The adventures of a born-and-raised-in-Michigan girl (OK, woman) who's moved to Bavaria with her husband, kids, and dog.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Not in Kansas (or Michigan) Anymore

Dorothy, you may be wondering if we've been hit by culture shock or not.

The answer to this FAQ is Yes, but mostly in many small ways that all add up to that vague "hey, we're somewhere else" kind of feeling.

The first thing that hit me upon arrival was the light (covered in the weather FAQ).

The sounds are another tipoff that we are somewhere quite different. Again, just a handful of subtle differences, but I am still not used to many of the sounds. (Another post devoted to sounds coming soon.) And then there's the changes in food and associated grocery scrounging for ingredients.

Little things can trip you up, when you don't speak the language or intuitively "get" the culture. Like the fact that Martin had to walk me through all the buttons and gadgets on the washer and dryer (I remember that "flecken" is for the stain cycle because it sounds like flecks, or spots, for instance). Or that the dryer works on a condensation principle. Which means that it collects water. Which means that you have to manually empty it every six to eight loads, or else it stops mid-cycle.

Also, there are no garbage disposals in German kitchens. This is Martin's biggest complaint about daily life here, it really gets to him. In the 1970s, they were illegal because the German sewage system couldn't handle the added load. Now, with improvements, the sewer capacity has increased, but the $150 model we had in the U.S. costs close to $1,000 (US) if you order it through a kitchen supplier (the place we used said they've sold just one in thirty years).

Before you run out to Home Depot and ship us one, we have already ordered ours for the kitchen makeover (from England, 220 volts and under $300). But we currently use the "bio" in-sink and under-sink composting system for our compost garbage, and take it to the curb in the Bio bin like everyone else.

And that's another thing that hits you right away. There are no less than five categories of garbage here. Glass (all colors) is recycled separately, you drive it off as needed to the sorting bins located in every neighborhood or town. The "bio" or compost garbage is picked up every two weeks (in a can stored inside a metal and cement bin which is built into your fence/gate, to reduce smell in summer I guess). The "paper" bin is picked up once a month (three weeks would be better, IMHO).

The "yellow sack" garbage consists of all non-paper and non-glass packaging that can be recycled, and is picked up every two weeks. It includes nearly everything -- the mesh sack around your bag of onions, the plastic bubble on a package of batteries, used tin foil, bottle caps, etc. Thankfully there is no limit to the number of yellow sacks that are picked up (we generate two or three in two weeks time).

The fifth and final category is called "residual," i.e. everything else (dirty diapers, dryer lint, etc.), also picked up every two weeks, and is the smallest bin of all. It is about one-fourth the size of a standard or largeish U.S. garbage can for $16 a month; or one-third the size of a U.S. can for $25 a month (ours) -- and remember it's only picked up once every two weeks. So you are pretty much automatically recycling based on the size of the residual bin and the pickup schedule alone, there's no real choice (not that I think that's a bad thing, I'm just stating the obvious).

Store hours take some getting used to, but it's not that bad (it's limited by law). Small bank branches and municipal offices have very limited hours, you really have to check first. Stores are generally open in smaller towns (like ours) until 6 pm weekdays, the mega-marts are all open until 8 pm weekdays and 6 pm on Saturdays. Small stores close at 2 pm on Saturdays, and nothing (except gas stations, museums, and some restaurants) is open on Sunday. I do most of the shopping during the week, working around playgroup and nap schedules, and we make one Saturday trip with Martin to the mega-mart every couple of weeks to stock up on cases of juice, pop, mineral water, etc. and do the corresponding bottle return.

Finally, another thing that's quite noticeable is the limited accessibility for strollers (and I would assume wheelchairs). Elevators exist in most buildings (old or new), but are much smaller, sometimes too small for a double stroller. In one case, at the Secretary of State, Martin and I had to carry the stroller up a flight of stairs, for me to get my new license. Couldn't figure that one out, since it was a fairly new building.

