Easter bliss

Homemade bliss ball treats in front of potted flowersEaster (or Ostern) is a big deal in Germany. There are Easter specials and corresponding displays in every store, just about everything closes over the holiday weekend, residential windows show off Easter decorations (like branches hung with decorated eggs), church bells ring, and there’s tons of chocolate!

As a slightly healthier alternative to all the Easter chocolate (which is fantastic… but sometimes a bit too much), I made a couple batches of bliss balls – although I’m calling them Glückseligkeit Bällchen in keeping with current surroundings and because I love the word Bällchen 🙂

I followed the recipe below as written for one batch (the ones coated in cocoa and chopped almonds in the image at right) and switched in shredded coconut for some of the ground almonds in the second batch (the coconut covered ones). I also used dried cranberries in addition to the dates in the coconut Bällchen.

These are easy to make (especially with a food processor) and the recipe is easy to adapt to whatever nuts or dried fruit are in the cupboard. While they are sweet and chocolate-y, they’re also full of fibre (thanks to the dates) and protein (thanks to the almonds).

Have a blissful Easter! Frohe Ostern! 

Glückseligkeit Bällchen mit Kakao und Mandeln
(Cocoa almond Bliss Balls)

Makes about a 18 balls. They keep beautifully in the freezer for a few months – just wrap in waxed paper and tuck into a ziptop bag.

Ingredients

  • 125g (about 20) dried dates, pitted
  • 125g (1 cup) ground almonds
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp oil (coconut, canola, or another neutral variety)
  • 2 tsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp water (reserved from soaking dates)
  • cocoa, coconut, chopped nuts, or a combination for coating balls

Method

  • Soak dates in warm water for 20 minutes; drain dates (reserving some of the soaking water) and chop into small pieces
  • Combine chopped dates, ground almonds, honey, oil, and cocoa; add water as necessary to make a thick mixture that comes away from the sides of the bowl and forms a moldable paste
    • This is easiest with a food processor, but totally possible with a wooden spoon and a bit of muscle
  • Using your hands, roll teaspoon-sized globs of the mixture into balls; cover with cocoa powder, chopped nuts, or shredded coconut
  • Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow Bällchen to firm up

 

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Full moon marker

Sunset with a full moon at Camp Figtree Lodge, South Africa

South African sunset with full moon
Photo © John Matheson

Most celestial movements pass me by. I generally don’t remark on whether Venus or Mars are visible. I’ve never stayed up late to watch a meteor shower. I couldn’t tell you when there might be a comet passing by.

But I do notice a full moon.

I’m not drawn to full moons for astronomical, tidal, or astrological purposes, I simply like that they help me remember; I often recall where I’ve been for past full moons and who I’ve been with.

Many, many full moons ago I was in South Africa with my brother. He took phenomenal photos (like the one on the right) of the full moon while we were staying at Camp Figtree Lodge. Every full moon since then has helped me remember that incredible trip and made me think about our adventures together.

Fewer full moons ago, my husband and I vacationed in Maui with good friends. On the night of a full moon we walked back to our condo after dinner and my husband snapped a couple photos of the sky. Sadly, none of those pictures turned out, but seeing the moon at it’s fullest still brings back memories of that trip -and reminds me that I’m lucky to have such friends.

Full moon in Neuss

Full moon in Neuss, Germany

And then there was the full moon of the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot. I participated in a meditation to mark the full moon at Sat Nam (the forerunner to Bound Lotus Meditation & Yoga Centre) before going to a friends’ to watch the last part of the hockey game. When I see a full moon now, I remember the foreboding sense that something was coming and the shock of seeing the first plumes of smoke coming from downtown. It makes me think of the bad behaviour that can be spawned from angry drunks and remember that sometimes bad things happen to good cities.

Thankfully, not all full moon meditations have been followed by such dramatic events! I’ve participated in many such meditations at Bound Lotus, including a few with my dog Sofie, and the full moon brings back those grounding experiences and makes me miss the welcoming community at the studio.

I also like thinking that no matter where people I love are (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, London, Berlin, Beijing, or anywhere else), they may also be looking up at the full moon – seeing the same thing I am.

Rather sappily, it reminds me of that song from that mouse movie. (A quick search reveals that the song is Somewhere Out There  from An American Tail.)

Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight,
Someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight.

When the full moon comes out later tonight, I’ll be in Paris with my husband and our dog. Despite all the glittering lights, I’m sure I’ll find a few moments to look up at the sky – to think of full moons past, to remember the amazing people I’ve shared them with, and to dream of those to come.

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The cure for boredom

The cure for boredom is curiosityMy dog has been particularly curious recently. Lots of sniffing, cautious cat approaches, and lingering looks towards where rabbits used to be.

Maybe it’s the effects of longer days and more sun, but it’s certainly lifted whatever winter ennui Sofie had been feeling.

It’s made me think of the Dorothy Parker quote below as there’s certainly no cure for Sofie’s curiosity, which borders on obsession!

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.

Dorothy Parker
American author

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Unforeseen fearlessness

Laura in plank at the in orbit exhibitBy nature I am not fearless. I am a worrier, a planner, a nail-biting worst-case-scenario imaginer.

But somehow, suspended more than 25 metres (82 feet or around five stories) above a marble floor on steel mesh, I became unflinchingly brave.

We went to K21 last week specifically to see in orbit – an interactive exhibit by Tomás Saraceno. K21 is one of the three venues of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (or state art collection) in Düsseldorf and in orbit is the largest piece they’ve ever displayed.

It’s made up of three interconnected levels of steel mesh, interspersed with giant inflated spheres and suspended under the glass roof of the Ständehaus building. Saraceno was inspired by spiderwebs and spent years studying how different species create different patterns.

in orbit is huge and strange and amazing from all perspectives – particularly from within.

Visitors can don coveralls and climb into the structure; becoming part of the exhibit, altering the tension on the steel wires, and interacting with each other and those watching.

While waiting to get into the coveralls, I was impatient. During the very short safety briefing, I started to get a bit anxious. And then walking up the scaffolding (which felt less than rock solid), the butterflies started. As I trepidatiously put a first foot on the mesh, my heart was pounding. Looking down and seeing the polished stone floor five floors below, I began to think this was a bad idea.

I quickly dropped my bum onto the mesh out a self-preserving instinct that increased physical contact would mean increased safety. The path of least resistance led to a steep down-slope and before I knew it I was sliding down the mesh as though it was snow and I was on a toboggan.

Two images of Laura at the in orbit exhibitThat slide brought on a childlike sense of elation and my nervousness evaporated. While part of my brain still screamed “Stop!” when I moved from overlapping layers of mesh to a single stratum, I got quite comfortable being suspended.

I climbed the ‘walls,’ attempted a couple yoga poses, flopped onto the pillows, ‘swam’ on my belly, marveled at the huge blown-up spheres, clambered along the wires, reveled in the novelty of walking on air… all while I grinned madly.

I could not anticipate my fearlessness before stepping onto the mesh, but there it was. Brave, adventurous, blithely embracing the amazingness of the moment.

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Chalked doors

Four images of chalk (or chalk-like stickers) on doorsOn my first walk through our new neighbourhood I noticed black stickers with chalk writing on a number of doors. I paid closer attention on subsequent walks and started noticing actual chalk on doorways as well.

Algebra on door frames? A complicated census system? A formula for garbage pick-up?

Given that Lent had just begun and I hadn’t noticed anything like this before, I theorized that the markings had something to do with Easter. A bit of research revealed that I was right about their religious nature, but wrong about the occasion.

The chalk markings are a traditional Catholic house blessing in Germany done around Epiphany (6 January) every year. The digits represent the year to come (2014 in the picture at top left) and the letters stand for either the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house) or names of the three wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar). The mathematical operators have folkloric meaning as well: the multiplication sign or asterisk (*) is for the Star of Bethlehem and the plus symbols (+++) represent the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

While the majority of doorways in our neighbourhood are unmarked, there are sizable number that have been chalked and some even have long lists from previous years. It’s clear that Neuss is more Catholic (or at least more into chalk and blessings!) than Berlin as there’s a whole set of traditions around Epiphany that we didn’t see any trace of in Germany’s more secular capital.

Learning about local traditions like this is one of the reasons that my husband and I wanted to live in different regions of Germany. Exploring a different country from a less-tourist perspective was a motivating factor for starting this adventure and it’s fantastic when those explorations lead to a little more understanding of local customs.

And with Easter just around the corner, who knows what other new-to-us traditions will pop up!

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Spring while it lasts

Ice cream in DusseldorfSpring weather is unpredictable everywhere. Thursday was all bright sunshine and warmth. Yesterday I got caught in a hailstorm on my way back from yoga and then the sun set on nearly cloudless skies. Today is cloudy with a cold wind. And who knows what Spring has in store tomorrow!

We ‘sprung’ at the chance to enjoy the fantastic weather and spent Thursday afternoon in Düsseldorf. It’s easy to like a city when the weather’s good – it helps that there were lots of ice cream parlours and a plethora of breweries, too!

We walked along the Rhineuferpromenade (river-side pedestrian/bike path) from Altstadt (the old town) with its narrow cobbled streets and many shops to Mediahafen (a former harbour that’s now filled with restaurants, shops, and modern architecture). Sofie stalked pigeons, we shed layers of clothing, and very much enjoyed meandering along the Rhine.

We stopped at two different breweries and sampled their variants of Altbier (old beer) – a dark brew served in 200mL glasses so it’s always cold! And ended up having ice cream for lunch 🙂

Laura and Sofie pose in front of a Dusseldorf canal

Lots of locals (and some tourists, as well) were out enjoying the sun, ice cream, and beer, which made for excellent people watching. Düsseldorf is known for being fashionable and there were many stylish dressers who did not disappoint. The overall dapper-ness was, however, kept in check by the disproportionate number of leather vests and badly highlighted hair!

The proximity of so many cities with different conventions, style, architecture, and cuisine (and beer!) gives us some incredible opportunities for short trips. Since arriving in Neuss, we’ve sipped Kölsch (the local beer) in Köln; walked Europe’s largest outdoor market in Liège, Belgium; bought ‘cheap’ gas in Luxembourg; driven through the East Cantons, Belgium’s German region; and celebrated the first official day of Spring in Düsseldorf.

We plan on ‘springing’ on travel opportunities as much as possible. Given that there’s a train station about five minutes away that connects us to many other interesting cities in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, we’ve got no excuse!

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Home cooked comfort

Homemade ham and cheese loafCooking is one of the things I miss most while travelling. Although we had a stovetop, fridge, and sink in the camper, space was very cramped and the ventilation system wasn’t great. Our most successful camper meals were pretty much bread, cheese, and paté.

I’m very much enjoying cooking in a real kitchen and have been making some old favourites. Relatively easy and very comforting meals like ravioli with mushrooms and sage, chili with baking powder biscuits, gnocchi with lemon and arugula, and this delicious ham & cheese loaf.

Most of these familiar recipes need a bit of adapting as German grocery stores stock different products than Canadian ones. We’re not always able to find exactly what the recipe calls for and sometimes that creativity pays off.

The original Ham & Cheese Loaf recipe (which I think my mum clipped from a newspaper about 20 years ago!) calls for chopped ham and grated Swiss cheese. My husband often made it with ham and cheddar cheese and we’ve also used leftover turkey in place of the ham before. I imagine a wide-range of cooked meats would work really well.

Cheddar cheese is hard to find in Germany and there are so many options for meat and sausage here that being limited to ham made no sense. I used gouda cheese and Schinken-Fleischwurst (a large, lightly spiced pork sausage) for the loaf in the picture.

The loaf (which is a rather unappetizing way to describe such a yummy combination of bread, meat, and cheese) is fantastic warm and even better cold the day after. A leftover slice makes an excellent snack and slices disappear from the fridge with astonishing speed.

Eating familiar food in a still-foreign culture makes me feel a little more at home, a little more comfortable, and a lot less hungry!

Ham & Cheese Loaf

Ingredients
  • 500g (4 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 packages rapid rise yeast (14g or 1/2oz in total)
  • 250mL (1 cup) water
  • 35mL (1/4 cup) Dijon mustard (or Senf mittelscharf if you’re shopping at a German grocery store)
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 225g (1 1/2 cups or 8oz) cooked meat, chopped
  • 225g (1 1/2 cups or 8oz) firm cheese, grated
  • 1 egg, beaten
Method
  • Set aside 125g (1 cup) flour; line a baking sheet with aluminium foil and lightly grease
  • In a large bowl, mix together remaining flour, sugar, salt, and yeast
  • In a small saucepan over medium-low heat bring water, mustard, and butter to about 50°C (125-130°F )
    • it should be warm enough that you can’t comfortably dip your finger in for more than a few seconds
  • Stir warm liquid into flour mixture and add in enough reserved flour to make soft dough
    • in more humid climates you’ll need more of the flour
  • Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for about 4 minutes
    • the dough should be smooth and bounce back when pressed with a finger
  • Roll dough into a rectangle – just over 1/2cm thick (1/4”) and roughly 35x30cm (14×12”); transfer to greased baking sheet
  • Sprinkle meat and cheese down centre third of dough length; make cuts from filling to dough edge at 2.5cm (1”) intervals
    • kitchen shears are an easy way to cut the dough
  • Bring strips from opposite sides of filling together, twisting and placing ends at an angle across meat and cheese
  • Rise the dough by covering loaf with a warm, damp towel and placing the baking sheet over a large shallow pan half-full of boiling water;  let sit for 15 minutes
  • While dough is rising, preheat oven to 190°C (375°F)
  • Brush loaf with beaten egg and bake for 25 minutes until golden brown
  • Let cool for 5 minutes before slicing and serve warm or cold
  • Enjoy leftover slices for as long as they last!
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Early return

Three photos of camper lifeToday was the original date for camper-return. Instead, the camper went back four days ago and we slipped into our flat in Neuss a few days early. We are not camper people.

We had grand plans for our 22-days touring around Europe: western Germany, Luxembourg, eastern and southern France, Monaco, northern Italy, Andorra, Spain, and maybe even Portugal. The difficulties driving the camper, problems finding campsites that met our needs, and the challenges of getting into cities to see their sights humbled our ambitions – and necessitated changing our tactics.

Instead of hopping from place to place, discovering a new area daily, we stayed at campsites we liked for a couple nights and left the camper parked for a day or two at a time to explore. We stayed in rural Luxembourg and used their nation-wide public transit system to get to the capital (unoriginally also named Luxembourg). We camped outside of Saint-Tropez and wandered Mediterranean beaches. We stayed on two different vineyards and sampled French wines with the winemakers. We saw Mont St. Michel, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Juno Beach. We gawked at Notre Dame in Chartres and a few other churches.

What we didn’t do was go into larger cities or travel nearly as far as we thought we would. Plans to meet up with someone in Dijon were abandoned. A trip into Grenoble to visit a friend was pushed aside. Any hopes of gambling in Monaco were dashed. Andorra’s narrow streets and lack of major highways scared us away. The navigational and language barriers of Italy and Spain felt insurmountable. Portugal was just too damn far.

It was a radically different trip than anticipated.

We saw rural Germany, Luxembourg, and France in a way we could have never expected – partially because the GPS had no way of knowing how terrifying single-lane country roads are in a camper!

