Christmastime in Germany

I believe, like most, that summer is the best time to travel to Europe.  But, if I had to pick the second best time, it would be during the Christmas holidays.

Germany truly comes alive for the holiday season.  Every city across the country has a Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas Market), which often start at the end of November and continue until Christmas Eve.  Some cities’ markets continue into January.  These are wonderful for travelers to visit because they tend to be located in the aldstadt (old town) near the cities main cathedral.   That means while hitting up some siteseeing, you can also get in a visit to the market.

The markets are filled with vendors of all types; food, drink, treats, and crafts. Some have kiddy rides and big rides like ferris wheels.   What I like is the variety of traditional German foods all in one place.  You can get wursts, pretzels, fish sandwiches, stuffed potatoes, potato pancakes, crepes, strudels, and much more.  The Weinachsmarkt is known as a place for friends to gather for the hot alcoholic drinks like Gluwein and other drinks like cocoa, egg nog, and punch as well.

Besides traditional food, I also love checking out the traditional Christmas crafts.  You can find ornaments, ceramic Christmas villages, and woodcrafts.

While visiting a historic site or beach is a must see while on vacation, it most likely won’t get you in touch with the locals.  Learning about other cultures is one of the highlights of travelling abroad.  One of the ways to really connect with culture and natives of a country is to take part in their celebrations.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit multiple Christmas markets and not only see how the Germans celebrate this time of year, but how different regions of the country celebrate as well!

Realities of Expat Life

I would like expand the title of this post to “Realities of my expat life with a baby in a country where you don’t speak the language,” but I thought it was a tad wordy.

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted in almost two months, but the reason for that is that I haven’t had a lot of positive things to post about.   But I hope writing about even the not so great things will help me feel better.

The reality of expat life with a baby is that it is HARD!   Life abroad when it was just Greg and I was easy peasy.   We went where we wanted, ate what we wanted, and didn’t really miss our life in the states.  On the contrary, we relished not having a schedule filled with events every weekend.  We enjoyed avoiding the drama of our lives in the states.  Not to say that we didn’t miss our friends and family, but we were content being on our own.

We came to Germany thinking that we could share that lifestyle we loved with our baby and how hard could it be?   We would be together all the time.   We could jump in the car and go to new places.   We would travel and take our angel along for the ride.

Well, lightly put, we sorely underestimated just what a challenge it would be.   Don’t get me wrong.  Germany is great and the people we have met here are great, but what is lacking here is the support of home.   The first six weeks were great because my parents were here.  While they were here, I didn’t really think they were giving me too much support other than company.  When they left I quickly realized how much they helped.

So it took some adjusting after they left in mid October, but we slowly were figuring it out.  We joined a gym that had a daycare so we could get some working out in, which gave me a break.

All was well until the last month.  To try to keep it short, the hellish month included a health scare with the baby, colds, a stolen wallet to pickpockets, breastfeeding issues, blowing the power out in the entire house, my husband getting the worst flu of his life, and more that I don’t even want to mention.   It feels like a black cloud has been hovering over us and won’t go away.

It was scary, especially with health concerns, to be in a foreign country where you don’t know the language and protocols for medical issues.   When the issues are with the baby, the concern and worry seems to be amplified in this situation.

And my house hunters international house that is so cute and quintessential German is now not so cute and charming.   With a baby on the move, uneven floors with nails popping out are a danger.  The spiral stairs are a hazard on their own, but add a wiggle worm in your arms and you have a disaster.

And travel?  Well, not so easy when your baby despises long rides in a car seat.   And when the baby is sick, that means any trips you have planned are cancelled.  If it were just us, we would stick out a trip with coughs and runny noses, but we can’t expect the baby to do that.  Our priorities have changed.

So we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we didn’t expect to feel how we feel now.  The positive is that it is crystal clear to us just how important having the support of friends and family nearby truly is.  Hopefully this will help us to not take that for granted in the future.

House Shoes and Carbonation: How To Be German #1 and #9 (and 27)

I am continuing my quest to fulfill Adam Fletcher’s How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps.

Rule number one instructs that when you get out of your double bed made of two single mattresses and two single duvets, you MUST put on your house shoes.   This description fits our bed exactly.  Our house was fully furnished for us, including bedding.   The bedrooms where guest house ready the day we moved in.  I did find it peculiar that on our double bed there were two separate duvets instead of one.   This book shows me that that is the norm, so case closed.

Greeks also use house shoes because the floor is often tiled so it’s cold on your bare feet.   Greeks don’t often have carpeting because of the hot weather, though they will have area rugs.  While we lived there, however, I never got myself a pair of house shoes.  I never wore slippers at home, so I knew I would never where them.  I just wore socks around the house instead.

I wasn’t sure what the flooring situation would be like in Germany.   Our home here if fully covered in hard wood.   This is what I have back in the states too, so I don’t really see a difference.  But in following the How to Be German Rules (which by the way covers rule #27: Stick to the Rules), I have my sister’s extra special house shoes to use while we are here.  They are extra special because they look like Smurf shoes and because they are extra German being that they are Birkenstocks.

I can also cross #9 off this list, which is drink Apfelsaftschorle.  Basically, it’s carbonated apple juice. Germans seem to love their carbonated beverages.   If you order water at a restaurant, you will be brought mineral water, not still water.  It just doesn’t quench my thirst.  I think it makes me more thirsty.   My husband says, that the water they are given during the basketball games is also carbonated.   He can’t do tolerate it either and brings his own large bottles of still water to all his practices and games.  Apfelsaftschorle was okay, but I would just prefer to have regular apple juice.  They do seem to love Coke too.  That’s a carbonated beverage I can get behind!

Why Beer is Drink of Choice

I know why beer is the drink of choice in Germany.  It’s because it is cheaper than water or pop.

Okay, maybe that’s not why it’s so popular, but it’s why I would order it.  When out to dinner in Germany, tap water is not an option.  Bubbly mineral water is what you will receive if you order water.  You must specifically ask for still water if you want the kind without bubbles.   It is not uncommon for our drink tab to be equal to our food, even when all we have ordered is water and pop.  To me that is crazy!  It causes me to drink the bare minimum when we are out to eat.

This is not only in Germany, I must say.  When we were in the Netherlands, we got an English version of the menu at a café.  It said in capital letters at the bottom, WE WILL NOT SERVE TAP WATER.   I guess this is strange to me because in Greece we were often given pitchers of tap water at our meals.  Some places only served bottled water, but we found if we asked we could get tap water.  The only place we have been able to get tap water so far is at a Greek restaurant. Go figure.

My beloved Coke is also expensive in restaurants.  Another difference here is that it is served without ice and more often than not I find it to be flat.   I have decided that it just isn’t worth it to order it.   Since pop and water are pricey, you might as well order beer or wine and at least get a little kick with your beverage!

I read somewhere that they believe if you order tap water it is for your dog.  Dogs are allowed just about everywhere in Germany and the Netherlands too.  This is something that I absolutely love.  You will be out to eat and suddenly you will notice a dog under the table.  At the café we went to in the Netherlands, there was a round table of about eight people and each of them had their dog with them.  A McDonalds in the Netherlands had four dogs bowls inside the restaurant for their hound patrons.   What I don’t know is how they get their dogs to behave so well in restaurants.  They are so good that you don’t even know they are there!

Check out this dog at Starbucks!IMG_2594                                  (And there is a bassinet stroller I mentioned in a previous post)

Mother and Child (Mutter und Kind)

One great thing I have noticed about Germany so far is how accomImagemodating they are to mothers and their children.   I am specifically referring to the availability and quality of bathrooms with changing stations (Wickelbaum or Wickeltisch).  We went shopping at IKEA and, of course, the baby had a blow out.  There was an entire room just for mothers and babies.  It had three changing stations complete with wipes and fresh sheets of paper for covering the changing pad.  It had toys for older children to play with to keep them entertained.  It had a lounger too.  I’m thinking that was for mother’s who need a break!

I thought maybe the niceness of this was because it was IKEA, but the case is the same in many restaurants, groceries stores, the mall, and the zoo. The restaurant we went to yesterday even had diapers in various sizes available at the changing table.   It’s nice knowing that wherever we go out, I don’t have to find a corner to change the baby or change her in the car.

Now the strollers here are a whole other world I have yet to figure out.  I’m intrigued by the difference the ones I see in Chicago. I know some come from the different usage needs of different locations.  One difference is that it appears that most moms have their babies in buggy/bassinet type strollers for a long time.  Babies all seem to be lying down.  We pretty much went straight from the car seat attachment to sitting up and bypassed lying down in a stroller all together.

If they are not lying down, they have a footrest for the baby, which is kind of like the footrest that comes out of a recliner.  Why is that?  Is it more comfortable for the baby?  I have never seen this before.

Another feature I like is that they have bigger baskets beneath the strollers.  I think this must be because they use the stroller as a shopping cart when they are out.

