Friday, October 31, 2008

What have I gotten myself into?

There is an explanation for this, but I don't know how much it has to do with living in Germany. It might have more to do with me having a bit of extra time on my hands and being determined to conquer domesticity!

It's the time of year when we all start thinking about soup. The leaves are falling, the air is brisk, we come inside with cold noses and cold hands. Nothing sounds better than pulling up to the table for a bowl of fragrant steamy soup and a thick slice of fresh bread! Mmmm!

So, I've been pulling out my recipes and headed to the store this morning. Just one problem- I couldn't find broth! Soups have to start with that, there's just no way around it. As I was strolling past the freezer section, I happened to notice a sign that said soup chickens. I thought, "Well, they say there's no true substitute for real broth and since I can't find the canned stuff I might as well go for it. How hard can it be?"

I seem to have momentarily forgotten how much I hate handling raw meat, especially when it is still basically shaped like the animal it once was. So I got her home (I have now read that soup chickens are "spent breeders" and I can't help thinking of it as she) and thawed her out in the microwave. Then I rinsed her in the sink and started crying! I know it sounds totally ridiculous, and I don't know if I was crying for her, having spent her life laying eggs and then ending up in a soup pot, or for myself because it was right then that I realized that I would not only have to get this thing into the pot to cook but also get it out again, take its skin off and cut all the meat off the bones. Just thinking of it is giving me goose bumps, or is it chicken skin?!?

But I feel like I have to complete the task that I started, even if Aaron does get home in time to do the dirty work. I am less certain of whether I'll be able to eat anything that comes from this endeavor!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Late October Weather Update

The tidal flats (or mud flats) on the North Sea coast

Remember back in the summer when I was complaining about the weather? Well, it hasn't changed much! Only now, it seems seasonally appropriate and maybe even better than what some of you are experiencing in the Upper Midwest.

Although we did have some "hot" days, July and August were more notable for the rain and 63-degree high temps. And when my parents came from Illinois in mid-September they suffered from the "It's still hot here, it surely can't be that cold there" packing error, one that we've all committed at some point. It was still in the 80s at home but in the 50s here and their layering was a bit on the light side. Now I am hearing about first frosts and first snow flurries in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois. We still haven't had frost, or a temperature below the freezing point. Just yesterday, Aaron's boss asked him how he was doing with the cold weather and promised that it wouldn't get much colder- it was about 35 degrees!

So, I'm really excited by the prospect of a winter without mounds of snow, frozen eyelashes and bitter cold that steals your breath away! We'll see if that makes up for the lack of a real summer. If not, well, you just might see us back next summer to soak up some tropical summer sunshine on the shores of Lake Michigan! Of course, I hear the coast of Spain has some lovely beaches...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Excuse me- do you know where we might find the North Sea?

It sounded simple to us. We live on a fairly narrow strip of land with the Baltic Sea 10 km to the east and the North Sea about 45 km to the west. We've spent a lot of time at the Baltic Sea and we were anxious to check out the other side. So, on Saturday we packed a little picnic, got in the car and drove west. We stopped in Husum, a harbor town where we enjoyed walking around and having the local specialty- shrimp sandwiches- which are a lot better than they sound. But Husum is situated back along a canal so we didn't really see the coast. We jumped back in the car and started driving. Our view westward was mostly blocked by large dikes but we didn't feel like we were close to the shore. There were just vast expanses of pancake-flat pasturelands and lots of sheep. We drove over a narrow causeway, which made us feel that we were going to an island even though we still saw pastures on both sides. We drove all over, seeing homes built up on little hills and trenches dug in the fields for water drainage. It seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere, but still no sign of water. Eventually, we came to a small parking lot that butted right up to a large dike. We paid a Euro to park and climbed up the hill expecting to reach the top and gaze out at the picturesque water view. Instead it felt like standing on the edge of Kansas with grassland stretching out before us as far as we could see. Not a single tree, just sheep munching grasses and a paved path leading out farther than our eyes could see. But there were lots of people walking the path so we figured that it must be the way to the beach. So, we walked. And we walked and we walked and we walked. Meanwhile, the sun was starting to sink and the wind was picking up and we even scheduled a "drop dead" time for turning around. But we couldn't give up! After about an hour, we approached a collection of buildings that looked like an old farm. By then we had figured out that we were at Wattenmeer (Tidal Flats) National Park. We veered off to the left where we followed a puddly path toward some steps with the shimmering reflection of light on water beyond. We reached the top of the stairs, the reward of our long journey and looked out- at a sea of sand and mud! Technically, there was water there, about the amount you could safely put in a toddler's wading pool. Lots of shells and tiny crabs. But no beach and no crashing waves! If only we had been there at high tide.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Gettin' ready for winter- German style!

I have seen a lot of things in Germany that make sense. Things that make me say, "Huh? I wonder why no one does this in the U.S."

This, however, is not one of them! I have noticed that people here seem a little wimpy about cold weather. But seriously- shoulder warmers? Elbow warmers? Let me give you a tip that we use back in the old country- just put on another shirt!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Reflections on our move

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. -Henry David Thoreau
It kind of makes you think, doesn't it? Moving is a pain. We've all done it and we wonder why we have so much stuff. As soon as it's over, we hope we never have to do it again (or at least not for a very, very long time).
We are having a particularly unpleasant moving experience, mainly because it's not over yet. We packed up our house in the middle of May and we are still fighting with the moving company that is supposed to be sending the rest of our stuff.
And as I feel my blood pressure rising in dealing with crooked companies, I wonder about the true cost of our move. Sure, it was expensive to ship our household over here but even that feels small compared to the cumulative time, energy, and stress involved in the whole process. I'm talking about weeks of sorting, days of packing, days of unpacking, days of wrangling with a company that won't call me back!
After talking with a friend who took a decidedly different approach to her international move last month I have to really consider which is better. She went through a painful but liberating separation from most of her belongings. She and her husband packed several suitcases and their two cats and moved to a new continent. They are certainly missing some of the creature comforts but it doesn't take much time to clean her apartment and she can be off to her language lessons or exploring her new city. We are both learning some lessons in our new lives, maybe the same lessons for different reasons...

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shanty Choir of Schleswig

We happened across this performance one Saturday afternoon, at a garden show of all places. A bunch of old sailors singing drinking songs! These guys were the real deal- weathered, rowdy and retired! Except for that young guy in the back row with his bushy blond beard- gotta love him! Most songs were in German but "Rum- fa-la-la, rum- fa-la-la!" transcends the language barrier! And they even sang "My bonnie lies over the ocean..." and the crowd really got into it! Some people, mostly those with white hairs, knew the words to every song and were joining right in. It was fantastic!
Later, Aaron and I discussed what folk songs we have in America that we could share with our German friends. It's been a long time since I learned those songs in elementary school, and I'm pretty sure they didn't teach us any drinking songs. I can remember "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but what is that about? "Oh, Susannah!" "Home on the Range"... we need help thinking of more! Because if there comes a time when we're called upon to sing, we want to be ready!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


We were driving back from Baden-Baden to Soerup, feeling tired and little let down after several days of fun and exploration. Mom was snoozing, Aaron was seeing how fast the car could coast down hills on the Autobahn, and I was thumbing through the guidebook. I knew we needed a break from the care so I rather randomly chose Goettingen, a small university city that, according to the book, has a Ratskellar with some of the best food in Germany! Sounded good!

We drove into town as I read to everyone some of the highlights of Goettingen, including the statue of the Goose Girl in the square who receives kisses from happy students who have passed their final exams. Close to the city center, things were abustle and we saw signs for the Goose Girl Festival- that very day! We just happened upon a five-hour festival in the heart of Germany on a beautiful Sunday afternoon- how can this be?

We sat outside in the square and ate lunch, listened to some music, soaked up the sun and wandered through the crowds. This was another of those golden moments... maybe they aren't so rare if you are looking for them!

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Finally, our absentee ballots arrived yesterday! We've been watching the presidential debates online and preparing ourselves to vote in what feels like a monumental election. It has been interesting to see coverage of American politics from outside the country. Everyone here has an opinion!

And I know you do too. So, whatever you believe in, get out there and let your voice be heard! The best political bumper sticker I've seen says, "If you didn't vote, don't complain!"

Friday, October 10, 2008

My fearless Mom

Even at the ripe old age of 31, I can still learn a thing or two from my parents. When they arrived for their visit, I was admittedly more than a littled stressed out. I didn't feel like I had my act together, I was still nervous about the amount of German I could(n't) speak, I hadn't learned to drive the manual transmission car, and I had no idea how to be a good tour guide! In short, I was totally wrapped up in the details. This is a recurring theme in my life... but most of you already know this.

