Thursday, 28 December 2017

Between Christmas and New Year

View from my office window on 12.12.

The few days between Christmas and New Year usually find me in a strange mood, and this year is no exception. I am happy - Christmas was beautiful, with each of the three days (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day) having its own character and activies; I do not have to work (and I really can do with some rest, much as I like my job), and everything is right in my little world. But I am also a bit sad to let go; similar to the way I feel when summer comes to an end and the leaves start to turn.

Our Christmas tree (at my parents'), with REAL candles, of course

The new red dress I bought earlier this month to wear on Christmas Eve
Singing Christmas carols at my parents' on Christmas Eve

Anyway, there is plenty to look forward to! Apart from not having to work until January 8th, there will be New Year's Eve to celebrate (the decision as to who will host the party this year has not yet been made), New Year's Day at O.K.'s parents, then a whole week off together. January also sees my sister's and my Dad's birthday, plus there will be a start-of-the-year celebration dinner with my boss (still the same RJ) and colleagues at a restaurant during our first week back at work.

Yesterday, I spent a very lazy day. No household work with the exception of doing some washing and of course making myself something to eat and washing up afterwards. I spoke to my Yorkshire family on the phone, which was very nice. Other than that, I spent the day reading, playing my favourite computer game, watching TV and relaxing. I ate up all the remaining Christmas cookies my Mum had made, looked at my beautiful presents and cards and thought of all the lovely people in my life who gave or sent them to me.
Not once did I step out of doors.

Can you detect the general theme? :-)

Today will be a bit different. I have no fresh food left in my fridge and need to do something about that. Also, there is ironing to do, maybe a walk to my parents' later, and/or a long overdue visit to the gym. But I'll do it all at my own leisurely pace; today and tomorrow, the emphasis is still on relaxing. I was very busy the last half year, working more and harder than I'd done in some years, and it is catching up with me now; my body tells me to REST, which is exactly what I'm doing.

On the weekend, O.K. will be here (he has to work this week) so that we can celebrate New Year's Eve together. It will be fun, and I am going to wear the beautiful new earrings he gave me for Christmas - they match my silk shirt perfectly, don't you think? They are made of Murano glass and to me look like tiny worlds with golden continents on light blue oceans.

I hope all of you have had a lovely Christmas and will bring in the New Year just the way you like - either with a big party or quietly -, and that 2018 has only good things in store for you and your loved ones.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Read in 2017 - 43: A Death at Fountains Abbey

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while all know that Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire is one of my favourite places in the world, and it features on my blog every year.
Therefore, you can imagine my sister's and my reaction when we were walking past the shop window of "The Little Ripon Bookshop" in the summer and saw this book in the window:

A Death at Fountains Abbey
by Antonia Hodgson

My sister bought it, and after she had read it, she lent it to me. I've had it on my to-be-read pile for many weeks before I finally got round to reading it, and it took me much longer than it should to finish it, mainly because most nights after work I was too tired and my eye sight too bad to do much (or any) reading.

The story is a combination of fact and fiction, and the author kindly has added a chapter at the end of the book where she tells the reader who of her characters and which of the events were real.

In the early 1700, John Aislabie was mainly responsible for a huge financial swindle, involving the highest levels of government, even the Queen and her family. Aislabie somehow managed not to be convicted to death or deportation, merely to be banned from all offices (he was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the big South Sea Bubble) and forced to live out the rest of his life in luxury on his large estate, Studley Royal, near Ripon in Yorkshire.

Those are the historical facts. Antonia Hodgson now adds Thomas Hawkins, a rogueish investigator in the services of the Queen, the hero of two earlier works of historical crime fiction. I'd known neither the author nor her Thomas-Hawkings-series before, and although in this book, it is often alluded to the previous stories, it can very well be read as standalone.

Hawkins is sent to Yorkshire, apparently to "help" Aislabie, but actually he (or, rather, the Queen who sent him) has a hidden agenda. With him are his girlfriend (presented to the high society at Studley as his wife) and his 14-year-old "brother", who is actually a member of one of London's most feared criminal clans.

The beautiful setting of Studley Royal and Fountains Abbey is the backdrop for some hideous crimes. Of course, Hawkins and his loved ones not only get into trouble, but serious danger. Some of the guests staying at Studley are not who or what they seem to be, and how much do John Aislabie and his wife really know?

To make matters more interesting, a young widow appears on the scene, pretending to be John's long-lost daughter... This part of the story really leaves the reader (= me) wondering for a long time.

I really enjoyed this book, and of course had no trouble picturing the scenes. Admittedly, though, I enjoyed it for its settings and not for Thomas Hawkins et al; I couldn't bring myself to like them much or care about what happened to them, and won't go looking for the rest of the series (which is not set in or around Fountains Abbey).
Oh, and it has map! I love books with maps :-) 

Antonia Hodgson writes the way I like it - offering detail where needed, but not over-indulging when it is not necessary for the story to develop. She does use some vulgar language where her characters speak or think that way, and if you do not care for the f-word in your books, then don't read this.
The author's website is here.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Read in 2017 - 42: Miss Kane's Christmas

Miss Kane's Christmas
by Caroline Mickelson

With this novella (meaning shorter than a novel, but longer than a short story), you get exactly what you expect by looking at the cover:
A light, entertaining read, just right for the last few days before Christmas for those train rides to and from work.

Carol Kane Claus is Santa's daughter - and she's on a mission: Her father wants her to give two children a very special Christmas. The kids' mother died of cancer, and their father wants to spare them more grief by making Christmas a totally everyday thing - no ornaments, no singing, no candles, and definitely NO SANTA. Because he "knows" Santa does not exist, and thinks it wrong to tell his children otherwise, which would inevitably lead to disappointment once they found out the truth.

What happens next is of course totally foreseeable, and therefore not necessary to mention; but still, the outcome is not a merry Christmas for the small family (or for Carol). Instead, things first seem to go in the wrong direction until the u-turn happens, and in the end, all's well that ends well.

I did like Carol and the other people in the book, because even with such a short book, the author managed to portray each character so that I was able to picture them in my mind. Some of the quirky ideas about how Santa and his family manage Christmas were rather funny. Editing was good - always a welcome surprise with a free ebook.

The author was unknown to me.  Her website is here if you want to know more.

It was not my last seasonal read of this year, but the last one I finished just before Christmas.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Guest Post By My Mum: A Secret Christmas Miracle

Can you believe my Mum has not written any guest post on my blog since last year?! I found it hard to believe myself, and yet this one from December 2016 was her last.
Time for a new one, I think!

And here goes:

A Secret Christmas Miracle
Not far from my home are fields, meadows and gardens, like allotments, and many  fruit trees and shrubs. Of course now, in wintertime, they are all leafless. And since a few years, on two of those trees, over night appear a lot of christmas baubles in different colours. 

It looks beautiful, especially when sunlight is shining on and reflecting off them. Because it is so unexpected, everybody walking by stops for a rest, and I think that is the intention of this miracle secret action.
Recently there was an article in our daily newspaper, saying that nobody knows who keeps doing this. Nobody has seen the baubles being put up, it must happen over night. And after Christmas, also over night, the ornaments vanish until the next year, next Christmas time.
Thanks to the person who brings a little more joy to the world. 

In this spirit I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. 

- - - End of guest post - - -

Yes, I've showed you these pictures before, but trust me, the trees look pretty much the same this year with even the weather being similar; too mild for Christmas, so we're in for a grey-brown-green Christmas instead of a white one.

I can't say I'm sorry about this; much as I like looking at Winter Wonderland from my kitchen window, I prefer the rail tracks snow-free when I am travelling, which I will be doing on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (to and from O.K.'s, you guessed it).

The trees with the baubles were a real surprise when my Mum and I came across them for the first time some years ago. We always assumed the folks from the nearby kindergarden or elementary school or church community were behind it, and so we were amazed to learn from the newspaper that in fact it is a secret as to who is responsible for this unexpected beauty on the fields.
(There, Kay, you know what I mean!)

