Category Archives: February 2011

It’s All the Little Things

Adopting the German style of birthday celebrations, a few friends lately have hosted their own birthday parties in their homes or at restaurants.  So, instead of relying on friends and loved ones to throw you a bash or get-together, you just do it yourself which I think is actually very sporting.  However, I still do like the idea of having parties for others—why make the birthday girl work so hard on her day? Well, each way has it’s own merits and, by the way, in a German office, a person would be considered strange and anti-social if they didn’t bring their own birthday cake.

But the reason I mention this is one of the recent birthday girls, Kathy, asked all of us invitees to bring a written memory with us instead of a gift.  Kathy is moving back to her home country in a few months and wants to collect favorite memories of life in Germany.  A couple friends said to me something along the lines of “Ellen, you like to write, this should be an easy one for you….”  But really I was a little stumped to come up with something spectacular.  Everything I thought of was good, but small on it’s own.  There are so many little things that, together, create a pattern of something significant.

“Friends” is an easy answer for some favorite memories.  Where else can you sit at a table for coffee with friends and realize that every continent in the world is represented?  But, more importantly, the friendships aren’t based on “wow, you’re from x” – these are all just real friends, with whom you laugh, learn, explore, and come help at the last minute when I realized I actually had 17 children coming to my house for Nora’s birthday party.

Ttraveling, yes, that’s another easy answer. But, I won’t bore you with the travelogue…… instead, I will speak of the little things…….

Completing a transaction in German without having to think about it;

Noticing when the sun comes out in the winter and discussing it all day with friends and strangers. “Hey, I got to wear my sunglasses for an hour today!”

Hearing Jack boast in German to his Kindergarten friends. It’s all the same in German too…”My house is the biggest, my daddy is the biggest….”

Causing a German to laugh really hard and it’s not because of Schadenfreude…It’s always a small pleasure to give a smile to the most dour German, notice their look of surprise, and then see their own smile in return.  But one of my favorites was when I had to return a bathrobe because it had shrunk in the dryer in extreme fashion, even though I followed the care instructions.  When I showcased the now tiny garment and declared it “nur für Barbie,” the sales clerk nearly collapsed laughing.  I didn’t think it was that hilarious but I loved sharing a laugh with her;

America’s FCC doesn’t matter in the rest of the world so hearing all the uncensored lyrics on the radio is still startling sometimes but often amusing. “Oh, so THAT’S what he really meant….”

We have two deer that visit and practically live in our garden. The most surprising part about this is we don’t live in a rural area.  We live near the top of a very busy village and are surrounded on all sides by other houses but these deer seem to like it here.  They often come around when Jack and I are having breakfast but they have never dropped in for coffee. And, whether coming or going, I’ve come face to face with them on the stairs, then I say “hi” (they’ve never said “hi” back) and then they bound off in the opposite direction;

Teaching the local Mexican restaurant how to make a taco salad.  They promised to name it after me and it’s divine;

Witnessing Nora’s newfound sense of freedom.  Since, she turned seven last year, I’ve been letting her go out and ride her bike and play on our street on her own to meet friends.  Many Germans let their children roam at earlier ages than that but I don’t think Nora really wanted to until she got more comfortable in our new world.

I love being American but I’m often mistaken for a Spaniard here.  This all makes a little sense because, after the first time my mother went to Spain and visited a Madrid portrait gallery, she mentioned that she saw a lot of noses in those portraits that look like ours.  We all have a bump that is referred to as “distinctive” by our mother and as “the curse” by my siblings. Her family originates from Ireland and I was confused by her meaning but then she continued with hints about the Spanish Armada spending time in Ireland and fraternizing with the locals.  Hmmmmmm……

Enjoying steam/sauna at the gym after a workout or at the multiple other spas around here. If there is one thing America needs more of, it’s places like this;

Hearing Gary’s normal travel agenda for work often sparks my imagination.  It was far-flung when we lived in America, and now it’s even more like the TV show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

During this current school year, I’ve been teaching a class that includes Nora and the children of several friends of mine.  I’m getting to know these children from a completely new angle. And, I imagine they see me from a new angle as well. Each hour packs in more fun and and a little frustration.  There are nine of them and I also have Jack who prefers to start climbing on me just when I’m in the middle of an important point.  I’m forever grateful to the (good) teachers of the world who do this every day.

There are more memories but this is good for now.


When in Rome

When you go to live in a country where there is a language difference, you automatically expect there will be different customs and there is ripe opportunity for faux-pas like the ridiculous Sauna Incident from many moons ago.  But, if you read a book or two, you’re aware of things such as, in Germany, when you are in a social gathering and people are clinking their glasses, you must take a drink from your glass and, while doing that, hold the gaze of the person you just clinked with. It’s tempting to start wiggling your eyebrows during those few long seconds while you’re drinking and gazing but that would not be a good idea. In a less formal atmosphere, it’s more relaxed but at German business dinners those few seconds can be excruciating.  Trust me, I know!

But, what can be deceiving is to travel to a different country that has the same language as yours.  The inclination is to believe we’re all the same.  And, to a certain-degree, that can hold true.  But, you can really stick your foot in the wrong place too and it’s seems more embarrassing because there is no language difference.  I lived in Ireland for one year of university and soon discovered the Irish are among the most cynical in the world, and are a total contrast to the happy-go-lucky stereotype that many believe in America. Mind you, it was very fun and I made life-long friends there but that was the first time I realized the same mother-tongue doesn’t mean the same people.

Some years later, a large group of those Irish friends had emigrated to San Francisco and we overlapped living there for a couple years.  One couple in the Irish group got engaged and I’ll never forget the look in their eyes when Gary and I showed up at the engagement party with a gift.  It was as if we were handing them a vial of radioactive material (“We thought plutonium would look great in your living room!”) or maybe a rabid squirrel (“He responds to Sammy.”) These normally fun, gracious people couldn’t even whisper a thank you. What was customary among Americans, triggered Irish superstition through the roof–it’s bad luck to give an Irish couple a gift before they are married (even if they are living in San Francisco).  Also, never give a pregnant Irish woman a gift for the baby.  Wait until the baby is born.  At least I never did that one.

The reason why this comes to mind is I’m traveling to London with friends soon and I realize that even though I’ve been to London a few times, I don’t know that much about English life. We all speak the same language and then it can get into treacherous territory if one doesn’t know the rules. Sure, I know things like “pants” in England means underwear.  Say trousers instead. Also, don’t ask for a “ride” in someone’s car.  Tee hee heee….ask for a lift instead. But, aside from some basics, all I know is I like London, except for the breakfasts–horrific. But from Googling around I have learned things like: never cook a pork pie you buy from a shop–it’s already cooked and will be a complete mess if you put it in the oven. Besides that, it seems to be considered a mistake so stupid–something like putting ice cream in the oven. Good to know but I’m not sure if I even want to eat a pork pie.  Also, never kiss the hand of the Queen which Mickey Rooney did a few years back when she visited America. I find that sweet and also hilarious but it was the talk of England apparently. I’m not expecting to meet the Queen but, duly noted!