Lichterserenade

Currently we’re drowning in packing boxes, much like when we moved overseas a year ago. However, we are trying to take breaks from all the madness whenever possible to enjoy our last days in Bavaria.

Last night we were able to attend the Lichterserenade (Serenade of Lights) on the Danube. After learning that the event happens at nightfall, we assumed our kids would never make it. But it was too hot to sleep in our sweltering apartment, so we decided to give it a go and joined the masses of people collecting along the riverbanks.

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It was exciting to see the lit riverboats begin to approach.

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Each of these traditional Ulm vessels was loaded with people traveling upstream. Unfortunately, after that it was a looooong wait for darkness to come. Sam and I found a seat atop a wall near the river path. But, despite Lucy’s late nap that day, she was unable to sit still and demanded that Joe walk her up and down the trail to look at all of the activity. At about 10:30, we finally were rewarded for our patience with some fireworks.

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The fireworks show lasted a couple of minutes, before the barge traveled further down the river and performed again downstream. So we were able to see the show twice as it happened on either side of where we sat.

At the same time, small red and orange lanterns began floating towards us. They were very pretty, but hard to photograph due to their dimness.

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That was the best I could manage. We didn’t last much longer before the kids were too hungry and tired to stay out anymore. But we were grateful to have been able to witness this beautiful ceremony before we travel back home next week.

Spring Break in Paris, part 2

Here’s the rest of our Paris adventure over spring break:

Day 3: Paris sightseeing

We bought a Paris breakfast at the corner boulangerie — pain aux rasins and croissants au beurre. Then we boarded the metro near our apartment. I had forgotten how it feels to commute in a large city, with bus and subway rides lasting for at least a half hour. It wouldn’t have been a problem for Joe and me, but these long rides were very difficult for my kids to endure.

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When you exit from the Trocadero metro station, you are treated to this splendid sight. Sam and Lucy both recognized the Eiffel Tower from an app they’ve been playing which teaches about Paris, although Lucy pronounces it “Pookal Tower”. From there, it’s an nice downhill walk through the Palais de Chaillot and a bridge across the Seine to the base of the tower.

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The hardest part was figuring out which line we should queue in. Even though we arrived just before opening, the lines of tourists snaked in spirals underneath the tower without any recognizable order or system. It took us about an hour of waiting in line before we made it inside and took the elevator to the 2nd floor.

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Pretty great views from up there!

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After we descended back to the ground, it was lunchtime. We bought some baguette sandwiches and frites and had a picnic on the Champ de Mars park beneath the Eiffel Tower.

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The kids loved climbing the old trees and we enjoyed some great people-watching while we ate. We walked to the south end of the park and caught a city bus to take us to the Île de la Cité. I researched in advance and picked a bus that would let us off at the Right Bank of the Pont des Arts bridge, so we could add a “love lock” to the railing.

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Can you spot our lock? It’s in there!

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Unfortunately, we had a mini disaster. Sam had a lock in his hand that he’d drawn pictures on in advance. He dropped it on the bridge and it fell between the cracks into the river below! Poor kid lost his mind and threw the biggest tantrum of his life. We placated him by buying a new lock from a vendor nearby, but his mood never fully recovered after that.

We walked along the left bank and browsed the used books, comics, and art sold by the Bouquinistes before arriving at Notre Dame cathedral.

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It was nice to see Notre Dame from the outside, but the line to enter was too long. Sam was cranky, Lucy had fallen asleep in her stroller, and the grown-ups were hot and tired. So we opted instead to let Sam play in the playground near the cathedral grounds and we found an ice cream shop for a sweet treat.

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All in all, we were happy to accomplished so much in one day!

Day 4: Break Time

Lucy had been sick for most of the evening prior.  Waking up from her nap to a stuffy city bus ride wasn’t good for her sensitive stomach. So we decided to cancel our plans to visit the Jardin du Luxembourg in the morning and Montmartre in the afternoon.

Instead, Grandma came to visit! The kids were very happy to see her and spend the day with Grandma at our rented apartment while Joe and I went for a walk.

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We walked past the Place de la Bastille and browsed through a farmer’s market there, before making our way to the Place des Vosges. After admiring the regal architecture and symmetry of the grounds and seeing where Victor Hugo used to live, we found our way to a lovely Renaissance garden courtyard at the Hôtel de Sully.

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We had a relaxing café lunch of a croque monsieur and café noisette. On the walk home, we visited charming shops in Le Marais and bought some macarons at a pastry shop.

Grandma said goodbye and we took the kids to a park and playground near our apartment, Square de la Roquette, to burn off some of their extra energy.

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Then we bought some groceries at a produce market to cook dinner at home yet again. Eating dinner with the kids at a restaurant wasn’t really possible in Paris. Most of the restaurants don’t open until 7pm which is far too close to bedtime for Lucy and Sam. There are brasseries and cafés that are open all day, but my kids were often too cranky from sightseeing to have been patient enough to wait for food service. We were lucky to have booked an apartment so we could cook meals in our own kitchen. I’d recommend it highly to any other families travelling with young kids.

Day 5: Rainy Departure

On our final morning in Paris, we were dissuaded from our plans to see the Arc du Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées by a heavy rain storm outside our windows. So we instead let the kids watch some French cartoons on TV while we packed the suitcases and cleaned the apartment. We took one final trip down the rickety elevator and made our way to the train station and home again on the high-speed TGV trains.

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Above is a shot of us waiting in the train station, trying to avoid being accosted by the aggressive pigeons inside the terminal. At least our first-class meal included mini bottles of wine (in plastic bottles!).

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Above is a view of the scenic French countryside from the train windows.

It was good to be home, and have the kids in their own beds. We’re glad to have made it to Paris and seen as much as we did, but it’s not ever easy traveling with little ones. Funny to think that they’re so young and will likely not remember this vacation at all when they get older. I’m glad to have this blog as an outlet to help record our experiences during this year abroad.

Spring Break in Paris, part 1

We planned a getaway to Paris over Joe and Sam’s school spring break for a couple of reasons. Joe had never been there before, and we didn’t want to spend our year in Europe without going to at least one of the big cities that tourists usually visit. I’ve always liked Paris, and have some French language skills that make traveling there easier than going to Italy or Spain. And most importantly, we were able to coordinate the dates with my mom to meet up with her there for a couple of days while she toured through Italy and France with a friend (hi, Linda!).

Ulm is a bit of a train hub, so it was no problem to find a train route without connections to get us to Paris. We did have trouble booking the seat reservations for the kids, because they’re minors in Germany but not in France, so we went to the info desk for some human help. The attendant was able to snag us four first-class seats for a cheaper fare than second-class! We were happy to have a little bit of extra room and some charging ports for our electronics.

We stayed the night before in a hotel near the train station since our train departed pretty early the next morning, and Lucy proceeded to bonk her forehead on a bedside table. You may very well see a goose-egg lump on her forehead in some of these photos, and that’s the reason why!

Day 1: Arrival

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In the morning, we ate some so-so train food and tried to keep the kids occupied for the 5-hour journey. They fared well until we crossed the German/French border. After Strasbourg, the TGV train began its high-speed route through the rapeseed fields of central France. It’s hard to see, but the right-hand photo above shows the display screen with a speed of 311 km/hr! To achieve such high speeds, the train cabin was pressurized and became very hot and stuffy. That’s when all four of us began to feel some degree of motion sickness. Both Sam and Lucy fell victim to the nausea, so we arrived at the Gare de l’Est quite a bit worse for the wear.

For most of our week in Paris, we avoided the metro because it’s too hard to navigate with a stroller. We took a city bus to our rented apartment in the Ledru-Rollin neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement. After checking in with the landlady, we were finally able to relax and recover a little.

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We enjoyed the view from our apartment, and it was nice to have a small kitchen and an extra bed for the kids. It was on the 7th floor (!) of the building, but luckily had a tiny elevator that would carry one adult and one child or suitcase at a time. The elevator was an experience in and of itself! Shame I didn’t take any pictures of that odd bit of machinery. We decided we were too exhausted from the train journey to attempt the restaurant meal and Seine river tour on the Bateaux-Mouches we had planned. Instead, we bought some groceries from a nearby shop and made dinner in our apartment so we could get to bed early. Such is the life of families with young kids!

Day 2: Paris Disneyland

We felt like silly tourists, but Sam’s been asking to go to Disneyland since he first saw a TV commercial featuring Buzz Lightyear as a two-year-old. We decided that his enthusiasm combined with Lucy’s obsession with Minnie Mouse meant that we couldn’t pass up the convenience of a day-trip to Paris Disneyland.

We took the metro and the RER train a half-hour outside of central Paris to arrive at the crowded Disney gates.

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Here’s Joe and Sam posing for the requisite photo in front of the Mickey topiary out front.

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Even “Les Toilettes” were cutely designed, in typical Disney fashion. Lucy and I spent a large part of the day waiting for Sam outside of these fixtures. It’s been a long time since I visited a theme park with a preschooler, and it’s not always easy!

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And we had to get a castle shot of Sam, as well. The Paris Disneyland castle is especially pretty. Travel websites mention that they had to make it especially fantastical to compete with all of the real  castles in the nearby region.

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We waited in our first queue, for the carousel. I had planned to pass this one up, since there are so many carousels for tourists to ride all over Paris, but Sam insisted. And he was right, it was worth the wait.

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I spent the ride standing next to Lucy’s horse and making sure she didn’t fall off.

Next we went to the It’s a Small World ride. Not my favorite, but every travel website said that it was the best option in the park for small kids, and possibly the best of the Small World versions amongst the various Disney parks worldwide. Their advice was spot on, and my kids adored the experience and watched the animatronic dolls singing with awe in their eyes.

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Then we met Tigger. I think we could have left at that point and called the day a success. In Lucy’s opinion, it was already the best day ever.

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We managed to tour the inside of Sleeping Beauty’s castle as well as the animatronic dragon in the cave underneath. Sam still swears to this day that the dragon was real, and we can’t convince him otherwise. It was a bit too dark in there to take any photographs, however.

Then we hurried out of the Disneyland park for a character lunch at Cafe Mickey. We had booked this spot in advance, because we knew that we wanted our kids to have a chance to meet a few characters in costume without having to wait in long lines.

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Neither of my kids ate much of their food due to the excitement, but it was well worth it.

We went back to the park and visited some of the other lands.

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In Frontierland, Joe and Sam inspected the cannons and attempted a tour through the Phantom Manor. Unfortunately, the ride broke down while they were in line and they didn’t get a chance to experience the haunted house. Meanwhile, Lucy napped in the stroller and I greeted the riverboat’s arrival and watched the Big Thunder Mountain ride get stuck and evacuated. It wasn’t a good day for ride maintenance at the park, apparently.

Then we went to Adventureland and explored the many bridges and tunnels on the Adventure Isle and let our kids burn off some extra energy at a nice playground they have there.

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It was fun to see a life-sized version of Captain Hook’s pirate ship.

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Lucy woke up from her nap in time to play on the playground, so afterwards we bought the kids some popsicles to help beat the heat and keep their spirits up.

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Sam tried to pull Excalibur out of the stone on our return journey through Fantasyland. We had to break the news to him that only the true king of England can succeed, and he was mightily disappointed!

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In Discoveryland, Sam found some sculptures to climb and even spotted Wall*E and Eve! We used a Fast Pass we’d picked up after lunch to avoid the 2+ hour wait for the Buzz Lightyear Lazer Blast ride. I wasn’t sure if it would be too much for my kids to handle, but they both enjoyed it.

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The inside of the ride has a lot of black-lights and targets you’re supposed to shoot at with your laser gun, so it didn’t make for very good picture taking.

We had planned to go back to Fantasyland for a bit before catching the parade, but our kids had other plans. They needed a snack so we spent a good half-hour waiting in line at a snack bar for some food. Then, the clouds coalesced and drenched us with a heavy downpour. We abandoned our plans because of the weather and our exhaustion, and instead went to wait in line for the train. Paris Disneyland has a steam-engine railroad that runs the perimeter of the park, so we rode that back to the Main Street portion of the park where we had dinner reservations waiting for us.

