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?

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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.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

I once admitted to my aunt that I felt like I was a misanthrope.

“I just really can’t with people sometimes” I told her, referring to no one in particular at that moment. But it was a feeling I have a lot.

Crying in line at the bakery because the cashier has asked me three times to repeat myself because she can’t understand my accent. Or cursing out the well-meaning ticket collector attempting to explain why the ticket I bought is the wrong one and how I can do better next time I buy it (a cursing which he reminded me was unnecessary since he wasn’t going to fine me).

These feelings, I realize now, come from my own insecurity, an insecurity that exists in all countries and at all times but which has definitely increased since being in Germany. Because in Germany, I get a lot more attention from strangers and the things that I know to be true about how the world works based on my childhood in the States are not the truths in Germany. Sometimes, even after nine years, I am amazed by how different things are here. And by things I mean people. Attitudes. Habits.

I still get annoyed at the bum rush to the cashier who’s opened a new checkout line. I still fucking hate that people can get drunk to puking at the street fairs but I can’t vacuum on a Sunday morning. And I am still unable to handle condescension, which is what I view anyone trying to tell me I am doing something wrong until I realize that really, they’re being helpful and I am the one practicing condescension.

I will never forget the time my mom came home from work and said her boss told her she had to stop being so condescending, to which she replied, “I can’t be condescending because I don’t know what that word means.” This. This is exactly me.

But part of growing up and my attempting to be a great role model for my kid has required that I drop that habit. That I learn to smile and nod and thank people for their help. That I start to accept that in all communications two people are required and pay closer attention to that other person and his or her needs before I tell him or her to fuck right on off.

I forget this a lot but having a kid helps. I have had to learn that temper tantrums are not about me being a terrible, horrible “bloede” mama and not take those words personally. They are about Diva. About her disappointment at not getting another damned princess dress. About her being hungry or tired.

I will admit that I am a horrible communicator. I will admit that I don’t do it right all the time. But it has been a watershed moment to realize that often in these discussions that make me angry or draw me to tears are not entirely my fault and that cursing and crying doesn’t change things.

Whew, glad I got over that already. It’s exhausting to go through life thinking that all these unsmiling, unhappy people are that way because of you. It’s not me. It’s you.

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…

Out-Maneuvering the Mutter Mafia

I get it. I really do.

Your body has just done the most amazing thing — given birth to a real live human being — and yet, it looks so unlike your own body, so unlike you, it’s scary. Your belly is now empty, shriveled as a deflated balloon. Your tits are enormous, but instead of being Playboy Bunny material, they’re jiggling like a Jell-o mold every time you move. No clothes fit you properly so you’re still tooling around in the jeans with the elastic-waistband you can pull up over your granny panties to just below the terribly unsexy nursing bra that looks like it’s been made from your grandma’s lacy kitchen curtains.

Being sexy is the furthest thing from your mind, because really, between the feedings and the diaper changes and the nonstop blood, who the fuck has time to even think about sex?

But then a couple months go by and the feel-good hormones have disappeared and the blob that’s been sucking the life out of you suddenly doesn’t need your attention 24/7 and so you turn your attention back to your body. To all the things that are not right with it. How it looks and feels so alien. So unlike yours.

I get that you’re just not feeling it anymore, that you want your pre-baby body back stat.

I get that those “pelvic floor muscle-building” classes that your midwife recommended and your insurance company paid for are over and you still see no discernible difference in that blubbering belly of yours. I’ve been there. It sucks.

But you know what? It’s okay. It’s not a permanent state of affairs. Trust me.

There is no need to take to the park to speed walk while pumping a 1-pound weight in your left hand while pushing your Bugaboo with your right hand. There is no need to subscribe to Jilian Michaels’ YouTube channel so you can attempt to finish off 30 Days of Shred without milk leaking through your sports bra and dream of fitting back into that sleeveless dress that will never ever fit again because your tits have settled in a completely different place.

My midwife told me to not even think about running the first year after my daughter’s birth, not if I didn’t want to piss myself every time I sneezed. And you know what? She was right. The first time I tried to run for a tram while pushing Diva’s stroller I thought my uterus was going to fall out. Worse, weirder pain than anything I ever felt while pregnant. And I have no problems sneezing.

Because eventually, those stomach muscles stitched back into place. Five years on, they aren’t a six-pack, because abs are made in the kitchen and despite many many planks and hanging leg raises, I have a layer of chocolate between my muscles and skin. Still, they’re as flat as they’ve ever been. It happens if you want it to. So please, please, just enjoy your time with your newborn. Don’t waste your time and money doing boot camp in the park while bitching about sleepless nights and worrying your kid hasn’t eaten enough because half the jar is still full. Your tits are not going to magically get less bimbo-tastic because you’re pumping a 1-pound weight, at least not while you’re still breastfeeding.

Instead, go for a walk. Feed the ducks. Take a tumbling class with the kid.

For fucks’ sake, do not commandeer the running path while doing squats with your limousine strollers three abreast. It’s not only unbecoming, it only makes you feel bad about yourself. You’ve just had a kid. Give yourself a break.

 

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!

What is this Hell that is German Television?

So after spending the last decade mostly tv-less, I started watching the boob tube again on the regular. And boy is that name a most appropriate synonym for the idiot box in Germany.

There are two big reasons for the return of the squawk box:

1. I’m a single mom and an immigrant, which means I have zero idea of the pop culture references my kid comes home from kindergarten with and when her friends start talking about Yakari and Ritter Trank, I don’t want her to feel as much an outcast as I did once MTV launched and my parents couldn’t afford basic cable. So my ban on any television that isn’t Sesame Street has been lifted. For thirty minutes a day, max. Except for days when I’m too tired to wake up at the crack of dawn. So, basically every day but Tuesdays.

and 2. My doctors told me I need to chill the fuck out and there is no more mind-numbingly better way to spend your time than by watching television in a foreign language.

Also, did I mention a friend of mine gave me her television because I could never in my life fathom spending money on one and I got really tired of fighting my kid for my iphone so I actually took it? I guess that makes three big reasons.

Also, a producer friend of mine keeps asking me to pitch a tv series to her and I figured, you know, I’ll research the market while I’m chilling the fuck out. The only research I’ve been able to do these last years was from the tv on the treadmill at the gym and there, I usually turned it to the sports channel and hoped the football players would take off their shirts because the pensioners toiling away on the ellipticals nearby weren’t about to bless me with a flash of their six-pack abs and crazy tatts while I was zoned out mid-run. Btw, can anyone please tell me what the fuck is up with calf tattoos all the muki-bros are sporting? What is that awfulness? I digress.

Anyway, I started watching tv for the first time since moving to Germany eight years ago and you know what? I haven’t been missing a thing. It’s horrible. Forget the terrible voice-overs of crap American sitcoms that not a single person in the US would ever watch. Like The King of Queens or How I Met Your Mother. NO ONE in the US watches those shows. But Germans love Doogie Howser and that fat misogynist dude.

Forget the English-language 24-hour news channels, which make me full of rage which goes against doctor’s orders to numb my mind. Forget the sports channel which shows ski jumping on repeat even in July and forget Viva, which is a horrid mix of music videos and the badly-dubbed shit cartoons like American Guy. Forget, too, the German news shows, which seemed to be solely comprised of the day’s stupidest scandal in German politics and some footage from something going on in the US that affects absolutely no one in Europe, like cold weather, and is only on at noon and 8 p.m..

Forget all that and there isn’t much left. Arte’s okay but only if you like documentaries (not mind-numbing enough, thanks). There’s that one channel that always has black and white footage of something having to do with World War II (not mind-numbing enough either). There’s RTL, aka, the Idiot Sendung which gets public funds and instead of using them on several really great low-budget films or series, blows it on films that include helicopter stuntwork and exploding volcanoes and then buys the rest of their slots from the US. There’s a local channel that seems to be non-stop Carneval warm-up parties.

And then there’s Kika, the kids channel, where we learn about how the post office works and why our boogers are sometimes black. Genau richtig for our purposes. The kid and I have, in the last months, become Kika-addicts. Not because it’s good per se.¬† But because the quality of German television is sheer and utter crap. I’d say something similar about television everywhere but even the Germans I know who work in television here admit that the quality for the money is sub-par. Even Kika, which I don’t mind supporting with my GEZ fees, is terrible after dark.

It’s so bad that I tried out streaming options for my laptop — Watchever, which had movies in English but very very limited selection and Love Film, which has an awesome selection of dubbed movies but virtually zero in German and if I’m going to waste two hours of my life watching Bridget Jones’ Diary for the millionth time, you’d better believe I’m doing it in English. Besides, streaming is totally against the point. I’m supposed to be getting off my computer — i.e., chilling the fuck out — and at this point, my stress levels are so high that if my laptop is on, you’d better believe it’s because I’m procrastinating writing that god damned advertorial that’s due tomorrow and not to watch Til Schweiger try and get into some blondine’s panties.

So I’m back where I started: watching Die Kleine Prinzessin with the kid and the Muppets auf Deutsch on a Saturday night. Chilling out.

But enough about me. What do you think I should be wasting my time watching?