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...!