Monday, December 30, 2013


I should have posted this earlier, but I'm taking a break from writing during the Christmas holidays. Both of my children are with us this year, and we've been out and about as much as possible. So far we've visited the Mittelaltermarkt und Weihnachtsmarkt in Esslingen, the Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt, the Mercedes Museum (Stephanie and Martin's mother went instead to the Romonov exhibit at the Altes Schloß in Stuttgart), and Konstanz on the Bodensee, where we also crossed the border into Switzerland, and we explored the town of Horb. We've eaten well and made many home-cooked meals for Alex, which he says he doesn't often get at home, and we went out once to our favorite local restaurant.

Oh, and yesterday - since it was Sunday and everything is closed except for ski hills and restaurants - we took a drive into the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) so the kids could see how pretty it is:

on the Schwarzwaldhochstraße

Our destination was the Mummelsee, but apparently most of the population of Baden-Württemberg had the same idea. Seeing the shadowy hoards navigating the dense fog there, we just kept on going. We stopped at a ski lodge a few kilometers beyond, found it closed despite the "Heute geöffnet" sign out front, got back in the car, and drove home.

in Konstanz at the Münster

standing in Switzerland
Despite the dismal weather, they are still smiling, especially after watching a live stream of last night's Packer game.

I hope you had a merry Christmas and lots of quality time with the people you love. Have a good slide into the New Year!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Advent in Deutschland

'Tis the season for Weihnachtsmärkte, Glühwein, Adventskalender, and heiße Maroni in Germany, and I love it! It's next to impossible not to get filled with the Christmas spirit in Germany during Advent. I have discovered there is more to Christmas than shopping in crowded stores, enduring Santa songs on the radio, and stress, though admittedly it's easier to see that when one is semi-retired.

One German Advent tradition or ritual is the Adventskranz. We bought ours last weekend at the Horb Christmas market. It's important to buy it before the first Sunday of Advent, though Martin found out two years ago that if one waits until the Monday after, they are a lot cheaper... As far as I know, in the U.S. the lighting of the Advent wreath is only done in churches, where every Sunday another candle is lit. Here most families have one somewhere in their home.

On the second Sunday of Advent, the second candle is lit, and so on.

The Adventskalender is quite popular here, too. Our grocery store was exploding with Adventskalender (especially the ones with a piece of chocolate behind every door) in the last days of November, and again, on about the 2nd or 3rd of  December, they can be purchased at a reduced price (but seriously, suck it up and buy it on time). Something is missing if a home doesn't have at least one Adventskalender - one per child, in homes with children.

The wooden Weihnachtspyramide is a favorite decoration, the best of them being made in the Erzgebirge region. They come in all sizes and colors, and when the candles are lit, the poor little Holy Family gets spun around to the point that, if they were real, they'd be wretching for sure. It's best not to think about that too much and just enjoy the action.

At the Konstanz Weihnachtsmarkt last year, selecting the Weihnachtspyramide my parents bought me for Christmas.

My favorite part of this season is Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas markets. I can't get enough of them. I've been to three so far this season, and I'll be going to five more between now and Dec. 23. The best one in these parts is unquestionably the one in Esslingen with its traditional section and the Mittelalterlichen Weihnachtsmarkt. Two-hour long TV programs have been produced about the Esslingen Christmas market, and rightly so. It's truly something to behold.

at the Esslinger Weihnachtsmarkt
At the Weihnachtsmärkte you will see lots of festively decorated booths selling all kinds of wares - candle holders, hand-carved wooden ornaments and decorations, warm woolen mittens, hats, and scarves, jewelry, and snow globes for starters. No one should leave a Weihnachtsmarkt hungry, because the amount of food to be had could feed several armies. Crepes, rote Wurst, roasted nuts, Lebkuchenherzen (heart-shaped gingerbread), Waffeln, Bratwurst, Flammkuchen, and Bratkartoffeln or Reibekuchen, are just a few of the delictable snacks you can expect to find.

wood carvings in Stuttgart
Glühwein is hot spiced mulled red wine, which warms the soul on cold afternoons and evenings at a Weihnachtsmarkt. This has always been a delicious tradition for me that goes with Weihnachtsmärkte, but this year I discovered that I actually don't love it. Kinderpunsch is the non-alcoholic version, and perhaps I'll try that this season. When you buy Glühwein for €2,50 or so, you pay €4,50, because €2 is deposit on the mug. You can keep the mug, which is a pretty inexpensive souvenir, or return it and get your €2 back. Locals usually return the mug because they already have a cupboardful from the last twenty-some years.

enjoying a Glühwein  and Kinderpunsch at the Stuttgarter Weihnachtsmarkt

In the evenings the Weihnachtsmärkte take on a new atmosphere as the sky darkens and the lights add a romantic aura to the scene. This is the Weihnachtsmarkt in Konstanz on the Bodensee (Lake Constance).

Some of the smaller Christmas markets, like the one in Horb, are open just for a weekend. Those appeal mainly to the locals, as it's a nice place to meet friends at the Feuerzangenbowle, hear the local youth entertain with singing and playing instruments, and support local venders. The bigger, more well-known ones are open every day from the end of November until shortly before Christmas.

The markets are outside without shelter. If it's raining, which it often is in December in Germany, you have to dodge umbrellas and make sure you don't impale anyone with yours. If it's snowing and blowing, you better bundle up. Other than the recent hurricane that blew through northern Germany, weather doesn't stop Weihnachtsmärkte or people from visiting them.

I have loved the Advent and Christmas season in Germany ever since my first December trip here. I hope the wonder of the season doesn't fade for me over the years, and it shouldn't. The things that sometimes ate away at my Christmas cheer in Wisconsin - driving on snowy, icy roads, shoveling multi-feet of snow before driving to school or after returning, having to prepare lessons and grade homework, and shopping in over-crowded stores due to holiday sales - just aren't issues for me any more. There is just something special about the old world holiday traditions here that I wish all of my American friends could experience.

Happy Holidays, Frohe Weihnachten, and Joyeux Noël!

