Sunday, October 18, 2009

German Customs

Having married into a Bremen family in Germany some time ago, I have become accustomed to and have had to learn about many German customs which are quite different from the Texas world I grew up in as a teenager.  Today I would like to give a few samples of these customs.  In the future I might try to find examples of cultural issues from Texas that might surprise my German friends, but one things at a time right now!
Shaking hands!  One knows from watching Japanese movies that the normal greeting between two Japanese (at least if they are in the same social class) is a respectful bow.  In Western Culture, we shake hands, but the Germans take it to a somewhat higher level, it seems to me.  When I was a young married man living in my parents-in-law's home for a few weeks on a visit, I would dutifully shake hands with my father-in-law when we saw each other for the first time at the breakfast table, and then again when we were off to bed after an evening of conversation and red or white wine.
If there was a larger dinner party with family and friends, as pictured in the beautiful Christmas dinner shown in the picture as prepared by my daughter-in-law a couple of years ago with the Christmas tree full of real candles, a genuine and wonderful German custom, then the rules for saying good-bye at the end of the evening (for a young man in the early days, now an older man in these days), was to seek out the eldes lady of the evening, shake hands with her, and then the eldest gentleman, and shake hands and say good-bye to him, and then so forth, until you have shaken hands with the youngest child in the room.  No exceptions!  It actually works, and is a very nice ritual. At the beginning of a meal, no one eats until the host or hostess say in a very polite but distinct voice: "Guten Appetit".  In American society, either there is a family blessing for families so inclined (a nice gesture in a family setting), or when the hostess takes the first bite.  I prefer the German system (the French and other European societies have similar customs ("bon apetite" in French, for instance).

If there is a large social gathering (like 700 men all in Tuxedos at the Eiswette in Bremen), then at the beginning of the evening, one mingles around and formally says good evening to many that one knows, and is introduced to a good many that one doesn't know.  Always with a warm handshake and a good meeting of the eyes. As one wanders around the room, inevitably one comes across a colleague with whom one has already shaken hands and then the following happens: I reach out my hand (either forgetting we have already shaken hands, or not minding to do it again).  The German colleague reaches towards my hand, recognizes that we have already shaken hands, and then withdraws his hand very quickly before the hands can touch, as if he had almost touched a hot iron, and he says with a warm smile, "Wir haben schon!" (We already have! [shaken hands]). 

A final note on a German custom at social dinner parties in Bremen.  Normally the men wear coat and ties, and some couples may not know others at the dinner party (this is an occasion for them to meet new people; over the years we met many new people this way having been invited to a number of very fine dinner parties). At the beginning of the evening when all guests have arrived (usually quite punctually!), the host (or hostess) will have poured champagne for everyone, and everyone is still standing, and there is a small welcoming speech, at which the host introduces everyone to all present with a little background info for those meeting each other for the first time,  This is done very graciously, and then the group is invited to sit down, either with place cards, or with the host and hostess explaining where everyone should sit. After an initial toast and a hearty "Guten Appetit", the dinner begins, and usually a lively conversation has ensued.  We were present at many such dinners and then for several years, as a thanks to our being welcomed so warmly in Bremen, we hosted about 6 such dinner parties ourselves, with 10-12 people at each dinner party.  A Bremen ritual which never failed was that the man sitting to the left of my wife Rena (who was  the hostess) would stand up, button his coat, move behind his chair and give a speech.  This was after the main course and before the desert, without fail.  The speech was sometimes five minutes long, was fundamentally a thank you speech on behalf of all the guests directed very warmly towards the hosts.  The person sitting to the left of  Rena learned of this seating only as the dinner party had been seated as a whole, and that meant (according to the unwritten custom) that he was to give such a speech, and it never failed.  Absolutely amazing.  And as one acquaintance told us (she was the wife of a banker from Cologne who had been at many such dinner parties): "In Bremen if there are more than six at the dinner party the man must stand up, but with six or less he can remain seated..." 

Around the world we have many different customs which may often seem strange to others, but it can be charming and very informative to try to understand as much as one can when one is living in a land foreign to one's own.  And with that, I'll say dear friends, "Gute Nacht".

Saturday, October 10, 2009

War and Peace

This morning the world found out that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an event that immediately sent reverberations around the world. Hours after he received the news he had to call together his security team moving closer to making decisions in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. This is symbolic in our current world of the ongoing saga of war and peace that has been part of our world from time immemorial.

Tolstoy immortalized the words War and Peace in his book written in the middle of the 19th century of the same title. I started reading this book last year as it is obviously an icon of literature which I had never read. I'm not finished with it yet, but I'm at least halfway through and I find it immensely satisfying. Towards the beginning of the book he describes the particular battle of Austerlitz where Napoleon personally encountered the Emperor of Russia and the Emperor of Austria, and became famous throughout Europe for his military victory over these two great powers at that time. I realized I had no idea what Napoleon had done in his career, except that he had conquered most of Europe and left his imprint on many parts of society (as Julius Caesar had done centuries earlier).

I decided to read a biography of Napoleon and then chose one written not too long ago by an American military historian Robert Asprey, whose account of Napoleon was quite readable, but, as they say in the political jargon originated in the "infamous" debate between Lloyd Bentson and Dan Quayle, Asprey was no William Manchester or David McCullough. I learned a lot about Napoleon which I didn't know at all before. The picture posted in this blog is a city street in Verona in northern Italy, and Napoleon made his first entry onto the world stage in northern Italy fighting battles against the Austrian Empire, which was the power and force in northern Italy at that time. But I didn't really know that after the French Revolution, when Napoleon began his career, almost all of the great powers in Europe outside France, this included England and Austria in particular, attacked France because the establishment of the republican form of government, modeled on the United States, was a threat to all of the monarchies in Europe. This account reminded me vividly of the time when Israel was established and all of the Arab countries attacked at once, because Israel was a similar threat to the Arab hegemony in that region at that time.

Napoleon went from rags to riches and became very arrogant with the power that he obtained. An example of this is when on June 12, 1812 Napoleon decided to invade Russia, and crossed the river which was the boundary between Poland and Russia at that time. Emperor Alexander was attending a ball in the city of Vilnius (Lithuania), and sent a letter to Napoleon asking him to stop the military activity, that they could sort out their differences, and he would welcome an early answer to this letter. He sent a general with this written letter to deliver it personally to Napoleon. He wrote the letter with his aides in a study in the castle in Vilnius. The general attempted to deliver the letter to Napoleon who was on the Russian side of the river, and they gave him the runaround and said that he would get to see Napoleon soon, but he would have to wait and travel with the troops. After four days, Emperor Alexander having fled Vilnius, the general was received by Napoleon in the same castle in Vilnius and in the same study where the letter had been written! Of course Napoleon's arrogance was answered with a major defeat as he marched to Moscow and back losing almost all of his troops.

A final personal note. I was born at a time I personally didn't have to serve in the military. However three of my uncles (brothers of my mother) served in the second world war (Army, Navy, Marines), and my father-in-law as well in the German Navy. My younger brothers served in the Marines and in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and one of our closest friends, generation of our children, is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force and visiting us this weekend. He has served in Saudi Arabia as well as Iraq last year. War and Peace may be abstract concepts, but they affect people and families around the world. I'm so thankful the Cold War ended as a cold war, and my hope is that the conflicts of the world will gradually decrease as everyone realizes that we are a small planet with limited resources.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sibling Rivalry

This time of year in Colorado especially in Rocky mountain national Park is known as the bugling season. This is when the various stag elks are vying with each other with their loud mating calls. Since some of these stags are surely sibling, we can give this as an example of "sibling rivalry", a modest theme that I chose for today's discussion. Actually I want to talk about some interesting tidbits about cooking that relate to the theme of sibling rivalry.

The most vivid example is a restaurant in Boston we visited several years ago and whose name is literally Sibling Rivalry. David and Bob Kinkead are the two chefs at this restaurant. Their menu varies regularly but it has the following wonderful style. They choose together a sequence of ingredients that one can buy at a store or market. This can range from certain fresh vegetables to certain selections of meat or fish, etc.. They have three types of menu items, at least. One is an appetizer, two is a main course, three is a side dish, and four could be a dessert. Maybe there are others; I just don't recall, having been there only once. At a given line on the menu the ingredient is listed, and the next two or three listings across on this line are either an appetizer or an main course or possibly a dessert which uses this item as a main ingredient. So you might have duck as an appetizer in the form of paté, and you might have duck as the main dish in the form of pressed duck (which I happen to have had, and it was fabulous). The competition is who can do better with a given ingredient! That is the sibling rivalry, and the guest in this restaurant is the winner.

Frasca is a relatively new restaurant in Boulder which was established not too long before we arrived in January of 2008. The chef, the sommelier, and the wife of the sommelier, as business manager, had all been working actively at a restaurant in California called The French Laundry. The French Laundry in Napa Valley had the reputation of being the top restaurant in the United States (I'm sure many are contending for this title as we speak). The competitive spirit of mountain biking and marathon running, which is very pervasive in Boulder, was a primary reason that these three people moved to Boulder to create a new restaurant. It's a superb Italian restaurant with a wonderful set of wines to go with a varied set of tasty dishes. Everyone in Boulder told us we could not get a reservation there unless we were willing to wait for two months. This turned out not to be true and we have been there several times. However their answering machine has a unique selling point for the restaurant as it says, and I paraphrase, "Feel free to leave your name and number for a reservation for up to two months in the future". I feel this reputation that you can only get a reservation after two months of waiting stems from this interesting answering machine advertisement. On Monday nights they try out new dishes, and you don't really get to see the menu but just a selection of chef specials that they're trying out. I highly recommend it!

A different sense of competition (often including siblings) is the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, which I mentioned last week. For hundreds of miles around Amarillo on the major highways leading into Amarillo from New Mexico and Oklahoma and parts of Texas, one sees a huge sign which says "Free 72 Ounce Steak, if you can eat it all in one hour". This is a very kitschy Texas restaurant with music and elk antlers all over the room serving superb steaks with a huge turnover of customers. Those few who are tempted to sit on the stage and work through four and a half pounds of steak with the required baked potato and three-shrimp cocktail along with a small dessert, and a salad in one hour with a ticking clock visible to all are ambitious indeed, and most fail, but some succeed and they go into the legendary books of this crazy restaurant. The last time we were there we saw two young men striving to achieve this goal, but we left after 30 minutes of their time, and do not know whether they made it or not!

My final comment on this theme of eating and cooking is that everyone should see the gorgeous movie Julie and Julia, the story of two women and their relationship with food spanning some 50 years. Julia Child is an American icon, and Julie Powell showed us how in her book and movie one can truly appreciate what Julia (and Joy) did for American cooking.
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