Upon visiting Germany, one of the first things that will happen after you gather your luggage and visit the WC or “die Toilette” (don’t call it a “bath“room or “rest“room: Germans know darn well that you are going in there to neither shower nor nap) is that you will be asked, “Möchtest du etwas trinken?” (Would you like something to drink?). Feel free to reply yes, that you didn’t sleep on the plane and would like a coffee or, that you did sleep but the overhead air-nozzle was pointed directly down your gullet as you slept with your mouth wide-open which, in-turn, transformed your throat into freeze-dried esophagus jerky and you would now like some water. Your German hosts will graciously comply but you should know that what they really mean is, “Would you like an alcoholic drink”? Now, if your flight arrived before, say, noon, this question may not even be posed to you, unless you flew into Bavaria. A typical breakfast down there (and I’m not kidding) is Weißwurst with Weißbier (white sausage and white beer). Though tasty and eaten with sweet mustard, it’s a good thing for Americans that Weißwurst is served with a strong, amnesia-producing Bavarian Hefeweizen as they look like, for those old enough to remember the headline, something that Lorena Bobbitt once flung merrily from her car window. I know that sounds a tad gross but add to this the fact that one must slice open the skin, and peel it off completely, and you will see why I made the inevitable yet icky comparison. It’s no wonder that circumcision is unpopular here.
If, however, you find that you arrived at an airport in any of the other German states and it’s past noon – and because “no alcohol is also not a solution“ is not just one of Die Toten Hosen’s songs and the title of this two-part post, but also an accepted national creed – it is completely appropriate to have a drink. You may wonder, “What kind of drink should I order”? The answer is as deliciously simple as it is just plain delicious…Radler. Ahhhh, Radler. Enjoyed countrywide at both weekend barbeques and weekday work lunches, Radler is the perfect adult beverage for all occasions. A delicious half-and-half combination of Pilsner beer and Sprite-like citrus soda, the word translates literally to “cyclist” and (I just found this out from Wikipedia) that it was and still is a popular sports-drink. Oh, Germany; how I love thee. I can hear the Olympic cycling commentators now:
Sports Guy 1: “Well, that was an interesting finish from the German team”.
Sports Guy 2: “I’ll say. They finished dead last but seemed really happy about it. Were they singing as they crossed the line?”
Sports Guy 1: “They were indeed. I believe that was The Dead Pants’ “Steh auf, wenn Du am Boden bist” (Stand up when you’re on the floor).
Sports Guy 2: “Ah. Apparently Stefan didn’t get that memo; he’s passed out under a tree at mile 60 and appears to have lost his shorts. Good thing there’s a paramedic on-scene giving him mouth-to-mouth”.
Sports Guy 1: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that she’s not a paramedic and I’m certain that his mouth isn’t that low”.
Radler is, in fact, so beloved here – and so sweet! – that some (or maybe just me) affectionately refer to it as Kinderbier (children’s beer) though I think the kids are limited to only one, at least during school lunches. So refreshing and sugary, it has even been known to appeal to the more saccharine American tastes as evidenced by my mom. After picking her and my dad up from the airport when they came here in June, our first stop on the way home was to a local restaurant for some lunch where she ordered her first Radler. Not only did she spend the rest of the trip ordering one (or two) at every chance, she has even called and emailed repeatedly since returning home to say that she can’t find it in Colorado and to ask if it’s okay if she just mixes Budweiser with 7-Up. The answer, sadly, is yes but, for all of the trouble, I would just skip the beer since it already has so little alcohol that when diluted further, it could probably be served in the States at drive-thrus. With Happy Meals. By police.
Now, aside from Bavarian breakfasts and Radler, one of the other many traditions surrounding drinking here in Germany is the Feierabend, which translates literally to “party-evening”. Though unknown in America, the Feierabend is a daily occurrence where Germans celebrate the end of each work day with a couple of beers or glasses of wine with their friends and/or family. You might ask yourself, “They drink every day?” and therefore convince yourself of the already widespread notion that Germany is comprised solely of a nation of drunks. This is, well, not far from the truth but is still a healthier tradition than what we have in the States. Where Germans typically work only until 5:00 or so and rarely have more than two drinks, after our 10 plus hour work days and 2 hour commutes, we are too tired in the evenings to do more than crawl into bed hugging an Ambien-laced Whopper, and so we reserve our alcohol consumption for Saturdays where we have not two, but twelve drinks and tell ourselves, “I only drink on weekends”. Where we Americans have the motto, “Work hard, play hard”, the Germans’ is, “Work enough, live well”. Since even doctors recommend having a glass or two of wine a night, and because Germans actually have the time to enjoy them, rarely do you hear anyone mutter, “Autsch. Meine Leber tut weh” (Ow. My liver hurts) because they drank enough to make Keith Richards consider staging an intervention. As far as I can tell, excessive drinking is a behavior reserved almost exclusively for foreigners living here or, to be more specific,…“Americans in Germany”.
The best example that I can give for this wanton liquid gluttony among my fellow US citizens was my first experience at the Wasen. The Wasen (properly the Canstatter Wasen) is an annual Volksfest held every fall in Stuttgart and is Baden-Württemberg’s version of Bavaria’s Oktoberfest. Though technically a hold-over from what was originally an Autumn-fest after a particularly bleak harvest back in 1816 during which many Germans starved, it now sees about 4,000,000 visitors each year and is a beer-fest second in size only to the Oktoberfest. Though food was scarce back then, the more resourceful Germans evidently decided that it was better to drink their dinner than go hungry (which possibly gave birth to the idea of the festival in the first place) and is perhaps the reason behind the expression, “Bier ist Brot für den Magen” (beer is bread for the belly). Full of vendors selling food and various bands playing live music under beer tents the size of mountains, people clad in Dirndls and Lederhosen congregate from all over the world to drink and dance. The drinking is the easy part where, as I found out, the dancing is decidedly more challenging…but I will get to that in a bit.
Before one enters the beer tents, they must walk past the vendors (which I have already mentioned) and the amusement-style rides, which I have not. That’s right. Like a beer-soaked Six Flags, there are ferris wheels, roller coasters, and elevated-spinning-swing-things at the Wasen. Though all are in place to enhance the festival experience and make it more fun, this last is the one that you have to watch out for as it seems that the younger Wasen-goers have devised a delightful new game called “Vomit on Your Friends”. To play, one only has to drink large amounts of alcohol and then climb onto a machine that thrusts you 20 meters into the air before whipping you around in a circle at 300 kph. It’s kind of like a huge salad-spinner except that it uses centripetal force instead of centrifugal and the little lettuce leaves are all wearing German hats and screaming. I recommend holding an umbrella as you walk past this one.
Once inside the beer tent, you make your way among the literally hundreds of tables to find yours (with 4,000,000 annual visitors, one must reserve a table at the Wasen), look at the meager menu, and order yourself some food and your first drink of the night.
Being new, I followed Eve’s lead and ordered a Radler but noticed that all of the men in our midst ordered Pilsner. Not one to be outdone (and because the server smugly asked me if I wanted another “girly-beer” when my mug was empty) I decided to step up into the company of men and ordered a Pils. Now when I say “a” Pils or “a” Radler, one thing should be clear: At the Wasen, both are served as a “Maß” which is a full liter mug that weighs roughly 20 kilos and is big enough to bathe a small child in. The undiluted Pilsner also has a little more than 6% alcohol whereas the Radler, being only half beer, has 3% which is still stronger than Miller or Coors.
Manly beverage in hand, I took my first sip of real beer and, like in the Hangover movies, the music started playing as the camera panned up and out over the multitudes before fading…to black. Okay, it wasn’t quite that dramatic but things did get out of hand and it is my duty to tell you why:
1. Germans hate empty glasses. That first Pils was essentially the last that I ordered (or at least remember ordering) because our friends would look down, see my empty Maß, and pour some of theirs into it. This makes it extremely difficult to gauge how much you have drunk because, like Baucis and Philemon’s wine pitcher of myth, my mug was always miraculously full.
