Friday, December 11, 2009

Bah Humbug!

Well, here we are enjoying a lovely dinner before I totally ruined my own evening. Aaron and I, along with our friend, Jan, had tickets to see A Christmas Carol last night. I was so excited- it's one of my favorite stories and I'd never seen it performed on stage.

We ran into terrible traffic on our way into downtown Cincinnati, then proceeded to get lost looking for the restaurant where we had reservations. I absolutely hate being late so I was a little jumpy by the time we finally arrived 20 minutes late. The restaurant was really gracious and we proceeded with a nice dinner.

We were cutting it close to get to the theatre on time so we made a beeline as soon as we paid our bill. I had to parallel park (got it on the second try) and Aaron shouted, "Go, go, go!" We all jumped out of the car and ran toward the doors but I screeched to an abrupt stop as I realized... I had just locked the keys in the car, WITH THE CAR STILL RUNNING! Who does that??? I was horrified. I had never locked my keys in the car, let alone while it was still on. Of course, with the fancy electronic features on most cars these days you probably can't do something so stupid but this is a totally stripped down rental car with manual windows and doors. Great.

I insisted that the guys go into the show while I tried to extricate myself from the mess I created in just two seconds of complete brain malfunction. The police officer sitting outside the theatre couldn't help me so I got a phone book from the ticket office and picked a towing company with a nice big ad- how else do you do it in a strange city? The dispatcher said, "Well, in that area it's going to cost you $60." I was in no mood to shop around so I soon had help on the way.

It was about that time when I realized that I had lost one of my favorite bracelets, one my mom had brought from Mexico. Not my day.

I was imagining someone seeing an empty running vehicle on the dark city street and taking the opportunity to break a window and drive away. SO, I decided I better go stand by the car. God bless the Cincy police officer who offered to sit in her squad car and watch for the tow truck driver so I could go in and see some of the show.

I felt awful being one of "those people" who come in late to a show and make everyone stand up so they can get to a seat. I had to sit in the back row to minimize the disruption. About twenty minutes later, I felt my phone vibrate and had to apologize yet again to the poor people whose toes I was trying not to stomp on my way out. The phone call was from the tow truck driver who had driven twenty miles to get there, was not familiar with the area and couldn't find the theatre. Oy! When I got to the car, it wasn't running anymore- not a good sign.

The driver eventually made it, unlocked the car in just a few minutes, restarted it and advised me to keep it running for at least 20 minutes to recharge the battery. So, I sat in the car trying not to cry and trying find the lesson in the experience, knowing that Scrooge was taking his trip down memory lane with the Ghost of Christmas Past as I sat there.

It was not Dickens who said it, but "All's well that ends well." I saw the whole second half of the show sitting in my seat between my two dates. And afterwards they insisted on going back to the restaurant in search of my bracelet. Miraculously, it was sitting in the middle of the parking lot and hadn't been crushed by tires. Although by that point I felt like having a good stiff drink, I cut my losses and went to bed as soon as we got back to the hotel. My pride still feels the sting today but I'm trying to get over it. After all, it could happen to anyone. Right?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Another new city- Philadelphia

Who's your favorite founding father?

One of these things doesn't belong... the guy without a pony tail!

Yesterday was our first day here and the weather was sunny and unseasonably warm. We sqeezed in lots of exploring and I learned so many great bits of American history trivia. Did you know that George Washington was really tall? He was around 6 feet 4 inches! He towered over most other men of his time, when the average height was 5 feet 7 inches. They speculate that he was asked to lead the troops in the Revolutionary War partly because he had such a commanding presence. Good thing he turned out to be a good leader too.

Did you know that Ben Franklin was 81 when he signed the Constitution? He was the oldest signer and far exceeded his life expectancy, dying a few years later at the age of 84.

As I was signing a credit card receipt at the national park gift shop, the sales clerk noticed I was left-handed. He told me that since 1981, all but one of our Presidents have been left-handed. Hmm? It seems more than coincidence but I wonder what the common link could be. Can you guess who was the odd one out?.... George W. Bush.

We saw the Liberty Bell and toured Independence Hall. It's been an educational visit so far and beyond that, Philly seems like a really neat city. We haven't eaten a Philly Cheesesteak yet but there is still time. It's been a great first stop back in the States to finally see the city where our nation was born.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

To each his own...meat

Our friends went out of town and gave us all the leftover food from their fridge. The usual stuff- lettuce, eggs, cheese and some meat products. Normal German breakfast food strikes us as a bit funny; it's what we would eat for lunch- deli meats, cheese and bread. But there are also some more interesting meat-based foods and we have now had the chance to try some of them.

Fleischsalat is one of those (and yes, that does translate as meat salad). It looks like small strips of bologna in a mayonnaise and herb bath and it pretty much tastes like that too. It wasn't as terrible as I imagined but I couldn't help thinking about how much fat and cholesterol I was ingesting and not enjoying it. It was just too thick and the rest of that container went in the trash. Leberwurst (liver sausage) was also in our basket, a "treat" that I first experienced with Aaron's grandma years ago. He grew up eating it so a little bit was tasty for him but I can't quite reconcile myself to organ meats. We didn't finish that one either.

There is a kind of meat gelatin that is common around here. They take pieces of meat, veggies, herbs and make a vinegary jello with it. It looks quite strange and I'm not sure that there is anything in typical American cuisine to which I can compare it. Maybe back in the 70s when there was a Jell-O craze people made this kind of thing?? Anyway, this was the last leftover food we tried. Again, it wasn't disgusting but the rubbery texture was a bit disconcerting when trying to make a sandwich with it. It's quite low-calorie though since most of the volume is made up of gelatin. Maybe a good diet food?

All of this stuff is available at the same little markets where I shop but I never paid attention to it. So next time you go to the grocery store, look around at all the things you don't buy- you might find some interesting things. I dare you to try some of them!

Monday, November 16, 2009

A thousand steps up!

This is Palamidi Fortress, supposedly the best-preserved Venetian castle in Greece. It was built in just three years in the early 1700s, then captured by the Ottomans less than a year later. I guess looks aren't everything. Nafplio was a battleground for centuries and there are three different fortresses in this little town dating all the way back to 300 B.C. This is also where the hero of Greek independence defeated the Ottomans for good in 1822.

This massive structure sits atop the mountain just behind town and gives a rather striking impression. Even more impressive and literally breath-taking are the steps leading up to the fortress. There are somewhere around a thousand of them- no one seems to know for sure. Aaron wanted to run up them for exercise one morning and I (reluctantly) agreed to go. We found that just walking 1,000 stairs was quite an aerobic workout! The next day we climbed them again but spent some time exploring the vast ruins and taking in the fabulous views. There are 650-foot cliffs facing the sea and you can see mountains and islands in the distance. The climb was definitely worth the views!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Have we learned anything new in the last 2,500 years?

I know the answer is a resounding, "Yes," but last week, standing among the ruins and shards of civilizations that existed at least two millenia ago, I marveled at the knowledge that these ancient people already possessed. Mathematics, architecture, metal-working, physics, medicine, etc. All of this would have been important for the survival and comfort of the people but what really struck me was the value and appreciation of artistry. They weren't just surviving, they were thriving and enjoying the "finer things."

Sure, they needed bowls and pots for cooking and carrying water, but they were not only aesthetically pleasing in form; they were decorated with elaborate designs and depictions of gods, humans and animals. And how do you explain jewelry? It serves no functional purpose- it is simply for adornment. They had gold, silver and bronze, amber, amethyst, ivory and glass.

There was theater and music. They were playwrights and actors. They built stadiums with such amazing acoustics that 17,000 spectators could hear the actors' voices without microphones. They knew comedy and tragedy, sarcasm, irony and parody.

And for me maybe the most amazing of all were the sculptures. They were perfectly proportioned and lifelike. Some even seemed to be in motion. The faces were expressive, showing joy, fear, annoyance. The sculptors must have had tremendous knowledge of the human form. Imagine the skill it took to carve stone to look like flowing fabric and to see the subtle outline of a leg beneath the gown.

It was truly remarkable and I am so grateful for the experience of seeing it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fish- it's what's for dinner!

Since Nafplio is a coastal town seafood was the specialty. There were lots of little fishing boats in the harbor so you could believe that it would all be fresh. The local dishes include octopus (see far left corner of display case and fish roe (that is, eggs) salad, but since we knew it would be a splurge we wanted to make sure we got something we liked. So we asked for fish, and this is what we saw!
The owner of the place greeted us at the door and took us to the kitchen, where another man started opening drawers filled with the above delicacies! Now that's fresh! He asked us if we wanted something fried or grilled, whether we wanted the same thing or two separate dishes. Based on our answer he slapped a nice big red snapper on the scale (you pay by the kilogram)and said, "Okay. Go sit down and I'll come take your drink order in a moment."
We sipped our white wine, ate a yummy Greek salad and bread and before long our fishy was served up on a platter. We paid for the whole thing so of course we were served the whole thing. I have a little bit of an issue with meat that is still attached to the animal it comes from but Mr. Snapper was so tasty that I was able to ignore his little tail that was just hours earlier still happily swimming in the sea.
After our meal the waiter brought us dessert "on the house"- fresh pears and candied fruit drizzled with honey. Light and delicious! It was a very nice gesture but totally made us think we must have bought the most expensive fish in the drawer! Ha!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Moped adventures in Greece

We packed so much into our week that it is hard to know how to hit the highlights. Leaving Athens, we took a bus to Nafplio, a little town on the Aegean Sea. We stayed there partly because it was relatively close to two ancient sites we wanted to see- the best-preserved ancient theater at Epidavros and the ruins of Mycenae, a citadel dating from 15th century B.C.

Somehow I got the idea in my head that it would be fun to rent a moped to do our sight-seeing. I’d never even ridden a moped. The only places renting them gave us a moment’s pause; they didn’t exactly look like places where honest and forthright business took place. But we paid 25 Euros, left Aaron’s passport as collateral (yikes!) and got a bright yellow Navigator Tiger, along with two stylish helmets and the all-important map. Off we went!

Aaron quickly saw that for our bargain price we had gotten a vehicle without working gauges- no speedometer, no gas gauge. Super! We had no idea how far we could go on one little tank so we started checking it every time we stopped.

I didn’t realize just how windy it would seem going 40 or 50 miles an hour without a windshield. As we got up to cruising speed, I was nearly strangled by my helmet as it lifted up and blew back. It was too big for my little pin head. As much as we tightened the strap, it didn’t seem to make much difference. I momentarily considered stuffing my bikini into the helmet to fill up the extra space- just momentarily though.

The first leg of our trip went great. The theater at Epidavros was completely worth the 18 mile trip there. Unfortunately, the other site was 20 miles in the opposite direction from Nafplio. We got a bit turned around but ate a picnic lunch and eventually got headed toward Mycenae. By then the road seemed rather long. The seats were clearly not designed for long-distance comfort for two riders. The sky started to look a bit ominous and I began to worry that if it rained the site might close early. Since we'd taken a wrong turn, we were a bit behind schedule.

Just as we made our final turn and began the final stretch the moped engine died. Yup, you guessed it- we ran out of gas. It turns out that in a 5-liter tank, even when it looks like there is “plenty” of gas left it can go pretty quick. There we were in rural Greece, where all you see for miles on end are olive groves and orange groves. We had come through a town but couldn’t really remember how far back that had been. Aaron pushed the Tiger to the side of the road and we rode on fumes down a hill for maybe 500 yards. Then we walked. Luckily, it was less than two miles to the nearest station and it didn’t rain. The whole thing was extra funny because Aaron and I barely said a thing. The engine died; I asked, “Are we out of gas?” Aaron answered, “I think so,”and we turned around and started walking. Neither of us got mad; I think we both expected it to happen.

All’s well that ends well. Mycenae was still open, we had plenty of time to look around and nearly had the place to ourselves. After another twenty miles back to Nafplio it was nearly dark and we were cold and saddle sore. We traded the moped for Aaron's passport and when the owner asked if we’d had any problems, we said, “None at all!”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hello from Athens!

It’s midweek and we are having a great time! We arrived on Saturday evening and came out of the metro station into rain. Luckily, our hotel was nearby and we easily got settled. We sought out a typical taverna for our first meal. The waiter brought us right up to the kitchen window to show us what was available at that moment. People who came in as we finished our meal had a different selection. A bit intimidating at first but much easier than trying to read a Greek menu!
On our first day we climbed the Acropolis Hill and saw the Parthenon. It really is amazing! Sad to think of how much has been destroyed or damaged through war and looting. Even so, it is magnificent. We could not believe how it was crawling with tourists, and this is the off-season! The line to get into the brand-new Acropolis Museum was so long that we abandoned that plan. Instead, we walked all over, exploring other hilltops, ancient ruins and quiet neighborhoods. We had a delicious lunch at the “oldest taverna in Athens.” The saganaki, dolomati, bread and zucchini balls were the best we’ve tasted- or at least it seemed that way!
Monday we set out in a different direction, first checking out the Central Market, where you can buy a dizzying array of fresh-picked fruits and veggies, a dozen or more types of olives, a whole goat or octopus, or a huge bag of pitas for $1.00. We climbed to the tallest point in Athens, where there is a cafĂ©, a small Greek Orthodox church and spectacular city views with the Aegean Sea beyond. Our walk took us through many neighborhoods, some quite urban and gritty, others near the embassies quite lovely. This city definitely has a unique feel. We toured two museums and took in more ancient artifacts than we’ll probably ever see again. Pottery, sculptures, tools, jewelry- all from 2000-4000 years ago. Wow.
On Tuesday we got to the Acropolis Museum and it was definitely worth the wait. Most of the remaining sculptures, statues and architectural pieces from the Acropolis have been removed due to ongoing pollution damage and are now housed here. The museum itself sits above an archeological site and the floors are glass so you can see the excavation. Our last ancient site to see was the Agora. We got there in a drizzle so decided to check out the small museum first. By the time we finished, it was a total downpour- unusual for Athens! So, we didn’t get to fully appreciate the ancient marketplace but got soaked anyway just getting back to the hotel.
We’ve eaten gyros, kebaps, sesame bread rings, spinach pies in phyllo dough, Greek salad, baklava and so much feta cheese! The people have been very nice and it seems like there is an “anything goes“ attitude here. We feel very lucky that so many people speak English but I have learned to say “Thank you” in Greek and that always makes people smile. A little effort goes a long way. Next we are off to Nafplio, along the Aegean coast. We’ll send another update from there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Halloween witches in Germany
Halloween is not a major holiday here but it seems to be catching on a bit, imported from America along with a lot of other great and not-so-great aspects of our culture. In stores, there is a smattering of merchandise- "spooky" gummis, pumpkin-shaped cookies, a few costumes and some decorations.
Of course kids seem to be especially excited about this foreign holiday. I brought a pair of jack-o-lantern socks back for my 10-year-old friend who visits every week and she was delighted. The other day there was a little boy behind me at the store who had his Dracula jewelry set carefully placed on the conveyor belt with the dividers on each side so no one would mistake his purchase for someone else's. He was so excited he couldn't stand still and kept shouting his status in line to his mom who was still shopping across the store. I couldn't help wondering what he was going to do with that plastic gold necklace. There is no trick-or-treating and I'm not even sure there are classroom parties.
Today when my friend came over, I thought we should do something to celebrate. Along with practicing English I think it's fun for her to get a glimpse of some aspects of American life. I couldn't find any pumpkins to carve (not to mention my poor history with sharp objects) so I decided it would be fun to create our own Halloween masks. You can see the results above, and we had a great time making these witches, complete with warts, nasty teeth and natty hair!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's with "winter tires?"

