Golf

Benjamin’s school, being generally wonderful, has a full complement of after-school sports and activities for the kids to participate in.  They have about 50 different things that the kids can do after school — everything from Cub Scouts to soccer to rugby to crafts to the math club.  Lots of choices.  And the activities are, apparently, wildly popular — there is an online registration setup which is one of those things where you lurk on the website until the moment the page opens, sign up the instant that you can and hope you get a spot.  Since it wasn’t the kind of thing that allows for indecision, I set aside the time at noon the day of the sign up to be at my computer to pounce on the sign-ups, and sat down with B the night before to talk through the options and discuss his preferences.

As we were going through, at first he wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything.  He said that school is busy enough, and maybe he didn’t want to stay after school even once a week.  And I was totally cool with that.  But, I wanted to be sure, and as we went through the list, he latched on to both gymnastics and soccer as the things he most wanted to do, which didn’t surprise me — those were the two I most expected him to pick.  But then, we got to golf.  And he said, “No, that’s it. I want to do golf.  I want to learn how to be even better than Uncle Peter and Uncle Adam.”

He’s never golfed before, so it was a total surprise that he was so intensely interested in it.  I have no idea if he’ll enjoy it (and neither does he), but I love the enthusiasm and confidence in his choice.  And I just keep smiling over the idea of my little guy bonding with his uncles, an ocean away, over this game that they love and which hopefully he will be able to share with them when we are all together.

Because of the way the sign ups were done, I went ahead and signed him up for all 3 of his favorites — golf, gymnastics AND soccer — because I wasn’t sure whether we’d get a spot in any of them.  As it turns out, we got a spot in each, and now B is into the idea of all 3, so we’ve gone from maybe not wanting to do any to committing to 3 days per week for the semester.  In truth, I think he’s going to love them all, and I’m excited to see which (if any) kindle a true passion in him.  But, in particular, the idea of him out golfing with my brothers one day is pretty special.  I might be hoping, just a little, that he loves golf most of all.

Broken tooth

Ask any American expat to name the experiences they most dread having abroad, and I think “dealing with urgent dental problems” would make almost every list.  For starters, dental care in the US is absolutely fantastic.  Americans take good care of their teeth, in general, and our cultural emphasis on perfection in appearance means that we want our teeth to look great, which means they need to function well and last a long time.  Dentists tend to be very good at what they do, and very well trained.  Secondly, there’s always something vaguely intimidating about the dentist, and that’s even when you both speak the same language.  Plus, while most of us will accept that we’ll need some kind of routine medical and dental care while living abroad (everyone gets sick sometimes, plus we need annual flu shots, locally specific vaccines, and yearly check ups) I think most of us hope we can put off or postpone anything more significant until we return home to our regular, well known, English speaking doctors and dentists.

But, it doesn’t always go that way.

Last spring, I got a sudden stabbing pain in my mouth when I bit down on something (I think it was a pumpkin seed).  It hurt a lot, but went away immediately and didn’t come back, so I didn’t think much about it.  But then, about a week later it happened again.  And then again.  Every so often, it would happen — I’d bite down on something in just the wrong way and have some brief, but undeniable, pain.  My teeth are generally well behaved, so I knew something was wrong.  By the time I decided I needed to have it looked at, I was about 2 weeks out from my bi-annual dental cleaning and checkup, so I talked to my dentist here about it.  (I also emailed my dentist at home, to get a remote second opinion.)

Both agreed — I probably had a cracked tooth.  I was horrified.  A lot of people who know me know that I take particularly good care of my teeth.  I’m fastidious about oral hygiene, and I look after my teeth really carefully.  I was pretty upset that something might be wrong with one of them — especially something that might necessitate something as drastic as a crown, or worse.  My dentist here suggested a wait-and-see strategy, while my dentist at home advised that I treat it immediately, before it could get worse.  I waffled.  I didn’t want to do anything drastic, but I didn’t want to be chicken about it and cause myself more trouble down the road.

I decided that I’d wait until Christmas, when I’d be home in the US.  I’d go see my dentist from home, and get his actual, in person opinion, and then decide how to proceed.

