He appeared at the open door of the restaurant as we studied the menu posted in the window. He was dressed in lederhosen, sported a neatly trimmed beard and was clutching a packet of cigarettes and a cell-phone. We had been in Germany only for a few hours and here we were faced with what appeared to be a caricature of the place. I have been to Berlin a few times but I now began to wonder whether Berlin really is part of Germany - in the same sense that I had previously concluded New York is not representative of the U.S.A. nor London of the U.K.
He identified us as English-speaking foreigners, made himself known as the owner of the restaurant and tried to tempt us inside by explaining the menu in our own language. While we two adults feigned polite interest our 14 year-old charge (on whom we were later to rely as our translator, since he had studied one term of German at school) could barely conceal his disbelief at the utter lack of cool embodied in the sight of an adult dressed in what appeared to be the costume of a young boy playing a walk-on part in ‘The Sound of Music’.
Earlier that day we had driven, as a family group of seven, across the invisible border from Belgium. We had stopped for lunch in a picturesque town square where we ate schnitzle (the only word on the menu which we understood) and paid in cash - the credit card machine being broken. Now, after a lengthy walk through the forest, it was time for us to choose a place to have dinner. We peered into the gloomy interior, uninspired by the menu, and walked away leaving the caricature to light his smoke and make a phone call. Following the bend in the river we found ourselves suddenly deep into the ancient, perfectly preserved tourist town of Monschau. It looked like the kind of place where lederhosen might be de riguer and the Pied Piper could be expected to appear from a side-street.
In Belgium we had been accustomed to choose from a plethora of establishments offering the whole range of dining experiences from chips to haute cuisine. In Monschau, however, our inspection of the menus displayed outside the numerous hotels and restaurants revealed a uniform offering of thick slices of meat served with potatoes - one exception being an establishment with a speciality menu comprising exclusively spargle, the seasonal delight known to us as asparagus. Spargle as a dessert held no appeal beyond plain curiosity so, with hunger pressing and there being no perceptible difference in menus, we eventually chose a venue simply by its visual aesthetic.
I enjoyed a particularly fine glass of chilled Moselle as an aperitif. It was not so easy to find good red wine to match the thick slice of steak - nevertheless we sated our hunger and proffered credit cards only to be told by the unflinching maitre de that the card machine was “broken”. A trip to the cash dispenser, one last look around the Disney film-set and we drove the few kilometres back to our accommodation for the night. Next morning the buffet breakfast offered more choice than all of the dinner menus of the previous night combined though, when we came to settle the bill, we were not surprised to discover that the credit card machine was not working.
Later that day, at a restaurant back in Belgium, I asked my host why there was none of that wonderful Moselle on the wine list. He explained convincingly that, having “invited” themselves across the border twice during the 20th century, neither the Germans nor their produce were very welcome even now. As we paid - with credit cards - and made our way home I was left to reflect that any misgivings I might have regarding cultural diversity being eradicated by the European Union could safely be discounted.