Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Reading List 2018

I never read as many books in a year as I'd like to, which is one reason I don't set a goal on Goodreads. As a realist, I prefer to not set a goal rather than set one I won't achieve. I just read what I can and enjoy it as I go along. This post comes dangerously close to a reading goal, though, and I'm already feeling skeptical. But let's go with it and see what happens.

I don't like being "between books," which is why I generally read more than one book at a time. One of those needs to be small enough to fit in my purse for train rides and errands (yes, I have been know to whip out a book while waiting in the slow line at the Kasse), which my last novel of 2017 - Ken Follett's a Column of Fire - definitely was not.

In no particular order, here are the books with which I'm planning to start 2018 and how they found their way to my shelves.

Origin, by Dan Brown

I have not read all of Brown's books, but the ones I've read were quite intriguing! Real discussion-starters. I learned he'd come out with a new one in 2017 and promptly put it on my birthday list. My kids ordered that one for me, along with a Column of Fire. I have no doubt I will like it, but it's not purse-size and won't be traveling with me. I'm not going anywhere until the second half of February, so this will probably be my January book.

Nachts ist es leise in Tehran, by Shida Bazyar

I heard about this one when I went to a book reading in Stuttgart about this book. There was a project in 2017 called "Stuttgart liest ein Buch" (Stuttgart reads a book), which encouraged people across the city to read a certain book and attend events at which they could then discuss it. The book they focused on was this one, and I decided to order it.

Moon Palace, by Paul Auster

A teacher friend I met through the AATG (American Assoc. of Teachers of German) listserv who teaches English in a town not far from us gave me this book. Despite the fact that Auster is an American writer, I have never heard of him. Perhaps that's because all the writers I covered in American Lit were long deceased. My friend recommends the book, and I'm usually open to book recommendations!

Schwarzer Neckar, by Thilo Schuerer

Speaking of recommendations, this book has been loaned to me by one of M's employees (I'd also call him a friend of mine). There's a genre called Schwabenkrimis (Swabian crime novels), and this is one such book. I started reading it in the fall but couldn't quite get going - Krimis are not really my thing. It's the start of a series, though, and I really want to at least read this first one. If I like it as much as my friend did, maybe it will open a new genre for me. My challenge with such novels is to force myself not to browse the end when I feel like things are moving too slowly.

By the way, did you notice on my photo above that books printed in English-speaking countries have their titles facing left on the binding, and those printed in Germany face right? (The Auster book is English but was printed in Germany.) This could be really awful for people with OCD. In order for all the titles to face the same way, the German books would need to be shelved upside-down!

Ghostly Tales and Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh, by Alan Wilson, et. al.

My kids and son's girlfriend bought me this book while we were in Edinburgh together last June. This will be a good train book because it's a collection of short stories and a good size for a purse or backpack.

Scottish Folk Tales

The kids (they're adults, but you know how that goes) also bought me this book in Scotland, and since M and I are going there again this year, these two books will put me in the right frame of mind - as if I need books for that. If I haven't read this one by September, I'll take it with me.

the Darling, by Anton Chekhov

This was a gift from a student of mine from Russia, and I want to finally get to it! I'm familiar with Chekhov, but not this story. The book includes several other short stories as well and will be a good train read. I like to make sure I read at least one World Lit classic each year, so this will count for that as well.

Katherine of Aragon, by Alison Weir

My favorite genre is historical fiction, though putting this one on my list for 2018 is cheating a bit. I read most of it in 2017, but then abandoned it temporarily for a Column of Fire. This is not the first time I've spread a book over two years. Alison Weir is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, and I can already see myself reading all six in this series about Henry VIII's ill-fated wives (divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived) as they come out. My son's girlfriend brought my attention to this series, and my Schwiegermutter already has the first two! The third is due out in May, 2018.

Pompeii, by Robert Harris

Don't you love it when you have a book on your shelf for so long that you don't remember how you heard of it or why you bought it? Hello, Pompeii! I don't know what to expect from this one except that, well, I know how it ends. I have another book by Harris - Enigma - but I couldn't get passed the first chapter. I don't know why I bought that one either, but I have higher hopes for Pompeii.

Coole Käuze, by Torsten Pröhl, et.al.

This book is fodder for my Steinkauz obsession. I bought this book to put under the Christmas tree for both M and me, but then my Schwiegermutter gave it to me for my birthday! It is chock-full of beautiful photos of Käuze (a type of owl) and information about their habits and way of life. I'll be taking notes for future blog posts about Alfred when I read this one.
Here I am wearing my
"OMG...I'm holding a Steinkauz!!" face.

Intriguing Owls, by Stan Tekiela

When my mom mentioned  our interest in owls to her cousin, he recommended this book. My mom passed the idea along to M for a Christmas gift, and thus it ended up under the tree. In this one also there is a lot of information about owls, wonderful pictures, and maps showing where in North America the various types of owls mainly reside. This one will be easier for me to read since it's in English, and it will be interesting to compare the information in the two books.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, by Dorothy Wordsworth

This will probably be the most daunting of the books on my current plan. Dorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, and the two of them took a tour together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge through Scotland in 1803. These are her diary entries and thoughts as well as accounts of their travels. I know I will revel in the old-fashioned writing style, but it's a big, heavy, hardcover book that I'll have to read at home. My Schwiegermutter gave this book to me last year for Christmas, but I haven't started it yet. This will be a good year for Scotland reads!

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Here we have the winner of the "Not what I thought this book was about" Award. I'd put it on my Christmas list this year although I do not remember how I heard of it, and my kids bought it for me. It's much bigger/thicker than I was expecting (apparently I neglected to look at how many pages long it is), and the subject matter was a surprise as well. That makes me wonder, "What did I think the book was about?!" The beautifully-titled book is about the Great Migration in the 1930s of African-Americans from the South into the northern states. As I often do with a new book, I read the first few pages to get a taste, and I can say I am looking forward to reading more. I know I will learn a lot about something I hadn't spent much time on previously, and that is one of the main reasons I read!

We readers know what happens to our best-laid plans: new books slither across our radar, jump into our shopping carts, and demand our immediate attention. Most of the books I read in 2017 were unplanned, and quite a few had just been published that year! These are only thirteen books, which should leave room for interlopers along the way of the next twelve months, but several of them are intimidating in size. This is the closest I've ever come to setting a reading goal for [part of] a year, and if I fail miserably I'll probably never do it again. Just writing this post got me eager to get started, though!

Let the readings begin...

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Highs

December has been a nice, normal month here. Few extremes, just a nice, quiet Advent and Christmas holiday. So I thought I'd write a shorter post (M will applaud that) with some photos of the year's highlights.


  • three Kochkurse (cooking classes) at Straub's Krone
  • visits from and with friends

  • time with family

  • Scotland!! (three of the family photos were also taken in Scotland)

  • books

  • two long weekends at the Engel, a Wellness-Hotel in the Schwarzwald

  • owls - specifically Steinkäuze!!

Ich wünsche Euch eine guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr und alles Gute und Liebe für 2018!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Holiday Meals

I'm a planner. This is helpful in Germany during the holidays, since stores are closed on days when big family meals are scheduled. If you forgot to buy carrots for the carrot casserole or a baguette to go with the soup, you're out of luck. There was one year when Schweinebraten (pork roast) was on our plan for New Year's Day, and minutes after the stores closed on Silvester, I realized I'd never bought the roast! I vowed I would never let that happen again.

More on this meal shortly...

Sometime back in November I made a list of meals we'd cook during Christmas, and we assigned them days, padded in between with "leftovers." I made three shopping lists and checked them five times each: one for Mustafa, our Tuesday vegetable guy who was willing to deliver on Friday evening, one for pre-ordered meat from our butcher, and one for the supermarket, which I try to avoid like the Pest during the holidays.

Our refrigerator is not large enough to hold vegetables, milk, cream, cheese, and wine for an entire week (especially because of the quantities of cheese we I require), so we loaded up a cooler to put in the garage. Luckily it's just cold enough for that to work.

Our first unceremonious meal was Toast Hawaii - basically a glorified grilled cheese sandwich. Despite its name it's actually a German concoction of toast, ham, pineapple, and cheese. It's a nice alternative to frozen pizza and, like pizza, also produces no leftovers. This was key.

Toast Hawaii
On Saturday evening we made beef stir-fry with tenderloin and fresh vegetables. This is the only meal I make without a recipe - I just wing it and somehow it works. M did the meat to make sure it was done perfectly, and he also found some good ideas for the sauce, in which we used Wokgewürze from Ankerkraut. I'm notorious for making way too much stir-fry, but this year I judged well and we didn't have leftovers. We were still on track.

Beef stir-fry
Sunday evening was Christmas Eve. Our traditional meal is Raclette, which we think works well for a relaxing evening. Boiled potatoes, fresh mushrooms, ham, cheese...and lots of other snacks to nibble on while waiting for the cheese to melt. The meals are getting better...

Raclette - I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that this was not
too much for the two of us. The ham is sliced really thinly.
Raclette also yields no leftovers. We discovered a few years ago that Raclette cheese is good for nothing except Raclette (hence the name??). It's got a peculiar smell, which tends to permeate the contents of the fridge if not sealed well. Since there's no sense in keeping it for anything, we toss the leftovers. However, because of my careful notes from previous years, we order just the right amounts for the number of people at the table. Raclette, for us, is a perfect Heiligabend dinner.

Then things got weird.

Our plan for Christmas Day was Rehrücken mit Kräuter-Nusskruste, Rosenkohl, und Kartoffelgratin (Saddle of venison with an herb-nut crust, brussels sprouts, and potato-gratin). We had bought a frozen Rehrücken from Metro, and I had found the recipe in Lukullus, the little magazine I pick up from the local butcher each week. M was even willing to try the brussels sprouts, which I inexplicably love.

I did nearly nothing all day except read, M worked on a project he'd been saving for the holidays, I took a nap... At five o`clock we headed into the kitchen to get started on the meal, and discovered...the venison was supposed to have marinated for 3-4 hours. Oops. We scrambled, tossed around our options, and went with a different recipe for half of the meat that didn't require marinating. M also remembered an alternative recipe for brussels sprouts he had seen on our noon show, which looked much more tempting to him because it included bacon.
This recipe only uses the green outer leaves,
so we still had the rest to use for the original recipe the next day.

Although I'd had my heart set on the Kräuter-Nusskruste, this meal was delicious! We'd never made venison ourselves, but this recipe is a keeper. We had a few pieces left over, plus half of the potatoes and most of the brussels sprouts.

Our original plan for the second Day of Christmas was leftovers from Monday, but this turned out even better. We went back to the first recipe, marinated the meat all afternoon, and made the herb-nut-crust. M cooked the meat expertly yet again, and both of us liked this recipe even better than yesterday's. This is the photo you saw at the beginning of this post.

The meal we've settled on for the future is the brussels sprouts recipe from Monday, the potato-gratin, and the venison from Tuesday. Then it will be a perfect meal.

On Wednesday we really had leftovers - the rest of Tuesday's delectable venison, I finished off the sprouts, made fresh broccoli for M, thought about a salad, and we split the last two spoonfuls of potatoes. Almost nothing was wasted.

For Thursday I'd planned gefüllter Lammbraten (stuffed lamb roast), found in another Lukullus magazine. The beauty of not having guests for the holidays was that we could experiment with new recipes to potentially use in the future without worrying about something going wrong and guests going hungry and wishing they hadn't come. We usually make lamb stew, but we wanted to try something new. If it didn't work out, we could always have venison leftovers.

It turned out just fine and was very flavorful,
though less photogenic than the venison.

For Silvester we'll return to a favorite family tradition - fondue and "Dinner for One." I pick up the beef & pork tenderloin from the local butcher in the morning, M makes the fondue soup in the afternoon with roasted beef bones, soup meat, Suppengrün and one Nelke (clove), and while the soup is simmering he makes the Sahnedip. My daughter will be drooling by now...This cream dip is good for dipping vegetables in, spreading on a baguette, and dolloping on the cooked tenderloin. We used to do several dips, but now we don't bother with anything other than the Sahnedip.

This was a few years ago.
We'll only need two plates this year.
Fondue is a great meal for Silvester because it stretches out over a few hours, you're forced to eat slowly, clean-up isn't bad, and it's healthy. Healthy-ish.

We watch the British short comedy "Dinner for One" and giggle like fools every year, grumble about those who shoot off fireworks before midnight, go outside at midnight to toast with glasses of Kessler Sekt while watching the sanctioned fireworks (and M prowls around watching for burning missiles landing on our roof), and then we go to bed because we're too old to keep going.

On New Year's Day we eat the leftover soup with any remaining bits of tenderloin for lunch and have cheese and crackers for dinner.

And that was our meal plan for this holiday season. It's back to spaghetti, casserole, and frozen pizza for the first few days of the new year.

We hope you enjoyed your holiday food fest as much as we did, and we especially hope you had as little stress as we did! Even when something went wrong, we just found a way to deal with it. Easily done when you're only two people...

Lastly, we wish you a Happy New Year and a pleasant, happy, and above all peaceful 2018.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Swabian Traditions: Christbaum loben

"Welch ein schöner Christbaum!"

After five years in southern Germany, I believe I have learned about most of the customs, traditions, and events connected to the Advent and Christmas holidays. Sankt Nikolaus, Christmas markets, Glühwein, Adventskalender, Adventskränze, Heiligabend (Christmas Eve), Dreikönigstag (Epiphany), Weihnachtspyramiden, Räuchermänner and Weihrauch (incense), and "Dinner for One" on Silvester (New Year's Eve).

There's one Swabian tradition I haven't written about yet, though, and that is Christbaum loben - Christmas tree praising. M and I had the opportunity just last year, but now that I've learned more about it, I realize we botched it and need to try again!

Christbaum loben is something that Swabians do "zwischen den Jahren" - between the years, or between Christmas and Epiphany. Traditionally the Christmas tree goes up and is decorated on Christmas Eve, so this can't be done in the weeks before Christmas, as it could in Wisconsin where Christmas trees and decorations are often up the whole month of December.

Here's the procedure:

  • Visit a friend's, neighbor's, colleague's, or acquaintance's home, even unannounced.*
               *Do not ever visit a Swabian's house unannounced at any other time during the year. Phone first.

  • After being invited in, make your way toward the Christbaum.
Photo & tree credit: Heather (one of my students)
Used with permission

  • Proceed with voluminous, enthusiastic, very un-German praise** of the Christbaum.
    **It does not actually matter if you like the tree or not; this is the one situation in Germany when sincerity and directness is tossed out the window. Even the negative qualities of the tree should be lavishly praised: "Look at that beautiful bald spot! Where there are no branches at all, it's so easy to grab hold of the trunk to move the tree! How convenient!"  "How ever did you get such a lovely stumpy tree to lean so far to the left?!"  "The wall color shows so nicely through the branches!"  "Look at that - the entire tree is decorated in only one color! And what a lovely shade of brown it is!"
    Praise the shape of the tree, the Schmuck (ornaments), the candles or lights, the Standort (location) stuffed into the corner between two sofas... Every conceivable trait.

  • After every single guest has generously extolled the virtues of the Christbaum, the hosts bring out the reward. Act pleasantly surprised and over-pleased at this, even though it's obligatory: the Schnaps (or wine)! The hosts also offer Christmas cookies or Stollen, or leftover Christmas fruitcake that nobody wanted in the first place.

  • After a dram and a nibble, it's time to make your way toward the door - not forgetting to throw a last bit of additional praise at the Christbaum as you pass - thank your hosts for their hospitality, and decide which house you'll visit next.

  • Repeat at each subsequent home.

Sometimes with a Verein (club), the members will make an afternoon and evening of visiting each other member's home, or the hosting duties are rotated from year to year. They sometimes make a competition out of it, using actual score sheets to rate each tree on its size, symmetry (or lack thereof), Nadelfestigkeit (are the needles still strongly attached or are they starting to shed already?) straightness, decoration creativity, etc.

If, for any other reason, you happen to pop in to visit someone "between the years," you should be ready for "spontanes Loben" - spontaneous tree praise. Basically, whenever you find yourself near someone's Christbaum, praise it! It's enough to use the line with which I started this post: "What a lovely tree!" You may probably will get a Schlückchen (nip/dram) for your trouble, because Swabians always have a bottle of wine or Schnaps on hand.

