Category Archives: this and that

On Fear of Dogs, and Privilege

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When I was a little kid, my mother says, I was fearless. I would go up to even the biggest dog and, in the telling German phrase, put my hand right in its mouth – no fear at all. But when I was three, we were visiting at a great-aunt’s house, and she had a German Shepherd. He jumped out at me from behind a door, barking – it badly frightened me.

I don’t remember any of this. What I do remember is being afraid of dogs – debilitatingly so. The worst were German Shepherds, but it could be any dog, and particularly if it was barking and running at me. The lady on the third floor of the house across the street had a dachshund – I was scared of going over and ringing her doorbell, because the dog would start barking. A dachshund, for crying out loud, a silly wiener dog!

But the worst was another neighbour. We lived on a short cul-de-sac that only had one entrance way. Along that road was a family who had a large dog – well, what seemed like a large dog to me as a child; I think he might have been a collie. Their fence ran along the whole lane, and it had a small gate in the middle. The dog wasn’t out in the yard that much, but every once in a while, when we’d ride our bikes down the road, he’d run along the fence behind the hedge, barking. And once or twice, the gate was open, and the dog was out on the street. Not running or barking, just out wandering about – and I was terrified.

Now, as I said, this was the only access road to get to the end of the cul-de-sac where my house was, so I had to walk along that fence every single time I came home from school. And every single time, I was scared of that dog being there. I remember walking up to the corner, where the tall hedges of the yards met, and stopping. Carefully, I would lean forward, and carefully I would peer around the corner. Was the gate open? Usually, it wasn’t, so I’d heave a sigh of relief and scuttle up the road to reach home in safety.

A few times, however, it was open. I distinctly remember that on at least one occasion I retreated, went back a few hundred metres and around another corner, and stood there waiting, hoping that somebody would come and close that gate so the dog wouldn’t come out and bark at me. After a little while, I went back and did another stop-and-peer manoeuvre – the gate was still open. But the dog was nowhere in sight, so maybe I could risk it? I took a deep breath, and I ran for it. No barking, no attack by a slavering fiend – I made it!

The next day, I went right back to peering carefully around the corner, my heart in my throat – because you never know, do you?

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Yes, I know, it sounds silly. The dog in question was, I’m sure, a perfectly harmless, friendly creature – this was a family with children, so his barking was probably only a desire to play. But that didn’t matter. I was scared of dogs, and of barking dogs in particular, so that was that.

In fact, I’m still scared of big barking dogs. Oh, I’m fine with dachshunds now – anything that’s no taller than my knee doesn’t really scare me, and my knee is considerably higher now than it was back then.

But – do me a favour, will you? If I’m coming over to visit you, and you have a big dog, particularly a German Shepherd, don’t let it rush out barking at me. I don’t care that your dog is the friendliest creature ever, and that, look, he’s really smiling at me, and that the wagging tail says he’s so happy to see me, and him jumping up on me and slobbering all over me only means I’m one of his favourite people, and he’d never harm a fly anyway. I don’t care, because I’m bloody well scared of big barking dogs! One frightened me, a long time ago, and I’ve never gotten over it.

Well, thank you for understanding. I knew you were a real friend.

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So then today, I was in another one of those white-people conversations. It all started with me mentioning how I’ve been taken aback on re-reading some of the wonderful classics of British detective fiction (namely Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown) at how racist some of these stories are. Just casually racist, like that’s perfectly normal (which, sadly, it was, a hundred years ago when those stories were written).

And it set one of the other people around the table off on one of those white-privilege rants – you know the ones, to the tune of “All this talk of racism today is a bunch of politically correct nonsense; this stuff happened a long time ago; we can’t change the past, so why do these people get all this special treatment now; they should just get over it and be treated like the rest of us!” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)

Oh brother. I wasn’t going to get into a big argument with them – that’s usually not very productive. But on the way home, I thought about it. And what I thought was this: A lot of white people, in the Western world, are walking around with a chip on their shoulder. We’re being picked on, they say, for being white. Those others, they’re getting special privileges because their ancestors were being abused by people of our skin colour or culture. That’s not fair – now we’re being picked on, and it’s not our fault! Unfair! Poor us!

Well, let me ask you this: Am I being unfair when I’m asking you to not let your big dog rush at me and bark? Yes, probably I am. It’s not your sweet Fido’s fault that my great-aunt’s German Shepherd traumatised me when I was a toddler. But I’m still traumatised. I still react with fear to the noise a large dog makes, even if that fear is not rational.

And because you’re my friend, you are willing to help me with that fear. You are willing to (unfairly) curb your dog’s exuberance, so I can learn to trust one more dog, which will go yet another step towards teaching me to trust all dog-kind. I will probably never entirely lose my fear of large barking dogs – the scars are too deep, and too deeply buried, for that. My friends will probably always have to accommodate me in this way, at least a little bit.

