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!

Parental Leave – A Benefit to Living in Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - with a BabyIf you’re an American, you’ve surely heard about the awesome maternity leave in places like Sweden.  It makes our standard FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) of 12 weeks – unpaid – look eternally pathetic.  Even if a mother could afford to take more than 12 weeks off work without pay, her job would surely be handed to someone else.

Not so in Sweden – or in Germany.  Legally, the mother can take up to three YEARS of maternity leave, and her employer must allow her to return to her position.  Also, if the employee and employer agree, one of those three years can be saved and taken when the child is between the ages of 3 and 8.

Granted, most of those three years of leave would be unpaid.  But, there are paid benefits.  The mother receives 14 weeks at 100% of her salary, starting 6 weeks before her due date.  After the 14 weeks are up, she is entitled to 12 months at about 65% pay.

Thrifty Travel Mama

To sweeten this deal even further, if the father wants to take leave as well, then the couple has 14 months that they may divide among themselves.  Again, these 14 months would be at 65% pay.  Seriously, awesome.

And this is just what Doc Sci and I did.  Since I did not work in Germany prior to Big Foot’s birth, I was (understandably) not eligible for the 14 weeks.  But we were allowed to take the 14 months at 65% of Doc Sci’s pay.

We chose to only have him take two of the fourteen months.  After all, we are here for him to gain experience in his field, and it seems counterproductive to just hang around living off the state for a year.  But, even with only two months off, that is still far more than he ever would have had in the US.  I love it.

I especially liked the option to not have to take the two months consecutively.  As such, Doc Sci was home for Big Foot’s first month of life, and he will also be home for the fifth month of life (starting mid December).

While living in Germany can be quite frustrating at times, I have to say that it sure is a swell place to have a family!Signature-Marigold

Make Ahead Meals for Small Freezers – The Update!

Whew!  Big Foot has now made it through ten weeks of life!  Only 592,849,107 more to go, right?

Before he made his forgettable debut, I told you about my manic cook-n-freeze frenzyI’m happy to report that almost all of the meals I made turned out very well or at the very least, edible.  I was also super surprised by some pretty awesome friends who brought me some pretty delicious food during Big Foot’s first week before heading off on holiday.

As I was slaving away over a hot stove this summer, sweating it out sans air conditioning, I wondered if all the culinary madness was worth it.  The verdict?  Definitely!  The gifts of friends combined with the bounty in the freezer allowed me to cook almost nothing for a full month!  I can’t even begin to describe the value of having time to just be with my family and adjust to a new baby without having to worry about what in the world I will cook for dinner.

So, without further ado, here is the list from the previous post with my comments on how each item fared following its nap in the depths of the deep freeze.

Freezer Meals I Made

  • Pasta Sauce Great! This is hands down my favorite sauce recipe.  I wish I had made more.  It can be used for pizza, pasta, lasagna, polenta, gnocchi, etc.  I now make a vat of this sauce, multiplying the ingredients by 6!  I’d make even more at a time, but that’s all I can fit in my largest cooking pot.
  • Pueblo Corn Pie I love this meatless main dish.  It reheated well, but I’d recommend defrosting it overnight in the fridge before popping it in the oven.  It sucked way too much energy going straight from the freezer to the oven.
  • Potato Soup This one of two things I have not yet eaten.  But if the Twice Baked Potatoes are any indication, it should turn out just fine.
  • Lasagna Casserole I don’t really like ricotta cheese, but I found myself chowing down on this dish.  Very easy to make, freeze, and reheat in the oven.
  • Homemade Pizza Pockets (but I used Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day dough) These are better reheated in the oven than in the microwave.  Next time I might make half with meat and half vegetarian.
  • Teriyaki Chicken I never got the time to make this and then freeze it.  But I’ve made this meal again and our family really loves it.  It might sound crazy, but try serving it with mashed potatoes instead of rice!
  • Twice Baked Potatoes These take up a lot of room in the freezer.  I thought they were decent but could use a bit more cheese.  My boys didn’t like them, but I’m not sure why since they like potatoes, broccoli, and cheese.  Perhaps it was the potato skin??
  • Black Bean Burgers Cooking these burgers was a nightmare, and next time I will search for another recipe.  I still have not tested them since Big Foot has serious gas issues.  If anyone has a better homemade black bean burger recipe, please leave a comment with a link!
  • Lemony Lentil Soup A regular meal in rotation around here, and it tastes just as good after being frozen.
  • Creamy Turkey Wild Rice Soup I loved this soup, and I can definitely see myself making this a staple during the winter months.  No issues reheating the soup even with the dairy.  It’s a good idea to undercook the veggies as the recipe suggests. 
  • End of Summer Harvest Soup  I have thrown together this super simple slow cooker recipe many times in the past several years, but I was disappointed at how it turned out after being frozen.  The zucchini was mushy to the point of being unrecognizable, and the pasta absorbed most of the soup liquid.  Better to just cook this in the crockpot and eat right away.
  • Corn Chowder I added some black beans to this recipe which most likely contributed to it tasting a little off.  The texture seems grainy and chunky when cold, but it evens out when reheated in the microwave.
  • Lemon Chicken (an old recipe similar to Chicken Piccata without the capers – I froze the chicken separately from the cooked spaghetti and steamed vegetables mixed in with the lemon sauce)  If I did this again, I would only cook the spaghetti for half of the time called for on the package (even less than al dente).  I would also double the sauce and freeze the sauce in one bag and the pasta and chicken in another.  The steamed vegetables turned to mush.  I should have simply parboiled them!  Not a great dish to freeze but still a family favorite.
  • Taco Meat (with lots of extra veggies – I used zucchini, onions, and red bell pepper)  Delicious!  We made a huge baking sheet of nachos with this.  I should have made several bags of taco meat since it can be used for a host of dishes (tacos, burritos, nachos, taco soup, quesadillas, enchiladas, etc.).
  • Marinated, Grilled Chicken (fully cooked)  I undercooked these chicken breasts ever so slightly – smart move.  The reheated chicken was still moist and juicy even after being zapped in the microwave.
  • Roasted Vegetables (zucchini, bell pepper, onion – for quick omelets and vegetarian quesadillas)  We did indeed feast on veggie quesadillas!  I will be making lots of extras whenever we grill this vegetable mix again.  I can see myself tossing them in deep dish pizza, frittatas, soups, paninis, etc.
  • Cooked Black Beans  Convenient, but next time I will freeze in quart-sized bags instead of gallon bags.  Since Big Foot has so much extra wind flying out the behind, we have eaten beans & rice a lot less than I originally anticipated.
  • Cooked Pinto Beans  See above.
  • Salsa I regularly whip up a big batch of salsa and freeze three quarters of it since cilantro is hard to come by ’round these parts.  It does turn out a little watery, but that can be easily drained.
  • Whole Grain Blueberry Muffins  Scrumptious!
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough  Amazing as always.  Freezing ready-to-go balls of cookie dough is pure genius!

In addition to the formidable amount of freezer meals I assembled, I also put together jars of dry ingredients for homemade Hamburger Helper and pancake mix.  I was so impressed by the convenience of these ready-to-cook items that I have continued to refill the jars when they become empty.  In fact, I so love having easy peasy Sunday flapjacks on hand that I’ve got a how-to post coming soon with my go-to pancake recipe.

But perhaps the most remarkable discovery for me during this adventure has been how well baked goods freeze.  After being delightfully surprised by my defrosted blueberry muffins, I have successfully frozen pumpkin muffins, lemon cupcakes, chocolate chip scones, peanut butter cookies, and more.  Sticking half the batch of whatever I bake in the icebox saves waist and waste!

