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?

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Happy Holidays!!!

Schöne Festtage!
Seasons Greetings!
Frohes Fest! 
Happy Holidays!
Joyeuses Fêtes!
Genieß die Feiertage!

Those are all friendly greetings in German, English, and French to say to people in the weeks before and during the Christmas holidays. My personal favorite is "Schöne Festtage!"

But have you heard there's a so-called "war on Christmas"? That's what conservative radio and talk show hosts have been trying to get Americans to believe for about a decade, and our current chieftain has been championing that notion as well - before and throughout his campaign, and again this season.
Starbucks' scandalous 2017 holiday cup
photo credit: Dad

Their idea is that Christmas is under attack because "no one can say 'Merry Christmas' anymore" for fear of offending someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas. Starbucks had the audacity in 2015 to change their Christmas cups to holiday cups with a plain red background, and a shitstorm ensued. How dare they?!? The Obamas printed "Happy Holidays" on the annual cards they sent out, and didn't mention Christmas at all in their greeting! This put Bill O'Reilly in a tizzy every year.* "We need to bring back Christmas! The libs are trying to get rid of Christ!"

*I'm surely not the only person that finds it rather ironic that Bill O'Reilly got his knickers in a knot about people not saying "Merry Christmas". Champion of Christian values? Not so much, as it turns out...

That silliness makes me roll my eyes every year, in part because I have never met anyone personally who has acted offended by me saying "Merry Christmas." It's true I know a lot of Christians, but I also know some atheists/agnostics and have Muslim friends, none of whom seem offended by "Merry Christmas". In fact, my Muslim friends wish me a merry Christmas, when I say to them, "Enjoy the holidays"! Our Turkish butcher, who is Muslim, included "Wir wünschen allen unseren Kunden schöne und besinnliche Weihnachten und einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr" in his weekly ad in our local newspaper. ("We wish all our customers a merry and peaceful Christmas and a good slide into the New Year.")

It seems to me the "war on Christmas" crowd are making a whole lot of fuss about nothing. I have never been told I cannot say whichever holiday greeting I wish to use. The only people who are saying "You can't say 'Merry Christmas' anymore" are those who are claiming there's a war on Christmas. They are also the only ones I've heard who seem offended by a heart-felt holiday greeting, when it is not the specific greeting they want to hear. Hm.

The thing is, I say "Schöne Feiertage" or "Enjoy the holidays" to people during the holiday season because that's what I want to say. I say "Merry Christmas" on Christmas. And the only people I'm with on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is are my family members. For the same reason I don't say "Happy Thanksgiving" in mid-November, I don't say "Merry Christmas" during Advent. 

I think Germans would find this notion of a "war on Christmas" ridiculous. It is perfectly normal in Germany to say "Schöne Festtage!", which translates to "[I wish you] happy holidays." They also say "Schöne Adventszeit!" to wish people a nice Advent. In the U.S. no one even hears about Advent unless one goes to church on a Sunday in the weeks before Christmas. In Germany we have Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, Advent markets, and we wish each other a Happy First, Second, Third, or Fourth Advent.

Happy Third Advent!
For those who want to talk about a war on Christmas, what about the fact that many stores in America are open on Christmas Day and all day on Christmas Eve? I won't mention Boxing Day, or der zweite Weihnachtstag, as it's called in German (Dec. 26) because that's never been an American thing as far as I know - but that's a holiday in Germany and all stores and businesses are closed. In Europe these are sacred days for family; in America they're an opportunity to make money - even to lure people in with holiday sales. If you've never been to an American store on Dec. 26, count yourself lucky. They have special lanes set up for people who want to return or exchange the gifts they received the day before (and they stay up until the rush to return unwanted gifts subsides, a few days to a week later). "After Christmas sales" are in full swing, and commercialism friendly customer service is the focus.

I read the other day that watching Fox News regularly increases by 5-10% the likelihood that a person will believe there's a "war on Christmas," but only about 31% of Americans have fallen for this. From the crowd noises at #45's televised rallies when he declares that he is bringing back Christmas, a good portion of them seem to be present and accounted for.

I'd like to say gently to anyone who might feel offended or annoyed by someone else saying, writing, or posting "Happy Holidays!": Perhaps that is simply the greeting the other person prefers. There's no need to get worked up about it. I'll use the greeting I prefer, you can use the greeting you prefer, and we can all go about our own holiday cheer.

I hope this last week before Christmas is enjoyable and peaceful for you, and not filled with too much stress. Some stress is natural near holidays, but hopefully joy and peace in your home will outweigh it. Would that peace throughout the world were possible as well - in all seasons. 

Frohe Festtage!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Things I DO like about Winter

For the most part, Winter can bite me. I don't like being cold, the days are too short, snow and ice on the roads means dangerous driving conditions, and an overnight snowfall means a glitch in our carefully coordinated morning routine because one or both of us has/have to go out and shovel. I grew out of winter sport enthusiasm at about age 17, and basically now from the first snowfall until Spring, I'm just gritting my teeth and waiting it out.

Winter in Wisconsin (overnight snowfall)
Just today on the local Blaulicht Report (a Facebook group informing residents of various perils and where temporary Blitzer [speed traps] have been installed) someone posted that one of the roads leading up here from Horb was totally blocked because cars were just not able to make it up the steep hill. The problem reportedly started when a young woman's car got stuck, she called another friend of hers for help, the friend's car also got stuck, and then they called the ADAC (German AAA). They both still had their summer tires on, according to one commentor.

As long as I don't have to drive in it, I don't suppose I care much if it snows, but sooner or later we're going to run out of wine and food, which means a drive to the store. And of course I have to drive to and from school every morning.

So, yeah. Winter is just not my thing.

However, I realized yesterday morning after our first real snowfall of the season - which happily fell on a Friday night - that there are a few things I do like about winter, and I should focus on the positives. So here we go...

What I DO like about Winter

  • Weihnachtsmärkte, at least until Christmas

  • Tübingen's ChocoArt festival - it only lasts for 5 or 6 days and I usually go only once, but it's so worth it!

  • fires in the Kachelofen
I really need to reupholster that bench cushion!

  • The Advent season, our Adventskranz, the Adventskalender (You're obligated to eat one piece of chocolate a day when you have one of these; it's tradition!)

  • Wild on the menu - namely wild boar and Rehrücken (venison) 

  • white wine and water stay cold in the garage; I don't have to schlepp them to the cellar

  • I can leave the butter out on the counter in the kitchen

  • my pillow is always cold

  • there's no weeding to be done in the garden

  • the Biomüll doesn't stink in the outside bin

  • fewer fruit flies and other winged critters flying about

  • nice photography opportunities

Clearly if I force myself, I can come up with some positives about winter. There's no doubt I love the Advent season here in Germany, and admittedly a little snow at a Weihnachtsmarkt can create a nice atmosphere. After January 1st, though, I'm  ready for Spring.

It is true that winters in southwestern Germany are far milder and better (in my opinion) than those in Wisconsin. It is unlikely our car would get buried overnight like my daughter's car in the first photo above, and it's not nearly as cold. The roads are better and it's rare that they stay icy for more than a day. In Wisconsin the roads on my way to school were essentially a bumpy sheet of ice from January through mid-March.

I should also fess up and add that I did bring our snowblower from Wisconsin, and M doesn't actually mind snowblowing - except when the weather is really shitty. He even goes up and down our whole street, clearing the snow for grateful neighbors. 

Am I alone here? How do you feel about winter?