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.
That leads to part of our discussion for the evening. We both have kids in school here. Many of us have written about the trials and tribulations of having your kids in German schools in our posts. Of course there are many things that are great about German schools. But it feels like every week something comes up that makes me feel like a foreigner all over again. K. and I often share (bitch about) these things when we meet up. We both are married to German men, and they seem to be quite similar in their approach to life. But back to the school situation. We were talking about school activities and the need to do things “right,” i.e., to have the right equipment or bring the right thing or do what is expected. This cultural subtext is always complicated. No matter how hard you try, you can always do it wrong. Your kid might have the wrong shoes, or the wrong pen, or the wrong lunch, or the wrong clothes for a particular activity. Whatever you thought was the perfect approach to a particular event or situation, you could be just wrong. And believe me, someone will tell you about it.
Let me preface this by telling you that many of the kids in Heidelberg and surroundings are not German. I would say about half of Livi’s class are foreigners of one kind or another. K. was telling me about her experience at an Advent baking event that she volunteered for at school. She said she tries to volunteer for events where the rules are clear. It is always good to know what is expected of you. The parents (moms) who were helping were told by the teacher to bring cookie dough to the baking event. When one mother asked the teacher what kind was expected, she said “normaler Teig” — can you imagine how that can be misinterpreted? What’s your version of normal cookie dough? K. got it right (she brought the kind that you can cut cookies out of). But two tables of the bunch had dough for Vanille Kipferl. Oops! Been there. She and I have had lots of discussions about being the annoying mom who asks the teacher a million questions to make sure you know what you should bring/do/tell your kid.
Now the world isn’t ending if you bring the wrong thing, especially when it comes to cookie dough. And there are no real lessons to be learned here. You, too, can be the annoying parent who asks a million questions. I know that I had a discussion or two with our Hort when I got reprimanded for not sending in a backpack for the vacation times. Apparently that is Standard. I politely told the Erzieher that standard is relative. My idea of what is great is going to be different than the average German’s. Over the years we’ve been told off for our kids’ choice of shoes (not having feste Schuhe for a field trip), their choice of clothing (Emma was always “boiling hot” and didn’t want to wear long pants when it was 20°. One Erzieherin told me in a very bossy voice that I would not be able to work if my child got sick from wearing shorts when it was only 20° out), their writing utensils (math must be done in fountain pen), and their lunches (peanut butter and jelly is unhealthy; didn’t you know that?).
Maybe there is a lesson. Don’t take it personally. Either stick to your guns or don’t. Follow the cultural rules you can live with and skip the rest. Just develop an awareness of the world around you. At this point, I feel like I’ve got in under control. That is, until the next school event.