A Trip to Baden-Baden

Last week I spent a few days in Baden-Baden, a German town so bath-like they say so twice. The springs there have been known since Roman times and nowadays one can visit the Friedrichsbad bathhouse, which is a classic 19th century building containing pools of various temperatures which I assume are similar to the Széchenyi baths I went to in Budapest.  Alternatively, you could do what I did and go to the much more modern Caracalla Therme complex, which is fantastic.

I’d not been to one quite like it before. What made this one different is it had dozens of jets, waterfalls, currents, bubbles, and baths which all did different things. There was a row of seats which blasted bubbles around your lower back; there were powerful underwater jets which could massage your legs, glutes, and back; there were fixed hoses which would massage your neck, shoulders and upper back, and waterfalls which would do the same thing. Somebody had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how much water to send where and at what pressure, or how much to fall from which height, to allow you to get a proper massage without it stripping skin or killing you. There were also several jacuzzis of various temperatures, and each was set on a time-cycle: half were switched off for ten-minute intervals while the other half worked, then they swapped over. This was to stop people hogging the things all day. All you had to do was sit in something that wasn’t working and wait for it to start. There were also steam rooms, saunas, solariums, and a half-decent cafe (although the whole place was alcohol-free).

One amusing point is the upper floor is a compulsory nudist area, i.e. no bathing suits are allowed. For anyone rushing to book tickets with hopes of sharing a hot tub with a naked Maria Sharapova and two of her closest friends, I must warn that you’re more likely to be rubbing up against fat Germans the wrong side of sixty who don’t know their way around a Bic razor. I didn’t hang about in there long, but I spent three hours in the main complex one day and five the next: it was good for my bad back.

Something else I found interesting was the designers’ estimations of their clients’ intelligence. They had arranged three identical water fountains in the foyer as per the photo below:

The little sign on the nozzle on the two end fountains was like this:

But the sign on the one in the middle was like this:

Only in Germany would somebody install three identical fountains, make Nos. 1 and 3 dispense drinking water and the one in the middle non-drinkable, and rely on people reading signs to differentiate between them. Anywhere else in the world and they’d have to put the fountains on different floors. Inevitably, somebody told me that non-Germans (meaning, Russians) often end up drinking from the middle fountain. Nevertheless, the baths are well worth a visit: clean, accessible, and very well organised.

Germany is still an odd place, though. One evening I went with my friends to buy copious quantities of alcohol from a supermarket to drink in the apartment we’d rented. We arrived at about 9:45pm and the place closed at 10pm. For some reason I faffed about and by the time I got to the checkout it was 9:55pm and there was a large queue in front of me. For reasons known only to the people running the place, there was only one checkout working and three supermarket staff watching. As I moved along, the Germans in front of me started pointing to the bottle I’d placed on the conveyor belt and saying things like “Nein! Nein!” I couldn’t work it out until I saw the woman on the till frantically shoving the bottles of the customers in front over the scanner. Apparently once the clock on the till passes 10pm it’s not possible to buy alcohol. By the time my turn came it was about 10:02 and the bottle wouldn’t scan. The woman harangued me in German for a full minute, which I utterly ignored as if she were talking to somebody else about her dog: there was no point in arguing and I wasn’t interested in her explanations. I got the last laugh though: my bill came to €10.01 and I handed her a €20 note. She asked me if I had a cent and I said no, even though I did. Flexibility works both ways: you help me, and I’ll help you. After some huffing and puffing she gave me a €10 note in change. I left hoping she’ll be shot in the morning for that missing pfennig.

I wasn’t bothered about not being able to buy the booze, I had plenty of it already and my friends had gotten through ze German till with ein minute to spare. But it did highlight the difference between France and Germany. In France they’d have found a way to get around this restriction, one way or another. Either they’d have fiddled with the till or they’d have got a supervisor to override the block, or something. But they’d not tell a customer they couldn’t buy drink because the till said it was too late.

There were other reminders that I was in Germany, too. Last time I went was in 2012 and I thought the food was good but then I was living in Nigeria. Alas, this time around I found the food bloody awful: grey sausage on a bed of sauerkraut sitting in watery gravy. That’s what three years in France does to a person, it renders them unable to eat practically anywhere else. In one place I ordered a dish which came with two very small pork chops, which I found hiding under some cabbage. Halfway through the meal the waitress came over with a small bowl, like the kind you put sugar in, containing another two pork pieces. She said “These are for your meal,” and walked off. I dumped them on my plate and carried on eating. I was sat with a Frenchman at the time and I asked him if he could imagine this happening in a French restaurant, a chef forgetting to add half the meat and sending it out in a bowl later. He couldn’t, and neither could I.

The beer was good though, and cheap. Some things never change.

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23 thoughts on “A Trip to Baden-Baden

  1. First time I have heard of this place. I also found the general service level and tucker there very disappointing relative to other areas of Europe. Rubbish coffee and rubbish wine as well.

    Try checking in/out of a hotel when you have multiple bookings, different names and different credit cards from check in to check out, with a very keen trainee manager thrown in, cue John Cleese.

