der Weihnachtsmarkt – the Christmas market

Christmas in Bavaria is very familiar to American Christmas, yet the focus is slightly different. We are delighting in the sights, sounds, and smells that we encounter at every outing. The holiday season still abounds with commercial marketing ploys, yet it also seems easier to focus on the other aspects of the season, such as traditional family foods, gathering together with friends, and reflecting on one’s religious beliefs and charitable aspirations.

Central to each large town in southern Germany is the Christmas market. Many tourists come each year to tour through all of the various cities, but with our two young kids in tow we only managed to visit the one in our hometown.

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The town square (the Münsterplatz, in our case) gets taken over with wooden stalls which sell decorations, gifts, and delicious food.

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After dark, it’s especially magical, with holiday lights twinkling everywhere. And a mug of delicious Glühwein (mulled wine) or Feuerzangenbowle always helps to ward off the cold and uplift one’s Christmas spirit.

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By daylight, there are plenty of fun carnival rides and activities to keep the kids entertained. They had miniature scenes from many Germanic fairy tales and legends. Above, Sam is standing inside a set of the “Bremen Town Musicians”.

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I even got to try my first taste of “chestnuts roast[ed] on an open fire” (heisse Maroni auf Deutsch).

We also tasted lots of sausages, schupfnudeln (large noodles with sauerkraut and bacon), candied nuts, and apple fritters.

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On December 6th (der Nikolaustag), I even spotted St. Nicholas. My apologies for the lack of photography skills. But you can just make out his helper, Knecht Ruprecht, dressed in black and holding the back of goodies. Legend has it that Sankt Nikolaus brings the good children apples, nuts, mandarins, and chocolates, while Knecht Ruprecht gives the bad children a spanking and a lump of coal.

Supposedly, there are also appearances by Krampus on December 5th, but I didn’t make it to the market on that day to check.

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My kids may be naughty at times, but at least they don’t have to worry about visits from such scary creatures!

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Check out this mistletoe! I’ve never seen more than a sprig before.

And watch for the last two riders on the train!

Happy holidays to all our dear family and friends! We may be separated by many miles, but you are always in our thoughts.

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ein Spaziergang an der Donau – A walk along the Danube

Here’s some more shots of our favorite place to stroll — the banks of the Danube.

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Portions of the old city walls still exist and are a nice raised walkway.

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From the ramparts, you can see one of the tributaries, called the Blau (Blue) which flows directly through central Ulm. The Danube cuts between Ulm and Neu-Ulm (where we live). The winding path of the Blau is another nice walk, and it is the site of the best historic buildings surviving in the city. I’ll show some more of those journeys in a later blog post.

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Or you can walk on the paved pathways right next to the river. This is where the joggers prefer to roam, although there are separate paths for bikes and pedestrians, which is a nice way to help traffic flow more smoothly.

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Above is a view from the lower path. You can see the wall, with the city buildings behind.

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There are bridges at almost every major intersection. So, we can cross back over the Danube whenever we are ready to return to Neu-Ulm. This is often how we roll…piggyback style. Sam has become a fairly good long-distance walker, but at times he needs to be carried a little.

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This is a small island that’s formed by an off-shoot of the Danube named die Kleine Donau (“the Little Danube”). There’s a nice park with picnic tables to watch the boats and birds float by. We frequently observe kayaks and crew teams, but not very many larger, motored river boats.

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We can see the Münster from almost anywhere. And there are often men fishing at intervals along the river. I’m not sure how much they actually manage to catch. But we like how there are often stairs leading down any steep banks to access the river easily. It seems in America that any steep riverbanks would be heavily barricaded and blocked by guardrails to prevent accidents. It’s evident of the differing attitudes towards safety that we’ve observed here in Germany.

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Lucy likes to spot all the dogs that out walking with their owners.

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Here’s a shot of me, walking with the stroller among the fall leaves.

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Sam’s always good at spotting wildflowers.

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We’re grateful for any clear days where we can get out for a stroll and some fresh air. Our old neighborhood was not very good for walking. It’s a treat to have so many pedestrian-only paths with such a beautiful river view.

Martinstag – St. Martin’s Day

November 11th is celebrated as St. Martin’s Day in Germany (yeah, I’m more than a month behind on my blog posts, but I’m working on it!).

The holiday is mostly honored by young children, who learn stories about the charitable former Roman soldier and 4th century French monk. St. Martin famously cut his cloak in half to save a beggar in a snowstorm. St. Martin is also used to teach humility, since the legend has it that he hid in a goose pen to avoid being ordained as a bishop.

Much of Europe still celebrates this holiday in varying forms. Some nations honor Armistice Day concurrently as well.

At the International school the students all met at dusk and watched a skit performed by Joe’s 2nd grade class about the life of St. Martin.

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Joe used his Ukulele to accompany the crowd to a traditional song about the lanterns that the students had learned in advance.

Then the students walked in a twilight procession with their lanterns through the town and along the Danube. They had decorated the lanterns at school with tissue paper and glitter. They are then balanced on store-bought battery-powered wands that have a powerful halogen bulb hanging from them.

