Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas nostalgia

It's not unlikely that Dutch readers will groan upon seeing these images. As all cloggies have grown up with the drawings of Anton Pieck, and his Christmas scenes in particular, people tend to appreciate them a lot less these days. They've become too familiar and ordinary as it were. It has even become 'du ton' to use terms as 'sentimental kitsch'. Ouch! 

Now I don't mind modern art at all, but I do also still love the dreamy nostalgia of Pieck's images. And as this is MY blog, I've decided to let you have a taste of them too. Don't the paintings exude a certain gentleness and cosiness (that probably never was)? Pieck himself often said he had been born at least a century too late, and his yearning for a bygone era really shows in his work.

I hope you are all enjoying a wonderful, good old-fashioned festive season (whether you believe in a God or just in good cheer), with love and laughter and good food aplenty.

And, of course, I wish for you that your days may be merry and bright. Too sentimental? Well. I could have gone for 'God bless us everyone'. Exactly. 

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A hunting lodge, a cottage... and a gremlin

We had had such a good start at the hunting lodge on Wednesday. 

The decor was warm and inviting, with an added smidgeon of creepy. Think Disney meets Addams Family. Creaking parquet floors, panelled walls and leaded windows. Carpets and murals in rich colours, big brassy chandeliers. Plenty of antlered skulls too. Not my thing entirely (or rather, not at all) but it was to be expected. The term hunting lodge rather gives it away don't you think?

And then there were all the Christmas decorations. Huge trees everywhere, hung with baubles as big as your hand. Wreaths and garlands, and more baubles. Over the top, but in a good way. This girl is all for understated elegance, but I have to admit there's something to be said for good old-fashioned fun.

It was the perfect setting for our Christmas do. Lovely food, lively banter and plenty of laughs (some shrieks even), and oh yes, we did go over the company results and challenges as well.

Some of the more bright decided it might be a good idea to book an overnight stay. Yes, I was one of them. Clever of you to guess that. My good mate Mar and I were lucky enough to book the last accommodation still available. We were told we could have the cottage. A little cottage, hidden among the trees by the drive. Sounds delightful, wouldn't you say?

We were in for a bit of a surprise.

By the time we left the main building that night it was so late that we actually heard them lock up behind us. Yes, we had been ignoring the tell-tale signs of them wanting to get rid of us for at least half an hour. Possibly a bit longer. In any case, the biting cold outside soon sobered us up. As we set off to find our cottage the drive looked rather eerie and my companion once again reminded me that ghost stories were strictly off-limits. I told her not to worry - I only wanted my bed and a good night's sleep. Plus I had already managed to sneak in a grizzly tale over dinner.

It wasn't till we reached the cottage that the true horror story unfolded. Not only was the cottage decor nowhere near as inviting as that of the hunting lodge, it lacked another important quality as well - warmth. Despite the bitter cold outside, it felt like stepping into a fridge. Or a morgue, if we stick to the creepy theme. And to add insult to injury - a test of the taps learned that there was no hot water to be had either. I was amazed the stuff was actually still liquid.  

So not only did we have to spend a miserable night shivering in ice-cold beds, there was no chance of a hot shower or a bath in the morning either. And there are few things that make me crankier than not being able to have a proper wash.

Told you my bloody gremlin likes to travel.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Of trolls, witches and princesses

It must have happened to all of us at one point. You lose a possession that was dear to you, something that meant just a little bit more than any of your other belongings. Or at least it feels that way when the mishap occurs. It happened to me too. In spite of (not all too frequent) bouts of decluttering, there are some things I know I would never have consciously thrown out or given away. And still they are gone, and I will have to consider them lost (lost forever, she wails).

Not all of those items held equal meaning to me (in spite of possible momentary drama) but I can still feel the tiniest bit of heart ache for some of the extra special ones. Detachment is my on-going lesson.

I must have been about 10 years old when my parents gave me a tiny book they knew their dreamy child would like. To this day I can picture everything about it, I can even recall what it felt like in my hands. It was a hardcover book, with a bottle-green linen cover, very small and flat. It contained stories about trolls, witches and princesses. Not to mention resourceful little boys. And it had some of the most magical illustrations I have ever seen.

The stories, Swedish folk tales, were charming albeit quite simple. The illustrations were what really made them come to life for me. Look at the trolls and you can tell that they are big and clumsy creatures, simple-minded and mischievous, yet not overly wicked or menacing. Just from looking at the pictures you know it can't be too difficult to outsmart a troll - which happens to be a major theme in the tales they illustrate.

