Thursday, December 11, 2014

The post in which I spend a whole day failing at a simple task

This post dedicated to Emily, Elise, and my mother, who all asked I write about it. It's a bit of a tale, grab yourself a hot beverage and settle in!

So last week Andreas, who is in Dubai for work, asked me to do what should have been a relatively simple task for him; Print out some stuff in color and mail it off.

As we don't have a color printer, this would require a trip to a print shop. As we didn't have any envelopes or stamps, it would also require a trip to a good and proper post office.  Easy! Yes, even me and my Elmer Fudd level of competency at getting anything non food related in this country accomplished should be able to handle this.

The night before I was to complete this task, I dreamed I searched and searched for the print shop, walking around the whole town in the cold for hours in vain. There was snow, there were mountains, I think I walked to Switzerland looking for the print shop in this dream.  That morning as I ate too much breakfast and drank too much coffee, I wrestled with a looming sense of dread over the whole thing lurking in back of my mind.  Weird.

So I pulled up the address of the print shop Andreas had found for me, which was a little over a mile away, ignored the sense of dread,  snow suited up (it was 28F/-2C this whole day), climbed on my bike and off I went!

The ride was uneventful, and I found the place with no problem.  I locked up my bike, took some good I'm about to speak German breaths, and strode over to the door. Which was totally locked. Or was it? I actually sometimes just fail at opening doors here. I couldn't get my front door open on the first try for a week, the knob doesn't turn and you open it by a combination of pulling and holding the key at the right angle.  So at this point Elizabeth is just being a ditz about the door again was a real and hopeful possibility. A little more wrestling and no luck. I rang the bell. I rang the bell again. Nope. I looked at the placard next to the door and contemplated the phone number printed on in for about two minutes, gathering my courage. I hate phones enough in English.  I do badly enough in German when the other person can actually *see* my interpretive dance indicating what I want. I dialed.

Following conversation took place in German.

Phone Lady: "Hello, XYZ print shop, how may I help you?"

Me: "Yes hello. Are you there today? I'm outside right now but the door is not open."

PL: "Oh no, I'm sorry we're not there at the moment because of schnerdiverdiborkbork* (*an approximation of a word that I totally don't remember at this point.)

Me: "Snerdiverdiborkbork? So are you gone for the entire day or just for some hours?"

PL: "We're not there. Snerdiverdiborkbork."

Me: "I'm sorry, my German is very bad.  I understand you're not there right now, but I don't understand the word 'snerdiverdiborkbork".

PL: "... ... ... snerdiverdiborkbork. We are not there today."

Well okay then!

One quick google and then on to the next print shop! Which was...okay, about two miles away. I was annoyed, it was below freezing cold with no sunshine, it was windy, but I was determined to get this done today.

Riding through Celle isn't unpleasant.  I crossed the Aller river, which is lovely to look at. Would be much lovelier if it weren't freezing and depressing right now, but whatever.  My route also hugged the perimeter of the old town, taking me along the street called "Nordwall" which now lies where the former north wall of the 16th century original city was. Still is actually- Celle's old town wasn't destroyed in the war, leaving an utterly charming 16th and 17th century villiage, complete with Renaissance castle, at it's heart. My route also took me past one of the oldest synagogues  in Germany, spared by virtue of being attached to a leather factory. History here waltzes by and smacks me in the face pretty often, sometimes good, sometimes heartbreaking.

In any case I arrived at the next print shop. There was a plaque on the wall of the building. The print shop had a mail box out front.  What they didn't have was a sign telling me where they were located in the building, while everyone else in the building did. And also they didn't have a doorbell when everyone else did. And also the door was locked and the lights were off. This was a Tuesday, y'all. I walked around the building jumping up and down looking into windows.  I concluded that this print shop had closed recently just hadn't taken down their stuff yet.

Well okay then!

Next print shop. I'm sure they're more print shops in celle than this, but I was googling on a very slow 3G network on a phone set to English and no way was I biking all the way home to research more thoroughly and then going out again.  So the next print shop I can find is... another two miles away. Lets do this.

This leg of the bike ride is much more boring, taking me past fields along the edge of a major highway.  There's nothing for a time, and then the only Mcdonalds in town appears on the horizon, signaling you are now in the neighboorhood of Altencelle, which is rather further from the rest of Celle than the name would have you believe.

I pulled up to to the print shop. Locked the bike up. Noticed this place looks a little fancier than others. I walked in and was met with a swanky reception desk with offices and conference rooms sprawling out behind it. Begin to suspect this is not the print shop I'm looking for. A confused (at my presence) looking lady appeared and asked what I needed.  Broken German/English smash up followed.  Confused lady said "let me go see if I can find someone who can help you, come wait here." She brought me into... a posh conference room and left me there. For fifteen minutes. At this point I'm really thinking I have certainly made a big mistake and this is probably a high volume business printing firm.  I contemplated slinking back out the door and disappearing. I didn't do this because it would be rude and also that lady was kind of scary and I didn't want to upset her. Finally the same lady returned and informed me that what I wanted was small and would just be too expensive.  In the first thing to go right all day, she gave me an address of another, more appropriate print shop my googling had missed.

Back to the bike!

I retraced my route back up the highway, and one Deutchlish conversation later what I needed was in progress..but there was quite a line in front of me and it wouldn't be ready for three hours.  So I got back on the bike, figuring one of those hours at least could be spent at home with warm feet.  A few hundred meters in below freezing temperatures up the highway later, I decided the extra riding wan't worth it and turned back.  I ate a large McDonald's french fry for lunch, it by then being 1 o'clock and having been riding around for several hours at that point.  I spent an hour looking at every single isle of the grocery store next door to the Mcdonalds. I rode back in the direction of print shop and made a single cup of mediocre coffee last almost an hour at another grocery store's cafe. I waltzed across the street and ogled the massive amounts of Christmas candy at Aldi. It's a good thing I really love grocery stores. Finally, I rode back to the print shop and picked up the copies at last! Now I just had to mail it off!

So I googled and silly slow 3Ging (I'm occasionally *that* girl telling people "oh, it's mostly 4G in the US now...") and English language German resistant phone told me that there wasn't a single post office in Altencelle. This might be actually true, there might have been one a block away, I don't know, but I wasn't going back into the print shop to ask because my brain had just hit it's German conversation limit for the day, I was running on a nightmare disturbed, fretful night of sleep and french fries, and I just wanted to get moving. This sounds, in retrospect, a lot more silly than it did at the time.

So I looked at all the post offices in the town and picked the one that would result in the least amount of pedaling in getting there and then getting back home.  It was...about 3.5 miles away. Um, I thought I was living in a small town? Do I not live in a place full of elderly folks and families because Hanover is *rightthere* and most every young childless person think's its the absolute end of the world to be stuck here? This is a town where you can't find a coffee shop open after 6pm (or on a Sunday, or holiday, or on random just because days because sometimes the shop feels like just not being open). I walk outside and run into people I know in this town.  Turns out it's all much bigger when your main mode of transportation is a bicycle.

So I biked to the post office. By this time it was 4:30, and when it's cloudy (which is almost always) 4:30 is nearly complete darkness at this time of year. So it was dark, cold, and I was biking to a part of town I'd never seen before.  I got lost a couple of times.  Finally, I made it! According to my map, the post office was somewhere in the courtyard of a small business park. Exhausted, I drug my bike up the steps, contemplating how odd it was to put the bike rack at the top of the steps instead of the bottom.  I locked the bike and noticed the bike ramp that had been seven feet to my right. Huh.

I turned around and saw....a post box. Not a post office. Just the box. Frustrated tears sprang to my eyes.   I flapped my arms helplessly for a bit.  I walked angerly in circles.  I was getting this done TODAY! It had become a vendetta at this point. In some of my angry pacing I noticed something, a glimmer of hope...inside the convenience store there seemed to be a small desk with a bunch of pens and labels. Could it be? I walked inside and YES! The post office counter was inside the convenience store! I staggered to the desk and handed my package to the clerk who looked like Santa Claus. He started yammering at me cheerfully in German, and when I'm tired it's harder for me to follow, so I didn't get any of it. Apologetically, I said my stock phrase; "I'm sorry, my German is very bad."

And he said "Right'O!" and completed my transaction in English that was somewhat better than mine is at this point.

I texted Andreas "It is finished", got back on the bike and rode the final mile home at last.  I staggered up the stairs, chugged a bottle of water, grabbed my textbook and turned around and went right back out. German language class, y'all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I am epic win.

Just kidding! This post is about me making a fool out of myself and smiling and nodding a whole lot.

I've been in Germany for a little over three months now, which happened sometime when I wasn't looking.  Before I'd came, at one point I'd told Andreas that we'd be speaking only German together by Christmas. He said "Not before?" And I replied that I hoped before, but hey, lets not set ourselves impossible deadlines!

Former Elizabeth and Andreas are optimistic morons. Three months is not enough time to learn a language. In three months I've gone from "Ich spreche kein Deutsch" (I don't speak German) to "Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist sehr schlecht" (Sorry, my German is very bad) whenever I have to go out into the world and deal with people. Its actually a pretty big difference. The first says "don't even try to talk to me." The second says "You could try repeating that very slowly and like you're talking to a child and it might work this time."

The most useful forays into language learning are when the universe sets the How to German game up to expert level and there is no choice.

For example, I have a piano student who speaks Spanish and German, but only a bit of English. You don't actually need a whole lot of words to teach beginning music, so lessons are going rather well, but occasionally I forget really important stuff.  At our first lesson I'd compiled a massive list of German musical terms, but I forgot that rests exist and didn't know what to call them, instead just yelling "pause!" (which works in both English and German) every time we encountered one. I was extremely lucky that a rest in German *is* actually called a "Pause". Was less lucky two weeks ago when I forgot to look up "tie" for that day's lesson and had to explain the concept without being able to tell her the name for the darn thing. She is an unbelievably kind lady and is very patient with my musical version of a cliffhanger chapter ending.  Tune in next week when I'll finally be able to tell you what the thingamabob is called!

I accumulate more and more terms but sometimes I worry I'm not using the best one. A tie is "haltebogen" or "bindebogen", but are they equally used in practice? The internet has so far told me three separate names for "bass clef." Of course it has other names in English as well, but when teaching a beginning student you're going to call it bass clef rather than explain F clef just yet, and I suspect this is the flaw in my internet based term learning, that something could be technically correct but not widely used.

Luckily I recently learned that a friend in town plays classical guitar, and she and I have a beer and German musical theory date planed for this week. Now contemplating that a certain semester of grad school would have been a lot more fun if I'd thought of combining beer and music theory study sooner than this.

I also visited my in-laws for a weekend recently, and they too speak no English.  They moved to Germany from Russia in the mid 90s and also learned German as adults, and so they are very patient with what I call my impression of a German dictionary in a washing machine. There's no grammar, no proper conjugation, just me throwing out any word I know in the vague direction of where I'd like to go. My father in law found television very useful when he was learning German, and my (attempted) protests that the internet is now the most useful supplementary tool in language learning are ignored. Several times during the weekend he sat me on the couch, announced "Du musst Deutsch learnen!", clicked the television on and left.  Overall we understood each other better than expected, with the mutual understanding and acceptance of the fact that I sounded like a train wreck. At one point we skyped to my mother, who was impressed with my ability to translate. To be fair, we mostly stuck to topics I'm very comfortable with, which are what the weather's doing today and food. Afterwords I told my in-laws, "My mother thinks I speak good German now."

That was a real table pounder for everyone.

The next day my brother-in-law, who is 15, speaks very good English, and is very observant told me "My father thinks because you laugh when he laughs you're understanding him. I know you just pretend sometimes."
Well. Yep, sometimes when there is no hope, I smile and nod and laugh when everyone else laughs.

Coming soon to this blog which I promise I'm going to start writing on more often; how it took me seven hours and ten miles of bike riding to send a package, and also Christmas markets!  Hugs and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

And then events turned sour (cream).

Repeatedly whacking the tab button fails to make paragraphs written in this form thing indent properly.  Irritating.

I'm over my honeymoon phase off living in a new place and on to the phase where small things bother me much more than they should.  I'm told the next phase is normalcy, so yay progress? Germany is not so vastly different from the US that I'm really frustrated by day to day life or anything like that. I really do mean small things.  And for the last couple of weeks I have been fixated on sour cream.

Germans as a whole are really confused about the American propensity to lop whole food groups out of our diets and label certain foods as wholly good or bad.  Standards here are high, GMOs and many additives and preservatives are illegal, bread is often fresh from the bakery that day, and food is seasonal and local (proudly announced by a little German flag on a package or label.)  Seasonality aside, the variety in what's offered even at a smaller shop can be quite marvelous.  To my eyes two things stand out in particular: the meat section (wurst!) and the dairy.  Both of these categories are much beloved and will likely be present in some form at every meal of the day.  

And so. Dairy. Milk, yogurt, creme fraiche, schmand, quark, frishkase, buttermilk (which they drink here and comes in flavors!) tatziki, cream cheeses, fresh and hard cheeses, brined, packaged, sliced or block cheeses. This section of the grocery store will take up twice what it would in an American store the same size. Yogurts and quarks come in a rainbow of flavors (don't ask me what quark is, I don't actually know except it's delicious) and every last thing is labeled by fat content.

Did you notice the glaring omission from that otherwise glorious list? (Or look at the title or read the first paragraph?) Sour cream.  In a country where potatoes are the first thing you see in the produce section, no sour cream.  In a bigger store, the more "specialty" section of the fridge will have kartoffel cream, which is the cream you pile on potatoes here. They have aioli.  Hanging out next to those two is usually the tatziki.  And sometimes, there it is, the impostor: a little tub labeled sour cream.  

The first time I spotted this I clapped my hands and  jumped up and down, throwing it in the basket even though we already had approximately 47 dairy products in the cart (cheese, y'all.)  I don't remember what we had for dinner that night, I just remember the devastation. This little box does not contain sour cream.  It's some kind of mayo-ish, gray tinted cream stuff full of unidentifiable herbs.  This cycle of elation and defeat has been repeated at several grocery stores, as all three kinds of "sour cream" available are the same stuff, all with strange strange herbs.

I know creme fraiche is $5 for a measly little tub at Whole Foods, but its's 45 cents here, and it's what's recommended as a substitute.  It's not as special as it seems though.  You cannot chunky dunk a nacho in it.  It will not turn your baked potato into a fluffy pillow of savory goodness.  It's a bit too stiff for baking.  I put it on a burrito last week and it almost physically hurt. So by all accounts the nearest real tub of sour cream is in the UK, what do you do when you've been living in Austin for the two years before you moved here and tacos have become a food group? 


I'm inspired by my sister Elise, who is known to occasionally turn the Webber grill into a smoker, or disassemble half a cow on the dining room table without flinching. Who perfected stateside cream fraiche on top of a Chicago radiator rather than shelling out for it, made her first perfect souffle somewhere around the age of 14 and says things like "oh, cheddar cheese isn't *that* hard to make if you have a cheese press."  Of course you should be able to make sour cream at home. And so I took to the internet! 

Two common methods prevail.  You can mix a cup of cream with a quarter cup milk and a teaspoon of white vinegar, or mix a cup of cream with a tablespoon of buttermilk. A third method involves ordering live cultures, but that sounded like effort.  You can also drop a few tablespoons of sour cream into a jar of cream for a few days to spawn more sour cream.  Which would mean you'd been able to buy some in the first place. Piff. Being awash with all dairy except my goal and short on patience, I decided to just try both of the first two methods at once. Vinegar version on the left, buttermilk on the right. I know you would have wasted sleep over which was which if I hadn't told you.
                                                                So Full of Hope

The next day dawned... and not much had happened.  The vinegar version was still at it's original consistency, the buttermilk one had barely thickened. Instead of hoped for tacos, I smothered my sorrows in a brötchen dipped in hollandaise (hollandaise for one recipe at end of post. Yes my dear husband is out of town, why do you ask?) and moved the jars closer to the radiator, thinking that part of my kitchen was perhaps too cold.  Leaving the cream out like this is totally fine, by the way. The acid in the additions and the air tight jars prevent any weirdness from happening.

This morning I was finally rewarded with this!
The buttermilk version worked! After two days and no change to the vinegar version I called it a loss, though I may try again after some more research.  The end product is not the tub of Horizon Organic that Elise and I once accidentally polished off within the span of a day, but it will do quite nicely for my impending tacos (and also at filling the angry void in my soul) :)

The winning sour cream recipe:
1 cup of heavy cream
1-2 tbsp live culture buttermilk

Mix the ingredients in a jar. Close jar. Wait two days.

Hollandaise for One:
1 egg yolk (how about you save the white for meringue cookies, hmmmm?)
1 1/2tbs butter (21 grams)
1 tsp lemon juice, or to taste (I like this very lemony and, frankly, I like the bottled stuff here)

Place a heavy bottomed pan of your choosing over a burner set to the lowest temperature and add all the ingredients.  With a spoon or spatula, swizzle the butter around the bottom of the pan, stirring the egg yolk and lemon juice. The butter will melt ever so slowly, which is exactly what you want.  When all of the butter is melted, keep stirring for about thirty seconds to make sure the sauce is warmed through.  Serve immediately with whatever the heck you like (cracked black pepper or cayenne would be nice on top!)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I'm only like two months late.

Hello friends! Here is the blog I've been promising everyone for about... two or three months?  My apologies for my lateness. I would have gotten this up earlier except I literally have no idea what I'm doing. I'm typing this into what looks like a word document right now and hoping when I hit the publish button everything will look more blog like.

Somewhere this morning the conviction to finally put this thing up struck me, so I rushed to the computer, thinking this would take 15 minutes, and started clicking all the make blog buttons. But then it wanted me to name the thing. Then I drank three cups of coffee and texted everyone who would be awake stateside that early (hiiiiiii Elise and Emily!) while contemplating.  And my decided upon title (which Elise assures me is not stupid. If you think the title is stupid, it's Elise's fault) requires some explanation!

I arrived in Germany a little over two months ago knowing approximately 99% less German than I should have known with the kind of warning I had that moving here would someday be a possibility.  I've sense concluded learning language by immersion is not all it's cracked up to be.  Of course it's much easier to learn a language if you're immersed in it, and it's vastly better than classroom learning, but you have to make some effort. Lots of effort. As an adult it's not just going to magically start to infiltrate your brain unless you're actively studying. Very rarely do I have an "aha! That's what that word means!" moment just from hearing something repeatedly until it finally clicks.

On the rare occasion that I do figure out a word just by context, it's usually because someone was talking about me so I was extra motivated to pay attention.  And so after several trips to government offices getting various affairs in order, I realized that the word "Ausländer" was in reference to me.  It means foreigner, or outsider, and as German is conveniently made up of small words smashed together to to make big words, it's very useful to me. Ausländerbehörde is where I go to sort out all the legaleese of legally residing here, for example.

And so Auslandering- I've left off an umlaut because it would make searching for this blog more difficult in the US and I wanted to make it as easy as possible just in case I get really famous. Also, "Auslander" pronounced as you would assume it's pronounced in English is the same "Ausländer" is pronounced in German. I've also made a noun a verb and Englishified a German word, both things I have a habit of doing.

And so here's my blog! Where you will soon be able to find all the thoughts that I start to write on Facebook but then delete because no one wants to read a thousand word status update.  Enjoy!