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Monday, September 5, 2011

The Day it Smelled Like Broccoli

I always hate writing stories about people who may realize the story is about them (unless they're in my family; then I think they have to just expect and accept it), but sometimes it's hard to pass up a really good anecdote. That being said, names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent (and if the subject/culprit does ever stumble upon and read this and recognize that the story is about them, no hard feelings - like always, this is just my personal recollection of events; who knows how accurate it really is?)

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I went on one of those everything-has-been-arranged-for-you-including-your-meals group tours of German-speaking Europe. Overall, it was an awesome trip filled with visiting lots of amazing places that I had never heard of and thus did not recognize the significance of our visits to them until years later, at which point I grew frustrated with 15-year old me and my lack of historical knowledge and appreciation. And my drastically limited experience with cinematic artistry, specifically in the form of "The Sound of Music." Salzburg (and a tour of places from the movie) is not overly interesting when you are only vaguely aware that said movie exists. For that one I blame my parents, who never really let us watch any movies (my older brother had ONE nightmare from an episode of Scooby Doo when he was three - consequently, 99% of all television and movies were banned in our house, much to the chagrin of poor Husband, who is left facing the incredibly daunting up-hill battle of making me watch all the "classics" - Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, among hundreds of others).

I don't know how these kinds of tours are arranged, but I suspect certain companies (specifically a German version of a fast food chain, called Wienerwald) are slipping money under the table to the tour organization in return for a huge commitment to eating at their restaurants. I think we ate Wienerwald for at least 75% of our meals during the 2.5 week tour. It was not especially good food, and in all the time I've lived in Germany since, I've yet to encounter another Wienerwald. Almost as if the pre-arranged tour was to an alternate German-speaking Europe universe in which all the McDonald's are replaced by Wienerwalds.

Regardless, we were not only contractually obligated to consume Wienerwald slop, we were only allowed to eat what they had pre-arranged to serve us. They claimed that, in order to have"that many meals" ready at one time (our group was about 15 people, total), they had to limit our options to "vegetarian" or "generic German meal," but, as defined in our contract, one had to choose whether or not they were vegetarian before embarking on the tour, so our numbers (1 vegetarian, 14 generic German) were sent to all the restaurants weeks in advance of our actually eating there. I suspect they began preparing the food that far in advance, as well. As I learned through my other experiences living in Germany, many Germans are not necessarily opposed to leaving food out for uncomfortably long periods of time, subjecting it to various contaminants we Americans tend to shy away from consuming.

One of our first stops on the tour was Berlin. Shortly after arriving in the city, we were shipped to a large youth hostel-style lodging facility. There we were divided into groups of three to share rooms. Fortunately, I was placed with one of my closest friends at the time (Kay) and another girl from our school. The rooms were minimalistic, though likely not as an attempt at art, and the bathroom was one of the strangest things I'd yet encountered in my life (if you've never been fortunate enough to have utilized a German toilet, you truly don't know what you're missing out on). Not only was the toilet a classic German "shit shelf" toilet, but the tank was high above it on the wall, made of wood, and had a long pull cord hanging from it to flush, which, when pulled, released a torrent of water (necessary to clean the shelf, most likely) that would literally spray the entire room if the lid weren't held down tightly.

After a few minutes exploring the room and the most bizarre bathroom I'd yet encountered in my short, sheltered, sanitized American childhood, we were off to eat our first meal at Wienerwald (whose mascot was a fat golden chicken, if I recall correctly. Most likely because of the abundance of free-range, obese chickens in the vast forests of Vienna. Everything about that statement is accurate.)

After we were seated around a long table, the wait staff gruffly brought out our pre-arranged meals (no need for a menu!). The third girl staying in our room (let's call her Sarah) informed our teacher that she had ordered the vegetarian meal, but the restaurant had evidently made a slight oversight. After a brief scuffle with the staff, a revolting mash of over-steamed, soggy vegetables in some weird yellow-ish sauce was dropped in front of the girl. The smell was powerful, which is not an attribute that readily goes with well-prepared food. But Sarah dove right in, pronouncing the food as "great." After fighting to cut off and choke down several bites of my own dry wienerschnitzel, the smell of the vegetarian dish became too much for me, and I forfeited any further attempt at eating. Sarah cleared her plate in record time, however.

Our teacher took us on a brief walk around the city following our meal, but since most of us were suffering from our first case of jet leg, she let us go back to the hostel with the warning that we should try our best to stay up until nighttime, in an attempt to adjust our internal clocks to German time. Off we went, to struggle through the next several hours of exhaustion.

Back in our room, Sarah asked if either of us had to use the bathroom. She said she wanted to shower and would be in there for a while. In retrospect, I feel she lied to us.

After about 20 minutes, a smell started to escape under the door of the bathroom and fill our small hostel room. It was a familiar, powerful smell. Kay and I exchanged looks and laughed. But after another 10 minutes, and it was no longer funny. The smell became all-invasive. It was one of those thick smells; the kind you can feel in the back of your throat.

Kay and I went over to the giant window in the room and attempted to figure it out. Like German toilets, if you've never encountered a German window, you don't know what you're missing. They have weird, detachable hinges on all sides, and, depending on the direction of the handle, you can change which hinges stay attached and which ones release, enabling the window to open at the top or the side. We managed to figure this out after minimal confusion, and swung the window open wide.

It was cold outside, as evenings in June in Berlin so often are (they are typically either way too cold or way too hot - and the lack of air conditioners in the majority of German buildings makes "too cold" the preferred option). The cold air fought a valiant battle with the smell and won. But the room was soon freezing cold.

After another 30 minutes in the bathroom, Sarah emerged (with the last of the smell), and remarked at how cold it was in the room. Kay and I, through chattering teeth and blue lips, explained that we were attempting to stay awake until bedtime, and the cold was helping us. We might have also implied we were warm. We hadn't thought through our excuses, but neither of us wanted to make Sarah feel bad about the horrific odor. With the smell finally dissipated, we closed the window and passed blissfully to sleep, giving in to the exhaustion of jet lag.

The next morning, we were herded onto our pre-arranged tour bus and shipped (literally, by ferry) to Potsdam for a pre-arranged tour of Sanssouci (the Hohenzollern's summer palaces) and Cecilienhof (the palace that hosted the Potsdam Conference after WWII). While walking through the gorgeous gardens and paths that lead around the Sanssouci complex, Kay and I found ourselves walking a few paces behind the majority of the group, including Sarah. We were admiring the lavish palaces when, out of nowhere, our noses were again affronted with the same mind-bogglingly offensive smell from the previous night. But this time, we weren't the only ones who noticed it.

Sarah turned around to us and absent-mindedly remarked, "hmm, that smells just like my broccoli from last night!!"

Also, for anyone interested, Wienerwald is slowly disappearing due to bankruptcy in the 80's, which would explain why I saw many more of them in 1998 than in 2004-6.

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