The Internet is currently not available in your country.

I LEARNED TODAY that Spotify, the digital music service, at some point became available to customers in the US.  I hopped right over to register and received the completely expected following message.

Oh well,  I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad. It took some time to come to the US, it will come to Germany eventually, right?  And besides, the Internet is a big place and there are always other ways to get music.  Like from Pandora, for example.

Or from Amazon Cloud?

Okay, fine. I’ll maybe something country from Walmart digital.

Aw, shucks. Well maybe it’s not the best way to listen to music, but when I’m desperate I know I can always head over to YouTube and find a teenager from Pocatello covering something from Miley Cyrus.

‘Sorry about that’ indeed.    Well, I guess streaming music is just not in the cards.  But I’m flexible, I can find better ways to wind down.   How about a movie? And who doesn’t use Netflix for movies these days?

WHAT!?! Hey,  I’ll settle for a bad movie. Hello, Hulu….

Oh hang it,  I thought the Internet was global?  They lied to me!  This is depressing.  Well when I’m down and out I know I can always count on Homer J. Simpson to cheer me up.

Or I usually really enjoy laughing at the misfortune of others.  Thank you ABC for Wipeout!

CBS? Late Night with David Letterman?

Oh well, I guess it turns out that the World Wide Web isn’t quite so…well, World wide.    Ah, but don’t feel too bad for us here, because we have all you could ever want of this:

The Trashy Neighbors

IN DEUTSCHLAND, FOR A FAMILY OF SEVEN GARBAGE DAY IS AN EVENT. It comes only once every two weeks, and garbage must be meticulously sorted and placed on the curb in a certain fashion. It’s not like Iowa, you can’t just plop your refuse on the curb every week.   Every other Wednesday night we spend 30 minutes or so carting the trash out of the basement storage room (where it waits for garbage day) and laying the garbage on the curb in preparation for the morning collection. Unfortunately, two weeks ago they moved the garbage day ahead by one day and we missed the memo, so tonight we set out a whole months worth.  In the interest of morbid curiosity, here is what that looks like:

So from left to right, here is what we just set out.

  • 13 bags of recycleables (yellow)
  • 16 bags of paper
  • 1 120L can of waste (mostly food, ew)
  • 1 extra blue bag of waste for when the can gets full
  • 1 big white bag of smelly goo in an unauthorized bag I found in the basement (should have opened and sorted but chickened out, stuffed it into the garbage can)
  • 2 bags of diapers, to be placed only on top of the garbage can
  • 3 bags of empty wine soda bottles.

By comparison, our neighbors set out one garbage can and 2 yellow bags. Win.

Together, Around The Table

Anna Captures a Meal Together

I TOOK THE LEAF OUT OF OUR DINING ROOM TABLE TODAY.

Before we moved here, Melissa and I decided to scrap our old kitchen table and upgrade.  We went to Homemaker’s furniture in Des Moines and bought a nice (for us) 8-10 person dining room table for our family and had it shipped to our house just in time to have it packaged, put on a container, and shipped to our new place.  Since then we also bought a breakfast-nook table for our main dining room.  That is the one that gets most of the use….unless we have company.

WAY BACK on December 3rd, I put the leaf into the new dining room table to make room for our coming guests.  My parents came on the 4th and stayed for 2 weeks.  We had a great time with them here.  We had some much-enjoyed quality time and encouragement, and they were, of course, always jumping in to lend a hand with the kids, meals, and tasks around the house.  They left on the 17th, and just a week later Melissa’s parents were able to come, and we had more of the same.

Cam's birthday around the table

WE ATE AROUND THAT TABLE A LOT.  Breakfasts and lunches and dinners.  Christmas meal with my family.  Christmas meal with Melissa’s family.  Meals at the table were punctuated with birthday celebrations, opening of presents, playing UNO or Prince Caspian, and others.  When we weren’t around the table we were just hanging out or watching TV or out and about exploring the Rhineland-Pfalz.  In short, we had fun – not because we did so much, but because we did it together.  It was nice to have company.  It was nice to see family.

This morning, Melissa left early to drive her parents to the airport for their trip home. While she was gone, I took the wing out of the dining room table.  It had been extended for company almost a full month, and now it is back to it’s normal size of six chairs pressed into the corner, mostly to be used as a base for homework.  And it will be a while before it comes out again.

We like Germany.  No – we love Germany.  We can already see there are so many things that we’ll wish we could take back to the states when that time comes, and we are content to stay here as long as my firm allows.  We have all adjusted really well and are not complaining.  But it’s bittersweet.  We loved the company.  We loved seeing family, parents and grandparents and in-laws, and spending time sharing our new place, town, and country.  The hard thing about expat life is that this is one item you just can’t package up in a box, put in a container, and have shipped to you.  Time with family and old friends is fleeting and far between, and the coming of New Year’s Eve means that for us it’s over for a while.

And that makes these otherwise Happy Holidays a little more somber for us.

How we spent Danksgiving Part II

NORMALLY, OUR THANKSGIVING would be spent with friends and family back in the USA. But without a recognized holiday here and with the distinct lack of family, you sometimes have to improvise.

Saturday night the John Deere expat community gathered in a restraunt not too far from here where 7 or 8 families dined together on a traditional Thanksgiving menu: Turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, and some pumpkin soup (who doesn’t have pumpkin soup on their Thanksgiving table?…it was excellent, BTW).  Unfortunately Melissa stayed home with the young ones who were sick, while Anna, Chase and I went to enjoy some good old English conversation (Topics included such things as, “What? Your kids didn’t have to get the Meningitis vaccination?!?)  I give credit to the organizers, it was an excellent meal and atmposphere and a nice getaway.

ON SUNDAY, THANKSGIVING HIT ANOTHER GEAR.

All week long Melissa and a couple of other American expat wives in Neustadt had been  scheming on a Thanksgiving dinner for our families. And it was a rousing success –  It had all the marks of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, with Turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie…all of it just like if you were having Thanksgiving dinner a Grandma’s house. With a few additions.

THE PRE-DINNER APPETIZER FOR THE MEN WAS A CUBAN CIGAR.  I had forgotten entirely that the lifelong ban I’ve lived under for Cuban cigars doesn’t necessarily extend to Europe, so I was quick to jump at the offer. Maybe a little too quick, because it was only when I was sitting on the patio smoking a cigar with the fellas and noticed the kids gawking at me shockeyed through the windows did I recall that they probably have never seen Melissa or I smoke a cigar before, and that I might have just erased 10 years of no-smoking education from their minds (“Ah, but I don’t inhale, kids.”).

After the dinner and desert were down and the conversation was  still on high, Brian then broke what is sure to become another new Thanksgiving tradition – some Polish Buffalo Vodka.  I don’t know how Polish Buffalo Vodka is different than any other kind of Vodka (it’s all grocery store Smirnoff to me), but I am pretty sure that when I’m offered a Vodka from the place where Vodka was just about born it would be downright uncouth to turn it down. It was not a bad chaser for Turkey and pumpkin pie.

WE MIGHT HAVE STOPPED THERE, BUT FRANZ WAS NOT TO BE OUTDONE. Franz and Sabine were two of the local neighbors from nearby that accepted an invitation to join us for the American holiday.   Franz is probably in his fifties with more genuinely interesting stories than days I have on the earth, so when the vodka came out he started to to tell about his friend who does a little moon-shining. Soon, Franz disappeared from the house only to return a few minutes later with a clear unlabeled bottle of pear liquor made in someone’s backyard.  That was genuinely pretty good too, but I think by that time you probably could have served us all a flute of antifreeze and we would have been sitting around commenting about how smooth it went down.

So our traditional Thanksgiving dinner from the last years this year was replaced by a dinner with our family from Iowa, one from Missouri, a Ohio family with Spanish roots, and German family in a country that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  It had a traditional American fixings, bookended by Guban cigars, Polish Vodka and German moonshine.

And that was not a bad way to spend it at all.

Of course it’s not locked. Do you think I’m stupid?

THE WEATHER HAS BEEN HORRIBLY LATELY, with an unnatural amount of rain, snow and ice.   So it was no suprise this morning when we woke up to a land covered in a sheet of ice and snow.  Unfortunately garages are rare, so that means that this morning began with an aggressive scraping of the ice off of the little BMW.

On my way to work I decided I was a little low on fuel, so popped into a gas station.  That’s when the trouble started, because my car’s fuel door was entombed in a casket of ice.

I have a push-to-release fuel door, and while parked next to the fuel pump I pushed it, and it didn’t give a millimeter.  It was completely caked in ice inside and out. I managed to scrape the ice off of the door, and pushed again, harder, but it still wouldn’t release.  I used the only tool I had – my keys – to try to scrape the ice as best as I could from behind the fuel door, but darned if it still wouldn’t release.  It seemed, I dunno, stuck somehow.

AFTER ABOUT 10 MINUTES SOMEONE AT THE NEXT PUMP TOOK PITY ON ME, and happened to have a small spray bottle of antifreeze in his car.  He came over and started to spray around the fuel door and as I watched the ice melt away I figured that would do the trick, but still no release.  He handed me the bottle left to fill his tank and go pay, and when he came back he found me there still holding a now nearly empty bottle of antifreeze and still prying at my fuel door wondering how it is there could still be ice stuck behind it.  After a while my new friend decided he had better things to do and gave up, but he was nice enough to alert the gas station attendant inside that there was a big dumb American in the parking lot clogging the fuel pump because he couldn’t get his fuel door open.

SHE RUSHED INTO ACTION,  taking a liter of water from the glass cooler in the gas station and warming it up, and a few minutes later came out with a piping hot bottle of water. She emptied the entire bottle of water over and into my fuel door. There was no physical way there could possibly be any ice left after that, so she stood back and motioned to the door, and I pressed again….and nothing. Stuck.

I looked at her and she and me, and she frowned, scratched her head.  I was thinking about how I must have damaged the door somehow when I was prying at it, and that I was going to need to drive to the dealership when it opens in a few hours and have them take a look, and thinking about how this was going to throw off my work day when I heard her ask, “Ist es verschlossen?”  Wait a moment…mentally translating….’Is it locked?

“Nein”, I said out loud emphatically.  It couldn’t possibly locked, I’m not stupid.  And just to prove it, and I took my keys out of my pocket and hit the unlock button on the key fob.

And the fuel door popped open.

How we spent Danksgiving (part 1).

ON THANKSGIVING DAY, OUR KIDS HAD A DATE WITH A NEEDLE.

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. 😉