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

 

 

13 Practical Gifts for Traveling Families

Thrifty Travel Mama | Inexpensive, Practical Gifts for Traveling FamiliesOkay, okay, I’m hopping on the holiday gift wish list bandwagon… but, I’m kicking and screaming the whole way.

Confession: Gifts are just not my thing.  I love to give and be generous, but I’m better at offering my time… or cupcakes.

When it’s my turn to pick out a present, step one is usually to panic.

Step two is to accept help, usually in the form of gift guides scattered around the Internet.  But, most of the guides for men and kiddos (I’m the only female under this roof) are technology-laden.

We don’t need any more electronics, and my five year-old is just not getting a Kindle.  Or his own iPad… mini, gigantic, telepathic, whatever.  Ain’t gonna happen.

And, if I do manage to find a few items I like, I start hyperventilating when I see the price and end up suggesting to the intended recipients that we do handmade gifts, consumable gifts, or no gifts at all.  (aaaaaand we’re back to cupcakes!)

However, I don’t like being a Scrooge, so this year I’m putting out my own list, a mix tape of gifts for traveling families. 

Practical.  Affordable.  Fun.  Suitable for male recipients.  Enjoy!

Oh, and before I begin, you should know that at this time I do NOT use affiliate links.  I have not been compensated in any way by any of the companies below. 

  1. Streamlight Septor LED Headlamp Fun for kids and adults alike, headlamps can be used for your next after-dark adventure whether it takes place in the mountains or under the covers on the pages of your favorite book.  I like the extra strap on this headlamp, but other models with just one strap are less expensive.

  2. Handmade Silver Travel Necklace with Globe Charm Show off your wanderlust with this pretty, pretty necklace.  Choose from four chain lengths and four font options.

  3. Nibbles Apple iPad Charger Holder.  Keeps unruly cords in check both at home and on the go.  And, it’s hilarious.  Also available for iPhone chargers.

  4. Deutsche Bahn German Railway Map T-Shirt Not just for expats, this tee is travel nerd fashion at its finest.  Good thing they have men’s and women’s sizes!  Be sure to check out the other art, science, and travel t-shirt designs in babbletees Etsy shop.

  5. Scribble It! 30 Postcards My boys are constantly asking if we can mail the drawing of the day to a friend across the world.  I’d love to reduce the bulk (and save on postage!) by using these postcards which they can color and then send.  Plenty of margin space for doodling and personal messages.  The hardest part will be convincing the boys not to send all the cards at once!

  6. Airplane Mode Pouch Unisex packing organizer, pencil case, camera holder, catch-all clutch, etc.  Just one Fab’s fabulous travel accessories.

  7. Curious George Magnetic Tin Play Set What toddler doesn’t love Curious George?  Leave the stuffed animal at home, and take this traveling tin with you.  Features three scenes and loads of magnets sure to delight and entertain your favorite pre-schooler.

  8. Men’s Grunge Airplane T-Shirt Order one for the pilot, mountain man, or armchair traveler in your life.  By the way, OhSudzGifts also has clothing sporting bicycles, Chucks, compasses, and the Eiffel Tower.  Yeah!

  9. NYC Metro Cuff Not recommended as a suitable tool for navigating the New York subway, but fashionable and fun anyway.  NYC not your thing?  Designhype offers cuffs with San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, Brooklyn, London, Paris, Berlin and Milan maps in several finishes.

  10. Sticky Mosaics® Vehicles Set.  Finally!  Fun crafts for boys that are easy enough for kindergarteners to tackle.  Take this kit on your next holiday or bust it out when cabin fever sets in, oh say about mid-January.  Also available in girly and grown-up kid versions.

  11. Pirate Passport Cover.  With five passports to juggle (thank God none of us have dual citizenship..), we’re always fumbling with the stack at check-in.  From cars to camo to cupcakes, Pokey Passports has you covered with dozens of designs that are sure to please every member of your traveling family.

  12. iTunes Gift Cards.  Personalize an impersonal gift card with a list of recommended or favorite apps.  My boys love Smart Fish: Frequent Flyer, Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure, Toca Kitchen Monsters and Hair Salon, and Minion Rush.

