Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Aussie B'days - Strange New World

We've celebrated childrens' birthdays in four countries by now and there are certain comparisons to be made.

The cake is a hit worldwide.

I don't think anyone will argue that birthday parties have gotten out of hand in countries like the USA where parents are expected to invite the entire class of 25 to 30 kids, have a themed party with clowns and jumping castle, or take the kids hot-air ballooning, anything to beat LAST year's party and keep up with the other 25- 30 parties your kid has been invited to attend.

When we were in Geneva, my best friend's daughter attended an exclusive international private school - as only Geneva can do - and not only were parents expected to fork out 40 to 50 dollars in a gift for the birthday child but often also had to invest in an elaborate princess costume or other themed outfit for the party.

I used to wonder how children like this would ever face up to reality but then realized that children growing up in such bubbles of privilege seldom ever have to.  With such wealth, the American expats - usually seen as figures of privilege in other countries - were having a hard time explaining to their kids why they couldn't have the 300 dollar jeans their classmates - European royalty and Arab oil money - were wearing.

But Aussies don't need fancy table settings.

So that practical Germany was really a relief.  Our only surprise came when - at Ryan's 5th birthday party - the girls we'd invited demanded to know the schedule of events I had planned for them.  Schedule of events?  Yes, and an art project being apparently obligatory as well.  In France we'd just fed everyone cake and mums had chatted while the kids played.  In Germany - and to be fair, the kids were getting older - kids expected choreographed entertainment. 

I managed to come up with some Christmas cookies and candy in the kitchen and led the kids in making little gingerbread houses out of crysallized sugar and M and Ms.  And, having grown up in Germany myself, I had no problem getting out the blindfold, wooden spoon and kitchen pot and having the kids bach around our living room blindfolded hunting for treats.

Once the twins were born, things got ugly.  How were we going to watch two infants and still amuse 8 older children in a small apartment?

We had to get creative, ask friends for help, and spend a little more money to take the kids out somewhere.  Ryan pushed her party back to June a couple of times to allow us to take a FEW best friends horseback riding and to the pool.  Another time we paid for a trip to a camel farm.  A little more money, and I had to find a friend to help drive, but it was worth it to have the kids amused by someone else while Damon stayed home and watched the two babies.

Uh.  Guys.  That was SUPPOSED to be a BASEBALL tee.

Andrew's bday - April 1 - allowed us to invite the dozens of friends whose bdays HE'D been invited to to a barbeque.  In retrospect we should have had people drop their kids off at the park, but part of the agreement in Germany seems to be that you take the kids off their parents hands so that they have the afternoon free for your child's bday - so one year we made my parents help drive while they were visiting.  Desperate measures, my friends.  (The first year after the twins were born we begged a few close friends to come and man the fire while I chased after the 9 month olds.  It was fun.  But most adults begged off ever doing it again.  Bday parties are NOT fun in Germany.  They are obligations.  You are obligated to entertain THEIR kids on YOUR kid's bday and they promise to take yours off your hands in return.)

Last year we took everyone on a train to a bowling center.  A nightmare, but Andrew wanted something other than a barbeque for once.

The twins were young and we were able to do a thing at the pool with family friends.  Last year, since they had started kindergarten, we had to jump in and invite kindi friends.  We had a nice group of about 5 kids who played together, whose parents we got along with and it was actually a nice season - a bunch of bday parties in June and July, a group of moms hanging around and helping out and a generally good time eating cake while the kids played.

By then I'd also learned that you CAN do your own thing and get away with it.  One friend had about four different kinds of fantastic, home-made German cakes for all the adults.  Right away, I let everyone know they would be having my standard vanilla cake only.  Another friend did have a huge Disney theme complete with monogrammed T-shirts my boys still wear today.  She was upset when the kids wouldn't stop playing in the bedroom to come and properly eat cake and drink tea.   Formalities must be observed.  (I, on the other hand, am just thrilled when the kids amuse themselves and leave well enough alone!)

It was a nice group of people.  The boys WANTED to have THEIR party IN our apartment, mostly IN their playroom so they could have all of their best friends in their room playing with their toys at the same time.  I would have preferred a park but it was their party.  We opened gifts, had cake and - prearranged with this group by now - fed everyone some quick chicken fingers for dinner so that noone had to worry about it that evening.

One mom left in a huff because HER idea had been for us to take the kids bike-riding at the track near our home and couldn't understand that Matthew and Aidan wanted THEIR party inside.  But that was her choice - it was about HER child - and the rest of us continued with chicken fingers and mini pizzas.

Just to let folks know that there are MELLOW and HELPFUL and genuinely kind and caring people in Germany.  This was a NICE group of mums I really regretted leaving.  (I should mention the previous parties for the twins with their German godmother and her four kids - thats enough - and the pool and bowling parties with Anita, Maria, Lori, Kristy- English speakers all who just wanted to help me celebrate the milestones with the twins and came to support and be there for me, not to judge.  Thanks guys.  I miss you all.)

BMX mean green machine.  Thanks grandparents.

The other thing I liked about Germany was the PRACTICALITY of it all.  No nonsense, the hassle eliminated from gift-giving.  You asked people what their child might like and, expecting at first a vague idea of likes and dislikes - got a detailed list of what YOU were down for.  As in  "Heidi  is picking up the soccer ball and will share that gift with Julian and Luka.  You are down for the educational boardgame but Jan's mom will get that and you will owe her 8.74."

What was nice that - since I could often not be relied upon to get the required item, opting in my American-like way for something I was able to find in the first store I went to rather than hunt down the other thing all over town - I often only had to fork over some cash to another, more dependable mom.

I downright refused to buy the pencil case or the travel cosmetic bag one mom asked for.  Nice lady but way too practical for my taste.  ( I still remember having to explain to an American mom that the gift her child had received - a set of mongrammed bath towels - was NOT a lame, rude and lazy gift but something I happened to know the German mother had been very excited to spend the time to go and personally order.)

The problem came when it was MY turn to crank out a gift list.  The stress of planning THAT sucked.

Uh.  Not EXACTLY what I asked for.

The other thought that DID pop into my head - and pops in often now - is that this planned and strategized gift-giving rather took the joy and the well, GIFT-GIVING, out of gift-giving.  I am having SUCH a blast just going into the stores here and picking out something I know MY boys would enjoy - some Legos, or some cars or something small, plastic and completely UNPRACTICAL.  I AM German, so it will never be junk, but what fun just to go and pick out a GIFT, rather than a pre-ordained requirement that might not meet expectations and then have to be returned.

My most German gift here so far was a gardening set for a self-professed gardener in Ryan's class.  But I think she liked it.  And it was SO MUCH FUN to shop around for something I WANTED TO GIVE rather than something I had been told to purchase.

Gifts aren't even considered obligatory here. 

Mums stayed to hang out WILLINGLY at Andrew's party.  DADS TOO!

And the kids had fun amusing themselves.

THERE IT IS!  (A cricket bat, for all you Americans.)

There is a down side.  Bday parties seem to be a FAMILY thing - a barbeque at the park with family and just a few classmates.  The upside is that the pressure to entertain the kids is off.  The adults barbeque and enjoy being together and the kids run around and do the same.  Mixed ages, mixed sexes, everyone just enjoying the day and being together.  EASY!

Our problem is that we HAVE no family here and MY KIDS want to invite their friends.  It is what they are used to: their day, their friends.  So that Andrew was very disappointed when the majority of the kids he invited didn't RSVP (NOT an Aussie thing at all to RSVP!  Funny enough, wasn't a French thing either!)  and didn't show.  (We'd had the same problem with Ryan's bday in January  - 2 out of 8 responses.)

All in expectations.  We DO have close friends already and some of them have five kids alone - so that whipping up a gathering will be no problem now that we know how it is done.

A relief really, to give up the expectations and the stress of entertaining everyone else's kids just to show your kid that they are special.  Instead, we can enjoy a traditional barbeque with close family friends and show the kids that they matter by spending time together as a family.

We also won't feel obligated to invite the dozens of kids who have invited ours.

Odd Aussie concept that - no themed costumes and intricate art projects, no expectations and obligations.

Give up the annual kids birthday party?!  HOW CRAZY IS THAT?!  But how will they know we love them?  How will we prove they are as good as everyone else?  How will we repay the people who have had us to theirs?

It's like giving up the annual Christmas cards to relatives on your husband's side who have never liked you to begin with.



It's a strange, new world.  (And no, you don't have to wear a costume or bring a gift to enter it!)


  1. Thanks dearest Christine!!! I needed education & preparation! You know my style & Levi is going to he's 1st German party this afternoon(EEK!!!) hEE HEE! hE'LL just moer-an like he's used to :-)

  2. Moer- an! I forgot that one!

    Glad I could help. You'll be fine!

    (Easy for me to say. JOIN ME HERE! JOIN ME HERE!)