Freezer cooking has truly changed how I manage meal planning in my home.  It’s been a positive experience that I hope will continue to save me time and stress for all those 592,849,107 weeks to come!

Have you tried any of the recipes above?  Let us know how they’ve turned out, or leave a link with your own favorites!

Free Baby Stuff for Mamas in Germany

Two of the things I miss the most about living in the US are free samples and coupons.  It’s not that they’re nonexistent in Germany; it’s just that they’re so rare they might as well be.

So you can imagine that I was quite excited to stumble across this post which contains links to all sorts of freebies for pregnant ladies and new mamas.  I wasn’t able to sign up for all of them, but I have been really pleased with what I have received.

All the baby coupons I have received thus far!

Here’s a rundown…

Hands down, the best goodies have come from dm’s babybonus program.  If you don’t know dm, it’s the German version of CVS or Walgreens.  This store offers your normal drugstore fare plus a great selection of baby items including clothing.  Each location has a changing table in it with complimentary wipes and diapers.  I haven’t seen parent-oriented service like that anywhere else in Germany save IKEA.

I love that dm has two different welcome packets – one for when you’re pregnant and the other for after the baby has arrived.

Items received from the dm pregnancy welcome packet (Willkommens-Paket zur Schwangerschaft):

  • 10% off your purchase, no minimum
  • A full size tube (150ml) of massage cream for prego bellies
  • A coupon book with savings on diapers, wipes, and other baby products as well as toiletries and pregnancy items (valid for more than 6 months)

dm babybonus welcome packet.

Items received from the dm babybonus welcome packet:

  • Soft rattle toy
  • Orthodontic pacifier
  • Samples of moisturizer and body lotion for mama
  • Sample of dm’s diaper rash cream for baby
  • Another (thicker) coupon book with similar savings to the pregnancy one (also valid for more than 6 months)

The next best box came from real,-.  You can read about how I love real,- here.  I first received a letter confirming my enrollment in their familymanager program that included only two coupons, one for baby gear and one for baby clothing.  I was a bit disappointed until I found a surprise from real,- in my mailbox right after Big Foot was born.

Box from real,-.

Items received from the familymanager Hallo Baby welcome packet:

  • Samples of Pampers wipes and one diaper
  • Purple Pampers baby socks
  • An iron-on logo to decorate a baby onesie and provide free advertising for real,- (ha!)
  • A lotion sample for mama
  • A coupon book with in-store savings on baby and household items (valid for more than 3 months)

Though I tend to frequent dm more, Müller is another great drugstore that also sells office supplies, department store perfume, toys, and entertainment media (CDs, DVDs, electronic games, etc).  I can attest that their Mein Baby program is well worth the five minutes it takes to sign up.  Though I wasn’t given any free samples, one could argue the contents were quite a bit more valuable.

Super thick coupon book from Müller.

Items received from Müller’s Mein Baby mailing:

  • Coupon for €5 off €20 (not limited to baby items and no expiration date)
  • The biggest coupon book I’ve ever seen in Germany with savings on pregnancy, baby, household, and family items as well as toys (valid for more than 6 months)

Honorable mention: Pampers Village The website states that if you sign up, you will receive coupons, newsletters, and a free box with items in it from the maternity ward where you give birth.  I never did receive the box, but perhaps the fact that I didn’t actually end up on the maternity ward after Big Foot was born had a little something to do with that.  However, I did receive coupons, and I successfully stacked a manufacturer’s coupon and a dm coupon when purchasing Pampers diapers.  Score!

If you’re actually signing up for all these freebies, I’d recommend skipping the registration for HiPP’s Mein Baby Club I only received a sticker to hang in the window of a car I don’t own and a coupon for 20 euros toward an account for the baby.  I thought that was rather generous… until I read the fine print.  In order to claim the money, I had to appear in person at the bank to verify all my information as well as the baby’s.  I understand that the company would like to know to whom they are giving their money (and that nothing is ever really free), but what new mama has time for an extra trip to the bank of all places??

