Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Status Quo Part One: The Schultuete

As mentioned before, there is a lot more ironing going on in the world than most Americans realize. Also more stair sweeping, window washing and flower bed tending then they would believe. Cars get washed AND vacuumed every Saturday, bikes and boots cleaned after every use. Breakfast is served with fresh flowers on the table - and the butter in a real butter dish, not straight out of the package. Lunch is a three course affair and school snacks consist of hearty whole wheat bread with sliced peppers and fruit. No Fruit Loops, no Mac and Cheese and certainly no Twinkies. And yes, people really do iron T-shirts and jeans.

All of which is NOTHING compared to the social stress of arts and crafts in kindergarten. I used to be pretty proud of myself for using a pair of scissors to cut out figures and stick them on a straw. Fingerpaints and homemade Play-dough. Or just a piece of paper and some crayons. I'd even let the kids do it. You know - creative play.

Then I enrolled my kids in a German kindergarten and learned how naive I had been. It started innocently enough with a parents' afternoon to make lanterns which the kids here carry around the neighborhood at night for a few weeks at the end of October/beginning of November culminating in a big celebration on St. Nicholas Day. Less sugar than Halloween. A strong moral message about a kind Catholic saint. And burning candles inside of paper lanterns carried in the dark by small children.

Now one CAN buy lanterns in the store. If you want your children to be the laughing stock of the kindergarten. If you want to emphasize, yet once again, how really not German you really are. And so I sat down excitedly with the other moms on tiny little stools around tiny little stairs and learned the hard way that making lanterns out of cardboard and wax paper was not for the faint of heart - and certainly not for children.

At Christmas time we got a sitter so that both Damon and I could join the other kindergarten parents in baking Christmas cookies. I brought a rolling pin and some cookie cutters. And learned about pralines and sauces and creams and all sorts of concoctions that required more equipment than the American army invading Iraq. Or is that a bad analogy? I also learned that children were not invited to help with the felt fruit we were making for the Christmas fair, or the painted wooden Santa figurines or the scented candles, tie-dyed scarves or hand-painted ceramics. I gotta hand it to them, for a nation of engineers, these women can craft.

For the various obligatory bake sales, I've pretty much learned to get by with baking an American wedding cake, putting the dough in muffin tins and topping with rainbow colored sprinkles. No icing - even a German child wouldn't dare touch American icing. But the sprinkles are pretty special. I use the same sprinkle trick for sugar cookies and those sell really well too. The secret lies in doubling the sugar, but what they don't know won't hurt them.

But there was pretty much no escaping the Schultuete, a large cone made out of cardboard and filled with school supplies, sweets and small gifts, that the first graders carry on their first day of school here in Germany. It's a rite of passage and a very big deal.

I went in to the parents' (meaning, of course, mothers') afternoon full of expectations - that we were doing this together, that we would be led through the process together and that the kids would of course be participating. As mothers fought for pink and purple paper and started grabbing various things and speaking about a "charbon" I realized how wrong I had been yet again. Charbon? Isn't that the French word for charcoal? Why were we making charcoal? What about the school bag - shaped like a cone? (Envision a horn of plenty from an American Thanksgiving.) I would have started with a cone. And then decorated it. Silly me.

It was ugly. I did sit at a table with four other moms also working on the unicorn motive and so we cut out pieces of paper for each other. Four hooves times 5. Five horns. Ten eyes. By now I had figured out that a charbon was a template. But the work was grueling, boring, and serious. No chitchat, no help or instrucion and - as with most social events in Germany - not something I as an American considered working as a group. I didn't even look at the moms with glue guns and ribbons. Heaven forbid, I actually also let my child help with the cutting.

All of which meant that my daughter had the only unicorn Schultuete that looked like it was made by a child, and not by a professional wedding designer. And we stuck stickers on it and decorated it ourselves at home. It looks like something put together by a kindergartner - which in fact it was.

Which is why I got tears in my eyes this week when my friend Sue announced that she had gone out and BOUGHT a Schultuete for her daughter this year. You go girl! "I am just never going to be able to compete with what these women crank out and frankly I just have better things to do than to bother trying." she calmly explained. My hero! It turns out Lori had bought one for her son last year too, out of ignorance of the entire bastelling process she says, but a step into freedom just the same. I chickened out with Andrew too, and sent Damon to put together a simple Indian theme. But Aidan and Matthew are going to the toy shop and picking out their own. I'm a wimp, but I have role models now.

I still think the whole homemade Schultuete thing is a cultural quaintness worth preserving - for the Germans and especially to those who enjoy it and to whom it means a great deal. (Seeing the prices in the store, I also tend to think that most Germans are too cheap to fork out the 12 Euros.) I also believe that I felt so much pressure to make Ryan's so special because I remember moving to the USA the summer before first grade and asking my mother, with profound disappointment, where the heck my Schultuete was. "Oh, they don't do that here ," she nonchalantly replied, not aware as an American that she was taking away a big rite of passage I had come to expect as a German kindergartener. I also believe it's the reason I am still drawn to little German pencil cases, complete with sharpener, eraser and pencils in every color of the rainbow, sharpened to peak perfection. I never got my Schultuete.

I got something else though. Living between two cultures, I became myself, not a carbon copy of what any one of the cultures expected of me. And my children, all of our children, Sue's and Lori's and the rest of us between two (or more) worlds have that same opportunity.

You know, the kids don't care if they fit in like all the other kids. They aren't like all the other kids. And they know nothing else. Instead of trying to make them into little "charbons", one just like the next, trying to fit the mold, I'm going to give them a blank sheet of paper and let them draw whatever they like.

And I'll be damned if I'm going to teach them how to iron!

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