Eavesdropping: Gloom and Doom

I like eavesdropping, When I am on the train or out in a cafe I find it fascinating to catch a brief insight into someone else’s life. Once, on the tube in Berlin, I  overheard a man holding some wilting flowers on his lap, begging his girlfriend on the phone to let him back in. Apparantly she had  turned him away at the door, and he kept going on about how much he cared about her, pointing out over and over again that he even bought her flowers and that he  had done nothing wrong, had he, except not turning up on time for her birthday, and after all, she should know that he loves her anyway.

Looking at him, I hoped she had sense enough to kick him out for good. Even while being on the phone he was checking out every female in sight.

I found this small drama entertaining and even if I had wanted to it was impossible not to listen to his loud booming and half drunken voice.

But I remember other voices, the hushed voices of my relatives long gone. Back when I was maybe five, six years old and had just mastered reading.

My grandmother had two brothers, who still lived in the big farmhouse she grew up in. Her brother Heinrich and his wife Alma had remained childless, but her brother Willi and his wife Berta had a son, who with his young wife Emmi also live in the  house. Those two were still childless and my brother and I were the only children on my father’s side.

Every second Sunday my mother and us children were expected to accompany my  grandmother to visit them for coffee and cake.

At that time the rooms in farm houses were  small by today’s standards and the living room was dominated by a massive, dark oak cupboard. On top of it a big clock ticked away the seconds, chiming loudly every fifteen minutes. The sofa was standing at the wall and in front of it was a square oak table that could be pulled out to give place for  ten people. It was set with a white table cloth and the “good” china, a big creamy cake on its center. The windows were always closed.

While the grown-ups talked my brother and I were supposed to be quiet, only speaking when we were asked. My mom, usually the youngest at the table, was not supposed to say much either, she was there to look after my grandmother, who was in ill health.

Talk around the coffee table revolved around the weather, the neighbors and the gardens. I can’t remember ever hearing  any laughter. Even my Mom had a serious face on those Sundays.

After the cakes were devoured, us children were allowed to get up from the table, but we were supposed to stay in the room and sit still. My aunt did not like us to play in the garden, since we might  have destroyed some of her flowers.

So, while the grown-ups talked and my brother played with his toys I would usually sit in one of the plush chairs, browsing through magazines. They were of the kind that had sad stories like “Mother of five suffering from cancer is left by her husband”  or “Young woman lost both legs in an accident and is now suffering from MS” or “I gave all my money to my husband and now he has left with a young girl, leaving me in poverty”. At the same time I picked up some of  the grown-ups conversation. When my younger aunt Emmi wasn’t around they were often talking about her. I heard snippets like “she is trying again and can’t get up” or “she almost died with  the last one”. It was much later that I understood why pretty Emmi had always been so sad. She had lost six babies in later stages of her pregnancies. They blamed her for it.

My relatives spoke in hushed voices and I knew I wasn’t supposed to listen. Maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t.  I overheard stories about the sicknesses of people I didn’t know, heard that the woman down the road was acting strange, found out that someone had been to hospital and was now dying.  The voices were serious, sentences accompanied by sighs and now and then there was heavy silence in which the clock ticked even louder.

The air in the room seemed to get heavier and after a while I began to feel apprehensive and uneasy. Often, at this point my mother would make an excuse and take us out for a walk. Breathing fresh, clean air and running through the woods the feeling of being suffocated would slowly fade.

Still, fear of sickness, a feeling of impending doom accompanied me through childhood and adolescent. Even now, almost 50 years later, I have a strong dislike of clocks ticking away, heavy curtains and dark furniture. Even today there is a lump in my throat when I think of these afternoons in the  old farmhouse and its unhappy occupants.


Written as a response to the weekly writing challenge: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/overheard/


Coffee and Cake

The habit of “Kaffee and Kuchen” or coffee and cake can maybe be compared to British ‘tea time’.

When I was a small girl, I remember having ‘coffee and cake’ each day between 3 pm and 4 pm. During the week we would have some simple cake, but on Sundays my mother would bake a real fancy one.  The  white linen table-cloth would appear and the table would be set with the “good” coffee cups and plates. Often some aunts and uncles would join us  and then there would be at least three different cakes to choose from. One would be with cream, a Torte, as it is called in German, another one would be with fruit and the third one would be a simple loaf. On very special occasions my grandmother would bake a “Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte”. At that time nobody had heard of cholesterol, calories and the need to exercise and therefore everyone ate at least one slice of each cake. My mother and grandmother would be praised for their efforts, recipes would be exchanged and then everyone would go on a Sunday walk.

When I was six, my parents got their first car, and instead of coffee and cake at home we started going on Sunday drives into the countryside. Our destination would always be some café, where everybody would have exactly one slice of fancy cake, followed by a stroll around the country side.

When I was around 10 my mother took up work and we seldom had coffee and cake together during the week. On Sundays however the tradition continued.

After leaving home I didn’t keep up the habit of having cake. Times had changed and I was too busy to stop in the middle of the day to sit down and have something sweet. After settling in Hamburg my husband and I took up having coffee and cake again. The reason was the bakery across the street from us, which maybe has the most irresistible  cake in the whole of Hamburg. On Sundays we would read the paper while having our dose of sugar and fat.

I myself bake only for birthdays and other very special occasions. Nevertheless I still like having a piece of cake on Sundays and there are enough bakeries to choose from. While all other shops are closed on a Sunday the bakeries (and florists) are open in the morning and the coffeehouses, which also sell bread and cakes are open til 5 pm. And whether you are in Hamburg, in Lüneburg or in Hohenlockstedt, on Sundays you will see people sitting in the café having terrible nice looking “Torte” or people standing in line to buy the goodies for their Sunday afternoon coffee and cake.

Here is the link to my favorite bakery in Hamburghttp://www.kleine-konditorei.com/index.html  and here you can see, where I buy my cake in Hohenlockstedt  http://www.lola-cafe.de/.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte

For those of you, who like baking, here is my grandmother’s recipe for“Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte”:

Warning: the cake contains quite a bit of alcohol, and is not suitable for children. People with a sensitive stomach lining should be careful if consuming it with coffee, too much of it can easily lead to heartburn.

For the dough you need

100 g of butter, 100 g sugar, 2 teaspoons of vanilla sugar or some vanilla extract, 4 eggs, 75 g of ground almonds, 100 g of finely grated dark chocolate, 50 g of potato starch, 2 teaspoons of baking powder

For the filling and decorating you need

500 ml whipped cream or double cream, cherry schnapps or cherry brandy (Kirschwasser), sour cherries from a glass or fresh, or, alternatively a glass of very good cherry jam, chocolate and cherries for decoration.

Important:  if you use cherrys from the glass bring them to the boil with their juice and thicken the sauce with a bit of starch, so you can use them as a filling for the cake. If you use fresh cherrys boil them with a little bit of water or cherry juice and thicken with starch as well. 

Whip the butter, sugar and vanilla sugar together until they are white and fluffy. Add the eggs one by one and continue whipping until the sugar has dissolved. Then stir in the almonds, chocolate, starch and baking powder,

Put the dough into a round form and bake for 40 – 50 minutes at 180° C.

After the cake has cooled down cut it in three layers. Sprinkle the first layer with cherry schnaps and spread on the cherries or the cherry jam. Cover with a layer of whipped cream and put the second layer of cake on top. Sprinkle that one with cherry schnapps as well and cover it with whipped cream. Put on the third layer of the cake, sprinkle with cherry schnapps and then cover the cake with  whipped cream. Decorate with chocolate and cherries.