HELAU and Goodbye!

HELAU and Goodbye!



There was no more festive way we could have possibly spent our last week in Germany last month. After three years and almost four months living abroad, the raucous atmosphere of Fasching seemed to be the most fitting way for us to bid farewell to life abroad. And, as celebrations ended and made way for the somber season of Lent, so too ended our international adventures (for now!) as we transitioned back to life in the United States.

In case you need a refresher, Fasching is the German equivalent of Mardi Gras or Carnival. The very air is charged with excitement, music and Schnapps during the main Fasching period, which spans from the Thursday (the ladies’ day of Fasching) to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Oddly, the main day is Monday, known as Rosenmontag.

As we’ve been fortunate enough to live in one of the two rival German Fasching capitals, we dressed up in animal onesies along with fest-goers of all ages to watch hours and hours of the parade that boldly snakes its way throughout Mainz on Rosenmontag to shouts of “Helau!” (the Fasching greeting). This was, of course, after several days of smaller warm-up parades in neighboring areas of Wiesbaden.

Parade groups and floats represented local businesses, hobby clubs, marching bands, giant heads, clowns, Swiss Güggemusik (brass bands with elaborate costumes and airbrushed facepaint), Austrian/Bavarian witches, social commentary, and political satire. As you can imagine, the last of these was brutal this year, mocking Olympic doping, American president Trump, Turkish president Erdogan, Brexit, EU leadership, and more.

Every night of the fest was a costume party in Mainz as well. We went out several times to eat Bratwurst and wander through the carnival rides and stands in the old town. One night the cover band we were listening to started playing a familiar tune that turned out to be the theme song from the 80s cartoon show Duck Tales! This turned into a medley of theme songs from similar kids’ tv shows Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers (known in Germany as Chip and Chap) and Gummy Bears. The last one got a lot of Germans singing along. After all Haribo, the main producer of gummy bear candies, is German.



Helau from Fasching in Mainz and for now, goodbye to Germany!


Many more details on Fasching can be found here:
What is Fasching All About?
11/11 at 11:11
Fasching Costumes on Parade
Into the Fifth Season


The Value of a Dirham and the Invaluable Nature of People in Morocco

Tales from Morocco Part 2 of 2



It was in the markets of Marrakech that I learned to haggle. I had read up on this beforehand because I knew from some of my former English students from Morocco and the Middle East that this is a big part of the culture. And, indeed, it is a dance that is expected by the salespeople, a give and take that always ends in a sale.

I tried honing my technique a little more each time. When the vendors told me a price, I asked for half or less. Then they would make a counter offer somewhere in the middle or ask for a “Serious price! Serious price!” Often, they showed similar less expensive items to compare the quality. With each sale, I got more persistent with sticking to my price or very close to it. (To be honest, nothing I bought was priced more than about $25 to start anyway, but the equivalent 250 dirhams seemed like a lot to work with!) When the vendors upped the price or stuck to a higher offer, I politely said “No thanks” and put the item back to leave (often repeating this several times as other offers were immediately made). This always eventually resulted in them accepting the final price I had offered. In the end, they just wanted to make the sale, had undoubtedly marked up the price tremendously to start anyway, and the negotiating was just a means to an end.

My first purchase was an old lamp, like Aladdin’s genie-inhabited trinket, from a small corner antique shop in the souks that sold an assortment of odds and ends. A skinny alley cat snoozed on one of the rough wooden shelves among second or third hand teapots, paintings, and bric-a-brac while I made a deal with the old shop owner.

After this, I sometimes listened to the vendors that called out to every passerby, inviting us to look over their wares. Sometimes I bought an item if it captured my interest, sometimes not. But each time it was worth it to experience the seller explaining the detail of the craftsmanship, demonstrating the features or the purpose of the goods, and showing off the variety of items for sale.


At one such store, James and I were led in with six thousand welcomes by one of the so-called Blue Men, a member of the nomadic Tuareg tribe that travel through the Sahara across North Africa dressed in indigo robes. He untied handkerchiefs filled with jewelry and elaborate compasses and explained each one in detail, weaving in stories illustrated by a stack of old photographs from his travels across the desert.

