Short story: German Cinnamon

Delighted to find my short story German Cinnamon was picked up by the European Literature Network! To read it, head over there, or just scroll down. Serving suggestion: Enjoy while nibbling a lebkuchen biscuit. Find out why:

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German Cinnamon

The smell hits her instantly: cinnamon.  A flush of memory, intense, almost painful.  She is sitting on a stool in Oma’s kitchen, surrounded by wood and earthenware.  Her hands in a bowl on her lap, she squeezes brown dough through the gaps between her fingers.  She loves that bowl, it has been passed down the family for generations.  She closes her eyes and traces the pattern on the outside with both hands.  Groove ridge, groove ridge, closer together at the bottom and fanning out towards the rim, groove ridge, groove ridge.  Oma bends down to take a tray of lebkuchen out of the oven, setting it down to cool on the thick pile of crosswords she cuts out of the newspapers.  The hearts are laid out in neat rows, one up one down, their curves nestling into each other but not quite touching, apart from one pair, conjoined twins.  She looks forward to picking up the double heart in one piece, a gentle twist and pull will be enough, and the two halves will come apart with just the slightest whisper of a crunch and a soft shower of tiny, spiky crumbs, leaving no wound along the edge but a matching scar, already healed, telling the story of their making.  For the next batch, she is still to knock the dough into a ball, roll it, and cut out the hearts – the best part – but she pauses and breathes in deeply through her nose.  The air is warm and heavy from the hot oven, rich with the anticipation of the grand ball of the spices:  Cheeky ginger takes a bow and leads cardamom out on the dance floor.  Honey starts to flow and, in pairs, more revellers join in.  Allspice tangos with nutmeg, coriander flirts with star anise.  Clove and mace discover a liking for each other.  And soaring above it all, heady top notes, an aroma like no other, frozen in time, etched into her being forever: cinnamon.  Oma turns to look at her and smiles.

‘Oi, you! Get back to work!’

She flinches under the voice’s sudden harshness, fired straight at her like an arrow sure to hit its target.  As she crumples up the envelope, it feels as if scented clouds puff out from it, saying smell me, taste me, I have a message for you.  She slips the letter into the folds of her gown and keeps stirring the murky slosh in the pot in front of her.  Preparations are underway for the banquet tomorrow, and she is in enough trouble already.

She knows she is lucky to have been smuggled out of Camp Z, very few got the chance, or they did not survive the journey.  The change had started slowly, hardly noticeable at first.  A few outbreaks of unrest here and there, beaten down by police.  At first, these were isolated incidents, then journalists who reported on it began to disappear.  Eventually, the papers stopped writing about it altogether.  The old leaders were replaced, one by one, first there were no more women left, then not many men either, now there is only the One True Leader, of course.  Apparently, the people had voted for this, for change, change is good, but not this change, not this.  People were afraid.  Who would be next?  Keep your head down and mind your own business, don’t talk about what really matters.  Truth is not what it used to be.  The walls have ears, nobody can be trusted, if you talked about the change you might never be heard of again.

They had come for her at night.  Startled, she had called out and felt for Alice in the makeshift cot next to her, but a hand covered her mouth and a muffled voice whispered in her ear to be quiet: ‘ We’re on your side, we’ll get you out but you must leave her, she’ll be safe, you must leave with us now, or neither of you will make it’.  She had gone over that moment countless times in her mind since.  Had she made the right decision to go with them?  She was alive, yes, but what did it mean to be alive if she did not have Alice, what was this life worth if she did not know if Alice had survived too?

Lying on her bunk in the dark, she reaches for the letter.  Again, the scent floods out and she is taken to a place that feels like a dream, not a nightmare as so often, but comforting, familiar: a dream about her childhood, only, this is real.  She feels a small, flat object, and, acting instinctively, pops it into her mouth, all in one go.  It is heart-shaped, smooth all-around, but with some sharp, ragged edges that stick out like tiny needles out of a pincushion.  She circles the tip of her tongue around the roughness until she has worn down the snags with movement and saliva, and the shape begins to dissolve.  She stops herself from swallowing until she is ready, directing the juices so they would coat the taste buds all over her tongue: the tip, the sides, the middle, the back, then around her teeth, the roof of her mouth.  It is only then that she begins to chew, pushing the thick, sticky mixture between her molars, making more saliva, feeling for chunks to break up, now, yes, swallowing, and at last, at last: tasting.  The sharp surprising spiciness of nutmeg, lingering warmth of ginger, citrussy accents of cardamom.  Clove and mace continue their tempestuous affair, star anise mingles, allspice sneaks forward with a kick.  And there it is again, the top prize, so achingly familiar, so very much longed for, the sweetness, the richness, the light that makes all the rest shine: cinnamon.

Her world now is grey, there is no colour, no flavour, no taste.  It is different for The One True Leader, everyone is the same and he is the same too, the same but different, they are told this twice a day in the morning and evening chants.  If you hear it often enough you start to believe it, even if it makes no sense.  Tonight, he will be in the Great Hall, eating the meal she is about to cook.  Sometimes she gets punished for sneaking in black market ingredients – a herb, a spice, some salt – a risky game.  Other times, no questions asked, they are just grateful that she can make the food taste of something, anything, to escape the blandness for second or two.  Tonight, it needs to be the best it can be for The One True Leader.  It needs to be special.

She wakes to the dull glow of the morning mist before the bell has been rung for the first chant.  When she shakes out the envelope over her mouth to catch any last crumbs, she notices some writing on the inside, faint, in pencil.  Oma’s handwriting.

Use just the outer edges of allspice for the first batch of lebkuchen and add the last of your German cinnamon at the end.

She reads it again, and again.  Oma had to be careful, she took a big risk by even trying to get in touch with her.  But what does it mean?  There are more ingredients in this lebkuchen than it says in the note, she can still feel faint echoes of their taste in her mouth, why just allspice and cinnamon, German cinnamon?  She has never heard of it, cinnamon is from Asia, everyone knows that.  She reads over the line once more, whispers it to herself as loud as she dares.  She looks at every word, feels for the letters with her fingers as if they could make the graphite swirls leave the paper and speak to her, relinquish their message.  Then, slowly, she lies back.  A smile begins to appear from somewhere deep inside of her, until, eventually, it reaches her face.

When someone opens the door, she catches a glimpse of the Great Hall from her usual place at the kitchen stove.  The glow of hundreds of candles, mounted on candelabras, is reflected in the silverware along the two long solid oak tables and benches, set out like a mirror image.  The High Table, on its platform, overshadowed by The One True Leader’s banner, looks down head-on.  She blinks – she is not used to seeing bright colours.  An ashen sea of women bustles about, dressed in hooded cloaks like nuns of the Untrue Ages, rising in peaks where there is still work to do, revealing troughs of shiny floorboards where there is none.  They bend in between nooks and crannies to brush away a speck of fluff, pick up a glass here and there to polish away traces of a fingerprint, straighten a piece of crockery so the One True Leader’s symbol is at the top, not a fraction out of line.  Today of all days, everybody wants to get it right, needs to get it right.  The stakes are high.

The banquet is nearly over.  The One True Leader did not reject any of the courses she cooked, a careful balance between what was possible to conjure up with the scarce ingredients, and what she could get away with adding from the black market, without attracting attention.  A pinch of salt on the watery porridge, a twist of pepper on the boiled eggs, a charred twig of rosemary stroked over the potatoes.  The assembled dignitaries relax enough to start breathing normally again, the skirts of the helpers carrying trays in and out of the kitchen settle into a less abrupt rhythm when they swish along the floor, turning a corner.  But she cannot relax yet.  Ever since she felt the explosion of flavours from Oma’s lebkuchen and read the single scribbled line, passed to her by unknown allies, she has been sure that she cannot live like this, a world without tastes, without flavours, and she knows she will have the strength to do what needs to be done.

She starts to knead the dough for the dessert.  Mainly plain flour, eggs, honey – it is but a pale imitation of the rich and fragrant doughs of the past, but it will have to do.  Then she opens the small glass jar.

‘It’s cinnamon,’ she had told the guard at the kitchen entry checkpoint.

‘Doesn’t smell like cinnamon.’  How would he know?  He was bluffing.

‘It’s…’ she hesitated.  ‘German cinnamon.  A present from my grandmother for the One True Leader.  I have a permission slip.’

She had begun to fumble through her pockets for the fake note, but there was queue building up, and the guard had waved her through.  She rolls out the dough, then, holding her knife at a steep angle, she cuts in an unbroken line, twisting the tip as she makes her confident incision: the shape of a heart, just one, a special treat for the One True Leader.

Ischler_Lebkuchenherz_unverziertWhen she is called into the Great Hall she trembles, but on the inside, she is firm.  She carries the heart on a silver plate in front of her.  It is still warm from the oven, she can feel the metal sending the heat from the middle to the outside.  Tiny droplets of sweat form underneath.  All eyes are on her as she walks straight towards the One True Leader, seated in the middle of the High Table, his brutal banner behind him assaulting her senses, covering up the paintings of the scholars of the past.  Knowledge is not what is wanted these days. As she walks through the middle of the Hall, the men on the benches turn to follow her progress up the aisle.