We’re entering our second winter in Germany so we have been through this transition before but honestly, everything was so strange last year that I didn’t really stop to think about it until now. Here I am in a climate that is milder than any of my previous addresses throughout the upper Midwest. Average temperatures probably range from around 30 in winter to 75 in summer, and virtually no snow. But as soon as we arrived back from our month in the States my friend asked, “Are the winter tires on your car? Once it gets below 50 degrees you should switch them.” Seriously? 50 degrees calls for winter tires?

Okay, I haven’t actually looked into this so there could be a very good reason, and knowing the safety-conscious and practical Germans there probably is. For all I know there is a law about having the appropriate tires on your car. But really, I lived in Madison, WI, and drove in the same tires year-round. When it was zero degrees with a minus 15 wind chill and when it was 90 with a heat index of 100 the same tires carried me safely wherever I went. And in Michigan with snow drifts up to my hip, I scooted around town in my all-season tires. So it seems like a bit of a scam, getting tires switched twice a year and paying the dealer to store the off-season set.

But even with all this I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye, except that this time around Aaron asked me to call and set up the appointment. Yeah, just casually asked me for a favor, like it was no different from washing his lucky socks for the big meeting or something. You’d think that after living here for over a year, we’d finally be good with all the language stuff but you’d be wrong. We have learned a lot. Aaron has his vocabulary that allows him to comfortably navigate his work world and I have mine, with which I can small-talk and get to the post office, grocery store and bakery. But talking on the phone is a completely different level of comfort. For one thing, you can’t use hand gestures, which turns out to be a large part of my vocabulary. For another thing,…, well, I can’t think of anything else but I panicked anyway!

Well, you know how the story turns out. I made the call, spoke to the nice lady at the Ford dealership, even told her about a warranty recall letter we’d received and set up the tire swapping date. And I’m a better person for the experience. But I still think the tire thing is dumb.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Everyday Days

When I was little, I never understood why adults said, “Boy, time flies! It seems like just yesterday that you were born.” Time never seemed to fly for me. Instead it often seemed to drag. “Am I old enough to go to school now?” Then, “Why, oh, why aren’t I ten yet?” Next it was, “Will I ever be able to drive?” And then finally, “I can’t wait to get to college.”

And guess what I think now? Boy, time flies! I say it to my nieces and nephews, knowing that they roll their eyes and think I am old. I don’t know when or why it changed. Aaron has a theory that our perspective shifts as each day we live becomes a smaller percentage of our total life. I wonder if, as adults, we just spend so much time in the past and the future that we miss all the everyday moments. I've heard that life will teach us the same lessons over and over again until we learn them. I seem to be in the midst of a long lesson about the importance of keeping my mind in the same time and place as my body.

Being unemployed has me always looking to the next adventure we can take. Sometimes I feel like I’m just living from vacation to vacation. Budgeting, planning, researching, watching ticket prices… And knowing that we are living in Germany for a specific and finite length of time has my mind always racing ahead to the next chapter. Where do we want to live in the States? Will I be able to find another job I like? Will Aaron keep working for this company? You know, you can really drive yourself crazy with this stuff. And meanwhile I realize that we’ve lived here for nearly a year and a half! And I’ve been unwittingly waiting for it to be over. I miss my career, I miss my friends, I miss my family, I miss friendly American strangers, blah blah blah- you’ve heard it all before.

The reality is that I traded three years of my life for this experience. That’s too precious an investment to just wish away. I mean, of course I love all the tourist stuff but I also have an everyday life over here that is far less exciting than a weekend in Stockholm and a road trip to Brussels. But everyday is the stuff that our lives are really made of. So here’s to this quirky little German village and all my stoic neighbors. Here’s to slowly and painfully learning another language. Here’s to eating breakfast, lunch and dinner with my spouse seven days a week. And (gulp) here’s to unemployment, which has given me the opportunity to dig up a long-buried creative part of myself that likes to write, knit and cook. Here’s to everyday. Hope you enjoy yours too.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oops- there went September!

So much for my grand plans to keep blogging while back in the States. I underestimated how busy things would get. And I completely immersed myself in time with family and friends. It was wonderful! I'm not sure how to sum it all up so here are a few highlights:

My mom, party planner extraordinaire,
threw a tea party in honor of Aaron's birthday.

We also belatedly celebrated my sister's birthday.
I got to play some football and soccer with my nephews,
one of whom is about to be taller then me! I watched him
run in his middle school cross-country meet- he's fast!

Aaron's parents threw a wonderful
backyard BBQ on our first night back in IL.
It was so much fun to have the whole family together.

One of the main events of the trip was my friend's wedding.
We've been pals since 6th grade and it was an honor to stand
as her bridesmaid and see her so happy.

I couldn't believe our luck: my friend who lives in Norway

was also back visiting at the same time so I got to see her family

for the second time this year, including this beautiful new addition!

I also spent an afternoon shopping with a dear friend from Michigan, spent time with my grandparents and my great-aunt, saw my dad come through his second knee replacement with flying colors, helped my sis with a garage sale and had some great fun hanging out with my mom.

All the while, Aaron was hard at work in Ohio. He was with one of his colleagues and I think they managed to make the best of it. At least they got to go to an American Oktoberfest , which was quite a laugh for our German friend! Now we are home again, recovering from jet lag and trying to get back into our routine.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Our week in Puerto Rico

We've been here since last Saturday, staying near the beaches in San Juan. It has been a complete change of scenery and climate. It's funny how you forget what tropical heat really feels like. I love it but have to admit that our northern German climate is better for outdoor activities like running and biking. This weather is only good for going to the beach or pool. Luckily, that's what I have been doing. Poor Aaron has been hard at work, fitting five days' worth of meetings into three.
So far, the absolute highlight of the trip was our rainforest adventure. On Sunday morning, we were picked up at 7:00 AM and driven halfway across the island up to the highest mountain. We spent the morning walking up a mountain river and climbing waterfalls. The biggest was probably 30 feet tall and we had to wear climbing harnesses and helmets. The afternoon was spent ziplining through the rainforest treetops. It was so much fun!
Our two guides were fantastic- so knowledgeable, friendly and encouraging. They pointed out all kinds of things on the trail, including the abundance of food sources. The area was an old coffee plantation so we saw coffee trees, as well as banana, passionfruit, mango, orange and plantain trees. We saw pineapples growing and saw yam vines. Aaron and I probably ate a dozen passionfruits throughout the day- they were everywhere along the forest floor. We also ate termites! I can't really believe I did that but it wasn't that bad. Well, except that I might not have chewed enough and for the rest of the day I felt like there was a termite hanging on at the back of my throat. Other than that though, delicious!
Our lunch really was a delicious treat. It was prepared by locals and delivered to the picnic shelter at our trailhead. It was very traditional Puerto Rican fare, which is not at all like Mexican food. We ate pork and chicken, yuca root, rice and red beans, fried plantains and avocado. Our guide prepared fresh coffee for us after lunch. Fresh meant that he had picked the beans off the trees within the last two days and roasted them earlier that morning. It was quite possibly the best coffee I have ever tasted!
I am continually amazed by the diversity in our world and the people in it. It is such a joy and privilege to see so many wonderful places. Next stop, one of my favorite wonderful places- home!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

32 Days, 2 Suitcases

Oh, what to pack? We are off on another adventure tomorrow, combining a mini beach vacation, work, family visits and bridesmaid duty! So many occasions, so many shoes! We need swimsuits and flip-flops for the beach in San Juan, sport sandals for a rainforest adventure and summer clothes for the 90- degree weather in Puerto Rico.

