2 August 2021
A good friend of mine recently returned to the U.S. after several years’ absence.
“Watch out!” I warned him. “You’re going to have reverse culture shock!”
All those huge cars, jammed highways and overfriendly people. It’s a bit scary after you’ve been gone for a while.
“Take it easy!” I said. “Don’t let it scare you. You’ll get used to it again, I promise!”
Then there’s the heat. He moved to Boston, where it can be downright sizzling and muggy. The only muggy thing here in Munich is what you put your beer in before you hoist it up in the air and say Prost! Summerhere comes in short, unexpected bursts. Best use them when they come. If you finish polishing the car or vacuuming the living room first, by the time you want to go for a bike ride it will be raining again.
So what is the first thing my friend mentions after arriving in Boston?
Everybody is so preoccupied with German beer, sausage and oompah bands that this excellent food gets overlooked. Yet it’s far more important, since not everyone drinks beer, vegetarianism is en vogue and oompah bands, well, whatever.
But everybody eats bread.
“This is the best bread they have,” he bemoans, sending a photo of a plastic bag full of brown slices closed off by a twistie. It does say “Five Grain Bread” but no matter how many grains you put in there, Americans never seem to leave out that one special, key ingredient: except I don’t know what it is. All I know is that it makes the bread squishy, so much so that it gives under your teeth when you try to bite into it. It’s even possible to leave tooth marks on a sandwich with a gentle bite, the kind a playful cat would give you.
This would never happen with German bread. It is so solid that it fights back when you bite into it. Bread here wants to be taken seriously, so grab it with both hands and pay it the attention it deserves.
Germany has hundreds of kinds of bread in all shapes and sizes made from wheat, rye, buckwheat and spelt, a grain I had never even heard of before arriving here. Yet even though they all vary greatly in color and shape, they all share that one thing: the bite. If you’ve got a loose tooth, put that roll right back down and get some fruit yogurt instead.
This is what the bread must have been like in the Middle Ages, I tell myself. When Hansel and Gretel were wandering off in the woods and Hans left crumbs behind to mark the trail, it was from one of these powerful loaves of the good German Brot.
Because let’s face it: If he had left crumbs of soft, squishy Wonderbread, that would have ruined the story. No animal in its right mind would do more than sniff at those white scraps of empty fluff before scurrying off to eat something more nutritious. So the two kids would have found their way back home. End of story. And it never would have made into Grimms’ Collected Fairy Tales.
You have robust German bread to thank for that.
I picture a raccoon stumbling upon a morsel of Wonderbread.
Before you get agitated and say, “But raccoons only live in North America!” I must tell you that just as the Europeans ferried rats to the New World in the holds of their ships, one of them traded in a rat for a raccoon to bring home – and it got away. The result can be seen scurrying around German forests, feasting on turtles and hedgehogs who are all surely wondering where that furry masked imp came from.
Seems to me Americans got a lousy deal. At least raccoons are cute.
“Whoa, man!” the raccoon would be thinking, looking at the Wonderbread. “Like I practically bit into that thing! I can’t believe what those humans leave lying around. I almost ate it.”
German bread also differs by region. Woe to the Bavarian who goes to Berlin and asks for a Semmel, hoping to get a roll. He instantly reveals himself to be exactly what he is, offering the Berliner an opportunity to indulge in his favorite sport: making fun of Bavarians. You can’t order a Breze or pretzel there, either, since they call them Brezeln up north.
Such linguistic entanglements make it especially challenging for a foreigner trying out their language skills. The first steps in learning a language include speaking in public, something so utterly terrifying it is hard to describe to someone who has never tried it. The best way to get started is to practice saying the word out loud to yourself several times before using it on a real human.
Like Semmel or Breze – or in my case, Croissant.
This will be an easy one, I thought. I knew the word croissant before I came to Germany. We stole that from the French just like they did. Should be easy enough to ask for one at the bakery, I figured.
Ein Croissant, bitte! I said proudly and loudly.
I figured wrong.
And when you get it wrong, you are suddenly confronted with not saying three well-rehearsed words, but using actual, full-length sentences that you didn’t think to practice, like “No, the one above that!” and “It’s just to the left of where you’re pointing” and “It’s long and slightly curved…”
All the while the line behind you grows longer and longer, making your desire for that Croissant – or whatever the hell you call that stupid pastry – diminish rapidly.
“Ach so!” says the bakery lady triumphantly when she finally locates my object of desire. “Ein Kissinger!”
A Kissinger? Really?
I take the bag with sweaty hands and smile weakly at the long line of impatient customers in my wake. How was I to know that they named a pastry after Nixon’s Secretary of State!
But I don’t mind. I just have to remember my friend in Boston who has been cut off from his supply of hearty German bread. I’ll gladly put up with long explanations at the counter because I know it’s going to be good.