When You’re Siberian

For the most part, you…

Wear a hat when it’s colder, especially in winter, because, at least for me, piling up a scarf or a snood up to my ears, shoulders hunched, stepping in place at a bus stop is just not my look.

Don’t ride a bike after it snowed. Since I can’t get used to the sight of this after 11 years in Europe, I probably never will. A colleague of mine broke her leg cycling on icy pavement and once again I asked myself, why do this after Elsa clearly had her way with Let It Go on your street?

Have a built-in winter radar. You know when to layer up and when to pack it all away (only not too far, Hamburg is a city where you may need these layers any day).

Divide the year in two seasons: with snow and without (homegrown wisdom).

Barely use heating once you discover you’re in total control of turning it on, unlike back in the homeland.

Conscious of slippery surfaces underfoot in ANY season due to annual prolonged winter ice exposure. The careful step is an inner setting, ready to be switched on at a moment’s notice.

Aren’t immune to cold, but you’ll still meet plenty of people who will ask you if it’s “like summer” for you on a colder day.

Enjoy saying “I don’t find it that cold, just the wind has changed,” and mean it, too.

Know that not all your countrymen and women are obsessed with winter sports and activities.

Consider 1,5-hour flights similar to taking the bus, since flying from one city to another within Russia may take as long as 4 hours, maybe more.

Get used to the following questions once you say you’re from Siberia specifically:

But it’s in Russia, right?

Do you speak a different language there?

Is it that place where it’s really cold?

Is it dark all the time?

Is it close to Vladivostok?

Where exactly does the Transsiberian railroad run through?

But it’s really far away, right?

Where is it?

How come you speak such good (insert language here)?

Why don’t you have a Russian accent? / I can’t place your accent.

Can you go outside in winter?

Are you from a village?

Sometimes I relax my rules of polite conversation and remembering that it’s not a given person’s fault they are asking me something I’ve already been asked by other people they don’t know an x number of times, and tell the obvious truth…that I grew up in a forest. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Dear Summer, See You Next Year

Well, not just summer…spring too, and soon autumn.

It happens every year, I think, this moment of saying bye to your most recent summer. I wake up, the autumn sun is shining, but the temperature dropped to subzero levels for the first time since March during the night and traces are felt on the air as soon as I step outside. Hats and scarves have been retrieved the evening before from boxes largely untouched over the spring and summer months. I’m going to wait as long as I possibly can before putting on gloves, because that one is always a winter signal for me, and all my deeply entrenched Siberian sensibilities resist the approach of winter as long as possible before common sense sets in.

The final twinge of my sentimental heart comes from looking around in the park on the way to work. The trees are still covered with yellow and orange leaves, but plenty of those are on the ground and I can see it’s the last layer sprinkling all those branches before they become bare and autumn, too, is over.

I arrive at the office, take my coat off, settle myself at my desk and after a moment’s deliberation I turn on the heating just a bit. And then I see them in my mind’s eye, the crystal clear flashbacks that would certainly make a pretty sequence in a music video, the ones that everyone must have and which I momentarily dive into. New maxi dresses swaying to your and your friends’ relaxed steps during the heat wave, walking along in the shade, spreading out a picnic blanket under that tree in the park during lunch, lying back and looking up at the blue sky through green leaves fluttering now and again in the breeze, laughing at my own bad puns barely after getting them out, evenings full of conversations you don’t forget, before going quiet and smiling at each other, because the moment was just full enough and didn’t need anymore words.

So here we are, and I’m not even being corny, I mean every word. I guess I’m not a winter person, even if I appreciate plenty of things about the season. Enjoying warm drinks becomes that extra bit special and sometimes you literally just need it to defrost on a thankfully still non-Siberian level. Hamburg gets decorated for Christmas. Everyone starts talking about Christmas markets opening two weeks before they are due to do so. Staying in for most of a weekend day, if you can, is an increasingly repeated answer to the popular question “How was your weekend?”, if you want to answer more than “Good, thanks.”

There’s also the fact that these are basically a few months you can use to prepare for the next non-winter seasons, by way of buying summer dresses now on sale (what an exercise in patience and being organized) or dreaming about the next day trip somewhere nice when the days start to get longer. Because they will, and that’s the fantastic part. You only have to hold out until December 21, then the shortest day off the year can be ticked off your list and, as I always say, we start moving towards spring.

Not biased, just opinionated.

