May 222015


Ok, so, here in Germany, like about 3/4 of the adult population, we live in an apartment building.  Our neighbors mostly fall in three groups: retirees, adult singles, and families just starting out.   Everyone has been quite sweet and nice, except this one old alcoholic guy who happens to share our bedroom wall.  That is also one of the few hollow walls in the building that carries sounds from everywhere.  If the ladies at the wine import business downstairs hang a picture, we hear it.  If the train conductor upstairs taps out his espresso filter, we hear it.  And, of course, we hear the TV and urination habits of our adjacent neighbor.  Its an apartment building.  Most of the time it isn’t a big deal.  But, sometimes you hear stuff.  You cope.  Or rather, everyone copes except Crazy Neighbor (CN).  If you are a longtime follower, you may remember a few stories about him from the past.  He was a music professor, we are told, and sound bothers him a lot.  When we first moved in,  we had a bunch of IKEA furniture to put together.  On Sunday the first week we were here, he came over to complain and to tell us that Germans never make noise on Sundays.  We explained we were making furniture for our children’s rooms.  Didn’t we know that we had to be silent on Sundays?  No, we didn’t because we are Americans.  Sorry about that, we will stop.

At the time we didn’t realize that the gentleman is actually just plain bonkers.  This narrative of the furniture-building stuck in his mind.  Now, and for the past 4 years, anytime he hears a sound (which, as mentioned above, can be often) he thinks we are making children’s furniture.  If the lady above us vacuums her rugs, we are making children’s furniture.  If a work crew is there installing windows, we are making children’s furniture.  And he comes over and SHOUTS at us.  Or shouts through the walls.  Or pounds loudly and rings our doorbell, then runs before we can open the door.  This is not someone capable of a mature and calm conversation or rational thought.  For a while he was convinced that David had rigged a cell phone so we could ring his door buzzer (the one that only rings from outside the building) at 3 AM…..  And thus, when he would get home from his drinking binges, he would also ring our buzzer at 3AM.  Fair is fair, you see.  We are also pretty sure he is the one responsible for all the packets of lunch meat in our mail box.  But, that is another story.

Anyways, we have been working with our landlord and the Hausmeister (like a building super) to try to deal with this issue for about 3 years now.  It kind of goes in cycles, and CN rarely does anything that crosses a line to “illegal”.  Mostly, just really asinine and obnoxious.   There have been a couple times when CN was acting scary enough that I asked David and/or some of our friends to come and help me deal with it.  But, mostly it is just a lurking annoyance.

Recently there had been another uptick in the crazitude, so the hausmeister had written letters to CN’s brother and son asking them to intervene.  We live in a small community.  Crazy Neighbor’s brother is actually our Hausmeister’s dentist!  Unfortunately, of course, these letters just set off a flame in CN’s heart.  Yesterday when we got home, CN met us at the top of the stairs in front of our apartment and proceeded to SHOUT at us for 5 minutes.  Actually, mostly he shouted at David because I hustled the kids inside as soon as he started in.  He once again accused us of making children’s furniture, but now the story has expanded in his mind.  Apparently he is convinced that we are running an illegal furniture making business out of our home– and we think we can get away with it because we are Americans.  Most of the local friends believe CN is not just an alcoholic and crazy, but a bigot, too.  Trifecta of Awsome!

When my husband denied the furniture business story, CN demanded to see so he could confirm it himself…. Now, we have made a point of keeping CN out of our home, but in this case David, thinking that maybe reality would help solve the crazy, agreed.  So, CN came in, looked around and decided that the clothes drying rack in our bedroom is where we are producing our illicit furniture.  ” That is a clothes rack!”  “Yes, but that is where you do it!”

When he came out of the bedroom, CN, newly re-enraged over discovering our secret hideyhole of … well, actually, nothing,… charged across the room shaking his finger at me and shouting that I need to tell my man to stop making furniture because it is illegal.  As the title states, you haven’t really been yelled at until you have experienced a raging, crazy German giving it his all!  He was pretty keyed up and aggressive, so David stepped in front of him.  CN continued to shout at me over David’s restraining arm for several moments until David finally managed to order him out of the house.  He shouted for another minute in the hall, and then stormed off to his apartment.

Once things seemed settled, David and the kids left.  I actually was scheduled to have a skype meeting with my editor about 10 minutes later.  I thought I could calm down and proceed. But, then the hausmeister showed up.  Apparently another neighbor (the one we call Motorcycle Guy because he seems to be a retiree who spends most days tinkering with his small collection of motorcycles in his garage) had called him about the ruckus.  Coincidentally, the basement of the building was flooded with sewage that day, so the Hausmeister was close by…. and the SMELL… wheeew.

The Hausmeister asked me what happened,  then asked me to call David back so they could talk.  Next he went over to talk with Crazy Neighbor.  CN shouted at the Hausmeister, called him names, and then slammed the door.  That was an escalation.  Usually CN is on better behavior with Hausmeister.  In fact, the Hausmeister had never personally witnessed any of the outbursts over the years because they are typically over within a minute or two and there is no time for him to arrive.  I wrote my editor to try to postpone the meeting.  But, unfortunately she didn’t get my email and was instead greeted with a rather out of breath author in the midst of “a situation”.  She graciously agreed to reschedule, and I hustled downstairs to discuss it all with David and the Hausmeister.

The Hausmeister is very wary of involving the police.  We aren’t really sure why, but he seems to think it is a bad thing to have everyone’s names on lists at the police station.  We suspect he may have had similar experiences before.  But, the good news is that he thinks that now that he has seen CN acting crazy first hand, he may be able to apply more pressure.  Honestly, if another incident like this one happens, I am not sure how we can not involve the police.  I can’t live my life worried that a crazy guy will be waiting for me and my kids at the top of the stairs every day.  SO, a little bit of tumult for our Thursday evening.  The timing was clearly not ideal, but in a way I am rather glad it escalated enough that the hausmeister is taking it more seriously.  One friend has recommended we take things up a notch to a regulatory agency called the Ordnungsamt but we aren’t really sure what that option might be able to help us with.  So, we go back to research and wariness.

Be very, very wary…….


May 152015


One thing every second language learner figures out early on is that it is much easier to conduct a conversation when you understand the context and have a general idea what you are likely to be talking about.  When you go to the market, for instance, you are likely to be asked things like “Do you need a bag?”, “Did you find everything you needed?”, “Do you want your receipt?”, and, if you are in Germany “Is everything in order?”  You grow to depend on these little scripts to get you through the day, and when people throw you a curve ball, it can take quite a long time for your brain to catch up, even if you know all the words being used.

Earlier this week I needed to stop off at the supermarket to pick a few things up for breakfast.  As I waited in line the cashier pushed the row of food-dividers to allow folks at the end of the line to reach them, and one popped off and fell on the floor.  I stooped to pick it up, and she caught my eye as I replaced it.  Instead of “thanks” or “doh, that always happens!”, she said “Schöne Farbe!”…. Wait, what?  My brain quickly replayed her words several times.  She was still looking at me and smiling, clearly expecting a response…..  ‘Ok, I know these words…. Pretty color!  hmm, the divider is pretty ordinary… um, oh, wait!  My hair!  She likes my hair color!  Right!’  “Danke!” I said, several beats too late. 

When I got up to the register she wanted to continue her assessment of my new green highlights.  “Oh what a great color for spring!  I am really glad you dyed it because…… ” This is where my German gave out.  I have no idea why she thought it was great I dyed it, but I managed to make it through the conversation with a few seemingly considered, properly enthusiastic “Danke Shön”s and a carefully crafted mildly-self-pleased-but-grateful facial expression.

Upon arriving home, I ran into our Hausmeister who wanted to update me on a situation regarding our Crazy Neighbor, who, four years in, still thinks every noise in the apartment building comes from us because we are ignorant auslanders.  It has escalated to the point that the Hausmeister is writing to Crazy Neighbor’s brother, a dentist in town, and to the landlord, again.  The Hausmeister speaks OK English.  He also speaks German, of course, Japanese (because his wife came from Japan) and sign language, because he is partially deaf.  He reads lips admirably, but, reading lips in a second language has to be incredibly difficult.  So, the conversation was both long and punctuated by multiple moments where we both just chuckled and shrugged, realizing we had no idea what the other person was trying to say.  Sigh.  Awkwardness is just business as usual.

Next, it was time to take DD to an orthodontist appointment.  Those are always a little uncomfortable because most of the staff doesn’t speak any English and because we are really quite ready to be done with the whole Mouth Appliances phase of our lives.  Overall, that went ok, but left me a bit scattered.  So, when we stopped at a new frozen yogurt place in town, I will admit, my focus was no longer razor sharp.  I looked over the menu and discovered a list of fairly unimpressive toppings consisting mostly of berry & tropical syrups.  But, they had chocolate, and I needed chocolate about then!

“Good afternoon, I would like a frozen yogurt ice cream with chocolate, please.” I said in my best German.  The woman sort of skittered about and muttered “Dunkel?”  Dunkel means “dark”.  Only, not expecting that question since there was only one chocolate on the menu, I heard “Kugel”, which means “scoop”.  To further confound myself, for some reason my brain transformed “Kugel” into “Waffeln” which in this context would mean “cone”.  So, I said “No, not a cone, I would like it in a bowl”.  At this point the woman must have figured out I was in over my depth because she gave me a bemused look and said “yes, yes, in a bowl, of course, but do you want dark chocolate?” “Yes, please,” I said, at this point possibly too tired to blush.

Finally, DD and I decided to run one more errand.  I needed a new “strumpf”, or compression sleeve, for my arm and the shop was right across the street.  DD and I went in and I explained what I needed, expecting the attendant to usher me into a room for measurements like they did last time.  Instead, she said “Is your arm smaller in the morning?” Now, mind you, this is not a complicated sentence.  DD and I both knew every word the woman spoke.  And yet, we both stood there like deer in headlights blinking stupidly with absolutely no idea what she was trying to convey.  This was not part of the script we had each practiced in our brains before going into the shop.  Mornings?  What did morning have to do with anything?  It was now around 4 in the afternoon…… After watching DD and I confer in English for a moment, the attendant pulled out her own pigeon-english to try to clarify.  “Im Morgen, arm is Smaller?” The woman behind her helped out “Or bigger?”  Ummmm…. It is bigger, then smaller, then bigger again…..  She switched back to German.  “It is better to measure it when it is small.  We open at 8:30 in the morning.  You come back when the time is good for you, but when it is early”.  Ok, then.  Mission Failed!  Try again next week.

May 022015

Two beans in a palm


Shortly after we arrived in Offenburg, I got some gourmet hot chocolate that boasted the flavor of “Tonkabohnen”, tonka beans. Never having heard of this spice, I immediately did some research. Tonka beans are a South American legume with similar chemical properties to vanilla. They also contain a naturally occurring substance called coumarin (not to be confused with Coumadin, which is a blood thinning medication derived from but not chemically equivalent to coumarin- see the Atlantic article linked below for more on that). In very high doses, coumarin can potentially cause liver damage.  The studies that were done fed large amounts of tonka beans, and in some cases liquid extract from the beans, to rats and dogs.  At concentrations of about the same amount as a human eating 30 beans, liver toxicity occurred in rats. In animals fed high doses of the extract, heart paralysis sometimes occurred. The US FDA looked at the test results and, maybe understandably, said “No way!”, banning tonka in particular and all coumarin containing foods in general. After this edict went into effect, it was discovered that many foods, and especially many spices, contain coumarin. Commonly eaten things like certain kinds of licorice, cassia cinnamon, lavender, etc. contain this compound, which is credited with a strong scent combining the aroma of hay and vanilla.  In fact, as the law has not been changed since 1954, cassia cinnamon is probably technically illegal in the US.  However, the amounts necessary to achieve toxicity are unreasonably high for a spice used much like nutmeg.  No one sits and wolfs down 30 nutmeg seeds, after all (and if they did, they would discover that nutmeg, too, is toxic at high doses).  The rest of the world looked a bit longer at the results and shrugged.  Tonka beans are perfectly legal and considered harmless pretty much everywhere except the US.  As I continued to research, I discovered that the French are rumored to be particularly fond of the nuanced flavor for both desserts and savory dishes.  In South America they are used habitually to make beverages- actually sometimes containing doses similar to the 30 bean toxic limit, but apparently ill effects are not know.  This raises  the possibility that the tests done with animals may not accurately transfer into human physiology.  Many, if not most, commonly eaten substances can be harmful in extreme doses, so I began to get the impression that the US ban might be over-reacting a bit.  The Atlantic wrote a nice overview article about it a few years ago.  In the end, I was satisfied that tonka beans are perfectly safe when used as a normal spice and not ingested, for instance, as a very expensive meal all on their own.

Like Nutmeg, Tonka beans are grated into their recipe

Like Nutmeg, Tonka beans are grated into their recipe

SO, bolstered by research and intellectually curious, I decided that this was something I needed to seek out.  However, despite the fact that all accounts indicated it should be locally available, I couldn’t find any!  I looked at our local supermarkets.  I looked at the markets in France.  I checked out the spice vendors at the street market.  But, no one had tonka.  I could have mail ordered it, but that seemed like cheating.  Eventually, I just sort of forgot about the project and went on to other things.

Then, this week while shopping at Edeka, I noticed they had changed one of their spice brands.  The new brand stocks tonka beans!  It was an easy decision and I came home carrying a small tin with what looked like six large desiccated raisins.  I was amused to note that the tin had an inner cup to decrease the amount of space that the beans rattled around.  You immediately got the sense that this was a special spice– like when you buy saffron in those cute mini jars, or vanilla beans packed in their own little test tube.  The beans themselves were remarkable only in that they are covered in a dusting of tiny crystals- natural vanillin accumulated from the drying process.

Crystals of Vanillin form on the outside of the pods

Crystals of Vanillin form on the outside of the pods

I admit it, I am the sort of person who gets totally excited about new ingredients, so I didn’t wait too long to open the package and get a whiff.  Nice.  Vanilla, a little spicier, sort of nutty and faintly sweet.  I didn’t get the whole “fresh cut hay” thing people talk about, but it definitely intrigued me.  Next step was to set about deciding how to use it.  I researched online.  Unsurprisingly, the results in English were relatively few.  In fact, many of them turned out to be by expats like me posting about their own culinary adventures!  I eventually settled on a recipe for another French Favorite of mine, Canelés/Cannelés, a pastry that required me to seek out bees wax and a special mold a couple years back.

Grating the bean

Grating the bean on a microplane grater

The first step was grating the 1 bean necessary for the double recipe of pastries (be reassured US friends and family, this is a very small and even by US standards quite safe amount).  The beans are dauntingly hard, so I worried that they might be difficult to grate, but I pulled out my microplane and was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was.  The aroma was not as strong as  I expected, but it was enticing, and as the evening wore on, I realized that it stayed with me.  The flavor, too, was less intense than I thought, but hours later I found myself still noting the lingering bright tones.  It was very much like the first time I sampled really good Vietnamese Cassia from Penzey’s.  This may make sense since as I mentioned before, cassia also has a high percentage of coumarin. The flavor of the grated bean was akin to the scent, though a step spicier- like a little electric spark on the tongue.  Vanilla, cinnamon, grassy tones and a smidgen of sweetness.


Finished product.

Cannelés are a two day process because the batter should rest overnight in the refrigerator.  One of the reason I chose them as a starter recipe is that the procedure starts with the spice steeping in warm milk and then allows all the flavors to mingle over a long rest before cooking.  I figured this would give me a good chance at capturing the complexity of the tonka bean’s layers of flavor.  So, how did it turn out?  Delicious, actually!  I specifically didn’t use any other spices in the recipe so I could best evaluate the newness.  If I didn’t know what I had used, I would think: vanilla, cinnamon, and maybe a pinch of mace and just a hint of a berry-like fruitiness.  It blooms a bit on the tongue and leaves a subtle cool after sensation, almost, but not quite, metalic.  The scent is what really stays, and I understand completely why it is a common ingredient in perfumes. It isn’t shocking or revolutionary, really.  But, I do like it.  As long as they are available, I will probably just add tonka beans into my general spice array.


Editor Note: I had remembered this article from a while back and had to look it up to make sure I was remembering properly.  Yes indeed, it seems the EU is much more concerned with regulating the use of cinnamon in cinnamon rolls than worrying about folks purchasing small amounts of tonka beans: