englishman abroad, marriage

Hot Stone Massage

We’ve been married for just over a year now and my wife and I went to a spa to celebrate. This is the story of how British squeamishness came to a German ‘Wellness Centre’. It all started on the fifth of October, I took my wife out for an anniversary meal at a nice Italian restaurant and she revealed to me that she’d booked something for us as well. That weekend, she revealed, we were going to a ‘Wellness Centre’. Mindful of the catastrophe that befell me the last time we went to a sauna, I asked what we would be doing there. We would be getting a Hot Stone Massage!

“Cool!” I thought, “presumably there is absolutely no need to be completely bollock naked for such an endeavour!”

Here begins the story of how wrong I was:

The evening started in a building near our local swimming pool. Quite modern on the outside but full-blown Buddhist temple on the inside, as it turns out. Candles and Buddha statues and all sorts of associated flim-flam of the hippy-dippy variety. We sat down in the reception area and a hooded acolyte the receptionist lead us to a very charming room with a gigantic bath in it, filled with what looked like milk. Here we were to bathe as Cleopatra did, in asses’ milk. I did feel like quite the ass as it happens, but the receptionist left us to it and it was quite pleasant.

After this, we put on some very nice and fluffy robes and went into an adjacent room for the Hot Stone Massage, the main event. There were two nice ladies.

One of them explained that we were to disrobe and lie naked on the massage tables.

Then they waited.

I waited.

They waited.

My wife disrobed and lay on the massage table as instructed.

“Shit” I thought. “I’m an Englishman, I don’t do nakedness in front of strangers!”

“Please lay on the table so we can give you the hot Ständer – er – Stein Massage”

That Freudian slip there is an interesting lexical mix-up. Stein means stone, Ständer means boner.

“They think I’ve got a boner! I’ll be damned if they think I’m some priapic teenager!”

I begrudgingly half-took-off my robe to preserve my modesty, this did not work; I lay on the massage table and flopped about like a seal in a net trying to get the robe off. I looked like an arse. They saw my arse. They helped me off with the robe and dutifully covered my arse up again. Thankfully, the massage itself was great.

Not ‘hot Ständer’ great, but pretty great.

 

englishman abroad

How to fail at shopping

On Sunday, we had a friend over for an authentic British Sunday Roast Dinner ™ 

Normally this would not be a big deal, I’d go to a British supermarket, go to the aisle that specifically has all manner of roasting joints in it, and choose a nice rib of beef or shoulder of lamb or large chicken to roast. But I live in Germany, where nothing is ever as straightforward as it should be. Here is the story of how I failed at food shopping. 

 First thing Saturday morning, I made a shopping list with all the ingredients I needed for the Sunday roast. The list included a roasting chicken and some roasting potatoes e.g. Maris Piper. I grabbed my debit card for some cashless shopping and zoomed down to my local supermarket… 

Problem number 1: you will need a pocket full of shrapnel to go shopping. 

While it’s true that most supermarkets take card payments, not a single supermarket seems to trust its customers with the trolleys. Therefore, if you don’t have a euro or some other small change to hand you cannot use a trolley. Cashless payment, Yes. Cashless shopping, No. It makes no sense. Never mind, I thought, I’ll just get as much shopping as I can here and go to the market later. I went to look at the potatoes… 

Problem number 2: German conformity strikes again. 

The supermarket I went to had ten different brands of potato for sale. All of them were white, small, and ‘Festkochend’. Exactly the sort of potato you want for boiling and mashing, not baking or roasting. I asked one of the assistants if they knew what sort of potatoes they were and she read the sign to me as though I was a simpleton. “yes, but are they Maris PiperKing EdwardPink Fir Apples or what?” 

Unfortunately, she merely pointed me toward the apples and muttered something pejorative. Consoling myself with the thought that they would have a much better selection at the local market, I moved onto the fruit and veg… 

Problem number 3Would you really eat this? 

I like some greens with my roast dinner and it’s too early in the year for kale, so I looked for a savoy cabbage. Good news: they had Savoy cabbage! Bad News: It was of a terrible, yellowing, moth-eaten quality! The supermarket had just hit strike three, so I left and went straight to the local market, which takes place in a small square outside a church. I looked for a decent butcher’s stall and found one with a large chicken, exactly the sort I wanted to roast.  

Problem number 4No. 

“Hello,” I said. “I’d like to buy this chicken for a roast dinner”

“A what?” 

“I’d like to roast this chicken” 

“No” 

“Excuse me?” 

“You can’t roast this chicken. It’s too big. This is a soup chicken, it’s for soup” 

I looked long and hard at the chicken. It was far too large for even the biggest pan I own, it would have fit comfortably into my oven, though. 

“Are you sure? What chicken can I roast?” 

“Here” she said, showing me the tiniest, gangliest-looking, little runt of a chicken I had ever seen. 

“I really would rather buy the larger chicken, there’s lots of people coming…” 

“No, I can’t do that” 

I looked at Chicken Lady. 

Chicken Lady looked at me. 

“I see. Goodbye.” 

“Goodbye” she said, impassively. 

Thankfully, the market had a few vegetables I wanted, including parsnips and savoy cabbage. I decided to take my daughter with me to the much larger market outside the registry office. 

Problem number 5A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings 

Then it started to absolutely bucket down with rain. Child in one arm, umbrella and shopping in the other, I pressed on as it rained heavily. Not a blasted chicken to be seen, although I managed to pick up a few fresh-looking vegetables. Before finally…

Solution: Make do and mend 

It turns out that German stallkeepers can be quite canny, despite the ineptitude of Chicken Lady. One of them cunningly offered my daughter a slice of sausage which she took immediately. “Don’t talk to strangers” I’ve always said, but did she listen?  Well, you can’t just take the free sausage and keep on walking, can you? Sausage Lady had won this round and so I decided to opt for a joint of beef instead. We had a pot roast and it turned out very well, except for when I forgot how to make Yorkshire puddings and nearly set the kitchen on fire. Advice: don’t use too much oil. 

My shopping trip took over five hours. When in Germany, do as the Germans do – eat boring food.

englishman abroad, travel

Beer, the Chinese and a chance encounter in Groningen

On Thursday, I helped take some English school kids on a trip over the border to Groningen. I didn’t have to do too much really, just translate English / German a bit and lead the group from coach to train to wherever we were going next. We had just taken the train to Leer, and had boarded the coach, when a pensioner sat down next to me and said  “So, you must be Swedish”.

I have rapidly greying black hair, speak English and was still just about in Germany. I don’t think that I make a particularly convincing Swede. I was intrigued by the old man and asked him why he thought that:
“Because you speak English and I can understand you!”
It turns out that Hein, who is Dutch, has trouble understanding native English speakers because they speak too fast, have a regional accent or use colloquialisms. These are problems I am familiar with, which is why I tend to use my very best David Cameron voice when I’m in Germany. In fact, I’ve used it so much that it’s become hard to switch off, the poor Black Country school kids thought I was posh, Hein thought I was Swedish, I’m neither!
After an hour’s interesting conversation with Hein, which covered all sort of things, including his description of Rotterdam and Cologne after the war (flattened, but with churches intact), it was time to get off the coach and head to The Confucius Institute. We had lunch at the institute and had a workshop on Chinese painting, which was fascinating. Then we had two hours to kill, we went our own ways and I went shopping. I got my wife a bottle of a local specialty, Beerenburg, as a souvenir. I tried some of the Dutch beer, which I especially enjoyed, and made a few other stops here and there.WP_20170720_15_58_09_Pro (2)

On the train journey back I reflected on how I, as a Briton, was rather privileged. Everywhere I had been in Groningen that day, a train station, the Confucius Institute, a coffee shop, a bar, an off-licence and two street food vendors, every single place was happy to speak to me in English, and speak well. It would likely have been the same in Germany, had I tried. English truly is the lingua franca.

It puts me in mind of how all of this could be taken away from me, should I sit around without a plan whilst the Brexit process staggers on. Perhaps I should take Hein’s hint and go to Sweden, I already have the accent.