Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye, Leaving Well, + Sweetening the Sorrow

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeToday, in our current Expats Move Home series, I’m covering the painful but universal experience of saying goodbye. Grab the Kleenex!

Friends, family, family friends, friends as close as family – saying goodbye to any and all of these dear people is the absolute pits.

For expats, friends made abroad quickly become as close or even closer than family, knitting very different people together into strong relationships that would otherwise take years to establish.

Tearing that bond asunder must be done with care… and cake.

There should always be cake.

Going Away Party #1 – Coffee, Cake, and a Dollop of Practicality

Parties are generally pretty awesome (the food! the fun! the friends!), but going away parties can be downright depressing.

Is it possible to enjoy yourself while saying goodbye?

Personally, I dread these kinds of gatherings. Saying goodbye is not one of my strong points, despite the fact that I’ve garnered quite a bit of experience in bidding farewell.

To be honest, this time we were so stressed out and busy from moving logistics that we really did not have the time or mental capacity to allow ourselves get wrapped up in the emotion of the moment. Lest you think we got off easy, the emotion caught up with us later in the form of nasty reverse culture shock.

For reasons too logical to bore you with, we ended up with two parties – a brunch hosted by us and a picnic hosted by our friends.

We hosted the brunch ourselves so we could hang out with our favorite people in our tiny apartment one last time… and to give buyers we knew personally the opportunity to pick up items we were selling and giving away.

This turned out to be brilliant, and not just because I baked four different flavors of brunch cake. The thing is, even with all my careful cataloging, I ended up with several big boxes of extra knickknacks I could not or did not want to take home to the US.

I displayed these items on tables and shelves at the brunch and requested that everyone grab a slide of cake AND take at least one bag full of free stuff.

If it weren’t for the fact that we had to actually say GOODBYE to such wonderful people, the blueberry lemon cake and a boatload of freebies would’ve made for a pretty sweet party.

Going Away Party #2 – The Classic Freiburg Grill & Chill

Several weeks before we left and before the aforementioned cake extravaganza, an American friend offered to host a going away party for our family, wherever and whenever it was most convenient for us.

I’m not usually one to say yes to such things, and actually, it is rather unusual to do this kind of party in Germany. Everyone throws their own parties in Germany, even the going-away kind.

But, seeing as I was already drowning in my to-do’s, I gratefully accepted.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends Behind

One of the things I so loved about living in Freiburg was the beauty of the outdoors. The city is full of trees, and our apartment nestled up to one of the biggest parks in town.

We always looked forward to summer when we could roast marshmallows on our portable grill and lounge on the expansive lawn. Other people did the same, so it was like having one gigantic community backyard. It really was as awesome as it sounds.

I wanted to savor this experience one more time, so I took a chance on holding the farewell festivities in “our” backyard park.

Given that the big day fell during October in Freiburg, the plan was iffy at best. Rain could’ve squashed our plans as efficiently as a semi obliterates a gnat. Wind and cold could’ve kept the masses at bay. But, God saw fit to give us beautiful weather, and we were able to grill and chill with nearly all of our friends for the last time.

We snapped selfies, laughed, hugged, whispered goodbyes… and ate a whole lot of cake.

Goodbyes – The Expat Reality

After the glitz and the galette were gone, we were left with the somber reality of… goodbye.

Goodbyes are a natural part of every human being’s life, but they happen more frequently in the lives of expats. This is because the nature of the expat life is transient at its core. Whether the end date of the adventure abroad is known or not, the possibility always looms of heading back to the homeland.

As I mentioned above, friends made abroad become as close as family. A year before we left, a certain family we had grown close to were unexpectedly forced to move home. I still feel that loss to this very day.

Is it just me, or does it always seem harder for the ones left behind?

Well, now it was our turn to do the leaving.Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends Behind

Goodbyes – Difficult but Necessary

In the summer before we moved, I read a post written by a fellow expat – How to Say a Healthy Goodbye When You’re Leaving. It impacted me, and I think every expat should read and process the concepts that Ute presents.

Leaving is really, really hard. Because it’s so darn difficult, there’s a tendency to neglect tying up loose ends and saying goodbye.

But, don’t skip this step. It is absolutely vital – expat or not.

I never realized just how important it was to finish the current chapter in every relationship until someone abruptly slammed the book on me.

I recall an expat friend and her family that moved away a year and a half before we did. Once they knew their time was up, they pulled away from their circle of friends. They became distant, both physically and emotionally, and this was weeks before they ever set foot on the airplane.

In their time of transition, they did not allow others to help them much, and they did not say goodbye. I found this incredibly difficult not only because I cared for this person and her family, but also because she was unwilling (or unable) to address the elephant in the room – that she would be leaving for good and that leaving would change our relationship.

As the post discusses, those situations – those hurts, expressed or silenced – are not forgotten. Ute writes:

During the leaving stage we tend to deny or avoid confrontation with those we had disagreements with. We think we won’t see this person again and since we are going to leave anyway, why bother? Fact is that unresolved problems will stick with us like a mental baggage.

Not that I hold a grudge, but the “what if” still pains me.

I struggle with the fact that there was never a chance to resolve that situation and part on peaceful terms. And, because we live in different parts of the world now, perhaps there never will be.

For more on this topic, check out another of Ute’s posts, Goodbyes are Hard for Leavers and Stayers.

Expats Move Home: Leaving Friends BehindJust Do It

I still miss our life in Freiburg and the amazing people we met there, and I pray we did what we could to leave well. Goodbyes are hard, and I am terrible at them. Even so, I hope we have been able to learn from other leavers, parting peacefully and on a positive note.

Life is short – say goodbye or at least “see you later.”

Even if you hate goodbyes (who doesn’t?!), please think of the other person. Consider that they may need closure even if it is awkward or painful for you.

And, if it helps, bring cake.

A moist slice really can do wonders to sweeten the sorrow.

Though the stakes are higher with expats, moving on is something that happens to every person at one time or another. What are your best tips or stories on saying goodbye and leaving well?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Advertisements

Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?Grocery shopping – it’s either a mundane chore or an obsessive activity depending on who shares your shack. If you only cook for one or two, restocking the fridge may be an afterthought or even an annoyance. But for those with HUNGRY munchkins nipping at their heels, getting groceries is serious business.

While purchasing provisions in Germany vs. the US might not be as drastically different than, say, bartering for baloney in a rural Mongolian market, the discrepancies while abroad were enough to make me pine for the greener pastures of Publix, Kroger, and… Costco.

During my weekly German Aldi run, I longed for a bulk store like Costco or Sam’s. I was completely over the cashiers’ stares when I bought my standard ten liters of milk every Monday. Must I always insist that I am not feeding a herd of baby cows each week?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Rookie German grocery mistake: don’t buy more than your teeny fridge can hold.

In Germany, buying in bulk is just not a thing. Are you a big-box or warehouse shopper? Do you buy your milk by the liter or by the metric ton? I would’ve preferred the latter, but really, all I wanted was to shop at one store.

ONE.

Super Size It

America has done such a bang-up job of exporting BIG abroad – BIG brands like Oreo and BIG companies like Coke (to say nothing of BIG hair and BIG bodies plastered on the BIG silver screen). Unfortunately, my homeland failed me in neglecting to force the rest of the world to jump on the jumbo food packaging train.

Did I count down the days until we could join an American warehouse club store? You betcha.Thrifty Travel Mama - Strawberry Madness! Ideas and Recipes

Shop Around

Beyond the super-sized milk jugs and bloated boxes of cereal, the second major annoyance focused on the necessity of patronizing a minimum of two grocery stores every week to purchase ingredients I needed or wanted. More often than not, I visited three OR MORE… e v e r y    w e e k.

Give a little shout out if you that routine sounds major awesome!! No one? Really..?

One store. That doesn’t seem to much to ask, does it?

You might say, but hey, don’t you often sign the praises of Aldi? Yes, you’ve caught me. I do love Aldi, so much so that I pitted German Aldi vs American Aldi in a supermarket smackdown which you can read here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Weekly Aldi grocery run.

Unfortunately, as a discount store that aims to keep prices low, Aldi does not and cannot carry everything. Another German grocer, Rewe, is as expensive as it is amazing. Most Rewe stores are sparkling clean with two or three times as many products as Aldi or Lidl. But, that variety comes at a premium. Prices at Rewe were too high to shop there exclusively.

Despite their advantage over Aldi in terms of options, even Rewe doesn’t carry cilantro for my homemade salsa or black beans for this cheesy Warm Chipotle Dip. Want to know why?

I’ll let you in on a little secret… many Germans do not like dishes that feature a lot of spices (the exception being, of course, currywurst). Plain Jane is the name of the German flavor game. Grocers in Deutschland don’t carry a plethora of ethnic products because the majority of German customers won’t buy them.

So, what if you want to buck the well-established German flavor system and cook delicious dishes like curries and stir fry? Where are you going to find the essential ingredients?Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

The best place for global cuisine staples is an Asian or Middle Eastern specialty shop. Since I just can’t live indefinitely without my red lentils or soba noodles, I added yet another stop to my grocery groove – the Turkish market.

Exhausting and irritating yet unavoidable for the flavor seeker – patronizing multiple stores was my weekly routine. And every time I did the dance, I dreamed of being about to shop at one store per week.

Just ONE.

Coming to America

By now, you’re thinking that the neighborhood Walmart sounds like a fabulous place to shop in comparison – yeah, you and me both. Well, okay, maybe not Walmart. That place sends me into an absolute panic.

As you can imagine, one of the things I looked forward to the most when moving back to the States was one-stop grocery shopping. One store – done.

Bahahahahaha. Boy, was I wrong.

In Arizona, we became Costco members, and I gleefully loaded my colossal shopping cart with industrial-sized laundry detergent, a city block of toilet paper, and enough ketchup to last me until the apocalypse. Those first few weeks of buyers bliss were seriously something awesome.Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

But, I soon realized something.

Costco really is fabulous, but it doesn’t carry all the produce we usually eat. Kroger has low prices, but they don’t have all the natural and organic foods I buy. Sprouts is a decent health food store, but even they don’t carry all the ethnic food ingredients needed for more exotic dishes.

Oh my… here we go again.

I still find myself frequenting at least two stores every week here in America, often three if I add Trader Joe’s in the mix.

The main difference is I zip around in my car instead of my bike, burning gas instead of calories, while stressing out about traffic instead of whether the heavens will open up and drench both me and my bike trailer full of groceries. Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Is Getting Groceries Easier in America?

Win, Lose, or Draw?

If neither Germany nor America can give me that one and done experience – will ANYONE win?

On the plus side for America, it really is nice to save money in the land of grocery competition where stores often sell items at a loss just to get you in the door. I am once again using coupons (though nowhere NEAR the level I did once upon a time) and shopping the sales.

But, other than that aspect – significant as it may be, I can’t say that the American market experience is much better in terms of value added. America just stocks more products, offers more choice, and advertises more options… all of which isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for an expat in reverse culture shock recovery.Thrifty Travel Mama | Global Eatery - Sri Lanka

I do like that I can get any ingredient I need at nearly any time of day or night. And, yeah, the free samples at Costco and free cookies at Publix are a godsend when shopping with little boys. It’s also a big bonus to have my groceries bagged for me instead of having my meat and potatoes flung at me by an overzealous Aldi clerk because I’m not sacking them fast enough for her…

I don’t like that every time I go to the grocery store here, I am loaded up with a zillion and one plastic grocery bags. Where is the petition to ban these convenient nuisances from stores? Please, put my name at the tippy top.

Environmental concerns aside, those piles of plastic are a mushrooming monster, multiplying at an alarming rate and silently conquering every available nook and cranny in my house. At least German stores charge for plastic bags which passes the cost to the customer and makes one rethink how many bags are actually necessary.

Even if I can’t shop at one store, maybe I could make it out of each one with only ONE reusable bag instead of ONE thing in each plastic sea-creature-suffocating bag… A Sip of Summer - Refreshing Blueberry Lemonade and Green Tea

Wrapping Up

Contrary to my domestic daydreams, the grocery shopping grind in the US isn’t all I had hoped it would be. Despite living in the land of infinite possibility and choice, grabbing groceries every week at ONE store is simply not possible unless you possess (a) loads of cash that allow you to always pay full price or (b) a personal shopper who goes to all the various stores for you.

My one-and-done goal turns out to be downright unattainable under current circumstances. But, who knows? Maybe ONE day, that dream will come true.

What do you like and loathe about your weekly grocery trip? If you have grocery delivery, I would love to know your experience and if you think it simplifies things for your family.Signature Thrifty Travel MamaLead photo credit

 

Supermarket Smackdown – Aldi America vs. Aldi Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?I’m sure you’ve already gathered from my posts through the years that grocery shopping in Germany is not at all what it is in America. But, the two places do have one thing in common – they both have Aldi!

Which Aldi is better, east or west of the Atlantic? Could I get the same products on both continents?

And, if I could indulge in my favorite German treats every now and again, would this reverse culture shock beast be just a bit more manageable?

German Aldi

Do you have a default grocery store where you can be found nearly every week?

While living in Freiburg, Aldi was my jam. I couldn’t stay away. Their prices were just amazing, and we eventually came to love many of the off-brand products sold at ALDI SÜD.

When we returned to the US in 2014, I wondered what American Aldi would be like. Would they stock the best-tasting pretzel sticks, delicious organic yogurt, and balsamic vinegar from Italy?

Now, I did shop at Aldi a little bit in 2010 when the chain first came to Orlando. Confession: I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, I kind of hated it.

The store seemed a bit trashy, dirty, and the products of low quality. Truthfully, it was this first impression that made me hesitant to shop at German Aldi when we moved to Deutschland.

I soon came around though – German Aldi is awesome!

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

An Aldi store in Freiburg – no American Aldi is this cute.

