Gingerbread Houses (with recipe)

It is a tradition in a bakery culture like the German to make gingerbread houses (糖果屋) as the one described in the fairytale Hänsel and Gretel (漢賽爾與葛麗特), inhabited by an evil witch. This is the recipe for a gingerbread house as my father taught it to me. Strictly speaking, it is not “gingerbread” at all, because real gingerbread is not suitable for houses like these. First, it gets hard and dry after three days standing (and the houses are usually displayed for a few days for decoration), and it also gets too thick and massive so that it is not easy to produce the parts in the right size, especially for more sophisticated designs. The dough described here is based on a recipe for “Spekulatius”, traditional German Christmas cookies. With the right spices, however, it can taste almost like gingerbread. The amount of ingredients, here, is enough for a rather big house (let’s say, about 50cm high, wide and long).

Ingredients:

  • 1000g Wheat flour
  • 750g Sugar (half white, half brown)
  • 500g Butter (can partly be replaced 1:1 by Marzipan, for example 400g butter + 100g Marzipan)
  • 4 Eggs
  • Leavening agent: For special taste and right balance between brittleness and expansion during baking, it is recommended not to use baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), but potash (potassium carbonate) and/or salts of hartshorn (ammonium carbonate). I usually use a mix of the latter two, if available.
  • Spices: Cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, anis, etc… If your supermarket has it, get “gingerbread spice” or “Spekulatius spice” mixes. In Asia (Taiwan, China,…) you may use “Five spice” (五香粉), which also gives it a “christmassy” flavour.
  • For the “glue”: powder sugar, water, lemon juice (or “Citronella”).
  • Block chocolate (“couverture”) for the coating.
  • Candy and anything colourful for the decoration.

candyhouse1

Procedure:

Mix all ingredients to obtain a homogenous solid dough. Homogenous means you have to knead it quite well for quite some time. It is easier when the butter gets a bit warm. However, you know the dough is good when your hands start getting sore. Put the dough into a fridge for at least 2 hours or, ideally, overnight. When it is cold it is much easier to process it.

Now the dough is rolled out (3mm thick) and the pieces that are needed for the building are cut out. It must be planned and measured in advance! This is the design and architectural part of the work. Then the pieces are baked in the oven. Depending on the type and power of the oven, the baking time is 10-15 minutes. Be sure to put the hot and still slightly soft pieces onto a plane surface where they can cool and harden without deformation.

candyhouse2

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You can either bake everything first (for simpler buildings where you can estimate the size of all parts beforehand), or start assembling the first pieces before baking more parts (which might be necessary when the size of further pieces depends on how the construction proceeds). The parts are “glued” together with a thick mix of powder sugar in water with a bit of lemon juice for better taste. Without the lemon juice, it will be too sweet (and only sweet)! As an alternative, my father mixed the powder sugar into egg white. It glues very well, and you can also apply it in the form of decorative snow and icicles. However, it turns so hard after a few days that sharp edges and pointy tips can injure your mouth while eating. Therefore, I prefer the softer version with lemon water. Be prepared for needing 500g of powder sugar for a house of the abovementioned dimensions. For 250g you will need only 2-3 spoons of water and a few drops of lemon juice. Apply the sticky mass to the edges of a piece and press it against the edge of the piece that it has to be connected with. Use supports (glasses, cups, boxes, books, etc.) if you are tired of holding the pieces with your hand. It usually takes 5 minutes for the pieces to be securely attached.

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The most difficult part is usually the roof, or any part that protrudes or “hangs”, or is positioned in a slope. Big pieces need support from below, or they will bend and break after a while. When the building is complete it can be coated with chocolate and decorated with candy. Some candy might stick on the chocolate coating directly, others must be attached with a bit of the powder sugar glue. In my opinion, it should be as much candy and as colourful as possible, but in this point everybody is creative in a different way. Moreover, one of my maxims is that everything on and in the gingerbread house must be eatable (except, maybe, the gold foil of those chocolate/caramel coins, and, of course, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat)! See examples of gingerbread houses that I made in the past years in the following “background story”.

Background story:

One of my very vivid childhood memories is the annual gingerbread house that my father made, usually around Christmas. We invited all the Kids from the neighbourhood and ate it together. Here is a photo of the house from 1984, and one with the neighbours’ Kids from 1985.

candyhouse1984candyhouse1985

From the late 1990s onwards, I continued this culinary tradition. I was 16 when I first made a gingerbread house together with some friends. In the second year, a piece of gingerbread broke and we couldn’t build the house as planned. Instead, we improvised and assembled a “bunker” instead of a normal house. An idea was born: Why not making different buildings every year with some funny features? In the following years the designs and constructions got more and more sophisticated. Unfortunately, most of our early houses (like a nuclear power plant, or a football stadium) are not documented by photos. The oldest I found is from 2004 (poor quality though): Two gingerbread towers with a gingerbread airplane crashed into one of them.

candyhouse2004

When the constructions became more complicated and needed much time (it takes me three days to make the houses of the past few years), the preparation and the consumption had to be separated. The annual gingerbread house party with the candy house, additional other food (because just the house would be too sweet!), and a traditional German alcoholic drink called Feuerzangenbowle (fire punch) became an institution in my yearly schedule, usually around Christmas (even though one has nothing to do with the other). In 2005 and 2006 we held this party in the form of a contest with several teams making houses and a jury awarding the best, most creative or most delicious. In 2005 (too bad, no photos…) we had the most impressive and at the same time most disgusting house: as a tribute to hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans earlier that year, a team made a house in Southern USA style, put it into a large box and flooded it with 4 liters of jelly pudding! In 2006, the Korean pagoda made by my friend Doro and me could not compete with the amazing circus of Jonas and Steffi!

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In 2007, I made a gingerbread version of the cathedral of my hometown Münster. I counted 436 pieces of candy on it.

candyhouse2007

2008 saw the model of the Tuckesburg, a famous building in Münster that once was the home of zoologist Prof. Landois, founder of the first zoo of Münster.

candyhouse2008

In 2009, I was in Japan for a research project and introduced the candy house tradition to my friends and fellows there. For the sake of simplicity, I chose the most original witch house design.

candyhouse2009

In 2010, I made the castle of Münster (known as the administrative building of the university).

candyhouse2010

By the way, the figurines of witch, Hänsel, Gretel and the cat are still the same that my father used. You can find them in almost all the photos posted here.

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Among all the houses I made so far, 2011 is definitely the building with the biggest number of parts (more than 120). Does it look like Castle Neuschwanstein?

candyhouse2011acandyhouse2011b

After staying in a Buddhist temple in Korea in 2012, I tried to build such a temple. However, that turned out to be too challenging because the roof of Korean-style temples is much larger than the construction underneath. This is impossible to resemble even with the best cookie recipe.

candyhouse2012

As usual, this house was consumed during a party with many friends. Not much later, in February 2013, I made another house for my family (parents and siblings, nephews and nieces). It is another small one that looks like my childhood home in the countryside near Hoetmar.

candyhouse2013Feb

Later that year I left Germany for Asia. After moving to Taiwan around Christmas, I introduced myself to my new housemates and their friends with a gingerbread version of the Taipei101, until 2008 the highest building of the world. My gingerbread101 with a height of 118 cm was at that time the highest I had ever made.

candyhouse2013Dec

In 2014, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Therefore, I built the most famous landmark and symbol of the separation of East and West Germany, the Brandenburg gate. The Kimbab (Korean sushi) indicates that the party preparation was already proceeding…

candyhouse2014

A cineastic highlight of 2015 for many people was the release of a new Star Wars movie. For an old fan like me, it was an inspiration to construct one of its most iconic spaceships, the Millennium Falcon (70cm diameter). Unfortunately, due to high air humidity and some construction difficulties (Don’t try to make flat disk-like structures with gingerbread!), the Gingerbread Falcon broke on the day of its construction. But I could get good photos, at least!

candyhouse2015acandyhouse2015b

How can this be topped? It probably can’t. In 2016 – still in Taiwan – our gingerbread house party was scheduled on December 24th, Christmas Eve. In Germany, this would be impossible, because this evening is an important family event, so that nobody would go to a party. Taking the opportunity of having such a party on Christmas, I decided to make a Christmas tree, combining the gingerbread tradition with a Christmas custom. With a height of 125cm, it also broke the record of 2013’s Gingerbread101.

candyhouse2016

This year, 2017, we decided not to make a candy house. It would be too much of a hassle to keep a very curious and uncontrollable Kid away from it (and chocolate coated cookies with candy on it are really not the stuff that 22-months-olds should eat…)! Instead, we will make Spekulatius cookies from the same dough with you (Tsolmo) and share them with visitors! When the time is right, there will be more candy houses, that’s for sure!

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My Heroes – Ancient Philosophy: Nagarjuna

I guess it has become very obvious in all my previous letters that I am much closer to ancient Asian philosophies than to European philosophical traditions. I find the classical Indian and Chinese exegeses on holistic and non-separative ontology, constructivist and naturalistic epistemology, and especially the pragmatic and psychologistic (in contrast to many Western meta-ethicists, for me that is something positive) ethics conceptualisations  much more plausible and convincing than the premature and naïve Western realism, dualism, substance metaphysics and transcendentalism. The most famous figures in ancient Asian philosophy are certainly Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha), Laozi (even though it is not certain that this was one real person) and Kongzi (Confucius). They are regarded as the founders of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, respectively. However, in each schools of thought, there are other thinkers that achieved much greater insights than their predecessors: Zhuangzi put the Daoist philosophy on more solid grounds, Mengzi (Mencius) and Xunzi sophisticated Kongzi’s ideas substantially, and Nagarjuna is without any doubt the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher before it became a modern academic discipline! His enormous merits in advancing the insights on Sunyata (emptiness), Satyadvaya (Two Truths), Madhyamāpratipad (the Middle Way) and Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) make him my personal hero in the category Ancient Philosophy!

nagarjuna

Nagarjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन, Chinese: 龍樹) lived in South India around 150-250CE (widely shared scholarly view). According to the legend, he received the Prajñāpāramitā sutras from mystical creatures called “Naga” (a mix of snake and dragon) who kept in on behalf of the historical Buddha at the bottom of a lake. His name means “white snake”, and he is often depicted with snakes (an Indian symbol for wisdom) around his head. The historical record of his works is incomplete and still vividly debated among contemporary scholars. Some of the text attributed to him might be from other philosophers. It is widely acknowledged that his major contribution is the Mūlamādhyamakakārikā, a treatise of 27 chapters on The Middle Way.

After the death of Siddhartha Gautama, his followers split, basically, into two groups: The worshippers who focused on the practices taught by Buddha, and the scholars who wanted the Dharma (transferred in the sutras of the Pali canon) to be understood as philosophical wisdom. The former can be regarded as the religious interpretation of Buddhism, the latter as the philosophical school. For around 400 years, it seemed that the worshippers were the predominant group. The theoretical schools divided further and further and disputed with one another about who represents the true Dharma and who understands Buddha’s teachings in the best and most appropriate way. By the time of Nagarjuna, the original philosophy conveyed in Buddha’s doctrines were at the risk of being lost. Nagarjuna’s analysis of the concepts mentioned above formed a new firm connection between our philosophical understanding with Buddha’s original accounts. He is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.

Mahayana_lineage

As pointed out earlier, I regard the 12 links of interdependent co-arising as the core of Buddhist teachings, even more fundamental than the Four Noble Truths or the Eight-fold Path (which are rather easy-to-understand doctrines of folk Buddhism, in my humble opinion). Once familiar with this model, it is easy to understand the difficult notions of sunyata (emptiness) and the practical implications of a Middle Way philosophy (which is the center of Nagarjuna’s teachings). Thanks to Nagarjuna we have today a better and philosophically more grounded idea of these important elements of Buddhist worldview. I can see how it applies to many daily life situations and how I can make use of it to increase my life quality. For a philosophical Buddhist (but probably also for religious ones), Nagarjuna’s writings are essential reads, but there is also a lot of good and insightful secondary literature about him and his teachings (see a list in this article by Jan Westerhoff in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If you want to gain deeper insights into Buddhist thinking, there is no way around Nagarjuna, but it is definitely a way that is worth the time and effort!

Gender Construction

A while ago, we all (you, your Mom, me) went to the market together, passing by a baby and children clothes vendor. Since you needed new pants, we made use of a good offer: buying three pants for a discount. When choosing the three pants, it turned out that your Mom and me had quite different ideas of what would be good colours and designs for you. She chose mostly girlish items, pink, cute and with decorative applications. I preferred neutral colours with subtle patterns and designs that support outdoor activities and climbing play structures (you may say: somehow boyish pants). That made me think about gender roles and their formation. As a constructivist, it is out of question for me that gender roles and expectations are the result of socialisation and culture. Nowhere in our biology it is determined that female humans have to be or do like this and that male humans have to be or do like that. Gender shouldn’t even be a big deal! In reality, in many social spheres (education, job life, sexuality and partnership, etc.) it definitely is, but I don’t want to support that by indoctrinating you with such ideology. It starts with simple things like choosing clothes for you, is supported by our choice of toys, by the tasks we give to you and the expectations we have on your behaviour, performance and character, and might even amount to our idea of your partnerships and sexual orientation. I want you to grow into a free, open-minded, self-confident, self-fulfilled and happy person! I wish you will be able to choose freely from all the possible options that come along your way. There must not be any gender restrictions. It doesn’t matter if you dress yourself like a girl or like a boy, as long as you are happy with your choice! It doesn’t matter if your favourite hobbies and activities are typically boy’s domains or rather girlish, as long as you feel satisfied with how you express yourself and your skills. Be creative! Be weird! Be yourself! And don’t let any narrow-minded traditionalist tell you anything different! Gender (which must not be mixed up with biological sexes) is an element of the mind-deluding matrix that limits your freedom and diminishes your life quality. In the Buddhist sense, it is part of the suffering. Better rid yourself of that concept. As parents, we should give you all the support to do so!

pinkgirl

Two important topics are connected to this: Gender disorders and sexuality. Biologically, you are a girl. Maybe someday you will feel something is wrong with it and it turns out you are actually a boy in a girl’s body. This is not a seldom phenomenon. But from my point of view, this “problem” is only amplified by the stress that is put on you in form of gender role expectations. Your identity and personal integrity shouldn’t depend on whether your appearance and biological gender is matching with your actual emotional and cognitive perception. With this mindset, there can’t be any “disorder”, because the “order” is a flawed constructed idea. A friend asked me if I would mind if you were homosexual. Of course not! Who am I to decide who you love or who you feel sexually attracted to?! Again: Make free choices that suit you! Observe yourself and increase the chance that your choices are sustainable and viable! Be happy! What your actual choices are, then, is rather secondary.

The Pannonia Chronicles

The Pannonia Chronicles

One of the more unusual experiences of my life has been this: I was the dictator of my own country! Here is the full story:

Back-story

Here is an overview of my family’s countryside house. On the right, between our residential house and the way that led from the road to the landlord’s bee house, that small stripe was my friend Christoph’s and my most favourite playground. We called it “the forest”.

scheme

However, we grew up and the space between those bushes grew smaller. Therefore, we conquered a new “playground” in Autumn 1993. It was an area of ~200m² between our garden, the paddock and the apple tree meadow on which trees and bushes were growing. In the beginning we had to fight our way through stinging-nettles and branches. Before, the area was a bawn for chicken and ducks, the only man-made structure was an old chicken barn, about 80 cm high. Here is a map of the area as we found it (tree positions only approximately).

Pannonia-scheme1

The copse was surrounded by a fence, we installed a wire fence on the Northern end (in those schemes the right side) to mark “our” area. The old chicken house was used as a “desk”. In August 1994 we had an idea: In our “forest” we should build a real hut. After making drawings and plans, we asked our parents for material and built it. First we made a frame from wooden posts and sticks, and then covered it with silage film that the farmers in our neighbourhood use for covering the silage (animal food). We were so proud of our building that we celebrated its roofing ceremony and invited our families for a BBQ party. The hut was 3 meters long, 1,50 meters wide and 2 meters tall. I was playing (no, working!) in the “forest” nearly every day. Here I was king! I borrowed all kinds of tools from my father and built things, a table, a shelf and other things as interior for the hut. And sometimes I just sat there and thought about my life and that the world would be better if everyone was like me and not like all the idiots around me… In October 1994 we created a garden, fertilized it with horse dung and planted strawberries. In December we constructed an oven inside the hut to keep it warm. The first attempts were very terrible, the hut was full of smoke and the oven often broke. Then we masoned it with cement. We made a fire nearly every evening! We decided to have a cash box and paid “taxes”: 1 DM (~0,5 Euro) every 2 weeks. In the meantime we got a lot of material from our parents, like pots, a fuel lamp, and some tools. When we measured the area we found this data: Width: 6,80m, length (Paddock side): 9,80m, length (middle): 10,50m, length (meadow side): 16,50m. We counted 28 trees, 21 bushes and 13 small shrubs. At the end of 1994 the area looked like this:

Pannonia-scheme2

I often made candles by myself from wax remains (my mother often used candles in the house and gave me the remains when they were too short). In February, we added a part to the hut as a storage space for some new stuff that we got (a barrel, several cans, a ladder). The oven still broke very often. Especially the stovepipe was very unstable.

Rise and Fall of Pannonia

One day in March, on the bus back from school to Hoetmar, Christoph and I talked about our “forest” (as usual). Then I had an idea: Obviously it is “our” ground, so why not making it independent from Germany and form our own country? We needed a name for it. I remembered a class trip to the “Panorama Park” in spring 1994, an amusement park 100km south of Hoetmar in which the mascot sang a song that goes like “I am the Pano from Panorama Park“. This name “Pano” sounds so stupid that we often made jokes with it. I remembered this name and suggested “Pannonia” (written with double-n instead of only one) as our country’s name and we are the “Pannos”. Christoph agreed, so we founded Pannonia on March 9th 1995. This day became the “national holiday”. As an independent country we needed a flag of course! I designed this one (with MSPaint of Windows 95 on our very first PC):

Pannonia

We also made passports for ourselves. We were now Pannos and chose new names: I was Detlef Panno and Christoph was Otto Panno.

We added a second entrance gate on the left side. The oven got a new bigger pipe, and a secret underground storage box was constructed (to hide important things from my sister who sometimes came and stole our things). To protect our country we attached barbwire around it. The inside of the hut was a little too dark, so we added a window. I enjoyed such construction work very much! And the more we made, the more skilled we became. The first constructions all broke, but later we built really cool things! Of course I told my classmates about my country. Some friends from another village (Everswinkel) also founded a country then, “Joppe”. It was self-understanding that we were arch-enemies! Christoph and me elaborated some military strategies, constructed weapons and practiced on the meadow (sword fighting with sticks, shooting with a “pea shooter”, a tube with the finger of a rubber glove). We planted carrots, peas and beans in the garden, also the strawberries grew well. When we repaired the oven once again we added a metal plate on it. Now we were able to cook! Sometimes we made Ravioli (canned ready-made noodles). In June 1995 we added another part to the hut. We still constructed with the same style: a frame made of wood covered with big pieces of silage film. In the beginning we used white film because we got that from Christoph’s parents. Later we got more robust black one from another neighbour.

In August 1995 we affiliated a new “inhabitant”: a boy from my class called Steffen (Erwin Panno). In October, a 4th Panno was accepted: Stefan joined us (Herbert Panno). We had our first official big assembly on October 19th and 20th. First, we tried to organise our politics. With only 4 citizen, we decided that we wouldn’t need a parliament or government, but that we elect a dictator for one year. We called that “democratic dictatorship”. I was elected as the first dictator of Pannonia, probably because I was the one who spent most time there, because it was at my home. However, in order to keep our society balanced, I appointed Christoph as our agriculture minister (who had to take care of the garden), and Steffen as our minister of defence (but we called it “war minister”, planning defence strategies, but also “foreign affairs”). We also reformed our tax system (more money!) and decided to write a constitution. Then, the pleasurable part of the meeting started: We bought Ravioli, snacks and coke and slept in the hut. Actually, we also bought some beer, but we had to keep it secret, because we were just 14 (Christoph even only 12) and definitely not allowed to drink alcohol. That was the first time in my life that I drank beer. I liked sweet drinks (like coke) more, but it was cool to drink like the adults do. We talked all night about girls in our class, which of them we liked most, what part of a girl’s body is most sexy, and all these things that teenage boys think about. At midnight we had a night walk for 2 hours and frightened the neighbours’ dogs. Of course we were very smelly and dirty the next morning, but that was part of the game.

In November, we constructed a second hut. It was only 1 meter high, but we wanted to dig a hole inside of it. We had agriculture (our garden), military and thought we also need industry: mining. One side of the hut was left open, so we could dig and throw the soil outside. Now I was digging nearly every day. After 2 days the hole was 60cm deep. At the end of the year the hole had a size of 1,50m x 1,80m and was more than 1 meter deep. It was often filled with water that came from the ground or from rain.

