Expats Move Home: Blazing the Paper Trail out of Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI’m spilling the beans on all the nitty gritty details of how we ended our expat adventure. To catch up on previous posts, click here.

Moving in America is relatively simple: pack, move, transfer your utilities, and forward your mail if you are desperate not to miss a single issue of your favorite People.

Getting out of Germany is a bit more byzantine. Yep, you do still have to do something with your stuff, but other bureaucratic matters get bumped up from suggested to required. But, is it as hard to get out of Deutschland as it is to get in?

Getting In

Moving to Germany is a nail-biting adventure in paperwork and bureaucracy, similar to attempting to get a visa or green card in the US. Given how much the Germans love order, it’s no surprise that all documents deemed obligatory must be just that – in order.

Strangely, I never posted on any of our experiences in obtaining resident permits at the Burgeramt (affectionately known as the “burger service” in our family), so you’ll have to just trust me on this one.

It is very likely guaranteed that during the initial residency appointment, you’ll suddenly realize or be made to realize you’ve forgotten an essential document (like an original birth certificate). Or, you’ll be scolded for something ridiculous like using all caps instead of upper and lower case… or blue ink instead of black.

For most expats, the “burger service” dishes up the first taste of German culture shock.

Getting Out

Thankfully, leaving Germany is a total piece of (Black Forest) cake. When we wanted out, we simply showed up at the local Burgeramt, filled out a form, provided the date we would exit the country, and received our Abmeldung (more on that below).

I recall thinking the process was just too easy. We must have forgotten something.

But no – the Abmeldung is all that we absolutely had to have as far as the government was concerned. We could even keep our residency cards as souvenirs; no need to turn them in at the Burgeramt or the border. Really!

Don’t let simplicity fool you. One should not underestimate the significance of the all-important Abmeldung. This document really is required. Without it, one cannot cancel contracts such as mobile phone service, internet service, insurance, etc. Remember, order and respecting the system are of first importance!

We asked for our Abmeldung four weeks before departure, but the norm is two weeks or even less. The officials at the Burgeramt did not want to issue the golden ticket so soon, but with a little pleading and begging in our broken German, they eventually obliged.

Duties

Now that we had our eerily-easy official paperwork in order, it was time to tackle other official duties. Thanks, Chandler, for ruining that word for me – forever.

The post office and the bank expected us to provide a German forwarding address, even though we were moving to the US. What?!

Thankfully, a friend volunteered to let us use hers. And, perhaps even more important, she was someone we could trust since she’d be opening our mail and possibly dealing with confidential information.

We notified Deutsche Post of the new address through their website. Again, the process was rather straightforward. Our mail will be forwarded to our friend’s address for one year. The only surprise was that in Germany, mail forwarding is not free!

We opted to leave our bank account open since we knew we would need it for our apartment deposit, German tax return, etc. We switched all our statements to paperless (an option strangely not presented to us before) and provided our new German forwarding address as requested.

If we had wanted to close the bank account, we would have needed to wire the balance to the US and pay some rather hefty fees on both the German and American sides. Seeing as the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has shifted in favor of the dollar, I don’t foresee that money traveling to US soil anytime soon.

In the future, if we do decide to eventually close the account, we will need to write a letter stating our wishes (in triplicate and notarized in blood, I presume) and include our slashed-to-bits ATM debit cards in the envelope.

Fortunately, we did not have any phone or internet service to cancel since that was included in our rent. We did, however, cancel our health, auto, and personal insurance, providing a copy of our Abmeldung – of course! – to get out of the contracts.

Whew!

While the details of departing Deutschland seemed a smidge overwhelming in the moment, the process turned out to be fairly simple in hindsight. This was a welcome surprise while in the trenches of wrestling our worldly goods into fifteen, thirty-kilo boxes.

Little did we know, the hardest task lay ahead and had nothing to do with packing or  paperwork…

Have you ever had an experience where you thought navigating government bureaucracy would be more or less difficult than it actually turned out to be? And, if you’re an expat, what was the process like to enter/leave your country of residency? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

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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

Leaving On a Jet Plane.. Destination TBD

Thrifty Travel Mama | Leaving Freiburg: where do we go from here? I’ve been a very bad internet friend lately. To all the really fantastic blogger friends I have out there, I just want to say… I’m sorry.

You have read my posts and commented and shared and tweeted and sent smoke signals. And I, well, I haven’t done much to return the favor.

I’ve read your posts on my phone in the five-minute pockets of time I can find in my day, but you don’t know that because I haven’t left any e-trails. My Feedly is full of your saved posts, ready to comment, pin, tweet, and all that jazz.

The thing is, for the past six weeks or so, we’ve been in the painful place of deciding our next step.. or rather, waiting for the next step to be decided for us.

Doc Sci has interviewed over the phone and in person for several jobs in the US, the majority of them in places we hadn’t really considered or even imagined. We’ve been on the proverbial roller coaster, screaming on the inside, for weeks. We didn’t have anything concrete to say, but we could feel the tension rising. The need to start purging, selling, planning, scheming was overwhelming.

