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This is milkrice

One day when I was an exchange student my guest mother asked me if I liked Milchreis. I didn’t translate that to show non-German speakers how I felt when faced with that question. Milchreis? I’m pretty sure I knew at the time that Milch was milk and Reis was rice but I had not a clue that the two fit together in any sentence that wasn’t a shopping list.

Milkrice?

Then she handed me a tiny plastic container that looked like tapioca pudding. It was cinnamon and sugar Milchreis (from Müllermilch, of course) and my life changed. I had the second Nutella Moment of my life. A Nutella Moment is something I just made up but it’s when you taste something new and think: This exists in the world and you’re only telling me about it now? Because you know you’ll be enjoying it until your tastebuds die and the only thing you get any pleasure out of is super-hot sriracha, served with a bib and a straw.

German milk rice

For the uninitiated, milkrice is rice that’s been steeped in milk, rather than steamed or steeped with water. A German risotto, if you will. But instead of broth and white wine you steep it in milk and sugar and vanilla and cinnamon. Then you serve it with more sugar or fruit of some kind and spend the rest of the day smiling. Probably steaming hot but maybe cold because there was some left over from when you made it yesterday and who’s going to wait to warm that up?

It tastes like a dessert but you feel like you ate something healthy because: rice.

You can use the same Arborio rice you would use for risotto. But uncooked milkrice rice in Germany is way cheaper than Arborio rice so cooks-in-the-know in Germany just use milkrice rice for both milkrice and risotto.

I just saved you a bunch of money. You’re welcome.

Your grandmother’s milkrice

I ate about one Müllermilch Milchreis a week during my early days in Germany until my kids were old enough to like it and my wife said: “It can’t be that hard to make. My grandmother used to make it” and decided to make some. That logic doesn’t actually work because If grandmothers made it, it usually means it’s super-hard to make unless you’re a grandmother but it turned out milkrice really isn’t difficult.*

And my wife then launched a series of superlative, home-made milkrices. It’s now our family’s comfort food.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s just rice pudding! No. No it’s not. Rice pudding involves eggs and maybe cream and raisins and gooey, pre-cooked rice and nobody likes it except Old Lady Wiggins, and nobody likes her.

But there is at least one hidden danger in milkrice. Some enterprising cooks at my kids’ school in Berlin thought the magic of milkrice could carry over to other dishes. They served Milchnudeln (milknoodles), as if it were a thing. The magic doesn’t carry over and it isn’t a thing and my kids came home starving that day. I’ve never tried them but my kids (trustworthy on all things food) said Milchnudeln are as disgusting as they sound.

Luckily the cooks never tried Milchfisch or maybe Milchsteak but we started making their lunches for them shortly after that experiment just in case.

I decided to write this post the other day after my son asked me to make him Milchreis for his school lunch. I figured the magic of milkrice had already made its way to Portland, Oregon.

“Who else gets milkrice for lunch?”

“Nobody at school’s ever heard of it,” he said.

But now you have.

 

*Basic milk rice

1 cup Arborio (or milkrice) rice, 1 liter milk, a cinammon twig, a packet of vanilla sugar, maybe some salt. Bring to a boil. Steep on low for 10 minutes, then cover and let sit for half an hour. Then e-mail Drew and thank him.

Why Germans hate male babies

I always felt like Germany cultivates a culture of intellectualism while America … well we like hamburgers.

Nowhere did I see this more than when my wife was pregnant.

When we were awaiting our second child – our son – my German friends began to act strange.

“We’re having a boy,” I would say.

“Oh,” my German friends would say with alarm. “Poor you.” Some hugged me as if to say: It’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this too.

Strange, right?

german babies
Both have opinions on your unborn child.

I never had any idea what they were talking about. But they said it so openly, so confidently, that I couldn’t profess ignorance. The way they said it, it sounded like all of Germany knew having a boy was a bad thing. Except me. I started to wonder if Germany was the anti-China. Girls only, bitte.

I was afraid that my ignorance of the pitfalls of boys would reflect poorly on me. So I didn’t admit I didn’t understand. I just said, “I know, right?” And changed the subject.

But I was prepared for this reaction because it’s the way a certain kind of American and Brit reacts to news that you’re having a daughter, which we did, right before we had a son.

“A daughter, huh?” Americans would say shortly after meeting me and hearing I was expecting a daughter. “Poor you.” Unlike my German friends, they didn’t hug me.

But poor me.

The assumption here is that I would suffer as my little girl grew up and became a woman and started having boyfriends and – gasp – sex. As if your daughter enjoying a cornerstone of the human experience is the worst thing. Ever.

The implication is that fathers have to protect their daughters and make their choices for them, while teaching their sons to be strong humans capable of making all the good and bad decisions on their own.

