Friday, April 12, 2013

My kingdom for a garbage disposal

Lest my readers get the impression that I think everything over here in Germany is better than in the U.S., I thought I'd mention a few of the things I miss.  Obviously I miss my people and spending time with them - my children, parents, extended family, and best friends! Following are the things I miss at times.

Vacuum cleaners with rotating brushes

Ours only suck.  Pun intended.  Granted, we have no carpeting but rather all wood and tile floors. But when it's time to vacuum our area rugs, I switch the floor tool for the carpet tool. Why, I am sure I do not know. The carpet tool still only sucks. It's just bigger than the floor tool and has wheels.

Garbage disposals

Unheard of over here because they wouldn't be legal anyway. We are not supposed to put kitchen junk into our sewers, no matter how ground up it might be. That goes into the Biomüll, of course. What about something like stew, which is too liquidy to go into Biomüll and has chunks of meat and vegetables? You shouldn't be disposing of that anyway. You're in Swabia - food is to be eaten, not wasted. Some people pour thick liquidy things into the toilet. I guess worse things are flushed down there than asparagus cream soup, but in general that practice is frowned upon.

A double sink!

I am not sure which genius decided that kitchen sinks should be small and have only one basin, but he ought to be lashed repeatedly and then banished.  This is not just our sink - nearly every kitchen design we have seen in catalogs and in furniture stores includes only one-sided sinks. In the place where the other basin should be is a slanted stainless steel shelf. Ok, we can place our dish-drying rack there and the water drains toward the sink. The water is so hard that I frequently need to use calcium-eating chemicals to clean that shelf. I'd rather have a second basin for rinsing the dishes!

Condensed soup

I brought quite a few cookbooks and recipes with me from the U.S., and I never realized how many call for condensed cream-of-something soup. There are lots of soups here, but I haven't found condensed yet. I suspect that's because a good Swabian cook makes his or her own sauce with fresh ingredients and herbs rather than using something some machine in a factory mixed together.

Pam cooking spray

Again, lots of American recipes tell you to use cooking spray. We use Butterschmalz (ghee), but I did use Pam a lot in the States and was used to it. It's quite convenient, especially when everything is ready to go into the casserole dish, which I forgot to grease.

Wide streets and roads

If you've ever watched "The Holiday," you have seen Cameron Diaz driving down a narrow road facing an oncoming truck and wondering how they're both going to fit. Even though we drive on the "right" side of the road in Germany, the streets and roads are much narrower than is comfortable for me. I often hold my breath when a semi passes us, though I'm not sure how that helps.

Shoulders on both sides of the road

I have seen shoulders on some sections of the Autobahn, but only thick, short wooden poles on country highways where the  speed limit is 100 km/h (62 mph). So if I would edge to the right of the narrow road/lane to inch away from an oncoming semi or bus, I would slam into at least one of these poles. There is little wiggle room on Germany highways.
The photo on the right shows a country road rather than a highway. Clearly the pole in the foreground has already been hit at least once. The speed limit here is 70 km/h (45 mph). Martin says it used to be 100 km/h (62 mph), and it still is just around this bend.

Thick-cut bacon sold in 1-pound packs

The largest pack of bacon I have found in our usual store contains seven thin slices. I have seen something that looks like a chunk of unsliced bacon which I could cut myself, but I'd rather just pick up a pack of Oscar Meyer. I like thin bacon, too, but every now and then I want the thick stuff.

Cheap gas

I checked today, and gas is down to about $8.06 per gallon here. Roughly 56% of that is gas tax. Martin can't fill the tank for less than €100 ($130), and we drive a car, not an SUV or truck. I would hate to see what the few SUV drivers over here pay to fill their tanks. I remember grumbling when gas went above $3.70 per gallon in Wisconsin...

Teaching full-time

Ok, just kidding.

Squeaky cheese curds

We have all kinds of delicious, fancy cheese here, but the Wisconsin girl in me will never stop peeking in the gourmet cheese section (next to the one version of cheddar they carry) for squeaky cheese curds.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Dining in Germany II: Finishing up

Click here for Part I

Ok, so you've enjoyed a delicious meal and perhaps a glass of wine or Apfelschorle (apple juice spritzer), and you sit back satisfied.  Chances are, you're actually stuffed and wondering how you're going to roll home, wishing you could try a piece of that Apfelstrudel you remember your Oma making. The waiter appears, and taking your plate asks "War's recht?" Directly translated, that means "Was it right?", but never mind direct translations. You know he's asking if the meal was to your liking. If you're in Swabia, even if you've just eaten the most delicious piece of piece of beef you've ever had, tone down your compliment to "It was very good, thank you." To a Swabian, over-flowery gushing compliments come across as insincere.  If the meal was only very good, a simple "Ja, danke" (Yes, thank you) will do.

The waiter will then ask if you would like a Nachtisch (dessert) or to see the Dessert Karte (dessert menu). Even if you're too full for dessert, it's very common to have some kind of Kaffee or Espresso after the meal to help things settle. If you're dining with Germans, they'll probably have one, so you might as well, too. It seems to me that many Germans think a plain coffee at this point is unimaginative. It's much more fashionable to have a cappuccino or espresso. Do not expect flavored coffee, which is so popular in the U.S.. Germans like their coffee to taste like coffee, not hazelnuts, cinnamon, or vanilla. Above all, do not just dash off after you've finished your meal. Relax! Enjoy the atmosphere and company. Dine. Don't dash.

Incidentally, although Germans have a reputation for consuming barrels and barrels of Bier (as do Wisconsinites), they drink more Kaffee per capita per year than beer. Like the beer, the coffee here tends to be stronger than in America, so be ready to add cream or sugar.

You and your friends have finished your hot beverages, and now you want to pay and leave. For some reason, in larger restaurants, this is where things can get tricky. You wait patiently, assuming your waiter will show up when he sees that your coffee cups are empty to offer more. Wait. No free refills. You look around to see if you can find him, but he seems to have disappeared. You wait some more. As you realize that your waiter has not returned to your table to ask how things are every time you had a mouthful of food as they do in the States, you wonder if he will return at all. Well, he won't get a very good tip if he doesn't, right?  Wrong. The tip is included in the prices. You wait some more.

Maybe you could ask another waiter to send...what was his name? You don't know his name because German waiters don't introduce themselves (and surely don't use first names!), and few wear name tags. Then you see him. Though you almost shout with relief, you don't want to be obnoxious, so you wait for him to look in your direction so you can make a subtle gesture indicating you need him. He doesn't look. He seems to be forcing you to be patient and let your food settle. But we Americans want to leave as soon as we're finished! We practically pay and return to our cars still chewing our last bite!

Eventually, after what seemed like 45 minutes of trying to get his attention - though it was really probably only 5 minutes - he glances over, and you wave at him a bit too enthusiastically. Is he smirking?? He approaches your table as you dig in your wallet and flash your credit card, pulls a face, and says, "Sorry, cash only."  WHAT?!? In the U.S. we even pay a $4.78 bill at McDonald's with plastic. Your bill is €88!  This is a nice, fancy restaurant - don't all nice, fancy restaurants take credit cards?  Yes. In America. In Germany most restaurants are family owned and operated, there are not many chains, and businesses are charged fees for processing credit cards.  If you're going out for a meal in Germany, though you might get lucky and can find places that accept credit, prepare to pay in cash.

Most Americans tip much more than they need to in German restaurants, because they add the 15-20% additional tip that is customary in the U.S.. As I said earlier, though, the tip (as well as the tax) is already included, though adding something (up to 10%) to your bill is appropriate if you were satisfied with the food and service.  What the waiters appreciate is when you round your bill up to an amount that prevents them having to dig for small change. With a bill of €88, hand the waiter €100 and tell him "€95, bitte." You simply tell him the total amount you want him to keep, and he'll give you the change you need. You don't leave a tip on the table, and you don't hand him the extra money. Just tell him what to keep. If you happen to have €95 in bills, hand him that and say "Stimmt so" (Correct as is, or keep the change).

Now you're ready to go. Use the Toilette before you go, because public facilities are not as common or easily found as in the U.S.. If you were sharing a table with a stranger at the other end, even if not a word was said between you since one of you established that the seat was available an hour ago, say "Auf Wiedersehen" to him, her, or them. It would be rude to just walk away after sharing a table.

The thing to remember is that dining in Germany is not rushed. You're paying for a meal out, so take your time and enjoy it.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dining in Germany I: Ordering

Dining in a restaurant in Germany can be an incredibly enjoyable experience. You wouldn't think that there could be many differences between dining in Germany and dining in the States - you sit down, order something to drink and eat, chat with your pals or family, eat your meal, pay, and leave. Simple enough. There are, however, major differences, and knowing what to expect when traveling abroad is helpful.

Keep in mind that in Europe people dine, rather than eat-and-run. You will not be rushed by your waiter, and in fact more likely you will feel that the whole process is agonizingly slow. If you are in a hurry, it would be best to tell your waiter that at the beginning. It might not make any difference, but at least there's a chance he'll be more attentive.  If you have to catch a train in an hour, do not go to a sit-down restaurant. Find a cafe or a kiosk and grab something to go.

Restaurants in Germany almost always have their menus posted outside, so as you're walking past you can have a look first and see if the choices appeal to you. Prices are usually listed as well, so you can determine if you have enough cash. If the prices aren't listed, the general rule is "If you have to ask their prices, you probably can't afford to eat there."  There are some fine restaurants here, and although your belly won't regret your selection, your pocketbook might.