I don’t know how I managed to post, let alone get through the chaos of kids finishing kindergarten and transitioning to staying home all day every day in the midst of planning a move with only one known variable..

But, friends, it’s happening.

The only thing I can tell you now is that we’re leaving Germany, and soon. The date, route, price, and beverage of choice is still TBD.

Because I can’t give any exact details (I’m not being cryptic; I don’t know them myself), I need to leave space open in my day to sort out the finer points of all the pieces that will eventually become part of the grand plan of moving back across the pond.

Even while I’m reeling from the enormity of this move, I have something else to consider: this blog.

I started Thrifty Travel Mama in 2010 as a way to tell friends and family back home about the quirks and adventure of our new life abroad. TTM morphed into something I never imagined: a full-fledged family travel blog. You guys, we have been to over 71 cities in 16 countries (not including the US), and I haven’t even written about all of them.

At it’s core, TTM is about budget family travel, but it’s also heavily influenced by my life as an expat (hence the tagline, “an expat life of marvels, miracles, and mishaps”). And now, I won’t technically be an expat. I’ll just be an alien, a stranger, a triangle.

I might be without reliable internet and time to write for months. After that, will I be able to rally and write about all travel stores I haven’t yet told? Or will I be too forlorn, mourning the loss of 28 vacation days, low expenses, and cheap childcare?

Only time will tell.

But, I would very much like to hear from you, my friends. What would you like to see happen to this blog?

Would you like to continue to read about our adventures, even if they’re fewer and not as exotic?

Would you prefer to hear more about how we were able to go so many places and practical tips for you to do the same?

Are you intrigued as to how reverse culture shock might manifest itself in our family and all the things we will find different / strange / just plain WEIRD when we go back to the US?

Do you have another idea that I haven’t even considered? Point me in the direction you’d like to see TTM go by leaving your ideas and thoughts in the comments.

And, in between booking flights and shipping boxes, I’ll do my best to clean out that Feedly and drop in on your adventures.Thanks for being awesome readers and amazing bloggers.

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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

Yep, I’m THAT Parent

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life MishapsAn open letter to those bystanders who opened their eyes but not their hands…

Hello, you.  Yes, you.

Have you forgotten how it feels to have a baby in your arms, in your care?  I suppose if you’ve never had one, I’ll grant you that excuse.  But your face betrays the fact that you know.  May I presume then, that you’re drawing a blank as to what it’s like to run errands toting a baby who protests his presence in your plans with all the force his twenty two pounds can muster?

Because you look like you’re judging me.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who parks her bike + trailer as close to the bank door as possible without actually blocking the exit or getting anyone else’s way but still manages to absorb the sneer of the suited man on his way out to grab coffee.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who precariously positioned her baby on the ledge jutting out in front of the ATM, while flailing arms punched numbers, grabbed cash.  Yes, I know I could’ve put the baby on the floor, but wouldn’t you have glared harder had he howled in protest at being only an arms length away from his beloved?

Yep, I’m that parent who weaved through the pedestrian crowds with said bike + trailer the length of a minivan, accidentally bumping old ladies and chanting “excuse me” right and left as if tossing flowers for a bride behind.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one that found a marginally acceptable place to park the self-propelled minivan in front of the home goods store only to have the entire bike and occupied baby seat tumble over while reaching for the steel U-lock nestled on the floor of the trailer.

But you, you were the one who wagged your head at me in judgement as my baby wailed more from shock than pain.  You offered me no help.  You craned your neck to peer at the poor woman who surely must be idiotic or inconsiderate to allow her child to topple toward the cobblestones.  You wondered, was I that kind of parent?

Yep, I’m that parent, the one whose left arm cradled a concrete ten month-old and with the right clutched a bag containing a rather fragile plate bearing a chip not noticed until purchased with precious little pocket money, all the while praying that neither arm would give out.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who rehearsed the phrases in another language, debating word choice, verb order, correct question grammar, formality all in a whisper while shushing her still-whimpering baby.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who fumbled over her lines, voice trailing, humiliation apparent, yet surprisingly emerged victorious with a darling new, chip-free plate destined to be the centerpiece of friendship and fellowship for as long as it shall live.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who held her head high as she walked past you, the onlooker sipping her coffee in the shade of the cafe and squinting at me in disapproval, only to realize that the awful crunch and creak coming from below belonged to a hopelessly flat tire sentencing me to an even further frustrating walk home.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who has these kind of adventures almost daily, the one who sometimes finds kindred spirits and kind faces, that blessed stranger that gives empathy so warm you care not if summer ever arrives or if it should leave without notice.  But, alas, not today.Signature-Marigold

Marvel: Homeschooling in Germany – Illegal!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - MarvelsCan you believe it?  Educating children at home in Germany is illegal!  And I don’t mean illegal as in it’s illegal to operate a dance hall on a Sunday in South Carolina.  No siree, trying to homeschool your kids in Germany is dangerous business.

I’ve known about this rule for a while now, but I never gave it much thought.  When we first arrived in Germany, T-Rex was only 2, and Screech was barely 10 months old.  We had no plans to stay for more than one year.  Since children must already be 6 to start first grade, what concern was this homeschooling law to me?  Plus, I wasn’t even sure I would want to homeschool.

Actually, I’m still not sure.  But I like options.  I don’t like serious fines and legal mumbo jumbo and threats about taking away custody of my children because I might decide that a German primary school isn’t the best place for them.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality for any family who dares to fight the iron-clad, you-must-not-educate-your-children-yourself rule.

Germany is very serious about their compulsory education.  All children are required attend a state-approved school, no exceptions.  Absences must be sorted out in advance.  My neighbor had to secure special permission to take her daughter out one day earlier than the scheduled Christmas break so that the family could fly to their homeland for the holiday.  If she had not obtained this approval, she could’ve be stopped at the airport and denied boarding with her daughter.  No, this is not North Korea we are talking about; this is Germany.  One of the richest and most prosperous countries in the world is also one of the most fearful.

Fearful of what?  Of course one could argue that fanatics of any religion might want to indoctrinate their children and isolate them from peers and open thinking.  This is a concern to be sure.  But that doesn’t seem to be the underlying thought when it comes to this particular law.  No, this fear is fixated on losing control of the masses.

All governments around the world share this anxiety, at least to some degree.  If enough of the people do not agree with the government and teach their children to dissent without respect, then disastrous consequences could ensue.

While these worries may be reality in some places to some extent at some time, it’s extremely pessimistic.  Loads of creativity, innovation, and advancement are also possible, perhaps even likely.

Fortunately, not every country in Europe is as tyrannical as Germany when it comes to homeschooling.  Sweden is an ally in Germany’s prohibition, but Switzerland, France, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom allow home education to some degree.

Do some families in Germany risk fines, imprisonment, or even losing custody of their children in order to homeschool?  Yes.  Some teach at home under the radar, doing their best to avoid detectionOthers are advocating for change, allowing themselves to be examples to the world and hoping the exposure of their trials makes way for dialogue that leads to a reversal of the law.

But, what about Americans and other foreigners living in Germany?  Are they exempt from the German education laws?  Usually not.  Some members of foreign armed forces or families of diplomats can get away with it.  But everyone else must obey and send their children to a German school (public or private).

This is not to say that German schools are inherently bad or that they are brainwashing children on the sly.  I merely aim to point out the lack of choice and bring attention to the prevailing public thought that the government knows what’s best for all children in Germany.

Be thankful for your freedoms, Americans, hug your children tightly, and pray for the wisdom to handle the challenges – educational or otherwise – of raising them.

You can read another excellent post discussing homeschooling in Germany here.  If you’re looking to get involved and help a homeschooling family, you can find action steps at the end of this article.Signature-Marigold

Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

Whew!  2012 has been a wild ride, full of experiences and surprises.  “Year in Review” posts are all the rage in the blogosphere, so despite my inclinations to do the opposite, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

In January, I went fully frugal.  I shared my source for Free DIY Passport Photos.  I pointed you to the European Backpacker Index, a tool for researching expenses in European cities.  Oh, and I saved you from having to run to the store at the last minute by showing you how to make your own brown sugar.

February brought me a birthday, and Doc Sci took me to Milan (sans kids) to celebrate.  We ogled da Vinci’s Last Supper and the views from the roof of the Duomo.  We got caught in Carnival madness, and stuffed our faces with risotto, bread, pizza, and (of course) gelato.

I went crazy in March trying to make our awful concrete student housing apartment more homey on a very small budget.  I spiced up the kitchen, bathroom, and front entry.  I constructed a ginormous cork board wall in the living room and plastered it with photos.  I somehow also found the time to completely finish Rosetta Stone German and post a final review.

In April, our little family went home to the US for 3 weeks, stopping in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida.  We soaked up the sun, and made kid-friendly activities a priority.  Among the boys’ favorite was our trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Back in Germany, May was part work and part play.  Doc Sci and I both took week-long intensive German courses.  We also managed a date night to the movies, complete with popcorn and assigned seats.

Doc Sci let us tag along with him to Berlin in June.  He attended a brainiac conference while the boys and I played at Legoland.   And speaking of brains, I got mine to work long enough to pass my German driver’s license exam.

In July, I switched to extreme nesting mode.  I stocked the freezer with a gazillion meals, and organized our life into one happy turquoise notebook.

I took a six-week break starting in August to bring our third and final little traveler into the world.  His birth story is the kind nightmares are made of.

We ventured out to Frankfurt in September to get the little guy his passport when he was only two weeks old.  And good thing, too.  Later that month, Big Foot found himself coasting through five countries on four planes, five trains, and two buses, in the span of three days.  No sweat for a seven week-old.

In October, I posted reviews of flying Delta Airlines and easyJet with a baby.  I should’ve shown you these fashionable Oktoberfest pull-ups, but I was too busy scoring freebies for babies and mamas in Germany.

November was an exciting month for us.  We bought a car!  Doc Sci wrote a fabulous guest post detailing the adventure.

We took our car on a little road trip to France in December.  It was all the travel we could muster in between the zillions of Pinterest projects that filled my days and nights before Christmas.

Every year has its highs and lows, surprises both good and bad, and 2012 was no different.  It’s just how life goes, and I’m thankful to live it with my awesome-amazing-how-could-I-describe-you-in-just-one-word husband and three blessed boys who make me laugh every day.  Here’s to 2013!

Kindergarten Art: The Tobacco and Alcohol Edition

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - KindergartenI know today is election day.  It’s one of the few days of the year I am 110% happy that I do not live in the US.   I just can’t handle all the rhetoric and only slightly sophisticated “you’re dumb” rigamarole.

Unless you live under a rock – and sometimes I try hard to be present in that state – you’re probably noticed a constant stream of “never ever”s leading up to this day, both from people’s mouths and from campaign machines.  “Never ever”s such as, “never ever will I vote for this guy again,” or “that guy could never ever make our country better.”

Golly gee willikers.

It is our American duty to vote though, so unless extenuating circumstances apply hopefully you have cast your vote one way or the other already.  So then, let’s focus on another “never ever,” as in “never ever would a child in the US use alcohol and tobacco products for art projects.”

Yep, seriously.  I can’t believe I’m going there.  I often have to remind myself that I couldn’t make this stuff up, even if I tried.

Last summer, the kindergarten that both of my boys currently attend put a box in the lobby with a big sign on it asking parents to donate packaging materials such as boxes, containers, paper towel rolls, etc.  The children could then use these items for artistic endeavors.

The parents did indeed donate, though perhaps they went a little above and beyond the call for materials.  Among the items were packages associated with alcohol and tobacco.  And then the teachers made the things available for student use.

Hey, it’s all recyclable… and therefore good for the environment to reuse such materials… right?

Let’s just say it’s a good thing that these kindergartens don’t teach the children to read.

The absolutely awesomely amazing trash truck, by T-Rex.

I’ll never forget the day T-Rex brought home this amazing mixed media design.  It’s a trash truck (and you totallyknew that, right?  right!).  He was mighty proud of his creation, and so was I.  Only upon a closer look did I realize that he had fashioned the trash part of the truck from two tobacco canisters!

Wait, whaaaaaaat is that thing made of?

The best part?  The generous donor had even left a few wiggly scraps of the stuff inside!

How thoughtful.  Really.

T-Rex eagerly showed me how he constructed the driver of the vehicle.  He put several wooden dowels on two wine bottle corks and hot glued the whole dude together.  And the project was definitely not complete without a beer bottle cap to act as the garbage release mechanism.

He used those exact words.

Okay, maybe not.

But those exact materials, for sure.  All I could think as he’s showing me (other than, awww shucks son, what an imagination you have!) is that this project would never ever in a million years have been put together in any institution involving children in the United States of America.

My T-Rex in the workshop taking a break from the hot glue gun.

Well, without a lawsuit, that is.

And shall we talk about how this innovative piece was put together?  Why, it would be rather impossible without the use of power tools.  A drill, a saw, and a hot glue gun had everything to do with the making of the Müllwagen.  I’m absolutely certain that the teacher was right.there.with.him.the.WHOLE.time.  Yeah, you betcha.

Anybody see a teacher around..? Anybody..?

Now, T-Rex is four, almost five.  Perhaps I’m just underestimating the power tool skills of a preschooler.  But Screech was TWO and had been at kindergarten a whole THREE days when he brought this pop art beauty home.

Art according to Screech.

A lively composition using beer bottle caps (some rusty, some fresh) and hot glue if I do say so myself.  Standard materials and equipment for a two year-old, obviously.  Again, there couldn’t be a doubt in my mind that Screech had constant, closer-than-white-on-rice supervision.

It’s too bad having another baby zapped 2/3 of my German skills, because I would LOVE to hear what the teachers have to say in defense of these materials.  I’m sure the philosophy on allowing 2 to 5 year-olds to use power tools would be equally as entertaining.

So, today, as you are entertained (or repulsed) by the unfolding of America’s choice, remember this: “never ever”s may be come “some day”s… perhaps even sooner than you think.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birth

Disclaimer: This is NOT a short post!

Ever heard of the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day written by Judith Viorst?  It’s a classic tale of an entire day gone awry for a little boy named Alexander.

Alexander, dude, I can so totally relate.  I had a day like that, only so much worse.

I’ve often been asked about my experience giving birth in Germany over the past eight weeks (eight weeks!  already?!).  Was it good?  Bad?  How did it compare to the two other births in the US?  As the title of this post suggests, it was H-E-double-hockey-sticks.

The terrible awfulness actually began with my due date landing smack dab in the middle of August.  Though some people may try, it’s not like you can really plan these things.  And, even if I did plan it, I would never have known to avoid the month of August.

August is the one and only month a mama should absolutely positively should avoid if ever giving birth in Germany.  It’s holiday time – and I mean holiday in the British sense, not in the Christmas-St.Patrick’s Day-Easter sense.  Doctors, midwives, friends, anesthesiologists, firefighters, garbage collectors, telemarketers, nose pickers, etc. all skip town to lay on a beach somewhere in Italy until they’re crispy.

While my friends fried themselves in the sand of faraway countries and continents, I was left to wonder what in the world I was going to do with the existing children while I popped out the next sibling.

As my due date approached and the baby made absolutely no signs of making an early or even on-time appearance, I began to realize I would have no other choice but to have my labor induced on the last possible day of the month when I’d have reliable childcare for Screech and T-Rex.

Yeehaw – I just love partying with Pitocin.

By the way, convincing a doctor in Germany to induce labor before your due date is next to impossible unless you have complications.  I somehow found myself with an extremely kind hospital obstetrician who agreed to put me on the drip just one day after my due date… but only because I had already had two other inductions and I managed to put on a rather impressive puppy dog face.

On the morning of the appointed day of dread, everyone in the house got up as usual.  I knocked some breakfast back, kissed T-Rex & Screech goodbye, and walked myself to the hospital, sniveling the whole way.  You’d have thought that would’ve put me into labor.  But no.  Apparently, I’ve got a bomb-proof amniotic sac.

Doc Sci dropped the boys off at our neighbors house and then hopped on his bike to meet up with me in the labor & delivery ward.  Upon arrival, I was given an ultrasound, a nasty needle in my arm, and the depressing news that I was only 2 cm.  I was not, however, given a hospital gown or a label on my wrist with my name, blood type, and favorite flavor of ice cream.

The king-sized bed and that blasted CTG.

I was then shown to my room.  It was twice the size of the rooms in the hospital where I had Screech and T-Rex, complete with a king size birthing table, a jacuzzi, mood lighting, and a minibar serving up your choice of regular Pitocin, extra-strength Pitocin, or no-pain-no-gain Pitocin.  I voted for the full-on, let’s-get-this-pain-train-a-rollin’ cocktail, but the midwife and doctor wanted me to start with the wussy stuff.

Speaking of doctors and midwives, I was assigned two midwives (a “real” one and a student) and a doctor.  Predictably, I saw the student the most.  In Germany, it’s the midwife that runs the show, but if you’re in the hospital you do need the doctor for a C-section, rupturing membranes, or other serious matters.

I was ordered by said midwife to lie down on the bed in order to record 30 minutes of baby heart rate and mama contraction data on the monitor (known in Germany as the CTG).

Well, thirty minutes turned into hours.  Doc Sci and I asked every hour (or more) when my water would be broken, when the Pitocin would be turned up, when I could walk around, when the pain hurricane would let loose.  “Just wait a little longer,” we were told.  “The doctor wants to see more data on the CTG.”  What is this thing telling the doctor?  My fortune?  Winning lotto numbers?

I had hoped the doctor would break my water upon arrival.  But it’s rare that doctors will rupture membranes at only 2cm.  I needed to dilate more, and I needed Pitocin to help me dilate.  Such a sick and vicious cycle – all charted on the CTG, of course.

Defying all natural birth common sense, I was never given the chance to get up and walk around to get the contractions going.  I was just supposed to lie down and take it.  Er, I mean give it… to the slave master CTG.

Lying down. all. day. long.

Well, except for lunch.  The staff needed a lunch break, and they didn’t want pesky patients ruining their schnitzel unless it was an absolute emergency (and apparently getting my baby out RIGHT THIS MINUTE did not count).  In order to keep us from buzzing the midwife in between her bites of bratwurst, we were sent off to the patient kitchen in another part of the hospital to have our lunch.

The kitchen was deserted.  No one paid any attention to what, if anything, I ate.  A stein of Bavarian beer and a basket of pretzels was supposed to be waiting for us.  Instead, we got water, bubbles or no bubbles, because the hospital was crazy busy and didn’t know to send a lunch up for me.  Good thing Doc Sci happened to bring some sandwiches and snacks.

When we had had enough of being bored and ignored, we went back to the labor and delivery ward.  Empty.  Still working on the schnitzel apparently.

Lunch finally was delivered a few hours later – bread, butter, cheese, cold parboiled carrots, and tea.

Well that’s all fine and dandy ya’ll, but I’m here to have a baby and I would like him to come out NOW.  It was like the Soup Nazi worked there.  No baby for you.  Come back, one hour.

And come back I did.  Time and again.  Begging and groveling like a total loser.  Oh please oh please oh please send the doctor in.

At half past four, I finally made the cut.  The doctor showed up and agreed to break my water.  Too bad I was still only 2cm.

I’ve had my membranes artificially ruptured twice.  I couldn’t feel anything either time except for whoosh and gush that comes afterward.  But, you know things can’t be that simple in a culture where pain is noble.

Instead of the crochet hook, I got fingernails on a chalkboard.  Doctor Does-It-Hurt-Yet scratched a hole in my membrane.  Let’s put things in perspective.  After 8 hours of Pitocin pulsing through my veins, I could barely feel the contractions (and by this time the drip was turned up as high as they would allow it to go), but I felt every last scrape of her nails.

Doctor Does-It-Hurt-Yet’s partner in crime was the Merciless Midwife, a.k.a. the second shift queen of nastiness.  She again gave me the bit about lying down for 30 minutes of CTG recording.  After 8 hours of that mantra I was done being told to stay horizontal when vertical is what you need to speed things along.  I informed her that I would be getting up to use the bathroom, and she retored, “Well, it’s your birth – do you what you want.”

Oh, GOOD!  We’re finally getting somewhere.  Now that I can do what I want, I’d like to get in the birthing tub.

That big teacup is the birthing tub.  Water birth is very common in Germany, and all the staff are trained to deliver babies in the water if the mother so chooses.

From that point on, things started to really heat up.  I was the frog in the pot that just kept getting hotter, and I was about to be boiled alive.

Sitting in the birth tub, the contractions became too intense to handle.  I felt like my tailbone was being smashed to bits.  And that’s because it was, only I didn’t know it yet.

I admitted to Doc Sci that I just couldn’t take the pain anymore.  It was time for an epidural.  What I failed to explain to him, however, is that German hospitals don’t give out epidurals like candy.

In the US, the mother is encouraged to sign all the consent forms for an epidural before going into labor so that (ideally) at the exact minute she wants one, she can have it.  In Germany, doctors and midwives purposefully do not give the mother any information or paperwork for an epidural for the express purpose of delaying the intervention as long as possible in order to (hopefully) avoid giving it to her.  The bottom line – if you want an epidural in Germany, you’re going to have to fight like mad to get it.

And fight – and scream – I did.  Remember Miss Merciless Midwife?  Here’s a little exchange I had with her…

“Hi, how are things going?”
“I want an epidural.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I want an epidural.”
“Do you feel a need to push?”
“No, I feel a need to get an epidural.”
“Do you want me to check you?  Maybe you’re 10cm.”
“No, what I want you to do is call the anesthesiologist.”
“Okay, I can do that.  But let’s just give it a little time and see how you’re doing.”
“The only thing you’re going to give me are DRUGS!”

At this point, I start shaking uncontrollably because my body does not handle adrenaline very well.  Here I am, scantily clad, convulsing, shrieking, and begging for a fix.  If it weren’t for the swank hospital suite on my insurance company’s dime, I could’ve very well been in some back alley in the Bronx.

After my scary self convinced Merciless Midwife to actually call the anesthesiologist, I had to wait about an hour for him to arrive.  The hospital was incredibly busy due to – as I mentioned previously – lots of staff members being on holiday.  Plus, Germans generally like to use fewer staff to do more work.  I later found out that there was only one anesthesiologist there that night for the entire hospital which just happens to be one of the largest in the whole of Germany.  Brilliant.

Because I couldn’t stop shaking, I was given drugs to stop the contractions so I could sit still enough for the big poke.  Then I was given Pitocin again to restart the contractions.  Back and forth between two extremes, and yet in all of this the baby was not coming down and out.

I wanted to avoid an epidural if at all possible.  I somehow managed to get Screech out without one, and the recovery is a million times faster.  But if you need it, you need it, and better to get it over with and the baby out as soon as possible.  When I had an epidural with T-Rex, and it was glorious.  After more than 18 hours of induced labor, I fell asleep for two hours, woke up, pushed for 10 minutes, and that was the end of that.

However, this epidural was NOT the heaven I remembered.  I still could feel every. last. contraction.  I was breathing through each one, shaking from the adrenaline, and in a world of hurt.

Before the anesthesiologist left, he instructed me to wait 15 minutes and assured me that the drugs should work by then.  But, the crash, bang, boom happening at the end of my spine was not letting up.  I had to once again beg, grovel, and plead with Merciless Midwife to call him back.  And what did she tell me?

“Just wait a little longer.”
“How much longer?
“Five minutes.”
“… Okay, it’s been five minutes.  It’s still not working.”
“Just wait a little longer.”
“What is this, a prerecorded speech?  How much longer?”
“I don’t know.”
“THEN CALL HIM!  In case you somehow missed it, the epidural is NOT WORKING!”

I told you she was real special.

When she finally called him, he had gone home for the night, and the next anesthesiologist had to be briefed.  The new guy gave me something else which did end up working after another 20-30 minutes.

But by then, I had had it.  It was almost midnight, and all I could think of was how ridiculous the whole ordeal was.  The staff was not interested in helping me get this baby out at all.  The last hours were spent in a freakishly awful pendulum of pain and progression (though mostly pain and little progression).  The whole point of me being in the hospital at that time was to get the baby out.  And he was not coming out.

I looked at Doc Sci with all seriousness and said, it’s time to do a c-section.  I can’t handle this any longer, pain or no pain.  I’m giving up.  Yep, I’m a wimp.  A wimp who wanted to see my new baby and get home to my kids and away from this sick hospital circus.

We called the doctor (she actually came!) and asked her to do a c-section.  Shocking my socks off, Dr. Does-It-Hurt-Yet agreed and said it was no problem.  But… she wanted to check me first.  Surprise, surprise, I was ready to push.

Pick-your-poison pushing positions.

In the US, I included a request in my birth plan to push in some position other than the standard flat-on-your-back approach.  The doctors told me flat out they were uncomfortable delivering babies any other way.  In Germany, my hospital room came complete with a smorgasbord of pushing options.  However, given that I had an epidural and wasn’t able to stand up, I couldn’t take my pick.  The midwife and doctor both wanted me to push while lying on my side.  It was one of two moments that saved me from utterly despising their total existence until the end of time.

As precious baby boy #3 sailed his way into the world, he was abruptly shoved back the way he came.  I’m sure if he could consider it rude, he would’ve.  But, it was brilliant from my perspective since that one nasty smack from the midwife saved me from blasting open a wider escape route for the dear little bub.

And when he finally, finally came out, he was, as the Germans say, looking at the stars.  Sunny side up and screaming his little head off.  And, speaking of his head, the poor thing must have been so sore from banging against my tailbone.  all. day. long.

Well, even if he was sore or misshapen or madder than a wet hen, I couldn’t tell.  All I could see was a beautiful baby boy – here at last!

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

You’d think that would be the end of the story.  And that would be lovely if it were true.  But no – there’s more…

A (much) nicer midwife measured and weighed him, and gave him back to me sans bath and still covered in stinky white stuff that no one in the hospital ever bothered to wash off (!).  We were then moved to a temporary holding cell (hang on to your hats, it’s about to get prison-like) where my awesome, amazing, and exhausted husband was forced to try and get some sleep on a stool.  No back.  Extra grease on the wheels.

The holding cell – red light special.

Around 330am, I was finally given a room.  Only the maternity recovery ward was full (see? August is a terrible time to have a baby in Germany!!), so I was wheeled to a room in another ward on the other side of the hospital.  What I didn’t realize at the time was this ward was full of sick women, and only one (ONE!) nurse was on duty.

Oblivious to what I was getting myself into, I sent a weary Doc Sci home around 4am.  Our sweet neighbor was staying the night with the kids, and I wanted her to have at least some normal sleep in her own bed.  Oh, and Doc Sci was not allowed to stay in the room with me unless we paid for a “family room” which cost almost double the price of a single private room.

The single private room. Doc Sci must have taken this without my knowledge!

I buzzed the nurse, and asked her to remove the epidural that was still in my back and also the “baggage” that comes along with getting said epidural.  She said no.

No?

NO, she would not call the anesthesiologist (only he could remove the annoying little thingie shoved in my spine) because he wouldn’t come anyway since he had other important things to do.  NO, she would not help me try to stand up because she was alone and didn’t want to have to help me up if I fell down.  NO, I could not go back to the labor and delivery ward.  NO, she would not do anything at all because there were other people more in need of her than I was.  NO, I could not believe this was happening.

So there I lay, alone, in a small room with a tiny new baby.  I was unable to open the window, get something to eat, use the bathroom, or change the baby.  I was stuck in bed incredulous at this frustrating turn of events especially after all that I had been through in the past 24 hours.

Thank God, I had my phone next to me, so I called Doc Sci.  But, there was nothing he could do either.  He couldn’t leave the boys, and he couldn’t ask the neighbor to come back until a more decent hour.  I decided right then and there I was going home at the first possible instant.

If I had possessed the ability, I would have scooped up the baby and gone home in the middle of the night.  But several items of business had to be taken care of first, so I pestered the nursing staff every hour in order to get everything I needed to be discharged.  At 3pm, I was ready.

The new baby’s hospital bed. It must be taken everywhere you go inside the hospital – bathroom, shower, kitchen, etc.

I’m used to the high security hospital wards in the US, but from my experience in a German hospital, I’d guess baby stealing and switching is only an American fear.  Doc Sci did not need to check with anyone or show any ID before coming in my room.  When he walked the baby over to the pediatric nurse station to get more diapers, no one stopped him or asked where he was going.  Upon checkout, no one verified that the baby I left with was actually mine.

Sheesh.  Good thing I’m sure.  I think.

So, there you have it.  The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birth that left me with a handsome, healthy boy we’re calling Big Foot.

Welcome to the world, Big Foot!

Herzlichen Glückwunsch!

Pregnant in Germany – Hospitals

I must admit, I’m excited about some aspects of German maternity care (postnatal, in-home midwife visits for instance).  But there are some I am dreading.  Choosing a hospital is one item I’m chalking up as loathsome on my to do list.

I’ll be forever jaded by my first two birth experiences.  Both were at the same hospital, a fancy schmancy building with eleven floors dedicated solely to women and babies.  When I was there, I never felt like I was in a hospital.  It was more akin to a five-star hotel.

In the US, doctors have hospital privileges only at certain facilities.  Patients can either choose a hospital and then find a doctor with privileges there.  Or, patients can choose a doctor first with the realization that they cannot choose a hospital outside that physician’s privileges.

In Germany, the mother chooses the hospital where she wants to give birth (birth houses and home births are also options, but I’m not including them in this post).  As I mentioned previously, the doctor that the mother visits for prenatal care will have nothing to do with the actual birth.  Instead, the hospital staff (midwives and physicians) run the show.

Within my city, I have three hospital choices.  For the sake of ease, I’ll just name them hospitals A, B, and C.  But, that’s where the easiness ends.  Making this choice is no walk in the park.

Why?  Because they each have their pros and cons, not only in my opinion but in the opinion of others who have experienced the staff and facilities personally.

To choose a hospital, it’s best to visit all of the options first, and then make a decision.  Each hospital has an Infoabend, or information evening usually once per month.  During this time, visitors can listen to a little talk about why this particular hospital is amazing, (hopefully) go on a tour of the labor/delivery and recovery facilities, and ask questions of the staff.

Over the course of a few months, I attended the Infoabend for hospitals A, B, and C.  All three hospitals had pregnant women climbing stairs to go from the lecture hall to the labor ward – something that would never happen in the US.  Hospital A at least offered water to the women during the lecture.  Hospitals B and C did not.  All three hospitals gave the talk in a large room without sound amplification… or air conditioning.

And so we come to one of my biggest concerns.  Giving birth in the heat of summer with no air conditioning is an emergency c-section waiting to happen… for me anyway.  I know women all of the world do it regularly, but I’m a wuss.  I don’t want to pass out from pain AND heat.

Hospitals B and C had decent air conditioning in Labor & Delivery (L&D).  Only hospital B seemed to have it in the recovery rooms.

I’ve considered that getting in a birthing tub during labor might help with the August heat problem.  Thankfully, all three hospitals have birthing tubs, but only Hospital B has tubs in every room that are big enough for giving birth.  In Germany, it’s totally normal to have a water birth, and no midwife or physician would bat an eye at a woman’s request for one.  Not so in the US.

And, speaking of rooms, these hospitals are very small compared to my previous eleven-floor, swank, not-really-a-hospital experience.  Not one facility here has more than six L&D rooms.  SIX.

Another major concern for me is whether or not the staff in these small hospitals speak English.  I asked at hospitals A & B.  Both assured me that most do speak at least some English.  I didn’t ask at hospital C because I would only go there kicking and screaming… or unconscious.  Hopefully, the limited German I know and feel like remembering in labor coupled with the staff’s English will be enough.  Please, God, let that be true.

So, what about after the birth?  Another unpleasant subject, unfortunately.  Health insurance in Germany only pays for a three-bed recovery room.  If a hospital only has rooms for two people, then that is acceptable.

But, keep in mind this means that it will be the mother and her child plus at least one other mother and that woman’s child.  And perhaps her friends.  Or her husband.  Or her uncle, grandfather, boyfriend, teenage son, etc.  Just who I want to see after giving birth.

In order to get a private room, one must let the staff know upon arrival at the hospital.  And pay a fee.  (There’s always a fee, right?).  The cost ranges from 40-135 euros per night, depending on the hospital and type of private room (family rooms – where the husband can sleep over – cost more).  I’d say that’s peanuts in exchange for not having to share a hospital bathroom or bunk with someone else’s screaming newborn.

In addition to all the physical characteristics, I have to take into account the general attitude of the hospital.  Are they c-section happy?  Do they get a kick out of using a vacuum extractor?  Will they make it hard for me to get an epidural if I want one?  Are they irritated or indifferent that I’m a foreigner?

Considering all the factors, I’ve only been able to make one decision so far: eliminate hospital C.  Truth be told, this elimination mostly has to do with the lead doctor being about as warm and friendly as my building superintendent than anything else.

I only have a few weeks left to decide between A & B.  But, then again, honestly I don’t actually have to choose.  As long as I am 36+ weeks along, I can just show up at either facility.  So, perhaps I won’t make a firm choice after all.  Or maybe I’ll just do eeny-meeny-miney-moe.

But you can bet wherever I go and whatever happens when I get there, I won’t be without a story to tell.