Sunday, November 24, 2013


This is probably going to be a schmaltzy post, so those of you looking for the mildly amusing me might want to skip this one.  It's November, and to Americans that means Thanksgiving, which in turn means being extra reflective about the people and things for which we're grateful. One of my Facebook friends lists something he's thankful for each day of November, and I love reading those! I think that's what gave me the idea for this post. I have more to be grateful for than I could possibly fit in a blog post of reasonable length, but here it goes.

I first want to mention that there isn't a day that goes by when I do not feel overwhelming gratitude for the life I'm living. That may sound doubtful, but seriously just the act of stepping outside - especially when I simply walk to the office, the bank, or the butcher - is enough to trigger gratitude. I love the smell of the air in our community - evergreen hedges, flowers, wet pavement when it rains, smoke from Kachelofen fires (especially ours, which is burning as I type!), the smells of whatever the neighbors are cooking, and I don't even know what else. It just smells good here.

The town of Horb is beautiful in every season. During the Christmas season the colored houses on the hill are lit at night, in the spring the planters, window boxes, and fields are full of new and colorful life, in summer all the trees are filled out providing a lovely contrast to the blue sky and fluffy clouds, and in the fall the turning leaves on the hills and within the town are breath-taking.

Often while I'm walking I marvel at how blessed I am. Our home, our community, the beautiful town of Horb, our relationship, our families, the time we have to spend together, our relatively good health, the great meals we cook together... I wonder how I got so lucky or what I did to deserve this. I had a great childhood and a darn good first quarter-century of adulthood. I have a husband who loves me, two children who mean the world to me, I've been able to travel internationally alone and with groups of students 27 times, and I had a satisfying career as a high school teacher but was able to "retire" at age 43 when I moved here. Now I'm able to do volunteer work and have the time to enjoy tending our home.

My intent is not to rub it in about how great my life is, but to put out there into the universe my gratitude. There is so much negativity out there - in the news, in war-torn countries, sometimes in our interactions with others, in our moods on an especially bad day - that it's good, healthy, and sometimes therapeutic for us to focus on positive things.  With that in mind...

I am incredibly thankful for...

Martin, without whom the life I just described would not be possible. We understand each other, work well together, and we've been soulmates for a long time. He's a fabulous cook, a safe driver, makes me smile and laugh every day, never gets riled up about problems but just deals with them, encourages but doesn't push me, is incredibly patient with me despite my many faults, and knows a lot about so many things! ("The benefits of a classical education," he says.) I love his accent, his sense of humor, his hugs, and the way he pronounces "vocabulary".  There's so much more to say, but I don't want to embarrass him. :-)

My family in America, who understands me well enough to get why I needed to move to Germany and to accept my decision without making me feel guilty for being so far away. My parents and daughter have visited us, and my son is coming for Christmas and New Year's, enduring the long hours on airplanes and in airports and then enjoying the time together.

My friends in America, especially my bestie, who writes to me often, found out last Christmas how blinking expensive it is to mail a package here, checks in with my parents now and then, provides a bed for my daughter when there's no room at her dad's house, and keeps me posted on the goings-on in Fond du Lac. Her namesake also always makes time for me when I return, even if that means driving to Sheboygan. Facebook, necessary evil that it is, and email help me keep in contact with my friends in the U.S., and I always enjoy reading their updates.

My husband and my bestie hanging out at my family's cottage

My extended family in Germany. This includes my mother-in-law, who is also my dear friend, my host mother and sisters (one of whom lives in Madison!), my sister-in-law and her husband and children, and our former exchange student from Deizisau (near Esslingen) who stayed with us in 2008.

The house that Martin found for us, which fits us perfectly in almost every way. We have plenty of space for the two of us, room for guests, a Wintergarten (sun room), an office so we can keep our laptops out of common areas, a large basement for storage, raspberry bushes, azalias and rhododendron which are so beautiful when they bloom, a 4-minute walk to Martin's office, and best of all...a Kachelofen! It's a home full of love and harmony and the several plants that I've managed to keep alive.

Public transportation in Germany, because I can get anywhere I want to go for a day or a weekend without having to worry about driving or parking, both of which are a huge pain here! I've got plans to visit at least seven different Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) this season, and I can get to every single one by bus or train.

Christmas market in Nürnberg

...the little things:
     summer rain storms
     Christmas markets
     ice cream
     good movies
...and the not-so-little things:
     fresh German bread
     my family's cottage in northern Wisconsin
     thick winter blankets
     the people I have traveled with and learned so much from over the years
     Zwiebelrostbraten und Bratkartoffeln at Straub's Krone
     the post office (I still love old-fashioned, hand-written letters and cards!)
     sunny days
Perhaps if we all throw our gratitude "out there" into the world, things will get better all around for just a little while.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Big City

Last weekend this small town girl headed off to the Big City to visit my daughter, who is studying in Berlin. I flew to Tegel, where she met me and led me back to her host family's city flat. Although Tegel is Berlin's main airport*, it's small and there is no U-Bahn or S-Bahn that goes there. One has to take a bus to an S-Bahn station and then take a combination of S-Bahns to get to your final destination.

*Granted, Tegel isn't supposed to be Berlin's main airport. The new Berlin Brandenburg airport was supposed to open in June 2012, but due to a huge cluster-flup leading to about 66,500 problems such as escalator treads not reaching fully to both ends of the escalators, the opening has been delayed. No one knows when it can open for business, but optimistic guessers say maybe 2015.

The first time I was in Berlin was in 1986 (pre wall-fall), and the last time was in 1991 (1.5 years after the wall came down). Unsurprisingly, a lot has changed since then, and there was only one brief moment when we were walking in Alexanderplatz when I had a flashback to 1986 and recognized where I was. I remember this from 1991, but it is still a surreal experience to have toured Berlin when the wall was still there (not having any idea that it some day wouldn't divide the city) and now to walk through the Brandenburger Tor and freely around areas like the Museumsinsel and the Nikolaiviertel.

The bricks in the street going left to right in the foreground show where the wall once stood. 

I found Berlin to be mainly just big city - big building after big building, and every now and then an incredible landmark, famous beautiful old (reconstructed) structures, memorials, and one pretty section (the Nikolaiviertel). My daughter reminded me that I came at a terrible time. November is not a pretty, pleasant month, the weather was dismal and gray, and the Christmas markets, which we both love, don't open until next week. However, the time spent with her in this city she has come to love was precious, and I'm so glad I went!

She led me around the city on foot and by S-Bahn, and we saw most of the main attractions.

the Reichstag, where the federal government does its thing

Fernsehturm (Television Tower): we decided not to bother going up it to stare into the fog. ==>

The Nikolaiviertel, designed and built up for Berlin's 750th anniversary in 1987. It has the look of somewhat-old  Berlin, and it's a charming area.
the Berliner Dom and Fernsehturm

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, mostly covered by what looks like permanent scaffolding

One of the great things about the big city is that one can find just about every cuisine in the world. We ate Spanish, Turkish, German, Italian, and American food. And no, even though you can't swing a dead cat in Berlin without hitting a McDonald's, that is NOT where we ate. An American woman appears on our noon show ("ARD-Buffet") every now and then who has several cafes in Berlin. We found one very close to Stephanie's flat, had a delicious cappucino and I had a bagel (nearly unheard of in Germany) while Stephanie had a chicken salad sandwich. This cafe (Barcomi's) is in a second Hinterhof (inner courtyard) on Sophienstraße, and I do recommend it!

On at least two occasions, Stephanie was asked by tourists if she could give them directions somewhere. That was fun for me, though one of them freaked me out a bit at first. I have a pretty developed sense of other people's presence around me, and so I noticed a guy following us away from the Brandenburger Tor and across the street. Stephanie was pointing in various directions and telling me where things were, and we took a sharp turn and headed to the monument to Roma & Sinti victims of the holocaust. The guy followed us into that area too, and just as I was about to turn to him with my "Don't think I haven't seen you...Back off, Buster!" expression, he approached Stephanie and said, "You sound like you know what you're talking about. Can you tell me where the Jewish holocaust memorial is?" She pointed him in the right direction while I still kept a wary eye on him, but he did seem to lack the ill intentions I'd assumed he had.

I must admit, I was glad to get back to our quiet little one-horse town* where I know my way around, but there certainly is a lot to see and do in Berlin! I can well imagine Stephanie being glad to get back to bustling Berlin after visiting us during her week-long fall break. My favorite parts of this trip were accompanying Stephanie to the school where she does her practicum helping students with disabilities, watching her confidently navigating the public transportation and steering me around the city, seeing how she studies (photo below), hearing her speak German with her host mom and waiters, and just hanging out with her. I wish she were staying longer, but I love knowing that she will return to Germany as often as she can.

studying in her room
*I learned during our English lesson yesterday that in Spain our little Dorf would be called a "four-cats town"!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fun with ESL

A few months ago I started teaching an Englisch-AG (basically a twice-a-week after-school ESL [English as a Second Language] class) at a school for students with special needs. I've been enjoying it a lot, although I had thought I was finished with teaching when I left the U.S.. There are ten students in the class - four in 7th grade and six in 6th grade, and they are all sweet. The other day they discovered that I had recently had a birthday, and they each got out of their seats to shake my hand and wish me "Alles Gute". They seem interested, play along with whatever I ask them to do, try hard, and want to learn.

One of the best things about teaching this Englisch-AG over teaching German 1 in the States is that there are NO TESTS! There is also no homework (although I encourage them to practice what we've learned on their own), which means I plan lessons but don't have to grade anything. It's just intended to be fun. This is great for both the students and for me! Naturally, though, a lot of the techniques I used to teach German 1 are useful again teaching elementary English.

In German 1 I always taught the alphabet using the American Sign Language finger alphabet to cue them to the next letter. That keeps everyone together like counting with fingers zero to ten - everyone knows when to say the next number/letter. I have found it challenging to keep to English while signing the alphabet after so many years of combining the signs with the German alphabet! L, M, N, and O are the same in English and German, so it's usually at P that all of a sudden I've switched to German. By now I sign the letters but don't say them unless the students falter.

I have searched online for ESL activities, games, materials, and so on, and of course there's a wealth of great stuff out there. However, every now and then I come across something that makes me stop dead and wonder WHAT ON EARTH WERE THEY THINKING??  Here's an example of a vocabulary review game I found last week:

"Bang Bang"
Divide the class into two teams. Explain that they are cowboys and they are involved in a duel. One student from each team comes to the front. Get them to pretend to draw their pistols. Say "how do you say..." and a word in their mother tongue. The first child to give the correct answer and say "bang bang", pretending to shoot his opponent is the winner. He remains standing and the other one sits down. Give 1 point for the right answer and 5 extra points if they manage to "kill" 4 opponents in a row."

Seriously?? There are so many things wrong with that game that I wouldn't know where to start pointing them out! There are tons of great ways to review vocabulary without pretend guns and killing.  Stereotypes, anyone? Cowboys? Duels? Kill as many as you can? What a great cultural lesson.  By the way, most Germans do not understand Americans' apparent obsession with weapons and citizens' right to bear them. I can only imagine the phone calls to the Schulleiter when these kids play the game at home. "What kind of a game is that?!"  "We learned it in the Englisch-AG!"  Obviously I did not choose that particular method of vocabulary review.

The same site where I found that one offers a game like Balderdash, which is a great game! We played that with my dad's parents when I was young, but we called it "the Dictionary Game", since we only used pens, paper, and an actual dictionary to choose the words. Anyway, the game requires the teacher to choose a word unfamiliar to the students and have them make up definitions. The definitions are collected and students win points for either A. guessing the correct definition, or B. other students voting for the definition they wrote. That's all fine so far. But the teacher who submitted this idea ended with "a good word to start with is 'warmonger'."  WHAT?!?  There are billions of beautiful words in the English language. Why on earth would a teacher begin with 'warmonger'??

