Monthly Archives: November 2008

Advent or Countdown to Christmas

This morning my son reminded me: “Don´t forget the Adventskalender, and the Adventskranz, and the Christmasparty at school”.  I sighed and silently envied Francesca. She can look forward to Christmas in her own stride, while for me, the countdown to Christmas starts on November 30th – der Erste Advent, the first of four Sundays running up to Christmas.

Advent traditionally means a time of “Besinnlichkeit”. A German considers this to be a time in the year where the hectic rhythm of everyday life is supposed to slow down. Together with family and friends, you spend relaxed Sunday afternoons eating gingerbread and Christmas cookies. Flickering candles create an atmosphere of Gemütlichkeit. Four candles are arranged on a pine wreath called Adventskranz. On the first Sunday of Advent, you light the first candle, on the second, two candles are burning, three on the third, four on the fourth. The children get their Adventskalender. From Dezember 1st till Dezember 24, they either open little cardboard doors on the traditional Adventskalender filled with chocolate, or their mothers fill little red-and-green numbered felt-sachets with Lego-blocks or other “Schnick-Schnack”. Sometimes an Adventskalender will be shown on a large scale. I know a small village in Austria with  24 houses. To form a landscaped Adventscalender, one house after the other lights a window at night so that on December 24, the whole village is an Adventskalender with 24 lights burning.

On “Erster Advent”, the “Weihnachtsmarkt” (Christmas market) opens as well. Traditionally, it takes place in the town centre, near the Rathaus (Town Hall) or the main church. Small stands sell handmade artwork  like beewax candles, wooden playthings, jewellery, knitted socks, and Christmas decorations. Children love the Weihnachtsmarkt at night because of the glimmering lights and tempting smell of sweets like candied almonds and gingerbread. Adults love it because of the Glühwein.

Glühwein (hot mulled wine) is one of the great pleasures of winter in Germany. Whenever adults have to spend some time outdoors in cold winter, they find Glühwein on offer: After the Sankt Martin`s procession, at the ice skating rink, for lunch in ski resorts, and on the Weihnachtsmarkt. Glühwein is made from red wine, spiced with orange slices, clove and a cinnamon stick. The typical Advent feeling in Germany is cold feet, warm hands, tongue-burning wine and a headache the next day.

“Lass uns einen Glühwein auf dem Weinhnachtsmarkt trinken” (Let´s meet to drink a hot mulled wine on the Christmas Market) is the most common phrase among friends and colleagues in December. These informal meetings add to the row of official Christmas parties that make the life of couples with kids feel rather like the countdown to a rocket launch than a “besinnliche Adventszeit”.

Every year I´m amazed how Christmas parties can multiply. There are the parties at work: the big party for the whole company, the smaller parties in the department, the eating out with business partners or team-members and the Glühwein (hot mulled wine) drinking with your office colleagues on the Weihnachtsmarkt. As it is tradition to invite spouses to the Christmas parties, an average couple will have four to six Christmas parties in Dezember. With one child, they will have at least two more: at school and at the daycare center. With two children, another two. Additionally most Germans are members of not only one club, but at least two or three, and each of this clubs is proud to invite to its own Christmas party.

This morning, my organizer showed ten Christmas parties till December 20th. That was when my son told me, that his teacher wants me to call her to organize the Christmas party for his class. I haven´t called her yet …. maybe she will forget?

And yet, deep in my heart, I feel the urge to invite my friends to an “Adventskaffee” to my house, to eat cookies, drink coffee, talk and laugh, and watch the beeswax candles on my Advent wreath burning down. I am pondering this idea for weeks now and I don´t dare to send out the invitations. Maybe I could do it in January, as a “Postvent”?

But this will be another story


Leave a comment

Filed under World

Anticipating Christmas

A local paper recently published a request by the Department of Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation (FMWR) for the Army Headquarters in Wiesbaden. The Department was asking German families to invite two American soldiers to their homes for Christmas.


The article surprised me, because American soldiers, families and military bases have disappeared from Frankfurt, Darmstadt and many other towns. We are getting used to their absence and the little article was a reminder of the remaining pockets of presence such as Wiesbaden, Heidelberg or Kaiserslautern. It is also a reminder that in this season there are people who celebrate far from home, in a country unfamiliar in language and tradition, despite the fact that many of them can claim roots in this very country.


I hope they don’t forget to tell the soldiers that the gifts are distributed on the eve of the 24th of December, that the two following days are holidays as well and the “Christkind” (Christchild) delivers the presents in Germany.


It is a commendable idea to allow soldiers, far from family and friends, to enjoy a few hours each day in a holiday spirit and I would like to make a recommendation to the host families. Why not get to know your guests four weeks before, at the beginning of the “Adventszeit”, a uniquely German tradition and time?


I only came to my “Adventskranz” (Wreath of Advent made of fir branches) when I had children of my own. As a child I could only admire it in the houses of friends, as my mother was not keen on adopting this tradition. Adventskränze where often left forgotten with their candles lit on dinner tables, and caused more than one dining room to burn down. But that Adventskranz is at the centre of a well loved tradition.


When my children were in Kindergarten, and after the Martinszug celebrations where over, Christmas “Basteln” (handicraft) preparations started. We parents were invited to create Adventskränze, to be sold at the Christmas Bazaar. It was fun to learn how to wrap the different types of fir around a straw circle, tightening it all down with a fine wire and then decorating it as tastefully as possible, finally crowning the composition with four candles.


It was so much fun, I was glad to get a chance to make several “Adventskränze”. After all the years in Germany I finally got my own Adventskranz and was initiated into the secret, but not so hard, art of preparing one and the smell of the firs was fantastic! (Of course I never left the candles to burn unattended when it stood on my dining table.)


Germans even have a little saying about Advent:

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt.
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier –
dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.

Advent, Advent, a small light burns,

First one, then two, then three, then four –

then the Christkind is in front of your door.

Here is the cheeky version

Advent, Advent
Ein Lichtlein brennt
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei ,dann vier
Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür
Und wenn das fünfte Lichtlein brennt
Dann hast Du Weihnachten verpennt

and when the fifth light burns

then have you Christmas “verpennt” (overslept)


The children baked cookies during Kindergarten hours and packed them into little plastic bags decorated with Christmas motives. The cookies themselves were shaped like bells, or Nikolaus (NOT Santa Claus) or stars and hearts with the help of cookie cutters. These cookies then went on sale with the Adventskränze. Christmas smelled of fir, shared learning and butter cookies.


So why not ask your soldier guests into your home four weeks before Christmas as you assemble around a festive table, decorated with a birthday wreath of green and four candles that take four weeks to light (one more on each Sunday). Maybe even ask him to help you make the wreath and let your guests light the first candle which heralds the anticipation of Christmas.


Some of the guests have the chance to restore a tradition to their cultural memory. Heritage is valuable to a human being because it gives confidence in who he is and why. Others might not have the same heritage, but will appreciate that they are invited to share the serenity and beauty of a ritual that celebrates peace.


And when your guests return on the eve of the 24th of December, they come home to friends and traditions; most precious gifts to receive at Christmas.


1 Comment

Filed under typical german

Apples or why we don´t have a garden

"Appelwoi"-barrel showing the opening hours of the "Apfelwein-Museum" in Frankfurt."Most"barrels look the same. ©Truegerman

Barrel to make apple wine.

“The only people I know that pick apples are either determined ecologists or extremely thritfty people”, Francesca wrote last week. “Hm”, I thought, “she is right”. But why do I only know people who pick apples?

Probably because I lived in Baden-Württemberg for a long time. Baden-Württemberg is one of the 16 “Länder”(federal states) that make up Germany. Placed in the southwest, it calls itself a “Musterländle”, a role model for other states. The countryside is beautiful and well cared for. “Streuobstwiesen”, green meadows where cows graze and apple trees grow, are an important part of the landscape.  In Baden-Württemberg, average income is high, unemployment is low, and its inhabitants pick apples. Though for different reasons.

Even in modern times, in Germany we attribute typical character traits to different regions or tribes. In Baden-Württemberg, two extremes come together to form an odd couple. While the  “Schwaben”(in Württemberg)  live according to their motto: “Schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue und nicht nach den Mädchen schauen …” (Work, work, build your house and keep your eyes off the girls), the “Badener” rather enjoy looking at–and flirting with–the girls first and work to build the house later.

In “Schwaben” apple trees are a duty to serve. The main impulse in picking apples is “Nur nichts verkommen lassen”-Beware not to waste anything. So, every fall, the family fills crates and carts with apples and delivers them to the “Mosterei”, a local apple processing plant. The apple juice is put in a barrel in the cellar to make alcohol, an apple wine called “Most” (must). “Most” is a delicious drink to go with bread and wurst or any of the typical German dishes. Though, when you are invited to drink a homemade “Most” in September, you better decline. At this time of the year, “Schwaben” are very generous with their favorite drink, as the barrel has to be emptied before it can be filled anew. Alas, this late in the cycle the “Most” normally doesn´t taste its best. But drunk it must be.

Schwaben love their “Most”, though you don´t find any “Most-Wirtschaft” in Württemberg, probably because no “Schwabe” would pay for something he can get for free from his own cellar. One of the most popular, and slightly menacing sayings in Schwaben is based on it: “Dem werde ich zeigen, wo der Barthel den Most holt”, meaning “I´ll show him that I´m much cleverer than he is”. If you hear this, you better beware – they normally are.

In Baden, you won´t find any Most-Wirtschaft either. Baden is a wine growing region and apples are used to make juice, pies or “Apfelmus”, mashed apples, instead. To make Apfelmus, you slice and cut the apples, cook them, mash them and then fill them into “Weck-Gläser”, big glass jars that preserve all kinds of fruit and vegetables. Apfelmus goes nicely with “Milchreis mit Milch und Zucker”, round rice boiled in milk, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and topped with melted butter. While Milchreis still is popular in Germany, I haven´t eaten “Pfludde” for 30 years now. This is a dish based on mashed potatoes with fried onions, covered by melted butter, and served with Apfelmus. Also on the list of endangered dishes are “Apfelküchle”, slices of apples dipped in pancake dough and then fried, to be eaten hot, topped with vanilla sauce. Luckily, other dishes like “Bratapfel” see a comeback. For a Bratapfel, you punch a hole into an apple with a “Apfelentkerner” and push out the core. This hole you fill with chopped almonds or hazelnuts and either raspberry or red currant jam and top it with a flake of butter. Then you slowly bake it in the oven. Bratapfel has become so popular again that the dairy industry now even has created a limited edition of “Bratapfel”-joghurt in  winter.

For all this delicacies, you need special varieties to get the full taste. In the 70ies, most of the old varieties began to vanish. People, including me, preferred an imported Granny Smith to any of the homegrown types. I remember how, as a teenager,  I spent a considerable amount of my allowance to buy those green, glittering apples with its new fresh-sour taste at the supermarket instead of taking one out of the apple crate at  home.

Then, in the 80ies, the environmentalist movement and the Green party were born. “Baden” was one of the birthplaces of this movement.  The ecologists invented sponsorship for old trees and encouraged small “Mostereien” to keep up business. For decades, drinking “Most from Streuobstwiesen” served as a political statement. Though a lot of of the ecologists probably enjoyed the rich taste as well.

Today, the old varieties are well established again: Boskop, Goldparmäne, Renette, Alkmene, Gravensteiner can now be found at a farmers market or even bought in a supermarket. They are part of a gourmet trend that accepts a higher price tag in exchange for the better taste.

There is a flip side to the apple picking impulse, though, and that is why we don´t have a garden. In German cities, the usual home for a family is an appartment. To make good for the lack of space, most cities provide garden patches at the outskirts of the city that can be rented very cheaply. As my son wanted to build a treehouse and I needed two trees to hang my hammock, we decided to apply for one and soon found one. On our first visit, my spouse panicked:

” I don´t have the time to have a garden!”

“You don´t need extra time”, I said.” You just come here to sit and relax”

“But I can´t just sit and relax in a garden! All the work that is to be done! Look at all those apple trees. All this picking and preserving …”

As you might have figured out by now, my spouse is from “Schwaben”. By the way, we have the lowest electricity bill in town, too.

But this is another story.



Filed under World

What did I know about rambling?

A wise person once told me, “Do not write about things that you know nothing about”. Too bad – there are a lot of subjects that I know nothing about, much more than I know about. Seems to me, when I think of talk shows I have seen lately, that talking about things that you know nothing about can be quite lucrative. “Ignorance is bliss” takes on a new meaning. Ignorance is blissful and lucrative.


But not only is it unwise, I also dislike writing about things I know nothing about. The problem is today I wanted to write about walking but after reading the piece by Truegerman about rambling I realize that I know nothing about it. I mean, rambling for 20 km’s! With kids too! Uphill!  (A few more “!!!” just for good measure)


I could write about NOT rambling. I do the walking thing, the one after Sunday Lunch on the way to cake at a Gaststätte which offers “Kaffee und Kuchen”, which bridges that enormous gap between Lunch and Dinner (did I mention that I like food?). The saying goes “Nach dem Essen soll man ruhn oder 1000 Schritte tun” (After eating either rest or walk a 1000 steps).


It does not say anything about what you do after the 1000 steps but every German knows that there should be a self-respecting Gaststätte (rustic kind of restaurant) in  a wood or field, anyway in the middle of nowhere, that offers enormous lunches and between 3 an 5.30 o’clock those delicious desserts that erase any beneficial effect the 1000 steps had. Maybe it would be better to take a nap.


I could write about riding my bike. Riding a bike around here is not only easy because it is relatively flat, but also because wood paths are well taken care of and city streets offer cycle paths almost everywhere. The trend to take the car for every little errand happened here too, but generally it is something to be embarrassed about. With increasing fuel prices (we pay 1.2 Euros (1.5$) per litre today down from 1.6 Euros (2$)) that trip to the corner shop is becoming an increasingly bike fuelled activity again. Large baskets take care of most of the shopping, especially as Germans tend to go shopping several times per week. Patient Bicyclists wait for a spot at overcrowded cycle parking spaces. People with heart conditions are told to work out by walking or cycling every day.


