand-off caused by a senior U.S. diplomat, Lightner Jr (American for Junior, which means son of) wanting to go to the opera in East Berlin. The East Germans demanded to see his passport, which he insisted only Soviet officials had the right to check. He was forced to turn back. Due to the tank stand-off and fervent diplomacy that ensued, officials on both sides were allowed to attend the theatre and the opera over the border. As for Lightner Jr, he went to the performance days later.
This month Stasi records became available online for the first time. The Stasi were Soviet secret police. Their files have been available to their subjects since 1992. But you had to write out for them and there were delays in release. The records were saved by East German citizens who stormed Stasi offices when the Wall fell in 1989. They include the harrowing case of Manfred Smolka, a former East German border guard who was seized, thrown in solitary confinement and guillotined after he escaped to the West. The Stasi even attempted to recruit Prime Minister Angela Merkel when she was at University.
Our tour guide was fantastic and we felt like we had been fully briefed on the key history and sights of the city centre.
The German market looked fantastic. To the left is the Concert House where we enjoyed an orchestral and choral Bach performance.
You must visit Fassbender and Rauch. It’s a chocolate shop with green awnings like Harrods and has confectionary which is just as fancy. There were several iconic buildings made entirely of chocolate. Upstairs in the lift is the restaurant where they do a main meal in chocolate on Monday-Friday. There can be a queue early in the afternoon but it is worth the wait. Their petit-fours look exquisite and are delicious.
Christmas decoration in Pottsdam, copied nicely in chocolate in Berlin. That city is the subject of my next post, along with more of Berlin.
I am lucky to live on the edge of some stunningly scenic countryside. Here are some pictures from a walk I did on the way back from a village open-air swimming pool.
Hand-gliders jump off the top of the hill above.
There was a lot of greenery after a thunderstorm and rain the day before:
A scenic spot called Burbage. On top of the hill (below) are the remains of an Iron Age fort.
The weather was perfect, not a cloud in sight and warm, a tropical 24 degrees. All bipeds have right of way in Derbyshire, with sheep at the top of the list. They are also allowed to stay in the middle of the road for as long as they so choose and frequently abuse that privilege.
I tried to take pictures of the butterflies that stopped in front of me but they flew off as soon as my shadow was over them. This one is roadkill, a beautiful insect killed by big ugly polluting metal cans zooming past and ruining the country idyll.
On Sunday leafy Yorkshire was invaded by the French for the first time since the Norman invasion.
Even our local newspaper was taken over, with a commentator yelling “speciale edition of ze Yourkshe post!”.
We arrived early in the morning in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. There were ancient stone houses and farmers’ fields everywhere and the smell of cut grass lingered in the air.
Parking spaces were already filling up on verges of the narrow country bridges and pavements. There was a festival atmosphere with many of the crowd in yellow, many already lining the route including the BBC.
We walked up one long steep hill. I pitied the Tour de France riders who would have to climb it. If it was me I would certainly get off and walk.
We passed a field with numerous food stalls from hog roasts to Carribbean food to the local brewery stalls and then on to the Portacabin cess pits, although at this early stage they were still fairly hygienic.
Any stalls advertising coffee had lines of caffeine addicts desperately awaiting their morning fix. My boyfriend’s friends spent about an hour in it for theirs.
A sausage sandwich was necessary for the wait. We found a bit of the verge that had been left as it was narrow and established our territory. With just crisps and chit-chat we whiled away the hours until lunch – a picnic. All the while spectators streamed past up the hill, desperate for a patch of grass to claim.
A lot of people had cycled there including a lady in a polka-dot dress. A mother produced giant chalks and her children drew all over the road with them, including her. She seemed to be enjoying it more than them.
Then just half an hour before the event began a large lady with small dark eyes close to her nose, her skinny older husband with parchment skin from years of nicotine abuse and their whiny little boy were walking in the road and stopped at us.
The mother eyed us up and decided we were soft targets.
“Do you mind if we stand here, we’ll stand behind you and won’t cause any trouble” she said aggressively.
It was more an order than a question and without waiting for an answer she shoved herself and her family between us. We ignored them so she continued her tirade:
“don’t see why they mind, we’ve got as much right to be here as they have, it’s a free country, it’s not like they own the land. Anyway I don’t see why they’re sitting down” she glanced at me indignantly “there’d be a lot more space for other people if they stood up.”
Her husband timidly intervened “they might have been waiting here for many hours.” She relented slightly “well they may have but why shouldn’t we stand here as well, we’re standing behind them and we aren’t gonna cause any trouble are we?” she said to her offspring, who about ten minutes later started whining “is it gonna start yet? mummy when’s it gonna start? it’s been aaages! I’m bored!”
“Play with your sword then” the space offender suggested and her son started thrashing his plastic sword and shield about at spectators.
The procession of police and gendarmes began at around 3 with continuous sirens and beeps. Then came the marketing cars and floats throwing out freebies. They were not as generous with them as I would have liked and of course most of them went to the boy beside us. But I imagined to get a cow keyring with some French on it. They were mostly floats for French companies but some were international. One had massive drinks on and ice cubes, a car sported a plastic bottle of wine the length of the roof:
and there was a gym van with people on exercise bikes racing away.
There was a van covered in cheese and one with meat advertising a French supermarket that we also shopped at in Turkey of all places.
Then there was a constant stream of police landrovers, motorbikes and cars with thin dainty racing bikes on. I started to feel a little sick at the amount of taxpayer money inevitably funding all those police, who were more needed along the route. Occasionally our stewart shouted “get behind the white line” but often forgot, so some people were nearly taken out by wing mirrors.
The crowd became more and more excited, with Mexican waves rippling about.
Finally it was the race we’d all been waiting for. A helicopter swooping low overhead heralded their arrival.
We heard the cheers rippling further and further up the hill as the police escort heralded the arrival of the leanest meanest cycling machines in Europe if not the world.
I was expecting them to look exhausted but their matchstick muscle legs seemed to propel them effortlessly past, with not even a drop of sweat flying off onto us in the front row.They were almost sitting back in the saddle admiring the crowds, who surged forwards almost into the road. There was no steward to be seen and one guy stepped into the path of a competitor and he had to swerve around.
I was absorbed in the atmosphere and in my camera, experimenting with the different effects.
Then came the middle group really working, most standing up and leaning forward, smiling as the spectators shouted and screamed.
It was a Lycra line of calf muscles bulging out like biceps. I was unaware that the British cyclist had already passed as no one had acknowledged him in the fly-past.
Then came the stragglers and this time I could just make out rivers of sweat running down their face in the 20 degree humid heat, having climbed at least 500 metres of torturous hilly bends. An ambulance whizzed past with its lights on.
There was a pause and then everyone went into the road and started heading home, moving baby steps for about half an hour, when suddenly police cars and bikes parted the crowd and one straggler acknowledged the crowd with a wide grin as he palely inched past us in yellow.
Then in true Yorkshire style, it began to rain as we headed to the car.
We spent hours in a traffic queue overlooking the beautiful open countryside as Tour wannabes whizzed by.
On the way back I saw some “tourmakers” having a consultation in their frog green outfits.
Would I go again? I doubt it. We waited hours and hours for about 15 minutes of cyclist champions but I don’t regret it because of the sheer excitement and energy of the event.
When we got home we watched Lewis Hamilton win the Grand Prix which finished our grand day out nicely.
Hello and welcome on a rainy dark cold English winter evening.
First of all I just want to thank you for checking out my blog over the last year. In 2013 I was unhappily unemployed and decided something needed to change. With qualifications and experience but fighting just to get an interview I began blogging and found a virtual family. Thank you to all those who read, commented, and supported me through that tough time and gave me the strength to keep going.
Thinking of ways I could help readers in my situation gave me something to do other than the endless repetitive task of filling out applications mixed in with a YouTube workout or two. I suddenly had an exciting project to do that stimulated my neurons far more than the endless repetition of personal details.
A year on I yet again face an uncertain future. But either way I will have gained more experience to help me stand out.
2. To accept an award you are expected to write endless drivel about yourself. I have only done this once, although I have appreciated the nominations.
3. The blog world is a real community – there are always friendly people that have been through exactly what you have and can sympathise. I found this especially helpful during times of financial hardship and struggling to get work. Use this support network.
4. It is a great way to help others. My most popular article remains Pros and Cons of Unemployment. I couldn’t find any articles on positives of unemployment. In this dire situation I thought about the British idiom “every cloud has a silver lining” and realised that if I could focus on this I would be able to cope with the situation much better. I began feeling happier, more confident and began interviews by following my own advice (for once).
7. There is such a great variety out there. Just search for the topic you want to read and it’s all free.
I have just realised how fantastic these are. Most people know that wearing layers keeps you warmer because they trap heat. The most important layer is the one next to your skin. Then the second one insulates and is also close to the body to minimise air gaps. You can read more about this technique here.
Everyone raised their eyebrows and told me they were for the elderly and the elderly alone. When I looked on the thermals section of a clothing company the metrics did show that all comments were from the over 50s. But when thinking about saving money why not remember the wisdom of previous generations. Instead of turning up the heating, buy a few undergarments.
It cost me about £12 for the shirt and for the leggings but it’s a one-off purchase. You will get a lot more off your heating bill than that. I’m currently wearing thermal leggings with trousers over the top, thermal and standard long-sleeved shirts and an acrylic jersey. I have worn them all day. I don’t need an expensive wool one with all these layers. I find it itchy anyway.
As you have clothes over them, it doesn’t matter what they look like and you don’t have to admit to wearing them. But actually there are some good looking ones now – my shirt has dark blue and white stripes and being a scoop neck I can wear it under other tops without it showing. The leggings I’m wearing at the moment are more effective at retaining heat. They are mostly acrylic and their snug but comfortable fitting means there are no air gaps.
So go on, stay warm for less this winter.
After the magnificence of the Haggia Sophia we refreshed ourselves with a visit to a traditional restaurant where we ate kebab main meals (when in Rome, or rather Istanbul!). I had it with the hot spiced apple tea again. It was sweet and revitalising and I couldn’t get enough of it. I then had a tea but I had to ask for milk – if you don’t they just serve it black! Every drink is also served with mounds of sugar cubes as well as having it added. After a while I began to appreciate the EU sugar limits.
We then continued our tourist experience by buying up boxes and boxes of Turkish delight and nougat. Massive blocks of the stuff were chiselled off. They had an array of colours and nuts, it was quite a display. The Turks are very fond of anything with nuts in.
We then went to the Tokapi Palace (Tokapur in Turkish pronunciation), where we marvelled at the variety of styles of 16th-17th century tiled walls.
We walked in ancient regal rooms with 16th century bronze and tile fire places. Odd things with pointy tops. Every so often there would be a little courtyard, sometimes with a fountain.
I got the impression the Turks were also very fond of these, which seemed logical given that Turkey is usually lovely and warm, unlike the bitter cold that day. I had forgotten gloves and I soon lost all feeling in my hands.
The best bit of the palace were the imperial treasures, which at one time only the royals could admire. I had never seen anything like it. Such a large amount of incredibly valuable precious-stones, gold and diamonds, all glistening and dazzling in two rooms, crammed together in a breathtaking display of opulence. There were bronze and ivory thrones from the 16th and 17th centuries, every inch dripping in rubies and emeralds. I asked my boyfriend whether I could have some ruby or emerald jewellery for Christmas. Even if we won the lottery I doubt that is possible, but one can dream. I was like a magpie in the dragon’s cave of the Hobbit. I had never seen anything like this before.
The gold was highly polished and almost blinded you in its magnificence. The diamonds looked thoroughly transparent. These were the literal jewels in the crown of a vast and wealthy Empire that had at one point stretched all the way to “threaten the gates of Vienna”. Incredible given that they started off as a nomadic desert tribe. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photographs.
We saw the Harem where the Emperor’s many wives and the black Eunuchs that served them were housed. The quarters of the Eunuchs were the most modest rooms in the palace, quite small but still richly decorated with painted tiles.
We saw the religious artefacts (the Prophets beard, bits of the Kaa’ba in Mecca and so on). These were the busiest rooms and there was a hushed solemn silence throughout the crowd.
We saw the library and as the sun went down we walked through the gardens to the edge of the palace. Here there was a viewing platform with a little seat. The city stretched away on the other side of the river. It was quiet and rather romantic and we took a picture against the sunset.
The building’s illuminating lights came on and after three hours touring this vast complex it was time to go, we were told the palace was closing.
I had enjoyed feeling like a princess and would have to make do with our “palace” hotel instead that night. As we walked out we saw that the place was guarded by armed soldiers. The Haggia Sophia looked even more dominating in its floodlit glory.
We walked back using the GPS on my boyfriends phone, winding around narrow dark streets, all the while passing burnt down houses standing as they were, dilapidated houses that surely were not safe to live in, disturbing alley cats scrabbling at the rubbish, some of them with infected eyes.
We crossed a railway and navigated for a while longer through the gloom – there were few street lights. Thankfully the streets were largely deserted and we finally made our way back to the hotel.
The next morning I awoke expecting sunshine and was dismayed to hear rain lashing against the window and a dull grey sky. Any photographs I was going to take would be ruined.
We went down for breakfast. I’d never seen such a selection. Pastries, fried eggs and bacon, deli meat, salad and cheese, cereals, yoghurts and dried fruit. I had some of this with delicious sweet Turkish tea, sipping it under the massive hotel chandelier which took centre stage, glistening even in the gloom.
