Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Finally Bought Batteries and Thus Have Some Photos! And Some Stories.

    Why hello, dear friends! Happy Sunday to you! It is rather a rather dreary and uninspiring day here; yesterday was gorgeous and practically spring-y, but today we've returned to the wet and cold that is winter in Germany. Fortunately the cold snap seems to have ended, and though not by any stretch of the imagination warm, the forecast for the next ten days is at least entirely positive. It's snowy and wet outside, so I've holed myself up in the nearest Starbucks (don't scoff; it's warm and cheap and open on Sundays and has free wifi!) with my computer, Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens, and a large mug of tea.

     Starbucks in Europe is practically a clone of that in America, with the exception of one cool thing: if you say you're eating/drinking there, they give you a real coffee mug! In assorted tall, grande, and venti sizes, of course. Okay, it's not really that exciting, but it definitely gives it a feeling of homeyness!

     Anyway, as bleh (yes, that is a real descriptive word. Shhhh!) as today is, yesterday outdid itself in gorgeousness. The sun was out, the sky was bluer than blue, and the temperature was a whopping 45 degrees Fahrenheit! (Yes, up 50 degrees from some parts of last week!) Sadly, as the weekends (and presence of two very energetic and ready-to-play children upstairs) turn me into somewhat of a recluse in the mornings, I didn't proceed out into the world until about 3, and since my room's in the basement, I didn't even realize how lovely it was outside! Fortunately the sun has obliged since December by staying up later, so I took a bus ride into the eastern train station, a tram in a few stops, then walked the rest of the way into town along the river, only stopping to take some pictures and buy a couple of krapfen (Fasching's nearly over, after all!).

Walk to the bus stop

Families enjoying the day with their sleds

Bayrischer Landtag

Isar River 

Isar and Maximilliansbrücke

Icy riverbank

St Lukas Kirche

Rathaus dressed up for Fasching

    The day concluded with a couple of hours in Hugendubel's (Barnes and Noble's German sister) and a lovely meal at my favorite Indian restaurant with a friend! Quite a lovely Saturday.

    Interesting side note: German newspaper holder machiney things (do they have a specific name? The kind that stands on a street and you put money in to open it up and get a paper) aren't locked. You can open them without paying. Everyone is aware of this. And you know what? Like 90% of people still pay. How crazy is that? This country is ridiculous. 

     Okay, bathroom run. Cross your fingers no one steals my computer. If the rest of this blog is written in a voice (or language) other than mine, you'll know the worst has happened! 


    Phew. Success. Someone was running out the door with it when I returned, but I beat them up and we're set for the post-bathroom-break part of the blog.

    A note on bathrooms: Not all of them cost money here, which I have trickily figured out. You just have to know the right ones to go to. Bathrooms in restaurants and coffee shops (and Starbucks) frequently have a bathroom attendant whose job it is to change toilet paper, wipe off sinks, et cetera. Though not required, it's generally expected to tip these women (not sexist, it's always been a woman, in my experience). But how much? Do you actually have to? This occasionally necessitates a run back from the bathroom to grab my coin purse. And how much is enough? 20 cents seems cheap. 50 seems like too much. Oh, the dilemmas. 
    Also, a word to the wise: the American habit of never referring to a restroom as what it's actually for (unless, I suppose, you're in some really hick town where they call it the shitter or something equally charming) is a purely American habit. If you ask someone where the bathroom is, they won't know. Same with restroom, WC, ladies' room. It's called a toilet. You're welcome.

    So let's back up a couple days more. As you may recall, we are currently in Faschingszeit: the six-ish days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The true big day of Fasching is Faschingsdienstag, Faschings Tuesday (so the German Pancake/Shrove/Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras). But the celebrations begin the Thursday before Fasching with Weiberfasching (wives' Fasching), a day that in traditional Fasching hot spots (the cities in the Rhineland) gives women permission to cut off the tie of any men they might encounter. Celebrations continue all weekend, culminating in wild celebrations on Monday (Rosinmontag) and Tuesday, with the Dance of the Market Women in the open air market in the city center. 

