You can file this post in “Jeanette’s Future Careers.”
Under “Least Likely.”
The home of the Polski Balet Narodowy (Polish National Ballet) is the lovely Teatr Wielki, filled with parents, grandparents, and kids, many of whom will be begging for ballet lessons after tonight.
Now, I love kids. I’ve spent the past week with various toddlers, happily attending pre-school Christmas parties and decorating gingerbread people (and animals).
But you don’t have to be a parent to appreciate the value of a good babysitter.
So, it’s date night and the grownups are in Balkon 1, Loźe E for “The Nutcracker.”
This “Nutcracker” version is different than any other I’ve seen before because choreographer Toer van Schayk changed the setting to 19th century Warsaw.
Warsaw being Stop #4 on Santa’s Sub-Contractor’s 2011 route, with the sleigh parked on Wierzbowa Street.
(December in Poland with no snow is all the confirmation I need that global warming is real.)
The night before, we’d been sitting in a 2nd-floor café overlooking the lights of Stare Miasto, drinking winter tea ‒ with mango syrup and slices of citrus fruit, a huge carafe per person ‒ and playing the board game “In the Footsteps of the Pope.”
It’s something like Monopoly, with routes of the pope’s real worldwide travels during his time in office. Whoever travels as much as he did, more than any pope before him, wins (and gets lifetime 1K status on Star Alliance).
We’re talking about Pope Jan Pawel II, of course. John Paul II, the “Polish Pope,” whose influence cannot be overstated in this country.
But imagine my surprise when, here in the “Nutcracker” audience, I look down at the balcony below us and see nuns. Real nuns, wearing habits.
Uh, sisters, should you even BE here? Men in tights and all.
Maybe you took a wrong turn? Archikatedra św. Jana w Warszawie (St. John’s Archcathedral) is a few blocks back.
On a more secular note, as we see dolls, fairies, and tin soldiers flit across the stage, I remember the worst news I’d heard all week:
ToysRUs has arrived in Poland.
To parents at the Sunday brunch: long before next Christmas, you’ll come to regret how excited you are about this.
(I don’t meant to brag, but there’s a reason I got Santa’s sub-contracting job and ToysRUs didn’t.)
OK, part of the deal is that you have to learn the ToysRUs advertising theme song, which is as far from Tchaikovsky as you can get and hasn’t changed since I was a kid.
To prove how catchy that song is, remember that a) I’m writing it from memory, and b) for the majority of my life, my family didn’t even own a television!
“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a ToysRUs kid
They’ve got a million toys at ToysRUs that I can play with!
From bikes to trains to video games,
It’s the biggest toy store there is!
I don’t wanna grow up, ‘cause maybe if I did…
I wouldn’t be a ToysRUs kid!”
So, with a quick stop at the Ostrogski Palace, which houses the new Muzeum Chopina, to listen to timeless music from master pianist Frédéric Chopin and to see some of his instruments and handwritten manuscripts, we travel west to the home of composer Benjamin Britten…
You were just in Germany, they said. Why are those people getting twice as many gifts?
Because they’re 2 years old. TWINS.
Most of us don’t remember being 2, but our parents definitely remember. The “terrible twos,” as that phase of child development is commonly called in English, and most of us lived up to that title pretty spectacularly.
Then imagine if there had been twice as many of you.
Let’s call them Twin A (her real first initial) and Twin B (who’s actually the oldest, and never lets you forget it) ‒ are their grandparents’ only, and long-awaited, grandchildren.
That’s what I call a gift “situation.”
Since 2-year-olds are demanding about everything, especially about doing everything “by myself,” it’s not surprising that they’d be really opinionated about their Christmas lists. While 2-year-olds don’t write lists, they carry them in their heads and point to items as they see them.
“I want that one.” If the answer is no, then we try “Siiiiiiiiii!” or “Jaaaaaaaaaa,” experimenting with the volume.
Fortunately for the twins, but unfortunately for everybody else, they can demand things multiple languages. Their parents come from different countries and up until recently the family lived in yet another country…complete with a local “grandma” who adored the twins and satisfied their every whim.
Then you move home, just in time for Christmas, to twice as many adoring grandparents.
European children don’t typically watch TV, so advertisers don’t have the same opportunity to create demand for everything from ant farms to alien robots. But there are still plenty of temptations in every store, just at 2-year-old eyeball level, where somebody in Marketing got straight As in product placement.
But 2-year-olds have a big weakness that cagey adults can, and do, exploit: they’re very easily distracted.
They’re also easily distracted by things that are FREE, like Christmas lights, trees, and ornaments. (But only from a distance; you break it, you buy it.)
Then there’s chocolate, which has its very own category.
My first afternoon in Stuttgart, the twins came back from the nanny…each carrying a burlap sack, a miniature version of what Santa gave me to deliver gifts, filled with chocolates.
They just weren’t interested in hearing that it was a gift and thus you’re supposed to wait until Christmas to open it. Come on, that makes no sense. Nikolaus would never say something like that.
The burlap sacks mysteriously disappeared after the twins went to bed that night, but the next day, on a completely different topic, the grownups mentioned c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e. Immediately, the twins said, ”Schokolade!”
2-year-olds who don’t speak English and can’t spell in any language know exactly what we’re talking about, proving that adults are fooling themselves and should’ve given up on that spelling thing long ago.
We’re careful not to mention our plan to visit the Ritter Sport Schokoladenmuseum in Waldenbuch, at which I bought 4000g of premium chocolate, including 75% Cacao baking chocolate (note to readers who live nearby), for a grant total of 20€.
Well, 20 Euros 54 centimes, to be precise.
There are ever so many sweets in Germany anytime, but especially at Christmastime. You can’t get away from them, even if you tried. The airlines pass out chocolate bars. Twice on every flight. Hotels leave little packages of Gummi bears on your pillow, then ask you if you left them behind on purpose.
And there’s nothing that motivates 2-year-olds more than repetition…and repetitive success.