Two days later we drove to Denmark, a country so close to us but with a different language and a different currency. We did some shopping and eventually came to a grocery store. We were on a mission to find brown sugar and peanut butter, since both are unavailable in Germany. So we ventured in and found both items, along with several other goodies worth buying. But we didn't know how to pay. We thought that the store would surely accept credit cards but looked around and didn't see any signs to say so. I was panicking because I didn't know what language to try to speak- the best choice, Danish, was out of the question, and I didn't know if it would be more polite to speak the foreign language of the neigboring country or just go for English. Meanwhile, Mom walked up to a young cashier and asked, "Visa? Mastercard?" And he said,"We only accept Danish Mastercard. You can pay cash with Euros but only with currency, not coins. However, just outside the door around the corner is a withdrawal machine where you can get krone." Except that he stumbled over what to call an ATM/cash machine, his English was perfect! And he didn't seem to be alarmed or irritated in the least at being spoken to in English. Why do I worry so much?

So Mom, ever determined, led the way and withdrew some Danish krone from her Illinois bank account. She said, "You need some brown sugar and we're getting that peanut butter for Aaron." (There was a tragic loss of some crunchy and extra crunchy PB to the TSA at O'Hare Airport. Don't ask her about this- I am not sure she's over it. It was supposed to be Aaron's birthday gift. And one thing you just don't want to mess with is my mom and parties/gifts.) In the end, we had a fun new experience- checking out a foreign grocery store, we got what we wanted, and I learned to be a little bit braver! It really sounds like such a simple thing but it was profound for me. Quit fretting and start living!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

It's ALL about the bread!

I don't think this is unique to Germany (maybe a European thing?) but these people L-O-V-E bread! Seriously. I mean, I like bread- who doesn't? It's very functional for making sandwiches, soaking up the soup at the bottom of the bowl, holding Nutella. And fresh-baked bread is so yummy. But bread is like a way of life here. Our little town of 3,000 people-including surrounding countryside- has four bakeries. And they always seem to be busy! When I told Aaron's boss that we hadn't been to a certain bakery, the best one according to him, he just could not believe it. He said to me, "Bread is very important to us here." Yeah, I'm getting that. People go to the bakery every day. On his way to work, Aaron meets his colleagues riding home with bread for the family.

My parents and I spent an afternoon in Schleswig when they were here. There was a bakery on every corner. We chose a self-serve one (because why speak German to someone if you don't have to?) and loaded up a tray with various treats- pretzels with and without cheese, pastries with nuts, and even a plain white roll with a giant chocolate-covered marshmallow sandwiched in the middle. I couldn't resist. It was just so odd. It turned out to be the best thing I ate there. Which was good and bad, since I decided to start a quest for the best hot pretzel in Germany. I think I live in the wrong end of the country for this, though.

Anyway, the bakery must have been around the corner from the high school because teenagers started pouring in. We sat near the cash register and we couldn't believe that these kids could eat two or three rolls and call it "lunch." Student after student passed by with trays of carbs only. I don't think they have ever heard of Doctor Atkins over here. Or maybe he came over and tried to sell his diets and they just threw him out!

Aaron and I occasionally have the conversation about our favorite food/beverage item. "If you could choose only one treat, what would it be?" "Which food would you refuse to give up?" The tops choices are always cheese, coffee, chocolate or beer. We discussed this recently with our new friend Jan and you know what his answer was: "Oh, bread of course!" We looked at each other is disbelief. It's never even been a contender.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Not your average highway motels

Although we did see a Holiday Inn Express in Baden-Baden, we were happy that it was an anomaly! If our experiences are any indication, small family-run businesses are thriving in Germany. At both hotels, we worked directly with the people who owned it, and in both cases one of the owners was also the chef in the hotel restaurant.

In Cochem, at Zur Schoenen Aussicht, roughly "With a Lovely View," a husband and wife greeted us by name when we arrived. When was the last time you checked into a hotel and someone said, "Oh you must be...! We've been expecting you." She led us up the narrow old staircase to our third-floor rooms. The doors had counted cross-stitch decor with the room number and bunches of grapes and I would have bet anything that she made them. And our rooms did have lovely views looking out at the river!

The next morning when we went down for breakfast, the resident dog was hanging out in the dining room. He was clearly a veteran, as he barely noticed our comings and goings. I have noticed that dogs here have many more freedoms than in the U.S.- it is common to see them in restaurants and shopping centers. And they are astonishingly well-behaved! Perhaps they know that bad dogs wait in cars or on sidewalks.

Breakfast was different- an assortment of sliced deli meats and cheeses, with a huge basket of bread and rolls. It think we would call this lunch! But, they also had Nutella, marmalade (homemade by the lady of the house), muesli, and yogurt. Whatever you call it, it was tasty and a good start to our days.

