Always Look for a German


Over a couple of decades of international travel I've developed a series of immutable rules. Most of them are already well established among tourists: Don't eat meat that hasn't been cooked "well done," for example, or the admonition—I didn't invent it, Dr. Samuel Johnson did, in the 18th century—to always find out where the next bathroom will be along your route. But one travel principle is unique to me, I believe: "Always look for a German."

How did I stumble on this rule? I was sojourning in the Alentejo, a hilly and sparsely populated region in southern Portugal. I'd just entered one of those hilltop towns with a castle at its apex, which are the area's most popular tourist attractions, apart from the odd Roman or Moorish ruin. It was getting to be lunchtime, and I'd already discovered that, despite the relative poverty of the region, the restaurants were quite expensive, even by New York standards. It was cheaper to dine in taverns, but somehow I didn't feel like going into one of those dark and dank precincts on this sunny winter afternoon. The solution? A picnic in the crumbling Roman baths at the bottom of the hill. Finding a piece of local cheese and a bottle of wine was easy—I just stepped into a convenient corner market.

Oddly, though, the place didn't seem to have any bread, so I went looking for a bakery. After a half hour's wandering along the curvy lanes that circumnavigated the hill—dotted with black-clad women hanging out wash, crouching to grill their husbands' lunch sardines over charcoal braziers—I despaired of finding a source of bread. Suddenly, up ahead I spotted a German tourist with a beard and shaggy hair carrying a delectable-looking baguette over his shoulder like a gun. He was clearly one of those intrepid subsistence travelers that Germany is famous for, practical souls who, immediately upon entering a town, usually by public conveyance, determine all the practicalities of place as a first order of business. I sprinted to catch up with him, and, in pidgin German I'd learned as a school kid in Minneapolis, asked him where he got the bread, saying something lame like, "Bitte, wo findst du das Brot, bruder?"

With great gravitas, he conducted me to the anonymous-looking door of a vast bakery built into the hillside run by women of the village. It turned out that the region's bread was produced only at cooperatives, one per town, and not sold in stores, but only at the communal oven where the loaves were baked. He'd managed to figure this out, despite not knowing Portuguese. From that point on in my vacation, and later in northern Italy, whenever I needed to find bread, or a cheap place to buy film or do my laundry, I took to following my own advice: Always look for a German.

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