Children are encouraged to conquer the “Großstadtdschungel” to alleviate congestion in front of schools, that do not provide car parking and would never be able to, due to lack of space downtown. I have not seen any walking busses yet (Children join a group of walkers as they are being implemented in Britain and Switzerland. They are picked up at a series of “bus” stops). Public Transport runs frequently and children either pay reduced or no charges. School Buses can only be found in rural areas.


I rode my bicycle to school, usually in company of classmates. It gave me a sense of independence. Even when I was strapped for cash I could swing on my “Stahlross” (steel horse) and ride off to see friends in the next town. It was also adventurous, as I would go with the vaguest idea of where they lived and got lost along the small alleys until I hit on the right route. The reward was having found my way by myself.


The world passed by slower and I could admire the gardens and houses, note the gnomes, murals or THE replica Frankenstein castle. Of course, once at the houses of my friends, they would feed me (Did I mention that I like food?) and we would go for a walk. A particularly memorable walk was being dragged behind a dog called Ursus (I believe Bear in Dutch, type Neufundländer) which belonged to my Dutch classmate. I should have tried riding him instead of holding on to his leash.


Now I accompany my youngest child to and from school on the bike every day. We chat or fight or ride silently. Sometimes he dashes ahead in some wild imaginary chase. Today the storm slowed our cycling to walking speed and threw dangerously painful branches at us. When we dashed into the house for safety we were laughing with delight at our achievement and were glad to be back in the warm, safe house.


This is something I know about. You slow down and live every moment. Everything you do is done by the effort of your own body. Everything there is to see can be seen by you. If you want to stop and smell the roses hanging over fences, you do. You can hear the birds that chatter in the trees above you. If you slow down, you see more and maybe you see for the first time, something that was right there waiting for you to see it. If you are afraid of missing something then slow down.


I still might hesitate to accept an invitation to ramble with Truegerman though (20 km’s????!!!! or “Ach Du grüne Neune”).



Filed under typical german

A Nation rambling

The Taunus near Frankfurt in November

The Taunus near Frankfurt in November

“I don´t walk, I ramble” I proudly told Francesca when she asked me if I like to walk. Walking for Germans means a Spaziergang on Sunday afternoon, after lunch and before “Kaffee und Kuchen”, when the stomach is full and the brain empty. It describes a mild way of slow movement in the neighborhood. While walking, adults talk, and children are bored.

Rambling (Wandern), on the contrary, means to get up early in the morning and do 20 to 30 km in the woods. As 30 percent of the German surface is covered by wood, places to ramble never are far away. Big cities even provide a Stadtwald, an area of wood planted and cared for by the city council. There are Volkswandertage, when rambling becomes a competion, and there is the First of May, our Labour day, when traditionally people first demonstrate and then ramble. For a few years now, it is very much en vogue to ramble along paths the pilgrims followed in the middle ages, like the Jacob´s way in Spain.

In a German wood, you won´t see any “no tresspassing signs”. By old law, the woods are open to everybody. And everybody uses them: national polls show that 61 percent of the Germans walk/ramble at least once a week. The most ambitious ramblers, some 780.000, organize themselves in the Deutsche Alpenverein. Its volunteers cater for 20.000 km of rambling paths all over Germany.  Wanderkarten, surveyor maps, show every detail of the terrain.  When trails cross, little signs fixed to the trees indicate where to go and how far it will be. Chances to get seriously lost are nil. Nevertheless, a growing number of people use GPS-tracking systems to find their way.

While in former days ramblers wore red-and-white checkered shirts, grey knickerbockers, green wool-knitted sock and a rambling stick, today you will see more sophisticated outdoor gear here than in Alaska. Germans love high tech, even if it is not in a car. Goretex, Polartec, Vibram–you name it, we have it.

When I was I a kid, my family went out to ramble every Sunday. As a child, I loved it. Each kid got a little daypack with salami rolls, apples and Sunkist, a childrens softdrink in a pack shaped like a pyramid. On our tours we could run, climb trees, balance on trunks, jump over creeks and sometimes, in rare moments of silence, we would see deer crossing our path. Then, after hours of steady climbing, the summit. What a grandiose view. For a few moments, we children, used to look up to everybody, could look down on everything. While in everyday life, the steep valley slopes stopped our view of the world, now we could see France, Switzerland and Austria just by turning around. On clear autumn days, our view touched the Alps, 200 miles away.

There are a lot of things that haven´t changed since. Still, it is good rambling etiquette to say “Guten Tag”  (Good Day) or “Grüß Gott” (Greetings God) to everybody you meet in the woods. Still, in a mixed group, the men unvariably walk in the front, talking, followed by the women, talking. Normally, you walk on a circle tour, with at least one “Gasthaus” to stop, where a “Brotzeit” is served, simple food like “Erbsensuppe mit Würstchen”-pea soup with sausages-or slices of bread with liverwurst and mustard.

Alas, one part of the tradition definitely is gone–the singing. The “Wanderlieder” were beautiful folksongs everybody could sing. The most popular was “Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust, das Wa-an-dern,….“, probably because of the simple lyrics. The one I loved most went  “Wem Gott will rechte Gunst erweisen, den schickt er in die weite Welt ..”–Whom God wants to do a favour he sends out to see his world. This song alludes  to the deeper meaning of Wanderlust, the siren´s call of a new world many Germans follow still today.

For centuries, Germans left home to find a better life somewhere else. Often, they were forced to leave: sold as soldiers to fight for the British in the American War of Independence, expelled because of their religious believes, starved by famines, left jobless in times of recessions. Like my forefathers: on my fathers side, as early as the 16th century, they crossed the Alps from Italy to work in a mine in Southern Germany. On my mothers side, they left Austria in the 17th century for religious reasons and started to farm in East Prussia. My mother left home when the Russian army came after World War II, my uncle shipped to Australia in the 50ies to find work. Today, an average of 150 000 Germans emigrate each year. While the older ones head for Spain, Europe´s equivalent to Florida, the younger go to Switzerland, Austria and the United States.

Most probably, they will start to ramble in their new environment. So, if you see a rambler in a place nobody ever rambled before, just greet him with a hearty “Guten Tag”. If he answers with a “Gruezi”, he is Swiss.

But this is another story.


Leave a comment

Filed under World

Apples for Sale

We stood in front of many types of apples from all over the world. Which one to take? The crunchy green, sour type, the soft sweet red or one of the many somewhere in between. My father eyed them all critically and with the air of an expert declared, “Take the red, those are the best.” I was taken aback. For one my father never had advised me before what to shop for in food matters and secondly I asked myself where he had gathered his expertise on apples.


I forgot that my father grew up in a time and environment completely different from the one he lives in now. Growing up in small town America he spent his summers helping out on farms and attended the Fall Fair Festival at the end of September. Here farmers competed with their produce of fruit and vegetables, from apples to corn and with their animals, from horses to pigs, for a blue ribbon. Obtaining one would increase their leverage for achieving a good price in the subsequent sale of their goods.


He lived in apple country then and fate would have it that he now lives in one of the apple “Länder” of Germany. Apart from their natural form, you can find apple juices of varying density and mixes. In Frankfurt and area you have “Äppelwoi”, a wine made from apples. Truegerman invited me to a particularly dark sample of apple juice at the library canteen last week. It looked like mud and tasted like heaven: refreshing, sweet and filling.


Despite the apples popularity and lore of this area picking them yourself is not so and the only people I know that do are either determined ecologists or extremely thrifty people. Not even farmers bother to do their own canning or make their own “Marmelade”. Many fruit trees stand ignored in gardens and on fields with their precious load either rotting on or beneath the trees.


My neighbors belong to the thrifty and ecological type and have an agreement with a farmer nearby. They pick his apples and pay a relatively small amount of money in exchange. They invited my son to join them one year and he spent a delighted afternoon climbing into a tree and the evening preparing apples to dry. He earned a crate of apples for us and had a great time. A reason this might not be so popular is that the art of conserving fruit for the winter has been forgotten.


In a very german move a concerned group of “Bürger”, in the town where I grew up, organized themselves in a “Verein” (Club) that dedicates itself to conserving and opening an orchard to the public, with the specific purpose of encouraging people to pick their own fruit and educating them about the advantages in the course of the project. As so often this group of determined “eccentrics” now finds itself at the forefront of a reversal of ideas.


Common sense, political, health and ecological arguments fail to be heard; yet the absence of a tinkling noise in your wallet sounds very loud. The economical crunch encourages people to rethink their attitude to the fruit growing outside their doors, because there is nothing cheaper than for free in money terms. Into the bargain you get some exercise, regain control of your “shopping list” and the total on the bottom of your expenses table.


I expect vegetable patches to return to now grassy or tarmac covered surfaces, as they are in England. Maybe I will dig out the booklet with instructions on conserving fruit and vegetables. The next step would be to work up the courage and ask a neighbor, with a cherry tree in his front yard, to let me plunder it when the time comes. I’m sure my Dad would appreciate some cherries right off the tree. Apart from the money, apart of the health and exercise, apart of the ecological aspects – homegrown just tastes better.


Apple Song – Apfel Lied select Melodie next to the title “In einem kleinen Apfel”


Leave a comment

Filed under Germany

Sankt Martin – The Message of a Saint


06th of November 2008       If you spot a procession of Kindergarten age kids with mittened hands and red noses sticking out over tightly wound scarves and the children are carrying lanterns attached to a stick ahead of them on a bitterly cold evening, it is the 11th of November. Add the sound to the picture and you get “Laterne, Laterne, Sonne Mond und Sterne” (Lantern, lantern, sun, moon and stars), “Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin..”  or “Ich geh mit meiner Laterne..” (I walk with my lantern) sung by the young and their accompanying parents and teachers.

     They are celebrating the generous Sankt Martin of Tours, who according to legend shared his mantle with a beggar, who was sitting in the freezing snow, by cutting it in half with his sword.

     A feast originally celebrated by only the catholic kindergardens the sense and beauty of it has spread and is now celebrated by all, no matter what the children’s own religious orientation or that of the kindergarten sponsors. In respect for religious sensitivities it might be called “Lichterfest” (feast of light) instead of Sankt Martin, but the teachers still tell the story of Sankt Martin, that he was a roman soldier, of his many good deeds, how he became a priest and finally a bishop. The parents wholeheartedly agree with the message.

     Recently I was introduced to another tradition based on the legends surrounding the person of Sankt Martin. He was very humble and when the people and the church wanted to appoint him Bishop he hid between some Geese. They made such a noise that he was found and made Bishop. This did not bode well for the Geese, as having “Martinsgans” (Martinsgoose) is a traditional meal at this time of year.

     I remember the preparations for the day in our church. Mass Servants, of which I was one, were involved in organizing and accompanying the procession. One of us owned a patient horse and she dressed up as the roman soldier Sankt Martin. The scene of the beggar and Sankt Martin meeting and the coat sharing were reenacted, after which the procession could begin.  We shuffled along, wary of the enormous horse, close together for warmth and yet careful not to be caught by the lanterns waving around. Occasional “Careful”, “Watch the candle”, “Let me light it again” could be heard from anxious parents, amongst the singing. The lanterns were made by the children themselves, sometimes with the help of balloons, which were covered in a sticky mass of colored paper and glue. The balloons were removed when the mass had dried. Add a candle, a wire and a stick and the sense of achievement of the little one had grown a 100%.

     After the procession freezing adults were rewarded with a hot drink, coffee or a Glühwein (glowing wine)and a Brezel (pretzel). The children could bake Stockbrot (bread on a stick) over an open fire to warm their noses, toes and insides.

     Fifteen years later: My children made their own lanterns,  while I followed them along freezing November village streets and welcomed the fire and company.

     Another ten years later, I have moved to the city. As I drive along a nighttime road, I spot them. The little group is huddling along the sidewalk and I pity that they cannot take to the middle of the road as they still do in the villages or that there is no horse clip-clopping ahead of them. Then I hear the singing voices above the traffic and see them turn into a side street towards the nearby park. I realize that the tradition of commemorating the universal message of sharing can survive, even thrive, in this city as parents of protestants, catholics, muslims and atheists huddle around their precious offspring and say “Watch the candle”, “Let me light it again” or “Do you want me to carry it for you?”. You can listen to the songs here.




Leave a comment

Filed under Germany

Schicksaltage or How I Saw the Wall Come Down

„I´ll write about Sankt Martin“, Francesca said when we talked about special days in November. „I´m probably the only German who didn´t attend any St. Martins events in childhood“, I said. Church and our neighbors were too far away. Therefore, I´ll tell you about November 9th , the German „Schicksals-Tag“.

November in Germany is grey and nondescript. Autumn has just gone, winter hasn´t come yet. As if to fill the void nature left, history threw in a lot of events, most of them on November 9th. The most important ones are the end of World War One in 1918, the burning of the synagogues by the Nazi in 1938, and the fall of the Wall in 1989.

Some of you might argue that the First World War ended on 11. November 1918. Right. This was the day the German government signed the armistice. For Germans, the war ended two days earlier, when after a general strike, mutinies in army and marine, and mass protests on the streets of Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. abdicated and Germany became a Republic. Two days later, the Social Democrats, now in power, signed the armistice treaty.

There still are heated debates if this treaty helped the Nazis come to power. In their propaganda they invented the „Dolchstoßlegende“, the myth that Germany would have won the war had not the government changed from Kaiserreich to Republik. Fact is that the Nazis started their first act of what should later become the Holocaust on November 9th 1938, when their gangs burnt synagogues and mass-deported Jewish men to concentration camps.

51 years later, on November 9th 1989, the Wall in Berlin came down. In a way, this day ended World War II as well, as a 45-year outstanding peace-treaty was finally signed and sealed with the Potsdam Protocol of 1990.

For me, this day started completely inconspicuous. I happened to be in Berlin with an international group of students. The day before we had made the mandatory tour of the Wall—my first. When I came of age, Berlin hardly existed for young West-Germans. A trip to Berlin was unpleasant, because we had to pass the strict border controls of the German Democratic Republic. As we couldn’t hitchhike on East German motorways, it was expensive to get there.  And above all, there was no reason to go there anyway. Berlin, in our perception, was provincial and dull. Why go to Berlin, if I could see Paris, Rome and Amsterdam in less time and for less money?

