Of Grandmothers

It was a sunny summer day after a wedding in the family and a few of us were invited to have lunch at the house of the groom’s grandparents in the countryside. A short drive later we stopped in front of a pretty building and as I got out I saw a smiling old lady with an unmistakably regal posture, despite the cane she was leaning on, waiting in the courtyard. Something jingled at the back of my mind, either a memory or a sense of vague recognition, I couldn’t be sure.

She first embraced the newly married couple, and proudly kissed her grandson, then turned to each of us as we patiently approached her one by one. When my turn came, I looked down from my height into a lined, kind face which was still beautiful. She laughed and asked me to bend down a little, then placed her hands on my cheeks, studying me up close.

As soon as she did that, my heart trembled with the memory of my own beloved grandmother’s hands, and in the space of seconds the residual sadness I had carried with me after she had passed away some two years before disappeared. It was the first time that beyond talking to my mother, my grandmother’s daughter, anyone else had tapped in some way into what I had felt about her. I knew exactly who this woman was, and I remembered my grandmother clearly, but I was somehow reassured of my connection to someone I had loved dearly through the lady in front of me.

We saw each other again several years later for another family event, and I sent a thank you card afterwards for the hospitality I had experienced. In a few weeks I retrieved an envelope from my mailbox with handwriting that was both new and seemed familiar. I opened it, read the first few lines of the message inside and began to cry. It was a thank you card responding to my thank you card, and both the handwriting and the content reminded me of the cards my grandmother used to send me when her eyesight was failing, writing in green and red ink so she could see better, doodling pictures of the potted flowers on her balcony.

I’ve never talked to this other grandmother about my feelings. They are enough for me by themselves, and I am grateful for this gift of sorts that she has given me simply through meeting her. She has her own grandchildren, and for some time now she has been a great-grandmother as well.

My own parents became grandparents, and as a first-time aunt I’ve experienced a particular kind of joy from watching them, because in essence I was getting a peek at what they were like with my siblings and I at that very age before we were able to remember, but already knew we were cared about deeply. It is a bit like going back in time but moving forward in the same moment. And I find it incredibly humbling and inspiring.

In the first months after my grandmother had passed away the loss part of what happened naturally gripped me harder, perhaps because the feeling that she was still close hadn’t left me either, nor has it today. My mind knew what had happened, but all the things that had previously reminded me of her on a daily basis still did, just the same, and they were real. And then I saw other people, both in my family and outside of it, being what she had been to me. They were doing it on their own terms, of their own free will, not asking anything in return.

Of course it’s important and comforting that there are enough people I can ask, on any given day, “Do you remember how Granny…” But I am thankful for those sometimes unexpected moments of connection, reassurance, maybe peace, and I think that my grandmother would have understood.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Stop Telling Me My Name is Complicated

As always I can’t avoid various pop culture references popping (ha) up in my head during a topic of discussion close to my personal experience, unless it’s a Disney quote, but in this case it’s definitely the chorus of Say My Name by Destiny’s Child.

I worked with someone once who, striving to be polite and avoid mispronouncing my name, reverted simply to addressing me with “You” most of the time. Which is fine, and which I classify as sweet, but since he had a sense of humour, after a while I started singing “Say my name/ Say my name” at him whenever he spoke to me. When he actually did use my name, it turned out he was able to pronounce it correctly all along.

I wrote recently about things people ask me once I say I’m from Russia, and as often happens in these cases, I also have a Russian name. Actually, if you dig deeper and have time, I might tell you about the Greek origins of my name, its versions in other European languages, its connection to a few other female and male names, but that’s not the focus of this blog post and I’m already talking enough about myself aren’t I?

The Russian name means that there are combinations of letters in it which might be unfamiliar to some people and which further lead to pronounciation that they haven’t come across before. This leads to several scenarios after my introduction, from saying it wrongly repeatedly and trying to convince me this is how it works, to hopefully asking me if it’s actually another name. Um, no.But the response that I ultimately had a problem with and spent some time analyzing was, preceded by a squinty eye or a bewildered look, “What? Hmm, too complicated”, “Too difficult”, “What? No, I can’t say that.”

Now, I understand that in most cases people were simply being frank and in their anxiety to do well all sorts of chatter slipped out. That has happened to me before as well. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, I’ve never told anyone whose name was new to me that it was “complicated”. I’d simply repeat my hello and then possibly ask during a quiet one-on-one moment how to pronounce the name. And the experience described above has only made me more sensitive, at least I hope so.

