Sunday, December 29, 2013

Speaking German in Germany

When I met my husband I didn't know any German.  I was a college student who really, really wanted to finished school with as little student loan debt as possible.  That meant getting the last two years over as fast as I could.  I had no time to jump into learning a foreign language.  It doesn't help me that I am terrible at languages.  I'm awesome at mathematics, English, science, history, sociology... but I fail miserably in the foreign language learning departments.  I had no idea I'd be living in another country.  No idea.  If I'd known then I would have learned another language.  Any European language would have been helpful.  I transfered out of Spanish in the middle of the semester and started taking Indonesian instead.  Because Indonesian has a romanized alphabet and Pidgin grammar it is easy to learn.  It didn't mess up my grade point average like Spanish.  Indoeuropean languages are all related.  If you know one it makes it easier to learn a second.  Lucky for English speakers German and English are in the same language subfamily.  You wouldn't know it from German grammar but it's true.  English did away with cases and formality a few hundred years ago. 

As soon as I graduated we got married.  I landed in Germany speaking no German.  None.  I couldn't even count to ten.  I could say 'Ich liebe dich.'  Cute but not very useful.

A lot of people in the expat community were unkind about my lack of German.  Instead of getting helpful advice on the kinds of jobs I could do without knowing any German people would berate my lack of language abilities.  Speaking German is a point of pride for expats.  Once you learn German it's easy to forget what it was like when you didn't understand the simplest things.  I was often told to 'learn German' like it was an easy thing I could pick up or put down depending on my mood.  This can be discouraging.  Now I always try to encourage people who have just moved here because I remember how tough it is.  While you can get the basics in a few months it takes most people years to become as fluent as native speakers.  If you can do most simple things like order a coffee then you are proficient.  You speak German, congratulations.  But that's still a far cry from taking a university class with native speakers.  (I'd crash and burn if I had to take a university class).
German is not the hardest language to learn.  There are four classes of difficulty in language learning for English speakers.  German is a two.  It's harder than French or Spanish but it's not like trying to learn Arabic or Chinese.  The ease at which a person learns depends on their abilities, the class size and how much effort is expended.  Learning German takes time and money (I don't know anyone who was able to become fluent without classes, the grammar is too hard).  The more time a person spends the faster they will learn.  Money can pay for smaller classes or the very best, one on one tutoring.  This is the most expensive but fastest way to learn German. 

I had time, but as a newly minted college graduate without a job, I didn't have a lot of money to spend on language classes.   I took the standard integration course required for my visa.  The class size was huge, thirty students to one teacher.  Some of the students couldn't read or had native languages that didn't use the Roman alphabet.  This slowed the pace of the class.  Missing a week didn't matter because I was able to pick up the material faster than my peers.  Not because I'm talented.  I had the advantage of being the only native English speaker. 

If only I loved learning German as much as I love the study of linguistics  (source)
English and German are the same language family unlike Farsi or Russian.   Only two students passed the A2 test after nine months.  I was one of them.  At this point I had spent 26 hours a week for nine months learning German.  I had learned how to count and answer simple questions or order at a restaurant but I couldn't hold a conversation at all.   I was bored with language classes and sick of earning no money so I started working.  Sometimes I was able to get free language classes through my work but acquisition slowed down dramatically.

After a few years I changed jobs and starting using more German at work.  I took evening classes a few times a week.  Then I got pregnant and my husband got a job where he would be traveling a lot.  I started doing everything myself.  I made my own appointments, I spoke to everyone in German without caring if I was making mistakes.  I asked people to correct me but I refused to be embarrassed.  By the time my daughter was born I had a working proficiency.  I could function in Germany but I still needed help writing letters and had to translate a lot of words I didn't understand.  I wouldn't say I am as fluent as a native but I can hold a conversation.  I am proficient enough to do everything I need to do while my husband is absent for long periods of time.  I'm always trying to learn new useful things and improve my grammar.  My grammar is still pretty bad but I'm working on it.  
For some expats learning German is not important.  The time, money and effort doesn't make sense if a person is only going to be living in Germany for a few years in an urban area.  This is why many expats don't ever learn German.  They don't need to.  For people who don't live in the city it's more likely you'll need some German as most people won't know English.  For people who are living here longer the commitment needed to become as fluent as the natives might be worth it.  However, if an expat is working full time or a parent it can be hard to carve out the required hours every day.  Speaking at least basic German makes life a lot easier.  It's worth it for people who are staying for more than a few years. 

Good luck!  


Monday, December 23, 2013

Having a medical emergency in Germany

This year I had planned to take Sophie to the zoo on my birthday but instead I got to go to the hospital.

Having a medical emergency in a foriegn country can be scary.  To be totally honest I almost gave myself a panic attack because I didn't know what to do and I had to think of Sophie.  I am thankful for the months my husband was gone.  This isn't the first time I've had to deal with some kind of problem by myself.  When I stopped being able to breath I knew that panic was going to make everything take longer than it should.  I decided to focus on one small task at a time and keep it together.   Taking care of my daughter, bringing her from doctor to doctor and trying to entertain her in waiting rooms while dealing with horrible pain is the hardest thing I have ever done since becoming a parent. 

It started with Sophie being sick last week.  I wasn't getting much sleep caring for her.  Then H and I came down with whatever she had this week.  No fun but whatever.  Something strange started happening to my hands on Wednesday.  I noticed one little bump like a blood blister.  I had a sore throat and was feeling exhausted and unwell.  My hands started to hurt.  I thought it must be from all the hand washing.   Stay at home moms wash their hands all the time which can dry the skin and irritate it.  But I woke up at two in the morning on Friday with pain in my hands so bad I couldn't sleep.  It got worse and worse and worse.  I tried taking something for the pain but it did nothing. There were fair red dots all over and some were starting to rise into weird bumps.
the beginning
What I should have done was call the Notartz (emergency doctor) and go to the hospital.  I was still in the mindset that this wasn't an emergency.  When I think of emergencies I think of heart attacks, not weird burning hand syndrome.  My husband didn't think it was that serious either so he went to work. I waited until 8:00 when I could see the Fachartz.  I thought my general physician could prescribe something and I'd be fine.  In hindsight that's silly.  I felt like hundreds of burning needles were stabbing my hands and was near tears.  After waiting an hour I finally got to see the doctor.  She prescribed something.  I went to pharmacy to pick it up.  As soon as we got back to the car I tore into the medicine and put it on my hands hoping for instant relief.  Nothing.  I went back home and waited for an hour.  This is when I had the almost panic attack.  Sophie didn't understand what was going on and was crying a lot because I wasn't able to respond to her needs the way I normally would have.  I was desperate so I went back to the Fachartz in tears.  She told me to go to the hospital.

At the hospital the front desk directed me to the non emergency dermatologist.  He was able to see me pretty quickly which was nice.  At this point Sophie hadn't eaten a proper meal and it was almost lunch time.  He prescribed cortisone cream.   This didn't work either.  Not knowing what else to do I went home and made her lunch.  Thankfully my husband was off work and called the hospital.  He spoke to someone who said I could meet with the head of the dermatology department.

When I got to the hospital a nurse told me off for not following proper procedure, which is to arrive by ambulance.  I was so demoralized I asked her if I should leave.  She continued in German so fast I couldn't understand.  Pain makes it difficult to concentrate and this person had no idea what kind of ordeal she was putting me through.  I didn't have to deal with her meanness for very long before she called the doctor I needed.  The doctor was surprisingly kind and had me admitted immediately.  My hands looked really horrible by then.  I won't subject anyone read this to a picture of them.  Super gross.

The nurses and doctors were great.  I had a fabulous sixty something roommate who kept me company and put up with my terrible German.  We did nothing but talk for the two days I was there.  I felt awful but having company was a nice distraction.  Though she was only a little older than my Dad something about her reminded me of my grandmother a little bit.  Sophie took the first day pretty hard but after the first 24 hours she was fine.  Getting sick on the day my family does laundry put me in the funny situation of having no clean pajamas.  I made due with some ancient leggings from my c-section.  I will be using this as a reason to buy two sets of lounge wear.   I could be dying and I'd still care about what I was wearing.  Let's not get into the gendered implications that even when women are terribly sick we're supposed to be cute.  Moving on.  All German hospitals feed their patients is bread.  Not kidding.  I feel for the people who have to be there for a long time.  I discovered a basket of fruit by the water at the nurses station and made do with that.  

My mysterious burning hand syndrome was a cross infection from the cold I had.  I also got a fun skin rash. 
skin rashes, yay

It was not a happy birthday.  I spent 48 hours wishing for nothing but enough respite to sleep.  I'm going to be ok and I don't have to be in the hospital over Christmas.  I am thankful.


Friday, November 22, 2013

The difference between an immigrant and an expatriate

What image comes to mind when you think of an immigrant?  Is it different from the image you have when you think of an expatriate?  Why?

Unlike the term immigrant, expatriate implies privilege and the choices that come along with it.  We use these terms to differentiate between those with resources and privilege and those without.  Immigrant has a vaguely negative connotation in American English.  Where I'm from in the Chicago suburbs a lot of people have strong feelings of dislike for immigrants despite being the descendants of immigrants themselves*.   This isn't surprising.  It's a part of human nature to form groups, feel an affinity with that group and exclude others.   Social bonding is an essential part of society.   That doesn't mean we have to marginalize and discriminate against people who are different.  Human beings are not subject to their natures.  We have the ability to educate ourselves and rise above our instincts.  If we weren't able to do this it would be impossible to have a global community.  As we create a new environment we have to change.  

The funny thing about seeing myself as an expatriate is that my host country doesn't give me any special status for being American.  Only foriegn nationals make the distinction between expat and immigrant.  Germans do not have separate words for us, we're all Ausländer to them. 

I have never suffered the same as someone from Iran, Turkey or Africa.  I have witnessed these groups being singled out for discrimination.  White privilege buffers my interactions, as dose my German spouse.  When people know I am from the USA I am further insulated because my country is rich and powerful.  But that doesn't mean that Germans are always happy to interact with me or speak English or be patient with my level of language.  When I am treated unkindly because of my Ausländer status it isn't nice.

Being a foriegn national has given me insight into just how hard immigration really is.  I would have never known what it felt like to see my culture reduced to a caricature in a German language class.  Or look at the embarrassing ethnic American foods section of the a supermarket.  I would not have known how it felt when people treated me badly because I couldn't speak the language or know where to go.   Being an immigrant is hard and often painful.  We gain a new country, language and culture at the price of our own.   You might expect to be granted the same respect you would in your own country but be surprised to be treated instead as an outsider.

Expatriate, immigrant, refugee, alien, migrant or foriegn national, we are people living in a country not our own.  I understand why ethnic enclaves are built and groups cling to their native languages, culture and traditions.  An extent of assimilation and language acquisition are necessary but I think I have much more sympathy for these minority groups than I did before I moved overseas. 

How do you think of yourselves?  Expat, immigrant or something else?


  *Try to think of something more ironic than Americans of European heritage bemoaning how immigrants are taking over America.  :)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

European make up: bb creams and blush

European make up

I wrote about make up a while ago.  Since I am now well into my early thirties I thought maybe I'd jump on some make up trend band wagons and see where they took me.  In Germany I usually buy most of my make up from Douglas or Karstadt but the selection and prices don't measure up to Sephora or Ulta.  As I already said, I have a hard time finding foundation that matches my skin tone.
not at all tan, golden or tawny 
Everybody raves about bb cream so I set out to get some.  The first one I tried was Smashbox.  I ended up picking this because it was the only brand Douglas carried that matched my skin.  You'd think living in a country with less than eight hours of sunlight half the year we could find pale make up around here, yeah?  Not really.

While Smashbox bb cream matched and made my skin look super amazing, after four days I started breaking out.  It might not have this effect on everyone.  I have super sensitive skin and have never been able to wear liquid make up.  I gave it to a friend and it gave her amazing skin for several days then she broke out too.

I turned to the Internet for help.  Finding some recommended bb creams for people who break out easily.  Smashbox was one (not encouraging) and the other was Estee Lauder.   I heard good things about Estee Lauder so I decided to try one more time.  Bb cream is not the cheapest stuff and I was starting to feel like it might be a big waste of money.  Estee Lauder bb cream was disappointing even though I used it with a cc cream to give it more bang.  It didn't give me amazing skin like Smashbox and on the fifth day I was using it my skin erupted in the worst kind of breakout.  I was irritated and feeling somewhat foolish with my totally f-ed up skin.  My conclusion: bb cream is not for me.  I went back to mineral foundation and have now sworn never ever to go back.  Ever.

I still desired a more youthful looking glow so I sprung for the award winning Stila cream blush.  I wasn't sure it would work with my foundation but it's great.  The effect is a dewier, prettier complexion.  Powder blush on powder foundation was making my skin feel kind of chalky.  Stila was hard to find.  It's not sold at any German stores I know of and I thought the only way I could get it was in the US.  Not so! sells make up!  They carry brands I haven't been able to find anywhere in Germany like Too Faced, bareMinerals, and Bourjois.  They even have bareMinerals foundation in pale.  I've been buying my foundation in bulk whenever I make a trip home so this was happy, happy news. 

I'm interested in trying out some Stila lip colors and maybe switching back to Bourjois mascara since it's half the price of Dior.  I am waiting on a few other products I bought from and a couple that are being shipped internationally from the US.  Now lets all pretend I didn't spend a bunch of money on make up that messed up my skin, ok?  

Thanks :)


P.S. Anybody want this Estee Lauder 01 bb cream?  Because I feel bad just throwing it away. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Schloßstraße shopping is the best shopping

I've been spending too much time at home.   Sophie has used this time to empty the contents of items in our pantry whenever I am momentarily distracted.  This and several other stressful things resulted in a severe case of parental burnout.  Not how I wanted to spend our last weeks together before she starts Kita.  I needed to get out.

I haven't been doing much because I don't know where anything is and I still don't know many people. I felt like I should take the train instead of driving when we go to the city.   Public transportation is one of the great things about Europe, yeah?  Just thinking about the train would make me tired but staying home was driving me crazy.

Today I saw the silliness and decided to embrace the idea that I will continue to drive everywhere because it's easy and because I can.   No switching lines, no buses, no tantrums.  No carrying the stroller up and down stairs or across that huge gap at the platform.  No searching for elevators or getting lost trying to use the GPS on my phone.

Our first stop was to get a library card.  I found some recommendations from other expats that said the JFK library at the FU was good and free.  Total rubbish.  Why do I listen to recommendations?  Clearly those people had never checked out books there because it was three floors of ancient hardcover academic type stuff.  And not even the good academic books.  These were the old dry kind that people only read because they have to.  Their sociology section had over fifty Introduction to Sociology books from different eras and not much else.  In the literature section I found a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin that could easily have been at least thirty years old.   I read that one in middle school and have no desire for another go.   University libraries are for research and that's it.  As soon as I get a couple of free hours I'm going to the Zentralbibliothek.  I should have done that in the first place.

 After the big fat library flop we went to check out Schloßstraße, the main shopping street in Zehlendorf.  Someone told me there was a Starbucks there and a parking garage.  Actually there were a bunch of parking garages and two Starbucks and the best shopping I've seen in Berlin so far.  It wasn't crowded at all.  Primark, which magically appeared in front of us as soon as we exited our randomly chosen parking garage, was not the nightmare I had anticipated.  Many of the stores were almost totally empty.  There was a Zara Home which I didn't get a chance to look into but made me very happy.  The children's section of Zara had Sophie's size and I ended up buying her some cute outfits.  Getting her dressed in the morning is almost depressing due to my buying ultra cheap ugly jeans when the weather turned cold.   I only did that because I couldn't face taking the train to the city, lessons learned I suppose.
cute, cute, cute
Our shopping was mission had a serious goal.  Sophie needed a somber dress for her first formal social event on Saturday.  She also needed all the things that go with a dress: shoes, tights and a sweater.  We normally don't need formal clothes so she doesn't have any.  I got lucky and found everything between H&M and Zara.  I snagged the only pair of black mary janes and a black cardigan with kitten faces printed on it and a gray wool dress with a glittery star print.  Sophie is going to be the most adorable somber toddler.  I was so happy to find black shoes because the only alternative were leopard print flats.  While I think they are great but I'm pretty sure my husband would have hated them.  When H hates something he generally will not stop talking about how much he hates it until the offending object has been removed from our home.

On the way back we popped into Starbucks, there was no line so I got my chai latte.  The first one I've had since before we moved.  When the Kassenautomat wouldn't take my cash but a nice guy broke my fiver and gave me change.  We got home in time to burn the turkey roast for dinner.   From now on Schloßstraße is my go to place for shopping and coffee.  It couldn't be any better.


Monday, October 28, 2013

DIY wall art for a baby/toddler room

How do you decorate a baby/toddler room without spending a lot of money?  And how do you do it in a foreign country without a Hobby Lobby in sight?  I found myself asking these questions while debating what to do with the big, long blank wall in Sophie's new room.  H wants to be involved in all decorating decisions.  He doesn't always like the things I pick.  The toddler room decoration negotiations commenced.

At first we talked about painting but with all the moving craziness I don't feel like painting any walls right now.  Not with Sophie running around.  I'd rather wait until she's in Kita.  So paint was out.  Then we talked about wall stickers but they aren't recommended for children under three and we have textured wallpaper which can make them fall off.   Wall stickers were out.  I picked out some children's art prints but including the cost of framing I was looking at close to €300.  Why is framing so expensive?!  I would have gone ahead with the wall art but H didn't like the same things I did.  All the prints that I passionately loved he hated.  Stalemate.
Children's wall art is not complicated.  Some of it I thought I might be able to do myself.  First thing was finding the supplies. I picked up a big canvass for €4,99, some mirror stars stickers €1,70, and a little box of painted flowers and hearts also €1,70 at the Danish furniture store.  Finding paint and printed paper was a challenge because I have Sophie all day and I did not want to take her on an hour train ride each way just to check out art and craft stores all over Berlin.  After a lot of thinking I checked and found two books of scrapebook paper, €8 each.  I also bought acrylic paint because the blues I had weren't working with my color palette.  I found an owl template on the internet and I sketched out my idea.  I was inspired by the prints, a video of another DIY I saw a long time ago and a scrapbook our friends in Hamburg gave us before we left.

rough draft
I worked on the picture when Sophie was napping or after she'd gone to bed at night.  It was very simple and easy to do.  The background I painted and the elements in the foreground are all craft materials.  It took a little less than a week to finish.

I still had a lot of empty space and lots of left over craft paper.  Inspired by a fabric banner I saw at Zara Home over the summer I checked out some banner making tutorials.  It turns out to be super easy.  I made two in one night. 

Made from paper and white glue.

I'm wary of over decorating with all the different patterns in the scrapbook paper.  I don't think I'll put anything else up on the walls even though I have a bunch of other cute ideas.  Sophie's room is already pretty colorful.  The only thing it still needs is curtains. 

So far I'm happy with how it's turned out.  I plan on taking any decorating decisions very, very slowly that way I don't end up with things we don't need.  I am an impulse buyer.  Yesterday I was close to ordering some overpriced stuffed owl bookends but that pink Elephant up there ended up doing the job just fine. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Berlin day 1: my feet hurt

I would like to use this as an opportunity to call attention to something everyone already knows.  Berlin is a big city.  Like it's bigger than Chicago and it's way way way bigger than any other German city.  It has real city blocks.  I got off at the wrong train station because I'm a rookie who just jumped on the train without checking (how hard could it be?) and found myself lost and walking aimlessly with my toddler.  After half an hour looking for the U I gave up and caught the next regional train where we needed to be.  Then more walking and standing and walking.   Lots of carrying my stroller up and down stairs because everyone in Germany knows that the elevator is reserved for perfectly healthy adults who just don't feel like using the stairs and I'm too impatient to wait for them to go first. 

I learned that Tauentzienstraße is not the place for me.  It's got one of my favorite landmarks but the shopping there is not good.  It's too spread out and crowded.  So many buses full of tourists blocking the sidewalk.  The Zara kids section didn't have Sophie's size in jeans and no place had children's raincoats.  The line at the Starbucks was so long we skipped it and the changing room at Karstadt was just ok.  I am going to visit Schlossstraße next week because they have a Primark but I've been informed by my husband that the best shopping is at Alexanderplatz.

Today was a little test run.  Wednesday is more serious business as we are going to a new playgroup.  Sophie did not throw a tantrum, for the first time in weeks.  She napped in her stroller and generally acted like she used to in Hamburg.  I hope this is a sign she is starting to adjust.   Sophie was so exhausted she fell asleep at 7:30.  That's perfect because it's Zombie Monday!  Last year the Hubbs realized how awesome the Walking Dead is so he'll be watching it with me.  :)


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Moving in Germany

The first time we moved was from Dresden to Hamburg six years ago.  All we had was my four suitcases of clothes and H's bachelor furniture.   Since the moving company didn't have much to move they did a really good job.  

The move took two days.  One day our stuff was packed and we worked on the apartment.  After we returned the keys we spent the night at H's family in Berlin before meeting the movers at our new apartment in Hamburg.  It only took them half a day to unpack us.  They were done by the afternoon.

The difficult part of that move was returning the apartment.  H had installed everything: floor, wallpaper, kitchen and cabinets.  The real estate company wanted the apartment back in the same condition it was before.   The movers took out the kitchen for us but we had to take out the floor and scrape wallpaper off the walls.  Why the real estate company wanted it that way I will never understand.  It took both of us working without breaks almost six hours to take everything out.  The wall paper was the worst.   When we were finished it was a bare concrete box but H got his full security deposit back.

Because we moved while I was waiting for my visa we had to drive back to Dresden some weeks later to pick it up.  A big part of moving is going through all the German bureaucracy.  You have to register your family, your car(s), and your dog.  Mail has to be forwarded, addresses have to be changes for everything.  New Internet and utilities must be set up.   Things get lost.  It's chaos.   We're usually without Internet for at least a week because it's next to impossible to get an appointment sooner.

The second move was from Hamburg to Malente.  We took the apartment unpainted and it needed some work.  Since I was pregnant and working H had to do it on his evenings off.   Returning the Hamburg apartment was easier.   It came with a kitchen and wall paper so we only had to take out the floor we'd installed and paint the walls.    Again, we got the full security deposit.

We used the same moving company that moved us from Dresden.  They did a pretty good job except that the second day they showed up hungover and probably still drunk from the night before.  I guess they decided to hit up the Reeperbahn?   I didn't ask.  But you could smell all of them from 15 feet away.  Since they were so hung over they did some complaining about how much stuff we had.  Even though we didn't really have that much.  Our Hamburg apartment was under 700 square feet and uncluttered.   For a group of men who weren't sober enough to drive they did a relatively good job.  They only thing they broke was a vase, no big deal.

Since Malente is close to Hamburg and we didn't have too much stuff the movers packed and started unpacking in one day.  We were able to drive to the new apartment and spend the night in our bed surrounded by boxes of our stuff.  We only had the movers put together the big furniture and chose to unpack most of the boxes ourselves.   Registering everything in a small town was much easier because there are no long lines at the tiny Rathaus.

This time we didn't want to have drunk hung over complaining movers.  We switched companies.  H did a lot of research, reading reviews of companies that had broken things and tried to cover it up so the insurance wouldn't have to pay.  He was very careful to pick a moving company that didn't have a bad reputation.  Switching moving companies might have been a mistake.  Or maybe we just have too much stuff now?  Three beds, one crib, four wardrobes, two sofas, dining table, chairs, many little end tables etc..  I can understand how movers get tired.  Packing and unpacking for eight hours a day is probably tedious.  But that doesn't excuse how awful they ended up being.   It's important to note that most moving companies will only pay for damages you report within 24 hours of your move so it's vital, no matter how tired you are, to go over everything and make sure nothing is damaged or missing.  Even though moving companies have insurance they are not going to tell you they broke something. 

This move from Malente to our little Eastern Berlin suburb has been the worst concerning the moving company.  They might have been sober but they broke a lot of stuff.   They cracked our entrainment set in two places and lost a rather necessary piece of it.  They broke the back of Sophie's wardrobe.  They broke some glassware.  They gouged our coffee table.  Some of the work they did was half assed.  Like putting up a curtain rod in one of the bedrooms but not putting up a curtain?  They were lazy putting up the shelves.  They didn't unpack anything in the cellar so we had a tower of boxes to go through down there.  When moving the twin beds they scratched the wood floor in Malente.  This was less than an hour before we had people coming to look at the apartment.  I just barely managed to get the floor stained and waxed in time.  Our furniture also showed up at the new place kind of dirty.  I was glad I never got around to washing to sofa covers because it would have been for nothing.

One of the conditions we had for the apartment in little Eastern suburb was that we needed to take it with zero work.  We didn't want to paint or install floors with a toddler and dog running around.  We were a little nervous but happily when we got here on Wednesday it was perfect and clean.

We didn't have to paint the apartment in Malente since it wasn't painted when we took it.  It still took H longer to turn it over than he planned.  This was annoying for him because we took the apartment in pretty bad condition.  The oven, drains and floors were filthy but off course we weren't allowed to return it like that.   We expect to get the full security deposit back.

It took the movers two days to pack our stuff this time and one day to unpack.  Sophie, Redige and I left for Berlin on Tuesday morning.  It took us five hours to make the drive.   That extra hour and a half was entirely due to me driving a reasonable speed and making frequent toddler stops.  We stayed in a nice hotel in Potsdam.  H arrived much later after he'd done everything to return the apartment.  The unpacking day was the worst because everyone was tired and Sophie didn't have a proper place to nap or play after we checked out of the hotel at noon.  I was never so happy as when the movers left.  Sophie fell asleep less than half an hour after they were gone.  Since he knew we'd be home H made an appointment weeks in advance for the Internet.  For the first time ever it was set up the day we moved in.

Moving companies are expensive but H's employer pays for it.  Our first move was only around €3000.  Our last move was twice that.  I'm interested to see how much their insurance pays for all our broken/missing furniture.  Hopefully they will be fair about it. It takes us about two weeks to settle into a new place.  There is so much to do.  I need to change my address for all my student loan paper work and magazine subscriptions.  I'm excited to get a (Berlin!) library card and finally get unpacked someday.  We still have a mountain of boxes in our dining room.  Unpacking always takes longer than I think it should.  That's because there is so much cleaning not to mention the two little ones we have to take care of :)

Moving is stressful and picking a good place to live is important.  Especially in Europe where so much quality of life depends on things like the availability of public transportation, the proximity of food within walking distance, Kindergartens and things like parks and tress and grass.  I feel like every time we move we have an opportunity to improve our situation.  Considering how crazy the last 12 months have been we really got lucky finding this place.  It's close enough to the city for me but also to H's work and should be quiet and safe enough for Sophie and Redgie.   So I feel lucky and relieved that the hardest part is over.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Ikea hell

I like Ikea.  Even though I don't like building my own furniture.  It's one of my happy places.  Give me inexpensive modern minimalist furnishings any day.  Furniture with no sentimental attachment.  That is good for me because we move a lot and our furniture can't always go with us.   I save my sentimental attachment for my family, my dog and my clothes ;) 

Anyway, we decided to replace our ugly €20 bookshelves we bought as newlyweds six years ago and pick up a couple organizer like things to organize the stuff we already have.   And curtains, since our bathroom currently has none.  That's important.

In my head I imagined we would go to Ikea in the morning, swiftly breeze through picking up said few things.  We'd be home before noon and unpacked by the end of the day.  Then we could enjoy our weekend.


First we didn't even leave by noon.  Since Sophie is teething she was terribly grumpy and couldn't seem to fall asleep in the car like she normally would.  So the first thing we had against us was a grumpy toddler.

Second, since it was chilly today I thought it might be a great day to wear my newly re-soled cowgirl boots.  Which just so happen to have three inches of heel.   Now these boots used to be quiet comfortable but those were the days before life came with a squirmy ten kilo child insisting on being carried by mama and not papa.  Normally I don't have any problem carrying her but normally I wear flats. Always flats and always the more comfortable shoes made by mankind.

My breezy browsing through Ikea with Sophie sitting pretty in a shopping cart was replaced by me lugging both her and my million pound baby bag.   Clearly I have spoiled my feet with moccasins because they were screaming with every step.   Suddenly I was grumpy too.  Wondering why Ikea was so damned big and why I had to walk a mile just to get to the one changing room in the whole place.  I was ready to quit before we even started.

So if you want to make a  normally plesant trip to Ikea more like hell follow these steps:

1.  Bring a cranky 18 month old who hasn't napped properly.

2. Wear stupid shoes.

3. Realize you can't fit everything in your family car because of the car seat.

4. Carry everything yourself instead of offloading heavy baby bag on spouse.

5. Leave late, don't eat a proper lunch and make sure you didn't get enough sleep the night before.

One a more upbeat note, in my misery I committed to drinking more red wine in the form of six positively lovely and huge punch bowl red wine glasses.  After we got home I decided Redgie and I needed some quality time.  While the Hubby and Sophie made dinner Redge and I walked to the beverage market. We took our time finding a good bottle of lieblich red wine, Spanish not German, as I have been advised.

So today had a happy ending.  And I learned absolutely no more heels, ever.  Never, ever, ever.   Which might mean now I need new ankle boots :)  (or maybe I'm just kidding, my husband reads this sometimes).


Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Nazi is a bad word and other stuff

I apologize for the heavy nature of this post.  I have to get this off my chest.

I think I first started to be mindful of the way I treated and thought about people during my junior year of college.  I had to read a book penned by one of the sociology professors about how racist NIU students behaved.  The book is called 'Racetalk: Racism Hiding in Plain Sight' by Kristen A. Myers.  I will never forget it.  I made sure I never took any of her classes after reading it because I was convinced she hated college students.  I'm not kidding, the pages seemed to ooze judgment and seethe with hatred.

But the book was effective because most people were causally saying racist things without a second thought.   It doesn't end there.  People are classist, sexist, sizeist, misogynistic, ageist, and homophobic.  We can discriminate based on a person's nationality, religion, ethnicity, region, language, employment, diet, marital status and what kind of pop culture they like to consume.    

People don't like to talk about it because it's awkward, depressing and it makes them feel bad.  I have been told to lighten up and not take everything so seriously by many people.  But I won't.  This kind of thing is important and it doesn't get discussed enough.

It's easy to see bad behavior in other people but a lot harder to see it in yourself.  After reading the book I thought about all the things I had said and my friends had said that were probably really, really offensive.  I stopped using the word 'gay' to describe things I didn't like.  I got on the long road to trying to become a better person one lost discriminatory epithet at a time.  I'm still nowhere near where I'd like to be.  I took a sociological survey a few months ago that let me know I have moderately negative views towards obese people.  At first I refused to believe it but lately I'm starting to notice some things that make me think, yeah that survey is probably right.  I need to work on that.

Living in Germany has helped me with my goals to stop acting like a jerk.  I still remember one of my first trips to Dresden, sitting in a bar with a bunch of expats, I causally used the word 'Nazi'.  Everyone freaked out.  One guy said to me in pig Latin 'ixnay azinay!'  And then because they were stand up guys they explained to me how in Germany it is a bad word.  A word that stereotyped, a caricature, synonymous with saying that all Germans are bad people.  Something clicked into place.  I started wondering how Germans felt when they watched Indiana Jones movies.  How did it feel to be the 'bad guys'?  How did that make little German kids feel?  Probably not very good.  Would I want my daughter to watch something like that?  No, of course not.  Since then I  have seen a lot of offensive stereotypes of Germans on tv.  So far my favorite is that they are nudists with horrible accents.  Funny?  Maybe.  Offensive?  Very.  For the record very few Germans have thick German accents.  They learn foreign languages in school and tend to speak them well.   And the nudist thing, well it's mostly a gross exaggeration.  They're just less uptight about bodies and that's a good thing.

I can't begin to tell you how many tv shows, music, movies are pretty much ruined for me.  Remember that episode of Seinfeld with the Soup Nazi?  I would never be able to watch that now.  I'd feel compelled to turn off the tv.  And don't even get me started on all the racist stuff on 'Two Broke Girls' or my Facebook news feed.  Facebook is the worst.  Yikes.  Some days it's depressing salad with animal cruelty dressing.   You know who you are people posting pictures of abused animals!

So anyway, I'm on this personal crusade to turn into someone who has empathy for people different from myself.   I'm trying to cultivate respect for my fellow human, for their beliefs and values.  In doing this I have made myself sensitive to other people's discrimination.  To the point where I don't want to hang out with women who body snark or read men's misogynistic comments on Facebook.   If someone makes fun of a religion or sexual orientation or mocks a culture I can't have it.  Because it rubs off and if it rubs off on me it's going to rub off on my daughter.   I don't want my kid to spend her whole life trying to stamp out these bad things.  I want her to have a better start than I did.  

I know that I can't raise her in a bubble but for now I can influence how much exposer she has to the worst things in life.  So I don't want her to hear women calling themselves or others fat.  I don't want her to hear someone's mocking religion or sexual orientation.  I don't want to explain the thousand of racist slurs out there.  Those are bad words to me.   Those words are poison that make us into bad people with bad attitudes. 

 On the other hand I'm 100% fine with the word 'fuck'.  As far as I can tell that word doesn't hurt anyone.  Feel free to say fuck as much as you want around us, I'm mothertrucking cool with it. 


Monday, September 9, 2013

Toys for tots part one

Buying toys for babies and toddlers is tricky.  Some people have said that babies don't need toys, just give them a paper towel rolls and empty cartons!  I have no doubt that works for some kids but not for Sophie.  If you give her anything paper she will joyfully eat it despite all the nasty paper chemicals therein.  I believe in taking kids outside and on outings most days but in between breakfast and nap time or on rainy days toys are important.  Toddlers and babies can't tell you what they want to play with.  Like most parents I want to invest in toys that are going to help Sophie learn and develop not just things to keep her occupied all day.  I have not always been successful in my toy buying ventures.  There are some things that sadly never saw any play.  But here are some things that have been a hit at our house.

1. Ikea soft role play farm with animal

Sophie loves this.  It's the first thing she goes to play with every morning.  H picked it out the last time we were at Ikea.  I probably would have thought it was too expensive, €20 for the farm plus another €10 for the rest of the animals. 
Extra animals, a must have!
Folds up into a neat little box at the end of the day.
Her favorite animal is the cat, which she carries around petting while cooing the German interjection for petting animals.   Could anything be cuter?  She will tell you that the cow goes 'moo' and the sheep says 'baaa'.  It's also something I can see her playing with as she gets older.

2. My big animal book
I have read this so many times.  So many.  As you can tell animals are a big hit at our house.  I think it's a stage most children go through. 

 2. Snail rocking animal
We got this for Sophie's fist birthday but she didn't start playing with it until she learned to walk properly.  Since then we named him Charlie and he always makes her smile.  He plays Mozart and has a compartment in his shell where we like to keep toys.  Sometimes she just plays the music and then dances around the snail petting his head.  That's ok too.

3. Singing nursery rhyme book

Sophie is into music so I got her the German version of this singing nursery rhyme book.  It's small which is great for travel and keeping her occupied in a hotel room, airplane or bus.

4. Noah's Arche
Something about Noah's ark appeals to children.  Maybe because the animals are in pairs?  And they're on a boat?  Who knows.  I had to do a little bit of searching for a Noah's ark toy that was suitable for children aged under three.  Which is why I went with the plastic version instead of the slightly prettier wooden ones.  I'm glad I did because Sophie is teething and the last thing I want is the ingestion of wood and paint.  This is her second favorite toy after the Ikea farm.  She plays with it every day.  I also like that Emzara doesn't look like a pilgrim. 

5. Horns to Toes and In Between
This book is so cute.  How could you not love rhymes about big furry monsters and their body parts?  Now that Sophie knows a lot of these words she will grab her nose when we read about noses and etc..  Love.

This last one is cheating because while Sophie likes it I'm adding it because it's my favorite board book.  I like it so much I ordered two more by the same author.  Hands down quiet possibly the best bedtime book ever written.  I never get tired of reading it to her.
The end.

❤ Zara for Fall ❤

Fall 2013

Zara short trench coat, €76 / American Eagle Outfitters jeggings jeans, €23 / Zara slipper, €69 / Zara short boots, €76 / Zara shopper, €46 / Zara handbag, €38

I have been avoiding thinking about this last business trip H is taking before starting his new job in Berlin.  He's going to be gone for three weeks.  Three!  Blah, lets not talk about it, yeah?  I like to distract myself with difficult tasks, like buying a new handbag.  I came this close to buying a wine colored Courtney hobo but the customer service people for are a nightmare.  When it looked very likely that a new bag wasn't going to be delivered in time for my mom's flight today I canceled it.  I'm glad I did too because I think I found something better at Zara for a fifth of the price.  I love the burgundy and cognac leather that's everywhere this year.   It's too bad my husband hates leopard print because I really, really love leopard print flats as well.  
Today when we woke up it was pouring rain and in the 50s.  I have a feeling that Fall might already be here.  The changing weather doesn't mean I'm buying all new stuff though.  Some of H's economical habits have rubbed off on me over the years.  Like this year we actually got around to listing some clothing on ebay.  I was surprised by how well used clothing sells, especially brands typically marketed to teenagers.  What's up with that?  

Speaking of teenagers, I can't quit American Eagle jeans.  No matter how many other pairs I try I can't find any that fit my body type as well or are as comfortable.  My mom dream came true and they made a high rise skinny jean.  Not having to pull up my jeans x times a day is heaven.  Seriously, $30 for a pair of cute jeans?  I'm going to be wearing them until I'm 50.

Some other economical decisions were to get a pair of ankle boots resoled.  If I find a pair of boots I like then I keep them forever.  I love Zara boots and my black pair are on their second soles but other than that they look as good as new.  

The cold means more cooking.  I got a few pounds of chickpeas and lentils on sale.  I'm planning on practicing some new recipes.  That's not very exciting, I'm sorry.  Maybe I will learn how to make a roast and my husband will be impressed.  How hard can it be?  Don't you just put the huge piece of beef in the oven?  I don't know, not into roasting anything other than vegetables.  

 I went sort of blonde, or as blonde as I could considering I have naturally brown hair.  I was at the salon for three hours getting it bleached, hence the selfies above.  It was not fun but at least my hair isn't in a state of disaster any longer.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Finding an apartment in Germany

It's only a decision that will affect your happiness for however long you live there.

Apartment hunting should be fun but it's not.  Not at all.  It's frustrating and tedious and horrible and stressful.  Every time we have to move I make a go at something bigger and better than what we had previously.  I always liked our apartment in Malente and after looking at some of our options in and around Berlin I am reminded that we have it pretty good here.  Some of the great things about Malente that I also wanted in our new home-

* Grocery and drug stores within walking distance.
* Train station nearby with free parking.
* Lots of green space for Redgie.
* Big bedrooms and a nice cut.
* Being on the ground or first floor.
* A roomy kitchen and bathroom (I knew I'd have to give up the circular bathtub but I'm going to take as many baths as I can before we move).
* Reasonable rent.
* A nice clean safe neighborhood.
* Street parking.
* Enough room for office space, a guest bed, a children's bedroom, and all our furniture.  That's a tricky requirement for a two bedroom apartment. 

Our apartment is only a little over 900 square feet but the cut doesn't waste any space so it feels big.  Having big bedrooms is also a plus but on the other hand the high ceilings are harder to heat in Winter.  There are a few things I wanted to do differently in a new place.  Like a smaller second bedroom and more space in the living room.   That way Sophie can have her own room and we can move the study area into the living room.  Some other things on my checklist-

* No white tile in the kitchen or bathroom.  I have white tile in my kitchen and it's hard to clean. 
* No faux wooden counter tops because u.g.l.y..
* No cellar of terror.
* No parking wars.
* A shorter commute to the city.
* A more relaxed pet policy.
* A good playground and Kita (kindergarten) within walking distance.
* A closet if I can get one.
* More restaurants and take out options.

After finding apartments that fit our criteria in areas near H's work we then had to get appointments.  Getting an appointment isn't easy.  H couldn't take any more time off in between his busy work schedule so we only had a day and a half to find an apartment that was suitable.  That's not stressful at all.  Seriously though, it was super stressful.  One person didn't give us an appointment because we have a young child.  We got appointments for only half the apartments we found.  One of the appointments we went to was pointless because the apartment had been taken but real estate agent didn't bother to let us know.

Another thing to keep in mind is that balcony space counts as the square footage in the apartment.  Several places seemed to be small because they had a large terrace even though the square footage was high.  Some of the apartments we turned down because the cut was strange or our furniture wouldn't fit.  One had a cellar of terror and a litter of cigarette butts in front that reminded me of leaves in the Fall.  That street also smelled like garbage and had no parking.  Not good for a family with two cars.

We were lucky, real estate agents love solidly employed young families.  We were able to chose between two good options, one in the city and one in the suburbs.  I surprised myself by liking the suburbs better.  Can you believe it?  I could have taken a city apartment on a beautiful leafy street in Zehlendorf but I didn't.  How could I say no to a less expensive 1,200 square foot apartment that is only ten years old?  So we won't be true Berliners but we can grill on our balcony and I can take the train downtown in the same amount of time.  And best of all H found a Masters of Sociology program in English.  I already wrote them a letter asking how I can apply.  It's always been an important goal for me to get my Masters.  I never thought I'd be able to do it in Germany but now it looks like it could happen.  I can't put into words how happy that makes me. 

We move in six short weeks.  Since we first considered this opportunity my life seems to be running like water.  I never imagined that I would live near Berlin or be able to go back to school.  I can only be thankful we took a chance and hope that it pays off.  At least we have a place to live and H won't have a job that requires frequent business trips.  Just those two things make the move worth it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Things to love about Germany

Sometimes my husband says he thinks I don't like Germany or Germans.  Say what?  Ok maybe I complain a lot bit but that doesn't mean anything.  I married a German, remember?  My child is German!  Well anyway, I thought I'd dedicate some writing to the many, many great things about Germany and Germans. 

1. Castles, palaces, fortresses and other historical buildings.   When most people think of German castles they think of Neuschwanstein.  Neuschwanstein is amazing and it was built by a crazy person!  Fabulous, right?  But there are gads of other things worth checking out.  I admit I am pretty nonplussed by the smaller castles around here but that doesn't mean they aren't wonderful.  It just means that after six years I'm getting used to seeing them.  Before Hamburg we used to live in Saxony so the first castles I saw were all breathtakingly memorable. 

Tiny little castle where my husband's friend got married.  Good memories :)

2. Art- art is everywhere.  The other day I was admiring some interesting original art in my dentist's office.  Way, way better than those motivational posters that Americans tend to hang up in schools and offices.

3. Our health care is awesome.

4. Everything is orderly.  Well most of the time.  The trains run on schedule, the trash is picked up and recycled, all the children go to school and get their check ups.  Cars and trucks are kept serviced and everyone pays their taxes and takes care of their registered pets.  The streets are clean and every yard has a gnome.

5. Germany takes care of it's own.  No German has to be homeless or without their basic necessities.  That's pretty great.

6. Less crime, fewer guns, and generally safer overall.

7.  Groceries are better.  We can get cheap locally grown organic produce whenever we want it.  We can go pick our own if we have time.  Even processed foods here have less chemicals and hormones.

8. Most people speak a second language sometimes a third and fourth.

9. A lot of Germans like to travel.  Traveling generally makes people a bit more open minded and aware of the world around them.

10. People are on time.

11. Good wine is inexpensive.  I feel like wine sort of deserves it's own post.  I knew nothing about it before I moved here.  Now I know quite a bit.  The last few years H and I buy a lot of our wine directly from a German vineyard.  I pick up various bottles of sect and rosé usually for less than €5.  Champagne is more but still cheaper than in the US.  I love a glass of wine at the end of the day.  It's just so lovely.

12. The clubs don't close until it gets light outside.  I don't do any clubbing anymore because I'm too old but back in the day it was fun, fun, fun.

13. There are no open container laws in Germany so you can enjoy your wine or beer wherever you want.  They passed some laws about drinking on public transportation since I've been here but it's nice to take a bottle of wine along with your picnic to the beach or the park.

14. Germans are helpful.

15. Children are accepted in public places.

16. Most working people get at least a month of paid vacation plus lots of paid public holidays.  Add this to a little bit of overtime and most Germans only work about 10 months out of the year.

17. Disability and sick leave are much, much better than in the US.

18. The nature is natural.  There is little urban sprawl, lots of forests and fields and beautiful unfarmed and undeveloped land.  Germany is a very beautiful country.

19. Expat friends are more diverse than friends a person makes in their own country.  I've met so many interesting and amazing people.  I never stop being thankful for the wonderful people I've gotten to know! (No shade on my Chicago people, they are extra awesome for staying friends with me all this long time I've lived in Europe.)

I'm sure there is more but my toddler has fallen asleep.  Instead of trying to think of what I missed I'm going to go enjoy some delicious wine and hang out with my German husband. ;)  What do you love about your country?

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to make Chewy Chocolate Chip cookies in Germany

It's not my habit to blog about anything useful.  But today the weather sucks and my mind will not stop or shut up with the depressing self critical thoughts.  The best way not to fall into a black hole is to do something useful.  I'm going to make some cookies.  Cookies that can not be bought in the store in Germany.  Yes, you can buy chocolate chip cookies here but they will always be hard as rocks.  I probably blogged about cookies a few years ago but whatever.

You will need something from America: alcohol based pure vanilla extract.  I have not been able to find it in any German stores.  If you don't have it you can make some.   Also American measuring spoons and cups or a good head for conversions.

You will also need some special things from stores in Germany.  Real chewy chocolate chip cookies have to be made with brown sugar.  You can only buy raw sugar in Germany.  It's called 'brown sugar' which is confusing but it's not the same thing.  Since you can't buy brown sugar it has to be made.  This is easy, brown sugar is just white sugar mixed with molasses.  I found mine at a health food store in Eutin.

'Melasse' in German

I add about one table spoon of molasses for each cup of sugar.  Voilà, brown sugar.

I used this recipe from  It calls for baking soda.  Baking soda is sold at drug stores in Germany and looks like this.

And of course, chocolate chips.  I got mine from Sky for €.99 per bag.  This recipe calls for two cups of chocolate chips.  That equals about three bags.

Ok, so that covers all the ingredients!  Time to make cookies.  First I gave my little helper a spoon to play with.

 Follow recipe exactly.

 Blah blah blah...

Check on baby.
 Blah, blah, blah.

And now possibly the most important step.  DO NOT BAKE!  The cookie dough has to be refrigerated for several hours or the cookies will be flat and not very chewy. 

Into the fridge it goes for several hours.
 to be continued....