Thursday, August 27, 2009

The details

What am I supposed to be blogging about? I know there was something…

We have about a million pictures, and I had a bunch of things to say about each one, but throw all the pictures in one folder, give me a week or two, and I can't come up with an interesting story to save my life.

I guess that's why you're supposed to keep travel diaries and blogs. So that you will always remember the stories that are so important you'll forget them a week later.

Yup. Blogging is all about the memorable things.

So…a post. How about some pictures?

A dragonfly.

Doesn't he have a funny little face?

Did you know that they can tilt their heads to look at you quizzically?

Me either.

We spent a long time sizing one another up on Saturday afternoon. I guess a macro lens must look pretty odd with all those eyes.


A sunset.

Gorgeous, impossible to adequately capture on film (or in pixels, if you want to be all accurate about it).

One thing I really love about this apartment is the west-facing window.

A cat.

Wondering why I think it's funny that she's tucked herself into bed and pulled up the covers, and why I'm disturbing her nap.

Small things.

The details of life.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I promised you a post about Bruchsal, didn't I?


Bruchsal is another town close to Bretten, and not quite so small. The people that we met in Karlsruhe were from Bruchsal. We wanted to explore the town, and so we headed out a couple of weekends ago.

We left around mid-morning, and went for a wander.

Sometimes, we go to a new place with a plan. We do our research, find all the tourist spots, make ourselves a list, and strike out.

Other times, we don't. We go, we walk, and we see what we find. Our feet take us places without any real direction, and we get a better feel for a place than we would if we stuck to the tourist spots.

This first day, we just wandered. When we got off of the train, we followed the crowd of people until it thinned to just one or two. We walked through the Saturday market in the town square. We wandered down side streets, looking for something to catch our fancy, to cry out to be explored.

We walked up a long hill, and happened upon a Kindergarten museum.

We weren't in a museum kind of mood, so we didn't go in. But they had a beautiful garden.

Then, we found a church with onion-shaped steeples.

It's too bad it was closed, because the sign said it had an incredible interior.

We wandered some more, and found a park with a bike trail that ran along the river. We didn't take photos, but we stopped there for lunch. We picked Mirabelles from a now-wild tree.

They later became part of the stachelbeeren jelly. Small, sweet. For those of you that know Rainier cherries, these are very similar, except that you replace the cherry flavor with plum.

We stopped at a café, and Branden had an icecream. It's practically a national pastime here, apparently. On a sunny Saturday all the Eiscafes have outdoor tables full of people enjoying elaborate icecream sundaes. I didn't take a picture. Probably because I was jealous.

My non-dairy ice tea was also quite good.

When we'd walked enough, we went back to the train and headed home.

We mentioned our trip to some of our friends, and they were surprised we hadn't gone to the castle. So, when we were close by with them, we stopped in and had a look.

In all our wanderings, we'd somehow missed the palace. A whole little world unto itself.

Or, if you prefer, you can be in the center of it.

(Click and drag in the picture to look around. It's interactive!)

The funny thing is that the entire façade is painted onto a very simple, almost flat exterior wall. No marble necessary. I've never seen this in a castle before.

I guess it saves on decorations.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of cabbages and cats

I like cabbage. The problem is, that cabbages are never small. In fact, they are usually downright huge.

We bought a cabbage last week that was very big. Like, as big as a cat.


Artemis: You're comparing me to what??

Artemis: Oh. Ok. At least you're taking my picture.

Artemis: What is that thing, anyway?

We've been eating a lot of cabbage this week.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


It's been pretty quiet around here lately, and I've had one report of broken comments. We've checked, and are having no trouble from our end, so I'm not sure what's wrong. Send me an email (erica dot gunn at gmail dot com) if you're trying to comment and it's not working! (browser and login info would be helpful)

Butterfly Flutterby

A week or so ago, I was walking back from town, and saw a bush full of butterflies.

There were at least 20 or 30 of the orange ones, and 2 or 3 black ones.

And then there was a funny hover-bee kinda thing:

A little bit of unexpected beauty in the day.

I am so glad we got a macro lens.

Friday, August 14, 2009


There is an old Benedictine cloister in the town of Maulbronn, a few kilometers from Bretten. We've visited there with friends twice now.

Here's the central square:

(Click and drag in the picture to look around. It's interactive!)

Over by the gate is a little shop called "The Herb Witch" where we bought some rosemary and herbal tea.

The inside of the church is painted with frescoes dating back to the 1400's.

The stained glass windows are not originals; they were replaced after the war, but they are beautiful nonetheless.

The cloister gardens are still maintained, and are full of fruit trees, neat rows of vegetables, and raspberry brambles.

(Click and drag in the picture to look around. It's interactive!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


It rained on our first trip to Karlsruhe, so we didn't really take any pictures worth showing. We went with friends from work, and ended up shopping, wandering through European malls gawking at all the American Eagle on the shelves. Really? How many torn jeans and stone-washed t-shirts does Europe need?

Our second trip felt a little more European and a little less imported-American. We spent an entire day exploring the palace in Karlsruhe.

This isn't the palace, but it's right at the edge of the palace lawn, and it has very pretty arches:

And here's a panoramic taken on the palace lawn:

Click and drag to have a look around.

There was some violence going on out on the pavilion.

I'm not sure who the guy with the club is, but it's clear that he's not fond of the dragon. He had a friend with similar objections to a lion.

There was also a very elite group of gods and goddesses, including Pan with his flute, Diana with her bow and arrow, and many others. I am not well-educated enough in classical mythology to identify them all, but the lawn was practically a god convention.

And the ones not on the lawn were parading across the palace roof. I guess that's allowed, if you're a god.

We went inside intending to look at the palace itself, but there was a special exhibit on Art Nouveau going on, and a very nice older couple offered to translate the guided tour for us. We weren't allowed to take pictures, so I have nothing to show you from that exhibit, but it covered the entire Art Nouveau movement, where artists sought to find design inspiration in nature. There were lots of curves and floral motifs, and a distinct focus on art in practical items. Some of our favorite pieces were chairs with very detailed floral designs made out of inlaid wood. It is also the period where wallpaper became common; bringing floral patterns inside the home. To be really fashionable, all of your décor had to reflect the same general pattern; the wallpaper should match the china, which should also coordinate with the furniture and the artwork on the walls. Better make sure you really love that pattern before buying!

The tour was very well done, and we got a lot out of it, thanks to our newfound friends who translated for the entire hour and a half. They live in Bruchsal, another small town in the area that we're hoping to visit soon visited last weekend and that I will write about when the pictures are ready.

This is the second time that complete strangers have gone out of their way to help us get the most out of our visit (Peter and Paul was the first). I would like to think that they would receive the same hospitality in the states, but I'm not so sure. I don't know that I've ever seen an American offer to translate an entire museum tour for a non-native speaker. It's certainly something worth emulating, though.

We had about an hour before the tour started, and so took a quick look at the palace itself. We went up a lot of stairs.

And enjoyed the beautiful view from the tower. (Click and drag to look around)

We saw jewel-encrusted crowns and swords.

And I think it's safe to assume that those are real jewels, and real gold. Hard to imagine wearing such a thing.

We also saw a photo of the palace as it looked after the bombing in WWII.

Scroll back up to the top and compare this with the building that you see today.

As Americans, we're not used to confronting the cultural losses of war face on, but here it's a normal part of life. Heidelberg is unique in that its cultural centers were not destroyed during the war (apparently, the damage to their castles was done by the French in smaller skirmishes…). Everywhere else, the great palaces, churches, and museums have all had to be rebuilt, and much was lost that cannot be replaced. It's a sobering thing to stand in these beautiful historical places and realize just how much destruction and rebirth has occurred on these grounds in the past century alone, and just how thoroughly wars shatter the cultural history of the countries that serve as the battleground. Suddenly the idea of "rebuilding" after a war takes on a whole new meaning.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Defensive cooking

As I have said before, I love to try new fruits and vegetables. Branden is not always so enthusiastic, but he generally displays a great deal of forbearance and usually goes along with this crazy habit. (And yes, he was completely right about stinging nettles...they're disgusting.)

I mentioned in the last fruit post that I'd seen another berry-like thing in the grocery store. This week, we bought some:

They're called Stachelbeeren in German; literally "thorn berry." Aren't they beautiful? Translucent green orbs, with lacy veins running through them, and a cluster of dark seeds in the middle.

