It’s not the start of a bad joke but, rather, the beginning of an excellent Friday evening. You see, the Germans have regulated the hell out of most things but, thankfully, they haven’t got around to stopping foolish foreigners from trying to make very dangerous German drinks.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Feuerzangenbowle…
Feuerzangenbowle (Fire tongs punch)
I had my first FeuerverylongGermanword at the Christmas market at Schloss Charlottenburg last week and, as with most things German, I instantly fell in love. I mean, it’s got wine, rum, sugar and FIRE – what’s not to like? So, when Young Germany posted a recipe, I just knew I had to try and make it myself.
Now the thing about making Feuerzangenbowle is that it’s rather dangerous, so the last thing you want to do is make it at your own apartment. Instead, you put the suggestion out there and wait for…
Now that temperatures have dropped to around zero in Berlin, I foresee a lot more sitting happening in the months to come. With my arse already big enough, I decided it would be a good idea to join a gym. As luck would have it, FitX have just opened a new fitness studio fifteen minutes from where I live. At €20 a month, with a free backpack, towel and snazzy drinks bottle thrown in, the decision to join practically made itself.
This was a couple of months ago and, believe it or not, I have actually been going – two or three times a week, no less. (Oh please, no need for applause – you’ll make me blush…) While I am, obviously, your perfectly normal gym-goer, other people’s behaviour has me slightly confused.
Why do (mainly) women go to the gym to hog a machine and then spend their time doing nothing but looking at their mobile phones?
Why do (mainly) women friends go to the gym to hog two or more machines and then sit there chatting to each other like they’re in a coffee shop?
Why do men sound like a rhinoceros having an orgasm when they lift weights or do a few sit-ups?
Why would any woman show up for a work-out in a skirt and ankle boots?
The mind boggles.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d try one of the classes FitX offers, figuring it would be good for both my German and my gelatinous bits. Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen, as it were. Naturally, I didn’t want to overdo it – this would be my first exercise class since leaving Latvia – so I chose X-Life which, judging by the video, seemed to be largely aimed at pensioners. Perfect.
I walked into the studio, where around six or seven mainly older, matronly types were warming up. Thanks to my astute observational skills, I noticed that they all had resistance bands (I had to google what they’re called in English) and stick thingies (enough googling – you know what I mean) beside them. I sauntered nonchalantly over to the equipment area and picked up one of each. Clearly, I had this fitness thing down.
I did notice that the other ladies’ sticks had knobby bits on the ends and mine didn’t, but the woman next to me had the same one I did, so I figured it would be fine. The trainer arrived; she had a butt you could bounce coins off so I supposed I was in safe hands.
We ambled our way through the warm-up exercises, puffed our way through some resistance band training and swung our sticks around with gay abandon. (Most people don’t know this but I was a majorette in my youth so I have plenty of experience’ swinging a stick around – I even did it in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade once. Unfortunately, I dropped it due to nerves and, to this day, can still hear the hooting cries of “yeh dropped yer baton, missus!” ringing in my ears.)
Back in the present day, I found myself in a pair-work exercise with the rather substantial lady next to me. We’d crossed our resistance bands and were stretching them as best we could. My partner seemed to have more upper-body strength than I did, however, and almost rendered me airborne several times.
Ahh, exercise over. Back to the safety of solo stick exercises. Up on the stage, the trainer held her stick out in front of her, holding it at both ends, and proceeded to bend it into an U shape. I watched as the septuagenarians in front of me followed suit and tried to do the same. Huh, my stick wouldn’t bend. I glanced over at my fiendishly strong partner and she seemed to be having the same problem I was. Much grunting and grimacing ensued but the damned things wouldn’t give an inch.
We must have been making a bit of a ruckus as the trainer suddenly noticed us, red-faced and sweating, down the back of the room. She looked slightly incredulous for a second then burst out laughing into her microphone.
