The first time I came to the United States, it was all fun and rainbows: two semesters of study abroad, a year under palm trees on a beautiful campus, all paid for by my parents and the German state. The only two minutes I missed Germany were on Christmas, and apart from that I just enjoyed all the new things, people and customs. I never wanted to leave and secretly started to dream how wonderful it would be if I could just stay forever.
Well, I’m back and this time it’s for the long haul. Not surprisingly, the experience is a little different when you know there is no going back, and when you are an adult who has to pay their own bills, find their own way and who is responsible for their own problems.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. But Germans are excellent at complaing and pointing out what’s wrong, especially when everything’s going great. So here come the little things I miss in California:
Quark is simply not known here. I can think of so many reasons why it should be popular here, but somehow it isn’t. It’s tasty, it’s low in calories and high in protein, and very versatile. What’s not to love?
But here, Cheesecake is made with cream cheese instead, potatoes are covered in oversweetened ketchup instead of Kräuterquark (creamy herb dip), and bodybuilders just drink more protein shake. I did find one place that carries quark. 200 grams of it cost you 5 dollars at Wholefoods, as opposed to the 75 cents per pound it costs at home. Outrageous, I thought, but impossible to resist the cravings … Sadly, Wholefood’s quark tastes like gone bad, puréed mozarella. I’ve had to accept that my existence will henceforth be quark-less.
Small overpriced tub of something that doesn’t deserve to be called quark.
Not surprising: American bread is squishy, sweeter than some German cakes, and inedible when it’s not toasted. And I revolt against keeping bread in the fridge, wrapped in plastik. Real bread is wrapped in a towel or placed in an earthenware bowl. But at least – unlike my failed quest for quark – I solved the bread problem. Somewhat. I figured out how to bake my own. It’s chewy, has a crunchy crust, doesn’t need to be toasted, and I can put as many seeds in there as I want. Let’s not talk about how much time it costs to make one tiny loaf, and how fast they’re always gone … Good thing I have no job at the moment.
… is also unknown here. All you get is dry active yeast and instant yeast (I had to google the difference). I have yet to make a single dough rise with that stuff – which is one of the reasons I learned how to make sourdough instead of regular bread. And I don’t quite buy into the theory that dry yeast produces the same taste as fresh yeast.
It’s a sugary paste made with hazelnuts. Lots of German candies and Christmas cookies contain it – and combined with chocolate, it makes the best cookies. Nougat in baking is completely unnknown here. Not even the most specialized stores cary it, sales assistants have never even heard of it. I was deeply disappointed, had to redo my entire cookie strategy for this holiday season, and once again leave a store feeling let-down by my new home.
Sticks of baking nougat (Photo: Jürgen Jeibmann)
Rollläden (solid blinds)
You’d think in a country where the sun shines bright every day and people love it icy cool inside, they’d have figured out how to keep the sun from glaring through the windows. But no, all you find are flimsy blindes and shades, occassionally a curtain. I miss the solid, set-in-the-wall blinds many houses have in Germany. They let you sleep in pitch-black darkness if and as long as you want to, and keep the sun out much more effectively than thin strips of plastik – a blessing on hot summer days! My unsexy solution to that problem: sleeping masks.
Bike paths and bike racks
Cyclists really are an endangered species here. Thanks to all the exhaust fumes you have to fear lung cancer at 35, and cars rush past scaringly close because there are rarely any bike paths set apart from the road. And while it takes about an hour to cycle from one end of Munich’s inner three rings to the other, one hour here barely takes you to the nearest supermarket and back.
Once you arrive at your destination, sweaty, sunburnt and saddle sore, there are rarely any bike racks. I’ve taken to chaining my bike to the shopping cart cage or stop signs. I’m told that is not allowed and could get my bike impounded if I leave it there too long. So now, grocery shopping is a deeply stressful experience for me. Risk your life to get there, do 5 minutes of speed-shopping in a plane-hangar-sized store, try to fit all the huge boxes in one single backpack, and then try to get home without dying.
Preservative- and coloring-free groceries
It’s not just the foods I can’t find that get me. What’s worse are the foods that should be the same as at home but are not. Virtually everything comes with a couple of additional ingredients. Butter? Has either salt or “natural flavor”, because butter that tastes like butter doesn’t taste like butter enough. Yogurt also needs “flavor” to to taste like yogurt. Smoked salmon? Has added preservatives and colors, because salmon has to be pinker than salmon. Cream cheese? Has extra stabilizers because eeeew, there could be perfectly natural liquid pooling in there!
I’ve had quite a few tantrums by now, looking for pepperoncinis, dairy products, pudding powder, soy sauce, and many other things, and instead found Yellow 5, sodium benzoate, MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, tetrasodium pyrophospate, BHA and worse. Amazing how such an affluent society cannot afford real food. Of course German products have some flavoring and preservativs in them, too. But not like this. And not every last one of them.
Instant pudding comparison – guess which one is the German, which one the American ingredient list.
It’s like with the chicken and the egg: Was first America’s food too big or its people? Jumbo-sized packages of everything clog your pantry and tempt you to just eat another pound of chips (the bag isn’t even half empty yet!) and strongly discourage you from grocery shopping on your bike. Seriously, one carton of milk, and your backpack is full …
This really annoys me because I have no other way of getting around than my (husband’s) bicycle. I can only buy a few items at a time because more will not fit on my bike, my only mode of transport. And I constantly have half of everything left over: Half an onion, because the whole would have caused overflow in the pan, half an apple, because more would not have fit into my cereal bowl. Why grow ridiculously huge fruits and vegetables, only to have the flavor watered down to nothing?
Onion that would make three dinners, if it didn’t mold first.
Sweets and pastries that taste of something other than sugar
My favorite is the birthday cake section: Dazzlingly bright frosting in un-food-like, forbidding colors, garish sugar figurines on top and somewhere burried deep some spongy sugar-mass that is the cake’s base. One bite of the smirf frosting (that won’t even get you down to the actual cake dough), and you feel like your taste buds just died of diabetes. Why so sweet? Well, if you make your cake sweet enough, you can mask the fact that you used nothing but the cheapest ingredients and your product has no taste nor texture …
Scent-free things that naturally have no scent
When we moved into our new apartment, I embarrassed myself and shocked the building manager by pointing out that one of the closets smelled bad. He then explained that that is the linen closet and they routinely spray a “linen scent” in there to make the place feel more welcoming an homely. To me, it just smelled like someone had left some toxic waste on one of the shelves.
Then there are scented trash bags, scented women’s hygene products, scented drier sheets … Artificial scents are everywhere, while there’s nothing more embarrassing than being caught with body odor. If your laundry smells like a field of bleach flowers, your trash bags like jasmine and your bathroom like caramel, that’s fine – but don’t you dare smell like sweat after two hours at the gym. Perverse country.
/End of rant. But wait – there is a happy ending! Thanks to a lady at the DMV, I found a German store. It has a restaurant and Biergarten, is run buy a German family, and actually sells groceries imported from Germany. They may cost five times what they cost at home – but they are the real deal. I haven’t tried their Quark yet, but their vanilla pudding powder, gingerbread hearts and Zigeunersoße (spicy sauce) are as German as it gets. Gourmet Haus Staudt may not be able to solve all of my problems – but now at least I have a sanctuary for my cravings.