Life in Bits

Janiel Miller - Mom. Writer. Distractifier.

Tag: Germany

Men Are From Mars. Women Aren’t.

We moved to Germany when I was ten. As a side-note, a few of my children have been ten years-old, so I know how young that is. But I didn't think so at the time. In fact, I felt very urbane and suave and independent.

Sometime during our first month or so there I decided to have myself a little adventure. So I left our street in the village of Katzenbach to walk to the next village, Spesbach, which frankly was just a few blocks away.

I trotted along, fingering the silver two-Deutschmark coin in my pocket, feeling all rich and international. I walked past a little copse of trees with some sort of cemetery tucked inside. Moseyed past tiny white stuccoed houses with window boxes filled with perky flowers. Crossed the street and peeked through the lace-curtained windows of houses which were right up against the sidewalk making it hard not to be nosey.

And then I arrived at the bäckerei (bakery). I had practiced a German phrase which would allow me to purchase some to-die-for chocolate, which could be bought by the smooth, slightly coconutty square. I felt ready to face the stern-faced proprietress who came out and stared down at me like if I said one word out of place she would string me up next to her happy little sign outside. My mouth went dry. Her eyebrow went up. Then I pointed and said:

"Drei stuck das, bitte."

Which, roughly translated, means (and I'm proud, proud I tell you): "Three piece that, please."

The woman grunted, wrapped three pieces of heaven in thin waxy paper, handed them to me, and took my money. Then she turned to the cash-drawer, made some noise, tossed my change onto the counter (pfennigs, which looked like play-money), and said something to me I didn't understand. I stared. She said it again. I stared harder. She said it harder. Then we both stared. Finally she sort of rolled her eyes, waved me off, and went back to her living quarters leaving me standing there clutching chocolate in one hand, play money in the other, and wondering if I'd landed on another planet, because everything suddenly felt weird and alien.

This is often what marriage feels like to me.

(Yes. I am queen of the segue.)

The other day I left home for an adventure. I drove from our little town to another little town to run some errands in which were involved certain amounts of chocolate (because chocolate is always involved.) As I left it was understood that my husband would cut a few branches from the flowering pear tree that stands in our front yard. It was understood through words. Words in English. English being both of our primary language–although in all fairness my husband's English comes from Idaho, so it often sounds like potatoes. 

Anyway, I left, secure in the thought that my husband would do some chopping, and our tree would no longer decapitate unwary walkers/runners/tall children. Because this man is a dude who Gets Things Done. Right Away. And With Great Purpose. I knew I had no need to fear.

Sometime during the day I received from my son a text containing of photo of all the branches they had cut off that morning. It was a LOT of branches. More than I had ordered. I didn't understand. But I knew I would when I got home. Perhaps our Tree of Leafiness had contained hidden numbers of branches. A volume of tree-ness that could not fully be appreciated until you got right in there and started sawing. It would make sense when I got up close and personal, I was certain.


That afternoon I drove up to our house and found a brand new five-foot wall bordering one side of our property along the sidewalk. A wall made of branches, trunks, roots, leaves, more roots, plus some roots. And the line of foliage stretched for most of a city block. Or at least a small-town block. I did not understand.

My husband came around the corner carrying a shovel and waved gleefully to me. Then I pulled around and into my driveway and got an eyeful of what my boys had done.

My tree was pruned. All nice and neat.

And every. single. bush. that lined the front and side of our house–whether laurel, yew, or cotoneaster–had been sawed off, dragged across the yard, and stacked in the fat pile I had seen on the eastern perimeter of our property. Every. one.

I felt all of the oxygen suck out of my brain.

And this is the part where I was pretty sure I was standing in that bakery back in the village of Spesbach and my husband was the German lady, except cheerful.

"Hey!" he said, looking as pleased as pork in a pie (I have no idea what that means. I just made it up. Because I figure pie is so wonderful that any pork would be pleased to be in it), "What do you think of what we've done?"

I stared. Then I said, "That's . . . a LOT of . . . pruning."

My hub's smile got wider, he laughed, and then he said, "A;lskn e voijsldn eoirj f! Right? So we thought a;sdoiih aek lkv jeoiv asd. And then the neighbor came over and advised asldfkj a;kdlf eiuaeo;i jesk, and I said, why the heck not? You know? Because as;ldkf alksa jope j;srlkj fs;l faopweu a;eij ;skjf ;lkj and a;ldkj a;ld jfwojafwifj aeljfa!"


But my hub was so proud of himself, he reminded me of me when I figured out how to get a German woman to sell me chocolate. So I didn't have the heart to yell at him. I just smiled, with a whole lot of effort, and asked if I got to pick out the new bushes.

