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 come over for a visit.
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 Reihenhaus, which translates to “string of houses”: it would be compared to New York brownstones or English townhouses. The fact we share walls means we have adjoining gardens, and our neighbors and us have decided to just not put fences up between us.
Because, why not? There’s a view of a big yard, rather than a segregated one, and enough space for people to have a go of Fußball.
This isn’t to say that this is the modus operandi in Germany. My husband is truly special and has maintained a great relationship with our neighbors on each side. It’s just that I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Being a foreigner can be an isolating pursuit, but having this built-in community at our homestead makes the living-abroad experience so amplified.
And what I’ve noticed with the kids: less screens, less tech, more time outdoors and in nature, more emphasis on play. It reminds me of what my childhood was like, and what we possibly yearn for today.
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).
A SOCIal THING?
The saying over here goes, “Germans work to live and Americans live to work”. Germans on average work less hours than Americans yet the country is 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) subsidized education and health care, low crime rates and low unemployment. Through my American lens, having your basic needs covered must be a weight off the shoulders of the community as a whole.
There's more: everything is closed on Sundays (you can even get a ticket for doing yard work, touché), 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. The preschool education is play-based, child-led and outdoor-focused. There are forest kindergartens quite literally in the forest around us. And you simply don't see young kids toting around iPhones.
Germany is no stranger to walls, both the building up of and tearing down. 2015 saw the country quietly take on economic responsibility for much of Europe, absorbing refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, Albania and beyond. With a history like Germany’s, possibly it was the right thing to do, in this moment- it took down its fences.
I would hope to impart this wisdom as my daughter grows up here, to live, with the kindness of