     My kiddies have celebrated by dressing up in costumes every day for kindergarten. (I heard moms at the kindergarten complaining about the Fasching theme--they're frustrated with silly themes that require costumes that won't be worn again. Pretty sure none of my Halloween costumes ever made it out of the house on a day other than the one for which they were intended...oops!). Cliona's costumes, unsurprisingly, have consisted of a blue princess, a pink princess, and a red princess. Kilian has branched out a little more and was a wizard the first day, a knight the second, and I think tomorrow the plan is idea, actually. I'll tell you when I remember. 

Face painting that was waaaay too hard to get off. 

Pretty pretty princess!

Princess girls

    The city is dressed up for Fasching too! (Even in addition to the Krapfen!)

Lamppole in city center

    Though as an American I really have no comprehension of how to celebrate Fasching like a German (well, I could probably figure it out, but shelling out 100 euros as an entrance fee to a masquerade ball seems a little excessive. Especially on my salary.), my friends and I gave it a try Friday night. A friend's birthday celebration gave us a minor excuse to put on costumes and paint the town (okay, not the second part. Only a little). I confess I was not in the costume spirit, and Scrooge-ily rejected all offers to find me one, until someone brilliant suggested I paint on a mustache. Why this appealed so much, I don't know, but I rose to the challenge. Or rather, someone armed with eyeliner and better makeup-applying skills than I did. I make a great canvas. 

Costume completed.
Twinsie Frenchmen
"That ain't no Diet Coke." --Leigh Stephenson

    Another German fact, especially relevant to above photo: In Germany, you can get beer everywhere. There is no such thing as a restaurant that doesn't have beer. Seriously. Case in point: see above. When our tram was shown not to arrive for another 17 minutes, we took off to the Burger King across the street and purchased a couple of Burger Beers. In Burger King cups. Love. Amazingly enough, the type of beer was Miller Lite. What?

    Anyway, the night progressed fairly standardly, with some more beers, cupcakes, and other random things (that was all, actually; I just need three to avoid reconfiguring my grammar), eventually progressing into a dance party, which eventually progressed into a snowball fight, an attempted trip to a club that was thwarted by a group of passing Germans who promised knowledge of a karaoke bar. I stayed along for the ride until seeing the outside of the bar (spending the walk in cheery German conversation with a fellow who had grown up in Seattle), then seeing the time, wended my way sadly back to the subway station with Leigh in tow.

Saddened at the state of my mustache and rose. I think I was channeling a mime at this point.

  An uneventful U-bahn ride later, I arrived at my home station, only to find not only no bus awaiting for me, but no mention anywhere of when it would arrive. The thrifty lass that I am, I stubbornly refused to pay eight euros for a taxi ride and instead walked the 2.5 miles home in the snow and ice (only falling once! My knee is bruised.). Okay, maybe a taxi would've been a good idea. But whatever. I made it! 

    Today has been quiet and peaceful (if totally lazy). Tomorrow I seem to have off, so fingers crossed a plan to dash down to Schliersee and play in the snow with Leigh for the day works out! 

    Last Tuesday I again got the chance to work at the English kindergarten. I feel bad for being so happy about it, as it only happens with one of the teacher's son gets sick, but oh well. It's surprisingly less stressful than I would have thought, and the kids are super sweet and fun and (much to my surprise) adore me. It's also put me at 200 euros OVER budget for this month--a welcome addition! Hopefully now I will be able to register for another language class.     

    My family has officially picked their new au pair, which is a little weird to think about. Granted, I'm not leaving anytime soon, but it's still funny to think the time is coming--I sometimes still feel like I just got here! The end of February will mark my six-months-in-Munich-iversary. I feel like I've done pretty well in six months--I know my way around, know how to say pretty much anything I want to, am fully confident with public transportation, and can even find my way home in the wee hours of the morning after too many beers. This month has been a little lonesome, especially with Nate back in the States for grad school auditions and thus not having him around to talk to very much (six hours is an awful time difference), but I'm getting through it and having some fun regardless. In a week and a half I take off to Sofia for about five days to greet him on his return to Europe, so there's that to look forward to. And in the meantime, I'm doing my best to find adventures and have fun!  

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Germany 101: Surviving Winter Through Beer and Pastries

Photobooth fun! (With effects. Kilian's face does not actually bulge like that.)
      Happy Saturday, folks! It is currently a brisk 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 C) outside, so I'm more than fine with staying at home writing a blog, rather than taking on the elements. (And, you know, I'm babysitting, so wouldn't happen anyway.) Germany (and indeed most of Europe) is still locked in its record cold snap, and sure enough the temperature hasn't climbed above about -8 Celsius in at least two weeks. However next week's forecast actually has a couple highs in the positive temperature range, so I'm optimistic.

     The last three or four days have been impressively snowy (okay, not much more than 3 inches on the ground, but enough new snow falls that it manages to look pretty, at least! I'm still pretty excited whenever it snows, as long as I'm inside looking out. Burr!

     The amount of snow that's fallen (and refuses to melt...downside of perpetual sub-zero temperatures! In California it snows, looks pretty for 24 hours, then promptly all leaves so things like ice and grit and yellow snow never enter into the equation.) has significantly shaken up my kids-picking-up routine. Whereas normally Kilian's bike is taken to the kindergarten in the morning and I bring the stroller over when I go to collect them, with this amount of snow both bike riding and stroller pushing are impossible. Solution? SLED.

     Oh yeah, sled. And not a wimpy little one either! These things are heavy duty. So our trek home consists of about a 20-minutes trudge (on my part)/gleeful ride (on the part of the kiddies) through a field/wood down to a bus stop about half a mile away from the kindergarten. There generally isn't enough snow to go the whole way home (and Germans are assiduous at promptly shoveling sidewalks), which is really fine with me. Have you ever tried pulling 60 lbs. worth of children half a mile? I think both my biceps are permanently strained. It's hilariously cute though. Cliona obliges by singing Jingle Bells for most of the ride  ("Jingle bells, all the way, fun fun in a sleigh!" are pretty much her words), and indeed there is a little jingle bell attached to the front of the sled to encourage her singing. Kilian would much prefer it were I a dog, pulling the sled, and is often disappointed at how slowly I go. (Umm, not only are they freaking heavy, but pulling whilst trudging (in non-waterproof boots, I might add) through loose, powdery, 5-inch-deep snow?)

     Kilian told me tonight as I was putting him to bed that I was almost as old as an Oma (grandma). "But you have to get some children first," he hastened to add. Thanks, you rascal. I made him promise to tell me if he saw any grey hairs on me.

     I will tell you with complete and utter sincerity that as beautiful as snow is, I am ready for spring. Ohhhh, am I ready for spring. I've had to fight the temptation very hard to become a complete hermit since the weather's gotten so miserable. Any touristy sightseeing expeditions had better be to things inside this time of year. I visit a lot of malls and bookstores and coffee shops. I will be totally lost when it warms up and I actually have to pick clothing that a)looks okay, b)matches, c)I haven't worn the last two days as well. And the thought of showing my pasty white limbs to the world sort of makes me want to scream with terror. My hairstyles have been winnowed down to double ponytails, the only hair that stays somewhat neat and doesn't get static-y under a hat and scarf. Makeup freezes off.

     This is somewhat disgusting, but I have to share it. Californians, you know how when it's really cold, your nose runs? Well, did you know when it's really cold (by rest-of-the-world standards, not California standards), your nose stops being runny and instead the runny-ness freezes. Yep. Frozen snot. I went there. You're so welcome. Don't begrudge me that--it's making me feel slightly better thinking about y'all in California tanning on the beach in your 75 degree weather.

     Last weekend was, as I'm sure everyone is aware, the greatest quintessentially American holiday of all American holidays: the Superbowl. AKA the day women pretend to hate but actually love because they're not only permitted to spend the entire day eating forbidden foods and gabbing, it's actually actively promoted. (That was probably politically incorrect. But also pretty apt, let's be honest.) Plus, you're supposed to watch the commercials. What? As a self-professed has-no-interest-whatsoever-at-all-period-who-are-the-patriots-again?-in-football American, I of course jumped at the chance to bring this pointless day to Germany and convinced one of my friends to host a mini-superbowl party.

     So around 4 PM on a blustery, chilly day, about 9 of us gathered, American food and a plethora of beer in tow, to celebrate the holiday in style. Food included tortilla chips and salsa, barbecue chips and ranch, chocolate chip cookies, nachos and guacamole (funny how so much traditional "American" food is Mexican...), chicken nuggets, cheese nuggets, and hot wings. Drink included beer, beer, and even a little beer. And we passed the afternoon, evening, and even a wee bit of the very early morning eating too much, drinking too much, and celebrating the holiday in style.

    If you're at all geographically or mathematically-inclined, you may have realized that the Superbowl's practical starting time of 3:30 PM California time lands it promptly at 12:30 AM, Monday morning German time. So our "Superbowl" party actually consisted of watching the Best of Superbowl commercials from the last several years, quite a few halftime shows, watching Justin Timberlake pull Janet Jackson's shirt off, and listening to Christina Aguilera forget the words to the national anthem. No football involved. So basically, my perfect superbowl party! We topped the night off with a game of King's Cup and quite a few rounds of flip cup. Most excellent. A few photos, courtesy of the amazing Leigh Stephenson:


Flipcup champs 
And this is when I fell while trying to crip walk...
    A few Friday night trips to the Hofbräuhaus have also been in order. Touristy though it may be, it's also warm, welcoming, inexpensive, and a whole lot of fun!

Wintry courtyard at HBhaus

     The German people continue, as a whole, to be their silly selves. (Don't tell them I said that. They'd be so angry.) I was proposed to while waiting for the U-bahn last night. It was rather alarming.  My language speaking buddy and I have continued to meet up fairly regularly, which is a lot of fun and great for my German, as well! Last week he brought along a picture dictionary and quizzed me on words; sadly, when I had to randomly pick a page, we ended up trying to identify sea creatures, and let's be honest: oyster vs. mussel vs. clam I can't really do even in English! 

     A brief story from my language partner, illustrating the awesomeness and law-abiding-ness of Germans: Andreas told me he once lost the rear plate from his car, somehow, and had no idea where it had gone, how it had fallen off, et cetera. After giving it up for lost, he came home about five or six days after losing it, only to find it had been reattached to his car. Clearly somehow had found it, given it to the police, who identified the car, and not only returned it but screwed it back on themselves. That kind of thing just doesn't happen in America!

    The season right now is Fasching: a culmination of costume parties and wild and crazy frolicking leading up to Faschingsdienstag, which is none other than....any guesses? German Mardi Gras! Though it's definitely not as big of a deal here as it is in the North and along the Rhine, I've still seen my share of costumed people dashing around the city. It presents itself as sort of one long halloween, replete with parades, festivals, balls, and parties.

Munich Faschingsparade (Thanks, Google)  
     More on that to come, I'm sure, as it's still a week and a half away. 

     The other fun part of Fasching is the delicious tradition that is Faschingskrapfen. A krapfen is basically the German version of a donut (I think it technically equates to a Bismarck, specifically?)--a simple doughy ball glazed or powdered. Bavarian krapfen are traditionally filled with apricot marmelade.
          -------> Side note: A krapfen in Berlin is known as a Berliner. Ring any bells? Good ol' JKF and his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, of course! Incidentally, some internet research has proven the whole "I am a jelly donut" mishap to be false. As one article I read pointed out, yes, what he said could be translated as that, but if someone said to you "I am a New Yorker," would you really start laughing hysterically because you thought they were trying to say they were a literary magazine?
Back to krapfen. During Fasching, these ordinarily not-very-exciting pastries take on a whole new level. Flavors range from Vanilla to chocolate to straciatella to Eierlikör (kind of like very thick alcoholic eggnog) to strawberry to lemon to currant...I could go on. I will never be able to eat donuts again. These things are so freaking good. 


     As sad as it is to end on a discussion of custard-filled donuts (my mouth is still watering), I can't think of anything else to say! Thanks for putting up with this scattered, fairly silly blog entry! 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Scattered Observations and Apologies for my Lack of More Punctilious Updates

Cliona. And Baby, doing a headstand for you.

     Well, so much for doing better in January than I did in December. I was going to try and pound out a blog last night, but I was just so sleepy! So happy February to you all. Sorry I'm late.

     Not too much to report! Had a lovely weekend with trips to Hofbräuhaus, Kennedy's Irish Pub, watching Germans in short-shorts play volleyball analyzing European volleyball-playing techniques, eating pastries, having delicious Mexican food home-delivered from a restaurant, and a trip to the movies (in German! Yeah!). The movie theater even had pleasantly American-flavored popcorn....yum!!!

      I was pleasantly surprised on Monday night to get a call from the woman who runs Kilian and Cliona's English kindergarten--one of their teachers had a sick kid and they needed a replacement for the next day...could I fill in? Heck yes!  So I spent Tuesday running around with 18 crazy 3- to 6-year-olds drawing pictures, doing show-and-tell, making crafts, reciting nursery rhymes, and singing songs. I even got the "difficult" child of the class to be my best friend--he led me around by the hand most of the day showing me things and saying my name over and over for twenty minutes at a time. Kid has five imaginary friends. Oy, his poor parents. It was a tiring day but quite fun, and provided a lovely augmentation to my cash-on-hand!

     Kilian and Cliona are charming as always, if a bit challenging at times. Like with anything, there are good weeks and there are bad weeks, but sadly there have been more bad than good lately. Cliona is refusing to eat, Kilian is slamming doors and telling me he hates me...I actually had to send him to his room for the first time today. Fortunately he's six, not any older, and his angry retreat to his room was followed by and I'm-sorry-Laura and a hug and offer of a piece of his chocolate not much longer afterwards.

     I went to a birthday party with Cliona last week which, once again, featured champagne for the adults...kid birthday parties rock! Cliona obstinately refused to eat or drink anything, including cake. She'll wish she still had that ability when she's older...I'm glad the birthday festivities for Kilian are finally over--it's been way too dangerous having all this delicious cake in the house! Cliona, moved by the spirit of all these birthdays, told me last week it was her baby's birthday. Baby apparently turned 5. How awkward.

     Not too many other basic anecdotes, I'm afraid, but here are a few Germans-are-so-interesting tales/observations:

On Fresh Air

     Germans have a thing about fresh air. And by thing, I mean obsession. Fixation. Mania. Utter and complete, undying passion.  (Okay, proved a little too entertaining there.) But really. It's a problem. One that, sadly, I am beginning to see the virtue of. The saying here runs roughly along the lines of, "Germans need fresh air; Americans need air freshener." So true.

     I didn't really notice the whole fresh air thing when I first arrived. When it's sunny and warm and gorgeous outside, as it was for the first two months or so after my arrival, the desire to have windows and doors open makes a lot of sense.

     But then summer turned to fall, warm balmy weather turned to pouring rain and chilling gusts of wind, and, as any normal American (particularly Californian...not that we ever have problem like the aforementioned!) would surmise, I assumed windows and doors would be firmly shut until the next more clement day presented itself.

     Oh, but no.

     Fresh air is, to Germans, as important as eating healthily and exercising. My German teacher would, every day, throw all the windows in the classroom (a whole wall's worth) wide open (bear in mind these are European windows, not American ones, and they open fully, none of that sliding-with-a-screen-behind-it nonsense. German insects know better than to come into houses.) to get our twenty minutes's worth of frische Luft. In case you haven't been keeping an up-to-date schedule of my whereabouts and activities over the last half-year or so (for shame (that was a joke, Dad)), my class ran from early October to early December. AKA when it's really quite cold. We would send the break huddled on the opposite side of the room, jackets and scarves on, wincing whilst breathing in the chillingly cold air coming in through the windows (often accompanied by--no exaggeration--pouring rain).

     A lot of the hype about fresh air comes with the far superior building and design of German houses. In the coldest weather I've experienced here (about 0 degrees Fahrenheit/-18 Celsius), the houses are never affected. The walls are so thick and so well-insulated and the windows and doors the same (thick glass? Beats me), there is never even a draft. I can (and have) walked around in a T-shirt in all kinds of weather. The downside to this is, however, that smells tend to...linger. Radiators are remarkably effective in clearing out any unpleasant bathroom-related olfactory events, but in larger rooms, it can be a problem. (Such as the living room, which still reeks of last night's ham quiche. Yes, despite my host parents throwing the living room doors wide open into the chilling, below-freezing night.)

     Did I mention that during the day, in freezing weather and ground covered in ice and snow, Germans flock to the streets and parks with their kids and dogs in tow? Fresh air, man.

On German Politics

     Why haven't you heard me ranting about the latest German political scandals?

     Because there aren't any.

     Europeans, and Germans in particular, I think, are remarkably calm about their political issues. With the excitement and drama (and idiocy) going on in the states right now with the Republican primaries, it's interesting to compare that to German points of view. (The Germans who are cosmopolitan enough to follow American politics are, for the most part, fairly shocked at how soap opera-esque it all is.)

     In Germany, those who are involved in politics do it as a job. As employment. It is not their life. I've heard from several well-educated, politically aware Germans that they have no idea what Angela Merkel's (German chancellor, husband looks like. Why's that? Because he has no involvement in her job. She goes to work, does her chancellor-ing, then comes home and that's that. I find it fascinating. There's none of this hype about family life and what-was-the-president's-wife-wearing and whatnot.

     There are a number of prominent politicians who have personal facts that would make Americans cringe and refuse to vote for them (and probably condemn them to hell). For example: the mayor of Berlin, the deputy mayor of Paris, the prime minister of Iceland, and the recent runner-up for the Irish presidency (I think) are all gay. There's a very high-level German politician (I can't remember who) who's had four marriages. And you know what? No one cares. None of these things matter. It's a nonissue. Europeans would view not voting for someone because of their religious affiliation or sexual orientation as the same concept as not hiring someone because they play raquetball in their free time. These issues have no bearing on how they would perform in political office, and thus they are not even thought about.

     The German political system is also quite interesting. Whereas America has developed a two-party system that actively promotes partisanship and loyalty and refusal to compromise, in Germany, it's exactly the opposite. With six parties all represented in the Bundestag (German House of Representatives), the highest with 195 reps and the lowest with 43, it's impossible to ever win anything with making friends and crossing party lines. To win an election, parties must join together and form coalitions, or it's impossible to get elected, make a law, or do anything.

     And here we are with two parties that couldn't get a thing done if they tried.

The Downside of Snow

     Don't get me wrong, I love snow. When it's snowing, I've been known to gallivant wildly and squeak and dance with excitement. But I'm starting to see why people can dread it.

     The last snowfall here was Friday nearly a week ago. However, since temperatures have barely risen above zero since then, all the snow is still here. Except it's been walked on so much it's all ice. If you weren't aware, ice is not your friend. Ice is dangerous. Ice catches you unawares on a walk home from the market and sends you falling on your posterior (didn't break the eggs though!). Ice is also very difficult to push a pram through.

     Furthermore, at home the idea of yellow snow was always rather silly. Here, it's a fact. It's everywhere. Dogs pee no matter what the weather's like. Most of the snow is more yellow than white. Or brown, or black, or even red (which is always a little disturbing).

     Also, given that none of my shoes have a tread on them, walking anywhere has become rather hazardous. Don't tell winter, but I'm looking forward to spring.

Aaaaaaaaaand...that's all, folks! Yesterday marked the five-month mark of living in Munich...time flies!

And a shout-out to Nate, who flew home today to start a month of grad school auditions. Send him good vibes, because he's amazing!