Back in the Saddle Again…Almost

I’m back! I’m back! You know it. *bust a move*

Hey y’all. How are you? It’s been a long summer. After we left Hannover in early July, we spent time visiting family in the U.S. and then camped out in our house (yes, we kept the same house from before) with one bed and two kid mattresses on the floor. Our voices echoed through the rooms while we waited patiently (sort of) for our shipping container with our stuff to arrive.

After the ship arrived in Charleston Harbor after 4 or 5 weeks, our container was randomly chosen to be x-rayed, delaying it another few days. After that, it was randomly (really?) chosen to be hand-searched, delaying it another few days. After that, potting soil was discovered on some plant pots. I’m 98% certain this would’ve been residual American potting soil, since, sadly, I actually didn’t use my pots in Germany.

So a teaspoon of dirt was keeping us from getting our furniture. At this point, my patience was wearing very thin.

My friend Bettina helped me see the poetic side:

“I do like the notion of American soil being taken back and forth across the ocean and then being forbidden to re-enter… ” she wrote.

It’s almost enough to make me try writing poetry again. Maybe.

Our container finally arrived, and while you’d think this would be the high point of the transition, we found it to be the worst part, just as it had been on the other end in Hannover. It’s just so overwhelming to have to deal with the stuff all at once after having been free from it for so many weeks.

But we dug ourselves out of boxes fairly quickly, thanks to our kids being kept by their grandparents (thanks, parents!). We’re now putting the finishing touches on household organization. Not that a house is ever really finished, but, you know. We’re through the worst part.

The kids are in school, and I’m aaaallllmost ready to jump back into my work-in-progress, which I’m both super excited and also feeling chicken about. It’s a big leap to make after so many weeks away.

So glad to be back here with you! How was your summer? Are you glad to be getting back in the swing of things?

Lost-in-Translation Strawberry Jam

When berry picking last weekend, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. With our overstock of berries, I decided to make strawberry jam for the first time.

One problem. They don’t sell pectin by itself here in German grocery stores. It comes mixed with sugar, so none of my American cookbooks would help me much.

Another problem. The recipes on the back of the sugar/ pectin packages required a metric scale, which I didn’t feel like buying. Problem #3 since the pectin and sugar are mixed together in a proportion I couldn’t decipher, I couldn’t very well figure out how to control the sweetness factor, which is a big thing for me. Too much sugar drowns the flavor, I think.

And finally, I have no canner or Mason jars, no space to store them, and even if I did, they don’t sell them here. Or so I’ve heard.

So, I decided to wing it with my own made up version of freezer jam, tasting and hoping it would all turn out.

Luckily it seems to have worked. Sorry I can’t share a recipe, since I didn’t measure anything. It involved berries, sugar/pectin, lemon zest, and lemon juice.

In other news, I did a double-take when I encountered this under my computer desk:

Aaagh! Then I realized it was just a scrap from a current sewing project. It’s almost like I did it on purpose, right?

Tomorrow the European chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is doing a cool bloggy thing. Members across Europe (including me) have signed up here, where we’ll be sharing sketches and scribbles all day. It’s called the Summer Solstice Scrawl Crawl. Check it out.

Also, check out this totally simple but genius craft (below) at Holly Ramer’s stitch/craft. Perfect for keeping the kids entertained while traveling this summer. Why didn’t I think of this?

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark

Just north of Copenhagen, overlooking the Baltic sea, lies the stunning Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

With its strong collection, amazing view, and inviting layout, the Louisiana instantly made my top three list of favorite museums ever. The only ones I’ve visited that even compare in awesomeness are the Apartheid Museum in Capetown and the Metropolitan in New York. I felt a little like pulling a Claudia Kincaid (in From the Mixed Up Files)—-maybe I’ll go back and move into one of the exhibits. There was this super-cool fort/treehouse type installation. I think that would work.

It’s called  My Home My House My Stilt House by artist Arne Quinze.

Here’s the view from the museum:

I’d been told that in general, Danish museums are very family-friendly. The Louisiana definitely is, with lots of space to run around, outdoor exhibits, and an entire wing devoted to children, where they can make their own stuff. Like this:

My favorite exhibit was a collection of iPads and iPhones displaying David Hockney’s recent digital work. It’s called Me Draw on iPad, and it really blew my mind.

I admire anyone who’s always worked with traditional materials but is willing to try something new. It had never occured to me to try to sketch on my iPhone. He started by sketching sunrises on his phone because he felt the phone’s luminosity made it the perfect medium for the subject matter.

He’s been sketching daily on iThings for a few years now and shares his drawings with friends.

I’m drawn to sketches because I love to see the artist’s hand, which you’d think might feel missing from digital work. Not here. In fact, the most mesmerizing thing about the artwork, besides the fact that it glows, is that you can watch it in progress over and over: the drawings come together in motion as they were drawn, color by color, line by line.

The exhibit also includes a video of Hockney sitting in the museum cafe, drawing the view on his iPad. I could’ve watched it for hours. He says he doesn’t know how to sell any of the pieces and feels they belong on the screen, not on paper, but I would totally have bought prints or even a DVD.

In the exhibit literature, there’s a scan code where you can download one of the drawings onto your smartphone. Check out some of Hockney’s drawings here.

More on Copenhagen soon.

Eat Me I’m a Danish

Funny fact: the food most of us know as the “Danish” is called “Viennese bread” (wienerbrød) in Danish. Supposedly an 18th Danish baker went down to Austria and learned to make the flaky pastries there.

I was never much one for Danishes, but after our trip to Denmark, I’m a convert. The real McCoy tastes like a smashed croissant with jam and shaved almonds on top. This one was still warm from the oven.

It was really lucky our hotel wasn’t serving breakfast on our last morning, or we never would’ve discovered this bakery. It had so many exotic, amazing-looking treats we were flummoxed over what to order. The bakery line was long, though, so there was no time to spend drooling over each delicacy.

The food in general in Denmark was…..interesting. I understand there are some world-renowned restaurants in Copenhagen. These we didn’t get to and probably didn’t get a very broad experience of Danish food. We did have a nice cafe lunch with traditional open-faced sandwiches called smørrebrød. Don’t you love the slashed Ø’s? I do.

We also had some truly stellar burgers at a little cafe near the beach. Then there was the meal at the Greek/ Spanish/ Italian restaurant that also offered an Asian buffet. I know! I know! We should’ve known better, right? But there were very few restaurants in the area, and it had been recommended by a local. Sure enough, it was quite busy with locals. Let’s just say we were really bummed we hadn’t gone for a second burger instead.

However, we ended on a high note with these breakfast treats.

I’m thinking this is where Cinnabon must’ve gotten the idea. Like, let’s recreate this, but on steroids. 

I managed to learn about three words/ phrases in Danish, but every attempt to use them was met with amused smiles. Not the “you poor tone-deaf idiot” smile but the “why on earth would you bother learning that?” smile. Everyone  seemed equally amused when we asked if they spoke English. Of course! came the reply.

It was interesting, though, to try to figure connections between Danish and  German and English. I could make out a few.

And I’ll take smiles for my three words of Danish, thanks very much. So far anyway, it’s never hurt to try.

More on our trip to come, and soon, a guest post from my friend and fellow children’s author, Joyce Moyer Hostetter.

Simple Kid’s Hat from T-Shirt

For a mom from a warm climate, learning to dress the kids for northern Germany has been an education. Luckily, my son’s dear kindergarten teacher is more than willing to educate me. You may remember the story about the silk-wool undershirts. In addition to undershirts and of course a jacket, he is expected to wear (until it’s absolutely hot) leggings under his pants, a scarf, mittens, and a hat. Every day, even when it seems a little overkill. Rainpants are a whole other story.

Overdressing is the preferred mode, and with Hannover’s weather as changeable as it is, it does make sense. A common refrain around the kindergarten: “Wo ist deine muetze?” Where is your hat? Meaning: put it on!

This has become so much a part of our morning routine that the other day, when we were in a hurry, my daughter (6) scolded me for not having mittens and a hat for our 3-year-old. “Mommy, what will Frau X say?” she said.

The only problem with all this gear is that it’s hard to keep up with and easy to get lost. I decided to take matters into my own hands and whip up several spring-weight hats from his old t-shirts. These take literally about five minutes to make. Maybe less. This way, if we lose a few hats, it’s no big deal.

There are plenty of more sophisticated hat patterns out there on the web. For these I basically traced a hat he already had which is made from just two pieces shaped like little hills. I stitched them together with a zigzag stitch.

My favorite t-shirts to use are his old pajama tops, since those are not only super-soft but also stretchy.

I had a bit of a dilemma with this one because I wanted to use both the cute little applique at the top and the nice finished hem. So the hat is a little long and funky, but it can scrunched or folded, and really, who cares? He’s three.

Bonus:  He’s been proudly showing off his hats and (in German) bragging that his mother made them. I know this kind of pride in mommy-made items probably won’t last, so I’m just going to savor it.

5 Tips for the Would-Be Expatriate

Lately I’ve been getting emails from friends and friends of friends who are moving to Germany. They’re curious as to what they should do to prepare for the move. I’m no expert, but here are a few tips I shared about what to do before you go:

1) Run, don’t walk, to a language class.

If you’re moving for a job, this would often be covered by your employer or your spouse’s employer. Having some language skills under your belt when you arrive is so worth the time and trouble. When you arrive, you’ll be busy settling in and may not have time to study again for awhile. For me, the better my German skills, the more at home and independent I feel here.

2) Read up:

Learn something about the culture you’re entering and the expat experience. You can’t avoid culture shock, but you can prepare yourself a little bit.
The Expert Expat : Soooo worth reading!
Culture Shock! Germany  : This series includes books for many countries.
First Thousand Words in German : It’s a kids’ book but great for the visually oriented—a cross between a picture dictionary and Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever in German. Also available in other languages. It seems to be out of print, but I’ve linked to a used book site above.

Reading books and watching films that take place in your host country can also be very instructive.

3) Clean out your closets.

It would be almost unheard of to have closets here in Germany, and the wardrobes they use instead are way smaller. This was the hardest thing about fitting our things into our new space. The more you get rid of, the easier this part will be. I imagine this is a helpful step no matter what country you’re moving to.

4) Get an internet phone service.

Do this while still in the U.S. and bring the box with you. Yes, Skype is great, but there will be times when you need to call businesses (or have them call you) and times when Skype just isn’t practical. Also, this way, friends and family can call you without having to pay for an international call, and without having to leave your computer on all the time.

5) Think through electronics.

Some will work in your host country with a transformer (blender, sewing machine), some will not or may be a little risky (tv, dvd player).

Before we came, we bought a dual-voltage TV so the TV would work when we bring it back to the US. It was also much cheaper than buying one in Europe. If you’re moving with a firm, you’ll most likely get an allowance to buy things like large appliances. For the most part, it will make sense to buy them in your host country, but it’s worth thinking this through before you go.

We’re celebrating one year in Deutschland today! What a wild and wonderful ride it’s been.

Also, NEWSFLASH! Spring has arrived. I’ve switched from my parka to my wool coat (yes, it’s THAT warm!), the sun has been making appearances, and  flowers are popping up. The best part is that we no longer wake up and come home in the dark.

A Peek into Our Kitchen

With all that’s happened and is still happening in Japan, it’s been difficult to think about blogging about small things like crafts and writing and whatnot. It’s one of those moments where you feel the need to say something profound or nothing at all, and I’ve been sticking to nothing.

I still don’t have anything profound to say, but if you’re looking for ways to help financially, NPR has compiled this list for us.

A blogger I read, annekata, wrote this post with some other creative ways to help.

The picture above is from our kitchen here in Hannover, just to give you a little peek into my surroundings. It always looks like that, with fresh flowers and teacups and no mess. Ha! Totally untrue, but still, it is our kitchen.

The fabric wood block print on the wall, a favorite, was purchased in the community center of a township outside Cape Town. I bought the plates because they reminded me of some from Puebla, Mexico. Our china is a vintage pattern called “Blue Onion.” You see lots of variations of it here in Europe. I just love blue and white china. I bought a lot of it at a tag sale at my old church in Florence, South Carolina. The rest were wedding gifts (we registered at Replacements, Ltd).

Daffodils courtesy of the bulb season beginning in the Netherlands. Cheap daffodils everywhere! And I believe the vase, a gift from my mother-in-law,  is from Simon Pearce.

Makes me want to settle down with a nice cup of my favorite Rooibos Caramel tea. Still reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and I picked up an old favorite, Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” last night. It’s infinitely quotable, so much so that I can barely stand to read it silently.

I’ll leave you with this quote from it, suitable for describing the events in Japan:

“About the last you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.”

Expensive? Yeah, But It’ll Last Forever!

My husband says I’ve gone native on the subject of shopping. As far as we can tell, Germans don’t do a lot of recreational shopping. They make a lot of small trips to the market and bakery and butcher, but they don’t seem to spend a lot of time at the mall or dreaming about their next clothing or electronics purchase.

When they DO buy something, though, they’re apt to spend more to get better quality. A bargain is less important. And the phrase in the title is a frequently heard refrain, one that I seem to have picked up.

Recently I went to my favorite little claustrophia-inducing neighborhood art shop in search of kid’s art supplies. There’s no Crayola there, folks. The crayons are pure beeswax. PURE. We opted for some fat colored pencils, which were 15 euros a pack. Yes, that’s 10 colored pencils for the equivalent of over $20! I know, I know. I justified with the handy phrase above. And you know what? The kids looove the pencils. They had some old ones from a cheap American box store (a place I love, it must be said) which they never used because they were just plain lousy. These colored pencils have deep, rich colors, and they use them all the time and carry them everywhere. I think we’ll be getting our money’s worth.

I was telling some friends about the pencils and remembering my own set of Swiss colored pencils given to me by my aunt and uncle when I was about 9. I treasured them and STILL have them. In fact, they’re here in Germany with me:

I have this pathological need to keep the colors in the same order in which they arrived. Thanks Aunt and Uncle! It was money well-spent.

In other news: check out this student review of Slowpoke at Kiss the Book.

Also, there’s a month-long feature about crafts inspired by children’s books over at “Once Upon a Thread” by No Big Dill. My favorite is the Dot shirt, inspired by The Dot by Peter Reynolds. The project is by Meg of Elsie Marley. Now I just need a craft project inspired by Slowpoke…….

Tortilla Soup

Once again, a recipe from 101cookbooks. I think this was the first recipe I made of hers, and it’s a favorite. Now that we have access to corn tortillas again (through, I can make it as much as I want.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that I add chicken to this vegetarian soup (usually braised breast meat) and use chicken broth rather than the vegetable broth the recipe calls for.

I highly recommend adding some of the suggested fixin’s (goat cheese, lime, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado)—the lime especially.

The most popular part of this recipe is definitely the tortilla strips. That blurry motion you see in the photo is due to little hands grabbing strips while I photographed them.

It’s really handy to have a stick blender for soups. How did I get by without one before? The converter I have to use for the stick blender is shared with my sewing machine, way down our long hallway, so there’s lots of running back and forth for two of my favorite activities (sewing and soup-making).

If you like 101 cookbooks, you might want to know that she has a new book coming out and has offered, in advance of publication, a downloadable mini-sampler book on her website. Cool!

I’m currently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and sort of missing my garden back in North Carolina. Not that I was a very successful vegetable grower. I guess I’ll have to try some tomatoes on the balkon and of course visit our many nearby farmer’s markets.

In the whole food vein, loved this post by Holly Ramer of stitch/craft—about her family covering the South Beach Food and Wine Festival. There’s a picture of her young son interviewing Jamie Oliver. Holly’s got some other great stuff on her blog, including quite a few tutorials. I especially like the gifts she makes, in particular children’s book-related gifts like those here.

German Winter Light, or Lack Thereof

Sunny hours in winter are hard to come by here in northern Germany. One thing that helps is my almost daily walks by the Machsee (mach is pronounced MOSH  as in mosh pit. See is pronounced SAY, approximately). It’s always good to get some fresh air and exercise, and it’s on these walks that I see how beautiful winter’s gray, stark landscape can be.

The first picture above is from a day when it was raining on top of the frozen lake, giving this great moodiness and wonderful reflections. One thing I’ve noticed about gray is that it allows the subtlest colors to show off. On this day the ice looked a soft turquoise and the sky a yellowy-pink next to  purplish clouds.

This one was taken on a foggy day when it seemed some mystical being might travel across the ice our way.

Here below is the ice from that day, looking blue and brown and wounded:

Same landscape, slightly more light, and hey, what’s that patch of blue?

And here above, sunshine! The yellowish color of these bare branches just glows up against the ice.

Luckily we’re getting a little more sunshine in these parts this week, and the daylight hours are increasing.