Fancy dressing Angels?

When I saw the long line of people wrapped around the block, I naturally thought they were waiting for entry into one of the theaters that attract visitors to the Covent Garden area of London. However, as I rounded the block and did not see any Theatre marquee, I asked my local friend, “What are those people in line for?” Without even looking at the line, she quickly replied, “Angels, the fancy dress shop.” “Fancy dress shop?” I inquired. “Yes, for tomorrow.” she replied. “For tomorrow?” And then I realized what she meant: Halloween. Fancy dress must be a British term for costume. When we got closer to the storefront, I saw that, indeed the shop housed several floors of costumes, wigs, etc… It looked bigger than any costume shop I had ever seen in my life and I wanted to explore it, however, given the long line or ‘queue’ (as the Brits say), I made a mental note to swing by another day, perhaps after this Halloween and before the next.


If you are in London and looking for costumes, Angels may be the perfect place to check out.
Angels Fancydress

Why are Germans immune to embarrassment?

I remember the first time I entered a public toilet stall and was greeted with my own personal chamber music concert.  The piece was Mozart’s famous ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik,’ energizing and full of determination.  As I hovered over the computerized Toto seat, I was full of expectation (for what was yet to come) and also intrigued by the musical accompaniment.  Later when I asked my Japanese girlfriend about the music in the stalls, she carefully explained that the ‘modesty music’ allowed women to relax and enjoy their bathroom experience without fearing the embarrassing noises that sometimes break the bathroom bubble.  “Ingenious!”  I exclaimed.

Modesty has no limits in Japan, a land of conflicting contractions.  During my years spent in Japan, I observed groups of Japanese women always covering their mouths when they laughed, or holding their Louis Vuitton or Prada bags behind their miniskirts as they walked up the stairwells in the subway stations.  They would always whisper or cover their mouths when they spoke on their cellphones, and they always excused themselves with, “Sumimasen,” (I’m so sorry)  when they bumped into me, even when I was the instigator. Their humility and modesty kept them from feeling embarrassed or breaking the social norm.  But social norms vary from culture to culture.  And it’s always fun to compare and observe, which is what made me wonder, “What do Germans get embarrassed about?”

Because I live with a German, I posed the question to my husband, who nonchalantly declared, “We don’t get embarrassed about anyzing.”  “Of course,”  I thought.  “Why didn’t I realize that?”  After I pestered him further by asking, “Really?  Nothing at all?”  He looked at me as if I were starving dog and threw me a little bone to gnaw on.  “Oh, alright,” he relented.  Maybe we are embarrassed to be late.”  “Of course,”  I perked up.  “Why didn’t I realize that?”  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized he’s right; the only times that I have seen him experience anything close to embarrassment or unease is when we are running late for an appointment, usually because of me.  To me 7:00 means I can show up any time between 7:15 and 7:30.  To him 7:00 means you show up at 6:45; showing up at 7:00 is too late and embarrassing.

Today, however, I did experience something rare: a blushing German.  Had I had the forethought, I would have snapped a photo to show all my friends that Germans do blush and get embarrassed.  But alas, I was equally embarrassed, given the situation, so I was too concerned about my own modesty to take note of his.  What a missed opportunity!

I will spare you all the gory details but just imagine:

You walk into a German Apotheke (pharmacy) to get a prescription filled.  Because the Apotheke is empty, you quickly approach the young man behind the counter, hoping for a quick transaction before anyone new arrives.  He greets you and takes your prescription.  Although you’re in a bit of a hurry, the young man has all the time in the world.  Welcome to Germany!  He saunters into the back to pick up your drugs.  He returns with two packages and places them on the counter. 

At this point, if you were in the U.S., Japan, Canada, or any other civilized country, he would put the drugs discretely into a bag, quietly tell you how to take them, and include a print out of the detailed instructions and let you be on your way.  Not so, in Germany. 

After he places the drugs on the counter, he asks if you have ever taken them, to which you lean in and whisper, “No.”  He seems to misunderstand your whispering as a sign that you are deaf or stupid.  He nonchalantly increases his volume as he explains what the drugs are for, how often you should take them, for how long, etc.  Of course, he’s saying all this in rapid-fire German and the only word you catch is “Tablette” so you think, “Oh, it’s a tablet that I ingest orally.”  You ask him if you can eat it with water or milk.  He stares at you, in surprise, as if you have just declared that you will squeeze Preparation H into your mouth a la Cheez Whiz, which, based on your limited German, you may have asked.  Realizing that something is ‘lost in translation,’ you do the only thing that comes to mind: you smile.  Your smile suddenly interrupts him and he says, “Nein, Sie sollen die nicht essen.” (No, you shouldn’t eat it!).  When you ask him where it should be taken, he seems confused and then his face colors a deep red.  “OMG!” you think.  “I’ve embarrassed him with my stupidity; he’s blushing.” After he explains clearly how, where and how often you are to administer the medication (it’s not a ‘tablet’ as you assumed it to be), you pay the bill, he wishes you a good day, you say, “Ihnen auch!” (You, too) and then you turn to leave. 

Suddenly your face colors crimson as you discover a dense line of about 10 customers hovering behind me.  They heard everything about what you have, how you will administer your drug, etc., but, surprisingly, they don’t look embarrassed, surprised, or in any way interested in what they just heard.  They only look bored and eager to pay for their purchases.  However, you’re still feeling hot and embarrassed and wishing you were back in Japan, in your own little bathroom sanctuary, listening to loud Mozart music, drowning out everything embarrassing around you.




Shoebox full of memories…where are my friends now?

In my nomadic lifestyle of constantly moving from one place to the next, I have met and befriended many wonderful people, and yet I have failed to keep in touch adequately.  It makes me cringe when I think of “out of sight, out of mind” because I never thought that would be me; and yet I have fallen victim to it.

Old cards and letters

Old cards and letters

These rueful thoughts sprang to mind as I was organizing the closet and found boxes and boxes of letters, cards and photos from the past.  For whatever reason, I never threw these away.  In our current culture of SMS, tweets and Facebook posts, it’s hard to imagine a time when we used to write letters and send cards to communicate with our family and friends.  I can still remember how anxiously I used to check my mailbox every day, hoping for a card or letter from a friend in another city, state or country.  Now, I often go days without remembering to check my mail box.  When I want to communicate, I either send an email, which has suddenly become synonymous with snail mail in our ‘instant gratification’ culture, or send an ‘instant gratification’ message with Whatsapp, Viber and Skype.  Admittedly technology has advanced our ability to communicate effortlessly and instantly, and we are all slaves to it.  But what are the costs that we are paying?”  For me, the costs are memories, especially as I get older and can’t remember sometimes what I ate the previous day for lunch.  Yikes!  When did I became so old?

How many times do we reread an email message from a friend?  Once?  Twice?  Never?  Email is like a continuous dialogue- no need to look back and reflect because there is just too much filling in the inbox.  After I read an email, it’s ‘out of sight and out of mind’ for me.  Sometimes, if I read an email on my Iphone, I get so overwhelmed by all the other things grabbing my attention, that I forget to respond until a week or months later when I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, thinking, “Did I answer that email from Gene or was I planning to do it but never actually sent it?”  I don’t remember that ever happening when communication was relegated to 1) in person; 2) via phone; or 3)via letters and cards.

Looking through my boxes of old cards and letters, I was taken back to those earlier periods in my life: First year at University – cultivating new friends who turn out to be friends for life, having no curfew, having no adult supervision, discovering new things every day; My first solo cross-country journey across the United States – the generous people I met, the friendships I developed, the countless couches I crashed on, the national parks I mountain biked and backpacked through; Months hospitalized in a foreign country recovering from a motorcycle accident – the amazing warmth and curiosity of the staff and the generous love of my friends.

Letter from Loocy

Letter from Loocy

In my box of memories, I found an old letter from my dear friend Loocy, who I met almost 30 years ago at University.  She was spending a year abroad in India and we exchanged correspondences the old fashioned way, via long letters, waiting weeks and months for each other’s letters.  Sitting on my bedroom floor, reading this newly discovered letter, her words from the past urged me to be better about keeping in touch in the future:

“It is really gonna upset me, if in a couple of years we just send Christmas cards to each other.  I still want to know EVERYTHING that is going on in your life. And if twenty years from now you have a shitty day at work, you had better pick up the phone and give me a call, so we can bitch together.”

Fortunately, Loocy and I have managed to keep in touch over the decades of our separate journeys through life.  Unfortunately, I have lost touch with many other friends, whose rediscovered letters remind me of wonderful shared times long long ago.  Because I only had their physical addresses (we didn’t have email back then), I have lost track of them.  They are no longer living where they used to.  I often wonder how they are doing, where they are now, whether they think of me as I do of them, and if our paths will ever cross again.  I hope so; I would love to see them again!

Maia Banks:  Are you still in Portland, Oregon?
Mark Netherland, are you still working and living in Richmond, Virginia?

Julie Cobalt, did you return to Peru, where we met, or are you still somewhere in San Diego?  Sue and Obie, are you two still together and journeying through Africa or are you settled back in Charlottesville?

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.

A happy, and sad, day with grandma.

We were warned: “Prepare yourselves; it won’t be easy or pleasant.  She may not recognize us.  She is different than when you last saw her.”  Consequently, we were dreading the visit.  Death was difficult for us to handle and accept, but the wretchedness of mental deterioration in old age scared and frightened us.

The last time we had visited my husband’s maternal grandmother, she had welcomed us into her cozy apartment, hosted us for coffee and cake and then beaten us all at a game of Gin Rummy, her favorite.  She was a shrewd player.  This time when we entered her private room, on the first floor of a surprisingly cheerful and fully amenitized senior citizen home, she was curled up in her bed with her eyes closed.  She looked smaller than the formidable woman I had met years ago.  My mother in law festively announced our presence, gingerly trying to wake her.  Oma groggily opened her eyes and looked at us.  Her blank stare, lacking any sign of recognition of her daughter or her grandson, was heartbreaking.  My husband swallowed hard and looked at me, on the verge of tears.  I had to grit my own teeth to prevent the heavy rock in my throat from unleashing a waterfall of tears.  My mother in law, with incredible strength and humor, somehow managed to fill the solemn air with light conversation, asking her mother how she was doing, asking her if she wanted to join us for coffee and cake, asking her if she had been sleeping long, questions that she knew would not be answered, but were still asked.  Oma did not reply.

As a cheerful and friendly nurse helped to transfer Oma from her bed to a wheelchair, my husband and I waited outside in the hallway.  The whimsical DIY arts and crafts projects displayed on the walls; the ubiquitous antiques like old wool spinners, treadle sewing machines, and old typewriters; aquariums; rabbit pen with rabbits and hamsters; and tall cages of colorful chirping birds reminded me more of an elementary school than a senior citizen home.  Of course, the overabundance of Christmas-themed decorations added another layer of festive atmostphere to an already charming environment.  I thought how different the homes were compared to the somber, sterile ones in the U.S. that I had visited and volunteered at during my twenties.

We wheeled Oma out of her room and as we passed by the common lounge, with its massive Christmas tree, decorated tastefully in bright lights and ornaments, we said hello to the other residents, who sat motionless in their wheelchairs, at round tables, listening to Christmas music, watching television or just starting out at us.  Along the festive hall, several residents sat, reading books or playing cards and games.  The crafts room, situated at the end of the long L-shaped building, offered a quiet oasis from the rest of the home.  We decorated the small round table with a Christmas tablecloth.  We laid out the cups and saucers and poured the coffee from the Thermos we had brought.  We filled the plates with Christmas Stollen, chocolates truffles and Mandarin oranges.  When Oma didn’t make any effort to eat, her daughter picked up a truffle from her plate and offered it to her.  She took it and chewed deliberately and slowly.  I had no appetite so I just sipped on my cup of water.  My husband watched his grandmother but said nothing.  Suddenly, my mother in law, who had been maintaining an air of cheerful conversation for us all, took her mother’s face lovingly in her hands, stared into her eyes and broke down, as she cried, pleading desperately, “Mother, come back to us.”  This sudden display of pitiful emotion caused both me and my husband to tear up as well.  I knew that if I looked at my husband, the tears would flow incessantly; so I looked at a spot on the wall, bit down on my tongue and tried to still my heart and keep the tears at bay.  But even as I was fighting to remain composed, I was torn: “Why do we fight so hard to refrain from showing our real emotions and preventing tears to flow? Is it really that bad?  Why are we so afraid to show our own helplessness in a situation that we will all face one day?”