Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ze German breakfast and throwing out cultural convention

In my next life, I think I will live in Germany.

Or, maybe in a previous life I already did.

In any case, I feel a strange connection with the country and the culture and lifestyle. When I studied in Freiburg during college, it was my third visit to Germany. My first had been visiting a dear friend and his family in the northwest part of the country, near the beautiful Rhein River. I was seventeen, traveling by myself for the first time, and on an airplane for maybe the third time in my entire life. That was the start of my wanderlust - when I realized how easy it was to step aboard an airplane and wake up in another world, where people take great lengths to do what is best for the environment, eat locally grown produce, and build homes to last generations. They also have a strange relationship with hygiene and their Magen, but that's another story.

Some say the German language, with its thick guttural sounds, is harsh and foreboding. But to me, it is nothing but beautiful and melodic. Was fuer ein schoenes Sprach! In conversations with my dear friend, he taught me (laboriously) the correct inflection and accent for tricky words like fuenf, and I came to have a soft spot for the spoken German word.

The second time I visited Germany was with friends from high school, when I was 18 and just graduated. I know, spoiled brat, right? Not entirely - I used the money I had been saving for four years, to buy a car, to go back to Germany instead. I visited my dear friend, as well as others, and it was indeed a teary-eyed, painful goodbye. I knew luck wouldn't strike me very soon again and it would likely be a while before I had the opportunity to return. I felt like a girl who had two Heimhats and two families.

At sunrise, on the train from Bonn to the Frankfurt airport, the three of us girls fell silent. As the train gently rocked back and forth, around a long curve, the Rhine river came into view. The sun sparkled off the water, and the banks of the river were dotted with small villages and a number of medieval castles. Red-tiled roofs huddled around cathedrals with bells in their steeples. Vineyards stretched up the sides of the hills, long rows of vines creating a tell-tale pattern in the landscape like that of a stringed instrument. The train teetered along, bringing more villages into view and castles standing on small islands in the middle of the river.

The whole scene playing out in the window of the train held our attention irreverently and time seemed to slow to a snail's pace. I took a deep breathe and knew I would remember this moment for as long as I lived. I thought about friendship and family and wondered where I belonged - in which country did I really feel at home?

That was the real reason I wanted to study abroad in college. I could have traveled to an English-speaking country or chosen a different German-speaking country. But, I chose to return to Germany for the third time. I wanted to immerse myself in the language and the culture. I wanted to eat, sleep, and dream in German. I wanted to see what it might be like to call Germany home.


In those trips to Germany, I became intimately aware of what the word "culture" really means. While taking a walk with my dear friend though his neighborhood one afternoon, during my first Germany visit, I became somewhat uncomfortable as I looked around at the front lawns we passed. They seemed overgrown with vegitation and unkempt in comparison to the straight-edged, flat, green grass lawns I was used to in suburban Minnesota. I asked him what was wrong with the lawns and he explained there was nothing wrong with the lawns, but that Germans like to keep many plants in their "Garten" and keep it interesting. I suddenly saw how boring and flat our American grass-only lawns must look to anyone who wasn't American. What a waste of space.

I quickly learned, too, that what we think constitutes a meal is very much culturally constructed. Meat and potatoes for dinner? Try bread rolls and cheese slices, with a tomato on the side, sliced in half, with salt and pepper sprinkled on top. Those bread rolls, called "Brotchen" are like nothing else I have ever tasted here in the US. Hard and crusty on the outside, but not so hard you can't bite through, and pillowy soft on the inside.

I connected to that way of eating, the simplicity of a piece of bread and a slice of meat or cheese (sometimes both!) and eating whole vegetables on the side. I used to eat tomoatoes like an apple, as a snack or with a sandwich in my pre-gluten-free days.

This understanding of our culturally-prescribed definition of a 'normal' meal has, in many ways, made the transition to gluten free a bit easier, I think. I already cared little for what looks 'normal' and would eat things like a pile of green beans for lunch or a gardenburger on a slice of toast for breakfast. Feeling free to eat what I felt like eating without worry over whether it constituted a 'normal' meal meant that in my early gluten-free days I would make a bowl of guacomole with half and avocado, some garlic, sea salt, and cilantro and eat it with a spoon as a snack - no chips, no nothing. (Okay, so I probably still do that!). But, the point is that the culutral convention that says guac should be eaten with chips is really silly when you think about it - do the chips add any nutritional value? Do they make the guac easier to eat than with a spoon? No. It's just more culturally normal to use chips to eat guac.

In fact, a lot of what our culture prescribes as 'normal' eating habits is actually pretty unhealthy. We're too busy for breakfast, so we should stop by McDonalds on our way to work or heat up a frozen Jimmy-dean breakfast sandwich. We need meat at every meal and a good helping of nutrient-lacking starches, such as pasta or potatoes.

If you are gluten free, and even if you are not, letting go of what you perceive to be a 'normal' meal and focusing on putting healthy food in your body, makes meal planning and grocery shopping much easier. For example, the other day, I had a banana, a bunch of hazelnuts, and a small zuchinni for lunch. So, go ahead, question the rules, break the rules, and giggle to yourself when others gaze quizzically upon what you are eating!

Pictured here is our recent German breakfast, which we like to do on the weekends. Slices of peppered salami, slices of cheese (such as havarti, gouda, or chevre), butter and honey, butter and jam, lemon curd (Ben's favorite) - the topping possibilities are endless - served with bread slices and a hard-boiled egg. And, of course, a cup of good, strong coffee!


adam said...

Your weekend breakfast sounds fantastic. Sans coffee at least :)

I can't wait for the day when I can finally have lunch in my backyard by simply taking a plate out there, digging up a carrot, some raspberries and a plum. I'll probably bring some crackers or almonds from inside, but I'll be in heaven.

Nice post, thanks for the story.

Lauren Denneson said...

Adam - I am truly jealous! I can't wait until I have a fully functioning garden.