Sunday, November 28, 2010

Not Meant for Me

Once upon a time, many years ago
(Oh, no. It's going to be one of those posts.
Yes, it is. Sorry about that)
I lived in a student residence with four Spanish girls: Rocio, Mai, Conchi and Monica. Monica had a beautiful designer cardigan, a crocheted cardigan made of colourful granny squares in thin cotton.
"I can make that!" I said and borrowed her cardigan to have a look at it. I bought myself some thin yarn in black, a deep pink and a luscious purple, and started to crochet a stack of squares. It became a bit of a community effort: the other girls in the halls of residence kept tabs on my progress, and there was great excitement when I sewed the squares together and single-crocheted along the edges.

Finally, after a month of crocheting, it was finished.
"Try it on!" someone said. And I went out into the hall next to the common room and tried it on in front of the full-length mirror there.
"Ooooh!" said the little crowd of onlookers. I preened a little; it was very nice.
"Can I try it on?" Conchi begged.
"Sure," I said and handed it over. She slipped it on and turned to look at herself in the mirror.
"Aaaaah!" the onlookers said - realising, as I did, that the cardigan was ...
Not Meant For Me.
It was not meant for me. That's all that needs to be said on the subject: it looked infinitely better on small, dark-haired Conchi instead of big, red-haired me. In fact, it looked as though I had actually made the cardigan for her. On purpose. Rather than by accident.
"Keep it," I said, a tad sulkily.
Essentially, I had no choice. How could I wear it, knowing it was actually ... destined to be hers?

That's one of the things I have learned about making things: sometimes they are Not Meant For You. This is an example of this phenomenon:
I crocheted beautiful (I thought) African flowers from sock yarn.

I crocheted about a hundred of them, wanting to make myself - that's right, me - a set of cushions for my couch. I bought the cushions. I sewed the little flowers together. I devised ways to make half-flowers and quarter flowers to create corners and edges. I edged the top, I sewed on buttons, I put the cover on the cushions and I realised that they were
Not Meant For Me.
Oh, they were very nice - but not right. Just not right. I don't know what the problem was, but I just wasn't happy. So I wrapped them up and attached a label (which my little sister made for me - gingerbread ladies ahoy!)


and added them to the cushions I donated to the Christmas bazaar.
What else could I do? If the Crafting Fates decide that what you make is Not Meant for You, you have no choice but to give in.

Bizarre Bazaar Parting Pangs

How the Gingerbread Lady beat her inner scrooge

One of my colleagues has held a bazaar on the main square of our little city every December for the last twelve years. They're a bunch of chirpy but determined little ladies: they set up a stall in the centre of town every Advent Saturday and spend the day in the freezing cold, stomping their feet to keep warm, selling homemade jams and hand-knitted scarves. They have an arrangement with the local children's clinic: the clinic donates the time and resources to operate on children from war-torn countries if these ladies can raise the money to pay for the flights and accommodation for the kids and their parents. So every summer they start making jams, chutneys, hats, scarves, lavender sachets, dolls, teddy bears and Christmas decorations. When the first Saturday in Advent comes around, a little army of volunteers gathers on the main square to sell their wares.

I donate a couple of boxes of crocheted items every year. Every year my colleague and I have a fight about my donations: she feels she has to pay me for the cost of the yarn. Every year I explain that the point of donating is that I give her the stuff for free: I choose not to make a donation to a big charity, I prefer to support a small one in my local town. Besides, whatever I donate to her is sold at twice or three times the price of the yarn, so my donation increases in value. In any case, the act of donating is good for my soul. Last Thursday I emptied my box of crocheted hats and scarves and sorted them out. I had pangs parting from a few of the things, pieces that I was especially proud of. But what's the point of keeping them, neatly wrapped and pristine in their plastic bags? Away they go. My little stack of  blankets, scarves and hats grew, till I'd filled a laundry basket (yes, that's only about a third of the stuff I produce in a year. I'm a one-woman factory, I'm telling you.)

Then I came across the cushions I had made in the summer: neatly wrapped in cellophane, stacked at the bottom of the wardrobe.

"They're too pretty to give away to charity," I thought. "I might give them to someone as a present."
So I quickly closed the wardrobe door and carried my box of donatables downstairs. I sat admiring my box o'goodies, feeling smug and virtuous ... and then I decided I needed to get over my smugness and virtuousness and part with something that really needed to be parted with, so I went back upstairs and fetched the cushions from the wardrobe. Before I could change my mind, I stacked them under a pile of baby blankets so I couldn't see them any more.

I handed my crocheted goods over the next day: Mr Gingerbread had to help me carry the boxes in the end. The army of chirpy ladies ooh-ed and aah-ed over my bits and pieces, and the cushions were passed around.
"They'll look so pretty and colourful on the stall!" said my colleague. "You'll have to come by and see them!"
And I did. The next morning, on the way to the bakery, I dropped by to look at my cushions. One had already been sold, something which - strangely - made my heart twang. (We didn't even get to say goodbye, cushion!) When I passed the stall again after lunch, the others had been sold to different people. My colleague was beaming.
"We were able to sell them for a great price!" she said, "And everyone who bought them really admired the amount of work that went into them!"
Which made me feel a lot better, of course. Though I'm still sad we didn't get to say goodbye.
Get over yourself, Ginger, I thought. You'll just have to make some more!
Oooh, I might even have to buy more yarn!

Bye, bye, cushions. You were a lot of fun to make. I hope your new owners love you as much as I did.

Advent in Bavaria


In my part of the English-speaking world, Advent kind of slips by without much of a fuss. No, that's not true: but it's a different kind of fuss, a fuss that - more often than not - is centred around shops and shopping and buying stuff. A Bavarian Christmas is different: slightly more traditional and slightly less commercial. The Thursday before the first Advent Sunday (last Thursday it happens), the Christmas markets open for the first time in the late afternoon. Within an hour, people have gathered around the braziers, drinking mead and mulled wine in the crispy darkness of a winter evening:

And everything smells so good - stalls with toffee apples and roast nuts, boiled sweets, mulled wine and loads of gingerbread:

Last year Mr Gingerbread and I didn't decorate our house and we celebrated Christmas at our respective families, but not together. It was a hard year and by the time Christmas rolled around, we were exhausted. This year, 2010, has been a tough one but we've just handled it better. So this Christmas, we (well, I - Mr Gingerbread just agrees to keep the peace) are going to celebrate with a vengeance.

First, I bought a traditional Advent wreath. I didn't make it myself, but bought it at our Christmas bazaar:

And we decorated a tree. It's not actually a fir tree but an oleander bush that my mother-in-law gave us (she called it a 'plant' but it's clearly a tree) but the addition of shiny baubles and crocheted snowflakes give it a festive air:

The snowflakes aren't mine, they were a present last Christmas and I've been looking forward to hanging them up all year. My husband is a bit bemused by the (un)timely decorating but plays along in good spirit. So I don't know about you, but I'm ready for the season!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In which the Gingerbread Lady makes Christmas cards ...

This mightn't mean much to you -

but it means a lot to us. This is our mediaeval Advent Market - or what will be the mediaeval Advent Market. At the moment it's just a crowd of chain-smoking chappies in blue overalls, hammering the little wooden houses together, but in a matter of days, it'll be a little village full of hairy locals in hemp robes, selling hot chestnuts and wooden swords.

The pre-Christmas period is always jolly nice, but nowhere nicer than in Bavaria. This part of Germany is known for its Christmas gingerbread - yes, really, that's why I chose this name (I've ginger hair, too. A happy coincidence) and its Christmas markets. Nuremberg's Christkindlsmarkt (Christchild's Market) is world famous and almost eye-poppingly picturesque. You could happily guzzle your way from one end of the market to the other: slurping candy-floss, sucking candied ginger, munching toffee apples and swilling mulled wine. And rest assured, dear readers, we do this once a year as a matter of tradition.

