Can we talk about making plans? I’m not someone you might call a ‘planner’, or at least not in my personal life. But once I have my heart set on doing something, boy do I have a hard time letting go when those plans don’t work out. Before I embarked to Germany, I’d enrolled myself in an exchange program called Workaway. The premise is that in exchange for volunteering to help with designated projects, local host families provide you with room and board. Sort of a cultural Airbnb where no money is involved. I was stoked! I’d get to really practice my German and I’d found some neat opportunities. Baking cakes and making cheese at an organic farm cafe in Bavaria. Setting up a rural art exhibit and event space. Helping a family on their farm with an old mill. One by one, for one reason or another, each one fell through. I’d also found a guide to show me some treks off the beaten path around Bavaria that I’d been longing to explore, with promises of incredible views. Unluckily, he suddenly needed foot surgery. One baking instructor I had contacted about a class informed me she was no longer teaching at the moment, finding herself too busy with a young child at home. However, she did tell me about a special event called Brotzeit dedicated just to bread and sourdough she felt I shouldn’t miss given my interest in German baking. And with that, I made my plans to go check it out in Berlin.
My lodging in Berlin was my spendiest thus far, and my biggest disappointment. (You know that scene in the movie Big, where Tom Hanks’ character is renting a room in the big city, and it resembles a jail cell? It’s not THAT bad, but you know if that’s the comparison that comes to mind, you’ve chosen poorly.) After dinner and a free shot of mango schnapps given to me with a wink improved my mood, I set out to explore. My recon on Berlin indicated no shortage of wonderful things to do in the city, just a shortage of time as I had just over 24 hours. I decided first to go to the East Side Gallery before the sun set, to see the remaining section of the Berlin Wall painted with political murals by artists from all over. What really struck me was the sense that, nearly 30 years after the wall fell, the messages still feel so timely. The sun set quickly in the capital, but for a few moments, it was awash in shades of orange and blush, with surreal purple clouds lazing about. The sun took with it the warmth of the day, but I walked the city, taking in the architecture. At one point, as I turned a corner under a train bridge, a chill ran through my bones as I felt the magnitude of the city’s history.
After walking a good bit of the city, I headed back to get a good night’s sleep before this baking *thing* in the morning. I still had no idea what to expect from this event. Was it a tasting? A symposium? Who was going to be there- serious, professional bakers? I woke up in my cell full of self-doubt. Was I about to make a fool of myself? How was I expecting to learn a thing when I could barely navigate ordering a meal in a restaurant? Did I remember any German baking terms other than ‘Brot’, i.e. bread? That wasn’t going to get me very far. Should I not go? Pushing all of these doubts aside, I went to the market, took a big gulp, and marched up to the ticket counter. I dropped down my €3. I quickly exhausted my German skills and pulled out my crutch, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”
“Oh yes!” And with that, one kind event staffer gently calmed all my fears, explaining that nearly everyone speaks English, and gave me the lay of the land on how the event worked. Breadmakers from all over Germany and as far away as Italy, Turkey, and Denmark traveled to participate in the event. There is a debate stage for discourse on bread. There is an area set aside for classes, and another set aside for children’s baking classes too. Vendors span the market, ready with samples of fresh breads and tantalizing baked goods to buy. Grain growers, millers, social activists, gluten free bakers, croissant makers – you name it. Everybody there has one thing in common. They REALLY love bread. These are my people.
I approached the first stand I saw. There was a fleet of glass jars lined up and buckets of glop. I was giddy with excitement. It was a sourdough exchange! The ‘glop’ buckets were full of sourdough starters people had brought from all over to share, one was even made from a 100-year-old yogurt culture. I chose one made from local rye. Some people bring back t-shirts from their travels as souvenirs. I bring back colonies of microorganisms.
I joined a tour of the event to get a better understanding of everything going on. The guide was happy to pause and translate for me periodically. We learned about the various bakers’ ingredient sources and baking philosophies. Generally, they are all into using ingredients local to them and minimal processing. The bakers eagerly fed us. It’s universal. All bakers love to feed others.
The tour concluded and I went to the workshop kitchen to check in early for the baking courses I wanted to take. I was about to be crestfallen when I learned I should have signed in when I first got there as the classes filled up, but a man walked up and said to me “Hold on.” Suddenly, spots opened to me in Semmeln and Brezeln. My heart soared as I realized I was going to get to bake two quintessential German breads – crusty rolls and pretzels – in Germany. The woman signing me up cautioned me the instructor may not speak English, but I was determined to latch on to the opportunity.
First up was the roll workshop. As a group gathered to wait for the class to begin, I scanned the crowd for a friendly face. I approached a young woman and confirmed that she was there for the roll class. I asked if she spoke English and if she’d mind helping me with translating if I needed it. She chuckled and told me I was in luck – her husband with her was an American too and she’d be happy to help me out. Score! I was grateful too, as the instructor’s rapid fire, technical baking terminology was coming at me fast. We baked tray after tray of rolls. The other baker at the station next to me spoke no English, but we found ways to communicate all the same. Two kinds of lovely, crusty rolls came out of the oven and we shared the fruits of our labor.
Then, I got to do it all over again with pretzels. I scanned the new crowd for another friendly face.
“Do you speak English?”
“Do you think you could help me by translating a bit?”
“You’re in luck.”
Turns out, the woman I approached is a linguistics major from Indiana, studying to become a translator, eager to gain translation experience. (In my moments of self-doubt in the days prior, I’d contemplated the possibility of hiring a translator to attend with me. This really was my lucky day!)
We lined up at stations and watched in awe as the instructor rolled out a pretzel in a half second flat, and with a flick of his wrists, twisted it together mid-air so that it landed perfectly pretzel shaped on the counter. Witchcraft. Our own attempts required far more effort and many came out misshapen, but there is no better tasting pretzel than the one you’ve just made yourself in Germany. I strolled the market some more with my new friend for a bit after the class, but then it was time to bid her adieu to catch the next train. (Thank you, Hannah!)
My brother used to have a bumper sticker that read “If something can go right, it will.” I’m full of gratitude for this crazy city called Berlin, and all the wonderful people it brings together. The spirit of openness and sharing at Brotzeit was inspiring.
Price of admission, €3. The experience? Priceless.