  13. Skip Hop Zoo Neck Rest Stash this adorable travel pillow in the car for naps or shove it in a backpack so you (er, I mean your child) can snooze in style.

If you love this list but your extended family could max out a cruise ship, don’t miss the following suggestions from other family travel bloggers:

But, what if you’re like me and homemade is more your style?  Everything Etsy has an excellent list of 25 DIY Gifts for Travel Lovers.  (I might need to make some of these for myself!)

Which of these gifts would your kid(s) love?  Which one are you secretly adding to your own wish list? Signature-Marigold

Send Some Photo Love in the Mail

photo source

photo source

One of the challenges of living life abroad is staying in touch with those you love back home.  I must admit, it’s much easier today than it was ten years ago.  Most people have Skype and Facebook.  I can even use Gmail chat to “text” friends who are also signed in to chat.

And, while digital communication is marvelous, sometimes it’s nice to send (and receive!) something tangible.  Sure, it’s possible to pick out a birthday card, scrawl a greeting, print out a photo or two, enclose it in the envelope, walk to the post office, stand in line, and mail the card.

But why would you want to?

As a furiously busy mama of three, I’d rather not freely give away my precious time to any of the above activities if at all possible.  Luckily, I’ve found three companies that make my life easier – and my friends and family back home arguably happier. 

Shutterfly1

Shutterfly

Best for: photo cards and their free photo sharing site.

My first favorite is Shutterfly.  Maybe you already love Shutterfly.  If you don’t, here’s why you should: their photo cards rock. 

Before moving to Germany, I only knew Shutterfly because of their kinda-pricey-but-decent-quality photo books.  While these are great if you can get a coupon code or amazing Black Friday sale, chances are you won’t be sending photo books more than once or twice per year (and other companies have better deals when you factor in international shipping.. see below!).

But greeting cards?  Those are a monthly staple.  I don’t know about you, but I loathe picking out greeting cards.  They are either too schmoopy, too cheesy, to childish, or too serious.  I can’t stand it.  I’d rather just see some photos of my favorite people, thank you very much.

Shutterfly3

Shutterfly’s cards are good quality, and a good price.  Most cards are $2.99 or less, and you can jam as many photos as your heart desires on all surfaces of the card.  I like the designs available, and I find them suitable for anyone on my list, old or young, male or female.

Shipping is reasonable for the cards, and Shutterfly will even mail the card to your recipient for you!  The fees are fair, even for international.

Bonus – Shutterfly often gives out a code for a free card (CARD4U).  This code resets every once in a while, so I always attempt to use it before purchasing my card.

Shutterfly2

And, just before I step off my I-heart-Shutterfly soapbox, may I also mention that with Shutterfly you can create a free photo sharing site?  You simply upload your photos, password protect them, and then send an email to your friends and family with the details.  Love it!

Artscow1

Artscow

Best for: sending photo books anywhere in the world.  Photo canvases if on sale.

Artscow is a company out of Hong Kong.  I know, you’re thinking, what the junk yo?!  Why would I want to order something from there?

Because they have tons of sales, and their shipping is the same price to anywhere in the world!

That being said, I only order their products on sale.  The best deals are those that include free shipping or give you the product for free and you pay the shipping.  Artscow always has a link to deals from their homepage.  You can also find other sales and codes if you know where to look.  Or if you ask me.  Nicely.

Personally, my best luck with Artscow has been with their photo books.  Their quality is satisfactory, or even better than that though if you consider that often I’m getting the books for nothing or next to it.  Many a family member has received a photo book for Christmas from Artscow!

Artscow2

Tip: If you do decide to try Artscow for a gift, allow several weeks of lead time especially if ordering for Christmas.  After all, the photo book will be coming from Hong Kong.

Full disclosure: I once ordered two sets of photo coasters.  The colors were super saturated, and the glue adhering the photo-printed fabric to the non-stick pad had leaked in between coasters and mangled the image.  But even without the damage, the quality was sub par.  Personally, I’ll be sticking with the photo books.

Side note: Other folks have had a good experience with Artscow’s canvases when on super sale.

