The kindness of strangers (with a helping of technology)

Today’s public service announcement is a simple one, kids: Don’t leave your backpack on the train.

It was a beautiful day, so we decided to ride our bikes to the train station one town over, take our bikes onto the train, explore new areas of Nuremburg, and then train-and-bike back home. And for the most part, it was great. But as we were wrestling our bikes/trailer/kid off the train, I forgot my backpack lying on the seat next to me. And I realized it juuuuuust as the train was pulling out of a station.

But this isn’t just any “forgotten bag” story. We had a few wrinkles, of course. This particular day was a holiday in Bavaria, so everything was closed, including the help desk at the train station. And the backpack didn’t just include hats and sunscreen, it included my wallet, phone and two family passports. Passports we would need in 10 days for a trip back to the U.S.

Huh.

So we biked home as fast as we could and logged on to the lost and found page for the train system. Filled out form. Prayed to St. Anthony. Started researching how to get a new passport issued. Prayed to St. Anthony a little more. Realized I have an iPhone, so I could log into FindMyPhone!

And thanks to the wonder of technology, I could see my phone traveling (presumably still in the backpack) on the train back toward us. I gave the husband instructions and had him drive off to the train station to intercept the phone. But before it got to the station, the phone started moving down a country road. My phone was off the train! I activated the Lost Mode for the phone which displays instructions on the lock screen and activates an alert beep. The phone kept moving. I kept activating the beep. Husband kept driving. I was trying my best to give him directions to the phone, but it was taking a circuitous route through a semi-rural area.

Finally the phone rested at what looked like a residential neighborhood at the edge of a large field. I kept activating the beep and hoping it would annoy the phone finder so much that he or she would hurry up and call me. More prayers to St. Anthony.

The next day, I checked in on the phone and saw that it was still in the same place. Armed with markers, paper, tape and Google Translate, I made signs to blanket the area, offering a reward for the return of the backpack. As I was driving away, I got a call. With some very broken English and very, very broken German, I figured out that a nice lady in the area had found my backpack.

When I arrived at Liane’s apartment, I expected that she would simply hand me the backpack. But Liane had more to say. In her stern grandmotherly way, she scolded me for having my passports in my backpack. “A copy! You need copy only!” she explained when I sheepishly told her (and her neighbor and daughter, who had both come over to help facilitate and translate, apparently) that as expats we are technically supposed to have them with us at all times.

Then she showed me how she had to bury the backpack in pillows in a corner behind the sofa because of the “beep beep beep” of the phone. I apologized and gave her a reward. We laughed and smiled and hugged. She showed me pictures of her children and pictures of her favorite movie stars. She told me that she collects stamps and could I send her some postcards from America, preferably with stamps of movie stars. And she told me that her birthday and Elvis’s birthday were the same day, so maybe I could send her a birthday card too?

Sure thing, Liane. It’s the least I can do.

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Farm fresh: Can you dig it? Yes, you can!

Fresh berries in Herzogenaurach, Germany

It’s a cliché that one of the best parts of summer is the fresh produce, but it also happens to be true. We had planned to visit a nearby village to get some post-dinner ice cream, but decided to kill some time and amble down a different road.

Dairy cows in Herzogenaurach, Germany

We should have known we were headed for something special when we passed this scene, just a few feet from the car.

As we passed through a small string of tiny villages, we got the sense that we might be in for a treat. And there it was: Rising out of the corn and wheat fields, a clearing with picnic tables, play tractors, hay bales, a small store and acres of produce. The Neidermann farm of pick-your-own produce!

The store was our first stop and it was sensory overload in the most wonderful way. Literally bursting with fresh produce and baked goods, the smell of fresh strawberries permeated the air. Customers were lined up with buckets and containers full of their just-picked choices. We bought some ice cream and sorbet and scouted the area.

strawberry sorbet in Germany

Sorbet made with fresh-picked strawberries? Yes please!

 

Bread and jams at German farm store

Fresh bread and home-made goodness. So hard to choose….

Around back were signs directing you to all the fruits and vegetables that were ready to be picked. The evening we were there the strawberries, lettuces, garlic, mini-cucumbers, radishes, and rhubarb were ready. They even had a chicken coop so you could gather your own fresh eggs!

Pick your own produce in Herzogenaurach Germany

Grab a wheelbarrow and head out to the field!

I expect a mid-summer dance-off between these vegetable divas.

I expect a mid-summer dance-off between these vegetable divas.

Next to the farm store was a park-like area filled with families enjoying picnics and playing games. There was a petting zoo, a fort of stacked hay bales to climb on, a corn crib to play in and open space for soccer and general running around.

playing at the farm stand in Germany

King of the hay-bale castle.

As expected we needed a large box to bring home everything we bought. But in this case, our eyes were not bigger than our stomachs. When it comes to fresh berries and cherries, gluttony is the only option.

Produce from farm store in Herzogenaurach Germany

Our take-home box included berries, cherries, honey, walnut bread, tomatoes and fresh milk.

 

 

 

Traveling with kids: ways to make it work

Let’s be honest, OK? Traveling with a young child is a hassle. You need to maintain their schedule, or suffer the consequences. You need to pack and carry a lot of stuff. You are paying for experiences they will likely not even remember. But the compounding benefits of a well-traveled child will, I believe, serve both kids and parents.

a fountain in Dublin

When traveling with kids, fountains are your friend.

In the past few months we’ve taken several short trips from our home base in the middle of Germany. We’ve been to Berlin, London, Dublin and Salzburg and I can confidently say we had a great time in each of those places. A fair amount of preparation, a little luck and a surprise or two helped make each excursion fairly painless for all involved. Here’s why traveling with a young child can really rock.

1. Hospitality professionals are great with kids.

We flew on eight Lufthansa flights recently and on each one, E was greeted enthusiastically by the flight crew. They made him feel special and he was given a different game or toy on every flight. We’re still playing with the LEGO plane and pilot he received.

We hit the jackpot with several hotels. The ApartHotel in Berlin offers a family suite with a separate kids’ bedroom, a washing machine(!), a full kitchen with kid-sized utensils and an immense breakfast buffet.

ApartHotel Berlin family suite

The amazing family suite at the ApartHotel in Berlin.

In London, we stayed at the St. James Court where E was presented with a backpack at check-in. Inside were colored pencils and a coloring book, games, and a teddy bear dressed like one of the Queen’s guards.

While not billed specifically as a kid-friendly hotel, the Dylan in Dublin had the most amazing staff I’ve ever encountered as a parent. The waiter we saw at breakfast greeted E by name each day and brought us little extras, like fruit already cut into bite-sized pieces and small glasses of milk. When E had a melt-down one morning and I removed him from the restaurant, the two gentlemen at the front desk (fathers of young children themselves, we discovered) offered to open up the private lounge so I could have a space to myself to help him calm down. They also chatted with E each afternoon about his day and gave us lots of family-friendly tips for restaurants and activities.

2. You’ll meet lots of locals

Many tourist attractions hold little enchantment for young children, but neighborhood playgrounds, cafes, parks and zoos always fit the bill. We scouted nearby playgrounds and walking trails in each city and every time ended up chatting with local families who gave us tips about places to eat and things to do. Our own insiders guide and new friends for E to boot!

A fairy house in Salzburg

Iron Man discovered this fairy house on a hike far off the tourist trail.

3. A slower–and non-linear–pace

Forget the whirlwind tour of historical highlights. Kids force you to slow down and take in your surroundings in bite-size portions. You won’t hit all the big tourist spots, but you’ll find things you never would have seen if you followed the guidebook. Lingering in front of the main tourist attractions in Salzburg led to a fascinating conversation about puppetry with one of the performers. Hitting the local pub before the evening rush led to a lengthy chat with our server and some new and tasty discoveries. A simple afternoon walk to get the wiggles out led to a pretty neighborhood with a quiet canal and plenty of ducks to feed.

London’s free museum admission is perfect for families. However long (or short) the time you spend, you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. My grand plan to hit three museums in one afternoon fell apart when E became so enchanted with the Science Museum that we spent five hours exploring the hands-on areas. But he was happy, I was happy and there was no reason to hustle him to the next destination.

And when a short rain shower delayed a meet up at the end of the day, a quick duck into the National Portrait Gallery turned into E’s first introduction to several great masters–without any guilt that it only lasted 15 minutes.

Monet's waterlilies

E among the waterlilies.

So it’s true, we didn’t tour Mozart’s house, kiss the Blarney Stone, see the Crown Jewels or visit Museum Island. But we did hike to a castle, splash in fountains, eat shepherd’s pie, touch the Berlin Wall, and stand before Big Ben as it struck 12. And those are the memories I want and that I hope to keep on creating.

 

Full disclosure: Some of our accommodations were part of business travel, and therefore not paid by us personally. However, we received no special treatment or compensation for our stay at any of the hotels listed above and all opinions are my own and based on my personal experience.

Gasthaus gastronomy

The tiny village of Tegau, Germany has a church, a bike trail, a restaurant…and not much else. According to Wikipedia, it has a population of 389—a generous number, I’d say. But we had left the Autobahn on our way to Berlin in search of lunch. And the food gods smiled down on us in abundance.

We got lucky. I don't think it's open every day....

Ready to take a chance on what lies behind the gate.

We were greeted by the proprietress and the token old guy drinking his noon beer. As we struggled to ask for a menu in German, the worry set in. Was the kitchen even open? Was this a dinner-only thing? I think we scared her with our ineptitude. The host scurried into the back and in a moment an English-speaking server appeared. Menus were offered, meals were ordered and smiles exchanged. So far, so good! And the dining room was sunny, warm and quintessentially German, right down to the ridiculous music being piped in. (Selections included a remake of Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria” and hits from the “Grease” soundtrack.)

The dining room was a time capsule, bearing the stamp of dozens of years of serving hungry travelers and locals.

The dining room was a time capsule, bearing the stamp of dozens of years of serving hungry travelers and locals.

Some sweet, and unexpected, mid-century chairs made me love this place even more.

The sweet mid-century chairs made me love this place even more.

And then came the food. Schnitzel can be many things, but any type of meat with breading seemed like a safe bet and easy to share with the 3 year old. It was, in a word, glorious. I fully admit that traditional German food isn’t really my favorite. It can be heavy, greasy and bland-yet-salty. But for some reason, this schnitzel, in this setting, gave us a taste of the German good life. Friendly people, a slower pace, a room unchanged for decades and time to enjoy a delicious meal together.

Flavor! Seasonings! Vegetables! We finally found the German food we've heard about.

Flavor! Seasonings! At least a few green vegetables! We finally found the German food we’ve heard about.

Well done, Germany. Well done.

Stumbling into Toon Town

One of the best parts of living in new place is the Stumble. It’s when you happen upon something so unexpected, so foreign and so memorable, you couldn’t have planned it, even if you tried. Last Saturday, we did an epic Stumble, right into the middle of Toon Walk.

Just chillin' with our Homies.

Just chillin’ with our Homies.

Part dream-state, part furry convention, part kids’ fest, the Toon Walk features more than 200 mascots, dozens of costumed fans, a few marching bands and hundreds of kids in various states of glee and/or terror. We arrived as they were lining up for the grand march through the streets of Old Town, but hunger got the best of us, so we decided to seek out some Nuremberg Bratwurst and then circle back.

I'm not sure what they were discussing, but it's clear that the walrus was nervous about it.

I’m not sure what they were discussing, but it’s clear that the walrus was nervous about it.

When we caught up with the gaggle of toons, they were hosting a dance party on a stage in the middle of the street. We camped out near the stage, allowing us an up-close view as the mascots (led by neon-vested handlers) made their way right past us—and handing out swag as they went by. While the biggies like Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, The Chipmunks, Super Mario and Homer Simpson were represented, this was clearly a very inclusive Toon Walk. We also saw a lion wearing a t-shirt for the local pharmacy, a lighthouse (?) and a fire hydrant.

This is the musical group Four Lucky Charms. They must be somewhat of a big deal, since the people with big cameras were following them around. But not too big of a deal, since the crowd didn't seem to really notice.

According to a quick Google search, this is the musical group Four Lucky Charms. They must be somewhat of a big deal, since the people with big cameras were following them around. But not too big of a deal, since the crowd didn’t seem to really notice.

I think this is the I Love Germany mascot? I was hoping he/she would hand out beer or pretzels to the crowd, but sadly, no.

I think this is the I Love Germany mascot? I was hoping he/she would hand out beer or pretzels to the crowd, but sadly, no.

A sample of the free stuff handed out by the mascots. Playmobil figures, cookies area maps and beef jerky!

A sample of the free stuff handed out by the mascots. Playmobil figures, chocolates, cookies, area maps and beef jerky. Score!

Weird, wonderful and wacky. Just another day in Germany.

4 Quirky German Discoveries

I know, I know. Quirky and German are not words usually seen side-by-side. But as I spend more time here, small details and differences take on great importance. I have designated them as “German Quirks.”

German Radio

Jokes about David Hasselhoff aside, I thought Germany would have an interesting music scene. And I’m sure it does…but not over the airwaves. A quick scan up and down the dial during weekday drive-time revealed the following random playlist:

What Are You Waiting for: Nickleback

Abracadabra: The Steve Miller Band

When Smokey Sings: ABC

Budapest: George Ezra

Total Eclipse of the Heart: Bonnie Tyler

Geronimo: Shepard (A song I have heard AT LEAST once a day since I’ve been here. Seriously. I think it’s a Bavarian anthem or something.)

Walk of Life: Dire Straits

The Days: Avicii

She’s Like the Wind: Eric Carmen

Jesus He Knows Me: Genesis

Red, Red Wine: UB40

Forget You: C Lo Green

So basically every drive in the car triggers a weird middle school/high school flashback sprinkled with just enough current stuff to keep me from thinking I’ve accidentally entered a hole in the space-time continuum. Also, notice what’s missing? German artists singing German songs! I’d say 95% of the music on the radio is American/British. Which is familiar and fine, but not the cultural immersion I hoped for. Thankfully I have streaming radio and some good playlists made by cool friends.

Decorator Toilet Seats

Perhaps it’s the all that industrial grey tile. Perhaps it’s some sort of Freudian complex. But Germany seems to think that the best place for self-expression and visual meditation is the lid of the toilet. When we were looking for a place to live, every house–and every bathroom in every house–had a decorated toilet lid. Beach scenes, cityscapes, God help me inspirational messages are all common.

FullSizeRender

A sample of the selection available at the local hardware store. The one on the lower right is my favorite–because apparently I have the humor of a 12 year old. “Departures” Hee Hee!

Windows

Open, closed, how quirky can it be? But here in Germany there are, of course, many unspoken rules for proper window usage. In most homes and businesses there is a metal outer shade that needs to be ritually opened and closed each day. Each night, it is lowered (and since it is made from sheets of interlocking metal, your neighbors will hear the exact time you do it and know that you are in for the night) giving your home the look of hurricane protection from the outside and a war-time bunker on the inside. Then each morning, the outer shade is raised (alerting the neighbors that you are now awake). While new construction has motorized this function, in homes more than 10 years old, the mechanism for all this raising and lowering is a canvas strap connected to a pulley system inside your wall. So every window has its own strap. Meaning your wall is striped with straps. They kind of remind me of those old-fashioned cloth towel dispensers in public restrooms, but without the ability to take them out for cleaning. It also means painting your walls gets an extra challenge, but that’s not my problem. Yay for renting!

The metal shade on every German window does feature the option for pinholes of light when closed. You know, to make the place more homey. And to accent the charming pull strap to the right.

The metal shade on every German window does feature the option for pinholes of light when closed. You know, to make the place more homey. And to accent the charming pull strap to the right.

