Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I Will Walk 1000 Kilometers: Fitness Goal 2012

Confession time. I have gained six kilos in the last year. That's about 13 US pounds. UGH.

The stress of the move contributed largely to emotionally-fueled eating, a bit of over indulgence in medicinal wine, and very poor sleep patterns, which, all combined, have taken a heavy toll on my hips and my overall health.

One of the major side effects of the weight (and stress) has been the advancement of early arthritis, especially in my spine and feet. My extra lumbar vertebra (I have six instead of the usual 5) is inflamed and causing a great deal of pain. I've seen a half dozen doctors and been prescribed massive amounts of anti-inflammatory meds and been advised to go to physical therapy for strengthening my lower back. But obviously, the best solution would be to lose weight.

I know all about good nutrition. I could teach a class on it. Healthy foods have always been staples in my diet... I love fresh vegetables and fruit (baby spinach, avocado, tomato, apples, bananas). I eat lean protein of mostly poultry, fish, and nuts, with rare indulgences in red meat. I try to curb the carbs and eat almost no white bread or pasta, but I confess German Brötchen are too tempting (even though I stick with whole grain varieties). I very rarely consume processed/canned foods and watch my sodium levels.

My biggest weaknesses are WINE, CHEESE, and CHOCOLATE. Given my otherwise healthy diet, I find it grossly unfair that I can't freely enjoy these treats, when I have skinny friends who never think twice about what they eat. So. Unfair.

Nonetheless, a couple months ago I committed to limiting even these and would say I generally have the "diet" part of healthy living under control. So the deficient part of the equation is exercise. It's hard to get motivated to exercise when you're in pain and seriously lacking sleep. But this is what I must do. My body is conditioned for and requires it. I grew up as a dancer, training for many hours a day through my youth. Just a few years ago I was running regularly. I used to be extremely fit, strong, and flexible. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

So in February I downloaded a new iPhone app (runtastic) to help me track my walking pace and distance. Then, in mid-March, I decided I needed to do more than just track my exercise, I needed specific goals. I ran some numbers, employed a little math and logic, and determined that it was entirely realistic to walk 1000 kilometers in a year. This is only 20 km per week, for 50 weeks - it even allows the standard American 2 weeks of vacation :) More precisely, I only need to walk about 5 km 4 times per week, or 4 km 5 times per week. You get it - not terribly much.

Still, I managed to get behind pretty early on. March rained non-stop. April I was traveling for 2 weeks. So come May, a reality check meant I needed to "haul butt" or give up.

I. Do. NOT. Give. Up.

In the last two weeks I logged over 80 km to get myself back on track for my goal. And here I am. Week 15. As of this morning, over 300 km trekked at a steadily increasing pace, so that I now frequently jog more of my route than walk it. I'm on track now for getting to 1000 km!

Still, the scale has not budged since I began this regimen :( I remain well over a healthy weight. Not sure what to do next. I should add weight training, but find that very VERY hard to do on my own. I know I am getting stronger and generally feeling better. The joint pain is kept mostly in check with anti-inflammatory meds and movement. But I sure would like to fit comfortably into my summer frocks and feel confident in a swimsuit. Joining a gym would be fabulous, but out of budget. So, hard as it is, I think I need to set some goals for sit ups, squats, and hand weights. Last ditch efforts will be further limiting my dearly loved wine and cheese.

Anyone want to set some goals with me and join me in my personal fitness challenge?

At least, wish me luck :)
And enjoy some pics of the beautiful Ruhr region that I get to explore as I walk 1000 kilometers this year.
I start my route on beautiful wooded trails

Passing babbling brooks and peaceful ponds

And continue along the lovely Ruhr River

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bitten: I've been MeMe'd Now, too

Last week I got an interesting note from a fellow expat blogger, Diana, at Raising Expats. She had tagged me in a meme blog and challenged me to carry it on. Since I'm fairly new to the blogging world, I was unaware of memes passing through the community. If you're also a little late to the game, a meme is "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture" and here's a meme primer for you.

