Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas 2012

'Twas the day after Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The treasured, precious, post-holiday peace - what bliss!

We've now survived our second Christmas in Germany. In many ways this was better than last Christmas, as we're more settled and have worked out some routines. In other ways, things fell through the cracks, as our lives are busy, with everyone more involved in school, work, and social circles. The first weekend of Advent I embarked on a wonderful weekend in London with my girlfriends. While I had a fantastic time (and you can read about on KettwigeFrau and Emma's Expat Adventures) it got me a bit behind schedule in launching into the Christmas season. The second weekend of Advent was my youngest son's 10th birthday, so not much Christmas prep happened then, either. It was the third weekend before I had some cookies baked, the house decorated, and the tree selected (once again with our lovely friends Rebecca and Sam and their three darling children). It was still several more days before we actually had the tree erected and decorated. That happened just in time for our annual Feuerzangenbowle party, the last weekend of Advent.

The in-laws visited for the holiday we sort of merged German and American celebrations by opening family gifts after our Christmas Eve raclette and then the Santa gifts on Christmas morning.

Christmas Day we took all the family out to the Flic Flac Circus in Dortmund. It was a fun afternoon outing, with a great performance, despite the scary fall of one of the performers. I do hope he's OK. So now three of the kids have returned to Hamburg with the in-laws and we'll catch up with them there on New Year's Day.

I regret not getting out any Christmas cards this season - for the first time in over 20 years. I bought the cards and the stamps and even drafted a Christmas letter for distant friends and relatives, but the evening I sat down by the fire with a glass of wine, prepared to write them, I saw the news of Sandy Hook and dissolved into tears over the senseless violent deaths of so many people not far from my home town, and was too grief-struck to send cheerful Christmas greetings. Instead I was glued to the news for several days, as were millions of others, I'm sure. I suppose I should try to send some out this week, but I fear that just isn't going to happen. I do promise to be back on the bandwagon next year (the first of my New Year's resolutions!) and will send out holiday greetings at the very least to those who kept me on their Christmas list!

I hope you've all had a wonderful Christmas holiday and wish you a New Year with good health and deep happiness!

Below is a little recipe I'll share in lieu of sending Christmas cards :)

Smoked Salmon Christmas Canapés

This year I experimented with some new party recipes and came up with cute Christmas Canapés that were fairly popular. The recipe is super simple:

  • Start with prepared miniature tart shells (I found a pack of 24 at the grocery store)
  • Add to each a spoonful of softened cream cheese.
    I started with about 1 cup of Philadelphia-brand sweet chili cream cheese into which I blended a tablespoon of prepared horseradish. (Chose your favorite flavor of cream cheese and zest it up any way you like - the onion & chive cheese would be good, too).
  • Fold a small sliver of smoked wild salmon over the layer of cheese.
  • Add a dollop of guacamole on one half of each tart.
    I made a small batch of homemade guacamole - using half a large avocado, some lime juice (lemon would be fine too), fresh pressed garlic, and some salt & pepper.
  • Press a small slice cherry tomato next to the guac, round side up. I cut the tomatoes into sixths.
  • Cut slivers of chive and insert then into the guac for added dimension and a darker pop of green color.
The result are lovely bite-sized green & red morsels that take about 30 minutes to prepare and can be chilled until you are ready to serve. I lined a platter with a bright red napkin for a pretty display. 

If you have suggestions for other twists to this basic recipe, please share! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cherishing Traditions: American Thanksgiving in Germany

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.

Unlike Christmas, which is mired in commercialism and bears the "burden" of thoughtful gift giving, lavish decorating, and endless obligatory festivities (kids' school parties, your office party, your spouse's office party, the neighborhood cookie exchange, plus the parties with friends that you actually want to attend...), Thanksgiving is so SIMPLE.
Yet so special.

Thanksgiving is our closest loved ones gathering around a delicious meal to give thanks for abundant blessings. It is a time when we relish good food and celebrate life, family, and friendship.  That's it.  No gifts.  Not too much decorating. Not much to stress over. Just a time to reflect and be thankful.

There are many who criticize Thanksgiving. Some say the whole "Thanksgiving story" of a feast celebrated by European settlers together with the Native Americans they nearly obliterated is a myth; a fantasy to appease our guilty WASP conscience. The nay-sayers dismiss it as an outdated custom from a time that should not be celebrated for the brutality that came with colonization. Others bemoan the gluttony; too much food prepared and served to an overweight society. There are those who fret over the hormone-injected, caged turkeys raised on industrial farms and cruelly slaughtered. OK, I get it, there is always something to find fault with. To each his own.

For me, Thanksgiving is a beloved tradition of humble gratitude and grateful celebration. It's heartfelt and more true than anything else I celebrate all year long.  It's a time to say "thank you" even when life sucks; a time to put my pain and struggle in perspective, and acknowledge that whatever else we may suffer, my family is not hungry or homeless (anymore). We are are not living in a war zone. No matter how much we may have sacrificed since moving abroad, we are not impoverished or even terribly deprived. We have a beautiful home, have made wonderful friends, and we have our health and each other. That's quite a bit to be thankful for!

