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!

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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.

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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Staying in

Well, the kids have caught the tummy bug. So, we’ve spent a few more afternoons sleeping at our hotel to help them get better. We’ve witnessed some freakish wind/rain/lightning storms in the afternoons. And Joe has enjoyed watching dubbed versions of American superhero movies on the hotel TV.

We’ve received some correspondence from the international school regarding Sam’s preschool supply list. It’s a little bit different from what we’re used to seeing in America! Here’s some examples of what we parents must gather before his first day on August 20th:

  •  House shoes or slippers (to be worn indoors at all times)
  • Toothbrush and towel with a hook
  • 2 Undershirts
  • Rain pants
  • Sport shoes
  • Snack box (no sweets allowed)

We parents can pack a lunch for them or order online in advance. Sam’s class lunch is ordered by the teacher and eaten family style, but for the older kids they can choose from 4 choices: daily special, healthy choice, small weekly special, or salad bar.

We also must sign release forms for photos, swimming lessons, community outings, and religious/ethics education. It’s all a little overwhelming since we’re still waiting to set up or bank accounts, visas, and housing permits and have yet to move into our apartment. Joe must start his back-to-school prep work on Thursday and so I’ll be alone with the kids most weekdays while he tries to get ready to welcome his 2nd graders. I’m not sure how we’ll manage to pull together what we need for Sam without a car to take us shopping.

It all feels very rushed and chaotic right now. Looking forward to October or November when we’re a bit more used to our new routine and new hometown.