Thursday, 30 May 2013

Another Walk Down Memory Lane

While I was having a half-day trip down memory lane a few weeks ago, last Saturday I went for a shorter and closer-by walk with my Mum, a walk that took us to places filled with memories for both of us, although for different reasons. 

After many days of rain and cold, Saturday began sunny and bright (although still very chilly), and we decided to walk from our town across the fields to the nearby smaller town of Kornwestheim. That picturesque place has featured on my blog once before, last year in April

If he was still alive, my grandpa (Mum's Dad) would have been 99 years old on that day. And although we did not go to the cemetery to "pay our respects" (to us, a person's memory is not kept alive by a piece of rock somewhere, but by us remembering them in our hearts and minds), it was a good reason for going there and giving our walk a purpose. 

At the cemetery, these beautiful azalea were just a little past their best, but still looking glorious: 

Leaving the cemetery, we had three more stops in mind before making our way back to Ludwigsburg: First, I asked to walk through the Stadtgarten ("Town Garden") and look at the small fountain by the wall, the place of one of my earliest childhood memories. Second, we wanted to try and find the house were the painter of the beautiful sunflower painting used to live (more about him later). Third, we intended to have a drink and maybe a piece of cake or a snack at the small café that is our preferred stop whenever we are in Kornwestheim.

There were several roads we could take to reach the Stadtgarten, and we decided to explore a path not even my Mum was familiar with - and that is saying something, since she spent a lot of time in this town as a child and teenager, with her grandmother and many other relatives living there in those days.

The narrow public foot path took us along the stone wall at the back of the old (disused) cemetery. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I do have a thing for old, more or less neglected places, and so I couldn't resist taking a few pictures across the wall:

In the background, you can spot the spire of the old church that I showed you in my older post about Kornwestheim, mentioned and click-linked above.

We came out of the path still in the oldest part of town, with some beautifully restored timbered houses:

It wasn't far (nothing in Kornwestheim is really far) from there to the Stadtgarten, and we sat on a bench in the sun for a while, close to the fountain with the frog that I remember from the time I was about 2 or 3 years old - my great-grandmother was still alive then, living in the road next to the park, and I was taken there often by both my Mum and my Grandma when they were visiting.

For my Mum, sitting on that bench brought back memories of many a day spent at that very spot, reading books she had borrowed from her mother or from her Onkel Otto, books such as "Gone With The Wind" (which I have never read myself, by the way).

When the sun hid behind clouds and it became too chilly for our liking, we went to the café. On our way there, we tried in vain to find the house where the painter used to live, but we couldn't be entirely sure where it was according to the rather vague description my uncle (Mum's brother) had dug from his memory and sent her by email when she asked him what he remembered about the painter.
Of course, a lot has changed since Mum and her brother were children, but this is what we managed to piece together:

As mentioned in the post where I showed you the sunflower painting (click-linked above), the painter's name was Fritz Hartnagel. He was my grandfather's colleague; their workplace was a foundry in Kornwestheim (the company ceased to exist in 1981). Mr. Hartnagel's wife had cancer, and he quit his job in order to take care of her full-time. That was VERY unusual for a man to do in those days (we are talking the late 1940s or early 1950s here), and my Mum's parents were greatly impressed by that. Of course, back then, not working meant almost no money; the benefit system was not what it is today. To pay bills, Mr. Hartnagel sold paintings to friends and former colleagues; two of these ended up in my grandparents' possession: the sunflower one and another one of the Watzmann, a mountain in the Bavarian Alps.

