Thursday, December 31, 2015

December Highs and Lows 2015

Today is the last day of the year, and I hope you can close 2015 saying there was more good than bad, more laughter than tears, and more peace in your soul than unrest. As for me, I don't need to review this thread of posts to know that there were more highs than lows in 2015. I am looking forward to 2016 and the adventures and challenges it will bring.

For something new, I'm going to try this month to limit my mention of food in my "Highs". Let's see how that goes.


  • meeting another expat blogger (Around the Wherever) in Esslingen at the Weihnachtsmarkt and hanging out for a few hours on a Saturday. She's originally from the American Midwest as well! We played Mäuseroulette, and I actually won this time! I kept my stone but gave the prize to a little Italian girl who had played that round as well but didn't win.
Darling Zora posed before running into the house with my stone on it!
The children are doing "mouse applause" with their fingers.
  • visiting Tübingen's Chocolate festival for the second year, buying gifts, and tasting samples. Yum!!

  • visiting the Hermann Hesse Kolleg several times and sitting in on classes where refugees are learning German. I was able to participate in the class and work with the students I was sitting near. One of the students asked me what a "Schirm" is, and I answered in German and pantomime: "When it rains I need an umbrella." He understood and wrote down the definition in Arabic. Then he looked at me and said, "You know English - why didn't you just tell me the English word?"  "Because you don't learn as well if I just give you the answer!" :-)

  • Friday morning riding lessons. I ride a sweet little horse named Mallory. Actually she's more bitchy than sweet, but she does her job well and puts up with me. 

  • appearing in a newspaper photograph that accompanied an article about the weekly Sprach-Cafe I attend where refugees, volunteers, and townspeople come together for refreshments and conversation.

  • Christmas, of course - a lovely, quiet celebration with my Schwiegermutter, M, and me as my kids headed to Disney World with my parents. Given and received were several books including two about food photography, calendars, socks (because M actually does like getting socks for Christmas!), lotion, knife sharpener blades, an in-home cooking class featuring sauces, and a day out shopping for "horse stuff."

  • bumping into an acquaintance of mine on a spontaneous trip into town and being offered a job! I wasn't looking for a job and never thought I'd want to teach again, but there is a need that I can fill. I can only commit to part time, but it looks like I'll be teaching basic German to at least one class of refugees four or five afternoons a week.

  • meeting my Gastmutter, my exchange partner, her husband and three of their kids for lunch in Esslingen. Although we didn't take any pictures, I truly enjoyed the afternoon! Incidentally, my exchange partner married an American and they live in Wisconsin, and as you know I married a Swabian and live in southern Germany. Little did we or our parents know, back when we applied for that exchange 30 years ago, how all our lives would change because of it.


  • news from the U.S. that Donald Trump is still the most popular GOP candidate for the presidency. Seriously, people? 

  • the package I mailed to my family in Wisconsin not making it there in time for Christmas.


  • 250g of powdered sugar costs €1,19, while the same amount of regular sugar costs €0,16. I can make powdered sugar in our Thermomix in 10 seconds. Guess who's never buying powdered sugar again?

  • Vanilla extract is not sold in Germany - at least I've never been able to find it, and it's not an ingredient ever called for in German recipes. I learned that one can make vanilla extract by immersing sliced vanilla beans in vodka and letting it rest in the cellar for 8 weeks (giving it a shake once a week). I'll let you know at the end of February how it turned out.
one bean per 2 ounces of vodka

That's it for the year. Tonight we have fondue, "Dinner for One,"the British comedy sketch that is cult in Germany - Bleigießen (pouring melted lead into cold water to tell our fortunes), and neighborhood fireworks at midnight while M prowls around the house checking for errant burning rockets. Cheers! Slainte! Prosit!

Prepping the fondue:
roasting the soup bones means less fat in the soup

Suppenfleisch, roasted bones, long pepper, anise, veggies, herbs from our garden
and parsley simmer on the stove for hours

pork and beef tenderloin, fresh veggies, Sahne Dip, fondue broth...ready to begin!

Although we have the DVD, it's really the wrong version -
the narrator's original grammatical mistake is edited and corrected. So we watch one of the many airings on TV.
Watch for the narrator (Heinz Piper) in the beginning doing the "Merkel Diamond" - all the way back in 1963!
Bleigeißen tools - plus a glass of water

I wish you all a fabulous New Year's Eve 
and a great and healthy start to 2016!!

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Storm before the Calm

It's Christmas week! Although it's warm like autumn here with no snow in sight - which is totally fine by me! - we're making final preparations for our small Christmas celebration. The tree is up and decorated (American tradition - do it early so you can enjoy it longer!), the Advent wreath's fourth candle was lit last night, the nativity scene is arranged though Baby Jesus is in the drawer with the remote controls until Christmas Eve (why that drawer? So we don't forget where we stashed Him), the meat has been ordered, the outside icicle lights are up and on a timer to turn on every morning and evening, most of the presents are wrapped, and the stockings are hung.

I believe I have all the groceries we need for the next two weeks except for what I'll get from our vegetable guy tomorrow evening and the meat I'll pick up at the butcher. But today I did have to go to the grocery store one last time for a few additional things.

What a ZOO!!!

Monday is always somewhat busy at the store because it's closed every Sunday and people are getting ready for the next week. But today was even worse - I barely found a parking space - because of what's coming at the end of the week.

On Thursday, Christmas Eve, the store is open until 14:00 (2:00 pm). It will re-open the following Monday. That's right - the grocery store is closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day (the 2nd Day of Christmas), and on the 27th because stores are always closed on Sundays here.

I've said it before - I really like it that the stores are closed and even the employees - all the employees - can spend the holiday time with their families. Sure, it can be inconvenient for us, like last year when I forgot to buy the pork roast that was to be dinner on New Year's Day and only realized this 20 minutes after the stores closed on New Year's Eve. M foraged around in the freezer and found four duck legs, and we had a wonderful meal anyway - trying out a new recipe besides!

the Barbarie Entenkeule that should have been a roast

Everyone has to plan ahead around the holidays and stock up on the things one can't do without, like coffee, milk, bread... I've made a list and checked it thrice, and this morning I went to the store along with the entire rest of the community. Shopping carts everywhere, grannies and their mates trudging along very, very slowly, younger people half pushing, half leaning on their carts while diddling with their cell phones, temporarily abandoned carts blocking shelves everywhere, employees stocking shelves and pulling huge carts around the store dodging customers, neighbors stopping in the middle of the aisles to chat, a line at the butcher, a line at the cheese counter, a line at the bakery, a line at the produce scales, and a long line at the checkout. Ugh. The only way to keep your sanity is to be patient and appear friendly. Nailed it.

This is so last year - this year we have only balls on the tree and no snow.
Although the stores will be crazy tomorrow and Wednesday as well, as of mid-day on Thursday all will calm down and we'll enjoy the quiet. Three and a half days of no shopping, no fighting crowds exchanging unwanted gifts, no dashing about for after-Christmas sales. Just quiet time with family. Walks in the valley, perhaps a snowless drive into the Black Forest, rounds of Trivial Pursuit, holiday films, reflecting on the past year and planning for next, and relaxing. The Germans really know how to do Christmas!

As for us, it will be just M, my Schwiegermutter, and me this year. My parents and kids have some grand plans in the U.S. (for instance driving from Wisconsin to Disney World and back over a week). We'll make Raclette on Christmas Eve, Lamb Stew on Christmas Day, Fondue (with soup, not oil!) on New Year's Eve, and on the other days Cordon Bleu, Shepherd's Pie, Ostpreußische Schusterpastete, and grilled pork (Schweinehals) with Bratkartoffeln.

Oh jeez...there I am going on about food again.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a good slide into the New Year! May 2016 bring peace.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Never Say Never

Yep, this is how I'm feeling these days, even though I know I have only my silly self to blame.

When I left the U.S. and moved to Germany in 2012, it was for good. I quit my job teaching high school German and English at a Catholic high school in Wisconsin belting Handel's Hallelujah Chorus all the way home after my last day, gave away most of my teaching materials and books, loaded the household items and books I couldn't part with onto a moving van (ok, the movers did that), sold our house and my car, said "Auf Wiedersehen!" to my friends and family. Although I had taught basic German to American high schoolers for 13 years, I knew I would no longer need any of the books, flashcards, workbooks, props, films, or games I'd accumulated over the years. I was moving to Germany, after all; I certainly wouldn't be teaching German to anyone over here!

Who would possibly want to learn German from someone who hasn't mastered the flaming language despite 33 years of varying degrees of effort?

I knew I would never teach again.

This is actually one of my former students.
photo credit: another former student know what they say:

Never Say Never!!

Turns out there are some people here in Germany who could benefit from my own struggles with learning German, the tricks I learned while teaching the language (did you know you can sing the alphabetized list of dative prepositions to the tune of "the Blue Danube Waltz"? If not, I'll bet you also didn't know that the alphabetized list of Wechselpräpositionen match the tune of "an die Freude"), and my efforts to integrate into life in the Schwabenland.

A few weeks ago I agreed to teach a two-week basic beginner's German class to a small group of exchange students from my hometown who will be spending five wonderful months in Esslingen, just as I did in 1986. Back then the Sheboygan schools still offered German as a foreign language, but these students are coming over with little preparation. They'll arrive just before the craziness of Fasching/Fasnet, and after they wake up from that nightmare, we'll go to it and see how much they can learn in two intense weeks.

More recently I have gotten involved with the Freundeskreis-Asyl in Horb as well as the Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg, which is a language school in Horb. There is a great need now for DaF (Deutsch als Fremdsprache - German as a foreign language) teachers to help the million-plus refugees who have fled to Germany this year learn German so they can then apply to study or work, as well as blend into life here.

I've sat in on several classes at the Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg in recent weeks, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. Today (Day 7 of their instruction), the teacher had them practicing ALL SIX verb tenses with regular and irregular verbs! Granted, this is the more advanced class, but when the refugees arrived between 2 and 12 weeks ago, they spoke little if any German. The students are all men from Syria and Eritrea, a country I'd never heard of until now (supporting the stereotype that Americans suck at world geography). Some of the refugees know a helpful amount of English, and others have to rely on their friends and classmates who can translate grammar explanations into Arabic or Eritrean.

Due to my other commitments, I won't be teaching a regular class because they are three hours a day from Monday to Friday, but I'll find my niche and perhaps jump in as a substitute teacher when someone's ill or team-teach with one of the regular teachers.

So here I sit wondering what it is about teaching that won't let me go.

While in college I started down the secondary education path, then fled after several terms of observations in high school classrooms. The squirrly little bahstuds couldn't be bothered to study, practice, or learn, but had plenty of time for screwing around and watching game after game of whatever sport was in season. I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English knowing that the one thing I would NEVER do was teach. Five years later I was a teacher.

16 years later I left the U.S. knowing I would never teach again. A year later I was once again a teacher. At a friend's request I started a "Fun with English" class at a Förderschule for students with mild learning disabilities, and now two more years later I'm getting ready to teach beginners' German again.

There's something totally different about what I'm doing now, though. I'm volunteering. I'm doing this because I want to. There are no tests, I don't have to give or correct homework (though I do sometimes), the students want to learn what I'm teaching, there are no parent-teacher conferences (although I never minded those), it's part-time, and best of all, there are no in-services!

I guess I can't deny it's in my blood. According to at least some of my former and current students, I don't suck at it.

That's right - I can get a couple of tough high school football players
to pose with a stuffed kangaroo before the big game.
How? By asking them if they'd do this for me.
I was teaching when the news of Columbine hit and our sense of security within our school campuses was shattered. I was walking with my students into mass when we got word that two planes had crashed into the twin towers. I was teaching when we learned that our student, Jeanne Giese, was probably going to die of rabies and when we welcomed her back after her miracle cure. I brought six groups of German students over to Germany for 15-day summer trips including home stays with German families and heard comments like, "Frau H., now I get why you love this country so much!"

My first dream career was veterinarian. That came to an abrupt end when I watched a cat get declawed and nearly lost both my lunch and consciousness, so, as I often told my high school students, I decided to work with a different type of animal. My lifelong dream has been to become a writer of novels.

But I can't get the teacher out of me. Some people never learn...  :-)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Debo's Story

This is a plea to anyone who sees this. Please choose compassion over fear, understanding over intolerance, and empathy over hatred. I do understand fear, but please do not reject an entire race or religion because of the very bad apples. Find and read stories of individual refugees and families, and compare them to your own story, your children's lives, and your parents. Try to imagine in their place you and your children, siblings, parents, nieces, nephews, and cousins - having to choose between abandoning your home and fleeing for your life or staying put and being killed or forced into service for an evil army because you weren't lucky enough to be born in America.

I'm not asking you to donate money, and I'm not asking you to get physically involved and help. I'm only asking that you not publicly reject or applaud the rejection of fellow human beings who are not so different from you - young people who want to study and find good jobs to support their families, parents who want their children to live in safety and be able to walk to and from school without fear of being killed by bombs or rockets, people who don't want to be forced to serve a corrupt government or a terrorist organization.

In our local newspaper the other day there was an article about a young man who fled his war-torn homeland after imprisonment and brutal abuse and made his way to Germany. With the editor's permission, here is my translation and summary of that article.

The real brutality of the civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, is not shown on TV in the interest of piety. Persecuted and in constant mortal danger, injured and traumatized, millions of Syrians have fled their homeland with nothing but the clothes on their backs and precious few worldly possessions to escape the violence and destruction. The journey itself is dangerous as well and arduous, but leaving their homes was the less awful of two unacceptable choices.

Abdulkalik Debo is one of these millions, and since October he has been living in the town of Weitingen, not far from Horb. Though he is only 19 years old (one year younger than my son), he has witnessed atrocities most people his age will never know.

Debo (because his last name is short and easy to pronounce, everyone calls him that) was born in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where he also attended a school which has since been destroyed by bombs. Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria and was named the "Capital of Islamic Culture" in 2006. Its old town was ranked a Unesco World Heritage Site. Since then the city has been mostly destroyed, especially the quarter in which the rebels fighting against Assad have hunkered in.

in Aleppo
One day several years ago the war came to the Debo family with their six children. One of Debo's cousins was severely injured by shrapnel from a rocket attack on his way to school. Debo (15 at the time) and a friend called for a taxi to take his cousin to the hospital. They were sent from one hospital to another because the injuries were too severe for regular care - eventually they ended up at the university clinic. During the drive they complained about the Assad regime and the brutality of his troops and the militia, not knowing that the taxi driver was an Assad supporter. He reported these teenagers, and the friends were arrested and turned over to the security police. Debo didn't have his i.d. papers with him and resisted being "recruited" by the government troops - he was much too young anyway, but he looked older because of his strong build and growing beard. His parents were summoned because the police didn't believe his reported age.

Debo was kept under arrest with 200 other prisoners in a room so small that it was impossible for anyone to lie down. They could only lean on each other, half sitting and half collapsed, and sleeping was impossible. During his parents' interrogation Debo was handcuffed and forced to kneel with a sack over his head in the next room. He could hear his parents, but they did not know he was so close. Remember, he was 15 years old.

During the time of his imprisonment Debo - like all the other prisoners - was badly abused, frequently beaten with clubs, kicked with combat boots, and burned. There was very little to eat. Debo doesn't remember anymore how long he had to endure these conditions.

On the day of the massacre in 2013, in which 200 opponents of Assad who had had high hopes about the "Arab Spring" revolution were murdered, Debo should have been among the dead. He remembers the day. Groups of prisoners were marched outside and one by one slaughtered with meat knives or shot when they refused to recognize Assad as their "god". By the time it was  Debo's turn, blood was already flowing through the yard like a river. A soldier shouted at him, and Debo answered, "My god is Allah." He was stabbed and beaten like the others and lost consciousness. His body was tossed into the nearby riverbed, where several kurdish villagers found him a short time later. Debo was one of four men they found still alive. He only regained consciousness a few days later in the villagers' home.

When he had recovered somewhat, he wanted to return home as quickly as possible. But no one was there. His family's house was partially destroyed and the home of his brother and his wife and child was deserted. Then the next shock. A neighbor told him those of his family who were still alive had all fled to Turkey and thought Debo was dead. Two of his siblings (ages 24 and 26) were killed when the house was destroyed, and Debo's twin brother was killed by a rocket on his way to a shopping center.

Debo made his way to the container camp just over the border with several thousand other refugees, where he was able to find the surviving members of his family. They hadn't heard from him in five months and had assumed he'd been killed. When his mother first laid eyes on him she fainted. She hardly recognized him - he'd lost 125 pounds (56 kg) during his ordeal and now weighed only 132 pounds(60 kg).

The family was able to stay together for two years, and even grew by one when a granddaughter was born. Debo found work as a specialist repairing mobile phones and was able to save enough to get to Germany - a journey that cost several thousand Euros.

His mother has suffered from the whole ordeal and has health and heart problems. Debo himself still suffers from the trauma and wakes frequently from horrible nightmares. Because of the physical abuse he has stomach problems and difficulty keeping his balance.

They are safe now, but because the family arrived in Germany at different times, they were separated and sent to different housing facilities in opposite ends of Germany. His parents and remaining siblings are near Flensburg in the north.

Debo will be allowed to visit the rest of his family for ten days over the Christmas holidays. In the mean time Debo is learning German and hoping to eventually work as a medical devices technician.

refugees from Syria and Eritrea learning German
One of these men was one test away from finishing his higher education and medical degree
when his university shut down. Now he's in Germany learning German and basically starting over.

Please have compassion. And perhaps speak up in the name of mercy when people around you rage against offering shelter to those who are fleeing from war, corruption, violence and terrorism.

We are all members of the human race, and we have more similarities to each other than differences.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sankt Nikolaus and His Shady Buddy

December 6th is Nikolaustag in many parts of the Western world. Children go to bed the night before after hanging their stockings at the fireplace or putting a pair of shoes (or boots, because they hold more) in front of their doors, hoping for a visit from St. Nick, who will fill them with candy, treats, fruit, nuts, and perhaps a small gift.

This is another tradition that is mainly Catholic (most Protestant religions don't recognize saints). My clever Lutheran parents held off with the stocking thing until Christmas morning to buy themselves some extra minutes of sleep. When my brother and I woke up we could run downstairs to see the wrapped gifts under the tree, but we had to keep relatively quiet until our parents got up. We were, however, allowed to grab our stuffed stockings and unwrap, play with, or devour anything that was in there. We usually made just enough noise to wake them up before long, but when that didn't work our cooperative Sheltie helped us out. "Where's Mom, Lassie Buffy? Find MOM!"

When my kids were young, I followed the German custom. They put their shoes in front of their bedroom doors when they went to bed, and I, er, I mean St. Nick filled them with treats during the night.

Few children ever ask who St. Nick was. ["Who cares? Just give me the candy. Yeah, you can keep the orange."] Well, I'm here to answer that question for my lucky readers.

There are actually several versions of the story, of course, but this one, which I learned from my Schwiegermutter, is my favorite.

Sankt Nikolaus is depicted as a bishop wearing a red miter and red cloak and carrying a shepherd's staff. He has gray hair and a flowing gray beard. He was the bishop of Myra, in modern-day Turkey, in the first half of the 4th century A.D.. He was a kind and good man who cared for the less fortunate. A poor man in his community had three daughters who all had reached or were nearing marriageable age, but he had no money to provide a dowry for any of them. The girls were in danger of having to turn to lives of prostitution, because of course no man would marry a woman if her father had no money to give him. Nikolaus was wealthy and wanted to help, but secretly so as not to insult the father's pride. During the night while the family was sleeping, Nikolaus tossed three bags of coins one by one into their chimney as he passed by. The girls had washed their only pairs of socks the night before and had hung them at the fireplace to dry. Into these socks the bags of money fell, and when they awoke, the girls were delighted to see that they each now had enough money to marry.

Don't ask how the sacks of coins landed in the stockings.
Just go with it.
Many American Christmas traditions come from Germany, and you can see some of them here: Santa Claus also wears red and has white hair and a beard, we hang our stockings at the fireplace (if we have one), gifts are delivered secretly during the night... And it was German-American artist Thomas Nast who first gave us our image of Santa, which appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1866.
one of many of Nast's depictions of Santa, 1881
Ah, but there's more. In Germany even today, Sankt Nikolaus doesn't travel alone. He's got a dark creepy companion who sloths behind him and scares the living bejeezus out of children. This cad's name is Knecht Ruprecht, and you just don't want to mess with Servantboy Ruprecht. Like St. Nick, he carries a sack over his shoulder - but his isn't filled with toys. It's filled with the sad, now-repentant little hoodlum children who dissed their parents, sassed their teachers, or pulled the wings off butterflies in warmer months. That's right, Knecht Ruprecht's job is to gather up all the bad children and carry them away in his sack, never to be seen again by their loving parents. He carries a switch, too - a beating stick. The naughty little urchins get whacked before they're thrown into the dark sack and dragged away.

I totally chose this image because of the horses.
This side of the tale isn't just German (and in fact nowadays the Germans have toned down the frightening story), but rather widely known throughout Europe. No one explains this tale better than David Sedaris, so I urge you to take 15 minutes out of your day or evening to listen to this clip. The whole thing is good, but the St. Nick story begins around 3:45.

Three times the horror
Photo credit: Michael S.
American kids get off easy in comparison! They just get threatened with empty stockings or pieces of coal if they're naughty around this time of year. But Germans have been scaring their children into behaving for generations with the help of the brothers Grimm, Max und Moritz, and stories like Suppenkasper and der Daumenlutscher, so the whole Knecht Ruprecht thing just fits right in.

At any rate, I wish you a happy Nikolaustag, and children, I surely hope you've been good!