Friday, October 31, 2008

Excommunicated Cheddar

Maître Bernard Anthony--eleveur de fromages, cheese pope of southern Alsace, host extraordinaire of Käs-Kaller, and kindred salt lover--doesn't welcome Cheddar into his holy sea of cheese, only the canonical raw milk ones of France, and maybe one or two from Italy. The closest he comes to pardoning English-style cheeses is a yellow, crumbly Cantal, which appeared at the center of one of the four cheese plates Paul, Katie, and I struggled--and failed--to finish last Thursday at Käs-Kaller. I can't remember when the Cantal appeared during our once-in-a-lifetime dining experience; there was just an extraordinary amount of cheese.

This is an entry about too much cheese, not the infallibility of Maître Anthony. It's about being overwhelmed by the occasion and not being appropriately reverent. It's about not being able to be counted among the faithful. It's about my humble status as a lay cheese lover.

Back in early September, when I was still in New York City and had not yet left my job to go on a great Cheddar adventure, Paul sent an e-mail, asking his wife Katie and me whether we would like a reservation at Käs-Kaller (42 EUR plus beverages) during my stay with them in Basel in October. With the dismally weak dollar, the price seemed quite steep, especially on my limited travel budget, but I gave Paul the go-ahead. The hilarious Babblefish-translated description of Bernard Anthony as the cheese pope was enough to persuade me, even though I had never heard of him--mirable dictu. Who can deny the cheese pope? Considering myself part of the cheese faithful, I certainly couldn't.

We three had no idea what to expect at this dinner. It was a given that there would be a lot cheese, but beyond that, we didn't give it much thought. We were willing to give ourselves over to Maître Anthony and his cérémonie de fromages. Katie and I got a bit worried, however, on the day of the cérémonie. Paul's former assistant, affectionately referred to as the Butler, sent Paul an e-mail, which he forwarded to us, with the specific details about the reservation. The Butler advised that "The tasting of cheeses comes with a few accouterments (potatoes, bread), however, is not a traditional soup-salad-main course-dessert meal, although it is absolutely possible to have cheese for hors-d'oeuvre-premier plat-dessert." He went on to wish us a "world of savors." It hit us: this meal was going to be just cheese. What had we gotten ourselves and stomachs into? And where exactly were we going?

Käs-Kaller wasn't listed in the red Michelin guide to France. This meant a couple of things. One, this unknown place might not be worth all the cheese and the dough, and two, we didn't know how to get there. Katie printed out Mapquest directions on her printer which didn't have enough toner and gave them, as illegible as they were, to me as the navigatrix. We hoped for the best on both counts.

Things didn't go well. The drive from Basel to
Vieux-Ferrette that should have taken us forty minutes (or twenty, according to Souphie on, who extols Käs-Kaller as "the best fromagerie period, wherever in the World") took over an hour and a half. We got lost along the dark country roads of charmless Alsace. It was no one's fault, but as navigatrix, I blamed myself. By the time we had finally arrived in the empty village, forty minutes late for our reservation, and had found our way to Käs-Kaller, thanks to locals at the only restaurant around, my stomach was uncomfortably tense and I was thinking drink, not cheese. You know, to take the edge off....

It was going to take more than a drink to put everyone at ease. To my relief,
Maître Anthony was gracious and didn't show any obvious frustration that we were so late. Looking more like a French version of Grandpa from the TV show The Munsters than a cheesemonger to royalty (Monaco) and the world's finest restaurants (Alain Ducasse's), he showed us into the small restaurant which seats just ten people. Attached to the retail section of his world-class operation, which looks to be carried out in a modest home, the dining room resembled a finished kaller in its first sense, a basement. The white walls had thick wooden detailing, and two of the three tables were placed in corners of the narrow room and had dark benches around them, with backs like picket fences. The unpretentious dining room, with framed photographs of a younger and slimmer M. Anthony, seemed more appropriate for hosting a neighborhood Super Bowl party with buffalo wings and nachos, not the finest cheese in the world (as many believe).

After a very necessary trip to the bathroom, I slipped onto the bench next to Paul, gulped the good, local pinot gris, and started talking much more loudly than Paul felt comfortable with. I can't help it. At the end of the day, I'm a loud American. On top of that, everyone, including the only other diners, a middle-aged German couple, was speaking in the hushed tones of church before the service, and I found this silly in such a simple dining room. We were meant to be relaxed, but no one was. I was just trying to be myself, but this was a no-go. I poured myself some more pinot gris from the extraneous fourth glass and resumed my anxious banter, sotto voce.

With everyone in place (and quieter), M. Anthony presented the first course, a lightly toasted slice of pale brown bread, brushed with olive oil, and topped with a circle of melted cheese, like a poached egg, and a sprinkle of herbes de Provence. I don't what the cheese was, unfortunately. That was the main problem with my fully appreciating audience with the cheese pope. He would say what the cheese was and I would soon forget because there were so many others to keep track of, or I just wouldn't understand him. He was speaking in French, of course, which I don't speak, and he had a funny accent that Paul and Katie had difficulty following. I wish I knew what it was because, for me, it was the most distinctive cheese of the evening. It resembled a slice of Bucheron, but the interior, instead of being chalky, was like warm, milky ricotta. The first course was promising. Maybe the meal wouldn't be all cheese, all the time.

Wrong. The next four courses were just cheese, one-ounce roughly hewn chunks circling the rim of our small, country plates. In all, M. Anthony must have served us about twenty-eight cheeses. The saving graces in this baptism by cheese were the boiled fingerling potatoes from Normandy liberally dusted with fleur de sel, the small plate of butter, also from Normandy, that tasted like caramel and was hard to stay away from, and Katie's stash of paper napkins and large, stylish handbag, into which she surreptiously
placed the cheese we couldn't finish. Moderate Katie could eat no more after the first cheese plate of goats' & sheep's milk cheeses; I gave up after the second plate of cows' milk cheeses, and Paul slowed down after the third one, also cows' milk. Paul and I valiantly ate the two (or was it three?) cheeses on the fourth and final cheese plate, a Munster and something else, and also tucked into a simple, almost freezer-burned crescent of ice cream. To cut through all those thick dairy products in my stomach, I wanted a local kirsch, which was offered to me, but it was too late and I went without.

For the true believers, what I have written must border on blasphemy. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but I just couldn't that evening. Here I was at the temple of cheese, but I couldn't appreciate the microbial miracles before me. There are a few reasons why. First, as mentioned above, there were just too many bloody cheeses! The normal person's
palates can distinguish only so many different tastes at one sitting. At a certain point your tastebuds refuse to work. On top of that, the stomach can comfortably accommodate so much cheese. Eat too much, you feel ill. As the evening progressed, the appropriately modest slices of yellowish cheese on our plates became challenges instead of eagerly anticipated morsels of lactic yummy-ness. Second, I didn't know what I was eating. After he handed each of us our plates, M. Anthony would go around one of them, pointing at and naming the assembly of cheeses, but when he got to where he had started in the circle, he would start going around again, but give the cheeses a different name. That was only part of the problem. Just as our palates and stomachs can handle a limited amout of cheese, our brains can remember only so many names. I wish that we had had a list of all the cheeses served that evening so that I would know exactly what I was eating and trying to appreciate. A pen would have been helpful, too, so that I could write tasting notes on these sheets, if they existed, even if Paul protested in embarassment. As it was, the evening was just a creamy blur of cheese. Third--a confession here--I am not a connoisseur, just an enthusiast. If I were a connoisseur, I would have been able to have eaten all my cheeses and not have Katie wrap them up in napkins and stash away for another day. I would have been able to identify the cheeses and remark out loud--and too loudly--that these were the best cheeses in the world. To me, the uninitiated, I could tell that they were superb specimens of farmhouse cheeses--excellent texture, unblemished rinds (which M. Anthony believes, according to Souphie, are like women's clothing and should come off), desirable and balanced flavors that lingered long in the mouth. But the world's best? I just didn't have the expertise to say. If anything, they were a bit too salty. And that's saying a lot from me, salt-lover that I am. In sum, if I had been served M. Anthony's much-lauded four-year-old comté (which I could have been), I wouldn't have known it, and even if I did, I wouldn't have had the room or knowledge to fully appreciate it. Is this a sin?

