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What it’s like, living in Germany, a year and half on

What it’s like, living in Germany, a year and half on

Sixteen months we’ve lived here, nearly a year and a half. We’ve acclimatised in some ways, and are still figuring it out in others. I meant to write an update on our one-year anniversary, but it didn’t feel right yet.

I’ll answer some of the questions I get a lot… and you can add any others in the comments below.

The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern
The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern

So, are you fluent now?

Ha, no. I can order food, sort out problems with a delivery person, ask questions in a shop, have a short conversation with my neighbours, and give directions. Conversations longer than ten minutes means I am struggling, and I still flounder around trying to respond. I understand much more than I can respond to right now, which is the normal progression of learning another language. Is it hard? No, not really. It takes constant practice and work, and a willingness to learn. There are many things about German that are similar to English. Obviously being in Germany makes it much easier, because I’m hearing and using it all the time.

Probably the biggest difference now, to say, a year ago, is my accent is better and people are willing to speak to me longer in German. I’m in no way coming across as a local, but I think I sound more competent.

My son, on the other hand, is much more fluent. Just the other week he ran up to some kids in a museum play area and spent 20 minutes playing in German. His German reading is great, possibly ahead of his English reading. He has some good friends who don’t speak much English at all, which is a real step forward as previously his friends were all English native speakers. Doing his homework with him has been like another German class for me, as he’s working on a lot of grammar things I haven’t learned yet in my classes. Tellingly, he only knows the names for nouns and verbs in German right now. My favourite things are the words he only says in German: ‘mittel’ for middle, ‘milch’ for milk. Even in the middle of English sentences.

The private language classes that were part of our relocation package from my husband’s company are ending soon, and I’ll be starting some online courses on my own.

Chicken hanging out with some eggs at the weekly market in Mainz.
Chicken hanging out with some eggs at the weekly market in Mainz.

And do you like the food now?

The one thing I mentioned at the six month mark that was not my favourite was the food here. The thing with living in a smaller town is the lack of dining out options. Heidelberg is lovely in so many ways, but the restaurant scene is not all that diverse. There are a few nice traditional German places with Flammkuchen, Schnitzel, and Käsespätzle, a couple decent places to get a burger, some fancier places for a celebratory meal – but outside that, well, it’s not great. That’s been good financially, as it means we’re not eating out constantly, but sometimes I want to have takeout that isn’t pizza.

Finding diverse ingredients is a bit of challenge too. Your average German grocery store in our town is great for cheese, sliced meats, and every kind of preserved vegetable in a jar. Kale? No. Broccolini? No. Fresh coriander? Sometimes. Salsa? One kind. I’m not trying to recreate the cuisine of the old country, but it was a struggle initially recalibrating my usual go-to recipes when any kind of Mexican ingredient requires special ordering online, and all the cuts of meat are not only called something different, but are not the same cuts at all. I do still find it challenging that you can’t buy a package of chicken thighs (quarters only!). Obviously moving from a coastal city to somewhere practically smack in the middle of mainland Europe is a bit of an adjustment too, as I was used to eating much more seafood and fish than I do now.

The cutest shop in Heidelberg – also where I get more unusual spices.
The cutest shop in Heidelberg – also where I get more unusual spices.

So I subscribed to a bunch of German recipe sites, bought food magazines, and learned to make some more local recipes. Pork is everything in this region, which is good because we all like it. We’re right in the middle of lots of farms here, so we can buy straight from them farmers through their shops or their excellent vending machines. Compared to Canada, the grocery prices here are incredibly low. I am buying locally, and in some cases bio (organic) as well, and it’s a third less than I would have paid in Vancouver.

My love for German cakes is never ending, of course. I have always loved a good cream-based cake, and that’s a popular format here. Your average German cake tastes about half as sweet as any North American equivalent, and it is so perfect. I feel like I’m tasting the cream and fruit instead just SUGAR.

Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg
Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg

Have you made friends?

Ah, this is a tough one. I have a few good friends, mostly other parents from my son’s bilingual school and a friend of a friend. But I am pretty lonely. I knew this was coming – when we moved to London it took a few years before we found our people. But knowing it conceptually and dealing with the reality is two different wurst entirely. I am grateful for the community of English-speaking German people on Twitter who are always around for a good chat. This is one of the reasons I am so keen to get my German up to speed, I really want to be able to meet people here and take classes and all that. As we’re here long term, the expat community are not really my speed. They are much more rooted in their home country and talk a lot about when they go back ‘home’, and don’t seem to settle down here much. It’s understandable, they are often only here for two or three years. But we’re just not on the same page at all.

Our neighbours have made a big difference too. We have been so incredibly lucky in our housing situation. Not only did we land in a spectacular neighbourhood just a short walk from the river and one of the best playgrounds in the city, but our flat is huge and super affordable. This did not guarantee good neighbours, and I have heard some horror stories – from both Germans and non-Germans. Both our upstairs and downstairs neighbours are lovely older folks who routinely invite us over for a glass of wine or tea, and they are the sweetest. I genuinely love chatting with them, even if it stretches my German skills to the limit.

I know I will get there and make friends eventually, I just have to hang in there and keep working on my language skills.

Looks like France, but nope - it's southern Germany.
Looks like France, but nope – it’s southern Germany.

Do you like Germany?

This is a hard one, because the longer I live here the more layers I find to this country. From the outside looking in, we tend to think things or foods or people are ‘German’, but in reality, this is a very fractured and very young nation. The regions have identities that are so strong, internally they can override national identity easily. Bavaria, for instance, was a kingdom unto itself for hundreds of years before there was a Germany, and they have their own Bavarian language, which is technically a German dialect but… yeah. This is not even taking into account the more recent split of West and East Germany, which also carries with it massive differences in culture and behaviour. So, do I like Germany? Yes, I really do, but I only know my little south-western corner of it, living in a mid-sized university town. I don’t live in the Bavarian heartland of Munich, nor am I up north in complicated and cool Berlin. It’s a massive country with so many fascinating distinct identities within it, I feel saying something like ‘I don’t care for German food’ is doing an incredible disservice to this place. We are starting to explore further and further afield here, and we’re enjoying it so much.

There are little things I love, like the way loads of people bring beautiful wicker baskets to do their shopping in – not just at the weekly markets but also in the grocery store, the corners of farmers’ fields dedicated to pick your own flowers, the prevalence of farm-side vending machines for everything from fruit and vegetables to jam and milk, and the fact that I see 75-year-olds cycling around with their newspaper clamped on their rear rack, a beret on their head, and a pipe in their mouth. Literally, there’s a guy in the neighbourhood who does this.

Tell me, what do you want to know about living here?

PS – I wrote about how we’ve changed since moving to Germany, and if you’re moving abroad, there are a few things you can do to hold on to your sanity

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Five tips for not losing your mind after moving abroad

Five tips for not losing your mind after moving abroad

When you move an ocean away from your family and friends, the first few months are full of practicalities and excitement. Everything is new! This is so exciting! Where do I buy toilet paper?!

Three to five months in, the everyday routine is no longer new. That’s when some of the longer-term challenges start to appear, it gets really tiring and the loneliness hits hard. After a few overseas moves, I’ve learned a bit about how to make it over this midterm speed bump. Here’s what I’ve learned.




Go for quantity over quality when it comes to making new friends

Now that you’ve figured out the groceries and things, go out there and meet people. When you’re not in school or work, it can be difficult, but you’ve got to think of this like getting your electricity hooked up. It’s just as important really. If you speak the local language – sign up for classes, join a walking group, get a community garden plot. If you don’t, look up expat meet-ups on Internations or expat.com, seek out local expat FB groups. Even better, look for a tandem language partner and combine language learning with making new friends. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not finding people you connect with right away, just keep going to things, having coffee with people. My husband and I made a rule to always say yes when we first moved to London. Dinner, the pub, whatever it was – just go. We met some of our best friends through other people, so it will happen eventually. It’s both harder and easier when you have kids – there’s the school parents and toddler groups to go to, but it’s harder to go out in the evenings.

Don’t stop exploring

I know you’re tired. Living somewhere new is exhausting, and that’s something your friends and family who have never done this will have a hard time understanding. It’s tempting to settle in and stop going to places you don’t know because you’re sick of new things. For sure, take a mental health day and relax, but don’t fall into a pattern of never seeking out new places anymore. This is part of the reason you moved here, remember? Do your research and find a new neighbourhood, a historic site, or even just a new restaurant. Instagram’s location tags are a fun way to finding new places nearby.

Make medium term future plans

I’m not good at this one. It’s easy to put one foot in front of the other, day after day, and realize two months later you haven’t done much. Make plans for three months in the future for an overnight stay two towns over, or that festival in the town square. It gives you something to look forward to, and gets your head out of the everyday.

Sign up for local news

Find out what the local newspapers are, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Sign up for the newsletter from the city council or neighbourhood association. If it’s not in your local language, make good use of your best friend, Google Translate. This is how you find out about those local festivals that can be such good fun and remind you why you made this crazy move in the first place!




Keep working on your language skills

Oh it’s so tempting, after getting to the point where you can interact with the grocery store cashier and order a coffee, to stop trying. I’ve been there, for sure. But even when you’re feeling frustrated, do your 10 minutes of Duolingo every day, watch films you know in the local language, and set up a weekly walk with a tandem language partner. I have to constantly prod myself into these, despite having language class twice a week. Don’t forget how far you’ve already come! Remember when even going to the store felt insurmountable? You can totally do this.

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How We’ve Changed Since We Moved to Germany

How We’ve Changed Since We Moved to Germany

We’ve been living here in Deutschland for nine months now, and we have definitely changed a bit. I’m not a fan of clinging to my old country ways, but there were a few things I never would have guessed we could have adjusted to. Yet, here I am, eating cabbage all the time and driving very fast. Who knew.

Local shop opening hours, must plan ahead in the Germany!
Local shop opening hours this week, must plan ahead!

I plan more

With all shops closed on Sundays and holidays, and services like doctors and municipal offices closed at unpredictable times (Wednesday afternoons! Obviously!) – I have to plan our shopping a few days further out than I would before. I mean, I usually meal planned and did a big shop, but if I forgot something it wasn’t a big deal. Now, it’s not unusual to have two days in a row with no grocery stores open if there’s a holiday… if you run out of something, bad luck! I have made milk from powder for coffee in desperation.

So many cabbages.
So many cabbages.

I eat more cabbage – okay, a lot of cabbage

Kale? What’s kale? We’re savoy cabbage all the way now. So much cabbage. Broccoli is trucked up from Italy, and goes off within a day, so I don’t rely on it the way I did in the UK and Canada. Those big clamshells of baby spinach? Also not happening. Bags of romaine? Very expensive. Cabbage. Get used to the cabbage.

I know everyone’s last names

It was not uncommon for me, in Canada and the UK, to know a neighbour enough to chat to, but not to know their surname. In Germany, oh no. I don’t know any of my neighbours first names because I call them all Frau Müller, Herr Schmidtt, etc. Most of the people at my son’s school are surname only, and when I write emails to the woman arranging my liability insurance, it’s Frau. I feel like I have to go back to my elementary school letter writing skills just to write an email sometimes. Even email newsletters address me as Frau McGann, which cracks me up.

You have to walk to one of these, and then throw all your glass in, sorted by colour.
You have to walk to one of these, and then throw all your glass in, sorted by colour.
When there's no room for your recycling on the narrow German streets, plop the bag on top of a car.
When there’s no room for your recycling on the narrow German streets, plop the bag on top of a car.

I avoid buying things in glass

This sounds odd, in a country so keen on recycling. Surely this is the easiest recycling option? We have curb-side pick-up for all plastics, bio waste, paper and the regular rubbish. But I have to walk nearly eight minutes hauling all my glass recyclables which I have to sort by colour. This is such a pain that I have a giant bag of wine bottles that makes me look like I have a serious Problem because I wait nearly three months before I get myself over to the Altglass containers. And you can’t use the containers after 7pm or on Sundays, because it’s insanely loud throwing them in there. But of course it’s always Sunday when I have time to do it so… it never gets done. I’m staring at a giant bag of bottles right now.

I have a running tally in my head of how much cash I have on me

In Canada and the UK, I would use my debit cards for everything. Three dollar coffee? Yep, sure. I didn’t even think about it. Now, I feel a bit panicky if I have less than €20 on me. Oh Germany, so technologically advanced, yet so paranoid. It’s cash everywhere, and woe betide the hapless person from somewhere else that would like to use their debit card on a purchase less than €20. Not only will the cashier roll their eyes, everyone in the queue behind them will start getting huffy.

Cramming the shopping into my bike baskets, along with my son's school bag.
Cramming the shopping into my bike baskets, along with my son’s school bag.

I can pack groceries super fast

I maintain that there must be a grocery cashier speed Olympics somewhere. They award special medals for the cashier who can scan and toss the most items down a short conveyor belt in a short amount of time. I have my reusable bags out and lined up in my cart so I can toss as quickly as the cashier can. I’m still sweaty and flummoxed at the other end, but I wait until I’m outside to let go the breath I was holding. And then I can pack them onto my bike.

I’m fluent in Denglish

This is a particularly hilarious mashup of words I know in Deutsch crammed into English sentences. We’re super good at this in texts, like recently: ‘I’m zu Hause, mit adaptor thingie’. Also helpful when speaking with non-English speakers about topics well out of my German knowledge, like the time the radiator maintenance guy came. I don’t know the terms for radiator parts in English, so I’m really not going to know them in German. That conversation involved a lot of made-up sign language. Our actual functional German is getting much better, thankfully.

Lovely walk in the forest on Sundays, as nothing else is open in Germany!
Lovely walk in the forest on Sundays, as nothing else is open in Germany!

We go for brisk walks on Sundays

As I’m sure you’ve heard me mention before, nothing is open on Sundays. So we go with the German flow, gear up (no, not in matching Jack Wolfskin jackets, we haven’t gone that German) and go for a walk. When we’re really organized, we pack a lunch too. We nod and exchange Hallos with other families out to experience the nature.

I’m happy driving 160km/hr on the autobahn

If you had asked me before I moved if I was going to go super fast on the unlimited sections of autobahn, I would have said no no no. But really, once you get used to it, it feels quite normal. I find driving here very reasonable and straightforward. Now when we drive in Switzerland or France, it feels so very very s l o w.

So, my friends living abroad, how have you changed in your new home?

PS – did you see my list of things not to do when you visit Germany?

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Expat Kid: Adjusting to a new life

Expat Kid: Adjusting to a new life

I think the question most people ask me these days is, ‘How is your son adjusting?’

It’s a funny one, moving countries with a child. You’re forced to get a lot of things sorted out with them standing right there, but you also can’t lose it in front of them. This whole moving to another continent was your idea, you can’t freak out. Obviously there were times we were all tired, there was more iPad and Netflix than was probably good for anyone, and I think there was a two-week period where he ate mostly brezel. But, he turned seven a month after we moved to Germany, and I think it was a good time to do it.

Does he ask about ‘home’?

No, actually. We talk about Vancouver, the last city we lived in and the only one he remembers, but we don’t call it home. I was careful not to do that right from the beginning, for several reasons. Firstly, while I love Vancouver, it is only one home to me, London being a very close second in my heart. Secondly, I’m not sure when we will move back, and I don’t want to spend our entire time in Germany with him waiting to leave. This is our home now. He tells stories of things that happened when we lived in Vancouver. There were a few instances of, ‘Why did we have to move here?’ but relatively few. Thankfully.

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The food is a big one

Even when moving to a different Western country, the food changes will feel huge to a smaller person. To be honest, they are huge to everyone, but most adults can manage it. My son is a moderately picky eater – he has about 10 foods he likes and most variations on those he will try in good faith. But sometimes the local version just doesn’t fly – Käsespätzle, the German analogue to macaroni and cheese, was a flop. I love it, but the eggy, odd-shaped ‘noodles’ didn’t fly with a seven year old. Thankfully, broccoli and carrots are on his list, and I can steam those anywhere. Maybe it’s because he transitioned to solid foods when we lived in the UK and sausage was one of his first, but he’s pretty game to eat most wurst. This is key, as he doesn’t like potatoes. I know. I KNOW. You gotta love at least the pig or the potato in the Deutschland, or life will be tough.

School is school

The school situation is an interesting one. I have met other expats who think I’m crazy for not putting him in the International School, and others who think I’m equally nuts for not just going for the local German state school. We split the difference, and found a bilingual private school that runs the local curriculum where he learns German and English. The students are 80% local German kids, so the playground language is generally German, and we pay for extra German classes twice a week. It’s an interesting mix of kids of expat parents who have moved here for work (about equally split from English-speaking families and families from India who speak Hindi and English and probably two other languages as well), German families who have lived abroad and want to keep their children’s English up (Singapore, Japan, the US), local German families with one very fluent English-speaking parent, and some local German families who just want more English instruction. Our son went to French immersion school in Canada, so he’s very used to his whole school experience being in an language he isn’t fluent in. He’s thrilled that some of his classroom time is in English now, and he’s made a good friend, which has had more impact than any of the language stuff. The settling-in period with school has been about as rocky as it was when he started French immersion, and in some ways less difficult. He’s still a bit hesitant to speak German, though I hear him shouting at his friends in German when I come to pick him up. His aural comprehension is amazing though, I’m jealous.

Elementary school kids go to Grundschule, and it starts when your child is 6 years old. No school is mandatory before that point, but most kids go to Kita, which is a bit of a kindergarten/preschool situation. School runs through the morning, with different school starting at different times, but our school begins at 8:45am, and goes until 1pm. I have the option of letting him eat at school, and then staying for ‘homework time’ afterwards, where they do their homework while a teacher supervises. When they’re finished homework, they can play inside, and at 3pm, they can go out and play. There are various after-school clubs at the school that run from 3:30pm, which our son participates in, includes things like astronomy, cooking, table tennis, skateboarding, and judo. I pick him up at 3pm most days, and 4:30pm twice a week when he does his clubs. He eats a hot lunch at school, for which we pay separately. His extra German classes are in the homework time, twice a week.

Communications from the school are usually bilingual, but his report card, for instance, was entirely in German. His main teacher does not speak English well, and communicating with her can be a challenge, but thankfully it hasn’t been an issue yet.

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Being out in the world

I see kids my son’s age and a year or so younger, walking or taking the tram home from school on their own. Heidelberg is a very safe little town, but I get the sense this is not unusual anywhere in Germany. I let our son look at things on the other side of the grocery store a long way away from me, and let him come find me when he’s ready. In a North American store, I know someone would ask him where I was, but here, no one even bats an eye. In the playgrounds, parents are sitting on benches, or picnic blankets hundreds of yards away while their kids play – and it’s fine. I’ve had very polite German children come to ask me for help, because another, unrelated child is having troubling getting down and their parents aren’t nearby. It isn’t a panic, just a request. I definitely see a lot less helicoptering. Interestingly, I very rarely see kids pushing ahead in the queue for the slide, or not letting other kids have a turn on the swing – but they manage it themselves. It’s not that they are all quiet, not at all. I haven’t quite put my finger on it… maybe it’s this society’s heavy emphasis on the common good? I’m not sure. I like it though.

The tough parts…

Of course, moving a child to another culture, halfway around the world is going to be difficult. There were sleep regressions, eating regressions, and sometimes every. single. thing. was a battle. I think because not-so-deep down we all felt like kicking and screaming some days, it made it less scary. I felt like that, why wouldn’t he? I mean, I still felt like I was losing my mind when he was screaming, but I wasn’t worried about his overall sanity. Much. After a couple months, the tantrums dropped off, and school was a great distraction. I was careful to tell him when I was struggling sometimes, because I wanted him to know it was normal and completely justified to be feeling overwhelmed after this kind of move.

Not being able to talk to his main teacher much, and getting his report cards in German is a challenge. There are other teachers he has at school that I can talk to, but not being able to have a nuanced conversation is a challenge. Also, there is no quick chat with the teacher after school, appointments must be made a week in advance.

Although my son’s German is coming along in leaps and bounds, he still doesn’t feel comfortable in a fully German situation, so pretty much all after-school activities offered anywhere that isn’t his bilingual school are off the table for now. Often young people who are running these activities can speak English, but it’s hard to tell ahead of time how willing they will be to suddenly conduct a gymnastics session bilingually. There are some English-language or bilingual activities around, but it takes some serious digging.

Overall, it’s been really good

I’d definitely say he’s settled down well now, and has made several friends. He really likes school, and all his teachers. His German is coming along well, both reading and speaking. He’s a really good sport about being dragged around castle after castle, and seems to enjoy it now. We worked hard both before we moved and afterwards to make this as smooth as possible, however, so it’s definitely not a case of just hoping it would work out. I wrote about what we did to prep for the language change, and it was a similar path preparing for the move. We talked lots about Germany, what the food would be like, and looked at lots of photos online. We read books and started following Bayern Munich. Though I think what helped more than anything was the Bayern Munich shirt with his name on it my husband brought back from a business trip…! The education he’s getting, both in another language and from our traveling around, has made it worth all the headaches and stress to get here, for sure.

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Six months in: Finding our feet

Six months in: Finding our feet

We’ve been living in Germany for six months now, and it feels like we’re finding our feet. Our son has settled into school well, and the German words are flowing a bit more often (as are his corrections to our German!). Letters from the bank are less confusing, and I’m pretty good when faced with a wall of German signage.

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Our German washing machine

It’s very isolating, walking around and not being able to exchange small talk with the person next to you in any way. I can make my way through most cashier interactions – asking for a bag, understanding how much things are (just about), and saying have a nice day and goodbye. If I have time to plan ahead, I will work out what I need to say but I get flustered very easily. It’s ridiculous, everyone is incredibly patient and friendly about my halting German. More than friendly, nearly everyone seems thrilled I want to learn. Of course, they also want to practice their English, so it can be a battle to get someone to keep speaking German with you.

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As the weather slowly warms up, I’ve noticed the tourists starting to appear. Our little city has nearly 12 million tourists come through every year, so by next month I expect to see many more. We spend most of our time outside the Altstadt where most people go, but it makes me smile seeing people standing on our bridge and taking photos. Even when they back into the bike lane. I swore in German the other day when it happened, so that’s a step forward I suppose!

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Flammkuchen, mid-devouring

The food thing has been the hardest adjustment. German food is very regional, so what you hear about as ‘German’ in other countries is often only a very small window into what’s available. Where we live, there is a lot of Flammkuchen, which you can get in France in the Alsace and Lorraine region as tarte flambé. It’s a kind of flatbread, baked in a wood-fired oven, with creme fraiche, lardons (bacon), and leeks or onions. It can be very rich, it’s not something I eat regularly. There are the sausages, of course, and there seems to be quite a bit of weißwurst around, the Bavarian white sausage. Frankfurt has a vinegary green sauce that they apparently put on everything, I quite like it really. Swabia has its own distinct cuisine, but they are a bit east of us, so I don’t think I’ve had proper Swabian food yet. Because we are so close to France, we get quite a few very good patisseries and cheese shops, one of which he asks to stop at every day on our bike ride home from school. He and I often have a dinner that mainly involves half a baguette each, smeared with good cultured French butter and sea salt, when my husband is away.

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Post-school quarkballchen break at the French patisserie

I end up making a sort of hybrid meal of things I’ve learned here, with what’s available, from recipes I know from living in Canada and the UK. Strange things are difficult to find: broccoli is often sitting yellow on the shelf, and if it is green, it turns yellow within a day when I get it home. The ubiquitous-in-Vancouver kale is not often in the shops either. Cabbage, of course, in many, many varieties, is everywhere and very fresh. I’ve adjusted to using Savoy cabbage in place of kale. We’re on the edge of a wonderful wine region, so I take every opportunity to try out the local product.

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Walking home from school

My son gets a hot lunch served at school, and occasionally I hear reports of potato dumplings or pancakes for lunch with ham and cheese in them. I’m pretty sure he’s had more of the local cuisine than we have.

I wonder sometimes, will he remember Canada if we stay here until he is older? I was keen for him to experience Canada when we moved from London back to Vancouver. We don’t know when we will go back, but I can easily imagine him turning 10 before we do so. Seven through ten are such formative years, how funny to think he will experience them here. As I watch distressing things happening in the news, I think it can only be a good thing to feel yourself a citizen of the world, and meet as many different people as you can when you’re young.

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