Easter & the Common German

We tend to do our weekly shop on a Thursday afternoon. It is a pocket of time during which things generally aren’t too chaotic; the older citizens of Kiel aren’t out in as much force as they are on a Friday morning and the panic of a Saturday doesn’t hang thick in the air, as people buy three packets of oven-ready bread rolls to survive the shops being closed on a Sunday. There are the usual queue-jumpers, who bolt like startled deer from the back of the line when a new Kasse opens, but the bolters are simply part of the grocery shopping experience.

Last week, though, Thursday happened to be the day before Karfreitag, Good Friday. The day before a public holiday. The day before the shops are closed for a day. And I didn’t realise it, until I had finished scribbling quite a substantial shopping list, including but not limited to, 25kg of chocolate. Now, there is something that exists within the common German that I suppose could be described as an inner … pushiness. It is the same pushiness that gets them served first, that gets them on the train first, on the bus first, that gets them sole ownership of that tiny round table at the Christmas Markets that you and six other (non German) people have managed to civilly share for half an hour. On days before public holidays, this pushiness marries another trait to be found lurking in the common German, a type of ever-ready panic that they might run out of coffee cream while enjoying a Kaffee und Kuchen session over the long weekend. So what happens is this pushiness marries with the ever-present panic and, come the day before a long weekend, they stampede into the supermarkets and while they are there furiously stocking up on coffee and coffee cream, they throw in several packs of toilet paper and a bag of dirt from the Aldi weekly Angebote in case they want to do some gardening, and about three cartons of yoghurt pots. Their trolleys become perilously full, and they push them at a clip directly at other people who might have been, for example, debating over whether they need a jug that dispenses small amounts of pancake mixture with a no drip feature (it turns out, I did need a pancake mixture portioning jug and it revolutionised breakfast). Occasionally, a scuffle breaks out, as someone breathes down the neck of someone else who is heaving great buckets of ready-made potato salad into their trolley, and you hear a, ‘Hey! Was soll das?’ ring out, competing with the bell that the cashiers are desperately pushing to try and get a colleague to come and open up another line.

It is the most horrific experience.

But we got our 25kg of chocolate, and we breezed into the Easter long weekend with well-stocked cupboards and a repulsive amount of chocolate ostensibly for die Lüdde and family gifts, but really for me to eat on the couch at night because for some reason Easter chocolate tastes so much better than normal chocolate.

April is proving to be as temperamental and unpredictable as every year, but spring is fighting hard. The tulips have dropped in price, the strawberries are slowly popping up in the shops, the trees are green and the footpaths are once again lined with flowers. And the magnolias, the magnolias are just beautiful.

A little rain and hail can’t hide the fact that warmer days are on their way.

Moving

Where did March go? It slipped by in a rush of going back to work, and getting out into the sunshine, and succumbing to winter’s parting gifts of tedious, low grade viruses. And now here we are in April. April. We are careering towards Easter and after that it won’t be long until der Lüdde’s first birthday. But first, but first, another change looms, and if it isn’t the perfect season for change.

We’re moving. We found a little house with a little garden in a not-too-little village 12 minutes out of the city. Übergabe is fast approaching, and I have started packing, boxes stacked in our bedroom, completely in the way and a constant reminder of what we are lurching towards. I remember when we moved from Weiden to Kiel in 2014, thus ending a series of moves as we sought to find a city we would make ours, I said I never wanted to move again. We had been in Australia, where I had finished sorting out the last of my things I hadn’t yet shipped, and I was six months pregnant and the moving company were appalling and I figured I would rather stay put in this wonderful apartment for the rest of my life than ever lay eyes on another moving carton again.

But that was three years and two kids ago. The baby we brought home to this apartment in that hot summer of 2014 has long hair and longer legs and says things like ‘Mama on boat! Da oben!’. The baby we brought home to this apartment in the sunny spring of 2016 turns one soon and even though he may not think it, the little koala, he will love having his own room soon enough.

