Holidays auf Deutsch, a Christmas Checklist

I have long hated Christmas. When I got to Germany, when the guilt over having to choose where to spend the holidays (my ‘rents of the in-laws, a three hour plane ride away… and if by my parents, which family to see) disappeared, my plan as a young adult was to spend every last week of December in a Muslim country. Though Turkey is nice in December, it’s also teeth-chattering cold. And it was strange to have to reconcile my image of Christmas looking like a wintry wonderland with the images we saw there of dusty streets in empty villages that smelled of burning plastic so I gave up on that after a year. Besides, the next year I was pregnant and giardia + pregnancy isn’t fun so my plans for Tunisia died.

Now that the Diva is here and there’s nothing she likes more than singing silly songs and spraying glitter everywhere, I’m giving up my inner Grinch and embracing Christmas. The only thing cuter than a toddler in a Santa hat trying to sing Jingle Bells is the look on her face when her mom’s friend shows up dressed like Santa. And it’s the only way to be if you live in Germany because this place LIVES for Christmas. Being festive and merry is a must to get through days when the sun sets before 4 and your snot freezes the minute you walk out the front door. While I am still not a Christmas market connoisseur (there are great write-ups of Berlin here and if you’ve blogged about others, let me know so I can link them in), I appreciate them more than in years past. So what have I done this year to get make sure my days are merry and bright?

Xmas Bikes

1. Got my parents to come over to celebrate. Because family is what Christmas is all about, right? And I’m all the wiser now to what’s behind the meltdowns.

2. Bought Diva and I ice skates last year to get her stoked on skating and already took them out for a turn in Berlin (where you can skate for free at the Market on Potsdamer Platz).

3. Went to a Christmas market early on… on a Monday afternoon. Not too cold. Not too full. Not too many grumpy people working. No cheap sweet wine heated with terrible spices. *Dreamy*

4. Wrapped Christmas lights on the balcony and a tiny, real, potted evergreen to put outside the balcony door (since German tradition says we have to decorate on Dec 24, this is a great compromise for Diva, who is as impatient as any child).

5. Hung an Advent calendar to count the days.

6. Visited Diva’s godmother, who taught her the art and meaning of decorating an Advent wreathe… four candles, lots of green, some glittery ribbon and star anise.

7. Baked sugar cookies and cinnamon rolls (the first is German, the second Swedish) and added the requisite three kilos to keep my body warmer during hibernation.

8. Crafted stars and hung them in the window.

9. Helped Diva pick out her special Christmas dinner dress so that we can really treat it like a special occasion.

10. Read the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Over. And over. And over.

11. Saw The Nutcracker ballet in Berlin. A kid’s dream come true, I was so nostalgic for my childhood Christmases with this kitsch-fantastic production. A must.

So how about you? What are you doing to get in the spirit? What German holiday traditions are you adopting?


How to Raise a PC Kid

Like most parents, I have no idea what I’m doing most days. For most of the last five years, I’ve been feeling my way in the dark. And although I wanted to be one of those hyper-liberal parents who lets her kid just be a kid and doesn’t try to interfere in any way, everyone knows that even non-choices and non-interference are choices. Because we all have these beliefs — morals, if you will — that we intentionally or unwittingly pass on to our kids, either through our actions or through our words. I’m a vegetarian, for example, and although I’d never take a cue from this asshole and tell my daughter about animal cruelty, and I really do let her choose what she wants to eat (within reason) including meat, by not cooking it at home, I’m making her an evening-and-weekend herbivore.

Actions may speak louder than words, but now that Diva’s got an extensive, multi-lingual vocabulary, this playing it by ear parenting technique has gotten a lot easier. She can express herself (recently telling me how delicious the chicken at a birthday party was) so I’m getting to know her wishes better. And when she’s confused about the world? Just ask Mom. Makes my life a lot easier to finally know what in the world is going on in that overactive brain of hers. When you’re dealing with a kid, words are the central key to understanding those actions.

At the same time, it’s gotten a lot tougher to be a completely unprepared parent. Like a couple months ago when she, seemingly unprompted, wanted to know if blood comes out of a vagina when a woman is having a baby. I’ve always believed honesty to be the best policy so I said yes, but I didn’t go further because I could not for the life of me figure out why she was asking this and I didn’t want to scare her off having kids when she still hasn’t hit puberty (which is, of course, when we’ll be YouTubing deliveries to scare her away from the boys). Turns out, there was a very graphic drawing in her “Was ist los im Krankenhaus” Wimmelbuch and she was just fact-checking the illustration. How very pedantic. Her curiosity as to why this happens was not piqued. Thankfully, because I wouldn’t have known how to proceed. By using medical terminology that would just confuse her more? I had a set of books as a kid called “Tell Me Why” that explained all this stuff in a very straightforward manner that was easy to understand, but which seriously led my mom to be like, “Go get your books” every time I had a question. And since I feel like my role here as a parent is to guide my daughter through life, I’d prefer to be using these “teachable moments,” having these conversations with her myself, even about topics I don’t know a damn thing about. So I’ve been trying to prepare myself better, trying to figure out what age-appropriate topics she’s going to be asking about. But still, mostly feeling my way in the dark here.

I totally disagree with guiding my daughter through life by putting ideas and questions into her mind, so I’m taking the “you ask, I’ll answer” tack and not the other way around. She hasn’t asked yet about anything even remotely religious so I am not spending my days explaining the concept of heaven to her whenever we look up at the sky. Instead, we talk facts, like “that’s a cloud,” and “those are stars.” By waiting for her to call the shots on certain topics, however, I recently realized I’ve put her at a distinct disadvantage. You see, a lot of what runs the world are social constructs and if you aren’t directly faced with these constructs, they’re somewhat baffling. They are beyond what a five-year-old can imagine on her own.

Take, for instance, the idea of angels and devils. Thanks to the masses out celebrating Carneval, my daughter now knows what these are supposed to look like — all golden halos or pointy red ears and tail. But the concept? Completely foreign. Some people and/or spiritual creatures are good and some are evil? But why would some choose to not be good? And why do they insist on wearing red stilettos while doing so?

Thanks to books she’s had read to her at school, her imagination is filled with flying unicorns and glitter-sprinkling fairies but in her world everything is happy and shiny and damnit, I aim to keep it that way as long as I possibly can. She doesn’t ask why these unicorns can fly and I am not about to go and put ideas in her head. Just like I’m not going to explain the concept of the devil on anything more than a superficial level.

But here’s where it just got tricky. Thanks again to Karneval, Diva was exposed today to the idea of cowboys and Indians. Not, of course, the true-to-life sort of Native Americans that live on reservations near my parents who do such exotic things like teach at universities and wear blue jeans or Ford F150-driving cattle herders whose shit-kickers are caked in dirt. Nope. She was introduced to fucking Winnetou and Old Shatterhand and needed to know, immediately, why people would put feathers in their hair and PAINT THEIR FACES RED and wear ponchos. Now maybe it’s my Americanism or the fact that our family descends from displaced Cherokees or maybe in part it was the whole Blackface debate that’s been raging in Germany lately, but this just put me over the top. How am I supposed to raise a culturally-aware and sensitive human being when we are surrounded by this nonsense? How do I help her understand that fun is fun, but doing so at others’ expense is not okay?

I decided to take the factual route and explain to her that while she and I were real Indians, even though neither of us had black hair, the people dressed as Indians were insensitive assholes trading in stereotypes and by trying to take the individuality away from a specific ethnic group through othering, they were showing their racist nature. And then I complimented her on her not-gender-neutral choice of Princess costume complete with magic wand and we got off the train feeling like a bunch of Klugscheissers.

But seriously people. How the fuck are we supposed to be raising humanists in a world where these arbitrary divisions based on ethnic heritage are not a thing of the past? How am I supposed to be answering questions about social constructs I don’t even agree with? Help!

No Year’s Resolution

2013 sucked. I had a list of 36 things I wanted to do last year and crossed four of them off of it. It’d be one thing if I had been doing amazing things to replace those items not crossed off — like how I went to Portugal instead of Greece — but most of the time, that wasn’t the case. So this year, I’m doing something different. I created a vision board.

visionboardThere aren’t many words here — I’m becoming a lot more visual in my old age and I like the non-specificity represented by the images. Instead of saying laugh more, I put up Mohammed Ali, who can also remind me that I want to kick ass most days. Instead of talking about travel, I put up the butterflies, which represent not far away places, but the ability to migrate and still come back home. I‘m going to stop saying sorry so much — fucking Anglo-Saxons and their apologizing for their very existence. And finally, I’m going to be turning shit into gold. It’s the only way I can think of to sum up my career goals for this year.

And that hand-written note at the bottom? A quote from my favorite philosopher, Kierkegaard: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Cologne’s Kids Carneval

Last I left you, I was in the midst of waxing rhapsodic about the bizarreness that is Cologne Carneval. And when I wrote, I wrote that I was through with the six-day drunken street orgy. I was wrong.

Although I successfully avoided the Rosenmontag parade by heading to the near-empty sauna, I still had to head out with the Diva in Training to watch the kids’ parade. The kiddie version of Karneval is actually pretty neat to watch. Never mind the indoctrination-since-birth of Koelsche Lieder, the kids love to bellow Koelle Alaaf! and sing Viva Colonia! while freezing their tushies off just so they can catch oodles of marshmallows made of porkbelly (So much for raising a vegetarian). Even the adults get in the heads-up action.

umbrellaAnd while I would like to write more about the city’s pre-Lenten shenanigans, the post-Carneval flu has had the Lederhosen household in a bit of a tuff lately so I’d rather not think too much more about the possible meanings behind adorning a stewardess costume or what exactly those Koelsche Maedels are doing to feminism when they sing about loving but not needing men. Instead, I’ll leave you with this parting pic. No one ever said the Germans don’t need how to let down their hair. These guys, like virtually every other pot-bellied post-fifties man in the city, took their costumes very seriously.



Old Lady at Cologne Carneval (Alt Weiber)

Cologne Carneval celebrations are in full swing and for the first time ever, I actually joined in the fun instead of heading for the hills. I’m not a huge fan of drunken shenanigans and my image of Carneval in the past has always been tainted by having to dodge puke and broken Koelsch glasses on the sidewalks the morning after, so after my first year here doing just that, I avoided the city during Carneval as much as possible.

This year, a mixture of strange circumstances had me locked in the city for the long weekend so a couple of friends insisted I take part in the six-day costumed circus. Boy was it fun (it’s not over as I write this, but I for one, am done)!

You can learn a lot about a city by the way it parties. While the Bavarians are all sitting around in old-fashioned leather pants and checkered shirts with feathers in their hats, drinking foamy beer out of glasses bigger than a man’s forearm, and every so often getting up to do a polka, the Koelners are all caroling down the (mostly) car-free streets while dressed in red and white striped clown costumes or elaborate marching band uniforms, sipping from “klein aber fein” short, thin phallic-looking glasses and chatting up every person they meet on the street.

This video, of a very well-contained Carneval party made by a very popular local band, should give you an idea of just how different the festivities in Cologne are than those in Munich at Oktoberfest (a couple hints: costumes, music, age of the revelers).

I’m told Koelners are considered the friendliest Germans and while I can’t really compare, I generally think it’s true. I’m also told that during Carneval, you will meet boatloads of people because everyone is so damned excited to be getting drunk and listening to bad rock songs in a dying dialect. It was impossible to not be excited at the prospect of — gasp! — a complete stranger actually joking with you on the street in Germany. Whereas two months ago in the US, I was straight up scowling at all the Amis wanting to do the same, I was totally stoked on the idea of laughing with a bunch of Germans and watching these Germans undo all stereotypes of stiffness.

And wow. Wow. No stiffness at all, unless you count what was happening to the men beneath those Gladiator robes.

You see, the most important thing to know about Carneval — the real reason it is such a damned popular event to take part in — is that the six-day affair has a reputation as being both a place to meet your life partner and as a swingers’ style meat market. There’s a saying that goes something like, “If you’re in a costume, it doesn’t matter who’s behind the mask” and supposedly, that doesn’t exclude the old marrieds.

I have no idea how it came to be this way. Traditionally, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday marks the start of Carneval partying in Cologne (not the start of Carneval, which is marked on 11.11. because of the legend of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who saved the city). Thursday’s known as Weiberfastnacht (Ladies Fasting Night), or even better, Alt Weiber (Old Lady) and ritual has it that woman are in control on Thursday. The Wikipedia entry I just linked to is a very tame, formal explanation for what actually occurs. Tradition has it that women go around snipping the ties of men… emasculating them in the process. For stealing the man’s penis, the woman needs to plant a kiss (a buetzen). Over the years, this ritual has evolved into something akin to the mysterious Venetian masked ball. Wear a costume and anything goes, they say, and on Thursday, the ladies are in charge.

In reality, this has led to seriously Rome near the fall of its Empire debauchery. Everyone dresses in costumes and it is no-holds-barred strutting for sex. People begin drinking — both in bars and out on the streets — at 8 a.m. and despite the freezing weather, the goal when choosing a costume is to reveal to potential partners just how much action you want to see (I’m also told these reveal what kind of action but I’ve yet to find an explanatory list similar to, say, the white pants explanation on Urban Dictionary, so I can’t even guess what wearing a cowgirl outfit says about your preferences. Oh wait, maybe I can. Never mind). Often, this means the women look as though they are about to freeze to death trying to imitate Greek goddesses while the men stroll around dressed in air force fatigues. I, for one, chose to go as a boxer, hoping like hell my biceps would be enough to make the duds run.

What amazed me the most about all this was how much this one night made all the cultural anthropology I had been doing in recent months, trying to figure out the completely mysterious GerMan brain, go completely topsy-turvy. Cat calls? Check. Random acts of eye contact? Check. Being hit on by married men? Check. Dudes buying ladies drinks in a bar!?! Check. Check. Check. For a second there, I thought I might’ve been transported back to America, where the smell of male desperation to be laid wafts thick and the guys view women as nothing more than a fish and they just need a few minutes to figure out how best to filet you.

It’s like Thorsten and Horst have finally decided to put the Ordners back up on their shelves for just a few days, traded their Schwarzbrot for Koelsch and too-tight suits for too-loose clown trousers and decided that this, my dear, this is *the* day, *the* way to get laid. Except they’re out of practice and getting old and think that because, hey, that lady looked at me and I’m totally wasted, there’s been a geniune connection. Not interested is not an answer. Neither is: Sorry, I’m married.

I’ve gotta say, I’m glad I decided to dress down that evening. Because even with a fake black eye and the most unattractive knee socks I’ve ever worn, I still got hit on more in one night than I have in all seven years I’ve lived in Germany combined. Something to be said for sexpectations, I guess. I’m just glad I don’t have any. Only, you know, morals and standards.

Honestly, as much as fun as this has all been, I’ll be glad when all this blatant “need to get laid but I’m too wasted to even stand up” nonsense is over and I can go back to the whole, previously ueber-annoying game of How the Fuck does one flirt in Germany, otherwise known as, oh my dear lord I am never going to get a date if I don’t initiate it and I just can’t do that. Turns out, I really do like being the one in control. At least if it means Thorsten and Horst aren’t knocking on my door.

Oh, and in case you missed it on my Facebook page, here’s the perfect example of what a typical Carneval Missed Connection looks like. There’s an English translation on my Facebook wall, so head on over there if your German isn’t rich enough to get the whole bloody awesome joke in this:


Christmas Sucks

The first time I ever had a panic attack, I was 13 years old, my parents were newly separated, and I was laying on the couch, staring at the Christmas tree. I didn’t know that what was happening was a panic attack and took it at mystical face value: these racing thoughts about death and dying meant I was having premonitions of my own death. My world went black except for the Christmas lights and I couldn’t breathe.

Xmas Bikes

As an adult, I can recognize this for what it was: mourning the loss of my family. But at the time, I was certain I was going to die. And after that, Christmas became zero fun.

It’s pretty standard that you hear kids of divorce have difficulties at Christmas. The family’s split and you either get two super-duper fun and exciting present-opening days or you get two god-this-is-torture present-opening days. I chose neither. Stopped celebrating Christmas. Or at least I tried to.

I went snowboarding or traveled cross-country (or both) just so I could avoid the awkwardness of a holiday that meant nothing to me. So that my poor parents wouldn’t have to buy me presents I didn’t want and vice versa. So that I wouldn’t be around to witness all the damned arguing that goes along with my extended family being in the same room at once.

Avoidance. My coping skill.

My ex generally tolerated this … frugal bastard he was, he didn’t mind not having to buy me gifts. Or all the expensive decorations that would’ve gotten trashed in our myriad moves. He even got a trip to Turkey out of the deal. His parents hated it, though, so every so often, we would fly to see them and sit around eating red-and-green pepper salad and they would gift me with cookware that I had no intention of using (but the ex certainly made use of, god bless his housewifery intentions). And every year, I would say, well, that’s it: Christmas sucks and I’m not doing it again.

And then the Diva came along and I started to feel some sense of obligation to her. Her first and second Christmases were spent in California, looking at seals and hiking in the rain. We were avoiding the traditional holiday fetes but hadn’t yet figured out what we were going to replace them with. It worked because she was too young to understand.

But then her dad and I weren’t together and her third Christmas, he was demanding it be celebrated. He didn’t care how. Just that it would be. This worked a little because she was at kita and they did all the German Christmas things: St. Nick came to visit, and there was an Advent calendar tree, and they learned to sing songs in German and put on a pageant. My parents came to see us and brought a suitcase full of presents and we went to the petting zoo and generally made it out to be just another day, except the grandparents were there and it was fun.

It was enough fun that I thought maybe we should do it again this year. Except that I didn’t want to sit around in rainy Germany and I didn’t want to spend a shit-ton of money to fly to the middle of nowhere and go stir crazy at my parents’, where the only escape was to the corner bar, where I would likely run into people I never wanted to see after I left town at the age of 18. So I decided we’d fly to Lake Tahoe and I could rent a cabin in the woods and go cliff jumping and cross some things off my to-do list for the year. How selfish of me.

sleddingWith six feet of snow in three days, the babe got a real taste of white Christmas. She’s been ice skating and sledding. Put a hat on a snowman. Built a snow fort. Trekked through snow piles taller than her. I’ve been snowboarding and some day soon, we’ll teach her how to ski.

But nothing else about this Christmas worked and so I have my doubts about doing it again. I forgot about family dynamics. About how when my family is together, we all revert into the roles we took on when I was younger, a role I’m not comfortable with anymore. About how each of us is a human with our own desires and needs and way of doing things and these wants are not at all compatible.┬áMy family couldn’t stop bickering. No one could do anything right in the others’ minds. I was miserable and everyone, Diva included, knew this.

At some point, I thought her excitement about the magic of the holiday might rub off on me. Instead, the family dynamic I moved far away to escape turned me into an unbearable beast. The six feet of snow stressed my parents out. The kid found her Christmas presents before Santa arrived so she doesn’t believe in some magical fairy tale dude (who she was doubtful about anyway when we told her, no, he didn’t fly in an airplane but in a sleigh with reindeer). So much for Christmas magic.

The thing is, as I think about what to do with her next year, there are two things in the back of my mind: 1. The need for third culture kids to have a firm family foundation and traditions, and 2. The need for my kid to grow up knowing love and tolerance. Right now, I feel like these two things are mutually exclusive. And I need to find a way to reconcile that they aren’t and give her what she needs. I just don’t know if that’s going to include Christmas with me and a tree.