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

 

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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

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.

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.

Shameless Repost: Are German Parents as Superior as French Parents?

I don’t often think about if German parents are different than American parents.  That’s a no-brainer.  I just know they are.

But one thing I haven’t given much thought to is the question of how German parents differ from their American counterparts.

Several weeks ago, I ran across an article listed in Simple Mom’s Weekend Links that happened to be from the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Why French Parents Are Superior.”

I loved it.

Since then, I’ve been consciously thinking about two things I took away from the article: delayed gratification and teaching my children to entertain themselves by playing alone while I am busy.

As I read the article, though, I wondered how similar French and German parents are.  The last time I spent more than one day in France, I was pregnant with my first child and not at all into hanging out at playgrounds or observing child rearing techniques.

And, even though I have lived in Germany for a year and a half, I am still no expert on German parents.  So, I was quite pleased to run across a comparison on the German Way Expat Blog of French and German parents based on the aforementioned Wall Street Journal article.

Head here to read the full comparison.   (Or you can cheat and read the final count here: Similarities – 3 and Dissimilarities – 2.)

Mittagsruhe

Walking home from dinner last night, I realized I had not blogged yet about a very, VERY important element of German life: mittagsruhe.

Loosely translated, it means midday peace & quiet.  It’s a blessing and a curse.

As a mama of two boys who still nap (thank you, God), I’m extremely happy about two hours of quiet time in the afternoon.

The problem comes when said children decide they aren’t napping according to German rules (usually 1pm-3pm) but according to their own (say 2pm-4pm).  Neighbors protest, arguments ensue, and complaints are filed.  Not that I would know anything about that…

Other than children screaming at the top of their lungs, other outlawed activities include laughing, partying, drilling, hammering, marching, lawn mowing, drumming, shooting, bass thumping, snoring, and the like.

Should you happen to know in advance that you might not be quiet during the mittagsruhe (shocker!), it’s to your benefit to ask and/or warn your neighbors.  You still might get an earful, but at least you have the opportunity to offer chocolate cake in an attempt to pacify their protests.

If you happen to find mittagsruhe a bit extreme, I should warn you that Sundays are a full day of peace and quiet: Sonntagsruhe.  Ahh, Germany, what would you be without your quirks?

p.s. – Construction crews and the weather get a free pass and somehow get out of abiding by mittagsruhe rules.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Oh my goodness, is Christmas over yet?  I’ve had enough parties and gingerbread to last me until next winter.

But no, we still have plenty of festivities left, at least in Germany.

Though the Americans have ripped off plenty of traditions from the Germans, there are still many differences.  It’s my second Christmas in Deutschland, and I’m still not used to everything yet.  Here’s a quick rundown of the German way…

  • Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas.  Advent calendars start December 1.  Don’t confuse the two!
  • Many families set up an Advent wreath, laid flat on a table with four candles.  One candle is lit for each week of Advent.
  • Germans are crazy about baking Christmas cookies.  However, their cookies are not usually decorated as elaborately as in the US (probably due to the lack of available items!).
  • Christmas trees are not put up until Christmas Eve, usually while the family (children) are at church.  When everyone returns home, voila!, the tree is lit and presents are stacked underneath or tied on the tree.  In some regions, the doors are locked to the room where the Christmas tree stands.  Children must wait outside until a bell rings.
  • Some families still use REAL candles on their Christmas trees.
  • Stores often close by 2pm on Christmas Eve and do not reopen until December 27.
  • Presents are opened on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day (and stockings are another day all together).
  • The Christkindl, or Christ child, brings the presents, not Santa Claus!
  • In some parts of Germany, the Weihnachtsmann (like Santa Claus) delivers the presents –  in person.  He doesn’t have a sleigh or reindeer.
  • Germans have Christmas Day #1 and Christmas Day #2 (called Boxing Day in the UK).
  • Sometimes the Christmas Eve meal is simple, followed by elaborate Christmas dinners on the first Christmas Day.
  • Goose, duck, rabbit, lamb, fondue, and pork (of course) are typical centerpieces of the Christmas meal.
  • Trees are often left up until the second week of January (after Three Kings Day – more on that to come!)

Of course not every German celebrates Christmas exactly like this and traditions vary by region.  By and large, though, these are quite typical of German Christmas festivities.  Did you find any traditions on the list that your family also observes?

Frohe Weihnachten! (Merry Christmas!)

Quirky Korea

Every time I visit a new place, I’m bound to notice the quirks, you know those funky things that make here different from there.  And boy, oh boy, did Korea have plenty fodder for the funnies.

Before you have a look, let me just make it known that I am in no way trying to put down or insult Korean culture.  We’re not stereotyping here; we’re just making observations.  Every people group is weird in their own way, and some of those ways are just hilarious.

SPAM! Koreans love it. Not only do they eat it, they give it as gifts. I found this multi-pack in Home Plus, the Korean version of Tesco. Up close, it looks like free toilet paper with massive Spam purchase, but the photo looks more like paper towels. Well, whatever, free gift with SPAM purchase!

Remember the ramen+convenience store love I mentioned yesterday? It's not just for school girls. Forget the lunch specials at the steak house. Just grab a bowl o' noodles at 7-11. Heat, eat, and go. Oh, and there are TVs everywhere (cars, taxis, buses, subways, elevators, mobile phones). For some reason, this one is not on. Must have TV with ramen!

If you've never seen a Korean drama (aka k-drama), you're missing out. Of course if you have seen them without subtitles, then you're REALLY missing out. We found multiple restaurants with photos such as this, noting the restaurant's involvement in a particular k-drama. This is serious advertising because Koreans LOVE their k-dramas.

Vitamin Water in Seoul? Yes! But, be careful. Korea is known for their knock-offs and you might get stuck with not-exactly Vitamin Water. Some imitation brands I saw were The Red Face (The North Face), LeadSports (LeSportSac), Orion (Oreo), as well as a plethora of very good designer fakes (Gucci, Coach, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, etc).

Korean women do not like freckles, wrinkles, and sun spots. Actually, loathe, detest, and fear might be better words. We rarely saw a woman outside without a ginormous visor and gloves (unless she was going to the office). Many had face masks underneath the visor, just in case the sun decided on a sneak attack.

I cannot for the life of me figure out what these white leg cover thingies are. I mostly saw them on girls in Myeongdong who were trying to get customers in their stores. But, I also saw them on girls in Home Plus who were stocking shelves. Protection or statement?

There's a lot to be said about Korean couple culture. But, the most hilarious thing to see are the matching outfits. His and hers for just about anything imaginable.

This dude is Haechi, or Seoul's mascot. He's supposed to welcome visitors, but I think he's rather disturbing. Though you can't quite tell from this picture, he's got fangs. These haechi figures are actually quite fierce since they're supposed to be protectors. In typical Korean fashion, the haechi has been "cute-ified" and turned into a cartoon character.

Bowing is the typical, respectful gesture in Korea. But this might be taking it a bit far. The poor woman in the picture had to bow to each car that came into the hotel parking lot at Lotte World.

No, it's not a mime in bronze paint. Yes, this woman was there long enough for Doc Sci to take several pictures of her, reading a statue's book. Too bad I don't read Korean; the text must have been mesmerizing.

I don't speak Korean, but I do speak English! Maybe I should give Fun Talk a call. One of my dream jobs is to be a professional does-this-translate-well-into-English proofreader. But, then sites like this would cease to exist.

You had me at ...

Nothing like encouraging violence in the streets.

No soap dispensers, only communal soap on a stick.

And, yet, if you need to know if a bathroom stall is occupied or not, you just check the digital display...?

Girls, break out your Buns of Steel tapes and get ready for squatty potties! Almost every public bathroom had half Western toilets and half squatty potties. But hey, at least I never had to pay for the bathroom workout experience. Score!

And, on that note, we’ll conclude our two-week re-cap of my recent trip to South Korea.  Check back next week for an exciting update to Where in the World!

Horse Chestnuts

Last week, I rode my bike to the pool and almost biffed on the way.  The culprit?  Not my own clumsiness mind you, but loads and piles of fallen horse chestnuts, or Kastanien in German.

Sharp and spiky, the shells on these chestnuts look like something out of a Super Mario Brothers underworld, death in one swipe.  Fortunately, that’s not really the case especially since they’re ridiculously interesting to little ones.  However, this type of chestnut is also apparently poisonous.  I guess the kids here just know not to try and eat such spiny weird things.

Though the children don’t eat them, they certainly do collect them.  Last fall, I saw girls and boys everywhere I went, gathering these brown round thingies.  I asked a friend what on earth kids wanted with them.  She told me the chestnuts are used for learning (counting, simple math, etc) as well as crafts.

T-Rex's kindergarten chestnut stash.

Even T-Rex has come home from school with chestnuts in hand.  Last week, he showed me the playground stash.  I was impressed at the variety from such a small kindergarten yard.  It must be some essential German characteristic, an autumn horse chestnut honing sense.

I’ve never seen these in the US, but if you happen to find yourself on the receiving end of a shedding horse chestnut tree, check out this website for crafts.  Just make sure they’re all gone before you blast “The Christmas Song” from the stereo.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…