Kaffee tawk

When we travel for extended trips like this with hubby, I like to seek out and make contact with expat/American communities wherever possible. Interacting with these groups makes the culture shock a little less, well, shocking for me. And the groups I’ve met in various cities are usually very kind about letting me attend their events and gatherings as a guest for the week or so while I’m in town.

Last year when we were in Germany, I did some research ahead of time and discovered an organization called the American Women’s Club of Cologne. Several women responded to my email requests for information and were lovely about forwarding their calendar of social events and encouraging me to attend. I was able to reconnect with a couple of the same gals prior to our return trip this year.

The AWCC is awesome and has a full schedule of activities, from weekly coffee meetings to book clubs, moms groups, dinners, recipe exchanges, girls’ nights out — you name it. I can see this would be a great resource and a lifeline for new relocatees. I ended up riding the tram over to a small moms’ group gathering yesterday afternoon. We’d originally planned to hook up at a playroom facility, but when I got there, it was dark and locked. Fortunately, I was able to find the friend I’d intended to meet in a nearby café. When I went in, I was delighted to see a children’s play area set up in the back with tons of age-appropriate toys to occupy my little guy. Obviously a popular stop, as there were a half dozen other moms sitting around enjoying lattes as their kiddos played away to their hearts’ content. I whiled away a happy and relaxed hour chatting with two moms from England and one from Seattle and left with my weary travel-worn spirit feeling renewed.

This morning, I marked my calendar for another kaffee klatsch, this one at a place called Bastian’s – a more upscale café around the corner from our hotel. (For my Indy readers, this place is like a bigger version of Taste but with more bakery options, to give you a frame of reference.) Not really a mom-friendly event, this, but I had to bring the toddler with me as hubby was busy at his trade show and I didn’t have a choice. There were four other women in attendance, one native German, two from Australia, and one in the process of relocating to Cologne from Chicago. No other kids in tow today and no such luck for a play area here, so I ended up catching bits and pieces of conversation and quick sips of milchkaffee between jumping up to chase the toddler all over the shop.

Bastian’s is a gorgeous bakery/café and I really would have liked to stay for lunch, or at the very least, a piece of the absolutely beautiful looking cakes and desserts in the display counter. Hmph. Better luck next time. We hightailed it out of there when the toddler started to squeal like a stuck pig in that high-pitched, scare-every-dog-in-the-neighborhood way that only toddlers can. I sensed the golden window closing and picked up a small salami sandwich from a stand stack for a quick lunch in the hotel room while the toddler inhaled peanut butter crackers and a banana.

Our dinner last night went a long way to restore my faith in dining out with kids in Germany. I’m of the mindset that when in Rome, you should eat as the Romans do. Therefore, wherever we are, I like to seek out the best quintessentially local cuisine we can find. The only catch is, in Germany, people don’t seem to bring their kids out to dinner very often. Or at all. So when we go to German restaurants, we usually get the stink eye from waitresses and often from fellow diners as well. Now, my son is a typical, curious, busy two-year-old, but he does ok for the most part. It’s not like he picks up plates and smashes them onto the floor or flings goblets of sparkling water at fellow diners, for Pete’s sake! Still, we get the cold shoulder.

I asked my expat friends about this situation, and they all agreed that it’s hard to find child-friendly dining-out options here, with one exception. Italian restaurants. The Italians don’t seem to mind a little noise and a little mess. To test this theory last night, we went for dinner at a place by our hotel called Ristorante Sansone. And what do you think happened? We had the most fabulous, relaxed dinner and the staff doted on our son like crazy. Two of the waiters joked with him throughout the entire meal, even going so far as to snatch him up and take him over for a close-up look at the residents of the lobster tank.

Michael meets a lobster

It was so refreshing, and the food was delicious, too. I loved my fresh ravioli pasta stuffed with a ricotta and pear filling, topped with spinach, nuts and gorgonzola sauce. Divine. Hubby’s pizza diavolo was good, but CRAZY spicy – the thick slices of meat were so hot, he had to pick them off. The residual heat still made him sweat.

ravioli

Back in the mood for German food once again, we went for a walk down by the Rhine riverfront this evening for a visit to one of hubby’s go-to Cologne stops — Der Lowenbrau. This is an old-school beer hall joint that looks like it’s been around for ages and ages. And, as we were there early and it wasn’t terribly crowded, they were fairly tolerant of the toddler’s explorations.

Der Lowenbrau

 

The menu’s full of German classics, thankfully with English translations. I went for kasseler rippchen, a delicious smoked boneless pork chop/ham deal with a mound each of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. The plate was a little cold by the time it got to me, but everything tasted wonderful and I polished it off without further ado.

