Two years of free post-evensong dinners three times a week in Exeter Hall did not, it turns out, prepare me well for the real world. Even with all of the other big, scary, new things I’m doing here – like having an actual job and speaking German all day and having to take minutes in meetings (let’s not go there) – summoning the mental energy to think of seven different things to cook every week (and the physical energy to raid the supermarket) still feels like quite a challenge. I may have accidentally bought ‘vegan schnitzel’ (?!) more than once, to my utter dismay, but I’ve just about got the hang of navigating the supermarket now. I particularly like the cheese section, which is HUGE, and I stand in front of it dithering for at least ten minutes each time.
I’d lived alone in my flat for a whole week before any of my flatmates arrived, which was a strange, eery, empty experience. I filled the void first with episodes of Bake Off, and then, inspired, with baking itself. I think I got through about six bags of flour that week, and I had enough cupcakes and biscuits and pizza bases and loaves to feed a family. So every morning that week – my first week of work – when my colleague would ask me how my evening had been, I’d tell her I’d been baking. By about the third day, she was beginning to look at me as if I were a little weird – her expression said, subtly, “seriously, how much do you eat?!” – and so I asked her if she’d ever heard of The Great British Bake Off. If there’s ever been a moment in my life when I’ve realised just how odd our country is, it was right then, as she stared back at me with a look of half bewilderment, half horror, and I rambled on about Mary Berry and technicals and equal distribution of pieces and soggy bottoms. (Four weeks on, the baking has taken a bit of a backseat. The Bake Off, however, certainly hasn’t).
Anyway, having established myself to my colleagues as some sort of strange baking-fanatic, I think I confused them somewhat as we all sat down to eat together in the Gewandhaus canteen in my second week. As anyone who has ever sat anywhere near me at college brunch will know, I have a completely irrational but overwhelming phobia of egg. (For context, just ask Will Hardy about the time he put a pickled egg in my bag of chips…). I’ve learnt over the years that it’s always easier to call it an allergy, just to save the explanation, something I was particularly keen to avoid in German. But a few days in, once I realised just how regular and sociable office cake-breaks were to be, I had to modify my ‘allergy’. I told them it wasn’t too serious; that I could eat egg but just ‘shouldn’t’; that a little cake every now and then wouldn’t harm me. This seemed to wash quite well. But it wasn’t to last. On a particularly bad day for the canteen menu – sometimes there’s real, meaty schnitzel, and it’s divine – I settled for what I really, truly believed was pasta with cream cheese. It didn’t look nice and it didn’t smell nice but I was hungry and it was going to have to do. I ate the first (unpleasant) mouthful and wondered if I’d made a mistake. My colleague looked at me knowingly. “Egg again?” she asked – thinking I was just breaking my rule again, as if the pile of lumpy yellow mess on my plate fell into the same category as glorious cake. Oh god oh god oh god. I felt myself go white and a little bit faint, and I pushed my plate away and almost ran away from the table.
If anything good came out of that horrendous ordeal, it was the fact that my colleagues have taken it upon themselves to mother me a little. I am “die arme, liebe Ella”, all alone in a foreign country, and when I arrive in the office shaking because my bike tyre got caught in the tram line again and I fell into oncoming traffic and grazed my hand, or dripping wet because unlike everyone else in Germany I don’t own a pair of waterproof trousers and I just cycled for twenty minutes in a torrential downpour, they pat me on the arm sympathetically, give me cups of (strange, German) tea, and produce hairdryers from the cupboard so I can dry my jeans a little. The most recent development has been the provision of cakes. Apparently I need some colour in my cheeks (true), and I need fattening up – which I’m sure they wouldn’t be saying if they knew the extent of my rapidly-derailing Kinder bar habit! My favourite of these so far is the Leipziger Lerche, a local speciality.
The original version was a pastry filled with roasted lark meat (‘Lerche’ is German for lark), along with herbs and eggs. (I suppose I wouldn’t have been such a fan). At some point in the 19th century, King Albert I banned the hunting of song birds, and so today’s filling, of crushed almonds and nuts, was introduced as a replacement. There’s also a cherry inside, apparently representing the bird’s heart. And it’s absolutely delicious.
As divine as the almondy, nutty delight that is the Leipziger Lerche may be, there has been one particular culinary highlight so far. As a special treat for Sam’s last night here last week, I booked a table at the restaurant at the top of the MDR-tower. (Going to fun, high-up places is turning into a bit of a recurring thing we do – perhaps nothing will ever quite compare to the absolute feeling of awe at the top of the Rockerfeller Center on choir tour in New York last year, but our sunset treks to the top of the hill in Kefalonia in July were rather wonderful, and I thought I’d continue the theme).
The MDR-tower is particularly exciting because it’s really the only tall building in the whole city, with nothing else even coming close. While it stands out like a (fairly nice) sore thumb from the ground, this makes the view from the top really wonderful. We arrived at the top in time for a sunset glass of wine on the viewing platform. Cycling around Leipzig suggests that it’s rather a mish-mash of old and new, but once you look down on it, it suddenly seems to arrange itself into distinct elegant old parts and concrete communist bits and glossy new builds, with wild green forests winding themselves around and between, and lakes dotted around the edges. As we ate – some of the most exquisite food I’ve ever had, I think – the sun set, and as we left we looked down on a rather dazzling array of street lights and vehicle lights and building lights, making the whole city sparkle.
I’ll leave you with some photos!