Our Garden Has No Fences: Raising Our Kid in Germany
A tumbleweed of blond hair and chubby baby legs rolling by on the lawn. Three cats staring at one poor goldfish in a tiny Koi pond. A few preteens having a symposium in a pink princess tent. A swing set, a teepee, musical instruments, a blow up pool. Neighbors drinking Weißen beer and deliberating the progress of the rhododendrons.
The only thing missing was a maypole and a spread of pickled herring. But no, this wasn't Swedish Midsummer or even a groovy commune in upstate New York.
This was a regular summer evening at our home in Germany.
On any given day our daughter will disappear with a bowl of sweet potatoes under her arm, only to be discovered an hour later sitting with our neighbors, digging in to their Pilz-Risotto and babbling at them in baby-German. Everyone has special Sia bowls and silverware on hand because, more than likely, she will make an appearance.
She feels just at home next door as she does at ours: and it's all because we share a backyard.
We live in a group of Reihenhäuser, what would be compared to brownstones in New York City or English townhouses. Our connected houses means we have adjoining gardens and a group of us, curiously enough, just decided not to put fences up between us.
Because, why not? There’s a giant yard for kids to play together and toys are better shared than kept for one's self.
Consequently I’ve inherited a de-facto family of babysitters, plant-waterers, impromptu BBQers, emergency contacts, cat-feeders and all around dear friends who have become my “village” for raising our daughter.
It reminds me of what my childhood was like and probably many of you reading this: mi casa es su casa camaraderie where neighbors were family more than people who happened to live next door.
A world where we just disappeared for the entire day, caught insects in corroded aluminum cans that screamed 'tetanus shot' and our parents wouldn’t blink an eye until dinner.
What we call "free range parenting" in the States is the norm here in Germany (though I still flinch when I see 6-year-olds take the Strassenbahn to school alone or zip-line down an enormous wooden pirate ship on one of the playgrounds), but you can’t have "free range" anything without basic trust in the community.
A societal thing:
Germans on average work less hours than Americans yet the country is consistently one of the top performing in the world, with ample holidays and parental leave (how we were able to travel the world for a year) education and health care for all, low crime rates and low unemployment. Through my American lens, having your basic needs covered has to be a weight off the shoulders of the community as a whole.
There's more: on Sundays everything is closed (you can even get a ticket for doing yard work!), which reinforces the social and familial fabric. Urban planning designates enough open spaces and green across the country and it's commitment to recycling (70% of the country's garbage) is of the highest in the world. There are forest kindergartens quite literally in the forest and you simply don't see young kids toting around iPhones. I dare say the Lebensqualität, or quality of life, here, is pretty sweet.
Germany is no stranger to walls, both the building up of and tearing down. We all are aware the country is at the helm of our current challenges, quietly taking on economic responsibility for much of Europe, absorbing refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, Albania and beyond, reaching across the great cultural divides to make right the so many wrongs of our current global reality.
I am certain it can be difficult at times, but I've seen Germans on the whole embrace their new residents from abroad with the same grace and reception my neighbors have done for me and now my daughter.
This is the kind of world I want to live in, and I'm sure Sia does, too. Now, before she digs in to the neighbors Kuchen, I gotta go!