Everyone has been complaining about the cool weather in the Midwest and September is a wild card anyway. So we need pants and shorts, tees and sweaters! Aaron will be working again in Cincinnati for three weeks while I help with a garage sale at my sister's house, visit friends and get ready for my dear friend's wedding!

I'll try to keep you posted with updates and photos!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Even sirens have to be translated!

We were awakened last night at 2:00 by the community siren. I immediately sprang to the window, thinking "Tornado!" But everything was perfectly calm and still and as I came fully awake I remembered that they don't have tornadoes here. You can take the girl out of the Midwest but...! About 30 seconds later we smelled smoke. Apparently, the volunteer fire fighters are alerted (along with the rest of the town) by the siren. Seemed kind of old school and we wondered if maybe we were all supposed to respond by grabbing a pail and forming a bucket brigade from the lake to the burning building! The smoke was very strong so I think the fire couldn't have been far away. I hope everyone is okay. I'm sure it is the talk of the town this morning. We'll see what I can find out today. Maybe I'll have to go loiter by the bakery...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

My two cents...

It's hard to avoid the news from the U.S. covering the town hall meetings and the heated debates over the future of our healthcare coverage. I'm saddened by the terror and fury and distrust that are broadcast by the media and I don't know whether the people shown represent a loud minority or an exaggeration of the viewpoint held by many Americans. I don't know all the details of the proposals- and it seems no one does- and I'm not prone to political rants. But I do have a few personal observations.

I worked in healthcare for almost a decade, primarily in a population of pregnant women but also with other adults and children. There is a clear lack of equality in the availability and coverage in our current healthcare system. It is just a fact. I've been thinking for years that things would have to change. I know that no plan can be perfect or please every single one of us, but there is clearly room for improvement.

My other observation comes from currently living in a country that has a socialized healthcare system. In a nutshell, it's okay. People aren't suffering and dying due to lack of healthcare. There do not appear to be widespread problems of access to medical care. When we applied for residency, we had to accept the public healthcare system or demonstrate coverage by a private insurer- they have both. In the year we've been here, we have known someone who had a baby, another person who had a complicated bone fracture, an elderly man who had a heart attack, a kid who broke a wrist playing soccer. All these people got timely and appropriate medical care. They are all alive and well. No one is killing Grandma. In fact, I've seen more active and healthy people in their 80s and 90s here than I ever saw at home.

We are right to keep a watch on our government and make sure that decisions made and laws enacted reflect the best interest of Americans. That's the great foundation of our country. But I think that no matter what comes of the healthcare reform, we'll be alright.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Historic Harbor Days

They might be authentic sailors!
The ubiquitous Wurst

A little "Pirates of the Caribbean" flavor

Wow- that last post was so long, and not even any pictures! I'll keep this brief.
Last Saturday we attended this festival, which was part of Flensburg's 725th birthday celebration. Isn't that crazy? In the U.S., a 100-year-old building is historic! I still can't get over how really, really old things are here.
The festival itself was fun- all along the water with lots of food and drink stands, crafts and entertainment. Typical festival foods are fish sandwiches, wursts of all kinds, crepes, breads of all kinds, Danish (i.e. soft-serve) ice cream and candy. Beer and wine, of course!
What was funny, in an eccentric kind of way, were all the people dressed in costumes. Some of the costumes were in keeping with the theme- pirates, sailors- but others were just downright odd. We saw an "Arab" selling pottery, several British military officers circa 1915, jesters, a man wearing a suit, spats and a monocle and many folks who seemed to just want an excuse to wear something strange! It reminded me a bit of the Renaissance fairs I've been to where you see princesses, fairies and dark Gothic figures that are not at all in the right historical context.
After filling our bellies, watching a hatchet thrower, a juggler, some musicians and seeing a ship sail away, we headed back to the car. We had one last jarring moment when we heard country western music as we left. Ah, the modern world!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Reflections on the first year

June marked our one-year anniversary of life in Germany. We say it all the time, don't we- time really flies when you're busy living! But it's true. It is amazing to realize how far we've come, both literally and figuratively, in this last year.

If you know Aaron and me (which you probably do if you are reading this), you know that we are not great ones for spontaneity or rash decision-making. We entered into this adventure after much thought, prayer, discussion and wise counsel. I thank God for our parents, who I know must have been screaming "Don't go so far away from us!" inside, even while they talked us through logistics, encouraged us and truly wanted what was best for us. Even after all of it, we were in for some big surprises and shocks once we got here.

Most of you have lived with us through this last year and can name our greatest challenges. The biggest has been the language: I had no idea of how slow and steep the learning curve would be. Learning a language for five years in a classroom is nothing like landing in a foreign country and actually trying to live life while learning. We knew next to NO German when we moved here. On our first trip to IKEA last summer, Aaron and I actually practiced counting to 100 together. It was that bad. Now, Aaron interacts with his colleagues primarily in German and I had someone compliment my language skills when he found out we had only been here one year. We are far from fluent but it is SO much better.

Even aside from the language barriers we have been challenged by the culture here. It's always a slow process to make friends in a new town but we were unprepared for the reticence that is the norm in northern Germany. We are eternally grateful for the exceptions to this norm. We have one friendly next-door neighbor, our friends Jan and Maren and a few of Aaron's colleagues who have been warm and welcoming. I think we would have been completely desolate without them.

But even new friends can't replace old friends and family. We have felt lonelier than we imagined. I hate to say it, but there is something different about knowing you can't just pop in to see a friend or drive to Mom and Dad's house for the weekend. All the modern technology can't compare to chatting at someone's kitchen table. Missing Thanksgiving and Easter and the 4th of July felt sad for us. But in some ways we have grown closer to our loved ones. Such a big change prompted all of us to say things we should probably say more often and to really cherish our time together. I have grown quite sentimental about the importance of family and friends (and at this point my family is saying, "Uh-oh, she was already the sappy one!").

When things look a little tough, we keep refocusing on why we came. We wanted to experience life outside the United States, to see that "different" is not always better or worse. Many of the differences fit well with how we want to live our lives. I had no idea how much I would enjoy doing all my grocery shopping on foot or by bicycle. I love that since I can't carry a lot and our refrigerator is small I have to go two or three times a week. We always have very fresh food in the house. I like that there is less emphasis on bigger, better, more. Perhaps especially so in this rural area things move a little slower and the simple things are valued. People take walks, pushing grandmas in wheelchairs and babies in buggies. People work in their gardens. People spend their vacations at home or at the nearby beaches, just relaxing with family and friends. It's a good reminder for us, having both been so immersed in a fast-track, corporate-style career world.

Maybe most of all, we wanted to travel. I can't believe all the places I've been and things I've seen and we have barely scratched the surface in Europe! We've toured castles and palaces, been in the hearts of cities like Stockholm, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin and Copenhagen. We visited the wine country near the Rhein valley and saw the Black Forest. We stood at the remains of the Berlin Wall. We watched sunrise over the Baltic Sea and waded in the mud flats of the North Sea. I saw reindeer in Norway and a stork here in Germany. It already feels like a lifetime of memories and there is more to come! The gift of travel has far exceeded what I could have dreamt.

The challenges of life here are more than I anticipated but so are the rewards and gifts. If I had it all to do over again, I would do it the same way. Well, maybe I'd bring more chocolate chips!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Heat Wave

Aaron and I have made a lot of adjustments over the last year, including redefining "summer." I knew we had achieved it when, on Tuesday, we saw the temperature climb to the mid-70s and decided we had to take advantage of such great weather by going to the beach. Yesterday we saw 80 degrees and went back! Alas, I saw the online forecast predict that the "tropical" weather won't last. I wonder if the weather reporter has ever actually experienced such climates. I'm no meteorologist but I would say that calling a breezy, 80-degree day with low humidity tropical is going a bit far! Nevertheless, we have enjoyed this summer week. Just another reminder to seize the unique opportunities of each day because you never know what kind of weather tomorrow will bring!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Home again, home again

After two weeks in the U.S., we are back in Germany. Aaron's work in Cincinnati went well and when he was finished, we drove 5 hours to South Haven, Michigan. We were happy to have a few days to spend at the Loft and relax on the beach. For us, there is something special about that place and we have missed it. Aaron has yet to have a full week of real vacation since he started work at Atec and most of his time off has been busy with family visits or travel adventures in Europe so it was nice to have a few days of down time. Everyone was complaining about the cool summer but it still felt warm to us compared to here, where we are still barely topping 70 degrees in the "heat" of the day.

During the trip, Aaron's parents met us in Cincy for the weekend. We had such a great time with them, exploring the city and eating well- including some good ol' American barbeque ribs (seen in photo)! Yum! We went to the zoo, which we can highly recommend. It lived up to its great reputation! Mostly it was just nice to be with them- there's no substitute for family and our last visit at Christmas seemed like a long time ago.

We also had the delight of attending the wedding of our friends, Nick and Andi. It was a lovely ceremony and a fun reception, held at a museum. It was also a reunion of our friends from Aaron's old workplace in Kalamazoo. We laughed so much and danced the night away, between rides on the museum's carousel.

Now we are back to the routine for the month of August with more American adventures to come in September!

Friday, July 17, 2009

The adventure continues- in Cincinnati!

This time I'm writing from an extended-stay hotel smack dab in the middle of suburbia. Aaron has been working here since Wednesday supervising the installation of equipment on his first project at Atec. I've been taking advantage of the exercise facilities, swimming pool and cable TV here at the hotel. I can't complain but this really doesn't seem like my life. Accompanying my husband on business trips? I'm nuch more comfortable being the one going on business trips.

Anyway, we've been struck by how ridicuoulsy friendly Americans are! It started with our Delta flight crew on the 9 hour flight from Paris. They were all so happy, like they really enjoyed their jobs (imagine that). One guy even gave us extra cookies because we really liked them! As soon as we got here we went to Best Buy to get cheap cell phones and the manager who helped us even set up and activated the phones for us before we left. Then we were off to dinner, where our server sent us home with "To Go"cups of our free refills (a completely American phenomenon) of lemonade! We didn't even ask for it. Who does that? I went to the grocery store early Wednesday morning and the cashier struck up a conversation with me and had all kinds of questions about living in Germany. We talked for ten minutes! As I was leaving she asked how long we're staying in town and said she hoped she'd see me again. Last night we were swimming in the pool at the hotel and a woman came over and asked if we'd like some cupcakes- it was her daughter's birthday and they had plenty.

As I've said before, it's not that Germans are mean or rude. It's just that people seem much more private and reserved. Strangers are strangers. Neighbors are neighbors. People don't extend such overt friendliness. We didn't realize how different it was until we came back and felt so grateful for someone just being extra nice. It's always the little things that make a big difference.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Flying on the cheap

There are a couple of super-discount airlines in Europe so we decided to try one out for our short trip to Sweden. Two round trip tickets on RyanAir cost around $40! Can you believe it?

We figured that it had to at least be safe since they have to meet all the same regulations as other airlines, but beyond that we weren't expecting a lot. We had to check in online or pay extra to check in at the terminal. We opted not to check bags, as that would have also cost extra and we only had a short trip. The dimensions of the allowed carry-on luggage seemed unreasonably small but we did our best to comply, worrying that they would measure and weigh everything. They didn't, and we saw other people with roll-alongs!

We had to drive an extra half hour to a different airport but for the savings we thought it was worth it. We happened to be traveling on one of the hottest days I've yet experienced in northern Europe- it was well over 80 degrees. I know it doesn't sound impressive but it was enough to keep us sweating through our 2 hour un-airconditioned drive and the quarter mile hike from the parking lot to the terminal. As we stepped inside, the expected rush of cool air failed to greet us. No A/C in the discount airport! The building itself was nothing more than a huge enclosed tent, with no fans or air circulation of any kind! But, more importantly the drinks were cold so we kicked off our vacation with a refreshing adult beverage!

RyanAir does not assign seats on its flights. As they announced boarding people started jockeying for position in line to get on the plane. I feared the worst but it was actually pretty civilized. And wouldn't you know- everyone got a seat and people traveling together even got to sit together. AND the plane had A/C! Yippee! No free half a can of soda or one ounce of pretzels (which you're lucky to get anymore even on the regular airlines) but that was okay with us. Because of the timing of our flight we decided to buy sandwiches on the plane so we could hit the ground running in Stockholm. I can only recommend the food as an alternative to starvation, though they did also have packaged snacks. Next time I'll go with the M&M's.

The flight attendants were courteous and professional, the cabin was comparable to all others I've been in and the flights were on time, even early! We determined that it was a successful experiment and that we should fly everywhere that RyanAir goes! What's next- Dublin, Milan, Mallorca?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Short vacation in Stockholm

A basement cafe in the old town, Gamla Stan

Standing on the waterfront, Strandvagen, with
the city behind me

Aaron and I had a great trip to Stockholm. We left last Wednesday, July 1 and arrived home last night. As in Copenhagen, everyone speaks English. Even the cab driver struck up a conversation and recommended some sights to us. Our rented room was in a pretty good location and had the advantage of having a small fridge, microwave, coffee maker and toaster. We picked up groceries at a nearby market and enjoyed breakfast in our room each morning before venturing out.

We saw so many great sights and loved the waterfront feel everywhere since the city is situated on several islands. It was very crowded with tourists- even several cruise ships! The weather was fantastic- it got up to 84 degrees in Stockholm- dare I say it was almost too hot?!
On two mornings,we ran on a great trail around an island that is almost exclusively given over to museums and recreation (after the king gave it up as his hunting grounds). It had parks and trails and even an amusement park. And we walked and walked and walked all over the city! It is very pedestrian and bicycle friendly, at least in the summer!

We ate a real Scandinavian smorgasbord! Once is probably enough though! They do love their herring in all the Baltic countries and prepare it in about a dozen ways. The first two courses of the meal were fish! I had great Swedish meatballs with lignonberries at two different places and Aaron got to try a reindeer steak. The coffee break specialty is a cinnamon bun and we sampled that just before we left town- yum!

On Saturday we took a ferry boat out through the archipelago- there are about 30, 000 islands on the east coast of Sweden. Some are no bigger than a good-sized American yard but still have a cottage on them! It is rocky and heavily forested- really beautiful but also heavily populated. Most islands can only be reached by boat- no bridges! So they have an extensive scheduled ferry service and there are water taxis as well. We ended up on an island that was about one mile from end to end. There is a hotel and three restaurants/cafes, a youth hostel, a small goat farm and campground. We walked trails until it looked like rain and then found a dry spot to sit and have a drink while we looked out over the sea. We were really on the go a lot so it was a nice quiet moment to realize where we were sitting- on a remote island in the Baltic sea off the coast of Sweden! Wow!