  2. There seems to be a thermal spa in or near every Austrian skiing hamlet (with jets, jacuzzis, waterfalls, infrared cabins) although most are probably less modern or versatile than this Baden-Baden complex (no wonder: Baden-Baden has been famous since, I imagine, the reign of the emperor Caracalla). I can’t recall nudist areas outside the sauna though. The food is always decent in rural Austria. By the way, the food in Savoy, the principal skiing region in France, is mostly regional rather than French – cheese and potatoes above all.

  3. The food is always decent in rural Austria. By the way, the food in Savoy, the principal skiing region in France, is mostly regional rather than French – cheese and potatoes above all.

    As somebody who has adopted the Haute Savoie as a home (insofar as I have one), I am well aware of that (restaurants in Annecy push the Swiss/Alpine theme for all it’s worth). But every region of France is the same, there isn’t really such a thing as “French food” other than a handful of dishes which can be found everywhere. And the beauty of French cooking is not so much the ingredients but what they do with them: they can get potatoes and cheese to taste better than anyone else can.

  4. Had that experience visiting Toronto many years ago. Rushed into the off license just on closing time and a big policeman standing by the till told me basically to get on my bike. As I was living in Mexico at the time where these things were negotiable I tried to reason with him. On reflection I suppose I was lucky to avoid jail.

  5. The booze thing is odd because licensing in Germany is pretty relaxed. I’d have been far less surprised if they had refused to ring anything through the till and thrown you out empty-handed.

    That said, like in the USA, the Deep South is different.

    There is a simple secret to French food. And that is: butter, salt, and more butter. And then some more butter.

    And that onion/bay/clove thing thrown in bechamel while it’s reducing.

    In Austria, the service station at Wels is worth a trip in its own right. The place should have a Michelin star. It’s rumored that Little Chef committed suicide after a visit.

  6. You don’t need to live in France to consider sauerkraut bloody awful. My wife is Polish and once a year her parents come for a month to spend time with their grandson. They’re nice enough but speak no English and my Polish isn’t anywhere near good enough to converse with them beyond “I’m going to work” or “have a nice day”. (Also I completely refuse to adopt what I call the Servile Third Person when addressing them, as is common (at least in my wife’s family) when addressing a member of an older generation, such that instead of talking to them (in the second person), I’m supposed to talk about them while addressing my remarks in their general direction. Since they would never invite me to use their names, and I’m fucked if I’m going to call them Mum and Dad as is, astonishingly, still the norm, this leaves me with only the option of using Pan and Pani (Mr and Mrs) to address them. So if I wanted to offer my father-in-law a beer one evening, I couldn’t say, “Chcesz piwko? – Would you like a beer?” I would have to say, “Chce Pan piwko? – Would Mr like a beer?” So generally I trade on my ignorance, address them occasionally in the second person, all happy-daft like, and otherwise get my wife to translate for me. Anyway, back to the point.) One year they arrived and the same day made a jaunt to the local Polish shop to stock up on their awful sausages and oversmoked ham and bland cheese and what have you (I do very much like their breaded pork cutlet, schabowy, I have to say, but otherwise … no). My mother-in-law planned to make a job lot of bigos, an extravagantly hideous confection of pork and sauerkraut which my father-in-law will sometimes eat for breakfast (and whose appalling odour has the effect of obviating the requirement of preparing anything for myself). I returned from whatever I’d been doing later that day and immediately had the powerful sense that there was a putrefying rodent somewhere in the kitchen. I was genuinely inspecting cupboards and pulling out furniture when I spied the culprit: a 5kg tub of sauerkraut under the table. It is utterly beyond me that people can touch the stuff.

  7. Also I completely refuse to adopt what I call the Servile Third Person when addressing them, as is common (at least in my wife’s family) when addressing a member of an older generation

    Heh! That reminds me of the time when I first went to Russia, rented an apartment, and threw a party for this girl I was seeing and her entire family. She told me I ought to use the polite form “vi” with her mother instead of the familiar “ti”, to which I replied if it’s my party and I’m paying for everything then anyone in attendance had better be on familiar terms. If not, they are free to leave.

    Anyone I’ve met since has quickly told me to use “ti”, regardless of their age.

  8. I would be perfectly happy to use a formal second person. Many languages have such a feature, including French, German, Spanish and, as you say (though I didn’t know) Russian. There doesn’t seem to be such a feature in Polish: it’s either the second person for friends or the third person for strangers. Shop workers will use the third person (What can I do for Madam? … Would Sir prefer Marlboro or Camel? etc), and it reminds me most strongly of excessively smarmy waiters, hence my name for it. I just can’t get my head round the idea of talking about someone, but to their face (by the same token, my wife is completely unable to address her mother-in-law by name, despite having been invited to do so on innumberable occasions. With her father-in-law it’s not a problem, because he’s my stepfather and I have always called him by name (whereas in Poland I should probably have to call him Dad)). My wife is teaching our son to address her like this, mainly I think out of fear of not coming up to scratch in her parents’ eyes. Meanwhile other Poles of my wife’s generation are baffled that some people still do this, and I have noted with relief that, for example, Polish translations of kids’ cartoon such as Peppa Pig do not observe this rule: in Polish, Peppa addresses Daddy Pig in the second person. So at least my son will understand that it is not normal. 🙂

  9. Bardon – I disagree with you especially in the south, German wine is very fassible, and I like German coffee better than Italian (heresy!)

    Also their bread is the best in Europe, run a close second of course by the French.

    I’ve found in general that with a little care and luck, one can eat pretty well, but there are plenty of places where it is possible to eat badly, Tim is quite right, and in Germany generally, over the course of my last few visits, I have noticed a general decline in the high standards of cleanliness, order and efficiency that were the rule when I lived there for a year or so back in the very late 80s.

  10. And a comment about addressing your elders and betters in curious ways – In every single country I have been and I have learned to a reasonable conversational level their language, there are different ways to address different categories of person.

    It seems strange to us brits that two middle aged Germans who have worked closely together for 20 years still address each other using the Sie form and Herr x & Herr y.

    Equally when I moved to France to work in a recently acquired family company it was, not quite frustrating, but you felt excluded that all the other senior management (almost) who were on tu and first name terms but I and one other fellow were very much vous, although in my case it was first name and vous.

    In Barcelona the use of tu is almost but not quite universal, possibly a remnant of the civil war (but then as a non catalan speaker only castilian, I was an outsider anyway) but a lot of people seemed to lament the declining use of usted and I came to feel the same way.

    In short each place has its own way of speaking its language, and it behoves us in my view to speak their language as far as possible. Just as a matter of courtesy.

    And it is almost my view that one will acquire more respect that way than trying to impose your own notions of how their language is to be used and spoken.

  11. Bloke In Italy, I take your point but I feel that it cuts both ways, particularly since I feel quite happy about challenging your use of “elders and betters” (I do not feel that the one necessarily implies the other, and prefer to show my respect for those I consider my betters in other ways than empty linguistic constructions – or contortions, as the case may be). In the case I am referring to, they have come here to the UK. Why doesn’t it behove them to relax their gerontocratic ways and try to relate to their son-in-law as a equal as he approaches his fifth decade?

    And as I said I don’t mind using formal constructions; but from the point of view of linguistic precision I can’t bring myself to address someone in the third person, especially because a) I can’t use their names; b) I won’t pretend they’re my parents and c) it seems ridiculous to use Mr/Mrs: therefore I have no means of addressing them in the third person anyway.

  12. re drinking, I remember visiting Jersey sometime in the 1970s and there was no drinking up time (which we hadn’t realised). So we bought pints at a few minutes to 10, and a few minutes later had to drink them, discard them or had them taken away. Time was up.

  13. So we bought pints at a few minutes to 10, and a few minutes later had to drink them, discard them or had them taken away.

    I do hope you drank them!

  14. It was a standing joke that Edouard Balladur would vouz voyez jhs wife even while they were fucking.
    Also a collaborator of Mitterand asked him if could use the familair tu.
    The shit’s response was “Si vous voulez”

  15. Tim – Perhaps the distinction between the haute-classique-nouvelle cuisine tradition and the assorted provincial cuisines of France has disappeared completely. I still have difficulty calling Savoyard cuisine French rather than Alpine and doubt it’s superior to its Italian counterparts across the border in Aosta and Piedmont.

    Novus – Germans and Americans tend to overdo their sauerkraut so it becomes brown and soft instead of almost white and crisp.

  16. Perhaps the distinction between the haute-classique-nouvelle cuisine tradition and the assorted provincial cuisines of France has disappeared completely.

    It might not have: don’t take my word for any of this.

    I still have difficulty calling Savoyard cuisine French rather than Alpine

    I think the French would agree with you! If you want to get into a long and lively discussion, bring up the subject of “proper” French food among a group of French. They could talk about it for hours, and they do.

  17. It was a standing joke that Edouard Balladur would vouz voyez jhs wife even while they were fucking.

    I read an anecdote once about a young man who was fucking an older, married Frenchwoman. He asked if he could call her “tu” and she said no, it would be disrespectful to her husband! Ah, the French!

  18. I read an anecdote once about a young man who was fucking an older, married Frenchwoman

    Another Macron anecdote?

  19. Going of sex for a bit (soon back on) but isn’t sauerkraut orginally Alsacian?

  20. Another Macron anecdote?

    Ooh, asking him if he addresses his wife as “vous” would be an excellent question for an impertinent journalist. Do they have them in France?

  21. Legend has it that when Camilla was introduced to Charles she remarked that her great grandmother had been one of his ancestor’s prostitutes. “How about it?”

    Social mobility is a great thing, she’ll make a better consort thatn that dimwit the family insisted on.

  22. Hi Novus

    Well my use of the phrase elders and betters was deliberately tongue in cheek. But reading the rest of your post I think you actually missed my point.

    But it doesn’t matter.

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