We have officially less than a year left of living in Germany, which has me thinking of all the fun we’ve had over the past two years. I wanted to compile some ideas, especially for other military families who are looking to make the most of their time in Germany.
I have heard people say they love living here, and I’ve heard people say they hate it. It really is a choice we have to make and an attitude we choose to have. Hopefully, we choose to take advantage of the many unique opportunities, and to approach the whole thing as one big learning experience. Sometimes this choice is hard, because we want our American comforts and familiar faces (and language!). But when I take in the beauty around me and appreciate the differences of culture, I realize how much I’ll miss this place one day.
Here are a few practical tips for anyone looking to bloom where they’re planted in Germany:
Learn to live seasonally, as the Germans do.
Eat the bakery goods that only roll around once a year. Currently, we’ve been in “Zwetschgen” season–plums! So the bakeries are full of different pastry treats that boast plums as their star ingredient. But before you know it, they’ll be gone! So you eat them while they are available. Same goes for Fasching donuts in January or February.
Cook with seasonal fruits and veggies. You can either choose to be frustrated by the lack of certain foods at certain times of the year, or you can experiment and have fun with the wonderfully fresh foods that are available. For the most part, German grocers have everything you need, but I have occasionally had a difficult time finding things like fresh beets, celery, sweet corn, and kale. Yes, the commissary probably has these things. But I think it’s more enjoyable to cook with the seasonally unique items, when I can. For instance, last year I learned that hokkaido pumpkins (a fall staple in German grocery stores) are delicious and don’t have to be peeled at all!
Have fun at all the festivals! Germans have a festival for everything, and each season is celebrated in its own way. We have attended a local Fasching parade, where the costumes and floats are extravagant; multiple Volksfests in different towns, which can be as simple as a row of food stands or as entertaining as a state fair; the large pumpkin festival in Ludwigsburg; and of course, several Christmas markets, which dazzle with their twinkling lights and magical aromas (I will be posting in more detail about the Christmas markets later this fall). There are also Easter markets and Oktoberfest. These all make for fun, memorable experiences.
Bring a good coat and warm boots. Or be prepared to buy them as winter approaches. Everyone’s happier when their toes aren’t freezing, right? We think it’s so funny that the Germans keep wearing their jackets through the summer…That is only sometimes necessary. Ha!
Become a tour guide (figuratively).
Get comfortable with public transportation. At first, it is definitely uncomfortable. But if you make yourself do it a few times soon after you arrive, it will become an old trick and you’ll love how easy it is. It took me a long time to figure out how to get the cheapest tickets from the kiosk at the train station… So I usually just went up to the counter, where the clerk could help me get exactly what I wanted.
Find your favorite local shops. Whatever you are interested in, there is probably a shop nearby for you. I have loved perusing a fabric shop just down the street, a map shop, a basket shop (where the man is often making baskets by hand!), a trachten shop (where you can discover all the German traditional clothes), and a few antique warehouses.
Carry Euros on your person, always. Germans use actual money (coins included!) much more than we do in America. Most places do take certain credit cards. But a few do not. And almost everyone pays in cash for their bakery goodies and gelato. Be prepared for those spontaneous stops!
Learn the basics of the German language. I wish that I had put more effort into this one. But even a little effort will go a long way. Spend an afternoon learning how to pronounce different letters and letter combinations. That way, you can order from a menu, or at least try. From my frequent grocery trips, I have learned the basic numbers and food names, which is quite helpful. Also, don’t be discouraged when the lady behind the bakery counter looks at you thoroughly confused. It happens to all of us. The more language you know, the easier it will be to navigate various situations, driving included.
Create a local tour itinerary. This might sound odd, but personally it has really helped me feel like I belonged (at least, temporarily) in this foreign country. Make a list of all your favorite places in the area. For Tex and I, we have a few different lists–one of places within easy driving distance, one of all our favorite spots in our favorite Bavarian town, and one with slightly more distant places for day-trips. These lists include everything from castle ruins and monasteries, to scenic overlooks and the best schnitzel restaurant. Also, I often include some of my favorite shops, discussed above. Now, what to do with your itinerary is totally up to you. I have enjoyed learning some of the details about the different places and taking our various guests on tours. It has been fun to feel like the expert and to experience “old” things anew with first-time visitors. These lists also provide excellent date night (or friend date) inspiration!
Spend time outside and soak in the natural beauty.
Go on daily walks. There’s a chicken farm that we love walking to on warm evenings. There’s a forest path just around the corner. There’s currently a flock of sheep grazing in the pasture down the road. These are the kinds of things you find on casual walks about the neighborhood. What’s not to enjoy?!
Forage for berries and bouquets. I don’t even have kids, and love doing this! I think it would be even more fun with a crew of youngsters. Throughout summer months, wildflowers are plentiful; this was the year of poppies! Even in the fall and winter though, you can get creative with little bush branches and things. Obviously, you have to be more careful picking berries… But we did our research, and have collected wild blackberries, cherries, and tiny plums. Note the word “wild”–you don’t want to be picking things out of people’s gardens! If you don’t feel comfortable picking wild ones, go to a local berry farm in the summer; it’s a super cheap and fun way to stock up on strawberries, blackberries, or blueberries.
Take exploratory bike rides. This has been our very favorite way of experiencing the German countryside. Germans take their bike trails seriously–there are so many! Not only is it good exercise with all the hills, but it is also a sure way of discovering rural surprises. Our longest ride yet was 21 miles of terrain we mostly had never seen.
Bonjour! Tex and I recently had the opportunity to drive down to Southern France and explore Provence for a whole week. And what a feast for the senses it was—from the colorful Provencal markets to the fragrant fields of lavender to the salty splash of the sea. So tie a napkin around your neck, pull your chair up to the table, and I’ll serve up the details.
Note: For each list, the items are ordered chronologically.
Five memorable moments:
Driving and walking through the lavender fields ~ The first night, as we arrived in the area near the Valensole Plateau, we rolled the car windows all the way down and just let the aroma of lavender waft through the car. So much better than essential oils! We met up with our friends to catch the sunrise over a harvest-ready field of purple. Finally, we were able to find one of the main fields, where we quickly discovered an abundance of bees. Somehow we made the trek to the stone barn in the center of the field without anyone getting stung. I think we have Tex to thank, since he kept reminding us to keep our arms down by our sides in order to not attract the bees with our body odor. Haha!
Breakfasting on the terrace of our Airbnb in Puimoisson ~ This was possibly our favorite Airbnb to have ever stayed in… Tex and I decided we liked it so much for two reasons: it felt like we were staying at our grandparents’, and the view off the plateau was stunning. We even spotted a hot air balloon taking off early that morning. As a bonus, our host provided some excellent tips about the area and a lovely breakfast of fresh breads and jam, along with freshly-squeezed orange juice and hot tea!
Kayaking in the Mediterranean and swimming in the Calanque d’En Vau ~ We reserved a two-seater kayak in Cassis (near Marseilles) ahead of time and showed up in the late afternoon ready to row. This was at the top of my to-do list before we made the trip, and it remains in my mind as the most fun we had, which is saying something. The waves were neither too fierce nor too calm (note that this is coming from a novice kayaker!). After a little over an hour, we arrived at the Calanque d’En Vau, a finger of turquoise sea trapped between two towering cliffs. We parked the kayak on the beach, munched on our snacks, and waded into the cool, clear water. There were no waves here, which made the swimming ever-so-enjoyable. I learned on this trip that I am an expert doggy-paddler… hmm.
Feasting on our market goodies at the campsite ~ For our last two nights in Provence, we pitched our tent at a campsite, which ended out being in somebody’s backyard. Honestly, though, it was great. We gathered up all our goodies from that day’s market and sat down for a refreshing picnic. Juicy white peaches, cantaloupe, heirloom tomatoes, fresh baguette, three big pats of chevre cheese, and—my personal favorite—eggplant and garlic chutney. Each bit so pure by itself but also very tempting in combination.
“Swimming” in the freezing cold river at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse ~ One day, we found ourselves with a free afternoon and bodies that needed a rest from the heat. After a little research, we settled down in a shady nook along the Sorgue River. We donned our swimsuits and prepared to feel the chill… But it was a chill we were ill-prepared for! I will say, I handled it better than Tex did. 🙂 He was already talking about hypothermia after two minutes of being waist-deep. Needless to say, we didn’t do a lot of swimming there, but we certainly did cool off and never complained about the heat again! Maybe this sounds like a terrible experience, but it was actually so funny and such a dreamy spot (outside of the water) that we think of it quite fondly.
Four favorite towns:
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie ~ This town is nestled at the foot of a craggy, rocky mountain. It has everything an adorable town needs: a waterfall coming into the town center, painted china shops, plenty of stops for French cuisine, and a chapel built into the side of the mountain above. We were hungry when we arrived and sat down on a restaurant’s terrace that overlooked the waterfall. We ordered Filet mignon, thinking we were about to try the real deal; when it arrived, we realized we had overlooked that it was pork! Not exactly what we had envisioned, but still good. Later in the afternoon, when we had hiked up to the mountainside chapel, we witnessed a medevac helicopter perform a risky maneuver over the adjacent courtyard. It was the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was in the middle of a tornado. Tex was braver than I and stood outside the church building videoing it for the entire duration!
Avignon ~ On our “flexible” day, we decided to drive up to Avignon and tour the Palais des Papes. In the 1300’s, the papal seat was actually there instead of in the Rome. This was news to us. We loved hearing all the history and seeing the functionality of the rooms in the Palais. Compared to the Vatican, the Palais des Papes offers a more raw look at the Pope’s everyday life and the important papal affairs. Most striking was the Indulgence Window, which overlooked the main courtyard. Here, the Pope would stand and offer forgiveness and indulgences to the crowds gathered below. After our tour, we ventured through the old city a bit, admired the medieval walls, and stuffed ourselves with some delicious pizza (who would think that cheese-less anchovy pizza could be so tasty?!)
Bonnieux ~ The views from the hillside town of Bonnieux were breathtaking and made me realize why Provence is beloved by so many. We made a pit-stop here as we drove to our campsite, but it would have been a lovely place to stay for a few nights. It was less crowded than Gordes (I can only imagine some of these tiny towns in a normal summer without COVID), and more authentic. We made the short trek up to the church for more views and some shade.
Roussillon ~ Every part of this town is tinted by the natural pigment found in the soil beneath and around it—ochre. With its reddish orange houses and streets, Roussillon stands out uniquely against the other towns of Provence. Tex and I took off on a morning stroll down the “Ochre Trail,” which showcases the many shades—rust, deep red, brick, burnt orange—of the small surrounding canyons. Then we snacked on some ridiculously good nutella beignets and made our way through the winding russet streets.
Bonus towns (that aren’t mentioned in my other lists): Valensole, Ménerbes, Gordes and the Abbaye de Sénanque…
Streets of Valensole
Three wonderful markets:
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence market (Wednesday) ~ Saint-Rémy was our first experience of a Provencal market, and it flooded our senses. We did a lot of bumping elbows and baskets with other market-goers. We sniffed our way through stalls of herbs, spices, garlic, and wide bubbling pans of paella. We listened to the sounds of accordian music and eyeballed stacks of colorful soaps and stands curtained by hanging tablecloths. We were in recon mode here, so we bought only a single cantaloupe.
Aix-en-Provence market (Thursday) ~ There are four different markets scattered about the town which make up the market day in Aix (pronounced “Ex”): the food market, the textile market, the flower market, and the antique market. We really took advantage of the free samples going on at the food market… In our defense, the chutney guy told us to please stay in front of his stand and to keep tasting so that other people would want to come by. And I’m pretty sure every time we stopped in front of this one cheese stand they offered us another sample of either cured sausage or aged cheese; it happened at least three times. We also tried lavender honey, juicy heirloom tomatoes, and another seller’s hazelnut salami.
We enjoyed strolling down the long stretch of textile market, admiring the bright, floral Provencal fabrics and the linen blouses. I carefully chose my treasure to take home—a gorgeous oil cloth fabric, light green with stripes of blue and white flowers, to turn into some sort of tablecloth.
Apt market (Saturday) ~ What makes the market in Apt so unique and charming is its sprawling nature. We kept stumbling onto more branches of the market as we continued our walk through the narrow streets of the town center. Stalls of handmade baskets, artisan breads, Marseille soap, and assorted pestos and tapenades were everywhere we looked. There was even a stand or two devoted to selling herbs de Provence, my new favorite herb mix. Just before we got on the road for our long drive home, we stopped at a bakery and bought a massive nougat-flavored meringue. It was as big as my face and much sweeter.
Two worthwhile drives:
Route des Crêtes at Verdon Gorge ~ Our Puimosson host recommended this scenic loop. “Route des Crêtes” translates to mean Road of Ridges/Crests. The drive took only a little more than an hour and offered some incredible views over Verdon Gorge and the surrounding mountains. There are some tight curves, steep drop-offs, and bicyclers involved, and at one point the road suddenly becomes one-way. As long as the driver is not prone to freaking out in these sorts of situations, you should have no trouble. Hence, Tex drove. The route has several pull-offs for picture-taking and admiring the landscape.
North through Sault ~ This is the one area where we did not spend any time (except for driving through on our way home), but that I would recommend to anyone planning a visit to Provence. I was surprised to find that the lavender around Sault seemed to be even more abundant than the lavender on the Valensole Plateau. Based on my research, I think the lavender in this area is harvested slightly later than that in the regions farther south. So perhaps that could explain the copious amount of purple that we saw in late July. I squealed as we skirted around a vast valley—a patchwork of golden, lavender, and forest hues. The towns too struck me as charming, especially Sault and Montbrun-les-Bains.
The #1 pastry:
Pain au chocolat ~ Tex and I have definitively settled on our favorite pastry. We’ve been in France twice in the past month (11 days total), and we have started almost every morning with a delightful little thing called pain au chocolat. Okay, it’s usually two or three of those delightful little things… I know I have talked about it on the blog before, but now I feel like I can talk about this pastry as a connoisseur. We’ve had pain au chocolat at gas stations, cafes, hotels, and bakeries. The best one yet was in a nameless bakery in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. If you want to find the most flaky, buttery, perfect-ratio-between-melty-chocolate-and-bread pastry, then go to 23 Rue Carnot in Saint-Rémy, walk into the little brown storefront painted with the words “Boulangerie Patisserie,” and buy some for both of us, please.
Bonus: An honorable mention of our travels is the city of Lyon and this eye-catching treat, called a Praluline. It is a heavy loaf of brioche studded with lots and lots of chocolate chips. We ate it for supper on our first night in Provence.
Y’all probably are thinking, “Man, this girl eats way too many carbs and too much chocolate.” I do. Especially when in France.
A couple of months ago, I had the treat of visiting my dear friend and her husband who were living near Porto, Portugal. Though my primary goal for the trip was seeing and hanging out with her, I was, of course, ecstatic to explore another European country. They were such wonderful hosts to me and took me all over the place to experience everything Portuguese.
One of my favorite pastimes ended out being scouring the surrounding areas for unique tiles and colorful doors. There is an abundance! The city of Porto is decorated everywhere with the iconic blue and white tiles, from the train stations to the church exteriors. But even in the smaller towns nearby, there is no shortage of intricate tiles in every color imaginable.
My other favorite pastime was— wait for it— eating! Big surprise. Thankfully, my friend and I have always shared a love for food, so I was never hungry. After they picked me up from the airport, we went into Porto and ate a massive, Porto-original sandwich, called a Francesinha. I think there were about four or five different kinds of meat inside, and the amount of cheese on top was crazy! In general, I found that Portuguese food is quite rich and hearty. The baked goods in Portugal are hard to beat. From the delectable pastel de nata to the traditional, pillow-soft, sweet croissant, Portuguese treats kept our tummies full in the time between meals. Oh and did I mention the churros?!? Interestingly, these Portuguese churros far surpassed the Spanish version. Lastly, I was obliged to try the strange but popular egg yolk sweet, called ovos moles. The town of Aveiro is known as the home to these little novelties. I actually liked it, much to my friend’s chagrin, ha!
This, my friends, is ovos moles.
Pastel de nata (custard tart)
We did so many other things too. And I wish I had more pictures to share. The view of Porto from the Gaia side of the river is stunning. The narrow, cobblestone alleyways are enchantingly medieval. The Ovar Thursday market is a bustling place of trade. The expansive, sandy beaches are warm and peaceful in February. And I mustn’t forget to mention the very awkward experience of accidentally walking in on a small, private funeral and backing out slowly.
Why hello! I pray that y’all are healthy and smiling. And just in case you aren’t doing the latter, this post is for you.
Regular walks in the sunshine have been helping to keep me sane, during this time of social distancing. And the other day, I took off on an Easter egg hunt… But not just any Easter egg hunt.
These are my favorite ones in town!
The Germans (or at least the Bavarian Germans) have this delightful tradition of hanging Easter eggs on trees around this time of year. The trees are typically a small dead species, with buds just beginning to appear. The eggs are usually colorful plastic, often patterned and occasionally hand-painted.
I think this is such a lovely way to celebrate Easter and Christ’s resurrection. It’s a tradition that I have begun this year, and hope to continue once we are back in the U.S. I ordered my eggs from Amazon.de along with some colorful paint pens and went to work!