Is it Germany or is it France?

If you like your French with a side of German, the Alsace-Lorraine is the region for you. Traded back and forth between the two countries as borders changed throughout time, France came out the winner with this lovely little territory.

Alsace-Lorraine might sound like a mouthful….until you hear the full German name of Reichsland Elsaß-Lothringen. This is a complicated name for an English speaker, but an uncomplicatedly beautiful place that features the best of both countries. I have visited just a few times, but this is one of the few places where I linger a bit longer and think maybe, just maybe, there are other places I could live in Europe besides Berlin.

A vineyard in Alsace-Lorraine PHOTO: Erin Porter

Brief History of the Alsace-Lorraine

It was French, then it was German, then it was French, then it was German and now it is French again.

Just kidding! Brief, but not that brief:

Once the home of the Gauls, this roughly 5,000 square mile area was officially recognized by the German Empire in 1871 after it annexed most of Alsace and the Moselle department of Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War. After World War I in 1919, it was reclaimed by France. But during the German occupation of France from 1940 to 1945, Elsaß-Lothringen was German again. At the end of World War II, it found its home again as a French region as it remains today.
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November in German Culture and History


November: The Mourning Month and Its Fateful Dates

The first two days of November are significant in the Christian religious calendar. November 1 is All Saints Day (Allerheiligen). November 2 is All Souls Day (Allerseelen). In Germany, most of Europe, and all over the world where the western Christian church is dominant, these two days are devoted to remembering and praying for the “faithful departed.” Indeed, the Latin (Roman Catholic) name for this day is In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (“commemoration of all the faithful departed”).

Two Catrina figures

Two Catrina figures. The Mexican Calavera Catrina (“dapper skeleton” or “elegant skull”) began as social satire in 1910. Today the Catrina figure is associated with the Day of the Dead observance. PHOTO © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a national holiday, is perhaps better known and a bit more colorful, if you visit some German cemeteries on the same dates, you’re likey to see a similar observance, complete with candles. The main difference is that in Germany there is no all-night vigil in which family members gather near the grave(s) of their “faithful departed,” as in many parts of Mexico. Germans also tend not to celebrate in quite as colorful a manner as in Mexico. You may not see Catrina skeletons, sugar skulls, or decorative masks in Germany, but you will see lighted candles. (See photo below.)

As history (and two world wars) would have it, November in the western world has become a month for commemorating the dead — whether fallen in war or otherwise. Since the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church has dedicated the month of November to the dead, and in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor those who fought and died, originally in the Great War ended by the armistice that took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on November 11, 1918. (In fact, the date was known as Armistice Day prior to World War II.) This day, known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in some other Allied nations, is also a holiday in France and Belgium. Continue reading

Let the Christmas countdown commence

Usually once the 5th November is out the way I can start thinking about the C word but since Guy Fawkes night (when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament in London) isn’t recognised in Germany, plans for Christmas have commenced well in advance this year.

For any Expats planning on returning home for the festivities, planning early is key. I learnt this last year! When we moved to Bremen, I didn’t consider the different things we’d need to take in to account when returning home for a long period over the holiday season. First up, arranging the hire of a car. If you need to get around whilst you’re home book this as soon as you can. The car rental companies definitely do not see Christmas as the season of goodwill and rather the season to make money.

Cathedral Markt, Köln PHOTO: Sarah E

Now that we don’t have a base in UK we rely on family and friends letting us to stay, luckily they’re happy to be paid in festive cheer, otherwise there will be additional costs to the already expensive holiday season. It can be quite tricky bringing up these conversations as although you want to be organised early, not everyone knows their Christmas plans until the last minute.

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The bridge to a longer holiday

At 8am on a Sunday, walking my dog here can feel like a scene from a zombie apocalypse film. Not that the maybe two people I will pass look ghastly and likely to want to eat my brains, just that there is an eerie quiet that descends on the village on Sunday. As everyone reading this is I’m sure aware on Sunday Germany is closed. Okay not everywhere is closed, but the usual shops, banks and administrative offices will have a Ruhetag (rest day) on Sunday, not merely to respect the Christian Sabbath but also to give workers a guaranteed day to relax at home with their families. Until the church bells start pealing at 9am that is, to awaken the majority Christian population of Germany, for a more in-depth look at religion and its history in Germany check out this guide.

The only other time that Germany is this quiet is on a gesetzlicher Feiertag (public holiday). Just how many of these Feiertag you get depends where in Germany you are located. States that are predominantly Catholic, like Bavaria, will have more public holidays than others. Some are even on a town by town basis, so whilst your child’s kindergarten next door may be closed, your office two towns over will be open for business as usual. Sarah’s personal experience of religious holidays is worth a read on this subject. Continue reading

The Good and Fearless Samaritan

I come from Mexico, a place where social initiatives are not that big a thing, mainly because a great deal of the population has barely enough resources to keep their own heads afloat, but also because its mindset is infected with corruption and a cheating culture where you must seek to maximize your personal benefit at whatever the cost. Because everyone does the same, you must also distrust everyone and the more you can cheat, the better. The brilliant principle by which we live and justify whatever fault we consciously commit is: “The one who does not cheat, does not win.” – I rest my case.

The Umsonst-Laden. This particular one is in Hamburg. FOTO: LauraV.

One of the very first things I learned the first time I lived in Germany was that no matter how much I had read and studied about its history, politics and culture, I was still ignorant about what it all really meant in the real world where both the German society and others (like the one I grew up in) coexist. It is true that Germans tend to abide themselves by the rules because they understand rules are the base for everything to work properly –and there’s nothing they like more than things working properly (but honestly, don’t we all?). This is not to say there’s no corruption in Germany, but things are simply different and the citizens still have power as individuals, even if they sometimes fail to appreciate it and what it means, they do. It is very impressive to witness that power for someone who comes from “no man’s land” and where my own brother must leave the house full of fear when he heads to school and nobody can drive him there so he must always be ready with a secret little pocket where he stashes emergency cash and also carries a fake wallet and a fake old mobile phone he can surrender in case of robbery in the bus or while walking down the street; or where people (yes, that famously warm and chirpy Mexican people) are now so rude they won’t even stop if you try to ask them for directions. They are not being rude per se, they are scared because they do not trust their fellow Mexicans, we all know it all is probably a ruse and you will end up kidnapped, attacked or, in the lesser of cases, robbed. Are you following the vicious circle? Continue reading

Berlin Nuts

Without much of a summer, it was like I turned around and it was fall. Luckily, I love fall. Adore. It is my favorite season.

Photo: Erin Porter

But is was still shocking to see the trees suddenly aflame in orange and red. Walking became difficult as the ground was bumpily carpeted in fallen nuts. The title “Berlin Nuts” feels like I’m talking about the people (hello Berliner Schnauze), but I am being quite literal. As a west coast (USA) native I am thoroughly unfamiliar with these nuts that were suddenly EVERYWHERE.

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The Great German Bake Off

Before coming to Germany I thought I was a fairly good at baking. Lemon drizzle cake, raspberry muffins, carrot cake, treacle tart, no problem. I’m not claiming to be Mary Berry (British baking legend), but I could confidently walk in to the office knowing my baked goods would go down a treat. However, that confidence was soon rocked on my first attempt at baking in Germany.

Success! The sticky toffee cake as mentioned PHOTO: Sarah E

I find baking quite therapeutic so setting out to make some cupcakes for my partners colleagues was going to be the perfect activity to remedy the stress of moving countries. But I soon learnt that it wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I thought. The first hurdle is to tackle the baking aisle at the supermarket and the hundred and one flours available. The choice is great but when you just want a self-raising flour, think again. After much internet searching I discovered self-raising flour doesn’t exist here, so it’s a case of getting plain flour and adding baking powder. I find that Type 405 flour is the best option then add the required amount of Backpulver, usually zwei Teelöffel (teaspoon) per 150g of flour. As baking is all about the chemistry, it’s better to get this as exact as possible otherwise your sponge will sink or taste like iron. Continue reading

5 Places To Visit In Germany This Fall


Autumn in Germany • Herbst in Deutschland

Fall tourism can be excellent in many parts of Europe. The summer heat ebbs away, comfort foods (and beverages) abound, and many cities and countryside areas alike are at their most beautiful as the leaves change and the daylight dims ever so slightly. All of this is true of Germany. And that, coupled with a few noteworthy events and attractions, makes this a perfect country to keep on your list for autumn travel.

Here are five places in particular you must visit if you travel to Germany this or any other fall.

1. Jasmund National Park

Jasmund National Park

There are a few particularly nice places to view the beautiful nature that comes with fall. But among them, it’s difficult to top Jasmund National Park (Nationalpark Jasmund), created in 1990. This scenic nature reserve is found on the Jasmund peninsula of the island of Rügen in northern Germany. Here you can enjoy long hikes through changing trees, as well as occasional views of the Baltic Sea. The area may be particularly appealing to those who appreciate fine art, as it’s known to have inspired some of the works of 19th century German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Specifically, the chalk cliffs (see photo) within the park are the subject of a wonderful painting depicting a journey the artist once made with his wife. The work shows a human figure facing the deep and almost infinite space beyond the cliffs – a pose you may well imitate while enjoying this beautiful area. Continue reading