Bittersweet

It has become apparent that, at this stage of the proceedings, I am essentially existing off Stollen. I was inclined to ignore it myself, but as I ferried in another plate of it into the living room at around the lunchtime hour, SG idly mentioned it seemed Stollen was replacing meals. I thought back to breakfast … Stollen with a side of Knusperhaus. I looked ahead to the afternoon, and saw Christmas Market treats. Momentarily, the poorness of my diet loomed large. Then I shrugged. ‘It’s Christmas.’

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And Christmas it indeed is. The most magical and, in a way, most bittersweet time of year. There is always, and will always be, one eye so very firmly fixed on Australia during this season. Sure, there is the nostalgia associated with my childhood Christmasses, that seeps into adulthood, even more so now I have children of my own. There is the keen awareness of the passing of time that the end of year brings, and the knowledge that time has once again passed without certain people in it; it begins to weigh heavily on my conscience, a strange type of guilt. And then there is the simple fact that I miss home, I miss my family, I miss my friends. The dull, ever-present pull of Heimweh is more acute at this time of year than at any other.

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But what luck I have, how rich I am, to have family and friends in good health on both sides of the globe. And how wonderful it is to peer into the bittersweetness of December, with its light and chocolate and carousel rides, its post boxes and Skype calls and story-telling, and see that richness, that luck. There is a part of being foreign, the part that sees your family living so far away, that sometimes wonders when that luck will run out, that awaits the time a flight home will not be for a happy reunion, or a hot Christmas. It sits alongside that aforementioned type of guilt, that you put roots down so far away from those who love you. It is an odd confection, emigration, and mine was in the most privileged circumstances, that I am all too aware of.

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St Nicholas came last night and left some little treats in die Lüdde’s slightly muddy gumboot. We will get our tree today and dress it with ornaments new and old. I’ll cut another slice of Stollen and we’ll risk a late afternoon visit to the Weihnachtsmarkt with a toddler and a baby a few more times yet. It is always worth it for the delighted cry of ‘Lights! Lights! Mama look!’ and the steaming hot Glühwein. And the Poffertjes. The most wonderful time of the year it most certainly is, the most bittersweet time of year it will always be.

Plätzchen

One of my aunties emigrated from Switzerland to Australia in the 70s, drawn there by my uncle (who she met when her father gave him a job as a shepherd in Switzerland) and his tumbling blonde locks and form-fitting flares. She was around the same age I was, when I moved to Germany. Out in Oz, she added English to her stockpile of languages, including the key phrase at the petrol station, ‘fill ‘er up, mate’, and had two kids, a girl first, and then a boy. (Strangely, I always thought of my auntie as Italian, because I was told she could speak it, and then my cousins learnt it, and as a child, I had little to no concept of Switzerland, with its various official languages and ethnicities. I was also suitably impressed by the fact she could speak Italian, yet had no idea she could speak German until an embarrassing amount of years later. I think in many ways, she was just a very exotic European to my young eyes.)

Since I emigrated from Australia to Germany, there have been so many times I have thought of my auntie, doing the reverse of what I have done, decades earlier. The culture shock, the language barriers, the Heimweh. Now that I have kids, first a girl and then a boy, I have started wondering how she navigated the playgroups and playgrounds and giving her children the culture and language she grew up with. I also wonder how she managed to keep in touch with anyone without the internet.

One way my auntie brought her Swiss-ness to us Aussies, was through food. Every Christmas she would arrive with a huge platter of her famous biscuits. (That is genuinely what they were called.) Chewy, spicy little stars, glazed hearts, jam filled discs. They were the way we finished off every Christmas lunch, and if we were lucky, we would have some leftover for the next few days of idle gluttony.

Those biscuits, I came to learn a couple of years ago, were Plätzchen, special Christmas biscuits this part of the world bakes and consumes by the ton come November and December. They were Zimtsterne and Plätzchen mit Erdbeermarmelade, little bites of tradition that were part of my Australian Christmasses because my auntie was there and now, of course, my German ones, because I am here.

The first Christmas after die Lüdde was born, one of my then-new mum friends invited us round to bake Plätzchen and drink Glühwein. We did it again this year, this time with sticky toddler hands ‘helping’ and eating the decorations. We’ll do it again next year, with more sticky toddler hands and a hell of a lot more Glühwein. Our Plätzchen will take a while to reach the polished, nigh on professional heights of my auntie’s, but we’re working on it. I even had a crack of (packet mix) Vanillekipferl a week or so ago, and they weren’t half bad.

In this time of life, and particularly at this time of year, I am so aware of family traditions, both making new ones and continuing those of old. And I am also so aware of how the traditions we make for our children will and should fuse two hemispheres, two countries, two cultures. Somehow, through the twists and turns of fate, baking Plätzchen does just that.

Isn’t life funny.

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I Will Teach Them

It is a cold Friday, but the good kind of cold. The red-cheeked kind of cold. You can get by without a scarf, but candles in cafes still feel lovely. I have left the kids at home and come out to clear my head a bit; sit in silence and stare at a wall while elevator jazz plays in the background and two old men sit in the window and talk about Facebook. The coffee in this place is average, but I’ll drink a bucket of it in exchange for the sheepskin seats and candles in jars and golden, golden silence. If someone had told me before I had kids, how much I would come to appreciate sitting still, sitting quietly, with a hot drink, I would have never, ever believed them. And yet here I am.

Really, I have come out to write. Exercise that sorely neglected muscle, throw a few paragraphs at an essay I know will be great, one day, when I finish it, perhaps when the kids are at school and I have more time to write about having kids. Try, perhaps, to order my thoughts on a big week and what it means. I mean, I know what it means. I know what it means hyperbolically, sensationally, realistically. I have consumed all of the memes and tweets and statistics and anger. I have felt that sudden queasy surge of uncertainty in the form of fear. I didn’t really, truly believe he would ever get in. But who am I kidding – bad men have always run countries, populations have always made rash, uneducated, hopeful, hateful decisions. The world keeps turning. None of this is new, none of this reveals something about the way humankind works that we didn’t know before. And yet. Here we are. Surprised, shaken and so very, very sad.

My sister wrote to me the other day and said she didn’t know how parents were going to find a way to raise their kids in this world. I don’t know either. Arguably, how I was always going to raise my children, before America handed its nuclear codes to a profoundly awful, disastrously unqualified, vicious, small man. Children are, simply and logically, the future, and you can say that poetically or say that scientifically, or say it without giving a great deal of thought to what it means because it is something you have always heard. But they are the continuation of our species, a future that will one day vote and pay taxes and make films and write for newspapers and discover and cure, and like we try and right the wrongs our parents’ generation made, so will our children right the wrongs we make.

So I will teach them that we are killing our planet, even if the leader of the free world thinks that is rubbish. I will teach them that religion is a construct humankind has turned to since the very beginning of time, because something within us cries out for answers, and something within us finds tremendous comfort in faith. I will teach them religion can do so much good, and so much bad. That we are free to believe, and just as free not to. We are free to learn and criticise and be angered by. We are free to rail against and rally for. But that we cannot and should not impinge on others’ rights to do the same. And we should never deliberately hurt someone based on a complex relationship with a complex concept. I will teach them to think. To really, really think. To ask questions, and to question those answers. To look at all of the pairs of shoes they should consider wearing before they arrive at their own conclusions. I will teach them to look at how they came to be, how their parents came to be, how their family came to be – because people crossed borders and got on ships and planes and took on new countries and new languages and that so many, many factors go into belonging somewhere. To identifying with something. I will teach them people are female and male and neither nor and how very normal, how very personal, how very part of being human that is. I will teach them to be feminists, both of them. I will show them every single way our world has come to devalue and oppress women, and every single way they can punch that in the face. I will teach them that they, and people around them, can love who they want to love, marry who they want to marry, if marriage is even something they want – it is okay, all of it is okay. I will teach them to stand up to the bully, to share their tremendous fortune, and to always, always keep learning. Keep reading. Keep asking questions. Keep talking. Keep their arms and their eyes open. Keep pushing against what is unfair, hurtful, isolationist. Keep absorbing and sharing ideas, those powerful, powerful things.

I would have done that all before he came in. Perhaps, though, I would have faltered, forgotten along the way. Perhaps I would have run out of puff on a few occasions and let an opportunity to teach them slide by, let myself forget how all of this, all of these ideas, they begin at home. But now I know, now I see, we cannot afford to run out of puff, nor falter, nor forget. And I will raise my children intentionally, as best I can.

That’s what I will do. It is the very least I can.

Of Acorns and Squirrels

When I was a girl, courtesy of my mother’s own girlhood literary leanings, I read and re-read and read again, until the pages were torn and the covers fell off, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. (The Twins of St Clares genuinely didn’t have a cover for the decade my sister and I turned to it, often, as a sort of comfort read. Like comfort food, but better.) My sister, far horsier than I was, got deep into my Mum’s Jill books collection and some trickled on to me. She also let me read her James Herriot tomes when she wasn’t reading them, and I was always quite impressed by the wide-reaching knowledge on all things animal-related that she accrued from Herriot’s writing. Really, save for a few books here and there, like The Seven Little Australians or anything by Morris Gleitzman, and the phase of believing there no life more worthy of emulation than Jessica Wakefield’s, my literary upbringing was decidedly British. (I suspect that is why words like ‘shall’ pepper my sentences, and I am quite comfortable with the ‘owts and nowts’ of the Yorkshire accent.)

My diet of Dahl, Blyton, and Herriot paved the way for a teendom of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole (his first volume also read until cover-less) and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, and put me squarely on the receiving end of the boom of late 90s, early naughties British chick-lit, some good, some truly terrible. It is also possibly why, still, my favourite authors are English and my favourite TV shows of all time are English.

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There were a few parallels between my childhood and those of the characters I read about; I went to an all girls school, which had a boarding population and a borderline obsession with sport, including hockey. I grew up with the sort of free rein on a large property that allowed the Famous Five to get into their scrapes. Although I do recall being shocked their mother/aunt allowed them to take a caravan off to some village for the entire summer, where they lived off sandwiches and cake that Anne made. That was another level of freedom entirely, and they were lucky to survive the carnival folk and their weirdly clever animals.

There were, of course, more differences than parallels. I was an Aussie in the other hemisphere, growing up in the 90s, as opposed to post-war England. In my books, the squirrels ate acorns and snow fell at Christmas. Their school terms were all around the wrong way, and fields seemed scattered with moles and hedgehogs and berries. Winters were cold and bleak and there seemed to be a tremendous fixation on spring. There were no goannas on the look out for your recess, no snake to keep an eye out for in the hot summer grass, no burning your arse on the slippery dip in January. No backyard cricket using the otto bins as stumps, no Christmas Day spent in the pool with your cousins, or watching Mum heroically time it so the ham and turkey, piping hot in the midst of summer, were ready at the same time, and Nana had enough room at the bench to make any last minute brandy cream.

The other day, I found my childhood copy of My Nut I Think! by Enid Blyton. I gave it to die Lüdde to read, because she had recently developed something of an obsession with acorns found in a long and trudging tale, Herr Uhu Macht Urlaub. As she turned the pages and pointed out every single acorn she could find, being ferried home by a very industrious red squirrel, and then stolen by a bossy nuthatch, I idly thought about how we should take her looking for real acorns on the weekend.

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And then it hit me. We can go looking for acorns. Acorns ferried about by industrious red squirrels. It will probably snow this Christmas, and school has just gone back for its first, as opposed to fourth, term. The childhood unfolding for my own child, is one I read of only in books, books that formed a literary childhood quite opposed to my actual one, but a childhood of sorts all the same. And as we collected acorns a few days later, die Lüdde warmly eingepackt against the cool autumn wind, a type of wind I only sometimes met in winters growing up, it was one of those moments in which it was so very clear to me how different her experiences growing up will be to what mine were.

This is, of course, true for all parents and their children. We cannot and do not live the childhoods our parents did. But when you grow up in the same country your parents did, inheriting bits and pieces from their own upbringing is an easier, more unthinking process. When you raise a child outside of the country you grew up in, giving them pieces of what you had becomes a more deliberate act, one made obvious by its separation from context.

Of course, we are enriched by, and rich in, our ability to give our children both squirrels and koalas, snowy, cold Christmases and ones spent in the pool. They will read of both hemispheres, and in as many ways as we can provide, live both as well. Already, they hear the Australian in my language, eat it on their toast, read it in books sent over by friends and family.

And yet. It will never cease to be wonderfully strange to me, that these squirrels and acorns I knew of only from books, these topsy turvy seasons the absolute opposite to the ones I always knew, will be the norm for my children.

What is life, I suppose, without a little bit of wonderfully strange.

 

Herbstmarkt

Meine Gute the Germans know how to throw a good Markt. I can’t help but feel that perhaps hundreds of years of practice have resulted in perfecting all elements of a good market. These elements can essentially be broken down into three categories –  food, food, more food. An ideal market will feature local produce that you can fill a pretty basket with and feel super European and old-timey simultaneously, loads of cakes and chocolate and bread, cold weather options like hot, crunchy Pommes or even a gourmet Wurst. Depending on the time of year a good market should also offer refreshments like hot drinks to warm the tips of your toes, or some sort of refreshing mixed alcohol like an Erdbeerbowle that has summer mixed in with the fresh chopped strawberries. I know some people go to markets to genuinely do a shop, or for the crafts and knick knacks, but I go for the food and I am never, ever disappointed. (And yet, here I am, still claiming to be mystified as to why I weigh a whole lot more than I did when I first arrived in this country.) Actually, I go to our local Wochenmarkt more for the coffee than anything else, and for the berries in the summertime. And to feel European and old-timey with my twisted paper bags of veggies. Anyway, my point is, I go to eat and drink, anything else is gravy.

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One of the city’s most beloved yearly markets is the Herbstmarkt at the Freilichtmuseum and let me tell you, to torture a metaphor, it is smothered in gravy. Particularly for die Lüdde, who had one of the most splendid afternoons a small person could ask for. A word of note, though – go mid-week. We tried it on a Sunday (I know, amateur) and it seemed the entire state had decided to go. We went back one afternoon in the middle of the week and it was perfect.

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The Freilichtmuseum itself is a big, open museum set on 40 hectares, that is essentially a north German village from the 1600s, with 60 beautifully maintained historical buildings like thatched barns and stalls, houses and mills. The idea is you step back in time for the hours you spend idling throughout the village, and you can imagine when the leaves are golden and red, and there is a nip in the misty air, those idling hours are quite magical. The gaggles of snow-white geese and paddocks dotted with farm animals just add to the magic, as do the quiet, tree-fringed lake and the apple trees.

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The Herbstmarkt happens on these beautiful grounds and takes you inside the old barns and workshops, and outside onto the green fields and down the stony paths. There are arts and crafts, homewares, local produce, and loads and loads of food. We were modest in our consumption and only tried a deer sausage and a big herby, cheesy bread affair. And took home a nice block of pure praline. Very modest.

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But die Lüdde found the real jewels in the market’s crown. Forget the hot, fresh food, the crunchy yellow leaves, the big old farm horse with his big old stable that looked like something out of Hobbiton. Die Lüdde found bubbles. Big, soapy bubbles that the big kids were trailing around a meadow. If she was really quick, quicker than the big kids, she could pop some. She was in heaven. It seemed the afternoon had peaked. Then she rode on a carousel, twice, and her little face was just shining. It was a banner afternoon.

The First Frost

It’s pumpkin season now, which means soup is very often on the stove and the other day, I found the most delicious thing at a bakery down the road; a pumpkin and marzipan Taler, covered in dark chocolate. It took me a cup of coffee and a follow up tea to get through it, but get throught it I did. Eating at this time of year is a lifestyle, one to which one must commit in order to pad the psyche for the impending winter.

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It is quite lovely to live in a place that celebrates seasonal eating with such gusto. That collectively loses its sanity when Spargelzeit rolls around, that has fields of strawberries open for picking in the summer, has never met an apple they can’t include in a pastry (like today’s sweet bread filled with apple and marzipan and topped with icing). A country that tracks summer through berry availability and counts Lebkuchen as a food group for the entire month of December. Or at least, I count Lebkuchen as a food group for the entire month of December (and November. Okay and October.) and I don’t feel like Germany has a problem with that.

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(On that note, I have already started eating Lebkuchen. I didn’t want to say anything earlier because I know it is early, but I have been fighting it since the first of September, and the other day while grocery shopping I dropped a bag into my trolley and as I was explaining to SG that  I  knew it was a tad early, and good Germans wait until at least November, he told me he had already been eating some at work! The traitor!)

But. while it is all very well to celebrate the berries and sup the soup and survive the Spargel by virtue of litres of Hollandaise sauce, one cannot forget the flipside of seasonal eating.  The other night, as we tucked into a bowl of pumpkin soup and commented on how lovely it is to do so on a chilly Autumn’s night, SG said to me, ‘I can’t wait for the first frost.’ And my stomach dropped. Poor thing, you are probably thinking, so terrified at the thought of frost and the cold it signifies. Well yes, there’s that, but there is also the fact that the first frost is mother nature’s big old thumbs up to GrünkohlSomewhere on my horizon is a big pot of stewed kale and wurst, which will be served with a side of encouragement to sprinkle the entire steaming mass liberally with sugar.