“We’re all friends, all brothers! We share everything but the toothbrush and the woman!

“There are no borders!” he added. And he should know, having passed through the invisible political boundaries of many lands which are now closed.

When we had finally agreed on a purchase, he invited us to have tea with him and his co-shop owner. We waited around, chatting with him and a few other customers who came in, while the tea was made and fetched from somewhere in the area. He told us that his people don’t drink mint tea like most Moroccans because there is obviously no mint in the desert. They drink a very sweet saffron tea, and so we enjoyed this with him, sitting on wooden stools with woven seats practically touching the ground in the back of his tiny shop.

Another merchant talked to us about the value of artisanry to Moroccans.

“It’s noble work. Work with hands. Make, sell, eat,” he said, animatedly gesturing all three actions. “It’s honest, respectable work. It’s in our culture. It’s in our religion.”

At one point, we unexpectedly found ourselves in a carpet shop, one of the most well-known sources of Moroccan craftsmanship. We had asked a young vendor to point us in the direction of a landmark, and he insisted on leading us there with an unannounced detour to where his mother weaves carpets.

“My mother Berber. Small woman.” He gestured a low height, then waved his arm around at the carpets surrounding us and introduced us to the shop owner. Fortunately both gentlemen were kind enough to encourage us to take some pictures and didn’t pressure us into looking around. A carpet sale is like closing on a house, so I imagine we would have been there all afternoon if we had showed any interest.


On our last evening, we had the fascinating pleasure of learning about the Berber way of life. These people live in small communities around the Atlas Mountains and throughout North Africa, and have their own distinct language and culture.




The only organized part of our trip we had arranged was a camel ride in the Palm Grove, an isolated area of scrub grass-dotted sand on the outskirts of Marrakech city. Dressed up in blue robes and turbans, we trekked half an hour or so atop saddled dromedaries to the stone hut of a Berber family. Several woman sat outside in the dust doing handicrafts and talking while a small band of children ran and played. We had passed a few men on our way through the Palm Grove, shepherds who were herding sheep.


The oldest woman invited us in, a friendly smile creasing her weathered face, to take a peek into their home before welcoming us into the living room for tea. It was an incredible glimpse into a simple, salt of the earth type of life. Each room was sparsely and eclectically furnished, with the living room featuring long cushions on the floor around three of the four walls for ample seating. In the traditional fashion, the woman poured the first glass of mint tea back into the teapot before serving us, and ripped a large round loaf of bread into pieces to dole out. Like a kindly grandmother, she encouraged us to eat more olives, more peppers, more bread, more tea – all with friendly gestures and Berber or Arabic or French, as she spoke no English. Her meaning was clear: We were her guests.



By the time we were ready to set out for the ride back, the sun was beginning to set. Pink and gold tinged the sandy horizon beyond the palm trees as the fifth and last haunting call to prayer of the day sounded from off in the distance.

Bsaha (cheers), Marrakech!


Night and Day in the Heart of Marrakech

Night and Day in the Heart of Marrakech

Tales from Morocco Part 1 of 2


Our plane touched down early evening, having glided in past rippled sand dunes bordered by the blue snow-peaked Atlas Mountains. Our riad (a stately traditional hotel with a courtyard) had sent a driver who was waiting for us outside among a sea of other men holding paper signs and ladies wearing hijabs.


We rode out into the dark streets amongst a swarm of mopeds, taxis, and small noisy trucks. I’ve been on some crazy taxi rides and experienced hectic traffic, but nothing had quite prepared me for the chaos that is the streets of Marrakech. As the palm trees thinned and we entered the low red clay wall of the Medina, the old town area, the roads narrowed into a veritable maze.


Shops were still open along both sides of the streets in full swing, with pedestrians, including elderly people with canes, ambling every which way among them. Mopeds and trucks continued to zip past from both directions, in addition to cars, bikes, and the occasional cart pulled either by a man or a shaggy donkey. Two men were in the process of physically pulling a truck, whose low wooden bed was filled with mandarin oranges, to a new parking space. One had his arm inside the driver’s side window to direct the steering wheel while the other pulled from the back.

Cars were parked on either side, despite the fact that many of the roads were only really wide enough for one car to drive down anyway. At one point our grumbling driver, who never really slowed down despite the blur of vehicles and people milling around on both sides, had to back up a full block to allow a taxi coming around the corner toward us to pass. Not long after, he called out to a tall, nicely dressed gentleman who was to take us the rest of the way to our riad on foot. For even in Marrakech, there are apparently some streets where cars are understood to have no chance. As the van stopped, we found ourselves face to face with giant slabs of raw meat hanging in the open air from metal hooks over a butcher’s counter.

We had arrived.





Sitting under the moon in the open air courtyard of our riad was a different atmosphere entirely. We sipped sweet mint tea and snacked on Moroccan cookies in a beautifully tiled oasis of stillness and quiet while completing our check-in paperwork and letting our heartrates calm down from the drive. A fountain laced with rose petals trickled softly in the center, and on all sides, elegant but modernized rooms hid behind keyhole-shaped doors.


We spent most of our long weekend in Marrakech visiting the markets. During the day, the souks (the small permanent shops and stands whose windy alleyways are covered by a crisscross of reeds) and the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, buzz with activity within the walls of the Medina. Heaps of spices, dried fruits, nuts, sweets, fresh produce, clay and ceramic tajines (pointy-covered dishes), richly designed carpets and fabrics, tanned leather goods, hand-cobbled shoes and sandals, shiny teapots and small colorful tea glasses on silver platters, curly-tipped blades with bone handles, perforated metal lamps, scented soaps, and some kind of brown goop cry out for a buyer.






Women in low chairs under umbrellas offer henna tattoos, while men wander the market with monkeys on chains or sit in small circles charming king cobras, offering photo ops to tourists in exchange for money. An older man at one table seemed to be selling teeth and dentures. If you stand still for a moment or let your gaze drift, people call you over or offer products or advice.

At night, the markets take on a different kind of energy – a liveliness and a rhythm all their own. As the temperatures drop from the 70s to the 40s with the setting sun, candles shimmer in the colorful metal lamps, casting shadows on the ground, and a haze of smoke and the hearty scent of grilled meat form a blur over the main market place. The area where the daytime street performers peddle their entertainment becomes filled with people. In the dark, the crowds circle around energetic musicians and storytellers. They clap or sing along with some of the performers, sometimes dancing in small tight movements, controlled convulsions. They join in on games, flipping coins on a chart of numbers or dangling a long fishing pole over a circle of soda bottles.

To walk around the market place at night is to hear one type of music after another, a kaleidoscope of sound.







From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

From Saltiest Deeps to Snowiest Peaks

There’s something wholly overwhelming about the Alps in winter. Even when, as they were when we first arrived at our wide-roofed Alpine lodge one frosty night a few weeks ago, hidden beneath sleepy sheets of fog.

The culture of this area, namely that made up of Bavaria in southern Germany and its neighbor Austria, has developed a tough edge in response to the bitter cold and the sheer rawness of nature. This is where the tradition of Krampus was born, a demon armed with a switch who takes bad children away at Christmas time. This is where heavy, hearty foods and great mugs of beer tide people over through the cold days and long winter nights. Even the traditional Lederhosen attire and oompah bands seem to project a forceful presence within the dark paneled walls of a cozy Alpine inn.

Our adventures in the Alps began in the salt mines of the sleepy German town of Berchtesgaden, just near the Austrian border. Deep under the mountains, salt mining has been a major industry for some 500 years. Like the miners, we rode an open mining train down through the tunnels, clad in dark blue canvas work uniforms and straddling a wooden bench in a line with other visitors on our guided tour. Adventures abounded underground between explanations of the history of the mines: We slid down two steep mining slides at different points in the tour to delve further into the mountain; took a boat across a shallow underground lake as salty as the Dead Sea; and rode a funicular at the end to climb back up to meet our mining train again and reach the surface.