Recycling

Oh how I miss the lazy American ways of single-sort recycling! Even Germans admit their method can be confusing. On the plus side, this country is fantastic at recycling. Almost everything can be recycled in some way. But on the minus side, I have EIGHT areas under my sink for waste. Let’s count: There is a bin for paper, a bin for compost, a bin for recyclable packaging (which can only go in special yellow bags provided by the city), a bin for “garbage”, an area for glass bottles, an area for cans, an area for plastic drink bottles and an area for refundable-deposit bottles. There is another layer to this, and that’s the pick-up schedule. Paper and recyclable packaging are picked up once a month and compost and “garbage” are picked up twice a month. Glass bottles and cans need to be taken to public bins by the consumer (but not on Sundays! That’s illegal!) and refundable drink bottles can sometimes only be returned to their exact store of purchase–but sometimes you can take them to other stores. It depends on…something. I haven’t cracked the code on that one yet.

Recycling is complicated in Germany. Luckily, I have this very easy-to-understand cheat sheet. Oy.

Recycling is complicated in Germany. Luckily, I have this very easy-to-understand cheat sheet. Oy.

I’m sure as we are here longer, some quirks will become second nature and new ones will reveal themselves. What quirks have you discovered as you’ve traveled?

The everyday exotic: children’s birthday parties

German happy birthday

Pretty sure the sign says “happy birthday.” But it should say, “Look out everyone, I’m 3.”

“They told you about the breakfast, right?”

Mrs. S, one of the English-speaking teachers at E’s bilingual kindergarten gave me a knowing look as I picked up E on Thursday afternoon. E’s birthday was the next day, but the school was closed, so his birthday would be celebrated at school on Monday.

Living as an expat, I expect a certain amount of unease and awkwardness every day. Even though I muddle through with a combination of mimicry, study and common sense, because of subtle differences, I manage to get plenty of things wrong. I still want to turn right on red. I still forget that the coin in my pocket is worth 2 Euros. I still smile at strangers as I walk past them.

I had been anxious about his birthday since before our move. Only in Germany for two weeks so far, and having just started kindergarten, we didn’t have any friends—or an actual home—for a proper birthday party. I did want to make sure it was recognized in some way, however, so I had been asking and checking with the teachers for a few days about the school’s policy. In E’s previous school, they had a policy against bringing snacks or treats, but celebrated in other non-food ways. I loved this policy because 1) why introduce more sugar into a toddler’s day? and 2) I am lazy. I really don’t want to kill myself making the crazy cupcakes I saw on Pinterest for a crowd that judges worthiness by how well the frosting stains their lips and tongue.

“The family of the birthday child brings something for breakfast,” one of the teachers told me. “A bread or treat, something like that.”

It seemed easy enough, and since I didn’t have a real kitchen yet, it also seemed like something I could pick up at the bakery on the way to school.

But then I spoke with Mrs. S.

“No, no. You bring the whole breakfast,” she explained. “It’s the custom.”

I”m not sure if it’s the custom in Germany or just the custom at this kindergarten, but either way I would need to bring some sort of bread, a protein, some fruit and a treat. For 25 children. Oh, and one student can’t eat dairy and one student doesn’t eat meat.

The good news is that I managed to find out ahead of time, but with grocery stores closed on Sunday and a very limited kitchen for cooking or storing food, we needed a plan.

I settled on a spiced breakfast bread with butter, (a few without for the dairy-free) sliced cheese, a fruit salad of melon and oranges and mini chocolate donuts for the “treat.”

Birthday breakfast in German Kindergarten

Breakfast, ready and waiting.

It seemed well-received and E was very happy to share his love of donuts with his class. The birthday child also gets some of the expected perks: A banner and their picture on the door, wearing of the Birthday Crown and the Wish Stone.

Chocolate doughnuts

E’s birthday wish fulfilled: A pile a doughnuts. What more could anyone want?

I had never heard of the Wish Stone before, but I love the idea of it. The children and teachers sit in a circle and pass around a small, smooth stone. As each child holds the stone, they tell the birthday child their wish for him or her. Then, when the birthday child is handed the stone, after it has gone all the way around the circle, the stone is warm. Which the teacher explained was because it was so full of wishes. 

We did manage to have a nice birthday for E in our hotel room, complete with presents, a few decorations and cupcakes from the neighborhood bakery. But my favorite part of his 3rd birthday is the small, somewhat ordinary-looking stone, filled with wishes from new friends in a new country.