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Saturday, April 28

11 months

Celebrating 11 months is pretty exciting for both of us. I completed 6 German courses and feel very confident in my communication skills. Or let’s say understanding-others skills. Like most languages in the world, learning all most nouns, adjectives, verbs and their correct conjugation takes a long time. I am in that phase now where I understand others when they are speaking to me however I am often looking for the right words to say and have many blank stares. Unfortunately, I am very impatient and wished I knew it all, now.

He on the other hand is very good at writing emails and letters as well as knowing technical German words because of his work environment. Initially his manager and team requested he speak German once a week, Friday for instance. That entire day, both he and his team would have to communicate with one another in German, if either party blundered, they’d have to pay 1 Euro to the department bank. (The money will be used for a party at the end of his delegation.) At first it was tough; like me, he had problems coming up with the right words to say in a meeting or to a coworker. Then later on, it increased to 3 days a week of German-only in the office. And in the last month, he suggested 100% German in the department. That’s ambitious of him but he believed this is easier for everyone to know it’s German, all the time. He’s made some mistakes, naturally, and donated money to the party fund but he knows he’s still learning. He still searches for the right words to say in meetings but due to our length of time here, it’s gotten a bit easier. As of now he’s completed 4 German classes.

Although we aren’t anywhere close to where we’d like to be with the language, we’ve accepted it will come with time.

Sunday, April 22


This was my Pedicure routine in America. Every 5- 6 weeks I would get a pedicure in Spring, Summer and Fall. (Those that think I am fancy pants, consider this. My profession, Chef/Caterer, required to be on my feet 5-7 hours daily and during big events, 12+ hours a day. So I allowed myself the only pleasure I knew I could within my budget, a pedicure. And furthermore, those women that enjoy pedicures, manicures (no thank you, I am a chef and I don’t want those chemicals in the food I make), facials also enjoy shopping sprees. For me shopping spree means going to few stores twice a year and getting the essentials or “trend” items for couple hundred dollars. Fancy pants I am not.)

And I digress. Every 5 weeks, I would schedule an appointment to go to my favorite salon near our home. I’d get there, picked my paint color and wait. The person (sometimes the husband of a couple, but mostly the wife) would have me sit in a massage chair and soak my feet in hot water. While they got their equipment ready, I would play with the buttons to get the perfect combination of upper back and lower back massages, sometimes both at the same time. And then the process began. They wiped down each foot with a hand towel, remove old nail polish and cleaned. This included cuticle cleaning, removal of dead skin, nail cutting, nail filing and etc. At the end of all the curing and before painting the nails, they always massaged the calfs, ankles and feet. During the pedicures, they always made conversation and asked about my work or day to day life. The husband often joked. Personable.

Now erase that picture and imagine a room with white walls, white chairs, stretch bed and few small machines. Imagine a hospital room. This is what they have in a local salon’s pedicure room. I was shocked. Upon entering the salon with a friend, we were designated to our individual rooms. (Where’s the girlfriend chatting time?) As I sat down, the woman asked me to lay down on the adjustable bed as she started working on my feet. I was surprised she soak my feet. She started to remove old nail polish paint. Then with a machine, she removed the dead skin. With another machine, she cleaned my cuticles. She cut my nails and then filed them with… a machine. Then she applied lotion. When she was done I asked about nail polish and she gave me a puzzled look “am I supposed to do that?” I kindly asked her to paint my toes. And she painted each one of my toes, in the middle, leaving the edges untouched. Either this person has never painted anyone’s toes or she was nervous because her paint job was terrible. It looked like a child painted my toes, just in the middle of each toe nail. Sadly, the only communication between us were the times I laughed when a machine tickled my feet and she giggled in response. And worst of all, there was no massage at any point.

I was highly disappointed from the service. And maybe I have a higher expectation of pedicures because of my experience in United States but I believe if a company is offering a service and calling it an internationally recognized name (i.e. pedicure), the service must meet its basic description. I didn’t expect a lengthy massage but a short one to relax my feet would be good. Or at a pedicure, I anticipate the person knows how to paint nails. Especially when the prices are comparable.

This can possibly also be a misunderstanding because I don’t speak German fluently and wasn’t able to express my expectations and she didn’t know English well to explain to me. However I do know I won’t be getting a pedicure advertised in a salon’s window anytime soon.

Oh I miss sitting in that massage chair while my feet soaked.

That was a bust but I treated us to a spa-like experience at home by making this elegant gratin for dinner. It didn’t beat the pedicure blues but it sure pleased.

Potato Leek Gratin

1/2 kilos (1 pound) potatoes, scrubbed and peeled
2 leeks, white & light green parts
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan, or other hard grating cheese
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
salt & freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Thinly slice garlic. Slice the leeks and add them to a deep bowl full of cold water. The grit will float to the bottom. Repeat once more to remove all the dirt and grit. Make sure to lift the leeks from the water rather than dumping everything in a strainer.

Heat 1/2 tablespoon of butter to a 10”, oven-proof skillet, on low heat. When melted, add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the rinsed leeks, tossing in butter to coat. Add thyme, salt and pepper and sauté leeks & garlic until softened, without browning, about 8 minutes. If the leeks brown, briefly remove the pan from heat and allow the pan to cool down.

While the leeks are cooking, thinly slice the potatoes, 1/8” thick. A mandolin works great here but slicing by hand is also fine.

Combine milk & cream in a cup measure, add nutmeg, salt and pepper. And grate the cheese.

Once leeks are done, scrape them into a bowl, add a touch more butter to the skillet (to prevent the gratin from sticking) and layer half of the potatoes into the bottom of the pan. Salt the potatoes. Turn off the heat. Spread the leeks evenly over the potatoes. Layer the remaining potatoes over the leeks, building a 2nd layer of potatoes. Salt and pepper the 2nd layer.

Pour the milk/cream mixture over the potato-leek layers. As the final layer, sprinkle on the grated cheese, cover with aluminum foil and bake in the preheated oven until potatoes are tender, the top is lightly browned, and the liquid has been absorbed, about 50 minutes- 1 hour.

Cool the gratin for 10 minutes before slicing. Serve warm with a green salad.

On a much more optimistic note, I just learned that pedicures are also known as Fußpflege. I’ll try it again with a new name.

Wednesday, April 18

Ethnic food

Since our transition into the apartment months ago, we’re always looking for local neighborhood restaurants as well as ethnic places nearby. The type that we feel comfortable ordering from and either picking it up or eating there last minute. We have found amazing German restaurants that do the local cuisine spot-on and are thankful for the availability and accessibility. On the other hand, we’ve tried few places here and there and liked a couple however in general great ethnic restaurants in this city are few and far in between. We’ve found decent Greek, above average Thai and memorable Turkish food but Mexican is always dreadful, Chinese is unheard of and Middle Eastern doesn’t exist.

Thankfully, both Turkish (homey, grandma made it) food and döner kebabs are all over town and each Turkish person you ask for their favorite place will name one that’s different from the last referral. Regardless, Turkish cuisine is well represented and is a hit with us each time we try it. Like Greek, Italian is done exceptionally well. We’ve found two restaurants that we like a lot and visit regularly.

There’s a comprehensible explanation for these three cuisines to have such an impact in the food scene. After the war, Germany signed an agreement with many countries to receive guest workers (Gastarbeiterin) from their respective nations. These individuals would help rebuild the country and drive the economic development by working in unfilled jobs. Turkey, Italy and Greece were some of the countries that participated in the agreement and by some accounts had the largest percentage of population sent for the program. Over the course of the period these guest workers helped rebuild the country, and in most cases of migration, many didn’t return home. Due to their large resident population, the rest of us benefit from their authentic food.

Unfortunately meat wrapped in bread or pasta aren’t our idea of take out; we generally prefer Thai, Chinese, or Mexican. Sadly, except for Thai, the rest are either unavailable or not worth it. The Thai place that I initially raved about isn’t close to our apartment (it was closer to our hotel) and the food quality has declined slightly. When I went there with my friend last month, they served Pad Thai with a noodle that didn’t resemble a rice noodle (the norm for Pad Thai) and the taste of the dish was just okay.

Few months ago, we tried a Korean place, Seoul Kitchen. I ordered bibimbap and he had a Korean version of pork soup. Both were well seasoned with a hint of gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), deliciously spicy. The banchans (side dishes) were limited but still flavorful and functional for our meaty main dishes. We had potatoes (don’t be so surprised), pickled radishes and sautéed spinach. Overall a good experience at the restaurant. Sadly the restaurant is 20 minutes, walking, from our apartment so we only go there on planned nights.

So the hunt for ethnic take-out restaurants continues. In the meantime, I am cooking foods at home for the lack of varied restaurants.

This is loosely adapted from this recipe.

Pork, Kale and Mushroom Stir Fry

1/2 kilo (1 pound) pork loin, thinly sliced on an angle, against the grain
2 tablespoons Shao Hsing wine
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon garlic chili sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
1/2 of medium onion, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
3/4″ cube fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 small hot (Thai) chile, thinly sliced on the diagonal
4 dried Shitake mushrooms, soaked and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 cups kale, stems removed and cut into 2” pieces (any hearty green will work- Spinach, Chinese Broccoli (Gai Lan), Yu Choy)
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

In a medium bowl, combine pork with shao hsing wine, oyster sauce, light soy sauce, garlic chili sauce and cornstarch. Marinate for 30- 45 minutes.

Place dried mushrooms in a bowl and add boiling water to the bowl. Soak the mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes. This reconstitutes the mushrooms. When ready, remove the mushrooms from the water and thinly slice.

Heat a wok or non stick deep curved pan until it smokes and then add peanut oil. When oil is hot, add onions and black beans and stir fry for 1 minute, or until the onions are golden and fragrant. Add garlic, ginger and chile, and stir fry 30 seconds more.

Push the onion-garlic-ginger mixture to the sides of the wok and leave room in the center for additional ingredients. Add pork (without its marinade) in a single layer on the bottom of the wok. Allow the pork to brown on one side without stirring, approximately 1 minute. When pork is browned on one side, begin to stir fry. Add the sliced mushrooms in the bottom of the wok and stir fry the meat and veggies.

Deglaze the wok with soy sauce, scraping up any browned bits of marinade clinging to the sides and bottom. Stir in the pork marinade from the bowl and cook for 30 seconds.

Add kale and water and stir fry, scooping the browned pork over the kale. The heat from the pork will cook the greens. As soon as kale begins to wilt, 3 minutes, add oyster sauce and continue stir frying until the meat is cooked through. Kale should be cooked through but still hold its shape and have a slight crispness.

Remove wok from heat and drizzle in sesame oil over the stir fry and stir to combine. Serve hot or warm with steamed rice.

Wednesday, April 11

Employment Permit

Here’s an interesting scenario I’ve encountered. Get a job and then apply for a work permit or obtain the work permit and then search for a job.

For individuals like myself (spouse that’s moved here with her husband that works for a local company (on delegation)) I currently hold the resident’s permit. Technically I can get a work permit once I have a job. The employer has to know if I can legally work here and the city has to know when I have the job. To further clarify, the city will change my status from a resident to a “working resident” once I secure employment.

The problem arises when the employer asks me “do you have a work permit?” and my answer is “no, after I obtain employment, get an offer letter, the city will supply my work permit. However I am able to work here legally. ” Then the employer says “But you have to have a work permit now to work here.”
So I ask the city for a work permit. That conversation goes something like this. “Can I get a work permit?” “Have you secured a job?” “No” “Then we can’t provide a work permit. Work permits are only for those that have secured employment with a company and until you do you can’t get a work permit.”

I must get a job to get the work permit or is it the other way around?

Here efficiency is another name for red tape bureaucracy.

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Friday, April 6

Movie Night

For us date nights are scheduled for Friday or Saturday nights, except in Germany. Finding an English movie on the big screen on weekend evenings can be tricky. We’ve encountered this many times; we plan for a Friday (or Saturday) evening dinner and a show. First it’s the restaurant search and reservations. Then comes finding and picking the movie in the local theater. This is often when we run into trouble. They have many, if not all, Hollywood films on the big screen but most of the time they are dubbed in German. For instance, The Iron Lady. The first few weeks it was released in United States, it played in Germany, dubbed. Then when it was nominated for the Oscar they scheduled some shows in English. Thankfully we were able to catch it in English. (We both found it just average. Meryl Streep’s acting is spot on however the movie's plot didn’t grab our interest.) Another example is The Descendants. I hadn’t heard of this movie until the Oscar nomination so I looked for it in the theater. They were playing it in German as well as English. Unfortunately, they played the original version for only 2 weeks before and during the Oscars. We missed it. I admit, this is our fault for not scheduling a time to see it but I am also frustrated they played the original movie for only 2 weeks. 

The other concern is films in English are shown at peculiar times. When searching online, we’ve seen showings at 11am or 2pm on a weekday. This is wonderful for the afternoon or evening workers however since he works and I’ve had German classes until now, it’s hard to catch a movie, unless it’s evenings or weekends. 

With that out of the way there are some things that we really appreciate about the theater here. One, the movie theater in the Altstadt is enormous with many big screens and many movies (German and foreign) showing. Second, to see a movie one must make reservations by phone or online for a seat. This means, we can reserve exactly the seats we want (unless taken) for the movie. Then 30 minutes prior to the show, we pay and get our tickets with seat information. This makes things much easier to get good seats in advance, as opposed to the American way, where if you’re late you’re shit out of luck. The catch is if you reserve and don’t show 15 minutes before the movie begins, your seats are sold to someone else. This is definitely a foreign concept but we like it. Due to this, we’ve always had great seats because we picked them in advance. Third, most movie theaters in the city have 5 Euro movie days on Monday & Tuesday. Any movie at any time is 5 Euros. Who doesn’t love a discount? And finally, for those sweet popcorn lovers the theaters here offer salty popcorn as well as sweet. Salzig oder Süß? 
Salzig, immer.