American Aldi

Fast forward to the fall of 2014 when we arrived back in Orlando. Nerdy as we are – and more than slightly terrified of Walmart, we rounded the kids up and drove down to the neighborhood Aldi to check out the scene.

In the car, everyone shared their hopes of what might be on offer – chocolate, muesli, flips, pretzel sticks, flavored peanuts. We all had the jitters. A certain someone even dressed up for the occasion (search the photos for a clue..).

I’m certain we are the only people to have ever darkened Aldi’s door with that much excitement.

Stepping out of the car, we first noticed that the lack of carts in the parking lot. Yes! Grab your quarters boys and girls, because otherwise you’ll find yourself without a shopping cart. Since this is standard in German supermarketsno free carts there and no exhausted teenage employees corralling them – we felt instantly at home (seriously, nerds).

Quarters in our fists, we raced to the entrance. First shock: the tiled floor had to have been bought by the truckful at rock bottom prices because it was just. that. ugly. The décor didn’t invite me to relax and part with my entire paycheck (apparently Aldi needs to take a cue from her cousin Trader Joe’s). The store seemed almost deserted save one or two uniformed employees.

Things were not looking good.

I prepared myself for disappointment, but then a mere three feet later I spotted it… Moser Roth chocolate! Could it be? The very same bars I used to buy in Germany? No way – impossible! But yes, the brown bar had indeed crossed the ocean just to be gobbled up yours truly.

Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

 

Further on down the aisle, our kids found their favorite muesli – made in Germany! – that just so happened to be about the same price as it was at “home.”

Ohhh, things were certainly looking up. Dare I hope for even more delights?

Every few meters, we found treasures. Mustard made in Germany. Peanut butter flips – those crunchy puffs of nutty goodness that are like Cheetos but with savory peanut butter instead of cheese.Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

But there, in the middle of the store, lay the most thrilling find of all… Weihnachten (Christmas) treats! Nearly every standard sugary German Christmas delight waited patiently, calling my name, begging to be bought.

At the end of the display, I spotted our family’s absolute favorite – Spekulatius cookies. Though the ingredient list appeared identical to the German version, I remained skeptical. They couldn’t really be the same, could they?

In the interest of blog research (naturally), I put the American version to the test. Oh, how glorious to discover that these sweet gems look and taste the same as the biscuits sold in our old Aldi in Freiburg. Hallelujah – thank you, Jesus! Christmas cookie time cannot come soon enough…Thrifty Travel Mama | How Does Aldi USA Compare to Aldi Germany?

At this point, we couldn’t be much higher on joy. The only thing that might have nudged us to the very top of the scale would have been authentic German bread and fresh-baked pretzels.

Nice try, but no.

Unfortunately, American Aldi does not carry any German bread besides Fitness Brot (like this). The rest of the bread selection disappointed, only squishy American carbs full of additives and preservatives.

No German pretzels, and no fresh bakery. I might have shed a tear or two.

For my curious German readers, we didn’t see a tub of Quark anywhere, but I recently spotted a promising product at SuperTarget with the words “Creamy German Style” on the label.

The Verdict

So, which one is better?! It’s a tough call, but one that someone’s going to have to make. If I didn’t already love German Aldi, I don’t think I’d give a hoot about Aldi in the US. And, while American Aldi scores massive points for carrying many of our favorite munchies, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. We love you ALDI SÜD!!

Sadly, no Aldi stores exist in Arizona, so I won’t be looking to Aldi to cure my reverse culture shock any time soon. The nearest one is in Texas, but I read recently that Aldi plans to give the southern California area a run for its (grocery) money. One can only pray and hope.

Until Aldi moves in next door, would I drive four hundred miles for muesli and cookies? You betcha!

What’s one of your favorite treats from a place you used to live? Would you drive four hundred miles to stock up on precious ingredients or products you love?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama Image Credit

 

 

Reverse Culture Shock: The Four-Month Mark

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s a post I jotted down in February 2015 during a particularly nauseating bout of reverse culture shock. I’ll be moving on to other topics next week, but the struggle I’m writing about today is an ongoing one for repats.

Culture shock – it hits you like a heatwave, a revolting smack in the face. What starts as a lovely dip in the sunshine (hooray for being back in the land of Target!) often ends in a full-scale meltdown… no toddler required (I can’t actually find a single thing on my list in Target).

In general, everything seems to be fine. That’s a loaded word, though, isn’t it? “It’s a fine day to fly a kite” is completely different from “I don’t need your help – I’m fine” or “Fine, have it your way.”

None of the children cry themselves to sleep or refuse to speak English or constantly blabber on about “the way things were in Germany.” (That’s just me.)

Eventually, driving ev.er.y.wh.er.e. seems normal again. I SO hate that. I’m sure I’ve told you before, but just to cover the bases… I hate that. I want my bike back.

And then, one fine day, you are bitten by “the bug.” This species often preys on repats and expats, but anyone is susceptible because this bug doesn’t discriminate (how P.C. of the devious little thing). The bite doesn’t seem severe, just a bit of a sting and no more serious than pricking your finger on a spindle.

You feel a bit of pain in your chest as the poison works its way to the center of your being. Before you know it, the full-fledged symptoms of this nasty sickness appear. You’ve now got oh-my-gosh-I-will-forever-live-in-the-land-of-the-free-but-oh-so-dull-and-never-travel-again-itis. Yep, that’s totally an official medical term.

The venom of envy courses through your veins, paralyzing your mind and wounding your heart. Your symptoms increase significantly when looking at Facebook posts featuring your friends and their holidays in Spain, Austria, and South Africa. Even browsing travel blogs leaves you in bitter agony.

America is so… boring. Going from one state to another isn’t nearly as exciting as hopping over to France or Belgium. Everything is SO far away here. And flying to another country is too expensive.You’ll never travel like you used to….

And on and on the deceit goes.

The problem in all of this is that this line of thinking is extremely, well, bratty.

I mean, how much of the total world population even has the ability to travel beyond where they can walk or ride affordable public transport? Are those who stay home and lead a “typical” existence, are they living worthless lives?

No, no, no.

But, the bitter taste of culture shock pollutes your point of view, and all of a sudden any possibility of remaining positive withers up and disappears as you mourn.

Discontent makes herself comfortable, and then you’re really in for it.

I’ll never travel out of this country again. I’ll never have that kind of vacation time. It’s so expensive to leave the US; how will we ever afford it again? I’m losing my second language. I know there are a zillion and one things to see in the US, but I just can’t get excited about any of them because America is so LAME.

Yikes.

These thoughts – shameful, repulsive, distressing, appalling, ugly, depressing – are nothing but lies.

Over the highs and lows of the last year, I’ve come to realize the antidote to this illness is thankfulness. I found I could fight the travel-homesickness like this…

Remember, self… you have an incredible husband and a strong marriage even after all you’ve been through in the past decade. Hello, you two even still LIKE each other, and that’s got to count for something. You have amazing children: handsome, smart, and healthy.

That last one should never be so easily discounted, and everything else probably pales in comparison. Travel can buy experience and perspective, and money can buy travel, but no amount of either one can cure illnesses of the chronic or terminal kind.

Today, you have each other. You have shelter, clothing, food, friends, love – and you have these in abundance. Give thanks over and over again, self, until that gratefulness defeats the ugly monsters of envy and desire.

With each outbreak of bitterness, longing, confusion, sadness – I will allow the surge of emotion to come. Fighting or denying is useless anyway.

I will remind myself these mourning waves are only temporary, even if it seems like they will never end. I will not always feel this way. I will remember emotion does not trump fact. Truth is truth, and no mere feeling can shake it.

And, I will pray. I will plead for contentment, for perspective. I will practice gratefulness and count my many, many blessings.

Have you pricked your finger on the spindle and fallen prey to homesickness? What’s your antidote for waves of irrational feelings or travel envy?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Walmart is Terrifying! – Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceHere’s another post written during the first few weeks of our return to the US in the fall of 2014.

One of the things that scares me the most about returning to America after four years in Germany is the dreadful reverse culture shock. It’s nasty, sometimes hard to identify, and manifests itself differently in each person.

The last time I went through reverse culture shock, it wasn’t so bad. I was in my early twenties and had spent the better part of a year in Russia. I was single, and I only experienced a few weeks of floundering before I had to buck up and finish my last semester of university. I’m sure it was worse than I remember, but I moved on quickly.

This time around I have four other people to think about besides myself and none of them has the slightest idea of what lies ahead.

So far, Charlie hasn’t noticed a thing except that there is an abundance of snacks here ranging from slightly salty to serious sugar high. He hasn’t met one he didn’t like. Obviously, he’ll be fine.

Bravo is distracted by all the big-kid Lego he now owns. We had been saving the transition from Duplo to Lego to hype as a major perk of moving to America. Now that we’ve made the switch, he likely thinks we’re on a continuous Lego shopping trip which is a win in his book. He’ll also be fine.

Alpha is not happy with all the homeschooling we are doing (to catch up on taking a few months off to pack and move). He thinks it strange when I refer to everyday items and places using German names (Spielplatz instead of “playground”). German is NOT cool in his book. But other than that, he appears to be fine.

Perhaps things with these three boys will get worse when we actually settle somewhere and they have to integrate into school, church, sports, clubs, neighborhood friends, etc.

Update, September 2015: No ill effects other than disdain for speaking German in the US. Apparently, Germany never happened in their minds except when random memories pop up. They don’t express any emotions at these memories; only facts are stated.

As for Doc Sci and I… oh sure, we smile and share a box of Cheez-Its, but inside? We are freaking out.

I strive to play the good American. I hop in my car, drive the one mile to Walmart, and do my best to “pick up a few things.”

At the superstore, I go inside for milk, cookies (because, you know, the Oreo aisle), and a piece of poster board.

Several hours later, I emerge.. My bags are laden with three kinds of cookies, two peanut butter candy bars, hummus, pita chips, four boxes of cereal, one piece of poster board, and the latest anti-aging moisturizer because this move is giving me wrinkles… but, no milk.

Crappity crap. Cookies without milk.

I’m too terrified to go back in that freaky big box again, so I just leave and go home minus milk for the cookie smorgasbord.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Walmart is Terrifying! And Other Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

Walmart.. once you go in, you may never get out. Photo

I found this article browsing through an old issue of Cooking Light that just happens to be a perfect picture of the American grocery store experience.

Spend two hours in a big supermarket, not shopping, just studying the food and customers, trying to take every bit of it in, trying to receive fresh clues about an everyday activity.

 

Ninety minutes in, you may find yourself having an out-of-body experience, as if wandering the aisles with Timothy Leary’s ghost. Such is the hallucinatory effect when you open your mind to all the brands, claims, data, memes, and pop culture icons that crowd shelves and packages, hooting and hollering for attention.

 

There are as many as 40,000 products in a supermarket, just one of which, if you stop to study it, is a cereal that offers nine health-related bits of information on the front of the box and 134 bits of information about nutrition and ingredients overall.

 

Now that you’re in the cereal aisle, walk its length. There are 28 paces of product, five shelves high: a staggering number of variations on the single theme of something crunchy to pour milk over.

 

Of 137 cereal products, about 93 look to be sugary. But there are also sugar-free cereals, low-added-sugar products, “natural” products, and products containing urgent amounts of fiber… (full text here)

If I could sum up our current state in one word, it would be overload.

For someone who is used to shopping at a grocery store that is approximately the size of two, three-bedroom American homes put together, the sheer size of Walmart is the first hurdle.

The second is the vast amount of choice. My German neighborhood Aldi stocked four kinds of chips. FOUR. How do you pick between the 6,902 varieties here? Either you are required to take the time to read every.single.label to check for hidden chemicals and unwanted ingredients or you are forced to not care.

And speaking of reading labels, I had forgotten how long ingredient lists are in the US. Friday night dinners in our house are usually fun, lazy cooking kid-friendly affairs.

In Germany, I would often pick up frozen chicken strips and oven-bake fries to serve with a quick salad. The chicken strips were composed of chicken (as in actual pieces, not that weird pink puree), flour, spices, salt, and maybe some broth. Less than 8 ingredients and nothing I couldn’t pronounce, even auf Deutsch.

And those fries? Potatoes, sunflower oil, salt. Nothing hydrogenated or hydrolyzed.

Short, straightforward ingredient lists are scarce in a vast majority of American food products. Here’s another snippet from the Cooking Light article I quoted above…

Keep walking and watching—all aisles… Sugar, fat, and salt, the three sirens of the American diet, still seem front-loaded in so many products.

 

A “light” 3-ounce snack pack intended for one child contains 77 ingredients, 17 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 1 gram of trans fat, and 620 milligrams of sodium.

 

Mark Bittman, crusading New York Times columnist and cookbook author, would say that a lot of this food is not even “real,” inasmuch as he finds it not “recognizable by appearance or flavor as what it was when it started.”

 

Little cans of propellent-powered cheese spread insist that they are, however, “made of real cheese!” (full text here)

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. I’ve been encouraged to see so many American brands rolling out product lines with a “simple” theme featuring fewer ingredients and no artificial chemicals. It’s just so dang difficult to find them in the sea of 40,000 products all vying for your attention and money.

So, while my kids are loving the free-flowing Goldfish crackers and I’m enjoying a cold glass of dark chocolate almond milk, I have to admit I’m straddling the line… the line that separates the “food is better for you Germany” from “but choice is what makes America awesome.”

I miss my little Aldi with it’s limited choice. Though, if I dig down deep, I have to admit I don’t miss it enough to say it was better or that I wish I could go back to shopping there every week.

Yes, there’s still a teeny part of me – my residual “Americanness” – that enjoys a smattering of choice and the convenience of being able to get almost any product at nearly any time, day or night. But this unmitigated freedom and overabundance of choice leaves me exhausted.

What I really crave is the simplicity that comes out of choosing from only a few products that are truly made well.

I know it’s only a matter of time before I fully jump the fence on to the American side – joining Costco and buying my toilet paper in 100-roll packs. But, for now, we’re stuck in the overwhelmed stage of culture shock… eating our way out one Cheez-It at a time.

Since writing this post, I have (ahem) joined Costco. The plethora of choice still paralyzes me at times, such as when I visit a new restaurant that offers too many options on the menu. I still find myself lost at Walmart and end up leaving with things I don’t need and without the things I do.

So, what do you think about the abundance of choice in the US? Love it? Hate it? Do you get overwhelmed with too many options or frustrated with too few?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Expats Move Home: What America Does Better

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: What I Like Better in AmericaNow that I’ve revealed all the things I miss about living in Deutschland, it’s time to confess that our time in Germany was not all natural beauty, biergartens, and brezeln.

In no particular order (because that just takes too much brain power which is currently being commandeered by small people), here’s what we think America does better.

German Kitchens

Let’s be honest: many German kitchens are miserably small. Do a quick Google image search for “German kitchen,” and you’ll be inundated with images of sleek, spacious cooking spaces.

People, this is not reality. I’ve never seen a kitchen like that outside of IKEA. Most German kitchens look like this (1, 2, 3). Typically, they are housed in a separate room, completely closed off from the rest of the living space, often with a door like the one to your bedroom.

German kitchens often feel like just another closet with the added bonus of running water. They’re small, cramped, and usually pieced together – a product of moving your entire kitchen with you when you change apartments. I do NOT miss my Barbie dream house kitchen with exactly 18” of counter space. Nope, not one bit.

Okay, a tiny part of me would love to have a sliding door on mine (you know, to bake and consume an entire batch of chocolate cupcakes without the three hungry little monsters noticing). But, the remaining 99% of me loves my open American kitchen with loads of counter space.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: What I Like Better in America

A typical European-sized fridge.

Customer Service

Because of that whole thrifty thing, I have to REALLY like or need a product in order to spend money on it. Being picky means I rarely know if I like a certain something without seeing or trying it at home. Often, I end up schlepping the item back to the store for a refund.

In Germany, returning items was never simple, and it was often difficult or impossible outside of Amazon or big chain stores. Returning items in the US is a breeze, usually without any questions asked beyond, “Do you have your receipt?”. I love the American attitude that the customer is important, and it sure is nice that companies in the US work to earn and keep your business.

Restaurants

We don’t eat out very often for several reasons, but it’s mainly because cooking at home has become our habit.

In Freiburg, we only ate in a handful of restaurants because the food was usually bland AND expensive. We became accustomed to cooking from scratch all.the.time.

After Charlie was born, I longed for the ease of take-out or even a drive-thru that was not McDonalds or Burger King. No such luck.

Even though we still don’t frequent restaurants, we now have options. I don’t have to go searching for the one lone taco truck that serves the only decent food in town; I can just pull up reviews of local joints on my phone. Mexican, Indian, Persian, Korean – they’re all within reach, delicious, and often affordable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: What I Like Better in America

All Chipotle, all the time!

Oh, and while we’re at it…. let’s give an honorable mention to FREE REFILLS. Outside of Ikea, this just does not happen in Europe.

Feeling Like an Outsider

It’s one thing to be an outsider; it’s another to feel like one. I never expected to be German or to feel German, and I was okay with that.

But, what I never could have imagined was that my kids would be treated as outsiders, not once receiving a birthday or play-date invitation from fellow kindergarten pals in four years.

Ouch.

I didn’t like that my son’s educational prospects were grim just because he wasn’t a native speaker. And, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable to be stared out whenever I spoke English in public with my kids.

Though I still don’t feel quite at home in America, it’s not as hard to assimilate here. Making friends is simpler; birthday party invitations are easier to come by. I might always be a triangle, but cracking the social code is more manageable in the motherland.

Noteworthy

Leaving a piece of your heart in another part of the world is just plain hard. Striving to see the good in where you are – right here and now – is vital to keeping your head above the depressing waters. There is good in every place if we only take the time to look hard enough for it.

If you’ve repatriated, what do you NOT miss about your host country? If you live in America, what do you love about living here?

Signature Thrifty Travel MamaImage source

 

 

Expats Move Home: Do We Miss Germany?

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany“Do you miss Germany?”

I get asked this all.the.time, and the answer is a resounding, YES!

The more difficult question involves what we miss about Germany, because there are things we most definitely do NOT miss. Hang on to your hats – that list is coming next.

In struggling to adapt back to American culture, I find myself often looking back on our European adventure with rose-colored glasses.

It seems that in every frustrating encounter with our broken American healthcare, every failure to communicate in my native language, every awkward social encounter with a spandex-clad, minivan-wielding soccer mom.. I want to quit. I want to give up and go back. I long for the “good ol’ days.”

But, were those olden days really… good?

If so, then what was good?

Over the past months, I’ve been compiling a list – both for you and for me. For you, the curious – and for me, the perspective. In no particular order, here is what I miss the most about living in Europe.

Travel

This is where I truly struggle the most. America boasts many treasures, and I don’t discount that fact. But, they are all American and relatively new in the history of the world.

What I adored about living in Freiburg was the ability to hop in the car and find myself in a completely different country and/or culture in a half a day’s drive (or less).Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

The European landscape is littered with old castles and ancient fortresses. And, if the drive to a new place seemed too long, budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet made further-flung destinations just a quick flight away.

I guess the ancient old-world feel of Europe is just my style. I could explore and photograph charming provincial villages all.day.long and never tire of the rustic old stones, writhing iron, chiseled wood.

America has a different look that makes her special and unique. Sadly, Route 66 and Palm Springs just don’t do it for me. Perhaps that will change with time. For now, all I want is to be lost in the hill towns of Tuscany.

There’s also something to be said about the European idea that vacation time is a necessity, not a luxury. And while not every European can afford to spend a month in Spain, nearly every one of them receives much more time off than the average American… and the European uses it.

Riding My Bike

When we were searching for jobs last fall, Doc Sci and I desperately wanted to find and move to a walkable or bikeable community. We longed to keep some of that liberating feeling of using our own two legs to get us wherever we need to go.

While our current city is on the smaller side and thankfully doesn’t have too much traffic, it is NOT set up for getting around on two wheels.

For starters, American drivers just absolutely do not watch out for cyclists. I know, because I used to be one of those drivers. Retraining my brain to check the bike lane at every intersection in Germany was not easy, and I constantly worried about accidentally hitting a pedestrian or cyclist.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

Here in the US, you’re often taking your life in your hands using the bike lane. I know some people do it and don’t die. But with kids? Forget it.

I have tried riding on the sidewalk with the boys to a few places only to discover that sidewalks exist only on certain streets, abruptly beginning or ending without rhyme or reason. It’s there one block and gone the next. Rarely do the sidewalks extend along the full length of our route, forcing us to venture onto the actual road (yikes).

I guess we’ll have to stick with mountain biking or cycling nature trails. Enjoyable – but not at all the same.

Simplicity of Food

You can find many American foods in German supermarkets such as Coca Cola, Oreos, Pringles, etc.; but beware – these goods are not exactly the same. Sure, American Oreos and German Oreos share a common product name, but the ingredient lists are not identical!

American packaged food is often full of chemicals – preservatives, artificial colors, fake sugars. In Germany, soda is made with real sugar, and artificial ingredients are uncommon due to strict labeling laws and a population of consumers that prefer things au natural.

If I want to buy a simple bag of pretzel sticks in the US, I have to search multiple brands and products in order to find one with a short ingredient list and few allergens (and they ALL have sugar!).

Not one single product could boast an ingredient list like the ubiquitous German Salzstangen: flour, water, oil, salt, malt, and yeast.Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

In Deutschland, we grew accustomed to eating whole foods; only rarely did we buy something prepared. In the US, it often feels impossible to find raw ingredients for a decent price. Why is it that packaged food costs less in America than simple pantry staples?

No Bags at the Grocery Store

Can this really be a thing to miss? I have never been much of a staunch environmentalist (though I do think it’s important to care about the earth), but I appreciate a minimalist approach to life, especially with kids.

I have three growing boys, and they want to eat three meals a day and two snacks for some reason (the nerve!). As you can imagine, we buy a car-ful of groceries every week.

At first, I brought my reusable bags everywhere. But, I often forgot to hand them over before the cashier started bagging my items (often double bagging!). I ended up with bushels and bushels of these stupid nuisances within just a few weeks.

The waste drives me nuts; and the effort to recycle them is just one.more.thing to remember when I shop. Now, I just leave the reusable bags in the car and ask for no bags or use the self-checkout when I want to avoid the stares and comments (are you SURE you don’t want ANY bags?!).

Banking

During our cross-country move, I ducked into a store to grab a few things for dinner at the hotel. The woman in front of me in line whipped out a checkbook to pay for her groceries. A check?! Who pays with a check?

The cashier didn’t even know how to process the thing. I just stared. What is this, the 90s?

Nope, it’s 2015 in America – but, we’re still living in the dark ages of banking.

If you want to pay someone in Germany, you simply ask for their bank account number, and you transfer the money. It’s simple and free. Stores accept cash, debit, and sometimes credit. Chip and PIN cards and TAN blocks make transactions secure. If you’re curious, you can read more about German banking here.

While e-banking has changed by leaps and bounds since 2010 and nearly every business accepts some form of electronic payment, the last holdouts still cling to the comfort of old-fashioned checks. I have at least two payees that only accept cash, check, or money order (speaking of relics..). The sooner these antiquated bits of paper make their way from pocketbooks to museums, the better.

Freedom to Roam

Did you know that first graders in Germany are expected to walk themselves to and from school? Sure, parents are encouraged to show the kids the way, even walk the route with them a few times to practice. But then the parents should leave the child be to walk alone.

I’ll admit, I am not ready to give my seven year-old that kind of freedom. But, I do think he should be able to play on our street and in our neighborhood and work up to walking to the park or library by himself when he’s ready. Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

I want my kids to roam freely without fear that I will face repercussions for allowing such actions. Tsh from The Art of Simple discusses her wish for the same thing and gives a rallying cry that we, as a culture, need to stop blaming and start trusting our neighbors and each other. Amen.

Along with allowing our kids the freedom to wander, Germans allow their children to take risks. Playgrounds in Deutschland are full of every kind of wonder that would never be allowed on American soil. The risk of injury and subsequent lawsuit is just too great in the US.

Thrifty Travel Mama | What We Miss About Germany

German playgrounds don’t sport signs or warnings such as those pictured here.

Fresh Bread

Ask a German in the US what they miss about home, and the words BREAD and BAKERIES will come flying out of their mouth. I never understood why they thought their carbs were so much better. Up until 2010, I ate squishy loaves with the rest of America, laden with dozens of ingredients, multiple allergens, and a hearty dose of preservatives.

In Germany, every grocery store offers freshly baked bread, sans preservatives. Some stores like Lidl even offer a machine where you can slice the whole loaves yourself. Bakeries exist on nearly every corner. Why? Bread is important to Germans, and – I’ll let you in on a little secret – that bread tastes amazing when it’s fresh.

Fast forward to 2014. We’re back in the US, hunting the local store for something to bookend turkey and cheese.

First, we check ingredients; lists read like a food science textbook. None can stick with the basics like flour, yeast, salt, and water. I decide I’ll be generous and settle for allowing a bit of sugar or honey. But no, even this is not enough. I have to wade through -ates and -ites and countless dough conditioners (what the CRAP are those?).

Giving up, we then move on to the squeeze test. If the loaf squishes easily like your favorite pillow, it’s out. Each package crumples like a deflated balloon with the slightest touch.

Nearly a year later, we still have yet to find a great bread here that isn’t made from scratch at home or costs $5+ a loaf. If you know of one, please share it in the comments below.

German Speakers

Over the course of four years, I grew accustomed to hearing German spoken and the quiet that surrounded my lack of fluency. And, since I lived in a university town, I shared the streets with people from all over the world. My neighbors were from Israel, Ghana, India, Tunisia, and China. I loved that.

Yes, America is very diverse and many cities in the US host various ethnic populations. Just not my city. It’s starkly… white. And, considering it’s Arizona, I rarely even hear Spanish being spoken.

Earlier this year, I saw two young men that looked to be from India walking out of Costco as I was walking in. I fought the urge to rush over and ask them where they hung out, where they bought Indian groceries, what the best places were to eat Indian food. In the end, I restrained myself. Out of context, my questions might come across as, well, creepy. I didn’t want to be the one to scare off the only Indians in the city!

Wrap Up

Well, there you have it. All the things I miss and can’t easily obtain in my current place and time. Our German expat experience was incredible; but, it wasn’t all castles and chocolate. For the things I don’t miss, come back on Wednesday.

What things do you miss from a place you used to live or visit frequently? What did you do to cope?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

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

American Marvel: First Thoughts on Reentry

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI wrote my first draft of this post on October 31, 2014. It’s… raw.

That post where I marvel at America and all the ways she has changed since we left, the one where I try desperately not to nit pick, and the one where I take an honest look in the mirror — it’s here.

After brief jaunts in Leipzig and Istanbul, we touched down at Dulles on the very day that US passport control rolled out a more meticulous ebola screening program. Nothing like waiting forty-five minutes with squirmy boys for your first, “welcome back.”

Well, okay, waiting is something we became accustomed to in Germany. But customer service? THAT was our first clue that we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

At the rental car counter later that evening, I felt like an accidental tourist at La Tomatina. The agent’s words were flung at me in rapid fire sequence.

“HI! I’M CARRIE AND I’LL BE TAKING CARE OF YOU TODAY!! HOW ARE YOU DOING? HOW WAS YOUR FLIGHT?! CAN I GET YOU SOMETHING TO DRINK? WOULD YOU LIKE TO UPGRADE YOUR RENTAL CAR? NO? HOW ABOUT NOW? ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T WANT TO UPGRADE? IT’S ONLY SEVENTY BUCKS! WHAT A GREAT DEAL! WHAT ABOUT NOW? STILL NO? OKAY! YOU HAVE A GREAT DAY NOW!! COME BACK AND SEE US AGAIN!”

And it really was just like that – her speech was all caps and her personality all pep. I could only blink, mouth agape. I flinched at every line. Her volume and intensity were just a bit much for me to handle straight out of the gate. I had become so accustomed to the quiet.

When our rental car rolled up, my jaw dropped even further. They must have confused our reservation. Surely, this double-decker bus was not in the minivan category. I must have scored some kind of free upgrade. The car we drove in Germany was a “van.” THIS, this was something for transporting elephants, rhinos, prehistoric mammals, cargo.

What would we do with all that extra space?! Even with our five carry-ons, five backpacks, and two checked bags, we still could still do “airplane arms” without smacking each other in the face.

All of this, and we hadn’t even left the airport.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

We’re like ducks out of water, electric hair and wide eyes.

The past weeks have been like this for us. Everything strange, different, absolutely gigantic. My goodness, I can’t even touch the back of the clothes dryer without crawling in there myself.

The houses, the cars, the ovens, the burgers, the boxes of breakfast cereal, the shopping centers.. they’re all incredibly super-sized. I’m thoroughly convinced that the entire downtown shopping district of Freiburg would fit within the confines of one Super Walmart.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

This bag of Nearly Naked popcorn is nearly the size of my five year-old!

And the people… Oh, America, you make me sad. We are so sick, so unhealthy, so shockingly overweight. We are such a wealthy country and yet the bodies around me scream that even with all our excess, we are still looking for happiness in the newest flavor of Oreos or the hottest, newly-redesigned, expensive SUV.

What a crisis we are in with obesity! When I first arrived, I wondered how could this be so?

It didn’t take long to figure it out – (1) we don’t move our bodies other than from the couch to the car and (2) there are SO many delicious things to eat here. I know I said this before, but have you SEEN the Oreo aisle?!

Honestly, we as a nation need to sober up. We ought to be ashamed at how much food we consume – and throw away! – when there are so many in our world performing unmentionable acts and deeds just to eat once per day.

Yes, there are starving people in Africa, but Americans seem to forget there are starving people right here in our own community… and they are hidden in plain sight. They’re the kids stealing from that same Oreo aisle. Don’t believe me? Add Breaking Night to your reading list. You’ll never look at a tube of Chapstick the same way again.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

Spotted at a grocery store in the Netherlands…

This is my third weekend in America. On the first two weekends, I took walks in different neighborhoods in different cities. If I saw anyone outside, it was a lone adult. No kids, no families, no exercise, no games, no old-fashioned fun. I had forgotten that Americans don’t go for walks or play outside the way Germans do. If we exercise, we do it at home or at a gym. Why not outside in nature? Are we afraid? Bored? Uncomfortable? Inconvenienced?

I use the words “we” and “us” because as much as this country is foreign to me now, it is my country, my home land. I used to work out in a gym, I used to drive everywhere, I never went for walks, I used to eat only packaged/prepared food.

As much as I feel like an outsider, my passport says I’m not. I know the way things work in this country, where to go if I need something, and how to ask if I don’t. I can’t comment from the sidelines anymore; I’m back in the game.

In our marveling at each re-discovery, Doc Sci and I have the best of intentions not to let our wonder devolve into negativity. I think it’s okay to walk through each emotion (shock, sadness, confusion, wonder) as long as you don’t stay there indefinitely.

Due to the fact that our family has needed to just survive the last eight months, I’ve resigned myself to striving to end the string of discouraging thoughts on a neutral note – it just is what it is. Ultimately, I hope my feelings toward this culture and repatriation can grow roots in the positive, asking myself how I can change, how I can encourage others to change.

Have you ever left the US for a while and returned to find things you once considered normal to be completely foreign? 

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

A Family of Hobos We Have Been

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

This is one of my insanely long posts. Instead of just passing it off as tl;dr, make yourself a cuppa and stay a while… or just skim the headers. We can still be friends.

We are that crazy family… the one that others sometimes speak of as brave when they really mean insane.

In case you’re new ’round these parts and aren’t sure if I’m for real about the nutty bit, this post should convince you.

The Overview

Rewind with me to last autumn. We left our home in Freiburg at the beginning of October 2014, and ended up in Arizona just shy of New Year’s Eve. Seems simple, right? Ha – not so fast.

Hang on to your hats and follow along on our ride from Germany to Arizona via a dozen other destinations.. with all the madness and mayhem in between!

Please note that I am including some links to posts that have not been published yet. If you discover one of these, you can bookmark this post and come back later to read the linked posts, or you can just follow the blog via email (sign up on the right) or Facebook to be notified of all future posts.

By the way, if you’re reading these posts for the culture shock aspect, I’ll be honest and admit that recapping the events below is difficult for me. There are certain aspects of living in Freiburg that I miss somethin’ fierce, and I get a bit choked up when I dwell on certain memories for too long. So keep in mind that this adventure is two parts insane, one part pain.

Leaving Freiburg

Moving is never easy, and moving from one continent to another just multiplies the trouble. The ins and outs of our move is beyond the scope of this post, but I will briefly mention that we shipped most of our things to the US via DHL. Because of this, we did not have to schlep ten, fifty-pound checked suitcases and three children. Just the three kids, they’re non-negotiable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Testing out the new headphone splitter and learning to share one small DVD player.

Instead, all five of us all had backpacks and carry-on suitcases. Additionally, we took two gigantic checked bags and a car seat bag. If my math is right, that’s 13 pieces of luggage.

Hey, I never said I’m a pro at moving light – just packing light.

We bid Freiburg farewell and boarded a train to Leipzig. When we changed trains in Frankfurt, and Alpha and I literally ran to Chipotle in the rain to fetch one last German burrito. While there, we bumped into old friends from the US I haven’t seen in over ten years, also getting their burrito fix. Super fun, and super random. It’s a small (Mexican food) world, indeed.

Leipzig and Dresden

In Leipzig, Doc Sci attended one last conference for his post-doc while I had a fun meet-up and playdate with a blog reader (hi, Rose!). I also took the boys to Dresden… by myself.

Gulp.

Istanbul

After three days in the City of Heroes (Stadt der Helden), we flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Turkish offered the cheapest fare, and it actually turned out to be even less expensive to stay in Istanbul for 3 days on a stopover rather than going straight to the US.

We experienced three intense days in Istanbul, soaking up as much as we could of the local flavor and Turkish culture. Stay tuned for a budget-friendly “Istanbul with Kids” series!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Welcome to America

Our first stop in the US was Washington Dulles to visit family.

