Things that look different

… in Germany compared to how they look in New Zealand. I’ve just picked two completely at random and for no reason other than these were the only two that I had photos of honest and if you’re giggling at something I have no idea what that would be and I certainly have never, ever giggled at these myself. Ahem.

So: tow-bars and asparagus. Check it out:

Towbar WeissSpargel

White asparagus is a big deal around here, it’s a short season and will probably be over soon. It actually tastes a lot like green asparagus (if that’s what you’re used to), you need to peel it which is a bit tiresome and the stalks are much thicker than the green ones so it takes longer to cook. Traditionally it’s served with real mayonnaise – I liked it with a lemon and honey salad dressing and a thin slice of Parma ham on top.

Meanwhile there’s no special story about the tow-bars.


Life in Germany 5 – High School

So earlier I posted how Molly is finding primary school in Germany, it’s about time I added some reflections about Jack at high school.

Four types of high school

When you are 10 or 11 years old, it’s time to choose which type of high school you will go to until you’re 17-18. There are three traditional types, in order of most academic to least: GymnasiumRealschule and Hauptschule. A few years ago you could only get the qualification you needed for university from Gymnasium. Nowadays, strictly speaking, you can get it from any of the three types.

OK, I haven’t conducted long interviews with German parents about their take on it, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any particular stigma if you go to Realschule or Hauptschule. Let’s be honest: most large New Zealand high schools do the same thing, just in the same school. So if there are seven Year 9 classes, they will be streamed either top to bottom, or maybe a top two or three, and it’s those kids that will eventually go on and do Scol. Amiright?

The fourth type of high school is called Gemeinschaftschule (Gemeinschaft = community) and it’s basically all three types of high school combined. “Like a New Zealand high school then?” Yes, pretty much.

School day

Our village isn’t big enough to have a high school, so Jack catches the bus 5km into Eppingen. Eppingen has three high schools (Gymnasium, Real and Haupt) but they are all together on one campus, just in separate buildings. Jack is at Gymnasium, mainly because that’s where we thought there would be more teachers who spoke English, and the principal was very, very accommodating so I guess (again) we got lucky there.

School starts at 7:45am, so Jack leaves the house around 7:15. Your class has a different timetable for each day of the week – not just with whether you start with maths or geography, but whether you will have any classes in the afternoon or not. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Jack finishes at 12:30, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays he finishes at 4:15. L next door, who is in the same year as Jack but a different class, has a different timetable.

The only benefit of afternoon school is Jack doesn’t get any homework those days.


The subjects are school are pretty normal, compared to New Zealand schools, maybe just a few more of them. Jack does English, maths, German, French, physics, biology, sport, geography and history. See what I mean? Pretty normal.

No uniform

Pretty much the only schools in Germany that have uniforms are private, preppy and probably slightly international schools, you know, the ones selling a sort of “British boarding school” product to parents.


On a long day, Jack buys lunch at the school canteen – the Mensa. And they have a faaancy website where you order your lunch on the morning before school, flash your student ID and collect your schnitzel and chips, meatloaf with roast potatoes, etc. There’s a vegetarian option every day, but it cracks me up because some days it’s basically a dessert – check out the screenshot below.

Field trip to… France?

Monday Jack’s class did a casual field trip – to France. They basically got a bus from Eppingen to Strasbourg at 7:45, went inside the cathedral, had a sort of treasure hunt around the streets and back home by 6pm. Now that is something you don’t get to do in NZ.