Moms and Dads here take their babies everywhere, even in the cold German weather.   It is colder than Chicago here right now, but not winter cold yet.   So we have still been carrying the baby around in the Baby Bjorn or in the stroller with a blanket over her.   People here have their babies bundled up like they are in the North Pole.   Every stroller is equipped with a huge fleece or fur body cover or muff.   We are looking into getting one because right now we feel eyes glaring at us like we are not keeping our child warm enough.

I do love that people walk so much here and in Europe in general.  They definitely do not let the weather keep them indoors.   I think what helps with the walking is that it seems that every city has a pedestrian only shopping area that is perfect for strolling.   The European stroll is an aspect of life I wish I could transport back to America, but can’t.  So for now, I will try to partake in it as much as possible.

Best Zoo Ever

Just returned from by far the best zoo we have ever visited.   Let me say that I am on the fence about zoos.   After using zoos as an example for a persuasive essay with my sixth graders as to whether they are good or bad, I became persuaded that they weren’t such a good idea.   I also read the book Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French, which turned out to be more about one specific zoo than the debate, but it gave me some more strong feelings against zoos.  I dislike going to zoos and seeing the animals in small enclosures that look nothing like their habitat.    However, I am so torn because I absolutely love animals.   Now that I have a child, I want her to love animals too.   So debate aside, I have gone back to enjoying zoos because I get to see her face when she sees the animals.

On our way home from the Netherlands, we decided to take advantage of a rare sunny day (more on that in another How to be German post) and stop at a zoo we heard about near our home called ZOOM in Gelsenkirchen.   The parking lot was tiny and didn’t give us a ticket to pay, so we figured it must be free and small.   Think again!  Nothing so far in Germany is free, including water.   I could write another whole post on that as well.   Getting back to the zoo, we did have to pay 17.50 Euros each plus 3.50 for parking.  Not cheap, but the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago isn’t either and actually costs $10.00 to park.

Of course, as soon as we got there we had to use the bathrooms, feed the baby, and eat, so we didn’t get far.   But it looked small.  There was one sign that had arrows pointing for Alaska, Africa, and Asia to three entrances.  I actually said out loud, “Is this it?”   Boy, was I in for a surprise.  We ended up only seeing one exhibit because it was so huge.

Unlike the zoo at home, the zoo is separate into 3 habitats.   You have to walk through the entire exhibit.  You can’t just buzz over to one particular animal that you want to see.  That is the only downside.   There are so many upsides though.   The enclosures were huge and seemed so much closer to their real habitats than anything I had ever seen.   Another plus was that there were multiple viewing spots for each animals and many got you extremely close to the animal.

It took us over an hour to walk through Alaska.  I’ve never been, but I felt like we could have been in Alaska.  The animals were all out and awake this afternoon.  We thought it was cute that there were raccoon and skunk enclosures.  We are so used to catching them wander through our neighborhoods, that it seemed strange to see them in the zoo.

The best part was the seals.   We were so close to them we could almost touch them.  It was feeding time so they were all going wild and jumping up catching fish.  There were also three little baby seals right next to where people could stand.   We got to hear two of them call for their mothers.   Their mothers called back then swam over, hopped up and fed them.

We loved it so much we couldn’t wait to see the other two habitats, Asia and Africa, but we were so tired and not sure how much longer the baby could take.  We quickly headed into Asia, after hitting up the candy shop at the entrance where we could fill a bag with an assortment of awesome gummies.   Cherry coke and Schluempfe (smurf) were two of my favorites.   The first animals we saw were tigers and they were so close and playful chasing each other.  Again, we were awed by how close we could get to the animals.

We had to leave though, but will return soon.  As we saw the map on the way out (we didn’t have a paper map because they weren’t free), we saw the Africa section is twice the size of Alaska and includes a safari ride.   We can’t wait to go back and check it out.

So I have found a zoo I really love.   I must say I didn’t feel conflicted while there.  Is that wrong?

How to Be German

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My sister and her boyfriend gave me this insightful and quite funny book called, How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps by Adam Fletcher.   I thought I would use this book as a kind of blog series to check off when I have done one of the steps or to add steps of my own.

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I will start with number 10, which is Drink Mixed Beverages.    I had already been introduced to the cola and orange pop combination by my sister.  It is known as Spezi here in Germany.   Both Pepsi and Coke have their own versions.   Here is my angel interested in drinking her own spezi while out to dinner.   We have also had the German Radler, which is beer mixed drink.   It is like a shandy, beer mixed with a lemonade pop.  Both are good!  If you are interested in finding Mezzo Mix in the states.  You can taste it at the World of Coca Cola in Atlanta!

Adjusting to a Our New Home Country

If it were just Greg and I, adjusting wouldn’t be much of a problem.  Having lived in Greece, we are used to a lot of the nuances that make Europe different than the states.   The tough parts of adjusting right now are the baby, the two cats, and trying to live dairy free.  

THE BABY

At five months old, she had been sleeping 9-10 hours a night for almost two months straight.   We arrived here and the jet lag has hit her the hardest.  The first night she was up at 2 in the morning giggling and talking and ready to play, while we were fighting to keep our eyes open.   Every night she goes down about an hour earlier.   She has also been fussier, but I can’t tell if it’s because she is teething, my change in diet, or the move. Feels like we are back to month one where I am up feeding her twice a night.

Also, not having the comforts of home (our glider) I am having a hard time getting her to sleep at all without nursing her.  But a great friend of mine made me realize that everything thing is so different for her right now.  Nursing is one of her only familiarities right now and that is what she needs.

 THE CATS

The cats are also having a difficult time, but get better each day. As I have said before, cats don’t like change and everything about our new place is different and strange to them.

ImageThey have never done stairs, let alone spiral stairs, so we had to teach them to go up and down.  

 They never had windows that open because we are on the fourth floor of our condo and feared them falling out, so we always did AC instead of windows.   With no AC here, we have to open windows.  They love it but we are a nervous wreck.  

Living on the top floor of our building, they also never heard noises above them, so anytime someone is walking or talking upstairs and they are downstairs they get nervous.   We also don’t have a door to the outside in the states since we live on the top floor.   Here we worry about them escaping out the door to the outside world!

Little by little they are getting used to the sounds and smells.   Everyday they get more comfortable.  The cool thing is that I think it has brought them together.   The last two days we have found them sleeping together, which they haven’t done in years!

THE DAIRY FREE DIET

My dairy free diet is nearly impossible.  If you don’t speak the language, eating out in another country can be extremely difficult if you have diet restrictions.   I know the word for milk and can check labels, but I don’t feel comfortable asking in a restaurant.   So basically, I am avoiding blatant dairy containing foods like ice cream, pizza, and straight cheese. I might order food not expecting it to have dairy and it does.  If that is the case, I will just go with it.

I did have success today and found soymilk, a soy coffee drink, and a soy chocolate pudding that are all delicious.  So that will allow me to have cereal, coffee, and a dessert at home.

UNCOMFORTABLE NOW, COMFORTABLE LATER

It all comes back to that mantra of Greg and mine.  Things may be uncomfortable now, but with time we will all be in the groove.  We are already so happy with our decision to come here and it’s only been a little over a week. 

Our German Cottage

The hubs and I are ADDICTED to Househunters International, especially the European episodes. We would watch it and say, “Look.  Those people moved abroad with their kids or their pets.  We can do it too!”.

We love guessing which of the three houses the people are going to pick and also like to say which one we would chose. Well, if we were on an episode ourselves we would definitely choose the home we are in now.  Just like the show where each choice has its pros and cons, so does our new home.  It has boatloads of charm with the thick wooden beams, original wood floors, and German antique and modern furnishings and decor.   It feels so homey.  I love the smell when we walk in the door, it just screams Germany to me.  I don’t know why.

The downside is that those original floors creak loudly and are not always level.  The walls are quite thin, so you can hear anyone walking or talking upstairs.   And the spiral staircase!  It is a necessity for such a small house, but can be a challenge when trying to carry a baby up and down or if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.   Even so, the positives far outweigh any negative.

This is the first time in any home in Europe where we have had so many appliances.  We have a dishwasher, washer/dryer, microwave, toaster, coffee maker, hot water boiler, iron, CD, and tv.  We feel very spoiled.  We are loving our new home.

Solicitors Welcome??

On our second day here, we had an interesting experience with a solicitor.  She rang our front door bell.  Since we don’t know anyone here yet, we didn’t want to answer.   So we let it go.  She walked around the house to our back door and knocked.   Hubby went to the door and told her we don’t speak German.  In English, she started to tell him that she worked for the storm company and wanted to know if we owned the house.  He said, “No, we are renting.  We can’t help you.”  We thought that was the end of it.  Then we look out the window a few minutes later and she is sitting at our patio table having a drink and organizing her briefcase on the table.   Hubs ask her what she was still doing there and she said, “Just having a rest and a drink!”

Is it just me, or is that kind of strange?  I wouldn’t see that ever happening in the states.  She finished up her drink and threw the bottle in our recycling bin.  Did I mention that they are crazy (in a good way) about recycling in Germany?