Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Foods that Start With S and other German Nonsense

I lie awake, eyes wide to the ceiling, blanket pulled up to my chin, staring



I lie awake, arm thrown over eyes, trying



I lie awake, eyes scrunched closed, curled on my side, praying



I lie awake, pillow over my head, blanket pulled over top, cursing


CURSING the stupid effing Turks that won't stop running up and down the street screaming and driving their cars with horns blaring and it's been four hours now and I'm feeling violent




So there is this big football thingy going on over here in Europe and of course everyone has lost their damn minds over it. I don't see the point because regardless of whether a team wins or loses everyone is going to be causing a ruckus out in the streets and yelling and screaming and carrying on and whether it's in joy or in sadness it all sounds exactly the same at two in the morning. Tragically, Turkey won last night and nothing is dulling the sounds of the crazy-ass Turks celebrating in the streets below. And I keep hearing sounds that I sincerely hope are small fireworks and not small firearms. Regardless, I'm staying clear of the window lest one go astray. I briefly thought about going downstairs and screaming "I HATE TURKEY!" at them, just so they could tear me apart and I could finally get some rest. But then, I thought that they might not understand me as I would be yelling this in English and besides, I fear I would be overcome with violence once I got down there amongst them and become a one-woman wrecking ball.  I may be short, but I'm scrappy.

Now, I think that the country of Turkey is a lovely place that I very much want to visit again and most of the time I have nothing against its inhabitants - in my experience they are all lovely people.  I also think that football/soccer/whatever you want to call it is a fun game to watch but I just can't let how my week is going to turn out be affected by it. Even a sport I love as much as hurling doesn't interrupt the flow of my day, much less my general mood and demeanor based on how a match turns out. If the Ravens or the Braves or that bastion of all that is good and holy, Virginia Tech Football, loses a game I'm bummed but I don't grab a fork and go looking for a socket. Not so over here. This is life and death, folks. Which, whatever, you know? Just do it on your own time. Don't go waking up the country with your nonsense just because your team won. Go drink a dozen pints like the rest of the civilized world and sleep it off! And while you're doing that, I'll be dressed all in black like a ninja, shoe polish smeared on my face, severing any wire in your car that looks like it might relate to your horn's usability. Just as a small public service. I'm generous like that.

But enough about the crazy %^$%&^ing Turks. Let's back up a bit. I've been over here in Germany for coming up on two months now and a lot has happened. As it always does to me. Raise your hand if you're surprised. So in no particular order, here's a brief rundown of some of the trouble I've been getting into.

First off my German is, how you say?, terrible. I'm getting there now, but I'm still nowhere close to what you would call fluent. Of course, I mastered the basics prior to coming over here. The numbers and how much is this? clearly were at the top of my list. Shopping transcends even the toughest language barriers. Forget love, money is the universal language. And of course, I learned my pleases and thank-yous, hellos and good-byes and how to ask where the bathroom is. Armed with this knowledge, I felt prepared to dive into the German culture. And laugh if you must, but all this has gotten me through to this point just fine. Of course, I've added key phrases like "do you accept credit cards?" and "may I have a receipt?" so you can see how my vocabulary is growing at a rapid rate. If you would like to discuss, in German, historical bias with regards to WWII then forget it. But if you want someone to go shopping with, I'm your girl. Luckily, those around me figure this out in fairly short order. Hey, you've got to play to your strengths, right?

Fortunately for me, most everyone speaks at least a little English here and between their superior language skills and my middling ones, everything gets taken care of. Plus I have the advantage of being highly amusing to others, even when it's usually not intentional, so I get the pity vote going my way as well. I think the Germans think if they don't help me out I'll be lost wandering around for weeks without ever finding my way. Whatever works, huh?

Luckily, there's not as much here for me to go crazy shopping for. Well, not as much as Ireland anyways. But that was the Motherland and Germany is not, so there's not quite the same emotional connection. Don't get me wrong, I've found plenty to shop for. It's just that it's all a lot smaller and there's a lot less of it. I'm just not going to start stockpiling cuckoo clocks or steins anytime soon. 

I realize at this point that I haven't said much about the food. Well. Let me just tell you. After two months I'm weighing in at an impressive 800lbs and require a crane to get out of bed in the morning. The food is, shall we say, heavy? Yet delicious, so whatever. Far be it from me to turn down a local delicacy. This is all in the name of cultural immersion after all. One must be authentic when traveling. And I flat out refuse to eat fast food when abroad unless there is simply no other option. Or I have been somewhere for five to six months and just want something simple. But only once. This is usually all it takes since I pretty much immediately regret putting something like fast food into my body. Bleargh. But back to the local cuisine. Let's start with the schnitzel. My one true love. My goodness, this stuff is good. And while it's mostly pork, it can be made out of turkey or chicken or cow-in-a-box as well. I could honestly care less since it's all delightful. Some places serve it with a lovely thick gravy dotted with tiny button mushrooms but I prefer mine plain with just a bit of lemon. Let nothing come between me and my schnitzel. Luckily for me, I have the opportunity to eat this approximately three thousand times a week. So I'm not hurting for schnitzel in any way.

Let's move onto the next "S" food: spaëtzle. Small roundish bits of pasta smothered in gravy or, my personal fave, cheese. It's like German macaroni and cheese. With onions. And spices. Delish. And they're not skimpy with the portions, either. I have yet to be able to finish a serving of spaëtzle. I haven't given up, though! With God as my witness, one day I shall conquer Mt. Spaëtzle!

The one thing I always try hardest to finish (yet still usually fail) is the yumminess that is the streudel over here. S food #3.  Pardon me while I wipe the drool from my lips. Thin layers of pastry densely packed with apples and dusted with powdered sugar then drizzled (drowned, if it's me) in a thick creamy vanilla sauce. Äpfelstreudel is proof that there is a higher power at work in this universe. And like the spaëtzle, nearly impossible to finish. It's just too much. I make a valiant effort every chance I get, though!  I figure it's chock-a-block full of fruit so it must be healthy.

Speaking of desserts that are near-on impossible to finish, let's talk about spaghetti eis for a moment, shall we? So I have yet to see ice cream here—it all pretty much seems to be gelato, which is fine by me. I can totally stand to live in an all-gelato world. And as Italy is right next door, this is the good stuff. But anyways, back to the wonder that is spaghetti eis. So they cram a bunch of vanilla gelato into a spaghetti making machine and out it comes into your bowl looking for all the world like a bowl of pasta. Then comes the marinara (strawberry topping) and parmesan (shredded coconut, almonds or white chocolate) and you've got your spaghetti eis. It looks dead-on accurate and is quite delicious. Although since it's usually served in an actual dinner-sized portion I recommend splitting it if you ever are in the position to get some. I've also seen gelato that looks like a pizza, lasagna and, in one inspired location, a hamburger (complete with "grill" marks) and French fries. All gelato. Craziness. Fun to eat, though! And food does get bonus points if it's fun to eat. Much like the kaisersmarr'n which gets extra bonus points for being fun to say as well as to eat. Basically what it is is a thick sweet pancake that someone has shredded into a bazillion pieces then thrown in a pile on a plate. It's usually served with applesauce and, in at least one case, with a lovely plum compote. Leckar! (Yummy!)

Another fun dessert is the schneeballen. Yet another S dish! Number 5 for those of you keeping track at home.  I think it may have been a rule at some point in Germany that all food had to start with the letter S. Or maybe just one part of the meal. Regardless, most of the food I eat does seem to start with an S. Odd. But back to the schneeballen. These are in abundance in Rothenburg, one of my favorite towns. In English, they're called snowballs. The dough is made of eggs, cream and plum brandy(!) then small strips of it are gathered into the shape of, well, a snowball and flash-fried that way. Then they're rolled in powdered sugar (for the classic snowball look) or cinnamon and sugar or chocolate and then sometimes in crushed nuts as well. They're quite hard and I learned quickly that the trick to eating them is to crush them in their bag and then eat the smaller bits. Unless a mood seizes me and I feel like wearing half of the schneeball on my face, anyways. The thing that gets people is that they're not really very sweet (most German pastries aren't) and that's not something that many are used to. I think it's actually quite nice since I tend to get overwhelmed with sweet-tasting things pretty quickly. I don't tend to hit taste overload with the schneeballen, which is good since it means I can eat more of them.

As far as food craziness goes, can we talk about the German obsession with sausages? It's unhealthy. Brots for breakfast, brots for lunch, brots for dinner, brots for a snack. From my favorites, the tiny yet delicious Nürmberger sausages to the gigantic brots that took me a solid three weeks to stop giggling about every time I saw them (yes, it's a little immature but it takes a while to get desensitized to seeing everyone walking around with these giant phallic sausages), there are all different types of sausages all over the place. And while they're all completely yummy, I reached critical mass on the brots fairly quickly.

Let's move away now from the overabundance of S foods and onto beverages!  As far as drinks go, I've learned to be very suspicious when the tea tray comes out. They keep trying to give me cream for my tea! This sends me rapidly into an incoherent fit of rage. That's another thing I quickly learned to ask for in German. Black tea with MILK. None of that cream crap.  All my time in the current and former UK has drilled that firmly into my head.  And they keep trying to push lemon on me. No thanks, Herr Kraut, I'll stick with the tried-and-true. My companions have accused me of being too British but I'm okay with that. It's close enough. You go spend five months in Ireland and try to drink your tea any other way. One nice thing is that there is Rooibos in abundance here which sent me into squealing peals of delight. Rooibos is an absolutely lovely South African tea that is usually mixed with just a hint of vanilla oil. Leckar! Ah, tea does make me happy. What else makes me happy here is apfelshörle. Apple juice mixed with sparkling water. It's everywhere and I have it for nearly every meal. It's refreshing, not too sweet and goes down a treat on a hot day. I will admit to feeling a little misled by the Mexi-Cola, though. I thought this would be some exotic, Mexican-infused soft drink but no. It's Coke and Fanta mixed together. That's it! I feel terribly misled. It's still tasty though so I suppose I can't complain too much.  And soda starts with an "s" so we're still good on the running theme.

Know what else is delicious on a hot, cold or in-between day? BEER! Now, the stuff here is not Guinness, but it's still pretty damn good. And even if you don't like it, you will have come to terms with it by the time you're done with your mass. A mass of beer is what they call it when it's served in those giant mugs. If you picture a Frau carrying a dozen giant glasses in her hands, then you know what I'm talking about. As a side note, it's jaw-dropping to see these women with five or six mugs in each hand and then another five or six resting on top of those, making a second layer of giganto beer mugs. I can barely lift one full one for a chorus of "Im Prosim" much less a dozen per hand. Those girls must work out like crazy. But I digress. 

So there's a liter (yes, a LITER) of beer in one of those massive things. And I would definitely recommend being in a beer hall to try and tackle one. Just so you're surrounded by like-minded people in varying stages of inebriation. There's some great people-watching to be had there. I was lucky enough to have my first one in the most famous beer hall in the world, the Hofbraühaus. I had a mass of the Hofbraühaus' dark brew and, just for good measure, a pretzel that was twice the size of my head. And, to my credit, I made it about ¾ of the way through the huge thing. The beer that is. That pretzel never stood a chance. It was at that point that I realized I had arrived at a crossroads. I could finish the beer and subsequently have to be carried back to the hotel or perhaps just slide under the table for a little nap OR I could admit defeat for this one time and be ambulatory enough to navigate the Underground and be able to get back to my hotel on my own. I opted for choice number two and let my co-guide Goliath finish my last quarter of beer since he had long since drained his own. And please don't let the name be a reflection on his personality as he is actually very sweet, he just happens to be around twice my size. I come up to about his belt buckle. He is an extremely tall, bald Dutchman. With, I might add, a very low tolerance for alcohol. 

I was feeling pretty warm after all that beer but he seemed to have come up with a full-body flush and had turned a very pretty raspberry color as we weaved our way back to the Underground. It was a fun ride too, since everything was very amusing to him and he was in turn very amusing to me at that point. The tragic thing is that since he was tipsy and my internal compass has never exactly pointed due North, we got a little turned around after getting out at our stop but we found our way eventually. Luckily, I was able to spot one of the sex shops on the corner that I recognized (from walking past it multiple times, get your mind out of the gutter) and after walking past another half-dozen of those and about fifteen döner kebap sellers, we were there. Suffice to say, the hotel I am currently staying at is not quite as nice as the ones I'm usually in. There's a little tiny bed (poor Goliath barely fits in his and if he rolls, there's nowhere to go but down), the tiniest bathroom I've ever seen, two lamps with mysterious stains on their shades bolted to the walls, a flickering television set with a duct-taped remote, enough floor space for my suitcases but not for me to be able to walk around in and a full-length mirror that I can't back up enough to be able to use. And the entire population of Turkey downstairs, apparently. But hey! The internet is only 2 euro! When it works, that is. Which it does not currently feel inclined to do. Isn't life an adventure? Sigh. I think I need a weißbier. Which is a wheat beer and another German specialité de la maison. It's pretty cloudy, which concerned me at first, but you get over that pretty quickly as well. I can only describe the flavor as different, but not in a bad way. I just don't know what to compare it to—it's kind of its own thing. Milder, without the bite that many ales have, almost a hint of sweetness at the back of it. Very nice and refreshing. I need one right now. I'm pretty sure it's five o'clock in Tokyo so it's all good. I'll get one to wash down my döner with. Briefly, a döner is the most disgusting mystery meat sandwich you'll ever see. I love them. The shops that sell them have these huge rotating spears of meat of an indeterminate type, see? They hack off a few strips, throw in some lettuce and sauce, wrap it in a pita and you're good to go. They're deliciously disgusting and great for a quick meal. Like hot dogs, you just don't want to think too long on how they came to be or what animal parts they might have actually come from.

At least there's some fairly unusual food to keep me happy here. Turns out I can eat ox in Munich so that's definitely on my own personal menu of things to try while I'm here. I do enjoy eating unusual things while I'm out and about. Not just because they're different and interesting, which is enough by itself, but they have the added bonus of seriously grossing the parental units out. So that's always fun! I sometimes think I should go try and work for the Food Network but I just know that I'll end up on one of those shows where they find the most disgusting things possible and then try to pretend that simply everyone in Bangladesh eats fried snake tongue with curdled yak butter and washes it down with a warm frothy glass of cat milk. I call bull on that. And you know that's totally what I'd end up doing. Now I like the fun random stuff but ox and ostrich and wild boar and all that is one thing. Being told that what's on the menu for lunch today is poached ostrich testicles in a lovely balsamic vinaigrette because the royalty in Fiji used to eat that all the time is a bit outside the realm of what I want to do. But I'll definitely report back on how the ox is after I have it.

One last thing about food (I know, I know, fat chance) and the German language; Bier=beer, right? So even though I knew that, it was still extremely confusing to go to the breakfast buffet and see the word "beer" all over everything. It kind of threw me at first since I knew what I was looking at was most certainly NOT beer, but then it hit me — beer=berry. A-HA! It still throws me for a moment to see it listed on the breakfast menu but now that I know that an erdbeer is a strawberry, a himbeer is a raspberry, etc I'm much happier in the mornings. 

And now for a few more fun things about the German language! My favorite words are currently fünf and zwölf or five and twelve. I know, I know, it's a bit odd to have numbers as your favorite words but just run with me on this one, okay? Fünf is great because it can also be used as a sound effect! I imagine that most things, when they fall, make a fünf sort of sound. I have started creating my own sound effects to things and have made it my mission to rope as many children into this as possible. Luckily, they all think that's pretty hilarious so by the end of a trip they're usually throwing things just so they can make the "fünf" sound effect. As far as zwölf goes, I really think it sounds like a swear word and have begun using it as such. The kids really go in for this one too, as you can imagine. A swear word that you can use without getting into any trouble is worth its weight in gold when you're nine. Another fun one is platz. It means square as in a village square or market square. We end up using the word a lot as the squares are good places to base directions off: "You head straight down to the Marionplatz, take a left at the giant glockenspiel and the restaurant is about a hundred meters up on the left," etc. Platz just amuses me because it reminds me of the Hebrew "plotz" and that makes me giggle. It makes me want to plotz, if you will. It's things like this that make the Germans think that I'm "special" and gets me treated with a pitying indulgence, I'm sure. Don't care. I like my words.

Onto other things! The Germans do love a good party. Hey, who doesn't? But in the short time that I've been here there has already been a half-dozen major events. Most recently I had the privilege to be in Munich for its 850th birthday. Which. Was. Awesome. I'll hand it to the Bavarians—they know how to throw a party. It was held over the weekend and I went on Sunday. All the shops were closed, as they always are on Sundays (which still blows my mind, no matter how often I see it over here) but it didn't matter as there were carts and stands stretched as far as the eye could see. Tons of handmade wares, from small figures to richly colored scarves and shawls, jewelry carved out of trees, out of shells, out of metal, lederhosen and dirndls plus all their accessories, funny hats, giant stages with performers from Germany, Ireland, Poland singing and dancing, street performers performing inhuman acts of balance, amusing with sly jokes and tricks, frozen in time as living statues. And the food!  Blanketing the entire event was a heavenly cloud of mixed smells, guaranteed to instantly inspire a Pavlovian response in one and all!  Sweet candied nuts, thick chocolate drying on freshly dipped fruit, barley and hops, fat sizzling brots slathered in sweet mustard, steaming vegetables drizzled with oil in giant woks, rich melting butter, sharp lemon, käsespaëtzle dripping with spiced onions and oozing cheese, I could go on and on! Even if you had just eaten the biggest meal of your life you couldn't help but be hungry as you floated around on that warm tantalizing cloud of gastronomic goodness. I started out with a small tub of rich käsespaëtzle, savoring the hot flavors as they swirled in my mouth, trying not to drip any gooey cheese on myself. Next, warm cotton candy fluffed out bigger than my head. As I was finishing my spun sugar, I passed by a fresh fruit stand and for one euro had a bowl full of fresh, ripe blackberries which are my absolute favorite thing in the world. Each one perfectly sweet, exploding in my mouth while the hour chimed and the glockenspiel started up high above me. And the whole thing rounded out with a warm brezel (pretzel) and tankard of beer. Perfekt! You know, I think I could really grow to like it here! 

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