Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas in New York

A few years ago the Geek and I decided to stop giving Christmas and birthday presents to each other and travel instead. This year our daughter chimed in - no presents, but a trip. While discussing where to go in the winter she mentioned that she had never been to New York (except for driving through during our cross country trip in 2007). After some research we had booked our flights and a hotel just two blocks north of the Empire State Building between Fifth and Sixth Avenue - a perfect place for exploring the Big Apple.

The Geek and I had spent ten very happy days in New York in 1997 and were wondering how much the city has changed since then (apart from the World Trade Center). I have to mention here that we were madly in love at that time and probably saw everything with rose-colored glasses. It was quite different this time.

There is no doubt that New York is magical during the holiday season. Everywhere there are lights, Christmas music is playing (the most played song was "All I want for Christmas is you"), it's glittering and sparkling, magic.

And there are crowds. And more crowds. And... even more crowds.

People are pushing and shoving, kids are crying, adults are cursing - suddenly the magic just disappears and all you see is the consumerism behind the magic.

The front facade of Saks Fifth Avenue had a huge display of the "Frozen" theme that would lit up every ten minutes with a light show that was fantastic, I have to admit. The music could be heard over several blocks. A lane of Fifth Avenue was completely closed off to traffic so that people could stand and watch the light show. Both the sidewalk and the lane was completely blocked and if you were trapped in there you were stuck for the next ten minutes. It happened to us and it wasn't exactly fun (I don't particularly like crowds).

Of course, we also took our own "magical" photos - the magic being that the Empire State Building grows out of the Geek's head! However, I do like the photo of Kaefer and myself in front of the huge Christmas baubles behind the Rockefeller Center.

I can't tell you enough how glad I was about my knitted hat and scarf! It was flippin' cold in New York (17 F, fortunately it warmed up considerably after that), with the chilly wind blowing along the streets. Even New Yorkers were complaining about the freezing weather. No wonder I came home with a serious cold (just like back in 1997...).

I had brought my DSLR to New York, but from the very beginning I mainly used the phone to take photos. It was just too crowded to always stop, strip off the backpack and get out the camera. It always involved taking off my gloves, too, which wasn't pleasant especially during those first few days. I pretty much used the big camera only to take pictures of Brooklyn Bridge (which compared to 1997 had turned into a zoo) and a beautiful sunset behind the Statue of Liberty. After the third day I left the camera in the safe in our room and only took pictures with my phone. It was much more convenient and I actually took way more pictures in places I wouldn't have pulled out the camera (like in the subway).

Experiencing New York City in the holiday season was certainly exciting. I enjoyed many parts of it. We visited coffee shops to warm up and had cocktails in the evening. There was a wide range of food to choose from and we were extremely lucky to find a German restaurant with excellent food and delicious beer just five walking minutes from our hotel. We ate our fair share of bagels with all kinds of cream cheese (avocado and herbs, anyone?). We strolled along Christmas markets and ate honey roasted almonds. There were wonderful museums to discover like the National Museum of the American Indian and the Met Cloisters as well as the very moving 9/11 Memorial with its reflecting pools. Most of the people we met were very nice, ready to chat and answer questions. They put a friendly face onto this hectic monster of a city. We had some really nice and interesting conversations with people, both visitors and New Yorkers.

But I was glad when we finally returned home. I'm simply not a city person anymore. I didn't like the crowds at all, the consistent noise, the honking of the cars, the impatience, the rush. Every day we walked between 7 and 11 miles, and it was all on pavement. It's hard, and it hurts - my feet hurt, my legs hurt, my hips hurt. I was bone tired every evening and still I couldn't sleep because there was no way that we could open a window in our room and I simply can't sleep without fresh air (as much "fresh" air as you might even get in NYC). But what got me the most was the wastefulness, the mountains of trash, the plastic bags, the "to go and throw away" mindset. The streets were littered, the subway was littered and every night bags of trash piled up in the streets. It was disgusting. I learned to truly appreciate what I have in California. We might be seen as "wacko" by the rest of the country, but boy am I proud to be this kind of wacko.

There certainly will be more posts about our trip to New York in the future. For now let me wish you happiness, health and joy of living for 2020.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Trail

Over Thanksgiving I had the week off from both my jobs and since the weather was nice I took the opportunity to hike up into Annadel again. This is one of my favorite places in our county. In the summer it is very hot, but as soon as it cools down a bit it is a wonderful wild place to spend time in.

For quite some time I had this idea in my head that I wanted to take pictures of Rough Go Trail by just using my phone. Now finally the time had come to turn this idea into reality (I'm afraid this is a photo-heavy post).

The trail that leads to Rough Go starts near the lake and is nice and mellow with relatively smooth going, the only obstacle in your way being a coyote brush.

Looking back already offers a beautiful view of the Mayacamas Mountains.

Then we hit the Rough Go Trail and the going gets... well, rough. There is a reason why the trail has its name. The first part is still in the shade which is the only shady section of the trail.

Then the trail gets rougher while climbing up.

Turning back you can see the scars of the October 2017 fires - those are some of the mountains where the fire roared over in the night of October 8th, 2017.

The trail climbs steadily among the boulders and rocks - another reason why I avoid this trail in the heat of the summer since the rattlers love to hang out here. While I think they're still more afraid of me than vice versa I do prefer to see them from a safe distance.

The views across my town toward the Coastal Range are stunning. I'm always amazed how many trees there are. Hard to believe that this is a city of 160,000.

But we still have a bit of a climb to do, so let's move on.


This is the end of the first climb - this lovely bench on the ridge.

I love to sit here under the old trees, watching the turkey vultures circling above me. Sometimes deer walk by. About ten to fifteen years ago or so while I was sitting on this bench enjoying the view a woman had climbed up the same trail and was approaching the bench a bit hesitantly. After I had told her that there is certainly space for both of us she sat beside me and we started a conversation. I immediately loved her English accent, and we talked for a long time. At the end we exchanged phone numbers and we became hiking buddies for many years.

It's also a great place for contemplating and writing in my journal.

From here you can still hike much further, there are many trails in Annadel. But I chose to go back, walk down Rough Go. It looks different on the way back.

After all these years I still love this trail. It never gets boring, there is always something new to see. One time I saw a bobcat, another day a coyote further up the mountain. Once a jackrabbit was hopping on the trail and even posing for the camera! I often saw mountain lion scat and once I even turned around on a more remote trail because I suddenly felt my hair standing up. I was pretty sure there was a cougar nearby and I didn't want to take any chances. That never happened on Rough Go, but I'm always vigilant. This is the wilderness after all.

Monday, December 16, 2019


Last Saturday we had out Winterfest at the German Language School. Usually we have a Weihnachtsfeier (Christmas party), but this year we opted for something different, and I think we were quite successful in this new way of celebrating the season.

One of our board members loves to bake and she outdid herself in platters of cookies baked according to German Christmas cookies recipes. There were quite some of my favorites, especially the Vanillekipferl (left to the Haselnusskeksis). My mom used to make them every year. They are a bit tricky to make, but hers were always delicious. These ones tasted just like hers. I also love Zimtsterne which was another staple in my mom's home. Christstollen - or Weihnachtsstollen - is a typical Christmas baked good that is only eaten during the holiday season. I'm not a big fan, but I know that many love it. It is not easy to make, so we always bought ours.

My all-time favorite is gebrannte Mandeln - almonds roasted with sugar and cinnamon and best eaten while still warm. I don't think there is a single Christmas market in Germany without gebrannte Mandeln. Unfortunately they were placed right next to the popcorn machine (the only un-German item at our Winterfest) which threw a weird yellowish light onto the almonds.

Of course there was singing of some German Christmas carols, a few performances by the kids' classes and the little (and bigger) kids could decorate cookies. Please note that Ella's cookie here is already half eaten...

We had set up a few booths to have a Christmas market with an ornament exchange, ornaments and German books for sale and a silent auction. People were mingling, drinking hot chocolate and spiced cider and there were some old fashioned fun games for the children.

And of course Santa - or der Weihnachtsmann, as we say in Germany - came and brought a few goodies for the kids. There were also gifts for the teachers which was a lovely surprise. It was a wonderful little Winterfest and something we will definitely do again.

Monday, December 2, 2019

An Image and Its Story - November 2019

I am a day late for last month's "An Image and Its Story" - this is what a Thanksgiving weekend does to you. I guess you can relate.

I was almost finished with my morning walk around the lake and on my way to my car when I came upon these two. The moment I stepped off the trail out of the woods I had seen them, but since from that perspective they were only silhouettes against the sun I wasn't quite sure what exactly the second "person" was - yes, I had first thought it was another human being (and I wasn't the only one - a lady who came towards us while I was taking the picture told us that she had first thought the woman was sitting there with her boyfriend!). The closer I got and changed my position to the sun I could finally see the dog and had to chuckle inwardly. But then immediately the photographer kicked in and I thought what a great photo this would make, so I asked the woman whether I can take her picture from the back with the dog by her side. She readily agreed. Unfortunately the dog didn't look straight over the lake like its owner but turned its head because there was another dog approaching (with the "boyfriend"-lady). However, when I saw the photo I thought no matter what, it was sweet and I just loved this moment of a human-dog friendship. There was so much tenderness and love between the two - this picture easily made November's image.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Buckeye Seeds

When I was a child growing up in Germany I would gather horse chestnuts (conkers) when they fell to the ground in autumn. Even as a young child I loved the shiny reddish-brown color. We would bring the conkers home and use them for crafts project. The tree itself - a European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) - is a very large majestic tree with white or red flower spikes in the spring - a stunning sight along the streets and in parks.

The Northern California climate doesn't allow horse chestnuts to thrive here. But we have a different tree that is related to it.

The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is native to California and southwestern Oregon. Compared to its European relative it is rather short and almost has an umbrella shape. The flower spikes that appear in the spring after the leaves have emerged are white (with just a hint of light pink) with bright orange pollen. The entire tree is covered with these flowers and is quite a sight!

After the flowers are gone and we get into summer the tree does something remarkable: in order to survive the drought of the long summer months it drops all of its leaves and waits for the winter rain. However, the tree will develop its fruit in late summer that ripens in fall. It is sitting in a leathery capsule that hangs from the bare branches.

Slowly, those capsules will split open. I have read somewhere that this is the reason it was named "buckeye".

And then - in November the buckeyes will fall to the ground, either still sitting in the capsule...

... or popping right out of them. Their color is lighter than their European relatives, with reddish hues. It's a beautiful warm and earthy color, fitting for autumn.

The tree is poisonous in all its parts including the nuts. Some animals eat them if they don't find anything else, but usually they go unnoticed and just make new buckeye trees.

There are several buckeye trees at the lake and every autumn I check when the buckeyes will drop. This year they started to fall just last week. I gathered up three of them to bring home and use for decoration; the rest I left where they dropped. However, whenever I am at the lake I take a short detour to check how many more have fallen.