Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hi, I'm Awkward. Nice to Meet You.

German is really hard to learn. I am horrible at it which creates painfully awkward and embarrassing moments every day. The Rosetta Stone computer program that we have is useful if I want to say "The boy jumps off the table" or "The woman has short, black hair" but it hasn't taught me anything really practical yet. Here are just a few examples:

At the park: I'm pushing Dylan on the swing and a little girl comes and starts talking to me. She is perhaps 3 years old and is obviously asking me a question. I simply stare back at her. She repeats the question. A 3-year-old has never made me feel so stupid. A third time, she asks. I grab Dylan from the swing and say "Okay, Tchuss!" (Bye!) and run away leaving the little girl there with a bewildered look on her face.

In the town center: Someone comes up to me and asks what time it is. I only know that is what they're asking because they used the international sign language gesture by putting their index finger to the top of their wrist. I check my watch; it is 4:30. But how do you say "It's 4:30" in German? I have no idea. My brain says "Quatro y media" which is 4:30 in Spanish. Urggggg! I give up and say (in English): "4:30" then quickly walk away.

At the store: I had purchased a belt at a local store and realized after coming home that is was too big. So the next day I went back to return it for a smaller size. At the counter I handed over the big belt and receipt and said "Ist sehr grosse" (It's very big), then held up the smaller belt ... and then I did something odd. I pointed my two index fingers at each other and moved them back and forth as if the gesture would clearly say "I would like to exchange the big one for the smaller one. Here is my receipt." But instead of speaking actual words, I made a sound effect like "re-er-re-er" because making the sound of a squeaky bed would better articulate the fact that I wanted to exchange the belts. Somehow communication happened that the store clerk made the exchange.

On the phone: It's bad enough to know that when I leave the house I will be forced into an awkward language-barrier situation, but now the awkwardness has invaded my home by calling me on the telephone. Someone called here the other day asking for me, so Bryan handed the phone over. I expected it to be one of my new friends who speaks English, but it wasn't. Whoever it was just started speaking to me in German and I completely froze. I uttered a series of "ja's" and "uh-huh's" until the person was satisfied and hung up. Why didn't I say the two sentences that I know how to say in German: "Ich sprechen kine Deutsch" (I can't speak German) and "Sprechen sie English?" (Do you speak English?) Either one would have been sufficient, but instead I kept saying "yes" until they hung up. What did I agree to? Did I order some magazine subscriptions? Maybe we're going to have a foreign exchange student come to stay with us. Or maybe that was the immigration office calling and asking "Are you in the country illegally?" and I replied "jaaaaa..... uh-huh......" (Note: We are here legally, I promise.)

Getting a haircut (this one is Bryan's):  I walked in to the hair salon and was met by the hair stylist who was working near the door. He said in German, “Can I help you?” I replied, “Ein Schneiden bitte” which means “A haircut please.” Not a pretty start, but I was now in line. While waiting, I rehearsed my lines. I had performed a Google search earlier in the week that read: “How many mm’s is a 2 guard?” Miraculously, it gave me what I was looking for. 6.25 mm’s. I needed this for my explanation. It was my turn and settled into the seat. I spoke in my prepared German, “6 millimeters on the side and finger long on the top, please.” I braced for the question that I was likely to not understand, but it didn’t come. The hair stylist only said in German, “Do you speak English?” I said “Ja” and we were on our way. My confidence was building, so I threw in a comment in German about how long my hair was. I really wanted to follow up with a Justin Beiber comment, (because my long hair kind of looked like Justin Beiber’s) but I was working on a perfect interaction and didn’t want to throw the conversation off course (or worse, accidentally get a Justin Beiber haircut). When it was all done, the hair stylist asked me if I wanted hair gel. I said, “No, I will make a hat.” In one fatal sentence, the perfect conversation in German had been ruined. On my way back home, I remembered out of the blue the German word for “wear.” “Tragt!” I said out loud while shaking my head. Next time, I said to myself. Next time.

At least one of us is not totally awkward - Dylan.  Here is a photo montage of Dylan from the past few weeks.
"Catch me if you can...."
"Please let me down, I'm ready to run!"
Like father, like son.
"Outta my way!"
"This outfit would be cool, if it weren't for the red and yellow socks."
"Mom, read me this book RIGHT NOW!"

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Movie Park - Germany's Favorite Amusement Park

We made the short drive to Movie Park in nearby Bottrop on Sunday morning last week.  We met our friends Sven and Martin there.  Sven works there while he is in school, so he was able to get us free tickets. 
Anyways, we had a good time and we at least felt safe on the children rides.  Dylan really enjoyed his kiddie rides (and I did too.)  The adult rides, were a different story. 

We noted that the rides weren’t as tall or as fast as the rides in America, but they were still a lot scarier.  I am not sure if the European standards of safety are not as high, but we sure felt like they weren’t.  It didn’t help that Sven knew all of the horror stories for all of the rides and was more than happy to stay back and watch Dylan while we were riding.  
It started with the NY Transformer ride and ended with the High Fall Tower.  The NY ride was more like a carnival ride, ala the zipper, with many flips, rolls and hanging upside down for considerable periods of time.  As I stepped into the seat, I wondered how long it had been since the last person threw up in this very seat.  I quickly tried to focus on something else.  So, I began a dialogue with Martin.
Me: So I hear you went out last night.  Was it fun? 
Martin: Yes, it was good.  We were in Recklinghausen at a club. 
Me:  When did you get home?
Martin: 6am. 
Me: But it’s 10:30 am now.  How are you…?
Before I can finish, the ride begins with 6 consecutive end over end flips.  With each flip, I can hear Martin going, “Oh Nein! Oh Nein! Oh Nein! Oh Nein! Oh Nein! Oh Nein!”   Our stomachs are completely disheveled and we were only 20 seconds into the ride.  All of our breakfasts stayed in, so that was a win. 
We went around to some other roller coasters and rides, ended with the High Fall Tower (no need for translation).  It drops you 58 meters (190 feet), which is a scary feeling.  But what really makes it scary is that this ride doesn’t begin to stop until you are dangerously close to the ground.  It’s so close that when you are riding, you really question if the hydraulics and shocks are going to work.  (Watch the video below and you will see for yourself.)
This time, we knew that the High Fall Tower wasn’t going to begin stopping until about 30 feet from the ground.   However, we didn’t know that this ride had a new feature.   Once we got up to the top of the ride, it unexpectedly tipped us forward! 
Now, for about 10-15 seconds, we were leaning forward, with all of our weight (and our lives) relying on the harness not to give out.  For those seconds, the ride stopped being fun and was legitimately scary.  We were actually relieved to begin our free fall, as it meant it would take us closer to the ground.  We laughed about it when we finally reached the ground and were ready to make it home safely afterwards.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Our First Pro-Soccer Game: FC Koln vs. BVB Dortmund

We went to our first German Bundesliga Soccer game between BVB Dortmund and the home FC Koln this past Friday night. Since my conversion to soccer (I had originally sworn that I would never watch it), I have been a Dortmund fan. Dana and I had to choose which team we liked the best within our first week of living in Wulfen, Germany 6 years ago. We saw Dortmund play on TV, so that’s who we chose. Anyways, a few years of watching Bundesliga soccer on ESPN360 each Saturday morning, I have built quite a liking for German soccer.

Needless to say, we were excited to hear that our favorite team was playing in Koln (our second favorite team) on a weekend that we had no basketball games and jumped at the chance to go. Dana and I went with Sebastian, my basketball coach, and his fill-in date David, because his girlfriend couldn’t make it. I was given a stern warning that I was not to wear any yellow (Dortmund colors) as we would be sitting in the FC Koln fan club section. Knowing how passionate Europeans are about their soccer clubs, even I was not about to test the limits by wearing a Dortmund shirt. Here’s a recap of the night.

5:30 pm Babysitter made it on time, and we are on the way to Koln.

6:30 pm Traffic is good and we cruise right through…until we get close to the stadium. Now we are stuck in traffic.

7:00 Still stuck in traffic. Starting to get car sick.

7:30 Still stuck in traffic. Really getting car sick.

8:00 Still stuck in traffic. Really getting car sick. Game time is 30 minutes away.

Starting to get nervous about missing the FC Koln Hymn, which the crowd sings before each home game. (This was the part of the game I was looking forward to the most. I had watched the hymn on YouTube and was excited to see it live.) I was so excited about singing this hymn with 53,000 other people that I even thought to myself that I might switch favorite teams after singing this and move Dortmund down to 2nd favorite.

8:15 In the parking garage, but still in traffic. I think about jumping out of the car to make it in time for the Hymn.

8:20 Finally parked. We power walked through the rain to the stadium. “Get your knees up!” was all I remember saying as we desperately tried to make it in.

8:26 I could hear the hymn being sung inside the stadium as we walked in. I ran up the stairs and I made it into the stadium to hear the last 30 seconds of the hymn. It was breathtaking. Here’s a clip from YouTube that starts pretty much at the exact moment I arrived in the stadium. Breathtaking.

8:27 As soon as we get to our seats in the top left corner of the stadium, we grab the red cellophane in our seats and raise it over our head. We had no idea at the time that the overall result was so cool. (Watch the entire video above to see the end result.)

8:28 I mention to Sebastian, a huge Koln fan, that the first 20 minutes of the game will be critical for Koln to hang with Dortmund. Like I really know what I’m talking about.

8:30 Dortmund controls the game from the beginning, making the Koln faithful very upset. I am very familiar with that feeling being a Detroit Lions fan.

8:45 Dortmund scores their first goal about 20 minutes in. So much for the important good start. I accidentally reacted with a huge “Yeah!” along to two clenched fists in the air. I quickly pulled them down and looked around. My chances of getting beat up tonight just quadrupled. There were some other closet Dortmund fans around that had the same reaction, so I think we we’re ok.

8:46 It occurs to me that I don’t know who scored the goal. Was he onside? Were there any fouls? “Where’s the instant replay?" Sebastian tells me that they don’t do instant reply to help control the crowd anger. I am really scared that my goal reaction is going to get us in trouble. I am extra careful to look neutral for the rest of the game.

9:20 Great first half. Dortmund played well and had some good scoring chances. Koln had a couple of chances, but looked inferior. Again, what do I know? The Dortmund fan section was going crazy all game. And why not? Dortmund is off to a terrific start this year, and is at the top of the league. Just like Michigan State. This has been a pleasantly strange fall so far.

Koln's colors are red and white.  We didn't have "official" Koln scarves, but our BSV Wulfen scarves did the trick and helped us blend in with the other Koln fans.
9:50 Koln plays better in the second half and finally gets a goal in the 82nd minute. The stadium comes alive and is rocking. I am wet with Gaffel Kolsch beer after it was thrown on the entire section during the goal celebration.

9:51 Although I am entertained by the newly found enthusiasm of the crowd, I am secretly bummed out at the tied score. Dortmund has played too well to give away two points. We go into 2 minutes of extra stoppage time, and then it happens. Dortmund scores in extra time to go up 2:1. I am not exactly sure what my external reaction was, but internally I was screaming, “Yeeeeaaaaahhhh!” The same audible noise came from the Dortmund side and hit us on the other side of the stadium like a wave. A glorious wave.

If I were watching this game on my back deck on the Internet, I would have been shouting and jumping around the backyard. Tonight, I have to conceal my emotion so I don’t get us all beaten up. It’s so difficult to do.

10:15 Game over, Dortmund 2 FC Koln 1. Leaving the stadium, I am so happy on the inside, but terrified to show any emotion. I didn't high five the Dortmund supporters on the way out, although I really wanted to. I am also glad that I didn’t wear my Dortmund shirt. I’m a pretty (ok, very) obnoxious person, but even I could sense that this wasn’t the venue to make a scene. To confirm this, we pass a wall of riot police on the way to our car. They were stationed close to the train station, where the Dortmund faithful were headed. What a crazy scene!

10:25 After the game we opt out of sitting in traffic and found a nearby place called Doping Sports Bar (not sure if the Germans understand the humor in this name, but I did) to wait out traffic.

Shortly after that we left and it home safe and sound from our first European soccer match.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

This Time it is Different

We had a great time living in Wulfen, Germany several years ago (so much that we’re back in Germany). While we were there, however, we unknowingly, yet successfully, isolated ourselves from getting a thorough German experience. This time is different and we have really noticed a different experience, even after only 1 month here.

Not Just a Tourist

I have been asked for directions three times while walking in Munster. I even tried to help someone find the correct address (that poor person). Talk about the blind leading the blind. In order to get three people to ask me directions in less than 3 weeks leads me to believe that either, a) I really look like I know what I am doing or b) everyone else in the city is as lost as I am (I still get lost in Munster).


Our boy is no longer known as Dylan. We only refer to him these days as, "No Dylan!" "Dylan stop!" "Dylan get back here!" and "Dylan don’t touch!" (Somewhere, my Mom is laughing her head off.) We wouldn’t trade it for anything, but he has made our German experience different so far. By the way, do any of our local German friends know of a good babysitter?

We have lots of pictures of Dylan's back because he is always running away from us.
 Oscar and Dylan Conversations in German

Walking a dog makes you interact with people that you otherwise wouldn’t. This can be very awkward, especially if the conversation goes past, “What is your dog’s name?” or “This is Oscar.” If someone is talking to us, we just smile/nod and pray that they don’t ask us a question. Same thing goes for walking a very cute and social Dylan around town. It leads to the same thing at the park and the city center. This is really motivating us to learn German quicker.

I am getting better each day with German, though when I take a step back, I still have a really long way to go. The Rosetta Stone software is really helping, but it is a slow process. I have determined that I am stuck on level one. I will know that I’ve advanced when I understand jokes in German and will officially move to level 2 when I make people laugh in German (this is my unofficial measuring stick).

“I’m a Driver, I’m a Winner”

Driving a stick is fun…I think. I only used a car 2-3 times last time we were here (and it was at night during the week when no other cars were around). This time, I have to drive 50-55 minutes into Munster each way. Driving is much better than taking the bus, so I had plenty of motivation to learn.

A couple of Saturday mornings ago, I got the keys for the team van (also our car) and was determined to teach myself how to drive stick. This was the same way I learned how to ski in Colorado. “Leave me alone for 2-3 hours and I will figure this out myself.” I wonder where Dylan gets his independence from?

For 10-15 minutes in the parking lot, I could not get the car to go backwards. I was following directions as the stick was saying. I would move the stick all the way to the left and forward. The car would lurch forward, closer to the tree. I would try it again. Still closer to the tree. Move it all the way to the left, and push forward. That’s what the stick says. The van is now running up the tree.

I made the embarrassing walk back to ask a really simple question, “Just one thing…How do you put it reverse? Oh you push down and move it to the left and forward.” Not a good start.

Once I figured out how to put the car in reverse, I picked up the rest fairly quickly. After a few trips from Borken to Munster and back (as well as sitting in Munster rush hour traffic) I am getting much better despite what Dana says. The street signs are easy to understand and I get to go on the Autobahn each way. I had a police car pull behind me when I was doing over 150km (90 mph) on the Autobahn last week. I froze for a minute until I remembered that there is no speed limit and I just needed to move over and let them pass. (This is very important on the Autobahn you only pass on the left. No exceptions.)

These differences are really helping us get a good feel for what life in Germany is really like and is better preparing us for, hopefully, our next few years here.

Dana insists I put up new photos of Dylan in each post, so here you go.  These were taken a few days ago at the "Wasser Schloss" or "Water/Moated Castle" in town.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Day Trip: Munster, Germany

On Friday Bryan had the day off from school, so we decided to take Dylan into Munster for the day.  Dylan slept in until 10:30 a.m. and would have slept longer had we not woken him up - we were packed and ready to hit the road and all we were waiting on was this sleepy baby!  Actually, this worked out better since Dylan was so well rested he was able to stay awake and be in good spirits for the entire afternoon.

Here is the photo tour:

A hop, skip and a jump from the finance department where Bryan works is the Prinzipalmarkt, a picturesque town center area (that is easy to get lost in) leading up to St. Lambert's church.  Some history about St. Lamberts according to Bryan's co-worker Moritz (and confirmed by Wikipedia): the church has three cages hanging just above the clock (you can just make them out in this photograph).  In 1535 these cages were used to display the corpses of Jan van Leiden and other leaders of the Münster Rebellion, who promoted polygamy and renunciation of all property.

Bryan and Dylan are standing at the base of St. Lambert's in the Prinzipalmarkt.

It seems like every street we turned down was just so beautiful it warranted a photograph.  Munster has lots of big churches - you can see St. Paul's Cathedral in the background.

Dylan was a happy camper while we were waiting for Bryan to buy our döners for lunch. Döners are our favorite food items here - they are big toasted pitas with roasted meat, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and special sauce - very similar to Gyros, but better.

We let Dylan out of his stroller for a little while to run around.  It was hard to hold him still for this photograph. Is he smiling or crying?  What's your guess? 
Dylan was squealing and squawking and talking to just about every person who walked past him.  His sociable personality creates some awkward moments for us because whoever he starts talking to inevitably tries to speak to us in German.  Our vocabulary runs out after we tell them what his name is and how old he is. 

Bryan is chasing Dylan down before he gets hit by a bicycle.

The weather was perfect for walking along a college campus all day.  It was crisp, clear and the leaves were just starting to turn.  It felt very "academic," although the school semester doesn't begin for another 2 weeks so there weren't very many students around. 

The Aa river runs through the city, creating the need for these beautiful bike and walking paths along its side.  The river opens up into the Aasee, which is a big lake on one end of the campus.

View down the street at St. Paul's Cathedral.

We were walking along the Promenade, which encircles the center of town.  Bryan and Dylan are standing on the designated pedestrian path.  Just to the left is the much larger bike path.  Munster is the bike capital of Germany and bikes make up almost 40% of all transportation in the city.

This is the Schloss, or Castle.  It was built in the mid-1700s as a residence for the prince-bishops, but is now an administrative building for the University.

Here is Dylan in front of the Aasee.  This was our final stop before heading home after a long afternoon of walking.  Shortly before this photo was taken we noticed Dylan had taken his left shoe off and was licking the bottom of it... Ewwwwww. 

Dylan was still happy after a long day of sightseeing.  He promptly fell asleep in the car on the way home.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Surprise Heiden'er Festival

This past Sunday, Bryan and I decided to ride our bikes to the nearby town of Heiden. Heiden is about 3 miles away, so it was a pretty easy bike ride. It really blows my mind how high density the living is here in Europe. In approximately the same distance it used to take me to get to the grocery store from my house in Florida, I can now go from my house to another town.

Here is a map from Borken to Heiden.
We really didn't have any expectations for Heiden, and figured we would ride through town and come right back.  If no stores were open in Borken on Sunday, then surely nothing would be open in the much smaller town of Heiden.  To our delight and surprise, Sunday was Heiden's annual Fall "Heiden'er" Festival, so the town was bustling with lots of activity, food, games, vendors and things to do.  Here are some photos from the day.

Just as we arrived, the Tractor Competition began and we had to scram out of the street real fast because about a dozen tractors were headed our way. 

Here are Bryan and Dylan in front of some of the tractors.

We met the crazy bubble man who is showing Dylan how to make heart shaped bubbles.   I didn't align the word "Schmuck" next to Bryan's head on purpose, though it's pretty funny in hindsight.

The bubble man made this huge bubble that really impressed Bryan. 
On every street they had little play houses for kids to play in.  Dylan didn't want to go inside; he just wanted to open and close the door.
The festival had a pretty impressive petting zoo with goats, donkeys, ponies and other farm animals. 
Shortly after we took this picture, some big strapping German men had a race down the street pushing these giant bales of hay.