In Baden-Baden we stayed in Rathausgloeckel, Town Hall Bells- located right next to the town hall, of course. It is a 16th century building and they used to bring prisoners there for their last meals. We saw the iron rings where they chained them up to eat! Luckily for us, we got to eat dinner in the dining room instead and it was one of the best meals we ate (though by no means did we suffer through our other meals)! Two men owned this hotel, which has just nine rooms in addition to its well-known restaurant.

Beds are different in Europe too! Aaron and I don't experience this at home since we brought our bed with us. They are almost always platform beds, so no box springs and they tend to be low. For bedding, there is a fitted sheet but no top sheet. Each side of the bed has its own down comforter in a duvet cover and a big square down pillow. That's it! Harder to snuggle up with your honey under the covers but much simpler to make the bed in the morning- just fold up your comforter.

Staying in these places was so different from staying in a standard American-style hotel. The hosts knew who you were and you had the feeling that they would help you however they could. They served fresh-cooked meals and were proud of their businesses, their livelihoods. It was refreshing and gave us a better understanding of the areas that we visited.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Golden Moments-hard to put into words!

During this tourist adventure with my parents, I just had some of those, "I can't believe this is my life" moments! In a good way! (In the last few months, there have also been some of those not-so-good moments of disbelief, but that's for another entry!) Sometimes you just stop and realize that the "right now" experience is precious and wish that you could make it last. It may be a few seconds, or the time it takes to sip a glass of white wine along the Mosel River. I think those moments give greater meaning to our lives. Seeing new things and living new experiences expands our minds and broadens our reality. We cannot help but be changed by them.
There are far fewer differences between Germany and the United States than you might expect. But the differences seem meaningful. Things seem slower, more considered. The streets are impossibly narrow in these ancient towns, but they don't just tear down buildings to make big roads and bigger cheaper buildings. Cars are faster and can haul more stuff, but people still take their bicycles to the grocery store. There are places to go and things to do but people linger for hours over a meal and a glass of wine with friends or family. So it was those times on our adventure- when the four of us sat lingering together, slowing down and soaking up the "now," laughing, joking, already talking about the memories we'd made- that were golden. Maybe those moments could have happened anywhere but I think they were especially magical because it was so new and exciting for us all!

Thursday, October 2, 2008


We felt like we'd stepped into fairytales! The whole idea of castles is something so exotic to us as Americans that we had no idea what to expect. I had read that Burg Eltz was one travel writer's favorite castle in all of Europe so I figured that was a good place to start! That is what lead us to stay along the Mosel River in Cochem, which happens to have a castle too. They couldn't have been more different from each other.

We arrived at Burg Eltz after driving up out of the river valley, across farmers' fields and into a forest. There we parked the car and set out on foot down a winding wooded path. When we caught our first glimpse of the castle, we were looking down at it! There was just a bit of cloud and mist and Mom commented that it didn't look real, more like a miniature, a picture in a story book. It is nestled into the midst of a forest, with the little Eltz River curving around it on three sides. And even though it seemed hidden away, it was quite grand with its many turrets pointing up to the sky.

What struck me as most amazing was the history of the castle. They think it may have been built as early as the 12th century, with additions added over the course of 500 years of changing family needs. It has always been owned by the Eltz family- 33 generations and 850 years! For several hundred years, a group of joint heirs shared the castle, each building his own "house." In the inner courtyard you can see the three separate entrances and the differences in the architecture of each. It is also unique in the area because it was never destroyed. Almost all castles in the Mosel and Rhine regions were burned by French troops in a land war in 1689, but Burg Eltz survived because of good family connections. There are 100 rooms in the castle and we saw just a few but they have been preserved to reflect the way of life in the early Middle Ages.

Unlike Burg Eltz, Reichsburg castle in Cochem stands proudly above the town. You can't miss it! We walked up through the narrow streets, past Catholic alters and vineyards. The foggy morning leant a bit of mysticism to our journey. We were the only four people for the first tour so our guide spoke English (we were prepared to read along in an English pamphlet while being guided in German), a stroke of good luck! Cochem castle has an ancient and interesting history dating back to the 1100s. It passed through many hands in the political chess games of mideval Europe until it succumbed to the same French troops that spared Burg Eltz. Only a single turret survived and was dubbed "the witch's tower." The castle was rebuilt in the 1870s by a wealthy Berliner; it was en vogue at the time for wealthy people to restore castles for their summer homes. This was the Romantic period so everything is ornate and "over the top!" There are rich furnishings, suits of armor in the living room, balconies overlooking the river... not at all accurate to it's original form. But lovely and interesting none the less!

I've posted more pictures of our trip at:

If you are really interested in these castles, check out their websites: