Olives and Antifreeze ALWAYS come in Two Colors except when They Don’t.

Spring in Sicily. 500 green olive trees against a blue sky.
These 500 olive trees have nothing to do with antifreeze colors, so this is foreshadowing. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We have a supposedly American car, a Ford Fusion, but it lives in Germany, so it has to have German antifreeze. Natch.

Instead of 5-gallon, yellow, Prestone jugs, Germany has white, soda-bottle-sized Kühlerfrostschutz bottles.

I was a little leery about Kühlerfrostschutz, because buying oil for the car was a major research project, even after I copied down all the numbers from my two-volume car owner’s manual. I’ve lived in places with cold winters all of my life, so I get the 10W40 and 5W30 and such (thanks, Dad!).

Still, I was unprepared to be an oil buyer. In Germany, the make and model of my car influences the kind of oil. Really? Remember, it’s a Ford Fusion, not an airplane.

Newsflash: Germany is the land of car drivers. I somehow missed that. I was taken in by the excellent train system.

So, I was cautious about making an impulsive antifreeze purchase. The wrong kind might give my car culture shock. At a local building mart, I asked which antifreeze I should buy, figuring the Hellweg* would be as close to Target or Wallmart as I could get.

*(The name doesn’t mean what you’re thinking–it actually means path of light, but that’s only true at Christmas decoration season. The other building mart is called Obi which sounds like Star Wars, but isn’t.)

My first advisor said he thought the blue antifreeze was for newer cars and red was for older ones, but–maybe because he was half my age–we weren’t quite clear on what ‘older’ meant.

My second advisor said if the car had ‘red’ already in it, it should always get red, because you NEVER mix them. This seemed like an astonishingly simple answer for a car-related topic in Germany.

I asked if there could possibly be another color, but he was very firm: “There’s red and there’s blue.”

So I bought ‘red’, diluted it 50:50 with water, filled up my car, and felt generally virtuous and good-stewardly.

At the grocery store, I found the same antifreeze for half the price. Forget all those rules about what to buy where. What’s worse, I found another color: purple!

What if the red and blue got mixed together one day at the factory and. . .presto, new product? I can’t tell you. I shut my eyes to the purple. It’s the color of Byzantine Emperors and has nothing to do with lowly writers. I remain true to ‘red’.

While at the grocery store, I tried to buy black olives for salad. They all were labelled “geschwärzt” meaning ‘blacked’ like. . .uh, shoe-black.

I always thought black olives were ripe forms of green ones, in the same way that red sweet peppers are ripe forms of green peppers.

Another newsflash: Black olives can be simply ripe olives, but some have Eisen-II-Gluconat (E 579/ferrous gluconate) added to the brine to make them blacker or to ‘fix’ the black color. Evidently, this doesn’t make black olives a good source of dietary iron, but I’m not sure why not.

The California Olive Committee describes something similar, so it’s not just in Germany.

Even if you don’t like olives, the photos in this “Beginner’s Guide to Olives: 14 Varieties to Try” will make you want to go visit all of these places where they grow.

If you’d like to read about the 500 olive trees from the beginning of this post, you can find their story here.

Best wishes with your purchases of whatever color! May your 2018 be filled with happy meals featuring a healthy Mediterranean diet and safe transportation!

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Basic Garden Vocabulary in German and a side-trip to Mexican Oregano

Vegetable garden overtaken by poppies, nasturitiums, cosmos and zucchini plants
Clearly this garden needs tools and more plants. 🙂

I’ve never grown vegetables in Germany–until this year. That means I need lots of new words!

If you’re considering gardening in Germany, maybe this list will help you out. Or provide you with a little entertainment. Or I’ll just be able to look things up here when I forget them. 🙂

die Gartenschnur–garden twine, jute, often dyed green here.
die Harke–rake (memorization: Rake and Harke both have r’s in them.)
die Hacke–hoe

Note: When my father-in-law (from Northern Germany in Sauerland) said Hacke or Harke, I always thought it was the same word. He pronounces the “r” way back in his throat, somewhere near his toes. When we visit this weekend, we’re going to have a Harke/Hacke challenge. Stay tuned!

Update: I’m crushed at how wrong I was. Even I can hear the difference when he says them. On the bright side, I can finally ask for the tool I want.

die Samen–seeds (not to be confused with der Samen which means seed of the human variety.) Or stay on the safe side and use:

das Saatgut–seeds

der Setzling, die Setzlinge–young plants ready for transplanting into the garden.
das Unkraut, die Unkräute–weed, weeds
die Kräuter–herbs

And for the Dark Side:

der Laubbläser–leaf blower. I was hoping for a creative word for the whining distractions like the German word for vacuum cleaner–der Staubsauger–which is literally “dust-sucker” but I guess you can’t get more literal than leaf blower.

Oh no, now I need to buy 8 different kinds of oregano–these all sound so delicious!

According to the Californians at Rancho Gordo, who are experts in beans of all kinds, these are the two kinds of Mexican Oregano I need to try.

Mexican Oregano

and

Oregano Indio

Who says book research isn’t a plus for family life? You’re probably wondering what Mexican Oregano has to do with 11th century Italy. I was looking up how to cook beans in a glass fiasco for my revised Chapter 1. Anyway, I’m sure Mexican Oregano helps keep up with the zucchini harvest.

Uh, no. My chapter isn’t done. Funny you should ask.

Bye!

Hope your writing, reading, and summer are all going well!

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Growing into shape: A 1,000-year-old linden tree

Enormous linden tree with a green canopy that makes an almost perfect half-dome over its thick trunk.This 1,000 year old linden tree has such a perfect shape from the outside. A really old tree gives me a new perspective on life and how long it takes to grow something beautiful.Close-up of linden tree showing a trunk almost as wide as a compact car.

This one almost certainly saw a procession of Emperors passing by. It’s very near the open-air museum of Tilleda, a kind of “Emperor rest-stop” as old as the tree.

The sign says this tree stood in the cemetery of a Cistercian convent, in the village, Kelbra. The tree is still here, but there’s no sign of the cemetery.Sign in German Klosterlinde, Alter: ca. 1000 Jahre Standort: ehem. Friedhof des Zisterzierserinnen Klosters Kelbra.

Things look far from effortless on the inside. View up into the heavy branches. Some were braced against the trunk with huge straps.Looking up into canopy of linden tree. Thick branches and lots of green leaves.

It’s a comfort to see a tree loved so well. I recently went to a reading where the author said the content determined the shape of the book. A tree makes it really clear how much the shape of anything depends on the space around it.

If you love old trees, you might like this epic tree too.

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Visual Story Structure with Cows

Green meadow in a valley next to a level road.
The idyllic Naafbachtal hiking trail is gentle on your eyes and on your knees. © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017

The Naafbachtal is a long valley full of meadows, originally slated to be a reservoir, and now a nature reserve. The lovely little Naaf brook babbles alongside the trail, wildflowers bloom in all colors, the leaves rustle in the breeze, and the birds are singing like crazy.

The resident zoologist says it’s perfect habitat for kingfishers.

Brown cows and a bull in a herd grazing in a meadow.
Ferdinand and friends holding back succession by grazing. © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017

Herds of cows graze among the buttercups, like Ferdinand before the bullfighters came looking for him. But no ones coming to make these happy German cows fight in the ring.

Presumably, the cows’ mission is to keep the vistas intact, one mouthful of grass at a time. They’re doing it very well.

But whoever had the task of picking out livestock had fun. The next field had white cows.

White cows reclining in a grassy meadow.
White cows in the Naafbachtal. © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017.

And the next one had. . .

Water buffaloes coated in gray mud, standing in a deep mud puddle "bathtub"
“Do you mind?” © Laurel Decher, Germany, 2017.

Water buffaloes.

Everyone stopped and took pictures because it’s a classic set-up, development, and twist. So the next time you have a boring old brown cow scene in your work-in-progress. . .

Remember the water buffaloes.

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Love Springs up Like Birch Trees

Birch tree lashed to a street lamp in front of a house. Stormy sky.
A traditional May tree in the Rhineland. © Laurel Decher, 2017

May 1st is a sort of  Valentine’s-Day-on-Steroids in this part of Germany.

On the last night of April, birch trees pop up everywhere. Young men put them up in front of their sweetheart’s houses and write the girl’s name in a giant heart hung on a tree.

It’s a windy time of year. You can imagine the number of cable ties involved.

This is a country of engineers after all.

Fathers evidently offer traditional payment for taking the huge trees down again at the end of May.

Something about a case of beer. It’s Germany, after all.

 

 

All this spring love leads to a lot of forestry. Last year was leap year and the girls put up the trees for the boys.

At least ten young birch trees lashed to a parked trailer. Their trunks are so long, they drag on the ground.
Cut birch trees ready for delivery. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The local paper reminded birch tree customers to get a permit before cutting their tree in the forest. The local craft store sells waterproof streamers so your oversized Valentine doesn’t leak dye on the white plaster front of the house.

Every village has it’s own huge May tree. The neighboring village “sings in the May” every year. All around, a charming holiday, don’t you think?

