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...