Adult Middle Child

Being a middle child is something that stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s certainly one of the most influential parts of my identity, and a part I’m still discovering. Funny thing: despite living in my adopted hometown for a long time and obviously having answered a lot of questions about myself in German, I find that the translation for middle child still eludes some people, or they’ve never come across it. Mittelkind is a literal translation, but since Mittel also means tool or remedy, I guess I can see why Germans would be confused when I confidently state “Ich bin ein Mittelkind” in response to a question about how many siblings I have. I’ve Googled the word countless times to check that it still exists, as you do.

Another term is Sandwich-Kind. I’m not a big fan, because, without fail, saying it turns on an image in my mind of a person being pressed between two life-size slices of toast, with salami and cheese slipping out. So far I’ve managed to keep this description to myself, verbally, at least. I don’t mind saying Sandwich-Kind if Mittelkind doesn’t spark understanding. Of course, the most simple way to go, instead of trying to stick to explaining who you are in this sibling constellation, is just to answer you have two siblings. Then further questions might follow, with the characteristic German love for putting things in order, about whether they are your younger or older siblings. At which point you can a) experience all of the above OR b) answer “Both, I’m the middle one”.

We’re not done yet. The conversation is just getting started. Or rather, the interview…

So, did you get enough attention as a child? You must have been under a lot of pressure? Are you good at negotiating? Is this something special? Why do you say it like that, that you’re a middle child? Do you feel more like an older sibling or a younger sibling? How far apart are you with your siblings? Do you get on well? Were you pampered? I’ve never even heard of the term middle child, does it mean something special? (If you want me to say I think I’m special, I’m more than happy to oblige.)

In reality, surprisingly without having (yet) reverted to deeper research about middle children going through life, I am able to identify quite a few points based on my own experience. Even within a varied group of friends I will regularly find myself in constellations of threes, and based on age I’m usually either the middle one or the oldest. When someone tells you you’re like a big sister to them, it’s very touching. At the same time you appreciate older mentors you become closer to also because they remind you what it’s like when someone looks out for you. You might find yourself prefacing sentences or responses to a discussion with phrases like “To be fair”. You don’t say “To be completely fair”, because you know it’s not possible to be completely fair, even though you keep trying, dammit. Expressing opinions is sometimes tricky, because basically you’re just always searching for that middle ground. And before you know it, you’re saying things like “We could do this, but I really don’t mind either way”, then dealing with two more polite friends saying the same thing, finally making the decision since you’ve turned into the middle party. You listen A LOT.

The truth is, of course, that being a middle child as an adult is an experience like any other adult one – you’re just a person with a background and a past. Lots of the stuff described above is not exclusive to being the second-born of three. And it’s certainly never dull.

 

 

 

Downton Abbey the Movie

Downton Abbey the movie is a beautifully filmed 2-hour bit of escapism. Gorgeous English landscapes, a magnificent mansion of a house bathed in history, fabulous costumes and loads of accents to feast your ears on. It’s 1927 and they’ve been expecting me.

Is it possible to follow the film if you haven’t watched the show? I’d say yes. The story is very neatly wrapped up, without getting tangled in itself. Otherwise a bit of Wikipedia reading and some wonderful behind-the-scenes interviews on the Downton Abbey YouTube channel are both very helpful if you want to know more about the characters and their backgrounds. The Internet has your back.

Dame Maggie Smith is unforgettable as ever, playing Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. I bow. She both scared and surprised me way back in the day in The Secret Garden, delighted as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, just to name a few examples, and she’s given us an array of quotable zingers from Lady Violet.

I’m not a die-hard fan and I haven’t seen all the seasons of the show, but I have a lot of respect for the many examples of impressive acting in there. Step aside from the inevitable (and, of course, necessary) discussions about what life in England was like back then in terms of class, society, British aristocracy, women’s rights, equality, and it’s still a vast collection of stories about people and family.

The Woman in Black

October is a great month for ghost stories. The leaves change color and then start to fall, bare tree branches stand out against the sky, cloudy weather sets in, the days become shorter and it gets dark earlier – a perfect set for a mysterious, even spooky atmosphere. You just want to either curl up with a scary book or watch a movie with plenty of suspense in it. The Woman in Black, originally a novel by Susan Mill published in 1983, is a great example of a story with spine-tingling thrills of terror that don’t leave you for at least two weeks (speaking from personal experience).

This blog post isn’t about the book, though, which I have yet to read. One Friday evening I was sitting in the audience of the English Theatre of Hamburg with two friends. The lights went out, two actors appeared and the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black began.

I had managed to stay away from spoilers and had only read snippets from a few reviews which all repeated the play was terrifying, chilling, scared audiences everywhere etc. To be honest, for the first half hour I was a bit sceptical and wondered whether I’d manage to get at all absorbed in the story, since there was quite a lot of narration going on. But there was no need to worry.

