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

Capturing Everyday Memories: A Day in Our Life

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Day in (Our) Life - Annual Photo ProjectOkay, okay, enough with resolutions and words-of-the-year.  If you really want to know, mine is “intention,” but I really like “go” and “focus” that my friends have chosen.  If you’ve selected a word like I have or written a few resolutions, have you considered a project or tangible action to correspond to or capture your efforts to reach your goals?

Last year, I committed to doing Project 365.  If you’ve never heard of it, it’s basically taking (at least) one photo per day for an entire year.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Day in (Our) Life - Annual Photo Project

Doc Sci took this photo of the boys’ morning vitamins. I find it hilarious!

It sounds easy enough, but I didn’t want to be stuck snapping pictures of my boys just because they were conveniently always there.  I wanted my final set of 365 photos to be filled with variety and unique views.  Since I kind of get lost when I don’t have an idea to start with, I used the daily prompts from Fat Mum Slim. They’re free and ambiguous enough that you can make them fit your life situation no matter where in the world you happen to be.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Day in (Our) Life - Annual Photo Project

I started out so well in January, but… by July, I wanted to throw in the towel.  It ended up being just one more thing on my to do list.  Many days, “taking photos” didn’t make the cut which turned into a source of frustration for my commit-and-follow-through personality.

Since I tried the same project 365 the year before and gave up after Big Foot was born, I wanted to press on and actually accomplish the goal in 2013.  I did.  But now, I am staring at 365 photos that I want to edit before I display, and in those famous words, ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.So, I’m turning to my old faithful project, a Day in the Life.  I wrote about it back in 2011, and I’m still doing a book every year.  One photo a day?  Completely overwhelming at times.  One photo book per year?  That, apparently, is more my speed.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Day in (Our) Life - Annual Photo Project

My weekly grocery shop – the backseat of my Phil & Teds loaded to the brim. If you’ve ever grocery shopped in Germany, you’ll know that this drives the cashiers completely mad.  See all my milk cartons?  And more are buried…

In the spirit of celebrating everyday moments (with “intention” and “focus” and boy, are we always on the “go”), consider doing a Day in the Life project.  It’s only one day, and then you’re done!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Day in (Our) Life - Annual Photo Project

I homeschool T-Rex in the afternoons to get him ready for the possibility of entering first grade in the US. This particular day, he cut up a paper snowflake and turned it into a creepy Silence of the Lambs mask.  That wasn’t part of the curriculum, just in case you were wondering.

We recently found some old videos of T-Rex when he was one year-old.  We had forgotten how much he chattered away, how chubby he was, and what life was like with only one child (oh my!). Even better, the boys loved watching these videos and seeing younger versions of themselves.  My hope is that these annual day-in-the-life books (I’m renaming them A Day in our Life) will have the same effect.  Thrifty Travel Mama | A Day in (Our) Life - Annual Photo Project

Just to clarify, I’m not dissing Project 365 in any way.  In fact, I’m toying with the idea of committing myself to editing one of those photos per day as a way to look back on what we were doing on the same day last year and have 365 photos ready to print and put in a physical album.  But the enormity of the task is just not something my overflowing plate can handle at the moment.  Better luck in 2015!

So what do you do to preserve your everyday moments and family memories?  Do you have any keepsake ideas that fit into my theme of intention?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.


Make It Yourself: Family Activity Advent Calendar

Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar IdeasHappy Thanksgiving week to all of my American friends!

Not to add one more thing to your (virtual) plate this week, but… psssst!  Did you know that this Sunday is December 1?  You do have your advent calendar done, don’t you?

So far, I’ve only put together three homemade advent calendars.  The first two years, I stayed up until well after midnight working on the dang thing.  You are more organized than I am, right?

I vowed to be more on top of things this year, and I set a reminder early in my calendar.  I put it off last week, but since I am not roasting a turkey this year for the big thankfulness feast, I made time to finish our family advent calendar before Thanksgiving.  Whew!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar Ideas

Naughty little Big Foot, photo-bombing my project.

The Design

If you’re freaking out right now, can I do that annoying thing people do and say… don’t!  An advent calendar does not have to be Pinterest-worthy.

Remember that the whole point is to slow down and make memories with your family.

So, if brown paper bags are all you have?  Use them!  Kids construction paper lying around?  Grab the stack!  White business envelopes?  Pfft, you got this!

I upcycled last year’s calendar that my husband (mostly) made by replacing the paper numbers with some cute felt ornament stickers and glitter glue I had on hand.  Not really homemade, but my kids totally do.not.care.

For another easy idea, see my not-so-crafty matchbox calendar here.  It’s just big enough to slip in scraps of paper with your chosen activities scrawled on them.Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar Ideas

What Goes Inside?

The first year I put together an advent calendar for our family, I went with 50% activities and 50% candy because that’s what I knew I could handle.  Last year, the activity percentage climbed to about 65%.

We’re hovering at around 75% make-your-own-fun this year, and I’ve replaced the candy with books.  I absolutely love the idea I saw on Simple As That of wrapping up Christmas books.  I know other bloggers have done this too, but it was news to me.

P.s. – I will be getting most of my books from the local English library (keep an eye on due dates!), but I may order some from Amazon as well.Thrifty Travel Mama | Activity Advent Calendar Ideas

A List of Family Activities

In no particular order, I present you with a list of suggestions for your own family’s activity advent calendar:

  • Bake a favorite Christmas cookie recipe (or find a new one)
  • Make gourmet popcorn to eat or give as gifts
  • Decorate a gingerbread house
  • Watch Elf and eat your gingerbread house
  • Brew your own Christmas punch by simmering a combination of orange, apple, cranberry, and black currant juices spiked with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks on the stove or in the slow cooker
  • Create your family’s signature hot chocolate using white chocolate, dark chocolate, peppermint extract, chai spices, peanut butter, homemade marshmallows, etc. (just not all together… please)
  • Donate toys and clothing to children in need
  • Set up an advent wreath
  • Cut out paper snowflakes and tape them on the windows
  • Visit a Christmas market (if your city offers one)
  • Compose a silly letter to Santa (adults too!)
  • Head to your nearest St. Nick for a chat on Santa’s lap
  • Celebrate the coming of the European St. Nikolaus on December 6 by setting out stockings and reading the real story of Nicholas of Myra
  • Go sledding (geography matters on these next few, sorry)
  • Pick teams for a snowball fight and have at it
  • Make a heavenly host of snow angels
  • Find out if any local attractions feature an indoor winter wonderland
  • Experience a live nativity scene
  • Go ice skating
  • Attend a Christmas concert in your area (or put on one in your living room)
  • Get out the glitter and make Christmas cards for your neighbors
  • Host a Christmas pizza and movie night
  • Use felt or paper to make stockings for the kids to hang in their room(s)
  • Sing everyone’s favorite Christmas carols by candlelight
  • Go on an Ikea Christmas Scavenger Hunt (modify this one to include holiday merchandise which you can browse on your preferred Ikea website)
  • Construct a holiday village out of milk cartons (okay, maybe just one house) and use LED tea lights inside (like this)
  • Make luminaries for your front porch, balcony, or backyard
  • Take a drive to see the Christmas lights
  • Attend midnight mass (even if you’re not Catholic)
  • Read the real Christmas story (Luke 2)

Obviously, that’s more than 24 (or 25, if you prefer).  And, really, who has time/energy/money to do one of these every single day?  Just pick the ones that work for you, and fill the rest with books or these advent calendar devotions.  Simple or snazzy, your whole family is sure to love your activity advent calendar!

If you’re Jewish and celebrate Hanukkah instead, Sweet Happy Life has Hanukkah calendar ideas and Made by Mamaleh has a printable countdown.

What’s in your advent calendar this year?  I’d love for you to add to my running list in the comments below.Signature-MarigoldDisclaimer: At this time, I do not use affiliate links. You’ll only find honest personal recommendations in the links above.

Badenweiler – A Family Friendly Spa Town

Thrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownI’m sure I’ve said it before, but holidays can be the hardest times to be an expat.  Beyond missing family and friends, sometimes the celebrations just don’t exist in another country.  American Independence Day is one such holiday.