Of course, the usual nostalgia has crept in, wrapped itself around this apartment and this corner of the city I love. Of course, those pesky questions are bubbling around in the background; ‘but why change? Everything is fine! Keep living as you are you silly fool, why shake things up?’ Those questions, though, they bubble at the merest mention of change. I know them well, they have followed me around through countries and apartments and babies. They are the jerkiest of knees and they disappear the moment the new arrives. Besides, as much as I have loved the lifestyle living in the centre of a typical mid-sized German city (such a easy, car-less lifestyle) I know we have outgrown this apartment. And I want a garden, where I can grow herbs and flowers and release the kids without having to schlep them and all of their things down three flights of stairs and out to a playground. It will be so nice to stretch a little more, to barbecue out the back, to have those somewhat elusive of things here in Germany, a laundry room.

Ach ja, life continues apace. As much as I want to beg it to slow down, there is a time for that and it doesn’t seem to be my early thirties with two kids under 3. And that’s okay. I take the fleeting quiet moments for what they are – rare and lovely and just enough to keep the engine ticking.

For now, the boxes are waiting, the walls need a lick of paint, we completely forgot to make a Spermüll appointment in time and I have a Kellar to clear out.

The next chapter is here.

 

 

The Slow, Well-Lit Crawl

There isn’t much that is extreme about Kiel’s weather. It doesn’t get extremely hot during summer, nor extremely cold during winter. We don’t get extreme amounts of snow – although it does get extraordinarily windy, so there’s that. But what is rather novel, and a little closer than not to the ‘extreme’ end of the spectrum, is how much light we get here, during the warmer months.

As we begin the crawl towards midsummer, which always comes far too quickly for my liking, the days get longer and longer, the light hanging around until 10, 10.30, heck even 11. In the mornings, after months of making coffee in the pitch black, you suddenly find yourself ready to start the day at about 5 o’clock. At least, the birds do. (Ah, the birds. Have I told you they have come out and are singing these days? Magical. And the bulbs are bursting out too, daffodils and crocuses and Schneeglöckchen.)

As the days lengthen and the temps move like a drunk snail towards solid double digits (sliding forwards, slipping back, inching forwards once more), the urge to be outside as much as possible has taken over. It is almost compulsive. This is the time of year you actually bother to get out of the house before naptime. The hustle of boots and jackets and hats is worth it, because you will be outdoors for longer than a quick ten minute walk around the block.

On the weekend we were out for hours. Hours. Do you know what it feels like to be out for hours, after months of ducking in and out of heating, hands shoved in pockets, jumping up and down on the balls of your feet muttering ‘fuck it’s cold’ until it really is unbearable to spend a minute longer outside, and running back inside, where you have been all day slowly going mad? I shall tell you. It feels utterly rejuvenating. It feels well-earned and jubilant. It feels joyful, after months of staving off cabin fever with hot drinks and sweet treats and trips to Ikea instead of the park. It feels like the whole city has collectively exhaled.

We hit the Kieler Umschlag, we hit the park, the playground, the bakery for mini Spritzkuchen for breakfast. And just as well … because Monday brought with her a cruel wind and I found myself back at the playground jumping up and down on the balls of my feet muttering, ‘fuck it’s cold.’

 

Home Stretch (?)

Yesterday we awoke to the most glorious sunshine. It fizzed through the apartment and zipped into our moods like Tinkerbell on speed. We were all so bright. The morning flew by in a sun-drenched whirl of breakfast and snacks and games and repeated, penetrating requests for ‘BV’ and my heart soared at the notion of a lovely, long sunny walk in the afternoon.

LOL.

What actually happened was the clouds rolled in as I trotted to the bakery on the corner to get some Kuchen for a planned Kaffee und Kuchen with the kids’ Oma and Großtante. As I ordered two slices of Bienenstich and two Zitronentaler there was a muted roar outside and a belch of wind rushed down the street, blowing the bakery’s sign over. As I handed over my 5.10€, the snow came in a jittery rash, tiny little ice balls dancing all over the pavement, as if the clouds couldn’t even be bothered to summon actual snow.

