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?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday America, With Love from Germany!

Often it's the holidays that are the hardest for an Expat. We miss celebrating traditions with our family and friends from "back home." But these can also be a wonderful opportunity to connect with new friends in an adopted country. So while today is a huge national holiday back in the United States, while merely an ordinary school and work day here in Germany (we're not even out on summer break yet!) I'm making the most of it all week and enjoying sharing a little American history and culture.

With summer holidays starting next weekend, we chose to ignore German taboo and celebrate early. So last Sunday, July 1st, we decked the house out in full patriotic flair with red, white, and blue streamers and flags hanging from all the windows and eaves and lining the drive to clearly announce that Americans live here.

We put up a tent, strung bright balloons everywhere, with lots more flags in the backyard, set out decorated tables and chairs, and invited over 50 friends from our German neighborhood and the local Expat community - meaning Brits and Singaporeans and Scots, as well as other Americans.

I had spent weeks hunting down patriotic paper ware and decorations from Internet stores. I scrounged up classic recipes and calculated metric conversions and figured out ways to improvise on missing ingredients. (They don't sell blue Jello in Germany!).

I also spent way too many hours compiling a "patriotic play list" of music for the party. Of course it included classics like Springsteen's Born in the USA, Mellencamp's ROCK in the USA, and Greenwood's God Bless the USA. But my kids also contributed modern hits like Redneck Woman from Gretchen Wilson, Party in the USA from Miley Cyrus and a Beyonce version of God Bless the USA. 

While grilling cheese burgers and hot dogs, served with BBQ baked beans, various salads, chocolate chip cookies, fudge brownies, and Jello shots, we clarified that this was a celebration of our country's independence from Great Britain and not the end of the American Civil War (some Germans had a heated debate about that!)

We were thrilled that nearly all of our guests, without prompting, dressed in red white and blue - one enthusiastic guest even had the US Flag painted across her face! It was brilliant (despite the Union Jack flag on her shirt)!

We were very lucky the typically miserable weather played nice and we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day. Lots of kids came, and it was fun to listen to their exchanges in "Denglish" (or "Germish") as they played - since all of the kids present were fully bilingual in English and German.

Two of the American women who joined us have lived in Germany for at least 10 years, married to German men with kids born here. I had met each of them incidentally through businesses they own locally. While I didn't know either very well, I thought they might enjoy a taste of home and invited them to celebrate with us. I was very excited that they came and had a great time. Both have written this week to tell me how great it was to connect after so many years with other Americans and to eat foods from home (like Rice Krispie treats!). It made me feel good to offer them a bridge to their native culture.

Today it was a bit sad to pack the kids off to school (like it was on Thanksgiving Thursday, as well). But they each wore their patriotic colors and took some American treats to share with school friends. One son prepared all the ingredients for homemade buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup and cooked breakfast for his class!

And tonight we have our monthly Native English Speaker Quiz Night, where the Quiz-master has promised an appropriately-themed array of questions. He's sent us some warm-up items and I'm afraid my chances of winning at this one are rather slim, but I know it will still be fun!

Can you answer these?!
  • Which president's pet parrot had to be ejected from his funeral for screaming obscenities at mourners?
  • Which president, when short of funds, offered White House china as the ante in poker games?
  • Eleanor Roosevelt made news in 1939 when she served what dish to visiting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth?
Anyway, lesson of the week has nothing to do with American history, but everything to do with attitude. As long as it is a holiday in our heart, then it can be a happy occasion!

Happy Birthday, USA, with lots of love from Germany!!

Photo credits for most shots: Viki Behm, our German exchange daughter (06-07) who drove up from Passau to spend the weekend celebrating with us! Oh the joy of throwing a party and being surrounded with the laughter and love of family & friends!