The Reluctant Homeschool: Our Educational Journey Thus Far

Thrifty Travel Mama | How We Accidentally Ended Up as HomeschoolersI spilled the beans in a previous post that we’ve become educational outliers – we do school at home now.

Even before I became a homeschooling mama (reluctantly, as the title reveals), I was intrigued by the educational choices of various families. I truly enjoy reading and discussing the rainbow of perspectives on everyday experiences that are common to all people (food, clothing, education, hygiene, medicine, relationships, etc.). I am fascinated by the differences, encouraged by the similarities, and drawn to each story’s underlying reasons.

In case any of you are cultural anthropology nerds like me, here’s the why and how of our homeschool journey.Thrifty Travel Mama | How We Accidentally Ended Up as Homeschoolers

History

I grew up thinking homeschooling was both completely awesomeStay home all day! No drama! No PE!and absolutely horridWould I have to wear denim and turtlenecks? Would I fit in if my hair didn’t reach my rear end? My mom doesn’t drive a 15-passenger van.. is that ok?

I was never homeschooled as a child, and I never intended to homeschool my own children.

As an outsider looking in, I thought homeschooling was WAY too much work. I’d rather have my kids go to school. They could leave for half of the day, and I could get a job doing something I enjoyed during school hours while earning some extra money (hilarious, I know).

Homeschooling was definitely out of the question.Thrifty Travel Mama | How We Accidentally Ended Up as Homeschoolers

Math

When we moved to Germany in 2010, we thought it would only be for one year. That year turned into two, and that two turned into four. When we would visit the US, I would talk to my old friends about what their kids were learning in school, and what their educational experiences had been like (see? nerd!). It was through these conversations that I learned American kindergartens teach kids to read.

WHAT!?

German kindergartens do not teach their children any academics, only useful skills like how to manhandle power tools, chop potatoes to make soup, and scrounge around the forest for seriously cool sticks. And, even if they did teach the kids to read, it would be in German. Duh.

I suddenly realized that if (okay, WHEN) we moved back to the US, I could end up with a first-grader who was unable to read, write, or do basic math.

I felt for my children. I did not want them to be the weirdos that didn’t know anything about schoolyard politics, the latest cartoons, how to speak decent English or six year-old slang… AND they would be illiterate.

No, no, that would not do.

Homeschooling in Germany is illegal, but I figured the Germans wouldn’t mind as long as my boys went to German kindergarten, too. So, that’s what we did. German kindergarten in the morning, English homeschool in the afternoon.Thrifty Travel Mama | Our Reluctant Homeschooling Journey

English

I started with the book How to Teach Your Children to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I set my expectations low (finish the book) and got to work. Eventually, I added a math workbook, taught my son how to write English characters, and I even sprinkled in some fun activities based on the Five in a Row series.

You guys, to my utter astonishment, it worked. I cannot even express to you how mind-blowing this achievement was.

Full disclosure – we had our share of tearful, hair-pulling, fist-raising moments. But, my kid could read! And write! And do maths! And he didn’t hate me! (yet..)

At this point, I still was not on board the homeschool full-time train. When we landed in the US last October, I again met up with my friends for good ol’ what’s-your-kid-up-to chats. Alpha was now in first grade, and I wanted to know what “normal” first-graders were learning… Spelling. Science. Spanish.

CRAP.

It was then that I started to feel the tides turning. I panicked a bit, thinking about all of the things my child didn’t know. We still were technically homeless, and I had no idea how long it would be until we were settled.

Putting my sons in school and then pulling them out whenever we traveled to look for jobs was just not an option. In my own childhood, I attended 18 schools in Kindergarten-High School. I know from experience it’s terrible to constantly be the “new kid.”

I began to realize that perhaps it would be better if we homeschooled for the rest of first grade to help with the transition and then Alpha could go to the local elementary school.

Thrifty Travel Mama | How We Accidentally Ended Up as Homeschoolers

 

Geography – Mapping Out a Plan

I scrambled to put together a loose plan of what we could manage while on the road when we had no permanent place to live and could only take what would fit in our car. We worked on plus and minus, long and short vowels, print and cursive whenever we could.

When we finally moved to Arizona for a job, I looked into the local public schools and the many wonderful charter school opportunities in our city. But, I just couldn’t bring myself to register my kids at any of them.

With a husband working all day and all night to keep one lecture ahead of his classes, a house to unpack and organize, four years of paperwork to catch up on, waves of reverse culture shock to tame, and countless other tasks to figure out and do on my own, there was one thing I could not manage – getting three kids and myself out of the house every day, twice a day, for school.

This is in no way a complaint or meant to disrespect or discount the MANY parents that do this every day. Both homeschooling and organized institutional schooling are hard on families in different ways. I know I/we are blessed with choice, and I do not take that lightly.

Once my mind was made up to give this homeschool thing a go, I bought legit curriculum and made legit lesson plans. Slowly, we worked our way up to a full load (well, for a first-grader).

I encountered the usual whining and complaining here and there, but on the whole, I felt like this experiment was still working. My kids were learning, and (surprise, surprise) I actually liked being with them. There was just one problem.

Charlie.

Spelling… T-R-O-U-B-L-E

Oh, my dear Charlie. This kid keeps me laughing, guessing, and fuming all day long. He craves attention, and when he does not get it, we all pay.

Charlie is not interested in addition or spelling rules. Charlie does not want to play quietly in his room while his brothers learn addition and spelling rules. Charlie wants to be in.your.face.all.day.long.

Thrifty Travel Mama | How We Accidentally Ended Up as Homeschoolers

Fill in the blank… Homeschooling is a ______________.

At first, I did the bulk of our school day in the afternoon while Charlie napped. That worked well, but it left me with NO quiet time to recharge. As an introvert, this was a recipe for a very mean mama and seriously stressed kids. I felt like I could tackle just about anything if I could only have an hour or two of quiet several afternoons a week.

In our new circle of friends, I started asking if any teenagers would be interested in being a mother’s helper to my absolutely charming two year-old (hey, he’s potty trained! No diapers to change! That’s got to count for something, right?).

Thank God, I was able to find two great kids willing to come over a few times a week in the morning to gain experience and a little pocket money in exchange for hanging out with a bossy awesome kid.Thrifty Travel Mama | How We Accidentally Ended Up as Homeschoolers

Science – Experimenting

Okay, that was last school year, but will we keep things the same for this year?

Yes… and no.

I absolutely agree with this post by Tsh from The Art of Simple. I love the idea of evaluating each child, each year. I am in no way anti-school, and I am not ruling out a public or charter school possibility for the future. However, for second grade and kindergarten, Alpha and Bravo will stay home.

Oh, and Charlie? He’s already signed up for preschool. 🙂

What kind of school do your kids attend? Would you change it if you could? Have you ever tried homeschooling? I would love to hear about your options – even if you think I’m nuts – and what you like and dislike about your current education situation.Signature Thrifty Travel Mamatitle photo source

Ketchup: The Past Four Months + the Future in 1000 Words (or More)

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

Practicing our Spiderman skills in Croatia

So now that I’m back in the saddle, I thought I’d try to close the distance between where I left you and where we are now.

I’d like (you) to think I’ve been nothing but a good student for the past four months, but I’m a terrible liar. While it’s true I always did my best to complete my homework, it’s equally as true that I played hookey a good bit during my studies. In between the worksheets and flashcards, our little family has had plenty of adventures near and far, both exceptional and everyday.

Ready for the recap?

In no particular order..

Multicoolty, a blog that compiles stories about expats living in Germany, featured me in May, though I wrote my thoughts way back in January. Check out what I had to say and a silly old picture I dug up from our first trip to Berlin here.

Cologne

Köln (Cologne)

My husband gave me a fantastic birthday gift this year – two days alone (ALONE!!) in Köln (Cologne). This was before language lessons had started, so it was a blissful quiet time to do whatever I fancied whenever I pleased.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Keukenhof Gardens with Kids

The biggest boy exploring the tulips with me at Keukenhof in the Netherlands.

To ease my disappointment over last year’s pathetic lack of tulips at Keukenhof in the Netherlands, I took my oldest son on a quick trip for a better look. We took the overnight train up to Amsterdam, bussed over to Keukenhof to gawk at the fields of tulips, made our way back to Amsterdam, scarfed down a pancake dinner, and caught the night train back home. Whew! And yes, it was actually fun, and yes, he was a champ on the overnight trains. I would definitely do it again!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro

Flying away in Zadar, Croatia.

Several days after our up-and-back Netherlands trip, the five of us flew to Croatia for ten days. During our trip, we stayed in Zadar, Dubrovnik, and Split. We also drove through a bit of Bosnia and took a day trip to Montenegro. One of the most fun moments of the trip was meeting SJ of Chasing the Donkey and her family!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Mexican Food in Germany

The taco truck!

While we didn’t find any Mexican food in Croatia (and opted out of another fantastic dinner at Los Pilones in Amsterdam in favor of a pancake feast), we have been going gangbusters at the Holy Taco Shack taco truck. We took our American-expat-in-Luxembourg friends there a few weeks ago. They’re just as salsa-crazed as we are, and they gave the burritos two thumbs up. Now, if I could just get the taco truck to deliver…

Thrifty Travel Mama | potty trainingThis little champ has kicked daytime diapers and now only uses a nappy at night and during his nap. We did the same thing with all three boys – an awful, torturous, bodily-fluid-soaked potty training boot camp for a weekend followed by the shock and awe of daytime dryness.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Picking Strawberries in Germany with KidsStrawberry season came earlier this year, and we hit the fields several times. We made many of our favorite recipes from last year including strawberry fruit leather, strawberry syrup, and strawberry shortcakes.

Those strawberry shortcakes were made with coconut cream for me as I went dairy-free at the beginning of the year and have kept it up except for a four-week break while we traveled to Croatia. P.s. – I miss cheese and there is NO substitute that even comes close..

Thrifty Travel Mama | Losing TeethOur oldest little adventurer has lost enough teeth to officially apply for Jack-o-Lantern status, and the tooth fairy is flat broke. This photo is a few months old. He’s now missing three teeth on top, and two on the bottom!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Riding a LaufradThe youngest learned to ride a bike without pedals (Laufrad). And now we are losing sleep over his daredevil ways that now are ON WHEELS. Yikes.

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

Can you guess why we called it the poo hike?

As soon as the thermometer sailed over the 12C mark, we flexed our hiking muscles. In between our travels, we’ve been able to do a handful of hikes, including one we affectionately call the poo hike and one insane 15km trek with four kids and nearly no complaining. Kilimanjaro, here we come!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking in the Alps with kids

Back in the Alps!

And, speaking of hiking, we (okay, mainly me) became obsessed with the Alps after our excursion to Schilthorn last summer. Last weekend, we took our first summer hike near Engelberg, and we’ve got more ideas for Swiss outings than there are Saturdays before the snow falls again.

Due to an insane amount of planning and the wonderful generosity of friends, I managed a week of solo parenting (single parents, I know this is wimpy – hats off to you!) while my husband went off to Milan for a conference.. and to look for a new job.

 

The last point brings me to a big change coming for our family…

We have decided that Doc Sci won’t be renewing his employment contract here in Germany when it ends later this year. Professionally, he needs to move on; unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an opportunity to do that where we currently live.

Where will we end up? Only God knows, but most likely, we’ll move back in the US, though we may consider something in Europe if the circumstances are right. This is a decision we have wrestled with for months. We love so many things about living in Europe; it will not be easy to leave our life here behind. But, ultimately, we both know our days in this city are numbered. Sigh.

And, if you will forgive me for throwing one.more.thing your way, I’ve decided to change the boys’ nicknames here. When I started this blog, I never dreamed that anyone would read it, let alone the hundreds that do. I also never thought I’d be writing for nearly four years. In that time, the boys have painfully outgrown their silly pseudonyms.

This also may be a good time to explain why I use nicknames. Yes, there’s the usual safety concerns, but really, it’s a matter of respect for me. My kids aren’t old enough to know that I write about our life on the internet (heck, they don’t even know what the internet is). As such, they have no say in the things I post.

When they are older, they may not wish to have their faces and names plastered all over this space for public viewing. So, until the day when we can have a conversation about their wishes, I’ll respect the option of anonymity by using nicknames.

But then, there’s the matter of what to call them. I thought Small, Medium, and Large was good enough for me, basic… but boring. I tried it in German, but I just can’t call my kid Gross (large).

I’m still keeping it simple, but I’m steering in the ABC direction. The boys will now go by the first three letters of the Pilot’s Alphabet that is commonly used in the travel industry – Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Plus, these names are actually spot on when it comes to their personalities, Creepy!

I’m seriously over my 1,000 word target, and that’s about all the changes and updates I can handle. If you have a blog, post a link (or three) below with exciting news, fantastic trips, handy DIYs, or winning lotto numbers. I’ve love to catch up with you, too!

Now, tell me, which of our adventures above would you like to read about first?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an AdultWhy, hello there. Didn’t think you’d see me ’round these parts again, did you? It has been a long time. And I’ve played out this reunion in my head many times. Has there been too much space and distance? Well, let’s just let it be awkward for a minute and then be done with that.

Over now? Good, moving on!

In case you’re new here, nearly four months ago I excused myself and backed away from this blog, forcing myself to turn and take one shaky step in the direction of serious language learning.

Fighting the this is never going to work fears and I’d rather be blogging thoughts, it took all I had in me to walk in the door of the language school near my boys’ kindergarten and ask what they had available.

You see, in our little city, the options for learning a language are as follows: (1) take an intensive course at a language school which means 5 days a week, four hours a day, (2) take a course at the community college for two days a week, two hours a day, or (3) find a private German teacher and pay through the nose.

That’s it. Take your pick.

What do you think I chose? What would you choose?

Like many bloggers, I’m an introvert. I despise group work and small talk. Busy work for the benefit of the whole class kills my desire to learn. Plus, I’m a mama, and I know from my previous experience taking an intensive course that there is just NO WAY I can manage being gone all morning, every day of the week, plus do homework at night for more than one week at a time.

The second option is just too slow. Plus, I honestly had no clue what level I was or which class to take.

Believe it or not, I swallowed my thrifty ways and tossed an incredible amount of cash at a private teacher.

Gulp.

But, old habits die hard, and I could not pass up an offer I found for two weeks of nearly free German classes. The catch? It was every night from 630-830pm, the absolute worst time of the day to leave my husband to solo parent. I love that man.

Over the course of nearly sixteen weeks, I took over forty hours of private German classes as well as eighteen hours of group classes. In between that, I struggled to finish my homework with one hand while warding off the laundry, dirt, and stench beasts with the other. We may or may not have had pizza and chicken nugget dinners every other night..Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Learning a new language as an adult is incredibly humbling.

I watch my sons chatter away auf Deutsch, and I can’t help but be a tiny bit envious. It’s true that they essentially are in their own intensive course while at kindergarten four hours a day, five days a week. But, they also have no inhibitions. They’re not self-conscious at all when it comes to making mistakes or speaking with an accent. Ah, to be six again..

My German classes literally brought me to tears on several occasions because I felt so unbelievably stupid. Why is this so hard?! I would ask myself. My brain is just not wired to learn foreign languages.

Undeterred by the snotty nose and runny mascara, I kept the end goal in sight: I am doing this for my sons, to help them keep up the gift of being bilingual as well as for own enrichment and mental health (ha). So, here I am, still plowing through, one umlaut at a time.Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

Despite the difficulty, I’m happy to say that the payoff has been huge.

HUGE!

Before these classes, I would shrink away from any opportunity to even attempt speaking German when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. I started almost every encounter with, “Do you speak English?” Now, I do my best to tuck that question away and only pull it out for serious situations like doctor visits and the like.

Just yesterday, I met with another mom from my church that I barely knew. I was aware that she spoke English, but I made myself start things off with, “Wie geht’s?” (how are you?). I occasionally had to explain a few things in English, but I steered the conversation back to German after each detour. Thirty minutes of this kind of mental workout left me exhausted and literally sweating.

Oh the things I never thought I’d do!

Here are a handful of other examples that just a few short months ago would’ve been impossible..

  • Argue with a police officer about why I was breaking the rules (if you must know, I was riding my bike on the sidewalk with my kids at a dangerous intersection).
  • Select, order, and pay for festival tickets over the phone (no hand gestures!).
  • Read an entire parent letter from the kindergarten without the assistance of my pal Google translate… and understand what I read.
  • Sign up for a tandem partnership with a total stranger.
  • Consider asking all my German friends to only speak German with me (okay, I’m still on the fence about this one..).

Sounds amazing and like I’m doing swimmingly, right? Well, don’t believe everything you read.

Some days, the words won’t come. Other days, I won’t let them because I just don’t feel like it.

In between those thoughts, I wonder why I am doing this. Why am I learning another language with the intention of becoming fluent? Why am I learning German?Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

And, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there’s a downside. There’s always a downside, isn’t there?

The truth is, I now feel like I can’t speak any language well. I often trip over words in my native language, often forgetting what common items are called in English (!). I end up stuttering and then scrunching my face up in frustration because I just can’t manage to squeeze the right words (in the correct language) out of my brain.

I mean, I love bargains and all but the whole “buy one foreign language, get a free speech impediment” thing wasn’t exactly what I had in mind..

And when I’ve had a conversation with my tandem partner, for instance, I can’t seem to turn the German off and end up jabbering away in German to my husband who would rather just understand what his wife is saying, thankyouverymuch. The Deutsch monster just won’t shut up once it has been awakened.

So, what now?

Well, I simply keep on keepin’ on. At this time, I am done actively taking classes, at least the expensive private kind. I feel like my German is at a level now that I might be able to handle a regular group class (though my introverted, anti-group-work self will surely protest this possibility).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an AdultI bought a textbook and workbook with a DVD to keep up my independent study. But, really, what I need now is to just practice speaking as much as possible, hence the tandem partner.

And, in between all of that, I’m going to try to hang out here at Thrifty Travel Mama more regularly. But, don’t worry, I won’t start blogging in German any time soon.

Though I have missed blogging at TTM, I’ll admit it’s been a good thing for me to have a break, to refocus and, honestly, to decide whether I would like to continue writing. I’ve come to the conclusion that I do really enjoy blogging, because I often feel I have something to say either with the intention of helping others or simply throwing my two cents at the blogosphere.

So, pull up a chair, add me back to your Blog Lovin’, feedly, or subscribe to posts by email and let’s do this Thrifty Travel Mama thing again!

I often think to learn a second language you need as many of these things as possible – time, money, youth, and a live-in dictionary/language tutor. What do you think?

And, if you’ve learned another language as adult, how was your experience? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Global Eatery – Sri Lanka

Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri LankaLiving in Germany has stretched me in many ways, but perhaps most unexpectedly in the kitchen.  I cooked a fair amount of dishes from scratch when we were in the US, but here?  It happens daily.  Bored with the minimalist grocery store offerings and my paltry handful of recipes, I’ve had no choice but to step off and try loads of new recipes.