2. Germans dance on benches. Very narrow benches. German beer benches are 26cm (10.25”) wide and my size 11 shoe is 29cm. Combine this with the fact that once Germans get up on their benches, they stand and dance there all. Night. Long. That is, until the inevitable happens…
3. You will fall off the bench. Because your friends will be constantly dumping their beers into your mug, much of that beer will end up on the bench making it very, very sticky. Like some kind of barley-based foot-glue, you might think that a sticky bench would help keep you from falling off but remember; you’re dancing! As you shift your weight while simultaneously trying to lift your foot into what would surely be a dance move so brilliant and sexy that Dirdnls would fall magically at your feet, you realize a second too late that your shoe is now fused to the bench as you tumble off to the even stickier floor. I fell off five times that night, though one of which happened because I was pulled off as someone else realized mid-fall that they too were stuck and tried to use me as an anchor. I really should have thanked those people behind us for so generously providing their soft bodies to cushion our landing.
4. At some point, there will be a fight. The best thing that you can do is to take notice and stay away. This did not happen that night as I had found some other Americans (or rather they found me) and as was chatting one guy up about this and that. At one point, I happened to notice Eve signaling me to get down while yelling something. Once down on the floor and close enough that I could actually hear her over the 10,000 decibel Schlager music, she shouted, “They’re fighting”! As I turned back around, sure enough, a small faction of the American group were punching each other repeatedly and then tumbled unceremoniously into a heap right onto the bench where I had been standing only seconds before. Thank you, Eve, for saving me from that situation; had I not moved, I would have surely spilled my beer.
As we left that night, we noticed two bloodied people just outside the door. One was being attended to by a paramedic and the other was lying on his side with his eyes closed, though I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t dead as, much to Eve’s dismay, I kept inching closer to get a better look when his eyes suddenly fluttered open and he fixed me with a look that I can only assume meant, “Dude, I should have stayed in Worcester”. I’m actually not sure if those two were part of the American brawl that I narrowly escaped earlier but what I do know, whoever they were, is that they should have stuck to Radler. 6% is just too strong for some and, as the famous saying goes, “Tis better to be mocked for drinking girly-beer than to bleed from one’s head”.
Having now educated you on both the joys and inherent dangers of attending the Wasen, I can now get back to the “party-evening”. For Eve and I, a typical Feirabend involves sitting on the balcony, watching the sun set, and discussing life (or the latest episode of “Let’s Dance”, Germany’s version of “Dancing with the Stars”) over a couple glasses of wine and a plate of “belegte Brötchen” (literally ‘covered bread’, but really just little open-faced sandwiches). But first, before we can whet our whistles, I must retrieve a Weinflasche and so I head off for the long trek downstairs…
“Wait. Downstairs?” you might wonder. “Is their balcony on the roof or is their fridge in the basement”? Neither, actually, though we do have a fridge in the cellar which is reserved for grilling-meats and, you guessed it, beer. But, to get a bottle of wine, the trip downstairs is necessary for another reason, but for which the explanation requires me to digress yet again…
Germans do not refrigerate anything. Though my only source for this statement is the two years that I have lived with my lovely German wife, it seems that Germans have the distinct inability to refrigerate anything that most Americans would deem necessary to keep cold. Grapes, apples, nectarines, cheeses, and countless others are, like baby birds shoved from the nest, left out on the counter, unprotected and without the ability to defend themselves. Though this may seem strange to us, there are a few reasons for this. The first is that milk in supermarkets is stored not in the refrigerated section, but in aisles. “How can this be?” you may ask. The answer is, of course, I don’t know. Perhaps the milk is offered protection against spoilage by NATO troops whom are continually on alert, but inactive because of sanctions, due to Russia’s newfound favorite game, “I like your country and now its mine”. Maybe it’s because German cows, being as highly skilled at engineering milk as the human Germans are at engineering everything else, produce milk that bacteria can not thrive in. Or perhaps (and most likely), it is because of the far-reaching hand of German regulation and its iron-clad set of food laws,“Lebensmittel und Bedarfsgegenständegesetz“, that German milk is simply not permitted to spoil, under law, whether it wants to or not. Whatever the reason, milk lasts quite a while if sealed but once it’s opened, it should be placed in the fridge…but often isn’t…at least in our house… (Self-preservation side-note: I love my wife. Is that a new dress you’re wearing, dear? It’s absolutely gorgeous).
Another reason for the lack of refrigeration is because most German refrigerators are only large enough to hold a six pack of .5 liter beers (locally brewed, of course, lest the built-in “Pißwasser” alarm goes off), two Schweinschntizel, and one half of a leftover Döner (a German-created Turkish fast-food item: Think Big Mac, but with lamb meat shoved into a pita instead of a sesame-seed bun, and a yogurt-based spicy ‘special sauce’). The small size of German refrigerators forces their owners to find other storage for their cold products which brings me to the last reason for the German aversion to refrigerating their food and the reason that I went off on this unnecessarily long tangent in the first place: The Gewölbekeller.
A Gewölbekeller is what we in the States would call a cold cellar though the German version are not only in every house and have vaulted, dungeon-like ceilings, they are a sense of pride among Germans. Should you ever find yourself on a tour of a German friend’s home, you will inevitably be directed to the Gewölbekeller at some point and you are required, probably by law, to admiringly point out the size, the temperature, and the solid construction. A typical conversation might go something like this:
Hans: “Ah, Dieter, what a marvelous Gewölbekeller. I can see that your abundance of potatoes are thriving well in what is surely the perfect temperature for them”.
Dieter: “Danke, Hans. It surely is a fine place to keep my potatoes. Let’s wash one down with one of my 37,000 bottles of wine that this place is large enough to store while I tell you about how it was constructed. (Pour) Did you know that its walls are two meters thick (munch, munch) and were hewn from the bedrock itself by ancient burly men”?
Hans: “Oh, Dieter. You surely are a fine man and a good German. Herzlichen Glückwunsch!” (Clink!)
Back (again) to the tale, and as you have undoubtedly guessed, we too have a small fridge (though bigger than most because I am an American, after all) and a large Gewölbekeller stocked with wine.
Upon it’s selection, I bring it back upstairs, uncork it, and set about making our belegte Brötchen so that we can begin our Feirabend in earnest. Now, when it comes to making covered bread, there are only two required ingredients – bread…and (just like at a German breakfast) every other edible item in the house. Salami, cheeses, spreads, pickles, toothpaste, all of it can and does go on top of the bread and then down the hatch.
“Wait. Toothpaste”? Okay, it’s not really toothpaste but there is a brand of yellow mustard called “Thomy” that is sold in squeezable tubes, just like Colgate. I tell you, you do not want to get those two confused.
Being the main ingredient in our nightly light-meal, I grab the bread which must first be prepared…
“Wait. Prepared”? Yes, my unbelieving and parroty reader, prepared. I neglected to mention this in my earlier posts about food and so I am compelled to elaborate now: Though one can find and buy pre-sliced bread in Germany, no self-respecting German would dain to do so. There is a reason that there are so many bakeries here and that reason is that almost every household has a bread slicer, but not one that even the few in the States would recognize should they be so hip (or hippie) to have one. The bread slicers here are not separate appliances that are placed upon counters, they are built into the kitchen counters themselves. A complement to the “Einbau Kuche” (a complete kitchen that is purchased and installed separately so you can take it with you when you move) the bread slicers are built into the counters as a permanent part of something transient. That is how important bakery-fresh bread is here: When you move, you can (and most do) take the entire kitchen with you and the built-in slicer ensures that it goes along. Pre-sliced bread. Pffttt. How dare you. Unlike white sausage and white beer, white bread is a no-no.
Well, the first half of this thread is complete. It is now evening, Eve has just arrived home, and I must now leave you so that we can begin our Feierabend. I’m thirsty and there is much to be discussed: I hear that on the upcoming episode of “Let’s Dance” that Putin will be paired – because of their near invisibility regarding Tibet – with China and will be dancing around America and the EU to Gloria Gaynor’s, “I Will Survive”.
“At first I was afraid, I was petrified,
Kept thinking I could never live with you on my side,
But then I spent so many nights, just me and Mr. Wong,
And I grew strong, all your sanctions make me yawn”!