Combine those two activities in one lesson, and you'll have students believing what they hear about Americans being gun-happy and wanting to wage war wherever they can. I would hope that most ESL teachers' "Bad Idea Filter" would kick in and they would keep looking for other fun, less violent classroom games (or words).

At the school I also have access to a set of ESL materials with flashcards, storycards, posters, books with lesson ideas, etc.. They are a little juvenile, but the students don't seem to mind and it is SO much better to teach with pictures and the new language rather than translating with German words. So this weekend I'm preparing a lesson on "Family". [I am trying to ignore the fact that this lesson is entitled "Me and my family."  ARG!! DO NOT EVER say "Me and..." and for heaven's sake, don't teach it!!]

In this folder there are a bunch of flashcards without words on the back explaining the intent of the picture. Most of them are self-explanatory:

Aww, what a nice family. Mother, father, sisters, brother, son, daughter, husband, wife... Naturally they and all the other family members on all the cards are white, and apparently middle class and happy. There are cards for several types of families: mother with kids, father with kids, multi-generational...and all pasty white. Ok, fine. The pictures are good enough for the basics, and I can also find other pictures online.

But in leafing through the family flashcards, I came across this photo (no explanation):

I decided to call him Uncle Frank. Every family has one of these, right? I could really expand their vocabulary: 'on the lam', 'manhunt', 'restraining order', 'arrest warrant', 'slammer'... Hey! Then I could review the vocabulary, and instead of shooting each other with their finger pistols, they could shoot at Uncle Frank! The student who gets him between the eyes WINS!

For the record, I AM KIDDING...

One of my favorite methods of vocabulary review is a game I learned from my students in Wisconsin. It's a very simple game, but we have had a lot of laughs over the years while playing it. It's called Around the World. One student stands up next to a seated student. I turn over a card with a picture or a word in the native language, and the students have to quickly say the word in the new language. If the standing student says it first, he moves on to the next seated student to challenge her. If the seated student was faster, she moves on and the student who was standing sits in the newly vacated seat. The student who makes it all the way around to his or her original seat wins. No shooting, no killing, no weapons... I haven't tried this one with my new students, but I will soon. I think they will enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fantastic German Words II

One of the greatest parts of second-language study is getting to know new clever words that one never thought of before but make a lot of sense. If you stay with a language long enough, you'll get beyond the basic vocabulary (days of the week, animals, food...) and begin to explore longer, more complicated words that sometimes don't have a translation in your native language. It's especially fun to discover single words that, when translated or explained in your first language, require a string of words rather than just one.

Back in July I posted my first list of fabulous German words that I think should be brought over into English. Today I offer nine more useful, efficient words that deserve mention.

1. Zebrastreifen  (Zebra stripes)
This translates easily into English as "crosswalk". In Germany the signs I've seen in the U.S. (in New Hampshire, for instance) instructing drivers that "pedestrians in the crosswalk have the right of way" are unnecessary. Drivers automatically stop on the approach to the zebra stripes the moment someone steps one foot onto the stripes. Often, at least in our town, they slow down because someone is near the zebra stripes. This piece of road is sacred to pedestrians and respected by drivers, even if they grumble to themselves for having to stop again.

As you can see in the above picture, there are three clear signs screaming at the drivers that they are approaching zebra stripes. In some places, there are also flashing lights.

"Can't we just cross here?"
"No, it's safer at the zebra stripes, and you should be a good example for children."

2. -Muffel   (Grouch)
A -Muffel is someone who doesn't like or willingly participate in the thing attached to the word. A Morgenmuffel is a morning grouch - English speakers would say "She's not a morning person." A Gesundheitsmuffel doesn't care much about healthy living. There's no clever word for that in English, and again we would have to describe a person like that: "He doesn't take care of himself." The only English term that comes close is party pooper (Partymuffel), but that would be awkward for Morgenmuffel - "Morning pooper??" I don't think so.
the mug Martin bought me for my birthday this year
3. Besserwisser  (Better-knower)
The English term, "know-it-all", wouldn't work for Germans because it's inaccurate. No one knows it all, but a coworker might act like he knows more about something than I do. Naturally, it's entirely possible that he does know more than I do.  Still, the better-knower is about as popular here as the know-it-all is in the U.S.. Unless the better-knower has a higher academic degree or title. Then it's easier for a German to accept that the better-knower does know better.
     "My cousin is coming over for dinner next week."
     "Fine, but keep that better-knower out of my kitchen. I can't cook with her staring over my shoulder."

4. Übermorgen  (over-tomorrow or tomorrow extreme)
Americans have started to use the German prefix "über-" to indicate an extreme degree, usually of an adjective. I saw an ad for some brand of toilet paper in a magazine a few years ago, calling the product "über-absorbant". The Germans have one word for "the day after tomorrow". "Morgen" means tomorrow, so "übermorgen" is way tomorrow, or tomorrow extreme. What can be more than tomorrow? The day after!
     "When are you leaving for Hamburg?"
     "Over-tomorrow, if all goes well."

5. Vorgestern  (pre-yesterday)
This is the same concept as "übermorgen", in the other direction. Vorgestern is the day before yesterday in one simple word. We need to appreciate the rare occasions when the German language is actually simpler than English...
     "How long has your wife been in Hamburg?"
     "She left pre-yesterday, and she comes back over-tomorrow."

If you think about it, übermorgen wird heute vorgestern:  Over-tomorrow, today will be pre-yesterday. Wow. That's deep.

6. Fremdschämen  (stranger shame)
If you read part I of "Fantastic German Words," you might remember that there are quite a few interesting German terms connected to shame. This word describes what we feel when we watch someone else make an utter ass of himself. I think the feeling is amplified when the stranger belongs to your Landsleute (countrymen). I'm surprised the term "Landsleuteschämen" hasn't made it into common usage. I felt this during the last election campaign when a program aired on German TV about the Tea Party Express.
     "Each time the chairwoman opened her mouth on camera, I buried my face in stranger-shame."

