Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Ich bin ein Berliner

...I'd always wanted to say those words. Unfortunately, I'd never had the opportunity because, until this summer,  I'd never been to Berlin. After the thrill of Paris, we were keen to visit another city - a slightly cheaper one though, since we wanted to stay ten days instead of three without risking bankruptcy. So when a number of colleagues mentioned Berlin being relatively cheap as well as relaxed and child-friendly, the choice was easily made. But we didn't want to be tourists for ten days. So instead of booking a hotel, we opted for an apartment through Airbnb in the relatively quiet suburb of Neuköln. And I'm glad we did. It was super: a regular neighbourhood with regular locals - son S even enjoyed playing soccer with the neighbouring boys and girls, communicating with hands, feet and bits of German he was picking up. And I of course enjoyed imagining having moved house. "We've moved to Berlin, you know," I pictured myself saying to anyone willing to listen.
I also imagined eating out every night for the rest of my life at the fabulous local cafes. Nothing posh, just life-worn street eateries serving good, basic food: veggies and fruit, fresh herbs and spices. And good coffee. Boy, the coffee was good! But not only the food and drink were deeply satisfying. Just kicking off your shoes, sitting back and watching Berlin's colourful inhabitants pass by: that alone made the trip worthwhile. A dip into my diary, in which I recorded a kaleidoscope of images, not only of the people, but of Berlin itself: 'polished nails holding cigarettes, flip-flops, bare feet, boys with braided hair, sunglasses, breakfast in the afternoon, multilingual chatter, laughter, faces close together, laptops, books, newspapers, graffiti, cobblestone streets, slow traffic, trees, playgrounds, high-ceilinged apartment blocks, entrepreneurism, cappuccinos and fresh mint tea.'

Entrepreneurism? I hear you wonder. Yip. One thing that struck me about Berlin was the number of 'businesses' or 'niches' popping up all over the place. It seems people simply hog a space in the city and do their own thing. Quite successfully. None of the red tape we have over here, apparently. In that respect Berlin seems to be a blank canvas for boundless creativity and that certainly gets my heart pounding.
And so I imagined us moving there. Setting ourselves up in a neigbhourhood surrounded by the many artists (writers!) who so happily flock to the Berlin to settle deep within her bowels. I mentioned this flight of fancy to one of the neighbours who was in charge of the house keys. "Berlin is just fantastic'," I said, to which he replied without hesitation: "Yes, in summer." When I stared at him, expecting more, he added in his attractive German accent: "In winter it's a whole different story: cold and dark."
Oh. In that case: Ich bin ein Berliner... in den sommer.


(Just in case you are wondering: the kids of course wore safety helmets while biking; I don't for the life of me get how they're not wearing them in these photos). 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Something with apple

Last week saw the 44th birthday of a very good friend of ours. "Shall I come over for coffee and pie?" he asked cheerily on the phone. And indeed, come Saturday morning he showed up on our doorstep with his infant son, as his wife was out of town. Just days before, another friend of ours had mentioned "all that delicious baking" I do and I was forced to reluctantly admit that well, I hadn't done any - save the odd batch of biscuits - for quite some time. Why I haven't done any baking? I'm not sure. I could say I was swallowed up by work at school. Or by work on my book. Or by lots of nice outings and general busyness during the summer holidays. Or simply by a kind of kitchen lethargy. A combination of all the above is probably most accurate.
Anyway. "Shall I come over for coffee and pie?" rang in my ears all Friday through to Saturday morning and a kind of panic gripped me. Much like at the start of every school year, I wondered: "Can I still do it? What if it turns out my teaching/baking 'successes' have been nothing but flukes all along?" Silly, self-absorbed thoughts, of course. As with teaching, the best thing to do is ignore thought altogether and just get on with it.  I was in the mood for 'something with apple', and so I dusted off my favourite kitchen companion Nigel Slater for a bit of inspiration. As I got on with preparing the dough and peeling/coring apples, I felt a pleasant quietness emerge within me, a deep sense of satisfaction in what I was doing. To cut a long story short: I found myself completely in the moment and apparently I hadn't been there for a while. And when I pulled that glorious, golden pie out of the oven - well, that must have been the highlight of my day.

When our friend had been, seen and eaten, I set about clearing out my baking cupboard to give it a good clean. Then I reorganised all my baking necessities, throwing out stuff that was over the use-by date (quite a lot, to my shame). Measuring spoons, bowls, whisks, flour, packets of baking powder and all sorts of other useful utensils and ingredients passed through my hands. And as they did so, I felt an old familiar thrill.


The photo has nothing at all to do with the pie. I asked M to leave a piece of pie for me to photograph, but he 'forgot.' Hence a photo taken in a Berlin cafe where we drank some lovely green tea. We spent part of our summer there (in Berlin, not the cafe) about which I will write later.
Apple Shortcake
Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater
For the pastry:
150g butter, softened 
150g raw cane Sugar
250g spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
lemon rind of one organic lemon
a little milk to finish
For the apples:
5-6 apples
lemon juice
50g butter
1 tablespoon raw cane sugar
  • lightly butter an 18cm pie tin (Nigel says a shallow one, but since I don't own one of those, I used my usual loose-bottomed springform tin)
  • using a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  • gently mix in the egg, then stir in flour, baking powder and lemon rind
  • with a light hand, work ingredients into a ball in the bowl or on a thoroughly floured work surface
  • cut pastry in half, wrap one half in glad wrap and store in fridge for a half hour
  • roll out the other half of the pastry to line the tin (this may require some patchwork), then store tin in fridge for a half hour
  • preheat oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • peel and core the apples, slice them into wedges and throw them in a pan of cold water to which you have added the lemon juice to stop the apples discolouring
  • heat a pan, allow the 50g of butter to melt
  • when the butter sizzles, add the apples, bake until they have coloured lightly, sprinkle the sugar over the apples and cook until lightly caramelised
  • remove the pie tin from the fridge, carefully transfer the apples to the pie tin
  • roll out the other half of the pastry and cover the whole pie (again, this may require some patchwork); press the pastry edges together so as to 'close' the pie
  • brush the top with a little milk
  • bake for 40 minutes
  • allow to cool briefly, then eat warm with unsweetened whipped cream

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Brave little legs

In the turmoil of our busy lives we had three days of respite in Paris. It was the middle of the May holidays, M and I were tired and the children rearing to go. We took the Thalys from Rotterdam, marveling the fact that it takes a mere three-and-a-half hours to get from our front door to Paris. (When we came back on cloud nine, we discussed the possibility of going there every weekend, but that, of course, would be financial suicide).
It is not difficult to be swept away by the magic of Paris. The beautiful buildings, cafes and restaurants, the buzz on the streets. We had no intention of visiting museums and the like, our plan was simply to soak up the atmosphere. And soak it up we did. On the first day a two-and-a-half hour boat trip on the Canal St. Martin where I took the following photos in an attempt to capture the beauty of Parisian street life.

Parisian gentleman relaxing on balcony
One of the many attractive appartment building to be found throughout the city

A colourful chaos

Locals look on from the bridge

Airing the bed linen

Another attaractive appartement building (I love bright colours)

I have a weakness for this kind of scene: a cosy cafe in an old building with a blue door

If you look closely, you will see the market stalls on the banks of the river

The rest of our trip was spent taking the metro from one part of the city to the other, hanging out in parks and playgrounds, visiting tourist attractions such as the Eiffel tower (the sight of which had the children squealing with delight) and talking to local folks, who were very open and friendly. In talking to a woman (my age, young children, good job, resident of Montmartre) an interesting thing occurred to me: we always seem to covet the things we don't have. I was expressing to her how wonderful I thought it would be to live in an apartment in the middle of Montmartre, to be part of the buzz so to speak. 'Mmm,' she said, and began listing the things they were severely lacking: parks, playgrounds and space for children, despite the fact that her neighbourhood is predominantly populated by young families. She also told me that, in spite of their good jobs, she and her husband could not afford to buy a property there. And that owning a house with a garden was completely out of the question: the mere thought of it made her laugh. In short: she was lacking the things we have in abundance.  How interesting.

