Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Here I Go Again

Little-known fact about Christina: I enjoy 1980’s rock and roll. Check out my iPod and intermixed with a copious amounts of country music, some German titles and various classics (YMCA anyone?) you will find AC/DC, Def Leppard and Twisted Sister.

These are the groups I listen to on the days when I need to remember what it feels like to have music blasting in your ears as you dance topless across your bedroom floor (If you don’t understand how cathartic that can be, it’s probably because you’ve never tried it). 1980’s rock songs have, at various times, served as my battle cry, my adrenaline rush, and even my inspiration.

Today, Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” is my anthem.

Because today I am 72 hours away from an epic, 9-day solo journey across Germany and France. I am leaving for Berlin on Saturday morning where I will spend a few days soaking up the history of a battle-scarred nation. Then it’s on to southern Germany where I hope to eat a pretzel for breakfast and find as many people wearing lederhosen as I can. After that I am hopping a night train to France where I am meeting a very dear friend who is currently teaching English in a small French village.

This will be my longest solo trip to date and I am both excited and terrified. I love the idea of being able to do what I want whenever I want (especially after living the au pair life, which can be a bit constricting). If I want to tour museums all day, sit in a café for three hours or practice my German with local children at a nearby playground, I can do it. I don’t have to answer to anyone for my travel choices and that is a beautiful thing. But I will also be missing out on the inside jokes and fond memories that accompany traveling with a friend.

I have only myself (and my poor German skills) to rely on. I can’t say for certain that things will turn out exactly the way I hope they will, or think they should, but I’m ready for the challenge and excited for the sense of triumph that always accompanies catching the correct train at the correct time.

So here I go again on my own… wish me luck!

Sending Much Love,


P.S. I promise many action-packed updates upon my return! 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A First Time for Everything

Tomorrow is my twenty-fourth birthday, which means that it is officially the end of September (where has time gone?) and that I am another year older (again, where has time gone?).

Everyone told me that time would speed up once I got to college and, as any good eighteen-year-old would do, I scoffed. How does time speed up, anyway? Well, six years later I have yet to discover how the time warp works, but it is true. The time since my high school graduation has flown by.

On one hand, I look at all I have accomplished and I am amazed: I earned a college degree, lived abroad (twice), completed a year of national service and met a wonderful host of people who have greatly enriched my life. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t feel like that long ago that my eighteen-year-old self was saying goodbye to my best friends from high school as I got ready to head off to college for the first time.

Either way, it’s a beautiful, crazy, blessed life I have come to lead. And so, of course, I felt it necessary to celebrate by trying out a few new things this weekend…

My birthday cake from Kristin!
On Friday after work I hopped a train to Hamburg and met Kristin. Upon arriving at her host family’s apartment I discovered that she had baked me a chocolate birthday cake from scratch. Now, I would have been happy with any cake because it really is the thought that counts when you’re celebrating another year of life thousands of miles away from your family and friends, but this cake was extraordinary. I am rapidly discovering that Kristin is a truly fabulous baker (which, I promise, is not the only reason we’re friends) and I was more than happy to reap the chocolate and strawberry benefits.

After consuming enough cake to put an elephant in a coma we headed out to an area of Hamburg known as the Reeperbahn. In English we might call it a red light district. Now, I should preface this by saying two things: 1. The Reeperbahn is actually quite safe and has become something of a tourist attraction in Hamburg. 2. Prostitution is legal, and prominently displayed, here.

This combination made for a very interesting (please read bizarre) walk down a street lined with casinos, bars, strip clubs, sex stores, a copious amount of American fast-food restaurants and the occasional homeless person. I think there were just as many foreigners as there were Germans and at one point I even pretended not to speak English to a very drunk American man. In the red light district. In Germany. It was definitely a first. And while I am glad I saw the Reeperbahn in order to better understand it, I have no desire to go back and thus it will probably remain my first and only experience there J

Then, on Saturday morning Kristin and I took our first real excursion together, a day trip to Bremen. Bremen is about an hour from Hamburg and is famous for being featured in the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Bremen City Musicians.” It also has a beautiful old cathedral and a fabulous Altstadt (old city). I was in love almost from the moment we got off the train.

Me with the Bremen City Musicians Statue
Because it is more interesting that way (or maybe because we forgot), neither Kristin nor I brought a map, and so our day consisted of wandering down back alleyways and making accidental discoveries that seemed all the more beautiful because we didn’t know to look for them. From the tiny candy shop we stumbled upon to the beautiful St. Petri Dom (Cathedral) to the farmer’s market in the main square where I bought a pound of plums and ate them all, the day was a fantastic string of discoveries. I’m thinking of ditching maps any time I’m in a new city; you seem to see so much more that way.

After an amazing day in Bremen I headed back to Stade for a night of sleep that was all too short… because early Sunday morning I headed to a nearby airstrip with my host dad and the two oldest children for my very first flight in a small airplane. My host dad flies small planes as a hobby and since the weather has been so nice and he knows that I adore airplanes, he decided to take me and the kids on a short ride over Stade and Hamburg.

As we climbed into the four-seater aircraft that is light enough to be pushed into position by one person and shifts every time someone moves, I have to admit that I was a little bit nervous. It didn’t help when my host dad told me that this was one of the oldest planes in the hangar. We taxied toward the runway and a small little voice in my head just couldn’t help but sarcastically ask, “So, roller coasters aren’t enough anymore?”

But as soon as we were in the air I was enthralled. I should have known I would be. I took my first airplane ride at six months old and all of the flight attendants told my mother I was the best baby they had ever seen in-flight. My love affair with all things that fly (a gift from my dad and paternal grandpa, I am sure) hasn’t ceased in the ensuing 24 years.

Sitting in that tiny plane and feeling each bump, I fell in love with everything from wearing the headset and talking to each other through the microphones to being able to look out the window and see not only Stade, but the house where I live and even my balcony. Before we had landed I had added one more item to my already too-long bucket list: learn to fly.

And so, on the eve of my 24th birthday I look back on my weekend of firsts and I can’t help but realize that God is good, that my life is beautiful, that I am flying…

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bring It On

"To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”
-Katherine Paterson

If I had known that Tuesday’s roller coaster-themed blog post would be some sort of weird foreshadowing into my weekend plans, I may have thought twice about using the metaphor. As it were, I had no clue that I was only days away from conquering the world’s steepest wooden roller coaster…
Colossus at Heide Park in Soltau, Germany
I had Thursday morning off so I met Kristin in Hamburg for lunch and a tour of the Hamburg History Museum (where the coolest thing I saw was a display case filled with 800-year-old beer steins). During our morning of culture, Kristin asked if I would be interested in getting drinks on Friday and, of course, I accepted.

That's real German beer!
So, Friday after work I took the train in to Hamburg and met Kristin for dinner and drinks at the Hofbräuhaus (a German drinking hall/restaurant). The real/original Hofbräuhaus is in Munich and was established by the Duke of Bavaria in the 1500’s. It is one of the city’s most famous and popular attractions, and there is an offshoot right in Hamburg only minutes from where Kristin lives.

Now, I generally try to avoid using stereotypes in my writing, but in order to evoke an accurate picture of the Hofbräuhaus for those of you who weren’t lucky enough to be there, I need you to pull out some of your German stereotypes and try them on for size. Imagine a hall with bench style seating, waiters in lederhosen, huge mugs of beer, a menu full of sausage platters, and German drinking songs blaring from the speakers. Add to this a few tables of boisterous Germans enjoying a Friday night out on the town and you’ve just about got it. 

A dinner well enjoyed
It was truly one of the best experiences I’ve had thus far. Kristin and I both ordered beer and dinner. She tried a pig knee (no lie) and I had the sausage platter with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut—both were delicious. After some of the beer we also joined in as much as we could with the singing Germans (our singing skills were greatly enhanced when they started to play YMCA and we actually knew both the words and the actions).

