Category Archives: August 2009

Sauna Trouble

Last Saturday, I booked a babysitter so Gary and I could head over to Bad Homburg to try out one of their well-known baths called The Taunus Therme.  Our entire area is well-known as a retreat for Germans to dip their bones into the natural mineral waters provided at various spas. German royals funneled here for hundreds of years for that very reason. By the way, if you see the word “Bad” in the name, that means it is a spa town. Spas and baths are quite a strong industry in that the German health care system supports citizens to attend the spas to treat certain maladies or to prevent others.  We were feeling just fine but I thought it still sounded like a very relaxing way to spend a couple hours.

The complex, which is designed in a Japanese theme, sits on the edge of park.  Once we got into our swimsuits, we decided to jump straight into the first pool we saw. Then we tried them all –there had to be at least 6. Some were heated, some were not.  Some inside, some outside.  After soaking in the hot tubs,  we decided to try the saunas.  There are about 15 of them and they all are different–herbal, cedar scented, hot, extremely hot, on and on.  We decided to visit all of them and to start with number 1.  As we entered the sauna area upstairs, we were so focused on finding #1, we didn’t look too closely at the people around us.  I noticed a few naked people showering behind a wall to the left and then I saw swimsuited people drinking tall glasses of beer at a bar to the right.  When we got into #1, the only 2 people in there were nude.  No problem, we just sat on our towels and breathed the sweltering air.  Then the lady in front of us got up to leave.  Hmm.  A few minutes later, as we traipse into #2, I open the door to see an older man nuzzling his female companion.  He was all smiles.  Then he looked at us and his eyes went wild.  He pointed at us and roared something in German that surely meant “Get the hell out of here!” We stopped in our tracks blinking at him like Bambi and friend.  So, finger still pointing at us, he decided to repeat the message with even more fire.  It was as if he thought our swimsuits were packed with explosives or we were carrying signs that said “We’ve got swine flu!” Still a bit confused about the fury, we turned on our heels and left the room.

“Are we supposed to be naked in the saunas?” I asked Gary as we surveyed the area and confirmed everyone was naked, except at the bar.  Some wore towels as they strolled around but they were all obviously naked.  Except us, the sore thumbs. Until that moment, I’ve never been embarrassed to be fully clothed. We decided to travel back to familiar territory and went back to the hot tub to soak up the magnitude of our faux pas.

On a practical level, being nude in a sauna makes much more sense than wearing a swimsuit.  Why?  Well, it’s hot. Since it is a well-known hallmark of German culture and many others on the continent to be comfortable with public nudity, I’m not bothered by theirs. But, my public nudity is a different story.  Gary and I then started talking about well, what if the next time we just go native? But what if we ran into someone we know like the landlord,  Nora’s teacher, or  some of our new friends? We shuddered at the thought. Once you start thinking that way, the list of “All the People I Don’t Want to See Naked” grows very long.  Not because I think anyone else’s physique is sub-par– I don’t want them to see me naked either. It’s just because it’s not part of American culture to socialize in the buff unless you’re from Vegas maybe or West Hollywood.  Maybe we’ll cross this divide next time… or not, we’ll see.

Who’s There?

Our front garden, like many German houses, is enclosed by a wall and locked gate.  If someone comes to our gate, they can press a button that rings inside our house.  In our front hallway, there is a button we can press to unlock the gate.  The view from our house down to the gate is obscured by trees and there is no video camera so it’s impossible to tell who is there.  In the beginning, I would walk down our garden stairs to see who it was before I let them in.  After a few days of that, I started just buzzing in whoever rang our bell.  Then I just look through a window and see if they are fit to invite in.  They always are.  

Some of the people that come are here for repairs, etc and we sometimes didn’t know they were coming.  Others, well, it’s become a bit of a game for me because we’ve had several surprise guests–some we already knew and some we didn’t. You just never know who is thinking about you. Nora has caught on to the game too. Whenever the bell rings, Nora races to the buzzer and then flies down the garden stairs.  So far we’ve only had one awkward moment.  I had just stepped out of the shower and the bell rang.  Nora buzzed, ran down the stairs, and shot back up to report there was a man at the gate and he said he had to come in.  It turned out to be the chimney sweep (again, no notice). When he saw my sopping wet hair and bathrobe, he practically threw himself down the basement stairs to get to work.

Schule Days

Nora’s school, Frankfurt International School,  has begun and it’s as if the U.N. has reconvened except all the delegates are children.  People hail from all over the world here and listening to the range of chatter in the halls could keep you busy trying to detect the different accents. There’s also a sizeable contingent of German students too which is good since this is our host country and we don’t want to be isolated from them.   I hope it will also bolster Nora’s German skills.  She’ll be taking German classes 2 days a week and they also incorporate German into art class, which I think is very interesting.  

The school campus is very modern, colorful, and fitted with all the amenities you can imagine.  My favorite feature in the primary school are the 2 working kitchens, scaled down to their size, where they learn how to cook.   It’s amazing to think it all started in 1961 with 6 families.  Now it’s filled with some 1200 students from over 50 countries, all aged 3-18.

When I picked Nora up today, she was pleased to report she has a new best friend. Abigail is from England and her mom, who is from Scotland, tells me that Abigail had the same report.  

Just as I was thinking that Jack was enjoying himself at preschool, I started getting calls from the director.  “Jack’s been crying all morning….he gets really upset when we speak German to him…he wet his pants again….”  When I was driving him there on Monday he said “Mommy I don’t want to go to school, let’s go home and watch a movie.” Jack has always been Mr. Social, Mr. Easy-Going, Mr. Early Potty Trained, so this was all a surprise.  I guess the transition to our new world continues.  

But, last night, at bedtime, I decided to lay down with him and have a talk about it.  He’s 2.5 now and ready for longer discussions. I asked him if he wanted to bring Bunny, his favorite lovey, which he has stopped carrying around the last few months but still always sleeps with him.  Jack seemed delighted with that idea.  Then I gave him a kiss on his palm and pressed it on his cheek.  I told him that if he ever feels sad at school, to put his palm on his cheek and it’s like getting a kiss from me.  I wish I could say I invented that concept but I happened to remember it from a phonics activity Nora had last year.  And, if none of this worked, I was prepared to pull him out of there if I needed to.  But, I really want to have 2 mornings a week to myself and Jack needs to make new buddies too.  

So, he cried a river when I dropped him off this morning and I decided to stick close to the area, expecting to get a call.  But I never got one.  He still wet his pants but, otherwise, they said he had a happy morning.

Babel

While Nora’s school has yet to start (August 24), Jack has started going to preschool two mornings a week.  When I picked him up the other day, I realized he is starting to learn German, his new language, and it sounds exactly like he did when he was 9 months old.  He’ll babble like a baby, twirling his tongue with the new sounds, then he’ll laugh and slip back into English.  His preschool is bilingual and I am eager to see how much of the language he absorbs.  When he starts German Kindergarten when he turns three at end of the year (their Kindergarten is age 3-5) I hear he will be fluent within a few months.

At this point in daily life, I get by on a few key phrases and the hope that someone will know English.  I’ve been stuck a couple of times when trying to do a more complicated transaction.  But if you struggle long enough, you can usually get your business done with hand gestures or, mercifully, a passer-by who speaks English will come to interpret for you. But now that we’re settled in more,  I feel ready to make the next step to learning the language.  There are enough English speakers in Germany that I could spend the next 3 years without knowing German.  However, I miss being able to have a discussion with my hairdresser, or the (nice) old lady in the doctor’s waiting room; I want to have a clue about what I’m ordering in a restaurant.  And, I’m curious to understand the man at the store’s joke about me that made everyone else laugh so hard.    

So, I’ve decided to get enrolled in a conversational German class offered here at our village.  Our mayor, the Burgermeister (no kidding, just like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”) told me about it when we met at the castle festival in July.  His English is perfect and he talked at great length with Gary and me wanting to help us get acclimated to our new world.  My English friend Victoria also told me about these classes and she said it’s been much more fun learning German over a latte than sitting at a desk repeating commands from an instructor.  Yesterday, I went down to the Rathaus, which is city hall (yes, insert your own joke here),  to get signed up but….it was closed. Of course.  It’s Wednesday.  You see, German government offices and businesses close as often as possible, especially in August.  So, I learned that our Rathaus is never opened on Wednesdays.   Now, this is not an editorial on our Burgermeister or the employees–all I’ve encountered have been great.  Just, in general, German business hours are trying for the 24/7 American soul. We’ve also been waiting 7 weeks for our digital phone lines but that’s another story.  So, I’ve just ratcheted my expectations way down and am enjoying our new life with the very beautiful view.

p.s. I also learned from another friend about Yahoo Babel.  You can take words, phrases, or large chunks of text and translate it to and from any languages. The document I put together for my first visit to the hairdresser rivaled Beowulf in length but it got the job done.

Cherry Blast

My new friend Valerie, who is American, mentioned she had cherry trees in her yard and invited us to come pick them the other day. So along with one of her daughters and the neighbor-boy from next door, we took turns climbing a ladder and picked and I gained an enhanced appreciation for all fruit pickers of the world.  After the first 5 minutes, it’s not the bucolic activity that it promises to be.  After that, the real fun started. Little did I know, Valerie had planned to lead us through pitting the cherries, making a crust, and turning it all into a beautiful pie from scratch.  We also made made scratch cinnamon rolls. Then when Nora and Jack discovered an apple tree in the yard, Valerie whipped out an old-fashioned peeler that turns a whole apple into a curly-q. Wow! The day had already been great fun but now Nora and Jack were ecstatic. At that moment, I wanted to throw my hands in surrender and turn my children over to Valerie. That, or steal her apple peeler. Really though, Nora turned to me and said “This has been the best day ever” and I was so glad to hear it. Then Valerie’s great friend Andrea came by and her Chicago accent made me wistful for home but so happy to be here at that moment.  By the time we finished, Valerie’s kitchen was covered in cherry juice, red footprints tracked the tiles in the living room, and all our hands were stained a deep crimson. It was a great day.

The Schwimmbad is Gut, Except When…

If you step outside our house and walk down the road 50 feet, you’ll see a tiny sign that says “schwimmbad” pointing down to a hidden trail.  I had heard about this outdoor swimming pool, but thought it was on the other side of the village. It’s not to be confused with the divine Kurbad where we have gone swimming several times. The Kurbad sits high on a hill and has heated indoor and outdoor pools.  As you paddle around the bubbles and jets, our village castle presides on the next hill over.  Not bad.  

Anyway, I decided to check it out and walked down the trail, into the forest, down into the valley below.  You can hear the pool, long before you see it.  Voices and splashing echo up through the trees until finally you reach a set of stairs.  At the end of the stairs, down a bit is the schwimmbad. It’s actually a lap pool with a high dive, another pool with a slide, and a baby pool. I’ve taken Nora and Jack there several times now and each time we go we hope the water will be warmer.  But it is like diving into iced tea.  Once you get used to it, it’s more like cold water, no ice.  But you would never know that just by observing the other swimmers.  The Germans frolic in these pools like it’s the Gulf of Mexico.  We swim in it, turn blue, then get out for a while to warm in the sun.  Repeat. 

Despite the chill, it’s a great place with a large expanse of lawn behind the pools where people play cards, take naps and eat lunch.  And, like every other place in Germany (the zoo, amusement parks, etc.,) you can always buy beer. However, I haven’t bought beer in any of those places (yes, shocking).  I’m too busy just trying to be an aware parent there. 

One thing we always buy at the schwimmbad is ice cream, always a happy moment.  But, the last time, not so much.  As we walked back toward the pool and Jack and Nora licked their ice cream bars, we had to go down a set of concrete stairs.  Being two, Jack still needs to hold onto a railing while going up and down stairs.  So, he latched onto the only railing which happened to be on the left side.  A thought flickered in my head that this could be trouble for the German mindset since we were going downstairs on the left side.  But, I wanted Jack to stay on the railing so I didn’t move him over to the right.  My mistake.  Suddenly, a woman, maybe 65 years old, comes charging up the stairs and heads straight for Jack.  She knocks his hand off the railing, barks something in German, and pushes through, sending his popsicle flying and Jack tottering on the brink. I steady Jack and look back in disbelief at her quickly disappearing form.  Another German woman, about the same age, gasps.  She saw the whole thing and lifts Jack’s popsicle off the ground and turns on some water to rinse it off. She spoke to me in German and I gave my standard line “Ict spreche nicht Deutsches gut.”  Which means, “I don’t speak German well.” She had sweet eyes and said in English: “Some people just don’t know.”  

Or care, perhaps.  But, there is a definite pattern here.  When you interrupt “Ordnung” someone around is going to do something about it.  While these moments (like Frau Zilla–see “Terror on the Streets”) have been upsetting, they make me laugh later when I think about them. I’m not sure I’ll get many laughs from this one though.  

But, the other part of the pattern is, for every rude encounter, kindness still trumps.  Like the woman who washed off Jack’s popsicle and another German woman at the pool who eagerly struck up a conversation when she heard me speaking English.  She and her family just spent the last 4 years in Rhode Island.  With serious intention, she gave me her phone number.  I would have given her mine but I still can’t remember any of my numbers and have to carry them on a piece of paper in my purse.

Outdoors, Always

If there’s one thing I love about Germans–besides their soft pretzels– is their enthusiasm for the outdoors.  Every restaurant and cafe has nice outdoor seating and the country is littered with hiking trails. My favorite restaurant so far is called Lodge and it overlooks the zoo.  Kind of a funny juxtaposition because Lodge is a steak house and here we are gazing at zebras and wildebeasts while eating hunks of meat. Fortunately the zoo keeper isn’t the meat supplier. Gary and I went for the first time last weekend and the setting is what I’d imagine a safari lodge in Kenya looks like–warm wood finishes, breezes floating through, candles, and a full, orange moon hanging in the sky.  We couldn’t have ordered up a more perfect evening.  And then we actually ran into people we know–a sure sign a place is starting to become home. 

The Germans take advantage of every ounce of good weather and even not-so-good weather.  They are prepared with every type of coat, hat and boots to ensure they can still get out and enjoy the fresh air.  If you take the hidden trail from our house and turn left, instead of right for the Schwimmbad, you are handed a series of decisions about which trail to follow–the back route to the castle and the Altstadt (old city) or along a stream, past a waterwheel, and near the train tracks.  I go for my runs down there and I’m an oddity in my running gear and listening to my iPod.  The Germans prefer to hike around with what looks like ski poles in their hands. Maybe it provides more of a workout.  The first time I noticed those things was a trip with Gary to Cinque Terre in Italy two years ago.  As we hiked the pathways carved along the steep Italian cliffs, we were amused by all the Germans and their hiking gear, as if they were climbing Everest. One evening during dinner with an Australian couple, we asked if they had noticed the ski poles.   In his best Melbournese, the guy shrugged and said, “Yeah, what’s up with the sticks?” So, here we are again, surrounded by hiking sticks.  

Our village even has Kindergarten in the Woods, which is exactly how it sounds.  There is no school building.  Parents drop their children in the woods every morning — rain, sun, sleet, or snow–and the teachers take over from there.  My neighbor’s eldest son attends that kindergarten and one cold, rainy morning I saw him leaving for school.  He was dressed head to toe in rubber, looking like he was about to trawl for lobsters in the North Atlantic. I think this sort of Kindergarten is a novel idea though and will consider it for Jack.

We’ve had several comfortable weather days lately but everyone warns us about winter.  Some new American friends had us over for dinner recently at their home in the Aldstadt of our village.  Their house sits right across a courtyard from the ancient cannonball forge that used to supply cannonballs to our castle.  They’ve lived here for three years and have had the best time.  However, they admitted the first winter was rough.  No sunshine and the daylight is scarce.  It got so bad that the husband decided to make a chart of actual daylight every day of the year.  He got the information from the internet and created a graph.  The results were clear. December had the shortest time of daylight in the year–one day around the 21st has only has 8.5 hours of daylight.  But, pointing to January, he said, “This month is total s***. Get a babysitter and plan a long weekend somewhere sunny,” he recommended.