Dear Santa, define naughty

In German, the word here you might not know is ‘ungezogen’

We royally screwed up both our German & our American Christmases. It turned out alright in the end, but my plan was to use this as a dress rehearsal for the real show.

Our kid is only a year old, so although she understands ripping gifts from their wrapping which she got a lot of practise doing the last few days, the whole Christkind (Christ child) &/or Santa Claus bringing presents is still a foreign concept.

She’s small. She’ll figure it out, I’m sure.

So, was she naughty? Not exactly. She has developed a taste for refined sugar that she didn’t have before.

The other day, Miriam & I resolved to give her less sugar than she’s been mainlining during Xmas. Meanwhile, what was she doing?

Our daughter was in her crib silently planning how to obtain more sugar.

Define ‘naughty’.

God bless our dentist. She’ll have extra work now that we’re all three addicted to the stuff.

Oh well. Life goes on.

Happy second day of Christmas!

Oversharing & who’s reading anyway? Go back to your family in the other room…

Miriam, der Günter, the progeny & myself

Having been informed I overshare, I’ve decided to observe myself & perhaps modify my behaviour. The time between the years, as I’ve heard this post Christmas until Epiphany period referred to, is ideal for assessing such a situation.

How one lives one’s life is rarely easy to modify, but before you even get there, an honest appraisal of the situation is necessary. Although it’d be easy to chalk it up to cultural differences or what have you, how much one shares and what one shares about in social media might be a private choice, but the result can turn into quite the public spectacle.

We’ve had a lot of loss this year. If you’ve not been following our serial, I’ll give you a quick rundown. Miriam’s mom passed in July & while it’s been devastating to lose her so quickly & unexpectedly, at the same time it’s been inspiring to see her husband/Miriam’s father manage the memorial and his life without her.

This geezer was married to her just over 50 years & had to learn everything in the household from scratch. Watching him washing his clothes & keeping plants alive & even maintaining the cleanliness of his bathroom is a marvel. Not an exaggeration – this guy’s inspired me.

Then a few months back, I lost my dog. If I’m really blunt, Ella wasn’t the easiest with Miriam. Especially in comparison to her brother Louis, who completely adored my new wife and all of her ways.

The way Miriam loved & respected Ella, even in the face of this dog’s reticence, says everything about my wife’s character. It’s of course a grieving process, so I’ll likely be oversharing here about missing Ella. It’s kind of the point.

Which comes to the hardest one. Miriam & I got some bad news just before Christmas. It’s private & I’ve resolved not to go into detail, but let’s just say it was tough & on top of all the other difficulties this year, it felt like another hammer blow at the end of a Mahler symphony. The analogy is quite fitting, but I’m not going to say anymore.

If you see Miriam in real life or communicate with her online, please be gentle. I’m one to talk, to be candid. I should take my own damned advice.

As I regularly say here, hold your loved ones close & try to savour the time you have together. You never know what’s coming next, but mortality is always lurking in the shadows.

Merry Christmas all of you wonderful people. If you’re still reading, I’m touched that people want to know what I’ve got to say.

If you’re not reading? Well, you’re ok too. Who am I to judge?

Stealing from little baby Jesus

This is only a baby elf, but he looks malleable enough — Jesus should be even better

So is he coming, or isn’t he? Kids around the world, well the Christian &/or western world I should say, are wondering if & hoping that St. Nick makes an appearance tonight. Even in northern Germany, the little ones are waiting for the Weihnachtsmann (Christmas man, literally).

He purportedly comes early enough on Xmas Eve that the kiddos in that neck of the woods can open all their gifts sometime this afternoon/evening. This is all hearsay, though. I’ve neither had children in northern Germany nor been a child there. Here in Bavaria, though, I know the drill. It’s not the Christmas man here, but instead the Christkind (Christ child) hauls all that loot to the little boys & girls. Please don’t ask me to judge this complete hogwash. I’m sorry, but I’ve got a hard enough time with the whole St. Nicolas scenario. Even if he manages Germany in the afternoon here, he can’t get to the rest of the Christian world in one night.

The little baby Jesus, on the other hand. Now that’s plausible. I’m with Ricky Bobby on this one. When I pray, I turn to the infant 👶 in swaddling clothes. I look at my baby in her childlike innocence & I think, ‘It’s gonna be a lot easier to get this one to give me cool stuff than it would’ve been with that grumpy old Santa geezer.’

Our baby is easily distracted, so I assume the deity in his smallest person form would be a piece of cake to bamboozle. This is a great idea. The more I think about it, I think this might be the best Christmas EVAH!

I’ll let you know how it goes with my Christkind heist.

Feuerzangenbowle and those silly dogs

What in God’s name is this one? I’ve lived in Germany this time around for nearly two decades, and there are still times I feel like I’ve just arrived. Regularly, I have an expat problem that’d be solved by me being a bit more tolerant.

