Saturday, 29 October 2011

Before October Ends...

...let me show you the marvellous sunrise I observed yesterday morning just before 8.00 from my kitchen window.

The saying goes that such a colourful sunrise means bad weather, but all of yesterday was sunny and mild. Today looks a bit overcast, and at only 10 Celsius (50 F), it is cooler than yesterday, so maybe the saying is right.

My parents and I are going to visit my godmother and her family in a nearby small town this afternoon, to uphold the lovely German tradition of meeting for coffee and (preferably home-made) cake.
Her daughter, who I have not seen in - I think - 10 years, will also be there, and I am quite looking forward to this.

Since Monday night, my computer is back up and running! I can play my games again, and of course there is now nothing that keeps me from blogging more (I didn't really want to use the corporate laptop for that; my previous post was from there and it was NOT done during working hours, but still...).

Enjoy the weekend, whatever you'll be doing!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

I've Been Watching...

...more telly during this week than usual (I usually don't watch TV at all), mostly because I can not use my personal computer these days (the HDD is gone and I may or may not lose some pictures, saved games and other stuff, entirely due to me being lazy about regularly backing it up) to play my favourite computer game, and because I was in between books.

Last night, I happened to come across a movie that had already started; the first 15 minutes or so were over by the time I got there. What I saw was a youngish man sitting next to a life-size, life-like doll (the kind that is sold as sex doll) at the dinner table, and another man and woman (both real, not dolls) sitting opposite. They were eating, and talking, and it quickly transpired from the conversation that the man with the doll was firmly convinced that the doll was a real woman, while the couple (obviously close friends or relatives to him) were, for some as yet unknown to me reason, playing along with him, also acting as if the doll was real.

This bit I found intriguing enough to stay on that channel and watch the whole movie, which was "Lars and the Real Girl" from 2007, starring Ryan Goslin, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson, many other people and, of course, a "Real Doll" (as they are really called).

I had not known of or heard about this movie before, and so I had no idea what it really was about. Instead, for a long time I was waiting for the doll actually coming to life - do you remember the 80s movie in which a shop mannequin comes alive? Or "Splash", also from the 80s, which features Daryl Hannah as a real mermaid? There were quite a few such fairytale stories in those days, and although they are all more or less silly, they make for an entertaining two hours or so, and so I thought, why not, and kept watching.

Well, in "Lars and the Real Girl", the doll does not come alive. Never. The young man who is convinced she is his living, breathing girlfriend is the only one who sees her like that; to everyone else, she is just a doll. At least to begin with.

Lars is a bit of a loner and has problems with social interactions; at home, at work, and at the church he regularly attends. As the story develops, we learn that these problems stem from an unhappy childhood. Lars has reached a point where nobody can even touch him - literally. It hurts him, he says, as when you've been out in the cold for too long and your frozen limbs slowly warm up again.

Because Lars has become so delusional about "Bianca", and his brother and sister-in-law deeply care about him and worry about his mental health, they agree to atheir doctor's suggestion to play along with it, pretending to welcome Lars' "girlfriend" into the family. Bianca gets to sleep in the guest room; her inability to move on her own is explained by Lars with an illness and very low blood pressure, and she is taken around in a wheel chair all day. Because of her "illness", Lars and Bianca go to see the doctor (played by the wonderful and wonderfully beautiful Patricia Clarkson) regularly, and while Bianca has to "rest" after her "treatment", the doctor talks to Lars, trying to get to the root of the problem.

In their day to day lives, Lars works at an office where a young woman is clearly interested in him. He shies away from her, and yet it bothers him when eventually she has a boyfriend. Lars' brother and sister-in-law are going to have their first child, and their daily and weekly routine quickly incorporates Bianca, as it would if she was a real human being with special needs. She is washed and clothed, "fed", taken out for shopping and to church, and put to bed like a child at night.

The small town community soon adopt her for Lars' sake, who introduces the doll to everyone as his girlfriend. They welcome the couple at church with a bunch of flowers for Bianca, and they even take her out for some volunteer work such as reading to a group of children, or for a haircut at the beauty salon.

Nobody has any idea where it is all going to lead, and, frankly, I found it at times rather too unrealistic how everybody rallies round and joins the pretend play. In all communities, no matter how big or small, there is bound to be someone who won't do what everybody else sees as the decent thing to do, and I would have expected Lars and Bianca to be ridiculed by some people.

Eventually, through all the interactions brought on through Bianca with his neighbours, co-workers and church members, Lars becomes less of a loner and his social interactions less awkward.
How he finds his way back into the real world, where dolls are just dolls and neither can nor should replace human friends, I won't tell you here, because it would mean to spoil it for you, should you decide to watch the movie yourself.

It is a rather sweet story about friendship and love, in the family and out, and worth watching, I think.

The season and the weather are used as dramatic devices. When the story begins, it is winter, with deep snow everywhere, and people all dressed in heavy coats and woolly hats, scarves and gloves. With the unfolding of events, there is a subtle change in the weather, even a day or two of thawing, before frost hits again and it snows once more. However, the film ends with the first fine days of warmer weather and a promise of spring and better times to come. All this is subtly related to what happens with Lars and Bianca and Lars' colleague.

If you happen to come across it somewhere, maybe you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Let The Music Play

This post is going to be a bit different in that I will "show" you some music (one can't really "show" music, because music is not visual but acoustic, right?), so if you are generally not too keen on clicking youtube videos, just skip this post and wait for the next one.
Some of you may remember that I was telling you about my first dance lesson ever back in March. There has been some progress since, in spite of a 2 1/2 month break during The Summer We Did Not Have, mainly due to a different schedule for the dance parties.
By now, I am quite able to spend two thirds of the time on the dance floor when we go to the Saturday night dance; I can now do Tango, Slow Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Rumba, Cha Cha, Disco Fox, and a tiny bit of Bachata. Sunday afternoon's lesson in my living room included Samba and Blues, but I am not ready to do those in public yet - at least not before 11.00 pm, when my favourite hour at the party begins:
many couples leave by then, and there are only a few left. The DJ takes requests, and usually by then I am in such a "couldn't care less" mood that I am ready to try something new there and then, without having been taught first in the comfort of my living room with nobody watching.

Last Saturday, we had once again so much fun, and the DJ played our favourite Bachata song:

Mind you, it looks slightly different when we do the Bachata - for one thing, we are not dancing barefoot on sand ;-)

While I'm at it, let me also show you my favourite Cha Cha track:
(just skip the first 30 seconds, they're just babble)

And although I am now risking to have everybody incredulously shake their heads at me for the cheesiness of the next track - it's a Rumba, nice and easy to do (the first two minutes, that is - the rest is just for fun):

This song was also played last Saturday; it is (surprise, surprise!) a Disco Fox:

Oh, I could go on and on now that I've started youtubing for my favourite dance tracks! This one was played at the first dance party I ever went to, on June 11th of this year - it is another Cha Cha: 

 A lot of the songs they play at the Saturday dance parties are not at all my taste, and I find it difficult to dance to music I don't like. But I have become better at regarding them more as pace makers to practice the various dances than as music to be enjoyed per se; there are still songs I will refuse to dance to (much to the chagrin of RJ), but I keep learning new steps and so we do not have to sit at the side much anymore.

Saturday nights have truly become something to look forward to!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Read in 2011 - 23: Wenn die Dämmerung naht

Every now and then, I read a book in German, which was the case with this one, "Wenn die Dämmerung naht" by Peter Robinson. And throughout the book, I kept wishing I'd been reading the original English version - because while I did not find any type setting errors (and if you have been reading my blog for a while, you'll know how meticulous I am about those), more than once I read the German sentence and just KNEW what it must have been in English, and found the translation lacking. Overall, the lady who translated the book still did a good job, just not a brilliant one.

If you have read any of the books by Peter Robinson, you are familiar with DCI Alan Banks and DI Annie Cabbot, as well as with quite a few other characters you'll meet again in this story, such as Winsome Jackman, the athletic and beautiful Detective Constable, and Kevin Templeton, who manages to be so NOT politically correct all the time that his colleagues truly despair.

The original title of this book is "Friend of the Devil". It is, as all the Alan Banks series, set in Yorkshire, with the main locations being Eastvale and Whitby. Leeds and Scarborough are also mentioned, and especially the scenes set in the latter evoked quite a bit of nostalgia in me; with my late husband, I went to Scarborough on holiday for many years, and with every name of a street or a place I had a clear picture in my mind of what it looked, smelled and sounded like.

Annie Cabbot has been transferred to a different police unit than Alan Banks, and the two of them do not see or hear a lot of each other. This changes when their current cases show a link - a link that leads 18 years in the past.
Annie's case is that of a woman in a wheelchair, found murdered at the edge of a cliff, and Alan has to deal with a dead girl found in the "Labyrinth", an area of dark, narrow alleyways between ancient houses either empty or used as storage sheds, just behind Eastvale's market square. At first glance, they seem to have nothing to do with each other, but once the connection is made, Alan and Annie and their teams work together, and the deeper they dig in the past, the more mysterious it gets. A member of their team falls victim to the murderer, and we read how police men and women react when a colleague is killed. During the "showdown" with the murderer, it seems like Annie is going to be next, but in the end it turns out that she never was in any danger. Not this time, at least.

The personal lives of the main characters also feature in the story. Alan falls in love again, but the direction of the relationship is unknown. Annie gets herself into some trouble, and her drinking causes problems to herself and to others.

As with the other Alan Banks stories, this one is a good read and there is plenty of suspense. It took me almost as long as it took Annie to figure out who the murderer of the woman in the wheelchair was, and I was surprised at the turn of events that lead to Alan finding the murderer of the girl in the Labyrinth.
There are some gruesome events, but they are not described in such detail that I found it unbearable to read. The setting is atmospheric and (most of) the characters act credibly.

Next time I come across an Alan Banks book, I am definitely going to read that, too - preferably in English :-)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

This one is for Kay: Sauerkraut!

Ever since I have started working from home, I've been to my parents' for lunch once a week, with the exception of those few weeks during which I was travelling.
My mum is an excellent cook, and a few years ago, she became moderator at one of Germany's biggest cooking forums on the internet. She regularly posts her recipes there, always using her own photos, and she has kindly allowed me to use them on here as well.
Not long ago, we had Sauerkraut for lunch, and I mentioned this to Kay who is one of my most regular readers on here. She asked for the recipe - here it is!

Meike's Mum's Sauerkraut with apple and pineapple

You need (to serve four):

500 g Sauerkraut
2 middle sized apples
1 small tin chopped pineapple
1 tablespoon butter
1 laurel leaf
8 juniper berries
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons instant broth

If anyone needs an explanation for what Sauerkraut actually is: raw white cabbage, shredded and salted, and left to ferment. With fermentation, not only does the cabbage become easier to digest, it also acquires a very nice "sour" taste - that's why in German it is called Sauerkraut.

Melt the butter and lightly stew the peeled and chopped up apples in it.
Add the Sauerkraut and pour some of the pineapple juice from the tin on it. The spices (laurel, juniper and cumin) need to go in now as well. Depending on the type of Sauerkraut you bought, simmering could take as little as 20 minutes or a lot longer for the kraut to be ready.

When the kraut turns soft and a nice golden colour, add about 4 tablespoons of chopped pineapple and the instant broth (or, if you are not happy about using anything "instant", salt). Stir well and let boil properly once more.

Sauerkraut and mashed spuds, along with sausages, are an unbeatable combination, but of course the kraut goes very well with many kinds of poultry, such as pheasant or partridge.
It is quite the typical autumn and winter dish, and I must confess I have never cooked it myself - not once! And why should I, when my mum makes it much better than I ever could :-)

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Park Without Pumpkins

As mentioned in the previous post, here are the pictures showing the (larger) part of the park where no pumpkins are on display. This was only a week ago, and yet the season has truly changed since then. It is much colder now, and when I leave the house, instead of skipping about short-sleeved and bare-legged, I need my coat, proper shoes, and a dress or skirt is only possible in combination with warm tights.

Have a look at the park (it is the one I walk through on my way to the other park; I showed you some bits of it here back in August) - it is one of the things that makes my home town most worth living in (of course, my family and friends being top of that list).

This enchanted little stone cottage was originally built not only to adorn the park, but also to house the head gardener. As far as I know, its current residents still work in the castle grounds. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by this house, and imagined what it would be like to live there - in the middle of the vast park, when all the visitors have gone and it is getting dark. Would the statues come alive? I was convinced they would!

Raised beds in the "teaching garden". They show all sorts of herbs and spices there, accompanied by short explanations of their use in medicine and in the kitchen.
 There is also this beautiful raised bed of seasonal fruit, flowers and vegetables.

This building was never actually a viaduct, it was built as a ruin on purpose. In those days, it was fashionable for rich people (like the duke who owned the castle and park by then) to have some picturesque "ruins" dotted about their land. Today, the building behind the arches is a café, and quite popular for weddings and other functions.

The orangerie (glass house) holds various exhibitions throughout the year. At the moment, you can walk through scenes from the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty". This table with the golden plates is supposed to be the dinner hold in celebration of the little princess' birth, when her parents offended one of the fairies by having the table laid for only 12 guests and she, as the 13th, had to stay away.

The perfect place for a little rest before we left the park and walked back home!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Pumpkins Everywhere!

No, not quite. There are still large parts of the beautiful castle grounds of my town that are not, one way or other, affected by what the organizers dub "The World's Largest Pumpkin Festival".
Saturday a week ago, my mum and I decided to have a walk round the park and the exhibition. We have, as good Ludwigsburgians, season's tickets and therefore do not have to pay admission to look at a few pumpkins. Also, it was a gorgeous day of blue skies, warm and sunny, just perfect for the park.
We had the most pleasant surprise before we even got to the exhibition: From afar, we could hear music. It sounded a bit like classical music, and we were quite sure it was live. We could hear a violin, but weren't quite able yet to make out where exactly it came from. Then, as we walked on, all of a sudden, at the exact same moment, both my mum and I recognized a tune, looked at each other wide-eyed, and exclaimed: "Cobario!!!" 
And that's right, it were indeed Cobario playing - one of our favourite live bands. They are three young men from Austria, and we've seen and heard them for a few years now at the International Street Music Festival in Ludwigsburg. This year, they won the 1st prize, and I guess that made the organizers of the pumpkin exhibition invite them to play that weekend, too. Well, we'd had no idea, so it really was a big surprise for us.
We went and got ourselves something to eat and drink (all pumpkin-themed, of course), and sat and listened to them. If you want to have a taste of their music, you can find clips on their website:
When they took a break and we had finished eating, we chatted a bit, and then they moved on and so did we.

There will be more pictures (without pumpkins) from the park in a separate post; adding these here would have just been too many.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Spätzle For Dummies :-)

It's been a while since my last installment of recipes for dummies; pizza for dummies was, I just discovered, in January 2010. Therefore, it is time for another recipe, and on Sunday night, I decided to make Spätzle. Kässpätzle, to be more precise.

Spätzle is the Swabian staple food - or at least it used to be. Of course it has been replaced by more or less the same combination of convenience food and fashionable ingredients you will find almost everywhere in Europe, not just in Germany, and not just in the South West, where I was born and (mostly) raised and still live. But a good Swabian Hausfrau still takes her pride in making her own Spätzle, and it is not difficult at all - if you have the right equipment.
But what exactly are Spätzle? The term literally means "little sparrows", but don't worry - we do not really eat sparrows, let alone the little ones! They are not pasta, either, although they go well with most pasta sauces, with gravy or just topped with some butter and roasted breadcrumbs.
Kässpätzle are Spätzle baked with cheese (Käse = cheese) in the oven, and although I did not do that the entirely classic way, the result was still very nice, and RJ (who helped and took all the pictures) and I finished the whole lot along with a big bowl of lettuce.

You need (as either a side dish for four or a main dish for two):
300 g flour
3 eggs
warm water

Start by putting a big pot of water on the stove. I can not tell you how many litres of water I use, but it is my biggest pot - the Spätzle have to "swim". Add salt and put on maximum heat. At the same time, switch the oven on to somewhere around 200 Celsius.

While the water is taking care of itself, mix the flour, a pinch or two of salt (this is really up to your own taste, but don't make them too bland or you won't like them) and the eggs in a bowl. You do not need a mixer, just use a wooden spoon - it gives you a much better feeling for the texture of the dough.

The eggs alone do not provide enough liquid, and to use another egg would only make the dough too thick, so use several table spoons full of warm water instead. The amount varies and depends mainly on the size of the eggs. In this case, I used 9 spoons full, first adding three and stirring the dough, adding another three, and so on, until the dough felt and looked right, as in the picture above: smooth but not liquid, and not too firm, either.

And here is the "Spätzles-Drucker", the press you need to make Spätzle (there is another method of making them without the press, but I can't do it and therefore won't show it here). Usually, when a Swabian girl got married, she brought her own Spatzedrucker into the household, but I doubt this is still the case nowadays. My mum still has and uses her original one, and my parents were married in 1965. Mine is newer, I bought it for myself maybe 20 years ago.
Fill the dough into the press. It won't all fit in in one go, but that does not matter (see - one really needs both hands to do this, and because the dough is not firm, it has to happen rather quickly; therefore, taking pictures at this stage was only possible with RJ's help).
By now, the water in the pot should be boiling. Properly boiling, not just simmering. Hold the press above the water and press down - what's coming out at the bottom are the raw Spätzle.
Now stay there and watch the Spätzle - they only take a minute or so in the boiling water! As soon as they rise to the surface, get them out with the thing I do not have an English name for - it is a bit like a strainer, but on a long handle, and essential for making Spätzle just like the press is essential.
If you want to eat the Spätzle with gravy or lentils or roast onions or any other way, they are ready to eat right now. But if you want to make Kässpätzle, they need to go into a deep baking tray.
The classic way is to mix grated cheese into the Spätzle, but we put slices of cheese and ham on the first layer.
The second layer was covered by more cheese, and then the whole thing went into the oven for somewhere around 15 minutes. Just keep on checking that the cheese does not get too brown and bitter; use that time to start washing up :-) or lay the table and put the vinaigrette on the lettuce.
It was just right when it looked like that...
...and on the plate, it looked like that.
A very, very filling dish - you will only want a very small dessert after that :-)

By the way, Spatz or Spätzle (sparrow or little sparrow) is also used as a term of endearment for a child, a girlfriend or... a cat (I often call mine Spätzle and she does not seem to mind).

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Read in 2011 - 22: Blackthorn Winter

The subtitle reads "A village, a secret, a woman hiding from her past", and naturally, the past the woman is trying to hide from eventually catches up with her. That is the story in this book by Sarah Challis in a nutshell.
There are, of course, more things happening, some rather dramatic, especially in the last quarter of the book, which make for an unexpected bit of suspense, but (almost) everything turns out well in the end.

What I like about the book is that it follows the main character for an entire year, which in a typical English village is marked by the changeing of the seasons visibly in the countryside, in farmer's endless activities and in village life itself with its events and festivities.

The writing is good without being truly remarkable, and I have found only a few errors; for instance, there is a character named Julia who on one page suddenly is "Julie", and there are a few "thans" that should correctly be "thens". Some editing should have been done on sentences like this one on page 8:
The pile of circulars and junk mail had been neatly stacked in a pile inside the front door...
Now, had I written anything like that in an essay at school, my teacher would have underlined the two "piles" and remarked "repetition!". Why not put "The heap of circulars and junk mail had been neatly stacked in a pile"?
Here are some bits I particularly liked and want to share with you because I do agree with them:
With a genuine pang of guilt Julia realised that she had never asked Lila how he [meaning her brother] was, or indeed telephoned Claudia to say how sorry she was. Glancing at her watch she decided she would do so when her guests had gone. Really, she could be an altogether nicer person if there were more hours in the day.
Don't you sometimes find yourself in a similar situation? So many people to talk to, personally or on the phone, write to and keep in touch with - you really want to, but another day or week or month goes by and you still have not sent that card or made that phone call.

This bit about village life strikes me as well-observed:
"Once the press have gone away, everything can get back to normal... half the people in this village won't ever know. Things are different these days. People move in and out and no one even gets to know their names. Both adults out at work, just coming and going, morning and evening, shopping at the supermarkets in towns, not drinking in the pub, not churchgoers. Think round the village. There are as many people like that as there are of the old sort."
The main character has two grown-up children, Jerome and Lila. Lila lives in New York and Jerome has spent a long time in India, so the siblings do not see each other often. One evening they talk on the phone, and the call ends on what I found a rather unrealistic note:
"Just a minute, Jerome. There's something I want to tell you".
"Lila, it'll have to wait. I must go and find Finn [a dog]. Speak to you soon. Bye."
Now, if you were on the phone to anyone, and they said "there's something I want to tell you", you wouldn't just ring off, would you? Maybe you would let the other person know that you didn't have much time for some reason or other, and they would make it short, but you wouldn't just hang up on them, would you? And even less so if the person on the other end was your sister who you had not seen in a long time. Ah well, nobody is perfect, so I should not expect it from an author :-)
Altogether, the book made a pleasant, relaxing read, even with a lot of the events being neither pleasant nor relaxing. It was just right for the evenings to unwind after a mentally challenging day at work.

Next, I would like to read some non-fiction, but I have a Peter Robinson from the library which needs going back, so I'll read that one first.