Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tori the Teen!

It’s a brave new world at our house. We have a teenager!  Things have not changed overnight. She still swims and reads. But the swim meets are further and further afield (next month she has a swim meet in London at the Olympic pool complex!) and the books are thicker and thicker. So far, we are still turning off the lights on Tori as she sneaks in extra reading time and not extra computer time. Suffice to say, she is going easy on us and we need it!
We celebrated Tori’s  13th birthday with multiple parties and multiple cakes and a visit from a traveling godmother. On her actual birthday, we had morning swim practice. Tori was pretty good about swimming early and hard on her birthday. We tried to make it fun with a breakfast buffet (and some old pictures of Tori swimming through the years). Next, she carried cupcakes into her homeroom for an early sugar fix. Tori was serenaded with the happy birthday song all day, and then taken out to dinner at her favorite Mexican restaurant in Munich. Tori confided that she did in fact feel thirteen years old all day.
Over the weekend, we had a big silly-themed party at our place. We tie dyed shirts, we had a silly string fight, we dressed up in costumes for a photo booth and we decorated cupcakes. All of it made possible by the aforementioned godmother! It was a big party with 13 girls but it gave us a chance to meet some of Tori’s friends who we don’t see much of. Gone are the days when we met all the kids’ friends at local playgrounds or orchestrated play dates or even in the classroom when I was a room parent.
While the teenager continues with her seventh grade life, the rest of us are a bit emotional. I’ve been crying on and off all week as I flip through Tori’s baby scrapbook. We always put up old photos as part of birthday decorations. The twins and I pour over these photos, asking how old Tori was then or where Tori was in that one. Back when the twins were in first grade, I remember going to one of their publishing parties at school. I discovered both had written “books” about Tori’s birthday. This year, flipping through their study books, I saw that both had marked Tori’s birthday down where they normally write homework assignments. As Tori grows up and expands her routine, it’s good to know that her fan base remains steadfast and loyal.

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve is big in Germany. Last year, we had no idea. We were shocked by the fireworks and commotion on our little residential street. We tried to wake up the kids so they could experience it all but they would not emerge from their beds. This year we talked it up. We bought fireworks in Amsterdam, thinking all stores would be closed when we returned to Germany on Dec. 31 but luckily they weren’t. We made sure we had matches. We took naps. We were ready.
A few minutes before midnight the kids were out on our street, which dead ends into the forest about 400 meters past our house. No one else was out. There was a party going on at a nearby house but no one seemed ready for fireworks. The kids were a little disappointed but rallied when Phil lit some sparklers for them. We had a few other little fireworks that made popping noises and shot confetti. We broke them all out. Finally, Phil brought out the big firework box he bought at the grocery store that day. He lit it and it launched about thirty feet into the sky and erupting into a real “Disneyland-like” display. We were shocked and couldn’t believe all that pyrotechnic power was available for 4 euros. Adam promptly declared that next year he will spend all his Christmas money on fireworks from the grocery store.
Then, just when we were about to pack it up, the neighbors came out. Guys started pulling firework rockets out of cars. Our village is on a hill with the southern view extending to Starnberg Lake and the Alps. The whole horizon was dotted with firework displays. Houses up and down our street started launching fireworks off. When we say fireworks we don’t mean the handheld ones you might know from 4th of July parties in the states. We are talking fireworks you might know from city sponsored fireworks. It was all pretty colorful, loud and exciting. The kids didn’t know which way to look until the neighboring party started launching. We then watched that for the next hour straight.
The thing about fireworks here is that it seems to go against the cultural grain. In all other aspects of life, Germany is a well regulated society. There are rules for noise but for New Year’s Eve, all is forgiven. Honestly, our first thought when we heard all the fireworks was that our other neighbors would get upset but apparently not. Half burnt fireworks streamed out of the sky, landing on the street, on our thankfully cement roof.  The next morning we found all sorts of firework debris in our yard.  A pretty dramatic start to the new year but actually not as dramatic as all three of our kids staying awake until midnight for the first time ever!

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Amsterdam by train

Taking advantage of our central European location, we boldly took the overnight train to Amsterdam. While adults had flashbacks to hard train travel in the Ukraine days, the kids were super excited. All clamored into their bunk beds, put their heads down and promptly fell asleep. Tori lifedt her head off the pillow for a moment to say how exciting it was and that she wished we could do this every night. I hushed her, locked the door one more time and laid down on my little cot and tried to see things her way.

Amsterdam however was exciting. We hit the major museums, including the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. At the Rijksmuseum, the kids surprised me by gravitating to the Rembrandt rather than Vermeer, until Adam reminded me of a book about Rembrandt that we used to read. We also ran into someone we knew from Munich in the crowded Rijksmuseum, making us all feel that Europe was a small place indeed. According to the kids, the Van Gogh was great and sad and Anne Frank was inspirational and sad. While a little simplistic, there is nothing to add. They got the meaning as we all did. The alternating rain and sunshine outside just underscored our emotions.
We stayed at a little hotel just outside of Amsterdam in a place called Zandaam. We quickly figured out the daily train ride in and out of Amsterdam (about 10 minutes) and enjoyed the feeling of leaving the big bustling city for the smaller and slightly less bustling littler city. Phil, always the avid cyclist, found a bike rental place for us. We rented bikes for just 5 euros for the day. We learned that the shop made most of its money from the city. The city paid them to park bikes inside, rather than have the bikes crowd the sidewalks and block storefronts. Who thought of this idea? Peter the Great of course on his tour of Europe over 300 years ago. We rode our bikes out to the windmills, walked through a windmill that was grinding chalk to make paints and dyes and generally stood in the mild sun and took in the scene of multiple windmills along the river. A nearby chocolate factory added a nice essence to the air and we lingered and lingered and lingered.
A favorite part of the trip for us all was the international flavor of the city. We ate at a fabulous Mexican restaurant, ordering things as spicy as they made them. We wandered through multiple English language bookstores. Adam got caught up in the spirit of it all and, using his Christmas money, bought an entire series of books. He ran back and forth between two bookstores getting the best deals. To have Adam mesmerized by books, enough that he mostly forgot about the Packers vs. Bears playoff football game, was enough for us parents. Amsterdam is a city of culture and enough English language to keep 10 year old boys interested. A repeat visit is already being planned!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Christmas Markets 101

The Christmas markets are such a large part of the overall German wintertime experience. We really didn’t know what we would find last year and thus traveled far and wide to visit as many Christmas markets as possible. After that sampling, and honestly some disappointment, we curtailed our expectations, travelled less and enjoyed more. After a less maniac Christmas market season, we all endorse them and suggest you come see us and them for yourselves!

The basic Christmas market includes outdoor stalls selling food, crafts and holiday decorations. There is usually some music, brass bands if you are lucky, and a Nativity scene. Some of the markets have live animals and a petting zoo Nativity thing going on. Others have a Nativity scene set up behind glass. Still others have a kind of toy mechanized version, with child sized figurines doing Nativity things over and over again. We like them all. Food of choice is brat mit baguette (sausage in bread roll) for some of us, large French fries for some of us and cotton candy for the rest. Drink is gluwein, whether you like it or not, or kinder punch, the non-alcoholic version. We had a hard time processing all this sensory overload until we realized it was like a state fair. Then we understood it and ordered up another caramel apple.
Some of the Christmas markets have a theme, such as one just off of Marienplatz, the main square in Munich, is a glass blowing market. Another favorite downtown is the Medieval Christmas market, complete with jousting knights, wild game food and court jesters. I think we managed to keep Adam from buying a sword this year but all kids bring their money and buy presents for each other, or in the case of the annual sword purchase, for themselves. The markets do get crowded and cold, as everything is outside.
This year we visited the tiny Christmas market in the village we live in. This market is back off the main road through town and thus easily missed by non-locals. We missed it last year of course. But this year we wandered through town, looking at all the lights the village puts up and stumbled into the market. There we had our first gluwein of the season, bought our first ornament of the season, watched some local students play the drums, admired some sheep and said hello to the lady who runs the stationary shop. It felt just right, festive and fun and quiet and only minutes away from our warm house. We still try to do it all but sometimes we learn a little along the way.