My name is not complicated. You just haven’t heard it before. You might not know or remember the existing European versions of my name. Breathe deeply once through your nose and give yourself some time. It’s OK to ask me to repeat it or to let me know you want to get the pronounciation right. In fact, I consider the latter courteous. It’s a polite sort of honesty that is immediately disarming. It also puts anyone at ease, because you are paying attention to your conversation partner. Just don’t force your firm opinions on me.

It might be useful, in general, to stop assuming you’re the first person telling me this. Do you really want to be part of the group who make the same comment over and over? Don’t get me wrong, interest is fine, but it only takes a few seconds to distinguish yourself by making an effort.

Why am I writing about this? Well…Within a few months after I first arrived in my new city I caught myself adding “Yes, it’s a bit complicated” after my introduction as soon as I saw a person pause or ask “Pardon?”, thus cutting off what might have actually been a different interaction, and saying something that I didn’t think was true, essentially lying about myself. I got a nickname which was pronounceable for those around me at the time, but which I ultimately disliked, because it didn’t feel like me. Luckily I shed all of this and met people who simply dealt with new names respectfully and maturely.

I like to stick to simple facts. My name is not complicated. You just might not have heard it before. It doesn’t sound like something that fits in to a paradigm you might have in your mind. But don’t worry, I’ll gladly repeat it to you.

And then we can discuss YOUR name.

Ballet Workout Number 13

Oh my God, you can see just how long it’s been since the date under the last post about ballet workout number 12… But true perfection cannot be rushed. I’m back.

The classical music starts playing (oh, bliss), because I’m once again in the class taught by the trainer who gets me. Her elegance is immediately obvious before she even starts moving and she makes even a simple black training outfit look chic. She starts with the warm-ups, bending, arm movements that make me wonder how she looked dancing on stage.

I enjoy every second, but predictably I rapidly feel it’s been a while with my whole body. At least I can definitely still stretch, I tell myself, I’m not stiff, I just need some… renewed practice. Still, the peaceful atmosphere, the large mirrors, the music all bring me a bit closer to the world that fascinates so many. I get lost in a daydream of another world where I might be able to do this…“Stay on your back, swing your right leg over your left one and try to reach your heel with your left hand.” Heel? I hope I can get halfway down my calf. But it’s OK, because “…be careful, we don’t want anything to…” She pasues delicately. “…tear?” I croak helpfully. Bingo!

We stretch and do the attitudes I’ve missed, flex and raise our legs until I’ve perfected my drunk grasshopper pose so much even I’m impressed by myself.

It all feels very nice at the end, though the delayed soreness reaction surprises me a little, but maybe it’s better because I wanted to enjoy getting back to the workout.

 

Things People Ask You When You Say You Are Russian

A few years back I already partly touched on this subject, since some of the suggestions I made were based on my experiences at parties and any kind of social gatherings with people I didn’t know well. Time has passed and I have collected some more questions that I received as soon as I mentioned my Russian roots. And I’m including the answers to these questions here as well. All is about to be revealed…

Do your parents work in the oil industry?

I understand where this is coming from and if you’re trying to be funny, you might succeed if I like you, but no. The oil industry is not the only industry in the country with available jobs.

Does your dad work in the oil industry?

See above. I notice you’re not asking about my mom. Or my sisters, female cousins, aunts etc. Do you have a problem with women working in the oil industry? Do you feel like an intense discussion about issues with how women are still being viewed in the workplace? Are you trying to put some distance between us right now? Where are you going? Come back!Do you speak Russian?

Da.

Do you speak/ understand Polish/ Ukranian/ Czech?

I’m afraid the answer is no on all counts. They are different languages and you have to learn them to be able to understand and speak them.

Is it dark all the time in winter?

No.

But are your days shorter?

Only in winter. Like in Europe.When do you guys celebrate New Year’s Eve?

December 31.

When do you celebrate Christmas?

January 7.

But why?

Because we celebrate the Orthodox Christmas.

Does your name mean something?

Not as a word, but otherwise…how much time do you have?

Wow, how come you don’t have an accent?

Vot do you mean?

So, are you from Moscow?

No. There are many other cities in the country…

What’s a “babUshka”?

“BAbushka” is a lovely word that means “grandmother”. It is used to address your own grandmother or in general to talk about older ladies.

Do you always put jam in your tea?Why don’t you like whistling indoors?

Because we have a deeply-seated, old superstition about whistling your money away if you whistle inside. We might not all be religious, but in general we’re a superstitious nation.

Did you see Russia’s performance during the last FIFA World Cup?

No, I’m afraid not… I was too busy watching Manuel Neuer.

