Nearly four years ago, when we were offered the chance to leave England and move back to Germany, we leapt at the chance. At the time, we were poised to decide whether to send Lily to the village school or the posh little girls’ school ten minutes’ drive down the road. It was an invidious choice: either we’d be paying nearly 4000 pounds a year for an excellent and elite education, where she would have small classes, be able to learn to play an instrument, do art and theatre and meet lots of little girls from “nice” homes or we could expose her to something more normal, distinctly more mediocre and a lot cheaper. Despite being cash-strapped, we were leaning towards the former, because, English society informed us, private schools were the only way to guarantee our children university entrance and good jobs.
What a relief we didn’t have to make that decision. If we had gone for the posh school, this is the kind of madness we might have encountered. It’s an article from today’s Observer about how competitive parents are spending thousands on children’s birthday parties. Imagine if our child had gone to the posh school and we were having to send her to parties with chocolate fountains and Ooompa-loompa tossing Willy Wonkas. Imagine the shame she might have felt when her friends were invited home for some cake, colouring-in and pass the parcel. It must take enormous sanity and strength of conviction (not to mention a more limited bank balance) to refuse to take part in the madness.
The school our child attends here in Germany is the local state school, where she’s in a class of 26. The parents range from Porsche-driving, designer-wearing yummy mummies to parents with a lot of face furniture and tattoos, via book-reading foreigners with funny accents (that would be me). Children learn that society contains a mix, that not everyone is privileged, that not everyone has a car, let alone a house.
Birthday parties here are extremely sane. The kids arrive having had their hot lunch at home, so they are full and not overly interested in party food. I learnt this fast. The first party we gave in Germany was for Daisy’s second birthday. I was nervous to get it right, and egged on by my visiting mother-in-law, completely over-catered. The two-year-olds sat and stared bewildered at the enormous birthday tea we had concocted. They nibbled on a few things and then quickly disppeared to the playroom in the cellar to spend a happy two hours sliding down Daisy’s birthday present – a big plastic slide. I realised then that it was about doing rather than eating.
Every year, for both girls, I have to tone down my tendency to go beserk on the catering, and have now just about got it right. There’s always a birthday cake, a plate of homemade biscuits and possibly some muffins. And we always have tons of leftovers. My memory of birthday parties I attended was that it was all about the food – a huge, sanctioned, sweetie-fest in which I would eat and eat until I could fit nothing more in. But perhaps that was just me. Then I would go home and have an asthma attack from all the preservatives. What a fun child.
However, here in Germany, it’s all very modest. It’s expected that you only invite as many friends as the age your child is turning, so you never have to invite the whole class, which, given that all our birthdays fall in winter and have to be indoors, is a blessed relief. The focus is on the activities rather than the food. We try to find party games that are containable (our sitting-room isn’t big enough to run races in) and not overly competitive (to avoid crying). One day our family will be given credit for introducing pass-the-parcel to Germany. Our little guests love it, although at our latest party, the birthday girl unintentionally managed to win the gift, which nearly caused a riot. We always play a great German game called Flasche Trehen, literally Spin the Bottle, where the birthday girl spins a plastic bottle. She then opens the birthday present from the person at whom the bottle is pointing. This can take up to twenty minutes with uncoordinated bottle spinning, and present-opening and admiring, so it’s a big favourite with me. We always have some dancing and a bit of Musical Statues, and have been known to play “Pin the Crown on the Princess” or “Pin the Tail on the Easter Bunny”, depending on the theme of the party.
It’s an unwritten rule that you craft. This used to stress me out, until I developed a nifty line in princess crowns. My husband also photostats party theme-related pictures from the girls’ colouring-in books, which keep the little party-goers busy for ages. For the last birthday, I found a €2 box of beads at Woolworths, and we made necklaces. Bargain! We had eight happy princesses. I’ve also learnt not to fill up the time completely with games and crafts, because party-goers also like some free time to run around the house screaming. I imagine this ad-hoc wildness will feature more as Ollie grows up and starts to invite his little friends round for parties.
At a German party, one provides supper – something completely easy like pizza or sausages and chips – and then the children go home, clutching an extremely modest party pack that, at most, might contain a few sweets, a page of stickers and some bubbles. The emphasis is on play, on fun and on having a few nice things to eat.
My children have never been to a party with an entertainer, a magician or Willy Wonka and are not the worse for it. Modesty rules, rather than madness, and the children love it.