Category Archives: this and that

Just Sayin’…

I was watching a TV show yesterday, one that’s set in the Shetland Islands (and is, incidentally, called Shetland. What a coincidence). Anyway, there was a character in that episode named Catriona. You know, just like Cat in my Septimus Series. Nice name, right?

But then, to my great shock, I heard the name pronounced “Katrina”. Cat-REE-nah. Oh dear. I’ve always pronounced it Cat-ree-OH-nah. Have I been mispronouncing my own character’s name all these years?

I’m a bit of a stickler for correctly pronouncing people’s names. I am, with great regularity, on the receiving end of first-name mispronunciation, my name being Angelika. Now, if you’re German, you’ve just mentally pronounced it like this: Ang-GAY-lick-uh – hard g, emphasis on second syllable. That’s good. But if you’re English-speaking, chances are very high that you’ve said it like this: An-jel-EEK-uh – soft g, emphasis on third syllable. For some reason, most English-speaking people do it that way – I don’t know why. If it’s spelled with a c, Angelica, they say An-JEL-lick-uh, which I much prefer. My best guess is that with the k spelling, they see it and go “Eeep, foreign! Must be pronounced weird,” and that’s what they come up with. Or maybe they’re thinking of the only other English word that ends with “-ika”, which is “paprika”, and model the twisting on that.

Anyway, point being is that I want to pronounce people’s names correctly, even if they’re fictional people I’ve invented and named myself. So I was a little dismayed to hear Cat’s name said very differently from how I’ve always done it. To be honest, if the name is going to be pronounced Katrina, I’d just as soon have it spelled that way – and I wouldn’t have chosen that name for Cat. It’s a nice name and all, but I like Catriona better.

So I looked it up – thank you, Google and Youtube. And to my relief I found that my mispronunciation is actually a legitimate way of saying the name. Cat-ree-OH-nah. You can also go with Cat-REE-oh-nah (like Hermione, Her-MY-oh-nee), so there are actually three different ways of saying it. The Gaelic is Cat-REE-nah, but the version with OH in it is legit too – it’s more of an American pronunciation, which works because my Cat is meant to be American (with Canadian or maybe Scottish grandparents – hey, maybe her mom named her Cat-ree-OH-nah, and her grandmother, who raised her and was a bit of a stickler, always insisted on Cat-REE-oh-nah? That only just occurred to me.).

Now, don’t get me wrong – if you’ve been reading the Septimus books, and you’ve mentally pronounced Cat’s name as Katrina, that’s perfectly fine by me. As long as you like my Cat, and make her your own, that’s wonderful, and you can pronounce her name any way you see fit. Incidentally, the same goes for Guy – I say it as “guy” (as in, “That guy is a potter,” which is where his name originated), but if you want to say it the French way, “ghee”, feel free.

Life, the Universe, and Ways to Say a Name. But Steve is always Steve.

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Here’s a picture of Steve (St-EE-v) and his cousin Alfred (ALF-red).

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Rearview Mirror on a Summer

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Long Beach, Vancouver Island

September has come, it is hers / Whose vitality leaps in the autumn…*

Except that my vitality ain’t doing too much leaping at the moment. I’m still scrambling to catch up with the long, busy, and, above all, “away” summer – you’ve seen a few of the pictures. We left home on July 9th; spent two weeks in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island; came home; then after all of two days I hopped on a plane (or rather, a series of them), and headed for Europe for a month. A few days of sightseeing in Munich; three weeks of family stuff (helping with a move, to be precise); then to cap it off, three glorious days in London.

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Marienplatz, Munich, with Mary’s Column and Old Town Hall

Six weeks, 1500 photos, a wealth of experiences and memories. My house and garden, meanwhile, went to pot. As for my writing – well, I was going to say that nothing happened on that front, either. But that would actually be quite untrue. No, I didn’t really put any words to paper (or screen, as it were). But among those 1500 photos are quite a few that I took specifically as references for my WIP (that’s short for Work In Progress, for the un-artsy of you). The whole time in Germany I was soaking up atmosphere, sounds, tastes, sights – all with a mind to how that could be put to paper. My hotel in London was a converted Regency townhouse – inspiration pure (I might just have to write a Regency novel one of these days just so I can set it in that street; it was called Burton Crescent in those days).

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Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury

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I want to go back…

One street over, Tavistock Square, was where both Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens lived for a while and wrote To the Lighthouse and A Tale of Two Cities, respectively. Five minutes walk up the street was the British Library – I got to see original manuscripts by (i.e. stare in awe at the notebooks of) Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde; my jaw literally dropped when in one of the gorgeous glass cases I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels, and in another the Codex Sinaiticus… But I didn’t just revel in high-brow literature – I stopped in at King’s Cross Station and took a look at the Platform 9 3/4 store with its trolley stuck into the wall, too.

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The one and only portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra. National Portrait Gallery, London.

I drank Bavarian beer in Munich, Württemberger wine in Stuttgart, and English cider in London; I ate pork roast with dumplings in the Hofbräuhaus, lentils and spätzle in the old part of Stuttgart, and beef-and-ale pie in a pub by King’s Cross. I got claustrophobic in the Bloody Tower as one of the bloody masses of tourists and sat in silence in the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart among a few other visitors stopped in to pray. I revelled in train rides and was moved to tears by world-famous paintings. And in between, I packed boxes and unpacked boxes; walked to the grocery store, walked to public transit, walked to visit people, and on Sundays went for walks by way of recreation.

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Beef pie and Symonds cider, in honest-to-goodness London pub

And now I’m back home in the land of peaches and salsa and grapes, where one has to take the car even to buy a jug of milk. I have limitless wi-fi again, so I’m catching up with what I’ve missed on the internet (which I haven’t actually missed that much – I’m considering making this a lifestyle). And I’m bound and determined to get back to writing. I have great good intentions to regularly sit down and work on my, well, work. One can always be optimistic, no? I certainly have enough inspiration to carry me along for a while.

Life, the Universe, and a Long Busy Travelling Summer. Now to process all those impressions…

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Franz Marc, “Birds”. Lenbachhaus, Munich. So beautiful it made me cry.

*opening line from a poem by Louis McNeice, Autumn Journal

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Let Them Eat Cake, or: How to Have Kaffee und Kuchen

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The cake buffet

The first event on my current trip to Germany was yet another family birthday, a big one. And, as is usual, it was celebrated with food – lovely food, homemade food, mountains and lashings of food. In this case, cake.

Germany has a cake culture. Well, a whole baked-goods culture, actually – it’s the country with the most varieties of bread, which is the staple food, eaten for breakfast, break (even called “Brotzeit“, bread time, in some places), and supper. (Dinner – eaten at midday – is a cooked meal, and it does not usually include bread.) Having a good bakery in easy reach is crucial for one’s comfort – “Give us this day our daily bread”, and all that.

But there are times when the occasion calls for cake. And Germans know how to make the most of it. None of this “Bake one cake, and serve a single slice at the end of a large meal when you’re already stuffed” thing. No – cake (like bread) needs to be properly appreciated. So eating cake is a separate meal here: Kaffee und Kuchen, coffee and cake. It takes place in the mid-afternoon, half-way between dinner/lunch and supper, and it consists of, well, coffee and cake. Or tea and cake, or cocoa or milk or juice and cake.

Now, let me be clear: this is not a daily occurrence. Not even a weekly one, to the extent I’m showing it here. It’s a special-occasion one, for holidays, celebrations and company. On an ordinary weekday, many Germans have a cup of coffee and perhaps a few cookies or some other goodie in the middle of the afternoon; and for Sundays, they might bake a cake – a simpler one, say, a pound cake – or get a few pieces of Torte from the aforementioned bakery. But if there’s special company (like, a relative who’s visiting from Canada), or it’s Easter, or someone has a big-number birthday, they’ll pull out all the stops. It’s perfect for inviting guests – as festive as you could wish, but you can prepare everything ahead of time, don’t have to fuss with hot food, and the guests don’t stay ’til all hours.

So next time you find yourself in Germany, and someone says “Kommen Sie zum Kaffee!” (“Come for coffee!”), first of all, feel honoured (Germans aren’t quick to invite people to their houses, so an invitation like that is special). And here is what you can expect:

Kaffee und Kuchen usually happens around 4:00 PM, or 16:00 Uhr (saykh-tsayn Oor, sixteen o’clock). It’s not just a quick hand-you-a-cup-of-coffee affair, but a sit-down meal at a nicely set table, and it can easily last an hour or more – because, of course, eating is only part of the point; having a conversation is the main thing.

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One of the fancy-set tables

For a proper Kaffee a hostess will often put out her good china, and perhaps bring out a nice cut-crystal dish for the whipped cream. (Side note: no ice cream with cake here – ice cream is another thing that’s enjoyed by itself in its own right, not as an afterthought to cake; and it usually comes out as an immediate after-dinner dessert or special treat, not with Kaffee und Kuchen). The table is set with cake plates, coffee cups & saucers, cake forks and teaspoons. In the middle of the table, there’s the creamer and sugar bowl, whipped cream, and platter of cake – or platters, rather, as it’s usual to have at least two, if not three or more kinds of cakes.

The number of goodie varieties depends on the number of guests, of course. For today’s birthday party, which took place in a church hall and had about 45 guests, there were 12 cakes. Go ahead, pick up your dropped jaw again. It was lavish, and people commented on just how lavish (especially as the hostess had baked almost all of the cakes herself), but not all that unusual. Did I mention Germans know how to appreciate cake? By the end, about half or two-thirds of the cakes had been eaten, and whoever wanted to got to take a few pieces of the remainders home.

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Some of the aftermath, complete with paper plates for leftovers.

Of course with this number of cakes you don’t get to try every single variety – not because it would be socially unacceptable, but because it’s physically impossible. So you choose your favourites, and have those (apricot cheese cake, raspberry cream, red currant meringue, and fruit flan for me, in this case). With a buffet-style Kaffee und Kuchen like we had today, it’s fine to put a couple of pieces of cake on your plate at once, eat them, and go back for seconds; in a smaller circle (which is the normal way) you’ll just let your hostess serve you one piece at a time, eat it, make appreciative noises, then have another one. Repeat until fill point is reached, then say “Nein, danke!” (No, thank you!) to the next offering (you might have to repeat that phrase several times with escalating levels of firmness before it’s accepted as a fact that you actually don’t want more).

Speaking of appreciative noises, letting your hostess or host know that their cakes are amazing, impressive and utterly delicious and that you’d love to have more but you absolutely can’t (“Ich kann nicht mehr!“) is always acceptable. Appreciated hostess is a happy hostess, and you’re that much more likely to get invited back next time. Incidentally, you might also bring along a little hostess gift to express your gratitude for the invitation, especially if it is a special occasion – some flowers, or chocolates, or what-have-you.

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Someone’s leftover-cake package with the butterfly decorations from the tables.

By the way, Kaffee und Kuchen is something that’s practised at all ages. A children’s birthday party is often held as a Kaffee – it’s still called that even though the kids don’t drink coffee, but have cocoa or juice or pop. Also, the goodies are often more kid-friendly; one of my aunts, who long since passed away, for kids always made her specialty of fresh-baked waffle cones, which she filled right in front of you with whipped cream from a cream syphon (the kind that coffee shops top fancy drinks with) – it was very exciting.

As I said before, many Germans will bake their own cakes for a nice Kaffee und Kuchen, but it’s also perfectly acceptable to buy some from a bakery, which will usually have a really good selection. Another option for Kaffee und Kuchen is to go to a café for it. In that case, the timing is the same (mid-afternoon on Sundays or special occasions – perhaps on an outing), but you’ll generally only order one piece of cake with your cup of coffee or tea – and that’s usually enough, too, as café portions tend to be generous.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever heard the term Kaffeeklatsch or Coffee Klatsch, that’s where it comes from: women meeting in the afternoon over Kaffee und Kuchen and having a big gossip fest.

Life, the Universe, Kaffee und Kuchen. What’s your favourite kind?

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News from the Writing Trenches: #amtravelling, #amwriting

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I know I’ve been really quiet on here lately – well, it’s because life happens. Steve and I are on the road at the moment, and will be for most of the rest of the summer, visiting friends and family, and doing a little bit of sightseeing – no, sorry, research! – on the side.

But I thought I’d let you know that writing is still happening, in a manner of speaking. Some of it is just thinking about it (long drives in the car are perfect for that); some is editing of previous work; some is writing in short bursts in a little notebook. The latter is a new one for me – I do all my “serious” writing on the computer. But maybe this very “being not serious” that writing longhand in a tiny book entails is what I need at the moment.

