Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We Three Kings of Orient Are...

The end of the Christmas season -
Three Kings' Day

For many Americans, Christmas decorations are boxed up and put away shortly after Christmas Day.  Others use New Year's Day for this chore.  In Germany, the Christmas season doesn't end until January 6 (remember the twelve days of Christmas?  Yep, Jan. 6 is the last day.)  Three Kings' Day (or Dreikoenigstag here in Germany) marks the day the three wise men finally made it to Bethlehem to see the baby in the manger, and in several German states it's an official holiday.  Certainly, it marks the end of the Weihnachts season.

January 5; decorations will come down on the 7th!
Our day trip excursion yesterday was to a town about an hour northeast of Heidelberg, on the Main River, in the region called the Odenwald.  Miltenberg is charming and we enjoyed the many half-timbered buildings, the castle on the hill overlooking the river, and the towers and town gate.

As we strolled through the town, we noticed two different groups of kids doing their annual good deed for their church.  On Three Kings' Day (or the several days preceeding it) groups of children dress up as the three kings and visit local stores and homes.  They knock, enter, sing a little song about the three kings, and then ask for a donation for the church (or for church projects).  They are called Sternsingers (star singers) and while they aren't always in groups of three, or all male, or even strictly representing the Three Wise Men specifically, the two groups we saw were definitely dressed as three kings, right down to black face paint on one child in each group.

Once the donation has been secured, the home or business receives its chalk marking.  Above the door, the children (or an adult helper) makes this notation:  20 * C + M + B + 15.  This shows the world that the residents have donated to the church and is considered good luck, or a blessing on the house.  The 20 and 15 represent the year, the three plus signs represent the Holy Trinity, and the star represents the star of Bethlehem; these sandwich the initials of the three kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar) or offer the blessing "Christus Mansionem Benedicat" (depending on who is translating the chalked markings for you.)

Sternsingers, dressed up, with traditional star attached to a stick, running to the next store.
The other group of Sternsingers.  Note the black face paint.
The two groups didn't appear to be in competition with one another. They each stayed on their own side of the street, visiting each store, singing their song, collecting their donation, and blessing the business by erasing last year's 14 and rechalking this year's 15.

In our neighborhood, we saw Sternsingers at a nearby house the day before, and hoped that they would make their way up the street to our house.  Sadly, they piled back into the van they arrived in and zoomed off.  Maybe today we'll get lucky and get our blessing!

(But truly, when a simple day trip results in memories like these, we are certainly already blessed!)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tulip Time in Holland!

Guests are finally here!  We welcome brother-in-law Gary and his lovely wife Bonnie from Pennsylvania. They've had a rough winter, so it was time for a quick trip to the tulip fields of Holland.

I rave about this trip to anyone who will listen.  We've gone multiple times and never failed to be stunned by the beauty of this little country.

The place to go for breathtaking beauty is Keukenhof Gardens.  Northwest of Leiden, it lies in the middle of one of the major bulb-producing regions in the Netherlands.  Bulb growers plant their new varieties in the fall for a stunning display every spring.  

It's far more crowded here now than it used to be ten years ago when we would visit, but it's still an amazing place.  We arrived at 10:00.  Parking was right outside the park and was well-organized (think Disneyland, but instead of cartoon characters to remember our row, Keukenhof has flags from different nations.  We parked at South Korea.)

The park has lakes, fountains, meandering paths, birds, and of course, food concessions and souvenir shops.

And flowers.  Holy cow, the flowers.
Purple and orange, anyone?  Yes, please!

Purple and red?  I'll take some of that, too!

The sun was dodging in and out of clouds all morning.  I caught its bright rays shining through these beauties.

 The visitors were generally well-behaved.  Not too many flowers were being trampled, and the gardens wisely provide little walkways so you can go and crouch next to a bed for photos.
Bundled up in the 50-degree morning.  These tulips were ENORMOUS.

Keukenhof also has the obligatory Dutch windmill, although it's for show only.  (We saw real windmills, in action, at a different stop.  Blog post to follow!)

Amongst the gardens are pavilions displaying flowers in other ways.  Check out the size of this hydrangea!

And here's a low-cost idea for floral displays.  The sticks were wedged into a shelf unit.  Flowers inserted into bags of water got ribbon necklaces and were wired to the sticks.  Could this bag-o'-flowers idea be adapted for inexpensive table decorations?  Say, at a wedding?

After leaving the gardens, we took a drive in the area.  Fields of bulb flowers around every corner.  Those with more time can rent bicyles or take walks along the paths next to the fields.  Those of us on a tighter time schedule enjoy the drive-by flower fields.

This field was ALL HYACINTHS.  Pink, purple, white, and the smell was AMAZING.

