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.