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.

Perspective

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!)

Recovery

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.

 

Felled

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.

41!

Tobias and the kids, on board with the concept but fuzzy on the details, proudly served me homemade breakfast in bed this morning: a cup of coffee and an entire cheesecake.

Tobias has taken charge of the birthday planning, which means that it’s 9:30 and I’ve already been to the gym. (Fair, given what I had for breakfast.)

Frida explained that she couldn’t tell me about the surprise party because it is a surprise.

Max gave me a good morning hug and said that for the evening hug he isn’t going to use his arms. I’m looking forward to finding out what that means.

So far, 41 is fantastic.

 

I’m Calling It

It’s been a hell of a summer! Lots of family, lots of sun, some riots, a half-marathon, and loads of laughs. My favorite: while I was taking a picture of my daughter,

Delicious!

my mom was taking a picture of her daughter, too.

Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. Mom kills me.

Now that the 40 hours of flying are behind us, I can confidently report that a recipe for an excellent summer is:

CORN! Lots of it.

DOGS! Preferably willing snugglers.

Sunrises. (Jet lag’s silver lining.)

Skyping with Papa, who’s like I miss you guys and I took a 4-hour bike ride after work/didn’t have to share my cheesecake/finished my work project without feeling neglectful/slept without getting kneed in the groin. But how’s YOUR vacation?

…and as many cousins as you can gather. Love to all.

Family Update

Frida, watching me put Max’s longest socks on and noting that he has two knees, suggests that they should be called ‘knees socks’.

Tobias, answering my question about our attendance at next Wednesday’s anti-G20 demonstration, patiently explains that Trump a.) is an elected official, and b.) does not care what I think (or yell and scream.)

I somewhat less patiently explain that the demo isn’t meant to change Trump’s mind (although isn’t that a delicious thought,) but to remind the consumers of the demo – neighbors, passersby, city leadership, our cops – of the importance of voting for a candidate who will do the right thing. I’m charged up, glad that my German has come far enough to talk American politics even though it’s dead easy right now: smack the forehead, explain that even with Trump out of the picture there are still millions of Trump supporters feeding off of Russian Fact Soup, say something simple about how capitalism is bad.

Max, trying on a dress from the Nigerian stall at the street festival, twirls and twirls and laughs and twirls.

We are as good as we’re going to get.

 

Cultural Differences, Preschool Toughness Edition

My mother’s old horse got stuck, belly-deep, in wet adobe. On the farm alone, watching the horse flounder and panic in the heavy clay, she went to get a shovel, then a tractor, then a gun. She hated it, but she shot her horse as soon as she knew he was a goner. It was just getting worse for him, so she wasn’t going to let him wait until his guts stopped working, or wait until the next day when Dad got home. She’s kind, and she’s practical, and she’s tough.

My Dad is, too. So am I, although lately my toughness has more to do with opening a Tupperware container that I’m pretty sure has a three-day-old snail floating in it.

I want Frida to be tough. I tell her the Grandma-and-the-horse story when we talk about judging people on the way they act instead of the way they look. Grandma’s not just friendly, she’s strong, I explain. She does what’s right even when it’s hard for her.

It’s a good conversation, worthwhile, but sometimes I take these talks too far:

  • I get shrill when I talk to Tobias about how important it is to reflect diversity in the media we feed our kids. “She always wants to be the blond girl in the story book! Every time! She’s internalizing the messages we give her, so stop saying ‘him’ when you talk about a potential engineer hire! Fuck!” (Even though I’m the one that let her watch Frozen.)
  • I’m hard on Frida when she shows a preference for white characters instead of people of color in her picture books. This morning she reminded me that SHE’s white, that’s why she picks the white characters. I’m like DIDN’T WE ALREADY TALK ABOUT THE FLESH-TONED CRAYONS??!! STOP BEING SO NORMATIVE! (She’s five.)
  • When we read a story that has no strong female characters, I go to great lengths to make some up. (Instead of, you know, reading her favorite stories and/or letting her go to sleep.)

Poor kid, she’s going to end up with a prince on bended knee and me behind her whispering, “But what about grad school? The civil service? Doctors without Borders?! You’ll have more power as an Ambassador than as a princess. Tell your prince to forget marriage – wait until you’ve earned it, then nominate you as his country’s U.N. rep.”

I think we need an Amal (Alamuddin) Clooney doll! If we’re going to play dress-up, at least we’ll put those tiny, sparkly velcro dresses on a human rights lawyer.

In case you were worried that this tendency to be an overbearing asshole about race and gender politics has ruined my chances to cement my legacy as a Super Fun Mom, here’s the veggie tray I made for Frida’s recent school sleepover. Yes, pre-schoolers in Germany are taken on multiple-day school trips. With no parents. Frida’s shown herself to be totally capable with this level of self-sufficiency. Maybe she’s a little tough after all.

I’m a clown! My name is FreeTime!