Category Archives: General

Musings and storytelling

Maybe I saw them, maybe I didn’t

A visit to Minnesota German country is a visit to New Ulm, a lively festival town about an hour and 45 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. That’s what they tell me, anyhow — a surprising number of people, in fact, beginning first thing this morning during a chance encounter with a fellow customer at Panera, who recommended I visit New Ulm due to its unusually strong and entertaining German character. Then, all day while sitting at my vendor table at the International Germanic Genealogy Conference, quite a few roving genealogists extolled the virtues of New Ulm. One gentleman in particular went on for quite a while, about how New Ulm is known as the “Polka Capital of the Nation” and features the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. How the town erected a 102-foot tall statue in honor of the German victory over the Romans in … wait for it … 9 C.E. That’s right, folks, that long ago, 9 years after the death of Christ. Oh, and New Ulm has a Glockenspiel, and the August Schell Brewing Company.

Given all that salient detail, not one New Ulm enthusiast bothered to warn me about the four masked characters who came dancing through the vendor area late in the afternoon. I felt both attraction and revulsion at the sight of them (masks have always freaked me out). The two little girls who joined in the fun earned a gold star for bravery, in my opinion. It wasn’t until the dance was over and one of the masked figures handed me a button that I learned these were the Narren of New Ulm, “the relatives everyone has, but nobody wants to own.” Needless to say, I’m leaving the light on when I go to bed tonight.

Enter to win at local book store(s)

Recently, I stumbled across the book The World in 1800, which drove home to me again how, by 1800, the world had changed radically — from local and regional, to global and international. Two centuries later, we’re reaping the benefits of international communication and trade worldwide like never before, but are also feeling the loss in our own backyards. Loss like of local economies and farms. Loss like the reality that I visit with friends all over the world via email more often than I visit my dear neighbor Chuck next door.

One center of community in our lives — the local bookstore — has often lost ground in this click-and-ship-on-demand era of shopping. My bookstore, Island Books, brings the local area together in so many ways, supporting book clubs and schools and readings, offering personal service and a world of excellent books to choose from.

So when James invited me to participate in Island Book’s Local Author Festival this weekend, Sunday, 2/26, 2:00-4:00 p.m., of course I said yes. It’s gonna be fun! Added bonus: All comers have the chance to enter to win a $50 gift certificate good on your next visit to the store. I look forward to meeting many book-loving customers, and … drum roll … to meeting these amazing local authors who’ll be there with me at the festival.

Marianne Lile, author of Stepmother: A Memoir
Jody Gentian Bower, author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story
Rebecca Novelli, historical novelist, The Train to Orvieto
Ron Donovan, leadership expert and author of Wisdom of Doing Things Wrong
Rebecca Clio Gould, psychology and health author, The Multi-Orgasmic Diet
Martha Crites, mystery writer, Grave Disturbance
Phillip Rauls, music artist and photographer, The Rock Trenches
Leonide Martin, historical novelist, series “Mists of Palenque” about great Mayan Queens
Stephen Murphy, author of On the Edge: An Odyssey, a memoir
and moi, Claire Gebben, historical novelist, The Last of the Blacksmiths.

So come on down this Sunday to Island Books, it’ll do us all a world of good.

When you can’t go to Scotland …

I didn’t have the good fortune to travel to Scotland this summer, but a couple of experiences brought Scotland to me.

img_2998-1One was a spirit tasting on Whidbey Island, courtesy of Glaswegian Colin Campbell, owner of Cadée Distillery.

The vodka, gin, rye whiskey and bourbon tasted great, but with its signature flavors — Intrigue Gin infused with botanicals, Deceptivus Bourbon finished in 20-year-old port barrels, and a newly released spicy smooth Cascadia Rye — Cadée Distillery has upped its game. Truly superb.

Colin Campbell loves drawing parallels between his “Isle of Whidbey” and Scotland (“We have gray days and so does Scotland. We have whiskey and Scotland has whisky”) and stubbornly insists the accent, despite his thick Glaswegian brogue, is ours. A tasting at Cadée Distillery, 8912 Highway 525, Clinton, Washington, just off the Whidbey Mukilteo ferry, is highly recommended. Cadée spirits can also be found locally at Bev Mo and Whole Foods and Safeway, to name a few.

highland-games-introThe other Scottish-flavored treat was a day in Enumclaw, spent at the Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games and Clan Gathering. I’ll write another post soon about the games and the sights. Plenty to enjoy, including this introduction to the day as we waited in line to purchase our tickets just outside the gate.

When you can’t go to Scotland, such diversions are the next best thing.

Immigration today


A pedestrian crosses the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the morning of July 8, 2016 .

I have researched and written about 19th century immigration, but this time I’m talking about immigration in the here and now. Last July while visiting a friend in New York City, I was invited by her friend Judge Bloom to attend a Naturalization ceremony at Brooklyn Courthouse.

The Naturalization was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. When I arrived at 10:50, the Brooklyn Ceremonial Courtroom was standing room only. I wasn’t family — they sat in the benches off to one side. But I wasn’t being naturalized, either. I just wasn’t sure where to go. As I stood at the back surveying the crowd, two gentlemen in the last row cordially motioned me over and squeezed apart to make room.

The minutes ticked by, and the judge did not appear. To pass the time, I talked quietly with the men who’d offered me a seat, one from Bangladesh, the other from India. We shared our experiences and knowledge and hopes. The Bengali gentleman told me he is passionate about political science, and the gentleman from India said he preaches at Sikh temples all around the U.S. and in Canada. They both seemed impressed, even excited, that an American-born citizen would choose to attend the Naturalization.

After a long fifteen minutes, Judge Bloom appeared, saying she had just come from criminal court, and always looked forward to doing Naturalization ceremonies because it was the one moment in her week when people looked happy to see her. She opened her proceedings with startling statistics. The Brooklyn Courthouse conducted four such Naturalizations per week, hence admitted some 50,000 new citizens to the U.S. annually, making it the second busiest courthouse for naturalizations in the nation. Each ceremony generally involved people from 70-75 different countries.

Next, Judge Bloom led the gathering in the Oath of Allegiance. In advance of the reading of the Oath, it was stressed several times that every single person had to have the Oath of Allegiance out, paper visible in hand, and be reading from it out loud. When it came time to begin, since I was sitting in the “naturalization” section, everyone around me took out their paper, stood, and raised their right hand.

A bit awkwardly, I stood, too. A quick glance up front indicated clerks scanning the crowd to be sure everyone was participating, but I had no paper with an oath on it. So, trying not to call attention to myself, I did my best to fake it. I raised my right hand in a gesture of allegiance and repeated the oath, and even pretended to hold a piece of paper because they’d made such a big deal out of that. I felt a bit silly, like a baseball player in the team line-up mouthing the words of the National Anthem for the benefit of TV cameras. The oath concluded, we were all proclaimed U.S. citizens and welcomed to the United States. At that moment, I felt an irrational swell of joy.

That could have been the end, but after we were all seated again, Judge Bloom proceeded to read out the country of origin of every immigrant and asked each to stand and be applauded. The judge spoke then, about the Preamble to the Constitution with its emphasis on liberty, about the importance of voting (and paying taxes), and about the importance of being faithful now to the U.S., but also remembering one’s customs and language of origin. She stressed supporting children, hence the future, in every way possible, especially with regard to their education.

Sitting there listening, I marveled at how citizens rights and liberty are a big part of what have lured people to the U.S. all along. Even in light of this country’s many shortcomings. Even in light of racial divisions, class inequities, and a reckless lack of gun regulation, people still come. In what other country, I wondered, are Naturalizations so prevalent and diverse? And how can we as citizens make the U.S.’s founding principles of rights, justice, and liberty endure?

Judge Bloom ended by encouraging the new citizens to participate fully in their new country, especially by getting to know their neighbors, to express who they are and show curiosity about others. Afterward, in the back row, I congratulated the two brand new U.S. citizens flanking me on either side. They each handed me a business card, and I shared mine with them, and we wished each other well.

I left feeling more than a little inspired. These immigrants had welcomed me, a native-born American, into their fold, a little something called leading by example. I treasured the gift of their presence.

Making history

In the first decades of my life, I wasn’t a big fan of history. Dwelling on the past? What for? It’s best, I used to say, to look forward, to the future.

Since then, as this blog will attest, I’ve become a huge fan of the experiences and insights of those who have preceded us on this earth. If we’re willing to investigate our past, we learn a great deal to inform us regarding our future.

Which sentiment is not intended to override the importance of making history. In that light, I wish to extend huge applause to a brand new, first ever publication: The Best New British And Irish Poets 2016, judged and edited by Kelly Davio, Series Editor Todd Swift, published this year by Eyewear Publishing.

british and irish poetsThis chorus of new voices, those who have “not yet come under contract to publish their debut full-length poetry collection” at the time of submission for potential inclusion in the anthology, is an inaugural publication for the UK, in the spirit of “best of” anthologies that have been published in America for some time. These poems resonate with the voices of the era, with social engagement, relationships, the tough issues of 21st century lives, and ongoing dialogue with poets of the ages.

A recommended, delightful read. Cheers to history in the making.


Spread the word! I’m delighted to announce that for the entire month of February the ebook of my historical novel The Last of the Blacksmiths is just $.99. Purchase through Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, or Amazon.

Coffeetown Press is also featuring an interview with me on their website here.
meet the author

It’s also a pleasure to note that I continue to receive invitations to speak about writing, German genealogy, and more. For a list of my talk topics, click here. These presentations are a time for me to share the wealth of tips and info I picked up while writing my novel, and I love hearing your stories as well.

All the best in your writing and family history adventures.

Writing retreats and 21st century blacksmiths

I’m on Whidbey Island again for a writers residency. For MFA students (the program from which I’m a 2011 graduate), it’s a nine-day, intensive writing start to the 16 week spring semester. For non-MFA students like myself, it’s an opportunity to advance our skills, and connect with other writers in a vibrant community.

Case in point, I stood in the dinner line last night with poet Gary Lilley, the new poetry faculty at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program.

Somehow the conversation got around to blacksmithing (as it inevitably seems to, based on the subject of my historical novel The Last of the Blacksmiths). I mentioned how, while I was writing the novel, I came across an article about how blacksmiths are still hired by the City of New York maintenance department — one of their jobs being to forge basketball hoops for city parks.

This morning I googled New York City blacksmiths to verify what I remembered, and located the article. It appeared in 2010 in The New York Times here. What I’d missed in the ensuing years is that one of the four NYC positions for blacksmiths became vacant in 2014, a job that pays an annual salary of just over $100K. The write-up about the opening appears in the Brooklyn Magazine here. (Sorry I didn’t know back then, or I would have spread the word.)

As we talked, I learned that Gary has personal experience with these NYC custom-made hoops. An expression crossed his face I’ve seen often at writing conferences and retreats — the expression of a writer inspired. He confessed a poem had started to come to him. I completely understood.

It’s what makes these gatherings of writers so vital, where words and rhythms clang and vibrate like ghetto rims, called into being from the mysterious workings of language and the mind.

Scottish cookery

scottish cookeryLucky me, at the Friends of the Library book sale, I found Claire Macdonald’s Scottish Cookery. It’s a small booklet of 30 pages, with gorgeous photos of Scottish standards, including “Cullen Skink” (Finnan haddock soup), “Clootie Dumpling” (fruit pudding steamed in cloth), and Herrings in Oatmeal, “one of the most traditional meals in Scotland.”

Here’s a recipe in Scottish Cookery for dressing up turnips and potatoes.


Serves 4
1 lb floury potatoes, peeled and diced
1 lb yellow turnip, peeled and cut up
5 Tbsp single cream or 5 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp snipped chives
salt and black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg

Boil the potato and turnip in separate pans for 20 minutes, until tender. Drain them, return them to the pan, and shake them over the heat to dry. Mash thoroughly until smooth. Mix in cream or butter, and chives, and season to taste with salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg. Continue to mash over the heat. Serve immediately. Apparently, south of the boarder Clapshot is called “swede.”


Food and drink adventures

It wouldn’t be a travel blog without a post about food and drink. On Dave and my recent tour through Scotland, the Netherlands, and Germany, we’ve tasted such a delicious variety. The most unusual dish I had in Scotland: wood pigeon with black pudding, served on what appeared to me to be a (carefully scrubbed) slate roof tile.
Wood pigeon with black puddingI ordered it at a restaurant in Inverness called the Mustard Seed. The wood pigeon is the largest bird of the dove family, also known in England as the Culver.

The previous day, I had asked a waiter about Scottish black pudding, and he’d paused.

“When I describe it, you’ll think it’s gross,” he said.

“Try me.”

“Well, you take the insides of an animal, the stomach I think, they clean it and fill it with blood and–”

“Okay, stop. You’re right, I don’t want that,” I’d said.

But a day later, by the time we were dining at the Mustard Seed, I’d seen black pudding on enough restaurant menus I thought–oh, what the hell. The waiter assured me I would not get a large quantity, just a few small slices served with the wood pigeon on arugula. The taste reminded me of blood sausage (which it basically is). Rich, but very good. A similar concoction is added to Scottish haggis, which makes some turn up their noses to that breakfast selection.

Anyhow, back in Edinburgh, at a bar/restaurant called Whiski on High Street (really), I tried a whisky “flight,” a scotch whisky sampling adventure that didn’t require as much courage as the black pudding, but perhaps more fortitude. The waiter served me four bar staff favorites: Balblair 2003, Dalmore 15 Year Old, Jura Prophecy, and Ardbeg 10 Year Old, to be sampled in that order. I find I’m a fan of the less smoky, first two scotches. Just sayin’.

whiskey flight at Whiski in Edinburgh
Skipping ahead to Freinsheim, it’s time to enjoy kuchen–a traditional Palatinate dessert. At Tante Inge’s yesterday, Dave and I enjoyed slices of this delicious Apfelkuchen (Apple Kuchen).
Tante Inge's Apfelkuchen

In the evening, at an outdoor barbecue (the weather has been so warm and pleasant in the Palatinate) our hosts served up white asparagus, with hollandaise and cheese sauces.
imageNaturally, the dish was devoured.image

The meal concluded with a digestif — Pear Schnaps, a German form of fruit-based alcohol also called Obstler. This schnaps is not to be confused with the candy-cane tasting Peppermint Schnapps liqueur. Two different drinks entirely. Distilled just a few doors down from our courtyard barbecue on Wallstrasse, the Pear Schnaps was a satisfying finish. And we slept well, too.
German Schnaps


Return to Freinsheim

Matthias at the barbecue“I’m glad to see you back so soon,” Matthias said to me on our first evening in Freinsheim.

These were welcome words, as I worried Dave and I might be outwearing our welcome, having just visited here last October for the Weinwanderung. We were welcomed with a veritable barbecue feast — lamb, chicken and sausage, grilled over a fire stoked from the stalks of old grapevines.

“Does the grapevine smoke add flavor?” Dave asked.

Matthias smiled. “Okay, if you like, it makes the food more delicious. Then again, perhaps we use this wood because it burns more slowly and evenly.”

Everything tasted delicious.

imageSpring in Freinsheim is the time of ripening cherries and figs, and, this late in the season, the last days of the delicious white asparagus harvest, which attracts Germans from the cities, who are willing to wait in long lines in their cars to purchase asparagrus fresh from the field.

imageWe are here just in time for the annual Altstadtfest (I’ve tried to link to an English translation of the web site. Altstadtfest takes place June 4-7), and it looks like the weather will be perfect. The Altstadtfest will be held in the town center, just in the shadow of the church spires you see in this photo. In the foreground is the Catholic Church spire, and in the background is the Reformed Evangelical Church spire. Each has a bell, and I am told, unlike many other small villages in the Pfalz, these bells are tuned to ring in harmony.