Monday, November 30, 2015

November Highs and Lows 2015

Hello again, friendly readers. We come to the end of another month, and that means I recap my highs and lows of the last 29 days.

The obvious low was the terrorist attack in Paris on Friday the 13th. I am so sick of people killing each other, especially in the name of God. People of all religions consider their god all-powerful and all-knowing, right? I am no theologian, but I am very confident that a GOD does not need puny humans to do His work for Him. If He wants people to die (which I am unconvinced He does), He has the power to take care of that Himself. I do not believe He wanted Catholics to kill Protestants and vise versa generations ago, and I do not believe the Christian God or the Muslim Allah want their followers to kill each other - no matter how much nutball humans twist the holy books.

But on to happier things. I love November in Germany. It begins with my birthday and ends with Christmas markets!!!! The air is crisp and cool, the leaves are raked, I've unpacked my winter clothes, and my warmest winter Federbett is on my bed. I burrow into that thing like a hibernating hedgehog.


  • Of course we went to Straub's Krone for a birthday buffet lunch.
Starters - there are samplings of 13 different dishes on my plate. All delicious!
The one at 6:00 is cow tongue.

I actually chose the vegetarian option that day:
Tagliatelle mit  Steinpilzrahmsoße / Tagliatelle with Porcino-Cream-Sauce

and the dessert samplings
  • I made the Quittenchutney from our Kochkurs to go with pork tenderloin, and it turned out ok!
ingredients for quince chutney
  • I also baked a Rührkuchen (pound cake) from scratch. Yeah I know, big deal. Who can screw that up? But after my apple pie failure (see below), this was very satisfying.

  • spending a weekend in Breisach with a fabulous and fun branch of M's family for the 80th birthday of their Oma (M's father's cousin).

  • meeting fellow American expat blogger Adventures of La Mari, her husband, and their Mops at the Hohentwiel ruins in Singen. So much fun!
Abner, the Mops
fabulous ruins
  • participating in the first annual Worldwide Read a Terhune Book day. Albert Payson Terhune was one of my favorite writers when I was a child. He is most famous for writing stories about collies and is responsible for my adoration of the breed.

  • dinner at our neighbors' house. I cannot believe I didn't take any photos, at least of the food! It was delicious - venison pate, salad with PfifferlingeZweierlei venison, the most delicious Rotkohl I've ever tasted, mashed potatoes, poached pears, and two different kinds of gluten-free brownies I baked and brought for dessert.

  • joining the Freundeskreis Asyl Horb and getting involved (finally) with local efforts to help the refugees. This was in response to my second "low" of the month (see below). In the last 10 days I have met Syrian refugees in the area, worked with a class of 15 or so who have just started learning German, had coffee with refugees and other volunteers which is a weekly thing, and offered to help translate the Freundeskreis website into English as soon as it's up and running (few refugees arrive here knowing German, but some know enough English that a translation could be helpful).

  • watching this late night clip, and this one, and especially this one. I am starting to think that the best way to catch up on American news is to watch the Daily Show and the Late Show.


  • my first attempt at baking an American-style Apple Pie. It might look almost ok, but it was a total failure and, in fact, inedible.
  • coming across several Facebook posts by Americans I know ("liked" by other Americans I know) crying out to refuse Syrian refugees in America or their particular U.S. state. I came to the realization that such people are simply terrified of the "what ifs," and there's no reasoning with fear. That doesn't mesh well with the whole "...home of the brave" business, or with the spirit of joy, love, and giving at Christmastime, or with the notion of coming together and sharing bounty at Thanksgiving, or with the Golden Rule, but fear is a crazy, debilitating thing.

  • reading about the various GOP (Grand Ole Party = Republican) presidential hopefuls and their visions of the world. What in holy hell is going on over there, folks? The pyramids were built to store grain? Muslims should be rounded up, registered, and perhaps have some kind of marking put on their clothes to identify them? Rabid dogs? Bad peanuts? Admitting only refugees who practice the right religion? And all this time, they're squealing like halfwit children in a poopy sandbox over 10,000 refugees in one year (more than 4 million Syrians have been displaced by war since 2011). 

Other Moments

  • While in Breisach, M and I went into a vinothek to purchase a bottle or two of wine to enjoy that evening. We were assisted by the owner, who was incredibly helpful and friendly. She asked what we like, broke open a few bottles for us to taste, suggested others... M considered out loud going up the hill to get our car so we could transport several bottles home. The owner said if we buy at least 2 cases, she'd drive them up to our hotel after closing. Tempting! Then she happened to mention that shipping is free starting at 5 cases. €310 later, we walked up the hill to our hotel with our two bottles of wine, a Corkcicle wine chiller, and a fancy red wine pouring thingy, happily anticipating the arrival of the rest of the wine the following week.