 

10 Years in Hamburg: 10 Things I Learned Here

10 years in Hamburg! 10 years of living in Germany’s jewel of the North, eating Franzbrötchen (local pastry), buying a new umbrella at least twice a year (it gets rainy AND windy here sometimes/ regularly), saying Moin (local greeting), walking around the Alster lake and river, loving Hamburg Airport for not yet being big enough to need a shuttle train or bus, getting tipsy from sunshine when it makes an appearance, not being able to drink sparkling water (it hurts and only makes me thirstier), and affectionately cracking up every time the English translation comes on when a subway train reaches its last stop, because it reminds me of watching action films with Arnold Schwarzenegger: “This train terminates here. All change please.” Oh, Hamburg.

A friend recently asked me if these 10 years felt like a long time to me. The honest answer is yes and no, or jein in German – a combination of ja (yes) and nein (no). I remember my first few months here very clearly, as well as the years that followed, but I also feel the weight of all that I’ve experienced and achieved, in a very reassuring sort of way. I guess the conclusion is that I respect what was, appreciate what is and look forward to what will be.

It’s funny to look back and see that the two times I pondered whether I made the right decision in coming here, several years apart, were both caused by experiences which I’m sure would not have led me to such dramatic thoughts today. On the other hand, during a difficult phase when my future truly was suspended in midair, I never once doubted that I wanted to be here. On the contrary, my certainty that I had found the city for me increased by the day. There always came  a point during a trip away when I missed Hamburg. I love to travel and I love knowing that it will also feel good to come back home.

So just what have I learned while living here? Well, to narrow it down to 10 points…

  1. Say Moin! It’s short, it’s got just one syllable (I’m a big fan of short greetings, so effortless, so elegant, so quick, so easy in this busy city life on the go) and it’s undeniably local. You can say it almost anywhere – in shops, when you enter a bakery, in a club, and it might even soften up the grumpy clerk you need to approach for paperwork and whom the whole student dorm recognizes the moment you describe him. I didn’t say it as often during my first year here, but it would pop out all the time as soon as I traveled somewhere else. Not necessarily a good idea in Bavaria… But in Hamburg, and mostly anywhere else in the North, Moin!
  2. Unless you really want to, you don’t necessarily need to buy a ticket for the harbour boat trip tour. Your local HVV ticket (full-day one is the best option) is valid for ALL types of transport in Hamburg, including the ferry! There are ticket machines right on the ferry as well. So hop on at Landungsbrücken station and cruise back and forth along the Elbe as long as you please. Go to the top deck if the weather is dry. This is also a great way to unwind after work and enjoy an unexpected Indian summer.
  3. Franzbrötchen, a type of local sweet pastry with sugar and cinnamon, are constantly discussed, ranked, tested and covered by a variety of good local websites. Buy one, try one, or buy several and try them all, pick one or don’t, get in to conversations about them. Try the ones with extras like chocolate or crumble if you’re feeling adventurous, though I think in the end the original always wins.
  4. Labskaus is a traditional Northern German dish, and for years I’d find myself talking about it to people without trying it. I’d seen pictures, of course, and the moment I did eat it, I discovered it was delicious, somewhat in discord with what you think when you see it first. Have no fear.
  5. You will always find an umbrella in Rossmann or Budnikowski, those two drugstore chains sprinkled throughout the city. And trust me, you will keep needing one. Unless you prefer raincoats. Either one is indispensable around here. Although occasionally getting drenched does create a sense of community and team spirit.
  6. I have always loved being near the water and Hamburg firmly cemented this fact in my adult life. The Elbe and the Alster cover any mood you might be in. I have lost count of how many times I’ve walked around the Alster in particular. It has seen me through all sorts of phases – happy, dreamy, sad, at a loss, triumphant, the water is always there.
  7. No, people are NOT cold here. They just take their time sizing you up, and don’t forget you can do the same. Personally I like this, and it might be influenced by the fact that I’m an introvert, though a very communicative one. After some careful observing and that first coffee or drink you might find that you’ve met a wonderful friend who is still there ten years later. Patience!
  8. If you find yourself talking to a fan of one of Hamburg’s two football teams (St. Pauli or HSV), and you don’t follow either, plus you don’t know your conversation partner too well, perhaps it’s a better idea to listen to the person for a while first. Or indeed just listen, instead of blurting out, “Wait, don’t they keep losing?”
  9. There is a very high chance that your favourite band or singer will make a tour stop in Hamburg.
  10. It’s enough to be able to sing just a bit of Hamburg, meine Perle by Lotto King Karl to feel like you belong here. Everyone around you will join in and sing the rest anyway.

Reykjavik: Travel Tips for First-Timers

If you go to Reykjavik in September…

20180910_122109

Pack warm clothes!

