Silvester Und Das Neue Jahr

New Year’s Eve is called Silvester in Germany. Everytime V. and I hear this, we laugh. He says it conjures images of Sylvester Stallone. I think of Looney Tunes.

We have developed a rather solid group of friends. If we have a free weekend, we typically know we can call any of these folks and have a pleasant time preparing a meal or sharing a drink. There are three pairs of partners. It is the first time either of us have primarily had couple friends.

Silvester presented another initiation: the first occasion where we awkwardly crafted social plans here in Germany. One couple initially planned to have a party, then canceled. Another couple invited us to their friend’s party about an hour away, but they could not invite everyone else too. At the same time they asked me, V. proposed hosting an event. Since we were already planning a different party for later in the week, I suggested holding off and taking up our out-of-town invitation. We worried about what to do and who and how to tell, not wanting to alienate any members of our new gang. It all turned out okay.

Really, I bring all of this up because it points to some level of integration. The intricate, delicate patterns between groups only really matter when one actually cares about the particular friends. I think this is a good sign.

This was not a regular party, but instead themed. Our friends described it as “Russians on the way to a discotheque. You know? They are always sort of over the top.” We didn’t really know, but I figured they meant what we affectionately call Eurotrash in the U.S. or a European club version of Jersey Shore. V., his hair geled into a lite faux hawk, donned white pants, a belt with splatters of neon paint, a black button down, my tight purple V-Neck, a few chain necklaces, and sunglasses. My hair pulled tight and high in a sleek ponytail and eyes made up even darker than typical, I wore a gunmetal, shimmery A-symmetrical shirt, a ridiculously short skirt, lots of sparkly bracelets, and knee high boots. I was excited to go all out; costuming was certainly overdue since we didn’t celebrate Halloween this year.

At six o’clock, T. rang our doorbell. We opened it, showed off the outfits we crafted, and received laughter approval of our theme interpretation. I jumped into the backseat with T’s wife and their friend from out of town. We drank beers (legally!) as we made the hour-long ride to Biberach. When we arrived, we realized our hosts lived in the center of the Marktplatz, a place similar in style to Aalen, but more open. We made our way excitedly up the stairs and greeted our enthusiastic, entertaingly-dressed hosts. Soon, we were lost in conversation. The footholds of this gathering were a group of women who were friends from college and their boyfriends. It was great to be with a pack of girls, laughing as they shared their stories and photo albums with me, but it made me miss my own tribe for sure.

Boots and heels on wooden steps.

I have written it before, but it bears repeating: the Germans can eat. Fuck. People always say Americans are fat because we eat so much, but the Germans eat more than most people I know at home. The party table overflowed with various small plates: walnut dip, roasted potatoes, grilled vegetables, bread, and even caviar and schnitzel. Various cocktails were offered – vodka punch, mojitos, gin and tonics — and we sipped them up between dance songs and a viewing of Dinner For One.

Honestly, this was half the spread.

At 11:50 pm, the fifteen or so party attendees began their migration to the city streets. It seemed that every gathering on the block did the same thing, and people spilled out from every door. In Germany, fireworks are only available for common purchase during the week between Christmas and Silvester. It is only legal to detonate the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. As one might imagine, this creates a moment of collective insanity. As soon as we were on the sidewalk, tiny rockets were whizzing by our feet. People from our group were placing lit sparklers into my hands and throwing whirling neon firecrackers into the road. When I looked up in the sky, trails of ascending light came from all directions, exploding in every size and color. I pressed record on my camera and panned across the scene (click here to check it out). It was fun an exciting, but even the presence of the police did not ease my fears; it did feel a bit like a warzone.

At midnight, V. kissed me hard. We had mentioned this tradition to our friends earlier, but they don’t seem to follow it in Germany (at least not en masse). V.’s taller than me and as I looked up at him, I could see the smoky air and bright bursts of light in the night sky behind him. He made a promise about the New Year. It was really lovely and made me full of so much appreciation for him and our past year together. I’m truly excited for the future.

When the fireworks began to die down about a quarter past twelve, we stormed across the street to another apartment. Our new friend’s knew the people who resided there and had been waving to them from their own windows earlier in the evening. The living room transformed into full-on dance party of around twenty-five people, the two parties mixing and the enthusiasm overflowing.

Looking from one apartment toward the other.

After an hour or two (who knows), all of us stumbled back across the street.

The next morning was so lazy and glorious. All of that leftover food (plus a frittata) made its way out to a group of us parked on the big living room couches. The group spoke in German and I was amazed at how much I really do know. I don’t realize it sometimes because I do not have the opportunity to be around native speakers often for long periods of time (and when I am, they usually excitedly use their English). V. goes to work everyday and can practice, but I am typically practicing with fellow student who are at or below my level.

At home, V. and I parked on the couch for the afternoon and evening. At around 6 pm, I got a Skype call. When I clicked to answer, I was greeted by nearly all of my girlfriends, together in Montauk, just having their own lazy brunch meal after a New Year’s Eve of drinking and dancing. I love those women.

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Language Learning Langsam

I arrived in Germany on July 14. That was exactly four months ago.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut.

Granted, I spent my six weeks in Germany preoccupied by my social work licensing examination. I returned to the US for two weeks. My German course only began on September 26.

But still, shouldn’t I know more by now?

About two weeks ago, I began to assess my language learning barriers. The most obvious culprit is my course. While I enjoy the nonthreatening environment it provides to practice speaking, the course is painfully slow. With eleven languages, students who have never been students, students who play multiple roles outside the classroom (mother, worker, caretaker, etc.), and students who are perfectly happy to speak anything except German every moment they are outside the classroom, so much class time is spent repeating material that could easily be drilled at home or practiced in the community. Considering that we are in the classroom fifteen hours per week, I feel that we have learned far too little.

However, I know that I cannot place the burden of blame simply on my course. V. takes a course that meets even less frequently, but he is progressing quite well. He has put many hours of time studying on his own. We both began the computer program Rosetta Stone, but he is much further along than I am. He also approaches the endeavor differently, carefully studying the lessons and seeking answers to parts he does not understand fully. Since realizing this, I have recommitted myself to the program and I already notice that my knowledge is growing. I also keep my dictionary near and when I think of any word that is important to me I look it up, knowing that this vocabulary will help in future conversation and writing.

V. also goes to work, thereby having the whole day to encounter the language. I, on the other hand, typically come home from school and immediately reach for my computer. Here, I can read any news I desire in English. I work on my website, which is in English. I long for social connection and I can instant message, e-mail, or Skype with any of my English-speaking family and friends. Before this era of connectivity, I would have been faced with stumbling through German much more often if I wanted to remain the socially curious individual that I am. My new remedy to this is actively getting out of my house. I noticed that when I go grocery shopping alone, it forces me to speak German and encounter it in signage, so I know I must actively seek out similar experiences. Through my town’s international society, I have been linked to two area college students for language exchange. I also started to attend yoga class, which is an excellent method to hear the repetition of German words very slowly. I am trying to read the community newspaper more. V. and I are even spending some time at home speaking to one another.

It is also difficult to get practice in because many people love to speak English. When I started to meet with my language exchange buddies, for example, it would be quite easy to spend our hour simply speaking in English. They are both excited to learn about the United States. Their English is already quite good, but they want to know more about the subtleties and slang of conversational English. Honestly, I would love to spend the hour speaking about all of these things with them, but I’ve told them that I really must practice my German. Additionally, the friends we have made are primarily through V.’s job, and they are primarily young and educated, which means that they also speak English. It is so easy to default to English speaking because there is just so little that I can convey in German right now. I cannot have an animated conversation in German about politics or feminism, so I excitedly turn to English during every social encounter and our friends don’t seem to mind.

Perhaps I could title this post Language Learning with a Weak Ego. When I assess my difficulties honestly, I know that my lack of confidence is a major contributor in my slow acquisition of the German language. Ever a perfectionist, I prefer to use sentences that I have carefully crafted and confirmed as grammatically correct rather than generating sentences spontaneously. However, German sentence structure is odd and changing, and there is simply no way I can memorize the variety of sentences. I know I must experiment. I must ask my conversation partner to slow down (langsam bitte) or repeat her sentences (Kannst du es nochmal wiederholen?). I must trip over my words and listen to the constructive criticism of my audience. Most of all, I must remember that in any new learning endeavor, we all begin as a beginner. Ich muss es einfach akzeptieren is my new mantra. It essentially means I just have to accept it.

Die schönen Wälder von Baden-Württemberg - Oktober 2011

In my German class, there is a 75-year-old man from the Ukraine. He is obviously outgoing and joyful, but he speaks no English so our interactions are extremely limited. One day, he passed a note to me. “Ihr seid Elstern.” He pointed toward me and my classmate, a woman from Taiwan with whom I sit and share notes and laughs throughout the daily class duration. I reached for my German-English dictionary. Elstern means magpie. He was calling us birds because of our chatting and giggling! We crafted our response: Du bist unartig! He followed our lead, grabbing his German-Russian dictionary, wide-eyed as he noticed the meaning of unartig: naughty or wicked. Warum? (Why?), he wrote back. Ihr seid nicht Elstern! (We are not birds!), we retorted. He concluded, Ich bin lustig (I am funny) and sealed it with a smiley face.