If it works on Mom & Dad once, great, but it might be a coincidence. If it works twice, the idea has definite promise. If it works on grandparents and honorary aunts, too ‒ ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.
The parental decision at hand: do we want a war now or later? Two toddlers amp’d up on sugar and hanging from the chandeliers at 23:00 when you’re dead-tired and will agree to anything, or two toddlers having a daytime screaming fit outdoors, where they have to compete with football fans and accordion music?
We’ll take Option 2, with Glühwein to go. (Since this is probably the last Christmas we might be able to convince the twins that dates are also in fact candy, that’s worth a try, too.)
For Twin A & B’s parents, who didn’t ask for the 2-for-1 family plan but after getting over the shock are really good sports about their double stroller life (and admit to having twice as much fun, on some days anyway), make it “mit Schuss” (with a shot).
So, with a “Vielen Dank” to the pilot of flight LH 1773 from Istanbul, who not only found my Blackberry, but also answered my incoming calls on his way to the airport lost & found, we’re off on the next leg of our journey, 1200 kilometers and 5 degrees Celcius away…
Like I tell all my genius friends: don’t be an idiot.
In Germany in December, it tends to snow. At a minimum, wind or rain or both. Pretty much count on it. What you shouldn’t count on is the freak 13C forecast you saw on weather.com lasting for your whole trip.
(Definitely don’t take any guidance from what I’m wearing, since anything above freezing feels like summer to me, compared to -20F at the North Pole last week.)
So, it’s not terribly insightful to check all your cold weather and rain gear ‒ in fact, all your gear, period ‒ in your suitcase, only to have the airline send it to Chicago. I know it’s inconvenient, but go ahead and use 4 bins at the security checkpoint and you’ll thank me later.
In Alaska, we call it “dressing to walk home.”
That’s how I end up sharing a late-night cab from the Munich airport with some guys from a global IT consulting firm, who actually travel quite a bit, but in parts of the world where leaving your swim trunks behind is the more pressing problem.
So, in this taxi we have a combined IQ of 550 and not one suit jacket for the keynote speech.
Lufthansa gave them each a few hundred Euros as compensation for the untimely Chicago reroute, one of many great reasons to fly Lufthansa (raves this uncompensated spokesperson), so they needed to do some impromptu Christmas shopping.
Legitimately buying gifts for themselves, unlike what you get caught doing every year.
Knowing Munich pretty well, I can help, but not literally. My generous holiday spirit doesn’t extend to sitting outside dressing rooms at department stores. But I’d be happy to meet you later.
And there’s only one place to meet in December in Munich and that’s under the Glockenspiel.
There are fabulous Christmas markets all around Europe, but it doesn’t get much better than Münchner Christkindlmarkt at sundown. Losing your luggage on an international trip is one way to turn into the Grinch, but starting out my Christmas-spirit-promoting job in Marienplatz feels almost like cheating.
So, after a few hours of speed shopping ‒ something like speed dating, but a lot more expensive and you’re stuck with the results for longer ‒ they drop their combined 550 bags at the hotel and we head out again into the brisk wind.
With slightly less complaining this time.
“Hot chocolate?” asked one guy, hopefully. Oh, Señor: we can do so much better than that.
Glūhwein is hot mulled wine, usually red, although you can use fruit wines, white wine, or even beer.
The classic German glūhwein spices are cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and citrus, optionally “mit Schuss” (with a shot of hard liquor). Elsewhere ‒ in Scandinavia, Russia, the UK, throughout Europe ‒ you’ll find a host of other flavors, including apple, nutmeg, honey, currant, even black pepper!
Whether you’ve been calling it vin chaud, grzane wino, glögg, vin fiert, Глинтвейн, sıcak şarap, or karstvīns for the past 600 years, glūhwein puts the cheer back in “Holiday Cheer” and beats back colder Decembers than this, all for a mere 3€ a glass.
Although it might take quite a few glasses to test that theory.
There are lots of good glūhwein recipes on the Web, but I have one objection to almost all of them: never use cheap red wine! Use the same quality red wine as you would to drink at room temperature in a wine glass.
When I mentioned this, we happen to be sharing a table with the one demographic that couldn’t care less: rowdy football fans excited about a match between 2 teams we’d never heard of.
My paternal ancestors immigrated from Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany and undoubtedly brought a glūhwein recipe with them to South Dakota. One of the great-grandmas was apparently known to store bottles under the bed and, look-y here: we have a nice fermented beverage for…medicinal purposes!
Favorite glūhwein of the day? “Glūhwein nach Oma’s Rezept.”
Grandma’s Special Recipe.
So, with a wave to good friends on the Italian/Slovenian border, who are really disappointed we don’t have time to stop by for dinner and the night (in their 4-star hotel), we continue flying SE to…
“Another American Tanks World Markets”
I made up this headline from the G20 summit in Cannes, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it on somebody’s front page this week, alongside “George, Of All The Bonehead Moves…”
Not many Americans outside the Midwest know this about Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou: “Giorgakis” (Little George) is from…St. Paul, Minnesota!
That’s why, when economic austerity measures required for the initial 110€ billion bailout were implemented in May, Greek protesters yelled, “George, go home!”
We already have too many politicians in office who are willing to rack up huge government bills as long as it panders to their own constituents, then are equally willing to risk our country’s debt default to save their own careers.
Some of these politicians are even from Minnesota, Michele (Bachmann).
In a perfect example of nepotism gone wrong, this 3rd-generation Greek Prime Minister single-handedly sent the global financial markets into a tailspin on Monday by announcing a referendum on the EU and IMF bailout that took months of maneuvering, cajoling, begging, threatening, and pleading to finalize…
…and Greece was lucky to get, and arguably didn’t deserve.
On the eve of the G20 summit, George drops a bomb: he wants the Greek people to vote on whether to accept the billions of free money in part 2 of the biggest bailout in the history of bailouts: valued at 130€ billion this time, with 50% debt forgiveness, orchestrated by Greece’s Eurozone neighbors, at no small financial and political cost to themselves.
Which we now want to “choose” after the fact, because we hate it that this free money is contingent on us doing stuff we should be doing anyway, and I’ve had a hard time explaining these austerity measures to the Greek public without looking like I’m part of the problem, which I am.
Which proves, Eurofriends, that no good deed goes unpunished.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy says Greece should never have been admitted to the Eurozone in the first place. True. Yet here they are, ungratefully so, forcing the Eurozone to contemplate a painful divorce, minimally a legal separation with endless alimony and child support.
But Papandreou’s referendum had a predictably short shelf life.
Recap of the France/Germany G20 dress-down: let’s be perfectly clear, George, we’re not paying another red cent of the debt you racked up from years of riotous living ‒ that Greece blatantly lied about to the Eurozone, by the way ‒ until you agree to the austerity measures set forth in the 26 October agreement.
Of course the austerity measures are harsh, George. They’re meant to be. It’s the only way Greece has any chance of getting its fiscal house in order, and the only way we can try to ensure you don’t suck the rest of the Eurozone into your black hole.
Only in your dreams could you cash that mid-November bailout installment check you can’t live without, while simultaneously holding the Eurozone hostage with your “sometime next year” referendum.
George the American is a gambling man who doesn’t know when to fold ‘em (and may well lose tomorrow’s confidence vote because of it).
Who knows perfectly well that tax increases are key to Greece’s austerity plan, yet shies away from his responsibility to tell the voters plainly. Who was willing to risk the stability of the Euro, and by extension another global recession, to make a point.
Sound familiar? It’s like George never left St. Paul.
In early November, Munich’s heat wave peaked at 19C/66F. I enjoyed it, suspiciously.
Two days later, I relaxed. Life was back to the way it should be in Germany on the downhill slide toward Christmas: it snowed.
The snow didn’t stick, but it forecast the storms to come, one upon another with hardly a pause. By the end of the month, airports across the UK and Western Europe were snowed in and record low temperatures were being reported in the East.
I got caught up in that weather on my way back from festive Thanksgiving in rainy Rome, which for once was happy not to be the epicenter of European excitement.
Over yet another cappuccino in the airport café after yet another rebooking, part of me was wondering what kind of bad karma might put me in Zurich for a free evening?
…and it snowed and snowed and snowed some more, as Christmas markets opened up all around Europe anyway, saving intrepid shoppers and merrymakers from themselves with glühwein and chocolat chaud.
The last winter I remember like this in Europe, my friends and I were in Austria, getting saved from ourselves with peach schnapps.
…and staying in a charmingly spare guesthouse with a perfectly shaped, cake icing-like snowcap on the roof, where in warmer weather Little Red Riding Hood undoubtedly visited her grandmother. The place had clearly been around for many generations and the owners, a wrinkled lot, stooping deeply but smiling broadly, had personally welcomed every one of them.
After some vigorous trekking and cross-country skiing, a winter picnic, and deep breaths of mountain air, which we needed a lot more than we realized, we headed back and en route drove past a luxury hotel.
Backing up… First, a dark Mercedes luxury coupe with darkly-tinted windows ‒ which are pretty much illegal, in Germany at least, so these were out-of-towners pretty much screaming, “We’re filthy rich and from somewhere we don’t have silly rules like that!” ‒ blew by us at a high rate of speed.
On a whim, we decided to follow it.
…and found ourselves pulling into this palatial hotel drive, breezily giving the keys to our modest dark Mercedes wagon to the valet, just as if we owned the place and our penthouse suite was awaiting us, vielen dank.
The hotel was all we anticipated, the lobby lushly decorated for Christmas, as only hotel lobbies with red velvet curtains the rest of the year can really pull off.
To avoid blowing our cover, we kept our rave reviews mostly to ourselves and, with eyes open wide, smiled, which you can get away with in Europe more so at Christmastime, but any other time of year marks you as an over-eager American tourist who’s had too much to drink.
But we couldn’t hide our excitement about the…PIANO. In the middle of the salon was a Bösendorfer concert grand, blinding us with its black shiny-ness, sitting in the shadow of an enormous Christmas tree decorated subtlety in white.
Christkindle, please say you brought that gift all the way from the North Pole for one of us!
Behind the piano was a wall of 10-meter windows and behind them was an utterly magical snowy forest I thought only Hans Christian Andersen knew about, minus the trolls.
What kind of place was this anyway?
We inquired and were further convinced by the answer: this very forest had been the inspiration, so the story went, for Franz Gruber’s carol Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), which the St. Nikolaus Kirche choir first sang on Christmas Eve 1818 in nearby Oberndorf.
Snow on snow had fallen in that forest the winter before and the stillness that remains only after snows like that resulted in the #1 Christmas carol in the world, of all time (according to Gallup polls).
In the non-magical hospitality business, we never would’ve gotten away with impersonating hotel guests except that black European après-ski attire all looks about the same and cars with foreign plates and ski racks all look about the same, too.
It’s all about confidence. If you act like you belong there, you do…until somebody asks you for your room number, at which time you make one up, along with a logical-sounding surname. German would be good and how convenient that I have one of those already!
So that’s how some foreign interlopers speaking something between passable and no German, but between us a few other European languages proficiently, ended up sipping hot drinks in the salon of a hotel we couldn’t remotely afford, listening to our concert pianist friend play classical Christmas melodies on a piano we could remotely afford, either ‒ with kind permission of the chef d’hôtel, who was quite pleased at the large beverage-buying audience that gathered as the night went on.
Looking out the windows as snow continued to fall steadily, steadily all evening on that silent night.
But snow falling on snow can transform, in a moment, from magic to tragic.
Ever seen the show The Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, about the hazards of commercial crab fishing in Alaska? Ever think about what kind of cowboys ‒ or nut cases ‒ would fly the helicopters mere inches above the angry Bering Sea (or it sure looks that way), on which some of those TV cameras are mounted?
Those guys are from Egli Air Haul in King Salmon, Alaska, my Christmas destination.
