Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sock Yarn Hats

Thank you very much for all of your kind enquiries about poorly me and poorly Mr Gingerbread. We're enjoying our state of poorliness as much as we can, drinking lots of tea and taking naps. We're getting better - aside from my taped-together toes and attention-mongering limp - and I fear we might even be getting fond of this wonderful not-quite-well-but-not-exactly-sick state and all its fringe benefits ("Sorry, we can't leave the house to spend the afternoon looking at your holiday photos: we're poorly.")

Because neither of us has to work and not much else is happening between Christmas and New Year, I can watch films and documentaries to my heart's content - and crochet till my fingers fall off. Oh, I am so in love with sock yarn. I have nothing to do but crochet, so I'm churning out a hat per day. Oh, joys (modelled, as always, by My Lovely Assistant Gladys):



Gladys looks kind of jaunty in the bottom right-hand photo, she's sporting this hat with a kind of lopsided insouciance. You wear it, girl! (or cool words to that effect.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

I woke up to a face-slapping.
I was lying on my back, with my husband kneeling over me, gently slapping my cheeks.
"I'm calling an ambulance," he said.
I looked up at the ceiling and saw the horrid faux-wood ceiling tiles of our hall. Why wasn't I in bed? Why was I lying in the hall? And why was my husband slapping my face like an 80s' soap opera diva?

All of these are good questions and can be answered with two words: stomach flu. Despite my rabid disinfecting, I picked up my husband's bug - except mine manifested itself in a series of fainting fits. On the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I fainted. I woke up briefly and found myself amidst a pile of screws, nails and rawl-plugs that I must have pulled off the shelf where we keep our DIY stuff as I fell.
"Crikey," I thought when I came to, "This must be one of those really weird interpretive dreams, where you find yourself surrounded by all kinds of strange objects that have a Freudian meaning. What's up with the nails? What do the screws mean? How do I interpret rawl plugs, for crying out loud?"
After a couple of seconds, when nothing else happened - no flying frogs in rubber boots, no guest appearances by deceased family members - I realised that it was unpleasantly real, so I called out for the Gingerbread Husband ... and the next thing I remember was being woken by a panicked husband who was threatening to call an ambulance.

"Can you feel your legs?" he kept asking, and I wriggled my toes to show I could. In fact, I was strangely proud of the fact that I was wriggling them like a pianist doing the scales - doh, ray, mi, fa, so, la, ti, doh! - but he wouldn't acknowledge my toe-wriggling prowess, he just saying, "We have to get you to the emergency room!" I convinced him not to drag me out in the snow in the middle of the night to the ER, instead I was allowed go back to bed. The next day I spent 5 hours in the ER waiting to have my toes x-rayed - in falling, I not only emptied the DIY shelf, I also scratched my neck (?) and stubbed two toes so badly that they looked broken (they're not, but the pain I am to experience is equal to a fracture, said the ER doctor with some grim satisfaction.)

Anyway, all's well that ends well - however, five hours in the emergency room with stomach flu and suspected broken toes will not count as the highlights of 2010. But we got home and made tea and had a supper of toast and honey - and all was right with the world. Then the Gingerbread Husband (who'd had a tremendous shock: he found me at the bottom of the stairs and thought by the way I was lying that I'd fallen down the stairs and broken my neck), lay down on the floor to recreate the astonishing angles at which he found my limbs akimbo
... and I promptly fainted again.
I probably need a day or two in bed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

TUTORIAL: Hot Water Bottle Cover

So you're looking at this and thinking, "Haw haw! A hot water bottle? How old is the Gingerbread Lady? Ninety?"
You laugh now, readers, but buy yourself a hot water bottle (if you don't already have one - or, like me, two) and I will have the last laugh. Oh, yessirree. You will rediscover love, a love like none you have ever known before. And because you're a crafter, you ought to wrap your new-found beloved in a warm, woolly cover. And that's what we're going to do today.

First of all, what yarn shall we use?
Well, you all know that I'm a big fan of sock yarn (despite having never knit a sock in my life) and this would be ideal for such a project - it's normally superwash wool. Perfect. Unfortunately, it'd take you forever and a day to do it in sock yarn and in the meantime, your little tootsies will be blue with the cold. So I've used acrylics (the one featured in this tutorial is Caron Simply Soft) and a wool/acrylic mix. Some people are afraid that acrylic might melt - well, this hasn't been the case with me so far and I like a HOT hot water bottle.

First, take your hot water bottle (to be hence referred to as the HWB) and chain till your starting chain is the length of the body of the HWB:


Now do a HDC (American = half double crochet) [HTR (British = half treble crochet)] in each chain.
Let's take a moment to extol the virtues of the HDC.

If you're a beginner, you mightn't know this stitch, it's kind of halfway between a single [Br = double] crochet and a double [Br = treble] crochet stitch. It's really fantastic for one great reason: it allows you to make a ribbed effect, like a knitted rib effect. In fact, I've done scarves in this stitch with a chunky wool and have given them to knitters - who didn't realise it was crochet! (And, being knitters, they didn't realise that I had crocheted it in about a third of the time it would take them to knit it, evil chuckle.)

This is a HDC [HTR]:
Begin as you would for a DC [TR]: yarn over, hook through stitch in the row below, yarn over, draw through.

You now have three loops on the chain.

Normally, you'd yarn over and draw through two loops, then yarn over and draw through the final two loops - but with a HDC [HTR], you yarn over and draw through all three loops at once:

 When you have done a few stitches in your first row, look closely at your stitches:

There are three loops visible, aren't there? Well, when you come to the end of your row and turn your work, you can create a ribbed effect by crocheting through the two back loops of your work. In other words, I would crochet the next row through loops 2 and 3 and ignore the loop # 1 at the front (for a very pronounced rib, you crochet only through the very back loop, loop #3, leaving loops # 1 and 2 to jut out at the front.)

Anyway, you do a HDC [HTR] in every stitch in your foundation chain, when you get to the end of the row, turn, do 1 chain a HDC [HTR] in the back two loops of the last HDC [HTR] in the previous row. You just crochet back and forth, till you have a long rectangle that covers the HWB when you fold it in two. Then grab a sewing needle and sew it in:

I remove the HWB and turn my work inside out so you can't see the sewn edges. The other nice thing about the HDC [HTR] is that it doesn't produce a 'front' and 'back' side to your work.

Now your HWB should be snugly enclosed in its ribbed cover, with an opening around the neck of the bottle. When the bottle is empty, you can fold it in the cover and wriggle it out through the neck. This will allow you to wash the cover.  Just to finish it off, I crocheted a couple of rounds of DCs [TRs] around the neck of the bottle:

And there you go!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Married to Lazarus

I've known my husband for eight years. For seven of those eight years, he has managed - with a spectacular sense of bad timing - to contract an illness by Christmas Eve. He's had a head cold, the 'flu and a lung embolism. He's spent Christmases in bed at my mother's house, his mother's house, our house and in hospital. This year, I was woken on Christmas morning by the sound of my husband worshipping the porcelain goddess - somewhere on our Odyssey to and from Frankfurt airport, he picked up a technicolour dose of stomach flu and spent the day running back and forth to the bathroom. I spent the day running after him with a bucket of disinfectant.

The thing about my husband is that he doesn't simply become ill - he collapses. He collapses into a sleeping coma and is useless for days. Nothing - no amount of conscientious nursing or annoyed poking - will remove him from his stinky bed. And it's impossible to discern the degree of seriousness of his illness: he deploys the same level of drama (whimpering, tossing, moaning, heavy breathing) for everything from the common sniffle to pneumonia. I simply can't tell how ill he is until he keels over - then I know that he's actually sick, as opposed to just looking for a bit of sympathy.

After two or three days of uninterrupted sleeping - in this case, this morning - I'll hear a stirring from the bedroom and the creaking of the floorboards. The bedroom door opens and my woolly-headed husband appears on the threshold, his jammies wrinkly and his hair standing on end. There's a triumphant grin about his chops, a kind of "Haha! I beat the plague!" He then plonks himself in front of his computer and checks that cyberspace has survived without him. In the meantime, I put on the Christmas dinner - the one that we should've had yesterday, instead of my plate of spaghetti.

Christmas Morning

In a separate post, I'll tell you all about Christmas Day in the Gingerbread House. But let me show you a few pictures of a silent, snowy Christmas morning. I got up to clear the snow with the rest of the neighbours ("Merry Christmas!" "Happy Christmas to you, too!") and then took a little walk through a silent city. You'll notice that there are no people in the pictures: there was only me.

Friday, December 24, 2010

What was your best present ever?

My father's photo of the driveway to my parents' Gingerbread House

When we were small, Christmas was the highlight of the entire year. We always had an Advent calendar and our names were pulled from a hat to decide who got to open a little door on which day. Letters were written to Santa Claus – no, sorry, that doesn’t convey the care and thought associated with a letter to Santa Claus. Letters were composed to Santa Claus, after long and careful perusal of toy catalogues and diligent study of TV advertisements. My brother Michael, indecisive and fickle, wrote and re-wrote his letters and even after they’d been sent to Santy, there was no guarantee that his decision was final.

Unlike here in Germany where Christmas Eve is the highlight of the festival, Christmas Eve in our house is the day to go visiting and drop off your presents, the day you spend cleaning your house and preparing Christmas dinner for the following day. You had to be extra, extra good on Christmas Eve because Santy was already on his way down from the North Pole and he’d hate to have to skip your house because of a last-minute bout of naughtiness. Vegetables were chopped and peeled, the (obscenely large) turkey was stuffed, the Christmas cake and a glass of whiskey set out for Santa Claus and a plate of carrots prepared for Rudolf. Then the sparkly-clean kiddies were sent off to their freshly-made beds, jittery and giddy in their new Christmas Pyjamas. 

The next day at dawn we stormed our parents’ bedroom and forced them to get up and come downstairs with us. We weren’t allowed into the sitting room where the tree and presents were, till Gingerbread Mother had checked that Santa Claus had visited –
“He’s been!” she’d shout gleefully (a plate with crumbs and an empty glass in the kitchen were the evidence.) There were a few seconds of stomach-wrenching tension and then one or other of the parents would open the door and let us in, squeaking and squealing and screaming as we fell on our Christmas loot.

As we grew older, Santa Claus continued to come. He was never allowed not to come. As we grew up, the older kiddies were roped into the conspiracy to make it more real for the Little Ones. We painted hoof-prints in soot on the kitchen floor. We found presents for Santa Claus to give to the Little Ones and schlepped them home in secret so they could disappear till Christmas Eve: my sister Eithne transported a full-sized sword across rush-hour Dublin, I came home one Christmas with little more in my suitcase than a Lego train set for my youngest brother. And we didn’t always have a perfect Christmas – we had our fair share of dramas. The Christmas my parents got their first dishwasher was also the Christmas when stormy weather knocked out the electricity for days. You have no idea what a fabulous gift a dishwasher is until you’ve washed up after a dozen people on Christmas Day, dear readers. On Christmas Eve, electricity was restored and we were spared the agony of a two-hour yuletide pot-scrubbing session. Another year my father nearly burst an artery when he discovered a snail in his Brussels’ sprouts (no, we weren’t aiming at a French-themed Christmas). Yet another year several kiddies got food poisoning and spent Christmas Eve night throwing up all over the place.

So what’s my best present ever? Actually, I think it’s less than tangible: it’s fabulously intangible and durable, unlike the Lego sets and Barbie dolls and Play People houses that have long since disappeared. Despite the fact that my parents often didn’t have a lot of money, and more than once didn’t have anywhere near enough, they always give us a lovely, magical Christmas. Every Christmas – despite dramas and upsets – was wonderful. I don’t know how they managed it: as an adult I can only begin to understand the work and the stress and the sheer effort that went into making our Christmas special.

