Kita Reise

On Monday Frida Rosenbaum, aged 6, packed her suitcase, kissed her family goodbye, and headed to the beach for 2 nights with her friends.

Oh, also her teachers. When I thanked one of those long-suffering souls for her sacrifice in taking our kids for 72 hours straight, she told me that she is neither suffering nor sacrificing – it’s a time together that they all look forward to. I blushed, remembering that she took this job because she likes it and is good at it, not because selfish parents like me ‘need a break’.

Preschool workers in Germany are not babysitters in the same way that fathers are not babysitting when they are parenting. German preschool teachers have extensive training, 3-year-long internships, paid vacation, and the respect of the community. Like other professionals, they expect to work in their field for the entirety of their career: Frida’s teacher has been teaching at the same school for 20 years.

Frida woke up at 5:00 the morning of the trip, said, “Mom, I have Reisefieber” (vacation fever – don’t you love German?!) and went off to double-check her toiletry kit. Last year, Frida came back so stinking proud of herself! At the beach, she put herself to bed and got herself ready in the morning – things that have been a struggle for us at home. This year, she plans to help the little kids brush their teeth if they need a hand – she’s been practicing with Max (whose heart problems and general delay mean that he’s staying home. Maybe next year.) Kids who are 3 and up go on the trip (after a practice overnight at the preschool,) as do all of the teachers and staff aides and the school’s administrator. No parents, though, as that would defeat the purpose.

The German system isn’t cheap, but it’s paid through the city government so everyone pays, via taxes, according to income. The moral of the story? Pay your taxes and you will be richly rewarded. And by rewarded, I don’t mean with 72 hours of kid-free time, I mean rewarded with a kid who comes back grubby, full of amazing stories about the shells they found and dancing at the disco party the last night, and confident in her budding independence.


Merry Christmas

Possibly the best moment of my life so far: cozied up in the Colorado farm house with my whole family*, listening to my uncle deliver our annual Christmas Eve reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and seeing my 8-year-old nephew laugh out loud over and over. Delightful!

Best wishes for a joyous holiday.


*except for Tobias, and he comes tomorrow! Hurrah!

Oh’ld English

I worry that I’m not funny anymore. I’m certainly not funny in Germany, or Italy. I spend too much time being too practical; too much energy translating the punchline for cultural digestibility. The offbeat stuff doesn’t work so well when the conversation’s moved on but I’m still paging through the dusty dictionary in my head, trying to remember if spinach is masculine*.

A few weeks ago, though, I got to have laughs with an old friend. She’s 41. Ha!

A few weeks ago, though, I got to have laughs with a dear friend. We were college roommates, soccer buddies, travelers and sunny, bright young things together. She was the one who asked me, pointedly, why I was marrying my first husband (back when I could have done something about it.) When I’m wondering how sad I should be about a C-section, she’s the one who helps me figure it out. She cares for me, I care for her, and we have two decades of mutual fandom and practical support as a basis for some pretty torrential conversations during the 30 hours every two years that we heroically manage to get ourselves face to face.

It is so refreshing, such a joy, to make her laugh.

Frida finds me largely unfunny, I’m afraid**. She deadfaces me when I clown around, and rarely has the context needed to get my asides (without which they just sound snide. My asnides.) Mostly she just doesn’t find my humor to her taste. I am delighted when, red-faced and sweaty from a sprint through the train station, we wait for whole minutes for the train’s doors to close after we’ve burst through them. It was delayed? But we ran to catch it? And we could have walked? Hilarious! Frida nods sympathetically when I try to explain how funny this is.  I probably am going to regret every time I’ve let her hear me say ohmygodfuckinggermans under my breath – she’s German – but oh my fucking god, Germany, why do you not train children to seek humor in the absurd? Poor Frida’s American half has a pretty heavy lift!

It doesn’t take much to add some laughs, like sprinkling in some garlic salt while you’re sautéing spinach, but it makes it all so much better. I’m going to keep trying.

*of course, right? Trust yourself, Betsy, if you feel in your bones that spinach is very much masculine, choose the pronoun and move on.

Or maybe we could just call spinach ‘they’.

