Over 30 years ago, I spent a year in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship. I was a political science major and I took political science and German literature classes at Universität Siegen. I lived with a wonderful family and I grew and learned so much more living with them than I did attending classes at the university. I was there during a magical time. I arrived in October 1989. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. I spent New Year’s Eve with an East German family (family of friends) – her first trip out of East Germany. We shared a hug at midnight and she told me I was the first American she had ever hugged. Such a wonderful time to be in Germany.
I arrived in Germany a plump, naive, scared woman of 25 (yeah, I was an “older” student). I’d never been away from home. I was a “commuter student” in college – I lived at home and commuted to school. My father cried when they dropped me at the airport (back in the day when your friends and family could stay with you at the gate until your plane took off). I had never seen my father cry. Ever. That hit me hard and I cried the whole way to Brussels. See, because I was an “older” student, I didn’t qualify for cheap student airfares. I had a crazy trip that meant I flew into Brussels and put my year’s worth of bags on a train and rode multiple full-to-bursting trains to Köln where acquaintances picked me up and dropped me at my family’s house in Siegen. It was a fun trip. NOT!
Anyway, that is another story.
Fast forward a month or so and my German finally became fluent enough to communicate anything I needed to communicate, I fell in love with my family and started doing all kinds of activities with them. We walked every day we could on the nearby trail (called Kaninchenweg – translation “Rabbit trail.”). I ate what the family ate. I gave up my daily Diet Pepsi habit because Diet Pepsi was super expensive in Germany. I gave up my iced tea habit as well. I drank Mineralwasser most of the time. It wasn’t long before I started losing a lot of weight. I wasn’t really paying attention to it or trying. When I got back home, I realized I left a size 14 and returned a solid size 10. Boy did I have fun clothes shopping when I got back. I could wear any off-the-rack size 10 clothes I could find. I even bought a blue jean skirt! Something I never wore before.
I never really thought about any of this at the time (except the Pepsi part – that was hard). I only reflected on it years later when I had gained back all the weight and I tried to understand what I did in Germany that was so effortless that I lost 40? 50? pounds and whether I could do it again. I don’t really know how much I lost because I never got on a scale. I just went by clothes size before and after the trip.
When I initially looked at it, I was stumped. While in Germany, I ate what the family ate for the most part. I also stopped at the local bakeries (oh my goodness! They’re everywhere and the pastries are fresh and delicious). Bienenstich was my favorite. A buttery delicious honey cake. We had fresh rolls at breakfast. We picked up our bread at the bakery. We shopped at Aldi for most things. I learned to drink wine and beer while in Germany. I never really was a drinker prior to that. It all seemed so normal to me – except I felt like I was indulging in Germany. I mean fresh baked goods? Sweets and cakes? Bread? Beer? It was heaven. Yet I still lost all that weight. I know our little walks on the Kaninchenweg in no way offset what I was eating and drinking. Yes, that helped, but that’s not why I lost it.
So, why was I able to eat what I wanted and still lose that weight?
The only thing I can figure is whole foods, less processed food and fresh air. We ate most meals as a family at the table. When possible the biggest meal was midday. Dinner was often leftovers and a lighter fare. That was combined with getting out more and moving more (than I do now).
You might ask, what does this have to do with Nutella and pumpernickel?
My go-to breakfast in Germany was 2 slices of fresh pumpernickel bread smeared with Nutella. Sometimes with a delicious honey spread. I love the strong earthy taste of the pumpernickel mixed with the sweetness of Nutella or honey. Since I’ve been back, I’ve looked endlessly for bakeries that make pumpernickel but what they make in the U.S. is not the same. It’s lighter and, well, sweeter for some reason. It’s not German pumpernickel. I’ve looked at recipes online, but it’s super complicated and getting the right ingredients is a challenge. I recently found a packaged version at Wegmans and it definitely tastes like the pumpernickel I know from Germany, but it is packaged so it does have preservatives. I also recently discovered a sugar-free hazelnut spread. I’ve been having a slice of the bread with the sugar-free hazelnut with my coffee in the morning and it is almost what I remember. It definitely is a taste that brings back so many fond memories. That’s how close it is.
It got me thinking more about the differences. I know there is all kinds of research around genetically modified foods, processed and packaged foods, etc. German law did not allow for genetic modification and put strict regulations on processed foods. My mom used to send me “care” packages of favorite snacks from home. I’d share them with my family. The sweets were “too sweet” for them. They’d make faces when they ate them. Over time, as my taste buds adjusted to Germany, they became too sweet for me too. One thing my mom always included in those packages though was something I could not get in Germany. Microwave popcorn. Boy did I love (still do) popcorn. Buttery salty delicious popcorn.
I’d make the popcorn at night to have when I watched TV with the family. I’d offer it to my friends but they’d turn up their noses and make a face. “No thank you. That’s kid’s stuff.” I asked why? They just said popcorn in Germany is usually only found at carnivals and fairs and usually only for kids. I shrugged and thought, “oh well. More for me.”
One day, Reiner decided to try the popcorn. He said the smell from popping it was intoxicating and he just had to try it. He took a few kernels absentmindedly, like you do when you’re watching TV, and put them in his mouth. Then, all of a sudden, he sat up, looked at me, looked at the popcorn and said, “It’s salty!” I said, yes. It is. What else would it be? He said, “Sweet! I was expecting it to be sweet!” So, it turns out, Germans only ever ate popcorn with sugar on it! They had never had it with salt. Needless to say, I turned them into popcorn addicts and for years after I returned I mailed them care packages of microwave popcorn because it was nearly impossible to find in Germany and when they did it was often with sugar.
All of this is part trip down memory lane and part examination of the foods I put in my mouth. I really need to get back to my German roots because it worked. Eating whole foods, less processed and watching the chemicals worked. It also meant I wasn’t depriving myself of things. I had sweets (albeit not as sweet as I was used to and I got used to it – you can really taste the richness of a pastry when it’s not overwhelmed by sugar). I had good beer and good chocolate (to this day, I can’t eat a Hershey’s bar). I never overindulged.
So. In the days and weeks ahead, I want to dig out my old diaries from Germany and see if I can figure out a way to make the way I ate there the way I eat here. Oh. And I need to get moving again. I’m experiencing horrible back pain right now that limits what I can do. If walking it off doesn’t take care of it, I’m going to have to see a doctor, but for now, I will try slowly getting back on the horse and walking on my treadmill.
If you read this far, thank you. It was just something in my head I wanted to write about as I munched on my fake Nutella and processed pumpernickel this morning.