Expats Move Home : Farewell to Freiburg

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeThis post appears as part of the current Expats Move Home series that chronicles our family’s journey transitioning from German to American life.

If you were born in North America any time in the last century, chances are you’re well-versed in Goodnight Moon. For those not in the know, it’s a classic tale of a child – or a bunny, in this case – bidding goodnight to each little thing in his room before he finally slips off to sleep.

Goodnight room.

Goodnight moon.

Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.

Goodnight light, and the red balloon…

When it was time to leave Germany, we found ourselves in a similar story. Not goodnight, but Goodbye, Freiburg.

Goodbye favorite bicycle.

Goodbye salty, soft pretzels.

Goodbye closed-on-Sunday, and

Dreisam filled with pebbles.

With parting words to favorite people spoken, we turned our efforts to personally bidding farewell to each and every well-worn corner of our beloved city of Freiburg.

Make a List – Check it Twice

I wrote on Wednesday about the importance of saying goodbye (you can catch up here). In that post, I mentioned an article from my fellow expat Ute in which she also explains:

Every member of the family will benefit from gradually saying goodbye to the 4 “p’s”: people, pets, places and possessions.

No, the trees that welcomed autumn and signaled spring each year aren’t going to hug you back (well, not literally anyway), and that creamy dark chocolate gelato you first tasted on a double date won’t last more than a few minutes.

But long after you’re gone, these sights, smells, and flavors are what you’ll remember. Thank goodness it won’t be all the bumbles and blunders.

The importance of closing chapters in each of your favorite spaces is not to be underestimated.

Places and Spaces

In the hubbub of packing and planning, I hurriedly scribbled a list of our favorite experiences, spaces, and literal things we as a family wanted to savor one more time. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t worth framing, but it was ours. Uniquely us.

And, though time was not on our side, we worked through the list with purpose, devouring Brezeln, Laugencroissants, and the ubiquitous Apfelschorle one more time.

Goodbye Biergarten,

Goodbye Limonade and Radler.

Goodbye Spielplatz, for now

And every Sunday thereafter.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeOur little flat was nothing fancy. In fact, it was quite the opposite with its hospital-grade linoleum floors, vinyl “baseboards,” and industrial metal door frames.

But, it was home. The four, then the five of us shared 900 square feet and one toilet for four years. We hosted Thanksgiving for a score and squeezed in families of comparable size for the weekend. It was the only home our boys could remember.

Bit by bit, box by box, we said goodbye.

Goodbye elfin kitchen.

Goodbye windowless bathroom.

Goodbye you sweet neighbors,

And the sound of our laughter.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye

In an effort to not completely ignore our children while packing up our lives, we also dropped by the boys’ favorite parks.

Goodbye thrilling slides.

Goodbye Vogelnests.

Goodbye ziplines, merry-go-rounds.

The dangerous ones were always the best.

Goodbye tall rope towers.

Goodbye gritty sand pits.

Clothed in Matschhose

Here my boys spent their hours.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye We cycled together along the river. We strolled around the Marktplatz. We splurged on a fancy grill picnic in the park, all the while letting the camera do its work of recording each and every favorite.

Say Cheese

Speaking of cameras, we also hired a photographer to shoot photos of us in the city that became so foundational to our family.

Our third child was born here, our two older boys only remember life in Germany, and we will forever be Triangles thanks to our German expat experience.

Goodbye ancient Münster,

Your steeple scraping the sky.

At least to your scaffolding

I’ll never have to say goodbye.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeFor several hours, our photographer captured glimpses of all the things we loved about Freiburg. Sure, the city is fabulous on its own. But, having a photographer there gave us the opportunity to freeze and remember ourselves in those spaces. The prints now hang in our new home, reminders of how we lived and what we loved in the city.

Wrapping Up

Life in Germany was often difficult, sometimes mercilessly so, but it was also remarkably beautiful. It is that part I choose to cherish, sometimes mourn, and will never forget.

When you’ve moved to a new place, what are some things you’ve done to remember your old home, old life? Do you think these memory makers help ease the transition? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye, Leaving Well, + Sweetening the Sorrow

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeToday, in our current Expats Move Home series, I’m covering the painful but universal experience of saying goodbye. Grab the Kleenex!

Friends, family, family friends, friends as close as family – saying goodbye to any and all of these dear people is the absolute pits.

For expats, friends made abroad quickly become as close or even closer than family, knitting very different people together into strong relationships that would otherwise take years to establish.

Tearing that bond asunder must be done with care… and cake.

There should always be cake.

Going Away Party #1 – Coffee, Cake, and a Dollop of Practicality

Parties are generally pretty awesome (the food! the fun! the friends!), but going away parties can be downright depressing.

Is it possible to enjoy yourself while saying goodbye?

Personally, I dread these kinds of gatherings. Saying goodbye is not one of my strong points, despite the fact that I’ve garnered quite a bit of experience in bidding farewell.

To be honest, this time we were so stressed out and busy from moving logistics that we really did not have the time or mental capacity to allow ourselves get wrapped up in the emotion of the moment. Lest you think we got off easy, the emotion caught up with us later in the form of nasty reverse culture shock.

For reasons too logical to bore you with, we ended up with two parties – a brunch hosted by us and a picnic hosted by our friends.

We hosted the brunch ourselves so we could hang out with our favorite people in our tiny apartment one last time… and to give buyers we knew personally the opportunity to pick up items we were selling and giving away.

This turned out to be brilliant, and not just because I baked four different flavors of brunch cake. The thing is, even with all my careful cataloging, I ended up with several big boxes of extra knickknacks I could not or did not want to take home to the US.

I displayed these items on tables and shelves at the brunch and requested that everyone grab a slide of cake AND take at least one bag full of free stuff.

If it weren’t for the fact that we had to actually say GOODBYE to such wonderful people, the blueberry lemon cake and a boatload of freebies would’ve made for a pretty sweet party.

Going Away Party #2 – The Classic Freiburg Grill & Chill

Several weeks before we left and before the aforementioned cake extravaganza, an American friend offered to host a going away party for our family, wherever and whenever it was most convenient for us.

I’m not usually one to say yes to such things, and actually, it is rather unusual to do this kind of party in Germany. Everyone throws their own parties in Germany, even the going-away kind.

But, seeing as I was already drowning in my to-do’s, I gratefully accepted.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends Behind

One of the things I so loved about living in Freiburg was the beauty of the outdoors. The city is full of trees, and our apartment nestled up to one of the biggest parks in town.

We always looked forward to summer when we could roast marshmallows on our portable grill and lounge on the expansive lawn. Other people did the same, so it was like having one gigantic community backyard. It really was as awesome as it sounds.

I wanted to savor this experience one more time, so I took a chance on holding the farewell festivities in “our” backyard park.

Given that the big day fell during October in Freiburg, the plan was iffy at best. Rain could’ve squashed our plans as efficiently as a semi obliterates a gnat. Wind and cold could’ve kept the masses at bay. But, God saw fit to give us beautiful weather, and we were able to grill and chill with nearly all of our friends for the last time.

We snapped selfies, laughed, hugged, whispered goodbyes… and ate a whole lot of cake.

Goodbyes – The Expat Reality

After the glitz and the galette were gone, we were left with the somber reality of… goodbye.

Goodbyes are a natural part of every human being’s life, but they happen more frequently in the lives of expats. This is because the nature of the expat life is transient at its core. Whether the end date of the adventure abroad is known or not, the possibility always looms of heading back to the homeland.

As I mentioned above, friends made abroad become as close as family. A year before we left, a certain family we had grown close to were unexpectedly forced to move home. I still feel that loss to this very day.

Is it just me, or does it always seem harder for the ones left behind?

Well, now it was our turn to do the leaving.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends Behind

Goodbyes – Difficult but Necessary

In the summer before we moved, I read a post written by a fellow expat – How to Say a Healthy Goodbye When You’re Leaving. It impacted me, and I think every expat should read and process the concepts that Ute presents.

Leaving is really, really hard. Because it’s so darn difficult, there’s a tendency to neglect tying up loose ends and saying goodbye.

But, don’t skip this step. It is absolutely vital – expat or not.

I never realized just how important it was to finish the current chapter in every relationship until someone abruptly slammed the book on me.

I recall an expat friend and her family that moved away a year and a half before we did. Once they knew their time was up, they pulled away from their circle of friends. They became distant, both physically and emotionally, and this was weeks before they ever set foot on the airplane.

In their time of transition, they did not allow others to help them much, and they did not say goodbye. I found this incredibly difficult not only because I cared for this person and her family, but also because she was unwilling (or unable) to address the elephant in the room – that she would be leaving for good and that leaving would change our relationship.

As the post discusses, those situations – those hurts, expressed or silenced – are not forgotten. Ute writes:

During the leaving stage we tend to deny or avoid confrontation with those we had disagreements with. We think we won’t see this person again and since we are going to leave anyway, why bother? Fact is that unresolved problems will stick with us like a mental baggage.

Not that I hold a grudge, but the “what if” still pains me.

I struggle with the fact that there was never a chance to resolve that situation and part on peaceful terms. And, because we live in different parts of the world now, perhaps there never will be.

For more on this topic, check out another of Ute’s posts, Goodbyes are Hard for Leavers and Stayers.

Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends BehindJust Do It

I still miss our life in Freiburg and the amazing people we met there, and I pray we did what we could to leave well. Goodbyes are hard, and I am terrible at them. Even so, I hope we have been able to learn from other leavers, parting peacefully and on a positive note.

Life is short – say goodbye or at least “see you later.”

Even if you hate goodbyes (who doesn’t?!), please think of the other person. Consider that they may need closure even if it is awkward or painful for you.

And, if it helps, bring cake.

A moist slice really can do wonders to sweeten the sorrow.

Though the stakes are higher with expats, moving on is something that happens to every person at one time or another. What are your best tips or stories on saying goodbye and leaving well?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Supermarket Smackdown – Aldi America vs. Aldi Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?I’m sure you’ve already gathered from my posts through the years that grocery shopping in Germany is not at all what it is in America. But, the two places do have one thing in common – they both have Aldi!

Which Aldi is better, east or west of the Atlantic? Could I get the same products on both continents?

And, if I could indulge in my favorite German treats every now and again, would this reverse culture shock beast be just a bit more manageable?

German Aldi

Do you have a default grocery store where you can be found nearly every week?

While living in Freiburg, Aldi was my jam. I couldn’t stay away. Their prices were just amazing, and we eventually came to love many of the off-brand products sold at ALDI SÜD.

When we returned to the US in 2014, I wondered what American Aldi would be like. Would they stock the best-tasting pretzel sticks, delicious organic yogurt, and balsamic vinegar from Italy?

Now, I did shop at Aldi a little bit in 2010 when the chain first came to Orlando. Confession: I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, I kind of hated it.

The store seemed a bit trashy, dirty, and the products of low quality. Truthfully, it was this first impression that made me hesitant to shop at German Aldi when we moved to Deutschland.

I soon came around though – German Aldi is awesome!

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

An Aldi store in Freiburg – no American Aldi is this cute.

American Aldi

Fast forward to the fall of 2014 when we arrived back in Orlando. Nerdy as we are – and more than slightly terrified of Walmart, we rounded the kids up and drove down to the neighborhood Aldi to check out the scene.

In the car, everyone shared their hopes of what might be on offer – chocolate, muesli, flips, pretzel sticks, flavored peanuts. We all had the jitters. A certain someone even dressed up for the occasion (search the photos for a clue..).

I’m certain we are the only people to have ever darkened Aldi’s door with that much excitement.

Stepping out of the car, we first noticed that the lack of carts in the parking lot. Yes! Grab your quarters boys and girls, because otherwise you’ll find yourself without a shopping cart. Since this is standard in German supermarketsno free carts there and no exhausted teenage employees corralling them – we felt instantly at home (seriously, nerds).

Quarters in our fists, we raced to the entrance. First shock: the tiled floor had to have been bought by the truckful at rock bottom prices because it was just. that. ugly. The décor didn’t invite me to relax and part with my entire paycheck (apparently Aldi needs to take a cue from her cousin Trader Joe’s). The store seemed almost deserted save one or two uniformed employees.

Things were not looking good.

I prepared myself for disappointment, but then a mere three feet later I spotted it… Moser Roth chocolate! Could it be? The very same bars I used to buy in Germany? No way – impossible! But yes, the brown bar had indeed crossed the ocean just to be gobbled up yours truly.

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

 

Further on down the aisle, our kids found their favorite muesli – made in Germany! – that just so happened to be about the same price as it was at “home.”

Ohhh, things were certainly looking up. Dare I hope for even more delights?

Every few meters, we found treasures. Mustard made in Germany. Peanut butter flips – those crunchy puffs of nutty goodness that are like Cheetos but with savory peanut butter instead of cheese.Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

But there, in the middle of the store, lay the most thrilling find of all… Weihnachten (Christmas) treats! Nearly every standard sugary German Christmas delight waited patiently, calling my name, begging to be bought.

At the end of the display, I spotted our family’s absolute favorite – Spekulatius cookies. Though the ingredient list appeared identical to the German version, I remained skeptical. They couldn’t really be the same, could they?

In the interest of blog research (naturally), I put the American version to the test. Oh, how glorious to discover that these sweet gems look and taste the same as the biscuits sold in our old Aldi in Freiburg. Hallelujah – thank you, Jesus! Christmas cookie time cannot come soon enough…Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

At this point, we couldn’t be much higher on joy. The only thing that might have nudged us to the very top of the scale would have been authentic German bread and fresh-baked pretzels.

Nice try, but no.

Unfortunately, American Aldi does not carry any German bread besides Fitness Brot (like this). The rest of the bread selection disappointed, only squishy American carbs full of additives and preservatives.

No German pretzels, and no fresh bakery. I might have shed a tear or two.

For my curious German readers, we didn’t see a tub of Quark anywhere, but I recently spotted a promising product at SuperTarget with the words “Creamy German Style” on the label.

The Verdict

So, which one is better?! It’s a tough call, but one that someone’s going to have to make. If I didn’t already love German Aldi, I don’t think I’d give a hoot about Aldi in the US. And, while American Aldi scores massive points for carrying many of our favorite munchies, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. We love you ALDI SÜD!!

Sadly, no Aldi stores exist in Arizona, so I won’t be looking to Aldi to cure my reverse culture shock any time soon. The nearest one is in Texas, but I read recently that Aldi plans to give the southern California area a run for its (grocery) money. One can only pray and hope.

Until Aldi moves in next door, would I drive four hundred miles for muesli and cookies? You betcha!

What’s one of your favorite treats from a place you used to live? Would you drive four hundred miles to stock up on precious ingredients or products you love?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama Image Credit

 

 

Reverse Culture Shock: The Four-Month Mark

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s a post I jotted down in February 2015 during a particularly nauseating bout of reverse culture shock. I’ll be moving on to other topics next week, but the struggle I’m writing about today is an ongoing one for repats.

Culture shock – it hits you like a heatwave, a revolting smack in the face. What starts as a lovely dip in the sunshine (hooray for being back in the land of Target!) often ends in a full-scale meltdown… no toddler required (I can’t actually find a single thing on my list in Target).

In general, everything seems to be fine. That’s a loaded word, though, isn’t it? “It’s a fine day to fly a kite” is completely different from “I don’t need your help – I’m fine” or “Fine, have it your way.”

None of the children cry themselves to sleep or refuse to speak English or constantly blabber on about “the way things were in Germany.” (That’s just me.)

Eventually, driving ev.er.y.wh.er.e. seems normal again. I SO hate that. I’m sure I’ve told you before, but just to cover the bases… I hate that. I want my bike back.

And then, one fine day, you are bitten by “the bug.” This species often preys on repats and expats, but anyone is susceptible because this bug doesn’t discriminate (how P.C. of the devious little thing). The bite doesn’t seem severe, just a bit of a sting and no more serious than pricking your finger on a spindle.

You feel a bit of pain in your chest as the poison works its way to the center of your being. Before you know it, the full-fledged symptoms of this nasty sickness appear. You’ve now got oh-my-gosh-I-will-forever-live-in-the-land-of-the-free-but-oh-so-dull-and-never-travel-again-itis. Yep, that’s totally an official medical term.

The venom of envy courses through your veins, paralyzing your mind and wounding your heart. Your symptoms increase significantly when looking at Facebook posts featuring your friends and their holidays in Spain, Austria, and South Africa. Even browsing travel blogs leaves you in bitter agony.

America is so… boring. Going from one state to another isn’t nearly as exciting as hopping over to France or Belgium. Everything is SO far away here. And flying to another country is too expensive.You’ll never travel like you used to….

And on and on the deceit goes.

The problem in all of this is that this line of thinking is extremely, well, bratty.

I mean, how much of the total world population even has the ability to travel beyond where they can walk or ride affordable public transport? Are those who stay home and lead a “typical” existence, are they living worthless lives?

No, no, no.

But, the bitter taste of culture shock pollutes your point of view, and all of a sudden any possibility of remaining positive withers up and disappears as you mourn.

Discontent makes herself comfortable, and then you’re really in for it.

I’ll never travel out of this country again. I’ll never have that kind of vacation time. It’s so expensive to leave the US; how will we ever afford it again? I’m losing my second language. I know there are a zillion and one things to see in the US, but I just can’t get excited about any of them because America is so LAME.

Yikes.

These thoughts – shameful, repulsive, distressing, appalling, ugly, depressing – are nothing but lies.

Over the highs and lows of the last year, I’ve come to realize the antidote to this illness is thankfulness. I found I could fight the travel-homesickness like this…

Remember, self… you have an incredible husband and a strong marriage even after all you’ve been through in the past decade. Hello, you two even still LIKE each other, and that’s got to count for something. You have amazing children: handsome, smart, and healthy.

That last one should never be so easily discounted, and everything else probably pales in comparison. Travel can buy experience and perspective, and money can buy travel, but no amount of either one can cure illnesses of the chronic or terminal kind.

Today, you have each other. You have shelter, clothing, food, friends, love – and you have these in abundance. Give thanks over and over again, self, until that gratefulness defeats the ugly monsters of envy and desire.

With each outbreak of bitterness, longing, confusion, sadness – I will allow the surge of emotion to come. Fighting or denying is useless anyway.

I will remind myself these mourning waves are only temporary, even if it seems like they will never end. I will not always feel this way. I will remember emotion does not trump fact. Truth is truth, and no mere feeling can shake it.

And, I will pray. I will plead for contentment, for perspective. I will practice gratefulness and count my many, many blessings.

Have you pricked your finger on the spindle and fallen prey to homesickness? What’s your antidote for waves of irrational feelings or travel envy?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s another post written during the first few weeks of our return to the US in the fall of 2014.

One of the things that scares me the most about returning to America after four years in Germany is the dreadful reverse culture shock. It’s nasty, sometimes hard to identify, and manifests itself differently in each person.

The last time I went through reverse culture shock, it wasn’t so bad. I was in my early twenties and had spent the better part of a year in Russia. I was single, and I only experienced a few weeks of floundering before I had to buck up and finish my last semester of university. I’m sure it was worse than I remember, but I moved on quickly.

This time around I have four other people to think about besides myself and none of them has the slightest idea of what lies ahead.

So far, Charlie hasn’t noticed a thing except that there is an abundance of snacks here ranging from slightly salty to serious sugar high. He hasn’t met one he didn’t like. Obviously, he’ll be fine.

Bravo is distracted by all the big-kid Lego he now owns. We had been saving the transition from Duplo to Lego to hype as a major perk of moving to America. Now that we’ve made the switch, he likely thinks we’re on a continuous Lego shopping trip which is a win in his book. He’ll also be fine.

Alpha is not happy with all the homeschooling we are doing (to catch up on taking a few months off to pack and move). He thinks it strange when I refer to everyday items and places using German names (Spielplatz instead of “playground”). German is NOT cool in his book. But other than that, he appears to be fine.

Perhaps things with these three boys will get worse when we actually settle somewhere and they have to integrate into school, church, sports, clubs, neighborhood friends, etc.

Update, September 2015: No ill effects other than disdain for speaking German in the US. Apparently, Germany never happened in their minds except when random memories pop up. They don’t express any emotions at these memories; only facts are stated.

As for Doc Sci and I… oh sure, we smile and share a box of Cheez-Its, but inside? We are freaking out.

I strive to play the good American. I hop in my car, drive the one mile to Walmart, and do my best to “pick up a few things.”

At the superstore, I go inside for milk, cookies (because, you know, the Oreo aisle), and a piece of poster board.

Several hours later, I emerge.. My bags are laden with three kinds of cookies, two peanut butter candy bars, hummus, pita chips, four boxes of cereal, one piece of poster board, and the latest anti-aging moisturizer because this move is giving me wrinkles… but, no milk.

Crappity crap. Cookies without milk.

I’m too terrified to go back in that freaky big box again, so I just leave and go home minus milk for the cookie smorgasbord.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Walmart is Terrifying! And Other Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Walmart.. once you go in, you may never get out. Photo

I found this article browsing through an old issue of Cooking Light that just happens to be a perfect picture of the American grocery store experience.

Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity.

 

Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary’s ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention.

 

There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.

 

Now that you’re in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over.

 

Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, “natural” products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber… (full text here)

If I could sum up our current state in one word, it would be overload.

For someone who is used to shopping at a grocery store that is approximately the size of two, three-bedroom American homes put together, the sheer size of Walmart is the first hurdle.

The second is the vast amount of choice. My German neighborhood Aldi stocked four kinds of chips. FOUR. How do you pick between the 6,902 varieties here? Either you are required to take the time to read every.single.label to check for hidden chemicals and unwanted ingredients or you are forced to not care.

And speaking of reading labels, I had forgotten how long ingredient lists are in the US. Friday night dinners in our house are usually fun, lazy cooking kid-friendly affairs.

In Germany, I would often pick up frozen chicken strips and oven-bake fries to serve with a quick salad. The chicken strips were composed of chicken (as in actual pieces, not that weird pink puree), flour, spices, salt, and maybe some broth. Less than 8 ingredients and nothing I couldn’t pronounce, even auf Deutsch.

And those fries? Potatoes, sunflower oil, salt. Nothing hydrogenated or hydrolyzed.

Short, straightforward ingredient lists are scarce in a vast majority of American food products. Here’s another snippet from the Cooking Light article I quoted above…

Keep walking and watching—all aisles… Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products.

 

A “light” 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium.

 

Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even “real,” inasmuch as he finds it not “recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started.”

 

Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, “made of real cheese!” (full text here)

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. I’ve been encouraged to see so many American brands rolling out product lines with a “simple” theme featuring fewer ingredients and no artificial chemicals. It’s just so dang difficult to find them in the sea of 40,000 products all vying for your attention and money.

So, while my kids are loving the free-flowing Goldfish crackers and I’m enjoying a cold glass of dark chocolate almond milk, I have to admit I’m straddling the line… the line that separates the “food is better for you Germany” from “but choice is what makes America awesome.”

I miss my little Aldi with it’s limited choice. Though, if I dig down deep, I have to admit I don’t miss it enough to say it was better or that I wish I could go back to shopping there every week.

Yes, there’s still a teeny part of me – my residual “Americanness” – that enjoys a smattering of choice and the convenience of being able to get almost any product at nearly any time, day or night. But this unmitigated freedom and overabundance of choice leaves me exhausted.

What I really crave is the simplicity that comes out of choosing from only a few products that are truly made well.

I know it’s only a matter of time before I fully jump the fence on to the American side – joining Costco and buying my toilet paper in 100-roll packs. But, for now, we’re stuck in the overwhelmed stage of culture shock… eating our way out one Cheez-It at a time.

Since writing this post, I have (ahem) joined Costco. The plethora of choice still paralyzes me at times, such as when I visit a new restaurant that offers too many options on the menu. I still find myself lost at Walmart and end up leaving with things I don’t need and without the things I do.

So, what do you think about the abundance of choice in the US? Love it? Hate it? Do you get overwhelmed with too many options or frustrated with too few?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Expats Move Home: What America Does Better

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: What I Like Better in AmericaNow that I’ve revealed all the things I miss about living in Deutschland, it’s time to confess that our time in Germany was not all natural beauty, biergartens, and brezeln.

In no particular order (because that just takes too much brain power which is currently being commandeered by small people), here’s what we think America does better.

German Kitchens

Let’s be honest: many German kitchens are miserably small. Do a quick Google image search for “German kitchen,” and you’ll be inundated with images of sleek, spacious cooking spaces.

People, this is not reality. I’ve never seen a kitchen like that outside of IKEA. Most German kitchens look like this (1, 2, 3). Typically, they are housed in a separate room, completely closed off from the rest of the living space, often with a door like the one to your bedroom.

German kitchens often feel like just another closet with the added bonus of running water. They’re small, cramped, and usually pieced together – a product of moving your entire kitchen with you when you change apartments. I do NOT miss my Barbie dream house kitchen with exactly 18” of counter space. Nope, not one bit.

Okay, a tiny part of me would love to have a sliding door on mine (you know, to bake and consume an entire batch of chocolate cupcakes without the three hungry little monsters noticing). But, the remaining 99% of me loves my open American kitchen with loads of counter space.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: What I Like Better in America

A typical European-sized fridge.

Customer Service

Because of that whole thrifty thing, I have to REALLY like or need a product in order to spend money on it. Being picky means I rarely know if I like a certain something without seeing or trying it at home. Often, I end up schlepping the item back to the store for a refund.

In Germany, returning items was never simple, and it was often difficult or impossible outside of Amazon or big chain stores. Returning items in the US is a breeze, usually without any questions asked beyond, “Do you have your receipt?”. I love the American attitude that the customer is important, and it sure is nice that companies in the US work to earn and keep your business.

Restaurants

We don’t eat out very often for several reasons, but it’s mainly because cooking at home has become our habit.

In Freiburg, we only ate in a handful of restaurants because the food was usually bland AND expensive. We became accustomed to cooking from scratch all.the.time.

After Charlie was born, I longed for the ease of take-out or even a drive-thru that was not McDonalds or Burger King. No such luck.

Even though we still don’t frequent restaurants, we now have options. I don’t have to go searching for the one lone taco truck that serves the only decent food in town; I can just pull up reviews of local joints on my phone. Mexican, Indian, Persian, Korean – they’re all within reach, delicious, and often affordable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: What I Like Better in America

All Chipotle, all the time!

Oh, and while we’re at it…. let’s give an honorable mention to FREE REFILLS. Outside of Ikea, this just does not happen in Europe.

Feeling Like an Outsider

It’s one thing to be an outsider; it’s another to feel like one. I never expected to be German or to feel German, and I was okay with that.

But, what I never could have imagined was that my kids would be treated as outsiders, not once receiving a birthday or play-date invitation from fellow kindergarten pals in four years.

Ouch.

I didn’t like that my son’s educational prospects were grim just because he wasn’t a native speaker. And, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to be stared out whenever I spoke English in public with my kids.

Though I still don’t feel quite at home in America, it’s not as hard to assimilate here. Making friends is simpler; birthday party invitations are easier to come by. I might always be a triangle, but cracking the social code is more manageable in the motherland.

Noteworthy

Leaving a piece of your heart in another part of the world is just plain hard. Striving to see the good in where you are – right here and now – is vital to keeping your head above the depressing waters. There is good in every place if we only take the time to look hard enough for it.

If you’ve repatriated, what do you NOT miss about your host country? If you live in America, what do you love about living here?

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Expats Move Home: Do We Miss Germany?

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany“Do you miss Germany?”

I get asked this all.the.time, and the answer is a resounding, YES!

The more difficult question involves what we miss about Germany, because there are things we most definitely do NOT miss. Hang on to your hats – that list is coming next.

In struggling to adapt back to American culture, I find myself often looking back on our European adventure with rose-colored glasses.

It seems that in every frustrating encounter with our broken American healthcare, every failure to communicate in my native language, every awkward social encounter with a spandex-clad, minivan-wielding soccer mom.. I want to quit. I want to give up and go back. I long for the “good ol’ days.”

But, were those olden days really… good?

If so, then what was good?

Over the past months, I’ve been compiling a list – both for you and for me. For you, the curious – and for me, the perspective. In no particular order, here is what I miss the most about living in Europe.

Travel

This is where I truly struggle the most. America boasts many treasures, and I don’t discount that fact. But, they are all American and relatively new in the history of the world.

What I adored about living in Freiburg was the ability to hop in the car and find myself in a completely different country and/or culture in a half a day’s drive (or less).Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

The European landscape is littered with old castles and ancient fortresses. And, if the drive to a new place seemed too long, budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet made further-flung destinations just a quick flight away.

I guess the ancient old-world feel of Europe is just my style. I could explore and photograph charming provincial villages all.day.long and never tire of the rustic old stones, writhing iron, chiseled wood.

America has a different look that makes her special and unique. Sadly, Route 66 and Palm Springs just don’t do it for me. Perhaps that will change with time. For now, all I want is to be lost in the hill towns of Tuscany.

There’s also something to be said about the European idea that vacation time is a necessity, not a luxury. And while not every European can afford to spend a month in Spain, nearly every one of them receives much more time off than the average American… and the European uses it.

Riding My Bike

When we were searching for jobs last fall, Doc Sci and I desperately wanted to find and move to a walkable or bikeable community. We longed to keep some of that liberating feeling of using our own two legs to get us wherever we need to go.

While our current city is on the smaller side and thankfully doesn’t have too much traffic, it is NOT set up for getting around on two wheels.

For starters, American drivers just absolutely do not watch out for cyclists. I know, because I used to be one of those drivers. Retraining my brain to check the bike lane at every intersection in Germany was not easy, and I constantly worried about accidentally hitting a pedestrian or cyclist.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

Here in the US, you’re often taking your life in your hands using the bike lane. I know some people do it and don’t die. But with kids? Forget it.

I have tried riding on the sidewalk with the boys to a few places only to discover that sidewalks exist only on certain streets, abruptly beginning or ending without rhyme or reason. It’s there one block and gone the next. Rarely do the sidewalks extend along the full length of our route, forcing us to venture onto the actual road (yikes).

I guess we’ll have to stick with mountain biking or cycling nature trails. Enjoyable – but not at all the same.

Simplicity of Food

You can find many American foods in German supermarkets such as Coca Cola, Oreos, Pringles, etc.; but beware – these goods are not exactly the same. Sure, American Oreos and German Oreos share a common product name, but the ingredient lists are not identical!

American packaged food is often full of chemicals – preservatives, artificial colors, fake sugars. In Germany, soda is made with real sugar, and artificial ingredients are uncommon due to strict labeling laws and a population of consumers that prefer things au natural.

If I want to buy a simple bag of pretzel sticks in the US, I have to search multiple brands and products in order to find one with a short ingredient list and few allergens (and they ALL have sugar!).

Not one single product could boast an ingredient list like the ubiquitous German Salzstangen: flour, water, oil, salt, malt, and yeast.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

In Deutschland, we grew accustomed to eating whole foods; only rarely did we buy something prepared. In the US, it often feels impossible to find raw ingredients for a decent price. Why is it that packaged food costs less in America than simple pantry staples?

No Bags at the Grocery Store

Can this really be a thing to miss? I have never been much of a staunch environmentalist (though I do think it’s important to care about the earth), but I appreciate a minimalist approach to life, especially with kids.

I have three growing boys, and they want to eat three meals a day and two snacks for some reason (the nerve!). As you can imagine, we buy a car-ful of groceries every week.

At first, I brought my reusable bags everywhere. But, I often forgot to hand them over before the cashier started bagging my items (often double bagging!). I ended up with bushels and bushels of these stupid nuisances within just a few weeks.

The waste drives me nuts; and the effort to recycle them is just one.more.thing to remember when I shop. Now, I just leave the reusable bags in the car and ask for no bags or use the self-checkout when I want to avoid the stares and comments (are you SURE you don’t want ANY bags?!).

Banking

During our cross-country move, I ducked into a store to grab a few things for dinner at the hotel. The woman in front of me in line whipped out a checkbook to pay for her groceries. A check?! Who pays with a check?

The cashier didn’t even know how to process the thing. I just stared. What is this, the 90s?

Nope, it’s 2015 in America – but, we’re still living in the dark ages of banking.

If you want to pay someone in Germany, you simply ask for their bank account number, and you transfer the money. It’s simple and free. Stores accept cash, debit, and sometimes credit. Chip and PIN cards and TAN blocks make transactions secure. If you’re curious, you can read more about German banking here.

While e-banking has changed by leaps and bounds since 2010 and nearly every business accepts some form of electronic payment, the last holdouts still cling to the comfort of old-fashioned checks. I have at least two payees that only accept cash, check, or money order (speaking of relics..). The sooner these antiquated bits of paper make their way from pocketbooks to museums, the better.

Freedom to Roam

Did you know that first graders in Germany are expected to walk themselves to and from school? Sure, parents are encouraged to show the kids the way, even walk the route with them a few times to practice. But then the parents should leave the child be to walk alone.

I’ll admit, I am not ready to give my seven year-old that kind of freedom. But, I do think he should be able to play on our street and in our neighborhood and work up to walking to the park or library by himself when he’s ready. Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

I want my kids to roam freely without fear that I will face repercussions for allowing such actions. Tsh from The Art of Simple discusses her wish for the same thing and gives a rallying cry that we, as a culture, need to stop blaming and start trusting our neighbors and each other. Amen.

Along with allowing our kids the freedom to wander, Germans allow their children to take risks. Playgrounds in Deutschland are full of every kind of wonder that would never be allowed on American soil. The risk of injury and subsequent lawsuit is just too great in the US.

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

German playgrounds don’t sport signs or warnings such as those pictured here.

Fresh Bread

Ask a German in the US what they miss about home, and the words BREAD and BAKERIES will come flying out of their mouth. I never understood why they thought their carbs were so much better. Up until 2010, I ate squishy loaves with the rest of America, laden with dozens of ingredients, multiple allergens, and a hearty dose of preservatives.

In Germany, every grocery store offers freshly baked bread, sans preservatives. Some stores like Lidl even offer a machine where you can slice the whole loaves yourself. Bakeries exist on nearly every corner. Why? Bread is important to Germans, and – I’ll let you in on a little secret – that bread tastes amazing when it’s fresh.

Fast forward to 2014. We’re back in the US, hunting the local store for something to bookend turkey and cheese.

First, we check ingredients; lists read like a food science textbook. None can stick with the basics like flour, yeast, salt, and water. I decide I’ll be generous and settle for allowing a bit of sugar or honey. But no, even this is not enough. I have to wade through -ates and -ites and countless dough conditioners (what the CRAP are those?).

Giving up, we then move on to the squeeze test. If the loaf squishes easily like your favorite pillow, it’s out. Each package crumples like a deflated balloon with the slightest touch.

Nearly a year later, we still have yet to find a great bread here that isn’t made from scratch at home or costs $5+ a loaf. If you know of one, please share it in the comments below.

German Speakers

Over the course of four years, I grew accustomed to hearing German spoken and the quiet that surrounded my lack of fluency. And, since I lived in a university town, I shared the streets with people from all over the world. My neighbors were from Israel, Ghana, India, Tunisia, and China. I loved that.

Yes, America is very diverse and many cities in the US host various ethnic populations. Just not my city. It’s starkly… white. And, considering it’s Arizona, I rarely even hear Spanish being spoken.

Earlier this year, I saw two young men that looked to be from India walking out of Costco as I was walking in. I fought the urge to rush over and ask them where they hung out, where they bought Indian groceries, what the best places were to eat Indian food. In the end, I restrained myself. Out of context, my questions might come across as, well, creepy. I didn’t want to be the one to scare off the only Indians in the city!

Wrap Up

Well, there you have it. All the things I miss and can’t easily obtain in my current place and time. Our German expat experience was incredible; but, it wasn’t all castles and chocolate. For the things I don’t miss, come back on Wednesday.

What things do you miss from a place you used to live or visit frequently? What did you do to cope?

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American Marvel: First Thoughts on Reentry

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI wrote my first draft of this post on October 31, 2014. It’s… raw.

That post where I marvel at America and all the ways she has changed since we left, the one where I try desperately not to nit pick, and the one where I take an honest look in the mirror — it’s here.

After brief jaunts in Leipzig and Istanbul, we touched down at Dulles on the very day that US passport control rolled out a more meticulous ebola screening program. Nothing like waiting forty-five minutes with squirmy boys for your first, “welcome back.”

Well, okay, waiting is something we became accustomed to in Germany. But customer service? THAT was our first clue that we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

At the rental car counter later that evening, I felt like an accidental tourist at La Tomatina. The agent’s words were flung at me in rapid fire sequence.

“HI! I’M CARRIE AND I’LL BE TAKING CARE OF YOU TODAY!! HOW ARE YOU DOING? HOW WAS YOUR FLIGHT?! CAN I GET YOU SOMETHING TO DRINK? WOULD YOU LIKE TO UPGRADE YOUR RENTAL CAR? NO? HOW ABOUT NOW? ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T WANT TO UPGRADE? IT’S ONLY SEVENTY BUCKS! WHAT A GREAT DEAL! WHAT ABOUT NOW? STILL NO? OKAY! YOU HAVE A GREAT DAY NOW!! COME BACK AND SEE US AGAIN!”

And it really was just like that – her speech was all caps and her personality all pep. I could only blink, mouth agape. I flinched at every line. Her volume and intensity were just a bit much for me to handle straight out of the gate. I had become so accustomed to the quiet.

When our rental car rolled up, my jaw dropped even further. They must have confused our reservation. Surely, this double-decker bus was not in the minivan category. I must have scored some kind of free upgrade. The car we drove in Germany was a “van.” THIS, this was something for transporting elephants, rhinos, prehistoric mammals, cargo.

What would we do with all that extra space?! Even with our five carry-ons, five backpacks, and two checked bags, we still could still do “airplane arms” without smacking each other in the face.

All of this, and we hadn’t even left the airport.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

We’re like ducks out of water, electric hair and wide eyes.

The past weeks have been like this for us. Everything strange, different, absolutely gigantic. My goodness, I can’t even touch the back of the clothes dryer without crawling in there myself.

The houses, the cars, the ovens, the burgers, the boxes of breakfast cereal, the shopping centers.. they’re all incredibly super-sized. I’m thoroughly convinced that the entire downtown shopping district of Freiburg would fit within the confines of one Super Walmart.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

This bag of Nearly Naked popcorn is nearly the size of my five year-old!

And the people… Oh, America, you make me sad. We are so sick, so unhealthy, so shockingly overweight. We are such a wealthy country and yet the bodies around me scream that even with all our excess, we are still looking for happiness in the newest flavor of Oreos or the hottest, newly-redesigned, expensive SUV.

What a crisis we are in with obesity! When I first arrived, I wondered how could this be so?

It didn’t take long to figure it out – (1) we don’t move our bodies other than from the couch to the car and (2) there are SO many delicious things to eat here. I know I said this before, but have you SEEN the Oreo aisle?!

Honestly, we as a nation need to sober up. We ought to be ashamed at how much food we consume – and throw away! – when there are so many in our world performing unmentionable acts and deeds just to eat once per day.

Yes, there are starving people in Africa, but Americans seem to forget there are starving people right here in our own community… and they are hidden in plain sight. They’re the kids stealing from that same Oreo aisle. Don’t believe me? Add Breaking Night to your reading list. You’ll never look at a tube of Chapstick the same way again.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

Spotted at a grocery store in the Netherlands…

This is my third weekend in America. On the first two weekends, I took walks in different neighborhoods in different cities. If I saw anyone outside, it was a lone adult. No kids, no families, no exercise, no games, no old-fashioned fun. I had forgotten that Americans don’t go for walks or play outside the way Germans do. If we exercise, we do it at home or at a gym. Why not outside in nature? Are we afraid? Bored? Uncomfortable? Inconvenienced?

I use the words “we” and “us” because as much as this country is foreign to me now, it is my country, my home land. I used to work out in a gym, I used to drive everywhere, I never went for walks, I used to eat only packaged/prepared food.

As much as I feel like an outsider, my passport says I’m not. I know the way things work in this country, where to go if I need something, and how to ask if I don’t. I can’t comment from the sidelines anymore; I’m back in the game.

In our marveling at each re-discovery, Doc Sci and I have the best of intentions not to let our wonder devolve into negativity. I think it’s okay to walk through each emotion (shock, sadness, confusion, wonder) as long as you don’t stay there indefinitely.

Due to the fact that our family has needed to just survive the last eight months, I’ve resigned myself to striving to end the string of discouraging thoughts on a neutral note – it just is what it is. Ultimately, I hope my feelings toward this culture and repatriation can grow roots in the positive, asking myself how I can change, how I can encourage others to change.

Have you ever left the US for a while and returned to find things you once considered normal to be completely foreign? 

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It’s Been a While, but WE’RE BACK!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Back to Blogging after Moving to AmericaIt’s been a while since, well, our world completely changed.

And, it’s been a while since I’ve written because, well, I haven’t been able to make the time… for reasons I’ll mention in a minute.

But, I’m back since, well, our story isn’t over just yet.

Continuing the narrative is important. Conclusions matter. They erase that nagging question of, “Whatever happened to…” Your story, my story, our stories, they’re all full of meaning that doesn’t deserve to be cut short.

Before I launch into the posts about where in the world we’ve wandered and all the grit of my reentry experience, I’ll briefly describe why it has taken me so long to reacquaint fingertips to QWERTY.

First and foremost, to be completely honest, it has just been too hard. It’s difficult to think about what I miss and how much I miss it. The longing for “the way things were” is an indefatigable foe.. and a deceitful one at that.

Life abroad was not always amazing; in fact, often it was so hard that I was brought to tears, anger, and desire to just.go.home. But this side of the pond, those memories are fuzzy. It’s all too easy to wish for the greener pastures of bygones.

Second, untangling the reverse culture shock has been tricky. It cripples, and its most wicked weapon is the element of surprise. I know my own struggles intimately, but I have been waiting to see how this major change played out in other members of our family. Not all effects of culture shock show themselves immediately, and I didn’t think it wise to proclaim “all is well!” in haste.

Third, life circumstances made it nearly impossible to write. I managed to steal an hour here and there and eke out a rough post only a handful of times in eight months. When we landed in the US, we had no job, no destination, and only a loose plan. Our one computer and all kid-free hours were assigned to finding and applying for employment.

I’m happy to report that Doc Sci has a fantastic job now, and we are no longer professional hobos (or, pro-hobos as I dubbed it). Stay tuned for more about our wild ride in a coming post.

Third and a half, I started homeschooling our boys full-time, both as we traveled before we had a job and after we settled. The few hours I previously devoted to writing while the boys went to German kindergarten have now been obliterated with spelling lists, times tables, Egyptian pyramids, and the solar system.

If you know me, this decision to do school at home might blow your mind a little, so hang on – a post about our current educational choice and the hows and whys is also on the docket.

Because I have missed you, friends, and because I don’t want to string you along too much in this post, I’ll answer the burning question… where in the world are we?!

Since 2014 turned into 2015, we’ve called a small-ish city in Arizona home. Doc Sci is teaching at a local university, something he has wanted to try for years. And, I am scrambling to figure out a new balance of my own teaching, establishing local relationships, and managing an American life that turns out to be way more complicated than I remember.

If you’ve even heard the term “reverse culture shock,” you might already know that everyone’s experience with it is slightly different. So, why write about mine?

One of the main purposes of this blog is to help others. I have many expat friends and readers who will likely face reentry themselves one day, if they haven’t already. As I said before, everyone’s reverse culture shock experience is different and depends on factors such as where he originated, where abroad she lived, how long he was gone, and how much she embraced and identified with her host culture.

But, certain themes are common to all expats returning home, and an awareness of what may lie ahead is always appreciated. I aim to share my story with you in hopes that you are able to use it as a beacon on your own journey, or in the journey of someone close to you.

For now, I just want to thank you friends (yes, you!) for waiting patiently in my absence, and I look forward to getting reacquainted in the coming weeks.

I would love to know what all of you have been up to since I last posted. Leave a comment, post a link, drop a line. Let’s catch up!Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Monday Montage – Guest Post on And Three To Go

Thrifty Travel Mama | Monday Montage - Freiburg, GermanyHey y’all..

I’ll be in the South (as in USA) soon, so I better get me y’alls and yonders back out and dust ’em off.

And speaking of dust, it hasn’t quite settled yet. Cleaning, sorting, packing, this move is wiping me out. I have managed to post a few updates on my Facebook page, but a full-blown post is just beyond my reach at the moment.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post for the fabulous Jenny of And Three To Go as part of her Monday Montage series. You can check that post out here. Consider it an ode to our adopted home here in Freiburg. We have only a little over a week left here, and I will miss it. Freiburg is an awesome place for traveling families.

So, do me a favor and click on over to read all about the daily life that we will soon leave (sad!). While you’re at it, be sure to follow Jenny as she writes about her family’s long-term travel adventures.

Also, be sure to like the Facebook page as updates will most likely be from there for a while until I can get back to blogging.

Thanks for reading and hanging in there during our time of transition!

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