Saturday 31 December 2011

Read in 2011 - 30: Die Ruine am See

Just this morning, I finished my last book for 2011, and I can't believe there weren't more than 30 - there used to be a time when I did a lot more reading, but back then, I was less involved in other activities, and my day, just like yours, still has only 24 hours, some of which (and those are not wasted) I spend asleep.

"Belle Ruin" (the original title) by Martha Grimes is the 3rd in a series of - so far - four books featuring Emma Graham, who is introduced on the author's website with this brief summary of the first book, "Hotel Paradise":

A once-fashionable now fading resort hotel. A spinster aunt living in the attic. Dirt roads that lead to dead ends. A house full of secrets and old, dusty furnishings, uninhabited for almost half a century. A twelve-year-old girl with a passion for double-chocolate ice-cream sodas, and decaying lake-fronts, and an obsession with the death by drowning of another young girl, forty years before.

Hotel Paradise is a delicate yet excruciating view of the pettiness and cruelty of small town America. It is a look at the difficult decisions a young girl must make on her way to becoming an adult and the choices she must make between right and wrong, between love and truth, between life and death.

The first book was published in 1996, and I read it some time later. The second one came out in 2000, and I am pretty sure I've read that one, too. And now the third one, published in 2005. Although publication of the first three parts of this series spans almost an entire decade, time does not move ahead that much for Emma Graham. She is still 12 years old in the third book, as she was in the first. She still does not seem to have to go to school (school is mentioned, as far as I remember, only once in a half-sentence), and she still makes the salads and serves tables at the hotel where her mother is cook.

Emma is, in many ways, a convincing character as a 12-year-old. There are people she likes, and people she fantasizes about being blown to bits. She never really describes herself, and while we hear a lot about other people's clothes, we do not know what Emma looks like, except for her hair being held back from her face by four small barrettes. She is still very much a kid in that she does not think she should use make-up or dress to impress, and although she knows an attractive man when she sees one, she is not interested in boys yet; in fact, she muses about turning thirteen and what it will mean to grow up, and rather dreads the thought. There are things in her life she simply accepts with the readiness of a child not questioning what has always been like that, for instance the alcoholism of Mrs. Davidow, who co-owns (? I am not entirely sure about that) the hotel.

Although Emma has solved two crimes in the past (one of which nearly resulted in her own murder), there is still more, there are still many unanswered questions, and the girl is determined to find those answers. She knows she can not rely on anyone else but herself, because her current "case", the kidnapping of a baby more than 20 years ago, has long been closed and nobody really understands her obsession with it, or with the ruin of the once glamorous hotel where it all happened.

Expectations for the reader do build up, but I'm afraid to say we are nowhere nearer the solution at the end of the book than we are on the first page.
The fourth in the series came out last February, and I've read a brief summary which leads me to believe that it still does not contain the answer(s).

Nonetheless, I like Martha Grimes' writing, and although I do not always see eye-to-eye with her characters (which is clearly not intended to happen anyway), I enjoyed this book. If I had the opportunity to talk to the author, I'd have many questions. None of them would be about the actual plot, but more of a general nature, such as, why does Emma not go to school? What are the Heather Gay Struther dresses mentioned so often in the book? (I googled Heather Gay Struther and came up with nothing except for someone else here on blogger who posted a review of one of the Emma Graham books.) What year is the series actually set in? Sometimes there is, at least to me, a definite 1960s-feel to the whole atmosphere, but we are never really told.

Something I very much like about this book is the role food plays in it. Emma's mother is, as I said, cook at the hotel where the family live and work. What she does in the kitchen features a lot, and Emma herself loves food and the excellent cooking of her mother's. She also pays many a visit to the Rainbow Café and some other places where she eats donuts and chocolate sodas, or chilli, talking to her adult friends - there is nobody her age she really spends any significant time with.

Here is an example of one such delightful descriptions of the food served at the hotel, in this case, for a cocktail party:
slices of ham, spread with a mixture of mango, pecan and cream cheese and rolled up, as well as little sausages, served with a rum-orange-dip.
Sometimes while I was reading about all that food, I had to interrupt and go to the kitchen and get myself something to eat.

It is difficult to really recommend this book. Someone who has not read the first two will hardly know what Emma is talking about for at least half of the time. Someone who expects a solution to the unsolved crime(s) will be disappointed. Someone who likes reading from a different perspective, and, like myself, has a penchant for neglected and run-down places, might like it.

Sunday 25 December 2011

We've had...

...a cosy Christmas Eve last night with the family, as always, at my parents'.
And as always, we had spuds salad (two kinds, one with mayonnaise and one without) and sausages. I have probably mentioned this before, but there is no spuds salad like the one my dad makes!

Mum made baked apples for dessert. This is a traditional winter dessert in Germany. The core is taken out and the apples are then stuffed with a mixture of raisins, almonds and/or nuts, as well as some sugar (I think) and, if desired, some brandy or other alcoholic drink. If anyone is interested, I can of course ask my mum for her recipe. The apples were from the garden, and my mum brought the pan to the table with sparklers on top, which made for a very pretty effect à la "Captain's Dinner" :-)

The (real) candles on the (artificial) tree were lit after that, and we exchanged our gifts.
Every year, I wonder at the amount of parcels piling up under the tree, with there being seven adults each giving each other (normally) just ONE present. Well, I should not be surprised - simple maths show that 7 x 6 (because nobody brings a parcel for themselves, obviously) makes 42, and if you consider that sometimes there is more than one parcel from one to the other, we easily get to somewhere around 50!

This year, I had some things I'd already known about, because I had either said I needed it (such as the pretty Cath Kidston toiletries bag, a gift from my sister, and the cushions for my kitchen chairs, from my parents) or because I had chosen it for myself (such as the fluffy red zip-up and the dress I am going to wear on New Year's Eve). Most of the other presents I received are useful and much appreciated, such as the wild rose shower gel (I like the scent, and it is going to be used up and not stand around for ever) and the assortment of kitchen ingredients (a jar each of pesto, a bruschetta spread and aioli).

When I unwrapped the presents from England this morning, at first I thought "oh no! nobody has sent me any chocolate this year...", but then I opened the handbag (not really my style) from my mother-in-law and found  inside a box of Cadbury's Roses, a Terry's Orange and a box of Maltesers (all very much my style!).

A gift I can not wait to make use of are the two vouchers for the nearby beauty-and-wellness "temple"! I love going there for a massage or a pedicure or some other treatment, but I never buy any of their treatments for myself. They will definitely have a phone call from me next week!

Hope everyone had a time as lovely as I did.

Friday 23 December 2011

Getting Ready

...for Christmas is what our weather here was really trying, but unlike last year, when we had a proper White Christmas like the one you see on postcards and hear about in songs, we'll have a grey-green-brown one by the looks of it.

At the beginning of this month, we still had some rather mild days and - finally! - some badly needed rain. Most days, the sun came out at some stage, and it often made for beautiful and unusual light outside, as I hope this picture of the well-known view from my kitchen window, taken on the 6th, shows:

When I woke up on the 20th and went to the kitchen to feed the cat and get myself a mug of coffee, I was pleased to see this:

It did not stop snowing until about 3.00 in the afternoon, and shortly after noon, the view was this:

Now, I am absolutely no fan of winter and cold and snow, but so close to Christmas and it being the first proper snow in our area for the season, I quite liked it and wished for it to stay until the 26th or so.
Well, it did not do me that favour, but that does not mean I am not very much looking forward to Christmas Eve and the TWO WEEKS I have time off after that!

On Monday night, a friend and I did our annual shift on the Christmas market. My friend is, unlike me, quite religious and involved in church activities. Her brother works for a charity project called Tarango; you can find out more about it on the project website here. Some years ago, she asked me whether I'd like to help her sell some of the products the Bangladeshi women have made, and I thought, why not? Ever since, it has become our own tradition to do this once a year for a few hours. It is not much, but it is what I can do to calm my guilty conscience a little towards all those bitterly poor and disadvantaged people out there, and because I know some of the people involved personally, I trust that in this case, the money really goes to those who need it and is spent wisely.

Here I am at our stall; I must admit I do not buy any of the tablecloths, coasters, bags, scarves and knick-knacks myself; they are just not my style (and you all know I don't like clutter), but I still want to contribute in a small way, offering my free time once a year. It has the added benefit of spending time with my friend, who, although we do not live far from each other, I only see about twice a year.

Today is my last working day for this year; not much is happening, and there aren't many customers I can still call, so I am allowing myself to write this post. And later, I am going to wrap the presents I will take to my parents' tomorrow night.
The ones that came from England are already waiting here to be opened on Christmas morning:

Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Behind the Scenes... Kessler's, makers of sparkling wine since 1826, is where we went last Saturday.
"We" means my parents, my sister and three of our friends. This was our birthday present for our mum back in August, it just took us a while to find a date and time where all of us could make it and there was room for seven people at one of the guided tours they offer.

We went there by train; Esslingen is a medieval town on the river Neckar, a lot older than Ludwigsburg (which was only founded in 1704). There are many beautifully restored buildings around; these alone would make for a great day out, looking at them and taking pictures. But that was not what we were here for.

Instead, this building, the foundations of which are from the early 1200s, was where we were headed: seat of Kessler, Germany's oldest manufacturers of sparkling wine.

A close-up of the entrance. You know I have a thing for doors and doorways.

Inside, we were greeted by an elegant elderly lady who was to be our guide. She took our group of about 20 through the production (not working on a Saturday; otherwise, a tour would not be possible), explaining not only how sparkling wine is made here, but also talking about the history of Kessler. Sadly, the family were unable to keep the company going and had to declare bankruptcy in 2004. Since then, the manufactury is not owned by family members any longer, but the way the sparkling wine is made here has not changed; they still use the traditional methods and the expertise of more than 180 years of making fine sparkling wines.
During the 1950s, at all banquets held by the German government, Kessler's sparkling wine was served; that was their heyday, and somehow they missed the change of times after that, resting on their laurels, so to speak. But they have been back in full swing since 2005, and are a healthy company again.

After leading us through the production and explaining about how the yeast is taken out of the bottles, how much sugar is added to the various products, how the cork is put in and so on, we arrived at the steps leading down into the deep stone cellars.

They had made it quite atmospherical by using only candles down there, no electric light.

Here is where the sparkling wine is left to "ripen" in the bottles, they are turned by a few degrees every few days for about three weeks before the yeast is taken out.

A long time ago, people were told by their doctors to drink champagne for medical purposes, and in fact apothecaries sold it under the label of medicinal champagne, as this old shop sign shows.
Also down in the cellar was this plaque on the wall, commemorating two royal visits by the then King and Queen of Württemberg; Karl and Olga in 1865, and Wilhelm and Charlotte in 1893. It meant a lot back then to any manufacturer to be endorsed by the royal court as one of their suppliers.

One of the things we learnt was that, in Germany, we have not been allowed to call our sparkling wines champagne anymore since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed. I didn't know that; I always thought this had come along much later, with some EU regulation or other. Nowadays, here in Europe, only the sparkling wine made from grapes growing in a very limited area in France, the Champagne, and produced in that same area, is allowed to carry the name "champagne". All other sparkling wines in France have to be called vin crémant. In the U.S., you are allowed to call any sparkling wine champagne, because you are not under the same treaty as we are.

After the tour, we were given three different sparkling wines to taste - but not only a few drops in a tiny glass, it was a proper glass, well filled. Our tour guide explained about each specific product before we drank, then talked some more before she gave us the next one to try, so all in all we were there for about another hour. 

We walked across the Christmas market afterwards, had something to eat there and later coffee (we all needed that after three glasses of sparkling wine in the middle of the afternoon!) before we took the train back home.
It was a lovely time out with friends and family, and I think it made for a great present to our mum.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Read in 2011 - 29: The Lady's Maid

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law, who often provides me with reading material, has done it again: she sent a small parcel from England and told me it was not for Christmas, so I did not have to wait, and opened it immediately. It contained two books, one of which I finished reading last night: "The Lady's Maid - My Life in Service" by Rosina Harrison.

Rosina (called Rose by most people) Harrison was born in 1899 in a small village in Yorkshire, near Ripon, an area I know quite well because my mother-in-law and one of my sisters-in-law and her family live there.
She came from a hard-working family, her mother doing the laundry for the family at the "big house" (Studley Royal) and her father working as a stonemason, topping the family's small income with the occasional tolerated poaching on the vast grounds of Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey.
Rose had two sisters and a brother, and all were expected to do their significant part to keep things going for the household, and they did. She describes the atmosphere in the family a very loving one, and remained a devoted daughter until both her parents died.
At school, Rose turned out to be so intelligent and eager to learn that she soon learnt everything the humble village teacher in Aldfield could teach her. She had an ambition: she wanted to travel and see the world. One day, she confided in her mother, who soon came up with a solution: Rose was to smarten herself up and go into service, not as some house or kitchen maid, but as a Lady's maid, which would mean she would accompany her Lady everywhere, including her travels.

About her parents, Rose says:

"They could walk head high. They worked hard, they lived well, they looked after their own and helped others, they brought up a happy family, they gave us all the will to work hard and the knowledge of the satisfaction of a job well done. It wasn#t the kind of teaching that was going to bring us a fortune, but it was a good grounding for the sort of jobs that were available to us at that time and it must have been rewarding to them both that they had their children's love and affection to the end."

At 18, Rose started her first job in service, as what was then called a Young Lady's maid, or sometimes a schoolroom maid, her charges being the 18- and 12-year-old daughters of a Lady Tufton.
About four years later, she went to work for Lady Cranborne, feeling she was now ready to be a fully fledged Lady's Maid, and hoping for a better paid and more interesting job. After five years with Lady Cranborne, she was still earning the same, and since her requests for a raise were rudely refused, she decided it was time to move on. She did travel to Italy and other places with Lady Cranborne, though, so the ambition she'd had as a young girl started to be fulfilled.

By chance, she happened to come across Lady Astor during Ascot week which her employer, Lady Cranborne, spent at the Astor's country estate in Cliveden. Little did she know that this was going to be one of the places she would live at most frequently for more than 35 years!
Lady Astor employed Rose first for her daughter, and it was with her that Rose first crossed the Atlantic ocean and went to America.
In 1929, Lady Astor decided she wanted Rose to work for herself, and it was going to stay that way for 35 years, until Lady Astor's death.

A lot has been written about Lady Astor. She was the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and wife of one of England's wealthiest lords. By many of her contemporaries, she was described not only as very beautiful, but as arrogant, headstrong, unloving and tempestuous, and Rose came to experience all this first hand.
But she knew her Lady also as a kind and caring woman, who would go to great lengths to help a friend in need, and especially the way she treated Rose's mother showed her soft side.

While the two women often had fierce rows, proving that Rose's wit was just as sharp as Lady Astor's, over the years a friendship developed that made it nearly impossible for the two of them to be seperate from each other.
One of the things that influenced this strong bond between the two women most was the war.
During the 2nd World War, the family mostly stayed in Plymouth, where Lord Astor was Mayor. Several times they were in real danger for their lives, but that never stopped the couple to go out and make sure help went to the people who needed it most.

After the war, Lady Astor resumed her extensive travelling, with Rose always in tow. Neither got any younger, and eventually, travelling became less and less frequent, as did entertaining.
Lady Astor died in 1964 at 84. Rose retired to Worthing, to live in the bungalow she had bought for her mother from her wages, and died in 1989.

While this book does nothing to endear Lady Astor to its readers, it is an honest and interesting account of what life was like in service. This was a different era, and a way of life so different of what most of us have today, that it sometimes leaves you wanting to cry out at the injustice and offense a lot of these people endured.
It is interesting to learn about how a big estate was run, what travelling with a Lady meant in terms of preparation and during the actual trip, how many people worked behind the scenes to make entertainment on a big scale possible, and what was implied in taking care of a lady's wardrobe at the time.

The book is easy to read, like a novel, but it is an autobiography, and one I truly enjoyed reading.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Just Right!

For two days in a row, we've had stormy, wet weather which made one want to stay indoors, and so that is what we did on Friday night.

As mentioned in my "Making Do" post, I like to use whatever I find in my fridge, and yesterday, those findings included several large carrots and some sausages plus a few remaining spuds in a bag in the cellar that really needed using up (the spuds, not the bag).
I had plenty of time, and so I thought why not try something I've never made before, something that is just right for a stormy evening in late autumn - soup!
(Not that I have never ever made soup before, just not of this kind.)

The spuds and carrots were peeled and diced and put into a pot with water just about covering them.
After I had let them boil for about an hour (I told you, I had plenty of time), with me replenishing the water twice so that the bits were always covered, they were soft enough to be easily mashed up with a spuds masher.

And then came the part where I cheated: instead of making this soup with home-made vegetable or chicken or any other kind of broth, I used the instant vegetable broth they sell at the supermarket. Sometimes when I am cold but too lazy to cook, I have a mug of this broth to warm me up and a slice of bread with it.

But the "cheating" broth was not the only spice for my wintery soup, of course. I had brought nutmeg and ground ginger from the Christmas market a few days before, and I used that, the result being a delicious but not over-spiced, warm taste and scent.

The soup needed to boil a bit longer, and RJ was not here yet anyway, so I used the time to dice a few slices of untoasted bread and fry it in a pan with some oil to make croutons.

I had also fried a package of sausages I still had in the fridge, and we put those in our plates before the soup was added, and then the croutons. We had salad with that, and ice cream for dessert. 

Although I'd never made this kind of soup before, I think this will not have been the last time; the result was really good.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Similar But Different

Two films I've watched a while ago, with a week or two apart from each other; the similarity between them was not intended, but they both made me think and stayed with me for a while, which is what any good film should do.

The first one was "Lakeview Terrace" and the second one "Gran Torino". You can find summaries, lists of cast and production team etc. for both of them on wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet, but maybe they have not been compared like this before.

Let me start with what both films have in common:
A great leading actor (Samuel L. Jackson in "Lakeview Terrace" and Clint Eastwood in "Gran Tornio"), a main character who is bitter and lonely and has his life changed considerably through the moving in of new neighbours, and the big, big topics of racism and tolerance.

Each film deals with these topics in a very different manner, although from the start it is not obvious (at least not to me) in either which direction the plot is going to take, although a bit easier to guess in "Gran Torino".

In "Lakeview Terrace", Samuel L. Jackson plays a widowed police officer who works very hard to raise his two children, teenage daughter and younger son, alone. He keeps not only his own house spic and span, but also goes to great lengths to ensure his children have good manners, clean and wholesome entertainment, do well at school and not fall in with the wrong crowd. On top of that, he feels responsible for the safety of the whole neighbourhood, patrolling the surrounding streets on foot every night to check things are as they should be.
Sounds good to have such a respectable neighbour, doesn't it?
Well, the young couple moving in next door think so at first, too. But they quickly change their minds when they find out what a narrow-minded racist he is: he hates it that the African-American woman is married to a white man, he hates it that they enjoy each other's company (which leads them one evening to having sex in their own swimming pool, where they think nobody can see them) - in short, he hates the sheer sight of them.
And so he sets out to make their lives miserable.

Still, there are times when one can't help but sympathize with the man. There is a scene, for instance, where, as a police officer, he is called upon a case of domestic abuse in a bad part of town, and the way he handles that situation is, although rather brutal, admirable in a way and makes you believe in his good intentions - for a moment, until he goes back home and back on his crusade against the couple next door.

One thing leads to the other, and all attempts of talking and reasoning go horribly wrong, until the big escalation. I am not going to tell you how it really ends, but it does not end well, and leaves you sad and wondering why this man did not appreciate the good things he had achieved in life, all because he could not overcome the mental barriers he had erected around himself.

In "Gran Torino", we have another widower who hates the sight of the people moved in next door: Clint Eastwood is bitter and lonely, with his grown sons living elsewhere and only turning to him when they need something, his grandchildren showing no affection at all, and his best friend being his old dog - and his Gran Torino, a classic car he built with his own hands when he was still working.

The new neighbours are an Asian family, and the old man sees them through the distorted glasses of racism - until, completely involuntarily, he saves the fatherless boy from gang criminality and becomes, against everything he stands for, the hero not only of this family, but of their extensive clan of friends and relatives, too.

As the events unfold, so does the old man - he becomes more approachable and strucks up an unlikely friendship with the boy and his sister. Some terrible things happen, and the old man understands there is only one way he can give this family back their peace, and at the same time create a realistic chance for a better life for the boy.

Dramatic situations call for dramatic means, and Clint Eastwood's character chooses the most dramatic means of all. The result is as planned, and the film leaves you sad but also hopeful that not all racists are so firmly set in their minds that they can not change, and change the lives of those around them for the better, too.

What I also like about "Gran Torino" is the way it deals with the subject of getting old. It takes courage to look and act like an old man - especially when you ARE an old man, as Mr. Eastwood certainly is.

Whether you watch just one or both these films, let me know your opinion on them, please.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Like Leek?

I certainly do! When I brought some leek a while ago, having in mind that RJ and I were going to cook together again on the weekend, I ended up eating it alone - RJ's cold had gone from better to worse, and we did not see each other at all for two weeks. Of course I did not want to let the leek and mushrooms and eggs to waste, so I threw everything together on the Sunday for myself.

The leek had to go into the pan with a bit of oil first, because it takes longest.

No need to add any liquid; once the mushrooms go in and heat up, they will release enough moisture to avoid sticking to the pan and burning (keep stirring, though).

While leek and mushrooms were making themselves comfortable, I put the eggs in a small bowl and added salt, pepper and some herbs, and then poured the egg mixture over the leek and mushrooms.

From then on, it is non-stop stirring until the egg has the right texture; of course it only takes a few minutes, so the mushrooms and leek should be as good as done before the eggs are added.
Nothing further was needed, since this was rather a large portion; it would have easily fed two, with the addition of a few slices of bread maybe, and/or sausage or anything else.

Instead, I ate it just as it was, and finished my Sunday lunch with a cup of coffee and a selection of Christmas cookies, home-made by a dear family friend who was, once upon a time, a baker and does not have to think twice about making 14 different kinds of cookies in one single afternoon (I kid you not!).

Saturday 10 December 2011

Fun With Friends

Back in August, I wrote about the once-a-month meetings with my friends here, and of course we've had our regular get-togethers in the months in between, too.
Last night, we were at my place for something that in German is called Schrottwichteln; I've heard the expression "Trash Yulklapp", too: Everyone brings one nicely wrapped up unwanted present - it has to be something clean and not broken, but unwanted; maybe simply because it is not your style or not needed, or because you don't have the room or don't particularly like the person who gave it to you, or because it really was a rubbish present in the first place.
Before I explain about the Schrottwichteln, let me show you the quick and easy preparations I made:

(That bottle is one of three in my fridge, all pub quiz wins)

For a change, I did not make pizza (it does get a bit boring since I almost always make pizza when I have guests), but opted for an old party classic: Toast Hawaii!
Until last night, I think I have not had this for about 20 years - it used to be so popular, and now most people seem to have forgotten about it.

 Pukky couldn't believe she wasn't getting any of the ham - but I'm afraid it all went on the toast!

Of course, I didn't just make one toast per person, but two rounds (with the possibility of more for those who wanted a third helping), plus salad, and one of my friends brought mousse vanille and mousse au chocolat for dessert:

And then the Schrottwichteln began!
Sitting around a table, everyone put their parcel in front of them, and then the rolling of the dices started. With every roll (one after the other, starting clock-wise), the parcels were moved one place further on. When someone threw a double, moving the parcels changed direction. That's the basic rules; of course you can elaborate on it, and you should set a time limit. We rolled the dices and shifted the parcels for 15 minutes, and then the moment of truth came :-)
I opened the parcel that had ended up in front of me...
...and wondered, what IS this??? (No, not what you think. Yes, it does look like a part of female anatomy.)
A hanging flower-pot - just what I always wanted ;-)

And so versatile - it can be used as a hat, too!

The evening went on with lots of laughter and talk, and when my friends left at 1.30 am, we all agreed that we're going to do this again next year.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Making Do

Making do is something I usually do not find hard at all. It applies to many areas of my life, and is not always due to my, admittedly, rather precarious financial situation or lack of opportunity, but often brought about by myself quite deliberately, because I actually enjoy the challenge of making do, while a huge range of options and choices can be somewhat  overwhelming at times.

Much as I like new things - who doesn't? - especially clothes (these will one day be my downfall, I predict!), I do not always want new stuff. Instead, I really like using things until they literally fall apart, and if I was better (and had more patience) at mending and repairing, hardly anything would ever get replaced in my flat. For instance, part of my furniture belonged to my grandparents, bought in the 1930s when they got married; some of my kitchen tools (such as my favourite wooden spoon) are way older than myself, and appliances like my washing machine and microwave were bought in the 1990s for my grandma and used by her until she died in 2001. Only in 2008, when I turned 40, I changed my bedroom to new furniture I'd bought for myself - up until then, I had been making do with hand-me-downs from other family members and leftovers from my first marriage.

The area where I "make do" most often is in the kitchen.
When my husband was still alive, it was his pride and joy to make sure our fridge and the food cupboards were always well stocked, and he did almost all the cooking, with a few exceptions that were clearly my resort, such as Spätzle or pizza. So, after he died, getting used to providing my own meals was more difficult than I would have imagined, and while I never ran out of cat food, it did happen a few times that I did not have a single piece of bread left in the house, and it took a while before the simple fact of there not being any bread unless I got some sunk in.

Two years later, I have become better at keeping provisions, but there are still times when I open my fridge and it lookes like the typical single-household fridge, containing not much more than a few bottles of sparkling wine, a yoghurt or two, and a chunk of cheese.

Sometimes, after a weekend with RJ (when he is here, we always have proper meals, since we enjoy both the cooking and the eating together), I have leftovers that we did not use, and since I hate throwing food away, I like to make something with whatever I find in my fridge during the week.

A while ago, those findings included a small zucchini and (not surprisingly) some cheese, and I knew just what this was going to become:

While I was boiling some pasta, I grated the zucchini into a pan with a little olive oil and added some salt and pepper as well as a dried herbs mixture (containing, among others, Oregano).

By the time the pasta was ready, I had diced the cheese and stirred the grated zucchini a few times. Now I added the pasta and the diced cheese and kept stirring until the cheese was melted.

It smelled and looked quite nice, and was tasty, too!

For dessert, I had coffee and a slice of my mum's home baked apple bread (more a tea cake than a bread, very delicious and sweet).

Yes, I like to make do - every time I start, the result is a surprise, but so far, it has always been a pleasant one.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Read in 2011 - 28: Secrets of Lost Empires

This well-written and illustrated BBC book I found in my local library in the (sadly, very small) non-fiction section of books in English. It is based on a TV series that, I think, aired in the 1990s (but I had never heard about it until I found the book).
I've been interested in (especially ancient) history for almost as long as I can remember. When my sister was about 9, she developped a love for ancient Egypt and everything Egyptian, and for a while, we both read every single book about that long period we could get our hands on at the school's library (it helped that our mum used to work there until her retirement some years ago!).
For one of her birthdays (was it her 10th?), we even travelled to Munich to see an exhibition of items from Tut-Ankh-Amun's tomb, which would have been really really beautiful and impressive, had it not been totally overcrowded, and I panicked, squeezed in between loads of adults, unable to see much, and (feeling) unable to breathe.

This love for ancient history has never left me, and so I simply had to take this book out.

I was not disappointed.
The authors - Michael Barnes, Robin Brightwell, Adriana von Hagen, Mark Lehner and Cynthia Page - are a mix of TV producers, writers specialized in archaelogy, Professors and teachers who draw on a number of other experts in an attempt to re-create past monuments using the tools and methods available at the time of their original construction.
No mean feat, as you can imagine!

The book's chapters are about Stonehenge, the Giza pyramids, the Egyptian obelisks, the Colosseum (I have seen it spelt Coliseum, too, but I prefer Colosseum as it is the same in German and in the BBC book), and the Incas. Now, probably everybody knows that the wheel had not been yet invented when any of these monuments, except for the Colosseum, were erected - and try to imagine putting such enormous amounts of stone together with no machines to help, just human labour and cleverly devised systems of ropes and rollers, wooden sleds and levers. It seems nearly impossible, and yet we know it WAS possible - otherwise none of those stony witnesses from those days would be there for us to see.

Every now and then, one comes across the theories of people who insist that Aliens from outer space have visited our planet and taught our ancestors how to do it, or even did it for them. And although I admit some of these theories have a certain entertaining value, I much prefer sound reasoning based on scientific, historic and practical evidence, as here in this book, at the end of the chapter about the pyramids:

But even this limited experiment made it abundantly clear that the pyramids are very human monuments, created through long experience and tremendous skill, but without any kind of secret sophistication. More than we could capture on film, our trials resulted in many insights and deep admiration for the skill of ancient builders. ... Where we ... failed to match their best results..., it was due to the lack of several lifetimes of practice and not because we were missing some mysterious technology.

Some scenes are described in a way that you'd expect more in a work of fiction - making this book all the more of a good read:

Ali walked up on to the ramp of the partially built sandpit. The 13-metre obelisk was sitting on sled and rollers behind him. He stood at the edge of the pit, a thin, serious man in a flapping, flowing galabiyya, lighthing a cigarette in cupped hands and looking out over the desert. The breeze blew away the pungent Egyptian tobacco smoke. He was putting together an idea.

Towards the end of the book, in the chapter about the Inca, there is some more I want to share here. The crew of film makers and experts usually draw on local people to put their plans into reality, and freeing a huge block of stone that was quarried by the Inca but never made it to the construction site saw the enlisting of a whole nearby village.

Did the people of Ollantaytambo ever doubt their ability to free the Inca block? [They were] surprised by the idea. "No, of course not, ... people like us put it there, so people like us can make it move."

This experiment had ably demonstrated one of the true legacies of the Inca empire: Throughout the Andes, large groups of men and women still assemble to perform the community labour tax which they levy upon themselves, combining work and festivities for the common good. In Inca times, labour for the state was socially based rather than an individual burden.
This and a lot more I learnt from "Secrets of Lost Empires"; I was a bit bored and disappointed with the chapter about the Colosseum, but that may well have been because I read so much about the Romans earlier this year and the chapter largely focused on things I already knew instead of providing me with new and interesting facts and context.
My favourite chapter was the last one, about the Inca.

And now, I think it is time for fiction again.