Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Ghost of Christmas Just Past

The family Christmas tree

Christmas has come and gone. I do not have children but I seem to be getting ready for the occasion for weeks. I cannot exactly pinpoint what all the mental preparations are about but there are many and varied.

This Christmas had the potential for problems.

I am a major fan of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The biggest family arguments have happened on both occasions but I still look forward to my family Christmases. The spending time with people who have known you the longest, the beautiful tree, the board games, the movies, the food, and, best of all, the gift exchange. I love giving gifts. I love giving the perfect gift and seeing the reaction. And I love getting free things. I like getting things that cost me no money and no energy. Asmus' family is much less boisterous. Since moving to Germany, I learned that I like chaos. Silence, cleanliness and lateness are in my blood. I miss my family traditions.

Also, this would be the first Christmas without Asmus' father. I was not sure how that would play out, so I was anxious.

Add to all that, Asmus' and my promise to cook for Christmas. His mother's sister spends about three weeks with her sister. Unfortunately, she has been battling a form of cancer that will be an intermittent part of her life forever. Thanks to the medicines that have been keeping her alive, she cannot digest meat, fatty fish or complex carbs, like pasta, well. Plus, she was always lactose intolerant. Margot does not like beef. With all these dietary guidelines in mind, Asmus and I had to create a delicious meal. We settled on taco or baba ganoush. Neither Renate nor Margot had ever heard of either. After we found them images online, they chose baba ganoush.

Baba ganoush is a puree of eggplant, a sesame paste, cilantro, lemon and cumin. It is a staple of the Arab world. I serve it with falafel, pita, lettuce, tomato, onion and hot sauce. Not exactly the traditional Christmas dish but it was a hit! Whew!

After dinner, we exchanged gifts. Asmus claims to be a terrible gift giver but I have always found him competent. This Christmas I began to suspect that he was correct. He bought this wooden face that is used to hold eyeglasses for his older brother. Thankfully, Jakob thought it was cute. I think it is a bit creepy but cute. Like a wooden E.T.

In Germany, Weihnachten lasts for a few days. The festivities begin the evening of December 24. Families exchange gifts and go to church. On the 25th, they visit their extended family. The next day, they visit friends.

On Christmas Eve I coaxed everyone into playing Uno. I am a veteran and I lost to novices. Over and over again. Margot would put out a Wild card and choose a color that she did not have. But Skips and Reverses kept me out of the action. After a few demoralizing hands of Uno, we moved onto the film part of the evening. Harold & Maude was going to be the perfect end. Except it wasn't. The image just kept jumping. To save space, I put to movies in one case. Instead of calling it a night, I put in Shrek Forever After. I am not sure if the septuagenarians grasped the comic genius because they discussed the possible time period and whether it was too violent.

It was a silent night but a fun night. Because Asmus' father was not very vocal in the presence of his gregarious sister-in-law, Christmas was not as difficult as I feared.

Asmus and I maintained the American tradition of exchanging gifts on the 25th. I was so really sad when he excited plugged in his massage cushion and nothing happened. I bought a new one today and has been using it as much as the directions allow. Home run!

Winter Ire

I have many, many personality deficits. One of my relatively few pluses is an acceptance of the uncontrollable. This includes the weather.

Winter is cold. I got that. I don't complain about the cold; I gird myself against it. I spent a lot of money on the kind of long underwear that people wear when climbing mountains. I wear earmuffs . . . a lot. My ears are always cold. Problems start in November and I boldly withstand the questions and the complaints about the early use of the apparatus. When it gets really cold, I wear ski gloves. I am prepared for the cold.

When it snows, I stay in for the first day. After that I wear boots and move slow. I am prepared for the snow.

I am not prepared for the darkness of northern German winters. Come to think of it, I am not prepared for the northern German summers either. Because of its high latitude, it is dark much of the day in the winter and light much of the day in the summer. Now, I leave the house in the darkness and reach for an afternoon tea with the moon as my guide.


The view out of my bedroom window on December 22, 2010 at 7:02 a.m.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hot off the Presses!

I updated and wrote new information for the chapter on Hamburg for Fodor's Germany 2011 guide. It is on bookshelves now.

This book is for:

People who want to support me

People who are going to visit Germany soon

People who love good writing. Writing reminiscent of a mature Toni Morrison.

The Real Thanksgiving

I was working like Harriet Tubman and almost missed Thanksgiving. My German husband picked up with the slack.

During my first year in Germany, we were living most of the time in Hamburg. The big city has lots of foreigners, so there were several dining options to choose from. We selected the delicious yet economical Thanksgiving buffet at the Marriott hotel. The next year, we were in Kiel most of the time. The northern German city does not have many immigrants, so we could not find a turkey meal anywhere. We settled on exquisite Italian at the restaurant down the street from our apartment, Der Bauch von Kiel.

This year I worked until 9 at night and I had no desire to withstand a restaurant visit. I assumed that I would come home to spaghetti dinner. I was pleasantly surprise to experience my favorite meal: fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, and greens.

Yeah, yeah, yeah I missed being with my mother, sisters, nephew, uncle and friends but I had my favorite meal prepared by hand by my favorite person. Everything was delicious! As my people say, Asmus put his foot in it.

I am a fan of the "essence" of food. I make my greens with the undertone of pork. Asmus found his own recipe and created greens with 50% taste of greens and 50% taste of meat. He told me that he cooked the vegetable with smoked pork and chicken stock. With the strong, smoky meat tastes, the greens won over the meat lover and me.

Fun fact: collard greens are as popular in northern Germany as they are in the southern United States. We are nearing the end of Gr√ľnkohlsaison (literally green cabbage season, but actually collard greens season) here.

I am very grateful for a man who cooks so hard that he literally collapsed on the sofa.

Yes, those are two types of hot sauce on the table. Proof that you, indeed, cannot take the ghetto out of the girl, despite having taken the girl out of the ghetto. I am starting to have some impact on the German. Asmus did not use the spicy sauce on the greens but he did use it in the sauce that he marinated the wings in.


Well, Friedrich's funeral was a few weeks ago.

It was an odd experience. The funeral was two weeks after his death. It was such a crushing blow to walk into the hospital on November 5 to find out that Friedrich had died 15 minutes before we got there. He had always said he felt bad. In September he looked very bad and we canceled vacation and then he didn't look so terrible. Unfortunately, he started to look bad again. I assumed this was another hill that needed to be ridden up and down. Unfortunately, we did not see the other side of the mountain. While nursing that blow, we had to prepare for the funeral. The death hung in the air in Asmus' mother's apartment while we worked to let people know about the death and the funeral. With each breath each day, death was slowly exhausted out of the air. A week later, the death was brought back to my mind and heart's surface because the funeral was approaching.

The chapel at Bergstedt cemetery where Friedrich's funeral was held.

As a member of the bereaved family, I had to shake hands and nod my head to condolences I did not really understand in German. I just wanted to support Asmus. The service was mostly in a dialect of German that Friedrich worked hard to support its continued existence, called platt deutsch, and featured lots of music. The music was majestic but upbeat. The minister even played guitar for one tune.

The plain pine coffin looked so small. It was covered in a bounty of flowers in bold autumn colors. It cut like a knife when men in medieval costumes removed the box that held Friedrich's body.

Life slowly returns to a semblance of its original shape. It is still a bit jarring to eat at Margot's house. Since Friedrich went into the hospital, we have been eating cake, instead of dinner, at Asmus' mother's house on the weekends. Without all the bowls and pans required to hold a meal, there was no need for the long table. The weekend after the funeral, Margot had removed the leaf that made four people comfortable at dinner time. Now the coffee, cake, tea and all their accessories sit in the place where Friedrich's plate once laid.