Saturday, 5 June 2010

Final thoughts

When I left for Cologne, Germany, I knew very little about the place and was pretty nervous about what was to come. However, I reckoned that even if I didn't have a good time, at least the experience would be 'character-building'.

Luckily I've enjoyed many good times. There have been the bad times too, but I think/hope they have shaped a stronger 'me'.

Here are just a few things I learned about the country and myself through my expat adventure, in no particular order of importance...

Things I have learned about Germany:
  • It is perfectly okay for dogs to peruse the counters of department stores (Read more...)
  • There's more rubbish on the streets than I expected, but there are a lot of bin men and road sweepers 
  • There is a surprising amount of beret wearing amongst men of a certain age. It's not just for the French you know
  • Lederhosen isn't that popular, unless it's carnival time or Oktoberfest
  • Customer service in shops could score higher and some banks and post offices close over lunchtime, which is just when you need them 
  • The health service is very good and doctors seem to have the resources they need
  • People are very environmentally aware and it is the norm to take your own bags to the supermarket
  • There are some lovely customs such as St Martin's Zug and May Day love tokens
  • It is a land of bread-lovers: bread comes in a huge number of varieties (Wikipedia reckons on around 600 types) and you're never far from a bakery
Things I have learned about myself:
  • Maybe I need to be a bit, just a teensy bit, less controlling
  • I am an optimist, not a pessimist (unless things are going wrong...) 
  • I am not too old to try new things and I am not too old to learn new things
  • Even though I might not enjoy it, I can tolerate a high level of embarrassment
  • Although I am not great at languages, I am not as bad as I thought when I was a teenager, learning GCSE French. So, on that note, 'Auf Wiedersehen!'

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Home

I've been home a week and am just about unpacked and am slowly settling in. I'm staying at my parents' while we work out what we're doing next - and where we're going to do it. As my folks live in a leafy suburb I am now adjusting to being woken up by wood pigeons instead of sirens.

The last week has been eventful.

On the Monday we were due to leave we went to the Cologne town hall to deregister (it's compulsory to 'sign out' if you're leaving Germany and you're not native). We were a bit crestfallen on arrival when we found that about fifty people were ahead of us in the queue. However, we were only there five minutes when Alexander managed to fall over in the 'soft play area' and cut his head. Interestingly, when I ran to the front desk to ask for help, we were whisked to the front of the queue to complete the de-registration forms. Taking our bleeding son (using the medical sense rather than cussing you understand) to the hospital seemed to be a secondary consideration. The staff were kind though, and ordered a taxi to the hospital after they'd seen all the blood. Alexander was treated immediately at the hospital and luckily only needed to have the wound glued together. He was soon running around as though nothing had happened.

Simon's colleague didn't need a lift in the end - he chose to stay a bit longer. Now travel seems to have returned to normal so I assume he's home now.

Luckily we got our ferry okay. We were interviewed on the boat by the BBC travel expert Simon Calder - he was making a video piece about travel via Norfolk Line ferries for a business conference. He asked us what we consider are the benefits of travelling from Dunkirk and we could only really think it's cheap and punctual (which are pretty good reasons), but I suspect he was angling for more.

On Sunday April turned three. It was great to be able to celebrate her birthday with all grandparents, aunts and uncles as that was never possible before. She even got two chocolate birthday cakes as both Nanas baked: so one for elevenses and one for afternoon tea!

I am still in a bit of a headspin at the moment and it will take some time to mull over the relevance of the last three and a half years spent as an English lady abroad. I plan to write one more post, giving a round up of thoughts and comments. Auf Wiedersehen!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Erupting

In Germany it is quite normal for a rented apartment to come without a kitchen and in that case it is the tenant's responsibility to fit one on arrival and then remove it on leaving. We have no need of a kitchen where we are going so we managed to find a willing buyer who came to pick it up today.

In a strange twist the buyer for the kitchen works for the European Aviation Safety Agency which has just moved to Cologne. Given the current ban on flying over Europe due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland, I cannot help wondering how busy he is right now.

One of Simon's English colleagues and friends is currently stranded in Cologne due to the volcano. As he was at a loose end he helped us to deconstruct our kitchen yesterday. In return we're going to squeeze him into our car tomorrow and drop him at Lille, where he can catch the Eurostar. Our small car will be rammed with three crumpled adults and two little people. Goodness knows what the pressure build up is going to be like inside and how long before one of us explodes.

Last night we popped round our neighbours' place for a drink. We'd just arrived and started on the prosecco when we heard fireworks so we watched the impressive display from their large balcony. A perfect and unplanned moment.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Last Friday

It's my last Friday here.

Just so you know, I did cry on Wednesday when I said goodbye to my friend and her family. It's hard when you meet wonderful people and the path you want your life to take is different from theirs. It is hard for my friend too, as she has made a life here and has seen so many of her expat friends come and go.

April and Alexander leave their playgroup today. I pick them up in half an hour. April has been going twice a week for nearly two years - a long time. I think I am set for another emotional goodbye so I'll take some tissues just in case.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Last week in Cologne

I will be leaving Cologne and Germany next Monday and returning to my home town. I've been here nearly 3 and a half years!

We spent a lovely weekend with Simon's best man and his family, doing all the tourist highlights: the cathedral, the Roman Museum, the Museum Ludwig, the zoo and the Rhine. Without visitors we probably wouldn't have taken this much needed pause to soak up some of the atmosphere of this great city.

When we were standing by the west door of the cathedral the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne came out, leading a procession. Seeing what she thought of as a parade, April did what any toddler might do - and clapped. This caught His Eminence's attention so he came over to bless each of us in turn. It turns out that the Archbishop is a bit cheeky though - as he was leaving we heard him muttering to his attendants that we were 'quite normal for English'. Hmm.

This week has been very busy so far and it's only going to get busier. We're saying goodbye to good friends we have made, tying up loose ends and frantically packing. (Nb packing is not easy when you have a baby and a toddler who like to inspect everything as it's boxed up.)

Today April had her three year check up at the doctor's, but she wasn't in the mood. She was mute for the entire time. Questions like, 'What can you see on this chart?' and, 'Tell me what this animal is,' were met with stony silence. The doctor asked if April could jump to which I said yes - but of course April refused to show us. So the doctor could not perform a sight test; ascertain April's language ability; or check her gymnastic skills. I tried not to be mortified by the experience. On the way home April chatted noisily, jumping along the road like a kangaroo.

This afternoon we are off to say 'Auf Weidersehen' to a dear friend and her family. There is a very real chance that I will cry.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Frohe Ostern...

...or 'Happy Easter'!

It is thought that the 'Easter Bunny' tradition - where a magical rabbit leaves eggs for children who have been good - emerged in Germany and Alsace.

So it's no surprise that Easter eggs are a serious business here. As well as the usual array of chocolate eggs on sale, you can also buy dyed hard-boiled eggs known as 'Bunte Eier' (colourful eggs).

We bought these ones but were too chicken (ahem) to eat them.

More about the Easter Bunny...

Friday, 2 April 2010

Weyerstrasse

My street is called 'Weyerstrasse' and it is where I have lived all the time I have been in Germany.

Weyerstrasse is in the Griechenmarkt ('Greek Market') quarter of Cologne (although there's sadly no longer a Greek market here - I am sure it would have been interesting to see). It's near the centre of student nightlife and also a short walk from the town high street. It's a funny mix of residential, offices, bars and shops.

Facilities here range from the sublime to the ridiculous:
  • A jazz club which has been going since the 60s and which describes itself as 'interjazzional' (mmm, nice)
  • The oldest pub in Cologne
  • A centre for Rosicrucian study/worship (don't know what this is, but given that I have never seen anyone enter or leave, maybe nobody else does either)
  • A leather corset emporium
  • Water bed shop
  • Vegan supplies shop
  • Further Education college
  • An alternative hairdresser's which has scary Goth dolls hanging by their necks from the window
  • A club for expat Brits which is never open
  • A club for expat Russians which is never closed
  • Portuguese restaurant
  • And your usual run of takeaways, bakeries, grocery shops and a very nice florist
The people that I have encountered walking up and down the street are always friendly and keen to say 'hallo' and engage the children in conversation. Cologne is a diverse and absorbing place with many facets - and nowhere is this more evident than in our little corner of the city.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Roll up, roll up

The circus is making its annual visit to Cologne so I took April along to today's matinee. It was a special treat for the girls of the household.

(Alexander is growing his first molars - a situation which isn't pleasant for him or anyone caring for him. So today I escaped from him left him with his Dad.)

April was extremely excited. But I think I may possibly have been more so. I remember being taken to the circus when I was little by one of those ladies I called 'Auntie', but who wasn't really. I recall that it was very good and that I was entranced by a group of acrobats in sequinned green outfits. (Hang on, maybe that explains a lifelong fixation with sparkles?)

It took some time for everyone to get seated in the 'Big Top'. Before the show started April declared that she'd 'Like to go home now' but I managed to convince her to wait for the performance. A few minutes later, coinciding with the opening drum roll, she declared that she needed a wee. Hmmm.

Anyway, after these niggles we were able to settle down and enjoy ourselves. Television and books have taught April to expect the following acts from a circus: jugglers, acrobats and clowns. Luckily we saw all three today: there was a juggler who managed to keep six balls on the go at once, sometimes even throwing them behind his back; there were lithe acrobats who formed human pyramids and flipped their bodies into all sorts of unfeasible configurations with apparent ease; and there was a clown who turned a member of the audience into a goat* - the symbol for the city's beloved FC Köln.

We left at the interval because a full show - at nearly three hours long - would have been too much for a toddler. As we left I inhaled the glorious smells coming from the popcorn and sausage stalls. Although April is too young to remember this day, I shall think of it with fondness. In  fact, I want to go again already!


*No people or animals were hurt.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Carnival Sunday

Carnival SundayTomorrow is the day of the nationally-televised Cologne 'Rosenmontag' parade, and today is the less-crowded warm-up event, which takes the same route through the city and represents local schools and districts (Schull und Veedelszög parade). We decided to brave the snow and take the opportunity to have a look.

The schools that put on a really good display today are chosen to parade again tomorrow: this is a hotly-contested gig.

As it's Carnival, even the people watching the parade are expected to dress up - so we went as a Prisoner, Little Devil, Bird and Showgirl. Sometimes it's hard to know who is meant to be parading and who's just a bystander.

Children come to the parade clutching big, empty bags, which people from the parade fill with sweets. April got into the spirit of the parade, as you can see in the photo (bottom right).

PS - Several bystanders turned up with ironing boards (see photo, middle left), which they used as tables for their beers and snacks. Ingenious.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Carnival photo collage

Some photos I took today...Carnival images, Cologne

Top row: me with some clown musicians; wigs on sale in a fancy dress shop; a carnival clown cake

Bottom row: carnival street sign; party bus; carnival folk in front of the cathedral

Kissed in Cologne!

It's 'Karneval' once again! Today is the start of 6 days of partying and 17 parades through and around the town. There will be an estimated 1.5 million people attending the big 'Rosenmontag' parade on Carnival Monday.

This year's carnival motto is 'Kissed in Cologne' which I am guessing was chosen because Carnival Sunday happens to fall on Valentine's Day. There is also a custom on Carnival Thursday (known as 'Weiberfastnacht', which roughly translates as 'Women's Carnival Day') which allows women to go up to any man wearing a tie and give him a kiss in exchange for cutting off his tie. I expect bargain tie shops will be doing a good trade today.

with 'the band'Braving this morning's sub-zero temperatures, I headed into town to take some photos of the chaos. Here I am at the main train station. I saw this band and asked to take their picture. They persuaded me to be in the photo instead, for the price of a kiss. My carnival experience is living up to this year's motto!

Here are crowds of early revellers, spilling out of the main station and making their way into town.
video

More revellers. Note the 'Yippee'!
video

More about carnival...

Saturday, 30 January 2010

January

January. Oh January. What a disappointment you've been to me. Here's a quick summary:

Week 1: April and Alexander contract the winter vomiting virus. It snows a lot.
Week 2: Me and Simon contract the winter vomiting virus and the kids get coughs. It is very cold.
Week 3: The lift breaks and it takes ten days to fix - and we live on the 4th floor. It is very, very cold.
Week 4: It snows again and I am just too cold. How is one supposed to keep the spark going in a marriage when it's necessary to wear socks in bed to retain body heat?

Zülpicher Platz churchI'll be glad to see the back of January. (Though I am pleased to have found that having to wear a hat outside the house has put paid to 'bad hair days'.)

Today I took some photos of the snow when out buying the groceries. Here's a photo taken of our local Zülpicher Platz church.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Schneemann

snowmanToday April and I built a happy snowman. It has eyes made out of cake candle holders, a toy carrot nose, chopsticks for arms and a button mouth.

It's been very cold here - I don't think it's got above freezing all week.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Queasy

We've been away in England for Christmas and it's been pleasant, as it always is. We arrived back in Cologne about 3 hours ago and are enjoying being back on our sofa and surrounded by all of our things.

We split the journey back to Cologne over two days, with a break in a Dover hotel last night, prior to our Channel crossing. That was meant to make the journey more pleasant. Hmm.

Precisely 6 minutes before we got to the hotel April was violently sick. Poor little thing. When we arrived at the hotel I had to get her out of the car and shake her down. Bits of part-digested tangerine, orange squash and all - making a nice fruit cocktail for the urban rats. This was not stylish travel.

She was ill again when we were in our hotel room; a room all four of us were sharing. With vomit-covered sheets and clothes the room soon became a bio-hazard and I was worried that we'd all be ill by dawn.

Luckily Simon, Alexander and I were okay this morning, but April threw up her breakfast. Of course, it occurred to us that a nauseous child and a cross-channel ferry in winter seas might not be good. We boarded with some anxiety.

In the end, the worst thing that happened on the ferry was that April had a very loud tantrum about not wanting to put her boots on. It was public mortification for me, but not as bad as her being sick again.

Now we're home April is fully recovered but I am mentally scarred!

Travelling with children? Just DON'T.