Saturday 31 March 2012

Read in 2012 - 6: Dead Ernest

Many of you will be familiar with Frances' blog; if you have not yet visited her there, I recommend you do so, because Frances covers such a variety of subjects, and all of her blog entries are of a length that is easy to handle, sort of bite-sized chunks. Her topics range from the funny (check out her "Horse Diaries"!) to the very very serious (Death Row in Texas prisons). Plus, and now I am getting to the point of this blog entry, she is one of the few published authors I know.
(Well, I say I "know" her, but we have never met in person - it is through her blog that I know her a little bit.)

For my birthday, I was given a Kindle from my parents; in the short space of time since I first opened the small cardboard box until now, I have already transferred about 70 books to it, including both of Frances' novels.

"Dead Ernest" was her first published book, and it is also the first one I've read.
And enjoyed! This is a book I can really recommend - not just because I like Frances as a person, from what transpires about her through her blog, but because it really is a good book, a good story well told.

The story in itself is not unusual; quite ordinary people live quite ordinary lives, and their lives change by events some of which they have a certain control over, while others simply happen without them contributing actively to them. This ordinariness makes the story and character development very credible; one can imagine acting in a similar way in the place of the characters (at least I can).

You can read this book either just for entertainment, enjoying the story and wanting to know what will happen next (there is drama, there is romance), or you can accept the lessons taught - never in a school-teacherish manner, but simply by what the characters have to deal and cope with in their lives, in both past and present.

Ernest is the husband of Annie; when we first hear of him in the book, he has just died of a heart attack outside a fish and chip shop (what WAS he doing in front of the chippie? This is one mystery that remains unsolved!).
But we meet him later on as a younger man in the book, when Annie tells the story of her life - which is invariably also the story of her marriage of 60 years) - to Andrew, the vicar who is asked to visit her by her son Billy. In spite of Annie not being a churchgoer or a particularly religious person at all, a friendship develops between her and Andrew, and she starts telling him her story.
Shortly after these regular visits have started, Billy's daughter Ophelia, Annie's only grandchild, comes to see her grandmother, also originally sent there by Billy. 

Things between Annie, Andrew and Ophelia turn out rather different from what Billy imagined when he initiated these visits, and the lives of all three of them are changed by what they learn about each other and about themselves.

As I said, nothing in this book is unrealistic. People behave like humans do; Annie does not willingly play the role of grieving widow everybody seems to expect her to be, Ophelia is not her parents' dream-daughter, and Andrew is not quite the man of god he feels he should be.

I won't tell you more and I won't quote anything from "Dead Ernest", although there are many bits worth quoting - but I want you to read it for yourself.

Soon, I am going to read Frances' second novel, but before that, a non-fiction book awaits me, one I have meant to read in a long time and have now finally on my Kindle, too :-)

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Doors & Doorways

More than once in my life, I was faced with the decision of which direction to take, where to go from here; sometimes, the choices and their probable consequences were rather clear, while at other times, I wasn't even sure of what the different doors were that I could open (or leave shut), let alone what was in store for me behind them.

For years now, I have turned this fascination with doors and doorways (in the actual physical as well as in the metaphorical sense) into a little hobby: I take pictures.

Oh, great, we wouldn't have thought that, I hear you say. Yes, I know, there are many pictures on my blog, most of which I have taken, some of which I nicked. But so far, there have been precious few of doors and doorways. The reason is that, until a few months ago, I used to put all my doors and doorways into an album I had created on my MySpace profile specifically for that. Now, MySpace is pretty much dead, I'm afraid to say - at least it is in the narrow realm of communication and creativity I was using it for. My old profile there still exists, and so does the album, but nobody ever looks at it over there, and so I have transferred it to my photobucket site instead.

You can view the whole album here, if you like; so far, I have only transferred the pictures but not added all of the titles or descriptions yet. One thing you can be sure of, though: all of these are mine, I haven't nicked any from anywhere else on the internet; I have been to all those places in person, and each of the doors and doorways have, to me, a special appeal.

Let me show you some of my favourites (the whole album contains more than 60 pictures, but don't worry, I am not going to post them all on here!):

The rim of a field, not far from my parents' allotment; I laid flat on my tummy to take this one, and imagined what the world would look like if one were part of the Little People.

Entrance to a cave somewhere in England (at the border between Yorkshire and the Peak District, I think). 

Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, Yorkshire. Yes, this is very touristic and the very same view has probably been the subject of countless pictures, but I couldn't help wanting to capture it for myself.

A narrow alley in a small town in the Provence, south France.

Let's stay in France for this one, too; a door in a door in Nice/Nizza.

