Saturday, December 29, 2018

Silvester in Germany

As New Year's Eve approaches I thought I would write about the local traditions which make this night special and memorable.

First of all, why is NYE called Silvester in Germany? For the same reason that December 6th is called Nikolaustag (St. Nick's Day). In the Catholic tradition, almost every day of the year celebrates a certain saint based on the date of that saint's birth, baptism, or death. That is the saint's Gedenktag, or feast day.

Silvester is the patron saint of housepets, cows, masons, and bricklayers. He was Pope (315-335 A.D.) during the reign of Constantine and when the Council of Nicea (Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.) was convened. He died on December 31, 335, and since NYE is Silvester's feast day, the last night of the year in Germany is called Silvester.

We follow the old Silvester traditions of the Germans - all except for the Feuerwerk, though we do step outside at midnight to watch the townfolk try their very best to set things aflame. We don't do gute Vorsätze für's neue Jahr (New Year's resolutions) either - we're realists and know we won't follow them more than a day or two.

Fondue was a thing of the 70s, but many people still do this or Raclette on Silvester. Those are perfect meals for an evening when you need to draw out the hours until midnight, since one is forced to eat slowly, cooking each bite-size piece of meat individually. We do ours in homemade beef broth, which we prepare in the afternoon with meat & bones from the butcher and vegetables from Mustafa, our Tuesday vegetable guy who is willing to deliver on holidays!

No German Silvester would be complete without the British comedy short Dinner for One, starring Freddy Frinton. This is a cult hit in Germany only, as few Brits and no Americans have ever heard of it. It's a ridiculously funny sketch celebrating yearly traditions: Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday, and her butler James has set places at the table for her four closest friends. With each of the seven courses served, Miss Sophie requests a different type of wine, which James pours for each of the guests. The trouble is, Sophie has out-lived all four of her friends, so James takes on their roles - and dialects - to toast with Sophie. As James gets drunker and drunker and has several run-ins with a tiger carpet, Sophie enjoys the fancy meal, the classy wine, and the fading memories.

We've done Bleigiessen a few times, but as of this year it's banned by the EU and you can't buy these kits anymore. Bleigiessen means "pouring lead," which probably makes clear the reason for the ban. Each person takes a piece of lead shaped like a Monopoly playing piece, melts it over a candle (or flambé burner, when you realize the tea candle will never get hot enough) and pours it into a bowl of cold water. It makes a cool popping sound as it solidifies into an unrecognizable shape. You then use the mysterious guide that comes with the kit to choose the shape you think most fits to your solid glob of lead. Each shape has a meaning and predicts something about your upcoming year. You know, if you believe in that kind of thing. Which we definitely do.

Bleigiessen is one of those activities that helps helped keep overtired kids occupied during the long hours till fireworks start.

In Swabia the Brezel is a beloved snack throughout the year, but on Silvester Swabians laud Neujahrsgebäck. The Neujahrsbrezel is a large braided pretzel made of Hefeteig, or yeast dough. It's sweet by German standards, and extra delicious when warmed and spread with butter.

It wouldn't be a German tradition without a symbolic meaning attached, so here we go: One explanation for why we indulge in large, sweet bakery at the start of the new year is that we have to build up our fat stores for the approaching Fastenzeit (fasting time). Fattening up isn't really an issue for most of us these days, so another theory is that evil spirits nibble on these treats and are appeased - and therefore leave us alone during the winter months.

Though there are other shapes of Neujahrsgebäck (wreaths, crescents, man-shaped), the pretzel is a favorite because it has no beginning and no end, thereby symbolizing eternity and bringing good luck.

Be careful if you're spending Silvester in Baden (the region of Baden-Württemberg that is not Swabia) - it's a tradition there to bake coins into the Neujahrsgebäck for good luck. Or bad luck if you break a tooth biting into the tasty treat. Most dentists are closed during the holidays.

We will also likely watch Angela Merkel's final Silvesteransprache (New Year's Eve speech). I can't claim that to be a tradition for us during the last several years, but it probably should have been.

Traditional good luck symbols in Germany are the Marienkäfer (Ladybug), the Schornsteinfeger (chimney sweep), the Glücksklee (clover) and the Glücksschwein (lucky pig), all pictured in my first photo above. The Glücksschwein has a Pfennig or Cent stuck in its mouth or on its back, and you can find edible pink ones made of nasty Marzipan, which takes like a combination of Playdough and earwax.
I haven't noticed any extra good luck from the Schornsteinfeger's visits- only the bill he leaves with us two or three times a year when he checks our furnace and sweeps the chimney. And yes, he does show up dressed like that - in all black with a hat or cap, and carrying the funny brush thingy. We provide the ladder, though.

One more tradition that seems fairly recent is the Silvesterlauf or Neujahrslauf. This is a mini-marathon held in cities and small towns to bring the community together and often raise some money for a good cause. At the end of the run everyone refills with pretzels and beer. That's too much sport for me, so I'm going to count our walk to the store on Saturday in search of icky Marizpan pigs (we searched in vain) as our Silvester exercise.

At midnight we toast the New Year (anstoßen) with Kessler Sekt from Esslingen, step outside to watch the neighbors' fireworks while M prowls around the house watching for burning embers landing on the roof, greet any folks from the neighborhood who also came out to watch the show and inhale the  sanctioned Feinstaub, then go back inside, blow out the candles, and go to bed.

We may not be the most exciting folks, but we enjoy our Silvester every year.

The common greetings for this holiday are:

  [Wir wünschen Euch einen] guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr! (up to midnight on Silvester)
  Guten Rutsch!  (lazy version of the above)

  Prosit Neujahr!
  [Ich wünsche Dir ein] gutes neues Jahr!
  Gutes Neues!  (lazy version of the above)

Prosit Neujahr!!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Life in Swabia: Mülltrennung

I believe every foreigner living in Germany who writes a blog has written about Mülltrennung - garbage separation. I also wrote a post about this not long after I moved here. If your German is good enough you can find many articles online, such as this one, with instructions on how to do this properly or this one which includes a handy dictionary explaining all important words concerning garbage. 

Unless you live here, you would not believe the amount of time that can be spent pondering - and even discussing - the disposal of waste.

Each Landkreis (county) has its own special policies and procedures, so if you have moved to Germany and want to be certain you're doing it right, look up "Mülltrennung" for your county. We live in Landkreis Freudenstadt, which handles some aspects of garbage and recycling differently than Esslingen. We can put meat and bones into our Biomüll, for instance, whereas you can't do that in Esslingen.

This is a tired old topic, but one that keeps coming up again - recycled and reused, if you will. This morning I found myself perusing the 67-page booklet that arrived last week explaining the details of Mülltrennung for our area and then reading an article about it in the January issue of Deutsch Perfekt.

Seriously - this is what it has come to on a quiet Saturday morning. I am reading a booklet about separating garbage.
On the cover of the booklet is an ad for the AbfallApp (garbage app).
Why would I do such a thing? Why would anyone? Our county - and probably every county in Germany - publishes and mails to each household a printed annual guide for this business, hoping residents will read it and stop screwing up the system. We should dutifully research what refuse goes where, and when bins will be picked up. How on earth is anyone supposed to keep track of that?
Spoiler alert: There's an app for that.

M's phone dings once a month to remind him to put out whatever is being picked up in the morning. You read that right - once a month. Ok, Biomüll (compostable scraps) gets picked up every two weeks, and I recently read that in big cities it's all collected more often.

The magazine pictured above is Deutsch Perfekt. It's a brilliant magazine aimed at learners of German and includes a regular column called "Wie Deutschland funktioniert" (How Germany works"). As I mentioned, January's column is about separating garbage and recycling, and I read it with enthusiasm. The writer makes the claim that Germans love recycling and consider themselves Weltmeister (world champions) at it. 

And yet still there are those who don't get it. Case in point:

glass recycling containers: for white, brown and green glass
Those folks were just dicks. They showed up with bags of empty bottles but found the containers full to overflowing. What they were supposed to have done was take their bottles away, find another container, whatever - but not just stack them on top! They probably also committed their crime under the cover of darkness, ignoring the strict opening hours of the containers to restrict noise during the night and on Sundays, since no one would want to be caught in broad daylight being a Müll-Ferkel.
The "Garbage-Piglet" sorts his garbage/recycling wrong,
making the container area as messy as a pigsty.
Don't be a Garbage-Piglet!
When guests stay with us for just a day or three, the garbage separation business doesn't usually come up. My dad stayed with us for more than three weeks in the spring of 2017, though, and that meant a lesson on where to toss which garbage along with follow-up reminders. Honestly, it's nearly embarassing to me to do this to people - but since our space for garbage is limited, we need to do this right.

In extreme cases, there are even penalties for improperly disposing of garbage! If plastic or metal shows up in our Biomüll, we get a yellow card (soccer reference) warning. If it happens again we get a red card (also called the Arschkarte, or "ass card" in soccer), which means they will no longer collect our stinking bin of decomposing kitchen scraps. We then have to take it ourselves to the dump (no, it does not fit into the car upright, and for obvious reasons we wouldn't load it in sideways) and pay them to take it.

So...yeah. This shit needs to be taken seriously.

In the above photo you see many of the typical types of garbage and recycling a normal household deals with from day to day. All of what's there would go into two different bins in Wisconsin (USA): garbage for the landfill or recycling (paper, glass, plastic, all mixed together). But here in Germany... You don't get to claim to be Weltmeister at Mülltrennung just by throwing everything into one of two bins. The above items require seven different recepticles. Seven.

I'm not telling you this to be instructive so that you know where to toss things if you visit Germany. I'm telling you this to show you that something you don't give a nano-second of thinking time to (because you don't need to unless you live in Germany!) is actually something that matters here.

We'll start in the upper left. This is the little bugger I remember having to tell my dad did not belong in the tiny bathroom garbage can. Poor guy - he took it upon himself to change the TP roll himself, which apparently many boys and men can't be bothered to do, and I then had to tell him he was doing it wrong. Ugh. (Sorry, Dad!) Anyway, the empty TP tube belongs in the Altpapier (paper/cardboard bin), as does the booklet, when I'm finished reading it at the end of the year when the 2020 edition arrives, and the magazine. 

The lightbulb needs to be brought to the special lightbulb recepticle at either the local dump or at the entrance of our supermarket. 

I haul the empty wine bottle and its companions to the Glascontainer (glass recycling containers), and since it's not exactly brown and not exactly green, it goes in the green container - as does blue glass and yellow glass (don't ask, just accept). Drinking glasses do not go into the white/clear glass container, though - that's a special kind of glass and goes in the Restmüll (see below).

Left of the bottle are nut shells, representing kitchen scraps. Fruit & vegetable peels, apple cores, egg shells, meat scraps & bones, coffee grounds, etc. - just nothing liquid or soupy - goes into the brown Biomülltonne wrapped in newspaper. In the summer this bin stinks to high heaven, which brings flies and maggots. In the winter if it's too moist in the bin, whatever went in first freezes to the bottom and doesn't come loose when it's emptied. Fun times.

The lighter: I have no idea where the empty lighter goes. It's plastic, it's metal, it's liquid if it's not totally empty...We have a bag full of them stashed in a closet waiting for further instructions. I just asked M, and he said they probably go into the Restmüll (everything that doesn't belong somewhere else goes in here - it's our smallest bin), but not all of those at once. He means to toss 2 or 3 into the Restmüll every month when it's picked up, but he always forgets. That bag of lighters will probably still be there when we die.

In the bottom left of the photo we have a plastic-coated box of old Ricola lozenges. This requires three bins: the plastic wrapping goes into the gelbe Sack ("yellow sack" - stay tuned), the cardboard box goes into the Altpapier, and the expired cough drops go into the Biomüll.

The dirty tissue (please note: it's not actually been used) goes into the Restmüll or the Biomüll. Sometimes (though seldom) you have options, isn't that nice?

The batteries need to be taken to the dump, which is open for a few hours on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, or to the battery recepticle at our supermarket. We have a bag of these in a corner of the office, too, which we keep forgetting.

Lastly, between the batteries and the TP roll, you see a burned-out tea candle and styrofoam packaging peanuts. Those, along with almost all plastics and aluminium, lids to jars and bottles, and empty plastic bottles that can't be returned for Pfand (deposit) go into the gelbe Sack. Unlike with all the other types of garbage, we are not limited to a certain amount each month. We can put as many of these sacks out on pick-up day as we want. Do note, though, that not all areas of Germany have this gelbe Sack. I learned that from the Deutsch Perfekt article today.

We usually only fill 2 or 3 gelbe Säcke in a month.
This was shortly after our move.
Amazingly, we get these yellow sacks for free! Once a year the garbage guys put one roll of yellow sacks onto our garbage bin after they've emptied it. In apartment houses they place them next to the front door. Last week when I was at my Schwiegermutter's place, a pile of them - one for each household - was lying on the ground outside the front door. She scooped them all up "before they get pinched" and put them inside the locked door for residents to pick up.

I'm sure this all sounds complicated, and believe me, it is. But it's also just part of life in the Schwabenland. One becomes mindful of waste by living here, and most people make a conscious effort to produce as little waste as possible. We have things still in our basement (like the old sun room curtains, which we replaced four years ago with blinds, wire hangers ["Mommy Dearest," anyone?], and kitchen gadgets we don't need) because we don't know how to dispose of them!

A student of mine once called me pedantic. Friends have called me nervous and finicky. More than enough times I have heard "Relax! Let it go! It's not that big a deal!" And none of that was about sorting garbage. I can just imagine what any of those people would say if they stayed with us for more than three days and had to listen to my garbage-sorting instructions.

My parents are coming for about a week in Spring and my kids are probably coming for about 10 days next December for an early Christmas. In the event that they read this blog post to the end...

Please forgive me! It's not me, it's Swabia!

P.S. The EU has just banned the production of disposable plastic items such as straws, plastic plates, cups and cutlery, balloons, and plastic bags. This will be inconvenient at times, but I find it an excellent move. Why? Look at the last two photos in this article for a start.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Life Lately

I have really fallen behind again. This is a post I started a few weeks ago, and I'm publishing it now as a sign of life.

What have I been up to lately??


I took the train to Heidelberg for two days in mid-November to meet an old friend from Wisconsin. She runs a study abroad program for German and Swiss students who want to attend school in Wisconsin for a semester or a year, and she, her daughter (who was friends with my daughter when they were young), and a friend were here to interview interested students. Having exchange programs in common we had much to talk about along with catching up in general. Interestingly our programs are very similar except that hers costs €10,500 and ours is free beyond the plane ticket.

The next day I also met up with fellow midwestern expat blogger Mari. We meandered around town, took the Bergbahn up to the castle, popped in to visit Perkeo, the guardian of the 219,000-liter barrel of wine that resides in the castle, had lunch, and then she dumped me at the Bahnhof for my train ride home.

I also met my host mom and sister for coffee in Esslingen, a Syrian friend who likes to meet regularly to speak English, which he needs for his job training and a possible overseas experience in the USA or Canada (I'm pushing for Canada since I'm pretty sure #45's Muslim travel ban is still in effect), my Scottish student who invited me to a performance of Mozart's Requiem, my Schwiegermutter, and two teacher friends of mine. I was unusually social in November!

Falkner Adventures

M and I drove south to attend the last falconry show of the season at Schloß Hornberg, and in so doing met a new Falkner. I chatted with him a bit before the show and told him about my interest in becoming a Falknerin. He encouraged me to contact him and set up a visit to his Falknerei, which I did. M and I spent an afternoon with him and his birds, interacting with the birds we could and photographing the other ones. We each had an eagle on our arm at one point, the smaller Steppenadler for me and the impressive and very heavy Weißkopfseeadler for M.

Aischa, Steinadler (Golden Eagle)

Weißkopfseeadler (Bald Eagle)

Harris Hawk in the setting sun


I've made the exciting leap to Lightroom for organizing and editing my photos, and I now shoot only in RAW. I still have virtually no idea what I'm doing with all those fancy sliders, but I've been watching training videos and taking extensive notes. I have great hope that I will one day be almost as good as M at making good pictures better.


Despite the fact that I thought I would love this book, I dragged myself through H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I don't know how long I took to read it, but it felt like months. I finally finished it last night.

I've also been reading hunting magazines, my Jägerprüfung book, the local newspaper every day, and everything else that begs to be read instead of H is for Hawk.

Next I'll try a German book about a Falkner in 1184


Mainly emails. I also wrote an advertisement for the chaperone position we have available - to accompany our summer exchange students to my hometown for three weeks. Let me know if you live in the Esslingen area and are curious! (Our Verein pays for your trip.)

I also wrote our Christmas letter and am in the midst of writing cards.


We went to a cooking class a few weeks ago with the theme Wild, or wild game. It wasn't at our usual place, but rather at the VHS (community college). We didn't really learn any new skills, but it was enjoyable and we met some nice people.

On our own, however, we decided to see what we could do with 2.5 kg of Hirschgulasch M had bought from Metro (like Costco). This was a three-day event, and my contribution was clean-up. In the end it was delicious, and we have four leftover portions to help us through the winter. M prepared our taste test in the style of The Taste, a competitive cooking show we like to watch. (Hirsch = stag)

Hirschgulasch mit Spätzle und Preiselbeern

The Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) have been in full swing, and I have been to the ones in Horb, Esslingen, and Stuttgart. I enjoyed the Chocolate Festival in Tübingen at the beginning of the month, and I can still taste the out-of-season fruit dipped in dripping decadence.

I hope you, dear Readers, have been having a lovely and relaxing December. Don't forget to slow down and breathe, spread kindness, and be mindful.

Happy Holidays!