SOS: Save our spices! Organize kitchen seasonings in uniform glass

Is it ironic that I am going to begin a post about how I came to organize my kitchen spice shelf with pointers to a product that I did not use for this purpose?

Canning jars—domestic Ball jars or European Weck jars—are one excellent way to store seasonings. I use them all the time for grains, freeze dried food decanted from large #10 cans, and leftovers, but they weren’t the best option for my spices.Food storage in use jars

Before I tell you how I did end up organizing my seasonings, protected from light, yet on an open shelf approximately 35″ x 12″, allow me to share one specific solution others on the internet seem to have missed.

Solution to deli container spice storage: the plastic vs. glass dilemma

Articles like this one from TheKitchn suggest deli containers for space-efficient storage of relatively large quantities of spices for cooking. You can fit any measuring spoon in them, even those big round Tablespoons!close up of spices in Weck canning jar and store packaging

I stumbled upon blog posts where people liked the deli container notion while not wanting to keep sensitive foods in plastic. Plastic, of course, can leach chemicals into foods with unknown health effects, especially in the presence of heat.

Do you ever set your spice jars down next to—or right on top of—the stove?

For those disinclined to worry about chemical exposure from plastics and their effect on human health, I recommend reading Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Shanna H. Swan, PhD.

Plastic is also prone to static, an annoyance with expensive dry powders like most spices.

If you want to store your spices in “deli containers,” but you prefer the non-reactive nature of glass to the typical deli dish’s plastic, what you want are 1/5 L Weck Mold Jars in style #740 ($17.25 for a set of six, but shipping is extra and glass is both heavy and fragile.)8 oz Lucerne sour cream tub shown next to similar sized Weck 1/5 Mold Jar 740 with a yogurt cup inside of that for comparison

The 1/5 L Mold Jar is about the size of a cream cheese or sour cream tub. It’s just shy of two inches high.

The taller, same diameter 1/4 L Weck Mold jar #741 ($18.50 for a set of six) makes another good choice for really serious cooks. If you store even larger quantities of your most used spices, this one is similar in size to a cottage cheese tub. This size is about 2 ¾″ high.

Six #740 jars with six plastic lids and shipping to my zip code would total $34.35 for a cost of $5.73 each as of April 2021.

My family uses both of these sizes of Mold jars to put away our leftovers. This fridge photo shows the 1/5 L Mold jar full of beans stacking neatly atop a plastic deli tub of applesauce; next to that, a 1/4 L Mold jar holds a partial tomato under its glass lid.View into fridge with leftover beans in Weck 740 jar stacked on similar diameter deli quart of applesauceNote that these are European canning jars, so the included lid will be a round of glass that merely sits in place until sealed via heat processing around its separate rubber ring (not ideal for your dry spices!) For that reason, you will also need to purchase a plastic (size Large, 85¢ each), cork (size Large, $1.20 each), or wood (size Large, $3.50 each) lid for each glass container for which you want an air-resistant* seal.

4 available Weck canning jar lids shown side by side: plastic, cork, wood, and glass

Only the glass and plastic lids are dishwasher safe, but all the glass jars can go in the dishwasher.

It should be noted that even the 3- 7/8″ Large lids sometimes slipped through the top rack grid on my Bosch** machine, and they can warp after too much exposure to the higher heat on the bottom rack. The lid on the far right was warped when it fell to the bottom of my dishwasher.

I love the interchangeable nature of these lids. You can buy Weck jars going all the way up to 2.5 L in size. Americans, that’s a large enough canister for a supermarket bag of sugar. One could store all necessary spices and most other common baking ingredients in attractive, non-reactive, stackable containers where the loss of a single lid doesn’t render any one useless.

If ordering Weck jars for the first time, pay attention that your selections use the same size lid if you share my obsession with owning just a few lids that fit all of your containers.

The Weck “Mold jars” most similar to American plastic deli packaging use lids in size Large, 3 7/8″ ∅. Size chart for Weck large size lid, fitting some Mold, Tulip, Deco, and Cylindrical jars

At this point, I own Small and Large opening Weck jars, using both all the time, but I started out with only narrow ones. I was specifically shopping for juice jars sometime around 2004 when I discovered them at a specialty kitchen retailer.

