The Magic 8-Ball

I considered renaming my blog to “Still in Deutschland” (and still enjoying it!) But, Beer and Pretzels just seemed more comfortable and homey. I say all this because we expected to be in Germany just three years and now we have launched our fourth. This is (gulp) home, for now. But, our German landlord has decided to put our house up for sale. Will it sell? Will we have to move to a new house here and then move again next summer to America? Or, will we move but still stay in Germany for another couple years? And, so on. Any answers to these questions would be like those uncertain Magic 8-Ball answers:

● Reply hazy, try again
● Ask again later
● Better not tell you now
● Cannot predict now
● Concentrate and ask again

The thing is, I’m not worried. Those questions occasionally pop up into my mind but are swept away with a shrug. My mindset is different now. Uncertainty is a way of life for an Expat and there’s no sense struggling with it. Just live, keep exploring, make some commitments even if you have no idea if you’ll be here long enough to finish them, and keep yourself and your family happy.

While some things change, others stay the same. I still love picking up my children from school because I hear true confessions, stories, and the occasional one-liners. My favorite so far this year is from Nora, said in complete exasperation: “Oh, I don’t know Jack! I haven’t spoken Martian in years!” I’ve also learned Nora thinks the lunch ladies working in the cafeteria are so annoying they should be replaced by robots. She’s serious and she’s had just about enough of it.


Voyage of the Crammed

What would European living be without at least one experience on Ryanair? For those who have never heard of it, they are the budget, Spartan-like airline with all the sympathy of a despot and the soul of a hyena. They are infamous for charging 60 euro for forgetting to preprint your boarding pass to 160 euro if your name is misspelled by even one letter. But the thing is, if you hit it right, you can fly really cheap and get to where you need to go. I’ve had the privilege of two journeys with them and I can honestly say it was all that I expected and even more entertaining.

Walking into the security line at an airport, one usually finds a particular type of Ryanair passenger. They are the ones wearing big coats with multiple pockets that they have to empty into multiple boxes to go through the x-ray. They also can have on a sweater or two and several scarves wrapped around them. They are wearing nearly their entire wardrobe for their weekend in Rome. Whatever you do, try not to get in line behind them! Otherwise you will grow old waiting for them to unravel themselves. This is all because Ryanair’s rather meager and strict baggage weight and dimension guidelines can bring out the hobo in the best of us.

Once you are through security, it’s time to find your pole position at the gate. If you had decided not to pay the extra 10 euro for an assigned seat or 5 euro for priority boarding, then put your elbows up and find your spot in the herd. Then, stick to it like glue unless someone ahead of you carelessly shifts position against their favor or, heaven forbid, goes to the toilet. Then you wait. Occasionally, the crowd, which is under duress, can get surly. I’ll never forget the sight of a 20-something Italian woman, who must have weighed 90 pounds soaking wet, throwing her body across a row of chairs, flinging punches at a group of 20-something Italian men across the way. Why, I don’t know. But, whatever it was, she was infuriated and lunged at least 4 times, each attempt being held back by her boyfriend who could barely grasp her. Nora and Jack stood pie-eyed at the whole thing. Good show! And, it was free–the Ryanair gate agents couldn’t find a way to stamp a fee on that.

Once you’re on board and are seated, the rest of the trip is filled with several commercial announcements and even a lottery. But, I feel like I have flown Ryanair in the bygone glamour days because now they are retrofitting their fleet with only one toilet per plane, so they can add 6 more seats. They also want to charge for your use of that one toilet and add rows for standing passengers, like on a city bus. These misers are genius.

Endless Bummer

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of photos on Facebook of my American friends and family with suntans and splashing around swimming pools and hanging out at beaches.  Now that I’m on my 4th summer in Germany, the only thing I feel when I see those photos is not envy, it’s more like the forlorn complacency of a child who is always told to never expect too much. Kind of like the character Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I think “Oh, those summers aren’t for people like us.”  Mind you, it’s still beautiful here in the old mountains where we are set in and among picturesque villages, with flowers everywhere. We also had about 10 days of loveliness in May but, like a summer fling, those days are just a bittersweet memory. Nora described it best this morning: “This summer has been really droopy.”

