Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

To all of you - I wish you a very happy new year. 

Thank you for following and reading my blog, your comments, your understanding, your ability to make me laugh. I appreciate each and every one of you!

Let's get this new year going!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Silence of Christmas Eve

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 singing.

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.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Zimtsterne - Cinnamon Stars

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).


Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Kaefer loves to braid hair. Usually she practices with her dolls, but she also braids her own hair and recently she has started to braid mine as well. No wonder she tells me to NOT cut it short again!

Her newest style is a French side braid - she did one for herself, and then one for me. I tried once to braid hers, but failed miserably.

I just love to take pictures of her from behind - especially in a location like this one, on the deck of a friend's house, looking west to the coastal range - a killer view.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Just a Tree

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:

Levels adjustment
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%
Brightness/contrast adjustment
Add text

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Places of my Heart: Aswan

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.

Aswan Dam

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),

Nubian families,

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.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Month of the Angels

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.

I am linking this to Inspiration Avenue where everything is about angels this week.