Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cranberries and Pumpkin and Turkey-- Oh My!

Sometimes, no matter how smart or resourceful or tough you think you are, life kicks you in the face. This week, between being away from my family at Thanksgiving, learning that my grandma was seriously injured in a bad car accident and having to work during my weekend I sort of felt like life had delivered a round-house kick to my jaw.

But, today, while still staggering from the blows, I was reminded that even in the middle of chaos there is beauty and joy…

To be honest, my weekend of work (my host parents were out of town) went quite well. The children (who I adore, by the way), were quite well-behaved and helpful. I didn’t even mind getting up in the night with the baby as much as I thought I would. Additionally, my host dad’s mother came to help out, which was a wonderful surprise. Not only is she great with the kids, but I genuinely like and admire this woman. She’s one of those people who makes you feel instantly at ease, a rare quality that cannot be faked or learned.

Kristin and I in my TINY kitchen
That being said, I was still thankful to be freed from childcare duty when my host parents returned home on Sunday afternoon. Not only was I ready for a little time away from work, but I was also looking forward to making an expat Thanksgiving dinner with Kristin, who also happens to be a misplaced American.

 Now, if we had been smart, Kristin and I would have started planning this little meal ahead of time, especially since we both know how difficult it can be to find certain American ingredients (cranberries and pumpkin come to mind) in Germany. However, being smart is overrated and so we started planning on Friday evening. Kristin emailed me a few recipes, I made a grocery list and early Saturday morning before I had to be up with the kids I ran to the grocery store and bought as many of the necessary ingredients as I could find. I then returned to my apartment and logged on to Facebook to check in with Kristin. Our conversation went a little something like this:

Me:  I couldn’t find thyme, dry mustard or sage but I’ve got everything else. Hopefully this isn’t an epic fail.
Kristin: I found cranberries at the grocery store and I’m going to make a pumpkin pie. Whatever else happens, it will be fine.
Me: WOOT! Cranberries! You are my hero.
Kristin: I’m taking the 12:30 train. See you on Sunday.
Me: Bring garlic.
Kristin: On the train? With the pie and the cranberries?
Me: And don’t forget the wine.
Kristin: All this on the train…
Me: People will think you’re crazy.
Kristin: Who cares? We have pumpkin pie.
Me: And cranberries.

Our wonderful meal!
And so commenced the most epic Thanksgiving meal ever.

In my tiny kitchen with my desk as a table and a beeswax candle for ambiance, Kristin and I made a feast… turkey breast (It looks dry? Pour some more wine over it), mashed potatoes (Why do they look so pasty?), green beans (What can we do to spice these up? Add onions and garlic—and wine!), sweet potatoes (Let’s just make up a recipe as we go) and pumpkin pie (It survived the train ride!).

We didn’t have all the proper utensils or ingredients, we used an online converter just to figure out what temperature to preheat my Celsius oven to and the turkey almost ended up splattered on the floor. But the meal was glorious. And delicious. And soul-soothing.

The combination of good company, good food and just a hint of the outrageous made for a magical afternoon this American expat won’t soon forget. 
Pumpkin Pie

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Finding Thankfulness

It is Thanksgiving Day and, to be honest, I didn’t wake up feeling very thankful. The Germans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and so, not only am I thousands of miles from everyone I love, but there isn’t a pumpkin pie in sight. While my family is gathering around a table filled with my favorite foods, I am going about business as usual and trying not to think about holidays of any sort. I don’t even have the usual “tomorrow is Friday!” mantra to help me get through because this weekend my host parents are going out of town and I have the kiddos. And, because one good turn deserves another, it’s been gloomy and gray here all day.

I’d like to say that as the day wore on I magically snapped out of my poor mood and was singing Christmas carols by lunchtime, but it isn’t true-- because some days are difficult and this is one of them.

However, just because a day is hard doesn’t mean it needs to be bad. And so, I have once again decided to choose joy. On this Thanksgiving, when I am so far away from the familiar, these are the things I am thankful for:

German Christmas cookies
I could dedicate an entire blog to Germany at Christmastime. It’s magical. And the baked goods are to die for. It’s difficult to be in a bad mood while munching on Spekulatius and Lebkuchen.

An unexpected afternoon off
This afternoon my host mom unexpectedly gave me the afternoon off and it was a wonderful surprise, especially since I am working all weekend. I have been entertaining myself with Christmas cookies (see previous entry) and a good book.

Other expat friends
While I know my family misses me and sympathizes with my no-turkey plight, you can’t quite understand what it’s like to spend a holiday in a foreign country unless you actually do it. And so, today, I am thankful for all of the wonderful people I know who are scattered throughout the world eating canned soup and pretending it’s a feast. Sometimes just knowing that you aren’t the only one makes a world of difference.

Snail mail
Yesterday I received a card in the mail from a very dear friend and it made my day. It is currently propped up next to my alarm clock and every time I look at it I smile. Email is fabulous and I love Facebook as much as the next person, but there’s something sort of special about taking the time to address an envelope and buy a stamp.

As much as I hate the homesickness when it creeps up on me (and it does creep, you never see it coming and then BAM it slaps you in the face), I am thankful that I have a home to miss. And, of course, I am thankful for the people who make it home. I am thankful for their laughter, their support, their emails and cards. I am thankful for the thousands of stories that we share and for the thousands more we haven’t written yet.

On this day, in this country, I am thankful. And it is enough.

Sending Much Love,


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Amen from Across an Ocean

It isn’t a terribly popular thing to admit, but here it is anyway: I am a churchgoer.

Now, for those of you whose palms are already starting to sweat, please don’t hit the “back” button on your browser. I assure you this is not a poor attempt at internet evangelism. It is, however, a post about church and so I thought I should lay my cards on the table right from the get-go: I attend church regularly. I believe in God. I read my Bible. I pray daily. I am what some people would call “religious.”

St. Cosmae
And so, with those facts in mind, it will surprise no one when I say that I have been going to church here in Germany. In fact, I have found a wonderful Lutheran church right here in Stade and have been attending worship each Sunday since my arrival in August.

The Church of St. Cosmae is a beautiful building with an organ dating to the mid-1600’s and a spire that dominates the city. And each Sunday a traditional Lutheran service is held. Now, I am not one of those people who believes that if a church service has a contemporary feel it is somehow bad or wrong. In fact, I like contemporary Christian music and often attend less than traditional services at my church back in Minnesota (sometimes we even have drums and guitars—gasp!).

However, when you’re attending a church service in a foreign language having a little bit of tradition to back you up is truly a blessing. I remember my very first Sunday at church, back when I knew even less German than I know now (which is really saying something), and at one point in the service everyone stood and began reciting something from memory. After only a few lines I instinctively understood that my fellow parishioners were saying The Apostles Creed. After a lifetime of reciting that creed each Sunday the rhythm of the words is so ingrained in me that it really doesn’t matter if it’s English or not. I just get it. Granted, I couldn’t pick out more than three or four of the German words and certainly couldn’t follow along in the traditional sense, but I knew what they were saying. I knew what they were professing.

Inside the church
Of course, even in the face of tradition, there have certainly been moments when I was out of my element. For example, a few weeks ago I was sitting in church and everything was going exactly as it had every other Sunday until a middle-aged woman stood up, lit a candle and said something in German. Slowly, other people followed suit. I caught a few snippets of phrases and realized that they were each thanking God for something as they lit the candles. I had never seen anything like it before and felt vaguely panicked as I tried to ascertain whether or not I, too, would be forced to stumble through a bad German thank you in front of everyone (admittedly, I knew no one was going to bodily drag me from my pew if I didn’t go light a candle, but I didn’t want to be the only person in the church who didn’t thank God for something).

The first time I attended a service where communion was being served was also a moment of some concern, and embarrassment. I am used to being dismissed by rows to receive communion so when everyone started to stand and move forward en masse I stayed in my seat and waited for instructions that were never going to come. Eventually, I realized my error and had to rush to the altar at the last second, where the pastor was waiting for me with a smile and a communion wafer.

The organ
But, all in all, my cultural faux pas at church have been fairly minimal. Indeed, I feel safe and content when I slide into my wooden pew each week (I’m Lutheran; of course I sit in the same pew each week). I greet the old woman who always sits next to me with a smile and I pull out my piece of notebook paper where I have written The Apostle’s Creed and The Lord’s Prayer in German so that I can finally follow along. I try hard to sing the hymns, some of which are new, many of which are familiar friends. I make valiant attempts to understand the sermon and smile when I have even the vaguest idea about what’s going on. When we bow our heads and everyone else sends silent German prayers Heavenward, I say my confessions and thank yous in English.

And in those moments I remember that even though I am an ocean apart from my life in America, God has not stayed behind and left me to fend for myself on this latest adventure. Instead, He is here with me, guiding His wayward daughter through all sort of struggles and triumphs.

English. German. It doesn’t matter. Amen is the same in both languages.   

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thoughts From The Middle

During my AmeriCorps VISTA year I was often teased for being the “countdown girl” because once a month at our VISTA staff meetings I would take a moment to remind my cohorts how much time we had completed on our terms of service and also how many months we had left to go. This is not to imply that I didn’t enjoy my year of VISTA service or wished that it would be over. On the contrary, I loved being a VISTA and still consider it to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

The countdowns weren’t really about counting down at all. They were about marking the passage of time, about taking a moment to think about where we had been and where we hoped to go. They were an opportunity for self-reflection and, maybe, for self-correction…

Much like my countdowns during my VISTA year, I have been “counting down” my months in Germany. Once again, not because I am crippled by some desperate need to go home immediately, but because I think an unexamined journey isn’t much of a journey at all.

Tomorrow is my three-month anniversary in Germany. This means it has been exactly three months since I’ve stepped foot on American soil, seen my friends and family, driven a car, eaten at Chipotle or shopped at Target. It also means that I have exactly three months left until I board a west-bound plane for home. It means that, after tomorrow, I will be more than halfway done with this journey.

Now, those of you who read this blog faithfully will certainly have noticed that my time in Germany hasn’t exactly shaped up as I expected it to. The language barrier has been brutal, I am struggling with some very grown-up feelings about wanting to “settle down,” and life as an au pair is a bit like living in a wonderfully crazy twilight zone. Additionally, I really miss Mexican food.

That being said, when I look back on the last three months I am amazed at everything that has unfolded. I started language classes in a foreign country, conquered the German train system, flew in my first small plane, took a nine-day solo journey that spanned two countries, survived Austria with a 2-year-old, laughed until I cried and cried so hard it was difficult to breath. I have been homesick, heartsick and actually sick. I’ve eaten a pig knee and sang drinking songs with Germans. I’ve been kicked in the face by life and, on the good days, I’ve kicked right back.

It’s been a hell of a ride and, to be honest, there have been many moments when I wasn’t entirely sure I would survive until the finish line. But, as Janis Ian once said, “Once you’re halfway home, you know you can probably get the rest of the way there.”

Sending Much Love,


Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Theatrical Experience

The beautiful thing about travel is that it forces a person to reexamine the mundane.

Certainly the big, exciting things that always appear in guide books make travel interesting and fun, but what makes it beautiful are those little, unexpected moments that take you completely by surprise. Because even though you will never forget the way you felt the first time you caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, it’s the crazy moment in the bathtub when you realize that you have no idea how to take a French shower (kneeling or sitting, never standing), that will turn your world upside down, even if only for a second.

Those experiences that take us back to square one, to a childlike naiveté about how the world operates, are the experiences that force us to rethink the things we thought we understood so thoroughly. Take, for example, my recent experience at a German movie theater. Now, I have been to dozens of movies in many different theaters in my 24 years on this planet. I know the drill: walk in, buy ticket, buy popcorn, complain about prices, discuss seats, find seats, sit down, shut up, enjoy.

However, as soon as Kristin and I walked into the only English movie theater in Hamburg I knew that this was not going to be a typical experience. The theater itself is small, with only one screen that shows two movies each day. But being small by no means indicates that the theater was boring. In fact, it was striking. There was a bar and lounge area where cocktails and appetizers were being sold, the concessions stand offered beer and organic snacks in addition to staples like popcorn and candy, and the ticket counter had a seating map next to it where people could choose their assigned seats.

As Americans who are used to multi-screen theaters with crushed popcorn on the floors, Kristin and I were both instantly enamored with the atmosphere. As we sat down in the lounge area to wait for the theater doors to open we listened as a flood of German and English conversation flowed around us and I realized that, for the first time in nearly three months, I could safely assume that everyone in my vicinity understood my native language.

When the doors opened and we were able to go into the theater and find out seats I was once again amazed to find not only a balcony, but a beautifully lit stage with a curtain hiding the big screen. People talked and laughed loudly as we settled in and waited for the movie to begin, and I couldn’t help but smile as I thought about the hushed whispers Americans use as soon as they enter a theater, even if the movie isn’t set to start for another ten minutes.

The movie itself (a romantic comedy that premiered in the USA months ago) was so-so, but the experience was phenomenal. It was a completely new take on everything I thought I knew about movie theaters. And even though going to the movies in Germany didn’t leave me with any remarkable cultural insights or breakthrough moments of self-discovery, it did make me feel a little like a kid watching the first snowfall: surprised, delighted and just a little bit giddy. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Queen of Romance...Sorta

My romantic entanglements have been about as tame as a fluffy white kitten. In fact, the whole history of Christina’s love life can be summed up as: a boyfriend in high school, a few dates in college, a couple of nibbles that never went anywhere and a whole lot of nothing in between.

I like to think that men are simply intimidated by my stunning good looks and unsurpassed wit, but the truth is probably that most guys simply don’t care to get involved with someone whose life plan consists of a shrug and the phrase, “Maybe I’ll join the Peace Corps or something…”

Truthfully, I don’t really think about my love life (or lack thereof) very often. Certainly I have moments when I wonder if I really am headed down the Crazy Cat Lady path, but mostly I’m too busy to worry about it all that much. This is not to say that I don’t believe in marriage or wish to remain single forever. On the contrary, I think marriage is a beautiful thing and hope that someday I will meet someone just reckless enough to think binding himself to me for the next fifty years is a good idea.

However, in the meantime I have no desire to hash and rehash my romantic affairs. And so, when A* asked me this week if I had a boyfriend I was taken a bit by surprise. Of course, I answered truthfully, saying no and thinking that would be the end of the conversation. But it wasn’t. She was out for the whole sordid tale, from elementary school to the present day.

Did I have boyfriends before?
How many?
For how long?
How old was I when I had these boyfriends?
Did I go out on dates?
How many dates had I been out on?
Where did we go?
What did we do?

Aware of the fact that this conversation was being conducted in English, which is not A’s first language, I tried very hard to answer as clearly as possible, all the while with visions of a misunderstanding about my love life leading to my deportation dancing in my head. Additionally, I am not aware of dating conventions in Germany, or of the rules/thoughts of A’s parents on the subject. As such, I probably sounded like a broken record, starting every answer with, “I don’t know what it’s like in Germany, but in America…”

Now, as someone who grew up wanting to know everything about everything, I know a fishing expedition when I see one. A was not asking me these questions because she was curious about my life. She was asking because she wants to know how my experiences might or might not relate to her own. Perhaps there is a boy at school that she likes or maybe she’s been discussing dating with her friends. Either way, she wanted the low-down and since I’m not her mom but am old enough to actually know something about the subject, I was the best target. Our conversation ended when it was time for A to go to bed and she has yet to broach the subject again (probably because she learned that my love life isn’t exactly worthy of writing home about).

I am hoping that I said the right things to her, that I treated her fairly, that I was open enough to stave off any embarrassment she might have had. Matters of the heart are difficult at any age, but I remember being a teenager and wanting so badly to understand what this weird boy-girl stuff was all about. And so I give A a lot of credit for asking the questions—and in English, no less.

Of course, I didn’t tell her that the questions don’t magically answer themselves as we get older. I didn’t tell her that sometimes love actually gets more complicated when we grow up and toss jobs, politics, kids, religion, friends and selfishness into the mix. I didn’t tell her because some things have to be learned through experience, and some things can’t be learned at all.   

*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.