Forum Holitorium

The Kaiser Would Surely Approve

What could be more vintage Austrian than a mini-statue of Kaiser Franz Joseph? What could be more welcome on a blah February day than a chocolate-covered cherry? If the weather were less windy, I would have headed to Schönbrunn Zoo with my valentine and checked out the baby polar bear making its debut today. The zoo has a two-for-one special on Valentine’s Day. We went last year when the weather was nicer. Instead, I plan to remain industrious indoors. A little more computer work, then a good dose of housework, and then on to the next piece of a grey cardigan. I am a fan of top-down raglan sweaters, so this is a nice trip outside my comfort zone. It is knit in four pieces: the back, a large piece with the front panels plus back yoke that forms a shawl collar, and two sleeves. The back is now ready for blocking.

Normally I switch back and forth between several projects, but this is the second time this year that I am challenging myself to work on just one project at a time. Dreaming about other projects is OK – indeed I spent a lot of time this morning mulling over patterns for linen tops for summer – but my knitting bowl only contains a charcoal wool-alpaca blend and a pair of socks that need darning. Into all this winter grey, a dash of bold color is provided by new ceramic shower door handles. The fleur-de-lis detail gives the bathroom a bit of a royal flair – the Kaiser would surely approve. I was happy that Pantone picked Classic Blue as the 2020 color of the year. The colors in the past few years haven’t been my favorites.

Stay focused and enjoy a dash of color!

Entering February

At first I wondered if it had been a good idea to get the hand painted skein of 50% wool/50% silk. But as the shawlette grew, I liked it more and more. This week I finally blocked it and love the result. It looks so nice that I am waiting for a special occasion to debut it. I love the stitch pattern and am curious what it is called. I am not sure if it is a variation on cat’s paw, which I think has six holes in a circle instead of eight, or if it is something else entirely. Do any knitters reading this know what the stitch pattern is called?

Recently I wrote how I rarely read fiction anymore. Rarely, but not never. The outbreak of coronavirus made me dig out my hand-me-down copy of Albert Camus’s The Plague, a book I discovered in my late teens. If I remember correctly, it was among the French books my oldest cousin passed down to me. The book has followed me from apartment to apartment, surviving a major cull of books made a few years ago. I am probably not the only reader whose sympathy has shifted from the journalist Rambert to the doctor Rieux over the course of moving from young adulthood to middle age. Like a good classic, the book is about many things: an ordinary city facing an outbreak of the plague, being separated from a loved one, the disruption of the rhythms of everyday life by events beyond one’s control, the importance of those same rhythms in giving life meaning, the difficulty of dealing with death. I am halfway through this rereading and am thoroughly enjoying settling into the reading chair and sinking into the story.

KA thought cake would taste good and liked the idea of lemon again. As I am trying to avoid butter, I pulled out an old recipe, one copied onto a note card about 20 years ago that I haven’t made in maybe just as long a time. This one is sans butter. I threw in some poppy seed for fun. Since I couldn’t remember which of the lemons were organic and which were not, I didn’t add grated lemon peel. That was a mistake. It tastes fresh but not lemony, like wearing clothes that fit your body perfectly but that are all the same neutral color with no accent color to jazz things up. It is a good basic recipe that I plan on playing with in the future. Sour cherries and chocolate chunks, cinnamon and raisins, plums and poppy seed are a few possible variations.

Stay healthy and happy February!

First Viennaversary

I have been an official resident of Vienna, the city of rooks, for just over a year now. How could I possibly feel lonely in winter when more often than not, a gang of my friends are hanging out in the trees, pecking at the branches or scouring the ground for something tasty to eat? Sometimes they are joined by a lone hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – like when I can’t resist and toss peanuts out the window. Peanuts are their favorite. There is an older gentleman who saves up bread crumbs and shakes them out next to the sidewalk for the birds. The rooks will eat them, but if peanuts are also available, guess what disappears first.

The Keeper of the Amaryllis (henceforth KA) forgot he had received a box of Christmas cookies a month ago. When the box of stale Weihnachtskekse surfaced the other day, it seemed better to offer them to the birds instead of tossing them in the garbage. The vanilla crescents were snapped up but not as enthusiastically as – you guessed it – peanuts. More popular were the ball cookies. Yesterday a rook went to town on one for a good five minutes, beak like a jackhammer, breaking it apart and greedily gulping down the crumbs. I tossed another one out today and it was gone within thirty seconds. A rook picked it up and flew off. Was it the same one?

There is a rook couple that always share what they find with each other, but the cookie rook was not one of them and defended his/her catch. It is very difficult to tell the rooks apart. There is one I see from time to time with grey feathers on the left side of the rump, but otherwise they all look the same. It’s their behavior that sets certain birds apart. I am starting to think that the bird on the branch above is coming back repeatedly, staring at my window, and waiting for food. They are highly intelligent and can tell people apart. Two good books on the intelligence of the corvid family are Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage and In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. The first has gorgeous pictures and succinct descriptions of birds in both North America and Europe. The second has more thorough descriptions of research mainly on the American Crow but also on the Common Raven, which is widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Besides rookwatching and a whole lot of work, there was cake this week. During the holidays, there is always a point when I can’t stomach any more fat or sugar. This is the final recipe from Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles that I was interested in trying out but didn’t get around to at Christmas: Orange Poppy Seed Cake. My version substituted a second lemon for the orange and didn’t attempt the confit. I poked holes in the top of the cake and poured fresh lemon juice in them. The best pieces were in the middle where the most lemon juice pooled. It was tasty, but I have had enough butter now to last until crepes for Mardi Gras.

Happy birdwatching!

Peak Coziness

It was slow in coming, but winter has finally arrived. There was a great storm last Saturday. The amount of snow it left was pretty but unimpressive – a mere two inches. What gave pause was the wind. I was witness to the waters of Lake Michigan covering the sidewalk around the harbor, churned up by wind gusts.

The water level is at an all time high. Parts of the dunes have disappeared, and yet another house on the shore was deemed uninhabitable because it might collapse into the lake. As I watched the waves crash over the sidewalk and nearly lap the building I was in, I couldn’t help but think of video footage I have seen of tsunamis and hurricane storm surge. Water flowing where it normally doesn’t, where we feel it shouldn’t be.

One of my favorite pastimes in December and January is watching the sky before sunrise. No day is the same as the next. I witnessed quite a few good performances. The best ones, of course, can’t be captured on film.

It’s hard to believe that the winter solstice was nearly a month ago. That we are nearly three weeks into 2020. That I am back in Vienna already, and that it is actually snowing here too.

The Advent shawl blocked up beautifully and keeps me warm as I type these lines. Outside it may be cold and damp or snowy and windy; inside peak coziness reigns. Grab a blanket, a book, some yarn and needles. Sit in a comfortable spot near a good source of heat like a pellet stove. Ingest vegetable soup at least once a day. Dream of what would be nice to do when the weather is nice again. Repeat for at least six more weeks.

While browsing through the small independent bookstore in my neighborhood yesterday, I saw that Robert Macfarlane’s Underland has been translated into German (Im Unterland). It was one of the best books of 2019 that I have read. Three others (in no particular order) are Lost Feast by Lenore Newman, The Slow Moon Climbs by Susan P. Mattern, and Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl. Despite having studied literature, I rarely read fiction anymore. Reading about the world as it is is plenty interesting. There is so much to discover.

Wishing you color and coziness!

The Advent Chronicles 3: Red and Rests

The Keeper of the Amaryllis sent this picture of my top heavy birthday present, which has finally blossomed an ocean away. It is in keeping with the color of the week, as are these cardinals.

We have rounded the corner. Tomorrow the day will start to lengthen gently. We inhabitants of the Northern hemisphere will start on our next journey toward midsummer.

Despite good intentions, the week was still fatiguing and required a long restorative nap. Happily, my holiday preparations are nearly complete. The last cookies just came out of the oven and got thumbs up from my official taste testers.

A new year could do with a new cardigan. This one still requires minimal seaming and blocking. The color is “Spice.”

The time is approaching for stillness and rest. Do not be surprised by a few weeks of silence.

Have a peaceful holiday season and a prosperous new year!

The Advent Chronicles 2: Brown and Leaves

The motto I chose for this Advent is Stille, which means quiet, calm, silence, and peace. That is not how most of the first half of Advent was before the walk I took yesterday along the Pike River.

The sun was out and the air warmer than it had been in days. It was difficult to drag myself outside, but I am very glad I did.

Mostly brown and gray, nature is artful in her compositions. I left everything as I found it, touching nothing but the button on the camera.

Perhaps you need a quiet interlude now too: something neutral and subtle to cast your eyes upon. Like acorns or rocks.

Bark or fungi.

A couple of leaves no longer alone.

Earlier in the week, I spotted this hawk in the backyard. My hawk identification skills are rudimentary, but it is either a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk. It is not the first time I have seen one here. The blue jays, cardinals, and chickadees were entirely unfazed by its presence.

Enjoy all the nuances of brown and gray you see!

The Advent Chronicles 1: Gold and Circles

The first week of Advent is coming to a close, a week of transition. I find myself on the western shore of Lake Michigan on the cusp of winter, bracing myself for the frigid temperatures predicted for next week. A wreath of pine needles, poppy pods, and berries adorns the front door. It is more vibrant than the one with twigs for candles that I discovered in Lainzer Tiergarten on Sunday.

This is the first year I am participating in an Advent knitalong, or KAL. Instead of opening a small numbered door on an Advent calendar, I knit a specific number of rows each day. By Christmas Eve, a golden shawl full of tiny circles will be ready to warm someone’s shoulders. That’s just three days after the winter solstice, when the number of daylight hours will start increasing. As I complete each row, the rays of sunshine reach further into space.

When I picked up the wreath at a nearby nature sanctuary, I found some more gold in the form of honey along with a pair of other treasures. Not frankincense and myrrh, which are native to Somalia and Yemen and Ethiopia, but maple syrup and popcorn: gifts of this continent.

There is another circle, a red one, that adorns my head as I venture out each morning for sunrise watching, journal writing, and reading Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles at my favorite coffee shop. The book is full of odes to winter and the cold, seasonal lore surrounding holidays that fall in November through February, and recipes (though so far the majority are disappointingly with meat). Today I read that it was Caspar, the magi with the best name, who is supposed to have brought gifts of gold to the baby Jesus.

May you find some gold of your own this week!

Giving Thanks

No more golden leaves, just bare trees wrapped in green and a lone rook unfazed by the famous Vienna wind. Statistically speaking, there are only 3 to 4 days a year that there is no wind in the western part of the city where I live. Perhaps it is no coincidence to have ended up here, seeing as I come from just north of the Windy City of Chicago. I love the wind: its sound, energy, dynamism. It ushers in change and remedies stagnation. Soon I will be flying into it, back to the shores of Lake Michigan for my winter migration. But first some thanks are to be given.

I am thankful that I can work and earn a modest living wherever there is a computer and internet connection.

I am thankful that I can migrate between big city life in a small and cozy apartment in Vienna and small city life in a house with a yard full of plants, birds, and a variety of wild mammals just minutes away from Lake Michigan.

I am thankful for having the skills to make a lot of my clothes in the colors, patterns, shapes, and textures I prefer.

I am thankful for all the opportunities I have had to travel throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

I am thankful for surprise gifts of panettone with decadent gianduja filling.

But most of all I am thankful for family and friends and the time I get to spend with them – and the mostly good health I have enjoyed so far in this life, which makes everything much easier.

Give thanks for your own abundance!

Nearing Completion

The mists of the past few days were straight out of Dickens’ London, obliterating nearly everything from view. As mists inevitably do, they vanished. Overnight. The Traunstein peak is no longer obscured, and in the sun it is nearly too warm for a winter coat. Time to make up for yesterday’s omitted walk.

The jays were hiding somewhere in the mists, but now they are back to their usual tricks: being loud yet too elusive to be captured on film.

There is sunlight at the end of the shaded road. This stretch reminded me that the winter coat was warranted after all.

There is a cowl nearing completion. Lace is not for the impatient. It is time for this project to be finished, and finished it will be very soon. Most likely tomorrow. I am satisfied with how well the yarn and pattern complement each other. Whether the cowl will be remain in my wardrobe or look for another home still remains to be seen. What will remain in my home over the winter is this gift of mistletoe. In Austria, hanging mistletoe above your door brings good luck, something you can never have enough of.

Good luck bringing a project to completion!

Spot the Rook

The tree outside the living room window is losing leaves quickly. In another week, it will no longer be possible to play spot the rook. The branches will be bare and there will be no place to hide. Each gust of wind on this blustery day releases more leaves, but it is time. What a beautiful golden autumn it has been!

Belated birthday gifts are a real treat, especially when they bring color and blossoms into the household. Even though it happens every year, the continual disappearance of daylight comes as a shock. The darkness brings a reprieve from everything but knitting socks. This top-down pair repurposes wool from Pomeranian Coarsewool sheep scavenged from a cardigan no longer worn. The pattern is Elizabeth Zimmermann’s classic Woodsman’s Socks.

I do not have a pronounced sweet tooth, and when I do crave junk food, it is usually of the salted potato variety. But I follow through on intuitions and inspirations, and this year I have the urge to bake. Come 3 or 4 PM, it is Kaffee und Kuchen time. In my book, drinking coffee this late in the day is a recipe for disaster, and I marvel at people whose sleep is unaffected by such behavior. But a little bit of sweetness to tide you over until dinner is a welcome way of dealing with the precocious nights of November. I started with a specific recipe but unintentionally flubbed the order in which the ingredients were supposed to be added. I also decided to forgo separating the eggs and adding even more dishes to the dirty dish pile. Despite the improvising, it turned out tasty (if a bit too sweet). Next time I would use less sugar and increase the amount of buckwheat flour in the flour mix.

Thursday Apple-Buckwheat Cake (to use up butter, eggs, and sorghum)

Beat 90 grams sugar, 80 grams sorghum (substitute honey or molasses), and 150 grams melted butter. Add 2 eggs. Mix in 150 grams all-purpose wheat flour, 50 grams of buckwheat flour, and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Stir in two diced apples. Add 50 ml water to make up for the third egg in the original recipe that you don’t have but really need to thin the batter. Pour in a greased baking dish. Decorate with another sliced apple. Bake at 180°C for 45 minutes.

Enjoy modifying a recipe so it matches what’s in your pantry and happy birdspotting!