Germany - I'll miss you (these next few weeks)...

July 14, 2011

Kicking off the Mainzer Bierbörse with a Kölsch

With all the internal struggling I've been having over our German assimilation - or lack thereof - I have to admit that I'm going to miss home (aka, Germany) while we're visiting California (no longer home) in the next few weeks. There's so much I'm looking forward to that we don't have here - friends and family, wonderful gourmet food, great shopping - but there's plenty I'm not looking forward to as well - the horrible drivers, the endless traffic, being repeatedly 'sized up' by other women, that windy, wet coastal air that makes my hair look as if I've stuck my finger in an electric socket. I'm heading over with almost equal anticipation and apprehension.

All the love-hate feelings I've been struggling with reminds me a little of an experience from my childhood. One year, my parents moved us across town and I landed at a new school. I quickly became close with a girl in my class there, but when she presented me with one half of those ubiquitous 'best friends' necklaces, my naive nine-year-old mind thought: "But I already have a best friend (with whom I shared a similar necklace) from my old school!"  Somehow, I thought that accepting another 'official' best friend meant I was somehow being unfair to my other best friend. Similarly ridiculous, I've felt that to be truly settled here, I needed to cut myself off from my American ways. But really, I've got the best of both worlds (or rather, countries) by being able to visit and enjoy the things I love in America but then come back to Germany and enjoy the life here I love so much.

So while I'm stuffing my face with In'N'Out Burger, wine tasting in Napa, and shopping till I drop, I'll still be thinking of you, Germany. Here are just a few things I will miss...

Urban fence vineyards

Fest treats like warm, sugared nuts in every flavor imaginable


And of course beer, like these Belgian gems scored at the Mainzer Bierbörse fest

Incredibly beautiful apartments

Incredibly beautiful sunsets

Crazy German words, like this one with three 't's in a row

Of course, what I'll miss most of all...

that face!

Auf Wiedersehen for now, Germany - we'll be back before you know it!

*Daily Drop Cap by Alejandro Paul

Feeling the pain at the (American) pump?

July 06, 2011

Image by Michael Koploy via Good

For all of you who are complaining about the increasing gas prices in America, I found this lovely infographic that provides a little perspective. Unless you would like to move to Mexico or the United Arab Emirates (and I'm guessing that'd be a no), you actually have it pretty darn good - no, make that great - compared to the rest of the world.

So next time you're at the pump, pretend you're in Europe and do a quick calculation on what your total would be - then smile and do a little jig, because you're really only paying about half that. Lucky you!

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

Reflections on America's birthday

July 04, 2011

America birthday cupcakes -
best dark chocolate frosting, thanks to Martha Stewart

America's birthday this year falls at a time when I'm feeling a little conflicted about life - and location. For some reason, I've been missing America so much more lately than in our first year here. Food cravings, friend cravings, and just a general, gentle pull at my heartstrings. Am I just missing my family? Or good restaurants besides the two or three we've found worth eating at? Or is it something more, like having a career (let alone a job) or the ability to pursue pretty much anything I'd like?

Some days, I just want to go where it's easier. But I know that waving my white flag and trekking our little family back across the Atlantic only trades one set of problems for another. Sure, I could communicate freely at any place of business (and actually get decent customer service, to boot!), but I'd be paying more for housing, health care and transportation. While gas is significantly less in the US (no matter how much Americans howl about how high the prices are), I'd be forced to own a car due to the lack of decent, comprehensive public transportation, which includes a hefty monthly payment and the need to drive significantly more to get to where I needed to go. My daily commutes in California were anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half - each way. I'll never forget how hard I laughed when we first experienced what Germans referred to as 'traffic' during peak commute time around Frankfurt. It was lighter than mid-afternoon traffic pretty much anywhere in the SF bay area, not to mention that it moved like a well-oiled machine (because those rule-crazy Germans know how to drive). I won't even go into how much we'd pay for an apartment in SF like the one we have here in Germany (let's just say it would be at least 4 times the price). Ugh.

The US definitely stands out amongst the rest of the world here, but not in a good way (Chart via MotherJones)

My family and US friends would be closer, but with minimal vacation time from work (oh yeah, because in America we couldn't afford to be single-income any longer), there'd be less time to actually go and enjoy being with them. When my husband's company was recently purchased by a larger one, everyone was issued all the new company's policies to review. He discovered that working for the same company is the US, it would take an investment of 20 years in their employ before one accrued 25 days of holiday a year. Here in Germany, 6 weeks is standard - from day one. Americans, on average, put in 378 hours more per year than Germans (that's a whopping 10 weeks!). I think America's deep-seated attachment to capitalism is admirable, but as the economy and society change, it might be time to consider a more people-friendly way of running businesses. Without a good quality of life, what else is there? Money surely can't buy you time.

In America - the SF bay, particularly - I could have my pick of just about any kind of restaurant to eat out at and anything and everything you could imagine at the grocery store, but the quality would certainly be lacking. Reading labels in the German grocery store was an exercise in actually being able to understand an ingredients list. An unending, unpronounceable list of chemicals and the ubiquitous American corn syrup was surprisingly absent in almost everything (except, of course, from the American import section). Preservatives are also rare, meaning food in the grocery and in restaurants is perishable, and therefore fresh. Instinctively, it makes me think that Germany cares more about what it feeds to its people than America does. America seems to focus merely on profits, rather than the crap they're stuffing into their foods, and therefore the ever-expanding bellies of the population. 

Would you rather shop here...

or here? C'mon - no contest!
(Photo from MSLK)

While it is completely shallow, the shopping in the states is something I miss terribly. I buy a lot less over here, as do most Europeans, which I think is a good thing. I can't tell you how much crap I got rid of when packing up our cluttered home in California in preparation for a more pared-down lifestyle in Germany. What I do miss about shopping in America though is the show of it. Because America is such a consumerist society, so much money and effort goes into getting Americans to buy things - amazing selections, constant 'deals' and sales, beautiful store windows. Oh, the windows... While we're back, I think I may spend an entire day in a lounger in front of an Anthropologie and just take it all in. There's a level of presentation and creativity that exists in American shops that is completely absent here. Even if I wanted to pay an exorbitant amount for a shoddy-quality polyester shirt here, the utterly uninspiring windows and cheap-looking mannequins hardly motivate me to go inside. The one thing I do love about shopping here is the price you see is the price you pay - no guessing game on what the tax will be when you get to the register; it's all included.  

Even with all the 'pluses' I rack up on the side of living in Germany, and Europe in general, I can't help feeling a calling from the place where I spent the first 30 years of my life. Maybe it's the ease of the day-to-day that appeals to me most right now, considering the day-to-day is what fills my days in the current absence of job and career. But just because something is easier doesn't it mean it's the right thing. I remember having a French woman working in a Belgian bakery here in Germany tell me she'd been in the country for 10 years, but she struggled with the language. I realized then that the life of an expat is a long road.

When my family was out to visit over Christmas, my mother remarked how we were still in 'vacation mode' with our life here. At first, I was greatly offended. We were learning the language (granted, slowly), making German friends - we were residents of Germany, for goodness sake! But time and perspective made me start to think that maybe she was right. With limited cultural integration and language skills, it's easy to see Germany through rose-colored glasses. Sure, there's the low-level frustrations we still experience, like the lack of customer service or the utter ridiculousness of paying to install a kitchen in a rented apartment, but really, we don't know enough to understand all the issues that German citizens face and why we might or might not be better off over here for the long haul.

I guess what it boils down to is that it's impossible to say one country is wholly better than the other for me. One country holds my citizenship, the other holds my residency. I just feel torn since each one now holds a piece of who I am, yet neither feels 100% like home.

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

A totally belated Amsterdam recap

July 01, 2011

The only preconceptions I really had about Amsterdam were canals, bikes and the obvious - coffeeshops. While all those things were there, in abundance, I was pleasantly surprised by the other things we found - wonderful food, great shops and some of the most beautiful sky I've seen. Luckily, the rain that threatened the whole week we were there only fell in a drop here and there, and a brief shower on our final day. Otherwise, the weather reminded me a lot San Francisco - windy with a sea-based chill that made my hair thankful for what it was not missing in California. 

Mmm... giant, juicy burgers, thick-cut fries and a regional Fanta flavor - Cassis

Our first day was only a half-day, since we drove up, but it still gave us time to get out and get a feel for the city. And get our hands on what we were told are the second-best burgers in Europe (harder to find than the one might suspect)! Being an American living in the land of pork, a perfect burger or amazing steak are things to covet while traveling. That's right In'N'Out - I'm coming for you when we're in California this summer!

The architecture was also even more impressive than I expected. The cute little blocks along the canals were just like in pictures, but the way they are slanted and jumbled together was so curious. The more we travel to older towns like this, the more I appreciate skylines that aren't cut with the jagged, towering silhouettes of skyscrapers. It makes it easier to see what life looked a hundred of years ago and appreciate the history and enduring culture in such beautiful cities.

Forget the leaning tower of Pisa - 
Amsterdam's got more uneven architecture!

Even the little details were amazing

Sticking to our usual game plan of just hanging out and trying to live like locals, we did lots of walking around the city, in addition to our two days of biking everywhere. While we didn't make it to any museums, we did manage to get in on a cheese tasting at the Reypenaer shop.... 

... and some whisky tasting at Whiskycafé L&B - home of over 1,000 different whiskies! - including a lovely Nikka whisky from Japan. 

We ate traditional Dutch fare, like bitterballen, a sort of fried, doughy-meat ball thing (better than it sounds)...

pannenkoeken, a crepey-pancake, sweet or savory...

and Indonesian food, very big in Amsterdam. 

We saw animals, fuzzy and cute...

and scary and strange,

funny signs...

and the funniest, tiniest cars we'd ever seen!

All in all, it was a great trip to a great city - and I'm pretty sure we'll be back. This was definitely a city we could see ourselves living in. The food, the biking culture, the fashion - oh, the fashion! It was just nice to be in a town where the median age was anything below 50 and the height of style included something other than a fur coat with a face. I love where we live, but it was nice to feel like we were among peers, nevermind the fact that we don't speak Dutch. And since everyone got around on a bike, women could enjoy the loveliest heels, making me very jealous. If for nothing else, I could go back just for the cheese and the shopping (Scotch & Soda for my husband and WE for me).

Thanks for the memories, Amsterdam! We hope to see you again someday!

*Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische