I’m a big fan of reading. I’ve always adored literature but just as much I enjoy a well-written newspaper piece. It so happens that when I read about something very interesting in the newspaper I add it to a pile that sits next to my bed. (My weekend newspaper reading starts in bed with the mandatory cup of coffee on the bedside table.) By saving a copy I appear to be expecting of myself to turn to it again and again. As life continues its course and time flies by as noiselessly as ever, the pile in question slowly but steadily grows as (yet) another paper is added atop until it reaches the size of precarious heap, making it hard to ignore it, or, even harder, to pretend it’s not in the way. So, once in a while I decide it’s high time it went.
We watched Love Actually last night for the first time this festive season and it breaks my heart Alan Rickman left for good. One of my favourite actors if I ever had one, his super responsive face made all the impact. And his voice, deep and warm, man, what a voice. And his English, well, to a person feeling shivers down her spine by spoken British English, it was just perfect. He needn’t speak anyway.
I promise I’ll keep paying attention, reasoning and questioning, reading books and columns throughout the New Year. I can’t do otherwise anyway. I hope to get absorbed in exciting stories, travels and food. Speaking of food, just recently my man and I hosted two dinners at home. We approached the planning and preparations with lots of care, good will and joy and were working hand in hand throughout. We seem to have had everything going for us: great guests and truly smartly selected courses. Everyone was delighted. Bravo for us!
On both occasions I was asked for the recipes and voilà, my darlings, here they are, all included in the links below.
Quince and Marzipan Tarte Fine An exquisit dessert. I poached and preserved the quince slices some two months beforehand to save them for this dessert.
Some additional points regarding the menus: every course was planned as to require minimum involvement away from the guests. Most of the food could be prepared in advance, some of it at least up to a certain point. It was completely no-fuss doable and non-exhausting. Several amuse-bouches can be served (and are not listed) and a variety of petit-fours or other sweat treats to accompany the main thing. In my opinion it’s very well worth it to serve one-bites, think cookies, kumquats, dates for instance, as they add even more vibrancy to the festive table.
Nevertheless, the rest of the holiday is for resting and enjoying it.
As soon as we stepped out of the parking garage at MuseumsQuartier we bumped (literally) into a group of acquaintances we were kind of planning to meet for a drink after dinner. Talk of coincidences! Away from home, in a huge city that Vienna undoubtedly is, you get to stumble across the people the minute you step out in the open.
I must confess, although I know I’m stirring, meeting my fellow citizens abroad isn’t normally welcomed but this act of chance added a whole new dimension to our trip.
Vienna again proved to be a more or less indulging destination for us. We were eating and eating and eating.
Advent time is proverbially a perfect time to visit any German-speaking place: they certainly know about the Christmas decorations and their traditions serve them right. Here’s an explanation from the Albertina leaflet of how a Christmas tree came to be in Vienna:
“The history of the Christmas tree in Austria began on a day in December, in snow-covered Vienna in 1823. Archduchess Henrietta of Weilburg-Nassau, the wife of Archduke Carl, was busy planning the first Christmas celebration in the audience hall of her family’s stately palace, today’s Albertina. For the sake of her six children, she had decided to continue the Protestant custom practiced in Hessen of putting up a “grass tree” (conifer) […] opulently decorated with sweetmeat, apples, and candles instead of a Catholic crèche. Emperor Francis I. took delight in the “grass tree” and had a festively decorated fir tree put up in the Imperial Palace from 1824 on.
Thus, the Christmas tree had become presentable at court and was ready to take off on its triumphal course through the Austrian Christmas season.”
Where best to warm up to Christmas than in Vienna then? In our household we plan to spend a weekend there each December and it’s a tradition I’m sticking to obligingly and without objections.
Vienna is probably one of the grandest capitals even to the pickiest of visitors. There are magnificent palaces lining (and not only) the famous Ringstrasse, there are beautiful parks and elegant pedestrian streets, countless shops, numerous extravagant events, fantastic concerts and exhibitons. Come December she turns into a real imperial princess.