There is silence as she places the heart in front of the One True Leader.  In one swift move, he clutches her arm.  Alarmed, she looks straight into his eyes.  A barely audible gasp lower down the Hall is stifled as soon as it erupts.  He runs his thumb over the tattoo on the inside of her wrist, almost a caress, but not quite: his symbol.

‘I hear you have baked me something special today?’  Still fixing her gaze, he picks up the lebkuchen from the plate and begins to chew.

‘Yes.  It is made with cinnamon, a valuable treasure of old, sweetness and spice, fit for the Gods, the Kings and Queens of the Untrue Ages, and now for my One True Leader.’

Chewing, swallowing, he takes another bite, nodding approval.  A relieved murmur echoes around the Great Hall.  She curtseys and starts to back away, but still, she looks at him.  Now.  Surprise begins to surface behind his eyes.  He grabs his throat, his chest, the arms of the men either side of him.  With both hands, she pulls her hood up over her head, flicking it like a whip.  A whooshing noise, everywhere at once:  suddenly, the Hall has filled with hundreds of female figures in grey cloaks, outnumbering the guests, hoods over their heads, indistinguishable from each other, part of the plan: the women.  In the confusion that follows, she slips away unrecognised.  She runs towards the woods, things will never be the same again, she did it, she did what she could do, what she had to do.  In her mind’s eye, she sees the One True Leader on the floor, a commotion, desperate attempts to bring him back to consciousness.  But there is nothing anyone can do to stop the poison from working its way into his heart.

The outer edge of allspice: al, ice.  The first batch of lebkuchen: leb. German cinnamon: zimt. The last of zimt: t.  Al-ice leb-t.  Alice lebt.  Alice lives.  Alice is alive!  Oma knew that even after so many years, she would not forget the language of her childhood, the crosswords they used to do together.  Alice is alive – this is all she has ever wanted to know. Even if they never meet again, she now knows she has everything to live for.

She has made it into the woods, and she can make out a column of smoke amongst the trees.  This must be the cottage she heard about.  She recognises a faint flicker of a feeling long buried, but never given up on: hope for a future worth living.  As she picks her way towards the cottage, a roe deer turns its head to watch her.  After a moment of stillness, it bounds away with effortless leaps, white flashes in the dark like a signal from a torch, long after the deer itself has disappeared.

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When Sandi Toksvig complimented me on my German

2017 all 15 to 1 screenshot

I was on TV…again! Last year I went on the TV quiz show Fifteen to One, presented by the marvellous Sandi Toksvig (read all about it here, if you must :). Not long after, they asked me if I wanted another go – hell, yes! I love Fifteen to One! And so I set off again to the Glasgow studios, ready for another day of quiz-filled fun and banter in the green room. My make-up artist also does Amy MacDonald’s make-up,  and when I was done, I looked… sadly, nothing like Amy MacDonald, but like same old me with half a ton of make-up on my face. Ah well. Then, bizarrely, on my show one question after another was German-related! Questions come up randomly, so it was all one weird coincidence, and, unfortunately, I didn’t get any of them (I mean I wasn’t asked the question, not that I didn’t know the answer :).

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Eins: What name, derived from the German word for bone, is usually given to any of the inter-phalangeal joints of the hand?

Zwei: In 1985, at the age of 17, which Tennis player became the first unseeded player in the open era, and also the first German to win the men’s single title at Wimbledon?

Drei: The Head of the German government is known as the Bundeskanzler, or Bundeskanzlerin. This term is usually translated into English as what?

After a while Sandi stopped and turned to me:

“I don’t know if it’s you being on the programme Heike, but this is about the fourth time I’ve said the word German on the show today“. Then –  there was another!

Vier: What name that translates from German as ‘Foam of the Sea’ is given to the soft, white, clay-like mineral, sometimes known as sepialite, that has been used since the 18th century to make smoking pipes, often carved into elaborate shapes?*

Cut – everyone in stitches!

Then I had a question about the phrase in The Shining that Jack Nicholson types out on his typewriter over and over again.

“Incidentally”, Sandi reads off her all-knowing iPad type thing, ”this has been replaced in the German version with the saying what you can do today, don’t wait until tomorrow to do. Would you know what that is?”

Silence. All eyes on me. All I can think of is the mickey-take version which says exactly the opposite: If you can do it today – wait until tomorrow to do it. Then it comes to me:

Was du heute kannst besorgen das verschiebe nicht auf morgen!

2017 last round 3 with Sandi

“That was lovely”, gushes Sandi. “Absolutely lovely! I love languages!”

Aww! Now whilst in the past I’ve occasionally received nice comments about my English, never in my life have I been congratulated on my German before. But there’s a first for everything and I’m being complimented on my German by Sandi Toksvig (unfortunately that bit was lost on the cutting floor – maybe they thought they already had enough German for one show!). Nothing could top this experience, and from that moment on everything else turned into a bit of a blur. Apparently I went on to win the show, but if I didn’t have a trophy sitting on my mantlepiece, I really couldn’t be too sure about that.

 “It was kind of your show, really,” says Sandi to me at the end.

“They should call this one The German Show!”

Indeed! And Sandi can’t know what happened earlier, when my fellow contestants and I lined up in the corridor ready to walk on set. One of us 15 hopefuls remarked that

“This is a bit like lining up to be shot”, and then added,

“Where’s the German?!”

“Don’t know what I should have to do with that”, I grumbled.

And that should have been the end of that one. But the reply came:

“Because you would be the one shooting us!”

Before I could say anything back, it was lights, camera, action. I tried to concentrate on the show, which was a surreal enough experience even without me trying to process the fact that someone had just said a stupid, unfunny and, yes, offensive thing to me. In my previous, very happy almost three decades of living in the UK, nothing like this had ever happened to me, which means so much more than this one-off questionable incident – but, still… And then, in the most bizarre turn of events, The German Show happened, and the person in question knocked out of the game quite early on. Everybody else was extremely lovely and fun, as was the all-over experience. And the rest – is history!

2017 PhD  2017 leaderboard

*answers on a postcard – or: watch the show (26 April 2017) on catch-up –  sponsored, classily,  by Earex Earwax drops – yes, it’s an afternoon show!

Brexit: a victory for ordinary people?

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Words are distributed unevenly in texts. This is a lucky fact for corpus linguists, who study the nature of this distribution, and are often able to identify linguistic patterns which may otherwise remain hidden.  Why should we care?  Here’s an example, based on a) evidence from my collection of 40.000+ digital newspaper articles, aka ‘corpus’, and b) my heart.

This morning that same heart was broken, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I can’t even begin to tell you how devastated that makes me feel. Only yesterday I had such a happy day, because I’d reached a milestone in my PhD: I’d finished processing all my data and had excitedly begun to explore the above-mentioned corpus.

Some words have a tendency to co-occur with others, which is known as collocation. Corpus linguistics makes a strong case for collocations being a more helpful unit of meaning than words.  Take for example the collocation ‘friendly fire’: this phrase means something entirely different to just simply the sum of the words ‘friendly’ + ‘fire’.  So playing around with my corpus of British articles on German, the Germans and Germany, I made a list of frequent collocates of ‘Germans’. Right at the top of the list: ordinary.  When I looked at the concordance lines in detail, they showed that ordinary Germans was almost exclusively used in the context of the darkest chapter in German history, such as:

  • Did ordinary Germans know what was going on?
  • Ordinary Germans were more complicit in the liquidation of European Jewry than historians have previously supposed
  • There were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps
  • A television drama exploring the guilt of ordinary Germans during the Second World War
  • The issue of how much the inhumanity of ordinary Germans was an acquired survival response to the prevailing Nazi terror is sidestepped
  • Her account of ordinary Germans coping with life during wartime
  • At the time Nazism had a powerful appeal to ordinary Germans
  • Hitler didn’t use violence against most ordinary Germans
  • The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans

The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans.  As opposed to whom, extra-ordinary Germans?  Who are these ordinary people?  I don’t really know, but what I do know is that splitting any group or society in a polarised way is a very very bad idea.  Early this morning, an icy chill took hold of my heart when I heard UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s comment on the referendum result: “This will be a victory for ordinary people”.

Suite Française – French film, German perspective

I always keep an ear out for foreign references in English – it’s an occupational hazard.  This week the news headlines were full of foreign, mainly French, words.   Apparently Jeremy Clarkson’s cortege caused a fracas as it was passing through Leicester, because the aiguillettes on the horses’ regalia were by Dolce & Gabbana, which Elton John had told us all to boycott, because they are synthetic.  Or something.

How fitting then that I went to see Suite Française, a French film, or rather a British/French/Belgian film set in France during German occupation, based on Irène Némirovsky’s 2004 novel.

The story of the manuscript is an even more harrowing tale than the fictional plot: The author wrote two novels and the outline of a third in the early 1940s, before she was sent to her death in Auschwitz for being Jewish.  I like to imagine the manuscript languishing in a dusty, cobwebbed attic suitcase for the next half-century, which is pretty close to what happened: Némirovsky’s daughter only discovered it in the 1990s.  It was published in 2004 to great critical acclaim, and became a major bestseller both in France and worldwide.

This film doesn’t look like it’s set to be a big blockbuster, two clues being that there was only one (very late) showing a day, and my companion and I made up the total audience of two.  Bit of an eerie experience, but at least I could give my full attention to what kind of Germans we might encounter here, all in the name of research, of course.

The film centres on a mother and daughter-in-law, the two Mmes Angelliers, but so as to not cause confusion who is who, the young pretty one is called only by her first name, Lucile.  Living in “the best house in the village” in Bussy, just east of Paris, earns them an – at first – unwelcome house guest: Bruno von Falk, a German officer, played by Sasha Baron-Cohen (not really).  Lucile soon finds herself drawn to the former composer, despite his rather limited repertoire: he only seems to know one tune, the eponymous Suite Française, which he insists on playing incessantly.  Both unhappily married to conveniently absent spouses, the doomed lovers try to not arouse suspicion, especially not from the haughty Mme Angelliers the elder. “I thought I was supposed to be the one everyone’s scared of” chuckles Bruno, crouching behind a hedge.  Ahahahahaha!  A German with a sense of humour!  Whatever next?!  Turns out, there’s no follow-up.  In this film, the Germans do what they do best in war films:  they shoot at civilian refugees.  They trash the local mansion and have their wicked way with the village girls.  They shout “Vot is your nehm” and “Pay-pahs” at checkpoints.  One particularly nasty specimen gets his just come-uppance when he gets killed by farmer Benoît Sabarie, whom he tried to repeatedly humiliate.  Hoorah! But Bruno is different.  “I have NOTHING in common with these people”, he tries to get Lucile to understand. In fact, he seems almost as outraged at the defiling of a few hideous paintings and stuffy decorations by his fellow soldiers as at some true horrors that are going on right under his eyes.

True horrors, all caused by the awfulness of people.  The Viscountess makes up a story saying that farmer Benoît threatened her with a gun, which backfires badly (sorry!) as it leads to Benoît shooting the German officer, and then eventually to her husband being executed in Benoît’s place, because, the Germans decide, SOMEONE’S  got do die here!  And just be grateful it’s only one of you, not five as decreed by the even nastier Nazis above!  Everything’s relative, you see.  And with that, the Viscount stoically accepts his fate, looking death – in the shape of a firing squad – straight in the eye.

The good people of Bussy don’t all turn out to be pillars of the community, though.  They bombard Bruno with an unlikely yet powerful weapon, directed at their own neighbours: letters.  Old and new grievances are dug out, embellished or made up entirely and put to paper.  Even Lucile finds more than she bargained for (as you do in movies) when she discovers someone had written in (why?!) with information revealing her husband’s affair and illegitimate daughter.  Sounds like the Stasi would have had a field day recruiting in this village!  Ah, well, never mind Lucile, you’ve got Bruno now, the musical, cultured, humorous, handsome, non-Nazi-ish German!

Or is he?!  One of the film’s themes is not so much the ‘us and them’, goodies versus baddies, but rather the question of what makes ‘the other’.  “They’re just like us”, exclaims an enthusiastic Bussy maiden, before disappearing into the bushes with one of them.  Later, when her new boyfriend treats her and her family with unnecessary violence whilst searching for Benoît, who’s gone on the run, she’s not so sure any more.  The uptight Mme Angelliers, quelle surprise, turns out to be not so bad after all: though an offence punishable by death, she joins forces with Lucile in hiding Benoît from the Germans and helping him escape to Paris to join the resistance.  Benoît seems to have seven lives, as even Bruno, motivated by his love for Lucile, ends up coming to his rescue, never mind the German’s dead Wehrmacht colleagues strewn around the roadblock, mowed down by Lucile and Benoît.  Ah, l’amour… Meanwhile back in the village, Mme Angelliers has taken a liking to the business of hiding people and has replaced Benoît with little Jewish girl Anna as the latest resident of the secret room behind the linen cupboard. She just knew that place would come in useful some time!  Hopefully Anna will know better than to smoke non-German cigars, which nearly led to Benoît’s discovery, if Bruno hadn’t intervened, again.  Eight lives!

It doesn’t end well, though, as you may have guessed – it never does.  I would have really liked to see Lucile’s husband return Poldark-style and a complex, Franco-Germanic love-triangle to ensue, accompanied by the hauntingly simple piano motif of Suite Française – but then, everyone has enough trouble in their lives already.

I left the cinema with a strange feeling that something was missing.  It was only later that it dawned on me what it was:  During the entire film, not a single word of French was spoken.  Dommage.