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.

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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.

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.