The Wheels on the Bus…

My body may be in Germany, but my heart and soul are still in Texas, and that’s where a set of my books will be too in a couple of days. Last week, I received this appeal in the mail from J.W. Caceres Elementary School in Donna, Texas:

Now, here’s an appeal that didn’t ask for my money–all these good people want is books! Not only that, but they’re going to take those books for a ride and bring them right to the front doors of the children who want to read them, and they’re doing it during the summer months, when those children will have the free time to do a little reading for pleasure. This may be the gentle push these children need to become lifelong readers and learners. It was in the summer that I first learned to love books. Didn’t you? The rest of the year is just too busy.

Donna is right at the southern tip of Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, not too far from the sea. Intrigued by the letter, I looked Donna up in City-Data, and here’s what I learned about it: The population is about 16,000 people, and the estimated median household income is only $25,000; compare that to the rest of Texas, where it’s $48,000, and the rest of the country, where it’s even higher than that. City-Data also informed me that unemployment in Donna is high (almost 12%) and that the average house has a value of only $60,000. This isn’t a wealthy town.

But Donna is a town blessed with educators who really care about their children. When I asked for more details, the principal explained that the district is supplying the bus for this project, and the elementary-school staff themselves are volunteering to keep the project going during their vacation time. “We are very excited,” she wrote me, “and our students are also very excited to have the opportunity to continue to read throughout the summer.”

Please consider doing what I did: send some interesting books to these children! Maybe you’re a YA author like me, and you’re afraid that your books are written at too high a reading level for grade-school students. Not to worry: the principal tells me, “We do have several of our 5th graders who are advanced readers and read middle school as well as beginning 9th grade material.” And these advanced readers might be the very ones who will fall in love with your books.

If you can’t send any books, then please consider passing this appeal on to others who might be able to help. Do you know any bloggers who review children’s books? Are you in touch with any librarians who might be weeding some high-interest books from their shelves? Is your best friend’s library bursting at the seams? Please reach out and let these people know that their books are tired of life on the shelf. They’re ready to go out and hit the road!

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land image at the top of the page. This post may be freely copied in any format. All data on Donna, Texas, comes from and may be found at this link. The photo of the bus at the top of the page is in the public domain and comes from Wikimedia Commons, at this link.

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Many cultures consider the calico cat to be a sign of good fortune. The cheerful pattern of orange, white, and black patches is a genetic anomaly that normally occurs only in female cats, and just the right combination of factors has to occur to bring it about. Maybe this is why Germans call a cat of this color die Glückskatze, from the possessive form of das Glück, “joy” or “luck,” and die Katze, “cat.” The calico is good luck’s own cat!

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To the Heart of Winter

In February, Joe and I spent a happy four days near Feldberg in the Black Forest (Schwarzwald). It didn’t snow while we were there, but it had just finished snowing, and the stuff was lying around everywhere. This utterly fascinated me. I know little about snow, and I try to add to my knowledge every time I get near it. Since I’m a writer, what I mainly do is stand around looking at it and trying to think of ways to describe it.

Last year, when I went to Bavaria, I noticed that snow on rock cliffs looks metallic and makes the rocks look like they’re layered with mica. This time, what I noticed is that snow tends to match the clouds overhead. Only if the clouds overhead are white does the snow look white (as in the photo above). If the clouds are light gray, so is the snow:

And if the clouds are deep violet-blue and gray, the snow responds with a color like glacier ice. (I love Germany for its violet-blue clouds, which I never saw in Texas).

Put a really gloomy set of dark charcoal clouds into the sky, and the snow does its best to respond. The result is a landscape that doesn’t just look cold, it looks frozen both literally and figuratively. It’s a landscape of secrets. Beneath the twin blankets of cloud and snow, the world is fast asleep. I found myself wanting to whisper.

The other thing that fascinated me on this trip is the way snow banded the evergreen trees. It gave them a peculiarly furtive and menacing character, as if they were donning some sort of wild-animal skin, a crazy camouflage. They no longer seemed to be friends:

Big or small, stripes belong with wildness.

Since we were in one of Germany’s premier ski areas, Joe didn’t just look at the snow, he went ahead and skied on it.