My little green book contained only 5 to 6 stories, that were probably first published in Bland Tomtar och Troll (Among Gnomes and Trolls), an annual Christmas book of fairy tales. And the artist who made the images that stole my heart was John Bauer, a Swedish illustrator and painter. His work reminds me in some ways of that of Arthur Rackham and Anton Pieck (I have much-loved books with their works as well - as you would guess). But even though it hurts my national pride a tad (Pieck was Dutch), I still love Bauer's creations just that little bit more. His work transported me to a world of ancient forests, misty hills and deep dark lakes. Where you could encounter the creatures he drew so skillfully - even if they would want to make you hide behind one of those big mossy rocks.

I have often wondered why this artist and his amazing work aren't known to a wider international audience. I guess the fact that he died at a young age will have played a role in that. Although you could also reason that his tragic death added to the nostalgic, sometimes melancholy appeal of his work. Bauer was only 36 when he, his wife and their small son set out for a new life in Stockholm on the ferry Per Brahe, in November of 1918. The Per Brahe sank in a storm on lake Vättern, and all those aboard perished with it. In a bitter twist of fate the family had decided ferry travel was the safest - as there had been a severe train accident in Sweden the month before.

Only last week I ordered a copy of Swedish Folk Tales, a large book illustrated with the works of John Bauer. It arrived today. All my old stories are there - and many more that I didn't know yet. Sitting by the kitchen table and going through the book, a big strong cuppa at hand, I have been feeling almost as delighted and entranced as the little girl I was then. John Bauer's work still casts a powerful spell over me.

Of course, I still wish my little green book was somehow magically returned to me.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Gremlin: with the origin of the word possibly derived from the old English gremian, 'to vex', the gremlin is said to be a mischievous goblin-like creature with an inclination to damage or even dismantle mechanical devices, as well as disturbing all things electronic.

I've got one.

And the little bugger apparently likes to travel, for things have not only gone berserk at my home, but elsewhere (read: everywhere I'm at) too. At this rate it won't be long before I'm shunned as the Visitor from Hell - as opposed to the usual red carpet treatment (I Come Bearing Gifts - chocolate mostly).

It started with the cooking unit. That stopped functioning from one minute to the next; cooker, oven and microwave. Let me tell you there's definitely a limit to the amount of cup-a-soup and take-away meals a hard-working girl can endure without reaching the upper levels of crankiness. We deserve a hot meal. Especially with these temperatures.

Next thing to go was my internet connection, followed close on its heels by my laptop. I have broadband that works reasonably well most of the time, but over the past two weeks it's been all over the place. And none of the usual tedious tricks, like resetting the modem (with much exaggerated sighing and rolling of eyes) seemed to make much of a difference. The laptop added to the rage by taking up the habit of rebooting on its own accord. Mostly when I was right in the middle of something very important - like trying to browse for a new winter wardrobe. Obviously the thing was out to spite me.

The list goes on. I won't bore you by mentioning all the bits of hardware, software or general gadgetry that over the past couple of weeks produced a mocking death rattle as I dared approach them, but take it from me that they were plentiful. So plentiful in fact that if I hear the well-meant phrase 'have you tried switching it on and off' one more time, I swear someone is going to get hurt. 

The ultimate blow was saved till last though. Out of the blue, my central heating system stopped working last week. Now I know that I've been gushing about the autumn season and it's colours, and how the evenings have an added level of cosiness to them - but only when the indoor temperature is significantly higher than that outside. It's all very well to enjoy the sound of the wind howling around the house when you're snuggled up nice and warm on the sofa - but it stops being fun when you're shivering under three throws. And no amount of pretty candles or a glowing fireplace can restore that feeling of cozy comfort provided by a well-heated home. Try reading a book with icicles for fingers. It just doesn't work. Suffice it to say this one was seriously below the belt. Something definitely has it in for me.

You'll be relieved to hear (I hope) that most of the problems have now been sorted or have at least stopped from happening. Things have been incident-free for a full two days. But I'm not fooled. My gremlin is trying to lull me into a false sense of security - so that next time he strikes, it will catch me unawares.

Someone please lend me their cat to hunt the critter down.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Ode to Soup

I woke up on Saturday morning with a sore throat. My head felt really hot and my limbs were aching, and all I could think was: oh dear God NO. I so can not use a bout of the flu or a cold right now. Not in my weekend anyway.
I had to try and nip this thing in the bud, so I cancelled all my social commitments and installed myself on the sofa, cushions propped up in my back and wrapped in my warmest, softest blanket. Which happens to also be the prettiest one. Not that it matters but even when sick one does hope to do things in style. Bright flames in the fire place, a pot of tea with honey and a large stack of books by my side: the perfect conditions for a weekend of self-indulgence and pampering. Or so I thought.

I still couldn't help feeling shivery, light-headed and altogether weak. Which was getting in the way of my otherwise delicious sense of playing hooky. Obviously I needed to bring out the big guns to fight the malaise. Which in my family means bringing out the pots and pans and whipping up some comfort food.*

And what could make you feel warm and fulfilled quicker than that easiest of comfort foods: a big bowl of hearty soup? Liquid solace of the NON-alcoholic kind. A quick rummage in the fridge and the kitchen cupboards and I found I had the ingredients for a nice and rich potato soup. With a bit of extra kick to chase the last of the nasty germs away.

Under an hour later I was spooning up the result. And felt instantly better. With my soup cure, lots of naps, hot baths and general lazying about, I came out of the weekend feeling quite my old self again. I'll still make some more soup though this week I think. Just to be sure. You understand.

If any of you are suffering from the cold weather as well and could do with a quick pick-me-up - minimal effort required - here's what you need. Don't be fooled into thinking a potato soup must be quite a bland affair. This soup is packed full of flavour and the bit of extra (chilli pepper) kick will make your toes curl. And your eyes water. Nah, just kidding. Honest.

Ingredients (European measurements)

A few bits of pancetta or any other kind of smoked, streaky bacon
Two table spoons of olive oil
One finely chopped shallot or half of a regular onion - red onion adds a bit of extra flavour
Two small cloves of garlic - or one big one, chopped 
One not too small chilli pepper, chopped
350 gr of potato, sliced into small parts (about 3 big potatoes and one small one)
600 ml chicken stock
125 ml of cream
250 ml of milk
25 gr of flower
50 gr of strong Italian cheese like parmezan (or actually, any other cheese you like)
Fresh chives
Black pepper to taste


Heat up a big pan and let the bacon get crispy in its own fat. Take it out and keep aside. Add some olive oil (about two table spoons) to the bacon fat. Stir in the onion first and let it colour a bit, then add the garlic and the chilli pepper. Don't let the garlic get too brown, it'll taste bitter (she says from experience).

Add the chicken stock and the potato, bring to the boil and let simmer for about 25 minutes till the potato is soft. If you prefer a chunky soup or just can't be bothered with any extra effort (that would be me), just mash the potato up a bit with a fork or with a masher, while still in the pan. If you prefer a smooth soup, put the whole thing in a food processor. Keep in mind that that means extra things to clean. Just saying.

Put the milk, the cream and the flower in a bowl and stir together, then stir it slowly into the soup. Don't worry if you don't have any flower - the soup will be a little less solid but the taste will be great all the same. Add black pepper to taste (the soup shouldn't really need any extra salt because of the chicken stock, and the bacon and cheese that are added as a topping - but check anyway).

Fill a large bowl with soup, add a bit of the cheese and bacon and sprinkle with fresh chives. As this is quite a rich soup I would normally have it with a nice green salad, but this time I made some yummy, crunchy bruschetta with tomato. To die for. 

In case you're wondering: I did not burn the bread. This was a wholegrain baguette - so quite dark in colour to begin with. Not that it would matter because I quite like burnt bits anyway. Yes, I KNOW those aren't good for you. Like a lot of other great things (theatrical sigh).

* Even when half dead we can still whip up some comfort food. What can I say. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Castle in autumn

Legend has it that one night, long ago, the devil flew across the skies over the Low Countries. On his back he had a satchel, and in the satchel he had stowed numerous castles. Where did he get them, and what did he plan to do with them? The tale doesn't say. Now what good old Beelzebub didn't know was that there was a tear in his bag, and that every now and then, a castle would fall from the sky and tumble on to the land below. Until he flew over the land of Brabant. By then the tear had gotten so large, most of the remaining castles in his satchel fell out and landed in the soft Brabant soil. Which is why to this day, Brabant is the region in the Netherlands that boasts the most castles.

The last bit at least is true. Even though many have disappeared over time, the region I live in is still home to  a fair few castles, manors and fortresses. And oh, I do so love them. There is something magical and mysterious about a castle. As a little girl I devoured many a tale of enchanted castles with secret passageways and hidden rooms. Still do in fact. And I have always loved exploring yet another one of these beauties.

They're obviously not all very grand or impressive. Most of them are actually on the small side, in castle terms that is. To me that adds to their charm though. You can still picture them as a home that way. And it adds to the 'hidden secret' factor. A small castle in a secluded spot in a forest - perfection.

Since a couple of weeks, my trip to work takes considerably longer. I'm forced to take the scenic route at the moment. After my initial hissy fit, I had to admit that the scenic route is, in fact, just that. It leads me past some really charming spots - that I had all but forgotten.

Every day, just after sunrise, my trip takes me past Kasteel Heeswijk - Heeswijk Castle. It looks mighty pretty in the first light of day, often with wisps of mist still about it. So pretty in fact, that I decided to stop there briefly this morning. Just for a stroll around the grounds.

It was lovely. Very quiet, very serene. Not another soul about. Apart from the black swans in the moat that is. Yes, you heard me. Black. Swans. More than a hint of fairy tale there. Even though the tale that came to mind most during my walk was that of the Snow Queen. Calling it a chilly morning would have been a serious understatement.

The original castle was built in the 12th century. But over time, bits were added, destroyed, rebuilt etc. The result is charming. And it has played its role in history. It was besieged many times because of its strategic position close to the majestic city of 's-Hertogenbosch (my home town, yes). And none other than Louis XIV, the (in)famous Sun King stayed here for a while - during an attempt to conquer the Netherlands. Which failed.

Of course the question you're dying to ask me - and if you're not I'm going to tell you anyway - is whether there is a ghost story attached to this castle. Well. Have a guess.

Many centuries ago, Sir Robert of Heeswijk left his castle in the dead of night, evil on his mind. He planned to lie in wait for his daughter's lover, whom he wanted to slay. It would not have been his first foul deed. Not a very likeable character this Robert was. Alas for him, the marshes around the castle proved more treacherous than his heart. He was trapped, and he drowned. It is said that his ghost has haunted the castle grounds ever since. People have heard his cries, as well as seen a blue apparition. Which is why he came to be known as The Blue Knight of Castle Heeswijk.

Did I see a blue ghost on my stroll? No. The only blue things I saw were my hands. Did I already mention it was COLD??

I took the pictures with my iPhone and then gave them an arty-farty filter.
I'm quite pleased with the result too actually.
The book I took a pic of is 'Spoken en Kastelen in Nederland' (Ghosts & Castles in the Netherlands) by Anton van Oirschot, 1974.  

Monday, 14 November 2011

Monday morning laughs

This one made me smile.

And yes, the company I work for has a British parent company. So I have been able to witness my dear British colleagues coming to terms with what they perceive as our Dutch bluntness. The right term would in our view of course be 'straightforward' or possible 'direct'. But alright. Let's not nit-pick.  

And admittedly it does take the Dutch a bit of time to realise they could - at times - do with a somewhat more careful wording of messages. Just like at times they need to peel away the layers of British politeness to come to the core of messages. Not that the average Dutch person is shy about asking questions. To try and get to the heart of the matter - with all the subtlety of your average battering ram.

Funny that small cultural differences exist even between countries so very close to each other. But to me it makes moving in the corporate world all the more interesting and fun.

And we do pick up things from each other. Only last week a British colleague called me and said: 'Can I just be Dutch with you?'.

I love it.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Paper Moon and my five things

'Happy Life'

I was lately browsing through the archives over at Heartfire at Home when I found a post that got me thinking (that happens to me more often with Linda's posts): if you could take only 5 things from your home, what would they be?

Oh dear. Tricky one that.

When I bought my new apartment this spring, I knew I had to start ruthlessly decluttering. Ruthlessly. Not only because I'd have less space to hide my stuff in (note the keyword HIDE), but also - and mainly - because it was time to let go of the old. It was quite a task. A Herculean labour even - but without the smell of cow shit. I managed in the end though. Which means that the vast majority of the stuff I've got left - still quite a few bits and bobs - are things I really love. And would therefore much prefer to keep.

Hm. But what if I really HAD TO choose?

This is really hard. Well, there are my two loved-to-death old teddy bears (I don't still sleep with them, no). So I'd probably grab hold of those instinctively in case of a calamity. And then there's all my paperback or leather-bound friends. How would I ever be able to choose from those beloved treasures? But I suppose, if I really had to... I'd probably go for some of my hard-to-replace old loves. I'm obviously counting 'a couple of books' as one item here. Just as my teddies are one item. Alright? And some special mementos like cards and photos and other small pieces I could put into one big envelope or a small box so that'd be just the one thing too (she says in a tone that makes it clear she won't not suffer any objections).

But then it gets really tricky. So many of my other treasures are hard to carry. I can't see myself run outside with hands full of asian ceramics or my collection of tea pots (yes, I have a 'thing' for tea pots - and tea as a beverage obviously). I suppose I could wrap myself artistically in one of my much loved Designers Guild throws that are the epitome of cosy gorgeousness to me (maybe it's a good thing they cost an arm and a leg or I'd get me a new one every week rather than once in a blue moon - when I think I REALLY deserve to splurge). As for my long-coveted fire place: I wouldn't be able to move it one inch let alone get it out of the house. And no matter how happy I am to have it - it's still 'just an object'.

So I walked around my apartment and wondered what really lifts my spirit when I look at it. And won't give me a hernia as I try to haul it out of the house.

After a quick browse I had my answer. I'd go for the paper-cut art that I found in a tiny shop at Greenwich Market in London, called Paper Moon. It's run by a lovely Chinese couple of which Wei, the female half, is the artist. She makes the most gorgeous Chinese folk art: paper-cuts, using just scissors and sculptural knives. The level of detail is astounding. I'd have been ready for a mental institution after just trying to do one tiny perfect leaf or little person. With a notice on my door that says 'keep scissors away from patient at all times'. Every piece is priced in accordance with the number of hours it took to create it (most of my pieces took between 10 to 12 hours). And they're still very affordable.

I just adore those fairy-tale like images, they're like little stories that you can see something new in every time. Most of them look more Scandinavian to me than Chinese somehow. Oh, and I really love their meaning. Each piece represents a special kind of traditional 'blessing': good fortune, long life, love. What's not to love? They obviously make great presents too, as you're not only giving someone a pretty work of art, but in a way a symbolic blessing as well.

The photos don't really do them justice, but I thought I'd share them with you anyway.

Detail of 'Happy Life'

'Garden of Eden'


So yes, I'd go for these lovelies. They're super lightweight too, as I still haven't framed them. Hum. And of course they'd count as just the ONE item. I'm pretty sure my house will be home to several more of them before long though. Would have already had me some more if I hadn't been sure Ryanair would give me grief over several of the bigger items - that I therefore reluctantly left behind. My wallet gave a tiny squeak of relief. If you ever wonder what kind of present would say you really love me - get me their large white butterfly paper-cut. You don't even need to gift-wrap it. Be prepared to have to wake me from my swoon though. NOT with a bucket of cold water.

Huge sigh.

So that leaves me just one last thing to choose. Which is obviously going to be the large wheelbarrow I'll put in the storage room. That I can stuff with some cushions, books, tea pots, throws and some really special memento knick-knacks. Of course still only counting as ONE item.

Don't give me that look. What do you mean I don't quite get the meaning of the exercise?

Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween Special: The Little Stranger

I'm always on the look-out for new books to read. And as you may recall I LOVE a good ghost story. Especially now that the evenings are getting darker and colder, there's nothing like snuggling up to a good, shivers-down-your-spine kind of book. Apart from snuggling up to a good man that is. Who should also be of the shivers-down-spine variety, but in a different way. You catch my drift.

Because of my love of a nice chilling tale I was elated to find a recommendation for Sarah Waters' book 'The Little Stranger' on Paula's blog. As I was unfamiliar with the author and her work (which I'm now willing to admit is gross negligence on my part), I would have completely missed this book otherwise. And that would have been a great pity, as I find Sarah Waters does know how to tell a story. The kind that draws you in and stays with you long after you've put the book down.

The Little Stranger is set in rural Warwickshire in the period after WWII. A country doctor is called to Hundreds Hall, the estate of the Ayres family, to tend to a servant. This visit marks the beginning of a  friendship between the lonely doctor, whose own mother was at one time a maid at Hundreds, and the once grand but now impoverished Ayreses. Still, the difference in class is never quite forgotten - by either party. Then eerie things start to happen at the Hall, ever increasing in magnitude and (pause for dramatic effect) malevolence.

This is truly a gripping tale, that leaves you feeling somewhat unsettled. Even though its main characters are not always likeable, you can't help but feel for them. Each one of them is in his or her own way struggling with feelings of loneliness and the seeming hopelessness of their situation. In all, this is so much more than 'just' a ghost story. And I didn't suspect the answer to the mystery till relatively late in the book - whereas I can usually tell how a plot will turn out from miles away (she says smugly). There are some parallels with the Turn of the Screw, where you are made to wonder how much is actually only going on in the head of the governess. The Little Stranger does provide a clear answer to that question in the end.

Although I had been warned this story could become quite unnerving, I blissfully ignored the heads up - as you would have guessed - and only started reading it at 10 PM the day it came in. And found that I couldn't put it down till I really had to get me some sleep - at about 2 AM. By which time things in the book had gotten rather spooky. So spooky in fact that I started hearing every little sound in the house after I turned out the light. If ever that happens to you - I've got the answer.

Head over to YouTube and watch this clip of Billy Connolly and his take on hauntings. I'm telling you, you cannot still be spooked after watching this. A word of warning to those unfamiliar with the Big Yin: he does have a certain fondness for strong language. That is a euphemism, yes. Well spotted.

I do so adore him.  

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Eternally remembered - The 53rd Welsh Division

The first time I laid eyes on this monument I just got so annoyed. SO annoyed.

Not because of the Celtic Cross itself though. I think it's rather a nice thing actually. Bit austere and somber looking but that fits its purpose.

This is the 53rd Welsh Division Memorial.

On the 27th of October 1944, after 4 days of bitter fighting, the 53rd Welsh (Welch) Division succeeded in liberating the city of 's-Hertogenbosch, a.k.a. Den Bosch, from German occupying forces. In the fighting, 146 of the Division's men lost their lives and another 705 were injured.

At the base of the memorial cross the following inscription is carved:
To those who deserve to be eternally remembered.

And that's what set me off. First time I actually saw the monument with my own eyes I couldn't believe where they had put it. Some out of the way, obscure little corner of Den Bosch. I remember thinking to myself: eternal remembrance, HERE??

I was less than impressed. And started muttering and spluttering that if the city council had wanted the sacrifice of these men to be remembered, they should have bloody well put the memorial in a place where people would actually have more than an ultra-slim chance of seeing it - and be reminded to remember.

Not too long after that I had to swallow my words. Bloody wells included. I found out there was actually a good reason for it to be put in that specific location. The Division's survivors themselves felt this was the right place for the memorial, because it happened to be the exact spot from which they launched their attack to liberate the city. Which makes it a place that holds very special meaning to them. And us obviously. Um. That sort of took the wind out of my sails of indignation. Sometimes I even manage to annoy myself with my little miss know-it-all attitude.

Have a look at the below picture.

Doesn't the veteran in the photo have the most fabulous smile in the world?

And what do you know, he doesn't seem to mind being in an out of the way, obscure little corner of Den Bosch.

Picture of the 53rd Welsh Division Memorial was taken with my iPhone.
The other pictures were found here and here.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Tall Tales & Family Legends

Clan Menzies Tartan

Anyone fancy a game of myth busting?

I grew up with the following story.

Once upon a time there were three brothers (why is it that stories always have to have THREE brothers?!) who belonged to the Scottish Menzies clan. I'm picturing rough and rugged red-heads now, just so you know. Dashingly handsome too obviously. Said brothers came to the Netherlands to fight as mercenaries in the army of the Prince of Orange, in the battle of Heiligerlee. The year was 1568.

One (or maybe all, the family legend is a bit hazy on the details) of the brothers survived the battle - yet never made it back to Scotland. He (or again, maybe they) stayed on in the Netherlands, settled down and started a family. And over time, the name of Menzies changed to a more 'latinised' version: Menses. Yes, I do know what it means, thank you*. Every single GP I've ever seen (granted not too many) will at some point in the conversation come out with: 'Say, do you actually know... etc'. I have to admit I snarl when that happens. Not pretty.

Growing up, there were tons of books in the house, including lots of books of myths and legends. Celtic legends mostly. I loved the idea of having a Celtic background - even if it was in the very distant past. So as a child, whenever someone would comment on my unusual surname, I would casually say something along the lines of 'Oh well, it's actually Scottish you know'. Kids. Oh alright, yes, I sometimes still do it.

