Food writer and blogger Luisa Weiss lives in Berlin with her husband and three-year-old son. (Remember her fascinating post about parenting in Germany?) Here, she shares a childhood tradition in Berlin that made our jaws drop…
When I told my circle of American/Italian/Mediterranean friends about my three-year-old son’s school trip, many of them did a double take in shock.
This spring, my son Hugo’s daycare went on a three-day overnight stay to a farm-turned-hostel a few hours north of Berlin. The overnight trip is a German tradition and is open to all children three-and-a-half years and older. The intention is to foster independence and group spirit, and it’s also a way of giving parents a little break. In 15 years of doing the trip, our caregivers told us, only one child has ever needed to be picked up. The kids absolutely love it.
To test their readiness, the kids attend a trial sleepover at the daycare about a month before. Hugo was so excited about it! We parents picked up the kids in the afternoon as usual and went to the playground, but then brought them back to daycare with their overnight supplies at 6 p.m. After saying goodbye (Hugo literally pushed me out the door), the children ate a special dinner with their caregivers (including French fries, a rare treat, which my son could not stop talking about for at least a week after the sleepover).
After that, they got into their pajamas, brushed their teeth and had story time before going to sleep on the same mattresses they take their midday naps on. The next morning, they had breakfast together and enjoyed a regular day at daycare before being picked up in the afternoon by us parents. All the children eligible for the trip “passed” this test with flying colors. Our hero caregivers; our hero kids!
And so it came that a month later, my husband and I packed our son’s suitcase with plenty of clean clothes, his toiletries, a favorite book and a love letter from us. I’d been really cool about the trip until the morning of his departure, when I was suddenly saddled with sweaty palms and a nervous stomach — the usual symptoms of my travel days! I did my best to hide my nerves a little Hugo stayed very relaxed, even picking out his own outfit and filling his backpack with the necessary supplies, like a snack (a cheese sandwich and a bag of blueberries), his favorite stuffed tiger and his blue sunglasses.
We walked to daycare, where Hugo gave me a big kiss and an even bigger hug and then said goodbye with nary a tear. The parents were told to scram as soon as possible, without any long, drawn-out goodbyes, and once all of us were out of sight, the three caregivers gathered up all their 15 little charges and took them on a quick subway ride to the nearest train station, where they boarded a train for the farm.
One of our sweet teachers was kind enough to take a quick snapshot of Hugo and his buddy sitting side by side on the train, which she sent to me via WhatsApp not even an hour after we’d said goodbye. They were holding their snacks and had the biggest grins I’ve ever seen on their faces. In that moment, all my jitters melted away and I could relax. Thank goodness for technology!
Once they arrived at the local train station, the kids and caregivers headed to the farm hostel and then the real fun began. For three days, the kids played games and ran around outside. They slept two to a bed (hilariously, Hugo called it a “Hochzeitsbett,” or wedding bed — no idea where he got that expression!), went on pony rides (“I only went once, Mama, but Timmy went two times!”), explored the farm (“lots of stones and dirty snails”), rode a tractor holding tightly because it shook so much (“like this, Mama” — and two clenched fists were made), ate lunch on picnic tables (sausages and potato salad), played at the farm’s playground (“and we got to eat cake there!” — the national tradition of an afternoon cake break clearly respected) and hung out with the animals (cows, sheep, goats, a pig, and a cat with nursing kittens). At night before bed, the teachers read aloud the books and love letters that the children had brought along.
At the end of each day, one of the caregivers would send a quick report by text message, sometimes with a photo, to a designated mother, who would then forward this information on to the rest of us so that we had a daily update. The reports went along the lines of: “Your children are all eating and sleeping well! No signs of homesickness! They are strong and happy! You should be proud!” combined with mentions of the weather (“there was a big thunderstorm last night, but no child was bothered or even scared by it”) or any noteworthy activities (like the tractor ride, which was apparently thrilling even for the grown-ups). As short as they were, these messages were surprisingly comforting.
The day of their return, a text message reported that the children had all woken up looking forward to seeing their families again, but that spirits were high. Some children were singing songs, while others were playing Uno. We were asked to pick them up at the train station and, oh, the anticipation! I felt as nervous and as butterflies-in-my-stomach as I did when his dad and I were first long-distance dating more than a decade ago and I’d meet him at the airport. The parents gathered on the track with flowers for the teachers as a thank you for all their hard work. Magically, the exact train car with our children in it stopped right where we were all gathered and I could see Hugo’s sweet little face stuck up against the window looking for me. The doors opened and the kids ran into our arms and it felt absolutely wonderful to be reunited.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about all the amazing dates and quality time that my husband and I had during those three days that we had to ourselves, I came down with the flu and spent the entirety of Hugo’s trip in bed with antibiotics and a hot water bottle. Ha!