In the diary that I wrote about Pannonia I found a mysterious entry from December 12th: Julia and Sarah (Christoph’s sister) occupied Pannonia. On December 16th the occupation was put down successfully. I just ask myself why it took 4 days (in the future, Historians will have to do some research into this matter!)… Since then, the two girls had their own space on the right side of the copse and – of course – were our No.1 enemies! In the meantime our arch enemies (formerly known as “Joppe”) were renamed “Sestania” (made from the first two letters of each of their names, Sebastian, Stefan and André). Actually, in school we were all friends, but for boys like us it was more fun to have “enemies” and to be “at war”.

Here is a picture of Pannonia at the end of 1995:

Pannonia-scheme3

During 1996, Pannonia saw major architectural advancements. In March, the old chicken barn was replaced by a two-storey tower, at that time our by far most sophisticated construction! The sand that we dug out of that hole was used to form a low levee around a wooden frame, a kind of bunker that had space for one person. Later it was fortified by an iron fence and a roof. The whole thing was connected to the hut above the hole which later turned into a tower, too. In May, we conquered “Lower Pannonia”, the North side of our country, by building an outpost: a hexagonal pavilion (classical Pannonia style: wood and silage film) with an elevated part in the middle of the roof. We made campfires inside this hut. The smoke could escape through the hole in the roof. One night we didn’t extinguish the fire properly, and the next morning I found wide parts of the film molten and burned. We were lucky that this didn’t turn into a serious bush fire! Here is one of the few real photos of Pannonia, taken in April 1996, when the bushes still had no leaves. Our silage film constructions looked pretty ugly – my Mom often complained about that, actually – but during summer it was almost invisible in the dense copse, covered by leaves.

1996-04 - Pannonia

Not only the architecture, also our political ideas advanced. As announced earlier, I tried to write our constitution. Of course, I had no idea about what a constitution should look like, so I took the German constitutional law and “translated” that into terms that meet our purposes. Most remarkably, the first sentence in the German constitution – “Human dignity is untouchable.” – didn’t make much sense to me. Dignity – what a hollow and hazy term! I changed it into “The freedom of the Panno is untouchable.“. In retrospective, it makes sense to me! What teenagers want to see protected the most is their freedom – freedom from parents, authority, limitations, and freedom to do what we like and to live out our ideas. Dignity is not much of an issue at that age.

In spring 1996, we recruited a 5th member, Benjamin alias Bruno Panno, but only as a “Half-Panno”, because his half-hearted commitment left certain doubts concerning his loyalty to Pannonia. By the end of the year, we attracted 4 further interested boys, all “Half-Pannos”, so that we can say that at the peak we had 9 citizen, counting all of them in. I must admit, I forgot who these others were (one was called Tim, I think).

A major obstacle for Pannonia was the lack of sanitary facilities and electricity. Yes, boys can pee everywhere, but for “big business” we still needed to run to my family’s house. Whenever we wanted to use electric tools or simply listen to the radio, I had to connect a 50 meter extension cord to the nearest plug in the garage (only possible when there were no horses in the paddock). Weather, though, was never a problem. We managed to make the huts rain-proof, they withstood storms and heavy snowfall, and with the oven it was even comfortably warm in winter. In summer, Pannonia was completely in the shade under the dense canopy of the bushes and trees and, therefore, not too hot.

We have been quite busy in Pannonia throughout the whole year, according to the notes I took. We constantly remodelled the area, built things, got more equipment, and made it a fancy place. The landlord turned his bee house into a kind of “holiday house” and gave us the discarded beehive boxes. We stacked them together as a locker shelf in the first hut. We finally managed to make the oven stable enough to survive our excessive night sessions with more and more beer and endless conversations about everything. We truly “grew up” in Pannonia! In October 1996 we held our second “National Assembly” (again, of course, combined with drinking and staying overnight in the huts) in which I was re-elected as the dictator.

Pannonia at the end of 1996:

Pannonia-scheme4

In early 1997 we turned the mine (in the scheme labelled “hole”) into a new landmark building, a three floor tower with basement, ground floor and attic. It was the tallest structure that we built, but at the same time the least used one. I guess its construction coincides with a shift of interests away from Pannonia as our favourite playground towards other activities like playing music (I had my band “no more lund”, for example) or doing sports (Christoph played football in the local team). I still spent much time in Pannonia, working or taking it as refuge from the evil outside world. However, our space was almost fully exploited, and also our construction skills have reached their limits. Childish ideas like our self-drawn “passports” lost their attraction, and also our plan to make Pannonia independent – an option that we seriously discussed and (at least I) dreamed of – gave way for more pragmatic and down-to-earth considerations: Pannonia was and will ever be a fancy playground and, Anno 1997, a place to have fun. But definitely NOT a place to bring girls or to demonstrate our “coolness”, which both became more important in our lives when we got 15, 16, and beyond. The huts were cool but, as we had to admit, also dirty, ugly and uncomfortable.

On the photo, taken in February 1997, you can find me looking out of our first hut (in analogy to a real country, if the huts were cities of Pannonia, this hut was always regarded as “the capital”), and the beginning of the scaffold construction of the central tower above the hole.

