How we spent Danksgiving (part 1).


I'm not exactly sure how it worked out that cruelly for them. I suppose a couple things came together.   First, and obviously, Thanksgiving is not a recognized holiday here, so business and office places and schools were open and running just like any other day.

Secondly, the last time the kids were at the doctor's office he noted that they didn't seem to have Meningitis vaccinations, which are normal (required?) in Germany.   I didn't appreciate this at the time, but Melissa had experienced first hand the grizzly horror of taking the kids in for shots and decided she wanted me there for some additional firepower. I groussed a little ("C'mon, what's the big deal with getting some shots?") but relented and decided it would work best for me to come home a little early and help out on Thanksgiving, because that meant it would be easier to slip out in the afternoon while my US colleagues were on vacation.

MELISSA HAD A STRATEGY.  This time, she elected to employ the element of suprise.  The kids were unaware of their appointment all day long.  We went to work and school like any other day, and then came home to reheated Macaroni and Wurst. After supper, Melissa layed out some gift wrapped presents on the kitchen counter, one for each kids, and gathered them around the kitchen counter...and broke the news that in 30 minutes, they were all getting a literal shot in the arm, but that if they did OK they would get to come home and open a present.

And that is the point at which we officially lost control, and never regained it.

The kids cried the entire way to the doctor's office.   I should say that differently...the girls cried all the way to the doctor's office.  In a proud moment as a father, crying really doesn't explain what my two sons were doing.  They were wailing.

They wailed in the house as I carried them to the van. They wailed all the way to the office. They wailed as we walked across the street. They wailed in the lobby, and they wailed in the examination room while we waited for the doctor.  Then, when time for shots came, they really started to make some noise.

When we got into the exam room Camden tucked himself into the corner of the room behind an examination table and curled up into the the fetal position on the floor.  He screamed louder every time we told him he needed to "come out right now!".  As Jazzy, and then Anna, and then Kiersten got their shots (all crying)  and his time came closer he just cried and wailed louder.  Chase was 4th up to bat, and my brave seven year old son kicked and shook and screamed like we were about to hack off his arm.  In the end it took all three of us - me, Melissa and the doctor - to restrain him while the shot was administered. He hopped off the table still wailing - holding his arm like it was barely still attached- while we extricated Camden from his hiding place and forced him up on the table too and put the needle in his arm.   By the time we were done we had 4 crying kids (Jazz of all of them was fine), two exasperated parents, a nurse and a doctor trying to leave the room with the big loud American family as quickly as possible.

There is no sensation like the moment you take your kids back out to the waiting room and receive the burning stares of others asking quizzically What just happened in there? I honestly entertained a thought in my head of  which would worse, the Meningitis vaccination or actual Meningitis (give me a minute, still thinking). As we walked out,  I asked Melissa, "So is it always like that?"

"Oh yeah," she says, "I knew it would be bad.  I've had to pull Camden out underneath chairs and tables before. That's pretty normal."

So that will go down as one Thanksgiving day where none of us felt particularly like being thankful for much of anything.   Except for me.... I am thankful for my wife, who for the last 10 years has been taking our kids to the doctor's office to get shots without me.   And I am also thankful that we now have some early Christmas shopping done, as those presents "for being good at the doctors office" stayed on the counter - untouched - and will now reappear a little later under the Christmas tree.

When you're the dumbest person in the room.

IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW SMART YOU ARE. It doesn't matter that you have an advanced degree, or that  you're a respected manager, or that you have lots of good experience to share, or that you went to some fancy B-school, or that you happen to be a parent of 5, or that you've lived on two different continents, etc, etc. When you don't speak the local language, you are always the dumbest person in the room.

Take for example, the time way back in September when we decided to order a piece of furniture - a new kitchen table - from a local furniture store. We had the option to drive 45 min to a store that had english speaking salesmen, but decided we were going to "Live German" and buy local.   Melissa and I walked the store to find the table she wanted, and once she had picked it out the inevitable moment of engaging the sales person in dialague (is that what it's called?) came. I turned around to find Melissa had disappeared to the van with the kids, leaving me to negotiate alone.

What followed was a half an hour conversation with a salesman with no capability nor interest in understanding English.  At the end, I felt like I placed the order well enough, and understood it would be delivered to our house in 6 weeks.  So...what does one do in that situation when 8 weeks pass and no table has arrived?  One might, for example,  stop in the store (which I did) and get a long string of explanations from that same salesman that would be  perfectly clear to a German kindergartner. But to the Over-Educated-American-with-no-language-skills he might as well have been communicating with a pig.

After that failure, one might decide, frustrated, that it would be easier to send an email asking for some written help as to how to get our table, and ask for a written response (so that Google Translate has a chance to intervene).   And if one did that, then the salesman might, hypothetically, call back on the phone the very next day and repeat the same instructions (This time I was far enough along in my language training to say "But I don't understand German" in German, to which his response was, "You understand well."  Um, I'm pretty sure that's wrong, but I don't know how to tell you that.)  And then, somewhere in the chain, someone might finally  take pitty on you and your table will show up one Friday 10 weeks after you ordered it. Hypothetically.  And that whole time, between you and the furniture salesman, you are the dumbest person in the room.   Sure he gave us a table, and all it cost was my pride. And about a 1000 Euro.

That's what it's like every time I am in a meeting where I am the only English speaker. Although at first everybody is very gracious and agrees to speak in English, inevitably at some point the conversation switches from forced English to fluent German 'just to explain a few points'...and of course, it never switches back.  And during that whole time, I'm the dumbest person in the room.

THIS SUNDAY WAS THE FINAL STRAW. We go to a church we're really excited to be a part of. It is vibrant, culturally relevant, and a great environment for our whole family. The only down side we can see is that the entire service is in German. That makes it a little awkward for us, and church is a place where it can be hard to fake it.   A couple of weeks ago a greeter realized the situation we were in and graciously offered to set up a translation service until we had a chance to get acclimated.  What a great idea! We thought that meant headphones for us with a mic'ed translator hidden away somewhere in the building (that's how this normally works, right?). We were thinking that right up until this Sunday morning when the translator introduced himself to Melissa ("Hi, I'm Chris, I'm your translator").   and plopped down next to her. For the rest of the service - approximately one hour - he leaned close  and whispered the English translation into her ear, sultry-German-accented-word by sultry-German-accented-word. Thanks, I'm sure that was much less awkward for both of us.  It was a extremely kind gesture and we are really are thankful for the help, but...why do we have that  feeling like we're the dumbest people in the room again?

So for us, the reality has set in that it's not just about living German anymore, it's about living with a little pride.  We have to learn the language. We have to learn the language. I need to learn it so I can order furniture without laying awake the night before thinking about it.  I need to learn it so I can actually contribute to a conversation.  I need to learn it for my own piece of mind.  And Melissa needs to learn it too, because I'm not sure I'm OK with letting Chris whisper in her ear like that again for a long, long time. ;)







We Lewis & Clark'ed it to Hohe Loog

IN THE HILLS above the castle Hambacher Schloss sits a little wilderness retreat called Hohe Loog. In the summer months during the weekends there is a restaurant featuring brats and sauerkraut and similar German fare, and there is a large play area for the kids in the area outside.   Unfortunately, it is only accessible by foot so we hadn't made the trek there yet to check it out.   But today, with probably one of the last warm and sunny weekend days for a while we decided to take a little hike. Emphasis on little.

We had tried once before to hike there, but the trail goes up a steep hill and the kids tired out in about 2 km, so that day we ended up  turning back.  We hadn't ever consulted a map  but sort of figured it couldn't possibly be that much farther (this is what literary smarties call foreshadowing),, so today we parked the van in the Hambacher Schloss parking lot and headed up hill.

We walked. And we walked. We walked past the point we stopped last time.  Then we walked some more. We stopped and ate lunch, then we got up and kept walking....on and on and on....   The kids buzzing excitement gradually turned into silence, and then moaning, and then outright complaining.    By my count we had hilked 3 or 4 kilometers uphill when Melissa noticed a little yellow sign up ahead with "Hohe Loog" printed on it, causing her to make the ill-advised announcement, "Look, we must be here!". Unfortunately, it wasn't until we reached the sign that we could read the whole thing: "Hohe Loog: 1.9km". You must be joking.

By that time, though,  Dad was fully invested. There was no way we were going to walk 5 km and then give up before reaching the summit.  We might as well have been climbing Everest,  we we're going to make it to the top if we had to spend the night on that hill.  The route got steeper, the trail narrower, and kept winding through the woods.  The kids were so tired there were actually some tears.  But then....we made it....

Hohe Loog was a popular spot! Despite the fact we had only seen a few people on the trails, still there were probably a couple hundred people enjoying the day there. It had a play area that featured a slide whose size and speed would never be allowed in the US, as well as swings, play structures, sandboxes, etc.  Kids climbed all over the toys while parents sat on picnic benches munching on something from the kitchen. It wasn't long before our kids forgot how tired there were, and were running up and down the slide and climbing all over rocks.

But...they quickly remembered again when we announced it was time to go home. Suddenly all the complaining about tired legs returned.  We hiked on down the hill, this time choosing an alternate route that we thought might be a little shorter (which is was, apart from the 20 minutes we spent completely lost wandering back and forth before getting some directions from a stranger).  By the time we made it back to the van it had been a 5 hour trip, about 10km of hiking and some vigorous play on the hill.  It was a day well spent in the great outdoors.

And like a lot of things now, it was all about little victories. Example: For one of the first times here in Neustadt, we went somewhere and  recognized people.   Chase saw some kids from his soccer club. Camden and Anna saw kids from there school class, and Melissa bumped into a women she occasionally meets for coffee. Secondly, I actually managed a to get some directions from a stranger in German, using complete sentences that didn't include pointing and  ridiculous looking hand motions.

That's some progress!

When a BMW is not about vanity.

THE CAR BUYING PROCESS is - thankfully - behind us.

First there was The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van that severely bit into our car buying budget. Coupled with the extreme costs of German cars, and the realization that banks in Deutschland weren't just going to extend credit to a couple of American rubes that just tumbled off the boat (so to speak) we had a couple weeks there where we had to evaluate our options on our second car.

Long story short, we finally bit the bullet and shelled out some dough for a More-Reasonable-But-Still-Offensively-Overpriced commuter vehicle. Now with that behind us, let me take a moment to share the most important feature on this particular automobile:

That's's  a Beamer. ;)

Now, let's be clear. We're not into big expensive cars, nor are we  into vanity... and this is not a big expensive car. This is not the BWM 5 series you often see floating down the Interstate in the US.  It's not even the smaller 3 series.  In fact, you've probably never seen this type of car at all. This is the baby BMW, the 1 series...a 118d (Diesel) to be exact.   It's a good car for us first because it's small enough that we can probably stuff it in our suitcase and take it home with us when we leave in a few years.  It's also truly not about vanity (it's used and  pretty basic). In reality, it's about fuel efficiency.  And that's a big deal.

Let's start with gas prices in Germany. At first blush, you might think they don't seem to bad when you stroll across the border and see signs like this one:

The word Benzin is your basic unleaded gasoline, so you might look at this sign and say "$1.19 for gas? That's all? That's not bad!"  And you might think that until you filled up your tank. And you might still be thinking that right up to the time you  went up to pay at the register, and right then and there it would occur to you that you just got a one-two punch by the imperial system and the US Dollar.

First off, gas is sold by the liter here, and there are about 3.8 Liters in a US Gallon.  Secondly, that price you're looking at is in Euros.  There's nothing wrong with the good ol fashion US Dollar, but let me tell you - it's no Euro. So taking into account the Liter-to-Gallon conversion and the current exchange rate for the US dollar, current gas prices in Germany in American terms comes to this: $6.91 / Gallon.

To put that into perspective, I had Chevy Colorado before we came here that got 21 mpg (not bad for a pickup).  Now here, I drive 80km every day too and from just based on the commute alone and assuming normal gas mileage that truck would have cost me $16.35/day in gas alone.  $340/month.  $4200/year. And that's just for the commute.

Enter the BMW 1er.  In Europe fuel efficiency is published in Liters / 100km (in other-words, how many liters of gas the car requires to go 100km in normal conditions).  A gas guzzler might require over 10L/100km.  A 'fuel efficient' car is less than 6L/100km. And here's the beauty of the BWM 118d: It gets as low as 3.9L/100km.  Not impressed? I suppose those numbers don't mean much, so let's convert that to something more familiar:  The BMW 118d gets 60 miles per gallon. If that's not impressive, then consider that the 2011 Honda Civic Hybrid gets a mere 43mpg on the highway. The Prius gets 51.  And those are hybrids, in the BWM 118d we're just talking about a regular old diesel engine here.

It's not just BWM either...European car manufacturers have fuel efficiency at the top of their list of customer demands, and it shows up in their technology.  I won't go into how its achieved, there are a lot of reasons (example on the 118d, the engine shuts off when you come to a stop at a stoplight, and restarts automatically when you pop the clutch - without missing a beat).  But regardless of how, the what is that it makes gas affordable here...and that makes the  price tag almost seem justifiable.