First off, I apologize. That break between posts was a bit longer than anticipated but, in my defense, my hours at work have increased greatly, Eve and I are now engaged (more on that later), and we bought a house that needs not a small amount of renovations. That, and I have come to realize that if I do not continually write, the creative juices stop flowing, and it takes longer to get up and running. My friends from New England will understand if I use the analogy of trying to start an older model car in the morning that has sat out over a January night. Yes, I am that older model car, but I’m pretty sure that my year of manufacture qualifies me as a “classic”. Whew. Now that my conscience is clear, I can bring you back to my Grimm tale of German dining.
Lunch now out of the way, our bellies full of processed carbs but actual meat (fillers aren’t allowed here and “pink slime” is only the occasional residue on “Die Straßen” when a renegade scooterist decides that turn signals are for sissies), we pull away and begin to drive…and then immediately stop. Though traffic circles are the standard for German intersections and work quite well, there are traffic lights and when you encounter one, make sure that you have a book with you. And a pillow. There is a reason that many “Ampels” have signs that read “Längere Rotphase. Bitte Motor Abstellen” (Long red light. Please turn your motor off). Germans are nothing if not energy-conscious and sitting at a long light with your engine running is wasteful. I have even come to embrace this practice except, of course, in winter when I reserve the right to not only keep my car running but to turn the heat up full-blast and set the heated seats to “broil”. I like my buns toasted.
Now, while sitting at one of these near-eternal red lights, you will notice that they turn yellow just before turning green. This is extremely helpful as it prepares you and everybody else to what always seems to be a surprise while driving in the States: Red lights will at some point turn green which means you can continue driving. As much sense as this early-warning practice makes here, it would actually make more sense in the U.S. where it is exceedingly difficult to simultaneously hold onto your bathtub of coffee with one hand, text your lawyer that you are currently entrenched in a bad decision with the other, and honk maniacally at the driver in front of you by bashing your face against the horn. Hold on… I have a thought forming. I may have inadvertently stumbled onto the reason for the lack of forewarning traffic lights in the States. If the red lights did politely warn us that we were about to be able to step on the gas thereby giving us enough time to place those buckets of caffeinated lava into our cup holders, the economy would crash due to the lack of lawsuits from flabbergasted and scalded drivers. Quid Pro Quo.
Anyway, having just been awakened from our impromptu “Autoschläfchen” by our alarm/impatient driver behind us, and feeling now even more tired as our lunches had congealed in our stomachs, we decide that we need coffee, and fast. Unfortunately, this notion of “fast” presents a slight problem here. Most German cafes only sell coffee in actual ceramic cups, not paper or Styrofoam, and are therefore meant to be enjoyed on-site. Sure, the existence of “Pfand” (deposit for most types of cups and glasses) means that you could take it with you but really, who wants to drive around with an actual mug of coffee? Without a lid, and due to the centrifugal force exerted when careening around a traffic circle, most of it is apt to end up on whatever is to the right of you, most likely the passenger or, if you are the passenger, the side window. On yet another side-note, because of Pfand, you can often take your pint or Maß of beer with you and, like in Vegas, walk around openly with it but without being harangued by casino workers, prostitutes, and Zack Galifinakis beseeching you to take roofies-laced Jäger shots on the roof of Caesar’s Palace. Open container laws do not exist in Germany…but I will address that particular slice of Dionysian legislation in the next post about, what else, drinking.
Back to the task of explaining the wild concept of “dining in”, many of you may have heard of the slower pace of life in Europe where full-time employment means thirty-five hours per week, workers getting an hour and a half to two hours for lunch, and six plus weeks vacation, right? No? That’s because it is being purposefully withheld from you by American companies, and subsidized by European governments, so you don’t start asking for more time off and so the EU doesn’t experience an influx of Americans who would walk off with all of their respective country’s cups and glasses. The point is, because of all of this time off, you can see why the concept of rushing around is alien here; it is simply not necessary. So, as we set out in search of a place that sells “Kaffee zum mit nehmen” (coffee to go), I notice signs (and not just a few) along the side of the road reading “Spargel”. Not knowing what this is, I inquire and am answered with “Asparagus, but the white kind. What do you call it in English”? “White asparagus” I deftly reply.
Noticing no vortexes or other indications of just having gone through a time warp, I say “But it’s still winter. Is asparagus in season here”? “No”, they say. “They are just getting ready“.
Unbeknownst to me then, but having lived through spring since, this my dear friends, is because Germany is completely bonkers for white asparagus. There are festivals in honor of it. Road-side stands jockey for the best places to sell it like drug dealers competing for inner-city street corners. Restaurants plan entire menus around it. Supermarkets have whole sections dedicated to it and even then can’t keep it in stock (you can always tell if some lucky shopper has found a bunch or two by the phantom Archimedesesque exclamations from three aisles over of “Eureka! I habe es gefunden!” (I found some!) before running to the checkout like an NFL linebacker while trying to avoid being tackled by other jealous but less fortunate shoppers). As valuable as it seemingly is, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if the German financial system, instead of being backed by gold like the US, is backed by vast stores of white asparagus.
As all good things must, however, Spargal season must sadly come to an end. After the dust settles and after summer begins (and after all broken bones have been reset), the frenzy is over and we are left with only the fading bitter odors emanating from bathrooms around the country to remind us that magic does exist and its name is…Spargel.
Continuing on our drive in search of the ever elusive take-out java, and just when we were about to give up hope and buy a couple of RedBulls, I spot, thanks to brand recognition and my caffeine addiction, a…Starbucks sign! So excited that I couldn’t speak due to all of the Pavlovian-drool in my mouth, I frantically grunted and pointed out the window. Eve, accustomed to my inability to pass a Starbucks even under the best of conditions, informed her sister that she should pull in.
Ahhhh, Starbucks. Let me reflect on this for a minute: I’ve been in Germany for several months now and, aside from family and friends, what I miss the most is…Starbucks. Lame, I know. I mean, I should be missing Sox double-headers and barbeques – and I do – but as they say, the heart wants what it wants, but the stomach demands…sweetened caffeinated milk. All right; only I say that. I would also like to say at the outset that, lest I offend any of the local café owners and get myself banned, the coffee here is delicious but…it’s just that – coffee. Macchiato, latte, whatever you call it, it’s only grounds, hot water, milk, and, if you’re feeling extra saucy – sugar. A case in point, only recently a friend offered me a sweet wine and, after telling me how he once ordered an ice cream in the States and then promptly threw it out because it was TOO sweet, he said that it might not be sweet enough for me. Well, he was right. It, like the coffee here, might be suitable for more refined, European tastes but I am an American and am therefore used to taking a bite of ANYTHING and, like a culinary version of a Trojan horse dropping ruthless Greeks onto the streets of Troy, having its murderously over-seasoned contents spill out and attack my ill-prepared and screaming taste buds.
Unlike the average German “Milchkaffee”, an American Starbucks drink, even if they get your order wrong and give you a sugar-free drink, grabs your tongue by the neck and punches it in the face with its delicious little fists. Second case in point, on this particular visit to Starbucks I ordered an Iced Café Mocha and, like the yin to my sugar-averse German friend’s yang, threw it out. Okay, I didn’t really, but only because I was thirsty and also needed caffeine. It may as well have been chocolate-flavored chamomile iced-tea. Naturally, without the extra sugar kick, I finished it and promptly fell asleep standing in line for a second one.
The next culinary event after afternoon coffee – and the last unless you go out for evening drinks and order the requisite “Aufschnittplatte mit brot” (sliced meats and cheeses with bread) – is, of course, dinner. Opting for a more festive atmosphere that doesn’t require dishwashing, we decide to go to a restaurant which in German is…well, “restaurant” though much harder to say as there are three throat-clearing syllables instead of none. As my hosts were all in agreement that I should experience real German food, they insisted that we go to a Bavarian-style restaurant. About this, I have nothing bad to say at all, especially since I knew just enough German to not order the “Kalbskopf” (calves head). This particular German meal, and every one since, has been delicious. Whether you order Sauerbraten, Fleischküchle (flattened meatballs), Schnitzel or anything else, I can almost guarantee that you will absolutely love it. That is unless, of course, you are a vegetarian in which case they may promptly lead you out back to the livestock pens to dine with the other herbivorous patrons, i.e., soon-to-be entrees. If you do find yourself in this situation, take heed that you are not wearing a wool sweater, cow-print, or fur (presumably faux) and please resist the urge to bleat or moo: Nothing is more off-putting to your dining companions than when their missing dinner guest returns to the table not seated at it, but placed upon it.
The one slight criticism of German cuisine that I do have is that the entire country (save for Eve) has an almost hysterical aversion to spicy food. Allow me to expand on this: Save for the occasional bratwurst, my first encounter with German food was at Schnitzel Fritz, a German restaurant in Colorado Springs. Upon my first visit, I ordered Frikadellen (north German for Fleischküchle) with Spätzle (egg noodles with gravy) and Rotkraut (pickled red cabbage) and it was exquisite. Upon my second visit, however, I ordered Jalapeno Schnitzel and it was even better, albeit pretty spicy, even for someone like me who was raised snacking on pickled jalapenos like most people snack on Pringles (growing up, family movie night involved a lot of sweating). Had I not realized that it was something that Germans typically detest by the crinkled-up face that the woman at the counter made when I placed my order, the flame-retardant suit and mask typically reserved for volcano research that the server was wearing when she gingerly delivered my meal should have tipped me off. On subsequent visits where I regularly ordered this particular blasphemic concoction, and after we had gotten to know Elke the owner, I asked if I would be able to find Jalapeno Schnitzel in Germany. Not only did she quickly reply “No” and mention with pride that she never eats it, she confided that she invented it solely for Americans. My parent’s live about a half-hour south of there so I can only presume that it was created for my dad who has a habit of saying “You call that hot”?!
Back at the restaurant table, our plates and glasses empty, our bellies full, we are ready to leave except for one last order of business necessary before any long car ride home; I must use the restroom. This brings me to the final but very important difference between eating out in the States and here: Energy conscious as the Germans are, many public bathroom lights are motion-activated. This is typically fine as you would normally stroll in, take care of business, and have just enough time to finish washing and drying your hands (electric dryer, of course) before the light extinguishes itself as the door closes gently behind you. When it is not fine, however, is when you go the bathroom after having had many glasses of beer or wine and the light goes out mid-stream, leaving you alone in the dark, “Schwanz” out, and waving your hands frantically in the air just as someone else walks in. It’s like a one-person surprise party but X-Rated and without a single shred of delight from the surprisee.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost evening. After I change the bandages on my wounds suffered during the last “Spargelkrieg” of the season, I am going to retrieve some frozen white asparagus from our freezer’s hidden compartment, and secretly make dinner. Please don’t tell anyone; I don’t want to have to fend off those old ladies again – they bite.