Norway Road Trip 2017: Gudbrandsdal

~or~ the one in which we creep around churchyards.

Years ago I had asked my grandma whereabouts in Norway her mom’s family had come from. She didn’t know, so had turned around and asked her cousin. Her cousin told her that they were from Gudbrandsdal

‘Great!’ I thought. ‘Where’s that?’

A quick Google later I had my answer. It is… a lot of places actually. Gudbrandsdal is a valley, covering a large area of central Norway. Like, 15k square kilometers (or nearly 6k sq. miles if you prefer Freedom Units). In other words, this information was not terribly specific.

Since my grandma is now gone, when we started planning this trip, I asked my mom who then asked my aunt if we had any more information. My aunt had many copies of my great-great-grandfather’s citizenship application, and his birthplace was listed as Ringlia (or nearby), Norway. Google that, and it’s a hill somewhere kind of but not really near Trondheim.

See where this is going?

Americans get grief for not knowing about their family history, but we’re working with geographical regions, 150 years ago, at a time when people sneezed and died and crossed oceans and houses burned down routinely and two people were literally struck dead by lightning in the same place at our old family farm so I guess it makes sense that accurate paperwork was not always priority number one?!


A whole lot of googling and cross-checking of entries on later, I still had no idea where this great-great-grandfather had really come from. It seems he may have changed his name at some point (a common thing among farm workers at the time? Changing their name to the farms they worked?), but I had a better idea about his wife. She had been born in the U.S., but her parents had emigrated from yes, Gudbrandsdal.

Gausdal, where we were staying, is a municipality within Gudbrandsdal, and this was part of my strategic plan. Our temporary home was just a short drive away from two towns I wanted to check out, Tretten and Øyer.

Our first stop was Tretten’s church. It sits on the hillside overlooking the Gudbrandsdalslågen river, perfectly picturesque.

Tretten Kirke

BV helped me scout the headstones, starting with the older-looking ones, but no luck. Behind the church we noticed many more stones that had been removed. These were all much older, weather-beaten, and most completely impossible to read. The church itself was closed, so we turned back towards the car.

It also then occurred to me that if the standard practice in Norway is anything like the Germans and their rent-a-plot temporary burial method, there was a flaw in my plan. I have no idea if this is a thing in Norway, but if you know, drop a comment!

Outside the churchyard was some sort of memorial, and we stopped to take a closer look. Lucky too, as sure enough, on the front side was a last name *pretty* close to the one we’d been looking for. Considering the changing of spelling that often occurred when people arrived in the States, a letter or two difference  seemed good enough to me.

We knew that some of the family must’ve stayed behind, because my great-grandma had visited Norwegian cousins back in the 1970s. This might well be the right place then, or at least it had been at the time of the memorial.*

Though we’d possibly already found what it was we were looking for, we continued on. After all Øyer was just a few kilometers downriver, why not stop there anyway?

Øyer Kirke

Øyer’s church looked quite similar, and was also overlooking the same river, but this yard was a bit bigger. We spent more time searching, and eventually a man who’d been cruising between headstones on a riding lawnmower asked if he could help us.

Note the neatly mowed lawn.

We told him the name we were looking for, and he shook his head, pointing back towards where we’d been. “No, they’re in Tretten.” Well, now we knew for sure. Granted, we didn’t (and don’t) know much, but it’s a starting point if I want to try digging a little deeper on the next trip!

Bonus Norwegian cows, because this whole thing is the result of restless Norwegian dairy farmers.

And? Are you also a fan of creeping around churchyards? Have you had more success following dubious family ancestry information? Leave a comment! 


*The inscription on the back says it was erected by the town on the 100th anniversary of Norwegian independence in 1914. I think there may have been something else on the front, and there’s something about 1807-1814 on the top of the back so… multi-purpose memorial? If you know, please enlighten me, good people of Tretten!

31-Day Challenge: Day 28

Today is my mom’s 60th birthday. Weird.

I thought the same when my dad had his a few years ago. It didn’t seem possible, but there it was.

When you go abroad long term, it’s inevitable that you miss out on a lot of things. There are birthdays, weddings, babies, divorces, deaths. All those things that make human life human life.

They exist here too, of course, and sometimes you become part of them as well. There have been weddings and births among friends here since I’ve been here, and deaths, too. Just like the threads of life bind people together in one place, they stretch across distances as well.

Sometimes it’s easy, and a digital message of goodwill is all it takes. Other times it’s devastating, but you soldier on. Sometimes people feel that they’re missing out on too much “at home” and the time comes to return. Sometimes they don’t have a choice. Sometimes they want to return but circumstances  say not yet. Every case is different.

Though I’ve missed out on eight years of birthdays now, eight years of celebrations, I have made it back for the occasional big event. I also acknowledge that I am profoundly lucky that my parents, and some friends, have the means and health to travel here to visit. In fact, my parents are planning a Christmas trip here this year. Not everyone has that luxury, and I’m thankful for it.

It makes it a bit easier to miss those really big milestones when you know that sooner or later you’ll be able to meet in person. Then you can celebrate the birthday, or just the circumstance of being in the same place at the same time, in whatever way you see fit.

2013 Recapped

Some bloggers are kind enough to post regularly, and keep their readers up-to-date on all the goings-on in their lives. I…. am bad at it. December was chock-full of things to do at work, things to do at home, things to do out and about, and so here we are with more than a month between posts. How time flies when you’re having fun. Or doing mountains of paperwork… could go either way in my case. But luckily I’m nursing a massive hangover from a little too much New Year’s celebration last night, so post time!

Since 2013 is coming to a close, I thought I’d take a cue from every other blogger out there, and try to figure out what in the world I’ve been up to all year. So hop on into your time machines and let’s journey on back…


We rang in 2013 in Tuscany with hiking, sight-seeing, and eating more than anyone should probably ever eat. Thankfully we even saw the sun in Italy, because we supposedly had the darkest January on record back in Germany. It was looooong and dark.


I have nearly no recollection of February or March. I’m guessing the weather was still crappy and I protested it by watching too much bad TV. In good TV news though, my episode of House Hunters International finally aired, and Courtney and I didn’t seem like total spazzes, much to the relief of friends and family. 


