Expats Move Home : Farewell to Freiburg

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeThis post appears as part of the current Expats Move Home series that chronicles our family’s journey transitioning from German to American life.

If you were born in North America any time in the last century, chances are you’re well-versed in Goodnight Moon. For those not in the know, it’s a classic tale of a child – or a bunny, in this case – bidding goodnight to each little thing in his room before he finally slips off to sleep.

Goodnight room.

Goodnight moon.

Goodnight cow jumping over the moon.

Goodnight light, and the red balloon…

When it was time to leave Germany, we found ourselves in a similar story. Not goodnight, but Goodbye, Freiburg.

Goodbye favorite bicycle.

Goodbye salty, soft pretzels.

Goodbye closed-on-Sunday, and

Dreisam filled with pebbles.

With parting words to favorite people spoken, we turned our efforts to personally bidding farewell to each and every well-worn corner of our beloved city of Freiburg.

Make a List – Check it Twice

I wrote on Wednesday about the importance of saying goodbye (you can catch up here). In that post, I mentioned an article from my fellow expat Ute in which she also explains:

Every member of the family will benefit from gradually saying goodbye to the 4 “p’s”: people, pets, places and possessions.

No, the trees that welcomed autumn and signaled spring each year aren’t going to hug you back (well, not literally anyway), and that creamy dark chocolate gelato you first tasted on a double date won’t last more than a few minutes.

But long after you’re gone, these sights, smells, and flavors are what you’ll remember. Thank goodness it won’t be all the bumbles and blunders.

The importance of closing chapters in each of your favorite spaces is not to be underestimated.

Places and Spaces

In the hubbub of packing and planning, I hurriedly scribbled a list of our favorite experiences, spaces, and literal things we as a family wanted to savor one more time. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t worth framing, but it was ours. Uniquely us.

And, though time was not on our side, we worked through the list with purpose, devouring Brezeln, Laugencroissants, and the ubiquitous Apfelschorle one more time.

Goodbye Biergarten,

Goodbye Limonade and Radler.

Goodbye Spielplatz, for now

And every Sunday thereafter.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeOur little flat was nothing fancy. In fact, it was quite the opposite with its hospital-grade linoleum floors, vinyl “baseboards,” and industrial metal door frames.

But, it was home. The four, then the five of us shared 900 square feet and one toilet for four years. We hosted Thanksgiving for a score and squeezed in families of comparable size for the weekend. It was the only home our boys could remember.

Bit by bit, box by box, we said goodbye.

Goodbye elfin kitchen.

Goodbye windowless bathroom.

Goodbye you sweet neighbors,

And the sound of our laughter.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye

In an effort to not completely ignore our children while packing up our lives, we also dropped by the boys’ favorite parks.

Goodbye thrilling slides.

Goodbye Vogelnests.

Goodbye ziplines, merry-go-rounds.

The dangerous ones were always the best.

Goodbye tall rope towers.

Goodbye gritty sand pits.

Clothed in Matschhose

Here my boys spent their hours.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying Goodbye We cycled together along the river. We strolled around the Marktplatz. We splurged on a fancy grill picnic in the park, all the while letting the camera do its work of recording each and every favorite.

Say Cheese

Speaking of cameras, we also hired a photographer to shoot photos of us in the city that became so foundational to our family.

Our third child was born here, our two older boys only remember life in Germany, and we will forever be Triangles thanks to our German expat experience.

Goodbye ancient Münster,

Your steeple scraping the sky.

At least to your scaffolding

I’ll never have to say goodbye.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Saying GoodbyeFor several hours, our photographer captured glimpses of all the things we loved about Freiburg. Sure, the city is fabulous on its own. But, having a photographer there gave us the opportunity to freeze and remember ourselves in those spaces. The prints now hang in our new home, reminders of how we lived and what we loved in the city.

Wrapping Up

Life in Germany was often difficult, sometimes mercilessly so, but it was also remarkably beautiful. It is that part I choose to cherish, sometimes mourn, and will never forget.

