The Comfort of Home Food: Bagels in Leiden, The Netherlands

bakery in Leiden with delivery bicycle parked in front
This tiny bakery in the Netherlands, Better Bagels, sells the real thing. It also has Joe the Slicer, a 90 km/hour table saw for bagels. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

A German Brötchen is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

A chewy bagel is just about the opposite. So, of course, Germans crave Brötchen when they live in the United States and Americans crave bagels when they live in Germany. (Can you tell we’ve had both of these conversations in our international family?)

We were happy to discover this tiny bagel bakery on a recent visit to Leiden in The Netherlands.

While we waited for the bakery to open, we looked at this odd contraption in the window.

blue conveyor belt with sign
Joe The [Bagel] Slicer is more like air hockey than a table saw.
flat metal blade cutting bagel
Saw blade in action

More like air hockey than a table saw. Joe The Slicer slices bagels. We saw him(?) in action. That fuzzy circle in the bottom middle of the picture is a bagel in motion. The blade turns fast (90 km/hour) but it doesn’t saw right through the bagel, it catches it and flings it the length of the conveyer belt with a resounding thump.

poppy seed bagel next to bagel shaped table with bite out of it
Yum!

This is making me hungry all over again.

The owner told us how he learned to make bagels after living in Ramsey, New Jersey. A handy bagel flow chart painted all the wall shows all the boiling–chilling–baking steps. Once he convinced himself he could make them in his home kitchen, he opened this bakery in Leiden. It’s a kind of alchemy, moving food culture from one place to another.

Time to get back to work. I’m getting too hungry anyway and the nearest bagel is much too far away. I’m inspired by this “do one thing” attitude.

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6 ways rhythm helps us feel at home in a new world

2-day-old foal standing next to mare cropping grass in a green meadow.
New neighbor changes the rhythm of our walks. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

On the weekend, I practiced a new skill and had a sudden aha! moment about learning to adapt to a new culture by finding the beat.

(1) Every culture has its own heartbeat. When I lived in West Africa for a year, the people next door talked all day every day. There are many languages in Ghana and I never learned the one(s) they spoke. I couldn’t tell if they were talking or shouting, angry or excited. But after a year of living near them, the rhythm of their voices told me when something unusual was going on.

(2) The beat keeps going. When I took my youngest to music class as a baby, the teacher taught us to pat the baby gently in rhythm to teach to idea that music is continuous. It doesn’t stop in the middle to do something else. It keeps going because music has a heartbeat like our own. When you’re trying to learn to join in the music, it’s stressful when you can’t find your place. There’s a feeling of jump rope game that’s going on without you because you don’t know how or when to jump in.

(3) Drinking coffee has its own rhythm. It’s not always the Gemütlichkeit of Kaffeetrinken in Germany or Austria where people sit down together and have a piece of cake with their coffee. Knowing “how” people drink coffee can make you feel at home.

In Sicily, people stand up at the counter together and knock back an espresso before heading out to do the things that need to be done.

A German friend who’d spent many years in the U.S. theorized just yesterday that Americans love their coffee to-go because American culture encourages busy-ness. Sitting outside in a café where everyone can see you can get you a “slacker” label. Hence few outside cafés. But she also mentioned the beloved bookstore cafés (and libraries!) where you can drink coffee and read.

(4) Every journey has a song. The rhythm I noticed for the first time this weekend was on the drive back from my in-laws’ house. We’ve used our GPS unit to find our way through the bewildering combination of highways, single lane country roads with two-way traffic (with cows), villages with traffic-calming and traffic circles to my in-laws’ house. This trip, I realized how much I need to practice this “song” until I recognize the rhythm. Looking at a map would definitely help me.

(5) Time to process. When we alternate between moving and resting, we’re much happier and less stressed when we come home. Writing a few postcards in a café or taking time to photograph something carefully helps us to process.

(6) Remember your own culture in this international world. I once invited two young West African friends for a big Sunday dinner and they arrived unable to eat. They had visited the American church in Bonn where Thanksgiving was celebrated as a huge potluck. They had eaten all they could already. I had forgotten about Thanksgiving because it’s not a German holiday!

We start to feel at home when the rhythm is familiar. It’s much easier to do things when we’re in sync. Picture books and songs with catchy meters stick in our minds. When we feel the beat, we can play instruments together in an orchestra or sing different parts in a choir. We can be ourselves and still participate in the group.

Questions for you: What have you noticed about the rhythm of your life? What happens when we internalize other peoples’ rhythms? Or if we make our own easy to follow?

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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 Nazis 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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Hope for February: ESPERANZA RISING and Esperanza Spalding

Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves and a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany © Laurel Decher, 2016
Hopeful signs: Tiny snowdrops dusting the ground under giant trees bare of leaves under a gray sky. Kriegshoven, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Hope keeps cropping up. This weekend, hope took the form of an audio book, a YouTube video, a walk under gray skies, a skit, and a newspaper article.

Last night I listened to the first part of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s ESPERANZA RISING with Trini Alvarado as narrator. I’m looking forward to the rest!

ESPERANZA RISING the kind of story I like: the 13-year-old Esperanza has to find courage to take a big risk, to make a new life in a new place with her family.

She has a big challenge in front of her because it’s 1930 and the Great Depression is coming.

While I listened, the relationships between the characters gave me hope. Early in the story, Miguel and Alfonso and Hortensia demonstrate their friendship with Esperanza’s family.

In Mexico there’s a big divide between Esperanza and Miguel, but what will happen when they get to California?

My eldest sent me Esperanza Spalding’s 2016 performance at the White House. Esperanza sang about choosing hope with Louis Armstrong’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.

At the YMCA last night, there was a skit about the exiled tribes of Israel returning to Jerusalem from Babylon. When they got to Jerusalem, things weren’t quite the way they’d hoped. They experienced hardship in their new life.

Many people are making a new life in Germany right now and many are facing unexpected hardship. Many others are helping. It’s an adjustment for everyone.

The choice to hope has to be made again and again. In January, we learned about a shocking incident in the Cologne main train station. I found hope in the courage shown by refugees in this article (sent to me by my friend Jane Joo Park).

The U.S. Declaration of Independence describes the unalienable rights given to all of us: the right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

We aren’t promised happiness, only the right to pursue it.

We have the right to choose hope, if we’re brave enough to do it. Let’s help each other to hope.

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The Power of the Silver Pen: Journals, Photos, and Collections Help Order Our Lives

Stacks of journals with dates on bound edge

Marie Kondo’s THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP explores the benefits of de-cluttering at a level I can’t attain but it reminds me that things help us find out who we are. The things I like and don’t like, need and don’t need, are like mirrors that reflect information back to me and help me plot a course for the future.

Yesterday, I was inspired into action by three different work surface danger zones (and maybe by a bit of NaNoWriMo-related procrastination).

A pile of St. Nicholas’ Day surprises and Frankfurt Book Fair papers cluttered one. The others were the usual tangle of electronics, a confused mix of health insurance papers, coupons, “good” Bible verses, book and restaurant recommendations, and notes for current writing projects.

I didn’t expect to descend into the 10-year-old child, re-organize-the-desk-drawers level. When my children were that age, they each got to sort binder clips, markers, and other desk-y things scientist Grandmas keep, to create great organizational beauty.

In the course of swapping epidemiology books from the near bookcase for writing books from the far bookcase, I came across my collection of filled journals. I usually have a pocket-sized one with me and a book-sized one for writing that needs more elbow room, which means I always have more than one journal going at a time.

When I moved to Germany three years ago, life was so disrupted I wrote in whatever was handy. To normal people, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it made me feel lost. After a pocket journal is filled, it looks just like any other pocket journal, so if I needed to know something later about this time of upheaval, I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since my inner child was in charge, a silver pen was just the sort of bullet I wanted to re-store the chaos of my pocket journals. I printed the date range on each one. The dates overlapped in all kinds of messy ways, just as I knew they would, but the shiny months and years captured them for me.

My journals had sections for my children’s funny quotes. I showed them to my youngest who chortled over the wisdom of 4-year-olds. That inspired the resident photographer to sort slides and we ended the evening with a home slide show.

We are grateful for our life here and we also still grieve for the life we left behind. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Photos and journals help us process our grief, make time for gratitude, and give us courage to move forward. They help us re-visit the beloved people and places we left behind.

For us, the change was voluntary, but violence and hardship have forced refugees fleeing to Germany to a much greater upheaval. I don’t know how they will process their traumatic losses or if silver markers will offer any comfort, but I wish them healing for mind, body and soul. For us, I hope we will be able to offer help when called upon.

Have you tried organizing your own personal space recently? What unexpected dividends came to light?

Are you more of a journal person or a photo person? What medium helps you to re-group?

Collateral damage: What if there’s no one to vouch for you?

Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.
Collateral damage: Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.

Someone approached me on the street the other day, needing to talk. The situation was unbelievably bad: immigration and medical problems, grief and financial hardship, difficulties around work, worries about children.

After a little while, I was asked if I would buy some things for the kids. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know who could vouch for this person. I said I needed advice.

Tears stood in the person’s eyes. “You need advice to buy Pampers for my children?”

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I guess I don’t.”

As far as I know, there’s no diaper black market or any illicit use for diapers. They’re just diapers. And if you need diapers for your kids badly enough that you are willing to approach a perfect stranger to ask for help, you probably really need them.

I asked her for the person’s name and realized, when I was only offered the first name, that this person couldn’t trust me entirely either.

One of my children is seeking letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. This is the official form of vouching for people. Some people call it the “old boys’ network” or talk about how they can never get ahead because they don’t know the people who matter.

But who can vouch for you when everyone has fled?

This must be one of the great costs of war: the loss of trust and societal structure means survivors have the additional burden of convincing strangers that they are telling the truth. Most of us have no personal experience with horrific circumstances like these. We can’t imagine them and don’t really want to.

How do we plant the first seeds of trust?

When I first moved to my little village in Germany, I didn’t know anyone outside my family. Since I love libraries, I asked if I could volunteer in the local library. The library board gave permission and I unexpectedly gained a group of friends.

They take me on field trips, give me advice about everyday life, and vouch for me in unexpected ways. They trust me and I want to extend that trust to others.

So we found a drugstore and bought cheap diapers. It’s not much. I wish it were more. But if we all trusted a little, it might be enough.

This is what I wish: that we all find places to belong and  contribute, places to trust and to be trusted.

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Past Adventures: Stories of Immigration

Double-masted sailing ship in Bremerhaven harbor
For many people, Bremerhaven was the gateway to a new life in the new world. © Laurel Decher, 2015.

Last week, my family and I visited the German Emigration Museum in northern Germany. The museum is in Bremerhaven, literally “Bremen’s harbor”, so there are ships, a complicated harbor lock, and lighthouses. From the outside, the museum is big and square, but the inside is much more like a Disney experience.

At the ticket counter, we were each given a passport with a key card and a person’s name and invited to follow that person’s story through the museum. We waited on the wharf at night, boarded the huge ship and got to see the accommodations for each era of immigration–most were pretty terrifying. Then we “arrived” at immigration and eventually at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Having made this trip many times ourselves, it was really, really easy to imagine ourselves in the plight of our relatives. Would we have cleared immigration in those days? Would we have had all the right answers to the border crossing questions?

My husband’s aunt emigrated to the U.S. and my great-grandparents on both sides did too. The museum provides laptops so you can find out what ships your own relatives traveled on, what ports they left from, and other interesting details. It’s a surprisingly fun detective activity to do with your kids.

You can research your past even if you can’t get to Bremerhaven using a free trial membership for 14 days on Ancestry.com or with the free Ellis Island passenger search.

Within the frame of a museum, their hardship looks like a grand adventure. It helped us frame our own adventure, in the opposite direction, when we immigrated to Germany three years ago. It makes me want to write a story with time-travel.