anecdotes, Germany

Remembering The Mad Scientist…

I wrote the following piece in 2008, when I was living in Germany with Bill.  I loved visiting a little Greek restaurant called Agais in the town close to where we lived.  We never knew the proprietor’s name, but referred to him as The Mad Scientist.  I was just missing that place right now and decided I’d better preserve my memories of it here on my travel blog…

Our favorite neighborhood haunt…

Sep 17, 2008

One thing my husband Bill and I have noticed since moving to Germany exactly one year ago today, is that there are a huge number of Greek restaurants. When we lived stateside, we never ate Greek food, aside from the occasional fast food gyro. Here in Germany, I can think of at least four Greek restaurants within ten miles of our house. All of them are run by Greek natives, who serve fabulous Greek dishes with much fanfare. Since we’ve been in Germany, I have learned to love t’zatziki, a wonderful sauce made with yogurt and cucumbers. I have never liked yogurt much, but since moving to Germany, I have learned to love it with gyros. Sometimes, I actually get a craving for it, which means Bill has to take me out to our favorite Greek place.

One night last fall, when neither Bill nor I felt like cooking, we decided to go out to dinner. The first place we tried was the Buffalo Bill Saloon, which is an American Old West restaurant located very close to where we live. But when we walked into the place, it was packed! We weren’t in the mood for a crowd, so I suggested we try the little Greek place in next town, Entringen. Entringen is about two kilometers from Pfaffingen and we have to drive through it every time we want to go to Stuttgart. I had easily noticed Agais, the little Greek place, because it’s on the main drag. Bill was agreeable to my suggestion, so we went to Agais and were delighted when we found it a lot less crowded than the Buffalo Bill Saloon.

We walked into the restaurant. The lights were on, but no one seemed to be home! But then a older man with curly black hair and a ready smile came out to greet us. He directed us to choose a table, which we did. I started talking to Bill and the man looked at me curiously. He started speaking to me in a strange language. There was a moment of confusion, then the man realized that we were English speakers and spoke English to us. He said when we first walked in, he thought I was Greek! That really surprised me, of course, because I have very Celtic features.

He handed us surprisingly detailed and comprehensive menus in German, then struck up a conversation. It turned out the man was Greek, but had spent many years in Canada working as an engineer. His first wife was German and she had brought him to Germany. He second wife is also German and they had decided to open the Greek place for his retirement years. We had a wonderful evening and I remember telling the man that since we lived fairly closeby, we would probably become regulars. And he smiled at me and said, “You should.”

A couple of months went by before we ventured back to Agais. When we walked into the restaurant, the Greek proprietor greeted us with a big smile and a hearty welcome. He invited us to sit down. I decided to have gyros for the first time in my life. I immediately noticed that Agais was a little different than some of the other places Bill and I frequented. For one thing, the owner always brings out a basket of bread for us. The meals are very substantial and usually include a salad. At the end of the meal, he brings out pistachio nuts and ouzo, as well as eucalyptus bon bons with the check.

I also noticed that the owner always offers to make things just the way we want them. On our first visit, he noticed that I didn’t eat a lot of the cabbage in my salad. I told him that I can’t eat cabbage without creating a giant windstorm. So now he goes easy on the cabbage in my salad. I had a similar first response to t’zatziki, but have since learned to enjoy that with relish. He also knows what kind of wine we like. We sit down and he asks us if we want our usual Athos… a very tasty dry red that has the uncanny knack of putting Bill to sleep. Sometimes, especially in the summer when it’s hot, I can be talked into enjoying a glass of chilled white retsina.

I’ve noticed that while Agais is never packed, there are a number of loyal customers who seem to love the charming Greek proprietor. I’ve watched him negotiate with patrons over catering, chatting with them over pistachio nuts and ouzo as they settle on menus and the price. I’ve watched him teach his teenage son about the business, a young man who looks a whole lot like his father, complete with curly black hair.

Our favorite Greek restaurant owner also likes to talk to us about politics. One night, he quipped that the American presidential race was quite exciting. Then, he added with a grin, that if Obama gets elected, he’s liable to be shot! Bill and I exchanged nervous glances at this prediction, which gave us an interesting insight as to how some Europeans must look at Americans. I don’t think he was serious… at least I hope he wasn’t!