To cheer myself up, I’ve decided to pretend I’m the marketing director for Germany’s Travel and Tourism board. My job is to come up with a slogan to entice summer visitors to Germany.  To be fair, there are parts of Germany such as the Rheingau and Bavaria which typically have better luck with the summer weather.  But for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say it’s all kind of crappy. So here we go….

German Travel and Tourism Summer 2012 Slogans

“We’re Sorry”

“At Least it’s Not Snowing”

“Don’t Get Your Hopes Up”

“Autumn is Usually Nice”

“You Can Still Swim in the Rain”

“Please Hold, We Are Trying to Locate the Sun”

“Sunshine is for Wimps”

“We’ve Had Worse Summers Than This”

“Maybe Next Summer Will be Better”

“Summers in England Are Even Worse”

“We Were Afraid This Might Happen”

“Are You Sure You Still Want to Come?”

“Well, Well, Well, Not Good Enough for You, Princess?

“Greece: Saddling Us With Debt and Stealing Our Sunshine Too”

“So Long, Suckers! We’re Going to St. Tropez!”

Aaaah, but like Charlie Bucket, I have my Golden Ticket too.  Later this “Summer,” we’ll have 3 weeks of warmth back in the U.S.  In the meantime, in Germany, I will still enjoy friends, biergartens, and the pockets of sunshine we are given.  Really, as Americans, it’s much easier for us to get home from here, unlike our friends from Australia and New Zealand.  Yesterday, Nora’s teacher (a New Zealander or Kiwi as they say) told me she’s not going home this summer.  It’s wintertime there so she’s not missing much in that way.  Also, it’s a 12 hour flight from Frankfurt to Hong Kong; then another 12 hour flight from Hong Kong to Auckland; THEN, another flight to the lower island of New Zealand.  All of that with her squirmy 1-year-old toddler….forget about it.

Our Parallel Universe: Hospital II

As I write, it is day four of Jack and my hospital stay for the surgery on his eardrum. I know this because I have chiseled four slashes into the wall. Well, it’s not THAT bad but it does have a feeling of being in exile. Even though we have a private room, there is still no shower or internet. I can’t decide which is worse. Fortunately, my iPhone is keeping me somewhat connected. Gary was able to be here for the surgery but duty called in London. Nora is staying with good friends so Jack and I have built our own cocoon here.

Yesterday, my friend Megan cheerily texted me from her holiday in Cyprus only to find me desperate on the other end. “I really want a shower.” I had already asked our wonderful babysitter Olga to come but she was without a car. My friend Feri had also kindly offered to help but was having trouble juggling this in the middle of caring for her own children. That’s ok because, in a jiffy, Megan had her favorite babysitter on the way to us. When she arrived, I tried not to sprint out the door. Then, a couple hours later, I came back to the hospital a new woman. Thank you, Megan!

Our days in the hospital have developed a certain rhythm: Jack’s breakfast is delivered at 7:00am. Breakfast here is not worth waking up for so we say “danke” and roll over for more sleep. Sometime after 8:00, a nurse bursts through the door telling us the surgeon needs to see us NOW in the next building. It would be awfully nice if they could give us some warning, like an appointment. I haul Jack out of bed and help us both into our clothes. The nurse returns 2 minutes later to tell us “schnelle!” (hurry up!). Jack and I then argue about how many toys he can bring with him. Then we stumble out the door and onward to the surgeon.

Afterward, we go to the hospital café where I get tea and Jack gets an eyeful of graphic sex on the German television. (I thought those shows were just for evening hours??) Then we go for a frog hunt. We have one particular frog in mind: he is the one that lives in the courtyard our windows face, who croaks ALL NIGHT LONG. There is no air-conditioning so we must keep the windows open because summer has finally arrived. After many nighttime hours listening to him, this is the only way I can describe his croak: He sounds like a goat, imitating a bullfrog, but with a chicken accent, and using a megaphone. I hate this frog. And, with typical German fondness for all things natural, the hospital has a special swamp habitat for him in the center of the courtyard. All nicely fenced in with many tall reeds where he can hide. Jack and I have not found him yet. But we bring Jack’s new bow and arrow set with us every time, just in case.

After our frog hunt we usually return to the room to rest a bit. Today was no different–Jack was watching a movie and I was reading—until I saw a face peer into the window that is on our door. Not just any face, a clown. A German clown. And, he had a buddy. Pretending I didn’t see them only worked for another minute as they periodically pressed their scary faces on the window. So, I gave up the pretense and invited them in and, actually, they were funny. It was nice of them to come. Let’s give clowns a chance, people! By the way, I saw them later, sitting in the hospital café, still in full costume. They were drinking espresso and having a serious conversation. Somehow, that was even more amusing.

After 2 meals in a row of Jack being served 2 slices of bread, cheese, and a radish, we’ve been spent most of our mealtimes foraging through the hospital café. Success has been limited so I think we’ve been slowly starving to death. So, for today’s lunch, I decided to follow our noses and find the employee cafeteria. I hadn’t bothered with it before because that’s where all of Jack’s sumptuous meals had come from. But, hunger and the smells of potentially good food overcame us as we entered–surprise!–Nirvana with a salad bar. Jack chose a big piece of chicken with fries and I piled up a salad. We were so happy. When the cashier rang up our total she nodded toward what looked like a place where I should scan a card. I pulled out a wad of cash, hoping I could throw money at the problem, but she shook her head and sighed. As I put my tray aside to go hunt for a card to buy in the main lobby, the cashier told me to stop and called her manager over. We used her card and I paid her in cash. God bless her. This situation seems symbolic to my life in Germany so far: When I can’t get by on smarts, pity (theirs) and humility (mine) save the day. P.S. Jack is doing well! 🙂

Love and Kisses

My friend Ilka, who is German, asked me recently if there was another way in English to say “you’re welcome” after someone says thank you.  “It just sounds strange to me,” she said. And, I agreed the German all-purpose “Bitte” is nicer in most situations.  So, I thought about it for a moment, and came up with these substitutes: Sure, Anytime, My pleasure, etc.  

But then Ilka said, “And what about I love you? Americans use that in such a casual way.” For example, she said “I would never tell a friend that I love her. That would just be bizarre.”  I mentioned that I have a handful of girlfriends that I love and sometimes we tell each other that very thing.  “You know,” I said, “it’s not looooooove, smoochy smoochy, blech. It’s just a strong friendship love.” Ilka sent a resigned gaze at me and countered: “My parents and I don’t even tell each other I love you.” Then it was my turn for disbelief. “Really?! Is that normal in Germany?”  “Yes, it is.  In families, we all know we love each other.  We don’t have to say it,” Ilka responded.  

So, yes, I agree “love” is not a casual concept to throw around but just as I started thinking no Germans ever say I love you, Ilka mentioned a couple important things:  “The love that is spoken about is only romantic love and there are many types.” She then went on to tell me there’s an expression for each level of love from the initial stages of puppy love (Ich habe dich gerne) , to commitment (Ich liebe dich), and on down the line.

Now, onto the kisses.  Everyone knows that in Europe the double-kiss-on-the cheeks greeting can be common among friends but it’s usually female to female, or female to male. With my friend Gabi, it is three cheek kisses because she is Swiss. In America, the most affectionate of friends will give each other a hug and maybe a kiss on one cheek.  Other Americans guard their personal space and prefer a wave, nod, handshake, fistbump, etc. And, of course, If any Americans ever attempt the double kiss while on American soil, they are labeled as pretentious Eurotrash.

I figure, when in Rome, do as the Romans, so I am fine with the double kiss greeting, particularly with good friends that I don’t see regularly. But among my closest group of American friends we’ve come to an informal agreement.  It all started when our friend Renee asked “Do we all have to practically make out every time we see each other?” That is vintage Renee (I love her–ha ha).  So, no, we don’t.  Although some of us are still more huggy-kissy than others.  