Sam Egli is a legend in these parts. He’s been flying fearlessly for over half a century. Nobody knows the terrain in this part of Alaska better than him.
So, if you’ve crashed your white plane in a snowstorm, say, you’d want Sam out there looking for you.
One year, one afternoon right before Christmas, a government plane conducting a routine survey was reported missing. Since it was a secret, we assumed everybody in town already knew about it.
We also knew that no-one in town would be waiting for the FAA to do ‒ or not ‒ something about it.
There was this instantaneous shift from reverie to rescue that can only happen in a small town. Anyone who owned anything that flew ‒ and those scheduled to depart on commercial flights for the holidays that day cancelled their tickets, knowing full well they might not be able to rebook before Christmas ‒ met in the school parking lot in the dark. They spread out aerial maps and by flashlight divided up the areas to search.
By then, night had fallen, more snow had fallen, and ominously there was no news.
The next morning, the moment it was light, they were all in the air, looking for their friends, colleagues, relatives…because in a small town in bush Alaska it’s really all the same anyway.
The first day of the search, nothing. Then night, with temperatures again below freezing.
Everyone knew that even if the guys on the plane had survived the crash, they wouldn’t survive much longer in that weather. And the more it snowed, the harder they would be to find, in millions of square acres of tundra, air swirling white.
The second day of the search began much the same, with worry and frustration. Until, on a hunch, Sam decided to fly over a certain area he knew, which had been flown over more than once already.
There he found the plane, and in it he found someone alive.
The pilot had died on impact, but his passenger had survived. Badly injured, unable to rescue himself and getting weaker by the minute, but lucid.
Then the community had to accept that, while the search had been successful for one family, a member of another would never be coming home for Christmas.
The day the crash site was found, the pilot’s family’s Christmas cards – their kids’ school pictures pasted on the front – arrived in mailboxes all over town.
The same kids who’d performed earlier that week in the school holiday program, singing with their classmates “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” to a standing-room-only audience, while outside snow fell on biggest snowfall of the winter.
On the last truly happy night of their lives.
“Snow had fallen, snow on snow…” is from a poem by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), set to music after her death as the lovely Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s track #6 on my favorite Christmas album of all time, Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (The Cambridge Singers and The City of London Sinfonia).
I could’ve done without the before-and-after photos of the turkey, newly dead for my benefit.
It was one of those predictable misunderstandings between the Italians and their American daughter-in-law. When she told them that American Thanksgiving dinner required a “fresh” turkey, I knew exactly what she meant: “not frozen.”
But in Europe, where your choices are fresh, fresh, or nothing, “fresh” means “fresher than you can get at your local butcher.”
In the Italian tradition of taking things a bit too far in general, this logically translated to “you need to kill the turkey yourself on the spot.” And that they did, photographing every detail with relish for the absentee chef who was on her way from London, where people, while they know theoretically where protein comes from, prefer not to dwell on those last gruesome moments.
I reminded the daughter-in-law of another unfortunate poultry incident, in Africa, where we’d spent a summer pre-Italy doing public health projects. In one village, the women announced they’d be serving us chicken for lunch.
This chicken. Right in front of you.
They slit its throat and laughed as I lost my breath and turned white. Not my finest moment in the field.
Beyond embarrassing, actually, when in a prior developing world experience I’d stitched up a few gaping wounds with an upholstery needle and thread − sterilized with an unnamed alcoholic beverage provided clandestinely by an unnamed person, since this was a Muslim country − without a thought, only to be taken out a few years later by a dead chicken, of all things.
Like many things in Italy, Thanksgiving arrived late, kind of like this post.
We’d planned the dinner for Saturday night. However, when our hosts learned that Thanksgiving is traditionally celebrated on Thursday, it seemed only natural to start eating on Thursday and continue through Saturday.
…which working backwards meant the Thanksgiving drama needed to begin well before Thursday, and that, i miei amici, meant compiling the guest list.
Being suckers for lost causes, we decided to limit the guest list to 20, plus or minus 4 percentage points. Immediate family and close friends only. No aunts, uncles, cousins − “i parenti,” who aren’t parents (“i genitori”), but rather relatives, extended family − of which in Italy there is simply no end.
How lucky, then, that we’re not on speaking terms with the families who live within shouting distance of the house!
We’d miraculously capped attendance at 23 guests, within the realistic margin of error, until midway through the salad course…
…which in Italy is called “i contorni” and comes at the end of the meal, but for which we provided a completely fictional explanation from American history placing it at the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner, mostly to buy me time for the complex hot food deployment, but also as a food-stretching measure…
…when the uninvited contingent began to arrive, under the guise of dropping off gifts for the new baby (read on). Naturally, they’d heard about the Thanksgiving “party” and assumed their invitations had been “lost in the mail.” They, of course, were welcomed to stay, as they knew they would be…so, please pass everything.
Then there’s the charming Italian…power grid. The family home is on a secluded country road outside of a secluded village outside of Rome, in which the lights dim every 5 minutes and you have a full-on power outage a dozen times a day. Save the mashed potatoes, the Thanksgiving menu is primarily an oven-roasted menu and Italy is electric oven country.
Since if the oven is on, the lights cannot also be on, you the chef have 2 choices: you can either see the food you’re cooking or you can actually cook it. Finally, the perfect excuse for burnt pecans!
Cooking a 400-year-old menu for a couple dozen people is usually not this big a deal.
Our theatrical production had a most reluctant headliner. The 11-kilo (24.2-pound) turkey, who came within millimeters of not fitting into “il piccolo forno” (the tiny oven), tried his slippery best to slip away, but we dealt with him just like a desperate criminal being arrested by the police: somebody hold his wings, somebody hold his legs, somebody put an elbow on his chest and read him his rights.
The attendees, both family and friends, are mostly policemen and every branch of law enforcement was generously represented. The state police, who are the civilian authorities. The carabinieri, a branch of the military along with the Army, Navy, and Air Force, whose motto “Nei Secoli Fedele” (faithful through the centuries) tells us really all we need to know.