While we have been to a Fourth of July party in Germany before, it’s still not quite the same.  So, this year, a friend and I decided we would have our own little picnic and try to keep the tradition alive for our kiddos.  She suggested we let the little ones explore the German spa town of Badenweiler before gorging ourselves on an as-American-as-you-can-get buffet.  Thrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownBadenweiler is a poser-free spa and resort town and an easy jaunt from the A5 in the southwest corner of Germany.  While most people come for the Cassiopeia thermal baths, I’d recommend staying for the scenery.  The area is simply charming.

So Sound of Music...

So Sound of Music…

Parking is a cinch at any of the designated lots.  We chose the parking garage in between the Schlosspark and Kurpark on Friedrichstr.  However, if you’re looking to save some cash, drive up the hill behind the Schlosspark and leave the car at the (free) south lot.

After loading up our backpacks, we wandered around in the Schlosspark, an area chock full of dozens of different tree species (all labeled).  The boys discovered a small playground completely with funky baby swings.  Should you find yourself in need of some coffee and cake, visit the Kunst Palais Cafe ARTig on the grounds.  Prices seemed reasonable here as opposed to the posh and expensive restaurants on the main drag.

Ruined Roman.

Ruined Roman.

The boys splashed a bit in the fountain on the Schlossplatz before heading up the hill to the ruins in the Kurpark.  You can push a pram up the hill here (and we did), but as always, a backpack carrier is best.  If this kind of crazy workout is your thing, stick to the paved path.  Thrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownWe climbed up in turrets and scrambled around inside the nearly intact walls.  We feasted our eyes on the fantastic view, and soaked in the sunshine warming the entire valley.  When the tummies started to rumble, we headed back down the hill and found a shady picnic spot close to the concert house.  Thrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownThrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownThrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownThrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownWe smoothed out blankets and spread a feast of hot dogs, baked beans, potato chips, chicken tenders, pasta salad, and apple pie.  At least if we couldn’t have fireworks, we were going to have us some darn good American food!Thrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownThrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownThe kids frolicked around the meadow and painted themselves silly with red and blue watercolors while the parents sipped sweet tea.

After lunch, we meandered on down to the Roman bath ruins.  While contemplating whether or not to fork over the five euro family admission fee, the curator offered to let us in for free.  Score!  Thrifty Travel Mama - Badenweiler, A Family Friendly Spa TownThe small exhibit is well done, though signs are only in German.  I really appreciated how the raised walkway allowed us a unique view of the ancient baths.  Doc Sci tried to explain to the boys what they were looking at, but all they really understood was that these old pools look quite similar to our pools today.

Since we needed to let Big Foot take a nap, we skipped the Cassiopeia thermal baths this time.  Unlike the facilities Baden-Baden, this spa is family-friendly, and there is a discount for two adults visiting with up to three children.

On our next trip to Badenweiler (and we hope to return soon!), we’ll make sure to visit the Park der Sinne, a park of the senses.  This free outdoor experience seems like a great place for families to explore.

While I can’t say our kids really learned much about American Independence or why the Fourth of July is a holiday, we did teach them about the importance of embracing and celebrating our American heritage while we live in this beautiful foreign land.

For some decidedly German holidays, read about their Labor Day, Epiphany, and Carnival.Signature-Marigold

Make It Yourself: Peanut Butter Ice Cream

Thrifty Travel Mama - Whole Grain Peanut Butter Ice Cream SandwichesHave you ever made something in your kitchen so divine, so rich, so utterly successful that you can’t quite believe it?

Spoonful follows spoonful, one taste test after another.  You pester anyone within earshot, subjecting even your own self to this barrage of enthusiasm.  I made this! … I made this! … I made this!

Wanting to put you out of your self-delusional misery and pop your obviously over-inflated ego, the annoyed but oh-so-lucky onlooker grabs a spoon and snatches a bite.

A cold silk ribbon of flavor.  Immaculate texture.  Pure peanut butter.  You made that? … You made that? … You made that?


Up until exactly twelve days ago, I was utterly convinced that peanut butter ice cream did not exist in Germany.  But, oh joy, I was wrong!  I now know of two places to enjoy such a smooth and sultry summer treat.  One is Ben & Jerry’s (for 6 euros per pint!), and the other is my own Barbie dream house kitchen.

I usually make something obnoxiously smothered in peanut butter for my husband’s birthday.  Though Doc Sci can’t help but love anything riddled with this legume paste, in my more neutral opinion some years treats have been showstoppers (Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Cupcakes), others complete flops (Peanut Butter Pound Cake).

I keep a running list of new, time-consuming, peanut butter-laden recipes.  But this one just came to me, waiting patiently for me one day when I actually had time to clean out my Google Reader (er, shall I say Feedly).

Even better, this recipe comes from a friend, another American expat in Berlin.  Dare I say that this peanut butter ice cream is so epic it’s worthy of tradition?

For the recipe, hop on over to Texanerin Baking.  With only 5 ingredients and no raw eggs or ice cream maker needed, you won’t have any excuse not to make this today!  Thrifty Travel Mama - Whole Grain Peanut Butter Ice Cream SandwichesJust whip up the ice cream in a bowl, and set it in the freezer for a few hours.  I’ve heard that you should stir your ice cream every 30 minute if not using an ice cream maker.  I tried this, and it seemed like a waste of time.  I gave up, and three hours later I had frozen peanut butter bliss!

I almost didn’t make the peanut butter cookies because the ice cream alone knocked my socks off.  At the last minute, I changed my mind.  My house full of taste testers appreciated the extra effort.  This summery peanut butter combo will put any obsessed fans over the edge.

By the way, you don’t have to use coconut oil (sub softened butter) or coconut sugar (sub the regular, processed, terrible for you white stuff).  I did use whole spelt flour, but it didn’t adversely affect the taste at all.

Erin makes her cute little sandwiches with cookie cutters.  But because I didn’t know what to do with the leftover cutouts, I wanted to make mine square.

I used a German baking sheet lined with parchment for the cookies, removed them to cool, and then spread the ice cream on another sheet of parchment in the same (now cold) pan.  I folded the parchment over so that the ice cream would only take up half the pan.  Once frozen into this shape, I cut everything into squares and assembled the sandwiches.

Enjoy these seriously cool sweet treats.  You can bet I’ll be cranking out whole grain peanut butter ice cream sandwiches again!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!

My Pinterest Christmas

Merry (belated) Christmas!  Yikes, it’s almost the new year.  I hope you and yours had a simply joyful holiday, whatever it is you celebrate.  Though Christmas is officially over for 2012, you probably still have your tree up.  So, while you’ve still got the holidays on the brain, I thought I’d share my very Pinterest-y Christmas with you.

Last year, I put together my very first homemade advent calendar.  This year, I wanted to add a twist.  I found a puzzle with 20 pieces that depicted a manger scene.  I wanted to add a piece to each day’s surprise (well, the first 20 anyway).  The puzzle wouldn’t fit in the matchbox calendar, so I had to come up with a different design.

Our advent calendar made from colored paper, ribbon, and an old IKEA mirror frame.

Our advent calendar made from colored paper, ribbon, and an IKEA mirror frame.

I was totally strapped for time, so I have a confession.  Doc Sci actually did most of the work on this advent calendar.  I just arranged the envelopes, slapped on the numbers, and strung them up in an old IKEA mirror frame.  The man’s got skills beyond brainiac physics, thank God.  He’s also got some pretty rad muscles, but luckily we didn’t need those for our Christmas-y arts & crafts.

Along with the puzzle pieces, I slipped in short devotions for each day.  These were designed to be quick (and they were), but I found some of the questions to be a smidge over the heads of my three and five year-old boys.  I just altered several on the fly and kept my expectations for deep, thoughtful discussion very low.  Perhaps next year T-Rex will be ready for more.  I plan to keep these inserts around and reuse them.

My favorite part of the advent calendar, however, are the fun things we get to do.  I don’t have the time or energy for something amazing every day, but I was able to pull off some memorable activities.

This year's Christmas tree!

This year’s Christmas tree!

For starters, we decorated our new Christmas tree.  Last year, we had a real tree.  But, on a clearance hunt after Christmas, I came across a small, pre-lit artificial tree… for 2,50 euro!   We hung the cheapie ornaments we bought last season as well as these 3D stars which I made out of photocopied sheet music.

Our "snowy" view.

Our “snowy” view.

It snowed for the first time this year in late October.  That quickly melted, but we received another decent dumping around T-Rex’s birthday in early December.  It seemed fitting to decorate the windows with paper snowflakes.  I folded the paper and sketched the patterns.  T-Rex cut (with Doc Sci’s help), and Screech smoothed out the finished flakes.

T-Rex and Doc Sci cut...

T-Rex and Doc Sci cut…

and Screech smooths out the finished product.

and Screech smooths out the finished product.

I had planned to make these fun Christmas cards that feature easy paper strip Christmas trees, but I ran out of time.  I was too busy preparing for a cookie swap party.  I do not know what I was thinking, hosting such madness while juggling two preschoolers and a four month-old baby.

The loot!

The loot!

I invited at least 25 people, thinking most of them would not come.  Wrong!  Many of my guests had never heard of such a thing as a cookie swap and just so happened to think it was a fabulous idea.  I had more than 15 adults plus kids in my teeny tiny apartment.

Swappin' cookies.

Swappin’ cookies.

The boys and I decorated sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies.  I put the nice ones out for the party and sent the crazy-looking creations to the boys’ kindergarten Christmas fest.  I also served this show-stopping Garlic Parmesan Pull-Apart Bread.  And then I prayed for leftovers.

And, of course, we had to bake our own cookies for the swap.  Since I asked each guest to RSVP with their cookie choice, I was forced to choose a cookie that no one else was making.  In the spirit of our Florida roots, and since citrus is plentiful this time of year, I went with Creamsicle Dreams.  If you make these, don’t skimp on the orange zest or the white chocolate, and double the amount of orange juice for some really punchy pucks.

Just between you and me, I really wanted to make these Cafe Coffee Cookies.  But Doc Sci gags at the taste of coffee, and I thought they might not be as universally pleasing as the Creamsicle Dreams.  Maybe I will be bold and go for it next year!

Elf on TV and gingerbread popcorn on the mantle.

Elf on TV and gingerbread popcorn on the mantle.

Since I didn’t want guests to just go home with a zillion cookies, I made several batches of Gingerbread Popcorn to give as party favors.  Disclaimer: this popcorn is totally addictive.  Especially if you decide it should have some salty pretzel sticks added in and melted white chocolate drizzled all over.  I probably ate as much of this stuff as I gave away… and I enjoyed every calorie-laden bite.

IKEA gingerbread house kit.

IKEA gingerbread house kit.

Gingerbread houses are not just fun to make; they’re great party decorations, too.  I originally thought it would be a good idea to deck it to the 9’s with the kids.  Then, I came across a much better idea – have the boys decorate ice cream cone “trees” and then put those up around the house.  Genius!

The boys decorated these ice cream cone "trees."

The boys decorated these ice cream cone “trees.”

Our completed house!

Our completed house!

Rear view.

Rear view.

A candy cane fence is good for keeping out sour patch kids.

A candy cane fence is good for keeping out sour patch kids and lemonheads.

Peppermint path.

Peppermint path.

My boring front door needed some pizzazz to welcome guests, so I whipped up a toilet paper roll wreath.  I gave it my own trash-to-treasure touch by adding newspaper flowers.

If you make one of these wreaths, please do yourself a favor and use spray paint.  Painting every crack and crevice can really kill the Christmas cheer.

If you make one of these wreaths, please do yourself a favor and use spray paint. Coating every crack and crevice by hand can really kill the Christmas cheer.

After the party, we had a family Christmas movie night.  I made veggie Christmas tree pizzas (although this snowman pizza is adorable, too) to snack on while we watched Elf.  It also seemed a fitting time to devour the gingerbread house while Will Ferrell poured maple syrup on his spaghetti and sprinkled it with M&Ms, chocolate syrup, and Pop Tarts.

Christmas pizza - step 1!

Christmas tree pizza – step 1!

Decorating the trees.

Decorating the trees.

Bubbling over with anticipation.

Bubbling over with anticipation.  Pour some syrup on it and Buddy would be proud.

Thanks for taking a tour of my Pinterest Christmas.  I’d love to hear about your Pinterest-inspired Christmas experiences too, so leave a comment below to share!

The German Advent Wreath

Advent wreath lit for the first advent Sunday.

Advent wreath lit for the first advent Sunday.

No matter what, Germany will always be a part of our family’s history.  What was supposed to be only a short stint (or a very long holiday, depending on how you look at it) will most likely turn into a four year residency.  All three boys will have lived in Germany longer than in the US by the time we move home.  It makes sense, then, to adopt some German Christmas traditions and make them our own.

Last year, we dove head first into the advent calendar craze.  I came up with activities to keep the Christmas season fun and memorable.  On the days I just didn’t have time to bake cookies or cut out paper snowflakes, the kids got a little piece of chocolate while we talked about the meaning of Christmas.  That’s totally an advent calendar tradition.  Just ask Milka.

This year, in addition to the advent calendar, we’ve added the advent wreath (Adventskranz).  The basic idea is to light the candles as they correspond to the Sundays in the advent season.  On the first Sunday, you light the first candle.  On the second Sunday, you light the first candle and the second candle.  On the third Sunday, well, you get the point.

Our unlit advent wreath.

Our unlit advent wreath.

I’d never seen nor heard of an advent wreath before living here.  Now, I’ve seen all kinds of variations.  Some have candles of increasing heights, the tallest being for the first Sunday of advent and the shortest for the fourth Sunday.  This obviously makes for a nice even candle burning experience at the end of advent.

I’ve even noticed that some advent wreaths are not wreaths at all.  Rather, they are a line of four candles with a variety of designs to modernize the traditional circular, pine tree style.  And still others just have four random candles that they line up.  I guess if there are four wicks ready to burn, it constitutes an advent wreath.

A modern line of advent candles.

A modern line of advent candles.  Source

I have to say I’m kind of surprised how well my two boys did around an open flame.  We lit the first candle this past Sunday and left the wreath on the dining table.  Not once in the few hours it was burning did they even attempt to touch it.  Perhaps all the exposure they get to dangerous items in kindergarten is paying off in some weird way.

Well, wreath or not, calendar or not, happy advent to you and yours!  For more about the advent wreath tradition, check with our good friend Wikipedia.

May Day – Labor Day

Germany sure does have some funky holidays; the first of May is no exception.  I’ve researched it several times, and still I’m a bit foggy.

The first day of the month of May is May Day, an excuse to celebrate spring.  And sweethearts apparently.  I never thought a holiday marking the beginning of a new season would have Valentine-ish aspect to it.  ‘Tis true though; follow the link to read all about it.

According to many websites I visited, maypoles should be littered about the town, and dancing should be happening.  I’ve seen no such things, neither this year nor last year.

But even more interesting to me is this… Not only is the first day of the fifth month May Day (Maifeiertag), it’s also the German Labor Day (Tag der Arbeit).  And the German version is quite different from what I know of the American Labor Day.

Americans see Labor Day as an opportunity to get together for picnics, barbecues, outings, and generally anything that has absolutely nothing to do with work.  Germans see Labor Day as an opportunity to protest, uh, well, labor.  It’s a day known for demonstrations and parades.

(Though don’t misunderstand – Germans like their barbecues as well.  Just see below.)

Again, I’ve seen no such things.  But perhaps that is because I don’t live in Berlin, a city most notorious for making (sometimes violent) waves.  In fact, I looked to see what The Local had to say about May 1 and found that this year (2012) German Police had a “High-tech water cannon ready for Berlin May Day.”  Yikes.

A German friend told me that one of the traditions for this holiday in our corner of Germany is to go for a hike.  I wimped out on the hike, but we did uphold the other custom of having a barbecue.  Here are some pictures from our May Day afternoon.

Man skills were tested in the making of fire.

Sausages were grilled, much to the fascination of little boys and the disgust of their pregnant mama.

Chicken was marinated for 24 hours using this recipe and cooked to perfection: slightly charred yet flavorful and moist.

Wildflowers, er, weeds were picked by the bunchful.

Arguments were hashed out over pirated toys.

Marshmallows were held over white-hot coals...

...and toasted to ooey-gooey deliciousness.

And finally, a rousing game of Kubb rounded out the evening. Need I say a good time was had by all?