(There was another thing she was lacking, but I didn't want to point that out to her: good cappuccino. I've been told Dutch folks are spoilt on the cappuccino front - provided you drink them in real coffee houses, not the touristy ones -  but I didn't realise this was literally true. The cups we drank in Paris were pretty shocking, if only for their price: 6 euros!).

May I just take a moment to mention how incredibly well the children did: all that walking and not one word of complaint. Just enthusiasm and in-the-moment fun. Though I must admit daughter N said at the end of the second day: "My legs are so sore from all that walking: aren't they just brave little legs!" Yes, I said, giving her a cuddle: They sure are brave little legs.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Maybe so, maybe not

My car was due for its annual inspection, so last Wednesday, off I went to the garage, a one-man shop located on the outskirts of my neighbourhood. I met my mechanic on the way, who rolled down his window and informed me that he had some errands to run, but that I could leave my car parked on the lot and throw the keys in his letterbox, no worries. And so off I drove, and parked my car in a space outside his workshop. It was a lovely, sunny morning and as I was walking towards the letterbox I was admiring the surroundings. My mechanic not only works on the property, but lives there as well in a pretty farm-house type dwelling. His children grew up there and he still keeps goats which my children love to pet and feed. Anyhow: there I was admiring it all when I mindlessly dropped my keys into his letterbox.
     Yes: mindlessly dropped.
     My keys.
     My house keys... my house keys, oh no!
     I peered into the letterbox and believe I even called out: 'Sorry, mistake, silly me, come back up please!' And for a crazy second I even thought I could rewind the moment ('Back a few seconds, please!').

So there I was. House nearby but no keys. When a vague sense of panic and annoyance ('What will I do now? How could I have been so stupid!') had settled, I looked at my surroundings once more. Normally I would have rushed back home to get onto the computer to do some work, but that was now not an option. Enjoying the outdoors was. And so off I went for an hour's walk which did me the world of good. I felt winter crankiness dispel with every step, I felt myself waking up. How lucky I was! When I arrived back an hour later, refreshed, my mechanic was well and truly at work. I didn't even need to tell him the story: 'You're not the first to have thrown your house key in my letterbox and enjoyed a morning's walk,' he said with a cheery grin.

It reminded me of that Buddhist story which I won't relate in full here, save the gist: sometimes unfortunate things may not seem as unfortunate as we at first think. May I rush to say that this was only a mild inconvenience and nothing compared to life's true misfortunes, of course. But still. It's easier to train ourselves in this way of thinking when we start small.

A small misfortune was also the fate of the Eiffel  I showed you last month. Yes, as a number of you predicted: it was knocked over. By accident. By one of son S's friends, who came over to play. He was pretending to be a fighter pilot of sorts, and the tip of his wing touched the tower ever so slightly, causing the whole structure to come crashing to the ground (poor kid!).  Ingrid was right: we should have glued it.  Is it a pity the Eiffel is gone? Maybe so, maybe not. I suspect not. I suspect it will make room for new things.

There is one more thing I would like to share with you. It concerns the mother duck and her ducklings below. I discovered them in our garden (yes, in our garden!) when I came home one day last week. We had been having ghastly storms over here and just the evening before we had seen footage on TV of a mother duck whose ten ducklings were blown away by the wind -  unfortunately son S saw it too and was inconsolable. So the next day - incredible as it may seem - there was this duck family in our garden for the first time ever. Can you believe our amazement?


Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A glimpse of Paris

Last week was Spring break. A freezing cold Spring break. Not that it was freezing as such, it just felt that way each time I stepped outdoors and an icy wind sliced into my face. The combination of cold weather and young children means a need to find things to do indoors, but preferably outside of the home. Staying indoors at home means getting on one another's nerves and an endless number of disputes to settle.

Hence we ventured out into the world of museums, using our newly acquired museum membership cards. Firstly, we visited the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, where the children were spooked out by an odd Scandinavian film on a large screen in a darkened room. Not a good idea. After the haunting intro (something to do with plastic surgery performed by surgeons wearing balaclavas), we hurried out and visited Ron van der Ende's  exhibition in the room next door: flat sculptures - or reliefs, if you like - of modern phenomena; suspended on the walls, they give the effect of an object moving into the space.  These were fascinating.

Later in the week we went to the Gemeente Museum in The Hague where we visited the Mark Rothko exhibition. Thankfully we had booked our passes on the internet: besides the one permanently outside the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, I've never seen a longer queue for a museum.  After the children's frightening experience at the Kunsthal, we also took the trouble to ask museum staff whether there was anything we should avoid with the children. No, the current exhibitions were pretty safe, we were assured.

As for Rothko: I'm not sure what to think. Though I certainly understand that colours evoke deep emotions and possibly spiritual experiences, I can't help thinking that if Rothko were alive and happy today, he would be laughing all the way to the bank. Funnily enough, M and I found ourselves more fascinated by the beautiful Berlage building of the museum: the bold colours, stained glass windows, and art deco archtictural features and tile work. The children went along with everything quite nicely, but for them the highlight was surely the interactive bits involving the history of the building, and the juice and cake they gorged in the beautiful, central conservatory.

No doubt inspired by our visits to the museums, we did some creative stuff at home. M has always had a fascination for design and craftsmanship. In fact, at times he still regrets not having studied engineering. So, when he has the time, he likes to get son S's building blocks out and build something quite intricate. And since we're going to Paris with the children in May, what better way to look forward to the trip than to have our own personal Eiffel to look at (until someone knocks it over, that is). The result is on the photo.

Of course the children's imagination got rolling. They envisioned a fire breaking out and fire fighters coming to the rescue. And before long, as these things go, a crowd gathered, anticipating heroic action.



Saturday, 10 January 2015

At the kitchen table

Just before the Christmas holidays, on the day we left for France, a dear friend of mine moved away. She lived just a few streets from me, and our sons have been tight buddies since starting school together some three years ago. For those three years, we would see one another at the school gate for a friendly hello, as well as popping around to each other's house regularly to sit at the kitchen table for good coffee and equally good conversation. A lot was discussed at those kitchen tables, and her warmth and ability to listen always left me feeling happy and at peace.

She had announced the oncoming move months ago and although we talked at length about the new house, new schools and new life that was awaiting her and her family, I refused to let my own feelings of sadness and impending loss run their course. When I broke the news to son S, he burst into tears and dealt with his emotions healthily as children tend to do. Yet for some silly reason, I thought it would be childish for me to grieve this event. I mean, H was only moving to another city, it was just one of those things I felt adults should take matter-of-factly.

I now realise I had fallen into the old trap of not acknowledging my feelings. Of pushing them away in the busyness of everyday life and the flurry surrounding our upcoming trip to France. After the holidays, when the hectic month of December dust had settled, I did a seemingly odd thing. On the first day of school, instead of heading straight towards The Hague where I work, I took a little neighbourhood detour and stopped outside H's house. I parked my bike against a familiar tree and made my way to her kitchen window where I cupped my hands around my eyes, rested my forehead on the glass and peered into the abandoned house. There was no kitchen paraphernalia, no memo board, no bookcases, no rugs, no boxes with toys. And no kitchen table. The light in the house was bleak, the place seemed dead. My heart sank. It was as if the reality of the move sank in right there and then. For a split second, I desperately wanted to go into that house, back in time - as if I simply had a right to the way things were (as dramatic as that sounds) and no-one had the right to take it away from me. As I peered in a little while longer however, I began to get used to the empty house. And when I got on my bike for an hour's cycle to work, I began to feel a sense of peace and resignation.

Our friendship is, of course, far from over. It will simply evolve and take on a new form, much like anything else in the flow of life. Visits will be planned and made. Conversations will be held and coffee will be drunk, albeit far less frequently. But I will always miss seeing her, poised casually on her bike,  smile on her face, waiting and waving outside the school gates.


Thank you so much for your warm comments welcoming me back - it has done me a lot of good! I'm in a bit of a baking and cooking rut at the moment, but will undoubtedly come out of it soon. I did try something new this week - carrot and coriander fritters, taken form Nigel Slater's book Tender and although the kids weren't sold (surprisingly), M and I loved them. They were more work than Nigel makes them out to be, though; cooking time wise, I thought the task was similar to baking pancakes. Here is the recipe.

Carrot and Coriander Fritters
adapted from Tender, by Nigel Slater

325g carrots (though I used considerably more), coarsely grated**
a medium onion, diced
a clove of garlic, diced
150ml full cream
an egg, beaten
3 heaped tablespoons grated mature cheese
a heaped tablespoon of flour
a handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped

  • in a large bowl, mix all ingredients thoroughly
  • warm a shallow layer of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan
  • drop large dollops of the mixture in the pan and fry until the underside is cooked and will allow itself to be turned over with a fish slice
  • turn over and cook on the other side; they should colour a lovely dark gold
  • lay the cooked fritters on a plate and cover with a clean towel to keep warm

** it is best to grate the carrots with the use of a food processor. Grating by hand makes them mushy, which will not benefit your fritters. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Back, finally

Before I comment on the photo above, I would like to start by wishing you all the very, very best for 2015: may it be filled with an abundance of love, happy times and good health. I would also like to thank you for your comments on my last post. I so agree with Gillian: the longer you stay away from your blog, the harder it gets to start up again. But today, for the first time in weeks, I feel relaxed enough to sit down and write. Have I been uptight, then? Yes, I certainly have. I find December a hectic month as it is. There's the St. Nicolas hysteria, Christmas, all sorts of festive school obligations and this year there was also..... a holiday in the French Alps waiting for us. Wonderful, I know, and you won't hear me complaining about it. However, the preparations and anticipatory anxiety can all be a bit much. In fact, it makes me agitated and impatient. Certainly too agitated and impatient to write. 

Anyway. Now that I've got this "why I haven't written for a while" out of the way, onto something else. May I start by asking you to examine the above photo, taken last week in the French ALPS. Why have I capitalised 'Alps'? Because this specific location is something you need to bear in mind while admiring the photo. There is, you see, something missing in this photo... 

By now you probably can't bear the suspense, so let me help you out here: the thing missing in the photo is... SNOW! We had spent weeks, if not months, looking forward to going skiing. We had booked a little house at the foot of the slopes and fantasised about skiing from the slopes straight into our living room at the end of the day. Can you imagine the look on our faces when we arrived to find pristine green mountains and deserted ski lifts? I mean, I had heard people say "there's no snow" and all, but I didn't think that meant there was literally NO snow. For the first day and a half, hubby M and I were bitterly disappointed. We had spent all that money and effort to go skiing and now our plans were being heavily thwarted. But then we picked ourselves up, realising how lucky we were to be there in the first place. The sun was out full blast, the local folks were very friendly and we were at least getting away from it all.  And in the end, we did get to do a bit of skiing. There was a tiny learner's slope open, which meant daughter N could learn to ski, and M took son S to a much higher area where they skied together to their heart's content for two days. 

On a totally different note: daughter N has a new fascination for the world of mammels. Whilst flipping through her new encyclopedia, she came across a photo of a mole. Now she knows moles only from children's books, so seeing a photo of a real mole was relatively new to her. After staring at the photo in surprise for a few moments, she suddenly cried out: "Hey, Mr. Mole isn't wearing his glasses!" Before I got the chance to reply, she added with a twinkle in her eye: "Oh, no - wait. He must be wearing contacts." Kids - don't you just love 'em.