Even the Wall, when I did see it at last on November 8th, wasn’t impressive at all. A  fragile-looking band of concrete slabs with a row of barbed wire on top, built in 1961 and never renovated since; it didn’t look like anything serious. Sometimes fences in a German neighborhood were higher than this.

On the evening of November 9th, I went out to see some friends. At 12 o’clock at night, I hurried to catch the last U-Bahn to my Hotel in the center of Berlin. When the train arrived I hardly could get in. Masses of excited people filled the cars. Everybody said „Wahnsinn“—„Amazing”, laughed, and behaved completely un-German. „These Berliners really are strange people,” I thought. Had there been a soccer game and their club won?  But there were a lot of women in the U-Bahn and nobody wore scarves in club colors.

„Is there anything special happening tonight?” I  asked the man standing beside me. He looked at me and then at the people surrounding us. Suddenly, he started to laugh.

„She doesn’t know. Can you imagine, she doesn´t know“.  Everybody joined in.

„Why should I know about a stupid soccer game?”, I retorted.

„But the wall came down! We are from East Berlin!”

While they proceeded west to see the Kurfürstendamm, the glamorous West German shopping mile, I headed east. I saw people sitting on the wall, laughing, the East German police still standing at attention, in “Habachtstellung”, to protect the wall, but not daring to do anything. Men, women and children just passed. Already there were big gaps in the wall.  Each minute, more and more people arrived. During the night, an armada of cars came to Berlin, filled with people who wanted to be part of this historical day.

For the next two days, the whole population of the former GDR seemed to fill the streets of West Berlin. As a west German law stipulated that every citizen of the GDR got 100 Deutsche Mark „Begrüßungsgeld“ – „Welcome money“ when he came to West Germany, people queued at the bank tellers first and then at the counters of the “Kaufhaus des Westens” or KaDeWe, the famous department store. Everything was sold out. Even to get a „Bratwurst“, the basic fast food in Germany, became impossible. Starved, I decided to go east again.

There, I found the peace and quiet I was longing for, a city emptied of its people. For most of the time, I could hear my steps hitting the cobblestones. At Berlin Alexanderplatz, in a state owned restaurant, I finally found my „Bratwurst“. Today, McDonald´s sells their hamburgers in these very rooms.

But this is another story.


1 Comment

Filed under World

Thanksgiving – Typical American or Maybe Not

I remember how we celebrated our Thanksgiving. Turkey baking smells wafted through the house for hours. Breading that melted on our tongues, yams and cornbread were served and we stuffed ourselves so silly that we barely were able to get up from our chairs and crawl to the sofa where we waited for the first signs of peckishness. This was the perfect moment for pulling out the pecan pies and for my mother to start the coffee. So far so very typical.


Except that the talented cook was my Italian mother and I lived in Germany, with my American father and my three sisters. It was the seventies and we gave our German Neighbors many opportunities to shake their heads and wag their tongues in wonderment at our strange habits. We spoke English amongst ourselves, German as fluently as natives, attended local schools, but preferred to shop in a bi-monthly shopping spree at the PX, which was only accessible to special ID Holders and read the Sunday Comics.


For at least the duration of a week after Thanksgiving, my school friends would regard my school sandwiches with envy, as the leftovers found their way into my school supplies. In those days you could only find Turkey in inaccessible American shops. This has changed since, but then I enjoyed an exotic diet.


Thanksgiving was for the family. After my older sisters moved out they made sure to find their way back home on that day. Boyfriends and later husbands, sometime later grandchildren to my parents joined. As our family expanded so did the table and we squeezed around it to share our bread and turkey.


At some point my father always made “The Picture”. Lamplight shone in our eyes and we tried not to squint. We held on to our cheese smile but our facial muscles soon shook from the effort as the preparations stretched and my father looked for the perfect angle, lighting and setup. “Move a little closer”, he said as he climbed on a chair, which wobbled under the tall man’s feet. He climbed down again, took more measurements of the light until he was satisfied, climbed back on the chair and finally we heard the relieving click. Well relieving until my Dad said, “Let’s make another one to be sure” and a collective sigh of “oh no” circled the table. A lot of those pictures have been made over the years as the ritual was repeated whenever we had guests, birthday parties, Christmas or Easter to celebrate saved in numbered albums which we leaf through with enjoyment.


Although we lived in a small town surrounded by farms I did not know any farmers. The land was fast disappearing, swallowed by one suburbia development after another. We lived in one of those new areas. Many of my neighbors came from eastern regions, from which they had fled during or shortly after the war. The new street names were bitter-sweet reminders of their origins: Brandenburg, Sachsen and Thüringen. They grew vegetables in their gardens or even reared pigs and kept hens—more reminders of the land and life they left behind.


The rest of us “Neubürger” (new citizens) had to buy the goods that were offered when it was time for the “Erntedankfest” in church (Harvest Thanks Giving) service.


As a child I did not wonder why I was celebrating either Erntedank or Thanksgiving. It never occurred to me that the celebrations might be related. One was a church celebration that I experienced in a German environment, the other a typical American tradition, which I grew up with, in what I now realize, was an untypical family.


Nowadays the turkey is smaller, not only because we tend to all be on diet, but because European appliances, to which we have switched, are smaller. We can buy the bird in German shops, along with Yams and corn flour. We arrived in this country with little more than a tradition and now our food followed us. The world becomes a bit smaller and more familiar in strange places.


And is that not what Thanksgiving is about, is that not what makes my family so American and so typical after all? We have arrived on unfamiliar shores and are pioneers once more, coming together to celebrate our safe arrival and the making of new lives.



1 Comment

Filed under Germany, World

Thanksgiving – The German Way

“I always wondered why your Thanksgiving is later than ours”, I asked Francesca. “Does your harvest season end that late?”

She laughed, ”American Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the harvest. It is all about the Pilgrim Fathers and eating turkey.”

In Germany, Thanksgiving is about going to church. Every first Sunday in October we celebrate “Erntedankfest” or “Thank you for the harvest” in English. If you are in Germany and missed out on Christmas and Easter, Erntedankfest is another chance to attend a special mass. All over the country, fruits, vegetables and grain decorate the altar. Most likely you will hear a choir singing “Großer Gott wir loben Dich”. If you smell incense, you are in a catholic church.

When I grew up in the countryside in the 60ies and 70ies, I understood the meaning of this celebration very  well. In our little mountain village, self-sustainability was not a fashion but a necessity. Everybody had a cow or two for milk and cream, two pigs for sausages and meat, hens for eggs, a big garden for vegetables, baskets for picking wild raspberries, blueberries and mushrooms and a huge cool cellar to stock potatoes and carrots, with shelves full of preserves. To celebrate–and to show off–on Erntedankfest we would bring wicker baskets full of home grown stuff to church and place them in front of the altar.
You might know the German saying, “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen” – “work first, celebrate later”. There was a lot of work to be done till we could sit down in church and rejoice. Though, for me as a child, the work was fun.

I was lucky to grow up in a place where “Füchse und Hasen sich gute Nacht sagen” – “where fox and hare meet to say goodnight”. In this narrow mountain village, agricultural mechanization meant a tractor and nothing more. Therefore, during harvest season, every hand counted, even small ones.

When we children followed the hand-pushed mower at sunrise, picked up the grass with wooden forks and threw it in the air to spread it evenly for the sun to dry, we knew we were important. When we raked the grass again into swathes at night, we knew we protected the sweet smelling hay from the morning dew. When we rushed out to form haystacks when a thunderstorm built up over the hills,  we knew that we saved the winter´s forage for the farm animals. And when we rode the hay home on a swaying cart, we knew that in winter we would sneak away from our mothers to jump from the wooden beams of the barn into the soft hay—and would be punished by our fathers for ignoring their ban of the barn.
In later years, my memories of these summers faded from golden and green to pale sepia. I got hay fever, went to live in the city and never came near a haystack for thirty years. Then, this June, I decided that I needed a dose of green, to balance the grey I see each time I look out of the window.

“Can I come and visit you?”, I emailed my friends Barbara and Albert, recently turned into hobby farmers. When they invited me, I filled my bags with books I wanted to read on their terrace, surrounded by  the healthy air of the Black Forest.

When I arrived, they hugged and kissed me, showed me the terrace, and said: “I hope you don´t mind that you won´t see us till late at night. We have to rake the hay.”

“To rake the hay? This is 2008. Nobody rakes the hay anymore.”

“We do. The slopes are too steep.”

“Ok, I´ll help you today and then we are through with it.”

“Hm, we will have to rake it into swathes in the evening and then spread it again early in the morning at least three times, our neighbour says.”
“Three times” I cried . “What a waste of time. There must be another way of doing this. Let me check the internet.”

Half an hour later,  I had found it. “Look, how they do it in New Zealand. They just cut the grass, spread it and then leave it for a few days to dry. That’s the way to do it.”
So we tried it this way and enjoyed an evening of friendship and good wine on their terrace.
The next morning, the grass that had already been 90 percent dry in the evening, was green and wet again.
Humbled, I left the terrace and started to shake and rake, hour after hour. The sun burnt my face, my arms ached, my nose itched.  Late in the afternoon, with half of the work still do be done, I started to develop a business plan: hay making instead of boot camps to form a team. Wouldn´t stressed out corporate managers pay good money for this old-time experience? We could call it: “Zen and raking the hay with one fork” or “The ultimate battle: How to survive a day at work without a computer”.

I survived. Two months later, on Erntedank, I decided to give my son the chance to learn where milk comes from. So we went to see Barbara and Albert again. He came back a different boy.

But that is another story.



Filed under typical german