In Germany, our “big day” is not Christmas Day (and we even have two of
them!) but Christmas Eve – Heilig Abend (Holy Eve) as it is called. It usually
starts out hectic, often with the last big shopping because all of the stores
and supermarkets will be closed for the following two days. But around 2:00 pm
the shops (including the grocery stores) close and by 3:00 pm at the latest a
magical silence covers the entire country like a beautiful veil. The ideal
December 24th brings snow in the afternoon and turns the world into
a winter wonderland by the time the first church bells start to ring.
Oh, the sound of church bells – how much do I miss this!
They ring every day (at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, at noon and again at
6:00 pm), but on Christmas Eve all the bells are ringing, from the smallest,
highest pitch to the biggest one with the deepest, loudest sound. It’s a
concert of bells that resounds through the silence, calling for mass. Christmas
services start in the later afternoon, the first ones mainly for smaller
children, showing nativity plays and involving the kids. Later in the evening
follow the more “grown-up” services with meaningful sermons and the old German
Christmas carols sung by the congregation. Everybody knows these songs and
since the churches are always packed on Christmas Eve it is a strong and joyful
After church it’s back home – and waiting for Christkind
(Christ Child). Yes – it often is not Santa coming through the chimney (there
are not that many houses with a fireplace anyway) but Christkind. When I was a
child I always envisioned Christkind with golden curly hair and a flowing white
dress, an angelic smile on its face. It would place the presents in “die gute
Stube” (“the good room” = living room) and magically disappear, unseen by
anyone. The children are called in and they stand in awe looking at the
Christmas tree – that was brought in and decorated only the day before (or even
in the morning) and very often carries real candles on its branches. I have always loved the
real candles, it smells differently and the whole atmosphere is – yes, magical.
After singing a few Christmas carols everybody opens their presents accompanied
by Christmas music on the radio.
And if you’re still awake or missed the afternoon/evening
service you can go to midnight mass – always my favorite Christmas service. A
huge tree is lit (some with real candles – we live dangerously in Germany!),
the atmosphere is festive and peaceful – it is our “Silent Night, Holy Night”.
I wish all of you the silence of Christmas Eve
and a wonderful Christmas, filled with laughter and joy.
During the recent days I didn't feel able to blog. Just like the rest of the nation I was shocked, horrified and deeply saddened by the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT. I am still at a complete loss of words.
I spent more time with Kaefer, hugged her a little bit tighter than usual. On Sunday we baked cookies together. I remember when I was a child I loved to be in the kitchen with my mom and baking cookies with her. The best was when my brother who is almost five years older than me joined us, and we had so much fun together. Somehow my memories are full with a warmly lit kitchen while outside it was getting dark and it was always snowing. Beautiful childhood memories.
This time Kaefer and I dared to bake Zimtsterne - cinnamon stars - one of the most traditional German Christmas cookies. It's a little bit tricky and ours are wonderfully imperfect, but oh so yummy!
My recipe is still from Germany and of course it's in metric. You'll need
- 3 egg whites
- 200 g powdered sugar
- 1 package vanilla sugar (you can get this in sets of six in specialty stores; sometimes even Safeway carries it)
- 400 g almond meal (I get mine at Trader Joe's)
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
1. Beat the egg whites to stiffness; while doing this add the powdered sugar and the vanilla sugar (I mix those before). Put aside 1/2 cup of the stiff egg white and place in fridge.
2. Fold in 300 g of the almond meal and the ground cinnamon. Cover the dough and put in fridge for at least 30 minutes.
3. Cover the baking sheet with parchment paper. Pre-heat oven to 300 F.
4. Cover your working area with the remaining almond meal and roll out the dough on top of it (ca. 7 mm thickness)
5. Dip a star shaped cookie cutter into cold water, cut the shape out of the dough and put on baking sheet. Do so until all the dough is used up. Cover the stars with the remaining stiff egg whites.
6. Bake the cinnamon stars for approx. 25 minutes. Keep them in a metal tin (they taste even better after a few days).
Inspiration Avenue's challenge this week is "peace". What does peace mean to me? Of course I am dreaming of world peace, and I suspect that this dream will never come true. However, I will never loose hope on that one - never. Call me naive if you like.
But there is more to the word "peace". My inner peace. Being at peace with myself (which I am often not, but compared to when I was younger this feeling at peace has certainly improved). There are places of peace for me, or to be more accurate, places that give me peace. Where I feel at peace, my worries are forgotten for a period of time, and all I feel is utter peace.
This linden tree and its surroundings was one of those places for me when I still lived in Germany. It was about an hour's drive from my home, and I often went there on weekends. It was up in the hills of the Schwaebische Alb where more often than not a chilly wind was blowing and especially during the winter it was very cold. That was my favorite time to visit the linden, when the area was almost deserted, only a very few people took a walk there then. Up on that hill it was rather flat, there was another little hill rising with a small chapel on top.
I could walk here for hours, I would always return to the linden. In summer I would lie beneath or close to it and just dream. I would sit and read a book, but most times I would just watch, observe the birds and just enjoy this beautiful feeling of being at peace with myself and the world.
Since we're getting closer and closer to Christmas, I couldn't resist to alter the top photo in Photoshop:
For those of you who want to know how I did it, here's the recipe:
Copy that and use blending mode Multiply at 100%
Gradient Map adjustment in copper Kim's texture "coffeeteaorme" in soft light at 100%
Hue/saturation adjustment Bonnie's texture "Starburst" in Lighten at 85%
I am currently reading "Down the Nile - Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff" by Rosemary Mahoney. The first 100 pages deal with her time in Aswan in Upper Egypt, when she is trying to buy a rowboat. When I read those chapters, all my memories of Egypt came back to me.
For a long time I had thought about starting a new series on my blog, telling about my favorite places in this world. Since Egypt definitely belongs to those places, I can start the "Places of my Heart" right here and now, with Aswan.
Aswan is smaller than Cairo and Luxor, but certainly not less exciting. Its population is very different from Lower Egypt, consisting mainly of Nubian people, most of whom are displaced people after the Aswan dam was built and their villages had to give way to huge Lake Nasser.
One of the thousands of stray dogs you find all over Egypt - Lake Nasser in the background
I visited Egypt in May 1996. I went into the Sinai (which I love), spent a few days in Cairo, took the plane to Luxor and traveled up the Nile to Aswan on a cruise ship, the MS Orchid. Those cruise ships are a wonderful relaxing way to go up the Nile. The trips on land are often exhausting since it is so hot, but just sitting on deck sipping a karkade (cold punch made from dried hibiscus leaves and sugar) and watching life at the banks of the river was something I truly enjoyed. Of course this way you are kept away from the "real" life in Egypt which is harsh and unforgiving.
But let's go back to Aswan. Situated in Upper Egypt, the banks of the Nile are the edges of the desert - the Arabian Desert to the East, the Libyan Desert to the West and the Nubian Desert to the South. It is incredibly hot, the Nile is difficult to maneuver here due to the cataracts. The most popular "vehicle" on the river are the many feluccas, that run up and down the river.
You can see the cruise ships in the background, often anchoring six boats deep.
Of course I went up the Nile in a felucca as well. It's the best way to see the extraordinary landscape and landmarks of Aswan.
Ruins on Elephantine Island,
the famous Old Cataract Hotel (Agatha Christie loved to stay here),
the Tomb of the Nobles on the West bank
and the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan III who died in 1957.
His wife, the Begum Inaara, gave orders to build this mausoleum. She lived in the white villa on the right until her death in 2000.
About a quarter mile or so up river you can leave the felucca and walk up to St Simeon's Monastery, an old Coptic monastery of which only ruins remain. It's right up the hill in the desert - and yes, we walked up there. It was later in the day, so not too hot anymore, but still rather uncomfortable. However, the monastery was pretty interesting and the view of Aswan and the desert was fantastic (picture on top of this post).
There were foreigners who paid good money to ride up into the desert on camels (or dromedaries).
This picture shows clearly the difference between the new and the old, traditional Egypt. The young, modern, college educated man and the old man in his traditional galabiya, hanging out in the touristy spots, living on some pittance. You see this everywhere, and it often is heartbreaking. I often felt uncomfortable, because compared to them I was tremendously rich.