At Albertina we saw another splendid, well curated exhibition, this time on pointillism which is a very luminous and brilliant technique per se, so it made perfect sense to consume it at advent. From Seurat and Signac to Van Gogh and Picasso the paintings and drawings were marvellous, of course, but we were nevertheless expecting to see A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte but it was regretfully not on show.
Although the streets of Innere Stadt are packed throughout the day, one can surprisingly escape the noise simply by venturing into a hidden passage with tranquil antiquity shops.
This is probably what Martin Luther had in mind when he reportedly erected a fir tree for his family sometime in the 16th century to replicate the stars he saw shining through the branches during a walk through the woods.
Anyway, we also had a delicious dinner at Shiki, a fabulous Japanese restaurant cum brasserie just off Kaerntnerstrasse. Apart from food (freshly grated (at the table no less) wasabi anyone? superb sushi! wonderful soup! to highlight only the pre-mains) the service was nice and the ladies’ loo is fantastic. I can’t believe I’m mentioning the food and the loo in the same sentence. It’s the first time I experienced the legendary Japanese lavatory, which self cleans (saw it in action with my own eyes – freakingly unbelievable) and warms the seat for you. If you read this, you should go for the food, please, not the loo.
Unexpectedly, especially for Austria with its rigorous working hours regime, we transformed ourselves to night owls. Remember the little group of people we bumped in upon arrival? Well, we started our Bruderschaft rounds of drinks in the Grand Hotel’s bar, then we walked the deserted streets to Cafe Hawelka for Buchtelnand were glad to have had a chance to get the last 8. It was a night of fun and laughter! Great company!
On our way back to the hotel we finished off a plate of wurst at Bitzinger’s kiosk just for the sake of it. It was something we always wanted to do.
“It’s (nearly) Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid. Except, of course, there is. Forced festive fun is staggering towards us in its paper hat and comedy jumper, complete with flashing lights, reindeer noses and knowing irony.”
This passus by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham from their article in theguardian.com is probably the best description of the current warming-up-to-the-hype, pre-festive hysteria. It nails it perfectly.
There’s another very interesting and thought-provoking piece related to the upcoming season (which is already here actually!) that I’ve been saving since last year. A dinosaur, I know. It’s as timeless though as the greatest Christmas tale itself: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
I’m referring to an article by Tim Harford, FT columnist and Undercover Economist. Here’s a headline and an excerpt that I particularly liked:
In praise of Scrooge
‘Scrooge didn’t waste his money on extravagances for people whose desires he didn’t really understand’
“It is hard for us to grasp the discrepancy between how we see the world when giving gifts and when receiving them. Recipients may appreciate cash or presents from a list and not fuss too much about expensive gifts; gift givers, in contrast, imagine that the ideal present is an expensive surprise. It isn’t. All this suggests we should probably be spending less on presents, and thinking a lot more about the presents we do buy.”
I’m a firm believer that we should be paying attention to people, to their needs and/or desires. There’s so much more to Christmas than presents and binge drinking and eating. (This from a person who cannot stop reaching for another slice of panettoneas if her life depended on it.) The present, if and when we intend to give one, should by all means reflect the purposefulness and meaningfulness we infused into the process of buying it. There’s nothing worse in a gift than the obvious fact it was carelessly or sloppily selected, bulk chosen or having no personal value to the recipient. Something you put away in a drawer never to recall the moment of receiving it reflects money spent badly plus the disappointment (although not expressed or shown) is immeasurable. I’d feel uncomfortable giving away things just for the sake of doing what everybody else is doing and considering a proper thing. If we’re no good at memorizing (and are parallelly employing the idea of chronic lack of time) then, in the age of smart phones that are always at the tips of our fingers, the task should not be too difficult at all: taking notes on the go has never been easier. It doesn’t take the burden of paying attention off though. Nevertheless, don’t fall for the obvious seemingly easy and generic solutions: receiving a wrong cosmetic is awful and giving cosmetic per se is bloody weak, especially for women. Same goes for wine (white wine person getting a bottle of red anyone?). Or anything else really. Give it some thought, it’s a valuable suggestion. Do try making them happy not your own self. Spending a fortune on presents is more or less passé. There’s even a scientific proof.
Pay attention then. Reach for quality in your choices. Set examples. Feel good about it. Don’t believe me? See what experts say about attention.