Category Archives: typical german

Hospitality

Never visit a German unannounced, guidebooks to Germany say. First, I wanted to protest.

The way I grew up, everybody walked into our house when they wanted to. Everybody was welcome and everybody got something to eat. “Fünf sind geladen, zehn sind gekommen. Schütt Wasser in die Suppe, heiß alle herzlich willkommen” runs a German saying: “When you invite five and ten people come, don´t worry. Add water to your soup and welcome everyone with your heart”. This is the German hospitality I wanted to defend.

Till my neighbour rang the bell the other day – unannounced. I found myself standing in the doorframe, not moving one inch. I like her, but I tried to shield her view from  the mess my rooms are in.

I tell everybody that I´m a lousy housewife – but nobody believes me. No wonder, as I don´t allow anybody to see the state my surroundings normally are in. Of course I would add water to the soup and say a hearty welcome to any unannounced visitor–if they managed to pass my doorstep.

Last year I tried to introduce a kind of drop-by-if you-have time-event: a jour fixe. Every Friday night I opened the door to anybody who wanted to come – unannounced. On Friday afternoons, I cleaned the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room. I forced my son to lay the table. I sent out my husband to buy a better wine. I cooked till the kitchen couldn´t hold the food.

Nobody came.

Germans don´t like ambiguous situations. When I invited our friends saying: you are welcome every Friday night to drop by unannounced,  everybody was pleased: “That´s a good idea! No more complicated arrangements anymore, we just drop in”. Then, on Fridays, they started to worry: “Maybe Truegerman won´t be in this Friday. Or maybe there are already too much people. Did she really mean what she said?”.

Of course I meant it – but nobody believed me.

Tomorrow this won´t happen again. I invited, officially, one month ago and sent out a reminder one week ago. I asked a neighbour to help me with the cleaning last weekend: the floors sparkle, the windows let in the sun.

It took her five hours to do two rooms.

Now my friends can come.

They will find everything perfectly prepared. Of course, they will think: “If this is the state the rooms of a lousy housewife are in, German standards must be extremely high.”

This is the way myths are born.

They will live as long as nobody visits unannounced.

Sometimes it is good to act according to guidebooks.

But this is another story.

@Truegerman

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Queue – yes, we do

Yesterday I wanted to  buy a railway ticket. I put on comfortable shoes, expecting to have to wait in line for a long time.  Then, the big surprise at the station. I had to wait, but I could sit on cushioned red sofas. The queueing was done by a number system: push the button, get your placement in line, then sit down, relax, and wait for your number to show on the monitor.

This number system isn´t new in Germany, though before it seemed to be reserved for the unpleasant situations in life, like unemployment agencies and tax offices. There I would sit on hard chairs and mentally brave myself for the confrontation with the civil servant.

What´s new at the Deutsche Bahn is the nice atmosphere they create. I love those red sofas. They remind me of Starbucks, that´s probably why I was expecting a waiter to come by with a Latte or a glass of water.  Normally queuing isn´t that pleasant in Germany.

A lot of foreignersthink that Germans don´t queue. Believe me, there are lines in Germany, though not always at places where you would expect it.

In Germany, we don´t queue at busses, trams or railways. To get in first demands a great amount of calculation and knowledge of the territory: Where exactly will the bus stop? Does the door open to the left or the right? How will people move once they get out of the vehicle?

The most valuable of these skills I  didn´t learn in Germany, but in Australia. Before, it often happened that I placed myself in the wrong position, because I ignored the automatic movement of the masses. Sheep taught me what I had to know, the thousands  of sheep I had to bring from one paddock to the other. How do you force a flock of sheep through the bottleneck of a gate? Shouting? Pushing from behind? Swearing and firing a colt? No, you place yourself in the center of the crow,  the sheep have to circle around you. Then you move in such a way that the first sheep in the outer circle runs through the gate. Where one sheep goes, the others will follow.

While Darwin rules in public transportation, there are strict rules for queueing at the butchers or any place with a long counter. Normally, there is no space for a orderly line. Therefore there is an invisible queue. My duty as a customer is to remember who was already waiting when I came in. The sales person will ask: “Der Nächste bitte – Who comes next”? Then I must be quick, lift my hand and start my order. Sometimes, there is a feeling in the room that somebody will try to cheat. Then I get nervous, mark my territory by pushing closer to the counter. I square my shoulders and let my eyes wander around, sending silent warnings to anybody I suspect of breaching the line. If this doesn´t help I have to stop the line jumper with a sharp ” Ich war vor Ihnen dran – I came first.

When there are several counters, queuing rules have become a bit unclear over the last decades.Traditionally, there would be a line to every counter. Choose your line well! Otherwise latecomers will pass by to your left and to your right. Nothing more frustrating than this. It always happens to me. I have never been in the fastest lane in my life. I used to spend a lot of brainwork to choose my line: I counted the people in front of me, measured the amount of products they wanted to buy or tried to figure out the complexity of the problem they were due to present to the man behind the counter. It never worked: the swift business man wanted to rearrange a trip to five cities, the teenager had to count each Euro and Cent three times, the man with only three products in his basket couldn´t find his credit card.

Today, I leave my position in line to destiny. Or the number system of the Deutsche Bahn.

Whatever comes first.

But this is another story.

© Truegerman

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Tanz in den Mai

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Snow – friend or fiend?

“Excuse me. The U-Bahn was late because of the snow,” Francesca said when she arrived 15 minutes late to our meeting. “The Germans can´t handle snow any more,” I grumbled.”Two snowflakes, and everything runs late. Just shows how far German reliability has gone down.” “But in London public transport really broke down”, our South Korean friend reminded me. “In comparison, 15 minutes late in  Germany aren´t that bad”.

When it comes to snow, I become a raging “Kulturpessimist”, one of those  who always  sigh “When I was young, everything was much better”.

Snow  was much better when I was young.

First of all, there was snow. Snow season started in December and lasted till March. Sometimes we even looked for Easter eggs in a snow covered garden. In the moderate clima zone of Germany, snow meant fun: skiing, riding a sleigh, bulding a snowman, snowball fights. At least for the kids. For my father, it was hard work. Every morning, after a night of falling snow, I woke up to the sound of the snow shovel scraping on our gravel road. 200 m he had to clear before he could get out to work. I didn´t hear his words, probably for the better. But his angry shoulders and abrupt movements told me that he was not amused. 

When I got up and went to school, not only had my father already cleared our private road, but the public roads were free of snow, too. At 5 o´clock in the morning, the snow plough had started its work. It pushed the snow aside with its iron shield, coughed it up with the snowblower and melted it with salt distributed by a rotating disc. The garage of the snowplough was near my parents home. On my way to school I passed the huge barn, filled with saltbags for winter. Those saltbags, empty,  served as make-shift bobs for us children, as they where very thick and durable. 

Snow never was a problem for drivers in the Black forest. Everybody boasted confidence, nobody came one minute late because of the snow. The secret: be prepared. We had cars whith  engines in the back and not in front, which helped when you had to drive uphill in snow. Everbody knew which gear to choose for the right speed on snowy slopes and winding streets. Everybody knew about engine brakes, had non-skid chains in its trunk and winter tyres on the rims. Sometimes, when somebody got stuck on a hill, all neighbors came to weigh the rear end down with their bodies. 

While  enjoying these happy memories I always forget about the cold. Cold as in terribly cold. Wet woolen mittens didn´t warm my fingers, neither did unlined wellingtons warm my toes . All during winter,  feet and hands were icy red. And wouldn´d get warm at night.

Germans don´t heat bedrooms. Instead, they rely on thick feather duvets and a hot water-bottle for warmth (some of them with two ears…). Normally, the window is open, at least a bit. For this nightly nip of fresh air, German windows can be opened two ways: completely or by unhingeing the upper part which then inclines into the room.  This is the mode for the night, while the wide open window is reserved for the morning, when the duvets are placed on the window sill to air them. 

Germans sincerely believe in the prophylactic power of cold and fresh air: as if bacteria and viruses would immediately die in an oxygen enriched, cold environment. To catch a cold, in our understanding, is only remotely connected to the temperature outside. Of course, German mothers insist that their children wear coat, gloves and cap in winter. But deep in their heart they don´t worry too much: “Draußensein in der Kälte härtet ab. Das ist die beste Vorsorge gegen Erkältung – to beware of a cold  be out in the cold.”

Those “on duty” when snow falls find ample opportunities to enjoy the cold. By law, sidewalks must be cleared from snow before 7 o´clock in the morning and kept open till 8 o´clock in the evening. Otherwise, if somebody falls and breaks its ankle, he can claim liability. In principle, the clearing of the sidewalks lies in the responsibility of the local council. In practice, local councils hand this responsibility down to house owners, who hand it further down to the tennants. Whose duty is to  do what in which week is part of rental contracts and elaborate in-house arrangements. In German appartment houses, you often see calendars with alternating names either fixed to the notice board or dangling from the doorknob of the person on duty.

Homesick Ohioan gets lesson in Snowshovelling in 1967 @John C. Krueger

Homesick Ohioan gets lesson in Snowshovelling in 1967 @John C. Krueger

This schedules for “Kehrwoche” must be obeyed, at all cost. Otherwise, sanctions aren´t far away. A German saying goes: “Es kann der Beste nicht in Frieden leben, wenn es dem bösen Nachbarn nicht gefällt – even the best can´t live in peace if his neighbours decide do act nasty”.  On the other hand, if you obey to the Kehrwoche rules and fight your way out into a snowstorm at 6 o´clock to shovel snow, you will be rewarded with the warmest possible welcome from your neighbours, a 10 on the Richter-scale. 

My landlord outsourced the snow-cleaning job to a professional firm. Lucky me. I can stay in my – heated – bedroom till it´s time to go to work. It is only when I see my handsome new neighbour shoveling snow that I feel a pang of regret. 

But this is another story.

©Truegerman

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Zwischen Den Jahren

It is on my windowsill now, because I happened upon it while looking for something else. Placing it in full view is the desperate attempt not to forget it when the right moment comes. Again.

My  “Bleigiessen” set  contains one round spoon and six little figures representing good luck: a little pig, a cat, a cent, a mushroom, a horn of plenty and a sun. These lead figures are melted one by one by placing them in a spoon  over a candle. Once melted you quickly pour the lead into a bowl filled with cold water. As the lead solidifies you look for clues to your future in its new shape. Does it look like a heart, a baby, a crown or a star? Will love, offspring, recognition or good luck come your way the next year?

The right time to play this game, which appears to have been handed to us by the Romans, is “Silvester”, the last night of the year: the time of New Years Resolutions, watching the sketch “Dinner for One”, Fireworks and parties.

As  a child I enjoyed the thrill of staying up late at night to see the clock strike midnight and watch the fireworks go off. We had Panettone , an italian spongy light cake with Sekt (the german champagne and yes, I was allowed a sip for the special occasion). From sixteen  onwards I would go out , dancing the night away, getting cold out in parks and on fields, when it was midnight, time to watch the firework and wish a happy new year all around.

Every year there are calls to tone the fireworks down, to be more careful and possibly even ban them. But from teenager to family man to Grampa, they must have a go at coloring the night – undeterred by the danger of involuntarily setting a car, house or even themselves on fire.

Nowadays I prefer to watch from a distance and the safety and warmth of my house as the whistling rushes towards the skies and lights shower upon the world in red, blue and green sparkles. The question”Que sera”  haunts me. We try to influence our destiny in Italy by eating lentils that promise wealth or in Spain by eating twelve grapes at each stroke of midnight and try to predict the future by pouring lead in Germany.

