My trip to the USA after two years away

I just came home from a trip to the US after more than two years away. It was wonderful to be home and very interesting to see how my family and I have changed during our time away. These were the most salient feelings I experienced during those weeks in the States. 

As much as I was looking forward to enjoying American products again, the best part of being back was the people. 

I made a list on my fridge of things I wanted to have while visiting the US for months before going home. Items on that list were eating fajitas at Chili’s, eating a chicken sandwich at Chick Fil-A, buying Hanes underwear and other seeming banalities that I have grown to really miss while living in the Germany. As the days went by, the items on my “to eat/to buy list” became increasingly less important and seeing the friends and family I have missed so much was much more fulfilling. Sadly my grandmother died a few days before our trip so we were able to attend her funeral and see many family members we otherwise never would have. One is getting married this summer, another is managing a family with eight children, another is sending her youngest child to med school and one is learning to become a museum curator. So much has changed yet they are still the same wonderful people I remember. 

I feel like I didn’t see my children for three weeks because they basically ran wild with their cousins for twenty days in a row, only coming to me when they needed something to eat. They slept in haphazard piles of boys on the living room floor and loved every minute of it. At the end of our trip, I was hoping Maximilian would be able to tell me some interesting observations about the cultural differences between Germany and the US. When pressed, he could only say that he had a great time with his cousins. 

 

My mom actually has ten grandsons; two are missing in this picture. Thank God for Piper and Loreta, the only girls in the next generation.

  

I was totally overwhelmed by how huge the aisles were at the grocery store and the amount of choice Americans have at the store.

 

While I love how kid-friendly the US is, I realized that since almost everyone reproduces, it doesn’t give you a special status like it does in Europe. 

It was wonderful to have so many children for my kids to play with in the US! It was a break for me as a mom since I wasn’t the entertainer. However, being the mom of lots of kids in Europe affords me a special status. All I have to do is mention that I have four children and people quickly say “Respekt”. The huge amount of work that goes with being a mom is recognized here in Europe wheras in the US, it is seen as normal. Flying to the US from Germany, the stewardesses saw that I have small kids and gave me a special roomy seat and there were even special lines for families at the check-in area of the airport for people with kids. A single man tried to sneak into the line and a forthright German quickly put him in his place. “This is ONLY for people with kids. Get in the other line”. Coming home to the US, the American flight attendants were nice, but when I explained that I was flying with a lapchild and three other small kids, she didn’t flinch. “Could we at least all sit together, please? I have four small kids and I am alone!”. “So?” was her response. 

For my 5 year old, language is based on situations, not which country you visit. 

My mom’s house is next to a preschool and Noah went up to the fence and said to the kids “Was machst du denn?”. No one answered him and he came back to me and reported that the kids next door are rude. “They wouldn’t even answer me!”. For Noah, German is the language of small children since that is the language he speaks at his preschool. English is the language you speak when you are at home. He did not connect the English language with the country of the USA. In fact, I am not sure if he even knew that he was in a place that is far away from his home. 

I was overhwhelmed with emotion as I flew over Chicago. 

Our flight back home connected in Chicago and we spent some time circling overhead before landing. I saw Evanston, Lake Michigan, Arlington Heights, Park Ridge, Golf Road and Skokie. We spent ten extremely formative years of our life in that city. I got married to my husband, went to grad school, had a professional career, made dear friends, bought a house and gave birth to three children there. As we flew over, I suddenly felt really sad that a place that means so much to me means nothing to my kids other than their place of birth. So much of who I am is connected to that place and my boys do not know it. 

Coming back to Germany this week has been like coming to the Europe of my teens and 20s. When Sebastian and I would visit in the summer months when I was on school break, the weather was glorious and warm. I would arrive, eyes burning and nauseous with jet lag but enchanted by the experience. So many senses transported me to that time these last few days: the smell of food being served in open air cafes mixed with the smell of the patrons’ cigarettes, the heat of car exhaust and heat coming off the pavement since we go everywhere on foot, staying out late at night since the time change makes me still wide awake at dusk. This is the Germany of my younger, childless self and yet it feels just the same now that I am in my 30s and feeling these things with four little ducklings trailing behind me. So maybe someday we will be back in Chicago and the boys will know that place that means so much to me, just like they are here in the country their dad grew up in. 

Home is where Sebastian is

Getting off the airplane and seeing Sebastian at the baggage claim was the most wonderful sight in the world. Somehow I felt at home even though Germany doesn’t feel like my homeland. 

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The dinner hour used to be my worst time of the day until I started doing this.

When I was a teenager, my dad and I were at an airport with some extra time to kill. I told him I was going to stop at a Caribou Coffee and meet him at the gate. As the minutes ticked by, my dad was getting worried that I might be late and miss the flight. He asked someone where Caribou Coffee was. Apparently there were six in this particular airport! He ran around the airport at full speed, looking for me, terrified of missing our flight. I ran into him fifteen minutes before boarding and was surprised by what a state he was in. Apparently the stress was so extreme that his eyes were damaged and his vision was never the same. He always complained of “floaters” that would impede his vision. He’d never had any vision problems until the infamous “Caribou Coffee incident”. The stress of that incident was something life-changing and he referred to it often. I couldn’t imagine how he must have felt, until I had kids and had to start enduring dinner time.

This is an actual picture of dinner time at my house. Two of them are standing in this picture but one is often crawling on the table.

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The dinner time drama is always the same at our house. My boys take naps from 3 until about 5 every day and wake up starving. This is the timeline of events:
5:00: Desperate phone call to my husband asking when he will be home for dinner. He promises 6:15
5-6:15: Little boys attack the refrigerator as I try to hold them off so they will have an appetite for dinner.
5:30: The phone rings and I pick it up. Boys attack the fridge and eat an unbelievable amount of snacks in three minutes flat.
5:33: Appetites ruined.
6:15 Dinner is on the table.
6:20: Husband calls to say he is going to be late and he will be home by 7. Boys attack the fridge again while I am on the phone.
7:00: A reheated dinner is on the table.
7:20: Dad rolls in and we sit down to eat.

I try to get the boys to sit down and eat dinner with us but they aren’t hungry, or not hungry enough to eat grown up food when they have stuffed themselves with string cheese, bananas and yogurts over the last couple hours. Instead of eating dinner, they crawl on the table, throw food at each other and spill drinks everywhere.

I have read articles that herald the benefits of a family dinner. Less obesity, better grades and higher self-esteem are all benefits reaped by kids who eat dinner with their families. In fact I’ll bet most canonized saints and brain surgeons had a family dinner every night. But will our family really reap those benefits when every dinner is reminiscent of the stress of that infamous Caribou Coffee incident?

I decided to make a change a month ago and it has radically changed my state of mind during those precarious hours between 5 and bedtime. While the boys are sleeping, I cook dinner and then clean the entire kitchen. At five, each child’s dinner is sitting on the table, waiting for them just as they wake up. Since they always wake up ravenous, they eat whatever I put out for them! The best parenting advice I have ever gotten is from my friend Tanya who told me “Leslie, hungry kids eat”. They happily eat kale, spinach, curried red lentils, even fish during the magical hour of 5 pm. Since they aren’t sitting at the table against their wills, we have wonderful conversation about their day at preschool, and many other topics they have never talked about before. This evening, for example, I learned that my four-year-old isn’t sure what to do about a girl who has been trying to kiss him and that my six-year-old is regarded as the fastest kid in his class. Imagine that! After dinner, we just put our dishes in the dishwasher and the kitchen is clean. My husband later comes home to a clean kitchen and a happy wife. What a great way to start the evening!

Ever since this change in our dinner schedule, I have started to understand the benefits of a family dinner. Although I am sad that dad isn’t a part of it, I am so glad to enjoy these moments which are so rich in the little details of their lives. Someday my boys will not be crawling on the table and will be hungry enough to eat whenever I serve them dinner. Until then, I love my early dinners with these little boys.

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What I wish I knew when I was in the throes of culture shock in Germany

Two years ago, I was excited about moving my family to Wiesbaden, Germany. My German husband told me that he was offered a job and I didn’t think twice about moving our family to this new place. I had spent time studying abroad in undergrad, my husband and I loved backpacking in the summers and I spoke German. We wanted our kids to be bilingual and moving to Germany was the perfect way to cultivate their cultural identity as Germans. This was an unbelievable opportunity!

It is true that this relocation was a wonderful opportunity for our family but I was surprised by how hard the transition was. I spent almost two years feeling frustrated, alienated and often angry about my new living situation. If I could go back and give myself some support in my darkest moments, this is what they would be:

1. You are not going to be affirmed and filled with joy by the strangers on the street or in the grocery store.

I never realized how smiley, talkative and sweet my fellow Americans are until I moved to this land. Where I am from, if you pass someone on the sidewalk, you make eye contact and greet that person. In my new country, most people look down or if it looks like I am taking up a lot of room on the sidewalk (having four kids in tow will do that!) they will cross the street to avoid me. At the grocery store once, I remarked to another woman how good the cheese in her cart looked, where was it located in the store so I could get some, too? She looked at me with genuine surprise and after she got over the shock, she mumbled something and walked away. I have found that many Germans just don’t do small talk with strangers. This used to make me really sad since I am an extrovert and am used to interacting with strangers in a friendly way in my day-to-day life.

2. Don’t take it so personally

I used to take this standoffishness personally. I would come home after saying hello to strangers and just feel sad and rejected. Why were people being so cold? I have come to realize that it is not personal at all; it is just a cultural difference! Germans can be incredibly loving, sweet and warm, once you know them. There is a distinction between strangers and friends and courtesies like giving a greeting and offering a smile are often for friends, not strangers.

3. Remember who your core is and save your energy for those people instead of being mad about the way strangers treat you.

This morning, I said hello to a neighbor and she gave me dagger eyes after taking a look at my four kids and said “hmmm”. I used to be filled with anger and frustration over people like her. Since I often encounter this kind of disapproval, I carried a lot of frustration inside of me. Then I would come home and be sad around my kids and my husband. Why am I letting a neighbor down the street set the tone in my home? My core people are my husband, kids and some close girlfriends. I should not give power to strangers to disrupt those relationships.

4. Stop attributing every negative experience to the German population at large

It is true that in addition to not being overtly friendly, some Germans have been outright rude and insulting to me and my children. One of the most egregious examples of this is when a woman violently pushed my shopping cart out of the way at the store because she thought I was taking too long. My child was was standing in the cart, getting ready to be lifted out of the seat. That violent shove made him fall and thank God I was there to catch him. Even though these experiences do not happen every day, those emotions stayed with me for days afterward. I felt so angry at Germans on the whole for not being kid-friendly enough. If I am being honest with myself, I have to admit that there have been many Germans who have held a door open for me, complimented my children or helped me get the stroller up the stairs. It is true that Germany isn’t as kid-centric as the US, but I have to stop feeling angry at the entire German population for the actions of a few people who have crossed the line.

6. Vent to someone who doesn’t want to fix things but who will just listen.

My husband, God bless him, is a man who wants to solve problems. On hard days, sometimes I just want to tell someone how I feel and be affirmed. When there is a genuine problem to be solved, I go to my husband since he a German and understands the culture so much better than I do. When I just need to get something off my chest, I find a friend who is in the same boat as me and just understands. Sometimes that is all I need.

7. Cultivating a strong spiritual life goes a long way

St. Augustine said “Our heart is restless until it rests in you”. A former colleague of mine used to say we have a God-shaped hole in our heart and all that can fill that void is God himself. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I realized how much of a void I felt in my heart since I was not in my homeland. Filling that void with spiritual reading, a supportive congregation and a strong prayer life has been the best antidote to my homesickness for the USA. Being in Europe, there is no shortage of beautiful churches to visit. My favorite is the Augustinekirche in Mainz; it is my happy place! A few minutes of prayer and reflection in those kinds of surroundings is just what my soul needs some days.

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Three Positives

My friend, Rob Daniels, asked me to make a list of three positives in my life. These Facebook trends are often interesting to read but it is easy to pay lip service to these sorts of challenges by writing a pithy 140 words. I decided to take a few days and really think about it.

1. Understanding myself
In the last few years, I have come to truly understand myself and what makes me be the best version of myself. This looks a lot different these days than it did seven years ago when I didn’t have kids and wasn’t expecting one, either.

Every day I need four things to feel balanced: physical work, intellectually stimulating reading, spiritual experiences and a certain amount of luxury.

At one point in my life, luxury meant eating the very best foods imaginable at every meal. Now I know that eating that way requires an enormous amount of work and clean up and the luxury of it is minimal; I only enjoy about 15 minutes of eating. For those fifteen minutes of luxury, it takes hours of prep and clean up. The balance is not there so it is not worth it to me. These days, luxury may look like a few bites of a high-quality chocolate bar, a trip to get my hair cut (that happens about twice a year!), a phone conversation with a dear friend or a decadent dessert picked up at a bakery.

Some days the physical work of managing a household like mine is overwhelming. I have come up with a schedule of certain tasks that need to be done every day and try to balance those throughout the week with lighter household duties like paying bills, picking up toys, dusting, etc.

Making time for spiritual reading, mental prayer and theological study every day also gives me a new, higher perspective that is usually edifying and encouraging.

2. Becoming the person my kids have made me
It would be easy to just say that having children is a positive in my life. After further examination, I would say that seeing the person I have become because of them is an enormous blessing. There was a point in my life when I only found pleasure and luxury in extraordinary things: seeing the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, eating in restaurants with Michelin stars, visiting places with amazing natural beauty, etc. The paucity of those experiences in my life these days makes me enjoy the little things: a clean, quiet house, an uninterrupted conversation with my husband, the beauty of the architecture in my own neighborhood, the experience of reading high-quality literature. Having kids has also made me do everything I can to cultivate a sense of community since I know that I depend on others more than when I lived a life sans children. That community has come together to support me in difficult times, like when I broke my foot. I also find a great deal of satisfaction in participating in their lives and supporting them.

3. Pope Francis
Our new Pope’s tone has been one of love and inclusion. I recently read the book that published his extensive interview given a few years ago. One thought (this is not word-for-word) has stuck with me. He says that God is always working in everyone’s life. Even if you think that person is a sinner, even if it seems that person is completely lost, God is working in that person’s life. This perspective has helped me enormously, especially as I make my way in a new culture and have a hard time seeing the face of The Lord in people who can be rude or abrupt in the way they deal with me and my children.

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