Thursday, September 17, 2020

Fresh Air


After 28 straight days of bad, unhealthy air we finally got a breather! The air quality had been so bad here on the West Coast, a by-product of all the wildfires that are burning in California, Oregon and Washington. At the beginning our air became poor when we had two big wildfires here in our county, started by dry lightning. But then those wildfires became more and bigger, and not all of them were the result of natural causes but unfortunately were started by the carelessness of some people. Who needs gender reveal parties and why? 

When we said goodbye to Kaefer on Tuesday of last week and went back home, the Golden Gate Bridge looked like this:

We are used to see this bridge in fog often, but this is soemthing we had never seen before. If you think this looks unhealthy you are very right.

But the following day was much much worse.

I took this photo at 8:25 in the morning. The greyish-orange hue never disappeared throughout the entire day and it never got light. It was a foggy day with a thick blanket of smoke on top of it that prevented the sun to break through. It felt rather apocalyptic. We stayed inside with doors and windows firmly shut. I had never experienced something like this in all my life. It looked like the end of the world was near.

We took to our N95 masks again - it seems to be an annual recurrence. The news about the fires were horrific. Entire towns in Oregon burned down. My good friend Jo who moved to Portland, OR a few years ago said that the air was terrible (I think their air quality index was over 500). 

But then after 28 days of staying inside and only going outside when we really needed to the wind changed, the sky showed a faint hue of blue and the air improved by the minute. On Tuesday afternoon there was no way I would stay in the house. I grabbed my knitting and sat outside under the privet tree, sipping my iced coffee. The birds in the tree were singing like there was no tomorrow - I guess they were just happy about the fresh air as well.

Yesterday I moved my office outside (i.e. my laptop) and prepared my German lessons in my garden under the watchful eyes of Otis, one of the neighborhood cats who like to hang out in my garden. I was surprised how much I got actually done - I had thought that I would be too distracted, but I wasn't. I got my entire lesson plan done and created some worksheets that my students will get as their homework.

And today - I went to the lake. For the first time since the beginning of the shelter-in-place in March.

It felt so good! I was a bit hesitant because I thought that too many people would be there since it is a very popular spot. Yes, it was crowded, but I usually don't walk along the popular paths anyway and prefer the smaller nature trails that weren't crowded at all. I watched a Green Heron for some time who didn't feel threatened by my presence at all. I visited one of my favorite places, looking for cairns and when I didn't see any I built one. For a while I sat on a bench writing in my journal. And I simply enjoyed breathing fresh air and enjoying nature around me.

This is supposed to be only a short breather. Over the weekend the air is going to be poor again. But for the time being I am thankful for the on-shore winds that brought us the great gift of fresh air.

Never will I take clean air for granted.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Away She Goes


Last Tuesday Kaefer started the next chapter in her life. She boarded a Lufthansa flight to Munich where she will pursue her Masters in epidemiology. 

After she had graduated from UC Davis in June she stayed the summer with us, which was a big gift since we had so much time to spend with her before she left for her next adventure. During those months she tried to sell a lot of her things, was looking for a flat in Munich online (and found one), applied for a student job at her faculty (and got it) and also did a lot of fun stuff like playing cards and Rummikub. She and I went to the beach and hiked in our regional parks and tried to make the most of these restricted Corona-times. I'm so glad that we have all these beautiful memories.

On Tuesday afternoon, after a last round of Rummikub, we put her luggage in the car and drove her down to San Francisco Airport. It was the first of the eerie days (but by far not the worst) when the fog and smoke were hanging low and the day presented itself in a mustard-yellow hue - not particularly appealing. Kaefer was very quiet during the drive, looking around and admitting that it felt a bit odd to see all these familiar sights for the last time.

The international terminal in San Francisco was eerily empty and when I asked I was told that there were 193 seats left open in the plane that Kaefer would soon board. I was quite relieved to know that the flight wasn't full, and indeed no one sat next to Kaefer and she had the row to herself.

One restaurant in the food court was open, so we had some dinner and took the last family photos afterwards.

Then it was time to say goodbye. It was hard and my heart was heavy. At the same time I am so excited for her - that she got into this program (they only accept 30-40 students worldwide), that she got the job and that she has the opportunity to live, work and study in another country - her native country.

She arrived safely in Munich, got tested within 10 minutes after departing the plane, took public transportation to Marienplatz where she met the cousin of a friend of ours who had the key to her flat (and had bought some groceries for her to survive the first few days of quarantine until she receives the result of the test) and then made her way to her flat which she said is cute (and tiny). Today we will Zoom with each other - I do look forward to that.


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hot August


August was the hottest month we have had so far this year - and also the smokiest. There have been so many wildfires burning all over California, most of them caused by dry lightning, that the air quality became extremely poor in most of the state - and many parts of the country since the fires in California haven't been the only ones. Half of the month we stayed inside with the windows and doors shut because it was too unhealthy to venture outside. Two of the fires are burning in our county and we had many evacuations orders which were all reduced to warnings (which means be ready to evacuate any time). The fires are close to the Russian River which is an important water source for us, and in order to keep enough pressure for the firefighters to battle that fire we were all asked to conserve water as much as we can. I stopped watering my garden (except for the veggies) and once again felt relieved that I had the foresight to plant a drought tolerant garden. So far I haven't lost a single plant, and two nights ago we even had a little rain. The past few days have been foggy with much better air yesterday. However, the weekend ahead is supposed to bring another heat wave with temperatures up to 106F - I hope the garden can take it.

I missed spending time in the garden. I was lucky to get in some hikes in our beautiful Regional Parks, some of them with Kaefer. We went early in the morning to avoid the midday heat and enjoyed nature, saw wildlife and had some good conversations while hiking the trails. She is leaving in less than a week, my heart is heavy, but I also know that I will be okay after a few days when I know that she has arrived safely, has moved into her flat and hopefully doesn't have to quarantine too long. She will be tested at the airport and the result will be back within 48 hours, so hopefully she can go outside after two days.

Work at the high school started the first week of August. It has been rather quiet in the beginning and I could finish some of the things that haven't been done since March when the schools closed down. The school year started on August 17th and of course it's all distance learning. It is very strange to be back on campus without any students being there. This week we're distributing textbooks which is a huge undertaking (we will be done tomorrow evening) for almost 1600 students. Even though I felt bone tired every evening, it was so nice to see the students again. Sure, we were all wearing masks, my colleague and I were working behind Plexiglas, but nevertheless, there suddenly was life on the campus. I hadn't expected that I would enjoy these five days so much.

In order to stay sane I knitted a lot - several hats and socks and I also finally finished the sweater for Kaefer that took forever to knit up (mainly because I had to unravel parts of it again). I was quite busy with my Etsy shop selling socks and photo cards which, of course, was very welcome, too. The positive and the negative pretty much balanced out this month.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sitting in the Lavender


When I think of summer, I think of lavender - purple, blue, white, even pink lavender. We are fortunate here in Sonoma County to live in a Mediterranean climate and therefore can grow a wide range of lavender. 

There are several lavender gardens and farms nearby. The newest addition is Bees N Blooms which features a lavender labyrinth that I still have to write about. My favorite place over the years has been the lavender garden of Matanzas Creek Winery that I wrote about here and here. It is still my go-to place if I want to experience the beautiful sight and the wonderful scent of lavender.

The nice thing is that all of these places have benches or chairs to sit in and enjoy the lavender, even read a book or write in a journal.

The chairs at Matanzas Creek Winery are pretty deep - it's not easy to get out of them again gracefully!

They're scattered throughout the garden and there are even spots in the shade.

Of course it's also a great spot to take graduation photos!

The lavender bloom is over for this year, but next summer you will probably find me in one of these lavender heavens.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Days of the Red Sun


When the sun looks like this it is a pretty sight, but it is not a good sign at all. We call this sun either the Red Sun or the Fire Sun. The intense color results from heavy smoke in the air, and the smoke, of course, originates from wildfires.