We headed to the main attraction, the Hagghia Sophia, by way of the Byzantine Hippodrome. The history of it was incredible. The obelisks thankfully had a brief information plaque and were barricaded off. Other relics of a lost age have simply been left where they were dumped, abandoned ancient rubble in amongst the modern tram tracks on either side. The Turks do not seem very interested in the Byzantine history of their country. Apparently Prime Minister, Recep Tayipp Erdogan even bemoaned the “clay pots” and “other stuff”, excavations of which delayed the building of a new underwater tunnel under the Bosphorous. We went on a boat tour of this river, but that is a story for another day.
The Hippodrome was a vast square and we were walking where horse-drawn chariots would have thundered down and around it for public entertainment. The obelisks looked like giant stone fingers reaching into the air, and each one had been carefully engraved. One was stolen from Greece and had hieroglyphics all the way up. Another had Byzantine sculptures on it (above left). Then there was randomly a broken bronze sort of sculpture next to them all. I wanted to know more about the history of these objects, as the plaques really just described what we were seeing. But my boyfriend was not a fan of audio guides.
We walked on to the Haggia Sophia (As I’ve said before, the Turks call it Aya Sofya and didn’t always understand if we said “Haggia Sofia”). We were dwarfed by this beautiful colossal structure. It looks like it couldn’t possibly have been built by humans as the scale is unbelievable. We went towards it past the fountains and trees framing it and it just kept on growing in size until I felt very small indeed.
We queued for some time at the ticket office, but thankfully as it was December and a rainy overcast day, we didn’t have to wait long. The ticket price was very modest without a tour and it would have taken far too long to find out about the former church/mosque and museum as it is so steeped in history. Looking up minarets and domes went up into the sky as far as you could see.
As we entered we were engulfed. Entering through the vast doors a massive painted, columned, domed space opened out before us and took our breaths away. I got a crick in my neck trying to admire the central dome. It had Arabic script in massive gold linear script. Next to it in a marvellous fusion of religious art, was the Virgin Mary and child.
All around the edge of the central dome, light flooded through from windows carved into the stone, framed by orange and green painted triangular tiles. There was a second level almost touching the roof it seemed, with delicately carved viewing screens.
The floor was made up of slabs of marble, worn slightly from the worshippers and visitors over hundreds of years. In fact the main shell of the building is 2,500 years old, the first structure being built on the site around 500AD by a Roman emperor. There is a fantastic programme on the BBC at the moment: Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities which can tell you much more than I can about the history of Istanbul and buildings such as the Haggia Sophia. It really brings the past to life, and without virtual reconstruction scenes in a way which is really quite clever. Let me know if you watch it and what you thought of it. I found the narrator quite amusing with his ironed jeans and fancy sunhat at a jaunty angle.
The main area of worship was dark on this cloudy winter day and this made it all the more atmospheric, the gold Islamic inscriptions illuminated by rows of hanging metal chandeliers. Of course they no longer held candles but odd electric lights in little individual glass jars. They seemed to hang by themselves as you could hardly see the thin chains in the gloom, stretching down right from the cavernous roof.
We then walked out of the doors and up to the royal viewing floor, the “upper gallery”. On doing so you really feel yourself following footsteps of the past as the beauty of the church dramatically disappears and you climb up a rough cobbled stone corridor weaving around and up with stone arching around you.Apparently this was part of a network of secret passageways enabling the Emperors and their families to go to the church/mosque without having to mingle with the commoners.
Suddenly the cramped walkway opened out without warning into a grand open space, the high ceilings completely covered in painted and tiled patterns. This time you could not see the individual slabs of marble on the smooth shiny floor. There was so much history you could almost physically feel its presence in the building. There was even a bit of Viking graffiti reminding you of its age, vertical lines rudely etched into the viewing wall.
There were columns framing the space on the side towards the mosque, intricately patterned at the top. They were blackened up here with the soot from what must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of candles hovering above the floor below. Every inch of ceiling was carefully painted and the variety of colours and patterns was astounding. In places you could make out where Byzantine church crosses had been painted over after the building was converted (literally). I had never seen mosaics of such scale. The whitewash that had previously covered them had been removed and they glittered even now. The figures looked at you serenely from their lofty perches, exquisitely detailed and done with such care and attention, showing how even their creation was a kind of worship.
The view to the church below was an awe-inspiring sight. Watching the service from this height, royalty must have felt like Gods themselves.
I was in a dream-like daze in that superhuman structure. It is hard to believe it was built just 500 years after the supposed birth of Christ, without the impressive civil engineering technology we have today. I wondered how many slaves had died building it. The scaffolding must have been terrifying.
I don’t think I will ever see anything as beautiful or as incredible as the Haggia Sophia again. If you haven’t seen it yet you must experience it for yourself.