Yeah. Sometimes dealing with the opposite sex is like trying to order chocolate without speaking the local language. In the end I'll get what I want–because that's what girls do. But I won't have any idea how. And I won't know how to say anything else should the need arise..

Ah well. You learn. You adjust, right? But just in case, I am going to learn more than a few perfunctory phrases from my husband's home planet. 


Chicken Maaaaaaaaaaannnn! And Other Heroes.

Scene: A small village in Germany, and a green stucco house in Reykjavik, Iceland. Two young girls living an ocean apart create a comic strip through the mail about superheros named Ropegirl and Flashgirl. Every month the two youngsters set out to save the world via their protagonists: Ropegirl, armed with her extendable/retractable hair which ONLY SHE can control; and Flashgirl, with her oddly bionic vision and preternaturally speedy running skills. 


Scene: Two years later, with a love of superheroes still in her heart, the young girl living in Germany pulls a chair up to an off-kilter table at a little joint called "Chicken Every Sundae;" which serves, oddly enough, chicken. And sundaes. The scrawny red-headed teenager is hunched over a dripping dish of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. Maraschino cherry, no nuts. She is listening to her new favorite radio program: Chicken Man! 


(Click to hear original "Chicken Man" Episode)


Scene: Today. 
Ahhh, Chicken Man. He and the Roping-Flash-Girls saved my little teenaged brain from exploding in a world rife with stress.

My friend and I wrote our graphic-novel series  at a time when we each had pulled up roots and moved to foreign lands with foreign languages and customs, and no one familiar outside of our families. Ropegirl and Flashgirl were a life-saver.

Then came The Chicken. I laughed my head off many a weekend night over a too big bowl of chocolate-drenched ice cream, and forgot all of my teenage angst.

These silly characters were real heroes for me. They made me laugh, think, and relax so I could move on in the real world and hopefully do some good of my own. It was nice, clean fun. Nothing I had to apologize for, and nothing I had to worry about listening to. I could forget about everything when writing or eating at my little diner. And then I could approach the world refreshed.

Maybe superheroes spring from a desire to do something important in the world. Or maybe they're the representation of a wish for something that makes us feel safe–all the time. Someone who never fails? Who always wins? Or who is so inept we can always count on a good laugh from them? Those are comforting ideals.

But I'm thinking that maybe we can be our own superheroes. And it's all down to how we look at things: finding the good, never giving up, looking out for the other guy, even patting ourselves on the back once in a while. I think that whole British chin-up-stiff-upper-lip-thing has it's place. It builds real-life heroes.

But just in case, I'm growing my hair out and buying a chicken suit.



This is the story of a castle in Kusel. And a dog. And a deeply terraced hill.

We were stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base, the NATO headquarters for Germany, and had lived near there for almost a year when we found a castle around the bend from our village of Katzenbach. The place filled my twelve year-old mind with dreams of chivalry, captured maids, and armored battles. Romance sluiced from its walls and paths like Niagara.  It was ancient, lichen-studded, and built of weathered stone whose mortar looked like it might survive the apocalypse. Unlike many of the other old fortresses around us, this one still  had an intact outer wall and an operating chapel in the courtyard. Siege, war, and time had not destroyed it. The Keep, the Baileys, and all of the towers stood ready to shelter villagers like they had since the thirteenth century. What a place! I could have perched on a wall for a week, doing nothing but drawing and writing. Settled on the crown of a hill overlooking the rolling, forested village below, Burg Lichtenberg was the perfect place to create.  And a great place to learn a lesson.

We had gone to Kusel to visit the castle. I'd spent the afternoon exploring nooks and crannies, looking for water-sprites in the well, sitting in dank cellar rooms weaving straw into gold, darting up tower stairs to look out at the valley and lower my long golden hair to the charming prince below (except it was long auburn hair). I'd run from the Galerie leaving my glass slipper behind, watched a foreign princess get married in the chapel (which is true. Except for the bit about her being a princess. Maybe), and had taken time to slay a dragon in front of the Keep before lunch. I was exhausted and could not continue. It was time to head home to my own white-stuccoed cinderblock castle in Katzenbach.

As I stood outside the gatehouse on the crowded grounds waiting for the rest of my family to emerge, I noticed a little kerfuffle on the hill next to me. There was a dog–a terrier, judging by its size, excitability, and high opinion of itself–yapping and dancing all over the top of the little rise. He wanted our attention and he didn't stop until we were all looking. The hill he was on ended in a five foot wall. Then there was the road to the castle, and another five foot wall. Below that, a strip of grass and yet another five foot stone wall. And finally, well below us, the last of the terraced walls.

Sir Terrier stood at attention, and when everything was quiet, he took a running leap and flew like a gazelle over that wall, yapping for joy and legs splayed wide. He hit the ground running and leapt off of the next terrace. Airborne again! Utter ecstasy. He wanted everyone to see. Another check to make sure his audience was rapt, and he took the next leap. And finally the last–with an exulting bark, "Look at me! Look at me! Look at meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

The last hill was a fifteen foot drop. And the little dude disappeared like a rock off  a cliff. It was kind of startling and brought me back to the 20th century as I wondered if Sir Dog had offed-himself. The Germans around me murmured and leaned out over the terraces. But there was no trace of the little guy.

Then finally, up the road came our aerial friend, looking stiff-legged and humiliated. He didn't make eye-contact with anyone. Just skulked back up to his starting point and sat in dejection for awhile. People laughed quietly and relived the event in gestured conversation. Then they moved on.

My family came out and we were just about to go, when something came bounding like a canon-shot down the hill. A leap, a bark, a splay, and WOOHAH! Dog was catching some air again. Never seen such commitment and joy. The little creature should have been one of Arthur's knights. Or at least one of Kusel's. Most important of all, he was teachable. He ran and flew with reckless abandon all the way down to the last terrace. But this time he stopped, turned to the side, and gingerly picked his way down a side path to the bottom. He arrived at his destination as planned, flying every inch of the way even when he walked, and yipping with pride. He had learned, made adjustments, and not let a failure or embarrassment stop him.

Flinging ourselves whole heartedly into the imagination of creating is a wonderful thing. Exploring castles, running and leaping, shouting for everyone to see. We just need to  make sure we know what is at the bottom.

Unless we don't care.

Then it's just a matter of getting back up and trying again.


So Like, Here’s What I Totally Did Today

I’m thinking that my blog must be boring as snot (which, as we all know, is pretty boring) because I don’t do the whole slice-of-life-thing like most other bloggers do. I tend to, you know, orate. Pontificate. Expostulate. Expound. Dullthesensesofmyreaders. Other bloggers don’t  do this as much, and people like it. I think its time to offer A Slice Of Janiel’s Life. Here we go:

Photo on 2010-11-08 at 23.11 #3
So like, today, I totally woke up late and the backs of my knees were sweaty, and I was all like, gross, and then I threw my alarm clock across the room because it didn’t wake me up – it went off, it just didn’t wake me up.
And then my kids came in and totally jumped on me, well my eight year-old did, and he said he couldn’t go to school today because he had the diarrhea flu, even though he didn’t have diarrhea, and he’d probably throw up, but I told him no he had to go to school and that was the end of that, so go get dressed, and he totally did. Much to my surprise.
Then my other son who had been sick went to school early because he had stuff to do and I was all proud and stuff because he was being responsible, but it sort of made me misty because he’s, like, all growing up and pretty soon he’ll be in college, like his older sister who I miss a lot and am worrying about because she’s way not eating enough with all the stress and running back and forth between upper and lower campus, but she loves it and so I’ll have to send her a care package of food.
And then I took my other daughter to the Junior High School early to pay the fee for Shakespeare team, which do they think we’re made of money! Everything costs freaking a ton! and anyway this boy totally like blew right through us without looking and we were nearly slammed up against the wall, and it massively took me back to my Junior High days in Germany where my school was an old World War II hospital that they’d repurposed on Ramstein Air Base, and I remembered going up to the Base Exchange cafeteria to eat because my school cafeteria was filled with officers’ kids who all had like social issues because their dads ignored them except to order them around and their moms ignored them because of the officer’s wives club and so the kids dealt with it by throwing ketchup covered fries at everyone during lunch.
And where was I, oh yeah, eating at the BX cafeteria – and I accidentally threw my retainer away this one time and had to garbage dive for it, and then another time this officer was behind me and he totally had his tray loaded up and the line was really long and I was trying to decide between carrots or gravy fries and I can’t talk without waving my hands around and so I did, and then I knocked this dude’s tray right out of his hands and all of his food went on the floor and it had taken twenty minutes to get it because it was so crowded and he could have yelled at me but all he did was close his eyes and sigh and say it was okay and he’d take care of it and wasn’t he nice? Totally.
But it was better than the junior high cafeteria, which was nuts. Except my daughter’s cafeteria isn’t that bad.
And then I kissed my husband goodbye. And then I wrote on my blog.
Wow. That felt good. I feel sort of, I don’t know, cleansed.
I need to do this more often.


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