The first time I had a real pretzel was in Berlin and it was the first time I saw real snow. I had heard about cold weather but on this day I could feeling it digging into my skin as I desperately looked for warmth. While I was in college, I joined the debate team due to the prompting by a friend. I took to all the extra curricular activities to make the day to day of engineering school more bearable. I was quite confused by all the stuff that the liberal arts department chose to be activities. They all seemed a bit too open minded and unnecessary. I guess the joke is on me now because I have grown to love history, anthropology and psychology. I guess at the time my scientific brain was struggling to comprehend those concepts.
I was not particularly fond of debate but I seemed to find a place being a judge. In the British Parliamentary (BP) style of debate there were those for or against a motion and judges. I rather liked how spontaneous the whole process was. A motion is announced and you have a few moments to form your argument and then the debate begins. I typically loved the last half of the debate process because it started to reveal who the clear winner was going to be. Exploring that curiosity led to going to the Worlds Debate tournament in Berlin in 2013 as an adjudicator (judge). I however have to rewind to tell the story about the first real pretzel I ever had.
Before getting to Berlin, a few members of the travel group decided to spend some days in Paris. Looking back, my complicated relationship with aeroport Charles de Gaulle started at this time. For factors beyond my control I was forced to miss my flight and by the time I arrived in Berlin for my connecting flight to Paris, I realized it was not rebooked. I tried to contact my friends who were already in Paris but I was not able to contact them through numerous BBM messages that just did not deliver. When I finally got in contact, the only concrete solution was to take a train from Berlin to Paris. At the time I did not know that was possible. My love for trains and tunnels started on that trip.
I got broken instructions at the airport that let me know to get on a free bus that would take me to a train station. It is probably relevant to mention that at this point, I had never been truly cold and it was the beginning of winter in Berlin. Up until that point, I had lived in Florida, Lagos and Doha. The one connecting thread is that those places are always warm to hot. The lowest temperature I knew was 15 celsius but that was only for brief moments. I found my self walking in what I now know to be snow in a t-shirt, hoodie and jeans. It was -1 celsius.
As I stepped out of the airport I felt ice forming on my short 40 step walk to the bus. The only time I had felt that sensation was about 10 years earlier. My parents owned a fried chicken franchise and occasionally we would work in the walk-in refrigerator as we sorted through chicken parts. After about 5 minutes, I would start to feel my extremities tingle as they lost sensation. I felt the same now but it took 2 seconds instead of 5 minutes. I looked up to see small icicles forming on the edge of the roof. I looked off in the distance to see what I could only describe as white moving fog against a black backdrop as the sun had not yet risen. My breath condensed in front of me.
I arrived at a huge building with a sign that read DB Hauptbahnhof. I found my self walking in what I now know to be snow. It crunched beneath my feet and I slipped a few times as I walked. The building seemed far too big to be the place I was going to, but in the 2 minute walk from the bus stop to the building I felt by body going numb and I had to go in. I started asking around for a place to buy train tickets. After many failures, I was instructed to up, down and then up again. I later found out that there were different companies in the building selling tickets. The sun was also just rising and many offices were not yet open. I saw signs that had “s”, “u”, “ice”, “m” and “re”. I still do not know what those things mean. I later found out that from that station, you could go to most places in Europe and the layout was quite tricky. All I knew at the time was that I was lost in a Berlin train station and trying to get to Paris.
I finally arrived at another office somewhere upstairs to ask for a ticket and shockingly it was the right one. I was also extra happy that there were a few people who spoke good enough English to explain to me where I was and what I needed to do. I only had a little bit of cash on me for the whole trip and unfortunately I needed most of it for the train ticket. I settled for the later ticket around 6 hours later because it was cheaper. I bought it hoping that my friends would spot me for the rest of Paris. After all we had already paid for most of the activities ahead of time.
Luggage in hand, I went to the McDonalds hoping for free WiFi to let my friends know my itinerary. I had come to learn that my phone was not going to work and I had to prep my directions ahead of time. I preloaded the map of Paris and the location of the hotel just in case I did not find them. I took down notes of the directions one after the other incase the battery ran out. In those moments, I was happy I borrowed an iPod touch from a friend just before we departed to take pictures. It saved me.
I had never been that cold in my life. I was confused to see people in less clothing than I had casually standing around as if it were summer. At this point, I was quite hungry and the realization of another 20 hours of traveling ahead of me sunk in. I had about 5 Euros and some coins left on me and I was hungry. I remembered seeing a bakery earlier and I made my way towards it. I scanned everything they had and weighed my options. The 5 euros could only get me a huge pretzel and loaf of bread from this Berlin train station bakery. That is what I ate for the next 20 hours.
The thing that drew me in to the pretzel was the color. It looked brown with white streaks that looked like stretch marks. Previously I had only seen harmoniously brown pretzels with cuts that revealed their white interior. These streaks however were spontaneous. They seemed to rip through the surface of the bread. I had to try it. The taste however was different. The dough was chewy yet salty but firm at the same time. It was completely different from an auntie annes or a cripy snyder’s pretzel. It was beautifully uneven. There were thicker parts and thinner parts that gave different layers to the experience. I did not get the opportunity to find out what a real German pretzel was or if this was a Berlin pretzel. Perhaps there was a Berlin train station pretzel? Are those even a thing?
The only pretzels that came close, I made almost 7 years after this experience. The whole process was quite exhausting as I made the same recipe over and over for weeks till I got close. For some reason that particular Berlin train station pretzel was hard to replicate. Eating my close replica took me to back to sitting on my luggage in the cold in front of a glowing red heat lamp as I waited for my train. Baking for me is about recreating memories I once had by making food that mimics things that I have eaten.
There were many other things that happened after this moment that cemented my complicated relationship with aeroport Charles de Gaulle and I have since lived in colder places. I have also learned much more about pretzels, and gotten stranded in worse ways. There is something wonderful about the innocence of living life. Stories like this can only happen looking back.
Do you have a travel story that revolves around food? Let me know.