1997-02 - Pannonia

After two years of stagnation – no visual progress, no more national assemblies, no new members – and after frequent complaints about the ugly appearance of Pannonia’s “skyline” (at least in autumn and winter), we decided to tear it down in late 1999. In 1998, I still spent much time in the huts, but when my interest and motivation dropped, too, I agreed that it would be the most reasonable thing to do. We deconstructed (if not to say “destructed”) all the huts, recycled the posts and boards (my father and the landlord used them for other purposes) and threw all the rest, especially all the silage foil, into the hole that we dug and covered it with soil. That was the end of an era for me. One of the most exciting and important parts of my life was buried in the ground.

Retrospective Reflections

Why has Pannonia been so important for me? Why did I put so much heart and soul into this “project”? I am inclined to characterise myself – the 12-16 year old me – as extraordinarily introverted and as unhealthily misanthropic, almost sociophobic. The experiences at primary and secondary school of being teased and bullied left a deep imprint on my view of other people: Everybody is either a fool or an idiot. Obviously, people didn’t appreciate my qualities – I was good at school, could solve mathematical and empirical problems, had some practical skills – but focused on exploiting my weaknesses (being shy, not good at small talk, not looking “cool”, low self esteem). Pannonia – same as my Lego role-playing worlds before – was my way of escaping, my refuge. In this smaller community with my childhood friend and two classmates who were like me, I felt much better and safer than in the larger, unpredictable and inhomogeneous conglomerate of the school classroom or the boyscouts group. Above all, Pannonia gave me confidence: The proof that I am good at something, namely being the leader of something and, as such, making it flourish and grow. I was a worthy dictator, and not the fool that everyone else wanted me to believe to be. Of course, these are thoughts that I can only have in retrospection. At that age, I was not able to reflect consciously about these kind of issues.

The time between the age of 12 and 16 brings significant and crucial changes in personal development and interests. I believe, this is the age in which the future path of a person is paved the most. Besides playing drums and acquiring musical skills, Pannonia is my main source of positive life attitude without which I would have drifted off either into depression, serious misanthropy, or aggressive disorders. It served as an outlet for all my inner insecurities, instabilities and worries – and as an introvert I had many! The experiences of being respected by my peers, of sharing thoughts and secrets (in those endless nocturnal meetings around the fireside), of experiencing that I am just a normal boy with an inside world that is similar to others, was extraordinarily relieving for me! It also taught me how to expose myself in front of myself, something that is far from being trivial for a young teen!

Besides this psychological dimension, there is also a normative one, as I believe. The idea of making Pannonia an independent country was most likely inspired by the conviction that “we – with the values that we defend – would be a better society than the one that we currently find ourselves in“. We reflected directly and in open debate about values like freedom, justice, or fairness, when we discussed our constitution. From an uninformed, greenhornish, teenage perspective, though, but firmly convinced that our views are “right”! But also on a deeper, rather unconscious level, since Pannonia fell into an era of my life in which I progressed from a “mindless” child into an assertive and reasonable teenager, it served as an environment in which I formed and contested my value system and normative (if not to say “ethical”) integrity. I wouldn’t underestimate this impact that Pannonia and my dedication for it had on me!

As a conclusion, I wish that all children and teens would have a chance to build their own personal version of Pannonia, maybe not physically in a copse (since that is not available for everyone), but at least in their own room and with the proper amount of freedom and creativity! It might be the main reason for me wanting to move to the countryside with my family, giving my Kids the chance to experience something like this. Not only for practical skills and creativity, but also for personality development in the very critical time from childhood to adolescence. Being a “dictator” one time in your life – letting confidence and integrity rule you until the end of days!

DIY project: Tsolmo’s New Bed

Now you are almost 19 months old and it was time for a new bed. In your baby bed, you ripped off the mosquito net and everything you can reach from there. Also, you often throw your animals out (intentionally or not) and cry when you can’t get them back. Therefore, I decided to build a new bed for you that satisfies all our needs, especially yours. In general, there are several reasons for choosing to build a DIY bed over buying a bed: When the room fashion requires a customised bed (in terms of size, shape, etc.), when the main idea is to design the bed with a certain theme (like “Knights’ Castle”, “Pirate ship”, or something like that), or simply when one loves to do DIY. In this case, it is mainly the latter reason. As your father, one way to express my love for you and my concern about your life quality is to manifest my creativity and crafts skills in a unique item that is just for you! What could be better than your own special bed with features that you like?! However, also the former two reasons play a role here: In the corner in which the bed would be placed it covers part of a window, which requires a special construction, and I thought of some features that are important, necessary, or at least “cool” for you. These were the criteria that played a role in my planning of the bed:

  • Stability – Above all, the bed must be stable, indestructible, not shaking, without any parts that can be broken off or easily disassembled. I expect that you will romp a lot in your bed, so it must be able to withstand your intended and unintended violence!
  • Safety – There must be no corners, sharp edges, protruding screws or nails, rough wood, or anything that threatens your freedom from pain. The chance of accidents and injuries in and around the bed should be as close to zero as possible!
  • Mosquito-proof – There are many mosquitoes and other bugs in Taiwan. You should be safe from them while sleeping!
  • Confinement – You are still not able to decide for yourself when it is time to sleep. You need a place from which you can’t escape, or you constantly would! This has nothing to do with imprisonment, but is a normal measure for toddlers that makes your life and that of your parents much easier!
  • Storage space – Our apartment is not very big, but we need more and more storage space for the growing demands of the family. I want to make the “dead space” under the bed accessible.
  • Appealing design – This is a Kid’s bed! It must be colourful and attractive! Moreover, since you showed to us that you like decorative and effective lighting a lot, I want to integrate fancy and child-suitable lamps.
  • Flexibility – While growing up you will change your interests and demands. Sooner or later we can detach the door, for example, or you will ask us to change the colour. Maybe we can even add a “second floor” playground. It will be good if we could change some elements easily then!

