Trilling on the Trail

An old friend stopped by to visit the other day. He appeared at my front door without warning, taking me back almost fifty years to the moment we first met. He is still quite the singer. His stride is supremely confident. Most annoyingly, he finds unqualified joy in every blasted thing he sees and hears. My friend is, after all, The Happy Wanderer.

If you’ve encountered The Happy Wanderer at some time in your life, you know exactly who I’m talking about.  He is Mr. “Val-deri, Val-dera”.  Those words alone should revive the sing-song tune fried into most brains since childhood.  “The Happy Wanderer” could’ve been quarantined within Germany were it not for its award-winning performance by the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir (and subsequent radio broadcast by the BBC), in 1953.  Then, Mr. Wanderer went worldwide-viral and there was no turning back ever.

Oberkirchen coat of arms

According to his lyrics, The Happy Wanderer (we’ll just call him “Hap”) takes hikes into the mountains and alongside streams, his hat on his head; his knapsack on his back.  Hap points out blackbirds and skylarks along the way, and his journey brings him unbridled giddy happiness and laughter (as in, “Val-deri, Val-der-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…”).  Our boy smiles the entire time and boldly invites YOU to join in the singing.  In his final verse, Hap wants to wander (and sing) until the day he dies.  That’s a little extreme for a children’s song, don’t you think?

Speaking of childhood, Hap and I first met way back then.  He entered the “UK Singles Chart” on January 22, 1954, eight-years-to-the-day before I was born.  Eight years after I was born, I henpecked Hap’s tune as I learned to play the piano.  “Chopsticks”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, and “The Happy Wanderer” were almost assuredly the first three pieces I ever memorized.

Hap wandered into my life again in the Boy Scouts.  I recall a lot of singing on weekend hikes (not sure why – who’d be happy backpacking forty pounds towards some distant campsite?)  Besides “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and “The Ants Go Marching…”, we Scouts unabashedly sang “The Happy Wanderer” through mountains and alongside streams.  Hap’s tune even made the official list of “Scout songs” (see here.)

I thought I was done with Hap years ago (it took me decades to forget his slaphappy song), but recently he resurfaced.  First, on a cruise down Germany’s Rhine River, at an outdoor dinner in the little town of Rüdesheim.  I was volunteered by my fellow travelers to play with the band.  I manned a big oom-pah-pah drum while another poor soul clanged the cymbals.  A band member played the clarinet.  And our one and only performance – naturally – was “The Happy Wanderer”.  To add shame to the silliness, we marched between the tables as we played.  I did my best to look “happy”.

Hap’s other revelation may be a little more prolonged.  On the same Rhine River cruise, in Bavaria, my wife and I bought a handmade cuckoo clock.  The clock was shipped and arrived in the States two weeks ago.  Imagine my delight when I wound the clock and the cuckoo bird busted through his little door, the dancers twirled, and the tiny music box played “Edelweiss”.  The “sound of music” every hour on the hour!  Er, every other hour on the hour.  Turns out our cuckoo clock has two songs.  Hello, Happy Wanderer.  If I choose to, I hear his gleeful melody twelve times a day.  Or, If I choose to, I can flip a switch and I don’t hear anything at all.  I expect I’ll be flipping the switch any day now.

If you’d like to add to my hap-aberration, go to 1-800-FLOWERS and have a hardenbergia violacea delivered to my door.  HV is a species of flowering plant from the pea family.  Some call it a lilac vine.  Others give it nicknames like “false sarsasparilla” or “purple coral”.  It’s also lovingly referred to as “The Happy Wanderer”.

Heaven help me.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Deutschland-ish Improvements

My wife and I are slowly remodeling our house, a room at a time. First, we took a big plunge and overhauled the kitchen. Then we gutted the master bath. Now we’re thinking about a large deck with indoor/outdoor spaces. But that was before a recent trip to Germany, where we cruised a good stretch of the Rhine. Suddenly “remodeling” takes on a whole new meaning.

Our cruise down the Rhine started in Amsterdam.  Bad idea.  Amsterdam is loaded with the prettiest little canals and bridges outside of Venice.  As we were floating up and down the “city streets” we thought, “let’s put a canal bridge on our property!”  But a canal bridge requires a canal, else you get London Bridge in the middle of the Arizona desert.  So first we’ll be building a canal.

Our next stop on the Rhine kept us in the Netherlands.  We landed briefly in Kinderdjjk, not even a map dot if it wasn’t for some of the most beautiful windmills in the world.  Kinderdijk’s windmills not only pump water; they’re houses.  We must add a windmill to our remodel list!  It would make a unique guest house, and instead of pumping water from our well we’ll just windmill it up to the house from the canal.  You know, the canal we just installed so we could put in a canal bridge.

Once our river boat hit Germany, I knew our remodel was entering uncharted territory.  In Cologne, we walked through one of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world (seven centuries to complete!)  In every Rhine river town we passed there was another cathedral (more likely a church, but over there they all look like cathedrals).  Am I saying I need a cathedral on my property?  Of course not; the neighbors would consider that a little pompous.  But a chapel would be nice.  Something to accommodate a steeple and bell tower as elegant as the ones you find in Germany.  Wouldn’t it be great – calling the family in at dinnertime?  BONG-BONG-BONG!!!

Here’s the other problem with Germany.  Castles.  Big ones.  Little ones.  Intact ones and crumbling ones.  Wherever you look in the Rhine region, you see postcard-perfect towns with castles at their highest points.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a castle on their property, right?  The problem is, here in the flatlands east of the Colorado Rockies, a castle would look, well, compromised.  You’ve got to have your castle sitting higher than everything else (otherwise, how would you lord over your domain?).  Not to mention, castles take centuries to build.  I’d like to be alive when my remodel list is finished.

(Side note: my wife showed a disturbing interest in the castle torture chambers and all their nasty devices.  Either this is lingering effects of watching “50 Shades of Grey” too many times, or I’m in deep trouble.  I’ll have to keep a closer eye on her).

Castles just reminded me about one more thing in Amsterdam.  They love their cobbled streets.  Sometimes they’re perfectly uniform and flat; other times they’re ankle-busters if you’re not careful.  Either way there’s no avoiding the cobbles.  So now my driveway needs a remodel too.  I watched an Amsterdam-ian working to replace the cobbles on one of the bridges (yes, they cobble those too).  It looked like backbreaking work, one heavy stone at a time.  But if I’m going to have all my other Rhine region elements, an asphalt driveway just won’t cut it.

In the southwest of Germany, just before the Rhine flows into Switzerland, you make a stop in Bavaria: land of dense fir trees, Black Forest cake, and cuckoo clocks.  You’d swear you walked into a fairy tale, with Snow White (or Hansel & Gretel, or a hobbit) emerging from the nearest Tudor-style cottage with a smile and some gingerbread.  Fortunately, nothing in Bavaria made it to the remodel list.  I suppose we could plant a forest of firs, but that’s just tempting a large-scale fire and we’ve already had enough of those in Colorado.

Also just before Switzerland, the Rhine passes through several locks; those mechanical wonders raising vessels from the lower river on one side to the higher river on the other.  There’s nothing like watching a lock do its thing while you’re in the lock.  Just when I thought I was done with my remodel list, here come the locks.  What a great way to secure my property!  Raise the driveway higher than the street; then force my visitors to enter through a lock!  On second thought, that’s too much work.  I’ll add another castle element instead – a drawbridge over the canal I installed way back in the second paragraph.

If you think my remodel is brazen (i.e. “Dave, do the deck and call it good”), just you wait.  My list is not quite complete.  Our cruise ended in Switzerland.  OMG.  I repeat, OMG.  How the heck am I going to remodel our property into Little Switzerland?  There’s nothing I wouldn’t tap from this Alpine dreamland: the dairy farms (which means a whole herd of dairy cows), the cheese and chocolate, and some of the prettiest, cleanest lakes in the world.  I’d even recruit a few of the Swiss themselves (as if they’d rather live in Colorado).  Of course, the real problem with recreating Switzerland is those dang gorgeous Alps – snowy caps, grassy meadows, cog railways and all.  Building Alps on my property would require ten billion delivery trucks of dirt and I just can’t afford that.  I’ll settle for gazing at the distant Colorado Rockies instead.

Come to think of it, gazing at the Colorado Rockies requires a deck.  That I can manage.  Let’s put my Deutschland delusion to the side and just start with a deck, shall we?

Almond Joy

Think about the last time you invited friends to your place, for dinner or some other get-together. Did they bring a little something – a gesture of their gratitude – or did they show up empty-handed?  The gesture, whether a bottle of wine or baked goods, is especially thoughtful because it was never really expected, right?  You invited your guests after all, presumably with no strings attached.

When my wife and I hosted friends from Germany a few months ago, they arrived with a plethora of German candies (an embarrassing amount, really). From their suitcases emerged boxes of chocolates and all kinds of licorice. There were German cookies and tempting little cakes. Finally, they placed a curious-looking black round metal tin on the counter.  The label proclaimed, “Mann Des Jahres”, or “Man of the Year” (???)  The tin looked more like an award than candy.  Later, I discovered it was filled with marzipan.