P.s.: I’m done now!

amazingmail

Amazing Mail

Best for: knocking out your holiday card list in one fell swoop.

I love sending Christmas cards.  I really do enjoy designing the photo, and snapping together a little sentiment.  But this year, with a baby, and an overloaded advent season, I knew I was not going to have any shred of time left to address envelopes – or put up with the post office for that matter.

Enter Amazing Mail On a tip from another expat friend, I gave this new-t0-me company a shot.  My first impression from their website was that they must be some kind of direct mail company.  I thought, oh no, they make the stuff that most people directly recycle.  I don’t want my holiday cards instantly tossed!

amazingmail2

But the price just couldn’t be beat.  It costs about the same amount to send a photo post card through Amazing Mail as it does to print, stuff, address, and mail a photo from Germany (adjusting dollars and euros to be equal).  However, the time savings is huge.  I could sit and design a photo and a message at my convenience, upload my addresses in an excel file, get an instant proof, and be done.

amazingmail3

Feedback from friends and family was positive – the cards stood out and were of good quality.  One drawback is that it isn’t possible to put an international address in the return address field.  I know this is because the USPS won’t actually “return” the mail internationally.  But, it’s still annoying.  I got around this by placing the address in the message area.

Amazing Mail sends domestically and internationally, with acceptable rates for both.

What about you?  Have you tried using Shutterfly, Artscow, or Amazing Mail for any of the services I mentioned?  What other websites do you like for sending some love through the mail?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are solely my own.  I have not been paid or compensated in any way, and I do not currently use affiliate links.  I only recommend products I have personally used.  Happy sending!

Searching for Deals in Deutschland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Finding DealsI’ve lived in Germany for almost two years now, and I still miss coupons.  And Slickdeals.  Oh my, do I miss Slickdeals.

And, while Germans in my corner of the country are obsessed with saving the planet, it seems like they aren’t really interested in saving money.  And, that’s a shame, because the truth remains: stuff in Germany is expensive.

So, what’s a thrifty mama to do?

Shop around, and shop online.

Here are the best ways I’ve found to save money on items we need for every day life.

Food.  Every weekend, I check the Aldi Süd and Lidl websites.  Special offers and sales are listed for the upcoming week.  Food discounts on regularly-stocked items are actually quite rare.  If a sale exists on food, it’s almost always for a name brand (and often the store brand is still cheaper) or it’s a measly 10 to 50 cents off the normal price.

Aldi Süd ad. This one just happens to be for “American” week.

When I do spot a sale on something we eat regularly, I buy as much as my fridge/freezer/pantry can hold.  Unfortunately, sales on food items are not on a rotating schedule like in the US, so I have no idea when (or even, if) that same item will be on sale again.

Lidl. de website – ads for the two sales every week are listed across the top.

More often, food sales offered by Aldi and Lidl are for “ethnic” food (and I use that term very loosely).  For instance, during Asian week, I buy sesame oil, chow mein noodles, stir fry kits, etc.  These special items are usually offered 2-3 times per year.  I’m sure there’s a yearly schedule online somewhere for when certain items will be available, but I have yet to find it.

Household Goods.  Aldi and Lidl also regularly offer an array of household goods at very good (for Germany) prices.  The quality varies, but it is usually much better than 1 euro stores and cheap import stores.  I’ve found great prices in both stores on toys, cheap house shoes, kids costumes, office supplies, kitchen gadgets, linens, etc.  Again, all of these items make an appearance 1-3 times per year, and once the inventory is gone, it’s gone.

The other great place to find deals on household goods is Amazon.de.  I often will compare the prices I find on Aldi and Lidl with Amazon.  That way, I know if 9,99 is a good price or not for a king-sized fitted sheet.  Amazon sometimes has sales, but I have not found any to fit my needs yet.

Amazon.de carries a wide variety of items from Big Bang Theory t-shirts to English books to cooking utensils to vacuums and (almost) anything else you can think up.

As in the US, Amazon.de offers a prime option.  It’s cheaper (29 euros per year, I believe), but not particularly necessary.  Germany is a much smaller country, so shipping time is not as long here as it is in America.  Almost everything I order from Amazon.de (with or without prime – I’ve had two prime trials) arrives at my home within 1-3 days.  Plus, orders over 20 euros come with free shipping anyway.

