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

 

Upcycled Milk Carton (Scarf) Organizer

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  I actually don’t mind that most things in Europe are small – tiny cars, itty bitty apartments, skinny streets.  But one thing that drives me bonkers is the fact that milk is only sold by the liter.

I know this is totally a first world problem, and I realize that there are more important things to complain about.  But, week after week of getting “the look” from the grocery cashier just wears me down.  No, I am not nursing an army of baby cows back to health.  I’m just trying to keep up with my milk-chugging boys, thankyouverymuch. 

After said boys have consumed the liters, we then have the litter to look after.  I obviously know by now to put it in the correct trash bin.  But, all those cartons really add up, and I find myself annoyed and inevitably putting off the dreaded trip to the dumpster.

What to do?  Well, in the spirit of Real Simple, find new uses for old things, of course!

I’ve collected a zillion and one scarves since moving to Germany, and the horde is getting a little to rambunctious for my OCD tastes.  As part of my biannual deep clean, I wanted to make the menagerie into a pretty, neat grid that would facilitate my appreciation and usage of all the options.

But, even if you’re not a neck wear nut, you could use this upcycled milk carton doodad to corral any number of other loose items like jewelry, makeup, hair accessories, toiletries, ties, office supplies, etc.

Since I can’t seem to make anything without giving it the topographical treatment, you know there will be maps involved in this project.  If you don’t have this same addiction, er I mean problem, you could use high quality wrapping paper or decorate simple brown paper.  A nice hand-stamped design would be totally fab.

My apologies in advance for the poor lighting and creepy fingers.  A hand model I am not, and my only time to get creative is well after the sun and sons have gone to bed.  How else can I swipe my kid’s Lightning McQueen ruler without him knowing and obviously objecting?

All right, let’s git ‘er done.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Supplies:

  • Clean, dry milk cartons*
  • Box cutter or razor blade
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Clear packing tape
  • Serious craft glue like E6000 or Uhu Kontakt Kraftkleber (optional)
  • Clothespins (optional)
  • Electrical or washi tape
  • Old map, heavy duty wrapping paper, or decorated brown paper

*A note about the milk cartons… Rinse and dry them as soon as they’re empty.  However, you still might discover some brilliant fuzzy friends when you open them up.  No problem – just wash and dry again.

Also, the number of milk cartons is completely up to you.  I used 15 because I like odd numbers, but don’t be afraid to make the grid smaller (especially if you have access to half gallon cartons) or larger.  Something asymmetrical/abstract could be super cool, but only attempt this if you have less than 3 children and an excess of time and patience.

But, if you do try any funky shape variations, please do post a link to your project in the comments below.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Cut Your Cartons

Determine how deep you want your bins to be, and use your (pilfered-from-the-resident-six-year-old) ruler to mark each milk carton.  Lop the tops off with a box cutter.  Careful, now, those blades are wicked sharp!

Rinse and repeat.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Okay, no rinsing is required unless you discover the aforementioned fuzz inside the containers.  Just keep cutting until you have as many headless milk cartons as you please.

Add the Adhesive

Arrange the cartons in the formation that suits your fancy.  For me, this was 3×5.  Once they’re set up, you might notice that some of your razor cuts came out uneven (or was that just me?).  Use sharp scissors to trim the edges until it looks good (enough).

Cut off pieces of clear packing tape, roll them around your fingers, and wedge them between two cartons.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Optional: If you want the edges flush, you’ll need to use some strong craft glue (see Supplies, above, for recommendations) and clothespins to hold the seams in place.  Allow the glue to dry overnight.

In any case, go to town again with the packing tape, wrapping it around the whole organizer in a giant sticky hug.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Details, Details

If you’re only stashing your organizer in a drawer and filling it with rubber bands and thumbtacks, feel free to stop here.  But, if you want to make it pretty, it’s time to dive into the details.

Tear off tiny pieces of electrical tape (I used white) or washi tape (didn’t have any on hand) to conceal the carton corners. Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Cut strips out of your map big enough to cover the milk carton seams and extend as far down as you want.  I knew each scarf would take up nearly an entire bin, so my map pieces are only about an inch wide.

Once you’ve arranged the strips how you like them, glue or tape the papers to cover the carton seams.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Wrap It Up

Treat your newly smoodged-together organizer as a Christmas present, and wrap that puppy up.  A few tips..