Our return trip was fairly uneventful except for terrible traffic on the Autobahn. It took us an extra hour to get home and we discovered that the air conditioning in our car doesn’t work. We felt hot and parched by the time we made it home but it was definitely worth it. Another great adventure!
For more pictures of our trip, visit Flickr:

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

No place like home

I'm sorry for the long gap in postings. I had a personal "emergency"- I needed to go home and see my family! I found a reasonable ticket price and hopped on a plane the following day. Such spontaneity is very unlike me but I am so glad I went.

In the absence of a job and social network, and in a culture that is more reserved than American culture, I have gotten quite lonely and homesick. Instead of sinking into a pity party (because my life isn't really anything to complain about) I decided to step away, get a fresh perspective and surround myself with loved ones for a week. I spent time with my parents, sister, nephews and grandparents. I even saw a few uncles and cousins. It was wonderful!!! Of course my family isn't perfect, but being away from them helps me appreciate their best qualities and happily accept everything that comes along with them.

It was a surprise to me to realize that I feel much the same way about the good ol' USA. It's not that I haven't always loved my country but I always see the things that need to be better. We are capable of so much so I expect a lot out of us. Now that I live in another country, I still think there are things we Americans need to work on, but I also see more clearly some of the best things about our country, from silly little things to major issues. I appreciate the friendliness of restaurant servers and store cashiers. I am grateful for our wonderful sytem of national parks. I'm glad that we play lots of sports and not just soccer. I like that we are a nation made up of immigrants- some recent and some long ago but almost none of our ancestors can claim to be natives. Maybe it sounds a little sappy, but long hours in airports give you a lot of time to think.

So, I guess there's no place like home and no country like your own homeland!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Emma is here!

Well, our circle of friends in Germany expanded by one last Wednesday when Maren and Jan's daughter was born. She arrived 10 days early but weighed in just over eight pounds. Everyone is healthy and happy!

Maren told us she was pregnant at 6 weeks so we've all been waiting a long time. She had wanted desperately to know via ultrasound whether this baby was a boy or girl but Emma proved stubborn on two occasions so it was an extra surprise!

She is pretty darn cute- cheeky with a full head of dark hair. And you can see that she likes the blanket I knitted for her- I don't think she can sleep without it!

I have been around a lot of newborns but each time I am amazed anew at the miracle of such tiny human perfection. It feels like a privilege and honor to be part of such a special time in the lives of our friends. We will love to watch Emma thrive and grow for the next few years while we are here. And maybe one day she will stay with us as an exchange student in the U.S.! You just never know!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Eight years and counting!

Aaron and I celebrated our anniversary this year by actually being in the same country, something we couldn't manage last year. We spent time over breakfast looking at the photo album of our wedding and honeymoon. At lunchtime, we received a care package in the mail- the great timing for which we have to thank the USPS, Deutsche Post and my mom! To top off the day we had a spectacular dinner out, including a dessert called "Strawberry Dream!" Delightful!

I think celebrations are good to remind us of what is important and to prevent us from becoming complacent about all the blessings we have. I, for one, need these perspective refreshers. Over this last year, Aaron and I have been tested in ways we never imagined. Each of us has struggled and grown, and that's not always pretty. Our relationship has also had to struggle and grow as we both adapt and change in this new life. We are right in the midst of this process so it's good to remember that we're in it together through thick and thin!

Eight years ago we could never have dreamed that we would be living in northern Germany. I dare not guess where life might take us in another eight years! What an adventure!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wedding traditions

Living in another country isn't like a vacation (sometimes I wish it were) but it does allow us to peek into another culture in a way that a three-week European tour never could. A few weeks ago we attended a pre-wedding party, Polterabend, of one of Aaron's colleagues. This translates to noisy evening and also gave me insight into another word I've known since I accidentally saw the movie as a small child and was totally traumatized- Poltergeist means noisy ghost!

But back to the Polterabend. The tradition is that making noise the night before a wedding scares away the evil spirits. So the bride and groom host a party where all their friends bring old dishes/pottery and smash them on the driveway or patio. They have a saying that the shards bring luck. Once all the pottery has been smashed, the couple must work together to sweep it all up. Then the guests go and dump it out and scatter it around again. This is supposed to occur may times over the course of the evening. I'm not sure what the significance of this is except perhaps to help the couple develop their teamwork skills and get used to sharing the chore of cleaning up.

Another part of the tradition for the evening is to create some elaborate task or game that the couple must complete in order to receive their gifts. This seems to be the job of the colleagues. The week before the party several people from Atec got together and cut a giant wooden puzzle out in the shape of a heart, painted it and mounted it on another wooden board with several candle holders in it. On the night of the party, the couple had to do a task to earn the pieces of the puzzle, then assemble it to receive their present. She had to shave a man's leg, he had to paint a woman's fingernails, they had to bob for slices of fruit from a tub of water, etc. Interesting!

It seemed like there was a lot of responsibility in being a guest but for our efforts we were rewarded with a great cook-out, far too much alcohol and a fun evening! As far as I can tell, they do not have bridal showers here. Bachelor/bachelorette parties seem to be a concept imported from elsewhere so they are not all that common either. Another interesting thing about marriage is that there is complete separation of religious and legal ceremonies. Everyone must have a legal union in the town hall. If people want a church wedding they may of course do so but priests and ministers do not have the power to legally marry people. Different, huh?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A post from Aaron

The project team in front of the equipment

Documentation- thousands of pages!

Jackie and I moved to Germany to experience life in here and to travel Europe, but we also came because of my career. I have been working at Atec for one year now and last week came a milestone with a project I started last June. We completed a successful Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) for one of the projects I manage.
Atec manufactures equipment for pharmaceutical companies all over the world. Specifically, we build machines used to wash and sterilize stoppers for medicine bottles. Constructing these machines requires a team that includes engineers, computer programmers, documentation specialists, architects, welders, pipe fitters and electricians- and that is just from Atec! For the FAT last week, seven people from the United States came to inspect the equipment before shipment to Ohio.
My role in this is as project manager. It is my job to make sure the equipment we build meets the specifications of the customer. Every Tuesday for the last year, I have had telephone conferences with the customers in California and Ohio to monitor the progress of the project. Also, at Atec I coordinate the work of all specialties needed to make the machines. In reality, my job includes everything from writing documents to turning wrenches. I haven't had to do any welding yet!
You may wonder how a microbiologist at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals ended up in a job like this. Three years ago I came to Atec as a Pfizer employee to perform the same type of acceptance testing that was completed last week. My experience having been the customer brings a unique perspective to the service Atec provides.
The Factory Acceptance Testing last week included twelve consecutive days of working long hours, but was a success! The customer left happy and the machines will be delivered to Ohio soon. I am exhausted and relieved to have the past two weeks behind me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Strangest holiday yet

Yesterday was Ascension Day, a holy day 40 days after Easter that celebrates Christ's return to heaven. I was never aware of this day, though I understand that it is observed in the Roman Catholic church. It is a German national holiday. This is interesting for a few reasons- Catholicism is predominant only in certain parts of southern Germany, most Germans do not seem to be overtly devout or religious and Germany generally has strict rules about the separation of religion and government. But none of this is what seems strange.

This is where it starts to get weird. Father's Day in Germany is always celebrated on Ascension Day. Why would this be? Jesus returning to his Father makes us want to honor fathers? But in our area the day is just called Männertag, or Men's Day. And the celebration seems much more about manhood than fatherhood. I finally went to Wikipedia to get a handle on this because I just couldn't quite understand it. Click here to read what others have to say and to see a photo :

I read about it being a day for "men only" to go out and get drunk together but I figured this would be only in cities or at the beach or something. Yesterday morning at 9:45 I hopped on my bike to ride to the home of friends and what did I see? A group of four young men, walking down the sidewalk, pulling a child's wagon (yeah, like Radio Flyer) filled with beer and a portable music system of some sort. And I couldn't imagine where they were going, walking away from town and out into the countryside! As I came to my friends' house, I saw another group of men. These guys were in their 30s and 40s and were pulling a wagon shaped like an airplane! Just walking around drinking beer at ten in the morning.

When I arrived, I wished my friend a Happy Father's Day and asked him about this tradition. I explained that in the U.S., fathers usually spend time with their children on Father's Day, that it is really a family day. He laughed and replied, "Oh no, not here. Every man in Germany is trying to get rid of his family today." Does this seem weird to anyone else?

Monday, May 18, 2009


I may be totally out of my league in my German course, but I love my classroom! It is such a unique place, filled with people who may have nothing in common but being foreigners in this country. I am the only American, and the only native English speaker. There are several people from the Ukraine, a few from Poland and a couple from Turkey. We have someone from Thailand, Peru and Syria. We have people who lived under Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. We are Muslims and Buddhists and Eastern Orthodox Christians and atheists.

Every day it feels like I have as much to learn from them as from our teacher. Their opinions and their experiences and their stories are so different from mine. We debated the importance of individual freedoms versus the good of the collective public. Two people who lived in the same Communist country had quite opposite feelings! A Muslim woman talked about what it's like to wear a head scarf and what she thinks about her own freedom and equality. We discussed international relations and the influence (not always for good) of the U.S. and the European Union. We heard a presentation from a classmate on her country from a tourism perspective.

Because I am the only one, I have an opportunity to represent "Americans." It feels like a big responsibility but exciting too! I didn't realize how little some people know about our country- they only know Hollywood and New York. Most people don't even know Chicago! I was asked specifically whether I would give a presentation on my country. Of course I'm nervous but it is exciting to think about telling people about my home- a country I love and miss and probably never would have appreciated so much if I hadn't left it. Funny how your perspective changes, isn't it?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The prettiest crop I've seen

Canola is an important agricultural crop around here. People have been talking about the "Raps" fields and it was worth the wait! It really is beautiful to look out across a field of swaying yellow blossoms. The bright sunshine in a clear blue sky is nice too!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Back in the classroom

Last Thursday was my first day in German class at the community education center in Flensburg. I take the train from our town, which takes just 15 minutes. I am loving good public transportation! Then I have a 15-minute walk to get to the school. Class meets on Thursdays and Fridays, begininning at 8:15 and and ending at 12:15, with a 20-30 minute break.

I took a placement test to determine which course I should take, and the woman who gave the test just wasn't sure what to do with me. She ended up placing me in the higher of two levels that she was considering- that made me nervous! On Thursday, I nearly had a panic attack because it soon became clear that my classmates have far more knowledge than I do- both with vocabulary and grammar. I could just barely follow what was going on. I looked around and everyone else seemed to be doing just fine. That is SUCH a terrifying feeling! I left after that first session with a sick feeling in my stomach, thinking "Why does everything have to be so hard?"

But of course I went back again on Friday and, lo and behold, it went better! I spent some time talking with the teacher and she was very reassuring. When I was called on in class and struggled with the answer, both my classmates and the teacher helped me through it. And as far as I could tell, no one shot me dirty looks for being so remedial! I have to remember that this is not academia- I will not be graded and there is no final exam. This is just for me. I started to relax and learn. And I think this just might be fun!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The power of one

On the heels of my post about the reticence of people in northern Germany, I have to point out again that the stereotype does not fit everyone. We have received much help and many kind gestures in our time here. And I am so incredibly grateful for my friend Maren.

I met Maren the day after I arrived in Germany, as part of a group who went to a festival. She and her husband (Aaron's colleague) came over the next week with a bottle of champagne as a house-warming gift. Both were really friendly. Jan speaks perfect English but Maren speaks almost none. She offered to take me shopping to look for lights and curtains and mirrors for our house. I was miserable and so stressed the whole time because she was speaking to me and I could not understand one word of it. She persisted in befriending me and we shopped almost every week last summer. In the process I learned my way around the area. I had my birthday after just two weeks of living here and met the day with mixed feelings. Maren and Jan showed up that evening, with gift in hand, to celebrate with me.

Maren invited us over for dinner many times and she was patient when Jan, Aaron and I talked rapidly in English though she could not follow the conversation. They included us in weekend outings and pointed out fun things for us to do on our own. Through all these difficult months when I have been so homesick for my friends she has stopped by to check on me, offered all kinds of practical help and always been quick to smile and laugh. As I cobble together terrible German in hopes of communicating, she helps me with words and listens closely. She speaks slowly, uses easy words and watches my face for understanding. In all this time when I had so little to offer and needed so much, she has been a friend. Sometimes all it takes is one person to make all the difference in the world. And even though I don't have the words to tell her how much that means, I hope she knows.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

"They won't throw a party for you..."

..."but they're honest." This was the response of a (non-northern) German when I confessed that I was still trying to understand the norms of the people around here. I 'm not sure whether to find the statement comforting or further perplexing.

Apparently, the folks here in northern Germany are known even among Germans to be quite reserved and quiet. They are not ones to initiate conversation with strangers and they don't tend to "chat." Obviously, there are many people and situations where this stereotype does not fit. But even taken as a generalization it doesn't sound too bad. Let me illustrate with a few examples that I found to be--- awkward.

I went for a bike ride with my friend Maren (not from northern Germany and very outgoing) and we stopped by the house of her former neighbor and friend. We stood in the driveway for ten to fifteen minutes and the friend never acknowledged my presence- not a "Hallo!" or a handshake or a wave. Weird!

Aaron and I showed up last week to help with a sawing/sanding/painting project as a wedding gift for one of his colleagues. We walked up to the group of about seven other co-workers and no one really said anything. For about two hours, the group worked on the project with almost no talking and no laughing. And there was even beer!

The daughter of Aaron's boss comes over to my house every week and we spend about an hour together so she can be exposed to English- we play a game, bake cookies, do a craft project, etc. Her parents never e-mail or call me and even when I see them at various events or around town they never talk to me or ask how things are going. Don't all parents love to talk about their kids?!

Just to keep things in perspective let me say that in most ways, the culture I am experiencing here is the same as what I have been used to in the U.S. It is modern and Western. Body language seems to be similar- people make eye contact with each other as a sign of attention and courtesy, waving means "Hello" and shaking hands is a normal introductory greeting. I realize that these are not things to take for granted everywhere in this world.

So I am not complaining! But I am struggling to be myself while respecting and integrating with the local culture. I know it could be a language barrier but most of the people I interact with speak very good English and also know that I am trying hard to learn German. When I initiate conversation I always speak in German but obviously I can't carry it very far alone.

I don't expect anyone to throw me a party (or even speak English to me) but I'm also not sure what good their honesty does when they don't talk to me anyway! Ha!

I am learning so much.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A walk in "den Wald"

A great place to sit and feel the sun on your back!

A little perspective...

A fluorescent world!

We miss the proximity to great hiking and backpacking but recently
discovered this preserve just a 15-minute drive from home.

Much better than yardwork anyway! Maybe the rules that
limit our "work" are a good thing for our souls!

Monday, April 27, 2009

No mowing on Sunday!

Whew- that was a close one! Aaron decided to cut the grass on Sunday around 10:30 AM. I was outside pulling some weeds and had noticed through the shrubs that some neighbors were enjoying a late breakfast in their garden. This observation combined with several other previous clues about peculiar German rules and "quiet hours" led me to run inside and log on the Internet with a search of "lawn mowing Sunday Germany." Result: Forbidden! Why? Noise pollution. Sunday is Ruhetag- rest day. I ran back outside, flagged Aaron down and gave him the news. He wheeled the mower back into the shed, neither the police or neighbors complained and we decided to go for a hike in a nearby forest instead of doing yard work. Alles gut!