**for the non-MidWesterner, I should explain that ‘I’m afraid’ is not used to describe something that I’m afraid of, but rather something indisputably true that I am sad about, e.g. “I’m afraid she didn’t pull through surgery.” (Oh also, ‘didn’t pull through’ means she died.)

Right Away, Ma’am.

Frida, home sick but with enough energy for a little dry humor before her now-rare afternoon nap, glares at me and barks, “You. Snugglatorium. Now.”

If your goal is a pre-nap snuggle with a Betsy who’s laughing so hard she’s crying, this appears to be a sure bet.

Love to all, and may your holidays be rich with just the right mix of antibodies.


Good Thing It’s Winter

In Germany, I am comparatively ridiculously concerned with offending people. If I’m buying the last bottle of milk, I’ll offer to share it with the person in line behind me (they’re like, “Inefficient. Also odd. I have no receptacle for one half liter of your milk. No.”) I’m more comfortable in a society where everyone is the same level of polite; the German approach feels rude to me and I’m not used to being the tender violet. It’s hard to balance assimilation and cultural competence with a sense of self; hard to differentiate between what is really important to me and what is just habit. There are times, though, when even I see that my definition of politeness is just too damn much:

At the cash machine, I don’t like the feeling of covering the number pad when entering my pin code. The machine’s signage tells us to, and I guess we do it in case we’re being recorded, but I always feel like apologizing to the people around me, “You’re probably totally trustworthy, I don’t mean to imply otherwise, but if I don’t do this every time I’ll just feel like a paranoid, profiling asshole the times I DO cover the numbers. Sorry. It’s better this way.”

I’m a full-grown woman and yet I am not convinced that telling the wine merchant that I like a mature, not-too-dry red is more likely to get me a wine I will like than saying “Red? Unless there’s a white one that you especially like?” And when the wine lady asks what I want to pay, my answer is basically, “The integer at the nexus of inoffensive and indulgent.” So I end up with some obscure, way-too-dry white that is a great bargain for people who prefer their wine to be interesting rather than delicious. Ugh.

Unfortunately it’s the same with haircuts. Last Saturday I secured a last-minute appointment, sat down in the salon chair ready to chop off 6 inches or so, and, head filled with visions of a sleek, face-flattering, easy-to-care-for statement on my fabulous life, said, “Um, just do what you think. But short.” She’s the professional, right? Let’s not offend her by playing armchair quarterback. An hour later I realize the haircut lady decided that I, as a middle aged woman trying to pass in a crowd in Germany, would be best served by a hairstyle unavoidably reminiscent of Hitler Youth: white walls, deep side part, straight comb-over.

Fuck, you know what though? I’m 41.

It’s not Hitler Youth.

It’s Hitler.

God damn it.

Shoot for polite, end up with the Hitler Haircut. I’m doing this wrong.

I’ll Continue to Miss Out

I’ve lived in Germany for 15% of my life. Although I’m not exactly comfortable doing it, I speak the language and I have learned to tolerate being nude in the sauna with a bunch of unspeaking* strangers. I don’t know everything about Germany, though, and the tricky thing about living your life without benefit of full cultural context is that when your 5-year-old comes home from school and tells you that she ate 4 bowls of hot cucumber soup for lunch, you just believe her. You’re can’t walk through your culture’s flowchart to find out what she really ate for lunch (e.g. did you have grilled cheese with it? Then it was tomato soup. Or, was it garlicky and in a really small bowl? Then you ate everyone’s tzatziki. That was supposed to be a garnish. Or, is your teacher/cook/superintendent fucking insane? Then, yes, you might have had hot cucumber soup.)

We’ve trained Frida to have good manners, I’ll admit, but four bowls is more than politeness calls for. Was it actually hot cucumber soup? And was it actually good?!



*’unspeaking’ is not the problem. The problem is that I am naked. Small talk would make the situation unbearable. This is why in Italy we wear bathing suits in the sauna. It’s either chattiness or nudity. Never both.


As I think of Germany more and more as home, I have new and different worries. I can relax a bit about the cost of Max’s long term care: staggering, maybe impossible, in the U.S. but part of the social insurance scheme here in Hamburg. I don’t need to set aside $100,000 for Frida’s college if she stays in the German system – university here is free or nearly. The bullying, consumerism, and obesity risk that American kids contend with are very different in Germany – even little kids here eat dark bread and I have seen with my own eyes 13-year-olds play accordion in front of their peer group, unironically, without dying of embarrassment and without being made fun of. It was, to anyone who’s gone to middle school in Olathe, Colorado, astonishing. (I remember thinking, ‘No, no, kids, why did you pick the accordion? Do you NEVER want to get laid?’ But I think actually they’ll be just fine. Tobias was at one point a beekeeping 19-year-old virgin and he turned into the kind of stud who picks up hot chicks at the airport baggage claim, a man sexy enough to make me move across the world and bear his children.)

So, Germany has its plusses and that doesn’t even count the architecture and the green space and the educated voters and the public transport and the museums and the ridiculously good apple juice. What, then, are the minuses?

Let’s Play…

New Worries

Imagine that you’re trapped in Hamburg for the rest of your life. What’s the problem? Read through the list below, then add your own ideas in the comments!

  • When I smile at strangers, the assumption is that I am mentally unwell rather than simply friendly. In return, a deepening frown is as likely as a smile.
  • You cannot find a good 38/85C bra here.
  • It is extremely difficult for anyone listening to me speak German to appreciate the power of my intellect. You know those memes with the hilarious translation fails? That’s me in German.
  • This weather may be slowly killing me, drip by depressing drip.
  • The marshmallows in Germany taste awful.

Ha ha! That was a trick – marshmallows everywhere taste awful unless they’re grilled over an open fire by my Uncle Joe during a successful fishing-and-camping trip in the Rocky Mountains.

I guess after 7 years in Europe, I’m realizing that I live here and I’m finally homesick! Since another visit to the family farm in Colorado isn’t on the books until winter, I need to do something to make Hamburg feel a little more homey.

Time to go ridicule some preteens. (Oh, come on, you’re asking for it! You’re playing handball!)


I must be feeling better; here are my impulse buys at the market:

  • a pound of drool-worthy chicken livers
  • really stinky cheese. (The kind that is drippy and that you should clean up with a paper towel rather than a reusable wipe.)
  • all the wild boar (almost a kilo of odds and ends.)
  • turnip greens
  • fresh sauerkraut
  • a shitload of plums. (Ha! That’s anything more than two.)

Yes, folks, poop jokes are funny again*. Hurrah! Hurray! No one diarrhea’d on me today!



*to me.



I’m the fourth member of our four-person family to get the stomach flu this week. (There’s no joy in knowing that my exposure was due to processing contaminated laundry and cleaning contaminated toilets.)

As the lone non-German in the house, my sickness comfort foods seem strange: rather than Tuc crackers, a local version of Ritz, I want low-salt saltines, graham crackers, and brightly colored fitness beverages in flavors like Power Frost and Arctic Melon Crush. They’re almost impossible to find here, and not having them makes me homesick, but I thought I’d lucked out today at the grocery when I saw a knock-off Gatorade in the drinks aisle.

I am outraged about lots of things – the Global Gag Rule, Trump’s recent rollback of DACA, Hungary’s willingness to turn away people who need help – and generally find that modern Germany is getting right what other political regimes are getting wrong. Why, then Germany, why, when I’m at a vulnerable point three days into this stomach bug, do you carbonate your Gatorade?

When I think about the various kinds of privilege I enjoy, I am embarrassed and grateful. And now I have a convenient shorthand for my specific level of privilege!

“Whines About Carbonated Gatorade.”

All I Can Think Of Right Now

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the occasion of a birthday-festivity-induced light hangover produces plenty of existential angst. Life is short! And I forgot to get an MBA in my 30’s. Shit!

Still, with the years comes wisdom. (With the years come wisdom? Wisdoms? Hmm, might have to take it back.) Wisdoms like:

  • it’s hard to maintain envy if your answer to the would-you-trade-lives-with-them question is no. e.g. I might be jealous of someone’s job or their painting skills or their ability to walk gracefully in heels but I do not want to be Barack Obama (the stress!) or Frida Kahlo (the angst!) or Melania Trump (the obvious!)
  • sleeping more is the easiest, cheapest way to feel good. Exercising and a nutritious diet work, too, but sleeping you can do lying down.
  • for most situations, nuts make an appropriate gift.