Friday, March 29, 2013

Stille Feiertage / Quiet Holidays

Today is Karfreitag - Good Friday. Like All Saints' Day, this day is a sacred holiday here in Baden-Württemberg.  Nothing is open - no stores, car dealerships, libraries, movie theaters or banks - except the churches, a handful of gas stations on the Autobahn, and some restaurants. The laws governing our actions today are even more strict than the general "Sonntagsruhe," which I wrote about a few months ago. We are to be quiet and respectful, not do yard work, use loud hand tools or play loud music, honk horns, or throw a loud party. Actually, we must not throw any party. And surely no dancing. Although some holidays are not observed in certain Bundesländer (states), Karfreitag is observed in all 16. The entire country is shut down for mourning and remembrance.

I learned this morning that there is a Tanzverbot (ban on dancing) on Karfreitag. It's an actual law that forbids dancing. Although the Verbot (ban) seems only to apply by law to Karfreitag, there is, for instance in the town of Münster, a general rule that dancing is not done between Gründonnerstag  (Maundy/Holy Thursday) at 6:00 p.m. and Easter Saturday at 6:00 a.m.. Any dance club that is open on Holy Thursday evening must place chairs and tables on the dance floor so that no one is tempted to move their bodies to the rhythm of the quiet music - or face a fine of at least €500.

Nothing about today should look like a celebration, and for Christians that does make sense, of course. It would be unseemly to laugh and dance on the day we are supposed to remember Christ's crucifixion. On this Lord's Day, people should not be engaging in any worldly pleasures.

In many cities there is also a ban on moving furniture on Karfreitag. That is, one may move a sofa from one location to another inside of one's home (quietly), but no relocating from one house/apartment to another. Carrying pieces of furniture in the open and in public is simply not ok. And while fitness clubs might be open on Thursday afternoon and evening and individuals can work out, the music, if playing at all, must be soft and quiet.

There are, of course, some who don't agree with these rules and laws. In Münster last year the political party die Piraten (the pirates) protested strongly against the Tanzverbot, calling such laws "no longer appropriate" in the sense of "not in keeping with the times," but they lost.

It still strikes me as interesting, in this country where the people are not overly (openly) religious, that Christian holidays and Sundays are observed so strictly. This observance may be more of a cultural or even peer pressure thing by now than religious. Germans tend to respect rules, and no one wants to create trouble in the neighborhood - especially in a small town like ours. People who never attend church still observe the "no yard work" rule. If someone needs to vacuum today, at least he keeps his windows closed.

Compared to the way things are here, I'd have to say that Good Friday is barely even observed in the U.S. (at least in Wisconsin). It's true that most schools are off and churches have services, but I think that's it. Kohl's still has a sale, I'm sure, grocery stores are open for people getting ready for the family gathering on Sunday, most people are at work, those lucky few who are off today can get some spring yard work done, and kids of all ages are whooping it up to celebrate their Friday off from school. After all, it is Good Friday, isn't it??

Quite honestly, I think it's wonderful to have these quiet days during which shopping at sales is simply not an option and everyone is generally quiet. Employees should have this time to spend with family, or at least not at work. The most we could do today if we wanted to get out is take a walk around town or through the valley (without laughter or loud talking, of course). We could go for a drive through the Black Forest, but if we got low on gas we'd be in a world of trouble.

So I think today we'll just relax, listen to quiet music, read, watch a sad movie, take that walk, and prepare dinner quietly. We'll have to let the rest of you enjoy your worldly pleasures and laughter this day.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Only in the last year or two have I learned to enjoy cooking. In the past was rarely willing to experiment or take a risk, so I always ended up making the same old recipes, following them exactly as written. A little more than a year ago, my best friend and I started cooking together and trying new recipes from magazines or Pinterest. I learned how easy it is to roast a whole chicken in the oven or the slow cooker, and we got good at stretching leftovers into new meals.

I would have thought that my favorite recipes from "back home" would be easy to make here in Germany, but I found that not to be the case. Things taste different here. It seems there is less sugar and less fat in most foods. Someone recently told me that the difference starts with the water, which is such a basic ingredient that of course everything has a different taste. I tried to bake chocolate chip cookies shortly after I arrived but failed badly. The chocolate chips I found came in tiny packages and were not at all right.

What is considered a staple in the U.S. is not neccesarily available here. I have a cookbook from Campbells in which almost every recipe calls for a condensed soup. Normal soup here is not condensed. I imagine I could work around that by not adding additional liquid, but I haven't experimented yet. I can't find cilantro or Monterey Jack cheese, peanut butter is rare and overpriced, and there is no cooking spray. Forget about flavored coffee creamer (Germans prefer their coffee to taste like coffee), string cheese, and bagels.  Beef is rather expensive, and I still haven't figured out what to ask for when I want a certain cut of beef that was readily available in the pre-packed meat section at Pick-n-Save, such as top round steak, chuck roast, or sirloin.

Breadcrumbs are much finer here, the butter is unsalted, sour cream comes in containers smaller than yogurt cups, there's only one kind of cheddar cheese (and that's found in the special gourmet cheese section), and as I've written before, the chickens are tiny.

On the flip side, in Germany there are many different kinds of mushrooms (and Germans have entire magazines and cookbooks devoted to Pfifferlinge (chanterelles), one can buy large containers of Butterschmalz (ghee, or clarified butter), shallots and chives cost a fraction of what they do in Wisconsin, bread and rolls are crusty on the outside and deliciously moist on the inside, there are more sorts of sausages than I ever thought existed, and Schwarzwälder Schinken (which is more like Prosciutto than what is called "Blackforest ham" in Wisconsin) is always available, not expensive, and delicious on sandwiches.

While I was at my parents' in Wisconsin earlier this month, my mom and I made a casserole I discovered here. It turned out just fine, but I had run into a problem in the produce section when we went shopping. The recipe calls for "festkochende Kartoffeln," which apparently means "waxy potatoes." I never was very familiar with potato sorts (what's the difference between Russet and Yukon Gold beyond the color??),  but here I know that if I'm making baked potatoes I need "festkochende" and if I'm making mashed potatoes I need "mehlig kochende." At Pick-n-Save the same bag of potatoes says they're great for baked or mashed potatoes.  Huh??

That's probably something like tires: in Germany drivers have winter tires and summer tires, but in Wisconsin we just use all-season tires. In Germany we have potatoes for baking and potatoes for mashing. In Wisconsin we just use all-purpose potatoes.  And they worked just fine in that casserole.

Although I miss my Carnation chocolate malt powder - which I used to get a glass of milk down - German bread more than makes up for its absence in my life.  While I had to give up string cheese as a usual snack, the yogurt here is creamier and less sweet than American yogurt. And despite my issues with cuts of beef, I'm getting good with pork. Schweinehals ("pig neck" - though I think we'd call it "pork shoulder blade roast" in the U.S.) makes a delicious roast, and I only have to ask for five Schweineschnitzel ("pork cutlets") for the butcher to know exactly what I want to make what Americans would call Wiener Schnitzel.

So I am learning to appreciate the foods available wherever I am, rather than lamenting the absence of something I can't get. Except for chocolate chips. My parents brought me a 72-ounce bag of chocolate chips at Christmastime, because there's just no substitute for home-baked Nestle Tollhouse cookies!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Natural Exercise

Recently I traveled back to Wisconsin somewhat unexpectedly. The first thing that greeted me as I passed through the doors of Terminal 5 at O'Hare was the greasy stench of McDonald's.  Yep, after almost 6 months of being away, how fitting that the odor of McDonald's hits me in the face before I get out into the fresh air.  Ok, the air at the airport isn't all that fresh, but still.

I was in Wisconsin for two weeks and had a lovely time with family and friends, despite the circumstances of my visit - my grandfather's funeral.  During those two weeks we had one huge blizzard that all but buried my daughter's car in my parents' driveway - I think the final count was 17 inches (43 cm) - and one snow storm that missed us in Sheboygan but led to multiple flights being cancelled in Chicago on the day I was supposed to leave. Shortly after I returned to Germany, winter returned to the northern region, and Hamburg reported 16 cm of snow causing all kinds of problems for drivers. 16 cm is a little over 6 inches.  Living in Wisconsin for the first 44 years of my life is why I do not complain about the weather in Germany.

As always, I spend time in both countries pondering interesting differences between life here and life there. One of these differences is what I'd call "natural exercise".  Sadly for my own health, I have never been a fan of exercise, even though I know how important it is. I enjoy walks that have a purpose and a destination, and I even liked basement treadmill workouts as long as I could watch the news, Jeopardy, or a movie while doing it. Swimming was enjoyable for a while, but that required a membership to the YMCA which I didn't take enough advantage of to warrant the expense.

What I have here in Germany, though, is lots of natural exercise.  It doesn't require an expensive gym membership, I don't have to drive somewhere to get it, and I don't have to change clothes. What I mean mainly by "natural exercise" is walking, climbing stairs, and biking to get where I need to go. Parking is such a hassle here that searching for a spot close to where I'm shopping or a spot on the street is an utter waste of time. When I go down into Horb, I park in the lot at the Bahnhof (train station) and walk over the bridge spanning the Neckar into town. If I need to go to the Ausländeramt (foreigners' office) or town hall, that involves a walk up a steep hill via stairs or a sloping road. It's possible to drive up there, but the narrow road twists and turns around an unforgiving stone building, and I wouldn't want to meet an oncoming car there. Besides, once up there, it's unlikely that I would find an available parking spot.  It's much easier to make the 15-minute walk up from the Bahnhof.

I walk to the bus stop. We walk to our favorite restaurant because we can then both enjoy a glass or two of wine as well as the walk home in the fresh air. I walk to the mailbox. (Mailboxes are still common over here, since we cannot leave our letters in our home mailboxes with the flag up for the postman to take them, as one can do in the States.)

Our butcher is about 7 blocks away, and it would be ridiculous to take the car. If it's raining and I need meat, I use an umbrella. If it's snowing, I wear boots.  The grocery store is 2 km (1.25 miles) from our house, and if I only need a few items, I walk there. I get fresh air, a little up and down hill action, and time alone with my thoughts or the song stuck in my head.  In Wisconsin the grocery store I used was 1 mile from my house, but I rarely walked there even if I only needed a few items.  Granted, I have more time now than I did when I lived in Wisconsin, but that's not even much of an excuse since I was a teacher and had 2 1/2 months off during the summer.  And what about weekends and holidays? I could have walked then, but I didn't.

Many restaurants in the States are separate buildings with their own designated parking lots. It often doesn't work to park a few blocks away and walk to the restaurant, even though the walk after the meal in the fresh air would do lots of us some good.

When we go to Esslingen by car, we park in a Parkhaus (parking garage) and do everything we need to do downtown on foot. That might require walking back to the car to get rid of some shopping bags before having lunch, but at the most that's an additional 20 minutes of walking. There are all kinds of shops in downtown Esslingen, and everything I can imagine needing to shop for can be found there.  In Wisconsin when I went on errands, I might have needed to go to Kohl's, Target, the grocery store, and Menards. It's not practical to go to all those places on foot because they are miles and miles apart and located on busy roads, some without sidewalks or crosswalks. I've had to explain this to German students going over to Sheboygan for an exchange experience - if they tell their host parents they want to go shopping, the parents are going to ask what they want to go shopping for. Depending on what they want (clothes, candy, souvenirs), the parents are going to have to drive them to various stores rather than just dropping them off downtown for a few hours.

In mid-size cities in Wisconsin, there is little need to walk any significant distance. Every store, restaurant, clinic, bar, and business has its own parking lot, with additional parking along the street. Shopping malls and hospitals are surrounded on all sides with thousands of parking spaces. You can always find a parking spot, even if it means a bit of a walk to the building's entrance.

Last week Martin and I went to see an eye doctor in a town about 20 minutes away by car. He parked in a Parkhaus and we walked 10 minutes to the doctor's office. The office was located on the marketplace, which is a Fußgängerzone (pedestrian zone), so it wouldn't even have been possible to drive to it.  "But what do older people do when they need to see the eye doctor?", you may wonder. They walk.  They probably walk to the bus stop, take the bus into town, and walk from the bus stop to the doctor's office and then back again. They walk slowly, some with crutches to help them navigate the cobblestones, slopes, and stairs, but they walk.

I think we Americans could be more fit with a few minor adjustments to our habits despite how spread out our cities are. Instead of searching for the closest parking spot to the door, park at the far end of the lot and walk to the door. Yes, this can be done even when it's cold or raining. I've known people to park at one end of a mall to shop in a store at that end, and then get back in the car to drive to the store at the other end of the same mall. It would be better to make that 5-minute walk and back. "But I'm in a hurry!" It does not take less time to go back to the car, start it up, drive it to the other end (stopping at the 5 stop signs in the parking lot), find a new spot, park, and walk into the store than it does to walk to the other end. If it does, walk faster. Your heart will appreciate it!

I know there are lots of Americans who get plenty of exercise because they make time for it during their days and weeks. I admire those people and wish I were one of them. The rest of us, though, could get enough exercise to counter some of our caloric intake by taking the opportunity to walk whenever and wherever we can.