Happy New Year! Ein Frohes Neues Jahr!

Glass balloons

As this year comes to an end, I wish you strong health, easy happiness and many days of new and exciting adventures!  Ein Frohes Neues Jahr!


Pleasure: Lost in translation

Living in a foreign country, we often encounter misunderstandings that surface when two different cultures collide and two different languages must be understood.  Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation brilliantly captures the ethos and pathos swimming in that sea of confused currents.  Because I am married to a German, whose native tongue is different from my own, I experience this on an almost daily basis.

Earlier in our relationship, when my ex-beau (current husband) and I started dating, the usual insecurities that plague initial dating rituals were heightened by the fact that his English was a tad better than my German, which was limited to ordering Bier, Wein or Bratwurst in restaurants or at German festivals.  Thus, we started our relationship mostly in English, which was much easier for me; and I was grateful for his willingness to practice his limited English, allowing me to communicate lazily in my native tongue.

One day when we were together, I sneezed and instead of saying ‘Gesundheit’, something even I knew with my limited German, he said something that sounded like ‘Plaeschern.’  I automatically replied “Danke schoen,” as my mind quickly registered a new German word, ‘Plaeschern’.  Although I couldn’t find it in my Langenscheidt German dictionary, I confidently assumed it was slang for ‘Gesundheit’, and used it whenever other Germans sneezed.  Oddly enough, they never acknowledged or responded in kind.  Because odd things encountered in foreign countries have a tendency to turn quickly into accepted routines, I thought nothing more of it.  This continued on for months:  Whenever I sneezed, my German beau said: “Plaeschern.”  At the time, we were new to each other, wanting to make a good impression, still working out our insecurities, etc…so I felt stupid asking for German lessons or German language clarifications.  I wanted to appear as if I knew what he meant or said, but often I didn’t.  Then, as our relationship progressed and we became more and more comfortable with one another, I became bolder.

The next time he greeted my sneeze with a “Plaeschern.”, I hesitated a moment and then got up the courage and inquired, “What does that German word mean?”  He looked at me with surprised eyes and asked, “What German word?”  I replied, “What you just said to me.”  Looking confused, he answered, “It’s not a German word; it’s English.”  “Oh,”  I said. “What does it mean?”  He looked at me as if I had lost my mind and replied. “I don’t know.  I learned it from you.”  “From me?” I asked in disbelief.  My immediate thought was, “No, you didn’t learn that strange word from me, because it’s not an English word.  You must have picked it up from someone else.”  But I didn’t say so.  We were both confused and disturbed.  I still didn’t understand what he was saying so I asked him to spell it out and he replied “P L E A S U R E”.  Spelling it out didn’t provide the clarification that I had hoped.  I was still baffled and it must have shown because he added, “It’s what you say in English when I sneeze.”  I immediately replied, “No. I don’t.  I don’t say pleasure.  That’s ridiculous!”  And then I thought, “Well, I suppose one could say that, given that I had read somewhere that a sneeze is like a mini orgasm. But then I would have asked a question, “Pleasure or pain?”, not made an announcement of “Pleasure.”  How absurd!  I kept thinking of “Gesundheit” and wondered, “Is my German so bad that when I say Gesundheit, he hears Pleasure?”  And then it hit me and I realized what it was:  Whenever he sneezed, I said, “Bless you.”  Apparently, because he had never heard that phrase or knew the English word ‘bless’, he assumed that I was saying “Pleasure.”  I suppose it sounds kinda similar to “Bless you”, if you are a non-native English speaker.  We laughed for days over this little misunderstanding, and I understood why others ignored me when I said “Plaeschern.” after they sneezed.  They probably thought me odd at best and wondered what language I was speaking.

The experience made us realize that whenever in doubt, especially when different languages or cultures are involved, it’s better to ask for clarification than to assume.  Not always an easy thing to do, I know.  But at least, it provides comic relief, like the scene in Lost in Translation when “Rip my stockings!” is misunderstood by Bill Murray’s character to hilarious effect.  Pleasure!

Thankful Sundays in Germany

Usually I dreaded Sundays because it (1) punctuated the last day of the short weekend, (2) signified that Monday, the start of the work week, was right around the corner, and (3) brought anxiety that I had not accomplished all the things I had planned to do at the start of the week.  As a result, Sundays were always stressful and full of anxiety.  It was never a day to enjoy for itself, but more a transition day from Saturday, a fun day, to Monday, a not so fun day.  Moreover, for much of my adult years, my full Sundays were spent outside my home, either traveling back from a short weekend trip somewhere or running last-minute errands that I had neglected to accomplish during the weekend.  Now, my Sunday routine has changed, and I credit Germany for that welcome discovery.

Unlike most other countries, where commerce flows 24-7, Germany still honors tradition and firmly protects their Blue Laws, which pretty much closes almost all commercial activities on Sunday.  If you want to start your European road trip holiday or drive somewhere, Sunday is a great day to hit the German autobahns.  Because transport vehicles (lorries, tractor trailers or semis), otherwise known as LKWs in Germany, are verboten to be driven on Sundays, it makes driving on the autobahns that much more enjoyable for the rest of us.  As with the LKWs, all stores are shut, with the exception of a few non-German restaurants and cafes which may stay open.

At first I was annoyed by this inconvenience on Sunday closures.  After all, Sundays were my preferred days to shop for groceries or run errands.  It was my last chance to get things accomplished, but the German laws wouldn’t allow me to do it.  Fortunately, instead of moving slowly through the five stages of loss (yes, I felt like I was losing my Sundays, my catch up day), I have come to accept and even relish my Sundays in Germany.

Although my husband and I often speak about sleeping in on the weekends (his idea of ‘sleeping in’ is to wake up at 5:30 instead of 5:00; mine is a little later), he is always up before me.  This Sunday my husband woke up even earlier than usual to finish preparing the sourdough bread he had started the night before.  He roused me from bed as the espresso for the cappuccino was releasing its last hisses, the egg neared perfect poaching, the bacon was crackling just right, and the smell of freshly baked bread wafted from the kitchen to the bedroom.  For all the arguments ‘they’ raise about women trumping men in terms of multitasking, my husband beats me hands down in the kitchen for multitasking; I can barely boil water without scorching a new pot and starting a fire.  Yes, I have done that before, much to my husband’s horror and dismay.

After our leisure Sunday breakfast, my husband busied himself with this and that around the house while I read in the living room.  I looked outside and saw that the sky was clear, a rarity this time of year in Germany.   I asked my husband if he wanted to go for a walk and he answered, “Sure. How about after lunch?”  In keeping with German tradition, I was thinking we could walk over to the Palmengarten and have cake and coffee at Siesmeyer Cafe.  But then I remembered that we still had a few pieces of the Baumkuchen my mother in law had given us as we left her house to return home.  The cake doesn’t stay fresh long and it would be better for us to finish it up today.  When I looked outside again, it was as if the skies were in agreement; it was raining and the clouds had rolled back over us.  In the past, I would have felt guilty staying home all day on Sunday, but now I don’t feel guilty or even like I am missing out on something that I should have accomplished or done.

It is important for us all to have at least one day a week, where we are not tied into the 24-7 commercial machine, where we simply stop to observe the clouds rolling by outside, or smell the bacon frying in the kitchen, sink deep into an engrossing book, share and laugh about silly things with family and friends, or reflect on the week passed.  Sundays in Germany are allowing me to do that.  I didn’t embrace it at first, but I am learning to embrace it now.  I hope that you are able to create your own Sunday in Germany, wherever you may be.

Biting my tongue at Muji Frankfurt

As a seasoned American expat, living in Frankfurt, I feel very thankful to be experiencing a different culture, learning a different language and enjoying (sometimes) an environment different than I grew up with.  However, with the good comes also the not-so-quite good.  For all the positive things I love about living in Germany – better quality of life, ubiquitous mass transit, German beer, wine and sausages, ideal location in the heart of Europe – there are still things that drive me nuts about this country.  One in particular, which continues to baffle me and other expats, on a daily basis, especially when we have to shop, is the lack of customer service.  Everybody knows what bad service is, don’t they?  It’s like pornography, you can’t describe it, but when you see or experience it, you know it.  I experienced another bad service again yesterday, at Muji on Kaiserstrasse in downtown Frankfurt. 

For those not yet familiar with Muji, it’s a Japanese store that carries simple and streamlined products including stationary, organizers, candles, as well as clothing and other home furnishings.  Muji has a presence all over the world and they pride themselves on the ‘less is more’ principle of design.  However, each time I have shopped in their stores in Japan, Great Britain, Singapore, France, Hong Kong or even Korea, their customer service was always ‘more’ welcoming and ‘more’ attentive than other similar retail shops.  Sadly, somewhere between Tokyo and Frankfurt, their customer service commitment seems to have taken a plunge.

Yesterday, I stepped into Muji Frankfurt, attracted by a display of candles near the front of the door.  Unlike the other Muji stores that I have been in, which tend to occupy larger retail areas, the store in Frankfurt is narrow, small and cozy.  I stood in front of the candles, picking up different types of candle jars to decipher which scent I preferred.  As I was holding one in my hand, reading the bottom of the glass, a young woman stepped directly in front of me, separating me from the shelf of candles.  Her interruption forced me to step backwards to avoid her hair ending up in my mouth.  I thought, “Geeze, how rude.  Why don’t Germans say ‘Please excuse me.’ before stepping in front of someone?  Had I been in an English-speaking environment, I would have reacted immediately with a  “Ah, excuse me, but I would prefer to smell the candles and not your hair.  Would you mind moving out of my way PLEASE?”  Unfortunately and because I am not a native-German speaker, I rarely say anything when Germans are rude or do something so contrary to how I was raised.  Again, as a foreigner I bit my tongue and said nothing.  As I stared at the back of her shirt, which was irritating my nose, I thought to myself, “Why are some German so rude?  Why the frequent lack of consideration for others?”  I took a step to my right, cleared my throat and that’s when I saw that she was holding a sheet of paper with a bunch of numbers on it.  Unbelievable:  Instead of being a rude customer, as I had originally suspected, she was one of the staff!  She never acknowledged me or looked back at me.  She expected me to step out of her way, even if she had to trample me in the process.  She was completely oblivious to my presence or the fact that I was trying to select a candle jar to purchase.  She was so intent on her sheet of numbers and trying to match it to the candles or whatever her task was that nothing else came into her vision, even when she could probably feel my breath hyperventilating with anger on her back.  Is this what they call customer service in Germany, a ubiquitous state of perceptual blindness?  And if she has it, what is she doing working in a customer service field such as retail for a Japanese company?  I expect more from a retailer, especially Japanese one.  If anyone knows the management of Muji Frankfurt,  please let me know.  I would love to share with them some clues on how they can improve their customer service training for their staff.  Yes, ‘less is more’, but not necessarily in customer service.

Fujiwara, a Japanese Restaurant in Frankfurt, is better than Sushimoto

After a week of heavy German cuisine at every single meal, I was craving something different, something fresh, something non-German.  I settled on Japanese.  Because I was feeling lazy and unadventurous, I thought of Sushimoto, my go-to place for good Japanese in Frankfurt.  My husband suggested we meet there for lunch, and I decided to check their website to make sure they were open.  Unfortunately their website indicated that they closed between Christmas and New Year’s, like so many other restaurants this time of year.  After checking a few other Japanese restaurants, whose websites showed that they also were taking a long vacation, I found a place in Sachsenhausen called Fujiwara.  My husband called them and someone answered so he reserved us a table for noon, and we agreed to meet there. 

I was the first to arrive in the small, intimate corner restaurant, just a few blocks away from Schweizer Strasse in Sachsenhausen.  As soon as I entered, the sushi-chef and the two staff members greeted me warmly.  I noticed that all the tables had reserved signs on them and was glad that we had also reserved.  After I took off my coat and hung it up on the coat rack near the door, I took a seat at our table and waited for my husband.  As I waited, a few more groups of diners arrived, all with reservations.  After placing her order, one Japanese got up and returned to her table with a folded Japanese newspaper, which she grabbed from a display on the wall, that was hidden from my view.  I assumed she was a regular.

Fujiwara has a two-page lunch menu including sashimi, sushi, yaki sakana (choice of salmon or mackerel), tempera and a few soba/udon dishes.  The lunch menu comes with the usual Japanese rice, miso soup, and small salad.  With prices between 10 Euros and 16 Euros, it’s a great value for lunch and comparable to Sushimoto’s lunch menu and prices. 

My husband ordered the grilled mackerel and I ordered the sashimi.  My sashimi included several luscious pieces of fresh salmon, tuna, red snapper, shrimp, octopus, and squid.  My husband received two tender pieces of mackerel, comparable to the three small pieces usually served at Sushimoto.  Both of us drank down our miso soup, which was flavorful and full of wakame.  The pickles included cucumbers, purple pickles and carrots, and the salad dressing did not overpower the salad of mesclun greens and a few iceberg pieces.  Everything was delicious and quickly disappeared from our plates.

After our meal, my husband and I agreed that we now prefer Fujiwara to Sushimoto.  We have a new favorite Japanese restaurant in Frankfurt!  Here are the reasons why:

1. Fujiwara is smaller, more intimate, and quieter than Sushimoto.  Sushimoto has become more and more like a chain restaurant.  As soon as you order, the waitress bring out large metal trays with the salads and miso soups arranged in rows, like you see in cafeterias or lunch halls.  As she tosses the dishes in front of me, in a hurried and distracted manner, I am reminded of some flight attendants on U.S. air carriers who throw pretzels at their customers.  This isn’t the type of quality service I expect at Japanese restaurants.

2. Fujiwara’s service is so much better than Sushimoto’s, which seems to lack attentive and trained staff.  The last time we ate at Sushimoto, a couple weeks ago, our lunch was interrupted by the grill chef, who started yelling in Chinese across the restaurant to one of the Chinese waitresses.  The outburst shocked us and we looked around to see what had happened.  We saw nothing that would warrant such an outburst, especially from the staff in front of customers.  Who does that?  If he was upset about something she did, he should have taken her aside privately and spoken with her instead of reprimanding her in the middle of the restaurant.  Based on his outrage and volume of voice, I could easily see him beating her or striking out at her if she had been standing right next to him.  I have never witnessed such an outburst in a restaurant.  Sushimoto needs to train their staff.

3. Fujiwara’s staff all speak Japanese.  If I want to hear Chinese, I will go to a Chinese restaurant.  When I go to a Japanese restaurant, I expect the staff to speak and understand Japanese.  Is this too much to ask for?

4. Fujiwara’s food takes a little longer to receive, is fresher and tastes better.  With Sushimoto’s quick delivery, I always wonder how long the food has been sitting on the tray waiting for someone to order it.  Food should be served fresh.  I think we sometimes forget that there is effort and time involved in receiving good, fresh food. 

In hindsight, I am glad that Sushimoto was closed for the holidays.  It gave us an opportunity to discover a new and better Japanese restaurant, Fujiwara.  And we’ll be back, for sure.


Zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag – Groundhog Day

If you are trying to lose weight or refrain from over-consumption this time of year, avoid Germany at all costs.  You will fail.

Between the first day when I walked through the welcoming entryway of the in-law’s fairytale gingerbread house to the last day of the holiday, when I waddled out, barely squeezing yourself through the narrow entryway, I had unwittingly consumed enough food to feed a large village in Mali, China or even India.  Dare I say even two villages.  Usually a restrained and temperate person, how had I succumbed to such unbridled indulgence?  I will tell you how.  In Germany Christmas is a two-day national holiday.  “What?” you ask.  Yes, it’s true.  But if you think about it, it shouldn’t surprise you that much.  In keeping with their traditions, like the fact that Germany is the land of the 90-day mandatory vacations a year (okay, maybe not quite that many, but definitely closer to 90 days than the meager 2 weeks or less that most Americans earn but are often encouraged not to take), perhaps Germans feel one day for Christmas isn’t enough.

On the 26th, otherwise know as zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag (2nd Christmas day), we all sat down again, at the same table, with freshly lit candles on the Weihnachtsbaum, again providing a twinkle (and considerable heat to the cozy room), and again dove into another Christmas meal of roasted goose,  plump raisin stuffing, piping hot gravy, red cabbage and Kartoffelkloesze, something like an over-sized gnocchi.  As on the 25th, the meat was perfectly cooked and roasted, with its skin crispy and fatty in all the right places and the meat falling off the bones; the plump sweet raisins complimented the tangy red cabbage; and the Kartoffelkloeszes bathed itself in gravy before finding its way into my eager mouth.  Can you say “Groundhog Day”?

When I asked my family why Germany has two Christmas days, no one seemed to know for sure.  They were just relieved to have a two-day holiday.  The likely guess may be that traditionally it allowed couples to spend one day with one family and the next with the other family.  Brilliant!  This would solve a lot of family angst during the holidays. In the U.S., many couples usually negotiate which holidays to spend with each side of the family.  If you have ever done this, you know how much stress and anxiety this can put on some fragile family relationships.  Maybe, Germany’s two-day Christmas holiday is the perfect answer to this dilemma.  But one thing is certain: it’s not the solution to losing weight or maintaining a healthy diet.

Thank goodness Weihnachten comes only once

Freshly lit candles burned and glowed on the Christmas tree, providing a cozy, warm contrast to the somber December grayness outside.  As if on clue, the church bells started ringing, just as we sat down for our Christmas meal:  Roasted duck, braised raisins with gravy, potatoes, red cabbage, and hearty red wine.  A beautiful meal, another rich, German feast of meat and potatoes.  Don’t get me wrong, I love eating German food, any food for that matter, and my mother in law is a wonderful cook.  But really, I don’t think my poor body can consume much more meat and potatoes without going burst.  Oh broccoli, oh kale, oh mesclun – or anything green and fibrous- where are thou?

If I were a farmer, doing physical labor in the fields from sunrise to sunset, the meat and potatoes diet would probably be appropriate.  But given our sedentary lives nowadays, and especially given our inactivity during the holidays spent indoors with family, when the only physical labor we exert is moving from the couch to the dining table, a diet of meat and potatoes seems somehow too…heavy.   How has the ubiquitous warning to include more colorful vegetables and fruits in a healthy dietary regime missed arriving on the organic shores of Germany?  Did they not get the memo?

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As soon as our plates were cleared and our stomachs were on the verge of bursting, the requisite coffee and cake was served.  If you are German, have lived in Germany or been to Germany, you know that coffee and cake in the afternoon is the favorite national pastime, sport, or vocation.  If you do not partake, you are looked at as if you are from a galaxy far far away.  We had enjoyed various types of Christmas Stollen with our coffee over the past several days, but today my mother in law opened a fresh box of the famous Baumkuchen from Salzwedel.  Yum!  Although I was stuffed and had plenty of food reserve to last me years, I just couldn’t say no to Baumkuchen.  Nobody could.  Is it possible to say no to any food offered, especially during the holidays?  I didn’t think so.


Salzwedeler Baumkuchen

My observation of the marathon eating feast during this holiday season makes me think that Germany’s Christmas (Weihnachten) is comparable to the U.S.’s Thanksgiving.  When we were younger we used to stuff ourselves each Thanksgiving with dry turkey and lumpy gravy, Stovetop stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pecan pies, assortment of fruits, chocolates, brownies, etc.  Because I can’t remember what we ate for Christmas, I am assuming the focus was not on food.  However, the mere thought of Thanksgiving provokes a Tryptophan flashback that makes me feel sleepy and groan with pain.  Now, I have another holiday, Weihnachten in Deutschland, which will provoke the same bloated and comatose sensation in the future.  Thank goodness Weihnachten comes only once a year.  Somebody, PLEASE take the Baumkuchen, Stollen, marzipan pralines, chocolates, and mandarins away from my reach; I can’t seem to stop myself…Oops, gotta go; next meal is calling.