During this holiday season, I’m missing the at-home sights and sounds of not only an American Christmas, but also those of my other-cultures, traditions given to me through my nomadic military travels (in countries with Christian traditions).

In watching my grandkids, I think it must be nice to be grounded in one’s life, to know who and what you are and not to miss parts of your own life with a sharper pang than that generated by ordinary nostalgia. I don’t know if a settled life is ‘better’ and a nomadic life ‘worse’ (or vice versa) but being from one place might have less existential angst.  Or maybe not.  Hard to tell from the vantage point of having had just the one childhood.


I’m in luck concerning my first culture, English, the one I think of in my child’s mind as ‘the way it’s s’posed to be.’  At a young age, you don’t know you’re not living where you’re nationally-assigned to be living.  You also don’t know that what you’re experiencing as ‘normal’ is a mix of two cultures, that of your parents, and that of the country in which you live. All you know is that you’re home, and that’s that.

I’m lucky that crackers, as one element of my early Christmases in England, are now readily available.


23 christmas crackers


Another part of my other-culture heritage is seeing the Gombey dancers from Bermuda.  When I was a kid, the dancers didn’t seem to be as well-organized or to have as good P.R., as they do today, but again, that observation may be a result of the childish attention span.  Still, they’re something I remember seeing on the island around Christmas.  I think we could do with some Gombey dancing around here.

23 Gombey men


From the decades I spent with my husband in Europe comes the memory of Christmas markets.  Everywhere we went during December we found Christmas markets.  Some were big and some were small, but they all contributed to the seasonal spirit. One of the items commonly found at the markets are figurines for the household Nativity scenes.  The items are expensive and collections are often added to one piece at a time over the years.

A French-culture specialty are santons.  Where Americans limit their Nativity scenes to manger-scenes, the people of Provence have the tradition of making an entire village to host the Nativity.  One display we saw in the city hall of Strasbourg, France filled the entire lobby and the scene was a multi-room panorama as visitors moved through the ‘town.’  Butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, old men playing boules (like bocce), mothers in houses bathing their infants, beasts and birds and houses and scenery.  C’est magnifique!

The last Christmas we spent in Europe, we visited the Marché de Noel in Mons, Belgium.  The marché (market) was small with little huts selling thick waffles, utterly scrumptious frites (fries should be called Belgian fries rather than French fries),  hot drinks, and little gifts. The main hut displayed a Nativity scene. In the Mons market, the chief attraction was an ice-skating rink.

If we made a video recording of our visit, I haven’t the slightest clue how to get it off our last-century video tape and make a computer file of it, but I’m in luck — other people have recorded their visits and uploaded them to YouTube.  This video ends with a left-handed caress for good luck of the little brass monkey outside the city hall of Mons.


The biggest, and to me the best Christmas market is the Christkindelsmarkt in Nürnberg, Germany, a market that takes place under the gaze of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), a city symbol memorialized in a clock that I sent to my parents from Germany, many years ago.  With coddling, our clock still ticks away and plays its tune.


12 23 01 Clock

In Nürnberg, the Christmas market spectacle is magnificent as the church rises above the ‘streets’ formed in the market square by row upon row of red and white striped tents. In the tents, innumerable glass ornaments on the counters and hanging from the ceilings in the tents sparkle under the spotlights.  The visual feast is accentuated by the aroma of the small bratwurst (never called “brats”) grilling in the open-air, little sausages that tease the nose and make the mouth water. Mingling with the smell of grilled wurst is the wafting scent of Glühwein (mulled wine) for the grownups and Kinderpunsch (mulled punch) for the kids.  The Christkindlesmarkt is a sensory delight.


With your feet frozen from hours of wandering on the cold cobblestones, it is an absolute treat to find a Konditorei (a German café specializing in coffee and cake) and sit at a linen-draped table sipping hot chocolate and nibbling a slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cherry cake) with your boxed gingerbread house at your feet.  The event is a lasting memory.


I suppose I wouldn’t be missing all the kinds of Christmases I’ve known if I were in a festively-decorated house, watching the twinkling of the lights on my Christmas tree.  But no, I have cats, specifically, two young cats whose mission is to investigate anything and everything in the house. I’m waiting for them to grow up some more before introducing them to a Christmas tree.  Until then, I have my memories and the entertainment of watching the cats chase through packing paper from catalog orders and jump in and out of empty shipping boxes.