We played a guessing game before tasting them. I bet that they tasted like kiwi fruit. I couldn't have been closer if I'd already tried one. (I hadn't.)

They are a lot like kiwi. Green interior, big, black seeds. Same almost-strawberry kind of taste. But no furry outside. And a lot of turgor pressure. You think it's hard to stab a cherry tomato with a fork? Hah. I see your cherry tomato and raise you gooseberry.

Gooseberries. I love Google.

People online said that they are very sour (so beware if you ever decide to try them yourself), but these are apparently the very ripe kind that are quite sweet. I like them a lot, but Branden objects to the texture of their skin, and the force required to pierce it.

We had gooseberries with breakfast on Sunday, and I left the tray of them on the table for eating. I was also scheming about a possible fruit tart later in the week. (Not needing to peel a kiwi for the tart = a big plus.)

I also added them to the list of odd things that I should grow in my garden someday. This list gets longer by the minute, as I become more and more envious of the gardens here. Everyone has an orchard but me! They are apparently a normal part of having a yard here. Of course, the fact that orchards come standard in your yard is not helpful if you don't have a yard. Ah, well. Someday.

This morning, I walked by the table and noticed that all of the gooseberries had turned red. There had been a few red ones before, but now the whole container was red. Closer investigation reveals a very interesting and rather dramatic trait of the innocent-looking gooseberry.

Apparently, when gooseberries get overripe, they take all that extra turgor pressure and use it to explode.

This is an extremely effective way for a plant to operate. I must commend them for their genius. This way, the seeds lay not only where the parent fruit fell, but anywhere else that their gooey liquid was able to carry them. Ingenious.

All in all, it is a rather helpful way for something to go bad. There's no mistaking it. If the berry has exploded, you don't eat it. Simple as that. I much prefer this to other fruits where you only realize that it's gone after you bite into it. And if something has to be nasty when it spoils, it might as well go whole hog and put on a show, right?

Of course, the show was rather messy, as they often are. Especially given that the projections of berry goo were apparently also an instant recipe for white mold. And they stink. Think banana peels that have been in the trash a day too long.

Gestunken. A lot.

(No that is nothing like proper grammar, but it makes me happy that I got to use gestunken in a blog post!!)

So, I did what any self-respecting hausfrau would do: I threw them out picked through the entire bin and pulled out all the unexploded berries.

Clearly, they needed to be used quickly, if only in self-defense. Visions of fruit tart were shattered.

But what do you do with exploding berries?

Boil them, of course.

After careful washing, I put all the gooseberries in a pot, along with some currants and some mirabelles that we'd picked on Saturday in the park in Bruschal. (No, you did not miss anything. In an odd twist of delayed-post-blogging, we have not uploaded these pictures yet, and so you know nothing of Bruschal, or of mirabelles. All in good time. For now, mirabelles are another new fruit, and we had a bunch of them.)

I put the mirabelles, exploding gooseberries, and some leftover currants in a pot, added a little bit of water, and boiled.

In about 5 minutes, all the skins had peeled off, and I was left with assorted berry pulp.

I pressed that through the pasta strainer, and was left with a very pretty red liquid. It smelled wonderful.

It tasted like I had swallowed the sourest black hole in the universe. Boy was that a pucker face. Branden was not here to take pictures, so I'm afraid I can't show you what it looked like, but I definitely think there had to be some kind of antimatter-meets-matter going on to pull that kind of vacuum.

So. Sugar.

I added sugar until I could envision actually enjoying this liquid (about a cup of sugar for the 2-3 cups of liquid), and then let it boil for a while. As I wasn't expecting to be coming up with uses for overripe fruit on the fly, I had no pectin* in the house, but I'd read that gooseberries are high in natural pectin, so there was some hope that this would turn into something like jelly.

The liquid did start to thicken, but not enough to get a good gel. Then I remembered that pectin doesn't work if you don't have enough sugar. And, if anything, this juice was a little short on the sugar. So I added some more, and it immediately got thicker.

This was a good sign. I kept adding sugar a little at a time until I had enough in there that the jelly started sheeting.**

And it did. Beautifully. I'm not sure that I've ever gotten a jelly this good with pectin added. After just a few minutes of cooling, it can hold its own weight (doesn't flop into a puddle), tears like jelly should (think lumps of Welch's grape), and tastes really good.

It's not quite a fruit tart, but I'm pretty happy with the save.

And those gooseberry bushes? Waaay out back, behind the shed.

*Pectin is the stuff that makes jelly gel. It's a fruit starch, and if the fruit has enough pectin, you don't need to add more. Still, you usually add extra pectin when you want jelly to make sure that you actually get jelly and not just a vat of boiling liquid.

**Sheeting is the term for when a jelly holds together and runs off the spoon in sheets rather than dripping. When your jelly begins sheeting, it's time to take it off the heat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

On beer

Beer is not a drink. It's a social institution. Think about it. You don't get together with friends. You get together and have a beer. Backyard barbecues and summer parties are incomplete (in most people's minds) without large doses of the amber liquid. Even the president of our fine country apparently invites people over for a beer to make up for (real or imagined) political gaffes. Beer is not just a drink; it is practically a social currency.

All of this makes things difficult when you can't swallow the stuff. You are not refusing a beverage; you are refusing a gesture of goodwill. Even if the person offering it attempts to understand, it's still the equivalent of refusing a handshake in many situations. Despite this fact, neither Branden nor I have ever been able to feign a love for fermented wheat juice. We managed to fake our way into liking wine. It took a while, but eventually we even came to like the stuff.

Not so with beer.

Even in Seattle, land of microbreweries, we did not find a beer that we could drink without a grimace. (Smirnoffs and Mike's Hard Lemonade do not count...they are candy masquerading as alcohol.)

It was with some trepidation, then, that we entered into the social scene in Germany, where beer is even more of a national pastime than it is in the US. Americans drink beer. Germans live on it.

Just to give you some sense of the importance of beer in Germany, every type and brand has its own glass. You will never be served a Guinness in a Pils glass. That would be sacrilege. Every household owns a set of the glasses that correspond to their preferred brand(s) of beer, and you will be served in those glasses and no other, so they must have enough of each glass to serve guests also. This makes for very large glass cupboards. Every glass has a calibrated fill line to tell you exactly how much space to leave for the head, and exactly how much is in your glass when it arrives. It's like a graduated cylinder for beer, which amuses me to no end.

Even paper cups come with fill lines and volume markings. You will never again wonder if your friend got more than you, or if the waitress should have filled your glass a little more, because it says right there, on the glass itself. Nothing like precision.

It can actually cost more to get a glass of tap water in a restaurant than to get a liter of beer. And after dinner, everyone sits around and drinks a few more beers. And, unlike the US, nursing a drink for an entire evening isn't really an option. I've seen half a liter downed in a single swallow after the toast. Here, you drink your beer.

Of course, we had to try it. German beer is different than American beer, and you can't say you don't like it until you've tried it.* So we did. And, shockingly, it is palatable. I can't claim ownership of the idea that a cold beer is the ultimate, perfect end to a day, but we can actually drink (and enjoy) German beer. We even bought some in the supermarket on our own, without prompting. Will wonders never cease.

Of course, being able to drink German beer is not equivalent to being able to drink beer like a German. I think you have to train to be able to drink this stuff and keep your legs (which might have something to do with us buying it in the supermarket). It's not a shock that a half a liter does me in. I'm a lightweight. Always have been, probably always will be. But when Branden can feel it after a liter, that's some strong stuff.

Of course, if our newfound liking for beer does become an actual fondness for the stuff, we might be in trouble. Just about every German we've met (and probably some that we haven't) has told us that you can't get beer like this in the US, and that even German beers exported to the US are not as good as they are in Germany. There are even some stories about beers being shipped after their German expiration date, because Americans will drink anything.

I don't know how true that is (it has a whiff of urban legend to me), but I do have to agree that American beer and German beer are different. And, while we do like German beer, perhaps we should be careful not to fall in love.

*This is The Rule, though I freely admit that I do make exceptions in some cases. Blood pudding, sweet meat, and Haggis come to mind as reasonable exceptions to this rule. Good thing we're not in Scotland.