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.

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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?

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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.

Our first Furth Fest: Michaelis Kirchweih

Entrance to the Michaeliskirchweih

The entrance to the Kirchweih–where delights for all the senses await you.

Only a 15 minute drive from Herzogenaurach, we decided to check out the fest in Furth. This long-established festival takes place right in the heart of the city and takes over several blocks for more than a week. During that time, the streets are full of food tents and beer gardens, carnival rides, vendors selling everything from leather belts to kitchen tools and an ever-evolving cast of characters worthy of hours of people watching. In short, this was heaven for a State Fair-loving girl like myself.

Beer gardens in Furth during the Kirchweih

Dozens of beer gardens pouring local brews line the streets and invite you in for a mug (or two.)

One of the most curious parts of the festival? The carnival rides. Much more than mere bumper cars and mini-coasters, they were also a time capsule of recent Americana. Each one was decorated with airbrushed pictures of celebrities, movies and TV shows from the 80s and 90s. A carousel featured scenes from Kindergarten Cop. Seriously. Another one included a 10-foot-tall Jennie Garth. And then there was my personal favorite:

Home Improvement-themed carnival ride in Germany

Old TV shows–and their stars–never die. They live on in Germany. Because nothing says excitement and frivolity like remembering episodes of Home Improvement. Also, is he giving her bunny ears?

It was also an opportunity to reinforce stereotypes. Because there, in all his glory, was David Hasselhoff, larger than life and greeting all from the street. I guess he really *is* big in Germany.

David Hasselhoff

Don’t hassle the Hoff, indeed.

The following weekend, we headed back to the festival to watch the parade. Apparently it’s kind of a big deal and is shown on television with (they say) hundreds of thousands of people tuning in. Not knowing what to expect, we arrived very early. We didn’t really know the route, but had a general guess. So we staked out a spot that seemed to have good viewing and waited. And waited.

We stood there for quite some time, second-guessing ourselves for choosing a spot that seemed far closer to the end of the route than the beginning. But finally our instincts were rewarded with the perfect place to view the giant balloon release.

Balloon release

Furth’s official colors of green and white take to the sky to kick off the parade.

So here’s the most important thing I learned about (hopefully all) German parades. While in the U.S. it is common for the parade walkers to throw candy to the children watching, we got other better things. Our outstretched hands were filled with  balloons, sausages, beer and soup! It was like Costco on a Saturday morning out there!

Parade soup

The soup, handed out by one of the parade walkers. It was chickeny with little crunchy croutons floating in it. Delicious.

The parade itself is a celebration of agriculture and the harvest and all the area farms and breweries. Dozens of clubs in traditional attire represented families/clans/towns in Bavaria. Each one had slightly different–but equally beautiful–variations of dress.

Furth parade marchers

Marchers proudly showing their traditional dress.

Furth parade participants

Some even marched with a mobile maypole.

The “Floats” consisted of wagons pulled by horses. The wagons were either 1) full of wooden kegs of beer or 2) full of people showing aspects of traditional farm life or 3) full of seasonal vegetables and fruits, artfully arranged.

Traditional aspects of farm life in the Furth parade

Demonstrating the ways of yore.

The entire parade was just so wholesome. It really made me feel like I had stepped back in time a bit. Well, that and David Hasselhoff. That helped too.

Olde Time bike

And really, what parade is complete without an old-timey-bike guy?

 

Altendorf Pumpkin Festival

Altendorf, Germany pumpkin festival

The pumpkin festival was gourd-eous!

We are happily discovering that you can spend most weekends in Germany visiting various festivals and markets and never hit the same town twice. Our first weekend here–tired, jetlagged and still a little fuzzy, we spent Sunday in Altendorf. (Don’t look for it on a standard map. You probably won’t find it.) Their annual Pumpkin Festival–always held on the first Sunday in October–seems like a great way to spend a warm and sunny fall morning without making us think too hard. A co-worker of Ken’s who grew up in the area told us about it–in the best way possible: “You know Stars Hollow? On Gilmore Girls? It’s like that.” SOLD!

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This really, really small town goes all out for all things pumpkin. It seems that every house, barn and building is decorated with pumpkins and gourds. Some painted and decorated, some stacked like autumnal cairns and some just placed on window sills and steps. But everyone participates. The most amazing part of it is that the festival is only for one day. It must be a ton of work to haul out, decorate and place all these pumpkins, but I’m sure there is an awful lot of town pride attached to it.

Decorated pumpkins in Altendorf

It should be noted that apparently pumpkins are blue-eyed when personified.

The area farms and clubs set up food and drink tents and sell all kinds of seasonal delights, from the tasty Federweiser (I think it’s similar to a vino verde, where the wine is sweetish and slightly bubbly) to pumpkin-infused prosecco to soups, sausages and all manner of pastries.

A delicious glass of Federweiser.

A delicious glass of Federweiser.

The pumpkin display that got the most oohs and ahhs was a diorama of decorated gourds meant to look like an undersea adventure. There was Nemo, turtles and crabs, seahorses and schools of fish, all loving created from gourds and hung by fishing wire against an aquarium-like backdrop. Amazing!

Gourds on display in Altendorf

This Enchantment Under the Sea display stole the show!

We couldn’t leave without picking out at least one pumpkin of our own to take home. The challenge was deciding which one!

Selecting a pumpkin in Altendorf

In retrospect, the choice of pants was a mistake. We almost lost him several times.

Never on a Sunday

You can live in the most exotic, exciting place in the world, but eventually, you have to do your laundry.

One of the wonderful things about taking an extended vacation is that you leave vacation-mode and eventually just start living normal life, but in a foreign place. After a while, our rotation of clothes couldn’t bear one more wearing, so it was time for laundry. Our bed & breakfast owner graciously allowed us to use her washer and dryer during our stay and she gave me a short tutorial when we arrived.

So on Sunday morning I put the first load in and we headed out for a day of exploring. When we returned in the early evening, I stopped in the laundry room before going up to our flat. I moved the clothes into the dryer and tried to remember which buttons were the right ones. Eventually I deciphered enough to program one cycle, hit the “start” button and left.

When I came back down an hour later, I saw that the dryer was off, but the timer was paused at about 45 minutes. “Must have hit the wrong button,” I thought. Perhaps I used a delayed start cycle? I hit the “start” button again and went back upstairs.

I returned in 45 minutes to see that the dryer had paused again, this time at the 23 minute mark. “I am really bad at this,” I thought. “How is this not working?” Restarted it one more time and then went to bed.

The next morning, I met our innkeeper in the hallway. “I restarted the dryer for you this morning. I paused it last night because of the noise.”

Oops.

I didn’t realize the seriousness of “day of rest” in Switzerland. In the U.S., Sunday is catch-up day for me. Errands, lawn work, laundry, cleaning and getting everything organized for the week ahead. In Switzerland and many other parts of Europe, Sunday is for worship, bike rides and family meals. Running appliances like washers and vacuums is frowned upon and in many communities using your lawn mower, washing your car, dropping off your recycling and even hanging your laundry outside on the line on Sunday is actually illegal.

And almost everything is also closed on Sunday, including drug stores, grocery stores, many restaurants–basically it’s impossible to buy things.

So armed with this new knowledge, we tried to plan our week so we could be Swiss on Sundays and enjoy family time together without any thought to chores. Not so easy, but a worthwhile practice we may try to adopt at home.

The Kneipp cure: water and walking

 

Kneipp trail near Solothurn, Switzerland

A donation of 2 Swiss Francs is a small price to pay for the unique experience of a Kneipp trail.

When I was researching our trip to Switzerland, I found many mentions of Kneipp applications, including spas, nature trails and pools. I was confused. Kneipp is also a popular brand of herbal wellness and bath products, but both the bath oil and the nature trails go back to the philosophies of one man.

Sebastian Kneipp

A priest from the mid-1800s, Sebastian Kneipp was looking for ways to cure his tuberculosis and found a “water cure” that he believed healed him. He created a system of wellness that focuses on diet, exercise, hydrotherapy and other holistic methods. All all over Europe, you can find products and places dedicated to his beliefs.

Off with your shoes!

I really wanted to find one of the “barefoot trails” I had read about, and discovered one place, not far from our home base of Solothurn. The idea is simple: Follow a small path while walking barefoot. The idea is that you will experience various sensations and textures, give your feet a massage, improve circulation, and enhance the benefits of the hydrotherapy that the Kneipp water pools provide.

Walking on broken glass

There were several sections of various texture, temperature, and moisture to experience. It started with pea gravel, cool and moist and moved to small stones, warm and smooth.

Kneipp barefoot trail

Kick off your shoes, rinse off your feet, and hit the Kneipp trail.

Then there was a section of wood slats, followed by wood chips which also had signs for different types of stretching to add to the walking, and then an area of soft grasses.

The Kneipp barefoot path makes walking a sensory experience

The varying textures and temperatures of the path invite you to slow down and enjoy the sensation.

There were also covered sections of the path where you could lift up the lid and walk through. One featured a knee-deep pit of pea-sized clay balls. They felt amazing, but I was not prepared to sink down so far!

A section of clay balls on the barefoot Kneipp trail

These crazy little balls of clay gave a great foot massage–and temporarily stained my feet and legs with a henna-colored polka dot pattern.

The next one was small pieces of crushed glass, which looked jagged but felt smooth, kind of like sea glass.

Broken glass as part of the Kneipp barefoot trail

Walking across broken glass (with feet stained from the clay of the previous section) made me feel like a total bad-ass.

The final dip

At the end, I walked through the traditional Kneipp foot bath. An L-shaped wading pool with a railing down the middle, the idea is to walk through the cold water–meant to revitalize your legs–and then dry them off, put on warm socks, and be on your way. The water was really cold. I think I stepped through much faster than I was supposed to. I admit after I was done, I really did feel good: refreshed and full of energy. We continued on a hike up the hills afterward and my feet thanked me the entire time.

Kneipp foot bath

A polar plunge from the knee down. This water was…bracing.

I will certainly be searching out Kneipp facilities in the future–and I think the barefoot path could easily be created at home. Perhaps a little path in the backyard or at the cabin….

 

Bring on the Bratwurst! The neighborhood festival

The lovely and generous Eva, who runs the bed and breakfast where we are staying, invited us to a small festival at her church in Zuchwil, just down the road.

Zuchwil, Switzerland church festival

Though small, the congregation put on a great spread.

There was a buffet table with awesome sausages, potato salad and sides for a donation of a few Swiss Francs. We had to wait for the grill to finish, but it was well worth it.

dinner in Zuchwil, Switzerland

Hurry up grill! Bring on those bratwursts!

There was also a tent with, what I think were cocktails, and tables set up with bake-sale goodies. It was hard to pick, but we landed on two chocolate-and-hazelnut cupcakes that did not disappoint.

Swiss bake sale table in Zuchwil

You can’t make a bad choice at the bake sale table–and you don’t need to speak German. Just point and hand over your money.

Unfortunately, we missed Eva’s performance in the early evening when she and a group were singing gospel songs, but we did make it there in time for this. Not your standard church music program, but it made my night.

Watching the World Cup: Hopp Schwiiz!

Switzerland World Cup win, watching in Solothurn

While I would not in any form count myself as a soccer fan, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement of the World Cup when in Europe. Everywhere you turn, people are wearing jerseys, hanging banners from balconies and gathering in every possible place to check out the day’s football. On a train ride in the morning, we passed by a parking lot full of scaffolding and tents. We learned that they transformed one of the parking lots in old town Solothurn into a public World Cup viewing venue. Then we found out it was only 5 Swiss Francs admission–a bargain in Switzerland! The Swiss team was playing Honduras that night at about 9:30 so headed over at about 9:00 and followed the crowd. The “beach party” was well underway. There was a jumbo-tron screen, an AC/DC cover band(!) playing and a sand pit directly in front of the screen set up with beach chairs and outdoor sofas.

The crowd watching the World Cup begin

The crowd quiets as the national anthem is played over the loudspeakers.

We made our way through the throngs of people and snagged a spot on the stairs of the bleachers. All around us were groups of friends and families of all ages. The Swiss national anthem began and we became honorary citizens for the next 90 minutes: Cheering like crazy, yelling at questionable calls and enjoying a glass of the local brew.

Football Fashion for the World Cup

No one at the public World Cup viewing was wearing this particular dress that I saw for sale earlier in the day, but had I been wearing it, I don’t think I would have stood out too much.

What struck me was not only how much fun it was, but how, in what I’ve learned it typical Swiss fashion, organized and pulled together everything was. It was general admission only, but fans could abandon their seats to hit the concession stands and no late-comers stuck in the standing-room-only section would try to take them. People did their best to make sure everyone had a good view of the screen. When the Swiss team won (hooray! Hopp Schwiiz!) the “rowdy” celebrants honked their horns as they drove home and waved Swiss flags as they walked down the street in an orderly manner.

Switzerland World Cup goal

Gooooaaaal! The fact that Switzerland won this game made the experience even sweeter.

Not only were we lucky enough to watch the Swiss team play–and win–we were able to be a part of something that, for a few moments on a lovely summer night was uniting the entire country.