Expats Move Home : Farewell to Freiburg

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

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

Goodnight room.

Goodnight moon.

Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.

Goodnight light, and the red balloon…

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

Goodbye favorite bicycle.

Goodbye salty, soft pretzels.

Goodbye closed-on-Sunday, and

Dreisam filled with pebbles.

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

Make a List – Check it Twice

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

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

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

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

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

Places and Spaces

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

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

Goodbye Biergarten,

Goodbye Limonade and Radler.

Goodbye Spielplatz, for now

And every Sunday thereafter.

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

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

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

Goodbye elfin kitchen.

Goodbye windowless bathroom.

Goodbye you sweet neighbors,

And the sound of our laughter.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye

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

Goodbye thrilling slides.

Goodbye Vogelnests.

Goodbye ziplines, merry-go-rounds.

The dangerous ones were always the best.

Goodbye tall rope towers.

Goodbye gritty sand pits.

Clothed in Matschhose

Here my boys spent their hours.

 

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

Say Cheese

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

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

Goodbye ancient Münster,

Your steeple scraping the sky.

At least to your scaffolding

I’ll never have to say goodbye.

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

Wrapping Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There should always be cake.

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

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

Is it possible to enjoy yourself while saying goodbye?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbyes – The Expat Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbyes – Difficult but Necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends BehindJust Do It

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

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

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

And, if it helps, bring cake.

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

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

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

 

Expats Move Home: How Our Knick Knacks Crossed the Atlantic

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Almost everyone has moved somewhere at some point in their life. Whether it be down the street, around the corner, across the country, or even halfway around the globe, it’s a common human experience.

But, that’s where the commonality usually ends. Why? Where? How often? How far? And, literally… how?

In an earlier Expats Move Home post, I recapped the madness of our adventures moving from Germany back to the US. I briefly mentioned what we did with all of the goods we accumulated in four years. Today, I want to shed some light on how we did that and if our method was effective or not.

The Container Conundrum

Most people moving overseas use a container to literally ship their home goods from one end of the ocean to the other. It’s the most practical (and often the only) way to allow you to sleep on the exact same bed in both South Carolina and Spain.

We didn’t use a container service moving to or from Germany. Why? Well, we simply didn’t have enough stuff to make the cost worthwhile.

Sea (or air) freight is very expensive, time-consuming, and full of paperwork. It’s really only worth the effort if you have an entire house to move.

When we first set out for Freiburg in 2010, we had no idea how long we would be there though we assumed it would only be one year. After considering the cost to store all of our belongings in the US, we decided to give away most of our American possessions and store only those items that would have been too expensive, sentimental, or difficult to replace.

We stuffed the remaining essentials into large suitcases which we checked as luggage on the airplane. For a trip down memory lane, you can read the turbulent story of when we – meaning me and only two boys – first touched down in Frankfurt five years ago here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

This is how “moving” looked the first time around – big piles of junk in our friends’ garage that eventually was organized into fifty-pound suitcases. Sorry for the awful photo – making things pretty wasn’t a priority; getting through it was!

Ship or Ship?

After four years in Germany, we cataloged our meager possessions and realized that by 2014 we had acquired more than we had arrived with in 2010. But despite numerous trips to Ikea and a mountain of fantastic hand-me-downs, we still did not own enough household items to ship a container. 

We researched different options for getting our goods from point A (Freiburg) to point B (Florida). All air and sea freight options ended up out of our price range and not suitable for our circumstances anyway.

Schlepping suitcases wouldn’t work this time either because we would be traveling for several weeks before reaching our final destination in Orlando (you can read the summary of everywhere we went here). There was no way we could – or wanted to – lug a quarter of a ton of luggage around!

Ten, fifty pound suitcases equals five hundred pounds, and five hundred times four is two thousand, right? Correct me if I’m wrong – math has never been my thing – but that is just insane.

After talking with former Freiburg friends, we decided that the option best suited to our situation would be to simply post boxes with DHL.

Going with DHL is by no means the easiest or cheapest method. It’s just what we had to do given the meager amount of household goods.

Whittling Down and Weeding Out

Now, before I went wild with the tape gun, it was necessary to weed out what we didn’t want or need and whittle down the remaining items until we reached the true essentials.

This is a hallmark of any moving experience, but it’s trickier in Germany. Trash is a sensitive subject; one cannot simply leave their unwanted junk on the curb and have it picked up for free. And garage sales?! Please – there’s no such thing.

Yes, there are Flohmärkte, but that assumes that you (1) know of one that (2) fits your schedule, (3) you have a way to schlep your things to the prescribed location, and (4) you are able to haggle auf Deutsch with your customers. For me, a Flohmarkt just wasn’t happening.

Barter or Bestow?

I made a spreadsheet of all the items that weren’t going to earn a free ticket to America, and I divided that list into two categories: giving and selling. While in Freiburg, we made many amazing friends, and I was happy to give as many things as possible to those who wanted/needed it. Plus, I wasn’t going to sell my €3 IKEA salad spinner – I just wanted it gone!

But, moving continents isn’t cheap, so I had to sell big ticket items with lots of wear and value left. I added links to pictures and descriptions of the for sale items, and then I emailed the list to everyone I knew. I explained that the first person to email me about a particular item had dibs.

Additionally, I encouraged my friends to forward the list on to their friends. Expat networks are a beautiful thing, and word often travels fast in these circles. I really wanted to avoid having to hawk my junk on sites like ebay and Craigslist, though I did eventually have to do that for a few bigger items that no one needed.

Sold!

In Germany, used goods sell for nearly the price of new items. It’s absolutely ridiculous. An expensive new pram, for example, retails for €800. A used one would go for €700 unless it’s in really bad shape, in which case it might be let go for €650. Yes, really.

In order to move things along as quickly as possible (pun intended), I priced everything at 50% off – or more – of the original price. However, I did not list any amounts on the spreadsheet I emailed out; instead, I simply gave the price to whomever asked about the item. I think this helped because (1) buyers were already interested and (2) the dirt cheap deal I offered made the bargain too good to refuse. Since prices were so low, I did not have to haggle at all. Score!

Using the small, yet tight-knit expat community ended up being an excellent strategy. Not only did I mostly escape having to bargain with strangers, but my friends and acquaintances were more willing to agree on a later date to transfer the goods rather than having to hand the items over right away.

I can’t stress to you how advantageous this was. It was incredibly beneficial to know that my washing machine was indeed sold, but I could use it up until a few days before we actually moved.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

As you know, the process of moving takes an enormous amount of time. Here’s a snippet of what happened when I left my two year-old unattended in the living room while I packed… At least he put every.last.stinking.piece of our game and puzzle collection on the table instead of the floor. That counts for something… right?

Post Haste

With my remaining goods good to go, I consulted my former expat friend again, the one who had sent his own possessions home with DHL. He gifted me a few helpful pieces of advice.

First, he explained that I needed to list everything (yes, every.single.thing) that was in the box. Then, weigh the box + contents carefully, being certain to not go overweight. Finally,  schedule the boxes to be picked up at home instead of dragging them to the nearest DHL office.

All simple tips, yet incredibly valuable.

How Do You Do?

So, let me ask you, when you move, how do you pack? Super organized and careful at first, placing like objects together and paying attention to whether or not you can lift each box? With color coded labels for each room and the contents written in your best handwriting?

Right.

Okay, I usually start out like that – or intend to – but quickly devolve into “whatever” chaos – tossing in toothbrushes with toys and Tupperware. This madness is often performed alone in the wee hours of the night because my better half is often working on work or some other moving-related task.

But, friends, such packing behavior just isn’t going to cut it when you have to use a plane instead of pals to move your junk.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

I know I already used this photo above, but I want to tell you the secret behind it. When I checked the max. measurements on dhl.de, I thought I would be clever and order some of that size. Well, apparently centimeters are not my forte, because THESE were the boxes that arrived! Our entire family might be able to fit inside (well, if we were contortionists, that is), but each box could only WEIGH 30 kilos… uh, yeah – major MOVE FAIL.

It Takes Two

Packing boxes for a ride with DHL ended up being a two-person job (give or take one eager helper to wield the tape gun). One person packed the box while the other typed each and every little thing that went inside the box and added it to a detailed spreadsheet.

When the box was full, the two of us weighed it using a luggage scale and a gigantic Ikea bag (high-tech, I know). If the carton and contents were too light, we added more things (being careful to add them to the spreadsheet, too). And, vice versa, when the box was overweight, we shifted the innards (ensuring we deleted these items from the spreadsheet). Sounds like a pretty awesome way to spend your evenings, no?

Each box received a number from us that we also listed in our spreadsheet. That way, if any of the boxes lost its way, we would know which box had gone astray and what exactly was inside (toothbrushes, toys, and Tupperware, naturally).

Crap Flap

When we could finally see the floor in our apartment again – well, except the area underneath the tape-adorned boxes – I processed the shipping labels on dhl.de. To, From, Size, Weight… so far, so good.

When the required contents declaration appeared, I momentarily panicked when I realized that I could not just copy and paste my spreadsheet onto the DHL shipping manifest. Instead, I was given only six lines for each box… and, I was required to list a value and weight for each line item.

Oh, snap.

Germans love forms, rules, and those who conform. Delinquents who fill out forms incorrectly, ignore rules or decide to make their own, lose. Big Time. I knew that if I botched these forms, there was a good chance my bobbles and bits would never see the light of an American day.

I tried calling German DHL and asking. Though I somehow managed to find someone who spoke English, that phone call left me with more questions and even more paranoia than before.

Several deep breaths and a half a Ritter Sport later, it dawned on me. I could try and call US Customs in Florida, since that’s where my boxes would end up anyway.

I finally found someone to answer my questions, and she suggested I group similar items together and write descriptions like Used Children’s Toys instead of just Toys. She also urged me to indicate that the contents were personal household goods so as to not be hit with duty fees.

American customer service really is a beautiful thing. Even the grumpiest government worker in America can usually be coaxed into helping with a few kind words and a dash of appreciation. Maybe someday Germany will jump on the be-nice-to-your-customers-and-they-will-be-nice-to-you bandwagon…?

Feeling much better, I returned to the dreaded DHL website and followed her instructions. For the weight, I honestly just guessed on each category since I knew the total of the box. For the value, I kept the value for each box at or under €500 since this is the per box maximum amount of included insurance from DHL.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Expert tip: do NOT take your boxes to the nearest DHL location. Schedule a pickup instead!

Come and Get ‘Em

With the shipping labels completed (and the return of my blood pressure to a normal range), I then scheduled a pickup with DHL at my home address. Not only was this absolutely genius because I did not have to drag 30 kilo boxes to the post office, but generally the DHL drivers do not weigh the boxes.

Now, I don’t want to condone or encourage dishonesty, here. Doc Sci and I were very careful to make sure the boxes were as close to 30kg as possible. But, I did not want to argue with a postal clerk if the cartons were a few grams over or under the limit because my scale wasn’t calibrated exactly like hers.

Thankfully, the transfer to the DHL truck was smooth sailing, and I received tracking numbers and receipts for the boxes from the driver.

All right, you Nosy Nellies, I know you’re curious. How many boxes did we ship? Well, in the beginning, I had hoped to ship ten boxes – we ended up shipping fifteen. The packages took two to four weeks to arrive from Germany. I could track them on dhl.com but often the updates were nonexistent or happened all at once. When we finally set eyes on those brown beauties again, they were pretty bashed up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Our beat up boxes, post ocean voyage and customs vacation.

The Fifteen-Box Miracle

As you can see from the photos above, most boxes were agape with holes or puncture marks. Some even had entire seams exposed. They looked really, really bad. This totally stressed me out, until I realized something.

Miraculously, all fifteen boxes made it, and not a single thing was lost though the dents and gashes.

I believe the reason every little knick knack made it is partly because within each big box, I packed our things in smaller cartons (such as diaper boxes). This nesting idea wasn’t for shipping purposes, though. We needed to fit the contents of the fifteen big boxes into nooks and crannies of our small existing storage unit since we did not have a place to live when we arrived. While it was a ton of work in the moment to sort of pack everything twice, this small act paid off in a big way.

Repeat Performance?

So, would I use DHL to ship our household goods across the Atlantic again? The answer depends heavily upon the circumstances. In our case, no other option made sense.

All methods of moving overseas carry a certain amount of risk. Yes, insurance can be purchased, but claim funds and replacement goods are not the same as getting your beloved winter coat or your Grandma’s English tea cups back. I feel like we did the best we could in our situation, and thankfully, it all worked out this time.

If you’ve moved overseas, I’d love to hear your story! Or if you are thinking of moving abroad one day, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Did you / would you go the container route? Check luggage? Ship boxes? Go minimalist and take nothing?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

 

Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?Grocery shopping – it’s either a mundane chore or an obsessive activity depending on who shares your shack. If you only cook for one or two, restocking the fridge may be an afterthought or even an annoyance. But for those with HUNGRY munchkins nipping at their heels, getting groceries is serious business.

While purchasing provisions in Germany vs. the US might not be as drastically different than, say, bartering for baloney in a rural Mongolian market, the discrepancies while abroad were enough to make me pine for the greener pastures of Publix, Kroger, and… Costco.

During my weekly German Aldi run, I longed for a bulk store like Costco or Sam’s. I was completely over the cashiers’ stares when I bought my standard ten liters of milk every Monday. Must I always insist that I am not feeding a herd of baby cows each week?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Rookie German grocery mistake: don’t buy more than your teeny fridge can hold.

In Germany, buying in bulk is just not a thing. Are you a big-box or warehouse shopper? Do you buy your milk by the liter or by the metric ton? I would’ve preferred the latter, but really, all I wanted was to shop at one store.

ONE.

Super Size It

America has done such a bang-up job of exporting BIG abroad – BIG brands like Oreo and BIG companies like Coke (to say nothing of BIG hair and BIG bodies plastered on the BIG silver screen). Unfortunately, my homeland failed me in neglecting to force the rest of the world to jump on the jumbo food packaging train.

Did I count down the days until we could join an American warehouse club store? You betcha.Thrifty Travel Mama - Strawberry Madness! Ideas and Recipes

Shop Around

Beyond the super-sized milk jugs and bloated boxes of cereal, the second major annoyance focused on the necessity of patronizing a minimum of two grocery stores every week to purchase ingredients I needed or wanted. More often than not, I visited three OR MORE… e v e r y    w e e k.

Give a little shout out if you that routine sounds major awesome!! No one? Really..?

One store. That doesn’t seem to much to ask, does it?

You might say, but hey, don’t you often sign the praises of Aldi? Yes, you’ve caught me. I do love Aldi, so much so that I pitted German Aldi vs American Aldi in a supermarket smackdown which you can read here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Weekly Aldi grocery run.

Unfortunately, as a discount store that aims to keep prices low, Aldi does not and cannot carry everything. Another German grocer, Rewe, is as expensive as it is amazing. Most Rewe stores are sparkling clean with two or three times as many products as Aldi or Lidl. But, that variety comes at a premium. Prices at Rewe were too high to shop there exclusively.

Despite their advantage over Aldi in terms of options, even Rewe doesn’t carry cilantro for my homemade salsa or black beans for this cheesy Warm Chipotle Dip. Want to know why?

I’ll let you in on a little secret… many Germans do not like dishes that feature a lot of spices (the exception being, of course, currywurst). Plain Jane is the name of the German flavor game. Grocers in Deutschland don’t carry a plethora of ethnic products because the majority of German customers won’t buy them.

So, what if you want to buck the well-established German flavor system and cook delicious dishes like curries and stir fry? Where are you going to find the essential ingredients?Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

The best place for global cuisine staples is an Asian or Middle Eastern specialty shop. Since I just can’t live indefinitely without my red lentils or soba noodles, I added yet another stop to my grocery groove – the Turkish market.

Exhausting and irritating yet unavoidable for the flavor seeker – patronizing multiple stores was my weekly routine. And every time I did the dance, I dreamed of being about to shop at one store per week.

Just ONE.

Coming to America

By now, you’re thinking that the neighborhood Walmart sounds like a fabulous place to shop in comparison – yeah, you and me both. Well, okay, maybe not Walmart. That place sends me into an absolute panic.

As you can imagine, one of the things I looked forward to the most when moving back to the States was one-stop grocery shopping. One store – done.

Bahahahahaha. Boy, was I wrong.

In Arizona, we became Costco members, and I gleefully loaded my colossal shopping cart with industrial-sized laundry detergent, a city block of toilet paper, and enough ketchup to last me until the apocalypse. Those first few weeks of buyers bliss were seriously something awesome.Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

But, I soon realized something.

Costco really is fabulous, but it doesn’t carry all the produce we usually eat. Kroger has low prices, but they don’t have all the natural and organic foods I buy. Sprouts is a decent health food store, but even they don’t carry all the ethnic food ingredients needed for more exotic dishes.

Oh my… here we go again.

I still find myself frequenting at least two stores every week here in America, often three if I add Trader Joe’s in the mix.

The main difference is I zip around in my car instead of my bike, burning gas instead of calories, while stressing out about traffic instead of whether the heavens will open up and drench both me and my bike trailer full of groceries. Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Win, Lose, or Draw?

If neither Germany nor America can give me that one and done experience – will ANYONE win?

On the plus side for America, it really is nice to save money in the land of grocery competition where stores often sell items at a loss just to get you in the door. I am once again using coupons (though nowhere NEAR the level I did once upon a time) and shopping the sales.

But, other than that aspect – significant as it may be, I can’t say that the American market experience is much better in terms of value added. America just stocks more products, offers more choice, and advertises more options… all of which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for an expat in reverse culture shock recovery.Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

I do like that I can get any ingredient I need at nearly any time of day or night. And, yeah, the free samples at Costco and free cookies at Publix are a godsend when shopping with little boys. It’s also a big bonus to have my groceries bagged for me instead of having my meat and potatoes flung at me by an overzealous Aldi clerk because I’m not sacking them fast enough for her…

I don’t like that every time I go to the grocery store here, I am loaded up with a zillion and one plastic grocery bags. Where is the petition to ban these convenient nuisances from stores? Please, put my name at the tippy top.

Environmental concerns aside, those piles of plastic are a mushrooming monster, multiplying at an alarming rate and silently conquering every available nook and cranny in my house. At least German stores charge for plastic bags which passes the cost to the customer and makes one rethink how many bags are actually necessary.

Even if I can’t shop at one store, maybe I could make it out of each one with only ONE reusable bag instead of ONE thing in each plastic sea-creature-suffocating bag… A Sip of Summer - Refreshing Blueberry Lemonade and Green Tea

Wrapping Up

Contrary to my domestic daydreams, the grocery shopping grind in the US isn’t all I had hoped it would be. Despite living in the land of infinite possibility and choice, grabbing groceries every week at ONE store is simply not possible unless you possess (a) loads of cash that allow you to always pay full price or (b) a personal shopper who goes to all the various stores for you.

My one-and-done goal turns out to be downright unattainable under current circumstances. But, who knows? Maybe ONE day, that dream will come true.

What do you like and loathe about your weekly grocery trip? If you have grocery delivery, I would love to know your experience and if you think it simplifies things for your family.Signature Thrifty Travel MamaLead photo credit

 

Reverse Culture Shock: The Four-Month Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on and on the deceit goes.

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

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

No, no, no.

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crappity crap. Cookies without milk.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expats Move Home: What America Does Better

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

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

German Kitchens

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

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

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

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

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

A typical European-sized fridge.

Customer Service

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

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

Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

All Chipotle, all the time!

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

Feeling Like an Outsider

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

Noteworthy

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaImage source

 

 

Expats Move Home: Do We Miss Germany?

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

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

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

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

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

But, were those olden days really… good?

If so, then what was good?

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

Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding My Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simplicity of Food

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

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

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

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

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

No Bags at the Grocery Store

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

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

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

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

Banking

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom to Roam

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

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

Fresh Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

German Speakers

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

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

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

Wrap Up

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

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