Sunday, December 10, 2017

Things I DO like about Winter

For the most part, Winter can bite me. I don't like being cold, the days are too short, snow and ice on the roads means dangerous driving conditions, and an overnight snowfall means a glitch in our carefully coordinated morning routine because one or both of us has/have to go out and shovel. I grew out of winter sport enthusiasm at about age 17, and basically now from the first snowfall until Spring, I'm just gritting my teeth and waiting it out.


Winter in Wisconsin (overnight snowfall)
Just today on the local Blaulicht Report (a Facebook group informing residents of various perils and where temporary Blitzer [speed traps] have been installed) someone posted that one of the roads leading up here from Horb was totally blocked because cars were just not able to make it up the steep hill. The problem reportedly started when a young woman's car got stuck, she called another friend of hers for help, the friend's car also got stuck, and then they called the ADAC (German AAA). They both still had their summer tires on, according to one commentor.

As long as I don't have to drive in it, I don't suppose I care much if it snows, but sooner or later we're going to run out of wine and food, which means a drive to the store. And of course I have to drive to and from school every morning.

So, yeah. Winter is just not my thing.

However, I realized yesterday morning after our first real snowfall of the season - which happily fell on a Friday night - that there are a few things I do like about winter, and I should focus on the positives. So here we go...


What I DO like about Winter

  • Weihnachtsmärkte, at least until Christmas


  • Tübingen's ChocoArt festival - it only lasts for 5 or 6 days and I usually go only once, but it's so worth it!


  • fires in the Kachelofen
I really need to reupholster that bench cushion!

  • The Advent season, our Adventskranz, the Adventskalender (You're obligated to eat one piece of chocolate a day when you have one of these; it's tradition!)


  • Wild on the menu - namely wild boar and Rehrücken (venison) 


  • white wine and water stay cold in the garage; I don't have to schlepp them to the cellar

  • I can leave the butter out on the counter in the kitchen

  • my pillow is always cold

  • there's no weeding to be done in the garden

  • the Biomüll doesn't stink in the outside bin

  • fewer fruit flies and other winged critters flying about

  • nice photography opportunities


Clearly if I force myself, I can come up with some positives about winter. There's no doubt I love the Advent season here in Germany, and admittedly a little snow at a Weihnachtsmarkt can create a nice atmosphere. After January 1st, though, I'm  ready for Spring.

It is true that winters in southwestern Germany are far milder and better (in my opinion) than those in Wisconsin. It is unlikely our car would get buried overnight like my daughter's car in the first photo above, and it's not nearly as cold. The roads are better and it's rare that they stay icy for more than a day. In Wisconsin the roads on my way to school were essentially a bumpy sheet of ice from January through mid-March.

I should also fess up and add that I did bring our snowblower from Wisconsin, and M doesn't actually mind snowblowing - except when the weather is really shitty. He even goes up and down our whole street, clearing the snow for grateful neighbors. 




Am I alone here? How do you feel about winter?




Thursday, November 30, 2017

November Highs and Lows 2017

The worst month of the year is over as of today. Really - is there any month more dull and drab than November? At least October provides pretty colors in the forest. Though I hate snow, (along with winter, ice, and cold) at least it can be pretty. But November means naked trees, no snow, and our first real cold. Good riddance, November. Den wären wir los!

In my personal life, though, there were plenty of highs despite my cold nose and toes. A few lows, too, but not many.

I have actually finished all my Christmas shopping! Somehow it was easy this year, even finding things for M - and he's impossible to find gifts for! This means I can just enjoy the Weihnachtsmärkte, and if I happen to see something I like for someone, I can still buy it. The holiday season is not stressful for me in Germany anyway, but this makes it even more relaxed.

HIGHS

  • My birthday is in November, and now I'm really almost 50. Wait...is that a high or a low?

  • It was fall break that week, but I met some of my students at a local café for a drink and a chat, which was fun!

  • dinner at Straub's Krone on Martinstag (Nov. 11). The traditional meal is goose, and this old post will explain why.
Gänsekeule, Rotkohl, Knödel, und Bratapfel
  • dinner again at Straub's Krone on Thanksgiving

  • spending a short evening at my Schwiegermutter's home while M got a much-needed massage from the therapist whose practice is in her building.

  • new books!!!!  (gifts from M and my kids)
I have finished the Outlander coffee table book - and read every word and caption -
and am into A Column of Fire. It's good so far, but it's a commitment at more than 900 pages!
I've gone crazy for Steinkäuze!
  • having a meeting with all the applicants of our summer exchange program and their parents to give them more information about the exchange. We had 23 applicants but only 8 in our partner city, so we have some tough decisions to make in the next weeks. Our limit is 8 anyway, and we face this every year because so many 8th graders want to travel to the US.

