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? 

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Supermarket Souvenirs – Scotland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandWondering what to buy from Scottish supermarkets either for yourself or the folks back home? Shortbread is the obvious place to start. But don’t buy these butter-laden treats from the expensive tourist shops in town. Stock up at the supermarket!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandScottish stores have no shortage of shortbread (ha). Walkers is the most famous, but step out and try other brands. We even found gluten-free shortbread at Sainsbury’s.

To be clear, shortbread is not actually bread, but a cookie (er, biscuit, sorry). And to eat it properly, you need tea. Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandPerhaps you’ve heard of English Breakfast Tea. But, did you know there’s such a thing as Scottish Breakfast Tea? The Kitchn explains the difference, but you can read it for yourself right on the package. It’s especially made to be brewed with soft Scottish water. So do make a pot while you’re in country.Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandIf you’re going to go to all the trouble to make tea while on holiday, you may as well pick up some tea cakes from Tunnock’s. These little calorie bombs are a puff of marshmallow placed on a biscuit and coated in chocolate. While you’re at it, pick up a package of Tunnock’s caramel wafer biscuits. Apparently, they’re the national treat!Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandIf you’d like something that more resembles actual cake to go along with that tea, unwrap the famed Kirriemuir Gingerbread. Again not bread, this treat hails from the same town as the author and playwright J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame. Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAnother sugary snack is what’s known as tablet. It looks like fudge, but it’s not soft. Our pal wikipedia clarifies.. “Tablet is a medium-hard, sugary confection from Scotland. Tablet is usually made from sugar, condensed milk, and butter, boiled to a soft-ball stage and allowed to crystallize. It is often flavoured with vanilla, and sometimes has nut pieces in it.” YUM!Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandIf you’re a texture eater and can’t get over the crumbly consistency of tablet, you may as well go ahead and try the fudge instead. You’ll have plenty of brands to choose from, but Mrs Tilly’s is quite famous.. and apparently gluten-free, too!Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAre you in a sugar coma yet? Let’s take a break from the sweets and go with another traditional Scottish food, the oatcake. I saw a zillion and one brands, flavor, and texture varieties at the grocery store. These little rounds are quite the versatile meal ingredient, and they can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandI’d be remiss not to mention haggis, but given my absolute abhorrence when it comes to organ-based dishes, I can’t offer any personal recommendations without wretching. (I am not an adventurous eater..)

I found these haggis chips (crisps) flavored with sheep parts for those who only want a taste without the liver-full commitment.Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAre you sick to your stomach? No, just me? Well, a little carbonation should help. Irn-Bru is the Scottish soda to try (unless, of course, you’d rather have a Scotch & soda..). It’s bright orange with a very unique taste. I’m not sure how to describe it, but if you like Mountain Dew and all it’s variations such as Code Red, you’ll probably like Irn-Bru.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - Cheap Treats from ScotlandAnd last, but not least, this Saltire rock candy is a fun way to bring home the Scottish flag. Bonus: it tastes like Irn-Bru!

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from Scotland?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Edinburgh?  Check out my posts about visiting Scotland with kids!Signature-Marigold

An English Speaker in an English Speaking Land… and a Little Announcement

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life: The English Speaking Bubble, Edinburgh

At the top of Arthur’s Seat, overlooking Edinburgh.

Before Paris, we had the most lovely whirlwind of a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland.  We had gorgeous weather and a marvelous time together, just the five of us.  I long to tell you all about it – oh, how I do – but, for now, let’s just have a little peek into the wide, weird world of an English-speaking expat.

When you live in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, you get quite used to living in a bubble.  You may think the description cliché, but it’s spot on.

Inside the bubble, things are quiet.  Others may chat, giggle, debate, argue, or whisper around you.  But the funny thing is… you don’t really hear any of it.

There’s no picking up a snippet from the teenagers here or a stray comment from the elderly couple there.  You have absolutely no idea if the person next to you is gossiping about her best friend or discussing the finer points of Nietzsche.

When you open up your mouth to speak in your native language (because, of course, that’s what tumbles out first), those outside the bubble either stare or ignore you.  It’s impossible to tell whether you’re understood or not because interaction simply does.not.happen.

In some ways, you’re… invisible.

In other ways, you’re on display for all the world (okay, the train) to see.  Eating out, grocery shopping, waiting for the bus.. these are all relatively quiet affairs.  It’s a silent phenomenon, one that sneaks up on you and becomes firmly ingrained while you remain oblivious, until…

One day, you find yourself in another place, a land where everyone hears, understands, and -gasp- speaks to you.  This isn’t a forced exchange full of necessities and awkward pronunciation.  No, here the conversation is effortless.

The bubble bursts.  And suddenly, everything just got a whole.lot.LOUDER.

You try to finish your lunch, but the girl in the booth next to you just won’t shut up about her problems with the landlady. 

The college kids sitting behind you on the bus are bragging about how many countries they’ve visited (three), how cultured they now are, and how that one time they… was just SO funny!