And the same goes in the much bigger picture for us white people. It will be a long, long time before the injuries our ancestors’ actions have inflicted on those of other colours and cultures will start to heal. And until they do, we have to accommodate them. Yes, it might be a little inconvenient for us. Yes, it might seem a bit unfair. But it’s justice. It’s what friends do.

And that’s not too much to ask, is it? No, I didn’t think so.

Life, the Universe, Big Dogs and Privilege. It’s really not that hard.

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“Cat Contemplating Crops”: A Study in Line and Colour

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Here you go, have a piece of art to look at. It’s really deep, and meaningful, and stuff.

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Dear Internet, It’s Not You, It’s Me

Then again, actually it is you. I can’t handle your constant demands on me any more; it’s stressing me out when you’re staring at me with that hurt look if I don’t show up exactly at the moment that you expect me to; the negativity that hangs around you is dragging me down. And the time – you want so much time from me!

So I think we need to take a step back, evaluate our relationship. I don’t mean exactly break up, but, you know, maybe just be friends for a while.

Take care of yourself, Internet, eh? I gotta go now, I’ve got stuff to do.

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Just Sayin’…

I was watching a TV show yesterday, one that’s set in the Shetland Islands (and is, incidentally, called Shetland. What a coincidence). Anyway, there was a character in that episode named Catriona. You know, just like Cat in my Septimus Series. Nice name, right?

But then, to my great shock, I heard the name pronounced “Katrina”. Cat-REE-nah. Oh dear. I’ve always pronounced it Cat-ree-OH-nah. Have I been mispronouncing my own character’s name all these years?

I’m a bit of a stickler for correctly pronouncing people’s names. I am, with great regularity, on the receiving end of first-name mispronunciation, my name being Angelika. Now, if you’re German, you’ve just mentally pronounced it like this: Ang-GAY-lick-uh – hard g, emphasis on second syllable. That’s good. But if you’re English-speaking, chances are very high that you’ve said it like this: An-jel-EEK-uh – soft g, emphasis on third syllable. For some reason, most English-speaking people do it that way – I don’t know why. If it’s spelled with a c, Angelica, they say An-JEL-lick-uh, which I much prefer. My best guess is that with the k spelling, they see it and go “Eeep, foreign! Must be pronounced weird,” and that’s what they come up with. Or maybe they’re thinking of the only other English word that ends with “-ika”, which is “paprika”, and model the twisting on that.

Anyway, point being is that I want to pronounce people’s names correctly, even if they’re fictional people I’ve invented and named myself. So I was a little dismayed to hear Cat’s name said very differently from how I’ve always done it. To be honest, if the name is going to be pronounced Katrina, I’d just as soon have it spelled that way – and I wouldn’t have chosen that name for Cat. It’s a nice name and all, but I like Catriona better.

So I looked it up – thank you, Google and Youtube. And to my relief I found that my mispronunciation is actually a legitimate way of saying the name. Cat-ree-OH-nah. You can also go with Cat-REE-oh-nah (like Hermione, Her-MY-oh-nee), so there are actually three different ways of saying it. The Gaelic is Cat-REE-nah, but the version with OH in it is legit too – it’s more of an American pronunciation, which works because my Cat is meant to be American (with Canadian or maybe Scottish grandparents – hey, maybe her mom named her Cat-ree-OH-nah, and her grandmother, who raised her and was a bit of a stickler, always insisted on Cat-REE-oh-nah? That only just occurred to me.).

Now, don’t get me wrong – if you’ve been reading the Septimus books, and you’ve mentally pronounced Cat’s name as Katrina, that’s perfectly fine by me. As long as you like my Cat, and make her your own, that’s wonderful, and you can pronounce her name any way you see fit. Incidentally, the same goes for Guy – I say it as “guy” (as in, “That guy is a potter,” which is where his name originated), but if you want to say it the French way, “ghee”, feel free.

Life, the Universe, and Ways to Say a Name. But Steve is always Steve.

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Here’s a picture of Steve (St-EE-v) and his cousin Alfred (ALF-red).

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Rearview Mirror on a Summer

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Long Beach, Vancouver Island

September has come, it is hers / Whose vitality leaps in the autumn…*

Except that my vitality ain’t doing too much leaping at the moment. I’m still scrambling to catch up with the long, busy, and, above all, “away” summer – you’ve seen a few of the pictures. We left home on July 9th; spent two weeks in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island; came home; then after all of two days I hopped on a plane (or rather, a series of them), and headed for Europe for a month. A few days of sightseeing in Munich; three weeks of family stuff (helping with a move, to be precise); then to cap it off, three glorious days in London.

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Marienplatz, Munich, with Mary’s Column and Old Town Hall

Six weeks, 1500 photos, a wealth of experiences and memories. My house and garden, meanwhile, went to pot. As for my writing – well, I was going to say that nothing happened on that front, either. But that would actually be quite untrue. No, I didn’t really put any words to paper (or screen, as it were). But among those 1500 photos are quite a few that I took specifically as references for my WIP (that’s short for Work In Progress, for the un-artsy of you). The whole time in Germany I was soaking up atmosphere, sounds, tastes, sights – all with a mind to how that could be put to paper. My hotel in London was a converted Regency townhouse – inspiration pure (I might just have to write a Regency novel one of these days just so I can set it in that street; it was called Burton Crescent in those days).

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Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury

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I want to go back…

One street over, Tavistock Square, was where both Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens lived for a while and wrote To the Lighthouse and A Tale of Two Cities, respectively. Five minutes walk up the street was the British Library – I got to see original manuscripts by (i.e. stare in awe at the notebooks of) Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde; my jaw literally dropped when in one of the gorgeous glass cases I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels, and in another the Codex Sinaiticus… But I didn’t just revel in high-brow literature – I stopped in at King’s Cross Station and took a look at the Platform 9 3/4 store with its trolley stuck into the wall, too.

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The one and only portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra. National Portrait Gallery, London.

I drank Bavarian beer in Munich, Württemberger wine in Stuttgart, and English cider in London; I ate pork roast with dumplings in the Hofbräuhaus, lentils and spätzle in the old part of Stuttgart, and beef-and-ale pie in a pub by King’s Cross. I got claustrophobic in the Bloody Tower as one of the bloody masses of tourists and sat in silence in the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart among a few other visitors stopped in to pray. I revelled in train rides and was moved to tears by world-famous paintings. And in between, I packed boxes and unpacked boxes; walked to the grocery store, walked to public transit, walked to visit people, and on Sundays went for walks by way of recreation.

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Beef pie and Symonds cider, in honest-to-goodness London pub

And now I’m back home in the land of peaches and salsa and grapes, where one has to take the car even to buy a jug of milk. I have limitless wi-fi again, so I’m catching up with what I’ve missed on the internet (which I haven’t actually missed that much – I’m considering making this a lifestyle). And I’m bound and determined to get back to writing. I have great good intentions to regularly sit down and work on my, well, work. One can always be optimistic, no? I certainly have enough inspiration to carry me along for a while.

Life, the Universe, and a Long Busy Travelling Summer. Now to process all those impressions…

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Franz Marc, “Birds”. Lenbachhaus, Munich. So beautiful it made me cry.

*opening line from a poem by Louis McNeice, Autumn Journal

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Let Them Eat Cake, or: How to Have Kaffee und Kuchen

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The cake buffet

The first event on my current trip to Germany was yet another family birthday, a big one. And, as is usual, it was celebrated with food – lovely food, homemade food, mountains and lashings of food. In this case, cake.

Germany has a cake culture. Well, a whole baked-goods culture, actually – it’s the country with the most varieties of bread, which is the staple food, eaten for breakfast, break (even called “Brotzeit“, bread time, in some places), and supper. (Dinner – eaten at midday – is a cooked meal, and it does not usually include bread.) Having a good bakery in easy reach is crucial for one’s comfort – “Give us this day our daily bread”, and all that.

But there are times when the occasion calls for cake. And Germans know how to make the most of it. None of this “Bake one cake, and serve a single slice at the end of a large meal when you’re already stuffed” thing. No – cake (like bread) needs to be properly appreciated. So eating cake is a separate meal here: Kaffee und Kuchen, coffee and cake. It takes place in the mid-afternoon, half-way between dinner/lunch and supper, and it consists of, well, coffee and cake. Or tea and cake, or cocoa or milk or juice and cake.

Now, let me be clear: this is not a daily occurrence. Not even a weekly one, to the extent I’m showing it here. It’s a special-occasion one, for holidays, celebrations and company. On an ordinary weekday, many Germans have a cup of coffee and perhaps a few cookies or some other goodie in the middle of the afternoon; and for Sundays, they might bake a cake – a simpler one, say, a pound cake – or get a few pieces of Torte from the aforementioned bakery. But if there’s special company (like, a relative who’s visiting from Canada), or it’s Easter, or someone has a big-number birthday, they’ll pull out all the stops. It’s perfect for inviting guests – as festive as you could wish, but you can prepare everything ahead of time, don’t have to fuss with hot food, and the guests don’t stay ’til all hours.

So next time you find yourself in Germany, and someone says “Kommen Sie zum Kaffee!” (“Come for coffee!”), first of all, feel honoured (Germans aren’t quick to invite people to their houses, so an invitation like that is special). And here is what you can expect:

Kaffee und Kuchen usually happens around 4:00 PM, or 16:00 Uhr (saykh-tsayn Oor, sixteen o’clock). It’s not just a quick hand-you-a-cup-of-coffee affair, but a sit-down meal at a nicely set table, and it can easily last an hour or more – because, of course, eating is only part of the point; having a conversation is the main thing.

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One of the fancy-set tables

For a proper Kaffee a hostess will often put out her good china, and perhaps bring out a nice cut-crystal dish for the whipped cream. (Side note: no ice cream with cake here – ice cream is another thing that’s enjoyed by itself in its own right, not as an afterthought to cake; and it usually comes out as an immediate after-dinner dessert or special treat, not with Kaffee und Kuchen). The table is set with cake plates, coffee cups & saucers, cake forks and teaspoons. In the middle of the table, there’s the creamer and sugar bowl, whipped cream, and platter of cake – or platters, rather, as it’s usual to have at least two, if not three or more kinds of cakes.

The number of goodie varieties depends on the number of guests, of course. For today’s birthday party, which took place in a church hall and had about 45 guests, there were 12 cakes. Go ahead, pick up your dropped jaw again. It was lavish, and people commented on just how lavish (especially as the hostess had baked almost all of the cakes herself), but not all that unusual. Did I mention Germans know how to appreciate cake? By the end, about half or two-thirds of the cakes had been eaten, and whoever wanted to got to take a few pieces of the remainders home.

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Some of the aftermath, complete with paper plates for leftovers.

Of course with this number of cakes you don’t get to try every single variety – not because it would be socially unacceptable, but because it’s physically impossible. So you choose your favourites, and have those (apricot cheese cake, raspberry cream, red currant meringue, and fruit flan for me, in this case). With a buffet-style Kaffee und Kuchen like we had today, it’s fine to put a couple of pieces of cake on your plate at once, eat them, and go back for seconds; in a smaller circle (which is the normal way) you’ll just let your hostess serve you one piece at a time, eat it, make appreciative noises, then have another one. Repeat until fill point is reached, then say “Nein, danke!” (No, thank you!) to the next offering (you might have to repeat that phrase several times with escalating levels of firmness before it’s accepted as a fact that you actually don’t want more).

Speaking of appreciative noises, letting your hostess or host know that their cakes are amazing, impressive and utterly delicious and that you’d love to have more but you absolutely can’t (“Ich kann nicht mehr!“) is always acceptable. Appreciated hostess is a happy hostess, and you’re that much more likely to get invited back next time. Incidentally, you might also bring along a little hostess gift to express your gratitude for the invitation, especially if it is a special occasion – some flowers, or chocolates, or what-have-you.

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Someone’s leftover-cake package with the butterfly decorations from the tables.

By the way, Kaffee und Kuchen is something that’s practised at all ages. A children’s birthday party is often held as a Kaffee – it’s still called that even though the kids don’t drink coffee, but have cocoa or juice or pop. Also, the goodies are often more kid-friendly; one of my aunts, who long since passed away, for kids always made her specialty of fresh-baked waffle cones, which she filled right in front of you with whipped cream from a cream syphon (the kind that coffee shops top fancy drinks with) – it was very exciting.

As I said before, many Germans will bake their own cakes for a nice Kaffee und Kuchen, but it’s also perfectly acceptable to buy some from a bakery, which will usually have a really good selection. Another option for Kaffee und Kuchen is to go to a café for it. In that case, the timing is the same (mid-afternoon on Sundays or special occasions – perhaps on an outing), but you’ll generally only order one piece of cake with your cup of coffee or tea – and that’s usually enough, too, as café portions tend to be generous.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever heard the term Kaffeeklatsch or Coffee Klatsch, that’s where it comes from: women meeting in the afternoon over Kaffee und Kuchen and having a big gossip fest.

Life, the Universe, Kaffee und Kuchen. What’s your favourite kind?

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News from the Writing Trenches: #amtravelling, #amwriting

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I know I’ve been really quiet on here lately – well, it’s because life happens. Steve and I are on the road at the moment, and will be for most of the rest of the summer, visiting friends and family, and doing a little bit of sightseeing – no, sorry, research! – on the side.

But I thought I’d let you know that writing is still happening, in a manner of speaking. Some of it is just thinking about it (long drives in the car are perfect for that); some is editing of previous work; some is writing in short bursts in a little notebook. The latter is a new one for me – I do all my “serious” writing on the computer. But maybe this very “being not serious” that writing longhand in a tiny book entails is what I need at the moment.

So, writing still goes on. I’ll let you know when there’s something to let you know. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for new experiences, scenes and ideas – writing material is everywhere.

Now Steve’s got his backpack on and he’s ready to go for another day, so I better get on with it.

Life, the Universe, and News From The Writing Trenches. Happy Summer!

PS: If you do Twitter or Instagram, you can follow me at @amoffenwanger – I’ll be posting the odd picture there.

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