I remember standing in the back garden of my parents’ first house on Christmas Eve – I must have been six or seven, I think.
“Look, Daddy,” I said to my father, who was filling the coal bucket. “Is that the Christmas star? Is that the one the Three Wise Men followed?” 
And I pointed at what might have been the North Star or Venus or a passing satellite.
“It is,” he said, without hesitation.
And that’s my best present ever: my parents’ dedicated and loving effort to make Christmas magic, a conspiracy of absolute love. It was – is – appreciated immensely by all of your children, to an extent that you probably can't imagine. 
Thank you very much, Mammy and Daddy. xxx

An Unexpected Christmas


Hello everyone - and a very merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!
Our Christmas has been very adventurous and unexpected so far. We had a horrid week - just horrible. Heavy snow meant that we had to get up at dawn to clear snow, then I had to trudge-slash-slip-slash-slither to work in snow and ice, teach in wet clothes, turn around and trudge-slash-slip-slash-slither home in the early darkness of midwinter. Our washing machine broke down. My keyring - with all of my keys - was lost-slash-stolen, and I spent all of Wednesday walking from shop to shop in sleet and rain, trying to retrace my steps from the previous day, hoping that some kind soul had handed them in. On Thursday morning, yesterday, I got up early, worked, came home, threw my (actually, our) stuff into two suitcases and we flew out the door to the train, on our way to Ireland for Christmas, leaving behind a filthy house and a dishwasher stacked full of dirty dishes. Oh, the stress. The sickening stress.

None of this was made any easier by the fact that Ireland is under cover of snow. Dublin airport had been closed for days due to heavy snow but reopened yesterday. However, shortly after we arrived in Frankfurt, Ireland's airport authorities closed the airport again due to unexpectedly heavy snow. Our flight to Dublin was cancelled and thus we found ourselves stranded at Frankfurt airport at 11 p.m.

I'll spare you the gory details of being herded through Frankfurt's vast terminal with two or three hundred other frazzled strandees, the endless queuing, or the confusion, just let me tell you that the nice people at Lufthansa put us up for the night and offered to put on a special flight this morning, Christmas Eve, to Dublin. I mean, they offered it, but due to a forecasted blizzard, they couldn't actually guarantee that it was going to take off. The chances were 50-50 that we'd actually get to Dublin. And if we didn't, the chances of getting back to Gingerbreadtown were almost null - nothing much happens after lunchtime on Christmas Eve in Germany, so we had the choice of chancing it and hoping we wouldn't end up spending Christmas snowed into Frankfurt airport's Sheraton Hotel, or just giving up and going home. And at that point, exhausted, sweaty and defeated, we just wanted to go home. Home, home, home. So we got up early this morning and took a train home to the Gingerbread House.

Under normal circumstances, I would have been devastated. And, truth be told, I am disappointed not to be at home in the bosom of my family. But the reports online about travelling conditions in Ireland make scary reading - I'm glad that the Gingerbread Brother and his Lady Wife didn't have to make the hair-raising journey to Dublin to pick us up. I'm glad we didn't end up on a flight that was diverted, like the Lufthansa flight to Dublin before ours (it was diverted to Manchester. Can you imagine being nearly home - very nearly - but stuck far away enough to know you've no chance of making it for Christmas?) And I'm very glad that we had time to get to a supermarket to re-stock the fridge that we'd so diligently emptied (the horrors of this week were compounded by my husband's insistence that we eat all the leftovers in the fridge before we leave. It's hard to cope with stress on a diet of scrambled eggs and pickles.) So now we're in the Gingerbread House, sitting in the reflected light of candles and Christmas oleander, listening to Christmas music and watching the snow drift past the window. It's our first Christmas in our house. And, all things considered, we're very lucky.

In Ireland there's a tradition of lighting a candle and placing it in the window on Christmas Eve. As a nod to the Holy Family who found no room at the inn, it's supposed to show travellers that they'd be welcome to find shelter in your home on Christmas Eve. When you drive through the pitch-dark Irish countryside on Christmas Eve, you can pick out the light of the candles in people's front windows - a beautiful tradition, a lovely symbol.  This evening I lit four candles and put them in our window, thinking of all the people who travelled across rough seas, snowy skies and icy roads to get to their loved ones. And a small token gesture for all the people stranded at airports and ferry docks, spending a Christmas of sorts on a camp-bed or in a hotel room.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Snow Day


Hello there, readers,
Sorry for being so schreibfaul (writing-lazy) recently, but I have been so busy. It's nice to be needed, it's true, but I'm needed by too many people at the minute and I wish they would need me just a little less.

That's why I was happy to be woken on Friday by a colleague,who wanted to know if we were going to get a snow day. She'd heard on the radio that schools were closing for the day because the roads were blocked due to the heavy snow. A snow day? In all my years of teaching I'd never had a day off due to snow. She said she'd check and call me back.

I yanked open the curtain and pulled up the blinds. I could see my bike. Just about. The phone rang; it was official - we had a day off school. Whoopee!

"There's been a big fall of snow!" I shouted over to the slumbering Mr Gingerbread. "It's beautiful out! The sky's gorgeous and everything's bright and shiny! And I think I'm getting a day off school!"
No answer. So I pulled my jeans on over my pyjamas, put on a jumper, my winter coat, hat, scarf and gloves and skipped - yea, verily, skipped - downstairs to clear the snow.

In Germany you have to have snow cleared off the footpath in front of your house before 7 a.m. Despite the fact that I loathe - yea, verily, loathe  - getting up early, I love being up alone early in the morning in the clear white freshness of new snow.


Strangely, most of the people who pass me by are inordinately interested in my snow clearing efforts, especially senior citizens. They praise me ("Good work! Keep it up!") or give me sympathy ("Ooooh! Clearing the snow! Don't you just hate it!") and sometimes I even get little weather tips ("I hate to tell you this, young lady, but it's going to snow again later.") 

Most interested of all are small children, who watch my clumsy shovelling with great interest.
"Whatcha doing?" said one little fellow, maybe about three years old. He was wearing one of those all-in-one snowsuits, topped off by a massive woolly hat and a big scarf. He stood watching me, wiping his nose on his mittens, while his mother struggled with his baby sister at the end of the street.
"Shovelling snow," I said. "I have to clear the path."
He looked around and pointed a moist mitten at a patch of snow.
"You gonna clear over there?"
"Yes, I am," I said.
"And over there?"
"And over there?"
"Yes, over there, too."
"And over there?"
"No, that belongs to the neighbours."
"But over there?"
"Yes, over there."
"What about over there?"
(And I might add, we have no garden, just a footpath in front of our house. Who knew there was so much to point at?)

The child had virtually marked the borders of our property by the time his mother caught up. She whipped out a tissue and scrubbed his little face, then pulled him away, giving me that Grimly Apologetic Mother Smile (also known as the I-Know He's-a-Pest-But-You-Only-Had-To-Endure-the-Interrogation-for Five Minutes,-He-Does-This-To-Me-All -Day-Long smile.)

I admired my luvverly work and went off to pick up some croissants from the bakery.

Do I love snow days? Yea, verily, I do!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mr and Mrs Caveman

I know I mention my husband a lot on this blog. He's vaguely aware that he features prominently, but has no interest in reading what I write. In the nicest possible way - he laughs when he sees my blogpage and tells me to behave myself. He trusts me to provide an unbiased and fair portrait of our marriage. Which I think I do.

See, he's a very smart man in many respects. Today he lectured me all the way home from the bakery on the intricacies of distilling pure alcohol. My legs were pumping like pistons in an effort to get home sooner, but he held me back, explaining in detail - oh so great detail - how one would distill pure alcohol, if one wanted (one does not). Anything of a science-y nature excites him immensely; he is uncannily like my own father in that respect. And, similar to my father, this passion is combined with a didactic bent and a burning desire to fill the gaps in my patchy scientific knowledge. To fill the gaps in great detail, readers. Oh so great detail.