  • A new friend (who is my daughter's age and decided right about the same time I did to jump in and get involved with the Freundeskreis Asyl) and I sat in on a German intro class to observe, and the teacher included us in every activity. It was really enjoyable! The students were all refugees from Syria between the ages of about 20 and 55, and as with every class, some students learn faster than others. The faster ones helped the others with either quick explanations in Arabic or telling them what to say. They struggled, they laughed, they volunteered to go to the board for a writing activity, they listened, they took notes, they gave their best efforts, and they were clearly proud when they did or said something correctly. Some had studied outside of class, and others hadn't. If there was a difference between that class and every class I have ever taught, I didn't notice it - except that they were all adults and classroom management was not an issue! I loved it.

I hope you all had a good month, too, with more highs than lows, more love than fear, and more joy than pain.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The 10,000

Before my American Landsleute get too bunged up about the possibility of accepting 10,000 refugees next year* and the terrible risks involved with helping people (yes, I agree there is always a risk when helping people), know that Germany, with its population of 81 million and being half the size of Texas, took in over 400,000 refugees between September 1st and mid-October this year. Estimates are that Germany will have taken in 1 million refugees in 2015.

In 2013 about 127,000 asylum seekers came to Germany, and in 2014 there were more than 202,500. Let me repeat: in 2015, we’re talking about 1 million (1,000,000) new refugees in Germany.

*Taking in 10,000 refugees in this crisis is a little bit like going to your neighbor’s house during a flood and offering to help bail out the basement with an eyedropper. Just sayin’.

Fond du Lac, WI flood, 2008
"Anyone got an eyedropper?"

People and politicians are fighting about this all over Germany. Many communities have formed friendship groups to aid the refugees in whatever ways they can, but there are also Pegida groups and individuals filled with hatred and fear who participate in protest marches and rallies, burn down facilities meant for temporary refugee housing, and spread their hatred and fear through social media.

Many people (including Americans) were shocked and saddened for perhaps 48 hours by the photograph of Aylan Kurdi that made headlines around the world not long ago. By now (according to a Bloomberg poll) 53% of Americans don't think the U.S. should accept any Syrian refugees, and the governors of half of the states have said they will refuse to accept refugees. (Uh, sorry guys, apparently you don't actually have the power to decide that.) It's good to know that some Americans recognize the need for humanitarian aid in this crisis.

But lately I’ve read about this grumbling over being forced to accept 10,000 refugees and the risks involved with doing so – some of them might be terrorists!! Yeah, that’s possible. Among the terrorists responsible for the recent Paris attacks, I believe one of them might have entered Europe with the flood of refugees. [UPDATE: No, none of them came to Europe with the refugees. They were all European nationals.] Four of them were French citizens, if I'm not mistaken.

I’ll make this short and go back to writing about nice things as soon as I can. This is the world we live in. Those who need to shout against helping refugees should do as they must. But those who also call themselves Christians – what exactly are they learning in their church? Did Jesus say "Love (and help) your neighbor as long as it poses no risk to you"? Remember “WWJD?” (“What Would Jesus Do?” – a slogan American Christians wore on t-shirts and bracelets several years ago.)? Would Jesus turn the refugees away and say it’s too risky to help them because some among them might be terrorists? I am not claiming to know, because Jesus never spoke in my ear. But then I’m not one of those who display Christian slogans or attend church regularly.

I don't think it's necessary to make such a big fuss about accepting 10,000 refugees in a year. There must be at least 10,000 lunatics with easy access to guns loose in the U.S.. Americans' safety and security are not guaranteed by refusing to offer sanctuary to 10,000 refugees fleeing from the same demons they are afraid of. It seems a wee bit contradictory to shake fists on the one hand shouting "We will not be afraid! If we show we're afraid, then the terrorists win! Show them we're strong! God bless America!" and on the other hand to say the U.S. shouldn't help people who are fleeing from terrorists because of the fear of potential risks.

Help or don't help. Whatever. But all the fuss over whether or not America should bring an eyedropper to a flooded village sounds a little silly to me.

This post was brought to you by Sometimes I Just Can't Keep My Mouth Shut Productions.

Regular programming will resume shortly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

11. November, Martinstag

Martinstag sneaked (snuck, for American and Canadian readers) up on me this year! I should have wished M well, I should have made a reservation at the restaurant, I should have prepared or purchased a small gift and a lantern...but since I still use an American calendar (yes, one of those old-fashioned paper ones) which doesn't mention Martinstag, I'll be scrambling this morning to make up for my forgetfulness. I've already noted it in next year's calendar, so I will have no excuses then.

So if you'll allow me, I will re-publish last year's post about this special day. I was pretty thorough, and I don't know what more I could write anyway.

On November 11th Americans celebrate Veterans' Day. This date is special in Germany as well, as it is Martinstag, or the Feast Day of St. Martin. If your name is Martin, this is your day!

The tradition of the Namenstag goes back to the Middle Ages. Birthdays were not seen as very important, and often a person didn't even know his own birthday. Perhaps this was because the mortality rate among infants and children was rather high, and by the time a child had made it through the most critical period, the family members may not have recalled on exactly which day the child had been born. Dates other than significant church calendar dates weren't terribly important anyway.

A child named Martin therefore celebrated his Namenstag on 11. November every year, because that was the day assigned to the name Martin (to honor St. Martin of Tours). The Namenstag or feast day was normally assigned based on either the baptism date (as in the case of St. Martin of Tours) or the death date of the saint. Although the custom began with Christian origins, it has become more of a cultural thing than a religious one nowadays. At the same time, the Namenstag tradition is more common in Catholic regions and in Catholic families. Protestants don't have to feel guilty about recognizing the day, though, since Martin Luther was baptized on 11. November.

There is at least one saint assigned to every day of the calendar, but some Namenstage are more significant than others and recognized with various traditions or rituals. One that's known throughout the western world is, of course, Nikolaustag, or St. Nick's Day, which is celebrated on 6. December. There's a really lovely story behind the tradition of hanging stockings by the fire that are filled in the night with treats, which I'll write about at the appropriate time.

In Germany Martinstag is (somewhat surprisingly) not a holiday, but it is recognized and celebrated by many. Like the American holiday of Thanksgiving, a bird is the traditional beast to be consumed, but while Americans prepare and eat turkey, Germans cook and serve goose. And of course there's a story behind that!

"Die Gänse haben St. Martin verraten, dafür müssen sie jetzt braten."

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who was baptized when he was an adult and became a monk. When the citizens of Tours wanted to make him a bishop, he did not feel up to the task and ran away. While his pursuers were hot on his tail, he hid in a barn full of geese thinking they'd be thrown off the trail. Unfortunately the noisy beasts weren't too thrilled with their visitor who was stepping on their food and stinking up the joint, and they honked their disapproval and annoyance. His goose was therefore cooked, as they say, and he sheepishly accepted the ordination.

The quote above is "Because the geese St. Martin betrayed, today they land upon our plate." (I tried to make it rhyme, but it sounds much better in German.)

"Run, damn you! RUN!"*
November also happens to be the time of year when geese are fattened and ready for eatin'. Not everyone could afford a fattened goose, so it was also common to serve a duck or chicken. And not everyone wants to eat goose. It's a very fatty bird, with about 30% fat to its meat. In its defense, though, it's also high in protein and minerals such as iron, magnesium, and zink. M has had goose on his Namenstag before, but I have never tried it and don't recall ever seeing it on a menu in the U.S.. Last year we had dinner at our favorite restaurant, where they served a special Martinstag menu of Martinsgans. It was delcious! (We're hoping to dine there again tonight, but I since I forgot to call for a reservation, I might be baking a bird myself tonight. Hopefully they'll still have a table available, but I'm not going to bet on it.)  Update: They do have a table! My bird's back in the freezer (and by bird, I mean two duck legs).

And here it is. Goose, stuffing, dumplings, roasted chestnuts, Rotkohl, and gravy.

For those who want more history and tradition...the Martinsgans was served traditionally on 11. November as the last big meal before the Advent fasting time. At the end of Advent, goose was served again - on Christmas Eve. If I'm not mistaken, the "Christmas Goose" is mentioned near the happy end of the well-known Dickens tale. Nowadays approximately 10 million geese land in an oven or pan between Martinstag and Christmas.°

In the Middle Ages the traditional Christmas dinner was a Schweinbraten - pork roast. Why was this replaced by goose? The most popular explanation is that Queen Elizabeth I was in the middle of a Christmas feast of goose when she received the news that her navy had defeated the Spanish Armada. She took this as a good omen and declared the goose as the Christmas Roast in 1588.

I can't end without mentioning another Martinstag tradition that those of you living in Germany may see in your villages - the Martinsritt. Elementary school children make paper lanterns (with candles inside) in school and then gather - usually in the early evening - with their teachers, classmates, and parents, and parade through the streets singing songs about St. Martin. There is almost always a rider dressed in a Roman costume with red cloak on a horse leading the procession. The parade ends with a bonfire and snacks for all. This tradition reminds people of the story of St. Martin before his conversion, when he was a Roman soldier who came upon a poor man freezing in the cold winter. Martin stopped his horse, split his cloak down the center with his sword, and gave the homeless man half of his cloak to keep warm. The next night as Martin lay sleeping, he saw Jesus in his dream wearing the half of the cloak he had given the homeless man. This story (yes, told even in public schools) helps to teach young children the value of sharing and being kind to strangers.

My daughter The rider is wearing a red sweatshirt instead of a red cloak,
but this will have to do until I actually witness a Martinsritt.
Had I known of this story when I was a child, I would have asked my dad to tell it to me over and over again. My mom would have felt touched that I wanted to hear a story about sharing, but really it would have been because there was a horse in it.

11:11 (am) on November 11th every year is also the official start of "the Fifth Season", or Fasching. Things don't get nutty until the weeks before Ash Wednesday, but the season has begun nonetheless.

°Source: "Dem heiligen Martin zu Ehren." Schwäbisches Tageblatt; Südwest-Presse/Neckar-Chronik. 31. October, 2014.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Southern Germany: Wegkreuze

If you go walking, cycling, or running in southern Germany, you're bound to pass one dozens of these. This is called a Wegkreuz or Feldkreuz, which translates to "wayside cross" or "field cross". Bavarians and Austrians call them Marterl.

They are often found at intersections of walking paths, and they are typically made of stone (some are made of wood or metal). Most Wegkreuze were erected in former centuries and often have the year it was dedicated inscribed on it somewhere as well as (sometimes) the name of the person or family who sponsored it.

The Wegkreuz is generally a Catholic thing, which is why they are more commonly seen in southern Germany than in the north. The top is nearly always a crucifix or an image of Mary and Jesus, and the base includes one or several inscriptions such as a Bible verse, a message to passers-by, or a poem.

The poem on this Wegkreuz reads:
      Wenn tiefer Kummer Dich betrübt,
      kein Pfad des Lebens Dir mehr glückt,
      so eile hin mit mutigem Gebet
      zum Kreuz das an dem Wege steht.

      When deepest sorrow brings you down,
      no path of life brings you success,
      hurry with courageous prayer
      to the cross that stands upon the trail.

Another thing you'll notice is that there are often fresh, seasonal flowers at the base of the Wegkreuz, planted either in the ground or in a pot. Someone is taking care of those flowers. It could be a family who lives nearby, the church community, a local foundation, or just someone who cares.

There is sometimes a bench near the Wegkreuz for those who want to rest and reflect, and I have often seen someone sitting there. I always wonder if they are just using the bench because it's a peaceful place to sit awhile, or if they are praying or remembering a loved one.

In earlier times a Wegkreuz was erected in remembrance of someone or as a show of the family's or individual's faith or gratitude. When Christians passed one they often paused a moment, made the sign of the cross, and/or said a prayer. Farmers on their way to their fields would probably pass several of these crosses.

The Wegkreuze also helped with orientation as important pathway markers in the days before trail signs. The one above is at a crossroads of five different paths, and if M asks me where I went walking on any given day, I can tell him I went "down the hill by the tennis courts and took the second path left after the Wegkreuz". Some of them are even shown on hiking maps. There are also Wegkreuze that mark a dangerous place or remember an accident that occurred at that spot.

The above Wegkreuz is actually on the edge of a farmer's field across a highway from a walking path, so you only see it from a distance. Only by taking a picture of it and zooming in was I able to see that it was put there in 1924 in memory of World War I ("zur Erinnerung an den Weltkrieg 1914-19"). The top of it is a stone carving of Mary with the crucified Jesus in her lap, and the inscription under that says 

O Maria, schmerzensreiche Jungfrau und Mutter aller Christgläubigen, bitte für uns
O Mary, sorrowful virgin and mother of all believers in Christ, pray for us.

There are thousands of Wegkreuze in Baden-Württemberg alone. I'm not an overly religious person, but there's something comforting to me about them. Someone cared enough* to pay good money to have a semi-permanent monument placed in that spot as a reminder to all who pass by that God is there. They are not in your face like Christian bumper stickers announcing that the driver loves Jesus, they don't ask for donations, and they don't preach. 

*Yes, I know that some people paid for such monuments in the hopes of increasing their chances of getting into heaven or in penance for some sin committed - to each his own.

Today there are few new Wegkreuze erected in the traditional sense on hiking trails and at crossroads. These days it is more common to see a new wooden cross on the side of a road marking a place where someone was killed in an automobile accident, such as this one between our village and the next. Notice the autumn leaf necklace - someone placed that recently, though the date on the cross shows the year 2000.

There are three such markers within a short distance of each other on this highway.

For cyclists, hikers, runners, and wanderers, the traditional Wegkreuz signals a fine place to stop for a rest, perhaps a snack, or even a group meeting point to start or end a tour. Along with a bench you may find a garbage bin, and the setting is commonly under a group of shade trees which can provide needed relief from the blazing summer sun.

All of the above Wegkreuze are within an hour's walk from our home, and I would really like to know the story behind each one.