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Friday, March 29, 2013

The Church of St Wendel and the Test of Time

The church soars from the center of town

St Wendel's sarcophagus

The colors are magnificent!

When you live in Germany, and especially if you live near the French border, you have to expect that things are never as they seem.  Sometimes France was in Germany, or Germany was in France.  Sometimes the territory was Dutch or the Swedes owned the area.

I often joke with a German friend that Germany is younger than the United States and he points to the castles that are hundreds of years old, or the remains of the Roman bulwarks.  “No,” he says in English,  “Germany is much older than the U.S.” 

I say, Baloney.  Without the political acumen of Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1 April 1815 – 30 July 1898), better known to us as simply Otto von Bismarck, the Germans would still be quarreling over who brews the best beer….wait a minute, they still do that.  Anyway, Germany hasn’t been Germany for all that long.

Take the city of St Wendel, for example.  In the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672 – 1697) the area was owned by one nationality, then another, none of which were German!  Hey, the Spanish owned the territory, too.  In the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the town was all but demolished. Then there was the War of Polish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years’ War.

Then you can move on into the French Revolutionary Wars, the Franco Prussian War, and the wars of the 20th Century, when the French-Germany border waved like a flag in a hurricane.  Look around.  The names of the towns are French…no, I mean German….no, wait a sec….and don’t get me started on the Bavarians who still think they’re a separate kingdom.  The Bavarians don’t even greet each other with ‘Guten Morgen,’ like most of the rest of Germany.  All you hear is ‘Guss Gott.’

But, let’s get back to St Wendel and the magnificent Catholic Church, which rises from the heart of the city and dominates the lesser buildings of the town.  They say parts of the church were built over the cave where the hermit-saint lived and died.  Could be true.  They say the bones in the ornate sarcophagus belong to St Wendel.  That also could be true.  The last time the public viewed those bones was a few years ago during a Papal visit.  I don’t think the crowd pulled out a CSI kit at the time.  Better not to know, I guess.

Understand I’m not hating on Catholicism.  The Roman Catholics are by far the largest Christian denomination and they put others to shame in bringing the glory of God to earth in the soaring majesty of their churches and cathedrals.  How the huge pillars, and rich colors of those colossal stone edifices must have awed the peasants.  I know I was awed.

The St Wendel Church is magnificent!  Soaring ceilings, with stonework that curves and turns.  Pillars that rise from the earth.  Ornate stained glass.  Christian or not, you can’t help but stand and stare, trying to take in the colors, the designs, the centuries of work in crafting such an edifice. 

When you exit the church, be sure to turn and look up at the brick and stonework.  When you do, notice the scars from bullets and bombs.  Time has not stood still in St Wendel, and yet the church and the town have withstood all of time’s trials and tests.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Heart Pounding Pound Cake with a Coconut Twist

I love pound cake.  Always have.  And, no, love is not too strong a word.  But, sometimes you want something a little different…. but you still hunger for pound cake.  Maybe you’re having guests and the ego pops up like…no, wait, your ego is bigger than that…. ok, your ego pops up like a bull rider at a rodeo.  You don’t just want to make a dessert.  You’re putting heart and soul into it and you deserve the roar of the crowd!   I’m your friend.  I understand.  Got just the dessert for you and your throng of ravenous freeloaders.

Here’s a pound cake that sings of topical islands, soft breezes, and slow dancing women with big…ideas.

Glazed Coconut Pound Cake

For the cake:

2 Sticks of butter at room temp
1/2 Cup coconut oil (at room temp this is still solid)
3 Cups sugar
5 Eggs
3 Cups all-purpose flour
1/2 Teaspoon baking powder
1 Cup coconut milk
1 Teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract (or a couple of squeezes of fresh lemon juice)
2/3 Cup sliced almonds
1/2 Cup (or more) unsweetened coconut flakes

For the glaze:

1 Cup water
1 Cup sugar
2/3 Cup sliced almonds
1/2 Cup (or more) unsweetened coconut flakes

Let’s make the cake! (I make this in a food processor, but feel free to use a mixer)

Cream the butter and coconut oil.  Add the sugar and beat until well mixed.  Add the eggs and beat.  Mix the flour and baking powder and add it along with the coconut milk to the batter.  Mix well.  Add the nuts and coconut flakes and remix.

Pour the batter into a greased 8 X 13 inch baking dish  (20 X 33 cm) and bake at 325ºF (165ºC) for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  I like to check after the first hour.  Also, if the top starts to brown too much, cover the cake with a piece of aluminum foil.

Let the cake cool a bit, then use a carving fork to pierce all over the top of the cake.  This allows the glaze to drizzle in.

Let’s make the glaze:

Put the sugar, water, and coconut flakes in a small sauce-pan and heat to a boil.  When the liquid is reduced by about 1/3, the glaze is ready.  Watch this like a hungry hawk because it will boil over.  Nothing says mess like sugar water on a hot stove.

Meanwhile, put a pat of butter in a small frying pan, add the almonds and let them just begin to toast.

Pour the glaze evenly over the pound cake, then sprinkle with the toasted almonds.

Now serve your guests and listen for the roar of the crowd, cowboy!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bunnies, Baubles, and Eggs! Easter Market in St Wendel

Be sure to scroll down for scintillating comments and more photos!

A fine old historic town!

New Beginnings

Beauty from simple things

The famous Easter Crown

Making Pottery the old fashioned way

Spring is almost here.  How do I know, without even a wayward glance at the calendar?  The St Wendel Easter Market, of course.

Which spurs questions by the truckload, the first being who was Saint Wendel?  That’s Sankt Wendel in German. Hard to tell for sure who he was or when he lived.  Not much is known, other than he seems to have been the son of a Scottish King.  Wendelin means wanderer or pilgrim in old German.  Wendel wandered around 600 A.D., give or take.  When he died, he was buried in the cell he had inhabited for years.  Not sure anybody knows where that is.  They’re still wandering….The town grew up nearby and when in 1320 a pestilence threatened the local livestock, it was said that St Wendel interceded to save them.

When you first enter the St Wendel market, the first thing you notice is a huge crown of pine bows, adorned with strings of eggs.  To be exact, there are some 2000 hand-painted eggs.

Stalls, selling everything from blankets to cheeses line every street.  And the day we were there, the streets were packed.

You find street performers, pens with rabbits of every description, a whole tent dedicated to intricately arranged bunny tableaus, and best of all, lots of glühwein, wurst, and beer.  Also, the best churros I’ve eaten outside of Spain.

On to the questions.  What do rabbits and eggs have to do with celebrating the day that Jesus Christ arose from the tomb?

In pre-Christian Germany (which wasn’t even Germany back then), people worshiped many gods and goddesses, including Eostra, the goddess of both spring and fertility. Her symbol was the rabbit because of the animal’s high reproduction rate.  Eggs also symbolize new life and new beginnings.  Somewhere in the 17th Century, a story popped up featuring eggs and rabbits, or so I’m told.

As pre-Christian Germany converted to Roman Catholicism, many of the pagan traditions and celebrations were cleverly folded into the new religion.  After all, believing is one thing, but giving up holidays and feast days is quite another.  To complete the chain, when German immigrants came to America, they brought their traditions with them, presenting a glorious marketing opportunity for candy factories and greeting card makers.  Egg producers were quick to chime in, along with egg hiders and nest makers.  Heck, you already started with bunnies and eggs, so why not add a little more.

I really don’t give a damn, as long as I get my beer and wurst.  As I said, who wants to give up a feast day?

St Wendel is one heck of a small town, with restaurants and cafes galore.  If you don’t get to the Easter Market this year, mark-it (I love puns) on your list for next year.  Friendly crowds and a lovely celebration.

Have some tea!

Baumbrot - a Romanian tradition

Friday, March 15, 2013

Über die Landschaft – the German Countryside

Gettin' out and about
Any German Bakery will be a delicious experience...

See what I mean?

You may even find a flea market or two (Flohmarkt)

In every village there is a church worth seeing.

Flowers must be required by law...they're everywhere

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing sissy about camping out in the big cities of Europe, savoring the delights of a five star hotel and going to all the eateries, museums, and festivals that Fodor and Michelin point out.  I do it all the time.  After all, I’m married.

But, for a treat that will forever loom large in your travel memories, grab your car and your camera and scoot through the countryside.  Wander through the villages.  Stop at that little bakery that caught your eye. Try out that little restaurant with a dozen cars parked outside.  Hey, the Germans are friendly and welcoming.

Along your drive, marvel at the broad expanses of fields and forests in shades of green you’ve never imagined.

You’re not going to get lost with a GPS, or a map.  The signs are in German, but we use the same alphabet and you’ll figure out where you are.

Some of the villages have only one restaurant, which certainly isn’t mentioned in the travel guides.  In good weather, you’re sure to see a wurst (sausage) stand (Imbiss).  Grab some coffee or a beer, park the car and wander the narrow streets that have witnessed many, many lifetimes of history.

Ah, but the faint of heart murmur, “What if I don’t know the language???”   You’ve got a forefinger and a smile. What more do ya need?   You might even get lucky and find an older, or a younger person in the mood to practice English.

Why do I pick the opposite ends of the age spectrum?  Germans from ages 50 on up learned survival English at the end of the war.  Simple reason, the economy lay ragged and broken.  The new American bases offered jobs.  But, you had to speak English.

For the young, it’s a different situation.  English TV and music permeates the media.  Depending on where you live, you may have to search for German music on the radio.  Then there are the schools.  German kids take six years of English.  The rub is, their teachers are no better than ours and how many of us felt comfortable after a few years of high school French, or Spanish, or German?  But, German kids are approachable.  Usually you’ll get a smile and either an answer, or a shrug.  A common answer is:  “I only speak a little, “ meaning the kid just read Moby Dick in English and can sing along with the American Country Countdown.

Don’t mean to jump into a German lesson, but here are a few basics:

Hello is ‘Hallo,’ pronounced ‘Hallow.’

Goodbye is ‘Tchus’ and if you can’t manage that, just use the Italian, ‘Ciao,’ pronounced chow.  Damn near universal these days.

What is that?  ‘Was ist das?’  pronounced  ‘Vas isT das?’

Where is….?    ‘Wo ist…..” then add an English word that’s the same as German:  Bank, Restaurant, Hotel. 

Please is ‘Bitte,’ pronounced like bitter if you grew up in Boston.

Thanks is ‘Danke,’ pronounced ‘Danka.’

Ok, now you’re armed for a leisurely sweep through the rolling hills, the tiny villages, the broad expanses of a green countryside that almost defies description.  You’ll stride fearlessly into tiny cafes and restaurants and feast on sensational dishes, accompanied by fabulous wines.  Best of all, the prices will be pretty much what you’d expect in America.

Get off the beaten path.  Leave the big cities behind and follow your instincts.  Germany is a wonderful, beautiful country.  Don’t miss it!


Monday, March 11, 2013

G Is Not For German: There’s Gotta Be A Better Way???


At least in Germany, G does not stand for German.  D is for German, written as Deutsch and pronounced as Doy-ch, like someone attached an alligator clip to your genitals in the middle of a sneeze.

But, the main question is, how do you learn German?  Sans alligator clips. Deutsch has a reputation for being VERY difficult.  Intimidating even.  Why?  You expect me to have the answer?  Very keen insight on your part.

Here’s a hint:  How did you learn English?  Folks,  I’m here to make you forget all the foreign language lessons you never learned in high school!

Let’s grab the cow by the udders and glance at the basics.

Deutsch is difficult for two reasons, three types of the: der, die, das, AND grammar rules used like a cat-o-nine tails by sadistic language teachers. Simple as that. 

Nailing grammar to your brain before you can even say, “My you have nice breasts,” frustrates the average hormone infused student enough to make him fling adjectives and irregular verbs around like grenades at a Taliban birthday bash.  It also distracts him while he’s trying to catch another glimpse.

Backwards seems to be an unknown concept. Language teachers insist it’s a good idea to stuff your feet in your shoes, then work on the socks. Want to mess with a grammarian’s so-called mind?  Let him blunder on about the subjunctive and prepositional phrases, then ask how many direct objects he just used.

The point is, we don’t think grammatically, or even in individual words.  Ask people to repeat what they just said and you’ll see what I mean.  They’ll repeat the idea, but not necessarily the same words.

Grammar is an evil concept, meant to teach students that language teachers are Einsteins and students have brains very similar to donkey feces. 

I have a friend who was told by her teacher (in a land far away) to give up trying to learn English.  She did not have ‘language aptitude.’

She fled from the classroom and now speaks English as well as anyone.  Large vocabulary.  Perfect grammar.  Effortless conversation.  A secret method?  Yes.  She started speaking English and kept at it.  Grammar tiptoed in, almost unnoticed.

I have another foreign friend who can read difficult novels in English and write grammatically correct term papers.  But, even simple conversations baffle him.  “I go….no, no I went….wait, I am going in my pants.”  You can see the conjugations stampeding through his grammatical mind like lovesick bulls at breeding time that can’t find a heifer.  Unfortunately, conversation is never orderly.  It flows, not from ‘fill-in-the-blank’ workbook pages, but from peoples’ swiftly flowing imaginations.

Another thing to keep in mind:  reading, writing, and speaking are different skills.  Mastering a couple, still leaves two down and one to go.

So back to der, die, das and how they romp like diabolical elves slashing and mutilating even the simplest sentences. I drive my car.  I drive it often.  In English my is my is myIt is always itThe is always the.

Ah, but in German, not so fast, Heinz! My could be mien, meine, or meinen, depending.  It could be sie, es, er, or ihn, depending on the verb and gender.  Forgive me if I’ve forgotten a few mys and its.  Still trying to claw my way through.

I clean my room.  I like to clean it.  Think it is still going to be es?  Think my is still going to be mein?  Guess again, Herman.  First ya gotta jump down, turn around, pick a bale ‘o cotton.

So how in the frapping, flimflam jamming, darkest corners of hell, do you learn German without studying grammar rules and chewing your knuckles off ?????

Let’s ask some experts.  (Hint: figure out a way to immerse yourself.)

Youtube.  Take Bennie the Irish Polyglot, who says, “Commit to speaking only your target language for a month.” Try that with friends and family and they’ll avoid you like a bad odor, or they’ll search out a German-speaking psychiatrist.

Bennie says your brain ‘hacks’ a language just like you hack into a computer program.  Bennie did poorly in high school language classes.  Now he speaks ten languages fluently and happily.  Bennie has a point.  I know a woman who learned German by watching German TV programs for hours on end.  One other big tip from Bennie:  He strives to make 100 mistakes a day in his target language.

Online courses. and are two of my favorites.

Cds.  My favorite of all language teachers, Michel Thomas, has you listening and speaking in a steady progression.  Instead of concentrating on verb conjugations, he leads you through all the ways of expressing your thoughts.  You quickly go from “We are staying here,” to “We would have stayed longer if we had known you were coming.”  But, wait a minute!  You didn’t write anything down and didn’t discuss how to conjugate the conditional?  Hold on!  There were no books or homework! He didn't even mention 'conditional tense!' That’s impossible!

Think so?  Over coffee at my local Backerei, I overheard a couple of German children saying they were coming to the bakery this morning because they wouldn’t be able to come this afternoon.  In German!  Please don’t tell me kids learn much faster than adults.  I don’t think so.  Takes them a couple of years to utter a useful syllable. I think kids learn to communicate by listening and speaking without ever having to overcome mistaking their brains for donkey feces.

I could be wrong.  I’ll let you know how it comes out for this dirty mind.  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from those of you who learned another language to the fluidly conversational level.  Tell me how you did it!