But the carousel of time is relentless and turns just a little faster with every year. No magic at the turning of the year will prevent or allow things to happen and yet we practice our hopeful traditions.

“Zwischen den Jahren” is the time after Christmas up to the 1st of January. It means between years. The words make it sound as if that could be a long time, but it just refers to the last five days of  the year. Time does not stop, yet it slows down for a few frames, during which I imagine that I could really change the world for the better.

“Zwischen den Jahren” one said and the next said and the next and after many generations, lives and places these words come to me. With them my ancestors hope arrives at my door and I suddenly see their wishes that life by and by would become better, happier and easier were for me and are true.

“Zwischen den Jahren” I decide to think of those that come after me and what will be. What if our New Year traditions are about hope? I cannot abandon the hope of my ancestors, my own and that of my children.

I keep the “Bleigiessen” Set in full view and this time I will not forget to use it. Again.

@Francesca

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Christmas cookies – Yes, I do

“Why do you call them Christmas cookies”, Francesca asked when we munched `Ausstecherle` yesterday. “Because we only eat them on Christmas and the weeks before.” “But why do you only eat them for Christmas? They are so delicious, you could eat them all year round.”

Feeling slightly stupid, I pondered this question for a night. Yes, of course, I could. As an adult, I don´t have a mother who hides the Christmas cookies in secret places so they will last till Christmas. Nobody will scold me when I snatch a Christmas cookie before time. And nobody prevents me from baking the cookies for a summer party at the beach. But do I really want to?

Often, the main part of  attraction is limitation. Today, there are limited editions for about anything you can buy: cigarettes, tissues, joghurts, chocolate. They only thing I know that isn´t limited yet is toilet paper–though it was in the former GDR.  As a marketing trend, I highly suspect limitation. On a private level, I enjoy it.

Strawberries in May and June, plumcake in September, onion cake in October, gingerbread and Christmas cookies in December– this seasonalization gives the pleasure of a “first” every year anew. When during the months since my last intake I have forgotten how a strawberry tastes, with the first bite the fruit seems to exlode in my mouth. Every cell in my body sighs: Oh yes, this is a strawberry. Sometimes I even purr over my first piece of plumcake with whipped cream. And the taste of the first Christmas cookie brightens every grey December day.

Historically I suppose that Christmas cookies where limited to a month of the year because the ingredients were rare and expensive. Tons of butter, sugar, nuts, almonds, and cinammon go into a good German Christmas cookie. Every family has its special assortment of cookies, the recipes handed down from mother to daughter. But the overall  German Christmas cookies are “Ausstecherle”.

Ausstecherle are made from “Mürbteig”-piecrust. They consist of butter, flour, sugar and eggs, kneaded into a smooth dough and cooled for an hour. After spreading out with a rolling pin, metal stencils cut out dough shaped like stars, angels or Christmas trees. The baked cookies are covered with icing and dipped into chocolate- or sugar streusel (I just realized that the English word for a crumbled topping is the same as the German).

My mother always prepares 15 varieties of Christmas cookies. I do one.

In Germany, every child has the birthright to at least one Christmas cookie baking session a year. So I do it. I bake. Mostly because I feel that I should give my son the experience of actually making something by hand. But on the great day, I stand in my kitchen and wonder how this incredibly slow process of Christmas cookie making could be organized more effectively. It seems such a waste of time to spend three hardworking hours to produce a handful of Christmas cookies. The first and second part of the process I like: the kneading of the dough and the cutting out of shapes with stencils. For me, the work could very well finish with putting the cookies in the oven. But by then, I´m only halfway through. Now I have to dip every single cookie into the icing, then into the chocolate streusel, then put it on a drying rack. This is normally the time when my son vanishes into his room. To make 10 cookies is fun, to make 200 is real work. So I, who hate repetitions, am left with 190 unfinished cookies. Soon, I get annoyed about being left with the stupid work. I call my son, scold him, try to force him to help me, lose the fight, and finally finish the work on my own with red anger in my heart.

To make the matter worse, I can´t even moan about the Christmas cookie making. In Germany, you have to enjoy this quality time with your children – basta.

Though this year  the no-moan tradition seems to change. Yesterday night the owner of the local sauna handed me a leaflet: “Special reductions for everybody stressed out by Christmas shopping and cookie making”. Tonight, sweating on  a wooden bench, I will meet my peers. 

I wonder where I can put pen and paper to write down all the new recipes for Christmas cookies.

But this will be another story.

©Truegerman

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Save the Nikolaus – or better not?

“Did you know there is an initiative  to save the St. Nikolaus by declaring Santa Claus free zones?” I asked Francesca increduously. “They even have papersheets where you can cut out a Nikolaus to pull it over a chocolate Santa Claus. (http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de). St. Nikolaus was a Saint, they argue, who was canonized because of all the good deeds he did as  a Bishop, while Santa Claus was invented as a marketing tool.

Contrary to this argument I ´m much in favor of a Nikolaus free zone instead. The St. Nikolaus I recall from my childhood was a horrifying figure. On the eve of Dezember 6th, he would come out of the dark into our house wearing a golden mitra and a golden book in his hands, where he had listed all the sin we kids had commited over the year. He hid his face behind behind a white long beard. His voice was deep and filled us children with awe.

I dreaded the moment when he would ask “Have you been a good child this year?” What should I tell him? What terrible thing would happen if  I answered “Yes, of course” and he then found a sin in his book I had comitted but already forgotten? What if I said “No”, thus eventually missing the chance that my sins had passed unnoticed? I can´t remember what I answered, but I recall him the reading all my misdeeds out of the book. While I stood alone in front of him to listen, I hardly dared to look a the figure standing behind him: Knecht Ruprecht, the Darth Vader of my childhood. His face was blackened with coal to conceal his features and he wore a  black cloak.  Out of a big sack over his shoulder “Ruten” (switches) were sticking. Knecht Ruprecht never talked but was always there, the taciturn henchman lurking behind the judge. Would he carry me away in his dirty sack or just spank me with his switch?

Every year I managed to forget that of course we never got spanked or were thrown into the sack, but were presented – after the trial- with oranges, dried fruit and nuts, rare treats.

Later, luckily, St. Niklaus became invisible. He delivered his goods in the early hours of December the 6th into boots we children put in front of the door. The evening before, my siblings and I would hunt for the biggest boots in the house, usually my fathers rambling shoes. A chocolate Nikolaus and a Nikolaus bun replaced the fruits and nuts. In those days I was absolutely fascinated by the glimmering gold foil of the chocolate Nikolaus and never dared to open it. Instead, I put the Niklaus on my bookshelf and looked at it longingly. Sometimes I saved it for a year. When I finally ate it, the chocolate had turned white and stale.

Today, the Niklaus has become Santa Claus, a jolly old guy with red cheeks and a benevolent smile on his lips. For my son, Nikolaus is just another chance to get a bag of jelly beans. For me its a chance to get a chocolate Santa Claus at work which I eat instantly.

This year I even silently hoped Santa Claus would deliver one of the “Konsumschecks” the governement is discussing at the moment into my boot. The idea is to give 500 Euro  to everybody to kickstart consumption and thus  give the economy a push. As this would mean a handout of 40 billion Euros, naturally they try to back out. At the moment, the discussion centers around the question “Who is everybody?”, every Jane and Joe Doe? Oskar und Erika Mustermann? Or are there special everybodies?

“Give them to those who are experienced money spenders”, I would tell them, if they asked me. On a greater scale, this would mean to give the money to the banks -which has already happened. On a more personal scale, they should give the money to me and not to my moneysaving spouse.  I have a lot of ideas how to spend 1000 Euro in one day effectively.

But this would be another story.

©Truegerman

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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.

@Francesca

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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”).

@Francesca

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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.

Truegerman

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