Wednesday, 27 July 2011

It's This One!

On the 15th of this month, I gave you all a chuckle (at least I hope I did!) by letting you see a choice of specs I tried while searching for the "perfect" frame for me.

Well, none of the ones you saw here was it - instead, a few days later, I went to a different shop with more qualified staff (and, accordingly, higher priced), and with my mother's and the shop owner's help I settled for this one:

Just ignore my grumpy expression (and rest assured I was feeling anything but grumpy at the time) and the reflection of light on one of the glasses.

Today, I've placed the order, after I spent about an hour there yesterday to have my eyes thoroughly checked and measured and amusing myself and the friendly lady from the shop with my guessing of the numbers she showed me on slides. Honestly, I should start to play the lottery, I was so good at that!
From that lady, I learnt quite a lot about how specs are made and what the technical possibilies are nowadays. There's some trivia now floating about in my mind which I will most likely never need, unless there will be questions about the subject in a pub quiz after the summer break :-)

Now I can't wait for my new specs to be finished; it will probably take about a fortnight, which would still be in time for the fair in Cologne where I am going to work in August.

And yes, I know my hair really needs doing...

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Miracle Cookies

Neither the lovely name nor the recipe was my idea - I got the recipe from Kay, who often comments here on my blog and who I have come to regard as a long-distance friend from the very pleasant email correspondence we have started some time ago.

Peanut butter is the main ingredient of these cookies, so you won't be able to serve them to anyone who is allergic to nuts. But there is no flour in them, so maybe you know someone who has to make sure their food does not contain gluten and they like peanut butter - then this is the right cookie for them :-)

You need: 
1 cup peanut butter (creamy or crunchy)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
some vanilla extract (it works without that, too; I used vanilla sugar, as you can see in the picture)
chocolate chips... if you have them and want them in your cookies.

I bought these so-called "chocolate droplets", they keep their shape even after baking, and as I so like the taste of peanut butter combined with chocolate, I wanted to add them. But the recipe works very well even without any addition like this.

Mix everything together very well.
In my case, the mixture ended up greasy (of course; it is peanut BUTTER after all!) and crumbly like this:

Roll out into balls and squeeze them a little flat on the baking tray, like this:

I got twenty cookies out of this mixture. Next time I make them, I will add less (or no) chocolate chips; they made it a bit difficult to form the balls, crumbling off the mixture. Kay tells me when she does not have chocolate, she presses her thumb into the balls and fills the dent with jam - a good idea which I think I will try out, too, with one of my mother's lovely home-made jams.

Now bake the cookies at 350F (around 180C) for 12-15 minutes. Keep checking on them - mine were doing just fine, until I decided I had enough time to brush my teeth while the cookies were still in the oven...

Was I cross with myself for having done that!!!
When I took the cookies out, they were too brown; not actually burnt to cinder, but not the way they should have been. So, do NOT go away from the oven, thinking you'll have plenty of time to do something else...!
Once you have taken the tray out, don't touch the cookies for at least 20 minutes, just leave them on the cooling rack. If you try to pick them up too early, they will simply fall apart. I did not try it, but I trust Kay's word on this :-)

The finished cookies were still very nice - even though they did not look it... I took them to my parents' garden, where we were celebrating their 46th wedding anniversary. Not that many were left, just enough for me to have them the next day with my afternoon coffee.

So, the name "Miracle Cookies" has acquired a new meaning - it was a miracle my family dared eating them at all :-D

Thank you once again, Kay, for the recipe; next time, they will turn out the way they should!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Four Weeks Later

Four weeks, I mean, since this post, where I gave you an update about my cat's health, the plants on my window sill and other such fascinating stuff :-)

The basil on my window sill now has tiny white flowers, and the forgetmenots are much taller:
Me not being a gardener at all, I have no idea whether it is good or bad that the basil is in bloom. Does that have any influence on its edibility?

Pukky is as well as one can expect from an elderly cat; she has settled comfortably into both her new mealtime schedule (three meals instead of seven or eight...!) and her new fur, which I make sure to treat with a grooming glove every day. In fact, we have been to the vet's today, and she has been so well-behaved that the vet commented on what a pleasant patient she is. They have taken a blood sample to determin whether her thyroid medication should stay the same or a smaller dosage can be given now.

And while I know that some of you have hundreds or at least several dozens of regular readers, I was well chuffed to see that the number of my blog followers has recently reached 20 - ok, really that should be 19, since I appear to be my own follower, strangely enough :-)

Thank you - each and everyone of you continue to make me keep going with this blog, and I very much enjoy reading your own blogs, as you can tell from the comments I more or less regularly leave on your posts.