From this list it may be concluded that the new bed must be completely closed on all sides (because of the mosquito prevention). I chose to design a house- or hut-like bed. Since it will stand in a corner, only two “walls” have to be built (lattices with black mosquito net). Six main posts (4 in the corners, 2 in the middle of the long sides) will carry the “roof”. We already had a mattress (188x100cm) with a simple bed (bottom part and head storage) as well as fence parts of your playpen. This served as starting material and as orientation for the overall size of the bed. In order to make the bed more comfortable, I thought of covering the edges with cushions. For those, we ordered cold-cure foam (4cm thick) online and got a beautiful flower-design fabric from IKEA. Your Mom organised a sewing machine and helped sewing the cushion covers that were then attached with the foam pieces onto boards and then to the bed scaffold.

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Here is the base construction with the six posts and the side cushions (the door element still missing):

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In the photo, you can also see one of the challenges of the project: There is a window behind half of the bed. In order to block your access to it from inside the bed, and to be able to maintain the curtain of the window properly, I built a board shield that leaves 7cm space between window and bed whereas on the left side the bed finishes with the wall. Of course, this protruding part also had to be covered with a cushion. The three posts on the left side are fixed on the wall with screws. The front of the bed is the head part of the bed we had. On the right long side, I attached boards that leave space for two large drawers on the floor under the bed. The most important tools I used were a jigsaw for preparing the various wood parts, and a cordless electric drill for assembling. Sawing and painting the wood was difficult but not impossible in the narrow space of the entrance area of our apartment…

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I painted the base frame of the bed in red (except the playpen elements) and the scaffold of the roof in blue. My original idea to also paint the inside roof boards blue was dropped after finding that it looks better with the original bright colour of the boards. For the inside lighting, I attached a 5m LED strip on top of narrow boards around the roof edge so that it illuminates the roof’s inside while itself invisible for you. This indirect yellowish light creates a warm and gentle atmosphere. Moreover, I put glow-in-the-dark stickers (stars and moons) all over the bed’s ceiling. One of the storage drawers is now a small ball pool for you to play in.

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So far you accepted the new bed very well! You obviously like the light and the glow-in-the-dark stars, you are happy to be surrounded by all your toy animals, you jump and romp around, and – most important of all – you sleep very well (from evening to morning without interruption)! Before you fall asleep and after you wake up, you don’t cry or complain but play with the toys and enjoy the big space that you have inside the bed. I hope you will have much joy and good rests for many years in this bed!

Of Peelers and Brains

Some people like to use those swivel-blade peelers, believing that they peel potatoes, apples, asparagus and other things more economically, either in cutting very thin or in saving time. In German, we usually call them “Sparschäler”, implying that their main quality is the “saving” (German: sparen) aspect.

sparschäler

My grandfather (but also many other people I know, including myself) would never use this device for cutting apples. With a common kitchen knife he can peel much thinner and still faster than most of those using a peeler. I conclude that the peeler is useful as a means to achieve the ends “saving time” or “producing only thin peel” only for those who are not skilled enough with an ordinary knife which could serve as a means for the same ends. If someone is not able to peel an apple properly with a kitchen knife it is better to use the peeler than achieving bad results with the knife or having no peeled apple at all.

That made me think of our tools (as means) to serve the ends “providing answers for questions of life” or “concluding what we ought to do“. We can think of several tools, above all “thinking”, or more generally “rationality”. The instrument we need for that is, bluntly spoken, our brain (here as a pars pro toto for our reason-ability).

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But what about those whose brains are not functioning properly? Those who didn’t learn how to be rational and reasonable, or those who – for whatever reason – consciously deny to employ ratio and reason for their decision-making? Can we (the peers, the society, mankind) risk that those people make “bad” decisions (factually wrong, disadvantageous, unethical, fatal, etc.) or make no decisions at all? I think, it is better to have an alternative tool that guides and facilitates the decision-making of the irrational or unreasonable (I would prefer to say “reason-unable”) people. Indeed, we have several culturally and societally firmly embedded instances that serve as this means, above all: religion. Better an untrue, ill-logical, childish, outdated source of orientation than no orientation at all or a dangerously misguided orientation. I know, some atheists claim that most religions are “dangerously misguiding” per se. However, apart from political and ideological exploitation of people’s religiosity and spirituality, religions are meant to provide worldviews, ethical guidance and psychological wellbeing – let’s idealistically assume for a moment that this is actually the case. Ratio and reason provide answers for all kinds of questions, and when applied properly, as I am firmly convinced, will do so with the highest possible degree of sustainability and “success” (whatever that means in this context). Religion provides answers by dogmatic preaching and indoctrination, often telling the followers in simple mantras and proverbs what to do in what kind of situation. For people who can’t or don’t like to apply rationality and reason, this is a convenient and comfortable way of finding peace and ease. However, there is the constant danger of scratches and cracks appearing on the surface of their reality. Once the realisation that there is something deeper occurred, the religious believer might be confused and lost. Therefore, this answer-providing tool is very limited and not sustainable. Yet, as claimed above, it is better than nothing. I am quite sure that this world would be a much more terrible place if there was no such thing as religion. There would be so many disoriented, distorted, psychopathic and depressed minds that the current danger of religious terrorism appears negligible next to it! However, it would be desirable, of course, that everyone had the chance to develop rationality and reason to a level that dogmatic worldviews like religious ones become obsolete. As long as this is just a dream – and I guess it will be just a dream for all times – it is better to make sure that our religions are kept healthy and efficient in guiding their followers on the right track.

 

Recipe: Goji-Sesame-Corn-Bread

I like Asian food! Really! Much more than German food, actually! However, there is one thing that we Germans are really spoiled with and that Asians are simply not able to produce: Good bread! Besides beer and sausages, probably the most outstanding item on the list of typical German food! Living in Taiwan, I kind of miss the large variety of tasty bread. Here, I can only get some soft, tasteless, almost cake-like, sponge crap, like American sandwich toast. Some local bakeries try to make “German bread”, but I have never found anything close to what I would call “good bread”. On the contrary, when I made a “good bread” for some friends, they couldn’t appreciate it, because it was “too hard” for them, “like eating steak”. I guess, it is a cultural thing.

Good that I like baking! I just make my own bread! And since we are in Taiwan, I try to combine the “German idea” of bread with the availability of typically local ingredients. Here is my recipe for a rustic rich-flavoured Goji-bread. It features tasty and very healthy Goji berries (枸杞), black sesame and polenta (coarse corn flour), adding up to the “German colours” (the colours of the German national flag).

Ingredients:

  • 500g flour (I usually use 300g wheat flour and 200g whole grain flour with rye and barley)
  • 1 big spoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 30g butter
  • 12-15g dry yeast (or according to the instructions on the yeast package, which sometimes comes in portions for 500g or 1kg flour)
  • 300ml warm liquid (I usually use 80-100ml milk with hot water; the more milk the less fluffy the end product)
  • 100g polenta (corn flour)
  • ~80g coarsely ground dried Goji berries (or “a good hand full”)
  • 1 big spoon of black sesame
  • 100ml hot water
  • extra wheat flower (up to 200g)

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Procedure:

Subject flours, sugar, salt, yeast and butter (in small pieces) into a large bowl. Pour the at least hand-warm water/milk mix into the bowl and immediately start kneading with your strong hand. Keep one hand clean, first, to hold the bowl or if needed for something (Trust me: There is nothing more annoying than needing a clean hand right after you just stuck both into the dough!). In the beginning, it feels a bit messy, but after some mixing and kneading the dough becomes more sticky and dry. When your kneading hand is more or less dry, start kneading enthusiastically with both hands. You may take the dough lump out of the bowl and do that on a big wooden board or the table. Knead for 10 minutes! This is very important! The dough might look homogenous after 2 minutes, but you have to continue treating it hard for much longer! This has to do with the chemical structure of flour and the mechanical forces that make the long carbohydrate chains intermingle. The longer you knead the better the bread will be in the end! When the dough is done, keep it covered at a warm place for 20 to 30 minutes for the yeast to rise. Strictly avoid breezes! My father (an experienced baker who taught me many tricks) used to put the bowl with the dough into a tempered water bath. In case your home has a heating, place it there. Taiwan is hot enough, I just put it on the balcony (securely covered to protect from dirt and dust!).

Meanwhile, prepare the “special ingredients mix” (you could just skip this, then the dough will become a very “ordinary” bread): In a suitable bowl or cup, mix the black sesame, polenta and coarsely ground Goji berries (I put a big handful of berries into a plastic bag and smash them with a hammer, but you might find more elegant methods) with hot water (I don’t measure it, but it must be roughly 100ml). Let it stand.

When the first dough is grown to at least double its original size (after about 20-30 minutes), add the Goji-sesame-corn-mix into the bowl. The addition of this watery mass would make the dough too wet, so you will have to add additional flour. Proceed as in the first part: Knead the mix with only one hand first, use the clean hand to add more flour until the dough feels dry enough (when nothing keeps sticking on your hand). Knead again thoroughly for 10 minutes. Keep warm for another 20-30 minutes.

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After one more round of brief kneading, place the lump in the baking mould. If required (for example, if your baking pan is not of good quality), coat the inside of the mould with butter so that the finished bread comes out easily. Heat the oven to 180-200°C. Meanwhile, the dough will grow further in the mould. Before putting it into the oven, make a cut along its top so that it can “unfold”. Sparkle a few drops of water across the surface for proper humidity in the oven while baking and to make the top perfectly crunchy (don’t ask me how and why it works with water!). Bake the bread in the oven for 35-40 minutes. After taking it out, let it stand for at least 15 minutes. When you cut it too early, it will most likely fall apart.

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This bread is suitable for sweet toppings (jam, honey, chocolate spread, peanut butter, etc.) and for savoury ones (cheese, ham, eggs, etc.). My favourite are slices with spreadable cheese, ham, egg, cucumber and tomato…