But then as I grew older, I started to question the family legend a bit. There are basically two camps in the current generations of Menses'. One holds on to the story with all their might, the other says it's actually absolute bollocks (that would be dad). Pardon my Dutch. So let's have a closer look. Let's pretend I'm Jane Marple (but tons younger and prettier and with not a hint of spinster about her - well yes I'm single at the moment but that's beside the point).

Is it plausible for three Scottish brothers to come fighting in the Netherlands as mercenaries in that day and age? Hmm, yes actually. There were many Scottish mercenaries about in Europe in those days. It would not have been unheard of. The yes camp says that the army records of that time still exist - and that when one of them checked said records, there they were. Three Menzies brothers. Or in any case three men from clan Menzies. Sadly they failed to make a copy. Bit of a pity that.

Then there's the 'physical' evidence. You may know that the Dutch are a very tall people. And among the Dutch, none are taller and lankier (think blonde giants) than the people over in Groningen, the most northern province of the Netherlands. Where the Menses family originally comes from (fact). Where the battle of Heiligerlee took place. But the Menses men are a lot shorter and stockier than the average Groninger. More Celtic in build perhaps. Food for thought you may think. Ah, but the no camp have a trick up their sleeve.

One of my uncles dabbles in genealogy. He takes great delight in scouring all possible records for traces of our ancestry. What evidence has he found so far that links us to bonnie Scotland? Er, let me think. Ah yes, I remember. NOTHING. Nothing whatsoever. And hang on - what about those army records? Has he checked those as well? To be honest: I don't know. But what good would it do to prove there were Menzies clan members in the army at that time if you can't link them to the Menses family anyway?

If you want to know what I think: I say myth busted. With pain in my heart though. I do have a thing for the Celts. And I loved visiting Scotland last year. I fell in love with Edinburgh as well as with the highlands. And yes, in spite of it all, when we drove through Perthshire and saw a road sign saying 'Castle Menzies, next exit', my heart skipped a beat. So if you must know, yes, I did end up buying some Menzies paraphernalia. I got my parents a Menzies tartan scarf (quite smart in black & white), two clan booklets and (no sniggering please) a tea towel with the Menzies crest and motto: Vil God I Zal (God Willing I shall).

There is one small consolation though. While in Scotland, I discovered that the name Menzies is actually not pronounced 'menzies'. It's pronounced something like 'mingies' (rhymes with thingies). Well. I'm not so sure about that. Sounds more like a funny sort of condition if you ask me: 'How's your Angus doing, Mrs. Burns, I heard he was ill? Oh yes, thank you for asking Mrs. Dunbar, he's ill indeed. He's got a bad case of the mingies'. So I'm thinking I might be better off with a non-mingies related surname after all. I mean, check the following limerick I found and tell me I'm not right. Mind you substitute the 'enzies' sound for 'ingies'. 

There wis a young lassie named Menzies,
That asked her aunt whit this thenzies.
Said her aunt wi a gasp,
Ma dear, it's a wasp
An you're haudin the end whaur the stenzies!


* Just in case you don't know what it means: menses means moons or months in Latin, but is nowadays mainly used to indicate a woman's menstruation. Aargh.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Stairway to ... the fence (a cat story)

Oh dear.

I really want to post this story. 

But if I do, I'll have to confess to an embarrassing little secret. Something I'd much rather keep hidden. As my own dark little vice.

But this is a CAT story you see.

And a good cat story at that. With a happy ending. We're talking mucho contented cat. MUCHO.

So there's nothing else to it. I'll have to fess up.

Here goes (coughs and shuffles feet).

I sometimes read online tabloids. The gossipy ones.

Yes. I know.

The articles are mostly mind-numbingly idiotic. With more than a hint of misogynism when the next female celebrity gets slashed and burned for allowing herself to get photographed with a touch of cellulite (oh the shock, the horror!). Or worse: for not being back at pre-baby weight within two weeks of giving birth. The way these women let themselves go... it shouldn't be allowed. According to tabloid 'journalists' anyway. Whom I suspect have never been able to get near a woman. Something like Revenge of the Sad, Angry and Pathetic therefore.

WHY do I read them then (on occasion)? Er. Because sometimes it just feels good to give my brain some time off? Especially after a very busy day? Like it feels really good at times to go for a Big Mac instead of a home-cooked meal or dinner in a fancy restaurant?

Anyway - enough about the dark corners of my psyche. Back to the cat story!

I found this article on Daily Mail online a couple of weeks ago. 

Ginger tabby Tom is getting on in years a bit and sadly, so is his arthritis. Which means that it has become increasingly difficult for him to climb the fence of his owner Adrienne's backyard. To overlook his territory and mingle or mess with the neighbourhood cats. And jumping down the fence is obviously not doing his poor old joints a world of good either. 

One day, Adrienne's boyfriend Gareth couldn't stand the sight of it anymore. So he set to work to make Tom his very own spiral staircase to the fence. In my book, Gareth is the man of the year. Check it out.

The next pic is my favourite. Look at his smug little face. Doesn't it have 'I'm the King of the World' all over it?

So Adrienne: I'm saying this one's a keeper.

If you INSIST on reading the original article, it can be found here.

And for another bit on people who built some great stuff for their kitty, read this post over at Linda's blog. Them's good people.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The forty rules of love

In case you were wondering: it's NOT some sort of wacky dating manual. It's a novel.

My Turkish friend Güner was in raptures over this book by Turkish author Elif Şafak - even to the point that she admitted she had developed a tiny crush on one of the main characters, Shams of Tabriz (we won't tell her husband Ali). She urged me to buy an English copy and I'm glad she did. It was an interesting read.

The word 'interesting' obviously has several meanings. People frequently use it when they're not overly impressed by something but don't want to sound too dismissive (I've been known to do that too!). I'm not using interesting in that sense of the word here, but the book did have some aspects that appealed to me a bit less. On the other hand, it is a well-written book and some of its content also came to me at just the right moment.

This is a book with a story within a story. Ella Rubinstein is a house wife who has been trying to convince herself for some time that she really has a lot to be thankful for - a (well-to-do) husband, three children and a comfortable home. But something is lacking in her life and most definitely in her relationship with her husband David. She takes a job as a reader for a publisher and her first assignment is to read a novel by a new author, Aziz Z. Zahara (who turns out to be Scottish - you didn't see that one coming did you?).

The book tells the story of the renowned Sufi mystic Rumi whose life and perceptions change forever when wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz and his forty rules of love come into his life. Rumi and Shams become inseparable companions but their spiritual love for each other does much to upset those close to them, let alone the establishment in 13th century Konya in Anatolia, Turkey.

Ella has only just started reading the book, called 'Sweet Blasphemy', when she decides to find out more about the author - and ends up corresponding with him. And as you would have it, her life will also never be the same again after that.

Each chapter of the book is told from the view point of one of its (many) characters. This could have been distracting, but I have to say it adds to the atmosphere of the whole. The 13th century story in particular really comes alive through this. It is a good introduction to the life and times of Rumi, whose poems I've always loved. Elif Şafak knows how to tell a story. And yet, in spite of that, some of the characters remained two-dimensional to me. The modern time story of Ella and Aziz somehow fails to convince me, it lacks a certain depth. It has more than a hint of chick-lit for grown-ups about it. Which is perfectly fine, it's just that the story falls a bit flat. It's as if the author poured all her inspiration into the 13th century story-line and characters and had too little left to make these two really come to life.

And then of course there's the all-consuming love between Rumi and Shams. It would have moved me more if they hadn't shown, in my perception at least, an extraordinary lack of compassion for the people closest to them. Sometimes things that annoy you tell you something about yourself and I know that I could often do with a touch more 'detachment' - but it feels as if to Rumi and Shams 'the others' don't seem to really matter anymore. The cold indifference some of their supposed loved ones are treated with doesn't just border on cruelty in my eyes. So no, I did not develop a crush for Shams myself. Even though he does do a lot of good deeds and does show many good traits in the book that do endear him to you. Same goes for Rumi.

Still I have to say this book touched me. I began to really feel for some of the secondary characters like Desert Rose the Harlot, Suleiman the Drunkard, Rumi's wife Kerra and his adopted daughter Kimya. I even began to feel for his son Aladdin - and he's not the most likable character in there. 

Over to Shams' forty rules. At times the way another one of them is introduced in the book comes across as a bit, well, contrived, but there are some things in there that do really ring true. Without it sounding like just another self-help manual. Some of the rules just happened to strike a chord with me.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book. Has anyone else read it? I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

Oh and did I already mention I LOVE the cover?