Kaffee und Kuchen

The ubiquitous coffee pot
I grew up around the culture of Kaffee und Kuchen. This important event usually happened on Sunday afternoons or on birthdays. It involved good, strongly brewed coffee, heavy cream (whipped, if possible) and an assortment of rich cakes, including fruit flans using whatever fruit was in season, with more whipped cream and the ever-present Streusselkuchen and Königskuchen. Other cakes might include Bienenstich, Honigkuchen or the decadent Schwarzwälderkirsch Torte. Readers of my novels might recognize the cakes and the table setting.

Perhaps it was a symptom of the after-war generation. Perhaps having survived the horrors of war, the simple pleasure of sitting around a table and gorging on food was a sort of heaven on earth. I don’t know. I do know that the coffee table Kaffeeklatsch was the highlight of the week for my parents and their fellow immigrant friends. 

Kaffee und Kuchen meant you had a home, a table, food, and people to share it with. Kaffee, after years of ground up dandelion root or ‘ErsatzKaffee was a totally appreciated luxury. It might be instant coffee with canned evaporated milk during the week, but for the Kaffee und Kuchen sessions, it had to be freshly ground ‘real’ coffee. 

Embroidered by my parents while on 
immigration ship in 1953 on Beaverbrae 
The table itself was not merely a flat platform on four legs. It was a stage showcasing a woman’s talents—starting with the tablecloth. I remember tablecloths elaborately embroidered with floral motifs and crocheted lace along the edges. I remember the handmade coasters, the crocheted cozy for the porcelain coffee pot, and the carefully chosen serviettes … often mismatched … but each uniquely beautiful. 

Then there were the dishes. Dishes for my mother and the women of her generation were status symbols like cars were for the men.  As a kid, I had my own favourite china teacup set from Mom's Sammeltassen collection. I felt surprisingly sad when that teacup disappeared in the shuffle of her final move. And yes, the teacups were for sipping coffee. 

I’m not sure if Kaffee und Kuchen culture is still going strong over in Germany. Here in Canada, as the war survivors pass away, many of their traditions are fading with them. But I have the porcelain coffee server to remind me. It's not all that useful anymore. But when I smell the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, I can often hear the Kaffee Klatsch ... as the survivors of war, homelessness, gulags and immigration indulge in the freedom of Sunday afternoon peace. 

For the Invisible Women

IMHO, Women’s Day should be Women’s Week. With such a diverse population, how can we possibly limit the gratitude and recognition into one day?

When I was growing up I never heard of Women’s Day … in March, yet? I only knew of Mother’s Day in May. (A day when we joined the blocks-long line-up to take my mom to the all-you-can-eat-for- 99 cents-buffet on the way home from church). I’ll admit, I didn’t give much thought to the women without children around who had to go home and cook their own lunches that day. 

It wasn’t until 2010 that the United Nations took up the cause and created themes to go with the annual event. This year's theme is #Embrace

English learners in Winnipeg

Equity. Before that, seems the day was a holiday celebrated mostly in communist countries. In fact, the first time I heard of it was from a Russian friend who was surprised at our low-key approach to the March celebration. 

This week, I honour the many immigrant women who are so often the energy behind a family move to a new country. They become invisible, behind the scenes, doing the grunt work, as their children flourish in the new environment. This is my shout-out to the women who do menial labour so their kids can prosper. To the women who become cut off from their old world and faced with many challenges here in the new one … with limited ability to improve their own lot as they ‘garden’ their offspring. (Okay, I’ll admit, it’s almost spring and gardening is on my mind).  

To the nameless, determined women who give so that others may prosper … I see you. Perhaps you have a face not unlike my own mother’s. Perhaps you are the stooped woman on the bus, hiding behind a hijab, or in a flowing sari, or wearing the mismatched, but colourful layers from the thrift shop. I celebrate your tenacity and your courage. 