  • My son was interviewed in the news about Thanksgiving and potential family political discussions. After Thanksgiving he told me he enjoyed the day very much and no one brought up *that* topic.

  • I arrived in Esslingen early enough to slither through the Weihnachts- und Mittelaltermarkt that began that afternoon! I was grinning like a fool - I love Christmas markets, and especially this one!



Mäuseroulette! This wee beastie put on quite a show instead of
dashing into his hole like his predecessors in bygone years.
  • booking our next holiday in Scotland!!! We'll be back on Mull in September next year, but this time it's just the two of us.
looking out from Glengorm on the northern coast of Mull

LOW

  • saying good-bye to one of my students, who had to return to Chile for work. He was a strong presence in the class, and we miss him.

Just for Fun

Many expat bloggers in Germany write about the madness that is navigating German bureaucracy. I have recently had an "entertaining" experience with my Krankenversicherung (health insurance company) that I thought I'd share for your amusement.

In August I received a letter from XXX (my health insurance provider - fake acronym). My rough translation of their letter is: Very honorable Frau H, in order for us to verify that we can continue to charge you the highest amount possible for a monthly premium*, we need you to provide proof of your household income. Please send us at the earliest convenience your Einkommensteuerbescheid (notice of income tax assessment) as well as this, that, and this other document. Without these documents, we cannot be certain we are charging a fair amount and will be forced to estimate the amount you owe. Please send us this proof by 18. August.
One of those documents was a questionnaire.

*I'm not kidding - I am in their highest bracket, despite the fact that they insure only me from our household, and I only work part time.

On about August 16 I went to their office, which is close to where I teach, brought all the documents I had and asked for help filling out their form. The rep I met with was helpful, made copies of my documents, helped me complete the questionnaire, and said everything appeared in order, but I should send my Einkommensteuerbescheid when we receive it.

We received that in September. Admittedly, I did not send it the moment it arrived. In mid-September I received another letter from XXX informing me that they had expressly requested certain documents from me including the questionnaire, and up to that point had received no response or documents from me. Therefore, I MUST provide the proof of household income at the latest by October 6th, or else.

On September 20th I sent an Email to my Gesprächspartner (contact) at XXX questioning the threatening email, since I had provided in August everything but the Einkommensteuerbescheid. I attached to that Email the Einkommensteuerbescheid and stated in the text of the Email that it was attached.

My contact at XXX responded and said the documents/letter must have crossed in the mail, and all was well. 

Two days ago (late November) I received a letter from my contact at XXX saying that they had received my questionnaire, but still did not have my Einkommensteuerbescheid. She implored me to send a copy of it immediately, as sending copies rather than originals would speed up their processing time. Huh? Whatever...

I went back to my "sent" folder, found the Email I had sent to my contact on September 20th, forwarded it to her AGAIN with a new message saying that this really IS our Einkommensteuerbescheid, and if this is not the document she needs to determine that they can charge me the highest possible premium, she should please contact me.

I expect to hear from her in February...
Update: I received a letter from her in the mail today (Dec. 7), and they have discovered that they need to charge me more, along with adding extra back-charges for the last year. Clearly I was wrong about them not being able to charge me more.


I hope your November was filled with HIGHS!!




Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Alfred I

I want an owl. More specifically, I want a Steinkauz. That translates in English to "Little Owl," which is a breed of European screech owl and not a commentary on its size, although the dear things are indeed quite small.


If you are or know an animal activist, fear not. I am well aware that the best home for a Steinkauz is not a human-inhabited stone bungalow. Just because I want one doesn't mean I think I can or should have one. M and I have even ruled out dogs and cats because our lifestyle does not lend itself to pets that need care and attention. We have a good feel for what would and would not be fair to an animal, and we would not want to cage in or tie an owl.

What we want is a wild Steinkauz to willingly move to our quiet yard - into the Steinkauzhaus that M is going to build, knowing full well that Steinkäuze do not necessarily inhabit our area. It's a real shame, because I'm certain they'd be quite comfortable here.


How it all began

M's mother has a sizable collection of owl figurines in her flat, which began because M's father was headmaster at a Gymnasium in Esslingen whose mascot is an owl. Like many of their friends and acquaintances, I thought of her every time I saw anything owlish - a bag, a picture, a calendar, a mug... Eventually I started liking the things I'd bought for her and began keeping them for myself! (Even she says she has enough by now.)

