Sunday, 29 November 2009

German Advent Faux Pas!

A "normal" German Advent's wreath

"The layers of meaning in a new society are never explained explicitly to newcomers and sometimes I wish that I had been handed my bible of In Germany thou shalts and thou shalt nots as I crossed the border.

Our first Christmas was one case in point. Christmas is a serious, more contemplative time here and full of old traditions. During the season of Advent, every German family has a pine wreath with four candles on it. On each of the four Sundays in Advent, the family sits down for afternoon tea and Stollen—the traditional fruit loaf, eaten only at Christmas time—and another candle gets lit, until all four are burning on Christmas Eve. It is a wonderful tradition but not mine, and my children have suffered from their non-German mother’s inability to “bastel”—to make things with one’s hands—and to make an Advent wreath ourselves.

Our first Christmas here, my husband decided, as the German contingent in our marriage, that he would make an Advent wreath with Louise, thinking it couldn’t be that difficult. He and Louise sat down on a Sunday with some wire and pliers and pine branches taken from the neighbour’s trees. After much intense work, I was called to admire our very own and first Advent wreath. I had to bite my sharp tongue and suppress a chuckle, while hypocritically telling them how great it looked.

On the table was a rather South African, rugby-ball-shaped advent wreath—it was after all 1995 and the year of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. MM looked at me apologetically, “I’m sorry! The wire frame just did not want to bend round.”

I was despatched the next day to get some candles for our very own wreath. I was lost. Germans love to burn candles in their houses during the dark months and one gets them in all shapes and colours and designs.

There is nothing I love more than to put on candles for atmosphere in the winter months and there I have adapted to my new home. MM, on the other hand, cannot read with dimmed lights and will always walk in and switch on the brightest light.

The other fear MM has is that his house will burn down because of us burning candles. So there I was standing in the DIY shop, trying to make my choice. Finally I found some sturdy, if not the most attractive, long- burning candles in a thick red plastic cylinder shape form, with white wax inside. Red is the colour of Christmas and the form looked ideal to me as the candle was protected. The dry pine needles could not catch fire and that would shut my husband up. As it was my first Christmas here, long-burning looked like a good additional feature—the candles had to last a month after all. Proudly I put them on the Advent wreath as a surprise for MM and Louise when they got home.

MM was rather horrified. “Those are grave candles!” It was still November, the month of remembrance in Germany. Inadvertently, I had bought candles that people put on the graves on All Saint’s Day. They are long-lasting and extremely safe candles, as they are supposed to last through the winter on the graves.

That first year we had the only rugby-ball-shaped Advent wreath with grave candles on it in the whole of Germany! Germans can sometimes be incredibly polite to bumbling foreigners: no one who came to our house that Advent commented on our unique wreath."

(C) Anli Serfontein 2008 - Extract "From Rock to Kraut" Chapter 5 Faux Pas!

To my family's horror: my idea of an Advent's wreath - no needles, no mess, no sweat!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Intercultural Relations Repaired

Seldom before in my life have I experienced how from the depths of despair, life can suddenly turn around into pure joy and pleasure and fresh experiences completely wiping away all bad memories that have gone before.

The mayor of Florange and our daughter (in white) laying a wreath in France on Remembrance Day 2009

An ordinary November week started with A., the French exchange pupil we hosted in September, writing to our daughter, saying she would refuse to have anything to do with our daughter Rose once she came to France. It was only days before Rose had to go and stay with this family. The visit was part of a regional Schumann exchange organised by the Education Departments in the four bordering countries and is meant to foster inter-regional understanding.

We were aghast by the turn of events. Even more hurtful was watching the toll it took on our daughter. Both we and her French teacher kept on telling her, not all French are like that. So while all her close friends were packing for France, my daughter (and I) had sleepless nights and teary evenings.

My husband had the task of informing the German and French authorities and we were resigned to her staying here. Then suddenly out of the blue, two days after the bad news, we got an unexpected email from the German teacher at the French school in Florange. She had read my husband’s correspondence with the authorities, read my blogs and the rude email of one of her pupils. She was totally dismayed. Beyond the call of duty, she then offered to find Rose another family. This was now Thursday afternoon. And from there on things moved at breakneck speed.

When by Friday afternoon that did not work out, she offered to put her up herself. Events were changing rapidly. Friday morning Rose had still told her teachers she would probably see them on Monday. Saturday, we rushed to town to do last-minute shopping - winter boots, a new jacket. When we got back there was a welcoming email with pictures waiting from the teacher’s ten-year old daughter describing the family members, their house and their pets.

On a sunny autumn Sunday afternoon, we drove the 85 kilometres to Florange, passing through Luxembourg. Three countries in less than an hour. After the drama of the last week, we were all feeling upbeat.

Walking into their welcoming home we knew instinctively this was going to work out. Over home-made apple cake we spent some time with this lovely family. We were given her French timetable, asked what she ate. That evening my husband and I drove back to Germany with not a worry in the world.

Tuesday Rose called to say she would probably move to another family on Wednesday where there were two girls her age, but that she could always move back to Madame. We then got an email from Madame saying how wonderfully Rose had fitted into her family but that she also did not sleep the night before moving her to another family. She was having second thoughts, asking herself if the move was right for our daughter. So much care and love moved me to tears. But we did not have to worry.

On her first day in the new family, she phoned to say that at the 11 November remembrance ceremony on the local cemetery, a public holiday in France, she was asked to lay the wreath with a French girl. I told her that Chancellor Angela Merkel on that day became the first German Chancellor to be at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Paris. Merkel laid a wreath with President Sarkozy at the Arc d’Triomphe.

A few evenings later, my daughter phoned out of breath “I have no time to talk. I am so lucky, I am happy, France is great.” And she put the phone down again. What more does a mother want to hear?

After 13 days we drove to fetch her from the French family we have never met. We were met by a smiling, happy daughter, conversing in French with the other girls. Their granny and aunt had come to join us for coffee and cakes and to say goodbye to our daughter. This was final proof of how completely she had been integrated into the family.

Their Daddy came home and there was more laughter. Then Monsieur announced that they had invited our daughter to go along on their summer holiday to Brittany. We in turn invited their girls to come and stay with us during the Christmas holidays.

As we drove away Rose rolled down the car window and shouted "Salut", like a real French girl to her friends who were running alongside the car. She dared her German father to hoot (unheard of in Germany). He did; but without the gusto of a South African or French HOOOOT

We drove on to the teacher’s house to thank her too. They repeated our daughter can come over any time she wishes to visit them.

We are in for a busy Advent. We will be showing both families around Trier and our wonderful Christmas market. My daughter has her address book filled with French pupils wanting to visit her. One French father wanted advice on buying DIY in Trier. As my husband said quite pleased with himself, as we drove back that evening, “It looks like we are going to become the place to stay and the place to get advise about Trier, for the French from Lorraine”

Driving back through three countries again, our daughter was bubbling and could not stop talking about life in France, her experiences at school and on outings, while mixing some French into her German and English. She was definitely going to live there one day, she warned us!

In one week in early November, our lives went from absolute horror, depression and tears into the most touching experience, we never in all our dreams envisaged! Thank you Madame K. Thank you Famille C!! Merci! Vive la France!

(c) Anli Serfontein, 2009

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Intercultural Mis-Communication

We as a family had to this week painfully experience how an intercultural, inter-regional pupil exchange between our daughter and a pupil in the northern French region of Lorraine, barely 60 kilometres from Trier completely collapsed.

For 12 days in September, we played hosts to a homesick 12-year old French pupil from a migrant family in Loraine. We thought we did our best: investing time, energy and money to make her time in Germany special. Every day there was an activity: an outing with French and German pupils or visiting some of our eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One day they had a home-made pizza and film party with 12 French and German girls here in our house. On the Saturday we did a day-trip to Eltz Castle, 100 kilometres away.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009 Eltz Castle

After receiving no thank you note from her, she deemed it fit to write my daughter an email this week, less than a week before my daughter was to go to France to tell her how she hated her time with us, that my daughter did not suggest any activities, undertook nothing with her, and made no effort to give her a good time in Germany. Therefore she refuses to undertake any activities with my daughter when she comes to France. All blatant lies as our French pupil probably did and saw more than any of the other exchange pupils.

An intercultural exchange is taxing on all involved - also on the parents. And I, as a former exchange pupil always take great care that pupils see and experience Germany in a wide range of ways – language; food; history; music and culture.

We were all reeling under the shock of her email. My husband was philosophical saying her sojourn did improve our French, as she refused to even say the simplest of sentences in German. Bitte and danke never crossed her lips. My older daughter now a student who had to keep her busy the last two days when her younger sister got sick, was wondering why as a third generation migrant she did not want to break out of the mould. Normally, in her experience of Germans with a migrant background, she said, the first generation comes for the money; the second try and adapt and the third generation break loose.

With so much intellectual analysis going on all around, I had to think positive too: Her stay with us did give me an insight into an Algerian migrant extended family in France, that I would normally not have had. She has 32 cousins in France alone and we lost count how many in Algeria. She was texting them all the time. What amazed me was how they are content to only have social relations within this extended family and are quite insular. It reminded me of my mother’s childhood in a rural South African family in the 1930’s and 1940’s. But these were third generation migrants to France in the 21st century.

After we received the email, my husband called the fairly hostile mother, who told us she absolutely supported her daughter’s decision not to have anything to do with our daughter when she visited. However, as an afterthought our daughter may still come if she wishes so. Fearing that she will be treated like a leper we decided to keep her here.

We have had exchange pupils before and we did have contact with the parents when there were minor hiccups, which invariably in a long intercultural exchange can pop up. We had to conclude this time it was not the language that hampered communication, but the cultural communication framework.

To put it bluntly, the educated bourgeoisie communicate within a certain globally accepted framework, no matter what the language is, that is understood among each other. We reflect, we analyse and we set certain values for our kids. This week my husband and I were incapable to reach a common language with people whose horizon is a small village in northern France and a small village in Algeria. People who do not reflect. Having had their daughter in our house we could read that it was people for whom books have little value. People for whom the normal polite phrases like thanking your hosts have little value.

As all her friends are packing for a fortnight in France, my daughter is staying and that is the hardest part. It breaks my heart, knowing how she made such a huge effort to make A’s stay pleasant, especially when she was sad all the time. Now she is sadly the duped one. A. cried from the first day because she did not want to be here but was forced by her parents to go to Germany.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009. My husband, daughter and the French pupil at Eltz Castle. According to her we did not undertake anything with her

My daughter wanted to go to France to experience school life there. She had organised who would send her homework; what books to take along; what magazines she would like to buy in France, what television she would like to watch. In hindsight we should not have put all our efforts and energy into trying to make a spoilt French pupil stay and only pandering to her needs in order to keep her happy; we should have let her go home after two days! We have wasted our energies completely. Unfortunately our daughter will now not benefit at all!

Read my blow by blow account of our Intercultural Nightmare

Monday, 24 August 2009

Carsten Semenya: Unfair bigotry?

The World Athletic Championships in Berlin which ended last night should have been a moment of triumph for South African athletes, giving their best performance since returning to the international stage in 1991. Yet bigotry and nastiness of the highest order marred it for those athletes who have spent days and hours to prepare. Sitting in Germany this week, I was getting thoroughly sick of the narrow-mindedness of so many.

A lot have been written about Carsten Semenya but I would like to add my few thoughts.

She looks like a man her accusers say:

I worked as sports stringer for Reuters and SID (Sports Informationsdienst) in the early 1990’s in South Africa. The then long distance star of the day, Elana Meyer also had no breasts, a boyish figure and boyish facial features. She did however have a domineering husband who acted as her manager, which I suppose acted as an alibi. Today she has remarried and has a baby. Maria Mutola, the 800 metre Mozambican star was also not that feminine.

On pictures where her hair is longer, Carsten look much more feminine. I personally think it is a racist issue here; alas not coming from South African whites but from Europeans. Unlike her Kenyan counterpart she wears her hair au natural African. As South Africans we know there are many Black women in the rural areas of South Africa who wear their hair like that because they cannot afford expensive and long hairdresser appointments. And yes they do not fit in a western mould of beauty and femininty, that most Afro-Americans like First Lady Michelle Obama embrace.

She has a deep voice. Again, all South Africans speak quite a few decibels lower than the high-pitched Brits. I listened to Carsten’s one interview where she is supposed to have a deep voice. It sounds to me as low as Winnie Mandela’s voice (Or Zindzi’s). Now Winnie may have more balls than most men, but no-one would argue she is a man.

Her performance improved remarkably:

If one reads Carsten's CV and listens to what she herself said, it makes perfect sense why. Anyone who has ever been to the rural areas of the Limpopo would know that the athletic fields there cannot be compared to anything nearly approaching international standards. In fact that can hardly be recognised as such. And that is where she trained till she finished school. She also said she rested for three months – which may be logical as it is the time between school finishing and university starting. Only arriving in Pretoria earlier this year as a student, was she given the opportunity to train professionally at the High Performance Centre of Pretoria University with a trainer and excellent supervision.

As one of the unfittest people around, my power walk times through the vineyards have also improved fast this summer after regular daily walks. How much more should times not improved when such a natural athlete is training professionally?


The leak by the IAAF a mere three hours before her race and the interview full of inuendo by their press officer Nick Davies, was mean and low. Given Germany's strict privacy laws it is remarkable that the leak according to Davies, emanated from Berlin where tests were done.

What I found even more disturbing is that while she was doing her round of honour, German television switched to discus thrower Robert Harting who had just won a gold medal. Earlier in the week Harting insulted a group of former East German athletes, all doping victims with considerable damage to their health, who were protesting againt doping in sport. Harting’s trainer has links to Thomas Springstein, Katrin Krabbe’s trainer who in 1992 thought training and doping in Stellenbosch was save, because South Africa had just returned to the international sporting arena. He got caught out by the South African doping controllers.

Black Out?

Dying to see Carsten’s round of honour with the South African flag, I was seething. Here someone had just won one of the most amazing 800 meter races in history and German television determined that we should see Harting celebrating, this uncouth macho instead.

I am told that in the internal IAAF magazine distributed at the Championships every day for athletes and officials, Carsten also did not feature, nor does she on the IAAF website. Other gold medal winners did. Are they trying to erase her from our memories? Do they think she will then just go away?

But obviously the television people had something against us South Africans. They gave a repeat performance of not showing the winner’s round of honour when Mbulaeni Mulaudzi suprisingly beat the favourites in the men’s 800 metres on Sunday.


Apparently tests were done in Berlin and in South Africa, but everyone around Caster is keeping mum on the issue. Amnesia?

Zola Budd

Sources in the team say she is mentally incredibly strong: a shy, serious person who spent a lot of time on her own preparing mentally for the race. A true professional athlete. reminding me of Zola Budd. The people I know from the Limpopo area are very private people. So having your gender discussed all over the world must be shattering for her.

My advice to her is not to give up, but to use her anger positively and show the world what she can still achieve. Maybe she can takesome advice from Zola Budd who at a young age was also scrutinized and under enormous pressure for political reasons. In a 1992 interview with me shortly before the Barcelona Olympics, I asked her what makes her run?

"It was the only sport at school in which I could not hurt someone with my aggression. I get aggressive in about 90 per cent of all races. Sometimes I get incredibly angry," she said.

So Carsten use that anger! And you must have a lot of that right now!

Monday, 3 August 2009

Olewig Wine Festival, Trier

The annual Olewig Wine Festival in Trier, Germany's oldest town is ending tonight.

Once again we celebrated at Weingut Deutschherrenhof. Where else? Good music, good wine, good food. Ate lovely vegetarian Flammkueche.

This is what I wrote in my book about it. On the left vineyards of Olewig.

Annual Olewig Wine Festival:

“In the last few years we have preferred to sit in the garden of the wine estate Deutschherrenhof, belonging to the family Schieben-Oberbillig. The wines are excellent, the cuisine good and the music is normally to our taste.

The problem with German wines is that they are so completely confusing. In South Africa my favourite wine for many years was a Boschendal Blanc de Blanc or for special occasions a Backsberg Chardonnay. With the French Huguenots bringing the wine culture to South Africa, I have no problem choosing a good French wine. But German wines, even after thirteen years of living in a wine growing area, give me the jitters. Is aRiesling dry or semi-sweet? Unless it is written explicitly on the bottle, your guess is as good as mine.

Recently I have discovered a wonderful Pinot Blanc at Deutschherrenhof. And while grape varieties internationally stick to the names of their countries of origin, French or German or Italian, the Germans translate Pinot Blanc as Weissburgunder, which means the same as “white Burgundy”.

The garden of Deutschherrenhof was also a place for our children to play nearby when they were younger, safely away from mainstream pedestrian traffic, which can get very congested as the evening proceeds. And by eleven o’clock one has a wonderful view of the fireworks in the steep vineyards from their garden........”

Monday, 25 May 2009

Rome comes to Trier

Sunday the 24th of May

The faithful gather for outside the Roman Cathedral, dating from the fourth century, in Trier.

(c) Anli Serfontein, 2009

Bishop Stephan Ackermann, Germany's newest and youngest bishop, exists his official residence to go to the Cathedral for the official ceremony.

(c) Anli Serfontein, 2009

Looking for a shady place to sit down in Trier on a hot Sunday, the church bells started peeling at full volume from all directions. Trier has more churches on a square kilometre than any place I know, but today was different: The new bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann was being inducted.

And that is when we ran into a procession of Roman Catholic priests and bishops.

In the hot-humid early summer air ancient traditions mixed with modern times. The procession was headed by a priest carrying a huge old Bible. All the great religions of the world are based on scriptures and this symbolised 2,000 years of Christian tradition. We are just small cogs in the wheel of time.

Trier is not only Germany's oldest town founded in 17 BC by the Romans, but it is also Germany's oldest Catholic Diocese. Emperor Constantine allowed Christianity in Trier in about the fourth century and started to build the Cathedral that still today towers over the square. All the bishops of Trier are buried here.

As the procession came to a halt in front of the official residence of the bishop of Trier, across from the Kesselstatt wine café, Ackermann emerged to be greeted by dignatories. They then descended the steps so that Germany's youngest bishop could join his fellow German bishops and proceed to the Cathedral for the official ceremony.

He briefly hugged his predecessor the charismatic Reinhold Marx, now Archbishop of Munich and Freissing who looked quite jolly in the heat, laughing and joking while everyone else looked pretty solemn.

Rome has come to Trier once more, like it has done for nearly 16 centuries. The procession proceeded to the Cathedral.

A short while later sitting in the shade of those old trees at Kesselstatt, finally drinking a colddrink against the sweltering heat, Trier's tousseld-hair troubadour, Wolthär or better known as Walter Liederschmitt emerged and came to a halt under the trees across from the bishop's residence. An old hippie in the classical sense, he had some people in tow with concertina's and they started to belt out protest chansons.

A Sunday in Trier!

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Hiking Into a Stupor

„Basteln, Wandern and Putzen” is the name of the second edition of my book in Germany. The name comes from a chapter in my book listing the things I negatively associate with living in Germany.

"She pokes fun at her own inability to spotlessly clean her house, make anything with her hands or go on compulsory but torturous hikes - all prerequisites to living in the country", the publicity blurb said.

With some wonderfully warm days here in Trier, the wandern (hiking) season is truly upon us. With May and June full of public holidays, the season is traditionally opened on May 1, when families go on loooong hiking outings with friends. It is definitely a group activity, which involves a picnic or a meal somewhere. As I wrote in my book I am completely allergic to this type of activity.

As I sat on my stoep with my laptop last Friday, Labour Day, trying to overcome my writer’s block and write in some wonderful spring weather: group after hiking group went past our gate as the afternoon dragged on. Our problem is that just beyond our house is a wine farm, vineyards and some woods with wonderful hiking paths - and on public holidays the traffic increase considerably.

If these groups, by late afternoon already fairly pickled, would just have gone past quietly, I could maybe have worked in peace. But no - they were fairly noisy and not only that, many felt they had to comment on me sitting there trying to write.

"Mommy why is that lady sitting outside at her laptop”, Mommy would stop and try and peer through our shrubs, to get a better view of me, so she could answer her brat’s question. While staring she would come up with some stupid answer, totally distracting me.

Or people would stop and comment on my wonderful spring garden of tulips and daffodils which because of the sudden heat have now dried and died. “One should cut these dead flowers, otherwise they do not bloom next year,” one know-it-all told her group. By now I felt like storming to the gate, wagging my finger at them and saying: “No, they bloom every year and more beautiful than the year before, and guess what: I do nothing, but just let nature take its course!!!”

Worst of all are still the male chauvinists already VERY, very pickled from all the schnapps supplies in their rucksacks, laughing out loud at someone so stupid: Just imagine writing on what should be one’s day off!!

Sadly for me this was just a practise run for Ascension Day, also Father’s Day in Germany. It involves men-only hiking groups, who by late afternoon would walk past our gate, pissed out of their minds and commenting rudely on whatever takes their fancy.

Luckily modern fathers, who increasingly do take care of their off-springs, do not participate in such folly – Father's Day male-only hikes are strictly an activity for male dinosaurs.