The adventures of a born-and-raised-in-Michigan girl (OK, woman) who's moved to Bavaria with her husband, kids, and dog.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

March Update, Odds and Ends

It feels like sooo much is new here, and I know each of these topics deserves a longer post of its own, but in the interest of time (mine, mostly), I am going to attempt to summarize the news of the last couple of months.

Martin's New Job

It's going extremely well, even better than either of us had hoped, I think. He has landed squarely into management; his time is spent working on proposals, defining new positions with HR, advising engineers on existing projects, consulting with peers and operations managers about strategic moves, and making client presentations. Yeah, I'm sure he'll do some real engineering at some point, but for now he's having fun with the new challenges, and feels like he's adding a lot of value (that's the feedback as well, which is nice). He may be spending a good deal of time at the office in Prague, as they can only "borrow" the engineers from their Prague office for a German client for 90 days before they are reclassified as German employees. More on that in time, as projects, proposals (etc.) evolve.

Weekend Marriage Update

The weekend commuter marriage thing is not so bad, actually, as I have plenty of help here during the week. We have a babysitter (a friend's daughter, age 13) that comes Tuesday through Thursday right after I pick up Nicholas from Kindergarten at 4:00; she stays through dinner and bedtime at 7:00. Nice to have someone helping with the kids so that I can actually cook a dinner and a big relief to have the extra help, etc.

The kids (and I) miss Martin, but are coping pretty well. It helps that they are on an earlier bedtime now (due to new Kindergarten schedule); if he was still at Audi they'd only see him from 6:00 to 7:00 weekdays. He comes home after they're in bed on Friday night, and leaves us early Monday morning.

Nicholas' New Kindergarten

Nicholas is doing really well at the new Kindergarten, the smaller group size and closer attention make all the difference in the world. It also helps tremendously that his German skills have skyrocketed between September and now, and that unlike the kids in the first Kindergarten who completely ignored him when he spoke English, the kids in this group hear the teachers speaking English (occasionally) to him and want to learn it too. I go for parent meetings to work on specific behaviors at home and/or provide historical details to their evaluation team, which is also a great parenting resource. It is so nice to be working with the teachers so closely on every little detail. And he enjoys it immensely.

At the end of going to the previous Kindergarten (after he was settled and the newness of it had all worn off), every day when I went to pick him up he would come out from behind the teacher's skirt and run towards me, happy to see me. Now, every day when I go to get him, he says "No, no, Mommy, not yet, I need to play!" which makes me realize that it wasn't the separation that made him happy to see me before, it was the fact that I was rescuing him from a not-so-fun situation. He is much more comfortable (i.e. not clinging on the teacher, his only friend) in the new group, and having only eight kids and two (or sometimes three) teachers is just great.

Because the Kindergarten is co-located with a "special" school for older kids (with autism, Downes, lots of wheelchairs too), I think it gets special treatment. For example, during Mardi Gras (Fasching), the in-house theater troupe at Theater Ingolstadt came to the school and went to all the classes in full Fasching costume. Kind of like when the circus comes to town and the clowns go to the cancer ward at the children's hospital... they just don't visit an average, ordinary school.

In addition to the outdoor playground and indoor gymnasium (typical at all Kindergartens here), his group can tap into the larger school's facility... which includes a swimming pool, movie theater, stage theater, etc. It's really a dream facility/program, with a lot of resources and a little bit extra from the community (like the theater troupe dropping in).

The best part is seeing how happy he is there every day. :-)

Stephanie's Second Birthday

Stephanie just turned two (Nicholas is three and a half, although as tall as many five year olds), and is cute as a bug every day. That girl is such a flirt and eager to entertain any audience, big or small. I swear she will be on stage at some point. This week she and I have both been sick with an evil bug, and she learned the word sneeze ('neeze), which she says whenever I cough... she brings me the Kleenex and has me blow my nose (" 'neeze, Mommy") after every cough. Too funny.

