Happy New Year! Now let’s go blow something up.

WE DID NOT SEE THAT COMING.

As a family of seven with young kids, our raucous New Years Plans annually include letting the kids stay up late (but not too late),  making some offensively unhealthy food, catching a movie, and trying – trying – to stay up to midnight,   We had the same plans in place for Silvester this year. The exception was that we heard it was tradition to set off some fireworks in Germany, so bought some at the corner grocery and after nightfall I took the kids out to light ’em up.

WE WERE SETTING OURS OFF AROUND 7PM, and it was eerily quiet outside. I had heard rumours of the riotous German fireworks celebrations and so far, aside from a few pops in the distance, we hadn’t seen anything like that. I chalked it up to our city being unusually relaxed and quiet and decided Hamburg and Berlin must be rockin’. We lit some rockets, burned some 5 minute sparklers, and set off a few Roman candles for a grand finally, and then settled in for a quiet evening.   By my standards it was an acceptable fireworks show.

It turned out later, however, that by German standards we were  totally outgunned.

AS A FOREWORD to what transpired next, you should know that Germany has a complete nationwide ban on all Class II  fireworks (similar to Iowa).  You cannot buy them, and you certainly cannot launch them.  That ban contains but one  singular notable exception, and I quote:

Gezündet werden dürfen Klasse-II-Artikel nach § 23 Abs. 1 der 1.  Verordnung zum Sprengstoffgesetz (SprengV) nur vom 31. Dezember 00:00 Uhr bis zum 1.

Translated:

Class II products (fireworks) may be ignited per section 23 paragraph 1 of the 1st Regulation of the Explosives Act only from Dec 31 at 0:00 until  1 AM.

That’s right everybody, you have exactly one hour. From midnight on Silvester to 1AM, the ban is lifted. Light ’em if you got ’em.  And you should have plenty of ’em, because the stores are  allowed to sell them by the armload for three days leading up to this time – bottle rockets, roman candles, bombs, noise makers, and even legit full scale-exploding-globe-with-colored-report-and-glitter-trails fireworks worthy of a 4th of July show.   At our local grocery store there were tons of them.  But you had to be quick to get them, because they sold fast. So at around 7PM when we were lighting ours, I was wondering in my head where all that inventory had gone…

THE KIDS WERE FAST ASLEEP IN THEIR BEDS, our movie was winding down to the conclusion, and we were fighting off some yawns when the iPad finally struck midnight. We toasted some champagne, kissed, and were about to turn our attention back to our movie when…

The apocalypse broke out outside of our living room window.

Our quiet little hamlet erupted. There were people in the streets, on the sidewalks, in their yards, in the vineyards …and all of them simultaneously launching all manner of fireworks.  It was clear now where all those fireworks were: People all over the city had been amassing their own personal arsenal and at the stroke of midnight they all launched them directly over our house where they  exploded.     They came from every direction – from the street in front of our house, from the alley across the street, from the hills, from the backyard…every where we looked the sky was  aglow with hundreds (thousands?) of fireworks being lit off by every man, woman and child in the area. We looked out our living room window for a 180 degree view of the Rhine Valley and the entire horizon was ablaze with  fireworks.  This went on furiously for 10 or 15 minutes, and then steadily for the rest of the hour. And at 1:00A the fireworks came to a stop.

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YOU FOOLED ME ONCE GERMANY, but I am serving notice that I don’t plan to be caught unaware next year  It will not be a casual 7PM firework display for our family next time. I plan to be at the stores the morning of Dec 29th 2011 when the fireworks sales begin, spend an unholy amount of money,  and then I promise to bring some American culture to the area….Rhineland-Pfalz, allow me to introduce you Missouri Redneck.

I think you two will get along just fine.

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Christus mansionem benedicat

WE WERE VISITED BY  THREE KINGS TODAY.

While the celebration of Epiphany is largely forgotten in our protestant circle, there remains the tradition of ‘Sternsinger‘ in Germany.  This afternoon at around 4PM our house was visited by the three kings of the Magi carrying a star on a pole –  school kids dressed up to play the part of Kings Casper, Melchior and Balthasar – who sang to us a short song  in exchange for a donation.  The tradition is now mainly used to raise funds for charity projects by local kids.

In return, the Three Kings inscribed a blessing on our doorway.  The inscription – which curiously shows up on doorways all over Germany –  is made up of the year – 2011 – separated by the initials of the Kings to make “20 * C + M + B * 11”. By some, CMB rather stands for  “Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house).”

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.

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.