The moment of transition to the action unfolding, rather than being remembered or talked about, was hard to pinpoint later, and I was on the edge of my seat (at times also shrinking back into it), waiting with everyone else when the woman in black would appear next. This play is also yet another good example of the impact of a well-crafted, well-played wordless role. The story becomes increasingly spooky and atmospheric, using lights and sound to their fullest advantage, coiling tension like a rope. We’re told at the beginning about an audience using their imagination, but I don’t need to. I’m completely drawn in.

What many might remember when seeing the title, and which I did as well, is the 2012 movie adapation with a very telegenic, fresh after Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe.

Which is scarier? The play or the movie? Or the book? Take your pick. Don’t forget the 1989 film version as well.

Staycation Sensations

So my very own staycation week has come to a delightful close, and here’s what I discovered during it (first-timer report). When you’re on staycation and actually still staying at your own place…

You have to do chores, and while there’s more time for actual vacation activities, there will be a day when you might just be wrapping up loose ends or figuring something out. It doesn’t take away anything from the staycation, though of course I fully understand why people actually go away somewhere.

The security of home and all your favourite, familiar things being within reach is nice. You can also just imagine this is an Airbnb you rented out and wow, just how much it’s to your taste is uncanny.

There’s a fair amount of excitement involved in seeing what the staycation will be like, as well as switching your perspective to actually discovering what makes the city attractive for tourists, which is actually very pleasant to do in a large, but still low-key enough place like Hamburg.

You can definitely come back to a place you like or discovered without having to book a train or a flight.

It’s interesting to observe life on a weekday while everyone you know is at work, as opposed to the one weekend day you saved for getting out.

There is no FOMO.

You go out and about with the perfect mix of retained anonymity and the security of knowing where you are.

Hamburg is a lovely mix of casual and friendly as far as its population is concerned.

Finally, staycations are, surprise, surprise, cheaper!

 

Blankenese: A Lovely Retreat in Hamburg

Blankenese is a gorgeous district in Hamburg directly overlooking the Elbe river. I thought I “did” the Elbe for now after I walked around the Speicherstadt and Övelgönne, but you can’t ever really be done with one of the longest rivers in Europe, especially if you live in Hamburg, can you?

Blankenese is often described with the following adjectives, which I have been hearing since my student years: posh, chic, expensive, fancy, rich, affluent – you name it. I also used to think Blankenese was Övelgönne, shhhh. I’m not confused anymore. You can actually walk or cycle to Blankenese from where I stoppped during my walk in Övelgönne, just be prepared to cover quite a distance, though that’s also the cool thing about the Elbe beach that follows that whole walk – you can just keep going and going and going.

It’s easy to get to, taking the S-Bahn train being one example and then just getting out at Blankenese station. The trip wasn’t as long as I expected, in fact, I barely read two pages of the book I brought with me. The sun is shining (which always tends to get noticed with extra jubilation around here) and when I get out I’m reminded of my first impression from years ago – arriving here feels like you’re on vacation at some resort spot, provided it’s not winter. You can walk a little bit along what is essentially the high street here, stop by the weekly market, stop to get some lunch (from the supermarket salad bar for me, and then eat on a bench by the water later).

My actual goal is the so-called Treppenviertel, or staircase quarter, which is conveniently pointed out by signs and doesn’t take long to get to. Hamburg is widely referred to as a flat city and that fact is true, except for Blankenese where it gets quite hilly by local standards. On my left gradually descending rows of pretty villas and shrubbery are interspersed with stairs that all lead down to the sparkling silver of the Elbe. I pick the nicely level Strandtreppe (beach stairs).

Taking any close-ups of all the pretty facades around is actually tricky. You might glimpse a nice view from higher up or further away, but when you get nearer, you discover that what you wanted to photograph is actually skillfully hidden by bushes, walls or fences. Which I respect. Blankenese used to be a fishing village and then changed to a popular getaway later in the 19th century, attracting wealthy families who in time decided to live there. Many of these families had ties to Hamburg’s maritime history and trading industry.

Once you arrive downstairs, it’s off to the right, along the water, with typically northern German landscape understatement all around: modest at first, beautiful and memorable upon a closer look. I’d looked up lighthouses in the Hamburg region before this walk, and this is one of them. It’s going to be demolished next year as soon as new ones are built.

Meanwhile, you can’t go all the way up to the top, but there’s an observation deck which is still high enough for this classic view of the Blankenese shoreline.