Which was a fine plan, except that last Wednesday, my tooth broke.  A piece (I’m sure it was small, but it felt huge) broke off of one of my molars.  It was kind of traumatic.  (I’m very attached to my teeth.)  It didn’t hurt at all, but it forced me to stop procrastinating and get it fixed.  It turns out, too, that the pain wasn’t coming from the tooth that I thought it was, either (so in that way, I suppose it was good that I didn’t do anything drastic to a different, healthy tooth).

I couldn’t get in to see my dentist until yesterday.  I spent much of the weekend quietly agonizing about the trauma that I imagined awaited me in terms of getting it fixed.  As it turns out, it really was a small piece, and he just covered up the spot with the same stuff as for a dental filling, to prevent decay.  It took less than 20 minutes and didn’t hurt at all.  All my worry was for nothing.  And, best of all, the intermittent pain from last spring and summer seems to be entirely gone, which is wonderful.

So, much as I never would have volunteered to have something go wrong with my teeth EVER, much less while living abroad, it was no problem at all.  (And though I don’t know what the same procedure would have cost in the US, I imagine it would have been more than the €130 I paid here — and that’s before insurance reimburses us for most of it.)

Classroom helper

I was impressed by teachers before, but after spending part of a morning helping out in B’s class, I’m even more so.  I had a great time.  I was worried, beforehand, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.  I’ve always wanted to be able to help out in my kids’ classes, but I was concerned that either my inner control freak or my outer introvert would be overwhelmed by facing 22 first graders.  But it was nothing like how I thought it was going to be.

I was in charge of an arts & crafts/reading project that involved glue and scissors, as well as having the kids read some labels and attach them to their pictures.  It was a bit of a challenge to keep on top of where in the project each child was, but it was a lot of fun.  And the kids are AMAZING!  I was so impressed to see how each one did — some were great with the scissors and neat with the glue, some made an enthusiastic mess; some were lightning fast readers, others struggled but kept consistently working at it; some were patient, some demanded consistent attention.  But they all worked diligently at the project.  They shared, they cooperated, they were kind to each other.  They were awesome.

I, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess.  I’m the exact opposite of a good arts & crafts mom — my concern about messes and injuries majorly interferes with my kids’ enjoyment of the process.  I do ok with projects involving stickers, crayons or chalk.  Scissors and glue … not so much.  But I was able to keep my obsessiveness at bay enough for the kids to get on with their work.  And besides, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had tried to be obsessive — I don’t think it’s possible to micro-manage 5-6 kids at a time (or, at least, I don’t know how).  I kept misplacing supplies, and I was so slow at getting everyone started (and at keeping them going) that my station was a bit of a bottleneck (I think I had 10 or 11 kids at one point).  But it was great.  I had so much fun, and I was so impressed by the kids.

At the end of our projects, the teacher put on the “Happy” song, and the kids danced around the room tidying up, without complaint.  They put away all the scissors, glue, paper, yarn and pencils we’d been using.  I had trouble keeping up!  Then the teacher had them collect their snacks, which they did, and then they each took a spot and had their snack.  One boy cried because a girl sat in “his” spot (they don’t actually have assigned spots), and though the teacher was in the process of encouraging him to find another spot, the girl moved so he could sit where he wanted.  (It was like being in a whole classroom full of Benjamins!)

After snack time, it was time for their first recess of the day, so the kids changed their shoes and lined up to go outside.  I said goodbye to B and they all went out while I stayed in the classroom to help the teacher make a collage of pictures from a field trip they’d taken earlier in the week.  She and I got a chance to chat some more, which was lovely.  (Not only do I think she’s a pretty perfect teacher for B, but I think she’s someone I’d be friends with.)

It was a great day.  I had the best time.  I am so grateful for being able to come in and help (I hope I really did help!) and really glad that B was glad to have me there.  It was even more fun than I’d anticipated, and the time really flew by.  I can’t wait to go back next week!

How do you do it?

Here we are, at the end of our first full week of double drop offs and double pick ups.  We all survived, we were on time almost every day, and no one got dropped off at the wrong school.  I count this week as a major success.

It’s a lot of work, though.  Dropping the boys off in the morning is a nearly 2 hour procedure, picking Liam up takes about an hour and a half, and picking up B takes about an hour (and that’s only because he takes the expensive school bus almost all the way home).  If you do the math, you’ll find that it takes about 4 1/2 hours every day just to get the kids to and from school every day — and we’re talking actual travel time, not including getting dressed, last minute potty breaks, trains breaking down, etc.

(Now, because tone is hard to read on a computer screen, and because, whether online or in person, my tone is constantly misunderstood, I will point out that I’m not complaining.  Not one little bit.  We’ve got things really, really good, and I am fully aware of that.  The kids are going to great schools, Dan has a great job, we live in a fantastic city.  And I love it.  I would say that all of my problems are First World problems, but none of this is actually a “problem”, so I can’t even say that.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of work.  It’s just that WORK doesn’t equal BAD, though I often find that anytime I write about anything being “work”, many people automatically assume that I’m saying it’s a “problem”.  It’s not a problem.  It is a lot of work.  It’s my job, and JOB usually does equal WORK.  But, I digress . . . )

We’re still sorting out how best to manage this and still ensure everyone gets to eat and bathe at regular intervals.  It’s a bit of a challenge, and we’ve tried out a few different options this week (and will experiment with more next week, for sure).

So far, our favorite option looks like this:
5:30 Dan up, goes for a run, walks Bailey
6:15 Em & boys up, breakfast, Dan showers
7:00 teeth brushed, dressed for the day
7:15 Dan & boys out the door
7:50 Liam dropped off
8:20 B dropped off
8:50 Dan gets to work
During this time, I run errands, shower, go for a run, go to the grocery store, prep stuff for lunch and dinner, and attempt to clean the house a bit.
11:15 I leave to get Liam
12:00 Liam picked up
12:50 Liam & I arrive home, have lunch, walk Bailey
2:00 Nap for Liam, more cleaning/to-dos/laundry for me (at this point, we are behind schedule most days)
3:25 Leave to meet B
3:55 Meet B (at this point, we have to be back on schedule)
4:30 Get home, have a snack, Skype (some days)
5:30 Start making dinner
6:15 Dan comes home, we all eat dinner (we’re usually behind schedule by this point, too)
7:00 Clean up time
7:15 Baths, teeth brushed, stories
8:30 Bed (kids)
10:30 Bed (grown ups)

So, it’s a busy day.  Not a bad day, and we even manage a few quiet moments each day.  Most days so far, we’ve been ending our day about an hour later than this (both kids and both parents) because we just can’t quite keep our evening on track, but I think we’ll gradually be able to adjust to the new schedule, and get closer to getting everyone a good amount of sleep.

I know we’re very lucky.  I’m not working and Dan has a (fairly) flexible work schedule.  Even so, there are days when even this schedule seems daunting.  So, here’s my sincere question — what do other people’s days look like?  (Not just those of you with kids — anyone!)  What kinds of hoops are other families jumping through to make things work?  For us, right now, the kids’ commutes are a big factor in our family schedule — what are yours?  What kinds of things have you done to/cut out of/added to your daily schedule to make things work?  I’d love to hear ideas, inspiration, thoughts from other families.  We’re all doing some version of this kind of craziness, but I feel like, so often, we really have no idea what anyone else’s day really looks like, except where it intersects our own.

This is how we’re making it work.  Our assets are a flexible schedule, good schools, great public transport, and enough affluence for me to be able to stay home.  Our challenges are long-ish commutes and being fully self-reliant (no ability to call on friends or family for a hand, no carpools).  How do YOU make it work?  I really am curious.

Back to school night . . . sort of

One thing is certainly true about B’s new school — they keep us parents pretty busy! School started less than 2 weeks ago and so far we’ve had orientation (with the kids), the first day of school, a curriculum meeting, a PTA coffee and then, last night, a parent orientation meeting (which was more or less at “back to school night” . . . except that I think they’re doing another “back to school night” type of event later in the month, too).  I made a comment to another mom at the PTA coffee on Tuesday that they keep us parents very busy at the beginning of the year, and she responded that it’s actually going to be like this all year.  Whew.

But, I don’t mind.  I’m happy and excited to be involved, and to start to feel like I’m able understand a bit of what school is like for B.  (Much as I like the boys’ preschool, both the language barrier and the fact that they are the complete opposite when it comes to involving parents have made it hard to feel really connected to what goes on there each day.)

Last night was great.  We met in the classroom with B’s teacher and the parents of his classmates.  We got a chance to learn about their daily schedule, about the school’s and the teacher’s philosophies, and about how things have been going so far (very well, apparently).  We also got to meet and chat with some of the other parents — it’s very nice to start to get to know the parents of the kids B has started to make friends with.

Basically, we love it.  We love the school, and we love B’s teacher.  I love the way the kids are expected to be at different levels, and the way the teacher plans to work with each of them to improve their skills from their current point.  I love the way the day is structured, with focused learning mixed in with group work, circle time and play time.  I love his teacher’s positive approach to behavior and discipline.  And I love, love, LOVE the enthusiasm she has for teaching the kids — even just a few days into the year, she seems to be so genuinely fond of all the kids in the class.  I couldn’t have asked for a better place for B to start his “real” school career, and I couldn’t imagine an environment I’d be more comfortable with.  I feel like all of my concerns and worries about B being ready for 1st grade have pretty much been shown to be unfounded — not just because he’s doing so well already, but because the school and his class really are set up in such a beneficial manner.  I am just so happy.

And then there’s the other stuff we learned.  It turns out that not only is B the only American kid in his class (though two of the other kids have lived in the US for a while), but he’s the only native English speaker in his class.  The school has over 100 nationalities represented, and something like 70+ native languages (I’d struggle to even NAME 70 languages).  Watching a slide show the teacher had prepared before the meeting got started, I felt like every single picture looked like a Benetton ad, or at least like the obligatory picture all school brochures include to show how diverse the population is.  It wasn’t until a picture of B popped up in the slide show that we realized that ALL of the pictures we were looking at had been taken in B’s class during these first 10 days of school — that’s just what his class looks like.

I was also thrilled to find out that I’m able to come in and volunteer in B’s class.  I’m going to be coming in once a week to help out.  I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to be doing, but I’m so excited to get to help and participate.  In my imaginings of my kids’ school days, I’d always pictured myself helping out in the classroom, and I was disappointed when I wasn’t able to be more involved in their preschool.  So to get that chance now is just beyond exciting for me.

I’m completely won over.  This school seems like just the right place for him, and I am so excited for him to have this opportunity.  If I sound like I’m bragging, I don’t mean to be.  I’m just excited, and so very grateful to see how things are unfolding.  I feel like this is the best school we could have chosen for him, and I think he might have gotten the good fortune of ending up with the best teacher possible for him, too.

How we got here

photo8B’s first week and a half of school has gone amazingly well.  Liam’s first few days have gone without a hitch, as well.  Happy boys.  They like their schools, they like their teachers, they are (reasonably) enthusiastic about getting up and out the door each morning.  I don’t entirely trust it, and I keep waiting for the good feelings to fade (and it’s only the second week, so they still might), but so far, the boys have been happy about being back at school.  And I am happy to see them happy.  Life is good.

After dropping Liam off at preschool the other day, I was standing on the corner, waiting for the bus as I have done so many mornings over the past 3 years.  And I was thinking about this — wondering why I so expect things to be different, and why they are, instead, going so well.

And I think it comes down to this — we paid that price already.  All of those months, in the early days of preschool, when B struggled.  The days that he cried.  The days that I cried.  The days that I stood on the corner across the street from the school and spent long minutes convincing myself NOT to go back in and retrieve my kids.  The times that I almost, almost, ALMOST gave up on it ever getting better.

THIS is why we did all of that.  It might not be inevitable for all children, but for mine, and for me, going through that struggle probably was.  It was always going to be hard for us.  B is sensitive.  I’m sensitive and controlling.  Liam wants to be with us.  So, learning how to NOT let those tendencies get in the way of school was going to be hard.  And it was.  It was so hard, and I questioned and doubted it so many times.  I wondered if I was harming my kids, or if I was a terrible mom.  I wondered if preschool was worth all of that trouble, or if we’d end up regretting the deep emotional trauma I imagined was being inflicted on my kids.

I remember saying to myself, more than once, “If it’s like this again tomorrow, I won’t make him go back”, or, “If it gets any worse than this, I’ll keep him home”.  But it was always a little better the next day, or he came home with some story of what a great time he’d had.  There were best friends and lantern fests and St. Nikolaus visits.  And yes, there were also tears and tough days and an emergency room visit.

But if I could go back, I would tell myself, standing on that corner, “Just wait.  I know that this is hard, but it IS worth it.”  Because I believe that the price we paid, the struggle we endured, has made it possible for B to start first grade at a new school without missing a beat, and for Liam to start this school year, without having B there with him, without any sadness.  And when I see where we are now, I’m so glad we stuck with it.

Liam’s first day

photo 1Last week, B started first grade at his new school.  Yesterday, Liam had his first day of school for the year, too.  Liam is back at the same preschool (Kindergarten) this year, the same school that B also attended for 3 years.

Last week was a nice transition into the hectic new school year (more hectic than ever for us, because we’ve never had to take the kids to two different schools each morning).  Last week, B was in school, but Liam was home with me.  So, we were able to adjust to B’s new school’s schedule, get in the habit of bringing gym clothes on Monday, packing a snack for him every day and remembering his reading homework.  But, while we did that, Liam and I also got in one last week of trips to the playground and quiet mornings building train tracks.  It was really nice.  (I love having photo 2my boys at home.  One part of me really wishes they were home with me all the time.  I fantasize about home-schooling them, letting them wake up whenever they like, taking our lunch break when it’s relatively convenient, and staying in on rainy days.  But I know that my reasons for doing that would be mostly selfish.  I’d love having them with me every day, but I do really think that this is best for them.  I also realize that my fantasy about what home-schooling would be like is exactly just a fantasy and leaves out all of the actual SCHOOLING and such.)  This week, we’re off to the races, with two drop-offs and two pick-ups in different places and at different times each day.

photo 3But yesterday was Liam’s first day.  He was so excited and so proud.  He was really ready to go to school (and really, really ready to get his Scultüte that he’d been looking forward to since last week).  He was happy to pose for “1st day” pictures (and though he was as bouncy as B was last week, I kept my good spirits the whole time).  I was a little concerned, though, because though he was excited and enthusiastic, I wasn’t entirely sure that it had truly occurred to him that one thing would be really different about this year — this year, B wouldn’t be there with him.

The boys were in different classes at the preschool last year, but they still crossed paths a lot.  They often ran into each other at breakfast, or in the garden at recess time, and very occasionally even got to visit each other in their respective classes.  Now, it would just be Liam at his school, and I wasn’t sure he’d thought of that.

photo 4Regardless, he was excited, and it was time to head off to his first day.  When we got there, I was a little surprised to find that he has a new teacher this year.  This makes 3 teachers for Liam since he started last September, which is a lot.  His first teacher last year was FANTASTIC, but she left last spring for another job closer to her home.  For reasons I will probably never know (part of the downside to the kids being in an entirely German-speaking school is that I’m left completely out of the rumor mill), both of his teachers from last spring seem to no longer be with the school.  So, for Liam, it’s year 2 of preschool, with no Benjamin, and a new teacher.

photo 5He was undaunted.  He was very enthusiastic to put away his things in his same spot as last year, change his shoes, and get into class.  He was a little confused when he greeted his new teacher, but he wasn’t bothered by it — he quickly set about exploring his old classroom and discovering a few new car and truck toys that weren’t there last spring.  He was a happy guy.

I watched him for a bit, and he came back out briefly to show me a new construction truck that he found.  But he wasn’t worried about me or what I was up to, so I left pretty quickly.  According to both him and his teacher, he had a “great” first day.  He seems just as happy as can be, and I’m very glad to find out that I’m missing him much more than he’s missing me.

Home Alone

This morning was Liam’s first day back at school.  I took him to school, and Dan took B, but we were able to ride most of the way together.  Liam and I said goodbye to Dan and B on the train, rode the last bit of the way on the bus, and arrived at school on this rainy morning.  I took him into his class, set up his things, met his new teacher, and said an uneventful goodbye.  I got a text from Dan a few minutes later, saying that B’s school drop off had gone equally well.

And then Dan went to work, and I went home.  I rode home alone on the U-Bahn, which was weird.  I came home to an empty house, which was weird.  It was just me and Bailey in the apartment, and it was so quiet that I put on the tv for some “company”.  (I made the mistake of putting on “The West Wing”.  Aaron Sorkin captivated me right out of most of my morning productivity.)

The house was so quiet, and I had some time to myself.  But, though I often imagine that what I really want in life is some peaceful time to myself, as soon as I had it, all I could do was think about was how long it would be until the kids would come home.

It’s not a bad thing that the kids are in school.  I’m glad they’re learning and playing and being exposed to different situations and different people.  And I know that over the next few months I’ll have the chance to get a lot done, take some time for myself, have coffee with friends, and even take a shower with relative freedom (which I did today, and it was really nice).  I know I’ll remember how to make the most of this time and how best to enjoy it.

But, right now, I mostly just miss them.  I really love having my kids around.  They are my most favorite people.  I WANT them to go to school and learn new stuff and have great experiences.  But, when they’re not here, I just wish they were.

Week one down, week one still to go

Week one of B’s new school — completed.  As I type this, he’s 10 minutes away from the end of the last day of the first week at his new school.  So far, things have gone great.  He’s enjoying his classes, he loves his new teacher, he’s been enthusiastic about eating in the cafeteria and riding the bus home (both new experiences), and he’s had positive interactions with the kids in his class.  He may be in the process of coming down with a cold (or something) but that’s pretty much to be expected the first week at a new school.  Things are going great for him.

And I’m thrilled, too.  I’m also loving his experience at the school so far.  His teacher seems very positive and supportive; he’s already taking gym, art, music and German; he comes home every day excited to tell me about what he’s done; he gets up in the morning enthusiastic to go back (not that I expect that to be true EVERY day, but it seems to be a very positive sign that it’s true already this first week); and he’s impatient to get his library card next week so he can start bringing books home.

Plus, the whole family has done an excellent job this week of adapting to this major change to our schedule — the boys are getting up happily in the morning, early but not TOO early; Liam has adjusted relatively well to having only a brief nap each afternoon; and the boys are going to bed relatively quickly and easily at a slightly earlier hour in the evening.  Dan and I even managed to get everyone fed at a reasonable hour AND do baths every night but one this week.  That’s pretty awesome.

But, of course, next week, everything is going to change again.  Next Monday, Liam goes back to school, and we get to start over again with a whole new “first week”.  That means twice as many drop offs and pick ups, twice as many schedules to manage, and it will mean getting up another half an hour earlier every day (for all of us) which will hopefully mean getting to bed another half an hour earlier every day.  I’m a little intimidated by the change in the schedule (I’ve already gotten used to this one!) and by just how much there will be to manage starting on Monday.  But that pretty much just seems to be life with kids!

That’s ok, though — we’ll get it done.  This time last week, I was dreading the thought of B starting school, and it’s been even better than I’d hoped.  Next week will mean a lot of new stuff around here again, but I’m hopeful that it’ll be another week of positive changes.

Class flags

So far, I am loving B’s new school.  He’s only 2 days into the year so far (well, he’s almost done with his third day at this point) but he’s already had gym class, music class, German class and art class, in addition to story time and math instruction (plus chocolate cake at lunch time — twice).  He gets to go outside for recess twice a day, plus they begin and end their day with “structured free play”, which means that they get to choose which of several stations around the classroom (art, Legos, doll house, a shop, reading) they’d like to play with, and then they get to play quietly and cooperatively with their classmates.  His teacher seems very kind and patient, too.

photo

I think it’s kind of the Shangri-La of first grade.

Yesterday, for art class, each child painted the flag from their home country.  B came home and reported that he was jealous of the Japanese kids in his class (there are 2) because their flag “is just a big red dot!”  He also acknowledged that the Russian and Austrian kids had it pretty easy, too.  According to B, only one kid had it “worse” than he did.  He insisted they were from a South American country whose name he couldn’t remember.  We tried to figure it out, but we were stuck.  He explained that their flag was just like his, only it had a yellow moon instead of the white stars (which is why it was harder — because he got to leave the stars blank, while the moon had to be colored in).  We finally figured out that he was talking about Malaysia … he was certain it was South American because “the flag looked so much like mine that it must be SOME kind of America!”  We had fun at dinner last night piecing together the home countries of the kids in his class based on his descriptions of their flags. Once again, he appears the only American in his class, and I just can’t help but think what an amazing experience this will be for him — his classroom is like a tiny little United Nations, all by itself!