I know I've been negative, but I really would like to go back, after I have learned my cheese catechism. My upcoming two-month stint at Neal's Yard Dairy in London, which starts Monday, should help. By January, after eating cheese seven hours a day, five days a week, I should be able to handle an obscene amount of cheese and know better what makes a properly aged farmhouse cheese extraordinary. For now I thank Paul and Katie for their generosity in treating me to a world of savours and for excusing my poor navigating skills and crude American ways.

Until I go back, I am left wondering whether M. Anthony, with his squinty eyes and slight resemblance to my father, is one of my people. Part of my background is Swiss French. I am also wondering whether, with his predilection for salty flavors,
M. Anthony has a salt lick in the kitchen, which he turns to for solace when his American guests show up forty minutes late and his two typically punctual German ones are left waiting for their first course, which he inexplicably must serve at the same time to everyone. It is from them that I should have asked forgiveness. And if I go back, I'm going to get that kirsch!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Quesos Cheddar

In Poland I got the orange version oozing out of pierogi filled and topped with pumpkin seeds. In Germany solid slices of the tangy white stuff were wedged (by me) between slices of dense bread, also topped with pumpkin seeds. What form of Cheddar was waiting for me in Spain?

I was amazed that I found any at all. My first encounter, however, was not a promising one, and it did nothing to prove that Cheddar is the world's favorite cheese. Again, it looked as though the Dutch ones take that prize. Really thirsty from walking around Salamanca all morning long and into the afternoon, I was desperate for some water. Going against what I usually do, I went into a chain store in search of a bottle of water. Usually I would patronize a local shop, but they had all just shut for their siesta and I needed something to drink quick. Inside Carrefour, I tracked down the water, and afterwards checked out the cheeses that were available. There were two sections: the fancy one where someone sliced and weighed decent quality cheeses at your request, and the convenient one with packaged, pre-sliced cheese. To my dismay, Cheddar was only available in the latter section. And what sorry Cheddar it was, deep orange, like the yolks of organic eggs, and dry and flaky, like the corners of my mouth in the wintertime when I don't properly moisturize. In short, gross. The only thing that I found intriguing was that the slices of Cheddar came in two different sizes, the normal square shape like Kraft Singles, but also rectangles. These are meant for baguettes. How ingenious!

The only good thing about my foray into Carrefour was that I was now properly hydrated. But I was fretting about Cheddar. Was I wrong in believing that it's the world's favorite? How could it be when this French chain store, the world's biggest retail group after Wal-Mart, had such slim and grim pickings? This wasn't the case for the other foreign cheeses.

But, lo and behold, I found it at a vineria in Madrid, just when I had stopped looking. It was Saturday night and just before 1 a.m., late for me, but not for Spaniards. I was alone and feeling a bit awkward about it. I probably should have gone directly to bed after seeing "Burn after Reading," but I needed something to eat and it just seemed too pathetic to turn in when the rest of the city was out and about enjoying themselves. It wasn't as though  I had anything urgent to do the next day; I am, after all, unemployed. I had already been to one small bar, where I had a bad glass of rioja and a tosta (see picture for examples of tostas; picture was not taken by me) with honey, a chalky slice of warm goat cheese, and caramelized onions. By the time I got to the vineria, I really didn't need anything more to eat. I couldn't even finish my first tosta; I stashed the second slice in my totebag, a thrifty habit I've been embarrassing myself with during the past four weeks of travel (and most of my life). Needless to say, the tosta freed itself from the napkin which was poorly wrapped around it (by me) and nestled into my Spanish phrase book, now forever stained with an oil mark from the Bucheron. But I am a sucker for trying local foods that I haven't yet had. I was going to get a small fried thing to drink with what I hoped would be a better rioja, as I tried to make myself anonymous at the long zinc bar, but then I spied a tosta with Cheddar, Emmental, and smoked salmon. I felt it my duty to order it, even though images of a fatter me and a thinner wallet put up some resistance. As with the pieorgi in Warsaw, I can't say this dish did anything good for Cheddar. The bread wasn't toasted enough for the the melted cheese and soft fish, and, worse, it was like bad supermarket French bread. Oddly, one half of the toast was orange with Cheddar and the other half was white with Swiss. Having the two cheeses separated reminded me of an open-faced "grilled" cheese sandwich I had late at night at small dinner on Vancouver Island, when Sarah Jay and I arrived too late at the Sooke Harbor House from the ferry to have a world-class meal there. Dinner, instead, was at a log cabin in the damp woods. But I was in Madrid now, and I wondered what the kitchen was up to with this dish. Again, I wondered, Why Cheddar? And now a new question, And why Emmental? By ordering this dish, did I proclaim my Anglo-Saxon roots or did no one think anything about it? For the folks around me--a young, somewhat scruffy bunch for a white-tiled wine bar--perhaps Cheddar was just another foreign cheese.