Anyhow, it’s been great fun to sorta kinda coupon again.  I’ll take all the savings I can get!  If you’d like additional links to baby freebies in Germany, check out this blogger’s list.   Meanwhile, I’ll keep checking my mailbox for more money-saving goodies!

Pregnant in Germany: The Midwife Follow-Up Report

It feels like I have been out of the blogging routine for far too long.  It’s only been a few months, but so much has happened during that time.  I’ve got several updates, trip reports, and reviews to get out of my system before moving on to new stuff.  All the while, I’m doing my best to keep up with life and little boys and the adventures that come with the privilege of being a mama to three. 

Hopefully all your “what about…” questions will be answered very soon, starting with an update on my thoughts regarding what I consider a very positive aspect of the social health care system in Deutschland.  Take it away!

As I mentioned in a previous post, all pregnant women in Germany are entitled to midwifery care before, during, and after the birth of their child(ren).  Though my experience with one of the midwives at the hospital was less than stellar, I definitely lucked out with my ante- and post-natal care.

My midwife (let’s call her Maya) was of great help to me before Big Foot arrived.  She spoke great English so I didn’t have to stress about my German skills which seemed to rapidly disintegrate as the pregnancy progressed.  She came to my house so I could spend more hours at home than in a doctor’s office.  She brought a wealth of experience not only about the German system but also of the British system which seems to be a hybrid of the American way and the German way.

When I experienced a host of unexpected and severely unpleasant symptoms, Maya prescribed homeopathic and natural remedies.  She also presented me with free samples and coupons.  I think we might have been made for each other!

Maya also offered me suggestions on what to do and where to go when I realized I would need to be induced.  She told me which hospitals would be likely to cave to my sob story, and which doctors were better for situations that might arise such as a breech baby.

After Big Foot was born, I emailed Maya from my phone while waiting to be released from the hospital.  She set up a time to visit me the very next day which just happened to be a Sunday.  After that, she dropped by every other day for the first week and once a week after that.  In all, Maya came to my home for seven post-natal visits.

Each time she arrived, Maya would ask all sorts of questions about how I was doing, how Big Foot was faring, and how the family was getting along.  She really listened to me and cared about my answers.  She offered advice when I needed it without being pushy.

She checked my recovery, weighed the baby, and even did the heel prick test (similar to the test performed in the UK to check for hidden health conditions) so I wouldn’t have to make a trip to the pediatrician.

In the last two visits, Maya showed me some exercises I could do to wake up my abdominal muscles and strengthen my floppy midsection.  She left me with a poster detailing additional moves but not without first demonstrating each one to make sure I understood and could perform them correctly.

Maya mentioned to me at our final meeting that I still had several visits left in my quota.  Apparently, I can call her at any time up until Big Foot’s first birthday with questions, concerns, etc., and her services would still be covered by my insurance.  Wow.

I can’t say enough good things about my experience with a midwife, compliments of the health care system in Germany.  The only thing that would have made the whole shebang better was if she cooked, cleaned or babysat the older boys.  I guess that’s asking a bit much, but hey a girl can dream big, right?

Anyhow, despite my hospital horror show, it’s good to know that will remain but a lone dark spot in a mostly brilliant albeit baffling German birth experience.

It’s Time

It’s time.. for a lot of things.. for a little of this and a little of that..

It’s time.. for summer holidays.  T-Rex’s kindergarten closed for the summer just last week.  That’s right, in August.  The new kindergarten year begins the first week of September.

It’s time.. to wrap up little projects around the house.  To clean up and clean out.

It’s time.. to have a baby.  Really.  He can’t stay in there forever.

And, finally, it’s time.. to take a break.  A blogging break, that is.  The perfectionist people pleaser in me wants to write up until I’m on the way to the hospital.  But, truth be told, what I’d be writing wouldn’t be any good.  But checking off a box that says I blogged this week isn’t the point.

So, I’m here to say adieu.. for a few weeks, anyway.  I’ll be back to introduce the newest traveler, to write about my hospital experience, and to chronicle what I anticipate will be a hairy ordeal getting this little boy established in our expat world.

Enjoy your summer.  Relax with a sweet tea.  Dust off your passport, and see the world.  Or even just explore the next town over.  The season will be over before you (we) know it.

And when it’s back to school, I hope to be back to blogging.

Make Ahead Meals for Small Freezers

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been spending many of my waking hours in the kitchen cooking for the future.   I know it’s not that unusual for expectant mamas to make a few meals to have on hand for after the baby comes.  But, I think my preparation has become more of an obsession than a precaution.

When T-Rex was born, no one brought us any meals. It’s not that we didn’t have any friends.  It’s that we didn’t have many friends with kids and those that did have kids had newborns like us.

After Screech arrived, only two or three friends came by with food.  I didn’t really mind since we had gift cards or money for take-out.  We lived in an area with lots of restaurants, and this gave us plenty of choice (and convenience) the first few weeks.

Unfortunately, we won’t have that luxury this time around.  Takeout options for us are pretty much limited to pizza, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, and Chinese food that’s full of fat but devoid of any flavor (Germans are totally into bland).  Subway and pizza are all right, but who wants to eat that every other night?

If we do end up with some meals from friends (and that’s a big IF considering it’s summer vacation and almost everyone we know will be gone), I am still left with the embarrassing fact that I am incredibly picky.  The list of things I don’t eat is simply pathetic.  I’m trying hard to broaden my horizons, but I am sure there are certain things I will never be able to eat unless truly starving.

Our old freezer, before we got a new one.

So, I set out to fill what little space I do have with the most food possible.

Also, I asked friends to let us store some meals in their freezers.  Most Germans have small freezers, so I had little expectation of anyone having free space.  However, I was pleasantly surprised, and I’ve been able to give about half of what I’ve made to others to store in their homes until the baby arrives.  That meal is then their ticket to come by and say hello to our new addition.

The new freezer – just the bottom portion.

In order to make the most of their freezers and mine, I’ve found that the key to maximizing space is to put everything in zip-top storage bags and freeze flat.  No jars, and no containers of any shape or size.  I realize this isn’t great for the environment, but this cook-ahead frenzy is a one-time thing.  I rinse out and reuse any plastic zip-top bags that I can.  Those that I cannot reuse, I recycle.

We have two drawers, but both are not created equal…

I always make sure to write on the outside what will be inside the bag, the date I made it, and reheating instructions.  Then, I fill the bag with the meal.

It’s helpful for space and for taste to get as much air out of the bag as you can before freezing.  Close the bag almost all the way, and then stick a drinking straw in the last little open bit.  Suck as much air out as you can, and quickly seal the bag.  Lay flat, and freeze right away.

One is only half of the size…

For casserole-type meals (see Pueblo Corn Pie and Lasagna Casserole below), line the baking dish you will use with several sheets of foil and allow overhang.  Fill the pan with the prepared food.  Cover with plastic wrap and freeze.  Once frozen, remove from the dish and fold the foil over the top.  Put in a labeled freezer zip-top bag, and freeze.  When ready to eat, it will fit easily in the pan and also have little to no clean-up!

…of the other.

I found most of my recipes on Pinterest, but some are dishes that we regularly eat in our house.  Many of the websites on Pinterest listing make-ahead meals  contain ingredients that are expensive (seafood) or we don’t eat (pork).  As such, you may find more options than I did if you decide to go on a mass cook-n-freeze marathon.  I’ll post a list of the recipes I used with links below.

While on Pinterest, I found a great deal of links to dry mix recipes.  Many of them I couldn’t make because I have yet to find powdered milk (update – found it at Kaufland!).  But, some of them were totally doable.  I mixed up three jars of homemade Hamburger Helper, and four jars of pancake mix.  I labeled each with directions for Doc Sci to follow since he will be doing most of the “cooking.”

FYI.. I also tried two other popular mixes on Pinterest – and they turned out horrible.  Only try making Brownies and Mac & Cheese in a mug at your own risk!

Since I’ve never done this freezer meal madness before, I have no idea how these meals will taste once we actually eat them.  I’ll post an update with the verdict for each after we’ve consumed them all.  And maybe the convenience of having some meals in the freezer ready to go will be so attractive that I continue the practice (albeit on a much smaller scale) after we’ve gone from four to five.

Freezer Meals I Made

Other Lists of Freezer Meals

Have you made any freezer friendly meals?  If so, would you do it again?  How was the taste?

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.

Pregnant in Germany – Hospitals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin With Kids – Round 2

We spent last week in Berlin: Doc Sci at a workshop and conference, and the boys and I gallivanting around town.  Even though we’ve been to Berlin before, I enjoyed my time in the city.

However, I have to say that it’s time to take a break from traveling.  As I schlepped luggage and children to and fro, I couldn’t help but realize, I’m too pregnant for this.  So, suffice it to say, I probably won’t be writing any (overnight) trip reports until we go from a family of four to a family of five.

Since I am ridiculously pregnant, I tried to be realistic about what I could and could not handle on my own.  I’m not one to ask for special favors or to be treated differently just because I happen to have an over-inflated basketball duct taped to my abdomen.  But that basketball does make it rather difficult to carry a hiking backpack full of clothing.

So, I made Doc Sci carry (almost) everything.  Except for a small day pack, a camera bag, and a snack bag that I took, Doc Sci carried luggage for four on his back.  I love that man.  And his muscles.

Our luggage – six days worth of clothing for four people.

From my prior experience in Berlin, I knew that not all U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations have elevators.  Last time, I had to rely on my own strength and the kindness of passersby to get our pram up and down the station stairs.  This time, Screech is old enough to walk almost anywhere, even if he doesn’t particularly want to.  We decided to leave the pram – and the stress of how to get it fro here to there – at home.  Instead the boys would take a laufrad (Screech) and scooter (T-Rex).

This is how my boys roll.

As usual, we stayed in a holiday flat.  Stay tuned for a separate review of that experience.

I decided I could realistically do one major attraction per day.  The weather was iffy, so I chose two indoor activities (Legoland and the Deutsches Technikmuseum) and one outdoor activity (the water playground at Britzer Garten) due to lots of forecasted rain and less-than-I’d-expect-from-summer temperatures.

Ironically, my expectations for each attraction ended up completely opposite of our actual experience.  Legoland was poo-pooed in the Toytown forumsbut was an absolute hit with my boys.  I have lots to say about Legoland, so I’ll write another post on that soon.

Screech and T-Rex at the Deutsches Technikmuseum.

The Deutsches Technikmuseum had been on my list of things to visit last trip.  I failed to check my research notes though, and we visited on a Monday when the museum was closed.  Oops.

The ship exhibit at the Deutsches Technikmuseum.

I had read in both the Toytown and TripAdvisor forums that this museum was fantastic, awesome for kids (and only 6 euros for me – the boys are free).  I was utterly convinced of this when I read that there were planes, trains, ships, and automobiles to explore.  How could little boys not like this place?

Kids could practice steering a ship using this simulator. Unfortunately, the hordes of elementary school students hogged the rudder.

I’ll tell you how: there’s little for small hands to touch and explore.

Swell old Lufthansa aircraft – no touching!!

After our visit to the War Memorial of Korea, we will be forever jaded.  The boys now expect to be able to poke, prod, clamber, and climb all over the exhibits.  All aircraft was off limits, and only one boat could be boarded.  Many of the trains had platforms for viewing, but looking inside the railway cars was difficult for little ones.

The railroad exhibit was the highlight of an otherwise humdrum museum.

Perhaps it was the lack of hands-on activities, my pregnant grumpiness, or the lingering deplorable weather.  Whatever it was, the Deutsches Technikmuseum did not make it on our list of favorite places in Berlin.  It wasn’t awful, but I wouldn’t patronize the place again nor would I recommend it to others.

The boys also liked this water wheel. Good thing since it was about the only entertaining item on the grounds. The museum also has a Dutch windmill, but it was being renovated.

I held off visiting Britzer Garten until the last day of our trip.  That day held the best chance for sunshine and warm weather.  After all, what’s the point of visiting an outdoor water playground if it’s not to get some relief from the heat?

The view while walking through Britzer Garten: monotonous and monochromatic.

I had high hopes for this place.  The facility charges 3 euro admission for adults (my boys, ages 4 and 2, were free), so I figured this better be a pretty swell park with some nice views.  Maybe I just came in the wrong entrance, but I didn’t see anything amazing about Britzer Garten other than the sheer size of it.

The Garten is supposed to have a children’s train that runs through it. I didn’t see the train until just as we were leaving the park. Perhaps that would have been worthwhile…?

Unfortunately, the way to the water playground (Wasserspielplatz) is not well-marked on the garden maps.  I happened to find a signpost by accident, and thank God I did or we would have wandered around the massive grounds for hours.  What I saw completely underwhelmed me.

Icky water at the Wasserspielplatz.

Not only was the playground a lot smaller than it appears in pictures, but it had several reservoirs of water that had become a murky, yellowish-brown.  Gross.  I sincerely hoped my son who inherited the majority of the clean genes would refuse to go in.  No such luck.

The only other features for children to explore included a few dams and the giant scoop the boy in blue is using.

I should mention that there are two play structures with sand designed to be part of the playground.  This means not only are your children going to get seriously soaked, but they’ll be caked with exfoliating grit as well.  Bring a change of clothes and a towel (maybe for you, too).  At least the bathrooms are nearby.

Sand + nasty water = a nightmarish mess for a mama to clean up.

Though these two activities turned out to be duds in my book, we did squeeze in one other excursion that I thought was totally worth it.  We rode a double-decker bus!

Staring down at the passengers riding a “regular” bus.

Berlin public transportation buses 100 and 200 run from Alexanderplatz to Zoologischer Garten and back.  They have slightly different routes through Tiergarten, but both will show you major sights such as the Berliner Dom, the Duetsches Historisches Museum, the Staatsoper, Unter den Linden, the Brandenburger Tor, etc.  If you’re interested, the 100 passes by the Reichstag and the 200 by Potsdamer Platz.  Both buses are double-deckers, and tickets are standard fares for all Berlin public transport.  If you have a day ticket, you could make your own hop-on/hop-off tour!

To catch the 100 or 200, look for a bus stop sign like this directly across the street from Galeria Kaufhof (Alexanderplatz) on Karl-Liebknecht-Str. The bus ends at the Zoologischer Garten U-Bahn/S-Bahn station.

The Brandenburg Tor with all sorts of attractive construction going on.

The Siegessäule (victory column) in the middle of Tiergarten.

The entrance to the Berlin Zoo (Zoologischer Garten) is one of the last stops on the bus before reaching the end of the line.

Don’t pay for a fancy schmancy hop-on/hop-off tour. Create your own!

In addition to these main attractions, we squeezed in some time at playgrounds and stuffed our faces with burgers and burritos.  The former kept the boys happy, the latter kept us happy.

I really like Berlin even though it makes me realize I never want to live in a city that big.  Ever.  Instead, I’ll happily hibernate in my own little German city and wait for the next little traveler to arrive before hitting the road again.

Headed to Berlin?  Find more posts about this awesome German city here.Signature-Marigold