The Return

Ah, reverse culture shock…always fun. I’ve been keeping a little list of things on my phone in order to remember them. Arriving at SeaTac a month ago, Iris was confused by which button to press on the elevator. In Germany, the ground floor is considered floor 0 or “E” for “Erdgeschoss” (aka earth level, isn’t that great?) and the next floor up is considered the first floor.  Of course, to an American, the ground floor is the first floor and the next one up would be the second floor.  Anyway, immediate confusion and shock ensued! Then, of course, all the light switches, toilet flush, and door handles are different in Germany and when you combine these small but marked differences with a 10-hour-plus plane ride and jet lag things really get surreal pretty quickly.  Then you go to the pub-restaurant attached to your Ramada Inn in Tukwila, WA, which by the way is called “O’Beer”, and things get even weirder. For instance, American Classic Rock is playing. A friendly (!!) hostess to shows you to your table. The portions are huge and you cluelessly order way too much (it’s also so overpriced!). All the cars in the parking lot are ginormous SUVs, trucks or vans of American or Japanese provenance (where are all the SmartCars, compact VWs, and, like, Peugeots?) The 3 on 3 NBA offshoot known as “Big 3” is playing on the giant screens (this  league was new to me, although Dan told me it  was around before we left for Germany) ALL VERY SHOCKING! At least seeing Bonzi Wells playing brought back distant-yet-familiar memories.

Other shockers: Going to a brewpub in Eugene and sitting outside at a picnic table and noticing there was not a single ashtray in sight. Later, as we left, we saw 2 smokers huddled in the parking lot across the street as smoking was not allowed anywhere on the restaurant premises (even outside). However, cannabis dispensaries were EVERYWHERE. Homeless encampments alongside the road juxtaposed with gleaming new apartment towers in Portland. People literally camping in tents right next to the 580 freeway in Berkeley. The U.S. is feeling so extreme to me in its inequality these days. And the national mood definitely feels low. Lots of bumper stickers with everything from “Health care is a right, not a privilege” to “My favorite social program is a JOB!” or “America: Could be better” (This is how we communicate with each other here, by plastering our beliefs to our vehicles)

Walking around Portland it was shocking to find no one else out walking. Well, there were some dog walkers and joggers but people walking to get from point A to B seemed very rare (lots of bikers though). Taking public transportation takes time and is, let’s face it, inconvenient. I was reminded of how densely populated Berlin is with its high-rise apartment buildings and convenient subway and bus hubs that transport people so effectively throughout the city.

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Also, why is everyone gluten-free and weirdly diet-obsessed in the US (and yet also so fat??) Seems like everyone is doing Paleo or talking about which is the “right” oil to cook with. Germans seem less worried about this sort of thing and are remarkably thin. Granted, I’ve never read “Grain Brain” or “Wheat Belly”. But, this is also the person who attempted to eat cake every day for a year.

Now I’ve returned to Oklahoma and the usual things are shocking…the accent, the sorority girls and their spray-painted SUV’s (this year the TriDelts have “DRAFTED” written all over their rear windows), the car culture, McMansions and ugly billboards along I-35. But for better or worse, it’s also my home and it’s good to be back in my own house, weeding my garden, feeling those deep prairie roots and hearing the cardinals calling.

I’ve signed up our family to host a University of Oklahoma exchange student this year. Not to live with us but to socialize with and sort of sponsor for the year. I want to continue to examine my own culture through the lens of another. I have renewed empathy for expats and exchange students and the experience of living in another country long term and all the challenges and rewards it brings.  And so on that note, I’m signing off once again bringing “Alise in Allemagne” to a close.  I miss Berlin already and hope to return there one day.  So, until the next time I live abroad… Auf Wiedersehen!