After the rather lengthy book review that makes up my previous entry here, I think it is only fair to keep this one short, sweet and simple!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Read in 2011 - 17: The Little Stranger

So far, every time I have written one of my "Read in 2011" posts, I have done so the next morning after having finished each book the previous night, and, so to speak, slept on it.
This time, though, I have only read the last page a few minutes ago, and the impression the story has left on my mind is still fresh, and very vivid.
Since "The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters is almost a ghost story, it seems fitting to say that I am still under its spell.
But first of all, I want to use this space to say thank you once again to the friend who, earlier this year, gave me three boxes full of books for me to play with - i.e. to decide which ones I wanted to keep, sell or throw away. Several of my "Read in 2011" entries here are about the treasures found in those three boxes, and there are some more lined up on the "To Be Read" shelf of my desk.

Why am I saying "The Little Stranger" is almost a ghost story? Because it is - and it is not.
It is, because the events that slowly lead up to a whole family being destroyed, and leaving the lives of at least two other people changed forever, are inexplicable - unless one believes some supernatural force to be at their root.
It is not, because only at the end of the first third of the story, at around page 160 of 500, the inexplicable events start being told, and not even then does the book dwell on that aspect unnecessarily.

Until then, what we find is a family who have been living in a large Warwickshire mansion for over 200 years, struggling to adapt to the drastic changes in their lives brought about by two world wars. And while there still seemed to be a lot of the gentry life going on after the first war, now, shortly after the second one, the old era is definitely over, and the former glory impossible to restore.
Money - or, rather, the lack of it - is a big issue, and because the Ayres family (the widowed mother and her two grown-up children, Roderick and Caroline) still desperately cling to their old ways, their circumstances and some of their rituals seem almost grotesque: lack of funds forces them to restrict their living quarters to just a few rooms, and even those can not be adequately lit and heated; fuel, food and clothes are still rationed in those post-war years, and yet they insist on their parlour maid being dressed in frilly cap and apron and serve tea all formally, even though the slices of the meagre tea cake are cut awfully thin.

The house, Hundreds Hall, is crumbling all round them, and apparently nothing can be done to prevent it; everything of value and most of the land has already been sold. And yet, both the house and its inhabitants exude a fascination and charme upon Dr. Faraday, the country doctor, who quite by coincidence happens to become involved with the family.
Being from the area, Dr. Faraday (who is also the narrator of this excellently written story) remembers having been to the house on "Empire Day" as a boy, and it is his memory of that day which starts off the book.
That first scene alone is so well written and really struck a chord in me, that there was no way I could have put the book aside to read something else instead. Let me show you what I mean by quoting directly from it:

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war (meaning the first world war), and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fĂȘte: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and sightly uncertain - like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

Can't you just picture it? I certainly can, and I found myself sharing Dr. Faraday's fascination with and, after a while, affection for the house and the family, up to the point that, during the working hours of my day, I felt I was looking forward to the evening when I would be able to retreat to my bed with the book, returning to Hundreds Hall.

As the story progresses, tragic events occur and leave the family severely affected at first, and completely destroyed in the end. After what looks like a hopeful silver lining on the horizon comes to nothing, there is a sad ending - with the supernatural force maybe or maybe not to blame.
See, this is what I like about this story: you can read it as a ghost story, if you are so inclined. But you can just as well read it as a tale of a family who were clinging to an anachronistic way of life, and who had circumstances and a rapidly changing society working against them, without any actual personal fault or aggression being directed against them.

From the length alone of my review I guess you can tell how much I enjoyed the story, even though I would have wished for a gentler ending. There is an interview with the author about this book here, and a short BBC newsnight video interview with Sarah Waters here.

By the way, I have not found any typesetting or editing errors worth mentioning in the whole book - a relief and true pleasure after having come across several rather badly edited and typeset books recently.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Which One Did I Choose?

For a change, I thought I'd make you all laugh a bit - it's the weekend, time to relax, let your hair down, unwind, play, rest, shop, clean, dance, eat, sleep, read, sing, kiss or whatever else you have not gotten round to during the week :-)

You've all seen pictures of me before, and therefore you know that I wear specs. Well, that's not my choice; like almost everybody else who wears them, I simply need them. Full stop.
I have been wearing specs ever since I was 7 years old, and without them, I am as blind as a bat, as the saying goes (which is rubbish, actually, because bats are not blind at all. But neither am I, come to think of it. Impaired vision, I guess is the correct term; or, medically speaking, I am myopic.).

After I don't know how many years of having been wearing my current pair, I decided it was time for new ones when one of our local opticians sent a leaflet through the mail, advertising a special offer "for a limited time only" (without specifying what that limited time really means - a day? a week? a month? a year?).
Now, when I go shopping for specs, I want to find a pair that suits me well enough to be worn every single day, from the moment I get out of bed to when it is time for "lights out!" at the Librarian's home.
Because of my really precarious eyesight, I need very strong glasses, specially cut and polished out of a special material, "compressed" plastic (don't ask - that's what my optician calls it), and - you guessed it - they cost me an arm and a leg (not literally, don't worry. Otherwise, I would have run out of legs and arms a long time ago.). Not the frames, just the lenses. Therefore, I can not afford to have more than one pair which I wear day in, day out, rain or shine, and that makes it of course even more important to choose the right ones.

Now for the difficult part: The frames at the optician's all have glass in them - but uncut, obviously. And I can not really see myself in the mirror clearly from further away than a few inches - which makes it virtually impossible to get the full picture. So, I depend on someone to accompany and advise me on the various models; someone who is not interested in selling me the most expensive frame in the whole shop, but who honestly tells me which ones look alright perched atop my nose and which ones do not.
My sister fully qualifies for that position, and sure enough, yesterday after work we met up in town and went to the aforementioned optician's with their "special offer".

Somehow, there was nobody there to serve us, so we had free range of the entire shop - and did we make use of it! When I had told my boyfriend that I was going to look for new specs and the difficulties that presents for me, he suggested to simply take a camera along, take pictures of myself with the various models, and then make my choice aided by the photos.

Since, as I said, we were completely left to our own devices, my sister and I had plenty of fun with me trying on the frames we thought would suit me, and some rather impossible ones just for a laugh.
The results - taken with the not very good camera of my mobile phone - are here for you to look & laugh at:

 Dame Edna - without the make-up and the jewels :-D

 My sis says I remind her of a certain TV presenter who used to host a show on German telly years ago. I'm afraid she is quite right.

 Is it just me or does anyone else think I look like a bloke there, and a slightly angry and VERY nerdy one at that?

By then, we were afraid they were going to boot us out of the shop any minute now, for all our giggling and helping ourselves to everything we wanted. So we tried a more serious approach. 

And now I want you to guess which frame I choose in the end!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

All that NOISE!!!

Originally, this post was going to be about the noise that made all attempts at conversation between me and my sister futile while we were waiting at the train station together one chilly morning last year in October, both travelling to Munich for work, by coincidence on the same day.
The announcements that came through the speaker above our heads; the terrible screeching noise trains make when they slow down at the platform; the sound of people's heels and the castors of their trolley suitcases on the pavement; a toddler screaming in frustration because he was not allowed to climb aboard the train; and, very softly as a backdrop, the pigeons talking to each other on the metal beams supporting the station roof.
The "perfect" timing made us wonder whether the person behind the microphone was deliberately waiting to make her announcements until yet another train would come pulling in, so that nobody would be able to make sense of the fragments of words heard above the general racket.
In the end, we just stood and listened, and later, my sister remarked, "you could blog about this".

Like I said, this was last year in October, and the topic of noise has been present ever since - almost over-present on some days, so therefore, bear with me (or skip this post altogether) when I am going to elaborate on the subject a bit more.

In May, I have started to work from home, something I am truly happy about. Up until then, I was of the opinion that I live, generally speaking, in a rather quiet neighbourhood, especially considering that I am only a few minutes' walk away from the center of this town of roughly 85.000 inhabitants.

Wrong! This is NOT a quiet neighbourhood. Cars hardly bother me; their noise is largely in the background (which in itself is very telling: in the past 125 years or so since the development of the automobile, we have come to regard cars as part of our natural habitat instead of a curiosum that was only rarely to be seen and heard and, therefore, received a lot of attention), which is mainly due to my house being in the second row of houses from the road, with other houses, gardens and big old trees in between.

One should think that the inhabitants of this area are happy to live both very close to town and not too much affected by traffic noise, and relish in the peace and quiet, right?
Wrong again!

Whatever they can do to make a noise, they do it, it seems.
Whether it's lawn mowers or steam cleaners, outdoor vacuum cleaners for leaves or motor saws - everything, and I repeat, EVERYthing that is done outside has to be noisy some way or other.

When I am at home during the day, working at my desk in the living room, at this time of the year I like to have the windows wide open. Often enough, though, I shut them after a while, because first one and then the other and then yet another neighbour starts doing something noisy, and I can hardly concentrate on what my customers are saying on the phone.

Now, I am certainly not one to shun all technical progress; on the contrary, I benefit from a lot of gadgets and products which I would not want to be without, such as my washing machine, my mobile phone, the computer, fridge, hoover and so on.

BUT, and here comes the big BUT, noise means stress.
Reducing our exposure to noise, therefore, can mean reducing stress.
Why then, I wonder, are so many people seemingly keen on creating as much additional noise as possible?

True, there is noise which, seen realistically, we can not avoid if we want to live in town and have all the modern commodities at hand. I certainly do not expect people to completely stop using cars (although it would be nice and very good for the climate, people's wallets and their health) or to cut their lawns with a pair of kitchen scissors.
But is it really necessary to consume petrol, pollute the air by its emissions and make a lot of noise for each and every little job that is done in the garden or on the patio? I dare say no, it isn't.
Instead of using those horrid leaf vacuum cleaners (if I was Queen of Germany, I'd pass a law that would put an end to them once and for all), use a rake on the grass and a broom on the paved bits - I guarantee that the job can be done almost as fast, and you can even hear the birds sing while you do it, and smell the scent of the flowers around you instead of the exhaust fumes from the device.

Speaking of birdsong - is there anything wrong with it? Is it boring? I think not.
And yet, there are people having an allotment near where my parents have theirs, and whenever they are in their gardens, they need a radio blaring, whereas I feel that the (normally) peaceful and quiet atmosphere there is mainly responsible for the garden's appeal.
My dad can tell you the name of every bird we hear there. The noisy neighbours can probably tell you the name of every song on the radio.

Again, noise causes stress. Many studies have clearly shown that. Not everybody seems to be aware of the relationship between them feeling always stressed out (even though we have all the necessary tools to make our lives relaxed and mostly stress-free, leaving plenty of time for leisure which, in former days, used to be spent with hard physical work such as washing, cutting wood for the fire and fetching water from the well) and the level of (self-made) noise around them.

Maybe they need to be told. But would they believe it and, more importantly, do something about it?

Anyway - thank you for listening to my rant!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Read in 2011 - 16: The Vesuvius Club

A book like no other I have read so far, although it heavily lends on a lot of popular literature and films: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss.

It is one more from the treasure chest of books I received earlier this year from a friend, mentioned here before.
Until I did a little bit of research on it this morning, I had no idea that "The Vesuvius Club" is the first part of a trilogy, all starring Lucifer Box, dandy, fashionable portrait painter, darling of London's Edwardian society, as much at home at the most prestigious balls and parties as in the Turkish Baths or in the seedier quarters of Naples - and secret agent by appointment to His Majesty.

Lucifer is a character you sometimes want to throttle for his haughty ways, and laugh with for this naughty ways. He does not mind whether his conquests wear skirts or trousers, and is not afraid of jumping down deep dark wells, crossing ancient cemeteries at night or fighting venomous insects by letting his trousers down.

The novel is set in London and Naples in Edwardian times, and with its frequent reference to scientific discoveries, strange new machinery and tricky electric-mechanical devices with polished brass handles, ebony knobs and mahogany panels as well as equipped with some very well-dressed (and sometimes undressed) ladies and gentlemen, it is a veritable Steampunk book.
Action-packed, fast-paced, highly improbable and quite amusing, it is written in a style that befits the hero (who tells the whole story from his own perspective), elegantly and witty - and rather outspoken at times.

Lucifer has to unravel the mystery behind the disappearance and death of some famous scientists, while one of his closest friends is wrongly accused of having murdered one of his female drawing students. At first, the two cases seem to be unconnected, but of course they would not be in the same book if they weren't :-)
How exactly they are connected is not obvious to the reader (at least it wasn't to me) until Lucifer finds out, and there are a few more surprises along the way as to people's identity and sex.

I quite enjoyed this story and wouldn't mind reading the two sequels I found out about this morning.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Garden Delights

My parents' allotment has been featuring rather frequently on here lately, even though I don't know anything at all about gardening.
Without that garden, I would miss out on a lot of wonderful and delicious things, such as the cakes, salads, jams, jellies, chutneys and liqueurs my mum makes from their own produce, sometimes adding bought fruit.

The other day, I received a veritable bounty of garden delights when my parents came to my place for Sunday dinner:

Some calendula and other flowers (sorry, don't know their name; one is a corn flower I think); they lasted all week and looked even prettier after one or two days;
in the jars: strawberry and apricot jam, black and red currant jam, rhubarb chutney, gooseberry jam, strawberry and elderberry jam, and more currant jam. The rhubarb chutney is delicious with meat and even fish, while I use the jam mostly to stir it into pure yoghurt or put one or two teaspoons on my muesli. 

What's in the round glass bottle, you may ask?

Strawberry liqueur! Pull the stopper, and you smell summer bottled-up - it is wonderful!

Thanks, mum, for all these garden delights - how good is that, to reap the benefits without having done any of the actual gardening work? :-)