Marzipan translates to “March bread” by some and “a seated king” by others, but to me it is quite literally almond joy.  Sweetened with sugar or honey, marzipan derives its distinctive flavor from the paste, meal, or oil extract of almonds.  Marzipan is more popular in Europe than in the United States.  It is typically shaped into edible fruits, vegetables, or little animals – popular around Christmas and Easter.  Marzipan is also used in thin sheets as glazing for cakes.  The marzipan from my German friends was one big delightful chocolate-covered disc of almond cake.  In hindsight, I wish they’d brought a dozen “Man of the Year’s” and left everything else at home.

Marzipan was not my first introduction to the joy of almonds.  I fell for them back when chocolate bars like Almond Joy and Mounds were kings of the candy aisle (no Kit-Kat or Twix in my day).  Almond Joy was confection perfection: chocolate and coconut topped with whole almonds.  Then I discovered chocolate-covered almonds and realized I didn’t need the coconut.  Then I learned to appreciate almonds all by themselves – roasted and seasoned with sea salt – and realized I didn’t need the chocolate covering.  Today, I keep a bag of Marcona almonds in my car, to fend off less-healthy temptations.

No discussion of almonds would be complete without a glass of amaretto.  In my junior year of college, studying abroad in Rome and not quite of drinking age, I was introduced to copious amounts of table wine, but also to Amaretto Disaronno, the elegant liquor from the northern part of Italy. The (supposed) origin of Disaronno is as colorful as the drink itself:

In 1525, a Saronno church commissioned artist Bernardino Luini, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils, to paint its sanctuary with frescoes.  As the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Luini needed to depict the Madonna, but was in need of a model.  He found his inspiration in a young widowed innkeeper, who became his model (and lover).  Out of gratitude and affection, the woman wished to give him a gift.  Her simple means did not permit much, so she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and presented the resulting concoction to a touched Luini. (from “A Brief History of Amaretto” – Shaw Media)

Saronno, Italy

Apricots still play a role in the making of amaretto, but its distinctive flavor comes from bitter almonds (amaretto translates to “bitter”).  Yet it’s still syrupy sweet – too sweet for me to drink straight.  Like most I “sour” mine with a shot or two of lemon juice.

Now that I think about it, we have almonds everywhere in our house.  Almond milk in the refrigerator.  Almond flour in the pantry.  Almond extract in the spice drawer.  Almond butter for our protein shakes and slivered almonds for our salads.  Amaretto in the liquor cabinet.

Still not enough.  I need to go find me some more marzipan.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Kindling the Fire

Last Sunday, in the midst of a sleep-in/no-alarm kind of vacation, my dad dragged my wife and I to early church. That meant falling out of bed by 7 and leaving the house by 8:15. Not my idea of a relaxed schedule, to be sure. On the drive to church and all through the service, I found myself in a fog and close to nodding off (the meh sermon didn’t help). Even at brunch afterwards – stoked with a double-dose of mimosas – I couldn’t seem to shake the cobwebs. It wasn’t until much later in the day I realized something significant went missing from my daily routine. I hadn’t had my morning coffee.

Morning coffee is more a habit than an addiction for me.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t so long ago I occasionally substituted juice or water, and the day proceeded as normal.  Sunday’s drowsiness made me pause.  Maybe the impact of caffeine is more significant as you age.  Maybe drinking a hundred cups (or more) in a hundred days creates a dependency.  As they say, caffeine is “the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug”.

While I debate the impact of no caffeine today, I can absolutely attest to the impact of lots of caffeine, with two examples of inconvenience.  For me, caffeine sends a loud-and-clear, pulsing, Times-Square-sized announcement to my bladder saying, “IT’S TIME TO PEE.”  Not in fifteen minutes.  Not in fifteen seconds.  Now; as in – get up and go NOW.  I better have my path to the bathroom mapped out, and that door better be open.  It’s like clockwork biology, forty-five minutes after that first coffee sip.  Remarkably, the experts still question whether caffeine is a diuretic AND they wonder whether the amount of liquid expelled is equivalent to the amount consumed.  I emphatically answer “yes” and “MORE”.  With all the expelling, it’s a wonder my body doesn’t dry out and disintegrate.  No matter; it’s a small price to pay for my daily drug.

Here’s the second impact of caffeine.  Beware the cup of coffee (or any choice from Starbucks) after three in the afternoon.  Let that late-day caffeine hit take hold and you’re in for a long night.  I can very dependably fall asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow except when my coffee intake is late-day (and on that note, why is upscale after-dinner restaurant coffee so good?).  I toss and turn like laundry in the wash cycle, staring at the ceiling and ruing my beverage mistake.  Then I stare at the bedside clock.  What a pretty clock it is.  Such colorful numbers.  It’s fun to watch the numbers change every minute.  Every hour.

