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Archive for May, 2011

Naked in Berlin

Display on nudism in the former East Germany. DDR Museum Berlin, by Karl Gunnarsson

It’s ladies day at the sauna in my local gym in East Berlin and I’m almost mesmerized by the amount of flesh on show. I’ve found myself sharing the small wooden enclosure with three elderly East German ladies all of whom are blessed with ham-like thighs and the most impressively enormous pendulous breasts.

The women are nattering away as I slink in and soon draw me into their conversation. They tell me about growing up in the area and how much it has changed. They all worked as nurses and in their day they had no time for hanging out in cafes with their strollers like all the current trendy mums in the hood. I nod and smile and sweat, all the time slightly mortified because I am Irish and NAKED IN FRONT OF STRANGERS.

It’s something I’ve had get used to in a city where people whip off their clothes willy-nilly. In saunas, at the gym, badminton courts, the parks, a friend even reported seeing someone wearing just a purse and flip-flops in a shop, the Germans are happy to let it all hang out, no matter what the size or shape. In the summer you can barely go a week without encountering a bronzed-to- within-an inch- of-leather figure coming at you.

Coming from a nation that should get a prize for the ability to put on swimsuits with one hand while clinging for dear life to the corners of a towel with the other, this can be a traumatic encounter. And eventually there is little choice but to join in. Never mind the bratwurst and the biergartens, the sign of true integration is being able to get naked with the Germans.

And far from being some kind of army of extras in a Leni Riefenstahl film, they are not really that dissimilar from us. A bit taller, a bit less pear-shaped, not quite so pasty, but they have scar tissue, purple veins and knobbly knees too and the weight of gravity works as much on their breasts and buttocks as on the rest of us.

It’s just something they have no absolutely no self-consciousness about. Nudism has been something of a cause in Germany since the 19th century and in the 20s became associated with all kinds of utopian ideals. FKK, Freiekörperkulutur (free body culture) is as ingrained as having mayonnaise with your chips or a strange obsession with white asparagus.  In the former East it was particularly popular, a sort of escape from the preponderance of uniforms, pins and badges that declared one’s loyalty to the communist regime. In nudity everyone truly was equal.

Public disrobing has become easier over time. It is simply quicker and easier to perform a clean strip at the swimming pool or sauna than all that rigmarole of hiding the bits that everyone else is displaying so nonchalantly. And the city is also full of great Turkish baths where you hang about semi naked for hours, popping in and out of the saunas and steam rooms and sipping mint tea. No one is batting an eyelid so in the end you don’t too much yourself, at least not too much. Somewhere the Catholic schoolgirl within is still uncomfortable with so much brazenness.

My first real plunge was back in the mid 90s. I shared a ramshackle flat with two other Irish lasses in the former East. The toilet was out on the landing and there was no bathroom but for a few blessed months the contraption of a shower that had been erected in our kitchen worked fine. It took half an hour to heat up the water in the tank per shower, and we often had another 3 or 4 people sleeping on our floor, but that was what mornings were for, to sit around drinking tea and coffee and talking about maybe looking for a job as a cleaner that afternoon… or tomorrow… or next week.

Then the shower broke and our neighbour downstairs came to the rescue. Martin, an East Berliner, had the luxury of a bachelor pad all to himself, though this consisted of one room, with open plan kitchen and shower. I didn’t know Martin that well, I had arrived to the city later than the other two and had managed to avoid this exhibitionist cleansing ritual by having a boyfriend not too far away with a tremendously fabulous bathroom. Then me and the fella sort of split up and it was perhaps the white tiles, the gleaming taps and the shower nozzle that I missed the most.

So off I trudged to Martins with my towel and shampoo and not a little trepidation. He flung back the door, wearing his tie-dyed t-shirt and a bleary-eyed look from too much of something, and pottered back to his armchair to listen to dub music; Martin only ever listened to dub music. Here goes, I thought. I quickly shed my clothes on the floor, hopped into the shower unit and had the fastest soap and scrub known to womanhood, before shoving on my clothes again, grunting Danke and running back upstairs.

A few hours later my flatmate came back from her own shower hooting with laughter. “You stripped in front of bloody Martin!”  “Er, yes isn’t that what you guys have been doing?” She snorted in disbelief. Oh no, like the demure well-brought up ladies they were, they always brought an extra towel to hang over the side of the shower, shielding them from their host’s gaze

From then on Martin was a lot friendlier to me, not in a creepy way, just in a way that implied acceptance and respect. That said: Hey, Mädel, you are one of us now.

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Fresh from having to buy his own Guinness in Moneygall (didn’t we learn from Primary Colours that elected officials never carry their money?), the Obamas have now been subjected to the Great British Barbecue. The name in itself is bothersome because to an American, a ‘barbecue’ is a deep South tradition involving whole chickens, racks of ribs bigger than the average Corgi, and heaps of ‘special recipe’ barbecue sauce with lashings of Jack Daniels.  It’s a very different meal from the array of charred processed meats that we Europeans might indulge in; that’s ‘grilling’, a softy Yankee art form.

Now *that’s* what I call a barbie

(image c/o Wikipedia’s ‘Southern Barbecue’ entry)

Still, semantics aside, the men were  jockeying for position over the burgers (cue much giggling about Nick Clegg being relegated to coal-prodding duty) whilst Michelle Obama and Sam Cam served the salads.

The obvious political photo-ops aside, this was bound to provoke yelps of ‘but why can’t the women be on sausage duty?’ (perhaps more tastefully put than that, and ignoring the obvious point that the real work will be done by a bunch of Secret Service guys dressed up as caterers).

The whole idea of the barbecue as the last bastion of testosterone makes me giggle. In my ‘mixed marriage’, my vegetarian husband is firmly in charge of any kind of ‘green shit’, whereas the position of Meat Mistress is equally firmly mine. Every year, when the weather gets good, my thoughts turn to firestarting in the proximity of gas canisters, to finding the best short ribs known to (wo)man and to experimenting with the marinades to see which bring the best flames (what’s a barbie without a blaze atop it?).  After ten years with my husband, I’ve learned to love the green stuff, and all winter long, we generally eat the same veggie food. But at the first glimpse of sunshine, the carnivore in me rises up from the core and my thoughts turn to juicy steak, to salmon with soy sauce, to prawns with roasted garlic. OK, so we’re pretty good at figs and balsamic, at grilled asparagus, at Portobello mushrooms in Hawaiian spices. But there’s nothing masculine about THIS grill queen. If I were the President’s wife (one can dream), I’d be barging in there, apron akimbo, desperate to get at the good stuff.

And it does beg the question; what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primaries? Would she have been allowed her time with the tongs whilst Bubba, a Southern-barbecue aficionado, tossed salads and discussed Erdem with Sam? Perish the thought.

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I’m not a big fan of dieting (who is?) but I do get a little thrill when I can find a way to make my favorite comfort foods a lot healthier. Whether it’s lasagna or burgers, comfort foods are generally great for the soul but terrible for the waistline.

After a few experiments, I figured out how to make a fantastic batch of baked onion rings that are as crispy and satisfying as the fried variety. I also created a lighter version of a pizza Margherita, one of my go-to dishes at any Italian joint. My pizza doesn’t have the heft of the original but the flavours are all there, and while it won’t fill you up quite like regular pizza it’ll squash that craving without the guilt.

Baked Onion Rings

2 onions, peeled and cut into thick slices (rings!)

4 tablespoons white flour

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 eggs, beaten

1.5 – 2 cups (just use a tea or coffee cup) of Japanese panko* breadcrumbs

Olive oil or plain oil spray

Preheat the oven to 200 C. Put the flour, paprika, garlic powder and sea salt into a large, Ziploc bag. In batches of a half-dozen or so, place the onion rings in the bag, close and shake so that the rings are lightly coated with the flour mixture.

Place the beaten eggs in a large shallow dish and toss the coated onion rings into the egg to give them a light coat. The flour coating has to go on first as otherwise the egg mixture will not stick to the onion.

Put the panko breadcrumbs into another large Ziploc bag. Again in batches, place the onion rings into the bag, close and shake until the rings are coated in the breadcrumb mixture.

Place the rings on a large baking tray and lightly spray with the oil spray. Bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until golden brown on the outside. Serve with ketchup or your favorite sauce.

*Panko breadcrumbs are available at most Asian food markets and are essential for this recipe as they are super crispy!

Super Light Pizza Margherita

2 whole wheat flour tortillas

1 small jar of pizza sauce

A few slices of low-moisture, skim mozzarella

10 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Handful of fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 200 C. In the meantime, heat up a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place one of the tortillas in the pan, watching it carefully so it does not burn. It’s good to try to crisp up the tortillas a bit before they go into the oven. Flip it every minute or so, until it starts to get a little crisp – about 4-5 minutes. Repeat with the other tortilla.

Put as much or as little pizza sauce on each tortilla as you like, divide up the slices of mozzarella between the two tortillas and add the tomato. Bake for 8 minutes on a large baking tray, remove from oven and add fresh basil. Slice and serve while hot.

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I had a meeting last week with some people involved in adult education. As a writer who counts teaching creative writing as one of her jobs, it’s an area that I hover at the fringes of. On the one hand, yes, I teach adults (some of the time) – they are evening classes; they are for self-improvement; they are usually people who come not just in search of facts and figures but how to apply what they already know to what they’re trying to do next and how to learn in this new field. On the other hand, they are not practical in the sense of providing one with a certificate that can be used to go on and do something else with; they are not things you pass or fail.

I’m on the fringes of ‘ordinary’ education too. I’m not an English teacher. I sometimes go into English classes or school libraries, but I’m not there to teach the syllabus and get students passing their exams. I teach on specialist programmes, things that complement the ‘normal’ education people get in school. So it maybe wasn’t too surprising that I found myself surprised by the way ‘adult education’ was conceptualised as something opposed to ‘ordinary education’, as though children will simply absorb whatever you say without questioning its purpose while adults need to see the relevance of something to their own experience. When we talked about the kinds of activities that might be suitable to adult ed, I found myself drawing on activities I use at a summer course I teach to/facilitate for teenagers. It seems so bizarre to me that lines are drawn between the adult ed student and the regular student, the grown-up and the adolescent. When you teach the stuff that’s not on the syllabus, in environments where learners are more often than not there because they want to be, you see the similarities much more than the differences.

The same week, I read yet another book about gifted children, When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All The Answers. One of the specialist programmes I teach on is aimed at gifted kids and teens, and it’s an area that fascinates me, so I try to keep up with the books and guides and research as much as I can. There’s one part that stays with me – a comment about how we so often tell kids it’s okay ‘as long as they did their best’ or we tell them ‘just do your best’. At everything. And it asks us, how many adults do we know that do their best at everything they do?

We live in an era of retraining and career-shifting, a time when adults are often continuing education formally or informally, trying to improve themselves or change themselves. We see what works for adult learners and we develop new ways of teaching and facilitating accordingly. I just wonder how much of that we can apply to younger learners, rather than assuming they are somehow ‘built’ to learn or that there are skills necessary for learning that we want young people to have but don’t have ourselves and somehow manage to get by. There are things that younger learners don’t know, haven’t experienced, have trouble with, sure – but they’re not entirely different creatures.

For any of the rest of you, readers or contributors, what do you think of the differences between learning as an adult and learning at a ‘standard’ age? Do we expect something different from our experiences learning as an adult – or do we respond to the different way we’re taught?

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A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.

Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember – and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.

My grandmother, Florence Heathcote, during her military days.

Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls – washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her  during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.

Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.

She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.

One of Nanna's newspaper cuttings. (Yes, that's her in the background, but don't tell.)

I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.

I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.

But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.

The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”

She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”

Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”

There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going –  and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.

We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.

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As a sport, and as an abstract concept, badminton has always seemed pretty inoffensive. Professional badminton players do not take out super-injunctions. Badminton fans are never accused of starting riots that tarnish their country’s image abroad. For many years, badminton was the non-sporty person’s sport of choice. It was the type of Tuesday evening activity to which a man brought his wife along for a spot of mixed doubles against an equally married couple, who would argue furiously about the best way to hold a shuttlecock, and then win.

So it’s kind of surprising that the root of almost all evil appears to be lurking within the Badminton World Federation.

On June 1st, its all-male executive board is scheduled to implement new clothing regulations that force women players to wear skirts or dresses as “part of an overall campaign to raise the profile of women in badminton and the profile of the sport”.

Acceptable attire for female competitors, according to guidelines issued by badminton's governing body. The lucky ladies will also be allowed wear "skorts" or skirts over tracksuits/leggings.

It is sexy time on the back alley. (That’s a badminton term.)

The new rules have already caused uproar among Muslim players, prompting the Islamic party in Malaysia, where the BWF is based, to call for a boycott of top tournaments. Perhaps sensing that Islam has the greater experience when it comes to dress code enforcement, the BWF delayed the introduction of “Rule 19.2” by a month and “clarified” its stance: “[The new regulations] will not in any way discriminate against any religious or other beliefs, and respects women. Players will continue to wear shorts if they wish but simply wear a skirt over the top of the shorts.”

But what reason could there possibly be for making female athletes – people whose success depends on the strength of their smashes and the delicacy of their drop shots – wear a superfluous piece of fabric? I’m stumped. Could it be that the unnamed “external international marketing agency” that advised the BWF on its policy are closet Kournikova-ites?

BWF deputy president Paisan Rangsikitpho believes the new skirt rules will “enhance the presentation of the game in general” and help the sport attract “a wider target group amongst both younger and older people, and amongst both women and men, where an aesthetic and stylish presentation of the players is certainly an important factor”. The guidelines do not “push any women to wear clothing they are not comfortable with” and the BWF is certainly not portraying women as “sexual objects”, he insists.

“However, they have to wear a skirt.”

There are no double faults in badminton. Doublethink, on the other hand…

Lady shuttlers! What are you thinking wearing these hideously unfeminine items?! You'll empty the arenas in no time.

If the BWF wants to talk about style rather than sexism, allow me to examine its statement on those grounds for a moment. Its stance is that having a piece of material flouncing against their thighs (but not joining up between them) makes women athletes aesthetically pleasing enough to pull in hordes of hypothetical spectators – even though if there’s one female fashion trend that reliably infuriates the men I know, it’s skirts-over-trousers.

One of the hallmarks of the “stylish” is that their clothes are some kind of twist, with varying degrees of rebelliousness, on the norms of the context in which they are worn – usually by borrowing from the style tradition of another context. It’s a subtle negotiation. I would no more wear my high-waisted black tulip skirt to a badminton session than I would sport one of Sue Sylvester’s Adidas tracksuits to a tango class.

Badminton bosses have their sensitive eyes on the sponsor-friendly style showcase that is the ladies’ tennis tour. That’s their context. But they’ve forgotten that style, by definition, is personal. Take away the element of choice and there is no style, only a uniform. And what players and spectators alike will recognise is that this uniform is crafted from unpleasant, exploitative motivations. Come see our cuties perform!

Objections from Australia, China, Indonesia, India and the Scandinavian countries mean the BWF’s plans for world domination via the swish of a few A-lines may yet be thwarted. Worryingly though, it seems badminton isn’t the only sport where the governing bodies are seeking to glamorize and feminise women athletes in accordance with male, corporate ideas of glamour and femininity.

Even more bizarrely, the International Boxing Association is reportedly quite keen that women boxers wear skirts at the London 2012 Olympics. This has spurred Peter Taylor, father and coach of Irish boxer Katie Taylor, to put in a pre-emptive strike by telling The Examiner that his daughter simply won’t box in a skirt: “We’ve got morals that go above marketing. It’s discrimination. It’s obviously men making these decisions and it’s wrong.”

There may be alternative ways to resist, other than refusing to compete. “I have an idea for how I am going to combat it, but I’ll keep it secret for now,” the Scottish badminton player Imogen Bankier has tantalisingly said of her sport’s “silly” and “unnecessary” clothing regulations.

Perhaps all the women players could show up to the next high-ranking tournament in fishtailed maxi dresses and make a mockery of the BWF with every hobble and lurch.

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This is a small rant, or maybe it’s not really a rant but an appeal. I was at the recent National Women’s Council of Ireland meeting titled ‘Women in the Media, Not’ and it was generally brilliant. There was an initiative to encourage radio and television producers to air more women, including an innovative list of possible experts in a wide range of areas so that the old excuse of ‘there are no women’ would not hold up. However a big element of the conference seemed to be to encourage women to say yes! if they are asked to give their opinion on any subject, as hesitation and unavailability are the real enemy to female participation in the media. A very encouraging and motivational atmosphere so far, the underlying message seemed to be that individual women had to take some responsibility for being out of the limelight, and increased exposure of any description is good for all women and especially girls who are used to taking a back seat.

However, one member of the panel got up to speak and revealed that a year ago she had been handed her ideal once-in-a-lifetime job. As editor of a newly launching news website she was being given creative and directional control, and full respect and power, by her financial backers, the only reservation she had going in was her two young children. She then rather painfully revealed that she had decided to give up this position, which she admitted to loving and being good at, as she could no longer cope with the responsibility of motherhood and a more-than full-time job. I say ‘painfully’, as the decision was still raw and the language she used to describe her obligation to her children was of guilt for neglecting them and uncomfortableness with leaving her children in substandard childcare (being unable to afford a more stable solution). I did not know what I expected after such a statement, but I’m still in shock over what did happen. Over the course of the conference audience members were allowed to talk and shortly one women rose to say she supported this journalist fully and that motherhood was the most important function of women and the youngest years were the most formative yadda yadda yadda and then someone else at the back concurred. Susan McKay as chair did emphasise that the NWCI supported all women, no matter their position, yet the one voice suggesting mothers and fathers be joint parents was lost.
Now, I do not know this journalist or her husband’s profession, and it’s none of my business personally how she arranges her work and childcare, but I was dissatisfied with the response from the room full of experienced worldly women. I realise now that I expected genuine sympathy for this journalist, and anger that she has all the opportunities in the world and is unable to take advantage of them. At a conference detailing the lack of women available to talk on radio, or appear on television, or write, we did not lament this loss of one more fiery journalist.
Parenthood is great, I’m sure and people do find it fulfilling, but in Ireland it is also a trap. By elevating expensive childcare out of reach of the poorer classes we denigrate their struggles as working parents and by elevating motherhood over parenthood, or any ‘other one versus the other’ mentality we will always feel guilty over our choices. That is another argument. This argument is: where is the anger? It may be an unanswerable question for the women’s movement, but that does not mean we should feel helpless. Why is no one else angry that this accomplished, intelligent woman has to sacrifice her dream job because she simply cannot juggle anymore? So I will say it now, to this woman. I am genuinely sorry that she had to give up a position that had obviously brought her much joy and professional satisfaction. I understand that she wanted to give her children the best childhood possible and I hope that they appreciate all that she does for them. I also hope that in the future there are more options available.
Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller is an Irish-Trinidadian artist studying Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College, Dublin. Some of  her work will be shown as part of the ‘Queer as Political’ art exhibition in Cork opening on June 3rd at The Other Place.

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