Germany Knows Parks

Deutschland, you’ve outdone yourself.

WHEN I WAS A KID, I used to play at McManus Park in Bettendorf. Better known on the street as the “Rocket Park” because it featured a giant upright metal rocket that you could climb to the top, level by level. Each level an awkward series of rusty metal bars, ladders, stairs and hatches.    Everything was hard, sharp,  and the risk of falling, bumping, scraping was high – it was hard to get to the top unscathed.  20 or so feet below was a sand play area, the only problem being that the sand had either all been relocated to the rocket (where it got kicked in your eyes as you climbed) or had been blown away years ago,  and all that remained was the bedrock below.  Other play things like slides and merry-go-rounds were old, metal, rusty, and wicked fast.   Those were the good ol’ days.

A few years ago we took our kids back to that park of my childhood to play and found it had been replaced with this.  The three story rocket was gone, everything was made of some sort of soft composite.  Even the sand had been replaced with some recycled tire material.  It was clean, organized and super safe.

In otherwords, it sucked.

Enter the city parks in Germany, in this case the Luisenpark in Mannheim.  First, there’s the play equipment.  There are zip lines for kids, a tire swing contraption where the object is to actually collide with your partner, trampolines, and all manner of whip-lashing contraptions for kids:



Then there’s the wildlife, including a reptile zoo, aquarium, birds in cages as well as a few roaming free:

Jazz, if you can catch that bird I'll give you a Euro. "Ohtay, Daddy!"

There’s a Chinese garden replete with Koi pond:

A little adventure course with rope bridges and a chance to get your feet wet:


And this.  A playset made of real stone and metal, with a slide that will rip the skin off your back.  Ladders and fireman’s poles, big brick blocks and a million kids running wild. The kind of place that gives you a cold sweat watching your kids play.

The way kids were meant to play.


And not a single broken bone.

This time.







Anatomy of a Winefest

THIS WEEK the world famous Iowa State Fair rages back home.  I admit, I would not mind the chance  to walk up and down the fair grounds in Des Moines munching on a turkey leg and snickering at the mulletts. I sort of miss the (what’s the right word?)…corny-ness?…but what we lack in Butter Cows and friend Twinkies here in Rhineland-Pfalz we make up for in Winefests.

The perennial, omnipresent Winefest.  From spring to summer to fall, all up and down the Deutsch Weinstraßse, communities lay claim to a weekend to celebrate.  If wine is part of the culture here, then the winefests in the Pflaz area are the traditions that keep that culture vibrant.   There are literally hundreds of Winefests in communities big and small in the area.  Just this weekend, for example, there are no less than eleven communities with separate Winefests in about a 50km radius.   They range from grand, world renowned events, like the Durkheimer Würstmarkt, to alleyway festivals of neighbors, like the Hambach Jakobskerwe last weekend.

While not the Iowa State fair, they all ring familiar to us by now.  Each winefest is unique, but they also follow a cadence.   Take the Jakobskerwe last weekend as a case study:

There’s the music, often times a live band:

The candied nuts, always a stand of candied nuts:

Usually located in the quaint city center:

Grilled würst or schnitzel,  right off the schwencker…


Games and rides for the kids….

Elbow to elbow, a mass of people…

And of course, the wine, served in a unique glass that’s yours as a souvenir, if you are willing to forgo the 2€ deposit..














The Travels of Jazz

We travel a lot, and with five kids we garner attention.  We are the ones clogging the public restrooms, talking too loud, running around everywhere,  taking far too long to order fast food, and getting in other people’s way. We get plenty of attention from others.

For all of the attention we get though, it’s The Little One in Curls who always seems to be the star of the show. Wherever we go, she is the one who seems to be able to melt away the ubiquitous German scowl. She makes friends wherever we go. She’s the one they’re talking about when we hear someone murmur “suß kind” (“sweet child”). When they look at us and smile or laugh, it’s usually because she smiled or laughed first.   We don’t know what casts her spell, whether it’s the curls or the always-on smile or petite stature – maybe somehow a recipe that she mixes together to create some sort of charm.

Last week Jazlynn went on a walk with Melissa to run some errands.  They passed a local vegetable market they visit regularly. As they walked by the owner’s son recognized Jazlynn and stepped out to give her a free Apricot.  They walked on and then back some time later to the vegetable market, where the same man – seeing her again – gave her a free cherry. After picking out some vegetables, Melissa stepped in to pay where an elderly woman – the man’s mother – occupied the register.  Jazlynn gave her a smile,  and in return the woman gave her a shiny red apple.  Evidently the smile grew, because the woman then reached behind the register and presented Jazz with a nice new stuffed rhinoceros as a gift.  Jazz beamed with the prize, and as they left she must have still been beaming, because the young man outside slipped her a free banana.

Those are the travels of Jazz.


Jazz atop Burgruine Wolfsburg in a light snow.

Studying a curious memorial at Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Weimar. Attracting the attention of strangers on a wooden unicorn – Salzburg, Austria. Sometimes a barrel just needs a hug. I love this picture.  While all of the other children are passing the time –  Anna looking away, Chase looking down, the other kids and adults preoccupied –  in the middle of all of the indifference, Jazlynn is having the time of her life.  Wine Harvest Festival in Neustadt




Cool day on Utah Beach. Posing below the Alps in Austria.
Not to be consoled on Omaha Beach. Once again, having the time of her life on the hold-on-for-dear-life slide at the Speyer Technik Museum. Signalling that she is a little tired of the Louvre, Paris.   Concentrating on the art of the swing in Höhe Loog. Looking smug at Germany’s Highest Waterfall in the Black Forrest. Here’s hoping she always looks up to Dad.

That smile. 

King Arthur and his trusty Velociraptor


As a parent of five young kids it seems like just about every day the kids get into the same old fight.  It goes something like this:

Dad: “What do you guys want to do today?”

Girl 1: “I want to go to a park where we can play among giant life sized dinosaurs.”

Boy 1: “What? No! I want to see a medieval village.”

Boy 2: “Boring! I want to ride a T-Rex!”

Girl 2: “A sword fight is way cooler!



Baby: “Bah booh bee ballee!”

It goes on and on like that, over and over, day after day.  I’m  sure the rest of you with kids can relate.    If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a fellow parent wonder out loud “Why can’t someone just create a park that has both life sized dinosaurs and features a  medieval fair? Why can’t we just have both? Why do we always have to choose? WHY?”

Thankfully the good people at the Kaiserslautern Gartenschau finally put two and two together and created a match worthy of  a Kinder paradise.     I submit to you the kid equivalent of  peanut butter and chocolate; nay,  Sonny and Cher; nay,  Cancun and Pepto Bismol.   Behold, the medieval fair located within the dinosaur park.

A pack of kids like ours could hardly contain themselves.  And yes, we did buy the boys each their own long sword. What could possibly go wrong?

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How Grandpa McGuyver Saved Berlin

I WAS A LITTLE SUSPICIOUS WHEN my dad returned from the ‘hardware store’ with a tree branch and a bag of Berliners.

Grandpa and another proud moment at the Jewish Holocaust Memorial

It all started one day earlier when we had a catastrophic stroller breakdown in downtown Berlin.  Early in the day during our first day in Berlin –  somewhere between the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie – we realized our baby stroller was on borrowed time.  A brace that snaps into place to keep the stroller from folding up into storage mode was bending badly and at the verge of breaking, making the stroller unusable.  Mid morning we stopped to empty out the stroller and bend the brace into shape in order to get it to hold out for the rest of the day, but on the way home while dragging it down some subway stairs it finally and irreversibly broke in two.  The stroller was doomed.  And so was our vacation.

PERHAPS YOU THINK I’m being dramatic.  The issue is, with a family of seven, a stroller is never just a stroller, especially on long day trips.  It’s really more like a Conestoga Wagon on the Oregon Trail.  We load that think to the hilt with all of the necessities of surviving an 8-10 hour outing.  When I emptied the stroller in order to repair it, not only did I have to unload the 3 year old,  but I took out 14 sandwich halves, 2 cans of Pringles, 4 Diet Cokes, 5 bottles of water, a carton of juice boxes, some dried fruit, assorted nuts (dry roasted peanuts and cashews) a package of wet wipes, 2 diapers, 2 coats, a wallet,  a pair of sunglasses, a camera, and Al Capone’s getaway car.  And only that last one was made up.  (Mental note, this might be highly correlated to why it broke in the first place, but I digress.)

Fortunately for us, when it finally did break it was late in the day, so we managed to slug it back to the apartment without too many losses.  But the prospects of another full day in downtown Berlin without a way to strap down our precocious 3-year-old and without our necessities-carrier, day 2 was looking bleak.

Enter grandpa.

Early the next morning he set out in the neighborhood on a mission to find a hardware store.  I hadn’t seen one earlier and assumed (correctly) that he would’t find one either, but he didn’t let a little thing like that get in the way.  He came back from his foraging not with a spare part or piece of PVC or copper tubing, nay, but with a tree branch about 2 inches thick, and also a sack of Berliner donuts.  The idea for the stick – says he, while eating a Berliner – was to cut the stick to length, jam it into the appropriate place in the stroller frame, secure it in to place, and stroll gloriously through the rest of the day.

I’LL BE HONEST.  I didn’t see that coming together quite the way he did.  Not that I didn’t appreciate the effort, but the only thing worse than walking our family of seven around downtown Berlin without a stroller would be walking our family of seven around downtown Berlin with a broken stroller slung over my shoulder.  So if it didn’t work, we had a lot to lose.  Secondly, I didn’t see how we would ever get the stick cut to length cleanly (answer: with persistent sawing motion of a kitchen knife) or secure it firmly to the frame (answer: with a roll of masking tape and packing tape).  Sound crazy?

Behold, for posterity’s sake,  the finished product:

This photo taken during tear down- several layers of tape already removed.

I will just cut to the chase and admit I was wrong, because despite how it looks, it lasted the entire day with no trouble.  We dragged this thing all over Berlin.  Up and down and down and up Unter den Linden.  Up flights of stairs and down flights of stairs.  On subways and on tram cars.  Sometimes it held the baby, and sometimes it held the 6-year-olds.  And always it held 40 extra pounds of pack-gear.  And by some miracle and a lot of tape it didn’t give an inch.

So here’s to Grandpa, the who would have done just fine on the Oregon Trail.  Minus the Berliners.

Together, Around The Table

Anna Captures a Meal Together


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.


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.