When You’re Siberian

For the most part, you…

Wear a hat when it’s colder, especially in winter, because, at least for me, piling up a scarf or a snood up to my ears, shoulders hunched, stepping in place at a bus stop is just not my look.

Don’t ride a bike after it snowed. Since I can’t get used to the sight of this after 11 years in Europe, I probably never will. A colleague of mine broke her leg cycling on icy pavement and once again I asked myself, why do this after Elsa clearly had her way with Let It Go on your street?

Have a built-in winter radar. You know when to layer up and when to pack it all away (only not too far, Hamburg is a city where you may need these layers any day).

Divide the year in two seasons: with snow and without (homegrown wisdom).

Barely use heating once you discover you’re in total control of turning it on, unlike back in the homeland.

Conscious of slippery surfaces underfoot in ANY season due to annual prolonged winter ice exposure. The careful step is an inner setting, ready to be switched on at a moment’s notice.

Aren’t immune to cold, but you’ll still meet plenty of people who will ask you if it’s “like summer” for you on a colder day.

Enjoy saying “I don’t find it that cold, just the wind has changed,” and mean it, too.

Know that not all your countrymen and women are obsessed with winter sports and activities.

Consider 1,5-hour flights similar to taking the bus, since flying from one city to another within Russia may take as long as 4 hours, maybe more.

Get used to the following questions once you say you’re from Siberia specifically:

But it’s in Russia, right?

Do you speak a different language there?

Is it that place where it’s really cold?

Is it dark all the time?

Is it close to Vladivostok?

Where exactly does the Transsiberian railroad run through?

But it’s really far away, right?

Where is it?

How come you speak such good (insert language here)?

Why don’t you have a Russian accent? / I can’t place your accent.

Can you go outside in winter?

Are you from a village?

Sometimes I relax my rules of polite conversation and remembering that it’s not a given person’s fault they are asking me something I’ve already been asked by other people they don’t know an x number of times, and tell the obvious truth…that I grew up in a forest. But that’s a story for another blog post.

Dear Summer, See You Next Year

Well, not just summer…spring too, and soon autumn.

It happens every year, I think, this moment of saying bye to your most recent summer. I wake up, the autumn sun is shining, but the temperature dropped to subzero levels for the first time since March during the night and traces are felt on the air as soon as I step outside. Hats and scarves have been retrieved the evening before from boxes largely untouched over the spring and summer months. I’m going to wait as long as I possibly can before putting on gloves, because that one is always a winter signal for me, and all my deeply entrenched Siberian sensibilities resist the approach of winter as long as possible before common sense sets in.

The final twinge of my sentimental heart comes from looking around in the park on the way to work. The trees are still covered with yellow and orange leaves, but plenty of those are on the ground and I can see it’s the last layer sprinkling all those branches before they become bare and autumn, too, is over.

I arrive at the office, take my coat off, settle myself at my desk and after a moment’s deliberation I turn on the heating just a bit. And then I see them in my mind’s eye, the crystal clear flashbacks that would certainly make a pretty sequence in a music video, the ones that everyone must have and which I momentarily dive into. New maxi dresses swaying to your and your friends’ relaxed steps during the heat wave, walking along in the shade, spreading out a picnic blanket under that tree in the park during lunch, lying back and looking up at the blue sky through green leaves fluttering now and again in the breeze, laughing at my own bad puns barely after getting them out, evenings full of conversations you don’t forget, before going quiet and smiling at each other, because the moment was just full enough and didn’t need anymore words.

So here we are, and I’m not even being corny, I mean every word. I guess I’m not a winter person, even if I appreciate plenty of things about the season. Enjoying warm drinks becomes that extra bit special and sometimes you literally just need it to defrost on a thankfully still non-Siberian level. Hamburg gets decorated for Christmas. Everyone starts talking about Christmas markets opening two weeks before they are due to do so. Staying in for most of a weekend day, if you can, is an increasingly repeated answer to the popular question “How was your weekend?”, if you want to answer more than “Good, thanks.”

There’s also the fact that these are basically a few months you can use to prepare for the next non-winter seasons, by way of buying summer dresses now on sale (what an exercise in patience and being organized) or dreaming about the next day trip somewhere nice when the days start to get longer. Because they will, and that’s the fantastic part. You only have to hold out until December 21, then the shortest day off the year can be ticked off your list and, as I always say, we start moving towards spring.

Not biased, just opinionated.

Adult Middle Child

Being a middle child is something that stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s certainly one of the most influential parts of my identity, and a part I’m still discovering. Funny thing: despite living in my adopted hometown for a long time and obviously having answered a lot of questions about myself in German, I find that the translation for middle child still eludes some people, or they’ve never come across it. Mittelkind is a literal translation, but since Mittel also means tool or remedy, I guess I can see why Germans would be confused when I confidently state “Ich bin ein Mittelkind” in response to a question about how many siblings I have. I’ve Googled the word countless times to check that it still exists, as you do.

Another term is Sandwich-Kind. I’m not a big fan, because, without fail, saying it turns on an image in my mind of a person being pressed between two life-size slices of toast, with salami and cheese slipping out. So far I’ve managed to keep this description to myself, verbally, at least. I don’t mind saying Sandwich-Kind if Mittelkind doesn’t spark understanding. Of course, the most simple way to go, instead of trying to stick to explaining who you are in this sibling constellation, is just to answer you have two siblings. Then further questions might follow, with the characteristic German love for putting things in order, about whether they are your younger or older siblings. At which point you can a) experience all of the above OR b) answer “Both, I’m the middle one”.

We’re not done yet. The conversation is just getting started. Or rather, the interview…

So, did you get enough attention as a child? You must have been under a lot of pressure? Are you good at negotiating? Is this something special? Why do you say it like that, that you’re a middle child? Do you feel more like an older sibling or a younger sibling? How far apart are you with your siblings? Do you get on well? Were you pampered? I’ve never even heard of the term middle child, does it mean something special? (If you want me to say I think I’m special, I’m more than happy to oblige.)

In reality, surprisingly without having (yet) reverted to deeper research about middle children going through life, I am able to identify quite a few points based on my own experience. Even within a varied group of friends I will regularly find myself in constellations of threes, and based on age I’m usually either the middle one or the oldest. When someone tells you you’re like a big sister to them, it’s very touching. At the same time you appreciate older mentors you become closer to also because they remind you what it’s like when someone looks out for you. You might find yourself prefacing sentences or responses to a discussion with phrases like “To be fair”. You don’t say “To be completely fair”, because you know it’s not possible to be completely fair, even though you keep trying, dammit. Expressing opinions is sometimes tricky, because basically you’re just always searching for that middle ground. And before you know it, you’re saying things like “We could do this, but I really don’t mind either way”, then dealing with two more polite friends saying the same thing, finally making the decision since you’ve turned into the middle party. You listen A LOT.

The truth is, of course, that being a middle child as an adult is an experience like any other adult one – you’re just a person with a background and a past. Lots of the stuff described above is not exclusive to being the second-born of three. And it’s certainly never dull.

 

 

 

Summer in Germany: The Bare Facts

The picture of a bare-assed man on a bike snapped from the back is what first stops my gaze during a routine afternoon online browse in one of Hamburg’s local papers. Then with a rising feeling of foreboding I read the headline: Phew, It’s Warm! In the Car, In the Garden – Where You Can be Naked and Where Not. In this case, “can” translates as “allowed”, and by allowed one obviously means the law.

We are a few hours away from another heat wave after weeks of cooler weather and once again everyone is preparing. The city is serious about this, with memories of last year’s summer still fresh. Even the DJs on my favorite morning radio show suggested taking care of anything that needed to be done ouside today, because, to quote Disney’s The Little Mermaid, “It’s gonna be hot in my big silver pot”.

People are also serious about this, and apparently some might go so far as to bare all in search of relief from the heat or a blatant display of confidence. While I sincerely hope we will avoid running into each other (please, God, no), Germany’s so-called Freikörperkultur (FKK), translating as free body culture, is known the world over. Somehow we didn’t cover the topic all those years ago in my German classes, but now it’s definitely visible to the naked eye.

I decided to finally research the subject to know my rights as a clothed citizen and, to be fair, those of the “textile-free”. The aforementioned article provided some useful bits of information. First of all, walking around without clothes in Germany is not punishable by law. However, being able to continue with the decision depends on a combination of the chosen location, legal details in laws relating to misdemeanors and disturbance of the peace, various safety regulations, and, perhaps most importantly, on whether or not other people glimpsing you naked on your bike or balcony feel “disturbed” by the view.

An incident during Germany’s June heat wave in Brandenburg made international headlines, when local police stopped a naked man riding a moped. At least he had his helmet on. A picture posted on the police’s Twitter account was accompanied by a question about how to best caption it, because law enforcement themselves were “speechless”. The moped rider’s answer delivered in local dialect? “It’s warm, isn’t it?”

My questions, meanwhile, are these: isn’t it extremely uncomfortable, not to mention painful, to park your naked butt and additional exposed skin on what will clearly be a very hot surface? Isn’t the discomfort and pain consideration relevant even without hot weather?

Further Googling on being naked in Germany produces a fountain of satisfying headlines. Nudity in Germany: The Naked Truth, mentions nude beaches where disrobing completely is required by all visitors. “Summer in the parks of Berlin and Munich brings the chance of encountering a middle-aged, bronzed German wearing only a hat and the BILD-Zeitung, Germany’s favorite tabloid.” Making notes right now on where not to go, but no worries, public FKK areas are signposted. There’s also a handful of online sources detailing where nude bathing is allowed.

The more straightforward, practical Where to Get Naked in Germany additionally explains the culture and where to live it. Finally, The Dos And Don’ts of Public Nudity in Germany are very helpful for those feeling somewhat lost even after reading the material linked in this post. However, after seeing a suggestion to try nude hiking, I’m done.

 

Things People Ask or Say to a Redhead in Summer

They do, they still do, and in all seasons. Disclaimer: by people I don’t mean friends and family.

So, to sum up my experiences…

Did you put on sunscreen?

Sad, but true. Maybe I should just answer No? Instead of nodding or saying nothing at all. Then I might get the following:

Anything starting or ending with the words “with your skin tone”, including, but not limited to:

You should take care of your complexion.

Did you know there’s lip balm with SPF?

I guess being in the sun is difficult for you.

Then there’s the classics:

Wow, you don’t tan at all, do you?

You don’t have a lot of freckles.

And the unexpected:

I put on sunscreen first thing this morning! – So??

Sometimes, same as many other people, we redheads get sunburn despite taking precautions. We might come to work looking a bit red in the face or with slightly fried shoulders. And then something happens in my local German experience which I still don’t understand. “Ha! You were out in the sun!” OR “Aha, someone was enjoying themselves yesterday!” OR, incredulously, “Did you forget to put on sunscreen?” All this with a knowing smile while scrutinizing you.

I only have this to add:

1. It’s rude to comment face-to-face on anything related to people’s appearance. Even if you know them well, it’s better to proceed with caution or at least phrase it in a tactful, kind way.

2. Sunburn sometimes hurts. Leave the person alone.

3. Do you seriously think the sunburnee doesn’t know they got crisped?

So I’ll just be on my merry way and find some delightful shade to sit in, while others busily compile beauty tips for me that I didn’t ask for.

Aunt of Two

Becoming an aunt for the first time both touched my heart and opened up the place where the new family member took up residence. It confirmed and strengthened a large part of my long-standing feelings about family as a whole, as well as giving me a new understanding of myself as an adult.

Like all relationships, being an aunt is a continuing process. I learn, I cry (not with the kid, I hold it in and let loose later), I laugh, I smile before I even know I’m doing so, I visit, I play, I run and I stop to look at flowers in the grass outside. I make up nicknames with lightning speed and my voice changes pitch when I praise.

Conversations with family have expanded to include this experience and I know for sure that they will feel the same way I do when we talk, with our individual perspectives chipping in. I am, in short, invested, and I care. You see your sibling, now a parent, in a new light, and as you observe them with respect and a full heart, you may get a glimpse of what it was like for your parents, now the newly minted grandparents, to care for you and your siblings before your memory began to form.

I have now become an aunt for a second time and as we say in the family, I’m immediately aware. Everything I knew my heart to do before has happened again, and it still feels new, infinite. There is room for everyone.

The most humbling part about this experience is that I keep thinking the children didn’t ask for an aunt who still cries during (well-acted) sad scenes in movies, to name just one example, who is obsessed with using gifs in all forms of chatting and texting, and loves to grab almost any kind of freebies just because they are free (take now, sort later!). In fact, they didn’t know one single thing about me until we met, just as I couldn’t know what they would be like until I saw them. But during that first-time meeting I knew that this was how it was supposed to be, then and there.

Acceptance as an aunt is not to be taken for granted. I feel strongly that everything that makes up my life, especially the parts connected to my ever-developing self-awareness, values, thoughts on what kind of person I want to be and how I treat family and friends – all this, so crucial already, takes on an added, life-affirming importance because of two growing people who will know what I’m up to, since we are included in each other’s lives.

I do want to be an example to myself, and if by doing so I will also contribute in a positive way to someone else watching me (in addition to going to their parents first) from their smaller height as their world gets bigger every day, that will be the best mutual gift that aunthood could give.

Nice Things People Ask or Say to You When They Find Out You’re Russian

Because they do! And while I have previously truthfully listed the rather typical things they ask (which tickle all my sarcastic scribbling instincts and love of the ridiculous hidden between the lines), I do always veer towards being positive in the end.

So, that conversation happens where you reveal the R word when people ask you where you’re from (sometimes they insistently ask you where you’re from “originally”, because your name sounds different, regardless of how long you’ve been living in your current non-Russian city). And you might hear one of the following:

Wow! That is a big country! (Yes. Depending on my mood, I might respond with, “Indeed, we have a lot of room” or “Go big or go home!”)

I love that stew, what’s it called…borscht! (Actually it’s pronounced borSCH, without a “t”, but I appreciate the effort and I have to restrain myself from asking if you’ve seen Miss Congeniality and if you might remember that scene in the dingy Russian restaurant, with Gracie Hart complimenting the waitress on that very stew…I’m getting carried away.)

What are those pretty Russian wooden dolls called, the ones you can stack up in each other? (Matryoshka. NOT babushka.)

 

Do you know that animated film, Anastasia? (Yes, I do, and I love it, though before you can ask, I’ll say myself that it’s a rather liberal interpretation of the Russian Revolution and the following years!)

I think you’re the first Russian I’ve ever met. (Honoured! Prepare to be amazed…)