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I'm not lost, I'm just shopping for groceries

(originally published October 5, 2018)

Before I moved to Germany, I had so many people tell me it was “no big deal” to not have any German language skills in Berlin since everyone here speaks English. Well, I happen to think it actually is a pretty big deal to not be able to speak any German while living Germany. Whoever gave that advice lied. Maybe in downtown and in the main city most people speak English, but a lot of locals, especially older generation and people working at shops and grocery stores speak very little English and the only way to communicate with them is through German. Besides, I think it’s rude to assume that everyone else is going to speak your language when you’re the one traveling to their country. It makes sense.

I started learning some German on my own before moving to Berlin using the Duolingo App, which was a great way to warmup to the language, but nothing beats taking an intensive language course for 12 hours a week, in person, with a living and breathing human instructor to help guide you, which is what I’m currently doing. Sitting in a room filled with other expats from all over the world who are facing the same struggles as I am is calming and reassuring. It makes me realize that I am not alone in this extremely isolating experience of lacking language and communication skills in a foreign country. I repeatedly remind myself to be patient during this difficult phase that will eventually get better with time as I pick up more and more of the language.

My lack of German language skills have especially been an issue while shopping for groceries. Searching for produce and eggs is no big deal, but try looking for garlic paste, for example, and you’ll find yourself walking around in circles, pulling all your hair out. In order to buy garlic paste, you need to know what the German translation for garlic is, “Knoblauch”. Then try to figure out how to say “garlic paste”, which is “Knoblauchpuree”. That’s one word. Now, tell me, how is one who may not speak a lick of German supposed to know this?

If you look closely this container actually does say “garlic puree” in small letters on the top right corner, but it’s not typically the case for there to be much English printed anywhere on the packaging. This is no rare occurrence, and is something that I run into quite frequently, so I’m really looking forward to speaking some German. Quickly. Luckily now that I have a local phone plan I can just look up stuff as needed on my phone, but when I had just arrived and didn’t have a phone plan I had to make sure I translated everything in German on my grocery list before leaving home over wifi. Downloading the App on my phone was extremely helpful for translating words in German because it downloads the German dictionary directly onto your phone so you can look up words without needing wifi.

The first time I wandered to the grocery store by myself it took me so long to find everything on my list that Nick was convinced I took a wrong turn somewhere and was ready to gather a search party. Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, trips to the grocery store are a lot smoother and more productive with less time wasted. We end up cooking a lot, which is the healthier and more economical option anyway. Produce and portions are a lot smaller, so we run out of things very fast, which means more frequent trips to the grocery store. Unlike the US where stores close a little early on Sundays, in Berlin most grocery stores are completely closed on Sundays so we need to plan ahead.

Shopping for gluten free products at the regular grocery store hasn’t been horrible, but definitely not as smooth as it is in the US. Most grocery stores here carry a large inventory of Schär “Eu- rope’s No. 1 Gluten Free!” products, which has been a blessing. I became familiar with Schär products back home and was thrilled to learn that they’re pretty easy to find here. Despite this the gluten free options are still very limited.

A couple of weeks ago I took on the challenge to make the ultimate American Breakfast - pancakes. This was easier said than done. Back home, Nick and I would have pancakes for breakfast almost every weekend. By this time, Nick hadn’t had pancakes for over four months and…well I could eat pancakes every day, so I was on a mission to find the ingredients.

American pancakes (or hotcakes, griddlecakes, or flapjacks if you prefer) are different from most European versions because they usually contain a rising ingredient like baking soda and/or powder which makes them “fluffy”. They are also usually served in a stack with butter and maple syrup, which is apparently not an easy ingredient to find in Europe. In the US, pancake mix, regular or gluten free, can be found at every grocery store quite easily without even having to look for it. Americans eat a lot of pancakes.

I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to be simple (or possible?) to find gluten free pancake mix here in Berlin, so I ended up picking up Schär’s Gluten Free Mehl Farine, which turned out to be just perfect. One down. Next on the list was baking soda and baking powder. I found the “Backpulver” no trouble. It was the “Backsoda” that was nowhere to be found. I kept seeing this product called “Natron” and after some quick grocery store research on my phone I learned that baking soda is commonly referred to as “Natron” here in Germany. They sell them in these individual packets that equal about 1 tsp each.

Convinced that I wasn’t going to find maple syrup, I was surprised that this wasn’t the case. It’s called “Ahorn Syrup” here and is basically pure maple syrup from Canada. It’s pretty good so I have no complaints.

Overall, it was a successful breakfast and we were happy to get some homemade gluten free pancakes made from scratch, which at the end of the day was healthier than buying a packaged and processed gluten free product. I’ll follow up with my pancake recipe in the next post.

I also wanted to point out this cool contact lens vending machine that you find at grocery stores. How practical is that? Off you go grocery shopping and pick up some contact lenses on the way home. Why not? That totally makes sense to me. Why can’t we have that in the US? I’m not sure how that works for folks like me with astigmatism. I’m guessing it’s not as simple as a click of a button, but still a super cool and practical idea.

A couple of other things that have been a challenge when it comes to preparing food here is using a shared kitchen area in the Club Room of our apartment building if we need to bake anything. Our own apartment comes with a simple two burner stove without an oven, which is fine for the most part, but we do like to bake, so we have been using the shared kitchen. It hasn’t been ideal, but we’ve managed. It took me a second to figure out how the temperature on the baking oven translates here. 400 degrees in the US is about 204 degrees here. I also didn’t bring a measuring cup with me from the US, and since most of the recipes I’m using are American, I was having to translate everything into Imperial. When my friend who was just visiting asked me if I needed anything from the US, I immediately said, “I would love a measuring cup please!” I never thought I’d miss measuring cups so much.

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