Foreign Travel is Risky Business at Times, But So Worth It!

Last August, at the start of another Cheese Journey, I found myself racing to the airport in an NYC cab and feeling a twinge of anxiety about a few of the upcoming unknowns. Trying to reassure myself, I quickly closed my eyes and began thinking about one of my first European adventures. The words of a Canadian traveler began ringing in my ears – acting as a calming reminder.

They took me back to 1990 when John and I were traveling for the first time to Berlin. The Berlin Wall had come down just four months earlier, and East and West Germany were working towards unification. We joined the crowds flocking to Berlin to see first-hand what life had been like for East Berliners.

Even though our Frommer’s guidebook (this is the age of no internet, no cellphones) told us that we needed a separate train ticket to reach Berlin, we took the word of Railroad employees, at two train stations in two different cities, that an extra ticket was not needed and our first class Eurail pass was adequate. Tickets in hand, exhausted, and slightly short on cash, we left Munich on an overnight train to Berlin. We settled into our tight-fitting cabin with a few others, including three French-speaking travelers from Quebec.

Crossing the border at 2 am, the West German officials got off, and East Germans got on. A stern-looking guard came into our cabin. He reviewed our passports and tickets, and began shouting that our Eurail pass was “nicht gut”. Though we didn’t speak German, it was quite easy to understand that he was demanding that we pay him cash for new tickets to Berlin or get off the train! I was overwhelmed with fear and feeling quite alone until I suddenly realized the three Canadians across from us were in the same situation. As they spoke French amongst themselves and German to the guard, I watched them from the corner of my eye, as they reluctantly coughed up the cash for three tickets. By now there was great commotion in the cabin as people watched John and I scrambling to find enough loose change in our carry-on bags, looking for Deutsche Marks, US dollars, anything, to help pay for new tickets. The Canadian family continued to observe our dilemma, and they graciously paid the remainder of the money to the train attendant on our behalf.

John thanked our new found Quebecois friends and promised to pay them after we arrived in Berlin. The Canadian man just smiled, and kindly leaned over to say to me in perfect English, “Did you know, there is a way to avoid this type of problem?” Curious to understand what I did wrong, I asked “Please tell me. How”? He paused and spoke slowly, “Stay home, sit on your couch holding your remote control and simply watch a travel program on TV. But…if you want to really see the world and have amazing adventures, embrace the fact that, despite your best-laid plans, unexpected things can and will happen. Don’t worry, it’s only money and Berlin will be very worth it!”

Just as he promised, that weekend in Berlin became a treasured experience in our life. I got a stamp in my passport at Checkpoint Charlie; I stood in front of the Brandenburg Gates; by the glow from a car’s headlights, I literally chiseled off a piece of the Berlin Wall; I spent a day with friends who described the atmosphere in West Berlin the night the wall came down.

In addition to experiencing amazing historical events of the time, I was introduced to the world of great European foods. I shopped at beautiful outdoor food markets, enjoyed crusty traditional bread from classic bakeries, cooked German-style food with locals, drank award-winning beers and even strolled through KaDeWe, Berlin’s legendary department store with one of the most celebrated food halls in the world.

The place was a food lover’s dream. Growing up in a rural area in the Midwest. I was overwhelmed and intrigued by the hundreds of varieties of cheeses, beautifully arranged – like fine art curated in a world-class museum. As I watched my friends’ young children navigate this gourmet landscape, helping their parents select their favorite cheeses, wursts and even wines, I was speechless. I asked them how their children knew so much about cheese, food, and drink. Marten replied in a matter of fact way with a very German firmness, “Well…we believe it’s important to spend time teaching them at an early age about different foods like we do about many things that are part of our everyday life.” I was fascinated and inspired, determined to learn more about artisan food and cheese, as well as teach my own children to develop a taste for such foods.

Now, almost 30 years later, the United States has a thriving artisan food culture with fresh markets, gourmet grocery stores, great chefs and beautiful cheese counters throughout the country. This growth-inducing trip to Berlin inspired me to develop a love for cooking, artisan international foods, and the joy of sharing it with friends and family – many who are now working in the world of artisan cheese. I often share my story with intimidated travelers to illustrate how one unique travel experience, often laced with a little risk, can surprisingly pave a whole new path in life.