Language presents the opportunity to connect with others. With the help of our dictionaries, I was able to laugh and get to know someone from a completely different place, with a very different life from my own or others with whom I am intimate. Imagine the stories he could share and the conversations we could have if we both knew more. This is my motivation.

(When In Doubt) Practice, Practice, Practice.

My days are filled with study. Usually, this is for my social work licensing examination, a test that I take early next month when I visit the United States. The license is not particularly helpful or necessary for any jobs that I could secure while here, but the thought of sitting for this exam in two or five or ten years when I return from Europe is even more daunting than preparing for it now. My typical weekday involves a whole lot of reading. I decided to banish the reading of novels, just as I had to do when I was in graduate school to ensure my sharpest reading attention was reserved for textbooks. Before my proclamation, I finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (that deserves a post all its own), choosing to lose time in that rather than Direct Social Work Practice and Contemporary Human Behavior Theory. It is not that I do not enjoy these books and the ideas they contain (I actually do like it a whole lot!), but rather that the prospect of the exam weighs on me heavily. I am quite worried about failing, slightly shocked by how often I come across questions where I deliberate between two answers that seem feasible to me. Doesn’t the absence of black-and-white, good-and-bad thinking mark a capable, effective social worker that is able to employ empathy and refrain from judging clients? Is it not the nature of social advocates to question right and wrong and encourage discussion to come up with the best solutions? Perhaps I am stretching a bit here, but this reframing sure makes me feel a bit better. Practice.

We have spent time with a few of V’s colleagues now. We visited someone’s house for dinner during the week and went to the lake to barbecue with a few others on Sunday (although rain required we move to a backyard halfway through the event). Both of these engagements involved such massive amounts of food, that I am continually shocked that I have seen only a handful of obese people in Germany. Additionally, the hospitality of all of our new friends continues to fly in the face of stereotypes of Germans as cold to newcomers. Everyone is quite generous with providing rides and food, helpful and patient as we practice our German pronunciation, and tolerant and even charmed as we ask questions that may be construed as inappropriate or invasive, but that are important as we orient ourselves to life here (Can we have a tour of your apartment? How much does this car cost?). I dream of when I know Deutsch better so that I can interact with far more people and on a better level. When my intensive classes begin at the end of September, I know my attention will go towards that. However, I can already recognize that I have a major hang up about appearing foolish and this inhibits me from engaging. Mistakes are inevitable and the longer I wait to speak, the more I will miss out on, I know. Yet, there is an intelligent mind and emotional mind disconnect. Practice.

A final development is that I assisted on my first wedding shoot. Early into our time here, someone at V’s job asked him to take some photos on their wedding day. It was not a grand ceremony, just the sharing of vows at town hall and a dinner in the evening, so between these events the couple wanted some portraits. Midday Friday, the bride and groom scooped V up from work and me from the hotel and we rode up the hills to a beautiful field. Each time we are lucky enough to ride out of Aalen I am awestruck at the green beauty of this place that I now live. With V’s encouragement, guidance, and vigor for photography, he is reigniting my own love of it. While I was just the backup for the particular day, I was pleased to come up with a few ideas and frame shots behind the camera. I am learning more of the technical aspects now and I hope that my emerging skills will enable me to bring the vision I have to life better. Practice.

To the Hofbrauhaus!

After a night at our local tavern that included us providing Deutsch counting lessons, punks with head tattoos of highly contested content, and stolen marijuana accusations that led to near physical assaults, V, Joan, and I had to wake up early to catch our train to Munich. Joan is a friend from my time in Albany, a woman whose passion for food and hiking matches my own, but whose capacity for dancing and libations far exceeds most anyone. She had been visiting Germany and Switzerland for several weeks and decided to spend her last days visiting Aalen and joining us for a weekend trip to the closest tourist city. Ideally, this is the start of semi-regular adventuring for V and me.

The first leg of the journey was unremarkable. My travel companions attempted naps in the cabin, despite the stale heat and continual door slamming. When we transferred, we wound up on a train with a large number of soccer match attendees en route. The young, sunglassed boys behind us amused themselves by practicing English and offering us beers from an older man’s crate of bottles (he was happy to share with fellow sports fans). It was approximately eleven in the morning, and both V and J succumbed to the pressures. Despite drinking relatively little the night before, I was reluctant to begin drinking so early, knowing that München would inevitably lead to a few pints. Instead, I enjoyed trying out some Deutsch from our invaluable and hilarious Lonely Planet phrasebook. I asked, Was für ein Sternzeichen bist du? Unfortunately, I have yet to memorize the Deutsch answers.

Are there lockers at every major train station in Europe? How I love them. Our hotel about twenty minutes from downtown, we simply shoved our goods into one €3 locker and began our walking tour of the city unburdened.

Aalen’s high temperature has been averaging about 60 Fahrenheit; Munich easily hit 82 that Saturday, making for a sweaty, but pleasing day on our feet. The best building of the day was the Neues Rathaus, even with missing the Glockenspiel performance. While my knowledge of history and architecture leaves something to be desired, I was overwhelmed in its presence. How many years and people does it take to craft such a structure? The creativity of the included carved figures and designs is remarkable. Honestly, I could have sat at the Marienplatz all day, scanning the building for new discoveries. Some other notable sites were the Englischer Garten and the surfers on the “perma wave” (aka water tube surge), the Viktualienmarkt and the fountains where people drink from the spouts and cool their beers in the pools, and numerous bachelor and bachelorette parties in traditional Bavarian clothing of cleavage baring dresses and lederhosen. Lunch and dinner consisted of typical German fare, with Abendessen being at the infamous Hofbrauhaus. What a pain in the ass it is to find a seat there, but it was worth the rowdy atmosphere and head-sized pretzel. In the evening, a wandering soul (born in Mexico, name of French origin, lives in Barcelona, travels extensively) invited us out with his friend. We wound up at a tight, dimly lit, wooden-everything bar with odd paintings suggestive of Bayerisch men’s extraordinary sexual prowess. V and I could not even fit a drink in us, so instead we laughed while watching through tired eyes groups of Germans dancing and singing to what I imagine is their equivalent of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.

Sunday’s weather was radically different. Storming. Cold. We picked up pastries for our subway ride to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. My dorkiness and sentimentalism rears its head again; I easily could have stayed all day analyzing the crafts and I was moved by the knowledge that this whole, gigantic museum carried artifacts of people who have lived on this land for a far greater duration than us Americans of immigrant heritage can comprehend. Still thinking of all the meat from the day before, we opted for an Indian food lunch that was fantastic and nourishing. Indian is a cuisine that I could eat everyday and while much of my own cooking is inspired by its flavor profile, I desperately miss V’s mom’s specialties; every trip home to New Jersey meant a bounty of homemade, freezer-ready dishes bound to be warmed up over the coming weeks. The rain held long enough to visit the Hofgarten and Odeonsplatz (stunning in grandeur) before a quick trip to the Stadtmuseum and their Typisch München exhibit. It was nice to see paintings of the sites we had visited, but time warped one hundred fifty years or further into the past, with little figures depicted in radically different clothes, riding horses and picking market fish out of fountains. What must it have been like to live in the countryside and venture to a city like Munich for the first time?

In the end, this all felt much longer than 29 hours.

(I’ve included my first gallery in a post! Click the thumbnails below to see larger versions of my photos.)

A Modest Account.

V’s birthday was on Friday, so we decided to take a hike up to Aalbäumle, a hilltop tower that overlooks the whole city of Aalen. While the Germans seem to be good at everything, I think they are quite poor when it comes to hiking trail signage. Perhaps the expectation for marked routes is purely American. Perhaps instead Germans have memorized the routes before setting off on a walk in the woods or that maps and markers are unnecessary given their special skills. However, this would not explain the misdirection provided by fellow path walkers that increased the trailhead to destination duration of about twenty minutes to ninety.

A tower-top picture by V.

We eventually made it to the tower, and did so without killing or injuring each other (thus escaping the fate of many significant others when lost together and debating potential route rightness). We ate our packed lunch while trying to read the Deutsch graffiti and feeling the tower tremors as each fellow visitor ascended and descended the narrow stairway. The view was quite spectacular, even given that it was a cloudy day. I thought back to December when I drove to a scenic viewpoint in Boulder, Colorado, gazing down at the city and plains beyond it and wondering if that would be my home come May. I prefer this view: rolling green hilled farmland next to towns of red roofed buildings next to farmland and repeated again. Boulder captivated me with the lifestyle I believe I could have easily lived there, but Aalen is beautiful and challenging.

The path trailhead is at the Limes-Thermen, a mineral bath destination that appears to play an important part in the city’s tourism. We paid our fee, changed in the unisex locker room (changing stalls are provided), and endured the stares of many as we entered the first pool. We are still not sure if the looks were due to our obvious awkwardness, because of V’s skin color or hairy chest, because we spoke English, or just because there is little else for most people to do when soaking in warm mineral water aside from gawking. We tried the various pools, inside and out, small and large.

Then, it was time for the sauna.

A kind worker directed us to the sauna area. “Zoot,” she motioned near her crotch, “Ooff!” she pushed her hands away from her body, indicating bathing suit removal was expected beyond the turnstile.

I once visited a spa in Queens with some friends from yoga class. There, the clothing optional areas were single-gendered. I remember the many women and girls (primarily of Korean descent) brushing one another’s hair in front of rows of mirror, scrubbing their own feet, and jumping in small pools. I’ve gone skinny dipping a few times, including with a group of boys in the midnight ocean waves in Long Beach Island. I shared open showers and topless tribal dances with women in the woods of a Michigan festival. I do not consider myself prudish and I do not think nudity must only be reserved for sexual encounters. I know stories of the German saunas.

Yet, I still felt very modest! I think this is because for every one female in the sauna area, there were ten men. And also because it was daylight, and the areas between saunas are bright; people walked naked between various rooms and laid on lounge chairs, their bodies on overt display. Being that it was Friday, the facility was not particularly crowded either, but the shyness of exposing my relatively young, female body in front of all these older men was strong. So, I didn’t. I went between and into saunas with my towel wrapped around me, as did V who had not attended a sauna or experienced communal nudity before. The damp sauna was amazing, with a series of lights on the ceiling that faded in and out and added to the trance-inducing experience. There was a fellow there, bear-like and determined, who stood and scrubbed his whole body down with salt that was provided near the entrance, making me feel as though I was at a watering hole where animals soak and clean. I made a mental note to determine if there are women-only hours at this particular facility and to use the exfoliating salt myself next time.

Salad, potato with yogurt, and African-spiced steak.

We had dinner at a lovely restaurant in the pedestrian area of town. We were waited on by a young woman whose English was Irish-accented (having been born there and moving to Germany at twelve years old), and who gently corrected our German as per our request. The prices are quite reasonable, especially given the quality and portions. When we were full and pleased, we wandered to our new, favorite little bar to play darts, practice German, and share beers with friends from the hotel and the locals. I am not sure if it is this town or if it is us, but the rumors are proving false: Germans are not wholly unfriendly with new people, as they have been welcoming and warm in the vast majority of our interactions. Perhaps they are even a little too friendly at the bar. By the end of the night, I was requesting water and nearly falling asleep on the table, having consumed a drink or two too many provided by our generous new friends.

A Brief Photo Tour.


Our temporary home is a hotel room in the heart of Aalen, a city of about 65,000 people in the state of Baden-Württemberg.


Upon entering, there is a small kitchen. I have cooked in smaller, less equipped spaces, so it’s not been a problem to prepare many of our meals here. It has two electric burners that get amazingly hot (thanks, German engineers!). Our fridge is the size of a U.S. dorm model, but groceries are nearby and twice weekly there is a farmers’ market so that we can easily purchase items fresh and as needed.


Although the living space is not too small, it primarily follows an open floor plan. We eat at a coffee table and sometimes attempt to watch German television to practice our listening skills. Today’s lunchtime program was Alf, whose dubbed German voice resembled a gruff Frenchman. Notice the Alex Grey calendar, the lone item that I brought in our regular luggage for our walls. Our bed and desk is across from this.


The beds in this area are like two twin models pushed together. I suppose that is pleasant for those who want a different type of mattress than their partner, but we haven’t gotten used to the tiny, individual comforters just yet. Indeed, there are no sheets to sleep under, but instead just allergy provoking down comforters that result in me waking up red-eyed each morning.


We have an additional room with a twin bed and closet that has become a study of sorts as it may be divided by pulling a curtain. It’s also a place where V can be messy. It’s also a place to be creeped out by a romantic, clown-mime child.


The bathroom is small, particularly the shower. Fortunately for me, it is a fine size. For some people though, one wrong move and the shower handle is hit and scalding water (German engineering again) is burning the individual in the appropriately coffin-like unit. The shower was much larger in the hotel during our May visit. Ten days ago at a Huntington bar, a portly man who had just returned from a shower stall demolition tour of Italy had warned of the European tininess, so I was not surprised.


This is the view from our tiny balcony. While we have not used it very much, it is a nice ritual to step out here each morning and evenings and remember: WIR WOHNEN IN DEUTSCHLAND!