Dec 282012
Etherial Monkey

Caption This

Geeky Californians in Germany Unite!!!

Kerstin and DS

Kerstín said she wanted to make sure to visit one last time before DS outgrew her!

We met Kerstín when she was a Fullbright Scholar teaching for a couple trimesters at Durmstrang.  When she first came to our house for dinner, we all simultaneously burst into Harry Potter “Swish, then Flick!” and that is how she knew that we were “her kind of people”.  We call her our long lost cousin Kerstín.

So, when she was coming this direction, it was necessary for a visit!   What do Californians living in Germany do when they get together?  Laugh a lot, revel in speaking English and making tons of in-jokes no one else would get, go shopping (it was the first day stores were open after Christmas),  eat donuts and salmon, decorate cookies, play rock band and watch the first 5 hours of the Extended version of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, apparently :)Creepy Dinner

This was her first chance to get to know the degus:

Unfortunately, the sisters kept our house guest awake at night drinking, drinking, drinking.  She was woefully unprepared for our rodents to be such unabashed lushes.  (Granted, their water containers are loud). But, at least they refrained from having their usual slappy fest bar fight while she was in the same room.

Kerstín also gifted us with what has got to be one of my all-time favorite “children’s picture books”.  Perhaps inspired by Edward Gorey’s Alphabet, Alle Kinder, Ein ABC Der Schadenfreude is equally perverse in an oh so German way!

Dec 242012

Bread Loafs

When David arrived at work one day this month, he was greeted by a knot of employees huddled around some sort of food.  Knowing that people sometimes bring in goodies to share, he went over to investigate.

They were standing around two plates of sliced, white bread.

David watched them for a while.  Finally, he asked, “um, isn’t that just .. normal white bread?”

“Oh, no no,” came the reply, ” its good bread.  Very appropriate for the season.”

They seemed dead serious.

So, David snagged one of the slices in question and ate it.

“We’re talking completely ordinary white sandwich bread, sliced.” he reports.


David, chuckled shook his head and filed the anecdote away to share.  Just more French/German weirdness.

But, I have been thinking about it.  And, bear with me but it IS rather appropriate for the season, isn’t it?  The winter holidays are all about people searching for light in the dark, cold months.  They symbols are all about continued life, community, appreciating what we have and recognizing opportunities for joy – babies, evergreen trees, lit lamps, feasts, wreaths and giving.  It is a time to celebrate our survival, our friends, our blessings.  What better symbol than taking a moment in a busy day for a slice of really good bread, appreciated with friends.  Indeed, there is wisdom in that.

We wish you Happy Holidays.  And, we hope that you have the joy of simple pleasures.  May you enjoy at least one really good slice of bread.

Dec 232012
The Largest Advent Calendar in Europe- Gengenbach Town Hall

Just a quick Pre-Christmas update.

This week was, obviously, all about prepping for Christmas.  The kids technically had school on Friday, but since neither one had anything academic going on, DD was done with finals, and most of their friends had already bailed for their vacation travels, we went ahead and got our own vacation started early.

David still had to work, so I sent care packages of goodies to Black Forest so he and his co-workers could sugar it up on their final day before the whole company shuts down for two weeks.  I am told that went well, and since we only got back empty packaging, I am guessing it did!  Always nice to make things a little festive.  Yay!

Black Forest Treats

Black Forest Treats

Just like in the States, lots of last minute shoppers clogged the stores and Weinachtsmarkts.  Luckily, we largely had our acts together.  Last week I got to experience sticker shock when I mailed 3 small boxes to the US for family there.  Gulp.  I had thus far mostly avoided the necessity by sending things with travelers or just ordering mail-order.  But, it seemed like it might be nice to share a bit of the whole Europe thing. I went to the little outlet office of Deutsche Post that operates in a drycleaning/key/shoe repair store next to one of the main supermarkets.  The lady there was extremely helpful, even scrounging up some paper to help me fill out one final box.  But, without DS’s help I would have been lost!  It was a much more thorough process than I would have expected.  I had to fill out two longish forms for each package, and some of the questions were beyond my meager German skills.  I could get through addresses and the like, but when it started quizzing me on whether there was alcohol or explosives in my boxes and just what the heck was I sending anyways, well, I needed assistance from the boychild.  Luckily, his German is pretty good these days and he was pretty comfortable with most of what we were facing.  Even so, we weren’t sure if the smaller, green form was for insurance or customs.  In the end, we were there a good 25 minutes and the poor people in line behind us trying to pick up their cleaning must have had the patience of angels!

