When Your Germany Born and Raised Child Doesn’t Speak German–and Other Parent Fails.

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I think all parents have moments where they feel like complete and utter failures, and I’m experiencing that right now.  Here’s my issue: My daughter was born in Germany and yet, at 4.5 years old, she can’t speak a lick of German.

Now, here’s where I need to rush into a complete defense of how/why this is possible.  Laken went to a German Kita (daycare) when she was 1.5-3. She had the most wonderful experience there and picked up some of the language (though she often spoke a pigeon mix of English and German because she hadn’t quite separated the two, yet.) Our plan was to send her on to German Kindergarten (which is the equivalent of pre-school over here.) There, she would gain fluency.  Then, we would put her in an American kindergarten on the army base where my husband and I work, and she could continue on developing her German through community activities/lessons/etc.

We discussed our rationale for not sending her to German school, endlessly.  

First of all, German schools have a different schedule than ours, from the daily level to when their summer break is and how long it lasts. So, that would have been a hassle.  Then, we tried to imagine helping Laken out with her math homework a few short years from now. Seeing as my husband is a self-proclaimed math atheist and doesn’t speak German, and my own German does not cover the vocabulary of polynomials, etc, it just seemed like we’d be putting her at a disadvantage.  Finally–in the military, and even in the relatively sturdy position of DoDEA teachers–there’s always the chance that we’ll be flung into the world of a transfer, or base shutdown, and have to move back to the United States. I’m also firmly convinced the government will one day be alerted to the incredibly good deal teachers of military children get and cancel the whole operation.  

Perhaps our biggest reason for not wanting to send Laken to a German school was that we’ve simply heard better things about American schools.  I hate to say that, because I do think Germany is so amazing that I want to hold it up as an example in all sorts of ways but, in the case of education, it’s just the common denominator for what we’d been told.  

They also track students in this country.  In fourth grade the teachers sit down and decide whether a child seems destined to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a prostitute and send them to one of three schools after fourth grade geared towards sending the child to the predetermined point B.

I just don’t like that.  It reeks of The Giver, if you’ve ever read that book.  So, we decided to take advantage of the superb German kindergarten system, allow our daughter to become fluent, and unleash her upon the German community in all sorts of playgroups and hip-hop Tanzkuerse, all the while moving through the good old American Common Core, which is a whole other type of hell, but at least one we speak the language and can help out in terms of homework.  Maybe.

Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

We had Laken on no less than thirteen waiting lists for German kindergartens throughout Wiesbaden, and I emailed most of them in broken, beggy German to accept our child.  Eventually she was given a spot at a kindergarten run by the same company as the Kita she first went to.

We were beyond happy to be accepted, but in the end it didn’t work out.  The rooms on the first three floors of the center were your typical construction paper laden, sunflower and butterfly-heavy dream, with children’s artwork hung on the walls and wooden toys galore (as Germans don’t gravitate towards the plastic, flashing, noisy ones.) But, the room Laken was assigned to–the Dachgeschoss, aka attic room–was less than ideal.

They attempted to cram 25 children into a tiny, windowless, soulless, art project-less space.  The teachers blithely greeted the kids in the morning before gathering at their own table to eat an adult breakfast and let the kids fend for themselves for the better part of the morning.  Whereas the rooms on the bottom floors had bulletin boards with neat schedules framed with butterfly emojis, laying out the Thursday field trips and the English lessons and dance classes, there didn’t seem to be any plan at all for the room upstairs.  Something was written in brown crayon on a crumpled piece of paper and stuck to the wall.

I kept asking when they’d be taking the famed Thursday field trips, like the kids in all the other rooms were doing, and was told “soon.”

Whenever we picked Laken up, she was tucked away in a little galley where they stored the cots, playing something by herself.  I think she went there to hide, and it broke my heart.

She held onto her Minnie Mouse lunch box like a comfort object. I dissolved inwardly when I led her up the eight flights of stairs to her classroom and saw her chubby little hand gripping the pink handle with no intention of letting go.  Her teachers couldn’t get her to leave it inside during lunchtime. She took it outside with her when all hundred something kids at the center were released to the playground, and carried it close when she ran smack into the middle of a game of soccer played by kids at the neighboring Grundschule. 

They yelled at her in German to get out of the way, and she stopped to suck her thumb and stare at them, uncomprehending. No teacher stepped in to help her.

I tried to convince myself Laken would do fine there until one day when I was leaving the kindergarten side by side with the mother of the smallest child in the room.  She cried all eight flights down the stairs about how awful it made her feel to leave her child there, and how she was looking for somewhere (anywhere) else for her daughter, and that was my definitive breaking point, too.  If even the Germans parents weren’t stoic about the situation, I most certainly couldn’t be.

That moment, coupled with the conversation I had with another teacher who worked at the center (who was attending a birthday party we were at) who let me know that we should try to get Laken in another room because these teachers were notably mean to the kids–so much so that this teacher confronted them over a scene she witnessed in the cafeteria.

Yeah, no.

So, we put Laken in the Child Development Center on base and it has been more or less a great experience.  We are on the same vacation schedule. She’s learning site words. She’s made friends. I know she’s in an environment where the teachers take profound measures to ensure her physical safety, whereas at German kindergarten kids are a bit more on the trial and error system. In other words, go ahead and try out climbing that tree–but when you faceplant on the concrete, you’ll have learned your error and the stitches are an unfortunate bonus.

But.

Even though I know we made the best decision for our child at the time, I can’t help but feel like I’ve set up our daughter for failure. It’s so easy, so easy, in the military community, to live an isolationist life.  The military base can be like a giant, beige-colored bubble of at-home perks to include everything from Kellogg’s cereals to English movies.

I know many people–I’d venture to say most of the military families here–who have settled in Germany and restricted themselves entirely to that bubble.  It’s a tempting, cozy little existence and very easy to fall back on.

I realize that this problem might seem highly solve-able.  Why not sign your daughter up for activities now, anyway? That’s where she’ll learn German! Get a German tutor! Have her watch German cartoons! Make German friends!

All of these things are falling flat in my attempts to make up for the fact that, in our decision to send Laken to American school, we are potentially cutting her off from the society she was born into on the macro level.

I’ve looked up all child-centered activities in the Rheingau area–from table tennis to programs at the local Feuerwehr (fire station.) Everything starts at a time too early in the day for us. Because German schools let out earlier, activities start earlier and there simply isn’t anything we could be around for.  We had a German babysitter, but she just had a baby and tackling my child’s linguistic deficiencies has taken a lower rung on the priority ladder. We do watch German cartoons on a daily basis and, while Laken stares at them while happily eating her mermaid shaped Fruit Loops, I don’t think the take-aways are significant.

As for making neighborhood friends…the house we just bought is on a quiet street where I’d say the average resident is 97.  

Twice we were at a local playground, though, and I convinced my child–my brave, present, eager baby–to approach a group of kids and say, “Hallo! Mein Name ist Laken!” with hopes that would lead to all sorts of things, presumably inclusion on the teeter totter and then a lifetime of neighborhood friendship and language aptitude.

Sadly, in both cases the children stared at my daughter like she was some kind of walking virus, and then they stared over at me as I gamely explained in German that, “This is Laken and she’s four and she wanted to introduce herself because she’d just love to play with you?!” only to be told in no uncertain, gutteral terms that they weren’t interested.

Ugh.

I think the point of this whole rant is that at certain points, as a parent or as an adult, we’re more aware than ever of the Butterfly Effect our choices might have.  And, the fear that this Butterfly Effect might take a horrific trajectory for the people we love the most, who aren’t yet capable of making their own major life decisions, is terrifying.  

My greatest fear is that Laken will one day look at me and ask why I didn’t do more to make sure she didn’t feel isolated from the country she was born in.  Just writing those words makes me want to cry.

