Category Archives: Germany

The Hills are Alive!

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Now that school has started (at a comfortable 9 am this week only), I can only go on to describe our quick vacation in the depths Bavaria…  We have seen plenty of picturesque places – the cliffs and rolling hills of Andalusia, Spain, the sunrise over a glowing Venice, the warm and ancient temples of Angkor Wat. But I have never appreciated a landscape so close to the one of “The Sound of Music.”

We arrived in Munich to awaiting family, and the next few days were ones filled with talk, coffee, cake, and more talk with various family, friends, and friends of family. We visited lakes, went sailing, shopping, and generally relaxed in our allotted vacation time. The weather held out just for us, and it was a beautiful 75 degrees Fahrenheit with blue skies and a gentle breeze. I never will get used to Celsius.

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After the city of Munich and all of the acquaintances were crossed off the list, we rolled in our borrowed Fiat 500 through the Bavarian countryside… We passed through countless towns in which the “Welcome” and “Goodbye!” signs came after another with such quick succession that soon they all blended together and we forgot we were in the town in the first place. Then, if you wanted to get even smaller (which was quite possible), there was the little sign with a convoluted name on it, pointing to 2-5 houses max. All of this is, of course, surrounded in a sea of deep green corn fields, with the rolling hills like waves and little red barns scattered throughout this ocean like white caps. The Alps provided the holy sight of land in the far off distance. More country-side amenities such as horses, sheep, and church spires were also available on the horizon.

Woehr and Munich 5 (4)

Then came Woehr. If you haven’t heard of it, I am disappointed but not exactly surprised. It is a destination by invitation only… Woehr was one of these little villages, that comprised of, well, one house. This house was a recent addition of some close family that normally lives in Munich, and now also have a retreat in the countryside, where they welcomed us with open arms. We would have missed it had it not been for both the little yellow sign peeping “I’m here!” and our eyes glued to those handy Google Maps directions. This is a tiny exaggeration, as we did see one other house at the end of the dirt road, but then the story wouldn’t be as good. As we got used to the splendor and comfort of Woehr, we also indulged in plenty of “the Sound of Music”.

Woehr and Munich 10

Woehr and Munich 1 (1)

This is Woehr.

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When my sisters watch a movie, especially a musical, they tend to spend the next couple of days singing the songs of that particular musical with the vigor and dedication of lifetime fans. Then the phase passes. But for our time in Woehr,  the particular musical and following phase was, of course, “The Sound of Music”. It seemed that all of a sudden, everything was Maria, the nun – Josephine started having a hilarious time pointing to various objects or people and singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria??” and then breaking into peals of hysterical laughter. My other sisters, on the contrary, enjoyed the song, “My Favorite Things” to the point where even I had it stuck in my head, and of course, “The Hills are Alive… with the Sound of Music.” They naturally infected our third cousins with the singing bug, and soon the house was ringing.

When we walked down to the magnificent house and adjacent barn from bathing in our pristine little lake, over the grass with the church spire, corn fields, and mountains behind us, it felt almost surreal. As we went riding at sunset in blissfully quiet surroundings and the sky was colored pink and orange and the mountains were the clearest I’ve ever seen them, the hills had never been more alive. Oh, and all of the kids were singing too.

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Woehr and Munich 6 (3)

Ridiculous.

Ridiculous.

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When one year ends, another begins!

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To everyone following the normal calendar, I wish you a Happy New Year! I hope the next year brings you happiness!

Zipping into the new year!

Just to fill in the long blank period between Berlin and now Duesseldorf (soon to be Bangkok): The schedule was filled with a lot of homeschooling, visiting friends, family, people we hadn’t seen in ages, and many things you would do at home: go grocery shopping, wish for snow, and clean the apartment. We had a wonderful Christmas together with family and friends and I wish everyone happy holidays. According to my mother, the holiday season is officially over January 6, which is when we stop playing the Christmas music.

To look back upon the year 2011: A year ago we were in San Francisco with our cousins and celebrated midnight in New York, having a plane to catch on the first. We have a plane to catch on Jan 1 this year as well, although not home to Chicago. As most other people, we returned to school and the winter. As the summer rolled around (there isn’t a real spring in Chicago, more like a season that peeks its head out once and a while and then ultimately hands itself over to summer), we made our decision to take this trip. Planning and endless decisions followed and on September 6, we left for Zurich. What followed was a whirlwind of experiences, photos, and memories that are sure to continue.