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The dim lighting was too challenging for my lack of camera skills.

After the walk, the students gathered at the school for warm drinks (a mix of fruit juice and tea) and a traditional sweet bun shaped like a goose. I couldn’t get a photo of those in the dark, but they resembled the photos below:

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We were excited to partake in this European holiday celebration. So many of the German holidays are very similar to American ones, due to the heavy German immigrant population. But St. Martin’s day was new to us, and it was a delightful (albeit chilly!) experience.

Foreign food Friday – holiday edition

In honor of all the Christmas festivities in our household and around the world, I’d like to spread some holiday cheer.

Something red:

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Kangaroo steaks? Don’t think I’ve seen these in the US yet. Bison, yes. Emu, sometimes. Even alligator, if you’re in certain regions or at a county fair. Must be the cuddly association we have with them as being sweet animals (like Kanga and Roo from Winnie the Pooh), although the truth is certainly quite different for Australians.

And something green:

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Yikes! I’m sure that this pesto cheese tastes scrumptious. But I don’t think I could get over it’s vibrant hue if I were confronted by it on a cheese plate.

Happy holidays to all! Hope you’re staying sane in the crunch time of last-minute holiday preparations.

Playground pics #3

Sam loves to find new playgrounds when we are out on our walks, and more often than not, he’s successful at it. They’re tucked everywhere in our new neck-of-the-woods.

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This cool pirate ship was hidden among a public green space. It’s tied to a Biergarten that operates during the summer and provides a nice place for the kids to play while their parents relax nearby.

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Lucy loved this short little slide and went up the stairs and down the slide on a continuous loop for a good twenty minutes straight.

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There she goes again!

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She also loved digging in the sand. Most of the playgrounds here use sand, which is less common than rubber or bark chips or even gravel in our part of America. The sand certainly does get into everyone’s shoes and makes the kids more messy, but it’s a softer surface to fall upon. I’m still undecided about which playground surface I prefer.

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We also later heard from a local mom that the Biergarten restaurant actually hides golden coins in the sand. If one of the kids finds one, they get a free ice cream or other treat. What a fantastic idea! I can imagine any kid from ages 3-12 spending hours digging in the sand once you told them this news.

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Lucy found this seesaw near the heart of Ulm, just behind the Rathaus (city hall). A lot of the playgrounds have these spring-supported seesaws, which are great because kids of different sizes can still use them. Seesaws seem to be a lot less common in America these days. I remember lots of injuries in my childhood from merry-go-rounds and seesaws, so it’s likely they’ve been removed to prevent injury and insurance claims. In Germany, with no bicycle helmet laws and infant carseats commonly placed in the front passenger seat, there must be less concern regarding mere playground accidents.

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One more mini playground, found tucked amid some soccer fields at a sporting area a short walk from our apartment.

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And here’s Sam, our intrepid playground hunter even finding slides in the rain.

That’s probably the last of our playground adventures until the warmer spring months. Not very pleasant to get wet sand all over your hands or soggy pants from an attempt at the slide.

Das Ulmer Münster

I’ve been neglectful. We’ve lived here in Ulm for 4+ months and I have barely mentioned the most famous tourist sites here. Part of that is because we have little kids in tow. They’re not patient enough yet for most of the museums and not old enough to ride on the beer bike.

The city of Ulm is not very well-known to most Americans. When we first started thinking about coming here, we learned that it is the birthplace of Albert Einstein (although he only lived here for his first year of life, so all of the Einstein references around town are a bit of a stretch). Ulm also is the site of the failed flying attempts of the “Tailor of Ulm“. But most notably, our new hometown has the tallest church steeple in the world, the Ulm Münster.

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The Münster was begun in the Gothic Era (1377) but construction was halted due to a lack of funds and to the city’s conversion to Protestantism in 1530. Like the Cologne cathedral, it wasn’t completed until the late 19th century. The completed church was the tallest building in the world from 1890-1901, when the Philadelphia City Hall surpassed it.

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The outside features gargoyles and intricate carvings of biblical scenes.

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It is not a cathedral because it never housed a Catholic bishop. The Minster/Münster term derives from the Latin for monastery and is related to (but not the same as) the Anglican term used for Westminster and York Minster.

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Mozart played on this organ during a visit in 1763, although his father Leopold described Ulm as a “hateful, old-fashioned and disgusting place” [source].

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It is a Lutheran church, with seating for a congregation of 2,000. The interior, like most European cathedrals, features beautiful artwork at every turn. Even the ceiling is painted and gilded.

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The smell of incense, candles, and aging wood permeates everything.

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With the dim lighting and stained glass windows, it’s hard to capture the interior with our camera.

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Sam always feel good to be able to say a prayer and light a candle for our loved ones.

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Outside, there are some stone sparrows to climb on. The sparrow is a common sight around Ulm, being one of the town’s official mascots. It is meant in jest, since the legend has it that the residents were unable to figure out how to navigate a large beam through the city gates until they observed a sparrow maneuvering a long twig into its nest lengthwise. But the Ulmer citizens have embraced this symbol of their ineptitude and it is represented in public artwork at every turn.

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We still haven’t managed to climb the 768 steps to the top of the steeple. We’ll have to get a babysitter for that one, since I don’t exactly relish carrying our two kids up that many narrow, winding flights of stairs. But we’ll manage it sometime before we leave this Germany city, by gum! It’s definitely at the top of our to-do list.

International Preschool

I had a chance to snap a couple of shots of Sam’s classroom this week. Since the first day we visited his classroom, I have always been impressed by the size and scope of the facilities that this international school offers for their Early Years Program (EYP). The EYP spans 3 classrooms of students aged 3-5 (both pre-K and kindergarten in America).

Here’s my two boys bundled up for their walk to school:

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Once at school, the students from EYP1 through grade 5 all remove their shoes and change into Hausschuhe (inside shoes). This helps the school stay clean. Many students wear Crocs or other comfortable shoes, but always with sturdy soles, unlike American slippers.

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Here’s the area where Sam changes his shoes. They also keep gear for all types of weather at the school, such as sun hats, rain pants & boots, and snow gear. The students in Germany go outside in all types of weather. No “rainy-day recess” unless there is a tornado or lightning storm nearby. Below is a playground shot on a sunny day:

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Sam is with other 4-year olds in EYP2, and has 11 students in his class, with one teacher in addition to several teacher’s aides and parent helpers that come in at various times. There is an adjoining classroom of EYP1 students and they often participate in activities with those kids as well. Some of my pictures are of the EYP1 classroom, since they have recently reorganized and split apart these two groups, which used to be taught more-or-less together.

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It’s a pretty typical preschool space, with areas for various activities. The canopy  at the back is for “home play”, Lucy’s favorite spot when we come to visit.
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Sam’s favorite activity is drawing and painting. The exposure to peers has improved Sam’s interest in drawing from making monochromatic scribbles in August to the current obsession with stick figures.
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The EYP2 students have circle time each morning and each student has a different job for the week. Sam is very proud to tell us about his job and the responsibilities it entails.
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The school lunch is catered by a local company, so it’s not cheap. This is much more common in Europe, where school lunch is not as standardized or subsidized as in America. The school lunch menu offers four (4!) choices each day, ranging from rotisserie pork roast, brisket with beet salad, chicken legs with creamed bell pepper, mushroom risotto, fried rice with vegetables, pasta with arugula, and vegetarian winter stew. Sam does really well with all of this variety and often comes home talking about the new foods he’s tried that day. Plus, he’s discovered a love of rice pudding, which they serve once a week or so. For the younger EYP kids, they order one lunch option and serve it “family style”, so Sam is also picking up some good table manners.

Another thing you’ll never find in American schools? At school functions, they sometimes serve beer!

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After lunch, all the students are expected to brush their teeth, and have a space to store their cup and towel next to the sink. I love this idea! It’s not something I’ve seen enforced or even encouraged in American preschools as of yet. In the photo below, you can see all the little tooth-brushing cubbies to the right of the sink.
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Sam’s class has music, P.E., and library time once a week, just like the elementary grades.  The P.E. is not held in the school building, but at a gym a 10-minute walk away. The teachers all have a complicated drop-off and pick-up schedule so they can coordinate walking all the students to and from P.E. throughout the week. There is a sports club close to the school where the older grades hold their P.E. classes at times, but Sam’s class is directed to a center for gymnastics that has soft floors and lots of cushions for jumping and swinging around. It’s great for little kids. They also go to have swimming lessons every other week at a nearby pool.

We have also been very impressed by the selection offered by the library. It’s not an easy task to provide books for such a broad range of students (ages 3-18) in both English and German, but the school librarian has done a very good job. Sam has come home with varied and interesting books each week, with no repeats so far!

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The above shot is a cozy reading corner in Sam’s classroom. It’s really hard to find English-language books for kids in Germany, and expensive to ship them here. We’ve become increasingly grateful for the access Sam has at school to books that we can all read together and understand.

Overall, there are more similarities to American preschool than I expected. And Sam has really benefited from the quality of teachers that this school employs as well as the spacious classrooms and smaller student-to-teacher ratio. He’s loved having a lot of responsibility to carry out tasks and has become fiercely independent about packing his backpack and getting himself dressed and ready in the morning. However, we’ve had a little challenge due to the language barrier. At such a young age, there’s a decided split between the native English and native German speaking kids, and they had a difficult time mixing and playing together in the earlier months. It’s also a challenge for the teachers to address the needs of the German students to learn basic English words (colors, numbers, alphabet sounds), while still providing enough challenge to the English-speakers.

We’re grateful to have had such a good experience with Sam’s schooling thus far and are proud to be able to offer our son such an excellent head-start. In America, we couldn’t even afford to send him to preschool at all!

And check out his über-handsome school portrait (says the proud mama):

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