An Adventure A Day

Because "life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all" – Helen Keller

Travel Theme: Breathe

May 20, 2016


This week the travel theme at Where’s My Backpack? takes a look at slowing down and remembering to breathe.

In my ideal, dream world, when I need to breathe I’d simply head off to the mountains. It is in the mountains where I find a calmness and peace unlike anywhere else. As a mother of two young children with a spouse who travels a lot, this is often times just that. A dream. So it’s those places closer to home that I turn to most often.

Moving every few years leaves you a perpetual newcomer, always trying to locate something. For me, it’s important to add finding a space to breathe into my explorations of a new area. Sometimes it can be difficult to find a place close by that allows you to get away from it all – a place that gives you a sense of inner peace.  That is one of my great joys when I explore. Finding a place that is still and quiet that allows me to simply be, to simply breath. Solitary paths in the woods exhilarate me, but it’s not always a possibility. I try to find some space in each day to breathe simply by taking time to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the quiet stillness of the early morning.

Some days though, I need to get out. I need to explore. I need to shake up the routine and rhythm of everyday life. I need to find someplace wild, someplace calm, someplace new to hear the myself think over the day-to-day necessities.

Living in Germany is a great place if you’re looking for breathing space. Both of the towns I lived in were small towns in a rural setting, offering a multitude of beautiful green spaces to explore. You were guaranteed to find someplace quiet. Someplace where you were the only one around. I loved exploring the trails and the woods. Even though I have a terrible sense of direction, I rarely got lost. The trails in Germany are usually well-marked.

When we moved to Rome, one of the things I feared was that in this giant city, I would never find a quiet place to breath. I was wrong. You may not think of green spaces and quiet places, but they are there. If you know where to look. I don’t begin to think I’ve unlocked all of the secrets of the quiet places of Rome in just 9 months, but I have found a few places where I can breathe.

Here are just a few of the many breathing spaces I found in Germany:

And here are a few of the breathing spaces I’ve found in Rome. So far.

If you’d like to explore the way others view this topic, visit Where’s My Backpack? Travel Theme Breathe

Friday Photo: Face

May 20, 2016


This week, the WordPress photo challenge takes a look at getting to know people as an artist by studying their Face. This week for the photo challenge, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the faces I’ve come across in my travels.

Many works of art masterfully depict faces to convey a message, an emotion, a brief snapshot of a period in time. I love to stroll through the galleries and piece together the past through the work of the great artists, marveling at their ability to capture so much within their canvas. But for this challenge, I decided to look at some of the faces of folk art and art in public spaces I encountered in Germany.

For me, the great art provides a glimpse of the epoch, the themes that prevail on the larger scale. I find that the art people make, the art that they keep in their homes and erect in their communal spaces, allows you to see the individuals. It shows you how they choose to honor what is most important to them.

As George Bernard Shaw famously wrote, “you use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”

In Pfullendorf, a small town in southern Baden Württemberg we see the faces of the past in the local cemetery.

And in the water park, we see the faces of the future.

In Burglengenfeld, a small town in Bavaria, we find the faces of the people in the local folk art.

And the faces of the community in the public spaces.

And a glimpse into the soul as we view the faces in the Kunstwald.

To find more Faces, head over to The Daily Post challenge – Face

 

 

 I have just returned from making my fourth hair appointment – this year. That may not seem like a lot of haircuts to you, but I’ve seen decades through with fewer trips to the salon than that. But not here. In Italy, it’s not just my hair that’s being taken care of, it’s the relationship with my hairdresser.

In the States all I needed to do was call and schedule an appointment. There was rarely a long-term relationship with any one hairdresser. By the time I found one I liked, I usually had one or two appointments before we moved again. It may have been inconsistent, but it was simple. There was never any type of communication or culture barrier to overcome. Well, except once in Georgia when the nice lady at the other end of the line said to me in her thick southern drawl, “Oh, honey, we don’t do white hair here.” 

Getting my hair cut was never one of my favorite tasks, but it was manageable. Make a phone call, schedule an appointment, talk through a haircut, and voila you’re done. Then we moved to Germany.

In a new language with two kids, haircuts rapidly moved up my list of dreaded activities. I soon realized I couldn’t call to make an appointment because even in the unlikely event that I figured out how to schedule one, there was no way I’d be able to understand the response.

What had in the past merely required a phone call now turned into a multi-day farce, complete with phrasebook, much gesticulation, and a lot of raised eyebrows. Eventually I found a place that took walk-ins, which eliminated the first awkward phase. I was still left with one major hurdle. How on earth do I tell them exactly what I want done with my hair?

I came up with an intricate combination of photographs and more gesticulations, and I was fine with the results. I continued to frequent the walk-in salon until they abruptly shut their doors. Next I went to a salon recommended by a friend, but when she had a falling out with the hairdresser that came to an end as well.

Not long after that, it was time to move once again. I found the salon in my next German town relatively quickly, and I was fairly pleased with the stylist. Until I got cocky and decided that my German was now so good, I didn’t need a picture. I could explain in German exactly what it was that I wanted. I was delusional. One look in the mirror at home cleared that up. It was back to pictures, and although I was going a little more frequently – once every 4-6 months, you still couldn’t say I was going regularly.

And then we ended up in Italy. Italy is different than other places, and Rome is different than other places in Italy. People here are very aware of their outward appearances. They are very good at putting themselves together. Even when they exercise here, they look flawless. I’m pretty sure they can run a marathon without breaking a sweat. And I’m pretty sure they all go to the hairdresser regularly.

I was intimidated at the thought of trying to go to the hairdresser in Italy. I find Italian more difficult to operate in than I found German. My emphasis and intonation are always off. Italian is a very melodic language, and alas, I have discovered that I have no rhythm. So me and my phrasebook and my gesticulating bravado were not going anywhere near a salon.

Instead, I raided my daughter’s hair accessory box and avoided thinking about the hairdresser. Then one day, I ran into a new friend who took me around my new neighborhood and introduced me to some people. Including a hairdresser. This was the hairdresser that she took her children to, so I made an appointment right then and there for my son, who was beginning to look like he might need to raid the hair accessory box as well. There was an added initiative to frequent this establishment – this hairdresser speaks some English. It was looking fortuitous indeed.

The morning of my son’s appointment was also the day of a formal event my husband and I were attending, so my husband asked if the hairdresser had time to style my hair.  It turned out he did. He asked me what I wanted and I told him. It was a fantastic haircut. We weren’t even four months into our first year and I’d found the perfect hairdresser. It was amazing, this had never happened to me before. He told me I should come back in three weeks, 4 weeks maximum. I nodded in that “yeah, yeah sure, whatever you say” way moms sometimes do when they are distracted by their children who are about to run in to the street.

That was early November. It was January before I returned. My hairdresser was not happy. He asked me if I wanted the same thing. I said yes, the previous cut was perfect. I spent a lot less time in the chair this time and although it was not a bad cut, it lacked the pizazz of the previous one. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, and I thought about the possibilities as I went home and studied my new not quite as lovely style.

It is of course, entirely plausible that my stylist was having an off day, but I became convinced that he was actually angry with me for not coming back within 3 – 4 week window he had given me at the first cut. This time, I wasn’t offered any coffee. There were no flamboyant gestures with the scissors. There was no conversation. This time the cut was more straightforward and about as quick as a new recruit’s first haircut in basic training.

I was a little scared about the next visit, but determined to get back into the good graces of my fabulous stylist. I wasn’t going to take a chance on trying to find that perfect combination of someone who cut my hair really well, and spoke enough English for me not to have to revert to phrasebooks and gesticulating.  

Exactly three weeks later I scheduled my next appointment. I went in and he was waiting for me. I think he even greeted me with a smile this time. As I took my place in the chair, he asked me if I wanted the same style. I started to say yes, but I noticed that as he asked he was slowly shaking his head no. Although I was perfectly happy with the cut I had, I realized that apparently he thought it was time for a change. I slowly answered: “no, no I don’t.” I then observed his slow, not so subtle nod as he said: “you want to try something different, yes?” I respond with my own slow nod. “Yes, yes I do.”

At this point I’m a bit nervous, because I have given complete control of my head to someone who is possibly still angry with me. We still aren’t making much small talk, the difference in language factors in to this quite a bit, but there is a bit more pizazz in this cut. I leave the salon a little more than half an hour later, with a completely new, much shorter style. I also left with a new outlook on the importance of this simple phrase in Italian – “Che Consiglia” – what do you recommend?

I recently read an article that spoke about asking for recommendations in restaurants in order to coax out hidden gems. I can attest to this being the case, at least some of the time. I learned this through my consistent inability to choose from a menu. There are occasions when you ask Che Consiglia and you get something delightful and not advertised.  When they really don’t have anything hidden to offer, they will at least steer you towards something seasonal and delicious that is on the menu.

I would extend this beyond the restaurants though. I have noticed that whether I’m at the butcher’s, the deli, the bakery, the vegetable stand, or the florist’s, no one shies away from making recommendations – occasionally unsolicited ones – and I have not been disappointed yet. I am steered toward the freshest products and the tastiest morsels. I am told the correct number I will need to serve two or four or ten. I am guided through what I may need to go with it, and how to prepare it. Far from feeling intruded upon, I feel like a part of the community. I never have any doubt as to the sincerity of the individuals I am dealing with.

It is a complex relationship however. There seems to be an unstated expectation that with this exemplary service, you are a regular customer. The shops I frequent will make comments if I show up on a different day, and I feel the need to justify extended absences. The places you go will take care of you, but you are expected to return the favor.

Keeping that in mind I make my next hair appointment exactly three weeks later. I arrive a bit early, and my hairdresser is with another client. One of the other stylists asks if he should do my cut, and my hairdresser tells him to back off – or the polite Italian version of this. Next I am treated to a very long wash, and an extra-long head massage. Then, they bring me a cup of tea. I am totally back on my hairdresser’s good side.

This time when he asks me what I want to do, I am prepared. Whatever you think, I say. I trust you. I am beginning to notice a trend. Each time I leave the salon, my hair is just a little bit shorter. But I also notice, that the more faith I place in my hairdresser, the better my cuts get.

It’s been just about three weeks, and I’ve scheduled my latest appointment. I’m not sure how much shorter he actually wants to make my hair, but the weather here is getting warmer, and I’m pretty sure I’m still on his good side. 

These actions may seem pushy or presumptuous if you take them out of context, but I really feel like I am being taken care of. I know that if I have a question about which product to try, I am going to receive the best quality – at least in the shops where I have taken the time to establish a relationship. Here it’s not just about the exchange of goods. It’s about creating a loyal relationship. There are many different shops I could go to, but for my weekly excursions, and my now very regular haircuts, I choose to frequent the same places. The more I go, the better the service, or the quality of the products I receive. It’s funny, because in a city the size of Rome, you’d think you’d be anonymous. But with just a little effort, you can establish yourself as a regular – a temporary citizen of the eternal city.

 

 

DaVinci

Should tourism be restricted and limited? Having grown up in a town that swelled to two or three times its local population during the summer months, I have to say, I am very much in favor of regulating tourism. Living in Cooperstown, New York – home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, gave me an intimate look at the complex relationship between the tourist and the local. Many years later I would live in Key West, Florida and see the continued complexity of this question, this time in the form of cruise ships with massive numbers of visitors disembarking daily to visit the small island village.

Even as a tourist myself, I remain aware of how much of an impact the industry has on the local economy and infrastructure – both welcome and unintended. For the most part, I try and steer clear of the must-do, must-see places. Not because I have no desire to visit them, but because I simply do not enjoy battling the crowds.

Not long ago, a decision was made in Italy to limit the number of tourists allowed to access the coastal villages of Cinque Terre. These five small towns have long topped the must-see lists of many travelers and guidebooks, resulting in a situation that over taxes the areas infrastructure. In my opinion, it’s a perfectly reasonable decision. We visited one of the five towns a few years ago, early in the spring. It was well before start of high tourist season. It wasn’t particularly crowded, but it was such a small, delicate area that it did make you wonder how it could handle the vast amounts of tourists that regularly visit Italy each year. I mention this, because I was thinking about this decision, and my aversion to crowded tourist attractions when I was caught in the middle of another huge tourist draw – the Vatican Museum.

Once you enter the corridors of the Vatican Museum, you are caught in a maelstrom pulling you deeper and ever forward into the depths of the museum. Occasionally, you can momentarily pause and escape to the exterior of whichever gallery you’ve entered, but before long you are once again pulled forward, ever forward through the monstrous museum.

Not too long ago, we paid our first visit to the museum, and I’m not sure what we did see. The tour begins in the Egyptian exhibits, but with elbow to elbow visitors on the day of our visit it was difficult to appreciate, or even view the artifacts. Once we made it through the first few rooms, the crowds began to thin out a bit and we wandered through several more rooms of Egyptian antiquities. Although we tried to follow the maps, and traffic through the museum only runs in one direction, we quickly became disoriented in the 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) of interior exhibits. I know that we skipped the Raphael rooms because, after being caught up in the forward flow of humanity for what seemed like days, we were ready to find an exit. The museum is set up in a one directional flow, and all roads through it lead to the Sistine Chapel – eventually.

You know you’ve reached the chapel, because the traffic slows as you descend the staircase into an area where every head is turned skyward, and you are being urged forward to make room for the unending stream of visitors behind you.

The Sistine Chapel, while astonishingly beautiful, was simply too crowded to enjoy. We stood there, elbow to elbow in a room packed to the brim with visitors. You are told before entering that it is a holy place, you are told that you must be respectful – and photography is absolutely forbidden.  But it didn’t feel holy to me, there was no refuge left in this chapel. It was crowded, and dizzying and one more overwhelming room in an overwhelming and crowded museum. I was not expecting the sheer volume of the paintings. Every surface, from the ceilings to the walls, are covered with paintings. Between the crowds and the number of painted surfaces it was impossible to take it all in.

You might think that I didn’t like the museum, which is not the case. I thought it was stunning, the paintings and statuary collected within the walls are spectacular. But it is a lot to absorb. We left the museum, and I felt unsteady on my feet. It took me a long time to begin to process all of the things I had seen that day, and to truly appreciate it would take several visits. I’m just not sure I could withstand the crowds again.

If you are planning a visit to the Vatican Museum, try and do it during the off season. We visited during an Italian school holiday, and it seemed to be really busy. Also, if you do plan on visiting, you absolutely need to purchase the tickets in advance. The line to purchase tickets wrapped down the street and around the corner on the day we visited. We had purchased the tickets on line that morning and were able to enter the museum without much delay. We rented the audio guides, but I had so much trouble following the maps that I didn’t think they were worth it. The children were given maps with a treasure hunt on it which was a lot of fun for them – when they could find the items.

The Vatican Museum while absolutely amazing, and stunning, is completely overwhelming, large, and chaotic. I found it incredibly difficult to appreciate the beauty I was surrounded by, simply because there were so many fellow visitors that it was impossible to pause and reflect on what you were viewing.

While it is arguably the most famous museum we have visited so far in Rome, the Vatican Museum is not the only museum that we’ve visited since moving here.

My favorite museum thus far, without question is Chiostro del Bramante. This relatively small museum tucked away on a side street, is fabulous. I visited during the Tissot exhibit, which ran from September 2015 to February 2016. I loved this exhibit and this museum. I visited on a weekday in January and was one of a handful of visitors, which gave me time to listen to the audio guide, read the displays and really observe the work. Although Chiostro del Bramante is not a large museum, it is fabulously curated. The displays were beautifully exhibited and interesting. I am looking forward to visiting it again when the next show I Macchiaoli opens on March 16.

Another museum that is deceptively large and far less crowded is Maxxi – a museum of modern art on the northern side of Rome, not too far from Ponte Milvio. I must admit, I am not a huge fan of modern art. For the most part, I just don’t get a lot of it, but for the right price – admission was free for women on March 8 (Festa della Donna) I figured I had nothing to lose.

The museum is quite a bit larger than I thought it was going to be, with several special exhibits running simultaneously. The first exhibit I visited was Istanbul, Passion, Joy, Fury. I felt a little lost in this exhibit, as I don’t know much about political movements in Turkey, so I meandered through them somewhat aimlessly. It gave me a sense of something, although I wasn’t entirely sure what.

Next I headed to an exhibit called Transformers, artist who created something new out of everyday objects. According to the website, the works of these artists / social activists combine to create a space where “reality is transformed into another reality, which sparks the imagination, stimulates reflection, encourages sharing, experience, and looking beyond.” I don’t know about that, but I found the work of Pedro Reyes and Didier Faustino to be particularly thought provoking.

Reyes transformed weapons into musical instruments, which eerily played music without human accompaniment. Faustino’s work transformed plastic baskets into a forest of green bulbs, through which the visitor must pass.

The next part of the museum housed the permanent exhibits, including a large glass igloo containing the Fibonacci sequence in neon lights. Finally, I ascended to the last exhibit on my tour, Jimmie Durham’s sound and silliness. I found this exhibit eerie.  The room was nearly empty, except for a large screen of the artist doing something close to the initial steps of the Macarena. I was the only person in the room, and I was surrounded by greyness and discordant music.  Leaving the museum, my ears were ringing – the displays were not silent, and my mind was racing. Maxxi left me with the idea that modern art is not only about creating something beautiful, but creating something that sends a strong message from the artist to the consumer. I would definitely recommend this museum, it may not have made me a connoisseur of modern art, but I definitely appreciate it a little bit more.

The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma was actually the first “modern art” museum I’d visited in Rome, but it is a bit more of a traditional gallery. Although this museum is a part of the Musei in Comune di Roma, it was very quiet. We were at times the only visitors in the museum which provides ample time to view and talk about each painting and sculpture. There were mainly Italian artists, and I don’t think I was familiar with any of them before visiting the museum.  The kids and I had a great time in this museum discussing what we liked or didn’t like about each painting or sculpture, and what we thought the artist was trying to portray.

The Museo dell’Ara Pacis was another museum I visited, primarily for the special exhibit featuring the work of Toulouse-Latrec. The special exhibit was fabulous. Through this exhibit, I learned quite a bit about the life, works and techniques of an artist I was largely unfamiliar with, other than being able to recognize a few of his more well-known works. I thought the exhibit was well curated and I look forward to attending other exhibitions here. I was less impressed with the actual museum. The Ara Pacis is amazing to look a, but for the price of a ticket, unless you are really interested in ancient Roman architecture, I’d skip it. I found the self guided map and audio guide difficult to orient myself to – and there was only one room.

One of the kids favorite art shows was the Art of the Brick, which is being held over through April 26, 2016. This was a fantastic exhibit of art masterpieces and original works all created from Lego bricks by US artist Nathan Sawaya. This was one show that the kids could return to again and again. We went during the Christmas holidays, and although we arrived shortly after opening, we still needed to wait in line. It was a very popular show, but the layout of the exhibits provided enough space to comfortably observe everything. The Art of the brick is being held in the Spazio Eventi Tirso, not too far from Villa Borghese.

Another favorite of the kids was the exhibition of the machines of Leonardo DaVinci in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, not too far from Campo di Fiori. Not only was this a very hands on exhibit, but we timed it perfectly and nearly had the museum to ourselves.

On a recent rainy day, we visited another museum, located behind the Monument of Victorio Emmanuel. I was rather disappointed in the show “From the Musee d’Orsay: Impressionists tete a tete” held at the Complesso del Vittoriano. While there were several artists exhibited that I was familiar with, I just didn’t come away with a feeling of having seen something worthwhile. I thought the exhibition was poorly displayed and extremely small. I’m not at all sure I would visit this gallery for another show.

Of course if you are looking for art in Rome, one of the best (and least expensive) options is to visit some of the many churches, which provide beautiful artwork and a quiet refuge. Here are just a few of my favorites thus far: Santa Maria Maggiore, The Pantheon, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, San Luigi dei Francesi, and Sant’Antonio dei Portoghesi.

There are of course many more museums and churches to visit in Rome, and I look forward to continuing to explore them in the years I live here!  And while I may not have a perfect solution to the question of balance between tourist and resident, I hope that being aware of the delicate balance between the two makes me a more responsible traveler.

The witches jump over the remnants of the burned witch.

Let me take you back in time to a cold midwinter’s eve early in 2011. It is early in our second calendar year living in a small German town in Southern Baden-Württemberg, and we are in the midst of our first pre-Lenten celebration in Germany.

It is the last night of Fasching and the witches are jumping over a bonfire. This is what I know beforehand. This is my first Fasnet and I am not quite sure what to expect.  Already this week, my children were the only ones at the kindergarten NOT dressed in Halloween costumes – in February.  But I told my husband the children and I would meet him in the town center later that evening, so we’re off.

We’ve lived here less than a year, and already, I’ve learned a lot about the culture and the people. Both of my young children attend a German Kindergarten just up the street, and the staff and parents alike are eager to introduce me to various aspects of the local culture. We celebrated Saint Martin’s Day in November, Saint Nicholas Day in December, and The Feast of the Three Holy Kings in early January. There were national German holidays to learn, and a new holiday schedule to adjust to, but nothing prepared me for the celebration in Germany known as Fasching.

In the weeks just before Lent, countries around the world countries enjoy festivals and celebrations. You are probably familiar with Carnival in Brazil, Carnivale in Venice, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Images of the still snow-covered streets of Germany are probably not the first thing that pops into your mind.  However, here we are, celebrating on the Tuesday before Lent. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, but tonight – tonight is a parade.

Evening arrives early in Germany during the winter months, and we set off into the growing darkness.  As we get closer to town, I am beginning to see a theme emerge. One that we have missed – again. While the children and I are bundled against the cold in a manner best suiting a polar expedition, the rest of the town is dressed in white nightshirts. And sleep caps.  It is Wee Willie Winky run amok.

“Well, this is new,” I say. This is an expression the children have come to expect on a nearly daily basis from me.

I see someone I recognize from the kindergarten, and after a jumbled conversation of barely intelligible German and English, I manage to get the time (soon) and location (near the Obertor) that something starts. I wish her a pleasant evening and continue on my way.

I follow the nightshirt-clad masses toward the white tower of the Obertor, the towered door in the remnants of the old town wall. Once there, I slowly, carefully, wind my giant double jogging stroller through the growing crowd. There are a few disappointingly small fires, which no one appears prepared to jump over.  The road to one side is shut off to through traffic, and we head over to join a small crowd gathering there. The tower itself is decorated for Fasching with garlands of patchwork fabrics. The entire town center is crisscrossed with these multi-colored lines. The small tiles of colored fabric wind through the town like a communal wash line that’s seen one too many windy days.  It is festive, it is medieval, it is – oh, hold on a minute, this crowd is starting to move.

So here we are, walking slowly, in a crowd of people in their pajamas, following unseen musicians. This is definitely something new.  The tempo increases as we come around the corner. The streets are lined with people, and those lucky enough to live on the parade route hang out of their windows. They shout “Narri”, as we pass, which is met with a roar of “Narro” from the masses in white nightshirts. I am in the Hemdglonkerumzug, a people’s parade at the end of Fasnet, the Fasching Celebration in Southern Germany.  We seem to aimlessly meander through the town on streets I did not know existed.

A final turn brings us to the town center, and we catch a glimpse of the giant straw witch that will be burned this evening, before the rest of the Hexen (witches) Guild jump over the fire. This is the final act in the nearly week-long festival of parades and tradition that is meant to chase away the last traces of evil winter spirits and usher in an early spring.

We follow the tide of people to our destination. We are here to burn the witch. There are so many people in the town square, that we can’t actually see the bonfire. We do see thousands of sparks beginning to rise through the air of the cold winter’s night, like stars racing to return to the heavens.  We hear the shouts as each of the older members of the Hexen Group test their mettle, and sobriety, attempting to breach the bonfire.

One of my neighbors makes her way over to me through the crowd. Her Eskimo like costume indicates that she is a member of the Fasching Guild known as the Nidler. The Nidlers have been a part of the Fasnet tradition since 1795. She stands before me, holding a hand-carved museum quality wooden mask in her hand. As she looks at me she says, with more than a hint of trepidation “It’s all a little strange, yes?”

“No,” I say as I look around the square. The entire town seems to be here, enjoying the evening and each other. “It is wonderful; I can’t wait until next year!” She looks both relieved and a bit surprised to hear this.

Later as the crowds begin to thin, we pass what is left of the bonfire. It is small enough now for my three year-old to leap over and he does. He relishes, as do we all, this small detour from our ordinary life.

We spent the evening following the assorted Narren guilds, groups whose members dress in elaborate handcrafted costumes and lead the various parades throughout the Fasching Season. Walking to the music, hearing the songs that my children sang in the kindergarten, I am no longer an outsider. I am for this brief moment a part of something. They stop, and I stop. They jump, and I jump. They shout, and I shout. As I sway side to side with the rest of the crowd, I am a celebrant, a participant, in an event that may no longer mean what it did initially, but one that defines the community as it is today. This is my home, for now. No, I don’t know all the words, and no, I am not dressed like everyone else, but I can move with this crowd, and for the moment, this is where we belong.

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We lived in Pfullendorf for three years, and each year we eagerly anticipated the arrival of Fasching. The longer we lived there the more we could not only make sense of the traditions, but we could look forward to them. We participated in as many events as we could. My memories of these festive times are a swirl of laughter and costumes, of confetti and smiles, of music, parades, and schnapps. Somehow in the midst of it all, this small German town became a place that will forever be home, in our hearts if not in our passports.

If you’d like to take a look at some videos I shot during our last visit home you can find a Fasching playlist on YouTube

Friday Photo: Vibrant

February 5, 2016


Most people consider the long winter months after Christmas to be dull, grey and dreary. While I have always loved the cold winter months, it was living in Germany that made this my favorite time of year.

Even though the days are short and often grey it is the most vibrant time of year in Germany. From unexpected schnapps drinking visitors, to colorful decorations throughout the streets, to parties, costumes and revelries, the deepest winter days mean one thing – its Fasching Season. Fasching, known as the fifth season, officially begins on November 11 but the biggest events are on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This pre-Lenten celebration is unequaled in vibrant displays of costumes, colors and music. It will always be one of the things I miss most from years in Germany.

In my former German hometown of Pfullendorf, the festivities have already begun. On Schmotziger Donnerstag, the day begins at 5:00 am – with whips cracking outside your window. Today, everyone wears a costume. You will run into clowns, cowboys, fairies and pirates everywhere you go. Early in the morning members of the various Fasching Clubs will free the children from the schools and kindergartens, take over the town hall and raise the Narrenbaum in the town square. The festivities have begun.

Over the course of the weekend, there will be balls and parties and on Rosenmontag (the Monday before Ash Wednesday) is the giant parade – a highlight of the festivities, where the schnapps flows freely and spectators and participants alike are fully costumed. Tuesday you’ll find the Preisschnellen in the Marktplatz – a whip cracking competition in the main square, and that evening you’ll find the hemdglonkerumzug mit hexenverbrennen – the nightgown parade with a witch burning.

The burning of the witch signifies the end of the celebrations, the next day is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten period. But the vibrant memories of the Fasching celebrations are enough to last you through the remainder of the dark winter days.

Here are a few pictures from Fasnet in Pfullendorf.

The first thing you notice are the Vibrant decorations throughout the town. Brightening the darkest of winter days.

 

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Sometimes you find an Alpine meadow with a hut, serving snacks.

I forgot Groundhog’s Day. Granted, not the most major of holidays to forget. Quite a silly one actually, but the point is, I forgot all about it.

For anyone not familiar with this American tradition, Groundhog’s Day is the day when Punxsutawney Phil is jolted out of his winter’s nap for a prediction about the arrival of spring. If he emerges from his den and sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, we’re in for an early spring.

So how accurate is this groundhog meteorologist? According to the website LiveScience, his accuracy is somewhere between 36% and 39%.

An accurate forecast is not the real reason we tune into Phil. It’s not the reason crowds gather in rural Pennsylvania in the predawn hours, to await the arrival of a rodent we would otherwise chase from our lawns for ransacking our gardens. No, it is just one small part of our shared tradition. Part of the culture that makes us Americans. Part of the culture I’d forgotten.

Why worry about the less than reliable predictions of a sleepy woodchuck? I’m not really. I know that spring will arrive on March 20, with or without him. But what I realized this morning was that because I forget about something like Phil, my children are losing their link to American cultural traditions.

When we moved outside the US, I wasn’t thinking about the challenges of maintaining what makes us American. I was thinking about the opportunities, for us and the children. Opportunities to meet new people, see new things, learn new languages, and to expand the horizons of our world and our worldview.

Once we reached our fourth year in Germany I realized that the children had spent more time outside of their passport country than in it. They spoke fluent German and spent nearly as much time at German school as they did at home. They were inundated with German cultural experiences, but only rarely with American ones. My children had become Third Culture Kids – TCK’s.

The term third culture kids was first used in the 1950’s by John and Ruth Unseem, to describe a distinct culture that develops somewhere between the host culture and the parent’s culture. If you’d like more information on TCK’s, the book Third Culture Kids, Growing up Among Worlds, is a great reference.  

Being a TCK can create any number of problems when children return to their passport countries, having developed a cultural narrative that fits somewhere in between worlds.

Right now, this isn’t a problem for my children. A majority of their peers are also TCK’s. Right now, they don’t realize that they lack the foundations of a shared culture with their fellow Americans, because right now it’s the Italians that they don’t have a shared common culture with. We expected that, we’ve prepared them for that. They will say things to me like, “I know that they do things differently here, but I don’t understand why…..” or “well, it’s a different culture, they just do things differently here.” They are, for the most part, very open to that idea. Although, occasionally the differences do bother them.

What I’ve realized however, is that they are not comparing Italian culture to US culture, but to German Culture. The differences between German Culture and Italian Culture are pretty noticeable to anyone who’s traveled to the two countries, but for my nearly German children, the lack of order is a constant source of irritation.  

It is a challenge for me to remember that my children have a different cultural context than I do. They don’t remember living in the US, their formative memories are German. My son used to come home from Kindergarten in tears if someone told him he wasn’t German. No matter what his passport said, in his mind, he was German.

How do I introduce a third culture into this mix? How ensure that they have at least some knowledge of the common elements of the shared US culture? In order to do that, I needed to think about what constituted culture, for me anyway. Once I decided what I wanted to share with the children, I needed to decide how to do it. There are many ways to introduce culture to your children, but my favorite is through the world of books.

We are a household of readers. Fortunately, both children love books as well. I keep the house stocked with folk tales, stories about holidays, biographies, historical novels, popular and classic children’s books. When we lived near an American base, and we had an early release day from school, we headed for the base library. My children loved spending hours in the library and gathering armfuls of English language books to bring home with them.

It isn’t as easy to find English language children’s books when we don’t have access to an English language library, so we order a lot of books.

Here are a few of my favorites:

1.      The Magic Treehouse Series by Mary Pope Osborne – I love this children’s series, and my children do as well. We’ve purchased the audio versions of most of these books and listen to them whenever we do any long distance travel by car. It keeps the children entertained and they are introduced to new historical events and characters in each book.

2.      The Who Was Series – For older children, this is a fantastic series introducing any number of historical figures and events. We’ve only begun delving into this series, but already my children are sharing interesting facts from the lives of the historical figures they’ve read about.

3.      The I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis – Another series for older children, introducing historical events to young readers. My 8-year-old really enjoyed these, and asked for more.

4.      Books about holidays – Every year I try to find the children at least one book that introduces a new aspect of a holiday. My favorite series for holiday books is the Berenstain Bears, but I try to introduce them to other figures from children’s literature as well.

5.      Folk tales – When I mentioned Paul Bunyan in passing and the children looked at me like I was crazy, I knew we needed to add some American folk tales to our reading list. We have two that the children enjoy: Classic American Folk Tales retold by Steven Zorn, and The Children’s Book of Heroes edited by William J. Bennett.

6.      The common core series by E.D Hirsch, Jr – These books begin with What your Kindergartener Needs to Know, and continue through the different grade levels. What I like about these books are the age appropriate stories and histories provided in the text. This series also gives me an idea of what their peers are learning in the US schools.

7.      Classic children’s literature – I have only just started on exploring classic American children’s literature with the children. American children’s literature tends to fall more into the category of true-life and moralistic, which is a harder sell than the fantasy world of the Hobbit or the Chronicles of Narnia. We read Caddie Woodlawn together, which is a fantastic book for boys and girls alike. Caddie is similar to Laura Ingalls, but a bit more adventurous. We’ve started reading the Little House series, and they find the descriptions of life before electronics fascinating.

Of course, I can’t order every book on every subject. I also tell my children a lot of stories. I tell them stories from when I was young. I tell them stories from when their grandparents were alive. I tell them the stories that I remember hearing.  What is culture, but a shared tradition of stories? I try to make sure that my children are exposed to as many stories as possible. It seems to be working, they love the both the Brothers Grimm and Laura Ingalls.

Traditions are another aspect that work to create a common culture. While we try to acknowledge as many of the traditions as we can, there’s always one or two that we overlook. Occasionally friends will talk about their plans for the long weekend, and I will have no idea what holiday they are talking about – President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day – I’ve forgotten all of them.

We try to celebrate things like Halloween, and St Valentine’s Day, but these are either overlooked or celebrated just a bit differently, if they are celebrated at all. This year the children celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day for the first time in their school. They loved learning about him and celebrating this new special day.

Of course, the children have never attended a Fourth of July Barbecue, or seen the fireworks light up the summer sky. They’ve never been to a Memorial Day Parade. They don’t watch the Superbowl. I believe that there is still plenty of time for them to experience these quintessential elements of America.

They may not know Baseball, but they’ve seen witches jumping over bonfires on dark winter’s nights, they’ve received Dutch chocolates in their boots on a winter’s morning in Germany, they’ve watched the cows come home from their Alpine pastures, and they already realize that there is so much more to the world than one culture. That is the true magic of a childhood spent abroad. I can teach them American culture, but they already appreciate the cultures of the world.

How do you share your home culture with your children? In what ways do you introduce them to new cultures, or help them understand cultural differences? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

"Write it on your heart that everyday is the best day in the year." Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
―Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations   

I find that these two quotes really distill the essence of what it means to be Optimistic: every moment passes, and it is up to you to seek the best of it.

This week, WordPress challenges us to take a look at the concept of Optimism. What is it that keeps us holding on when the days seem especially dark? When the stresses of life begin to weigh us down?

Between frequent moves, adjusting to new cultures, helping my family adjust to new cultures, and the business of everyday life, I sometimes find myself getting bogged down in the details. I begin to feel less effective, less able to find the good in a situation. When I begin to feel a little less optimistic than usual I know it’s time to change my routine. I’ve found that the best way to do that is a change of scenery. Whether that’s a day trip, an overnight escape or a walk in the woods, doing something different, trying something new always restores my outlook on life.

Here are a few of the places and events that leave me feeling most optimistic about life. Places that recharge my soul when I am in need of a boost.

The Woods – where I can lose myself amid the silence of the trees and leave what troubles me behind.

The Water – where the continuous movement reminds me of the inevitable and continuous passing of time.

The Mountains – where I can gain perspective, and remember how very small my troubles are in the great big world.

The Museums – where I can immerse myself in someone else’s visions of the world, reminding me that there is always another way to look at things.

Where do you regain your sense of optimism?

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Friday Photo: Alphabet

January 22, 2016


This week, the WordPress Photo Challenge takes on the theme of Alphabet

In his children’s book “From on beyond Zebra!”, Dr. Seuss writes about a character whose alphabet does not end with the letter Z, but goes on to include a smattering of the fanciful words and creatures Dr. Seuss is known for. At the end of the alphabet, little Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell is just learning his letters. When he reaches the letter Z, the narrator takes him on a tour of the letters beyond Z, the ones that most people don’t bother to learn. As the narrator explains:

 

“You can stop, if you want, with the Z.

Because most people stop with the Z.

But not me!!!

In the places I go, there are things that I see

That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.

I’m telling you this ‘cause you’re one of my friends.

My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”

From On Beyond Zebra! by Dr. Seuss (1955)

 

Themes like the arbitrary nature of language and the alphabet itself, the importance of creativity, the value of imagination, and the importance of continuing to look beyond what is known. Dr. Seuss is an incomparable genius of children’s literature, surreptitiously drawing the reader through several entertaining and thought-provoking elements.

When I read this book, I realized that like the narrator, my alphabet has expanded, through the study of language and travel. My thoughts are peppered with phrases and letter sounds that far exceed the 26 letter alphabet I was taught in grade school.

The Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt“. The boundaries of my language signify the boundaries of my world.

Learning new languages has provided an opportunity for me to expand my alphabet, and my understanding of the world around me.

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Nearly every street in Rome has at least one beautiful flower stand, brightening up even the dreariest winter days.

After I’d written the first part of this story, I knew the tale was incomplete. My shopping habits have changed dramatically since I first moved to Germany in 2010. I no longer rely solely on the grocery store for the bulk of my needs. This is becoming even more true the longer I am living in Italy. I realized that in my frustration, I forgot about a shopping adventure that I didn’t dread. In fact, I’ve found an event that I look forward to each week.

Part II: The Shops and Markets

In Europe, nearly every town, village, and city has at least one small traffic free zone incorporated into its design. The sizes and locations may vary, but their importance does not. It is here that people gather for concerts and festivals, or meet at cafes. It is here you find the weekly markets, and here that you find the butcher, the baker, the pharmacy, the wine & spirits store, book stores, boutiques – the list goes on. What you won’t find in most of these city centers are the one-stop shopping mega stores. You may find some variant in the outskirts, but either by zoning or design, the town centers remain a blissfully charming assortment of individual shops, restaurants and cafes.

By comparison, most towns in the US lack for a definitive town center. Sure there is a Main Street, but its very design encourages the use of automobile rather than a space for a shared communal experience.

My hometown has a beautiful main street. At various points in its history, the shops that line the main street have filled the changing needs in the community. As I grew up, the shops that filled local needs closed down, to be replaced by shops dedicated to the throngs of tourists that descend annually upon that small town. Many of us who made our homes there avoided the main street altogether, especially during the summer months. Even in the towns I lived in later, the city centers, if they existed at all, were uninspiring.

I was surprised then, upon my arrival in Germany by the amount of activity on any given day in the city center.  Here you’ll find the true soul of the city. It is a place to meet friends for a coffee, exchange the news of the day, and run your errands. Everything is a bit more personal, a bit less anonymous.

In many places in the US, the only show in town for groceries is the supermarket. Sure, there are a few bakeries, and because you can’t purchase anything stronger than beer in the grocery store there are liquor stores. In the summer, you’ll find farmer’s stands, and in many towns you’ll now find growing farmer’s markets. Occasionally you may still come across corner stores and smaller specialized stores. I’ve lived in many places, and because these unique stores were so few and far between, I remember them with fondness. In Georgia we found a butcher who provided us with the perfect cuts of meat for our grill. In Colorado, we found a small store that special ordered our meats for Christmas and offered an assortment of specialty items we couldn’t find anywhere else. In Kansas there was a farmer’s market, and in Northern New York the Amish farmer’s stands. All of these were lovely, but seemed to prove the exception and not the rule as far as shopping goes. Even with these additional places, the bulk of my grocery shopping was done at the supermarket.

Thankfully, these exceptions seem to be trending toward the mainstream. Even my quaint, charming hometown developed a robust farmer’s market years after I left the area. It is a trend I hope to see continue to grow. Shopping for beautiful, fresh produce at a farmer’s market should be a luxury that everyone can afford.

Owing to my previous experiences, it was difficult to adjust my thinking and shopping methods to incorporate the small shops and markets. Even though the bread was far superior, I visited the bakery only when I was in the area. I visited the butcher’s shop only when I wanted to buy fresh Weisswursts for a weekend breakfast. For all its irritations, the supermarket was simply more convenient. I could always find parking in the large parking lots (large for Germany anyway, but that’s another story). I could always find just about everything on my list. It was one stop and I was done. But I was not getting the full immersion experience.  I was not using the small local shops enough. But I was a regular at the farmer’s market.

Nearly every town in Germany has a farmer’s market at least once a week. Our first German hometown had two. The Tuesday market was the smaller of these, but still a good place to pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables. The Saturday market was an event, especially if you arrived early. The regular stands sold produce, eggs, bread, cheese, meat and cold cuts. Some weekends, a new vendor would peddle his wares. You never knew what else you might find there. Just about everyone at least passed through the farmer’s market. It was a jovial way to kick off the weekend. Occasionally a local group would perform, adding an even more festive air to the morning.

It was at the farmer’s market that I began to learn German, and our favorite vegetable seller would patiently endure my attempts at communication, often throwing in a few extra samples of something fresh at the end of the transaction. I grew to look forward to the weekly markets, and even travelled to other towns to check out their market days. I grew spoiled on the incredible regional produce, most of which was grown locally in the incredibly verdant area of Southern Baden Württemberg.

Our second German hometown held its farmer’s market on Thursdays. Initially, I was disappointed by this market for what I saw as a serious lack of vegetables. There was one small vegetable stand, but the assortment of produce was unsatisfactory.  A few trips to the market later and I didn’t even miss the larger vegetable stands, the weekly variety was simply incredible. Our Bavarian Farmer’s market had a truck that cooked rotisserie chickens and pig’s knuckles, a fish seller, a Greek food seller, a fresh egg and local honey vender, a cheese seller, a baker and a stand that sold horse meat sausages.

I arranged my schedule to include an early morning visit to the farmer’s market. I became a regular. First I’d pick up my half chickens from the rotisserie truck, and the scent of freshly roasted chicken would escape through the bag every now and again as I’d begin to make my circuit. The fish vendor knew which shrimp, salmon and salads I wanted before I arrived. The cheese vendor offered me advice on new and lovely cheeses to try. The rolls from the bread truck were fresh and home-baked. My last stop was always at the Greek food stand, where I would load up on olives, stuffed grape leaves, humus, beans, baked eggplant, and octopus salad, while discussing the week and the food with the very friendly gentlemen who owned the stand. Shortly before I left the area, they added a Paella and Spanish food truck. We’d put in an order for Paella in the morning and pick it up later that day.  I looked forward to meeting the vendors and discussing their products, and the family looked forward to our bountiful Thursday evening market dinners.

When I arrived in Rome, I was disappointed by the fact that there were no local farmer’s markets in my neighborhood. Of course, there is Campo di Fiori, and I’m sure that there are other markets hidden elsewhere within the city. Unlike my towns in Germany, any true city center was not within walking distance. But it didn’t take me long to discover the other treasures my Roman neighborhood nestled within its streets.

My first discovery was the salumeria. We discovered our regular salumeria on our initial exploratory trip to Rome, and we’ve stuck with it ever since.  The salumeria is part deli, part bakery, part corner store. When we first made the move to Rome, I was a daily shopper here, in part because I had no idea where the supermarket was. I look forward to my weekly stops at the Salumeria. I’ve been going long enough now that the staff recognizes me and anticipates some of my order. They always applaud my efforts at speaking to them in Italian, offering me assistance when I need it. They nearly always offer me samples to taste as I shop, and provide me with recommendations and cooking tips as needed.

Unfortunately, one cannot survive on the food provided by the salumeria alone. However, specialty shops abound in the smallest of Rome’s neighborhoods. I have found a butcher I visit on occasion, several Pasticeria’s, an enoteca, and most exciting of all, a newly opened vegetable seller.

 

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Now, allow me to take you on a typical outing – on a day that I don’t shop at the grocery store.

I have several stops to make today as I walk about the neighborhood. It’s a gorgeous winter day in Rome, cool but not chilly. My first stop is at the Salumeria, where I am greeted warmly by the gentlemen at the counter. They ask me about my holidays and listen to me patiently as I attempt to engage them in conversation. I pick up an assortment of cold cuts, olives, pane di olio, and of course pizza bianca. Today I decide to bring home some pasta fresca, a beautiful ravioli with sheep’s milk cheese and pepper. I ask for six. The gentleman at the counter asks if it’s for two people, then tells me I need eight, and proceeds to give me ten. One of the benefits of frequenting these small stores is that the people who work there know exactly what, and how much I need, and they are happy to offer suggestions. As I shop, I am given a sample of mortadella and a slice of fresh pizza bianca.

On my way out of the store, I run into an English-speaking Italian friend and stop and chat for a while. I am in no hurry today, although I have many stops to make, it is taking the time to embrace the interactions along the way that really makes this an enjoyable outing.

My next stop is at the phone store, where by some miracle I have timed it perfectly and one of the people behind the counter is actually free to help me – immediately. This never happens. I’m only there to charge my phone, I need to purchase minutes. I tell her my phone number, in very slow Italian. After she copies down what I say, she asks if she can verify it just to be sure. Then, I’m on my way to the next stop, the tabacheria.

The tabacheria is an interesting Italian store. You can purchase bus tickets, lottery tickets, as well as pay your bills. The tabacheria I am going to also has a bar, which in Italy is a place to buy a coffee. I am not here for the coffee. I need to pay my phone bill, which you can’t do at the phone store.  It’s a short wait behind someone buying lottery tickets and I’m off to my next stop.

When I reach the door to my next stop, the hairdresser, it’s locked. I’m at a loss, because the keys are hanging in the door and I’m not quite sure what the protocol is for opening a locked door when the keys are hanging on the outside. So I stand there for a minute and finally, someone lets me in. I schedule an appointment for a haircut, and I’m off again.

My next stop is a bit out of the ordinary, as I need to have a family portrait framed. There is a small frame shop along my route, and I stop in with my picture. The gentleman in the shop helps me pick out a frame and a mat, and we effectively overcome the language barrier with a lot of pointing. He tells me he’ll call when the frame is ready, which should be sometime next week.

My next stop is the local enoteca, and because all of my other errands have gone so smoothly, I allow myself a few moments to peruse the floor to ceiling displays of regional and international wines. I find a few new varieties to try and continue on my journey.

Most days in my neighborhood, you’ll find vendors peddling purses, socks, uniforms, cashmere and assorted items. Today I notice a vendor on the street corner selling decorative wares and I make a purchase for an upcoming birthday.

My final stop in this neighborhood is one of my favorites. The flower vendor. Each week, I stop and pick up a small bouquet of flowers for my house. I don’t even have a proper vase. I put the flowers in a glass pitcher in the living room. But the beautiful flower displays draw me in, and my conversations in a mixture of broken English and Italian keep me coming back. I’ve become a regular here too, when I’m a day late or a day earlier than usual, my flower seller wants to make certain that everything is still ok. I love this level of interaction, you really can’t help but feel valued in a place like this.

Because my errands were unusually efficient for a mornings outing in Rome, I will bypass the street home and head to one more shop. The newest shop on my round of errands is the vegetable seller. It’s only been open a few months, but it’s become one of my favorites. The owner, also not native to Rome, is very friendly and has lovely produce. It is another place where I am comfortable speaking my odd mixture of Italian and English, and for the most part he understands me.

Now with my bag full of beautiful fresh produce, and my basket bursting with other purchases, I am ready to turn for home. It’s not until I get home that I notice the time. I’ve been gone just over an hour, about the same amount of time it takes me to do my shopping at the supermarket. In that hour, I feel as though I have not only accomplished more, but integrated myself just a bit more fully into the local community. And that is where the value of the hour is truly measured.

 

 

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