Embracing Butter

Author Archive for Talya

Let’s talk about Berliners

Berlin

Berliners. They’re an interesting breed. I’ve lived here for seven years now,and I still can’t figure them out. They can drive you insane some days, but then they can turn around and surprise you on others.

So what are Berliners like? They’re direct. They’re a bit rough. They’re bossy. They lack grace and joie de vivre. At their worst, they’re brash control freaks who bump into you on the streets because they don’t look where they are going (although here in Berlin it’s your job to stay out of their way). At their best, they’re efficient get-it-doners pay attention to detail and who make sure things are done right (which is why I love the medical field here, for example). But kind, relaxed, and friendly they are not.

To be fair, it’s not entirely their fault that they are the way they are. This is Northern Europe – we’re actually further north than London. In this part of the world winter can last a good half of the year or more. And by winter, I mean days that darken around 4 p.m. and in which grey skys with rain or snow prevail.

At the very least, the majority of the population is likely Vitamin D deficient – the stuff isn’t added to milk here, six months of winter means six months of too little warm rays. And it’s common knowledge now that too little sunlight/Vitamin D leads to depression. So really, how happy can you be long-term in a place without enough sunlight? Not very happy. And it’s no wonder there are so many grumps here.

Beyond the weather, look at the history of this area. As my father pointed out ages ago (in response to one of my rants about how difficult Berliners can be), this part of Germany was Prussia. And the Prussians were bred and raised to be warriors. Apparently they were good at it, and if you’re familiar with military types, you’ll see a bit of soldier in many Berliners. I was both a military brat and married to a US Marine, so I know the characteristics and I see it here quite often. At times I swear people here are marching rather than walking.

Beyond the Prussian-era, Germany has two long and rough world wars under its belt which decimated country economically, culturally, and spiritually. Then slap a few decade of part of the country living behind the Iron Curtain with a wall dividing its capitol, and WOW – you have a lot of years of heavy. And the burden of history does take a toll on a population. 

Add it all up and it’s a bit easier to understand how the general population here in Berlin is not the most carefree of people. Of course there are exceptions – there always are – but in general this is not the lightest of crowds. As a happy-people-loving Southern girl who loves sun and living as carefree as possible, I have to ask myself some days what I am doing here and now much longer I can stay. But that, my friends, is a topic for another day. ;)

For anyone reading this, I’m curious to know what your experience with Berliners has been. Are Berliners as tough as I make them out to be? Am I exaggerating? On point? Do tell!

Last week’s cake: Rhubarb Streusel

Rhubarb cake edited

 

Despite the fact that I’ve been baking for the better part of thirty years (yes, I am that old!), there a few things baking related that intimidate me. These include, but aren’t limited to, because I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, the following: Italian buttercream, meringue (made it successfully but avoid it like the plague), choux pastry, and anything with rhubarb in it. Yes, rhubarb has, up until a few days ago, always been an ingredient I feared.

In my mind, rhubarb has always been something of an exotic ingredient, only used by the most seasoned of bakers and therefore not something I should dare mess with. Silly thinking of course, but hey, we all have our quirks.

Since I grew up primarily in the South, I’ve always been most comfortable baking with ingrients, recipes, and techniques used in the South. Think lots of sugar, butter, the occassional bottle of red food color, pecans, cream cheese, sweet potaotes, etc., etc. Basically, if one of my grandmothers or friends made it, I was certain I could too. But that rhubarb neighbor was part of another baking world (I’d seen it baked with by a neighbor during our family’s short sting in Seattle when I was a kid) so I just wasn’t comfortable with it.

But all that changed last week, when I decided it was time to face the fear of the ingredient that looks like pink celery.  And it was high time, as rhubard grows in abundance in Germany. It’s easy to find, fresh, local, and cheap. Yet it still took me nearly seven years of living in Berlin to make the jump! Again – silly, but oh well.

Germans make great rhubarb cakes, and this time of year you see plenty of them at bakeries, cafés, and any sort of school potluck or social outing. So that was always my excuse actually – the Berliners have rhubarb baking down pat, so why bother using it myself? Well, this year enough was enough so I found a great recipe on Pinterest from The Busy Baker.

As it turns out (see photo above for proof!), the rhubarb is super simple to bake with, and the cake turned out delicious. Moist, sweet, tangy, and nicely browned because I baked it in my cast iron skillet rather than the cake pan the recipe calls for. So if you aren’t afraid of rhubarb, or if you are and you’re ready to get past it, I’ve coped the recipe for you below.

Try it out and let me know how it goes!

 

Rhubarb Stresuel Cake

You’ll need:

For the cake:

1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sour cream (full fat is best)
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1 tbsp unsalted butter (for greasing the cake pan)
2 1/2 cups chopped fresh rhubarb

For the streusel topping:

2/3 cup all purpose flour
2/3 cup white sugar
4 tbsp melted butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 175 Celsus)

Wash 3-4 stalks of rhubarb and chop them into bite sized pieces (you’ll need about 2 and a half cups of chopped rhubarb to cover the cake.). Set them aside in a bowl while you prepare the cake batter.

Add the butter and the sugar to the bowl of your stand mixer and beat them together until the mixture is fluffy and becomes a pale colour (about 4-5 minutes). It’s important that the butter is at room temperature before you begin. This will allow it to integrate properly with the other wet ingredients.
Feel free to use a hand mixer if you prefer.

Add the eggs and the vanilla and beat them in on medium speed until the mixture is smooth. It’s a good idea to scrape down the bowl periodically to make sure everything is incorporated evenly.

Add the milk and sour cream and beat in these ingredients on low speed until they’re combined.

To a separate bowl add the flour, the baking powder and the salt and mix these ingredients together with a fork or a wire whisk. Once they’re all incorporated, dump the flour mixture into the bowl of the stand mixer with the wet ingredients. Turn the mixer on low and watch the batter come together. As soon as you see the batter form with streaks of flour throughout, turn off the mixer and remove the bowl.

Over-mixing at this stage can cause an overly dense and dry cake with large air bubbles, which
you definitely don’t want. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides
of the bowl by hand and gently fold in the remaining flour. Be sure to
stop folding as soon as everything is combined.

Grease a 9×13 rectangular cake pan with some butter and pour the batter into the pan, using the spatula to push the batter into the corners and even out the surface. Don’t worry, the batter will seem thick but it’s supposed to be like that. You can also use an iron skillet. I sprinkled sugar on top of the butter instead of flower for some extra sweetness.

Spread the rhubarb over the top of the batter.

In a clean bowl mix together the flour, sugar and cinnamon for the streusel topping.  Add in the melted butter and mix everything together with a fork until the mixture becomes crumbly.

Bake the cake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 47-50 minutes. When it’s finished baking the topping will be slightly browned on top, the rhubarb will be bubbly, and when you insert a toothpick into the centre of the cake it will come out clean.

Let cake stand for at least 20 minutes before cutting, and ENJOY!

Fun food outing: Eat-the-World tour Neukölln

bakery sign edited

It’s no secret that I love food. And I love exploring new places almost as much as I love food. So when the folks at Eat-the-World invited me to bring a friend to join one of their tours through the Neukölln district of Berlin, of course I said yes. Eat-the-World gives food tours throughout Germany, and here in Berlin they have tours through seven of the city’s districts.

I’ll be honest with you - Neukölln has never been my favorite part of town. In fact, I like it about as much as I like Kreuzberg, which is not at all. However, my sister just moved to that part of town, and I can’t say no to a food offer, so I dragged her along with me.  I was so excited about the tour invitation that I even told my local café owner all about it while stopping by for my morning Cappuccino. He wasn’t as excited about it was I was, but regardless. The chance to eat my way through a part of Berlin had me pretty thrilled.

