After the sudden cancellation of a weeklong engagement, my husband and I were at loose ends in Europe. Impulsively, we decided to take a vacation – a writing vacation. Since we were already in Frankfurt, we thought of looking for a place in Germany itself. Soon, we zeroed in on a small town called Bad Neuenahr; the deciding factors were the Ahr River and the lovely apartment in a vineyard on a week’s rental.
The comfortable studio, set at one end of the vineyard, had all you needed – a designated sleeping, living, dining and kitchen area. I intended to cook simple meals for the two of us. Getting Indian spices would be a challenge since it was far off from the hub of Bad Neuenahr, but basic things like rice and vegetables should not be a problem, I figured.
Well, actually it was. The labels were written in German on the items of grocery and the folks at the store spoke no English; but we could still manage to pick up some rice, pasta, cereal, milk, prawns and vegetables.
The first three days of our writing vacation were divine. The days started with a walk in the vineyards followed by breakfast, then a few hours of work and a light lunch. The afternoon siesta was inevitable and then again a long walk by the riverbank. Evenings saw us working some more and then a cooking expedition. Eating out options were limited and since I do not eat meat, we did not experiment much.
My husband went along sportively, but the first murmur of discontent surfaced on the fourth day. He was tired of the shrimp-pasta and vegetable-pulao routine.
‘Let us get some fish today.’ He prodded.
‘Sure.’ I agreed readily.
We went to the supermarket. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to figure out the fish, because everything was cleaned, cut and packaged neatly. The otherwise friendly staff at the store could not help us, as none of them could understand or speak any English. Finally we went through the frozen section meticulously and managed to pick up a packet that looked like fish fillet with herbs. We could not make much out of the German label, but the letters present were ‘f’, ‘i’, ‘s’. We paid for it and happily marched home. I could sense my husband’s expectations build up.
On reaching the apartment, I cooked a cup of rice, sautéed some mushrooms and finally started frying the fish fillets. Usually frying fish does not take much time, but even after 15 minutes of frying, the fish looked uncooked. That was strange. I spent some more time and effort cooking the fillets and finally, still somewhat unsure it was cooked well, we sat down for lunch. As I took one bite of the fish, I knew something wasn’t quite right.
‘Maybe it is some kind of a tough fish,’ I said with a grimace, ‘I am sorry, I don’t think I can eat it.’ My portion of the fried fish went into the garbage, but my husband valiantly finished his. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind. I scooped out the discarded fish packet from the garbage bin. The printed label was still in tact. I opened my laptop, determined to unravel the mystery of the tough fish, and I typed out the letters from the label on Google translate: German to English.
The Internet was fast and the words that stared at me on the computer screen were ‘swine flesh’. Pork!
I have no religious discrimination against meat, but the very idea that I took a bite of something that I am not comfortable eating, repelled me. I was in no mood to experiment with food for the rest of the stay and my dear husband dreaded the idea of surviving on salads for the next three days.
As we went on a long walk that evening, he pointed at a Chinese restaurant with pictures of several dishes on the glass window, and said, ‘Let us have dinner here.’ He knew of my fondness for Chinese cuisine.
‘No way!’ I was vehement. I was not taking any chances.
He did not persist, but was somewhat lost in thought, as we returned to our apartment and sipped some tea. Suddenly his face brightened and he took out a white sheet of paper from his bag. The next few minutes saw him hunched at the dining table, while I checked my mail and Skyped our daughters.
Later that evening, he again suggested that we try out the Chinese place and somewhat confidently assured that I would have no problems. I was still apprehensive. Even the Chinese did not speak English in Bad Neuenahr. But more out of sympathy for him, I agreed. Before stepping out, I made sure that there was some emergency backup for me in the fridge.
At the Chinese restaurant, I took a corner table while my husband went to the owner at the cash counter. I saw him show the owner the piece of paper he was working on at the apartment. The owner looked bewildered and then he burst into a loud guffaw. Immediately, he called someone out in Chinese, most probably his wife, who doubled as a cook, and showed her the paper. The same bewilderment crossed her face followed by a big smile and a nod. My husband came back to join me at the table.
Soon the food came. I gingerly took one forkful and knew that there was nothing to be suspicious about. What followed were some appetizing prawn-fried noodles and spicy chilly fish.
‘How did you manage that?’ I asked my husband in surprise.
He took out the same sheet of paper that he was working on in the evening and had just shown the owner and his wife. On it, he had managed to draw what looked like a cow, a pig, a lamb, and a chicken and there were bold crosses on top of each. Then there was a picture of a fish and a prawn that looked more like a lobster. These two had big tick marks next to them.
Now I started laughing; the picture indeed was worth a thousand words.