Forum Holitorium

Krapfenzeit

Snow keeps falling here in the mountains, but the days are getting longer and the cycle of seasons continues to turn.  Marking the end of Carnival, Faschingsdienstag/Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday was yesterday, and the first day of Lent is today. In Russia, Maslenitsa or Butter Week also takes place this week. The Chinese New Year or Spring Festival starts with the new moon on Friday (or Thursday in Europe and the Americas); soon it will be the Year of the Dog. This week Tibetans are also celebrating Losar, the new year, Friday through Sunday. Interesting how so many holidays around the world have converged this week.

To celebrate Mardi Gras, my high school French teacher made crepes with us, letting each of us flip a crepe with the pan in one hand and a coin in the other to bring good luck. It has become my tradition to make buckwheat crepes for Mardi Gras (without a coin in my hand). The only Austrian culinary tradition associated with Fasching (as the pre-Lenten season is called) is eating Krapfen – doughnuts filled with apricot jelly and dusted with powdered sugar. Before this week, it had certainly been a few years since I last had a jelly-filled doughnut. For whatever reason, this year I felt it was important to eat Krapfen. The two and a half I ate were fresh from a local bakery and delicious.

In Austria, Lent is a time where it is easy to use “I’ve given it up for Lent” as an excuse not to eat or drink something. On a whim, I decided that I will give up sugar for Lent. Since I am not a “Naschkatze” (literally a snacking or nibbling cat, meaning a person with a sweet tooth), this should not be too hard. A friend gave up sugar last year for Lent and felt she had a lot more energy. As winter winds down, even a little more energy sounds great. I will give it a try.

May you enjoy any celebrations that occur this week!

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Aunts and Blankets

A week ago I had a dream about my aunt who has been dead for nearly eight years. I was standing in my grandparents’ kitchen and saw her sitting on the couch in the living room watching TV, bundled up in an afghan as if it were a cold winter evening. She appeared as she looked in the early eighties, slender and with short permed hair that had recently been cut. She turned her head and saw me and a smile spread across her face. A tremendous yet calm joy began to radiate from her. We smiled at each other awhile, and then I woke up.

I am lucky to have four aunts – three of whom are still here. They are all very different and special in their own way. The aunt I dreamed about liked to knit and crochet. Her specialty was afghans. When I was a child, she crocheted me a pink and lavender afghan. Though I can’t stomach the colors any more, I have held onto it because she made it for me. Funny to dream of her right after I finished making my first throw blanket. After a few attempts at knitting various cardigans, I decided the heavy alpaca-wool mix might be better as a blanket. It needs a good blocking, but it is nice and warm on my lap. It is quite different than the colorful cotton blanket with Celtic designs that has followed me around from apartment to apartment since I was a teenager.

Last summer I knit an eggplant colored merino wool baby blanket for my cousin, who was expecting her first child. Since she and her husband do not have siblings, their daughter does not have any aunts. I have always wanted to be an aunt and especially to have a niece, but that is also difficult as I don’t have any siblings either. When I lived in Poland, I learned that many of my friends had a “ciotka”, and auntie, who wasn’t technically the sister of their mother or father but simply a woman who was close enough to have this title bestowed on her. So maybe one day I too will be called aunt. At any rate, I have already behaved like my aunt by knitting a blanket that is now keepiny my cousin’s daughter warm. The cabled blanket below was a gift from a woman who you might say is an unofficial aunt of mine.

The days are getting longer, but it is still blanket and afghan weather. Since I have enough to keep me warm inside, my focus is now on jackets and cowls for staying warm outside.

May you enjoy and appreciate your aunts and blankets!

Tying Up Loose Ends

Powdered sugar

It started snowing last night in the city, more cosmetic than anything else. The street and pavement are clear, but the plants and roofs are coated nicely. It is a very peaceful backdrop to the genesis of my first blog entry in 2018. Energized after a peaceful break over the holidays, I did what many a knitter does in January: assess all the unruly yarn that has accumulated and see what I can do to tame the leftover skeins. Having turned most of the larger balls of yarn into hats a few months ago, I decided to conjure up bags and containers and a sachet. The two larger baskets still need to be felted.

Stashbusting

It is amazing how much you can make out of small bits of yarn. When I started knitting, someone told me to save all the scraps, no matter how small, and I have. After nine years of knitting, I have quite a collection. A week ago, I went on a word fast for 24 hours: no phone, no books, no computer. One of the many benefits that emerged from this fast was an impromptu organization of all those loose ends. After emptying the ziplock bag full of yarn ends (which no longer seals) and corralling all other leftover wool in my stash, I divided the ends into three categories: 4 inches/10 cm or shorter, medium lengths that could be used as ties of some kind, and longer pieces of yarn that could be wound into mini-balls and still be used for knitting.

Loose ends

The ziplock bag is now full of the 4 inch or less ends. So nothing goes to waste, I plan on using these ends to stuff a small pillow that I will knit at some point in the next few months. (Family and friends: anyone want a 7″ x 9″ pillow?) The tie length yarn is organized by color and put in the cardboard container shown above. And the mini-balls of yarn that could still become part of a collaborative effort are neatly placed in a tin (which now closes easily, without me having to push down hard on the lid). Invigorated by this action, I knit nearly a project every day in a frenzy of industriousness that Benjamin Franklin would surely have found laudatory: “Be industrious and frugal and you will be rich.”

Industry and frugality are the catchwords for January and extend into the kitchen. Over the holidays, I found my groove again with cooking and baking, two activities that were more of a chore than a joy in 2017. January is a good time to look at the best by/expiration dates on dried goods and use them up. A large pack of raisins inspired me to bake a Gugelhupf, to which I added a shot of Italian wine and two teaspoons of cinnamon to jazz up the basic buttery yeast leavened dough. The recipe called for a glaze of rum and powdered sugar, neither of which I had in the pantry. Now I can look out the window at the snow while I eat a slice – that is enough powder for me.

GugelhupfMay you enjoy the fruits of industry and frugality on the needles and in the kitchen!

On the Cusp of Winter

The promise of snow did not pan out as I had hoped. I had imagined waking up to glowing white outside, looking down from my cozy room in my refuge with a view of the forest and delighting in the arrival of winter. But I have enjoyed just a few mornings with a liberal sprinkling of powdered sugar that melts as soon as the sun warms the earth. When I find such a layer on top of apple strudel, I try to tap it off with my fork. Why ruin one of the few desserts that is not overly sweet with extra sugar?

Winter may come soon enough but most likely after I return to the city later this week. It has been a year of cultivating patience in many areas of life; I guess this will apply to enjoyment of snow as well. How fickle I have become, yearning for the next season when the reds and oranges of fall are still on view. Perhaps my focus has shifted a bit. On my walks in the woods, I have been distracted by my four-legged companion Kati. Wire-haired dachshunds approach the world differently than we do. Whereas I am content to breath in the smell of spruce and let my mind wander as I stroll, Kati stops every few meters, nose quivering, ears giving away how much more alert she is than I to the subtle smells of the forest. Or she takes off at a good clip, excited to be out and stretching her legs, stopping impatiently when she reaches the end of the leash to wait for me to catch up with her. Walks are not supposed to be this strenuous. I spend more time contemplating her than the trees now, noting how her hind legs are rarely in perfect alignment with her front legs as she trots along in front of me and anticipating when she will try to leave the path to sniff and explore dead grass. Leisurely contemplation while walking will need to wait until Kati is reunited with her owner.

I have come to the conclusion that dog ownership is best left for people who live in the countryside, people who wish to lose weight, people who do not shirk from taking responsibility for the welfare of another being, and people who can handle the smell of meat. I am just a temporary dabbler, an adjunct dog sitter, and do not inhabit the space in the Venn diagram where these categories overlap. Far from it. Yet my week with Kati has shown me how quickly a good natured dog can win even me over.

May you see the world differently through the eyes of an animal!

Middle High Autumn

I find myself happier with less. I find I no longer need to seek things out; instead, the important things and ideas find me. I find myself listening. Looking. Observing. More. Not enough though, because I nearly stepped on a fire salamander, so engrossed I was in a conversation, my thoughts darting to possible futures instead of taking in the wonders in front of me.

Fall brings with it a quiet of its own. I am at a point where I am interested in seeking out new rhythms and focusing more on the silence between the beats. When I need to clear my head and breathe deeply, I head to the forest. Somehow the colors of the leaves – those on fire as well as those stalwartly green – seem more vibrant to me this year.

In September I read two books that found me, two books not on my reading list. The first was The Abundance of Less by Andy Couturier. Couturier interviewed ten people living in rural Japan who are treading softly on the earth by making do without money as much as possible. One of the people he interviewed said that we human beings want things because we have too much information, yet the changing weather and seasons are enough. Another says you need a life where you can be aware of nature and perceive it closely.

I stop to admire water drops on leaves and walk away carefully, leaving them for others to appreciate.

The second book was Being the Change by Peter Kalmus. One of the important messages is that although we cannot save the world, we can still change it, and every action counts. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has slashed his CO2 emissions by ninety percent. He writes eloquently about the change in perspective that is necessary to temper global warming and speaks from his own experiences with meditation about how practicing can lead to greater equanimity. What if more people cultivated equanimity?

What both books have in common is the ethic of choosing not to take everything we can take. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Opting out is often a very good option. I don’t need to climb a mountain to appreciate its beauty and be changed by its presence.

Snow has already fallen in the Alps. In the valley where I am typing these lines, freezing temperatures were predicted. Instead of a dusting of frost on the grass, my observations early this morning revealed two magpies in a linden tree nearly devoid of leaves. It is darker longer, and the silence of evenings is intoxicating. Apples are at their peak of crispness; wool begs to be knit into sweaters.

May you choose not to take everything you can!

 

In the Kingdom of the Monarch

When I hear the word butterfly, I see a monarch butterfly. Still common in my hometown, this was the only butterfly I could identify until relatively recently. I was happy to see quite a few on a visit a few weeks ago to Richard Bong State Recreation Area, one of Wisconsin’s state parks. According to its homepage, the area was slated to become an airport for jet fighter planes but was spared at the last minute – as in shortly before the concrete for the runway was poured. How the world desperately needs more of these happy endings!

Monarchs thrive on a diet of milkweed, a plant that produces prickly pods that split to reveal silky seeds.

Pesticide use in North America and deforestation in Mexico, where monarchs spend the winter, have a direct impact on the monarch population. For readers in North America, growing milkweed in your yard is just one way to help out the monarch butterfly. Refraining from using pesticides also helps pollinators like the one in the picture below.

It has been good spending these past few weeks where remnants of the Midwestern prairie yield to Lake Michigan. The unseasonable heat and lack of rainfall is troubling, yet my wish to be here in this familiar landscape while the weather was summery came true.

The colors and the sounds (especially blue jays, crickets, and cicadas) have been soothing, the expanse of the sky a reminder of how limitless and open life can be.

Soon I will be experiencing the Alps in autumn, covering up with wool sweaters and opening up my umbrella. But now it is time to listen to the breeze whispering through the prairie grass and soak up a little more warmth while I still can.

May you enjoy the colors, sounds, and vistas around you!

My Salzkammergut Summer

Summer 2017 is drawing to a close. I have spent a fair share of this one in the northeasternmost reaches of the Salzkammergut, Austria’s lake district, getting to know places like Lake Traunsee. Gmunden is a pleasant small town located on its northern shore. During the monarchy, it was a popular resort area complete with an esplanade, casino, and paddle steamer; today it is known for its distinctive ceramics and Schloss Ort, the castle jutting out into the lake that is a popular venue for weddings. The stunning view of the mountains hasn’t changed since the fall of the monarchy, and you can still take a ride on the lake on the historic paddle steamer Gisela (built in Vienna in 1871).

Swans can also be spotted paddling around Lake Traunsee as well as many of the other lakes in the Salzkammergut. Another lake I have gotten to know this summer that is frequented by swans is the smaller and less touristy Lake Almsee. Ducks and other birds whose names I do not know enjoy the fresh clear water.

You can walk along a trail that follows the very green eastern shore of the lake.

Lake Almsee is at the southern end of the Alm Valley and can be reached via Grünau, home of the Konrad Lorenz Research Center, where research is conducted on the behavior of greylag geese. At the end of the road running through this valley lies a nature reserve and this view of the mountains that protect it to the south: the Totes Gebirge (dead mountain range).

It is hard to write about these pictures and come up with words besides beautiful, stunning, or enchanting – this landscape is truly incredible and speaks to me tremendously at this moment in my life. I should probably stop worrying about my limited vocabulary and just keep enjoying what is in front of me. As I took pictures, I thought of how futile it is to try to reduce the view into such a small image – I guess blogging is ultimately an exercise in futility.

During my Salzkammergut summer, I have spent time observing the behavior of cats, pied wagtails, deer, wasps, flies, and dogs. I have seen red currants ripen and be picked. Now is the time of blackberries and apples, and soon the time will come for these elderberries to be separated from the bush they grew on. Perhaps they will become elderberry syrup that is mixed with sparkling water to make a refreshing drink.

Yes, summer is coming to a close. The next time I visit the Salzkammergut, it will be another season. And like many a bird, I am now readying myself for a long migratory voyage to another lakeshore.

Enjoy everything beautiful, stunning, and enchanting in what remains of this summer!

Dog Days

The dog days: how the ancient Greeks and Romans referred to the period of time when the star Sirius, thought to represent Orion’s dog, rose before the sun. It is mentioned in Homer’s The Iliad as the star of the harvest that boded ill and brought fever. The dies caniculares (Latin for dog days) are indeed upon us here in Austria. After a brief respite from this summer’s fourth official heat wave (or canicule, as the French would say, from the Latin canicula, “puppy”), the temperatures have gone up yet again. To beat the heat, I have been taking to the forest in St. Radegund.

Named after the sixth century saint, a poet and healer reported to have eaten nothing but legumes and green vegetables, St. Radegund is a small town at the foot of Mount Schöckl 15 km northeast of Graz. First settled in the sixth century, it became a popular spa town in the nineteenth century thanks to its radioactive springs.

Many Hungarians came to take the waters, some of whom donated a statue of St. Elizabeth of Hungary to show their gratitude for being healed. This statue graces one of the springs along the “Ungarische Runde“, or Hungarian Walk. On this bench you can take a break from your stroll and contemplate the Hungarian Madonna.

The well-shaded Hungarian Walk continues through the woods, passing by numerous springs and Kneipp cure stations. Sebastian Kneipp was a Bavarian priest who healed himself of tuberculosis by bathing several times a week in the cold waters of the Danube. He developed the Kneipp cure, a form of water therapy that involves immersing the body in cold water to stimulate circulation as well as encouraging a whole foods diet, herbal treatments, fresh air, and movement (preferably barefoot). He also had a penchant for hand spun linen and hemp clothing instead of wool.

Since my normal body temperature is quite low, I shudder at the mere thought of a cold shower, but it has been so hot in the past few weeks that I have found myself wading through the Kneipp pool alongside the trail and dousing myself with fresh cold mountain water to cool off. Yes, a Kneipp cure makes good sense as soon as the temperature rises above 90° F / 32° C. Another favorite strategy of mine for keeping cool: ingesting copious amounts of raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries – all which can be found growing in the woods near St. Radegund. I think Father Kneipp would have probably approved.

The spring above is for the lazy (paresseux). I can only speculate why it is labelled in French although located in a German speaking area. Perhaps the Hungarian guests were all of a certain class whose education included learning French to be sophisticated? A heat wave is a good time to laze about and avoid activity as much as possible – perhaps on one of these wooden chairs.

It is incredible how much cooler the temperature is in the forest. How fortunate we are here in Austria, one of the few countries where the area of forested land is actually increasing. Nearly half of the country is covered with trees. Every second one cubic meter of wood grows, and more wood is produced than is harvested. As the climate becomes warmer, it is important to have places to take refuge where you can still enjoy being outside, breathing in fresh air, and drinking safe water.

Hope you have a nice spot where you can keep cool during the dog days!

Lenzingtide

Happy spring! Though I peeked my head out of the cave in February, I retreated back into my lair until spring arrived. The German word for spring is Frühling (früh = early). In Austria you often hear the word Frühjahr (“early year”) as well, most commonly in connection with Frühjahrsmüdigkeit (“spring fatigue or lethargy”). This refers to the tiredness many feel this time of year attributable to hormonal changes that occur as the body emerges from winter mode and wakes up again. The flip side of spring fever, I suppose. Another older word for spring that mainly appears in song and poetry is Lenz, short for the word Lenzing (“long day”) that was formerly used to name the month in which spring begins. The days are indeed longer this side of the vernal equinox, allowing more time to appreciate color.

Colors that recur provide comfort and connect us to the season cycle. Currently I see yellow all around me. March is yellow with forsythia, the shrub shown at the top of this page that does things in reverse by flowering before producing leaves. March is yellow with primroses peppering the lawn. Though the flowers and leaves are edible, keep your hands off Primula vulgaris – it is under protection in many European countries including Austria. March is yellow with daffodils and tulips, the favorites of many a gardener.

Yellow is the cover of Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write. It made its way into my collection years ago. I am finally reading it in an attempt to answer the question: What role should writing play in my life? Yellow is the color of a tattered folder holding sheets of paper whose blank sides can be used to print knitting patterns and rough drafts. And yellow is the color of cotton yarn on the needles taking shape into a runner for the pine dresser of my dreams.

May you enjoy the many shades of yellow around you!

Reentering Roman Territory

Dear readers, I have emerged out of hibernation, my Winterschlaf (literally winter sleep). I think you will be happy to hear that I am carving out a space for writing once again. My refuge of snow and ice has melted and I find myself back in Felix Austria, tracing a triangle between Graz, Klagenfurt and Vienna. Today I found myself heading to the small town of Tulln an der Donau for what I thought would be a peaceful stroll along the banks of the Danube in the late winter sunshine. By the time I got there, the sun had gone into hiding behind the clouds. Despite the chilly, damp weather, the journey was well worth it, for I received a gentle nudge to return to the Forum Holitorium from this famous man on horseback.

On the river walk in Tulln, Marcus Aurelius sits on horseback, contemplating the sleepy Danube in front of him. The area of Tulln was already settled before the Romans arrived to build the camp of Comagena along the Limes, the frontier that marked the edge of the Roman Empire and followed the curve of the Danube River. Little did I expect to find traces of the Romans on the menu today. The Roman Museum was still closed for winter, but I was able to admire the Römerturm (Roman Tower), one of the oldest buildings in Austria that dates back to the 4th century. It is also one of the few antique structures north of the Alps preserved in its entirety and has been used as a repository for weapons as well as a storehouse for salt.

Besides the Romans, Tulln’s other historic claim to fame dwells in the realm of myth. An event memorialized in the German epic the Nibelungenlied is said to have taken place in Tulln: King Etzel (otherwise known as Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, widow of Siegfried, in Tulln. They marry and live not quite happily ever after down river in the land of the Huns. There is a statue with a fountain on the river walk commemorating this momentous occasion. My previous exposure to this Germanic saga was limited to a theater production of Friedrich Hebbel’s Die Niebelungen, and I must admit it extinguished any interest I had previously had in reading the German sagas. The Nibelungenlied is a medieval crime story about the murder of Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild’s avenging of his death. I find revenge one of the silliest and most immature actions on earth. My eyes start to glaze over at the mere thought of trying to keep all the plot twists straight. Instead, I prefer to shift my focus to more peaceable creatures like this cute little rat that looks upon the scene of Etzel’s proposal to Kriemhild and laughs.

May only peaceable creatures cross your path!