7. Mitbringsel & Kleinigkeit  (little bring-along & smallness)
When you're invited to someone's home in Germany, you always bring a small gift, flowers, a cake, etc. You can go to a gift or flower shop and ask the salesperson for help by simply saying "I'm looking for a Mitbringsel." That tells her all she needs to know to offer suggestions: perhaps some decorative tea candles, seasonal napkins, or a small bouquet. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful.
When you arrive at your friend or aquaintance's home, you hand her your Mitbringsel, which by now has become a Kleinigkeit. (If you have brought flowers, take off the paper wrapping before you hand the bouquet to her.) Even if you have brought the most expensive bottle of wine from your cellar, you still call it a Kleinigkeit, since Germans are more prone to understatement than bragging.
     "Hi, Katherine, so good to see you again. Please come in."
     "Thanks, Petra. Here's a smallness I brought for you."

8. Lumpensammler  (tattered rag collector)
A Lumpensammler is an important person-vehicle combination at marathons, bike races, and fundraising walks. It is the van and the driver who follow the route at the very end and pick up and transport to the finish line stragglers, persons with minor injuries or fatigue, and parents with over-tired children who thought they could handle the distance but can't. According to a Lumpensammler is also the "last bus of the night," which in our area drives through shortly after 21:00 (9:00 p.m.). I imagine it's later in the big cities.
     "Ugh...I just can't walk anymore. I'm exhausted!"
     "No worries. The tattered rag collector will be along shortly."

9. doch  (this one word is a positive response to a negative statement, as in "Yes, he is.")
This might well be my favorite German word, and I have long wished there were an English equivalent. Since there isn't, it's best explained through examples.
     "It's not raining yet."
     "Doch." ["You're wrong. It IS raining."]

     "Her brother isn't coming to the party."
     "Doch."  ["You're wrong. He IS coming."]

     "You almost got hit by a car? Then you didn't use the zebra stripes!"
     "Doch!"  ["You're wrong. I DID cross at the zebra stripes!"]

This won't be my last post about the beautiful German language, which gets such a bad wrap for sounding harsh and angry. Yes, the grammar presents a great challenge at times and there are as many dialects as there are counties, but German really is (or at least can be) a lovely language.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Allerheiligen / All Saints' Day

Here in southern Germany, Allerheiligen (All Saints' Day) is a holiday. In fact, it's a stiller Feiertag ("quiet holiday") which means stores, schools, and most businesses are closed, there is no mail delivered, and one must not do yard work, building projects or anything else that is very noisy and could disturb the neighbors.

Southern Germany is predominantly Catholic, but even those who are not Catholic respect this day and the spirit behind it. The northern half of Germany is predominantly Protestant, and November 1st is a regular working day up there. Since November 1st is also my birthday, I have another reason to be glad we live here in the south!

St. John's cross, Isle of Iona

No one needs me to go into the religious history of All Saints' Day because you can google that yourself. But Allerheiligen is very much a cultural tradition here, even for those who are not religious. While in Wisconsin stores are selling costumes, decorations, huge blow-up ghosts, witches, and spiders, and megatons of candy for Halloween, in southern Germany stores, especially florists and garden centers but also grocery stores and gift shops, are highlighting Grabschmuck - grave ornaments, floral arrangements, stone angels, candles, and lanterns. These are not plastic decorations for homes; they are intended to be placed on graves of departed loved ones. This is not a time for costume parties and candy (Germans have Fasching for that, in March). It's a time to remember those we love who have passed away and tend their graves by weeding, pulling out the summer flowers, and planting flowers and plants that are hearty enough to survive the winter. The arrangements one can buy at this time are so subtly beautiful and seasonal that (before I realized they were intended for graves) I almost bought one for our living room!

Grabschmuck available at our local garden center

In Germany one rents a grave plot for a period of years called the Ruhezeit ("resting time"), usually 20-25 years, for a minimum of €1200 ($1655). At the end of that time a surviving family member can renew the rental for another 20-25 years, and I believe the charge is about the same. Obviously the amount varies greatly throughout Germany and increases with inflation. As long as someone has paid the rental/renewal fee, the deceased rests there in peace. When the family decides not to continue paying the rental fee or there are no more family members left, any remains are moved to a respectful place within the Friedhof ("peace yard", or cemetery) and the plot becomes available for a more recently deceased person. This may seem a bit shocking to Americans, but Germany simply doesn't have enough space for permanent graves, and land costs a pretty penny over here. Of course, the graves of famous and important people are protected and the headstones remain, and if you walk through very old Friedhöfe you will see headstones dating back centuries for which surely no one is still paying. I imagine that if the time comes when that space is needed, as long as the grave or cemetery is not protected for historical reasons, the grave will be reused.

Some families pay a florist to tend the grave and do seasonal plantings during the year. The minimum for that service is about €500 ($690) per year, and many do that care and planting themselves. The sure thing is that the graves are tended and quite beautiful, especially around Allerheiligen. Most graves look lovingly cared for and decorated with colorful fresh flowers, lively bushes and shrubs, little round stones with sayings like "Immer in unseren Gedanken" or "in stillen Gedanken" ("Always in our thoughts" or "in quiet thoughts"), and candles in enclosed glass lanterns, often burning. Especially at this time of year you will see many people stopping at graves, walking quietly through the Friedhof, stopping at a memorial and lighting a candle... I have always been struck by the beauty of Friedhöfe in Germany.

The Keckonen plot in Calumet, MI

In the U.S. cemetery plots are purchased, not rented. Once the plot is purchased, the occupant and his or her headstone rest there eternally. My family has eight plots together in a cemetery in Upper Michigan, which my great-grandfather purchased in 1959 for a grand total of $2.00 (€1,46). That is not a typo. Any of his direct descendants, along with their spouses, have the right to be buried in the remaining available space within these eight plots. These are Rasengräber (grass graves), and the cemetery employees take care of the mowing, weeding, raking, and so on. There is no fee for that service. Another interesting difference is that in the U.S. if a person is cremated, the cremains can be handed over to a family member, who can then transport them to the cemetery where they will be buried. This is not allowed in Germany.

I have often said that everything (or at least almost everything) is more expensive in Germany. Clearly, even being deceased costs more here.

In part because of the expense of purchasing and keeping a private grave, Germans have been exploring other options in recent years. For instance, there are 46 Friedwälder in Germany, which are areas of forests set aside for burials. The urn is buried under a tree, there is no need or charge for Grabpflege ("grave tending") because nature takes care of that, and the Ruhezeit can be up to 99 years in some Friedwälder. There's something about that idea that appeals to both Martin and me.

But tomorrow on Allerheiligen, we will enjoy a quiet day, take a long walk, think about the loved ones we've lost, cook a nice meal, and appreciate the start of a long weekend.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Looking Forward

My dear son tweeted a few days ago that he's looking forward to coming to Germany over Christmas because he won't have to work for those two weeks. He works in a fast food chain on weekends and often hates it, according to his tweets.  We brought him (and his sister) to Germany and Austria a few years ago, but that was in the summer time and we stayed mainly in hotels while we traveled around. This time we'll be spending family time together and taking a few day trips from here.  For this blog entry I thought I would list a couple other things he could look forward to besides not flipping burgers and making Frappacinos.

1. The nearly dead silence in our small town.* No traffic noises, only one dog that barks occasionally, and a phone that only rings about twice a week.
  *Except on Saturdays. That's chain saw day. If you have one, apparently you saw stuff on Saturdays.

2. Rolladen (see a few entries back). These are the shutters, which you can close completely to darken the room. If your door and your Rolladen are closed, your room will be black as pitch even in the middle of the day. This, combined with the quiet, means if there's nothing you have to do, you can sleep for hours and hours.  I hear college kids like that sort of thing during holidays.

3. Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets), especially the one in Esslingen, which we'll go to on your first day here. There is a medieval market there as well as the "regular" Christmas market, and the atmosphere is so wonderful and festive. You'll be able to find fabulous gifts for your girlfriend here.

4. Train travel. We can get anywhere we want to go by train and bus. And we have plenty of day trip options: Freudenstadt, Esslingen, Stuttgart, Ulm, Tübingen...

5. Dinner and/or brunch at our favorite local restaurant, Straubs Krone. Think of the most fabulous meal you've ever eaten at a restaurant and multiply the deliciousness by a factor of 10. We will recommend you order the Zwiebelrostbraten. I'm salivating just thinking about it.

6. No yelling. We do not shout to or at each other through the house. Not only because the walls are made of concrete, but because...well, it's just rude. If I need you and don't see you, I'll come find you.

7. The fresh, clean, crisp Black Forest air.

8. German bread, pretzels, and rolls.

9. No dog poo or pee in the house, in your bedroom, or on your work uniform, because we don't have pets. We do have cats on walkabout strolling through our yard every day and lots of snails and slugs in the garden, but that's it for wildlife.

10. Little, if any, shoveling because we hardly get any snow. If it does happen to snow while you're here, yes, we would like your help. It might take 15 minutes (5 if we work together).

11. The Mercedes Benz Museum near Stuttgart. Even your sister liked it!

12. The home-cooked dinners we'll cook while you're here, for instance:
     Irish Lamb Stew
     Schweinebraten & Roast Potatoes
     Bratkartoffeln and whatever we feel like making with them

13. Our family holiday traditions:
    Christmas Eve:
     Decorating the tree, then watching a holiday film
     Having a long, slow meal (probably Raclette)
     Bescherung (exchanging of gifts)
     No stress, no traveling
    Christmas Day:
     Relax all day, eat another big meal, and take a long walk
     Still no stress, still no traveling
    Boxing Day (26. December):
     There's still nothing open (stores, etc.), so it's another relaxing day.
    Silvester (New Year's Eve):
     "Dinner for One", of course
     Fireworks and Sekt (champagne) at midnight

There are several things you'll notice I didn't include:
  a. Driving on the Autobahn (Martin will have his winter tires on anyway, so he can only go about 125mph in the few spots where there's no speed limit and no traffic jam)
  b. Drinking age of 16 (yes, you can have Sekt on Silvester)
  c. Constantly texting & tweeting (too expensive overseas, and there are other things in life)
  d. Wearing Lederhosen (I don't think I'd get away with making you do that twice)
  e. Church (I really wanted to go last year, and Martin came with me! Sadly, it was utterly uninspiring. And since you've been over-churched in WI, I didn't think you'd mind. I will absolutely go if either you or your sister wishes to.)

I think we will have a lovely time, and I'm looking forward to both children being here for Christmas and New Year's this year. This will be my son's first time seeing and staying at our house! Martin's mother will join us for the holidays, and we already know from past trips that we all travel well and get along well together. So there's a lot to look forward to.

I'll end with one of my favorite photos of my dear son, looking like a Hummelfigur.

Granted, that was a few years ago...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

German Double Beds

Despite the fact that modern German kitchen designers have all but done away with double sinks making me wonder if they have ever spent any time actually using a kitchen, in other areas of home and furniture design, the Germans have stumbled upon brilliance. One such masterpiece is the German double bed. It's such a simple idea, really, and probably something most Germans take for granted unless they've traveled to the U.K. or the U.S. for several overnights. Perhaps double beds are like the American and British style everywhere else in the world as well - I really don't know. I just know that the German bed designers really nailed it.

So here it is. "Big deal," you say. "It's a bed. And in fact it doesn't look like a double bed, it looks like two singles."

Even though our head board is split, the bed frame is one piece. There are two mattresses, and I assume they are both single-bed size. The fitted sheets go over each mattress, and so if one's wife is off traveling in America for several weeks, he can wash his own sheet without having to strip the entire bed. There are no flat sheets to tuck in, which makes making the bed a breeze.

The covers are Federbetten (feather beds), which the Brits call duvets. When it's time to wash the sheets, the duvet cover - which is like a pocket or sleeve which closes on the one end with buttons or a zipper - is removed and washed. To make the bed, I fluff up the Federbett, fold it in half, lay it on the mattress, and I'm finished. No retucking, no folding down of the flat sheet, no straightening of the sheet because it's touching the floor on one side and hardly covering the mattress on the other... (all those devilish annoyances that make children grumble about having to make their beds in the morning).

And here's another brilliant thing: M is almost always warm. He sleeps with his window open and the heat in the bedroom off all winter long.  (Germans like and need as much fresh air as they can get, no matter how cold it is.) That's one reason why he likes not having the flat sheet we had on the bed in Wisconsin - if there's no flat sheet trapping his feet, then when it gets warm at night he can just stick a leg out. I, on the other hand, am almost always cold. As I sit here in the office typing this, I'm considering getting my winter slippers because my feet are starting to go numb despite the fact that it is not cold in here!  Is it time to bring out the winter blanket? I'd say yes, but not for M. So this is how couples living in Germany solve that little issue:

Guess which side I sleep on?

It's perfect - he can go on using his summer blanket until January when it actually gets cold, and I can use my "Wolke 7" ("Cloud 9") blanket from now until May. Everybody's happy.

One other marital issue that is solved by this bed design is something men must grumble about a lot, judging from cartoons and comedians' jokes - the wife stealing the blanket (which I've surely never done). This way, she has her own! She can wrap up and snuggle in to her heart's content, and he doesn't have to worry about waking up shivering because she is hoarding the warmth. I recently saw a cartoon of a couple lying in bed, and the husband had nailed his side of the blanket to the floor on his side of the bed. We don't have to resort to such measures here in Germany!

Now if only the bed designing team could help out the guys designing kitchen sinks...!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Driving in Germany 2: Verkehrsfunk

You're driving down the interstate, listening to the radio, probably singing along, shaking your head at the drivers around you who are drifting all over while talking on their cell phones, and suddenly the car in front of you swerves and you see a chunk of tire on the lane right in front of you. You're in luck and are able to navigate safely around it, heart pounding, glad you had both hands on the wheel!  Wouldn't it be nice if there were a way for drivers to warn each other of obstructions on the road?

In Germany, we have this. It's called Verkehrsfunk, or "traffic radio". This is a service that many radio stations provide for their region. As long as the driver has his radio or entertainment system switched on, he is likely to get traffic updates regularly as well as when something sudden or new shows up on a major road.  During the regular broadcast, often right in the middle of a song, the Verkehrsfunk busts in with its intro tone and the DJ makes her report: "Attention on the A8 Stuttgart toward Munich between Wendlingen and Kirchheim, there is a bag of peas lying in the right lane."  So if you are heading in that direction you know to slow down and/or get out of the right lane to avoid a nasty surprise or accident.

The interruption comes in even if we're listening to our own music on a CD or mp3 player, as long as the "Infotainment System", as Audi calls it, is on.

We have heard all kinds of warnings about various objects and obstacles on the Autobahnen and Bundesstrassen during our travels over the years. Just to mention a few of the more memorable ones:

   a bicycle basket
   an entire bicycle
   tree branches
   wild pigs (this one is fairly common)
   a hub cap
   people involved in an accident (Rule #1: Get onto the grass as quickly as possible!)
   people on an overpass throwing rocks at cars (What is wrong with people?!?)
   an ostrich who escaped from a zoo
   a dog
   a charcoal grill
   several sheep
   a picnic basket
   a dresser drawer
   a wheel (begging the question...where is the car that dropped the wheel??)
   a board of wood
   a shovel
   a mattress
   a surfboard
   a llama (escaped from a traveling circus)
The Verkehrsfunk also reports on something you will get very used to if you drive anywhere in Germany: Staus (traffic jams). Driving in Germany is a little bit like playing connect-the-traffic-jams. You just drive from one to the next, though sometimes (usually Sundays) you can manage an entire hour without coming upon one. For those of you who still think there are no speed limits on Germany's Autobahnen, sorry to disappoint you. Sure, there are stretches without speed limits, but the Staus are so frequent that you'll hardly get your rental car up to 200 km/h before you have to slow down again.

This service is helpful, though, and I wished for it often in Wisconsin. When you come to a Stau in Germany, it won't usually be more than 10 minutes before the Verkehrsfunk will let you know the cause of the Stau and how far it stretches. The length is reported in kilometers, of course, which still doesn't help me much, but M is usually driving anyway. Then you can decide whether to abandon the Autobahn and take another route or not. At the very least you know approximately how long you'll be creeping along, which should help with your impatience and stress level. No sense in getting your knickers in a knot if you know you're stuck for 12 km, because getting worked up isn't going to help.

Perhaps the most important announcements the Verkehrsfunk makes are the warnings of Geisterfahrer ("ghost driver"). A Geisterfahrer is someone who is driving the wrong way on a highway, and sadly this happens way too frequently, often causing horrible accidents. Officials are trying to figure out what, if anything, can be done to reduce the number of Geisterfahrer. Signs like the one above have gone up here and there, and some have proposed installing spikes on exit ramps that would puncture tires of cars using the ramps to enter the Autobahn, but that could prevent emergency vehicles from reaching accidents quickly.  I don't really know what can be done to prevent Geisterfahrer, since sadly they are often either drunk, elderly and confused, or suicidal. I'm just glad there are people and police officers who call in to the Verkehrsfunk to report these and other hazards, so at least there may be a chance to prevent bad accidents.

Unlike with commercials, I look forward to the tone that tells me the Verkehrsfunk is about to report. There's always the chance that there will be some announcement crazier than the ones I've heard in the past. I think the winner so far is the ostrich. The DJ added that people should please drive carefully in that area, because the Ostrich Frau was anxious about her husband's safety and eager for his return.

Fahr vorsichtig!  (Drive carefully!)

Driving in Germany 1: Speed limits
Driving in Germany 3: Stop sign

Thursday, September 19, 2013

One Year

It was a year ago today that I arrived in Germany to begin my new life here together with Martin. After six years of being married but living 4000 miles apart, it was time.  It has been a great year full of many changes. It's been fun getting to know more about life in Germany than I ever knew before despite frequent visits, spending more time with my husband than I ever have before, and living the normal life of a married couple.