Kassler rippchen

To wash it all down? One of my favorite drinks in the world – gluhwein. Like gulasche, gluhwein is an ideal way to cure what ails you on a chilly night, and a seasonal Christmas market standard offering. Basically, it’s a big honking mug of red wine spiced with cinnamon, orange and vanilla. It’s served hot with a little sugar on the side, and in my case tonight, a few crispy tiny almond meringue cookies. Just as good as I remembered.

gluhwein

The Christmas decorations and lights are currently going up all around town, and the preparations for the annual Christkindl markets are well underway. These miniature villages are popping up in various sites, each looking like a magical fairyland with its sweet booths and twinkling lights. I can only imagine how fun it would be to while away an afternoon or evening strolling along, sipping gluhwein, nibbling roasted chestnuts and checking out all the wares. Think stuff like nutcrackers, replicas of half-timbered houses, toys, dolls, sweets and all manner of holiday gifts. I’m really sorry we’ll miss this experience, as the markets don’t officially open until the day after we leave. Maybe we can time our trip better next year…

Oops, I did it again.

Forgive me, Father, for I have committed a cardinal travel sin.

I usually make it my goal on trips such as this to avoid any food or restaurant that is exactly the same as what I could get back home. No McDonald’s, no chicken tenders, etc. etc. Well, friends, I must admit that I have faltered. Not once, but twice. And I may do it again. I went to, gulp, Starbucks.

Starbucks is just starting to make its presence known here. They’re not quite on every other street corner (yet), but you can find them here and there without looking very hard.

To its credit, Starbucks does serve up a consistently good cup of coffee, wherever you might be. It’s disheartening to visit a local German bakery that sells the most mouthwatering pastry and then be handed a cup of coffee straight out of an automatic machine the likes of which you’d find in a 1950s office breakroom. Yuck.

I made plans to meet up yesterday morning with one of the American Women’s Group women I’ve been emailing with (who is actually English, as it turns out) for a coffee and Cologne chat. She’s actually the one who suggested Starbucks, I wonder if it was in an effort to make me feel more “at home,” and I went along with it. We convened at 10 a.m. and passed a very pleasant hour and a half alternately talking about the complexities of ex-pat life and corralling our corresponding toddlers.

There is another Starbucks less than a block away from the hotel where we’re staying, and its windows open out onto one of the busy tram stops. Having had another rough stretch of non-sleep last night, I really needed a big cup of good java this morning, and I knew watching the trams go by would be more than enough entertainment to keep the toddler enthralled in his stroller while I sipped it down.

The Starbucks coffee menu in Cologne seems much the same as back home in Indiana, and I didn’t detect any taste difference at all in the lattes I ordered, but there are a few localized special touches. Such as the seasonal lattes. Back home this time of year, you’re looking at things like peppermint mochas and gingerbread spice. Here, the flavors advertised are lebkuchen (honey cake), toffee nut, and dark cherry chocolate. Or maybe it was dark chocolate cherry… Whatever. In any case, it was enough to make me go “damn! That sounds good!”

The baked goods are different as well. You’ve still got a case of coffee cakes, muffins and what have you, but with slight flavor variations. I was particularly intrigued by something called a “gluhwein” muffin. I think I’ve mentioned before, gluhwein is actually a cold-weather quaff – spicy mulled red wine served piping hot with some extra sugar on the side. The ingredients listed on the muffins included red wine, cinnamon and orange. Hm. I can’t imagine how red wine works into a muffin mix exactly, but I am more than willing to take one for the team and find out.

Other meals worth mentioning… I was on my own with the toddler last night while hubby attended a gala dinner in conjunction with the trade show he’s here for. Based on past performances, I was a tad nervous about managing the little man on my own and being able to eat at the same time, but I was willing to give it a shot. I asked one of the hotel staff in the lobby for a recommendation, and he sent me to a restaurant/bar across the street called “Putz Beer Hall.” I swear. Putz.

The place looked pretty dead when we wheeled in, and the first waiter we encountered was a surly sort of older guy who didn’t speak English. He acted put out at having to find someone who could understand my request to bring in the stroller, and at the fact that I was bringing a stroller into the pub in the first place. But he did and quickly enough, we were settled. Of course, this guy ended up being our server.

This was another old-school beer hall, much like the one we visited two nights ago, but smaller, cozier and darker. Other patrons included a young couple who looked like they were on a date and a young professional guy who was soon met by a buddy. Who could also have been a date. I wasn’t sure. Another woman came in while we were there, sat a table next to us, and then moved as soon as my son let out a lone squeal.

Dining out here with a kid is something that is borderline frowned upon, according to what we’ve seen personally and what my local coffee friend was saying. Apparently, it’s just not done. I only recall seeing one other stroller out during dinner this week, which is odd because you see people walking around outside with strollers everywhere. German custom, perhaps? It was the same in Paris, too. I guess they’ll just have to deal with us; as travelers living out of suitcases, it’s not like we have any choice in the matter, after all.

The Putz menu offered up more traditional German fare, and I selected “kassler rippchen,” smoked pork loin. The plate featured two generous smoked chops with a flavor cross between ham and bacon, one atop a huge mound of mashed potatoes and the other on a pile of sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is one of the those things I would never think to eat back home, but here, I can’t get enough of the stuff. I found combining the mash and the kraut made the whole concoction even more delicious. Another superlative German meal. The waiter even lightened up a little bit when I ordered and conversed in German, my son cooperated and I left feeling I’d won a minor victory.

I think I’m falling in love a little bit with German food. The meals I’ve had here have been hits for the most part; the only misses came when we ventured outside German restaurants! The Italian dinner we had a few nights ago was ok, but way overpriced for the amount of food we received. And tonight, I was on my own again and grabbed some quick Chinese food from a place I’ve been walking past all week. I was in a hurry to get my son back to the hotel before a meltdown, the place looked promising and fairly busy, and I’d seen people getting food there to eat on the go. But… the chicken vegetable curry stir-fry thing I got was less than mediocre. Bland, watery and just plain meh. I was disappointed and spent the rest of the night wishing I’d followed my first instinct and stopped at the sausage stand for a bratwurst and fries instead.

Tomorrow is already our last day in Cologne. Our week here is absolutely flying by. That means only three more German meals to go. I’d better figure out a way to really make them count.

German 101 for foodies

Unlike romantic French or melodic Italian, German is not what I consider a pretty language. Hearing it spoken aloud, some words and phrases aren’t too bad and remind me in a way of pigeons softly cooing. Other sounds are harsh, guttural and downright ugly. This is not a good thing when you’re trying to figure out something appealing to eat in a restaurant and it sounds like your waiter is trying to clear a big wad of phlegm from his throat as he recites the specials.

It’s a given that you’ll have to eat during a visit to Germany, so it does pay to get acquainted with a few of the more common food items and how to pronounce them. Many restaurants in larger German cities such as Cologne do offer menus with English translations to make things easier. Many, however, do not, leaving you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell “erbsen” is and whether you really want to eat one.

It’s always reassuring when the plate the waiter brings to the table contains exactly what you thought you were ordering, and it is possible to deduce some items phonetically or visually. Say “schokolade” out loud and you can pretty much guess that it means “chocolate.” Same with “milch” (milk), “kaffee” (coffee) and “salat” (salad). However, seeing signs for “back” shops initially made me think they were advertising chiropractic services, or perhaps something along the lines of a “Relax the Back”-type store. Au contraire, mon frere. “Back” means “bake,” so there you go. Bakery, or as the Germans say, “backerei.”

The items that really threw me for a loop the first time I read them were the meat dishes. Meat here is called, somewhat graphically, “fleisch.” Yup. You’re literally ordering flesh. Add on the animal to determine the kind of meat, as in “schweinefleisch” (pork) or “rindfleisch” (beef). To make matters worse, ground meat is called “hackfleisch.” It’s enough to turn one into a vegetarian if you think about it too much.

Oddly, “schinken” is not chicken, as you might be led to believe after pronouncing it aloud. It’s actually ham. Chicken is “huhnchen.”

After you’ve dined out a few times and eaten something that you’ve enjoyed, it’s easy enough to look for it again on menus elsewhere. Ever the creature of habit, hubby finds one or two things he likes and sticks to them (see “pizza salami” in my earlier entry). Some consistently good and authentic German standbys that I often find myself seeking out include “gluhwein,” a delicious hot mulled red wine; “gulaschesuppe,” spicy beef-tomato soup with peppers; “schnitzel,” breaded pork tenderloin; “rippchen,” a smoked pork chop; and “spaetzle,” noodles, sometimes served with a cheese sauce like a German mac and cheese (“spaetzle mit kase”). Oh, and “eis,” which is ice cream or gelato. You see tons of signs for “eis cafes,” charming little eateries that serve coffee and desserts.

There’s sort of a caste system of restaurants here as well. There are the nicer, more upscale, sit-down places where you can enjoy full table service. There is plenty of recognizable American fast-food, sadly. There are smaller, cozy, more casual restaurants where you can enjoy a beer and some food. There are also tons of bakery/coffee shops with a handful of barstools or sometimes even just tall bar tables and no seats, good for zipping in and out for a quick espresso and a pastry. There are also snack stops galore (“imbiss”) where you can grab a quick bite of whatever might tickle your fancy. Turkish kebabs, Chinese take-out, pizza slices, even seafood.

As in any language, the most important German words to know are “bitte” (please) and “danke schoen” (thank you). I’ve found those two utterances alone, along with awkwardly pointing to the item you want on the menu, can often see you through the worst of times when it comes to ordering.

Guten appetit!