Friday, October 12, 2012

My First Year Abroad

One year ago today we stepped off of the plane in Dusseldorf and into the beginning of a big adventure. Looking back through my blog now is very nostalgic. I can't believe there was a time when I didn't know how to use the appliances in the house, order bread at the bakery, and negotiate a two-lane roundabout. Now all of these things happen just as naturally as if I'd always known what to say and do.

I've learned a lot over the course of a year. The list is endless and covers everything from how to count on your fingers (always start with the thumb) to how to make friends with your German neighbors (mow the yard, sweep the sidewalk, and shovel the snow-- before anyone else on the street).

I've learned how to drink water without ice cubes and, more importantly, to pay exorbitant amounts of money for tiny glass-bottled water because Germans won't drink tap water. I've learned how to flag down waiters and waitresses because if you don't, they will never return to your table after their initial greetings. I've learned to like curry ketchup and I've also been privy to the suspicious glance given when you say you don't like mayonnaise.

Through trial and error, I can now cycle almost as well as a Dutch person. I still can't do the hands-free riding while I text or tie my shoe as I'm gliding down the road, but I know how to use the correct signals and I've also somewhat adopted the Dutch nonchalance-- "Cars can't hit me. I have right-of-way no matter what!" And after having my bike stolen at the train station, I truly feel indoctrinated into the culture.

I love all of the holidays and traditions. Carnival in Germany and the Netherlands is crazy and I'm looking forward to it again this year. Christmastime is enchanting; people are friendlier and the markets are amazing. I loved May Day! I hope the teenage girl across the street has another suitor next year because I'll never get over seeing 6 boys, drunk off Bitburger, trying to situate a giant rose wreath onto the front of her house at 3am. Maybe next year she'll get a birch tree too.

Before we arrived, I couldn't imagine that our new location would be so close to other countries. I remember being perplexed the first time we sat down at a Dutch cafe five minutes away from our house. We didn't even realize we had crossed over a border and when we received our menus we puzzled over them for a few minutes before I declared, "This is another language! It's not even German!" And that's how we found out how close we are to the Netherlands.

To say that I've been to Ireland, Croatia, Mallorca, Hungary, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands in just one year is mind-blowing. They have been experiences I never expected and I'm truly grateful and humbled by how fortunate I am. We have met so many kind people along the way and stumbled upon lots of great little restaurants, pubs, and alleyways.

Everything you've heard about the beer, bread, and chocolate is true. They're all incredible. I don't know if I can ever drink a Bud Light again.

In general, I love it here. After the passage of a year, it's easier to reflect on the things I miss most about home. Some are silly and some are irreplaceable.

I miss my family and friends, of course. I wish they could all be here to experience everything with me.

I miss American college football games. I really do miss ice cubes. I miss Target. I miss some American television. I definitely miss country music. I miss parking spaces large enough to accommodate my mid-sized car. I miss large refrigerators and counter space in kitchens.

Strangely enough, I haven't had any cravings for fast food or chain restaurants. I'm actually pretty terrified to visit home and be faced with endless portions of food and the convenience of a drive-thru. I've become much healthier since being here and I've even stuck with the running-- another thing I never thought I'd be doing on a regular basis. The biking and running trails that exist everywhere here are definitely something America is lacking. Who wouldn't be excited to run if the route took you through perfectly-manicured farm fields, towering stalks of corn, wildflowers, and verdant forests with pine-needle carpets?

Year two promises many more adventures and adjustments. Perhaps this is the year I'll become proficient in German. Maybe I'll improve my French so I can confidently navigate through Paris. It's a possibility that our neighbors might invite us over for their holiday parties! That possibility might be more likely if I washed our windows and swept the sidewalk.... so, no, I don't know for sure if we'll receive any invitations. Oh well. We can always have our own party complete with copious amounts of Bitburger and thumping techno music.

We're beginning the second year here with a bang: Oktoberfest this weekend and our first trip home in over a year!

I originally began this blog in order to bring my family and friends along with me to Germany. Ironically, my highest readership comes from Germany so people back home have a lot of explaining to do. However you found this blog, whether you know me personally or just stumbled across it by chance, thank you so much for reading!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Germany of My Dreams: Monschau

When I first found out we were moving to Germany, I pictured storybook villages surrounded by mountains and meandering creeks. The area we live in is certainly beautiful, but not in the Hansel-and-Gretel way. Luckily Monschau is less than two hours away and it's the village of my imagination!

The weather has become cold and dreary here again but a few raindrops can't spoil the splendor of Monschau. Original half-timbered houses dot the winding, cobblestone streets. We visited on Germany's Unification Day (marking the reunification of East and West Germany) so some of the attractions were closed.

The rote haus (red house) was built in 1752 by a wealthy cloth merchant. Inside is a self-supporting oak wood staircase that spans three floors. Due to the holiday we were unable to take the tour but it's on the list of things to do when we return in December for the Christmas market!

Rote Haus
Speaking of Christmas, we strolled through a shop entirely devoted to nutcrackers, smokers, and the most beautiful tree ornaments I've ever seen in one place. Commerce is definitely catered for the tourists. Postcard stands and shelves filled with beer steins are commonplace. One Monschau product that lives up to the hype is mustard. It's made between old millstones using traditional craft methods. No preservatives are added (no worries-- it will be eaten long before the year expiration) and it's packaged in authentic clay pots. After taste-testing several varieties, we settled on Original and Honey Mustard.

We grabbed a quick bite for lunch and decided to trek up to the top of the hills to see some ruins from the castle. Unfortunately we didn't make it all the way to Monschau Castle during this visit but the outpost ruins were interesting and hiking to the top rewarded us with magnificent views of the mountains, the River Rur, and the entire village.

We stopped at the Felsenkeller Brewery on the way out of Monschau. Guided tours can be pre-arranged but we just paid the admission (4 Euros each) and walked ourselves through the brewery with an English guidebook. One of the most interesting rooms is devoted to beer bottles from around the world. We were also able to go into the Felsenkeller (rock cellar). It was created in 1830 by a blast into the slate mountain. The brewery operated for over a hundred years before shutting down in 1994.

Monschau was beautiful! The dismal weather couldn't dampen our spirits as we walked back in time through the village. The air smelled of firewood and cozy lights from timber house windows illuminated the narrow streets. I can imagine what it will look like with snow covering the roofs and the lights and sounds from the Christmas market enveloping us as we sip gluhwein.

Next up: Bruges!