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Lucy really liked riding on the train, despite the fact that we’d ridden trains to get to Paris and to get from the city out to Disneyland. Perhaps this train better matched her schema for what a train should be, with real “choo choo” noises, unlike the modern counterparts we’d previously encountered.

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Our excursion to Paris Disneyland was well worth it. I was surprised by how well our kids handled all of the stimulation and excitement. I’m glad we managed to pack so much into our single day there and have such a magical time.

Fasching

Fasching is the southern German version of Mardi Gras, or Carnival week. So, yeah, this post is four months overdue. Late February was around the time that this blog fell off the rails for a bit.  I was also discouraged in writing this post by the fact that I didn’t manage to capture as many good photographs as I’d hoped. But I want to write about our experience so that Sam and Lucy can someday read about it before all of our memories become hazy.

Halloween was barely recognized in our part of Germany. I spotted a small section of costumes and decorations in the larger grocery stores, but we never witnessed any decorations in our neighborhood and we certainly didn’t see any trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. In Bavaria, they save all the costumes for Fasching.

Fasching lasts all week, starting with the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Stores start selling all sorts of costumes in the months leading up to the Carnival season. In America, for Halloween most children dress up as a character from a book, movie, or TV show that they love. Adults run into two camps, either risqué costumes for women that are not work appropriate, or comical costumes like giant bananas. Regardless of age, you will be asked “what are you?”. In Germany, lots of kids were superheroes, pirates, witches, or princesses. But for older tweens and teens, many choose to just wear a sort of crazy get-up, like a sparkly shirt with a colored wig. Grown-ups seemed to prefer to be cowboys or hippies. There are also a lot of plush animal costumes for all ages (probably to keep revelers warm when attending parades on cold February days!).

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Sam had wanted to be Spiderman all year. On the right, you can see one of the plush costumes I was describing.

The other main difference between Fasching and Halloween is the lack of a focus on candy. Actually, that’s true of most of the holidays here. Valentine’s Day is more about giving notes of love to those you care about, not having to hand out lollipops to everyone in your class. Easter is about hiding real dyed eggs, not plastic eggs filled with candy. Yes, they had a lot of chocolate Easter bunnies, but in America we usually had the chocolate bunny, the jelly beans, the malted robin’s eggs…the list goes on and on. And Halloween was always the ultimate candy extravaganza.

The irony is that American parents are often much more concerned about their kids’ sugar intake than German parents. Here, sweets are a daily experience, with apple strudels and chocolate croissants at every turn. In addition, from our very first week here we marveled at how our kids were handed candy by shop clerks at every errand we ran. My two kids now expect to be able to rummage in the candy drawer at the bakery and get lollipops handed to them by the waitresses as we leave a restaurant. McDonald’s Happy Meals come with gummies. Even the pharmacist gives your medicine in a plastic bag filled with candy! It’s bizarre. But perhaps it’s not as much of a dietary problem for the simple fact that it isn’t restricted so they learn to self-regulate at a younger age.

We actually managed to miss all of the Fasching parades in town. From the pictures we saw others post to Facebook, perhaps this was for the best, since the masked adults resembled ogres and monsters, and probably would have given our kids nightmares. I remember being scared by the vikings at Poulsbo’s Viking Fest parade myself as a youngster!

We did have a day as Joe and Sam’s school where everyone had the option to wear a costume. Here’s a picture of Sam’s class all dressed up:

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Joe and another teacher coordinated to both go as “Where’s Waldo?” (here in Germany, he’s known as Wally).

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The school also hosted an evening Fasching dance party, which we attended before we had to leave to put the kids to bed. Lucy and I found matching Little Red Riding Hood costumes at the last minute.

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Lucy and Sam loved dancing to the music. And the best part is, we can recycle our costumes because Halloween’s only half a year away and they won’t have outgrown them yet!

Climbing the Münster

Earlier this spring, we finally did it!

On a slow Sunday, with nothing else to do, we found ourselves in the town center and decided to attempt the Münster climb that we’d been meaning to do since we first moved to Ulm.

We paid our fee in the cathedral gift shop, then began to ascend the 768 steps.

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The view from the bottom. It’s a very tall tower!

I didn’t manage many interior photos while we hiked. The entire climb is a narrow spiral staircase, and there were other tourists ahead of us and behind us at all times. Since we were carrying Lucy, and often Sam as well, we felt like we were already holding up the queue and didn’t want to stop for a photo on the stairs. Plus, as anyone who’s visited European cathedrals before will know, the staircase is very dark and likely any pictures we tried to take wouldn’t have turned out very well.

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We made it to the first landing. It provides a view of the Münsterplatz and the people strolling below. You can’t see it in this picture, but Joe and I were both already flushed & sweating!

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The view from the second landing. We were getting pretty high up!

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We also spotted some fierce-looking gargoyles en route. Most were on corners of the building that we couldn’t capture by our cameras. There was lots of caging at every opening, to prevent climbers from dropping things (or jumping) from such heights.

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The second landing also had a roof-top that became an impromptu slide for my kids. I truly believe this was their favorite part of the whole adventure!

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Happy kids. It’s a lot easier to be smiling when you’ve been carried by your parents up 500+ stairs.

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This is the final stairwell. The Wikipedia page for the Münster accurately states that there is “barely enough room for one person.” And we had kids in our arms. Every time we had to pass someone going in the opposite direction, we had to hug the wall or the center column and hope that we would not lose our footing. Yikes!

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I think we were delirious by this point. Maybe it was the altitude?

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A quick snap of Sam on the final stairwell. At least half the tourists seemed to give up and not attempt this last climb, so we didn’t feel quite as much pressure to hurry. Sam actually did a very good job of climbing portions of the tower without [much] complaint. I think that living on the 5th floor of our apartment building has built up his tolerance more than we’d realized.

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This is the roof of the main church below.

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And a view across the Danube.

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I don’t know what Lucy’s so grumpy about! You can see from the photo how narrow the circular walkway around the top viewing platform is. It was difficult to pass around other tourists. I wouldn’t recommend bringing young kids on the Münster climb, simply because of the cramped walkways.

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Here’s some selfies of Joe with the kids at the top.

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After all those stairs, we felt we deserved to reward ourselves with some gelato.

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Here’s a last photo taken by Sam. Kudos to all who have succeeded in climbing the Münster tower! It’s not an easy feat and I’m glad we managed it once before we leave this German town.

Foreign Food Friday – FIFA World Cup Edition

Hello to anyone still checking this stagnant blog! Apologies for the long blog hibernation. No excuses, I just fell off the technology wagon for various reasons and now I’m attempting to claw my way back into my old social media habits once again.

I’ve never lived in a foreign country during World Cup season before. I knew that the rest of the world was passionate about the tournament in a way that we in America just never seemed to understand. I saw some coverage of the last World Cup, but mostly remember only the vuvuzela horns in South Africa more than which nations’ teams were in the top rankings.

Well, all that’s changed. Here in Germany, there is supreme national pride visible everywhere, from the flags and streamers on the cars driving by to the lowliest products on supermarket shelves. I’ve never seen so much branding, not even for the Superbowl or the Olympics. Here’s a sampling of what I saw today while shopping for my family’s groceries.

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Yogurt with flavors for the top teams (Spanish orange, Italian panna cotta, German rhubarb, and Brazilian lime).

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Potato salad sporting a patriotic image.

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Pringles have jumped on the “themed flavors for different nationalities” bandwagon.

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The frozen food aisle offers Brazilian-themed quick meals to serve at your World Cup party.

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German flag toothbrushes!

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Brazilian-scented shower soap (whatever that means).

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Tiny soccer ball gummies in tropical flavors (for Brazil) and sour gummy German flags.

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Tissue boxes must come in a Brazilian-print, obviously.

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And one’s candy dish must only sport M&Ms in patriotic colors.

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And last of all, a life-size soccer ball made out of chocolate. Because your kids ate the chocolate Easter bunny you gave them last month and now they need MORE sweets.

It’s fun to discover what the marketing teams can come up with. And I’m very glad to have experienced the FIFA World Cup hoopla at least once in my life.