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Reflections on a Year Abroad (aka what I did all year)

We are counting down our days left in Berlin at this point. It has been nice experiencing Berlin through the four seasons. The ripe horse chestnuts that scattered the ground everywhere in the Fall turned out to have lovely piled up white-pink “candle” blossoms in the springtime. Previously frozen lakes are now swimmable.Image result for blooming horse chestnut tree

blooming horse chestnut tree

I had great plans for this year. I was going to volunteer with refugee organizations and at the kids’ school. I was going to become fluent in German again. I was going to enjoy a year off from working and eat a lot of cake. I definitely accomplished the last goal, the whole refugee aid and regaining German fluency not so much. But that’s ok. I’ve also promised to cut myself some slack and while I sometimes regret not having pushed myself harder to put myself into situations where I would be forced to speak German (a job or volunteer gig would have been the way to do this), I definitely kept myself occupied. Berlin has 170 museums and you can buy a year’s unlimited pass to all of the State Museums (a total of 17) for only 50 euros. This gave me the freedom to pop in and out and not feel like I had to spend 4 hours seeing every painting and absorbing every informational plaque in order to get my admission’s price worth out of the experience.

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Taking in the ancient Roman Market Gate of Miletus at the Pergamon museum.

List of Museums/Attractions I visited this year

Gemaeldegalerie (Renaissance art, Flemish and German masters “painting gallery”)

Museum of Decorative Arts (Kunstgewerbe Museum including special exhibition Food Revolution 5.0)

Pergamon and Museum of Islamic Art

Bode-Museum (European and Levantine art and sculpture, special exhibition of African art)

Neues Museum (ancient Egyptian art)

Alte Nationalgalerie (German painters, some impressionists, Wanderlust exhibition)

Museum Barberini (Max Beckmann exhibition)

Brohan Museum (art nouveau, Berlin Realism exhibition)

Scharf-Gesternberg Collection (Surrealist art)

Museum Berggruen (Picasso, Chagall, Klee, Kandinsky)

Museum of European Cultures (Wool exhibition)

Jewish Museum

Museum for Photography

C/O Gallery (exhibitions featuring Irving Penn, Torbjorn Rodland, and Joel Meyerowitz)

Berlinische Galerie (Jeanne Mammen and Eduardo Paolozzi exhibitions)

Markisches Museum (history of Berlin, special exhibition on Berlin in 1937)

German History Museum  (exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution)

Kaethe Kollwitz Museum

Jagdschloss Museum (collections of Lucas Cranach the younger and older)

Die Bruecke Museum (paintings by artists of the movement “the Bridge”)

Kunsthaus Dahlem (art by exiles)

DDR Museum (life in former East Germany)

Hamburger Bahnhof (museum of contemporary art)

Berlin Biennale

Berlin wall memorial

Haus der Kulturen der Welt performance art exhibition by Rimini Protokoll (Staat 2)

German Parliament Building

Bauhaus Archive

Museum of Things (Werkbundarchive)

Berlin Botanical Garden

Palace Charlottenburg

Palace Sanssouci

Allied Museum

Other things I did when I was not helping refugees was coaching my daughter’s Odyssey of the Mind team. Odyssey of the Mind is a creativity competition in which groups of up to 7 students choose a long-term problem and must come up with a creative solution which they then present at a final competition. There are also spontaneous problems involving either hands-on (such as building the tallest structure possible out of pipe cleaners, paper clips, and tape) or written (make an animal rhyme “Mice are nice”), or mixed problems.

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Gus and his team of Kindergarten-2nd graders and their intrepid coach, Mary.

My team chose the long-term problem in which they were to make a “Mockumentary” about a classic story from literature (they chose Alice in Wonderland). As my team was comprised primarily of 3rd graders, this involved a lot of discussion of how to recreate the Disney animated version in live action form. I think the concept of “Mockumentary” was a little lost on them (warning, the trailer for “Best in Show” is not entirely appropriate for a 3rd-grade audience). Needless to say, we muddled through and I think it was a fun experience in the end.

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Here I am with my Odyssey team and co-coach, Nelvie.  Unfortunately, our spontaneous problem didn’t go as well as we would have liked and this photo was taken at the end of a long day of competition, hence the long faces and thumbs down.

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I also ate as many smoked salmon bread roll sandwiches from the Friday street market as I possibly could.  Seriously, going to miss all the tasty food.  Reading for pleasure, going for runs to work off all that tasty food and of course my domestic duties filled up the rest of my time.  Next up, the return and reverse culture shock.  Always so weird!  Stay tuned…

The Merry Month of May

Hello Again! May has been delightful. Berlin is having an unusually gorgeous spring weather-wise with temps in the 70’s and 80’s every day. It’s been a joy to witness the progression of blooms from cherry trees in April to lilacs and wisteria in early May then chestnut trees and now the roses. Oh, the roses! My theory is that living in a Northern climate makes one appreciate the beauty of spring all the more. Each new bloom is a fresh revelation.

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roses blooming at Friedrich Wilhelm Platz

This month has been all about the travel. We’ve had pretty much constant house guests since the end of March and I’ve seized the opportunity to see some more of Europe while living here and have willing travel partners. I visited the medieval Hanseatic city of Lübeck with my sister-in-law at the end of April. Famed for its well-preserved brick gothic architecture and 7 church spires, it was a thriving city in the middle ages and one of the centers of trade between western Europe and the East. We visited the Hansa museum which focused on the history of this medieval trade organization which was headquartered in Lübeck.

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Headquarters of the Hanseatic league in Lubeck

Then another sister-in-law and I went to Venice and Verona for the weekend. The highlight of this trip was people-watching while drinking Aperol spritzes. The evening passeggiata (or stroll, more like a parade) is very big in Verona where people get decked out and stroll the main street (paved in marble no less) and basically just check each other out while drinking lightly alcoholic apperitivos and eating Lay’s potato chips. It’s the best! I also ate a horse steak and way too much gelato and I love Italy forever and ever and want to go there on vacation any chance I get. Venice was tourist heaven. The highlight was sitting in the Vaporetto (water bus) and taking in the Grand Canal in all its majestic crumbling glory. Touristy nightmare?  Yes. Unlike any other city in the world?Also, yes.

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The Grand Canal, Venice

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Aperol spritzes, potato chips and people watching:  A match made in heaven.

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Venice: totally touristy, for obvious reasons.

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Gondola jam

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Verona and the Adige river from above.

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Blurry field of blooming poppies seen from the train between Verona and Venice.  Please rent or read “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster for more reasons to love Italy (film highlights include fields of poppies and full frontal male nudity, a win-win).

Then Dan and I stole away to London for a weekend leaving the kids in Berlin with his visiting parents. Eating good food as always was a priority and we had some lovely Pakistani food, Ethiopian fasting food (aka vegetarian, my favorite) and splurged on lunch at Ottolenghi where I had the best-ever roasted eggplant. The city was decked out in Union Jacks and barricades in anticipation of the royal wedding taking place the following weekend. I resisted purchasing a monogrammed H&M teacup.  London was overwhelmingly huge but highlights were hanging out in St. James Park, seeing a French film ( Jeune Femme) and visiting the Tate Modern art museum.

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Harry & Megan monogram tchotchkes for sale

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Union Jacks on display in Soho

Then last weekend our family and Dan’s parents all flew to Copenhagen, rented a car and drove to the lovely quiet island of Langeland and just relaxed in rural Denmark for the long weekend (Germany has a lot of holidays in May.  The kids have had no full 5 day school weeks this month whatsoever). Highlights of Langeland were the walking trail around Tranekaer Slot (castle) featuring art made out of natural materials alongside the trail (sort of a less spectacular version of  Andy Goldsworthy’s work).  Denmark was very, very beautiful and very, very expensive.  I would love to spend a whole summer there just biking around and eating Danishes (maybe after I win the lottery).  There is a reason the pastry is named after the country as they do them right.

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Tranekaer Slot

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Rapeseed fields in full bloom near Emmerbolle

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painting with natural pigments at the Viking museum in Trelleborg

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family dinner outside, near Tranekaer

 

 

 

Morning Clubbing

I’ve discussed Berlin’s amazing opera scene in a previous post but it’s perhaps even more famous for its electronic music dance clubs. I guess that might depend on whom you are asking. Berlin is home to perhaps the most famous nightclub in the world, Berghain, which is located in a former power plant. Germany has always been on the forefront of electronic music (think bands like Neu!, Kraftwerk, Cluster und so weiter). After the fall of the wall, there was a lot of cheap real estate available on the former east side and the freedoms that came with it nurtured a vibrant club scene. Although Berlin has been known for its nightlife reaching back to the 1920’s when it was widely known as one of the most permissive and progressive European cities, in particular to freedom of expression for the LGBTQ community in a time when being queer was still very taboo if not outright illegal in most places. It was and remains a safe haven in many ways. Berlin continues to attract people from all over the world for its live and let live mentality and dwindling cheap real estate (though some would argue the days of cheap real estate are over).  Berlin clubs rundown.

Which brings me to morning clubbing. I love to dance! My husband and I met at a party, basically on the dance floor. But staying up until midnight (or later) to go to a club is out of the question. However, the beauty of Berlin’s nightclub scene is that some clubs stay open all weekend. Which means on a Friday morning you can put your kids on the bus to school at 7:15 AM, be at the club by 8 AM and find yourself dancing in a haze of fake (and real) smoke by 9 AM surrounded by sweaty 25-year-olds who have been up dancing all night long. Now I realize this doesn’t appeal to everyone, but while going to an opera is a musical/aesthetic experience that I feel everyone should try at least once, so is dancing ecstatically to heavy bass at 9 AM while stone cold sober. The club we have visited is called Salon zur wilden Renate (Salon of the wild Renate) and is supposed to conjure an old-fashioned bordello. It is located in a pre-war apartment building close to the river Spree and includes 3 dance floors each playing a different style of techno with many smaller “chill out” rooms and a large outdoor seating area with boats, gazebos, a fountain and a bar.  For an example of some of the typical music you might hear at this place…

DJ Jama

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flyer from the recent show we attended featuring DJ Jama

It’s just as dirty and smoky as you might imagine it would be. There is a strict no photo policy (they cover the camera of your cell phone with a sticker) to ensure privacy and to encourage people to live in the moment and not be on their phones in the club. The bathrooms alone are an adventure in and of themselves. Iced tea (my 9 AM drink of choice) costs the same as a beer, a quite reasonable 4 euro (5 bucks). The people watching is excellent and I’m happy to report that both times I’ve gone, I’ve definitely not been the oldest person there. There is a decidedly non-snobby element to nightclubbing here (though I should note some clubs are notoriously hard to get into ie. Berghain where people queue for hours on a Friday night at a shot of getting in). But for the most part, anything goes. You can be 43 years old wearing a t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes (aka me) or 21 and wearing a sequined captain’s hat with matching sequined jacket and short shorts (aka me at 21) or perhaps just a wife-beater and nothing else or soiled onesie or bathing suit or suspenders without a shirt, etc, etc.  A fanny pack is a must though.  Extra style points for creative use of thrift store fashions that skew 1990’s (aka the last time I was clubbing in Germany).  This past Friday there was a great female DJ and I got pulled to the front by another woman for a “Frauen Party”–all the ladies on the dance floor dancing right up in front of the DJ stand.  So much fun!

And perhaps the pièce de résistance of morning clubbing as a middle-aged person? Amazing way of racking up those steps on the Fitbit. Just sayin’.

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Also, Happy Spring!

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Springtime in Berlin/Easter in Sicily

Spring has finally come to Berlin. While the Winter wasn’t especially cold (except for the month of March where we had days of sub-freezing temps the ponds and canals all froze over and it snowed more than in any preceding months) its been loooong. Cold, dark, gray and 40 F every day. It was snowing in Berlin on April 1st (Easter Sunday).  Not an especially funny April Fool’s joke to Berliners burnt out by the long winter. And then magically, seemingly overnight, the crocuses and daffodils (called “Osterglocken” or Easter Bells in German) are in full bloom and the bushes are breaking out in tiny green leaves.

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crocuses and Osterglocken in full effect

Germany observes daylight savings later in March and being at this northern latitude (52 degrees N) means the sun now sets at nearly 8 PM in early April. People are out in droves, sitting in the park on benches or lounging on the grass soaking up the sun.

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At the Winterfeldmarkt street market

In the evenings after dinner the sidewalks are thronged with people strolling and the bike lanes are full again. Two dudes standing in a wide spot at an intersection drinking beers with a boombox blasting at their feet taking in the evening sidewalk show is not an uncommon occurrence. Rüdesheimer Platz was just planted with fresh flowers and I literally applauded the gardeners as I passed by on my morning run.

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People smile! And ride their bikes festooned with flags blasting music from portable devices. Berlin is a place transformed by a little warmth and blue sky. Not coincidentally, the bulk of our guests have chosen the Spring and Summer months to visit us here. Our first round of friends arrived at the end of March, the week before the begin of our 2 week Easter vacation and just in time for 2 inches of snow and the dreaded “wintry mix”. But, the weather did give them a few breaks and they managed to hit some playgrounds, visit the zoo and squeeze in a few museums during their week here.

The following week we traveled with them to Sicily. We flew direct from Berlin to Palermo and then I had the particular joy of navigating our rental car from the airport to our AirBnB during rush hour traffic in a place where lanes are more suggestions and the use of the horn is preferred over a turn signal. But I did it! My marriage is still intact and no one died in the process. Our apartment in Palermo was majestic, freezing cold and incredibly loud (as in a literal jack hammer outside the window woke us every morning).

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Yellow Sicilian tile kitchen of my dreams.

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view from the apartment in Palermo (the jackhammers are not visible)

Palermo was a magnificent city of beautiful decay. For anyone who has read “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante, the scenery of Naples she describes reminded me very much of the gorgeous decrepitude of Palermo. We visited one of the street markets and ate fried chickpea patties called “panelle” and fried artichoke which was in season.

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artichokes (carciofo) at the market

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and octopi

We roamed aimlessly through the city down narrow streets cramming into doorways when a car came around a corner. We stopped in awe of the magnificent cathedral with its Arab and Norman architectural mash up. Sat in a lovely park near some Roman ruins and took in a fantastic fountain which Italy just seems to specialize in.

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Palermo Cathedral

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in front of the Fontana Pretoria

That night we decided to see an opera at the Teatro Massimo which I was especially interested in having recently read this article in, where else, the New York Times. Seeing the inside of the theater alone was worth the entrance price. I sat with a teenage boy and his grandmother who gave me candy and at one point had me share her seat so that I could get a better view of the stage. It was really one of the highlights of the trip.  We saw Fra Diavolo a French opera by the composer Daniel Auber.

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In my box at the Teatro Massimo between Daniele and his grandmother.

The next day we escaped to the town of Cefalu, about an hour away from Palermo by train. It had a dramatic setting with huge rock hanging over the city and another Arab-Norman cathedral to boot. We hung out on the beach, the kids played in the waves and we hiked nearly to the top of that rock overlooking the city below. Our reward was the best gelato I’ve ever tasted at this place.  Cefalu was probably my favorite place we visited in Sicily.

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photo of Cefalu courtesy this blog: wishsicily

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playing on the beach, Cefalu

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Hiking la rocca (that big rock above the city) with friends!  Thanks for visiting us guys!

We then headed for the opposite end of the island to the town of Siracusa (Syracuse). The Sicilian countryside was lush with green grass and blooming flowers. We stopped for lunch in the mountain-top village of Enna along the way.

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This is technically the mountaintop village of Calascibetta which we had a great view of from neighboring Enna.

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view of the mainland and Siracusa with UFO-looking clouds taken from Ortigia island

Siracusa is best known for its Greek theater and the beautiful winding old town of the adjacent Ortigia island complete with an ancient Greek temple to Apollo. So nice to see the antiquities I’d seen in Berlin museums but in their native habitat. Traveling with friends was super fun as the kids and adults were equally entertained. Also travel in Italy with children is great solely because of the food. Who doesn’t like to eat pizza, pasta and gelato every day? To that list I would add arancini (giant stuffed fried ball of rice), artichokes and cannoli. We also ate an amazing spread of vegetable antipasto in Siracusa that blew all our minds (especially as we hadn’t been eating that many vegetables up until then).

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view of Ortigia island at sunset from the beach near our AirBnb in Siracusa

As a final farewell to Sicily we spent our last night in the foothills of Mt. Etna outside of Catania from where we flew back to Berlin. We drove close to the summit of Etna where the winds were gale force (as in you could barely stand upright) and it was freezing cold. After taking a few quick photos we staggered back to our car to take a more leisurely walk amongst the olive and pistachio groves farther down the mountain nearer our AirBnb.

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Freezing cold and insanely windy Monti Silvestri on Etna

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near Pedara, Italy (Etna foothills)

The air was fresh and clear and we had views to the sea below. To top it off, our AirBnb hostess cooked us an amazing Easter dinner meal of potato omelette, bruschetta, antipasto plate (salami, cheese, olives), ham panini sandwiches (this was just the first course!) followed by pork ragu lasagna and a dessert involving white chocolate, ricotta cheese and cherry. I’ve never eaten so well on vacation. Italy:  go for the weather, stay for the food. We returned to a Berlin where it was suddenly 65 degrees and people were blasting boom boxes walking down the sidewalk while simultaneously smiling and now I really never want to leave!

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The absolute best Cannoli in Siracusa from this awesome place

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The rubber park at Winderfeldmarkt in Berlin on a sunny Saturday in April.

On Thin Ice

I went to a 40th birthday party over the weekend where I was the only non-German in attendance. Someone asked me what I thought the biggest difference between the United States and Germany was. This person had just commented that she had lived in Miami for a while and the biggest thing that struck her was the stark contrast between the very rich and the very poor. I had to agree with her that Germany is a more equal society. While there are certainly very wealthy and the very poor here, you get the sense that most people fall somewhere in the middle and are doing pretty well overall. I’m sure this is in no small part due to Germany’s thriving economy.  However, support provided by the government and subsidized by taxes also significantly evens the playing field. The opportunity to have a free university education certainly doesn’t hurt. We receive close to 400 euros (about 500 dollars) per month in the form of “Kindergeld” (child money). Thanks, German taxpayers! This payment is made to families from birth until the age of 18. Think of all the things one can provide for one’s child with this money: the inevitable pair of new shoes, annual winter coat or just straight up food. Investment in things like parks, public transportation and the arts benefit the greater good and we are certainly enjoying the perks of life in a social democracy this year. Don’t even get me started on the generous family leave benefits that Germans enjoy. Such a humane way of living.

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At the Sunday flea market.  Flea markets abound in Berlin and are a super cheap way of outfitting an apartment, scoring a book or a winter coat.  Also, because old European crap is way more exciting that old American crap!

Another difference I have observed is in the parenting style in Germany. While this observation is somewhat obscured by the fact my children are going to the German-American school, it is still noticeable. The main difference being the level of freedom and independence children are given here. For instance, it’s pretty standard for a 3rd grader to come home from school on their own via public transportation. The playgrounds are awesome and also definitely slightly dangerous. No padded edges and gentle slopes. They are physically challenging and you will get hurt—but learning the limits of what you can and cannot do physically is also a lesson in itself. Even the schoolwork is presented so that the child is to take responsibility for their own work. Iris is required to have a “Hausaufgaben Heft” (homework folder) wherein she is required to keep track of when her assignments are due. In Germany you don’t stay in your homeroom all day. By 4th grade you are changing classrooms to switch teachers who specialize in individual subjects and she has to organize herself to remember which folder to bring with her to her next class. This was probably the biggest challenge at the start of the school year as it was all so new and the school itself is large and maze-like in its layout (3 stories, sky bridges, etc). I escorted the kids home from school every day for the first three months we were here. It was about an hour and a half out of my day every day to do this. Finally in December on the cusp of Iris’ 10th birthday we decided they could navigate getting home on BVG (Berlin Verkehrsbetriebe==the public transport system) on their own. Iris called me the other day to brag that she had slid on the ice coating the small pond after school. While my inner American parent wanted to freak out (“were you all alone?” “how thick was the ice?” “Don’t do that ever again!!!”) I calmly asked her about it and learned that several of the other kids were also doing it, that there was some concern about hearing it “cracking” and that she had in fact stuck close to the shore and hadn’t tarried as she knew she still had to catch the bus. She was clearly calling me to brag and probably knew that it was also inciting a little panic in her mother. But it was fine, I trusted she was smart enough not to venture out into the middle of a cracking ice floe and that countless generations of children (myself included) have flirted with icy ponds and that these adventures are what give us confidence and a sense of self reliance. I still remember the elation I felt after negotiating the train by myself from Heidenheim to Aalen (all of like 20 minutes tops). And that was when I was 16. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this book review shared with me by a friend and look forward to reading the book even more.