Anyway, before I get carried away with a rhapsody of Christmas treats, let me tell you about this week's trauma:
I turned (whisper it) thirty-six. Thirty-SIX. I've spent the last five years recovering from the shock of turning thirty, so it came as quite a surprise when I realised that I was rapidly sliding towards the big four-oh (whisper it) - yes, forty. My pain was eased slightly by the arrival of pretty cards (look at the cards my little sisters made me. Aren't they purdy?)


and the appearance of presents. Obviously, I'd like to think that I'm the kind of person who eschews presents in favour of good deeds (e.g. a donkey donated in my name to a Third World village), but I cannot tell a lie: donkey, yes, and a skein of yarn for me.

No, actually, my attitude towards presents has changed. I've become a rabid re-gifter: despite being surrounded by stuff, I hate it. I don't like all these things. I have very little sentimentality, I don't attach great meaning to very much.  Use it or lose it has become my motto. I don't keep fancy glasses for A Special Occasion, I don't save handmade soap for Sometime in the Future, I don't put expensive wine aside to gather dust. Essentially, my possessions are either Mine (I use them and love them) or On Their Way To Someone Else - and that's good, too. In my peculiar view of the universe, everything has a home and everything has an owner, and the things that are currently resting in my possession might really be destined for someone else who will love them more.

In this spirit, I've tried to re-examine what I gift. For example, I spent yesterday afternoon making my Christmas cards.

I started making my own Christmas cards years ago. I thought it was going to be a one-time thing but it's become a kind of Christmas tradition as well ... along with a growing Christmas card list. A couple of years ago, I ran out of steam after a long afternoon chopping and sticking tiny pieces of paper and affixing intricate little shiny stars, so I gave up and and bought a few Christmas cards for colleagues. They hated them. Well, no, they didn't, but they each made a point of remarking that they really missed my handmade cards - and I realised then that actually the handmadedness was really the gift, not the card. They actually appreciated the effort, the uniqueness and the slight wonkiness of my handmade offerings. So back to the drawing board (desk) I went, armed with my glitter glue and wooden reindeer. They each got two cards that year and a crisis was avoided.

This year, I've even made little parcels with a half-dozen handmade Christmas cards for my favourite friends and colleagues - an Advent present, not a Christmas present. Fingers crossed that they'll like them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

And they call it Zuppy love...

Christmas has become a complicated event. We have to tread carefully, so as not to insult any family members - and inevitably we fail. Neither my mother nor my mother-in-law is willing or able to understand why we cannot (will not) spend Christmas at their respective homes. In the interests of fairness, we divide our Christmasses up between countries. This year, we're going home to Ireland for Christmas. One of the reasons for this is the encroaching seniority of Zuppy, my parents' dog.
"He's twelve, you know," says the husband. "He mightn't be around for much longer."
And a tear glistens in his eye.
Okay, maybe not, but I cannot emphasise enough the special bond that Mr Gingerbread and Zuppy share. It's astonishing that Zuppy even recognises me - after all, he only sees me two or three times a year for a week or two at a go, but he knows who I am and knows that I'm a soft touch for treats. And although he's pleased to see me, this is nothing compared to the near-orgasmic joy when he's reunited with my husband, whom he sees even less frequently. And the joy is mutual. As the car pulls down my parents' driveway, Mr G's nose is pressed up against the windowpane, waiting for the sight of the dog.
"Zuppy!" he hollers.
Zuppy freezes, then - bang!
Off he goes, bounding down my parents' yard with ears flapping, tongue lolling out and teeth bared in a joyful grin. And that's just my husband. The dog looks just as happy.

