October 29, 2008
It’s still pretty early (6:30 AM) so there’s time for a bit of play before school. I attempt to check email and fire off a bunch of quickly composed, terse replies that I hope don’t offend anyone.
Then it’s time to go to school. K can ride a bike now, better that me in fact, and wants to do this all the time now. Unfortunately it is raining so we compromise on the bike attachment where the girls can sit in comfort while I freeze and get wet. We get to the school without incident – actually that’s not quite true as the bike falls over on someone’s dog when the girls climb out but no injuries - and I attempt to dry off my glasses before heading home again.
The rain has just been toying with me up until this point and really lets go on my way home. I am wet, frazzled, frumpy (dressed for the gym later) and my hair is pushed up on my head because my ear warmers are riding up. I pass a couple of smartly dressed business people, who eye me without interest and maybe just a glimmer of pity. I wonder if they realize that here goes one of the great HCM strategic thinkers of our time. I want to go back and tell them but they won’t believe me and anyway, they probably don’t even know what HCM is.
This train of thought leads me to wonder how many of the schlumpy - albeit not so schlumpy as me - moms I see when I drop off the girls also hold down jobs and occasionally even clean up respectably.
I arrive home, again dry off my glasses, and get back to work.
So there we were in the restaurant, which was fairly crowded, and I have to say with all the love in the world that our beautiful kids were not looking their best. K has grown about 3 inches in the last month and her pants cuffs were practically up to her knees. Her hair, always a bit wild and not unlike candy floss, was all over the place and she had several large mosquito bites on her face. L was wearing a mismatched shirt and pants (after a very smelly and regrettable accident in the nursery) and a large pair of winter boots that forced her to goose step around without bending her knees. They immediately began jumping around and making noise, something that is frowned on in Germany in public eating establishments. Ralf, who had no trouble getting back in touch with his uptight German roots when it comes to brushed hair and matching clothes that fit properly, was trying to get the girls back into some semblance of order when L suddenly dropped trou and squatted in the middle of the restaurant.
I’m afraid that my first reaction was to burst out laughing. You have to understand that this sort of thing had never happened to us before so my response was neither practiced nor appropriate. K was in a diaper well into her threes and even L always seemed to understand the basic principles of keeping your pants on. And yet, there she was, squatting on the floor of our favorite family restaurant with a purposeful look on her face. It took me a couple of seconds to process the situation and stop shrieking with mirth, but when it sunk what was about to happen in I moved fast and somehow managed to avoid disaster. Picture a nice restaurant in, say, Walnut Creek and the same thing happening to a seedy-looking, sweaty German family, and the German mom scooping up her kid like a football and running off with her while babbling in German, and you’ll get the idea of what all this probably looked like to the other Germans in the restaurant.
You’ll be happy to know that L kept the lid on while we ran downstairs to the bathroom and seemed only mildly put out by the interruption.
She’s not angling for candy or chips, however – in fact, she doesn’t eat any junk food at all and once, when I offered her a piece of buttered white toast, informed me that she only likes whole grain toast. If I offer chips she politely refuses and requests fruit so now I buy apples just for her. For dinner (according to her mother) she eats all the broccoli she can get her hands on, while my kids munch on chicken nuggets, fish sticks and whatever fruit or vegetables I can hide in tomato sauce, popcycles or brownies. So, she’s not exactly good for my maternal ego when I compare her manners and eating habits to those of my own offspring, but she does seem to be good for K. Not in the sense that K has seen the light and now eats fruit of her own free will, but in the sense that she has someone to play with in the afternoon and doesn’t feel quite so homesick.
October 27, 2008
But I can’t complain. After all, I married a German. There was always that chance we’d live in Germany.
Let me take you on a quick tour of a typical day:
Sometime between 4-6 AM one of our daughters climbs into bed with us and it's a crap shoot whether more sleeping is to be had after that. If everyone isn't already awake by 7 the cat starts meowing, which gets the household into motion. Ralf makes coffee (that’s his job since I watch the kids every afternoon while he works) and at some point we remember that the kids need to be at school before 8:30 - this somehow catches us off guard every morning - and the rush to make breakfast, pack lunches and get everyone dressed (warmly) ensues. Once the kids are out of the house I sit in front of my computer with a second cup of coffee and peruse my email, wincing (we’re in the middles of system testing our latest release so emails usually involve more work than a 2-liner) and, I'm afraid, muttering to myself.
At some point I either drive to the gym or blow it off and get dressed. Or, if it’s Monday, I go shopping at Tengelmann’s, an experience that has merited it's own posting. Then I get to work in earnest, either writing detailed design documents or testing or preparing presentations for various events and customer meetings or researching the state of the talent management market. Although I’m a Human Capital Management generalist, I feel a special affinity for compensation because it: 1) involves math; and 2) it isn't as hard as payroll, benefits and general ledger.
At 2:30 I shut down my computer and pick up the kids. Then we play a bit in the playground outside our house and do various things of that kind until it’s time for dinner, a half hour of TV, a story and bed. Then I start my calls. . .
Sometimes I have a call before the kids go to bed and that gets really interesting. If one were to eavesdrop on various conversations it might sound something like this:
October 26, 2008
Let me explain this. Before we had kids, Ralf and I would sleep until 10 then enjoy a cup of coffee with something chocolaty in bed until we felt like getting up. These were good years for the cat, too, because we would pet him while we drank our coffee. Once we had K we were unwilling to give up these quiet moments so we would give her a bottle with water while we enjoyed our morning routine. Once she got old enough to want cookies for herself, we started getting up early to have our coffee and sweet before she came. After all, cookies are bad for little teeth. Once L arrived, however, the cat was out of the bag. No matter how early we woke up they would hear us and sense the cookies and come so a new morning routine was born where we all sit in bed together and munch cookies while mommy and papa drink their coffee.
This is supposed to be a treat that is earned, i.e., we trade cookies for peace and quiet, but I can’t say it has ever worked out that way since the very early days. Now that the newness has worn off they are constantly angling for extra cookies, fighting over each others’ cookies and generally jumping around on the bed while Ralf and I try to enjoy our coffee. You might wonder how we got ourselves into this fix when the outcome is so obvious but it started out pretty well and deteriorated pretty gradually. We are constantly threatening no more cookies but it’s an empty threat because I’m addicted and unwilling to get up at 5AM and they know it. So basically, mornings aren’t much fun around here. ;-)
Sadly, on the few days the children are not here in the morning, like when they visit their Moma and Popa (Ralf’s parents) the cat usually manages to barf in the wee hours. We are a well-run household where someone is always available to wake up mommy and papa.
The cat is also the loser under this new children’s regime – gone are the days when he gets gently petted in the morning in a nice, quiet room. Instead he gets yelled at for waking everyone up (rightfully so) and pounced on by small children (which kind of serves him right for waking everyone up).
This morning was kind of cute, though. K made her opening bid for stretching out against me on my left and L immediately scented danger and arranged herself full-length on top of me, then casually rolled over to her right, thus cutting off her older sister. Despite the irritation this caused I had to admire her technique. K protested that L is selfish and always hogs all the choicer portions of Mommy. L sat up, pointed at Ralf and told K, ‘You can have that one.’
October 25, 2008
Salt (add to the water you cook the pasta in)
3 tbs olive oil
3/4 lb. spicy sausage
1/3 cup finely chopped challots (about 3)
2 3/4 cups yellow and green zuccini or squash
3 oz crumbled goat cheese or feta
2 tsp chopped parsley
fresh pepper for accent
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano (optional)
Boil pasta in salted water until not quite al dente.
While it cooks, heat 1/2 tbs oil and cook sausage until almost cooked through, about 3-5 min.
Transfer sausage to a bowl and wipe skillet.
Heat remaining 2 1/2 tbs oil in skillet and cook shallots until they begin to soften, then add squash and cook until just tender, about 3-5 min.
Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water and drain pasta.
Add pasta back to cooking pot and toss in sausage, squash and 2 tbs. pasta water.
Cook over medium heat until sausage is cooked and pasta is al dente. Add water as necessary.
Remove from heat and add cheese and parsley.
toss until cheese melts, season to taste (salt, pepper) and serve with grated parmiagan.
October 22, 2008
Ingredients1½kg/3lb 5oz stewing beef, cut into cubes
175g/6oz streaky bacon
3 tbsp olive oil
12 baby onions, peeled
18 button mushrooms, left whole
3 carrots, cut into quarters or 12 baby carrots, scrubbed and left whole
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chopped thyme
2 tbsp chopped parsley
10 cloves of garlic, crushed and grated
425ml/15fl oz red wine
425ml/15fl oz chicken or beef stock
For the roux50g/2oz butter50g/1¾oz flour
1. Brown the beef and bacon in the olive oil in a hot casserole or heavy saucepan.
2. Remove the meat and toss in the onions, mushrooms and carrots, one ingredient at a time, seasoning each time.
3. Place these back in the casserole, along with the herbs and garlic.
4. Cover with red wine and stock and simmer for one hour or until the meat and vegetables are cooked.
5. To make the roux, in a separate pan melt the butter, add the flour and cook for 2 minutes.
6. When the stew is cooked, remove the meat and vegetables.
7. Bring the remaining liquid to the boil and add 1 tbsp of roux.
8. Whisk the mixture until the roux is broken up and the juices have thickened, allowing to boil.
9. Replace the meat and vegetables, and taste for seasoning.10. Sprinkle with chopped parsley
Anyway, if you're struggling to understand the universe this is a good read.
October 21, 2008
October 19, 2008
It's not about being humanitarian. It's just about being humane.
Vote for Obama. And please vote for the chickens, too.
October 8, 2008
German food is great, especially in the colder months. There is every sort of bread you can imagine, with every sort of wheat, nut or grain that there is. Some of the breads are dry and boring – for example, the other day we had lunch at our club and I swear we were eating mud bricks but there’s no accounting for taste because Ralf ate his with gusto and several comments about how much he missed real bread in the US – but if you find a good one it’s really good. Munich is also the home of the big-as-your-head soft pretzel. These taste particularly good with Radler, which is ice cold beer mixed with Sprite, and Obatzda, which is a cheesy dip made of Brie, Camembert, butter and paprika and topped with slices of red onion.
Now let’s talk about dairy. The milk here is just good. German cows (at least the ones you can see from the highway) are fat, happy creatures that have nothing to do but look for the most succulent blades of grass to make the sweetest milk. This lovely milk also makes the creamiest butter and yogurt you can imagine. You can lose a lot of weight eating German yogurt because it fills you up for hours.
I never really thought of butter as a delicacy until I watched a French friend of mine lovingly butter a piece of baguette and eat it slowly with her eyes partly closed, as if she had all the time in the world for that perfect slice of buttery Heaven.
There are also obvious German delicacies like Schweinebraten, which is pork roasted in its own juices with a nice, crispy, slightly burnt crust that forms as the outer layer of fat slowly roasts. A good crust is hard to do and the mark of a successful Schweinebraten.
And let us not forget to pay homage to the cakes of Germany. My favorite cakes are the Sachertorte, which is a rich chocolate cake with apricot preserves mixed in, and Prinzregententorte, which is a 7-layer yellow cake with chocolate cream frosting between each thin layer.
And finally, there’s a category of specialty items that take some getting used to but once you like them you’re hooked. For example, Schmalzbrot is pork fat mixed with pork drippings and little pieces of fried bacon spread on dark bread and topped with onion, parsley and a dash of salt. Then there’s Handkaese, which is a hard, incredibly stinky rotten cheese that that is served over dark bread, soaked in vinegrette and topped with raw onions for accent. This dish is popular in the Frankfurt area and is typically served with a sour apple wine that tastes fantastic after you finish your second glass. And last but not least there is Pressack, which is a meat-based gelatin with actual meat chunks marinated in (you guessed it) vinegrette and topped with (you guessed it again) onions.
Mind you, although I enjoy Schmalzbrot, Handkaese and Pressack, it’s not for everyone. About 3 years ago I read a funny article about how some typical German food products were sent to Africa for sampling and the Africans were scandalized at how a rich country like Germany ruins perfectly good food.
Here's an interesting factoid: The word 'berate', which means to upbraid or scold, is derived from the German word 'beraten', which means to consult. So I guess when you berate someone in German you're actually doing them a favor that they should be paying you for. ;-)
October 2, 2008
Driving in Germany is an experience that provides much insight into the meticulous German soul. In the US, the rules of the road are comprised of some basic and consistent rules, for example, on certain types of road the speed limit is always 35 mph, on the highway it’s 55 or 65 or whatever it is these days but it’s basically consistent so you don’t have to think about it on each stretch of road. There are also clear and consistent rules of precedence, for example, right before left at an intersection where there’s no traffic light. So to summarize, there are a few rules that apply pretty much everywhere and most of them make sense so they’re easy to remember.
For the average German, American traffic rules were designed for weak and retarded people. Just the fact that they can be summarized as I just did in a few sentences is proof of their basic inferiority. Even my husband Ralf, who has more insight into, and, I trust, appreciation for, the American character than the average German, thinks we’re a bunch of helpless, spoon fed idiots on the road. Driving a motorized vehicle is a privilege and should be treated as such by responsible adults who have taken the time to master the skill.
So anyway, car meet road. Road, car. What’s so hard about that? Keep reading.
Another weird rule is ‘right before left.’ We have that same rule in the US, you say – what’s so weird about it? What’s weird is that it means something completely different here. It means that when you’re driving along minding your own business and someone pulls recklessly out of a little side street to the right they have right of way. My husband and I argue about this one because I think it’s the most insane rule that ever existed whereas he’s been cleverly brainwashed since high school to think it makes sense. Deep down inside I think the Germans also realize that it’s a crazy rule because they came up with the idea of ‘main highway’ where cars coming from the right don’t have right of way. So when you’re driving you look to see if your stretch of road has a ‘main highway’ sign, which looks like a yellow diamond, and you hope that someone remembered to put up yield signs on the intersecting streets. All in all, this wacky dynamic right of way concept makes it even harder than having a consistently bad rule because you’re never sure if you have right of way or not. (To be fair: Ralf claims that he always knows.)
Much like the German language (more about this at another time), the German rules of the road are based on a few rules that make no sense at all and a bunch of exceptions that would make sense if they were rules instead of exceptions. Because there are so many exceptions (like how fast you can go, whether you have right of way, etc.), there need to be a lot of traffic signs, lights and signals to make drivers aware of the exceptions. This in turn necessitates a hierarchy of road signals so that if you are on a street that has a light and several signs that conflict with each other – I am not joking - you know what to do. Generally speaking lights take precedence over signs and red trumps other colors. Sign precedence is determined by shape and color, and sometimes the actual text of the sign will explain when the rule applies. This text tends to be pretty small, which may be one reason virtually all Germans wear glasses.
The roads themselves are also different from the wide, friendly, environmentally horrible highways we Americans feel entitled to drive on. For one thing, German highways are poorly lit by American standards, which makes it easier for maniacal Porsche drivers to dazzle you with their high beams. For another, Munich (like many European cities) is built on the concept of a ring. Traversing the city generally means following the ring, which is difficult because the street names change periodically and intersecting streets masquerading as the ring try to tempt you off of it and then you find yourself in some place like Unterhacking or Oberamergau with no clue how to get back. The highways are also somewhat challenging to navigate – although they are larger and more like what Americans are used to, you need full knowledge of European geography to get around because the sign won’t mention a direction or the town you’re trying to get to, it’ll say ‘Salzburg’. This works well if you know where Salzburg is relative to where you are now. Of course, even Ralf doesn’t know every single point on the map by heart so he carries around this complicated little book that folds out into many different versions of a map depending on where you are trying to get to. This map is virtually impossible to decipher and it was in part Ralf's mastery of this task that allowed me to identify him as an alpha male and the future father of my children. There's also no way to fold it up again so you only want to use it for real emergencies because you pretty much have to buy a new one each time.
The upside is that German drivers are in the habit of paying attention while they drive, which is good for American newcomers because they can spot (and avoid) you immediately by your failure to understand street signs, your sloppy haircut and/or relaxed posture while driving, your tendency to pass on the right and the jerky moves your car makes if you are driving a stick shift. Note that this does not apply to the truck drivers so give them plenty space and keep in mind that they won’t get into nearly as much trouble for running you off the road as they would in the US.
October 1, 2008
Fast forward seven years later and when I pick up my kids at Kindergarten, what do they do before I can take them home? They shake hands with their teacher! Another mystery solved.