Category Archives: September 2009

Oh Yeah, Campaign 2009

We spent last Saturday evening in Frankfurt (with Gary’s brother Chris–Hoover Brothers European Tour, Part Deux!) and while we were sitting at a stoplight, Gary noticed an advertisement for an Angela Merkel (the current German chancellor) political rally. I had nearly forgotten we were in the heat of campaign season, which is unusual for me, the political junkie.  The thing is, the only television I’ve been watching is beamed out of London.  The news I’ve been reading is from all the American websites where I’ve always collected the news.  And, let’s face it, the German election for chancellor is important but not ever big news.  

A few days later, Jack and I hopped on the train in Königstein–always a popular activity for a two year old boy–and rolled into the Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, the main train station and scheduled site for the Merkel rally.  After getting our American fixes–McDonald’s for Jack and Starbucks for me–I pushed Jack in the stroller outside to the gathering crowd. It had many of the sights and sounds of an American-style political rally: eager fans, plotting protestors, and thumping music from the Black Eyed Peas, Pitbull, Lady Gaga, and the like.  But it was all scaled down to the size of a rally for a U.S. Member of Congress or a Senator.  Germany has over 82 million people which makes it densely populated and everything gets crammed into smaller portions.  The Polizei were present but amazingly scarce considering the chancellor was arriving.

It was a few minutes past the start time and the crowd starting pushing forward making it harder to keep Jack protected. It turns out there was no need to worry about that.  My nearly full Starbucks cup, which I had set on the ground for a moment, toppled over, sending my drink toward the toes of at least 25 people to the left of me. While I was crushed to see my Starbucks float away, it’s a brilliant way to make room for yourself in a crowd. 

It was all starting to get exciting when some politician stepped up to introduce Merkel. Jack decided to stand up in his stroller to get a better view. Throughout the man’s entire remarks, one of the protest groups called Operation Übernahme (basically communists/socialists), started blowing whistles and honking horns. Then when Merkel made her way to the stage, and the rest of the crowd cheered, the whistles kept blowing, horns kept honking.  They didn’t stop. Ever. Merkel had to speak over them the entire time.  Do groups like this think they’re going to change anyone’s mind by completely annoying them?  Then when one of them shouted at Merkel,  she paused and said “Ja, ja…” and made some comment that made the rest of the crowd laugh.  I have little idea of what she said during those 20 minutes but I was impressed by her poise and conviction.  There were no “ums” or “ahs.” Her delivery was smooth, confident, and she held the crowd in her grasp.  Election day is September 27.

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Hiatus

It’s time to put this blog on hiatus. I’ve had so much fun with this but want to think more about next steps for my writing. Maybe I’ll come running back to this next week, next month, next year, who knows?  But I’ll wrap up a few details before I leave off: 

1. No, I haven’t run across Frau Zilla again. If I ever do, I’ll be sure to gently inquire about her mental health.  By the way, driving manual is like second nature now and I do my best to imitate Jason Bourne without all the car crashes and police chases.

2.  I’ve decided to return to the sauna and go native.  The way around it is just keeping a towel with you….and avoiding anyone who faintly resembles our landlord or Nora’s teacher, or…..

3. My time here so far has confirmed the old wisdom that people are people the world over.  Except I think there will always be some wide gulfs of understanding. Like when I filled out a school form for Nora from the German Health Department.  I was puzzled to see that Nora being left-handed is considered a “physical disorder” and lumped in the same category as diabetes, heart trouble and asthma.  Maybe they aren’t aware several U.S. Presidents such as Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama are south-paws.  I think they’ve all managed just fine. Anyway, I decided not to check the box for her particular “disorder” just in case some bureaucrat would decide she’d have to wear a little sign saying “My Right Hand is a Useless Appendage” or “My Left Hand is Defiant.”

So, for now, that is all.  If you’re on facebook, I’ll let you know if I decide to start up again.  If you’re not on facebook, on the right column of this page is a “Subscribe” feature.  If you click on that, then you should be notified if I do more posts. Hopefully that feature works.  Thanks for keeping up with us on our journey and stay in touch.

Hang on, Kids!

Last weekend, we took Nora and Jack to a local amusement park called Lochmüle, a place that throws Caution out the window, stomps on it, and like any good German institution, puts it in the recycling bin.  I’ve never seen a theme park that has boats that go airborne and lets children get on a wooden raft to float down the river with a big stick like Huckleberry Finn. It was like a training ground for Hollywood stuntmen. And, let me tell you, it was FUN!!  No, we didn’t send Nora and Jack on the dubious ones but even the safe ones had an edge–like the mini ferris wheel whose gondolas tipped forward on the slightest exhale.  I should also mention this ride could only be powered by someone riding on a connected bicycle. Some really nice dad pumped and wheezed the whole time Nora and Jack rode it.  Our friend Ray joked: “Careful, don’t let him look you in the eye or you’ll be sitting there next!”  

The lawyers in Disneyworld would break out in hives at the mere sight, but this creaky park, while surprising at points, was also a refreshing antidote to the hyper-litigious world back in America. Gary and I laughed thinking the park should have a sign at the entrance that said “Accident free for the past ___ hours.” No, we didn’t see anyone getting hurt, just lots of people having a good time. Oh, and they serve beer too.

The Homefront

While I’ve been busy picking out which festival to attend, school committee to join, and lining up tennis and lunch dates, the real world comes crashing in.  This time, it’s my mother who is getting a heart valve replaced today.  As I write this, she’s undergoing surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, in the able hands of a South Korean surgeon and a French cardiologist. Yesterday, when my mother asked her surgeon what he liked most about Minnesota, he had a quick reply:  “The weather.” Somehow I feel even better knowing he has a sense of humor.  

Yet, these are the moments that I always miss because I’m the one who’s always far away.  Twenty years ago, I left Indiana to live in Washington, DC. then New Mexico, California, North Carolina, and now here in Germany. My sisters, Kate and Fran, and my brother Mike, chose to stay in the Midwest and kindly pick up my slack.  Last night, I thanked my sister Fran, who has been shepherding our Mom the last few days.  It’s an exhausting process for a patient (and attendant) to get prepared for this type of surgery.  Two full days of tests, poking, and racing from one appointment to the next. No easy task when you have a heart valve that wants to quit. Then, on day 3,  you wait for hours to be called in for the actual surgery. I don’t feel very useful at this point and I joked to Fran that “Karma was probably waiting around the corner for me, in a Lamborghini, revving the engine.”  That’s always the flip side of being the one who is far away.  I don’t ever have the physical presence of my family to help with illnesses, to babysit in a pinch, or to commiserate on a rough day.  Months ago, when my mom and I were discussing my move to Germany, she observed that it seemed to be my “fortune to be away.”  It seems so.  But, I always go back.  In fact, I’m taking Nora and Jack back to Indiana in a few weeks for a visit.  If all goes as planned, mom will have just returned from her ordeal and I’ll have a chance to be a dutiful daughter.

The Germans Weigh-In

The longer I do this blog, the more it’s getting passed around to people I don’t know.  It’s been really fun to find out who’s reading it and get to know the newcomers.  A few of these newcomers, like Alexandra and Ina, are German and are still able to enjoy my examination of their culture and have even extended a hand in friendship to meet for coffee, tips on sauna protocol, and other funny and nice gestures. They were directed to my blog via Anton (Alexandra’s brother) who is married to my friend Pamela and living in the States. It can’t be easy to see their country scrutinized and, sometimes criticized, and I really appreciate their good humor and thoughtfulness. 

And, going into this project, I realized I should be prepared for the tables to be turned and to accept German opinion about Americans and even about me personally.  Fortunately, no one seems to have a personal gripe with me yet but I’ve been gently reminded about some American shortcomings such as our general ignorance of history.  Of course, there are many Americans who know the Battle of the Bulge has nothing to do with dieting but there are too many who don’t.  

Then again, I’m not going to apologize so hard for that weakness because it is also one of our great strengths.  We don’t dwell too long on what happened or what could happen. We move forward, we go, we do. But, I’ve learned that since Germany sits in central Europe, its history of invasions by other countries has, understandably, burned insecurity into the collective psyche. For example, our landlord needed to enter our house for a repair recently and I was not going to be home when he could come.  So, I told him I would hide a key in our garden and he could enter while I was away.  The man was riddled with anxiety thinking about all the people that could find that key and wipe out all our possessions or do even worse. “Gosh, this is a pretty peaceful area, have there been any problems? ” I asked.  “Oh no,” he said in surprise.  “But there’s always a first time,” he gloomed. Sure, he could be right.  But, our contained neighborhood only has people that belong there and the garden is large and covered in flowers making it impossible to find a hidden key. Optimistically, I hid a key and told him where to find it.  When I got home, I found him standing guard outside the door.  He had not looked for the key. I felt bad for worrying him so much. 

Anyway, one of my favorite responses to the blog came from Ina.  We had never met and her email came out of the blue.  She had been sent the link to my blog and “I did a print out (oh jesus, almost 10 pages…) and I took all the paper with me. I forgot about it. Today I was in the middle of a big traffic jam on the “Autobahn A 5″ – I spend almost 2 hours sitting in the car, listening to radio and watching all the angry faces around me in the other cars. Stop – I remembered myself to have those papers in my handbag and I started reading. It has been so entertaining … I couldn’t help laughing … and laughing …. And suddenly I realized how it was to seat [sic] in a big traffic jam and just laugh… Can you imagine the faces around me now?!” Sure, her message is complimentary to me which is always nice. But I love the tempo of her words and, most of all, am relieved my observations and predicaments gave her a smile and not an insult.

Olympic Queuing

Before we moved here, I heard queuing is not a strong part of German culture.  I found it surprising, considering this is a country that seems to be obsessed with order.  But, it’s true. And, it’s hard to not form judgements about people when they’re trying to cut in front of you.  I look at queue jumpers through an American lense and, well, to my eyes, they seem unprincipled.  But, for Germans, who have never found queuing important, this is just a natural act. And, to be fair, not all Germans are queue jumpers but plenty are. At first, I found it amusing and let them go without an argument.  Now, I keep my elbows out a bit and my peripheral vision on high alert. Like yesterday, waiting in line for a rotisserie chicken at a street vendor, I noticed the man behind me slipping from side to side trying to maneuver me out of the way.  So, to his frustration, when he moved right, I moved right.  He sighed.  Then left, left, sigh. And so on, until it was my turn.  

But, sometimes you can’t predict the line of attack, like in the grocery store the other day. I had one item to purchase and Jack in the stroller.  I briskly walked up toward the clerk, who was checking out a customer,  and suddenly, like an Olympic long jumper, a woman leaped in and sandwiched herself between me and the other customer.  I looked at the empty grocery belt and placed my one item on it.  The long jumper threw me a glance that appeared to show some sign of unease but, I wasn’t sure.  I watched her as she continued to hold her grocery items in her hands. That was her fatal error.  The clerk moved the belt so my one item was ready for check-out.  What was the long jumper going to do?  Shove aside my item and lay down hers?  “Scheisse” she muttered and she took a step sideways and I glided forward to the clerk.  Victory was mine. Later that day when I was walking out of Nora’s school during pickup, who should appear before me?  The long jumper, with children in tow.  It’s a very small world here.

Party Time

Every weekend, I look at event calendars and my eyes widen with awe.  From what I can see, all over Germany, all the time are festivals.  Everything from the famed Oktoberfest, to whisky, guitars, and Elvis is celebrated.  Our own village, Königstein (im Taunus), hosts several per year. We’ve already attended our village’s Burgfest up at the castle and I hear the Jousting Festival in May is outstanding. 

Last weekend, we checked out two festivals while we had our first houseguests, Gary’s brother Mike and his wife Laura. Everything turned out opposite of what I expected.  The first festival we attended was Laternfest (Lanternfest) in Bad Homburg which showed signs of being very special with events like a children’s lantern parade.  But, what we saw turned out to be a huge, brassy carnival, crammed with drunk teenagers. We ditched the festival and settled into a tasty Italian restaurant instead. The next day, there were a few other festivals to choose from and we set our sights on one in Frankfurt because our guests hadn’t seen much of the city yet.  The only problem was this festival sounded like a real snoozer: Museumfest (!).  As we rode the train into the city, I wondered if our first try at entertaining house guests in Germany would be a total flop.  

It turns out, Museumfest was a winner and that’s probably because we never set foot inside a museum. We just strolled through the happy crowd, along the river Main, watching boat competitions and tango dancers, stopping only for ice cream for Nora and Jack, a biergarten for pils and curryworst, and topped it off with a visit to a leafy playground. It was a great way to spend Sunday afternoon. I imagine during our time here that we may find ourselves at other Laternfest-like events but that’s OK because it’s all part of the adventure, right?  And, I give points to anyone who throws a party.