Since the locksmith was in the same shop, I had DS inquire about getting another couple apartment keys made so that he and DD would have their own, and maybe a third one just so we could have a spare.  I was a little concerned that only the landlord would be able to make them.  To my relief, the shopkeeper told us that he could, in fact, have the keys made.  but- and it was a rather large but- we would have to let them have the key for 3 days to send to another shop, and each key cost 50 EU.  Doubletake.  Eyebrow raise.  Um, really?  Um..  Hmmm.  May need to postpone that plan a bit.  Yowza!

Saturday, we tried to stop by the markt in Gengenbach, which locals say is among the best, but it was too crowded to find parking.  So, I just took a picture of the Largest Advent Calendar in Europe– their City Hall transforms into its own calendar each year.  I was sorry we couldn’t stop for a glass of glühwein, though.  On our way out, we noticed that there was a uniformed fireman directing traffic in the main town parking lot.  He was moving cones back and forth to let people in and our.  I thought that was a bit out of his general job description.  But, maybe “public safety”?

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.  I have no idea if any of the grocery stores will be open, so we made our Big Food Run yesterday.  It wasn’t completely overrun, so I am holding out hope that maybe some of the stores will be open.  If not, I have all the makings for our meal.  But, still, there are always those few last minute items that you don’t think of until, well, the last minute!  Right now I have chocolate truffles and pumpkin pie made.  Honestly, if we don’t get any further, I think I will be happy :)  But, I do always rely on the comfort of knowing that the gas station quick-mart will be open if I am desperate for toilet paper or milk!

Ok, a new featurette:  Caption This.  I put up a photo, you tell me what it should say.  This one is of the kids, who just dusted off our old Rock Band set.

(Caption This)

(Caption This)

Coming up: Driving Lessons, Christmas, and Visiting Friends!

Dec 222012

Cookie For MEA couple people have requested this recipe, so I will post it here.  Since I can’t follow a recipe verbatim without tinkering here or there, it is a combination of two main recipes with some additions of my own. I almost always double it, but I am usually cooking for a group when I make these.   I used this site for metric conversions:

For Cookies:

  • 1/3 cup molasses (80 mL)
  • 1/3 cup honey (80 mL)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar (80 mL, 60 grams)
  • 1/3 cup softened butter (80 grams)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 TBS freshly grated orange peel (15 mL)
  • 1 TBS Orange Flower Extract (15 mL)
  • 1 teaspoon powdered ginger (I highly recommend Penzeys) (5 mL)
  • 2 3/4 Cup Flour (about 12 oz, or 350 grams)
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda (2.5 mL)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (2.5 mL)

For Frosting:

  • 4 cups powdered sugar (400 grams)
  • 1/2 cup butter (120 grams)
  • 1 tsp vanilla (5 mL)
  • 1 tsp Quantro (5 mL)
  • 1 tsp Orange Flower Extract (5 mL)
  • 3-4 TBS cream or milk (45-60 mL)

Sprinkles and small candies to decorate

Gingerbread Bears

To Make:

Combine Molasses, Honey, Brown Sugar, Butter, Orange Peel, Egg and flavorings in bowl.  Beat on medium until creamy.  Add dry ingredients and beat until well mixed.  Pile into a ziptop bag and chill in the refrigerator for a couple hours or overnight.