Since moving to Germany I have had several opportunities to see exhibitions of Falknereien, which almost always have owls as well as falcons and other birds of prey. The falcons and eagles are impressive, but I have eyes only for the gorgeous owls.

photo credit: M
My love affair with Steinkäuze began - appropriately - in Esslingen, at the Weihnachtsmarkt. I'd met a fellow blogger there and wanted to show her the view from the Burg on the hill overlooking the Altstadt, and so we trudged up the 350 steps and were rewarded with the lovely view...and owls! A Falknerei had taken up roost on the lawn of the Burg where there is plenty of space for the birds to fly, though while we were there they were all tethered or being held by their handlers.

I spied this darling little fellow and was captivated by his indignant, angry face, as he seemed to be imploring me to put down my damn camera and set him free! At the time I thought he was a baby owl because of his size - I did not realize he was a Steinkauz and clearly full grown.


His fettered companions were splendidly regal and appeared less ill-tempered, but he'd stolen my heart.

Reading

I stumbled upon this book (left, in the photo below) while looking for information about Steinkäuze just the other day. I was going to save it and give it to M for Christmas, but I couldn't wait! I showed it to him the day it arrived and read every word and studied every gorgeous photo that evening. 

The book on the right is her children's book I then ordered
for our nephews.
It's a book by Falknerin, photographer, and writer Tanja Brandt, mainly about her two charming companions, Poldi the Steinkauz and Ingo the Belgian Malinois. These two unlikely friends pose for photos doing all kinds of crazy things: cuddling with each other, standing in the snow, sitting in a tree or on a bench, cowering under a mushroom in the rain (well, that's Poldi; Ingo doesn't fit under mushrooms), and often Poldi sits on Ingo's head... Ingo is patient and enthusiastic, and Poldi is grudgingly cooperative most of the time. They are clearly good friends. I would have bought the book for the photos alone, but Tanja also includes tons of information about Steinkäuze, and Poldi in particular. I am totally in love with him, and reading about him makes me want a Steinkauz of my very own all the more.

posted with permission
From her website I learned that Poldi's full name is Napoleon, a.k.a. Grumpy Owl. Fitting for that darling little bugger!

Where this is (probably not) heading

A mild interest in owls has turned into a near-obsession. Even M is in on it. We've actually discussed some evenings how we could attract a Steinkauz and future mate to relocate to our area, despite the fact that the more I learn (for instance Steinkäuze prefer not to fly if they can avoid it, and certainly not long distances), the more unlikely it seems we'll ever see one here of its own free will. We've talked about putting an ad in the Steinkauz-Presse that housing is available (once M builds the Steinkauzhaus, of course), and I've considered owl-napping one just briefly enough to show him how comfortable our area is, so he can get the word out. But we don't want one that is captive; we want a wild Steinkauz who just tolerates our presence and who would accept occasional snack offerings from us only during the hard winter months. And yes, we already know what Steinkäuze eat* and that one of the options wouldn't be all too difficult for work out with a local farmer.

*Curious? Newborn male chicks that are killed anyway because farmers need egg-laying hens, not tons of future roosters. Due to the small size of the Steinkauz, one meal is actually half a chick, so we'd be cutting them in half with a garden scissors and saving the leftovers in a ziplock bag in the freezer. In the wild they eat mainly field mice (though Poldi can't stand them), but they also enjoy rain worms and other creepy-crawlies now and then.

M is an engineer, so he's already been looking into how to build a proper Steinkauzhaus. They like a longish, tubular wooden house, and they need a Windfang (foyer). The door to the outside should not be right in line with the inner door into the nesting quarters, so if the door to the outside is on the right side of the front, the inner door should be on the left side. More on that in a later post when he starts building it.

We've gone to several exhibitions by Falknereien at castles in the area, and for M's birthday I have arranged a "Falknerstunde" (Hawker's Hour) at a Falknerei not far from home. Incidentally, if you click on that link and scroll down a bit, you'll see a Steinkauz glaring at you from the left side of the screen.


Why "Alfred"?

But why am I calling this post and the sure-to-come sequels "Alfred"? We've decided to name our Steinkauz Alfred. We're not sure why, but we tossed around a couple of names and this one stuck. So yes, we have named the Steinkauz that will probably never move into our yard.

In the mean time we will be looking into becoming Patentante and Patenonkel (godparents) to a sweet, grumpy little Steinkauz at a Falknerei somewhere near us. Photos will follow, even if they won't be as gorgeous and clever as Tanja's!

posted with permission

ein Virginia-Uhu


Owl write again soon, I promise!



Thursday, November 9, 2017

One Year Later

A year ago today, November 9th, my clock radio woke me up with the words, "...the Mexican peso is plummeting...". In sleepy disbelief I uttered, "Holy Shit!" and M and I sprang out of bed to turn on the news. We stared in disbelief at what I hoped was just a bad dream.

But sure enough, #45 had actually been elected president of the U.S..

I was angry, frustrated, and horribly disappointed in my Landsleute. A year later I do not feel differently. How could so many people choose to vote for such a hateful, odious person?

I understood that many people hated his opponent. I believe a lot of people hate her because she is a strong and educated woman (a "bitch" in their words). Being a democrat besides, I think it was just too much for some people.

It doesn't matter to me that he lost the popular vote. In our system it's the electoral votes that count whether we agree with it or not*. Whether or not Russia interfered also is a moot point for me. If they can, they will. (Hasn't the US been meddling in other countries' affairs for generations?) And if my Landsleute are so easily swayed by false Facebook ads, then maybe it is true what Joseph de Maistre reportedly said in the 19th century: "In a democracy the people get the leaders they deserve."

*While writing this I popped on to Twitter to see if he's spewed anything today, and I found this from 20 hours ago: "Congratulations to all of the 'DEPLORABLES' and the millions of people who gave us a MASSIVE (304-227) Electoral College landslide victory!"  A year later he is still reminding us he won? Comparing world leaders for just a moment, similar words (bragging for an entire year about a victory) have never come out of Angela Merkel's mouth. Or Obamas. Or FDR's. Or Washington's...

We knew before the election that he is a bully and a braggart. We knew he is uncomfortable with facts, wisdom, and others' strength. We knew he calls people names like a bratty child on a playground. We knew he prefers everything (especially people) white. We knew his main focus is money - his own, mainly. We knew he knew nothing about foreign policy, diplomacy, or how to be presidential. We knew he never learned how to play well with others. ("Me first! Me first!") We knew he's a terrible speaker whose vocabulary is stuck at around the 4th or 5th grade level. We knew he would screw the environment because money is more important than water or life. We knew he bragged about groping women and we saw his interview with Howard Stern in which he said he should be given the job of rating all women because he's such a good judge of physical appearance. We heard him talk like somebody's drunken uncle at an Appalachian family picnic. We saw what a disaster he is on Twitter, calling opponents and dissenters childish names.

And still "we" voted for him.

While his approval rating is low (I think Fox news optimistically claims that it's high or climbing), he still has many, many people who support him, cheer for him, and attack those who don't support him. I vividly remember frequently seeing online comments like "The best part of [#45] winning is seeing the Democrats cry." Really, that's what these people consider the best part? Knowing that many of their Landsleute are unhappy? That speaks volumes, doesn't it?

Photo credit: my daughter
So a year into this circus, I am still disappointed. Disappointed in us. Disappointed that so many of my Landsleute are ok with the oaf in the White House. Disappointed that I know people (albeit very few) who enthusiastically support him. Disappointed that hatred, racism, and intolerance have reared their ugly heads even more than they had before this day a year ago. I am disgusted that I have to hear his name and see his face almost every day on the news here in Germany. I'm tired of cringing and face-palming whenever his name is mentioned and his voice is heard.

After the most recent Texas shooting, he said it's not a gun problem, it's a mental health problem. Fine. But then was it a good idea to revoke a law that would make it harder for people with mental illness to purchase guns? And why did he do this quietly without a camera crew and photo op, when he usually makes a big show out of scribbling his name on any legislation? Most likely he wanted to get rid of it simply because it was a regulation from Obama's time, introduced not long after the Sandy Hook shooting.

He is an international embarrassment. I wish there were a way to keep him within the borders of the US. Just like leaving a child who cannot behave himself at home rather than bringing him to a fancy party, his people should keep him better contained. World leaders tolerate him because they must. The school's biggest jerk was elected prom king, and now the rest of the school has to pretend they can stand him. The other world leaders are professional enough to keep their thoughts mostly to themselves and put on a stoic face when forced to be in his presence. At least that's my interpretation of their expressions and body language.

As I have often said before, I am grateful to be living in Germany. There are a ton of reasons for that, but the one connected to this post is that I am really never around, near, or confronted with Landsleute who can tolerate #45. Granted, I am rarely around Americans at all, but those that spend time overseas for longer than a 10-day vacation tend to be worldly enough to see a bigger picture than that of their own lives. And when one considers the world and humanity as a whole, an egregious narcissistic sociopath has to look ridiculous in the role of a leader.

Part of me might like to have a conversation with a 45-supporter because there's obviously something I'm missing. I cannot believe that all those people are hateful, selfish racists. Using his oddly-chosen words, I'm sure there are "good people on both sides." From what I have seen online, however, I would only be pounced on, called names, declared an idiot... and I don't need that. So I guess I will remain in the dark about how anyone can look at that and think, "Yep, he's a great president!"

Yes, I do think the US has become a dark, dark place.
Photo credit: my daughter


Friday, November 3, 2017

Could you become a German??

I don't put my birthday on social media because I don't want anyone wishing me a happy one just because a machine told him or her to do so. However, I turned 49 this year, and what was one thing on my wish list? This game...


This board game is based on the 330 questions that make up the Einbürgerungstest, or German citizenship test. Each card has one of the actual questions from the test, the four multi-guess possible answers, and the correct answer. Players roll the die and move their little Spielfigur around the board, answering a question on each space they land on. When a player answers a question correctly, he keeps the card. The first player to collect 17 cards wins.

Why 17? For the actual Einbürgerungstest, takers need to answer 33 questions (30 about Germany in general and 3 about the state in which they are taking the test) and get at least 17 correct. That's 51%. 59% was a failing grade in the school I taught at in Wisconsin. Happily, the majority of my students have scored very well on the test - most 90% and higher.

There are special spaces on the game board, indicated by several symbols.

  • two Bundesadler = das "Bonusfeld" - the player landing on this space gets to answer two questions in a row.

  • three hearts = das "Nachbarschaftsfeld" - the player landing here can ask her neighbor for help if she doesn't know the answer. Awkward when playing with just two people, one of whom is holding the card with the answer.

  • a four-leaf clover = das "Glücksfeld" - one correct answer yields two cards.

  • an airplane = das "Reisefeld" - "Friends decided to take a last-minute vacation. The player [landing here] unfortunately has no visa and therefore can't join them. Sit out one turn."

  • an alarm clock = das "zu spät" Feld - the player landing here showed up late for the Einbürgerungstest. He sits out one turn."

  • Lady Justice = das "Gerichtsfeld" - the player who lands here has defied the law. She must give up one of her cards.

  • a circle with a red X = das "Wahlfeld" - it's election time in Germany! Unfortunately the player landing here does not have citizenship and therefore cannot vote. He sits out one round.

Since November 1st is a holiday in Germany and M didn't have to go to the office, he agreed to play a round of this game with me that morning. It could definitely be fun, but since both of us knew all the answers that came up, I guess it was a little dull.


What livened things up was that I kept landing on the special spaces - and NOT the good ones! In no time at all M had amassed seven cards, and I had only two! After I grumbled good-naturedly (I'm possibly the least competitive person in the world), with my very next roll I landed on the Gerichtsfeld and had to give up one of them! I protested when I landed on the "zu spät" Feld, because I would NEVER be late for something as important as a test! (In truth, I would rather be an hour early than five minutes late to anything. I just find a quiet spot and read the book I always have with me.) But how appropriate for a German game that a player gets punished for the very idea of being late.

In the end we actually both counted up 18 cards, but M had got there first.

I had to laugh every time M said, "Why the hell does a foreigner need to know that?!" For instance, since which year have we been paying in cash with the Euro? What possible need could there be for a Syrian refugee or an immigrant from Scotland to know that? It's enough to know that we pay in Euros now. Who cares "since when"?

Here are two more: What is a Gerichtschöffe and who can be one? Well, that's a special assistant to a judge who needs to decide on a case. It's kind of like a jury member or volunteer judge, but there are only two of them who listen to the evidence and give their inexpert input. Who can be one? Not a foreigner, unless she is naturalized and speaks/understands German at the level of a native speaker.

Having taught the Orientierungskurs twice now - and my third course will start in December - I am very familiar with the 330 questions and answers. And I'd like to suggest the gang of sadists who came up with those questions be tarred and feathered. Some day I'm going to go through those cards and make a pile of questions I consider important enough that someone applying for citizenship should know just to see how many are cruel. The writers of the test should each receive three lashes for every unnecessary question.

I like the fact that there's a game available to practice for this test, and it could be a fun party game for a mixed crowd of immigrants who have taken the Orientierungskurs and Germans. Too bad we don't have parties. Obviously I plan to use it in my class.

In other news, I'm nearly wetting myself over the new pile of thick books I have to read.


My head is spinning because I don't know which one to start with. To make matters worse, I am smack dab in the middle of a 600-page book about Katherine of Aragon, and this would be a dumb time to stop in order to start on a different really long book - or two! Dan and Ken should really plan this better and publish their new novels six months apart and when I have time to read them. Poor me with my First World problems...

I just found a box of civics questions for the US citizenship test. I might put that on my Christmas wish list! I'm a sucker for trivia games.


Have you found any good trivia games lately? 
Do you enjoy playing games that show you how much you still have to learn?!?