Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Still here.

I know it has been awhile, but we are still here. Summer was busy, and now I am finally taking an intensive language course that takes up 20 or more hours per week. Mom and Dad visited, we got serious with the chickens, and we finally got the bathrooms painted. Now we are working on a bit of furniture here and there. We are running out of money at the moment, not in the how-will-we-eat sense, but in the maybe-now-is-not-the-time-for-new-floors-no-matter-how-ugly-the-carpet-is sense. So we are holding off on the floors for a bit and concentrating on painting the rest of the house and getting furniture to make up for our total lack of closets. The former is a bit tricky with a curious toddler poking around and the latter is more difficult than it sounds. Anyway, no pictures today since I dropped the Powerbook and blew the AC converter on the power cable (AND blew a fuse on the house circuit breaker-yay me!) and the pictures live on that computer for now. But do look for the following posts as I have time to put them up: Chickens!, What Lurks (Behind the Wallpaper in the Bathroom), The Jig Is Up, Ich Bin Kein Berliner (Hamburger), and Pictures of the Curly-haired Toddler.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Round 1: It all started a couple of weeks ago when one of the stands at the biweekly Farmer's Market in Volksdorf (above) had organic sweet cherries for crazy cheap, so I bought up two kilos to freeze. I asked Stefan's mother, Thea, if she had a cherry pitter I could borrow, and she said that she had a homemade one, and that all the mechanical ones were basically useless. Well, I was skeptical, but I figure she's the expert, so I took it on. I didn't really have much choice, truth be told, since the cherries had to be processed before they started to go bad, which would have been a huge shame.

It went much more smoothly than I expected, and I pitted all two kilos (4.4 lbs to the Americans) in about a half an hour. I put them straight onto aluminum foil covered trays from our freezer, and filled two layers this way. Here I am at work.

Here you see what a couple of kilos of cherries does to your fingers! And the cherry pitter I borrowed from Thea. Yes, that is a hairpin stuck in a cork. It actually worked quite well, I think. But, this being cherry season, I had to give it back and figure something out for myself for the next round...

So two kilos of cherries yielded about 1.75 kilos pitted. Below you see the bags ready to be put back in the freezer and my little helper.

Just after I finished processing these cherries, Kurt asked Stefan to go to the house of a family friend to pick some cherries from their tree, so Stefan came home with another one and half kilos of sweet cherries. These were somewhat more bland than the variety we got at the farmer's market, but I wasn't about to throw them out! However, I had returned the cherry pitter to Thea, and didn't have a hairpin around. If you can believe it, I used a clam shucker to pit the cherries. Don't ask why I have a clam schucking knife around...I just do, and it worked quite well I must say. So another two and half bags of cherries were added to the freezer. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to get another freezer just for cherries!

Round 2:
Our next-door neighbor has two sour cherry trees along our western property line, both of which conveniently overhang our lawn. The neighbor is a retired gentleman who I think has no interest in his bounty, and he said we were welcome to whatever we could reach. We could reach plenty.

With Eris's help, we picked five kilos (11 lbs), or all that would fit in the pot.

I have been told that these cherries are a variety called Shatten Morellen, which are known for their flavor. They are really too sour for me to eat out of hand, so I made jam. Well, some of it is more preserves than jam as it didn't all set very well, but it tastes good. We have had a very wet year so far, so the fruit was very watery. This variety is so flavorful that it didn't taste watery, but the juices were somewhat diluted. I could feel it on my fingers, which puckered up from the water (which hadn't happened before) and I could see it when I boiled the jam. It took a looong time for the jam to get to the gel point.

I only bought six "real" jam jars that I could seal, and I put some up in reused jars with a disk of vodka-soaked paper in the lid so I could give them away. I think I had a total of ten 300 mL jars (a little over 8 oz). This is really my favorite flavor of jam. I think I'll need to make more to give away!

Not that there is a shortage of cherries or anything. I took the picture below two days ago, well over a week after we harvested the first five kilos. I am thinking of making a little more jam, and maybe canning some in their own juice. Anyone have any pointers on canning cherries?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Today's walk

I went today later than usual--instead of my pre-breakfast wake up walk, I went solo mid-morning while Stefan took Eris to Kinderturnen (a play group at a school gymnasium with tumbling equipment and balls and all sorts of physical play opportunities). It was a glorious day for a walk, sunny and windy. Normally, I am not a big fan of wind, but walking in the woods on a windy, sunny day is something really special. The dappled shade shimmers and moves like the light under water, and the wind rushes and sighs through the treetops while gently cooling the air at ground level. Here are some pictures from my walk, mostly of the tree tunnel.

Stefan called this "The Vortex". It is taken from inside the tree tunnel where there is a washout. I have seen deer crossing here, and I think it is a popular place for the local kids to play in the mud. From this vantage point (and the next couple of pictures), you are looking away from our house towards the fields surrounding the village.

This is a little further up, where the lower walls of the tunnel are full of ferns and greenery. On the left side, behind the trees (out of sight) and even with the top of the earthen wall, is a wheat field. To the right and up is young forest.

You get a feel for how the earth piles up on each side to make a wall. I wonder how long this path has been around.

This is nearly early at the end of the tree tunnel, where the view is fairly unremarkable. This amazing shadow appeared as the sun came free of a cloud. The shadow is cast by one of the very large oaks that dot the path.

This picture is from the other side of the Schuberg, where there is a lovely view overlooking one of the horse farms. From this view I am looking mostly west, towards the lovely town of Ohlstedt Bergstedt, which you can't see because of the trees.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Tunnel

This is what I call the Tree Tunnel, which is a foot path that extends from our street out into the farmland around us. I love how the path is sunken between two berms, with trees making a leafy roof. I love how the morning light shines through, creating a pinhole of light at the end of the street. It is an apt symbol for this post, since I feel like we have been traveling through a tunnel for the last two months or so, and that we might actually be seeing that iconic pinhole of light soon.

Of course, it's all Eris's fault. After several arduous, unpredictable months of eye-teeth, our little girl started to talk, in German and English, started to really understand her surroundings, started to have an opinion about things, and, quite suddenly developed some pretty serious fear that Mama was going to forget her on a street corner or something. Oh, the joys of Separation Anxiety.

Now, it's no big secret that she has never been a "good" sleeper. But her newfound fear of separation from Mama translated into a rather inconvenient fear of sleeping. She would sing, talk, cry, kick, and generally get more and more worried about the moment that Mama would leave the room at night. She wouldn't let Mama go to the toilet by herself during the day. She would stand in the bathroom and cry because Mama was in the shower. She would cling to Mama and cry "Mama kommt gleich wieder!" (Mama will be right back) even though Mama was shushing her and holding her and right there. Naps became intermittent, bedtime fluctuated between 6:30pm (if she hadn't napped) and 10pm, and the nights interrupted by multiple awakenings. It has been hard just to get the shopping/cooking/cleaning done. Never mind anything fun!

Oh, and then there is Eris's room. A tiny room, with a bit of carpet on the floor. And under the carpet, some carpet tiles. And under the carpet tiles, wood floor. But, it turns out, the carpet tiles were attached to the wood floor with tile cement. And, once you've pulled the tiles out, there is no going back...the cement had to pounded, scratched, scraped, chiseled, and swept out, inch by painful inch.

And then we all caught cold. A really bad one. We all got earaches, we were all sick and sniffling and crabby and not sleeping well for a solid two weeks.

But then we got better. And Eris started to be less afraid of Mama leaving. (Now she's more afraid of strangers, but that's another story, and doesn't keep her up at night.) And Eris's room started to approach being finished. As of today, about two square feet of cement remains on the floor.

This may seem somewhat minor, but getting Eris's floor finished means we can get on with pulling the rest of the carpet, painting, and getting ourselves generally organized. This one room, which was supposed to be a quick, easy job, has taken nearly two months just to do the floor, putting off every other project (of which there are many) by months.

At my darkest moments this spring, it felt like we were being sucked into a vortex of chaos and entropy. It has been hard to be motivated to keep things even tidy, since we have no closets and little furniture still. I mean, why buy furniture when there is carpet to rip out and walls to paint?

But it feels like we have entered a new chapter. We are all healthy, first. There is nothing like the perspective of having been sick to make you appreciate not being sick. And Eris seems to be emerging from her early toddler transition to a more stable time. She is quite the ham, as you can see.

The concrete covered floor has been nearly conquered, as well. In a fit of excitement, we even instituted an entropy-prevention measure--we get up every morning and go for a 30 minute walk before breakfast. Eris is not allowed out of the stroller for this walk, and she knows it and generally just sits back and enjoys the ride.

Of course, it helps that we have plenty of beautiful places to walk.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why are we here, now?

I started a German class last week at the local Volkshochschule. There are eight people in the class, including me, and they hail from a variety of exotic locations: Madagascar, Vietnam, Poland, Russia, the Phillippines, Turkey, Egypt. During introductions at my first class, the young Egyptian looked me hard in the face and asked me, quite pointedly, "Warum bist du hierhier jetzt gekommen?" (Why did you come here now?) What is implied in that question is the belief, held by many, both Germans and non-Germans, that the USA is so amazing, so wonderful, so full of opportunity and freedom, that you would be daft to leave. And now, of all times, now-with a new president and cabinet, a political climate seemingly ripe for change, in a place full of so much promise, why now?

Both Stefan and I have faced this question over and over from friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers. It is difficult to answer without describing the US we know and love--full of opportunity, yes, and openness, but also flawed. The place where basic healthcare is out of reach for many; where bigger is always better, even if it destroys the planet; where one of the foremost tenets of the legal system is to protect people's individual capital, be it actual or potential. The place where maternity leave is guaranteed but not paid, where social benefits are a joke, yet treated like a precious commodity; where prejudice is not tolerated publicly, but seeps insidiously throughout the social and economic system. As they say, the grass is always greener...

But we did not come to Germany because of the flaws the American capitalistic system. We decided to come long before the election and well before the financial crisis became so apparent. We really decided to come here to give our daughter a chance to know her German family, especially her German grandparents, who are 70 (Kurt) and 74 (Thea). In fact Thea had her 74th birthday today and we all went over there to celebrate with Kaffee und Kuchen. Oma's sister Rita was there, as were Onkel Gerd and Tante Monika. Eris--who is the first child in the family in a number of decades, and who is the only grandchild for Kurt and Thea--had the cuteness volume turned right up to eleven. As I stood in the dining room peeking through the partially closed door to the foyer watching Tante Rita (who is in her 80s) and Oma chattering away with a very happy toddler, I remembered why exactly we came here. And I am glad we didn't come any later.

From left to right, Kurt (Opa), Thea (Oma), Gerd, Eris, Stefan, and Rita.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Where We Live

In honor of my blog title, I start today with a picture of the Schuberg. This picture was taken from our second-floor bedroom on a typically gray, misty day. For a small bump on the landscape, this drumlin is remarkably present, and is visible from much of the village. Whenever I go for a walk on the meadows and fields that surround our end of the village, I am aware of the Schuberg, and use it to navigate, although it is small enough that I can circumnavigate it in less than 20 minutes.

It is an interesting place to start today, because, for me, one of the more remarkable things about living in Europe is the sense of the passage of time. This bump of a hill is thousands and thousands of years old, dating from the last ice age, yet it persists, and has ingrained itself in local legend and lore. In addition to its geologic history, it reminds me of the fact that humans have lived on this land for thousands and thousands of years, and not just as migratory tribes, but also as settlers and farmers.

The village we live in is quite literally surrounded by farms. Most of the fields lie fallow this time of year, as seen in the photo above, although everything is quite green. In our immediate vicinity, the primary crops seem to be strawberries and Rüben, which are a type of turnip grown for animal feed. Probably half of the fields are left for pasture and hay--this is dairy country, for sure. However, there is an affluent element to the population here that also supports a tremendous number of horses. There are dozens of horse farms and riding academies in the region, bringing flocks of pre-teen girls out to the country on Saturday mornings for riding lessons.

There has been a plague of moles here this winter. They are protected by law, although they can really wreak havoc on fields that are mechanically harvested or planted. The picture above is just a small field: there are large fields absolutely covered in molehills where the damage is more apparent. Stefan and I have been entertaining theories as to why they are such a plague this year: a surge in worm populations due to the outlawing of some sort of pesticide or fertilizer; changes in soil chemistry due to the elimination of antibiotics from animal feed; or, the favorite, global warming. It is true that the soil no longer freezes in winter around here, and there is far less snow than in decades past. (Rumor has it that the river Alster in Hambrug has not frozen over in ten years.)

Global warming aside, it is definitely spring here. The weather has been pretty rainy and gray, but not terribly cold. We have had snowdrops and crocuses for weeks now, but the crocuses have really reached their peak in the last week. We had some beautiful sunny weather for the last couple of days, and the crocus just exploded in gardens and on lawns everywhere, most spectacularly on the big lawn outside of the local castle in Ahrensburg. Really a sea of purple and white, and glowing in the afternoon sun.

I will leave you with this lovely image today. Stay tuned for more pictures of Ahrensburg, our immediate neighborhood, our house and garden, and the little one, of course.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Going Without: Update Reprise

Ai yai. I am taking forever to get around to these things. Just to mix it up a bit, I will post again tomorrow with pictures! I finally found the USB cable and got the battery charging thing sorted, so we are up and running.

So, first, a very enlightening response from Barbara, a German expat living in San Jose and good friend of ours. With her permission, this is her explanation of German washing machines and why they work the way they do. And also, for the record, I am getting used to the new washer and finding that we just work around the long wash cycles.


I have some response to the German washing procedure. People in Germany who don't know about American washers might not be able to answer as well.

Doing laundry requires three things: water, detergent and time. With German washers (top and front loaders) the time factor is in a higher ratio to water than in the US. You will also find "Einweichen" with those many buttons and dials. If you use the factor Einweichen, that means basically more time - without necessarily spending more water because it uses the same sud, unless you have really dirty laundry and want to remove the saturated water first so the dirt particles don't get distributed back into the fibers. And you can decrease the amount of detergent. Time (Einweichen) was very important in the old days, when you did laundry once a week (or month) and/or had really soiled garments (not just worn) and spots (Flecken). An unbeatable combination : Einweichen and Kochwäsche, and that is: Time.

In the US, saving time was always more important, almost always at cost of resources (energy, water). Look at the concept of time saving in drying the laundry: every household has a dryer, nobody wants (or is permitted!) to hang up the laundry onto a line anymore. So here we are, in dry and sunny California, spending energy and a lot of hot produced air and electricity to run a dryer! Dryers run at least for 45 minutes. - Because we want to shorten the washing process, we fill in a lot more water in the old fashioned washers with an agitator, in a state, where we will have a serious drought in 2009 - we are in a desert, for heavens sake!

Now to your complaint about the elastics in the socks that go away to soon: That really happens because of the hotter water. You will find out though, that the rest of the sock is fine and can last forever. Of course, rubber in the elastic is not made to withstand high temperature. That works fine in an American washer, since the sock material is gone a lot earlier than the rubber. And for that you can blame the agitator: If you have towels, t-shirts and underwear of plain cotton you can wash them in a German washer for decades. The material will get thinner (loosing the fibers) and breaks (holes) after a few years. The drum movement while washing is gentle, like a soft beating from one wet item against the other. Compared an agitated American washer: The towel is fine, but all the sides start to get loose after a short while, seams open up on T-shirts and other garmets, because the agitator is such a harsh puller and tearer and reminds me of the times when we beat the garments against stones in the river ...

Kochwäsche only works if you heat up the load gradually and slowly to remove the (presoaked and loosened) dirt and spots. If you throw a garment into boiling water with detergent, it would probably fix (cook) the dirt into the fiber but not clean the fabric effectively. The German washers are still equiped to do Kochwäsche and will heat up the load slowly. Perhaps you know that American washers use hot water provided by a water heater. German washers have the heating coils built inside and heat the water inside the machine. Since in the old days that was the way to do laundry (boiling), you don't eliminate this setting on a modern "machine", but you add it as an option. I don't know any household among my friends though, who does still Kochwäsche, because you really need only warm water (30 and 40 Celsius) to get the modern not-dirty clothes clean.

I feel very competent in this matter, because I washed in both countries, including in the old days, where my mother still had a Waschküche, with a big caldron to boil the laundry (yes, wood burning heated the water!). And most competent also, because two years ago we had to replace our American toploader-agitator washer and chose a front loader - they are finally very affordable. In fact, for years they have been promoted with an extra rebate of 50 $ or more from the cities because of their energy efficiency. If you ever get a chance to watch and wash with one of these when you visit-- it's amazing, how much water you save. And you cannot use a lot of detergent either, because it would not dissolve. No wonder the washer industry here was never keen on promoting the modern machines because you cannot make money being a chemical company if consumers use less. Now another interesting thing: A regular (normal) cycle in a new energy-efficient American frontloader washer takes at least 68 minutes. With an extra (recommended) 2nd rinse 84 minutes ...

As for your concern about the energy used to heat up the water in a washer, don't compare it with the energy you would use in an American washer. You are better off and more energy concsious if you use regular cycle, with less water, high spin, longer time (that is not only low watt of electricity used, but the mechanic movement of the drum) and 30 or 40 Celsius.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Going Without: Update

Well, within 24 hours of my previous post here, the internet connection kit arrived in the mail, and the television guy came over to set up the dish, and we finally got a washing machine.

German washing machines are really interesting, and somewhat of an enigma to me. They have a very odd combination of energy efficient and energy consuming features. Axial (front-loading) machines are the norm, which makes sense, since these are much more energy- and water-efficient. And the machines have a gazillion settings for temperature, extra rinsing, prewash, lint removal, heavy items, light items, wool, you name it, so you can customize your wash settings. Finally, they tend to be pretty small: we have one of the largest non-commercial washing machines you can get, and it holds 7 kg (about 15 lbs). This is actually pretty convenient, since, of course we did not get a (mechanical) dryer, so we have clothes hanging in the living room on the indoor drying rack, and I am not sure it would be so fun to have a really large load of laundry draped about the house. It's only charming till you sit on a wet sweater.

All of these energy saving, Germanly efficient elements are super; however, the only setting on the machine that uses cold water is the wool-sweater setting, which also doesn't spin or agitate as much. The coldest "normal" wash temperature is 30 C (86 F). Mysterious lack of energy awareness, there. Also, wash cycles are measured in HOURS, not minutes. The "basic" wash setting is called 40-60 Mix, and it is 2 hours, 20 minutes from start to finish. This doesn't seem very energy efficient to me. What the heck is the machine doing for two and half hours, anyway? Stuff gets clean, you can be sure. The elastic in your socks might die after a week and half, but, by golly, it's clean!

Not much to say about the t.v. and internet, but the car search continues. We would really like to get one of these cool little van/car things they have here. They are like a compact car base with a little extra height and rear seats that are a bit higher than the front, sort of a microminivan. If you're curious, we are looking at (used) the Opel Agila and the Suzuki Wagon R+. Mercedes A160 or Toyota Yaris Linea are also in the running, but mostly too expensive for our budget. Looking for a used car is really annoying, especially without a car! We have looked at a few cars close by, but there is always the suspicion that there might be one cheaper in the city, but then we'd have to go to Hamburg. Not that Hamburg is particularly far by subway, but it seems all the used car dealerships are in places far from public transit. Funny how that works.

I will post again as soon as I find the USB cable for the camera. There are pictures of where we live as well some nice shots of the three of us. Then I will comment then on the weather, the landscape, our house and other fun stuff. Till then...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Going Without

This weekend will mark the end of our third week in Germany. It has been a strange time for me, not so much from culture shock as from the relentlessly unsettled life we have led since September, when we first started getting ready to move. We spent those months dividing our life into Before and After, shedding numerous belongings, organizing our remaining belongings, taking a lovely three-week holiday at my parents house in Delaware, then, on Jan 17th, 2009 flying to Germany. There was a sense of passage on that day, as we finally passed from Before to After, and After became the present.

We spent the first week in Hornaue at Stefan's parents' house while we waited for our shipment to clear customs, after which we moved into the house in Hoisbuettel. It seemed like so much stuff when we packed it--nearly 100 boxes on three palettes comprising almost 300 cubic feet--but as we unpacked, it seemed like less and less. We brought most of our cookware, but no dishes or kitchen appliances; plenty of books, but no bookshelves; a few boxes of out-of-season clothing, but no furniture; our mattress and bedding, but no bed.

Odds and ends of furniture have appeared at the house over the last two weeks as friends and family have donated or lent them. In addition to our four folding banquet chairs and Eris's high chair, all of which we had shipped, we have acquired an Ikea-style television stand and side table, an eighties vintage recliner, a crib for Eris, two German bed frames, a couple of chests of drawers, and a small bookshelf. We did buy a coffee table and a dining table on a recent trip to Ikea. Although we don't have a couch, the coffee table was on super-duper sale, and someday we'd like to have a couch. We needed to get the dining table as it was getting a little hard on the neck eating at the kitchen counter while sitting in our banquet chairs.

An interesting twist is that we don't have any closets in this house. All of our clothes are in the aforementioned chests of drawers and bookshelf. Nor do we have a basement--all of our books and excess clothing are currently stored in the upstairs crawl space. But we have so little stuff that storage is only an issue for the clothes we are using. Storage we will eventually need, but that need pales in comparison to the basics we are missing. We don't have a washing machine and we live in a rural village with no laundromat. We don't have a car and we live in a rural village with reliable but infrequent transit. We don't have broadband internet access. We don't have a landline telephone. We will have neither of these for weeks. We have two (donated) televisions, neither of which works because they are pre-digital. We have a stereo receiver that doesn't work and a couple of speakers that may or may not work, but we can't test them because the receiver and televisions don't work. We don't have a microwave or blender or food processor. We don't have any tools. We have a borrowed tea kettle.

This is not meant to be a lament of the things we do not have, rather an illustration of the continued state of unsettledness we find ourselves in. I don't understand the radio, can't watch television, and, without high-speed internet, can't easily navigate public transit or look up places to shop. Although we have technically passed from Before to After, it is indiscernible--I am still waiting for things to happen so that the next things can happen. We need a car so we can go places to get things, we need a washer so I don't spend so much time washing-wringing-hanging, we need the internet so that I can learn something about where I am and where I need to go. Although I am living here, I am not yet participating in life here.

This could be a moment to realize how little we really need to get by, but it is also a moment to recognize those things we rely on to feel comfortably settled and engaged in our surroundings. Mobility. Information. Communication. And clean clothes.