A miner points the way to the Berchtesgaden mine
Salt mine entrance
Giant replica of iodized salt canister
Salt rock
Mountain entrance sign with miners’ slide

Truly, I felt the only thing missing from the tour was the clink of the mining tools and the uplifting ring of traditional mining songs. As if in answer to this thought, a CD of Berchtesgaden miner tunes was for sale at the gift shop alongside the expected array of salts in every grade and seasoning combination, including bath salts. We let the miners serenade us on the hour or so car ride from Berchtesgaden to the Austrian ski resort town of Sankt Veit im Pongau, belting out the local miner’s greeting of “Glück auf!” (a phrase literally meaning something like “good luck”) every so often along the snowy mountain roads.

Nightfall in Sankt Veit im Pongau, Austria

Past field and farm and small town after small town of little wooden homes with low slanted roofs, the transition from Bavaria to Austria was imperceptible. As I had decided skiing was not for me after a few lessons in previous years, I found other ways to enjoy the scenic mountain area this time. I spent the first day at a thermal spa with some friends, swimming around from indoors to outdoors in the naturally heated pool surrounded by the majestic Alps. A few vacationers there would get out to leisurely walk around in or rub themselves with snow and then get back in the steamy water. “No thanks!” I thought, shaking my head while reclined neck-deep in the thermal bath.

Just like the German spas, this one had a complete cafeteria-style restaurant, massages and other spa services, a clothing-free sauna, a fitness room, and more.

On our last day, after some searching around, I went off hiking alone near the ski slopes to a narrow gorge called the Liechtensteinklamm. Parts of the area, including part of the entry road not maintained in winter, are closed for the season so it was an enter-at-your-own risk but still not very difficult trail. Signs warning of the risks of avalanche and falling rocks reminded me that I was at the mercy of the Alps. I only saw a handful of people walking their contented dogs during the roughly three hours that I hiked, large papery snowflakes falling all the while. Silence punctuated only by my boots plodding through the powdery snow and the occasional sound of a bird calling or a squirrel cracking nuts reigned under a muted sky.

No winter maintenance: Enter at your own risk


Liechtensteinklamm gorge
Snow falling through the woods
Mountain stream
Hiking back through farmland

It was the very essence of nature. These are the Alps.

Glück auf!

Castle Höhenwerfen in Austria

An International Day of Remembrance

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Memorials throughout Europe honor the memory of individuals who were killed during the Holocaust and serve as a daily reminder to be vigilant.

History and responsibility are very clearly taught here.

Max Oster of Oslo, Norway; born 1884, deported and killed 1 Dec. 1942

Germany and many other European countries pave gold “stumbling blocks” into the sidewalks to draw attention and promote reflection. Engraved with a name, the tiles are placed in front of the person’s previous residence. The last names and birth dates included allow you to speculate about the relationships between the people – often parent and child or husband and wife. It has the arresting effect, in the middle of the day, to make you suddenly imagine the person or persons living at the address in front of you and then see them being taken away.

Family from Bamberg, Germany; deported and killed between 1941-1943
August Klotzbach of Wiesbaden, Germany; arrested for treason in 1935 and survived

Date and/or place of death is often marked as unknown. In those cases, any known information about the person’s deportation is listed. Cities that are listed are mostly in Eastern Europe (as all death camps were purposely located outside of Germany): Auschwitz, Poland and Riga, Latvia being among some of the most common.

Munich is apparently the only German city that doesn’t use the gold blocks, as they feel it’s disrespectful to have names of the deceased underfoot.

Frankfurt’s Holocaust Memorial Wall

In Frankfurt, a memorial wall also stretches around the old Jewish cemetery. Similar to the gold street bricks, small plaques jutting out display the names and fates of former Frankfurt residents who perished during this dark period of history, including Anne Frank. Visitors pay respects to those lost by placing stones on the protruding plaques that stretch on for rows upon rows upon rows.

Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

For more on how Berlin remembers victims of the Holocaust and the National Socialist regime, see Berlin Remembers.

Neologe Synagogue in Brașov, Romania
Old New Synagogue in Prague – oldest active synagogue in Europe
Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary – largest in Europe
Memorial in the Dohány Synagogue courtyard

Today, the oldest still-active synagogue in Europe is in Prague, Czech Republic and the largest synagogue in Europe is located in Budapest, Hungary. We happened to visit Budapest during Rosh Hashanah and saw many families on their way to services both at the Dohány Street Synagogue and a smaller synagogue in the same area.


Interestingly, the relatively new Memorial for the Victims of the German Occupation currently stands as a hotly contested source of criticism in Budapest. Intended to memorialize Holocaust victims, its use of symbols is intended to misconstrue history, according to daily peaceful protestors. Specifically, they take issue with the representation of Hungary as an angel being attacked by the German eagle. Protesters demand that Hungary not deny the complicity its government and some of its citizens took with the Third Reich during the Holocaust. Their goal is to replace what they consider a gross misrepresentation of history with a more fitting memorial.

Budapest memorial in question
Protesters’ issues explained
Call to the Prime Minister: “Mr. Oban, Tear Down Your Monument!”
Pictures, stories, and artifacts in front of the monument
Stones, candles, and plants honor lost lives

Both the monument itself and the surrounding controversy serve as an important reminder that how we portray history becomes how we remember it.

Never again.

Budapest: Memorial to people lined up and shot into the Danube 1944-45

The World is Watching

The World is Watching



It’s days like today that restore my faith in humanity and optimism for the future. Far from my native Washington, D.C., today we marched alongside other equality-minded people through the streets of nearby Frankfurt. For women’s rights. For human rights. For equality, decency, diversity. For love. For what seems to have gotten lost in the rising tide of nationalism creeping up, not only in America, but around the world.








Current estimates for the Frankfurt crowd, made up largely of Americans abroad but also what I considered a surprising number of Germans and internationals, stand at around 2,100 according to Deutsche Welle. An impressive turnout for a non-American, albeit extremely international, city. Clearly the world is at attention.

The mood was positive and upbeat this afternoon, punctuated with chants of “When they go low, we go high,” “Build bridges, not walls,” and a German chant of a call to freedom and equality.

The route of around two miles ended in the midst of the Altstadt (old town) area where demonstrators gathered around a small stage for musical performances.









Your move, America. The whole world is watching.

Fasching Costumes on Parade


The Christmas Markets are closed, all the dust has settled from New Year’s fireworks, and that means it’s time to gear up for Fasching!

As you may remember, the German Karneval season (aka The Fifth Season) has long been underway. It began back in November on 11/11 at 11:11.

But with other holidays out of the way and nothing in store but cold, dark winter days between now and Ash Wednesday, it’s time to start thinking about costumes. In Mainz, Kӧln and other areas of Germany that celebrate Fasching (it’s not everywhere!), people of all ages wear costumes to march in or watch the colorful parades.

Here are some of your options:

1) It’s a fool’s holiday: Dress like a fool. Clowns and fools, or simply silly hats, are the most popular costumes along the Rhein. Even the Gutenberg statue in Mainz gets a fool’s cap for the occasion.



2) Dress like it’s Halloween: pirate, hippie, fire fighter, etc. To an American like me, this is a little tired, but there are plenty of people-characters from all walks of life whose shoes you can step into for a day.




3) *My personal recommendation*: Dress like an animal. Animals are the second most popular costume category after fools. As it was pointed out to me when we first arrived, the zip-up animal onesies are not only cute but practical as well. You’re going to wear the costume outside in winter, shouting “Helau!” (or “Alaaf!”, region-dependent) for hours, so this type of costume is warm and loose-fitting enough to go over a coat and/or a lot of layers.



4) Gear up in Fasching banner swag. This is what I like to do for the first day of festivities, and this year I’m adding fingerless gloves and a hat to my scarf and legwarmers. All the gear is striped red, white, blue and yellow. Necklaces or buttons with “Weck, Worscht & Woi” (Mainz dialect for rolls, sausage, and wine), the duck float that ends the parade, and Fasching greeting “Helau!” are also common.



5) Make your own costume. If you’re really artsy or daring and have a lot of time on your hands, bolts of fabric and bric-a-brac are available in costume stores or regular department stores as well. Who knows what you’ll come up with!



To read about how Fasching costumes differ dramatically outside of the Rhein region, see The Soundtrack of Salzburg.

Until late February, Helau!

Even Mainz bakeries gear up for Fasching