I already find myself in situations where I have to defend Laken for this choice we made.  For example, her primary physician is fond of making comments like, “What a shame it would be if she grew up here and didn’t speak the language!” YES, I KNOW THAT, AND AM LOSING MY MIND OVER THIS FACT BUT BY ALL MEANS, MAKE A COMMENT.  Or, when we went back to the States for Christmas I got lots of questions like, “So, does she just know to switch from German to English whenever you come home?” And, there’s a part of me that wants to LIE and say yes, that’s exactly what happens. Just like I sometimes want to lie when people ask how long I’ve been living in Germany for and I want to cut the number of years I give them in half to make it sound like my language is more appropriately fluent than it is.

At the same time, I do believe that as parents we have to make carefully evaluated calls that feel like the very best ones for our families at the time.  A friend once pointed out to me, and this makes sense, that if things are easier on the parents and stress is kept to a minimum, the kids will benefit from that.

It’s just hard to know sometimes if the choices that seem like the best fit for us, are necessarily the best ones for our children. 

Sometimes, as in this case, I’m just not sure.

I guess the bottom line is that we have to make these calls using our best possible foresight at the time.  Yes, I want my child to speak German, but I don’t want her to hide in a classroom closet all day in order to (possibly) achieve that goal.  Yes, I want my child to be included in this culture, but not at the expense of being entirely alone in comprehending the demands of her school work as she gets older.

Parenting requires us to make life decisions for people who are not yet capable of doing that for themselves. It can be so hard  to do this, but the best we can do is go with our gut instincts, pick a path, and then be entirely in charge of padding any negativity in the Butterfly Effect that follows.

I suppose as long as we do that last thing, we’re doing well by our children.

But, man, it’s hard to feel like I’ve failed at providing my daughter with one skill that should be totally easy for her right now.

So, about that six month break I took from blogging…

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How does one start blogging again after a six-month absence? I suppose the best way is to jump back in and start posting—and also to apologize.

The last time I wrote, we were headed to Washington State for winter break and I had every intention of posting regularly the whole time we were home. But, the vacation was kicked off by Laken’s first of what became a winter of illnesses. On the airplane she spiked a 105 fever and was so out of it we ended up having a flight attendant summon doctors over the intercom. Laken was driven by ambulance to a Wenatchee hospital the following afternoon and diagnosed with RSV (a virus I’d never even heard of until she got it.)

From there we had a few weeks of health until it was a severe bout with Rotavirus (and she spent two nights in the hospital for that, too, because she lost about 10% of her body weight. The diarrhea was that bad.) Then we were on to stomach flus and colds and pneumonia and the sniffles (which she didn’t mind all that much because she’s developed a fondness for eating her boogers.)

Laken’s Game of Thrones worthy winter of illnesses aside, I just got lazy. And preoccupied with raising a toddler. I wrote blog posts in my head, but they never materialized.

But, it’s time now. My goal is to write at least once a week. I miss blogging—I miss writing and reflecting on life here in Germany. And, I miss reading other people’s blogs. Do you ever have that sudden awareness, when you pass through a crowd of strangers in some public space, that you’re most likely never going to see a single one of them again? That you’ve glimpsed their face incidentally, but you’ll never know their strengths, their intense fears, the way they take in and interpret the universe through their senses?

Well, blogging seems to me like a way to get to know some of these random individuals. To hear their story. To get their take on the quirks of life in whatever part of the world they inhabit. To hear what lessons their day dealt out.

I have lots to write about these days. For one, we just moved away from our beloved Heidelberg and will be living in Wiesbaden, Germany from now on.

How do I feel about this? I asked my husband Todd this question earlier. “Where are you right now with Wiesbaden?” I asked.

Todd ‘s fine. He said that he’s home wherever his family, TV, and beer mugs are.

I’m taking longer to get there. Right now it feels like we’re on vacation and exploring new stores and restaurants (and, BTW, it’s a freaking back breaking vacation, because we have a LOT of stuff and have been working our hineys off.)

I wonder when, or even if, Wiesbaden will go from being a place that feels like vacation…to being home? Is it just time that helps the transition along? My bet is that memories are the foundation.  Relationships are the bricks.

As we walk through Wiesbaden I admire the fact that it’s a very pretty city. There’s no doubt about it. It’s easy to see that there’s a lot of wealth here. The buildings are opulent, have a “frosted wedding cake ceiling” feel to them (to rip off a line of Fitzgerald’s from The Great Gatsby.) There are lots of designer stores on the main drag (Wilhelmstrasse) and good restaurants—we’ve already become regulars at one that makes their own tortillas and is well stocked with craft beer.

See? Wedding cake-like.

We got lucky enough to find a massive apartment right in the middle of the city. Inside it’s very quiet and the rooms have high ceilings and a balcony space covered in unfortunate pigeon droppings.

One highlight for me, so far, was to discover the Kurpark. It’s set behind the Kurhaus and Casino and trails around a man-made lake and goes on for quite a while through a wooded area and crisscrossing trails that pass by opulent mansions that sort of make you want to cry from jealousy.  (Or to stand in front of them for a while in hopes that the owners will see you, find you interesting, invite you in, and spoil you.  Kind of like parties? I still pass by parties, or picnics, or people on boats and have this weird, off base hope that I’ll be invited over.)

But Heidelberg is still home. It’s where I discovered the expatriate life, where I found a love for teaching at international schools. It’s the city I met my husband in, the city that created our test tube child.

I’m getting wordy already. I know that blogs are supposed to be succinct and I’m trying to work on that–but as I’m drafting this I’m realizing there’s so much I’ve needed to reflect on. Why do I do this with writing? Start and stop?

Anyway, let’s wrap this up.

Here are my first impressions of this new Wiesbaden life.

  • As I said, it’s a very pretty city. Does it have the WOW factor that Heidelberg did? No. But, Heidelberg is a German city that was virtually untouched in the World War. You can walk through its narrow medieval streets and marvel at baroque architecture that went up after the French burned down the city. It’s nestled in a valley. It has a castle overlooking it. Wiesbaden looks very rich, is well kept, and has a lot to offer in terms of stores and architecture. But, it’s a newer city. As far as I understand, it was leveled in the war and rebuilt in the 1950’s. But I don’t know anything about that. I’m just repeating what Todd told me.
  • I love our apartment. I’m not trying to be all braggyMCbraggerson, but it’s HUGE. We will probably never own a house as big as this apartment is. I love how quiet it is inside, and how the walls are so insulated that I can sit in the living room and type this blog post and not hear Todd’s movie in the room next door. I’m also excited that we’re doing this city life thing for a bit. It won’t be forever. The idea is to live it up in the center for a couple years or so, and then buy a house in whatever area of Wiesbaden we fall in love with.
  • I would say the majority of Wiesbaden’s population are Muslim.  This is genuinely interesting to me because I’ve never lived anywhere that had so many Muslims. The abundance of  burkas and head scarves catch my eye. Perhaps we’ll make more friends who are Muslim and I’ll learn more about regions I only know from the news.
  • There’s lots of natural hot springs here—throughout the city, actually. I don’t know much more about them but will learn and post more.

Okay, I’m going to stop with this but more is to come! I’m sorry for the leave of absence. And, I’m sorry for blaming my child’s immune system when it really just comes down to a lack of motivation on my part.

My blogging goals are to keep on from here, to be open and honest, and to reflect on this major life change.  I have some personal goals that I’ve set, as well, and this blog will help me to work through them.  In no particular order they are;

1.) Get super fit and look 25 again. 😉

2.) Immerse more in German culture.  Do whatever it takes–join clubs, speak German as often as possible.

3.) We’ve been in a rut.  We need to travel more, explore, be involved.  We need to get out there.

4.) I am notoriously antisocial at the schools I teach at.  I chat all day with the kids, but avoid staff rooms and raising my hand at meetings.  I want to change that.

Until next time!

On Being Unable to Reach the Fifth Stage of Grief

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I felt this election in my bones.

