We were already onto our second bottle of wine when the fight broke out.
My sister-in-law said the Negerküsse – “negro kisses” that is – tasted really fresh. I cringed and said I preferred the nomenclature used by my German friends for the sweet made of chocolate-covered sugar fluff: Schokokuss, or chocolate kiss.
As a former East German, my sister-in-law opined her whole childhood had been wiped away by insensitive Wessis the moment the Berlin Wall fell. And, she told us loudly, she would not now have one of her favourite childhood treats renamed because of spineless political correctness from some Yankee interloper.
Admittedly, the German Neger isn't linguistically identical to the English N-word, but I just wanted to drink my wine and not have to listen to her waxing poetic about how delicious the “darkie kisses” were while growing up in her non-racial socialist utopia.
The dispute about commie chocolate-covered marshmallows quickly lurched towards US slavery, the Third Reich and Apartheid. It ended an hour later with me declaring her uninformed and her steaming mad at me. My wife and her brother had been all but silent during the argument, and we agreed we should all go to bed – especially since we'd also run out of wine.
This was just the first evening of a three-day visit to what a friend of mine refers to as “Dunkel Deutschland” – how Wessis once derogatorily referred to eastern Germany. But the term has since come to refer to the “dark” interior of the country that is the equivalent of the “Flyover Territory” in the middle of the United States.
This is the part of Germany that finds Stefan Raab's brand of humour hilarious, the Bild newspaper's polemic is considered spot on “analysis” and jaywalking is tantamount to paedophilia. It's a place where people diet by substituting butter with margarine, rather than removing or replacing generous helpings of pork at every meal.
Though I have great admiration for my adopted home of more than a decade, nowhere do I feel more of a foreigner than in my wife's childhood village. These trips are part of our marital cultural exchange – at least once a year I drag her to forgotten parts of the Midwest where Fox News is always blaring in the living room and the current US president is considered “uppity.” And so, as part of that nuptial bargain, I had come along on an autumn vacation for our kids to see their grandparents, cousins and other relatives like their Negerkuss-loving aunt.
The next day we left my brother- and sister-in-law behind to visit my wife's grandmother, who shares a house with her son and family. Barely out of the car, my wife's uncle said he and her cousin were taking me to the town's Gaststätte, or pub, for a bit of Frühschoppen, a euphemism for boozing early in the day. I was nervous about leaving the safety of my wife's vicinity, but am also loath to turn down a beer, so off we went.
The pub is named after the family that runs it and I'd been to its party hall for buffets at various occasions – communions, birthdays and even a wedding. I'd been through the wood-panelled bar but had never stopped for a cup. On that day, I didn't even have to order. The barkeeper tallied up the number of men coming through the door and quickly plopped down what I learned is a Männergedeck, a man's table setting of a beer and a shot of schnapps.
Occasionally, my hosts would pay for a round and then deposit the change in tiny piggy banks nailed to the wall with the Sparkassen logo painted on the front. I was told the banks are opened at Christmas for presents for the family by keeping patrons from spending all their cash on booze.
Another oddity awaited in the men's room. It looked like a wide-mouth urinal. I didn't dare ask. A German friend would later tell me it's what's known as a Papst, or Pope. It's for praying to the porcelain pontiff when you've had one too many. I might have gotten to try it had my hosts not suddenly announced it was time to go home for lunch – and more beer. I had a nice nap as my wife piloted us home later.
The next afternoon was my mother-in-law's 60th birthday party. The focus was a card table piled high with confectionary masterpieces – the kind of cakes I didn't know anyone even knew how to create anymore. Whipped cream. Cherries. Chocolate. Baroque dairy flourishes I can't even describe. My wife laughed when I asked where they bought them all.
“All the guests made them,” she said.
My mother-in-law began carving the cakes with skill and reverence, handing out perfect triangles of sugary joy. An elderly woman with hair the colour of an Irish Setter suddenly drew everyone's attention.
“Oh heavens!” she said. “Who made this Negerkuss cake? It's delicious!”
My sister-in-law quickly raised her hand proudly. “I did,” she said, grinning over at me with her head cocked sideways in glee. There was nothing for me to do but ask for a piece of my own.
Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.