We’ve been in Deutschland for two days now and the differences between this country and the previous two we’ve visited on this trip are strikingly apparent.
For starters, Germans operate by the book. I’m not saying they’re, um, uptight, just very much more formal and reserved than the French or the Italians. Gone are the friendly smiles on the streets, the pats on the head and high-fives for the toddler, and the casual sense of ease. These people mean serious business, not monkey business. Not that there aren’t exceptions to every rule, of course. The young man at hotel reception who checked us in couldn’t have been more accommodating, and there have been a few random offers to help me carry the stroller up and down public stairs.
I must fess up and say that the language barrier is really wearing on me at this point in the trip. I know enough French to get by in basic interactions and social situations, but I’m totally at a loss when it comes to German. I can say hello, goodbye, please and thank you, another beer and where is fill-in-the-blank. That’s about it. If someone starts speaking to me in French, I can probably deduce enough to figure out the gist of what he or she is getting at. In German? Not a clue. In some cases, this is probably not such a bad thing.
For instance, the waitress at the restaurant last night blasted me for the collapsed baby stroller accidentally falling into the busy main service aisle for about two seconds before I could grab it out of the way. Or the dirty backpacker at the Dom who made some sort of lewd comments about me hefting the stroller and carrying it up a small flight of stairs (without offering to help). It sounded like the German equivalent of “oh yeah, baby.” Whatever it was, he was NOT on the up and up. I contemplated telling him to F off, but he probably wouldn’t have understood anyway.
Our hotel room here is tiny compared to our previous accommodations – three single beds crammed into a room with a cramped bathroom, slow wifi connection and no fridge (fortunately, it’s cold enough outside that we can keep milk, yogurt and beer on the window ledge). The hotel does offer a pretty impressive breakfast buffet that includes stuffed crepes, scrambled eggs, a mélange of fried meats, fresh fruit, nuts, cheese/cold cut platters, and something that looks suspiciously like sushi. It’s a buzzkill that the food doesn’t taste as good as it looks, and the coffee sucks.
Even hubby prefers to get his morning fix at the Starbucks around the corner, and you know he wouldn’t set foot in that place unless he was really desperate. The toddler and I actually ducked in there ourselves yesterday – they offer some interestingly flavored seasonal lattes, and I’m intent on trying all of them. The lebkuchen version was yummy with a hint of honey and spice, and the toffee nut I enjoyed today was equally good. Hubby brought back a cup of steamed milk for the toddler; he wasn’t interested at first, but got pretty excited once we started calling it “Michael’s coffee.”
I guess I’m making Germany out to sound pretty bad, which is unfair. Really, Cologne is a lovely city. Very picturesque with the gigantic Dom cathedral as the centerpiece of the city, hyper clean, lots of charming pedestrian shopping streets, and an entirely different kind of good food than France or Italy.
For our first dinner in town, we revisited a place we found and liked during our trip last year. Bier Esel is an old-style traditional German brauhaus not far from where we’re staying. I had my heart set on schnitzel, and that’s what I got. The place was packed, though, and service was slow as a wet week in Wales (another classic hubby-ism). It felt like we had to wait forever for our food and drinks, not a pretty picture when you’re exhausted from a daylong train journey and trying to wrangle a cranky, overtired, hungry toddler. At last, our dinners arrived. If you enjoy Hoosier-style pork tenderloin, trust me, you’d like schnitzel. My pounded, breaded pork cutlet was absolutely enormous, served Jager-style with a creamy mushroom sauce and a mountain of fries. I chewed my way through half of it and cried uncle.
What I really love about German cuisine are the snack stands and backereis (bakeries) on every corner. German baked goods are every bit as good as those you find in France, but in a completely different way. The breads are heartier — hefty pretzel rolls and chewy buns, but there are also fabulous butter cookies, strudels, cakes, huge doughy gingerbread-like men, and donut-ish Berliners. It’s all good. My usual lunch here is a tomato mozzarella sandwich on a crusty hard roll, perhaps with a smear of butter or basil oil and a slice of salami. Yum, yum, yum.
One of the first things I ate during my first trip to German six years ago was a bowl of warming, delicious gulaschesuppe, and it’s still something I seek out when we’re here. You can also find a thicker gulasche on its own served over noodles, and that’s what I ate last night. In its basic form, gulasche is a beef stew made with peppers and onions in a spicy tomato sauce. The suppe is the same thing in more watery soup form. Either way, it’s the perfect thing to warm your bones and your tummy on a cold night, and the version I had last night during our return trip to Bier Esel was fantastic. So good that hubby ended up eating half of it, despite the fact that he’d already had gulasche earlier in the day somewhere else.
On the Cologne agenda this week – a couple of coffees with the American Women’s Club and a trip to the local Chocolate Museum. Stay tuned for a full report.