Actual snow did, however, fall for a few minutes and as it did, I said to SG, ‘the sun will come out later.’ The sky grumbled a little longer, clearing its bowels of the last of the ice, and as we ate the last of the Kuchen, out the sun did indeed come. The blue returned. The apartment flooded with golden afternoon light. We rugged up and grabbed the Bobby Car and hit a Spielplatz and it was absolutely Arschkalt and bitingly windy.

But the Arschkalt-ness and the cruel wind didn’t matter. What mattered was, at least yesterday, the sun won. We are almost, sort of, just, possibly … on the home stretch.

Grey

There is the Sky Grey, the Street Grey and the Naked Branches Grey.

The Light Grey of Mid Mornings that dulls to Dark Afternoon Grey, a particularly heavy shade that warrants a hot drink and a lamp or candle on. Anything that makes you feel all hygge or gemütlich, anything that takes the focus off the fact another whole day has passed without sunlight.

There is Rain Grey (and within Rain Grey, there is It’s Pissing Down Grey and Only Drizzling Grey) and Puddle Grey and Fjord Reflecting the Sky Grey. Occasionally there is Slush Grey, and there is a particularly special, rather popular shade I like to call Rainy Sunday Grey.

There is Trendy Scandinavian Flooring Grey that you find in cafes with candles and flowers planted in the middle of the table. This grey blends effortlessly with General Surroundings Grey.

There is Fog Grey and Misty Morning Grey and Cloud Grey. Although Cloud Grey often gets lost in Sky Grey; one must really squint to discern the shades.

This is the sky.

There is Endless Autobahn Grey as you take to a roadtrip to break the cabin fever. Endless Autobahn is beautifully offset by Strange Gun Metal Grey Trees.

There is Seagull Grey and Pigeon Grey and Seagulls and Pigeons Splashing in Puddles Grey.

There is Face Grey, the colour we all go after being deprived of sunlight and vitamin D for months on end. And there is Mood Grey, the collective state of us as February drones on and on.

And on.

 

Peruvian Mangoes & Needle Rain

And so we have arrived, cold, pale-skinned and severely Vitamin D deprived, in my most hated month of the Northern Hemisphere year; February. Ooh she is a cruel mistress, February. And oh how I have so very often bemoaned her cold, grey ways. She does it to me every year, drives me up the walls of the apartment she forces us to hunker down in as the rain falls and the temperature hovers at a number germs and viruses thrive in, and all the way back down again. Every year. Every damn year.

Der Lüdde and I went out to the markets yesterday, for a coffee that was cold within minutes, and a stroll with a friend. The cold at the moment is wet, wet and biting, of course if you are a baby wrapped in a lamb’s wool-lined suit, that doesn’t really matter. Oh to be a baby wrapped in lamb’s wool and marvellously ignorant of Schietwetter. The markets this time of year are quieter, less colourful. Loads of pale,  knotty root veggies blinking in the light. That being said, in amongst the stalls of turnips and woodfired bread and tiny organic leeks, was a rainbow fruit stall, selling Peruvian mangoes for 6.50€ a piece. Quite apart from not being desperate enough  to pay 6.50€ for a single mango, yet, I have become accustomed to eating more seasonally, and the idea of a mango in February felt wrong. It seems a touch of the German sense of Ordnung has indeed got under my skin. (Now, the idea of a mango in February in Australia, well that is quite simply enormously right.) But, look, I have to say … I picked up a mango and smelled it, looking like a real loon, but it begged me to, with its sunset skin and sweet, sweet smell … maybe I am closer to paying 6.50€ for a Peruvian mango than I thought. This is what February in this part of the world does to you. Robs you of reason.

On the way home from picking die Lüdde up from her playgroup, the needle rain started and before long we were all dripping, cheeks red, eyelashes wet. Die Lüdde clung determinedly to a soggy rice cake, a gift from her little mate. The rain didn’t let up for most of the rest of the day, so we resigned ourselves to another day of puzzles and drawing and Kneate and fossicking around the apartment to find things we could turn into games (‘look, an old tin full of biros that may or may not work – why don’t you go through each and every one of them and test them out!’). This time of year is tricky with kids – it is too cold or too wet or too miserable to haunt a Spielplatz, or one of them is nursing just enough of a cough to not make standing in the damp cold for a few minutes of slippery dip fun quite worth it. So you build up craft boxes, grabbing glitter pens and sticker whenever you see them, dropping 12€ at Tiger on anything colourful that can be glued to paper. You crack out the puzzles you cleverly bought months back and put away for a rainy day (ie: the entire season of winter) and you read a lot of books. A lot. No wonder Germany is das Land der Dichter und Denker. The weather means one has not much else to do except sit inside and think and perhaps jot a poem or two down about how god awful the weather is and consequently, how dark one’s soul is.

