It was my first day at the client site in Frankfurt and I found myself staring at the delectable looking spread in the cafeteria – salads and cold food on one side, entrees and main course on the other side of the L-shaped setting. There was just one problem. It was hard to find a substantial (read protein rich) vegetarian fare. I settled for a veg. salad, mashed potatoes and would later pick some flavored yogurt. You sensed it. This makes way for a teary piece on limited food options. Well almost… As I stood with the food tray in the queue, waiting to be billed, a friendly voice piped in. “Why don’t you try the delicious fish over there?” pointing to a far off corner.” It was not difficult to guess he was the kitchen staff. I began to say something, when he quipped with a sudden insight, “Are you a vegetarian?” in an unmistakable German accent. “Yes, but I don’t mind eggs”, I replied. Thus began a wonderful bond.
I wasn’t carrying the quintessential pressure cooker during this travel and I solely relied on the office cafeteria for lunch. Every now and then, the new found friend would come running as soon as he spotted me in the cafeteria exclaiming that there was something extra or delicious in the veg./egg section. On the second day, when he got me the egg-tomato salad, peppered with herbs, I would be on its lookout twice to thrice every week. Another time, he excitedly pointed that there were three options in the vegetarian section. I looked at the items with amusement but not wanting to dim his enthusiasm I politely served myself a helping each – fries, mashed potatoes and peas-potato patties! Some days I got to pile my plate with stir fried veggies, sweated in mildly flavored sauce, diligently balanced with the bread placed on one side. I would savor it until the last drop of the sauce, and polishing it off with the bread..
The rest of the kitchen fraternity relied on the Good Samaritan to describe the culinary delight since he was the only English speaking cooking staff. My heart did a somersault when one day he asked if I liked pasta! While I sat relishing its taste in a nice creamy sauce, he came to check if I was enjoying the meal and then proceed with imminent pride to narrate all that went into its making. As he struggled with limited vocabulary, his eyes would light up as I supplied him the words in English.
A few days ahead of my travel to Frankfurt, well-wishers warned about how the people including the non-natives can be unfriendly and cold. I came back to tell them how wrong they were. During the last two weeks of my stay I moved into a B&B hotel. The breakfast was the regular buffet with cereals, juice, hot beverage, fruits, toast and eggs. He must have been in his early 50s and went about managing the breakfast service in a calm and unruffled manner. Even during peak hours made sure everything was in order, going inside the kitchen only occasionally to fetch refills or rustle up omelets. One Saturday morning, when sensing that I was in no hurry to catch the train to work, he struck up a polite conversation. A migrant from Pakistan, he was happy to have the company of a native Hindi speaker though most of the conversation happened in English. He went into the kitchen and came back with not just a fluffy piece of omelets but with a generous touch of tomatoes and onions. “People here just prefer with cheese and pepper or have it scrambled, but I thought you might appreciate the little desi flavor.” I was touched to say the least and overwhelmed when he said he stocked the tomatoes and onions just for today so that he could whip up the desi version. I later got him a bar of chocolate which he politely refused. Breakfast during the weekends stretched to an hour, where he talked of his family back home and how he saved up for his annual visit and has been doing so for the last 30 years. He willingly let me take a peek into his tiny kitchen and practiced smattering of German while he concentrated on the omelets. He wondered if I was not afraid to be alone in a foreign land and how I managed without speaking the language. In the same breath he assured me that it was safe around this place and shared his number that I could call in event of distress.
After a good start to the weekend I would usually take off to the countryside to explore places around. One mildly drizzling Saturday, hugging the raincoat closer to fend off the wind chill, I set off to my destination with a layover at Munich station. The train ticket came with a lounge facility and while relaxing with a newspaper and coffee I was greeted by a friendly hostess, who happened to a desi too and a second generation migrant. After inquiring in broken dialect, she suggested veg. sandwich for breakfast. It was easy to get croissants and burgers, but not sandwich and that’s the first time I was introduced to open-face sandwich. The bread is open half of a bun, white side up and topped with veggies (usually lettuce and tomatoes) and cheese. By now language and dietary preference, soon became least of my concerns. The last weekend of my stay I took a trip to Rudheisheim a beautiful place nestled in the Rhine valley. During the river cruise I met a wonderful elderly German couple from Stuttgart. We got talking and ordered food from the pantry. While the couple ordered for some short eats, I settled for just the coffee. On some cue, the kind lady produced a small slab of cake from her bag and pressed upon me to finish it!
I didn’t begin this piece on how hard it is to be both a vegetarian and a foodie, and the accompanying downside. Lamenting about it will only diminish the warmth and thoughtfulness that I experienced during my stint. But let me tell you, this tale doesn’t really end here…