World-class Cheddar, as it turns out, is available in Madrid at the cool and smart cheese shop, Poncelet, in the tony barrio of Salmanca. They've got both Montgommery's and the Isle of Mull from Scotland. I was so happy to find them. Montgommery's is perhaps my favorite cheeses in the world, and Mull is where I hope to make Cheddar next spring. Montgommery's is so exceptionally good that my host in Madrid, Javier, remembered the name of this cheese, which he sampled at Murray's in London, long after he had forgotten the name Poncelet, where he was told he could buy it. I bought him a modest 100-gram slice as a thank-you present. I hope he goes back to try the Mull.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cheddar Kase

Pumpkins, wheat, apples, ales, and Cheddar. These are the foods I associate with fall, as I wrote in my blog almost a year ago. Not only are they seasonal, but also aesthetically appropriate, their golden hues similar to the warm colors of turning leaves, illuminated by the glow of the autumnal sun.

Berlin  has most of what it takes to make a simple fall lunch. There's no problem, of course, getting beer, especially in the fall, when Oktoberfest is raging down south in Munich. At my favorite Biomarkt in Mitte, and Becca's too, I pick up a brown bottle of Pinkus Special Organic Lager each time I go to the LPG, which is pretty much every day. On the label is a sketch of an old tavern, with men of yore enjoying themselves at rows of wooden tables. The tavern exists in reality and not just in seductive marketing, and Uli can point out where he once sat, savoring a beer of his own, when it was too cool to be outside in a biergarten. As much as I love beer--or any beverage with a kick--the breads are what get me in Berlin. They are so unlike what's commonly available in the States or anywhere else--dense, whole grain loaves and rolls, often topped with nuts or seeds. Some aren't made with wheat, but with spelt instead. Whatever the grain, they are hearty and substantial and certainly colon cleansing. I am particularly drawn to the breads topped with dark green pumpkin seeds, the same color as my hooded, woolen cape that I wear only from October to November. These, in my mind, are the breads for fall.

But where's the Cheddar, the best cheese to go with my bread and ale (ok, a lager)? Unfortunately, it's not easily found. There are plenty of other cheeses on offer, in particular the alpine cheeses of Switzerland and about any cheese from France. At first it didn't bother me that Cheddar is rarely on offer at markets in Berlin, but then I got a bit indignant. Why is Cheddar being ignored? Why isn't it included among the other cheeses of Europe? Unlike those other cheeses, this one is the most popular in the world! It looks, however, like Cheddar has lost the popularity contest in Berlin.

But then on my last night in Berlin, after my trip to Warsaw, where, as I wrote in my earlier post, I ate Cheddar-filled pierogi, I spied some organic Cheddar at the biomarkt. I was picking up some snacks for my plane ride the next morning and at the same time saying goodbye to beer and hearty breads before heading off to Madrid, where, I imagined, I wouldn't be finding my golden-hued foods of fall. In the fancy cheese section was a pale block of organic, farmhouse Cheddar, from the West Country of England, certified Cheddar country, according to the EU's PDO regulations. I bought some, even though I had planned to steal a wedge of the cumin Gouda I had brought Becca and Uli from the Schiphol airport 10 days earlier. It was my duty.