Tja. February. You test me every time.

Erosion

As time passes and I find my answer to ‘seit wann sind Sie in Deutschland?’ changing to a number of years that seems heavy to me, a strange, uncomfortable thing is happening; I feel, sometimes, as if an erosion of my Australianess is taking place. It is slow and for the most part so incremental as to be almost unnoticeable, like the smallest leak in a very large bucket. But it is there, this sense of being washed away, this sense of, on difficult days, loss.

Loss, of course, occurs naturally with age. I have, rather unfortunately, lost the body I had as a 25 year old and lost the very blonde hair I had when I lived in a country with plenty of sun to help the sporadic dye jobs. I have lost the thirst, the uncertainty, the unending desire to prove oneself, that accompanies one throughout their twenties. I have lost patience for many things, interest in others. I have lost sleep, or rather, it has been stolen by the two little people I have gained in its place. None of that is bad. All of those things most probably would have occurred whether I had stayed in Australia or not (except the hair). But, alongside the things I am shedding as I grow older and further into my skin, are these intangible pieces of self, and they are disappearing not because I am growing older, but because of where I am growing older.

Recently, I went to the first English playgroup I have come across since having my first baby here two and a half years ago. I don’t seek out English-centred activities for my children, although I will as they get older and most of their days are spent speaking German with teachers and classmates. And I will always feel the need to defend doing English-centred activities with them because I heard these words so often when I first moved here, they hang around my neck like a chain; ‘you live in Germany now, you must speak German.’ And as immigrants, we are naturally defensive of passing on our culture and our language. Defensive and yet proud. Obstinate, irritatingly so, but only because we fear being lost in our children.

So there we were, a disparate bunch, a Kiwi who had married a Dutch woman who herself had grown up in Kiel. An American who had married a German, a German who had married an Englishman, a British-American born in Germany, raised in London, who had married a German and returned to the country of his birth, if not his citizenship and so on, so forth. Our kids had accents and mixed their vocabs and it was a warm and easy meeting of like minds. I was asked where I was from, and when I said, ‘Australia’, the response was one I hear often, but this time, this time it stuck with me; ‘oh, you can barely hear it.’

I know that accents often come and go, exist in a constant state of flux. They come back with a vengeance when you are with family and friends, they pop out when you are angry or excited. And they drift off when they haven’t heard themselves for a while, and you find yourself mirroring another person’s vowels, or over-annunciating some words to be better understood, or inserting quirks of the language you are learning, into your mother tongue. But your accent reveals your heritage, warns others of where you come from, singles you out in a roomful of people. And mine, albeit never particularly strong in the first place, is fading. So I try and hang onto the way we speak. I hated shortening words when I lived at home, words like ‘arvo’ for afternoon, but I say it all the time now. Almost deliberately. Definitely deliberately. For the same reason we have hung the paintings of Australian birds, bright and colourful and heart-warmingly distinct, around our apartment, my husband and I throw flat Aussie vowels at each other, use expressions I grew up hearing from my parents, and it helps.

My formative years, of course, indeed my first 25 years, were spent in the country of my birth and my citizenship. I grew up there, was educated there, voted there, worked there; I come from, I am. And yet, I have never rented an apartment in Australia. I have never had a baby there. I have never bought a house there. All three of those things, those so very adult, life-defining things, I have done here. There have been three Prime Ministers – I think –  since I left the only country in which I am legally allowed to vote.  I see what angers my people, and it angers me too. I celebrate our victories. I will always support the green and gold. But I do it all from afar, without the immediacy of being there, without the context of having been there as things take place. And of course, I lot of it passes me by. A lot of names, I don’t recognise, a lot of things happen and I come to them late; a lot of problem are not my own, or rather, they are my own but they are occurring in a different system, in another language.

Strangely, I do not feel like the slow erosion of my Australianness correlates with a deepening of my Germanness. I do not feel any more German than I did six years ago, freshly arrived and floundering. I understand the Germans and German far, far more. I love them and this country in a manner achievable only through being a part of it. But I do not feel a part of my cultural identity is German. I feel a part of my cultural identity is being foreign within Germany, but not German. And from where I stand, in a position of terrific privilege, I – even I – can see, how immigrants isolate. Isolate and insulate. Because as an immigrant, you are never not what you came from, but you are also never what where you are. This tension can be a wonderful thing. Fascinating and eternally educational. But it can also be disengaging, a slippery slope to disenchantment, an easy reason to cling to what you left behind in defiance of a culture you do not feel a part of.

And yet, and yet. There is another way of looking at this, for I also know that a part of me was always seeking something different, a tension, a suspension, otherwise I would never have left Australia. Otherwise I would not be sitting here, looking out on a cold, grey north German winter’s day, while my half German son gums a rattle on the floor. And that same part of me knows that there is another way of looking at this sense of erosion, this fear I am being painted over as life barrels on and further away from both what I knew and what I thought it would look like; rather than being taken away from, I am being added to. I have lost nothing, but instead gained abundantly.

Quiet & Slow

Temperatures plunged, the roads turned icy, and any lingering resolve I may have had to go outside disappeared over the weekend. On Saturday we postponed plans with family because the Feuerwehr advised against driving and, as I get older, and my children weigh heavily on my heart, I make almost all decisions based on variations of the ‘those parents’ question: in this case, ‘do we want to be those parents who go driving, have an accident and get asked by the police why we were driving in the first place?’ Having cancelled our plans, I set out on foot to buy nappies, or something equally as urgent, and nearly fell on my arse, twice. I turned back and handed the job to SG. I am in no mood, at this time of year, to fall on my arse carrying nappies and cast about wildly for someone’s hand to assist in heaving my Christmas-fattened body back on its feet. I am in no mood to do much at all, mid January, except eat, watch my jeans tighten, and plan imaginary holidays to Greece.

(Actually, on the note of planning imaginary holidays, I thought about exploring the possibility of a little long weekend break in Denmark. So I hopped online, looked at houses, and over the course of doing about ten minutes of research, my subconscious spun through the logistics of an easy breezy weekend with a baby and a toddler – travel cots and baby food, and a toddler who is very much wedded to the idea of sleeping exclusively in her own bed, toys for indoor play, snow suits and boots for freezing outdoor adventures, groceries … And I stopped. I closed every window I had opened and went and made myself a coffee. I think I’ll wait a bit for easy breezy weekends away to become a thing again.)

But, there is beauty in the cold air. And each day brings us closer to Spring, even though I am sure there is snow waiting in February’s wings.  I almost hope there is, because die Lüdde is completely obsessed with it. If and when it falls, I hope there is enough for a snowman, or a sledding situation with Papa. Perhaps, quite like the spell they cast on Christmas, children can make winter a little more magical too.

Januaries are always quiet and huddled, here. it almost feels like the volume gets turned down. Many of my non-German friends fly home for the weeks over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, cleverly skipping the grey, post-Christmas letdown. The past couple of years we escaped too, but not this time. And that’s okay. We can huddle too, play with Christmas presents, drink tea and brave drizzly morning walks to playgroup, the air wet and cold. With each winter I spend in this part of the world, it gets a tiny bit easier, the hibernation a little more restorative. And there is something quite nice about being forced to stay inside and laze about without feeling guilty about it. I mean, if the Feuerwehr say ‘don’t drive anywhere’, it is a very small step to reach ‘stay in your pyjamas all day and watch Netflix until Netflix itself asks you if you are sure you are still watching.’ Very small.

That being said, come February, I will be singing a very different, far whinier tune.

The Sick Season

I used to think the most intolerable part of a north German winter was the grey. The grey sky, the grey trees, the grey water, the grey air. Days of no colour that bled into one another, January indiscernible from February. Second to the grey was the wet, the needle rain, the Schietwetter, the drizzle, the downpours. Oh, and the cold, of course – the thigh-numbing wind, the ducking and darting from overheated shop to overheated shop. (I am used to the cold now, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Although I dream, I dream, of beaches.)

But now I know that the most intolerable part of winter is actually the fact that, for months on end, everyone is sick. Dastardly colds, the flu, the stomach flu, they cycle through the general populous, knocking cities out like dominoes. As you stagger to the finish line of three days of efficiently throwing up, efficient because you have to be while your kid projectiles all over every piece of spare bed linen you own, someone in the family starts coughing threateningly. A week later you are all hoiking up vast amounts of phlegm and splashing seriously weak eucalyptus oil over every piece of spare bed linen you own. Your toddler develops a Honigfenchel addiction and considers it part of bedtime routine.  You use the word ‘Schleim‘ about three thousand time over the course of th day. After about a week, you stagger out of that cold, thrilled the baby can now breathe without a litre of Otriven being pumped into his nose every night, and then the toddler’s nose starts streaming. Again. Your throat closes up. You genuinely start drinking Erkältungstee because you are that desperate and when you are desperate you start to think like a German, and thinking like a German means believing a bag of dried unhelpfulness dipped in boiling water will cure all that ails you.

We are crawling out of a fortnight of sickness (when I say ‘we’, I mean the kids are crawling out, I appear to be crawling in …) which began precisely a fortnight after die Lüdde got over a cough/runny nose combo. I have come to realise, through sheer positive thinking, Netflix, enough chocolate and wine, and a good coat, I can do grey, I can do cold, I can do wet, I can do days on end finding ways to entertain a toddler while the Spielplätze outside are off limits … But I don’t know if I can do the sickness. The constant, hoiking, coughing, sniffing, vomiting sickness. That sense of never quite feeling well.

I had a chat with a couple of other immigrant ladies the other night, about why the sickness season in Germany is so dire (and dire squared when one has children). Dire in that, when a bug goes around it is both vicious and so widespread it knocks out the country. Dire in that, there is a period of health that lasts about a month, before the next bug barges in.  And we were a varied bunch theorising: a few Americans, an Australian and a Finn. I have always theorised it is a combination of no sun, low light, low vitamin levels, and the completely unhealthy overheating of indoor areas which means you go from freezing outside, to overheating and sweating inside, about four times a day. An American tossed in her theories of population density and lower levels of hand-washing. I then began relentlessly questioning SG as to whether he believes Germans are less hygienic and whether or not his colleagues wash their hands enough.

Anyway. We’re surviving, if not thriving over here, and the end of this latest bout is in sight. It is a fresh, new, shiny year and I love fresh, new shiny years. Let’s clink Erkältungstee cups and drink to good health, even if only for a couple of weeks.

The Darkest Day

It is the shortest, darkest day of the year today. Winter solstice. And yet, there is blue sky, and the sun keeps pushing through the clouds, undeterred. There is a metaphor in there somewhere, for the state of the world right now, where there is so much darkness, so much insidious darkness.

From here, the days will begin to lengthen. The sun will rise earlier in the morning. There will be more light. The tiny kernel of promise, the little flame of light, that seems so small during these dark days, will grow and grow, until it is almost all we can see. The darkness never disappears, but it never triumphs either.

Last week, family blew in from all corners of the globe, from Sydney and London and Amsterdam, and it was wonderful. We had a long weekend of German Christmas treats and coffees and vegemite Brötchen and catch ups. The kids were fussed over and die Lüdde ate way too many Zimtsterne. It was a big dose of familial cheer and carried us almost all the way to Heilige Abend’s front door.

Holy Evening. Christmas Eve. I don’t believe in a God, but I respect your right to. I believe, though, in the sanctity of family, however that family is formed. I believe in the faith we place in each other, in community. And I believe that this time of year is a time to draw close and celebrate each other and that which binds us as family, as community.

So Merry Christmas to all of you. Draw close. Let the light in.