Of course (of course!), we landed on the day that the extra special screening for Ebola at passport control rolled out. Not exactly the best welcome to be stuck in customs/immigration for hours…

The boys enjoyed a weekend running crazy with the cousins. All five kids took advantage of a favorite autumn pastime – jumping in gigantic piles of leaves.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Orlando

We then flew to Orlando to reunited with friends, boxes shipped from Germany, and our car.

The last time we drove our car, Charlie was in an infant seat. Now, we have three lanky boys, all in forward-facing car seats. We shoved, pulled, squished, and prayed that three car seats would fit in the back row… of our Honda Civic.

In the end, we managed – but just barely. Good thing, too, because this car was to be our home for the next two months.

During our time in Orlando, Doc Sci started applying for jobs. We took turns hanging out with the kids and searching for open positions. At night, we both researched universities, cities, companies; we emailed out CVs and cover letters.

We dreamed, and we prayed.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

We celebrated the birthdays of Bravo and Alpha while on the road, one at the Lego store…

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

…and one at Legoland!

Nashville

Just before Thanksgiving, we road-tripped up to Nashville for a change of scenery. We set up camp at Grandma’s house, hung out with friends and family in Music City, and applied for more jobs.

It was during our stay in Tennessee that Doc Sci had a phone interview with the university that eventually hired him. But, we didn’t know that at the time, so after two weeks, we then set our sights on the Big D.

Dallas

One of our Freiburg friends is from the Dallas area (hi, Cheril!), and her parents were up for letting five dazed and confused ex-expat strangers take over half of their house. Generous souls!

We drove from Nashville to Dallas, and unpacked the car once again. More fabulous reunions with friends in the heart of Texas, employment meetings and emails, spelling tests, and math worksheets.

This is beginning to be a repetitive story, eh?

The News – and the Dilemma

Somewhere in the middle of the Metroplex, we got the call that a university in Arizona wanted to offer Doc Sci a visiting professor position for the spring semester.

Great news – except for one thing. The job started in less than one month.

Oh my.

Should we say accept the position? Should we move for a job that was not guaranteed for more than four months?

Beyond the philosophical, we also faced a physical dilemma. We stood, at that moment, halfway in between the Arizona job and our stored possessions in Florida.

Should we attempt to rent something furnished and run the risk of having to go back to Florida if the job turned out to be permanent? Or, should we go get our things in Florida now?

To complicate things further, Doc Sci had set up an in-person meeting in Atlanta for two days later.

Seriously?

Seriously.

What did we do? Why, we packed up the kids and drove to Atlanta, of course!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Atlanta

One more interview and less than twenty four hours in Atlanta later, we were zooming down I-75 on the way to Orlando again. We were positively sick of being on the road, but we needed those four hundred and fifty miles to discuss whether or not we would move to Arizona.

Orlando.. Again

Ultimately, we said yes. And, we took our stuff.

Just shy of two weeks after that major decision, we emptied our storage unit, packed a truck, and said goodbye to Orlando.

Road Trip!

Over the next week, we logged a minimum of eight hours of solid driving each day – not including breaks – to make it to Arizona as soon as possible. We needed to have at least one week to move into a house and prepare for Doc Sci to teach (for the very first time, I might add).

I drove our car with the three boys in the backseat, and Doc Sci manhandled the moving truck. If there’s such thing as an ideal road trip, this was the exact opposite.

We encountered some of the most intense rain I have ever driven through, a hail storm while on the “stilts” of I-10 in Louisiana with no place to pull over, snow in Texas, and ice in New Mexico.

I had done my best before we left to buy new DVDs, arrange little goody bags, dollar store toys.. you know, all those cutesy things you see on Pinterest.

But, after a couple thousand miles and sitting ALL DAY LONG for days on end, things got pretty frazzled in the back seat (okay, in the front seat, too).

Hey, at least no one threw up.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Dallas.. Again

The one bright spot was spending Christmas Eve and Day with our new friends in Dallas (remember those nice people that let perfect strangers take over half of their home?) and the rest of their family.

We’ll always remember 2014 as the Christmas where we literally could not uphold any traditions (no Adventskranz, Adventskalendar, cookie swaps, or gingerbread) and barely managed to fill the stockings. Instead, we received the fabulous gifts of generosity and hospitality from strangers turned friends. Humbling, indeed.

Arizona, Finally!

We rang in the new year at a hotel in Arizona, roasting marshmallows in the fake fire pit outside.

Hey, it could be worse. We had survived our road trip, and we were all healthy and alive!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Happy New Year!

Unfortunately, the house we rented wasn’t ready for us to move in until after Doc Sci started working. In the meantime, I shopped with the kids in the mornings, looking for basic furniture for our new home. When we moved to Germany, we gave nearly everything away because it didn’t make financial sense to store it.

In the afternoons, the boys did school while Charlie napped. When Doc Sci came home from work, I left to do more shopping and research.

Home…?

On moving day, we pulled up to our new house and found that all the vendors (painters, cleaners, etc.) had packed down the snow in the driveway, leaving us a housewarming present of a two-inch thick slab of solid ice on which to unload our things.

A kind neighbor lent us a snow shovel; the boys chipped away at the ice while Doc Sci and I tried not to break any bones.

Insert snarky comment about how with America’s fabulous system of healthcare, we wouldn’t have had coverage for any ice-related injuries since Doc Sci had not started work yet…

Once we were moved in, Doc Sci had to turn his attention back to the paying customers – students – leaving me to assemble the furniture, unpack, and set up our home.

After sleeping in twenty different beds in a mere two months, we felt like guests in our new-ish house with brand new furniture. The scars of pro-hoboing must be deep because even after six months here, that feeling has just started to subside.

Since the job in Arizona was only temporary, I wasn’t exactly motivated to really move in – you know, hang pictures, decorate, make things “for real.” Plus, it was hard doing everything alone.

Doc Sci left early in the morning, worked all day, came home for dinner, and then worked again until nearly midnight almost every night in an effort to stay at least one class ahead of the students.

I know this is reality for many families, but it was new to me and just.one.more. adjustment coupled with all the other changes.

The Bright Spot

The bright spot in all of this was that the two of us did not grow apart, though that would have been rather easy to do. We both worked hard in different ways, and we respected each other’s efforts. We asked for help when we absolutely needed it, and gave as much as we could to each other in that time.

Looking back, I do not know how we made it through apart from the grace of God.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Hiking in Arizona!

Our kids managed to overlook our flawed and stressful selves. Although they moaned and complained here and there about having to do school, I think they were just so relieved to not be hobos anymore.

I love to travel, but those months were an adventure I surely do not want to experience ever again.

Things are looking up for us now, maybe because it is summer break or because we have made some friends here and we don’t have any more boxes to unpack. I do still have more pictures to hang and projects I think would make this place more like home. But, we’re getting there. I can feel it. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, minute by minute, day by day. We’re making it.

How about you? Have you ever had to move from place to place, looking for a job? Has a new location shifted your life in a big way?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama