Denglish Dines and Bids Adieu


Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures.  Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest.  People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone.  A salad, they tell you.  But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.

-Laurie Colwin, Alone in the Kitchen with at Eggplant

This year is an experiment not only in living in Germany, but also in living alone.  Up to this point, I’ve been lucky enough to jump from parents to roommate to roommate, and so finding myself in an apartment all to myself in a foreign country was a bit of a shock to the system.  It has its perks, to be sure – I can cook and make mistakes without spoiling dinner for anyone but myself, no one gives a flip if I make deviled eggs for dinner and graham crackers with peanut butter and cinnamon for dessert, I can leave laundry on the ground to my heart’s content and listen to hokey folk music like it’s going out of fashion (or like it ever was in fashion) – but also, there’s a downside, like that time I made a sauce from a roux for the first time and immediately started crying into my plate because no one was around to care that I made a sauce from a roux.

Never before has my life so resembled generic and tasteless clip art. The box of tissues on the table is an especially nice - and accurate - touch.

 

Anyway, tears aside, here’s a few of the tastier concoctions that have been on my table lately (although I’m not giving you the secrets to my graham crackers with peanut butter; that one’s staying in the family):

  • Ginger-Honey Chicken Wings with Coconut Rice from Big Girls Small Kitchen – first time cooking meat, oh, since Joe was here.
  • Pad Thai from my man Mark Bittman – Beth and I made this in celebration of the new Asian grocery store that opened up in Bingen (so cosmopolitan!), but when we asked the grocer for rice noodles, he tried to give us a bag of noodles… shaped like rice.  We also made spring rolls… or spring wads, as they turned out to be.
  • Asparagus, Mint, and Lemon Risotto from Jamie Oliver – or variations thereof, as asparagus is still hard to come by.
  • Eggplant and Chickpea Baked Pasta, because when I’m at the grocery store, my mind works like this: “Oh, eggplant.  That looks good.  Oh, chickpeas.  I like those.  Hey, pasta, I want that.  Mm, cinnamon, that’s real tasty.”  And then I end up with a bag full of rhymeless, reasonless groceries.

While we’re on the topic of food, my old stomping grounds, the Special Collections Department at the U of A, just put out the first issue of their new journal, Arkansauce: The Journal of Arkansas Foodways.  Read the whole thing online, or write to dfworrel@uark.edu for a copy of your very own.

With that said, Denglish will be out of commission for the next week or two – I’m off to Berlin for a schmooze-based Fulbright conference, then to Copenhagen for herring, then a bff from back home is visiting.  That’s two weeks of having company with dinner; while elated, I hope I remember how to converse.

Dressed to the Elevens

I know we’re already several days into the throes of Lenten sacrifice, but I still feel some (admittedly belated) explanation of Carnival season is in order.

Halloween was doable – Pagan roots aside, most Halloween-related things here are just borrowed from contemporary American traditions anyway, only sans candy corn.  Christmas, too, was manageable.  Sure, they’ve got Knecht Ruprecht, bringer of coal lumps to naughty children, but it still translates transatlantically, and besides, Germany at Christmastime is how we love to imagine our own Christmases – snow-covered timbered houses, villagers gathering around drinking mulled beverages, the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon on the air.

But this?  This time of  year was simply bewildering.  Mardi Gras aside, Carnival always seemed so foreign, so exotic, so European; it seems I’m at a loss when a holiday hasn’t been reclaimed by American traditions.  The name alone is grounds for confusion – what’s Mardi Gras back home (or Pancake Day in England) is Carnival, Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching, Fassenacht, Fasnet here; for the sake of clarity, I use these terms arbitrarily and interchangeably throughout this post, for which you’re welcome.  Where we Americans outside of New Orleans celebrate maybe with a king cake and, if we’re feeling especially festive, a few beads around our neck on a certain Tuesday forty days before Easter, here, it’s a season that lasts an inexplicably huge chunk of the year, topped off by a week of drunken costumed revelry and parading, and the whole thing seems an inextricable mess of religious/political/end-of-winter entanglements.  Even the colors are different.  I didn’t know what to make of it.

But, as luck would have it, I find myself in the very heartland of German Carnival celebration, and so I feel I have to take it upon myself to, to the extent that I am able, wrap my little Mardi-Gras-means-King-Cake-and-Zydeco-centric mind around this apparently inexplicable and inextricable season.  So let’s unpack:

I think we’re familiar enough with the idea that this time period is one last chance to eat our weight in sweets and meats before somber ol’ Lent settles in (the word “Carnival” itself stems from the Latin for “see you on the flip side, meat!”), so I won’t go into that bit, so I’ll start here: the main idea behind all of this is that Carnival celebrates an overturning of all forms of hierarchy – political, religious, gendered; hierarchies which are expected to return on Ash Wednesday, pronto.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, common folk established their own government, under the protection of masks and costumes, to mock their own none-too-beloved rulers, celebrating with displays of excess, just as their own darling courts were so wont to do.  Royalty themselves joined in, drawing new roles at random, and the court was turned upside down, the prince elector becoming the cup-bearer.  The jester ruled the court, and this idea continues today: a Carnival Prince and Princess are elected (in some places, even “ruling” from the town hall).  The Mainz parade is especially political, with many of its floats serving as sort of grotesque rolling political cartoons, and throughout the season, there are a series of Sitzungen, meetings that provide a platform for comedians to poke fun at all things political.

One such politically-motivated floats, and one of the only ones I could understand. There's no flashing for beads at Fastnacht, but that doesn't mean there's no flashing.

French rule in the 19th century just meant someone new to mock, and the parade continues to be a celebration of freedom from foreign rule: the Carnival colors (blue, white, red, and yellow) are a bastardization of the bleu-blanc-rouge, and even now, parade participants and onlookers alike dress like French royalty and military – just with flowers stuffed down the barrels of their guns.

French and German stereotypes collide in incredible ways at Fastnacht.

The French came into play in another significant way: not only did they (unwittingly) supply their national colors to this chaos, they also lent their national motto.  Carnival season officially begins on November 11 at 11:11, which is cute, sure, but also (of course) symbolic.  For one, it’s St. Martin’s Day.  For two, eleven, in German, is Elf, a word which conveniently also serves as an acronym for égalité, liberté, and fraternité, the rallying cry of the masses during the French Revolution.  To complicate matters further, November 11 is also Armistice Day, which is also commemorated at 11 a.m.  I’m sure more surmises regarding power relations could be drawn here, but frankly, I’m getting exhausted researching this (if only you could see how many browser tabs I have open.  To give you an idea, it’s more than eleven).  So! Many! Layers! Mind! Exploding!

The Catholic Church is also not immune to ridicule, especially considering its role in, oh, every aspect of life during the Middle Ages, and in fact, it’s not even immune to that ubiquitous eleven.  It’s said that the eleven, in religious terms, refers to the little-known eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt have a good time” – the Germans’ own Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Real quick, but worth a mention, gender roles also make the big fliperoo.  The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is a day called Weiberfastnacht – Women’s Fastnacht – or Altweiberfastnacht – Old Women’s Fastnacht (gee thanks), wherein women are allowed to destroy that symbol of chauvinism and glass ceilings and bread winning and injustice to the fairer of the sexes etcetera etcetera etcetera, the tie.  Men, always a step ahead, often wear their older, crappier ties in anticipation of getting them cut in half by feminists, or something like them.

I suppose, though, that’s the most complicated aspect of this whole ordeal: jesters become the ruling class, the middle class ridicules the aristocracy, otherwise observing Catholics celebrate the hedonistic lifestyle, paisley feels the wrath of women with scissors, hierarchy everywhere seems upturned and chaos reigns – but only because the hierarchy, with a wink and a nod, allows it to happen.  The masses rebel, but within expected parameters, and so it only functions as one more means of control, and that’s the craziest phenomenon of all.

Well, that, and the phenomenon of black face, which is somehow still an accepted – and popular – costume in these parts.

Not a picture of black face, true, but still - can you DO this?

Or for that matter, this?

And, just when you thought this post was wrapping up, I find I can’t stop.  But this time, factoids will come with bullet points, so you know there’s no thesis to go along with this trivia.

  • The parade in Mainz came with its own German flair; some floats flung candy, sure, but there was also a good share of pretzel, cheese, and sausage tossing.
  • There’s also a definite regional difference in Fastnacht celebrations within Germany.  The Mainz celebrations tend to be more political; the ones in Cologne tend more towards humor.  Additionally, being in the wine region, many of the floats were wine-themed, and, yes, poured out wine instead of throwing candy.
  • Every year, the Fastnacht season has a new designated slogan.  This year’s:

Egal was kommt
Egal was ist,
Der Mainzer Narr
bleibt Optimist!

or

It doesn’t matter what comes,
It doesn’t matter what is,
The fool from Mainz
remains an optimist!

  • In the absence of high school marching bands (and what an absence that is), the parade is awash in Guggemusik.  Each band is dressed all scary-like, for which I  have no explanation.
  • The Mainz parade always ends with a giant duck float, which is a play on the German word for duck, Ente, and end, Ende.  In that spirit:


Idiomatic Monday: The Carnival Edition

Used to be, I thought the best sorts of days were the ones you spent on the river, so you’d wake up and immediately hop into your swimsuit.  I was wrong.  Clearly, the best sorts of days are the ones when you wake up and  hop immediately into your pirate suit.

My 6:30 a.m. pirate face is a fearsome thing to behold

And then spend the day at parades and eating doughnuts, called Kreppel around these parts (or Berliner, of “ich bin ein Berliner” fame).  I managed three and a half of the things yesterday, and very little else.  At any rate, today is Rosenmontag, Rose Monday, the day when Carnival season really culminates.  And when I say “Carnival Season,” I mean the period between November 11 and tomorrow.  You know, that season.

Anyway, I’m going to spend my day pillaging and plundering in Mainz, where the second-biggest Carnival celebration in Germany is held, but before I head over, I felt I needed to commemorate this day first by sharing a song with you, the sort of link-arms-with-your-drunken-neighbor sort of song, the crowd-rousing sort of song that’s perfect for days like today.

Am Rosenmontag bin ich geboren,
am Rosenmontag in Mainz am Rhein,
bis Aschermittwoch bin ich verloren,
denn Rosenmontagskinder müssen närrisch sein!

Roughly:

On Rose Monday, I was born
On Rose Monday, In Mainz am Rhein
Until Ash Wednesday, I’m lost (also: doomed)
Because Rose Monday children have to be foolish

Why Germany Sucks

Save a Conga line and a carton of broken eggs, you may have noticed that January and February saw a general lack of, how do I say, interesting posts.  Why?  Because I fell into a routine of biking to school on dark, grey mornings, biking back on slightly lighter, grey afternoons, frantically sending grad school applications to whoever’ll have me, waging war against German adjective endings while forcing inexplicable English grammatical constructions and pronunciation on students, and watching lots of Mad Men because it’s just so dang grey and cold outside.  This, compounded by what I affectionately call my Fundless February (Fulbright thought I could use the extra challenge of doing without my full pay) made for a, well, less-than-glamorous winter.  I’m not really complaining (despite every single word I just uttered); in fact, these past couple of months have really been something I needed, in a way.  I saw Germany not when it was on display for tourists; I saw it when it was dismal and cloudy and closed, which in a way is one of the perks of this year – it’s not a whirlwind trip, there is no sense of “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium,” so sometimes there’s just… routine.  I’m not complaining, I’m just saying routine doesn’t make for good travel blogs.

But let’s move on to March.  The sun is out, birds are chirping, crocuses are croaking, Chacos are on, ice cream shops are open, students are getting restless: dare I suggest that maybe spring might be approaching?  Or am I being too forward?  At any rate, before I’m overcome by sunshine- and sandal-induced cheerfulness and general goodwill, I want to take this moment to spring clean the crotchety winter blues out of my system, and so I bring you:

Why Germany Sucks,
Although I Mean That as Affectionately as Possible

  • Public Transportation
    I know Europe sounds like a Utopia of stepping on a train in Frankfurt and alighting in Moscow or Istanbul, but  Utopia propagandists don’t tell you about the layovers, the missed connections, the rerouted and cancelled trains, train strikes, the lack of seating in warm parts of stations, or worst of all, the rowdy drunks.  Maybe I’m 23 going on old, but I’m all for them designating a party car way far away from my seat.
  • Smoking
    It’s astounding, the difference in attitudes towards smoking.  Home, it’s assumed you don’t smoke until proven otherwise; here, the other way around.  Every street corner boasts a cigarette vending machine; in the 15-minute breaks between classes, students stand outside in hazy clumps, puffing away; my favorite, though, is the yellow squares traced on train platforms designated as smoking areas.

    One good thing, though, about Germany is that German cigarette smoke actually stays within those boundaries.

  • Sundays
    Everything is closed.  There’s something quaint about that, sure, but also something inconvenient.
  • Water fountains
    Or the lack thereof.
  • Toilets
    1) You have to pay for public usage, and
    2) A lot of them, including mine, look like this:

    Thank you, Google, for knowing precisely what I meant by "German shelf toilet"

  • Food
    Schnitzel with noodle may be one of my favorite things, but not every time I set foot in a restaurant.  We have a stereotype of German cuisine being a thing of schnitzel, potatoes, sausage, beer, and pretzels, and with good reason; maybe I’m being unfair, but I miss the variation of available foods at home.  Also, the guy who instituted their strict no-brownie policy doesn’t know what’s good for him.  Or he knows what’s good for him, and knows that brownies aren’t one of those things.
  • Gendered nouns
    Who needs ’em?
  • This.
    Someone asked that I (or more accurately, my mom) order this particular backpack for them, as it’s not available in Germany – and it, more than anything else I can think of, is indicative of the fashion choices of Kinder these days.  Well, this, plus an unwavering devotion to How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen or no.  Okay fine, this last point shouldn’t quite make the “Why Germany Sucks” list, but something about the aesthetics here – I can’t put my finger on it – does make me miss the aesthetics of home.

And now that this post (and winter) are out of the way, I’m going back to falling back in love with this place.  We have some catching up to do.

Denglish Dines and Also Goes to Parties

Life here can be so weird.

Half a year ago and half the world away, I entered my house back in Little Rock one final time to a surprise send-off party.  Then, out of pure shock, I promptly exited the house.  At any rate, the life of the party was not me, oh no, but Kyle, who attended from Connecticut via video chat.  He said he felt like a dismembered child, whose limbless, digital state necessitated that mom carry his face around when he wanted to move.  He was especially lucky in securing a spot right by the cheese dip, so he could watch family members catch Velveeta dripping off their Fritos all night long, the lucky dog.

Ol' Legless also acted as photographer for the night, thanks to Skype features.

But oh, how the turntables have turned.  Saturday night was my chance to act the part of skyped-in dismembered family member.  This weekend marked my dad’s 50th birthday, so naturally a running-themed surprise party complete with personalized water bottles and race bibs was in order, and I would, of course, be doing a great disservice to my readership if I failed to talk about it, seeing as the partygoers make up roughly all of my readership (for you stray passersby out there, 1) you’re lost, and 2) to understand this, you have to know that my dad runs.  A lot.  So much so that in my mind, running ten miles sounds like a walk in the park, even though I myself couldn’t manage half a mile if pressed).

Now was my time to shine as Skype photographer.

And I may have been legless, but I wasn’t useless.  As the aunts prepared the house for my dad’s arrival, I got to shout out directives like “Look for birthday candles in the drawer!  No, not that one!  No no!  The one over there!” while gesturing wildly, if futilely.  And then I got to look at my younger cousins’ tongues in great detail as they watched themselves make faces at the camera.  Luckily for me, I was situated not by the crock pot, as Kyle was, but by the drinks, which provided ample opportunity to sneak pictures of priceless moments like this, my grandma sporting a sweatband pouring herself a glass of blush:

and moments like this one, my grandpa tickling my cousin’s baby, who I haven’t even gotten to meet yet:


and of all the people I care about most having a perfectly good time:

and of the men in my life, which makes me so happy and seem so conspicuously absent:

Happy birthday, Dad!  Wish I could have been there.

But things go on here, and I continue to devise ways to amuse myself, which brings us to the second installment of Denglish Dines. As I mentioned earlier, my life here can be so weird, and that extends to food too.  I came home from school yesterday to find that I had no staples – no bread, no meat, no cheese, no eggs, no vegetables – nothing from which to throw together a normal meal.  But like heck I’m going to the grocery store, and so I was forced to fashion something out of the hodgepodge of ingredients I do have, which turned out to be a dinner that, if submitted to Allrecipes, I’d call “Lori’s Tropical Dream Curry” or some such.

So check it:

I never claimed to be a food photographer. Just a skype photographer.

Rice boiled with coconut milk, garlic, and ginger (inspired by this chickpea curry); curry sauce made with yogurt, more coconut milk, and cinnamon (just be sure to turn the heat down way low or it’ll curdle); fried garlic and ginger crisps (inspired by this fried rice), and mango slices cooked until tender and slightly brown (inspired by the mango that’s been hangin’ out in my crisper).  Aromatic, slightly sweet, with just a bit of crunch from the fried sprinkling of garlic.  Why I have coconut milk and mango but no eggs, I cannot explain.

Just another part of life being weird here, I guess.

Idiomatic Monday: The Second

I had a dream the other night that a German professor from the U of A emailed me to ask me the translation of Eiermontag.  “Egg… Monday?”  I thought, bewildered.  What could an Egg Monday be?  Is that part of the week-long Karneval celebration?  Hey, she’s the professor!  What’s she doing asking me?  I was stumped.

Then I was ushered into a room at my school here for a meeting with some of the administrators, when that room detached from the rest of the building and started rolling down the street.  My mind went into panic-mode: What the heck! Why does no one seem to notice that the conference room is rolling away from the building!  I don’t know my way back to the school!  I don’t have my phone!  I can’t call anyone to come pick me up!  What!  The!  Heck!

Then I woke up, at which point I thought, “Boy, I’m glad I don’t have to figure that one out.”

Anyway, not the point.  I went to Aldi today to buy some groceries and some more minutes for my phone and internet.  I got back to the house, and was unlocking my door when my bike began to tip.  I dove, but no dice.  Normally, this wouldn’t have been such a problem, except, as it were, my basket was filled with eggs.  Ugh.  Still, through my frustration at egg-covered groceries and a slightly dented fender, I couldn’t help thinking smugly to myself, “So this is an Egg Monday,” and I felt pretty clever, if a bit sticky.

Then I tried to upload my new minutes to my internet account, and it worked for a while – and then zap, like that, it was gone.  All 25 Euro, no internet, no phone, just gone.  I hoofed back on down to Aldi to give them a piece of my mind, only to remember that actually I’m way too polite to give pieces of my mind and I end up more like: “Sorry, don’t mean to be a bother, but you see, my German is terrible, but I think there may have been a slight mistake, and if it just doesn’t trouble you too much – oh gosh, I don’t mean to hold up the line!  – but it’s just one of those days, you know?  One of those Egg Mondays?  Heh heh?  No? Okay anyway…” and so it goes.  I ended up talking to some guy on the Aldi help line, and truth be told, I wasn’t even that frustrated that it turned out to be a user error (ugh) because I understood what he was telling me.  I can talk to German customer support, I can do anything!

Or so I’ve always believed.

Anyway, finally, we reach this week’s saying.  It’s nothing too clever, just a reliable go-to that seems to sum up the day:

So ist das Leben.

It’s the German c’est la vie: sometimes all your eggs break, sometimes you lose all your money to user error, but sometimes you find your German’s improving, and sometimes your boyfriend sends you a bouquet for Valentine’s Day even though he’s always been in the Valentine’s Day-is-for-schmucks camp before.

Happy Egg Monday, and happy Valentine’s Day to all you schmucks out there.

The Perks of Being a Fulbrighter

Back in September, when I was but a wee fledgling Fulbrighter (a barely-brighter), I met the other just-arrived dewy-eyed ‘brighters for orientation outside of Cologne.  That half-week is now just a blur of workshops, talent shows, and “networking” (still no idea how people actually do that), and when I replay it in my head it sounds a lot like this: wah wah cultural understanding wah wah wah English instruction wah prestigious opportunity wah wah Winter Ball wah wa – wha?  Winter Ball?  My mind jumped immediately to visions of dress robes and dancing with Viktor Krum to the melodious strains of The Weird Sisters, but then I realized with no small amount of disappointment, as so often happens here, that Europe is not Hogsmeade, even though there are castles here.

But as the hope that we’d dance in an enchanted hall alongside giants and wizards began to fade, a new realization began to dawn: I’d have to dance.  And all I know is the Electric Slide and the box-step to a waltz.  Crap.

I arrived in Heidelberg for the weekend, met up with a long-lost friend (by sheer chance, we shared a hostel room together in Cologne lo’ those many months ago, and decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to relive

Not exactly Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but it'll do.

our hostel-sharing glory days), and got a bit more familiar with the city.  The night of the ball, our hostel was a flurry of too many girls to a mirror, sharing curling irons, and me begging for reassurance that no, my shoes don’t look dumb with my dress.  Even though the night started out promisingly enough, I realized upon our fashionably late arrival to the Heidelberg Town Hall that this was no senior prom.  There was a dinner with courses.  And I may not have been at the Yule Ball, but I was definitely in the company of giants and wizards of a different sort: these people were neuroscientists.  PhD candidates.  Artists.  The sorts of people who are consulted as experts and publish and speak and are presidents of boards and organize fancy-pants events like this one.

I’m a girl from Arkansas with a B.A. in English and extensive knowledge mainly of the Electric Slide.  Crap.

The music started, and I stood respectfully (awkwardly) to one side of the dance floor as people infinitely smarter and more accomplished than myself glided gracefully around to “Que Sera, Sera.”  With the next few songs, more people joined in, as did I when those happy sounds of “The Twist” began to play (hey! I can do this!).  The bad thing about “The Twist,” though, is that it ends, and as the DJ begins again to play songs without dance instructions embedded in the lyrics, I’m soon reduced again to aimless arm-flailing, trying to figure out which muscle to flex to move my legs to the beat.

Really.

Then I heard it.

come on donga bonga donga shake that conga

That beat.

music rhythms bonga donga gettin’ stronga

Those lyrics.  Three words infiltrated my mind: That. My. Jam.  (Actually, this is a song I’ve hated ever since this).  Then three more: Must. Lead. Conga.

And so it was.  For a few ridiculous minutes, I found myself leading some of the most intelligent, innovative people in Germany.  No, not in research, not in inventive approaches to enhancing cultural understanding, not in outreach initiatives or scholarly journal publications.  In a conga line.

I’m sure there’s something symbolic in there somewhere, but I really don’t want dwell too much on what it might mean.

longa bonga donga donga feel that bonga…