There is one more greeting that I see here that always fascinates me.  Every morning when I bring Jack to the kindergarten, we are usually sprinting from the car to the building at 8:54 and 43 seconds.  The doors to the kindergarten lock precisely at 8:55 and I’ve already had the pleasure of being locked out and literally begging for the door to be unlocked.  (A city manager happened to be there and just shook his head at me and walked away. Don’t worry, I eventually got in after ringing the bell 4 more times and going through the charade again and again.) Anyway, I’ve mentioned before there are several Korean families at the kindergarten. They all wear Western style clothing (and my friend Eum Zee is seriously chic). When they see each other in the morning, they stop in their tracks and bow at the waist. Even though it’s not in American DNA to bow to anyone, it is a serene snapshot to keep in my head while the rest of us dash by each other calling “Morgen.” 



Be Prepared

A common trait among Germans is to be prepared for all situations. Sure, most Americans like to be prepared as well, but Germans take it to a whole new level. I’ve never heard a German say “Let’s wing it” in any situation.  Having to act without forethought is considered unwise and our natural inclination to take a leap is met with hesitation or outright refusal from a German. Of course, from person to person, this can vary.  I have many German friends that have a more relaxed approach. But, I have also run across many who cannot veer from the predetermined course and get quite nervous, upset or even angry. Das Geht nicht! (It does not work!) is the battle cry for those who refuse to bend.

It’s not all bad to have solid principles and rules to keep the world moving nicely. It can just get comical or frustrating at times, especially when this same society does not queue!!! I just returned from the grocery store which is the sorest point for me and many Americans–it’s every man for himself.  I have to put my game face on there or I will be crushed by some old lady. So, today at the grocery, I noticed a bright red First Aid Kit and I thought of the dwindling collection of band aids and ointment that I keep in my handbag.  So, with a nod to German preparedness, I purchased it to keep in my car for life’s little emergencies.  Unfortunately, the German idea of preparedness is different from what I had in mind.  I opened up the package to find a reflecting orange vest, 17 (really) types of bandages, and…….forceps.  No antibiotic ointment, no burn cream, no ibuprofin, no antiseptic solution, etc.  The good news is that we now have enough gauze if Nora or Jack wants to be a mummy for Halloween. And, perhaps with the forceps, I could start an amateur surgery in my car, while I wear the orange vest, of course. Don’t worry, I have watched “ER” and “Scrubs” many times so I know just what it takes to act like a surgeon.


Hello Hospital

The last couple weeks, Jack and I have spent a fair amount of time in and out of a large hospital in the area. Not a crisis, but chronic ear infections have led to the need for an adenoidectomy and, later, in a couple months, a tympanoplasty to patch a hole in one eardrum. I mention this only because it has given me time to observe the workings of a German hospital. This one is not plush, like many of the U.S. hospitals have gotten to be. Maybe there are plush ones in Germany but this one is old, the TV in the room didn’t work, and the hallways upstairs were empty, with unmarked doors, giving the feeling of a Stephen King novel.

Why would I choose such a place for Jack? Because his doctor is the Chief ENT surgeon and is located there. And, the care we received from all the doctors, nurses, and other staff was as kind, helpful, and professional as you would want your child to have. It is considered a routine surgery but nothing is routine to me or Gary seeing Jack carried away in the arms of a doctor to the surgery theater. His arms and legs dangled loosely because of the preliminary anesthesia. Recovery isn’t easy either. As I rubbed Jack’s back, listening to his moans, and speaking softly to wake him, I watched other mothers (only one parent was allowed) periodically enter after their children were wheeled in from surgery. While most of these mothers walked briskly into the room, anxious to see their children, one mother of an infant ran in.

I hope they all have happy endings, as Jack did. After 4 rough hours, he was ready to have something to eat and drink. So, I ventured to the downstairs cafe and discovered one major difference between a European hospital and an American one: they sell beer and cigarettes. It shouldn’t have surprised me at this point but it did. Come to think of it, being in Europe, this hospital probably also has a disco, casino, AND Cathedral inside. I’ll have to do a little more exploring when Jack and I return.