What if you go visiting and your host doesn't have a tree? After all, some people don't bother if they're older or the kids aren't coming home anyway. No problem! There's a solution for that as well (Germans are great planners) - "Loben mit eigenem Baum" (praising your own tree). If you think you might face this potentially awkward situation, just bring your own! Most flower shops have small tabletop trees which fit in the back of your car - just bring it in and set it in the middle of the room for everyone to compliment! The host is still obliged to provide the Schnaps, and you can take your tree with you when you leave.

Swabians apparently started this tradition around the end of the 19th century. There are several theories as to why it developed, one being that Swabians don't have time during the year for social contact - because they're working all the time. Many people are off "between the years," so the Swabians get their socializing for the year accomplished then. It also makes for a good excuse to share a medicinal dram without feeling guilty. It's tradition!

We wish you and your  loved ones a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays
and a good slide into the New Year!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Three Things: Holiday Edition

As often happens, I read a blog post on Confuzzledom that I want to do for myself! Bloggers borrow ideas and themes from each other all the time, and it's fun when others we read follow suit. So while M struggles putting up "the damn tree" and fighting with the string of lights that look like candles, I'll just hide here in the office writing another blog post. In a while I'll pop out to give him my assessment, but I'm always easier to please than he is. "Almost perfect" is good enough for me!

Three Things: the Holiday Edition

Three Things I love about Christmas

  1. Weihnachtsmärkte / Christmas markets

  2. Time off for M. As a teacher, I've always had 1+ weeks off over the Christmas holidays, but here in Germany even M gets to spend less time in the office. The European companies they work with are quiet as well since almost everyone is off for the holidays, but they have clients in other parts of the world who may require attention. At most, though, he only has to pop in for a few hours here and there, and we have more time together.

  3. Bescherung / gift exchange. There are always gifts I either give or receive which are just fun. This year we'll be alone, but there are two gifts I can't wait for M to open! 

Three Things I dislike about Christmas

  1. Santa songs. The absolute worst for me is "I saw Mommy kissing Santa" - Ugh! A few years ago I made two CDs of my favorite Christmas songs, and I really only listen to those. When listening to the radio or watching a Christmas show, I hit "mute" any time a Santa song comes on. I don't have anything against Santa - it's just songs about him that bug me. I like the traditional or classical Christmas songs.

  2. White Elephant gift exchanges. This was funny the first two times, 30-some years ago. But I'm very glad to say I've never heard of this kind of party game going on here in Germany.

  3. Any stress from: rushing, something not being done when it needs to be for dinner, driving in snow and ice to get to church or a relative's house, impatient or overtired kids... We don't have any of that here, but I do associate Christmas in Wisconsin with stress, which is a shame. 

Three Favorite Christmas Movies

  1. the Holiday

  2. Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel - totally kitschig (cheesy), but it's a family tradition

  3. Joyeux Noel

Three Favorite Christmas Treats

  1. Gebrannte Mandeln / roasted almonds

  2. My family's green and red cookies. I've never seen anything like them anywhere else, and I don't know what they're made of or how to describe them.

  3. Chocolate eaten guilt-free

Three Favorite Christmas Traditions

  1. Putting up our Germerican Christmas decorations - my Dept. 56 Alpine Village scene, our Weihnachtspyramid from the Erzgebirge, our Advent wreath, and my nativity scene.

  2. Watching Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel on Christmas Eve

  3. Raclette on Christmas Eve

Three Favorite Christmas Songs

  1. Christmas Pipes, by Celtic Woman

  2. Breath of Heaven, by Amy Grant

  3. Do You Hear What I Hear, by Regney & Baker*
*I just learned that this song was written in 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Three Favorite Gifts Received

  1. Buffy, my Sheltie

  2. M - we got officially engaged on Christmas Eve

  3. Books. All the books - books are always among my favorite gifts in any given year. Also this storybook my mom made for us, with text from a never-published blog post and photos she collected over the years and from my Schwiegermutter.

Three Gifts I want to give the World

  1. Empathy and understanding, to see that we are all in this together.

  2. Food, stable shelter, and healthcare for every person.

  3. Inner peace and tranquility to weather the difficult times and revel in the joyous ones.

It's your turn! What will your "Three Things: Holiday Edition" look like?