Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Swinging in Berlin

My friend Marika and I met in Berlin for a little 3-day yoga get-away.  We stayed at Aspria, a full service fitness club that also has guest rooms.  It's a pretty cool concept that lets you work out as much or as little as you want with all the benefits of an upscale hotel.  There are about 25-30 classes a day that you can participate in covering the full range: tae bo, pilates, qi gong, step, spinning, every imaginable yoga discipline and on and on and on.  Basically, you can burn off the breakfast buffet by ten a.m. 

We weren't quite so aggressive in our efforts choosing one morning to create our own sport called shopwalking which consists of putting on your sneakers and spandex, tucking a credit card into your waistband and then walking out the door of the hotel and hitting every cute boutique within a five mile (eeerr kilometer must think in metric) radius.  We did, however, partake in something called Antigravity Yoga.  I had my fingers crossed that I would emerge from the class with the legendary "yoga butt" that gravity currently oh-so-cruelly denies me. No such luck.  Instead, we found ourselves swinging in orange vertical hammock-type thingies. Seriously. It was like an audition for a Three Stooges themed Cirque du Soleil.  
 (pictures from Crunch Gym and Om Factory)

It was not pleasant.  First, you spend half of the class hanging upside down which means you spend the other half of the class fighting a severe case of head rush.  Second, wrapping your wrists and legs in cloth while swinging upside down carrying your entire body weight is not comfortable.  It's certainly not uplifting to have to dig a wedge of cloth out from the chubby slice of flesh between your abundant hips and overflowing thighs.  Thirdly, and most disgustingly, the hanging hammock thingies stunk.  Bad.  Like never seen the inside of a German-engineered Miele washing machine bad. At the end of the class you cocoon your whole body in the hammock and gently sway back and forth in a sort of swinging Savasana.  Let me tell you, being encased in a bacteria-infested, sweat-stinking silk scarf is not relaxing.  I must have looked like an alien baby being born as my elbows and knees frantically punched out my orange womb moments before my claustrophobic head emerged gasping for air.

Then there was the whole naked thing.  I just can't get used to it.  I can't. I'm American and you can fill in the blank when it comes to sexuality / body image here__________ but I was raised in the generation of women who never took showers after gym because there were no shower curtains on the shower stalls. The idea of other girls seeing you naked was just, well, horrifying.

So men and women, complete strangers, walking around sans clothing and sans self-consciousness is foreign to me. I just can't grasp it.  To me naked = sex or something in the vicinity thereof.  I'm not saying that's healthy. I'm just saying. I can't seem to grasp how in a spa or sauna or beach a clear line is drawn that says naked is natural not sexual.  I don't get how you can play cards at the beach with your neighbor and his wife and not compare his wife's goods to your wife's goods. And vice versa for the fraus. "Is it just me, Silke or do these Bratwurst look smaller than normal?" Wink. Wink. Protocol instructs that you are not supposed to look and you are never supposed to stare.  Not that you'd want to. Most of the bodies you would have to love to like but still... they're naked!  How can you not look?

Me? I admit it. I'm looking at the whole lot of you. Naked lady lying on the lounger reading gossip mag with one leg draped casually over your knee thus exposing all your girly bits. Yup, I'm looking at you.  Hot chick with Brazilian bikini wax and suspiciously perky Lady Janes. Yup, I'm looking at you.  Fat guy picking lint out of your belly button - I'm trying really, really hard not to look at you. When I see two cute naked guys step out of the sauna and run their hands through their glossy, damp hair I get all jiggly inside. Like I'm in high school again trying to choose between Ponch and Jon. Jon, he's so all-American. No wait, Ponch he's so dark and sexy. But Jon's so nice. But Ponch's smile. Ponch. Jon. Ponch. Jon. Hey, why not both! It's the eighties! And they're...they're...naked! When I call my husband later that night and say between giggles, "honey, I saw a cute, naked guy today and it wasn't you" I begin to think that perhaps I lack the maturity to properly assimilate into this country. When my husband's response is to ask in horror, "You didn't try to take a picture did you?" I begin to think I might not be the only one questioning my maturity.