Here she is on her birthday (you can't quite see the long curls that are growing behind her head):

My First German Class

Ugh! I signed up for an intensive, intermediate grammar course (the only grammar course in town). With grammar, I am a complete beginner... I have good pronunciation and vocabulary, and most people compliment me on my German and are surprised that I have only been here 15 months and have taken no classes yet. So while that is nice to hear, I also know that I don't know how to conjugate the verbs "to be" and "to have" in all persons, present tense (because I just don't need to use "they have" or "you (plural) are" very often). I am definitely a complete beginner at grammar.

And when you learn everything by ear, you are a beginner reader, too. It takes me longer to read, as I need to pronounce things out loud and hear what I am saying to understand the sentence that I am looking at. I often feel illiterate. So I signed up for this class, since all the other options were four or five hours every morning, five days a week, for six months to achieve fluency (going at the pace of the slowest farmer's wife from Turkey who has had four years of primary school). Thanks, but no thanks. Really not possible, especially with Stephanie still at home. At least this way, I am in over my head but it forces me to open my books and study on my own every week. The second week of class covered the subjunctive present and past, and the third week was on the conditional (if that tells you how in over my head I am!).

Martin thinks I'm nuts, but the teacher is excellent and it's only $68 (for 15 weeks)... I told him even if I only learn twenty percent of the course, that's twenty percent more than I knew before.

New Toddler Swim Class, New Friends

I just found a baby swim class at the very nice pool facility one mile from here (there are a handful of nice pools here, all impressive, Germans love their swimming I guess). It's actually free, and I plan to go every week, with Stephanie.

I met two German women there who each recently lived two or three years in Detroit (Audi has a marketing/sales office in Auburn Hills and often does temporary transfers to Michigan). Usually when I hear of someone moving from here to the U.S., it is to Michigan, since Ingolstadt (pop. 120,000, metro area pop. about 160,000) is very much a company town (Audi has 35,000 employees). They were thrilled to meet an American and want to get together again at a playground sometime, where we can talk more.

Flights Booked

The kids and I are coming to Michigan, via Lufthansa/Chicago, from Sunday, May 13th through Friday, June 8th. I was trying to get a little "Martin time" in on both weekends that we are travelling, and in the process the Michigan weekends got short shrift. So I am spending one weekend in Ann Arbor (May 19/20), one weekend in Traverse City with both sisters, parents, etc. at an indoor swim park/hotel, and one weekend visiting both sets of aunts and uncles. The rest of the time we'll be in Grand Rapids, doing misc. kid-friendly activities.

I can't wait! :-)


Yep, I was right. There IS a lot new since I last posted!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year, New (brace yourself)...


For Martin, that is, not me. ;-)

As shocking as that probably sounds, considering he is leaving the job that took us all across the ocean just over a year ago, it is utterly true. And the kicker is that since we live in a "company town" not an "industry town" (like Detroit), that also means we're moving. Sort of. Well, we are, but later. Except for Martin, who moves now since the new job starts February 1st.

I guess I'd better back up a bit. You may have wondered how the new job has been going (many of you have asked, and I have started a blog entry about it more than once but never posted it). From the first day, everyone knew it wasn't a perfect fit. But they all (including the HR director orchestrating the recruitment and overseas move) said, "just work yourself into the current project and we will change things later on."

As in any large organization with a big project already well underway, Martin has been just a tiny piece in the overall scheme of things. A tiny piece trying to catch up and grab both the power and responsibility that should have been his from the beginning in his position. With the ambiguous title of "Technical Specialist" within the testing group, it was management's hope that he would be the liaison between testing and design, and review and oversee (i.e. veto the errors) in all designs, before the mistakes came into testing. (Why test a bad design when you can fix it and test a good one instead?)

