Monday, January 31, 2011

Annual reckoning

Just got my annual bill from the townhall for gas and electricity.  Smaller refund this year than last but on the whole it's not too bad.  I pay 35 euro per month and then the readings are taken once a year.  I can get at my gas meter to have a look easily but the electricity meters are locked in a cupboard and calling someone out to open it up would generally involve a charge so I've never done it.  I think starting tomorrow I will take monthly gas readings at least and see if that shows me anything interesting in relation to pattern of usage.  The heating and hot water are gas powered and I'm fairly certain I could definitely stand to do more to cut down on my hot water usage.

Last year my total for gas was 126.12 and this year it's 133.09.
kWh for gas were 1,403 in 2010 compared to 1,255 in 2009.

Last year my total for electricity was 195.26 and this year it's 209.57.
kWh for electricity were 847 in 2010 compared to 778 in 2009.

So overall not a huge increase.  For the first three months of 2010 I had someone else living with me who was very fond of using the heating (it was a cold winter admittedly) and had the computer on watching films or surfing the internet for a large part of every day.  Come to think of it, he was also very fond of taking long baths, topping up with hot water regularly.

The other big differences will be the lights that I had fitted in November 2009 (until then I was only using two standlamps) and the cooker, which I got in mid-2010 (before that I used a small electric oven and two-ring hotplate - I definitely cook more with the proper cooker).

So my nice things to have happened today are a refund of 12.23 from the town and finally, finally finishing the rest of that big box of Knusperone cornflakes from Aldi.  Never again. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011


What with the depression and all the sitting/lying around and doing not very much of any worth at all over the last year and particularly the last six months or so, I had put any kind of creativity beyond ocassional blogposts on hold.  When I was in my sister's last May, I gave myself the goal of knitting one dishcloth every day.  I did actually knit them but then when I got home, threw the bag in a corner and never even got around to taking them out of it to finish them off and actually use them.  The closest I have gotten to thinking about doing any crafting is washing some of the material in my stash but to be honest, this was mostly to make up a full load of washing so I'm not sure it counts.

Since actually going to the doctor and asking for help, it is sort of helping me to break out of the vicious circle of depression and last week was slightly easier in some respects than say, the week before.  Small steps but each one helps.  In the way that these things go the universe seemed to be conspiring to bring knitting back to the fore as a couple of weeks ago in the garden I heard one of the older women say that she was going to organise a sock knitting workshop sometime since a few people had seen her knitting socks and asked her about it.  I told her I'd be interested but assumed it could take weeks or months to get organised or possibly not happen at all, as so often happens with these things.  But I got an email a couple of days ago saying that she was going ahead with it in the garden on Sunday at two.  Luckily, one of the women who was interested in learning is also one of the keyholders so it all worked out very easily and we gathered there this afternoon and spent a couple of hours sitting in the pavilion (it was hovering around zero or one degree most of the day) but with gorgeous sunshine coming in the windows so that we didn't need any light on at all.

And having committed to going there today, it forced me to get up and out yesterday afternoon as well, since I needed to buy the double-edged needles for knitting in the round.  And while I was in the department store that sells knitting stuff, since there was such a long queue for the cash register on that floor, I wandered up to the homewares department and happened to see two bottles of lamp oil on sale for half price.  So I now have something to use to give my bargain lamp (even more of a bargain than I realised since I noticed that the original price tag on the lamp didn't say 30 but actually 300!) a try.  But I am waiting until I have cleared up some of the mess of paper that exists on nearly every surface in my living room at the moment.

Back to the knitting though.  I have wanted to learn how to knit in the round for such a long time, known it couldn't really be that difficult and just not trusted myself enough to give it a go on my own.  And it really isn't that difficult but I just needed someone to get me started and be there to answer questions if I needed help.  And I learned a couple of important things:

Cast on stitches using two needles held together  and then before you start knitting just slip one of the needles out - this means you have a nice loose stitch to start with, which makes dividing them onto separate needles a bit easier (casting on on a bigger size than what you will actually be knitting with will do a similar job).

And, if using a rib pattern of two plain, two purl, always use a stitch count of multiples of four.  So I am using a total of 56 stitches spread over three needles.  Instead of having uneven numbers or trying to divide by three, I have two sets of 20 and one set of 16.  The big advantage of this is that no matter what side I am on, I always need to start with plain and from the small amount of rib I have done a part of other projects before, I know this is a big help and should hopefully help me get over that problem of having reversed lines halfway through everything.

