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!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Quarantine Kitchen

In my last food related post I promised that there will be a part 2 to the food that we ate during the shelter-in-place. This is more of a look back now since the county has re-opened and it seems that people are getting out more. Restaurants are open for dine-in - most of them using patio space and dining outside which here in Northern California is a no-brainer, really. But I do wonder whether is has been such a smart idea to open up while still being in the middle of a pandemic. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away. No surprise that the number of newly infected cases is going up almost everywhere in the country.

But - back to food. Very often I cook without any recipe, like the dish in the photo on top. Seafood mix, red bell pepper, edamame and chow mein noodles all thrown in a wok with some good spices make a satisfying dinner. My secret ingredient for this is sesame oil, and apart from that any food you can find in your kitchen. Just use your imagination and experiment with different spices.

One of our favorite dishes from Italy is pesto. I don't make my own pesto since I found a wonderful pesto from Italy that always reminds me of Tuscany and the wonderful time we had there. Of course it's accompanied by a glass of California red wine.

When we had pesto we usually have some spaghetti left over that easily makes another meal. Again, I just use what I have - spinach and Bavarian bratwurst, broccoli and Bavarian bratwurst, eggplant and pancetta. There is no limit to your imagination.

Or you can make fritata with a salad on the side. Just make sure not to burn it like I did!

We do love that Bavarian bratwurst. I find this one at Trader Joe's, it comes right from Munich and is a true German bratwurst. We eat it with a broccoli-cauliflower gratin on the side and sometimes I eat it as a curry wurst just like in Germany.

Trader Joe's Instagram page also inspired me to try some of their ideas, like the "sweet balls of fire" - meatballs cooked in a sauce made from their sweet chili sauce and raspberry jam - so good! Even better with focaccia - this was my second try and it already was a big improvement from my first one.

I do love to cook seafood, so I made puff pastry shells with shrimp and a creamy sauce with cremini mushrooms, zucchini and red bell pepper (my own creation) as well as a lovely lemon baked cod (I found the recipe on Pinterest here). I'm always happy when I find a fish recipe that everybody likes and doesn't amount to a ton of work.

Have you heard of Shakshuka eggs? While it is a breakfast dish I made it for dinner once, first time I tried it because I wanted to bring a Middle Eastern dish to the table. While it wasn't a favorite, it was certainly very flavorful and delicious.

Let's not forget about desserts. While usually we just have a piece of chocolate to round out our dinner I sometimes make the effort to make a special dessert like Tiramisu which has been a favorite since I brought the recipe from Italy 25 years ago or so. Here is the recipe.

In our paper (or the New York Times, I can't remember) I found a recipe for a crumb cake that sounded easy enough. It doesn't look like much, but the taste was okay. I think I would like to add some fresh fruit on the side - strawberries or peaches - and some whipped cream.

And just to make this pandemic time a bit easier to endure, a good drink is never wasted - be it a maitai on a Sunday afternoon, white wine with the fish or a traditional German Erdbeerbowle.

Now go in the kitchen and make something beautiful!

Monday, June 15, 2020

Enough Is Enough

Lafayette Square, Washington DC

The past few weeks have left me speechless. I didn't succeed in finding the words to express my horror, my rage, and my sadness in the aftermath of the senseless killing of yet another black man.

So I listened. Being a white person in the US comes with a lot of privileges. Of many I have always known, but there are many I haven't been aware of. Most I didn't even think about twice. Things I've always taken for granted - like I surely didn't expect to die when I was pulled over several years ago because I didn't stick to the speed limit on the "loneliest highway in America".

One of the stories I recently read: After attending a conference a 51-year old black man was on his way back to Sacramento, driving along the interstate when his car was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. Instinctively, he put his hands on the dashboard and felt his heart racing in his chest. He had taught his children to immediately put their hands on the dashboard when pulled over so that police officers could see that they weren't armed. It is important to mention that the black man was in the passenger seat. The car was driven by a white, plain-clothed law enforcement officer.

The black man was Tony Thurmond, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Let that sink in for a moment.

A respected, elected black state official still reacts with fear and caution when confronted with law enforcement in a seemingly harmless situation. So how does a 17-year old black teenager feel, a 24-year old black man, a 43-year old black father? What do the mothers, wives and children of these men feel and fear on a daily basis?

I chose not to watch the video of George Floyd's violent killing. But in a podcast I heard his last words, his pleading with the police officer who was kneeling on his neck (with his hands in his pockets!). They haunt me. How much more do they affect the black community - anybody, really, who has a heart?

No, I didn't join the protests, but I applaud and support everybody who get out and let their voices be heard (I'm not talking about the rioters and looters). It's our constitutional right to assemble peacefully. That's why the violent break-up of a peaceful protest in Washington's Lafayette Square enrages me so much.

A lot is at stake in our country.

I may not find the words right now, but I will not be silent.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Parks Are Open Again

A few weeks ago our parks were re-opened. First the parking lots remained closed and only people who live in the vicinity of a park could access it by foot or bike.

My favorite parks are not in walking distance from my home. While I could access the lake by bike, the ride there is no fun at all on busy roads with no bike lanes. Even riding along more quiet neighborhood streets can't avoid the busy intersections.

But the old rural cemetery is close to our neighborhood. It was also closed, but now finally we were able to access it again. Of course there were rules in place, all of which make perfect sense.

There was also another sign that was less comfortable...

We live in cougar country and they have been spotted in our neighborhood, so I was aware of my surroundings and avoided the most remote parts of the cemetery.

After the long closure of the parks and the complaining of the people about it I had expected that the cemetery was crowded because people were so eager to get outside and enjoy some nature. But to my surprise I was almost the only one wandering the trails.

A small section of the cemetery had been turned into a native plants garden years ago. It was a bit overgrown but there were still beautiful flowers to discover.

Calycanthus occidentalis (Spice Bush) 

Lepechinia clycina (California Pitcher Plant)

Of course Lathyrus latifolius, the perennial peavine, could be seen everywhere.

After walking for quite a while I found a bench where I sat down for a while, listening to the birds, breathing in the wonderful scent of the old trees, feeling the sun on my skin, hearing the whispering of the soft breeze in the leaves, watching busy little squirrels and just enjoying being in nature.

Only a week later the parking lots were opened as well while beaches at the ocean still remain closed (except for coastal residents). But I'm still weary of crowds and avoid the more popular parks. I find all the peace and calmness of nature in this old cemetery where time seems to stand still. This is enough for me right now.