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

New beginnings

Last week my family and I went to a wedding in Bad Waldliesborn, Andrea’s home town.

We were attending the wedding of Sandra, one of Andrea’s childhood friends, and Steffen, an East Berliner who I’ve had great conversations with (usually about socialism in theory versus practice).

The weather was fine and we arrived early at the abbey in which they were wed, the service was lovely too, and then we all went outside for photos and sparkling wine.

I had not had my breakfast. This detail will become important soon. Ramsis, a charming Caribbean Dutchman in a blue suit who I only ever meet when our respective partners drag bring us to one of these events, was also in attendance and we had fun catching up. After two large glasses of sparkling wine and, I cannot stress this enough, no breakfast, I had a wonderful idea: we, Ramsis and I, should sign the guest book.

So I marched Ramsis over there with my arm around his shoulder, both of us gabbling away in English, clearly good friends, and signed it ‘Dear Sandra and Steffen, thank you for inviting us to your lovely wedding, you’re such a cute couple etc. etc. all our love, Russell and Ramsis x x x’

I also turned the ‘i’ in Ramsis name so that it had a love heart over it. And why not? I had had two glasses of sparkling wine and no breakfast!

Two of the photographers took our picture and printed it there and then, and stuck it in the guest book. We made a good couple, Ramsis and me.

Admittedly, there were some very confused looks from the photographers when we later went back to our respective women. They probably thought that we were a very modern couple.

On the way back, we went to one of the very many asparagus and strawberry huts that spring up at this time of year. It’s a phenomenon that I’ve only ever seen here in Germany. The spring time comes and suddenly there are huts and little stalls at the sides of roads, in town centres, even on motorways, all selling white asparagus. I had never seen white asparagus until I came to Germany, we generally prefer the green version back in the UK. This particular hut was at a farm which grew the stuff, so I went in and found mounds of asparagus that was absolutely fresh. Some of it, called krumm , was slightly crooked but a lot cheaper than the others.

                ‘What’s wrong with this asparagus?’ I asked

                ‘Nothing, it just grew up a bit wonky’

                ‘Haven’t we all?’

I bought a kilo, needless to say.