The Castle of Schwetzingen and its grounds are well worth a day trip from where I live.

A bit closer to home now; this is at the zoo in Stuttgart.

What could be more intriguing than a gate formed entirely by nature?

Not just the size makes this door particular (I reach maybe up to a third of the height of this door, if that!), but also the material in which it was once covered: leather, nailed to the wooden panels with heavy iron nails. This is part of the large complex of Maulbronn monastery (UNESCO World Culture Heritage), dating back to the mid-1200s.

Yorkshire again; this is in a small and very picturesque place called Masham.

Back to my home town, in an old cellar usually not open to the public, but we were allowed in while we were on a guided tour. I do recommend guided tours for everyone in their home towns - I bet you'd still learn a lot of things you had not known yet about the place where you live!

Ludwigsburg (my home town), view towards the inner courtyard of the palace.

I do not pretend that I always take the right door when there is more than one possibility, but I usually regard going through doors an adventure - sometimes deliberately chosen for that quality, but sometimes I have been pushed through a door rather roughly and had to deal with whatever I found behind. So far, I have managed to face up to the consequences of each door in my life that has opened in front or closed behind me, and I hope that I won't lose that ability anytime soon.

Monday 26 March 2012

Read in 2012 - 5: Teufelsköche

In German, when you want to say someone (or yourself) has gotten themselves into deep trouble, you can use the expression that they have "come into the devil's kitchen", Teufels Küche.
The book I finished reading last night is entitled "Teufelsköche", which obviously plays with that expression, but literally means the devil's cooks, or devilish cooks.
Don't worry, it has nothing to do with black magic or poisonous brews; instead, it is a collection of 16 stories about cooks from all over the world (strictly speaking, that is not true - Asia and Australia are missing); cooks who have something special in either their own biography, or about the place they work at, mostly a combination of both.
Juan Moreno is a journalist and Mirco Taliercio a photographer. The two of them have worked together often on articles, and their cooperation on this book makes it really what it is: a delightful, interesting, sometimes very serious read, ranging from funny and humorous bits to stuff that is hard to swallow.
Not all of the cooks portrayed are famous. Some you will have never heard of, such as  Faith Muthoni, the woman who has a tiny, ramshackle restaurant in the middle of Nairobi's biggest dump site, cooking there for those fortunate few of the many, many people working on that site who are able to afford a meal. Or take Brian Price, who for many years worked (as an inmate) in a Texas prison and prepared the last meal for about 200 men condemned to death. That chapter made me think long and hard, and it connects with what Frances Garrood often writes about on her blog. For one of the 16 cooks, cooking has meant the difference between life and death; two of them have maintained their distance to the most pressing political matters in their respective countries, in spite of having worked for their heads of state, and one of them is willing to risk his life in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a cook at - McDonald's, of all places.

Some others are well known; there is Vincent Klink, who is quite the household name in Germany (at least here in the South, where he is from), Nurse Tifa (do not google her when anyone under 18 is near you), Frank Pellegrino, at whose New York restaurant people are willing to pay 40.000 US-$ for a table, and Juan Amador, whose name has become a label for a chain of tapas bars, restaurants and products.
But I am quite sure that, even in those chapters, the reader will find find something they didn't know yet.

For the most part, the book is well done. There are several typesetting errors, though; not as many as to bring the whole book down, but too many to make it a really good piece of craftsmanship. In the chapter about Vincent Klink, the author has attempted to repeat Mr. Klink's Swabian dialect in direct speech - unsuccessfully so, and in my opinion, if one is not entirely sure about the correct terms and spelling of local dialect, they should not use it, but instead write in normal German. In the chapter about the cook who dreams of working at McDonald's, the hamburgers are described as tasting "as if they had been formed in the armpits of the employee of the month", and the buns "like joint sealer".

Of course, I should mention that each chapter is accompanied by a recipe for a dish most typical for the cook who is portrayed in the chapter. There are dishes such as FuFu (maniok flour, salt, pepper and water), but also a most elaborate composition of Granny Smith apples, goose liver, goat cheese and apple seed oil, the preparation of which resembles more an experiment set up in a chemical lab than anything I would attempt to make in my own kitchen.

It is an unusual book; neither a cook book in the strict sense, nor a biography, but a combination of both. Today, I am taking it back to my Mum, whom I borrowed it from.

Friday 23 March 2012

Ab Fab!

Absolutely fabulous was, in my opinion, the cocktail party I threw last night for my family and friends. The occasion? My 44th birthday. The location? My living room, kitchen and Third Room.
In German, numbers such as 11, 22, 33, 44, 55 etc. are called Schnapszahl, meaning schnaps number. And since I was 44 on the 22nd, I had the double Schnapszahl this year. However, I do not like schnaps, but since I really like cocktails, I decided to throw a cocktail party - the complete works, outfits and all.

The invitation I emailed to my family and friends some time before had this picture as its header:

The same picture appeared on the drinks menu that I had printed out and placed strategically all over the flat:

Preparations were easy - because I left most of the hard work to my parents, I'm afraid! (Yes, I truly am a lazy, spoiled brat sometimes.) What I did apart from writing and sending out the invitation and putting together the drinks I intended to offer, was this:

On Monday, my sister went with me to the biggest supermarket in our town. Usually, I do my grocieries shopping on foot - but with drinks, it is nearly impossible to do that without a car; they are simply too heavy to carry, especially when you need enough for 18 people.
Never before in my life have I spent so much money on drinks, and never before has my flat contained so much alcohol as in the few days between Monday and Thursday night :-) A glimpse of the inside of my fridge gives you an incling of what I mean - and there was plenty more in the cellar:
I bought these potted plants of mint. Mint is needed for a variety of drinks, such as Mojito. 
I also bought lemons, limes and two carambola (star fruit), the latter to decorate the drinks with (funnily enough, on Thursday night when we made and served the drinks, we never used the fruit - I still have almost all of it left as it was when I took the picture!). Kay, are you going to stick that one to your kitchen cabinet? :-)
Normally, my living room (double-functioning as my office during work hours) looks like this:
Not exactly party-like, I hear you say. But wait and see!

When I am on my own during the week, I need exactly one plate per meal, one coffee mug in the morning and one muesli bowl, and maybe one knife to butter my sandwich. On weekends, when RJ is here, I need a bit more china and cutlery, but I simply do not own enough to cater for 18, and so I asked my parents to bring more plates, glasses, forks and so on - as well as the food.
My parents being the most generous people I know, did just that. They brought this delicious cooking pot full of spuds, chick peas, meat, carrots, zucchini and peppers:
Months ago, my Dad made this dish (a much smaller amount of it, of course) and I had some when I went to my parents' for lunch, as has become my habit once a week ever since I started working from home. He had taken the recipe from the calendar he got as a freebie from the pharmacy; they called it "Morroccan Fry-Up". I liked it so much that I said to my Dad I wanted him to make this for my birthday. He replied, "I will, as long as it won't have to be for 20." So I invited only 18 :-D
My parents worked on this huge amount together, and even prepared a slightly smaller pot full of the vegetarian version for those of my guests who do not eat meat.

When they had dropped off all the food, plates, glasses and so on and left, I set about getting things ready for the party.
First of all, I put up this garland in the tiny hallway:
Then, I strung garlands across the ceiling in the living room and carried some extra chairs up from the cellar.
Next was the "bar" - the kitchen was the obvious place for that. One of my friends had agreed to bring his bartender equipment and mix the drinks for us. Yes, I have some very kind friends!
In the Third Room, I set up the dessert buffet. The Cold Dog (you can find the recipe for that under the label "Recipes" here on my blog) and the (savoury, not sweet) pastry bits were also made by my Mum - she spent hours and hours in the kitchen for my sake! The Tiramisu is the only edible contribution I made to the whole evening... that recipe is also here on my blog, if you are interested.
When I had finished, it was time to get dressed. I had been in two minds (actually, in three or four) about which dress to wear, and in the end went for this one:
From just before 7.00 pm onwards, the guests arrived. Instead of the 17 (+ myself = 18), there were only 12 of us in the end, but it was still a great party, and it only meant that there was more left of the food and drinks.

People brought such beautiful flowers and great presents, and we all had fun, plenty to eat and drink (well, not THAT plenty - most of my guests were driving, and/or working the next day), lots to talk and laugh about; in short: it was a great party! I wish I could show you the lovely dresses the female guests were wearing; one of my friends wore the exact copy of a 50s cocktail dress, and the men were all looking very smart, too.
The drink I preferred for most of the evening: Vodka Cooler, consisting of Vodka (surprise!), sugar syrup, lime juice, ginger ale and ice.
At about midnight, the last ones left; RJ and I filled the dishwasher and cleared up most of the party "mess", and at 1.15 am it was lights out at the Librarian's home.
All my presents are wonderful and generous! The dancing shoes RJ gave me (I wore them to the ball already), the running shoes and the kindle from my parents, gift coupons for Amazon, for a massage or some other treatment at the nearby spa, for a cover for my kindle, the sweets, the seeds to grow kitchen herbs, not to mention the contributions in the shape of food and drinks (my sister paid for the vodka and the rum).

It was a party I much enjoyed, from the preparation to the clearing up afterwards, and I am determined to have another party soon - it does not necessarily have to be my birthday, does it?

PS: I have now added the picture of my Mum and I, upon her permission :-)

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Combining Work & Play

On Wednesday last week, I had to get up two hours earlier than usual (5.00 instead of 7.00), in order to catch my flight to Hamburg, where I was going to visit a trade show for the day.
It was not the first time I did that, but it was the first time I was able to combine work and play: I arranged to meet up with a friend of mine who, some years ago, moved to a small town near Hamburg for love.

Nici is a journalist and, like me, works from home; she lives right on the rim of a lake and goes for a swim every morning when it is warm enough. In the winter, she goes ice-skating instead. There are many interesting stories she can tell, and since we go back a long way (I think we've known each other since the mid-1990s), there is always lots we can talk about, people we both know, what is happening in our lives, and so on.
In previous years, when I went to that particular fair, it was always either with a colleague, or my flights were scheduled so that I didn't have time for anything else.
So, I really welcomed the chance to see Nici; we had not met since December 2010, when she came to the South for a few days and was here for our traditional Schrottwichteln (I wrote about that here).

The flight from Stuttgart to Hamburg is little more than a hop across the country; it takes just about an hour, and by the time the flight attendants have handed out coffee and a roll, the plane is already in descent for landing.

From the airport to the fair, no direct train line exists; something I find rather impractical and don't understand - it is the same in Frankfurt, where huge international fairs (among others, the Frankfurt Book Fair) are held almost all year round. Why can't those responsible for public transport find a way to make a direct line from airport to fair, via the main station? It is possible in Stuttgart, and probably in many other cities, so why not in Hamburg and Frankfurt?
Anyway, I had enough time to get there, and it was not difficult to find one's way around with the help of the maps at the station, even if, like me, you do that only once a year.

I spent the day at the fair, talking to my customers, having the occasional coffee or other drink with them, but it was a different atmosphere from how I remember previous years. Everyone seemed to be very tired, and only a few of our dealers sounded really positive about the fair's outcome. Maybe it had to do with the general mood in economics, what with the Euro crisis and all that, or people were just exhausted because this was the fourth show in the space of about a month for some of them, or it was a combination of both.
Still, it wasn't a waste of time, and I am now following up on the things we discussed.

Nici met me at the exit, and we walked around for a little bit. Hamburg is actually quite a beautiful city, with elegant buildings, and there is always that closeness to the North Sea, with seagulls visible and audible everywhere, plus the wind to match. I took this picture of the Rathaus (it hasn't got anything to do with rats, it simply means townhall in German):

And a close-up of one of the golden ships on top of the poles erected at both sides of the Rathaus:

I had not eaten anything since the roll on the plane in the morning, and so we went to have an early dinner.
Nici lead me to a place I liked very much, it is called Café Paris, not far from the Rathaus.
You can see pictures of the beautiful rooms on their website. Make sure you go to "Unsere Räume" and there, click on the photos to view the slide show. 

The menue there is typical French, and I went on a mini-time travel by ordering Menthe à L'Eau, which I used to love when I was a kid and we spent our holidays in France. We had a salad each, and talked about anything and everything, until it was time for me to get on the train back to the airport. Now that we were in the town centre already, I was able to take a direct train and did not have to change again.

The plane landed in Stuttgart about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled, and I only had to wait 10 minutes for the train home. At 11.00 pm, I opened the door to my flat (it was odd coming home with no cat waiting for me behind the door). It had been a long day, but a good one.
 A la vôtre!

Monday 19 March 2012

An Opinion Revised

...about a particular actor, that is.

Until not too long ago, I didn't really like Leonardo Di Caprio. Neither as a man, nor as an actor. Or, rather, because I never found him attractive as a man (and still don't), and the films I knew he starred in were so NOT my type of film, I didn't give his acting skill much of a chance. None at all, to be honest.
So, convinced I was in for a boring-to-ridiculous performance, I sat down to watch my first full-length movie with Mr. Di Caprio, several months ago with RJ, who had brought the DVD for us to watch over the weekend.

The movie was "Body of Lies", and if that one didn't yet fully convince me, "Blood Diamond" did. Both are based on real life situations and not easy to swallow.
They are not for the faint-hearted and not made for a cosy evening of watching DVD, but they deal with subjects that are, sadly, very real and very difficult, as well as truly horrible.

While "Body of Lies" is about political and cultural differences between Arab countries and the US, "Blood Diamond" shows the manifold commercial and political interests mixed up in the exploitation of diamond mines in African war zones, such as Sierra Leone during the civil war, where the story is set. Topics such as child soldiers and cruelties unimaginable are openly addressed, and whoever has been watching the news and reading the papers in the last 10 or 20 years knows that, sadly, nothing in that movie is exaggerated for effect, but the horrible truth.
In both these films, Leonardo Di Caprio portrays the character he is playing in a convincing and credible manner. I was quite impressed, to be honest, and nowadays, I am not NOT watching a film only because he is in it and therefore, I expect it to be not to my liking.

The last one I saw was on Saturday night: "Catch Me If You Can".
It is not a new film, but I hadn't seen it until now; I knew the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr, to be true, and "Catch Me If You Can" is based on his autobiography.
One is torn between admiring Frank for how clever he goes about the various scams and cons he uses to make a living, and knowing that what he did was illegal and (mostly) morally wrong.
There is many a comical element in the film, but also some rather saddening scenes - just like life itself. Of course, quite a bit of the movie's appeal is due to the great 60s styling; the story is set in that decade, and the clothes, hairdos, furniture etc. are very well done in my opinion.
My favourite scene must be the one where Frank manages to outwit dozens - if not hundreds - of FBI and police officers at the airport, and leaves for Europe right under their noses.

I have put Frank Abagnale Jr's autobiography on my Kindle wish list.

Have you revised an opinion you had formed about a person, a book, a particular piece of music or a certain dish lately?

Sunday 18 March 2012

Food for Spring

After a long time, another food post!

With the onset of spring, I usually have an increased craving of fresh (i.e. uncooked) foods such as salads and raw vegetables. This week, I had several such meals for both my lunch break and in the evenings. Here are just two of them, when I remembered to take pictures:

This salad consisted of half a bag of a ready-to-eat mix of leafy stuff such as lamb's lettuce, radicchio and frisee lettuce, one whole avocado and half a red, green and yellow pepper each (the other halves I had eaten the day before). Yellow peppers are my favourites - I love eating them just like that, without any addion, as I did here and many times since. The salad was dressed with a simple vinaigrette, the recipe for which I posted here. For this particular salad, I went a bit easier on the olive oil, since the avocado already contains quite a lot of fat without adding extra oil.

Some weeks ago, I had come down with a stomach bug which made me get on rather too intimate terms with my toilet. Thankfully, it was over after two days, but for those two days, nothing I ate would stay with me, and I was so glad for the working-from-home arrangement - and even more glad for my parents being so close! They came here both days, bringing coke (normally, I drink just tap water all day) and salted pretzels and rusk for my poor tummy, and generally making sure I had everything I needed.

The rusk I never touched until this week, when I turned it into a nice lunch for me, along with half a cucumber (another left-over from one of the salads I had during the week) and the goat cheese I like very much and regularly get from the supermarket:

So, in culinary terms as well as where the weather was concerned, this week was very much spring!

Friday 16 March 2012

Read in 2012 - 4: Of Human Bondage

Again, I am amazed at how long it takes me these days to finish a book; there used to be times when I devoured several books in one single weekend (if it was rainy and cold, that is), but now, there always seems to be so much else that I want to do, see, read (in my weekly paper or elsewhere), listen to, and so many places I want to go to and people I want to meet, that it took me more than a month to finish my latest read, kindly lent to me by my sister: "Of Human Bondage" by W. Somerset Maugham.

My reading is not ambitious at all, I have never aimed for the intellectual, and although I was really trained as a Librarian in my long-ago youth and loved working at the library, you'd be surprised at the number of classics that are considered to be "must-reads" in the world of literature that I have NOT read. But every now and then, I come across one, and this can certainly be said about "Of Human Bondage".

It was a book I enjoyed very much and can recommend to anyone. The story is said to be semi-autobiographical, and Mr. Maugham wrote it in two parts; he did a first draft when he was in his early 20s (which was in the late 1800s-early 1900s), but only took the manuscript up again and turned it into the masterpiece we know now 15 years later, with the first edition having been published in 1915.

Philip Carey is the main character, and it is his life we follow from when he is a boy of about 9 years until he is almost 30. There are many tragic events in Philip's life, starting with the early death of both his parents, events he can not control, while at other times, he takes decisions the reader wants to shout at him for, shake him and tell him, 'don't do that!', but such is life, isn't it? People do not always act the way they should, and it is always easier to see it from an outsider's perspective as when you are in the middle of things yourself.

Philip is essentially a very good person with a kind heart, and he does not judge others - he largely accepts them the way they are, and still helps them over and over again, even though they have hurt him greatly and actually do not deserve his friendship and support. He can also be nasty and come across as arrogant if he wants to, and in that, once again, he is very much like a real person. His life does not follow the strict moral codex of his time, and yet he is maybe, in some ways, a better person than those of his contemporaries who think of themselves as good Christians. For that, too, one can't help but like him.

What really makes this book such an excellent read is the language used. Every now and then, I had to look up a word I didn't know, and that does not happen very often, probably because I do not frequently read books written in that era.

Parts of the book reminded me of Emile Zola's "The Ladies' Paradise", which I read a few years ago (in German, I'm afraid; my French would never suffice to read the original "Au Bonheur des Dames".)

There is such a lot in it I would like to share with you, but instead of making this an endless post, let me just quote a few bits that I found particularly impressive, for one reason or other:

In his late teens, Philip spends a year in Germany, studying in Heidelberg. The owner of the boarding house has strong opinions about literature and the theatre:

It was the period in Germany of Goethe's highest fame. ... he had been adopted as the national poet, and seemed since the war of seventy to be one of the most significant glories of national unity. ... Professor Erlin, who hated the Prussians, gave his enthusiastic admiration to Goethe because his works, Olympian and sedate, offered the only refuge for a sane mind against the onslaughts of the present generation.

The Professor calls Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" obscene nonsense and "nothing but filth", and would rather have his daughters lying dead at his feet than see them listening to the garbage of that shameless fellow. Of Richard Wagner, he speaks with good-humoured laughter, calling him a charlatan with something for the comic spirit to recjoice in. He says:

"I tell you young people that before the nineteenth century is out Wagner will be as dead as mutton. Wagner! I would give all his works for one opera by Donizetti."

Well, Wagner remains very popular (and not just in Germany, I believe), although he has never been quite my thing; when it comes to the opera, Verdi is and will always be The Master for me.

Eventually, Philip wants to end his time in Heidelberg:

"You know, I don't think I can stay here much longer. I want to get to London so that I can really begin. I want to have experiences, I'm so tired of preparing for life: I want to live it now."

Just like in the early chapters when Philip is still a child, the way he feels and thinks is shown convincingly real as that of a child or, as in this instant, as a teenager eager to embark on life as an adult. I do remember that, in my teens, I had that feeling of a long wait, too; I didn't really know what I was actually waiting for, but I suppose it was "life".

After a short stint in London, Philip takes up studying art in Paris. He learns a lot there; among other things, he finds out that he will never be a brilliant artist:

He painted with the brain, and he could not help knowing that the only painting worth anything was done with the heart.

Back in London, he meets up with an old friend from his Heidelberg times, and they talk about beauty:

"In themselves there is nothing to choose between the Campanile of Giotto and a factory chimney. And then beautiful things grow rich with the emotion that they have aroused in succeeding generations. That is why old things are more beautiful than modern. The Ode to a Grecian Urn is more lovely now than when it was written, because for a hundred years lovers have read it and the sick at heart have taken comfort in its lines."

Rather late, Philip finally makes true friends; there is a family with nine children, and there, for the first time, he encounters a real family life, something he has - more or less unconsciously - been longing for ever since his boyhood. The head of the family is very much into anything Spanish, and tells him:

"You should read Spanish, it is a noble tongue. It has not the mellifluousness of Italian, but it has grandeur: it does not ripple like a brook in a garden, but it surges tumultuous like a mighty river in flood."

The friendly family provide an anchor of stability when Philip's life gets, once again, completely upset (by his own unfortunate decisions, I must say), and in the end it is that family who make it possible for him to change his life around once more, and the book ends with an optimistic outlook for him.

There is, as I said, a great deal more in this book than what I was able to convey here. It has been adapted into a film three times, but I have seen none of them and wonder if any of you have both read the book and seen one of the films, and how well adapted they are; please let me know if you can.

My next read will be non-fiction again.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

I Had A Ball!

To be more correct, I went to one. The very first one in the nearly 44 years of my life, that is!

Possibly, one or two of my readers will remember me having mentioned before that RJ has been teaching me ballroom dancing for a while now; from October 15th onwards, there was another long break (4 months) of us not dancing due to many different reasons (having colds and conflicting schedules just being two of them), but we always intended to get back to the Sunday afternoon lessons in my living room and, when possible, the Saturday night dance parties at the nearby dance school.

We took up the lessons again in late January, and I was quite surprised to find how little I had forgotten. In February, we went twice to the Saturday night parties, and it was fun. RJ then invited me to go to a ball with him, and was I well chuffed by the invitation!

Something I needed, though, were better dancing shoes.
For a while now, I had not been very happy with the first pair of dancing shoes I had; when I had first started to practise, a friend of mine had sold me a pair of her dancing shoes for 20 Euros, and that was alright for the beginning. But dancing puts different requirements on a pair of shoes than walking or just standing about decoratively at some event or other; I needed a pair I was firm and stable in, not one that had the heel at the wrong point for me, making me wobbly even without moving.

So, last Friday after work, RJ and I went to the only shop in my town specialising in all things dance: shoes, gowns, the horrid spray-on tan the ladies often use for Latin competitions, false eyelashes, and the likes. We both found that there was really just one pair for each of us that suited us in looks as well as in stability and fit, and RJ gave me that pair as an early birthday present. When I tried them on, it felt as if they had been my shoes from the start; I did not wobble on the heel at all, the straps were the right length, the front was the right width - in short: they were perfect!

Saturday evening, we dressed in our ball outfits (sorry, I can only show you mine; RJ does not want his picture to be shown on here), I put make-up on (a ball certainly classifies as those rare, special occasions for which I do that), and off we went.
All things considered, we had a good night out. I hesitate to say "a great night", because it wasn't utterly great. It was special, and we enjoyed ourselves, but I had never been to a ball before, and it is a very different situation on the dance floor than what I am used to from the Saturday night parties. There, the dance floor is never so full that you can hardly find a spot to start from; at the ball, it was packed, plus it was all highly dynamic, a very fast moving whirl of people, which of course required RJ to lead me very carefully in order to avoid collisions, and I was simply overwhelmed by the extremely quick changes of direction sometimes, especially when it came to those dances (such as Samba and Fox Trot) where I have only just begun to learn the basic steps and am not so settled yet that I can do them without thinking.
Yes, it was quite the challenge, but we did beautifully with the Slow Waltz (also called English Waltz) and the Viennese Waltz, as well as with our Cha Cha Cha and Rumba. So, now I know much better where I want to improve a lot, and also where I already am quite presentable.

The band were alright... not brilliant, but they served the purpose as long as you were not listening to the singer too closely ;-) The show (they had a competition going on for 14 couples from various towns from all over south Germany) was interesting to watch, but it meant we had to sit down quite a lot in between dancing.

I liked looking at the dresses of the other ladies; some were really very beautiful, while others looked as if they couldn't care less and did not consider the ball a special occasion. Like I said, it was a good night out, but next time we go to a ball, we'll choose one without a show, and I want to practise lots more before that :-)

Monday 12 March 2012

Business As Usual

Well, not quite. Business as usual for me means to be here in my living room which double-functions as my home office, on the phone to my customers and sending to and receiving emails from them.
Once a month, I travel 2 1/2 hours by train to the small town where the company I work for has their offices, and spend the day with my boss and colleagues there.

Every now and then, though, there are fairs or trade shows to go to; mainly as a visitor, as was the case in November when I went to Salzburg or twice this year when I spent a day in Stuttgart at the fair.
Twice a year, we are exhibitors and not just visitors, and it is the part of my work I enjoy most.

The week before last, my boss and I drove to Düsseldorf (that takes about 4 hours if all goes well) and spent three days as part of our manufacturer's team on their booth at the EuroCIS.
For me, it was the first time working a fair where I was not involved in all the preparations, in the unpacking and setting up of our hardware on the booth, in the daily cleaning and tidying up, in the catering, or in the packing up and loading the van for the drive back.
Instead, everything was organized by the manufacturer's marketing department, and all my boss and I had to do as co-exhibitors was to be there, talk to our customers (potential and existing ones), show and explain our hardware and enjoy the excellent cooking of the two chefs who, among many other staff, manned our booth which was one of the biggest, if not the biggest one, in the hall.

It was a good chance for me to meet a lot of people face to face, some of which I have not met before in spite of having been in close contact with them by telephone for almost 10 years, as well as some familiar faces I encounter every time I go somewhere work-related.

I have often wondered why I like working fairs and trade shows so much.
The most probable explanation, other than it being a welcome break-up of my daily and weekly routine, is summed up in three words: expect the unexpected.

The business world is, as we all know, full of unspoken regulations and rules. Not quite as strict as, say, 20 years ago, but still strict enough to provide a rather stable framework of foreseeable interactions and settings, such as the dress code and much of how people behave in this environment.

And yet, there is always the surprise element to be taken into account: you never really now in advance who is going to appear at your booth next, what country they are from, which language you are required to speak with them, what interests them, how good a contact you will be able to establish with them, and what is going to happen afterwards; will anything tangible result from their visit, or are they going to be part of the pool of never-to-be-heard-ofs which always make up a small part of the leads we take home?

Here are some pictures for you to give you an impression of what the week before last was like for me.
We were showing this device (a touch screen cash PC) in a flower bed with water running over it for all of the three days, to prove its water-tightness - quite important for those of our dealers whose customers are restaurant owners.

The kitchen counter on our booth.

This bit was mainly "our" corner of the booth. My mannequin "colleague" here served no real purpose other than stand in the way.

My room at the hotel was a suprise; it was much larger than I had expected, and the overall impression of the hotel was better than what I had thought after I had checked their website before our trip.

This was my outfit on the 2nd day. I wore long black trousers on the first day and an apricot coloured jumper with a black ribbon round the neck, and on the third day, the grey dress I showed you already in the January edition of my Fashion Calendar :-)

Friday 9 March 2012

About Being Versatile

A while ago, Kay very justly received the Versatile Blogger Award and kindly listed me on her post as one of the bloggers she deems eligible for the award. Thank you, Kay, you know I was well chuffed! 

With one thing or the other, it just took me a while to get round to write my own post about it, and I know I will have problems in finding seven other blogs who deserve the award, simply because they have already all been nominated by you or by others :-) 
But the "rules" state I should say seven things about me, so here goes: 

1. I can lift my left eyebrow independently of the right one, but not the other way round. 
2. When I was a teenager, I was very much into basketball, both playing it myself and watching the matches of our local team. 
3. Once upon a time, I learnt to play the guitar (at age 12), and later, at age 16, the piano. 
4. I speak four languages, although one of them is a bit rusty. 
5. When I was little, I used to long for long, thick, curly hair in abundance, such as my sister and my mother had, and I found it very unfair that I should be the only one in the family looking so different from the others. 
6. Unlike many people I come across in my line of work, I really enjoy working at trade shows and fairs. 
7. I am a chocoholic. 

As for listing seven other blogs who should receive the award - like I said, this is difficult for me because most of those I would have named already have the award, and so it would just be going back and forth. But please do have a look at those kind people who are listed as my followers on here; almost all of them have their own blog, and all their blogs are versatile - there is not one of them who just stick to one topic (which would not make them versatile bloggers, would it?). 
So, please have your own pick out of the 60 or so blogs you can explore from here. 

By the way, my being versatile as a blogger is due to the simple fact that I like having things all neatly in one place; I know some of you divide what they post between photo blogs, recipe blogs, family blogs etc., but I find it much more comfortable to have everything here. To keep some form of order, I have introduced labels earlier this year, so if you want to see what recipes I have posted here, or find out more about my travels, all you have to do is click on the respective label just below my blog header, and read what's there. 

It is time now for me to start the last working day of this week - have a good weekend, all of you!

Thursday 8 March 2012

A Birthday Parcel

Not so long ago, I wrote about my mother-in-law here, and you were all very kind. I have spoken to her on the phone several times since, and will do so again today, because it is her birthday today.
It also happens to be the International Women's Day today, by the way.

Last week, I prepared and sent a birthday parcel to Mary.
She loves to read and keeps me supplied with reading material; I usually get a package with books from her for my birthday and another one for Christmas, and some of the book reviews you find on my blog are about those I got from her.
Therefore, I sent her a book as well; I read "Remarkable Creatures" in 2010 and was quite impressed by it, so I hope she will like it, too.
Green, especially sage, is her favourite colour; it matches her eyes, and because I know she will like it, I have included a green glass candle holder in the shape of a flower, complete with apple-scented candles.
The card I have written is hand-made; a piece of pale green fabric embroidered with tiny pearls and silver thread. It was made by a lady in Bangladesh and was part of the things we sold at the Christmas market at our charity booth, and I bought it with Mary in mind.

With the light from the camera, the pale green and lilac colours of the wrapping paper does not come out quite as nicely as it is in real life, but I think the overall look of the parcel is pretty and she will like it.

When I'll go over to see her at the end of April, there will be a pile of books waiting for me - she already told me she was not going to send me a package for my birthday this year, since I'll be in England a few weeks afterwards anyway.

Paul's funeral service was last week. It won't be the happiest of birthdays for Mary today, but I do hope she will still have a good day under the circumstances.

As for me, I am a bit on the tearful side today, after Pukky's death yesterday. It feels odd being without a cat, having my morning coffee without her on my lap, and looking at all her favourite resting and sleeping places in my flat, knowing she will never be there again. Today, I will try to focus on work, and on the many good things in my life - one of them being the ball on Saturday night RJ has invited me to.
Here is a glimpse of the dress and accessories I am going to wear - and I will even paint my finger nails, something I have not done in about ten years!