I hope your spring is full of beauty, too.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Spring Flowers in Germany

So, winter?  We didn't really have one.  Every day, we would check the weather in the States and think, "Holy Cow!  We picked the right year to move!"  Usually, winter in Germany is gray, cold, drizzly, and miserable.  This winter, we had mild temps, sunny days, only a little rain, and thus far have had a GORGEOUS spring.

The forsythia is almost done, its yellow flowers being slowly replaced by green leaves.  It's been blooming for weeks, in gardens and out in the wild, and I've been amazed by how long the blossoms have lasted.  

Forsythia, with aging blossoms and new leaves coming on.

At the same time as the forsythia came the almond blossoms and cherry blossoms.  We enjoyed an afternoon in Gimmeldingen on the Rhein Weinstrasse on about the 15th of March, walking through the vineyards, the charming village, and the Mandelbluten which give the fest its name.

We also visited the gardens at the Schloss in Schwetzingen to see the cherry trees.

I love seeing all the colors in the German gardens.

Does anyone know what this orange bush is?  Its flowers also come on early, and are then replaced by leaves.  

Unknown orange bush.  Not knowing its name in no way detracts from my enjoyment of its beauty.

These bushes started flowering just as the forsythias started wilting.  It's a nice segue.  They are absolutely exuberant with their yellow puffball flowers!

Not pictured, but common in local gardens?  Azaleas and rhododendrons, also wildly colorful and full of blossoms.  

We call these "tulip trees" in Nebraska.  They are, I believe, related to magnolia but have a slightly larger zone tolerance.  Gorgeous purple flowers.

Tulip Tree?  Anyone know a better name?
But of course, all this glory is leading up to one very important event:

The lilacs are almost ready to bloom!  It's a terrible picture, but wait a few days and it'll be gorgeous.

Lilac is my very favorite fragrance in a flower, and they are so plentiful most places we've lived, but lilac bushes are almost non-existent in Oklahoma.  Oh, how I've missed them!  And look out, here they come!  I see bushes everywhere, just a few days away from full bloom.  I'm carrying plant scissors with me, because many times the bushes are in places where it's okay to cut from them.  

I can't wait for my house to be full of the smell of those gorgeous purple blooms!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Random Sculpture in the German Woods

Germany's forests are laced with small roads and paths.  Many of the paths are well-marked with symbols which indicate the trail system to which the path belongs; in fact, the European Distance Trail (which runs from northern Norway to south of Rome) goes right through the center of our village.  It's marked with the white X.  We've walked parts of it (but have no intention of walking the whole thing!)

The white X trail marker on our street in Gaiberg.  Follow it to Norway or Italy!

Trail markings on a pole in nearby Neckargemund.

We do enjoy walking and running the paths and have purchased several maps (scales of 1:50,000 and 1:20,000 are great for following trails) and also use Google Earth to check out where we want to go (and where we've been.)

A path near our house has become one of Andy's regular running routes.  One day I followed along behind him, walking half the distance while he ran ahead and turned around, and here's what I noticed:

Looks like a random, broken-off tree, right?

Let's walk closer.

A chain-saw artist has been at work!

Whooooo left this surprise for me?
(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

When I got home, I asked Andy if he had ever noticed the owl while running.  He hadn't, and it took him several more times out on the trail to see it, even though he had looked at these pictures.  It's just far enough off the trail that a runner would zoom by and not notice it.  

Sometimes it's nice to be slow.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Slow Running

When I say I run, it is perhaps a slight exaggeration.  My plodding slowness, designed to gradually build up my endurance and my tolerance for the aches and pains of running, is only just barely "running."  The good thing about slow running is the opportunity to notice the world around me.  Here's a road I "ran" down in March (and walked back up on the return leg.)

At the time, I thought I was lost.  Consulting the photo I took of the trail map of our area, I realized I had made a wrong turn and was approaching a different village than I expected.  Okay, fine, I'll plod down to the next fence post, then turn around for my trip back up the hill towards home.

Hello, what's this?

 A field full of fuzziness!  Can you say, "adorable"?

But wait, there's more!

Squeeeeeeeee!  A baby, too!!!!  With a little coat on!!!!  Hi, baby!  You are the cutest!

Look how fuzzy.

We have a saying at our house, thanks to Tory.  "I want a llama!"  (The inflection while saying this line has to be just a teensy bit on the whiny side, but not enough to truly be a whine.)  The line is usually applied to rodents:  "I want a prairie dog!"  "I want a chinchilla!"  "I want a degu!"  We do, however, also love llamas, alpacas, and their relatives, so I was thrilled to see these darlings.

Plus, it gave me an excuse to slow my running even further. Always a good day when that happens.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Posting from Heidelberg, Germany, where I am the School Library Media Specialist at Heidelberg International School.)