When you’ve moved to a new place, what are some things you’ve done to remember your old home, old life? Do you think these memory makers help ease the transition? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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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

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

 

Tongue Tied: Notes on Becoming Bilingual as an Adult

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

Over now? Good, moving on!

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

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

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

That’s it. Take your pick.

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

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

Learning a new language as an adult is incredibly humbling.

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

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

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

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

HUGE!

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

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

Oh the things I never thought I’d do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traveling Mercy: Take Action Against Human Trafficking

CHILDREN of the CITY BookIt’s Valentine’s week, and whether you are into the holiday or not, the hearts and flowers are everywhere – love is in the air! I’m pausing my not-quite-lovey-dovey Parisian series today for an important message from the heart of a very dear friend of mine.

Tiffany Pastor and I met over 10 years ago when we were both living in Orlando, Florida. We became fast friends, especially when we realized our husbands already knew each other. We’ve traveled together on a fun Caribbean cruise, driven halfway across America together, and literally weathered storms together (hello, Florida hurricanes of 2004!).

And now, Tiffany has written a novel about human trafficking with the intention of bringing awareness to this heartbreaking reality.

Though the book is set in America, human trafficking is an issue that affects people, and especially travelers, everywhere. I invite you to read her words today, and I personally ask you to support not only the launch of her book but efforts to eradicate slavery wherever in the world you may be.

The Background

Maybe you have heard the statistics…

  • 30 million people are enslaved globally, funding a $34 billion industry.
  • An estimated 300,000 prostituted children live on the streets in the United States.
  • 900,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.
  • In America, 2300 children go missing every day, and 2/3 of those will end up in the sex trade.

The numbers are staggering and numbing.

Even with our best intention, we might say: “Wow, there are so many of ‘them’.” However, the moment we categorize the victims of human trafficking as a ‘them’ we have unconsciously held their sorrow at arm’s distance.

With compassion we might serve ‘them,’ or give to ‘them.’ We might fight for ‘them.’ But we would stop at nothing if it was one of US.

I realized this brokenness reached one of US one day when traveling. I was given a glimpse into a little girl’s life. She was in danger, and no one seemed to help her. I looked her in the eyes, and made a call to report my suspicion.

When I think of human trafficking, I don’t just think of the numbers anymore. It’s not a ‘them.’ It was HER. I picture her. Now, I picture the faces of people I have met, people with stories so heart wrenching that I can not stop fighting for freedom, because I know they are one of US.

The Story

CHILDREN of the CITY is a novel about human trafficking in America. It transforms the numbers of statistics into the personal connection to someone’s story. People may not feel they know a victim, but when they open the book, these characters come to life before them. It changes the issue into a heart’s cry for justice.

Many people feel compelled to make a difference but they don’t know how to respond. CHILDREN of the CITY spreads awareness that opens our eyes to the communities around us, and becomes a tool to share in the hands of readers.

A call to action at the end of the book features tips and signs to be aware of, as well as a list of non-profits who which to get connected.

When the book is released, 40% of all author profits will be donated to freedom fighting organizations.

What Can I Do?

The book will release in April 2014, and a Pre-Release Launch has just begun! Incredible doors to spread the story are opening up. As future events and conferences welcome the story into their venue, the cost of accommodating a print-run for the book falls to me as the author. That is why pre-ordering your book now really matters!

As you purchase the book, the funds will give us the ability to say “YES” to each opportunity and walk through those open doors with the book in hand.

Take a moment to check out the theatrical book trailer:

Ready to take a stand against human trafficking by supporting CHILDREN of the CITY? Pre-Orders are only available until February 24. Click here to contribute.

Anyone can buy the E-Book for $10. This donation or pre-order is a tangible vote that says “I CARE! And I won’t put up with it!” It’s a small price for a huge impact!

If you prefer a paper copy or would like to order multiple copies for a book club or resources for small group discussion, you can also do that here. We have perks at nearly every price point as a way of saying THANK YOU for taking a stand for the enslaved among us.COTC PreOrder Form

Thank YOU!

Thank you for sharing the story! Thank you for donating, and thank you for being a freedom fighter together. I am honored to stand for justice with you!

I’ve just ordered my copy – now it’s your turn! Please check out CHILDREN of the CITY’s website to learn more about Tiffany and this life-changing novel. You can also like COTC on Facebook here.Signature-Marigold

The Token What-I’m-Thankful-For Post… 2013 Edition

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thanksgiving 2013Happy Thanksgiving Day!  Even though Thanksgiving in November is an American thing, we can all benefit from a pause to count our blessings.  This year, I’m keeping my list short.

Does it mean you’re less thankful if you just focus on a few things? 

Our little family has been SO privileged to travel all over Europe and the US in 2013.  I don’t say it much ’round these parts, but travel is just that – a privilege.

As Americans, we are free to roam around (mostly) as we please.  Many countries open their doors to us; visas are (relatively) easy to obtain.  We’re financially blessed with a little extra left over every month to fund our wanderlust habit.

And through all of the highs and lows of traveling together as a family, we’re strengthening our bonds and raising up world citizens.

As I worked on updating our Where We’ve Been page, memories kept popping up.  Remember when… we stood on top of the world in the Swiss Alps, jumped into the sea at the Cinque Terre, acted like tourists in Salt Lake City, beheld the wonder of a zillion tulips at Keukenhof, and tasted the world’s best French fries in Brussels?  How great was that?!

I am so, so thankful for the opportunities we’ve both seized and been given this past year.  Not every year will be like this one, and we probably can’t support a regular adventure habit once we move back to the US.

Therefore, I’m taking time now to say… thanks, God.  Thanks for all you’ve allowed the five of us to experience, work through, and walk together in 2013.

What one thing are you thankful for this year?

Other Thanksgiving Posts: 2010, 2011, 2012, plus some rather amazing chocolate pecan pie.  Yeah.

Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Antwerpen with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsAfter our delightful time in Brugge, we needed to make our way up to Haarlem, the third home base of our BeNeLux week.  On a bucket list trip, I find it difficult to simply going from point A to point B.  It’s imperative to squeeze in one or two stops along the way.

I considered taking breaks in both Rotterdam (the largest port in Europe) and Antwerpen (the second largest).  In the end, I realistically thought we’d only have time for one.  Research showed that Antwerpen is prettier, and its cathedral is the tallest in BeNeLux.  I had my winner.Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsDespite my best planning efforts, we almost scrapped our Antwerpen visit.  The GPS in our car is notoriously unreliable (it’s one of those built-in kinds with CDs and we haven’t gotten around to getting a new one), and even the printed directions I used landed us far beyond the city center.

We stopped at a petrol station to fill up and take a closer look at the map.  An older gentlemen was refueling his car and staring at us.  Instead of getting annoyed (my usual response to staring), I decided to ask his opinion on which autobahn was the best route to take north into the Netherlands.  He didn’t want to speak English, so I mustered up my best German and hoped for the best.

Well, the best is what I got.  Not only did this kind stranger advise me on the next road to take, but he offered to personally lead us to the city center when he found out we were (kind of) lost.

At least, that’s what I thought he said.  Everything was in German, after all…

Following our new friend - across the Mexico bridge!

Following our new friend – across the Mexico bridge!

Luckily for us, my baby brain did not fail, and we followed this gentleman along a harbor route with great views of giant ships right to the parking garage in the center of town.  Thank you, whoever you are!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage.  I'm sure this fortress is worth exploring!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage. I’m sure this fortress is worth exploring!

My list for our two hours in Antwerpen consisted of three things: gaze at ginormous freighters, wonder at the beauty of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and put Fritkot Max‘s best-fries-in-the-whole-of-Belgium claim to the test.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

With one down and two to go, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed through Antwerpen’s town square on the way to the church.  We savored an eyeful of the sheer mass of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and then slipped inside for a few moments.  The Cathedral of Our Lady charges admission (probably because of all the Peter Paul Rubens works on display), but you can stand in the prayer area for free.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Just around the corner from the cathedral, we found Fritkot Max.  Doc Sci ordered a large for our family to share.  The fries aren’t salted, and that affected the taste for us.  So, in order to be truly scientific about it, Doc Sci thought we needed another large.  Even after consuming a few kilos of potatoes from Fritkot Max, we still voted Fritland in Brussels the best fries in Belgium.

Hot off the press!

Hot off the press!

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

While in Brugge, I had stumbled upon a super fun shop called Oil & Vinegar.  Doc Sci and I love to eat bread dipped in olive oil, and homemade salad dressing is a current obsession of mine.  We didn’t have time to shop in Brugge, so we hurried over to the Antwerpen location in the few minutes we had left.

Oil & Vinegar!

Oil & Vinegar!

As luck would have it, we discovered a small playground right around the corner from the store!  Score for us (we bagged some delicious bruschetta mix and basil olive oil), score for the boys (they let most of the willies out before we had to continue driving).

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

On the way back to the car, we quickly had a look at the water, but it was not possible to see many ships from the city center.  The best views came from the earlier detour guided by our new friend.  Serendipitous events make for the most memorable travel moments!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

My snapshot of Antwerpen: industrial but beautiful, decadent but hardworking, fashionable but fun.

Have you been to Antwerpen?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Marvel: Homeschooling in Germany – Illegal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2012 Thankful List

Happy Thanksgiving!  It’s Turkey Day for Americans, regular life for everyone else.  While you are saying thanks for your food, I’m praying I don’t spill the turkey brine all over the baby.  And that I can find pecans.  Seriously, Germany, what do you have against the best tasting nut out there?

To tide you over until I can recap this year’s Thanksgiving adventure, I give you, dear reader, my 2012 Thankful List.  In no particular order.  As usual.

  • Electricity, heat, light, clean water, food, and that rockets are not raining down on my home..  Seriously.  Maybe I should just stop here.
  • A feast to feed my family and friends.. and food to fill my freezer.  I know this is along the same lines as the first item, but it bears repeating.
  • A beautiful (handsome?), happy and healthy new baby.. despite the horror of his arrival.
  • Hearty boys.. who already eat more pancakes than we do.
  • Our families.. and especially for the time our boys got to spend with their Grandpa before his time was up.
  • Great grandmothers.. T-Rex and Screech had the privilege of visiting both of them this year.
  • Germany’s laws.. allowing (partially paid!) paternal leave for fathers.
  • Kindergarten.. for allowing me some (mostly) quiet alone time each day with Big Foot.
  • Our new car.. so that I do not have to bring the turkey home on my bike or a Christmas tree on the bus.
  • A kid-free trip to Milan, Italy, for my birthday.. I’m still relishing this rare treat Doc Sci and I had earlier this year.
  • Our dryer.. which makes it possible to wash and dry baby barf bedecked clothing in hours, not days.
  • Three boys and not three girls.. especially when I see all that they have to put on for winter (tights, jeans, boots, leg warmers, skirt, dress, mittens, ear muffs, hat, coat, scarf, mink, fur, poodle, ai yi yi!) and all that they don’t wear in summer.
  • T-Rex is learning to write.. which is so (so!!) cool.
  • My new language conversation partner.. who has agreed to sit through a constant stream of language errors for an hour and a half.  And come back the next week.  Of her own free will.  Without any sort of bribe, monetary or otherwise.
  • The internet.. though it might sound stupid, without it I could not have this blog, plan trips, research, translate, keep in touch, or get to know you.  Though it often gets a bad rap for being impersonal, the internet makes my world just a little bit smaller and home just a little bit closer.

What are you thankful for this year?