Friday, July 28, 2017


And so, as I sit in the Saint Paul backyard of my old-new little blue house, in my old-new hometown-by-choice, the blog comes to a close.

I wondered for a long time what this might feel like. Now I wonder what it would be like I had never left. Everything is the same, yet different. That includes me. At least I think so. But in what ways?
Several people have told me that coming back is harder than leaving. I am waiting to find out if that is true.

The past couple of weeks have overwhelmed me with choices and decisions and stimulation and trying to remember my way around, choosing everything from which cereal or salad dressing (there are about 50 kinds of each) to which car I should buy. I'm also trying to remember what my habits were 6 or 7 years ago... Which cabinet did I use for pots and pans? Where did I put my shoes? Why didn't I know more of the neighbors?

But as every day there is a little less to work to do, I am starting to really enjoy being back. Brian and I have hunted for second-hand treasures and we spend a lot of time outside because it's the only part of the house with furniture. We saw live music three nights in a row. The sun shines every day. We have tape on the floor to mark where the couch will go and diagrams drawn of where to plant our hypothetical vegetable gardens.

Everything is huge - the refrigerator, the pickup trucks, the city, the supermarket, the fountain drinks, and sometimes the people. The flag-waving seems extreme. The places I need to go have become very far apart.

Until a few days ago, I haven't had much energy,or much space in my head to want to call old friends. I wonder which will remain my friends and if not, what kind of people might enter my life to take their places.

There have been changes in the city that I can notice already. New stores and restaurants of course, new bike lanes and bike commuters, an office building where the old baseball stadium stood, a new stadium where a parking lot once was. There is talk about increased crime, Black Lives Matter signs in front yards, tension around the year-old shooting of Philando Castile. The site where he was shot is only a mile or so from our house.

So far only two people have asked me "how was that?" when I say I lived in Germany for six years. I refuse to have a scripted answer for them. I don't feel like you can do six years justice in six words or less. I realize this is not socially graceful, not something that fits into cheery small talk. I have to get back in the habit of making cheery small talk, of meeting new people and chit-chatting in the checkout line. I guess it was never my strength anyway, and in Germany I fell out of practice.I'll have to remember how to network, in order to hopefully get a job soon.

There was a moment my last day or so in Hannover, as I tried to squeeze out every last juicy moment of time with a few friends who I am not sure when I'll ever see again, when I wondered whether moving back was the right decision. I know that I will miss the compact European city, the quiet Sundays, the international travel, the bike rides, the good friends that made up for what Hannover itself lacked. But none of that was quite enough to make Hannover the place we wanted to be from. Moving back was the right decision, although staying would have been a lot easier.

Writing this blog was an unexpected bonus for me. Knowing that people read it kept me coming back to the keyboard.  But even Seinfeld could not keep a show about nothing going forever, and my Hannover blog certainly weakened over the last year or so. Maybe it thinned out once I knew I might be leaving... Hindsight, I guess. There was a rainy evening a couple of months ago when my Colombian friend Olga and I were staring out at the same wet street corner. I, getting ready to leave Hannover, started to say how dreary and depressing it was. Olga, coming to terms with the idea of staying in Hannover long-term, said that it was beautiful how the streetlights shone off the blacktop. Perspective is everything, I guess.

In the boxes of random stuff that I pulled out of the attic was one of my old journals. I have since found several, many of which are probably best left in the attic. This blog is more than just a public diary (thank goodness). So thanks for reading. Maybe there will be another blog someday, or at least some more scribbles collecting dust in the attic.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Tirana is intense. After sleepy Kotor, the people, the traffic, the noise exploded on us.

It started at the bus station. We had arranged a ride from Kotor to Tirana, and as we got closer to the city, Brian showed the driver the address of our hotel. He shook his head and said "no." We weren't sure what that meant - there was no hotel? there was no Tirana? And with no common language, we couldn't really ask for an explanation. But the Friday afternoon gridlock helped us understand that the bus terminal was the end of the ride - we could take a taxi to the hotel. But we had no Albanian Lek to pay for a taxi.

I left Brian on the corner with our suitcases and went looking for an ATM. I asked at a kiosk on the corner. 'Bank?' I said, and rubbed my fingers together in the universal sign for money. The lady behind the counter pointed over her shoulder. So I went around the corner and walked another two blocks to a gas station. I tired the same approach, 'bank?' The old man in the gas station walked me outside and brought me to a mechanic. They said something to each other in Albanian and the mechanic said to me in English, "the toilet is over here." I told him that what I needed was a bank, but would use the toilet anyway.
He pointed me to an ATM and asked where I was from.
"USA," I said.
"America? And you come to Albania? On vacation?"
"Do you like it?"
"Yes," I said, "but I only came ten minutes ago."

There were not a lot of American tourists, or tourists at all, in Tirana. We had entered the only European capital without a McDonald's, and had left the Rick Steves tour behind.

Albania's recent history is shaped by communist dictator Enver Hoxha (pronounced hu-ja). He took power immediately following World War II and ruled until his death in 1985. Hoxha left his mark on the Albanian landscape in the form of bunkers. Fearing attacks from Russia, China or anywhere else, Hoxha's regime built 173,000 bunkers during the 1970s. Most are tiny - built for one or two people - and they still pop up in farmland, city parks and backyards. Hoxha's regime built a bunker for every 11 Albanians. In Albania's poor economy, each small bunker cost as much to build as a two-bedroom apartment.

We visited two of the largest bunker in Albania, which have been turned into museums. After some pointing and gesturing, a kind bus driver directed us to the bunker built for Hoxha and his government. It is built into the side of a hill and is enormous; the tunnels go on and on, slightly downhill in a concrete rabbit's burrow built to protect Albania's top brass. The place was equipped with oxygen, decontamination units, communication systems... there's even a hall big enough for parliament to meet in case of attack, nuclear or otherwise.

Brian on Hoxha's office phone

Me on top of a bunker in a city park

The bunkers were never needed. Nobody attacked. And they will be part of Albania for generations to come. It's a strange legacy. I'm not sure whether the bunkers are memorials of paranoia, or to a government more that could have done more for its people, or a marker of the Cold War era...

Hoxha and his government ministers lived in a downtown Tirana zone called The Block. It was completely secured and no ordinary citizens were allowed in. Now The Block has been converted to high-end bars and restaurants, where the yuppies of Tirana sip espresso and smoke cigarettes while wearing designer jeans. We went to a tiki bar there. Hoxha might be turning over in his grave.

After the striking scenery of Dubrovnik and the laid back scene in Kotor, Tirana was a gritty, noisy dose of urban life. But Tirana had one thing that was truly remarkable: a mosque, an Orthodox cathedral and a Catholic church all within a few blocks of each other. None was any larger or grander than the others. The communists enforced atheism and outlawed the call to prayer, but now Albania, at least from what I could see, had become a place where these religions could coexist. While the bunkers marked an era of fear and dictatorship, this show of tolerance gave me some hope.

Monday, May 8, 2017


Another three hours (including 15 minutes passing through Bosnia) took us to Montenegro. The name itself sounds poetic, and reminds me of a line from The Great Gatsby. Why this sticks in my brain I cannot say. But Gatsby talks about his heroic WWI career and how he received decorations from all the allied countries, even little Montenegro.

Part of the charm is in just how small the place is - a whole country with the same population as Hannover. Like the rest of the Balkans, Montenegro was tossed between the Ottomans, the Venetians, the Austrians, the Serbians, just for starters. It is an Orthodox country, except for where it's Muslim or Catholic.

We were in Kotor, a town on the bay known as the southern-most fjord in Europe. I'm not entirely sure what that means, except that the water is deep and fjord is a fun word to say. Built on rocks, Kotor sinks a millimeter or two into the bay every year. It's easy to get lost in the winding alleys of this sinking city's old town.. and somehow end up right back where you started.

Brian and I saw Kotor best by going above it. First, we climbed the city walls (the side where you're not supposed to go) up to the old fortress. Then the hike began by climbing through one of the castle windows.
Just that phrase reminded me - this was a moment when I was as close to a fairy tale as I might ever get.

Beyond the window were some goats and a rocky switchback trail heading up and up. Montenegro is a small country only in the horizontal sense. We hiked up and up until the clouds were almost upon us. Near the top, we came across another hiker. He was from Idaho, and had been sailing around the Adriatic with friends who own a yacht (we all should have those kind of friends). A few minutes later we were discussing places he'd been in Israel and American checks and balances several thousand feet about sea level. We were even pretty far above goat level. The Idaho hiker turned around so he could make it back to the yacht and we pressed on.

The hike was supposed to lead us to an old Austro-Hungarian fort. We never quite found it, and gave up as the fog settled in on top of us. Heading back on shaky legs, we climbed back through the castle window and downhill into town.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Scuba, Dubrovnik

Here is how I spent a second day in a wetsuit...

It's a funny thing to breathe underwater. Despite the air tank, the neoprene, the certification and the safety procedures, diving gives me the giddy sensation of going somewhere I am absolutely not meant to be. It feels like cheating gravity, evolution and the atmosphere all at the same time. And so it was in Dubrovnik, with Alex the Croatian dive instructor and the big blue Adriatic. Tank, flippers, suits, weights, gloves... It's heavy and awkward to move around with all that equipment on land. It's actually so heavy I have to give in, be "the girl" and let myself be helped the tank and weight belt. This is probably the hardest part for me to swallow.

But I am involuntarily, unnaturally graceful beneath the surface, surrounded by a constant stream of bubbles. Scuba is the opposite of most sports I have ever tried. To be good, you have to breathe slower, move less, try less and push yourself not to push it. Somehow that is still exhausting.

When you are good enough at scuba to remember to forget about everything, then you can look around. This time, I was almost there. We saw an eel and sandy-colored creature that looked like one of the rocks. I floated as still as I could to watch bright little fish flutter away. Alex picked up an octopus and I stroked it with my neoprene-clad fingers until it shot out a cloud of black ink. I ran my hand through that too.

I would like to talk to an astronaut who has also been a scuba diver and ask if zero gravity feels a little bit like scuba... without the bubbles, or the fish. I am not smart enough to join NASA at all, but weightlessness underwater could teach me something. Maybe trying less is something I should do, well, more.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dubrovnik, or

Alternate titles for this post include:

How I got to wear wetsuits two days in a row, or
No I have not seen Game of Thrones, or
How many stairs is that?, or
Channelling Rick Steves

Brian and I arrived in Dubrovnik by bus. It was the first of many bus trips during this vacation - mostly comfortable and all very scenic. Sure, there was some dried vomit on the seat in front of us, but we had a great view of the coastline.

Unlike Split, Dubrovnik won my heart. Just as touristy, maybe, but smaller, prettier and somehow more charming. Our days in Dubrovnik were filled with organized activities. First on the list was bike riding. But when the reservations guy called in sick, our bike rental became a half-price sea kayak trip. It was half-price because they handed us the kayak, paddles and wetsuits and sent us on our way. Only on the paddle back in to shore did Brian point out that all the other kayakers were in groups, following a guide and wearing life jackets (losers).

From the water, we had a great view of Dubrovnik's solid old city walls, made extra famous as the setting for Game of Thrones. Apparently people get pretty excited about this TV show, which I have never seen. Built in the 15th century to protect the city from the Ottoman navy, the walls worked. Even when it became part of the Ottoman Empire, Dubrovnik (then called Ragusa) operated as an independent state. The walls continued to protect Dubrovnik in 1991, when Croatia declared itself independent from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav army laid siege on Dubrovnik and its locals defended the city from the fortress at Srd, build by Napoleon's forces in the early 1800s. When Croatia fought off the Yugoslavs there was a brief movement to make Dubrovnik an independent state. Much of the town was damaged but the city survived and rebuilt into a tourist-driven economy, with a little help from Rick Steves and TripAdvisor.

Brian and I walked up to the fortress after our kayaking trip. Given the abundance of walking tours and organized excursions, I thought it would be a few stairs a nicely paved sidewalk uphill. After all, I live on the 5th floor in a building with no elevator - how hard could it be? Going up was first a question of finding the right staircase out of town. Dubrovnik is a steep city and as soon as you leave the historic center you can only go up (or, in the other direction, underwater). We did not find the right staircase, actually, but walked through a highway overpass (is that in Game of Thrones?) and eventually found the path. Along the way we met up with a fellow hill-climber. Actually she was a fellow Minnesotan living in Germany. Anna is a US Air Force intelligence officer, and an avid reader of Rick Steves travel guides. We had all read about this path up the hill in the Rick Steves guide to Dubrovnik. Brian and I were a little embarrassed to admit it. We are decidedly anti-Rick, but his book was in our apartment so we gave in. When Rick Steves says that you need to be in good shape to walk down the mountain and it will take about an hour, usually that means you shouldn't eat your cheeseburgers during the walk, just beforehand, and you'll finish in 20 minutes while wearing flip flops. This time, Rick was mostly right. When we reached the top panting and sweating (it's also a pilgrimage route, apparently, lined with stations of the Cross images) we ran into some Canadians. It took about two minutes before they mentioned Rick Steves. "Did you download his audio tour of the old town?"

I can't put my finger on what I don't really like about Rick Steves, except that he has a way cooler job than I do. The guy goes on vacation for a living and is (understandably) smug about it.

If I don't know that Rick has been everywhere I am walking, it's easier to imagine that I'm finding the way all on my own. So it was as we walked back downhill, this time finding the right staircase, skipping the overpass and ending up practically at our own doorstep. As I entered the apartment, who was there staring at me from the coffee table but Rick Steves.


Despite having a name that is a lot of fun to say, I did not love my time in Split. The main attraction was a direct flight from Hannover (for us) and Diocletian's palace (for most people). This ruined Roman palace isn't a building so much as the old city - which Emperor Diocletian must have designed for tourism. Fragments of his palace still stand, beside medieval-era buildings and enclosed by the old city walls. Throughout it all roam groups of tourists and men dressed up like Roman soldiers, ready to take a photo with you. They even let you hold their swords. There are fancy shops and clusters of tourists at every turn. If there is a Croatian part of EPCOT Center, this could be it.

Perhaps with a little more time and a chance to get out of the old town, Split would have won my affections. But after just one night we had to, well, split.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Two disclaimers before I begin...

Disclaimer #1:
It seems that, in the last year or so, this has become more of a travel blog than a blog about expat life in Hannover. My excuses and justifications for this abound. The one I'll stick with are that, after more than five years, the little aspects of daily life that would confuse, frustrate or delight me now feel pretty normal. While I may not get it right the first time, I seldom have to try over and over again. And so I don't post about that stuff any more (how many posts about dairy products and swimming pools would you really want to read?).

When I move back to the US there won't be so much travel, with less time off and barely any foreign destinations just a few hours' flight away (Manitoba, anyone?). What will become of this blog-writing part of me then? I've heard that moving back is harder than moving away. And I worry that giving up my blog, sometimes neglected though it is, will be hard too. Maybe I will keep it going, and write about raising urban chickens...

Disclaimer #2:
I have nearly used up my my old-school composition notebooks, so I wrote all of the Balkan trip posts in an unlined notebook. As beautiful as a blank white page may be, I end up writing in all different sizes and directions and sometimes I doodle a picture in between paragraphs. So if these posts are jumbled and make no sense, it is because I have grown tired of deciphering my own handwriting.

About Me

My photo
Thanks for coming to my blog. It started as a way to keep in touch with family and friends, and now has become an ongoing project. I'm an American living in Germany and trying to travel whenever I can. I write about my experiences as an expatriate (the interesting ones and the embarrassing ones), and about my travels. There are some recurring characters in this blog, particularly my husband Brian and several of our friends. The title comes from the idea that living in a foreign country means making a lot of mistakes. So the things you used to do easily you now have to try over and over again. Hopefully, like me, you can laugh at how idiotic it feels. If you have happened upon my blog, then welcome. Knowing that people are reading what I write makes me keep going. Feel free to write comments or suggestions for future posts.