01 Audrey after candycanes

Happy Holidays!

Twenty-five years ago, not only was the Berlin Wall breached, but also, by extension, was the Fence along the Inner German Border separating East Germany from West Germany rendered an anachronism. Even in the time after the (accidental) opening of travel from East to West Berlin, getting past the Fence wasn’t quite as easy as much of it was protected by land mines planted in the ground around it.

I took this picture in 1979, 10 years before the beginning of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.  During my husband’s assignment to the American military community near Fulda, we lived about twelve miles away from “the fence.”  Had there been hostilities, the front lines would have, again, overtaken the homes, gardens, driveways, farms and fields of ordinary people.

A view near Fulda of the inner-German-border fence constructed by the East German government.

A view near Fulda of the inner-German-border fence constructed by the East German government.


Other links:

1965: Planes in the backyard U.S. Air Force plane over St. George's Harbour, Bermuda, taken from our backyard on Kindley Air Force Base.

1965: Planes in the backyard
U.S. Air Force plane over St. George’s Harbour, Bermuda, taken from our backyard on Kindley Air Force Base. This plane is the same type as one involved in a crash I heard.

Regardless of the era, military service can be a dangerous line of work. Many military jobs involve either work with dangerous materials or vehicles, or living in an area in which one’s country’s efforts are not appreciated, and it has been this way during the decades following World War II. On one hand there is the point that many of the military actions seem to be imperialistic in nature — “Americanization” — and that we shouldn’t do that. We should stay home, tend to our own knitting.

The flip side to that, from an American viewpoint, is that some country, somewhere, is going to be the ‘leader,’ or perhaps a less domineering view would be the ‘trend setter.’ In any case, one country, or a treaty-bound group, will be the dominant nation. Which country is best suited for that role? Since the top slot will always be ‘there,’ If you don’t want the U.S. to be spending the money, the time, and the people to support the U.S.’s position, which other country do you see as best filling that niche?

Even without a ‘hot’ war in progress, staying alert or supporting other missions have their own dangers, and given the role assumed by the United States of being one of the top dogs in the field of (usually) supporting the downtrodden in many places around the globe, and in the wake of seeing continued deployments to Afghanistan, I was reminded by an article in the Bermuda Sun newspaper of the dangers faced by service members during the Cold War as the newspaper covered the 50th anniversary of an air crash near the island.

Bermuda air disaster, 50 years on, The Bermuda Sun

I well-remember this tragedy because I heard it. I was walking home, probably from the beach on Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda, and an uncharacteristic boom sounded, as if someone had shot off Anzio Annie, one of the Krupp K5 railway guns used in WWII by the Nazis.

Everyone who lived on Kindley was accustomed to hearing planes as the base was built parallel to the joint military-civilian runway serving Bermuda. We heard everything from Pan Am jetliners, to B-47s, to C-130 Hercules cargo planes, to fighter jets, as well as aircraft whose names I don’t know, and whose job was probably secret. We heard all manner of machines with either propellers or jets, and the runway was so close to everything else, that people could walk along a sidewalk and find themselves behind fighter jets being hit by exhaust. In school, our teachers would pause during lessons when the scream of jet fighters could be heard as the planes hurtled down the runway. Our teachers would wait to continue the lesson until they could once again be heard. Planes were as common, or perhaps more common, than birds.

1965: Kindley AFB, Bermuda Seeing off friends at the MATS terminal, the place where many of us arrived and departed.  In this picture, we're all being blasted by propwash from a Coast Guard plane on which our friend was leaving.

1965: Kindley AFB, Bermuda
Seeing off friends at the MATS terminal, the place where many of us arrived and departed. In this picture, we’re all being blasted by propwash from a Coast Guard plane on which our friend was leaving.

For me, hearing the crash of the two planes, one of which was the same type as the one pictured at the top of this piece, was a reminder of another crash two years before.