The clouds lifted and we celebrated with some weekend drives to the Franconian Switzerland.


Germany came out of hibernation, which meant it was time for my balcony to get prettified. I also found the cutest Gartenhaus in history.

We took another drive to the Franconian Switzerland, where I made a tiny friend.

Across the street from the horses, we visited the Felsengarten Sanspareil. Today it’s a forested park filled with huge rock formations, a natural theater (above), and wandering paths, but in the 1700s it was a pleasure garden.

Katie, my old Prague friend, visited from the States over BV’s birthday weekend. We took a big group beer hike, and Katie made friends with some locals.


May ended with us on a plane bound for San Francisco. We had a great time visiting my college friend Aaron, before we hopped another plane to spend a few days in Las Vegas with my friend Courtney. We wrapped up the trip with a week in Wisconsin. We did some hiking, visited German history at Old World Wisconsin (above), and I stood up in my friend Angie’s wedding. I even managed to not completely botch my Maid of Honor toast, thank goodness. At the end of June, my great-aunt and great-uncle stopped in Nürnberg on their European river cruise, and we gave them the local tour.


In July we visited my friends in the village and their ever-growing menagerie. The goats always provide some entertainment if the kids, rabbits, and cats are too boring for you. We took an accidentally long hike and found this crazy purple field, before we spent the evening at a local wine fest which could give Oktoberfest a run for its money in the crazy department.

Another weekend was spent hiking in the Allgäu, where I found one of my happy places. With marmots!


I turned 30 in August, and decided the only possible way to deal with that number was to run away from civilization for a few days. We drove to Berchtesgaden, spent a day at the Königsee, and then the next few days hiking up and down the Watzmann. We also hosted a small barbeque with friends to celebrate, lest anyone think I’m an anti-social weirdo. 


Of course, September means Oktoberfest, and this year I even made it there on opening day with the ladies. It was such fun that I even went back a few days later when my buddy Karl was visiting us for a week. He charmed our table mates and pledged to come back as soon as possible. We might even get him to buy some Lederhosen before the next visit…

BV and I also celebrated our first anniversary, and prepared for moving in together. Somehow I seem to have acquired a lot of stuff for a person who moved abroad with two suitcases…. 


I officially moved out of my apartment in October, and in with BV. We also took a trip up to Gladbeck for a family party, I got to meet a bunch of his extended family, and learned that dance parties can go all night even if I can’t.


 BV and I took an impromptu trip to Brussels and I absolutely loved the city! We will definitely be going back, because we didn’t get a chance to do all the museums and touristy things we had planned on. 

One thing we did manage to do was drink a lot of tasty Belgian beer, including this one for the pretty price of €15 per bottle. Thankfully it was delicious, and got us bonus bar snacks. They were very necessary as the beer has an insane 10.2% alcohol content.

The reason for the Brussels trip was a concert, and it was great show! I’ve loved Jimmy Eat World for years, but never got a chance to see them live until now. It was well worth the drive to Belgium, so thanks guys for the excuse!


December was spent buried in a sea of paperwork, and hunting for additional work for 2014. I came up for air a few times though. My village friends visited Nürnberg for an afternoon at the Christmas market, and a week later I visited them (and goats) at their new place outside Regensburg, so we could do a little cookie-baking.

BV and I got our Christmas tree and the tree man even remembered us from last year.

Work finally ended and I got to spend some time enjoying the city. Christmastime in Nürnberg is really nice, but I’d advise against coming on the weekends….

BV and I spent our second Christmas together with three days of family celebrations. We hosted his dad and brother on the second day and I introduced them to some exotic American specialties… or, biscuits (thanks for the recipe Allie!). 

We ended the year at our favorite Greek restaurant in the city, eating and drinking far too much. Clearly far too much, as I’ve spent most of today horizontal. Ouch.

Looking back at all this, 2013 was a pretty darn good year. Here’s hoping 2014 is the same… and best wishes to all of you reading! 

Happy New Year…. any favorite moments from 2013 to share?

Oh, Hey There, Internet

Bad blogger. I know it’s been over a month since my last update and for that I must apologize. Sometimes it just seems that there’s way too much to say and yet not all that much to say at the same time. Weird, but true. So, what’s been happening in the last month? Bullet points!

  • I hauled myself up and down four twisting flights of stairs for the last time… That’s right, I moved. The famed House Hunters International apartment is gone. BV and I are comfortably shacked up. Just don’t ask if I’m finished unpacking. I’m not sure where all this stuff came from, and I’m even less sure about where I’m going to put it.

Mid-packing at the old place = sad.
  • Oktoberfest times two. Two times the fun! 

             * Day one (on the first day of the fest): finally initiating a German friend (and her friend) into the Wiesn. Now when she travels abroad, people will no longer be flabbergasted that she’s never been. It must be said, it was shockingly easy to get into a tent/find a table before the festivities started. But three girls in Dirndl have it pretty easy. We arrived at about 10:30, kegs were tapped at 12 o’clock exactly, and we got our first beer 45 minutes later. The first day is a little nutty. Also, there was no leaving the tent once we were in. If you left, there was no way you were getting in anywhere else… the giant mass of people beyond the security tape ensured that.

Party=yes, smoking=no.
Following the rules.
              * Day two (on a Thursday): Karl and I braved a biblical downpour to spend a day at the fest, where we were making friends with old folks, and being bewildered by the Bavarian dialect. Nothing makes my crummy German feel worse than an old lady who really really wants to talk to me, and I don’t understand a word. Her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson-in-law, I understood fine, but the super-Bavarian was beyond my skills. We still had a good time though, see?

  • Got ahead of myself there for a second… My good buddy / Prague brother Karl visited, he’s the cute guy seen above. He made a slight 5-day side trip from a visit to London just to hang out with me, which is pretty damn awesome. Plus he came laden with goodies. We had a great couple of days just kicking it around town, and BV decided that he likes Karl more than me, because Karl explained what was happening during ‘Game of Thrones,’ instead of just saying, “well, you have to watch and see.” We also played an intense, multi-hour game of Egyptian Rat Screw (one of our favorite Prague pastimes), and learned that BV should either 1) be better at card games, or 2) not play for shots on a school night. I won, and it was epic. 
  • We took a trip North: We headed up near Essen for a weekend, where I met some of BV’s extended family, we slept in a room with Lillifee wallpaper and some very chatty guinea pigs. Also, I showed off some awkward line dancing moves, and learned the importance of the Stehkreis. A Stehkreis (literally: circular stand), means everyone at the party stands in a circle for some sort of dancing game/activity. The number of Stehkreis in an evening is directly proportional to the amount of beer drunk by the guy grabbing the microphone. In this case, it was many. We left shortly after the “last” one was called at 3:30am. After we left, there were more “last” dances, with the official “last” one happening closer to 5:30am. Oy.
  • Work: slow, slower, stop. To be honest, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have work, and am (sort of) working on Plan B. The economic situation at a few of the companies that I teach isn’t great, and that means less English lessons. I have a few months notice at least, but really, I’m getting a little tired of the teaching English game. On the other hand, I don’t have any particularly bright ideas on what else to do. Got any? Pass ’em along! 
That’s about all I can think of for the moment, apart from the fact that it’s fall and so alternately gorgeous -or- raining cats and dogs. I’m also horribly behind on reading/commenting on blogs, so hopefully I can get around to that this week. Thanks all for the nice messages, and I’m sorry I’m a deadbeat blogger sometimes. It’s part of the charm. 🙂 Hope everyone has a great week, and enjoy a picture of this completely random and slightly terrifying thing that has popped up on the street in Nürnberg!

Ode to Kaylee

Why my dog was the best dog. Of all the dogs.
I’m very happy that this weekend was so gorgeous, and as I promised yesterday, a full post on that is to come. However, yesterday afternoon was full of bad news, which put a bit of a damper on my mood. 
I’ve written before about how hard it can be to be so far from home and feeling helpless when bad things are happening, and yesterday was a painful reminder of that. But just like last time, I think that writing about things will help. Or at least, I hope it will. 

To say that I’m an animal person is a bit of an understatement. I am definitely one of those people who “squees” pretty much every time I see something with fur. Every time I pass by a dog I want to be friends with it, and I’m convinced that people who don’t like dogs have no soul.* Germany is a great place to be if you’re a pet owner, and it’s rare to see a restaurant that doesn’t have a doggie bowl ready and waiting for their canine guests. This is something I love here.
But all the dogs in Germany were lacking, in that they weren’t my dog. This was my dog…
Photo courtesy of my sister
Her name was Kaylee, and she was awesome. Unfortunately, she was also 15 years old, and her age was showing when I was home last month. And in the last month, it got much worse. Finally this weekend, my parents had to make the decision that we all really, really, really, wanted to avoid.  I know my parents did what they thought was best, and I’m trying to be okay with that fact right now. Thus this post….

She really was the best dog ever. I know everyone (or mostly everyone) thinks that about their pets, but she was. I’m happy to back up this claim with some evidence, so for your consideration, here are ten reasons why….

1. If you ever wondered how English Springer Spaniels got their name, all you had to do was meet Kaylee. Within the first weeks that we had her, we learned that she could jump over the back of our fairly-high backed couch from a stand. No running starts needed. In winter she took particular joy in bounding through the snow, no matter how many  nice potty-paths you shoveled for her.
Winter, 2006

2. For the last 15 years, my parents haven’t really needed to wash the floors in the kitchen or dining area. Any food that reached the floor was immediately hoovered by our furry vacuum cleaner. Anything that is, except grapes. Or lettuce. 

3. She was very concerned with keeping the herd together. If we were in different rooms, she would go from place to place, checking on everyone. She was the most relaxed when everyone was in the same place at the same time. 

4. She was very courteous, and always let you know when she needed something. If it was outside time, dinner time, walk time, you always knew when she was ready for something. In fact, she was much more vigilant than we were sometimes. One summer afternoon I was getting out of the shower when I heard her nails going “click-click-click” across our deck to go out. An hour or so later, when watching the baseball game with my parents, I said, “hey, where’s the dog?” As I said above, she liked to be where everyone was, so her absence was strange. Neither of my parents remembered letting her out, which marked their first joint Senior Moment. We all went out hunting for her, and eventually found her halfway around the neighborhood, licking the bottom of someone’s grill that had been left outside.
Plastic hot dogs < real hot dogs
5. Determination was her middle name. If she wanted to carry a 6-foot long stick around the beach when she was a tiny puppy, she would drag that thing all over the park. If she wanted to swim for freedom from the canoe when it started raining, it would take all of my sister’s energy to keep her in the boat. Basically, if there was something she really wanted to do, then not even an electric fence would stop her. I was not as smart though, because I never learned from my mistakes. Often mornings looked like this: I’d let her out and stand in the doorway while her nose went up in the air, sniffing. Then she’d glance at the house, the nose would go up again, another glance at the house… and she was off.  What’s the problem with that? Well… usually I let her out in the morning while in pajamas, shoe-less, and bra-less. Having to race around to find shoes and appropriate neighborhood clothing in a Wisconsin winter is particularly fun all the while she was off trotting around the neighborhood to see her doggie friends. 

6. Springers are hunting dogs, and her sense of smell was amazing. Since she was basically the baby of the family, she used to get all kinds of Christmas presents. But even when the rest of the gifts were wrapped and waiting under the tree, we had to hide hers. Even if she never saw it come into the house, somehow she would sniff out whatever belonged to her, and unwrap it early. Much like having small children around, we always had to stash her toys, new leashes, boxes of treats, etc., and only put them under the tree on Christmas morning.

7. Her other hunting instincts were pretty impressive, considering we never taught her to hunt. When she was a puppy, she’d point at birds. And when she stole your stuff, she never destroyed it. Instead she’d sit with it in her mouth and wait. One day my mom came home from work to find my cat, Frodo, batting around the stick from her hair piece. Kaylee was just laying in the living room, with the leather part in her mouth. Just waiting. 

She was also lightning fast. If you were having a conversation while holding a cookie in your hand, sometimes you’d go to take a bite and it was gone. Only then you’d notice her on the other side of the room, crunching away. And God help you if you had popcorn…

Action Kaylee
8. Speaking of Frodo, turns out that a cat can teach an old dog new tricks. One area of the house that Kaylee never attempted to reach was the counter. Then Frodo came into the house, and after a period of careful observation, Kaylee was able to conquer the counter too. Sort of. I came downstairs one day to find her standing on the counter looking at me. She was about 10 at the time, and although she knew she could get up by jumping on the bar chairs, she was also smart enough to know that the laminate floor was too slippery to jump so far. So there she was. 

The A-Team of naughty, right here
8. Besides being smart enough to know her limits (how many people can say that?), she was smart about everything. She was great with tricks, but sometimes failed on the execution. But when there’s a treat coming, who’s going to notice if you combine the shaking/rolling over/playing dead into one spastic doggie flail? We also had names for all of her toys, which led to some great games. A particular favorite was called “Where’s Bill?” This involved taking her squeaky plush Bill Clinton doll (he was dressed in jogging gear and had a chicken on his shirt…. don’t ask), and hiding it somewhere in the house or outside while the dog was sequestered in her crate or the bathroom. Even when you tried to trick her by making a racket all over the house, she always hunted down Bill. 

9. She had trick hair. Part of the reason we chose her from the litter was that she had very unusual markings for a Springer. She was missing the usual white stripe on her face, and she was almost half-and-half brown and white. Oddly, the brown half of her seemed to grow at a much faster rate than the white side, which led to a half-fluffy dog. She also haaaaaaaaated haircuts, so when the time came it was often a 3-4 man job. She was small for a Springer, but all muscle, so it was a bit of a challenge. Unless of course, she was doggie drunk. 
One memorable afternoon, my parents returned from the vet. My mom came into the living room saying, “Hmmmm, why don’t you hear doggie toenails on the floor? What’s going on?” Of course, I freaked and ran around the corner, to see my dad carrying Kaylee in, while her puppy head lolled over his arms. Turns out that after a couple of shots (clarification: vaccinations, not alcoholic shots), a punch-drunk dog should be an easy haircut target, right? Well… easier than usual, yes. But much harder to stop laughing when every time we turned the razor off, and she tried to stumble off of the bean bag and escape, falling over like a college freshman on the first weekend away from home. 

10. A lot of dogs get kind of cranky as they get older. Not this one. She was always happy to see anyone, and wanted to befriend anybody who crossed her path. This was a particularly valuable trait in my teenage years, when I’m sure that my family had about enough of that angst-y nonsense. Not Kaylee. Always happy. 
For the last few years, I’ve joked that Kaylee was the most co-dependent dog in the world. She could be laying right next to you, but if you stopped petting for a second, she would let you know. But now that I think about it, I think we were dependent on her. These days more than ever, it seems that friends are fickle, and even family can come and go more easily than maybe it should. But not dogs. At least, not my dog. 
For my sweet-faced girl… the most beautiful girl in the world. I will miss your announcements, your nose snuffling at the door in the morning, your full-body tail wag. I’ll miss your floppy ears, and your big sighs when it’s time to go to bed. You were the best dog anyone could want, and I knew you would be from the first time I picked you out of the mass of wriggling brown and white. 

Normally, I’m not one to discourage comments, but just once I’ll say this: If anyone has even a thought of leaving a “it’s just a dog, not a person,” please don’t. Just don’t.

*Also, people who don’t like the Beatles.

Retro Photos and Package Love

Packages are one of the great joys of the expat experience. Even better when the package comes to your house and you are home to receive it. And even better than that is when it makes it past customs and you don’t have to cross Middle Earth to Mordor (the Zollamt) to pick the damn thing up. 

Happily yesterday that was the situation. Yay! My parents were sending me some pictures, but figured they might as well fill a USPS flat rate box so check this out…

Darn right that’s nearly four pounds of pure sugar and awesomeness. They send me the strangest things… in this box was a promotional t-shirt from a 5k run/walk, a children’s book in English/Spanish that appears to have come from a cereal box, and some moisturizer I had requested. Sehr important for summer… for real, this stuff is great….


It’s the only thing I’ve found that doesn’t get super greasy and yucky on your face, so I highly recommend. But SPF 50 seems a little extreme. They sent 30 despite the fact that my dad said anything over 15 is pointless. But my dad is also gifted with the ability to get ridiculously tan in about 10 minutes with almost never burning.

But the real purpose of the package was the photos. Back when we lost my grandma, I wrote about it and how upset I was at not being able to find any pictures of just the two of us together. So I tasked my parents with going through photos when they were at the house and seeing if they could find anything for me… and happily they were able to find a few. It would have been my g-mas birthday this week, so I’d like to share a couple here.

I’m wondering if someone tried to give me bangs here. Not cool.
Exactly what I remember.
First trip to Florida!

Can you spot the theme of my childhood? 

The Things That Are Left Behind: A Photo Essay

First off, I’d like to thank those of you who wrote to me after my last post. I appreciate your kind words much more than I can say. I find writing to be wonderfully therapeutic and I’m happy that people felt like they could relate to this situation. It’s not pretty, but it’s something we will all have to deal with at some point. 

In the last few days I’ve been combing through boxes of pictures. My grandma didn’t like having her picture taken, and while I can certainly relate to that (I make faces in pictures for a reason!), I now find myself a bit frustrated. There are a handful of pictures from high school and college graduations, and a few family group shots from holidays and the like, but I can’t find a single picture of just her and I. My parents never sent me to daycare or preschool, instead I went to her house. So despite all those days in my grandparents house, all those holidays, all those camping trips, there is little to no photographic evidence. I’m hoping some more photos are hiding at her house, but I’m not overly-optimistic about that. 

I distinctly remember spending an afternoon over there a few years ago and helping her take tons of photos out of frames. Including her amazing framed wedding portrait, which I asked her about twice. “Are you sure you want this one taken out? It’s so… Wait… are you sure??” But she just said to take it apart. The photo went in a box, and the frame went off to Goodwill with the rest of them. She wasn’t terribly sentimental about things. But anyway, I’m hoping somewhere there is a box of photos at their house that might have a snap or two in it for me. 