So far I have about three inches of one sock done.  It's a start.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The difference between who I am and who most people expect everyone to be

This is just a short post because I just read a blog post (sorry, can't find it again, it was a link via a link kind of thing) about whether or not facebook and other social networking media have impacted on the number of comments left on a blog and it reminded me of something that happened nearly a year ago that really annoyed me at the time.  And it no less irritating now but also fills me with a deep sense of sadness and, in a way, disconnect.

I had spent the Saturday morning working in the garden and it was a fairly heavy duty few hours with lots of shovelling involved.  Before leaving the garden I changed my clothes because I was heading straight to the train station to get on a train to go to a colleague's house for a candle party.  I met another colleague at the station and we had a nice chat on the way there.  The girl we were visiting picked us up at her end and drove us to her house.  While we were driving she commented on the big bag I had with me (which had some veg in it from the garden) and I mentioned how getting out in the garden was such a great way to start the day.  I was getting into the full swing of describing what it was I had been doing, shovelling old well-rotted manure onto raised beds etc. when one of them said, oh yes, I've done that today as well.  And the other chimed in, me too.  I was somewhat puzzled, because I didn't know either of them had any garden or connection to a farm and they spent a couple of minutes very enthusiastically talking about cows and chickens and fields before explaining to me exactly what farmville is.  Not being on facebook and not being one for online games either, it was the first I'd heard of it.  But what really got me was the fact that I was sitting there with aching muscles, dirt under my fingernails but a wonderful feeling of having achieved something and a bag of (probably) cabbage to show for it.  And they couldn't have been less interested but managed to spend the rest of the ten minute drive talking about their online farms.

It's a funny old world when the majority of the people I am in contact with in real life on a daily basis, live so much in a virtual world.  And yet all of the dozens of people in my life, so to speak, who really live in the real world, digging the soil and connecting directly to the earth (as real as it gets in my view), I mostly only 'know' through the virtual world of the internet.  Thank goodness for the biogarten, which at least allows me to know that there really are other people out there in real life, who don't think that clicking twice (or two hundred times or whatever it is) is enough to get a vegetable patch properly fertilised!

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I joined groupon recently (anyone in Germany who might like to join up, let me know your email address and I'll send you a recommendation - if you join up from that I get €6 :-) - I don't think I can get credit for recommending people to other groupon sites) and in the first couple of days purchased two bargains.  I was starting to regret it because it seemed like a bad January thing to do, to put myself in a situation where I'd be tempted to spend a lot but after buying those two, which were both things on my must-buy-sometime-when-I-have-money list, I haven't had any problem at all resisting any of the other offers.  Especially the ones for restaurants, which tend to be the least good offers in terms of saving and almost always seem to be restricted to dinner for two, and I rarely have someone to drag out for dinner with me.

The first groupon I bought cost 15 euro for a 50 euro voucher for shoes - the shop in question is in Berlin but they also have a website that I've heard good things about ordering from and sell well-known brands so I can check out a few things in shops around town here to check sizes and then order online from them.  My hiking boots are very worn down on one side and badly need to be replaced, especially if I want to start actually exercising again.  The recent snow, or more precisely, the grit and salt used to try and combat some of it, played havoc with my ecco walking shoes as well and the soles are well and truly on their way to disintegrating so if I don't get something suitable for going hiking or walking in, a pair of proper snowboots is in order. 

The second groupon was 29 euro for a one-hour photography session (including make-up) which normally costs 119 euro.  The thing is that in Germany it is normal to include a photo with any job applications.  It is, of courese, completely illegal for an employer to discriminate based on your appearance and they are not allowed to ask you for a photograph anymore but it is so very much the done thing here that sending an application without a photo would most likely set you at a disadvantage immediately.  And we're not talking just any old passport photo booth either.  100 euro would be around the lower end of what people pay for their application photographs here.  I've been putting it off and putting it off because it was just going to be so expensive so I felt like this deal was definitely worth while.  While I'm not actively looking for a new job I do want to be prepared and this will bring me one step closer to that.  I am really, really struggling at the moment and hating my job more and more all the time so it's good to have something to focus on that will make me feel a little less trapped there.

On that note, I also finally went to the doctor last week and asked to be referred for counselling.  I'm very nervous about this, my impression is that there can be a real stigma attached to this in Germany and my boss, for example, has frequently mentioned his low opinion of anyone who is "psychisch krank" (mentally/psychologically ill) and how once someone has psychological problems, they're no use in work at all.  And although I asked for a list of English-speaking therapists from my health insurer, they all have very German sounding names.  So I'm a bit nervous about having to do it all in German (at least I'll have the option of saying something in English if I'm struggling for a word but the chances are my German will be at least as good as their English) but more so because of potential cultural differences as well.  I wouldn't have been guaranteed an Irish person obviously but I thought an English or American therapist might be better able to relate to or understand some things without too much explanation.  I know it shouldn't make a difference and if they're a good therapist, they're a good therapist but it's just one more thing making me a bit nervous.  Anyway, it'll probably be a few weeks before I can get an appointment so I'm just trying not to think about it too much.

As for groupon, well, I think there are great savings to be had so long as you are careful to not get tempted indiscriminately by all the offers - being able to distinguish properly between what is actually a bargain and what isn't saving me any money at all because if I hadn't seen the special offer I wouldn't have bought anything at all, is important.

On a final note, one of the groupon offers today left me musing a bit on life and the things people to in the name of fashion, topics that have been on my mind a lot the last couple of years (mostly in relation to make-up and the need so many people seem to have to remove every last bit of hair from their bodies).  It was an offer for the REMOVAL of tattoos, with the tagline something like 'get rid of your sins of youth'.  I have to say that my ghast was momentarily flabbered when I read that.  A tattoo is supposed to be something permanent, putting a piece of art on your body and living with it for the rest of your life (yes, okay, I realise not everyone might think that way about a tattoo) and although so many people seem to have succumbed to the lure simply in the name of fashion, at least this was one thing you couldn't undo easily (at least not without great expense) and so it required a bit of thought.  It just seems now to be one more thing people can thoughtlessly do because if you don't like it, laser it away in the shop next door.  And there's just too much thoughtlessness in the world already.

P.S. I don't have any tattoos mostly because I didn't want to get one while still at a very big weight and then ending up with a shrivelled up thing if/when I lost weight.  Just in case anyone is wondering. :)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Garden photos

I finally, after more than a year, actually brought my camera to the Bio-Garten with me yesterday and took some photos.  I'm going to try and do this at least once a month for the whole year.  So here are some photos of what it looks like in the dead of winter, when not a whole lot is growing.  There is still some curly kale in the ground (have some on the cooker as I type) and a couple of beds of brussels sprouts (which, literally translated from the German, is rose cabbage - that won't make them taste any better but it's a much nicer name I think).  Unfortunately the pigeons have been at the sprouts and the one bed of kale that wasn't covered so there won't be much more coming from a lot of those plants. 

The view to the right from near the pavillion entrance - tool shed in the distance, large pond to the right with wild meadow area to the right and far left of the path

View to the left form the step of the pavillion - some of the beds in the main cultivated area of the garden

View to the left side of the main cultivated area with more beds and the greenhouse.  In the distance you can just make out the bee hives - someone comes in to look after these but there is talk about him coming in to give a seminar or possibly a course on bee-keeping, which would be really interesting.

The tomato bed and cage - a plastic roof is pulled over this in the spring to keep any rain, i.e. the worst of the damp, off the tomatoes in at attempt to stave off blight as long as possible.  It's similar to a polytunnel but the plastic only just comes down over the side and then the 'walls' are left free and open for cucumbers to grow up the sides.

The small pond, which is just beyond the tomato cage

The final section of cultivated space (meadow area just in view in the far right

The large pond and meadow area.  Behind the pond on the left, is what was supposed to be an alpine rock garden.   But apparently when the garden was first being built up (about 25 years ago) there were conflicting ideas on how this should be done/people weren't entirely sure how to do it.  So instead of replicating the arid conditions necessary for the kind of alpine plants the wanted to grow to actually grow there, they shipped in a load of ordinary earth and piled rocks on top of it in a very orderly fashion.  At a later stage, someone realised that this was not at all 'near to nature', which was what they were aiming for and so set about toppling over some of the well placed rocks and bricks and just let them fall where they would.  However, placing a rock garden beside the large pond, i.e. the dampest bit of the whole garden, was possibly also not the brightest idea.  So they've never really had the alpine area they wanted but it's lovely nonetheless and they do accept it's impossible to recreate every type of habitat in a relatively small space.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


During lunch today I walked the ten minutes from work down to the river (the Rhein/Rhine, that is) just to get out of the office and get some fresh air.  I had been thinking about taking my lunch with me but there was an icy cold wind blowing so I decided to just walk for a while and then go back to eat in the office.  I wanted to go and see what the river looked like as I know it has been very high and expected to break its banks, if not already broken them in a few other places.  But in Düsseldorf, one side of the river ends in small beaches and just spreads out over the fields as it rises.  On the other side, there is a promenade (lower and upper) and even from the lower promenade there is a fairly big drop down to the normal level of the water.  So flooding didn't seem very likely.

Photo from state tourist website

Can you see the touring ferries there, with the gangways tilting down towards them?  The will give you an idea of how high the walls are.  The lower promemade is where all those people are walking along. There's an upper promenade as well, with trees and so on, although it's not very clear in this photo - basically it's about the height or a little bit above the height of the cafe umbrellas.  And today the entire lower promenade was under water!  I could hardly believe it.  The left bank was, as expected, fairly well under water and the water stretched pretty far back (there's no building on the flood plain), with the tops of trees visible above the water.  But on my side of the river those gangways are now pointing up (attached to floating temporary docks) at a steep angle.  Incredible stuff.  Just breathtaking to see it like that and a reminder of how powerful nature is.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thoughts of art

This morning I went along to the biogarten's annual winter outing.  Following our gallery tour we all went for lunch in one of the traditional Brauerei (a brewery, or rather the pub attached to the brewery, which also serves traditional German food) in the old town.  At the end of the meal there was a sad announcement that one of the former gardeners had died - he was 78 but although he had stopped working in the garden a few years ago, he still called by most weekends for an hour or two to check things out, give advice and generally just be there.  So I knew him but didn't really know him, and certainly not the way that some of the others knew him.  There are some people there who have been involved since the beginning, nearly 30 years ago and that is a long time to have someone in your life for.  He was a lovely man and will be missed.

The gallery tour that we went on was a guided tour of some of the work of Joseph Beuys, Dusseldorf's best-loved artist.  It's the kind of modern work that leaves me feeling very much the philistine - if there wasn't someone there explaining the intent behind it to me, I would be thinking "well, it's just a pile of stuff in a cabinet".  In fact, a couple of people asked if part of the reason some of the stuff became 'art' was because he didn't want to have to pay for it to be disposed of.  That was in reference to the remains of what was a huge installation in a museum in Kassel (consisting of a huge pump in the cellar, which pumped large amounts of honey mixed with water through lengths of hose and where people could come and watch it and talk and discuss with Beuys.  A Danish museum wanted to purchase the setup when it was finished but he refused, saying that his participation and interaction with the public was a major part of the work and without that, it would not be the work of art he had created.  So he created a piece which basically consists of various parts of that work, laid out on the floor and yes, it really does look like a pile of various mechanical bits, metal pipes, plastic hose and metal drums that he couldn't be bothered to just dispose of properly. 
He also drew prolifically but we didn't spend much time looking at any of the drawings. 

What I did find very interesting was our guide's description of how his interest extended beyond conventional art and into social reform and how he believed that everyone is an artist.  Not in the sense that anyone who wants to can just decide to be a painter or scupltor and be able to do it.  But rather in the sense that the perfectly shaped loaf of bread that a baker has made is art, for example.  And that altogether all of the people who can create something, contribute to forming our society.  That's kind of the gist of it anyway, to be honest, my head has been swimming with the thoughts of this all day and I feel a bit like what I imagine it feels like to be on the verge of an epiphany.  It feels like there a very profound something just hovering on the edge of my consciousness. 

