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.

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.

And the Parent of the Year award goes to…

While a spontaneous trip can yield delights and discoveries, when one is not, ahem, paying attention, it can also make for an awkward situation. On a Sunday we decided to hop in the car and see what we could see in Nuremberg.

Had we even done a few minutes of planning before we left, we could have found the “Family Time in Nuremberg” website. We could have learned about the Children’s Museum, the Train Museum, the many City Parks, the Imperial Castle or even the Dungeon Museum. Nope. Didn’t see any of that.

Nuremberg Dungeon Museum

We could have visited the Dungeon Museum in Nuremberg. Instead we saw a very different kind of rack.        Photo from Nuremberg Tourism Bureau.

Instead we parked near the middle of Old Town and wandered. Of course we could see the historic wall around the edge of the city. “Let’s walk over by the wall,” we said. “Even if we don’t know where we are exactly, it will lead to tourist information at some point.”

And we did, in fact, see signs for tourist information. But instead of walking outside the wall along the busy street, we followed the wall on the inside, looking at the architecture as we trooped through the street with E on our shoulders. Did I mention we also had the dog with us?

In a few minutes, we realized that the neighborhood of bars and nightclubs we were in had a certain theme about it. In the windows were women of all ages and sizes in various states of undress. Then we noticed that they were all scowling and shaking their heads at us. We looked at each other. We looked at the buildings. We looked at the nervous middle-aged man desperately trying to walk away from us.

Ohhhhhhh.

So Nuremberg has a Red Light District. And we took our 3-year-old there. And we are forever grateful that, as is true for most 3 year olds, he was far more interested in the pigeons on the sidewalk than the ladies in the window.

Nuremberg Red Light District

There was a sign warning us. We walked right past it. Must have been distracted by all those pigeons.

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.