The manufacturer’s US website eventually gave me a much broader selection of shapes and sizes from which to choose.Weck jars lids narrow neck - 1

Weck jars are made in Germany. Because they are designed for use in canning, they are thick, sturdy glass, resistant to thermal shock, suitable for either a boiling water bath or storing food in a freezer.

Just not directly from boiling to freezing, please, to avoid shattering; it’s still glass!

My kitchen is warm & bright, bad for spices if nice for people

All of this talk about storing spices in wide, shallow deli containers, yet the Mold jars I already owned weren’t a great choice for my own kitchen needs. We enjoy a bright, sunny, southern exposure, but all that light speeds degradation of herbs and spices.

Clear plastic or glass spice jars should ideally be stored in a cupboard away from light—and heat, whether from the sun or the stove—to maximize each ingredient’s useful shelf life.

I don’t have much available cupboard space available on the side of my kitchen that houses the stove, but I do have room for a shallow, folding bookcase about six feet away from the cooker’s heat. It’s ideally located and doesn’t require me to reach too high or low when my joints are flaring or my shoulder has locked up, but it is an open shelf bathed by the light of a sunny wall of glass.hand holding a small white wire basket containing four assorted spice jars and tinsI use a little wire basket to gather what I need, carry it over to the island where I do prep work, and then return the spices en masse when I’m finished with them.

Before I started using the basket, it took too many trips to put everything away. When you live with a chronic condition that includes painful, arthritic toes, saving steps can mean the difference between being able to cook or having to rely upon someone else to do so.

Sensible storage—and thoughtful use of carts or baskets to spare similarly impaired finger joints—is a tool of self-empowerment!

Frugal & fairly good: the 12 × 7 × 5 coffee shipping carton

So my seasonings live on an open shelf about six feet away from my stove top. That location is the best compromise I’ve found between “close enough to grab while cooking” and “hotter spot than it ought to occupy.”

If I simply stacked clear containers there, however, my spices would suffer from direct sun for at least part of the day for most of the year. Two walls of my kitchen are more than 50% glass. I don’t want to degrade my ingredients before their time!

Before this latest organizing project, I solved the exposure to light issue by repurposing a shipping carton.

It turns out that a 12″ × 7″ × 5″ box is the perfect size for 18 standard, commercial seasoning jars. Though different stores carry brands in a variety of bottle shapes and sizes, they tend to fall within a similar range of diameters and heights for use in widely available spice racks and cupboard storage solutions.

Tip: The two boxes I re-used for spices both came from shipments of my favorite mail order coffee beans from Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in California. If you are interested in this free storage option, pay attention to the carton if you order in your caffeinator of choice.

Lake Champlain Chocolates has also shipped something delicious to me in the same size package.Shipping box

If all of my spices had come from the same brand—or if I purchased a set of matching bottles to standardize the lids (more on this notion coming up in the next section!)—this solution might even have been aesthetically pleasing enough for me to keep long term.

A plain box can always be covered in attractive paper, after all, and one can get crafty with some decoupage.

While an environmental win and very economical, the same solution was less effective for my non-standard sized flavorings. These were living in a repurposed paperboard shoe box, a little wider and a little shallower from shelf to open top.

Costco sized bulk shakers of spices in open topped box with various jars and tins including short bottles almost hiddenAside from looking plain in mismatched paper, the opaque boxes made it very difficult to find any of the half-height, mini bottles that are a sensible grocery store choice for seasonings one uses rarely.

Spices only remain fresh for about two years, after all, so if one doesn’t go through a full half ounce of marjoram in that amount of time, the frugal cook should stick to smaller packets.

One issue I have with buying some large and some small spice bottles—never mind the little plastic envelopes!—is that I prefer to keep all of my seasonings in alphabetical order. As an inveterate bookworm since childhood, it’s simply the most intuitive system I have for quickly finding particular items in an array.

Attempting to merge alphabetical order with varied packaging sizes and shapes has led to at least one unnecessary purchase of a spice I didn’t actually lack.

The final problem I personally encountered with my cardboard box storage method was the total weight of one carton full of 18 jars—almost 7 pounds.

It’s hardly an herculean effort to lift it, but it can be a bit much for me because of my autoimmune arthritis. Sometimes, cooking a meal consumes all the physical energy I’ve got for a given afternoon. On a bad day, even sliding out and shifting through 18 bottles in one box was too taxing for my limited strength.Box of spices on kitchen scale showing weight of 6 pounds, 15 ounces

Fully able bodied chefs would probably find 12″ × 7″ × 5″ to be a very manageable size for handling spice jars. It was too heavy for me.

Then again, lightweight and maneuverable can save strain on anyone’s delicate joints, and also prevent repetitive use injuries. Many of us who have adapted to disabilities used to be perfectly healthy, too. Designing thoughtful, sensible storage options while young and fit makes aging in place easier later on.

Considering universal design at every stage of life—even in the bloom of life—is never a wasted effort, though I wish every reader as many years of robust good health as possible.

Standardize bottles for tidy storage, perfectly or close enough

I discovered that Amazon has listings for a brand of glass spice bottles that claims to be exactly the ones used by some of the major national brands: SpiceLuxe.

I had already surveyed the commercial spice jars I owned, recognizing my preference for the larger, squared off shape of Simply Organic brand packaging. Smaller, but with a similarly pleasing form, Whole Pantry and Trader Joe’s bottles tied for second place in my heart.

While not identical, I can happily intermix these two sizes within a bin to keep larger and smaller quantities in alphabetical order.

The larger jar is a 6 fluid ounce container which might hold over 4 dry ounces of seasoning salt; the smaller one is a 4 fluid ounce container which would hold closer to 3 oz of a similar salt.

Online reviewers frequently misunderstand the distinction between fluid ounces measuring volume and ounces as a fraction of pounds as a measurement of weight which Americans use for flour, sugar, etc. I strongly suggest reading the linked TheKitchn article before buying any containers if you don’t understand the difference lest you end up frustrated by what you get.

All of my supermarket glass bottles came with different colored lids, and each has an annoying raised ring embossed into the top of said lid.

I prefer to affix labels to the tops of my bottles to find them easily while protecting the glass from light inside a bin. The bumps on the supermarket lids therefore cause a practical hassle, not merely an aesthetic one.Spice jar tops with raised ring on green Simply Organic lid, silver Whole Pantry lid, and black plastic Trader Joe's lid

Fortunately, the sets of bottles offered on Amazon come with a choice of lids. They are marketed by color, but both the product listing photos and user review images show that most of the offerings have flat-topped lids. Sadly, my first choice for color, metallic green, was the only option that had those darn ridged rings.

To repackage all of my spices, I ordered one set of 12 large spice jars with white lids, two sets of small spice jars with white lids, and one package of 12 extra white lids.

The product listing for these aftermarket lids says, “Fits Glass Spice Bottles by SpiceLuxe ONLY,” but I now believe they are exactly the same as the supermarket brands I mentioned. I had no trouble replacing mismatched green metal, silver metal, or black plastic lids from store brand spice jars to new SpiceLuxe bottles, nor SpiceLuxe lids to most of my supermarket bottles.

Priced at $29.99 for a dozen with free Amazon Prime shipping, that works out to $2.50 per spice jar. The set of 12 lids alone was $9.99.

Alternatively, order direct from the SpiceLuxe site at the same or slightly lower prices, though I did not try this option to offer a review.

Every order of SpiceLuxe bottles includes a flexible funnel, a set of internal “shaker” lids sufficient to add one to every jar, and free labels listing the most common spices.

The funnel may be silicone; it was not separately packaged or labeled inside my shipping box, and, as a “free gift,” there were no details in the product description.

This funnel is useful for filling jars, but I prefer the metal one(s) I already had. There’s less static with a metal funnel than with the included flexible one.

Then again, I didn’t want to mix spices, potentially ruining a whole jar via cross contamination, so having more than one funnel meant I could fill a few bottles at a time between dishwasher runs. I would have been hand washing that funnel many times—then impatiently waiting for it to dry completely to avoid ruining powdery spices before re-use—if I hadn’t gotten the freebie funnel with each set.Funnels designed for filling flasks or oil jars are well sized to refill seasoning bottles

Now that my spice jars have all been replaced, I will probably donate two of the three free, flexible funnels in my next batch of outgrown clothes and housewares sent to a local charity.

Personally, I pry off and toss away the internal sifting lids from all of my spices. Taking them off to stick a measuring spoon inside followed by replacing the inner lid annoys me too much. If I want to sift a spice, I pour a small amount into the jar’s lid then tap the product out to simulate sifting.

Or I use a mini strainer on those rare occasions that I really, truly require a sifted seasoning.sifting powdered sugar into small bowl with handheld stainless sieve

The final freebie—the sheets pre-printed labels with spice names—appears designed to adhere to the front or side of each jar, not to its lid according to SpiceLuxe’s own marketing photos. My only requirement for labeling was an aesthetically pleasing, round, legible one on each cap.

The 1 ¼″ label size might fit within the bounds of the smooth white caps I chose, but they would be too large for the ridged green lid option. You would need a 1″ round label to ensure it works on every possible SpiceLuxe cap or for commercial jars with ridged lids.

I discarded the pre-printed labels which were also repeated in each of the three sets. I didn’t care for the aesthetics of the large, italicized font or their silver color. I also didn’t want to hand write labels for which no pre-printed option was provided, and I prefer the specificity of adding the Latin botanical name to distinguish between, say, common Cassia and true Ceylon Cinnamon.

In order to create my own labels for the lids, I ordered Avery Waterproof 1″ Round Labels (36579) compatible with my laser printer. I used Avery’s web-based label creation software to create and print my labels as well.

Avery Template Presta 94500 worked out perfectly for the tops of both sizes of SpiceLuxe jars.

Self printed Avery waterproof label on SpiceLuxe jar lid

Here’s a PDF copy of my own Avery 94500 size Spice Jar Lid Labels for anyone who would prefer not to work with the template software.

Make sure to print at 100% size if you’re using my PDF or printing labels you design yourself!Clear label with black text reading Better before 2022 applied to glass seasoning bottle

I used my Brother P-Touch Model PT-1400 Label Maker and a black-on-clear TZ Tape cartridge to add best by dates to my new bottles. I didn’t bother to print an exact date for every bottle since spoilage is a lesser concern in this context than gradual degradation of flavor quality.

I batch printed the appropriate quantity of “Better before 202x” tags after sorting and counting the actual seasonings present on my spice shelf.

Bins shade bottles from damaging light

Having bottled my seasonings into a full set of similar containers, I turned to Akro-Mils AkroBins to protect those glass bottles from the sun streaming into my kitchen.

AkroBin 30230 turned out to be the perfect size for my shelf; each 30230 bin will hold two columns of four large or five small SpiceLuxe jars.

Here’s a photo of my finished project:

Wooden bookshelf with 7 AkroBins 30230 holding spice jars and other seasonings

I purchased a set of 12 AkroBin 30230 from Amazon.com in February 2021 for $53.28.

That works out to only $4.44*** per bin. The manufacturer lists multiple retail and wholesale partners on its website if you prefer not to do business with Amazon. Excerpt from Amazon.com invoice for a dozen Akro-Mils 30230 plastic containers sold for $53.28

The lowest price I observed in early June 2021 for any color set of bins from the same source was $61.55 (or $5.13/bin), so it may pay to shop around or wait for a lower price before doing this organizational project.

It must be noted here that the AkroBin 30230 also makes a great organizational solution for an existing array of disparate grocery store spices in their original containers. I really wanted the visual simplicity of a field of similar white lids, but my kitchen would have looked better even if I had only replaced my mismatched paper and cardboard boxes with a set of these bins.

Compare for yourself from these two photos:

Rows and columns of identical—or even just similar—jars are much more appealing to my eye, though the slight variation in heights between the two sizes of SpiceLuxe jar is close enough to please me.

How many SpiceLuxe jars fit in one Akro-bin 30230?

Eight of the larger SpiceLuxe 6 fluid ounce jars will fit in two columns of four rows in an AkroBin 30230.

View from above showing 8 6 fl oz jars in a bin

Up to five rows (10 total spice jars) can occupy the same if at least one bottle per column is the smaller 4 fluid ounce size. The jar at the front end won’t sit completely flush as you can see from the left-most column of the  photo below. One jar will sit slightly raised up where the bin’s interior curves upward.View from above showing ten SpiceLuxe jars in a bin

Three larger jars (6 fl oz) combined with two of the small (4 fl oz) ones is the maximum that fit per column without any wobbling or tipping in this bin. See the right-most column in the photo above.

Once you have created your own set of matching spice bottles, make the switch and refill them by purchasing in bulk or lightweight packets in the future. Shop at a local grocer with bulk bins, or buy online from Thrive Market or Penzey’s.

TL;DR Overview of better spice storage

Spice jars represent one of the few products where many major retailers offer already really excellent, sensible, space-conserving commercial packaging right off the grocer’s shelf. Buying only squared bottles by the same maker could give you a streamlined look in your kitchen with nothing else needed.

If you must buy rare seasonings in mismatched packages—or you already own a hodge-podge like I did—SpiceLuxe brand empty, square-shaped glass jars are available from Amazon. These will let you decant what you have into similar containers with a space-saving form factor.

The same brand, SpiceLuxe, sells sets of lids alone. I had good luck fitting them onto almost every brand’s spice jar that was already in my kitchen.

Use new lids to standardize the tops of your existing grocery store bottles. Simply adding top labels to new lids without disruptive ridges made it easier to find what I need without lifting every spice out of its home in a container on a shelf.

Finally, group your spices into space-efficient, light-blocking plastic bins by Akro-Mils if, like me, you want to protect what’s inside clear glass containers from damaging UV light coming through a nearby window. AkroBin style 30230 will fit from eight to ten spice jars per bin for most grocery store brands.

#10 (number ten) cans are quite large, sealed storage containers that resemble jumbo soup cans… the size of your head! Coffee cans are sometimes this size. Those who’ve worked in food service or gone to summer camp may have seen them in commercial kitchens. I believe that average people should keep at least a few weeks’ worth of shelf stable food on hand to guard against emergencies. When the pandemic hit, I was grateful to have freeze dried fruits, vegetables, and meats, plus dehydrated milk on hand so I didn’t have to visit local stores or vie for scarce delivery slots during the peak shortage of grocery items.

Here’s a screen grab of the shopping cart that gave me those numbersWeck jar shopping cart showing item cost and totals for six jars and lids

* Don’t assume that any of these lids are “air tight” the way a jar processed in a hot water canning bath would be. I can say from experience that the plastic and wood lids seal much more firmly on my Weck jars than the cork ones do. Consider the cork a mere “stopper,” readily lifted away with hardly any force. Since I think cork is meant to “breathe,” I don’t see this as a failing for this type of cover.

** Now defunct, my Bosch SHU66C dishwasher has been replaced by a modern Miele G 7316 SCU model. The Miele’s much narrower spacing between its baskets’ grids of bars has so far kept even small plastic items from reaching the bottom of its stainless steel tub.

“Misuse of the lavatories will be punished” heard on Deutsche Bahn train from Austria

Stuff you don’t want to hear as a visitor on a foreign train:

Misuse of the lavatories will be punished!

img_7012This was heard aboard the Intercity (IC 118) train from Austria to Germany.

Further statements by the conductor made it clear his admonition was regarding violations of the smoking policy on board the train (i.e., No Smoking, not even while hiding in the WC.)

img_1403

Intercity First Class compartment on IC118 train from Austria to Germany in 2018

I will admit that I was a bit nervous before he clarified. One assumes one’s restroom behavior is similar to that of others, but, after all, it isn’t something easily brought up in conversation with one’s compartment mates whose native language and culture differs from one’s own.

Though the finer nuances of European international relations are beyond me, it seemed clear that the German conductor, upon taking over after the border crossing, was speaking specifically to Austrians on board.

I’m guessing he did so because Austria’s national attitude toward public smoking lags so far behind that of most modern states, but it might just be because the Germans are more strict about rule enforcement than the smaller nation sharing its language and a border to the south. Or maybe Germans just have a thing about bossing Austrians around?
As a tourist, I simply followed every rule as carefully as I could and took special care not to get up to any hijinks in the lavatories. One thing I definitely don’t want to experience of another culture is how they punish people on trains!

Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

img_9405

These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.

Books by my bedside 2018/04/18

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books library German Europe - 1

library shelf 2018 April

Non-Fiction

Culture & Geography

The Alps: a human history from Hannibal to Heidi and beyond by O’Shea, Stephen

Austria (juvenile non-fiction) by Sheehan, Sean

Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (juvenile non-fiction) by Needham, Ed

Europe by Eurail 2018 by Ferguson-Kosinski, LaVerne

Germany (juvenile non-fiction) by Coddington, Andrew

Let’s Visit Liechtenstein by Carrick, Noel

Switzerland (juvenile non-fiction) by Rogers Seavey, Lura

The White Stallions: the story of the dancing horses of Lipizza by Van der Linde, Laurel

History

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century (Kindle book) by Graham, Peter

The Orient Express: the history of the Orient Express service from 1883 to 1950 by Burton, Anthony

Language

Pimsleur

Pimsleur German

Pimsleur French I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Memoir

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (Vintage International Kindle edition) by Dinesen, Isak

Plays (Theatre)

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volumes I – IV by Simon, Neil

50 Best Plays of the American Theatre.selected by Barnes, Clive

The Glass Menagerie by Williams, Tennessee

book 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre - 1

Fiction

Heidi by Spyri, Johanna (also film directed by Alain Gsponer)

New Zealand Stories: Mansfield Selections (Kindle book) by Mansfield, Katherine

The Star of Kazan by Ibbotson, Eva

books library Alps Vienna Europe Kazan - 1

Reading Notes:

Rumination on women authors sojourning in strange lands

Though my trip to New Zealand is in the past, I’ve continued to dwell there just a little by reading more of its authors’ works. Specifically, I’ve become enamored with Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Alleyn mysteries, and with the short fiction of Katharine Mansfield.

Both were born in New Zealand, but also spent significant portions of their lives in Britain. I find their work tantalizing as it relates to both the work of women in a different, less egalitarian era, and also for the way it reflects the effects of colonization, sometimes explicitly, but always in the shadows.

The other, the outsider, by sex or by accident of birth. Hmm…

Reading about an infamous murder in Christchurch, New Zealand committed in part by a teenage girl who would grow up to write bestselling mystery novels under a new name, Anne Perry, belongs to this thread, too. She was born in England, but clearly her sojourn in the colony was consequential.

See Peter Jackson’s film, “Heavenly Creatures,” to get the story without cracking a book. Make it a double feature with sweet family film “Her Majesty” and see if you find them as weirdly complementary as I do. Girlhood, good & grim; Christchurch, paradise or perdition?

My mind hitches these works by this insider/outsider woman/writer kind of thinking to the copy of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass that I’ve been reading, s-l-o-w-l-y, for the past couple of months.

It was a “take in small doses and mull it over” read for me; a not-every-night to-lull-me-to-sleep read, but a can’t-sleep carry-me-away type of thing. I was also compelled to research Dinesen online for biographical information from a less biased than herself source when I was done with her memoir.

Though flawed like the rest of us and a product of her age and station as a European aristocrat, she sure strung together some beautiful words. I’ve enjoyed many of her short stories, too. Recommended for those who like some literary with their fiction.

The Alps, the Orient Express, Vienna, and European micro states

It may be a surprise to see a stack of children’s non-fiction books on my library shelf. I could just attribute them to my boys, or the younger son in particular, but they’re really for my edification.

It’s true that I always hope my kids will pick up one of my enthusiasms and/or delve into a similar self-directed unit study of something else, but I find these slim volumes a handy way to grab a quick overview of a place I’ve never been.

This time, the big boy and I were thinking about European micro states, and particularly the several who use German as an official language. It ties in with his studies, and my attention got grabbed. I requested half the books in the library, and in we dove.

Yes, I’ve heard of Wikipedia, but I have a thing about big maps and full color photos on heavyweight gloss. If I don’t have to spread a map out on a table in front of me, it doesn’t delight half as much. Most of my adventures begin with the unfolding of a paper map. Opening a book and flipping through pages of pictures offers me the same kind of thrill.

The Europe by Eurail book made a nice start for trip planning, but that work really is better done online these days, even if you have Luddite tendencies… but only if you also have that all important large map showing major railway lines to help you get your bearings. Maybe you won’t need this if your grasp of European geography is stronger than mine, but I suspect a map will always be vital for me regardless of how well I’ve studied.
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Find up to the minute train information and all the basic “how to’s” for rail riding neophytes on the incredibly helpful and shockingly complete site The Man in Seat 61. Borrow Europe by Eurail from your local library instead and save the $23 for a simpler, lighter weight folding map and a few more cups of espresso.
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Both Rick Steves Europe and Streetwise Europe were well under $10 on Amazon.Though nothing I’m even considering planning approaches the Orient Express for grandeur and romance, I found the history book of the same name wildly inspirational. There may be a night in a modern NightJet sleeper car compartment in my future just because I read this.
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Well, that, and because I love trains…

My favorite bits of this photograph- and fact- filled tome had to do with the preposterous pomposity of Kings Ferdinand and Boris of Bulgaria. Each exercised abused the royal authority by demanding the right to drive the train personally as it passed through his demesne. The latter crazy bastard actually killed someone through his recklessness and arrogance. How, though, does a railway company argue with a hereditary sovereign monarch?
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Another trivial tidbit I liked: that most famous train became embroiled in European politics over and over again as it rolled across so many national boundaries during tumultuous decades.
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The Germans seized the prize plums that were Orient Express carriages during WWI. Restaurant car #2419 served up helpings of crow when the French accepted German surrender therein at Compiègne in 1918, but Hitler made the French do the same in the same car in 1940. He ordered #2419 blown up when it became clear that he would lose his war lest he receive the same treatment.
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Warmongering and atrocities aside, it seems clear today that the Germans also lacked a feeling for foreign tourist marketing when they changed the famous name of the luxurious Orient Express sleepers from “Wagon-Lits” to “Mitteleuropäischeschlafwagengesellschaft.” I speak a little German, and I can’t get my lips to form that mouthful of a compound noun. Eventually, even they saw sense and shortened the name of their stolen cars to “Mitropa.” Phew!
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And, for the record, there is an “Orient Express” service one can take from London to Venice today for ≅£3500 per passenger. A crop of murderous fellows in adjacent compartments not guaranteed.
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Still thinking historically, the family friendly audiobook, The Star of Kazan, should inspire any reader/listener to wish to visit Vienna, Austria. Set around 1900, the young heroine and her friends do some international traveling by train, but certainly not enjoying a standard such as the Orient Express came to offer. I wasn’t tempted to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to see the famous Lippitzaner stallions until I got into this story with my little guy.

And, when speaking now of Austria, how can one avoid pondering The Alps?.Though one could be forgiven for never having heard of the book by the same name. O’Shea’s cultural history/travel narrative is an easy to read, enjoyable road trip through a series of the storied mountain range’s high passes.

I haven’t finished sharing this journey with O’Shea yet, but here’s the best bit so far: Musée de l’horlogerie et du décolletage. I and my infinitesimal iota of French translated it just like he did, but, if you want to know what it means without reading his book, you’ll have to ask me in the comments!

If we’re in the Alps, how can we fail to recall the classic by Joanna Spyri, Heidi. While I didn’t re-read it this month and he’s a bit old for it, I made DS1 acquaint himself with the book. I can’t imagine a childhood without it. As a family, we watched a lovely modern (2015) film adaptation available to us in the USA in its native German. Don’t worry: there are English subtitles, and I think its offered dubbed as well.

It was awesome, though, for a chance to hear some spoken Swiss German. Even a beginning level student of the language like me could recognize obvious differences between Swiss and Standard or Hoch German.
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The live action film was a lot closer to the charming original narrative than the Hanna Barbera animated version, “Heidi’s Song,” that came out when I was a little girl.
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Preparing to host a theatrical reading at home

Now we’ll skip from the cinema to the theatre. I’ve spent a huge amount of time since I finished preparing and filing my taxes reading plays.
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Why, you ask?
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I’m planning to host a party or two.
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While it’s not even unusual for me to jump up and grab a book from the shelves to entertain a guest with something I find fascinating, this time, I’m inviting them over on notice: we’re going to read a play. Yes, all of us. Together!
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But which one? Approaching a script as an evening’s pastime for a group forces me to evaluate it differently. I’m sure it’s a wonderful mental exercise, but it has been time consuming.
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I’ve attended a few of these events hosted by friends, but never with my husband. He’s mildly horrified, but a good sport. He doubts everyone will share my enthusiasm. Pooh-pooh! I think if there is wine, and perhaps cake, people won’t mind participating.
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This started out as an idea for a home school assignment for DS1, and I’m working on that teen-oriented gathering, too. But, it quickly became apparent that I should also schedule a more mature work to read with my own favorite grown up friends. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?
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I had a few friends over for a short notice “Ladies’ Lit” night just yesterday, and one person opted to bring an excerpt from Lysistrata to share. I loved it. Perhaps I also over-acted a bit more than the others. It has been far too long since I’ve gotten enough attention on the stage! I did receive a hostess gift of these beautiful flowers, granting me a moment of rêverie for my youth in the spotlight.
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Even this mere taste was every bit as much fun as I thought it would be. Also, now, at least those lucky participants are forewarned as to what to expect next time I send an invitation.