Not your whole winter wardrobe, but it’s true what they say – layers are the best solution. Comfortable T-shirts, jerseys, cardigans, stretchy sweaters or hoodies, plenty of socks, waterproof coats. Absolute musts: a hat or two (if you’ll have to wear one every day, you might feel like a fresh one at some point); a scarf (or two), gloves and, yes, leg-warmers. I used to think I would only use these as part of an 80s costume, but then a friend clued me in on the real thing during a cold Hamburg winter when the local wind seemed to reach my ankles no matter what I wore. It might be either chilly, or windy, or both in Reykjavik at this time of year, and you can always take them off if it gets warm. They work well with both sneakers and boots, and they are easy to pack while you’re out on a tour or walking around the city. Bottom line: get all this together and test it out at home before the trip. Shopping for suitable outfits and gear in the city is possible, but it will take time and it’s also very expensive.

Shoes!

Everyone’s different, but I would not recommend putting on anything other than sneakers or worn-in, low-heeled boots for walking around the city. Hiking or outdoor shoes are a must. Obviously they can also be used for getting around Reykjavik, which is sometimes quite hilly, but mine, for example, were a bit too heavy for that. If you go out of the city to take in the fantastic  scenery Iceland has or trek around during the Golden Circle Tour, there is no other option than hiking boots. This became especially obvious as soon as we were walking between the tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park or making our way to the Gulfloss Waterfall. The terrain underfoot changed at intervals, and I heard more than one person lamenting their sneakers slipped on rocky outcrops or natural steps one had to clamber up. Be safe!

It’s in the bag!

A backpack with firm, wide straps that don’t cut in to your shoulders, padded back and easy to reach pockets on either side for a water bottle and an umbrella could become your best friend while walking around (after the shoes, of course). Unless you stop for a meal, you might not take it off for a while, just reach for those pockets, so make sure it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging you down backwards.

And a few other useful things to know…

Somewhat by chance I read on a blog before my trip that tap water was safe for drinking in Iceland and that there was no reason to buy bottled water. It was one of the first things I saw on a sign in the airport and in my hotel room. And it’s true! The water is clean and obviously it’s a great way to save money if you do treat yourself to a meal out – just ask for tap water. In many cafes and restaurants you’ll see a counter or a shelf with filled jugs standing at the ready.

Based on this first experience in Reykjavik and around it, women traveling alone can be assured that getting around is comfortable and safe. I wasn’t stared at or approached in any unwanted way. In fact, the only time it did happen was with a group of foreign football fans who were insisting on getting my attention even if I thought I was being clear about wanting to be left alone. True, during this trip I didn’t go out in the evening, because I was simply tired out from walking so much, so I don’t know what the situation is there, but it felt very natural to stop and sit somewhere by myself for as long as I wanted, whether outside or inside, no questions asked. There were plenty of other women of various ages doing the same.

Not just museums offer guided tours, but also various other places – check websites and book a few if you like to do that sort of thing. In most cases the tours are done by locals and it’s inspiring to hear how much they know about the place in question, as well as Iceland in general.

Nature and the unique Icelandic environment are treated with and spoken about with deep respect. This leaves a lasting impression.

The Reykjavik City Card is your ticket for local bus transport and it covers many local museums that round off discovering Iceland’s history.

Download a currency converter app on your phone! This will come in handy when you stop in front of a shop, transfixed by a pair of shoes that turn out to cost 10 times more than your last shopping trip to H&M.

Locals make a calm, relaxed impression. Any question you might have has most likely been asked by someone before you and the FAQ sections on any Icelandic websites you might be using to plan your trip are worth checking out. Otherwise, if you have any particular questions, which often happens in the case of booking a transfer, for example, someone usually gets back to you quickly.

Booking a transfer to and from Keflavik Airport is recommended. It’ll spare you time and effort, as taxi prices might be unpredictable and the whole transfer industry in general is very well organized. Pick-ups can be booked for any time, which was a blessing when I had to get up at 4 AM to catch my flight. The larger transfer companies also have desks right in the arrivals hall in the airport, so you can organize that right there, though it is better to book in advance! Allow time for getting through the airport after arrival and upon departure. It may not be too big, but it gets busy.

Think carefully before you buy a book of spells.

Educate yourself about Icelandic runes and bring back a nice souvenir with a suitable symbol.

And above all, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland: The Golden Circle

I put my phone away after taking pictures and spend a long stretch of time just staring at the Gulfloss Waterfall. The air is full of wet mist. The overwhelming beauty in front of me has absolutely nothing to do with us humans. I’d like to cry, but I can’t – maybe there’s simply already enough water thundering down before me in a never-ending stream. Such poetry. In motion. See what I keep doing there?

Before setting off down some steps and a path that brings me closer and closer to the Gulfloss, we are warned that some tourists have previously complained about getting wet on the way. Um. I open up the umbrella I brought with me (Yes! Hamburg rain love shout-out) and proceed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A few hours previously I’d boarded the bus to embark on the Golden Circle Tour that I’d booked with Gray Line before I left Hamburg. The scheduled pick-up from my hotel wasn’t as early as for the whale watching tour, meaning I had a bit more time to continue digesting seeing whales before being completely blown away by what I saw on the Golden Circle.

Most of you have probably heard about this tour or come across numerous mentions while doing research for a possible trip to Iceland. The Golden Circle is a wonderful way to get a first and lasting impression of Iceland’s unique natural wonders when you’re based in Reykjavik. It’s not a natural trail, but a carefully developed trip across very good roads, so a drive is a great idea as well, if you’d rather rent a car. I enjoyed the bus trip of roughly an hour out of Reykjavik before our first stop in Thingvellir National Park.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, just a stroll between two continents, as you do, and listen to stories from our fantastic guide about how things worked around here when Iceland’s parliament first started its existence where we are walking now, with new laws been shouted down to the people by an appointed member with exceptionally strong lungs. Slightly higher up from the path we took between the plates, our guide turns her back to us and suddenly shouts something in what sounds like very forceful Icelandic. She then turns back around and calmly explains to her wide-eyed audience that the acoustics worked very well, carrying the information down clearly to the population below.

Before we left the bus, we were told we would hear about the executions that took place here in the olden days. This is something I had not read up on at all before my trip to Reykjavik. What I hear takes me completely by surprise. It’s also very easy to let your imagination surrender when there are no distractions around and you’re not in the city. We stand above a beautiful stream, the rocks in it contrasting with the clear water, the higher tectonic plate visible on one side, and the untouched landscape, except for boardwalks, stretching out in every direction in front of us. The stream becomes both beautiful and terrible as I learn that women, most of them young, were drowned in this very place. The crime? Supposed adultery. If the woman had a child as a result of the affair, or what might very well have been rape, the child was spared, while the mother was doomed. When I ask why drowning was the execution method for the women, our guide said it was simply so. I don’t feel like examining the reasons further. As for being burnt at the stake, according to records only men were executed this way in Iceland, following accusations of sorcery. An interesting twist, if you can call it that, on what one has heard about this macabre part of European history in other countries.

After the revelations at Thingvellir and Gulfloss, we stop to look at geysirs and this provides some natural (literally) levity. I mean, curls of steam, huge jets of water shooting up in the air at regular intervals, that well-known stinky smell (which wasn’t all that intense) and the burbling noises of smaller boiling geysirs, not to mention grown men dipping their hands into puddles your guide expressly asks you not to touch and a sign that the nearest hospital is 62 km away? We also stop at the smaller Faxi Waterfall with its salmon ladder and the Skalholt church, a significant part of Iceland’s Christian history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our guide told us quite a few interesting things about Reykjavik as well – population numbers (some 127,000 to roughly 350,700 in the whole country), universities, nationalities, language (based on old Norsk), salmon fishing (there’s a river where the mayor has to make the first catch of the season before everyone else is allowed to fish), chocolate production (it was imported from Poland before the 1930s). The water in Iceland is so clean that we could safely drink from rivers in the area. Eating whale meat is NOT a traditional Icelandic meal, it’s just a horrible thing perpetuated by the tourism industry. Meanwhile, if you really want to go local and get a taste (no puns intended) of history, there are still places where you can try marinated sheep testicles. I spent a while digesting (no pun intended once again) that one before I was able to refocus my brain.

I get plenty of glimpses of volcanoes – it’s mind-boggling to think that they are so close, so sleepy-looking, yet with massive violent potential, while the surrounding landscape with its mix of mountains, rocks and moss, fields and  farms popping up every now and then is encompassing in its tranquility and vastness.

We’re ushered back on the bus at the end of the tour and it starts to rain a little. The clouds are hanging low, there’s a first hint of the day growing darker, and suddenly I get a very strong feeling that we need to go now. It’s been a full day with impressions that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but if we don’t leave now, I’m sure trolls will crawl out from underneath all those mossy rocks. I’ve felt welcome and humble here, but it’s quite possible that the hour of the “hidden people” is drawing nearer, and it’s time for me to go back. I am, after all, yet again a visitor here. I might not have been asked to come, but I’m happy that I was allowed to.