Thursday, August 30, 2007


Listen. What's that sound?

That's the sound of my adorable kids NOT running up and down the stairs trying to punch each other's lights out or asking for something to eat every 10 minutes. Because...because...they went back to school today! I can actually hear myself think again.

Going back to school has its good and bad sides, of course. These past few weeks I've spent a total of €190 on text books and work books for my little darlings. Yikes. And then there's the myriad notebooks, binders, pens, pencils etc. etc. that still need to be bought. Yesterday I read the results of a recent survey stating that 42% of Germans would prefer that textbooks be provided by the schools free of charge. What a surprise. It used to be like that. Lernmittelfreiheit, they called it. Somewhere along the line someone decided it was a bad idea and now we're stuck with forking out big bucks for books that sometimes don't even get used because many of them are outdated or poorly written.

970,000 students in Lower Saxony headed off to school again today and our jolly minister for education assures us that this year there will be no huge classes and missed lessons due to teacher shortages. Uh huh. We'll believe that when we see it. Some schools had to scrap entire subjects in the past few years because there was no one to teach them - Latin, Physics and Music are just a few examples.

An extra 2000 teachers were apparently hired this year to fill the gaps, BUT because of German bureaucracy, their training and final exams extend beyond the start of the school year and they cannot offically begin teaching until November 1, leaving a space of two whole months to be filled in however the schools see fit. More missed class hours and busy work. Please explain that one to furious parents who only want the best for their children.

In addition to the above fuss and bother, this year also marks the start of the Eigenverantwortliche Schule, basically a school responsible for itself. That means that each school is free to set its own school hours and the length of class periods. That sounds OK, but since the kids are only attending school for 12 years now (not including kindergarten) instead of 13, it might mean that some schools, especially the Gymnasium, the type my boys attend, may introduce Saturday classes, making for a 6-day week for the little nippers. I can just see the sparks flying if that one goes through.

Anyway, you know I could rant on and on about the German school system but I'll stop now because I need to go make lunch for my two brilliant scholars who will be home any minute now to give me a first hand account of their day.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

make honey while the sun shines

Sunday afternoon on the terrace. Marigold in full flower. A bee doing what bees do best.

The pedigree of Honey does not concern the Bee -
A Clover, any time, to him, Is Aristocracy.

Emily Dickinson

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

blossom of snow may you bloom and grow

We have what you would call a difficult garden. Parts of it are shady and wet, almost swamp-like, while other areas are dry as a bone. I like to refer to one particular terraced flower bed as Death Valley Meets The Bermuda Triangle. No matter how much we watered and fertilized and fussed, most anything we planted there seemed to immediately die a crispy brown death or gradually get sucked down into the bowels of the earth never to be seen again.

A couple of months ago, tired of pouring money into a hopeless project, we had a brilliant idea. Why not fill the two upper tiers of the bed with container plants that can be moved around at will, and leave the lower level for the few little green things that will actually grow there?

As luck would have it, one of the flowers that seems to do well there is one of my very favourites - the Leontopodium alpinum, more commonly known as Edelweiss (or Edelweiß if you happen to have a ß on your keyboard).

The Edelweiss is a well-known alpine flower related to the sunflower. The German name Edelweiß is a combination of the words 'noble' and 'white'. The Latin name Leontopodium means 'lion's paw'.

Tiny white hairs covering the silvery leaflets surrounding the yellow flower heads give the plant a wooly appearance.

I did have some plants several years ago but they disappeared after a while, much to my dismay. I had thought that the damn flower bed was the culprit but I have since learn that the Bermuda Triangle was not to blame. Apparently the Edelweiss is a short-lived perennial that eventually does die off and need replacing. Who knew?

What's so attractive about these fuzzy blooms, you ask? Well, for me the Edelweiss is not about looks or fragrance or longevity, it's about the sentimental value the flower holds for me.

When I was a child I used to love looking through the family photo albums. Along with the pictures I remember the dried Edelweiss flowers that were pressed between the pages. Flowers that my Austrian grandfather had climbed all the way up a mountain to get for us. Once in a while we'd get another one in the mail and off it would go into the album for safekeeping. My mother also had a beautiful Edelweiss pendant necklace, made from a real flower and strung on a black velvet ribbon. I got to wear that necklace on special occasions.

Nowadays you can buy Edelweiss plants at any German garden centre, as I did. And looky here, you can even buy them from a company in British Columbia that grows them in the Rocky Mountains. However the Edelweiss still remains an endangered species and is protected in many European countries with the request to hikers not to pick any flowers they may find in the wild.

Contrary to popular belief, the Edelweiss is not the offical flower of Austria. It is, in fact, the inofficial flower of Switzerland, although the Austrians do use the Edelweiss on their 2 euro cent coins.

So I plant Edelweiss in my garden to remind me of my grandparents and of my dad's Austrian heritage. When he left his home country to start a new life in Canada, he still had his roots in mind.

This post shows a picture of my parents' first house, and below you can see what the family homestead from the mid 60's to the early 90's looked like. I think it has a certain alpine flair to it, especially since my parents insisted on having it built on a rock! The house itself was white with brown trim and a red tile roof.

When the house was sold, the new owners painted it pink and put in lots of glass and chrome. Eeep. I don't even want to think about it.

And now we come to everyone's all time favourite movie - The Sound of Music. Well, maybe not everyone's. Ask an Austrian about it and he'll most likely say "Heh??" And if you try to imply that the song "Edelweiss" sung in the film must be Austria's national anthem, you better be prepared for some funny looks.

I do like that song very much, though, national anthem or not.

Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow
May you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever

But really, to get the full effect you need to watch this video of a very handsome Christopher Plummer singing to his many well-behaved film children and a cute-as-a-button Julie Andrews.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

planes, trains and automobiles - without the planes

Yikes, where have I BEEN? Well, I'm back now, all better and ready to talk.

As I mentioned, on Aug 11 I took an overnight trip to visit Claire and her delightful German (he's a keeper, Claire!). Just over an hour's train ride from Hannover, the city of Bremen was my first stop. From there I caught the NordWestBahn (NWB) to Wildeshausen where the two love birds reside. A relaxing 40 minute ride through fields and forests with our charming hostess waiting at the station to meet me.

It was Claire's 30th birthday and she's pregnant for the first time too so there was much to celebrate. J also came along to join in on the fun but arrived from Bremen on his bike, his prefered method of transportation. After we arrived we got the grand tour of Claire's awesome new house. She and the German are hard at work turning it into the perfect home for their needs and they're doing a superb job. I think it's so important, especially as an expat, to have a peaceful oasis to come home to after a hard day of dealing with the natives.

The party was great. Lots of good food and interesting people, including Claire's in-laws. Claire-Dude, from what I could see you totally lucked out in the German in-law department. We partied until the wee hours and although I didn't touch a drop of alchohol, I was pretty tired the next day. That wouldn't have been so bad had the NWB on the way back to Bremen not been wall-to-wall people. All the seats were taken before I even got on. It was Sunday shopping in the big city, a rarity in Germany. Ooops. Wrong time to take the train. 40 minutes of being crammed into a corner between baby strollers, whimpering children and sweaty grown-ups with very large behinds wasn't my idea of fun and I was really glad that I had a 20 minute break in Bremen to air my sopping wet self out before I had to catch my connection.

So I arrived back in Hannover on Sunday afternoon and the very next day the Mausi family found themselves getting up at 6 a.m. to board yet another train heading in a different direction.

This time the Autostadt Wolfsburg was our destination. The in-laws bought themselves a new Volkswagen and we volunteered to go and pick it up for them, seeing as the picker-uppers get the royal treatment, including a tour of the immaculate grounds (I really wish the rest of Germany looked like that) and restaurant and gift shop vouchers.

The factory where the cars are made was closed for the summer, unfortunately so we could only see it from the outside.

There are two towers where the new cars are stored before delivery. A forklift-type contraption moves up through the core and pulls out the vehicles as needed.

The in-laws chose a little Polo to replace the Golf they've had for the past 10 years. They seem quite pleased with it.

V Dub is in da house!

While the adults are drooling over the latest VW technology, there's plenty for kids to do at the Autostadt, including getting their own "junior driver's licence"

VW fun for the under-10 set

I don't care much for new cars, but I LOVE old cars and there were plenty of those in the various pavilions. I grew up with all sorts of vintage automobiles and I kind of have a thing for old Volkswagens, not all that suprising, really, considering that my dad was employed by Volkswagen Canada for several decades. The "History of Volkswagen" display was delightful. I think I found my dream car but they wouldn't let me take it home.

1950 VW Beetle

We also visited the Bentley, SEAT, Audi and Lamborghini pavilions where Boy11 found HIS dream car

saving up for a 2000 Lamborghini Diabolo GT

The drive back went smoothly although we were pretty exhausted from all the excitement and I felt like I was coming down with something.

Of course that didn't stop us from heading out to the Hannover Zoo all day Wednesday. Mr. M is on holiday, as are the kids and we had two free passes to cut the expense a bit. Viewing caged wildlife costs you an arm and a leg these days! The weather held and we had a good time catching up on all the new stuff they've been building. And I tell you, if you're a bit shy about explaining the facts of life to your kids, just take 'em to the zoo and the naughty monkeys will do it for you. Even I learned something!

Thursday was a welcome day of rest and Friday we headed off the celebrate the in-law's 50th wedding anniversary. A low-key affair, thank goodness.

Saturday evening we had friends over for dinner and I spent all day preparing way too much food. Smoked salmon and arugula tortilla spirals, shrimp, Vietnamese salad rolls, grilled rosemary chicken skewers, fresh corn saute, tomato and mozarella salad, herbed focaccia bread and a peach melba mousse for dessert. Boy were we full!

Now that all that's over and Mr. M is back to work, I'm trying to relax and make the most of the kids' last week of summer holidays. And from now on I solemly swear to post more than once every ten days!

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

if it's Tuesday Thursday, this must be Belgium Dullsville

Where am I? What day is it?

Very, very busy (well, for me, at least) this past week flitting here and there, seeing this and that. Also very, very tired and just a teensy bit unwell.

Tomorrow's post will explain it all. Hope y'all can hold tight until then.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

and the winner is...

...Dresden! That's the official location of this year's Whiney Expat Meet-Up. Now we need to figure out a date that would suit the majority. The city is a bit out of the way for a lot of people, so we'll see how many turn up this time. We could also think about organizing a mini-meet-up some time for the Nordlichter - the ones who, like me, live up north.

Here's the map again with Dresden marked on it in case you're not quite sure where it is. For me it's a 4 1/2 hour train ride from Hannover so you can judge how long it would take you.

Today's journey will be a short one. Claire (she turns 30 today !!!) is busy with party preparations and I'll be helping her when I arrive in Wildeshausen this afternoon at 3 p.m. For the out-of-towners it's a BYOB party - Bring Your Own Bed. Yes, I have my super space age inflatable mattress in my bag all ready to go.

Of course I also have little something for Claire in that bag. When I was trying to think of what she might like, Mr. M asked "Well, does she have any hobbies?" To which I replied, "Umm...none that I can talk about in public!"

Catch y'all later...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

it's what I do, OK?

We all know I can't go for more than a week without baking something, especially with all the nice fruit around at this time of year. Baking isn't even my favourite kind of cooking, but it's so easy, you know? Follow the recipe and it'll most likely turn out, just like in chemistry class. After a while you get really good at it and can make some variations, but if you fiddle with the basic formula too much, you're going to have a big mess on your hands. I always have to smile when a recipe somewhere on the internet gets a hundred or so rave reviews and one solitary "There must be something WRONG with this recipe! I subsituted sweet potatoes for the cherries, halved the sugar, left out the eggs and baked it at 700°F for 15 minutes instead of 350°F for 30 minutes because I ran out of time and had to go pick up the kids and it turned out AWFUL. I'll NEVER make this again!"

So yeah, I baked some stuff over the past couple of weeks and nothing exploded.

cornmeal berry muffins using a frozen berry medley of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and red currants

plum upside down cake

The boys and Mr. M went for a swim in the pond near the in-laws' Schrebergarten (Allotment garden)on Monday and came back with some little tiny mirabelle plums from the neighbours. I used them to make a plum clafouti, a kind of fruity custard-like French dessert.

halved mirabelle plums living it up in my baking dish

the finished product goes great with ice cream or vanilla sauce

What else am I doing besides baking? Well, on the weekend, God willing and the trains don't strike, I'm going to party it up with the lovely and talented Claire. And then on Monday, again assuming that DB is running, the entire Mausi family will be traveling by train to Autostadt Wolfsburg to pick up a new Volkswagen for the in-laws.

What are YOU doing these days?

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Monday, August 06, 2007

thank you, come again

Sooo, Boy14 and I went dowtown last Friday to test the new smoking ban. We went to the old standby (which was so mediocre this time around that we may not go back) and while all the tables in the restaurant section had "no smoking signs", people were still puffin' away in bar out in front. Hmmphh. But really, what did I expect? Dear restaurant owners: see you again in November, if at all.

I needed to do a bit of shopping so Boy14 decided to avoid the sheer boredom of hanging around with his mother and bought a ticket for The Simpsons Movie. His verdict: meh.

We did a bit more shopping together after the movie, coming home with a pair of summer pants for me (because summer has arrived again!) and a pair of jeans for my picky offspring who abhors overpriced clothing and name brands yet still wants to look up-to-the-minute cool. For him that means buying stuff that looks like he's already worn it for the past 6 months. It's a challenge, I tell ya.

Sunday afternoon we picked up our little honey bun at camp. He was VERY sad to leave. Tears in the car on the way home and he's still a little weepy today. Yes, it was that much fun. He can't go next year because we'll be in Vancouver, but 2009 is looking good if he can find some pals who also want to attend. He grew up a lot during the past two weeks, made a lot of friends and learned a few dirty jokes. Isn't that what camp is all about?

Mr. M has the next two weeks off, something I wasn't quite clear about up until last week (blame it on cross-cultural communication issues), so we'll be doing family stuff and enjoying the warm weather while it lasts.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I can see clearly now...

...the rain smoke has (almost) gone!

August 1, 2007 marks a milestone in Germany's snail-paced journey into the New Millenium on certain important issues.

Comprehensive anti-smoking laws came into effect today in Baden-Württemberg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony), the state we live in. Because the federal government was unable (or unwilling) to enforce a nationwide ban right away, other states will gradually follow once they get their act together.

For Lower Saxony the ban means no smoking in restaurants or bars unless the proprietors have provided a designated smoking area which must be smaller than and sealed off from the main non-smoking area. Local government buildings, hospitals(!), schools(!) and other institutions for children and youth are required to be smoke-free from now on.

September will see a smoking ban in federal buildings, train stations, airports and on all forms of public transportation.

All this sounds really great, but let's face it, a law isn't much use unless it's enforced. Unfortunately restaurants and bars won't be subject to real police checks until November of this year. After that, fines of up to €1000 are possible for either smokers or restaurant/bar owners who disregard the ban. You can bet I'm going to be doing my own personal survey of which establishments care enough to stop the madness NOW. Other European countries have done it - you can too, Germany. Go on, give it a try. All you've got to lose is that smoker's cough.

Looks like it's going to be a bit hazy for a while longer, but I tell you, when that smoke finally clears for good we're all going to be able to breathe a little easier.


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