What can I say? He’s not a writer!

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In German, schwarz means black, and der Wald is the forest. Der Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, is now a popular tourist destination in southern Germany. But it has been known by this name since at least the days of the Romans, who were awed by how dark and dangerous these ancient conifer woods could be. A military posting to a fort in this region could easily mean death; the Germanic tribes attacked and set fire to these forts so regularly that the burning forts themselves served as warning beacons to the rest of the Roman army.

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Almond Blossoms

This is why we came to Edenkoben, Germany: to see the almond trees in blossom. A herald of spring, the almond trees bloom while many other trees are bare, sometimes as early as February. Like Easter, they promise rebirth.

But, after the darkest winter on record and the coldest March in over one hundred years, this is what we saw when we got to Edenkoben: not a hint of spring green. The grape vines didn’t show so much as a single leaf.

We and the Germans are growing desperate for spring. Germany hasn’t thawed out for months. Ever since spring officially arrived, night after night has been below freezing, and the days have hardly been better. We can’t get into our gardens, we haven’t been able to prune or clear the trash away, and those people who’ve been shopping the plant sales have been huddling indoors with all their new purchases, the clematis vines and box shrubs crowding the floor tiles near the windows like unhappy refugees.

March is the time when the various almond blossom festivals take place in the Rheinland-Palatinate—that is, in any year but this year. Gleiszellen wound up cancelling their festival. Gimmeldingen keeps moving the date. But Edenkoben, after having moved their festival once, went ahead and held it this weekend, April 6-7th. Unfortunately, the almond trees didn’t cooperate. The sun came out, and so did some festival-goers, but the branches to the left of these wanderers should be loaded with pink and white blossoms.

Several years ago, I stood in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and studied the painting Vincent had made for his newborn namesake nephew, the painting called Almond Blossom, 1890 (Blühende Mandelbaumzweige). Vincent Van Gogh was already very ill, but the knowledge that his dearly loved brother, Theo, had named this new son for him filled Vincent with gratitude and enthusiasm, and he wanted to create a special painting to hang in the child’s room. The work that resulted is a true masterpiece. Even Vincent praised its patience and firmness of touch. Would this mark a rebirth in the life of the troubled painter?

Alas, no. The effort had been too great. The very next day, Van Gogh suffered a fresh breakdown. By the time he recovered, the blossoms were all but gone, and his favorite season was over. “Really, I have no luck,” he wrote to Theo.

Vincent Van Gogh would not live to see the almond trees blossom again.

The sadness and wistfulness of this last great masterpiece of hope has haunted me since the day I saw it. Naturally, I couldn’t resist trying to capture my own Almond Blossom. Fortunately, a handful of young trees had flowered in spite of the cold. The older trees apparently knew better. It seems that “young and foolish” applies to trees as well as people.

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. Photos taken in April, 2013, in Edenkoben, Germany. Text and photos copyright 2013 by Clare B. Dunkle, with the exception of the Van Gogh painting, which is in the public domain. Weather information is from Spiegel Online International articles dated February 26, 2013, and March 28, 2013. Van Gogh information is from the Van Gogh Museum and the Vincent Van Gogh Gallery. No copying in whole or in part without the express written consent of the author.

Posted in Festivals, Gardening, Recreation, Rural scenery, Seasons, Tourist destinations | 3 Comments

When I was a little girl, I was told to watch for the first robin of spring, a big, sturdy bird that liked to eat earthworms. But the fact is that the REAL robin doesn’t come to America at all, and in many parts of Europe, he doesn’t even migrate. The first time I saw him, he was up to his feathers in snow!

This plucky little fellow, pictured above, is the real robin redbreast. He’s smaller than a sparrow, and he looks more like a Christmas ornament than a bird. The Germans call him das Rotkehlchen, from the words rot (red) and die Kehle (the throat), plus -chen, an ending that means “little.” So he’s “the little red-throated guy.”

Why do we Americans wait each spring for an entirely different red-throated guy? Because our ancestors pined for their robins. They gave the familiar word to an unfamiliar bird in order to make themselves feel more at home.

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Black Forest Pantheon

Schwarzwälder Dom (the Black Forest Cathedral)

In February, Joe and I visited the small, elegant town of St. Blasien, in Germany’s Schwarzwald, or Black Forest—an appropriate visit to make since February 3rd is St. Blaise’s feast day. There we encountered an unusually magnificent gem of a church, the so-called Dom St. Blasius.

A community of Benedictine monks lived in this valley from before the eighth century, but it wasn’t until 858 that they obtained a relic of St. Blaise and took his name for their church and abbey. The Benedictines remained in possession of this abbey for at least a thousand years, withstanding fire and plague, but in 1806, the abbey and lands became the property of the Grand Duke of Baden, and the abbot and his monks—as well as the bodies of fourteen Hapsburg nobles—had to move to Austria. The abbey and church didn’t just fall into disrepair at this point; no, they were actively disrepaired, and a fire in 1874 destroyed the domed church. But in 1878, a kindlier Grand Duke promised restoration, and that restoration duly took place, although not until 1913 was the church fully rebuilt and reconsecrated. Now the magnificent Dom serves as the town’s parish church, and the Jesuits run a private school in the nearby abbey buildings.

This statue of St. Blaise dates from 1714 and stands in front of the Dom. According to very old tradition, St. Blaise was an Armenian doctor who was so holy that the people proclaimed him bishop when their old bishop died. In spite of the fact that Constantine had issued an edict against the persecution of Christians, St. Blaise was martyred in 316, having first been beaten and then torn with iron combs to persuade him to renounce the faith. As he was being led away to execution, a mother brought him her child, choking on a fish bone. St. Blaise prayed for the child, who then recovered. This is why, every year, we Catholics line up on the Sunday following St. Blaise’s feast day to receive the blessing of St. Blaise on our throats.

Hl. Blasius

The word “Dom” seems particularly suited to this church. Its dome is actually larger than that of St. Paul’s in London. But this is a dome without a church. Or, rather, the dome IS the church. There’s a little bit of a front vestibule at one end, a thin choir with an organ at the other end, and everything else is pure dome.

When I first saw this beautiful eccentricity, I concluded that some bishop had been to St. Peter’s and said, “I’ve got to have one of those.” In fact, I was seriously maligning a holy and enlightened man of God, Prince Abbot (Fürst­abt) Martin II Gerbert. When his church burned in 1768, this abbot considered what the most appropriate church would be for a community of monks, and to answer that question, he looked to the form of the Pantheon in Rome, the church dedicated to all saints, and perhaps also to the abbey chapter house. In an abbey’s chapter house, the entire community meets at once, sitting around the walls of what is often a round room: a place in which the abbey rule is read and the monks discuss community matters. Thus, extrapolating these two ideas to a church, the abbot envisioned a round room ringed with altars and stained-glass windows of saints: a chapter house of heaven, one might say, in which monks could see themselves as members of a much larger and more illustrious community, with Christ Himself seated in the abbot’s chair.

Sadly, the stained-glass windows of the saints are now gone, lost to fires, but eight altars remain to provide us a hint of that larger community. And the experience of standing inside this highly polished and astonishingly white Dom/dome does indeed transport us away from the little town surrounded by forest to a different plane of reality altogether.

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. Photos taken in February, 2013, in St. Blasien, Germany. Text and photos copyright 2013 by Clare B. Dunkle. No copying in whole or in part without the express written consent of the author.

Posted in Churches and religion, Folk traditions, German art, German history | 2 Comments

This word is the origin of my surname, Dunkle. Many English-speakers know that dunkel means dark. But it also means mysterious, impenetrable, secret, or murky. And the noun, das Dunkel, can also mean an enigma. Still, it’s most commonly used to describe actual darkness, and that’s been appropriate lately. According to Spiegel Online, this has been Germany’s darkest winter in over four decades.

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The Dark Days

Photo taken in Rodenbach, Germany, November, 2012

It’s late autumn in the Rheinland-Pfalz, and the days are foggy, frosty, and short. Even the kestrel, the little cinnamon-colored hawk who hunts in the fields next to my house, can’t seem to keep his eyes open, and the fiery orange and red leaf displays of early autumn have drained away to pewter.

Photo taken in Rodenbach, Germany, in November, 2012

All over Germany, Christmas markets have opened, but they haven’t yet lured me out into the cold. So where am getting my German practice these days? I’m sitting at home reading. And since I write YA fiction, what I’m reading is YA fiction: a lively, irreverent book from the Dutch author, Francine Oomen. It wakes me up and makes a nice contrast to the December gloom.

from the series, "Rosas schlimmste Jahre"

This book, Volume Two in the series called “Rosas schlimmste Jahre” (“Rosa’s Worst Years”), takes a lighthearted look at teenagers and body image. The title, Wie überlebe ich meinen dicken Hintern? (How Do I Survive My Fat Rear?), makes it clear that weight is a factor in Rosa’s worries, and since I’m currently writing an anorexia memoir, I thought it would be interesting to see what Rosa goes through. But language practice can’t just be relevant to hold my interest. It has to be fun. And fortunately, Rosa–alternately thoughtless, reckless, and dramatic–may drive her parents crazy, but she’s always fun.

I do have paper dictionaries, but when I’m already flipping pages, I don’t want to flip even more, so I rely on apps and websites for my language support. My first search is always because it’s quick and easy and because I like that it puts the article in for me (der Hund) rather than tell me its gender (Hund, m). I remember the article better when I read it along with the noun. In a typical search, Leo gives me a link to the sound file and verb conjugation chart as well as displays a number of common phrases that use a word. Beyond that, it links to useful material in the Leo forum, where translators ask for help defining the exact meaning and usage of words. Leo also helps me by understanding the American keyboard spelling of German umlauts and can interpret “waehlen,” for example, to mean wählen or “stoss” to mean Stoß. I have the Leo app installed on my Android phone and on my iPad, and the Android app will even suggest the most likely words I might be looking for as I’m typing. That saves me time.

Beyond, the next most useful website I rely on is Linguee. Linguee is a wonderful website that searches hundreds of other websites that put out information in both German and English. A search on Linguee not only gives me the meaning of a German word but shows it in context in dozens of different paragraphs along with its English translation in those same contexts. It’s unbelievably handy if I’m not exactly sure how a word should be used and what its alternative translations could be. I don’t know how I survived without Linguee. But I’m careful to put in the exact German spelling of the word, umlauts and all, because Linguee will only be as good as my spelling. A search on “waehrend” won’t pull up the same results as a search on “während.”

For certain kinds of searches, Duden Online is ideal. Duden is a German-only dictionary, so it shows no English, but it gives a word’s synonyms and its etymology, shows examples, links to a sound file, and gives me critical grammar information. It also clarifies which words are slang and which words belong to a regional dialect. (To be fair, Leo does this too.)

But what if I can’t understand the Duden entry? That’s where Google Translate comes in. I have the Google Translate bar installed on my web browser. When I come to a page that is in German (and is coded as being in German), Google Translate automatically pops a message up at the top, asking me if I want to translate that page. If I do, the result is instantaneous (but not always perfect) English. But the German isn’t lost. If I hover my mouse over a sentence, a little window pops open to show me its original German text.

So, while small breadcrumbs of snow whirl past the window and iron-hard frost grips the gray fields outside, I’m curled up with Rosa’s Worst Years, learning how to throw temper tantrums in German, with all my online reference sources for company.

Photo taken in Rodenbach, Germany, in November, 2012

To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page. Photos taken in November, 2011, in Weilerbach, Germany. Text and photos copyright 2012 by Clare B. Dunkle. No copying in whole or in part without the written consent of the author.

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Last week, while Joe was gone to the States, my friend Heidi called to check up on me. “Getting lots done?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said. “I should, but…”

“But it’s your innerer Schweinehund,” she finished. “Now, that’s a good word for you to know!”

Der Hund is a hound. Das Schwein is a pig. Put them together, and you get der Schweinehund, the pig-dog: a person who is a swine, or a jerk, or a stinker. But according to, most people nowadays don’t call others that insult, they reserve it for themselves–or at least for the part of themselves that won’t get off the couch and get to work. Der innere Schweinehund is our lack of willpower or our weaker self.

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