Sunday, July 04, 2004

4th of July Picnic

Because, of course, we can't call it "Nibbles" today, can we?

First, to set the scene, a little poem, found posted in Freiburg:

Jeder Bürger liest und glaubt
Das Grillen ist hier nicht erlaubt!
Die Nachbarn danken - sie wünschen auch
Frische Luft, statt Qualm und Rauch.

Now, I'm no poet, nor am I even a decent translator, but if you were shocked by the fact that grilling is illegal here, as I said in the post headlined "Protect and Serve" down there a ways, here's further proof. That they felt they should carve it into a cute wooden sign (no doubt with the old-fashioned black-letter script) is just icing on the proverbial cake. But for you non-German-speaking Ausländer, this basically says:

Every citizen reads and believes
That grilling is not allowed here!
The neighbors thank you -- they also want
Fresh air, instead of smoke and fumes

I'll remember that next time I'm in Freiburg and someone lights up a cigar next to me.


Which (grilling, not cigars) reminds me of cheeseburgers. One can, with a bit of effort, get together the makings of a good burger here, which makes the fact that you can't get one here, even in the dozens of fake "American" restaurants, even more amazing. No matter where you go, you get the same frozen patties distributed by the same wholesaler.

But this is at least partially due to the fact that Germans are terrified of ground beef. They eat raw ground pork (mixed with spices, it's called Mettwurst, and I've had it and won't knowingly touch it again, thanks) but for some reason even my otherwise rational friend Ina has said "I'll eat just about any kind of meat. Errr, except for ground beef, of course."

I have no idea where this burgerphobia came from, but I've seen it in action. Over the course of 35 years of cooking, I have finally learned a few things about making a good hamburger. It's become a favorite party trick of mine: you buy the ground beef and I'll make an appropriate amount mix with it. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. When I first came here, I did it for my friend Susanne, who had grown up in a huge mansion on the Wannsee, a largish lake in the far southwest corner of the city. She was living in the caretaker's house now, but had access to the huge lawn, which went all the way to the shore: you could arrive at one of her parties in a small boat, and people did. The first time I made my burgers at one of her lawn parties, they were a hit, so I just assumed this was something I could impress people here with.

Now, I had another friend named Oliver, who at the time was a translator and editor, and had been an exchange student three times in America. ("Look, if you were my parents and had me as a teenager around the house, wouldn't you want to send me thousands of miles away?") He also had grill parties, and so I offered my burgers for one of them. His wife, Birgitta, called me to arrange to get the meat and cheese (cheddar is very rare here, but in the section of West Berlin where they lived, which abutted the American military compound, it was no problem). For some reason, she couldn't get it on Saturday for the Sunday party, but I didn't see that as a problem. Then I got another call from her. "I'm at the butcher shop, and he's grinding the meat fresh for me," she said, "but he says it won't last til Sunday." That's ridiculous, I told her. An exchange with the butcher in German followed. "He says I should salt it heavily." Don't do that, Birgitta! "I'm very worried!" Look, just put it in the fridge, and all will be well, I promise. But don't salt it! So I got there on Sunday, and the first thing she did was insist that I see if the meat was still good. She opened the fridge, and I swear, I didn't know you could get the inside of a refrigerator that cold without freezing everything. A tenth of a Centigrade degree more and everything in there would have been solid. Needless to say, it was fine, but she was nervous the whole time. Also needless to say, we all survived ingesting the hamburgers, since I subsequently saw every one of these people again.

Germans these days seem to be fearful people, obsessed with safety. There are frequent surveys to assess the level of fears, apparently. The order changes, but the fears remain the same: war, the return of fascism, crime, and food poisoning. Yup, food poisoning. Food poisoning is news: hardly a summer goes by without the tabloids putting, on their front pages, an article about some children's summer camp where a dozen kids have been hospitalized for food poisoning. And yeah, it happens. One friend of mine, whom I won't name, had a party and his wife made potato salad, which, for some reason, she put in the sun. The mayonnaise turned, and one of their kids came down with food poisoning. He was sick for a couple of days, but then returned to school, where, out of fear of infection, they opened a special toilet that was kept there for just such eventualities so none of the other kids would get infected.

I sometimes speculate what kind of cuisine arises from a people who fear the food they eat, and wonder at the inconsistencies I see. Here in Berlin, none of the vegetables in the supermarket (let alone at the farmer's market) are ever refrigerated. And bakeries offer sandwiches, made with butter or mayonnaise, of coldcuts or cheese, which are made up in advance and left out, often in the sun. Like I said, they eat Mettwurst (I once saw some for sale -- it's often packed in a burlap kind of bag -- called Texas Rancher Mettwurst, which puts a whole other surrealistic spin on home on the range), they eat parts of the pig in sausage, including blood, that Americans wouldn't touch (I eat this stuff myself, and I'm still alive), but they fear ground beef. Is it because the hamburger is a foreign food that they're so scared of it? McDonald's and Burger King do well here, but only with the young.

Ah, well, what do I care? What it means in the end is that ground beef is cheap. That's good enough for me.


Americans abroad do tend to go a little bonkers on the 4th of July. For years, my friend Kevin tried to organize a softball game on the unused site of the American Embassy near the Brandenburg Gate, reasoning that it was American government property, it wasn't being used, and we were American citizens and, hence, had a right to use it. "Come on," he'd say, "all we gotta do is hop the fence and..." And that was the part where I decided no. So, apparently, did a lot of other people; I don't think he ever got a game together. After September 11, of course, the security got so bizarre that it was out of the question, and now they've actually got a plan and are going ahead with building the thing.

This year, though, one definitely un-bonkers thing is happening: a concerted push to register American voters abroad. It's actually very easy: you just contact the registrar of voters in the state where you last were registered to vote and they mail you an absentee ballot. (Of course, with the huge and reasonable controversy over the hackability of electronic voting machines, more people even within the U.S. this year are talking about voting absentee -- now all we gotta do is get them to count the votes).

One of the groups spearheading the effort here is American Voices Abroad. I went to an open house they had, and found them obsessed with Robert's Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure, but if I can ever hack through the crapola, I may volunteer to man one of their voter registration tables some afternoon. What's interesting, though, is that this group exists. Back when I had my magazine project, we tried to contact every organization for Americans we could find, and except for the Democrats Abroad (and, I guess, the Republicans Abroad, although I don't see much action from them in this city) it was limited to women's clubs, the German-American Chamber of Commerce, and the Foreign Press Association. That there is a politically activist organization (and they're hardly the only one: there's also USAbroad, among others) all of a sudden is something I find quite inspiring. Apparently it's not just the foreigners who are disappointed with the current administration. And, equally important, it's seen as necessary to impress on our host countries the fact that not all of us support it.

But I don't think I'll be going to either of their demonstrations today. I'll be happy to help any expat who wants to register to vote -- just contact me at and I'll give you the details. But I'm afraid I'm just a little too disorderly for the AVA crew.

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