Achtung, Baby: A Conversation with Author Sara Zaske

Achtung Baby_cover2


If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may know that my family and I spent 2010-2012 in Hannover, Germany. Sara Zaske is an American friend I met during that time, through the local SCBWI chapter (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Sara lived in Berlin, a couple of hours away, but we managed to meet up once and to keep in touch over the years.

Sara is living back in the States now and has written a book called Achtung, Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children. She was kind enough to share a little about her journey with me.

Me:        What years did you live in Germany, and what kinds of schools did your children attend?

Sara:      We moved to Germany in January of 2009. My daughter, Sophia, was two and a half. We left in June 2015, almost six and half years to the day. When we left, Sophia was nine and my son, Ozzie, who was born in Germany, was five.

From the start, we tried to send my daughter to a bilingual kita (day care center), but she was really the only one fluent in English. After my son turned one, we were lucky to find an international kita with spots for both of them. This kita was truly bilingual. Still, both my kids still learned German without any formal instruction mainly because it was the language of play. Now that I think about it, the way they learned the language is further evidence that young kids learn best through play. My daughter also attended three years of public Grundschule (elementary school) which was all in German, all the time.

Me:        Was there a moment when you first arrived that stands out to you in terms of noticing parenting differences? For instance, on our very first day we went to a biergarten with friends. I remember being shocked that they let their kids wander off out of sight to a nearby playground. Mine were 2 and 5, and I reluctantly let them go with the other kids, but I felt nervous the whole time.

Sara:      That’s funny! We had a similar experience during our first days in Germany. I saw two three-year-olds and a five-year-old run off to a playground behind a wall – and no one thought it was important to go watch them!  The other story I often tell is this one:

I was at the playground with my daughter – we were new to Berlin and she was still very young, and I saw a kid — maybe age 8 or 9 years old — dangling from a high play structure on the outside, where you aren’t supposed to go. He still had a good 10 to 12 feet below him. I got up and yelled “Achtung!” (my limited German included this phrase learned from the U2 album) and I looked around for his parents. All the other adults were sitting at the edges of the park drinking coffee. No one seemed concerned. By the time I turned back, the kid had dropped down into the sand. He looked at me like I was the crazy person and ran off.


Me:        Have you found it challenging at all to retain some of the parental wisdom you gained in Germany? Are some things harder to implement? Do you get pushback? For example, for us, walking around in Charlotte can be dangerous. It’s not uncommon for cars to pass a stopped school bus or to sail through a crosswalk with a traffic guard holding a stop sign in the center of it.

Sara:      I find it very challenging, especially around giving my kids the chance to walk around their own neighborhood by themselves. It’s now a little easier since they are older (my son is 8 now, my daughter 11), but when we first moved back to the US, Sophia was nine and was the only girl her age biking to school by herself. My son started regularly walking to school at age seven. I think it took extra courage for him to do it because none of his peers were walking to school (Most would have been doing that in Germany at that age). He also knew other American parents didn’t approve. Still, he had a strong desire to be independent, and he’s done great.

Me:        What’s the best thing you gained as a parent from your time in Germany?

Sara:      Living in Germany really shifted my perspective on what it meant to be a parent. I thought it was my job to keep my kids completely safe and try to ensure their future success. I took some time, but I eventually realized that those two things are not only impossible, they are not my responsibility. My job as a parent is to help my kids learn how to do things themselves, including how to manage risk and chart their own course for success – and then to let them go.

Me:        What was the most surprising thing  you observed about German kids and their parents?

Sara:      Letting kids light off massive fireworks. Heck, letting adults light off massive fireworks! New Year’s Eve, what the Germans call Sylvester, is celebrated in Germany by every man, woman and child bringing out the biggest firework rockets they can find, sticking them in empty champagne bottles and lighting them off  — in the streets of major cities! I still think it is too dangerous, and yes, there are German kids out there doing it too right there alongside their parents.

Me:        What do your kids remember about your time in Germany? What was the transition to living back in the U.S. like for you and for your kids?

Sara:      We’ve been back about two and half years. My kids remember many things, partly because some of their formative years were spent in Germany – and partly because we talk about it a lot!

Some of the transition back was nice: seeing family and friends and for me, finding it so much more comfortable to be in the culture I grew up in. I had missed the casual American friendliness, though at times I find it odd that I’m making small talk with strangers!

We had some difficulties coming back, of course. Most notably, we found so many barriers for kids to simply playing with other kids in the US! Children aren’t outside here anymore, the playgrounds are boring, and the schools provide very little recess and opportunities to play and socialize compared to German schools. However, on the whole, my kids have adapted– and we work hard to give them time to play and opportunities to be independent. I like to think their experiences in Germany made them stronger, more confident – and more adventurous.

Me:        Thanks so much, Sara! Can’t wait to read your book. You can find out more about Sara, including links to articles and video appearances, at her website,



Death by Dessert, or How to Watch the World Cup On the Border


We became pretty solid soccer fans while living in Germany, especially around World Cup time, so on our recent return trip, we were psyched to watch games with our German friends.

For the U.S. v. Germany game, though, we were on our own in France. We planned the whole evening around the game, which aired at 6 p.m. in that time zone.

It was also the only night we could eat at the local Michelin-starred restaurant—and the night they serve a very reasonable prix-fixe menu. So we made a late reservation to fit in both, planning to watch the game at our B & B.

Gourmet Salad

We’d biked 15 miles that day (a lot for us), and I planned to take a shower during half time.

One big problem. After the pre-game commentator chatter, the screen went blank with a message that said something like: “This game is not authorized to be shown in this region.” We flipped around, hoping another station would carry it, but the only game on was the other World Cup match happening at the same time.

Luckily, we were staying right near the German border, so I took a 3 minute shower, hopped into a dress, and we loaded up and drove to the ferry to cross the Rhine. On the other side, my husband knocked on restaurant doors until we found one with public viewing in its little bar area.

The one long table was full of retiree-aged tennis table club members, and the only free seats were at the front with a mustachioed man who’d already had a few too many beers.

He was friendly, though, and when he found out we were American, he told us over and over how much he loved Americans and how the best possible outcome for the game would be a 1-1 tie. He reminded us many times (a few too many) that the German coach and the American team coach (also German) were best friends and how they would both want this.

If you were watching, too, you know the Americans actually lost 0-1. We were disappointed, but after the game, everyone (except the kids) was treated to house-made pear Schnapps while the table tennis team sang the German victory song (is there a name for this?). Everyone was very friendly, and when it was over, we thanked our hosts and dashed back across the river to make our 8:30 reservation.

The restaurant was lovely, with a view to a garden and a stream. The noise level was nearly silent, but our kids were completely awesome and went with the flow.

We opted for the prix-fixe menu and added on the “Festival of Desserts,” which sounded perfect. We envisioned a dessert sampler.

First course (salad above) was great, second course (some kind of meat pie) was amazing. Meanwhile the service was first-rate. Our hostess made sure to graciously inform us when we were missing something, i.e. “You can actually eat those flowers,” and, “Those table decorations are actually pretzels” (in the first photo, the rock-looking things behind the ceramic elves).

Here’s the cheese table, from which we could choose what we liked.

Cheese Course

And then the desserts started. First, a platter of teeny tiny cookies of many kinds. Then, a pastry with gelato. Another pastry with gelato. Another….we were losing count.

French dessert

Surely the cookies had counted as dessert #1. There were supposed to be five desserts in total. Surely the gelato counted for one and the pastry counted for another, right? Wrong. The desserts kept coming, and we slowed down so much that we started getting two at once. The cookies hadn’t even counted as part of the five.

Gourmet dessert

Not only that, but the kids had gotten (included) a dessert of their own, so they couldn’t help us out so much. Still, we were determined to do our duty and eat every bite. On top of the five desserts + cookies + cheese course, there was a tiny truffle course where we could choose our own adventure. How could we say no?

At one point I said, “If they bring another dessert, I’m going to cry,” and we all started laughing, on the verge of breaking the Code of Near-Silence.

Finally we ate our way through the last plate, now having finished enough dessert for about ten people. The last plate was probably my favorite, some kind of cherry cake (pictured above). We rolled out, giggling to ourselves.

My son said the other day, “Let’s never take the circus of desserts next time.” Amen. Maybe just 1/10 of it.

Below is a picture of one of the children’s desserts.

Ice Cream Rabbit

And in case you’re wondering yes, I threw the whole gluten-free eating thing out the window that week. I paid for it the next week, but it was well worth it!



Itty Bitty Stick People and Furniture


I scooped up these beauties at the last Waldorf craft basar we attended in Germany. I got them as much for myself as for the kids.

Carved Doll Stove

Don’t the stove and tiny pot, just like, kill you? I realize it’s hard to tell the scale here, but the pot has about the same circumference as an acorn top. I’m powerless before this kind of stuff. Makes me want to take up whittling, because, you know, I totally need another creative hobby.

Hand Carved Toys

Acorn dishes!

DSC_1030A teensy Fair Isle cape!

I think one of the things I like best about these is the bark. For some reason it never occurs to me to make things out of actual sticks from trees.

Hope you had a good weekend. I’m pressing forward on my novel revisions, though I had a reminder this morning of just how slow I am when I looked at where I was last year this same week. Yipes!

Are you in a reflective mood about what you’ve done over the past year? Celebrating goals met? Making new ones?

Good-Bye/ Tschuess Hannover!

Thank you, people of Hannover, for hosting us. It wasn’t easy in the beginning (two short years ago) but we’ve learned so much, done so many new things, and we’ll always think of our friends and our time here fondly.

I wish I could write this good-bye in German, but I’m not quite there yet. Vielen dank, Hannoverians, for listening to my broken German. What a shock that you actually understood me, and even better, that you wanted to understand me. Thank you for your patience—-may I be just as patient with every new English learner I meet.

I had no idea what a whole new world was waiting for me behind that language barrier. Thanks for opening the door wide when I so timidly began to knock.

It’s been exhausting saying good-bye to everyone, knowing that we can’t pop back over for a quick “hallo!“whenever we like. But I do hope we’ll be able to get back here.

I was reading Little House on the Prairie to my kids not long ago, and this passage from one of the last chapters (“Going Out”) really struck me:

“Then Pa hitched Pet and Patty to the wagon. Ma climbed to her place on the seat and held the lines. And suddenly Laura wanted to see the house again. She asked Pa please to let her look out. So he loosened the rope in the back of the wagon-cover, and that made a large round hole…

The snug log house looked just as it always had. It did not seem to know they were going away. Pa stood a moment in the doorway and looked all around inside; he looked at the bedstead and the fireplace and the glass windows. Then he closed the door carefully, leaving the latch-string out.”

Off to say some more good-byes. See you in America!

Sorting and Stockpiling

We’re getting closer to our move date, and we’re going through our stuff but also thinking about (clinging to?) the things we’ll miss. I say “we” but maybe it’s just me doing the clinging.

I find it funny that when I left the U.S., I was stockpiling American things I feared I wouldn’t be able to get in Germany: Trader Joe’s salsa, children’s OTC medications, inexpensive winter gear. Now I have the same frantic hoarding tendencies but for German things, as if somehow I can take my memories with me only if I find enough items to hold them in.

We’re really trying to get rid of things, not collect things, but if I could stockpile all I wanted, here’s a list of some favorites:

  • Alnatura dark chocolate from DM—best cheap chocolate ever
  • Ritter Sport dark chocolate with hazelnuts (yes, they do have it in the U.S. but I hear it’s not the same)
  • Weleda bath and beauty products
  • Alnatura lemongrass soap
  • Whole grain spelt (dinkel) bread
  • Ready-to-eat mango lassis from the refrigerator aisle
  • Fresh apricots (they just don’t grow these in the southeastern US, and the ones you can get from California are mushy by the time they get to you)
  • Fleur de sel—best salt ever—yeah, it’s French, but it’s easy to get here
  • Wine—goes without saying
  • Cheap vintage linens from the thrift store (okay, I may have collected a few of these, but reports have been widely exaggerated)
  • Nutella collectible football glasses
  • Wooden toys—any German toys, really
  • Absolutely everything from the Waldorf basar
  • Kids’ rain pants
  • Cheese—so cheap and delicious here—a mozza ball costs as little as, I kid you not, 50 cents!
  • Rooibos caramel tea
  • Burda Style magazine—the awesomest sewing mag ever
  • Homeopathic German medicine—oh yeah! It really works.
  • The unbelievably thick walls, high ceilings, and beautiful doors of our apartment
  • Chocolate croissants baked just a few steps from our flat

But most of all I’d like to stockpile the things that couldn’t be packed up, even if we had the space:

  • Bike rides through the forest
  • Coffee and running and lunch dates with friends
  • Sunny afternoons in the kindergarten garden
  • The smell of freshly baked bread from the downstairs bakery
  • Kind neighbors
  • My kids’ knowledge of German

For the last two plus years I’ve sought out English reading material wherever I could, and now suddenly I’m desperate to have some German books for the kids. I just got Richard Scarry’s Mein allerschönstes Wörterbuch (it’s similar to his other books but with German and English labels). Also ordered Das grosse Liederbuch (The Big Song Book, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer) on the advice of a friend, hoping we might be able to preserve some of the folk songs our son has learned in German kindergarten.

The probability of him losing his near-native accent is the thought that stings the most.

But I won’t dwell on that now. Okay, off to get some errands done and hopefully, just a tiny bit more writing before the clock strikes midnight. Have a good Monday.

Luebeck, Germany: Queen of the Hanse

I’d been wanting to go to Lübeck for a long time, ever since I read that it’s the former capital of the Hanseatic League, a city-state trade alliance existing during the 13th-17th centuries. More about the Hanseatic League here. I’d love to read more about the league, so if you know any good books about it, give me a shout.

Lübeck is such a quiet, relaxed place now, it’s hard to imagine it as the center of trade in this part of Europe. One of our favorite parts about the city is its canal encircling the Altstadt (old town). Hannover used to have one of these, too, but it’s long since been filled in.

Above is a photo of the Holstentor, which is the city gate and a famous German landmark. Below you see the entrance to the puppet museum, which, sadly, we didn’t have the chance to visit. Love the little guy, though.

Below is a glimpse of Lübeck’s “crown.” When you see all the city’s lovely pointy towers and steeples together, they look like a crown. The white building is the Rathaus or city hall.

My favorite feature is the round holes.

In addition to its history and the distinctive brickwork, Lübeck is known for its Gänge (walkways) and Höfe (courtyards). According to Lonely Planet, during the Middle Ages there was a lack of housing for the many artisans and craftspeople in Lübeck. So rows of smaller homes were built for them behind existing homes. Walkways were built to connect them to the street. People still live in these areas, and you can peek in to get a glimpse.

Here’s one of the courtyards:

And one of the walkways from the street:

You can easily miss the entrances if you don’t look carefully.

Lastly, a yellow building I loved—-I guess they couldn’t agree on which yellow to use.

Lübeck is also known for its marzipan, which comes in every shape imaginable. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures to show you of it, but do be sure to try some if you go.

I’m quickly getting sucked into the vortex that is the overseas move. Hopefully I can make some more posts in our last weeks, but we’ll have to see. I have so much to share if I can just find the time. Have a great weekend!

Waldorf Craft Basar

The spring Waldorf basar, with crafts, kid activities, and yummy food, happened a few weeks ago. It was our last one before we move back to the U.S., which makes me a little sad. There is really nothing like a Waldorf basar, and there aren’t any Waldorf schools or kindergartens in Charlotte that I know of.

The Waldorf handicrafts are so different from what I’d seen before, so very German, and all from natural materials. The rabbits above were what I made this year. You wouldn’t believe the hours that go into making one tiny bunny.

Below are some feather babies, who are sleeping in painted walnut shells:

Bock! Bock! Knitted chickens:

and my personal favorite this year, deer:

The bunnies in front of the deer are mine, thankyouverymuch.

I just bought Stofftiere zum Selbernähen (Stuffed Animals to Sew Yourself) by Karin Neuschütz so I can make some more animals on my own. It has patterns for camels, donkeys, giraffes, pigs, everything–except deer, which bums me out. I’ll have to find that pattern somewhere else. Looks like the book is only available in German, but you really only need the patterns and a blanket stitch to make them. She does have a few other titles that have been translated, looks like.

I also just bought Hütten von Kindern Selbst Gebaut (which translates something like Huts Children Can Build Themselves) by Louis Espinassous. I think it may be originally French. Anyway it’s all about little forts kids can build out of sticks, brush, or scrap wood. For some reason, after seeing this one, I am kind of determined for the kids to have a fort in Charlotte, though maybe I just want one to play in myself.

I got some good writing done this week. Trying to get as much done as possible before our move. The weather has been amazing this week, after a long, long winter. We hope to get in some bike riding this weekend. Have a great one!

Wild Garlic, Witch’s Brew, and a Secret Hideout

The Eilen Riede (say  “EYE-len REE-duh”), Hannover’s huge city forest, is one of the top ten things I’ll miss when we move back to the States over the summer. The Eilen Riede  is twice as large as NYC’s Central Park and has 130 kilometers of walking and bike trails.

One of our favorite things to do as a family is to ride our bikes there. In fact, both of our kids learned to ride on the wide forest paths.

The little white flowers you see, according to German friends, are bärlauch, a wild garlic relative. I’m told people do collect and cook with it—you use the leaves, not the bulbs. Evidently there are several bärlauch items on restaurant menus right now, too.

Often we stop at one of the many playgrounds in the Eilen Riede, several of which have little snack bars—even decent cappucino in china cups! Last Saturday we found instead a few surprises in an unexpected spot.

This old stump was full of collected moss, perfect for a witchy potion.

And this tree fort seemed to have sprung up on its own:

I love the way the hideout is so simple, no fasteners, and it just blends into the landscape. I think we’re going to have to recreate this one in our American back yard.

And what would a forest trip be without yet another stick to take home? Ummm…yeah. Just what we need in our flat.

In other news, the weather is still quite chilly (by my Carolina spring standards) and I’m really hoping it will warm up soon. We’re still wearing insulated rain coats and scarves and hats.

Spain posts are still coming, I promise. Hope your week started out well!

*information about the Eilen Riede’s size and trails comes from wikipedia

Real Easter Grass

You’ve got to love a country where people grow their own Easter grass. When I saw it growing in my sons’s kindergarten class last year, I asked Frau F., the teacher, about it:

Me: Wow, you grow your own Easter grass in Germany?

Frau F.: How else?

Me: We buy pink plastic grass at the store.

Frau F.: *look of horrified disbelief*

Me: *looking for the nearest place to hide*

There’s something so exciting about the simple charm of growing a little pot of grass. The kids love to watch for it to pop up. Reminds me of that old Easter hymn Now the Green Blade Rises.

The Waldorf kindergarten also decorates in style. Here’s an egg chandelier, the base of which was hand-carved by Frau F. from the bottom of last year’s Christmas tree, because, as Frau F. enjoyed pointing out, “Christmas and Easter are connected.”

A few more Waldorf arrangements:


Sorry the pictures are a little grainy—the light in the classroom wasn’t great, and I was just using my phone.

BIG NEWS! I’ll be traveling to Bologna for a few days for the International Children’s Book Fair. This is the largest trade fair for the industry. It happens every year in Bologna, and I’m so glad to have the chance to join. I’ll be sharing with you about it when I get back!

Ice Party

The big news in Hannover this week is that the Machsee, the man-made rectangle lake in the center of the city (which is way cooler than my description), is officially frozen over enough to play on. For days the buzz everywhere was “How many centimeters? How many centimeters?” because the city officials have to measure it to decide when it’s safe for all that weight. It makes me think of Thoreau going on about testing the ice on Walden Pond.

When the Machsee ice isn’t yet thick enough, they actually have police going around to make sure people aren’t on the ice. If you are, you can be fined, and if you fall in, you’ll be charged for your rescue.

Wednesday was the first day it was thick enough—16 cm, I think–and the word on the street was “Der Machsee ist frei!” (The Machsee is free). The sun was out, it wasn’t too terribly cold, and it felt like a big party on the ice. People brought out their ice skates, their hockey sticks, you name it.

My son (4) rode his bike on it and also dragged around a big stick making drawings in the thin layer of snow on top of the ice. It was pretty great. One of those days when winter is really cool.

Here’s an airplane he drew below. He’s at this fantastic stage where his drawings are getting more complex and he’s still completely fearless about tackling whatever he wants. No “I can’t draw.”

In other news, it’s been a slow writing week, though maybe it’s an ideas week. I’ve been reading and mulling things over and finding little openings to take my story into deeper territory. Thanks for all your comments on the Less Meat post. Have a great weekend!