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Native of Germany remembers holiday traditions

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Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2013 3:20 pm

Karin Douglas laughs as she recalls her wedding to her American husband, Tim Douglas.

Barely able to speak English, the German native said she had no idea what her mother-in-law meant when she asked what her china pattern was. She didn't understand why her husband was going with friends to a "bachelor party" and was even more confused when her mother-in-law tried to place a garter on her leg before the wedding ceremony.

"I had not a clue what was going on. I wish I'd had one of my siblings with me," Ms. Douglas said. "I asked for one thing to be in German during the ceremony - mit Gottes Hilfe," which means "with God's help."

The couple met at a dance club in Fulda, West Germany, in 1984, where Mr. Douglas was stationed with the U.S. Army. Ms. Douglas said the only English words she knew were, "my name is Karin" and said they used their hands to communicate.

They were married at a courthouse in Bov, Denmark on May 31, 1985. Ms. Douglas said that in Europe, you have to get married in a courthouse, and the paperwork was faster and easier in Denmark than in Germany.

At the wish of her husband's family, they were married again in a ceremony that December in Moline.

Born in Fulda in 1956, Ms. Douglas was one of seven siblings from a traditional, Catholic, German home in which her mother took care of the children, and her father worked.

She said her mother never had a driver's license, but didn't need one. Local markets, bakeries, and other shops and parks, were within walking distance.It's easier to grow old in Germany, Ms. Douglas said.

"You take your basket, buy some brötchen, and go to a park," she said. "I miss Sundays, when everything is closed and you can smell the bakeries and people cooking. You hear the church bells ring. You don't hear lawnmowers or leafblowers on Sundays in Germany."

Christmas memories are especially poignant for Ms. Douglas.The holidays begin with St. Nikolaus day, celebrated by children placing shoes outside their bedroom door on the night of Dec. 5. In the morning, they are filled with nuts, chocolates and small toys if they've been good, or coal and switches if they've been bad.

The family gathered around the Advent wreath, lighted a candle and sangChristmas songs.

However, Christmas Eve was the best, and always began with a church service at 5 p.m, Ms. Douglas said."When we're at church, we're thinking about the presents and the food."

After they returned from church, the children had to wait patiently while their father decorated the Christmas tree. When he was finished, he rang a bell, and the children lined up outside the door to wait for it to open, revealing a tree with real candles.

Her mother served a feast of duck, fish, goose and roast. After dinner, presents were opened, and the children would take turns reading poems while her sister played the flute.

"It wasn't like today, where kids get so much. I got socks, a doll, snow boots, maybe some clothes," Ms. Douglas said. "We had to appreciate each thing we got."

She said her parents had much different childhood experiences. Her father was forced to be part of Hitler Youth during World War II, something he rarely spoke about. Her mother often would tell of when the Americans arrived by train, handing out food to hungry people.

Her mother's family carried suitcases from town to town, looking for a safe place to stay. Jewels and other valuables were sewn into their clothing. Ms. Douglas' grandmother eventually housed other refugees and ate only what the garden produced.

Ms. Douglas graduated from school when she was 15 and found a job as a supermarket cashier, a job she held for 12 years until she moved to America with her new husband.

She said it was hard to move to America because she couldn't speak English, didn't have a driver's license and couldn't visit with family."I couldn't go over to my sister's house and have a cup of coffee."

The month after their American wedding ceremony, Mr.Douglas was sent to military school in Maryland for three months, and Ms. Douglas stayed with his family in Moline. Her in-laws taught her basic vocabulary, how to count money, andintroduced her to a German woman in Coal Valley named Birgit, who grew up near Ms. Douglas' hometown.

The two became friends and still get together once a week, Ms. Douglas said."She introduced me to garage sales, the mall and Orange Julius. She is my best friend in the world."

Ms. Douglas enrolled in English-speaking classes. But when her husband returned, she let him do all the talking, and she never answered the phone. Slowly, he encouraged her to speak English and order her own food in restaurants.

The military sent Mr. Douglas to Texas, which is where their first son, Steven, now 25, was born.

After two years in Texas, Mr. Douglas took an assignment in Erlangen, Germany, half an hour from Nüremburg. Ms. Douglas gave birth to their second son, Kevin, 23, in Erlangen.

She was happy to be in Germany again, less than two hours from Fulda, where she could visit her family.

Ms. Douglas said her sons were raised speaking German, but no longer speak it with her, although they understand everything she says.

She raised them with German customs and followed the same holiday traditions she grew up with. Both sons are enlisted in the Army.

Mr. Douglas retired from the military in 1999 and became a railroad engineer in Moline. In their free time, they like to ride motorcycles and take overnight trips.

Ms. Douglas has worked in the cafeteria of Hamilton Elementary School in Moline for 13 years, and loves being with the kids.

She never became an American citizen, but only because she considers it a hassle. She said she would have to travel to the U.S. Consulate in Chicago, and the process is very expensive.

Ms. Douglas flies to Germany each year to visit her family, who all live within an hour of Fulda.

Speaking English has become second-nature to Ms. Douglas. When she calls her mother in Germany, she has to be reminded to speak German."I will be talking English and she will say, can you please talk German? I don't realize it.

"I love my accent. So many people come up and ask me to say something," Ms. Douglas said. "Sometimes I struggle to talk English. People don't always understand me."

She said Americans are polite and friendly."It's a different culture than Germany, which is more on the rough side. Here, it is a little more loose. Americans are very helpful, they give people hugs."


-- Location: Central Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, between the Netherlands and Poland, south of Denmark.

-- Population: 81,305,856 (July 2012 estimate). No. 16 in the world.

-- Language: German.

Source: CIA World Factbook.

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