I know, I know! Where have I been? Well, in July, I was on vacation. I was in Germany. I have relatives there (most of whom I had never met before) and, as it turns out, they live pretty interesting (and delicious) lives. For just a couple of weeks I was caught in their magic.
Where there are the glossiest, tissue-paper-thin slices of Westphalian ham and served for breakfast too! Where there are pretzels and wurst and enormous bottles of bier. Where sour cherry trees are a dime a dozen, dangling their wares, and your great-grandmother's cousin's son's wife makes a gently warmed kirschsuppen dappled with a swirl of cool cream that makes you swoon, more than slightly.
Where among faces you've never seen before you find faces you've known all your life. Where you toast with fragrant wild rhubarb flower liquor to those ties that bind. Where football is a serious sport, even when played on a table. Where herring and yogurt and onions make the best salad to eat on a suddenly sunny evening just before a big bike ride - ten of you in total, pedaling past neat, nestled villages and orderly Deutsch fields, meandering rivers and old farmhouses, all in the glimmering golden set of the sun. Where, on a helter-skelter tour through a town famous for its white spargel, you have gelato at 9 am and feast your eyes upon the spread of vollkorn- and roggen- and sonnenblumenkernbrot, blood-and-tongue sausage, liverwurst and headcheese, piles of potatoes, stacks of onions and baskets of berries for sale at the farmer's market. Where you are invited for lunch in a rambling garden of a backyard with trellised cucumbers to note and peas to pick. Where your hostess serves a huge tureen of vegetable soup - tender cabbage and carrots and peas and chunks of sausage all floating in a dill-dotted broth. You're hot - from the soup and the weather - and it is barely 11 o'clock, you've had more than enough (and there is always enough) but still there is a proud cake spread thick with whipped cream and dusted with cocoa.
Where, after you've managed a quick road-stop picnic (and mind you this the same day as the market and backyard meal) you are welcomed to the eastern side of the family with beer, more beer and shots of "medecin". It's a boozy afternoon before the BBQ is lit and a thunderstorm rumbles through, sending everyone into the shelter of a crumbling barn, ceiling strung with twinkling lights. As rain pelts the roof the heaving platters of steak, skewers of shrimp, bratwurst, pork cutlets and chicken start circulating in concert with bowls of salad and baskets of garlic bread. Just like the rain, it never stops coming. And soon, what with the sparkling wine and vodka and more beer and scotch, everyone is nearly falling down drunk and that night, or morning rather, you keep your sister up for two hours talking but also, since you need water, because it is hard to chug two litres of the sparkling stuff in any less time.
Where you actually have a relative, the husband of your dad's cousin, who is a butcher, whose "reich" is the huge kitchen in a shed behind his house, who makes the best roast suckling pig, and who serves you the crispy, juicy ear when you ask. Whose wife is a beekeeper that brings over a bag filled with jars of honey after you ask for one for your liebling karnickel. Whose mom fills you with awe at her practical frugality (washing her feet in a tin bucket every night before bed) and beautiful simplicity (welcoming you with a bowl of perfect gooseberries she has patiently topped and tailed). Whose son owns a country estate, a manor house nearly, who takes you mushroom hunting in the woods, actually the old Soviet military-testing range, with his dog and baskets. And that night, after the great, big family reunion, after songs and speeches, tears and trips in the Trabant, afternoon kaffee and kuchen, a climb up the church tower and evening snack of wurst and white bread, everyone gathers in the courtyard, under moonlight (and a little electricity) to trim mushrooms.
The next morning you slide out of bed early, early, and join the matriarch of the house and her daughter and her daughters-in-law and their big, blond, wide-blue-eyed German babies in the kitchen to wash and chop and trim even more and finally cook those pfifferling. With the tiniest cutting board and the dullest knife you hack up some onions and cook them translucent, you whisk together almost a dozen eggs, dab your finger in to taste for salt and scramble them until they are just softly set, like you always do, and then set the pan on the buffet table, where they are gone before most anyone even knows it, a treat for those who have been up with you, and piping hot eggs, mushrooms, bread, lumped together, they belong, like you.
I never understood generosity until this summer. I have never felt so crushed with love. In the stomach.
That was Germany.