Clothing and Shoes.  Semi-annual sales (January and July) seem to be the best times to buy new clothing for cheap.  Department stores (even the expensive ones) have decent markdowns as do the discounters like H&M, C&A, etc.

I buy almost all my kids clothing, toys, and gear at flohmarkts.  Most people sell items that are in good condition (sometimes like new or brand new), and bargaining is acceptable.  I also find it easier to let boys be boys in second-hand clothing.  If their jeans rip because they had an epic time learning to ride a bike or playing soccer, I don’t care because I only paid 2 euros for the pair instead of 20.

And, speaking of bikes, every bike the boys have had has come from a flohmarkt.  I’ve also purchased a bike seat and other bike accessories at flohmarkts.  Unfortunately, these markets are like garage sales.  I never know if I am going to find what I am looking for – I just have to go and have a look around.

Zalando is the German version of Zappos.  I have not personally ordered any shoes from here, but friends have told me it works the same way as it does in the US – shipping is free both ways.  Order as many shoes as you like, and return what you don’t want.

Zalando – thousands and thousands of shoes.

Electronics and Appliances.  For both of these categories, I have found Amazon.de to have the best deals.  Sometimes local electronics stores will have sales, but the prices are still often not as good as Amazon.  And, even if they are the same, Amazon delivers for free whereas the stores do not.  So far, we have purchased a washer, dryer, and a TV from Amazon.  All were delivered gratis.

The only other place I’ve found online (and, actually, I didn’t find it – a friend sent me the link) that seems to be a good place for electronics and the like is dealdoktor.de.  This website regularly has deals for iPads, cell phones, TV’s, and the like – all of which are terribly expensive in Germany.  Occasionally, I’ve seen deals for shoes, clothing, toiletries, etc.  And, just a tip, I find Deal Doktor easier to read in Google Reader than on it’s actual website.

Deal Doktor website – a bit confusing and overwhelming visually. Subscribe via Google Reader for easier viewing (and to stay on top of trending deals).

The only other trick I have up my sleeve is to stock up on food, clothing, etc. while in America.  Even with the cost to check an extra bag on my flight, the cost of items in America still usually comes up cheaper than in Europe.

So, what about you? What deal websites or tips/tricks have you found to help save money while living in Europe?

Where To Buy Maternity Clothes in Germany

Source: H&M

I could sum this post up in one sentence: Find a friend in the US to ship American-branded maternity clothes to you.

The clothing situation in Germany for expectant mamas is rather abysmal.  Our city only has two stores carrying maternity clothing.  We had another well-known chain store (Babywalz), but it went out of business.  What IS here is expensive, and selection remains slim pickin’s.

I took to the Toytown Germany forums to see what I could see.  As expected, larger cities such as Munich and Berlin have more than two stores.  And, some of the bigger H&M stores sport a maternity section.   Espirit also apparently also carries Umstandsmode.

By and large though, it’s better to take your chances on the internet.  Both H&M and TopShop (UK) have online shops stocking clothes for the aspiring-to-be-stylish-despite-the-bump mamas.  Shipping is free at TopShop for orders over 75 euro.  At H&M, it’s only 5 euros, and I’ve been told coupons can be found to cover that charge.

US retailers such as Old Navy and Gap now ship overseas.  However, keep in mind that purchases will be subject to customs duties which will be payable on delivery.

I just hate experimenting though.  There’s nothing like ordering 100 euro worth of clothes to find out most of it doesn’t even fit.

Since I know how Old Navy and Target maternity clothes fit me, I find it best to order online, ship to a friend, and have that friend mail them to me as a “gift.”  Technically, it’s a gift of their time to go through all the effort to get them to you, right?

Unfortunately, it really is quite a buzz kill to shop for your pregnant self in Germany.  I’m crossing my fingers that what I have in storage at home and what friends have sent me will get me through.  I think this may be the first time ever I’m desperately hoping NOT to shop.  We’ll see how it all shakes out.

In the meantime, if I come across any other finds, I’ll update this post.  If you know of any other tips, do leave a comment!