Friday, December 3, 2010

Are you afraid of Lions?!

Last weekend, I took a Thanksgiving break that I didn't actually have. Europeans don't celebrate Thanksgiving (though a lot of tourist towns do, for the gratification of the loud, obnoxious Americans), so they don't take a holiday. But from Thanksgiving day to the end of November, I traveled to Germany to visit a friend's relatives that I had met this summer (that's a whole different story to tell...).

So I arrived in Germany on Thursday morning (Thanksgiving morning, though that bears little significance here, as I mentioned). We drove on the autobahn (but not THE autobahn), and Paul, my friend's uncle, told me that driving on THE autobahn is awesome if you have the right car and the right driving conditions. Usually, the highway is so congested that you don't go much above normal speeds. As he was explaining this to me, we hit that traffic, and it took us nearly half an hour to move 500 meters. So the hour long journey to their town, Lank-Latum from the airport took us two hours. Once we got through the traffic jam, we turned onto a section of the road that was unusually straight and wide. Paul pointed out that the median was much more flimsy than usual, and there was no grass. The reason for this is that the mile stretch of road is actually a makeshift airstrip used during wartime. The median can be pulled up easily and the shoulder can be outfitted with landing lights and the whole strip can be plane ready in under 24 hours.

When we finally arrived, I was greeted by Sandra, Paul's wife and my friend's aunt, and we had a few minutes to chat before she had to go pick up Lilly, her three-year-old, from daycare. Claire, the nine-year-old, would walk home shortly after. I settled into their very contemporary house and when the girls arrived back home, I was bombarded. They were excited to see me, and gave me artwork and shells and cut-up pieces of paper as gifts. It was adorable. I played with them until dinner.

When dinner was ready at 6, I came to the table and was incredibly disappointed. On the table was a basket of bread and some cold cuts and a few vegetables. Seeing my look of hesitation and disbelief, Sandra and Paul explained that the biggest meal of the day in Germany is lunch, although it's called dinner, and the evening meal is called supper. So I ate supper, which was good, even though much lighter than I was used to (remember, I've been living in Italy, when the biggest meal of the day is served around 9 PM and is a BIG meal). They also had me try some regional mustard, which was like dijon and wasabi and fire mixed together into a yellow paste. I only put a dab on my bread, and spent the next five minutes in a sensory-overloaded pain-state. It was good, however. I was wary of their other spreads, but the rest were normal, like butter and cream cheese.

After dinner, the kids rushed to the living room to watch some German children's programs. Paul explained the programs, which were actually quite interesting. There are three shows that use essentially the same concept, which is answering questions like "how does the sea get salty?" or "what is chewing gum made of?" or "how does the internet work?" at a level that is informative but accessible to children. The only name I can remember is Die Maus, which means the mouse.

After the programs were over, the girls went to bed and I stayed up with Sandra and Paul and watched Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I had never seen it before, and it was absurd. But I liked it.

The next morning, I was awoken by the girls bursting into my room and pouncing on my bed. They were ushered out of the room and to daycare and school. There was a light dusting of snow outside, and it was cold, especially compared to Italy.

We had breakfast, which was bread with a variety of jams, and then Paul took me to Cologne on the train for the day. We visited the cathedral there, which is called Dom (or dome). It supposedly contains the relics (bones) of the Three Wise Men, and had a fascinating history. There's a saying in Germany that when the Dom is completed, the world will end. So the cathedral is under constant construction, even though it's in use. We also watched some guys vacuuming the pillars in the cathedral. It was a bizarre sight.

After the cathedral, we went to the famous Weihnachtsmarkt or Christmas market, and walked around the myriad stands and saw all the beautiful Christmas decorations and ornaments and toys and food. It was deserving of its fame. I got some puzzle games and a smoking snowman. I really wanted to get a candle-lit carousel, but for some reason, I did not, and I regret it. I also tried bratwurst and it was delicious. Although the bun is not proportional at all. I also got a bag of dried cranberries, which was the best batch of cranberries I've ever had.

After the market, we went to the chocolate factory and learned about the history of chocolate, as well as the production of chocolate. We got to see actual Lindt chocolate being made, and I loved it. We went to the cafe and tried some of the chocolate confections, and as we were eating and chatting, we saw a man in a business suit walk by the window, leading a donkey down the street. Paul swears that it's not a common occurrence, but I wonder...

That night, I went to dinner with one of the family friend's daughter, Zita. She took me to an Italian restaurant, and it was quite good, though I thought it ironic that even when I escape to another country, I still end up eating Italian food. Zita was fun, and we planned on meeting the next night to go out. I came back to the house after the girls had gone to bed and watched Manchurian Candidate with Paul and Sandra, which was an excellent film.

I woke up the next morning to find the girls snuggling with me in my bed. That day, Claire had to go choose a high school (Germany has a strange school system. They don't go to school past 1:00 in the afternoon, and high school starts at 5th grade and then you go to school until you are 19 or 20 years old. After that, you go to university, but by that time, you basically know what you're going to focus in and choosing the university is not a challenge. High school has two paths - technical school that trains you for a factory job, or gymnasium, which is the more intellectual, academic school that would presume university studies afterward. Choosing gymnasium is like choosing college for students in the US. You have to visit, apply, find the best fit, wait for acceptance letters... all when they are 10 years old. So it's mostly the parents who organize everything. But it had come time for Claire to go through this process.). I played with Lilly until they returned. When they came back, we had dinner (lunch), and I helped Claire with her sheet music for her recorder. I discovered that German notation is different. C3-B3 are written as uppercase letters, but the B is an H. And then C4-B4 are written in lowercase letters. Of course the actual music notes are the same, but the written letters are not. I thought it was interesting that it would be different that what I had learned, since I assumed that music was an international language.

Then that night, we went to Claire's school to make various crafts for a school fundraising event. She ran around making crafts, and I followed her around for a while. Then I walked around with Lilly and Paul and we went to the music room and I started to play the piano. Lilly ran out of the room, terrified, and refused to acknowledge me for a while.

When we came home, we had our supper. Then Zita and her friend, Christina, came to pick me up to go watch Zita's boyfriend play handball. I had never watched a handball game before, and it was sort of like a mix between soccer and basketball. Our team won, but the girls didn't really understand the game past the obvious points, so I didn't learn much about how to play. I was confused as to why the fouls were called.

Then we went back to Zita's house and I met her little sister, who is is Claire's class, so she practiced her English on me. We picked up two other girls and went to a club called Kulture Fabric, or more commonly known as KuFa. That night was a special occasion, because they were playing 90s music instead of traditional house music, so we sang along to all the American music and I was exposed to the greatest German hits from the 90s. Around 1 AM, a fight broke out between two middle-aged men. I wasn't sure what the fight was about, since they were yelling in German, but one got his glasses broken and the other had a beer bottle smashed in his chest. It was quickly dissolved by security. Otherwise, we just had fun dancing and singing and laughing. On our way home, we stopped at a McDonalds and went through the McDrive. I couldn't stop laughing at the absurd name for a drive thru.

On Sunday, I woke up and played with the girls for a while. We built a fort and played hide-and-go-seek. Then we had lunch. Sandra made sauerbraten, which is a tender, marinated beef, and brussel sprouts, and then we had apple strudel with a vanilla sauce for dessert. It was fantastic. After eating, we went for a walk around town. It was beautiful, and definitely had a small town charm. We came back and had dinner and then Claire took me to her friend's house so I could practice a song on the piano. Then we walked home and the girls went to bed. Paul suggested that we watch King of Hearts, which was a movie from the 60s, and it was almost an absurdist film, but not quite, and I'm still not sure what to make of it.

The next morning, I went with Sandra and Lilly to Lilly's daycare. I was shown all of Lilly's favorite toys and I met her friends and then Sandra and I left to run errands. She took me to the original Aldi. Then we went to a huge plant store and found some really spectacular Christmas decorations. I didn't get a picture that captured the overwhelming splendor, but here's an okay shot.

Then we went to Claire's school and the kids asked me questions in English like "Are you afraid of lions?" or "Have you met any Hollywood stars?" And then I played a Christmas song for them on the piano and they sang along. I also got to see how German schools celebrate birthdays. The birthday kid sits in a chair and the other kids stand around and sing some sort of birthday song. When they get to one point in the song, they lift the chair up in the air and toss the kid, hopefully catching them again in the chair. It was quite an intense celebration. Then they presented me with two Advent stars that the whole class had signed.

For lunch, we had fried fish and quark (a firm yogurt) with chopped fruit. Then I played with the girls until they had to go to English school. They brought back kettle corn, which I missed, because you can't get popcorn in Italy. We played until dinner and then Claire practiced her recorder and the girls went to bed. For our final movie, we settled on Fargo, which was great, except for the very over-exaggerated Norther accent. Then I went to bed and boarded the plane the next morning before the girls woke up.

Sandra and Paul are big coffee drinkers, and I think I drank more coffee in those five days than I had in my entire life previous. I'm not sure if that makes me a coffee drinker, since I still don't particularly like the drink, but I can now sort of tolerate it.

No comments:

Post a Comment