You know: sexism. Yuck.

German babies

I prefer instead to teach both of my children to be strong, confident people capable of making both good and bad decisions, just like other humans. Though, to be honest, I hope they make a few fewer bad decisions than I did. Like not having Steak Frites on Kurfürstendamm after a bucket of popcorn at the French cinema. You lose your gall bladder with decisions like that.

And they probably should decide against seeing Hangover 2 (come on, you know you liked Hangover).

So, in a way, I was ready when suddenly my German friends started acting the same way about my soon-to-be son. Poor me. Except I had no idea what they were talking about.

It happened so often that I decided I had to stop faking as if I knew. When my German documentary filmmaker friend – a leftist intellectual with little equal – made the same statement, I dropped my guard.

“What are you talking about?” I asked him between bands at White Trash Fast Food. And then I told him the story about Americans and daughters. He was repulsed.

“Nothing like that,” he said. “The Freud thing.”

“Oh, right,” I said.

No idea what he meant.

Luckily my generation invented this thing called Google and when I got home I put in “Freud son father” and was horrified at what the Germans were warning me about. You see, it’s Oedipus. It’s always Oedipus with these Germans.

In order to fulfill his mother fantasy, Oedipus had to kill his father. Germans (and Freud and even Jung, I discovered) extrapolate this on to the human condition to mean that a boy can’t become a man until he replaces his father in the world. Germans were trying to warn me that my son would become a murderer. And me, a murder victim.

What?

Either way, people shouldn’t be warning anybody about the sex of their baby, though a warning or two about babies as a species is certainly warranted. Anyone who’s ever had one – or shared an airplane with one – knows what I’m talking about.

Poor me indeed!

I was stunned at German math

When my kids finally started going to school in Berlin, I learned something I had always suspected: Germans can do witchcraft. They are experts in the black arts and can summon the spirits any time numbers are involved. When I sat down to help my kids with their math homework, my world changed. Inexorably. Forever.

It was so earth-shattering that I can’t even put it into words. So I made a video.

How to parent like a German, Ep. 1

German kids have to go outside for an hour every day.

One hour. Every day.

I may have misunderstood biology class but I think it has something to do with photosynthesis, like Germans have more chlorophyll than everyone else. Also I’m pretty sure it’s part of the Grundgesetz (German constitution). Germans don’t even question this. It’s a total normal part of raising kids in Germany, like feeding them, clothing them and regretting having them.

Back when my kids were little, if it started getting late in the day and they hadn’t been outside, my German wife would start getting panicky as if she were Cinderella and it was 11: 59 p.m. (that’s 23:59 to Germans).

Hase, meinst du, du kannst mit den nur eine Stunde um den Block gehen?” she would ask (“Honey, do you think you can walk around the block with them for an hour?”). And I would, because I’m always worried she’ll see her mistake in marrying me so I try to keep her happy.

Plus: Love.

Also: I didn’t want to see my kids turn into pumpkins.

German kids have to go outside for an hour every day.

My kids and I would always end up on one of two playgrounds, swinging and sliding in blackness with a few other dads.

“Married a German?” we’d ask each other.

“Yup.”

Parenting like a German

I sound like I’m deriding it here but I’m not: Kids do need to be outside for an hour every day, regardless of the weather. It seems to air out their tiny brains. It’s like rebooting them after you opened too many windows in their browser inside. It’s such an obvious truth that they’re trying to  institute it in America now too, via our equivalent to the German constitution: Professional football.

The must-go-outside thing doesn’t stop when kids go to daycare either. German daycare teachers are expected to make sure the kids get their hour of sunlight per day too. And daycare teachers are happy to oblige because they know a secret: Kids are way easier to deal with when they’re outside. Especially when they’re outside and on the far side of the playground.

This often leads to two or three hours of outside time for daycare kids every day, which ingratiates the teachers even more to the parents and allows the teachers even more time to Snapchat.

Through this requirement I discovered that I do better with some outside time every day too. Maybe I got some chlorophyll with my German DNA.

 

 

How I made my kids bilingual

*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.

We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.

Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.

Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.

“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.

Just because I conjugated incorrectly.

 

bilingual kids

We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.

But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.

“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”

But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.

When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.

There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.

Making kids bilingual

My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.

Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.

Creepy.

We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.

I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.

“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”

My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”

The cowboy just laughed.

I never spoke German to him again.

How to birthday like a German kid

Today is my daughter’s first birthday outside of Germany. She’s not happy. During the run-up it seemed like she might not even celebrate. We were worried she was going to hold a lonely wake instead.

But then my wife had an idea. Partly because, as I’ve discussed before, she’s a Jedi. But also because she’s a mother and making children happy is a special talent of moms. Like making sandwiches. Dads on the other hand – I’m not sure we really have any parental talents. Except maybe being the parent without parental talents.

“Why don’t you have a German-themed birthday?” my wife suggested to my daughter. It worked better than any Jedi Mind Trick ever. Though have Jedi Mind Tricks even been invented yet? (Note to self: E-mail George Lucas about first Jedi Mind Trick).

My daughter exploded with enthusiasm for her birthday. We’ve spent the last two weeks convincing her to not invite the entire seventh grade. At the moment, she’s a better German ambassador to the U.S. than Peter Wittig (Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., if you didn’t know. I didn’t.).

Beyond sausages, pretzels and Wagner, this is what her party will look like:

Topfschlagen (Pot Whacking)

topfschlagen - pot whacking - german kids birthday games

The point of this game is to find your prize. When it’s your turn, the prize already legally belongs to you but your friends want you to earn it. So they blindfold you and then hide your prize underneath an overturned pot. Seems mean – it’s your prize – but Germans define “mean” differently. They tuck the pot and prize off in a corner of either the yard or the living room, depending on the weather and the current mental state of the host parents. Next, you are given a wooden spoon. Your task is to get on all fours and divine the location of your prize by whacking the spoon against objects to find the pot.

Your friends help by bellowing “kalt!” (cold!) or “warm!” (warm, dummy) depending on your current trajectory and the location of the prize. Many wooden spoons, vases and parental shins have suffered during this game. But as of yet, everyone got their prize.

Schokolade Wettessen (Competition Chocolate Eating)

schokolade wettessen - competition chocolate eating - german kids birthday gamesI know, sounds like a Hunger Games the Oompa Loompas hold for kids who lose their way in the Chocolate Factory. But it’s not. First, a chocolate bar (preferably Milka) is wrapped up in newspaper and then kids crowd around a table. They take turns rolling a dice until someone gets a six. The sixer then has to put on adult winter gloves, a scarf and a winter hat and attempt to unwrap the chocolate with a knife and fork. Once unwrapped, the sixer can eat all the chocolate they can.

All the while the other kids continue to roll the dice. Should anyone hit a six, they then have to take the winter clothes and cutlery off the previous sixer and either continue unwrapping or eating the chocolate until the next six falls.

You’re right. Maybe the Oompa Loompas did invent it. Yes I know the band Veruca Salt got its name from the film.

Mumie Einwickeln (Wrap the Mummy)

mumie einwickeln - wrap the mummy - german kid birthday games

Up until I found out about this game I thought Germany was the most environmentally conscious country on the planet. I now realize they only do it to make up for playing this game.

Two teams of two face off in this game that requires one team member to wrap the other up in toilet paper. The winner is the team that entirely covers its mummy first. Not even a thought of the player can show through. The winning team gets a prize and the toilet paper gets discarded.

Though, to be honest, we may not allow this game this year because of the environmental concerns. And because toilet paper costs twice as much in America (really!). We may substitute it with Sackhupfen (Sack Race) or Der Plumpsack geht rum (Pass the Falling Bag), which sounds horrible in both languages but is just a modified version of Duck, Duck, Goose.

At the end of a German birthday each kid leaves with a gift bag full of treats and the parents get to begin another tradition of German kids’ birthday parties: Heavy drinking. It’s also a tradition we’ll be following here.

(Happy birthday kiddo)

Nutella and peanut butter: The battle

Settle an old argument for me. My wife and I have fought about this since our youngest was a baby. It’s become a dispute bigger than the East Coast/West Coast beef in American rap or whether Didi Hallervorden or Fips Asmussen wrote the first-ever German one-liner. Think Kramer vs. Kramer.

It’s important I get this settled today because it’s our 13th wedding anniversary.

Nutella, peanut butter.
I know it’s my name, not Nutella but we all know what it is. Plus, cool that my name is on a Nutella jar.

It started when our first kid was just a year old. My wife offered her a Nutella-laden spot of Brötchen (bread roll).

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Do you want to get her hooked on chocolate at this early of an age?”

My statement seemed to puzzle my wife. She looked at me as though I had suddenly turned into a cloud of semi-transparent gas that was whispering commands to her in a language never before heard in this solar system.  She didn’t know whether to laugh at the discovery of a talking gaseous mass or cry because she was obviously hallucinating.

“It’s just Nutella,” she said. “I’ve eaten it my entire life and look at me.” I don’t actually know if she said that “look at me” bit but it’s what I always hear when we talk food because I’m clearly the American in the relationship, if you know what I mean. I’m overweight, is what I’m saying.

She’s obviously the European.

“It’s chocolate and that’s a baby!” I hollered. Despite insisting that my kids carry both a blue and a red passport, I’ve inwardly always hoped that they would adopt their mother’s eating habits but get everything else from me. On that day, the half a square centimeter of Brötchen with a drop of Nutella was about to ruin that.

“It’s Nutella and I’ve eaten it my whole life (and look at me),” she said again. Then she leaned into her wife-of-an-American toolbox and said: “Plus, you were giving her peanut butter yesterday and there’s no difference.”

Which is where you come in. Have you ever heard anything so absurd? Me neither.

Nutella and peanut butter are in different galaxies. Peanut butter in its purest form is crushed peanuts – straight from the earth – mixed with a dash of salt. Ok, you might mix in some butter and two dashes of salt and the peanuts are actually roasted but that’s it. It’s food so pure Adam and Eve probably dined on it before partaking in a pomegranate. Neanderthals maybe even ate peanut butter and they weren’t capable of sin because all of that hadn’t been invented yet.

Peanut butter is pure and natural.

Nutella, on the other hand, was invented by an industrialized society trying to trick people into believing hazelnuts were chocolate. It worked! Nutella tastes great! But it’s a chocolate made by heavy machinery and should only be consumed for dessert or as a treat. Heavy machinery is nothing for babies or the main course.

I tolerate it on the breakfast table because I know an entire country would revolt if I expressed distaste but I don’t really believe that anyone – not even Germans – would believe that it’s the same thing as peanut butter.

“Honey,” I now often tell my daughter, “maybe one Brötchen half with Nutella is enough.” She’ll be a teenager soon but the Nutella poisoning took hold. She loves the stuff.

My wife will scowl at me across the breakfast table.

“So you get to have two or three Brötchen halves covered in peanut butter but she only gets to have a half with Nutella?”

It’s a wonder we’re still married.

You Won’t Believe What This German Hedgehog Did Next!

That night’s good night story came from a stack of German books from my wife’s childhood.

Die Hase und der Igel.” I read the title aloud as I opened the book to read to my kids. The Hare and the Hedgehog.

“That’s cute,” I thought, “The Germans replaced the tortoise in ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ with a hedgehog.” I imagined an adorable, spiky hedgehog facing off in a running race against the boisterous hare. At that moment it made perfect sense.

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The story began as it always did: The hedgehog minding his own business when suddenly an annoying, intrusive hare appears out of nowhere and begins hassling the poor rodent. Usually you’d figure a guy like that’s a Mormon. Or a Republican. But he’s not, he’s just a big rabbit.

The teasing escalates until the hedgehog and the hare agree to a race the hare wanted all along. And then the German version gets weird: Rather than tooling around a forest path, the duo agree to face off in a simple sprint from one end of the hedgehog’s field to the other.

“Fair enough,” I thought. “The story’s over quicker that way.” Hoping for a fast end to my parenting duties, I began contemplating whether to end the day with wine, beer or camembert.

Then, the hedgehog did a very strange thing, something that isn’t in that Aesop fable we all know: The hedgehog calls for his wife and tells her to dress just like him.

“Wow,” I thought, thinking the Germans had not only introduced a new animal into the ancient tale, they’d also included a bit of cross-dressing. “Those liberal Germans!

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Then comes the hedgehog’s strategy: He and his wife will just stand at each end of the field and every time the hare arrives, he’ll think he’s already been beat by a hedgehog that hasn’t even broken a sweat.

What? What happened to slow and steady wins the race? What happened to perseverance? What happened to doing the right thing despite miserable odds? Where’s the morality play?

The hedgehog is going to CHEAT? I was so incensed I even thought in all caps. Liberal Germans indeed!

The hare and the hedgehog progresses just as the wily hedgehog predicts: After the first race, the rabbit thinks his spiky competitor is beating him and continues to propose a rematch in the hopes he will finally emerge victorious. The hare can’t, of course, and, depending on the version, either admits defeat, goes insane or – yes – dies of exhaustion. What a kids story!

For years I thought this poetic license with the original Aesop Fable stood for all that was wrong with Germany. Now I think it’s why German kids seem better prepared for life: They already know that assholes are best countered with fraud, deceit and gender bending.

I’ve also learned that the Tortoise and the Hare and the Hase und Igel are two different stories, one by Aesop and one stolen from Aesop by Germany’s own Shakespeares: The Brothers Grimm.

Once again the Germans are doing it right: Slow and steady wins the race is a garbage axiom. Anyone over 10 knows it’s untrue and as someone who’s run the Berlin Marathon twice I can tell you it doesn’t win the race at all: Slow and steady gets you 32,001th place, or 4,291th place in your age/sex group.

Next time I’ll dress like my wife.