European Feast

European Feast

In honor of not cooking this Thanksgiving, here are some of my all-time favorite food and drink pictures from all over Europe over the last three years. Guten Appetit & Happy Thanksgiving!

Note: I wasn’t too big on taking food pictures until recently. A few not pictured favorites include mussels in Belgium, Indonesian food in the Netherlands, Sacher torte (a kind of chocolate cake) in Austria, stuffed peppers in Romania, Scotch and shortbread in Scotland; Guinness in Ireland, fondue and Raclette in Switzerland, pasta-sauerkraut-cheese stir fry in the Czech Republic, smoked salmon in Sweden and Norway, and gelato, coffee, pizza, etc., etc. in Italy.

5 Key Words in Romanian

Language tells us what a culture values. While living and working in Romania in August, I continually heard words related to family, religion, formality, and good health. I discovered a way of life that is as simple in style as it is rich in relationships. Here are a few words that I consider keys to unlocking an understanding of Romanian culture.

Traditional stove
Traditional stove
Children's mural
Children’s mural

1. Masă

This can mean table or meal, as both together are a central gathering place for families. Lunch is the main masă of the day, always consisting of a soup followed by a main course. Dinner is usually late – around 8 p.m. – so a late afternoon snack is typical. A short prayer is said while standing around the table before meals at home. When I worked at the school, the children also followed this custom as though they were at home while gathering around long lunch tables. We ate from clay bowls that had been formed on the pottery wheel and painted by the children during previous school years.

Table set for lunch
Table set for lunch’s first course

2. Amin

Amen. Religion is also a focal point in the lives of Romanian people, the majority of whom are Eastern Orthodox. Families and neighbors gather at churches for regular Sunday masses, visit churches on Saturdays to pray for departed loved ones, fast during numerous times of the year, and celebrate life events together. I was invited to attend part of a church service (regular Sunday services are around three hours in their entirety) and found it very interesting. During parts of the mass, the priest disappears behind a partition covering an area behind the altar. There are a few chairs lining the walls but the majority of the congregation stands for the entire mass. Dress is very modest and most women cover their heads with a scarf.

A while after I had found a spot to stand, off to the side and not too close to the front, a gentleman nudged me to move because I was standing in front of an area the priest was about to walk to. I moved over accordingly and then, as I looked around, realized that all of the other women were standing on the other side of the aisle and I had been standing the whole time on a side with only men. Not all Romanian churches are divided by gender, but it appeared to be an unspoken rule in this one. I sidled across the aisle when the priest was passing back up again.

Village church replica outside the Peasant Museum
Village church replica outside the Peasant Museum

3. Doamna/Domnule

Mrs. or Ma’am/Mr. or Sir. Titles are used regularly as a sign of respect, often with first names. I noticed even people who had known each other a long time tended to use titles and formal language, particularly those who worked together. Children always used titles with adults outside of their families. For the time that I taught English, I became known as Doamna Nina by children and adults alike. Sometimes the children referred to me in English as “Miss.” I felt a little like an old schoolmarm with these titles, fitting perfectly in my classroom filled with old-fashioned long wooden desks and benches.

The classroom
The classroom

4. Mamaliga

Polenta (cooked cornmeal, if you’re not familiar with it) is a very typical side dish or dinner in Romania, where it is often flavored with butter or goat’s or sheep’s cheese. In general, Romanian food tends to be very simple and made from fresh ingredients: stewed meats, tomatoes, peppers, olives and lemons, honey, bread, etc. One of my favorite typical dishes was Ardei Umpluti: bell peppers stuffed with a mixture of rice, ground pork, onions and seasonings baked in the oven.

Romanian food products
Romanian food products

5. Noroc!

Cheers, good luck or good health. You can say it when you toast before having a drink, when someone sneezes, or just to wish someone well. Some time after explaining to someone that we say “bless you” in English after a sneeze, I clinked glasses with “Noroc!” and heard the same person proudly remember “Bless you!” I laughed and explained that we instead say “Cheers” as a toast. Noroc conveys good wishes in a variety of contexts, and for its multipurpose use, I consider it one of the most important Romanian words.

Afternoon snack and coffee. Noroc!
Afternoon snacks and coffee. Poftă bună (enjoy your meal) and noroc!

FAQ from Americans about Germany

As the last of the jetlag wears off from a busy couple of weeks in the states, I find myself reflecting on the interesting array of questions Americans had about life in Germany. (p.s. Next post: Oktoberfest)

Weekends in the park: Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel
Weekends in the park: Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel

What are the biggest differences between Germany and the U.S.?

I would say that there are many differences but they’re relatively small. The pace of life is probably the most noticeable one. While people work hard in Germany and take work very seriously, I think they still place more emphasis on family and free time than Americans do. A simple example of this is that everything is closed on Sunday except for a few family-oriented things (namely restaurants and museums). That means no shopping and no errands (grocery stores, hardware stores, laundromats, banks, pharmacies, doctor’s offices, etc. are all closed).

Also, many laws here make the U.S. look very strict. There seems to be a big emphasis in Europe on freedom with responsibility. For example, you can drink in public – or in the car for that matter, technically the driver included – and drive as fast as you want on many parts of the Autobahn. However, the blood alcohol limit is still .08 (and even less if an accident occurs) and if you’re over the limit or in an accident while over the recommended speed (130 kph or about 80 mph), the consequences are steep.

Achtung: Squirrels! One of my favorite road signs
Achtung: Squirrels! One of my favorite road signs

Speaking of driving, what side of the road do people there drive on?

While many traffic and right-of-way laws are different, people still drive on the right-hand side as in the U.S. Only England and Ireland drive on the left, in Europe anyway.

How’s the food?

Lecker!/Delicious! There are typically a lot of pork dishes (Schnitzel, Bratwurst, etc.) and potatoes. My favorite food is Bratkartoffeln, a side dish of fried potato slices. White wine and a red wine variety called Spätburgunder (a German Pinot Noir) are also popular in the Rhein area.

Vineyards on the Rhein in Kaub
Vineyards on the Rhein in Kaub

What are the people like?

I would say the people are friendly but initially more distant than many Americans. Although coming from the U.S. East Coast, I think this is very normal. The culture, like most cultures outside of the U.S., is also more formal with titles and formal forms of “you” being the norm with strangers. And it’s a culture that values punctuality and rules, but also enjoys festivals and fun. (Best examples of the latter: Christmas Markets, New Year’s Eve, and Fasching.)

And do most Germans speak English?

Yes, to varying degrees. English is a common language in the EU, so most Germans begin learning it in elementary or middle school. This wasn’t always the case, however, but in general most people (and particularly most young people) speak English well, especially in areas with many tourists or international businesses.

What is there to do on the weekends/for fun?

Hiking, biking, and picnicking are the best things to do in the Rheinland region. One of my favorite hikes so far is the Rheinsteig. Cafés (where you can hang out as long as you want), bars, and Diskos are popular meeting places. And festivals go on in cities and small towns year-round for every holiday, season, and seasonal food you can think of.

Do people play bocce in Germany?

Good question, since we played on an awesome team in the U.S.! I’ve seen some people playing bocce in parks, but more common seems to be another lawn game called Kubb. I don’t know the rules exactly, but it involves throwing wooden pegs on a grass playing field.

What’s your favorite place?

Mainz is my favorite city in Germany, probably because I’ve spent the most time and now have a lot of memories here. Outside of Germany, my favorite country so far is Belgium for its delicious food and beer and dreamlike scenery. It’s only a few hours away so I’ve been there four times on various weekends. (For more about Belgium, see Saturday Afternoon in Belgium and Much More Than Just Waffles.)

Chagall window in Mainz's St. Stephan's Church
Chagall window in Mainz’s St. Stephan’s Church

What does traveling to other countries in the EU involve?

Traveling in the European Union is like traveling from one state to another in the U.S. There’s no border checkpoint, just a sign on the highway welcoming you to the next country. Usually no one checks your passport even when you fly from one EU country to another, although of course it’s always important to have internationally recognized ID.

Regional Pringles
Regional Pringles

What about money?

Germany and most of the EU use the Euro which is currently worth about $1.30. Some countries still use their own currency such as the UK which uses the pound and Switzerland which uses the Swiss Franc. When we go to Romania in a few weeks, we’ll have to exchange our Euros for Leu (the Romanian word for their currency translates to “lion”).

What about the time difference from Germany to America?

For most of the year, the time is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Daylight savings begins a few weeks later and ends a few weeks earlier in Germany, altering the difference a little. Because Germany is further north, it also has more extreme changes in sunlight throughout the year. And if you’re interested in flying here, a direct flight from the east coast is about 7-8 eight hours long.

What do you miss most from the U.S.?

Without a doubt, obviously family and friends. Beyond that, I often miss customer service. As much as I love how people put family and themselves before work and business (i.e. a desire to make money), the downside is that this often translates into the worst customer service imaginable.

And although I very much enjoy the food here, I do sometimes miss margaritas, Latin American and Tex-Mex food, seafood (though this is more prevalent in northern Germany), and French fries with vinegar and Old Bay (it’s a Maryland thing).

Old Bay from my visit to Baltimore, Maryland!
Old Bay from my visit to Baltimore, Maryland!