Diana, an American raising two young children in Germany, replied to a series of questions sent to her, and then penned her own for me and ten other lucky bloggers to oust ourselves with, whilst passing the baton to yet another set of bloggers. It's blogging chain mail. But no one promised me 10 years of luck if I participated, nor threatened me with gross bodily harm if I broke the chain. And since I'm feeling game today, I'll play along.

First, here are THE RULES as shared with me:
  1. You MUST post the rules.
  2. Answer the questions the tagger sent for you in the post, and then create 11 new questions to ask the people you've tagged.
  3. Tag 11 bloggers, however, you can break the rules and tag fewer people if you want. Make sure you hyperlink their names/blogs.
  4. Let them know you've tagged them!
  5. Have fun!

Now, here are Diana's questions for me, along with my ADMISSIONS and CONFESSIONS :)

1. What is the craziest thing you've ever done that you will admit to online?
I jumped out of an airplane! A few years ago I went parachuting and it was the most amazing, exhilarating experience!

2. Are there any choices you would have made differently knowing what you know now?
I’d like to think not…everything in life is a lesson, good, bad, funny, sad....Learn from the past, but keep your feet and smile forward.

3. What is your earliest childhood memory?
My grandfather entertaining me and my brothers with magic tricks, like pulling a quarter out of my ear. Gramps died when I was 16, during my exchange year. Still miss him.

4. Was there one event in your life that changed everything?
Definitely: Winning the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholarship to Germany and heading off to a host family and school in a country where I did not speak a single word of the language was a life-changer in every way.

5. Have you ever had your heart broken?
Very much so.

6. Ten years ago, did you think you would be doing what you are doing today?
Not sure any of us can really imagine what we’ll be doing in 10 years, but living in Germany was not off the radar.

7. Follow up on Q6, what did you think you would be doing 10 year ago?
Ten years ago I was living in Maryland, pregnant with my fourth child, and on a brief hiatus from my career. I must have suspected in 10 years I’d still be in the US, have rebuilt my professional life and been a pretty “normal” working mother-of-four juggling kids’ sports and laundry. And that is exactly where I was one year ago, before the sudden relocation to Europe! 

8. Where do you want to be in 10 years from now?
I definitely want to be out working again, with lots of opportunities to travel! All four of my kids will be adults and I’ll have the freedom to spread my wings. Joining the Peace Corps is also not out of the question.

9. Have you been to your High School reunion?
No. I considered going to my 20th reunion, but the timing for the trip to NY didn’t work out.

10. How many countries have you lived in?
Just lived in two: the USA and Germany. Have visited a handful of others.

11. What unknown musician would you recommend?
I wouldn’t call them “unknown” but perhaps lesser-known. I’m a huge fan of the recently disbanded group “Fools and Horses” but their leader is still doing solo music and I strongly recommend you check him out: Matt Hutchison
    Next, are my QUESTIONS FOR YOU, now in the hot seat:

    1. How would you describe yourself with exactly six words?

    2. What’s a great book you can recommend for my next vacation read?

    3. What are the top two countries you want to see that you’ve not yet visited?

    4. Do you collect anything (what)? If not, is there something you’ve thought about collecting?

    5. If you could name a lipstick color, what would it be?

    6. What outdoor activity do you most enjoy?

    7. Which non-profit organization do you (or would you like to) passionately support?

    8. Which household chore do you most loath?

    9. What’s the earliest “appropriate” time of day to have a glass of wine?

    10. If you could have one of the following personal service providers come to your home free for a year, which would you most want to have?
    a)      house-cleaner
    b)      a meal planner/cook
    c)       a personal trainer/fitness instructor
    d)      a masseuse
    e)      a nanny
    11. What’s the oddest thing anyone ever asked you?

    Finally, the awesome BLOGGERS I'm tagging in this game are:
    Check out their pages, because they are all amazing, interesting women from across the globe! Reading their blogs is like taking a trip around the world right from your living room (Many of them can be found on the Blogger Map).

    1. Land of Bean
    2. Emma's Expat Adventures
    3. Hip As I Wanna Be
    4. Somewhere between facebook and flickr sits fiona
    5. KettwigeFrau
    6. Blah-Blob-Blog
    7. das Blog
    8. Latte Love
    9. Sabje's Blog
    10. Life in Lajes
    11. Decoy Betty

    So, thanks for playing along. Later this week, back to our regularly scheduled programming :) Have a beautiful day!

    Sunday, May 20, 2012

    Destination: Bruges, Belgium

    Bruges: Venice of the North
    For Ascension (Christi Himmelfahrt) we had a four-day holiday weekend and took advantage of the extra time to explore the region. On this occasion, we headed for Bruges, Belgium. This UNESCO World-Heritage Site has been on my wish list of places to visit since we moved to Germany. But I must confess, I had no idea prior to booking our trip, that the day we planned to arrive is largely regarded as the most beautiful day of the year to visit the medieval city! It was incredible good fortune that we were there for Ascension Thursday, the day the city holds its 700-year old annual Procession of the Holy Blood, a tradition also protected by UNESCO and said to have begun in 1291.

    Each year, as many as 2,000 people and hundreds of animals (including camels and herds of sheep), participate in this parade, during which scenes from the Old and New Testament are acted out. In the second part of the procession, the precious relic of the Blood of Jesus (brought to Bruges by Derrick of Alsace, Count of Flanders after the second crusade in 1150) is reverently carried through the streets by prelates in a golden shrine and worshiped through the procession by members of the noble brotherhood of the Holy Blood.  Having grown up in a Catholic school, and being familiar with all of the Bible stories depicted during the procession, I was especially in awe of this spectacular event. But I think even most non-Christians would admit it is an amazing production.

    Belfort: 13th Century Carillon
    The procession begins around 2:30 in the afternoon and winds its way through the city streets for several hours, with music, dancing, elaborate costumes and floats, and magnificent religious artifacts. We stood watching from one place for over two hours and witnessed most, but not all of the procession pass by uninterrupted during this time. I have never seen such a spectacular display and am anxious to return another year, better prepared to rent front row seats in one of the city squares, in order to have an optimal view of the entire parade and all the performances throughout it. This year, my vantage point did not allow me to capture very good photos, but there are plenty to be found online elsewhere.

    A 575 year old home
    Other Attractions
    Bruges, known also as a "Venice of the North" for its 14km of canals, is certainly worth visiting any other day of the year, as well. In fact, the day after the parade, with the crowds thinned out a bit, we were able to view more of the historic architecture, tour the magnificent churches, enjoy a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride around the city, and sample some of the famous Belgium waffles and chocolates. Yumm!!! I also tasted traditional Flemish beef stew and a baked dish made of endives wrapped in ham and cheese (both of which I loved!).

    It was amazing to see the houses originally built for poor tradesmen, now beautifully preserved as homes for the wealthy - willing (so I was told my our carriage driver) to pay as much as 200,000 Euros for a 25 square meter home! I would have loved a peek inside. I can't imagine what life must have been like in these homes over 500 years ago!
    Michelangelo's Madonna and Child

    In the Church of Our Lady, you will find one of the few works of  Michelangelo outside of Italy: a beautiful sculpture of Madonna and Child: Madonna of Bruges. And the Basilica of the Holy Blood is a magnificent Gothic-style church with a Romanesque chapel beneath it.

    There is also a medieval hospital museum, art museums, a diamond museum and a brewery tour that we did not get to on this visit and which I understand are great attractions. Good enough reason for me to plan another visit soon! Oh, and I must pick up more of the delicious chocolates I brought back from Stephan Dumon!

    Hotel Haeneveld
    I understand now why finding a room in the city this week was so difficult, but as it turned out, we were very lucky to land upon the quaint little Haeneveld Hotel and Restaurant located in Jabbeke, 10 km outside Bruges. Here we booked the last three available rooms for our family of eight (the grandparents were traveling with my husband and me, and our four kids). I had to write to the proprietor ahead of our visit to ensure that we could have two extra beds put into one of the three double rooms we reserved. (For my American readers, most European hotel rooms only accommodate two people and rarely have space for extra beds). The proprietor wrote back promptly, happy to accommodate the request. We corresponded by writing in English and when we arrived, she also spoke perfect German - as did everyone we encountered in Belgium (Dutch is the official language of Flanders, but everyone seemed fluent in English and German and almost all restaurant menus were in at least 4 languages).

    When we arrived at Haeneveld, the lobby and restaurant were beautifully lit with many candles. Dishes of chocolates awaited us on the counter and in our rooms (and gummy bears, too :) ). The hotel offers eight guest rooms above the restaurant/banquet facilities of this renovated farm. A generous breakfast buffet is included. All our rooms had amenities more typical of a larger chain hotel than a country bed and breakfast: stocked mini-fridges, complimentary water, bath robes, hair dryers, and little touches like nail files and sewing kits. There was even a shoe polish machine in the lobby area and a table of books and magazines to borrow! The furniture was dated, but the rooms were very clean and the service was above and beyond!

    When we went down for breakfast, we found the owner had brought in and set one of the larger round banquet tables to seat all of our family together. She offered us each tea or coffee, and continued to refill our cups throughout our leisurely meal. She also brought warm milk and hot coco for the kids. She asked us about our visit, where we wanted to go for the day, and offered suggestions for attractions and parking. When we expressed interest in also visiting the beach after dinner, she suggested the best spot for viewing the sunset. And indeed, we tacked on a lovely visit to De Haan - a lovely location on the North Sea about 10 km from the hotel. Even if rooms were available directly in Bruge, I would chose to stay here again. The location between the historic city and the beach is convenient and we felt perfectly at home!

    My entire impression of the trip to Belgium is very positive. Everywhere we went in and around Bruges, the people were very friendly and helpful, despite being overwhelmed with tourists. At no point did any service personnel appear irritated or impatient with us - on the contrary, they seemed to enjoy showing off their city and were happy to have us as their guests. This might seem like an obvious attitude for a city that thrives from tourism, but in my experience, there are plenty of places that seem to resent their tourist-based economy rather than embrace it.

    Bruges, thank you for your wonderful hospitality - I look forward to visiting again soon!

    Tuesday, May 15, 2012

    Birthday Brunch with Girlfriends: Menu

    This week I had another wonderful opportunity to break out the Red You Are Special Plate. One of my gal pals in the local expat community had a birthday on Monday. She's had a really rough go of it lately and had been feeling very down. Apparently, she's not celebrated her birthday for years and didn't have any particular plans for it this year, either. When one of our mutual friends started to organize a breakfast gathering for her (see KettwigeFrau), I jumped on the chance for my own "kitchen therapy" and asked everyone to meet at my place for a birthday brunch. Helping my friend feel special, loved, and very worth celebrating gave me a sense of purpose. Isn't that always true about giving? We get so much joy out of it ourselves. Anyway, I think the party was a success for us all: my friend was very touched as we all ate, drank, talked, and laughed for hours.

    While I do love the traditional German Brötchen breakfasts we cherish here on the weekends (see Weekend Reprieve), for this special occasion with fellow expats, I wanted to break out some old favorite recipes I would make for holiday mornings back in the States.

    Thus, our Menu featured:
    • Smoked Salmon Pizza
    • Baked Apple-Stuffed French Toast
    • Ham & Mushroom Egg Casserole
    • Chocolate Torte with Fresh Strawberries
    • Chocolate Mouse with Slivered Almonds
    • Brötchen & Coissants with a variety of jams, cheeses, honey and Nutella
    • Fresh Fruit Platter
    • Coffee, Tea, and Mimosas (Bubbly with Orange Juice)

    I've been asked to share the Salmon recipe, so here it is as best as I can try to capture it. My problem is I cook by "feel" based on my mood and available ingredients as much as what is designated in the "recipe," which is only ever a guideline in my mind, anyway. So play with it and make it your own!

    Smoked Salmon Pizza
    Crust: Prepare a pizza crust ahead of time. You can make one from scratch, or use a box mix or prepared refrigerator-dough. Back in the States, I could keep it really simply with Boboli prepared crusts. Whatever crust you use, brush it with olive oil, season it with a little Italian seasoning (I used Krauter Salz this week and fresh Rosemary from my Garden), and some pressed garlic if you like, and bake it according to directions. You may do this the day before, as the crust needs to cool anyway and you will serve it cold.
    Smoked Salmon Pizza

    Cheese: I try to start with a package of about 6oz or 150gr  Philadelphia-brand flavored cream cheese. In the US it was Chive & Onion, here in Germany it is called "Kräuter."  I add about a teaspoon of prepared horseradish, a half teaspoon of Worstershire sauce and a few drops of lemon juice and stir it well. This, too, can be done a day ahead.

    Salmon and Toppings: I buy a nice package of thinly sliced smoked Salmon. I've tried many varieties and have never been disappointed, so get what you like. You'll want about 8oz for a 12" pizza. I know these are American measures, but you'll figure it out - everything is approximate, anyway :)

    For added color and flavor, I usually toss on some finely-sliced rings of sweet yellow or red onion and a smattering of capers. In most cases, if I have the time, I prefer to caramelize the onions, as I did this week. And if tomatoes are in season and looking good, a few slices of Roma are wonderful, as well - I omitted those this time.  When I have fresh dill, I like to throw that on, as well. Be creative :)

    Assemble the pizza shortly before serving. Just pull out the prepared crust, spread the cheese mixture on it, and then layer the smoked salmon and other toppings. Keep this cold until you serve it.


    Friday, May 11, 2012

    Kitchens, closets, and light fixtures: German housing deficits

    My Ikea Kitchen in About 100 Boxes
    As if being homeless through August wasn't enough, I spent the first several weeks "camping" in my new home in Germany. Even today, I still feel woefully under-equipped. You see, the lovely house I'm renting in Germany didn't come with some of the most basic provisions of modern-day housing. No kitchen. No closets. No light fixtures.

    Where to Hang the Clothes?
    We knew that houses in Germany would not have the convenient built-in (and often walk-in) closets we were spoiled with in the US. We are actually very lucky to have a small closet in one of the bedrooms. But for the most part, the storage of clothing in German bedrooms requires the purchase of hanging wardrobes ("Kleiderschränke"). We've acquired a couple moderate sized ones from Ikea for the kids' rooms, but the larger size and solid-wood style I want for my own room is going to require more of a budget than I have saved so far. Hence, most of my clothes are stuffed into dressers or in boxes and bins along the wall and under the bed. I feel a bit like I'm still living out of a suitcase.

    Let There Be Light!
    No Light Fixtures
    It's a good thing that I'm a candle addict and typically have a dozen or so lit most evenings, anyway. Because one of the surprises here was that none of the rooms had lights! Apparently, light fixtures are considered a matter of personal taste, and therefore treated like any other furnishing. The previous tenants had unmounted, unscrewed, and otherwise removed every light fixture from every ceiling in the house - and this is considered perfectly normal and ok. Since we came from the United States, we did not bring any lamps with us, because 1) light fixtures are deemed built-in parts of the real-estate and required to stay installed in the house; and 2) the electrical system is completely different, so our lights would not have been any use to us in Europe anyway.

    So far, we've purchased a few inexpensive standing floor and table-top lamps (thanks, again, Ikea). But we have yet to decide on most of the ceiling lamps we'd like. Thus, if you try the light switch in any given room, it probably won't work, and if you look up, you'll only see dangling wires.

    Everything, *Including* the Kitchen Sink?!
    The kitchen was an empty room, with water hook-up and some wall tiles
    Ever hear the term "they took everything except the kitchen sink?" Yeah, well, here, they took that, too! And this is not some case of post-foreclosure looting. This is normal for Germans. Like light-fixtures, kitchens are entirely a matter of personal taste. So in  most houses and apartments, they move with the tenants. Cabinets, counters, appliances, and sink! Here is what our kitchen looked like when we first moved in, and for about seven weeks as we "camped out" in it....

    Folding tables, a camp stove & cooler for the interim
    Off we went to our favorite economical home furnishing warehouse (Ikea, again) to select, plan, and order our new kitchen. Friends warned us in advance to make sure we paid for the assembly and installation service - and this was probably the best advice I've ever gotten in my life. The kitchen arrived in about a hundred boxes with a thousand small parts. It took a team of two professional kitchen builders three days to put together, especially since the 100-year old house we are renting doesn't have a single straight wall or square corner, and the counters needed to be custom cut around a fireplace chimney that juts into the room at an odd angle.

    Our first appliance was a small combi oven

    However, being addicted to food even more than I am to candles, and having a hoard of hungry kids unwilling to fast for 40 days.... completing the kitchen was my first priority. And I have to say, I am very pleased with the results.

    To make us all feel a little more at "home," I first painted over the bright pink/red walls with the same warm green we had in our last house. Then I chose cabinets, counters, and a ceramic sink that would work with the existing white wall tiles and terracotta floor tiles, and go with the house's "country villa" charm.

    Here are the "After" pics...

    Lest We Lose Sight of What Really Matters...
    I confess, I feel a bit snobby, complaining about not having closets and light fixtures, never mind a beautiful kitchen, when millions of people around the world live in poverty without clean running water or electricity. So this little exercise in learning to live with a bit less than I used to have has been a good reminder that I am blessed beyond measure. It's been good for me and my kids to appreciate the bounty of gifts we do have and remember that what matters most, is that we have each other.

    Have a wonderful day!

    Sunday, May 6, 2012

    Weekend Mornings: Sweet Reprieve

    Breakfast on the patio when the sun shines
    When we lived in the US, weekends with four active athletes were often busier than the school/work week. My kids played different sports every season. Lacrosse, field hockey, soccer, swim, basketball, and cheer leading seemed to rule our weekend schedules, depending on the time of year. Usually my husband and I had to split up and work out carpooling to make sure that everyone got where they needed to be. During the summers, swim meets for all the kids started around 6am every Saturday and ran well past noon. In recent years, one daughter played with a competitive lacrosse club that required us to be out of town overnight at 2- and 3-day tournaments in June and July. Another daughter trained with the USA field hockey association in the spring and with a club in the Baltimore area during the winter, so likewise was frequently traveling out of town for long weekends of sports. Both boys played soccer in the fall and spring and all the kids played winter basketball. We were always on the run!

    So one of the things I love about our new life is that weekends are free! Most weekends, we have NOTHING planned. And we've gotten into a wonderful routine of leisurely family breakfasts every Saturday and Sunday morning. My 13-year old son, who does most of the complaining about life in Germany, gets up voluntarily each weekend morning and rides his bike to the local bakery to buy the breakfast rolls (Brötchen). Sometimes, he even insists on using his own pocket money to treat the family! When he gets home, the table is set with a variety of fruit jams, cheeses, meats, and, of course, Nutella. Tea and Coffee are cooked, and we all sit down, often with candles and flowers, and enjoy loud conversation, sibling teasing, and yummy food.

    One of the first times we sat down for breakfast like this, we assumed the older teenage girls wanted to sleep in, and did not wake them when the table was ready. There was hell to pay for that when they got up and found us sitting around breakfast without them. I was quickly informed that even my not-at-all-a morning-person 15-year old daughter did not want to miss out on eating with the family. Wow. On weekends she tries really hard to put her typical morning grouchiness away and to be pleasant at breakfast. It's been a wonderful treat to have this time together and to know that the kids all want to be part of it. It's a perfect way to de-stress from our challenging weeks.

    The kids still play sports, and today my oldest had a lacrosse tournament in Frankfurt (2 hours away), but she didn't need to leave until 10:30 - a perfectly decent time to get moving on a Sunday. Both girls play lacrosse, one son runs track, and another plays soccer. But sports here are just not as intense as they were in the US. Instead of training five days a week (as they did in high school), they usually only train twice a week and games or races are not every week. There are, of course, athletes in Germany who train much more frequently, but that just doesn't seem to be the norm for young athletes as much as it was in the US.

