Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Our farm

Earlier in the year, we signed up for a row in the community garden behind our house. Just behind our house, there is a wheat farm. The farmer rents out a piece of this land to the community each year. He tills the ground for us in April, we plant and tend through November and then he turns it over again. Taking into account school and vacations and bad weather, it ends up being a rather short growing season. While our harvest has not been large, it sure has been a lot of fun to try.
We signed up on line and in early spring Phil attended a meeting with the other local gardeners and the farmer. Rules were discussed. There were many but the only two I remember are to not use pesticides and to not grow too many sunflowers as they block the sunlight to other rows. All seemed fine until we actually got our 50 meter row and had to start.
The start was throwing rocks out of our row. The soil here is very rocky, definitely not the black earth of Ukraine. Then we started fighting the encroachment of grass. Our row, perhaps distributed alphabetically, was the first and thus closest to the grass and the bike path. The kids were eager gardeners at different stages of the process. Adam was great at throwing rocks. Royce was a diligent weeder. The untidiness of our row disturbed her sense of balance. Tori was a good planter, starting with a good twenty five meter section of squash and pumpkins. All enjoyed the watering. We filled bottles with water from the river and walked it back to our row, usually spilling most or throwing it on each other. Luckily it rains here and our plants were not entirely dependent on us for water.
We grew radishes, lettuce, carrots, squash and pumpkins plus a few flowers. The kids enjoyed seeing the plants grow and realizing a carrot was actually a root vegetable and not just the pre-cut pre-washed baby carrots they had grown up on (which by the way, are not available in Germany). Once the squash kicked into gear, we started giving it away to friends. Then to music teachers. Then to people we met on the street. And the kids started eating it. Zuchini has long been an abhorred vegetable in our house. I remember we use to do a big clapping ritual if they ate it. Now it is a daily fixture, eaten without fanfare or even notice.
The whole experience has been a good one and we are keen to sign up again next year. The only sad moment came when we recently went to check on our pumpkins, particularly two large ones that we had been closely watching. We found two of them missing and a track of people trampling the grass along our row. The kids were despondent and even I felt tears pricking my eyes. We had just weeding and watered those pumpkins the day before. We started to speculate about who would steal pumpkins. The thought was that if it was just a prank the pumpkins would have been smashed on the bike path but they weren’t. The next thought was that someone took them to eat them. This line of reasoning mollified all of us. Feeding someone in the community,even if not us, had to be what a community garden was all about in the end anyway.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


During the last week of summer break, we all went up to Berlin to explore a new city. The kids are good sports about spending afternoons inside European cathedrals and castles. But luckily with Berlin’s focus on, of course, the Berlin Wall, we spent most of our time outside in the sun, staring at the remaining bits of it. The kids were intrigued by the structure itself and when that failed, by the colorful graffiti that covers much of it. We stayed very near the Berlin Wall Memorial, an ongoing project to restore a 1.4 kilometer stretch of the wall as well as the space and fortifications around the wall. Actually, our apartment was in “East Berlin” on Brenauer Strasse, at one of the border crossings, well known for its iconic photo of an East German guard escaping to the West.
But before we got into all that Cold War history, we started with World War II. We went on an underground tour of Berlin, roaming through one of Hitler’s bunkers. Not Hitler’s actual bunker as we were told many times but one for civilians. Bunkers were built in subway stations. We toured an unfinished subway station bunker. Apparently, the side walls were thick concrete but the ceiling was quite thin. Nonetheless, people felt safer down there. We descended into the bunker, past air locks, into a warren of block rooms. All rooms were labeled with maximum capacity numbers though we were told that many more people were actually in the rooms. Authorities kept the small numbers on the wall to reduce panic. One horrible story told of people hiding down there and using a candle to determine when the oxygen was running out in the room.
Out from the depths (one of us very anxious to get out, one of us wanting to stay under), we walked around town, back in the sunshine. It was fun to walk around the city, hearing different languages, seeing signs in English. It all had a very different feel from Munich, almost non-German to me. We walked to Brandenburg Gate, famous site of various speeches and just past it to a more modern Holocaust Memorial. The memorial was made of rectangular stone blocks, resembling coffins. The blocks undulated like waves over a small hill. It was somber and sad but a necessary part of the story for the kids.
After that we felt we could go Cold War. We took a great bike tour, riding around for about six hours, visiting many points from the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing between the American sector of Berlin and the Soviet sector. Lots of interesting stories but mostly we were struck by how much former East Berlin reminded us of our days in Ukraine, the architecture, the big Soviet war memorials. Someone on our tour (not one of our kids) asked what was so bad about Stalin again? All of it seems so long ago, not just Stalin and the USSR and the Wall but even our time in what we used to call the “NIS,” newly independent states!
Our favorite part of the trip was actually our local park. We stumbled upon it when everyone was getting hungry and cranky. There was a farmer’s market selling pastries and cheeses and brats. The light lingered until late and our kids played on a huge wooden structure, mixing it up with other kids. It felt like other times when we had come to Europe in late summer and ate fresh strawberries and enjoyed the parks. But this time our kids could talk to other kids. We listened to them speaking German and for a moment, it all just worked.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


We have had a lovely summer here in Germany. The long grey winter, which lasted through June, turned into a warm sunny summer.  Taking advantage of the sun, we spent as much time as possible in Bavaria’s many lakes and rivers. The kids signed up for a sailing course which unfortunately was cancelled at the last minute. Luckily, we found a windsurfing course as a substitute. As an added benefit, the instructor spoke English. And he spoke it loudly. During the kids’ lesson, I walked part way around the lake.  I could hear the instructor yelling out my kids’ names in an accented voice, his voice somehow echoing across the lake. When I couldn’t hear him anymore, I knew it was time to turn around and collect my windsurfers.
The kids windsurfed on our lovely Starnberg Lake, the fifth largest lake in Germany and the second largest in terms of volume, and for personal reference, 10 kilometers from our house. The lake was called Wurm Lake until 1962 after the Wurm River, its only outlet. But apparently this name was not doing much for tourism, hence the change. (The Wurm River actually flows behind our house and is one of my kids’ favorite things about Germany. We spend many hot afternoons floating down the Wurm, jumping out, running upstream and doing it over and over again.) Starnberg Lake is rimmed by low green hills and dotted with church spires and castles. At the southern most end of the lake, the Alps rise up dramatically. The whole place definitely has a sparkling clean Sound of Music feel to it.
In addition to the beauty, there’s plenty of Lake Starnberg history. The oldest standing settlement on the lake goes back to 1450 but all sorts of older relics have been found in the lake. From about 150 years ago, bigger boats and more people began coming to the lake. In 1886, King Ludwig II was found dead in the lake near the little village of Berg. The kids actually windsurfed out of a town called Tutzing, where Brahms vacationed in 1873 and composed a number of pieces.
Sadly, I saw a small beautifully painted sign affixed to a tree stating that two children drowned at that spot in the lake on 140 years ago, when their boat overturned in a storm. At about this time, a storm swept onto the lake in front of me. Lighthouses across the lake were flashing warnings to our side of the lake. My kids were out on the water, drifting further and further away. I wasn’t too worried but eventually our windsurfing instructor got a motorboat and hauled them in. I thought they would be frightened but they weren’t. They were mostly excited by it all, by being out in the thick of it. They went on to pass various tests and get their windsurfing license, enabling them to rent a windsurfing board at any time, even in a storm. Their instructor thinks they can handle it. I think they can handle it. Most importantly, they know they can handle it.