Friday, June 17, 2005

Potato Soup

I spent about four hours at this office yesterday, catching up on all the stuff I hadn't been able to deal with at home because my phone was cut off (I got the next month's bill in the mail yesterday, which means I wasn't even a month overdue when they cut me off -- wonder if this is legal?), and some of the time was spent chatting with another of the journalists, a science reporter who'd just transcribed an interview with the author of a book on the physics of soccer.

Turned out we left at about the same time and were headed in the same direction, me to my house, and he to lunch. "I've found a very nice place that nobody knows about," he said. "It's in the Theaterhaus Berlin," which building houses rehearsal spaces, and where my friend the dancer has worked. "Most of the stuff around the office is just sandwiches and fast food." Oh, I said, but that's not all true. There's a really good Vietnamese place up another block... "Ah, but who wants to eat Vietnamese all the time?" he interrupted. "Here, you can get really good food every day for a good price. They always have potato soup!"

And here, I reflected later, is an immutable fact about Germans and German food: no one wants to eat foreign cuisines if they can help it (not that it's any different in France) and German cuisine does not recognize the seasons. Oh, it does to an extent: there's asparagus season (after which arbitrary date you can no longer buy asparagus anywhere), and strawberry season (currently on as, I believe, asparagus season is waning), and pumpkin season (in the fall). But day to day, Germans eat the same stuff. I remember being shocked in my first apartment one Sunday when it was in the mid-80s (F) outside and the whole building smelled of pork roast. And another sultry August, when I lived across from a supermarket, I saw them advertising this week's special: Eisbein, the fatty pig's trotter so emblematic of Berlin cooking.

Just last week the bakery at my supermarket introduced a new product, a large, doughnut-shaped loaf called the Sommerloch, which is pretty funny, considering. (Sommerloch is a German term for that part of the summer when nothing happens because everyone's on vacation: it means summer hole, so you see where the bread gets its name). To advertise it, they'd photographed a loaf sitting on a pretty checkered tablecloth on a picnic table, with some greenery to be seen in the surrounding and there, on the table with it, was a butter knife and a tub labelled Party Schmalz. That's right, folks: lard. Lard with crisp-fried onions, to be sure, but lard just the same.

It's easy enough to see how this cuisine has become so omnipresent here, given that about nine months out of the year, it's pretty cool, if not downright cold. There's something satisfying about a nice bowl of potato December. I don't much care for Eisbein (and yes, I've tried it), but one of those nice pork roasts like a Krustenbraten goes down well on a wet, wintry day. But for heaven's sakes, celebrate the summer when it's here! And by this, I don't mean the ubiquitous Grillparty, where someone fires up a tiny grill with some of the ultra-fast-burning charcoal they seem to sell here (after, of course, getting the permission of 100% of one's neighbors and positioning it so that no smoke will blow in the noses of anyone who's likely to call the cops on you based on the Food Odor Laws) and warms up some sausages which were probably all ready to eat cold. I'm thinking of a range of cold dishes, of seasonal vegetables, of lighter fare.

But they don't do that here. At least not in Berlin; I can't say what goes on elsewhere in this country, but the food here is unremittingly monochrome, seasoned only with too much salt and the odd dash of nutmeg. It's like we don't have seasons, just plod along day after day, each day the same. No wonder so many of the people in the street look defeated and unhappy. The seasons change, but their senses are only slightly aware of it. And this, I think, is one of the more interesting discoveries I've made about why I'm not happy here: people repress their senses. There is no sensuality to life here, no letting go. Cold, repressed Protestantism is the way things have been here for hundreds of years, interspersed with discipline and war. What a legacy! What a waste of human potential!

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