For this next year 2012, endless forks in the path are planned. We are departing for Bangkok on the first of January, ready to start the new year in the tropical heat and some culture-shock. From there we plan to take the freedom of time and explore South-East Asia thoroughly. End of May / beginning of June we are planning on returning to Chicago with a flight we haven’t booked. The t0-d0 list there includes choosing our next place to live and finding my father a job, among other, less-important matters. As the next school year begins, we hope to be in our next spot, adapting to our new home. On New Year’s Eve of 2012 I don’t know where we’ll be or how we got there; I will let time just keep going by and we’ll see!

Dreaming of Bali

Berlin – Memory Lane in the Rain

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For us, Berlin was like a 4-day history lesson in the rain. The history of the wall, Germany, Judaism, and my mom. As always we managed to squeeze some shopping in as well at the KaDeWe.
The KaDeWe
The largest shopping warehouse in all of Europe, the KaDeWe is, needless to say, enormous! You go in and feel as if you were in a regular Macy’s or mall. There’s no massive open space, no “look how big we are”, no “wow this is huge”. The wow factor at first comes from how much you can buy. Everything is perfectly organised by brand: a counter for the big brands and walls organizes by shelf for the smaller ones. As we went farther and farther into the KaDeWe, we got so lost; there is counter after counter, people rushing around, things to look at. Here you realize how huge it really is! The sheer amount of stuff to buy overwhelms you; it reminded me of the US. And this was just the first floor, beauty and cosmetics. The 6th floor, the famous food floor, was unbelievable. As my father said, it has to be seen to be believed. We spent, or got stuck, for almost 4 hours and probably didn’t even see it all. Every flavor of truffle, fudge, or praline, shelves of tea, food stalls for every cuisine, and an entire wall for salt: salt from the Himalayas, perfectly normal salt, crushed, flavored, and spiced. You can get everything from the €1500 bottle of champagne to prepackaged Uncle Ben’s rice. And so, our first night in berlin was spent amidst snacking and slurping.

The Nespresso Bar

Who wants to buy a lighter?

The agenda for the next day was a bit more diverse; we visited the Brandenburger Tor, Reichstag, and saw many more embassies and government buildings. Germany’s Bundestag, or equivalent of Congress, meets in the Reichstag, a beautiful old building with a lot of history. This stands close to the Kanzleramt, the equivalent of a very new White House. However, Chancellor Angela Markel does not live here, which I can understand; the building is huge and not very appealing.

The Reichstag

The Jewish Museum Berlin

This museum is amazing! Expecting a quick run-through, we spent almost 4 hours inside. The architect, Daniel Libeskine, played a big role. He really thought about the meaning and symbolism; the three axies in the beginning have the floor curve upwards, the Holocaust ends in a dead end with the Holocaust Tower, the  Continuity Axis goes on forever and ever, and the Axis of Exile ends in a garden. There was a lot of symbolic art and empty space. We went down the Holocaust Axis, then the Continuity Axis and since this went on for about 3 1/2 hours, we didn’t get to the Axis of Exile. Once down the Continuity Axis, we learned not only about history, but really what Judaism is about. The meaning of certain things like education, the religion and what the Torah says, certain celebrations and what they mean, modern Judaism and more… A must-see; it’s a museum you can always go to again.

A space commemorating all victims to violence and war

The Holocaust Tower

Mauer Gedänkstätte

The Mauer Gedänkstätte, or Wall Memorial, was a very interesting thing to see. There was a small museum, but the things to see, the exhibit, was outside. We walked by the wall, in the death strip, and read the memorials. How a city could just be split amazes me. Berlin was completely surrounded in East Germany, the West side was a little island of freedom. After losing about 1/6 of their population to immigration, the Soviet Union just started building a wall on their side, which escalated to signal wires, mines, a Schiessbefehl, or shooting-order for the guards, and a strip of land highly illuminated for that purpose. They not only built a wall, but constantly perfected it for its use; the overkill is what bothers me. There will always be people who want freedom and find ways to get it.

The Holocaust Memorial

This memorial dedicated to the murdered Jews of Europe, consists of a field of around 2,700 blank steles, or concrete blocks. The ground curves up and down and the tops are crooked and vary in height. I think the architect had the field be so blank because what happened was so unimaginable, that we shouldn’t try to imagine it. There is a memorial underground, consisting of a historical timeline, written documents, family biographies, and memorials around the world. Audrey did not see it, as the memorial was recommended for kids 14 and up.

The remembrance of history is a big part of Berlin. There is really a presence of the history that everyone lives with and appreciates in Berlin. Many houses have plaques stating who lived there and what role they had in history. There are also Stolpersteine, gold stones in the sidewalk that tell of people who lived there and got deported. Of course, the wall is a large part of the city; there are signs and plaques explaining who is commemorated by different landmarks. I think it’s great that the city sees importance in these things and also act upon it, to make sure they’re never forgotten.

Where the Berlin Wall was once upon a time

Commemorating the people who died trying to swim across the Spree into the West

Finally, Berlin has also been interesting for my mom, who was born there and also visited her father frequently while growing up. We visited the old apartment and even ate at the Greek restaurant on the corner that, as it said on the menu, has been serving great food for over 40 years! Berlin is a great city where we really enjoyed walking down memory lane, even in the rain.

One of the diverse Ampelmaenner. (Ost Berlin is different than the West) This is one we never saw twice.

The train station - the trains come in on different floors

50 Hours of Family in Innsbruck

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After days of schooling, relaxing, and taking life one day at a time, we took a quick 50 hour visit to Innsbruck to meet my mom’s cousin, his wife, and his kids, with whom we are as close to as if we were cousins. We stayed in my great-aunts’s apartment, with whom we went hiking Monte Rosa with, and who is also Jacob’s mom. Apart from visiting and spending time with our family, we also saw some things recommended by them.
Kristallwelten: Swarovski, the world-wide crystal and optiks company, is based and has all of its factories here. We drove in and the first thing we saw was a row of tour buses, their monstrous fronts spitting tourists out onto the cement. After this daunting sight we skeptically stomped into the first room, occupied, as you can imagine, by a lot of crystals. While we had imagined the “crystal world” as a lot of glitzy, cheesy crystal galleries meant to trap tourists into buying, it was surprisingly beautifully done. Apart from creative takes on crystals, they had rooms exhibiting modern artists who played with mechanics, light, reflections, and of course, crystals.

If we were inside a crystal!

Poseidon's puzzle

The theatrical room; a dancing sun and a moon

Hall in Tirol: This is where my grandma is buried and we visit every time we come to Europe. There’s a beautiful view of the snow-capped mountains which loom over the landscape, seeming close enough to touch. Apart from putting a little candle on the grave, we visited the beautiful church where I was baptized and the Rathaus, where my parents married. It’s a village that has a lot of meaning for us, but where we never stay long.

The Rathaus balcony

12 Years and Counting


Afterwards, we got together with the family and went swimming in an indoor pool. I jumped off the 3 meter board, which didn’t happen so willingly on my part. We had a great time and had dinner together in their house overlooking Innsbruck and the mountains. There must be something about seeing them every day, so close to you. Over the Inn, the other mountains seemed to be at a distance where they were surreal, staring you in the face majestically, as if you were below them in some sort of rank and they are so much higher.
Das Tirol Panorama: The next day we went out to the museum housing the famous panorama painting called Die Schlacht. The museum explained the revolution of France, Napoleon’s reign, and how that affected the people of Tirol. They fought against  Napoleon’s army and won! Apart from the circular painting completely encasing you in the fight, they’re were also a lot of other artifacts describing the life back then.
After the museum we got to the Christkindl Markt, where we walked down the Märchengasse, a less crowded road decorated permanently with fairy tale characters. There’s something really great about being the type of family where something just clicks. When, even if you haven’t seen each other in years, you just run downstairs and play together from the first minute to the last. You can go away and know that next time, it’ll be the same. Innsbruck was great, but mainly so because of our time together with family. Next up is Berlin!

School at home, on the road, or in the woods

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Now that we are in München for a longer time, my mom had arranged 2 days of school for Audrey and I to see how the dynamics of German schools work. Emilia went to my mom’s old elementary school and decided that was where she wanted to go forever; her 6 new best friends were there!
How Bavarian schools work in a nutshell: K-4 is in a grundschule, or elementary. Then there is 5-12 in either a hauptschule, realschule, or gymnasium. Everyone wants their child to go to a gymnasium. Their grades in 4th matter, recommendations etc, but I can imagine it’s different for varying schools. My mom’s school friend still lives here, and she has a girl going to her second year in Gymnasium (so 6th) and a boy in 3rd grade (elementary). Audrey and I went to gymnasium and Emilia went with Robert. It was very different than in Chicago! Gymnasium is like a high school, with a lot more freedom than I was used to. There are no lines to walk in, no places you absolutely have to be, you can eat everywhere and anytime (except during class), and the older kids obviously make it feel like that. I’ve never had religion class, and here they did have it, we had a class on protestant religion. Also, the foreign language classes are taken very serious and I was surprised at how much they knew; especially in Latin! School in an actual school was interesting to compare to roadschooling.
Homeschooling, or roadschooling as my mom likes to call it, is definitely something different. Usually we have full days and half days, and a whole lot of no-days. On days where we take the entire day, we make a quick schedule, along the lines of “Lillian, first Math with Papa, then read, then German with Mama…” Audrey’s is “Audrey, first read, then Math with Papa, then Wordly Wise..” Do you see the pattern? Now, I’d like to say that’s how it always is; structured and intensive, but because we’re so free to do whatever whenever, that sometimes we get distracted by the good weather and go for a walk, or Mama and Papa have to book transportation in SE Asia and ignore us. We are probably doing a little less than we should be. At the same time, we are doing much more than we could be doing in school. Studying the Roman times isn’t the same thing as being at the Colloseum, nor is learning about the Ring of Fire (in Indonesia) and actually going there, or studying the architecture of the Eiffel Tower and going to the top. Some interesting projects also turn up… Audrey did a presentation and experiment on sugar beets after going by a massive pile of harvested ones in Maastricht. She learned about the history and how they make sugar from something that my mom describes as looking like a rat. We are also going to the Nature and Human Museum again after being there once and seeing it’s great for schooling; there’s a lot of interactive and informative science! Just being in museum teaches, or when your parents can explain all sorts of things while you are experiencing them first-hand.

Porch schooling in Nice, France

The classroom in Locarno, Switzerland

... and the classroom view

Of course, you can also just stick to the woods! Waldkindergarten, or forest kindergartens, are something not uncommon in Europe, mainly Germany. They are basically kindergartens situated in the woods, where the kids are outside all day long. We walked in the nearby woods, past one, and looked into it. Something like a movable RV is used to keep the things you need to teach, some tables for when there’s a storm, and other things you find in a kindergarden. There was a playground with swings and log balance beams and teepees they play in. The kids all had rubber pants on, so snow, mud, and dirt can be rolled around in; there’s plenty of room for that. Their art projects were all made of pine cones and leaves. The kindergarten is only a little into the woods; there’s a road really close, as well as a Tram stop, so it’s not so hard to get there. I think it’s a great way to spend your kindergarten years, outside in the fresh air.

The plumbing system

A table for lunchtime, crafts, etc

The indoor classroom among the outdoor one

3 More Towns, 1 More Birthday

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After Amsterdam, we found our way to Maastricht, where we calmed down in my father’s aunt and uncle’s cozy house. The girls were ecstatic for there was a lot of playmobil, and having only each other as toys for 2 months, they lost no time building their imaginary worlds. The house Tante Riet and Oom Jos live in is amazing! They explore the world too, except in smaller increments. I can imagine every year or so they take a big trip, which is evident from the house; it’s filled with things that come from all around the world. My sisters were so immersed in their worlds that my parents and I took an afternoon and walked around Maastricht, which has the feel of what I can imagine as an old-fashioned town.

Next was Düsseldorf, where we met more family: my mother’s brother and his wife and 2 kids, our cousins. We had a great time! They had a beautiful house, which was built as part of a little settlement where there is a real sense of community; there are little paths and no cars, instead there is a community garage and community house, which anyone can use. There were beautiful woods nearby where we took walks and some portraits. The Düsseldorf Christkindl markt opened and was explored. I love the atmosphere of Christkindl markets during Christmas time; it’s cold and you can see your breath, but little warm stands are lined up next to each other with lighting that gives the same effect as candles burning or sitting by the fire. There are all sorts of things to look at and somehow the cold seems to be there just to keep you awake.

We walked around the lake, surrounded by the woods

We visited the Neanderthal museum, which was established near the site where they found the bones of a pre-historic man, then aptly called Neanderthal. The museum was well done, with not just the bones and explanations but also all sorts of related questions and answers, like the path of evolution and human aggression. Lego had done an exhibition in the basement. They had built a scene from different ancient times; ancient China, Greece, Rome, the Vikings, and so on… Then everyone could build their idea of the future. The details and care put in are amazing! There were even bats in the dungeons of the Medieval fortress. We did some home schooling and relaxed and had a good time together. Soon we were on the way to Munich, looking forward to seeing each other again during Christmas.

Emilia’s birthday rolled around on the 25th; she turned 8! We went to the movies (As Santa Claus fell from the Sky in German) and were the only ones there; so we had fun dancing around during the previews. At home Emilia had a homemade cake and received a splash proof camera (she is fascinated by photography).  An old close friend of my grandmother is hosting us and her hospitality really spoils us! Yesterday we threw a party in my aunt’s house where we had family and friends over, like a big reunion. Everyone had a great time (I hope so at least). We played some traditional games, as well as tried out a new one we saw on Minute to Win It, with some slight variation. Tomorrow we are going to school with friends of ours; we will see how that goes!

A camera!