The Ethnic Food Enigma

“YUCK!” exclaimed The German. “Why do you always have to cook ethnic food?”

Since moving abroad, I have experimented a lot in the kitchen to satisfy my diverse food cravings from General Tso’s chicken and teriyaki chicken, to chimichangas and quesadillas, to Swedish meatballs. Until now, The German has eaten just about everything with vigor and helped himself to a second, or third, serving.

Today, though, he spat out “ethnic” like a dirty word.

What had I served for supper that warranted such an outburst?

Deep-fried crocodile?

Birds nest soup?

Grasshopper tacos?

Nope. Nope. Nope.

On our dinner plates sat Weißwurst and mustard—a type of sausage commonly served during Oktoberfest and, all in all, a very (Bavarian-) German dish.

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25 Things I Have & Haven’t Learned in 25 Years

I am officially 25 years old.

Being the youngest of three children, I am the last in my family to reach this milestone. When my oldest sibling reached the big two five, I can distinctly remember the look of shock and disbelief on my parents’ faces—their daughter was a quarter of a century old.

Since then, this expression has been rolling around my head: quarter of a century old, quarter of a century old, quarter of a century old. Something about it just sounds so, well, old. Because knowledge and wisdom are supposed to accompany age, I have been reflecting on what I have—and haven’t—learned in my first 25 years of life.

25 things I have learned:

  1. You are the only person responsible for your happiness. In the same vein, you are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.
  2. Money isn’t everything.
  3. Be a tourist in your own city and state. Whether it is a local museum or a nearby hiking trail, get out, explore, and fall in love with the place you call home!
  4. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people.
  5. Keep an on-going to-do list and use a calendar to keep track of your engagements.
  6. Always greet people warmly and end the interaction with well wishes for the day, weekend, or an upcoming event. You’ll brighten their day.
  7. Know your own worth and never settle for less than you deserve.
  8. Read often. Even if it’s a smutty romance novel, keep your mind and imagination active. Audiobooks are great too!
  9. Have a mentor.
  10. “You can do anything you set your mind to,” is a commonplace expression for reason—because it’s true.
  11. Learn a second (or even third!) language. A new culture will be unveiled for you to discover, enjoy, and understand on a level that just isn’t possible with a language barrier.
  12. Regardless of what side you’re on, the greenness of the grass relies mostly on your perception and attitude.
  13. Give compliments often. Both you and the recipient will experience a mood boost.
  14. Marry your best friend.
  15. Write your goals down and rewrite them every few months. Strive for constant growth.
  16. You are the center of your pets’ world. Give them the best life you can.
  17. Find a cause you are passionate about and volunteer. You will gain so much more than you could ever imagine.
  18. Find hobbies you love and develop your interests. Until then, try everything!
  19. Be the kind of friend that you want to have.
  20. If you are sitting on the couch trying to decide whether you should exercise or not, just do it. You won’t regret it.
  21. Clean 10 minutes per day.
  22. Everyone has their own path in life and no one’s path is wrong.
  23. Be mindful of the beauty around you every day.
  24. Accept your body for what it is and what it is not.
  25. Parallel park a car successfully, albeit not well.

25 things I haven’t yet learned:

  1. Keep a plant alive and thriving for an extended period of time (i.e., longer than two weeks).
  2. Understand what religion or spirituality means to you.
  3. Change a diaper.
  4. Quickly read an analog clock.
  5. Be graceful.
  6. Follow news actively without becoming an angry, bitter shell of a human being.
  7. Achieve an intermediate level of geography.
  8. Discern left and right without having to mentally check your hands for an “L” shape.
  9. Accept relationships and individuals unconditionally for what they are and what they are not.
  10. Buy a tub of ice cream without finishing it in two days.
  11. Discover the true meaning of “na” in German.
  12. Develop a sense of navigational direction.
  13. Balance perfectionist tendencies with reality.
  14. Plunge a toilet successfully.
  15. Discover the source of all dirt, dust, and residue in your apartment. Just how does it get so dirty!?
  16. Forgive and forget.
  17. Light a grill.
  18. Be my cat’s favorite human.
  19. Don’t ugly cry during The Notebook.
  20. Find age appropriate jeans that fit well.
  21. Remember how to access your online banking.
  22. Eat popcorn without annoying The German.
  23. Think fully before speaking.
  24. Shower in under five minutes.
  25. Wash moldy food containers for recycling.

The next 25 years hold so many more adventures and opportunities for growth: completing my master’s thesis, holding my first full-time job, having children (and maybe grandchildren), and buying a house. The journey ahead seems to be one great lesson after another and the older I get, the more I realize there is left for me to learn.

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The Uncertainties of Adulthood

As I find myself departing from my early twenties and entering my mid-twenties, I often consider my status as an adult skeptically. It’s still difficult for me to read an analog clock and to tell left from right. There are days when the closest thing I eat to a fruit or vegetable is a healthy serving of ketchup. I have shrunk expensive sweaters in the wash, murdered countless houseplants, and waited months before changing my sheets. All of these doubts and insecurities of adulthood culminated last Mother’s Day.

Both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were celebrated quite enthusiastically throughout my childhood and The German’s mom has been very thoughtful and supportive since my relocation to Germany. Therefore, I wanted to do something nice for her and I decided to bake monkey bread—small pieces of dough formed into a circle by a Bundt pan and covered in ooey, gooey cinnamon sugar. It’s basically everything that food wet dreams are made of.

In twenty-four years, I have done a good amount of baking. Not a lot, but a good amount. However, due to its sugary nature, I completely overlooked the fact that monkey bread is bread and yeast—a key ingredient in bread—is tricky, tricky. I woke up on the morning of Mother’s Day and eagerly began my preparation for baking. I pulled out all the ingredients, bakeware, and recipe and began reading—only to learn that dough mixtures with yeast need to sit overnight to work their microorganism magic. I panicked and since it was Sunday in Germany, there were no shops open to get ingredients for an alternative treat.

After a deep breathing exercise, I sat down on my computer and found a recipe which didn’t require the dough to rise overnight. Thinking that I was especially smart, I began following the instructions: add this, add that, mix it with an electric hand mixer. Next, the directions stated that once the dough was “lightly sticky,” it should be taken out of the bowl and kneaded by hand. I pressed a finger to my mixture and found that it stuck to me like Elmer’s glue. After adding more flour, I tested it again. Still sticky. As I continued to blend more flour in with the hand mixer, the dough seemed to be getting thicker rather than less sticky. As if confirming my suspicions, a blob of dough wrapped itself around the beaters, spun quickly around, around, and around, launched itself into the air, and landed on the kitchen floor with a loud PLOP. With half of the dough laying on the ground, my panic returned and deep breathing wasn’t going to help this time.

In my upset state, I decided that the hand mixer would not work anymore and moved onto the next step. Just like I’ve seen my grandma, I spread flour onto the counter to prevent sticking and scraped the dough out of the mixing bowl onto the prepared spot. After rubbing a little flour on my own hands, I pushed the heels of my hands into the warm dough. It stuck to everything; the counter was covered in dough and my fingers were glued together. Hoping that a little mixing would improve the situation, I wildly attempted to knead the paste. Soon, however, I admitted defeat. I scraped the dough back into the mixing bowl and tossed it into the warm oven to rise. Following, I crusaded through the rest of the recipe: cutting up small bits of dough, forming it in the pan, pouring the buttery sugar mix over, and baking it. Knowing the monkey bread was unlikely to be edible, I rushed to a nearby bakery before The German’s parents arrived and purchased a few slices of cake.

Later that evening, after The German’s parents had eaten their store-bought cake (and pieces of my monkey bread out of pity) and left, I stood over the stove and stared at my blobby, cinnamon-covered mess. What had started out as good intentions, had ended as a reminder of all the things I still didn’t know as an adult. Feeling disappointed, I picked off a piece of the bread, ate the sugar-coated side, and threw back the other half. Piece after piece, I hurriedly devoured bits of the bread and littered the leftovers back onto the stove. Even if the bread was a disaster, I would eat it. I would eat my disappointment, my frustration, my feelings away. Hunched over the tray in the dim kitchen, I looked down at my sticky fingers and at the half-eaten pieces which were strewn around like the fallen soldiers of a battlefield. The doughy mass weighed heavy in my stomach. Is this really adulthood?

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Run or Be Run Over

Crossing the street as a pedestrian in Germany is like taking part in the world’s most deadly game of Frogger—the classic arcade game in which you play a frog attempting to cross a busy road.

One summer morning, I was making the daily trek to my language course. I had recently discovered that it was quicker to scamper across the street at the tram stop rather than the official pedestrian crosswalk further down the road. Like most children, I was taught from a young age to look both ways before crossing the street.

I checked right. Clear.

I checked left. Clear.

I checked right again. Clear again.

Seeing that there was no traffic around, I stepped into the wide street and, unknowingly, into my very own game of Frogger. The nearby traffic light changed and a car turned onto the road.

As a driver, I approach slowly and cautiously with the vehicle when a pedestrian crosses. After all, it’s what you learn in driver’s education courses, filling out a police report is time consuming, and the human body leaves a large dent. Plus, who really wants that on their conscience? This driver—and most German drivers for that matter—did not belong to the same school of thought as me.

The skies were blue. The birds were chirping. It was a beautiful day. And the driver wanted my blood. He smashed his foot onto the gas pedal of his car and the engine roared angrily as it approached me within seconds. I squeaked in surprise and bolted to the safety of the sidewalk.

Since my introduction to the “game”, I have observed the brave attempts of others and there appears to be very little concern for the player regardless of age, capability, or situation. This includes an elderly man with forearm crutches crossing a cobblestone street. Concerned and generally exasperated with life-size Frogger, I pointed out the danger of the situation after my German friend—driving at the time—put the pedal to the metal when a pedestrian walked in front of our vehicle. In response, she gleefully cackled.

If you are personally interested in experiencing countrywide dedication to Frogger live action role playing, cross a local street in Germany today!

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No Foot in My Mouth

In August, The German and I spent two weeks visiting my hometown; we devoured American food, visited our favorite locales, and celebrated our recent nuptials with family and friends. One morning during this stay, my mom and I hopped into the car and headed to a nearby nail salon to get pedicures. As I got out of the vehicle and swung the car door shut, I began my routine of preparing for an interaction.

First, what was about to occur? My feet would be pampered and my toe nails painted.

Second, what vocabulary did I need to accomplish this?

Die Füße – the feet.

Der Nagellack – the nail polish.

And then it hit me. I wouldn’t need any of these words—at least not in German. I was in my hometown where the people spoke my native language. A sense of relief washed over me. I would actually be able to have a normal interaction with a service worker: no stammering, no vocabulary shortage, no confusion. I walked into the nail salon with an extra spring in my step and the knowledge that if the situation became awkward, it at least wouldn’t be due to the German language.

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The Beer Necessities

Without a doubt, the most iconic landmark of Magdeburg is the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice—more commonly known as the Magdeburg Cathedral (German: Magdeburger Dom). Towering over the city center and visible from miles away, the magnificent building is the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany and has silently observed hundreds of years of local ongoings—the Reformation, invading armies, the Peaceful Revolution, and, in recent years, renditions of the musical which features everyone’s favorite transvestite scientist.

SONY DSC

Despite residing in an area which is primarily atheist, the Dom remains a cultural focal point of the city and as such offers daily day-time tours and biweekly night-time tours from September to April. Last spring, I was able to tag along to one of the last night tours of the season.

Walking into the cathedral on a chilly spring night, the atmosphere of the space was quite different than my previous visits—all of which occurred during the day. On any afternoon, the inside of the Dom is a truly beautiful sight; sunlight filters through the large windows and illuminates the enormous, man-made cavern with an ethereal glow. Around 10pm, however, the only sources of light within the dim interior were small flashlights held by visitors. Their beams flickered across the uneven surfaces and caused shadows to dance with unfamiliarity around us. It was eerie to say the least. We huddled into small groups, as if each other’s presence would protect us from the pressing darkness and biting chill in the room.

At last, the tour began. Two men guided us—a group of about 30 people—throughout the cathedral and stopped at various historic sites and artifacts to explain their significance. Halfway through the tour, we stood behind the alter at the center of the Dom and circled around the grave marker of, according to the tour guide, a particularly hated archbishop of Magdeburg. Within the blanket of darkness, the aged tour guide regaled the story of the long-dead Archbishop Burchard III, a greedy man who had levied a beer tax.

As anyone with even a pinch of knowledge about German culture knows, beer is a serious matter in Deutschland. Faced with an increasing price of beer, how did the Magdeburgers handle the tax? Clearly, in the most reasonable manner. With almost a tone of agreement, the tour guide proclaimed that the local citizens kidnapped the archbishop and bashed his head in with an iron doorknob. The group burst into a fit of wild laughter; the sounds of their whoops and hollers reverberating around the chamber of the cathedral.

Nothing lightens the dim mood of a group of Germans like the story of a gruesome murder.

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Hot & Steamy: Saunas in Germany

Last spring, one of my closest friends had the opportunity to visit me in Germany for two weeks. The time was spent reestablishing our friendship by trying new experiences and traveling together. One of the most memorable days was our visit to the local sauna—our first experience with public nudity.

As we purchased morning passes, neither of us knew a thing about sauna procedures and etiquette in Germany. Naively, we walked towards the sauna area swimsuit clad, sans towel. As we were about to open the door, however, we noticed a sign that stated “Textilfreier Bereich”. Meaning, the sauna was a clothing-free zone; we had to be butt naked. We were flabbergasted. Should we birthday suit up or consider the €14 a sunk cost and head home?

Fifteen minutes later, we entered the sauna area with our rented towels wrapped tightly around us in an attempt to feel a little more clothed. Due to our self-consciousness, we walked straight past the pools and saunas. Confused, I asked an elderly man in a robe where we could find the saunas. He flashed us a grin, chummily wrapped his arm around my naked shoulders, and personally guided us back into the correct area.

After thanking the man for his help, my friend and I looked around the pools and saunas. At the center of the room, there were two free-standing baths. One lukewarm and bubbled, while the other was cool and still. Along the edge of the room, there were both dry and wet saunas of varying temperatures. Outside, there were additional pools and saunas for guests to use. For the next hour or two, we tried out multiple saunas and confronted our public-nudity-is-bad complexes which are engrained in all Americans. We bared our breasts and behinds to strangers and despite the clientele being primarily 70+ year old males, it became slowly more comfortable.

After building up confidence and becoming progressively warmer, it was finally time to brave the cool dipping pool. Using the pool one at a time, a person quickly dunks him or herself into the chilly water and returns his or her body to a lower temperature. This pool in particular—being free standing and located within the center of the room—served additionally as a stage to showcase your nudity to the entire sauna area. Next to the pool itself, there was nowhere to hang your towel. Therefore, you had to hang up your towel on the side of the room and race back to the pool and up the stairs, while being aware of every ounce of jiggling flesh on your body.

My friend went first. She hung up her towel, hurried naked across the room and up the stairs, and stood for the world to see on the edge of the pool. I watched as she carefully she held onto the railing of the stairs leading into the pool and dipped a toe into the cool water. Her resulting squeal attracted the attention of a particularly self-assured older retiree. Without even a towel, the man approached the pool with his twig and berries swinging and offered encouragement in German. “You can do it! It’s not that cold,” he told her. This had to be one of the most surreal, you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments yet of living abroad. My friend was showcasing her au natural form in public, while an elderly man watched, cheered, and bounced around his man bits. The sound of my friend throwing herself into the pool broke me from my thoughts.

Despite the initial shock and discomfort, a visit to a German sauna is both relaxing and freeing. There’s no reason to worry about your figure or lack thereof; you will find every shape, size, and age at the sauna and there is no strangeness about it. If you’re a woman and worried about peeping Toms, saunas often reserve times for women only. While it is fairly uncommon, you may also be able to find saunas which allow bathing suits. Below you’ll find additional information about visiting a sauna in Germany.

What to Bring:

  • A minimum of one towel to wrap around yourself: Your skin should never touch the wood of a dry sauna, so unless you’re comfortable exposing yourself to your fellow visitors, bring a second towel to lay down for your feet.
  • Clean sandals: These can be worn outside of the saunas and pools. Typically, you should leave your sandals outside the door of the sauna which you are entering.
  • A little love for your body: Stop worrying about your tummy rolls or supposedly misshapen butt. Just get naked, relax, and enjoy the sauna.

How to Sauna:

  • Get naked. Wrap yourself in a towel. Put on your sandals.
  • Before entering the sauna area, take a short shower and dry yourself. Dry skin begins to sweat sooner than moist skin.
  • Start in a lower temperature sauna and work your way up to the warmer ones. Typically, a person spends about 8- 12 minutes in a sauna before leaving. However, you should only stay as long as you feel comfortable. If you start to feel dizzy or unusual, leave the sauna immediately.
  • Forget about all the genitalia—yours, others’, everyone’s. Don’t stare at all the genitalia. Just relax and enjoy the experience.
  • Between saunas, enjoy a little fresh air, shower, or bathe in one of the pools.
  • Drink plenty of water during and after your visit.
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