    After our casual breakfasts, the day is often still open for family activities, like walking, biking, and kayaking. If it's a Sunday, you can forget shopping, since the stores are all closed. So we tend to relax a lot more. We get household chores done, then go outside when the weather allows, or read books or play games inside.  It's a completely different pace of life here and one of the things I really appreciate about Germany. As the weather improves over the next few months, I'm looking forward to weekend excursions to Belgium and the Netherlands, which are both a short drive away. And I'm already scanning the local festival calendar for other great things we can do in North Rhine Westphalia during the weekends in spring and summer. After Breakfast :)

    Friday, May 4, 2012

    Expat Resources: Meeting New People

    When you first arrive in a new country, it can be very lonely. Especially if you are the "trailing spouse" and not working outside the home. For the first few weeks, I threw myself into housework. Completely unaccustomed to not having a job and a dozen volunteer commitments, I wasn't sure how to occupy myself once I got the kids out the door for school. I walked a lot, exploring my new community by foot. I planned meals, cleaned house, and read books. Sounds like the relaxing life of luxury I dreamed of when I had a career and a thousand other things to do. But it wasn't. I was lonely and lacked any sort of adult conversation or intellectual stimulation. And I hate housework :)

    I needed to find a way to meet people. Thankfully, a friend back in the States suggested I try online resources and actually sent me a link for a local "Meetup Group." I'd never heard of Meetup. And I'd only thought of online resources as a place for singles to look for dates. It never occurred to me, as a Do-It-Yourself-Expat, that I could tap into rich communities of people with similar interests or experiences in my new city. Duh.

    So last November, I attended my first "Native English Speaker Quiz & Martini Night" at a great little bar in Essen-Kettwig. It was an interesting experience. I'm not fond of trivia quizzes, usually because I'm no good at them, but this one was actually quite fun and even I managed to know many of the answers. Plus, they had Martini's - which I love ;) But in terms of meeting people, the night was a bit of a let down. Most of the evening I ended up chatting with those who happened to be sitting closest to me at the bar: a couple business men who were in town during the week, but commuted home to England & Scotland on the weekends. We didn't have much in common, and while the conversation was pleasant enough, these weren't people I'd be making friends with. But during the quiz part of the evening, I teamed up with the bar owner, an American woman named Leslie who's been in Germany for at least a dozen years. She was a lot of fun, and I spent some time talking to her after the quiz. Although she's single and has no kids, she's close in age to me and we got on well. I was intrigued by her and admired how successfully she had built a good life in a new country, being perfectly at home in both languages and cultures.

    When it came time for the December Quiz & Martini Night, I had mixed feelings about attending. I doubted that was a good venue for meeting people I had anything in common with aside from speaking English. And I'd never fancied myself the type of person who needed to cling to their home culture. I was more interested in meeting German friends. The only reason I went was to get out of the house and hang out again with Leslie a bit. And I'm really glad I gave it a second try!

    At the next meeting, I found myself standing at a high-top with several women from the US and Britain. This turned out to be just the right crowd! The women I met that night invited me to join them for breakfast the next morning as well. Finally, I had found a wonderful group of women I had a lot in common with. Several of them, like me, were in bi-cultural marriages and had children in the German school system (although they had brought their children over at much younger ages and/or their kids were born here).  So while they all spoke English, they weren't, as I'd feared, "clinging to their home culture." Fully immersed in our host country, these women are able to speak the local language, and appreciate diverse perspectives and experiences. They understand what I'm going through and have not only been a shoulder to cry on in tough times, they've also been a well-spring of advice and referrals. And most importantly, they've made me laugh again - the most basic survival skill an expat needs!

    From the original core group of  American and British women, I've met a number of others from various countries who are in similar circumstances, and now have a fantastic network of fun and interesting friends. Our families have gotten together for holidays and celebrations, with spouses and kids all getting along as well. One of my daughters gets third-language lessons from a French friend I met - a woman with four of her own multi-cultural children. And my daughters have landed babysitting jobs with kids who also speak English at home. It's been such a blessing for us all!

    I've since learned of other expat and international groups and attended social events with InterNations and the Düsseldorf American Women's Club.

    Last night, at an InterNations gathering in Essen, I met a really interesting woman from Spain, married to a German, with two adolescent boys, who has moved with her family through several countries. We exchanged emails and I'm looking forward to getting to know her better, as well.

    I've discovered English-speaking book clubs, breakfast clubs, yoga clubs - you name it - for almost any interest or activity, there are groups meeting in and around the region, where open-minded, fun-loving people can make friends. I'm lucky to be living in a densely-populated metropolitan area, so these groups are already well-established here. If you live in a place that doesn't have international groups, then consider starting your own Meetup. And, if you try one or two events, and don't find friends, keep trying - because new people come each month and you may not have had a chance to talk to the right people the first time or two.

    Here are some online resources for Expats. Please, if you have others to add, I'd love your comments!
    Success as an expat depends largely on making friends and building a good support network. To all my international expat friends THANK YOU - you are the flowers in the garden of my life!

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Not Your Average Expat: Do-It-Yourself

    As I negotiate my family's transition to a new country, I spend a lot of time talking to other expats here in Germany and reading blogs from expats around the world (especially seasoned "expert expats"). I've garnered a good bit of support this way, and know that I am not alone in many challenges I face or the way I often feel. But I've also learned I'm not the average expat, and it has me at a bit of a disadvantage. Worse, it has my kids at a disadvantage. One of the key things that make us different from a great many expats, is that we did not come here on a corporate contract. We're on the do-it-yourself plan.

    We came back to Germany so my husband could return to his roots and be close to his aging parents and a handicapped brother, all of whom will need our support in the foreseeable future. It is something we knew we'd need to do one day, and initially thought we'd do right out of grad school. But circumstances, including my mother's unsuccessful cancer battle during the last year of my doctoral program, led us to stay in the United States longer than planned. We built a good life there for our kids and figured the move back to Europe could wait.  But about six years ago, my husband really started to feel like it was time to get back to his family, and we wanted to try to do it before the kids got to high school.

    So my husband starting searching for overseas work and also requested a move with his employer, who has an office location in Germany. He was unable to find a new job, but after lengthy discussions, his boss approved a transfer of his current job, but needed to get it through Human Resources. It took HR several years to approve the request and figure out how to transfer his job to their European office. But that was all they would agree to do - to allow him to work in Germany while maintaining the position he had. From their perspective, this was an optional move and they were being gracious to allow us to relocate - at our expense. This meant that we would get no support or assistance from them.

    Doing it ourselves, it seems we've made every mistake in the book. As mentioned in an earlier post, we failed to understand the housing market, so we lost a lot of time and money trying to find a place to live, and ultimately had to exceed our budget to get into any place at all. But we also failed to understand the myriad paperwork, from licensing our vehicle, to getting my German drivers' license, and most importantly, enrolling the kids in school and getting them the help they need.

    If we had been on a standard corporate contract, much of this would have been anticipated for us, explained, and often, paid for. Other expats I've met were given generous moving budgets that covered fees on the sale of their real estate, the international shipping, airfare, temporary housing until a permanent place was found, meal per diems, real estate agent fees, furnishings, various licensing fees, even health club costs and household help (cooks & maids!). But best of all, many expats get international school tuition covered for the children.

    I can't imagine how much easier my life would be with even a fraction of this support. Instead, as do-it-yourself-expats with four children, we spent every penny we had on the cost of the moving company and all of the setting-up-house expenses once we got here. Then we ended up over budget on the rental we finally found, and now are also spending hundreds of Euros a week on various tutors for the children. There's certainly no health club or maid. There's not even an electric clothes dryer.

    But I can live without most of those trimmings and I even think it is good for us to learn to live with fewer luxuries. What I most regret not having is the funds to cover international school. Watching my kids struggle through the local schools, as teenagers, has been incredibly painful. With only basic language skills, the older ones are unable to keep up in all of their subjects. They are frustrated and, at times, quite depressed. I've spent today online looking for summer language immersion camps and bi-lingual counselors (in recent weeks I was online looking for pediatricians, ophthalmologists, dentists and orthodontists). I need to build their support system here, without much of my own support system. I'm fumbling along in the dark, and as I read other expat blogs looking for guidance, it seems most had substantial corporate support. Anyone who didn't have a corporate contract was smart enough to not try bringing teens with them.

    Well, we're here now and we'll make the best of it. If you have resources or tips to share, I welcome your comments. And one day, I am sure this experience will make my kids much stronger, more flexible, confident, and interesting people, capable of taking on the world! We Can Do It!