Monthly Archives: December 2008

Zwischen Den Jahren

It is on my windowsill now, because I happened upon it while looking for something else. Placing it in full view is the desperate attempt not to forget it when the right moment comes. Again.

My  “Bleigiessen” set  contains one round spoon and six little figures representing good luck: a little pig, a cat, a cent, a mushroom, a horn of plenty and a sun. These lead figures are melted one by one by placing them in a spoon  over a candle. Once melted you quickly pour the lead into a bowl filled with cold water. As the lead solidifies you look for clues to your future in its new shape. Does it look like a heart, a baby, a crown or a star? Will love, offspring, recognition or good luck come your way the next year?

The right time to play this game, which appears to have been handed to us by the Romans, is “Silvester”, the last night of the year: the time of New Years Resolutions, watching the sketch “Dinner for One”, Fireworks and parties.

As  a child I enjoyed the thrill of staying up late at night to see the clock strike midnight and watch the fireworks go off. We had Panettone , an italian spongy light cake with Sekt (the german champagne and yes, I was allowed a sip for the special occasion). From sixteen  onwards I would go out , dancing the night away, getting cold out in parks and on fields, when it was midnight, time to watch the firework and wish a happy new year all around.

Every year there are calls to tone the fireworks down, to be more careful and possibly even ban them. But from teenager to family man to Grampa, they must have a go at coloring the night – undeterred by the danger of involuntarily setting a car, house or even themselves on fire.

Nowadays I prefer to watch from a distance and the safety and warmth of my house as the whistling rushes towards the skies and lights shower upon the world in red, blue and green sparkles. The question”Que sera”  haunts me. We try to influence our destiny in Italy by eating lentils that promise wealth or in Spain by eating twelve grapes at each stroke of midnight and try to predict the future by pouring lead in Germany.

But the carousel of time is relentless and turns just a little faster with every year. No magic at the turning of the year will prevent or allow things to happen and yet we practice our hopeful traditions.

“Zwischen den Jahren” is the time after Christmas up to the 1st of January. It means between years. The words make it sound as if that could be a long time, but it just refers to the last five days of  the year. Time does not stop, yet it slows down for a few frames, during which I imagine that I could really change the world for the better.

“Zwischen den Jahren” one said and the next said and the next and after many generations, lives and places these words come to me. With them my ancestors hope arrives at my door and I suddenly see their wishes that life by and by would become better, happier and easier were for me and are true.

“Zwischen den Jahren” I decide to think of those that come after me and what will be. What if our New Year traditions are about hope? I cannot abandon the hope of my ancestors, my own and that of my children.

I keep the “Bleigiessen” Set in full view and this time I will not forget to use it. Again.

@Francesca

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Christmas next to the stable

“Today, the typical German Christmas takes place on the Autobahn (motorway).” When Francesca looked  inquiringly, I added, “Everybody is driving from one fraction of the family to the other. I wonder why there isn´t a collapsable car tree yet.”

Everybody travels on Christmas but us. We travel on the 23rd. First by train, then by car, then by funicular,  then by ski tow and finally by ski. After 10 hours we are where we want to be: at 1800 m altitude beneath the summit cross of the Partnom in Austria. Or rather, we sit, warm and safe, in a chalet in the Austrian Alps. And won´t move for seven days.

It started as an act of escapism. To get rid of what we Germans call “Weihnachtsstress”,  a few years ago we decided to spend Christmas with friends. Of course, our parents complained that they wouldn´t see us and their grandchild on Christmas. But at least they all felt neglected equally. 

When we first came to this 200 year old farmhouse high in the mountains, the night was dark, our hands and feet freezing.  For a long hour we had been outside in the winter cold, wading through  snow hip-deep, not knowing where to go. I carried my son in my arms to protect him from the icy wind. At last, we saw a lighted window and headed toward it. In our hurry we didn´t pay attention to the path. First my spouse and then my child and I vanished in a snowdrift we barely could crawl out. Wet and exhausted we dragged ourselves for the last steps. When we arrived at the plateau the house was sitting on, the upper part of a partitioned door opened and a man said: “Grüß Euch Gott. Kommt doch herein”. 

The place he led us in was – a stable.

Without ox and donkey, though.

Of course, we didn´t have to stay there for the night. Behind a second door we found the living quarters: wooden tables, laid for dinner; a stove radiating heat; beds, barely visible under bulky duvets. And our friends.

Later, I listened to the silence of the night.  

By trying to get away from Christmas we came nearer to the Christmas spirit than ever. No fight what channel to look at TV, because we didn´t have a TV. Not one child drowning in 10 presents, but 10 children receiving one present each. And no mother preparing dinner for 10, alone, but 10 adults caring for 10 children. 

As I write this, it is midnight on the 22nd of December. I´m tired. Tomorrow, our travels will start at 6am. I write this now as  I promised to post an entry for the blog every Saturday. I´ll put it on autopost, because up there, next to the stable, I´m only connected to  the real world, not to the  virtual. 

But this will be another story. 

©Truegerman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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O Tannenbaum

“Why don´t you have a Christmas tree yet?” Francesca asked, looking around my living room. “In Germany we don´t put up a Christmas tree before Christmas eve”, I said. Only when Francesca looked at me as if for the first time she doubted my authority in everything German, I started to think about what I just had said.

Of course, from late November on, Christmas trees  sprout in cafeterias, shops, offices, all public places. Like in my son´s daycare center. Awkwardly, it stands in the middle of the entrance hall, surrounded by racks filled with dirty wellingtons.  For days, I haven´t even realized that it was there, till yesterday, when a branch caught the strap of my rucksack. Feeling the pull I turned around and saw a green spiky something, manhigh, falling toward me. I grabbed the stem before the needles could scratch my eyes out  and tried to push it back in place. But an invisible force worked against me. The tree fell to the left, then to the right, then to the left again, back to the right, in widening circles, till it crashed on the floor.   I found myself bent over the tree, hands still holding the stem, pieces of lametta on my arm. I blushed, coughed, and picked the lametta from my coat. I tried to understand what had happened. Finally I saw it, the “Christbaumständer”  that gave the tree the momentum I struggled against. “Of course” I thought when I looked at the iron weight to hold the tree: “The old troublemaker. How could I forget”.

The Christbaumständer of my youth had four screws to hold the tree. To mount the tree, my father had to crawl on the floor, crouch under the tree and adjust the screws one after the other while my mother gave directions.  If my father were a philosopher he would have mused about every thing being interdependent. Maybe chaos theory was inventend under a Christmas tree. “More to the right”, my mother said. He turned the left screw. “Stop, hold on, now more to the left”. My father turned the right screw. “Not that much”, my mother cried.”Didn´t I tell you to take it easy?” He loosened the right screw. The tree fell to the right, pricking his neck. “Can´t you make your mind up”, he shouted, “left or right, right or left”. “It would be much easier it you didn´t always choose such a crooked tree in the first place”, my mother retorted.

This invariably happened on December, 24th, at three a clock in the afternoon. We children would press our eyes and ears to the keyhole till my mother would cover the keyhole to keep the proceedings secret. When finally, around 5 o´clock, the silver bell rang to tell us that “Christkindl” has brought the presents, we rushed in the room and stood in awe in front of this elegant tree  in his best clothes. Our eyes went down to the presents that awaited us beneath. They had to wait for much longer, as now one of us had to read the bible :” Und es begab sich zu der Zeit, dass Josef von Nazareth …”, the whole Christmas story of Mary and Josef looking for shelter and finding it in a stable. After reading, we had to sing “O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie grün sind Deine Blätter ….” and “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht …”. Then, at last, the presents: Bescherung.

The traditional German Christmas dinner is surprisingly simple and basic. More often than not it is “Kartoffelsalat mit Wiener Würstchen”–potatoe salad with frankfurter. Maybe our ancestors knew that nobody could concentrate on eating after all the exitement. Or the women decided to enjoy this day, too.

Funnily, this part of the tradition has changed most.  Whereas not to put up the Christmas tree before Christmas eve ist still a must. At least in German families …. in most German families … ok, maybe not so much in Frankfurt.

But then, in Frankfurt, Germans cross the street when the traffic lights says “Don´t walk”, too.

But this is another story.

©Truegerman

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What I found on the Feldberg

This is Frankfurt, Germany, 2008. It is Tuesday morning. I am on the way to the library’s cafeteria, my office and intend to hold a writing session with whoever else of the writing group turns up.

I see their heads bent intently over their writing when I arrive, as I am late. I know this condition well, this immersing myself completely as if in a daydream and writing it all down. It lasts for about ten minutes, so I grab a tea and make my way over slowly. I sit down quietly and do not disturb their meditation with a word.

One at a time they stop; South Korea looks up and greets me with a silent wave and big smile, next True German nods across the table after completing the last sentence and finally Finland looks up too. Finland says to the others, “Who wants to read first?”

 The others hesitate, a good moment for me to wish everybody a “Good morning”. Finland looks around in surprise,” Ah, Francesca, I didn’t hear you. When did you arrive?” We laugh and embrace. It is good.

 

Frankfurter Quetschemännchen Apparently a courting man would send his Adored one of these. If she kept it he could expect some success, if not all he lost were a couple of dried prunes.

Frankfurter Quetschemännchen Apparently a courting man would send his Adored one of these. If she kept it he could expect some success, if not all he lost were a couple of dried prunes.

My friends read their pieces that are about regrets of the past, troubles or joys of the present and hopes for the future. They read softly, for our ears only and it is possible in this place, empty so early in the morning. The free writing lets us relive our past and define our goals, which are so easy to lose sight of in the hectic of survival. We do not choose our words carefully, but it seems that the brain has done this work for us well.

South Korea has to leave soon, another Christmas party somewhere, one of the many. But first another free writing. There must always be time for another. Too soon our friend has to depart and we three are left musing on how to continue.

For weeks a thick layer of cloud has been covering the skies, keeping all rays of sun from reaching us and we wrap ourselves in layers to protect from the cold and wet. Finland has a car and proposes a bold escape. We will drive to the highest point in this area, the Große Feldberg (Big Fieldmountain). We are in city shoes and city dwellers, but decide to follow the pipe tune anyway.

Soon we are on the slopes of the mountain and wind our way up into the clouds themselves. We reach a break in the grey wall and rays of sunshine pour down on us. It lasts for a second. Finland laughs, could there have been a mistake, was that it? We continue up, up and then it happens again, only this time the sun stays because we are above the clouds. We pull out of a thickly wooded band around the mountain top and leave the car under the towers of the weather station. There is a layer of crisp snow and grandparents with sleds and little children. Our noses soon turn red as we walk around the mountaintop, out of breath from the unusual exercise, slipping in our city shoes and heated from the walk and the sun.

Finally we head for the restaurant where we write again. I am on an island of clouds. The sea around me is wild and wonderful. The waves lie smooth but no boats ride this sea. In my memory this day will taste of Milchkaffee (Coffee with loads of milk) served in something that looks like a soup bowl, I’ll remember how the sun burnt my winter skin and how I did not miss the world that disappeared. I must return to the world below the sea, invisible from up here and not Atlantis at all. I dive and take some of the air from here with me, to help me breathe. I take some of the light to store in my heart and bring to my children to share. I know that when we rose above this sea of clouds, I also rose from the clouds of my mind

 Maybe you can walk on clouds after all.

It will be Christmas soon. I think about my friends from all over the world who have come to Frankfurt where we found each other: True German forever looking for truth and sincerity, Finland loving the cold and being so warm, South Korea in search of beauty and harmony and me wanting some peace. We felt Christmas on that mountain top when we shared the gift of light and air. No matter how we celebrate this Christmas Season, as a religious happening or a festive holiday, no matter from whatever cultural background we are: We have come together to give and share in this Frankfurt, Germany, 2008.

Merry Christmas.

@Francesca

The story of Quetschemännche can be found here http://www.hunde-und-voegel.de/humor.htm  Attention, it is written in Hessisch. Look for “Die zwaa Unzertrennlische” (the two inseperable)

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Christmas cookies – Yes, I do

“Why do you call them Christmas cookies”, Francesca asked when we munched `Ausstecherle` yesterday. “Because we only eat them on Christmas and the weeks before.” “But why do you only eat them for Christmas? They are so delicious, you could eat them all year round.”

Feeling slightly stupid, I pondered this question for a night. Yes, of course, I could. As an adult, I don´t have a mother who hides the Christmas cookies in secret places so they will last till Christmas. Nobody will scold me when I snatch a Christmas cookie before time. And nobody prevents me from baking the cookies for a summer party at the beach. But do I really want to?

Often, the main part of  attraction is limitation. Today, there are limited editions for about anything you can buy: cigarettes, tissues, joghurts, chocolate. They only thing I know that isn´t limited yet is toilet paper–though it was in the former GDR.  As a marketing trend, I highly suspect limitation. On a private level, I enjoy it.

Strawberries in May and June, plumcake in September, onion cake in October, gingerbread and Christmas cookies in December– this seasonalization gives the pleasure of a “first” every year anew. When during the months since my last intake I have forgotten how a strawberry tastes, with the first bite the fruit seems to exlode in my mouth. Every cell in my body sighs: Oh yes, this is a strawberry. Sometimes I even purr over my first piece of plumcake with whipped cream. And the taste of the first Christmas cookie brightens every grey December day.

Historically I suppose that Christmas cookies where limited to a month of the year because the ingredients were rare and expensive. Tons of butter, sugar, nuts, almonds, and cinammon go into a good German Christmas cookie. Every family has its special assortment of cookies, the recipes handed down from mother to daughter. But the overall  German Christmas cookies are “Ausstecherle”.

Ausstecherle are made from “Mürbteig”-piecrust. They consist of butter, flour, sugar and eggs, kneaded into a smooth dough and cooled for an hour. After spreading out with a rolling pin, metal stencils cut out dough shaped like stars, angels or Christmas trees. The baked cookies are covered with icing and dipped into chocolate- or sugar streusel (I just realized that the English word for a crumbled topping is the same as the German).

My mother always prepares 15 varieties of Christmas cookies. I do one.

In Germany, every child has the birthright to at least one Christmas cookie baking session a year. So I do it. I bake. Mostly because I feel that I should give my son the experience of actually making something by hand. But on the great day, I stand in my kitchen and wonder how this incredibly slow process of Christmas cookie making could be organized more effectively. It seems such a waste of time to spend three hardworking hours to produce a handful of Christmas cookies. The first and second part of the process I like: the kneading of the dough and the cutting out of shapes with stencils. For me, the work could very well finish with putting the cookies in the oven. But by then, I´m only halfway through. Now I have to dip every single cookie into the icing, then into the chocolate streusel, then put it on a drying rack. This is normally the time when my son vanishes into his room. To make 10 cookies is fun, to make 200 is real work. So I, who hate repetitions, am left with 190 unfinished cookies. Soon, I get annoyed about being left with the stupid work. I call my son, scold him, try to force him to help me, lose the fight, and finally finish the work on my own with red anger in my heart.

To make the matter worse, I can´t even moan about the Christmas cookie making. In Germany, you have to enjoy this quality time with your children – basta.

Though this year  the no-moan tradition seems to change. Yesterday night the owner of the local sauna handed me a leaflet: “Special reductions for everybody stressed out by Christmas shopping and cookie making”. Tonight, sweating on  a wooden bench, I will meet my peers. 

I wonder where I can put pen and paper to write down all the new recipes for Christmas cookies.

But this will be another story.

©Truegerman

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Card or Cookie

Something made me feel slightly off balance as I shopped for my groceries, something that I caught from the corner of my eye, but I was too busy and rushed to take time to put my finger on it. Only when I had paid and was leaving the “coin fell” (fiel der Groschen). It was the end of October and I had walked past the first stacks of Christmas foods in the stores. In good human fashion the things that should not be there my conscious mind had tried to ignore, but my subconscious had picked up the signals and pointed.

It felt as unexpected as snow in June (at least in these parts) and I didn’t have the Christmas appetite yet for the delicious Lebkuchen (Ginger bread) hearts coated with chocolate, the Spekulatius (spiced cinnamon cookies), Marzipan in golden wrappers and Weihnachtsstollen (cake with dried fruits and coated in sugar). Although I always regret that the moment Christmas is over these goodies disappear without a trace (not even a sale!) from all the shops, yet displaying them earlier and earlier feels wrong and I purposely refuse to buy any of these goods until December.

Comes the 1st Advent and the 6th of December, Nikolaustag. Bakeries offer a special edition Nikolaus-Weck (a sweet bread Nikolaus) and this officially starts the season. Christmas Decorations follow the foods and the festive mood can begin. The advantage of waiting a little before indulging is to avoid piling on even more seasonal kilos than necessary.

Butter cookies are sold and many a German produces his special home made cookies, which they generously offer at every occasion. If you are planning to save some for after Christmas, do not open the bag, because once you do you won’t stop till you’ve finished them all.

One of my sisters organized a Cookie Baking session a few years back. We all prepared different mixes and had a great time preparing our Christmas cookie rations. Our children were also present and the younger ones were quite enthusiastic for the first hour. Fortunately there were still many hands to finish off the work and so it was a fun activity—for one time. No one suggested we repeat this every year and maybe we will do it again someday, but none of us feels compelled as our German peers seem to.

I remember my father disappearing into his cellar office to work on his multitude of Christmas Cards two months before Christmas. Although he sends fewer nowadays, he still gets to work on them two months before. He takes great care in choosing a picture and message and I am sure he enjoys the activity. I do suspect though that he feels obliged to send these messages. I don’t. I have had years in which I designed, made and distributed many Christmas cards (before I had children!) and I really enjoyed it, yet now that I don’t have the time I don’t feel any guilt at not sending them. I would love to get in touch with family and friends more frequently, but I have to spread this contact out over the year. Waiting for Christmas only means making it impossible or stressful, due to it being such a busy season.

One thing I have not done yet is to write a Christmas Letter. I spoke to several Germans about this recently. They had heard of such letters and even received one or two from American acquaintances. They wanted to know if it was really normal in the States to write a letter like that—a kind of mass mailing—to family and friends. They could not imagine writing one themselves, although when I encouraged them to use it as a writing exercise they were eager to try.

But could it become a habit or rather duty, like Christmas Cookies? I have not noted many Christmas Cards in German houses. My parents received as many as they would distribute. These would regularly become part of the Christmas decorations, displayed on shelves or strung up on strings.

Like so many times, when thinking about a simple tradition that at times borders on obsession there are more layers and an entire history to explore and understand. I am still at the beginning of this road and as I answer one question I discover another ten to ask. I intend to enjoy this exploration and the occasional exercise of such a tradition.

In the meantime have a cookie.

@Francesca

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Nikolaus was here

“Why don’t we celebrate Nikolaus too”, I whined. This first-grader had discovered that her German friends were leaving boots in front of their bedroom doors at night, expecting to find them filled with treats on the morning of the 6th of December. It was 1970 and my entry into real time with Germans was widening my perception of the world and of gift-receiving opportunities.

 

My Mum sighed. With an 8-month old on her hands, two more daughters entering puberty, all she needed was number three whining.

 

“Oh, all right, put out your boot and we will see what happens.”

 

In Germany you say “Wenn zwei sich streiten, dann freut sich der dritte” (When two are arguing, the third one will be happy). I owe a lot of my happy childhood to the fact that my bigger sisters had tired my parents out by the time I came around and it was all “if it stops her from making noise give her what she asks for”. Of course I had to be careful not to exaggerate, but number three is usually surrounded by so much, be it hand-me downs, that asking for your very own was the exception (at least in my mind).

 

So I placed the boot in front of my bedroom door and went to bed content. Next morning had me hot footing straight to the boot. But what was this? I cried out in despair. The children had told me that naughty kids received a “Rute”, a bunch of twigs tied together that could clear dusty chambers but also served to touch up the hide of a naughty child. And my boot contained such a bunch of twigs.

 

Had I been naughty? Was I being punished? The idea of a possible hiding shocked me. My parents never hit me. A desperate wail brought my Mum rushing to my side.

 

“Now what.”  

 

“Mummy, I received a Rute. Was I naughty? Only bad children receive a Rute”, I bubbled.

 

My mothers face became inscrutable as the wheels of her mind geared to top speed and added up all the symbolic weight of the world for a six year old. A split second had passed when she raised an eyebrow near imperceptibly.

 

Next she interpreted for me very patiently.

 

“Francesca, look at what is hanging on the bits of twigs. Do you see all the shiny wrappings? They must be full of chocolate. Looks like Nikolaus just uses the twigs to hang up the sweets in.”

 

“Really?” I looked at the ominous Rute more closely. True, there were lots of small packages tied to it.

 

Huh?

 

I wrapped my mind around this contradictory message. With the help of a few wrapped chocolates I was consoled and accepted this, to my now adult mind, illogical concept.

 

Much later Nikolaus became the day I received gifts from the Church for my service as choir member and mass servant. The choir conductor dressed up as Nikolaus and arrived with a big book from which he read about our good and bad deeds. It was funny, as he took the opportunity to recount our various exploits, which we did not always want to be reminded of and because he looked quite ridiculous in his outfit. After we received our presents we sat down to hot drinks, cakes and Christmas cookies. It was a way of thanking us for our contributions in time and patience to church and the only way to tell how much we were being thanked was by the size of the present we had received. Nobody was being punished: after all, whatever we gave was voluntary.

 

When my children met Nikolaus in Kindergarten on a 6th of December, they looked forward to his visit. He gave a little bag of sweets, dried fruits and small toys to every one of them. Sometimes local shops dress up an employee and he gives away oranges, walnuts and a ball for every child that passes by. There are no more books with all your “sins” noted. But not all children are entirely at their ease. Would their parents be of my generation, who still believed that Nikolaus actually would punish us?

 

On that December 6th of 1970 my mother probably was questioning the need for integration of another peoples tradition into ones own, at all cost, very much.

 

And I never put the boot out again. Just in case.

 

@Francesca

 

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