Manifesto of a Lapsed Vegetarian.

Sometimes I wonder about how my twelve-year-old self would view me as I am right now.  I think she would be surprised that I was practicing yoga for over ten years and now work as a teacher.  She’d also lift an eyebrow to the idea of people coming to me for food advice related to nutrition, growing, and cooking.

Growing up, both my parents worked.  While I do remember some meals prepared by my paternal Grandmother (Spaghetti and meatballs! Chicken cutlets!) and different babysitters when I was very, very young, most of my food memories involve takeout and things coming from a box.  Let’s look at breakfast first.  Often, I hear complaints about sugary cereals.  I typically didn’t consume breakfast, although I do remember three things: (1) The Saturday morning ritual of making Bisquick pancakes with my Dad, (2) Being forced to eat a blueberry muffin by a pissed off sitter while the school bus honked for me outside (and then proceeding to throw it all up in the entrance way of my kindergarten classroom, stranding half the class out in the hall; the sitter was even more pissed she had to pick me up sick from school), and (3) going through a phase of eating chocolate Teddy Grahams (blue box!) as cereal.  Yes, I actually ate cookies (not a cookie-equivalent cereal) as my breakfast!  Combine this with a steady diet of either Lunchables or whatever sloppy, gloppy entrée was offered in the school cafeteria and take-out dinners, and one can imagine how I had a messed up understanding of what food is.

Six years ago, I was sorting through some old boxes stacked in my parents’ basement.  In my elementary school relics was a contract I wrote with myself at age 10 in an effort to lose weight.  The parameters involved a series of extreme of food restrictions.  For the next decade, my problematic relationship with food was not only a misunderstanding of source, quality, and substance, but it also became an obvious focus point in the war I had against my body.

Turning to vegetarianism was key in saving me.  I absolutely credit it with the dramatic shift I made.  My sister went vegetarian first.  She was a college activist and many of her peers were vegetarian for ethical reasons.  I learned about factory farming.  I recognized and connected more deeply with my love of animals.  Eventually, at my own college, I learned more and I had wonderful, vegetarian-friendly food options by way of cafeteria choices and special events.  By 18, I took the plunge.  It wasn’t very hard because I wanted to do it.  But I did gain more weight.  A diet of full of processed food, heavy on carbohydrates and dairy will do that (grilled cheese, burritos, pasta, etc.).  So, I learned by trying new things, eating a greater variety of cuisines from around the world, and experimenting with cooking.

Quesadillas: now with less cheese and more beets!
Quesadillas: now with less cheese and more beets!

Visiting my college’s farm, I had an encounter that radically changed my ideas and ultimately the course of my life.  “People will spend $100 on a sweater, 50k on a car, a million on a house, but when they go to the grocery store and choose between a head of lettuce grown in South America with all sorts of unregulated chemicals for 95 cents and the organic lettuce from their neighborhood farm for $1.75, they go with South America.  Meanwhile, this is what goes in and becomes your body.”  I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons and my bodily experience made me more interested in the health and nutrition components, but from here it shifted into something larger: environmentalism, globalization, and scales of production.

After earning my bachelor’s degree, a couple of successful stints in 9 – 5 jobs, and a certificate in Health Counseling, I drove out to Northern California where I spent a year apprenticing on an organic farm.  Make no mistake, it was one of the most rewarding times of my life.  The experience of working all day in the fields under the sunshine, building up a hunger that would be fed with what I just created in relationship with the earth, it just all felt so complete and real.  I was part of a system, and I was happy and spiritually fulfilled in a very different way than I had ever been before.  This helped to support the idea that aided me in getting over my disordered relationship with eating: seeing food as natural, as fuel, and as joyful. Ultimately, while gardening and farming are so essential to who I am, I realized that I have skills and drive to work at a different layer of the system.  One of my favorite parts was the Saturday morning markets where I’d describe the process of growing and recommend recipes to our customers.  Since then, I worked in an urban gardening program with youth to support job skills, social justice, and nutrition education, become more interested in policy, and hope to work to legitimize gardening’s therapeutic value.

