‘Ride it like you stole it’


The first cruise ship of the season has already come and gone from the harbor here in Zadar, Croatia. We are not far behind it. This is our last week in this beautiful country.

There is a word in Croatian that describes a state of mind I will miss long after we leave. It’s called “fjaka.” It’s a day-dreamy state I fall into when I stare out at the water and watch ships go by.

Here in Croatia, drifting into that fjaka fog is a way of life.

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When we arrived a year ago, I wasn’t sure how I’d fit into a place where it feels like time can stand still. In my American life, I’m impatient and overscheduled. Now I know the value of enjoying a more leisurely pace. There’s something captivating about the cafe culture here. There’s no shame in sitting down with friends for a coffee with real cups and saucers. They still believe that life is better without the distraction of cell phones.

Even our boys, who have been homesick at times, are feeling emotional about leaving. They’ve had their last sleepovers with friends. They’ve sold their bikes and given away their Nerf guns.

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Our oldest, “A,” has been practicing every night for a week for his last big school project. He has the role of American inventor Thomas Edison (the villain) in the school’s animated film about local hero Nikola Tesla. The script is all in Croatian, and I can hardly believe my 12-year-old can read it.

Our youngest, “W,” who’s almost 11, was determined to hate it when we got here. He went on to be voted class president. It took many more months before he would admit that he likes it here. My local friend says that makes him like a real Croat: someone who loves to complain even if deep-down he likes it.

Sarge, who came here to be an instructor pilot, is back at the airfield today. He’s off. I think he just wants to hang out with the guys. The other pilots took him out last weekend and gave him a Croatian football jersey. They said they expect to see pictures of him wearing it back home.

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As for me, I have been having the strangest dreams. One was about corporate jargon. One was about dryer lint overtaking my laundry room. Another was about sea surges. My dreams seem to be about my life here colliding with my “real” life back home. I will be glad to get back to my family and friends. But I don’t know what I will do without fjaka.

Some things here may not be as idyllic as I’ve made them out to be. There can be a frustrating side to time standing still. I’m still impatient. I’ve experienced the country’s bureaucratic offices and inefficient postal service. My local friends tell stories of bribery and corruption doing business here. My language barrier has sheltered me from worrying too much about the negatives. Every place has its problems.

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I’m still awed by the things that drew me in about Croatia. I will miss simple things, like church bells and cobblestone streets. I’ll miss seeing people stop and read the death notices on the corner bulletin boards. I’ll miss the sunsets and the eerie sound of the Sea Organ.

If we were staying longer, I’d buckle down and really learn to speak the language. I’d master driving a stick shift. I’d learn to garden.

What I do know is that life will not wait for you to get around to everything on your list. We are lucky that we have had a year to see more than most people who live here. I’ll savor those moments.

When Sarge quit his desk job to follow his passion, I thought it meant everything would fall apart. Instead, it meant we needed to adopt a new philosophy. “You only get one life,” Sarge likes to say. “Ride it like you stole it.”

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Learning to live more with less

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The average monthly salary in Zadar, the coastal Croatian town we’ve been spending a year abroad, is just under 5,000 kunas after taxes, or about $823 dollars.

That might help explain why shopping culture is so different here. For the most part, people seem to shop for their needs rather than their wants.

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That’s been apparent to me especially this week. We’re starting to let go of the extra things we’ve accumulated – bicycles, umbrellas, clothes and European appliances – as we prepare to move back home in a few weeks.

I listed items on the Croatian equivalent of Craigslist, and people have been stopping by to get good deals on items we’ve barely used. I’ve met a nurse, a university student, a fisherman’s daughter and a dozen others. One woman wanted to buy a sweater for her son to wear to his First Communion. Another wanted a bike to get to work. Most of the buyers spoke enough English to ask how I’ve liked living in their country. They seemed proud and almost surprised when I told them how I’ve fallen in love with Croatia.

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One of the things I like about living here is people don’t like to waste things. They fill tiny plots of land with gardens. They share their homes with multiple generations of relatives. They reuse plastic bottles to refill with homemade wine or olive oil.

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There are malls and supermarkets, at smaller scale than what’s available in America. Aside from the very wealthy with their yachts and vacation homes, the biggest extravagance I’ve seen here are well-heeled women showing off their designer clothing and pushing luxury baby strollers along the cobbled streets of Old Town, just to be seen.

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Most people I’ve met here would prefer a low-key lifestyle. They like to buy their groceries fresh daily from the open-air market, their bread from the corner bakery and their coffee or pivo at the neighborhood café. Maybe it’s the lingering influence of Socialism, but they don’t seem as caught up with “things.” There aren’t even many thrift shops or secondhand stores. There aren’t yard sales, Dollar Stores or warehouse superstores.

Shopping in Croatia reminds me of the “Rub-a-dub-dub” nursery rhyme. There’s still a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker. And they’re probably not all in the same store.

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Living here has curbed some of my impulse buying and my addiction. Our apartment doesn’t even have a house number on it or a mailbox.

There are some things we just can’t get here. I talked my mother-in-law into bringing me Playtex tampons when she came to visit. My mom brought the largest-size bottle of Ibuprofen she could find. The kids talked our visitors into stocking them up with American candy.

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I know the boys are ready to get back home, and not just for the candy. I saw my 10-year-old’s calendar today. He wrote “finally” next to March. It’s starting to feel like we ran away and are getting sucked back into reality.

I hope one lesson here sinks in for all of us – how to live more with less.





When laundry day goes bad abroad


We are living in a vacation rental while we’re in Croatia. It’s mostly great and maintenance-free. Except for today.

We have a couple of extra sets of bedding and five large bath towels for the four of us. Since we are in Eastern Europe, we have no dryer. (They have no idea what they’re missing). This requires being strategic about when to wash the bedding and towels so everything is dry when you need it.

We’re down to one clean, dry towel and a winter weather forecast that is not looking good for drying anything. Most of the laundry that’s dry now is because I have the drying rack as close to the heater as possible.

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Today, I’m troubleshooting a washer that won’t drain. The MacGyver in me led me to try to fix it myself instead of calling the apartment manager. I thought doing it myself would be more efficient. I’m starting to regret that decision. Sarge isn’t home, but he gave me helpful advice to “Google it.”

Google told me the best remedy to get the washer to empty was to clean the filter pump. I opened the filter cover before I got to the part of the instructions that said: “When you open the filter housing, there may be a large amount of water.”

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I created a small flood in the bathroom. Four of our large, white towels are now pink with inky water from my jeans. There’s a pink stripe where there once was a white one down the side of my son’s track pants. My other son’s camouflage shirt now looks like it belongs in Barbie’s Dream House.

But I found the culprit. A tiny shell and fabric smaller than a sock got twisted in the filter. I think I fixed it.


Now I just need to wash the towels, try to de-pink everything and be patient as the laundry dries.

At least there’s a nice view out the window, even on a gloomy day. Life is full of trade-offs. I sure do miss my American washer and dryer. But I sure will miss this view when we leave.


Carnival in Croatia

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In October, we couldn’t find a single Halloween costume in our Croatian town. They take All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day too seriously for Halloween foolery in the mix. But for weeks this winter, our supermarkets have been stocked with costumes in preparation for Carnival.
Our boys have been waiting for this day since missing out on American trick-or-treating.
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It’s Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. In this Catholic country, it means the kids get to dress up at school, have a masquerade party and eat krafne, Croatian doughnuts. (Which reminds me of an interesting side note: One of my son’s best school friends here is named Donat, which he thinks is hilarious. The name is common here in honor of St. Donatus of Zadar. St. Donat was a bishop in the 9th century who began construction of a circular church now known as the Church of St. Donatus, a landmark of Zadar’s Old Town).
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Young Donat may be one of the Star Wars contingent at school today. Our oldest spent hours last night working on his Darth Vader costume. It’s a store-bought mask complete with a leather jacket, garbage-bag cape and a chest plate fashioned out of a decorated Band-Aid box and a belt.
Our youngest is letting me make an appearance at school at lunchtime to paint his face like Sans, a character in Undertale, a role-playing video game.
It’s tradition here to dress in crazy attire to scare away bad spirits before Lent begins. Costumed children go around during the weeks before Carnival ringing doorbells and singing for kuna (money) or candy.
Over the weekend, we took a family road trip to Croatia’s port city of Rijeka. It’s the home of the country’s largest Carnival parade – Riječki Karneval. It gave us an eyeful of the spectacle that is Carnival.
We saw things we weren’t expecting. The man standing next to me on the parade route was wearing a costume of three plastic nipples. I don’t know why. He could have been in New Orleans.
Most of what we saw was quintessential Croatian culture full of tradition, folklore and pageantry.
There’s a lot about Croatia that reminds me of the 1950s, and that includes Carnival costumes that would offend people in America. Blackface does not seem to have the same connotations here as it does back home. In Rijeka, a blackface character with the white turban is supposed to symbolize the victory over the Turks in the 16th century. It’s even on Carnival flags all over the city.
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Much like Mardi Gras festivities, people here dress in groups and parade around. My favorite group was men and boys dressed in sheepskin cloaks and clanging cow bells tied around their waists. They’re supposed to drive out evil spirits that gather over the winter months to usher in spring.
Our family krewe let street vendors paint our faces for Sunday’s parade. Except for our oldest, who didn’t want photographic evidence of any such thing. Sarge says he’s an 85-year-old man trapped in a 12-year-old’s body. At least he’s letting himself be Darth Vader today. But I don’t expect him to let me take pictures.
It’s time for me to go paint his brother’s face. It’s a Shrove Tuesday we won’t forget. Donats and all.

Lessons from the Birthday Boy

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My biggest shortfall after being in Croatia for almost a year is that I still can’t speak Croatian. I know only the pleasantries.

I’ve discovered the limitations of charades and Google Translate. I know greetings, basic numbers and days of the week (barely). But things like parent meetings at the kids’ school leave me lost. I’m still intimidated by the circle of school moms whose conversations I don’t understand. I get excited when I know the words in Croatian television commercials. I’ve given up trying to decipher the local news.

When I’ve ordered pizza for delivery, I put my son on the phone to speak in Croatian.

I make shopping mistakes all the time. I once bought sour cream instead of coffee cream. Last week, I opened a can of something like Spam for lunch when I was expecting it to be tuna. And it’s not only Croatian that gets me. When we were in Germany in December, I bought a goose when I thought I was buying a chicken. We feasted on our first Christmas goose purely by accident.

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I keep thinking if we were staying longer, I’d put the effort into taking language classes. It’s been pretty easy for me to get by relying on the kindness of strangers. I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t caught on to the language the way Sarge and the kids have.

Moving abroad has been harder for the kids than it has been for me. Yes, kids are resilient. They have made friends and adjusted well. At school, even though it’s international, not all classes are in English. Math, for instance, is in Croatian. I’d be in tears by the end of the day. They’ve learned how to adapt.

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Today is our oldest’s 12th birthday. Almost every boy in his class showed up at our place last night to help him celebrate. They didn’t eat as much as American birthday-goers his age. That might be because they were playing outside most of the time. I asked them if they wanted to watch a movie, and they told me they didn’t want technology to spoil the party. They wanted to play. I love these kids.


The most stressful part of the party for me was writing the invitations in Croatian. I’m still not sure if they were accurate, but they worked. Everyone arrived on time, even the one whose mom called and tried to speak to me in Croatian to get directions. I had to put Sarge on the phone with her husband because we couldn’t get through the language barrier.

This afternoon, our birthday boy is happily playing with Legos. He is looking forward to dinner at our favorite restaurant and having more of his chocolate cake. I interviewed him with a little birthday quiz I found online about his favorite things.


One of the hardest questions was: “Who is your best friend?” He told me it was too hard to name just one. He has friends all over.

Pete’s Red Sauce

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Back when moving abroad was just a fantasy, I got in touch with my friend Eileen to see how life abroad was going for her. She and her husband made the transition from military life to retirement in Malta. (They were even on “House Hunters International.”) I always hoped we could meet up again.

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Eileen and I were friends what seems like a lifetime ago as military wives in Hawaii. She helped me through a tough year when my husband was in Afghanistan. Our diversions included pontoon boating at the Kaneohe Bay sandbar and organizing neighborhood parties. She was my partner on a women’s sailing club. When my husband returned from war and I got pregnant, she and her husband, Pete, held a surprise baby shower for us.

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It’s been nearly 13 years since that baby shower and the military moves that separated us. Ever since we’ve been in Europe, I’ve been trying to figure out when to squeeze in a visit. When would I ever be this close to Malta? I had to work it into our travels.

Our reunion came last week, when our boys were away on a school ski trip. Sarge and I dropped the boys off on a bus headed to Bosnia. We drove to the airport with our fingers crossed. We prayed the boys would be OK on a ski trip away from us.

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We arrived in Malta to see Eileen holding a welcome sign. We talked like old times. Our husbands bonded over military service stories. And we helped them celebrate another milestone. We were in town for their daughter’s eighth birthday.


One of my favorite parts of seeing old friends is just hanging out and getting a glimpse of life on their turf. Malta was amazing. It’s on our list of “Places Where We’d Like to Retire.” But rekindling an old friendship was even better.


During our years apart, Eileen and Pete did Navy moves to Italy, Hawaii and California. Eventually, they moved back to Italy. Pete retired from the Navy, and they went to cooking school in Florence on the GI Bill. Pete was our chef on the trip and made us lasagna and Caesar salad with homemade dressing. He gave me tips on coddling an egg for dressing and making spinach seasoned with garlic and oil.

He told me one of his biggest lessons from culinary school is that you can make a good meal with just a few ingredients. I took notes on his red sauce, which doesn’t need hours to simmer:

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  • about ¼ cup olive oil (enough to fully coat the bottom of a large pot. He said it will seem like a lot of oil.)
  • 3 to 4 cloves of pressed garlic
  • 2 teaspoons dry basil
  • a pinch of salt
  • a dash of chili pepper flakes
  • 2 (700-gram) jars of “rustica” (rough-cut) tomatoes
  • 1 (700-gram) jar of thin crushed tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt or more garlic to taste


Pour the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, and bring the oil to temperature. You want to flavor the oil but not brown the garlic. Add the basil, a pinch of salt and some chili pepper flakes. Stir with a wooden spoon. Once it starts to boil, and before the garlic browns, lower the heat and add the crushed tomatoes.

In Pete’s case, he used two 700-gram jars of rustic (rough-cut) tomatoes and one jar of thinner tomatoes. He said when I’m back in the States, I can make substitutions. Instead of jars, I can use two cans of crushed tomatoes and one can of tomato puree.

Add a bay leaf.

Let the sauce come to temperature. Bring to a boil and then simmer until slightly thickened. The tomato will soak up the oil. You don’t need hours of simmering. It takes about 30 minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt or garlic. Remove bay leaf before serving.


We’ve already tried this upon our return to Croatia. I have never gone to culinary school, but I’ll never turn down cooking lessons in someone’s kitchen. I may never buy jarred sauce again.

Thanks for the memories, Pete and Eileen. I’ll think of you every time we have pasta and red sauce. Hope to see you again soon, wherever we are in the world.


Confessions of a 40-something CrossFit Newbie


Sarge and I joined a gym.

It’s basically like CrossFit in Croatian. The thing that makes it less intimidating for me as an out-of-shape, closer-to-50-than-40-something is that not only do I not know any of these people, I probably wouldn’t even understand if they were making fun of me.

I’ve met two instructors, Luka and Roko (it seems like all of the Millennial Croats are named Luka or Roko). There’s a friendly guy who translates for me when I’m looking particularly confused. I think his name is Igor or Ivan or Ilija. And there’s a funny one whose name is something like Domagoj who calls me his “Jim Bean sister from Kentucky.”

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The women I’ve met in the classes haven’t said much in English. I have a feeling they can understand me, but they’re probably thinking I should learn their language and speak in Croatian. At least they let me follow along and do what they’re doing when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. They are young fitness fanatics, and I can’t keep up. I really don’t care.

I was looking for a workout routine I could do with Sarge, and this is more his style than Pilates or Zumba. If I look like a big dork trying to do a burpee, it’s a little easier doing it in another country in a room full of strangers.

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The gym is no-frills. It has motivational signs in English — “Mistakes Are Proof That You’re Trying!” — plays American music and even has the time count-downs in English. I don’t think this is one of the official global CrossFit affiliates (there are something like 13,000 worldwide), but it looks like that kind of cult you’d probably find anywhere in America.

The setting is more like a garage than a gym with stations for barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and medicine balls. It has plywood walls and ceilings and no shower rooms to speak of. I saw one guy change out of his shorts and walk across the gym in Speedos the other day. And one woman ends her workout drying her hair by the front desk at what appears to be the only outlet for her hair dryer.

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I thought the focus on weightlifting might be too dangerous for me. I didn’t want to have to carry truck tires or teammates anywhere. This doesn’t seem that intense. Coach Luka doesn’t care if I do push-ups on my knees or if I modify exercises to the beginner level. His high-fives and “bravos” are encouragement enough. He also shows me if my technique is off: “Donkey kicks up!” (not out), he says. There’s a camaraderie at the gym even if I can’t understand everything they’re saying.

Pull-ups and handstands are still never going to be my thing. But living abroad may be improving my workouts. It’s made me realize I can be the oldest, or the foreigner, or the slowest in the room and not be intimidated. Well, not as much!

A weekend in on the water in Prague


The swans were among the first to greet us in Prague.

That was after our Airbnb houseboat hosts met us on a bank of the Vltava River and handed over the keys to their apartment. They gave us a quick rundown of things to do and see and left us with a bag of bread to feed the birds. They told us we’d probably see dozens of swans.

I didn’t expect that. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect in the Czech Republic. I had worried that staying on a houseboat in the winter in Prague might be risky, damp and cold. I was glad to be wrong.


Marka and Michal’s place, Houseboat Benjamin & Franklin, ranks up there as a memorable place to spend the night. It’s a modern and cozy, heated two-bedroom apartment. We had mild enough weather to enjoy the waterfront balcony. Our hosts even supplied us with a wifi hotspot, a Czech cell phone and an electric dinghy to take into the city.

As our boys fed the ducks, seagulls and swans, Sarge and I practiced tying bowline knots so we could be sure to secure a parking spot wherever we might find one on the water.

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Our first glimpse of the “the city of 100 spires” was from our little boat gliding along the river on the first sunny Saturday of 2018. As soon as I saw the city skyline, I wished we could stay for longer than a weekend. I was mesmerized by the architecture and art in every direction.


The only thing on our agenda was to walk around the city. We stopped at places that caught our eye, starting with the Dancing House, a twisty building with a top that looks like Medusa. Next, we checked out the sculptures and vendors along the Charles Bridge, and then we hiked up the hill to the castle.

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On the way down, we ducked into Tavern U Krale Brabantskeho for some refreshments. The pub claims to be the oldest in Prague and dates back to 1375. Our 10-year-old said this cavernous tavern was one of his favorite places of our whole year abroad. It looked like something out of “Harry Potter” with an old-world feel, swords on the walls, candlelight and a costumed barmaid, who, in medieval character, whipped Sarge on the back and asked if he was enjoying his beer. I’m sure the grandparents will be proud that we’re showing the kids great taverns of the world.

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At least we didn’t keep them out late. The sun sets early in January in Prague, around 4:30 p.m. By the time we got back to the dinghy, it was dark. We saw Prague aglow as we headed back to the houseboat. Once we tied up, a couple of swans returned, hoping for some bread crumbs and attention.


I guess I am biased. I am a boat person. I like having my coffee while looking out over the water. There’s a peacefulness in watching the bending light, the ripples on the water and the world waking up.

This is how I will remember Prague: its steeples and swans, its beauty and its boats. And the kids won’t let me forget the pub.

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Getting serious about a load of rubbish

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The most complicated thing about house-sitting in Germany is figuring out what to do with the trash.

I’m afraid we’re collecting it all wrong, and it might upset the neighbors. My oldest son already used a neighbor’s trash can when he couldn’t find a place to throw something away. I hope they didn’t see him doing it. It felt like a punishable offense. We’re not following the rules like good Germans. I don’t think they tolerate this American trait very well.

Our landlord in Croatia gave us different colored bags for recycling there. But Croats are a little more laid back about everything. Germans are definitely more rigid about the rubbish.

I remember years ago visiting American friends on a German Army post. Our friends warned us not to mess up the garbage sorting system. I thought it was kind of a joke. Now I know it’s serious business. Mishandling trash here is kind of an environmental sin.

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The homeowners where we’re staying left us a schedule so we wouldn’t miss the paper and compost collection days, which are only once or twice a month. There are baskets in the kitchen for glass and returnable plastic bottles, a compost pot, a bin for paper and cardboard, one for packaging and a waste can for everything else. There’s a color scheme for the bins, extra rules for what’s considered packaging, and a calendar to keep track of garbage days.


I could become a hoarder if I lived here, because I just keep creating piles of things I want to toss out. Our stack of Christmas wrapping paper and boxes won’t fit in the paper bin. I’ve spoiled the compost with leftovers I’m not sure are supposed to be in it. I haven’t figured out when the general waste is supposed to go out. Thank goodness we don’t have to dispose of the Christmas tree. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

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In America, I rarely think about what I throw away. We have just two ways to sort it: the recycle bin and everything else. Our neighborhood felt the pain when the city switched trash collection companies. Instead of being allowed to toss as much trash as we wanted, we had to put stickers on large items and follow strict rules for yard waste. Germany makes that look like a luxury.

My generation was raised to appreciate clever packaging and not feel guilty about throwing it away. Growing up, we minimized garbage with a trash compactor. My kids are much more educated about recycling and saving the world.


The Germany way when it comes to garbage is a little daunting. I don’t like being forced into such a rigid system of recycling, even though I know it’s better for the environment. Waste management here works well because it’s based on rules that most people follow.

By the time we leave, I may figure out what the rules are.

‘O tannenbaum, o tannenbaum’

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Yesterday in the German Aldi store, I was stocking up on groceries for the holiday weekend, and I heard a little girl behind me singing “O Tannenbaum.”

I didn’t even have to know any German to know the child, who was about 5, was in the holiday spirit. It gave me all the warm fuzzies. I love the way this country embraces all things Christmas.

The owners of the place where we’re housesitting in Schöneck left a decorated tree up for us. We’ve spent several evenings since we’ve been here visiting Christmas markets in big towns, such as Nürnberg and Frankfurt, and small ones, like Regensburg.


Our favorite was the one at St. Emmeram Castle in the Bavarian town of Regensburg. I was as taken with the story of the woman behind it as I was with the charm of the market itself. Our German/Irish friends from Sarge’s Army days took us there to see the way the royal Thurn und Taxi family does a Christkindlmarkt: with torches and lanterns lining the path and stalls of high-quality crafts hand-picked by a princess. My friend Sandra told me how back in the day, Princess Gloria was a German socialite who married into royalty and became known as the “punk princess,” known for her and mohawk hair and wild style. After her husband died, she really grew up, studied finance and started running the castle as a business. The castle itself is larger than Buckingham Palace. And in my mind, that princess is still larger than life.

My favorite food of our Christmas market adventures would have to be the “Drei in a Weckla” (three bratwurst sausages in a bun) that my friend Tine from Nürnberg recommended. My drink of choice was the red glühwein (“glowing” mulled wine) served in a holiday mug, and Sarge preferred the white variety that tastes something like apple cider.

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Our boys have found Christmas joy in the form of a dog. Not ours, but the one we are pet-sitting. Otto is a sweet thing, a labradoodle who is getting spoiled with belly rubs. I even forgave him for chewing up my most comfortable shoe while we were out.


One of my coworkers back home said he hoped we’d have a “magical” Christmas. And I’ll have to say it has felt like one.


My snow globe wishes came true in Nürnberg. The path where we walk the dog we’re pet-sitting looks like something out of a fairy tale. We visited as many Christmas markets as we could. And despite being in a stranger’s home in a foreign land instead of with loads of family, some traditions from my childhood have found their way here. Tonight, we’ll sit in front of that tree in the living room and recapture some of that magic of Christmas. Merry Christmas to all!