Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dear Santa...

Dear Santa,

I know I haven’t always been your biggest fan and for that I am sorry. It’s really not your fault that you’ve become so commercialized. And even I can admit that it was unnecessary for my three-year-old self to deny your existence so loudly and so publicly. But, in spite of my skepticism, you really came through for me this year and so this is a thank you note (bet you don’t get many of those, huh?).

Christmas Eve in Stade
Truthfully, I sort of expected Christmas to suck this year. Of course I know that Christmas is really about celebrating the birth of Jesus and while I appreciate that on a number of levels and know that Jesus will be with me wherever I go, it was still hard to picture the holiday thousands of miles from the ones I love most. Plus, you’ve tasted my mom’s cookies so you know they’re worth being home for…

But, miraculously, Christmas didn’t suck. In fact, I got to spend it with a dear friend who flew all the way from Spain to spread a little holiday cheer. Since Hannah and I lived together for two years in college we already know most of each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, plus we have a lot of shared history so it was almost like being with family. Besides, Hannah has all the qualities a person could want in a Christmas Away from Home Companion: she’s a good conversationalist, willing to improvise and basically fearless.

The church decorated for Christmas
Not only did we make Christmas dinner, exchange gifts, go ice skating (I fell a lot but it was still fun!) and chat endlessly about our newfound European lives, but we even attended a Christmas Eve church service here in Stade. The church was packed! People were even sitting in the aisles and on the floor. Hannah and I ended up in the balcony with a bird’s eye view of the entire thing. And while neither of us understood much, I was genuinely touched when we started to sing Silent Night in German. It reminded me that the Christmas spirit doesn’t live in one language.

In the midst of my safe and happy Christmas traditions I sometimes forget that Mary and Joseph were out of their element on that first Christmas, too. But I remembered this time… and since you are always traveling for the holiday, I think you might have had something to do with sending a little extra joy and understanding to a tiny apartment in Germany this year.

Hannah and I enjoying Christmas dinner
From the bottom of my overflowing heart: thank you.

Here’s to Believing Again,


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas, Christmas Everywhere!

Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.
-Laura Ingalls Wilder

Spending Christmas in a foreign country is strange. Everything from the cookies people bake to the songs they sing are different. And while I strongly believe that experiencing difference is good for the soul, it can also be a little bit distressing—especially around the holidays when people are already more apt to call upon tradition and family.

However, if you ever have to spend a Christmas abroad and you have the good fortune to choose the country in which you do it, I’d go for Germany. Seriously, it’s like they invented Christmas. Okay, so technically that title goes to Jesus, but most of our traditions and celebrations actually come from the Germans. And they really, really know how to celebrate.

Welcome to Lübeck!
So this weekend I made a conscious decision to pull myself out of my “Boo-hoo I’m not home for the holidays” funk (because nobody likes a whiner) and get into the Christmas spirit—German style. I woke up early on Saturday morning, grabbed a train schedule and set off for Lübeck, a town about 45 minutes from Hamburg.

Back in the day Lübeck was one of the most important shipping and trading ports in Northern Europe. Today it is a medium-sized town devoted mostly to tourism and the making of marzipan. Marzipan, for those of you who are not well-versed in strange foreign candies, is a sweet paste made from almonds. It can be shaped into virtually anything and it is HUGE in Germany at Christmastime. The Germans didn’t invent it, but they did perfect it and today Lübeck is the marzipan center of the world.

The market inside St. Peter's Church
Lübeck also offers some rather unique Christmas markets that take place inside several of the town’s largest cathedrals. I thought this sounded really interesting (and also a lot warmer than shopping outside in December) and so I headed off with my trusty guide book in hand to see what all the fuss was about.

I can now tell you that the fuss was about hand-made pottery, beautifully carved nativity scenes, handmade glass ornaments, giant Advent calendars and more food and drink than one nation should consume. Ever.

It was wonderful! I shopped and ate my way through town, experiencing Kartoffelpuffer (potato cakes), Glüwein (hot, spiced red wine), bratwurst, chocolate covered bananas, Zimtmandeln (cinnamon roasted almonds) and Dresdenerbrot (bread with cheese, mushrooms and ham baked into the center and sour cream on top). I also looked at some wonderful German handicrafts like nutcrackers (yep, the Germans invented those), smoking men (little men who “smoke” when you place incense in them), beautifully crafted ornaments, and Advent calendars (another German invention).

When I started to get cold I hopped a train back to Hamburg and took a little nap as we zipped back toward the big city. Of course, by the time we got back to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof I was feeling refreshed and set out to explore Hamburg’s markets. Granted, I had already seen these markets several times and I certainly didn’t need to spend more money but I was really in the Christmas spirit and no logic could overtake me. So, through the dark and drizzling night I set off to find some more Christmas cheer. And boy did I find it. I also found an ornament and a beautifully painted wooden “gingerbread” house that are going to look beautiful in my first home J

By the time I got back to Stade I was freezing cold and exhausted, but also much happier. It finally felt like Christmas…

Monday, December 12, 2011

Peace and Love in Paris

I’ve been tip-toeing around this since my post about settling down, but today I have decided to come forward with the brutal truth: I am ready to go home.

Don’t get me wrong, I know what an amazing opportunity I have been afforded by being able to live in Germany. I have had dozens of beautiful experiences that I will treasure for the rest of my life and my language skills have improved exponentially since arriving in August. I have met some amazing people and learned a lot about myself.

That being said, for the first time in my adult life I actually know what I want. Instead of aimlessly bouncing from one thing to the next I am starting to form a legitimate life plan, complete with career goals and a 401K (see, Dad, I’m not going to starve!). And I’m excited about it. Truly, genuinely excited.

And, because patience is not one of my many virtues, now that I know what I want, I am ready to come out swinging. I want to go after my dreams 110%. Only I can’t, because I am in Germany. And while I know that I should be living in the moment and enjoying my time abroad (and I do enjoy it), it’s difficult not to feel trapped. It’s a strange conundrum, to say the least.

Last week was particularly difficult. Perhaps it’s because the holidays are rapidly approaching and I am not too happy about being away from home, or maybe it’s because I worked several long days and never quite felt like I was able to catch up on my sleep, but either way, I was not in a good mood on Friday when I set out for the train station to catch a night train to Paris.

Even as I type this, I can’t help but think it makes me sound selfish. I was going to Paris to spend a weekend celebrating an early Christmas with Claire and Bre and I was in a bad mood about the whole thing. I didn’t want to deal with the night train, I didn’t want to haul my overstuffed backpack across two countries and I most certainly didn’t want to think about going back to work the next week. So, selfish or not, there it is.

My mood was not improved when I got on the train and discovered that I was to be sharing a sleeping car (6 beds in a sardine-sized room) with 4 strange men who smelled funny. Not only was I unsure about sleeping alone in a locked room with a group of men, but the smell was really overwhelming.

However, there are moments in life when God knows that we’ve reached our breaking point and He throws us a bone. So, when the conductor came by and explained, in German, that there was a free bed in the next car over, I was more than happy to move my things. I ended up sharing a sleeping berth with two girls who were about my age, and when the conductor explained that since I was a woman traveling alone he would rather have me sleep somewhere “safer,” I was genuinely touched. I have been on my own since arriving in Germany and so I sometimes forget how wonderful it can be to have someone else look out for you, even if that someone is a stranger.

Claire and I enjoying the lights of Paris
Shockingly, I had a wonderful night of sleep on the train and when I met Claire and Bre in Paris I was ready to go. We spent the next two days exploring the city, eating good food and drinking good wine—and of course, staying up way too late talking! Even though I had been to Paris before, it was fun to see the city decorated for Christmas and to explore it with two French speakers who actually know what they are doing (and how to navigate the Paris public transportation system!).

The most interesting sight we saw was the Paris Catacombs. In the 1700’s Paris’ cemeteries were overflowing and many churches had taken to burying the poor in mass graves. However, by the 1780’s the thousands of decomposing bodies had oversaturated the earth and were contaminated the ground water, leading to rampant disease. So, the graves were exhumed and the bones of some 6 million Parisians were moved underground, to the catacombs. The priests would move the bodies in the night, carting wagon loads of bones across the city while chanting prayers for the dead. Today you can tour the catacombs and see the bones. It is very eerie, but a wonderful piece of history.

Sacre-Couer-- "For 125 years, here day and
night, somebody has been praying to the Lord."
On Sunday afternoon before I caught another night train back to Germany, Claire and I went to tour Sacre-Couer, or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which sits on the highest spot in Paris and overlooks the city. I have toured many famous churches during my European travels and, to be honest, most of them are so commercialized that they don’t feel very much like churches anymore. I was expecting the Sacre-Couer to have a very secular feel as well since, after Notre Dame, it is the second most famous cathedral in Paris.

However, the atmosphere inside the church was very reverent and I immediately felt as though I had stepped into the house of God. Voices hushed. Cameras turned off. Footsteps became lighter. Claire, who has also been dealing with her own major life decisions, and I spent a long time in the church, just taking it all in.

In the end, we each lit a candle and said a prayer and as I placed my little tea light in amongst the thousands of other already lit candles, I was struck by just how many prayers were said in that space each day. How many pleas, confessions and thanksgivings were humbly offered every hour. I thought about my own homesick, exhausted prayer for peace and, with tears in my eyes and a very dear friend at my side, I returned to the streets of Paris. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chit Chat

Now, no matter what my weekend plans were, I would have been thrilled to wake up on Friday morning. This is because last Friday marked two very important occasions: My first weekend off in 2 weeks, and the end of The Disease. However, because my friends Bre and Claire were scheduled to arrive in Stade at 9:30am I awoke overjoyed with my newfound health and free time.

Bre, Claire and Me in Hamburg
For weeks I have been raving about the German Christmas markets to anyone who will listen and Claire and Bre, who are actually close enough to come see what all the fuss is about, took a night train from France to spend the weekend in my tiny apartment and check out the miracle that is Germany at Christmastime (Seriously, these people invented Advent Calendars, Christmas trees, glass ornaments and gingerbread, how can Christmas not be magical here?).

On Saturday the three of us took the train in to Hamburg to check out the Christmas markets which dot the city. Each market has a little different feel but my personal favorite is the one near the historic Rathaus (town hall). It has hundreds of booths filled with handmade toys and crafts, candles, Christmas decorations and all sorts of German delicacies from Glühwein (spiced, heated red wine) to traditional bratwurst. Everything is lit with Christmas lights and three times daily Santa Claus rides overhead in a sleigh rigged to a zip line. It was epic—especially with Claire, who eats like a horse and insisted on trying every German food she could get her hands on.

On Sunday we went to church together and celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with a feast of turkey, potatoes and corn. I genuinely enjoyed showing off my little corner of the world and feel like Claire and Bre got a good taste of life in Germany. However, it was our late-night conversations over French wine and piles of dirty dishes that meant the most to me. True, we could have had conversations like this back in the USA (in fact we have, and probably will again), but there is something about being in a small, badly furnished apartment in foreign country that turns regular conversations into diamonds.

We discussed everything from French politics to boys (no matter how mature, well-educated or well-traveled you think you are, this topic is bound to baffle). We talked about career aspirations, learning a foreign language, expat life and a dozen other things that were at once life-altering and silly. I laughed until I cried, told the brutal truth and took a few pieces of well-aimed advice. In the end, I don’t think any of us reached any earth-shattering conclusions (in fact, I think it’s safe to say that all three of us currently have more questions than answers in this little game of life), but the talks were therapeutic nonetheless.

It turns out that spending hours upon hours chatting with people I love and trust was exactly what the doctor ordered after 3 months of chaos and a week of vomit. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011


I debated titling this entry something a bit more appealing, but if you can’t blog about puke then what’s the point, really? Besides, vomit is exactly what my last three days have been all about…

I woke up around 4am on Tuesday morning with a funny feeling in my stomach. Now, on Monday night I had eaten a bunch of Thanksgiving leftovers that (thanks to a lack of Tupperware) were packaged more or less haphazardly so at first I thought maybe my stomach was simply rebelling over something I ate. Rolling over, I forced myself back to sleep until my alarm went off two hours later.

By six o’clock I wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, I was feeling worse. I had to stop in the middle of my shower to sit down because I thought I might pass out and even after putting make-up on I still looked like a ghost. A normal person would have called in sick to work but I trudged up the stairs and breezed in to my host family’s apartment. My host mother’s first words were: Welcome to my hospital. The two oldest kids had been up all night throwing up. A light bulb clicked somewhere inside my head but instead of explaining my symptoms like a normal person (I have an extreme work ethic that sometimes verges on insanity), I headed to the kitchen to start washing bottles.

About five minutes in to washing I started to see bright spots and I knew I was going to throw up. I always get really dizzy right before I hurl. Slowly, calmly, I turned to put the last of the bottles on the drying rack and that’s when it happened: the heaving. Covering my mouth with my hand I ran for the guest bathroom, tripping over a toy and my own purse on the way and very nearly going face first into a wall (looking back I can see this being somewhat comical). I could hear my host mom calling after me just as I made it to the toilet to puke my guts out. Twice.

I spent the rest of Tuesday in bed. Literally. I slept for 20 hours. It was like a coma. And at the end of the coma I still felt sick and nauseous but, because I’m stupid, on Wednesday morning I trudged my way back upstairs—this time to find that both of my host parents were also sick (in the end, the only one who escaped what we are now collectively referring to as “The Disease” was the baby).

On Wednesday I made it through 3 hours of watching the baby while my host parents slept before I crawled back to my apartment and took a six hour nap. I also managed to eat an apple without wanting to rip my stomach from my body afterwards so I knew that things were looking up.

This morning I tried once again to help out as much as I could but after only a few hours of work I was given the rest of the day off. I was also given some delicious homemade chicken noodle soup (courtesy of my host mom) and an Advent calendar complete with chocolate and a C.D. of German Christmas music, so I wouldn’t call the day a complete loss J

All in all, The Disease is not something I care to repeat. Ever. The sweat-sleep-vomit mixture I lived in on Tuesday and Wednesday was completely and utterly miserable. But, I can now add “become disgustingly ill in a foreign country” to my list of life accomplishments… See, there’s always a silver lining, just have to know where to look