The Expat Crisis

There are typical crises that happen in every person’s life: the identity crisis of the teenage years, the mid-20’s crisis, and the famous midlife crisis. Of course there are also the financial crises. Sadly, it’s common to have more than one of these, but they are good perspective on how all the other crises are sometimes nothing more than blown-out-of-proportion tantrums. But there is a special kind of crisis that does not happen to everyone. It is reserved for those who have chosen to leave their birthplace and while doing so, have put many kilometers between them and their homeland.

I do not believe anybody ends up far away from “home” by accident. Sure, the reasons and motivations for it are as varied as life stories can be, but at the core, there’s always a logical and sensible explanation as to how and why a person ended up quite far away from where they happened to be born and raised. Maybe it all started when they took a vacation, maybe with an ambition, maybe even due to a crisis. Whatever the reason, it happened. You are out of there, far away and you have to get your life rolling at whatever the cost because this was your decision and you will be sticking to it. Continue reading

Newbies Guide to German Christmas Markets

Leipzig Christmas MarketMy parents are coming to Germany for Christmas for the very first time. Sure, they’ve been to Germany before. They’ve climbed the 111 steps up to our beloved Dachgeschoss in Berlin; they’ve driven all over the Romantic Road, they’ve fallen in love with its small towns and cities. But they have never experienced the true magic that is Germany at Christmas.

The biggest draw is sure to be their granddaughter (and native Berliner), but I am excited to introduce them to the beloved tradition of Weihnachtsmärkte (German Christmas Markets). The food, the Glühwein, the crafts, the food, the decorations, the holiday performances, the food….I want to do it all with them. If you are facing a similar undertaking (cram as much holiday cheer into a relative’s visit) I have prepared the Newbies Guide to German Christmas Markets so you can experience the true meaning of Gemütlichkeit.

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Krampus, the Christmas Devil of Alpine Europe


Much of Europe has a venerable Christmas or December tradition that pairs the good bishop-like St. Nicholas with a demonic, nasty character known as Krampus (and various other regional names). In Alpine Austria and southern Bavaria, this wintertime good-cop/bad-cop routine often exhibits aspects scary enough to put the fear of the devil into adults, not to mention young children. As St. Nicholas Eve (December 5) approaches, youngsters in Austria and Bavaria begin to have serious thoughts about whether they have been naughty or nice. They know Krampus is coming, and he’s definitely not nice.

Krampus

This antique greeting card depicts one version of what Krampus looks like. He has a basket to take bad children away with him. The German text reads: “Greetings from Krampus!” PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to an appearance in local family homes, usually along with St. Nicholas, Krampus and his cohorts also gather to put on a wild show in the streets of many Austrian and Bavarian towns. The “show” is known as a Krampuslauf (Krampus run). Customs vary by locality, but the tradition goes back hundreds of years, and far, far beyond a mere lump of coal in a kid’s stocking. An American witness to several Krampusläufe in Austria writes: “The ability to be genuinely frightened of someone wearing a costume is often left behind in childhood, and as an adult it is a bizarre experience. Fleeing from a person wearing a wooden mask and brandishing a bundle of sticks is terrifying but also exhilarating.” Continue reading

Weihnachtsgebäck

linzertoertchenGermany at Christmas is divine – any visitor to a Weihnachtsmarkt can tell stories of the booths of crafts, gifts, toys, knitwear, ornaments, junk, treats, Glühwein, Wurst, candles, etc. The air is chilly, the mulled wine is warming, and the festive atmosphere is unmatchable elsewhere in the world. I miss that about Germany.

Happily, I have plenty of treats to keep me in the holiday spirit: all the Christmas cookies I make each year (and there are dozens and dozens of them!) are from German recipes. Continue reading

Is Santa Chinese? On the Trail of Santa Claus and der Weihnachtsmann

Fu Lu Shou

Ceramic figurines of the Chinese gods Shou, Lu and Fu. What do they have to do with Santa and the Weihnachtsmann? PHOTO: Ridone Ko – Flickr

I’ve written about it before, but this Christmastide I’m delving a little deeper into the traditions of the season of giving and its central figure: Santa Claus, Weihnachtsmann, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), Père Noël, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Babbo Natale, Julemanden, and so on. If you aren’t already aware of the many Germanic aspects of Santa Claus and Christmas, you can read about it on our German Way Christmas pages. While the German-American St. Nick connection and the “German” pickle ornament myth are fascinating, I know there’s more to the Santa Claus story than most people think. Continue reading

A bilingual Christmas

“It’s the Christmas Man,” my two-and-a-half-year-old son cheered, pointing to the large inflatable red-clad figure bobbing in the wind outside a men’s clothes shop. In these first unseasonably barmy days of early December, we were yet to talk about the intricacies of Christmas, beyond the odd explanation of holly-bedecked shop windows and the singing reindeer-head installed outside our local shopping centre. The name of the man who would bring presents had certainly not been discussed. So how did he know about Father Christmas, and what was this name the “Christmas Man”?

One of the joys of living in another country and having your children grow up in a bilingual environment spending half, if not more, of their time speaking a language that is not your own is that they are constantly learning things you could not possibly have taught them. The Christmas Man (I should mention at this point that Germans refer to Father Christmas as the Weihnachtsmann – it’s direct translation being, therefore, the Christmas Man) was just one example in a list of many, which includes animals, nursery rhymes, foods and songs. Mostly, these instances delight and intrigue me. My German is good enough to understand the meaning, whilst still being enriched with a whole new level of childhood vocabulary one cannot learn sitting down with a grammar book, or spending a year here as a carefree exchange student.  And beyond the words, I am constantly fascinated by my (and all) children’s outstanding capacity to absorb and manipulate new information minute by minute. Continue reading

Happy Advent

I am not homesick for Germany*. There must have been something in my eyes this weekend, when I attended the Toronto Christmas Market. Something strange happened as we walked past the huts selling ornaments and decorations from the Black Forest. These waves of memories, of all the Christmas markets I have visited in Germany, of my first forays into German culture, of Bratwurst and Glühwein and Füßgängerzonen, they all hit me out of nowhere. And then, of course, there was a kind lady from Marbach (near Stuttgart, my German home) selling Butterbrezeln (buttered soft pretzels). The Butterbrezel was my undoing. Tears ensued.

Anyone who has lived in southern Germany will understand. Brezeln are staples of the southern German diet. Butterbrezeln can be substituted for any mealtime, eaten at the table in polite company or scoffed in the car on the way to work. Despite their popularity in the south of the country, good ones are remarkably difficult to find elsewhere. And although many Americans will claim to have eaten “soft pretzels” at county fairs and shopping malls, these do not compare with the German version – the original is irreplaceable.
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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (final)

Today we’ll finish my list of expat likes (the good), dislikes (the bad) and major gripes (the ugly). We are now in Part 2 of the “good” things. In Part 1 I began with “the bad,” but my “good” list turned out to be even longer! So long in fact, that I needed to split my “good” list in two. (See Part 2a for the first half of the “good” list.) – Also see my “ugly” list at the end of today’s blog.

My list is not prioritized! That’s why the items are not numbered. Okay, here we go with more of the good.

THE GOOD (2): More things I like about expat life in Germany

  • The social contract. In Germany there is more of an attitude that there is a social contract. This view is in sharp contrast to the Wild West, “every man for himself” attitude often seen in the U.S. Rather than viewing it as the enemy, Germans think that government’s purpose is to make society better. As a result, Germany’s citizens are more willing to pay taxes in exchange for public services, education, health care and good roads. Germany has Continue reading