So once again this year, I made every effort to recreate the family traditions that have marked all the Thanksgivings of my life. The actual Thursday holiday was a normal school/work day here in Germany, so we postponed the feast until the following Saturday. But at the beginning of the week I set the dining table with my antique Gurley candle figures of Pilgrims and Native Americans that were part of a tradition passed on from my Mom who also had a collection of these candles for her holiday table. And I began to test out recipes and plan the menu for the celebration we would share with some of our exchange daughters and close friends.

It was our second holiday in Germany, and I'd learned a few lessons since hosting the feast last year. So this year's "adventures of American cooking in Germany" went off much easier and more relaxed. I knew what ingredients I could easily find, which ones I would need to hunt for, and which I would have to simply do without and substitute. I was able to order a fresh turkey from a wonderful local farm - thank you Buchholz!

I found fresh cranberries in a couple local markets, as well as sweet potatoes and sugar pumpkins. I discovered that the ground pork known locally as "Mett nach Thüringer art" made a fantastic substitute for the spicy sausage I used in my grandmother's stuffing recipe.

To my delight, I even found an adequate replacement for Pillsbury Ready-made pie crusts (Süßer Mürbteig)! Typically I bake at least 4-5 pies with fillings made from scratch, but I despise the tedious process of homemade pastry that never tastes as good as I'd like. So I was very happy to find that the Süßer Mürbteig worked well for the apple pies.

For the pumpkin pies, I got creative and made the "crust" from toasted walnuts, Leibniz cracker crumbs, butter, and brown sugar. The nutty crust, quickly concocted in my food processor and baked for about 15 minutes prior to filling, was a beautiful complement to the earthy flavors of a spiced pumpkin pie!

The food all came together very nicely, with much of it prepared ahead of time, so that on Saturday I had time to relax before our friends arrived for dinner. In my quiet time, I reflected, again, on how far we've come in the last year and how blessed we are.

This is the spirit of Thanksgiving, so unique from other holidays, which I dearly cherish.

                                                 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Spiced Cranberry Sauce

The homemade cranberry sauce was a first for me and I was very pleased with the flavors and textures. The recipe was simple and I'll share it here for you (measures are estimates)....

500g. fresh cranberries (about 3 cups?)
1 cup of light brown/raw sugar 
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup gelatin sugar (optional)
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 cup water
fresh orange zest
a cinnamon stick
2 anise stars
about 6 cloves
1/2 tsp vanilla or a package of vanilla sugar

Put all ingredients in a pot and cook over medium-low heat for about an hour. Berries will soften and "pop." Stir regularly. Strain the mixture through a sieve to remove the whole spices and berry skins. Store the sauce in the fridge until ready to serve. The anise adds a mysterious and exotic hint to the flavor! If you want a whole berry sauce with more fruit pulp, you just need to be able to fish out the cloves, anise and cinnamon before chilling it, or spoon some of the fresh pulp back in after straining and ensuring that there are no spices.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Growing an International Family Through Exchange

At a reunion with my host family October 2012
Sometimes I'm not sure how to answer simple questions like "How many children do you have?" or "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

Because in addition to my four biological children, and my two biological brothers and four step siblings, I have this large, extended, but closely-knit international family that won't fit on your average family tree and that many people have a hard time comprehending. This is my YFU family: Youth For Understanding.

With YFU, I have two exchange brothers in different countries (one where I lived as an exchange student in Germany, and one from Sweden who lived with my family in New York when I was a teen.) And then there are all my "daughters."  These are the girls we hosted while we lived in Maryland. There are six whom we remain very close to, and a couple others we loved for a time, but for various reasons have not stayed in touch with.

Twenty-five years ago I won a scholarship to spend a year going to high school and living with a host family in Germany. I could not, at that time, begin to comprehend how it would impact everything about the rest of my life. This is when the seeds were planted and my international family began to take root; where the rest of my life and family sprouted.

During my exchange year I lived on a small farm, in a very small village on the Baltic Sea in Schleswig-Holstein. When I arrived, I did not speak a single word of German. The language wasn't offered at my high school; I had only learned French. (I had wanted to go to France, but there were no scholarships there and my parents could not afford to send me on an exchange year. Desperate to travel, see the world, and meet new people, I grabbed the only chance I could get and applied for the Congress-Bundestag scholarship to Germany; close enough, right?).

My host brother spoke a fair bit of English, but honestly, we didn't get along too well at first. I was not what he had in mind when he asked his parents to host (the exchange organization didn't have any boys needing placement; so they got a girl - to my host mother's delight and my brother's chagrin). My host father spoke a bit of English, but worked 15 hour days on the farm. I spent most of my time outside of school helping my host mom in the house or garden. She did not speak a word of English. We both got very good at charades!

I am very grateful to my wonderful volunteer host family for taking me in. Despite not having much to spare economically, they were generous with everything they had, especially their patience and love. They taught me so much about their culture and language and helped me learn a lot about myself. We remain close today, and my host brother and I have built a strong bond.

Tree Branches
The amazing experience I had with Youth For Understanding inspired me to stay involved with the organization and share the love and learning with other young people. Initially, upon my return to the States, I got involved as an area representative. I worked to find host families for international students coming to the US, then mentored the students and families through their year together, lead cultural orientation sessions, and organized various outings and events in the community. I've now mentored about 50 students, some of whom I grew very close to and continue to stay in touch and visit with.

Daughter Stefanie (Denmark 2001-02)
After I was married, had a house and children of my own, we started hosting. This is when our family really began to bloom. My children grew up with older exchange siblings from around the world.

One great benefit of always having an exchange student in the house is that we placed a high value on doing things together as a family - going on day trips and establishing traditions to share with all of our children. When faced with the choice between doing yard work on a beautiful Saturday or taking the exchange student and our kids river rafting and for ice cream in historic Harper's Ferry, WV - well, maybe our garden was in bad shape, but our kids had amazing memories and learned a lot about the history of the area where we lived near Washington DC and Baltimore.

Every holiday was celebrated with enthusiasm as a chance to show off American customs to each new exchange student. Each year, we'd drag our students off to a tree farm to cut down the Christmas tree. We would take haunted hay rides at Halloween and carve pumpkins, color and hide Easter eggs in the Spring. The list goes on. Our exchange students brought endless adventures to our lives and helped us live fully and learn about ourselves, as well as about their cultures. Christmas cookie baking marathons included new recipes each year, brought to us by our exchange daughters from around the world. And my kids learned to say "please" and "thank you" in the languages of the kids we hosted each year.

As my children reached their teens, it's no surprise they wanted to have their own exchange experiences. My oldest daughter won a summer exchange scholarship to Finland when she was only 14. (One year after she spent the summer in Sweden with my host brother's family!). Marissa had a fantastic host family as well, and we were very glad that her host sister could then visit us the following June. And last summer my son was invited to visit them (they also had a boy his age). We hope we will get the entire family here to visit us in Germany soon!

Butterfly Garden
Daughter Katja (Switzerland 2002-03)
There's been a bit of cross-pollination from all these exchange experiences, in vastly different ways. I could tell a million stories. Several of our exchange daughters have met each other (during visits after their initial year) and become "international sisters." We've developed close ties with some of the natural families of the girls we've hosted. One year, on a trip to my husband's family in Hamburg, Alice (arrival student in 2000 from Munich) came up to visit us and brought her sisters. Another year, our Italian daughter (Tamara, 2005-06) also met us in Hamburg, with her parents and brother. And we've become so close with the family of our daughter, Janna (Germany 2004-05) that they took us all in when we first moved to Germany over a year ago. For two months they helped us find a place to live, look for schools for our kids, get the new house painted, buy appliances, figure out insurance, etc. There are no words for the generosity they bestowed on us - they were a life line!

My Global Family
So how many children do I have? ....
I guess I have a heart full :)

Here are a few pics of my global family.... I love them all!!!!

With daughter Janna (Germany 2004-05) in Canada in 2006

With daughter Tamara (Italy 2005-06) during a visit in 2008

With daughter Viki before Prom (Germany 2006-07)

With daughter Inessa (Germany 2007-08)

With daughter Grethe-Marie (Norway 2008-09)

Tamara and her boyfriend visit while we hosted daughter Edith (Finland 2009)

Janna and her boyfriend visiting in Summer 2010

International Sisters with Tamara and Alice (Germany 2000) in Munich 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Apologies! Life got in the way...

So this is something of a travel smörgåsbord post; thinly disguised as an apology for having shirked my writing responsibilities for so long. You see, lately I've been way too busy living life to find time to write about it. I've drafted dozens of posts in my head while traipsing through the summer and early fall. But now sitting before an intimidating blank screen prepared to illustrate them in full-color glory, I hardly know where to begin!

At the start of summer I took off for Munich, and wrote a review of that Summer trip slated "First up: Munich" but then failed to ever report on subsequent forays. So here's a belated recap of some other summer adventures, with a couple teasers for travel posts still to come...

In late July, we visited Lucerne, Switzerland with my brother and his family. I wish I had been able to capture better photos, but the weather most of the time was miserably cold and rainy. What I do need to share is that we took an awesome (albeit freezing cold and wet) excursion that, one day, I'd like to repeat under fairer skies and which I strongly encourage you to take if you find yourself visiting the Swiss Alps. It was the Golden Round Trip to Mt. Pilatus. This tour involved a ferry ride across the incredibly beautiful, turquoise-blue Lake Lucerne, followed by a slightly scary spectacular ride up the world's steepest cog railway. Once atop the nearly 7,000 foot peak, you have the opportunity for some awesome hiking and sightseeing. Unfortunately, we couldn't see much, entombed as we were in formidable rain clouds. To descend the summit, the tour includes an aerial cableway ride part-way down, then you switch to smaller gondolas for the remaining trip to the foot of the mountain at Fräkmüntegg. A short bus ride then returns you to the starting point in Lucerne.

Another day trip in Alpineland included a boat ride to Europe's largest waterfall: Rhine Falls and a hike through the town of Schaffhausen. This was nice, but if you've been to Niagara Falls, Yosemite Falls, or Viktoria Falls (among many other gorgeous river cascades) prepare to be unimpressed.

One of the more exciting adventures for the men in our group was a day of Canyoning in Interlaken. Unfortunately, since the younger kids were too small for this, my soon-to-be sister-in-law and I got stuck taking the four little ones to a noisy, chlorine-filled indoor water-park. The kids loved it, we couldn't wait to get back to the hotel and crack open a bottle of red!

We departed Switzerland after a few days and headed for the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle. At least on this day, the weather gods blessed us so we were able to enjoy stunning views in the German Alps. Arriving too late to get tour tickets for the famous structure that inspired Disney's Cinderella Castle, we were able to tour the neighboring Hohenschwangau Castle, where King Ludwig II spent his summers growing up and actually lived while building his dreamy princess palace. The tour was fantastic and I was really glad we did it. The rooms of the castle are richly furnished and the wall murals are amazing. We were able to get a sense of what life was like in the castle during the early to mid 1800s.

The castle visit was followed by another trip to Munich so my brother and family could visit my daughters and experience a traditional German beer garden, among the other great sights of this historic city. Most of this rainy trip included the same points of interest I reported in the Munich blog post, minus the sunshine.

The Maldives
The final trip of our summer was a three-week dream vacation to a tiny atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean - part of the Maldive Islands. That trip, which was a gift from my in-laws, is going to need its own blog post, so I promise to get one up in the next couple of weeks! Right now, I'm still sorting through the thousand photos we took and trying to assemble an album to give them as a thank-you present.

Autumn Adventures
Then summer ended, I celebrated my birthday, and the first full year of my new life in Germany came to a sentimental close. School resumed and life moved on at a somewhat normal pace, with the expected highs and lows of kids continuing to adjust to a challenging situation. We were all grateful when fall break arrived. And with it, came a visit from the American grandparents. That, too, deserves its own post. So as soon as I gather all the photos from the various trips we took to the Baltic, to Belgium, along the Rhine, and throughout the Ruhr region, I'll get them up for you!

And as a side note on crazy adventures, last week, in the middle of the fall break, with the grandparents and rest of the family as witnesses, my girlfriends and I participated in the Essen-Kettwig Drachenboot Race. This was a huge amount of fun and definitely worthy of its own blog post, but since my co-conspirators KettwigeFrau  and Expat Emma already blogged about it, I'll refer you to their wonderful sites! (And they're religious about updating their blogs, so check in often and you might even learn more about what I've been up to).

So, apologies again for not writing in so long. One of these days I'm sure life will slow down enough for me to find no other excuse for blog-procrastination! Until then, I hope you all are enjoying adventures of your own!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wanted: A Great Job!

I've been in Germany for a year now and am feeling settled in. The kids are adjusting well. We've gotten their schools sorted out. I've found them pediatricians, orthodontists, eye doctors, sports clubs, and tutors as needed. They've made nice friends; and the initial transition drama has faded away. The household is set up, major appliances purchased, closets and shelves built, lamps hung, etc.

Life has returned to a normal routine for the family in most regards. But there's one big exception: I've not returned to my own career. Now that everyone else is taken care of, it's time to focus a bit of effort on my own needs.

I've completed all the residency paperwork and obtained my German driver's license. I've built a network of wonderful, supportive local and expat friends, joined a book club, began some volunteer work with an exchange organization, and even held a mini-job for most of the last year, providing English tutoring and assisting faculty at the children's school a couple hours each month. But I need more.

I need a great job.

What's a Great Job?

I am a subscriber to the philosophy "without dreams there is no need to work and without work there is no need to dream." I also believe I can pursue both work and dreams by doing what I love, and loving what I do. And that's what having a great job is all about. It's not about the money; that's just a nice by-product of a great job.

A Great Job is one where I engage with a team of bright, fun people, collaborating on interesting challenges with ample opportunity to take my own initiative. It's one where I can contribute to providing an outstanding product or service; where my unique skills make a difference in the success of the organization. It's also one where I can continually develop my skills by learning from great minds around me; where I respect and am inspired by the people I call colleagues, clients, and vendors.

What Would I Do at a Great Job?

I cringe a bit each time someone asks me "What do you do?"
The short answer is: I'm a Communication Professional. That's what my formal education prepared me to become and the essence of what made me successful in the positions I've held.

But I've applied my communication skills in very diverse settings, often filling an undefined void in dynamic organizations. I connect the dots, build relationships, refine processes...make things work, or work better...

A little bit about my background and past Great Jobs...
During four years of graduate school, I studied, conducted research, and taught classes in three communication fields: health, cross-cultural, and organizational. I worked extensively in local hospitals with resident physicians to improve psycho-social communication skills with patients from diverse cultures.

Then for nearly ten years I worked for an innovative Public Policy firm in Michigan. My titles included "Project Manager" and "Research Methodologist" but the responsibilities were rather broad and changed as the business grew. Our clients represented an incredibly wide range of fields including: education (charter schools and education voucher systems), work force development, small business economic impact measures, natural resource uses and tourism, health care policy, etc. The myriad of subjects in which I developed content expertise along with the opportunity to take on tremendous responsibility made it a really Great Job!

After moving to Maryland, I continued to consult for my previous employer and clients, but dedicated spare time to numerous non-profit organizations where I helped create major outreach and fund-raising events. The worthy causes I was able to promote (from an historic theater to international youth to a mental health association) and the fabulous volunteers and sponsors I dealt with made my freelance consulting a Great Job!

Eventually, I was asked to do some software testing at an interactive media firm that specialized in online education. The clients there were mostly large medical societies or science foundations. Being a small and dynamic firm, that role also grew quickly to include not only quality assurance but content management, project management, product support, client training, and technical documentation. I was constantly learning new technical skills and transferring that know-how to new situations. The fast-paced, cutting-edge technology environment paired with brilliant colleagues made that a particularly Great Job!

The common thread to success in these Great Jobs: a positive attitude with excellent communication and organizational skills and an ability to connect people and technology.

What Are the Tangible Benefits of a Great Job?

Another question I cringe at: "What are your salary expectations?"
A truly Great Job offers priceless intangible rewards: personal growth, professional development, job satisfaction, new friends, interesting travel, the ability to look forward to each new day at work with smart, fun colleagues.

Financial compensation is only one tangible benefit among several very important considerations. How flexible are the hours? How far is the commute? How much vacation time is available? Are there annual or performance bonuses? What kind of travel is involved? Are there company perks, such as a car, airline miles, conference attendance, or discounted products/services available?

The most important benefit I've had across all my Great Jobs: Fantastic "bosses" who offered a finely-tuned balance of flexibility, financial fairness, and fun on the job.

Where Do I Find A Great Job?

I've been blessed to have most of these Great Jobs find me. The owners of the two firms where I've worked the longest were associates or friends who asked me if I could help them out on a project. Those part-time, temporary positions quickly evolved into very rewarding Great Jobs that I was sad to leave - but life moved me to new places. Most of my freelance work came to me through referrals. So now I'm building my network, meeting interesting and smart people, and trusting that with the right connections, another Great Job will come my way.

If you happen to know someone in the Essen or Düsseldorf area with a Great Job opportunity ripe for a vibrant bilingual communication professional, please, send them my way!

My professional data can be found on LinkedIn.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pizza Culture: An International Culinary Adventure

The other morning I sat down to breakfast with the morning newspaper and a flier for a local pizza delivery company fell in front of me. One glance at the pictured specialties and I lost my appetite for the eggs on my plate.

A large photo featured a pizza with hard boiled eggs, broccoli, corn, and curry sauce! Seriously? Does anyone eat that? With a little imagination I can believe people might like curry sauce with chicken and pineapple on their pizza - but eggs and broccoli?! No. Thank. You.

Glancing through the Joey's Pizza ads, I found several combinations that challenged culinary couth. How would you like steak, asparagus, and Hollandaise sauce on thin crust? Feeling a little dull? Try the sharp edge of a "Pizza Hot Conchita" with spicy BBQ sauce, hamburger, bacon, red onions, Mozzarella, and chili peppers. And call the fire department.

Flipping through more pizza menus, I had a flashback to the first meal I shared with my host family in Germany as a 16-year old Congress-Bundestag Exchange Student. The day I arrived, they took me to a festival along the beach near our home on the Baltic Sea, then out for dinner at a local Italian place. Since I didn't speak any German, I opted for the first thing I was certain I understood on the menu: Peperoni Pizza. I really couldn't understand why my host brother seemed so surprised and asked me if I was sure that was what I wanted. Until it sat before me. I quickly discovered to my horror that "peperoni" in German is not at all the same as "pepperoni" in English. Rather, in Germany, this is a hot green chili pepper. If you want the traditional American pizza topping, then you need to order "Salami." I've tried to warn unsuspecting tourists about this, but it never fails that visiting friends forget, and order a pie full of hot peppers.

After seeing the flier with hard boiled eggs on pizza, I jumped online and surveyed my Twitter friends for the strangest pizza toppings they've found outside the US.  I got some interesting feedback! Here are a few of the oddities people have encountered around the world:

  • Dönerfleisch (shaved seasoned lamb similar to that used for Greek Gyros) with onions, peppers, and tzatziki (a cucumber and garlic-based yogurt sauce).
  • Tuna fish, shrimp, salami, spinach, and garlic.
  • Mixed seafood (including octopus, mussels, shrimp, and clams) with garlic.
  • Pineapple, ham, and onions (although I've often seen this "Hawaiian" combination in the US, too).
  • Turkey, artichokes, and onions.
  • Olives, sardines, capers, Feta cheese, spinach, and garlic.
  • Smoked salmon, spinach, peppers, and garlic.
  • Eggplant, spinach, broccoli, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and artichokes.

I can be adventurous with food. So I'd be willing to try a few of these, but some topping combinations are just too much of a challenge to my open-mindedness.

What are your preferences for pizza? Anything you've seen that made your stomach turn over? I'd love for you to share your thoughts and experiences!

Photo Credits & Disclaimer: all photos are from advertisements for Joey's Pizza in Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany. Joey's has not sponsored or endorsed this blog in any way. I have not actually tried any of the mentioned pizzas.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Girlie Breakfast: Expat Bonding at its Best

About once a month, I eagerly run the kids off to school, kiss the hubby goodbye, and race out the door dressed up pretty for "Girlie Breakfast." This morning was one such occasion.

But it was special, because the expat bonding celebrated at these gatherings was extended to a new girl, and in a way, it was for me an example of friendship coming full-circle.

Less than a year ago, I was the lost and lonely "new girl" in town. Then I was invited to my first Girlie Breakfast. Nothing in the world could have done me more good at the time, as I was wallowing in the "overwhelmed new expat" blues.

It started with Rachel, a lovely British woman I met at an Expat Quiz Night (via MeetUp). Rachel reached out to me, the newcomer, and welcomed me to join her and a group of her friends the next morning at a beautiful little boutique and cafe very close to my home (Villa Landleben). I was a bit apprehensive about going, but also desperately in need of connecting with other women, especially anyone who could relate to my experiences as a mom in a foreign country. So I went.

And it was one of the BEST things I ever did! During the two or more hours we lingered over lattes and a splendid breakfast buffet, we talked and laughed like I hadn't done in months.

I left that first Girlie Breakfast feeling, for the very first time since moving to Germany, like everything was going to be ok. I was so grateful for the warmth and easy friendship of this group of near-strangers. They made me feel like part of a family and gave me perspective and hope. Over the next half year or so, I learned their individual stories, the reasons they came to Germany, the reasons they stay. Each month the group in attendance at breakfast may vary between 5 and 8 ladies who manage to get there between jobs, kids' appointments, household repairs, etc. In total, there are about a dozen women in the group. Each one is very different - who knows if we would even be friends in other circumstances. But here in this little corner of Germany, being expat moms is a pretty powerful common bond.

My new girlfriends, who hail mostly from the UK and US, all call this country "home." None of the women in this particular circle of expats are here on a temporary basis. Some, like me, are married to Germans. Others have expat spouses, too, but their children were either born here or have lived here long enough that it is the only place the kids feel at home; so the parents have put down roots and decided to stay for the long-term. I think that makes this group unique from many expat communities. And it makes it the perfect fit for me. I feel enormously blessed to have found them!

Now I am able to "pay forward" the tremendous gift Rachel gave me, when she extended that first invitation to breakfast....

Last night I was at a German Parent-Teacher Meeting for my son's 8th grade class. It was the first one I attended at his new school and I didn't know anyone. But then I realized the woman sitting behind me (the only one who had brought her child to the meeting) was whispering in English with her daughter. My son had mentioned a new girl from South Africa had joined their class. And she didn't speak ANY German. And they just moved here. Over the last week he'd mentioned the new girl and her family a few times and I was already feeling a bit sorry for their apparent struggles, never having met them.

I leaned over and asked them if they were new to the school. Bingo. I introduced myself as the American whose son had just come to school mid-way through last year, and we proceeded to chat and pass notes in the back of class like "bad kids" :)

I couldn't help but invite her to breakfast. I knew EXACTLY how she felt. So this morning, I swung by her apartment on my way to Girlie Breakfast and took her to meet the best expat group there ever was. And just like they had done for me, they welcomed her with open arms. By the end of breakfast there were hugs for the new girl and offers of any help she needs. She was so grateful. So relieved. And I know exactly how that felt for her, too.

She has a very tough year ahead for herself and her family. But every month or so, we've got Girlie Breakfast.

In between, we've got good old-fashioned Girlfriends (and Quiz Night, and Book Club, and Birthday Cocktails, and lots of other excuses for getting together!).

And like they did for me, these Girlfriends will do for the new girl: We've got your back. Welcome to the Girlie Breakfast Club!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Looking Back on a Year: Birthday Reflections

Yesterday I celebrated my 43rd birthday. The day was fantastic, and I'll get to that in a moment. What is important for me now is that it marked an occasion to review and evaluate the last year. This past year has been, hands down, the most difficult year of my life. It was filled with tears, heartbreak, frustrations and desperate moments. But I made it through, and recently have found more frequent days of hope and happiness. So on this particular birthday, I had a lot to celebrate. Here's a little recap of the incredible 12-month journey.

Flashback Beginning August 2011

On August 1, 2011 I signed the papers closing the sale of my beautiful home in Maryland where our family had lived for eleven years. Several days earlier all the contents had been packed onto a 40' container and sent ahead to Germany. My kids had also departed for Europe and were staying with their grandparents on the Baltic Sea. My husband and I remained with friends for a few days to settle affairs and say our goodbyes.

On August 4th we flew to Hamburg, stayed for a night, then drove to North Rhine-Westphalia, where, during a house-hunting trip a few weeks earlier, we had made an offer and begun the contract process to buy a house in Essen. We were expecting to finalize the deal and move in within a week or so.

However, after arriving in Essen, we learned that the person with whom we had negotiated the house purchase did not possess the appropriate inheritance paperwork required for him to legally sell it (The Housing Crisis post). For the next several weeks, we were left in limbo: homeless with our container sitting in port storage amounting massive daily fees as we had no place to unload our household goods.

With the start of school looming and the prospect of finding a home looking impossible, I was sure I had made a monumental mistake by moving my children overseas. I had no way to provide for them, no place for them to live or go to school, not even access to their clothes and other things we shipped. I had failed them and was already desperately homesick. By my birthday at the end of August one year ago, I was severely depressed.

By the grace of God, we found a rental home in September and things started to look up. The house was under renovations, had no lights or kitchen, but we had a permanent address and were reunited with our belongings. The kids started school and by end of October we had completed unpacking, had phone and computer lines, and a kitchen (Kitchens, Closets, and Light Fixtures post).

In November, I was feeling very lonely, had not really made any friends yet, and was still homesick. As the new year arrived, one child was struggling so badly in school that we had to move him to a different school system. All the children were overworked with school, tutors, and social adjustment in a new language and culture (Helping Teens Transition post). I was overwhelmed trying to support them and feeling isolated. Most of the time, I hated being in Germany. The incessantly cold, rainy weather didn't help.

But as Spring approached I connected more and more with some friends I made through the Expat community (Expat Resources post) and a couple parents from the kids' friends. I was able to get out more socially, began exercising regularly (Will Walk 1000 Kilometers post), kept busy with a part-time tutor job, and began blogging for personal therapy :)

Summer came, the kids all passed their classes, my brother and his family visited from the States, and then we ended the year with an amazing dream vacation to the Maldives (more on that another time).

A Year Later: August 21, 2012

Then yesterday was my birthday. Just over one year since we moved. And it was a wonderful day from start to finish. Two nights ago I met up with a German girlfriend early in the evening - just wanting to catch up after not seeing each other most of the summer. Claudia made a wonderful salad that we enjoyed with a couple bottles of wine outside on her beautiful roof-top terrace. We had such a great time and talked so long that it was suddenly midnight, and we ushered in my birthday with a toast to all that I've survived in the last year and hope for a much better next year. I went home very reflective of what a significant year it has been.

When my children awoke me early yesterday, they had set the table outside for breakfast, decorated my place with the red You Are Special Plate, gone to the bakery for fresh Brötchen, and made my coffee. I was regaled with funny home-made cards and thoughtful gifts. Later in the day, I was ready to get moving and set out on what has become my "usual route" for an 8k jog. It was the first time I had been able to do that in at least 5 weeks and it felt good to return to "my woods" and "my river." I was acutely aware of how these places felt like part of me, and that I was feeling at home and even missing Mülheim after my absence. Wow.

For dinner, we grilled burgers and again were able to eat outside because the weather, in a rare streak, has been sunny and warm all week. This might have been the best birthday present :) But my celebration didn't end at dinner. After calls from three different German friends to congratulate me, I headed to a favorite local beer garden and restaurant where six of the wonderful Expat women who have become among my closest comrades in this adopted homeland treated me to an evening of cocktails, conversation and fits of laughter! (Special thanks to Emma, Julie, Rachael, Rebecca, VeDonna, and Verena for a fantastic, fun evening!)

Final Reflections

I suppose its true that time heals all wounds. And sometimes it doesn't even take as long as we might think. A year ago, my heart and soul were deeply wounded. Today, I am well on my way to a full recovery. I feel grounded and even happy. I'm aware of my abundant blessings. And thankful for my life.

Happy birthday to me... and many more :)

Friday, July 13, 2012

My Life from My Brother's Perspective?

In less than 24 hours, my "kid" brother, his significant other, and their combined five children arrive in Germany for a 2-week visit. I'm very excited to see them all and to welcome them to my new home and my new country.

But as I've been cleaning the house, shopping, planning day trips in the region, and otherwise preparing for their stay, I find myself wondering what my brother will think of my life here. What differences will he notice; what rituals will he find odd? How will he judge me and my life compared to what he used to know?

Will my brother be surprised that our one fridge is half the size of either of the two we had in Maryland? What will he think when he sees that we now buy milk and juice in little 1-liter paper boxes, rather than mega 1-gallon plastic jugs?

I suspect he'll find the scale of many things here - including our house and yard, to be much smaller than he expects.

Will he notice that none of the windows or doors have insect screens?

I expect my brother might be startled when we're sitting around the living room in the evening and electric shutters over all the windows roll down automatically and entomb us in secure darkness :)

Will he wonder why there are two buttons above the toilet for flushing (will he ask what's the difference between them)?

Will he be surprised that the towels, which we hang dry after washing, instead of using an electric dryer, are a bit stiff and scratchy - as opposed to the super soft-fluffy towels we always had in the States?

Will my brother miss breakfasts of pancakes and waffles and bacon, as we gather around a table of bread rolls and jams, cheeses, honey, and Nutella?

He already knows we now have only one car, rather than two, having ditched the mini-van before we moved, but will he be surprised when he realizes how much and how far we walk everyday? Or ride our bikes? What will he think that the kids ride trams and trains to meet their friends in neighboring cities?

When we head out, will be be surprised that we pay for use of public toilets? That we need to put a coin in the grocery cart? Or bring our own bags to the stores?

I look around at the life I have here, which is starting to feel normal and familiar, and wonder what will be strange about it to my brother?

But no matter how odd and out of place things may seem, one thing will be very much the same: I'm still the big sister and he's my grown up baby-brother :) And I can't wait to see him!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Travel - First up: Munich

Summer is here! Well, sort of. The calendar says it's summer. And finally the schools have capitulated and released our kids for six weeks. The weather...well that's still holding on fiercely to a cool rainy spring program. Nonetheless, with the young ones out of classes, it's time for our travel season to begin! First up: Munich.

My oldest two children are getting a bit cheated this summer. They have to spend the first three weeks of break in a different kind of school: intensive language camp. They moved to Germany as high-school aged teens and were dumped into a traditional Germany college-preparatory in the manner of "sink or swim." Although they were made to repeat a year of school in the name of "catching up" with the language, it was evident at the end of the academic year that they still needed a lot more help improving their vocabulary and strengthening grammar. Understand: they did amazingly well under the circumstances, passing all of their classes and maintaining in some cases better grade averages than their German peers. But they want to and can do better. So we enrolled them in a program through the Humboldt-Institut that offers 30 hours per week of intensive German language training to kids aged 15-18 years old. The camp operates out of a Youth Hostel in Munich, so we drove them there this weekend to drop them off.

It was a great chance to tour the beautiful city, spend quality time with my girls before their camp started, and visit with two of our former YFU exchange daughters. Despite grim forecasts, the weather in Munich cooperated beautifully for our visit and both Saturday and Sunday we were graced with a fair amount of sun and moderately warm temperatures (low to mid 70'sF or 22-25C).

Since Saturday was the first day of Summer Break for North-Rhine Westphalia, we set out by 3:30 am to beat the anticipated heavy traffic. It was well worth it, as we made the drive straight through in about six hours, arriving in time to meet our Italian daughter, Tamara, for breakfast (she had taken a bus up from South Tirol, also getting in about 9:30am). We indulged in scrumptious Nutella-filled French toast at the lovely Richart Cafe in Marienplatz - I highly recommend it! - with perfect views over the square to the Town Hall with its famous musical clock tower (Rathaus-Glockenspiel). After breakfast, we got out in time to watch and listen to the Glockenspiel which plays for about 15 minutes every day at 11am (and a few other times each day during the summer). 

We then spent the next 4-5 hours walking off the gluttonous meal while devouring the magnificent architecture of the city. We visited the Asamkirche, the Frauenkirche, the Residenztheater, and the Stadtsoper, among many other places. The pictures here don't do these incredible structures any justice - you must see them yourself!

By mid-afternoon, we needed to rest and were prepared to take in more delicious tastes and sights, so we returned to the city center and snagged awesome seats on the terrace of another Richart establishment: the Cafe on Markt in the Viktualienmarkt. Here we sampled traditional Kaiserschmarrn (cut-up sugared pancakes with raisins and apple sauce). Yummy! Must. Do. More. Walking.

Next we headed to our hotels to check in and clean up (we'd now been up since 2am and were starting to turn a bit Zombie-like). We walked out to the Best Western near the main train station (Bahnhof), where our Italian daughter had a room, and then trekked clear to the other side of town where my family was staying at the Marriott Residence Inn closer to Ostbahnhof (east side of town).  Both hotels were very nice and I can recommend both, although I was a little more comfortable on our side or town. The area around the main train station is diverse and lively :) 

After showers and fresh clothes, and band-aids on our blisters, we decided to drive to the Englischer Garten and substitute Beer and Pretzels at the Chinese Tower for dinner. I'm afraid the pictures from that evening escapade are not suitable for publication ;) Needless to say, we all had a great time!

Sunday we were up and at 'em early again, as we had breakfast reservations at another amazing Marienplatz restaurant: The Glockenspiel Cafe. Ok, after this trip, I need to join a gym, because I'm not sure the intense kilometers of walking are enough to cover the calories we consumed! At least my half avocado filled with shrimp salad and accompanied by massive amounts of fresh fruit was a healthier option than the French toast with bacon :) 

Again, this place should not be missed on a visit to Munich - but do make reservations; they serve the breakfast menu until 4pm, but also have lunch and dinner menus. We chose to sit outside, since we'd already witnessed the Glockenspiel - but if you want a view of the Town Hall (Rathaus) then ask for a table inside.

Right after breakfast, we went over to St. Peter's Church (Peterskirche) and spent the best Euro and a half per person you can possibly invest in Munich! After a vigorous workout climbing more than 300 narrow wooden steps to the steeple pinnacle, we were rewarded with the one of the most beautiful panorama views in Bavaria. On a clear day, you can see from St. Peter's beyond the other church spires to the majestic Alps.

It was incredibly windy at the top, and we were rather winded from the climb, but after catching our breath, we snapped some breath-taking photos! (How many cliches can I use in one sentence?)

Reluctantly we eventually made our way down from the tower and headed back to the Englischer Garten. On such a beautiful day, we knew we'd find surfers at the Eisbachwelle. I'd never seen river surfing before and thought this was pretty cool. On our way there, we gawked at the naked sunbathers and stopped to take free lessons in  slacklining from a few kids who were practicing in the park. All new and fun experiences!

Detouring through Hofgarten on our way back, we were serenaded with a fantastic solo Cello performance.  That was easily worth another Euro investment :) We also visited the Ludwigskirche, where our German exchange daughter from summer 2000 was recently married to her Swiss love.

Finally, we met up with a group of friends at Munich's oldest continually-operating cafe: Luigi Tambosi near Odeonsplatz. Here we lingered for a few hours over Aperol Spritzes and other cocktails, just enjoying the balmy weather and the company of good friends before delivering the girls to language camp and driving back to Mülheim.

The entire stay in Munich was less than 34 hours, but we managed an impressive array of sights, sounds, tastes, and experiences. Still, there is much more to be discovered and I'm looking forward to returning in a few weeks when camp is over and my brother is visiting with his family, as well!

Anyone have suggestions for my next Munich adventure?