Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Hello Twenty-Twelve!!

Goodbye 2011
Being nearly in the middle of January already, if feels strange to write a post on Christmas and December.  But going into the New Year just wouldn't feel complete without ending off 2011.  December seems like a lifetime away already, and it went by so quickly.  I'm glad to say we are now halfway through Winter and it hasn't even been too bad.  I've been told by locals that we were lucky to have such a sunny November, normally it's very grey and cold *Thank you weather!  But December saw the start of the grey days and they are still around. When the sun does come out I catch a glimpse of the Summer we had here in July/August - there is hope.

Our First House Guest
We added some festive cheer to our house with fairy lights on the balcony.  And one evening when we got home, there was a surprise parcel waiting for us.  Amri and Helmuth (Arne's aunt & uncle) had sent us a package, containing home-made cookies, an advent calendar with candle, and a very special xmas mouse wreath.  We immediately put it at our front door.  We were also blessed to receive so many xmas cards in the post, brightening up our days, from friends and family around the world - thank you guys ;-)
Many of the homes around us already had their lights on outside for weeks, and the wreaths decorating their doors - it's really pretty.

After many trips and Friday night dinners at Ikea, and other furniture shopping excursions, we were finally ready for our first houseguest.   My mom arrived mid-December and we showed her all about our new life in Germany thus far.  
My mom and I in Heidelburg
Frankfurt - Romer Platz
In Frankfurt - Dom Romer
We were even fortunate enough to get a whole day's worth of snow! Our neighbour's told us that this time last year they had 2 months solid of snow, averaging 1m deep! So we are very pleased we have only had one day this Winter. When we woke up to the snow, our kind neighbour was already shoveling the pedestrian walkway and paths for us.  Imagine having to do that everyday, two or three times a day for 2 months! No gym required, but must get pretty tiring. 
Arne had to dig my car out of the snow
Arne drove us into the Feldberg (some mountains near us) to make sure we got all our "wanting to see snow" out of our systems good and proper. And we sure did, especially when our car decided not to make it up the hill. With a few hair-raising skids and wheel spins we made it to the nearest parking area off the road, and ventured into the forest to see loads of snow.  After about 10 minutes, our little South African bodies decided we'd seen enough and the cold temperatures sent us home for coffee and home-made Xmas biscuits.

My mom and I built our first snowman ever - not as easy as it seems, but turned out pretty well. And I made a snow angel like the ones you see the silly people on movies doing :-)

We visited a few of the Xmas markets, including Eppstein (with our friends), Mainz, Frankfurt and Heidelburg.  We tried the various traditional food and drinks, such as Reibekuchen (potato fritters) with applesauce - delicious! Lebkuchen (a bit like gingerbread), roasted chestnuts (tastes like baked potato, not nuts), sugared almonds, and of course the many Gluweins on offer. All in all a very festive, fun and tasty experience.
Roasted chesnuts
 We were invited for annual xmas gluwein at our neighbour's across the road.  It was  so nice to get a chance to meet our neighbourhood.  There were about 6 or 7 different sets of neighbours from our area, and everyone was very friendly and welcoming. Most the people living around us have been in contact here for at least 10 - 15 years; it's quite something.  I got a chance to put my German skills to the test, and my mom got to experience some of the culture (which was also new to us). Our next-door neighbours gave us a small xmas gift, and I had baked them xmas cookies.  It's very special for us to have kind and friendly neighbours, who we actually get to know, this is something neither Arne or I, have experienced since childhood. 

High Speed Trains and Steam Engines
For Xmas we took the train to Wolfsburg, where Arne's aunt (Amri) and uncle (Helmuth) live, to experience a real German Christmas.  What an eventful weekend! The train was jam-packed. There were people standing in the aisles, and suitcases bursting from the overhead compartments and passages.  But in my mind, it far outweighed the hours and hours of traffic on the roads of the Xmas weekend, and of course we had booked our seats, so we had a pleasant journey. The train is so fast, at one stage we were travelling at 250km/h.
On the afternoon of Xmas eve we gathered round and sang German xmas songs, while Amri played the accordian.  The sound was so beautiful and really brought such a festive vibe into the house.  Here's brief video clip of "The Weinachtsbackerei" (The Xmas Bakery), needs sound.

Father Christmas "The Weinachtsman" arrived and everybody got their gifts. It was quite sweet because Helmuth and the neighbour take turns each year to be father xmas.  This year it was the neighbour's turn, and Amri's litte grandnephew was so thrilled when Santa arrived. 
Our gift - a memory game of traditional German things
The xmas tree even had real burning candles on it - quite the norm here, but a high-risk situation if you ask me :-) At one point I had to be reminded not to step back into the tree - watch out, fire brigade. Strangely enough, nobody else, even the four-yr-old paid any attention to the burning candles.  
 On Xmas day Helmuth and Amri took us into the Harz Mountains to experience a real white xmas. Arne's cousin Tobias was also with us for the weekend, and it was so nice to get to spend time with the whole family.  We drove into Shierker, which is so cold it even has a very strong liqueur named after it, which Tobias bought for us to all drink and keep warm. 
Arne, Tobias, Amri, my mom (Sharon) & Helmuth - plus the liqueur

The cousins
Then the steam engine took us up into the highest point of the Harz Mountains in the area,  called Brocken. Wow - what a beautiful sight. 
The forest was a blanket of white, and when we got to the top and climbed off the train we felt like we were in Siberia. It was freezing! I needed windscreen wipers on my glasses, they were frosting over. It was a relief to see even the Germans were getting cold! :-)

That evening back in Wolfsburg we went to the Autostadt (the home of VW) and watched a stunning ice-skating show. 
It was truly an awesome first xmas in Germany.  I also got to be the "translator" for the weekend for my mom. So when the family spoke in German, amazingly I was able to do most of the translating into English. I've definitely come along way, and Arne felt relieved he didn't feel like a walking dictionary as he did previously.   

The 2-week visit with my mom went so quickly, but we are glad she got to experience a little piece of our Germany life, meet some of my friends, do some day-to-day stuff with us, including a trip to Ikea! In general she said she was surprised by how many cultural and tourist activities there are to do here, and of course how much German is spoken - I reminded her that it is Deutschland after all :-) We visited a few of the quaint towns along the Rhine and just up the road from us, including Rudesheim, Wiesbaden and Idstein.
My mom enjoying real Apfelstrudel
Enjoying German Beer (Bier)
  Hello Twenty-12!!
January is off to a good start.  I am still doing my German lessons daily in Frankfurt until the end of the month.  This is an absolute must for anyone moving here; it has helped me tremendously.  I can understand so much more every day. And I know I've made leaps and bounds when: I don't get that nervous, sinking feeling in my stomach when an announcement is made on the train or at the station for example, because I can finally understand (most of) what they are saying, and I can ask for help if I didn't hear the announcement; I walked into the wrong class the other day at the language school, and it was a group of newbies who had blank looks on their faces and realized I no longer look like that; I can call up the hairdresser for example and make appointments, and have a disucssion about my hair and other things while at the hairdresser; I can read advertisements from magazines/in shops and finally understand what they are offering; and... the other day on Skype I nearly started speaking German to my friend in Australia! LOL  It's a huge relief to learn the language, but I still have a long way to go; I just got something in the post and didn't have a clue what it was about. 

I also don't feel so nervous anymore about driving here. It's amazing how quickly the brain adjusts to driving on the other side of the road and the car, and changing gears with the right hand instead of left.  It feels almost automatic now.  I realized that I've become used to it, when I saw a tv show the other night and the person was driving on the same side as in SA (opposite to Germany) and something looked wrong, I thought 'hang on a minute, this looks weird', and then I knew my mind had made the switch.  I also finally made my first intentional (I say intentional cos the first time was my mistake and I quickly got off it) trip on the autobahn the other day. I even managed to keep a speed of 120km/h, feeling very proud of myself.

Things are very different here, but the sooner one accepts the changes, as we did, the quicker and easier the settling-in process. More on the 'different' stuff next time.  I can't believe we've been here just over 5 months already! We are feeling more 'normal' every week, and are getting our normal routine back, which is great!  It's only when one starts to feel normal again, that one realises what a dramatic adjustment we made at the start.  I'm very proud of both Arne and myself - and without his support and the friends abroad (thanks for the skype calls guys), and here, things would have been a lot more stressful.  Here's to an amazing year ahead for everybody!