Jack and Molly celebrating their first day at school (back in September) with schnitzel with chips in Eppingen. And while we’re talking about food …


Here's a screenshot of Jack's school cafeteria (Mensa) order page for this week. I translated it using Chrome. When we first got here, I had to do a Google Images search for some of the items on the menu. "What's for lunch today?" "Um, Pfannkuchen". "What's that?" "Hold on... oh, ok, they're pancakes".
Here’s a screenshot of Jack’s school cafeteria (Mensa) order page for this week – and check out the vegetarian option for Tuesday! Dampfnudel* are soft white bready dumplings which are steamed but then fried just a little bit, and served with vanilla custard. Yes, it’s normally in German, I translated it for you using Chrome’s Google Translate. It does OK – clearly it can’t cope with “Sahnetomatensoße” (cream tomato sauce) and it thinks the Lentils will be served with string, but you get the idea. When we first got here, the only way Jack and I knew what he would be eating was to do a Google Images search for some of the items on the menu. “What’s for lunch today?” “Um, something called Pfannkuchen”. “What’s that?” “Hold on… oh, ok, they’re pancakes. Should be fine.”


* Dampfnudel is so far the ONLY German food I haven’t liked.

Pompeii – who knew it was so big?

During our Italian trip in February, we spent three nights in a town called Minori on the Amalfi coast. For me, a big attraction of heading this far south in Italy was to see Pompeii.

Our first full day in Minori the weather was a bit crap, but the second day was brighter so we headed off to Pompeii, which was only about 40 minutes away. We had planned to spend a couple of hours there, and then head off to Herculaneum/Ercolano, another Roman site destroyed in the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD.

So here’s what I thought Pompeii would look like – in my head. You’d drive well away from the city, head towards some sort of forest, down a long dusty road, park your car and then stroll into “Pompeii”, which itself would be mostly a flat dusty field but with a few scattered Roman ruins here and there. There’d be a museum with some “ha, you didn’t get me” unbroken amphorae, a bunch of broken ones, a few posters about the eruption, and the centrepiece would be those macabre mouldings taken from the victims who died covered by ash, but whose bodies left “moulds” as the ash cooled, and as their bodies decomposed. Awesome.

So, when we actually got there, what I found was quite a surprise:

“You’d drive well away from the city”

You don’t really leave Naples to get here, and there’s a motorway offramp right beside Pompeii, plus another main road running past with shops and usual Italian city stuff.

“A flat, dusty field with a few scattered ruins”

It’s an enormous, sprawling Roman city – and apart from roofs, almost completely intact. It has an enormous wall all around the outside, and once you’re in, it perches just slightly above the rest of the city. Inside are hundreds and hundreds of buildings – public buildings, baths, temples, workshops, giant amphitheatre, posh houses, modest houses, bars and cafes, political graffiti… 11,000 people used to live here.

“We had planned to spend a couple of hours there”

You need ALL day to cover Pompeii – forget about doing Herculaneum the same day.

“There’d be a museum”

There’s no museum here – although in the forum (the main city square, which is also enormous) there is a sort of big garage with wire fencing so you can look in, and here are the amphorae, other artefacts, and yes, a couple of ash mould bodies. It’s best to bring or buy a guide book so, as you’re going around, you know what you’re looking at – but there are signs inside each building as well.

So what are we really looking at?

Yeah, so before I went, I thought the focus of Pompeii would be Vesuvius – that it would really be “about the volcano”, about the eruption, you know, and looking at how it destroyed the town. But it’s not at all. It’s more that because the volcano preserved the town, what Pompeii is really about is being able to visit a place where you get to rewind 2,000 years and see almost exactly what a large Roman city looked like.

Many, many buildings still have their original mosaic floors or wall paintings. Of course, the houses were built and decorated at various different periods, and art history scholars have defined four distinct Pompeian Styles of mural painting, eg the First Style was fashionable from 200BC to around 100BC, then they noticed a change which they describe as the Second Style from 100BC to around 20BC, etc. The influences, designs and colour palettes change through each of the styles.

The roads – made of giant flagstones – still have grooves in them where they were rutted by cart wheels. At various points there are large stepping stones which allowed people with log hems to cross the road in heavy rain without soaking their togas.

A day at Pompeii is a long one – and although there’s no museum there is a cafe and plenty of toilets, etc. A few sections of the city were closed for restoration work – and that was frankly a blessing, because we really wanted to see as much as possible but the kids (and us) only had so much gas in the tank.

But it’s an amazing, fascinating day – taking in everything from the enormous scale of the city as a whole … down to a tiny portrait painted on a wall in a small bedroom 2,000 years ago.

Check out some of our pictures:

Panorama over Pompeii
Another view over the ancient rooftops
One of many long, long streets
The stepping stones and the ruts carved by cart traffic (the carts just go over the top of the stepping stones – clever huh?)


Jack on the street
The Forum
This is a plaster mould of one of the victims of Pompeii – apparently a young boy. The ash encased his body completely. Over time his body decomposed and the “mould” left behind was recovered, and used to recreate his final moments. Very moving.
A kind of “takeaway bar” – the holes held large pots of food and workers used to walk past and order lunch.
An oven at one of the bakeries
The walls inside one of the villas
Portrait painted on a wall
Mosaic at an entrance to a house – one of several and I wanted to photograph them all
One of the very impressive bath houses
Kids near the large tub
Wall decoration inside the public bath house
And after a hard day walking the streets of Pompeii, relax at a show at the amphitheatre (it’s a show if Molly’s around)

Ooh la la – Paris

As an adult, when you plan a trip to Europe, you have a list of the Stuff You Want To See And Do, but kids usually don’t have that sort list and it’s frustrating when you want to involve them. “Come ON Francesca, what do YOU want to do when we’re in Maastricht? Hmmm?  Hmmm?”

Luckily when it came to Molly and Paris we didn’t have this problem: “I want to go up the Eiffel Tower”.

Of course I’ve been to Paris before, a few times during my last OE, but I’ve never been up the Eiffel Tower. Mainly because there’s lots of other things to do that don’t need you to queue for two hours. But when your kid actually comes up and says “While we’re in Town X, this is a thing I want to do”, you do it.

We went to France in the October school holidays and had four nights in Paris in a good apartment we found on AirBnB.

In terms of getting up the Eiffel Tower and avoiding the queues, I was happy to volunteer to leave the apartment at 7am, start queuing and then others could join me an hour later and by then we should be near the front. The problem was, on that first morning in Paris the weather was so hazy that from the Sacré Coeur you could hardly see the Eiffel Tower itself. With weather like that there would be no point going up there at all. So we walked around Montmartre, down towards the Louvre and Tuileries and bought tickets to go to the Louvre the next day. Yep, you can do that (there’s a gift shop near the Louvre that sells them) and that also saves you a bunch of queuing. Did I drag my kids to the Louvre? No way, I was dreading it! But when we got to the Palais du Louvre – with the intention of giving the kids a runaround in the courtyard – they looked through the glass panels near the side exits where you can see into the gallery and insisted they wanted to go. In saying that, they did also enjoy running around the fountains in the courtyard.

As an aside, I love that damn pyramid. For us in the 20th and 21st centuries, when it comes to most old and historical buildings, we’re reluctant to add anything new that might look “out of character”. But for many of these buildings, that’s exactly what happened throughout their histories. “You can barely see the medieval bit because in the Tudor period two new wings were added. Then it got a Georgian makeover in 1780 during which all the beautiful baroque ceilings were painted over – there’s only two left now…” You see where I’m going? So yeah, I love it that some Chinese guy walked into the middle of this 18th century Parisian palace and went, “You know what this really needs? A giant glass pyramid, right here.” And I love it even more that the French went, “You’re damn right. Let’s do it.”

The haze also cleared up that afternoon, so we thought we’d see what the weather was like the next day after we’d been to the Louvre, and maybe give the Tower a shot.

The following day was hazy again, but the forecast said it would clear up. We went to the Louvre and I managed to keep Molly’s attention span up long enough to catch The Big Two (Mona Lisa & Venus de Milo), plus quite a few others. We particularly liked looking at the style of the paintings of Napoleon, and how Christ-like he appears when visiting the plague-stricken in Jaffa or the battlefield in Eylau on his white pony. We also enjoyed looking at the enormous Wedding Feast at Cana, and how Veronese, like many Renaissance painters, painted himself and a selection of his Renaissancy mates in there, supposedly in cameo roles, but still front and centre and the most brightly dressed. Cheeky bugger.

After the kids ran out of steam at the Louvre, we went outside and the haze had cleared up. Time to take a deep breath, head to the Eiffel Tower and start queuing.

We queued for two and a half hours before we got into the elevator. The queues run from each of the tower’s four legs (if you like) into the middle area right underneath the tower. Molly and I left Joe and Jack in the queue to do a sandwich run, we were gone about half an hour, and when we got back for some reason the queue – like, the whole queue – had moved! We had no idea where Joe and Jack were and walked up and down for another nerve-wracking 15 minutes hoping they hadn’t somehow gone up the tower already!

The view from the tower was pretty amazing. Obviously it was late afternoon by the time we got there and we watched the sun setting over that unique Parisian skyline. We knew the tower’s lights came on at 6pm and we thought it would be cool to get down in time to watch them come on. But just as we had no power of how long we would queue to get up, it was the same to get down. In fact what happened was we were actually in the lift going down on the stroke of 6pm – so in effect we were right amongst the lights as they went on. The whole lift carriage went, “OOooooh!” it was pretty cool!

The next day started hazy and stayed that way, so we were lucky we went up when we did. We went past Notre Dame, met some friends for a lovely cozy lunch and the next day set off for Le Quesnoy and Belgium.

Us outside Sacré Coeur at Montmartre
Us outside Sacré Coeur at Montmartre
Three things I love: Jack, Molly and that pyramid
Three things I love: Jack, Molly and that pyramid
View from the Eiffel Tower
View of us having a view from the Eiffel Tower
Lit up in the early evening
Lit up in the early evening
Place de la Concorde, with one of those "how did they get that here" obelisks from Egypt
Place de la Concorde, with one of those “how did they get that here” obelisks from Egypt
The four of us on a bridge over the Seine, near Ile de la Cite.
Looking down Champs Elysees at the Arc de Triomphe
Looking down Champs Elysees at the Arc de Triomphe

Smoking so the rest of us look good

A lot more people smoke in Germany than in New Zealand. Yes, successive NZ governments have outlawed smoking in restaurants, shopping malls, town centres … but the results are here to see. Smoking in Germany is reasonably common – the children were frankly alarmed when we first got here! – although it may not be a whole lot more common here than in other European countries.

There is cigarette advertising on billboards, etc, but my favourite is at the gas station where animated commercials play on tablet sized screens right next to where you pay for your petrol. “Anything else, sir?”  “Well, actually …”

Cigarettes are cheap (about €5 or NZ$8 a packet) and you can buy them everywhere including right outside my house! Here’s our charming neighbourhood cigarette vending machine, one of about four in the village:


It’s cheerful! Alles möglich means “everything is possible”, and just underneath that is Und so einfach, “And so easy”. It’s true: they take notes, coins or cards. Heaps of places here in Germany don’t take cards as payment (like EFTPOS cards) so it’s a bit of a statement that your village cigarette vending machine does.

You need to also insert a card that you get which proves proof of age. But I’ve seen kids standing next to Mum while she buys her fags, “Can I put the coins in, Mum?!”.

Joe reckons about 80% of his football team smoke – young, fit German lads, many of them getting the very last puff in before they have to go into the sheds and get changed. It makes you wonder how many Bayern Münich players probably still smoke.

I couldn’t understand why such a dynamic, high-achieving population has so many smokers.

And then I decided – maybe it’s an EU thing.

See, the EU had a look around the map one day and thought “Oh, Italy, you’re a bit corrupt. France, you complain too much. Greece, you spend too much. Spain, don’t know where to start. Hungary, Romania …” and sitting there at the front of the class, head down in the text book, was Germany, reading up on how to make the trains run on time, adopt Big Recycling, build great cars, run a national economy sensibly, value nature and the outdoors and make sure they packed their flute and their sports gear for their after-school activities. Ha ha, all these are German stereotypes, right? If only – they are about 90% on the money from my experience here. Germans are over-achievers.

So, the EU thought, this isn’t good for the dynamic of the European classroom. I can’t have Germany sitting their rolling their eyes every time France explains why this cheese can’t be called that, Poland asks once more about this obsession with sensible waste management, and Italy tries to make two plus two equal five plus fifteen percent in a Swiss bank account. Oh, and Greece shows up with no money for the school trip but if we have a whip around for a couple of Euro…

The EU sat down with Germany and explained the predicament, and wondered if there was anything Germany could do to just, you know, slow them down a bit. Cool their heels.

“What if I start smoking?” said Germany. “If I start smoking, I’ll probably only be using about 60% of my lung capacity, and that will slow me right down in the short term. In the long term it will increase my chances of cancer and other diseases and It will lower my life expectancy. How does that sound?”

Perfect. Now the rest of the class might feel like, if they but try, they can catch up with Germany, and they don’t feel completely overwhelmed by their never-ending achievements. The EU wheeled out the Zigaretten machines overnight to every village in Germany, the Germans lit up and everyone else breathed a sigh of relief.

So now it makes perfect sense to me! Just before I go, another picture of the cigarette machine in my quiet, sunny street in my idyllic, sunny village.


German music on the radio

German music is cool! Seriously, there are some really good poppy little numbers out there, and I’ll add some links below in order of my favourites at this very moment.

In the car we listen to a radio station called SWR3 – Anglos, you pronounce this “Ess Vee Err Dry”. And then you sing the rest of the jingle because you can’t help yourself, “Die beste Musik!” Do you need me to translate that for you? You good? Cool.

SWR = Süd West Radio, and SWR3 seems to be their Hits station. I was listening to the radio one drive and they played some Dr Hook. Interesting. Then some Eagles. Okaaay… and then I saw it was tuned to SWR1. Ah!

It reminds me a bit of chart radio in New Zealand maybe 20 years ago – they don’t play a whole lot of domestic product, but maybe the domestic product needs a bit of work, or maybe tastes will change … the glass half full way of looking at that is it’s cool to know NZ has more homegrown music on the radio than here. And in saying that, the German music they play on SWR3 is the gooood stuff. When the kids and I drove to Italy we went through Austria and checked out some Austrian radio. Sorry. But it was shit. I’d say half the songs on the radio were in German – full credit – but … yeah, nah.

So what else do they play? Your usual mix of English-speaking chart hits, plus the odd song in French maybe. So right right now now they’re into playing Hold Back the River by James Bay, Are You With Me by Lost Frequencies, King by Years & Years and inevitably FourFiveSeconds by a really old guy and his two grandchildren. So yeah, s’OK.

The other thing SWR3 do (which I love, but I’m a nerd) is the Traffic Announcements! Fully, when I first got here I didn’t have a clue what they were saying, like not a word. Now I’m fluent in Traffic Announcement. I’m all over the A6 from Heilbronn to Nürnberg, between Hohenlohe and Schwäbisch Hall, there’s a 6km queue because of a broken-down truck – the left lane is blocked. Get down!

With the German songs, from a learning German perspective, I have found it hard to just listen to a tune and go “Ah yes, I got every word”, but occasionally I hear a line and I think “Oh hey, I understood that”. And that’s nice.

EEENYWay without further ado, let me post my favourite Deutsch tunes here, for your listening pleasure.

Easiest on the ear (and the eye, ladieeez!) is Andreas Bourani. He had this cool, up-tempo song which the German team sort of adopted during the 2014 World Cup – HA! It worked! That one was called Auf Uns and you can look that one up yourself, but check out his nice moody piece Auf Anderen Wegen – “Different Roads”:

Next is Revolverhead, Lass Uns Gehen means “Let’s Go”:

“We want hip hop!” you say? Well, have it you shall! Here’s a juicy single from Cro called Traum (“Dream”):

“How about themes of teen frustration living in the parental home, with a catchy synth hook, big strings chorus and maybe a little line of French?” Oh all RIGHT then! Mark Forster, if you please:

That’s enough for you today – hope you enjoyed!


(technically that’s pronounced “Chuce”, but when you say it over here you need to give it two syllables..)

Life in Germany 4: Primary School

While we’ve been in Germany, the kids have been going to normal German schools. Molly is 10 and she has been attending the local primary school, or Grundschule, here in the village, in the 4th Klasse which is the last year before kids go off to high school. She’s one of the oldest kids in her class, but it was that or put her in the first year of high school, and frankly the primary school was too good to pass on: it’s about 500m from our flat, and the kids finish at 1pm each day.

There are only four classes or year levels in German Grundschulen and most kids start when they are 6 years old going on 7. Before this, though, many of them have been to kindergarten where they do actually learn some basic reading and writing.

In the village Grundschule there would be scarcely more than 80 students altogether. Molly has 17 in her class. After her first day she came home and told us the BEST news was that there were 11 girls “and only SIX boys!”.

School Day

Molly starts at 7:45am most days (two days a week it’s an 8:30am start) and she comes home at 1pm for lunch. The school year is a mid-September start, mid-July finish.

How Molly is finding it

Molly spoke no German when she enrolled in September, and was worried she wouldn’t get any friends. If you know Molly, you’ll know how silly this sounds. Molly is a Leo and likes to be in the centre of what’s going on. Being only 10 doesn’t hurt either – there’s no stupid cliques or anything she’s had to try and break into (or avoid). Also for her age there are stacks of activities in the village after school: art and then light athletics on Tuesdays, football on Fridays (and now Wednesdays as well).

What has also helped is that one of Molly’s best friends, L, spoke enough English to help Molly along in those first few weeks, and L’s house is literally opposite our flat. In the mornings Molly is collected by L or any one of a number of girls that live on this side of town. Then in the afternoon we can hear them well before they get home: giggling and squealing.

What they learn

Learning-wise, the school is similar to New Zealand. Maths is probably ahead of New Zealand and Molly had to really knuckle down and learn her times tables! They do poems in German (think English), basic phrases in English (think German), science is called Naturwissenschaften and it’s more like natural science (animals, etc).

For me, one of the most unusual things is that Molly gets marks for EVERYTHING. One day she comes home asking if we can go and buy some wool, because they are making crochet owl bags for art at school. So we get the wool, she’s working on her owl bag with her classmates, can she have another ball of this colour, etc, and then she comes home and tells us she’s finished it.

“So did you bring it home? Can we see it?”

“No, it’s in school so the teacher can mark it.”

“Mark it? You get a mark for how good your crochet owl bag is?”

But I think that’s good, you know. Some kids might suck at maths but be pretty handy at art and crafts; why shouldn’t they get acknowledgement for that, rather than just a pat on the back?

The other thing that cracked me up was in March she came home with a notice saying “Blah-blah-blah, on Tuesday we’re doing sports so bring appropriate clothes and a drink.” I asked her how the day went and she said they did gym-type activities in the hall (mini trampoline over a vaulting horse sort of thing), and she was happy with the three that she chose because she thought her marks would be quite good.

“You got a MARK for SPORTS?”

Turns out it wasn’t just some Fun-Sports-Day that I thought it was; it was Winter Bundesjugendspiele and that is as serious as it sounds. OK not really, it means National Youth Games, and as far as I can make out the activities are set nationally and if you get a certain level of mark you get the fancy A-list certificate which Molly did.

Molly’s German is very good these days. Joe takes her with him for any tasks in town because she’s a good little translator too. Despite this, she is very much looking forward to coming home. And because we only planned to be here for a year, for her and Jack this has been a “fun year” at school – no big serious exams at the end of it. There’s no question it would have been a hard year for the kids if they’d really, really had to knuckle down, absorb a new language and then face big exams at the end of the year. Possible? Of course. But not as much fun.

Here’s Molly with the early stages of Crochet Owl Bag, and a selection of her pictures hanging on the wall in our dining room:
And here she is with the light athletics group getting ready to perform at the Family Evening concert in January: WP_001545