It's been like this from the start. Back then, when dog and man were younger, fitter and more energetic, they liked to play together in the yard. It was quite an extraordinary sight: Very Big German Man and Very Small Jack Russell. Their favourite game was 'That's My Stick!': my husband threw the stick, the dog caught the stick, then they spent twenty minutes playing tug-o'-war with aforementioned stick.
"That's my stick!" my husband would yell, waving the stick (and the dog attached to it) in the air.
"That's going to end badly," said Gingerbread Daddy one day, looking out the kitchen window. Husband and dog were nose to nose, husband on all fours on the grass.
Gingerbread Daddy looked over at me. "That's going to end badly," he repeated in A Significant Tone.
"Don't worry about husband," I said, "He won't let the dog hurt him."
Daddy rolled his eyes. "Yerra, I'm not worried about that eejit," he said, "It's the dog. He might lose a tooth hanging out of that stick."
"I'll talk to him," I said. To the dog or the man? Probably both, I thought. I looked at the window: at that point, dog and man had become a tangle of limbs and I just didn't have the heart to break them up.

Which is a pity, because seconds later my husband ran into the house, his hand aloft. He was bleeding heavily from a gash in his hand.
"It wasn't his fault!" he said, "I swear, it wasn't his fault. I put my hand in his mouth. He was expecting the stick - he was just over-excited."
I cleaned the wound (it wasn't deep) and affixed an appropriate plaster. Obviously, I gave him a telling off for playing rough: husband hung his head in shame. That done, I went outside to give the dog a telling off - but Zuppy had gone underground, hiding in the woodpile with only the stick for company.

They were not allowed to play together for a while till they'd both clamed down and learned to play nicely. Then they skipped off down the yard, waving the contentious stick, and within minutes they were rolling around the grass again.
Oh, the joy. Mr Gingerbread just can't wait.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I Scrub Up Well

My little sisters and I decided to start compiling ideas for crafty Christmas (or general) gifts.We set up a blog called The Christmas Craft Collective, which is still rather empty (get your skates on, girls.) Anyway, I've always been a bit sceptical about the value of handmade washcloths. I mean - really? Why not buy a flannel facecloth like everyone else?

I'll tell you why: because a handmade one is fabulous. Sturdy and soft, thick and squidgy. And I designed mine with puff stitches/clusters to maximise the scrubbing. So excited was I that I promptly made another set (these work up fast.) Now all I have to do is write up the (very simple) pattern!


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

All Creatures Great and Small

Growing up in Ireland, choir lessons with one of the good Sisters of the local convent were an inevitability. Sr Rosarii had the dubious pleasure of teaching me and sixty other uniformed wee ones to chirp out a selection of hymns in English and in Gaelic for all manner of liturgical events.
"All things bright and beautiful!" we'd yodel enthusiastically.
"All creatures great and small!
All things bright and beautiful,

The Lord God made them all!"
Which I always felt was kind of unfair, because anteaters, blobfish and komodo dragons are neither bright nor beautiful (and, certainly in the case of the blobfish, you wouldn't want to be stuck next to them at a dinner party as far as scintillating conversation is concerned) but they never got a mention in any of the hymns we sang. But that's another post.

Anyway, the mental picture of Wee Gingerbread swaying in time to Sr Rosarii's baton unexpectedly popped into my head at 3:48 a.m. this morning.
Oh my goodness, you say. How did you know that it was 3:48 a.m precisely?
I'll tell you how, readers. Because I pulled a muscle in my back* and simply couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned (in a very careful fashion of course), listening to Mr G's nocturnal symphony. Drifting off to sleep, only to wake suddenly when I turned the wrong way. Fretful, horrible, half-sleep. I was exhausted. Too exhausted to sleep. Too exhausted to get up. I looked at my watch. Quarter past three.
Right, I thought, one concerted effort to relax. Switch off. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
I closed my eyes and ... finally ... dosed off ...

Weeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh Weeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh
Wide awake, every muscle in my body tense.
Not really. Not seriously. Oh, puh-lease: I was being attacked by a flipping mosquito in the night of the first of November. I banged on the light - 3:48 a.m.

So yes, a vision of Little Me in her bottle-green school uniform briefly entered my head as I whacked the mosquito to Kingdom Come to meet his maker, the same one who made all the other things bright and beautiful, all those creatures great and small. Sorry, Almighty Being, but you can keep your mosquitos. If you really must, send me an anteater at 4 a.m. instead.

Edited to add:
Sensing a lack in the canon of hymns, I've penned another verse for the one above. Feel free to add it, if you wish:
All things strange and interesting,
Including blobfish and anteaters,
Komodos and pesky mosquitos,
Are also the Lord God's creatures.
You might have to play about with the melody, but I'm sure no one will notice.

* Yes, Mammy Gingerbread, arnica has been applied.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Domestic Bliss

Let me preface this by saying that I love my husband. I really, really do. He's big, friendly chap who laughs a lot and is generally both a gentleman and a scholar. That notwithstanding, he occasionally careens close to death without even knowing it.

Take last Friday, for example: I was heading to Munich straight after work. I didn't have much time between getting home and leaving the house again, so I was twirling like a dervish, gathering up papers and folders and memory sticks and pyjamas and toothbrush. Seeing my distress, Mr Gingerbread decided to "help" by making me a cup of tea - but his idea of helping is to direct my attention to his solicitiousness by engaging me in a no-win game of Twenty Questions:

"Would you like a cup of tea, my little gingerbread sweetheart?" he says, as I rush by, trailing a pair of tights and an armful of books.
"No thanks, honeybunch," I reply.
"Are you sure? I can make you one if you like."
"No, no thanks, really."
"Are you sure? Really? Because it's no trouble."
"No, honestly, I don't have time for a cup of tea."
"I could make you one and just put it down beside you."
"No, seriously, no, I don't have time. I have to leave in five minutes."
"In five minutes? When does your train leave?"
(note that I've told him about four times in the past 24 hours when my train leaves. Seriously.)
"At 12:15. It's ten to twelve now. I don't have time, thanks."
"No time for tea, then?"
"No - look, I'm too stressed for tea."
"Right. That's a 'no' to tea?"
"What? So you do want tea?"
"No!" I snap.
Miffed, he withdraws. Then sticks his head back through the door:
"How about a coffee? A quick cup of coffee?"
"Okay. No tea. No coffee ... Juice?"
White-knuckled, I turn to him and hiss, "I! Don't! Have! Time! For! Beverages!"
And he turns his huge, bright blue eyes on me and looks hurt. I instantly feel like a piece of poo. So I apologise profusely for being an Evil Gingerbread Lady. He gives me a hug, then holds me at arm's length, looks me deep in the eyes and says, completely earnestly:
"So you really don't want a cup of tea, then?"


But here's something I learned the hard way:
Mr Gingerbread snores like a tractor. It's a deep, vibrating snore that makes the entire bed shake. I've developed a way of turning his not-inconsiderable bulk over in bed so that I don't even wake him: first a poke in the ribs, then a swift roll over on to his side. I often used to lie in bed in the middle of the night, listening to his nasal trumpeting, wondering whether marriage vows prohibit pushing a snoring spouse out of bed at 4:13 a.m. Then last Christmas he ended up in hospital with a pulmonary embolism and a nasty bout of pneumonia. I lay in a silent bed in a silent bedroom - and guess what? I really missed his array of nocturnal grunts and snores, the cacophonous build-up to the final snort before starting again with a contented little wheeze. And as I lay there in the deep darkness, I realised that I loved his snoring. All things considered, I really did. So if he decides that the most appropriate way to demonstrate his love for me in situations of high stress is to follow me around with a teapot, I really should appreciate it, because a day might come when I'll regret all the cups that went undrunk.

PS: When I returned from Munich on Sunday night, he met me at the door with open arms.
And a cup of tea.