Heat oven to 375 F (180 C).  Flour a board and roll out 1/2 the dough to 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick.  Keep remaining dough in the fridge.   Cut into desired shapes and transfer to a cookie sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper.  Place about 1 inch (2 cm) apart.  Gather up remaining dough and reroll, adding in the dough from the refrigerator.  Bake in batches for about 8 minutes, until set, but not brown.  (Well, they will already be brown, but you don’t want them to be getting an extra oven-tan!)  Cool thoroughly.

For frosting, combine butter and sugar in large bowl and beat together.  Add in flavorings.  Then add in enough milk that the frosting is spreadable.  You can add colorings at this point if desired.

Decorate cooled cookies with frosting and small candies.  Eat and Enjoy!

Kung Fu Fighting Gingerbread

Dec 172012

Fahrschule Buch und CDOk, so after a full year here and many stops and starts, we are back on the road (ehem) to becoming fully licensed German Drivers!  YAY!  Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember that we have taken several steps on our journey to ruling the autobahn.  We jumped through paperwork hoops, got eye exams, paid money, and most notably took a truly shock-and-awe inspiring CPR and First Aid class put on by the German Red Cross.  It involved more images of dead and mutilated people than I should ever like to see again.  Seriously, it was nasty and my brain is still scarred.  Definitely one I want to only see in the rear-view mirror.  BUT, after not hearing anything from The Powers That Be for quite some time, David and I got a summons to come pay the county more money and/or get off the Learning Train.  They wanted us to have a fahrschule (driving school) sign off on our forms and they wanted us to pay for an extension.  Otherwise we would have to start again from scratch.  And since scratch involves a return trip to the First Aid Class, I don’t want to go there.

Oh, and did I mention the letter noted that we had less than a month to get everything right.  GO!

Oh, jeeze.

California is seriously lame and will not grant Germans who move there a CA license without their taking both the written and driving tests. So, tit-for-tat in international politics, Germany reciprocates and makes incoming Californians take both the written and driving test.  That is where we got stuck last time.  We were supposed to be studying for the written exam, first.  BUT, no one had a manual written in English.  And, while they did have practice tests in English, there was no way to learn the answers without missing the question in the online exam, then looking up the correct answers and taking the practice tests again.  It was incredibly time consuming.  And we still couldn’t figure out some of the weird little rules that such exams tend to thrill in demanding– even though you will likely *NEVER* need the knowledge in your life.  (Honest, guys, I am not ever going to need to know how long in hours I can park a Big Rig off the country road. I am just not.).  Plus, our instructor had weak English skills at best, so he wasn’t easily able to facilitate.  After a few months of struggle, we largely gave up.

We have made several attempts to find a better English Speaking fahrschule, but it has been a complete exercise in frustration.  We have asked around, asked the Company for help, asked friends, and David has made phone calls.  But, nothing.  Once we knew we were on a deadline, David kicked it into high gear.  He actually went down to the county offices and asked the ladies there if they had any leads.  Then he blast-emailed every fahrschule in town, hoping one would stick.  Nothing for a week.  Then, one piece of email in English arrived.  It apologized for the delay and explained that they had been out on vacation.  But, could David come in on Thursday evening when they would be in their Offenburg offices.

Now, the only problem with Thursday evenings is that it is a late night for the kids at school, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to drive him over to the other side of town.  David would have to hoof it over to the meeting after work.  No problem on a normal day.  But, on this particular Thursday we happened to be having a freezing rain storm!  David walked through town with a heavy pelting rain hitting him on the face and racing down his German practical coat.  But, the rain that hit him wasn’t really the problem.  It was the rain that hit the ground that was dangerous. It was creating a thin-but-slippery layer of treachery on the sidewalks of Germany.  Ice everywhere.  David walked and slid.  Other travelers were less lucky and he reports that he saw at least one person hit the pavement.

But, he made it, wet and determined.  When he arrived at the school he was able to ascertain that they have 2 driving trainers fluent in English.  And, the money they quoted was less than we had heard before. So, all David’s effort was rewarded.  We ponied up and got signed up with a more-English proficient driving school, and we are back on our way!  We now officially have an extension and are once again actively working on our licensing.

