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.


The People You Meet at Brandenburg Gate

Kid: “Dad, why are the soldiers at Brandenburg Gate?”

Me: “Well, there used to be soldiers here who stood gaurd.  Now they are here so you can take your picture with them.”

Kid: “Dad, what is the big ugly guy painted white doing at Brandenburg Gate?”

Dad: “That’s a mime. They are all over in Europe.”

Kid: “Dad, why are there horses and Brandenburg gate?”

Me: “Um, I guess so you can take a ride on a carriage through the city.”

Kid: “Dad, why is there an American Indian at Brandenberg Gate?”

Dad: “Huh? Uh, I’m not really sure. Maybe because a lot of people in Europe really like the old west.”

Kid: “Dad, why is there a tiger at Brandenburg Gate?”

Dad: “That’s not a tiger up there, those are hors….oh, yeah, that.  I’m not really sure. I guess so you can get your picture taken with one.”

Kid: “Dad, why is the San Diego chicken at Brandenburg Gate?.”

Dad: “Thats not the San Diego Chicken.”

Kid: “Yeah OK,  but why is there a big yellow bird here?”

Dad: “I really don’t know.”

Wife:” Can you ask the man in the gorilla suit to stop scaring the children? ”

Dad: “Of Course honey.”

Welcome to Berlin, and please stop jumping on the Holocaust Memorial


Who says a big family can’t travel?  We’re figuring this thing out!  This week we rented a three-day stay in an apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin and took our 5 kids out to tour the city.  Since we’ve already earned our “large European city tour with 5 kids” badge in Paris, just to make it more exciting we threw in a couple of grandparents to make it 9 people in total.

Our lesson learned this time: As long as you keep your head down and keep moving, you can successfully take in one of the busiest tourist destinations in all of Europe.  Here, for example, was our rough itinerary for day 1:

  • 9:00AM:  Showed up at the subway and bought our passes, waited for the U to Alexanderplatz. (Subway station in our neighborhood is “Senefelderplatz”, seems appropriate”).
  • 9:11 AM:  Arrived at the Fernsehturm, the TV Tower of Berlin and got an eagle-eye view of the city from the observation deck.
  • 9:25 AM:  First “the kids are so embarrassing” comment heard from Melissa.
  • 10:51 AM:  Photo op at Checkpoint Charlie.
  • 11:20 AM:  Stroller breaks down.  Emergency lunch stop while I try to patch it together.
  • 11:42 AM:  Arrived at the Berlin wall.  Toured the museum/memorial Topographie des Terrors  on the site of the Gestapo Headquarters.
  • 12:34 PM:  Arrived at Potsdamer Platz, the “Times Square” of Berlin.  Found there is not much for 5 hyped up kids to do at Potsdamer Platz, moved on.
  • 1:03 PM:  Short stop at Starbucks so Melissa could have her first Chai Tea Latte since summer 2010.
  • 1:28  PM:  Arrived Jewish Holocaust Memorial, a group of randomly sized blocks occupying a city block in Berlin.
  • 1:29 PM:  Kids asked by security not to “jump on the memorial.”  Herd moves on.
  • 1:38 PM:  Brandenburg Gate, probably the most recognizable icon of Berlin.
  • 1:41 PM:  Lose Anna in the crowd at Brandenburg Gate, group is down to 8.
  • 1:47 PM:  Find Anna, back to full strength.
  • 2:11 PM:  Arrive at Reichstag, the seat of the German Bundestag.
  • 2:51 PM:  Duck-duck-goose with Grandma in the Tiergarten.
  • 3:30 PM:  Stroller breaks for good (or so we thought).  Back to the apartment for a short breather and mass feeding frenzy.
  • 5:31 PM:  Evening stroll in Volkspark Friedrichsain, the oldest municipal park in Berlin.
  • 8:00 PM: Lights out for the swarm.

And that was just day 1!  Day 2 included a cornicopia of public transportation (Cable Car, S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and Water Taxi), a walk down Unter den Linden (the Champs Elysees of Berlin), a stop at the Lustgarten, a walk back down Unter den Linden, a walk away from Unter den Linden and then back to Unter den Linden again, then back down the other direction on Unter den Linden, until turning around and heading back up Unter den Linden for a last time (The ladies referred to this  as “shopping”) …before finally retiring for dinner in a Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood restaurant.

Berlin, like Paris, is an excellent place to see a lot of history in a short amount of time, and it’s hard for five kids to do much damage to places like the Brandenberg Gate (it survived two World Wars, after all).  It was also a place for some great photo opportunities that the kids will appreciate when they are older (one would hope).    

The Night Watchman of Rothenberg ob der Tauber

THE MOZZARELLA STICKS I FOUND at the Italian Cafe across from our hotel were pretty tasty, but the best cheese in Rothenberg ob der Tauber comes in the form of the Night Watchman.

(photos from our trip to Rothenberg and neighboring Dinkelsbühl)

We spent a kidless Night in Germany’s famous medieval town, and in Rothenberg nothing is more famous for the tourists types than the Night Watchman’s tour.  It has practically reached legend status.  The same Night Watchman – Hans-Georg Baumgartener – has been giving the same tour since 1991.  In fact, open Rick Steve’s Germany book and page over to Rothenberg, and you will find a photo of Hans-Georg dressed with a cloak and lantern, leading a bunch of tubed-socked, camera-toting, pot bellied, grinning American tourists around.  Melissa and I laughed at the stereotypical vision of the Americans abroad.  Would we ever be caught dead do something so ridiculous?

Of course we would.

We sat in the marktplatz until dusk when the guy with the cloak, candle, lantern, and wicked-looking staff showed up, stood for a few photos, and took a couple dozen tourists on a stroll through the city.  With a delivery that was a mix between Steven Wright and Andy Rooney, we followed the guy around town for an hour and listened to him explain the history of Rothenberg ob der Tauber – from the defense and fall of the city, the arrival of the black plague, the visits from kings and emperors, the history of the buildings, and even the story of its near destruction in WWII – mixed with with humor that ranged from cheesy to sublime.  Example: The Watchman led us by a local tavern called “Zur Höll”, meaning ‘to Hell’, which gave him an excuse to tell us all to “Go to Hell!” several times. ´(Think that’s funny?  How funny would that joke be if you had told it every day for the last 20 years of your life?)

HE’S NOT SO MEDIEVAL, it turns out.  They day after the tour, Melissa and I sat at our Italian cafe – you know, the one with the Mozzarella sticks – when a man zoomed by on the cobblestone street on a Segway.  Melissa said, “Hey, that’s a Segway.  And hey, that’s the Night Watchman!”  (Thinking “Pictures or it didn’t happen?”….here’s your proof.)

And just to be sure you don’t miss out on any details of the tour, beneath his cloak he carries US-formatted DVDs of the Watchman’s tour (complete with bonus footage), offered to you for only 15€.  What sucker would ever buy such an obviously overpriced tourist trinket?

Of course, we would.

I’ll admit…cheese and all, it was well worth it.  I recommend a stop in Rothenberg for a chance to stay in the quaint, medieval-styled hotels,  a chance to walk the wall, and a chance to stop in the many tourist shops (this is the home of the famous Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store, after all).  And if you’re here at dusk, you might as well take in the Night Watchman’s tour (and learn a little about the life medieval).

And I’d also recommend the Mozzarella sticks.

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.