Back down at the river, our next destination was Kitchener Island, an tropical island with the most beautiful gardens. Lots of shade, I could have spent hours here.
Of course you haven't been in Aswan if you didn't visit one of the souqs. This is a world of its own. It comes to life in the evening when temperatures cool down. It was a whirlwind of impressions: cars trundling over the old cobblestone, their drivers pressing the horns constantly; donkey carts; people who ride a bicycle, holding a toddler at the same time; young mothers pushing their strollers; yelling dealers, bread sellers, and tourists, of course. The scent of unknown spices, fresh fruit, meat and incense hang all over it. It was fascinating (and I didn't take any photos because I didn't dare to bring my camera).
The most beautiful time was dusk, when the setting sun painted everything in a slightly pink shade, the river became calmer and the sun set behind the enormous desert dunes.
December - the month when winged creatures from heaven play a dominant role in peoples' lives.
I'm not quite sure whether I really believe in angels. I certainly do think that everybody has a guardian angel who protects us although I am also convinced that often they have a hard time doing this, judging from all the stupid things we do. My guardian angel certainly was working overtime when I was younger.
I have always loved that angels told the shepherds about the birth of Jesus first. These beautiful, graceful creatures chose the poor, hard-working, probably dirty and smelly men to tell them these joyful news. I has always given me a sense of justice, and rightly so.
For me, angels belong to Christmas, there is no way around it. I've put them on ornaments and I love to make them as little tags - like this one. It's simply made of paper, stamped, filled in with watercolor and a pair of shiny wings added as well as a strip of light pink lace. My neighbor from across the street of our old house bought these (I had made ten of them) and I am happy that they found such a good home.
Finally I'm emerging after this crazy weekend... I hadn't expected very much for my shop, but I was actually busy - what a lovely surprise!
How was your Thanksgiving? Ours was lovely - as every year, we celebrated with friends and had such a nice afternoon/evening together with lots of laughter. The turkeys (yes, we had two, one oven roasted and one barbecued) and sides were yummy, the dessert delicious and of course we had our wonderful pumpkintinis - no Thanksgiving without them!
But I didn't really want to write about Thanksgiving since I already did that in my last post. Today I want to show you what is on my worktable - not what I am working on, but who lives there as permanent residents.
First, there is this beautiful bird that I got from the amazing Kelly Thiel.
I have always loved Kelly's birds, but to call one my own is very special. This bird means so much to me - she is small and looks a tiny bit timid, at the same time she has this expression on her face that is full of courage, strength and power. And a sense of "I don't care what others think of me". Exactly what I need! I wish I could care less what others think of me - I'm already way better in this regard than a few years ago. I grew up with parents who always said "what shall the other people think" - is that really important? What I think of myself, how I see myself and what I want to achieve should be more important - otherwise we just get stuck in mediocreness (is that a word?) and will never be happy.
Trust in yourself - this is what Kelly wrote on one side, exactly the right message for me. So often I do not trust in myself, doubt myself, question what I'm doing. Too often I'm not letting my intuition guide my hand. I wish I worked more intuitive when I'm painting or just creating.
Look at this beautiful bird - who could not love her? I am forever thankful that she has found a home in my studio, on my worktable.
The other "resident" is this little buddha that Kaefer made in sixth grade:
Buddha with all his wisdom and calmness - another "virtue" I'd like to have. Okay, I've given up on the wisdom, but I still wish I was more calm. I'm getting better in telling myself that Rome wasn't built in seven days and that I can take it a bit easier and not do everything at the same time. I don't have to return a phone call or mail right NOW, I can actually wait until I have made the bed, done the dishes or eaten breakfast. Nothing will go up in fire.
When the computer doesn't work the way I want him to (of course a computer is a HE!), I get restless and sometimes even shout at him, or at least curse like a fishwife (I apologize to all fishwives...). The Geek is the poor chap who gets it all from me, even though it really is not his fault (but he's a geek, so he should know!). I hate myself in those moments.
And my little girl sits there and creates Buddha's toes - just look at that. She is so focused when she works on her "stuff" (she loves to create with polymer clay).
So I need to learn more of this calm Buddha pose. Let go of worries and trust more in myself, and in the future. Sometimes I wonder how much I miss because I worry so much.
November - a real autumn month, with the most beautiful colors in the year, sunny days, rainy days, foggy days, grey days.
And also with the most beautiful holiday we have - Thanksgiving. The day when we say thanks for all the blessings we have in our lives, eat and drink with family and/or friends, relax and take life slowly (except you work at Walmart, Kmart etc. where Thanksgiving obviously doesn't have any meaning at all).
It makes me sad that so many shops are open on Thanksgiving. Are we really such greedy and superficial people that we cannot live one day without shopping? I get Black Friday - after all I have a little online shop myself - but we also have the gift of Thanksgiving. The people who work at Walmart, Kmart, Target etc. - mostly women - want to spend a quiet Thanksgiving as well, want to relax with their families without thinking that they have to work in the store by 9:00 pm (Target) or 4:00 pm (Michaels) or the entire day (Walmart, Kmart). Seriously, I don't get it.
When we first came to the US the Geek loved the Black Friday deals. He got up between 4:00 and 5:00 am to stand in line at Best Buy while I just turned around in my warm bed and slept some more. When he came home and we finally set down for a late breakfast, he would tell the most hilarious stories of his morning, talk about the people he had met. It was always a good mood and people actually behaved. No one trampled on top of other people to get the best deal. Eventually the Geek lost interest in these early morning shopping hours, the thrill was gone for him and we all could sleep in. No more standing in line in the cold and rain.
Today he shops online, and now that I have my own online shop I, of course, join the frenzy. I have worked like a mad woman during the past days, getting my shop "Black Friday ready" and I often wandered whether it is really worth it. I actually don't think that small businesses like mine will "profit" from the shopping craziness of the next few days. However, Saturday is also Small Business Saturday, and I wanted to participate.
So I do have special Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals in my shop - get 25% off when you use the code THANKS2012 during checkout. Items within the US and to Canada ship for free. And if your purchase is $50.00 or more, you also receive a free 8x10 print of my painting "Gypsy" - this one:
But the question remains for me: Can you really sell handmade items at a discount? Do I really have to join in the big shopping frenzy? I feel very split about this.
Whatever you do during this weekend: I wish you a peaceful and relaxing Thanksgiving. I hope you can spend it with people you love. Eat, drink and be merry. Enjoy the gift we've got in Thanksgiving.
We will celebrate with friends of ours - we have done so for years. It's a loud and chaotic Thanksgiving, with lots of laughter and a mix of German and English. When we sit down at the table, everybody says what s/he is grateful for. I am grateful for my family, that we have created a warm and loving home and that we have some wonderful friends.
Thanksgiving is just a few days away, a time not only to eat delicious food but also to think about what we're thankful for. Since I started a gratitude journal quite a while ago, I am so much more aware of what I am grateful for, how many blessings there are in my life. I have come to be thankful every day, and it feels good. I notice so much more, little things. And big things.
Take this past week, for example.
There was a gorgeous morning sky, right before the sun climbed over the hills, that I could see from my bedroom window.
On the way to the neighborhood market with Kaefer, we saw this beautiful passion flower.
Autumn in Sonoma County is just breath taking with all its colors and grapes in the vineyards.
When I went to Trader Joe's, all the wonderful Christmas goodies had arrived! We have been waiting for the Lebkuchen (gingerbread) from Germany.
Speaking of Germany, I also received a lovingly wrapped package from Germany, from my blogging buddy Cynnie who is an American living in Bavaria.
I had won a giveaway on her blog, some awesome German art magazines, and before sending them to me she asked me what my favorite chocolate is. I said "Milka" and thought that she might include one bar of it - however, she put in six of them!!! Six! Just imagine my joy. And I have been good - so far I only ate one of them, with the help of my family.
Last but not least, there is Anja. Just like myself, Anja is from Germany, but lives in California, in my town.
I had met her last year when we went to our first Stammtisch - a bi-weekly get-together of Germans living here - and I liked her from the very first moment. Last Thursday, the Stammtisch took place at her house (we take turns who is hosting) and we had so much fun together. We really are on the same wavelength and have a very similar kind of humor. The day after she sent me such a kind message via Facebook that truly made my day.