And it was good. It was no Montgomery's Farmhouse Cheddar, but Lye Cross Farm's organic cheese was creamy and sharp, and just what I wanted for my brown rolls, which I ate on the easyJet flight the next day. I didn't have a beer with it--it cost too much on the plane and I was typically dehydrated--but I did have a tart organic apple.

But the day after, on a bus ride from Madrid to Avila, I did feel self-conscious eating a decidedly non-Latin sandwich, made with the leftovers from my purchases at the LPG. I bet I was pegged as a German. But if the Spaniards on the bus only knew that I was eating rolls purchased from two days before, they would identify me as the frugal Brit that I am!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Eastern Bloc of Cheddar

October was to be the Cheddar-less portion of my 10-month Great Cheddar Adventure. Germany, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland have great cheeses, but they don't have Cheddar.

But I ended up having a dish with my cheese of choice in Warsaw on Friday, baked pierogi with Cheddar, mozzarella, tomatoes, and pumpkin seeds. As soon as I heard that there were pierogi with Cheddar somewhere on offer in Warsaw, I had to have them. The place serving up such untraditional Polish fare was a warm and cute little eatery called Pierrogeria, located near one of the gates of the restored barbican in the old city. My friend Dorota took me there. When she was finally done taking care of administrative work at Warsaw University, an hour later than she said she would be done, she gave me the option of a vegetarian restaurant or place for pierogi for lunch. While I appreciate vegetarian restaurants, especially in meat-loving countries like Poland, I seldom frequent them. They're rarely what I am after, and what I was after on my first full day in Warsaw was something Polish and something with Cheddar. Dorota was happy with my choice because she rarely leaves the university area and she welcomed a break from her routine.

I was totally charmed by Pierrogeria. It was perfect for a chilly, grey day. Sitting and waiting for Dortota outside in a courtyard at the university for a hour while reading about how many times Poland was partitioned, I got more chilled than I thought I was. The restaurant warmed me up when I didn't know I needed warming.

Even though Pierrogeria served Polish food, it wasn't an old-school, kitchy place. It was fresh and new, and its light wood details and inventive pierogi signaled something modern and young. A nod to tradition was a humorous one, a wooden carving of a figure with three Easter Island-looking heads. It was Pierogigowid, the Pierogi God.

I can't say, however, that I loved my pierogi z cheddarem, mozzerella, pestkamidyni, pomidorami. The Cheddar wasn't really Cheddar, of course; it was more like melted Cheddar goo. It was all too rich and creamy and the tomatoes didn't provide the balancing acid that they should have. Even though I've been enjoying seasonsal and typical pumpkin seeds during my recent days in Eastern Europe, there were just too many of them in the dish. It was kind of like having trail mix inside your pierogi. I made the concoction even richer by swiping bites of pierogi into a creamy horseradish sauce. There was another vegetarian Chedddar option on the menu, with broccoli. I might go back to try it, but boiled this time instead of baked. And I will definitely have the double mead again. It made everything better!

I am still trying to figure out why Pierrogeria's spins on traditional pierogi used Cheddar and not some other cheese. Mozzarella, also in my dish, makes sense because pizza is popular everywhere these days. But Cheddar? Perhaps it's to make dishes seem international and therefore current. Perhaps it's to appeal to foreigners; there were several tables of them at Pierrogeria that afternoon. Maybe it's the backward migration of food. I just learned (thanks to wikipedia) that in Canada potatoes with Cheddar is a popular filling in pierogi (there's so much to love about Canada!). Polish immigrants to Canada must have made pierogi with what was easily avaiable (viz, Cheddar) and then this dish made its way back to Poland. I should probably ask someone. In the meantime I'll try to get some more Cheddar before I say goodbye to it for another few weeks. Or maybe I'll just relish my Cheddar-free days and eat more fried circles of smoked goat cheese (oscypek Zakopane) with cranberry sauce, washed down with hot beer and fruit syrup. Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Running off the Cheddar

The Berlin Marathon at the end of September is a lot like the New York City Marathon at the beginning of November. They're both large, world-class marathons that fortuitously fall on beautiful Sundays in autumn. The big difference in Berlin is that you don't have to get to friggin' Staten Island for the start!

The Berlin Marathon starts and ends right in the heart of the city, in front of the restored Reichstag. Such a convenient location meant that I didn't have to get up until the civilized hour of 7 a.m. for the 9 a.m. start and that I could take mein bananen and me right there by public transportation. No queuing for a bus at 5 a.m. or worrying about bridge closures was involved, only the U-Bahn 2 (yes, U2!) from Senefelderplatz in Mitte to Potsdamer Platz. It was a bit of walk from there to Platz der Republik, the large, grassy area accessible only to the runners, but it was easy. I wish that I had had my camera to take pictures of my fellow runners walking by the rows of evenly spaced trees with leaves that had already turned completely yellow. On the way to the starting area, I went past other runners peeing at the edge of the Tiergarten (I was soon to join them) and the temporary food stalls set up at the finish, just beyond the Brandenburg Gate. I could have gotten myself a chocolate-covered XXL pretzel or a Red Bull & Coke, but decided that pleasure now would mean pain later. The kuerbiskerne mit kase brotchen (a roll with pumpkin seeds and cheese) I ate on the U-bahn was a better, Teutonic bet, even with the very American peanut butter and honey I glooped onto it.

It's a joke with my running team that I show up at the very last minute to our races. This race was no different. I arrived with just over half an hour to spare, but it was enough time to find where to drop off my bag (though I did get into a bit of panic because my section didn't seem to be where it was on the map of the start/finish area), stretch atop the yellow plastic sack that was given to all the runners, courtesy of adidas, keep warm at the start, drink several cups of wasser in my starting area (there are six areas, based on your time and marathon experience; I had been placed in H, the last group, but I officially negotiated my way to the next group), cheer for Haile Gebrselassie from inside the port-a-john when his name was announced, and get a little teary that I was about to run one of the five major marathons.

I think we were the third or fourth group to start. And it was a majestic start--though not quite the Verrazano Bridge--along Strasse des 17 Juni, the major thoroughfare in the Tiergarten, toward the gilded victory column. Not even five minutes into the race, I stopped to pee in the park again. I suppose that takes away some of the majesty. Even though the New York Times reported that the temperature at the start wasn't even 50 degrees, it felt warm in the glow of the morning sun, but there was definitely an autumnal chill in the air. The scar that I got from running into a mailbox on a training run on the Jersey Shore (I am sure I had the right of way!) was raised and pink on my goose-pimpled arm, but soon the paper cuts on my fingers stung with sweat. I got them when my friend Becca here in Berlin accidentally slipped some documents for my German cell phone into my bag and my plump fingers got in the way.

Of course, more typical pains set in, and much too early. Well before the halfway point, the hamstrings in both my legs got super-tight, and I worried that they would cramp later on. What didn't set in were the pains that I was most fearing, the ones in my right knee and Achilles tendon, the ones that had sidelined me for half a year of running and made me cut back my marathon training in the summer. Throughout the first half of the race, I was anxiously expecting the searing pain in my Achilles to return; it had made me yelp out loud during a training run along the East River in early August. But it never came. But I myself inflicted pain on it later, after the marathon, when I took the preventive measure of icing it, but for too long. I gave myself freezer burn!

All this pain is self-inflicted. I don't have to run. I want to, but I don't have to. And if the pain is too great, I can simply stop. Walking past the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (a name shockingly direct and different from the euphemistic Final Solution that caused it) on the way to the start in the morning and then running by Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirsche, the church bombed during World War II later in the afternoon, put all this into perspective. I would be disappointed if I couldn't complete the marathon, but it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world. There are greater catastrophes. With this in mind, I could do as my teammates urged me to do and just enjoy the experience of running one of the top marathons in the world.

At the halfway point, my hamstrings were tight and I was a bit worried about them, but I was barely huffing and puffing and I felt no other pain. My time was 2.01. If I kept going at this pace, I would finish in just over four hours, which is totally respectable, epecially given my interrupted training, but I knew that I was capable of a faster time on such a flat, forgiving course. I made a decision. I was going to finish under four hours. I told myself, No more walking at the overly crowded water stops. No more talking to friendly Finns. No more peeing behind bushes on the course. Just go! And I did. I got my burly legs in motion and I picked up the pace.

It was an uplifting feeling, and one that I am not sure I had experienced in my other two marathons, to know well into the race that I would finish (unless I had another run-in with a mailbox!). I probably wouldn't have had this confidence if the course had any hills, but it didn't. Initially I thought that the flat course was wasted on me since I was so under-trained and accordingly incapable of a fast time, but in the end I was thankful for it. I knew that once my legs got going, there wasn't much, but a finish line to stop them. From kilometer 24, I counted down the kilometers two at a time, striving to complete the distance in about 11 minutes. If I did that, I was on track for a sub-four-hour marathon. I completed the second 21 kilometers in 1.54, a whopping seven minutes faster than the first 21, and I finished all 42.195 km. in 3.56.49, just 13 seconds slower than my personal record in New York City in 2005. Not bloody bad for someone who lost three weeks of training (out of 16) for a wedding in Montana, an injury, and a fainting spell on the E train in Queens!

My goal wasn't necessarily to finish the marathon in any particular time (though my ultimate goal, I must confess, is to qualify for Boston one day), but to get back into shape. Half a year of not running had taken its toll. I was heavy and slow. At km. 10, I passed Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, the U2 stop close to where I had stayed in Berlin back in March to celebrate my friend Alec's 40th birthday. It was a hedonistic trip. My belly was never empty and my head was rarely sober. I made a plan then to return to Berlin in the fall for the marathon, as a way to get back in shape after months of indulgence and inactivity. Six months later I had lost several pounds, gained muscle, and found my six-pack abs (well, maybe just a fourpack. I didn’t totally give up drinking!). Too bad I am going to lose that four-pack when I start the Cheddar portion of my trip!

For these reasons, Berlin was a happy triumph. I raised my hands with joy and a few tears at the end. I was so proud of myself for finishing and pushing myself during the second half to meet my modest time goal. It was a solitary triumph, however. I had no friends along the route or at the end (Becca had to work that day, cooking brunch for Brangelina and their six kinder). There didn't seem to be any other Americans, either in the crowd or among the runners. But these aren't the days for waving an American flag. It was just the Danes and the rest of the field. I swear, half of Denmark was either running or cheering. I learned later, while waiting for my free massage, that more Danes run the Berlin Marathon than the one in Copenhagen! No one yelled out my name, like they do in New York City, or even commented on my Hellgate singlet. But maybe they feared that with my race number of 6669, I was actually running with the Devil! There were plenty of shout-outs, however, to Wolfgang, Jens, and Bjorn. All this was OK. It was a race for myself, and there was enough of a crowd to keep my energy up and make me feel like a part of something bigger (and very European).

The music and sounds from the spectators along the course were great, except for the guy who made a noise that sounded eerily like an air-raid siren. You don't want to hear that in Berlin! There were an inexplicably large number of samba bands. I love that energetic music and even wasted some of my own precious energy wiggling to it. My favorite music came from a bunch of twentysomethings blaring the menancing industrial sounds of Rammstein from a balcony. Now, that's what I expected in Berlin! I didn't expect, however, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," in Berlin or anywhere else in a marathon. It's not exactly the most uplifting running song. But the oompa band that followed made up for it.

There were also several 70s bands, including some middle-aged Frauen in neon outfits singing to ABBA. The theme of this marathon was celebrating the 70s and the marathon's 35th anniversary. I thought this was strange since I didn't think that the 70s had ever left Eastern Europe! What I think they should have celebrated instead was the participation of women. I don't think 35 years ago, women were allowed to run in the marathon, and today only 7,429 women finished compared with 28,357 men. I can't get over this. Where are you fellow Frauen?

I've run marathons in only two cities, but I think I can safely say that NYC is the best, even if you don't get free beer and a massage afterwards (and you have to get to Staten Island far too early in the morning), but Berlin is great too. I'd like to run here again when I'm in better shape and to nail the 3.45 that I'm after, a time that would be hard for me in NYC. I am still high from the experience and can sum it up with the words of teammate Fast Phil, Wow. Cool.