Love Springs up Like Birch Trees

Birch tree lashed to a street lamp in front of a house. Stormy sky.
A traditional May tree in the Rhineland. © Laurel Decher, 2017

May 1st is a sort of  Valentine’s-Day-on-Steroids in this part of Germany.

On the last night of April, birch trees pop up everywhere. Young men put them up in front of their sweetheart’s houses and write the girl’s name in a giant heart hung on a tree.

It’s a windy time of year. You can imagine the number of cable ties involved.

This is a country of engineers after all.

Fathers evidently offer traditional payment for taking the huge trees down again at the end of May.

Something about a case of beer. It’s Germany, after all.

 

 

All this spring love leads to a lot of forestry. Last year was leap year and the girls put up the trees for the boys.

At least ten young birch trees lashed to a parked trailer. Their trunks are so long, they drag on the ground.
Cut birch trees ready for delivery. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The local paper reminded birch tree customers to get a permit before cutting their tree in the forest. The local craft store sells waterproof streamers so your oversized Valentine doesn’t leak dye on the white plaster front of the house.

Every village has it’s own huge May tree. The neighboring village “sings in the May” every year. All around, a charming holiday, don’t you think?

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A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Public Libraries in Germany

 

Glass case with small plastic toys with signs showing the number of reading points to buy them.
Prizes for reading at the Cologne city library.
Gumball machine with foam earplugs in clear plastic bubbles.
Too noisy at the library? Get some foam earplugs. Librarians think of everything.

The city library of Cologne is a magical place! I got to go on a behind-the-scenes tour with volunteer librarians from my local library.

Six floors of books, music, DVD’s to make any library fan happy. There’s even a special support office that supplies books and support for blind readers.

Author Heinrich Böll’s archive is here (including his desk and bookshelves!)

The library also has a “Maker Space” that includes 3D printers, sewing machines, and recording studios. You can even borrow a guitar.

Here are a few findings from the German Library Statistics (DBS Deutsche Bibliotheksstatistik) to give you an overview of the German library system.

In 2015, just over 7600 public libraries participated in the survey that produces the German Library Statistics.

5,600 of the libraries were run solely by volunteers. The other 2,000 had full-time staff.

German libraries buy a lot of books. Collectively, the libraries had an acquisitions budget of 105 Million Euro.

German libraries get e-books from distributors. More than 1,000 German libraries contract for electronic media with distributors such as libell-e.de.

German residents visit their libraries in person and online. 7 Million active library patrons visited 119 Million times. The survey warns that direct comparisons between states can’t be made, but the highest number of physical library visits per person seems to be in Hamburg (2.69), Bavaria (1.95), Bremen (1.86), Berlin (1.83), and Baden Württemberg (1.78). There were also 99 Million “virtual” library visits in 2015.

There’s a reason Germany is called the land of poets and thinkers. German libraries loaned 375,000 items (7,000 electronic). That’s an average of 4 and a half check-outs per German citizen.

E-books are growing, but print books still make up 76% of public library media. But the number of electronic loans has risen from 1.9% in 2013 to 4.5% in 2015.

It’s interesting that 2015 was the first year German university and scientific libraries loaned more electronic (53%) than physical media.

Virtual check-outs are even more important when you realize that 40% of public libraries are open for fewer than 20 hours per week.

German public libraries have lots of events. Public libraries threw more than 370,000 events in 2015. Almost half (47%) were for children and youth.

L-shaped low chairs made of soft foam that let you lean back to read. Can also tip chair over sideways to make an L-shaped table or bench.
These funky recliner chairs in the children’s section double as tables or benches.

If you’d like to know more about the Germany library system, you can download this brief data overview (English version). Or see the whole infographic-style poster here (Deutsch).

Did you find this interesting? Have a library anecdote or data tidbit to share? Feel free to comment.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Good Earth: International Gardens

Orange-y dirt fluffed up for the garden year, path in the middle.
Paydirt. The classic rich soil of the Rhineland. © Laurel Decher, 2017

A landmark. The day before yesterday, I was given my first garden plot since we moved to Germany. Turning over the soil stirred up surprising feelings.

It’s an International Garden so the invitation was in German and in Arabic. My fellow gardeners are from Egypt, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Germany. People were talking about melons, chilis, peas, and pole-beans. I’m very curious to see what will grow.

And what will work. We had a lot of animated conversation in several languages while we got the garden beds ready. The way people grow food is as much a part of their culture as the way they eat it. Several gardeners had advanced training in agriculture in their home countries, but everyone dug right in.

First-class dirt. Some of the most fertile in the world. I also learned a new word for dirt. 🙂 Löss (German) and loess (English) refers to the kind of yellow-brown clay-ey soil that is typical of the Rhine and the Mississippi.

In Pearl S. Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth, the land has the power to bring riches and a new life to a poor farmer. (And, of course, new troubles because a novel is about the way we deal with the challenges, right?)

What will these new gardens bring into our lives? Fruits, vegetables, flowers, barbeque parties, cake, friendships, and maybe a few more roots to this new home.

Is your garden still buried in snow? What are you planning to grow this year?

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The Day the Wall Fell

Church and graveyard surrounded by green hills covered with vineyards.
A whole peaceful world in a tiny valley. The town of Mayschoß in the Ahr River valley. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, Germany celebrated the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, (literally, the “Day of German Unity.”) It’s the day when East and West Germany came back together after World War II.

Once as a student, I visited East Berlin while the Wall was still there. I’ll never forget the eerie passage through the restricted zone. Guards armed with machine guns stood their shifts in abandoned subway stops where you were no longer allowed to get off the train.

For me, this holiday is about the falling of the Wall. The Berlin Wall was on television in the U.S. when the first people were allowed out of East Berlin. Excited people were reaching down and pulling others up to stand next to them on top of the Wall. Guards waved tiny East German cars through. The razor wire was no longer relevant. People offered each other champagne and bananas in a violent place where peace suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.

Let’s help peace along wherever it appears. There are so many celebrations I’d like to see and smile about. So much healing and pain where we could help each other up instead.

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If it’s fixed, should you break it? Revision and the magic wardrobe

Printed papers cut in all different sizes and laid out in order on a colorful carpet. With a box of chocolate cookies for motivation.
Cutting apart a manuscript to find the story. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A writing and interior design metaphor. My life unintentionally provided me with another writing metaphor this weekend.

We moved to Germany three years ago and kind relatives gave us two huge cupboards to hold our camping, photography, coats, linens and suitcases.

Closets are rare in Germany so wardrobes without magical countries are the norm. The cupboards helped us a lot but didn’t exactly fit in the space we had for them so when our family heard that a refugee family needed them, we decided to give them up.

Breaking up is hard to do. We now have ‘broken” the system we had for storing everything and it causes the usual sorts of “Why can’t I find my lens cap?” sort of pain that you get whenever you move into a new place. I’ve been missing my pocket compass for a couple of years.

So, was that dumb?

The new vision. Maybe. I hope we find a new way to put things together so we can use them and make our apartment more hospitable. I have a vision of everything put neatly away in some brilliant solution à la Apartment Therapy. Or of more joy in our daily life as promised in THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP.

When it’s worth it. I may never create the order I hope for, but a fresh attempt usually makes the apartment feel more like home.

Revision. The thing is, I get this same question from my internal editor whenever I’m re-working a piece of fiction. My internal editor can’t see my vision. “You’re going to make it worse.”

When it’s worth it. But attempting a revision of my novel is worthwhile if I can make its heart shine through.

Forgotten treasures. When I rearrange a story and cut it into new pieces, it helps clear out the underbrush. After we emptied our cupboards, my sister-in-law found my compass clipped on a bag I planned to give away. I’m famous for getting lost and I’ve really missed it.

It’s so nice to get a sense of direction. Re-seeing what’s in front of you can help, both in writing and in re-organizing a home.

How about you? Do you have rules of thumb for when it’s worth making a mess? What’s the tipping point for you? Have you waited too long to “break” something? I’d love to know how this works for other people.

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A parable of physics teaching assistants: elegance, battlefields, and intimacy

Painting of 18th century fencers in knee breeches and gown.
Fencing with an unfamiliar foe. Source: “Fencing Match between St.-Georges and ‘La chevalière D’Eon'” on April 9, 1787, by Abbé Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747–1828) – http://www.royalcollection.org.uk, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11260912

As an undergraduate, I took physics because I wanted to go to medical school. Physics promptly took over the structure of my week. Three lectures, a lab, and a recitation (where a teaching assistant went over the homework problems with us), and later an afternoon or two of tutoring. Needless to say, I wasn’t good at it.

The recitation was taught in the first semester by an American graduate student who clearly understood the material and had taken time to organize it for us. He wrote the homework problem answers on the chalkboard in neat and intelligent writing.

We dutifully copied down his elegant solutions, but inwardly, we despaired. These answers had a flawless surface that kept us out. They weren’t answers we would ever come up with. He was a physicist’s physicist.

The second semester’s recitation was taught by a graduate student from India or maybe Pakistan. His English was different than American English and elegant wasn’t the word for his methods. He attacked the homework problems as if they were hostile.

His answers scrawled all over the chalkboard and left a battlefield of cancelled terms, diagrams, and false attempts. He took us inside the homework problems and taught us to fight our way out. He was a physicist for the common man.

I speak German, some days better than others, but I’ll never be able to engage in the delicate verbal fencing that is the favorite sport of my English-speaking relatives. In German, I’m forced to be much more functional and to express my feelings and ideas in a straightforward fashion. Verbal asides or literary allusions are a thing of the past.

Before I moved to Germany three years ago, I thought it would probably be good for me to be forced to say what I meant. Oblique can be charming. Banter can be exhilarating. Complicated can be satisfying. But a flawless shield of language keeps everyone at a distance.

What I’ve noticed is this: When I’m slower to speak, I listen more, and the listening gives the conversation a sense of intimacy. When I stop striving for elegance and accept my limitations, I hear the conversation’s heartbeat. It’s more satisfying, because I’m on the inside looking out. I’m starting to appreciate this unexpected gift.

Like my international physics teaching assistant, story invites the reader inside an experience. This is what it feels like to face a dragon. This is how it feels when you use the magic sword. This is how you seize victory from the jaws of defeat. This is what victory feels like.


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Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.

 


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