U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crashes near Spokane, killing 44 airmen,

I didn’t live near Spokane, where the crash happened on Mount Kit Carson, but rather at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the place where the flight originated. The fathers of the families of the neighbors directly behind our house and directly in front of our house were both on the plane. The son of the plane’s captain was in my class. Of all the 44 men on the plane, only something like 3 or 4 were single, not that this was any different for their parents and siblings, but only that one or two fewer people on the base were devastated by the tragedy.

The crash at Ellsworth was the first one I remember. It came on the television with no warning and the families had not yet been told. It obviously wasn’t the last one I remember, given the crash in Bermuda, as well as other crashes during our time there. My time with my career-Army husband has contributed more tragedies, such as the Ramstein Air Base airshow Flugtag ’88 disaster that is recent enough to have footage on YouTube, the horrific Lockerbie terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103, as well as multiple terrorist bombings in the 1970s and 1980s in West Germany.

The effect of the United States military services is far too complex, for better or worse, to be even glossed over in a blog post. All one can do is mention them. The subject is far too complex probably for entire books to sort out. Despite the bad, there is still good, and I hope the people now wearing military service uniforms, and especially the people who continue to be deployed to Afghanistan, are as protected as they can be, that they make the best decisions possible, and even with the odds against this happening, that they all return safely home.

1978: Me, in the red dress, and my son, on the right, with friends, looking across the Saale river into East Germany, near the Bavarian town of Hof.

1978: Me, in the red dress, and my son, on the right, with friends, looking across the Saale river into East Germany, near the Bavarian town of Hof.

German filmmakers are making films depicting life during the 40-year existence of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the DDR, East Germany.  Apparently, it’s a space that has been left vacant for the most part.  To quote an NPR review of a recent film, Barbara, a German entry for the Oscars,

“The West kind of got there and said, ‘Now you can be happy.’ … I mean it’s 40 years of their lives. … They can’t be in vain. And no one asked.”

I’ve seen two films about life in the former East Germany after it was “former,” when the life was the life after the fall of the totalitarian Communist regimes in Eastern Europe:  Schulze Gets the Blues and Goodbye Lenin.

Barbara is the first film I’ve watched from the Eastern point of view about how people managed during those 40 years on the other side of the fence.  At the time, no one on this side of the fence imagined they’d ever be a former enemy.

Three weeks ago we adopted a rescued family of cats — cats we never expected to share a home with. We’d recently lost Dinah, our 19-year old blue point Siamese and we didn’t think we’d want to ‘replace’ her. Dinah was special. We reckoned without our veterinarian daughter who, apparently, is our enabler.

Mama-cat is a seal point Siamese, and the two kittens who came with her are a tortie point polydactyl (6-toed) Siamese and a brown tabby who looks as if he wanted to be an Egyptian Mau. We are charmed by all of them.

As is usual with new members of the household, we needed to be able to call them something. “Hey, you! Get off that!” is unwieldy and too nonspecific, plus it isn’t something a kitten ever responds to. The names I suggested for the two cats we initially intended to adopt were Polly and Ernestine. Polly sounded perfect for the tiny polydactyl girl kitten, and Ernestine would have been just too cute for her mama as Ernest Hemingway had a thing for polydactyls. I was voted down by the local Philistines.

The next round of names were Cocoa and Yum Yum for mother and daughter. When I’m feeling fragile I like to read or listen to gentle stories such as those by Lilian Jackson Braun who named her two main character cats Koko and Yum Yum. Braun was inspired, I assume, by characters from The Mikado, my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Koko was a male character in the operetta so Cocoa seemed appropriate for a pretty girl with dark brown Siamese points.

Then they came home. Not only did they come home, but one of the little boy kittens came with them as all the kittens had so much fun with each other it seemed cruel to separate them.

Once the cats were home, we saw that Cocoa didn’t fit the shy mama cat (who has yet to really come out from under the bed) — the repeated k-sounds in the name were too hard. Yum Yum was fine for the little girl but without the Cocoa/Koko companion name, it felt incomplete. Since my ideas for names weren’t working, I let nature take its course with the rest of the family, and they filled in the gap. We now have three named cats: Minka (courtesy of our daughter, who Googled German cat names), and Audrey and Rusty (courtesy of our son who likes the National Lampoon vacation movies).







Here’s where it gets odd. Yesterday I opened a Word file from 2009 in order to edit the second short story in a series for a main character I’ve been developing. The storyline is irrelevant, but with character names that made me think I ought to be hearing Twilight Zone music. I don’t have a Rusty in the story, but I do have an Audrey and a Minky.

— One name in common is a reasonable coincidence, but two names are decidedly odd.

— Two names that I thought up is a reasonable coincidence, but two names from two people who haven’t Clue 1 about the story, or that I’d even written it, is again, decidedly odd.

I had thought to remove the cat from the story (an unfortunate victim, but from carelessness, not anything horrid) but with the coincidence of the names, it has to stay in. I want to think that what I write comes only from my own imagination but the Audrey and Minky/Minka coincidence makes me feel that maybe I have a muse laughing at me from a corner of the room.

2013 07 Jul 29 Who Is Meinhof cover

Staff Sergeant Barb Hoskins is newly arrived in West Germany and,
after another night of jet-lagged lying-in-bed (she can hardly call it ‘sleep’),
is searching for breakfast at her new home/place of work.
She finds nothing to eat and then the phone rings
(and rings, and rings).  The co-worker who was to have
remained at the office is nowhere to be found and,
after answering the phone, Barb winds up working
to keep both her and her new boss out of hot water.
Barb finds herself wondering who the real enemy is
— the Soviets across the border
or the terrorists driving around the countryside?

Behind the story:

(story will remain available for about two weeks)

Link has been removed

While wandering around my email lists, I came across a discussion that sparked my imagination.  The question was, “One of your favorite characters from a mystery is fixing dinner for you.  Who is the character and what are they making?”

I read the question as “One of your characters …” and I immediately jumped to the one character of mine that I was sure would be able to cook — Lisette, a young German woman who lives with her widowed father and who has a sensible head on her shoulders.

Lisette Lenz  is a clerk in the Army civilian personnel office on (the fictional) Ganzer Barracks near the (equally fictional) town of Zwischenkuppeln, Germany. Lisette is putting together a lovely picnic supper to have after a hike in the hilly Rhön area of northern Bavaria and southern Hesse.

Lisette bought Aufschnitt (various kinds of lunchmeat), Mischbrot (brown German bread), Tilsiter, Emmenthaler and Muenster cheeses, and cultured cream butter for the sandwiches, as well as grapes and some little Cox Orange Pippen apples. Dessert is Bienenstich, a sturdy vanilla pudding-filled cake topped with almonds and honey. For drinking, she has some Gerolsteiner Sprudelwasser (fizzy mineral water) and a bottle of Riesling wine.

When I double-checked the question, I saw that it really asked for “one of your favorite characters from a mystery …”  Insert a deep sigh, here.  After imagining the supper I would have after the hike, nothing else sounded appetizing.  To make things worse, now I want a slice of Bienenstich (and that’s pronounced BEE-nen-stish).

As misery loves company, I will give you a glimpse of the cake, and provide a link to a recipe you can try.

11 bienenstich

(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Mahlzeit!  (the German version of bon appetit!)

2013 02 Feb 11 Bruegel fight-between-carnival-and-lent-1559.jpg!Blog


(pronounced, more or less, to ears tuned to English, as “hello”)

Helau! is the salute heard throughout Rosenmontag parades in the Catholic areas of Germany on the Monday before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. That would be today. In the U.S., Rosenmontag’s counterpart is Mardi Gras, but Mardi Gras doesn’t have the reputation of the weeks of parties beforehand organized by the Fasching prince and princess, the planning for which begins on the 11th of November – the 11th minute of the 11th day of the 11th month, to be precise.  Fasching’s ‘crazy season’ antics have the same caveat as crazy behavior in Las Vegas,

Rosenmontag is not an official holiday, but is celebrated as if it were. Schools are closed, companies give employees the day off, and the parades are shown on television. A big difference between American celebrations and those in Germany is that the celebrating happens in towns large and small and isn’t centralized. Instead of watching Beyonce and her crew, or the current pop gods and goddesses, townspeople watch local talent. Everybody joins in.

Like Mardi Gras, Rosenmontag is a reason to party. From Christmas/Solstice through New Year, the various incarnations of Groundhog day, the Lunar (Chinese) New Year and on through to St. Patrick’s day, enthusiasm for winter parties is high. Fasching and Rosenmontag may have stemmed from the gloom of northern hemisphere winters and the need to find something to do when working in the fields wasn’t easy, or useful.

Non-Catholic Americans may have already substituted Superbowl parties for winter religious celebrations from centuries past. Tuning out crappy weather by having a party, before cabin fever threatens the happiest of couples, seems to be common enough to almost be a subject worth scientific scrutiny – and wouldn’t a mad scientist make an unusual Fasching party costume.

If you’ve ever daydreamed about visiting Germany, a trip during Fasching — the “fifth season” — is off-season for travel, and hotels won’t be as crowded as during the summer months, or during that big party in one city in early October.

What happens on Rosenmontag, stays on Rosenmontag so you’re allowed to get crazy. And if you can’t afford to travel, click and enjoy.

My husband and I met when we were both stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.  I did not make the military a career, but he did.  This evening, we met with old friends, my husband’s former co-workers, and friends-of-friends at the USAREUR G-2 reunion banquet.

The talk ranged from kids to grandkids, to who we knew in common, to where we’ve traveled and where we ought to travel, to our European adventures, and inevitably to terrorists.

The terrorist angle was underlined by a twenty-minute talk given by Major General (retired) James Dozier who was kidnapped in 1981 by the Italian terrorist group, the Red Brigades, and was held captive for six weeks in a tent erected inside an apartment in Padua, Italy.

The majority of American personnel apparently weren’t terrorist targets as it was high-profile people whom the terrorists seemed to prefer.  Still, while living in Munich, it was unsettling to know that just across the Alps, terrorists had kidnapped an American soldier.  At the time we couldn’t know that General Dozier would be rescued as both the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy had murdered kidnapped victims (Google Jurgen Ponto and Aldo Moro).  That General Dozier is able to give talks such as this was not inevitable — the guard on duty at the time had been given a gun with which to shoot the general in the event of a rescue attempt, but did not use it because he said he couldn’t shoot a sleeping man.  Stockholm Syndrome on the part of kidnappers isn’t always a bad thing.

Finally, thanks go to the author of Secrets of the Cold War, for organizing the reunion.

For Cold War veterans who were assigned to Germany, take a trip down memory lane with Mr. McCaslin’s book.  Thanks for the autograph, Lee.

An article at the Huffington Post puts into perspective something I wondered about, but didn’t know the particulars of — in Baden-Württemberg, our landlord’s father had a strong non-German accent because he was from Czechoslovakia.

The Expulsion Of The Germans: The Largest Forced Migration In History, R. M. Douglas, 25 June 2012

R.M. Douglas is the author of “Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War” (Yale University Press, $38)

I always had a devil of a time when Herr E. would come over to the house to do some kind of maintenance.  His German was heavily accented and my conversational comprehension was a challenge to us both.  Luckily for me he was a nice man.  Our family jokingly called him the “garden gnome” because he was always weeding or planting, and he was a skilled gardener.  (the lawn mowing, though, was left to us)

I’m fascinated by other languages and have tried to learn something of any language I thought I’d need but, unfortunately, fluency in languages other than English is not my talent.  German is my ‘best’ language, but to go by the laughter of the nurse-nun who I called to complain to about my pain after being discharged from the hospital (and the grinning of my German-linguist husband who was listening in), no one will ever be asking me to make speeches to German audiences.  (the pain was transient and I only needed to wait it out)

Because Herr E. was retired and therefore acted as his son’s go-between with the renters, and because I was usually the person at home during the day, he and I were stuck with each other for household matters.  Conversations between us were sometimes a game of Charades as he tried to tell me whatever it was he needed to inform me about, and I listened as hard as I could to instructions about door handles, the furnace, and bleeding air from the radiators. To my credit, I don’t think I ever used the tactic of shouting to make myself understood, and I know he never did.

I’m saddened, now that I find out that Herr E. was probably deported under less-than-pleasant conditions from the place he considered his homeland.

Expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia (1946) Czechoslovak Film Chronicle  [YouTube]

He married and raised a family in Baden-Württemberg, but getting there can’t have been the happiest time in his life.

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