Fasching

I’ve now lived in Germany now for three Februarys. Each February a holiday comes along that I’ve never fully understood and until this year I never participated. It’s called Fasching, (the German version of Mardi Gras or Carnevale). It’s a celebration leading up to the Tuesday before Lent. As with Mardi Gras or Carnevale the idea is that people should really party it up and indulge before they get serious about Easter. Here in Germany though, they take the idea to a whole new level.

It starts in mid-January and takes up the entire month of February. For some cities in Northern Germany, like Cologne, it’s a holiday that starts in November and goes straight through til spring.

There are parades in every town, social clubs dedicated solely to getting ready for and celebrating Fasching. Everyone dresses up in elaborate costumes; there are endless variety-type comedy shows that make fun of politicians. Best though, Fasching Time features a delightful pastry called Fasching’s Krapfen. This snack can be pretty easily  translated to jelly donut. In Northern Germany, its called a Berliner. (Thus the joke about JFK. In his defense though, a person from Berlin is also called a Berliner.)  Maybe the Krapfen are akin to the Pennsylvania Dutch Fasnachts, but I’m not sure because I’ve never eaten a Fasnacht.

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It probably comes as no surprise that my favorite part of this holiday is the Krapfen.  The traditional ones are covered in either powdered or chrystalized sugar and the ones in Franconia are filled with a Rosehip marmalade. Some very talented people make them at home but you don’t need to because every bakery has them. They are not greasy at all, you can hardly tell they are fried. The dough is light and fluffy and ever since they appeared about a month ago, I just want to eat them every day.

 

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I have fully missed why people dress up in costumes for Fasching, so I did some research. Here is what I discovered: First, for millennia Fasching has been a celebration to ward off of winter. Some people attribute the costumes to actually trying to scare the Winter away. There is evidence of parades that date back to Roman times and historically, the servants dressed up like their masters and were able to actually make fun of them for a few days. During Fasching it was typical to poke fun at the aristocracy and everything was generally turned upside down–drinking and partying were acceptable and the clowns of the society became the most respected figures. It was even a time during the year when people were able to criticize authority without getting into trouble. That part seems to have stuck, explaining all the roasts on television about the local politicians.

The photos below are from parades in nearby towns over the weekend. It’s pretty neat to see. The local farmers lend or rent their tractors and act as the drivers for the floats. Each different club has a float and the members stand on top throwing candy to everyone. The kids race around collecting as much candy as possible and every single town seems to have their own slang so I can hardly understand any of the jokes. There are bands and dancers and everyone shouts Helau! (This word seems to be related to warding off evil or welcoming spring but its actually meaning must date back pretty far–I had to look it up because no one could explain what it means.)

The whole holiday makes more sense and seems more fun now that I understand it. Little Mouse is still pretty small but I bet next year she’ll be old enough to be a interested in wearing a costume. All the local kindergartens walk in the parade, so I guess eventually she’ll get to be in it herself! She has already made her interest in Krapfen very clear- a girl after my own heart.

Helau!

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Fasching Parade Heroldsbach

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Courtesy of the Neunkirchner Carnevals Verein

 

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The Time it Takes

It’s the start of a new year and for most people it’s a time for taking stock, seeing where we are and getting started. At the end of 2016 I started a free lance writing job, my first real job here in Germany. Finally getting paid to write is a dream come true. And so it appears that with relative ease, one by one, things have simply fallen into place.

love…

marriage…

moving to Europe…

language…

baby…

job…

Just. like. that…

But in reality, it wasn’t just like that. Because up until the point at which the job opportunity presented itself, I was clueless about finding meaningful work in Germany. I just couldn’t see any possibilities. And while I can talk all day about the beautiful love story, the great adventure of moving to Europe, and the honor of being someone’s mommy–without work, a big part of myself has been missing.

Moving and finding out that we were expecting a baby happened almost simultaneously, so in between all the wonder and the love and the awesomeness, there was a kind of freaking out, a mourning over the seeming loss of my career, my homeland, my freedom, myself. Everything I’d prepared for was nothing I was doing. All my practice and education, all my areas of expertise were going unused, sitting on a shelf, while I spent my days in unfamiliar territory being challenged by the mundane.

It’s important to note I didn’t go into this blind and that I didn’t go in to it alone. When I made the decision to move to Germany, I had a partner and a family built in AND I knew what I was getting into. I had a conversation with myself and made an agreement. It was an agreement to take a break from my normal in order to pursue a new path. The relationship, marriage and subsequent move to Germany each presented an opportunity to vier from the familiar and to hopefully experience something much bigger than I could do alone. I was sure that eventually I would have the time and the possibility to pursue my career dreams and I figured until then I would be busy with other things and not really notice.

