Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I am sinking

I sporadically dig this video out when I need a quick giggle.  I love it.  Ahhh, the Germans.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Back in London in 2007, B made me my first ever home-cooked German meal.  It was Rouladen with brown sauce and red cabbage; he'd even brought Semmelknödel dumpling mix back from Berlin for the very occasion.  If I'm honest, I was so impressed with being cooked dinner at all that I'd have been bowled over by a baked potato, but he'd really pulled out all the stops.

Rouladen are meat, well, roulades; thinly sliced beef rolled up with pickled gherkins and ham and served in a thick, brown sauce.  With these, I was introduced to a whole new world of flavour combinations, but I was thoroughly confused by the "brown sauce".  I'd watched B whilst he'd simmered some vegetables, added bread and wine and cream and blended it all till it was smooth and thick.  I remember thinking it was a terribly odd thing to do, but it was in this way that on a cold, dark night in Kentish Town the door to a world of very serious sauce making was opened to me.  In Germany you will not find a simple gravy of meat juice with hot stock and browning; no simple wine reductions; no quick swirl of cream: German sauces are a seriously serious affair.  On my birthday this year, my mother-in-law gave me a book of sauces containing 100 recipes.  It was accompanied by a hand blender.

Since sauce-making appears to me to be such an intensive national pastime, it makes absolute sense that the supermarkets cater for one's sauce-making needs.  It thus gives me great pleasure to introduce to you Suppengemüse, a bundle of seasonal vegetables tied together, readily available to ensure you are fully prepared for the sauce-making hours of your day.

Suppengemüse: here we have carrots, celeriac, baby leeks
and a bunch of parsley.
You may instantly form the opinion that this is really only one step up the ladder of culinary apathy from a pre-chopped cauliflower or a jar of lazy ginger but I have to disagree: if I were to purchase a leek, a bag of carrots, a whole celeriac and a bunch of parsley for a stock for two (we have no freezer) I would not only be spending considerably more than the euro or so that a box of Suppengemüse sets me back, but I would also be left trying to find interesting things to do with carrots for the rest of the week.  With one of these bundles of joy it makes it so very straightforward to make a quick vegetable stock or soup... although I must rather meekly admit that I have not made a start on my birthday sauces book.  Despite being hugely enthusiastic about what I consider to be a wholly underrated cuisine, I'm just a bit nervous about embracing the world of German cooking myself.  But when I summon the courage to open up the book and start wielding my hand blender, I promise you'll be the first to know.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


To be honest, right now this particular skyscape - especially in combination with the circling, cackling crows - is making me nervous.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Grundstufe 4: tick

I managed to haul myself this morning, still snivelling pathetically from lurgy, out of the flat and over to my final German lesson of the term.  That lesson over, I have now officially completed beginners' classes and in a month's time I will be joining the grown-ups in Mittelstufe 1.  I'm pleased, yes, but there are two sizeable reasons that I'm struggling with this information:
1. No more friendly, leisurely (though yes, challenging) lessons featuring lengthy, irrelevant, occasionally incomprehensible rambles from Mr Nice Gentle Beginners' Teacher; no more straightforward question/answer exercises for homework: Mittelstufe, I hear, is all about increasingly in-depth discussion balanced with lengthy comprehension exercises for homework.  This makes me want to hide in my bed. 
2. I have a choice of morning or afternoon lessons.  I absolutely would prefer the morning sessions so as to leave the afternoons free for my new job (after my exam next month I will have no more Psychology assignments till next year).  However, the morning lessons start at 08:30, which will require me to leave the house at 07:30, when it will be increasingly cold and dark and miserable outside and thus the whole thing will be bound to be general, unavoidable, all-round torture.  This makes me want to hide under my bed.
Though I feel totally unprepared for moving up a class, it is of course extremely pleasing to have reached this level, and to put it into perspective I consider how six months ago I could barely string a sentence together.  I can now confidently string many a sentence together, remaining of course unable to guarantee what percentage of the noise I make will be either useful or sensical.  I still find it incredibly frustrating (and, yes, I'm have to say, when I've had enough of concentrating so hard that I think my ears are going to start bleeding, terrifically boring) being with a group of native Germans who are conversing in their mother tongue: I can now get the gist of many different sorts of conversations but just cannot join in, which has the additional side effect of making me feel like a boring, humourless idiot.  If I do for a moment somewhat wildly think, 'Yes!  I can say something about that!', it inevitably results in a tableful of people looking at me with the sort of gaze of pity and faint amusement one might give a dog with three legs whilst I stammer and stutter my way through a verb and an adjective, get stuck on the noun and then slide off my chair onto the floor, grabbing my glass of Riesling on the way down.  Happily, from experience I now know that though it all presently continues to be pretty exhausting, the harder I work at it, the sooner this phase shall pass.

But still.  I am at times completely overwhelmed at how enormously complicated this new language can be.  I'm not going to argue against Chomsky's theory of the innateness of language but really,
four verbs next to each other all in a row?  And conjugating both the article and the adjective and the noun to agree with the same case and gender and whatever else there is yet this resulting in them all having different endings?  I wholly agree with those who proffer that getting to really know and use a language is all about practising with real life people at every opportunity you get without much care for the grammatical intricacies but really, in my opinion if you try to do that with the German language then frankly, you'll be stuffed.  I'm sorry, but you just can't know you that need to push a dative object to the beginning of a passive sentence and follow it with the relevant form of "werden" when the other verb in the sentence takes the dative just by getting a feel for it.  If I concentrate long enough and hard enough whilst staring at a page outlining the rules of modal verbs in the passive plusquamperfect then I honestly totally (if ever so briefly) get it; but mix them up in an exercise involving use of the same verbs in the passive perfect, or future, or even the ruddy normal active present tense and I'll spend ten minutes staring at it blankly before becoming convinced I've had a frontal lobotomy and am never going to be able to use it any of it at all.  Which is why I'm not quite sure I'm ready for the Mittelstufe.
Image borrowed from Pro Languages
On the plus side, I continue to make mistakes that make my husband collapse in a puddle of hysterical tears: those that translate back into English include my pronunciation of "wurst" as "wüste" (desert), which led me to tell my mother-in-law that I'd been in a 45˚c sausage; and nearly explaining to my German teacher that a poetic way of describing clouds heavy with rain might be to say that they looked not pregnant ("schwanger"), but like a penis ("schwanz").  But mixing up and/or mispronouncing words is really the least of my problems: boundless conjugation and declination of virtually every word in any given sentence is combined with extremely particular rules about sentence construction: no wonder my remarkably patient husband drifts off halfway through my attempts to string a couple of words together.  I would like us all now to turn to Mark Twain, whose brilliant appendix to his 1880 book The Tramp Abroad"The Awful German Language", can be found over here, since he talks about this beautifully in the context of newspaper articles, which I would one day very much like to be able to read in less than 3 hours without the aid of a dictionary, grammatical primer and a stiff drink:
There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech -- not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary -- six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam -- that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it -- after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb -- merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out -- the writer shovels in "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein," or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.
But... but but but but but... however frustrating learning this language can be and however many nervous breakdowns I'm going to have to have before I can master pronouns and prepositions and irregular past participles I'm loving the learning, the challenge and the fabulous glory of each and every tiny step forward I make.  For now though, school's out and I have a whole month free to study for my Psychology exam.  Hopefully whilst I focus on that I won't forget the 400 tenses and 6,820 different adjectival endings I've just been taught.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


It seems it's been nearly three weeks since my last post (excluding Monday's holding slide).  My time has filled with the scribing and submission of an utterly abysmal final psychology assignment; a wonderful few days showing my folks around in the autumn sunshine; and a good two weeks of crap health.  

Firstly, I developed some kind of weird stomach lurgy which (a) put a bit of a dampner on my parents' visit and (b) forced B and I to abandon our trip to London for a friend's wedding; and I've since been submitted to an ongoing snivelling, wretched filthy cold.  Even on day 4 (not including the 4 day preamble of "feeling a bit iffy") I feel like my head's been filled with concrete and bashed against a brick wall.  I've missed three German classes (including my final test: well, swings and roundabouts, eh) and the first day of a new job.  Instead, I've tried (and failed) to study a bit for my upcoming exam, successfully viewed rather too many episodes of House - after the seventh episode I was self-diagnosing Anthrax poisoning and Lupus - re-read most of my favourite cookery books and eaten my bodyweight in chilli sauce.

The irony of all this is of course that I live in a town that was actually built for sick people to come and recuperate in: seeing as that's clearly done me no good at all I'd like to thank my parents hugely for having had the foresight to import a box of lemsip when they visited.  Two things about Lemsip: I love that the new packaging has braille on; and apparently, due the vast quantity of paracetamol in each sachet, it's not actually legal here.  These Germans are wimps.  Luckily my nose is too blocked to be tempted to snort lines of it off the bathroom mirror.

Anyhow, my point is I'll try and catch up a bit on this now I'm on the mend.  Apologies for the delay in service.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Holding slide

Thank you for visiting my blog.  I am currently in bed with lurgey and unable to play on my laptop.  Whilst I am focussed on getting better (and watching House), please enjoy this slice of Sachertorte, which was a gift to B (although obviously I helped out: seriously, he couldn't do it on his own) from some extremely good guests I will tell you all about later.  Thank you guests, you may come again.

Friday, September 03, 2010

An exciting new diet...

I'm currently wrestling with my final psychology assignment, due in a week (the day after my parents come to visit, yippee!) and have thus failed to post a single sentence about the many exciting goings on that have recently occurred (mostly involving wine).  They will have to wait until I'm done with writing about how children develop scientific and mathematical thinking - something which, ironically, I have never done myself - but in the meantime I shall leave you with a few words about, and pictures of, some lovely vegetables.

I admit I found it a little confusing to begin with, not being able to just pick up an aubergine or a squash or a packet of green beans whenever I fancied them, since in England you can get anything you feel like pretty much whenever you feel like it; in fact, I seem to remember finding it incredibly difficult getting hold of a British vegetable there at all.  The supermarkets here in Germany tend to offer a selection of almost entirely German fruit and vegetables that have been picked if not locally, then at least within our state (Hessen) before they rely on produce from the rest of the country and/or further afield.  Almost six months on (I know!) I don't mind in the least that this week I can't make something-or-other because it's not in season; instead, I get genuinely excited on every trip to the supermarket because I can't wait to see if something new has come in.  I find it faintly depressing that I just don't know yet what grows at which time of the year, but it does mean it's all still a lovely surprise: when the beans first came in you could only buy them in 500g tubs, the nectarines and peaches taste like no nectarines or peaches that I've ever tasted before, the courgettes were just ENORMOUS and it felt like Christmas when the Pfefferlinge (Chanterelle mushrooms) passed through.  

There are of course exceptions to the local-produce-rule: if and when there are aubergines in stock they certainly don't come from round here, apples are frequently from New Zealand and I note that the beans are now Kenyan, but generally speaking if a product is imported from another country it tends to be one quite close to home: other apples come from the Netherlands and Spain and we have some terrific Hungarian red peppers at present, to give an example.  I just love that these imported items are in the minority.  

I hope I don't sound smug or self-righteous because this is genuinely a lovely surprise to me; it feels like such a a treat to be able to eat locally produced fruit and vegetables (how shocking is that?!) but it is so incredibly wonderful to dig into a plate of food that one of us has put together and know that its contents have hardly travelled at all to get there.   It tastes all the better for it.

Anyhow, back to my books: I'll see you on the other side...

Green beans
The charmingly named Pfifferlinge
Corn on the cob (steamed, with a knob of butter
and a sprinkling of salt flakes)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Project Repair Ceiling: almost complete

We're nearly there: all evidence that a natural disaster ever occurred has been removed and/or destroyed.  The ceiling man has now finished the plastering and put a layer of wallpaper plus paint over the top and is back for his final visit this evening for a final coat of paint.  He's been very quiet and efficient and extremely polite (I have had to stifle giggles every time he called out for Frau Dietz), not even complaining about getting all the way downstairs to discover the front door locked and thus having to traipse all the way back up four flights of stairs to ask for keys.  He's also done a very tidy job, sweeping up all his mess after each visit so that we could sleep in the bedroom between improvements.  He's has, however, been amply rewarded for his hard work and efficiency by the sight of two visiting girlfriends wandering around in white towels on Monday morning as if they were in a spa.

I'm also thoroughly chuffed I managed to communicate effectively with him all the way through, too, bar one minor challenge where I couldn't work out whether he was asking for a glass or a bucket of water.  Luckily guessed correctly: I imagine it could've been construed as rather offensive had I brought him a bucket of water for him to drink from.  

Anyhow, first experience of a German handyman?  Gold stars all round.