I also learned a new word today.  'Plastik' in German not only means plastic, it also means sculpture ('das Plastik', the neuter word is plastic and 'die Plastik', the feminine word is sculpture).  It may be that we have other words in English that I, in my arty ignorance, am unaware of but the dictionary just offers me sculpture.  Our guide explained the difference between 'die Skulptur' and 'die Plastik' (and I'm paraphrasing here): 'Skulptur' is when you take a piece of wood, or a piece of stone or whatever and carve, whittle and essentially remove parts of it in order to make the form you desire - essentially an art of subtraction.  'Plastik' is when you use various different materials to create the form you desire by building it up layer upon layer, so to speak - essentially an art of addition.  I'm sure this distinction is something any first-year art student is aware of but I hadn't really ever thought about it before and it's just another thing that is swimming around in my head and making me feel like there is something very profound to be understood there.

And after all those deep thoughts, which I can't quite properly express, I'm going to end on a far more prosaic note.  On the way home this afternoon I stopped into one of the bigger department stores and they actually had some small wide-mouth flasks.  I nearly didn't buy one when I saw the price of €36.95 but then I realised that since eating lunch out costs at least 6 and usually closer to 10 euro, if I use this flask to bring lunch to work and don't eat out for just one week, I have already made up the cost of it.  And in this weather it has been very difficult to persuade myself that a sandwich is what I want for lunch - I want something hot.  And now I can have it.  So I am happy with that purchase especially since it is a stainless steel one and so won't break after only four or five uses the way the last Thermos (glass) one did.  And then on the way home there was a crowd gathered around a shop that has been closed since before I moved here.  When I did move here it had a fantastic selection of kitchen implements in the window, including some giant sized potato mashers.  But I never seemed to pass when it was open and it took me a while to realise that this hardware shop just wasn't open anymore at all.  Then last year all the stuff was removed from the window display.  Nothing else happened although I had somehow expected a new and completely different type of shop to open up.  It looks like they're moving closer towards that though since today, they were selling off everything that was left in the shop and dumping the rest of it in a skip.  Oh how I wished I had more of a DIY clue because that skip was full of perfectly good, very useful looking things (electrical sockets and other bits and pieces).  There was quite a crowd and since we weren't actually allowed into the shop it was difficult to see what was what and I probably could have stood there all day and gotten plenty of bargains but I decided to move on.  Not before spending a whole 50c on a bag with ten packets of rubber gloves (which kind of feels like a lifetime supply to me) and five scouring pads and handing over 5 euro for a lovely kersene/paraffin lamp though.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

No goals is the goal

Reading through all the lists of people's goals over the last few days online (2010 achievements and failures as well as plans for 2011) I've been going through a variety of emotions.  Writing the list of books I've read has reinforced to some extent what I already knew - I spent most of 2010 dragging myself from one drama to the next, with serious bouts of depression in between and only some very short moments of high points.  The books on the list are mostly just the ones I could remember and I think there are probably about ten or fifteen more which should be on that list.  That's an awful lot of time spent escaping from the world and not doing any of the hundred other things I want to do or need to do.

And I was sick a lot.  I had to cancel singing twice because of bad colds and sang a week of rehearsals and one big concert in August while also really very sick with a cold.  I've been getting more and more stressed and depressed since then and really feel like my batteries are empty.  I know lots of things I could be/should be doing to remedy that but even the thoughts of doing something are too much and leave me feeling overwhelmed at the moment.  Even trying to tell a friend about this the other night and listening to her telling me that I need to just set small easily achievable goals at first was nearly too much to bear. 

So I might end up getting back to normal, cooking good meals and eating regularly, getting some exercise in the fresh air, sleeping regularly and getting on with that overreaching goal of living the simple life I want.  But I cannot set myself any goals to get towards that because I just cannot handle it at the moment.  I have my main goal of trying to completely eliminate my debt in 2011 and that it is.  Otherwise, my only goal is to have no goals.  Maybe next year.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Dinner for One

Here's a small slice of German life.  This short film is shown every year on German telly at 7 p.m. on New Year's Eve (with multiple repeats and variations shown over the course of the evening on just about every channel).  The link doesn't include the beginning of the original film, which is actually a German man explaining that Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday and having a dinner party with her dearest friends.  Unfortunately as these dear friends have all long since passed away, it's just a make-believe party.  Faithful butler James takes care of everything and the narrator finishes by explaining what the important lines are in German - so if a German every says to you 'the same procedure as last year?' or 'the same procedure as every year', you'll know now why they expect you to laugh (even though this film is almost completely unknown in the UK as far as I know. :)

Part 2