My husband also has a glib explanation for many of his idiosyncrasies. He blinds me with science and tries to convince me that his total lack of visual memory is the biological advantage of the male. According to him, Mother Nature bestowed the male species with the ability to espy things from afar, whereas women are able to see and remember detail in their direct environment. According to Mr Gingerbread, our ancestors in the caves would have had the following conversation on a regular basis:

Caveman: Oh, look. There's a woolly mammoth. Due north, with a prevailing wind coming in from the southeast.
Cavewoman: North? Which way is north? Is north over there, where that big tree is?
Caveman: Quiet, woman. Look, it's a whole herd of woolly mammoths.
Cavewoman: Where? I can't see anything. Do you mean those little specks in the distance?
Caveman: Of course I do! Look, I have no time for this. Where's my spear?
Cavewoman: Your spear? It's where you left it. On the large outcrop to the left of the sleeping mats, beside the pot your sister gave us for the last harvest festival.
Caveman: An out-what? Where? Which pot?
Cavewoman:  The outcrop. The ruddy big bit of rock sticking out of the wall.
Caveman: Sticking out of the wall? Is there something sticking out of the wall?
Cavewoman:  Near where we sleep. The huge big flat slab of rock - oh, forget it. I'll just go get it for you.
Caveman: And while you're at it, can you bring me my slingshot as well, please?

Millions of years later nothing has changed. Nothing. Nada. Nichts. Not a thing.
Yesterday my husband wanted a rug to put under his desk chair to stop the wheels from damaging the laminate floor.
Him: Do we have an old rug somewhere? I want to put it under my chair.
Me: Yes, we do. Go out into the hall and in front of the wooden shelves you'll see a box on the floor. On top of the things in the box there's the red rug we used to have under our coffee table in the old apartment.

Husband stares at me brazenly. We are both aware that I lost him after the first conjunction. He would prefer it if I followed him and gave him step-by-step instructions ("Open the door to the hall. Walk towards the loo. Turn left. Look at the bookshelves. Now cast your gaze downwards." Etc.) He doesn't like anything more complex than that. But I return his brazen gaze. The hall is only about 12 square metres big. There is only one set of wooden shelves. There is only one box on the floor. He sighs and leaves the room.

After five minutes of dramatic opening and closing of cupboards, despairing sighs and what sounds like a mini-avalanche, I go out into the hall and - this is not a lie - find him looking for the rug in his toolbox under the stairs. Wordlessly, I point at the bright red rug folded on top of the box on the floor in front of the wooden shelves.
"Well," he says, "I couldn't visualise it so I couldn't see it. I only notice these things when I know what I'm looking for."
"Spare me the story of the cavemen," I warn. "I've heard it all before."
"But it's true," he mutters. "It's biology."
Biology, my foot.

In the interest of fairness, I have to add that he later came in with a packet of butter.
"Why did you put this in the cupboard with the biscuits?" he asked.
Apparently I have the occasional bout of absentminded tidying, during which time I'm apt to distribute foodstuffs in creative places around the kitchen. Mr Gingerbread hasn't come up with a scientific explanation for it yet but I have no doubt that at some point I'm going to get a lecture about how it somehow pertains to our Stone Age ancestors. I can't wait.
In the meantime, I have to try to remember where I put the teabags.

The Hatmaker's Husband has a Chilly Head

"The shoemaker's children run barefoot," my friend May used to say. Whenever she or one of her siblings felt unwell, their father would tell them to drink a glass of water and take an aspirin. Sound advice, except that their father was a doctor and while he doled out premium healthcare to all his patients, he cured most of his family's ills with off-the-shelf painkillers and a great big glass of still water. My parents sell - among other things - office supplies and paper, yet ours is perhaps the only telephone in the country that has no message pad or pen beside it.

So it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone that Mr G and I found ourselves scuttling home in the snow and ice on Saturday afternoon, unable to withstand the freezing temperatures after only twenty minutes outside. Neither of us had a hat (yes, I know, you lose 90% of your body heat through your head. We felt it escaping with every passing minute.) Not having a hat would have been bad enough, except that I had made half-a-dozen hats between Wednesday and Saturday for our charity bazaar - the irony was not lost on either of us. We slipped and slithered home to a hot tea and I dug out my Red Heart Super Saver (yes, this calls for Big Tough American Yarn) and made us both hats. And I'll have to make us a couple more as well, I think. I've already lost one (sniff) and have had one stolen (sigh) this winter.