Last Sunday and Monday we had a series of bizzare thunderstorms, or should I say lightning storms since we only received a minimum of rain that didn't help much. These storms happened amid triple-digit temperatures, our first serious heatwave this year. The last time it had rained was back in May, so everything has been extremely dry.

We were worried all through these two days and sure enough soon the first warnings about wildfires came in. These were in Napa County which is our neighboring county. Most of these fires occurred along Highway 128, the route I usually took when I drove to Davis. But then we heard that there was a fire in the Austin Creek area in our county (the Walbridge Fire) - a heavily forested area with narrow and winding roads which makes evacuation difficult and dangerous. This area hasn't burned for decades and has enough fuel to feed a huge fire. Fire also produces its own winds and even fire tornadoes that makes the already bad situation even worse and less manageable. Evacuation orders were put in place as well as rather extended evacuation warning zones to get people ready to go if the need arises.

Shortly after that another fire north of Jenner at the coast was spotted (the Meyers Fire). All of these fires were started by lightning strikes and added to the already high amount of wildfires we had all over California before that. 

Nixle alerts were pouring in, but thankfully the night was quiet with no new evacuation orders. Yesterday our view from the second story of our house looked like this - you can see a wall of smoke moving in, and soon after that the sun disappeared, the light became an eerie yellowish and the air quality was horrible. We stayed inside, shut down the house, had the air filters running and trying to make the best out of this situation. Even if you try to stay calm and reasonable, there is so much anxiety because we had experienced the October 2017 fires and know how quickly a dangerous situation can become a disaster. I certainly don't want to see anything like this again:

The remains of our old home after the Tubbs Fire- thank fully we hadn't lived there anymore in October 2017

This morning the air quality had improved, but not for very long. It is horrible again. I really have become hateful of the smell of wildfire smoke. It triggers bad memories for everyone here.

The mandatory evacuation zone was extended this morning. The people in the area that used to be under evacuation warning now have to leave their homes without knowing whether they will still be there when they are allowed to return. There are evacuation centers available, but other than in 2017 when people were sheltered in big buildings, these centers now are mainly huge parking lots so that people can isolate in their cars.  COVID-19 makes everything so much more difficult.

If we had to evacuate, where would we go? I have no idea.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Let It Rock!


Here we are in the second half of August already! We are in our first real heatwave with temperatures over 100F which has turned out very "Uncalifornian" since we're experiencing heavy thunder and lightning with powerful winds and an unusual humidity. The wind is what worries us the most, and this morning a wildfire was reported near Lake Hennessey in Napa County (the next county over) with mandatory evacuations in place. 

I have been back to work at the high school for two weeks and today amidst the thunderstorm we had a power outage shortly before noon. Since I work in a room that is pitch dark without electricity I decided to go home since it was also getting unbearably hot. Fortunately we still have power at home, so I was able to work from here and also participate in a work meeting.

Today was also the first day of school which of course is happening via distance learning. It is very weird to work at a campus that is eerily empty and lifeless where normally teenagers congregate to learn. However, I also feel much more comfortable right now with far less people at work.

But despite all the work at the high school and the planning at the German School there still is time to go outside and do a few hikes - either alone or with my daughter. Yes, she is still here, but her departure is getting closer. She has booked her flight for Labor Day, and despite the heartache I hope she will be able to fly and not have to deal with any cancellations.

We were both delighted to discover some more rock cairns during our hikes.

Someone stacked several cairns in the dry creek bed - I often see families with children hang out there, so I suspect it's the kids who do this. I'm sure they're having fun with it.

Many years ago we found the most beautiful rock cairn on Ruby Beach in Washington State. It was a very foggy day on that rocky beach, but I remember how charming this specific stack of rocks appeared to us.

Of course the most famous "stacked rocks" are these - 

What about you? Do you often see rock cairns when you go out in nature - or even in more urban environments? Do you like to see them or do you not particularly care about them?

Saturday, August 1, 2020

What Happened to July?

I started out the month in Crane Creek Regional Park - a favorite of mine

It's the first of August and I have no idea what happened to July. 31 days just flew by - I still feel like it should be the first week in July and not August. It's not like we were having fantastic adventures (that actually was the original plan, we were supposed to explore Australia, but alas! corona had other plans), and still time rushed by and I wonder where my summer is and how come that I will be back to work next week.

But then I look at my photos and see that it was a beautiful month! Just like in June I challenged myself to take at least one photo each day. For some outings I had my big camera with me (still my favorite tool to take pictures, even though the phone is so much easier), but the majority again was taken with my Pixel phone.

I continued my walks in the neighborhood, discovering more back alleys, seeing beautiful backyards and Little Libraries. Since the beginning of the pandemic the number of these fun little libraries have increased. I'm still wary of using them, but I do enjoy them. The Snoopy one is my favorite - after all, this is Snoopy's home!

We also continued our Happy Hour with the neighbors. Two families (including mine) have become the "hard core" and every week another family or two joins us. We have got to know each other pretty well by now and I do enjoy this kind of friendship.

It's fawn season right now and every time I am on a walk in the morning I see deer. Together with their moms the little ones inspect the gardens and see whether they offer something delicious for them. I'm happy that at least two of my hollyhocks in the front did not fall victim to their hunger!

Kaefer has decided to go to Munich (she declined the offer from London on the last day possible) to do her Masters in epidemiology and is now busy selling her possessions. She started an online yard sale and so far it has been going quite well. Some days are very quiet, whereas on others she sells quite a lot. She puts in a big amount of work, but I love to see how organised and creative she is. We have also put out two boxes with "free" in our driveway which constantly gives me the opportunity to stock it up with things I no longer need or want. It is so liberating. Almost all of my Halloween stuff went to the young family two houses down the street. 

More walks in the neighborhood and in the Rural Cemetery. One afternoon Kaefer and I discovered a family of turkeys walking along our street - the mom had six babies and they were busy exploring the neighborhood, probably looking for food just like the deer.

I've decided to have several different face masks, some that can be worn over the head (much better than over the ears) and some over the ears (much faster to put on and off). The fun fabric with the rainbow cats I first saw in a post by my friend in Tucson and she gave me the idea to look for a mask made out of this fabric on Etsy. Of course there are tons of them; this one also has a nose wire and soft knit elastic which is easier on the ears. The fit is perfect and I use this mask for quick trips to the store or when I'm shopping at the farmers market.

My friend Angie and I met for a masked walk in the laguna. This was actually the first time since March that I had met with someone for a walk. It was awkward at first, but we quickly fell back in our easiness with each other and had a wonderful time. I hadn't been to the laguna since our stay-at-home had begun. I was surprised that there weren't any crowds, we hardly saw anybody! It was a relaxing walk with good conversations - something I had missed way too long. 

German-American friends came over one evenng for a distanced dinner outside with the tables apart. They brought the appetizer and the wine, I had made the entree and provided the dessert. I so enjoy dinner with friends accompanied by good talks and lots of laughter. Later in the month we went to other friends' house (or rather backyard) where we had wine and lots of snacks, but we mainly went because we hadn't seen them for so many months and it wasn't enough anymore just to "talk" on WhatsApp. Friends are so important, exchanging thoughts, discussing the (sad) state of our country and laughing together. This is the stuff in life that keeps us going, that feeds our soul and makes us feel alive. I can do without many things, but I certainly can't be without friends for an extended time. 

The last week of July was already a bit "overshadowed" by the return to work next week. For the longest time we had no idea when and how our return to the high school would look like - instruction will be online for the first quarter, but it was unclear what would happen to the staff. We had a meeting yesterday morning which was good and answered many questions, but only a few hours later there already was a change of plan! Now I'm not going back in person on Monday but will join a four-hours long meeting and training online that will tell us everything we need to know about going back to work in person. Usually the beginning of the school year is very busy when I work a lot of extra hours, but this year will be so different with many unknowns.

Since it was the end of my free time I headed out to Crane Creek Regional Park for another nature hike - I pretty much ended the month where I started it. Kaefer and I went to the beach one morning. It was one of those foggy, cool days at the coast which meant that no one was there - ours was the third car in the parking lot! We were totally fine with it and enjoyed having the beach almost to ourselves. We watched the seals playing in the water, the brown pelicans flying elegantly over the ocean on the lookout for food and even found a seastar - the first time ever I found one on this beach. I hope it's a good sign for their recovery since their numbers have declined over the past years.

We're in the middle of summer with temperatures climbing again. August usually is a hot month here followed by an often even hotter September. I do love summer, but I also look forward to the nature "fireworks" of autumn.

How was your July? Tell us in the comments if you like.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Mac'n Cheese with Broccoli

When I wrote the first part of my "Pandemic Food" posts, some of you asked for the recipe of the Broccoli Mac'n Cheese. 

I found this recipe about 30 years ago during a visit to England. It was one of many lovely recipes in a cookbook that was called "The Dairy Cookbook" if I remember correctly. I don't have that cookbook anymore - I got rid of a lot of things when we moved to the States - but this recipe had become such a favorite in my family that I don't need a recipe anymore.

You will need:

one package of Penne pasta
one head of broccoli, cut into florets only
one package of cubed Pancetta, about 4 oz (optional)
300 ml milk
25 g butter
25 g flour
one or two handfuls of shredded cheese (I use Swiss cheese and Gruyère from Trader Joe's)
paprika, salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 F
Cook the Penne pasta in boiling salted water according to directions on the package. For the last 4-5 minutes add the broccoli florets. Drain and put in an ovenproof dish. If you want to add the cubed pancetta, you will do it now.
Bring the milk with the butter and the flour to a boil, stirring often. Let the milk boil for a minute, then add paprika (I use quite a lot of that, but perhaps start out with a teaspoon or two), freshly ground pepper and a little bit of salt (remember that cheese already contains quite some salt). Now it's time to add the cheese - I'm usually quite generous with it. It really depends how you like it best. Pour the sauce over the pasta and broccoli. Top it off with some breadcrumbs.
Bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

When the top is golden brown, it's time to bring the broccoli man'n cheese to the table! Be careful - it will be quite hot - better let it cool slightly for five minutes or so.

If you ever make it, let me know. I'm also interested if you do any variations.


Thursday, July 9, 2020

Paris in July 2020 - Shout it from the Rooftops

It is always fun to look down on a city from above, and Paris is no exception. During a visit to the beloved capital of France people stand in line at the Tour Eiffel to rise up to the top and enjoy the vast views of this sprawling metropolis. The view from Montmartre is just as wonderful (and a lot cheaper!). But what I enjoy is going up to the top of a building that is just slightly higher than its surrounding buildings and get a closer look down from there.

In short, to view the roofs of Paris.

You get a good feel for a city from this viewpoint. On first sight it seems to be a bit chaotic and not necessarily pretty. You might even ask yourself whether these buildings were built without any plans or whether the construction workers ran out of material. But when you look closer you suddenly see some artwork or graffiti - or a rooftop garden where people have all their privacy (except for those nosy tourists gazing over from the Centre Pompidou like I did here).

There are little pieces of heaven, a personal oasis - wouldn't you like to hang out there, sipping a glass of red wine, biting in a fresh baguette and nibbling on some cheese? Sounds like paradise to me.

There are all these chimneys!

And there is also this:

I think these are firewalls - no, I'm not talking about the firewall on your computer that should prevent the onslaught of a computer virus. I'm talking about the original term referring to a wall intended to confine a fire within a line of adjacent buildings, as you can see in the photo above. They also seem to hold the before-mentioned chimneys which probably goes quite well with a firewall.


It's July and that means I'm once again joining Tamara at Thyme for Tea's Paris in July. If you're fascinated by everything Paris and French, you can find a lot more links to posts there.

Friday, July 3, 2020

This was June!

Social distanced Happy Hour with the neighbors

In June I gave myself a little challenge of taking at least one photo each day. I had become rather lazy with photography and I hadn't used my big camera since February when I last visited the beach. Thankfully there were several occasions in June when I finally used the big camera again - it felt so good.

Sometime in late April or early May (I can't remember exactly when) the neighbors in our corner started to gather for a happy hour on Fridays at five in the afternoon. We first were sitting by the side of the street; everybody brought their chair and drink of choice and we would sit 6ft. apart from each other and chat. It was wonderful to meet up. After a few weeks one of the neighbors had the genius idea to move to the cul-de-sac at the corner - it's quieter and it also offers more shade. Since then we have met up every Friday for an hour and a half to two hours and it is one of the highlights of the week.

The little girl a couple houses down turned four and we did a drive-by birthday "party" for her. It was a lot of fun to see the decorated cars and bicycles pass by, honking their horns and ringing their bells.

During June I continued my walks, discovering the back alleys in the historical district of the town. These back alleys are very quiet and have almost a rural feel - it's hard to believe that we are not far from downtown when you walk here. They offer a lot of shade and unpaved trails.

I enjoyed my June garden a lot. The poppies were the bright spots and happily displayed their beauty. They all came from the poppies that I had first sown eight years ago. Since then they have self-sown every year - so easy.

Oh - and we had some very hot days in June when I simply wasn't up to cooking dinner. So I made tuna poké with seaweed, rice, avocado, and lots of sesame.

I was very happy when the Rural Cemetery was re-opened at the end of May. I've been there many times and each time I discover something new and see something from a different perspective. That place is never crowded, there are nature trails and lots of space to walk.

The glowing bear - Lumibär - at our entrance is from Germany. I bought it when the Geek and I were still dating. We were walking to our favorite café in Tübingen when we passed a shop that had several of these bears in different colors in their windows. There was no price, however. The Geek went inside to inquire about the price - it wasn't exactly cheap, but not very expensive either. Over some coffee and breakfast I pondered about it and decided that it would be fun to have it. When we entered the store the clerk greeted us with the words "Which color should it be?" We had to laugh about that. I chose the orange Lumibär (of course!) - that was in 1996. He moved with us to the US, he was in our evacuation "bag" - and next year he will turn 25. He shines in the mornings and evenings and the kids in the neighborhood love him. Some call him the "giant gummy bear".

We celebrated a big event in June - Kaefer graduated from the University of California, Davis. On June 12th was the virtual commencement celebration that we watched together. Of course it was very different from the "real" thing, but the important thing is that she graduated. She will now do her Masters, either in Munich or in London. She got in both programs and now has to decide where she wants to go.

The middle of June brought more days in the garden and walks through the - like-minded - neighborhood. Friends of us came over for a social distanced couple of hours of good conversation and good wine, lots of laughing and the faint feeling of some kind of normalcy. One Sunday we visited the Lavender Labyrinth at a lavender farm which was fun - more pictures will probably follow in another blogpost.

Kaefer went back to Davis to pack more of her things and I drove over one day to take graduation pictures of her and one of her best friends who was also her work mate. We took photos at different locations on campus that have had some meaning for them during those four years, and also a picture of her and myself. From that day on Kaefer has been staying with us which is a big gift for us before she will move to Europe.

I have started knitting a summer sweater for her, but I'm getting second thoughts about the neckline. It is a technique I have never done before and I'm a bit nervous about it. Maybe I should practice before!

The last week of June... Kaefer and I went to the lavender garden of Matanzas Creek Winery (I wrote about those gardens herehere and here) to take a few more graduation photos. I simply love this place. I also finally went back to Crane Creek Regional Park - I'm still avoiding the lake since there are just too many people who don't distance or wear masks, but it's safe in Crane Creek - not many people and those I met were wearing masks when we were passing each other. This is another place that feeds my soul and I just hope that they don't close the parks again. Unfortunately the number of cases are going up again rather speedily (which I think results from opening up too early and too fast) and I wouldn't be surprised if we took a few steps back again.

Since the second week of June I'm officially on summer break. I had my last class with the German School on June 10th (I decided to offer two conversation classes of four weeks each) and am glad to have some "real" free time. However, I'm also on the "re-opening" committee of the German School where we work on different strategies on how to re-open our school in the fall. That is a ton of work!

How was your June? What are you doing this summer?

To all of you in the US - have a happy Fourth!