I mostly relaxed my first year, did a lot of reading, some writing, some translating, and some teaching. I discovered I enjoy gardening to some degree, I really enjoy planning meals and cooking more than I realized, and laundry and cleaning are no big deal when they are not on top of a full-time job. Feminists would cringe at the list of activities I just mentioned, but I don't care. I am happy I can do those things, do them well, and enjoy them.

I loved my first year here and am grateful I was able to see my friends and family from Wisconsin several times in those twelve months.

It's appropriate that, at the one-year mark, I'm starting a few new adventures. A friend asked me to work with her once a week with an organization called Lebenshilfe. This is a Verein (Club or Assocation) that offers fun activities, outings, and assistance to people with cognitive, physical, learning, and/or emotional disabilities. The Verein members take interested people bowling, swimming, shopping, to the movies or a disco, etc., for example. My friend and I spend time with a group of young students after school for a few hours who would otherwise be alone because their parents are working. We take them to a park, play games, sometimes go to the grocery store and then cook something, go out for ice cream, and so on.

Next week I will also be starting to teach an Englisch-AG (basically an extra-curricular, after school English class) at  a school for students with learning disabilities. English is not a part of the regular school curriculum, and my AG is intended to be a fun enrichment class. There were more students interested than were expected based on past classes, and I hope I can do a good job for the students and keep them interested!

My English conversation lessons with Martin's employees continue, and we all enjoy them - even the grammar lessons and worksheets!  Martin has commented several times that it sounds more like fun than work, because there is more laughter than he expected. Sometimes I wonder if he and his business partner would like to join us rather than sitting on dull phone conferences...

And lastly, I am in the middle of a fabulous transcription project that is more interesting than any job I have ever done before. It's similar to the translation projects I've worked on a few times, and I really enjoy this kind of work - working at my own pace, at a desk at Martin's office, few distractions or interruptions... I thoroughly look forward to every minute I can spend on this project!

So this second year will be different from the first as I get back into the working world - though only part-time. I'm looking forward to my daughter's visit next week during a fall break from studying in Berlin, as well as both kids visiting us over the Christmas holidays. That will be my son's third trip to Europe, second to Germany, and first to our home here in Bildechingen.

It's been a good year, and I'm looking forward to all the coming years as well.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

You can't get there from here

Our lovely little town is on a hill above the Neckar Valley. The Neckar River flows from the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) through our state of Baden-Württemberg and flows into the Rhein (Rhine) River at Mannheim. Horb lies right on the Neckar, down in the valley.  The drive from our house to the Bahnhof (train station) in Horb takes about 5-7 minutes, depending on traffic, or 8-10 minutes by bus.


This weekend, however, we learned that a 4-block section of the heavily-traveled road going through Horb will be closed for badly-needed repairs. Traffic is being re-routed along the top of the hill near where we live, through the countryside and several small villages, to cross the river at the next possible point, just west of town. So the 4km (2.5 mile) bus ride to the Bahnhof will, for the next few weeks, be a 13.4km trip that will take at least 25 minutes.  We could otherwise drive ourselves down there via another route - which the bus can't use because it can't navigate the hairpin turns of the narrow road going down into the valley.  But then we have to pay to park the car all day at the Bahnhof, which can get expensive.

For those of you who know Sheboygan, Wisconsin (where nearly every street is badly in need of repairs!), this route is sort of like going from the Mall to Kohler via Sheboygan Falls. Enlarging the scale, say the road is closed from Milwaukee to Sheboygan, so you have to drive via Madison.

Why can't we just skirt around the closed road, you wonder? In Wisconsin, for example, if 4 blocks of a road are closed, we take a 6-block detour that adds perhaps 45 seconds to our drive. Here, there is one road that goes through Horb over the Neckar. One.

Looking at the map above, we live at point A. The Bahnhof is at point B. The red route shows the road going down into the valley and through Horb. The construction site is near the H (the former location of the hospital that closed down last year).  The blue route shows the 13.4km (8 mile) bus detour on little country roads.

This map shows our other option as well, if we go by car to the Bahnhof. The road marked in red is the usual route, and the blue road to the right (east) cuts the detour down to about 11km (6.8 miles). You can even see the hairpin turns that the bus can't navigate heading down into the valley. This route takes us down into the tiny town of Mühlen, over the Neckar, up the other side of the valley, and through the town of Nordstetten, which is up on the top of the hill opposite our side of the valley. Then we drive down again on the other side of the Neckar to reach the Bahnhof.

There is another road that goes into Horb, but it connects to the main road on the wrong side of the construction, so one still can't get to the Bahnhof. That secondary road gets us to the north side of Horb just left of the H, at the foot of the hill coming down into the valley from Bildechingen, facing another big hill on which sits the Stiftskirche (church), the Marktplatz (market place), houses, and businesses. You can't drive over that hill, though, because, although a narrow winding cobblestone road goes up to the Marktplatz from the north, there is no road going down on the south side. Only footpaths.

Normally this would not really bother us. I can avoid going down into town for months at a time. But my daughter, who is studying in Berlin this semester, is coming for a visit next week and we had planned to take some day trips. Our thought was to take the bus to the Bahnhof and catch a train to wherever we want to go. Now there's no way to plan well, because the bus schedule will be entirely unpredicatable. Martin can drive us down the hill via the secondary road and dump us on the north end of town, and from there we'll walk up the big hill, across the Marktplatz, perhaps stop in the church to pray the construction crew stays on schedule, down the hill through town, and across the river to the Bahnhof - probably a 12-minute walk. This is not a problem, and it's what we'll do. It's rather inconvenient, though, and a bit strenuous for those of us who are more out of shape than we'd like to admit.

The next time you have to take a 6-block detour (and yes, I know it's often more than that), be glad you don't have to completely circumnavigate the entire city to get to your destination!

**Update (17. Sept., 2013): There's a long article in the paper today about this construction and other construction projects in the county going on at the same time, and the ensuing chaos. One line from that article: "Ortsfremde, egal ob sie mit Navi geleitet werden oder nicht, sind aufgeschmissen." Translation: "Drivers unfamiliar with the area, whether they have a GPS or not, are screwed."