But I didn’t think about the fact that it would be hard and I didn’t even consider that it might take a long time to find my way.

The idea I had was that I would kind of cut myself in two. I would leave a part of myself behind, on hold so to speak. I would send the new me on a kind of jug-handle curve of adventure–at a much faster pace (I thought)–and eventually we would find each other. That was the idea.

And I figured it would be quick and relatively painless. I would just hurry up with the challenging parts.

I didn’t think I would miss my old self or miss feeling like an expert at something. I didn’t anticipate feeling lost.

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Now that I’m metaphorically, out of the woods, I can admit that the jug-handle curve of adventure was certainly not paved. I would go as far as saying that at points it was very dark AND that it felt like it took forever. I wasn’t looking at the map from above. I wasn’t navigating toward my ultimate goal from a bird’s eye view. No, like everyone else, I was in the trenches. And I spent more than a few moments silently screaming, This is not what I meant by adventure!

Life consisted of having so many cool opportunities and loving my new family so much juxtaposed with months of looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself. Not speaking my own language, not fitting into my old clothes, not knowing where to buy things, not having a project to work on or a career achievement to go after. And however strong I was, I missed the familiar.

I see now that in thinking I could hurry up with the challenging parts, I missed the point of the whole adventure. I thought the next phase of life was about being comfortable, experiencing love mixed with the taste of champagne while basking in the shine shine, seeing new sights and looking better than ever.

While thinking I was going to run around Europe becoming a Franconian, I missed all the other things I was going to become. Even more I had no idea that the next phase of life would be transformative. The introduction to becoming a mother included the refining fire of pregnancy and labor, so I don’t know why I thought that becoming other things was going to be any easier. The point is: becoming is hard and it’s time consuming.

I like to think of it in terms of Gandalf (The wizard from the Lord of the Rings). When the story begins, he is Gandalf the Gray. He is good and wise and funny. He is not lacking in any way. I don’t think he imagined himself ever becoming Gandalf the White. I don’t think he had his sights set on becoming a White Wizard. Who wants to die in a pit of fire with a dragon just to become a better wizard? And even the readers (or viewers) couldn’t have imagined that Gandalf’s fall was not his end. But life knows better that the endings are the real beginnings. This truth was not something out of Tolkien’s imagination. This is how it is with us as well–During the dark moments on my adventure path, I mourned the aspects of myself and my life that were lost. But I could not fathom or visualize all that I was going to gain as a result. This shedding, this becoming–no one talks about this. No one talks about the time it takes to become the next version of yourself.

And so after two and a half years, I have fallen more and more in love with Franconia and its people. I am raising a Franconian and I love a Franconian. I’m shocked to realize that I have become a whole list of things in this time — wife, mother, friend, organizer, cook, shopper, immigrant, bi-lingual person and a professional story teller but as it turns out–I have not become a Franconian. No– lucky for me I can speak German and understand the Franconian accent, but I will always be the American ballerina-turned-gardener, who met her husband on the Amazon River and moved to Germany. And isn’t that enough? Finally, I think so.

 

 

Lessons and Resolutions

As the world celebrates the dawn of a new year, so do I. January 1st is my birthday and so it’s not surprising that as the year closes and starts anew, I find myself assessing. Not a whole big question and answer session or a who am I? where are we? kind of assessment, just more of chance to take stock of what has passed and what is to come. This year was a big one. 40.

40? How is it even possible? It’s great, I’m not complaining, I just can’t believe I’ve been around so long. I think about my ballet teachers and two of them in particular who died of AIDS related cancer around the age of 40. How can I be the age that they were then? They seemed so wise, so much older at 40. Well anyway…

This year I learned something worth sharing. Something I hope will help me with my own resolutions and that will hopefully influence the people around me in a positive way. Here it is:

I learned that for the most part, perfectionism does not help you to become more perfect. More it steals moments of joy and prevents you from taking opportunities. Often aiming to be perfect slows us down and makes achieving our dreams harder, keeping successes just out of reach.

Having been a ballerina I have maintained a close relationship with perfectionism all my life. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for perfection–on the contrary, we should and sometimes it’s thrilling and the results are stunning and powerful.

The perfectionism that I’m talking about is a paralyzing type of mentality that prevents us from acting because we are waiting to be perfect before we try something.