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Read in 2017 - 39, 40, 41

This is a three-in-one post with reviews of the last books I have read - I am so behind, and therefore, they are much shorter than what you are used to from my reviews.

# 39: Death Comes To Town
by K. J. Emrick

This mystery was a relatively quick read - and, admittedly, quickly forgotten.

The plot? Young woman with supernatural abilities (she can "sense things", talks to her cat - who doesn't? - and sees her late Aunt Millie every now and then) plays detective when her neighbour is killed.

Throw in a love interest (which, as is so often the case in books like this, starts out as a real twerp, detested by our heroine at first sight), a cast of rather one-dimensional characters populating the small town of Misty Hollow, some frightening epxeriences for our heroine, and you have a book.

Not one I consider a total waste of time; don't get me wrong, my review probably comes across more negative than I felt about this story. But it is definitely not something I recommend, unless you really, really like Nora Roberts and similar.

When I downloaded the book two years or so ago, I didn't know it had the supernatural element. I do like mysteries, and every now and then - very rarely! - I also like a dash of fantasy and/or ghost story.

Maybe I wasn't in the right mood this time; maybe I found the switch from hate to love a bit too sudden (and not very credible), but I simply could not bring myself to care for the heroine or for anyone else in the book.

It helped pass the time on my train trips to and from work, but that's about it.

- - - -

# 40: Flight 308 to Christmas
by Nancy Isaak

I've always liked seasonal reading, but this year, I started really late with any Christmas-related books. This one was short and sweet - not too short; the characters gain enough depth to make the reader sympathise with them.

Connie is an 11-year-old girl who has come to live with her aunt after her parents died in a car crash. Just when she starts getting used to this new stage in her life, her aunt is diagnosed with cancer and needs to start treatment in hospital.

For the time being, she can not look after her young niece, and so the only other living relative has to step in: Connie is going to live with her grandfather - a man she has never met.

All she knows is that the elderly man is in a wheel chair and lives at the other side of the Rocky Mountains, hundreds of miles from her aunt's home.

To make matters even more difficult, Connie has to fly there on Christmas Eve - alone with a pilot in a small plane, facing a snow storm across the Rockies.

And everybody seems to think she should believe in Santa, only because she is not an adult! But Connie does not believe in Santa. After all, she never got what she wanted for Christmas. And besides, she is not a baby anymore, is she!

As the small plane makes its way across the Rockies, thrown about by the snow storm, things begin to happen that change Connie's life forever.

A charming read; predictable, yes, but heart-warming and just the right thing for a long train ride home on a dark Sunday night in December.

- - - -

# 41: Let's Do Christmas
by Cynthia Lee Cartier

My 2nd seasonal read of this year's pre-Christmas period was longer than "Flight 308" but almost as predictable:

Grumpy family members who really do not want to celebrate Christmas together are forced to stay longer than planned when they are snowed in.

As expected, this extreme situation brings out the best - and worst - in them; eventually, the grumps make a 180-degree turn and the spirit of Christmas prevails.

I found this one rather amusing, because the characters are so cliché-laden that you can not possibly take them serious.

The underlying currents and tensions between siblings and parents, in-laws and grandchildren are something many people may be able to relate to, as I don't think there is any one family in the whole world that does not have its reasons for holding grudges - or for forgiving past sins.

Nothing magical or super-natural happens in this story, and although it ends well, it somehow manages to avoid too much sweetness and is not as cheesy as it may sound.

PS: I have just realised I've read this before, in 2015! My old review is here, if you are interested. No wonder it seemed so familiar :-D

- - - -

All of these have something in common: They were free ebooks on Amazon's kindle shop; I had not heard of the authors before, and I downloaded the books years ago when my kindle was brand new and I went on a downloading spree.

Monday, 18 December 2017

A Little Goes a Long Way

It's so true in many situations, isn't it, that a little can go a long way.
Take the weekend before last. I was home alone - unplanned; O.K. was supposed to be with me all weekend. But he had been struggling with a nasty cold all week already (of course still going to work everyday, plus having extra band practice in preparation for the annual concert), and by Friday evening, it was clear that the reasonable thing to do would be for him to stay home and get some rest on the weekend, not face a 150 km drive on potentially snowy roads just to see me and then back on Sunday night with probably more snow.

Of course I missed seeing him, but a visit to the Christmas Market with my sister cheered me up, as did the sight of a light dusting of snow on Saturday morning:

On the Sunday, it snowed a lot more, and I only left the house to go to the gym, which is really just down the road from where I live.

In the afternoon, I dediced to do something about the somewhat less than happy mood in my house (long story - nothing to do with me, but it does affect me nonetheless). It being the 2nd Advent Sunday, I prepared three plates of chocolate-covered Lebkuchen (a typical German Christmas thing), put a tea light in the middle of each and took them round to the three other flats in my house; the attic one, the ground floor and the (very new) cellar mini-flat that has recently been created and is rented by a young Syrian refugee who is a trainee at one of the biggest factories in my town. I'd not met him yet, so I thought this was a good occasion to introduce myself to my new neighbour.

I took the plates round and they were much appreciated. Everybody wanted me to come in and stay for a cup of tea or coffee, but I declined; all I wanted was to spread a little cheer, and I think I managed that.

The following week (last week) was once again very busy work-wise. Ever since I moved into this flat in 2003, I have never done so little in terms of Christmas decoration. A big box full still sits in my cellar, but even though I very much feel "christmassy" in my heart and mind, I somehow don't feel like bringing the box upstairs and decorate.

Instead, this year I rely on the many beautiful Christmas cards I keep receiving - the minority from Germany, the majority from friends and family in Yorkshire and from my blogging friends. Thank you all so much - you know who you are!

They do give the living room a festive mood, don't they? Also, today I received my presents from England, which I will open on the morning of the 25th, before getting on a train to O.K.'s. I have put them on the TV table next to my Midsomer Murders Christmas special DVD, which my sister-in-law sent me some years ago.

On the coffee table sits the advent wreath my Mum and Dad gave me. You can see only two candles are lit; I was home last night (on the 3rd Advent Sunday) at 10:30 pm and went to bed almost immediately without lighting any candles. 
The yellow pillow case is a gift from my sister. You probably can't see it very well in the picture, but it is covered in tiny shiny stars - very festive!

Above the settee is the only Christmas ornament I have brought up from the cellar, with its brother in the bedroom.

It has been snowing this morning, making me glad I was working from home for a few hours before going to my customer where I have a desk on the 9th floor. Seeing the snow, receiving cards and parcels, knowing I have all my presents ready (they only need wrapping), the concert of O.K.'s village band last Saturday night and having coffee and more Lebkuchen with his family on Sunday afternoon - it all adds to the Christmas mood I'm in.

And then there was the funny little conversation I had with the postie just an hour ago. Lucky I was home when he rang, as he brought the aforementioned presents from England and some more cards! When I saw how much he had for me, I said "So much!" to which he replied with a smile: "Well, if you order so many things..."  
I said that I had ordered nothing, and that these were all presents for me, since I'd been good all year and we all know that Santa brings nice things to the good ones. I added that I was sure he'd been good, too, and would have lovely presents for Christmas. He looked at me for a moment through his slightly steamed-up specs (it was cold outside, and much warmer in my stair case, where we were standing), then broke into a wide grin and said "You're right!" before he wished me a good day and went back down the stairs. After he shut the door from outside, I still heard him chuckle.

As I said, a little can go a long way.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Going Underground

A few months ago (in September, to be more precise), I was invited to come along for  O.K.'s village band's annual day out.  We did not travel far, only from the village to the nearby city of Offenburg, where we were booked for a guided tour underground.

Underground in this case meant visiting the cellars of various historical buildings in the town center, from medieval times to more recent ones. There were some surprises for us in store, and I could have taken many more pictures than I did, but you can imagine the lighting was not always favourable and also the limited space often meant I could not get a picture without some one or other from our group in it.

The first cellar we entered was a very large room, once used for storage. Nowadays, it contains a lapidarium, not unlike the one in Ludwigsburg's palace I showed you here.

In this case, the statues were not just taken from one building, but came from various sources: some from churches, others from the residential buildings of rich and important towns people, and one from a fountain. Some of them have been replaced at their original locations with replicas, while others are from buildings that do not exist any more.

These first three pictures are of a group of Gothic statues taken from a chapel. They represent the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus retreated for prayer the night before his arrest. He asked his disciples to stay awake with him, but one by one, they fell asleep.
I wonder whether you can identify them; usually, the 12 apostles are represented in art each with their typical attributes.

I am not sure where this broken unicorn once was, but the peasant girl with the fruit was once adorning the top of a Baroque garden wall, if I remember correctly:

The impressively muscular long-haired guy is Neptune. A replica of this original statue stands on top of Neptune Fountain in Offenburg's town centre.

A dark passage leads from the lapidarium to smaller rooms, where examples of the cellar's former purpose can be seen:

Back outside, it was still daylight :-)

A private house was the next stop of our tour. The owners kindly allow guided tours into their cellar every now and then. Some years ago, while some renovation work was going on, a deep well was discovered, plus a tunnel leading out of the cellar to a place below the city wall. Both were examined by a team of archaeologists, and the well is definitely medieval. The secret tunnel is thought to be of more recent times, probably built during WWII. It can not be entered, as it is too dangerous (and parts of it are still filled with rubble from when it caved in at one time), but it is known where it ends, and you can view the first part which is lit up for us to have a look. "Fluchttunnel" (as seen on the sign) means flight tunnel.

We visited another cellar, but I did not take any pictures there. Our last stop was another place dating back several centuries. At one time, it was accessible from a square in the town centre, with no building on top. Then, after WWI, a war memorial was built in the middle of the square, right above the cellar, and gradually, its existence was forgotten. Much later, a tiny kiosk/cafĂ© was installed on the square, and when public toilets were built underground for convenience, the old cellar was discovered. It is strange to see these old steps end right at the ceiling, knowing that at one time, countless feet went up and down there, carrying goods down to store or up to use them. 
Now every time I am in Offenburg's town centre and come past the war memorial,  I think of the cellar I know is underneath.

It was an interesting afternoon; I love such glimpses behind the scenes, seeing things you normally can not see in places that are normally not accessible to the public.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Something About Food

Food is so much more than just sustenance, isn't it? We share it with friends and family, deals are made and sealed over "business lunches", state affairs are conducted and concluded at state dinners; food can comfort us, warm us, or refresh us - in short, it can fill so many needs and not just our stomachs.

During the week, I hardly ever cook at home. I am on my own, and after coffee and muesli in the morning, I have a cooked lunch at the canteen of whichever customer I happen to work for that day. Two hot meals a day are a bit much, I find, and so at night, I often just have a bowl of salad - and plenty of chocolate afterwards.

My salads usually consist of whatever needs using up. I often put in bits of cheese, a handful of a fruit & nuts mix (or just nuts), a diced apple, fresh pepper (yellow being my favourite) and so on. Here is an example, made some time last month but very typical:

When I am at O.K.'s or he is at my place for the weekend, sometimes we cook together (such as the filled pumpkins we made a while ago), sometimes we eat out. One weekend in November, we went shopping in Stuttgart together. The shop we visited is rather expensive, and for us, the pleasure is as much in just looking at things we know we will never buy as the actual buying of things we like, need (or think we need) or want as gifts for someone.

They also run a restaurant you walk through when entering the shop. With their own bakery attached, they offer really, REALLY nice bread. So far, when we've been there, we have chosen from their bread menue. Here is what we had the other day:
Goat cheese, caramelised nuts and honey on a buttered slice of rustic bread

Grana padano, anchovies and rucola; freshly made fruit juice in the glass

Tomato soup

Other places where we eat more or less regularly are at our respective parents'. In November, my Mum made her traditional roast goose with stuffing for a family dinner. It was as delicious as it looks!

Here's to great food - and to all those who prepare it for us!