Friday, January 30, 2009

German ANGST: or why I worry about worrying

I worry a lot. It comes with the territory of being German. I used to worry even more, believe it or not, I've actually mellowed out somewhat!

Do I worry too much? I recently asked my husband. Am I too serious? It's a little bit like Rosanna Arquette's character in a movie asking her date "Do I have too many scars?"

Maybe worrying comes with the territory. Since the Holocaust, Germany has lived with tremendous guilt. It seems nearly inappropriate for us to crack jokes -- instead, we take ourselves and everything else extremely seriously. We're ever-vigilant, lest such a lapse in judgment happen again!

I used to think that worrying would help prevent making mistakes. For example, a parent worrying about their children getting hurt will be watchful enough not to let anything bad happen. But then somewhere along the line, I learned gradually that I can't control everything. Bad things can happen, and a parent can drive oneself crazy worrying. Sooo, I like to think that I've become more relaxed, altough some might argue that "relaxed" and "German" do not belong in the same sentence together.

Here's an excerpt from the book The German Way : Aspects of Behavior, Attitudes, and Customs in the German-Speaking World, by Hyde Flippo:

The German word Angst, fear, came into the English language in the early 1940s. In its English, psychiatric sense, "angst" signifies a feeling of insecurity, anxiety, or apprehension. So it is only appropriate that the word comes to us from German, a language spoken by people who are constantly wracked by angst, and who almost seem to enjoy it.

Germans like to worry. They worry about politics. They worry about the environment. They worry about their national identity and their image abroad. They worry about the economy. They worry about worrying. It's not that Germans don't like to have a good time. It's just that they seem to be able to have a good time worrying. They enjoy discussing their worries. Criticism is a national pastime. Journalists do this on the editorial pages of newspapers and magazines. The average German does so in letters to the editor or over a beer at the local Gastwirtschaft. This Germanic trait is also carried on, to a lesser degree, by the Austrians and the German-speaking Swiss.

Opinion polls conducted in the German-speaking world tend to show a more pessimistic view of things than might generally be the case in many other countries. But, if challenged, the Germans, Austrians, and Swiss would tend to respond that they are merely being more realistic than the overly optimistic Pollyannas in other countries.

American expat Christina G. has put together an impressive list of books and posts dealing with Germany on her blog An American Expat in Deutschland. One of her recent post deals with German and American Historical guilt in Germany after WWII, a personal perspective. I strongly recommend that you check out her post and comments -- very thoughtful!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Trashy Romance Novel Challenge

This weekend I lay in bed with the flu, complete with drippy nose, sinus headache and a fever. Life went on around me, but I was not really part of it. There was plenty of Kleenex and tea by my bedside, but best of all, I had a novel to keep me company.

When we were on vacation in Lake Tahoe, my eldest daughter, my girlfriend and I were rummaging thru a bookshelf offering free books: they were all pulp fiction and trashy romance novels, and we challenged ourselves to find one to read. I had a tough time with that assignment, as I admit I'm usually a serious (cerebral), o.k. nerdy person, who just does not normally read these books.
But the challenge was made, and by gosh, I had to find a book! Besides, there was the LONG plane ride back to Alaska. So I did pick a murder mystery, and it sure made the flight go by faster than my knitting project alone could have.

Shortly after that, I picked up a novel at a used bookstore whose title and cover art intrigued me:

And it was a perfect book for when I was so miserable last weekend -- it was great to escape into my novel when I could not sleep but did not just want to lay there. It's about these 3 women who meet every week to knit, and their relationships with the men in their lives...

So, knitters & readers (esp. you other two of the 3 women searching the bookshelf in Tahoe): whichever one of you emails or comments on this post first, I will send you the book in the mail!

Roses, anyone?

In these hard economic times, people are always looking for ways to save money. Here's a helpful hint for a good deal (if you're in the market...)

We do some of our shopping at a big warehouse store (Costco), where you'll find multi-packs of many household items: double, triple, even sixtuple the normal amounts of ketch-up, coffee-filters, tampons, or whatever else you might be looking for -- often you get twice of what you need for half the price!

Today the Prof, my husband, saw an announcement that you can pre-order Roses for Valentine's Day. SPECIAL: 35 roses for $65
Who needs 35 roses? A cheating husband, of course! What a deal, we both chuckled and simultanously said that: "Perfect for the guy who has a wife AND a mistress or two!" Only at Costco...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How did a Kraut end up in the Taiga?

Why "Borealkraut"? And exactly how did the Kraut end up in the Taiga (Northern or Boreal Forest)? Here is my story, told amidst the landscapes that shaped me:

I was born in Germany, to German parents. My dad finished his PhD when I was a year old, and started to look for a job. Long story, but he ended up with a teaching job in Chile. By the time I was three, my mom, baby brother and I boarded a big Oceanliner and sailed across the Atlantic, joining my father and settling in South America.

We absolutely loved Chile -- it was a great place to grow up! The climate is very mediterranean, similar to California: coast, mountains, semi-arid deserts. My little sister was born in Chile. We spend tons of time in the outdoors, and I remember the people and surroundings as a wonderful and friendly world. Little did I understand about the political maelstrom that was brewing there in the 1960's, as I was just a kid! I remember vaguely that my dad's university was occupied by radical students and he didn't teach or work for months -- all I know is we just got to play more with him! In 1970, Salvador Allende was elected (to be overthrown after 3 years by Augusto Pinochet) -- well, my family still had German citizenship and enough ties to Germany to make a beeline back. Our departure felt very sudden: one day I came home from school and somebody had just bought our couch and was carting it out the door. It was a difficult goodbye to a beloved landscape that felt like home.

My father found a job in Saarbruecken, and we started over -- a little bit like refugees: I literally slept on the floor until we gradually furnished a new house. I was 10 years old, and it was a tough adjustment for me. Although I spoke German fluently, I did not fit in well, and perceived Germans as harsh and unfriendly. It didn't help that I did not know how to use the formal "Sie", and said "Du" to my first German teacher! Plus I wrote left-handed, and it was way too late to force me to switch to using the right hand, marring this teacher's record of not having a single "leftie" in her career until I showed up! Not a good start! This teacher did not think I would ever amount to anything, but when I finished 4th grade, my parents enrolled me in the Ludwigsgymnasium (a college preparatory school) over my teacher's strong objections.

Gymnasium was definitely better, and I did well in school. But 5 years after our family's return to Germany, my father was looking for teaching jobs abroad again (we wanted to go "home" to Chile), but we ended up in the Philippines instead.

Vietnam was falling in 1975, and our Lufthansa flight was making a big detour around Indochina. Our family arrived in the Philippines to a completely new life and culture. First I had to cram and learn English. Tagalog, the official Filipino language, was not used for school instruction other than the one subject. So even though at first I could not tell any of the languages apart around me (the people of our region spoke Ilocano, not Tagalog) -- but after a while I caught on. We were first enrolled in a local Filipino school, but after we kids came home with heads full of lice, my parents decided to consider the American-International School where most of the foreigners sent their kids (at first they'd been warned against it because of, you know, those Americans and DRUGS!) But actually, I managed to graduate from High School without ever smoking (or even smelling) a marihuana joint -- the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos were under a strict Martial Law! I witnessed some schoolmates getting caught with marihuana, carted off to jail and thrown out of the country -- that'll teach you never to touch the stuff!

So I managed to graduate with Honors etc., applied to US Colleges and managed to get a scholarship to Duke University in Durham, NC. That was my ticket to avoiding having to go back to German Gymnasium with its competitive Abitur system, so as a result I never returned to Germany!

I became a Southern Gal instead: I spent the next 5 years at Duke, earning my BS and Masters in Forestry. But it was still a ways before I found my way to Taiga...

My first job fresh out of Forestry School was based in Appomattox, Virginia (where the "War of Northern Agression" ended, as the locals are fond of pointing out). This was during the 80's with a bit of a recession going on, and I only had a temporary job and work visa. What to do with myself? I did not want to return to Germany, and had an interest in working in a Third World Country in a natural resources project, but without work experience, I could not find anything. Peace Corps would have been perfect for me, but alas, I wasn't an American citizen!

Around that time I somehow managed to hook back up with my old boyfriend, David, from Duke, who was headed to graduate school in New Mexico, and I thought that maybe I should try going back to school. So, I ended up at UNM in Albuquerque, but that lasted only for a year. The PhD advisor for both David and I had left, and we both decided to leave UNM. I realized that I did not really belong in a PhD program then and wanted to work, while David was accepted at a PhD program at our Alma Mater, Duke University. I thought it was all working out beautfully: we got married in Albuquerque by a Justice of the Peace -- for love I thought, but an added factor was that my student visa would run out... David told me years later that he had not felt ready to become a husband and later a father, but felt "rushed" into it, afraid that I would leave the US if we hadn't married...

So back across the US in a U-haul to settle in North Carolina, but first we flew to Germany for the wedding ceremony at my parents' home in Saarbruecken. That was a bit of a disaster too. Not immediately obvious, but my husband experienced enough culture shock (he'd never been outside the US) that he never really warmed up to my family or my German side -- he got to where he hated my accent, and thought I should work harder at getting rid of it.

Back at Duke University, meanwhile, life was good. I worked as a Research Associate for the same professor who was David's PhD advisor. We both got to fly to Interior Alaska for a research project in the summer of 1986. For his PhD thesis, David chose Alaska, and he returned for 2 more summers. But I was back at Duke with a brandnew baby. I was not to return to Alaska for another decade!

David's advisor, who was also my boss, accepted a job at Colorado State University, so we followed him across the country to the Rocky Mountains. The next few years were difficult ones: David left me; I was a single mom. I eventually decided to go back to school for my PhD, met my husband Peter, who was finishing his PhD in Atmospheric Science. We had a baby boy (Wolf), never did finish my PhD, and in 1996 ended up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amazingly enough my ex, David, got a job in Fairbanks in the same year, and Eldest daughter was able to continue to grow up with both parents living in the same town.

Our youngest (Liesl) was born in Fairbanks, and then Peter accepted a job at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. We moved to Eagle River, a bedroom community North of Anchorage, where I found a wonderful job at a Nature Center. This is our 10th year of living here, and Alaska truly feels like home.

I've lived in the US for 30 years now, and it is my home. My family used to wonder why I never returned to Germany -- and I have to point out to them that I really have not spent much of my life in Germany (really only 5 years outside of infancy). As much as I was shaped by Germany culturally, I was also very much shaped by the people and landscapes of the other countries I have lived in.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

Today history was made!
We all listened intently to the radio as we're getting ready for school and work: it was 8am and still dark here in Alaska at 12 noon in Washington DC.

Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, I was running errands (catching up on life after a nice long sunny vacation -- more on that soon). I listened to an NPR "Fresh Air" interview with Civil Rights Activist John Lewis (organized the Selma-Montgomery March), and later heard MLK's "I have a Dream" Speech -- it was so amazing to reflect on the struggle that happened a mere 40-some years ago: America, we've come a long way, baby!

Here's a sentence from MLK's speech that just about made me cry (and I don't cry easily) because it has come true:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Trip to Tustumena Cabin

Before New Year, we took a trip to the Kenai peninsula, and stayed for a 2 nights at a cabin on Tustumena Ridge near Kasilof. It was the early part of this cold spell we've been in: when we left it was -15 in Anchorage. We stopped along the Turnagain Arm at Beluga Point, and although it was only -3 there, the wind was blowing at a steady 15-knot wind -- nobody wants to linger with the cold wind in your face. The tide was going out, and that was impressive! During the summer, people surf the bore tide -- you can see a video HERE. But right now, the inlet is covered in huge chunks of ice!

The day was so clear! Here's a picture of the slopes along Turnagain Pass, a popular spot for skiing and snowmobiling.

By 4 in the afternoon, the sun was setting and we had to drive right into it! Nearly there -- it's about a 4.5 hour trip from where we live to Soldotna & Kasilof.

Here's the cabin where we stayed -- it was a very nice get-away for the family. We read alot, slept late, played games, and I worked on a "Dunkard's Path" quilt that I've neglected for years.

I went skiing in the afternoon. The ski trail leads through bogs, muskegs and small ponds -- lots of black spruce, which make for a rather drunken appearance. No wind, and ice crystals are glistening in the sunlight... magical, but very COLD ... I did not last too long!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Meet the young actor

I have been featuring each of my daughters recently, and today I want to introduce the thespian of the family, our son, a.k.a. Wolf.

This is his first High School play: he played Martin Luther (on the right) in a Madrigal Dinner Theatre. Unfortunately he was ill then (lung injury), but he's recuperating well.

Ever since he was a little boy, he's enjoyed acting. And he can put on just about any accents (besides German, you should hear him with an Indian accent -- he's great!).

With a teenage boy, you gotta be careful not to embarrass, but I'm going ahead anyway, searching for some pictures in his short career so far.

First, there was young Sir Wolf the Knight (Kindergarten).

Two more from elementary school: he plays the king of Mesopotamia, and he is the Pied Piper of Hamelin, luring the rats (Rattenfaenger von Hameln).

In Middle School he started taking drama class, and here he plays the sheriff, and of course, he gets the girl!

I don't seem to be able to put my fingers on the next two Middle School plays: Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. Both plays were really excellent (great costumes too) and Wolf's got a talent!

Next in his career: moving beyond his hometown of Eagle River. He auditioned, and won, a role in the Anchorage Theatre of Youth production of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. He'll be playing Fenton, and as such, he too gets the girl! Rehearsals have started (and we have to drive him to Anchorage alot!), and the play will be in February. Watch out for Shakespearian English creeping into my blog...

New Year's Eve in Alaska

It's been COLD up here. But New Year's Eve does involve braving the elements if you want to watch fireworks, and that what we did. Our friends invited us to their neighborhood sledding/bonfire/fireworks party (see photos of the event here). The kids had a hoot: there was sledding down their street & driveways -a good long way - and being pulled back up the hill by 4-wheelers. The grown-ups drink wine and other libations standing around a big bonfire, and everybody was bundled up enough that you typically did not recognize them until they talked for a while. We watched a great firework display sitting/lying around in the snow. There was a heated garage to take refuge in, with hot chocolate & food.

I personally gave up on the outdoor party and headed back to our friends' house after the fireworks. The clear night sky was just amazingly beautiful: a sliver of a moon, and millions of stars, and later we saw the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) too.

I headed inside on account of cold feet, having given up my second pair of socks to my daughter who only wore one thin pair & got cold, but she just had to stay for more sledding...
I've been noticing lately that my toes just don't hold up like they used to -- maybe I need to dig out those bunny boots we bought when we lived in Fairbanks: they're the funniest looking footwear, but they work! There's an insulating layer of air to help keep your tootsies toasty.

The temperature: it was 8 below zero on the hillside where we were, and 23 below when we crossed the river on the way home, due to the inversion pooling cold air in low places. I know that's nothing if you're from Fairbanks, but for us coastal types this is a cold spell. Yeah, I know I sound like a whimp, but I'm ready for some warmer temperatures, like 20 F: now that's perfect!