Drinking in Germany

Believe it or not, the Germans (or at least the Swabians, who live in the Stuttgart area) have beverage traditions other than beer and wine.  One of the first purchases M. and I made after I arrived in Germany was a soda siphon bottle; I love “fizzy” water, but carrying it up the hill seemed silly when we could just produce our own in the kitchen.  (Or, prior to getting the kitchen set up, in the bathroom.)  When I discovered that the German apple juice (Apfelsaft) is ridiculously tasty, I immediately started mixing it with our home-produced sparkling water .  I thought I was bringing a little slice of my childhood to Germany, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that juice or wine (but most commonly apple juice) mixed with sparkling water is a classic regional beverage.  It’s so classic, in fact, that it has a short name: Schorle.  Every restaurant menu includes it, as far as I can tell.

It’s odd how you can come to a new country prepared to embrace new traditions and find that those “new” traditions harken back to Thanksgiving dinners drinking sparkling apple cider while the grownups enjoyed champagne.

Some local traditions are, of course, more appealing than others.  The other local beverage specialty — well, excluding beer and wine — is a cola/orange soda mix called “Spezi“.  For people who actually enjoy the taste of cola, it’s probably not bad; for me, it falls into the “at least I can say I tried it once” category.

Tipping in Germany

I’ve read the guide books, of course.  I’ve even traveled to Europe before — but I still haven’t gotten the hang of tipping.  The theory is that you round up a bit, leave your spare change on the table, or maybe leave about 10% of the total bill.  So I try to do that, and I usually finding myself cheating up a bit — 12% really isn’t that much more than 10%, right?  Ok, if I do the math: maybe it’s more like 12.9%.  But who’s really doing the math anyway?  And what’s an extra 50 cents to me? It’s not really about the money, though.  It’s more that it’s hard to shake the idea that not leaving a sufficient tip is completely rude — that it’s actually making a stronger statement to leave a small tip (say, around 10%) than none at all, since that implies that you could have left more but chose not too.

I’m trying to re-train my brain to understand tipping in the German context. The German word for “tip” is Trinkgeld, which roughly translates to “drink money.”  Somehow, by thinking of the tip as leaving a few Euros for a drink, I can overlook the additional non-tipped money.

My take on tipping here is about 180 degrees from how other non-Germans see it, though.  The other day in German class, we were discussing tipping practices.  Generally speaking, most of my classmates found the customs in Germany significantly more generous than those in their home country.  (The other students are predominantly from other European countries and Turkey.)  In Germany, people generally tip their hairdresser (my reaction: “duh;” other students: “are you kidding?”), taxi drivers, and so on.  The list includes most of the professions that I would expect to tip; the amounts are just lower.

A few weeks ago, I went to pay our pizza delivery person. (Side note: we’ve figured out how to order in, and it’s been fabulous to have another food option!)  I realized as I went to pay the man that I didn’t know how much of a tip to leave, so I guess at something between 2 and 3 Euros (probably around 10% of the bill, maybe a bit more).  When I came back upstairs with the food, I described the amounts to M., and noticed his expression shift a bit.  “Was that not enough?” I asked.  “I wasn’t really sure what to do, so I’m afraid I totally stiffed the guy!”  M. grinned at me.  “Nope,” he said, “that was definitely enough.  I would probably have tipped about half as much.”

Sigh.  I wonder, sometimes, what the Germans think of me.  M., who has a good ear these things, says my accent (although noticeably foreign) doesn’t sound “American,” though I’m sure my tipping behavior is.

Strangely Normal

So I’ve been back in Germany for just over a week now.  When I left it was practically still winter, and now it’s “Hochsommer.”  (That translates to “hot!  and no airconditioning!”)  Despite the opposite seasons, the strangest part of returning has been how normal — how ordinary — everything now feels.  In February, everything was a new discovery (or new challenge): how do I select spices and keep the kitchen stocked the way I like?  How do I use a German tape-dispenser?  Where can I possibly find some reasonably hot crushed red pepper flakes?  (The answer to that last one turned out to be: import it yourself.)

Now, everyday actions just seem like the same sort of things I’ve always been doing.  I mean, yes, it still takes a few extra minutes to find the scotch — or whatever the German brand is — tape because the container doesn’t look how I expect it to, but the familiarity of that “oh, right, *THAT’s* the tape” moment somehow makes everything easier.  Taking the train into town for school has been the simplest thing ever.  Buying groceries is suddenly entirely uncomplicated.  I suspect that many people living in foreign countries go through a slow transition from “WTF” to “duh,” but because I left shortly after achieving the “duh” level of familiarity with my new home, my re-introduction was surpringly different from February.

I am, by the way, officially a resident of Germany now.  I can receive mail, and I can re-enter the country — as well as live in it — legally.

Home Sweet– Wait, Where Am I Again?

So it’s time to wrap things up in Germany for a while. On Saturday, assuming a certain Icelandic volcano cooperates, I’ll fly back to California. I’m not sure when I’ll return to Germany next; right now my best guess is sometime in June. It feels like I’ve finally settled in here — and I’m about to leave, without a return ticket arranged yet. The good news is that we have everything in place for my return, when it happens; and I’m definitely looking forward to not worrying about how communicate about basic needs to people around me. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet that pretty much everyone in the Bay Area speaks English.

In a way, I’m about to leave one home in order to return to another. Even though Germany doesn’t feel quite like a place I belong yet, our apartment here is my home. California, though — that’s home on another level. That’s the home where I will be rejoining my friends, my family, my coworkers. I know how to get around and where to go; I know what people are saying when they talk to me.

It's Even Missing the Kitchen Sink!

Our German apartment included a bare kitchen room when M. rented it, and what was a minor inconvenience for him is now a major hassle for me. I’m home all day, and I cook more, anyway. Our current kitchen arrangement is about on par with the best camping kitchens I’ve seen set up: yes, you can make it work, and at first it’s a fun challenge — but eventually you just want a proper kitchen sink. With a drain. On a stable, level, counter-height counter. (Right now, we wash dishes in the bathroom — because that’s what you do when you don’t have a kitchen sink.)

So we don’t have a kitchen installed yet. But we finally, finally have a time-line and a plan… I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the Ikea documentation, looking up all sorts of German words, and trying to figure out exactly what should go where. Eventually, I even found good information about how to use a phone-based service for ordering the kitchen; originally we’d thought we’d have to go into the Ikea store and bring all the supplies home ourselves. (The nearest Ikea is about an hour away by train + bus.) So today I had a lovely chat — in English! — today with an Ikea kitchen representation who reviewed our plan and said it looks great. And yes, not everyone in Germany speaks English. I’ve found that it’s very common among people who deal in any capacity with tourists; but buying a kitchen is something that I suspect tourists seldom do. In fact, I’d written an email to Ikea in (likely) rather poor German in which I’d mentioned that it might be better if someone who spoke English could call me back — and when the representative did call, she mentioned that she was the only person in her office with any English skills.

Since I plan to document our kitchen construction process, here are the “before” photos:

Note the plastic bag with packaging trash on the door handle, the paper bag with bio trash on the floor, and the bottles in a corner with nowhere to call home until they get recycled. There’s also usually an unkempt pile of paper trash, but I took that out this morning. The stovetop lives on a patio table, which will be excellent for dining outside — but which is too wobbly to chop anything on, so the only suitable chopping surface is the top of the refrigerator. Like I said, it all works — but it’s far from ideal.

Market Day in Beutelsbach

Today was the first chance I’ve had (since I found out it was happening) to visit the Wochenmarkt (weekly market) in the center of Beutelsbach. Last Thursday I had to stay home and wait for packages to be delivered. One disadvantage of working from home is that you feel free to order stuff by mail, since you know you’ll be home to receive the package — so of course the one day that the package looks like it will arrive, you have something else you need to do.

The market square is about a 5 minute walk from home, by way of two bakeries, a butcher, the local grocery store, the post office, and a drug store (which is different from an apothecary; the latter is where you go when you need drugs). The sun has been out all morning, and every one seemed un-Germanly chipper as I made my way. (Of course, it may be that I was the un-Germanly chipper one and was simply projecting my own high spirits on the people whose paths I crossed.)

The market itself is fairly small, but it seemed to have a bit of everything — cheese, fish, meat, poulty, wurst, bread, pastries, flowers, and even some produce. The produce, oddly, was from all over the place and included more variety than I’ve seen in the local grocery stores: kiwi, passionfruit, etc. These “exotic” imports took up about half the produce stand; the other half was more typically German staples: apples (many varieties), carrots, and potatoes.

I walked around for a few minutes, snapping pictures of various booths and angles, until the bread vendor called out something (in German) that seemed to mean “taking pictures is not allowed.” I walked over, and the man — who turned out to be very friendly — explained that he’d simply meant that the customers at his bread stand hadn’t wanted their photo taken. My German is still “sehr schlecht,” but at least I’ve gotten to the point where I can communicate moderately well with very patient people. Part of the problem is that I can’t help but slip into Spanish when I get stuck in German; I’m sure if I slipped into English instead, the Germans would have a much easier time understanding me. Then again, if that happened I’d probably be speaking English all the time — and that’d be boring. The bread seller even guessed that I was from Brazil, in think in part because of the Latinate language leeching out of me.

Next I stopped at the cheese stand (DUH) and asked, in halting, awkward German, which was the best cheese that day. The seller humored me and offered me three different tastes — each was deliciously different. Now I’m wishing I had taken a photo of the cheese at the stand; the one I brought home doesn’t have a label, and all I remember is that it began with the letter “M.” The cheese man described it as “kräftig,” which means something like “strong” or “powerful.” (I only managed to remember the meaning of that word after I’d left the stand, of course. Such is life in a foreign land…)

As an aside, what finally brought “kräftig” back into my brain was the election slogan for the CDU (a leading political party): “Wir haben die Kraft.” I had initially associated “Kraft” with the English word “craft” — and while I’m sure the two are related, M. told me that the German word means something more akin to “strength.” So, it’s a word that reference political fortitude and strong cheese — but all I can think of is “hand-crafted.”

More photos from today’s adventure can be found here: http://paigemorrison.smugmug.com/Travel/Market-Day-in-Beutelsbach

Nacht der Keller

One of the benefits of working from home is that I am able to take quick walks into town during the work day to run errands. This week that meant I also had a chance to see signs around town for the “Nacht der Keller” (cellar night — which is actually two nights), and even to see some of the preparations on Friday afternoon. Seeing the preparations — and, more importantly, just how close to home two of the venues were — was enough to convince me that we had to go check it out. So, on Saturday night, we dragged our exhausted-from-shopping bodies out of the house to explore the wine culture of Weinstadt.

The event itself spans five small villages within the city of Weinstadt; there’s even a bus running between the various locations that picks up at 15 minute intervals and costs 3.50 EURO for the whole evening. Not a bad deal — but if you’re tired and just want to get a sense of the event, walking half a block for free is an even better deal.

First we stopped at “the blue house” around the corner, which I’d admired before for its old-style half-timbered architecture — and which I now know also hosts regular music and pottery classes. The spacious cellar of the house, built in the late 1600s, was teeming with Germans, all in various points along the tipsy-to-drunk scale. Various art exhibits lined the walls, and we were horrified at one point to see a couple of visitors cavalierly fling their coats on top of some mysterious ceramic vessel. At least what they lack in art appreciation, they made up for in appreciation of wine.

I didn’t feel like bringing a fancy camera for what promised to be a low-light situation, so the pics on this page are simply cell phone snaps.

An Irish band completed the ambiance; it was strange to have traveled all the way to Germany to find music that was so familiar to me — and stranger still to hear the plots of various Irish folksongs explained in German for the benefit of the audience.

Eventually, we finished our Rieslings — one dry, one sweet, both excellent — and moved on to the next cellar, where we found a saxophonist and keyboardist playing classic Jazz and Big Band songs. At one point, a couple got up and swing danced to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” — there were beautiful to watch. Then the band switched to “Sunny Side of the Street,” and I was astounded by the Satchmo-impersonation abilities of the sax player.

My own personal victory came when we spotted a couple of empty seats at one of the picnic-style tables, and I asked some people sitting there if those seats were available. I then managed, with a moderate degree of success, to understand that they thought those seats were fine, but there were some people coming back soon that had been sitting just next to them. It wasn’t… perfect communication. But eventually we got the job sorted out.

A further note on valuing “the experience”:

The other day, I was in the grocery store, and I noticed a carton of “sauerkraut saft” among the fruit juices. I was tempted, for a moment, to bring it home with me — for “the experience.” Then I contemplated the other groceries I was carrying and the schlep up the hill to get home. It’s amazing how quickly the value of “the experience” plummets when you have to carry it home up a hill with you.

Hallo? Or hide?

I went for a walk this afternoon; I’d managed to be moderately productive this morning and decided I’d better get my exercise (and cabin fever prevention) in before people started waking up and reminding of the things I hadn’t yet accomplished — or even bringing up new things to do!

I’m here to practice living and working from Germany — to find out whether I’m made of the stuff that can hack it — but darned if I’m not going to see a little of the countryside while I’m at it.

So, as I was out walking, I realized two things: first, I’m afraid of crossing paths with Germans, simply because I have no clue whether I’m supposed to greet them; and second, when they do greet me, they often just say, “Hallo.” To my poor little American brain, trying to keep track of the morgens, tags, and nachts, a simple “hello” seems like cheating.

There’s something to be said for living within a couple blocks of a hillside swathed in vines:

More photos from the walk here!

Working on a different clock

The strangest thing about working from Europe is that, for most of my work day, all the emails I get are from myself.

I’ve never been very good at “working from home” — it takes a fair amount of focus and discipline, so I usually reserve it for when I have an urgent deadline, and the urgency itself provides the structure. So far, though — that is, one day in, really — I’ve been able to apply myself reasonably well. I think it helps that I know that people will start coming online around 5pm, and if I haven’t gotten anything done by then, I’ll have let them down. A little pressure never hurt anyone!

That’s the view from my desk window… When M. came home last night, he laughed at me for opening the curtain. “What,” he wondered, “do you dislike curtains?” “Um, no,” I replied. “I just wanted to look at the view!” I suppose it’s possible to become jaded about anywhere once you’ve lived there for a while.

The other nice thing about staying home during the day is that I have better options for running errands. There are a number of small business in the medieval town just down the hill; yesterday I left to pick up some bread before the bakery closed at 6pm and calculated it as a 5-6 min. walk. And the neighborhood winery has “wein verkauf” at their “wein pavillion” — that’s also only a few minutes away, but in a different direction.

We’ve been trying the “Trollinger Lemberger” varietals, which is apparently a classic wine blend for this region. Somewhat similar to a pinot noir, it is a very translucent red wine, with a light summery flavor — perhaps a little bit *too* drinkable!

I’ve also uploaded a few pictures from the little town (Beutelsbach) and from our shopping trip to Stuttgart over the weekend.

It begins

The last time I wrote a blog, I was traveling around Mexico, alone and with limited Spanish. I paid per minute to use the various Internet cafes, and in some of the smaller towns I felt lucky to find one.

This time, I’m headed to Germany; but rather than traveling throughout the country, I’ll be staying in one place and working remotely. I’m bringing my own computer with me, as well — a necessity for work, but also a convenience for keeping in touch with people “back home.” If the great experiment goes as well as I hope, this will simply be the first phase in my German adventure.

Right now, I’m about to head out of the office and make my way to SFO. It’s finally time to go to back to Germany — well, finally time to leave for Germany, at any rate. Tomorrow I will be effectively spending the day in Atlanta, then Friday morning I’ll land in Germany.

There is something to savor about this pre-trip eagerness. You never know what might happen while away from home; it could beat my expectations or destroy them. So right now, I’ll just bask in the simple naivete of advanced excitement.

View from the hill near my German domicile: