the au pair chronicles: the swarm

This is post number 17 in the au pair chronicles—and the first new post I’ve written for the series since February 2010. Maybe, just maybe 2012 will be the year that I manage to finish writing up the whole epic tale. If you missed any of the previous installments, you can find an index of the entire series here.

Expats tend to swarm.  It’s a survival tactic really.  If somebody were to drop you in the middle of the ocean, you’d swim for shore.  Except that “shore” in expat terms is “a place where I can meet other people who speak my native language so I don’t have to be so god damned alone all the time.”  Our hive those first few months was an Australian sports bar.  Hard to imagine now.

I don’t remember how we decided on that particular bar, but I remember how I met Britta.  We had exchanged messages on the au pair placement agency’s message board and picked a time and a metro station where we could meet.  She brought another au pair she’d met on the boards, an Italian woman with long thick black hair and big hoop earings.  She was the kind of woman who wears white pants and high heels and a lot of make-up, the kind who visits tanning salons.  But Britta was a jeans and hoodies kind of woman, energetic, from California.  I don’t really remember the details, but I think it’s safe to say we hit it off immediately.

Then we ended up at that bar.  Maybe one of us had googled it.  Maybe we just went for a walk and happened by.  It was a boring place in the middle of downtown with nothing memorable about its decor or its atmosphere.  But there were other people speaking English there, which annoyed me.  I wanted to practice my German, and I sure as well wasn’t going to be doing it with a bunch of drunk Scottish jockeys.  Eventually the Italian had an affair with one of the bartenders—one factor that kept us coming back—though I imagine now that it was really a lack of creativity and the presence of alcohol acting as a magnet.  That and it was within walking distance of both of our houses.

Britta was taking care of two boys a few blocks south of the Cole’s villa.  She lived in the family’s spare room, shared their only bathroom.  But she did have her own balconey.  They had an amicable relationship.  The only au pairs I knew whose families didn’t try to take advantage of them were Americans.  Wait, strike that, my host family did try, but didn’t succeed.  Not being afraid of being sent back home, I asked for money when they asked for extra hours.  They never asked again.  Not so the Eastern block women who I met in my German courses.  But that is another chapter entirely.

Though we eventually expanded our bar hopping into Sachsenhausen—an entire district of bars for swarming tourists and expats!—we kept going back to that Australian bar.  Even after I dragged us off to the Au, a squatted venue where I felt much more comfortable, we kept going back to that fucking sports bar.  Looking back I can’t explain why.  Anything for the swarm, for the sense of familiarity we could claim after having visited it more than twice, a shore fashioned from bottle caps and beer glasses and a shared language.

Friday June 29th 2012, 9:00 am Leave a Comment
Filed under: au pairing,conspiracies,expat life,germany

i steam, you steam, we all steam for ice and steam

Why hello there.  Long time no see.  At least it feels like it.  Long time no long rambling post or Wagenplatz this or baby that or daily life something or other.  But here I am.  Baby Pickles is watching Papa Pickles play banjo, and I am here to play keyboard.  It kind of depresses me how much of my joy hinges on staring at a screen while touching a connected piece of plastic with both hands.  But alas, computers have shaped my writing process, and writing by hand is now irritating.  A strange evolution for a semi-luddite.  Life’s contradictions, eh?

Summer has come in a big rainy mess.  Days are warm (ish).  It rains.  It’s gray for weeks.  Then suddenly it’s hot as hell.  But since it’s mostly just cool to cold I have reinstated my sacred sauna tradition.  (Tuesdays and Fridays, four hours for 10 euros at Taubertsbergbad!  Holla!)  It has become critical to my sanity.  Without it I am less patient, can tolerate less baby bullshit, touch darkness more often.  But give me four weekly hours of steam, and I am a saint.  Or as near to one as I will ever be.

Early on a Tuesday morning in the sauna, it’s just me and a bunch of old men.  Last week one of those old men asked me if my hair was supposed to be red/gold/black, the colors of Germany’s flag, and what I would do if “we” lost the game that evening.  We were standing in the circle of showers at the center of the sauna complex, naked.  I considered sprinting home to have Scissors re-dye my hair immediately.  My hair is black on one side and washed out pink on the other side!  Do I look like a football fan obsessed enough to dye my hair like the German national flag?!  Then again, you could be anyone when you’re standing naked in a shower, talking to an old man.  You have no social cues on display through your clothing, nothing but the color of your hair to hint at who you are.  And wait a minute was I having a conversation with a complete stranger while we were both naked?  You have to love German sauna culture.  At least I have to.

Five years ago I was totally terrified/horrified/uncomfortable with the entire sauna concept.  The first time I was invited on a sauna outing I declined.  It would have been my first time meeting then-boyfriend’s friends.  That made me nervous.  That made me really nervous naked.  Then I moved to Mainz and some friends of ours had a sauna in the basement of their apartment building.  Getting naked with three friends felt a lot less weird than getting naked with a swimming-pool complex full of strangers, so I finally got my feet wet.  And hot damn I loved it.  Now, finally, I am totally obsessed with sauna-ing.  Now I can comfortably walk around naked in front of strangers.  I mean you know moving to another country is going to change you, but I certainly didn’t expect those changes to have anything to do with (semi) public nudity.

If you’ve never been in a sauna, it might be kind of hard to understand the awesomeness.  Intense heat, a room full of sweaty naked strangers—it’s not everybody’s bag.  Then again if you, like me, feel like your fingers and toes never completely thaw for the entirety of winter, you will most certainly understand.  Sauna duder comes in, sauna duder pours water over the hot stones on top of the stove, steam ensues, sweat pours, and his towel is waved around like a helicopter, like a ceiling fan, to distribute the heat.  Your fingers and toes thaw.  Your skin tingles.  You can feel your blood pumping.  And though I sometimes find myself lost in thought during those moments, I more often find that it is an exercise in presence, an experience that helps me be fully present in my body for the six to eight minutes involved.

Afterwards you take an ice cold shower, then a hot foot bath, then a swim in an ice cold pool.  You start to feel like a super hero, invincible.  You can walk around outside in the middle of winter completely naked and feel comfortably warm.  You can enjoy an ice cold swim.  Your body vibrates with blood and energy.  Every single time I am in the sauna I find myself thinking about how I would describe the feeling in words.  But most of those words dissipate with the steam and the sweat, never to reach their intended ears.  But this time, I managed to catch a few and take them home.

Saunaing is an important gate keeper for my sanity.  What keeps you balanced?

Wednesday June 27th 2012, 2:57 pm 12 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,germany

hereye hereye, black diamond becomes the battenkill ramblers

It happened weeks ago, months now, but internet tasks are done in slow motion.  Remember my band, Black Diamond Express Train to Hell?  Well, we changed our name to The Battenkill Ramblers after the Martin section (so as not to be confusing I’ll explain: we had two people named Martin in the band) decided to jump ship.  Or train as the case may be.

And then there were three.

Turns out the change has been really good.  Sure, things sound a little different with two instruments out of the picture.  But I like the parred-down sound a lot, and a three-headed band is just more flexible than a five-headed band.  Maybe those epic tours through England and Ireland and the United States are going to end up happening after all.  I sure hope so.  We’ve already played four concerts.  Train’s a rollin’.  Stay tuned for the release of our next album which should be arriving in big cardboard boxes in the next few days…”around my grave, sing songs of joy.”  I can’t wait to share.

a tiny house with a tower and sweet windows

Mmm Bauwagen porn.  I love me some tiny houses, and I particularly love me some Bauwägen.  This past weekend we played a concert in Hanau, and this little beauty was in the backyard of the house where we stayed.  She’s not finished on the inside, but *insert impressed whistle here* she sure looks good so far.

Monday June 25th 2012, 12:00 pm 2 Comments
Filed under: daily life,tiny house livin',wagenplatz

and now for something completely different

Did you guess it already?  If you remember this post, you might have after reading what I posted yesterday.  I always start getting smitten with the cities I’m living in once I know I’m leaving.  Nothing like moving to make you suddenly appreciate all the finer points of the place you’ve been taking for granted for four years.  Yes indeedy, we’re moving.  To Frankfurt. What?!

Just saying that out loud (or typing it) makes me chuckle.  The Beard hates Frankfurt.  He’s never had a good word to say about it, and yet the move was his idea. What?!  And that brings us to the back story.

Frankfurt happens to be home to two fine Wagenplätze.  One is called Borsig, and you might remember it from my two month stint there.  It was the first Wagen community I lived in.  It is quiet, large (around 40 people if memory serves), and off-grid.  The other is behind a villa-sized squatted house that I have also mentioned before.  It just so happens that the Wagenplatz behind said house is full of kids and space and home to a good friend of ours.  It also happens to be even more luxurious than our current community.  Not only do they have electricity, they have running water.  In Wagens.  WHAT?!?

The Beard has been jonesing for a change of scenery.  He suggested moving for the first time when I was a couple of months pregnant.  NO WAY, I said.  No way I could emotionally handle dealing with any more change than the pregnancy was already dishing out.  Then he asked again.  And again.  Finally I said, hey, if you want to try this so badly, then let’s do it.  It will certainly be practical when it comes to my commute—which will shrink from over an hour to five minutes.  I could even come home for lunch to nurse Pickles, and that is just frickin’ awesome.

Then of course there is the fact that I actually kind of like Frankfurt.  What I didn’t count on was how sad I would find myself feeling about leaving Mainz.  I’ve really found my place here.  I have amazing friends.  Our little community may have its interpersonal troubles, but I feel really good within this group.  I was excited about us moving to a new plot of land together and starting everything from scratch (re: the move).  The whole idea of moving made (makes!) me sad, and nervous.  I know other baby mamas here!  I know where to get raw milk here!  I know what stores sell what shit that I need!  There are fields to walk in!  There is no ginormous city right next door to ensure a lower chance of survival come the zombie apocalypse!  My neighbors are awesome!  There are easy trash pickings right across the street!

But there was one aspect of this Frankfurt Wagenplatz that really got me.  We went to visit it for the first time on a Wednesday.  Our friend introduced us to his son and his son’s mother.  They showed us around.  It was beautiful (then again, it’s easy to fall in love with a Wagenplatz, any Wagenplatz, in the summer).  And the space we could occupy there was huge.  Huge!  Huge like in our community in Mainz eight Wägen occupy the same space.  Fuck running water, that is luxury.

So sometime at the end of the summer we’ll be hitching our Wägen onto the back of a friend’s truck and heading off into the sunset.  There’ll be a new community for me to tell you about, new sheds to build, new dumpsters to explore (Frankfurt has some really sweet edible dumpser diving, tell you what).  I’m still nervous, but change always gives me a lot of energy.  Stay tuned, and wish us luck.


Thursday June 14th 2012, 9:00 am 11 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,wagenplatz

an ode to mainz

When I first moved to town I didn’t even really like Mainz.  What I liked was the community that I would be living in, and the lack of an hour commute between me and the Beard.  Long distance relationships suck, but I was willing to have one with the city of Frankfurt.  Expats love to hate on Frankfurt, but I love to love on it.  I can see how all the banks and faux New York-ing might put a body off, but it can be quite charming once you take the time to get to know her (as they say in German) “chocolate side.”  But that is really besides the point.  The point is that, this week, I found myself appreciating Mainz, really deeply appreciating it, for the first time since I had moved here almost four years ago.

Sure took me long enough.

It’s not that Mainz is an unpleasant or unattractive city.  Sure, most of it is, architecturally speaking, hideous.  But that’s because most of it was flattened during World War II.  I weep to think that it once looked as magestic as Wiesbaden.  Sniff sniff.  Then again, Germany deserved to get the shit bombed out of it.  They were gassing people alive for being born under the wrong star for chrise’s sake.  Ah well.  Fascism: 0.  Mainz Architecture: 0.  All of the Rest of Us: 1.  Architecture be damned.

Despite the over-arching hideousness of the buildings, Mainz does have its pretty sides: the Augustinergasse (a pedestrian street with henoiusly over-priced stores, but lovely buildings), for one, and the cathedral, for another.  There is even a church here (St. Stephan’s) with windows done by Chagall (which I still haven’t seen with my own eyes).  Besides, who needs buildings to provide beauty when you can take a walk along a river, sparkly in the sun of a beautiful summer day?

The reason that I never really fell for Mainz is simple, a matter of taste really.  There just isn’t that much to do here.  In Frankfurt there are tons of concerts I would love to see.  In Mainz, unless I’m the one organizing them, not so much.  In Mainz there is one vokü, the one at our house every weekday afternoon during the uni semester.  In Frankfurt there are voküs at three different locations throughout the month.  There are two vegetarian restaurants in Frankfurt (as well as the best falafel of all time, as well as the best pizza, Vietnamese, and African).  There are no bars that I enjoy visiting in this city.  Not one single one.  Not so in Frankfurt.  And on and on.  But Mainz does have a couple of things up it’s sleeve, things that I have been enjoying for quite a while now without really realizing it how good I had it.

But last week with the Beard off on a 48-hour work shift, I started going for evening walks.  In five minutes I can be in the middle of a field, listening to the drying rye stalks rattling against each other or looking off into a field dotted with hundreds of blood red poppies.  Mainz is a city in the country.  With a population of about 200,000, it’s still got a (small) city vibe.  (Then again, I come from a “city” with a population of 1,000, so big to me may be small to you.)  But then there are the fields, and the pervading small-town-ness feeling of the place.  Granted, on the other side of the fields I walk through there is a highway (or train tracks, depending on which side we’re talking about), but that was never possible in Frankfurt.  More green, more awesome places to take long walks without having to be preceded by long train rides.  That’s important.

Then there is the vegetable market (Wochenmarkt).  Three times a week in the center of town stands go up selling vegetables from local farms, from across Germany, trucked in from Italy, you name it.  It’s where I do most of my grocery shopping, and let me tell you, the Hausmacher Bratwurst from the second butcher’s cart in the second row is the best I’ve ever eaten.  Every Friday I stock up on milk and yogurt and quark from a farmer in Kerzenheim, buy two Bratwurst, and then fill my backpack with more vegetables than I can reasonably carry.  The people at my regular stands recognize me, and I enjoy there familiar banter.  Much more fun than a trip to Aldi, tell you what.  And according to the internet, there are eight other markets going on in Mainz on a regular basis.  Of course there must be awesome vegetable markets in Frankfurt too, cities usually have them somewhere, but I’ve never been.  If I lived in Frankfurt where would I get my raw milk?

And then there is the singing falafel man.  Frankfurt may have the best falafel I’ve ever eaten in all my 29 years on earth, but Mainz has the singing falafel man.  Just around the corner from the Römer Passage you’ll find him, and if you catch him on the right day in the right mood, he’ll sing you your order.  It’s pretty adorable, and the rest of the menu is pretty sweet (and not expensive) too.

I’ve been enjoying these things for years now, but I never noticed, never noticed that the city of Mainz had actually grown on me, that it was more than our little community up on the hill that was keeping me happy here.  Who knew?

The above photo, which is (cc) flickr user szeke, is the center of the city and the location of the Wochenmarkt.  Looks quite magical there doesn’t it?

Wednesday June 13th 2012, 11:35 am 5 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,expat life,germany

the wagenplatz in photos

The fact that the university will likely be relocating our community in the next couple of years has me snapping more photos than usual in an attempt to capture the magic of this place before it’s bulldozed. This is the second set in a series of photo posts I will be sharing over the next months. You can read about why they want us to move here or see the first set of photos here.

Monday June 04th 2012, 9:00 am 3 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,daily life,tiny house livin',wagenplatz

happy birthday, i hate you, goodnight

Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember the au pair chronicles—a serial about how it is that I ended up in Germany and what it was like spending 10 months au pairing for a insanely rich family in Frankfurt am Main. Well, I’ve been busy writing new installments to share with you during operation whirlwind baby. But since a hell of a lot of new readers have become regulars since I first began the series a year ago, I thought I would start by re-publishing the series thus far—both to buy me baby time and to get everyone caught up before continuing the saga. You can find an index of the entire series here. This segment was originally published on February 22, 2010.

The twins birthday party had been chaotic and exhausting. The entire kindergarten class had been invited and Anna and I spent the evening herding, chasing, and picking up after them. It was more or less just like the birthday parties I’d been to as a kid, except they opened their presents right away, as people brought them, and there were different games.

Schlagtopf (hit the pot) is the only one that I remember now, a ridiculous game in which one person is blindfolded and candy is hidden beneath a small pot somewhere in the room. The blindfolded person is then given a big wooden spoon and crawls around on the floor hitting everything with the spoon until she hits the pot. Everyone else sits around and laughs and gives bad directions about where the pot and the candy are.

Now it was Jens’ birthday, and there was going to be a dinner party. We (we being the younger kids and I) ordered Chinese food, and Janet instructed me to give the kids dinner in front of the tv, to keep them upstairs and away from the guests.

The dining room had been laid out for thirty people, all white table clothes and silver candlesticks. I had forgotten to get something to drink, and when I walked into the kitchen it had been transformed: four women in cartoonish white chef hats were crowded around counter and oven, preparing the meal. This, Janet had told me, is what she had spent so many hours on her computer for in the last month.

Guests started to arrive around the twins’ bedtime. Franci went quietly, but Jo was agitated, aggressive. At the mention of bed he’d started throwing toys, toppling the tiny chairs and table where we would paint and draw on rainy afternoons. I got Franci into her pajamas, and then came back to try to get him to talk.

“Jo, you know I can’t do anything to make you feel better if you don’t explain to me what’s wrong. Will you try to tell me what’s wrong? Even if it’s hard?”

At first he didn’t react, distracted in his attempt to tip the wooden play tent that sat in one corner of the room, all the while making the same crashing, exploding sound effects he made when he was playing with his little metal cars.

I sat down on the bed and watched him, repeating myself every couple of minutes. “Maybe if you told me what was wrong I could help.” Finally he got out a few words.

“I hate them! My parents don’t love me. I’m going to burn down the house and run away with the dog.” Five years old.

He threw himself face down on the bed and pounded his fists against the mattress. I patted his back gently. There was nothing left to topple in the room, and soon I was tucking him in and singing him another goodnight song.

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Friday June 01st 2012, 9:00 am 4 Comments
Filed under: au pairing,conspiracies,expat life,germany