Sometimes we are surprised by the kinds of things that are regulated here in Germany. A couple others we have broken unknowingly- you can't trim your bushes after March 15 to protect the nesting birds. You can't wash your own car due to the soap run-off into the ground water. Of course Aaron and I have made some jokes about all of these rules, but when it's all said and done most of them aren't bad. I love baby birds as much as anyone and I think we all deserve clean water. And who hasn't been irritated by a neighbor who decides to fire up their mower or power tools at just the time you've sat down to relax in the sun? And when the population is as dense as it is in most of Europe it is even more important to have some rules to keep the peace and keep things courteous and neighborly.

But it does beg the question of how we ignorant foreigners would ever know these things! No one would think to tell us because it is so normal for them and we would never think to ask because we are not used to these types of rules. But as our neighbor pointed out to us, "Ignorance is no excuse!" Thank goodness for the Internet. Now I'm on the search for any other unique German laws we need to abide by!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Springtime in rural Germany

These hairy cows with horns really make
me laugh but their babies are super cute!

The fields are plowed and ready for planting.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A date with myself

When I imagined living just nine miles from the sea, I pictured myself frequently sitting on the beach reading and writing and feeling so at peace. But it rained for the first month after I came, then life just sort of crept in with all its daily demands and the next thing I knew it was winter.

Spring is here and yesterday I took myself to the beach for the first time! I packed up my blanket, snack, camera and journal and set off with my bike. There was not a cloud in the sky, just a light breeze and I had the place mostly to myself. It was such a gift.

I realized that it's hard for me to give myself a gift like this. Even without a job (or maybe even more so without a job) my days seem to be filled with, "I should..." statements. I feel like I need to have the house spotless, master every recipe in my cookbooks, grow a beautiful garden, speak German fluently, become a guitar virtuoso and the list goes on endlessly. What I really need to do is lighten up! That kind of thinking steals the joy out of everything and I am determined not to let it dominate my days. It could take a while to change my way of thinking but my day at the beach was a good start.

Friday, April 17, 2009

German 101: Prerequisite- knowing German

I am finding that just living in a country does not make you learn the language by osmosis. You have to work at it. I need to work harder to learn German. I have progressed to the point that I am functional in survival situations- grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, pleasantries with the post man and the neighbors- but I cannot carry on conversations of any length or depth. Not surprisingly, this is necessary for the more meaningful human interactions in life! I like meaningful interactions.

So, I checked out the website for the community education center in Flensburg. I got really frustrated because of course, I couldn't read it very well. I figured out that there are several German classes offered but I didn't know which level I should take. I found the contact page and wrote a short (hopefully coherent) e-mail requesting guidance. Someone wrote back the same day giving me a phone number to call and make an appointment for a placement test.

Whoa! Phone call??? Excuse me? I'm supposed to pick up the phone and actually dial a number that requires me to then speak German to someone who answers it? Okay, okay, I get it. This is part of the test. Alright.

After I panicked and hemmed and hawed for two days (yes, it took me two days to work up the nerve) I wrote down some key words for my conversation and picked up the phone. The woman was very kind and patient with me. And she understood what I said. I think I understood what she said. I have a placement test on April 30th. Unfortunately, classes begin April 20. I'm not sure how that will work out but at least I passed the first part of my placement test!

I can't help but laugh at the irony of having to read, write and speak German to get into the class to learn German. This would not have been possible for me when I first arrived. I wonder how other people manage. It makes me more sympathetic to immigrants everywhere. How does someone know what is available? How do you access the services when you can't communicate?

This photo has nothing to do with learning German. I just like the image of these people and their horses who appear to be riding into the sea.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Freetown Christiania

In Copenhagen tourism, there is a lot of hype about Freetown Christiania. I had never heard of it until I started to plan our trip. In 1971 people began to squat on the land of an abandoned military base, perhaps in a form of rebellion against authorities. There was apparently a lack of affordable housing in the city at the time. The movement was "encouraged" by a provocative journalist who was a sort of pre-hippie.

The idea was to build a society from scratch while taking advantage of existing land and buildings. The original mission statement from 1971 goes like this: The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted. I think it was meant to be a haven for all lifestyles. That said, they abide by their own set of rules including no tolerance of "hard" drugs, guns, knives, stealing or violence. Community decisions are made in common meetings with all residents invited.
For many reasons, the Danish authorities have looked the other way or been indecisive about what to do, so the community still exists today with about 800 residents. There are threats that the government will forcibly disband the community and throw the residents out. For the last fifteen years, they have paid taxes and utilities. Until 2004, a thriving and open drug trade was tolerated but this has largely gone underground due to fears of giving authorities another reason to shut down the community.

Visiting Christiania felt much like walking through the parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert, albeit a much larger and greener one. There was definitely a creative and artistic spirit in the place- there were brightly painted murals on the buildings and unconventional uses of old junk for both practical and artistic purposes. People were sprawled everywhere, enjoying a sunny warm Saturday afternoon. There was music everywhere and the occasional whiff of cannabis in the air. But there was an entrepreunerial spirit as well- Christiania residents give guided tours from the front entrance (for free); there are numerous cafes, restaurants and businesses, as well as tourist stands selling t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. It was interesting to be sure but I still don't really know what sets it apart from any other community. Residents want peace, equality and tolerance. There is a set of rules that people generally agreed to abide by. There is space for quiet personal lives and space for commercial endeavors. It seemed in many ways like a small town, with a particularly relaxed and laid-back atmosphere. I'm still thinking about what is really different there.

On our way out, we walked under the sign above that informed us we were re-entering the European Union. I didn't know we had even left!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

The rising sun and the Risen Son! We awoke at dawn this morning, bundled up and got settled on the beach in time to watch the Easter sun rise over the Baltic Sea. We sipped hot coffee and ate pastries while listening to the waves and watching this spectacular sight! It is easy to believe in miracles on a morning like this.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Things are different when you have a queen!

Every day, just before 11:30 AM the Danish Royal Guard gathers in front of the Rosenborg Castle to begin their march through Copenhagen to Amalienborg Palace, where Queen Margrethe II lives. They look just like the tin soldiers of storybooks with tall black fur hats, pressed black jackets, blue pants, white gloves and fancy tassels on their swords. The procession is accompanied by music- at least flutes and drums, but an outright marching band on weekends- and is guarded by the city police. Apparently, it's hard to draw your ceremonial sword when you're playing the piccolo.

Once they arrive in the palace square at noon, there is an elaborate changing-of-the-guard ceremony to provide replacement guards for the royal residence for the next 24 hours. The now-retired group marches back to the palace by 1:00 to go off-duty. The whole process seems very quaint, bordering on silly, and straight out of history. But it is tradition and it was neat to see an age-old ceremony still being honored.

The one part of the Royal Guard's accoutrements that is not quaint is the automatic rifle they carry as they walk back and forth in front of the palace. They are all young men but they are very stone-faced and serious about their duties, even when crazy tourists stand beside them for photos (not us, of course). I'm not sure who would be out to harm Denmark's 70-year-old figurehead monarch but they are not taking any chances!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How time flies!

It seems like they just arrived and they're already gone! We packed a lot into our time together - two countries, three castle tours, lots of great food and many laughs! We almost saw the Danish queen and the prime minister (maybe)! We even planted flowers, put up a clothesline weeded my gardens and had our first grill-out of the season! I was so grateful to have help and company at home for a few days.

I am sorry for neglecting to write but I was soaking up my family time while I had it. Now that I'm back to my routine, I'll be able to catch up on all the fun things that have happened in the last few weeks. Stay tuned...