Overall, it was a really sweet get-away.  Yoga, shopping, talking (in glorious, glorious English), great food, talking, massages, napping, talking, bagging expensive dinner out in favor of hanging in the hotel room with wine and cheese, talking, yoga, talking, more shopping, walking, walkshopping, napping, bagging second Hatha II yoga class in favor of more food, shopping and talking.  Yeah, all good.
p.s. I would have taken a picture of the cute, naked guy but I was naked and didn't have anywhere to put my camera ;)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dinner at ???

We had friends for dinner last night and I had sort of a Hausfrau breakthrough.  Typically, as our guests are pushing the buzzer at exactly 7:00 (yes, the stereotype is true, Germans are exceptionally prompt) I am in full hysteria mode. Half-dressed, flour strewn across counter tops, glob of butter affixed to my nose, second degree burns on right hand from forgetting to use hot pad when pulling casserole dish out of the oven while simultaneously trying to dress a salad with a homemade vinaigrette reduction.

Not this time.  I was on it. On. It

The Menu
Appetizer: Antipasto and Aperol Spritzs
Main Course: Lasagna, garlic bread, arugula salad with shaved Parmesan
Dessert: Strawberry shortcake with fresh whipped creme

The Timing
Guests due to arrive at 7:30.   At 6:25 the lasagna elements are complete and ready for assembly and insertion into the oven at 7:00.  Strawberries hulled, macerated and refrigerated. Salad prepared with dressing laying in wait.  Garlic bread seasoned and wrapped in foil.  Antipasto assortment prepared and ready for plating at 7:25. Me? Showered and dressed.  The only thing left to do?  Make the shortbread a quick 15 minute venture that I plan to kick out after sticking the lasagna in the oven.  Leaving a whopping 15 minutes to run a comb through my locks and apply lip gloss. Kiss. Kiss. The long and short of it?  I had a whole half hour to spare.  I am rocking this Hausfrau thing. Rocking. It.

So, I decided to check email with the free time.  As I sit down at my computer my husband says to me:
TK: What are you doing?
ME: Checking my email.
TK: Now? They're going to be here any minute.
ME: Nuh uh. It's only six-thirty.
TK: Yeah, they're coming at six-thirty.
ME: (controlled hysteria) But you told me they were coming at seven-thirty.
TK: I did?
ME: Yes, you DID.
TK: I said, "halb sieben."
ME: NOOOO, you said seven-thirty!

Brief Language Instruction Interlude
Telling time in German is a bit different than telling time in English.
In English, we say seven-thirty meaning half AFTER seven. 7:30
In German, they say halb sieben meaning half BEFORE seven. 6:30

Back to our previulsy scheduled programing
ME: NOOOO, YOU SAID SEVEN-THIRTY!!!!! (now in full-blown hysteria)
TK: I said seven-thirty? I meant halb sieben.
ME: Which is 6:30 which is NOOOOWWWW!!!!
TK: Can I do something to help?

I was not pleased.  Really. Not. Pleased. Fortunately, we have the coolest friends in the world so when the buzzer sounded at halb sieben/six-thirty we mixed a drink and they joined us in the kitchen. It was a great night with good friends.

But I was still really peeved with TK.  Bordering on pissed. Or, as we say in German "stinksauer"  pronounced stink sour (a new favorite word). No, not because he screwed up the time.  It goes much deeper than that.  You see, since moving to Germany I've been somewhat off-kilter.  I couldn't seem to find my niche.  I don't work.  I don't have offspring. I didn't have friends for a long time.  I gave the Hausfrau thing a good go but I don't think I'll ever make it to German standards.  The idea of someone randomly ringing my bell for an impromptu Kaffee and Kuchen paralyzes me with fear.  Proper Hausfraus are always prepared for company.  There is always a fresh pastry in a tidy breadbox. A good Hausfrau's home is always spotless.  That is their job.  They take it seriously. They sweep the stoop and the driveway. Every. Day.  They wash the kitchen floor. Every. Day. 

My idea of doing the laundry every day goes something like this. Monday - wash laundry. Remove from dryer. Throw dry laundry on living room couch. Tuesday - fold laundry and place on coffee table five minutes before TK gets home from work so that I appear to have had a productive day. Wednesday - move folded laundry to bed.  This is preceded by my making the bed.  I make the bed. Every. Wednesday. Wednesday night. Move the folded laundry off the bed to the chest beside the bed. Thursday - put laundry away. In. Drawers. And. Shit. Friday - rest.  Whew.  So it's not like I'd found my niche with the whole Hausfrau thing either.

But there was one area in which I excelled.  One challenge which I could master in every situation. One talent which I truly considered my niche.  Language Idiot.  I am the one who can not form simple sentences. I am the one who who stares blankly into German faces when asked anything beyond "what is your name?" I am the one who has to count on my fingers when told the movie starts at 20:00. Me. Me. ME! I am the language idiot. Not you, my dear bi-lingual husband.  You are messing with my niche and that is just so... Not. Cool.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Breaking-In the Biergarten

It's nice having friends here. Finally. It's really nice having such an international group of friends here.  One of the best benefits of German language classes is that you meet other people in the same situation but with very different back stories.  Our little group consists of Spain, China, Greece, and Japan.  German is our only common language so it's a great way to socialize and practice your German at the same time.

Yesterday was supposed to be a gorgeous spring day so we decided to meet up at the Chinesischer Turm Biergarten in the Englischer Garten.  I was sweating as I ordered my beer.  Just as I was lamenting that we were going to bypass spring and head straight into summer, the storm clouds blew in and our potato chip bag blew away.  From sweating to wishing for a sweater in half a beer.  Looks like spring will put in an appearance after all.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brotzeit Birthday

The twins turned 37 on Saturday.  We enjoyed family time over the weekend including a traditional Bavarian Brotzeit.  Brotzeit makes for a perfect Sunday evening meal when nobody feels like cooking but you still want a little German Gemütlichkeit (comfortable meal with friends/family).  It's a lighter meal than say, the pot roast that we had on Saturday (coincidentally the first gorgeous spring day we'd had so not exactly pot roast weather).  A lighter meal that is, ahem, unless you mainline the Obatzda cheese spread like Bobby Brown on a crack binge and then wash it down with several Edelstoffs.  I'd go into more detail but my arteries are so clogged that the circulation to my fingers is compromised which makes typing   h...a....rd.

The birthday boys.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Essential Oils

Big deal, right?  Olive oil, an avocado and a cilantro garnish.  Well, this represents a small victory for me. Shopping in Germany has provided me with some challenges and some opportunities.  Instead of a once a week trip to the A&P or Whole Foods, I've become accustomed to the German way of making a trip to the market every day or every other day.  I find I waste a lot less food this way because I buy only what I am actually going to cook that day or the next.  So different from the US where the weekly excursion was influenced by cravings, coupons and clever merchandising. And I was never one to plan a week full of meals in advance.  I had a mish mash approach that yielded a lot more mash than mish. And, truth be told, a lot of food went off because we got home so late from work and I was just not motivated to cook. Far easier to stop at Greek Delights and get take-out.

One of the biggest challenges about shopping in Germany is that I can't count on one store for all my needs.  Living in BFMF, it's not as simple as a stroll down Main Street to stores A, B and C with a stop at a cafe in between. Main street for me includes: a supermarket, an Indian restaurant, a children's shoe store, a bank, a butcher and a salon.  Oh, and let's not forget the rocking bar Hokus Pokus which we lovingly refer to as The Poke.  That about sums up my shopping potential.  So, if I want to cook Asian food, I have to take my bike (or the train) to the Asian Grocer.  That's a small inconvenience since I have a certified cilantro addiction and need to have it at least twice a week. The Asian grocer ships it in from who knows where and it's hit or miss what sort of condition it is in.  I'm always psyched when I get a healthy bunch that will last more than a few days. This is also where I need to go if I want bok choy, sweet potatoes, brown sugar, bean sprouts, fresh lemongrass, buckwheat noodles, etc.  If I'm feeling like cooking Aloo Palak or Tikka Masala, I have to go to another store in the city center for Indian staples.

In general, the vegetable assortment in most German markets is pretty basic and more seasonally influenced.  You won't find 10 types of lettuce, a full fresh herb assortment or every type of fruit imaginable. And, for a country that loves their potatoes, they only seem to have two kinds.  New potatoes, Yukon Golds, yams, jacket baking potatoes - that's a trip to the Viktualienmarkt to see the potato man.  And certain things like pecans, parsnips, chocolate chips, vanilla extract - they're either not available or I have to go to the Viktualienmarkt and pay crazy, crazy prices. Thankfully, we have a steady stream of BMW friends visiting HQ for meetings and they are always happy (I hope) to be my baking supply drug ponies.  My last delivery included butterscotch morsels, shredded coconut and cream of tartar.

One of the foods I was missing the most was avocados.  They were a standard lunch component for me mixed with hummus and tomato on a bagel. Don't even get me started on bagels. I think there are two places in Munich. Oh, and ready-made hummus? You have to go to a Turkish market for that.  Fortunately, I like my homemade stuff just fine. But I digress - back to the avocados. The thing is, you can get avocados in every store but they just weren't the same as the ones I bought at home. The first couple of times I bought avocados here I dutifully put them on my veggie tier waiting for them to ripen.  Three days.  Five days.  Seven days.  Still bright green.  When I finally cut into one it was all brown and gooey inside.  Okay, lesson learned, they will not turn black when ripe. With my next batch I did the squeeze test until I determined they were ripe.  And they were.  But they had no flavor.  I tried and tried but I could never get my avocado mojo going.

Now, remember how I said I have to go to several stores to find everything I need?  Well, about 75% of my shopping I do in Edeka for a couple of reasons.  They are close - only a five minute walk.  They are super friendly which is not the norm.  People go on and on about how bad German customer service is but I find that Edeka employees are always pleasant and patient.  And, most importantly, I can go there with a list and almost always get everything I need.  The prices are higher but it is sooo worth it for me to shop there.

Then I supplement with the "discount" and "ethnic" markets for pantry staples and miscellaneous items.  The closest discount market to me is Pennymarkt. I head there about once a week.  You kind of just have to go and see what they have because, beyond the staples, the assortment is never guaranteed to be the same. I hardly ever buy vegetables there because the quality isn't very good.  Germany grades their produce on a scale of 1-3.  Edeka carries a lot of 1st klasse fruits and vegetables and Penny carries a lot of 2nd klasse. So, you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago as I was skimming past the vegetable section and something round and black caught my eye.  An avocado.  A dark avocado.  Upon closer inspection, a HASS avocado!  I bought five.  They were like little pebbly-skinned bits of hope.  I brought them home and immediately cut two open. I would have made a batch of guacamole right then and there but, you guessed it, I didn't have any cilantro and didn't feel like going all the way to the Asian market.  So, I just sprinkled them with some sea salt and pepper, gave them a generous squeeze of lime and inhaled them. Perfect.  Heaven. Home. Hass.

Which brings us to the olive oil.  You know that über-revealing website dating question, "What are the five things you can't live without?"  My top five includes cilantro and a really great olive oil.  Extra-Virgin. First cold press. Green. Pure. The kind that is so aromatic you could bathe in it.  My last good batch I brought back from Italy. On the self-same (soon to be legendary) Pennymarkt avocado trip I picked up a bottle of olive oil.  I reserve the good stuff for dressings or dipping bread but I also always have a cheapo bottle on hand for general cooking. The bottle I got from Penny cost 2.99.  Like I said, Penny is cheap.  Well, I opened this bottle on Monday to add a little to boiling pasta water.  The smell hit me right away.  This was no Bertolli.  I poured a little on my finger. Like liquid gold it was.  Quickly, I translated the packaging: product of Greece, cold-press, winner of 5 international awards. I used canola oil for the pasta water then cut a piece of bakery bread, added some fresh grated black pepper and a generous pinch of sea salt and dipped away.

Why yes, as a matter of fact, I did just get back from Pennymarkt. What did I buy, you ask? Two more bottles of the olive oil (still 2.99) and four avocados. That combined with the cilantro means the world is mine: Thai, Mexican, Indian, Greek, Italian - I shall cook and enjoy you all.

p.s. I also have a package of pork schmalz in the fridge which technically means I can add Germany to the world cuisine mix.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Schönes Wochenende

Talk about a perfect weekend. It began on Friday night at Hacker-Pschorr Bräu where we met some American friends and a German friend for beer, schnitzel, beer and a schnapps to wash it all down.  From there, Joachim gave us inside scoop on one of the best local bars in the city. It's a yodeling bar. Complete with accordion player. No need to ask twice.  We set off for Jodlerwirt. Authentic. Crowded. Loud and laughtastic. We drank. We danced. We sang. We had a blast. That night.

The next day - not so much. All I can say is thank goodness for my husband who, at 3:00 in the morning, when I was begging and pleading for just one more round or to hit another place on the way home, had the where-with-all to steer me straight home.  It could have been so much worse. As it was, I needed all day and another grease-laden schnitzel to soak up the alcohol before I felt remotely human again.

Did you know that you can't get Advil/aspirin over-the-counter here? You have to go to a pharmacist, brave a consultation auf Deutsch after which they will hopefully dole out a few precious acetaminophen tablets and not some herbal concoction of chamomile and coriander. Note to all business travelers, tourists, expats, etc. - bring Advil.  A lot. I find I need at least 7-9 to get me through a good hang-over. Oh, and apparently Jodlerwirt isn't really an insider's secret since I found it in two of my guidebooks this morning. But it was still great, not touristy at all and I thank Joachim from the bottom of my beer-bloated belly for the introduction.

After dropping Caryn at the airport, Thomas and I headed south for a winter weekend get-away in the charming town of Mittenwald.  It's the epicenter of handmade violins, cellos and violas but I love it for its alfresco paintings depicting traditional Bavarian life. The town center is quite small but it's nice to wander among all the chalets and look at the paintings.  I really think of it as an outdoor art gallery.  And, with the backdrop of the alps, well it's hard to beat in the pure, simple beauty category.  We meandered, got massages, ate the aforementioned schnitzel, slept late, took a winter walk and just relaxed.  Like I said, perfect!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Olympisches Fieber

Germany is quite proud of their Olympic Gold Medal winners and on Tuesday they celebrated their victories on Marienplatz. I thought it would be a good "real life in Germany" moment so I headed into town for the festivities. According to the website I checked the day before, the party was to start at three. Basically, a car cavalcade wound it's way through town ending on Marienplatz where the Olympians would greet their fans from the Rathaus balcony.

Small problem. It was cold and rainy. I got there at 3:10 to find a huge screen replaying the best Olympic moments accompanied by uplifting (mostly American) pop songs and a smattering of soggy people wielding umbrellas. I waited. And waited. And then the party meister, crowd instigator type guy announced that they were running behind schedule and would be another half hour or so. Did I mention it was cold? And rainy? I ducked inside a cozy Chinese place for a plate of hot noodles and a cold beer. And from my seat by the window, I could see the blue lights of the cavalcade as it drove past a half hour later. I was warm. I was dry. I was full.

I walked back over to Marienplatz a short while later. The music was still blaring but I had missed the Evita balcony moment. Later, I heard on the news that over 5,000 people had been there to help celebrate. I'm not sure about that number. I saw about five hundred people. What I am sure about is that Olympic mindset of overcoming adversity and physical discomfort in the pursuit of a goal - yeah, I don't have that.