Then there was a guy in the Palidoro, a mobile unit out of the UN police headquarters in Rome, one of 9 located across Europe. These officers are called up on missions to protect EU interests around the world. He told some fascinating stories (in warp-speed Italian) about their recent mission in the West Bank to monitor the political situation there, reinforcing the discouraging conclusions about prospects for Middle East peace that I’d just been reading about in the Corriere della Sera − the Italian equivalent of the New York Times − on my flight over.
Since the house was swarming with cops and I couldn’t tell who was who, I just saluted everyone and answered every question “Si, Signore, certo,” and then offered them all extra dessert, which they all gladly accepted, joking that they were used to people trying to bribe them, but not usually with baked apples stuffed with brown sugar, walnuts, currants, and fresh vanilla.
One of the carabinieri is an exceptional cook, according to his adoring wife, who freely admits she initially fell in love with him for precisely this reason. With his expert interrogation skills, he got me to confess one of my secret recipes, after first correctly guessing several of the key ingredients.
Sorry, Officer, you caught me. I did grate nutmeg into that. I just forgot. My day started before 6:00 and here it’s 23:30 (11:30pm) and the dinner is still going strong.
Please, just this once, let me off with a warning.
By this point in the evening, “il rustico,” the little cottage out back, had dinner guests hanging from the rafters. Singing, toasting, conversing, eating, drinking, kissing the baby, holding the baby, taking photos with and of the baby…
…and it was more than a little disturbing to realize that the baby’s daily take of gifts was equivalent in value to what we paid for the ingredients of Thanksgiving dinner.
The new baby’s imminent baptism has everyone in a tizzy. She’s the first grandchild and her father is one of these archetypal Italian playboys about whom his resigned family felt that settling down with an American woman was better than nothing.
Actually, just the opposite is true. The grandparents are crazy in love with their daughter-in-law, although they do hope this baptism nudges her in the direction of conversion to Catholicism.
(I could tell them right now that women will wear red robes at the Vatican before that ever happens, but hope springs eternal.)
Preceding the caffé, grappa, and 3 dessert courses, which included caffé liqueur served in edible dark chocolate cups, were the savory elements I adore. Turkey stuffing with mushrooms, apples, roasted red peppers, spiced (by me) sausage, and fresh rosemary. Potato purée, as the Italians call it, with roasted garlic and fresh parsley.
“Fresh” this time means “out of the garden.” Where our salad greens came from, too. Hand-delivered through the kitchen window. In late November!
Fresh salad greens on the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving table in Massachusetts? Sorry, we’re fresh out.
You don’t need to speak much German to guess what this news headline might mean to Bavarian readers (and how true it is):
“You know those people who talk really loud on their cell phones on public transportation about stuff we couldn’t care less about hearing? Guess what: we get to hear even more of that during our formerly pretty tranquil metro ride to work.
How incredibly annoying.”
It’s a genetic trait of the Herting family: you can’t walk by a newsstand without checking out the headlines. You do this even if you have no hope of understanding what the headline says, much less the cultural back story, the press shorthand, the only way in which you can possibly fit years, decades, or even – since this is Germany, after all – centuries of history into that 36-character space.
It’s how our family goes into a restaurant and then, when asked the size of our party, look around and see we’ve left somebody or three out on the sidewalk finding out what’s fit to print.
And here I am, 6,000 miles away from the rest of the clan, doing exactly the same thing.
But it was the headline underneath that headline that caught my eye: a hundred or so white supremacists marched through the center of Munich, accompanied by almost as many police officers.
…because I’d actually seen that march while walking along Elisenstrasse toward Marienplatz, on an unseasonably warm and sunny November day, to meet a friend for coffee. My first impression of the protestors’ signs actually had been that they were against Nazism, although my first clue should’ve been that they were also against capitalism.
They handed out flyers to the crowd. No wonder everybody around me looked at me strangely for accepting one.
Later, I typed some of the text into Google Translate and came to a frightening realization: remember those profoundly evil fascist convictions that led to the rise of the Third Reich and World War II? They’re still alive and well in Germany…less than 100 meters away from me.
I wrote a post last summer called On the Verge of a Standoff, about right-wing nationalist parties winning elections all over Europe, but most recently ‒ and alarmingly ‒ in Belgium.
One of the scariest things about the white supremacy resurgence in Europe is its strong appeal to the younger generation. To young people who see no chance for economic opportunity in their respective home countries.
Translation: fewer jobs, dwindling social safety nets, austerity measures dictated by the EU that hit the working class square in the face.
Poorly integrated immigrant populations, too, which are perceived as swallowing up an unfair proportion of social benefits, incubating crime, and dictating unwelcome religious-based social norms to the majority.
There’s some truth to a lot of things in life, and this is no exception. It’s a complex fruit basket of political issues present across Europe today.
But this was a first for me: to see genuine believing Nazis march openly down the street of a major German city, advocating white power and eradication of “all those other people we hate.”
This, not 10 miles from the concentration camp at Dachau, which was opened in March 1933, 2 short months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany – obvious in retrospect, he was wasting no time putting the Holocaust in motion – and in which 32,000 innocents were killed.
Innocents who didn’t fit into the Nazi definition of the perfect country, the perfect race, the perfect future of the Third Reich, poised to swallow up all of Europe.
Democracy is a constant balancing act, never more so than with free speech. In that landmark free speech case of 1977, the National Socialist Party of America (a neo-Nazi organization) v. Skokie, Illinois, the United States Supreme Court found that members of the NSPA did indeed have the legal right to march right through the majority Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Skokie, home to thousands of survivors of the Holocaust and their extended families, wearing Nazi informs and swastikas.
No matter provocative, cruel, repugnant, outrageous, and 10,000 other bad adjectives those American Nazis’ actions were, ultimately they were covered by the 1st Amendment.
Free and open societies remain free and open in part because we’re strong enough to let diverse, even hateful, voices be heard…and that sends the repressive nations on earth a powerful message: we’re fearless. We’re so sure we’re in the right where free speech is concerned that we’ll gladly open ourselves up to withering criticism from within because we feel confident our democratic principles can withstand it and in fact prosper by contrast.
Another old adage that holds: “the truth never fears investigation.”
But, as a perceptive man I know once said: don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. Applying that concept to free speech, don’t perceive my openness, flexibility, and generosity about your right to your opinions ‒ with which I couldn’t agree less, just to be clear ‒ with my being a pushover, as you launch into politically actionable hatred.
The moment you cross the line into criminal activity, even ever so slightly, you’re done.
The Germans have their work cut out for them, as their economy continues to struggle and even political moderates grow tired hearing the monotonous foot-dragging and wheel-spinning at the Bundestag.
“If the kids are united…” says the neo-Nazi flyer, in its sole phrase in English. You, your white skin, your disproportionate sense of entitlement, and your fascist guiding principles are the bright future of 21st century Germany.
First: take today’s Nazis seriously. They mean every word they say, and then some.
Remember Mein Kampf? Hitler published his manifesto in 1925-26, the better part of a decade before he became the self-described Führer. He didn’t keep his opinions a secret; he put them out there for anyone to read. (In the “most bizarre wedding gift” category, newlyweds received free copies.)
Many people figured Hitler was just a low-level crackpot with overblown political ambitions who would never amount to anything…and came to regret that fatal underestimation.
Second: make sure that, for the sake of tomorrow’s world, Hitler’s murderous words never again come to power.
Something’s missing, but I can’t put my finger on it.
In the food life, it’s called taste training. Sometimes you can taste what’s missing for yourself; other times you need feedback that you’re not necessarily thrilled about.
But, like most categories of bad news, it’s best to hear it from a friend.
At Le Cordon Bleu, my downfall was salt. The French have a higher salt tolerance than Americans in general, so even low salt to them tasted much too salty to me. I just could not get this right at first. Every day when I thought I’d finally achieved salty perfection, I was still just a little bit off the mark…and heard all about it.
The make-do-until-I-graduate strategy: as salty as I can stand it, plus the palm-of-the-hand equivalent of another tablespoon per 4-serving portion.
Americans are so willing to sacrifice taste for health that we self-righteously hide the salt shaker and dive forthwith into the chips and salsa, followed by peanut brittle and French vanilla ice cream.
But it’s also that restaurant food is more salty than anybody makes at home and people who eat in restaurants a lot notice this and expect it. So, if you want to keep your job, you best work on your salty delivery, with some salty back-kitchen language to go along with it.
Being a garlic fiend, that’s the first missing ingredient I notice. One clove of garlic is just barely enough to roast and spread on 1 slice of bread. Some American recipes call for this little garlic in an entire pasta dish, or in a half-gallon of soup!
Anybody from the Mediterranean will insist that you amend your menu to read HGD (Hopelessly Garlic Deficient).
It’s easy to fall into this trap when you work with ingredients you’re unfamiliar with. At Le Cordon Bleu, we sought out people from those regions to give us a reality check. Luckily, there was hardly a region on earth from which we didn’t have at least someone, if not a whole assortment of tasters to choose from.
If what you made didn’t pass muster with at least 1 local, you’d better come up some sincere apologies before going back to the drawing board.
The Japanese students, for example, had no trouble with salt. Japanese cuisine is high in sodium, largely due to everything soy. But the Japanese chefs-to-be never quite got the whole bouquet garni thing (so indispensible in French cuisine that many recipes don’t even bother to mention it), having not grown up with laurier (Bay leaf) et poireau (leek) and not sensing what French food, particularly French sauces, tasted like without them.
The more colorful the spice in the cupboard, the less likely the Japanese students had ever seen it, let alone tasted it. They also didn’t have much of a clue what to do with pork loin, or boiled potatoes, or caramelized onions, let alone caramelized carrots.
(I was born in Japan and love it there, so note that these are friendly examples.)
Once people got over the beauty of their presentation, which was really hard to get over because it was so amazing and effortless, the Japanese students took a lot of heat for this. Nothing like blah, off-topic food, whether it’s French or Japanese or something else, to acquire all kinds of unhappy former customers.
You get into Argentinean, Turkish, North African, or Southeast Asian cuisine with that attitude and you already know that undesirable acronym: NRSE (Not Remotely Spicy Enough).
…and it’s a crying shame to get all the way to the dinner table before you find this out, when the only available fixes are Tabasco and red pepper flakes.
Sooner or later, you − the flavor imposter − are found out. If you’re the proprietor, a few lukewarm reviews on yelp.com and your business is toast.
That’s why restaurants are very often partnerships. It’s not just about seed money. It’s about complimentary skill sets, to have somebody around to save you from yourself and that list of business-killing acronyms.
It’s not just about menus, either. It’s about sharing, negotiating, and learning how to leverage each other’s strong points to get the work done. If you didn’t learn this by washing dishes with your siblings when you were growing up, you get to learn it the hard way at Le Cordon Bleu.
More often than not we shared stoves and ovens with another person. If you’re familiar with French cuisine, you already know how many burners you need at once: 3 going full blast, a 4th turned off to use as a transition area. Then there’s your 1 oven trying to be 2 temperatures at once. So, if you have only half a stove and half an oven to call your own, you need to figure out a workable plan with your “blind date.”
But, for example, if you’re blanching and peeling 5 kilos of tomatoes total, you really need only 1 pot of boiling water, 1 bowl of cold water, 1 platter, and 1 skimming spoon to share. That’s 4 pieces of extra equipment not taking up your precious prep area.
At culinary school, this is all legal and encouraged. It’s the reality in the food business: working in close quarters, doing more with less, learning how to work clean and organized (which counted for 10% of our grade)…and tasting each others’ food as a hedge against disaster.
You wouldn’t want your worst enemy to hear the kind of abuse you’ll get for presenting bad food for money for real. So, be honest. Brutal if necessary. I’ll do you the same favor when it’s your turn.
I know some progressive American gourmet restaurants in which the 5pm tasting − before the dinner service − involves the entire staff. Not just culinary staff. Waiters, hostesses, porters, dishwashers, everybody.
The logic: if you work here, you need to know what we’re serving and what our business is about, because you never know when you might encounter a customer and knowing what we’re about will make you better at your job and in the long run make us more successful. (And maybe you more successful, if you’d like to learn how to cook and be promoted.)
And if we’re smart we’ll listen to all your opinions. One might save us a lot of grief someday.
I know a guy who owns a fusion restaurant that travel guides rate $$$$. Somewhere you’d go on your anniversary. He added this new item to his menu because it had a cool name, he’d eaten it before, and thought he could easily figure out how to make it and make it profitable. He was really proud of his new recipe and couldn’t wait to showcase for the upcoming season.
Until he served it to his staff as a test run.
About 1/3 of his BOH (back-of-house) staff was from the same country, the country from which this dish originated. They tasted politely, then started laughing…and couldn’t stop.
Why? Not only was this chef’s dish made completely wrong in all the wrong ways, but also the result looked and tasted a lot like another local dish a restaurant like that would never serve…and there was even a crude JOKE about it that any person who spoke the native language would know.
So, sometimes it’s not a missing ingredient, it’s a missing piece of information that nukes your quarterly profits.
Or, sometimes it’s the passion that’s missing.
Early days at Le Cordon Bleu, there was this Scandinavian student whose stove was one down, one over from mine.
(I should say our stove, because that term I shared mine with an Asian ex-runway model, who was finally having the career and family she’d always wanted, after 10 years of boring fashion shows.)
For Miss Scandinavia, food was VVSB: Very Very Serious Business. She never chatted, never smiled, never even complained, which is an absolute culinary school requirement (see syllabus). Her parents had sent her to Le Cordon Bleu, we’d heard, with specific instructions to be valedictorian of her class, or don’t bother coming home.
She was determined to have NFW (No Fun Whatsoever)…and that’s how her food tasted, every day.
Then she met this Latin American student who was hell on wheels.
He’d been a line cook in a busy holiday destination resort for a few seasons, so he had very good knife skills and worked very fast. But he had no discipline whatsoever. Despite coming to class after partying until 4am, he always plated first, but half hung over with half his uniform missing, hair on fire the entire morning, his workspace in utter shambles.
What saved him was that he had this incredible palate. He could taste the absence of celery. Our chefs couldn’t get over it. This guy had never worked in a French restaurant, or even a gourmet restaurant. He’d never been to Europe before, either.
So, in addition to being the class flirt, he became the class taster.
Anyway, imagine these 2 people sharing a stove. You can’t pay enough tuition to witness that quality of culinary entertainment every day. Then they fell in love and it got even better.
The relationship didn’t last, according to our chefs, who in France comment freely on their students’ love lives without threat of lawsuits. After graduation, both did stages (internships) in prestigious Paris establishments, but when his visa ran out 6 months later, he went back to Latin America. She stayed on in Europe. Somewhere.
They were both better cooks having met, our chefs editorialized further. He’d learned to appreciate the beauty of the understated French classics. She’d learned that sometimes in a kitchen situation you just have to take a breath and let it rip.
Sometimes, too, I look around the kitchen and picture him at the stove next door − one down, one over − impatiently waiting to tell me, with that white-hot, ever-infectious culinary enthusiasm: dame un beso, mi amor! (give me a kiss, my darling!) because today you got it exactly right.
The squirrels and I are a package deal, says Yves.
Now, how is it that you’re still single? I say, sardonically.
Yves, a French colleague and friend, was complaining aloud, and I in turn was commenting aloud about his complaints, which were beyond ridiculous, even for the most overly dramatic of overly dramatic French guys, and I had quite a few to choose from.
Some stories are hilarious enough to risk serious payback and this was one of them.
See, Yves was telling me about this woman who he’d taken on a day trip from Paris to his country house − not a château, but not a cottage, either − in Centre, a rural province in (naturally) the center of France, in the Loire Valley. Drop-dead gorgeous part of the country that no tourist with a car should miss. Down in the direction of Limoges, where you buy those porcelain dishes.
Minimally, the trip was a tragic fiasco…and Yves was bitterly disappointed when I took HER side, not even knowing her, but imaging the following squirrel scenario with long-distance anxiety.
I don’t like squirrels. I don’t like furry little animals in general. And, as you might expect, they don’t like me much, either. So, the idea of spending any time whatsoever in a house whose upstairs is entirely overrun with squirrels − hundreds of them, by his description − sounded like the perfect way to PREVENT a woman from falling in love with you, if not running away screaming in the direction of the train station.
The generations of squirrels came to live there because the house had been vacant and in disrepair (and partially open to the elements) for many years, due to an estate dispute. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, and the squirrels were rapidly closing in on that last remaining 1/10th.
It won Yves no points with the woman in question that the ground floor of the house was inexplicably squirrel-free…so much so that he’d confidently brought along a picnic lunch?
Back story: his house was that little valley’s most famous − or infamous − property, depending on your point of view. A wealthy expatriate Englishman, a certain Mr. Barry, Esq., had bought the place back in the 1870s and his extended family had provided a seemingly endless supply of exciting scandals that lit up this − let’s face it, boring − township with some much-needed excitement for the next 100 years or so.
This house was also haunted (not just by squirrels). Apparently, it had been on the market for ages − really? − until my friend snatched it up at a fire sale price, so said the seller, laughing all the way to the bank. Yves had this dream of renovating it and living there full-time one day, having a portable career and a strong dislike of city life.
I like a good ghost story as much as the next person and suggested that maybe the ghost(s) could scare the squirrels away and thus salvage any remaining credibility he might have with his lady love.
So, if the squirrels are making so much racket, how do you know you have ghosts? Oh, in this house, the squirrels are noisy, but the ghosts are quiet. Interesting. Maybe the ghosts feel like they can’t compete?
So, the ghost apparently was this Monsieur Barry and even my colleague, a maybe-even-overly-sane-about-every-other-subject scientist, had seen it, having spent the night many times at his house…actually the squirrels’ house that you’re just visiting, I said, forgetting the old adage that if you’re already in a hole, stop digging.
I wanted to know every detail. When did the ghost arrive? Where did it go? What did it do? Were you scared?
Did you get any photos?
I believe in the occult. I don’t believe in it as a faith, but I do believe that spirits, good and bad, exist on the earth today. Thus, I don’t doubt Yves for a second that he saw the ghost of Monsieur Barry, or at least the ghost of somebody.
The curious thing to me was that the ghost always arrived around dinnertime.
Now this I could understand because any dish worth coming back from the dead for probably exists in classical French cuisine.
There was this place in the kitchen wall − I know this because Yves had shown me his architectural plans − where a door used to be, but in a previous renovation had been filled in and the door moved elsewhere. The ghost of Monsieur Barry, who had lived there when the kitchen door was in its original place, continued to use it, walking through the kitchen and into the dining room, where he hovered around the end of the table, where the host would normally sit.
Monsieur Barry wasn’t a hostile ghost, trying to take back the house from its new owner − and why in the world would he want to, with all those squirrels he’d have to deal with now? − or even sitting down at the head of the table, where presumably his old chair would’ve been. I guess he was just revisiting a place where he had good family memories from back in the day, of family meals around the family table at around 21:00 (9:00pm) every evening.
Now, “à chacun son goût” (to each his own, you can’t account for taste), so on the off chance her favorite holiday is Halloween, could it hurt to suggest that she make a return visit at the dinner hour and see this ghost you’re referring to? Maybe the novelty of ghost-hunting could partially cancel out the hostile squirrel takeover…while you get the exterminators in there, Yves. Come on.
My second-hand suggestion, I heard later, was flatly refused.
Later, I got a Christmas card from him, with a Centre return address. Signed by him and a woman named Lisabetta. At last, Yves had the good fortune of meeting a kindred spirit, of the living variety.
Assuming the squirrels have long been evicted, I wonder how many ever-so-quiet candlelight dinners they’ve shared with their mysterious guest, feasting perhaps on La Géline de Touraine à la Lochoise, at 21:00 Romance Standard Time.
La Géline de Touraine à la Lochoise is a specialty of the Centre region. It’s made with a small free-range black chicken called the “Black Lady,” vouvray (a special white wine de Touraine), champignons de Paris (mushrooms grown in the Loire Valley and one of the staples of classical French cuisine), onion, and crème fraîche. Deceptively simple and absolutely divine. Some people make La Géline with a salt crust, which is the version that immigrated to New Orleans, USA.
If you live in France, today is “la rentrée scolaire des élèves” (Back to School Day) − whether you’re in school or not, whether you like it or not. (Not.)
La Rentrée (“the return”) in general – back to school, back to work, back to your regular schedule − is observed by every French person ages 4 to 94. It’s this instantaneous, nationwide transition to regular life from carefree summer at the same beach – maybe even the same beach house − where you spend a month every year, as did your parents and parents and parents parents parents, as far back as your recorded family history.
Perhaps one of those generations is retired by now, lives near the ocean or sea full-time, and plays host to everyone. I’ve been a lucky guest at family gatherings like these, including picnics that I greatly hesitate to call picnics, given the elaborate food and presentation thereof, and amateur sports that I greatly hesitate to call amateur.
(I leave my competitive spirit in the city and am perfectly happy to let everybody else win absolutely everything, as long as you keep me plied with cold beverages. Ice is nice, but I’ve learned to deal.)
If you’re not staying beachfront, you’ve rented beach chairs, which you’ve also rented in exactly the same place on the same beach as your parents parents parents. Same concept as church pews and even more religiously observed. Bonjour, Monsieur-dame. Bienvenue. I see your reservation written down right here in the sand: row 14, for posterity.
But in late August, you start to wind things down, even though it’s hard to concentrate on anything during those long, hot summer days when your daily agenda looks something like sleep late, long breakfast, swimming, even longer lunch, reading, sunbathing, napping…banking some energy for the longest dinner on record, a record just waiting to be broken.
“La Rentrée – NOT!” would involve driving into Paris the night before the first day of school, in the worst traffic you’ve seen outside of Los Angeles. Instead, people tend to depart leisurely several days prior to the deadline and “pass by” that cute little guesthouse famous for its wine list, which you not-so-secretly wanted to do anyway.
So, you’ve been goofing off since July 15th. You spent Bastille Day packing everything you bought at “les soldes d’été” (the summer sales), then drove off – or flew off − the next morning to parts unknown, leaving, bien sûr, no contact number at the office.
As if anyone would call you anyway, seeing they’re all sunning, eating, and napping, too.
(For tourists, here are 2 things to know about Paris in summer: it’s cheap, and it’s empty. Cheap because it’s hot and humid and all the smart people are on the shore for the next few weeks, where it’s probably the same temperature, but at least you can dress for it. Empty for the same reason.)
Now it’s the 1st week of September and the fun’s over.
There’s an oddly beautiful symmetry in a country in which everybody’s on exactly the same schedule. Time to get the winter clothes out of storage. Time to hit Gibert Jeune, the college bookstore, for last-minute supplies. Time, too, to catch up with friends who spent the summer on other beaches with their families. “On va prendre un verre en ville, si vous voulez venir.” (We’re going to have drinks in town, if you want to come.)
As much as I love summer, with its gazpacho-making ingredients and long hours of biking daylight, fall is my favorite season. I especially can’t wait for the “cold snap” in late September or early October, the first frosty morning that turns on all the fall colors…bright yellow, rusty orange, deep red and purple…”comme par magie” (like magic).
Walking to the Metro in scarf and gloves. Stepping carefully on the glistening streets. Seeing my breath freeze, then disappear into the bright morning.