  • Trim the excess off your map so you’re not battling a paper dragon that keeps folding back on itself.  Leave a margin of several inches all around.
  • Attach the sides before you do the ends.  This is because the ends are easy and the sides are a pain in the you-know-what.
  • Speaking of the sides, start in the center of your milk carton formation, and work out from there.
  • Cut small slits from the edge of the map to the top of the carton to line up with the seams between cartons (see second photo below).  Fold down the flaps, and attach with tape or glue.
  • The first side is the hardest, and things get easier from there.
  • Once the sides are done, finish the ends as you would when wrapping a birthday present in a box (third photo).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Fill ‘er Up

Now it’s time to use your darling creation to organize!  Stuff with scarves, and display with pride.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

What would you fill your organizer with?  Can you think of any other upcycle ideas for my myriad milk cartons?Signature-Marigold

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sentinels.

The sentinels.

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

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

T-Rex is impressed.

T-Rex is impressed.

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

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

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

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

Small 3D printed Strandbeest with propeller inside the studio.

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

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

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

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

Father and son geek out time.

Father and son geek out time.

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

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

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

Disposable Baby Diapers in Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - DiapersSeveral weeks ago, I gave you a snapshot of the options for jarred baby food in Germany.  But eventually all that food is going to come out the other end, and you might want to be in the know about what kind of products we have here to cover your (baby’s) bum.

In short, the two main disposable diaper options in Germany are Pampers and generic store brands.  I have never seen Huggies diapers (only a strange, stray box of DRY wipes), nor do we have Luvs or Seventh Generation.IMG_0107 copyThe diapers are sized similarly, but the weight ranges are in kilograms.  Whatever US diaper size your baby wears (1,2,3,4,5,6) will most likely be the same in Germany.  IMG_0101 copyIMG_0102 copyIMG_0103 copyIMG_0099 copyIMG_0106 copyAs for cost, I did a quick comparison of the German Pampers prices with the American Pampers prices on diapers.com, no sales or coupons.  When you convert euros to dollars, the diapers work out to be about the same price in both countries.

If you’re looking to save some money, the generic disposable diapers at dm are actually of decent quality.  Grocery stores like Lidl and Aldi also sell store brand diapers, but I would only use these in a pinch except for the Lidl pullups which are similar in quality to the dm ones.IMG_0100 copyWe used Pampers diapers for all three boys (including Big Foot who was born here in Germany) when they were newborns, and then switched to generic diapers once they hit size 3 (except for when we used cloth diapers which I really, really miss).  On any given day, you can find dm diapers on Big Foot’s bum, and we have personally used the dm pullups as well.  IMG_0093 copyIMG_0095 copyIMG_0096 copySpeaking of pullups, the options for underwear-style diapers are the dm ones I mentioned and Pampers Easy-Ups.  For older children, DryNites are also available.IMG_0098 copyIMG_0091 copyIMG_0105 copyFor those that want to go a more environmentally friendly route, dm also sells chlorine-free diapers.  They are cheaper than Pampers and a little more expensive than the generic dm brand.IMG_0109 copyAnd, for summer and trips to the pool, dm sells their own brand of swim diapers.  I haven’t seen any Pampers swim diapers, but they may be lurking in large grocery stores that I rarely visit.IMG_0097 copyThough we have less choice than in America, I think this actually makes diapering decisions easier.  I’ll take three decent options over fifteen mediocre ones any day.

Have you tried disposable diapers in Germany or elsewhere outside the US?  What was your experience?Signature-Marigold

Change Up Your Clean Routine

I love a clean house, but I hate giving away the ridiculous amount of time it takes to get there.  I like things to be neat and organized, and I don’t want to have crusty food on the table or crumbs all over the floor.  With three kids, it can seem like nothing is ever clean, and I often want to throw in the towel and give up trying.

However, with a few simple strategies, it is possible to have a clean home in less time.

Are you one of those people that cleans on a certain day or time of the week?  When I was single and also when I was first married, I would spend several hours on Saturday morning cleaning.  Everything got done then: the bathroom, the kitchen, the floors, dusting, etc.

After T-Rex was born, I struggled to keep up with the routine and standards I had maintained for years.  Three or four hours on a Saturday morning was not something I had to give anymore.

Teach your children to clean up their own toys (age appropriately) and, in turn, to be a good steward of the things they have.

Teach your children to clean up their own toys (age appropriately) and, in turn, to be a good steward of the things they have.

Shortly before Screech was born, I discovered Stephanie O’Dea’s Daily 7.  You may know Stephanie from Crockpot 365, a challenge to use her slow cooker every day for an entire year.  Awesome – but I’ll have to save my Crockpot love for another day.

Stephanie’s Daily 7 (based on the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey) rocked my world.  I loved the idea of having little tasks to do every day so that the house stayed pretty clean the whole week through.  Why not clean the bathroom while you are already there supervising little boys in the shower?  Why not take the extra five seconds to put your dish straight in the dishwasher instead of leaving it on the counter or in the sink?

We don't have a dishwasher - at least not the kind you plug in!  We have to keep things clean because that 19" of counter space you see is all we've got.

We don’t have a dishwasher – at least not the kind you plug in! We have to keep things clean because that 19″ of counter space you see is all we’ve got.

The concept seems so simple – and, it is – but putting it into practice made a huge impact on my household productivity, not to mention my stress level.

The boys love to help by pushing the buttons on the washing machine.

The boys love to help by pushing the buttons on the washing machine.

In trying to make this Daily 7 idea work for me, I realized that not all of her 7 fit my situation, my home, or my personality, so I came up with my own version.  I encourage you to make your own list as well based on the particular needs of your family and living space. Here are mine:

  1. Clean up after yourself and help children do the same.  Duh, but a great reminder.  Be an example – your kids are watching!  Help them to accomplish what you eventually want them to do on their own.
  2. Make beds right away.  If you don’t already do this, make it a habit.  And, along the lines of #1, this is a chore that even very young children can learn to do.  It makes a huge difference in the appearance of your home.
  3. Wipe down bathrooms.  When you’re in the shower, scrub it.  When you’re waiting for the kids to finish their bath or shower, give the rest of the bathroom a quick clean.
  4. Do a quick clean up before naps and bedtime.  Less toys scattered about the house means more focus for me during downtime and at night.
  5. Keep the kitchen sink empty.  Put your dishes straight in the dishwasher.  It’s an extra 5 seconds, but the aesthetic payoff is huge.  If you don’t have a dishwasher (I don’t in Germany), try to wash the dishes right away and stack them in the drying rack instead of leaving them on the counter.
  6. Vacuum the entryway and around the dining table.  These are the areas most prone to debris, and you can eliminate that dirty house vibe with a quick swipe of the Hoover.
  7. Wipe down dining table and kitchen counter.  Simple, but highly effective.

By now, you may be thinking, this sounds GREAT!  But, what about the rest of the house?  I can’t just vacuum the entry way and under the table.  Eventually the rest of the floors are going to get pretty grody.

Before we bought a dryer, I had to wash one load of laundry per day in order to give it time to dry on the rack.

Before we bought a dryer, I had to wash one load of laundry per day in order to give it time to dry on the rack.

What works for me is to do one or two “big” chores every day.  Here’s what that looks like in my house:

  • Monday – Grocery shop, put away food, quickly organize fridge and pantry.
  • Tuesday – Wash sheets and towels.  Dry and either fold or put back in their places.  We only have one set of bath towels, so I just hang them back up after they’re dry.
  • Wednesday – Vacuum and mop.  Beat or wash rugs.
  • Thursday – Sort and pre-treat laundry.  Dust house.
  • Friday – Wash and dry laundry.  Meal plan for the upcoming week.
  • Saturday – Fold and put away laundry (can also be done on Friday night while watching a movie).

I don’t have to clean the bathroom or wipe down the kitchen because that’s done daily.  The kids pick up their own toys, and the bedrooms look neat because the comforters and pillows are in place.  This leaves more time for hanging out together, taking care of other priorities, and – of course – traveling on the weekends.

We do the German thing and use a brush to clean up under the table, but if you have a Dust Buster, I'd recommend using that instead!

We do the German thing and use a brush to clean up under the table, but if you have a Dust Buster, I’d recommend using that instead!

You may have noticed I don’t do a Martha Stewart job on my house.  You’ll never see me cleaning my light fixtures with a Q-tip.  My home is meant to be lived in, not shown off.  But, I’ll concede – every now and again the house needs a bit more than the above routine.  So, twice a year we do a “deep clean” in our home.

This little helper is cleaning his own kitchen!

This little helper is cleaning his own kitchen!

Most people do spring cleaning.  I prefer to do a late winter cleaning because it takes me several Saturdays to accomplish such a formidable task.  I’d rather be stuck inside scrubbing on a dreary, cold day than a beautiful, warm, sunny one.  We also do a fall cleaning once the chilly rains begin in late October, again because there’s no advantage to traveling then.

We use our Saturdays for deep cleaning because, truthfully, there just isn’t time during the week.  And, now that the boys are a little older, we can give them easy tasks to keep them occupied and help us out.

I compiled a list of items to be completed as part of the deep clean, and I filed it in my Household Notebook.  I am not publishing it here because it’s specific to my apartment, and you probably wouldn’t get much use out of it.  But here are several links to exhaustive deep clean lists that are extremely helpful when making your own deep clean checklist:

We’re midway through this year’s late winter cleaning, and we should be finished by the time the sun decides to show its face.  Then, we’ll have plenty of time for exploring all that Germany and the surrounding countries have to offer, and a clean home where we can return and relax after our adventures.

Have you implemented any of these cleaning strategies?  Any tips that I may have left out?

Signature-Marigold

DIY: Map Covered Pencil Holder

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

When I visit a new place, I always bring a map.  Whether it’s a custom one I’ve created in Google Maps or a traditional printed one I’ve purchased or picked up from a tourist office, I’m never without directions in my pocket.

But once I get home, I usually just shove the tattered streets in a file for “next time.”  Often I know there won’t be a next time, but I still can’t bring myself to get rid of the old things.  There’s just something about a well worn path with memories of the stops I’ve made.

Well, why not upcycle some of that map stack?  I decided to do just that with these map covered pencil holders.  They are super simple even for non crafty types, and they certainly spice up the bill corner.

Map Covered Pencil Holder Supplies:

  • An assortment of old maps
  • Empty drink cartons, washed and dried
  • Marker
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • A ruler (optional, except for perfectionists)

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Start by gathering your milk or juice cartons.  You could also use other types of boxes or even tin cans if you’re going for round pencil holders, but adjusting the height of the containers won’t be as easy if they’re metal.

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Make a small horizontal line with your marker where you will cut off the top of the cartons.  Use a ruler to make all the sides even if you’d like.  I made three pencil holders at the same time, and I made them of varying heights.  Be sure not to make them too shallow (pencils will fall out) or too tall (pens will be buried).

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Using scissors (or a box cutter), cut off the top of the cartons.  Don’t worry too much (perfectionists) about making the edges amazingly even.  Covering the containers with maps will disguise minor flaws.

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Lay your container down on one of the maps and wrap it up like a Christmas gift, tucking the excess map inside the carton.  Use tape to secure.

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Repeat for as many pencil holders as your little heart desires.  Stand back and admire how nicely your writing instruments look in Berlin.

For more travel-themed handmade items, check out my Travel Crafts and Projects Pinterest board.

An American Buying a French Car in Germany – Part 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Buying A CarThis is part two of Doc Sci’s adventure in buying our new car!  You can read Part 1 here.

On the appointed day, I was on the bank’s doorstep bright and early.  I got my baller roll of 100 dolla bills. Except in euros they have 500 dolla bills y’all.

The big money is kept in a vault, so if you need those 500 dolla (okay, okay, they are euro) bills, you must wait several minutes.  The lock is on a timer – presumably long enough that an employee could press an alarm and the Polizei could arrive before the bandit made off with the loot.

So after the obligatory wait and with 5 grand in my backpack, I set off – on the bus – to buy a car.  I gave Slick Dealer the cash, and he promptly put it in his safe a.k.a his jacket pocket.  The dude had way more 500 dolla bills too.  A serious baller roll, no joke.

We then climbed into his custom leather seats and took a long, awkward 30-minute drive to the registration office (called the Bürgeramt in Germany).  On the way into the building, he saw no less than 4 people he knew.

Like all government offices, visitors must take a ticket: first-come, first-served.  The place was packed.  So Slick Dealer hit up one of his pals for a ticket, which reduced our wait time to 15 minutes instead of over an hour.  The actual registration of the car took longer than usual because of the French title, but thank God it turned out to be a legit (as in not stolen) vehicle.

Finally, I paid 42 euros and was given my registration, license plate number, and a green sticker to put on the inside of windshield on the passenger side.

Green Environmental Sticker
source

The green sticker is very important.  Next year, our city is requiring all cars that drive in the city center to have these stickers that indicate an acceptable level of emissions and environmental pollution.  Without a sticker, drivers will have to stay out of the city center or pay a fine if caught.  Old cars obviously have a hard time getting these, and so do diesels.

Speaking of old cars, we learned that there is a tax each year on your car which is based on how old the car is as well as how big the engine is.  At some point, it just gets too expensive to drive an old beater because the taxes cost way more than the car is even worth.

Taxes are paid to the government via bank transfer.  In order to register the car, you must give them your bank account number, and sign a piece of paper authorizing the direct debit of the taxes (paid yearly).

Anyway, I took my newly registered paperwork down to the the license plate shop.  Surprise, surprise, Slick Dealer  knew the woman behind the counter.  They had a nice chat, and she only charged me half price for the plates.  At least dealing with this guy had some benefits.

We then got back in his ride for another long, awkward drive back to the car that I now own.  I hesitantly drove it off the lot, double and triple checking traffic, lights, and signs because this is no rental.  I own this clunker and am responsible for anything that happens.

Smarty pants Slick Dealer didn’t put any gas in the tank, so I had to stop off to fill ‘er up.  I watched the gauge go up, up, up, and at 70 euros I had to shut it off because I couldn’t stomach paying more than that for a single tank of gas.

Since I only ride my bike around our city, I had no idea how to get home from the gas station.  Thank goodness for Google maps and a smartphone (which, by the way, just happens to be about the only thing that is cheaper in Germany than in America).

As I’m driving, I realize that all the controls and dashboard messages are either in French or in German.  The car paperwork is missing the code necessary to change languages.  Guess I’ll be giving Slick Dealer a call once again.

This car might be cheap in price, but it’s wicked loaded with electronics.  Halfway home my rear end was so sweaty I had to pull over and figure out how to turn off the butt warmers.  It also took me five minutes to figure out the windshield wipers, and another ten to make heads or tails of the key.  It’s actually the size of a credit card and looks like large keyless entry remote, only you stick the whole thing in a slot and then push a big Stop/Start button to turn the car on and off.  It’s like I need a PhD or something just to own this ride.

In the end, I’m glad it seems our adventure with Slick Dealer was just that – an adventure instead of a nightmare.

Note from Thrifty Travel Mama:  Thanks, Doc Sci for taking time out of your research schedule to write this guest post!  Oh and in case you’re dying to know, our car really is French not only in previous ownership but in make and model (Renault Scenic).  We like to keep things multicultural around here!Signature-Marigold

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.

Shameless Repost: With Six Kids and No Car, This Mom Does It All By Bike

Wow.

That’s all I could think when reading about Emily Finch of Portland, Oregon, who bikes around town with six kids between the ages of 2 and 11.

Well, wow – and I’m a wimp.

I rode my bike with one child until 30 weeks when I just couldn’t peddle around my baby belly anymore.  And I gave up pulling a bike trailer with two boys in it long ago.  I thought biking around with almost 100 pounds of boy flesh and gear was too much.  This woman once estimated her load at FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY pounds.

Are you feelin’ the “wow” yet?

I wonder what kind of reaction she gets.  I know Portland is rather green, but it’s still the US.  Most people would choose a hybrid automotive over a bike for commuting any day.  And that would be just for one adult.  Piling all your kids in one bike instead of a minivan by choice?  Yeah, right.

In Germany, lots of people bike.  It’s not only good for the environment; it’s cheaper.  And totally normal.  Well, as long as said bicycle does not contain more than two children.  I think it’s safe to say Emily would be stared at in Germany as well, though more for the number of children than the bike itself.

If you haven’t read the article yet, you can do so here.

And then leave a comment to let us know – could you ride around town by bike with your children – no matter how many of them you have?  Would you?

Searching for Deals in Deutschland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Finding DealsI’ve lived in Germany for almost two years now, and I still miss coupons.  And Slickdeals.  Oh my, do I miss Slickdeals.

And, while Germans in my corner of the country are obsessed with saving the planet, it seems like they aren’t really interested in saving money.  And, that’s a shame, because the truth remains: stuff in Germany is expensive.

So, what’s a thrifty mama to do?

Shop around, and shop online.

Here are the best ways I’ve found to save money on items we need for every day life.

Food.  Every weekend, I check the Aldi Süd and Lidl websites.  Special offers and sales are listed for the upcoming week.  Food discounts on regularly-stocked items are actually quite rare.  If a sale exists on food, it’s almost always for a name brand (and often the store brand is still cheaper) or it’s a measly 10 to 50 cents off the normal price.

Aldi Süd ad. This one just happens to be for “American” week.

When I do spot a sale on something we eat regularly, I buy as much as my fridge/freezer/pantry can hold.  Unfortunately, sales on food items are not on a rotating schedule like in the US, so I have no idea when (or even, if) that same item will be on sale again.

Lidl. de website – ads for the two sales every week are listed across the top.

More often, food sales offered by Aldi and Lidl are for “ethnic” food (and I use that term very loosely).  For instance, during Asian week, I buy sesame oil, chow mein noodles, stir fry kits, etc.  These special items are usually offered 2-3 times per year.  I’m sure there’s a yearly schedule online somewhere for when certain items will be available, but I have yet to find it.

Household Goods.  Aldi and Lidl also regularly offer an array of household goods at very good (for Germany) prices.  The quality varies, but it is usually much better than 1 euro stores and cheap import stores.  I’ve found great prices in both stores on toys, cheap house shoes, kids costumes, office supplies, kitchen gadgets, linens, etc.  Again, all of these items make an appearance 1-3 times per year, and once the inventory is gone, it’s gone.

The other great place to find deals on household goods is Amazon.de.  I often will compare the prices I find on Aldi and Lidl with Amazon.  That way, I know if 9,99 is a good price or not for a king-sized fitted sheet.  Amazon sometimes has sales, but I have not found any to fit my needs yet.

Amazon.de carries a wide variety of items from Big Bang Theory t-shirts to English books to cooking utensils to vacuums and (almost) anything else you can think up.

As in the US, Amazon.de offers a prime option.  It’s cheaper (29 euros per year, I believe), but not particularly necessary.  Germany is a much smaller country, so shipping time is not as long here as it is in America.  Almost everything I order from Amazon.de (with or without prime – I’ve had two prime trials) arrives at my home within 1-3 days.  Plus, orders over 20 euros come with free shipping anyway.

Clothing and Shoes.  Semi-annual sales (January and July) seem to be the best times to buy new clothing for cheap.  Department stores (even the expensive ones) have decent markdowns as do the discounters like H&M, C&A, etc.

I buy almost all my kids clothing, toys, and gear at flohmarkts.  Most people sell items that are in good condition (sometimes like new or brand new), and bargaining is acceptable.  I also find it easier to let boys be boys in second-hand clothing.  If their jeans rip because they had an epic time learning to ride a bike or playing soccer, I don’t care because I only paid 2 euros for the pair instead of 20.

And, speaking of bikes, every bike the boys have had has come from a flohmarkt.  I’ve also purchased a bike seat and other bike accessories at flohmarkts.  Unfortunately, these markets are like garage sales.  I never know if I am going to find what I am looking for – I just have to go and have a look around.

Zalando is the German version of Zappos.  I have not personally ordered any shoes from here, but friends have told me it works the same way as it does in the US – shipping is free both ways.  Order as many shoes as you like, and return what you don’t want.

Zalando – thousands and thousands of shoes.

Electronics and Appliances.  For both of these categories, I have found Amazon.de to have the best deals.  Sometimes local electronics stores will have sales, but the prices are still often not as good as Amazon.  And, even if they are the same, Amazon delivers for free whereas the stores do not.  So far, we have purchased a washer, dryer, and a TV from Amazon.  All were delivered gratis.

The only other place I’ve found online (and, actually, I didn’t find it – a friend sent me the link) that seems to be a good place for electronics and the like is dealdoktor.de.  This website regularly has deals for iPads, cell phones, TV’s, and the like – all of which are terribly expensive in Germany.  Occasionally, I’ve seen deals for shoes, clothing, toiletries, etc.  And, just a tip, I find Deal Doktor easier to read in Google Reader than on it’s actual website.

Deal Doktor website – a bit confusing and overwhelming visually. Subscribe via Google Reader for easier viewing (and to stay on top of trending deals).

The only other trick I have up my sleeve is to stock up on food, clothing, etc. while in America.  Even with the cost to check an extra bag on my flight, the cost of items in America still usually comes up cheaper than in Europe.

So, what about you? What deal websites or tips/tricks have you found to help save money while living in Europe?