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At the end of 3rd grade, we moved to America.  To California, to be precise.  Before that I had spend only 6 months in America, and I knew little-to-no English.  My memories of those first months are all visual. I wonder if that is what my kids remember from our first year in Germany?

I did get to try ESL (English as a Second Language) but either I was a really fast learner, or I didn’t fit in with the other kids.  After one session I was left to my own devices in a muted classroom.  No one else spoke Dutch, the rest all spoke Spanish, Vietnamese or Cambodian.  I was in San Jose, California.  A mecca for immigrants in the 70′s, and still at the top of the list of US cities with most immigrants.  Just not a lot of Dutch immigrants.

I don’t remember feeling too lonely or isolated. I do remember the day I met my best friend.  Jill walked into the classroom, new kid on the block, a couple months after I did.  My teacher, a fantastic man, Mr. Plummer, sat Jill next to me.  Whether it was because we were both new, or as it later turned out exact clones, I don’t know.  I do know we were immediate friends, inseparable until my dad’s job took us back to Holland two years later.

Some friendship are meant to be.  They stand the test of time and separation.  I moved back & forth between California and Holland into my teenage years, finally settling in the California bay area.  Jill finally settled in Santa Cruz, California, her mother changed jobs frequently as well.  We stayed in touch.  And as I got my drivers license I spent many hours driving that dangerous Highway 17 between Santa Cruz & Los Altos.  I love Jill.  I love the beach.  I love the crazy, crunchy-granola-ess that is Santa Cruz. What a fabulous place to spend your teenage years.

When Soren came along unexpectedly in 1990, Jill stood by my side.  Later she stood up as Soren’s Godmother and he was ring-bearer in her & Mitra’s wedding.  Then she left me.  She moved to the East Coast, leaving me behind with a big hole.  The next 20 years had both of us moving a lot. Me with the military as I became an army wife, her as an attaché’s wife as Mitra joined the State Department.

In September they moved to Paris.  Six-hours-from-me Paris.  I did a happy dance and talked to her for hours.  We were back, baby!  The weekend before Christmas, Jill, Mitra and 15-year-old Ella (named Elizabeth after me, my middle name is Elizabeth) came for their first visit.  I hadn’t seem them since Cole & Ella were both still in strollers.  Nothing had changed.  We picked up right were we left off, and reveled in our happiness.

Mitra & Dave followed close behind, marveling at the fact that there are two of us.  Two of us who get stressed when we are late, even if it’s only a minute.  Two of us that are compelled to pick up every shoe & jacket.  Two of us that worry if a child is out of sight for just a second.  We both wear glasses now, we both have night guards.  Time may have moved on, but we grew & changed even more the same in that time.

The two of us picked up our families, and our mothers (and my dad), and took Stuttgart by storm.  We led our group 11 through crowded Christmas markets to the best booths, to the best glühwein and the ice skating rink.  We exhausted our parents, and even Mitra, and they all found a warm, cozy bar to fill up in.  Jill & I kept the kids herded, and entertained, never missing a beat in catching up.

She left two days before Christmas, but I didn’t feel a loss.  I know we are barely separated, and I will see her again in no time.  Next time in Paris!  I had been feeling so lost with all my friends leaving.  And God opened up a door, threw it wide open, and led my bestest friend back in.

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Every time I see my Oma again, I burst into tears.  I steel myself before. I tell myself to be brave. I tell myself to be strong, none of it works.  I see her and I melt. It is just love.  It is my guilt at being so far. It is my sadness at how she has changed.  And it is my fear it is the last time.

My Oma will be 99 this December. An incredible age.  My cousin and I marveled at all the things she has seen in her lifetime.  We find it hard to imagine there will ever be another age where life changed so rapidly, so completely, as the last century.  I feel so blessed I spent so much time with my Oma as a child.  I am the oldest grandchild, maybe because of that our bond is incredibly strong.  We spent hours together playing cards, me always losing (I only discovered she’s a big cheater-head well into my 20′s), shopping, cooking, talking. I miss that now, though at the same time I am so thankful.

She has changed with age, she looks very different, I struggle to see her in the person she is now.  But her blue eyes are just as piercing, just as full of love & pride & joy as always.  And sometimes I see her shine through, like when I burst into tears, she frowned at me, then nodded at my kids sitting still, almost frozen, wondering what to do with their mommy.  It helped me to get myself back together, to turn my attention to them, and explain my tears are of love.

Always when I visit, she is retreated inside herself until I pick up Dane and sit him on her lap.  She immediately grabs on, holds him tight, and just sinks away for a moment in his sweet little boy smell, his warm skin and his amazing personality.  This time I had my camera ready.  I wanted more than anything to capture that moment.  That moment where she is really here.  In the moment.  My Oma.


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Exploring our town one day, we ran into the Mayor.  An ebullient, extroverted kind of guy.  After half an hour of talking, I found myself drafted into the town choir.  Hysterical because I can’t carry a tune. I can’t even carry a note!  Since then I’ve gone to several Tuesday night practices.  Everyone tolerates me, makes me feel beyond welcome, and I get some much needed time out of the house.

Fast forward to last Tuesday, and after practice a sign-up sheet was passed around.  I too was expected to sign-up, so sign-up I did. It was time for the annual zwiebelkuchenverkauf.  Onion pie sales.  Many bigger towns have zwiebelkuchenfests, or onion pie festivals, where the zwiebelkuchen is served with Federweiße, a very sweet, freshly pressed, alcoholic grape juice, or “must”.  Our village is small & we “just” sell the zwiebelkuchen.  In our case to raise money for the music club.

I showed up for my first volunteer shift late Thursday afternoon, Tessa in tow.  Tess is as curious as I am about all the traditional going-ons in town.  We knew we’d be cutting onions, and we had knives and cutting boards in hand.  We found everyone tucked away in an old barn/halle at the edge of town, into the dark trees of the Black Forest.  I have to say, before pushing open the old wooden doors, we both felt a little freaked out & slightly in the middle of a horror movie.

Inside it was warm, cozy, filled with chatter & laughter.  We were heartily welcomed and given a choice of peeling or chopping.  Our choice to chop was met with loud cheers. We quickly found out why, as we cried our way through several pounds of onions.  Tess managed to slice her finger open, and immediately half the crew had whipped out pflasters (or bandaids).  Tess was very happy with her smiley-face pressure tape.

The next morning I showed up shortly before the booth opened, still smelling like onions.  I was quickly informed that coffee grounds are an anti-onion-finger remedy.  Now I know.  Half the crew had been up since 4 am baking zwiebelkuchen.  Noting my obvious interest, and big camera strung around my neck, I’m so subtle, I was given a little tour of the old Backhaus (bakery) and how-to bake zwiebelkuchen.

Our zwiebelkuchen are still baked in an old-wood fired oven.  The wood itself can only be from certain pine, fruit or nut trees and is cured for two years in the attic above the ovens themselves.  The wood is placed into the ovens, and burns very hot down to coals & ash.  It is critical that the massive iron doors stay cracked during the heating. Once the ovens are heated, the ash is brushed to the side with an old-fashioned twig broom dipped in water.  Then the onion pies are placed inside the ovens, now without a direct heat source.

Only the Chefin mans the ovens and places the pies.  The pies are handed in brigade style, from the kitchen to the ovens and baked a beautiful golden color.  At this point in my education I was handed a fresh slice to eat to illustrate how delicious they are. Of course I’ve had zwiebelkuchen before, but this, was so fresh, so creamy, so naturally sweet.  Oh. My.  Drool.

The crust is really a dense bread.  Our village has one dough maker, and she makes all the dough for the hundreds of pies baked this weekend.  For the last several years she has a big, old, industrial mixer  (think Kitchenaid times 100) to help.  Before that it was all by hand.  Once the dough is made it’s set aside to rise, once, then again, then rolled by hand into perfectly even crusts.  The filling is made in big vats by a team of two, a mixture of both sour & sweet cream, onions, eggs and little else.  So incredibly delicious.

The zwiebelkuchen are baked in big, heavy cast-iron “tins”.  The circumference much bigger than an American pie.  There is a special, extra-wide, short spatula thing (it has a proper, long, German name.  I went with “Das Ding” or “that thing”) that is used for scooping the pies out and onto big, round, wooden boards for cutting or onto the customers own tray.  Most of the villagers came by to buy a whole zwiebelkuchen, that I placed directly onto their cooking sheets, I imagine to take home & heat & serve.  I’m again struck by the practicality of Germans, and how prepared everyone is for everything.  I love this.  The cut pieces went primarily to the kids getting out of school, off the bus, on their way home.

By the end of my 2-hour selling shift my arms were sore from lifting the heavy, cast-iron tins & pies and my German was again much improved.  I bought my own zwiebelkuchen to take home, sadly needing to spend the extra €0,50 for a carboard box.  I didn’t get the memo to bring a tray from home in time. I just finished my last piece of pie for breakfast, it’s also awesome with coffee, and I’ll be heading out to buy two more shortly.  I’ve heard they freeze beautifully and I know I’ll be craving this again as the days grow colder.

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Pièces de Monnaie

by Toiny Westberry 4 September 2013

Road trips in Europe are not the same as in the states. There’s the obvious differences, new languages, new monies (not all countries in Europe are using the Euro.  See: Chufs), new customs, and there’s the not-so-obvious. We’d done our homework, and we knew to expect toll roads.  What we didn’t know is how different […]

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Army Ball 2013

by Toiny Westberry 12 June 2013
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Last Saturday was the big Army ball for the troops stationed in Stuttgart.  It was my first Army ball in almost 20 years.  I’d forgotten how much effort it takes to go dancing for a couple of hours. For the last several months we’ve been walking, for our health, for the beautiful scenery in the Black […]

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SnickerdoodleDesigns Visits Germany!

by Toiny Westberry 4 May 2013
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Our new house came with a little apartment on the ground floor. We use it mostly for game nights & so-mom-doesn’t-hear the x-box.  But it is a fantastic little space for guests. I sent emails to my Design Team, friends & family that I had room.  I’ve already had friends & family come to visit, and this […]

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Socks Are a Really Good Idea

by Toiny Westberry 24 April 2013
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Remember how last week was not my week?  This week is already 1,000% better.  Except.  Well.  I goofed.  Big time. Last week was so hectic, the racing around between home, schools, hospital and our on-post vehicle registration kept me hopping.  I had little to no time to drag out my beloved camera and take pictures.  […]

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Quit Baking a Cake!

by Toiny Westberry 13 April 2013
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Everything gets a little easier with time. Even being in a far away land without my big boys.  My life is slowly getting back to normal after Soren’s whirlwind visit, excepting the pile of snowboards in my living room.  We are getting back into our normal rhythm and that is a good thing.  Frequent phone […]

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Bicycle Mom

by Toiny Westberry 23 March 2013
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It is no secret they do things differently here in Germany.  We are here as a guest in their country, and I’m doing my best to adapt.  Some things are easy (ahem, beer), but some things are hard.  The hardest one for me is letting my kids go. In the last year of Kindy (preschool […]

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Weigh-me, Price-me

by Toiny Westberry 20 March 2013
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Oh, I know I’ll probably get some emails from concerned peeps that Dane will now be a smoker.  Sigh.  I can’t even say I disagree.  I can tell you that I grew up with fake cigarettes, and was the coolest, candy-smokingest, kid in my 5th grade class at Almaden Elementary school in San Jose, CA, and […]

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