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

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.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Halloween 2006 Report

From what I'd heard, most Germans view Halloween as a "new" (six or seven years old), almost non-existent holiday. "Oh, right, these kids rang my doorbell and it's October 31st. I think I'll go look in the pantry and find something... or maybe just give them some money." Kind of like Sweetest Day, a pseudo-holiday trying to get off the ground (except I think this one will make it, as it's not pushed by Hallmark, but by American pop culture, which is generally seen as cool and trendy here).

What I experienced was that everyone was at least aware of the holiday... but not everyone buys candy and answers their door or carves pumpkins. It seems to be sporadic. In our neighborhood (full of empty nesters living in homes built in the 70s), our pumpkins were the only ones around.

Other neighborhoods with young families had up to a quarter of the houses with carved pumpkins outside. Martin says that nobody knows about following the rule with the outside lights on or off, but about a third of the houses had outside lights on. (Normally everyone is so energy-conscious the outside lights are rarely on and you rely on street lights instead when walking after dark.)

Nicholas enjoyed pushing the pumpkin pieces out that I carved to make the eyes, nose, etc. on his pumpkin. He wanted a "silly smiling mouth" and I did my best, he laughed out loud when it was finished so it must have been what he wanted.

The kids loved the whole costume idea, Stephanie cried when the costume came off after the trial run fitting. We went with a farm theme for costumes, here is our cow and chicken:

Our friend baby Anjali (16 months) came over to our house, and we snapped a few photos:

After a quick stop at a mutual friend's house to show off the kids, we separated and proceeded to a friend's house where more trick-or-treaters were out and about in the neighborhood. It is not uncommon for small groups of older trick-or-treaters (seven, eight, nine) to sing a song or two before receiving their treat. Everyone got a kick out of the kids' costumes and many tried out their English with Nicholas. (They say "suess oder sauer" (sweet or sour) instead of "trick or treat".)

Most of the costumes you can buy here are of the Halloween classics -- ghost, witch, skeleton, monster, pumpkin, etc. But I guess that is what is easily mass produced and what everyone here thinks of when they think of Halloween. Pumpkins are readily available alongside mums and heather outside the grocery stores and are also heaped into piles, roadside, in place of summer's "you pick" flower fields.

Interestingly, most Germans think it is a non-traditional "American" holiday imported via Hollywood, and are surprised when I relay the actual origins of the traditional pagan/Celtic holiday. The following day (today, Nov. 1) is a long-standing official holiday here. Ironically, All Saints Day was historically connected with the original Halloween celebrations... it's like trying to separate Christmas Eve from Christmas. (All Saints Day is essentially Memorial Day, where you visit the cemetary and remember family members.)

We will probably end up going to a park to fly Nicholas' new Spongebob kite, as it looks like the first windy day we've had since it arrived in the mail. Next week is the next big holiday celebrated here... I'll give you a hint... it's November 11th. Stay tuned!