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Very shallow pond, very cold temps, large crack, many children.  What could go wrong? (The answer is nothing.  Relax people!)

Shouldn’t we all just redistribute our wealth and let out the reins on our kids? The thought of returning to Oklahoma is becoming more difficult by the day…

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At the bus stop with a ubiquitous bright orange garbage bin, it says “For the cigarette, afterward.”  Clean streets, efficient public transportation, affordable concerts/museums. All very nice!

Holiday in Spain

We recently spent a week in Spain for our winter break. The second week in February is typically when Germans take their skiing vacation in the Alps, but we were definitely missing the sun and had decided in the fall to go as far south as we possibly could come February. It was my first time in Spain and I struggled to switch my brain over to speaking and understanding a version of Spanish which sounded so different from the Central American Spanish that I am more familiar with. We flew directly from Berlin into Malaga (thanks EasyJet!), the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, a city on the famed “Costa del Sol.” With our trusty GPS-less VW Cabriolet rental we headed straight to the mountain town of Ronda based on recommendations from friends and our own research. It was breathtakingly beautiful and very cold. In fact, it snowed our first evening in town! But the orange trees were laden with fruit and when the sun did peek out from behind a storm cloud, the white buildings glowed in the light.

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view of Ronda from our apartment.

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famous Puente Nuevo bridge

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view of Ronda from below with its dramatic cliff side setting

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Tourists taking photos of the bridge (with beautiful countryside in background)

We were definitely not in Berlin anymore. We spent our days wandering the beautiful cliff side city and eating delicious tapas. Even the kids got into the spirit willingly eating pork cheeks and trying calamari (well, one of our children). While decidedly off-season, Ronda was a popular tourist attraction with large groups of tourists roaming the town, even in early February.   The best part was getting out into nature. With the cold weather and urban surroundings, we had really been craving a little fresh air and wide-open spaces after 5 months in the sprawling metropolis of Berlin. Randomly, our Berlin neighbors happened to have also chosen Malaga as their vacation destination and they drove up to Ronda for the day to meet us for lunch and a walk around town.

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hiking below Ronda with signs of spring!

From Ronda we drove 2 hours south to the southernmost tip of continental Europe near the rock of Gibraltar to a town called Tarifa. Most famous for its kite surfing and windsurfing, it felt sort of like a Spanish version of Hood River, OR with “surf bars” and laid back style. We could see Morocco from the window of our airbnb as Tangier was only 14 km across the water. Again, it was not as warm as we might have hoped, but the sun did occasionally come out and we got in some quality beach time. The first day we hiked along the beach to the neighboring town of Bolonia where the ruins of a Roman town, Baelo Claudia, were located. The next day was spent wandering around the lovely old town of Tarifa with its obvious Moorish influences and thinking we probably should have caught the ferry to Tangier, just for the day. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Instead we ate churros, then more tapas and spent the afternoon at the beach. Iris, mermaid that she is, even went in the water!

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walking along the beach to Bolonia

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Exploring the ancient Roman city of Baelo Claudia (that’s Morocco in the distance)

 

We spent out last night in Malaga and took in the final evening of Carnival festivities including a parade comprised of various groups of people in themed costumes—roses, pirates, anchovies, Germans. Dan had read that the parade was supposed to culminate in the ceremonial burying of an anchovy on the beach—the meaning of which I do not know. We missed the anchovy-burying ceremony but did enjoy wandering around the beautiful old city with its winding, narrow cobblestone streets.

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Pulpo (octopus) y uno en Espana

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Watching the sunset on our last night in Tarifa.

All in all, I highly endorse February vacations in Southern Spain.  I’d love to see more including all the sights we missed: Seville, the Alhambra, the caminito del rey