Monday, January 30, 2017

Update on the Kids

Not such an exciting title, but I know everyone's curious as to how they're doing and the answer is overall really great!  Not all the time and not that we don't have bad days, but overall.  Here's what's been going on with them:

1. Brandtley has a preschool!!  Or will soon.  He is on the waiting list for about 7 kindergartens, but none of them have a place for him.  In Germany, kids attend "kindergarten" from age 1 until they start 1st grade at age 6, but most parents send them at or before age 3. Kindergarten is highly valued.  By age 4 all slots are taken and there are fewer slots than there are kids. Entering mid-year did not help us. However, all of the kindergartens we spoke to agreed that it is extremely important for him to go to kindergarten at his age, and several promised that he would have a high priority for the 2017-18 school year (which starts in August) due to his older age.  

I have been following up on a regular basis and there are 2 who have been very promising.  I heard back from one last week that they will soon be opening a new branch and that he has been selected to have a slot at the new location! YAY!  Only downside is that it is not convenient to where we live or our morning routine and driving the kids to school probably wouldn't make it any better.  However, I've found that there is a bus from Jackson's school that will get us pretty close, so Brandtley and I may become daily bus-riders!  Either that, or I'm going to have to find some magical way to incentivize Brandtley to ride his bike 3 km in the morning...which might take us an hour.

He is so very excited and ready to start!  We've talked about our transport method and the bus makes his school that much cooler, though it means he will have to ride the scooter to Jackson's school instead of his bike. At least until we get a good sense of how crowded the morning bus is (his bike is little, so it could feasibly be taken on the bus if it's not crowded).

He'll also remain on the list at the other schools, so that if one has a spot available beginning later, we could switch.

2. Both of the kids started German language class last week and both are enjoying it. They each go every Wednesday and Friday afternoon.  B's class meets for 45 minutes and J's class meets for 1.5 hours. The older kids seem to arrive on their own or get dropped off outside, but I'm enjoying meeting the parents of the kids in B's class who usually wait in the building during class time.

They each take 2 folders, paper, pencils, and colored pencils with them.  Brandtley was thrilled that he now also gets a cool pencil case with pencils for his "homework". :) He calls it his school and loves that he gets to go. TBD on his German participation, but he's in the very beginner's class for kids ages 4-5 with no prior knowledge of the language.

Jackson is in a 2nd level class since he's been in German school for 3 months. The first day, there was only 1 other kid in the class with him and the 2nd day it was just him with the teacher. She's very nice and has given us good feedback. She told us there are a few more kids registered so the class might grow, but until it does, he gets private lessons!  The courses are all government subsidized to help immigrants and refugees integrate, so Jackson's class was only $10 for the semester and B's was free.

3. Jackson seems to be doing well in school.  We are fortunate to have a teacher who gives frequent feedback. He says Jackson is understanding more German and needing less frequent English instruction, so that's great news! He still doesn't speak yet, other than a few words when necessary.  However, that's normal.  Also, his vocabulary is completely different from mine so far.  While I can navigate a menu or checkout counter at a store, he knows words for "sit down", "Listen", "put away your jackets", various games/instructions and basic math terms.

We've been told by other expat families that somewhere between 6-9 months he'll start talking and that we may not know it since he won't speak in front of us.  I have heard multiple stories of parents who discover their kids speaking German to their friends when they arrive to pick them up from school.  I so look forward to that day!

Until then, he's reasonably happy at school.  He hasn't really made many friends, but there are usually a few kids around him when we arrive to pick him up.  They are very curious about him and they practice their English on us.  One 2nd grade girl (clearly practicing the only phrases she's learned so far) asked me how old I was and then thought I was 53!  I corrected her and told her in German that I am 33 and she seemed surprised. haha!

4. Jackson is developing a love of reading. Suddenly and somewhat surprisingly.  In the US, I had to force him to sit down & read as part of his homework.  He was on par for his age, but didn't enjoy it.  I expected his reading not to progress much for a while after the move, but we've seen the opposite.  He is suddenly wanting to read everything and I've loaned him my 1st gen Kindle to keep him supplied with English books (we just discovered Amazon's Prime Reading which is like borrowing from a library).  While I'm sure the kindle helps make reading fun, I'm also wondering if this is somewhat typical expat kid behavior.  I have heard similar stories from several other families with kids in elementary school that their kids' interest in reading takes off after the international move. Who knows, maybe they find it more gratifying to be able to read & enjoy a story in their own language.

5. Jackson is still not in OGS.  There is still not a slot.  He asks the OGS teacher every single time he sees her, and every time she says no.  I asked him if she smiles when she says no, and he said yes, she usually laughs.  So that's a relief!  As he puts it, she will say no until she says yes. It's as simple as that. Until then, we wait.  haha!  Such a German response too.

6. Brandtley seems to be doing well with his gluten free diet.  He has accepted that there are things he can't eat and overall has a very good attitude about it.  I've been surprised.  There have been a handful of times when you can tell he's sad that he can't have something, but overall he is fine so long as I have an alternative for him.

His digestion seems to be improving, except when he eats nuts.  I'm afraid this is yet another intolerance for him, so we're staying away from them at least until he has his 6 month bloodwork in April. Small amounts & traces don't appear to matter, but nut butters or pastries made with almond flour disrupt his digestion.

The hardest thing right now is keeping his hands out of his mouth.  He also likes to lick everything (he's so weird) and put things in his mouth like toys or random things that he's found on the ground. For this reason, we don't bring bread, flour, or most other gluten into our house since crumbs or small flour particles will eventually end up on him & in his mouth. We also aren't going to most bakeries for the same reason - there's flour everywhere.  I know (or at least hope!!!) that he will grow out of this eventually but trying to break him of these habits is driving us insane right now.

I think that's about it.  I'm so happy they have each other - they are truly best friends and playmates and love each other so much.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Step-by-Step Guide to a Super [Indoor] Barbecue: A European American Experience

Like true Americans, we knew the newly used wood fired stove necessitated a celebration with s'mores.  I had seen marshmallows in a bottom-shelf corner of the candy aisle at the grocery store. I was leery due to their obscure placement, but these turned out to be quite the find.

Let's start with the question who these are marketed towards:

Next, upon closer review, I found the most useful guide as to what to do with these fluffy sweet blobs of sugar.  Who knew eating marshmallows was such a detailed process?  However, might as well do it right.

Step 1: Stick the marshmallows on a skewer:

Note: do not eat the uncooked marshmallow:

Step 2: Keep the stick approx. 20 cm above the heat. Do not hold the mallows in the flames to avoid burning:
(Note: it helps to look at the mallow while performing this step or you may eat ashes. Possibly an experience in our home this evening)

Step 3: Keep on turning the stick to obtain a caramelized outer skin with a liquid molten layer underneath. (But sometimes it's hard to wait):

Step 4: Let the marshmallows cool down. (A difficult step for a 4 year old.)

Step 5: Enjoy your snack:

(ashes pictured on one side of the marshmallow above)

And the result?? We found the European marshmallows to be far superior for an even caramelizing, without any blacked or burned areas. Though if you like the blackened bits, you may be disappointed. The flavor also differed significantly and tasted of vanilla beans. And the texture was not quite as puffy, though it's hard to say if this was intentional or due to their sitting hidden on the bottom shelf of the store.

We attempted s'mores too, but I was unable to find gluten free graham crackers and the gf chocolate is very dark. So, we had European s'mores with vanilla bean marshmallows on dark chocolate sandwiched between almond shortbread butter "keks".  There was no lack of sugar and the kids were not disappointed. 😉


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Where are the bugs?

Today as I was helping the kids pick up toys in the basement, I grabbed a stuffed animal and a small, dark green matchbox car rolled out from under it.  I jumped back as if it were going to bite me. Then realized how absurd that was since it was just a car.  A car that I automatically thought was a (very) large bug.

And I realized that we have lived in this house since the first week of November, and I have yet to see a bug.

Not that I'm complaining!  But I'm mystified.  Where are the bugs?

All of the houses I've lived in have had bugs of some sort.  Our last house had a lady bugs.  It didn't help that the kids though they were cute & would bring them inside as pets.  The house in Texas had roaches. Ugh. I still can't get over that one.  Granted, it was 80 years old on a pier & beam foundation which often had water under it.  We did all we could, but they would still show up on occasion. We've had houses with termites, spiders, and even scorpions.  But to date, I haven't seen any bugs here.

The kids once told me they saw a spider in the bathroom, but I looked & never found it. Of course, it is freezing right now, but wouldn't that make them come inside??

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Grocery Shopping and Laundry: A German exercise in planning

To continue in the theme of commonplace activities that are no longer commonplace...

Germany is known for efficiency and detailed rules. Americans on the other hand seem to have mastered the art of flying by on the seat of their pants. However, American expats in Germany get to practice improving their efficiency and planning through everyday activities such as grocery shopping and laundry.  These two unrelated tasks have both put the immediacy of the American culture into a new perspective for me.

In the US, if I needed to do laundry, I could easily wash and dry an entire load in an hour & a half.  If I realized as I lay down to go to bed that the kids had no clean jeans to wear to school the next day, no worries - I could start a load in the washer, stick the wet clothes in the dryer half an hour later, go to sleep and wake up to a load of clean, dry laundry.  However, here the wash cycle takes 3 hours.  (There are shorter cycles, which I've experimented with and can use in a pinch, but the optimal clean in my washer seems to take at least 2+ hours plus 20 min of high speed spinning which wrings out far more water than my US washers ever did.)

Then comes the drying.  Most homes don't have a vent for a vented dryer.  So, if you have a dryer at all, it works more like a dehumidifier.  These can take hours to dry a load and due to the time and their energy consumption, it's actually more common to hang dry. And you'd better hang those wet clothes at least 12 hours prior to when you intend to wear them if they are jeans.

To add a further complication, depending on your neighbors and where your washing machine is located in your house, you may only be able to run it during the day in order to be respectful of quiet hours. Ours is in the cellar 2 floors below our main living area and 3 floors below our upstairs neighbor, so I don't think it's a big deal.  But we can hear the final speedy spin cycle from 2 floors up, and I don't know if our neighbors can hear it or I'd rather not be hanging wet laundry at midnight, so I try to at least start the load during daylight.

Real life example: it is currently 4pm on Sunday afternoon.  Matthew leaves for his next trip around 5am on TUESDAY.  In order for him to have clean clothes (and avoid running the washing machine late into the night), I suddenly realized that I urgently needed to start laundry. Two. Days. Ahead.

I mean...If you know me at all, you'll know I'm a planner, but this takes it to an entirely new level.

Similarly, all stores are closed on Sunday and most holidays. All of them. Even H&M in the touristy downtown district. Even the convenience stores. Even the grocery stores. This has been an education in German holidays since this necessitates planning ahead or be stuck hungry.  (There are a few restaurants open on Sundays but only one in town has gluten free options.)

The complicating factor to this is that I go to the store every few days. Everything here seems to be 3/4 of the size of its American equivalent.  This goes for the refrigerator, food storage, and the food packaging itself.   (and the above-mentioned washing machine, too!).  I actually appreciate this for the most part - smaller packaging contributes to less waste, I can buy exactly the amounts that I need, and since I walk to the grocery store, it's easier to carry home.  However, it does not leave a lot of extra lying around for a "snow day"...or a Sunday.  :)

Here are some examples:
My European-sized refrigerator & tiny oven.  Being a convection oven, though, it cooks well even when multiple racks are in use.

My freezer is all of the two drawers at the bottom.  Since I like to freezer-can homemade chicken broth, tomato sauce, etc, I'm currently looking for a stand-alone freezer to put in the cellar. Also, this picture was taken on a Sunday...the fridge is bare.

1 Liter of milk. Our neighborhood grocery store does not carry a larger size. 

Tiny jars of mayo, mustard, soy sauce (gluten free!), and peanut butter. The bag of apple chips is a standard-sized chip bag.  All sitting next to normal apples.

Eggs come in packages of 10 or fewer. You can even buy them individually...which I never do.

Prague Recap: Behind the Scenes

As you may have seen the (many) pictures on Facebook, we somewhat spontaneously went to Prague for a few days between Christmas and New Year's.  We were waiting on Matthew's schedule for the rest of the month and were keeping our fingers crossed that he wouldn't have anything added for this week since Jackson would be out of school.   Normally Matthew will get his schedule prior to the beginning of the month, but December was different due to the move & official activation at this location.  So we held our breath and decided on the 26th to risk a trip. To play it safe, we limited the distance we were willing to travel and stuck to driving, so that we could get back if needed.  Luckily, he wasn't called and we spent 4 nights in Prague!

I booked our hotel the night of the 26th and we drove the 6 hours on the 27th.  It still amazes me that we can take a spur of the moment trip to a place like Prague easier and cheaper than taking a beach trip from Atlanta.

Prague was everything I hoped it would be and more.  I fell in love with the red roofs and brought them home with me in the form of a painting which now hangs over our fireplace.  It's warm and cozy. :)

One of the most pleasant discoveries was how much more celiac-friendly the city of Prague is!  I always research before we go anywhere now, and still take back-up food in case of any issues or if we get stuck somewhere for longer than expected.  And I was so pleased to find at least a dozen restaurants/cafes with gluten-free options!!  I plotted them all out on the map before we arrived and made a note of which attractions were close to each.  Celiac has taken a lot of spontaneity out of our lives, but in Prague, we joked that we were able to "plan to be spontaneous" due to the number of restaurant options!!

I can't describe the joy on Brandtley's face when we read menu options to him and then he would look thoughtful and consider each choice before making a definitive selection.  You would think he was choosing a fine wine based on the tasting notes of a sommelier!

His joy just gave us so much joy too. And then it got even better.  One restaurant we visited is 100% gluten free. When we told him this, he thought for a moment and then realization dawned on his face as he said, "So I can taste your food too???" He spent the entire meal trading bites and trying our food and happily dipping his gluten free bread into the shared dish of olive oil on the table.

In case you're looking for gluten free options in Prague, I've listed everywhere we ate here.

We spent the rest of our time walking and sightseeing and just experiencing this beautiful city.  We found plenty of kid-friendly activities but also didn't feel like we missed out on the culture or gave up on activities we would have done without the kids.

[The one activity we skipped this time was the Nuclear Bunker tour.  It sounded fascinating but was a full 2 hours, primarily walking outside, and between the freezing weather & time slots available, it didn't work out for us this time.  We passed one of the tours on the street and stopped briefly to listen, which made us even more interested.  If we go back, this will be one of our top priorities.]

The first night we arrived late.  After checking into the hotel, we ate traditional Czech food at Svejk U Karla and then walked to Wenceslas Square, which is more of a long rectangular street than a square.  At one end is the National Museum with the statue of St. Wenceslas in front of it (sadly we could not see the beautiful architecture of the museum due to restorations that are currently underway).  Located just off the square is the Palác Lucerna, which was one of the first galleria-style "malls" in Prague, built in the early 20th century.  It houses shops, cafes, and the Kino Lucerna - a beautiful movie theater that is still in use today. We returned a few days later and saw La La Land - a very fitting romantic moving in a romantic theater.

The Lucerna also has a sculpture parody of St. Wenceslas riding an upside down (dead) horse hanging from the ceiling.  I had not realized before we visited that Prague has a number of startling pieces of artwork that make strong political or cultural statements and these were fascinating to me.

The Hanging Man statue representing Sigmund Freud who is supposedly debating whether or not to let go.

Haunting Memorial to Victims of Communism

Over the next few days, we saw the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, the Old Town Hall, Charles Bridge (where many movies, including Mission Impossible were filmed), the Jewish quarter including the old Jewish cemetery, hiked Petrin Hill for views of the red-roofed-city from across the river, visited the Strahov Monastery and its famous library, walked by the Castle & Cathedral (also across the river), Lennon Wall, and went to a puppet show of Mozart's opera Die Zauberflaute at the National Marionette Theater.

In front of the Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock - a fascinating accomplishment created in 1410. In addition to telling the standard Roman time that we are familiar with, it also indicates Old Czech Time (a 24 hour cycle that ends at sunset each day & thus differs daily), the month, astrological symbol, sun's position, lunar cycle, the 12 equivalent hours from sun-up to sun-down based on daylight hours per day, and also has moving figures that appear on the hour.  It's really mind-boggling.

Very decorative building next to the Clock

Old Town Hall

View into the Jewish cemetery which looked like another world in the center of the city. 

On Charles Bridge

Enjoying the view from Charles Bridge

View from Charles Bridge

Jesus was giving out free hugs on Charles Bridge

Book tower at the main library.

Inside the National Marionette Theater

National Marionette Theater

View from Petrin Hill

Exterior of Strahov Monastery

The Monastery Library (Also the setting of a number of movies, including James Bond)

Stopping for a monastic beer in the underground caverns of the Monastery

Monastic card houses

The boys were impressed by the guards at the castle

More red roofs from the Castle 

Lennon Wall (or John Lennon Wall) which was used as an expression of political activism against communism beginning in the 1980s. Students and activists would nightly graffiti the wall (particularly with Lennon lyrics) and it would be removed daily by the authorities. Labeled "Lennonism", it inspired protests. Today it's a symbol of peace.

View from Charles Bridge

There is a restaurant on the rooftop of the U Prince Hotel with fantastic views of the roofs surrounding Old Town Square.  We stopped by to warm up with a coffee and take in the view.

Other fun things:

Beer spas are a thing. 

You can take a city tour in an old car - similar to a horse & carriage ride, which we also saw. The kids loved seeing the old cars drive by.  We preferred to experience the city on foot, though.

Apparently cannabis is legal and makes a great combo with absinthe or beer???  We saw these and other similar products in convenience store windows throughout the city!  

We also took an afternoon side trip to Plzen, which is the home of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery where pilsner style beer was first created and which is one of the oldest continuously-operating breweries.  This was a great day trip! After a brunch in Wenceslas Square, we hopped on a train at the nearby central train station and for less than $20 roundtrip for the four of us, took an hour & a half train ride for a brewery tour.  The kids were fascinated and Jackson left with a new ambition to become an engineer to design brewery bottling plants.

We brunched at the sidewalk cafe Como (which has GF options!!) outdoor on Wenceslas Square under the awnings & heaters.

Inside the Prague train station

A plaque for Woodrow Wilson in the train station

Prague train station

On the train

The gates at Pilsner Urquell

Legend is that if you can throw a penny into the hole, you will have sons.  Jackson and Brandtley are both destined to have daughters.

In the underground caverns of Pilsner Urquell where we saw the actual beer in production in these barrels. 

Fresh taste from the barrel


As I type this, I have a hard time believing that we did all of this in just a few days!  We had a blast and enjoyed every minute of Prague!