All well and good, except that the ideal world and the actual world function a little differently. Many people have taken Martin's advice, appreciate it, and seek him out regularly. Others have shrugged it off and gone their own way... as Martin is not a manager, he has no real power in their eyes. Some months he has felt like he has made a large impact there. Some months he has felt like a broken record in the corner that everyone ignores. He has had many tempting opportunities to gloat in that "I told you so" kind of way, as things have unfolded (but of course he hasn't).

As it happens, for the past six months his two managers have been working very hard to change things for him, even exploring lateral moves, etc., when he did some patentable work for another department on the side. Thankfully the people he works with have all been fantastic, making the whole situation pleasantly bearable. Many have become close friends, which makes the change all the harder for us.

The job interview was with a British consulting company's German subsidiary, about two hours west of here in Schwäbisch Gmünd (say that three times fast, I just dare you). They are a well-established, well-known consulting company (probably number three worldwide for transmissions, although they also do engine development). In their 300-person German subsidiary (50 Brits, 250 Germs) they have handed previous transmission projects that come in over to their British HQ. Currently they have two new projects and have decided to build an in-house group instead.

Martin will head up the new transmission design group, just two hops away on the organization chart from the top guy for the subsidiary. Initially, he will have sales and project management support, and borrowed design staff, but the idea is that the area would evolve over time. It is a substantial salary increase with a semi-annual bonus payment as well, all of which means that we can make a few adjustments in our lifestyle (increasing the travel budget, for one).

The rest of the story played out as you would imagine... he went to his current bosses with the news and they worked for a week to try to resolve the situation with multiple meetings, exploratory transfers, etc. ("Don't even bother to try to match the money, you can't," he told them... "but I would consider staying if I had more responsibility or challenge.").

The start date is February 1, and the plan is for Martin to take a room in the 60,000 person town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, and work on the permanent housing plan (don't know if we will buy new, renovate old, build custom, or what at this point). The kids, dog, and I will stay here for the next 12 to 18 months, only because Nicholas is just on the verge of starting at his new "therapeutic" Kindergarten, which A) doesn't exist in the smaller town of S.G., and B) we wouldn't have a chance of getting an open spot, fully paid for, with all the red tape in place within the next year (or ever) even if it did.

So we will be entering a commuting phase of our marriage, where Martin comes home every Friday night and leaves on Sunday evenings. Bummer in the short run, but the best arrangement we could work out, to go for the longer range plan. In a way, it makes such a big change easier to think about, as I don't have to pack up an entire household and move it in the month of January, I only have to pack up Martin's weekday basics.

As Nicholas' new Kindergarten is an all-day affair, from 8:15 to 4:00, and he has recently given up naps, I'm pushing up his bedtime to 7:00 p.m. So I will be a single parent of two for exactly three hours every weekday, which I think I can manage OK. The hard part, I think, will be being motivated enough to actually cook and eat real meals; I think I will tend to whip up the toddler food and a bowl of Corn Flakes for myself.

We also haven't decided whether to sell or rent the house here in Etting, come 2008/9. It is very rentable, particularly after the renovations we've put in, and since it is less than a mile from the Technical Development Center, and Etting is a sweet little town of 3,500 (within the city of Ingolstadt proper, pop. 120,000). Things to figure out later, I guess.

Schwäbisch Gmünd, although only half the size of Ingolstadt, is nicely situated (20-30 minutes drive) from both Stuttgart and Ulm. Stuttgart has an international school, a Montessori school, and an English playgroup of 25 years with 60 families strong. So with a bit more time in the car, a lot more is within reach, which makes up for the smaller city size, I think.

We have decided one thing about Schwäbisch Gmünd housing: we do not have the energy to survive another year of "do-it-yourself-major-renovations." If we decide to buy an older house and change it... we would hire it out instead.

I told you it was big news.

And that, my friends, is how the story of 2006 ends for us. Capped off tonight with an evening of appetizers, friends, and Silvester fireworks (a German tradition, everyone takes to the streets at 11:45 and shoots off modest items picked up at the grocery store) planned at home. If we had satellite TV installed, no doubt we would watch the New Year's Eve classic (since 1972) here, a BBC skit titled "Dinner for One."

Pigs are big good luck symbols for the new year here, I guess you were lucky if your family had a pig to take you through winter. Little stuffed swine are sold everywhere, even bundled with champagne splits at the drug store:

So I wish you all a "guten Rutsch" (good slide) into the new year, and "Schwein gehabt" (good luck, colloquially, and "pig had" literally). And a chicken in every pot.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas 2006, Unwrapped

The remainder of December was pretty busy with Christmasy events... Martin took some vacation time to unwind and we took advantage of the time to hit some Christmas Markets which are in every major and minor town around here, starting the first weekend of Advent and running through Dec. 23rd or 24th.

But before we get to that, let me tell you about our visit from Santa Claus! Our English playgroup meets every Tuesday afternoon, and on the 12th, we held our little Christmas party... and Santa (played by Martin, actually, since he has the build for it and was on vacation) dropped by with gifts and "naughty/nice" comments for each kid. Stephanie wouldn't leave my lap so I don't have a good picture of her with Santa, but here's a great one of Santa and Nicholas:

Of course, we went to the Ingolstadt Christmas Market -- for Nicholas, the best part about Christmas Markets is the search for cookies and the carousel rides. This year Ingolstadt added a second "historic romantic" market at the castle (at the eastern end of the pedestrian zone) in addition to the original market at the Theaterplatz. Here's Nicholas on the carousel:

Nicholas spied St. Nikolaus from the carousel and was very excited, so of course as soon as the ride stopped, we made our way over to him to receive a little treat. We also saw St. Nikolaus -- and a complete entourage of "scary guys" (our name for the Black Peter/Knecht Ruprecht character) -- at the Christmas Market in Hexenagger, about 30 minutes from us. That St. Nikolaus knew a bit about marketing; the treat bag included a slip of paper with the group's web site.

The Hexenagger market was gorgeous, held on the castle grounds and exterior, it seemed as much an "artisan" fair as a Christmas Market. (Sometimes the booths can be a bit tacky and flea-marketish, but there was none of that here.) It was great to just walk around, window shop, try the snacks, and listen to the a capella men's choir singing Christmas Carols. We went in the evening, as usual, since it is always nice to see all the light display... but that means that taking photos is a bit tough. I did find one place to attempt a shot:

We also went to the Christmas Market in Ulm, which is a largeish city (pop. 120,000) about two hours west of here. Pretty amazing that they have the world's highest church steeple (161.53m high and 768 steps) in their cathedral. The Christmas Market was right at the foot of the cathedral, and included live animals (donkeys, sheep) in the nativity scene as well as the required carousels, artisan booths, and various snack/treat booths. Here are a few pictures:

We never made it to the Munich Christmas Market (there are two markets there, one in a hip Greenich Village type neighborhood and the other right downtown on the Marienplatz, which is like a fairyland with lots of lights we've heard). The Nuremberg market, which we did last year, was definitely one of the nicest (should be, it is 1200 years old), and it would be nice to make it back there again as well. A friend told me about a small one in a tiny village 10 miles from our house that includes camel rides for the kids! Maybe next year. ;-)

Christmas Day was filled with the sounds of noisy toys being played with for the first time... and today (also a national holiday) we went to a restaurant with friends and then over to another house at 3:00 for coffee and cake (a common tradition on Sundays, and apparently holidays, here).

So that's the remainder of December, except for some big news which we will save for the New Year's report, since it fits so well with the theme. (Now we've got you wondering, don't we??)

We hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season and please know that our wishes and warm thoughts continue for you into 2007 and throughout the year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

St. Nikolaus Day 2006 Report

Another "Saint Day" has arrived. This one, St. Nikolaus, I believe we are all pretty familiar with... except I've learned a few things about the German St. Nick:
  • He wears a bishop's hat and robes, and carries a staff, a sack of goodies, and a book of good and bad deeds done by the children over the year (sound familiar?).

  • He leaves fruit, nuts, candy, etc. (cookies at our house) in the shoes of children that were laid out the night before (Dec. 5), to be discovered the next morning (similar to stockings, except only food-related, it seems).

  • He lives in Heaven, not the North Pole, and descends once a year for the day (Dec. 6) to visit children (and their shoes).

  • It is very common here to have "house calls" made by St. Nikolaus, either with or without his sidekick, Black Peter (Knecht Ruprecht). Costumes can be found cheap, and people rent themselves out for the two evenings (5th and 6th) or do it as a favor for friends and make the rounds in their social circle.

  • Black Peter is quite the character... traditionally he looks like something between a scraggly beggar hunchback and Death (with a large hood and beard obscuring the face). He carries a switch made of twigs, presumably to beat naughty children with, and also has an empty sack, should any of the really naughty ones need to be removed altogether. (This is explained to older children, not preschoolers, of course.) In Bavaria and Austria he is known as "Krampus" instead, but it's the same guy. Apparently (per Wikipedia), remnants of this tradition are still present in the character "Belsnickel" in Pennsylvania Dutch communities.

So, in our little world, while Nicholas was at Kindergarten on the 5th, St. Nikolaus had time to stop into our little morning playgroup and visit Stephanie and her friends. Some of the "big boys" cried, but not Stephanie... she was quiet and curious, and listened to the listing of behaviors done by herself and her friends (St. Nikolaus was prepped by all of us the day before, so he could create his all-knowing book).

Then at 5:00 p.m. we went over to a friend's house, where St. Nikolaus and Ruprecht stopped by... thankfully Ruprecht stayed very much in the background and nobody was frightened. Stephanie sat on our hostess' knee so I could take some photos:

Nicholas was a good sport about it too, and he didn't seem too surprised afterwards that St. Nikolaus knew all the details of his daily life (from taking walks with Daddy and the dog to reading books, listening to music, playing with trains, etc.). He took his turn holding the staff and listening to the little speech in exchange for his bag of goodies, pulled from St. Nikolaus' bag.

Back home, we put out Dad's boots for Saint Nikolaus' visit to our house, and then went to bed. In the morning, it was time to retrieve the treats and have a really unhealthy breakfast before heading off to Kindergarten.

At Kindergarten on the 6th, Saint Nikolaus found time in his busy schedule to visit the whole group (without Ruprecht) and bestow kindness and goodies on the Kindergarteners. The original plan was that the classes would take a walk in the woods and St. Nick would just happen upon them, but enough rain and mud overnight, and Plan B was put into action instead. Nicholas was very interested in looking for him, as I had hinted that if he tried he might find him today, still walking around delivering goodies in childrens' shoes. I picked him up with chocolate spread from cheek to cheek and another goodie bag in tow.

And that is how Saint Nikolaus Day is done in Bavaria.

A different character, either the elusive Christkind (Christ Child), an invention of Martin Luther to combat the Catholic Church and the entrenched St. Nikolaus; or Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), a modern invention who looks amazingly just like the American Santa Claus, will deliver gifts to your house during the evening of the 24th (not overnight, and not on the 25th).

So globalization (or maybe just Hollywood influence?) has affected the Christmas icons as well. For our mixed household, it is easy enough to distinguish between the two, as one arrives on December 5th/6th, and one on the 24th/25th.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

One Year Ago Today...

I arrived at Munich airport with the kids, dog, car seats, and a lot of luggage.

It seems simultaneously a very long year and a very short one. I guess I have pretty much settled in here, things are mostly familiar and I can maneuver fairly well on my own with my spotty German skills in most situations. Sometimes I even surprise myself (or get compliments on my German). Yikes! on that point, given that I know nothing about grammar and have yet to study, even just a little bit.

This time of year the Christmas Markets are gearing up in every town, as the official Advent season begins this weekend. Last year it was the first "touristy" thing we did, two days after we arrived. This year we plan to go beyond just the Ingolstadt and Nuremburg markets and venture into other nearby cities to see some of the other historic Christmas celebrations. It will be good to get us all out of the house and Martin has a few vacation days left to burn up before year end (I need to make him promise not to work on the house for his "vacation").

So I thought I would take time away from talking about the holidays, house remodeling projects, and grocery scrounging to mention all the little things that have -- or have not -- changed in my life over the past year. The bigger things are fairly obvious (I think!).

What I've Gotten Used to Now:
  • Smoky, salty meats. At some point my taste buds must have adjusted; I really didn't know that until Emily visited in July and commented on the different flavor in most deli meats and sausages... and then I remembered my initial impressions too.

  • The landscape. No longer driving around drinking in all the architecture, I can drive around now without that "sensory overload" feeling... everything just looks normal and familiar to me now. Of course, everything looks normal when I drive around Michigan too. I wonder if we travel somewhere (Spain? Austria?) if it will look and feel different or not. Maybe it requires going a larger distance from home base now to get that "gee, I'm on vacation somewhere different" feeling again.

  • Traffic circles. Speaking of driving, those little buggers are kind of intimidating when you're not used to Sooo Many of them (I recall one on the east side of MSU's campus but don't remember another one in Michigan... correct me if I am wrong!). Now they're old hat for me. Good thing, because they are everywhere.

  • No TV. Sounds weird, probably, but it was pretty easy to get used to no television reception (due to winter ice on the roof we postponed the satellite dish installation, and then got carried away elsewhere in the house). It's just been a really low priority, probably because we didn't watch much true TV in the U.S. either (just "Six Feet Under" and movies, essentially). When we first arrived we spent a few months going through our video collection. After that got boring (March), we signed up for's knockoff of the Netflix service. Works pretty well and keeps us current, as video rental stores (or automated DVD rental vending machines) are a little more far-flung over here. We are still without a satellite dish or cable line to the world of TV. We get all the news via Internet anyway, so we are not as far out of the loop as you might think. The one and only time I really missed TV was on November 18th for The Game, as well as for all the Bo coverage. Sometimes the Internet just falls short.

  • Typing on a German keyboard. Something to do with the laptop (the main Internet computer for 10 months) and getting the wireless LAN set up with the T-Com software, we had to switch it over to a German keyboard layout. Except the printing on the face of the keys is still the English layout. And I touch type. And I've never used or seen a German keyboard. So basically the y and z are reversed, and all of the punctuation is in really funny places to make room for all those umlaut characters. Believe it or not, I am totally used to it now, and have to really think when I type on an English keyboard. (But I still don't know where the asterisk is, or where the greater than and less than signs are, which I need for HTML!)

  • Life without radio. I never listened to the radio much before, maybe in the car a bit. Here, with our U.S. car, we have trouble getting in stations. Why? Because U.S. radio stations are all broadcast on the "odd" frequencies... 96.9, 88.3, etc. and here they are broadcast on the "even" frequencies. Yep, you guessed it, our U.S. purchased car gets fuzzy reception on most stations as it is .1 off (plus or minus) from any actual broadcast frequency here. Things you don't think about (or know about). When you do hear the radio (Bavaria 1, 2, 3, or 4, for example), it's nothing great. DJ chitter chatter that I can't understand (too fast, too colloquial) and lots of oldies (it is completely normal to hear something from Supertramp's Breakfast in America while grocery shopping). Very strange.

