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

Make It Yourself: Family Activity Advent Calendar

Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar IdeasHappy Thanksgiving week to all of my American friends!

Not to add one more thing to your (virtual) plate this week, but… psssst!  Did you know that this Sunday is December 1?  You do have your advent calendar done, don’t you?

So far, I’ve only put together three homemade advent calendars.  The first two years, I stayed up until well after midnight working on the dang thing.  You are more organized than I am, right?

I vowed to be more on top of things this year, and I set a reminder early in my calendar.  I put it off last week, but since I am not roasting a turkey this year for the big thankfulness feast, I made time to finish our family advent calendar before Thanksgiving.  Whew!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar Ideas

Naughty little Big Foot, photo-bombing my project.

The Design

If you’re freaking out right now, can I do that annoying thing people do and say… don’t!  An advent calendar does not have to be Pinterest-worthy.

Remember that the whole point is to slow down and make memories with your family.

So, if brown paper bags are all you have?  Use them!  Kids construction paper lying around?  Grab the stack!  White business envelopes?  Pfft, you got this!

I upcycled last year’s calendar that my husband (mostly) made by replacing the paper numbers with some cute felt ornament stickers and glitter glue I had on hand.  Not really homemade, but my kids totally do.not.care.

For another easy idea, see my not-so-crafty matchbox calendar here.  It’s just big enough to slip in scraps of paper with your chosen activities scrawled on them.Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar Ideas

What Goes Inside?

The first year I put together an advent calendar for our family, I went with 50% activities and 50% candy because that’s what I knew I could handle.  Last year, the activity percentage climbed to about 65%.

We’re hovering at around 75% make-your-own-fun this year, and I’ve replaced the candy with books.  I absolutely love the idea I saw on Simple As That of wrapping up Christmas books.  I know other bloggers have done this too, but it was news to me.

P.s. – I will be getting most of my books from the local English library (keep an eye on due dates!), but I may order some from Amazon as well.Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar Ideas

A List of Family Activities

In no particular order, I present you with a list of suggestions for your own family’s activity advent calendar:

  • Bake a favorite Christmas cookie recipe (or find a new one)
  • Make gourmet popcorn to eat or give as gifts
  • Decorate a gingerbread house
  • Watch Elf and eat your gingerbread house
  • Brew your own Christmas punch by simmering a combination of orange, apple, cranberry, and black currant juices spiked with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks on the stove or in the slow cooker
  • Create your family’s signature hot chocolate using white chocolate, dark chocolate, peppermint extract, chai spices, peanut butter, homemade marshmallows, etc. (just not all together… please)
  • Donate toys and clothing to children in need
  • Set up an advent wreath
  • Cut out paper snowflakes and tape them on the windows
  • Visit a Christmas market (if your city offers one)
  • Compose a silly letter to Santa (adults too!)
  • Head to your nearest St. Nick for a chat on Santa’s lap
  • Celebrate the coming of the European St. Nikolaus on December 6 by setting out stockings and reading the real story of Nicholas of Myra
  • Go sledding (geography matters on these next few, sorry)
  • Pick teams for a snowball fight and have at it
  • Make a heavenly host of snow angels
  • Find out if any local attractions feature an indoor winter wonderland
  • Experience a live nativity scene
  • Go ice skating
  • Attend a Christmas concert in your area (or put on one in your living room)
  • Get out the glitter and make Christmas cards for your neighbors
  • Host a Christmas pizza and movie night
  • Use felt or paper to make stockings for the kids to hang in their room(s)
  • Sing everyone’s favorite Christmas carols by candlelight
  • Go on an Ikea Christmas Scavenger Hunt (modify this one to include holiday merchandise which you can browse on your preferred Ikea website)
  • Construct a holiday village out of milk cartons (okay, maybe just one house) and use LED tea lights inside (like this)
  • Make luminaries for your front porch, balcony, or backyard
  • Take a drive to see the Christmas lights
  • Attend midnight mass (even if you’re not Catholic)
  • Read the real Christmas story (Luke 2)

Obviously, that’s more than 24 (or 25, if you prefer).  And, really, who has time/energy/money to do one of these every single day?  Just pick the ones that work for you, and fill the rest with books or these advent calendar devotions.  Simple or snazzy, your whole family is sure to love your activity advent calendar!

If you’re Jewish and celebrate Hanukkah instead, Sweet Happy Life has Hanukkah calendar ideas and Made by Mamaleh has a printable countdown.

What’s in your advent calendar this year?  I’d love for you to add to my running list in the comments below.Signature-MarigoldDisclaimer: At this time, I do not use affiliate links. You’ll only find honest personal recommendations in the links above.

DIY: Map Flower Wall Art

Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtEvery now and again, I just need something new in my home to make me smile… a cheerful little reminder that there’s more to life than diapers and dishes.

The easiest fix for me is to print out some recent family photos and update my gigantic cork board.  This time, though, I decided I wanted to make some wall art using a map from our Salt Lake City trip.

This cute flower canvas inspired the design for today’s DIY project.  However, I don’t own a hot glue gun, and I didn’t have a canvas lying around.  Being thrifty and all, I hunted for a canvas substitute.  The answer?  A shoe box lid!  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtTo make your own map flower wall art, you’ll need a large shoe box lid (mine was from a boot box), a roll of brown paper, an old map, scissors, tape, and a glue stick.  That’s it!Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtStart by cutting a length of brown paper several inches larger than the lid.

Optional step: I wanted my lid to stay in place, so I covered all but a two inch strip around the edge with my glue stick.  Then, I smoothed the brown paper over the lid, glue side down.

Wrap up the lid like you would wrap a gift.  I used my glue stick as well as a little tape to secure the edges of the paper to the back of the lid.  Now your “canvas” is ready to go.Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtFor the flower petals, cut 2″ strips from your map, and then cut each strip into 2″ squares.  Perfectionists will be glad to know it’s not imperative to measure or cut exactly.  Eyeballing is acceptable in this case.Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtNow, cut leaves from the map squares by starting at one corner and cutting a wide curve that extends to the opposite corner.  Repeat the wide, corner-to-corner curve on the other side of the square.  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtYou could also fold the square in half diagonally if you only wanted to make one cut per square.  I didn’t want a fold down the center of my flower petals, so I made two cuts per square.

Once you have a pile of petals, it’s time to design your flower.  Choose a center point, and place petals in a circular pattern extending out from the center point.

Layouts will vary based on the size and shape of your shoe box lid.  Since my lid happened to be more of a long rectangle, I added a few detached petals in the empty space.

When you’re satisfied with your design, use a glue stick to adhere the petals to the lid, one by one.  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtSince this is a map flower, I thought a small compass would be perfect for the center.  I found a small compass printed on the map itself, but you could also draw one directly on the brown paper.

To up the adorable factor (and, ahem, cover up the AAA logo), cut out a small heart and place it in the center of the compass.  Glue the heart to the compass and the compass to the lid.  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtVoila!  An inexpensive, pretty little pick-me-up ready to hang on the wall in your home.

Want more map crafts?  Check out my DIY Map-Covered Pencil Holder. and discover lots of other ideas on my Travel Crafts and Projects board on Pinterest.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?


Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2012 Thankful List

Happy Thanksgiving!  It’s Turkey Day for Americans, regular life for everyone else.  While you are saying thanks for your food, I’m praying I don’t spill the turkey brine all over the baby.  And that I can find pecans.  Seriously, Germany, what do you have against the best tasting nut out there?

To tide you over until I can recap this year’s Thanksgiving adventure, I give you, dear reader, my 2012 Thankful List.  In no particular order.  As usual.

  • Electricity, heat, light, clean water, food, and that rockets are not raining down on my home..  Seriously.  Maybe I should just stop here.
  • A feast to feed my family and friends.. and food to fill my freezer.  I know this is along the same lines as the first item, but it bears repeating.
  • A beautiful (handsome?), happy and healthy new baby.. despite the horror of his arrival.
  • Hearty boys.. who already eat more pancakes than we do.
  • Our families.. and especially for the time our boys got to spend with their Grandpa before his time was up.
  • Great grandmothers.. T-Rex and Screech had the privilege of visiting both of them this year.
  • Germany’s laws.. allowing (partially paid!) paternal leave for fathers.
  • Kindergarten.. for allowing me some (mostly) quiet alone time each day with Big Foot.
  • Our new car.. so that I do not have to bring the turkey home on my bike or a Christmas tree on the bus.
  • A kid-free trip to Milan, Italy, for my birthday.. I’m still relishing this rare treat Doc Sci and I had earlier this year.
  • Our dryer.. which makes it possible to wash and dry baby barf bedecked clothing in hours, not days.
  • Three boys and not three girls.. especially when I see all that they have to put on for winter (tights, jeans, boots, leg warmers, skirt, dress, mittens, ear muffs, hat, coat, scarf, mink, fur, poodle, ai yi yi!) and all that they don’t wear in summer.
  • T-Rex is learning to write.. which is so (so!!) cool.
  • My new language conversation partner.. who has agreed to sit through a constant stream of language errors for an hour and a half.  And come back the next week.  Of her own free will.  Without any sort of bribe, monetary or otherwise.
  • The internet.. though it might sound stupid, without it I could not have this blog, plan trips, research, translate, keep in touch, or get to know you.  Though it often gets a bad rap for being impersonal, the internet makes my world just a little bit smaller and home just a little bit closer.

What are you thankful for this year?

Children and Television – Help or Hindrance?

Screech and T-Rex “cycling” together with the Wii.

I used to be one of “those” mamas.  You know, the kind that smugly says she doesn’t need TV and her kids won’t be watching any until they are two.  If ever.

I only had T-Rex at the time; and, really and truly I didn’t have a need for TV.  But, then I found myself about to have another baby (that would be Screech – and he was scheduled to arrive, ahem, before T-Rex turned two).   One day while making dinner, I suddenly panicked.  What would I do with T-Rex when I needed to feed Screech, cook, or (gasp) have five minutes of time to do something for myself?

All of a sudden TV didn’t seem so “bad” anymore. 

(Just to keep things clear, when I say TV, I mean the actual television set.  We’ve never had cable, and I can’t keep track of air channel listings for the life of me.  We almost exclusively watch DVDs.)

So, I did what I could to encourage a toddler who had no interest in TV to sit still and watch a black box for a few minutes at a time.  I had no idea it would be so much.. work.  Getting a toddler boy to sit down for ten minutes seemed like a serious, award-winning accomplishment.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am today expecting baby #3.  T-Rex is four and a half and will usually watch about 30 minutes of TV if I need him to do so.  Screech, on the other hand, lasts maybe five to ten minutes max.  He’s almost three years old, and he’d much rather destroy the house than watch Lightning McQueen learn to make friends.

Speaking of friends, I one in particular here (she’s American) with three children, ages three to eight.  Her kids will watch TV for hours.  When she told me this, she probably thought I’d judge her.  We do a lot of judging each other as parents which hurts us (because we’re often wrong) and the other person.  I’m sure she was surprised when I didn’t.  Nope – I thought, lucky!

Now, she doesn’t plant the kids in front of media every day.  And nor does she do it so she can lounge in a back room, paint her nails, and check Facebook.  She works from home and due to some circumstances has no childcare for a few months.  She has no family here, and no means to afford a babysitter for even a half day for three kids, five days per week.

Come September, all of her kids will be in school again, she can work during that time, and the hours-long television fests will be a thing of the past.  She’ll only pull that trick out of the bag on special occasions.  But, mostly it will remain a memory of a desperate measure utilized at a desperate time.

Desperate.  Yes.  That’s where I find myself sometimes when I think of how on earth I will get anything done with three little boys under the age of 5.  Quiet boxes, special toys, off-limits games (like the Wii), etc. only work with my boys for so long.

About two months ago, Doc Sci suggested I have the boys choose between reading a book and watching TV every day while I make dinner to help them get used to sitting (somewhat) still for 30 minutes.   (Keep an open mind here..  Remember what I said about judging?)  No matter what the two of them chose, it rarely lasted more than 10-15 minutes.

That is, until family movie night.

We decided one Friday night to do something different with the boys.  We’d let them watch a movie with us during dinner and stay up a little later than usual.  I’m not one for animated films, so I chose The Parent Trap.

To my surprise, my two can’t-eat-enough boys barely touched their dinner.  They were mesmerized.  We only watched about 1/3 of the film that evening, but I turned it on a few times in the next week while cooking dinner.  Each time, they sat there, riveted.  When we eventually reached the end of the film, Screech immediately said, “Watch it again, Daddy!”

And then it dawned on me.  Maybe the key to a longer attention span is not to encourage a shorter one.

Everything that flashes across that screen teaches my boys something whether it be educational, moral, spiritual, etc.  All of the DVDs in my current rotation are children’s programs – short and sweet – ten to thirty minutes tops.  But maybe the propensity to cater to kids’ attention spans actually reinforces their immature tendencies.

I tested my theory this weekend when we watched several Olympic events (a rare time when the “television” function of the TV was actually in use).  Swimming, gymnastics, diving, cycling, tennis – they both sat for longer than I’ve ever seen during each event.  When we turned off the TV, they wanted to act out what they’d seen – especially the swimming and gymnastics.  And, they wanted to do it with us.

TV gets such a bad rap when it comes to children.  Among other things, it gets blamed for childhood obesity and for a lack of connection and communication in families.

I’m not saying everyone needs to train their children to sit still and watch a black box.  If you have a backyard – use it!!! I don’t have one, and I won’t have one any time soon.  If I did, I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about TV as an option to help my household run a bit smoother and my sanity to stay intact.

I’m also not suggesting to throw caution to the wind and let children watch any kind of programming.  Discretion should still be used when selecting which programs to watch.  I just think that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to choosing children’s programming because it’s been marketed to us as what kids want (and should) watch.  Parents should still be in charge of the process, even if they can’t always sit down and watch the entire program (because they’re, say, feeding a new baby or cooking for five).

If television is used as a tool – for a determined purpose and time – I believe it really can be a help instead of a hindrance.

What about you? Do your kids watch TV at home? Have you found some programs to be more successful or beneficial than others?  Do you think the short format of children’s shows helps or hinders their attention span, growth, and development?

Dashboard Confessional: Restless

It’s summer.  The weather is beautiful.  But most days I’m home.  Inside.  Not traveling.

A strange season this end-of-pregnancy thing is.  I desperately want to get out and enjoy this time of warmth.  But I also just as fiercely want to avoid the stares and comments I get everywhere I go.

Yes, I’m as big as a house.  Yes, it’s all baby, and it’s all out in front.  No, I do not need you to remind me of this.  Or ask me when I’m due.  Or show shock and horror when I reveal I still have a few weeks to go.  And, please oh please, stop staring.  Haven’t you ever seen a pregnant woman before??

To avoid the awkwardness, I honestly try to just stay home.  And it’s at home where I read about friends’ trips to fun places like Malta.  And Tuscany.  Colorado.  I itch to pack my bags, but I know now is not the time.  Hard as it is for me to believe right this exact and very minute, I will find myself traveling again.  Just not quite yet.

Until then, I’m relegated to the city parks and pools.  Ahhh, the pool.  What a great way to cool off in a summer with no air conditioning, right?  Right.

Well, right, except for the fact that it’s only been warm enough to go to the pool two or three times (it really has to be 85+ degrees F outside – the pools are filled with ice cold river water) .  Last week, I actually needed a jacket.  In July.

And then there’s the issue of the dreaded maternity bathing suit.  Need I say more?

So, me and my cankles are hibernating.  Not slacking though, mind you.  I’ve always got irons in the fire.  A summary of my latest projects…

I’m working on a Household Notebook – a resource to organize our family’s information and streamline my mama-of-three-boys job.  Oh, and to help out Doc Sci should he ever have to know things like what size shoes the boys wear or the pediatrician’s address or my Facebook password.  And since I can’t just settle for someone else’s product, I’m creating my own notebook structure, layout, and design.  It’s nearly complete, and a post on the finished product is forthcoming.

Speaking of design, I’m taking an Adobe Illustrator e-course.  Reasons for taking this course range from “I want to” to “I should be learning if I’m not working” to “it gets me a discount on child care for Screech.”  The best part about it is the homework is not required or graded.  But for some reason, I still do it…

I’m researching, prepping, and freezing meals for an army – an army of boys, that is – to eat after the baby comes.  We have very few prepared meal options in the grocery store, and even fewer choices for decent (edible) take-out.  Since I don’t want to find myself eating spaghetti, chicken nuggets & fries, and pizza for weeks on end, I’m cooking up other options.  It’s a challenge to do with so little freezer space and no cream-of-mystery-soup ingredients, so be on the lookout for a post detailing how I managed.

Last week, I finally stopped procrastinating and photographed our annual Day in the Life project. I really do like the idea of digitally scrapbooking one ordinary day in the life of our family.  It’s the actual documenting of everything (and the trouble I put myself through to avoid any unflattering camera angles or lighting that might further accentuate my roundness) that made me put it off for weeks.  Now, I just need to find a deal on a photo book and put it all together.

These are just a few things keeping me on my toes – and inside, away from the pregnancy paparazzi.  And while all these projects are fun, helpful, or just plain good for generating blog content, what I really want to do is just lie on a beach in Croatia.  The beauty of the Dalmatian Coast reflecting in my sunglasses.  The sun tinting the bodies of my little boys.  Gelato satiating my stomach.  Foreign words filling my ears.

Ah, well, maybe next year.

Getting My German Driver’s License: Part 1

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Drivers LicenseI am so very excited to announce that Doc Sci and I have decided to make Germany a bit more of our home – we’re applying for German drivers licenses!

And while I am stoked to have the opportunity to legally operate a car here.. I’m actually quite terrified to do so.


Because I’m that American: the one that can’t parallel park, doesn’t have any real experience with a manual transmission, likes wide lanes, has never parked on a sidewalk, etc.

But, I’ll get used to it, right?

Ah, well, the first step to getting comfortable with German driving rules and etiquette is actually being allowed to legally drive.  So, we’re starting there.

Unfortunately, a “here’s how an American gets a German drivers license” official document does not exist.  I did a lot of internet research and combed the Toytown forums for advice.

The first and most important thing is to determine the reciprocity agreement your home state (the state that has issued your driver’s license) has with Germany.  For a list, see here.

Florida only has partial reciprocity, so I must take a written (theoretical) test.  Luckily, this is available in English, and I’ll be using an online study guide with actual English-version test questions.

If I was from a state that had NO reciprocity agreement, I would be required to take a practical test as well.  Germans learn to drive at driving school (Fahrschule), not at home with mom and pop.  Fahrschule costs thousands of euros, but if you don’t do it, you won’t pass the test.  If I found myself in this situation, I wouldn’t bother getting a license.  It could cost me as much to obtain a license as it would to purchase a cheap used car!

But, I’m willing to try my hand at the written test (particularly since I can take it in English).  So, based on what I found in the forums, I determined I needed the following documents.

Passport and residency visa.  If you’re here in Germany for less than 6 months, your US driver’s license is valid.  If you’ll be staying for more than 6 months but less than 1 year, you can apply to extend the validity for an additional 6 months.  After that, US licenses must be converted to German licenses.  Or, you can just take the train instead!

Valid US driver’s license.  I’ve seen some comments here and there in the forums mentioning that licenses must have been issued at least one year ago.  This is to prevent residents from going around the reciprocity agreements (see above).  Mine says it was issued in 2008, even though this is a renewal date, not when I first received my license.

Official translation of your US driver’s license.  My neighbor paid 35 euros for the translation of her license, but the price has now jumped to 55 euros.  It’s a complete rip-off, but you must have a translation with an official stamp.  No asking your German friend to “translate” for you!

Passport photo.  I was told this had to be “biometric,” but I just used one of my free passport photos with no problem.  I have not seen any specifications as to how recent the photo must be, so I used an older one that doesn’t show my pregnancy face.  Note: a German driver’s license is issued for LIFE so make sure to like the photo  you submit!

Eye test.  Any Optiker or Augenarzt can give you this test.  Bring your passport and about 7 euro.  If you fail the test, it’s possible the equipment is old and fuzzy.  Try another place before freaking out at how expensive glasses in Deutschland are.  Don’t ask me how I have this advice.  Just go with it.

Proof of First Aid Class attendance.  This one is a toss-up and might depend on which German state you live in and who collects your paperwork.  German drivers are normally required to take a first aid class that teaches life saving techniques.  I hoped and prayed that I would not have to take this class!  It’s only offered once per month, on a Saturday, and it’s 6 hours of instruction… in German.  If you have to do this, it costs about 20 euro.  I was not asked for proof of attendance, and I hope it’s the last I hear of this requirement.

Application. I found this online, and filled it out in advance.  It’s shockingly short – only one page.  For the pleasure of applying, I had to pay 35 euro.

I took all my required papers to the local driver’s license office (Führerscheinstelle).  The woman was refreshingly polite and understanding of my limited German skills.  She took all of my paperwork, and asked me to fill out a declaration.  What exactly I was declaring, I’m still not sure.  My understanding is that I was affirming the authenticity of my license (that I didn’t manufacture it myself or buy it on the street), but it could also be stating that my license is still legal and valid.

Luckily, I was prepared to not receive a new license immediately.  For Americans, this is quite strange.  But, she reminded me of my required written test, and asked me to call her in 2-3 weeks.  If all my paperwork is in order, I’ll be approved to take the test.  Only then can I make an appointment with the testing agency.  After I pass, I must take proof back to her, and then my license will be issued.

So, here’s to 2-3 weeks of studying German driving laws!  Stay tuned for an update on the test and all the subsequent hoops I must hop, skip, and jump through in order to be legal on the streets in Germany.

To read about the test, click here. And for the final installment of the driver’s license saga, click here.

Miracle: How It All Shakes Out

Before we went to Korea, I mentioned we had this crazy don’t-know-where-we’ll-be-living-in-a-few-weeks thing going on.  Well, now we know, and this is how it all shakes out.

The skinny: we’re staying in Germany!  And, we’re staying put in our apartment!

The details: A friend of ours gave Doc Sci’s resume to a new professor in town.  And, not just any professor, but one with lots of funding (€€€€€) and no researchers on his team yet.  The field is a bit outside of Doc Sci’s very narrow focus (apparently that’s what happens when you get a PhD).  But, he’s wanted to break into this subject for a while, and this new job is a perfect opportunity to do just that.

After two interviews, Doc Sci was offered and accepted the position.  The job is for 2-3 years with the same or higher pay (not sure exactly since the contract hasn’t been signed yet, but that’s typical for it to be done at the last minute).  The office is five minutes from his old one, and the same distance from our apartment.  The boss is okay with speaking English, and he is willing to let Doc Sci take time out for German courses.

Could we ask for anything more?  Not in this market, no way!

And, then, about the apartment… I mentioned in my previous post that our current home had already been re-rented.  Doc Sci sent an email to inquire about any other openings of furnished units in our city.  This is the reply that we received:

Dear Doc Sci,

It is your happy day. The person Mr. So&So offered the flat has refused the offer and today he wanted to offer it to the next person. Because he hasn´t done that so far we are able to extend your contract.

Please contact Mr. So&So for the extension.

Best regards,

Nice Lady at the International Office*

*names have been changed to protect friendly people with funky Germish language construction

So, there you have it.  We prayed, God answered.  Just not in a way I would have ever expected!  It figures that the only thing I thought I knew for sure was still not for sure.  Only God is for sure, and I think he wanted me to know that.

Though part of me would love to have a place a bit more home-y, I am thankful to not have to move.  My kids are thankful too; they just don’t know it.

And, since we get to stay in the steal-of-a-deal cheap apartment, we will be hitting up IKEA to make this place more like home for the next two years.  Merry (early) Christmas to me!