Tuesday, January 25, 2011

First Day of School!

Proud members of the Lawnton State School - and Aussie - community.
Aussie smiles are even broader than usual. Mums are practically dancing in the streets.

Okay, maybe it's just me.


I should have posted photos on Monday but the commentary would have been even more smug and cloying than usual. With way too many exlamation marks.

I remember the first day of school in Germany, sometime in September. Stressed moms. Worried kids. Harried teachers. Really. My American friends always found this hard to believe – they dance in the streets in early September – but sending the kids back to school in Germany SUCKS. (Honestly, what can you really do in a school day that ends at noon with the kids coming home expecting a warm meal?)

Two Septembers ago, after that wonderful summer where Ryan and Andrew went to visit my parents in the USA, I decided it was mind over matter, and that I was NOT going to buy into the stress. But it was not all in my head. Mutters around me were panicking. Over the notebooks. And the fact that their kids hadn't learned the multiplication tables over the summer break. Or still had lousy handwriting. That the kids were behind academically. AND didn't have the right color binder for maths class. Mind you, this was BEFORE the first day.

No heavy Schulranzen.  School supplies made easy.  Gotta love the Aussie way!

Then the rude messages from school starting coming. The book Ryan had destroyed. (I only wish, I thought!) Her bike wasn't up to specs and she wouldn't be allowed to participate in the bike safety program. (I was so proud when she finally told the Polizei that a blue light was just as visible at night as an orange one! And passed!)

Children in Germany are routinely shamed in front of the class. Germans don't realize this is wrong. (Or that there is another way to do it.) Because their teachers are doing what they know. And noone knows anything else. Fit in or suffer the consequences.

Oh wait. School started in AUSTRALIA today!

The night before I coordinated drop-off schedules. How to get all four to three classrooms. I needn't have worried. One nice effect of the climate here is that the school is able to have a very open design. There are no halls. There is a courtyard. (With koalas in it, if you are lucky!)

The first day of school was like a party. Parents and families strolled to classrooms with their children. Doors were open. Teachers AVAILABLE. Even Miss Egan, the PRINCIPAL, was mingling with the commoners. And SMILING! No serious looks of how busy she was and how important her job was and how she was way way too busy to be talking to the likes of PARENTS!

Andrew sat himself in the front row and dismissed us. Ryan's teacher – a Canadian/Australian – passed out maple sugar lollipops and cookies from her trip home.

Can't wait to start.  Andrew in the front row of his new fourth grade classroom.

The prep classroom was a wave of parents and kids. All learning how to sign in, where to hang sun hats and place waterbottles. Finding names on cubbies. It was chaos. Except that it was fun. In Germany, serious stressed-out parents would have been worried and pushing their kids in front of others. Here everyone knew it would work out. (I think that's the key here; even in other everyday interactions, people are treated with respect and their needs are met. It allows you to relax because you know you WILL be taken care of.) The emphasis was on smiling – to kids, to parents – on making sure the kids were comfortable and happy. And the kids all seemed to feel really comfortable in such a social situation. Out of 25 kids, 4 -5 year olds on a first day in a new school, only one child cried when her parents left.

Maybe it was because everyone seemed to be concerned with making sure THE KIDS were happy. THE KIDS came first. Not making sure MY KID was happy and first.

Ryan just wants us to leave.  She's in fifth grade.
Aidan and Matthew were not next to eachother, except for signing in. Two kids. Two lives.

Uh yes, someone mentioned something about a Prep school?!

At 8:50 AM, as parents were still talking and mingling, Ms Dance and Fiona started the Good Morning Song wi!th the kids all seated on the rug around them. Complete with sign language.

Then she looked up, smiled kindly, and asked us all to get on outta there! Politely of course.

Day Two was even better.

After the first day, all four kids came home bursting with stories. I had to ask them to speak one at at time. Aidan and Matthew were going on about some birthday party I had to prepare. (Because Ms. Dance said so and that seems to make it final.) And Andrew about soccer. And Ryan about having Emily and Jessica come over to swim. And starting a German Club.

Then Andrew started doing some funny dance. Shang. Hands up in the air. Sha. Hands to the ground. Wye. Hands out to the side. Lee. Hands to his middle. Yo. Swo. Right and Left. Ho. Chien. Behind. In Front.


(Sorry. This would have been MUCH WORSE if I had written in on Monday!)


Aussie sun hat.  And speaking Chinese.

Queensland is still working on its curriculum, to meet up with the Australian one. How exciting to come in at a time where the curriculum is evolving, CHANGING to meet the changing needs of the children and the community.

The older kids, Ryan's grade 5 and up, will continue on with German. (Which works out okay because Ryan is the one who could use an ego boost!) Grades 4 and down will be switching to Chinese. Aidan and Matthew will begin learning Chinese this year as well.

When I got home I had Andrew write down the Chinese so that I could learn it too. He'd managed to remember 9 out of 10 words from his first session, but his mama ain't that bright.

Aidan and Matthew each had a book from the school library. (They didn't even HAVE a school library in Germany.) We'll talk about the computers and internet action another time. (120 in a school of under 200 as opposed to about 20 in a school twice the size in Germany. REALLY Leute, this is how you are investing in your future? Or do only the smart kids get computers later on?)

Then I read the weekly school information letter. And the letters from EACH of the teachers, detailing homework expectations, asking for parent volunteers in the classrooms, and listing the phone and emails of each teacher so that we could reach them at any time. The school letter listed school expectations, school goals (increased literacy, numeracy etc.), and had FOUR WAYS to contact the school principal. and volunteering in your child's classroom.

That, mates, is communication.

There was also a sign-up list for about six school activities, from working at the Tuck Shop, assisting with the weekly newsletter to participating in the P and C and assisting in your child's classroom.