I'm sure I'm forgetting other things that give you that "foreign zap" of reality as you go about your day, but those are certainly the highlights. Will post other items as they come to me.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Food 4 Thought

How much do you think about food?

If you're a foodie, probably a lot. But grocery shopping? Probably not that much. Well, you would be thinking about it -- if you're a foodie plunked down in another land without all of your standard ingredients within easy reach. Here are some examples of things I have been (and am still) scrounging for:

  • Cheddar cheese: Martin found it only once at our Meijers-type store, and I have found a Kraft American singles lookalike stocked regularly by a competitor store for toddler grilled cheese sandwiches, but that is about it. Still on my To Do list is to check out small mom and pop cheese shops (have asked British friends, they live without cheddar... perish the thought!)

  • Brown sugar: they have something called "braun zucker" but it is what we would call "sugar in the raw," i.e. it is brown in color but very dry. I have been making my own with fine white sugar and molasses (not easily available but it does exist here); 1 TB for 1 cup sugar.

  • Italian food: this was another surprise... I assumed that due to proximity, things like proscuitto and parmesean would be readily available. While I can easily find dried ham (German), it's really not the same flavor. Mozzerella (fresh and aged) are available, but the parmesean I have yet to find. I guess I should give up now on finding asiago, huh? I do have a line on an Italian food shop downtown so I am really hoping that they can fill in some gaps.

  • Corned beef: doesn't exist here (which I knew from living with Martin in the U.S.). I did some research (about a day after St. Patty's) and found that it's not that hard to make yourself, given enough refrigerator space and a FoodSaver (which we brought with us). So after our kitchen remodel, I will try my hand at it. Same for pastrami.

  • Bread: it does exist here. But it is pretty different. Walk into any bakery and you will find that it is mostly whole grain and very attractive, but also very dense. The crusts are not as crusty as I would have thought (thinner, softer), and there are very few and very small air pockets in the bread itself. Yes, you can get some packaged sandwich breads (a few) but they tend toward the white flour variety... which I try to avoid. So we have been buying whole grain buns and using them for sandwiches, as they seem to be nicer and softer and more flavorful. Different grains (rye, spelt) are more common here, and every bakery has their own unique breads so it will take us forever to try them all, searching for that elusive perfect everyday sandwich bread. Sourdough I can make myself. :)

  • Pumpernickel bread: does not exist in bakeries here, but does exist in northern Germany (according to a north German woman who lives down here). The strange food item sold here with the label "pumpernickel" is something like that weird small square brown bread from Pepperidge Farms used in the 50s and 60s for appetizers... but then completely crammed with sunflower seeds and wrapped in plastic. Weird, huh?

  • Cranberry juice, Mountain Dew: although I actually found bags of Ocean Spray cranberries at the grocery store at Christmastime (a real shock), most other cranberry items (i.e. sauce) don't exist here. And Pepsi is here, but not Mountain Dew. No biggie, I knew all that going in.

  • Dried cherries: while dried cranberries ($$$$$) are here, there are no dried cherries. So I will be bringing them back with me.

  • Chocolate chips: another thing for the plane ride. Any baking chips, really, just aren't here (although I'm told they exist for some cake recipes, I think they're probably the bittersweet mini morsels, not milk chocolate chips). Haven't looked for flaked coconut yet, but I'll bet it's hard to find.

  • Pecans: missing in action; I guess Georgia really is the pecan state. Lots of hazelnuts and walnuts (almonds seem to be rare but you can find them, although only sliced, not slivered).

  • Vanilla extract: recipes call for "vanilla sugar" instead (don't worry, I stocked up before we left).

  • Maple syrup: found it -- not cheap -- from Canada, no less. Not common at all here. Still working through our two gallon jug of Michigan syrup.

  • S'mores: of course they don't exist, but I'd like to find marshmellows (hot chocolate!) and graham crackers (for pie crusts, etc.). Martin says that there are things that are similar to both, so we will see.

  • Peanut butter: found this too, at a couple of places (didn't expect to), even the "natural" variety.

  • Tortilla chips: highly salted, but they are available if you look hard.

  • Cream of mushroom soup: doesn't exist in the gelatinous, condensed form called for in some American recipes, so I have been using the not-so-creamy and not-at-all-condensed canned form with decent results.

Ethnic food items have been hard to find, in general. A few mega-mart grocery chains stock a few items (like Indian curry sauce or soy sauce), so you can hunt and peck your way through that... or seek out a specific ethnic grocery store instead. So far I've found a pretty good Asian grocery store (produce comes in on Tuesdays, I'm told), and have a line on an Italian store here in Ingolstadt and a Mexican grocery store in Munich.

I also read online last summer that WalMart in Munich stocks a lot of American food items, so I might be pleasantly surprised one day. Fortunately I don't "need" Cheetos or Doritos or what have you so this wish list is really kind of knit-picky. I think once I make all the rounds to all these various places, that should hold me over for a bit. I'm holding off on any major shopping trips until after our kitchen remodeling project, so that I'll actually have room to put the groceries away!

What you CAN find here, in the way of food includes:

  • Cold cuts galore: generally with a smokier flavor than I'm used to, there are a million (it seems) varieties of cold cuts in each butcher store. I'm sure the subtle variations mean something, but when you have six varieties of sandwich meat composed from ham and bologne, it seems pretty much the same to me.

  • Potatoes, parsnips, celery root: Germans seem to like not only cabbage but all root vegetables too. Often, when strolling past a farm market or stand, I have to ask Martin to identify some foreign vegetable, invariably a root vegetable that I didn't grow up with. Potatoes, by the way, come with actual mud on them -- even the pre-packaged in-the-bag kind. You really need to scrub them!

  • White asparagus: green is the uncommon kind, white is the norm (more tender, they tell me). I haven't had it fresh yet, but am looking forward to it, as asparagus is my favorite vegetable.

  • Döner: A lasting impression made by the large Turkish population here (ASIDE: the Turkish immigration wave was in the late 60s and early 70s; these days most new immigrants hail from Russia or Yugoslavia), the Döner is somewhere between a gyro and a shawarma, but not a falafel. This is Germany's version of fast food; period. It's everywhere. Döner consist of turkey with spices roasted on a spit, and a choice of toppings -- standard would be onions, tomato, lettuce, and yogurt sauce; optional would be hot cayenne-type spices sprinkled on. The bread is kind of like a three inch high pita, for lack of a better explanation.

  • Cakes and tortes: as expected, an amazing array of goodies awaits you when you enter a cafe or patisserie. If you're a fan of whipped cream or fruit, there are plenty of treats to choose from (oh yes, and chocolate is also widely available in baked form, although not as prevalent as the fruit or nut flavors).

  • Organic food: more prevalent in the mega-marts here than in the U.S. (benchmark=Meijer), but the organic grocery stores get a "satisfactory" rating from me (benchmark=Whole Foods). I have a list of organic farms in the area that have cooperative markets, which is supposed to be "the" way to go organic in Germany. Again, on my To Do list so I can't really report anything yet.

  • Beverage delivery: kind of like Schwan's for anything in a bottle, you can get all your mineral water, beer, and juice delivered weekly for a small fee (bottles picked up too). We haven't really looked into it but we do see the trucks fairly regularly through the neighborhood.

Our food delivery options have not been fully explored, but we have had pizza delivered twice (the first place was too spicy and lacked cheese, the second more like a Marco's or Cottage Inn, so we will stick with that). I have a menu for an Asian place (sushi, Chinese, and Thai) that delivers, which I stashed away for the next time we order in. Since we are about to embark on the kitchen remodeling project, I expect that to be fairly soon! (Yes, the freezer is full, and yes we have a grill and microwave.)