Inspirational case and point: A friend of mine decided about a year ago that she wanted to learn German, but she lives in America. Regardless, she set her mind to it. She found a tutor, she listened to German podcasts and she practiced whenever possible. After a number of months she came to Germany for a visit and at every opportunity she talked to people. People in the street, in the shops, on the train. She stayed with us and came home each evening with a new tale of some acquaintance she’d made that day. This was amazing to see and nothing like what I did when I moved to Germany.

I went to school, yes and I became bilingual eventually, but I took the long road and suffered along the way, missing out on the type of fun that my friend experienced. This is because I was scared. Fear of being imperfect prevented me from being able to experience the little joys of talking to strangers in the first months of my move. It took me forever to really enjoy the adventure of the everyday.

Watching my friend, it seems like she would have been able to make the best of it from day 1. And it isn’t because she is smarter or more fun– it’s because she wasn’t scared to try. She didn’t let fear prevent her from experiencing German culture and all its nuances to the best of her ability.

I thought perfectionism was something that I got out of my system when I retired from the stage, but I was wrong. For a person who has made a lifetime out of always becoming something new, it’s surprising how often I’ve been deterred by fear–how often I have slowed my own progress because I wasn’t perfect at the start.This business of becoming  is no joke, we don’t need any extra road blocks especially those of our own making.

So– let’s drink a little champagne and make a toast to having no fear in 2017. Happy New Year everyone!

Back at the ballet

We spent last Saturday night at the Staatsballett Nuremberg. This was our first time seeing them and our first trip to the opera house.

The tickets were given to us as a gift and ironically, this was not the first I had heard of the Staattsballett Nuremberg. When I first moved to Germany, I contacted this ballet company to see if they could recommend a good school where I might teach ballet or take a class. They replied quickly with two recommendations, but then my time got filled up with language school and pregnancy so I didn’t pursue it. As a result, since moving to Germany I’ve been more of a ballet observer…a periodic, albeit enthusiastic audience member.

But as old habits die hard, it became clear to me a few months after Little Mouse was born that I needed to get back into ballet. I searched my email for the two schools that the Staatsballett Nuremberg had recommended. It had been a year or so but finally I got up the nerve to contact them. It turned out the Tanzentrale de Region Nuremberg offered an open class for teachers and professionals on Monday mornings. I asked if I might bring four month old Little Mouse along. I figured I had nothing to lose by asking and to my great luck they said “Yes, bring her!”

I was so nervous before my first class–just getting there and finding a parking spot was a production, and then climbing four flights of stairs with the car seat and the diaper bag, but I made it. To my surprise, I was warmly and enthusiastically greeted by the director and the others in the class. At the time all my introductions to Franconians had tended to be a little more stand-offish, awkward even. When you’re a stranger, Franconians don’t usually offer a lot of smiles or conversation. It was totally different here. Right away I heard French and Japanese along with English and German. I hardly knew what language to speak. It became obvious right away that these people, for the most part, weren’t Franconian. The plan to wear Little Mouse for barre went off without a hitch and she sat quietly and watched for the rest of the class. The others ooo-ed and ahhhh-ed over her and then helped me to carry her to the car that first day. I felt welcomed into the group and whatever challenge it had been to get there, it was worth it. I have attended weekly as regularly as possible since then.

Little by very little I’ve gotten my old body back. In the meantime we’ve welcomed other pregnant ballerinas to our class and today one of the men brought his 7 month old daughter. I can’t do what I used to do as a ballerina but after these months at least I can see that it would be possible to do it again, given the time. And the music and the movement and the comradery are the absolute best way to start off the week.

So, back to Saturday night at the ballet. It was a contemporary program called Kammer Tanz, featuring three relatively small ensemble pieces.

The program opened with the artistic director, Goyo Montero’s Four quartets. It turned out to be one of the most integrated, innovative works I have ever seen in my life, featuring spoken word poetry by T. S. Eliot, a live String ensemble, interactive sets and wonderfully undulating choreography and dancers. As I watched, I always wondered where it would go next. I didn’t ever wish it was over and I didn’t get bored with it. But the best moment of the night came when the applause ended and Thorsten, who has only seen a total of two ballets in his life, whispered, “I have never seen something like that before, but I loved it.”  

For a person, who has nothing but an open mind and an appreciation of classical music, to to be so engaged and then to react with such a statement says a lot about how special this piece was. But more, it validated my entire life as a ballet dancer and teacher. This is exactly what ballet should do. Move people. Engage them and make them feel something they can’t explain. I was walking on air during the first intermission and I wasn’t even any part of this production.

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Staatsballett Nuremberg Photo Courtesy of Die Deutsche Buhne

This was an exciting occasion as well because as a result of taking the advice of whichever friendly person answered my email at the Staattsballett in Nuremberg so long ago, I started attending that ballet class each week. Now after a year or so of getting to know the others in the class, I have recently been asked to teach at a local ballet school.

It just goes to show that the strings and threads of life are attached. Nothing is ever really lost. Nothing goes unanswered. A language barrier is just that. It’s a barrier, maybe creating a delay, but it is not a delete. Things pick-up and get put down. They detach and then reattach. The ripples in the fabric of our daily lives get closer together and further apart but they never stop. In the quiet moments, the rocking reassurance of infinity and our part in it is revealed to us. Life’s rhythm finds us wherever we are.

 

The Brewer’s Star

When I first visited Germany in 2013 I noticed what I thought were Jewish Stars everywhere, especially in breweries. Below, for example, is the Star of David I saw in the bathroom at the Schlenkerla Brewery in Bamberg. I didn’t notice that the star was also hanging out in front of the brewery. I thought the fact that it was in the bathroom behind the faucet was maybe it was a “secret” way to be supportive of Jewish people or pay a tribute to the past.

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Thank goodness I asked someone about it. It turns out that it’s actually the Brewer’s Star. This star looks identical to the Star of David and it’s possible that way back in the day, the reasons for applying the symbols to both Beer brewing and the Jewish faith were related. In modern day however, they are not related in the least. I must say too– in the part of Germany where we live, while there are countless numbers of tributes and monuments and candles burning for the Jewish people, for obvious reasons, there are so few Jewish people who actually live here, that I don’t think people are even reminded of the Star of David anymore when they see the Brewer’s star.

The Brewer’s Star story, in short, is this: In the feudal times every household was allowed to brew beer. Each time the beer was ready to drink, they hung the star outside their door so that the neighbors would know it was available. This symbol represented community and Gemütlichkeit. During the Nazi era the breweries were ordered to remove the star because of its similarity to the Star of David. It seems to me, as an observer, that putting the Brewer’s stars back in front of the breweries was actually a way celebrate that the Nazi era was over. The tradition of hanging the star in front of the brewery goes back much further in the German story than the Nazi Party does. And so now they hang there again, as they always did, to remind everyone of the readiness of the community to gather together, drink beer and break bread.

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Brauerei Spezial in Bamberg-photo taken from Google images

The details of the six pointed star and what it symbolizes are worth reading. The symbol is said to have originated in the study of Alchemy. Triangles and lines are drawn in such a way to represent, the masculine, the feminine and the four elements (fire, air, water, earth). As a whole, the symbol is meant to indicate balance. Although it is interpreted in a number of different ways, most of the interpretations come down to the reconciliation of opposites or the peace between any two opposing forces. (Masculine/feminine, Fire/Water, Earth/Heaven)

Here are a few links with more details: The Museum of BrewingBeer HistoryThe German Beer Institute.

Maybe I’m a PUMA person

A few months ago I wrote about the Dassler brothers and the companies that they built, namely adidas and PUMA. At that time we visited the famed town of Herzoganaurach to see both places. As I mentioned before, people in this region feel very strongly about one company or another. I am pretty much expected to be an adidas person. This is because we root for Bayern-Munich, and they are an adidas team. Our arch nemesis, FC Borussia Dortmund (BVB) is a PUMA club, so you can see the conflict of interest. That is not the only reason I should be an adidas person but it is the main one I guess.

However, as a new member of Franconian society, I wanted a chance to decide for myself–adidas or PUMA? Unfortunately the day we visited a few months back, we were too late to visit the PUMA shop and were only able to visit the adidas shop. So, while I came home that day with two pairs of adidas sneakers, I did not come home with anything to compare them to.

The other day I had a reason to go to PUMA and a chance to finally go to the shop. I can’t help but comment about the fact that the shop was totally organized and clean. It was easy to find everything without asking any questions. PUMA seems to be not only a sport brand but also a lifestyle brand. As a result many of their clothing items and shoes, while still sporty are also a bit more stylish than the ones I had seen at the adidas shop. Most importantly when I tried them on they were comfortable too.

On my visit to PUMA I learned that they have just created a relationship with New York City Ballet and are now outfitting ballerinas. If I’m being totally honest and not taking anyone else’s opinion into consideration, I think I might be a PUMA person. While I could make a list of good reasons, it’s likely that they had me as soon as I heard New York City Ballet.

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So these are my new PUMAs. I think they look a tad sporty compared to my normal style– a little like I’m about to go play baseball–But they are also cute, super comfortable and lightweight and I can totally dance around in them when I feel like it. So there you have it.

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Learning is Homeopathic

International travel it is at the same time enlightening and overwhelming–Maybe the overwhelming part is due to traveling with a small child–but even without children, international travel tends to be a relatively fast-paced confrontation with the unfamiliar. As a result I always experience, post-travel, a bit of down time–a few moments for the contemplation and processing of what I have seen.

We logged about 10,750 kilometers (about 6683 miles) on the road this summer. We flew to the USA, and drove from Germany to France to Spain and then to Ibiza. We utilized planes, cabs, our own car, a rental car, a ferry and we overnighted in 11 different places. Part of me feels out of breath and proud that we made it so far and saw so much. And part of me has started getting used to it. It takes some time to find a rhythm when you are on the road but once you find the beat of the trip you’re on, it feels like you could go on indefinitely.

 

When I zoom way out and look at the six or seven weeks we were away, what sticks out most is the fact that everywhere we went there were people. All over the world, at any given moment there are young people and old people. There are people who have babies and people who are babies. There are single people and married people, rich and poor people. People who like to be nude at the beach and people are covered from head to toe. There are people who have lost someone, people searching for something, successful people, smart people, dumb people, happy people and sad people. There are people who are afraid or brave. There are people who are outgoing and those who aren’t. At the end of the day, people are just people and on any given day each person is somewhere on life’s journey. We have this need to categorize people but that is because we forget that every day of our lives is different than the one before. Today we are the “young parents” but tomorrow we’ll be the “wrinkly retirees” in someone’s snapshot from their trip.

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Ladies happy hour in Laguardia Spain

With a closer look I saw that in various ways, no matter where we are from, we are all trying to communicate and connect. You recognize it in the tiny moments. In the repair man at the house in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the lady we coincidentally saw on the ferry both ways. She could only speak Spanish, yet we recognized each other and were able to marvel together at the coincidence of meeting again. I saw it in the Italian couple we sat next to at the beach, who seemed to be struggling about whether they could leave their things unattended. After offering to watch their spot we ended up chatting and were delighted when we ran into each other again later that week. It was the couple who warned us about the jellyfish one day in particular. I saw it in the brothers who entertained me while they practiced their gymnastics on the ferry and then came to ask me (in English) if I would take their family’s photograph. These are the moments during travel that I always remember but they are the very moments that I never have pictures of. The delight that comes from connecting with strangers cannot be matched and it seems to be a human thing and not just a personality thing.

DSC04117.JPGAll of this becomes especially obvious when you have a little kid. People want to interact with little kids no matter where they come from. Put a one year old in the mix and you’ll get to see the most beautiful part of humanity. The part that smiles, the part whose eyes twinkle. And you’ll get to see the tiniest humans being the wisest. No matter what words she heard, Little Mouse understood what people were telling her. People spoke to her in French and Spanish and Catalan, in Korean and Japanese. It didn’t matter, a smile is a smile and it was stunning.

In Ibiza specifically there were so many different cultures represented that I hardly knew what country we were visiting. And surprisingly this actually made people more polite. People needed to communicate whether in line for the bathroom or at the bar, and because of the necessity, people just tried. And because you can’t tell by looking which language a person speaks, people seemed to reach out in the most polite way possible. I loved this.

It doesn’t always work. Sometimes you actually need to be able to speak the same language to get what you want. We had those situations too but those stories are for another post.

Our travels wrapped up with a most enlightening cab ride to the airport in Barcelona. Our cab driver was Pakistani, and to our great luck, he spoke wonderful English and loved to talk. We asked him where he was from and how long he had lived in Barcelona. “5 years,” he said. Then we asked whether he spoke Spanish. “Of course,” he said “and Catalan too.” He went on to say, “It’s a very human reality: if you are interested in something, then it’s easy to learn it.” Speaking Spanish and Catalan allow him to make a good living in Barcelona and he went on to tell us that aside from those two, his own language and English, he also speaks Romanian, French, and Italian. It’s worth it to him and therefore easy because it allows him to work anywhere. He said that as a foreigner it gives him tons of opportunity. Then he said something I will never forget:

Speaking other languages is homeopathic–If you learn it, it helps you, if you don’t use it, having learned it doesn’t hurt you.

We were inspired, and certainly have a lot of languages to learn in order to catch up with him.