Saturday, March 13, 2010

Little Earwigs and Other German Afflictions

An Earwig

OK, did I gross you out?  What I really wanted to do is introduce readers to a German expression:  "Ohrwürmchen".  Literally translated, it means "little earwig" or "little earworm", but, as you might have guessed by now, it is a figure of speech.  It refers to a catchy tune that you can't get our of your ear.  Make sense?  I've been afflicted by an Ohrwürmchen for the past two weeks and cannot figure out where it came from or why.

Here is a traditional version of the song.

Here is the Smothers Brothers version (after two other short songs).

For some reason, I've got the Smothers Brothers version in my head and can't get it out.  We're talking many moons ago when I last heard this song.  This sudden flashback is starting to trouble me.  I know older folks have trouble controlling certain bodily functions, but jeez, my memories are leaking!  This is ridiculous.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Pleasant Evening with Volker Schlöndorff

We were at The English Theater a couple of nights ago to see a presentation with Volker Schlöndorff.  In addition to answering questions from high school students and a journalist, he read from his new autobiography, Licht, Schatten und Bewegung (Light, Shadow and Motion), and we saw a short trailer of his films.

Schlöndorff is 70, one of the seminal figures in post-war German cinema, and also has close ties with France and the US. I was quite impressed by his unassuming presence on stage.  Here is a man with quiet, self-effacing humor and no need to feed his ego with posturing or pompous behavior.  He openly talks and writes about his defeats and weaknesses.  Schlöndorff's love of literature came across loud and clear.  He was friends and rubbed elbows with so many of the central figures in 20th century literature and filmmaking that he is a walking museum.  I bought his book and asked him to sign and dedicate it to Fräulein Bloggerboy.  We exchanged a few pleasant words in the process, Schlöndorff as unassuming in person as he was on the stage.  I know we get carried away nowadays with the concept of authenticity, probably because it has become a rare commodity, but Schlöndorff is the real thing, and I hope that he will be able to produce one or two more noteworthy films before calling it quits.  He mentioned one project that sounded quite interesting.  I never cease to get a thrill out of crossing paths with people who already have a place in the history books.  It is a concrete reminder of just how rooted I am in the 20th century -- and how young art forms like film, jazz and blues are.  Living history you can touch. I'm already a few chapters into his autobiography and am enjoying it.  Schlöndorff grew up just down the road in the Rheingau area, which also is in the State of Hessen, so I am familiar with many of the places he describes.

Volker Schlöndorff

(Photo:  Mariusz Kubik, Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Finally, an Interesting Search Term

Mr. Anchovy over at 27th Street regularly posts the most bizarre search terms that led readers to his blog.  I've been checking my search terms for months and never found anything remotely interesting.  (Maybe it has to do with the rather "settled" content of my site.  Who knows?)  Today, I was pleased to find one search term that really resonated with me ... and had absolutely nothing to do with my blog:

"delay in settling unmarried daughter's pension in eastern rly, kolkata"

Top that Mr. A.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Spring Alert!

We had another blast of snow Friday evening, and it has been cold and crisp since. Earlier this week, before the snow came, I took a close look at the Forsythia in our front yard, just to make sure that spring was not sneaking up on me again as it did last year. Just to be safe, I decided today to take a walk to the Palmengarten. With snow still on the ground, I was not expecting to see many signs of spring. Well, let me tell you, spring is getting ready to come bursting onto the scene any day now. (This gave me a chance to work with the macro setting on my camera.  Click pics to enlarge.)

Green Shoots
(Hope the economy is growing, too!)



Schneeglocken (Galanthus) / Snowdrop
They generate heat that melts snow!

Witch-Hazel / Zaubernuss (Hamamelis)

Magnolia buds

Schneeball / Viburnum (looks like the frost really
caught this tree by surprise)

Ankara Crocus

Almond Buds

Apple Buds

The Apple Orchard

Siesmayer Cafe looking out into the Palmengarten.  In spite
of the cold temperatures, people were sitting on the terrace
enjoying the sunshine (btw, those are olive trees on the terrace).

The Palmengarten is Frankfurt's botanical garden. It is less than a kilometer from our front door, and we have used it as our ersatz garden for years.

Mussels Provencal (Moules à la provençale)

I walked into town yesterday to burn off a few calories and perform my favorite rituals.  I had a Frikadelle at the Kleinmarkthalle and then sat in one of my favorite cafés and read the local paper and drank a cappuccino.  The café where I sit provides newspapers for its guests in the proud Viennese tradition.

A couple of days ago I was surfing on TV and caught the end of a cooking show about steamed mussels.  I love steamed mussels and had already formed plans to look into buying some in town.  I probably could have found fresh mussels at the Kleinmarkthalle, but I decided to check out the grocery section of Karstadt on the Zeil.  Similar to department stores in France, some German department stores have a grocery section in their basement.  Karstadt's location and the underground ambience in the grocery section would make this an unlikely place to shop, but it is a bit of an insider's tip for good food.  There are a sushi bar, an Italian restaurant, a seafood bar, and a grill along the back wall.  You can go to the butcher section and pick out a steak, and the guy at the grill will cook it for you with a choice of side dishes.  Bloggerboy Junior and I recently had an excellent Filet and Rib-Eye, together with a beer for Junior and a glass of red wine for me, for about half the price that we would have had to pay in a mid-priced restaurant.  The steaks were well-cooked.  Anyhow, I bought two packages of 1.5 kilos each of fresh mussels (ca. 6.5 pounds total).  Each package cost EUR 9.90.  I bought a fresh baguette, some fresh chives and a little package of spices for mussels that was sold at the fish counter.  We had tomatoes, onions and white wine at home.

Mussels are so simple to make that I did not really follow a recipe.  I spent a few minutes on the web researching the art of cooking mussels.  I found this hilarious video that actually is quite informative about how to deal with fresh mussels.  They are supposed to be alive, and most of mine were, but I had never bothered to learn the proper technique for handling them.  The mussels that I bought had been pre-cleaned.  That means that their "beards" had been removed and they had been washed.  They only needed to be rinsed before cooking. 

For my "mise" I chopped onions and garlic and put them in one bowl.  I then chopped tomatoes and chives and put them in another bowl together with the dried spices.  I then rinsed the mussels and pre-sorted them.  About two-thirds were closed.  I tapped on the other mussels.  Most of them reacted to the tapping and started to close, so they were alive.  Passed.  The ones that did not react, I left on the counter for a couple of minutes to see if they would show signs of life.  The packages that the mussels came in also indicated that the mussels are a bit drowsy when the package is first opened.  After a few minutes I weeded out the handful of mussels that were open but showed no signs of life, together with a few that had broken shells.

Next I heated a large stainless steel pot and then added enough olive oil to give the bottom of the pot a sufficient covering for the veggies.  I added the onions and garlic and let them cook until glassy.  Then I added the tomatoes, chives and spices together with just under half a bottle of dry white wine.  I used a German pinot blanc (Weißburgunder) from the Pfalz (Spätlese trocken).  There was just enough wine left over for Frau Bloggerboy and me to have two small glasses each with the meal.  Finally, I added the last drops of a bottle of Pernod.  (I was drinking a pastis and listening to jazz as I cooked, and the Pernod bottle needed to be finished off.)  I let the sauce come to a rapid boil and then added the mussels and covered the pot.  The instructions on the mussels package indicated a steaming time of 8 to 10 minutes.  On the web I had seen recommended times of as little as three minutes and been warned that there is nothing worse than over-cooked mussels.  I ended up taking out the mussels after about five minutes.  I filled two large bowls with mussels and left another decent size serving in the pot.  I spooned plenty of sauce over the mussels.  As it turned out, most of the mussels were barely done and many of them were still closed.  After we ate the mussels that were done, I took the other ones back to the stove.  In the meantime, all the mussels left in the pot had opened, so I refilled our bowls with the cooked mussels and re-started the flame for the undercooked ones.  Sure enough, almost all the mussels opened up after a few minutes on the stove.  During cooking you need to shake the pot to re-distribute the mussels from top to bottom.

In any event, we ate until we were stuffed.  With a salad and a dessert, the 3 kilos of mussels would have been enough for four persons.  After I had removed the empty mussel shells from my bowl, I dipped the baguette slices in the provençale sauce.  What a delight: fond memories of great meals that I've had in France, Belgium and Holland over the years.


Friday, March 5, 2010

I am Not a Plant Killer

Dieffenbachia (dumbcane)

Not only am I botanically challenged, I have a terrible track record with house plants. Well folks, that history is now behind me.  I am -- and have been for almost a year -- the proud owner of a strapping green Dieffenbachia similar to the one pictured above.  It sits on a window sill in front of my desk that gets diffused afternoon sun and plenty of ozone from my computer.  This is not my first Dieffenbachia. The last three or four that I owned suffered gruesome deaths in dark places.  My conscience still bothers me.  It is a good thing that I don't have a garden to tend.  I am on best behavior now.  If any readers out there are similarly challenged, I can recommend Dieffenbachia with no reservations.  I really like the leaf patterns.  It is amazing how a small plant in front of me can brighten my mood and make my workplace more comfortable.

I did a bit of reading on the web about Dieffenbachia.  The name "dumbcane" comes from the toxicity of the leaves.  If you chew on Dieffenbachia leaves, your tongue can swell and you can lose your voice ("dumb").   The dumbcanes are native to tropical America. The genus has been well known for hundreds of years as being toxic. The plants contain an undefined proteolytic (protein breaking) enzyme and microscopic needle-like oxalate crystals (raphides) within the leaves and stem.  I found an unusual website dedicated to Killer Plants.  According to the site, "the herbal uses of dumbcanes are dark; the plants were used to manipulate both people and animals. Small amounts of the toxins are self-limiting; the victim recovers within a period of hours or days. Voodoo practitioners depend upon belief and fear. Extracts of dumbcane slipped into food or drink enforced both. A person's voice could be stolen as a warning, a little more extract and the victim asphyxiated as the throat swelled closed. In his article 'Voodoo Can Kill You', Homer Montgomery (University of Texas-Dallas Archaeology) mentions that besides magic, Jamaican dumbcane (Dieffenbachia seguine) became the preferred method of plantation owners to punish slaves who spoke out.  In Central America, other 'magical' uses were found for Dieffenbachia. The stems of dumbcane were used as prods to control cattle. It did not take too many pokes with the irritating ramrod to force a recalcitrant cow back to its own pasture. And it is said the loteria, (Dieffenbachia longispatha) predicts lucky lottery numbers. One only need count the spots on the new leaves."

I've gained a new respect for my houseplant.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Museum Visits in Frankfurt

There was a major Botticelli exhibit in Frankfurt that just closed at the Städel, Frankfurt's "classic" art museum.  Frankfurt has a great collection of museums, many of which are located along the Museumsufer, but few of them have the reputation and clout of the international big players.  I'm pretty sure the Botticelli exhibit was one of the biggest draws ever in Frankfurt.  If you want to see Botticelli's most famous works, you still have to go to Florence.  The Uffizi was not about to give up Primavera or the Birth of Venus.  Otherwise, I thought the exhibit was pretty good.  It contained about 80 works by Botticelli, his workshop and contemporaries.  It placed Botticelli in historical context and devoted equal attention to his mythical blonde figure and his Madonna portraits.

What got me started on this post had less to do with the Botticelli exhibit than with how we got in.  At the beginning of the year Frankfurt announced a special deal on the Museumufer-Karte, er Card.  That's right, it's called the Museumsufer-Card in Denglish, or Museum Embankment Card in English.  The card permits "free" admission to over 30 different museums in Frankfurt for one year.  We bought a family card for two adults and our children.  Normally, the card costs EUR 130 for 12 months.  We bought it for EUR 99.  Not only was the Botticelli exhibit covered by the card, saving us at least EUR 30, but we were able to go to the VIP desk to pick up our admission tickets, jumping past about 100 persons waiting in line for the museum to open.  We've already used the card several times, and there are some interesting exhibits coming up in the next few months, so I'm looking forward to it.  Oh yes, the card also covers admission during the "Night of the Museums", when most museums are open until late at night and a big party goes on out in the streets with all sorts of music, readings and related events.

I'm going to try to visit the Seurat exhibit at the Schirn Museum this weekend.  The Schirn is a museum dedicated to temporary exhibitions, and there have been some great ones over the years.  I will never forget the incredible feeling of well-being that overcame me one sunny afternoon several years ago when I was sitting in a room full of Giacometti sculptures in a skylit room in the Schirn.