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But with the first frost will also come the invitation to start playing Christmas carols, to perhaps start eating Stollen for breakfast. And then the Glühwein will start showing up in gigantic quantities in the supermarket (where I first encountered it in Münster, my first Christmas in Germany, and promptly drank it cold out of a wine glass) and then the Christmas markets will start …

But I am getting ahead of myself. The first frost is still some time off. The markets are still awash with orange. There is this whole season to enjoy first, and enjoy it I shall (try to. Despite the rain.).

 

The Sodden with the Gorgeous

Alright, alright, the leaves are turning. And yes, I got more than I could ever have hoped for with the warmest September in the history of Septembers, so I shall shut up. Onward we march, the scent of woodsmoke in the air, the crunch of leaves underfoot.

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I said to SG the other day that, for the first time since moving to Germany, I feel completely and utterly prepared for the impending cold. (Although as soon as I said that, I realised I need a pair of gumboots, which I promptly ordered online. Sehr wichtig.) I have a waterproof(ish) Übergangsjacke (probably could do with a new, totally waterproof one, I suppose), a Winterjacke (which will do until I find a longer, warmer one, because I am sick of having a cold bottom) a lovely wool Mantel for dry but chilly days, a lighter Mantel for dry but slightly less chilly days, a blanket SchalSchnürrstiefel, normal Stiefel, (but not, it has just occurred to me, real Winterstiefel which hitherto hasn’t been a problem because I avoid going out in the snow, but I foresee, unfortunately, having to spend time in the snow with the children this season. Hmmmm.) three million Mutzen and, also in my online shopping basket along with my gumboots, I placed faux sheepskin lined Hausschuhe (my very first pair of real, official house shoes.) With just a hint of smugness, I announced that for the first time in years, I truly feel like I have an appropriate outfit for almost every single weather occasion Schleswig-Holstein can dream up. When I lived in Sydney, I genuinely don’t think I owned a coat. And if I did, it was one my mother forced me to buy when I was 14. Now I have enough to categorise by weather type. I don’t know who I am anymore. 

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Excepting a brand new pair of Winterstiefel, which are on the top of my shopping list, die Lüdde is also prepared for the incoming cold and for her first, how can I say this, Real Winter. Real in the sense that she will be out there in it, come rain, hail or shine. And real in the sense that we don’t have any plans to skip 3-6 weeks of it, by fleeing to Asia or Australia. Scheisse. Last year, when days were particularly shitty, we just didn’t go out. But this year, she is bigger, less containable, completely awake to the lure of playgrounds and parks and puddles – especially puddles. This year, when it snows, she will want to be right out there in it (which is a shame … I suspect SG will be spending a lot of time rolling around in snow, while I sip hot chocolate and wave out the window). So this year, her Mum has to German up and get out there in the cold/wind/rain/snow. This year her Mum has to follow the ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes’ mantra, by which the Norddeutsche live their windy lives. This year, die Lüdde truly gets to appreciate the wonders of a full-on, all-in-one Schneeanzug and I, the wonders of wrestling the child in and out of it on a daily basis. I can’t wait.

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Autumn, like Spring, makes no guarantees up here. Days can be blindingly gorgeous, with blue skies and golden light and chestnuts galore, and one tumbles down the street chicly dressed in non-waterpoof garb and lovely little boots, clutching a hot drink and thinking numerous romantic thoughts. Or days can be grindingly grey, sodden, filled with puddles and wet clothes and cold feet, and one races down the street wielding a pram covered in a plastic poncho and an umbrella that has become the wind’s plaything, wearing the non-chic, waterproof clothes and praying someone won’t stop you to point out your baby’s ears are exposed to the wind and they will surely freeze to death. I seem to find myself doing more of the latter than the former, but as a result one makes a point of really enjoying the lovely parts of Autumn; pumpkin soup and collecting chestnuts and realising every second tree is an apple tree and there are few lovelier sights than a tree covered in blushing apples.

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And so you take the gorgeous with the sodden, amass a huge jacket wardrobe, and spend a lot of time wondering how soon is too soon to crack out the Glühwein. Answer; it is never too soon.