On another night, we were the only customers until another couple entered. They sat down at a table near ours. The whole evening, the male half of the couple was speaking excellent German and the Greek proprietor was responding in kind. Then, just as we were about to pay the check and leave, the proprietor heard the man speaking English to his companion. It turned out they were Canadians. They were equally surprised to find out that Bill and I were Americans. We all had a good laugh as we realized that none of us were natives of Deustchland.

Agais has also turned out to be a great place to take guests. When my friend Elaine and her husband came to visit, we decided to go out to dinner. Elaine is a strict vegetarian, though her husband doesn’t mind eating meat. We went to Agais and the proprietor showed us out to his terrace, which was charmingly laid out with large tables. Elaine explained her aversion to eating meat and our favorite Greek restauranteur steered her toward the available meat free entrees. She ended up having a delicious tomato rice dish with feta cheese, while the rest of us had gyros. My friend was very impressed by Agais… and it occurred to me that this was not the kind of experience we would have in a typical American restaurant. In most American places, the emphasis is less on making sure people have a good time and more on getting them in and out, so as to increase profits. It’s rare to become very friendly with restaurant owners, save for places in small towns.

The last time we were at Agais, it was the first night it was open after the owner’s annual three week vacation. We were the first ones there, of course, because as typical Americans, we eat early. By the end of the evening, several other local German families had joined us. It was pretty clear that Bill and I weren’t the only ones missing Agais. The place will never be a tourist draw, and that’s a good thing.

Over the past year, Agais has become a place where Bill and I enjoy good food, good wine, and interesting conversation. It’s also been a place where we learn about Greek and German culture. In fact, Bill has even asked our favorite Greek restaurant proprietor, whose name we have yet to learn, what places we should see when we finally make it to Greece. He’s happy to tell us as he takes our orders and always seems genuinely glad to see us whenever we need to satisfy our cravings for Greek food. It’s one of many things I will miss when it’s time to go back to America.

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friends, Germany

My German friend…

A couple of months ago, right around the time my dog MacGregor died, I picked up a new friend on Facebook.  It was a German Army wife who had seen the Facebook page I made for MacGregor and worked with the beagle rescue that gave us Arran.  It’s been fun getting to know her.  I imagine that being a German living in America must be, in some ways, like being an American living in Germany.

My friend, Susi, is about sixteen years younger than I am.  When I was her age, I was single and living in Armenia, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Susi is married to a soldier.  I’m assuming she met and married him when he was posted in Stuttgart.  Incidentally, that’s where Bill and I lived when we lived in Germany.  In chatting with Susi, I’ve been very impressed by a lot of things…

First off, she has quite an affinity for profanity.  I am not offended by this, actually.  I like to cuss too.  She often uses profanity to express her displeasure with America.  I’m not sure if she feels this way because America– especially where she lives in North Carolina– is not as exciting as Germany is.  I mean, the weather is milder here, but we don’t have the really beautiful old buildings or picturesque towns that they have in Europe.  And we have a lot of ugly big box stores and fast food restaurants.

Last night, she commented on how American kitchens were not designed for people who like to cook.  When we lived in Germany, we actually had a very nice kitchen.  Our landlord had a masonry heater that had a bench built into it, as well as a table bolted to the floor.  We had an infrared stove, which we hated, and a convection oven, which was smaller than what we were used to.  The Army gave us a refrigerator, which was nice because European fridges are smaller.  I didn’t necessarily think that kitchen was better than any I’d had in America, though.

Also, my husband and I love to cook.  My husband has actually turned it into a hobby and has become quite proficient at creating a nice meal.  I taught him a lot and he has since learned more on his own.  There are a lot of Americans who cook.

On the other hand, Americans who are lucky enough to have a job typically work long hours.  And they don’t tend to get as much vacation time as Europeans get, nor is it necessarily guaranteed that Americans will even get a vacation.  The upshot is, a lot of us Yanks eat convenience foods.  Bill and I don’t, really… we cook most days.  But a lot of Americans do.  So maybe that’s why our kitchens “suck”.

I wonder if Susi had a cultural high when she came to America.  I know I did in Germany, though it was actually pretty stressful to move there because we were stuck in a hotel for six weeks with two noisy beagles.  Susi has an advantage because she speaks excellent English, while I don’t speak a lick of German.  And even if I did, it’s likely the Germans I ran into would switch to English anyway.

Given a choice, I’d probably prefer Germany to America.  It’s beautiful there… the food and beverages are excellent… so many wonderful places are within driving distance.  Granted, America has its share of beautiful places too.  But America has become too generic, to the point that you can go most anywhere and it won’t be that different.

I didn’t make a lot of friends in Germany.  There were a few locals we interacted with a bit, but we found that it takes time to get to know Germans.  Once they know you, they seem to be wonderful friends who are solid to the core.  But it takes awhile to crack the surface.  I wonder if Susi finds Americans too easy to make friends with.  Culturally, we are very different… even those of us who have German heritage (and I do, a little, but my family is more Scottish/English/Irish than anything else).

I also wonder if Susi has a trash disposal and if she enjoys using it.  I know compost heaps are big in Germany.  I give Susi props for knowing the town where I lived in Germany.

One of the many views from our back yard in Germany…

An even better shot…

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Europe, Germany, trains

A month on a train in Europe… Germany

Bacharach, Germany turned out to be just as cute as Rick Steves said it would be.  I got off the train, wearing rags that had somehow survived two years in Armenia and hiking boots that were literally falling apart.  My first order of business was to secure lodging for the night.

I walked around Bacharach’s adorable cobbled streets, gazing at the hillside that ran alongside the town.  At the top of the hill sits a castle, which is now used as a youth hostel.  I had actually purchased a youth hostel membership, but even in my 20s, when such roughing it should have been fun for me, I had no desire to stay at the hostel, majestic as it was on top of the hill.  I also had no desire to climb the hill in my ratty shoes while carrying my heavy 1980s era backpack that I had inherited from my eldest sister.

  Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bacharach2.jpg)

I found a small B&B that was listed in Rick Steves’ Best of Europe book, which had come with my Eurail pass.  The B&B was inexpensive, but very basic and located right next to the train tracks.  It was also pretty hot because there was no air conditioning and it was mid August.  The bathroom was shared, but I don’t think anyone else was staying at the B&B… or at least I don’t remember running into anyone else.  Of course, I was pretty used to not having air conditioning.  Armenia was a hell of a lot hotter than Germany ever gets, too.

I remember the proprietor at the inn asked me to pre-pay for two nights.  I gave him Deutsch marks, since this was a few years before the euro became common currency in Europe.  He told me that breakfast would be served in a small cafe down the street.  With that, my next order of business was to find a pair of decent shoes.  I spotted a Birkenstock store and even though I had never liked them before, decided that was a good place to look for comfortable shoes.

I will never forget how the gentleman running the store laughed when I first tried on a pair of these…  Mine looked exactly like these, minus the narrow width.  I paid a lot more for them than what Amazon.com is charging.  Anyway, I remember sighing with pleasure when I removed my beat up, holey hiking boots and put on these nice, cool, comfortable sandals.  I paid for them and wore them out of the store, handily depositing my worn out boots in the nearest round file.

Next, it was time to look for food.  I moseyed over to a pleasant looking outdoor cafe and sat down.  A waitress brought me a menu with everything in German.  I ordered wienerschnitzel, which is a pretty safe bet for Americans who don’t mind eating pork and like french fries.  I also ordered a half liter of hefeweizen.  At that time, I didn’t know anything about beer except that I enjoyed drinking it.  I had no idea just how delicious that first fresh German beer would taste to me after two years spent in Armenia, where local beers suck and foreign beers are very expensive.  By now, I’m sure that’s changed.  I know that Armenia’s main brewer, Kotayk, was bought out by the French, who also don’t do beer that well.  I’m sure it’s still better than it was in the 90s, when it tasted worse than Milwaukee’s Best and made drinkers feel like warmed over shit the next day.

After I was appropriately fed, outfitted with new shoes, and rested, I wandered around Bacharach and took a short trip up to nearby St. Goar, which is also on the Rhine and a bit more touristy.  I was pretty poor and feeling intimidated by everything, so I mostly stuck to walking around and taking photos.  Were I to visit today, I would have probably tried to take a river cruise or at least explored St. Goar’s castle.

Having spent two nights in Bacharach, I determined it was time to move southward.  I still had to meet my friends in Slovakia the following week and needed to get on my way.  I boarded a train headed south, not realizing that I needed to make a seat reservation.  I ended up sitting in some lady’s reserved seat.  She spoke no English and I finally figured out I needed to move.  I wasn’t sure where I’d be getting off next… I figured I’d disembark when the mood struck me.  And it finally did when we got to Regensburg, which is right in the middle of Bavaria.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Regensburg_08_2006_2.jpg)

I hopped off the train and headed into the very pretty city, which wasn’t nearly as small and cute as Bacharach had been.  Eager to unload my heavy pack, I wandered into a small hotel called “Star Inn Hotel”.  I got pretty lucky, because the price was affordable and breakfast was included.  My room was very basic and smelled of cigarettes, but it had twin beds and was safe enough.  I dropped my bag and walked around the very lovely city.  I wish I could say I remembered a lot about it, other than the fact that I remember it being beautiful and I remember having a really nice dinner there.  I only spent one night.

I do remember the meal, though… because I distinctly remember eating a huge dinner salad with chicken and ordering two Coke Lights, which came to me icy cold in bottles with lemon.  Nowadays, I pretty much always order beer or wine with dinner, especially if I am in Europe.  But that day, I was hot and thirsty and I wanted cola without the sugar.  I remember feeling really refreshed and thoroughly enjoying the salad… also weird, because I almost never eat salads.

One other thing I remember about Regensburg was checking out of the hotel.  The elderly innkeeper asked me where I was from.  I told him I was American.  He then proceeded to tell me that he had been a prisoner of war in America, having been held in a camp in Tennessee during World War II.  I didn’t know what to say to that.  At that time, I didn’t realize the United States had even had prisoner camps during World War II.  He didn’t seem too bitter about it, though.

I got on my next train, still heading south, but in a more easterly direction.  Though I was curious about Munich, I knew I needed to go east in order to get to Slovakia… So that’s how I ended up at my third stop, Passau, a lovely German city on the border of Austria that also happens to be close to the Czech Republic.

The above photo was taken in 2008, when my husband took me to Passau for my 36th birthday.  What you see is the point at which the Danube and the Inn Rivers converge.  A third river, the Ilz, is behind me and not visible.

I got off the train and hiked to the main drag, where I found a small “garni” hotel.  I think I was attracted to it because in Armenia, Garni is a well preserved ancient temple.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Armenia_Garni_side.jpg)

I had been to Garni several times when I lived in Armenia, followed by a visit to Geghard, which is an ancient monastery that has a “singing room” with amazing acoustics.  I sang in that room many times.

Anyway, in Germany and other parts of Europe, garni refers to a small hotel that offers breakfast.  But I didn’t know that at the time.  I went into the office and booked a small room, delighted with the fact that it had a private bathroom and even a small, color TV.  I distinctly remember thinking I’d finally hit the lap of luxury.  After walking around beautiful Passau and having dinner at a restaurant next to the Danube and being waited on by an extremely rude waitress, I remember going back to the hotel and watching an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 that had been dubbed into German.

I stayed in Passau for a couple of nights, mainly because the hotel was inexpensive and comfortable and it’s a pretty city.  Years later, my husband and I went back there to celebrate my 36th birthday.  We took a river cruise and sat in on an organ concert at St. Stephan’s cathedral, which boasts one of the largest pipe organs in the world.  For a long time, Passau’s pipe organ was the largest and today has the largest cathedral organ anywhere.  We bought a CD of music played on the organ.

The inside of St. Stephan’s cathedral is extraordinarily beautiful.  It was decorated by the Italians, of course.

 

I didn’t know anything about Passau when I got off the train, but it was a successful stop.  I was glad I had the chance to go back there in 2008, almost eleven years after my first “by chance” visit in 1997.

After two nights in Passau, I was ready to move on again, having stopped in the local department store and purchased pants, a large knit shirt, an ugly teal bathing suit with a big padded bra in it, and a couple of knit sports bras that were not very comfortable.  Stay tuned for part 3, when I explore Austria.

By the way, I did take photos during this trip, but they are printed photos and my scanner doesn’t work…

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