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A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Public Libraries in Germany

 

Glass case with small plastic toys with signs showing the number of reading points to buy them.
Prizes for reading at the Cologne city library.
Gumball machine with foam earplugs in clear plastic bubbles.
Too noisy at the library? Get some foam earplugs. Librarians think of everything.

The city library of Cologne is a magical place! I got to go on a behind-the-scenes tour with volunteer librarians from my local library.

Six floors of books, music, DVD’s to make any library fan happy. There’s even a special support office that supplies books and support for blind readers.

Author Heinrich Böll’s archive is here (including his desk and bookshelves!)

The library also has a “Maker Space” that includes 3D printers, sewing machines, and recording studios. You can even borrow a guitar.

Here are a few findings from the German Library Statistics (DBS Deutsche Bibliotheksstatistik) to give you an overview of the German library system.

In 2015, just over 7600 public libraries participated in the survey that produces the German Library Statistics.

5,600 of the libraries were run solely by volunteers. The other 2,000 had full-time staff.

German libraries buy a lot of books. Collectively, the libraries had an acquisitions budget of 105 Million Euro.

German libraries get e-books from distributors. More than 1,000 German libraries contract for electronic media with distributors such as libell-e.de.

German residents visit their libraries in person and online. 7 Million active library patrons visited 119 Million times. The survey warns that direct comparisons between states can’t be made, but the highest number of physical library visits per person seems to be in Hamburg (2.69), Bavaria (1.95), Bremen (1.86), Berlin (1.83), and Baden Württemberg (1.78). There were also 99 Million “virtual” library visits in 2015.

There’s a reason Germany is called the land of poets and thinkers. German libraries loaned 375,000 items (7,000 electronic). That’s an average of 4 and a half check-outs per German citizen.

E-books are growing, but print books still make up 76% of public library media. But the number of electronic loans has risen from 1.9% in 2013 to 4.5% in 2015.

It’s interesting that 2015 was the first year German university and scientific libraries loaned more electronic (53%) than physical media.

Virtual check-outs are even more important when you realize that 40% of public libraries are open for fewer than 20 hours per week.

German public libraries have lots of events. Public libraries threw more than 370,000 events in 2015. Almost half (47%) were for children and youth.

L-shaped low chairs made of soft foam that let you lean back to read. Can also tip chair over sideways to make an L-shaped table or bench.
These funky recliner chairs in the children’s section double as tables or benches.

If you’d like to know more about the Germany library system, you can download this brief data overview (English version). Or see the whole infographic-style poster here (Deutsch).

Did you find this interesting? Have a library anecdote or data tidbit to share? Feel free to comment.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Good Earth: International Gardens

Orange-y dirt fluffed up for the garden year, path in the middle.
Paydirt. The classic rich soil of the Rhineland. © Laurel Decher, 2017

A landmark. The day before yesterday, I was given my first garden plot since we moved to Germany. Turning over the soil stirred up surprising feelings.

It’s an International Garden so the invitation was in German and in Arabic. My fellow gardeners are from Egypt, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Germany. People were talking about melons, chilis, peas, and pole-beans. I’m very curious to see what will grow.

And what will work. We had a lot of animated conversation in several languages while we got the garden beds ready. The way people grow food is as much a part of their culture as the way they eat it. Several gardeners had advanced training in agriculture in their home countries, but everyone dug right in.

First-class dirt. Some of the most fertile in the world. I also learned a new word for dirt. 🙂 Löss (German) and loess (English) refers to the kind of yellow-brown clay-ey soil that is typical of the Rhine and the Mississippi.

In Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth, the land has the power to bring riches and a new life to a poor farmer. (And, of course, new troubles because a novel is about the way we deal with the challenges, right?)

What will these new gardens bring into our lives? Fruits, vegetables, flowers, barbeque parties, cake, friendships, and maybe a few more roots to this new home.

Is your garden still buried in snow? What are you planning to grow this year?

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The Day the Wall Fell

Church and graveyard surrounded by green hills covered with vineyards.
A whole peaceful world in a tiny valley. The town of Mayschoß in the Ahr River valley. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, Germany celebrated the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, (literally, the “Day of German Unity.”) It’s the day when East and West Germany came back together after World War II.

Once as a student, I visited East Berlin while the Wall was still there. I’ll never forget the eerie passage through the restricted zone. Guards armed with machine guns stood their shifts in abandoned subway stops where you were no longer allowed to get off the train.

For me, this holiday is about the falling of the Wall. The Berlin Wall was on television in the U.S. when the first people were allowed out of East Berlin. Excited people were reaching down and pulling others up to stand next to them on top of the Wall. Guards waved tiny East German cars through. The razor wire was no longer relevant. People offered each other champagne and bananas in a violent place where peace suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.

Let’s help peace along wherever it appears. There are so many celebrations I’d like to see and smile about. So much healing and pain where we could help each other up instead.

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If it’s fixed, should you break it? Revision and the magic wardrobe

Printed papers cut in all different sizes and laid out in order on a colorful carpet. With a box of chocolate cookies for motivation.
Cutting apart a manuscript to find the story. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A writing and interior design metaphor. My life unintentionally provided me with another writing metaphor this weekend.

We moved to Germany three years ago and kind relatives gave us two huge cupboards to hold our camping, photography, coats, linens and suitcases.

Closets are rare in Germany so wardrobes without magical countries are the norm. The cupboards helped us a lot but didn’t exactly fit in the space we had for them so when our family heard that a refugee family needed them, we decided to give them up.

Breaking up is hard to do. We now have ‘broken” the system we had for storing everything and it causes the usual sorts of “Why can’t I find my lens cap?” sort of pain that you get whenever you move into a new place. I’ve been missing my pocket compass for a couple of years.

So, was that dumb?

The new vision. Maybe. I hope we find a new way to put things together so we can use them and make our apartment more hospitable. I have a vision of everything put neatly away in some brilliant solution à la Apartment Therapy. Or of more joy in our daily life as promised in THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP.

When it’s worth it. I may never create the order I hope for, but a fresh attempt usually makes the apartment feel more like home.

Revision. The thing is, I get this same question from my internal editor whenever I’m re-working a piece of fiction. My internal editor can’t see my vision. “You’re going to make it worse.”

When it’s worth it. But attempting a revision of my novel is worthwhile if I can make its heart shine through.

Forgotten treasures. When I rearrange a story and cut it into new pieces, it helps clear out the underbrush. After we emptied our cupboards, my sister-in-law found my compass clipped on a bag I planned to give away. I’m famous for getting lost and I’ve really missed it.

It’s so nice to get a sense of direction. Re-seeing what’s in front of you can help, both in writing and in re-organizing a home.

How about you? Do you have rules of thumb for when it’s worth making a mess? What’s the tipping point for you? Have you waited too long to “break” something? I’d love to know how this works for other people.

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A parable of physics teaching assistants: elegance, battlefields, and intimacy

Painting of 18th century fencers in knee breeches and gown.
Fencing with an unfamiliar foe. Source: “Fencing Match between St.-Georges and ‘La chevalière D’Eon'” on April 9, 1787, by Abbé Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747–1828) – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11260912

As an undergraduate, I took physics because I wanted to go to medical school. Physics promptly took over the structure of my week. Three lectures, a lab, and a recitation (where a teaching assistant went over the homework problems with us), and later an afternoon or two of tutoring. Needless to say, I wasn’t good at it.

The recitation was taught in the first semester by an American graduate student who clearly understood the material and had taken time to organize it for us. He wrote the homework problem answers on the chalkboard in neat and intelligent writing.

We dutifully copied down his elegant solutions, but inwardly, we despaired. These answers had a flawless surface that kept us out. They weren’t answers we would ever come up with. He was a physicist’s physicist.

The second semester’s recitation was taught by a graduate student from India or maybe Pakistan. His English was different than American English and elegant wasn’t the word for his methods. He attacked the homework problems as if they were hostile.

His answers scrawled all over the chalkboard and left a battlefield of cancelled terms, diagrams, and false attempts. He took us inside the homework problems and taught us to fight our way out. He was a physicist for the common man.

I speak German, some days better than others, but I’ll never be able to engage in the delicate verbal fencing that is the favorite sport of my English-speaking relatives. In German, I’m forced to be much more functional and to express my feelings and ideas in a straightforward fashion. Verbal asides or literary allusions are a thing of the past.

Before I moved to Germany three years ago, I thought it would probably be good for me to be forced to say what I meant. Oblique can be charming. Banter can be exhilarating. Complicated can be satisfying. But a flawless shield of language keeps everyone at a distance.

What I’ve noticed is this: When I’m slower to speak, I listen more, and the listening gives the conversation a sense of intimacy. When I stop striving for elegance and accept my limitations, I hear the conversation’s heartbeat. It’s more satisfying, because I’m on the inside looking out. I’m starting to appreciate this unexpected gift.

Like my international physics teaching assistant, story invites the reader inside an experience. This is what it feels like to face a dragon. This is how it feels when you use the magic sword. This is how you seize victory from the jaws of defeat. This is what victory feels like.


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