So, writing still goes on. I’ll let you know when there’s something to let you know. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for new experiences, scenes and ideas – writing material is everywhere.

Now Steve’s got his backpack on and he’s ready to go for another day, so I better get on with it.

Life, the Universe, and News From The Writing Trenches. Happy Summer!

PS: If you do Twitter or Instagram, you can follow me at @amoffenwanger – I’ll be posting the odd picture there.

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Happy 150th Birthday, #Canada!

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1 July 2017 · 07:00

Biscuit, Biscuit, and Biscuit

I was reviving my refrigerator micro-pets, aka waking up the kefir and the sourdough which usually languishes in the back of the fridge. Twice-daily feeding of the critters makes for a fair amount of excess sourdough. There’s only so much bread you can bake, and it usually takes all day, which is inconvenient – so what to do with the stuff? I could just dump it in the compost, I suppose – and I’ve done just that, too. But it’s wasteful, so really a last-ditch thing to do (haha, see what I did there? Last ditch, ditching the sourdough. I’m so funny).

Also, due to one thing and another, I was feeling in need of something very basic, old-fashioned to do, something nourishing, something non-electronic.  Sourdough baking fits the bill.

And I’ve got all this lovely fresh strawberry jam from yesterday – what to put it on? Biscuits, methinks! So I booted up Google (yes, I’m aware of the irony this creates with the preceding paragraph), and found a nice recipe for sourdough biscuits.

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They’re really just ordinary baking powder biscuits with sourdough by way of liquid and some baking soda added, but the sourdough does give it a nice tang. Feeling retro-nostalgic (i.e. longing for a past that I never experienced, when everything was simple and children frolicked in meadows while birdies tweeted in trees instead of people on the internet), I got out the cast iron and baked the biscuits in the 12-inch Lodge skillet. Which, incidentally, worked extremely well; I’ll definitely use the cast iron for baking pans again.

But while the biscuits were merrily baking away, I got to thinking about the word “biscuit”, and how it means something completely different in different countries.

First (or, actually, last – but we’ll get to that in a moment) there is the American meaning, which is the sense I’m using it here, in my trusty Lodge cast iron. American biscuits are medium-sized little soft baking powder cakes or buns – about 3″ across, 1 1/2″ thick, not very sweet, and always, always eaten as fresh as possible, preferrably still hot. They’re a lovely accompaniment to stew or soup, and yes, quite nice with butter and fresh strawberry jam.

Then there’s the English biscuit – what Americans call a cookie. If I’m not mistaken, an English biscuit is most commonly crispy, with a nice crunch to it, suitable for dipping in cups of tea. Also delicious.

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Marguerite Patten, Step by Step Cookery, 1973

And then there’s the German Biskuit (pronounced bis-quit), which is the same as the French biscuit (bis-quee). It’s what English-speaking people would call sponge cake – a soft, light cake batter with lots of eggs, made by separating egg yolks and whites, whipping the whites to stiff peaks, and very carefully folding everything together. It’s the basis for many of the amazing cream cakes and tortes Europe is famous for (a proper Black Forest Cake, for example, is usually a chocolate Biskuit with cherry filling, kirsch, and whipped cream – none of that fake pastry cream concoction American supermarkets deign to call by that name).

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Dr. Oetker, Backen macht Freude, 1987

Now, my guess is that the journey of the word meaning actually went in reverse order from the one I have here – from Latin to French, thence to England, then with the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World where savoury sourdough biscuits were easier to produce in the campfire dutch oven than tea-dipping shortbread fingers. But that’s entirely uneducated guesswork on my part; don’t go quoting me in papers on the history of food.

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Incidentally, there’s also the word “bisque” or “biscuit firing” that potters do – the first firing of the pots after they’ve dried; it’s followed by the glaze or glost firing. “Biscuit” literally means “twice-baked”, so it’s far more apt here than in cooking. Potters also sometimes use biscuits, or cookies, in the kiln – flat discs of unglazed clay to prop smaller items up during glaze firing so if the glaze runs the item doesn’t get glued to the kiln shelf. But I think in that case, the “biscuit” refers to the shape of the thing, not it’s twice-baked aspect. The same goes for a biscuit joint in carpentry, where a small round disc is glued into a slot, holding two adjoining pieces together.

And now the timer on my stove tells me that my cast-iron-baked sourdough bread is ready to come out of the oven, so I’ll leave off my biscuitual musings and see to my loaves.

Life, the Universe, and Biscuits. Pass one over here, please – I don’t care what kind.

 

 

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Jill of All Trades

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Way back, when I first started blogging, I took a blogging course. If you want readers, the teacher said, make your blog be about something. Have a focus! But I didn’t. Because I can’t.

There are lots of blogs that are about one thing, and one thing only. I have friends who write about sewing or knitting. There’s several blogs I follow that are all about fairy tales (like this, or this one). Writers, of course, have blogs about writing. There are great blogs about food (incredible numbers of them! reams of them! mountains of them!). Or Jane Austen. Or photography. Or Norfolk in the 18th century.

To be honest, I feel a bit inferior to those bloggers, if not a bit jealous of them. They’re serious about what they’re doing. They have lots of followers. They know their stuff; their blogs are interesting. But mine… Well, there’s food. And fairy tales. And photos. And Austen, and writing, and pottery and soap-making and history and gardening and cats and herbology and musings on mental health; and then the occasional interlude with a small stuffed bear (he’s been there from the very beginning).

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Chive vinegar I made yesterday

Stick with one thing? I’m sorry, I can’t. Never have been able to. No, I don’t have ADHD (Squirrel!) – more like CCS, Chronic Curiosity Syndrome. There are just too many interesting topics out there for me to restrain myself to just one. I’ll get bitten by an interest bug, and then I’m utterly passionate about it for a while – and then I lose interest, and move on to something else.

Some fifteen years ago, I was crazy about fish – as in, aquaria, not the kind you cook. I’d haunt the pet shops, drooling over the nice setups with the 30-gallon tanks and live plants. A few years before that, it was heirloom sewing and embroidery – hand-stitching clothes with no sewing machine whatsoever (I made some tiny little night gowns for my new baby, and a couple of rag dolls). Cooking. Quilting. Bread making. Soaping. Painting (both walls and pictures – the latter in watercolour, oil, acrylic, pastels…). English history. Calligraphy. Jewellery making. Dollhouses. Furniture building. Art history. Guitar (and recorder, percussion, harmonica; even a tiny bit of piano and pan flute…). Growing herbs, and using them for food and medicine. Been there, done that, all of it; and plenty others besides.

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“Very Small Ink People”, 2011. Ink & Watercolour, 8×10″.

I am, indeed, a Jill of All Trades. But you know the rest of that saying, don’t you? Jack of all trades, master of none. That’s because Jack never sticks with anything long enough to get really good at it.

That’s me – there’s a lot of things that I know how to do or know something about, but it’s all at the level of a first-year apprentice. I play guitar quite well, but nobody would come to hear me in concert. I can paint, but no one is beating on my door begging me for another piece to add to their collection. I’m a darn good cook, even if I say so myself, but I’m not about to open a restaurant. I can make pottery dishes, but they’re none of them exactly the same size or shape, or else great one-off pieces of art. I’m a mine of trivia on history and Jane Austen and fairy tales and herb lore and folk customs, but I’m not going to write books on any of those topics.

Well, maybe not books – but I can write blog posts. Snippets of any and all of these things. That’s why this blog is called “amo vitam” – “I love life”. Some of everything. Jack of all trades, master of none.

Actually, I do have a Master’s degree. But guess what it’s in? I’m a Master of Arts, in Integrated Studies. I got a degree in not making up my mind; I’m a Master of Some-of-Everything-Please. Jill of All Trades, Mistress of Mixed Pickles.

And so that’s what this blog is, too: a great big crock of mixed pickles. (Hmm, crock. Sauerkraut. I want a Sauerkraut crock, one of those straight-sided buff stoneware ones, for making and storing homemade Kraut like they did in the Old Country. I should make myself one. Let’s see… Oh! Oops, sorry, where were we? Right, blog. Mixed pickles.) Yes, I know that it won’t make my blog one of those go-to ones for expert information; that it won’t be one of those sites that people quote in academic papers. And you know what? I think I’m okay with that.

Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s always been about that.

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Steve and some patriotic flowers.

 

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