They still can’t find an English Language manual, though I am pretty sure I have read of other Ex-pats getting their hands on one.  Now, however, we do have a fluently English-speaking instructor, English study guides, and a German manual (that we are better at translating these days).

David took his first “lesson” tonight.  It is a little odd to be back in Drivers Training as a 40-something-year-old.  I was just talking about drivers training in High School with some of the other RUHS alums I know.  One apparently got to do donuts with Mr. Mays, the ancient old driving instructor in the parking lot.  Ah.  Those were the days!! There was a little hitch in the giddy-up when the German instructor showed up in a Manual Transmission.  That is fine for David, but won’t work for me- unless we want to pay to have them teach me manual…. Maybe.  Will think on it.  Not leaning that direction now.  But, if I decide to go automatic, they will just borrow a car to use for my lessons.

Amusingly, the stick proved to be David’s sticking point, as well.  He is actually an excellent manual driver, having been taught by his Dad who used to race many of those Italian race cars he collected and restored over the years.  But, in Germany, they want you to shift for fuel efficiency instead of control!  (Of course they do.  Not sure why we didn’t just assume.)  David described being urged to put the car in 5th gear on a straightaway between towns, but the engine was clearly straining.  The instructor insisted he keep it there and that the modern engines could “take it”.  David acquiesced gracefully, though I am certain that his eyebrows must have risen through the top of my head. He does vow, however, never to do that to a vehicle we actually own!  Fair enough.  My understanding is that once we have our licenses we are set for life (knock wood)– unless, of course, we do something stupid that involves us getting points and police involvement and the running and the screaming and so on.  It wouldn’t be pretty and when to shift would be the least of our worries.  And, since we do currently have an automatic, it won’t matter in the near future anyways.  One cool thing: all this discussion of the proper time to shift led the instructor to impress David with his ability to quickly come up with phrases like “friction point”, which is certainly not one I would have immediate mental access to in German!  So, Hooray for our Driving Instructor!  And Hooray for Progress!

More on our drivers training adventures as we go.

Dec 172012

Notice that the paper has a grid instead of lines. This is called “French Kid Paper” at DD’s school because the French schools prefer their students to use grids so that their writing can be more uniform. Also note that the form comes in French, German and English. This are the three main languages of the EU.

This week is all about Exams at Hogwarts.  Remember how in the HP books the kids had to take OWL tests and every American thought “What the heck is that?  Sort of like Finals, I guess?”  These are those- only it turns out they are a little more complicated than just “finals”. There really isn’t a good 1: 1 American equivalent, but from what I can figure, they are sort of a cross between finals and standardized subject-based tests like the ACT.

The tests themselves are given twice per year in all the core classes for the upper-grade students.  So, for DD this year that means: English, Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, French and German.  Next year, I think, she will also get a History test of some sort.

They are a little more stressful than normal finals in the States.  First, they go on your permanent record.  And second, if students do not do well on particular tests in certain years, they may not be allowed to continue studying that subject at the school.  So if, for instance, a particular student is in the High Level Maths tract but bombs the Maths exam, s/he may be put into the lower level tract.  Also, student grades for the semester come in two parts- 1 set of grades for classwork and another set for the Exams.

The Exams for the European School are designed in in Belgium.  This is because the European Schools were meant to support the European Union Parliament, which is headquartered in Belgium.  Belgium is also where that wonderfully awful science book was designed, so that can give some perspective.

There are tests in any number of languages.  But, I am not convinced that they are are created by native speakers of those languages.  Nor are the proctors necessarily fluent in the language of the exam they are giving.  For instance, today DD took the exam English as a first language.  The proctor a non-english-speaking Francophone. DD reports that one reading passage involved someone “ostentatiously” cutting their meat.  She is guessing few of the students were able to glean the definition from context clues on that one.  And one of the essay questions on the test used the word “what” in place of “why”– but that might have just been a typo.

Like most tests at Hogwarts, the Exams will be graded on a 10 point scale and have a standardized rubric applied to them.  The students were given formats to use for essay questions and several points are awarded just for remembering to use this more formal writing form.

We honestly have no clue when we will receive the grades, but presumably it won’t be until the New Year- so something to look forward to :)

Wish us luck!

Dec 172012

And now for something completely different. A friend of mine was talking on Facebook about her culinary adventures and mentioned that she planned to make a Jamaican chicken stew and festival bread soon.  Now, I have prepared a number of Jamaican dishes (with the spice turned wayyy down), but I had never eaten an authentic Jamaican meal, nor had I had festival bread.  So, hey!  Something to try!

I had an old recipe for Caribbean chicken that I know the family enjoys.  So, I decided to make that and have the festivals as a side.

Caribbean Chicken:

  •  3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1-2 cinnamon sticks
  • Hot sauce to taste (1 tsp)
  • 2 TBS minced fresh ginger or 1/2 tsp powdered
  • Peel of 1 lime cut into strips (just the green part)
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Juice of 1 orange
  • 2 TBS rum (optional)
  • 1 small onion, chopped (optional)
  • 16 oz tomato puree (or 2 cups chopped tomatoes with juice)
  • 2 TBS  molasses

Combine Rum, Garlic, lime juice,  lime peel, orange juice, hot sauce and ginger in a zip top bag.  Add chicken breasts to coat and marinate 8 hours in the fridge.   Add a few TBS oil to a skillet over Med-High heat.  Reserving the marinade, brown the chicken breasts in the oil until golden.  Remove chicken. Saute onion until translucent.  Return the chicken, and add in the marinade, the tomato, the cinnamon sticks, and the molasses.  Stir until mixed and lower heat to med-low.  Simmer for 1 hour.  Serve hot with Festival Bread.

Festival Bread:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup corn meal
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 TBS sugar (more for sweeter festival, less for more savory)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • A few TBS of flour and cornmeal mixed for dredging

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar and baking soda.  Add the vanilla to the water.  A teaspoon at a time, work the water into the flour with your fingers.  At about 1/2 cup, it should resemble course breadcrumbs.  Gradually add in enough of the rest of the water to make a stiff dough- it should not be soft or sticky.  If the dough is too soft, add in a bit more flour.  Once the dough is formed, let it rest for an hour covered by plastic wrap.  Heat several inches of oil to 365 degrees F (185 C) in a deep pot.  Careful not to overwork the rested dough, divide into 8 pieces and form each lump into a fat sausage shape.  Mix together a few TBS of flour and cornmeal.  Dredge each festival in the mixture until coated.  Fry the dough in small batches until a dark golden brown, turning once.  Drain on absorbent paper.   Serve plain with savory meats, or sprinkle with powdered sugar for a donut-like treat!

Dec 132012
Schmitty and Elena

It was that time of year again: Company Holiday Party Time!  Company parties have the potential to be wonderful or ghastly events depending on the circumstances.  As it happened, this one was very low key and pleasant.  After the roller-coaster year Black Forest (neé Spellbound) had had, no one was in the mood for ostentatious shows of prosperity.  But, this is a tight-knit group of gloriously geeky-bright folks who have been through a lot together.

Actually, the trickiest part of the evening proved to be getting everyone to quit working and come over for the party!  Once that was accomplished (about an hour after the “official” starting time, the evening settled into laid-back camaraderie, eating and, of course, games.   Check out today’s other blog for a more in depth look at the Party Foods.

Dec 132012
Flames!  I think we might be able to guess how this treat got its name :-)

This week we had the pleasure of attending this year’s Black Forest Games Holiday Party.  As with most such events there were party foods served.  Many of them, (pretzels sticks, peanuts, etc.) would be readily found at any party in the U.S., as well.  But, as this was a German party, it is inevitable that there were German Foods being served.  Here is a quick glance and some of some of the fun stuff that showed up.  The main food of the evening was Flammkuchen, or “fiery cake”.  It is like a very thin-crusted pizza with a soft cheesy sauce instead of the tomato.  The most traditional toppings are a prosciutto-like ham with thinly sliced onions.  Interestingly, after being in a building where these were being cooked all evening we absolutely reeked of onion- even though we opted for the non-onion versions to eat!

