Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ich bin kein jelly donut.

I always liked the theory that Fasching (in Germany, although within Germany there are many other variations on the name), Carneval (more generally known internationally) and Mardi Gras (what we Americans know of the holiday from the celebration in New Orleans) was a pagan tradition carried over into Christianity. It does look like it could be, with all the animal, devil and witch masks we see in the parades. And as it (or rather, the high point and grand finale) takes place sometime in February - actually the week before Lent, so roughly 40 days before Easter - it could logically be a time when ancient people donned masks and lit fires to chase away the winter. Like Halloween, where people dressed as ghosts and monsters so that they wouldn't be recognized as one of the living by the evil spirits roaming the world on the night before All Hallows' Day.

But apparently this theory is no longer the standard. It's really just a Catholic tradition of celebrating before the long 40 days of fasting. There are loads of fascinating aspects of this holiday - particularly the etymology is fantastic, although probably only to a linguist, so I'll spare you that - but this blog post is not a history lesson. I wanted to tell you about enjoying the holiday as a foreigner.

Last Sunday we went to the parade here in Kornwestheim. Now, Kornwestheim is no Dusseldorf or Cologne; really it's a small town. Yet there were more than 40 clubs, bands or other performers involved. It was quite a show. Chloé loved it (except when there was suddenly a giant animal mask in front of her face - then she seemed to be unsure whether to smile or scream) and we got loads of candy (for her, of course!). Gaetan got some red and black ink smudged on his face by a couple of cheeky witches. Just like the rest of the [German] inhabitants of Kornwestheim, we called "Narro!" after their "Narri!" They threw candy at us. They admired our beautiful little girl. We sat back and enjoyed being a part of the German culture.

Another fun event in Stuttgart is the Cannstatter Wasen or Frühlingsfest (basically the same event in the fall or in the spring [Frühling = spring]). This is a giant carnival - with beer tents. The carnival part is pretty straightforward and you can easily imagine the rides that spin and spin and spin, the throw-a-ball-win-a-stuffed-animal stands and German versions of various fast food - sausages and more sausages and heavy noodles with sauerkraut). The beer tents, though, are a world unto themselves. Almost the only thing to drink is the Maß (1 liter of beer in a very sturdy, thick glass), brought to your table in the hands of strong men and women. Just getting the glass to your mouth is exercise for your biceps. After several sets of this bicep training, you're ready to take the next step: onto the bench. There you sway back and forth, arm in arm with your neighbor (whether you know him or not), to semi-folk/rock remix music - often live. Now I realize that my students while I was teaching English claimed that they NEVER did this, but I'm not afraid to admit that I had a great time! Okay, it's probably not too funny without the beer, and getting drunk and dancing on tables isn't something you do for a huge part of your life, but again, it's a social thing. It brings people together.

I guess that's my point. Get people together. Happy. Sad. Celebrating. Helping. I seem to be the quintessential American; I never joined groups, I never asked for help, I come from a small family with almost no contact to its extended part. I've never been a part of things, and I always assumed this was American, although of course not all Americans are like this. Still, in another context, when you ask an American about, for example, "socialism" they become hostile and claim that government control is BAD but I think really they don't want to help others - and for the most part, don't expect to be helped. Maybe the geographic isolation of America has rubbed off on the individuals who inhabit it and they've become human islands without a boat to take them across to the other shore. Finally, this "American culture" is spreading throughout the world, and I don't know if I can say this will be a positive development.

In the end I'm saying that a huge benefit of being an expatriate is not only to see and learn how other people live - but to live with them! It's not automatic, though; you have to open yourself up to the differences and join the parades and sing the songs and drink the beer. When in Berlin, do as the Berliners do. I'm no Berliner, but I'm not just an American anymore, either. And I like it that way.

The bad example

Here in Germany you find a sign at intersections with stop lights:

Be a good example! Don't walk on red!

Every time I see this I want to look left, right, left and cross to the little red man.

But the Germans are serious about this. Especially older people will stop you (when you get to the other side, of course) and tell you how that's not right and we have to be good role models for children. I just smile and keep walking. I'm not here to ruin their day, I'm just living my life.

Are they wrong, though? Certainly not. It's a great idea to be a good role model for children. If we could know that everyone would only walk when the pedestrian light was green, we wouldn't have to worry about our children crossing against the light. They would consistently see how the others do it, and if they didn't, there would be someone there to remind them.

In Germany it might work. I'm starting to wonder if Ordnung is in their genes - but it's certainly a part of life (nature vs. nurture? a little of both probably) and they definitely feel the need to conform to this practice. But still there's always someone who's flouting the rule, a rebellious teenager, someone in a hurry, me. It's just not something we can control.

