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?


Fuck Parents’ Night.

When I signed Diva up for a parents’ run kindergarten, every other mother I knew warned me against it.

“It’s too much work.”

“The parents are demanding.”

“No, really, those parents are insane.”

But I wanted to be a part of the day care process. I wanted to stay involved in Diva’s life so I did it. I applied for a spot at a tiny parents’ run kindergarten and I put on the old song and dance at an interview and I got one of the much-coveted spots at a nearby Eltern Verein.

At first, it was great. It still is. But now I know what all those warnings were about. I’m not one of the people involved in the day-to-day operations and I’m not elected to a post so I don’t have to handle human resources or budgetary concerns, but it is exhausting. Not because of the work. The parents. Ugh, the parents.

As part of the official bureaucracy behind the parents’ run kindergarten, we have to have meetings every month. More often if there’s an issue. The people on the board meet even more frequently, so I know I dodged a bullet by not having to run the show. But these parents nights are the absolute worst. There are all sorts of jokes about them online. The writer Juli Zeh put together a bullshit bingo card for parents’ nights at her kids’ school and though kindergarten’s a bit different, it gives you some idea of what these discussions entail.

ElternabendbullshitbingoAt our kindergarten, thankfully, there are a few things written into the founding constitution that make some of these discussions obsolete. We can only serve vegetarian food. The kids can only wear slippers inside. They go outside every day.

I’ve had friends who’ve wasted hours of their time at these meetings because someone wants to serve only organic food and another person is against paying the extra 20 bucks a month it costs for only organics. I had another friend whose kindergarten completely imploded because the manager was incompetent and the employees were bullying each other but none of the parents could agree on which employees to fire when and how to do it according to German law. And while it was imploding, one of the parents embezzled a huge chunk of money, bankrupting the kindergarten. So I am definitely thanking my lucky stars to have found such a nice place for diva to spend her days.

But as it is, even when things are going well, people can still find stuff to bitch about. And that’s why these parents’ nights suck so royally. We spend hours every month debating the stupidest shit. Can we build a new bench on the playground? What can we plant in the garden? Are the kids getting outside enough? Shouldn’t we be teaching them English — or French — or Swahili?

The longer that I’ve been there, the more difficult it’s become to bear. It could be that my rose-colored glasses have come off or it could be that the mood at the kindergarten has changed but either way, what at first felt neat and quaint and cozy has devolved into a night I dread every month. It doesn’t help that my social anxiety prevents me from behaving in large groups. I do great one-on-one. I can give speeches to rooms filled with hundreds of people no problem. Put me in a room with a dozen people I have to see again and I will stick my foot in my mouth so hard and act like such a major bitch that even my friends pretend not to know me in the moment. I literally ask when we can all head to the bar and grab some whiskey even though I don’t drink and I deplore bars. That’s how bad my anxiety gets.

And for some reason, two of the other mothers have recently taken the idea of the kindergarten being a democratically-run institution too far, insisting that every time they don’t get their way, we have to put it to a vote. “All in favor of singing Backe Backe Kuchen every morning at breakfast, say aye.” It drives me fucking insane. And of course, in full anxiety mode, I don’t even bother to hide my disdain at this bullshit. So instead of playing nice with the other mummies, I roll my eyes and say, “Das kann ja doch nicht dein ernst sein?” It’s my favorite German phrase because even if it’s not grammatically correct, it gets the point across: “You cannot be fucking serious?” I may be American and Amis may have invented democracy as we know it but sometimes, seriously, we need a dictatorship. Someone who will stand up and say, “We’re singing pattycake at breakfast from now on, Mamacitas, so deal with it.”

Last month, it got so bad that three of the dads just got up in the middle of the meeting and were like, yo this is over, let’s go watch the football game. Which, irksome though it may have been at the time, seems to have been genius. Because without a platform, some ideas just go unaired and maybe it’s better that way.

How to Divorce in #Germany

In case you missed it on Twitter, my divorce finally came through. Well, almost.

Like everything in Germany, there was a boatload of paperwork involved and although I got what I thought was the official divorce document from the court (stamped and sealed and signed and all that jazz), the foreigner’s office where I’m trying to renew my visa says I’m still registered as married. It’s a formality, they said, but I have to take this document somewhere and show it to someone and that person will then make it official. But like most of German bureaucracy, the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing (and everyone wants their hands in your life), so just who this someone is and where that somewhere is remains unclear.

It figures. Although I tend to not care about the German state’s way of trying to know and control every movement made by its citizens — I’ve yet to be affected adversely by, say, them knowing my religion — sometimes the bullshit paperwork involved in proving these movements to heartless bureaucrats reaches critical mass. If I showed up in court and got a judge to sign off on the paperwork agreeing to the divorce, why can’t the judge just let the city know and they update my record tout suite? Because: Germany.

So although I started the divorce process over three years ago, the ex and I still officially celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary last month.

I wonder what anyone doing genealogy on us in 100 years will think when they see that the divorce hasn’t gone through before his second child arrives… is that child considered a bastard even though it’s technically Germany’s fault he can’t marry the mother? Maybe I need to hang on to the hundreds of pages of paperwork I had to fill out for the divorce hearing so our future ancestors so they can piece together just what the hell happened. Because seriously, I can’t figure it out myself.

In short, this is the legal process we’ve had to go through to get a divorce so far:

1. Move into separate addresses and register those with the city. Easy for me, not so much for him. In the US, where he lived when we split, no one has to register with anyone. In Germany, they didn’t accept his non-residency despite his being non-registered so they just had him listed as “unknown” for the better part of the first year of our split. This is important because technically, you cannot divorce if you are living together. You have to prove that you have lived apart for one year before a marriage is considered irreconcilable. So, for us, we had to wait for one year after he came back to Germany and registered before we could file the split. For anyone else doing this internationally, I’m told by a friend who had this experience that if the dude isn’t in Germany and is technically a “no-show” on their records, you actually can proceed with a divorce after a year but my lawyer advised me to wait, just in case.

2. After the year is up, you can file a request for a divorce hearing. I did this through a lawyer so the process was foreign to me, but here was the kicker of all the ridiculous paperwork I did confirming our assets: all alimony and splitting of belongings is determined based on the date of the divorce filing, not the first date of separation. So dude has a year to move all his funds to places out of reach of his future ex-wife. My lawyer says this is the absolute bullshit of the legal system but since Germany is a feminist country and alimony isn’t *really* considered necessary since men and women have equal rights to work and earn a wage (cough, hack, cough), it is what it is. Thankfully, I never married a millionaire but you better believe if I ever meet up with Til Schweiger or Count von der Geld, I’m either signing a pre-nup or divorcing him in the US.

3. Because I’m a foreigner, the next step was to sit back and wait. And wait. And wait. At some point, the court asked the pension office for files on us and when it came back that there were years missing from our working life, both the ex and I had to fill out reams of forms documenting our jobs/earnings from the time we were 16. Thoroughly. As in, to the month. Do you know how many second jobs I had at college? I don’t even remember them all. The good news is: I now know how many pennies I will get each month from the German pension system should I stay here for a minimum of 15 years and hit retirement. The bad news is: those holes in our Lebenslauf were to be filled by the US Social Security Administration who adamantly refused to hand over any of our records. Because: privacy. Funny that, isn’t it? America respecting our privacy about something. Despite three separate requests from the Deutsche Rentenversicherung to the SSA, those holes just went unverified. We should’ve just told the Germans to ask Facebook for that info since Zuckerberg seems to know everything there is to know about everyone but since my ex was a social media hold-out, it would’ve been lopsided. Instead they did something unheard of in German bureaucracy: they agreed to overlook the unverified years so we could proceed. 18 months later.

4. Finally, almost three years to the day our split should’ve been recognized officially, we sat across from each other in a drab courtroom on the 11th floor of Cologne’s ugliest building and told the judge that we didn’t want to be married anymore and he read some sort of formal document out loud and after five minutes, we were done.

Waited three blasted years for those five minutes. Ugh.

And then the not-so-official official-looking paper came in the mail. Now, to just figure out who needs to see it to recognize the divorce and I’ll be dancing with Beyonce…

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.