So you've selected a restaurant.  First of all, unless you have made a reservation, you generally choose your own table in Germany. Do not sit at a table marked as "reserviert" or "Stammtisch", however. "Reserviert" should be obvious, and the "Stammtisch" is for regulars who come every week (sometimes every day) and sit together to enjoy a beer and small meal while they solve the world's problems.  If you are dining alone or with one other person and the restaurant is pretty full, it is perfectly acceptable for you to go to an occupied table with a free seat or two at one end and ask "Ist hier frei?" Germans will welcome you to sit down and will generally leave you alone without chatting you up with smalltalk.

If you are in a touristy town, the restaurant will likely have an English menu (Speisekarte) available to you upon request. If the waiter hears you speaking English, he'll offer it before you ask.  If you plan to visit smaller towns, it would be a good idea to know the German words for any foods you are allergic to or strongly dislike.  It is common for the waiter to ask what you would like to drink as he hands you the Speisekarte, so it helps to be prepared.

Caution! "Water" is not free and will be carbonated unless you ask for still water ("Stilles Wasser"), which is plain bottled water.  You will not get ice in your beverage, but it will be cold enough. Refills are never free.

Knowing a few root words for various common foods is probably also a good idea. For instance:
 Rind - beef
Zwiebelrostbraten mit Bratkartoffeln
 Schwein - pork
 Hähnchen - chicken
 Puten - turkey
 Kalb - veal
 Reh/Hirsch - venison
 Lamm - lamb
 Hase - rabbit

One of the biggest differences you'll notice when ordering your meal here, is that the waiter does not bombard you with a barrage of follow-up questions and options. If you order the Zwiebelrostbraten mit Bratkartoffeln and a salad, that's what you'll get. You will not be asked which type of potato you want. If your meal comes with a potato, the type will be listed on the menu. A side of sour cream is not an option, but if the waiter knows you're an American, he'll assume you want ketchup. If you're having a salad, there are no dressing choices - the restaurant has one house dressing. Soup is always ordered separately, and the types of soup available are listed in the menu, so please don't ask what kinds of soup they have. The only question you might get from the waiter is how you'd like your beef cooked, and he will understand your English answer (medium, medium rare, etc.).

Those questions are a common source of stress to Germans in American restaurants.
 "What kind of potato would you like?" (followed by a rapid list of unfamiliar choices!)
 "Would you like sour cream with that?"
 "Soup or salad?"  "Which soup would you like?" (followed by another rapid list)
 "What dressing would you like on your salad?" (another list)

Breakfast is even more stressful. My mother-in-law once tried to order two eggs and toast at Country Kitchen.
 "Two fried eggs, please."
 "How would you like them?"
 "Fried, please."
 "Sunny-side up, over-easy, over-medium, or over-hard?"
 "Just fried."  (in Germany a fried egg is just fried, I think sunny-side up)
 "Yes, please."
 "What kind?"
 Rapid-fire now: "white, whole wheat, rye, Texas toast, multigrain, or sourdough?"
 "Whole wheat, please."
 "Yes, please, and coffee."
 "Regular or decaf?"  (This is a question I've never heard asked in a German restaurant.)

We Americans are used to those questions and we expect them. It's nice to have a variety of choices of potato, depending on our mood. We like being able to select which dressing we'll have on our salad, and we know what we like and don't like. German chefs, though, have already decided which potatoes go best with which dishes, and they've created a delicious homemade dressing that compliments the salad.

Incidentally, you can find different dressing choices in grocery stores in Germany - but French is nothing like the French dressing in America and it's creamy white instead of red or orange, there is no Ranch, the Italian is not as tangy, and you probably won't find fruity flavors, like raspberry, in vinaigrette. You will find Thousand Islands (yes, spelled with an -s - makes more sense, doesn't it?), and interestingly there is an American dressing here, which doesn't exist in America.

When you're dining in Germany, consider the local specialities. Swabian cuisine is a little different from Bavarian, which is a lot different from northern cuisine. There's a good deal of fish in the north near the North and Baltic seas, but not in the south except near the Bodensee (Lake Constance). Swabians love lots of sauce, so if you're one of those people who doesn't like your sauce touching your vegetables, you might be in for a surprise. In general, German food is hearty and filling, and you will not leave the restaurant hungry. The portions tend to be quite large, so you might want to inquire if they offer a "kleine Portion" (klein means small). Most menus also have a section called "für den kleinen Appetit", where the portions are automatically smaller.

After you've ordered your meal, sit back, sip your beverage rather than guzzling it (because again, refills are not free), and relax. Your food should arrive within a reasonable amount of time.

One more note: For lunch, which is often the main meal in Germany, start looking for a restaurant around noon or 1:00. Don't wander around shopping until 2:00 and then expect to find a place serving hot meals. Sure, you might find one - especially in the touristy towns - but many restaurants close as of 2:00 or 2:30 until dinnertime.

On to Part II: Finishing up