Empathy not Sympathy

CCBC BookNews Winter 2022/23

I really connected with Spencer Miller’s article in CCBC’s (Canadian Children’s Book Centre) about empathy. In the article called, “Teaching Empathy Through Reading,” the middle grade teacher shares specific ways to build up a young person’s empathy. 

What is empathy?  Empathy according to Brené Brown (whom Miller quotes in this article): “…fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” To have empathy, means to understand. To understand, means to get under something, not over. To understand means to be humble, to crouch down and see the situation eye-to-eye. Sympathy, like pity, can lead to disrespect and moral judgment.

I wrote Tainted Amber in an attempt to understand what was happening in East Prussia, in Katya’s world, back in 1937. I tried to develop reader empathy for citizens in the Third Reich who were being manipulated by an authoritarian government (eerie parallels to current Russian situation). In Crow Stone I tried to develop empathy for people who, back in 1945, were possibly the most hated people on earth. 

As a volunteer, working one-on-one with newcomers to Canada, I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect, to support, and to try to understand. There’s nothing like a real person to help me understand the, often nuanced, joys and terrors of our tumultuous world. I have much to learn.

Empathy involves taking down the border that divides ‘me’ from ‘you.’ Empathy means you are you walking beside me like a friend. It can be emotionally exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, and always empowering. 

Making History 3-D

History can be a turn-off when it focuses only on dry facts, just like science is more than formulas and chemical compounds. Science matters when you walk through environmental disasters or live through a pandemic. So, too, history becomes more than dates of wars, lists of treaties or studies of revised maps when you walk through historical landscapes and meet characters who share the same human frailties we all experience. Through the power of imagination, readers experience sensory detail and emotion which allows them to have a visceral experience. 

Here is a list of ways that the power of fiction can merge the past into the present:

Field trips. Visit the scenes of massacres, of battles, of boat crossings. For example, I cycled down forest paths that my 1945 refugees would have travelled in Crow Stone. I walked the beaches of Tainted Amber.

Cycling in Kaliningrad Oblast
BIG Maps. There’s nothing like a visual map to pinpoint the scenes of a story. If the book doesn’t have a map, find one. Mark the places the novel’s characters are traveling. In Crow Stone there’s a map included, but don’t hesitate to find other maps.

SMALL Maps. How about visualizing the little places? A map of the house, of the bedroom, of the barrack? 

Photographs/drawings. A picture says a thousand words. But don't forget to ask, who was taking that picture? Why? What happened before or after the photo was taken? Where was the photo taken? Why does this particular photo matter? Who's not in the photo?

Recipes. One thing all humans, past and present, have in common is the need for food. Find out what food was available in those years and experiment with the ingredients. Did they drink tea or coffee? Soft drinks? 

Königsberge Klopse in Kaliningrad

. Musical tastes might change but music is always part of the human experience … whether to celebrate or to mourn. Find what would be part of the historical narrative for a particular book.

Clothes. We might get our clothes from an online retailer, local mall or thrift shop. But where did historical characters get their clothes? What were they wearing? How did they care for them?

Ambition. Many of us aspire to have careers, houses, children, cars, to travel or volunteer, to learn new languages or run a marathon. What sorts of ambitions would the characters in historical fiction be striving towards?

This is just a brief sampling of the ways that history can become livelier for readers. Some might call it research, I like to call it developing empathy.  One day, our lives today will also be history. Hopefully, no one will remember our lives as dull or boring. After all,  we too are living in historical times.

NEW Young Adult Books | Winter 2023 Top Grade Picks

CROW STONE FOR FREE!  49th Shelf's book give-away!  Go to their link for an opportunity
to receive your copy!

Check out my sidebar, where I share a discussion guide created to increase readers' understanding of the devastating consequences of war—not only for the soldiers fighting the battles—but for the women and children left behind ... even after peace treaties are signed. 

I'd be happy to visit your classrooms, online (or in-person in the Winnipeg area), to facilitate a conversation about the ugliness of war. 

About Birch Trees

When is a book about birch trees not a book about trees? When it’s sub-titled, "a Russian Reflection.”

Tom Jeffreys’ 2021 release is part history, part art study, part travel memoir, part meditation. It’s always political. Reading The White Birch has been an immersive journey through Russian history and landscape searching out the ubiquitous and photogenic white birch.

The book opens with a listing of the various types of birch trees that become actors in the book. It ends with an extensive bibliography for readers to further explore the complexities of Russia. 

Manitoba aspen 
Everything from landscape art of pre-communist times to Stalin-era posters to the lyrics of modern Pussy Riot music and the philosophy of Aleksandr Dugin, finds its way into this book about birch trees which explores the very soul of Russia. It’s a must-read if you appreciate the power of landscape to define a nation and want to get a better understanding of this complicated country. 

From rustic, poverty-stricken rural settlements to professionally designed urban parks, the author searches out the birch tree and always finds it. From oil paintings to poems to advertisements to songs, the birch tree claims its spot. A tree of nostalgia, of the feminine, it’s become a Russian cliché. 

I needed access to the internet to really appreciate the images mentioned in this book. I was constantly searching out the places, paintings and artists that the author mentions. This was not a fast read. Good for a long prairie winter. 

We don’t have a lot of birch trees in Manitoba. More aspen which looks quite similar but with a darker bark. Aspen forests are the first to shimmer green in the spring and pure amber in the fall.

But next time I spot a birch while out hiking, I’ll be reflecting on Russia. A white birch tree will never again be just a tree. 

P for Propaganda

A recent news link referred to Putin’s girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, who called propaganda as important as using Kalashnikovs, in the current war. Seriously? At least she’s naming it for what it is. Propaganda is a catch-all term for state sponsored lying. 

movie poster in public domain
Propaganda permeated the UFA (Nazi movie industry), as well. The most famous movie being Triumph of Will. We might laugh at the stupidity of these manipulative films, but they worked. Putin knows this.

Why is propaganda—blatant lying—so popular?  Why else would global corporations spend billions on advertising?  As a human race, we're a gullible lot.  In one Russian video clip, interviewing young residents from St. Petersburg, a woman artist said, “propaganda helps people lie to themselves.”   

Lying to one’s self is easier than ever with social media. We only ‘like’ what we follow and vice versa. If everyone is out to deceive us then who do we trust? I feel like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Media-literacy has never been more important. Critical thinking skills can’t be assumed. We need diverse points of view.

My parents’ generation grew up under the influence of Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. Germans, always ready to follow rules, were told they were the chosen people— superior to Slavs, Jews, Roma and coloured people. Treat humans like animals long enough and that lie becomes easier to believe.

Russians are now told that Ukraine is their enemy, overtaken by Nazi fascists. As ludicrous as this sounds to our western ears, Russians are losing touch with objective truth. Meanwhile, massive corporations control our media. Ads about liquor, cars, beauty products, holidays, etc. bombard our lives daily. 

Canada is a democracy, but this freedom of choice has a price. Our challenge is to be aware, skeptical, and engaged. It’s up to us to separate truth from propaganda.

Here are some tips to avoid being 'brain-washed' by propaganda.

1. Listen to/read/view multiple media outlets. Don't share something on social media if you can't verify the facts. 

2. Be aware of the distinction between mis-information (an error) as opposed to dis-information (a lie). 

3. Be aware of the power of slogans and symbols. (for example: Soviet: raised fist; Nazi: swastika; Russia: Z; clothing brands: the Nike swoosh)

Check out this Canadian government website for more information on how we can be aware of potential manipulation of facts during the current conflict in Ukraine.

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Kaffee und Kuchen

The ubiquitous coffee pot I grew up around the culture of Kaffee und Kuchen. This important event usually happened on Sunday afternoons or ...