And outside of Germany, forget it. Usually I think of the other extreme: Cairo, where crosswalks are apparently just decoration and the cars, drivers and pedestrians exist in some indefinable symbiosis. But all along the spectrum, there's just no guarantee that people will follow the rules. In the end they do what they want. (Wow. I think I could really take this somewhere, but in this post I'm just talking about crossing the street.)

So back to the role model. My kid's role model is me. It's my job to show her not to cross against the light. Just me. Not a stranger on the street. Honestly I don't want to leave something that important to just anyone.

And as for the other kids, they need to learn that not everyone follows the rules - and that they need to follow the rules of their parents. So I'm the bad example (when I'm not being a good example for Chloé :-)).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Blasted by the past

It's still happening. Facebook. Those names that haunt. The past haunts us.

Am I a coward for not going there? I don't think so. I like the idea of looking back and smiling. But if I need a smile, I can find one here, in the present.

Yeah, there were great things. But life has only gotten better, bigger, broader since then. I've discovered so much - and incorporated those discoveries into my life. So I can look back and smile, knowingly.

But go there? The question is: go where?? There's nothing there. Stephen King drew us an eerie picture of the past in "The Langoliers": it's a grey, inert place lifelessly waiting for the sharp-toothed pac-men to come and eat it up. And if you're there when they come, they'll eat you, too.

Traditionally spirits are the rope that hangs us from our painful memories and exorcism is the only path to freedom. But can ghosts be helpful? Can talking to ghosts of high schools past be the exorcism we need to lay that putrid past to rest and move into the future? Or are the ghosts just teasing us, manipulating us into believing that holding on is the only way to keep from getting lost?

I say that we have control and the ghosts only have the power we give them. We just have to be aware of the tension existing between them and us, between the past and the present, and try to keep a balance. That can be hard to do, though, as we're being blasted by the past during our cutting-edge tour of the World Wide Web.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


This is one of the newest words bubbling out of Chloé.

"Wash?! Wash?!" Wiggling her red, greasy hands in my direction after a mostly fork-less meal of spaghetti bolognese. Rubbing her yogurty shirt (there was a spoon involved but it's just not reliable in the hands of a 20-month-old). Standing in the bathroom trying to pull her pajamas off.

Everything gets washed - even the dishes, with a little help from Daddy.

It's so indescribably cute to hear these earnest words. "Wash?!" "Chat!" "Popi?!" "Snowing?" which sounds just like her version of "Soleil" and "stroller" so you have to be aware of the context...And one of our personal favorites, "Kaka?!"

What else?

moap (milk)
names: Daddy, Mama, Chloé, Mami, Papi, Caillou, Soleil
sowi (stroller, snowing, Soleil)

And surely some more stuff that didn't occur to me while typing.

It's coming along.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A reminder

I was walking to the train station all by myself yesterday evening (Gaetan was watching Chloé so that I could go to a reading organized by a member of the writers group - we've tried Chloé at readings and the two just don't mix) and I was thinking how easy it was to be alone. No pushing, carrying, dragging, chasing, explaining, worrying. Just walking. My little messenger bag over my shoulder instead of three bags with diapers, juice, cookies, fruit, and extra clothes (actually I usually forget the extra clothes, and luckily we rarely ;-) need them).

Then I thought how cowardly it is to not have children. To not be up to the challenge of changing your life. To stay in your safe bubble of monotony and predictability. Because having children means relinquishing control, accepting that you're not the only force directing your life.

In our double-income-no-kids world, that's a scary thought.

But I can tell you that letting go can also be fun. Yeah, you're chasing and carrying and explaining, but you're also seeing the world reinvented. And when you're struggling to get home, repeatedly calling, "No! This way!" and you turn and see her walk up and down two steps all by herself and then grin proudly at you, you realize that great things can happen while you weren't getting what you wanted.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

More babbling (me or the baby?)

The words are starting to come.
hossey (horse)
ti boo (for cats or all small animals)
moo (cow sound)
maa (cat sound)
woo-woo (dog sound)
qua-qua (duck sound)
wawa (water)
choo-choo (for trains and big trucks)
appie (apple)
baba (banana)
ba (bag)
baou (ball)
poon (spoon)
petze (pretzel)
ca (car)
ha (hat)
popi (people, or "Little People" the Fisher Price toy collection)

voiture (or Arthur?)
au revoir


And lots of strings of unrecognizable words comprehensible only as questions, statements or commands.

Interesting, the French is 1/3-1/4 of the English and the German is 1/3-1/4 of the French.

I also find it interesting that she doesn't seem to have a fixed expression for "milk" (or "lait") since that's a pretty important and constant element in her life. I wonder if there's confusion between the languages...

Sometimes I really feel for my daughter. She hears me give names to objects, she repeats them like a good 19-month-old, then her dad gives the same things new names, and I swear I hear her thinking "What the hell?" (or the 19-month-old equivalent). Generally she doesn't repeat what he says, and sometimes she repeats the English.

But I have faith. She's getting there.