Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Love Happens

In the summer of 1989 I had a market research internship at a multinational company in Hamburg, Germany. I didn't have much to do after work during the week, as my friends were up in Kiel and I could only visited them on weekends. One day a friend of the family I was living with stopped by to visit them. He was kind of cute and close to my age. He invited me to join him and his friends to play billiards. Sure, I thought, why not?

Billiards twice a week with a group was soon supplemented with walks in the park, dinners, an occasional night out dancing. We had a good time.

I was heading back to the States at the end of August and was just ending a long-distance relationship I'd been in for a couple years. I didn't want another overseas boyfriend.
But he and I had become good friends and since he didn't need to start his college classes until October, he decided to return to the States with me for a few weeks. Why not? We had fun together, why not hang out for one more month?

He returned to Germany in the fall and life went on. We stayed in touch. He wrote letters. Lots of letters. OK, he wrote a letter everyday we were apart for the next two years. Yes. EVERY. DAY. I still have the boxes of hand-written notes on pages of tissue-thin airmail paper. Maybe we've got something here?

On breaks from college, we visited each other. Then, April 28, 1992, he took the big leap, packed a large military-style Duffel bag, his computer and his stereo, and arrived in the US with an open return ticket. He thought he might stay a year. Or 20....

On June 26, 1993 I married my best friend. We've walked a long winding path together. Four kids, eight international exchange daughters, three apartments, three houses, two states, two countries, a German Shepherd, and countless good friends have all been on that path, so far....

Yeah, I think we have something here. We have fun together. We work well together. Why not hang out another 20 years or so?


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tropical Treat: Pineapple Upside Down Cake

My boys love the KitKat Cake I described in another post, but my oldest daughter prefers the fruity sweetness of my tropical pineapple upside down cake. This is also very simple to make and looks pretty. A friend recently suggested you might even make it with pears instead of pineapples, and I agree, that could be quite tasty, too - I'll have to try it soon and let you know.

I make my pineapple upside down cake in a large skillet. I like to soak the fruit in spiced rum. Usually, I make it with crushed pecans, but here in Germany those are harder to find, so I recently substituted chopped hazelnuts and they were great.  I also like to add shredded coconut to the topping, but had to skip that on this latest version.

The recipe below is converted into metric for my European readers*. I am happy to provide the American recipe using good old-fashioned cups and teaspoon measures to anyone who comments that they want it :)

Here's the basic recipe - as always, feel free to improvise!

Ooey-Goey Super Yummy Topping:

150 g. butter
250 g. brown sugar (if you can find the moist, dark brown kind available in the US - that's best!)
a few dashes of cinnamon
dash of clove
dash of nutmeg
200 g. chopped nuts (pecans, hazelnuts, or almonds)

50 g. shredded, sweetened coconut (optional)
Large can of pineapple in juice (you can use sliced or diced - different looks but both taste great)
cocktail cherries (optional)
raisins or dried currents (optional)
Dark Rum (optional, but so good!!)

Drain and save the pineapple juice. Soak the fruit in about 100 ml of rum (spiced rum is my favorite). Take a sip for yourself. Melt the butter in the bottom of a large, round saucepan. Sprinkle in the brown sugar and spices. Layer in the pineapple, then any other fruit and the coconut (if using). Some people like to layer whole rings of pineapple. I often prefer crushed pineapple for maximum flavor. On this occasion I spiraled half rings around the pan. Please, do play with your food - decorate your upside down cake any way you like!

Moist and Delicious Pineapple Rum Cake:

60 ml dark rum (you can use what's left from soaking the fruit, if you didn't drink that already)
60 ml pineapple juice (reserved from the can)
75 ml buttermilk
250 g flour
2 TL  baking powder (10 ml)
1 TL cinnamon (5 ml)
1/4 TL nutmeg (1.2 ml)
1/4 TL salt (1.2 ml)
dash of clove
100 g butter, softened
200 g light brown sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 EL (15 ml) vanilla extract (liquid) or 2 packs vanilla sugar

In a small bowl, combine the rum, pineapple juice, and buttermilk. Whisk flour, baking powder, and spices in another bowl. Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy, then beat in the eggs and vanilla. Combine the flour mixture with the sugar mixture in thirds, alternating with the liquids.

Slowly pour the batter over the fruit topping in the skillet. Bake in a 175 C or 350 F preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes.

Place a large serving plate over the skillet and invert the pan. Let the pan rest upside down on the platter for at least 5-10 minutes, so all the warm gooey topping can settle onto the cake. When you remove the skillet, if there is still topping stuck to the pan, then gently remove it with a rubber spatula and either replace on the cake or lick the spatula clean :)


*BTW:  I found a wonderful cooking measures conversions page online, that can convert from all sorts of American measures of volume to European measures of weight by ingredients like butter, flour, sugar, and oats. I have this bookmarked and reference it all the time!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Few More Things to Know About Germans

Building on the incredibly accurate and witty list What I Know About Germans compiled by Liv of A Big Life and recently published by Überlin, here are some more things you should know about Germans… A to Z. (I tried not to duplicate, so be sure to check out the original list!)

A. They have an apprenticeship program for everything. Don’t think they got that super-efficient supermarket checkout system mastered by hiring high school students for part-time jobs, no those are highly trained “Auszubildene” supermarket checkout professionals. Pretty much every service and retail job is a trained profession requiring a 3-year apprenticeship.

B. They keep beautiful, perfectly manicured lawns (gardens) despite the fact that anytime one is off work and thus has free time to mow and weed the lawn, it is a crime to do so because…

C. Sundays are holy days of obligatory lounging and recreation and…

D. Saturday early mornings, mid-afternoons, and late evenings are equally off-limits for any work, particularly which might cause a sound or smell that could potentially disturb a sensitive neighbor.

E. Speaking of neighbors, Germans strongly endorse the phrase "fences make good neighbors" and have very strict laws on the placement and maintenance of fences, which surround every perfectly manicured lawn/garden in Germany.

F. Windows should be open almost all the time. Upon entering a classroom or office, or as soon as one awakes at home, if windows are not already opened, Germans must thrust them open and declare the need for "Luftung." Even if it's below freezing and, as usual, raining.

G. During required Sunday quiet-time recreation, everyone must go for a walk. No matter the rain, Sunday afternoon is time for a "Spaziergang." Bike rides are an acceptable alternative, but....

H. Germans never bike on a a designated walking path. Doing so will get you a fine, which can actually count against your driver's license if you have one. Bikes may be ridden on bike paths or the street, and....

I. ...only if said bike is properly equipped with working lights and a bell. There will be an inspection, a test, and all other matter of formal paperwork processing to ensure that every bike in Germany meets all safety standards.

J. Given that it rains 80% of the year, they are amazingly adept at scheduling lawn maintenance and other chores around both inclement weather and obligatory quiet times. This goes back to their perfect planning and preparedness skills.

K. Like banks, pharmacies and doctors' offices are closed mid-days for lunch, Wednesday afternoons, and, of course, on weekends. So make sure you only get sick or allow your children to develop a fever during standard work-hours.

L. And if you or your child does get a cold or sprain an ankle, expect to be excused for at least a week from work or school. Illness or injury of any degree is taken quite seriously and requires one be “Krankgeschrieben” from work and/or school for an appropriate period of recovery. (Probably because it took a week to find an available doctor or pharmacy).

M. Germans love sun-soaked vacations (of course, the weather in Germany is dismal!). They flock to amazing beach resorts every year in a mass exodus during the Autumn and Spring breaks, at which times there's a greater population of German tourists in Mallorca, Ibiza, the Maldives, Grand Cayman, Antalya, Crete, Hurghada, etc, than any other nationality or the native inhabitants.

N. Like their lawns, their cars are also cleaned and polished to sparkling, despite the constant rain and required work-free timezones. It’s a federal crime to drive a dirty car. (I’m pretty sure)

O. OK, really, everything is always clean and polished. The garden, the car, the house, the boots. Germans have a penchant for cleanliness – I believe they place it not next to, but above godliness.

P. Germans are pretty trusting. I suspect they believe everyone plays by the same rules of fairness to which they subscribe. It's not uncommon to order products, books, etc. and have them delivered to you before payment, with a bill sent separately. They never seem to worry that one might fail to pay the invoice.

Q. Cash is king in Germany. They may not worry about you paying the bill, but they do worry you might overextend yourself on credit. Very few places accept credit cards. Cash and debit cards MAYBE, but even these are not accepted at a great many places. Be prepared to pay even for the delivery of your new washing machine and refrigerator in cash -even if that's up to a 1,000 Euros.

R. Oh that refrigerator. It does not come with the house. Nor does the kitchen sink, cabinets, or counters. Kitchens being a matter of personal preference, expect to find nothing more than an empty room with a pipe sticking out of the wall for water hook-up in your new apartment or house. Kitchen sold separately.

S. Light fixtures, too. Germans take everything not made of brick and mortar out of the house when they move. So bring your own ceiling lamps or the switch on the wall is worthless.

T. German employers request a lot of personal information. As well as your actual birth date, you must include a photo and your marital status on your resume. Do NOT smile in your resume picture. Smiling makes you very suspect.

U. German elementary schools are only a half day. Before fifth grade, it's rare for kids to be in school past 13:00 and more common for them to be home before noon. The recent introduction of "Ganztagsschule" or all-day school, basically provides after-school homework help but not full day instruction. But that's OK, because the super efficient German teachers can easily convey everything the super smart German children need to know in half the time other countries need to educate their young-uns.

V. Germans are dedicated to their sports teams. In fact, public viewing of National Soccer tournaments is one of the only occasions when all noise, smell, and light-restricting ordinances are lifted, and revelers may party in public as long and loudly as they wish to support the home team.

Germany Fans cheer the U19 Women's LAX World Championship
W. Germans are meticulous about recycling (dedicated to the preservation of the environment). There's an appropriate bin for every type of waste. Plastics and tin in one. Biodegradable food or yard waste in another. Glass, paper, etc. the "trash" bin is the smallest by far and to be used only for items that can't possibly be sorted into one of the other five waste baskets you have in the kitchen pantry. Expect to be fined if the trash collectors find the wrong refuse in the wrong bin.

X. Until you are a friend you are a “Bekannte” maybe even a “Gute Bekannte” but that translates to (close) acquaintance and should not be confused with a friend.

Y. They chose their friends very carefully. Do not presume to be friends with someone you’ve only met a few times, no matter how friendly the interactions were (This only makes you a Bekannte). It takes time to build a true friendship, but then you’ve got it for life.....

Z. Because of their dedication, trustworthiness, reliability, preparedness, value for recreation, regard for fairness, etc... (see points A through Y): Germans make awesome friends!

Dedicated to my amazing German friends :)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cutting for Stone: Book Review

I recently completed the novel Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Set primarily in Ethiopia, the book is narrated by central character Dr. Marion Praise Stone. Born conjoined with his identical twin brother in a Mission Hospital, Marion never knew his biological mother, a young Indian nun who died in childbirth. His British-born father, presumably consumed with grief, fled the same day. Thus the boys were adopted at the mission by close friends of their parents who gave them a wonderful childhood and raised both boys to be brilliant doctors.

Complex events involving love, war, and politics ultimately force Marion to flee to the United States after medical school. The story picks up as the reader is drawn into the life of a foreign-born medical intern in a poor inner city New York hospital. Here, Marion has a chance encounter with his biological father, for whom he harbors a great deal of anger. But he is haunted by a promise to his beloved adoptive father. Ultimately, Marion seeks out the senior Dr. Stone and also determines to trace his mother's story from her roots in India to her death in Ethiopia. In the exploring and telling of his parents' story, he is forced to confront his own story, and come to terms with his life and relationships, learning about love and forgiveness.

I admit, it took me a long time to get into this book. I found the prose at times to be too elaborate and I was bored by what seemed to be unnecessarily long descriptions of the scenery and to some extent, of the political situation in post WWII Ethiopia. It was honestly a chore to read and nearly 200 pages in, I almost gave up. But something about the story intrigued me and by time I was a little more than half way into the novel, I was deeply hooked, fascinated, compelled not only to read to the end, but to go back and immediately re-read the first several chapters. Then I wanted to read everything I could about the author and Ethiopia - so moving was the story once it fully unfolded.

Despite the difficult beginning, this book has so many elements of a great story - blending history, politics, culture, and medicine with self-discovery, a love story, mystery and adventure. I really loved the book and would recommend it.

Four out of five stars.

Amazon book link

Monday, June 4, 2012

Multicultural Celebrations: The Brits are Fun!

Joining an expat community here in Germany has led to lots of interesting new experiences. Many of my "local" friends are actually British - not what I expected when I moved to Germany, but it's been a whole cultural experience of itself. The Brits are much more fun than this American ever gave them credit for.

I'm learning a whole new English language (who knew "crackers" were little packages that snapped and not something you eat with wine and cheese? And don't even get me started on the misunderstanding about what a "Pantomime" is!). These are some of the things I've learned during the group's monthly Native English Speaker Quiz night. I'm apparently not as native a speaker as I thought, since I can hardly understand half the things my British friends say. Forget the Aussies, South Africans, Scots, Singaporeans, and others who share some form of The Queen's tongue...

Thanks to the Brits, I've also had the chance to try new culinary treats (marmite, anyone?) and this weekend, I indulged for the first time in a cocktail I'd never heard of, that apparently is a big hit with folks on that little island across the North Sea: Pimm's Cup. I wish I could tell you exactly what Pimm's is, but as the bottle says, only six people know the secret recipe! Evidently, it's a gin-based, herb-spiked, 50-proof alcohol that is typically blended with Ginger Ale, cucumber, strawberries and mint to make a long drink. Mysterious, but very tasty.

I've had two recent opportunities to try this new concoction. The first was a slightly bawdy Eurovision party hosted by my friend, Emma. As with the cocktail, I'd never heard of the song contest when I was living in the the land of Stars & Stripes. (OK, I didn't have a TV and wasn't even familiar with American Idol, so all's fair). The guests at the Eurovision fete were all asked to represent a participating country and come in costume (or at least national colors) and bring an international dish to share. Representing Azerbaijan, I had a tough time coming up with a recipe I could prepare from local ingredients, but I did manage to create something that had a hint of Mediterranean flavor. In another post, I'll share my Caspian Chicken Kabobs and Baklava. The party was lots of fun, with most of us gathered around the TV, sampling from the amazing  smörgåsbord (wish I had photos, but major fail on this one) and cheering our favorite contestants. I do think Germany was totally cheated. Roman Lob is pretty hot. And he can sing. Just saying :) Still, the party was great fun, and I'm grateful to the UK gal pal who hosted and all those who brought yummy munchies and taught me about the Russian Grannies.

My next Pimm's party was a royal celebration of yesterday's Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth. The lovely Verena held an all British Bash at her place, which she had decked out to the 9's in red-white-and-blue swag. Seriously, the entire house was draped in bunting and balloons! It was suppose to be a garden party, but the Queen couldn't just let it rain on her parade - she sent the storms through North-Rhine Westphalia to demonstrate the extent of her reign ;) Nonetheless, we had a wonderful time, providing our own sunshine and lots and lots of CAKE. I've never seen so much cake outside of a bakery. There were cupcakes, and carrot cake, and apple cake, and lemon cake, and strawberry cake, and my white chocolate cheesecake (I'll post that one day, too) and a few others I'm not even sure of. Thank God I'm not diabetic!

And thankfully, there were some nom nom savory items as well to counter the sugar coma. We enjoyed traditional English sausage rolls, dainty cucumber and other tea-type sandwiches, and deviled eggs with lox & caviar.
As with the Eurovision event, we gathered at times around the telly to pity the poor drenched and cold but fine-looking Royal Navy boys and admire the incredible grace of The Queen. Despite the miserable conditions of the day, the Brits home and abroad sure know how to celebrate.

Really, I think the best thing about living in Germany might just be my very fun British friends! Who knew?