Our Mum, She’s So House-proud, Nothing Ever Slows Her Down and a Mess Is Not Allowed

We arrived in Germany sometime in early 1987. We flew into Ramstein Air Force Base. Our sponsors picked us up and drove us northwest to Prüm, 2 hours away. The first thing that I noticed was that Germany was very clean. It was pristine. No pieces of tire on the roads, no trash in the ditches, nothing out of place. The second thing I noticed was the roads were very twisty. Our sponsors–I wish I could remember their names–told us the roads were ancient. At one time long ago they had been cart roads and you couldn’t expect horses or oxen to pull a load straight up a hill, so there were switchbacks all over. When it came time to pave the roads, they weren’t straightened out; the old cart roads were simply paved over.

At the same time, many roads didn’t have speed limits posted. The Germans felt the driver could best determine the speed at which they could control their vehicle. The roads were crazy narrow, too, and if two cars met, one would have to give way so the other could pass. About 30 minutes into the drive to Prüm the long flight, the speed of the car, and the constant turns got to little Nick, not yet two years old, and he puked all over me. Rocky couldn’t help me clean myself and Nick up, because he was holding his princess, our newborn daughter Monica. 

Prüm Housing: 3 apartment buildings side by side, the commissary at the top, the school at the right.

Prüm Air Station was a US Radar Station used for communication between NATO, The US Dept of Defense, and Bitburg and Spangdahlem Air Force Bases. It closed in 2004, after the end of the Cold War. It was located about 10 minutes north of Prüm Germany. There was a barracks for the single airmen on the station itself, and family housing was three large apartment buildings on the northern edge of Prüm. The base school and commissary were right next to the apartments, which could house around 100 families. Dependent families were encouraged to live “on the economy”, which means to live in one of the German towns near the air station and rent a German house. 

Prüm Air Station Housing in Germany in 1987, when we were there.

Rocky wanted to live on the economy and after seeing the ant farm that was base housing, I agreed. While we searched for a place to live, the Air Force put us up in a little hotel in Prüm which seemed to cater to the air station families. We had a little suite of 4 rooms: two bedrooms, a kitchen/dining room, and a bathroom. My first shock was the beds. The ‘master’ bedroom had what looked like two twin-size beds pushed together and sharing one headboard. Each mattress had a fitted sheet of its own, as well as a pillow and duvet its own. This is typical in Germany: married couples share beds by each having their own bed right next to one another. It seemed strange, but I quickly grew to like it. No more fighting over blankets in the night. 

There were no top sheets on the beds. The down-filled duvet had a plain, sheet-like cover, and you took that off and washed it. Again, I was doubtful. But blankets and sheets didn’t go running away from you in the night because they were all one-and-the-same. And sleeping under a feather duvet is like sleeping under a cloud. Warm, but not heavy.  The kid’s room had two separate twin beds, but no crib for the baby. That was ok, because it was also separated from the master bedroom by a short hall and several doors and I was uncomfortable with them sleeping so far away from me. I used the kids’ pillows and duvets and made a little nest at the top of my bed for the baby and Nick and I shared my duvet. Rocky slept on his own bed alone, with the kids between us. (No more surprise babies for THIS girl!)

Breakfast was part of the room package, served in the morning and I can’t remember when the cut-off time was. Yet another surprise awaited when we went to the dining room the first morning. No menus. Because you had no choice. We were served what turned out to be a typical German breakfast: thin slices of Schwarzwaelderschinken (Black Forest smoked ham), coffee freshly brewed at your table, cheese, orange juice, butter, jam, and brötchen. Oh, the brötchen! I looked at the seemingly tiny spread placed before us and I thought this was never going to do. I didn’t know when Rocky would be back to feed us and with this breakfast, we’d be famished before he returned. 

I was completely wrong and that is because of the brötchen. Brötchen are German hard rolls and believe me when I tell you they are little handfuls of heaven in bread form. Brötchen is a smallish bread roll with a hard shell on the outside and a beautiful, fluffy, soft inside. I would’ve been perfectly happy to sit in that little dining room and do nothing but eat brötchen for the rest of my very fat life. Since returning to America thirty years ago, I have haunted bakeries, searching for the elusive brötchen. Brötchen are so amazingly delicious, I was even happy to wake up and get out of bed before 9 am, which is completely unlike me.

I’m not sure I’ve said brötchen enough in the last two paragraphs. Brötchen.

Germans don’t like window screens; they say the screens keep the light out. While we were in the hotel no screens weren’t a big deal until Nick learned how to operate the windows and I caught him leaning out of our second floor window. The windows were hinged in a way that you could open them so the top swung inward about a foot so you could keep the weather out but still get a breeze. Or you could open them from the side so they would swing open like a door and let in all the sun, breeze, and weather you could ever desire. Of course Nick figured out the second way first.

The windows also had rolladen. Rolladen are rolling shutters that are built into the house walls and close over the outside of the windows. You can close rolladen tightly to keep out weather and light or you can open them in any increment you want. They’re energy efficient, block sound as well as light, and of course protect the windows. If I ever build my own house, it will have German tilt and turn windows equipped with rolladen. 

Germany has a very good rail system, so you could go sightseeing easily and cheaply. The houses in the towns tend to be very close together and many houses are built over barns, so you have the barn on the main floor and the house on the second. This is partly to conserve land. It can be hard for Americans to understand how small other countries are compared to ours. Land can be at a premium and it makes more sense to use arable land to grow food than to build McMansions with massive lawns. Building your house on top of your barn allows you to have more land for crops and livestock. Houses on top of barns are also energy efficient: the warmth of the animals below rises up to help heat your living quarters. Plus, you don’t have to go out in the weather to tend your livestock. 

The biggest problem I had with houses over barns and close quarters were the flies. Cow Flies are giant and loud, and remember, the Germans don’t like screens. I got pretty good at swatting flies because the buzzing would drive me crazy. Another problem many Americans have with the close quarters is yards. German yards tend to be on the small side and in general, they are NOT for playing on. They’re for looking pretty and growing flowers and when Americans start playing football on the lawn, the Germans are aghast.

As difficult as it can be for Americans to understand how small Germany is, it’s nearly impossible for the Germans to grasp how BIG America is. Our landlord was taking a week’s vacation to America and he asked us what the best route would be for him to see the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, the great Sequoias in California, and still get down to Florida to spend a day or two at the beach.

Schrank

German houses tend to not have closets and the kitchens are very small, about the size of a small walk-in closet. Most German kitchens don’t have freezers and the refrigerators are very small because it’s traditional to go to market every day. There’s not a lot of need for storage. The Air Force provided shranks, which are wardrobes used in place of closets. German shranks can be intricately carved and very beautiful. Many. MANY American families come home with shranks. The ones the air force gave out were glorified school cabinets.  

Schrank

We found a house in Wallersheim, about 10 minutes west of Prüm. We lived on the second and third floors. Below us was not a barn, but our landlord’s carpentry shop. The house  had a good-sized side yard with a little fence around it and the landlord said the kids were welcome to play in the yard. The house had a very large kitchen that we could actually fit our dining room table in. It had 4 rooms on the top floor and Rocky claimed one of those rooms for his weight room. Two of the rooms were just big enough for one twin bed and a small dresser and I set each of the kids up in a room of their own with a sweet little slanted roof overhead. Then I realized the little rooms had no heat in them.

On the second floor, besides the large kitchen, there were three equally large rooms. I had planned on having one of the rooms as a toy room, but when I realized the little bedrooms weren’t heated, that room became the nursery, with the crib and toddler bed set up in there. There was still more than enough room for the toys. The room next to that room became the master bedroom, and the last of the large rooms was the living room. The bathroom? You had to open the door to the living area and go out into the stairwell. It was a large bathroom, with a bathtub and a shower, but it was outside of the living quarters. Once all the beds were on the second floor, only Rocky ever went up to the third floor where his weight room was. 

The laundry room was at the foot of the stairwell on the main floor. You had to be careful though: at that time in Germany electricity was very expensive. The washer and dryer the Air Force provided had little meters on them so you could keep track of how much electricity you were using. If you turned on the dryer, that meter whizzed around so fast, you could barely register the numbers. But there was a clothesline outside, so I usually air-dried our clothes.

The other thing that was metered was the telephone. If you called local, the meter barely moved at all, but if you called the states, you talked FAST because again, that meter spun fast enough to blur the numbers. I rarely called home.

Also: the whole ‘we can’t have trans people in our bathrooms” bullshit in America is totally just that. I won’t rant here about how bigoted and transphobic the whole fiasco is. I just want to tell you about public bathrooms in Germany. You enter what looks like a long hallway. On one side of this hallway is a long row of sinks and paper towel dispensers. On the other side  of the hall is a long row of doors. These are the toilets. And the stalls aren’t the cheap, rickety, barely-protecting-your-privacy stalls we have here in the states. They are little rooms with doors that fit snugly into their frames and end mere inches from the floor. The doors go almost up to the ceiling. The bathrooms are for EVERYONE, regardless of gender, sex, sexual orientation or religious affiliation. Everyone who needs to use the restroom enters this hall, selects a little private toilet room of their own, and shuts the peep-less door. Americans can continue to clutch their pearls over made-up controversies and boogeymen. OR we could build bathrooms that are private and accessible to all.

Our adventure in Germany was starting out smoothly.

The best thing about being stationed in Germany? We were reunited with Sue and Paul. Paul was stationed at Weisbaden Air Force Base, about 2 hours away. They’d had a little girl who was right between Monica and Nick in age, and Sue was pregnant with their second child. They came to see us while we were still in the hotel in Prüm. I was so happy to see one of my very best friends again and I was so happy that she and Paul were obviously very happy and very much in love. Now we just needed to get Trish and Jack over here, and everything would be great again.

Brötchen

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