Surviving and Thriving in Our First Year in Germany

Turns out, mom was right – time flies as you get older.

It’s been a year since we first stepped into our new home in Wiesbaden, and we’re still noticing some of the nuances of living in Europe.

Even when we think we’ve caught on to 3-hour dinners, 10 pm sunsets in April, festivals celebrating everything from major holidays to asparagus, there is always something new to explore and learn.

Here are a few things I learned, some the hard way, in the past year that I didn’t expect.

Flat and Chunky

In virtually every city (or small village), cobblestone, brick and dirt roads make up most of the terrain. I retired my 4-inch heels and conformed to the world of flats, chunky wedges and boots after my heel got stuck between pavers three times leaving church.

My love of shoes runs deep. At my peak, I owned nearly fifty pair, excluding softball spikes and flipflops. Now, I wear about six or seven sensible pairs – including rainboots and hiking shoes.

Germans love walking and being outdoors in general. They are out walking, biking, playing sports and dining at cafes no matter the weather. Hessen Park, the local living history museum, has an exhibit about their first hiking clubs.

There are some brave souls who strut in stilettos across the rugged and hilly landscapes. Maybe after four more years here, I could be one of those women instead of the one tripping in the street swearing loudly in English.

Pronunciation – It’s everything

Had we known how challenging the German language is to learn, we would have been more diligent in learning the basics before we moved.

However, we’ve found it’s not really necessary to speak German. The locals can spot Americans a mile away. It’s usually our happy smiles and polite greetings to strangers that set us apart, not to mention our delayed attempts at German with choppy pronunciation.

Six months into our journey, I took a German language class on base. The German language doesn’t believe in more than one sound per letter nor in silent letters. Every letter is pronounced in every word and sometimes, words are combined to make new words. Hence, the extremely long and complicated looking words.

German has a lot of fun phrases that don’t really translate well to English. What we call emotional weight gain, Germans call Kummerspeck (grief bacon). A jacket that is too heavy for spring, but too light for winter actually has a name in German – Übergangsschicht (transition coat between seasons).

Pronunciation is KEY in German. I learned that a bit late when our teacher explained how I had been telling a few people good naked (guten nackt) instead of good night (guten nacht).

Of course the way I said good night was also incorrect as that meaning is good night, I’m off to bed vs greeting someone with good evening (guten abend). Luckily the Germans are pretty forgiving and likely mock us in private when we have such blunders.

Sadly, we are no closer to speaking German than we were nine months ago. We have sticky notes all over the house and books with German vocabulary words, but we are far from conversational speaking. Maybe this time next year I can swear in German when I trip over my heels in the street! Small goals are good.

Slow Down – Familienzeit

Wiesbaden is a busy city. Restaurants, beer gardens, museums and shopping areas fill the downtown and suburban areas. Except for Sundays.

Most places of business close on Sunday to ensure people can spend time with their families and loved ones. A crazy concept for us Americans who are used to stores open 24/7 for our convenience, and their profits.

My idea of family time (Familienzeit) used to mean yard work on the weekends and running errands after church. Here, we’re not even allowed to mow the lawn or do other work that could be loud and disturbing to our neighbors on Sundays.

Seeing how much Germans value down time, travel, hiking – anything that brings enjoyment – encourages us to do the same. It has forced us to slow down really explore the possibilities for adventure that surrounds us.

From our house, a six-hour drive in virtually any direction can put us into six of the nine countries that border Germany. Though the girls and I are disappointed we don’t get passport stamps every time we cross a border, the opportunities are amazing.

The girls may not remember every city we visit or museum we tour, but they will remember how we made the most of the time here and together. As our years here slip by, we’ll work keep that love of adventure, outdoors and family time that Germany is teaching us no matter where we land in four years.

Cousin Bonding Without Borders

Sometimes I feel like we’re robbing our kids of an important piece of their childhoods.

Sure, all parents at some point question certain decisions they make. Is this what will send them to therapy in a few years? Will this somehow make them have doubts about themselves or hate me or haunt their childhood memories? You know, like moving to Europe and taking them an ocean away from their family and friends.

It’s not like we lived close before heading to Germany. Our families reside in suburban Chicago and we had been in DC area for a decade. But, it was a lot easier (and less expensive) to hop on a two-hour flight or road trip 700 miles than to grab a passport and cross multiple time zones.

Don’t get me wrong, our kids will experience some amazing things living in Europe for the next three to five years. We’ll see historic sites, taste amazing foods, learn a new language and meet fantastic new friends. However, they won’t have the same childhood experiences my husband and I had surrounded by family.

Family is always there – sometimes lurking

Both my parents and grandparents had grown up in our hometown. I couldn’t go anywhere without someone knowing some member of my family or BEING a member of my family. I got into a fender bender once and when we exchanged information, the other driver took one look at my license and told me to say hi to my uncle.

When I went away to college, my amazing friends visited often so I never got homesick. Plus, a few hometown friends and my sister were there. I like to think that her initial feeling of dread and annoyance faded in the three years we shared there.

I hoped my career as the next Barbara Walters would take me to exotic places. I had moved to Chicago, Arizona, back to Illinois, then off to St. Louis, but by age 24, I was back in my hometown where I was virtually related to every third person.

It wasn’t my ideal, but it was somehow comforting.  Sharing laughs and memories with family and friends reminded me how important it is to feel you belong to something bigger – even if some of those memories are reasons none of us will ever be President, well, maybe there’s a chance.

Aren’t you Vic and Wanda’s daughter?

To our girls, Maryland is home. They were blessed with some amazing friends we had there, but they didn’t get to experience small town living. They could go to the store and not run into relatives. They could be out and about and strangers couldn’t take one look at them and confirm who their parents were.

They had instructors and bus drivers who didn’t also teach previous generations of their family. But, they missed out on feeling the embarrassing pride of family cheering for them at preschool graduation, dance recitals, school concerts or taking up two rows at church on Sundays.

Even though they have never lived in the same state, much less same town, the girls are fiercely attached to their family. They love talking to them and about them, especially the cousins. They keep their pictures in their rooms and I sometimes catch our youngest talking to them.

I can relate. My cousins were my first friends, confidants and memory makers. We had inside jokes and late-night whispers at sleepovers. We bonded over toys when we were young and complained about our parents as we got older. I read in a Boston Globe article that cousins are a unique and essential part of childhood – “Not a sibling, not a friend, but a powerful mixture of both — and they’re yours for life.” I agree.

Even now, after we have outgrown our childhood nicknames and months since we last spoke in person, there is a connection among us. For some, it will forever be the time my mom gave me a well-deserved smack across the face for lying about where I was on New Year’s Eve at age 16 – I still gingerly touch my cheek when I think about it! For others, it’s playing on the tire swing in our grandparent’s backyard or living in our bathing suits all summer running across hot asphalt to perform a synchronized swim show for our parents. I could have yelled “Chucky, NO!” at Christmas last year and we’d instantly be eight years old running up our basement stairs.

We may not share the same opinions or secrets anymore, but we know we used to. And we know too much about each other’s childhood secrets to ever forget that closeness or how we’d look forward to the next family gathering.

Family tree branches out

When in Maryland, the girls would pack weeks in advance of our 12-hour drive. They would have plans, movies and special toys for cousin sleepovers. Their excitement was contagious. My heart would melt seeing them together, their giggles like music throughout the house.

There is something about that sibling-like bond that is magical. I feel a little guilty for moving to a place that makes that experience almost impossible for my girls. The year our oldest daughter was born, the grandparents were all given a webcam. We wanted to ensure they could bond, even if we were hundreds of miles a way. It’s not the same as being there, but it’s close.

Ensuring our kids know their family and forge those life-long connections is our responsibility. We may not be able to attend family dinners or holiday BBQs, but we can get on Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, text, email and even…call.  Because no matter where you go, there is no place like home and no replacements for cousins.

  

 

We Made It

Across time zones, across the ocean and across the street from amazing bakeries and restaurants. We made it.

I had fears how it would work. Our kids were ready to move in with the neighbors to avoid leaving them. I had my ugly cry as we were sent off with a blessing from our church who has been our family for nearly ten years. We said heartfelt goodbyes to family and friends and to the house where our family began.

I had excitement and anticipation. I had doubts and concerns. We faced nearly two weeks in a hotel room before an eight hour flight to another hotel room a world away from everyone we knew and loved. I had pictured the worst case scenarios for every situation.

To my delightful surprise, it went like clockwork. Airport, flight and arrival – smooth. Adjustment to new time – smooth. Starting school and work, making friends and finding a house – smooth. I’ve been afraid to jinx it, but we’ve all adjusted to living in Wiesbaden, Germany pretty damn good.

We’ve only begun exploring our new home and the vast amount of history, culture, fun and adventure that await us. From local festivals and carnivals to farmer’s markets and amusement parks, we’ve loved everything we’ve seen so far.

We’re learning German (very slowly), getting our house in order and collecting tour books for when family and friends visit this summer. We’re tracking the best wineries and beer tours, so let me know if you have any favorites!

I’ve wondered if this was the right choice for our family since we started discussing the option a year ago. I’m sure there will be times I have insecurities, today, I don’t. The girls made friends from the base hotel and school. Our neighbors include children, and bunnies, and a park with a zip line. We have a large backyard and playroom. We have a room waiting for family to arrive.

We have years to explore and enjoy this chapter. I bet will be better than I ever thought.