In that spirit, I’d like to add another piece of advice to the shingles shot recommendation from my previous post; take pictures. Or more specifically, take pictures WITH people. There are about a million pictures of my sister and I, but we’re lacking photos with others. So grab your cameras and get to it.

Now, I certainly do not believe that things are a substitute for people, but things are what I have and I’d like to share them. Maybe it’s a little morbid, but I’m putting that aside and this is my blog so I can do whatever I darn well please. Hah! Plus, I recently remembered how to put photos together in Photoshop and I’m excited about that. I am just all kinds of productive when I don’t have to go to work! Some images are a bit small, so keep in mind that clicking on them will open them up in a photo viewer window if you want a closer look. So… onwards.

My great-grandma, grandma, and mom all had charm bracelets. I used to love combing through these charms when I was a kid, and I hadn’t seen this in years. Now looking at it is a bit funny… a sword, a tank, a horse saddle, a moon lander, and a scuba diver… some odd choices there. But she collected most of these charms on family vacations and they drove all over the U.S. when my mom was a kid. And where does one keep a charm bracelet but in….

…a jewelry box, and I always loved this one. And I am in dire need of one despite my recent brilliant jewelry storage solution. I have one or two pairs of stud earrings that need to go somewhere after all.  Now I just have to figure out how to get it back to Germany without breaking it to smithereens. 

The gorgeous old purse was loaned to me when I had my Junior Prom, and I’m ashamed to say it never made it’s way back to Grandma. But I don’t think she missed it… we cleared about 30 purses out of the closet the other day. When I was little, I thought that ring holder was a sombrero, and was highly confused as to why in the world my grandma had a glass sombrero on her dresser. I’m seriously considering buying one of these ‘old German man‘ hats and putting that sweet brooch on it. I think that would be a nice change of pace from the feathers and pretzel pins that most people sport.

Minus my sister and I, all the ladies in our family are quilters. So when winter rolls around, our house is the place to be. We have about six quilts per room in the house, and now we have a few more. The house quilt is more of a couch throw, or even a wall hanging, but the 30’s pattern fits a bed. I remember when my grandma was working on this one, I immediately loved the retro and vintage patterns she used. I mean, little Dutch children? Kittens? Adorable. 

There is one other one that my mom needs to finish for me (convenient, right?), and so today we went to pick up some fabric for the binding. Two points on that: 1) There is WAY too much selection for fabric. It was overwhelming. 2) There are some seriously beautiful/adorable/fun/etc. patterns out there. It almost made me want to learn to make these things myself. Almost. I lack patience. Maybe when I learn that, I’ll take it up. 

As I mentioned above, my grandma was not a sentimental lady. She didn’t have a lot of clutter around and she didn’t hang on to things she didn’t need. But she did collect a few things, and her handkerchiefs meant something to her. The patterns on them were so beautiful, and they were all just like new. I’m sure a vintage clothing store would be just tickled to have these, but I couldn’t see them given away. 

Now pearls are not really my usual style, but this was something else I just couldn’t see giving away. And I love that we still have the receipt for the wedding dress. We should all be so lucky as to pay $125 for something like that. Ok, that plus the $4.50 for alterations that is on the next page. Considering my mom wore the dress as well, that’s pretty much a steal. Unfortunately for my sister and I, the dress is long yellowed now, and neither of us are the size 0 or 2 that they were, but the pearls or the handkerchief might come in handy for us someday.
I should also mention that all the photos that I take are with the camera that I inherited from my grandpa. Usually when I pull it out, people exclaim something like, “woah, what kind of camera is that??” But it looks much more intense than it actually is. It’s just an older model of Sony digital camera with a measly 5 megapixels. I just crank it up to it’s highest possible quality setting and hope that I never want to blow my pictures up. I’m considering buying a new camera, but I would be a bit sad to put this one away. I guess when that day comes I’ll try to take a leaf out of my grandma’s book and not be too sentimental about it.

On Guilt.

Overall, being an expat is pretty sweet. You get to post exotic and exciting-sounding status updates on Facebook such as, “Going to Italy for the weekend!,” that validate your existence and make the people you went to high school with jealous (I assume, anyway). You get to ride trains, eat weird food, and if you live in Prague, party like it’s 1989 – because that’s the year that the music is stuck in. 

But sometimes it’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard. So if you think you might want to be an expat, you have to accept the fact that it’s not all sunshine, daisies, and rainbows, and sometimes there is no substitute for being home. That’s what this post is about. So in the spirit of full disclosure and honesty, feel free to join me if you’re up for a trip down sad-face lane and click away…

As I write this, I’m staring out the window of my childhood bedroom in Wisconsin. Yes, I was just home for Christmas a month ago, but here I am again. No, I haven’t become an international airlines stewardess, and no, I didn’t forget my toothbrush; I’m here because I felt like I needed to be. Honestly, I needed to be here for a few weeks, but wasn’t. And it sucked. 

Before I left for Prague, there were a lot of mixed reactions from family and friends. Questions such as: 

“Why are you going to Russia?”
“Where is Czechoslovakia?”
“What the hell are you thinking?” 

were some of the more amusing ones. But quite a lot of people said things like,
“I wish I could do that.
“Now is the time. You’re young, and don’t have a family or responsibilities. This is the time in your life to do things for you. You can be selfish.” 

and I couldn’t agree with that statement more. Quite a lot of my co-workers in my previous job were retirees who fully supported my decision to throw caution to the wind and go for it. They would say that they wished they had done something like that when they were my age, or how hard it is just to travel now. Mortgages, car payments, kids, college tuition, the list of things that will slow you down is never-ending. So I took their endorsements and well-wishes and off I went. 
One year passes, two years pass. Things happen at home. Some things you wish you were there for (tornadoes, personal meltdowns), and others you can skip (new counter-tops in the kitchen). It was pretty easy to tell when some people were getting ready to leave Prague; they would mention upcoming weddings, family members or friends were pregnant, things like that. And they wouldn’t mention planning a trip home for these events… they just kind of hung in the air like slowly deflating balloons. It was something the person should be excited about, but instead they just felt bad for not being there. And eventually, they would leave.
Unfortunately, I was not immune to this. But the events going on at home were not enough to draw me there permanently. Instead I planned to visit home for certain events, like my best friend’s wedding, or this Christmas and the Packer game. But two trips over the course of two years leaves a lot of room for missing out on things. I had to accept that I was going to miss things. I had to make decisions about what things were “important” enough to merit getting on a very-expensive flight. And if some things were more “important,” then it follows that some things are “less important.” Those decisions aren’t necessarily always easy to make. That leads to the second thing I had to accept.
That was The Guilt. I had to accept the fact that I was going to feel guilty. There have been a few ‘crisis-mode’ moments in the last few years in the family, and the guilt that I felt at not being there was almost paralyzing. But I couldn’t indulge it. I had to go to work, I had to get up in front of my students and blather on about giving directions in English when my brain was almost 5,000 miles away. It was miserable. 

But these last few weeks were different. Up to this point, all the crises were things the affected person would more than likely come back from. The hospitalizations, surgeries, and so on were all what the medical community would define as “routine.” So while I felt guilty, I knew the person involved would still be there when I could get home. This was different. 

My grandma has been varying degrees of sick for the last year-and-a-half or so. There were two surgeries after cancerous cells were found, but the real trouble came when she was hit with a little disease called shingles. The doctors said it was the worst case they had ever seen and it lasted… forever. Or a year. But when all a disease does is cause extreme pain, it seems like longer. I highly recommend anyone reading this to run, not walk, to your local Walgreen’s and get a vaccination. It’s a beastly disease. And there is nothing they can do for it but pump the patient full of insanely high doses of painkillers and hope for the best. 

After months of little progress, my family was trying all sorts of things. Acupuncture was about the best solution they found, and I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard as when my mom told me about the first visit to the acupuncturist. To picture my mother and my “Epitome of a Grandma” grandma walking into an office that my mom described as “basically a head shop,” was about the funniest thing in the world. But whatever reservations they might have had were quickly erased when the acupuncturist was able to bring my grandma more relief than the Vicodin ever did. 

When I was home in June was probably the high point of Grandma’s health the last year. She was up, walking around, and due to the medications, pretty darn funny. She was sharp as ever, inquiring about my friends and their jobs, what I was planning in Germany, and she couldn’t wait for me to stop back at her house after my friend’s wedding to tell her all about it. But as I said, that was about the high point of the year. After that she had another set-back in her recovery, wound up back in bed and pretty much stayed there for the next few months. She managed to get up and out to our house on Christmas Day, but it was a rough day for her. 

A few weeks after I left in early January, she was in bad enough shape for them to take her back to the hospital yet again. On this trip, they finally figured out what the big problem was. Another cancer, about the size of a softball, and wrapped around her spinal cord. They decided to operate almost immediately, and the family started to plan for her recovery with chemo, radiation, and whatever else you can throw at those evil cells. But then the plan changed.

Shortly after the surgery, my grandma asked my  mom who was “in charge of her care”. My mom told her that she was in charge of her own treatment. My grandma then told her that she was done. She was tired. Many conversations with the family, the doctors, and the hospital staff followed. Needless to say, no-one was happy about this turn of events, but everyone knew that her wishes needed to be respected. She’d been sick and in pain for a long time at this point, so if what she wanted was to be kept comfortable until the end, that’s what everyone would try to do. 

Arrangements were made to move her to a hospice facility that specialized in pain treatment, and then everyone settled in to play the waiting game for however much or however little time there might be left. 

So while my family drove one hundred miles round trip every day to be with her, I sat in Germany and tried to act like everything was normal. Classes still needed to be taught, meetings and other obligations had to be met. But all the time in the back of my head was this guilt. I couldn’t stand the thought of going on about normal business while all this was going on. I asked repeatedly if now was the time to come home, and every time the answer was the same. 

“If your being here would change things, we would say yes. But it won’t. And we don’t want Grandma to get stressed about you losing your job because you were coming to see her. You can’t do anything, so just keep her in your thoughts.”
“We don’t know how long it might be. You can’t come home and wait. It could be days, it could be weeks, it could be years. It’s out of our hands.”

On one hand, this was miserable to hear. And then there was the other hand. The “I might be a horrible person” hand, as I like to call it. This side of me still felt guilty, but this side felt guilty with a healthy side portion of relief. Relief that I didn’t have to be there to see her in pain. Relief that my last memories of her wouldn’t be of her in pain and drugged to high heavens in a hospital bed. Relief that I didn’t know what that hospice center sounded like, looked like, smelled like. Relief that I could keep her in my memory in a certain way. 

I have rationalization for this. My sister doesn’t remember it so well, but I clearly the remember my other grandma at the end. She got quite ill while I was in high school, and despite all the other memories I have of her, the one that pervades is of her looking as thin and fragile as a baby bird, barely able to open her eyes in the bed at her nursing home. I didn’t want that again.

So while I felt guilty for not being able to be there, not being able to be with my family at a horrible time; I also felt guilty for the relief I felt at that. It was a double-edged sword; I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t. I felt guilty, I felt relieved, and I felt like a horrid person for all of it. 

Not being able to help, not being able to fluff a pillow or run out and get sandwiches. Not being able to give moral support without a Skype account and an internet connection. Not being able to be there for someone who was always there for you. Someone who always answered the phone. Someone who never forgot to send a birthday card, an Easter card, a Valentine’s Day card. I hated feeling like I had abandoned her. But this is a life I chose, and we all have to live with our choices. I had accepted that I would miss things. This was one of them. 

I got the call just before 8a.m. on Friday the 10th. I was five minutes from walking out the door to an early meeting with my boss; needless to say I pushed the meeting to the afternoon. After talking to my family a few hours later, I finally booked a ticket home. And here I sit. 

While I’m happy I’m able to be here, and I’m happy that my job understood the circumstances, the guilt remains. I hope at some point that I’ll be able to shake it. I keep trying to tell myself that all the time I spent with her before was what ‘counts.’ But I haven’t convinced myself yet.

The Only Thing Scarier Than An Engineer….

…. is a German Engineer. 

Let me preface this little gem by saying that my dad is an engineer. So I’ve spent my whole life bearing witness to the amusing things that happen when an engineer is around. I have also inherited a few of their tendencies, and have learned that the appropriate phrase to put on your résumé is “detail-oriented,” rather than the slightly less work-appropriate description of “anal-retentive.”  

So I do things like alphabetize everything (books, CD’s, DVD’s), eat my Skittles/M&M’s in rainbow order, and try to live my life symmetrically. But lest you think that’s normal enough (ok, maybe the Skittle thing isn’t normal but whatever), here are a few more extreme examples. 

Tale 1
Many years ago, when I was around 14 years old, my great-grandmother died. We were sitting in the church at her funeral, and I could not focus on anything that was being said because I was completely fixated on the candelabra that was up in front by the alter. 
(Side note: if you’re like the guy on The Amazing Race a few years ago that didn’t know what a candelabra was, it’s one of these. Also, that was hilarious.)

But why was I fixated on it? Well, the problem was that two candles were crooked. And not like, slightly crooked, like way the hell off. It’s all I could think about. The pastor could have started tap-dancing up there and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

After the sermon ended, everyone went downstairs to the church basement to eat ham sandwiches and potato salad (typical Wisco funeral fare), and do the chat bit. At some point, I guess I got bored and wandered back upstairs. The candles were still crooked as all hell, and I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. So I peeked around a bit to make sure I was alone, and then went up on the alter and tried to fix them. Sadly, there was no hope as the candles didn’t fit in the stand properly so there was no way I could make them stand up straight. But, c’est la vie.  

My family was slightly disturbed when they later found out where I had disappeared to. To paraphrase the conversation…

Mom: “You did what on the altar?”
Me: “I tried to fix those crooked candles.”
Dad (the engineer): “I saw those! It was driving me crazy. Did you fix them?”
Mom: “What candles? I don’t know what you guys are talking about.”
Me: “No, they wouldn’t stand up.”
Mom: “Heather, you are not allowed to go up there.”
Me: “Why? We’re not Catholic.”
Mom: *exasperated sigh*

I have no idea why I associated Catholicism with forbidden altars. What can I say, we weren’t very church-y folk.  

Tale 2

My next example came a few years later. My dad works for a small manufacturing company that makes rubber and plastic parts, and I spent a couple of summers/holiday breaks working there when I was in college.

One day, I was sitting in my dad’s office eating lunch with him, when he started staring at his coffee mug like a crazy person. Again, to paraphrase…
Me: “What are you looking at?”
Dad: “The logo. It’s crooked.”
Me: “Uh, no it’s not.” 
Dad: “Yes, it is.” (starts rummaging through desk drawers for micro-measurement rulers and Godknowswhatelse)
Me: “You’re insane. That logo is perfectly straight.”
Dad: “grumblegrumblegrumble” (while measuring distance from bottom of coffee mug to bottom corners of the square logo). “HA! It’s 1/100th of an inch (Side note: I have no idea how to write that, but I’m hoping you get the gist) off! I told you it was crooked!”
Me: “You are insane.” 

My dad’s nickname in the house is “The Adjustor.” I think that speaks for itself. 

Tale 3
One year for Christmas my parents gave me a toolkit. It was great, one of those big ones that comes with about 50 tools, most of which I’ll never use, but hey, you never know. I figure if you have a hammer and a screwdriver, you should be pretty much set. But this toolkit had one GLARING flaw. It didn’t have a level. 

Seriously? What kind of second-rate crackpot toolmaker doesn’t put a LEVEL in their toolkits?? How else do you make sure your pictures are perfectly straight? Gah! 

But have no fear, a few days later my dad came home with a small level that fit perfectly in the cushion of the toolkit. The peasants rejoiced and all the pictures in my room were verified to be perfectly straight.  

Tale 4
When I got home in December, my parents had the Christmas tree already up in the living room. My mom thoroughly enjoyed telling everyone about how my dad had “adjusted” the tree in order to fit in the house. Apparently they had bought a 13-foot tree, and we have a 9-foot ceiling in the house. So my dad had to chop off a large chunk from the bottom, and then got a little out of hand pruning the thing. In the end, we had about another tree’s worth of branches out on the deck, and the tree had a slightly odd shape to it, as you can see by this amazing Paint-edited photo.

Since there are probably 10 Christmas tree farms within a 30-mile radius of our house, I tried to ask why they didn’t buy a tree that actually FIT in our house without “adjustment.” I’m still waiting for an answer on that one.

So what does this all have to do with a German Engineer? Well, today one of my students told me a story that brought this to a whole new level.  

Tale 5: Germans are Ridiculous
We were chatting at the beginning of the lesson about everyone’s holiday, and Walt mentioned that he did some work around the house. Paraphrasing!

Me: “Oh, what did you have to do?”

Walt: “I put some things on the tree.”
Me: “You mean you decorated it?”
Walt: “No, I drilled holes and put more …. (sticks arm out) on it.”
Me: (draws tree on board and points at the branches) “These?”
Walt: “Yes! What is it?”
Me: (labels drawing with branches, trunk, needles) “Branches. Wait…. what? You drilled holes in your tree and put on more branches???”
Walt: “Yes. There was a big hole. With our friends, we go to their houses and see their trees. A hole looks bad.”
(Note: The other students are all looking at him like he’s crazy.)
Me: “So if there’s a hole, you put that side on the wall! Where did you get the branches from?”
Dieter interjects: “He took them from the neighbor’s tree!”
Walt: “It was very tall, I cut the bottom. There were many branches. So the hole is no more.”

The moral of the story is: Engineer + German= a dangerous combination. And certainly no match for a slightly imperfect Christmas tree.  

*** Edited to add:
I just sent this story to my dad because I knew he’d appreciate it. Here is his response:

I have just one question; with the branch sizes being somewhat irregular, how did Walt determine what size drill bit to use?”

A Tale of Three Christmases

The first 25 Christmases I had on this planet were pretty standard. Every year I can remember, we had family over to our house. Over the years, the numbers fluctuated, but in the last few years, they were mostly going down. As my cousins grew up and moved away, older relatives passed, our Christmas got steadily quieter. It went from us kids providing the entertainment, to our pets providing the entertainment. Which they do quite well.

When I left the U.S., I pretty much accepted the fact that I wouldn’t always get home for Christmas. And while I miss my family, of course, I also pretty much know how it’s going to go, and what conversations I would (or wouldn’t) be missing. The last few years have proved pretty interesting, so if you’re bored, click on… there will be pictures! And everyone likes pictures, right? I mean, if there are pictures, that means less words, doesn’t it? Anyway. Click on!

My first Christmas away from home. Also the first Christmas away from home for my two roommates who were in the “Too poor to fly home” boat with me. Or didn’t have legal paperwork to leave the country. Small details. But we decided we would rally, cook, and generally make the best of our situation. Luckily, my roomie Karl was a pretty rockin’ cook, and was able to put together a veritable feast. 

We went out for a Christmas Eve walk around the city. It was raining just a bit, and the streets were almost empty. In the Czech Republic, the real holiday is on the 24th, so the tourists were the only ones left. The Czechs were all out at their cottage, presumably feasting on carp soup and potato salad.  Karl and I wandered about, counting Christmas trees, and he even managed to get me into a midnight mass.

And that’s not even all of them. Prague has a lot of Christmas trees.

The next day, we got up “early,” and started cooking. Here’s a quick rundown of our menu….

Appetizers: Bagel Chips and Cheese
First Course: Italian Wedding Soup
Second Course: Pasta with Meatballs and Roasted Chicken!
Main Dish: Roasted Venison (with Karl’s secret ingredient: 10000lbs of butter)
Side Dish: Rosemary Roasted Potatoes
Side Dish: Asparagus and Carrots
Dessert: Strawberry Dumplings with Berries.

We started cooking at about 10am and had the last course at about 2am. We also had a box of stuffing that we forgot to make, and dessert came the following day because we couldn’t eat anymore. And for entertainment, we of course had some sweet decorations and Christmas movies. See….

Our amazing Christmas tree. Which is lashed to a lamp. And when we unplugged the TV to plug the lamp in, we lost our satellite forever.
Amazing decor.
Artful presents.
More artful presents. We liked hand-decorated wrapping.
Presents under the tree.
Yes, we made up a drinking game to the best Christmas episode of “The Office.” Behold, the Benihana Christmas drinking game.
We also drank Becherovka with Bing.

It was a bit of a ridiculous day, but it was really fun. Eating, drinking, trying to connect to family on Skype, and just generally having a good time. So the next year when it looked like everyone was going to be gone from Prague, I was happy to have a back-up plan.

I spent Christmas last year in Germany with ex-Freund and his family, who had flown over for the holidays. It was my first time with a family besides my own, and he’s not a big fan of them. So it was pretty interesting. We spent the days before and after Christmas doing some traveling, but Christmas Day was spent at home. It had good points and bad points, but it was a pretty typical family Christmas. We had more food than we knew what to do with, and entirely too much German beer. Luckily we had help to drink it all.

The Villagers and their family also stopped by for a few hours, and we had a good time hanging out and playing games. A particular favorite was this one called “Werewolves.” It’s a role-play game, but was a lot of fun. If you’re a werewolf, you get to murder people, and who doesn’t love doing that to your family on Christmas?

Which brings us to this year and my triumphant return to the U.S….

I was pretty excited to get to tell my Grandma that I was coming home this year. And two seconds later, I told her that I wasn’t sticking around. And why not? Well, because my friend had secured four tickets to the Packer/Bear game at Lambeau Field, and one of those tickets was mine as long as I could get here! Luckily, my family is all Wisconsin born and bred, and they understand that Packer tickets are something that you do not turn down if you can help it. So our normal family Christmas was slightly amended to work around my schedule. We started off with the normal morning at home….

Kaylee kept up the Christmas tradition of eating as much wrapping paper as possible while we decorated her with leftover ribbon. Because she’s the prettiest girl in the world. And you remember when you were a kid, and you got candy (ok, and socks) in your stocking? 

Yep, in my old age, candy has been replaced with vitamin D. I maintain that M&M’s are better for you. But the handwarmers/footwarmers would come in handy for the game.

After the family arrived, we did some quick gift-opening, because I had to hit the road. And by hit the road, I mean take pictures while driving up to Green Bay because I was bored.

Ah, scenic Wisconsin in December. It’s prettier with snow, but I was quite happy to have clear roads for a 2+ hour drive. Especially since I’ve clearly been spoiled with public transportation because I was way too easily distracted while driving. Not good. I guess that means I have to stay car-free. 

But the end of the drive came soon enough. I stopped for my friend Alicia, and we made our way to the tailgate party in Green Bay. Luckily, my friend Courtney’s aunt and uncle live two minutes from Lambeau, and were happy to host us before the game since Courtney and her husband were taking the 3rd and 4th tickets. Everyone was properly attired in an absurd amount of Packer gear, and we got ourselves prepped for gametime. 

Court shows off her Christmas present… Packer bibs!
Ready to go to the game!

When we got to the game, we wandered around the tailgate area for a while. We soaked in all of the bratwurst scent, beards, mullets, and choruses of “Best Christmas ever!” out in the parking lot.  Then it was time to pile into the stadium….

The hallowed ground of Lambeau Field.
With 70,000 of our closest friends.

The first sight of the field. It’s so pretty!

Our seats were in the very top row, but there really isn’t a bad seat at Lambeau. Plus, that meant we had the green wall behind us which means a backrest, and no need to worry about people behind us. All around, a pretty good deal. 

View from our seats during warm-up.
More warm-up.
America! Yeah!
Opening kick-off.
And Aaron Rodgers takes the first snap of the game…
which led to yet another Packer win!
The girls after the game.

After the game, it was back to Courtney’s aunt and uncle’s house, where we warmed up and recuperated before heading back to Alicia’s house for the night. I think we got pretty lucky temperature-wise, as it was in the 30’s for most of the game. Needless to say, Lambeau has seen much colder nights. But the handwarmers did get some use. 

So that’s it. My very long-winded tale of three very different, but pretty good Christmases. Hope you all had some good ones as well!