Dec 112012

Fleischkäse : “meat cheese”, sometimes called “Bavarian Meatloaf”.  Think of it more as a cross between Spam and bologna served in 1 inch thick hunks on a plain roll- It is a favorite noontime meal for workmen in our area.

Two weeks ago we took DD to the dentist to have some extractions done.  Her mouth is too small for all her teeth.  In order for her braces to work, we need to give them more room to move things around.  DD was very nervous.  The dentist was patient, kind and very sensitive to her needs.  When she asked, he talked her through the process and showed her the injection pen.  After all that, she still needed more time to adjust to the idea.  So, we rescheduled.

We tried our best to make things low-stress this morning.  But, the Degus had other ideas.  We awoke this morning to discover that Veigar had lost the tip of her tail in the night.  They call it “degloving” because basically the skin detaches and some portion of the tail covering slips off like a glove!  It is not uncommon with degus (Teemo came with such an injury already healed).  But, they never grow the severed section of tail back, and it is to be avoided if at all possible.  Apparently in the night she and her siblings had tussled, and her tail had detached.  Not a pleasant evening for Veigar, and not a great start to our day.

On the way to dropping DS off for school, it started to snow.  Lovely!  But, not a great bonus for French drivers.  Usually-erratic, French motorists get a little panicky and impatient.  Mistakes are made.  In this case a truck driver tried to maneuver down the narrow streets of a detour- and got stuck.  For several minutes all traffic was stopped while parked cars were moved up onto the sidewalk to make room for the monstrous big rig.  We looped around trying to side-step the problem.  But, discovered a labyrinth of one-way roads that just deposited us back in the same spot we had left!  Patience is said to be a virtue, but really I just think it is a survival skill.  Sometimes you just have to wait.  So, we waited, in the icy residential streets of Strasbourg, until Goliath shifted out of the way and traffic, like Spice, could once again flow!

Once DS was safely deposited at school, we moved on to the dentist’s office.  DD, our 15 year old woman-sized baby, was clearly doing better today than last try.  We made jokes about stringing her teeth on a necklace to appall the German boys who have been giving her a hard time at school.  We decided that adding in the degu tail would definitely enhance the horror-potential.

We only had to wait briefly before being ushered into a room that was clearly set up for us.  The dentist started in talking completely in German.  But, we all managed to follow along OK.  I checked in with DD in English and he immediately did so, as well.  “Did you understand everything I said?” “Mostly”, she replied and parroted back his spiel in her own words.  He reassured her that he would take one tooth first, then check to see if it wasn’t too awful.  If it was OK, he would take the second tooth and if not, we would reschedule again.

Feeling a bit helpless, I held her ankle as he began to work.  I watched carefully to see if her toes were flexing, her fists were tightening, or other signs of pain or stress.  But, she remained relaxed-ish.  The first tooth was out quickly and she indicated that it would be alright to take the second.  While she was distracted, the assistant took her bloodied tooth and washed it under the faucet before depositing it in a cute little orange tooth-shaped case.  The second one took a little more work.  He had to refill his syringe.

“You can close your mouth for a moment, ” he informed her as he made the switch.

“mnn mmmN Mngm mmm?” she inquired.

“No, you don’t have to.” he replied.  I was impressed!  Many dentists speak “mngm mngm” in their native tongue, but this one spoke “mngm” bilingually!

Soon enough the second tooth was out.  “Anything special we need to do?”  David asked.

“No,” he replied, breaking back into German to speak directly to David.  “She can do everything normally.  For the next 24 hours she should only eat cooked foods to keep the bacteria count, down.  So, no Fleischkäse.  Soft things like noodles and rice are good.  But, tomorrow everything should be back to normal!”

So, sorry Germany.  DD is actually under doctor’s orders not to eat fleischkäse for the next 24 hours.  Our assimilation has been somewhat hindered by the bacteria count of your food!