And I was not disappointed. The day ended up being a long and lovely afternoon of walking (lots of it!), history (you will know all about Neukölln after this tour), and food (we stopped at 7 different places, sampling food at each stop!). I can’t tell you each and every stop we made, but I will tell you about a few of my favorites.

Zuckerbaby

Zuckerbaby is a cozy, cute café owned and operated by two American/German sisters, who focus on the combining tasty treats – both savory and sweet – from Germany and the US. We got to sample their Lemon Gugelhupf cake, which was a miniature version of the traditional German bundt cake. It was light, lemony, and moist, which we loved (German cakes can be dry so this one may have been more of an American recipe baked in the German shape).  According to Jill and Tanya, the owners, weekends are the best time to visit their place, as they have a larger cake assortment. So will we be checking that out? We most certainly will be.

Kønigliche Backstube

The second stop on the tour was a bakery I’d heard of but had never visited before. The Koenigliche Backstube is an artisan bakery with a limited but delicious menu of organice breads and pastries. Everything here is baked the Old World style – meaning with a sour dough starter instead of yeast. The place smelled amazing, and we sampled their baguette and a walnut bread. Both were delicious, and had we not had such a long trip back home and more stops to make, I’d have bought and taken home some of the baguette and the orange cookies they had for sale too.

Prachtwerk

This was my abolutely most favorite place on the tour. Prachtwerk is another well-known Berlin establishment that I’d been curious about for some time. And with good reason. While there are some famous Berlin places that you visit and end up disappointed by (seriously – some places are just dives and you wonder why they are popular), this is not one of them. Prachtwerk has it all: a bar, delicious baked treats, style, a stage for open-mic nights, great atmosphere, and friendly service. We tried the Carrot Cake and the Cheesecake, and I can’t wait to go back and sample their cookies and their Coffee Martini. An added bonus is that the café is located next to the Statdbad Neukölln, so can swim in a stately, turn-of-the-century pool and refresh afterwards with coffee and dessert. So yes, we’ll be going back there too!

In all, the Eat-the-World a tour I would go on again. It’s something you can do that is off the very beaten Berlin track, you learn a lot about the city by a local (our tour guide is an opera singer originally from Berlin who seems to know the city like the back of her hand), and you walk so much that you burn off a good deal of what you eat on the tour. Which I think is a very good thing. So highly recommended if you’re new to Berlin, visiting Berlin, or you’re like me and have lived here for a while and need a breath of fresh air and to visit a new part of town.

My sis, our tour guide, and me

My sis, our tour guide, and me

The only thing we didn’t love was that we weren’t stuffed by the time the tour was over. Mind you, we certainly weren’t starving, and everyone else on the tour seemed to be full. But in my somewhat gluttonous world, by the end of a food tour you should be rolling, not walking away. ;)

p.s. If you’re a food lover like we are and would like to try out Berlin on foot with lots of munchies, go sign up for one of the Eat-the-World tours.

 

Cake of the week: Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake

Sundays are almost always cake baking days in my world. Except during Lent, which has – thankfully – ended with today’s Easter celebration. Which wasn’t much of a celebration this year, as I woke up with a stiff neck and a UTI (too much information, I know … but as I said before, I like to keep it real here), so instead of taking my kids happily to church to celebrate the Resurrection, I ended up in the emergency room to get antiobotics and subsequently spend the day catching up on movies I’d missed over the last decade.

But back to the cake! This week’s Easter cake was a cheesecake – or cheesecake cupcakes, to be exact. I found the recipe on Pinterest weeks ago. Since I’d given up cake for Lent, I could not wait to make – or eat – these tasty treats. Which means I sort of cheated by baking them the night before and eating the first one the same night as well. I’m pretty sure it was midnight by the time I got around to taste-testing these, which means that technically it was Easter Sunday and I was in the green zone.

Regardless of whether I was “allowed” to eat cake again or not, these little lemony cakes were delicious. Lemon curd is part of the recipe, and as I’m cheap and love any excuse to make fresh lemon curd, I made it myself earlier in the day, using another recipe found on Pinterest. The lemon curd turned out pretty delicious and was worth the extra time it takes to make it. I listened to their advice to use a hand blender to puree the curd rather than straining it. This resulted in a sort of fluffy curd, which was very tasty and easier than straining. What I didn’t love so much was that the mixing lightened the color, so that lovely yellow curd color ended up a very pale yellow. But the taste and texture tasted divine.

The cheesecakes themselves were delicious as well and worth making if you like lemon. I’m not sure that ricotta cheese was necessary, either in the recipe or the title, as I couldn’t really taste a difference between regular cheesecake made from cream cheese, and this one with cream cheese and ricotta. In any case, they turned out yummy. The cheesecake had a nice, light lemon vanilla flavor, the crust was sweet, and the curd on top added a great tangy pop of lemon too. (As a side note, you can’t easily find graham crackers here, so I use the German “Butterkeks” instead, and that works fine for crusts).

I’m embarrased to admit how many of these little sweets I have eaten since making them last night, but I’m certain it was more than cheesecake than anyone should eat in a 24-hour period. But hey, I went about 40 days without cake, so I think a big cheesecake splurge was in order. ;)

This week’s cake creation: Rustic Chocolate Cake

Rustic Chocolate Cake

(This photo is not mine – it’s from the blog where this recipe is originally found, Eat Drink Binge

One of my secret talents is being able to look at a cake recipe and know before baking whether it’s going to be a good one. Only rarely am I wrong, and I can generally tell by the ingredients and how they are listed. Call it sixth sense, call it random, but I like that I can tell if a cake will be good – because really, who has time to bake a bad cake? I certainly don’t.

This cake was no exception. It turned out perfectly – the layers didn’t fall apart. The Whipped Chocolate Ganache frosting actually did, to my surprise – turn out to be a thick, mousse-like frosting that held the layers together perfectly. And the remaining darker ganache draped across the top of the cake lusciously.

It looked like a masterpiece and tasted the same. It was a perfect chocolatey that was sweet but not so sweet that it will kill you. And pretty, but in a slightly messy, naked-cake kind of way. My kind of pretty, that is. I veered away from the recipe only a bit, by making fat chocolate curls to put on top of the cake instead of shards the recipe calls for. I also refrigerated the Whipped Ganache Frosting a bit longer than the thirty minutes recommend in the recipe. It just wasn’t ready sooner. Remember that recipes can be tweaked – good bakers know when to flex a bit to make sure the result is just right.

So if you’re looking for a yummy chocolate cake that’s a crowd-pleaser and fairly fool-proof, this is a good one. It will cure and chocolate craving and give you the satisfaction creating something beautiful with just a couple hours of work. And while I generally like to focus solely on baking when I bake, this one got baked while I was Face-timing with family back in the US, managing my three kids, and chatting with friends online.

You can find the recipe here, so go for it!

 

Why Women Should Date Like Men

Hot guy

I work with singles through my budding matchmaking and dating events business. I’ve got loads of single friends. I am also single myself at the moment. Which means I spend more time than I like to admit digging into the topics of dating and relationships. One can learn about breaking up without breaking down, getting the girl, making “any man want you,” and everything in between. While there is a lot of good advice out there for both men and women, I’ve noticed some things that seem to be missing.

For one, men could stand to be taught how to keep a great woman once they manage to attract one. There are all kinds of articles and YouTube videos teaching guys how to attract a woman, how to get her interested, and how to keep her on her toes. But when it comes to actually maintaining and building a healthy relationship that will last, things seem to get a little quiet. So stay tuned for this topic to be covered another day.

I also don’t often see women encouraged to date more like men. Yes, I said that we ladies should date more like the boys when it comes to relationships. And that’s today’s topic. I’m not saying that we should be more masculine. No way. Women should be women. I’m also not saying that men get it all right. They don’t. But men tend to go about the romantic world much more relaxed than we do, and we can learn from them.

There is one simple thing I’ve noticed that men do differently than (most) women when it comes to relationships. They put themselves first. No, it isn’t rocket science. But it’s a simple mindset difference that I believe keeps men more grounded when it comes to dating. Men – and I’m talking about confident, masculine men – will not let the woman in their life completely rule their life. And women – well, some of us get it right and focus on #1 first. However, more often than not I see women put themselves and their lives on the back burner as soon as an eligible and interest bachelor enters the picture. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and it is draining and simply doesn’t work.

This plays out in a couple of different ways. First, guys tend to pursue serious romantic relationships only when the other areas of their lives are in order. And it makes sense. It’s hard to focus on building a relationship with someone if you have major life issues to take care of (again, I’m guilty of this as well). It’s also not as fun getting to know a new person if you’re stressed with other areas of your life being out of whack. Your life doesn’t have to be perfect, but if you have any major things – health, family, financial – issues getting in the way, then try to tackle those first before embarking on your mission to finding a partner. Trust me, the results will by far be better.

Secondly, confident men don’t let their woman become the center of the universe. Take notes on this one – it’s even more important than having all your ducks in a row. Think about it – do you think the guy you’re dating, or maybe the last guy you dated – spent anywhere near as much time as you did thinking about, talking, and maybe even crying about you as you did him? I don’t think so! Men keep it cool – partly because it’s their nature, and partly because it just makes sense to not give another person in your life power to control your happiness. We women should do this to, but so often we let our emotions take complete control over us and our love interest takes center stage of our lives.

So my advice is to keep it light, have fun, focus on yourself above the guy. And for God’s sake – if you don’t have your sh** together, get it together! You’ll be more fulfilled, calm, and fun. All of which are qualities that will up your value on the dating market and make you that much more of a catch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lemon Velvet (Birthday) Cake

Lemon Velvet Cake

We celebrated my oldest son’s birthday this past weekend. And luckily, unlike last year’s birthday, this year’s party was a lot of fun. Last year, the celebration was largely ruined by a wild child friend of my son’s named Franz who’s antics wore me out for the entire rest of the evening after the party. To be fair, the kids all had a good time last year – but the other mom who was with me and myself were wiped beyond belief and hoarse after yelling at the wild Austrian-German kid who wouldn’t listen to anything we said.

This year we did not invite Franz, and we all had a great time. My son had three friends over – one American, one American/German, and a German kid. We had cake, went bowling, had dinner, then played at the park (well – they played at the park, while I got showered and dressed to go out – yes, mother-of-the-year, I know!). All in all, it was a fun time. Happy kids, happy birthday boy, and happy parents.

And like every birthday in our family, cake was the center of the celebration. Somehow last year he ended up with two cakes (one amazingly wonderful lemon cake made by my daughter and The Austrian (yes, that one – the ex whom I am still crazy about), and another Oreo cake. Both were beautiful and delicious.

This year was no different. He got two birthday cakes (although this year I was my daughter’s baking buddy). They were Red Velvet Cupcakes (not pictured) and Lemon Velvet Cake (in the photo above). Yes, velvet was the theme, and both were delicious. It was a flavorful, dense cake that we filled with the leftover Cream Cheese Frosting from the cupcakes, and topped with a glaze and strawberries as a garnish.

And yes – with two cakes, we were all pretty sugared out by the end of the weekend. But wow, they were yummy. And my ten-year old was a happy kid. So if you need a good birthday cake recipe, do give the Lemon Velvet Cake a try. It’s a good one. And good cake makes for a good birthday in our world.

Dating with kids (never a dull moment)

love picture

When I jumped – for better or for worse – back into the world of dating after nearly a decade of marriage, I realized two things quite quickly. One, that the players had changed. A lot. Meaning that the boys I’d dated before becoming a wife in my early twenties were no longer the boys I was used to. Those boys had grown up and were now MEN. Which meant this was an entirely different ballgame than the one I was used to playing. And there were new a few new rules to learn. There was a bit of a learning curve there, but thanks to good dating advice out there, this wasn’t too big a hurdle to jump over.

The second big challenge change in dating after divorce was that this go-around, there were new players who were part of the game. Namely, my three children. That’s right – this once single-no-kids woman had turned into a single-with-kids team of four – myself, my daughter, and my two boys. Meaning that anyone I date not only dates me, but in a way, my three no-so-little tikes as well. That’s right – men who date women with children not only have to woo the woman, but they have to charm the kiddos involved as well. It is not for the faint of heart.

And it goes the other way around. As a woman with children, I not only have to make sure that I bring my best to the table, but I have to make sure that my entire “team” is presentable. No self-respecting man wants to be a part of a chaotic circus act of a family. So essentially, I have to make myself attractive, and since my kids are part of the package – they have to be “attractive” as well. Or at least not repelling to eligible would-be suitors. As one of my sisters once said, “Make sure your children are assets, and not liabilities.” She was right. Your children should make potential suitors want to be part of the picture, not run away in fear.

Sound exhausting? It is. There are babysitters to organise (and pay), and getting yourself ready for a date while getting kids ready for an evening with a sitter can have you harried. At times you may even have to answer to your kids. Trust me, answering to your pre-teen daughter about who you are out with and why you got home so late last night is more difficult than any parental inquiry you had as a teenager! You will also get uncensored opinions on the men in your life from your children, which can be both funny – like the time my daughter posted on Twitter about my ex buying me flowers for my birthday – and insightful. Kids often have a sense for situations and people and wisdom beyond their years. Their vibe radar is good, so do hear them out – they may pick up on things that you are less sensitive to.

Despite the extra work that comes along with dating as a single parent, it is also fun. And believe it or not, there are some perks. For one, having kids tends to weed out the slackers and players (generally, not always!). Remember – guys dating women with kids are also dating the kids in a way. Not everyone can handle this, especially in today’s world of extended adolescence among adults. So men who put in time and effort to get the know your kids and you are worth keeping around. And if you’re dating a guy who not only works to get to know your kids, but puts effort in impressing them as well? As long as it’s genuine, my dear – you may have a keeper on your hands.

Another plus that comes with dating as a parent with young kids is that you’re busy. Maybe even very busy. Which keeps you interesting – you’ve got more going on than the other single ladies, and this can be a factor that for a lot of men makes you stand out. This busy also makes you less likely to obsess over a guy. Of course, we all have our moments of irrational female behavior. But in general, as a parent with kids you have a lot less time to obsess over the man in your life (although let me be real – I have been known to obsess about the love interest in my life at time or two). But between work, children, and taking care of yourself, as a single parent who is dating, it is difficult for a man to become the center of your universe. And that’s a good thing!

 

Barcelona!

Barcelona street

Ahhh, lovely Barcelona. How I adore you. I first visited the Catalan capitol back when I was 21 years old. Yes. I was a cute little blonde baby when I first visited and fell in love with the city … I’d been working in south Germany at the time and needed a break from the staunch Deutsch and bad weather. Visiting a girlfriend in sunny Spain seemed to be the perfect thing to do. And indeed it was! That summer I fell in love with the city (I may or may not have fallen in love with a French actor at the theater festival that summer as well … ) …

Barcelona Port

… And that love (for the city, not the silly French actor boy) was the reason I had to go back and see if it still held the same magic for me as it did back then. You know we humans work – we tend to glorify and magnify things of the past – former lovers, homes we used to live in, places we’ve visited. I had to see if I’d done this with Barcelona or if it was in fact that amazing – yet understated – a place.

Back then, at age twenty-one, I’d taken a train from Germany, through the south of France, all the way to Spain. It was a long and hot but beautiful and fun summer trip. This time, with children and a job and much less time than back then, I took a flight instead (which I crazily almost canceled out of fear of flying, but more on my crazy phobia another day … )

Barcelona bakery

Essentially, I had to go back to see if the city really did still captivate me. I’d tried to escape there for a weekend back in 2012, but that trip was apparently not meant to be, as the flight was canceled an hour before it should have left Berlin. But no canceled flight this time. Two and a half hours in a plane and I was there. Back in what I remembered as one of my favorite cities.

And did it disappoint? No, it did not. Barcelona has the same feeling about it as it did then. That and maybe a few more tourists. But the interesting thing about this trip, is that now that I am older and (hopefully) wiser, I could finally articulate why I like it so much. It isn’t just a feeing any more as it was before.

Place Royal

 So why do I love this city, you may ask? Well, because it’s beautiful but messy. Chaotic but calm. Relaxed and easy-going, yet somehow productive at the same time. In fact, when I describe the city, in a way I am describing myself and that is probably why I feel so at peace there. And unlike many other pristine European cities, Barcelona has a rugged charm that is hard not to love

Talya Sagrada

 While other cities are nice to visit as one would a museum, Barcelona is a place you come to LIVE … To eat, drink, dance, enjoy, and bask in the sun by a gorgeous blue sea (as long as it’s not cloudy, that is). And that, my friends, is why this place is in my world, second-to-none (and why I CAN’T WAIT to bring my children back with me in the summer so that they can enjoy it as well!).

Making life beautiful (even in the midst of chaos)

Life is Beautiful Rose Vienna small

“She couldn’t go back and make the details pretty, she could only move forward and make the whole beautiful.” ~ Terri St. Cloud

That line is essentially how I feel about my life summed up in one sentence. Like most of us, I had a less than perfect upbringing – in fact, I grew up in what I would call a pretty dysfunctional family (sorry to my parents if you’re reading this – I know you didn’t do it on purpose!). Of course it wasn’t all bad, but in general the dynamics in my family were pretty much a big hot mess. Maybe I’ll delve into details another time, but for now rest assured that while at first glance I may seem to be an all-American girl who grew up in a field of country flowers without a care in the world, I most certainly did not.

And like many of us, when I grew up, married, and had a family of my own – I repeated many of the same patterns, bringing the same mess into my adult life and passing it along to the next generation. In short, I married a younger, more Southern and less-educated version of my dad. Which, as with my formative years, wasn’t all bad, but it most certainly left a lot to be desired. So much that three babies and roughly a decade later, I ended the marriage – not only because I wanted to spend the rest of my life happy and sane, but also because I wanted to break the cycle of mess that would have been passed down to my children had I stayed in that relationship.

If you’ve read or even just skimmed this tiny little budding blog, you may have gleaned that my divorce ended up in an even more chaotic mess than most do. In fact, it was a total disaster which resulted in over two years of legal fights, multiple thousands of dollars and Euros being spent, and costing me a good three years of mine and the kids’ lives as well as the delicate skin around my eyes (I swear the crows feet I now have were not here pre-court drama). Yes, cycle-breaking has its price, and it ain’t cheap.

Now that the dust had settled on the past few years of chaos and as I approach that much-feared age 40, I’m reflecting on my life as a whole. And since making this year’s single resolution of wanting more happy days than sad, I’ve found myself more introspective than ever before in up to now. In fact, it’s safe to say I’ve never been introspective, as I am much more of a doer than a thinker, but these days I am. Thinking about where to go, what I want, who I am, and how to make my life – and the life surrounding my children – the best possible for the next however many years.

So how am I doing this? Good question! I’m still on the journey of course. I’m no beauty-happiness-successful liver-of-life expert, and I am certainly not one of the many mindfulness gurus out there. But having gone through what I’ve gone through the last few years has taught my a little bit about resilience and how to pick yourself back up after a fall.

I love a good list, so here you go:

  • Time Alone – you need time alone to rest and recharge on a regular basis. On a practical level, this means regular alone time – I spend a weekly evening out by myself (either at the sauna, shopping, or watching a movie). And with kids this takes planning and money (babysitter), but it is so worth it and a must to stay sane and happy. At a deeper level, ‘time alone’ for me personally right now also means a break from dating, so that I can regroup and focus on myself. Easy? Not really, because I love attention from men. Worth it and part of making my life beautiful? Absolutely!
  • Looking at Reality – getting REAL about where you are is important, especially if you want to move forward. It can be painful, but being honest with yourself about where you are emotionally, financially, professionally, and in any other way helps you see what is working and what is not. If you want to make life beautiful, you have to accept where you are currently so that you can appreciate how far you’ve come, enjoy the now, as well as look towards the future.
  • Cleaning House – Once you’ve taken off the rose-colored glasses and know where you are, it’s time to get to work. No one said making life grand was easy – and there can be blood, sweat and tears involved. In my life right now, I’m fixing my finances (AKA, paying off the last of the hefty court fees incurred during the 2+ years of custody court, increasing my monthly income and getting out of debt). I’m also getting fitter – running almost daily now so that I am physically and mentally strong after the last several months of lazy. So for me, cleaning house means shaping up the money side of my life and my body, for you cleaning house may mean something different. We know the areas we need to work on – and as challenging as it might be to get started, it’s worth the effort. My only word of caution is to take it easy – depending on the amount of “cleaning” required if your life, this might take time. Please do not beat yourself up if things aren’t fixed immediately. Beauty takes time!
  • Dreaming – We all know that you can’t live without hope. And I connect hope and faith with dreaming. But somehow the older and more beat-up by life we become, it’s easy to forget that dreaming is an essential part of living a great life. Or at least should be. Right? Of course right. Lately I’ve been digging deep to tap back into the dreams I had back when I was younger – yes, tapping back into my 20-year-old self to see what dreams I wanted back then that have come to life (some have!), and which are still there and should be resurrected. Of course, some dreams aren’t meant to be and that’s fine – but it’s important to at least ask yourself, what is it that you want to be, or do, or create? If you haven’t asked these questions in some time, do it!
  • Go easier on yourself (and others!) – I’m laid back on the outside – but those who know me well (my girlfriends, my children, my exes, my mom), know that I can be a control freak and more demanding than my calm exterior belies. The idea of self-love and self-compassion used to be foreign to me. I grew up in Protestant-land, where you worked hard, tried not to “sin,” served others, and essentially weren’t a good person unless you were a martyr. But love yourself? No – only self-centered heathens and maybe Catholics live that way. Really. But I recently read an article (or maybe saw a video, not sure of the source) saying that if Jesus urged us to “Love your neighbor as your yourself,” well – if you don’t love yourself, it’s pretty simple – you won’t be able to love others. The idea hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks, and I realised that if I don’t love and care for myself, there is NO WAY I can love the people in my life. Doesn’t matter if those people are my children, my neighbours, friends, or lovers – until I love me – they won’t benefit from knowing a woman who can love them well. (More on this in a book called The Gifts of Imperfection, for anyone interested – great read from a woman who has been there).
  • Bring beauty into daily life - There are a flowers (I now by them weekly and they adorn our table – tulips are currently in bloom), almost daily time at my favorite café (thankfully I live in Europe, the land of cafés, and I work from home so I can enjoy this little luxury). Regular time with my kids (no matter how busy we get we do dinner together almost every single night), and we have special weekend routines that bring so much joy. Beauty is of course many things to many people, so whatever beautiful things – or rituals – make you happy, by all means bring them into your life. Even if they might seem a tiny bit silly. That’s ok! My silly beautiful thing right now is a gorgeous ivory tulle skirt. It’s pretty much a tutu for grown-ups, and my pre-teen daughter makes fun of me for it, but tulle is not just for tiny ballerinas and Sex and the City characters, so once it’s warmer I will wear it. :)

So that’s it from me for the moment … I would LOVE to hear from others – how do you make life beautiful? Please tell us in the comments section below. Don’t be shy!