That is what I meant by parental involvement.
Ms Dance is SOOOOOO cool.  First day of Prep.  (You can spot Matthew on the right, necy to the toy box and Aidan just to the left in front of him.)
On day two Ryan and Andrew ran off to meet their friends while I went into the Prep classroom with Aidan and Matthew. Aidan went straight to his cubby, pulled out his folder and sat down at a table to finish work on his rainbow and the pot of gold. AIDAN! As some other kids came to join him, they showed me their work and Ms. Dance explained that as the pot of gold filled with the golden coin stickers, given out for positive habits (I ALMOST said good behavior, but that IS a judgement, isn't it?!), the class would have a party. The famous 'birthday' party I had already heard so much about!

I am also realising that I have NO IDEA what positive reinforcement really IS. Ms. Dance is giving out balloons and stickers for positive habits, reinforcing them BEFORE negative habits have a chance to show up. Not reprimanding someone for doing something wrong - DON'T talk in class, STOP pestering your neighbor- but REWARDING them for NOT talking in class and NOT pestering their neighbor. I should know this. It is also an animal training trick. Reinforce the behavior you want BEFORE that other habit has a chance to develop.

The kids around the table all RAISED THEIR HANDS to be allowed to tell me WHAT those positive habits were. 5 year olds on their SECOND day of school!

No pushing. No hitting. Keep your hands to yourself. I love it when Aidan says that last one because it so obviously comes from school! (And while, technically, pushing isn't encouraged in German schools either, I never saw it being actively DISCOURAGED either!)

Aidan GLOWING after his first day at Prep.  Ryan also walking taller.

The boys told me about the reflection chair, called the thinking chair in Prep, where Fiona (the teacher's aide) sat to demonstrate where one goes when they've been behaving in a manner that they should think about. The boys found Fiona sitting in the thinking chair the height of comedy.

The problem in Ryan's class in Germany was that the boys were repeatedly told to behave, but never rewarded when they DID – because that was just EXPECTED behavior – and never really effectively made to think about their actions when they DIDN'T behave. They just kept getting yelled at, but nothing ever changed.

Here, every classroom has a reflection chair. To pause and reflect, not to judge and punish. (I know it LOOKS the same, but I firmly believe our ATTITUDES affect the outcome. I use time-outs at home in the same way. Not to PUNISH or SHAME, but because the behaviour that has led to the time-out is just not acceptable in polite company. You can BE mad. You just can't hit the rest of us when you are. You can BE frustrated. You just can't throw your pencil across the room because of it.)

If the reflection chair doesn't work, there is a reflection ROOM off of the main office. It's my favourite room in the school, cool, quiet, with posters on the world saying things like 'a goal is a dream with a deadline' and ' you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose.'

I think I'll go there to write!

Aidan and Matthew in front, Ryan and Andrew behind.
Do I expect Queensland schools, or even Lawnton State School, to be perfect? No, I am well aware of what we are dealing with. Australia has similar social issues to the U.S.. We have children from low-income families, from broken homes, a high number of children with mild learning impairment or attention and anger issues. We have a large number of children speaking English as a second language, children from all over Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, eastern Europe.

Isn't that fantastic? Not that we have children – and families – struggling, but that we have an opportunity to work together.

The Queensland education system is evolving to meet the needs of Queenslanders. Indigenous and Torres Straight Islanders. Lachlans and Connors and Ryans. (And no, I do NOT mean MY kids!) Japanese. Samoan. Canadian. German.

Oh darn it, I knew I shouldn't be writing this on Australia Day.

But as I watch my four Aussies proudly marching off to school, I can't help but be grateful for the opportunities this great country holds for ALL of us.

We are not 'your tired and poor.'

'For we are young and free.'

And yes, we DID have a small version of the German Schultuete.

In Germany, I imagine the vast majority of these kids would be bundled off to Hauptschule. (That's where the foreigners and the low-income kids go, which is why the UN has labelled the German school system a violation of human rights.)

Here, OUR children can be anything they want to be. ALL of them.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

TWINtensity....starting school

November.  Coordinated polos from Grams.  Matthew with the classy socks and sandals look.  Wearing a Germany hat so we can blame it on being raised in Europe!  (Fairly obvious anyway since my kids are the only kids in Queenland wearing shoes in the summer!)
When I started this blog two years ago I thought I’d have a lot to say about the twins. Good news for those of you struggling with young twins is that, as they get older, they just turn into kids.

Now that mine are four I find myself forgetting to tell people they are twins when they ask how old my kids are. (Australians really seem to want to know and strangers ask me about my family all the time.) My daughter just turned 11, that guy over there is 8 ½, and the younger two are 4, I tell them. Damon generally clarifies. Twins. And I kind of nod my head and go, uh yeah. It just doesn’t occur to me anymore that they are twins. They’re both 4. But that’s it.

Andrew is still a peanut for an 8 year old and Matthew is shooting up fast. Our friend and neighbor, Robert, was watching the three boys swimming last week when he kind of shook his head, carefully observed the three blonde heads and said, wow, they could all almost be the same age couldn’t they?

Two of them are, I said.

It had never come up before.

While that twin thing had my complete attention for a couple of years, in the meantime they have become my children and my family.

But, in the spirit of the blog, I figure I’ll have a go at the twin thing again for a bit. To celebrate two years of rants and raves.

Aidan and Matthew start school on Monday. Prep here in Australia, the equivalent of kindergarten in the USA. And I thought about some of the issues that might raise.

To be perfectly honest, it really hasn’t raised any.

Same class or separate classes. This used to be a big deal. But nowadays we’re allowed to be a little flexible with it. I am really fortunate that our current school principal has twin boys herself. Some years they were in the same class. Some years they were separate. Schools nowadays seem to realize that the needs of children will change over time.  The old mantra was that siblings needed to be in separate classes.  Now, it varies.  I think a lot of kids start out in the same class in the early grades and then split as they get older.  It is easier logistically to have kids in the same class.  But some twins don't get along.  Some rely too heavily on eachother.  Each child has individual social and academic needs.  I even know of one set of twins, in GERMANY, who are in separate GRADES.

Aidan and Matthew are in the same kindergarten class this year, along with another set of twin boys. There is a second mixed kindergarten/first grade class in the school, but having barely reached the cut off as it is, I don’t think this came into the question. (Did I really just translate – terribly – out of the German?!!!)

August in Germany.  (That's right Aussies, sweats and long sleeves in HIGH SUMMER!)
You can dress em up, but they still act like clowns!
I’m not going to worry about the rest of it. Matthew is light years ahead of Aidan in writing, reading and math…meaning that he is doing it. (I’d love to take credit, but he just seemed to pick it up on his own. Mostly it was him badgering me to learn a letter, or add some numbers, and me banging away at the computer or doing the laundry and telling him to go ask Ryan or Andrew. He did. They helped. Does that in any way count as homeschooling?!)

But Aidan is more verbal and more social.

So that my guess is they’ll both be ready for first grade this time next year. And we’ll deal with classroom issues then.

Bookbags. Lunchbags. Clothes. Should they have the same or something different?

Well honestly, I never saw the fuss with the clothes. (Students in Australia wear school uniforms – which is THE BEST INVENTION EVER!) But even before….sometimes – especially with shoes and outwear- selection was limited and we got what we needed. And it generally matched. Other times we had hand-me-downs that didn’t. (I’ll admit – I did like to coordinate – they looked great with their coordinated raincoats, bike helmets and Laufrads!)

Most gifts are matching. Lots of the cute stuff I find I buy twice. (Who has got the energy to worry about two separate outfits?) Or when we found two of the same sneakers on sale for 14 AUD. Got em.

But the boys are four and they are dressing themselves. Which means that sometimes they match and sometimes they don’t. (And more often than not one is wearing a striped polo shirt with checkered shorts. Or socks with fire engines on them. Under their sandals.) And really, WHO CARES?

I have a friend in Germany whose two twin boys INSIST on wearing the same clothes, buying the same sports equipment and the same schoolbags. How will people know we are twins otherwise, they ask. (They are not identical.)

Is it sad that they only identify themselves as twins? Should she be asking the shrink why they aren’t developing personalities separate from one another.

Or should she just let them be 8 year olds?

October in Bayern, Germany.  Coordinating sweaters from Meka.  Let's face it, I love that coordinating outerwear! 
Same with the lunchbags and bookbags. Aidan and Matthew have coordinating orange backpacks – with their names on them – as a gift from my mother. Very cute. They have been using them in Germany for years.

They’ll have matching lunchbags. Because that was what was in stock. (With their names on it, but with identical lunches!)

Matthew has a red book bag for his homework. Aidan has a blue one. Because Matthew likes red and Aidan likes blue. This also makes it easier for us to tell them apart at a glance. It also worked out so nicely with the bikes and helmets….one set in red, one in blue. No matter if the Germans felt a red helmet with kittens on it wasn’t manly enough for a boy. I am always thrilled when they pick something different so that I can easily tell them apart!

So there it is. Nice to have different colors because it simplifies id.

Otherwise you write their names (or initials) on it. Really. At least one will be able to figure out a few letters fairly early on. And point it out to the other one.

And, as my friend with the 8 year olds says, THEY know whose is whose even if you don’t. (My problem is when one is missing, because then both of mine or quite positive that the remaining one is theirs!)

So, Aidan and Matthew start school Monday.

My two little men…who just happen to be twins.

January in Queensland.  Aidan and Andrew showing German pride.  Matthew in the middle - looking like he COULD be nine months older than Aidan, which is what everyone who asks has been trying to figure out before they do ask!

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Bad Morning (German Bureaucracy Leads to Australian Beer)

October snowfall in Bayern.  Smiling because its our last one!
This morning sucked.

For those who want to read it, I've got reams of moaning about German stupidity.  (After looking at my photos of Dresden, I've decided I really do LOVE Germany.  I love it so much it DRIVES ME NUTS!)  For those who would rather LAUGH about it, click on over to Liz's blog.  She's got a way better sense of humor than I do.  For those who really don't want to hear it anymore - YOU MOVED CHRISTINE, GET OVER IT! - skip down to the end (after the third photo, Ayers Rock in Dresden) and read about my time with the kids.  That was what this blog was supposed to be about, after all, wasn't it?  

Once I have to get involved with the remaining bureaucratic crap from Germany, the day just naturally deteriorates. The kids and I are working on using appropriate language (mostly me and mostly on NOT using INAPPROPRIATE language) but crap really does fit in this case.

Germans like to be known for their efficiency. But I honestly never saw a heck of a lot getting done while I was there and they are certainly wasting a lot of time with us now. Unfortunately MY time as well as theirs. It’s methodical, it’s bureaucratic, but it is no longer efficient if nothing gets done and IF IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE. (Except for the Altdorf Rathaus; they have always been a liferaft of tranquility and helpfulness in an otherwise turbulent – and senseless – ocean of bureaucratic stupidity.)

When we spent WEEKS getting the runaround when we first moved to Stuttgart 7 years ago I thought it might be an anti-immigration thing. People will not answer your questions – no matter how simple - if you are not in the proper office for asking that question. And no, they will not tell you which office can answer your question or how to get there either. They treat you as if you are an ignorant loser unworthy of their attention. And make you feel that way until you get home and realize that these are the people who are supposed to be helping you so that you don’t remain ignorant!

We’ve had this in TOURIST INFORMATION areas too, most recently at the Ludwigsburg castle. When I asked about the children’s museum they told me I should have come yesterday. But I’m here today with four children. Well, the museum was only open yesterday. As if I should have known that. Do you have any other suggestions for the children? The children’s museum. But you should have been here yesterday. No kidding. And this was at the INFORMATION DESK. We ended up walking around the courtyard of the castle that we’d never seen before (we usually do the garden, which is what we were doing YESTERDAY, when we apparently should have been at the children’s museum!) IT WAS BEAUTIFUL! Why not show some enthusiasm and tell us how beautiful the courtyard is?!

Now I understand why the supposedly simple things took Damon hours and months to work out.

You can only cancel the TV Skye service at one year intervals. So we cancelled our contract, due to renew the end of August, in June. When mid-September hit and we were still receiving channels we called again.

You can only cancel once a year, they told us. We cancelled in June, we responded. No you didn’t. Yes we did. No you didn’t. Yes we did. No you didn’t. Yes we did. So much for the customer is always right. In Germany, the customer is always the idiot. Damon finally told them we just weren’t paying/ But you have to pay for September, they said, because you’ve been getting it for two weeks.

NOW they are STILL harassing us, because, as they inform us, you can only cancel once a year and since we didn’t pay September we have to pay the full year.

You'd think a civilization that built - and rebuilt - the Frauenkirche in Dresden would be able to disconnect cable TV service with a little more class!

Thank goodness we are in Australia.

I sent a snotty email to my old fitness company too, the central offices who insist that the written notice I gave them three months before leaving is insufficient. It should have been six months unless we move somewhere that doesn’t have an associated fitness club. The manager at my local club laughed and told me they do that to everyone, just trying to get more money.

Our school did this too – accusing Ryan of destroying a book – and demanding 30 Euros. I ignored that letter…..also having been told it was just a way the school uses to get a little extra cash. And after hearing from Ryan that she had been reprimanded in front of the entire class for it. Rudely. And, having seen the book, also disagreeing that was destroyed. If you have a problem with my child, do NOT speak to her IN FRONT OF THE CLASS and then send me a letter for money. Without consulting me. They sent me THREE written reminders – all just as rude as the first – but never had the guts to address me to my face. You want to hear inappropriate language, read my thoughts on THAT one!

And now the fitness company.

HELLO! WE ARE IN AUSTRALIA! I wrote. What shall I send, PICTURES! (What they want is an Abmeldung. You are required to register your whereabouts when you live in Germany – frightening I know.) What they want is an official piece of paper. What we have is electronic. What they really want is 90 Euros.

Honestly, stop quibbling over the small stuff and start learning to serve customers. You’d waste less time, make people happy and, in the final result, earn MORE from satisfied customers. But sorry, that is CAPITALISM!

That self-vaunted German efficiency is taking a real beating here in Australia, the laid back folks who supposedly take nothing seriously.

Uh yeah? Just because they’re smiling doesn’t mean they’re not getting the job done. Health care? Check. Come back every 3 months til my permanent VISA comes in? Oh – don’t be silly. You’ve registered the kids in school, gotten a license, an apartment and a bank account. Why waste time reapplying every 3 months? Come back in a year.

Damon still can’t believe the phone and internet and electronics service people who help him find the most cost-efficient solution for his personal needs.

Ah yeah. CUSTOMER SERVICE! Keeping people happy – even the little people – so that they come back and buy more later. Instead of gauging them for every little bit so you can take all you can while they are there. Really, in Germany the BANKS insist on all 10 years of interest on a home mortgage, even if you sell the home and pay off the mortgage before then. You see, they don’t want to lose their money on that interest. Instead of taking care of their customers, meeting their need and thereby creating a loyal customer. Honestly, I never bought into all this while I was in the USA!

Ularu - still called Ayers Rock - in Dresden.  German schnitzel and Australian beer.

So yeah. That was not good morning.

After that, the two items we did not buy for the kids in their school packs, two pencil sharpeners and two rulers, had either disappeared or been broken beyond repair over the summer break.

Prompting me to yell and scream and tell the kids that they would have to use their Christmas money to buy them.

The coloured pencils I had bought for Aidan and Matthew kept breaking in the one Sesame Street pencil sharpener we COULD find.

Aidan then reminded me that the words I was using were not words of love. To which I responded that I was tired of being told what to say by a four year old and that if he wanted to swear then by all means he should go ahead and do it. This frightened him so much that he DID swear. And throw pencils.

Andrew then came out of his bedroom with a fistful of small change and offered to buy school supplies with his savings.

At which point I felt small enough and mean enough to crawl under a rock.

Which is when I decided 12:40 was NOT too early for a beer.

Beer at lunch.  In the Czech Republic, technically speaking...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Playing Well With Others

Ryan and her friends at Lawnton State School welcoming this years preppies.
We ran into another ''recovered German'' a few weeks ago on the bus. She came to Australia as a 10-year old. Still remembers her German but speaks English with an Aussie accent. Would never consider going back. And just doesn't understand why they are all so rude over there.

She thinks its the schools. ''They just don't learn HOW to be nice to one another.''

I wonder still if the education system reflects the faults of the society or the society reflects the failures of the education system. (And not just in Germany.)

One thing we agreed on is that playing well with others is just as important, and maybe more so, than math scores. (Why are we always worried about the MATH scores?!)

Playing well with others is something Aussies do well. (Our math scores aren't bad either, since you ask!)

1.Aussies- men and women, all colors and races- willingly give up their seats on the bus or train to children, elderly, young mothers and other people in need. WILLINGLY. And they insist. I have given up trying to argue that I can stand while we squeeze the twins in.

2.Aussies give up the right of way on the sidewalk when they see children coming. Young adults too. We thank them politely and tell them it was unnecessary and they look at us like we are nuts. ''But you have kids. It's only natural.'' Explain that to the German men who insist that the pavement is theirs and refuse to give an inch as my family tries to get around them. It may mean that we swarm to all sides, but Goddamnit that sidewalk is theirs.

3.I've had strangers at the mall – kids in their TEENS – offer to keep an eye on the kids while I head to the counter for food.

A kid-friendly society.  Happy kids make happy adults?

4.People in the movie theatres try to sit so that adults don't obstruct the children's views. They apologize if they can't find a way around it and we work out a seating arrangement together- sometimes with the kids mixed in with theirs – so that everyone can see

5.People help eachother with groceries and bags on the bus. I tell them about all the hassles I used to have with the double stroller – and about how all the Germans would just sit and watch – and they can't believe noone ran over to help me.

6.People constantly ask us if we are in line when we are a good six to nine feet (two to three yards )away. They want to be sure they aren't going ahead of us. In Germany, people TRY to cut in front of you so they can get to the front of the line faster. If you are IN line and look down to answer an SMS – beware, because someone has just taken advantage of your inattention to jump right in front of you. And oh yes, they are well aware of what they are doing.

It's been a lot easier for me to learn to accept help when that help is so freely offered.

The thing is, everyone is happier this way. Noone is fighting over their spot on the sidewalk. It just seems so silly, doesn't it?!

I'm not going to insist that everyone should be as friendly as the Aussies. I personally like having people I don't know – yet – strike up conversations with me. How else are we going to find universal consciousness if we aren't conscious of others?! But it's not for everyone. Yet.

Respect for families and love of children can only help Germany but good luck with that. Large families are met with such disdain there. Like we didn't know how to prevent having all those children. Or worse, were low class enough to WANT that many. How gauche.

People here come up and ask us if those four are ours. And if those two really are twins.   And then shake our hands, give us a high-five, or tell the children how lucky they are. It started in the airport on the way here. People telling us what a lovely family we had and how beautiful our children are. In Germany all we ever heard – if we heard anything – was how much work we must have with all those kids. Joy, Germany, what about the JOY?!

Christmas Eve with friends.  Ages 2 to 13 played together. 

You want to raise the birth-rate, stop thinking about children as a burden and a responsibility.

Or make your immigrants feel welcome. Yeah, like THAT'LL happen!

Europeans often say that they find American friendliness to be artificial, that it doesn't really mean anything.

Yeah, sure is nice when someone ''artificially'' holds the door open for you while you're struggling with that double stroller though isn't it? (Oh, sorry, MY FAULT I had all those kids to begin with. You go right ahead on through, sir, don't worry about us standing here. Sorry we're in the way. If you push my four year old just a little harder he'll step aside and you'll be able to get where you want to go.)

How much does it have to MEAN to give up your seat on the train for an elderly woman in a walker?! (The nerve of her coming on the train with that walker!)

Are Germans as a society really so unhappy (and I say yes) that they are UNABLE to think of someone besides themselves and put themselves in someone else's shoes? Is the lousy education system a reflection of the society or the society a reflection of a failed education system?

It's not about your right to be on the sidewalk, it's about your willingingness to share that sidewalk with others.

The Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, has asked us to treat victims of the flood by asking ourselves how we would want to be treated if we were in the same position.

Didn't some Jesus guy say that too?

All I know is that I'd rather be right here, surrounded by floodwater and a massive relief effort, than fighting for my place in line in Germany.

Playing well with others. Put THAT on the international school scores.
Lucky and privileged to be part of a large family.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"You'll be awright!"

Andrew captures a small Huntsman spider.
Australians have in international image as a rather goofy bunch. Thanks on that to Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin. Laid-back to the point of being silly. Again, image of Steve Irwin getting snapped at by a giant crocodile and laughing about it. ''That mate's a might grumpy today. Would like to take my arm off, I'd guess.'' As he reaches over to do the same thing again.

It doesn't help that the average Australian also has a rather laid-back approach to the creatures and creepy-crawlies that make the rest of the world nervous, at best. (And that I truly believe they ham it up a bit for the tourists!)

''Aww. Those are the yellow-backs. Give ya a nasty sting, they will. But nothing that'll put you in the hospital.''

Australians are really big on things that'll put you in the hospital.

''Ya gotta watch out a bit for those red-backs. Not gonna kill you though. Unless....'' and here they pause to closely evaluate the size of the twins. ''Nah. They should be awright!''

Also really big on things that kill you.

And on ''should be awright.''  (We could make it the national motto!)

The presentations at the Alma Zoo were also informative.

''Naw. These little fellows wouldn't be able to kill you.'' About a small crocodile. ''Could take a nasty chunk outta you though.''

Just a lizard.  These really WON'T kill you, but we think they are cool anyway!
And my favorite about the often misunderstand brown snake. ''Nah. You probably won't die. Depending on where it bites you of course. Worst case scenario is a few months in hospital. Stings quite a bit too, I'm told. With any luck you should be out of hospital within a few weeks at most.''

Slight pause. ''I still wouldn't touch one though.''

I feel like I'm giving away a magician's secret here, but Aussies are actually quite safety conscious.

Think about it. Kids are taught to identify poisonous and dangerous animals and what to do if they spot one. (Stay away from it. Call an adult.) Kids are taught swimming and water safety at school. Signs on the train warn about crossing the rails. And there is a yellow safety zone next to the tracks, something I have not seen anywhere in the USA or Europe. (Stay off the yellow. Simple enough even for a three-year-old.) There is a national sun-safety campaign – SLIP, SLAP, SLOP – that encourages everyone to slip on sun-protective clothes, slap on some UV safe sunglasses and slop on the sunscreen.

The first time we went to the beach there was a warning on the blackboard about blue bottles.  People read the sign, evaluated the risks and discussed their options.  Some stayed and swam.  Others left.  We stayed, figuring that they wouldn't let you in the water at all if blue bottles were the ones that killed you. (It'll hurt a bit, but you'll be awright!)  And we stayed well behind some other swimmers. 

I'll admit, our first view of the ocean was a bit scary.  Stay between the flags?  And what about THE REST of the ocean? 
Having just researched 'blue bottles'' I've just learned that they are what we call ''Man of War" in the rest of the world.  Oh.  Guess that explains why some people left.  We didn't see any though.  And, true enough, the Aussie website informs you that, while you should seek medical attention immediately, noone in Australia or New Zealand has ever actually died from a bluebottle sting.  Maybe from embarrassment at not knowing what it is though!

Right now the news is informing us about mosquito control – in order to avoid Dengue and Ross River Fever. As well as about wearing wellies – gumboots- during the cleanup effort to prevent cuts and infection in dirty waters.

We got car seats over here now too. And something known as bike helmets.

It's more fun to remember Crocodile Dundee, though. lost and confused in New York City.

''What's all the fuss about, mate?'' he'd say.

Of course, Crocodile Dundee kicks ass. Without a fuss. And still smiling.

That mates is the Aussie way.

T. Rex at the museum in Brisbane. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Luckiest People on Earth

http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/01/13/5830442-queensland-spirit-prevails-amid-the-floods  great article on the spirit and humor of Queenslanders.  Just so you know I'm not the only one impressed. 

Damon and the kids at the beach on January 2
Once again I am torn between wanting to tell the entire world how unbelievably fantastic my new country is and wanting to keep it a secret for those few of us fortunate enough to be here.

But since Oprah's broadcasts from Sydney air this week (here at least) I guess the secret is out. (No hard feelings Oprah, since my guess is you'll throw some fundraising towards the relief effort in there as well. Thanks for that.)

Australia has 20 million people spread out on a continent the same size as the continental USA as opposed to 300 million in that same area in the USA. That's about the same as the population of Beijing alone. It's a quarter of Germany, which would just be a blip on the Queensland map. The vast majority of us live near three urban centers on the east coast but, as the world is learning on TV, that is still a huge area.

And I'm trying to figure out why people really do seem to be so much happier here.    (I was going to say 'why things are so much better here' but I am really really trying to be objective.  Fairly miserably, I realize, but doing my darndest.)

A while back Newsweek listed the best countries to live in in terms of quality of life. They used criteria such as health care, education and job opportunities, access to shops and conveniences as well as general contentment. Let's face it, all of the developed countries scored in the top 20. But the top of the list were the Scandinavian countries. I believe Denmarkwas # 1. They also have that adorable Prince Frederick and Princess Mary, a former Aussie, who are living the perfect fairy tale life...happily ever after, still in love, and with four kids in five years.

The secret, according to Newsweek, was a relatively small population with comparatively large natural resources. (Mary's secret is a hot prince for those cold, Scandinavian nights but.....)

These countries can afford to take care of their citizens.

Australia is very very similar. We are a tiny, tiny, tiny country in terms of population. And we sit on a continent rich in natural resources. (How these will be used responsibly and sustainably – Australia is the world's largest exporter of wood chips even though it is less forested than any other continent except Antarctica – is another issue.) We have issues – the upcoming Australia Day celebrating James Cook's discovery of the continent, is called Invasion Day by indigenous Australians – and the indigenous life-expectancy is half of that of the non-indigenous population.

But, for the most part, Australians feel lucky to be here. Low-unemployment, good health care and schooling, and a beautiful climate.

Australians know how to work together. They are kind to one another. Even more so than Americans.

Are they this nice and laid back because their government is working or is the government working because it is being managed by people who know how to work together?

Proud Queenslanders in front of their capitol city, preflood.

What I'd like to show over the next couple of days:

1.Show they are this compassionate and considerate even before the flood disaster.

2.Show how the school environment, the P and C, was already working impressively as a mini-example of citizens and government.

3.Show how the disaster response has been led by the government and by individual relief groups, organized, prepared and WORKING TOGETHER, even BEFORE the waters receded. (What the heck happened to the federal govt after Katrina?)

4.Show the spirit of Queenslanders, who still feel lucky despite having lost their homes and possessions, compassionate to others under circumstances that would have Americans feeling sorry for themselves.

5.Show that a sense of humor, and a certain joie-de-vive, doesn't mean that Australians aren't able to mobilize and get things done.

Let's face it, Australians are lucky to have an infrastructure that will allow them to rebuild quickly. (Compared to Malaysia or even Brazil.) We have things going for us that makes it easier for us than folks in New Orleans. New Orleans was an unexpected, quick, catastrophe. Parts of New Orleans were destroyed. People died and were in shock. We have a smaller population, but also a population able to help themselves and able to expect help from an unbelievably coordinated and responsive government.

No wonder people are smiling despite the massive clean-up effort now in progress. The sun is out. The barbies are up and running. As long as the beer holds out – and the footy gets going again – we'll be all right. And that mates is how a sense of humor gets the job done.

And why Queenslanders really DO feel like the luckiest people on earth. Even as they rebuild.
Koala we saw today on the banks of the river.  He ambled right past us, unaware of the debris around him.  Neighbors stopped their clean-up efforts to watch him.  Honestly, it doesn't get any better than this!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ebb and Flow....Photo Essay

It hasn't been all rain since November.  Although the native Aussies have been apologizing for the cold and rainy weather, temperatures have been in the 20s C and we've seen more sun in this, Queensland's rainiest season on record, than we saw in the last few years in Germany.  We really weren't complaining. 

Rain started in earnest in December, with pockets of sunshine.  Right before we got here, in October, the local dam was at at 16% low.  By last week it was at 120%.  Within 2 days it was at 190%.  Because the slow and steady rains had soaked the grounds and because the rain just didn't stop for two days this past Monday and Tuesday.

But this is supposed to be a photo essay.

The pictures on Monday's blog were taken throughout December.  Lots of umbrellas.  Lots of irony at leaving the rain in Germany to be greeted by rain here.  A funny blog (not yet posted) apologizing for bringing it with us,

Photos in this blog were taken in Brisbane just last Sunday, before the floodwaters began to rise on Monday.  At that point the river was almost level to the ground but...Damon's famous last words...can you even IMAGINE how much water it would take to raise a river this size any level at all?

And this photo was taken on Bribey Island on January 2, when we took advantage of the one day of sunshine to celebrate Ryan's birthday.  I look back on other photos of us smiling in the sun over the past two months and feel as if we've experienced ancient history in our so very short time here.  Of course, I invite you to look back over the blog to check over those photos!


Noon on Tuesday, November 11, just 10 meters down the road.  We're pretty impressed at this point that the foot bridge is under water and the water has risen to 2 meters.

Our road under water and cut off.  Noon on Tuesday.

That same road four hours later at 4 PM on Tuesday, January 11.  The sign on the left is barely seen on the precious photo when Damon thought the 2 meter mark was worth recording.  Now the 2 meter mark is under water and the waters are halfway up the road sign.

4 PM Tuesday.  This is about when we thought that the rivers might merge to cut off our path of escape and considered evacuating.
THAT'S the side we have to get to to get to school! 

Just love the irony.  Road and nearby yards completely underwater.

Awe-inspiring to see.  But quiet here.  And no call to evacuate.
The waters HERE receded overnight and this morning, Wednesday, it was safe to walk.

Really.  This is our road 18 hours after peak flood. (What do you think of the neighborhood?!)
The sun is out.  30C.  And dry.  Bridge undamaged and cars passing.

That's the yard that was completely underwater 18 hours ago.  (Gotta LOVE the neighborhood!)  Sunny and dry.
Our beautiful road in the sunshine Wednesday morning.  I never imagined I would be impressed enough by pavement to post a picture of it!

And lookie there - a bridge!  Note the 2 meter mark and the tiny trickle of water on the left flowing down the opposite roadway into what is once again a tiny creek.

What a beautiful road!

Although we were ready to leave on Tuesday.  I realize the mini-life vests seem silly in light of the tsunami photos.  But you take what you got.

Ryan and Andrew staying informed with our borrowed TV set.

Emergency supplies also included bowling balls for Aidan and Matthew.

Ryan and Aidan in our pool Wednesday.  While tragedy unfolds all around us we seem to be wrapped in a bubble of safety and normalcy. 

Miss Scarlet.  In the living room.  With the rope.
It's 2 AM on Thursday, January 13, and I am up watching newsreel reruns.

It's still odd that the people of Brisbane are facing their worst hour right about now - flood levels are expected to peak in the next couple of hours - and while there is nothing I can do, it also seems weird to be sleeping in a dry bed, in my intact home, with all amenities intact, while people are losing everything they own just a few miles away.

Life continues tomorrow.  Damon has appointments and we need food and supplies.  Tomorrow the great challenge of returning to normalcy begins.

Surreal, Dear Editor, Surreal...

Arggh.  The only photo I could get up before the service shut off.  That's our road.  Way past the 2 meter mark.  Love the sign.  No kidding, right?!  Will post some more images of our little creek as well as a few of how the kids have been spending their time once the service is up and running again.  Arggh.  The luxury of anger over small inconveniences.
A year ago today I was at the Stern Center mall in Sindelfingen, Germany when Damon called to tell me that Haiti had suffered a 7+ earthquake.

The magnitude of the disaster dwarfed my everyday struggles with my VW – which wouldn't start that afternoon and which I then ran into a snowbank, intentionally, later that same evening.

I coped with my feelings of helplessness and self-indulgence by chanelling a fictitious Christine trapped under the rubble in Port-au-Prince, another reality to the Christine also trapped, but in Germany. My German life seemed artificial and meaningless, especially in comparison to the immediacy of life I had felt as a Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti.


The piece I wrote was very well received by my writers' group in Stuttgart and was even published by Klett for use in their online ESL program. Other than that, nothing much happened. I still haven't looked for publishers. I've written more about Christine, but shared it with noone. I started a novel about Haiti. It sucked. It was just too large for me to handle.

My editor at Klett cut the word 'surreal' from the piece. Too fluffy.....not immediate enough.

All of which shows I still haven't connected with the tragedies of people around me as I sit in as position of relative peace, safety, and wealth. It IS surreal.

Today I sit at my home in Queensland, safe from the flood waters, worried about the lack of chemicals in the pool, catching up on a week's worth of laundry while 75% of Queensland lies under water around me. Again, it is surreal. Even the newscasters say so, so it must be true!

At the moment I am as far away from the tragedies unfolding just down the road as I was a year ago from the tragedies in Haiti.

And this is tragic. It is the largest national disaster in Australia's history. (Unless you ask the aborigines and count James Cook as a national disaster.) The largest NATURAL disaster then.

Scenes on the TV remind me of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a few years ago. The ferocity of nature is awe-inspiring. But only when you aren't directly in its path.

Since I can't relate to it all without using terms like surreal, I look at statistics. And realize, once again, how lucky we are here. We have 10 deaths so far, from the flash flooding of an inland tsunami to the west of us two days ago. The flood waters have been slowly rising for weeks, and even now, with the worst of it expected in Brisbane overnight, people have been warned and evacuated.

2 deaths in Brisbane so far, out of a population of 2 million people. As compared to 200,000 deaths in Port-au-Prince, a city of 1,250,000. As compared to almost 2,000 in New Orleans, also a city of 1,250,000. What we have going for us is the nature of the disaster – relentless flooding as opposed to an instant disaster, as well as infrastructure, relief workers and the promise of help in the future. Fancy words and genuine international effort aside, what does the future look like for Haiti?

It will be tough – 2 million people alone is 10% of the people in Australia. (It's a HUGE country, with a comparatively TINY TINY population!) And that's not including the rest of Queensland. In our (relatively unaffected) area alone the bridges are out to neighboring towns, roads are cut, communities split off. Homes and businesses in affected areas will need to be rebuilt.

Then again, the electricity will come on again. (We were without it for a while yesterday and that really DOES make it all hit home. How will we get information? How much battery life on the laptops? The mobile phone? How are we going to boil water in the event of contamination.? How are we going to see if we have to pack up and leave? And yes, the bags were at the door.) Clean water has been contaminated in some areas. Ross Fever and Dengue will be concerns as mosquitoes already infest still waters, but we have no cholera, typhoid or malaria here. And public health agencies are in place to deal with this as rapidly as possible.

The worst of the flooding hasn't even hit us yet and already agencies are setting up to provide relief funds to affected families.

Somehow, I don't see Queenslanders living in tent cities a year after the disaster. (And most of Haiti didn't have electricity, potable water or proper sanitation, roads, phones, hospitals, and the list goes on, even before the earthquake.)

Then again, I look at pictures of Haiti and see beauty and hope on those faces too.

We are spending this disaster playing Clue (Ryan is kicking our butts!) and getting to know our neighbors. It did get a little hairy for a bit there yesterday when, after hours blogging, completely and blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding around me, I stepped outside and saw that the two rivers surrounding us had flooded their banks and were threatening to connect in a circle around us, cutting off escape. We called friends to cancel Ryan's birthday party on Saturday (honestly, the silly things you worry about, right?) and when they heard we still didn't have a TV, they drove right on over – roundabout the flooded bridge - and lent us one so that we could stay informed. They also brought games for the kids.

Later when the electriticity went out, new neighbors across the way stopped by with candles and ice for the refrigerator.  Four more families stopped by or called to see if we needed food.

Today, new neighbors have offered us their extra car so that Damon can get to appointments over the next few weeks. (Busses and rails are sporadic right now.) Another friend finally realized what we meant when we said that we have no furniture and were sleeping on mattresses. (It means we have no furniture and are sleeping on mattresses, but I guess people assume we are exaggerating.) A bunk – bed is coming. And another friend was angry we didn't take HIS old TV weeks ago.

These are all people we called to check on to see if they needed help.

And they are helping us.

Thing is we feel fortunate to be where we are. (And while people seem appalled at our lack of amenities, we knew what we were in for when we started over again on a new continent.) There are thousands of folks sleeping on shelter floors right now. Without mattresses. We are not the only Queenslanders without furniture or car. At least we have our home.

What do you do in the face of such tremendous need? Do we say 'no' to offers of help because there are others in even greater need?

We decided quickly to take the help. So that we can better help ourselves and therefore be in a better position to help others. (There is also the karmic feeling of having done the same for others in Germany when we gave our stuff away before leaving.)

Damon is hoping to join neighbors heading into Brisbane over the weekend to help whoever needs it in any way they can.

I still feel guilty that I didn't do more to help Haiti last year. And so I feel privileged to be able to help this year. I am happy we decided to move here when we did. It is only right that we share in the tragedy – and rebuilding – of our new state and country.

And, my editor will be pleased to note, not at all surreal.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Still Rowing....

Four homes down is the creek we cross to get to school.  The marker shows 2 meters.  The creek SHOULD be flowing UNDER the bridge.  Bridge, you ask?  2 meters down.
But the road past our house has been closed for days now. Rockhampton, where the brown snakes and crocodiles (but not the ones that'll eat you, mind, just the ones that'll take a bite outta ya!) are coming into homes with the flood waters, is an hour north and west. New South Wales is as far away as Florida from New York. So that our biggest problem has been a wet yard and an overflowing pool running out of salt. Since the salt comes from Rockhampton.

Today the names of flood zones are starting to sound familiar. Low-lying areas in Strathpine are being urged to evacuate. That's where the mall and the library are. That's where we go to the movies and lunch. That's only ten minutes away by car. Which you can't drive because roads all around us are closed. And you can't use the bus or train because they aren't running. Brisbane – BRISBANE, for crying out loud, is sand-bagging against flooding.

We were just there Saturday. On the water and then the museum when the rains started again.

We can't get to the beach because Caboolture, on the way, is cut off.  And Bribey Island, where our beach is, is closed.  The circle is closing.  Bray Park, the community next to ours, is being evacuated.  Only the low lying areas. mind you.

And the rain just doesn't stop.

It is really awe-inspiring.

Hamming it up outside the museum in Brisbane on Saturday
I think of so many tragedies in the world. The shooting in Arizona. (My GOD America, do you really need to CREATE your OWN disasters?) Tsunamis and earthquakes in the past two years. And Haiti. Of course I think about Haiti. It's been almost a year. And nothing has changed. Except maybe for Sean Penn who really seems to have found his element, God bless him.

And I think of how lucky we are to be here even in the midst of the flooding. I have NEVER EVER seen rain and water at this magnitude and I have seen a LOT, not only in Europe but also in Haiti and Africa. The rain hasn't stopped in 48 hours. After weeks of almost continuous rain that has the previously sun-baked earth around us looking like a marsh. Until now it has just been weeks of wet, and dark, but now there is thunder and lightning. With no signs of stopping and the waters rising around us. And more and more rain predicted for the rest of the week.  Highs aren't even expected until later in the week.  This is only the beginning.

I think of the folks in Toowoomba who spent the night on their roofs waiting for the helicopters this morning. And of how I would HATE to have to do that in the lightning.  (And I think of the 8 dead and 70 missing and realize those were the lucky ones too.)

At least it is warm here though, and no one is freezing.

And at least we have roads and dams and evacuation plans and emergency crews.  (Friends, neighbors and family - Aunt Merle - have been in constant contact today, offering trips to the supermarket, a TV set which we have finally accepted and board games and building blocks for the kids.  Everyone is checking up on eachother and everyone is helping.  The worst always brings out the best in people everywhere.)

Flooding of this magnitude would devastate Haiti as much as last year's earthquake did.

I'm writing to let everyone know we are all right. And we are.

But as the dam waters continue to thunder out the gates – the levels are at 172% and rising – you realize just how much an illusion your sense of control really is. We feel lucky that we don't have much to lose – although our crates have now arrived in Brisbane harbor and are being sand-bagged as I write. I liked the idea of them on a boat all this time. What better place but on an ark?! Until I realized today that if they do get flooded – that if we lose those ten years of photo albums and all my books – well, I realized what those crazy people on TV who have lost everything mean when they say that their possessions really weren't that important in the first place.

For me, a bad day in Australia is better than a good day anywhere else.

I'm SUPPOSED to be rowing THIS boat down THIS stream.

Funny though, all this time I'd been imagining a kayak, not a police escort to a highschool gymnasium on high ground!  (Don't worry - it'll be a LandRover and it'll be at Emily's.)

Again, WE ARE FINE! WE ARE HOME. WE ARE NOT BEING EVACUATED. And, while we are SURROUNDED by flooding and evacuation, the general consensus of neighbors who gathered to watch the creek flood its banks is that Lawnton is on high ground relative to surrounding area.  The water would have to rise by 45 meters for us to be in danger.  We are at 2 and rising.  So far we are to remain where we are. Still plenty of puzzle pieces to work on, more Clue games to play and a TV and DVDS on the way.

Still rowing...