  • Less technology. Gradually we are building our household tech level back up. In August we got a GPS traffic assistant (everywhere we go, it's new to us, even around town). In September I finally got a smart cellphone (lived without any cellphone for ten months). But just in general, there is a lot less technology here in everyday life. Take getting a prescription refilled... I used to use the pharmacy automated phone system to enter a prescription number and then pick it up a couple hours later. Here you have to appear at the doctor's office so they can imprint your insurance card on the presciption (then wait while they track down a doctor to sign it), then take it to the pharmacy to be filled... the pharmacy itself consists of pills and a cash register. No computer to check for prescription conflicts, insurance coverage, etc. That's all handled at the doctor's office. And so on. What's amazing to me is that it doesn't bother me at all... it's just the way it is here so you don't even think about balking at it.

What I Still Can't Get Used to:
  • 24 hour clocks. I know that 17:00 is really 5:00 and 20:00 is the kids' bedtime, but other than that, I pretty much have to calculate it. Of course, the clocks I glance at the most in the evening (microwave, oven) are in the 24 hour format. Whenever possible, I program the clocks to the 12 hour format.

  • Super short days in November (and December and January). Sorry, but a 7:30 or even 8:00 a.m. sunrise is just not acceptable, even if it is only for a couple months out of the year. (Coupled with the dense fall fog that we get here in the Danube river valley, it makes early morning driving tough!)

  • Forget getting groceries after noon on Saturdays. Sure, the big supermarkets are open until 8:00 p.m. (closed Sunday), but the selection of meats, produce, etc. is pretty wiped out after noon on Saturday, so Monday through Friday is a far better bet. So on Friday (or Saturday morning) you have to shop for enough fresh stuff to hold you over to Monday. I tend to shop twice a week, not daily (as most Germans do), so you would think this wouldn't be a problem... but when you decide at 3:00 on Saturday to make XYZ on Sunday afternoon, you had better be stocked up on your ingredients! At this point, I am simply not in the habit of being that organized with menu/meal/kitchen planning.

  • Tearing off aluminum foil or plastic wrap. It sounds stupid, but I still go through the motion of opening the box, unrolling what I need, and pulling to rip along the box using the built-in cutter blade. Whoops! No built-in blade. Again. (Our teen babysitter tells me that most families mount an elaborate multi-roll cutting contraption on their kitchen wall... can you say Ugly??). So I am saving the boxes with the blades in them that we have leftover from the U.S. and plan to reuse them (instead of retraining my brain or using scissors).
I think that's about it, in the "small things" department. I hope this finds everyone healthy and happy at the start of the holiday season.

Tonight, I am going out with the German moms playgroup -- we are getting together to make Advent wreaths (something I am only passingly familiar with), which seems to be one of the many ways people celebrate the season in their homes each year.

So, slowly, I am beginning to assimilate the surrounding culture... or maybe it is simply the lure of the season's "glow wine" instead. I guess it will take another year to figure it out.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006 Report

Although there is some sort of German harvest holiday in early October, their harvest-fest-day doesn't even register as an official holiday (and this from the place where Mary Ascension Day is a holiday, so you KNOW it's really not a holiday people celebrate... kinda like Sweetest Day or some other Hallmark Holiday in the U.S.).

I couldn't find any description of it online, or even the name of it, but people did tell me there was a harvest holiday (back around October 3rd or 4th, I think).

No matter, we had a full Thanksgiving table on November 23rd (had to put the extra table leaf in and tilt it sideways to accommodate everyone including high chairs). The guests consisted mostly of Martin's colleagues who had caught wind of the "American" holiday and wanted to see what it was all about, so... we obliged. Word spread quickly about the 11 kg (23 lb.) whole turkey we had in our freezer, as it is not normal at all to have such a thing in the house (although I'm told goose and duck are common over Christmas).

The sage-n-celery bread stuffing, cranberry salad (a tradition in our family, made with pineapple, walnuts, cran. sauce, and cherry Jello), cranberry sauce (from scratch, can't get the cans here and can only get the fresh whole cranberries in November/December), cornbread muffins, and sweet potatoes baked with apples, cinnamon, and raisins were all new to the folks here. Mashed potatoes and veggie sides were "known" of course, although let me tell you it is extremely difficult to find frozen corn over here (I always buy tons when I see it), normally it is canned corn only, which I think has kind of a funny taste to it.

Here we all are, towards the end of the feast (Nicholas is wearing Stephanie's bike helmet, he was having fun rooting through the playroom cupboards while the adults were distracted). Even Bella popped into the photo at the back.

We are still eating leftovers... I guess Germans just don't get the concept of second helpings. As the midday meal is the larger one here, I had told everyone to skip eating lunch, in the hopes that they would eat the expected Thanksgiving portions. That didn't work, but that's OK, we like the leftovers (good thing, too, given the amount). Thankfully (pun intended), we are at the end...

Monday, November 13, 2006

St. Martin's Day 2006 Report

From Wikipedia:

"St. Martin's Day (or Martinmas) is November 11, the feast day of Martin of Tours, who started out as a Roman soldier. He was baptized when he was grown up and became a monk. It is understood that he was a kind man who lead a quiet and simple life. The most famous legend of his life is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the beggar from dying of the cold.

The day is celebrated in the evening of November 11 in Flanders, parts of the Netherlands and most areas of Germany and Austria. Children go by the doors with paper lanterns and candles, and sing songs about St. Martin and about their lantern in return for a treat, very similar to the American tradition of Halloween. Often, a man dressed as St. Martin rides on a horse in front of the procession.

In recent years, the lantern processions have become widespread even in Protestant areas of Germany and the Netherlands, despite the fact that most Protestant churches do not recognize saints as a distinct class of believers from the laity.

The food traditionally eaten on the day is goose. According to legend, Martin was reluctant to become bishop, which is why he hid in a stable filled with geese. The noise made by the geese betrayed his location to the people who were looking for him."

Well, we had a very simple, modified celebration with Nicholas' Kindergarten, on Friday, November 10th. The kids had made paper lanterns a couple of weeks before, and brought them home. Stephanie had even made a paper lantern in our German playgroup, using the sides of a Camembert box, a piece of wire, some transparent paper and paint.

We met at the Kindergarten at 5:00 (dusk here these days) and lit the lanterns (Stephanie had a small flashlight in the bottom of hers, for safety), and took off on our little "laternenumzug" or lantern parade. Seventy-five kids with parents and lanterns in tow (as well as a few representatives from Etting's Fire Dept.), we walked through the neighborhood until we reached a cul-de-sac and then the kids stood in a circle with their lanterns and sang a couple of songs. Then on to the next cul-de-sac for a repeat performance. (They handed out music sheets the week before, and had worked on the songs during Kindergarten as well.)

I tried to take photos, but as you can imagine it was difficult both with and without the flash to get anything decent. Here are a couple from one point when we stopped:

And here's a closeup of Nicholas in his red coat and hat (his lantern is in the middle) with some kids:

Stephanie and her lantern (which was used more like a punching bag than a lantern):

Here we all are, en route:

After about three cul-de-sacs, we returned to the Kindergarten for our party; store bought cookies and mugs of tea, water, or mulled wine (common on the streets here during Christmas), for $1 per mug. It was nice to chat with the handful of parents we know, and Nicholas had a great time eating cookies and playing on the slide. They had a small bonfire outside on the playground as well, which was a nice addition.

It must have been over all too quickly, because on the way to the car Nicholas kept saying, "No, I don't want to go to the car, I want more, I want more." More what? More everything... parade, cookies, and party.

We heard that on the actual date, the 11th, Ingolstadt always has an elaborate lantern parade downtown at the Cathedral... very beautiful apparently. We figured that nearby Eichstaett, with its Jesuit University, would also be a nice place to go (it's a smaller city, more manageable for parking, etc.).

So maybe we will try to hit one of those next year. I don't think I will be up for cooking a goose next year (particularly so close to Thanksgiving), but you never know.