A man stops on the street mid-stride to suggest you try the coffee shop (his favorite) around the corner because you’re discussing where you should go to warm up on this chilly morning. 

You ask the bus driver to help you figure out which stop is closest to your holiday apartment, and he agrees, smiles (!), and gives a shout when you’re nearly there.

It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it, but going to a foreign country and hearing English spoken is really very strange.

We’ve come to expect this hokey-smokes-we-can-understand-everyone-and-CRAP-they-understand-us phenomenon when we go back to the US.  We become a bit disconcerted on the plane when flight attendants greet our children and make conversation. (Can you imagine someone talking to your child on the street and completely excluding you because they can tell you don’t understand?  For us, this is our normal.) This disorientation grows until we finally recoil in utter shock when the cashier at the sparkly, big-box grocery store chats us up.

“How y’all doin’ today?”

Say, what?!

This is reverse culture shock, and we live it every time we go to America.

But it was a new thing for us to experience a foreign country without a foreign language.  It was… fantastic.  Comforting.  Therapeutic.  Welcome…

Since we know it will be our last year to live in our current city, we often try to imagine ourselves as residents in the places we visit.  Could we live here?  Would we want to?

And while Scotland would take a lot of getting used to (I’ve never stared at traffic, drivers, and cars so much in my life – how do they drive on the left?), at least we would be insiders in a way.

Language.  We miss so much being outside the deutschsprachig circle here in Germany.  We cannot fight or fend for ourselves in many situations.  ‘Tis true that I have only myself, my lack of time, commitment, and determination to blame.  It is our/my struggle, and often brings me/us shame.

So, in between language blunders and fragmented exchanges, we wonder.  How important is it?  Should we make every effort to become fluent?  Is it time to pop the bubble and live out loud?

My answer… is yes.

And so with this long-winded attempt to explain the freakish feelings we experienced in Scotland, I have a small announcement to make.

I’m taking a break.

It’s not you.. it’s me.

I love this blog for many reasons.  It’s been my creative outlet for nearly four years.  It’s pushed me to explore some really random corners of the world as well as to find the marvels and miracles amid the many mishaps of (my) expat life.

But, most of all, I have loved meeting all of you.  I have made real life friends because of this blog, and truth be told, I don’t intend to stop.  While I need to set aside the time I normally spend here at Thrifty Travel Mama to study German, I don’t plan on disappearing completely.  I may post sporadic updates and quick recaps of our trips.  But, I won’t be able to create regularly scheduled content for at least a few months.

I still plan to answer comments (though you may have better luck with email), and I will still be reading your posts and cheering for your adventures.  I hope, when I’m finally able again, that you’ll be back to champion mine as well.

Wish me luck – it’s going to be DEAFENING out there.

Signature-Marigold

Triberg – Towering Waterfalls & Black Forest Kitsch

Thrifty Travel Mama | Triberg, Germany - Towering Waterfalls and Black Forest KitschOne thing we haven’t done much of yet is explore the Black Forest (Schwarzwald).  Train connections can be problematic, and our experience driving in Florida is hardly preparation for braving twisty mountain roads.  But, we’re driving to Italy in less than a month, so we need to buck up.  To the forest we go!  Er, went…Thrifty Travel Mama | Triberg, Germany - Towering Waterfalls and Black Forest KitschTriberg is nestled in the thick of the Black Forest, and its claim to fame rests in the waterfalls, touted as “Germany’s highest.”  To be sure, they’re impressive.  But, exactly three minutes prior to writing this post, our good friend Wikipedia informed me that these are actually the second highest in Deutschland.  Doh!

Lies!!

Lies!!  It should say Germany’s highest waterfall that’s easily accessible.

Speaking of lies, I thought about telling you this was the Triberg waterfall since it is water falling in Triberg, but I didn't think you'd fall for it.

Speaking of lies, I thought about telling you this was the Triberg waterfall since it is water falling in Triberg, but I didn’t think you’d be so gullible.

As I put together the graphic for this post, I double-checked the tourist brochure that assured me, “Germany’s highest waterfalls are a splendid spectacle of nature.”   I guess touting them as the second highest doesn’t exactly do wonders for ticket sales.

While we’re talking tickets, adults admission costs 3,50 euro and children under 8 are free.  Entrance includes the use of patchily paved pathways and a printed pamphlet.  Whoop – de – doo.  Oh, right, and you get to see the falsely advertised waterfalls.

The falls from the first platform.

The falls from the first platform.

This is the first platform, seen from above.

This is the first platform, seen from above.

Highest or second highest, I still enjoyed listening to the furious roar of the foaming falls, feeling the wayward water droplets surprise my skin, and gazing out over the thickly forested valley.  False pretenses may have drawn me here, but the scenery was still worth the drive.

The Triberg Waterfalls don’t go straight down.  This might be a downer to some, but actually I appreciated the walkways built at various intervals in the falls that allowed for a unique perspective.  When was the last time you walked over the middle of a waterfall?

A view of the second platform.

Looking at the second platform.

Down, down, down!

Down, down, down!

My boys are usually game for whatever adventures I cook up.  Unfortunately, this week they were exhausted from swimming and skipping naps, and they whined about everything, including the elevation gain.

Looking at the falls from the third platform.

Looking at the falls from the third platform.

The ADAC (like AAA) guide to Hiking with Kids in the Black Forest lists this as an “easy” and “pram-friendly” hike.  Ha!  In terms of length, sure, it wasn’t too bad.  But the path did go straight up for most of the way.  I saw several families with children in strollers; they must be crazy.  It’s much easier to strap a kid on your back than it is to force a buggy straight up the side of a mountain, even if the walkway is paved.

Carry the kiddos if you must; you need to make it to the top!  A fantastic panorama of the dense Black Forest and Triberg valley waits as your reward.

Yeah, buddy, this is what it's all about!

Yeah, buddy, this is what it’s all about!

After you’ve taken it all in, what next?  Follow the signs to explore one of three trails (Cascade, Culture, or Nature) that should take between 45 and 90 minutes to complete.  The most kid-friendly is the red route (Culture).  We explored half of the green route (Nature).  Crazy people with strollers – the red route is the one for you.

Pick a path and follow the signs, distinguished by color.

Pick a path and follow the signs, distinguished by color.

The Culture Trail meanders out to a playground next to a small lake and a beautiful baroque church.  It then runs parallel to the main road in Triberg, parading right past a handful of souvenir shops hawking Black Forest wares including cuckoo clocks for which this area is known.

This is part of the green route - rocks and roots galore so don't even think about taking Graco along.

This is part of the green route – rocks and roots galore so don’t even think about taking Graco along.

We found some wacky stuff on the trails - this tree stump looks like a hand fused to a giant rock.

We found some wacky stuff on the trails – this tree stump looks like a wooden hand fused to a giant rock.

And this tree was literally growing out of a rock!

And this tree was literally growing out of a rock!

My T-Rex is obsessed with climbing.  He didn't even blink when I suggested he climb this boulder.

My T-Rex is obsessed with climbing. He didn’t even blink when I suggested he climb this boulder.

This playground waits at the far end of the red route.

This playground waits at the far end of the red route.

The Schwarzwald Museum, which my friend says is actually fun for kids.  I might have to come back in winter and give it a try.

The Schwarzwald Museum, which my friend says is actually fun for kids. I might have to come back in winter and give it a try.

Continuing on, the main street is completely overrun with tourist traps.  Fill your shopping bag with Dirndls, Lederhosen, Black Forest Bollenhut hats, beer steins, and cuckoo clocks.  Then fill your belly with Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.  If you’re looking for one town that exemplifies Black Forest kitsch, Triberg is it.

By the way, if you’re super into cuckoo clocks, the world’s biggest one is only a few kilometers outside Triberg.

Hey there, cuckoo clocks.

Hey there, cuckoo clocks.

You can find these funky statues that look like a cross between Easter Island and the Black Forest right near the parking lots across from the falls.

You can find these funky statues that look like a cross between Easter Island and the Black Forest right near the parking lot across from the falls.

Bye, bye, Triberg!

Bye, bye, Triberg!

Though the town was a bit much for me, we really did like the fibbing falls.  In winter, the whole area is frozen.  Since neither Doc Sci nor I have seen a gigantic shards of ice jutting out of mountain rocks, we just might need to make another trip up to the kitschy capital of the Black Forest.

What do you think – should we return when the falls are frozen?  Would you pay to see the waterfalls even though they’re falsely advertised?   Signature-Marigold

Fun, Free Things To Do in Salt Lake City.. With Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Free Fun in Salt Lake City with KidsAs my boys grow taller and taller, the number of free activities available gets smaller and smaller.  I found it challenging to come up with a respectable list of things to keep the boys busy on our recent trip to Salt Lake City, Utah.  Admission for children to all the popular attractions in the area cost almost as much as adult tickets.  Sheesh, all I can say is thank God my kids still think playgrounds are totally awesome.

Here’s a rundown of the best fun, free things we found to do in Salt Lake City with kids!

Liberty Park. This park is one of the best I’ve seen in the US.  It truly has something for every age group.  The little ones have a large play area suited for their size, big kids can amuse themselves with a gigantic slide, and handicap children can join in with swings built just for them.  Most impressive – super sized musical pipes that require lots of banging and produce a whole lot of noise.  In summer, kids can enjoy a splash pad and fountains.

Liberty Park Rotary Playground

Liberty Park Rotary Playground

Liberty Park - making some noise.

Liberty Park – making some noise.

Liberty Park - water fountains for kids to splash around in and cool off.

Liberty Park – water fountains for kids to splash around in and cool off.

Should you find yourself in the mood to open your wallet, loads of fun paid experiences are possible at Liberty Park.  Tracy Aviary is home to hundreds of birds.  Time your visit to include story time with a feathered friend.  Carnival rides, paddle boat rentals, and a public swimming pool will also invite you to part with (a little) cash.

Liberty Park - Tracy Aviary

Liberty Park – Tracy Aviary

Temple Square & Gardens.  Mormon or not, the temple area is worth seeing.  I was intrigued by the architecture, and my boys just ran around exploring all the fountains, sculptures, and flowers.  You can also take a free one-hour tour of the gardens, May-September.

Temple Square.

Temple Square.

City Creek and Memory Grove Parks. Starting just beyond the Temple Square, City Creek Park includes a paved path running parallel to the stream that leads straight to Memory Grove Park.  Filled with statues and fountains, Memory Grove Park is a great place to rest and eat a snack or even a picnic lunch.  Combine this with a walk around the…

City Creek Park.

City Creek Park.

Utah State Capitol Building Though you’ll be out of breath climbing the San Francisco-style street to get here, the view is worth the effort.  We just walked the grounds, but dropping in to the visitor center or joining a tour won’t cost a thing.  Look for the small paths to the east of the capitol that lead down to Memory Grove Park.  P.s. – I highly recommend choosing a backpack carrier over a stroller if you’re toting little ones.

Utah State Capitol Building.

Utah State Capitol Building.

View from the top.

From the top – I sure do love me some mountain views.

Donut Falls Hiking Trail Our family really loves hiking together, and I thought this would be the perfect anti-jet lag remedy.  Except I forgot that it can – and did – snow in Utah in April.  Oops.  Fortunately, the snow was packed down enough that we could walk a ways in our oh-so-appropriate summer kicks.  Unfortunately, we never did get to see that waterfall.

The snow-covered path to Donut Falls.

The snow-covered path to Donut Falls.

Not exactly the waterfall we were hoping for...

Not exactly the waterfall we were hoping for…

Gilgal Sculpture Garden Even if you can’t force yourself to be interested in art, drag yourself across the street from Trolley Square and prepare to be completely creeped out.  While your kids scramble around the stones, you’ll be scratching your head trying to figure out of this artist mocked or admired Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith as the sphinx...?

Joseph Smith as the sphinx…?

More funky art from Gilgal Sculpture Garden.

More funky art from Gilgal Sculpture Garden.

School of rock.

School of rock.

Jordan Park & International Peace Gardens.  Come for the two playgrounds and picnic area, stay for the hortus & culture.  Twenty eight countries maintain gardens that reflect their land, and in the middle rests a monument promoting peace.  Germany’s area disappointed, but Switzerland and Japan delighted.

A little taste of Europe in the International Peace Gardens.

A little taste of Europe in the International Peace Gardens.

Stepping into Japan.

Stepping into Japan.

Downtown Farmer’s Market.  Okay, you’ll have to pay for the rainbow of nutrients you’re sure to bag, but listening to the music and soaking in the atmosphere won’t cost a thing.

What are your favorite Salt Lake City activities to do with kids? 

Headed to Salt Lake City?  See my review of the Thanksgiving Point Gardens Tulip Festival.Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests!!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Trave Dad - Theo Jansen StrandbeestsNerds and nerdettes, you’re not going to want to miss today’s post.  Our family personally met a famous artist/engineer in his studio on our recent BeNeLux trip!  Keep reading for the low down on our encounter with these beach creatures.

In one of those serendipitous travel research moments, my wife stumbled upon a small detail hidden in a random corner of the Dutch shoreline near The Hague.  “Theo Jansen Beach” it said.  Thinking it might be some kind of famous surfer bar, she googled it, but found something much more amazing than booze instead.  Take a look at the 2 minute video below.

Amazing, fascinating, freakish, right?  If you’re like me, you want to see these things in action.  Unfortunately, Theo Jansen didn’t have any work on the beach at the time of our trip to Holland (to find out where the beasts are, look here).

BUT, we found out from his website that anyone can visit his studio near The Hague at anytime.  No need for a wild goose chase in the Dutch countryside; the property is right off a major highway.

Theo Jansen’s workshop is atop a small hill on the side of the road (no parking, just ditch the car on the shoulder and walk up).  Just between you and me, trust me when I say that calling it a “workshop” is kinda pushing it.  The building is little more than a shack to keep Theo protected from the elements when working, and it’s piled high with projects and a case of instant soup envelopes.

This guy developed a formula for creating “new life” as he says, forms that are able to walk across the beach on their own.  A wall next to the shack contains explanations regarding  the proportions and walking motion.  Several creatures greet visitors, inviting the interested to physically experience the creatures.

The sentinels.

The sentinels.

This walking motion and the particular proportions proved to be the two key elements to creating the beasts.  Each animal has a center shaft where all the feet connect in an offset manner.  Wind powers the beasts’ movements depending on the intensity of the gusts.  Theo is now creating a process by which this wind energy can be stored in bottles so the beasts can walk even when the weather is calm.

Theo Jansen’s ultimate goal is to create a beast that can exist completely independent of human help.  He literally believes he is creating a new species of life..

T-Rex is impressed.

T-Rex is impressed.

Wanting to see these engineering wonders for ourselves, we gambled that Theo would be at his studio on the day we passed through.  The odds were in our favor, and Mr. Jansen happily greeted us when we knocked on the shack door.

The studio is littered with PVC pipe, the color of Dutch cheese.  As Theo explained, these tubes are then bent, drilled, and heated to his specifications.  Large sheets catch the wind, and recycled soda bottles capture it.

T-Rex was gaga over all the tools in the workshop, and the two of them even chatted a bit in German and English about the gadgets and gizmos lying around.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Theo really enjoyed seeing the boys faces light up as their eyes followed the movement of a tiny beast across a table.  This particular teeny tiny beast had been 3-D printed and sent to Jansen by a student which is quite impressive considering the large number of moving parts needed to make the thing work.

Instead of being outraged that others are printing his work, Theo is delighted.  In fact, he considers this the method of beast reproduction.  These clever creatures use humans to multiply their species.

After seeing the little ones in Theo’s workshop I must admit I really want one (Father’s Day – hint, hint!).  Apparently, I have good company in my admiration for these marvels.  Adam Savage has also developed quite an affinity for them.

Outside the workshop, we tested some beasts with our own hands.  From pushing and pulling a few little guys around the hilltop, I can only imagine what the full-scale beasts look like in person scurrying along the sand and splashing in the waves.

Father and son geek out time.

Father and son geek out time.

I wished we could have stayed and talked the genius Jansen’s ear off, but T-Rex was cold, Screech wanted a snack, and we couldn’t push our luck with a sleeping Big Foot.

Would I go visit Theo Jansen’s studio again?  You betcha.  I hope Mr. Jansen is still around when my boys are old enough to understand the engineering and design principles behind these creations.  Science + Art = always a winner in our traveling family’s book!

Headed to The Netherlands?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Zaanse Schans – Nerdy Travel Dad approved!

Supermarket Souvenirs – Belgium

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - BelgiumWondering what to buy from Belgium for the folks back home?  Chocolate and specaloos are great places to start.  But don’t buy them from the expensive tourist shops in town.  Stock up at the supermarket!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumGrab some Galler chocolate at the nearest grocery store.  This company sells solid bricks as well as delicious filled types.  Pick up a few bars or even a variety pack from the local Carrefour.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWhen we arrived in Brugge, I couldn’t wait to skip on down to the store and pick up some specaloos.  What is this crazy stuff?  It can be described as a cookie-flavored spread, similar in consistency to Nutella.  If you’ve ever tried Biscoff cookies, you’ll be familiar with the taste.  It’s uh-MAZING!

The smooth variety is delicious enough, but Doc Sci and I are currently into the crunchy kind.  Think crunchy peanut butter but with cookies.  Yum!  There’s even a chocolate variety – whoa, buddy!Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, Belgium

So, what do you do with specaloos?  The smooth kind is great for smearing on waffles, toast, and bagels.  I’ve even used it as a dip for apple slices and plopped a spoonful in my coffee.  The crunchy kind is also spectacular on morning carbs, but I also like it melted and smeared on top of a bowl of oatmeal.  You can even find numerous recipes for baked goods using specaloos.

But really, just keep it simple and enjoy with a spoon straight from the jar.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumSpeculaas cookies are in the same flavor family as specaloos.  Specialty shops sell these for big bucks in tourist areas, but you can save some euros by stocking up where the locals do.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWant to try that specaloos now?  Pick up a package of Belgian waffles to go with your jar of cookie spread.  My boys were thrilled to have this fun vacation treat in the morning, but you could also take a few boxes home.  Note: the sturdier the waffle, the better chance of making it back in your suitcase.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumNot really a waffle person?  Try some thin, crepe-style pancakes.  Smeared with specaloos of course…

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWorried about all these baked goods staying fresh while you travel?  Perhaps a pancake or waffle mix is right for you.  Use Google translate to help with the instructions.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumThis last one is only for enjoying in-country (or squirreling away in the car cooler).  Belgium also boasts some tasty cheeses.  Try the Brugge brand, sold in slices, chunks, or hunks.

You may be wondering, “Where’s the beer?”  I’ll admit, I’m totally clueless about the stuff.  I couldn’t write a decent (or reliable) guide to save my life.  I did, however, buy a few bottles for friends in Germany.  I made a small list based on recommendations here and here.

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from Belgium?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Brugge?  Check out my post about visiting Brugge with kids!Signature-Marigold

Supermarket Souvenirs – The Netherlands

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - The NetherlandsWondering what to buy from the Netherlands for the folks back home?  You could get one of those kitschy wooden shoe magnets (no judgement if that’s your thing).  Or, you could wow them with one of these supermarket souvenirs!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsFirst up, Dutch cheese!  Okay, in reality, you probably can’t stuff this into your suitcase and expect it to be edible when you get home.  But, it’s worth sampling some of the varieties while in country.

If you like a strong flavor and firm texture, aged Gouda is the way to go!  You could buy name brands like Old Amsterdam or just look for a store brand with the words Oud Gouda.  They’re just as tasty but at a fraction of the price.

Budget traveler tip: Instead of buying the cheese at touristy places like the Zaanse Schans, sample the more affordable varieties at the local grocery store.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsIf you only have space for one supermarket souvenir, make it stroopwaffels.  I first discovered these bad boys in 2003, and I’ve been in love ever since.  Stroopwaffels are yummy straight out of the bag, but they’re downright unforgettable when warm.

Make a cup of tea or coffee and set the stroopwaffel on top of the rim to catch the steam.  After a few minutes, flip to warm the other side.  Don’t wait too long though!  Sometimes the stroopwaffel will become so soft that it can plop down into your hot and tasty beverage.  Devour while hot and gooey.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsThis isn’t for your suitcase – it’s for enjoying in your hotel room or vacation rental while in country.  Stroopwaffel ice cream can be found a most grocery stores.  I’ve even seen comments online suggesting that this flavor can be found in ice cream shops across Holland.  (And, uh, yeah, that container is totally empty!)

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsGrocery stores are the budget traveler’s place to buy souvenirs that locals would give to each other or send to relatives.  For adorable Dutch tins filled with stroopwaffels, stroopkoeken, chocolate, etc., check the nearest Albert Heijn.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsSpeaking of chocolate, Tony’s Chocolonely is a GIGANTIC chocolate bar with a cause: “on the way to 100% slavery-free chocolate.”  You can read more about their mission here.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsBlack licorice is big-time in the Netherlands.  You can find all kinds of crazy varieties from salted to sweet to sugared.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsYou might think black licorice is weird, but that’s just because you haven’t heard of Hagelslag yet!  Basically, it’s chocolate sprinkles that Dutch people sprinkle on their toast.  And by Dutch people I mean adults.  And by toast I mean a sandwich at lunch time.  Don’t believe me?  Read more here.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, The NetherlandsThis last one’s just for the expats or the peanut butter-obsessed or the expats obsessed with peanut butter.  Peanut butter is not only cheap in the Netherlands (well, compared to Germany anyway), it also tastes a whole lot better.  It’s not 100% natural, but it doesn’t have hydrogenated oils in it (at least from what my pal Google Translate says).  Look for a high peanut content (aim for 90%), and chow down!

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from the Netherlands?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Amsterdam?  Check out our Snapshot of Amsterdam with Kids, and don’t miss a visit to the Kinderkookkafe!Signature-Marigold

Marvel: The German Tax Frenzy

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life - TaxesI had a nice little post for you today on how to making your own travel journals.  But then last night happened.  And what, pray tell, could be so thrilling as to distract me from posting pretty pictures of paper?

Getting our German taxes done, that’s what.  And, unfortunately, I have no pretty pictures of paperwork.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, sheesh, who cares about taxes?  That’s stupid and boring.  I’ll just get back to my Lean Cuisine microwave meal now, thankyouverymuch.

Well, hang on to your hats for just a minute more while I recap flying through three years of tax returns done in 90 minutes.  Schnell!  Schnell!

We’ve been told over and over that we should do our German taxes because we’d get a decent amount back.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I loathe doing taxes and even more so as an expat.  Doc Sci gets plenty of money taken out of his paycheck, and I was not interested in the amount of effort required to get a “decent” refund.

But one of Doc Sci’s colleagues kept bugging him about it, and she even offered the name of her tax guy who spoke English and came to your house to do the whole shebang.  Finally, we broke down and called this guy – let’s name him Larry since that’s a very nice accountant-ish name – back in January and asked for an appointment.  He informed us he was much too busy for poor peons like us, but we should gather all the paperwork he had listed on his website and call him back in February.

Shucks, I am always up for digging through my files and mining the depths of my archives for financial and legal documents with long names like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Lohnsteuerbescheinigung.  Okay, no, no I’m not.  So, I just made a very impressive looking pile several inches deep and then threw the binder of bank statements on top to look very, very organized.  Go me.

When February came, I picked a time when Doc Sci would be home in the afternoon, and I slipped him Larry’s phone number, a smile, and a few bats of the eyelashes.  Please, oh please, won’t you call Larry again and set up an appointment?  Here’s my planner so you’ll know when we’re available.  Aren’t I a nice wife to help you out like that?

But, Larry didn’t want to schedule an appointment for next week or the week after.  No, no, tonight suited him just fine.  How about four hours from now?  This should’ve been a clue to me that we would’ve been better off calling him Fast & Furious.

Fast & Furious Larry showed up around 8:30pm rolling a briefcase behind him which is a corporate America move, not a German one.  Doc Sci thought Larry looked like an accountant.  Well, what the heck does an accountant look like?  I thought he looked like a nerdy study partner, hair in the eyes, glasses, and a polo shirt.  Maybe that is what an accountant looks like, but what do I know?

This guy made himself right at home, busting out the biggest laptop we had ever (EVER!) seen.  It was equipped with two anti-theft devices.  One was a dongle (I was informed by Doc Sci that this is the proper term, and it is neither inappropriate nor misspelled) that must be inserted in order to use the computer.  The other was its sheer mass, half the size of a Brinks security truck with some computer whirlygigs and a keyboard inside.

Even better, he had a gazillion gadgets duct taped to the cover.  An orange highlighter, one of those bank pens on a spiral cord, a wireless phone (internet maybe?), peanuts, pretzels, a beer, but sadly, not an apple.

We (stupidly) had not asked in advance how much Larry’s services were going to cost, so we decided a few minutes before he arrived that we’d start with that as a means of introduction.  Hello, nice to meet you, are you too expensive for our poor little just-a-cut-above-a-grad-student means?  But, Larry was not interested in small talk.  He whisked away our questions and told us to bring on the paperwork.

Wait, what?  You’re going to do three years of our taxes RIGHT NOW?!  Yes, ma’am and the faster I get it done, the cheaper it is for you.

Ai, ai, Captain Larry, well then let’s not delay!

For the next 90 minutes, Mr. Fast & Furious fired questions and orders in broken English.  “You have bank statement from Flugtickets when you move to Germany?”  “How many kilometers your home in America from the airport?”  “Kindergarten receipts!”  “You have American tax papers?  They not printed out?  Print out!”

Remind me if I ever do this again to wear Nikes and wicking workout gear.  We were dripping sweat sprinting back and forth between the printer churning out credit card statements, receipts, and summaries as far back as 1897.  Every foot/cent/mile/dollar/euro/kilometer counts, as long as you’ve got the backup to prove it.

In the end, he scrawled several numbers on a paper.  “That how much you get back.  That how much you pay me.”

I about fell over when I saw the figures.  We’re getting several thousand (yep, THOUSAND) euros back for the last three years, and homeboy here just made 436 Euros in about an hour and a half.  We are to pay Mr. Fast & Furious this random amount after we receive our refund.  And, of course we must do this by bank transfer.  Checks are so.. American.

Needless to say, we never envisioned our evening to begin with an awkward introduction followed by a frenzy of dollars, sense, and madness to finally land our butts on a pile of gold at the end of the German rainbow.  I’m quite certain that our 2012 April date with Uncle Sam will be neither as thrilling nor as profitable.  But, that’s okay.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get to do this all over again next year.Signature-Marigold

Baby Food in Germany: The Jar Options

My neighborhood dm stocks a wide variety of jarred baby food.  Muller and Rossman are other drugstores with decent baby food departments.

My neighborhood dm stocks a wide variety of jarred baby food. Müller and Rossman are other drugstores with decent baby food departments.

Big Foot has just made it to the six month mark (yay!), and he’s decided to join his brothers in becoming a fast and ferocious eater.  The kid LOVES food.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate to sleeping well at night, but that’s another topic for another day…

As with the other two boys, I’m making my own baby food.  I use the schedule and the frozen food cube method from Super Baby Food.  For the most part, it’s worked well for me and the babies.  But, I have to admit – it lacks portability when traveling.

For instance, Doc Sci and I took a road trip when T-Rex was about five months old.  I packed my food cubes in a cooler on ice for a 12 hour trip (uh, yes, we were totally nuts, and no I do not recommend a road warrior mentality when traveling with an infant).  By the time we arrived at our destination, all those neat and pretty food cubes had melted into each other, and it was impossible to tell where the avocado ended and the banana began.

Never again.

As you might know, when Screech was ten months old, we moved to Germany.  Luckily, I had a heads up about two months in advance that we might be hopping the pond, so I busted my you-know-what to make sure Screech was down with the chunkier textures and scarfing down the same stuff as his big brother and parents.

He was game to grow up a bit ahead in the baby food game, and I found that a pair of kitchen shears was all I needed to make my plate of spaghetti into Screech’s delight.

And good thing, too.  The baby food jar options in Germany are, well, um, interesting to say the least.  Now that I’m gearing up to take another road trip next month (only 7 hours this time!), I’m again venturing into the commercial baby food world to weigh my options.

Want to take a look with me?  Let’s head down to my neighborhood dm and give it a gander.

But first, a few notes to help decipher labels for those traveling to Germany or new to the country…

  • Bio = organic, and it’s pronounced B-O as in the gym locker fragrance, not Bi-oh as in biology.
  • Ohne Salz Zusatz means without added salt and Ohne Zuckerzusatz means without added sugar.
  • Hipp is usually the most expensive brand, but almost everything is organic and of good quality.
  • Nestle/Alete is usually the cheapest brand and has a rotten reputation.
  • Foods are labeled with which month they are appropriate to use (usually 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 months).  The higher the month, the chunkier the texture.
  • Just like in the US, the jars are rather expensive.  I’ve included prices in the photos below for reference.
German babies all start with the same food - carrots.  It is the only vegetable I have found that comes by itself in a jar.  Watch out though - some brands have added oil to provide omega 3.

German babies all start with the same food – carrots. It is the only vegetable I have found that comes by itself in a jar. Watch out though – some brands have added oil to provide omega 3.

All other vegetables come packaged with something else.

All other vegetables come packaged with other ingredients.  No single green beans, peas, or broccoli to be found here.

Spinach is processed with milk and cream and labeled as suitable for four month-old babies.  We have a history of food allergies in our family, so milk is completely off limits at four months.

Spinach is processed with milk and cream and labeled as suitable for four month-old babies. That might be okay for some little ones, but we have a history of food allergies in our family so milk is completely off limits at four months.

The only other green vegetable I've seen is zucchini.. but again, it's with potatoes.  Carrots and potatoes are the German baby food staples.

The only other green vegetable I’ve seen is zucchini.. but again, it’s with potatoes. Carrots and potatoes are the German baby food staples.  By the way, this stuff smells and tastes totally rank.  There’s nothing zucchini about it.

Here are some more potato-laden baby food options.

Here we go with the lineup of potato-laden baby food options.  I guess the Germans think the potatoes will make the other veggies palatable..?  But parsnips.. who eats parsnips?  I’ve never even seen them sold in grocery stores here, let alone considered them as infant fare.

There are more fruit options than vegetable ones, but often they are paired with apples.

There are more fruit options than vegetable ones, but often they are mixed up, shaken, not stirred, with applesauce.

Many fruit options also have grains included.  Spelt (Dinkel) is a very popular baby food option here.  Watch out if you have a history of wheat or gluten allergies/intolerance.

Many fruit options also have grains (Getreide) included. Spelt (Dinkel) is a very popular baby food option here. Watch out if you have a history of wheat or gluten allergies/intolerance.

And speaking of grains, Germans feed their babies Milchbrei (cereal with milk or formula).  I find it super ironic that the organic, bland, sugarless culture feeds their babies cookie and chocolate flavored infant cereal.

And speaking of grains, Germans feed their babies loads of Milchbrei (cereal with milk or formula). I find it super ironic that this organic, bland, sugarless hippie dippy culture feeds their babies cookie and chocolate flavored infant cereal.  But, they do.

If you've got a poor sleeper, or a hungry monkey, you can give a "Good Night" jar a whirl.  Apparently these mixtures are supposed to take longer to digest and therefore help the baby sleep longer.  (Unfortunately, this hasn't worked for us...)

If you’ve got a poor sleeper, or a hungry monkey, you can give one of the “Good Night” jars a whirl. Apparently these mixtures are supposed to take longer to digest and therefore help the baby sleep longer. (Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked for us…)

If you're going for pureed meat (mmmmmm, delicious), a few companies produce jars of plain chicken and plain beef.  It's quite expensive though, as you can see.

If you’re going for pureed meat (mmmmmm, delicious), a few companies are hawking jars of straight up chicken or beef. It’s quite expensive though, as you can see.

I am used to giving my babies one food at a time, waiting a few days to check for any allergic reactions, and then moving on to another single food.  I am not sure how you do this in Germany without making food on your own.  Other than the few fruits and vegetables I have pictured, the rest of the baby food jar options are "menus" or complete meals.  Here are a few of the menus for four month-old babies.

I am used to feeding my babies one food at a time, waiting a few days to check for any allergic reactions, and then moving on to another single food. I am not sure how you do this in Germany without making food on your own. Other than the few fruits and vegetables I have pictured, the rest of the baby food jar options are “menus” or complete meals. Here are a few of the menus on the market for four month-old babies.

This one baffles me... noodles (wheat), tomatoes (highly acidic), pork (hard to digest), and the long-standing staple, carrots... for a four month-old.

This one baffles me… noodles (wheat), tomatoes (majorly acidic), pork (hard to digest), and the long-standing staple, carrots… for a four month-old.  Say, what?!

Here's another good one.. Lamb?  What?

Here’s another good one.. Lamb? Well, it’s new.  Maybe it’ll be a flop.

There's a tie for the most outrageous four month-old meal.  The first contestant isn't pictured; dm was out of the salmon in cream sauce.  So, this one wins.  Who feeds their young baby veal?!

And the award for the most outrageous four month-old meal goes to… Wait, it’s a tie.  The first contestant isn’t pictured; dm was out of the salmon in cream sauce. So, this crazy concoction wins. Who feeds their young baby veal?!

As in the US, there are a few toddler TV dinners.  I'm not big into these because by the time the baby is one year old, they usually eat everything that the rest of the family eats.  But just in case you're looking for a microwave meal, there you have it.

In case you’re itchin’ to know, there are a few toddler TV dinners on the German baby food market. I’m not big into these because by the time the baby is one year old, they usually (hopefully?) eat everything that the rest of the family eats. But just in case you’re looking for a microwave meal, there you have it.

Okay, the TV dinners and these squeezy fruits aren't jars, but whatever.  I know these pouches are all the rage in the US, but they have just started catching on in Germany.  They're here, but few and far between.

Okay, the TV dinners and these squeezy fruits aren’t jars, but whatever. I know these pouches are all the rage in the US, but they have just started catching on in Germany. They’re here, but few and far between.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our little tour of the baby food section at my neighborhood dm drug store.  Unfortunately, I’m still without a traveling baby food solution.  Maybe I could convince Big Foot to subsist on carrots and pears for a weekend?  Yeah right…