Those of you who know me well know that Thanksgiving is my FAVORITE holiday.  Our typical celebration involves lots and lots of friends and family, beginning at 9:00 in the morning with the traditional Turkey Bowl family football game, and continuing with appetizers at noon and THE FEAST around 3 p.m.
Typical Thanksgiving Feast; photo credit Tory
It's a labor I love and it's very, very strange this morning to be getting ready to go to work instead of browning the spicy Italian sausage, celery, and onion for the stuffing.

It looked for a while like we might (gasp!) SKIP Thanksgiving altogether this year.  Instead, we've ended up creating TWO Thanksgivings here in Germany.

Today, my non-cooking husband is dutifully following the directions I've left him, and two other new American teachers are coming home on the train with me after school.  They are bringing part of the feast and Andy will work today to create the mashed potatoes, roast the turkey, and whip up a colorful fruit salad.
Our teeny-tiny kitchen in Gaiberg, Germany
It's a teeny-tiny turkey cooked in a teeny-tiny pan in a teeny-tiny oven, but we're making the effort!  And doing it again on Saturday, hosting new friends from Germany, Australia, and Canada who have helped us get settled in this adventure.
The dining room - such as it is - with our Sperrmüll table and
NO Thanksgiving decorations!
Of course, we'll pause to give thanks - for our many, many friends around the globe - those who are with us today (and Saturday) and those with whom we've celebrated in the past (Wolff family, I'm looking at you!)  I am missing my kids enormously this morning - good thing I get to go hang out with 200 others!

May your Thanksgiving (be it today or Saturday or some other day) be full of friends, food, fellowship, and gratitude.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

One Man's Trash is TRULY another's Treasure

Now writing from Heidelberg, Germany!  Having lived in Germany from 1999 to 2003, we were anxious to return - and in August we did just that!  

Free chairs, anyone?  YES, PLEASE!


For reasons we don't know or can't understand, the Germans don't have a robust resale market. They don't host garage sales or tag sales, it's rare to find classified ads offering used items, there are few thrift stores, and it's only recently that sites like Craigslist or Ebay have become available. While Flea Markets are held often here, and many of them allow individuals to pay a small fee and bring their used goods to sell (a garage sale out of the trunk of your car), as you can imagine, that is difficult to do.

So what do the Germans do with their cast-offs?  Call the authorities, of course.

Some counties still operate the old way (which we took advantage of the last time we lived here.) Each village is assigned two days a year for Sperrmüll pickup.  Prior to that day, residents neatly stack all their bulky items on the curb in front of their house.  You can see where this is going, right?

Yep, all the thrifty people troll the curbs for treasures.  It's perfectly legal and a well-known way for people (usually young people just starting out) to furnish their  homes.

Nicole and her new chairs!  You can see behind her some of the other things this homeowner had out as trash, too.
In recent years, some counties have discontinued the prescheduled bulk pickup day.  A German friend told us that people from poorer Eastern European countries (Romania and Poland were her examples) would travel in roaming bands through the villages, their panel vans empty, picking up furniture to resell.  "Station Granny at this pile of furniture while we go get the truck," they'd agree, but meanwhile, another van would show up, another Granny jump out, and chaos would ensue.

To decrease the likelihood of conflict in their neighborhoods, many counties have switched to "on-demand" bulk pick-up.  We still see furniture out on the curb, but usually only a house at a time and on totally random days.  The owners have called for a Sperrmüll pickup appointment.  It's still perfectly legal to take the items, and in fact, it's encouraged, because if the items end up in the Sperrmüll truck, a scary thing happens.  The items are broken down into recyclable and non-recyclable parts, and then the chipper truck comes and shreds the furniture into sawdust, as you watch.  What a waste, right?
Free patio furniture on our new patio.  Yes, the table is currently being used as a platform bird feeder as well.
The flowers were 30 cents per plant at a local hardware store; I snagged two for some fall color.

The sad part (other than the chipper, of course) is that in order to stack things neatly on the curb, many times the owners will completely disassemble a large item into its component pieces, often breaking it in the process.  Shranks (wardrobes), for instance, are virtually impossible to find.

Sometimes, of course, a little wood glue or tightening of screws is needed.
During our first Germany tour, we collected enough cast-off chairs to enable each girl in Tory's Girl Scout troop to refurbish/reupholster/repaint a chair of their own.  Tory still has hers; I'm relatively certain some of the other girls do as well.

So far this trip, we've picked up the following items from the curb:
  • three chairs that Nicole took home and painted white
  • a round pedestal table (with extension leaf built in), some white rings on top and a scratch on the apron.  Perfect with a tablecloth; scheduled for a paint job.
  • a pine three-drawer chest of drawers
  • four dining room chairs with padded seats
  • two teak-style (but not teak) patio armchairs
  • a small round metal patio table
  • small items like pots for plants and a wood tray

Our apartment is taking shape, with IKEA and sperrmüll both playing a huge role!