Saturday, September 28, 2013

Auf der Wiesn: Bier, Chicken and Shakespeare

We took Willem to Oktoberfest in Munich this past Monday after school, because we thought it would be mellow and less crowded on a weekday. (We soon found out that “mellow” and “less crowded” are not really a concept at any time during the most famous 16-day kegger in the world.) I had never been to Oktoberfest, and had no idea what it would be like. But here we are living in Bavaria, and, according to the unwritten laws of the land, going to the Wiesn is one of those things that you just HAVE to do, much like painstakingly separating your trash and recycling into about eight different categories, and getting the hell out of the left lane of the autobahn when you see a Porsche Carrera coming up behind you in the rear view mirror.

I suspected that Oktoberfest would be crowded and loud and beer soaked (which it is), a bit like spring break in lederhosen (kind of), and that I would be by far the oldest person there (I wasn’t, by a longshot). I thought I would have some fun but in a “Thank God that’s over!” kind of way, and emerge with some insights along the lines of, “How to survive Oktoberfest when you’re a 42-year old mom who is not a big beer drinker and is apprehensive about large crowds and costumes.” 

But who knew you could have so much fun on a Monday night with your family and a few thousand of your new best friends?

David, Willem and I made our way into the Augustiner tent, which was absolutely packed. It was a veritable sea of people in dirndls and lederhosen at long tables and benches. These tents, by the way, are massive, and most hold several thousand people. The militant-looking security guards had let us in even though we didn’t have a reservation, but we had to try to find a place to sit. We learned quickly to avoid the old, grumpy-looking Germans, several of whom shook their heads and issued us that deep frown you sometimes get here when doing things that don’t fit into the social order, like backing into certain parking spaces, or trying to order the famous Bavarian delicacy weisswurst any time after noon (mein Gott!) We had better luck with a table full of young Germans who let us squeeze in. They turned out to be a group of friends from the Black Forest, all university students, for whom Oktoberfest was their annual reunion.

Knowing I’m not the biggest beer drinker in the world, David tried to order me a kleine bier (small bier) from our server Michael, a bearded, pony-tailed, mountain of a guy who was a dead ringer for Robert Baratheon. We figured out right away that at Oktoberfest there’s no such thing as a small beer: it’s sold by the liter only, go big or go home. Well, ok then. So we got our beers, and ordered a few of those delicious roasted half-chickens that are such a nice break from all the sausage one tends to eat in this part of the world. Robert Baratheon brought us our food, and we ordered a round of beers for our new college student friends who had been nice enough to let us crash their table, and proceeded to have the time of our lives.

Across the aisle from us was a table full of young Korean tourists who immediately began photographing and videoing David and Willem, even though we told them right away that, full disclosure, we weren’t even German. We pointed out that the place was full of actual Germans that they could photograph, but David and Willem looked so good in their lederhosen and sang the drinking songs with such gusto that the Koreans didn’t seem to care.

We tried out the few conversational German phrases we’ve learned on our table mates, but the three of us are complete beginners and the Black Forest boys all spoke English really well, so for their sake and ours, we switched to English. They taught us some typical German toasts and asked us for some typical American toasts, and we were stumped. ARE there any typical American toasts? We couldn’t really think of any and said we’d have to get back to them.

The guy next to me—I’ll call him Hans, because I know at least one of them was named Hans—explained to me that he loved to practice speaking English because he thought it was a beautiful language, which gave me some pause because I’ve never really thought about it before. I countered that German was a fun language, with so many sounds that we just don’t have in English, and I love how the Germans squish several words together to make really long words. At which point he said, “But listen to this,” and right then and there amidst the noise of the band and the clinking of glasses and Robert Baratheon barreling by with six beers in each hand, Hans launched into the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.”

It was damned impressive. “Hans!” I said. “Well done. That was beautiful!”

“That’s why I love English!” he shouted, only it sounded like “That’s why I LUFF English!” and raised his glass.

When the band started in on a Rolling Stones medley (there’s always a band on a stage in these tents), everyone in the place got on the benches and tables to dance. Willem was rocking out with the Koreans and David was up on one of the tables and a couple of 60ish ladies in dirndls were boogying on the next table over, and then we did a high-velocity “Prost!” and Willem’s glass shattered but no one was hurt and it was mostly empty so it was ok. The security guards looked on benevolently and even Robert Baratheon cracked a smile.

It’s hard to describe how much fun it was. Though Oktoberfest is a festival organized around beer drinking, the communal nature of it, and the mix of people, and the festive traditional clothing make it feel more like a giant, dressy block party or a wedding than a kegger.

So…Oktoberfest. I’m officially a fan, and can’t wait to go back this week.

P.S. Just one word of advice, if you go: The spinning carnival rides are best attempted BEFORE any beer is consumed, not after.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Lost in Translation

So my friend Kate and I were walking around Munich a few weeks ago and saw not one, but two young adults in t-shirts emblazoned with the words F*CK YOU! The first time I was rendered temporarily speechless, and the second time Kate and I cracked up and I said something like, “Well, that was unfriendly.” Even though America exports a lot of F-bombs via our movies and music (sorry, world) and you can hardly blame these kids because English isn’t their first language, when you see this sentiment coming straight at you on a t-shirt, you realize that some things get lost in translation.

And then Kate, who has lived in Germany with her family for a year and a half, told me the tale of the salty-mouthed Danish kids at the international school our boys attend.

It so happened last year that several of the Danish kids in the primary school were using the F-word—cheerfully and with gusto!— as a regular part of speech. Even though words like “shit” and “crap” and I would guess even “stupid” are verboten, as they are in most schools, these Danish cuties were carrying on like little towheaded Eddie Murphies. The other kids were mystified at the rampant use of this cuss word, and the teachers and other parents at Munich International School, which is kind of a high-class joint, were scandalized. Apparently, the principal of the junior school had a friendly but direct conference with the parents of the kids, which cleared up the issue for the most part, and that was that.

I find the whole cussing-Danish-kids episode hilarious, and perplexing. I mean, why the Danes? The only Dane I know back home in Laguna Beach has been known, at times, to swear like a sailor (Viggo, that would be you!) But he is a sailor. He races his sailboat on the weekends, and really, he doesn’t drop more F-bombs than the average patron of Jean Paul’s, my morning coffee place when I’m stateside. So this supposed Danish propensity for F-bombs remains a mystery to me. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Das Auto

This post is dedicated to Maureen De Haan, my best friend and roommate from our college days, a German speaker, and the only girl in school to have a poster of a vintage Mercedes gullwing roadster on her dorm room wall. And a poster of Eric Clapton drinking coffee. She's just always been that cool.    Hi, Maureen!

I have a couple of observations about Germans and their cars, at least in the part of Bavaria where I’m living.

1.  Germans drive like they mean it.

They drive fast and decisively and in control. That famed German engineering they put into their cars? It doesn’t go to waste here. From my vantage point, Germans don’t try to text or check their phones while behind the wheel, ever. They’re not trying to multi-task while they drive—there’s no putting on makeup while eating a sandwich while juggling a handheld phone, like I’ve seen on Coast Highway or even on the 405 between Orange County and LA. (Good Lord, I feel like the 405 takes years off my life every time I’m on it.)

Here in Bavaria, you zip from town to town on very narrow, two-lane highways at a high rate of speed, and preferably you’ve had your coffee already, and preferably it was not decaf. I imagine that if you tried to apply mascara, or got too involved in your breakfast burrito, it could be fatal. And I find that strangely reassuring, because it means that pretty much everyone on the road is giving full attention to the road.

 2. Germans are very considerate drivers.

But not in a gooey, overly friendly, “You go ahead of me, honey!” kind of way. No. It’s because (I think) they realize that, by letting others merge into traffic, or waiting while someone backs out of a driveway in front of them, things work better that way. Ultimately it’s more efficient, not to mention safe, to yield to others on the road. I have to say, it’s refreshing.

3. There are a LOT of really nice German cars in Germany.

I know, they make them here. And I know that Germany has been propping up the rest of the EU for a few years now. But, wow, just sayin. If you’re a person who likes cars and car design and everything about cars, like my 16-year old son, you’re in heaven here. He’s the kid who saved up for and helped restore a ’73 El Camino this year. And he’s still talking about that new Mercedes with the gullwing doors that blew by him and David on the autobahn like they were standing still, only they were going pretty fast, so they guessed it must have been going over 200 km/hr. His pronouncement: “We’ve GOT to test drive one of those, Mom. Just for fun. Seriously.” Maybe we will. Just for fun. 

Car porn courtesy of Mercedes-Benz blog

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Great (Kreuz)kümmel Kitchen Caper

I was really looking forward to making my friend Kate’s recipe for Indian dal. After all this surrendering to German meat and potatoes, I was craving a home-cooked vegetarian dinner. So I went looking for the red lentils and spices and vegetables that I needed at Edeka, the giant shiny supermarket that has everything here. I needed cumin seed, so I looked up the German word for it on my itranslate app. It’s kreuzkümmel, which I couldn’t find in the acre or so of spices available. But I did see kümmel, and I figured, what the heck, it’s probably roughly the same thing.

Well. After cooking those lentils and sautéing onions, garlic, tomatoes and fresh ginger, and starting to combine everything, I realized that I needed to add the spices. I dumped in a couple teaspoons of what I thought was cumin seed, per the recipe, and started stirring. And then I thought, that doesn’t look like cumin seed. I smelled it—it didn’t smell like cumin seed either. It smelled like something I don’t like but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I went back to itranslate—ugh! Caraway seed! And even though another name for caraway seed is Persian cumin, it tastes and smells nothing like cumin to me, and I’ve never liked it.

Maybe it’ll taste ok, I thought. My dal looked beautiful, and Willem and I tried some over basmati rice. He was a good sport and ate most of it, in the way that teenage boys generally do when hot food is put in front of them, but didn’t ask for seconds. And me—like I said, I’ve got an aversion to caraway seed—in fact I’m gagging just thinking about it. So I tried picking around the little things without much success, and then dumped the rest of my plate on the compost pile.

Details, details. And I've just GOT to learn some German.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Surrender to the Meat...and Potatoes

In honor of my introduction to Bavarian cuisine over the past week, I've written a haiku-triptych (is that even a thing? Let's say it is.)  I've not included any photos, because the food here is delicious but not terribly photogenic. A case in point is the regional favorite weisswurst, which looks, even cooked, like an albino version of sausage that's been dipped in bleach. (No offense to albinos or bleach.) But look it up and you'll agree with me. In any case, the triptych:

Wurstsalat is a
Salad made from meat! Who knew
this was possible?

Currywurst and fries
With a glass of dry Reisling—
Now that’s a real lunch.

Leberkäse? Not yet.
That’s “liver cheese.” I need to
Think about that one.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Looking up...

I found myself looking skyward today, a lot. I craned my neck to take in the facade of the spectacular, Gothic Revival-style Rathaus, or City Hall, in Munich's Marienplatz. This is no ordinary town hall. There's so much to look at, including the famous Glockenspiel on the front of the tower, an ornate clock with large moving figures depicting scenes from history including something called the barrel-makers' dance. (Gotta learn that one.) And, oh!  The window boxes overflowing with red flowers! I'm tempted to add a few more exclamation points here, but I'm holding myself back.

Also: the Theatine Church in Odeonsplatz, with its two tall towers and dome, and its gorgeous golden ochre color. Some of the guidebooks call it yellow, but no: it's definitely golden ochre! I remember that color distinctly from those fancy 24-pack Crayola crayon boxes and knew it would come in handy some day.

And then I sat on a bench under a couple of trees near the office of my son's school in Starnberg, waiting to take him home. I looked up, and the leafy canopy above was so fresh and green and the shade so welcome, it made me glad. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I learned a few things today.

1. Germans are serious about their coffee, and chocolate, and dairy products. (And sausages and beer, but we all already knew that.) I stood in the supermarket, jet-lagged and consequently a little stupid, in front of a staggering display of coffee—ground, whole bean, dark roast, light roast, espresso, from everywhere in the world that grows coffee beans, in glossy posh packaging. The shelves full of this beautiful stuff were about 15 feet long, and then I realized there was a whole other side to the display. In my dazzled, semi-impaired state, it took me quite awhile to choose.

Ditto with so many kinds and brands of chocolate, including my personal favorite, which is anything that involves dark chocolate and marzipan.  

The dairy case went on for days. It’s my unscientific hunch that, like the Dutch, German people have gotten really tall on average because of their affinity for good dairy—all that calcium and protein. 

2. It’s hard to figure out how to do a load of laundry when you’re not so good at reading the words on the dial. I took a few wild guesses, and got the washing machine going, but apparently on a cycle that took two hours. Google Translate: Help!

I had a similar problem in the kitchen. Not one to be bothered with boring details, I grabbed a canister of what looked like dishwasher detergent powder and poured a bunch of it into the little dispenser…then actually looked at what I was holding and realized it was the German version of Drano. Scooped it out in a panic and hoped that German Drano is less toxic than American Drano—it’s just got to be, right? Finally found the little detergent tablets and all was well.

3. The wind rustling in the birch trees along the little lane where we live sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Or maybe I’ve heard it somewhere but just didn’t pay much attention. It sounds like a gentle shushing, as if the trees were saying: Be quiet, and listen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Well, hallo there!

And welcome to my new blog, through which I hope to share some of my experiences while I’m living in Bavaria with my family for the rest of the year.

So what the heck are we doing in Germany, you ask? Well, my husband David needed to be close to Munich this fall for work he’s doing with XS Power Drink in Europe. And we’ve always wanted to do something like this—live abroad, with our kids (or at least one of them). So we enrolled our youngest son, Willem, in a local international school, found a house to rent, and here we are. Our eldest son Schuyler started college in the U.S., so he’s off on his own adventure.

I’m planning to work on a few writing and publishing projects while I’m here, and hopefully learn how to sort the trash (compost, glass, plastic, paper, and whatever else is left) into color-coded bags and decipher the garbage pickup schedule taped to the fridge, which looks kind of complicated. I only got here yesterday, but I’m liking these Germans, and their lovely Bavarian countryside, and the way that good design seems to contribute significantly to quality of life here (more about those linking shopping carts later. And Mad King Ludwig…. And…and! I’ve got so much to tell you. But it’s almost midnight. So, tomorrow.)