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

Expat children

I am struck, watching my two small children grow up in Berlin, how different their childhood is from mine in England’s industrial north in the 1980s. We are very integrated here – most of our friends are German. the nursery the children go to is German, and the places we frequent are almost completely German. Instinctively, my children say “guck guck” instead of “peepo” and “Aua!” instead of “ouch!”. They drink fruit tea with their afternoon snack and heavy dark bread is nothing unusual. Yes, for now, it would seem that my children are German, with only a streak of English.

I don’t really mind this, though I sometimes feel nostalgic for the things they can’t know: the jangling bells of the ice-cream van on a long summer’s evening; the feeling of a school uniform tie tight around a buttoned up shirt neck; grubbing around the back garden in a private kingdom. They will be city children, who remember going to public spaces to play out their fantasy games (parks and playgrounds), who slouch around grandiose nineteenth century city school buildings in jeans and the latest trainers, and only think of ice-cream as being from the organic ice-cream parlour across the road – if we stay here, that is. Continue reading

An Expensive Lesson in the Laws of the Land

For most of my first year in Germany I didn’t drive.  I come from a small Canadian city with no major highways, and so the thought of the autobahn seriously freaked me out.  I was, and remain, very surprised at how easy it was for my husband to simply turn in his Canadian license for a German one (which appears never to expire), to be handed a company car, and to then just be on his way.

Sure, GPS is a miracle for those of us who need to navigate to work that first day, or to the nearest food market for the first time, but such technology has yet to explain to me what the yellow diamond sign means, what the white squiggly line on the road means, and what I am supposed to do when someone is riding a horse in front of me.  Many expats, like my husband, cope with various expat situations, like driving, by relying on observation, common sense, and hoping for the best.  I offer a cautionary tale however, of common sense, and how it may not always be your most reliable guide.

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Expat Hospitality

As I have mentioned before, my husband is a professional hockey player, now playing here in Switzerland.  We spend nine exciting months of each year in Europe, then three whirlwind months in Canada. As much as we adore our time overseas, it always requires some adjustment, spending holidays with people we’ve just met; new teammates and friends who become temporary family during special occasions. We also have had to learn to face life’s many ups and downs over Skype with mom, texts with friends, and via outlets like this blog. As an expat living in Germany and Switzerland however (some of the most popular destination countries in Europe), my husband and I have also been very fortunate to host many of our family and friends in our various overseas homes.

We have hosted friends looking to discover the European nightlife, parents coming to make sure we have a proper Christmas, cousins coming to celebrate New Years Eve on the slopes, and friends of friends backpacking through. Each visitor has been very different and each visit has been uniquely memorable.

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An Adjusted Adventszeit

In the past week, I had to adjust to the fact that Christmas is OVER, a week earlier than I had become accustomed to. I was used to our southern German world being shut down not just from the week of Christmas to New Year’s but also through the first week of January thanks to Three Kings. (Note: During my time writing for the German Way blog, the most Wiki-ed or Google-ed things I’ve had to look up are Catholic holidays and food.) I missed my older daughter’s first gymnastics class last Wednesday. Back in Aalen, there wouldn’t have been Turnen or any Musik Schule or anything like that scheduled.

This year, I missed the Adventszeit and the tradition of celebrating Christmas time for the whole month of December. And although Christmas decorations start being sold at Target the minute Halloween goes on clearance, that is not the same. I feel that Christmas is largely for consumerism here. Adventszeit is more oriented towards baking Weihnachtsplätzchen together (though I’ll concede that an American Christmas cookie exchange is an efficient and smart thing. I admire my friend Moni and my husband’s Tante Liane for baking at least 10 different kinds of cookies for their cookie bags/tins each year.) The point of a Christkindelmarkt in every town is not just to sell as many tschotchke to as many suckers as possible, but rather to provide a cozy space for people to drink their Glühwein together, for children to pet some farm animals and ride some rides and of course for us to find some sweet, handmade, wooden ornaments to share with our poor, plastic-invaded relatives back home. Continue reading

Multi-Kulti Christmas

Irish Christmas

Irish Christmas

This past year, our international family became even more international when my husband’s sister married a man from Colombia. When we moved to Ireland in September, the family decided that we would all celebrate Christmas together in Galway this year. The flight was direct, and short, so we anticipated no big problems. Anyone who has not been living in a cave for the past month will know that we were wrong on that front.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I had discussions with my older two girls about whether we would do “American” or “Irish” or “German” Christmas. I was pushing for a little bit of each. The older girls wanted to open presents on the 25th, as is done here in Ireland and in the US. I preferred to open them on the 24th, especially because the grandparents were visiting from Germany. We had finally concluded that we would open the German presents on the 24th and the ones from Oma in America on the 25th. But the bad weather made that decision for us.

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