I’ll be honest–this is the first political race that I’ve ever lost sleep over, that affected my mood, that made me feel uncontrollably combative towards the ‘other side’ even when I tried very, very hard not to. I know I’m far from alone in this.

I desperately wanted to be an activist–if we were in the States, I can guarantee I would have donned my very own coordinated pantsuit and gone door-to-door, making quite the impassioned case.

Even though I once promised myself to avoid all political talk on Facebook and stick to family pictures or light updates on the state of my being, for the past month or so I just couldn’t help myself. I poured a glass of wine as soon as I got home from work and thought, no, no, stay away, stay awayno one’s mind has ever changed from a goddamn Facebook post—but was unable to help myself.

I seriously COULD NOT stop; it felt like the only way to grab people by the shoulders from afar and shake them. You’re making a huge mistake! Click, click: Look at what he said! Look at what he did! Please, consider what he’ll do!

Yesterday when Todd woke me up with coffee and the announcement that Trump was winning, I thought he was joking. And, if so, I thought it was the least funny prank, ever. Over and over I insisted it wasn’t true until I put in my contacts and checked the news for myself.

And, yet, there it was. ‘Trump Triumphs,’ I read.

Let’s just say it wasn’t a great morning.

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Putting My Zombie On Your Porch

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On Halloween we had three trick-or-treaters, which means the holiday is becoming wildly popular here in Germany! (After all, that’s three more trick-or-treaters than we’ve had other years.)

I was curious about when Halloween was introduced to German culture so I looked it up and, according to Der Spiegel, celebrations began in 1991 (reason being, Carnival was canceled due to the Gulf War.) So. it’s only taken about twenty-five years for things to get rolling in our Heidelberg suburb.

Nevertheless, Todd and I were well prepared with three jumbo-sized bags of American candy bought from the commissary on base.   After all, you never can be too prepared.

When the trick-or-treaters arrived I opened up, mixing bowl filled of goodies in hand, and the kids dutifully chanted, “Suesses, sonst gibt’s Saures!” which roughly translates to, “Give me something sweet, or else you’ll get something sour!”

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The Man Behind the Tree.

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A man was waiting for me behind a tree.

I didn’t know this, yet, as I unlocked my bike after watching a World Cup game on a big screen outdoors at Marstallhof with friends back in 2006. I had no idea what was coming as I rode along the Neckar River and followed the curve of the bike path over to Bergheimerstrasse. It was reaching 9 p.m. and it was June, so there was still some daylight refusing the hug of encroaching nighttime.

I remember that I rode fast, and even stood up on my pedals as I crossed over a bridge—like a child—so that I could rise above my handlebars and face the wind head-on. I looked to the left, over at the distant hills, and then below the bridge where the train tracks were. I saw fluorescent lights, the clean platform, a few ICE trains like long white bullets resting on the track.

There’s so many bike rides that I forget. Even now, I ride my bike home to and from work every day and often get so lost in thought that I barely remember the journey from point A to point B.

But, I’ll never forget this particular ride.

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Turtle Cancer

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Last week I went to visit my doctor (Dr. Sieben, or “Seven” as it means in English) for a preemptive cancer screening.  The week prior I’d been summoned in to have blood drawn so they could test my thyroid, and this was my sit-down with the doctor to discuss the results. (They’re all about preventative health care here, and I appreciate everything about that.)

After he called me in to his office, one of the first things he asked me (after the reassurance that my results were fine and my blood pressure, may I just boast, was “perfection”) was about cancer in my family.  In other words, who had it and what type did they have, etc.

I told him about my aunt’s breast cancer and then moved on to my uncle.

“Er hat…” I hesitated, “Schildkroete gehabt.”

Even as I said Schildkroete, I knew it wasn’t the right word.  This happens a lot when at doctor’s appointments, simply because new vocabulary (in the form of symptoms or illnesses) come up all the time.

I was searching for the German word for ‘lung’ and it only occurred to me after ‘Schildkroete’ came out of my mouth that the word meant ‘thyroid.’

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Times I Was Confused in America

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I’ve been living in Europe, now, for the better part of sixteen years.  And yet, it was only this summer that I experienced the phenomenon of realizing I was more in tune with how things work in Germany, my second culture, than I was with how it’s done in America.

This wasn’t really the case before now.  I’m wondering what it was about this summer—I mean, I hadn’t been away from America for any longer than normal.  I’m not even immersed in German language or, let’s be honest, German society as much as I could/should be?

So, is sixteen years away from where I grew up my own personal magic expat number? Is this the specific amount of time it took me to feel more integrated into one culture than the other?

Example Number One of a Time I Was Super Confused in America

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The Weekly Spazieren: Mannequins, Suggestive Foliage, and Snow White’s Dwarf on a Roof

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Last week I fell off the blogging wagon.  I’m not sure why–all I can say is that every time Laken went down for a nap and it was my usual writing time I either suffered from writer’s block or found something incredibly important to do.

But this week I’m ready to be back on track, and I have pictures to share as part of my definitely-not-regular feature called ‘The Weekly Spazieren.’ I think by weekly I meant ‘taken throughout any given week of walking’ and not ‘I promise to post this every single week, as in I’m making a definite commitment to you right here, right now.’

I’m not normally a commitment-phobe, but am becoming one as of late.

In fact, on Monday we’re leaving for the States and I’m already wondering if I’ll be able to keep up the blogging habit while we’re gone. Todd and I tend to be pretty decadent while we’re on vacation. We’re prone to eating at restaurants three times a day (I mean, it’s the States–can you blame us?) and filling in the gaps with beer breaks in the backyard.  I might be too stuffed/drunk to feel creative.  But, I’m going to try my very hardest to continue writing on a weekly basis.  After all, I love doing it.  And, at least in my world, all it takes is one little break and it becomes a lifestyle.  Story of my last six years.

So, let’s go spazieren, shall  we?

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The Weekly Spazieren

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The German word for walking is ‘spazieren’ and they’re really into it here. I know walking is a universal pastime, but Germans get all decked out in matching Jack Wolfskin outfits and use walking sticks to navigate the suburbs.  It’s definitely on another level, let’s just put it that way.

In fact, on Monday I was waiting for my tram and a teenage girl and boy approached. They were reading an ‘Eppelheim Info’ sheet and the girl said (in German, obviously) “Look! There’s an organized walking group leaving from Cafe Creme tomorrow. Maybe we should check it out!”

I don’t know much, but for some reason I can’t imagine your typical teenager getting so hyped up to go on an organized neighborhood stroll.  But, there you have it. (And I think it’s awesome!)

Since I’m on what was supposed to be a paid maternity leave this year, I do my own fair share of ‘spazieren.’  Every day Laken and I take at least one walk around the neighborhood.  And, I’m always spying quirky things.

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Asparagus and the Art of Delayed Gratification

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Asparagus is a great word. If I was a vegetable, I wouldn’t mind being called asparagus.

(I bring up asparagus—sorry, the word deserves a space in each of the three sentences I’ve written so far—because it’s in season right now. Just an FYI, the German word is ‘spargel’—pronounced ‘shpargle.’)

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Not the most attractive vegetable.

The fact that it’s in season over here in Baden-Wuerttemberg might not seem like a big deal to most people reading this, but I’ll tell you what. It’s a big freaking deal. Germans refer to it as ‘white gold,’ if that gives you any idea of the value they assign it.

I was curious about why it’s known as ‘white gold’ so I did some intensive Internet research and learned that it all goes back to Louis XIV who decided he had a hankering for the vegetable. It was served to noble people at lots of fancy- schmancy dinners. And, for the longest time they kept it all for themselves and wouldn’t share because they’d claimed it as a rich person’s veggie, like the rutabagas or sunchokes of today. (I have no idea what rutabagas or sunchokes even are. So, I assume they’re reserved for rich people. Bastards.)

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