Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Better to Give than Receive

Quilting is a hobby of mine - I think it has something to do with all those colors and patterns.

Anyway, the past few days I've been putting together a small quilt to send to Brownwood Quilter's Guild in Texas.  John's cousin Benita P. is the current president of this very active quilting group.  As part of their community outreach,they donate baby quilts to local hospitals.  
To much is given much is expected and we have been given much.

I put together this quilt top (45" x 55") to send to her; I emailed last week to make sure someone there would be able to machine quilt and bind it.  I used only fabrics I brought with me since the cost of cotton fabrics here is near prohibitive (see previous post "Conversion Fever"). 

I don't think this is my best work, but it has so many colors and designs I'm hoping a toddler will enjoy having it as much as I've enjoyed putting it together.

This is the first time I've used pinwheels much less put pinwheels and four-patch squares together!  Fortunately, the Brownwood Quilter's don't demand perfection, just patchwork made with love.  

Quilts made for others is where it's at.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Chicken Soup for the Runny Nose

Our neighbors across the hall were sick this past week ... the entire family wasn't feeling well, even their little 12-month-old (who is an absolute doll).  Talk about the nicest people.  Due to their professions, both are exceedingly fluent in English (which I accept as an answer to prayer), thus it has been possible to develop a friendship.  Mr. and Mrs Neighbor along with Baby Neighbor are truly appreciated.  Anyway, they were sick.

Friday morning I decided to make them a batch of homemade chicken noodle soup.  This isn't exactly where the wheels come off, this is the part where I'm doing the same thing here, but in a different way.

Right after we moved, I noticed at most fresh vegetable stands (as well as the commissary, grocery store, and the Aldi-esque shops) there was a similar bundle of vegetable chunks banded together.  I recognized the carrot, leek, and parsley - but not this other "item."  After more than a month of wondering about it, John and I asked one of favorite vegetable sellers about this savory combination.  Between his so-so English and our lousy German - we understood this to be a soup starter.  The produce-meister used sign language to chop the vegetables, season, and add meat. Terrific!  

The other "item" is something like a cross between a turnip and a parsnip.  When I peeled it before chunking, it smelled very similar to celery and worked well in the soup; the flavor was just delicious.  

Since then, we've bought a soup starter bundle almost every week.  No two soup experiences have been the same, but they've all been *cough* souper yummy.  John has always been a big fan of soup and the kids haven't complained one bit.  

I hope my neighbors feel better soon.  I hope we continue to try new and different items from the fresh produce stands.  I hope to always be teachable.

Loving thy neighbor is where it's at.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Deutsche Post

Postal systems (public and private) are as relevant and necessary today as they were hundreds of years ago.  That's not to mean I could go without email... it's now as essential as a 52oz fountain Diet Coke and a fist full of Tootsie Rolls.

Once Jack landed in Russia, we fully embraced the flat-rate box offered at the U.S. Postal Service (and the adjacent hassle of completing a  customs form).  While the international rate of $32.95 was more than the domestic rate, it was 400x better than DHL, Fed Ex, or Express Mail from the USA to the former Soviet Republic.  In January, the international flat rate box fee jumped to $53.95! What?!   *heavy sigh*  

To ward off the loss or looting of a box, we never sent expensive items.  Primarily we concentrated on food items that could increase morale, photos of the family to share with investigators, and lots of his favorite chewing gum.  It was often the case, ward members would want to send something to him and I willingly tossed it into the parcel for them.  No way did the cash value ever reach close to the fees associated with sending it.

After mailing postcards from Holland (USA .95, Russia .77), I wanted to test the rates at the Deutsche Post/DHL (the mail service in Germany is now run by a private company).  We started with a very small box as a test run of the service.  The parcel contains food, candy, notes, and a photo of the five of us in France.  Total cost:  6€!!  No questions asked, no forms to complete.  Hallelujah.

We'll see how long it takes to arrive at the mission office.  Formerly, it's taken about 8 weeks from the midwest and then the package would sit in the office until someone was headed out to the district in which he was assigned.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed it won't take long.  More importantly, I'm grateful for access to an inexpensive mail system. 

Parcels filled with love is where it's at.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tour de Heidelberg

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I'd blog a wee bit about my fantastic new set of wheels ... my Fahrrad (bicycle).  

It's a Victoria Fahrradfrende pur Alucity in blue specifically designed for 'city' riding (notice how deep the center bar dips - this is a tremendous aid when stopping and starting for the many red lights, pedestrians, baby buggies, etc).  I can very easily step through.  There are front and rear lights on this beauty, but I'm waiting to find just the right bell for it.

Heidelberg has many, many bikes just about everywhere and bike theft is one the most frequent criminal activities here.  On the other, it seems small potatoes when compared to Amsterdam.  When we were there this past weekend, we saw parking garages for bikes.  The one by the main train station had a three level garage that was jammed with bikes of all colors, shapes, conditions, etc.  Our tour guide said that last year there were 700,000 stolen bike reports made to the police department.  Too big to imagine!

Today's errands included a stop at the fresh market for lettuce, onions, tomatoes (tonight is deconstructed taco salad night just like Terie H. makes it).  We also stopped at the butcher's and she gave us some terrific corned beef for Rueben sandwiches on Friday night.  Marie and I biked over to the post office to mail Jack a small parcel (he's serving an LDS mission in Russia Ekaterinburg until Oct 2009) and then we made a couple of quick stops before a swing through Aldi (salami, raisin bread for toast, and katze sticks for Agnes).  By carrying our own cloth bags we didn't require any plastic bags.

I was reminded on Feminist Mormon Housewives that Earth Day events don't have to be anything big and spectacular, just something small we incorporate into our daily lives.  Once that's built into the routine, we can move on to the next 'earth friendly' behavioral change.  

On the way back home I stopped to take a picture of the end of our street ... I like being here, though I miss and long to see my dear friends (and my dad).

Green, even in small amounts, is where it's at.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tulips & Hyacinth; Bulbs-O-Plenty

What an amazing day we experienced at Keukenhof Gardens in Holland this past weekend (I'm not sure when to say Holland or when to use The Netherlands, so I'm going to stick with Holland for now).  After we arrived home last Tuesday from Paris, we cleaned out the backpacks, washed all the laundry, and repacked for a weekend train trip from Heidelberg to Amsterdam.  Traveling by train has easily become a favorite mode of transportation for us:  it's simple and we all get to relax and enjoy the journey.

We opted for a charter bus exercision to take us from the Amsterdam to the Gardens about 45 minutes out of town.  It wasn't exactly a bus tour since it was there and back, but we had a host who liked to "spice things up" on the drive out and back.  As a result, we were to spend 6 hours at the flower gardens enjoying all 7 million blooms.  Later, John would admit he didn't have any flippin' idea how we were going to spend that much time in a flower garden - but time really did fly while we were there.

Hyacinth is an absolute favorite of mine - so incredibly fragrant!  And they were everywhere the eye could see.  Tulips of every color, shape, and size imaginable were in a glorious explosion of color.  There were paved and mulched walking paths as well as large sculpted metal art pieces placed between different flower beds.  Several ponds and little creeks trickling added a sense of intimacy, while the visual field was vast.  

We got a basic lesson in the export industry of tulips.  The massive fields of flowers serve two purposes - the export of cut flowers and the export of the bulb.  The flowers must be cut in order to make the bulb stronger.  The bulbs must be dug up in order for the "mother" bulb to be sold.  The small bulbs that develop from this mommy bulb are detached and replanted and the cycle begins again.  The cut flowers are taken to an auction space adjacent to the airport, which means they are bought, shipped, and "on the streets of New York the same afternoon."

I am so glad we went.  Keukenhof is only open from about mid-March to mid-May and I would have been sad to miss it this year.  At the same time, I'm really going to enjoy a break from traveling and get back to our routine here in Heidelberg.  I think I'll go to the market today and buy some flowers for our table as a sunny reminder of our trip.  In the meantime, I've added a slideshow on the sidebar of this blog with pictures I took of the beautiful blooms and greenspace at Keukenhof.

Die Blumen are where it's at.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Culinary Delights

As promised, the dining experiences we enjoyed out and about in Paris cut across an eatery continuum.  

Our initial leap into French dining was at a seafood restaurant recommended by the hotel desk clerk.  She described it as having a diverse menu, located just down the avenue, and quite reasonably priced for a family of five... one out of three was correct - it only took 13 minutes to walk there.  Since we did not have a reservation, we were seated in Siberia, but were offered an English language menu.  Long story short.... keep choices simple (grilled salmon) and opt for fish soup instead of the sampler plater or raw oysters as an appetizer.


I'm crazy about 'street food' - the fast food of the local gentry.  We enjoyed a lamb kebap with fries stacked on top after consuming cotton candy, Sprite, and ice cream cones (where's the Pepto Bismol?).  We encountered a creperie cooking up sweets filled with Nutella (as popular over here as peanut butter is in the U.S.)

We spent two long lazy dinners sitting on the terrance of local bistros.  What a treat it was to not get hurried along by the staff.  It was such a calm and relaxed experience to truly enjoy the service, food, and each others' company ... any way that can be transplanted back?

Our hotel served a continental breakfast each morning, with a wide variety of granola, yogurt, dried figs and other fruits, croissant, and juices.  It was delightful each and every day.

One of my favorite meals was served at a small bistro across the street from the hotel - the waiter told us (in French) what he was going to bring us for lunch.  Ok, we can do that  *shrug*.  He brought bacon cheeseburgers and the BEST FRIES EVER.  One look at me and you know I've eaten a few fries... these were crack-cocaine good.

On the good/bad scale... the pizza from Antonios was amazing.  We'll go back there again... and again ... and again...

At home or far away, with the people I love ... eating is where it's at.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Laundry By Any Other Rock ...

I am so lucky to have an automatic clothes washer and dryer in our Heidelberg flat - it's a real luxury and quite frankly, a mandatory appliance as far as I'm concerned.  

The machines are considerably smaller here, which means I do twice as many loads as before.  The washer is set not by fabric type or load size, but by desired water temperature (in celsius). Silver lining: it takes no time at all to fold the clean, dried clothes since there aren't many items per load.  

Also, it is the case that the dryers do not vent directly outdoors, but water is collected in a water trough and emptied after every 2-3 cycles (along with the lint trap).  Also, I must vent the window nearest the portable drying rack in order to allow the moisture from the clothes I hang dry.  

There is very little fresh air flow inside the flats and homes that have been outfitted with the newer windows since German engineering is freakishly amazing.  The windows are so good at keeping noise out, they also do not allow for fresh air to access or circulate indoors.  Part of each day is devoted to opening and closing windows throughout the house... especially on laundry days.  All of this is to avoid mold and mildew.  Ok, I can do that.

At the end of the day, we have cleans clothes and towels.  My kids don't leave the house in a popsicle stained t-shirt.  And, I can send my husband to work smelling Tide© fresh.  Life is grand.

A drawer of warm socks is where it's at.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Five Americans in Paris

We had a terrific Easter holiday in Paris.  It was our first time visiting France and our first time to leave Germany since arriving here in February.  Traveling by train was incredibly easy and super fast.  I uploaded to my facebook a snapshot of the kids on the ICE - we were traveling at 315km (196mph) and indeed it felt like any moment we should be wheels up and taking off!  Such terrific circumstances that we only had a 5min walk from the house to the nearest train station that we could make our connection.  I hope any visitors that come our way and who wish to visit Paris will decide to take the train (you know who you are *elbow in the ribs*).

When we arrived close to 5pm, none of us felt like an urban walkabout with our backpacks.  However, there wasn't a taxi large enough for five passengers at Gare de L'est (the train station), so we opted for the metro.  Talk about super easy!  We used the Le Metropolitain and RER the entire time we were there.  Navigating our way about the city was incredibly user-friendly.  The underground system reminded us of the metro system in DC - just larger and not once did we get lost or feel unsafe.  btw - we ran into a pair of LDS sister missionaries; it was terrific to give'm a shoutout as they went about their work.

Our hotel was conveniently located in a residential neighborhood which had a metro stop barely 100 meters away (the Wagram stop on line 3).  At the same time, it was but a 1.2km walk to the Arc de Triomphe.  Talk about sensational!  After dark, it was lit beautifully ... and crowded.  whew!  We didn't go anywhere that wasn't crawling with people, but that was expected.

We saw and did so many things, I'm not sure what to include in my blog or what to leave out (Mona Lisa at the Louvre?, Notre Dame?, etc).  I plan to post a food exposé on our culinary hits (and misses) along with some photos of the dishes we sampled... everything from pink cotton candy at the Eiffel Tower to the seafood sampler at Le Bar a Huitres Ternes to the crème brulée at Buffalo Bill's.  

We are most grateful to all be home safely and in good health.  On the train heading back home, it occurred to me that I now consider Heidelberg to be my home - even after a few short weeks.  So what makes a home?  I know I need a place to call home, even in this quasi-nomadic lifestyle I've adopted.  For my good friend Sarah, gypsy life has worked ok so far, though I think maybe she's considering unpacking her bags in the new place (at least for now).  

To answer my own question, for me... home is where I'm currently building Zion.  It's where I cook for my people and unpack my books.  It's where the laundry machine churns six days a week and my husband can put up his feet.  Home is the manifestations of the relationships I have with the people I love and call family.

It's a tremendous blessing to travel and see and taste so many wonderful adventures.  It's a privilege to experience lifelong dreams with family.

Home is where it's at.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Leaving Town

Ever notice the amount of effort and energy required to get out of town?  OHHOLYCOW!

We're headed out of town for a long Easter weekend getaway and it's taken money, time, and effort to get five backpacks loaded with just the right stuff and clean up after ourselves so we don't come back to a home that looks as though a cyclone passed through.

At the same time, I wouldn't want to not go.  I've longed told the kids that the reason we take them camping is so they take our grandchildren camping.  This snapshot was taken circa 2003.

Growing up, my family went on one summer vacation (1968), never went camping, and there were zero long weekends out of town.  When John and I got married, he told me of his summers camping at Yellowstone, Disney, and his mother's penchant for packing them up and leaving town for a week or so.  I wanted that for our children - but didn't know how to do that.

We have learned to just get up and go... though sometimes I think I might have missed a step on organizing such efforts and escapade, it's good to get out and experience the new and different as a family.   As it turns out ... we love to camp as a family and long weekends out of town isn't a novelty for my people.  I like that.

Today we're taking the ICE train to Paris and we're all together (except Jack who is serving a mission in Russia).  Together on adventures is where it's at.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Has Spring Arrived?

It might be the case that Spring is upon us in Heidelberg... I'm just not sure.  Since we moved in the dead of winter, I don't have much to go on for what passes for "normal" around here.  

From my windows we have an absolute perfect view for my husband and me.  His ideal of wonderful includes a view with water... for me, I prefer mountains.  Right now, we live in a river valley which offers something for both of us.  


Today I basked in the wonderment of the hillside across the river  - it is absolutely, exploding with yellow from the scattered forsythia and the new lime green of the leafing trees.  I'm certain that back in the midwest, the redbud are blooming ... and I miss that signal of seasonal transition.  But, I will glory in the yellow swatches of the valley.

It's a beautiful feeling where I'm at.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Conversion Fever

Ok, so we've been here almost eight weeks now and I believe I'm starting to think in my new measurement standards... but only sometimes.

Because we have a GPS unit (here, most folks refer to that as a navi - short for navigation) in the car, I've learned to gauge road distance in meters and kilometers, etc.  We recently switched to Sean Connery's voice on the navi, so he tells us to "exit in 800 meters then take the motorway."  Nonetheless, I'm making the switch from miles to kilometers... and that's good for where we are.

In other areas, it hasn't been such smooth sailing.  Take for example... yardage.  I consider myself a novice quilter; most of my work focuses on scrappy designs and improving my skills to tackle bigger projects.  In the states, a good quality cotton fabric could run as high as $12.00 per square yard (not that I ever spent that kinda money on fabrics!).  Typically, I'd buy fabrics that were in the $4-6 dollar range.  In a country with more wool than cotton, I found a fabric store that sells cotton only.  The cheapest fabric available was €12,90 per sq meter.  Double convert the euro to dollar and convert the sq meter to sq yard and it comes to approx $16.12 per sq yard... for the least quality in the store!  It took two people ten minutes with a calculator to figure that out. *sigh*

When it comes to cooking and baking.... Germans cook by weight and not by volume (cups, teaspoons, etc).  Only because I'm at the fresh market every week buying chicken breasts can I tell you that an average looking chicken breast is approx 100g.  After that, I don't know a thing.  Last week I armed my youngest with a bowl from the cupboard, stuffed a few euros in her pocket, sent her on foot to the vegetable stand, and told her "just fill the bowl with potatoes - I have no idea what the weight will be."  She filled the bowl, paid, brought them home and I cooked dinner.  Not exactly midwest living but it's precisely how we're doing things here (and we are not unique).

As a point of reference ...
  • Our new flat is 160,00 m² (referred to as quad meters)
  • The kids bike 4km one way to school
  • A 10 day Eurail Global Pass (with an 8 week timeline) is €603
I hope to think in metric soon, but I'm cool with where I'm at.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

No time like the present

I've been promising my friends that I would get a blog started to document our time and experiences in Germany.  Now that I feel mostly settled in and have the time to concentrate, I'm not sure where to start describing our transition from American life to ... something different.

We moved in early February 2009 from a fabulous home in the midwest - my husband John was offered a new assignment inside the terrific company he works for.  After three weeks in temporary housing, we encamped to an equally wonderful flat in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Heidelberg.  We live in a converted attic which offers spectacular views of the Heidelberg Castle built in 1214 to the east and the Rhine-Neckar to the west.   
We left behind the best of friends, colleagues, mentors, school chums, and a comfortable (yet predictable) lifestyle.  The greater significance however, we moved together as a family... even bringing our cat of 9 years.

That aside, I'm doing the same things today that I've been doing most of my married life:  cooking dinner, folding laundry, raising kids, and loving my husband.  It doesn't matter one bit where you're at, it where you're at that makes the difference.  I embrace those responsibilities, but it isn't the end all and be all of who I am and how I define myself.   

Fortunately, I'm cool with where I'm at.