Let’s review.  Assuming I plan my bathroom trips and lay off the coffee by mid-day, I can safely embrace my caffeine habit.  And if “habit” concerns me at all – its synonyms include “addiction” after all – here’s some good news.  Four cups a day is ideal for heart health, according to recent research by the Germans (my new favorite people).  Not up to four cups, but exactly four cups, netting you about 300 mg of caffeine.  Four cups is also the equivalent of a Starbucks “Venti” (the Nitro cold brew somehow packs in 469 mg of caffeine) but I steer clear of the big cups.  Wouldn’t want to get “addicted”.

We’ve only been talking about coffee here, but thankfully caffeine is found in only a handful of other foods and drinks.  What starts as a naturally-occurring compound in plants finds its way to teas, cocoa, cola soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter meds (i.e. cough syrup).  The only one I touch is cocoa (my chocolate habit justifies its own blog post).  So, unless I exceed my daily two-square ration of a Lindt 70% Cocoa Excellence Bar, my caffeine intake is all about coffee.

If you count milligrams the way you count calories, know that 300 of caffeine is the threshold to avoid anxiety and panic attacks.  A warning sign might as well pop up after 300 saying, “STOP!  Proceed with caution”.  It’s like there’s this sweet spot with coffee – an oasis between falling asleep in church and earning the jitters – that kindles my fire.  Gives me justification to start every day with a cup of coffee.  Or four.

Land of Flying Cars

My wife and I live in a rural area of Colorado known as the Black Forest.  The high density of Ponderosa Pines in our small geography gives us our name.  Remarkably, there’s only one other notable place on the planet named “Black Forest”: the region near Bavaria in southwest Germany.  As it turns out, I have personal ties to both places, though I’ve never been to the south of Germany.  Follow along as I connect the Forests.

Fill in the blank, “Best Childhood Movie: ________”.  Most of you would respond with an offering from Disney.  Including “Snow White…”, “Mary Poppins”, and “The Little Mermaid”, you’ve already covered sixty years of film-making, with countless other Disney classics in between.  I don’t think I missed a single Disney growing up in the sixties and seventies, yet – go figure – my favorite childhood movie doesn’t come from the Mouse.  It doesn’t even come from my home country.  My childhood choice?  The UK’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, based on the 1964 novel by Ian Fleming.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” – the captivating musical about the inventor and his kids who lived in a windmill cottage; about those wonderful-though-not-always-perfect inventions (my favorite: the eggs-toast-sausage breakfast machine); about the candy-maker and the toy-maker and the captivating castle world of Vulgaria; and most importantly about the magical flying motorcar itself – created figments of my imagination like no other movie.  The lyrics to the title song (“…Bang Bang Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, our fine four-fendered friend…”) were burned into my brain.  Someday I vowed to visit the lands of Caractacus Potts and Baron Bomburst.

     

As it turns out, the Potts’ windmill cottage really does exist (and not on a movie set) – as the “Cobstone Windmill” in Buckinghamshire, England. The mansion where “Truly Scrumptious” lived is in the same area of the country.  And the Scrumptious Sweets Company was a working factory in Middlesex (today a steam-engine museum).  But it was the castle and village in Vulgaria I really wanted to see.  Not long after seeing the movie of course, I learned “Vulgaria” was a fictitious country.  Baron Bomburst didn’t actually lord over the land, nor did he ever keep all those children as slaves beneath his castle. But the castle and the village are based on actual places.  The village is Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria.  The castle is Castle Neuschwanstein, also in Bavaria.  And how ironic; both locations were inspirations for Disney as well: Rothenburg for the village in “Pinocchio”, and Neuschwanstein for the Cinderella castles in the theme parks.

To bring my journey full-circle, Rothenburg, Castle Neuschwanstein, and Bavaria sit in southwest Germany, adjacent to… the Black Forest.  Germany’s version of the Forest is a mountainous land of picturesque villages, castles, vineyards and spas.  This is the region that brought the world Black Forest Ham and “truly scrumptious” Black Forest Cake.  This is the land of glass-making and cuckoo clocks.  From the photos above, it looks every bit as charming as “Vulgaria”.

  

Colorado’s Black Forest barely amounts to a dot on Google Maps.  Within our pines, the “town” is a hodge-podge of nondescript businesses clustered around a couple of traffic signals, with nothing more alluring than a Subway, a post office, and a couple of coffee shops.  The terrain is fairly flat, with no windmill cottages or mountaintop castles or cuckoo clocks.  But it’s a great place to live, with its own unique charm.  And every now and then, when I’m deep in the pines, I’ll start humming that forever-familiar Chitty-Chitty tune, as I gaze up to the skies in search of a flying motorcar.