Sarah Fürstenberger

About Sarah Fürstenberger

Sarah is a long-time expat and mother of four living in the Rhein-Neckar area of Germany. She is an editor, writer, and general word person.

Expat book review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Let me start by saying that Hausfrau was not a light, happy read. It is also not an easy one to review. I heard about it this week when I was perusing Facebook (I think it was mentioned in the New York Times feed) and I immediately went out and bought it. It isn’t often that you hear about a book that seems to so parallel your life and those of your friends. The first line, however, didn’t especially draw me in,”Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Since I hadn’t read any reviews thoroughly before I started the book, I had no real expectations. Even though it didn’t hook me in immediately, I did end up reading the whole  book in one day. One way or another, this book stays with you.

Set in Zürich, the novel follows the perilous, destructive path of an American woman named Anna, who is married to a Swiss banker. The couple has three children and seem to be living the idyllic life in a small village outside of the city. She doesn’t speak Schweizerdeutsch and barely speaks German as the novel opens. Her husband seems to ignore her almost entirely, and she also really doesn’t have a huge attachment to her children either. She often leaves them with her mother-in-law, Ursula, who lives in the same village and regards Anna with not a lot of affection. I must say, I can understand Ursula’s position, although she did seem the typical German (Swiss) mother in law that we all know and love. She loved her grandkids and helped as much as she could, but she often got annoyed with Anna’s lack of interest and surely felt used (and lied to) as Anna throws herself down the path of self-destruction. Continue reading

Being “Normal”

Tonight I had dinner with a friend who has been living here in Germany for about as long as I have. We first met virtually through a Facebook post of a mutual friend and discovered we were both in Heidelberg. The commonalities continued when we talked on the phone for the first time. She was pregnant with twins and basically immobile, so we had time to chat. She had spent her high school years in my home town, went to the rival high school, attended the same university I did at the same time, and studied at the same university in England at the same time as my best friend. She also had a German husband and her son was close to Olivia’s age. Whenever we meet up, which due to our busy lives is not as often as I would like, it feels a bit like I found someone who “gets” me.

After years and years abroad you tend to forget what it is like to talk to someone with the same or similar background to you, not only in the sense of being American, but also speaking to someone who grew up around the same time and has the same pop cultural references, for example. K. gets the jokes about Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock. She knows what a Trapper Keeper is. These may seem like small things, but no matter how long you live in a particular country, you will never have that same history with the people who grew up there.  Continue reading

It’s a matter of trust

After many years here, a theme that always seems to come up for me is that of trust. We Americans are known for being open, especially when it comes to sharing information about our personal lives. We Instagram, we share every minute detail of our lives on Facebook, we tweet. And many of us don’t think about doing so. Even people in their forties and up are sharing their everyday lives on social media. And these are usually attached to our real names (unlike many of my German friends, who use funny half names or split their first name in two, like Ka Te). It may be that we are naive; it may be that we just don’t care who knows all this stuff about us. We are more worried about our kids getting kidnapped off the street in broad daylight (thanks, local news) than we are about someone abusing or using our personal information. What does this say about Americans as a culture?

Trusting hands

Once Germans make friends, they do trust you and hold you to your word. PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock

Continue reading

So you want to work in Germany: Do you have to learn German?

In short, the answer is: Jein. Last week Jane wrote about the latest news on the abolition of university fees in Germany. I’m not sure how quickly non-German wannabe students will be flocking over here, but it is certainly a good deal! In recent months, I have encountered a number of expats living in Germany, some of whom speak German and some of whom don’t. So the question is, do you absolutely HAVE to speak German fluently in order to live and work here?



Of course you don’t have to do anything. I know a number of people who have been living here for more than five years who really don’t speak much German. They are doing just fine. However, I think there are a number of factors to consider and questions to ask yourself before you take the plunge and move to Germany without speaking German.

  • How comfortable are you going through your daily life not understanding what is being said around you?
  • Are you okay with not being understood by everyone?
  • Do you have the confidence to get the information you need, and are you ready to have to fight for it?
  • If you are looking for work, do you have skills that no one else has? Skills that will get you hired even without German?

Continue reading

All Day School (Ganztagsschule)

Here in Eppelheim (near Heidelberg), there has been a lot of controversy about the new Ganztagsschule that started this school year. There had been talk of it for ages, but it finally came to fruition for this school year. However, many, many people are unhappy with the way it was implemented and with the results of that.

Last year sometime there was a survey of all parents asking who would be interested in sending their kids to all-day school. Apparently 51 parents said they would be interested in the school, but the survey was unverbindlich (non-binding). The next thing we heard, they were closing the Hort and no one had a choice any more. We always knew that the first graders would have to do Ganztagsschule, but the 2nd – 4th graders were supposed to have a choice in the  matter. Now, for working parents, there is no choice. There has been an uproar since, especially because they changed the pricing scales for the so-called Randzeiten (7-8am and 4-5pm, plus Fridays from 12 noon and during school holidays). Because the state is no longer subsidizing the care, and is instead putting money into the all-day school, many people are paying a lot more for a lot less. The costs worked out well for us because they based them on the number of kids under 18 in the household. But I can imagine that single parents or parents of only one child will really be forking it over for the child care. What a mess! Continue reading

Essential Oils and German Sales

For a while now, I have been using essential oils around the house in place of OTC remedies. I got into them through my sister in the US, who was selling them as a sort of side venture. She teaches yoga as her main job. After talking about the oils to all and sundry, and having friends and strangers ask me how they could get them, I decided that I might as well try to make a bit of money to cover my oil “habit.” I have had some success, but I have also learned a lot about how Germans view money, sales, and commitments over the past few months.

I had assumed it would be really easy to get the oils business moving here. People are very open to alternative, natural treatments. My regular GP often offers me homeopathic and plant-based remedies before she gives me the “real” drugs. And it is true, most Germans that I know are very interested in essential oils, especially when they see how well they are working for us. When my older girls had issues with ADD and concentration years ago here in Germany, the therapist (and psychiatrist) quickly offered them various versions of ritalin, which surprised me. We were sort of desparate at the time, but the medicine was not a great choice for either of them. Now we are battling those issues with an oil mixture. I have had huge problems with sleeping in the past year or two. In Ireland the first thing they did was offer me sleeping pills. Here we tried all sorts of other approaches first. When it all failed, I finally was able to get a prescription for Ambien, but only if I promised to take it no more than once a week. I get it. I don’t want to fill my body with chemicals and I certainly don’t want to do the same with my kids. So I am trying something else. And I was never a believer in the homeopathic remedies, for example.  Continue reading

A Pseudo-European Teenager Goes to Texas

Our eldest has been in Texas for the past year attending high school, after spending most of her life in Europe – some in Ireland, but mostly in Germany. She is sixteen, and with that comes the sixteen-year-old way of looking at the world.  She’s been back for a week, and after announcing that she no longer speaks German, she seems to be settling in okay. And yes, she does still speak German. You can’t lose it that easily!

When she moved to Texas, there were a couple of things that she was worried about. She only knew American high school from movies: cliques, sports, cheerleaders, nerds, etc. German school is just not like that. The stratifications are not so clear, and the groups are not so defined. I told her that it might really be like the movies. And when she started school she said, “It’s like Save the Last Dance!” My daughter is in a high school near Dallas that is very diverse. I think the non-white portion of the school is something like 90%. Heidelberg is also diverse, but not in the same way. She was scared to death of the bus — she told me they called her “Snowflake” — but I think in the end she fits in in a way that she didn’t expect. Growing up in Europe, she didn’t have any experience with American race issues, again except for movies. She didn’t grow up with the stereotypes about black people, or white people, or Mexicans, or whomever. We are pretty liberal in our house politically. I think landing in this school in Texas was a huge shock, but it was also an amazing chance for her. She has friends across all groups of kids, black, white, Christian,  Hispanic, straight, and gay. And she is surviving and thriving. Continue reading

Kids’ Birthdays in Germany

This has been a month of kids’ birthday parties for us, on the organizational side and on the invitational side. My third child turns seven on Friday and her younger brother attended a birthday party for a friend of ours’ son the week before. Olivia attended a ninth birthday party for a boy in her class on Saturday. (Oh, how the school system can create age disparity within a class at school – but that is a post for another day).

Last year we were spared the pain of trying to plan a Kindergeburtstag at all because we had just moved back to Germany when the time came for Olivia. We decided we didn’t know enough of her classmates to have a party so we just celebrated with the family. There seem to be two kinds of birthday parties around here. There are the ones where the parents come up with some elaborate, very time-intensive (for the planners) theme and put tons of effort into it. And then there are the ones where they choose a venue (like the local indoor playground) and let the venue take care of it. We fall into the latter category, but to be honest, I don’t think the kids care that much. Olivia enjoyed both types equally. We are having Olivia’s party at the local Technomuseum. I think they are making paper with the kids. We will bring the food and drink and will bake the cake, and they will be in charge of entertaining the kids. That works for us. We both work full time and have four kids of our own. We aren’t keen on having a bunch more running through our house and adding to the chaos. Our garden is pretty small and our neighbors are pretty grumpy. Continue reading