“Oh my God! Ha ha ha! It won’t work with those ones! Oh God! Ha ha ha! You must have been wondering how everyone else was so much stronger than you were! Ha ha ha!!” She was almost doubled over at this stage.
That was when I realised that my hapless partner and I were trying to bend the metal sticks you put weights on while everyone else had flexible sticks made of foam – with the telltale knobby bits on the ends. There was nothing else to do but join the trainer in her convulsions of laughter.
“I’m Uri Geller!” I sang out as I ran over to pick up the correct sticks for me and my partner. We did our best to continue with the rest of the class but every time we caught each other’s eye or the trainer looked at us, it was game over and all three of us dissolved into fits of uncontrollable giggles.
So, what started out as a butt-improvement exercise ended up with me being the butt of the joke.
The next morning, I was sitting on the loo, doing my business and minding my own business, when I noticed something rather odd – there was a bench right outside the bathroom window. I sat there, snickering to myself, imagining some garden party guests suddenly showing up and getting an unexpected eyeful. Thankfully, it was a Monday and not exactly garden party season so I figured I’d be safe enough.
Then the garden party showed up. Eight or ten jovial Germans stopped right outside the window, with two men so close they were practically touching the glass. Dear God, please don’t turn around, please don’t turn around. They turned to face each other so now I could see their profiles. Another inch or two and they’d be looking directly at me. I did what any normal person would do in this situation – I stopped praying, snatched up the toilet roll and scuttled, crab-like, over into the corner, where I hoped I could wipe without being watched. I wasn’t quite ready to perform “LO’G Drops a Log” in front of an audience…
Safely back in the kitchen, I had a nerve-calming cup of tea, waited for the party to move on, showered faster than I ever had in my life, and walked into town. After a “not strictly breakfast” breakfast, I made my way to Pauli’s Radshop to rent a bike. Poor Pauli.
After several abortive attempts on a bike with back-pedal coaster brakes…
“Pedal forward! Pedal forward!”
“I’m trying! I’m trying!” (Thump)
…Pauli and I decided that this option was definitely not for me. He found a bike with normal brakes, made it “Linda-sized” and I wobbled around the yard on it a few times. Success.
Next up came the issue of me not being German, therefore, not having everything neatly packed in a bicycle-friendly backpack. Nope, I had a whopping great handbag with me. But not to worry; Pauli was a total pro and had attached a basket to the back of the bike before I could say “rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz” (which has absolutely nothing to do with riding a bike – I just thought I’d scare you with a terrifyingly long German word).
After paying my €8 and signing a contract (Germany), I sailed off confidently down the street. Ah, this was great. So much more relaxing and civilised than Berlin – lovely cycle lanes, hardly anyone else on wheels – perfect.
Unfortunately, I was so busy trying to blow falling leaves out of my eyes, I went wrong somewhere and ended up on a main road. Not to worry – the Binzians are sweet, patient folk, I thought. They’ll understand.
Opa thundered by shortly afterwards in his black cab, roaring at me that there was a cycle lane, beeping, and making rather a rude gesture out the window. Sweet old man. Ah yes, what I’d thought was a pavement on the opposite side of the road was actually dual function. I dismounted, wheeled the bike over the road through a couple of ditches and carried on.
Finally, I reached my destination – Prora.
Prora is quite the fascinating place. It was built by the Nazis as a beach resort between 1936 and 1939 – sort of a Nazi Butlins, if you will. The original structure was massive – stretching 4.5 km along the beach front – and was meant to hold up to 20,000 holiday-makers as part of the “Strength through Joy” programme (Kraft durch Freude (KdF)). The idea was that every worker deserved a beach holiday – they’d come here, relax and recuperate, then work harder than ever when their holiday was over.
There’s a documentation centre you can visit where they show a very interesting video on the history of the place, on loop all day, with English subtitles. For obvious reasons, construction was never completed, and since 1945, it’s been used as a Soviet military base, an East German Army restricted military area, a Bundeswehr military technical school, and a refugee centre. Plans to sell the whole structure for development failed so now it’s being sold off to investors bit by bit.
This being Germany, cafés are obviously a priority and so I found myself here.
After a relaxing cake break, it was time to hop on the bike again and back into town. If Pauli was relieved to see that me and the bike were still in one piece, he didn’t show it. I parked up and walked next door to his brother’s fish shop where they sell Glühwein for €1.50 a cup. I also got to sit in my first ever Strandkorb, which I think makes me officially a German.
It seemed that, for once, I was ahead of the German schedule. Four or five couples arrived shortly after me and all asked for Glühwein but it seemed I’d got the last of it – take that, Germans, haha!
After a rather brilliant night out with a fun Italian, two South Africans, and quite possibly the most boring Englishman ever to have lived, I woke up to my last morning in Binz. After a furtive visit to the bathroom, I packed up and braved the gale-force winds and torrential rain to go and get some pastries from the closest bakery.
After a deliciously gooey Schokobrötchen and cup of tea, sadly it was time to leave. My new German mum and dad dropped me to the station to catch the Flixbus. But, of course, it wouldn’t be Binz if there wasn’t one last bit of kink to see me on my way.
Oh, Binz, you weird and wonderful place, I’ll miss you.
The next morning, I woke up full of the joys after the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages. I dawdled around my lovely flat and eventually made my way into town. It was a beautiful, sunny, autumn day and I had to stop myself from singing out loud with happiness at how pretty Binz was in the sunshine.
I made a beeline for a café I’d noticed the day before, in hopes of a nice hearty breakfast.
Me: Hi, can I still order breakfast?
Ute: (looking rather horrified) No, it is too late.
To me, wanting breakfast at 12.30 on a Sunday isn’t unreasonable but then I’m not German. As I looked around the place, I realised that the Germans (who’d probably been up since 5 a.m. and hiked or biked 50 km already) were already on rounds of Aperol Spritz and beer. I had some catching up to do.
Me: OK, I’ll have a Toast Hawaii and a cup of tea. What time does breakfast finish then?
I knew then that I would never eat breakfast in this town.
When my sandwich arrived, I’ll confess to doing a double-take. I looked at Ute for some sign of humour or even the vaguest twinkle in her eye but there was nothing. I stared at what was on my plate.
It was, quite unmistakably (to me at least), a titty toasty. Was there more to this idyllic little town than met the eye? Or perhaps Oma was moonlighting here and had brought a touch of her kink to the Küche? Maybe everyone in Binz had a little kink in them? This might turn out to be the best trip ever, in that case. It was also rather a good sandwich, once I got over the pine-nipple thing.
I had decided that today would be a day of walking so I headed for the promenade and the beach, looking forward to taking some cheerier photos that would do the place justice.
Raging Roland’s not so raging cousin
Some people were a lot braver than I was
I walked along the edge of the water until I came to this rather interesting structure.
According to my extensive (ahem) research, it’s called the Müther-Turm, an old rescue tower (is that the correct English term?) which is now used as an observation tower. Seemingly you can even get married in there. I guess it’s only for quite unpopular couples though as you could only fit a handful of people inside. I still can’t decide if I like it or not. Eye-sore or eye-candy? You decide…
I strolled back along the promenade, admiring the rather spectaculous autumn colours…
…making new friends…
…and having a right old chortle at what is definitely one of the most German signs I’ve ever seen.
I meandered my way back towards the lake along the “Art Mile” where I was (unsurprisingly) accosted by more titties.
After all of the excitement of the afternoon so far, I decided I was definitely ready for a glass of wine before continuing on my journey of discovery.
Unfortunately, I’d missed the German boat yet again. Now that I was ready for an alcoholic beverage, all of the Germans had moved onto Kaffee und Kuchen. Sigh. Can’t keep up with these people.
And you’ll never guess who owned the place…
After relaxing in the sunshine with my book for a little while, I set off again. The lake was also rather gorgeous – like everything else in Binz.
As it was still such a beautiful day, I thought I’d keep going and walk through the woods for a while. Yes, you may call me “Linda Nature von Grady” from now on.
I walked and walked and before I knew it, I was outside the sand sculpture exhibition which I’d been planning to visit the following day. Oh well, as I was there, I decided I may as well go in.
I paid the rather exorbitant €8.50 entrance fee and in I went. The theme this year is “A Journey through the Whole Wide World” and it delivered – even if it was a rather quick journey. I was done in 15 minutes so I went back around a second time to get my money’s worth. While the sculptures were very impressive, I didn’t really feel it was worth €8.50.
On the way out, you could buy a wooden horse’s head for around €10,000 but I figured I could probably buy a real horse’s head for that – if I was so inclined – and kept going.
I headed back into town just in time to catch sunset over the beach…
…and then it was time for food again. As I was eating my dinner, I had the strangest feeling of someone looking over my shoulder but it was OK – it was just a massive arse.
After all of my exertions, I thought an early night was probably in order but, as it was only around 8 o’clock, I thought I’d make a stop at the Rasender Roland restaurant to break the journey home.
Old Roland was just pulling in to his resting place for the night so luckily, the restaurant was still open.
I’d just about finished my first glass of wine and was debating another when my bill was placed in front of me. Huh. Seemingly they were shutting up shop for the night. It was 9.20, after all. Still, from what I’d seen so far in Binz, these two homely-looking ladies were trying to kid the wrong woman. I had visions of them breaking into Roland and taking him on a joyride to the secret Binz Swingers Convention. And I’d lay bets that Oma and Opa are the ringleaders.
Every now and then, I like to get away by myself for a few days.
Mammy O’Grady: Well, you always were a bit odd.
As I’d never been to the German side of the Baltic Sea, I decided that now was as good a time as any to check it out. I settled on Binz on the island of Rügen, picturing myself skipping along the beach in the autumn sunshine, the sea breeze in my hair, or holed up in my flat reading a book while rain lashed against the windows. Either way, I’d be happy.
After a relaxing four-hour journey, the Flixbus rolled into town just after midday. I still had three hours until I could check into my apartment (Germans are usually rather strict about this sort of thing so I didn’t imagine I could rock up early) so I grabbed my suitcase and set off in the drizzle to find somewhere to eat.
After a few minutes, I came across Oma’s Küche; perfect for a wet and windy afternoon.
The waitress told me I could leave my soggy case inside the door and seated me at a cosy table in the corner.
I took this as a sign and ordered a glass of white wine and the potato soup (which naturally came with chunks of sausage). I picked up Oma’s newspaper/menu and started to read. I learned that the place was named for the owner’s granny, a kindly old soul who, even in the middle of the night, would get up to cook something hearty for her beloved grandchildren. Opa started a limousine service with a small fleet of London black cabs and they were in business.
I turned the page to see that children are banned after 5 p.m; it seemed that while Oma would do anything for her own grandkids, she wasn’t so tolerant of other people’s. It came as a bit of a surprise that the menu was peppered with smutty jokes. I mean, children read this – before 5 p.m. obviously. I finished up, paid and went to use the facilities, where I made a new acquaintance.
On my way out, I noticed a sign that I’d missed on the way in.
Men: No shoes, no shirt, no service.
Women: No shirt, free drinks.
Did this place turn into Oma and Opa’s S&M Dungeon after 5 or something? I decided I wouldn’t come back to find out.
I still had a good hour and a half before I could check in, so I thought I’d have a stroll along the main street up to the pier. Despite the gloomy day, I immediately fell in love with Binz. It seemed that every sensibly-clad German in the country had made their way here and they were now happily striding around, rosy-cheeked and colourfully all-weather prepared. The buildings were absolutely gorgeous and the streets were spotless – not even a stray cigarette butt or a hint of graffiti – a far cry from the grime of Berlin.
Just what everyone needs – a bad chemist’s
Classic German Strandkörbe (beach baskets)
I stood on the pier, the wind making my hair stand on end, and mused that if I hired a little boat, I could sail to Latvia from here in around 10 years. Or die a horrible death at sea. I decided the latter would be preferable and turned back to lovely Binz. As I still had a bit of a walk ahead of me, I headed in the direction of where I thought my flat was.
After around 15 minutes, I passed the Kleinbahnhof and was lucky enough to see the famous “Rasender Roland” (Raging Roland) pulling into the station.
I carried on and eventually reached my home for the next three nights.
Along the way I passed my new neighbours…
… and sincerely hoped I wouldn’t be woken up by an errant cock at the crack of dawn.
I was greeted by a jolly older German couple who led me downstairs to the apartment and showed me around. The place was massive – two bedrooms, fully-equipped kitchen, and a gleaming bathroom. It was far too big for just one person but, as it was only €50 a night, I’d decided to go for it anyway. My new German mum collected my “Kurtaxe” (visitor’s tax), explained the rules (because Germany), and presented me with my Kurtaxe card a few minutes later.
I immediately felt right at home. I only hoped that I would have enough chopping boards…
My original plan had been to go to the supermarket, pick up some stuff for the morning and a bottle of wine for the night, drop it off and go out again, but when I realised how far away the supermarkets were, I decided to just go out with my teabags, milk, sugar and (€1.99 from Netto) Chardonnay in a classy Edeka plastic bag.
In a bid to satisfy my craving for sausage, I found a place on the main street that served Nuremberg Rostbratwurst . The waiter was super-friendly, and my food arrived in a matter of minutes.
I was starving after all the walking and maybe the sea air so I devoured it almost as quickly as it had arrived. But, not wanting to head out into the cold night again so soon, I ordered another glass of wine and settled in with my book. The other diners were mostly in and out again in around half an hour – one old lady didn’t even finish her beer, which I think might be against the law in Germany.
I eventually made my way to the promenade for a moonlit saunter. It was a beautiful night – crisp and clear – so I’m not sure how long I walked for. I found myself outside Hotel Dorint, which is normally far too sophisticated a place for the likes of me. My bladder disagreed and in we went – me, my bladder and my Edeka shopping bag. I was pretty sure that I was the only person in the place who had a €1.99 bottle of wine stashed on their person but they didn’t need to know that.
It was just me and a German couple. The man was kissing his dog, which I find rather repellent, but it did provide me with a conversation opener.
Me: What’s his/her name?
Me: Heh heh.
We got chatting and I learned two interesting things:
Dogs aren’t allowed on the beaches in Binz from April to October.
Even dogs have to pay the Kurtaxe.
Me: But that’s crazy! Dogs don’t have jobs! They don’t earn money! How can they pay taxes?!
I recently started teaching a new group. As we’re still at that fun “getting to know you” stage, I decided to bring in some conversation cards to get them talking and find out a bit more about what makes them tick. There’s a question on each card so the students pick one and then try to speak about the topic for as long as they can.
First up, Fritz.
Fritz: Um, my question is “What animals are you afraid of?” I guess I’m afraid of snakes. And sharks.
Ulrich: Yeah, ‘cos there are so many of those in Berlin…
Fritz: And rats. I really hate rats. If I saw a rat, I’d be like a little girl – standing on a chair and screaming.
Franz: Did you know that there are more rats in Berlin than people?
Fritz: (Turns a little pale.)
Franz: Yeah, I think it’s something like three rats to every person.
Hans: Yeah, I read that too.
Me: Heilige Scheiße.
Franz: You don’t really see them though.
Ulrich: Yeah, they’re a bit like cockroaches. For every one that you see, there are like 200 of them hiding close by just waiting to jump out.
Fritz: What’s a cockroach?
Fritz: (Turns paler still.)
Waltraut: My friend has a pet rat. He’s so cute.
Entire class: URGH.
Waltraut: No, really! I stroke him and he nibbles on my fingers…
Me: Right, I think we’ll leave that there. I prefer it when my classes don’t give people nightmares. Gerda, what’s your question?
Gerda: What preparation do you do before you go on a trip?
Me: OK, good. Better.
Gerda: Well, first I make a list of everything that I want to bring on my trip. Then I tick off the things that I already have. If I need something, I either buy it or borrow it from a friend, depending on how expensive it is. Then I buy a guide book. I make a list of all of the things that I would like to see…
Me: That sounds like a very German way to prepare for a trip.
Gerda: I like lists.
To stop myself from wondering if she also laminates the lists, I moved on to the next stage of the lesson – making business small talk – a topic every German student wants to cover. With good reason.
We did a couple of listening exercises of people chatting at corporate events and then I put the students in pairs and asked them to write down two or three compliments they could pay their partner. They scribbled away diligently for around five minutes so I had high hopes for the speaking part of the exercise.
Me: OK, Hans and Ulrich, you’re up.
Hans: I really like working with you. I like the way that you work. I like that you’re always friendly and willing to help other people…
Me: OK, good, but it shouldn’t be just a litany of one-sided compliments. Ulrich?
Ulrich: He’s only been here two weeks. I don’t know him well enough to compliment him.
Me: Erm, he has a nice watch…
Ulrich: I like your watch.
Me: Sigh. Gerda and Fritz – your turn.
Gerda: I would like to give you some compliments. My first compliment is that I like your willpower. My second compliment is that you give good presentations. My third compliment is…
Me: Jesus. Stop. You’re not supposed to just fire a list of compliments at him. When you talk to people in real life, you don’t just read a list at them, do you?
From the confused look she gave me, I suspect that she just might.
Me: It should be a dialogue, like we listened to.
Gerda: But there’s no context.
Me: Make it up! It’s one sentence at the beginning! “Oh, fancy bumping into you at the conference!” “Don’t you love our Christmas parties?” Use your imagination!
Gerda deliberates for a moment or two.
Gerda: I like our Christmas parties. I had fun dancing with you. You’re a very good dancer.
Fritz: Thank you.
Me: You’re supposed to accept the compliment modestly. Anything to say back to her?
Fritz: You are a good dancer too. You’re the second best dancer I danced with tonight.
Me: Oh boy. I think we might need to spend a bit more time on this…
One of my favourite German dishes is Maultaschen. In case you haven’t heard of them, these are pasta squares filled with minced meat, spinach, breadcrumbs and onions, and flavoured with various herbs and spices. I can only recommend trying them.
Last night, however, I was not eating Maultaschen; I was having a consolation drink with my pub quiz team in cosy HOME Bar after a particularly dismal performance. To cheer everyone up, I told them about my new favourite German word – Sandwichkind (literally, sandwich child). I guess “Malcolm in the Middle” was called “Malcolm is the Filling” in Germany, although I might need a German to corroborate that.
Norbert: Hey, you want to hear another funny thing?
Me: Funny funny or German funny?
Me: OK, go on.
While I was aware that Maultaschen (probably) translates as “mouthofananimalbag”, I hadn’t really given much thought to the origins of this delectable Swabian treat. Clearly I should have for it turns out that the Swabians are tricky, non-God-fearing buggers, as Norbert explained.
Maultaschen are traditionally associated with Lent, which is when all good Christians are encouraged to refrain from eating meat. Like me, the Swabians obviously decided this was a load of nonsense. So they invented Maultaschen, the idea being that because the meat is covered by the pasta dough, God won’t be able to see it. Genius, right? There’s even a Swabian nickname for the dish – Herrgottsbescheißerle – which means “small-God-cheaters”.
Me: Bah haha! That IS funny!
Herr God, if you’re reading this, I made it all up. Can the Swabians and I still go to heaven? We’ll bring you some Maultaschen…
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain