Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Kaiserslautern, Germany: KTown for the Win!

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Kaiserslautern, Germany for two weeks of work-related training. I've been to Germany once or twice before, but until this trip never had any real time to spend in the country. I stayed fairly busy from 0800-1600, but after that I had free time whenever there weren't work dinners to attend. And for the record, I am not normally a fan of "mandatory morale" functions, but I have such a fantastic group of co-workers who also happen to have excellent taste in food, so these outings were never a burden!

The flowers in Germany knew it was springtime, but someone forgot to notify the sun. I think if I'd stayed another week, I would have seen many more buds and blooms on the trees, but it was still a little gray and dreary when I was there. One of my favorite weather adjectives is "Seattle-ish" and if you've ever lived there, you know exactly what I mean. It only really rained once or twice in two weeks, but that's about how many days of sunshine we had, too. Mostly it was just a bit overcast, cool but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. 

When I arrived, there was some sort of street fair going on right outside my hotel. I stayed at the SAKS, which straddles the line between new and old Kaiserslautern. It's a great location for walking and exploring, and happens to be situated right on a plaza. After I unpacked my bag, I wandered outside for some exploring. At first I didn't see anything out of the ordinary - roasted nuts, carousel, lavender soaps. And then I saw my first pretzel! Have I mentioned that I am a fan of pretzels? I can be a bit leery though, as I had both the best and the worst pretzel of my life on the same day in Munich, about two blocks away from each other, which just emphasizes that one just never knows. I did a little pretzel research (by this I mean that I both ate a lot of pretzels in the name of "research" but also did some Googling and lots of reading, not that I went to a library or searched specifically for scholarly articles on pretzels, because, duh, that would be overkill) and discovered there's quite a deal of history to this seemingly simple concoction. Some stories say pretzels were invented in the 600s by monks in the area where Italy and France currently meet, while others of course give credit to the Germans. There is a distinctly Venetian version of pretzels called precedella, which are traditional pretzel-shaped but sweeter, flavored by such additives as wine, anise, or cinnamon. Then there are American-style hard pretzels, credited to the Pennsylvania Dutch, who aren't really Dutch at all but German, and those pretzels are distinctly different from their European counterparts. There's also debate over dipping the pretzels in a very caustic lye bath or a more moderate baking soda solution, or just foregoing that part for a water mist or quick boil, a la bagel. And then there are all the delicious things you can top a bagel with! Salt flakes, of course, being the most traditional, but then you have cheese (my favorite, especially when it gets all crispy) or cinnamon-sugar or chocolate.
German Pretzels
I'm digressing. I noticed it when I started drooling. Sorry about that. Anyway, the street fair was fun, the pretzels were delicious, and I especially enjoyed listening to all the music. There were two different marching bands, plus an accordion player and a pan flutist. I passed several booths of vendors selling cheeses and of course sausage, but my euro stayed safely in my wallet. 

Work was good, though it made my brain tired, and my co-workers are lovely. That's about all I'm going to say about that. Mostly I carpooled to work, but sometimes I caught the hotel shuttle and once or twice I even walked. While there was a little break room on site, our food options were pretty limited nearby, but we made do. We ate out a few times, walked to a local bakery a few more times, ordered food to be delivered (once, with sad results), ordered food to be picked up, and survived. The Asian buffet was okay, the Indian food from the Curry House was delightful, I thoroughly enjoyed the wraps from the bakery, and we should probably never speak of the delivery food ever again. Okay fine. I had falafel and some sort of red sauce eggplant ratatouille, which I really enjoyed once I added some salt. But my poor coworker ordered fish and potatoes, and the potatoes tasted fishy and the fish tasted bland; all of the food was white and boring and entirely off-putting. I later learned that Germans are not known for their fish-cooking prowess, but I'm not entirely surprised to learn this. As much as I love Italy and Italian food, I thus far have not been impressed by their fish dishes, either, but I haven't given up yet. For the most part, Italians seem to stick to Italian food. There are a few international cuisine options, but they are few and far between where I live, so whenever I travel I always look to try new food, whether it be local or from far-flung corners of the world.

In Germany, a few people particularly recommended I try a dish called Flammkuchen. It's basically a flatbread, traditionally with creme fraiche, onions, and bacon. Sign me up, please! I couldn't believe how light it was, when I was expecting something heavy. I can't wait to try making this at home sometime. (The picture is from a food website and will take you to a recipe.) My other favorite German food is now kase spaetzle. I had it twice, and tasted somebody else's once. (Really, that time I wanted to devour my co-worker's food but decided to be the bigger person and politely try a bite instead of stealing her plate and running away to a corner to shove my face into the food.) It's better than macaroni and cheese, when done right. And I don't feel even remotely guilty or un-American for saying that, either. It's egg noodles with cheese and magic and caramelized onions and possibly breadcrumbs and gravy and unicorn love. It's another dish I can't wait to try making at home but also feel will in no way do justice to the meals I consumed in Southern Germany.
By far my favorite meal was from my last night in Germany, when my boss introduced us to a Greek restaurant called Sorbas (or maybe Zorbas?) about 20 minutes outside of Kaiserslautern. We were a group of seven people, and we left the ordering to the two Greeks. They ordered an assortment of food for us, sort of tapas-style, and we dug in. I haven't been so very full in a long time. There was tender octopus, crispy fried eggplant, garlicky tzatziki, chicken, lamb, bistecca patties, salad, and of course warm, homemade pitas. I think there were a few more things but honestly I can't remember. Suffice to say, it was really good.
(I stole this collage from Angie's Instagram page because I was too busy stuffing my face to take photos.)
Trier, Germany
In the non-food-related topic of things I did in Germany, the highlight was definitely my trip to Trier. The town, nestled along the Moselle River near the Luxembourg border, came highly recommended by so many people that I braved public transport in a foreign country in order to visit it. Woohoo, look at me adventuring forth! It took about 2.5 hours via train to get there and my co-worker/friend and I arrived sometime before lunch. We trekked off by foot to the Porta Nigra, the oldest Roman gate North of the Alps, and then took a left-hand turn into the historic center of the city. We wandered along the cobbled streets for a bit, and found the ruins of the Roman baths, too. We visited the Constantine Basilica and the Trier Cathedral, as well as the Trier Diocese Museum, which we had all to ourselves! It was light and airy and fully of beautiful art and artifacts. For lunch we stopped at a potato restaurant. Yes, you heard me: a potato restaurant. I had potato dumplings stuffed with meatballs, and they were lovely. I had a wave of dizziness at the restaurant, I think because it was really warm in there, but I did enjoy the food. After some more wandering and hot tea (it was cold!), we went to the Trier city museum. I loved it! I was very impressed with both of the museums we went to. I think my favorite exhibit was a floor full of old clothing. People were tiny a few hundred years ago, and the clothing looked so heavy! I bought a couple little gifts but we were pretty much done after the second museum. We headed back to the train station a little early, and waited a while. Funny story: we got on the correct train, but my friend heard announcement that half of the train was going one direction (to Luxembourg) and the other half was headed the opposite direction. And guess who was on the wrong half of the train! I'm so fortunate I was with someone who understood some German, because that announcement was NOT made in English. Whoops. Anyway we got off the train and sprinted forward a few cars and thankfully made it. The trip back was more or less uneventful (the lady in front of us had a horrendous nosebleed, but was ultimately fine) and I did nothing else interesting or productive with the rest of my weekend.
Porta Nigra Roman ruins viewed from the Trier City Museum courtyard
All in all, it was a good balance of work and play (i.e. food), and I'm happy to go back in the fall for more training. I would love to make a side trip to Heidelberg when I go back. That's my one regret from this trip, but hey, I still had a great time!

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