Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Friday, December 27, 2013

advent and a vending machine - part III

 “Love is what’s in the room with you – if you stop opening presents and listen.” –Bobby (7)

In the days leading up to Christmas and continuing into the New Year, we have been gathering at work parties, house parties, church services and concerts, and as is tradition in Germany, on the streets. The Christmas Market – a beautiful, romantic, filled-with-light experience, happening in every small and large town; over-done, well-done…and medium rare.

Under angel’s wings…

or shooting stars…

advent is community; shepherds travelling towards a star, a family gathering around a table laden with a celebratory feast, co-workers pushing silly gifts from one to another and back again, neighbours shovelling your sidewalk, a choir singing in a senior’s home, wanna-be hockey stars (or models) skating on a frozen pond, or a fragile family trying to comfort each other in a stable on a cold, dark night. Our community is everyone around us, whether we know their names or not, and what better time than now to get to know each other.

Hear the magic of community in sounds: church bells, a child asking for the hundredth time ‘why’, a loved-one’s story that you’ve heard for the first or tenth time, a stranger’s name, an angel choir.

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important gift we give each other is our attention.” -Rachel Naomi Remen

“A joyful home is one in which people feel seen and appreciated. This year I’m going to give thanks every chance I get for that special group of folks who keep loving me and seeing me.” –Brené Brown

Feel the power of believing in your community: ride a carousal high into the sky, take a walk through a field and know the breath of life lies below the layered snow in blades of grass and hidden bulbs.

Or go out among throngs of people, celebrate being in that moment together with strangers and friends. Believe in the kindness of each other’s smiles, handshakes and hugs. Point at impressively built cathedrals or 4 storey, lit-up trees and believe in the impossible. Even Martin Luther, in 1545 talked about his children receiving presents from the magical Christkindl on Christmas Eve. Believe like a child.

Let us create community through food, like church ladies have been doing for hundreds of years. I highly recommend going simple: share a sweet, powder-sugared baumstriezel or a reibedatschi or a schokokissen (chocolate pillow), because frankly they are just too huge to eat alone. 

At the oldest Christmas market in Germany, referenced by nuns as early as 1530, the Nürnberg Christkindlmarkt invites the kid in every adult to break free: try heaping piles of marzipan potatoes, book-sized gingerbread rocking horses or chocolate tools, screws and bolts for the bob-the-builder or great guy you know…

…then follow with candle-making.

 And if you find yourself with unexpected guests arriving from next door, the next town or Hamburg, head to your nearest butcher’s wurst-o-mat, insert a two-euro, press ‘steak’ once, twice or thrice and bring home this evening’s dinner – that’s what I’ll do!

“I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the meaning of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses." -Taylor Caldwell


Sunday, December 15, 2013

advent and a vending machine - part II

Gifts: The gift to a country, a continent, the world; to forgive like Mandela. The gift of a Father, giving a son; to love like God. A doctor, a mother, a teacher, a parent, a brother, a child, a friend; giving laughter, a vaccine, a cup of coffee, clean water, a roll of chocolate salami (yum), a milk-producing goat, a book of poetry, a scribbled picture, a blooming flower, neon-striped socks, a loaf of bread. Giving is a good.

Large or small; the gift of life or just a gingerbread man; a gift is a gift and when given just to make the other person smile, is perfect. Personally, I have always loved thinking about what little thing would make another person smile. I remember in the 8th grade knowing that my friend Nicki really wanted a k-way jacket for her birthday. I spent all of my babysitting money to buy that $40 jacket for her, and I don't think I ever told her it was from me. It was so great just seeing her face light up; she was so happy and I never missed the money. Of course I don’t always get it right, but I try and I know I should do it more often than I do, like all good things (ie. working out, eating less and calling more), but I highly recommend it. 

Whether you’re West Jet or a neighbour or a boss or a friend…give something to someone only for the reason of making them happy. It makes them feel special that you thought of them and took the time to give them a gift. Isn't this, at the very simplest, the message of Christmas? Thinking of someone other than yourself.

Or give them twenty-four gifts! Introducing the Advent Calendar. Ms. potter made me one, I made one for great guy, max made one for bärbel, and loads of other Germans or those lucky enough to have German friends or relatives, received them too. Just in time, mostly, to open the first one on December 1. Yet another lovely German tradition…along the lines of Christmas markets und das Auto.

But, better yet than receiving one, is to make one. The process of thinking about and then going out to make or buy 24 little gifts, with the tricky task of finding them affordable and also small enough that they fit into a specially made, numbered paper bag or cloth sack, is priceless. Sure it’s work and time and money…but it is such a wonderful thing to receive; one little gift each day leading up to Christmas, in time to celebrate what many of us believe was the ultimate gift.

Or go simple, and give the gift of bread…"Give us this day our daily bread." Matthew 6:11

Bread is one of the most common forms of food throughout all cultures, and since one of the most basic human needs is sustenance, giving a loaf of bread to someone symbolizes life; again, perfect for Christmas.

I recently came across a grassroots, non-profit organization called Spread the Bread. This international bread-giving organization encourages millions to ‘bake a difference’ and give bread (any kind, any size, with decorations or without) to friends, neighbours, heroes, those in need, etc. Schools, girl and boy scouts and just plain ‘ol community folks have run with this idea…and baked. Love it!

Here is my favourite bread recipe, which I have every intention to use to bake a difference. And, if all else fails I will run to my nearest bread vending machine, press a button, wait 10 seconds for a piping hot loaf to kerplunk down the chute, will try not to devour it in the car, but will give it away. Tis’ the season.

Fabienne's Bread Recipe:

3 cups white flour (or mix this amount with wheat, barley, or any other flour)
1 cup rye flour
3 teaspoons sugar
3 teaspoons salt
2.5 pks of fast-rising yeast

-form a dip in the middle of flour, sugar, salt mixture and add half the yeast, mix the other half with warm water and add to the hole. mix and knead.

-let stand somewhere warm for 1 hour, punch out the air and knead a little bit more, let stand 1 more hour, form into a round loaf, cut lines with a knife into the top (see photo above) and bake for 10-15 minutes at 400°F, then 45-50 minutes at 375°F with a cup of water in the oven to make the crust nice and crisp.

-try not to eat the whole loaf when it's's hard not to!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

advent and a vending machine - part I

The single candle flickered in its red plastic holder. I lit a second one and handed great guy his lighter, as I bent down to place this one next to the first. He lit his and knelt down, opened the heavy metal door of the large permanent candleholder, placed the candle inside and clicked the door back into place. He stood up and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his brown cord jacket as I slipped my hand underneath his arm. We stood silently gazing at the three dancing lights; Margot, Karin, Danielle. The cool wind touched our faces as a mother brushing a hair from her child’s cheek; the evening light fading, quiet except for the wind gently pushing leaves to the ground or a bird. Totensonntag. Waldfriedhof.

There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. -Hannah Seresh

In the days that followed that Sunday of remembrance; thinking of those on the other side of life, and leading up to the first advent Sunday, my mother was not far from my mind.

My relationship with her was filled with disappointment; full of yearning and hope on my side and full of, what I can only guess were the effects of envy and insecurity from her side. I have spent many darker moments trying to reconcile words said into opportunities for growth or learning, or just understanding. Still not sure how I’m doing with that. It is a difficult process turning off the radio of hurtful things once heard by a meaningful person; words much harder to forget than actions. But in the end, for our relationship has come to an end, I do know that forgiveness is the only helpful path.

Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless…… We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty. …..There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives--the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them. -Mother Teresa

As much as I wish and long for a visit from the ghost of Christmas past, I do know that this longing I have needs to be redirected in order that the past doesn’t just repeat itself.

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. -Lewis B. Smedes

In advent we have the opportunity to change; to take a moment to recognize hope, to look forward, morphing memories into hopeful action. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily bring me comfort. We must be today, not just focusing on the light that is coming around the corner. For, is that not just an excuse for inaction? We must reconcile our past, their past, our collective pasts; throw kindness around like confetti to all who are around us…and those far away; and be active like bees. We shouldn’t be complacent in our relationships with family, friends, partners, neighbours (and the one nearest to me guilty of that is yours truly). We don’t know how much sand is left running through our hour glass; there is no better time. So as I write, my advent wish for you is to enjoy each other. Have fun. Love.

….An act of love that fails is just as much a part of the divine life as an act of love that succeeds, for love is measured by its own fullness, not by its reception. -Harold Loukes

And if all else fails, walk under the wrought iron words that grace the entrance to every German cemetery, “What you are now, we were; what we are now, you will become”; the little ditty often filling me with a cold dread. And after putting your tweuro (the EU equivalent to the twoonie) into the candle vending machine, light the small wick and spend a few moments watching a dancing light, smiling good thoughts of someone you once knew and who you still love; regardless of disappointment or satisfaction, words said or unsaid, good or bad. Forgive. This is advent.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. -William Shakespeare; Merchant of Venice

The Christ Rose in front of our door, which bloomed on Friday.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

in vino veritas

The wine hills are alive with the sound of harvest….

There is an old saying, “never praise the vintage before it is in the cellar”. This has never been more true than for this year’s grape harvest in Rheinhessen. Germany’s largest wine producing region, oddly enough, is a grape-shaped area on the map; cupped protectively by the Rhine on almost three sides, descending deep into the Rhine plains.

Harvest has just come to an end here, due to an unusually cool spring. The grapes were late-bloomers, and tough to raise during the difficult spring and summer times. But they came through in the fall with great promise. The vintners, and their families who labour the year round, tending and harvesting, now hurry up and wait until spring to see the grapes’ full potential in next year’s vintage.

Of the 136 communities in Rheinhessen, only three do not have vineyards. Comprising 414 vineyards it is 26 hectares of pure grape, and “liquid Hollywood” as British wine critic, Stuart Pigott, describes it. “Rheinhessen is the dream factory of German wine-making; no other region comes up with such a multitude of marvellous novelties that exude this amazing aura.”

On the steep slopes, under the watchful eye of castles and cathedrals, the grapes are still harvested by hand. Workers, tied on cables, work with small grape scissors, adeptly slicing off the plump bundles. Otherwise, most families have a machine looking similar to a star wars sand robot (although great guy vehemently rebukes this comparison), which ‘walks’ over the rows of vines, shaking them steadily and quickly so that the grapes (minus leaves) drop into its basket.

Like harvest time on the Canadian prairies, the traubenlese (grape harvest) is an all-consuming time for the families fortunate enough to earn a living from their wine. Our favourite family-run wine taverns close, the sweet smell of fermenting maische-brei (mash), tucked away into stainless-steel tanks to develop a good buzz, wafts gently out of each vintner’s pore, and we wait.

Waiting. The ancient Roman, Alkaios von Lesbos (interesting name), who coined the phrase every worried girlfriend knows is true, “in wine lies the truth” must have made a stop-over in Rheinhessen. Under the innocent influence of the silvaner, gewürztraminer, dornfelder, pinot or the wunderkind, riesling; that grow in every direction the eye can see, one can’t help but be completely dedicated to truth-tellling. Right? Of course, this is also church sanctioned; with one of the most indulged upon wine fests happening courtesy of Hildegard and the nuns up on the hill beside the Rochuskappelle. This is one tradition I’m still waiting to see happen in Canada. A little more truth-telling can’t hurt there either. Until then…prosit (cheers)!


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

parisian sweets

As Halloween candy grows stale in every home in North America and a few here in Germany, like the third chocolate croissant you just can't finish, I am thinking of sweets of another kind. The Parisian kind.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to fill my eyes, ears, and definitely my nose while strolling through the park-lined streets of Paris. Among the many elegant things Parisians are known for; fashion, perfume, the grave of Jim Morrison, and the odd incredible landmark or two, one thing stands out: the Parisienne patisserie.

With plenty of writing and people-gazing on my itinerary, my goal for this second trip to Paris was to experience the sweet and savory side of the city un petit peu. This was not a difficult task.

First up, the macaron. With flavours as luscious as the delicate double-decker delight itself: religieuse pistache, fleur de cerisier, framboise-anis, the macaron is a luxury. Is it just me or does everything sound just a little bit better in French? Case in point: the raspberry.

In one of the most beautiful pastry shops (or shops period) that I've been in, Ladurée in St. Germain, I had an oh so lovely experience. Was it because I smiled extra sweetly and fluttered my eyelashes or possibly because I pouted like a pretty parisian? The monsieur behind the counter, in a gray pinstripe suit and black bowtie, gave me an XL macaron for me to try. Ooo la la! Ladurée is one of the oldest and best known patisseries in the world; with humble beginnings in 1862 when Louis-Ernest Ladurée, a well-known satirist and writer opened a bakery. This just goes to show that writers everywhere need to support themselves somehow!

Beyond the gargoyle gazes along the Seine, in a narrow rue near the Marais district, I stumbled upon a feast of colour and flavour, and that was just from the outside. I was standing in front of the long, immaculate window display of Pain de Sucre, on rue Rambateau. If I'm not mistaken that translates as 'bread of sugar'. Well, sugar is definitely well represented here. Arranged in apothecary jars are the largest, most square marshmellows I've ever seen. Their vibrant colours give away their exotic flavours; saffron, blackcurrant, cassis, eau de rose, chocolat noir coco, and caramel beurre sale (salted caramel - yum). They are squishy and bouncy and delish. 

Between each of many 'cultural' pauses, I stopped to smell the espresso. Outdoor cafés with elegantly dressed men and women sipping coffee, while sharing a baguette and some fine cheese served on a thick wooden board, is the sight on every street corner. And, although everything is small (there is nothing super-sized here except the marshmellows), in my mind I fit right in. C'était vraiment super!


Saturday, October 12, 2013

an ode to home

Coming home…

is returning to a place you love and not feeling like a stranger; like being wrapped up in a soft, heavy quilt on a cool, fall evening. 

It's being greeted with wet kisses from small...and large loved ones;


and beautiful tall strangers, waiting in fields like welcome-home beacons.

For me, home is a bountiful array of wide open spaces;

jagged, wild heights with icing sugar dust;

pillow-soft clouds in living skies as far as the eye can see;

mountains as familiar as the house I grew up in;

and lakes as inviting as my old friend’s kitchen table.

My Canada is…adventure with my steadfast-favourite and his current steed of choice;

precious time spent with my interesting, loyal friends during laughter-infused evenings at my homes-away-from-home, Kilkenny’s and Nick’s…

or devouring their home-cooked meals made with the best prairie-grown candy or the finest money’s mushrooms; followed by warm apple pie or a shot of jag.

I have often asked myself, “Is home where your heart is, or where your stuff is?” If my heart is in more than one place, does that mean I’m just doubly blessed or truly messed?

This weekend, I’m thinking of my Canadians who are celebrating Thanksgiving; so thankful for the time I recently spent with them.

Today I will take my blessings…with a side helping of tears.

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