As a result, my boys have grown to like all sorts of different of foods (thank God, they might just escape the prison known as a picky palate).  In any given week, our menu hails from multiple regions of the globe.  Sure, we still eat baked chicken strips with fries once in a while, but my boys also love polenta, risotto, dal, and jap chae too.

Experimenting with different ingredients and cuisines has become a source of happiness for me.  So when the opportunity to take a Sri Lankan cooking course came along, I signed up immediately.  Along with pictures of the food we prepared during the class, I have the permission of the teacher to share my favorite recipe with you.  Yay!

I must say that before this class, I probably never would have sought out (let alone attempted) to make anything from Sri Lanka.  But everything was easy enough to replicate at home, and delicious enough to be worth the effort.

Give the recipes below a try.  The ingredients can be found at Asian or Middle Eastern grocery stores, and they don’t require any fancy schmancy cooking skills.

First, a look at the class…

A sweet apertif with citrus welcomes everyone to the class.

A sweet apertif with citrus welcomes everyone to the class.  I probably would have been satisfied with liquid dirt if it had ICE in it!  So refreshing, and not at all the norm here.

As we all arrive and get acquainted, we munch on these delicious fried papadums.

As we all arrive and get acquainted, we munch on these delicious fried papadums with mango chutney.  I was quite impressed with the Sri Lankan version of chips & salsa.

It's time to get real with ingredients.  Thankfully, other than these particular chiles, there wasn't anything on the table I hadn't seen before.

It’s time to get real with ingredients. Thankfully, other than these particular chiles, there wasn’t anything on the table I hadn’t seen or heard of before.

Enough chatting - time to get to work!  We all chopped 'til we dropped: potatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, bell peppers, pineapple, chicken...

Enough chatting – time to get to work! We all chopped ’til we dropped: potatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, bell peppers, pineapple, chicken…

Working in pairs or small groups, we took turns cooking the dishes.

Working in pairs or small groups, we took turns cooking the dishes.

This chicken curry with its bell peppers and onions reminded me of fajitas - but obviously with a different flavor.

This chicken curry with its bell peppers and onions reminded me of fajitas – but obviously the flavors were completely different.  This dish is definitely the most kid-friendly of them all.

Our teacher, Chandani, set a beautiful dinner table.

Our teacher, Chandani, set a beautiful dinner table.  The best part of a cooking class is getting to EAT, right?

When everything was finally ready, we all eagerly heaped our plates with the fragrant food.

When everything was finally ready, we all eagerly heaped the fragrant food on our plates.

I was quite surprised to learn that the green bean curry was my favorite.

I was quite surprised to learn that the green bean curry was my favorite.

The potatoes were flavored with FIRE!  I'll be toning down the crushed red pepper before I make this for the boys.

The potatoes set my mouth on FIRE! I’ll be toning down the crushed red pepper before I make this for the boys.

This chicken curry was delicious and completely unlike any other chicken curry I have tried.

The chicken curry again, this time all dressed up with scallions.

When we couldn't look at another grain of rice, we headed back to the kitchen to make dessert.

When we couldn’t possible stomach even one more grain of rice, we headed back to the kitchen to make dessert.  Here is the coconut filling and a few completed crepes.

No Sri Lankan meal would be complete without a perfectly brewed cup of Ceylon tea.

No Sri Lankan meal would be complete without a perfectly brewed cup of Ceylon tea.  No, we didn’t add any garlic to it…

A delicious dessert of coconut crepes ended our lovely evening.

This simply elegant dessert of coconut crepes and Ceylon tea ended the evening.

Want to try your hand at Sri Lankan cuisine?  Here’s the recipe for a very delicious green bean curry!

Green Bean Curry
Serves 3-5

Ingredients:

  • 250g Green Beans
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 6-8 curry leaves
  • About 1 inch piece pandan leaf (rampa) (optional)
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • ¼ tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup thick coconut milk
  • 2-3 tablespoons cooking oil

Preparation:

Wash and slice green beans with diagonal cuts into 1” or 1 ½” pieces.  Wash curry leaves & pandan leaf and set aside.

Heat oil in a pan and once hot, add mustard seeds.  When mustard seeds start to pop, add crushed red pepper, onion, curry leaves & pandan leaf.

Sauté for few minutes until onions are tender and become fragrant.  Then add green beans & mix well. Add all the other spices. Mix all together, cover with a lid, allow to cook over medium heat. Check the mixture from time to time, and add some water if needed.

Once the beans are fully cooked, add thick coconut milk.  Stir well.

Add salt to taste. Simmer for a minute or two more, and remove from the heat.

Enjoy!

Have you ever cooked or eaten food from Sri Lanka before?  If you try this recipe, please leave a comment – I’d love to hear how you liked the food!Signature-Marigold

Marvel: Homeschooling in Germany – Illegal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Drivers LicenseAs promised, here’s the final update on my German driver’s license saga!

After passing the written exam, I was given a paper with an official TüV stamp (which makes sense since you take the course at.. duh, TüV).

The man at the TüV office told me no less than 583 times that this paper was NOT an official driver’s license.  Thanks, buddy, got it.

The next day, I took this paper and my original Florida driver’s license to the city driver’s license office.  I expected to have to wait a while, be told to go here and there, and (of course) pay more money.

I was wrong.

After the woman found my paperwork, I only had to sign a document stating that I picked up the license and surrender my “old” one.  Since I knew I would have to give Germany my American driver’s license, I had previously ordered an extra copy so that I’d be legal to drive in both countries.

German driver’s licenses are issued for life, so they don’t have any embarrassing statistics on them like height, weight, eye color, and shoe size.

She then wrote in the date of issuance (by hand!), gave me my license, and returned the passport photo I submitted with my application.

I am now in possession of a Class B German driver’s license!

But, that’s not all… My US driver’s license allows me to drive several other classes of vehicles, most notably motorcycles under 50cc’s  (hello, Vespa!) and TRACTORS.  Good to know that if I ever find myself in the curious predicament of operating a John Deere, at least I’ll be legal!

Handwritten validity date, and all the classes of vehicles I’m currently allowed to drive.

In case you’re keeping track, here’s what it cost me (in euros) to get my German driver’s license:

  • 55 – Official ADAC translation of US driver’s license.
  • 6,43 – Eye test.
  • 35 – Driver’s license application (including the cost of the new physical license itself).
  • 29,90 – Study guide for written exam (Vollversion von myFührerschein) which I shared with Doc Sci.
  • 20,83 – Written exam.
  • 147,16 – Total (or 132,21 if you figure that I split the cost of the study guide).

Now that this is over, we’re faced with another dilemma… to buy a car or not to buy a car…?  Ah, another thought for another day.

To read about the test, click here. And, by the way, we did buy a car. You can read about that adventure here.

Getting My German Driver’s License: The Test

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Drivers LicenseAgainst all odds, thanks be to God, both Doc Sci and I passed our written German driver’s license tests!  Whew!  I am so glad that is over.

A little about the test… The written (theory) exam is 30 questions, 90 points total.  The questions range in point value from 2 to 5 according to the seriousness of the question.  In order to pass, one must get at least 80 points.  Less than that, and you’ll find yourself re-taking the exam.

Doc Sci and I used http://www.my-fuehrerschein.de/ to study.  It was recommended the most among Toytown forum posts, and it utilizes the exact same English questions as the official test.  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get the precise English translation that will be used for the exam.  Some questions literally make no sense as translated.

Unfortunately, we greatly underestimated the amount of time required to complete all the practice tests.  There are 900 questions in the pool, and though we had studied all of them, it’s hard to remember all 900 at once without taking practice tests.

We both felt we were not ready, so I called to reschedule our exam.  As it turns out, it’s possible to reschedule the test four days prior, but after that, appointments are locked in the system.  Whether you show up or not, you will owe 20,83 euro for your time slot, payable whenever you do actually take the test.

Doc Sci determined that we should study our little non-German-speaking hearts out, and do our best to pass since we would have to pay for the slot anyway.  And study we did. all. weekend. long.

But, we passed!  Hooray!

In order to show the absolute frivolity and hilarity of some of the questions, I’ve posted a few of them below.  I find it rather interesting that Germans have to know things about drugs, the environment, trailers, total mass, etc. that would never appear on an American exam.  So, enjoy!  I’ll post again when I receive my actual Führerschein.

German Intensive Course

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Language LearningEver since I finished Rosetta Stone, I have wanted to do something to further my German skills.  But, what?

My city only has one place where a student can study German two days per week.  All the other schools only offer classes that run every single day.  T-Rex is in kindergarten Monday through Friday, but Screech only goes to his little school three mornings per week.  Unfortunately, the times of the two-days-per-week school don’t fit within our family schedule.

I can’t afford private lessons, so that option is also a no go.

Hmmm.. what to do?

I mentioned my frustration to a friend who suggested an intensive course.  Several schools in the area offer these courses; one can start on any Monday and stay for as many or as few weeks as desired.  After thinking about it and talking it over with Doc Sci, I decided I could commit to one week.  Not great, but better than nothing.

After finding a school that had availability and a small class size, I was required to take a placement test.  As far as I understand it, German language proficiency is divided into the following levels from basic to advanced: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1.  I took a practice test online that recommended I start in B1.  The language teacher at the school suggested the end of A2.  However, the A2 class wasn’t offered in the morning, so she agreed to let me try B1.  If it was too hard, I would be, well, out of luck.

Fortunately, I was able to hack it.  Barely.  But not for the reasons you might think.

I understood almost everything going on in the class except for two things.. some vocabulary here and there that the class already knew from being together for several months (which is unavoidable, really), and grammatical terms.  The latter frustrated me to no end.

In my opinion, the lack of grammar is both Rosetta Stone’s strength and its Achilles heel.

I learned a lot of German in five levels of Rosetta Stone and appreciated not getting bogged down in tedious grammatical rules and diagrams, but I did not learn really important grammatical terms like noun, verb, adjective, adverb, accusative, dative, genitive, perfect, imperfect, present, past, future, etc. in German, and how they corresponded to the grammar taught in Rosetta Stone pictures.

For instance, Rosetta Stone will teach you to say “The dog ran”, but it will not teach you that “the” is an article, “dog” is a noun, and “ran” is a verb.  If I was to continue taking a traditional German course in a classroom, I would have quite a bit of catching up to do in this area.

Luckily, my objective in taking the class was not to learn grammar (and the teacher was nice enough to help me understand what in the WORLD I was supposed to do for some of the exercises).  Rather, my aim was to improve my speaking skills and perhaps pick up some new vocabulary along the way.

In this regard, I considered the time spent in class worthwhile.  A major plus was the class size – only three other students besides myself.  This gave the teacher plenty of opportunities to call on me and force me to fumble through speaking.

(If I haven’t said it before, I loathe speaking foreign languages.  I’m slow to process what is said, slow to think of how to respond, and slow to actually speak my reply.)

Though I think the experience was helpful, taking an intensive course is not something I could do every week even if I had childcare.  Most students in the schools’ classes were 5-10+ years younger than me, unmarried, and without children.  After all other daily responsibilities were done, I barely had an hour for homework at night, let alone time to attempt memorizing vocabulary and grammar from the previous days’ lessons.

But, I enjoyed the chance to get out and try something new.  Now, if only I could find a conversation group in my neighborhood or some alternative or creative way to practice other than with government officials and medical office staff!