Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mom and Dad are here!

They arrived last Thursday and it was so great to see them! And so fun to have them here with us again in Germany! I feel like we have really grown and changed since their visit last September. We are much more comfortable here and have better language skills. The overall life stress is MUCH less. I think they have noticed the difference!

Since their arrival, we have done some short explorations. We went to Husum to see the four million crocuses blooming in the park. We toured the castle in Glucksburg. Tomorrow we will leave for Copenhagen and stay for five days. Already their visit is going too fast and I know they will be gone before I know it. So I am trying hard to stay right here in the moment and enjoy every minute! I am really grateful to have parents who are also friends-we're having a great time!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

St. Patrick's Day in northern Germany

Well, it's pretty much non-existent. None of our friends or Aaron's colleagues were even aware of this all-important Irish holiday. But what's March 17 without a little something green? We decided to head into Flensburg and make our own party. We dragged Jan along because he's always up for a good time and a glass of beer.

We walked into McMelson's English Pub and immediately spotted a guy in a tall green top hat. We knew we were in the right place. The bartender served up Guiness stout, complete with a clover in the foam. Perfect! It was a relaxed yet festive atmosphere. But we really had to move on down the road to Shamrock Irish Pub, which was advertising their St. Paddy's Day festivities. Unfortunately, it was a total dive- a college bar with absolutely nothing nice or comfortable inside it. And we were the only ones there at 8:30 PM! But in true college bar style, things got cranked up just as we were leaving at 10:30. I did snag a shamrock temporary tattoo- never know when you might need one!

So, no corned beef and cabbage and only a few people sharing the celebration but we still had a good time. It's the little things, you know! And sometimes in life, the most fun is the kind you make for yourself!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Getting braver!

The plan was for Aaron and I to head back home from Belgium on Sunday afternoon so he could be at work on Monday morning. But I was having a good time, didn't have anything to get back for and had the possibility of another two and half days with Maggie and John. So, I took a deep breath, said "I'm sure I can figure out how to get home on the train" and watched Aaron drive away. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal, but I am so Type-A that it really threw me off balance. I like to know what to expect and to have a plan well in advance of when I might need it. I had never taken the trains in Europe and I was banking on buying a ticket and making the trip solo!

On the other hand, I feel like I have been more scared in this last year than any other time of my life and it is exhausting! I'm tired of being afraid and I don't want to miss experiences and opportunities just because I couldn't be sure how they would turn out. Once I made the decision and got settled into a new hotel I felt really empowered. I had a great time, spent lots of hours talking with Maggie and deepening our friendship and saw more amazing things in Belgium! I sat alone at breakfast in my hotel one morning and was completely comfortable being there. A great feeling!

And on Wednesday morning, I hopped the tram that took me to the train station. I got on the train in Ghent that took me to Brussels. I found the train that went to Cologne. I switched to the train to Hamburg, and finally I got on the train to take me to Flensburg! One tram, four trains and they were all completely on time. It was about 12 hours of traveling and I arrived in Flensburg to find Aaron right there waiting with the car. Piece of cake!

Friday, March 13, 2009

For the love of chocolate

I'm pretty sure that Belgium is heaven on earth for chocolate lovers. Of course Belgian chocolate is world-famous but, like many things, I wondered if it could possibly be worth all the hype. For me, it was worth all of it and more!

We woke up on Saturday morning in Brussels with a single mission- to hit the chocolatiers with force. There are four top makers- Leonidas, Neuhaus, Galler and Godiva, not to mention countless small but equally delightful shops. It felt like Starbucks in any American city- you can't go more than a couple blocks without finding another chocolate shop.

The experience begins at the shop window where, at this time of year, there are elaborate Easter displays- giant chocolate eggs, fanciful bunnies, little chicks. They have made it an art form and each shop has a little different approach- some with a modern edge, some with very traditional motifs, some geared to children and whimsy, some very sophisticated. And when you walk in the door you could almost drown in the scent of chocolate as you gaze at mounds of truffles and pralines and confections stretching for several feet of counter space. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate-ahhhhhhhh! And everything with some divine filling inside- raspberry creme, mocha, coconut, ganache- it just went on and on.

Over the course of five days in Belgium I must have been in a dozen or more chocolate shops and never got tired of the whole sensory experience- a feast for the eyes, the nose and most importantly, the mouth!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

All beer, all day!

Since our friend John is a brewer and Belgium is world-reknowned for beer, he was interested in touring some breweries while we were in the area. We were happy to tag along.

On Friday morning, we drove from the Netherlands to a Trappist monastery outside of Westmalle, Belgium. The monks started brewing beer many years ago for their own use and eventually started selling it to the locals at a stand just outside their gates. They still own the Westmalle brewery and it is located on their grounds but they have given over the brewing to professionals. The brewery does not give public tours so we were lucky that John had the right connections to get us inside. The brewmaster was incredibly kind and gracious and spent a lot of time with us. It appeared to be quite a commercial operation (see us standing in front of cases of beer- they make a lot!) but there were many things that were special. Because of the philosohpy of the monks, there is a great emphasis on a positive work environment so the factory has low-noise equipment, sound absorption panels and sky lights. The staff work just one shift and they always have Friday afternoons off to spend with their families. After the tour, we went into the tasting room and had the chance to sample the monks' private brew that is not sold to the public.

The monks themselves still make cheese from the milk of their 150-head herd of cattle. We went to the main entrance of the monastery and rang a giant bell to be let inside to buy some cheese. We got a 3.5 pound block and I don't know how we'll ever eat all of it! But how could we say no? We also bought some lovely soaps made by the nuns in the abbey a few miles away. It was a special experience.

Our next stop was the Duvel brewery, just outside of Brussels. I think Duvel is the biggest or one of the biggest brewers in the country. The scale of everything was amazing. Stainless steel tanks that looked like grain silos rising up out of the building, miles of piping running from here to there, computer monitors with diagrams of the entire system- wow! We tasted beer directly out of the fermentation tanks- talk about fresh! But the Flemish hospitality wore us down! Between two brewery tours, many samples and no lunch, we were all about to collapse on our feet! We did finally get dinner, and more beer, and then we were ready for bed!

Another country and another exciting day!

The best of everything!

Great friends, great places, great food, great beer! Last Thursday, we drove to Amsterdam to meet our Kalamazoo friends John and Maggie for a long weekend of fun. John is a brewer and had business to do near Brussels on Monday but until then we explored and had fun in the Netherlands and Belgium.

We spent our first afternoon exploring Haarlem, a nice little city outside of Amsterdam. We walked by the Corrie Ten Boom house, found some yummy cheeses and had a "picnic" lunch in our hotel room with foods from a brand-new Italian deli in town. We found an interesting private museum of natural history with an impressive collection of fossils and gems. The building itself was historic and beautiful and definitely was part of the experience.

In the evening we took the train into Amsterdam to find dinner. I was aware of the city's reputation as socially liberal but had no real interest to go gawking in the Red Light District. I had assumed that all the prostitution and marijuana-smoking (both of which are legal, or at least tolerated) took place in one neighborhood. Not so. In our meandering to find a restaurant, we caught the unmistakable smell of marijuana smoke coming out of many coffee shops. Because it is tolerated and widespread, it really seems like no big deal there. People sit around with friends, just like they would over a cup of coffe, talking and laughing. A little harder for me to see were the window displays of barely-clad women advertising their business. It was so surprising to see since we didn't seek it out and we were just walking down the street.

The food specialty in Amsterdam is Indonesian cuisine, a holdover from colonial days. We found a nice place and I tried many new dishes whose names I cannot pronounce! It was around midnight by the time we got back to our hotel in Haarlem, a long day since we'd gotten up at 3:45 AM to start our drive.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


So, we borrowed this German word and changed its meaning. Here in Germany, kindergarten is where you send children before they begin school- a day care center. Since my friend Maren is pregnant and since I will go anywhere with anyone to get some social time, I toured some kindergartens last week. I find the pint-sized world quite enchanting for short periods of time and loved seeing the tiny tables, tiny potties and all the little people spinning around my knees.

Two of the kindergartens we visited were in neighboring towns. And apparently, you have to get a note from your mayor if you want to place your child in a day care outside your own town. I couldn't come up with the words to ask about it at the time, but I'm wondering if it has something to do with tax money that towns get for child care facilities. I think there must be some subsidies because the rates sounded pretty cheap compared to what I've heard about day care in the U.S.

Maren wants to go back to work after her baby is born in June but unfortunately most day care centers do not take infants, only from age one and up. The alternative is to find a Tagesmutter- literally, day mother, or in-home day care. In a frightening show of friendship and trust, Maren suggested that I watch her baby! Yikes! I like babies, but all day, every day? That sounds like too much- that sounds almost like motherhood! I hope Maren comes up with a better idea soon.