We think that "our" Fritz Hartnagel was a relative of (most likely not identical with) Fritz Hartnagel, friend of Sophie Scholl and later husband of her sister Elisabeth. But we don't know exactly how the painter fits in; the area is right, and so is more or less the time frame. You don't know who Sophie Scholl was? She was a student (went to school in Ludwigsburg and later studied at university in Munich) who actively (but without violence) resisted the Nazi regime. For her resistance activities, she was convicted of high treason and executed in 1943, when she was 21 years old. She and the "Weiße Rose" ("White Rose", the resistance group) are very well known in Germany. You can read about Sophie here on wikipedia.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Springy Update

It is 8.00 on this Tuesday morning, and in about an hour, I am going to begin making phone calls to my customers. It's been a while (actually, precisely a month ago) since my last update about the progress of spring in my area; not for lack of anything but my own inclination and time to myself.

Today, I have a small assortment of spring pictures for you, taken during the past few weeks:

On the 4th of May, we had one of the rare sunny days this month. This was the view from my kitchen window that afternoon.

A closer look at the three lilac trees that are so close together they look like one, sporting the three typical lilac colours.

Every time it was sunny, one of the first views that greeted me after pulling up the blinds on my bedroom window was Lucky (who lives downstairs), sunbathing. Usually I know when he's out there because the magpies and blackbirds make such a racket when they spot him.

And then, a few nights ago, there was this dramatic moon to look at. In the first picture, you can just about spot the silhouettes of the surrounding houses, and the light in the window of one of them. The second is the same view, just zoomed in.

May is almost over, and I do hope June will be a bit warmer and sunnier altogether; I still need the heating and can't leave the house without my padded winter coat most days.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Guest Post: The Most Unusual Delicacies From Around The World

Some time ago, as has happened before, I was approached by someone offering to write a guest post for my blog (you can read all guest posts by clicking on the label "Guest Posts" at the top of the page). We agreed on a food-related subject, and here is Marcela De Vivo's guest post:

The Most Unusual Delicacies From Around The World

If you’re going to go totally native while on location, diving into exotic food specialties is the perfect way; however, for people who think living on the edge means ordering a steak extra rare, heads up! Local delicacies can be highly subjective, but if you’re game for the world’s most exotic, here are some platters you might want to try.

Image Courtesy of Chris Huh/Wikimedia Commons

Scorpion (China)

Perhaps the most frightening item on this list—which is saying something—fried scorpion is a well-known favorite in China.  While no amount of convincing may sway the faint of heart, this arachnid's potent poison loses all its power in the cooking process. Not surprisingly, the deadly stingers are reported to taste like lobster or other shellfish.

Fugu (Japan)

You don’t actually have to travel to Japan to enjoy its famed fugu, or puffer fish; however, you do need to find a restaurant with a generous insurance policy. If the delicious fugu’s skin and innards are not removed properly, you’ll be nibbling on the poison tetrodotoxin, a powerfully fatal substance with no antidote. If you’re feeling lucky enough, fugu is often compared to being an even tastier version of yellowtail.

Birds Nest Soup (China)

On the one hand, the name of this dish is a case of truth in advertising: it really is made of the nest of swifts. Although the name suggests a nest of twigs and leaves, swifts’ nests are actually composed almost entirely of hardened saliva, which takes on a jelly-like consistency when soaked in broth. A true rarity, due to how difficult it is to reach swift’s lairs, a bowl of bird’s nest soup can fetch up to $100.

Alligator (Florida)

You don’t have to leave the continental U.S. to get a taste of the wild kingdom. Florida is host to many summer vacation hot spots, tourists and fried alligator. That’s right. With many flocking to the beachside accommodations and close-to-shore restaurants, such as Destin condo rentals, tourists and locals alike enjoy this tasty reptile as a plate or a sausage. Think of it this way:  he’d probably eat you, too. Bayou Bill’s Crab House is famous for serving your choice of blackened or sauteed ‘gator.

Image Courtesy of Chris 73/Wikimedia Commons

Hakarl (Iceland)

The only thing more intimidating than the look and smell of this peculiar Icelandic shark dish is its even more bizarre fermentation process (In fact, we’ll keep that part a secret). Some say this ammonia-smelling seafood is an acquired taste, while others (including celeb chef Anthony Bourdain) say it’s “the worst thing they have ever tasted in their lives.”  Why not let your own jaws be the judge?

