Barbarazwieg: Of Twigs, Christmas and New Discoveries

Our St. Barbara branches, blooming in our windowsill.

“Apparently it’s a big deal to dress up in costumes when you pick someone up on Christmas Eve in Switzerland…”

Christmas Eve morning, Timmy starts texting me as soon as he gets to the airport. With his customary picking-people-up-in-Zürich Starbucks drink in hand, he relates a new and strange Swiss tradition: dressing up in costumes to pick up relatives on Christmas Eve.

“Seriously,” he writes. “We’ve got about 20 Santa’s, a family of baristas… and someone hiding in a box…” I laugh and reply that he should have worn his lederhosen to collect our friends from Seattle, who will be visiting us here in Kandern for a week.

I look out of our window on the grey, sleepy village as I make cinnamon bread on this quiet Sunday morning. All of the shopping in preparation for three closed-store days is done, the house cleaned and the presents wrapped. We have just one door left to open in the Milka advent calendar, two more ornaments on the Jesse Tree devotional. Christmas is here.

In the windowsill, I notice tiny, light-pink flowers blooming on the slender twigs that have been sitting in a pitcher full of water for almost a month. The twigs were handed to me at the grocery store on December 6th, a gift from the cashier. (This is not an altogether uncommon experience; Luci has so far collected two stuffed animals and a felt bag from affectionate cashiers, just by looking cute.) “Danke!” I’d murmured, juggling the bouquet of twigs with the the stroller handle and my groceries as I left the store. One of the bakery assistants said something to me I didn’t understand, from which I caught only the name “Barbara,” and I’d left feeling foolish and laughing about the German respect for all seasons, both flowers and twigs getting their fair share of attention.

It was only on returning home that I learned the significance of the branches, meant to commemorate December 4th, Saint Barbara Day. According to legend, the medieval virgin, Barbara, having converted to Christianity against her father’s wishes, was imprisoned by him in a tower. On the way to her imprisonment, her robe got caught on a cherry branch, which she took with her, placed and placed in a jar, where it bloomed in her captivity. Though observed differently in different Catholic and Orthodox regions, here in Germany people keep the branches in water, anticipating good luck (or, in some versions, a marriage) in the coming year, should the branch bloom by Christmas Day.

At the time, the custom delighted me, both in its strangeness and in the simple fact that, eight years after moving here, I still learn so much. It’s how I feel when I find a new or particularly moving part of the Bible, or when a close friend or family member utterly surprises me. The joy of learning, discovery, never gets old to me, and I’m happy to keep finding it in a place that’s grown familiar, to know that even when I’m home, there’s always more to learn.

Today, Christmas Eve, the buds have begun to poke out into the grey day, and I think about the branches themselves. Taken from their tree, they bloom in a new place, in a strange season. What a beautiful sight for us here, as we celebrate Christ’s birth with friends, far from our places of origin. “Bloom where you’re planted” is cliche for a reason, I suppose, but these branches give it new significance for me today, in this community of expatriate students, teachers and missionaries, seeking to live and grow together, some of us far from home.

According to the flowers on the branches in my window, this will be a year of blessing, but I could have told you that without them. Because this year, like all of the others, is God’s, every day and moment. I look forward to the journey ahead, in its twists and turns, to learning and discovering with these two people I love.

Merry Christmas from Kandern!


Four World Cups {And Kandern, My Home}

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

Lexi dons jersey and flag face paint to cheer for Germany vs. Ghana

I confess, I wasn’t watching when they scored the first goal.

Distracted by the coolness of the German away jerseys–red and black blocks that take me straight back to Ballard High School–I was doing some online shopping when the pub erupted, reacting to Thomas Müller’s clean shot past Brazilian keeper Júlio César.

“Ahh, I missed it!” I wailed, looking up in time to catch the replay. My friends laughed at me. I’ve missed most of the German goals this World Cup, distracted by conversation or falling asleep before the inevitable extra time periods at the late ends of 0-0 games. Watching sports is not one of my gifts, you see. Distraught that I’d possibly missed the only action in this game, I fixed my eyes on the screen bedecked with international bunting, hoping there would be another goal.

I needn’t have worried.

Quite by accident, I’ve been in Germany during the last four World Cups. I don’t remember 2002, South Korea, though there must have been posters or headlines somewhere when I was dragging my 17-year-old self through the dim underworld of the München Ostbahnhof, trying to figure out where to buy a train ticket to Salzburg. I wasn’t paying attention when Germany lost to Brazil in the final.

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

Tunisia vs. Saudi Arabia, 2006

I remember 2006, though, taking a night train full of drunken Italian footballers headed for Dortmund, shopping in Munich on the raucous day that Tunisia played Saudi Arabia there. I remember my friends telling me, wide-eyed, that they’d never seen so many German flags on display. “We don’t usually display our flags,” they explained to me, “Not since… We’re careful about nationalism now.”

In 2010, two American girls and three German girls grilled bratwurst in Austria, then sighed when Germany lost the semi-final to Spain, way down in South Africa. We watched the final in a library, and two Dutch Tauernhof students dominated both the cheering and the lament, though we were all wearing orange and were all disappointed.

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

Watching the Spain vs. Germany semi-final in 2010

This year is different. This year comes at the end of four years living in Germany, where people care deeply about this sport and feel comfortable expressing love for their country only during football matches. There are more German flags out in general than there were 12 years ago, but especially now. Since this World Cup began, I’ve watched games in three countries, and heard commentary in four languages, only two of which I understood. Back in 2010, when my Somali and Mexican students would watch the group stage games in my classroom during lunch, I got the impression that this World Cup business was a big deal, captivating the whole world in a way that few other events did. Now, I know for sure.

Afraid of missing something, I pay fastidious attention to the rest of the game, a 7-1 rout by Germany, which will be catalogued in history with statistics particularly miraculous or damning, depending on your perspective. “What is even happening?” we cry, disbelieving, after each goal. “Does this ever happen?” We cheer as well as we can–and have dressed in the required red, black and gold–but we’re no match for the Kanderners, who shout, cry, and break into song as the victory grows more secure.

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 Quarterfinal, on the Fourth of July!

Watching Germany vs. France, 2014 quarter-final, on the Fourth of July!

Tomorrow, I’ll read the German coach Joachim Löw’s consolatory words for defeated Brazil, and scan faintly guilty Facebook statuses from German friends, along the lines of “We wanted to win, but this… Wow.” Tonight, though, we celebrate. When it’s over, the Kanderners jump into their cars for the bizarre and perilous ritual of driving around in circles through our village, laying on their horns and shouting. “Wir haben gewonnen! We’ve won!” they remind us as we walk home, laughing. “Show some spirit!” Apparently, a honking horn is the only acceptable response in cases like these.

I lack the knowledge and vocabulary to speak of the influence of the World Cup on the world, whether it ultimately unites or divides, whether it’s worth the cost, especially to Brazil tonight. But I’m thankful to be here, to share something so deeply important to so many, to live in this village where they cheer into the night.

From Sausenburg


Sunset from Ruine Sausenburg.

Sunset from Ruine Sausenburg.


The pavement bends up behind the Catholic church, and we leave the smallest city in Germany down in the valley, turning a corner to find ourselves in the bottle-green halls of the summer Black Forest. It’s been a long time since my trail map was a constant companion, since Emily and I traced these little diamond-marked lines with hopeful fingers before beginning our explorations. We know them by heart now, these hills and forests as memorized as the faces of a friends.

Though it’s after eight, it’s still hot in the forest. It’s Friday night, the end of a long and busy day. We have only one more week of school, an odd one full of exams, farewells, honors and diplomas. I’m proud and weary, happy for our graduates and genuinely sorry to see them go. Still, it’s not the seniors I’m thinking of tonight, but the two friends walking beside me on the trail.

“Leaving is a loud presence lately,” I wrote, almost exactly four years ago. “Leaving cheers from goodbye parties, smiles its way across from me in restaurants, reminds me that it’s the last time for a while.” I was leaving then, packing up fifteen years of life in Seattle, bound for a village in Germany I’d never visited. I was leaving alone, my departure the only irregularity to disturb the pleasant rhythms of our lives there.

Leaving is louder here, and expected. While I once left a place where people tend to stay, each spring promises change, irrevocable and swift. For better or worse, Black Forest Academy is new each fall. This means the promise of new friends and students, adventures yet unmapped and conversations still waiting to be had. It also means that this is a place of goodbyes. It’s the goodbyes that I’m considering as I walk up to the castle with my friends, both of whom will be gone within the month.

The sun is just beginning to set when we reach Ruine Sausenburg, a crumbly half of an 11th century castle holding state on a leafy ridge. Sausenburg is not a particularly well-maintained castle. There is one faded sign sketching out the history of the castle, below a much larger sign full of rules, which includes “No Campfires” despite the presence of fire pit, grill, benches and friendly supply of firewood in the courtyard. We leave our bags in the courtyard and drag ourselves up the dusty wooden staircase to the top of the tower.

Even the tower isn’t terribly pristine or ancient-looking. The crenellated battlements are filled in with concrete, into which a circular iron railing sticks like a Sunday-school halo. We sit down on the wall, holding the railing with our legs dangling down, toes pointing to France. Awash in golden light, with Switzerland down to our left, the Black Forest behind and the Rhine Valley ahead, we toast to our years in this green valley, this place between.

“You know,” Lexi says after a while. “There’s not a whole lot that’s better than this.”

Another friend recently wrote about leaving here, saying “I  don’t doubt or question or mistrust this. I just don’t like it.” And that’s how I feel, in the midst of the leavings and farewells. I am confident that God’s plan is unique and creative, fully trusting that my friends and students go in His love and power on to their next adventures. I’ll just miss them.

We stay atop the castle for over an hour, watching the sky melt from yellow to orange, red and blue, until the first stars wink down from directly over our heads. No sunset lasts forever, even the protracted ones you see flying west on airplanes. Eventually, even the grandest fade to black and white, another kind of glory.

And even knowing the busyness of the days ahead, the hectic farewells layered amidst packing, grading and events, knowing that time will stubbornly refuse to slow down, I’m more grateful than mournful, grateful for these friends, this place, these years we’ve shared. Seasons, like sunsets, don’t last forever. We celebrate them as they come, savor them, remember them. And most of all, every day, we’re thankful, praising the God who gives us such good gifts, like a castle, a sunset, and friends to share them with.