Monthly Archives: March 2010

Planes, trains and automobiles

We are still in the process of getting our 2009 Toyota Prius certified by the German government. Here every vehicle has to go through the TÜV process which is like a vehicle inspection. It’s very extensive, and we were told that we would need to have our headlights changed to xenon ones, plus a few other modifications on the headlamp system to make it up to German standards. Xenon lights are expensive. Originally we thought the work would be done at the Toyota Dealership in Bad Tölz. The mechanic there said it would cost us around 4,000 Euro. That’s a lot of money! Fortunately, the mechanic said he would make some calls to see if he could get us an exemption.

He didn’t succeed in that, but the mechanic did manage to find a special TÜV office and mechanic, called US Cars 24 in the city of Wuppertal, who will do the required work for less than half of what we would have paid in Tölz, and in addition, not all of the modifications will be needed because this business has the necessary exemptions and exceptions needed.

Our car arrived in Germany in mid-February, but we haven’t been able to drive it apart from a few occasions. In order to receive our permanent license plates, we need to have the car certified, basically, and until we have the green light from the TÜV process, we are not able to get our license plates.

In order to have the work done, we needed to figure out how to transport our car to their business. It made the most sense for one of us to drive our Prius there. We decided that I would drive up to Wuppertal on Tuesday (yesterday), and originally I was going to take Rosebud with me. David was able to stay home yesterday and care for our daughter. This made things immensely easier for me.

Where is Wuppertal in relation to where we live? Wuppertal is 680 kilometers to the northwest us, or about 422 miles. That’s similar to me driving from Indianapolis, Indiana to Memphis, Tennessee. Wuppertal is in the German state of Nordrhein Westfalen, which has the largest population density in Germany. When you look at the map, you can see how many cities there are in that region, including Bonn, Köln (Cologne), Düsseldorf and Dortmund.

When I started my drive on Tuesday morning at 7:00 am, I actually didn’t have an address – when I had called the evening before to say I was driving there with my car, I think the office had already closed. All I knew is that I needed to drive to Wuppertal (my mechanic in Bad Tölz didn’t know the name of the company, just that they specialize in the TÜV process for American-imported vehicles). Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with the secretary during my first stop outside of Ulm. She gave me precise directions in how to get to their business, and indeed her directions were easy to follow.

It took me seven hours to arrive at my destination, in part because I stopped a few times and also because I don’t feel comfortable driving quite as fast as some German drivers do on the Autobahn. It’s true that in most places on the Autobahn, there isn’t a speed limit. But I would say most drivers seemed to go around 130 km per hour in unmarked zones. That’s equivalent to 80 miles per hour. I personally was more comfortable driving around 110-120 km per hour, around 68-74 mph. I didn’t want to go too slow, because it’s also good to keep up with traffic.

The Autobahn is like the US Interstate system, although to my knowledge there aren’t any toll portions. And like in the US, if you follow the signs, you’ll get where you need to go – with one caveat. In comparison to driving on a US Interstate highway, I feel that there is less time to change lanes if I needed to merge onto another Autobahn highway (like merging onto another Interstate highway). It wasn’t a problem, but I think that as an American driver, you just have to know that you need to react more quickly to information posted in comparison to driving in the US. One thing that is awesome about the Autobahn is how well maintained it is. As far as that goes, the roads are generally in much better condition that the US Interstate system.

I did run into a number of Baustellen – construction zones. Ah, yes – they’re ubiquitous. But because it was a Tuesday morning, the construction zones didn’t really delay me all that much. It was a little harrying on the A1 to Wuppertal, because the driving lanes were narrower than I like, but fortunately that was just a small part of my drive.

I was warmly greeted at UScars24 when I arrived. Also, I couldn’t help but notice the gorgeous vintage cars in the parking lot, including a blue 60’s era Chevy Malibu muscle car and what I think was a cream-colored 50’s era Buick of some sort. I am not a car person so I am sorry I can’t give more details for those of you who are into cars. And when I entered the main office, I was delighted by the lovingly decorated reception: 50’s Americana, à la Route 66. They also had a wall of US and Canadian license plates. I’m tempted to bring them our Indiana Environmental plate for their wall! Needless to say, with the warm reception and care I received, I felt no qualms whatsoever leaving my baby car with them.

Then one of the owners of the business drove me to the Wuppertal train station so I could catch the local express to the Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and then the express to the airport in Düsseldorf. On our way to the train station, the owner and I talked a little about the city of Wuppertal. It’s basically in a steep valley, with the buildings built up the sides of the valley. One of the neatest things you can visit in Wuppertal is the Schwebebahn, which is a suspended train that runs through the central valley of Wuppertal and is still used today for local transportation to get from one end of the city to the other. The suspended train is a beautiful structure and unique. I don’t know if there are any other trains like this in the world. The last time I visited Wuppertal was in 1994 when I was an exchange student, and we got to ride in the same historic train coach (or at least, a replica) that had been commissioned for Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Schwebebahn is definitely worth visiting.

It was a piece of cake to take the trains to the Düsseldorf airport (which is a lovely airport, by the way). My wait in the airport and my flight back to München were the most relaxing part of my day, actually. I had several hours to myself and actually got to do some reading! This was very exciting for a parent of a toddler who usually reads books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and The Going to Bed Book.

I arrived in the Munich airport a little after 20:00 (8:00 pm), and caught the next S-Bahn to the station where I needed to change trains to head back home to Bad Tölz. When my S-Bahn arrived in the train station, my train to Bad Tölz was at the next platform… just ready to depart. I missed it by a minute! And unfortunately that meant I had to wait for another hour to catch the next train at 22:00 (10:00 pm), and it was cold and windy in the station which didn’t have a place to sit, other than on the platform. But I got on the train to Bad Tölz with no difficulties, and arrived in Bad Tölz at 23:00 (11:00 pm). It was raining by this point, so it wasn’t much fun waiting for my taxi. I was so relieved when it arrived at the train station. I finally got home by 23:30 or so.

Such a long day of automobile, trains, plane, trains and automobile once again! It was really good that I didn’t have to worry about caring for Rosebud, because that would have made the day feel even longer. I was pretty wiped out by such a long, involved day – but the main thing is, our car is now on its way to being finished and certified for us, which will give us a lot more independence.

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A Doctor Visit to Our House

It’s been a busy few weeks. In mid-March, I visited my older sister Karen and dad in Ohio, where my sister lives. Karen is doing a lot better and recovering well from her cycling accident in October. She will have eye surgery over the summer which should make a big difference for her. She’s not able to see all that well yet. I have lots of pictures and stories to share from our trip to the heartland – look for a post about that in a few days!

A week ago Monday, the day before my daughter Rosebud and I were due to fly back home to Germany from Cleveland, I started feeling sick with a cold. My daughter had been sick the previous few days with this cold. I was mostly fine on the flight back to Germany, but due to fatigue from flying, jetlag and the cold, I wasn’t feeling any better. And being pregnant, there aren’t many medications that are safe for me to take.

On Friday night, I barely slept because of my symptoms and in fact, I felt like I was getting a sinus infection. I decided on Saturday morning that I needed to see a doctor. I wasn’t sure how to find a doctor on a Saturday or how to get there (our car is still not ready – more on that later). What eventually transpired is that a doctor came to my house to see me!

Saturday morning, after breakfast, I went to my neighbors to ask them about seeing a doctor on the weekend. I asked if I might need to go to the hospital – not knowing if there is such a thing as a weekend clinic here in Germany or how things like this are handled. My neighbors immediately said, “Oh no, you don’t need to do anything like go to the hospital!” In the newspaper, my neighbors found the number for the weekend medical service and on-call doctor. They also offered to drive me to a doctor if I wanted, which was awfully nice of them!

I called the number and was connected to the Bavarian medical service. They took my contact information and asked me about my symptoms, and then said they would have a doctor contact me. The on-call doctor then called me a little later and said that he would stop by house to see me.

When I heard that, I couldn’t believe it! That certainly did make things a lot easier for us, not having a car, but I was also amazed that a doctor would actually make a house call. While we waited for the doctor to arrive, I told my neighbors that a doctor was coming to me. They said that although this doesn’t happen quite as often as in years prior due to health care reforms here, they were very glad that a doctor was going to pay me a visit.

The doctor was very nice and also appreciative that I speak German. He mentioned that other times when he’s seen Americans, they aren’t often able to communicate about their health in German. The doctor said I could take paracetamol (what we know as Tylenol in the US) for the aches I was experiencing, and then prescribed a cough syrup that is safe for me to take in pregnancy. It’s made from the ivy plant, and it has made all the difference.

This evening, the doctor even gave me a call to check on me and ask if I was feeling better. I was pleasantly surprised by that, and thanked him for giving me a call and for helping me to feel better.

I think that the care I received this weekend says a lot about the German health care system. Our health insurance is part of the Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung – the public health insurance that is legally provided to us. We could have opted for private insurance but it would have been a lot more expensive. I know that my husband does have a premium he pays based on his salary, but in comparison to what we paid in the US, it’s a lot lower. Like in the United States, health care costs are rising here, but I think that the fees are lower for services than what they typically cost in the US. With the recent passage of the health care bill in the United States, one concern that Americans have is whether or not treatment might be delayed in a public system. I don’t know if that happens here in Germany on a frequent basis or not, but so far whenever we have been sick, we’ve always been able to get medical care right away (and at our own house, no less!).

I’ve only been to a few OB appointments at this point; I’ve been very happy with the care I have received – and, I can also see a midwife, which I plan on doing. Midwives are also covered by our public health insurance. A group of midwives are associated with my OB’s office, and I plan on meeting them to see if there is one I particularly like. I’m sure over the coming months, I’ll have a deeper understanding of how medical care is handled in Germany.

Braised Red Cabbage and Pork Chops

When you are pregnant, sometimes you have unusual cravings. I’ve been craving spicy food at times, and other times I crave sweet and sour flavors. My kitchen has an ample supply of oranges, grapefruit and clementines which is the main way I love to satisfy my desire for sweet-sour. But I have also been craving Apfelrotkohl, or braised apple red cabbage with apples which also qualifies as something slightly sweet and slightly sour. So I decided to make some for dinner this evening.

Apfelrotkohl (called Apfelblaukraut here in Bavaria) is what I consider to be classic German comfort food. It’s a common side dish and goes well with pork or poultry, especially duck, and potatoes or Spätzle, which are German noodles. I asked my friend Mia how she usually prepares braised apple red cabbage. She smiled and said, “I open a jar and heat it up.” And indeed, that’s probably how most Germans get their red cabbage fix. Red cabbage from a jar is almost as delicious as making it yourself, and it is much easier.

If you want to make it from scratch, here’s how:

Ingredients for Apfelrotkohl (Braised Red Cabbage)

Ingredients:
1 small to medium head of red cabbage, thinly shredded
2 strips bacon, chopped or 1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion
1 tart apple, peeled, cored and sliced
2 tbsp honey
1/4 cup apple vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp caraway seed
(optional spices: 1 bay leaf, 2 whole cloves)

I should mention that this recipe makes a ton of braised red cabbage, so unless you love it as much as I do, you might want to consider having a crowd of people to help you eat it.

First, thinly shred the cabbage. Then let it soak in a bowl of water.

Thinly sliced red cabbage

Red cabbage soaking in water

While the cabbage is soaking, you can chop the onion and bacon and slice the apple.

Add the bacon (or vegetable oil) to a large pot and sauté until browned or until the oil is heated. Then add the onion and sauté until golden. Add the apple vinegar to deglaze the pot, and then add in the honey, salt and spices. Finally, drain the red cabbage and add to the pot, a handful at a time. As you add the cabbage, stir it so that it wilts a little.

Turn down the heat to low, and occasionally stir the cabbage. If you need to add some more liquid, add some boiling water but not too much. Just enough to keep the cabbage steaming. Let the cabbage braise, while stirring from time to time, for about an hour to an hour and a half. The cabbage is done when it’s soft. If you have some liquid left toward the end, you can let the cabbage absorb the liquid.

To go along with the red cabbage, I decided to fix my Granny’s pork chop recipe, which she called “Glorified Pork Chops”. It’s easy to prepare and can cook nicely alongside the red cabbage. You can prepare this in a large skillet or a Dutch oven. I prefer doing this in a Dutch oven, myself.

Ingredients:
5 to 6 thick-cut pork chops
1 can cream of mushroom, celery, chicken or tomato soup
1/4 c. water
seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, marjoram, bay leaf

Rinse the pork chops and pat dry. In a Dutch oven, brown the pork chops.

Browning pork chops in a Dutch oven

Then add the cream soup, water and any seasonings you like. Stir together, bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to low, so that the sauce simmers. Braise the pork chops for about an hour until tender, occasionally turning and stirring.

Braising pork chops

Isn’t that easy?

Granny never added seasonings to this particular recipe, but that’s because she was a Midwestern girl and preferred things on the unseasoned side. That, and she couldn’t abide pepper! Although Granny’s recipe isn’t exactly German, it’s very much in the style of German cooking. That makes sense, as her side of the family came from Germany. Either way, these pork chops taste great with the Apfelrotkohl.

Wurscht! It’s Wurscht!

Or, as Sean Connery as James Bond might be inclined to say, “Well, ish that the worsht you could do?”

My friend Veronika, who generously and eagerly answers all my questions about Bavaria and Bavarians (thank you, Veronika!) has set me straight: the expression “Das ist mir Wurscht!” is, first of all, a Bavarian expression. And secondly, it MUST be the Bavarian word Wurscht. Not Wurst. As she explained it (and I LOVE this explanation), if someone says Wurst as opposed to Wurscht, it sounds silly and clearly marks them as living north of the “so-called Weisswurst Equator”. It would be like a Yankee trying to sound like a Southerner in the US, I think. That there is a so-called Weisswurst-Äquator just thrills me!

I also found this blog post about Mett and how delicious it really is; this is a lovely little account of someone trying it for the first time:
Blood Sausages and Raw Meat. Barbaric!

And finally, there’s a Currywurst museum in Berlin that I so need to visit someday:
Currywurstmuseum (click on the English flag to read about it in English)

My friend Emilia, also a student of the culture and fluent in the language, reminded me that Currywurst was, in fact, invented by Germans. The cities of Hamburg and Berlin both claim provenance of creating the Currywurst. My bet is on Berlin and Frau Herta Heuwer who first served it at her stand in 1949, according to Wikipedia. Hamburg claims to have first served it in 1947 at a stand in Großneumarkt, but I’m more inclined to believe it was Frau Heuwer who invented the Currywurst (much to the chagrin of my Hamburger friends, I’m sure).

And finally, a song about Currywurst, by well-known German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer (who, by the way, played a war correspondent in the film Das Boot):

Currywurst

gehse inne stadt
wat macht dich da satt
‘ne currywurst

kommse vonne schicht
wat schönret gibt et nich
als wie currywurst

mit pommes dabei
ach, dann gebense gleich zweimal currywurst

bisse richtig down
brauchse wat zu kaun
‘ne currywurst

willi, komm geh mit
ich krieg appetit
auf currywurst

ich brauch wat in bauch
für mein schwager hier auch noch ne currywurst

willi, is dat schön
wie wir zwei hier stehn
mit currywurst

willi, wat is mit dir
trinkse noch n’ bier
zur currywurst

ker scharf is die wurst
mensch dat gibt’n durst, die currywurst

bisse dann richtig blau
wird dir ganz schön flau
von currywurst

rutscht dat ding dir aus
gehse dann nach haus
coll currywurst

aufm hemd auffer jacke
ker wat ist dat ne k…. alles voll currywurst

komm willi
bitte, bitte, komm geh mit nach hause
hörma ich kriegse wenn ich so nach hause komm
willi, willi, bitte, du bisn kerl nach mein geschmack
willi, willi komm geh mit, bitte willi

Das ist mir Wurst

Here in Bavaria, I’ve heard the expression “Das ist mir (völlig) Wurst” or sometimes even “Wurscht”. It means, “It doesn’t matter to me” or “It’s all the same to me”. I don’t believe this expression is unique to Bavaria, but I have noticed it more here than in Nordrhein-Westfalen, where I was an exchange student. In that part of Germany, I more commonly heard “Das ist mir egal” to mean the same thing.

I think it’s culturally telling that, to say that something doesn’t matter, it’s like “Wurst”. Because let’s face it, Wurst – sausage – is a part of daily life in German culture.

Take Weisswurst, for example. This is a particular kind of sausage that the city of München is known for; traditionally, it is eaten for breakfast with perhaps some yummy sweet mustard, a Breze (pretzel) or Semmel (roll) and washed down with some beer. I believe that you were supposed to eat this sausage before noon to guarantee freshness and quality. I love Weisswurst; it’s traditionally made with veal, some pork and has a mild flavor. I think it’s usually flavored with parsley, maybe some onion and I wonder if it has a touch of nutmeg in it. For my friends from upstate New York, I’d say that Zwiegle’s White Hots are the only other white sausage I’ve ever seen that is comparable to the Munich Weisswurst, although they’re really not the same thing at all.

Recently, I read this interesting article in Smithsonian Magazine titled For German Butchers, a Wurst Case Scenario, by Andrew D. Blechman. It’s quite long, so I won’t copy the article here, but if you’re interested in German culture, I suggest you give this a read. The comments are interesting to read, too. For example, there’s a whole discussion on the translation of “Fleisch” – yes, it does mean meat rather than flesh, but I think when it comes down to it, the heart of the word comes from the idea of “flesh”.

The premise of the article is that the art of high-quality butchery is dying out in Germany, and that younger Germans may not always appreciate the difference between generic products you buy in the grocery and the tastier products you would purchase at the local, reputable butcher’s shop. Although some of the commentators disagree with this assessment, I think I would agree that the small butcher shops have been disappearing. I remember when I visited my host family a few years after my stay in Germany, and the local butcher’s shop was closed due to retirement and lack of interest in other family members to carry on the business. My host mother was sad about this because she said she loved their products the best, and now had to go to the next town over to buy from a different local, quality butcher. I don’t think that’s an uncommon occurrence. For my part, I distinctly remembered the delicious scent of the air near that butcher’s shop: it was smoky and porky, and tempting. No longer did that little corner of Stommeln smell so good; no longer did owners attach their dogs to the “dog-parking” outside the butcher’s shop while they went in to pick up their Aufschnitt (an assortment of cold cuts for the yummy supper Abendbrot).

I thought I would pull out a few quotations from the article that particularly struck me:

A favorite children’s food, a bologna-like luncheon meat, is called by the curious term “flesh sausage.” No family visit to the meat counter is complete without a free slice of “flesh sausage” rolled up and handed to a smiling youngster in a stroller. Few things put me in a pensive mood like hearing my daughter cry out in delight, “Flesh, Papa! I want more Fleisch!”

Although my daughter doesn’t clamor for Fleischwurst (yet?), she is always offered this treat from the deli whenever we stop at the counter (whether in a grocery store or at a local butcher’s). It’s like a veal bologna, quite mild and it is really tasty! At a local butcher’s shop in Bad Tölz, one of the men who works behind the counter slices off very thick pieces for the kids and seems to enjoy handing them out to the children, hands outstretched for their Wurst. Rosebud, however, often nibbles at her Wurst and then ends up flinging it in the grocery cart or worse, in my purse! Maybe she will develop a taste for it when she’s older, as she is not much of a meat eater at this stage.

The Bratwurst, a favorite of Goethe’s, can be traced at least as far back as the 15th century, when the Bratwurst Purity Law outlawed the use of rancid, wormy or pustulated meat. These days Bratwursts are generally served at food stands, where they are mechanically sliced into medallions, smothered with a sweet, rust-colored condiment called “curry ketchup” and sprinkled with bland curry powder.

The author talks about Currywurst here; sometimes it’s not a Bratwurst that is served for a Currywurst, but a different kind of sausage (the name of which escapes me). The curry ketchup is honestly not one of my favorite things, but Germans seem fond of it. I think it was probably invented by Turkish immigrants. And despite my feelings about curry ketchup, I do love Currywurst.

To gain a better understanding of the history of the profession, Gero had recommended a visit to the German butchers museum in a village near Stuttgart. An ardent medievalist who, when he can, spends weekends in drafty castles dressed in artfully tailored period costumes, Gero speaks excitedly about the museum’s collection of ornate treasure chests, which played a prominent role at secretive and highly ritualized candlelit gatherings of the medieval butchers’ guilds.

“It’s difficult to overemphasize the critical role the master butcher has played in Germany’s cultural heritage,” he tells me. “France has its cheese and cheese makers; Germany has its sausages and sausage makers.”

Throughout our conversation, Gero draws a distinction between meat and sausage, which I had always thought of as one and the same. “Meat is meat,” Gero explains, “but sausage carries the culture.”

Gero is, by the way, a spokesman for the German Butcher’s Association. I thought his assertion that “sausage carries the culture” is also telling. I don’t believe every German would agree with that, especially since vegetarianism is accepted here (more so than in France, I’d say), but at the same time, I think most Germans couldn’t probably imagine a world without Wurst.

The article only briefly touches on how the common market regulations here are making it more difficult for artisanal products to be made. In France, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten an earful from a French person defending their right to have fresh, unpasteurized cheese. I agree with them, because these cheeses are delicious, only locally available, and you know the person who made that cheese in the little cheese shop. But with common market laws here in the European Union, it is getting more and more difficult for those kinds of products to exist (although perhaps more to the point, these products can only be sold in that particular locale, I believe, and I do see that as a very positive thing). It’s a similar story with meat products here. In fact, Anthony Bourdain discussed this phenomenon a little bit on his show No Reservations, when he was in Prague (Czech Republic). It seems that EU regulations favor mass production for the sake of having a safe food supply. That’s possibly a post for another time, fans of Michael Pollan.