After soaking up as much German culture as we could, we went back to Kristin’s house and, after a 2-hour conversation at her kitchen table, went to sleep. The next morning Kristin was slated to take one of the children she takes care of, a 12-year-old girl, and a friend to an amusement park for the day. When Kristin’s host family invited me along and graciously offered to pay my entrance fee I happily accepted… and that, my friends, is how I ended up at Heide Park standing in line for Colossus, the world’s steepest wooden roller coaster (they even have the Guinness Book of World Records certificate to prove it).

Now, I would have been fine with the longest roller coaster, or even the fastest one. The tallest roller coaster might have given me a bit to contemplate, but the idea of the steepest wooden roller coaster strikes fear into my heart. Especially considering that “steep” and “wooden” are not two words I generally enjoy hearing together in the same sentence.

After nearly an hour of waiting, we were finally boarding the roller coaster and that’s when I looked over at Kristin, who also looked torn between fear and excitement, and the only thing I could think to say was “Why?” Why did we decide to get on this thing and throw ourselves down a 61º incline (that’s made of wood and not shiny new metal) with nothing but a tin car and a seatbelt to stop us from hurtling to the ground below? Why?

The ascent seemed to take forever as we lurched our way to the top of the hill. Gripping the lap bar and praying that it would do its job, I felt us start to fall and I opened my mouth to scream but nothing happened. I looked down and felt the wind smack me in the face, filling my nose and mouth with cold, cold air. I felt the pressure of the seatbelt and the opposing pull of gravity, trying to lift me up and away from my relatively safe box. My scream lodged somewhere between my lungs and my vocal cords, content to choke me as we barreled toward the finish. I don’t think I was scared enough to cry, but when we got to the end, my eyes were watering and my fingers were numb.

After nearly five years of roller coaster deprivation, I eased myself into "theme park mode" with something called Colossus. And I lived. And it was fun. And I would do it again. Because sometimes you need to stand toe-to-toe with fear just to prove that you’re the better woman. 

Sending Much Love,


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Letting Go and Hanging On

It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: my life in Germany has been a roller coaster. And not one of those pansy-ass roller coasters that children ride. No, this has been a Six Flags roller coaster… the kind where they strap you in so tight you can barely breathe and your life is flashing before your eyes almost before you’ve made it around the first corner. This is one of those roller coasters that make you want to puke your guts out, cry for your mother and shout with joy as your cheeks flap crazily in the 100mph wind. It’s the kind of roller coaster adrenaline junkies eat for breakfast.

The problem is that I am not an adrenaline junkie and the one time I road Superman at Six Flags in Illinois I was saying The Lord’s Prayer under my breath the entire time. And so, in an effort to regain some sort of equilibrium, I have been thinking a lot about what it is that’s throwing me off balance. Sure, there’s a significant language barrier to contend with and an ocean between me and everyone I love, but it’s more than that, somehow. After all, I’ve lived abroad before and… (momentary pause for internal contemplation and then cue light bulb)… I’ve lived abroad before and have expectations about Germany based on my time in England.

And, really, that isn’t fair.

The semester I spent studying abroad in England was, hands down, the best four months of my life. It was also the first time I had been out of the country or traveled independently. I was nineteen years old and I had never been on a train (unless you count a 3-hour sightseeing tour in Canada), never seen a building older than Independence Hall in Philadelphia, never used currency that wasn’t the American dollar. I love England because I grew up there. I arrived as an American teenager and I left as a woman who knew she was going to make something of her life.

England was my coming of age story and, as every great author knows, you only get one of those. Germany cannot be a repeat. Indeed, I do not need to “grow up” again. I am two weeks short of my 24th birthday. I have finished college, completed a year of national service, lived on my own and even considered things like retirement plans and health insurance.

I am no longer a study abroad participant. I am a community member who is trying to juggle a job, language classes, foreign banking, travel plans and a whole host of other things. I am learning to use the library, joining a German church and becoming a regular at the local supermarket. I’m building a life here and while I cannot say that it is everything I had hoped for or dreamed of, it is still good, still meaningful.

Thanks, Mom-- you're pretty awesome yourself!
And, on days like today, when I have to head down to the customs office to claim a package sent by my parents and the burly German customs agent laughs when I open the box for the security check and we find a note from my mom telling me that I’m awesome, I can laugh, too. I can throw the semi-embarrassing moment into the pile entitled “Stories for the Grandchildren,” and when the agent compliments my German as I am on my way out the door, I can smile a genuine smile and be thankful for a new chapter in my life. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A One-Woman Train Triumph

Living in a country where you are unfamiliar with both the language and the culture forces a person to slow down. Gone are the days of quick, precise decision making—that is a luxury reserved for those who are comfortable with their surroundings. Instead, you learn to watch and then act, to read signs twice, to concentrate very hard when other people speak. You make deliberate, calculated movements meant to conceal your foreignness. And you always, always have a back-up plan.

Of course, try as you might to stay one step ahead of the game, there may come a moment when you are standing all alone in the middle of a huge, crowded train station wondering what the hell you were thinking when you got out of bed this morning…
Hamburg Hauptbahnhof

To be perfectly honest, I probably wasn’t thinking when I got out of bed this morning. This past week was a rough one for me—I worked several very long days, struggled to keep up in my German class and had a mini budget meltdown—so when I woke up with a free Saturday and the world at my fingertips, my first instinct was to get dressed and head down to the train station where I caught the first train to Hamburg.

Now, when I say “train to Hamburg” I should probably make one thing clear: the trains that run between Stade and Hamburg are commuter trains. They are small, efficient and painfully easy to use. The track goes in two directions. If the train is going west it’s on its way to Hamburg. If it’s going east it’s headed to Cuxhaven. Stade is in the middle. It’s that simple.

Schweriner Schloss (Schwerin Castle)
So getting to Hamburg was no problem at all. Once I got to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Hamburg’s main train station) I decided that I wanted to catch a train to a town called Schwerin. Schwerin is the capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and its main attraction is Schweriner Schloss (Schwerin Castle), which sits on an island and houses the state congress to this day.

With my heart set on the island castle, I walked upstairs to where the hardcore trains are kept. Now, Hamburg is one of the largest cities in Germany and its train station houses dozens of tracks with hundreds of departures and arrivals every day. It’s big and loud and smells like excitement and looks like chaos.

Certain I could conquer these German trains, I walked over to the arrival and departure board and, after nearly ten minutes of staring at the board deep in thought, I found the train I wanted to buy a ticket for. Then I went to the Fahrkartenautomat (automatic ticket machine) and bought a ticket to Schwerin… well, actually, I cheated and changed the machine to English and then bought my ticket. I probably could have done it in German but visions of ending up on the other side of the country with no way home and no idea how I got there freaked me out. I think the foreign language gods will forgive me just this once.

Once I found my train and got settled in, the rest was a piece of cake.  The trains in Germany are clean, fast and extremely punctual. Even the overhead announcements are so slow and clear that I can understand them (which is really saying something). By the time I got to Schwerin I was feeling like a rock star at a sold-out venue.

The rest of the afternoon was spent inside of a beautiful old church (I accidentally joined a tour group), exploring the castle ( I learned that the duke's famous library has been missing since WWII... I'm going to start hunting for it), taking a boat trip around the lake (they served me ice cream!) and having fun at a street fair I stumbled upon. I even ate some real German food (Currywurst and French fries followed by a chocolate covered apple) and caught a brief glimpse of blue sky amidst all the clouds. All in all, it was the perfect end to a less than perfect week.

Inside the castle
By the time I boarded the train back to Hamburg I was exhausted and slept most of the way there. Then, after a quick sprint across the train station, I found myself onboard a very crowded commuter train on its way back to Stade and that’s where my day took a turn toward the bizarre. 

I was one of the first people on the train and so I grabbed the nearest empty seat I saw and sat down. About ten minutes into the trip I realized I had chosen the crazy seat. You know the one—it’s the seat that’s surrounded by all of the less than sane people who help to give public transportation its stellar reputation.

The Throne Room
Behind me sat a group of men who were openly passing around bottles of booze and singing what sounded like sea shanties. In front of me were a mother and daughter who were loudly arguing about a boyfriend. Across the aisle was a middle-aged couple who seriously needed to get a room. On the seat to my right was a man who smelled like pickles and was eating ketchup packets (I can’t make this stuff up) and to my left was (thank God) a window, which I became very cozy with during the first 30 minutes of the trip.

Then, halfway between Hamburg and Stade the train stopped and we were all loaded into a smaller commuter train that smelled like body odor. Since the previous train was already crowded and this train was even smaller we were crammed in so tightly that it didn’t even matter that I didn’t have a hand rail to hang on to because no one was going anywhere.

Somehow, amidst all the confusion of the transfer and re-boarding, I ended up standing in between the amorous middle-aged couple, who had decided that they could only endure their separation by making kissy faces over my head.

Using the self-timer like all the cool kids do  
Now, maybe I was giddy with pride over having actually conquered the train system, or maybe I was just tired, but suddenly, the situation I found myself in seemed hilarious. I started out with just a few smiles, but somewhere around Fischbek the snickering began and by the time we reached Buxtehude I couldn’t stop myself. Snickering became belly laughs that would have done Santa Claus proud and when I caught the eye of the teenager standing next to me, looking too cool with his iPod and designer jeans, and I saw that he was laughing too, I knew there was no hope for regaining my composure and so, I didn’t bother to try. I just let myself laugh as the kissing couple made out over my head and the ketchup man licked his fingers next to me. And by the time I got back to my little apartment in Stade, all was right in my world once again.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Humility Makes Me a Better Woman

I walk into the post office and, probably for the first time in my life, I am nervous. I get in line behind three other women, and watch carefully to see what they do, how they behave. Under my breath I practice the simple phrase that will get me what I want: Hallo. Ich brauche zehn internationale Postkarte Briefmarken, bitte. Hello, I need ten international postcard stamps, please.

Soon, too soon, it is my turn and I am standing in front of a middle-aged woman who is waiting expectantly for me to say something. I smile and the German words tumble from my lips. I am grateful that I don’t screw it up and though I’ve been told my accent is nothing to write home about, the woman seems to understand me. She pulls a packet of stamps out from under the counter and then asks me something in rapid-fire German.
I freeze, trying to make sense of the jumble of words rattling around in the space between us. It sounded like a yes or a no question and as the woman is clearly waiting for me to respond, I try to think fast. Her hand is hovering over a roll of what look to be air mail stickers and I nod.

“Ja.” Yes. She counts ten stickers and gives them to me. I am relieved. I don’t know if my German is improving but my ability to read body language is getting better by the day.

I pay for the stamps, listening carefully to the numbers so that I am not embarrassed when I pull out a bill too small to pay for my purchase. After I receive my change we say goodbye and I am out the door. I step into the sun and feel like the queen of the universe. I just bought stamps, and it doesn’t matter that I am 23 and have done this dozens of times before, because I did it in German…

My German Washing Machine
Learning a language is difficult. Learning a language in a country where you are surrounded by native speakers is overwhelming. And terrifying. And wonderful.

Tonight, I sat in a classroom with 10 other people from all over the world. We are the A2+ class at the Volkschochschule (community education school) in Stade. We meet twice a week to learn German. It is our only common language.

Classes like this exist in the United States and last year during my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA I often ran into signs advertising such groups as I made my rounds at various Minnesota non-profits. Sometimes I thought things like, “Boy, it would be difficult to learn a language that way,” but mostly, I didn’t think about it at all.

Now, I am the person in those classes, learning a language the “difficult” way. I am the person who has thoughts and ideas and stories, but cannot express them because I, a writer by nature and by training, do not have words. And the ten others in my class-- the housewife from Bulgaria, the engineer from Italy, the young man from Columbia—do not have the words either. But we do have each other. We have broken German and all sorts of weird accents. We have bilingual dictionaries. We have hastily drawn pictures and charades. We have smiles and laughter and the same “thank God some things transcend language” looks on our faces.

These ten people, the ones I couldn’t be bothered to think about 4 weeks ago, are now my friends. And, because they get up each and every morning and rehearse what they are going to say to the lady at the post office, they are also my heroes. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Au Pair Affairs

The word "au pair" is a French term, which means "on par" or "equal to," denoting living on an equal basis in a reciprocal, caring relationship between the host family and the au pair. An au pair will typically be a young woman (18-25 years) from a foreign country who chooses to help look after the children of a host family and provide light housekeeping. The au pair is given room and board and is typically paid a weekly "pocket-money" salary. Cultural exchange and language learning are also important parts of this relationship. Au pairs generally live with their host families for 6-12 months.

I took this picture of Stade on a rare sunny day
Over the past week I have had several requests for a post about my day-to-day life as an American au pair in Germany and, to be honest, I’ve been avoiding the topic. In truth, I’m not entirely sure how to explain the Twilight Zone-esque relationship between an au pair and her host family.

On one hand, I am hired help. I clean, do some cooking and watch the children. But, on the other hand, I am almost part of the family. I eat meals with them and am invited to special events. On the other other hand, I am a centerpiece for cultural exchange. I help teach the children English and in turn I take German classes and learn what it means to be part of a typical German family. And if that weren’t complicated enough, we all live together, too (my apartment is housed within the larger house where the family lives). It’s a strange, strange world I’ve entered into…

So, maybe the best way to describe the life of an au pair is to walk you through a typical weekday:

6:00AM: My alarm goes off and I stumbled to the bathroom where I fumble around with a long pole that opens the window (which is near the ceiling) to vent the steam from my forthcoming shower since there is no fan in the bathroom.
6:45AM: Walk upstairs and into my host family’s kitchen where I make a sack lunch for A* and get breakfast ready for A, B and myself.
7:00AM: Eat breakfast with the kids.
7:15AM: Say goodbye to A as she leaves for school; secretly check to make sure she is wearing weather-appropriate clothing and has remembered all of her books.
7:30AM: Change and dress C. Feed him.
7:50AM: Take B to the daycare down the street.
8:00AM-12:00PM: Take care of C. This usually consists of more feeding and changing, some cleaning and a trip to the library. Often my host mom leaves a list of things for me to do (go to the dry cleaners, buy eggs, etc.). Because of my poor German these trips to town can be quite nerve-wracking but it gets a little better every day.
12:00-3:00PM: Break time. I generally take a nap
3:00PM-5:30PM: Pick up B at daycare. Take him to a park and let him run around in order to blow off some of his boundless energy (seriously, this kid is like the Energizer Bunny).
5:30-6:30PM: Eat with the family; occasionally help A with English homework or play a game with the kids.

*Author’s Note: In order to respect the privacy of the family I work for, I will not be posting pictures or the names of the children online. “A” refers to a preteen girl, “B” is a two-year-old boy and “C” is a baby boy born in mid-summer 2011.

In addition to this, I babysit on Wednesday nights so my host mom can go to yoga, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I take a German class with my fellow foreigners.

But don’t get too comfortable, because this schedule will change once my host mom goes back to work after her maternity leave is over in late fall. I have no idea what my life will look like then, but for the next 6-8 weeks this is my Monday-Friday.

I went to church here on Sunday
Of course, my main duties as an au pair are to the children (and they really are wonderful kids), but another large part of coming to Germany is the opportunity to experience another culture and do some traveling (okay, a ton of traveling). This is where my weekends come in… praise God for the weekend!

While each weekend looks different, especially if I’m traveling, the goal is to experience as many quintessentially German things are possible. For example, this weekend I went into Hamburg on Saturday and spent the night with Kristin and her host family. Kristin and I not only ate bratwurst with curry ketchup bought from a street vendor (the bratwurst was 2 times the size of the tiny little bun!), but we drank real German beer (again from a street vendor… the concept of walking down the street with a beer in hand is still very odd to me). Later that night we also tried our hand at German baking, but more on that later as I think the food here deserves its own post entirely.

All in all, it’s an odd life I am coming to lead here in Germany, but it isn’t a bad one. I am surrounded by beautiful countryside, interesting people and good food. I’m learning a lot and being challenged every day. Plus, I'm going to have some great stories for the hypothetical grandchildren and, really, what more can a girl ask for?

Sending Much Love,