The farming years.  Spring 2008.
The farming years. Spring 2008.

Because of my first-hand experience, I’ll never forget that I am a part of a system that is much, much bigger than me.  Our little farm was a jewel.  We used the land well, planting rows of garlic and onions between the lettuces, seasonally rotating crops, and trying to reduce waste and excess at every turn.  But our electric perimeter fences kept the wildlife outside our limits, displacing them from what was once, undoubtedly, their home.  When we didn’t have enough rain (which includes nearly all of June, July, and August), we’d draw from the Trinity River that ran behind the property, impinging on the life within and on the banks.  In our efforts to avoid all chemicals, we used chicken shit to add nutrients to the soil and sprayed some plants with ground fish emulsion, meaning more animals raised (and killed) to support our human food systems.  And when I used my hands to till, prepare, cultivate, and reach deeply into the soil, I would watch frogs, snakes, and bugs scurry away, sometimes not making it out of my path.

When I studied nutrition in my certificate program, I became interested in eating meat.  The program I was in emphasizes bio-individuality, so while some people are perfectly healthy on a vegetarian diet, not everyone is.  And even if your body agrees, there is a lot of cooking and planning to ensure proper nutrition and absorption.  While investigating individual diets, my school suggested to look at what foods a person was attracted to as a child.  While most of my childhood was filled with crap, I remember the looks my sister would throw me when I ordered steaks at restaurants and ate ham and turkey on holidays (she wasn’t big on meat even then).  I made an effort to quiet the noise of my mind analyzing every issue from twelve or so perspectives, and instead simply to listen to the needs of my body and experiment.  Still, I couldn’t immediately bring myself to eat meat.  The thought of factory farms and animal torture disgusted me.  And as someone who practiced restrictive food behaviors, it was much easier to just stay away.  While farming I still ate no meat, although I increasingly thought about it as a “what if?”  One day on the farm, we had a party and an old farm partner came.  The current farmers were pescatarians (occasionally trading vegetables with the local tribe members for salmon), but this guy ate meat, so he and some friends had a few chickens that they slaughtered and cleaned.  I watched and it didn’t bother me, but I still didn’t eat it.

A few months later on the east end of Long Island, I got up the guts and tried some fresh fish.  Almost immediately, I felt different.  I grabbed my friend’s arm and told her, “I kind of feel high!”  Over the next year and a half, I purposefully and intentionally incorporated fish and seafood in my diet about one or two times per month.  Still, other types of meat attracted me and I wondered what their effect would be on my health.  With the support of V., I began to incorporate small amounts of meat in my diet in June of 2010, increasing each year to my current level.  I am stronger now in both body and mind.  And in these three years, no more than fifteen times have I personally prepared non-fish meat (and I cook at least 6 days a week), opting for it when with friends or particular restaurants.

My current garden plot of kale (two varieties) and chard.
My current garden plot of kale (two varieties) and chard.

This weekend, I sat and made my grocery list as I always do, taking stock of what is in my cabinets and also checking in with my body and my cravings.  I wrote chicken on my list, a rarity.  When I walked through the aisles of my local German grocery store though, I couldn’t do it.  I still get skeeved out by shrink-wrapped dead animals overflowing from their cool cases.  (I decided to make eggplant cutlets instead.)

It’s not meat that is my problem.  It’s the broken system.  It’s the disconnection between source and plate.  It’s the violation of animal rights and dignity.  It’s how large the system has grown to fulfill the need of folks who eat meat at literally every single meal.  And how corporations have grown so large and they have consolidated farms and slaughterhouses.  It’s how policy has been corrupted and food is unsafe and unfit to eat.

I am certainly not perfect in my eating.  I don’t know from where every single item on my plate comes.  But I try.  And most of all, I keep aware, both of what my body needs (so I can consciously choose and not live in extremes and restrictions) and of the facts of this great, complex system of which I am a part.  In order for me to live, regardless of being a vegetarian or not, things die.  And for that reason, everyday, I say a heartfelt thank you and work hard not to squander this very beautiful opportunity I have to walk this earth.

Walking the earth in Scotland, August 2013 (Thanks, V.)
Walking the earth in Scotland, August 2013 (Thanks, V.)
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Silvester Und Das Neue Jahr

New Year’s Eve is called Silvester in Germany. Everytime V. and I hear this, we laugh. He says it conjures images of Sylvester Stallone. I think of Looney Tunes.

We have developed a rather solid group of friends. If we have a free weekend, we typically know we can call any of these folks and have a pleasant time preparing a meal or sharing a drink. There are three pairs of partners. It is the first time either of us have primarily had couple friends.

Silvester presented another initiation: the first occasion where we awkwardly crafted social plans here in Germany. One couple initially planned to have a party, then canceled. Another couple invited us to their friend’s party about an hour away, but they could not invite everyone else too. At the same time they asked me, V. proposed hosting an event. Since we were already planning a different party for later in the week, I suggested holding off and taking up our out-of-town invitation. We worried about what to do and who and how to tell, not wanting to alienate any members of our new gang. It all turned out okay.

Really, I bring all of this up because it points to some level of integration. The intricate, delicate patterns between groups only really matter when one actually cares about the particular friends. I think this is a good sign.

This was not a regular party, but instead themed. Our friends described it as “Russians on the way to a discotheque. You know? They are always sort of over the top.” We didn’t really know, but I figured they meant what we affectionately call Eurotrash in the U.S. or a European club version of Jersey Shore. V., his hair geled into a lite faux hawk, donned white pants, a belt with splatters of neon paint, a black button down, my tight purple V-Neck, a few chain necklaces, and sunglasses. My hair pulled tight and high in a sleek ponytail and eyes made up even darker than typical, I wore a gunmetal, shimmery A-symmetrical shirt, a ridiculously short skirt, lots of sparkly bracelets, and knee high boots. I was excited to go all out; costuming was certainly overdue since we didn’t celebrate Halloween this year.

At six o’clock, T. rang our doorbell. We opened it, showed off the outfits we crafted, and received laughter approval of our theme interpretation. I jumped into the backseat with T’s wife and their friend from out of town. We drank beers (legally!) as we made the hour-long ride to Biberach. When we arrived, we realized our hosts lived in the center of the Marktplatz, a place similar in style to Aalen, but more open. We made our way excitedly up the stairs and greeted our enthusiastic, entertaingly-dressed hosts. Soon, we were lost in conversation. The footholds of this gathering were a group of women who were friends from college and their boyfriends. It was great to be with a pack of girls, laughing as they shared their stories and photo albums with me, but it made me miss my own tribe for sure.

Boots and heels on wooden steps.

I have written it before, but it bears repeating: the Germans can eat. Fuck. People always say Americans are fat because we eat so much, but the Germans eat more than most people I know at home. The party table overflowed with various small plates: walnut dip, roasted potatoes, grilled vegetables, bread, and even caviar and schnitzel. Various cocktails were offered – vodka punch, mojitos, gin and tonics — and we sipped them up between dance songs and a viewing of Dinner For One.

Honestly, this was half the spread.

At 11:50 pm, the fifteen or so party attendees began their migration to the city streets. It seemed that every gathering on the block did the same thing, and people spilled out from every door. In Germany, fireworks are only available for common purchase during the week between Christmas and Silvester. It is only legal to detonate the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. As one might imagine, this creates a moment of collective insanity. As soon as we were on the sidewalk, tiny rockets were whizzing by our feet. People from our group were placing lit sparklers into my hands and throwing whirling neon firecrackers into the road. When I looked up in the sky, trails of ascending light came from all directions, exploding in every size and color. I pressed record on my camera and panned across the scene (click here to check it out). It was fun an exciting, but even the presence of the police did not ease my fears; it did feel a bit like a warzone.

At midnight, V. kissed me hard. We had mentioned this tradition to our friends earlier, but they don’t seem to follow it in Germany (at least not en masse). V.’s taller than me and as I looked up at him, I could see the smoky air and bright bursts of light in the night sky behind him. He made a promise about the New Year. It was really lovely and made me full of so much appreciation for him and our past year together. I’m truly excited for the future.

When the fireworks began to die down about a quarter past twelve, we stormed across the street to another apartment. Our new friend’s knew the people who resided there and had been waving to them from their own windows earlier in the evening. The living room transformed into full-on dance party of around twenty-five people, the two parties mixing and the enthusiasm overflowing.

Looking from one apartment toward the other.

After an hour or two (who knows), all of us stumbled back across the street.

The next morning was so lazy and glorious. All of that leftover food (plus a frittata) made its way out to a group of us parked on the big living room couches. The group spoke in German and I was amazed at how much I really do know. I don’t realize it sometimes because I do not have the opportunity to be around native speakers often for long periods of time (and when I am, they usually excitedly use their English). V. goes to work everyday and can practice, but I am typically practicing with fellow student who are at or below my level.

At home, V. and I parked on the couch for the afternoon and evening. At around 6 pm, I got a Skype call. When I clicked to answer, I was greeted by nearly all of my girlfriends, together in Montauk, just having their own lazy brunch meal after a New Year’s Eve of drinking and dancing. I love those women.

The Crazy Americans Host Their First Party

One of the things that brought V and I together is our love of others. Accustomed to dating introverts, both of us express the joy we have had in finding romantic partners that are socially compatible. While we both have strong independent sides, we find it rewarding to host a successful gathering, and we define success through fun and laughter. Furniture delivered on Thursday, we decided to give it our first go here in Deutschland on Saturday.

Ever since we began accepting invitations to people’s homes, I have been nervous about hosting a dinner party here. I love to cook, and when I farmed in California I frequently prepared the staff lunches, sometimes doing this solo for as many as fifteen people. However, the German appetite is impressive in its size and it begs for meat. A newspaper quote that V’s co-worker shared with him during one of their impromptu Deutsch lessons perfectly highlights this: I would rather have lice in my cabbage than a meal with no meat. I have recently started eating meat on occasion, but I have very rarely prepared it; I certainly do not want to prepare meat for guests, as my vegetarian recipe repertoire is tested and strong. Anxiously, I went ahead and planned a moderately difficult, but hearty vegetarian menu: a roasted vegetable pasta bake (with homemade marina), garlic bread, sweet and spicy carrots, and sesame string beans.

Having no car means that I frequently grocery shop. I am used to this, preferring to walk even when I owned a car. Additionally, living healthfully as a vegetarian means frequent fresh produce pick-ups. Still, when having a party, a car is nice to carry all the requisite items. We did not definitively decide on the dinner until Friday, so our shopping needed to be done in one giant trip on Saturday morning. V suggested we ask the grocery store if we could borrow a cart and bring it back. He also accused me of being scared when I rejected this, reasoning that the shopping carts required coin deposits expressly so that people would not remove them from the store (granted, I do often try to think of alternative solutions to ones that would include long, strange communications in German). Fortunately, I thought of an idea we both liked: we could bring our suitcases to the grocery store.

Before moving to Germany, I wondered how long it would take before we were known as “The Crazy Americans.” We both decided that we would like to assimilate well-enough, but there are also particular, externally noticeable things I refused to give up, like wearing sneakers (I walk everywhere and am prone to shin splints) and my DITC hat (my hair goes under it whenever it’s dirty, which is often since I don’t like to shower). I don’t think either of us wants to be less outgoing either, a trait that clearly marks our American-ness. Now that we have discovered the ease of carrying groceries in suitcases, I suspect that it is not long until that title actually surfaces. Honestly, I don’t know how people in my hilltop neighborhood bring their goods home, as not everyone has vehicles and so many grocery items here are packaged in heavy glass.

“The Crazy Americans are trudging up the hill with their suitcases again. Don’t they know about the grocery delivery service?”

Our transport scheme freed us to buy everything we wanted, and as we loaded up on beverages we learned that our guest list confirmations were increasing from two couples to three…. plus a Lebanese friend… plus a Chilean (Spanish-only speaking) mother. Did I already write how well composed German dinner parties and homes are? Nearly every space that we have visited appears as though it is out of some modern furniture and interior design magazine. I never experienced this kind of intimidation in the USA despite being considerably wacky in my lifestyle choices (by the masses’ standards, at least). Yet, here there are things that provoke worry, as I do not know the full social implication. There is no way I will ever have ten chairs to put at my dinner table; will I demonstrate a great cultural discourtesy by asking my guest to eat while sitting on a drum stool?

Relax.

When the dinner finally did go down, it was great. We received kind gifts from all the German couples: a traditional basket of bread and salt, rosemary and thyme plants especially for me (I had mentioned my affinity for herb gardening), and a beautiful Ginseng Ficus. The guy who provided the Ficus said in his low, lingering voice, “Oh, yeah… we fihgured you needed something green ooor something like that.” “That’s all?” I questioned, “You were supposed to tell me the story of the Japanese man who moved to Germany. He brought a special Ficus plant with him. When a German man moved next store, the Japanese man prepared a cutting for him and gave it as a welcoming gift. Now, everyone in Germany gives these as housewarming gifts because that German man lived to be 100 years old.” “You mean 110,” he added and laughed, “Oh… oh… you kiiiihhll me,” he said in that same deep voice, a statement he often makes to V as well. The conversation throughout the meal was playful. We shared a toast with our guests, thanking them for being our first visitors and for the times they had already invited us into their homes. The food was enjoyed and complimented, and second helpings were had.

After the meal, we pulled out the big gun: Rock Band. When V professed his love of this game early in our relationship, I wondered if I could actually continue dating him. I had never played it, but I doubted its worth. I was sorely mistaken: This may be one of the best party games ever. Essentially, people team up as a band to perform songs by pushing buttons on instruments and singing into a microphone that are synched to a videogame system. It’s karaoke multiplied by a thousand. Awesomely, V has a projector, so we play it big screen too. When I pretentiously thought I was above this game, how I wish I could have fast-forwarded in my mind to sitting in Germany, in a dimly lit living room, playing I Want to Break Free with people from various countries, a Lebanese guy performing the part of Freddy Mercury. Even the Chilean momma laughed and loved that rendition.

Some people departed, but six of us remained to eat the delicious tiramisu prepared by one of our guests, S. A gentle, smiling, vegetarian woman, S attracted me upon first encounter. She does not live in Aalen, but will soon when she finishes her PhD in a few months. She even prepared some tiramisu for me without coffee as I mentioned that I do not like it much. I never was able to fully enjoy this dessert because when it was placed in front of me as a child I was always simply enduring the coffee taste and now I just do not choose it when offered final course selections. It’s delicious. After this, V and I taught the late-stayers the card game Asshole, which they picked up fast, including the whole bit about bossing around those lower than you in the pecking order. Then, of course, we could not help but to get in another few rounds of Rock Band before calling it quits around 2 AM.

While we may look silly in our sneakers dragging grocery-filled suitcases up a hill, no one would say The Crazy Americans don’t know how to throw a party.

Four Foreigners and a Barbecue.

Last Saturday, V’s coworker, A, invited us to a barbecue at her home. Her husband, S, lives in The Netherlands and they take turns every two weekends visiting one another. He would be around and the weather was lovely, so the plan was made.

The gathering was just the four of us, four non-Germans (A and S are originally from the Ukraine) in a German backyard for a barbecue of typical German fare. S set up a tiny, charcoal unit. As he put it together, it resembled a child’s Playskool toy. I imagined one swift flick of his wrist sending the grill soaring to the other side of the yard. “Where we are from, we always used wood to cook the meat,” he told us in his thick Russian accent, adding, “At least they have really good meat here.” V later admitted his initial intimidation by our burly host, but I found the accent charming and familiar, having been privy to Slavic culture often enough. A’s accent is not as strong, but her look is classically Eastern European. In character, she is slightly eccentric and very refreshing, saying off the cuff remarks and employing wildly animated gestures. V captured a great photo of the couple: A impulsively jumped on S’s back, one arm around him, the other towards the sky, while S swigs from a bottle of beer. The picture could easily be a figure skating pair performing the gold medal-winning move in the stereotype Olympics. A has a rambling manner of forming her silly musings, and she frequently checks with S in quick Russian for English words she cannot recall. “She actually used to be good at English, but now she’s forgotten it since she’s learned German,” S says. V and I can only hope our German will be as good as her English.

We feasted on various types of meat, a few slices of buttered bread, and some potatoes. S enjoyed shaking a bottle of German beer and using his thumb to direct the alcoholic explosion over the food and flames. I prepared a salad of mixed greens with feta, onion, strawberries, almonds, and a balsamic reduction. Our hosts said they never had strawberries in a salad before, but I think they liked it. I anticipate hosting many dinner gatherings in the coming months, and I am curious for the reactions towards our typical meals.

We inquired about the couple’s experiences in Germany, excited to get a real immigrant perspective on the land we have only known for a month. They shared a story of going back to a pet store after a rabbit they had purchased from it a few days earlier died. S imitated the pet shop employee: “Vhere is zee body?” After they informed him that they buried the animal and were not looking for a refund, the cashier added, “You haaf to weturn an item dat ez bad, you bring et beck! Vee vant to know vhat is vrong vit zee wabbit!” They recounted a drunken experience near Berlin that included running across the Autobahn in the middle of the night. “There was blood on your legs too,” A laughed, never indicating from where the blood came. There were more stories, but I’ll just leave you with the fact that I advised V to never going hiking or drinking with S if he wanted to remain alive and intact.

As it grew darker, the stories decreased until we were quiet on the grass. Those moments when you can just be with people without worrying about the silence are great ones that often indicate emerging friendships. We remembered that a meteor shower happened recently and we wondered if we could see any residual shooting stars. While the sky was not very dark, I realized that I had yet to really look at it here in Aalen. Our hotel is in the center of the town where the brightness really prohibits gazing. In this yard, we could detect some constellations and stars, and indeed a few made their way across the sky as we watched. It will never stop being neat that we live on a planet, all the northern land of which shares this same “sky” (view of outer space, is really what it is.) As we walked home, V remembered our night drive through the Colorado mountains when the stars were in front of us. He never would have thought he would live in Colorado, and now he lives in Germany. I have experienced that feeling a number of times, that feeling that happens when I reflect on my circumstances and realize that I never imagined I’d wind up quite exactly where I am. How cool is that? And what does it mean for where we will wind up in the future?

A Modest Account.

V’s birthday was on Friday, so we decided to take a hike up to Aalbäumle, a hilltop tower that overlooks the whole city of Aalen. While the Germans seem to be good at everything, I think they are quite poor when it comes to hiking trail signage. Perhaps the expectation for marked routes is purely American. Perhaps instead Germans have memorized the routes before setting off on a walk in the woods or that maps and markers are unnecessary given their special skills. However, this would not explain the misdirection provided by fellow path walkers that increased the trailhead to destination duration of about twenty minutes to ninety.

A tower-top picture by V.

We eventually made it to the tower, and did so without killing or injuring each other (thus escaping the fate of many significant others when lost together and debating potential route rightness). We ate our packed lunch while trying to read the Deutsch graffiti and feeling the tower tremors as each fellow visitor ascended and descended the narrow stairway. The view was quite spectacular, even given that it was a cloudy day. I thought back to December when I drove to a scenic viewpoint in Boulder, Colorado, gazing down at the city and plains beyond it and wondering if that would be my home come May. I prefer this view: rolling green hilled farmland next to towns of red roofed buildings next to farmland and repeated again. Boulder captivated me with the lifestyle I believe I could have easily lived there, but Aalen is beautiful and challenging.

The path trailhead is at the Limes-Thermen, a mineral bath destination that appears to play an important part in the city’s tourism. We paid our fee, changed in the unisex locker room (changing stalls are provided), and endured the stares of many as we entered the first pool. We are still not sure if the looks were due to our obvious awkwardness, because of V’s skin color or hairy chest, because we spoke English, or just because there is little else for most people to do when soaking in warm mineral water aside from gawking. We tried the various pools, inside and out, small and large.

Then, it was time for the sauna.

A kind worker directed us to the sauna area. “Zoot,” she motioned near her crotch, “Ooff!” she pushed her hands away from her body, indicating bathing suit removal was expected beyond the turnstile.

I once visited a spa in Queens with some friends from yoga class. There, the clothing optional areas were single-gendered. I remember the many women and girls (primarily of Korean descent) brushing one another’s hair in front of rows of mirror, scrubbing their own feet, and jumping in small pools. I’ve gone skinny dipping a few times, including with a group of boys in the midnight ocean waves in Long Beach Island. I shared open showers and topless tribal dances with women in the woods of a Michigan festival. I do not consider myself prudish and I do not think nudity must only be reserved for sexual encounters. I know stories of the German saunas.

Yet, I still felt very modest! I think this is because for every one female in the sauna area, there were ten men. And also because it was daylight, and the areas between saunas are bright; people walked naked between various rooms and laid on lounge chairs, their bodies on overt display. Being that it was Friday, the facility was not particularly crowded either, but the shyness of exposing my relatively young, female body in front of all these older men was strong. So, I didn’t. I went between and into saunas with my towel wrapped around me, as did V who had not attended a sauna or experienced communal nudity before. The damp sauna was amazing, with a series of lights on the ceiling that faded in and out and added to the trance-inducing experience. There was a fellow there, bear-like and determined, who stood and scrubbed his whole body down with salt that was provided near the entrance, making me feel as though I was at a watering hole where animals soak and clean. I made a mental note to determine if there are women-only hours at this particular facility and to use the exfoliating salt myself next time.

Salad, potato with yogurt, and African-spiced steak.

We had dinner at a lovely restaurant in the pedestrian area of town. We were waited on by a young woman whose English was Irish-accented (having been born there and moving to Germany at twelve years old), and who gently corrected our German as per our request. The prices are quite reasonable, especially given the quality and portions. When we were full and pleased, we wandered to our new, favorite little bar to play darts, practice German, and share beers with friends from the hotel and the locals. I am not sure if it is this town or if it is us, but the rumors are proving false: Germans are not wholly unfriendly with new people, as they have been welcoming and warm in the vast majority of our interactions. Perhaps they are even a little too friendly at the bar. By the end of the night, I was requesting water and nearly falling asleep on the table, having consumed a drink or two too many provided by our generous new friends.

Two Scenes to Music.

Last Wednesday, V’s boss invited us to a party for his department members and their families. It was held at a Naturfreundehaus, which I believe are restaurants located near hiking trails where people may stop for meals during their walks. While the party was to be outside, we were in the middle of a week of rainy days so inside we went. Upon entering, we were met with a sea of grey hair and the crashing waves of rowdy accordion music.

“I svear, thees is not typikal en Germany,” the boss’s girlfriend, T, informs us.

Not typical? I wonder. To me the scene looked straight out of a stereotypical comedy. Tables of senior citizens, sitting on benches, slurping up spätzle noodles and steins of beer, all while the American immigrants attempt to interpret the words of their heavily accented German hosts over the wacky music.

We engage in lots of conversations. T recommends the watching of American television shows in German to practice our listening (and she kindly and unexpectedly dropped off three seasons of Friends at our hotel the next day). We learn that Schwäbisch, the dialect spoken in our region of Southern Germany, is so different than Hochdeutsch (standard or high German), that people from other parts of Germany cannot understand some Swabian people, particularly the older folks. I think of places I’ve visited in the deep south of the United States and the difficulties of understanding twangy denizens. I wonder if there are icons of Schwäbisch people, the way cowboy hats draw boundary lines between east and west and grits between north and south at home.

When asked, we talk to V’s future co-workers about our impressions of the German people. “We think you’re efficient. From all the festivals and traveling, it seems like you really live. But we think that when you work, you work very hard.”

“Yaa, dats et. Vee vork vede haad…” V’s new department head says with a sly smile, swigging another sip of lager before slamming the mug down and laughing heartily.

– – – – –

On Sunday, there was kaffee und kuchen!

We have been most fortunately linked with a relocation specialist that suits us perfectly. E, a middle-aged mother of five, graciously invited us to a traditional festival in her hometown. She told us not to expect too much, just a small brass band and some local food. Always up for new opportunities and infrequently riddled by boredom (there is always something to learn or see), we accepted.

When we walked from E’s car to the tiny festival grounds, we heard something strangely familiar. What’s that song twenty or so musicians are belting out? Oh… Meatloaf’s I Would Do Anything For Love. Yes, that is exactly what we would expect at an archetypal folk fest. We were hysterical and I had to contain my urges to belt out the chorus.

We drank Radlers (beer and lemonade), shared schnitzel, potato salad, and pommes frites, and spent time speaking with E’s family. We learned the proper names of the items around us: biertisch (beer table), bierbank (beer bench), and bierzelt (beer tent). V attempted to speak to E’s mother-in-law, an older woman in a bright pink blazer and colorful scarf who spoke no English, only Swäbisch. A resident came and remarked that E always brings the international element, apparently having brought a different client to a previous town event. (It’s quite strange to sit with the realization that we are the international contingent now.) We listened to the multi-generational band alternate between classical songs and Que Sera, Sera and One Moment In Time.

Then, it was time to select cake.

Oh. My. God.


I am not sure how many people attended this festival, but it is very unlikely that there were over 150 people. The amount of cake could feed double that, easily. We learned that nearly every woman in town brings a cake to be shared. Our hosts encouraged us to select two slices each. V and I are constantly amazed at the portion size many people eat here, especially since we have heard for years that US portions are so large.

We took the cake to go, and after a brief walk around a small castle (that belonged to a recently deceased baron), we had our first Sunday Kaffee. Well, I drank tea, but I believe that still counts as participation. We spent a couple hours leisurely eating our pieces of cake (we cut the slices up so we could all try different types) and discussing German politics and education with E and two of her daughters.

On the drive back to the hotel, I looked at the farmland and the green, rolling hills behind them.

This is not a vacation.

I live here.

Cake O’Clock = First Asian Take-Out

On the recommendation of my globetrotting aunt, I picked up the book Culture Shock: Germany. I read the majority of it leaning against a tree in Central Park two weeks ago, enjoying my last foreseeable Manhattan day trip. In the food chapter, I learned about Der Kaffee, a meal between lunch and dinner during which cake and coffee is served. Amusingly, the book details that it is considered bad form to invite guests over and limit them to only one choice of cake. What it did not detail is that if you find yourself hungry during Der Kaffee hour on a Sunday, you may be out of luck for finding alternative consumables.

While V and I have been awake during “normal” hours since our arrival, we have both felt rather exhausted. So, we allowed ourselves to sleep in very late today. By the time we were both ready to eat, it was already 2 pm. I have been cooking, but we are running low on groceries and we wanted to save our leftovers for tonight’s dinner. We headed out into what will be the first of many rainy days here in Germany. Most of the shops were closed, except the restaurants, all of which were serving extremely large, rich pieces of cake for Der Kaffee. If we consumed these, we knew we would be back to sleep in no time.

We continued our search for food until we found Asia World, an establishment specializing in Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese food. We ordered two vegetarian dishes and watched the owners prepare it. They even asked if we wanted the food to go, which was appreciated since at the majority of restaurants it is very unusual to carry out. We also indulged ourselves by buying one of the oversized juice boxes that we have been seeing frequently.

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The food was quite good! While it was not nearly as spicy as either of us like, it was certainly more seasoned than most of the other prepared food we have purchased. Fortunately, we stumbled upon an Indian Market on our first day and already purchased a bottle of Sriracha, so that complimented the dishes nicely. Plus, it was great to eat a meal that was almost wholly vegetables. The juice was very much like apple juice, except peach flavored.

Maybe we’ll partake in Der Kaffee next week. We have plenty of time, after all.