Before I leave the topic of food, I must describe the breakfast offerings in our hotel. I can never quite tell if hotel breakfasts are designed based on what the cooks think their guests might want, or what the locals actually eat, so I hate to draw any cultural conclusions. Regardless, the fare here includes some interesting options. First of all, in addition to regular rolls and breads and cakey-type things, there are soft pretzels. I would never eat a soft pretzel for breakfast, but I do love the things and am ecstatic to find them everywhere here, after being denied them in the UK—they are one of the foods I most miss from the US. So, every morning I steal a couple and keep them to snack on later. Another interesting item is in the hot foods section. In addition to eggs and potatoes and sausages, there are meatballs—not the saucy kind, but just little balls of meat (pork, maybe?). There is also a cold meats section, with a variety of fatty-looking salami-type things and sliced cheeses; many of the German guests frequently make cold sandwiches for breakfast, I’ve noticed. In addition to these are two types of meaty substance rolled tightly into the kind of plastic packaging that pre-made cookie dough comes in, only they are about the size of a thumb. They look similar to the little canned wieners that you sometimes find as hors d’oeuvres at American parties. On the last day of our stay, one of our friends investigates these and discovers they are some sort of paté—liverwurst, perhaps? This is definitely not my idea of how to wake my stomach up in the morning, but that is just me. Instead, I would prefer one of the many varieties of yogurt that are on offer. I have always loved yogurt and am quite impressed by how much vaster the selection of “natural” and “probiotic” yogurts is in Europe than in the US. However, the Germans have some varieties that even I won’t touch, since they are actually almost solid and clump together in a very unappealing way. These are called “mature,” and maybe I will grow brave enough to try them when I can be described in the same way.
Thinking of food reminds me of my favourite “culture shock” experience of the trip, which occurred in a restaurant. On our first evening in Bielfeld, we get drinks at a brasserie prior to dinner, and just before we leave I decide to visit the toilet. When I get upstairs to the toilets, I am faced with a choice:
(My choice of toilets at the ALEX brasserie)
Do I take the “D” door on the left, or the “H” door on the right? After listening for a minute, I become certain that nobody is in either bathroom, and I could just poke my head in to see which room has the urinals, so that I could go to the opposite one. However, at the last minute, I chicken out and have to go down to ask my husband which letter I am. I am informed that I am a “D” ("damen," meaning "ladies;" the "h" stands for "herren," meaning
gentlemen"). Now I must go all the way back up the two flights of steps before I can finally pee. Several nights after this encounter, I relate the experience to some American friends also attending the conference in Bielefeld, and we have a good laugh. Almost immediately afterward, I go downstairs to the toilet and come across two new and utterly confusing choices: "Brauerei" (“brewery”) or “Lager.” I feel utterly out of my depth, because I do not drink beer and therefore have no possible idea about which metaphor most aptly describes females. Then it occurs to me that perhaps this restaurant is a microbrewery, and I have not found the toilets, but, in fact, the place where beer is made and stored. I continue around the corner and, what do you know, I am presented with the familiar “D” and “H”—only, this time, the entire words are spelled out. That would have been useful a few nights ago!
Since moving to the UK, I have heard a number of negative comments about the Germans. These are not the kind of negative comments that Brits routinely make about Australians or South Africans, which have the feel of the sort of teasing you might subject a younger sibling to (“taking the piss,” as the Brits would say). Rather, there does appear to be some genuine dislike of the Germans, which I find odd. At least some of this stems from the renowned anal-retentiveness of the Germans, or, to put it a nicer way, their amazing efficiency and organization. This is not something I would ever criticize, since I, myself, am “amazingly efficient and organized," although my husband might describe it another way. Before embarking, I told him that I was looking forward to the first evidence of German “neatness,” and it did not take long. During our first day away from the hotel, when the staff came to clean our room, they reordered all the toiletries in our bathroom and tucked them into a nice, orderly row next to the sink:
(Dear Housekeeping: I would have arranged them from tallest to shortest. In fact, I did do that to amuse myself while brushing my teeth. Who is more German here, you or me?)
(Also in our bathroom: This strange little felt decoration atop our pile of towels. The hotel was named the Tulip Inn, so I suppose this is a reference to that.)
(more to come...)