Casu Marzu (Sardinia)

By now, some less adventurous readers may be ready to give up eating meat for a while, so we conclude with a famed cheese from Sardinia. Though this cheese is not strictly vegetarian, as it’s a fermented pecorino writhing with live maggots.

Supposedly, when the larvae digest the cheese fats, a fermentation process happens that makes casa marzu (literally, “rotten cheese”) taste like nothing else on earth.  Since it’s been banned for sanitary reasons in other parts around the world, you will probably never have the chance to take on the heavyweight champion of oddball delights, but we thought you’d like to know it exists.

Most of these dishes aren’t for everyone, but remember each of them is a prize in its native land. The next time you casually say, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse”, be careful what you wish for.

Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer from California who loves traveling around the world to not only learn about different cultures, but the cuisine as well. Her writing covers a range of industries, including travel and alternative medicine. 

- - - End of guest post - - -

Well, that was interesting, wasn't it! I had known before about some of the dishes mentioned here, and while I don't think there is a huge difference between eating scorpion and eating any kind of crab (the difference is just in our minds - dead animal is dead animal, after all), I sure am never going to try it, for the simple reason that it holds absolutely no appeal for me (and I am not fond of crabs and lobster in the first place). Also, I see food writhing with live maggots fit either for the bin or for a Klingon table (am I the only one thinking of Klingons when reading about Casu Marzu?).
What worries me a bit is the bird's nest soup. Doesn't picking their nests endanger the species? I have not done any research on it, mind you.

Generally speaking, I do accept that different folks eat different things all over the world - I don't even have to go that far to find huge differences! Take RJ and myself, for example; he loves calamari, while I can't even look at the stuff without feeling nauseous, let alone smell it. My parents are fond of liver; just imagining the smell makes me gag. I can never get enough of cheese, while there are plenty of people who detest it.

Do you have any type of food that is a bit "particular" but you love it nonetheless?

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Read in 2013 - 15: The Beauty

At the end of my previous book review, I said that my next read was going to be non-fiction, and here I am posting yet another review on a work of fiction. Still, I wasn't making false promises - the book I started next after finishing "Teacher, Teacher!" is indeed non-fiction, but I have not finished that one yet. Instead, I have finished "The Beauty" by Mrs. Wilson Woodrow, the Kindle edition of which I have been reading for the past weeks every time I've been on the train to and from work.
(The picture does, of course, not show the Kindle edition.)

Don't be mislead by the author's name; she was not the wife of the U. S. president by the same name. Precious little information can be found online about the lady whose full name was Nancy Mann Waddel Woodrow: She lived from 1870 to 1935, wrote several novels, some short stories and, it appears, a work of non-fiction titled "The bird of time; being conversations with Egeria".
I was lucky to come across this blog - please scroll down to the end of the post to find a picture of Nancy and some biographical detail about her. 

"The Beauty" is fun to read; there are some really humorous bits in it, and at the same time, the author gives some very poetic and beautiful descriptions of places and atmosphere. To give you an example, look at this short paragraph, describing a New York morning in spring:
It was a deliciously balmy morning, the rare sort of a day that slips in now and then between April showers and sets one dreaming of the glory of the spring in the silent woody places. The great, roaring canyons of brick and stone floated in a silvery, sparkling mist, and in that atmospheric alembic dreary perspectives assumed an unsubstantial and fairy-like beauty. The little leaves on the trees fluttered in the soft breeze and were so young, so green, so gay that they lifted the heart like tiny wings of joy.
I loved the "tiny wings of joy" Mrs. Woodrow likens the spring leaves to; of course, it fits perfectly with the season right here, right now, while I was reading this.

The plot is simple enough: Extremely beautiful (but very intelligent) woman from grand old Southern family finds herself impoverished when extremely rich business man falls in love and marries her. Extremely talented and famous portrait painter, who happens to have been Perdita's first love in her teenage days, returns from long painting trip to Europe, and soon rumours abound that Perdita and Eugene are having an affair. Generous husband, much older than his wife, releases Perdita from her gilded cage and goes West on extended business trip. Perdita embarks on enterprise with best friend while everyone expects her to marry Eugene once the divorce is through.

Will it come to that? What is going to happen between the pretty young actress Cresswell meets while he is separated from his wife, convinced that she loves Eugene and not him anyway? What role plays Perdia's ancient amulet in all this?
Some of the conversations read a little lengthy, but actually, they're not - they are full of hints and humour, and necessary to understand the characters' actions. "The Beauty" (which has more than one meaning in this book and does not only refer to Perdita, as one would assume at first glance) is reading material that wants you to slow down and think about what you are reading, not just rush through the pages (figuratively speaking, since I was reading it on my Kindle) until you find out how the story ends.

First published in 1910, I recommend this (free) ebook to anyone who likes to indulge in beautiful language, fun and accurately drawn characters and a plot that is not overwhelmingly complicated but still keeps you wondering until the end.

(Illustrations from the Project Gutenberg site)

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Read in 2013 - 14: Teacher, Teacher!

The very first book I finished reading this year was the fourth instalment of the "Teacher" series by Jack Sheffield, as described here. In that post, I mentioned that my mother-in-law had kept the first three books, intending to swap with me once we both would have read our half of the series. And so we did; she sent me the first three with my birthday parcel in March, and last night I finished reading the first book, "Teacher, Teacher!".

Of course, having read books 4, 5 and 6 before, I already knew where most of the story lines starting in the first book are going to lead; still, it was interesting to see how it all began for Jack Sheffield, how the characters were introduced and how he first met Beth Henderson.

In real life, the author was headteacher of two village schools in North Yorkshire during the 1970s and 80s, and I think it shows in his books that everything is based on personal experience. In an interview, Jack Sheffield was asked about how much his characters are based on real life people. He states that (obviously, apart from himself) there is only one person who recognized herself in the books and that he has been extremely careful with all the other characters, merging each one of them from several real people he'd met throughout his professional life.

A great deal of the charm of this series stems from it describing a time most of us remember quite well, and rather fondly. The 1970s and 80s were my childhood and youth; in 1977, when the book begins, I was nine years old. And although I never went to a village school but grew up in a town of almost 90.000 inhabitants, I am familiar with a lot of the places mentioned in the book; I spend time in Ripon with my family every year and have been to York, Harrogate, Leeds etc. The oldest of the school children and their teachers go on a summer holiday camp together, visiting Brimham Rocks - I went there two or three years ago and wrote about it here.

There were a few words I had not come across before, such as cagoules, and although I had a pretty good idea of what a Roneo Spirit Duplicator was, I went to look it up and found this picture somewhere on the internet:

Sally filled the Roneo Spirit Duplicator with fluid, took a metal-tipped stylus pen, selected a smooth white master sheet, put a blue sheet of carbon paper underneath and began to print neatly. When she had completed the list, she attached the master sheet to the cylindrical drum, loaded the tray with white paper and turned the handle one hundred times. [She] dreamed of having a photocopier in school like the one at her husband's office but, deep down, she knew they would always be too expensive for primary schools.
Something else I looked up was "winceyette": Ruby, the caretaker, gets a cotton winceyette nightdress as a present on Mother's Day from her children. I was close in imagining the nightie a bit like this:

During the children's summer holiday camp, they eat parkin - I had not known it before, but this is what it looks like:

There is a lot of such detail bringing the times and places to life. I am looking forward to the 2nd book, but my next read is going to be non-fiction.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Tripping Down Memory Lane

From 1986 to 1988, I was being trained as an Assistant Librarian. During those two years, every four weeks or so I attended Librarian School in a small town in south Germany's famous Black Forest. The theoretical training intervals usually lasted four weeks, and then everyone went back to practical work at their respective libraries for the next four weeks, and so on. Students came from all over Baden-Württemberg (the part of Germany I live in), and for convenience's sake, we were given mini-apartments in the nurses' home next to the hospital of that town. There were always two students assigned to each apartment, which consisted of a long, narrow room with two beds, a desk and an in-built wardrobe, a tiny bathroom with toilet and an equally tiny kitchenette. We had our breakfast and lunch at the hospital's canteen, along with all the nurses and doctors, and took our packed evening meals from there when we left the canteen after lunch. Therefore, most of us used their kitchenettes only to make coffee or tea in the afternoon. School was only in the mornings, which left us with plenty of free time - and we loved it!

Most of us had started our apprenticeships straight after school and were still getting used to working all day, a big change when up until then we had been going to school only for the first half of the day. Therefore, everyone quite enjoyed the four-week intervals at Librarian School - not only were most of us away from home for the first time, playing at "being grown-up" without having to take full responsibility for ourselves (cooking, shopping for groceries, washing and cleaning was - to a certain extent - all being done for us), but we were part of a group of young people from 16 to 25, making new friends and having a lot of fun.

With some of the "girls" from back then (of course, by now we are all officially middle-aged women) I am still in touch, and we meet once or twice a year. Yesterday, I met with two of my closest friends from those days, and together, we drove to the small town where it all began.

On my suggestion, we took the nice, easy walk along the river (less than 2 km) to the next small town, Hirsau, which boasts the picturesque ruins of a monastery. Of course, I had my camera with me and took some pictures:

Approaching Hirsau. The river is called Nagold.

The plan had been to stop at this café where we used to have coffee and cake sometimes, but sadly, we found it closed for good - later, we found out that it was put on the market for sale 5 or 6 years ago and so far, nobody has made a move to buy it.

Some of the old buildings surrounding the monastery.

Building of the monastery began in the year 1082. A lot of the building material is the red sandstone typically found in the area.

The only building with the roof still intact is the small gothic church. A wedding was taking place when we arrived, but the ceremony was already over, and we could go into the church. You can still see the flowers attached to the pews for the wedding. While baroque churches feel quite "over the top" for me, I love the gothic style for its simplicity. Look at the beautifully restored painting on the ceilings!

The church from the outside, and some more pictures. By that time, the sun had finally managed to pierce through the clouds.

Before walking back to Calw, we stopped at a hotel where coffee and cake was served. Being at the Black Forest, of course I had a piece of Blackforest Gâteau - and a HUGE piece at that! If you order cake at any of the cafés in my home town, you usually get a piece about half the size of this one.

Back in Calw, we wandered around the old town centre with its beautifully restored timbered houses and narrow cobbled streets. The place has, naturally, changed a lot since the 1980s, but there was still plenty there for us to recognize. Nobody would recognize us, though - we did look rather different back then, as you can see from this older post of mine.

It was a lovely afternoon with my friends and a nice trip down memory lane - and we were incredibly lucky with the weather!

Monday, 6 May 2013

Read in 2013 - 13: Hiss and Hers

That's no typo in the title; this latest Agatha Raisin mystery by M. C. Beaton is really called "Hiss [with two s] and Hers". And appropriately, too, because the reader (and Agatha as well as all the other characters) does encounter quite a few snakes in this story. Adders, to be precise. 
It is the 23rd adventure in the series - have I really read them all? Yes, I'm afraid I have - and I also have the entire collection on my book shelf. My mother-in-law got me started on "Agatha Raisin" when, years ago, she sent me the first three books as paper backs in one of her wonderful parcels she always sends me from England for my birthday and Christmas.

This time, Agatha is in love (in her usual obsessive way) with the handsome village gardener. George is a favourite with all the Carsely ladies, it seems, and Agatha is the only one who is blind to his various affairs - not because she is stupid, but because she simply does not want to see. For his sake, she even organizes (and pays for!) a charity ball, dreaming of herself swirling across the dance floor in George's arms. Dressed up to the nines, almost everyone in the village turns up - minus George, who is nowhere to be seen.
When Agatha goes looking for him, she is shocked to find him murdered - and that's just the first of several murders (and a few attempted murders thrown in for good measure).

In her usual blunt manner, Agatha soon is at the centre of the investigation, backed by her team of employees and friends, although some of them have their own agenda. 

We meet her ex-husband again, as well as her friends Sir Charles Fraith (my personal favourite - I know someone in real life who is exactly like him!), Bill Wong, Roy Silver and Mrs. Bloxby. As usual, Agatha gets herself in danger and is urged more than once (by the police as well as her friends) to let go - something that is impossible for our Agatha.

M. C. Beaton has once again produced a fast-paced mystery with (at least to me!) a solution to the puzzle that is not obvious from the start. She portrays the characters in quickly drawn sketches, and yet they are well enough imaginable. The village, the weather, the atmosphere - it's all there, without many words. At some point, we skip half a year in just one paragraph. Now, if one would try to stick to a timeline with all the Agatha Raisin mysteries, she would by now be somewhere around 80 years old (after 23 books, starting out as a woman in her mid-fifties, as the first book clearly states), but for some reason, that discrepancy does not bother me when it comes to this series.

Every now and then, Agatha says or thinks something that makes me either almost laugh out loud, or nod in agreement, or think "hey! she's right!". M. C. Beaton celebrated her 70th birthday last year. I do hope she will be just like her heroine, not sticking to any realistic timeline, and stay around for many more adventures.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Read in 2013 - 12: Any Human Heart

"Any Human Heart" by William Boyd was one of the many, many birthday presents I received this year, and the friend who chose this book for me made a good choice. After having read about the arctic adventures of McClintock, it took me about 30 pages to really get into "Any Human Heart" - but then I found it hard to put down, and found myself reflecting on it many times during the day until in the evening I finally had time to return to reading.

More than once, I was reminded of a book I read more than a year ago: "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham. Don't get me wrong - the two books are not similar, but they both describe a man's life with all its facets, its ups and downs, and follow the twists and turns of their principal characters' paths through several decades. While "Of Human Bondage" spans less than 40 years, though, "Any Human Heart" wraps up almost the entire 20th century, which makes it all the more interesting.

Through the eyes of Logan Mountstuart, a fictional character (although you could really believe he existed; everything is so convincing) whose "intimate journals" from 1923 to 1991 form the book, we experience WWII, the post-war era, the 1960s and 70s with their manifold changes in culture and society, and finally, the 1980s. A lot of what Mountstuart mentions in his journals was new to me; for instance, I did not know much about the Spanish Civil War, and the same is true about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the (American) art scene of the 1950s and 60s and some aspects about the wave of terrorism affecting public life in Germany in the second half of the 1970s.
Because of these contemporary-historical bits, one could read this book almost like a work of non-fiction; a great number of artists (literature and painting, mostly) as well of political figures are mentioned, too. Mountstuart personally knew Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh, to name but a few.

I don't want to give away too much of the book, but the way the main character switches repeatedly from merely stumbling along events out of his control to actively taking charge of his own life, and how his decisions - or the lack of them - shape his present and future, is very well imaginable, as if it all really had taken place. 
There are some very touching observations made by Mountstuart, while at other times one can't help but think that this guy wasn't a very nice person to know. Most of all, though, he - although fictional - comes across as entirely human.

If I am not very much mistaken, this was the first time I have read anything by William Boyd, but I am sure it won't be the last. I found an interesting article here; Boyd explains how he came to write "Any Human Heart", and why in this particular form.
The author's official website can be found here.