Speaking for the Family

Ruth here:

Walter ist fünf in Deutschland

A little over a year ago, while we were still deciding whether to spend a year in Germany, Walter asked, “How old will I be when we’re in Germany?” I told him that he would be five years old when we got there. Greta, who was starting to learn a bit of German, told him, “You’ll be fünf in Deutschland.” And I said, “We’ll all be fünf in Deutschland — all five of us will be in Germany together.”

In thinking about how focused on the family a year in another country can be, we decided to name our blog after one our children’s first questions about our year abroad. We are Fünf in Deutschland. And being five individuals together in a foreign land means that we can each have our own good days, our own discoveries and joys, but also our own meltdowns, insecurities, and grumpy days, and rarely do these all coincide to make a completely harmonious moment. Life abroad with a family of five is just like life at home with a family of five, but more intense, erratic, thrilling, and, yes, exhausting.

Over the past year, I’ve also been thinking a lot about blogs and their potential utility, and also their definitive shortcomings. The latter category is illustrative of my many frustrated demands of Jason to stop either reading, or writing, a blog. The former grew from the latter — if blogs command so much of my husband’s time, they must hold some worth. How could I capture that?

I tried to convince my school board colleagues to start a blog to share school news, ideas, debates and triumphs. My attempt didn’t get far, and became one of the first of many of my new-fangled school board ideas that was met with skepticism at best.

So, when that blog fell flat before it got off the ground, I started to focus on what I might say when we were Fünf in Deutschland. After all, unsure if my “normal” life was reason enough to write a blog, I figured that going abroad with three children is a good reason to write a blog, right?

I would write about school policy and finance in Germany versus the United States, parenting comparisons, educational options, politics. And all of those topics will still likely surface for me, but since I’ve been here, I’ve been so consumed by logistics and familial relations, and what the hell we’re going to have for dinner, that I haven’t really had time to think about all that heady stuff. I guess Fünf in Deutschland is really just the same as Five in Vermont, but complicated by language and simply not knowing anyone.

So, yes as Jason writes, we’ve noticed how focused on stuff our life can be, now that we’re here without much stuff. But for me, the most compelling difference is how focused my life usually is on being able to communicate what is going on, how things work, and what my family needs. I am the family spokesperson — communicating with teachers, coaches, other parents, doctors, salespeople, etc. I know how things work, and I know what I want for my family. I am an advocate through and through.

I continue to be the Family Spokesperson here as well. I am the only member of the family who speaks German beyond a few sentences. My knowledge consists of the remnants of a high school exchange summer here, and one year of beginning German at Middlebury. The former gave me a young ear for the language, the latter better grammar and sentence complexity. But neither taught me how to register my kids for school, buy family supplies, or set up our family’s life here. I’ve had to take my elementary German skills and my advanced family advocacy skills and run with them, without embarrassment or fear of cultural slights.

It’s been mostly exhausting, but also at times, a hoot. I’ve had several extensive conversations with the “bike guys” at what seems to be one of Göttingen’s most popular bike shops (Oelle’s Bike Service), in my attempts to order bikes for the kids, all while the rest of the family melted down on the sidewalk outside the shop. I’m intimidated by Middlebury’s “bike guys” who’ve smirked while I’ve tried to buy bikes for my kids at their pro shops, but here, I plowed through that intimidation, explaining cultural differences in children’s bike riding in urban Germany versus rural United States, as well as size, style and color preferences. I did all of this with extremely basic German vocabulary, and simple present, past and future verb tenses. Language subtleties fall by the wayside when a mother needs to get the right things for her kids. Even when those same kids are outside said bike shop screaming, and don’t really deserve new bikes at that particular moment.

Next week each of the kids starts school, hopefully riding their new bikes to their new schools. I will have much more to say about their schools, first days, teachers, subjects, supplies, etc. I know I will. But for now, I want to close with a thank you to yogurt, fancy swimming pools and kids who have come before mine.

German yogurt is divine, and worthy of an entire post in and of itself.  It will certainly come up in a post on our Family Motto — “Good Food Helps.” Yogurt was my comfort food here during my high school summer, and it is already the foremost comfort food for me and all of the kids (Jason is the familial outlier on this issue, as he dislikes all yogurt…).

A five-minute walk away is a swimming complex called Bade Paradies, which includes indoor and outdoor pools of all sizes and depths, water slides, saunas, etc. We’ve been multiple times, and the water has helped bath away children’s anxieties and parental tension. It’s just one benefit of city living in which we will indulge this year, and it has helped ease our family into the last few weeks of a foreign summer.

Finally, the kids have been fortunate to meet an American girl who was in their same predicament two years ago. Her parents came to Göttingen in 2009 on the same fellowship Jason has now, and are back here now briefly for a visit. She, an only child, went to the same school Anya will attend, loved her time here, became fluent in German, and was eager to come back to visit friends. So, for the girls at least, she was a fast and familiar friend, and she represents what will likely be for them — a year full of growth and challenges that will result in the desire to return. But, they will have each other to share it with too.

So, as I struggle with role as family advocate in a new language, I hope that our family will soon be an example for others who might try this later. Fünf in Deutschland will be even more exhausting that Five in Vermont, but hopefully we’ll all be able to plow through our insecurities and capture comfort, excitement and relationships that will stay with us forever.

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10 Responses to Speaking for the Family

  1. Elana Levine says:

    Ruth should blog all the time! This had me as teary as her holiday letters do. I’m sure life will get easier over time this year, and I look forward to many more thoughts on the experience.

    • Ruth Hardy says:

      Thanks, Lany. I’m sure I’ll have more to say, and I have to post more so Jason will be convinced that I can blog too. Right now he thinks I’m a dinosaur when it comes to 21st Century communication…

  2. Hi Ruth, I’m thinking of you and hoping that the first day of school for the kids goes well for everyone!
    Michele

  3. Love it! What a wonderful connection. I too am teary eyed. Give yourself and all your kids a big hug from me. What an adventure. Keep blogging Ruth.
    Katie

  4. Corene says:

    Good luck to kids and parents on the first day of school. And how did W like his first German train ride? Hugs to all of you, I’ll bookmark this here blog to keep up with your adventures.

  5. Ruth (and Jason),
    Fwiw, when I was traveling in the Middle East in 2000, I ran into a family with 3 kids right around the same age as yours (son of 6, daughters of 8 or 9 and 11). They had decided to backpack for a year, flying from home (England) to Northern Italy in winter, then working their way around the Mediterranean clockwise. We ran into them in Egypt in June or July, so they’d been on the road for a good long while then. And although I’d worked for 4 summers in a row at daycamps with 6-12 year-olds by that point, and thus although I knew about 400 or so 6-12 year-olds to compare them to, these kids were probably the smartest, most interesting, personable kids I’ve met. They had so much wisdom and insight for kids their ages, thanks to all the experiences they had. They were white middle class kids but they knew what it was like to feel marginalized and to be minorities, and so they’d developed a wonderful respect for those around them. They knew that communication took work, thought, and the right attitude. We were stuck on a 10 hour bus ride alongside them and enjoyed every minute. These can be the experiences that make people awesome, in other words. 🙂

  6. Corinna Noelke says:

    Now that you have re-discovered German yoghurt, you need to move on to real comfort food: slice of bread with Quark and then a little bit Nutella or the best of all Marmeladen “Moewenpick’s” jam (red berries is the best)…. I hope the food will help making the environment for familiar and comfortable – and don’t forget Friday night is dining out night with lots of places that know how to serve the perfect pizza (or just pasta with parmesan cheese…)
    Miss you,
    Corinna

  7. KT says:

    I, too, am thrilled to get to read Ruth’s writing more than once a year! I am rooting for all of you. The small details of life in another country are endlessly fascinating (at least to me), so keep them coming. I can’t wait to hear how each kid feels about her/his own school. And, of course, I am very interested to hear how you, Ruth, are spending your kid-free time (working, I know, but I expect there will be some other adventures). I wonder how long it will take for the car-free life to seem normal. Love love love love love (x5) to all of you!

  8. Pingback: Green Göttingen | Fünf in Deutschland

  9. Pingback: Biking Without Pedals | Fünf in Deutschland

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