We also learnt about places we didn’t know existed and revelled in continually finding historic markers. We drove along the winding Mosel wine route and crossed the towering Île de Ré bridge. We visited war cemeteries and paid our respects to those who fell in the two world wars.

Sofie in the Mediterranean

We communicated in rusty French (me) or broken German (my husband) because we had no other choice in the countryside.  We bought a baguette nearly every day in France and consumed huge volumes of paté and cheese. We suffered through wind and rain storms at three separate campsites – including one overlooking the high waves of the Atlantic.

And parts of the trip made our dog pretty happy. Sofie got to swim in the Mediterranean, chase a ball on a beach in Normandy, drive long distances either sitting on my lap or curled up on her camper bed, sample French paté, and she spent a lot of time with us.

In the end, we accomplished my dream of getting somewhere warm in February, didn’t have any catastrophic fights, saw some amazing sights, ate some fantastic food, drove more than 5000 kilometres, and, perhaps most of all, solidified our status as non-campers.

Camper journey map

Click on the pins for the place names and a little more detail


View Camper Trip in a larger map

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Auf Wiedersehen Berlin

Hertha Block Promenade street signRoughly four months after we arrived in Berlin, our bags are packed for our next location. We’re embarking on a three week camper trip and then spending two months in Neuss (across the Rhine from Düsseldorf).

Our time in the camper will be an adventure in free-form travelling as we have a very loose outline of where we’re going. Likely into Luxembourg, France, and Italy… possibly into Andorra, Spain, Switzerland, and Monaco. Wherever we go, we’re taking all of our stuff with us – although, thankfully, there’s not that much to carry!

While we didn’t come to Germany with a lot (three hockey bags, two laptops and other necessary electronics, and some dog paraphernalia), we’ve trimmed down our possessions even more. And considering that we pared down what we already thought were the bare basics before flying to Germany in November, it’s amazing that there’s anything more for us to purge!

Cargo Reduction comic from Itchy Feet

Cargo Reduction © Itchy Feet

Itchy Feet published this comic the other day and it fits perfectly with how we’ve reduced our cargo… and will likely continue to do so.

A year ago, we had a fully furnished, well-equipped two bedroom condo and no idea that we’d be travelling so much. Our downsizing started about this time last year in preparation for renovations and continued through our initial discussions about moving.

We dragged our three packed-to-the-brim, overweight hockey bags to Calgary… and left about a quarter of their contents there.

And while in Berlin we’ve probably let go of another 25%. Not quite at the passport and toothbrush stage, but getting closer!

It’s part terrifying and part liberating to have so little. It does make us a lot more mobile 🙂 , but can also feel a bit empty.

Thankfully, we’re able to fill any emptiness with amazing experiences, fabulous digital photos, and lots of incredible memories.

I suspect we’ll be back to Berlin to visit (or at least explore the city when it’s not so cold!), but it’s farewell for now.

The excess cargo, on the other hand, might be gone for good!

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Home is…

Home is organized drawersNot having a permanent address has made me think a lot about ‘home’. Is it a single location? Is it a feeling? Is it a situation? What makes somewhere ‘home’?

I’ve realized that ‘home’ is a moving target. It can be my parents’ house (where I grew up), a rented flat, a hotel room, a friends’ apartment.

Our flat in Berlin has certainly been ‘home’ for the last few months; we unpacked, settled in, and got really comfortable. The clothes are neatly organized. The products in the bathroom cabinet are sorted by type. The mailbox bears our names. Even the kitchen cupboards are arranged so they make the most sense to us.

Unpacking goes a long way towards making me feel comfortable. Whenever we move, all the boxes and bags are unpacked within the first 24 hours. As long as there’s closet/drawer space available, I empty out my luggage – even if I’m only there for a couple nights.

We leave this flat in just a few days and my definition of ‘home’ will shift again. But some components of ‘home’ stay the same. Home is familiar and comfortable. Home is where my husband and dog are.  Home is settled and secure.

Home is where the drawers are organized.

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