That’s preposterous, isn’t it? I’m a guest in this country, and yet I still want them, the natives, to fulfil to my expectations. I expect them to change in order to make me a bit more comfy. Really?

Now why am I calling Germans ‘natives’? It’s easy really. Normally you might think of my host country as a group of hard working and dour people. That’s the stereotype at least. One exception, of course, is Karnival, which is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or even Carnival in Rio.

They’re wild, and I’m not exaggerating. Around the Christmas season, they also get a little freaky when they have holiday parties and celebrate like they’ve got no care in the world. A few weeks out of the office and heaps of time with the family – it’s a recipe for heavy drinking.

Speaking of heavy drinking, have you heard of fire tongs punch? Here’s a description:

Feuerzangenbowle (German: [ˈfɔʏɐtsaŋənˌboːlə]) is a traditional German alcoholic drink for which a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire and drips into mulled wine. It is often part of a Christmas or New Year’s Eve tradition. The name translates literally as fire tongs punch. The popularity of the drink was boosted in Germany by the 1944 comedy film Die Feuerzangenbowle.

It is a traditional drink of some German fraternities, who also call it Krambambuli, as the red color is reminiscent of a cherry liqueur of that name which was manufactured by the distillery Der Lachs zu Danzig in Gdańsk, Poland.

Wikipedia

That drink will get one incredibly drunk, I assure you. I know from personal experience, but that was a long time ago. I’ve not anything to drink in quite a few years, but I still vividly remember what drinking this stuff was like.

Apropos of the Feuerzangenbowle, I’ve been invited to Weilheim to see a performance of the original stage play, and I’m going. Even have an extra ticket I’m trying to give away. If you live near Munich (or Weilheim, even better) and want to go, call me. I’m not online on Sundays, so you’ll have to use that old-fashioned telephone.

The last thing I want to mention is that although I’m not posting about it as much as I’m feeling it, the turmoil of losing Ella has been a bit breathtaking, but not in the positive sense. I’ve found myself in the weirdest moments tearing up at the thought of her and her brother frolicking in the wild yonder there.

Yes, I was lucky to have them for such a long time. They cared for me in a dark time, and more importantly they gave me a daily opportunity to take care of someone else. Bear with me here, ok?

Despite me being a new parent, I’ve got plenty of opinions on parenthood. If you listened to me talk, you’d think, ‘Why’s this guy mansplaining raising children to me?‘ Having said all that, my takeaway is that as a father (or mother) must often put his needs on the back burner. It’s how it is – for me, it’s the feature I most need. To think less of Lahikmajoe, I mean.

thanks Ralf for saving my Christmas

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Louis is not doing a yoga pose…NO, he’s not

Yesterday was Christmas Day, and all was going relatively well until my boy dog Louis decided to disappear. It was quite honestly the most terrifying half hour I could imagine, because he’s not one to wander off.

His sister Ella, on the other hand, regularly runs off when we’re hiking in the mountains, but she’s smart enough to come back. Eventually. As much as it scares me when she does it, she’s clever. She’s able to find her way back.

Her brother Louis? Is he clever like his female counterpart? Uh, well.

He’s got a great personality – he’s earnest and takes defending us quite seriously. I promise you he’s got his better qualities, but intelligence isn’t something he was blessed with. I’m not being cruel – he really is a bit dim.

So when I turned round and he’s gone, I wasn’t pleased. I was the opposite of pleased. Ella was concerned, but to be candid she takes everything a bit too seriously, so I assured her that her brother would be back soon enough. After a few minutes of whistling and hollering his name, I was no longer able to feign calmness.

She and I switched positions, and she began assuring me that he’d soon be found. Everything would be ok. Right?

I wasn’t quite sure.

Now, if I wanted to build suspense and make this a decent piece of writing, I might draw it out. I could go into excruciating detail and describe my emotional spiral in a blow by blow manner, but I simply can’t bring myself to do that. It’s not somewhere I’m prepared to go with this.

What I’d rather do is make yet another plea that you hold those you love closer to you during the holidays. If you come here regularly, you know it’s one of my regular themes. Savour what you’ve got while it’s there. Don’t wait till you lose someone or something to appreciate it. Really.

My family in America seems to be doing rather well. Every time I talk to my brother’s children, my heart hurts a little that I’m not there more often. They love their Uncle Ken, and I wish I could corrupt them in person and not just via Skype. At some point in the last month I realised that if I needed a character reference, my niece Amelia would be my best bet.

Go ahead, ask her. What does she think of her uncle? The one who lives in Germany and always brings her a Dirndl or a nice bit of Swiss chocolate? If only that reference could help me get a better job or help me find a flat…

But then I realise, when I have that kind of high quality character reference, what else do I need? If this particular eight-year-old is properly impressed, why am I worried about little things like a place to live or a more stable source of income? Her mom Sara told me while we were on the phone last night, ‘Well, you could always come live here.

With Ella and Louis and all the contents of my tea cupboard?

I don’t think Amelia would think I was so great if she had to live near me on a regular basis. All things in moderation – even moderation.

Hug your people. Tell them you love them.

Savour this life. It’s precious. It really is the only one you’ve got.

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Louis and his stare…where did you run off to sweet boy dog?

Did his sister and I eventually find the ridiculous boy dog? Yes, of course we did. He was being cared for by a very kind family that had dogs of their own. Ralf was the guy’s name, and he and his family had him in the boot of their car. They were patiently waiting for Louis‘ people to come wandering along, and eventually we did.

Wish I could say I didn’t get emotional and cry a little, but I’d be lying if I tried to appear more strong and/or silent. There were tears, and maybe a bit of hugging. I’m not sure if the family knew what they were getting into when they decided to take care of Louis, and after my blubbering display I’m not sure they’d do it again.

Wherever Ralf is, I hope he knows he saved our Christmas.

Ella and Louis are now sleeping peacefully and all is right with the world. It really is going to be ok.

the monks are at rest and so am I…mostly

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monks playing their flutes and drinking their beer

In Munich, like most of the rest of Germany, the people have closedup shop and Christmas is in full swing. You might say that’s typical for countries that celebrate this holiday, but there’s something almost eerie about the way everything grinds to a halt here.

Germans take family and friends seriously, and this is a holiday for the former rather than the latter. The expectation is that if your mother and/or father are still living, you make your way home at all costs. Again: something that might be true elsewhere, but here it seems particularly suspect if you’re still on your own when this particular holiday rolls round.

The meta message when it comes to the birth of little baby Jesus is to go home and treat your parents right. Do it. Yes, I mean you.

Don’t lollygag. Go, now. Really – go!

You didn’t move, did you?

I doubted you would.

The reality is that sometimes it’s simply hard to make such a journey. For whatever reason. We all have our excuses. Maybe it’s because of children that you can’t travel home. You’ve now got your own family to look after, and the people you’re with during the holidays are your in-laws.

Or it’s also possible you’ve fallen out with your family. You’re not even welcome there. the last thing anyone said was, ‘You’re no longer welcome here.’

Hope that’s not the case for you, but if it is…I’d do my best not to judge you. Who the hell am I, right?

The monks in the photo above, who’re adorning the exterior walls of the Neues Rathaus in Munich’s city centre, probably wouldn’t have made any journey for Christmas. Not sure what exactly monks did to mark the Yuletide back then, but I doubt it had anything to do with what we seem to be doing. Things such as giving gifts beyond our financial means. Or watching either American Football or that other game, which the rest of the world calls football.

Me personally? What’ll I be doing?

Well, starting on Boxing Day, I’ll be watching Tottenham Hotspurs play Aston Villa away and then a few days later they’ll travel up northeast to Sunderland.

After that, the Londoners host Reading at home at White Hart Lane, which might turn out to be a decent match. The English Premier League is the only European league (that I know of) that keeps going over the holidays, and if you’re a fan of the beautiful game, it’s a tradition to catch a tonne of matches in a rather short period of time. To each his own, yeah?

Other than that, what do I do at this time of year?

Since I moved to Germany more than a decade ago, I’ve really taken advantage of this dark, quiet time of the year. People are somehow a bit more circumspect. A tad more philosophical. What have I done this year? Have I left any stone unturned?

Is there any unfinished task that I need to take care of before the old man that is 2012 makes his way offstage and the baby that is 2013 comes toddling into the footlights?

As Robert Hunter wrote in his and Jerry Garcia‘s song Franklin’s Tower:

If you plant ice, you’re gonna harvest wind.

I think I’d rather avoid harvesting that. Unless he was talking about gas. I’m sure I’ll be harvesting plenty of that before the holidays are out.

not just for leaplings

Although it’s not a holiday, Leap Day is one of my favourite days of the year. Call it scarcity. Point your accusatory finger at me and remind me that it’s just another day of drudgery…nothing to get excited about.

Go ahead. You won’t temper my exuberance. It’s not that easy to do so anyway.

First let’s talk about why we even have Leap Day, and I’m going to let The Straight Dope do the honours when it comes to explaining this one in Why do we have leap years? The simplest explanation I can offer? A year isn’t actually 365 days, but roughly 365 1/4 days. If you didn’t add that day every four years, Christmas would inch earlier toward the solstice…in 200 or so years Yuletide would be in the middle of autumn, which come to think of it is when retail establishments already start celebrating it.

My friend Denise sent me a link about Leap Day traditions. Though I knew about the tradition of women asking men to marry them on this day, I didn’t know the history. And I quote:

‘According to an old Irish legend, or possibly history, St Bridget struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men – and not just the other way around – every 4 years. This is believed to have been introduced to balance the traditional roles of men and women in a similar way to how Leap Day balances the calendar.’

Doubt that one day’s going to balance anything much less traditional gender roles, but I suppose this isn’t hurting anyone. Well, except the poor schmucks who get cornered by their ladies. Here’s what I think about all of this (that is why you come here, after all):

If you really need to rely on such a convoluted tradition to get up the nerve to ask your man, you might be much more clueless than even you realised. Look, I know gender roles aren’t always easy to manoeuvre. And some women would never dream of asking a man out on a date – much less to ‘do me the honour’ and all that.

But if that’s your position, why does this one day every four years suspend the normal rules? That’s illogical.

Nevertheless, there is something alluring about one day somehow suspended outside of convention. And to go back to how I started all of this, maybe it’s the scarcity. The fact that this day only comes every four years. It does feel like something extraordinary. Even without the perfunctory marriage proposals.

What about people born on this day? What’s to be done with them? They have a name, you know? They’re called Leaplings. Nice, eh? Sounds so celebratory.

I knew a girl in school who was born on 29 February. We were all 20, while she was celebrating her fifth birthday. You’d think the jokes about liquoring up a minor would get old that night. You’d be absolutely right. The jokes were dreadful. But make them we did. Had she known about the tradition of proposing marriage on Leap Day, I’m sure she would’ve had her revenge then and there.

I know what I would’ve said.

‘I don’t care how well she holds her liquor, I’m not marrying a five-year old.’

are you afraid of Knecht Ruprecht? maybe you should be.

Lahikmajoe as Krampus

Years ago, someone here in Bavaria mentioned something about Knecht Ruprecht (Ruprecht the Servant). I’m often lost in my thoughts so that most of the time in such a situation I’d nod my head and smile and pretend to know what such a person was talking about. But this situation was a little bit different. I’d already been dumbfounded by something that was said, and had asked for clarification. Now I had to pay attention. Who was Knecht Ruprecht?

St Nikolaus shows up sometime in the night before the Sixth of December and leaves coins or gifts in the shoes that the children leave outside their doors. Are you paying attention? Don’t just nod your head. Does this make any sense? Here in Germany (and other parts of Europe-I’m not going to attempt to list them all) the children leave their shoes outside of their front door the evening before, and on the morning of the Sixth of December their shoes are filled with little gifts.

But at some point in the days leading up to this, a man dressed as Nikolaus comes to visit the house or the school and has a little talk with each child. this is where we get our ‘he knows when you’ve been naughty/knows when you’ve been nice‘ business. Nikolaus explains how the kid was good that year and where he might do better. Please don’t ask me how he knows this. Apparently, there’s a way that the parents pass on both the presents he pulls out of his sack, as well as the behavioural balance sheet. But when it was explained to me, the logistical details of how all this works only confused me.

The important thing is that the kid gets a little personal ‘How am I doing?‘ pep talk from the old man in the white beard. And he gets some gifts, if he was in fact good during the last year, both in this face-to-face scenario and in his above-mentioned shoes. But what if he was bad? What if the kid is a little terror? Well that’s where Knecht Ruprecht comes in.

In many places there’s the threat that if you were bad that year, Nikolaus wouldn’t give you presents. Instead you’d get switches that your parents would hit you with. Or coal. Or I don’t know what. Bad stuff. Stuff no-one wants. But in parts of Southern Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, this punitive responsibility was given to the good Nikolaus‘ servant, who’s called Knecht Ruprecht. In other places he’s called Krampus. I looked at tons of photos of representations of Krampus (he has quite a following on the web), but there were incredibly convincing threats against using those photos elsewhere. I’ve chosen to simply link to Krampus.com.

Living in a similar but different culture is a funny dance sometimes. A dance alternating between thinking you know exactly what they’re talking about, when you don’t, and being completely at a loss what they’re talking about, when it’s really not that different from what you’re used to. I got used to the idea of Nikolaus coming at the beginning of December, but when I finally understood what the purpose of Knecht Ruprecht was, I was truly impressed.

Here Nikolaus gets to do the positive, uplifting part of the whole procedure complete with gifts and pep talk, while he farms out the literal dirty work to this unfortunate Ruprecht slouch. What a deal. And even better? In this culture, St Nick‘s work is done for the rest of the holidays.

A few little toys, some candy or fruit in each child’s shoes and he can sit back and relax for the rest of the season. Who brings them  their gifts at Christmas? I’ll leave that for another post. It’s too much to get into at this point. All you need to know at this point is that it’s not Nikolaus. He’s earned his relaxing Christmastime.