The Smile Factor


“Don’t let them turn you into a cold person.”

I can still remember how shocked and somehow offended I was when my friend Betsy told me this before my move.  Being an overly sensitive liberal (minus the bleeding heart), I have never liked stereotypes.  “I have several friends from Germany and they are wonderful people, but they are colder. It’s just they way they are.  Don’t turn into one.”

OK Betsy. I will try. I guess I come from an area of the world where almost everyone smiles at each other when they make eye contact, strangers talk to each other on the bus, people who have never met think nothing of making a connection even for a few moments. San Francisco is known for free earthquakes, love, and friendliness. In fact the entire USA is known as a talkative bunch.

When I first moved to Germany in 2005 this was something that I obviously took for granted.  I assumed (as we all do) that things would be different here, but that people would generally be friendly in the same way, if I was friendly to them.  What I didn’t bank on was the difference in culture in regards to strangers.

Now don’t get me wrong.  The people of the greater Bielefeld area that I have met are friendly, funny, and loving people.  They are there for you when you need advice, or when you need someone to come with you to the Auslanderamt. They are there for you when you need someone to talk in German to your potential landlord and explain that you are reliable and they should let you take the apartment. They really truly want you to like Bielefeld and Germany.

Then why doesn’t anyone smile when they make eye contact while walking through a park?  Why do I have to say “Guten Tag” when I enter the doctor’s office but as they answer no one even looks at me? Why was I only ever approached by strangers needing directions?  Was there really no contact between strangers here?  I needed more data.

I started with my smile experiment.  I would smile at random strangers who made eye contact with me and keep track.  On a good day my return smile rate was somewhere around 20% (Almost all return smilers were male over 60. Women, especially middle-aged women, looked at me as if I were mentally ill.).  I then moved on to small interactions.  I would try to ask people at markets or in town easy small questions that would maybe start a conversation (things like I really like your hair/tattoo/shoes/produce etc., did you get it here?).  My response rate was 100% positive.  My questions were always answered, but usually in one word or very short answers (yes, no) and with no offer of additional information, just the basics.  My conclusion was maybe that these questions were not viewed as engaging, rather they were just for information for this strange lady (me) in the orange wool coat speaking German with the funny accent. Okay intriguing.

Armed with this data, I started asking my Bielefeld friends what was going on.  Doesn’t Bielefeld realize I am lonely? That in place of actual friendships, I would happily take a little stranger interaction to fight the feeling of isolation? Don’t they know that I want to meet new people and learn new things?  One of them gave me the following joke as an answer:

“A Bielefelder walked into a small bar for a drink after work.  The bar was empty except for the bartender and two people, one seated at one end of the bar, and the other near the front. Upon seeing this he turned around and walked out of the bar.  Do you want to know why? Because there was no where to sit!”

Everyone I was talking to (all native to the area) began laughing at this joke!  They are completely aware that in general they are a bit closed off to strangers.  Friends and people you interact with are the people in your local club, VHS class, at work, or parents of your children’s friends, and not the stranger at the farmer’s market or in the coffee shop. They know that in the rest of the world it is not always that way, but somehow the social culture here pushes this behaviour.  And the best part is that they are able to laugh at it.  Somehow, that made me feel better.  Anyone that can laugh at their faults earns a little notch of respect in my book and it gave me a little more courage.

So fast forward a few years later and I realized that my friend Betsy’s advice was maybe not so far off. I went back for a visit in 2010 and was out for a jog by my parent’s house in California.  It was early morning (don’t ask why but this cures my jet lag) and there were a lot of dog walkers out and about. I realized that I found myself struggling to say good morning to everyone.  I was actually a little annoyed that I had to say it to everyone even though I didn’t know these people!  I was just trying to have my morning jog and I kept having to smile and wave… and nod… and say hello even when I wasn’t making eye contact!  The fact that we were sharing sidewalk was reason enough.  The nerve of these overly-friendly people!

I have often heard that this friendliness we Americans show strangers seems fake.  I once had a man spew for 10 minutes about how “nice to meet you” was a lie.  How could we know it was nice if we didn’t even know the person?  Now cultural sayings and norms aside, I see his point.  To a culture that often takes everything we say literally when translated, this idea of kindness to strangers seems to many wasted and fake.

I get it now. Really. I have even adapted. However, I still like to share smiles with strangers. I still really think it is “nice to meet you” because I like meeting new people.  I relish the small conversations at the market I have experienced and have found that the more I try, the more people open up.  I just have to work harder. In fact, with a little effort it seems many want to have a conversation with a stranger. It turns out they just are not that good at our English small talk in German. And that’s OK.  As long as they smile while they are talking to this strange lady in the orange coat with the funny accent, I will keep smiling too.


Restaurants and bars

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After writing about the coffee places in Bielefeld, here is a non-exhaustive list of the restaurants and bars my husband and I enjoy going to:

  • Milestones changes its menu daily and has a great selection of drinks. I have never tried out their brunch but everyone tells me it is worth checking out. In the summer you can sit in the Biergarten, which is nice even if the road is a little bit too noisy for me. But the best in Milestones are the waiters/waitresses. They are super friendly and will speak to you in English. If you have a late-late night there, they’ll keep the place open for you and/or start to tidy up while you can still have drinks.

  • The Irish Pub is a great place to hang out. On Monday night, it’s quiz night (in German and English). I have only been once but it was fun. Make sure to come with a group of 4 or + people. Some groups seemed to be coming regularly to this quiz night and are pretty good. You can also order pizza but that’s all there is to eat and it is not specially great. But it is nice to have some Irish beers from time to time :-).
  • Verve makes very good burgers. They also stay open pretty late. In the winter the place tends to be a little bit cold or at least that is my impression, so I always made sure to have an extra jacket with me.

  • Brauhaus serves typical dishes from Southern Germany and brews its own beers. In the summer, they have the best Biergarten in Bielefeld. Among their own brews, my favorite is Messing. I usually order the Schnitzel Jägerart. The staff is friendly enough. You don’t need to make a reservation when coming for dinner as the place is huge. However, without fail the waitress responsible for seating you will make a troubled face and ask you to wait while she checks for a free table (Halllooo there are 5 empty tables just in front of us 😉 ). It has become some kind of a joke with my friends. Still, I would recommend to make a reservation if you are with a big group (8 or more people).
  • Glück und Seligkeit is trendier than the places mentioned above. It consists of two parts. The main lobby is a bar/restaurant with a fair choice of foods and some awesome cocktails. Upstairs they have a gastronomical restaurant that my husband and I tried for our wedding anniversary. In my opinion it wasn’t really good, especially the service.
  • Bernstein is located on the rooftop of one of the buildings near Jahnplatz. It has a unique view of Bielefeld and surroundings, especially in the summer when the terrace is open. It is a little bit pricey and the food selection isn’t much except for the brunch (available daily) where they have a large buffet of warm and cold dishes.

  • Der Koch is ideally located at Siegfriedplatz. The place doesn’t look very big when you enter but there are two additional rooms in the back so you will always find a table.  They have a quite good choice of  traditional German dishes. For example, in the winter they offer Grünkohl with sausages from Northern Germany and Rouladen. These 2 dishes can also be found at the Brauhaus but they are far tastier at Der Koch. But my favorite winter dish is the Sesamknödel with chanterelle. Sooooo goood you would wish winter to last more than the average eight months we have in Bielefeld!!
  • Can Ocakbasi is in my opinion the best kebab place in Bielefeld. All the products are really fresh and you can have turkish tee for free. They also have a wide range of other dishes. I haven’t tried them yet but what I saw ordered by other customers looked very yummy!

  • Argentina Steakhouse makes very good… Argentinian steaks. This is clearly not a place to be vegeterian 😉 but if you enjoy your piece of meat then it is really a nice treat. Be careful to either come a little bit late or to make a reservation on weekends.
  • Kado Sushi is THE sushi place in Bielefeld. Sushi is good and the restaurant itself is really lovely. But it is always packed so you have to make a reservation. If you are going with a group of four or more people you might want to book it as early as 1-to-2 weeks in advance. I know as I once tried to book a table for four two days in advance and the next available spot was two weeks from then. A good value for money is to take one of the bentos (a wide selection of sushi served on one plate). You should also try the hot sake. All the bentos come with a miso soup.

  • Bombay, situated near the train station, is the best Indian restaurant in Bielefeld. I specially like the chicken tikka masalah. The owner is very friendly and the service is good if not very fast. They also do home delivery but a friend told me he once waited almost 2 hours to get his order so I would recommend that you’d rather go dine directly there!
  • NichtSchwimmer is located near the Kado Sushi and the Mocca Klatsch (See article on coffee places). It is worth mentioning as it offers great pizzas with real mozzarella (most Italian restaurants in Germany replace the mozzarella with gouda). The terrace on the square in front of the restaurant is really nice in the summer.

There are plenty of other great places to dine out with your friends or family in Bielefeld. For the past year a lot of new places have opened that I haven’t been to. This is the force of habits that we always visit the same places!

Anyway I hope, you enjoyed reading about this and:

Bon appétit!


Asia Markets


On this lovely sunny day in Bielefeld I was out doing some shopping at the Asian stores we have in the center of town and thought I should share.In the center of Bielefeld there are two located right near Kesselbrink (which happens to be a very large construction site right now.)  One is directly across from the Kesselbrink parking lot and garage called Ngoc-Thao (This is where I would normally put in a link but the website is not working and google shows the old address before they moved.  Current address is Fredrich-Ebert-Strasse 9.).  They often have fresh dim sum at the register for sale as well as a large selection of various asian ingredients.  The freezer section is well stocked and the refrigerator always has a selection of herbs, vegetables, and fresh tofu.

oodles of noodles

Being that I am a Glutenfree girl, this is where I buy my flours (rice, tapioca, corn) and noodles (hello glass noodles, you are looking yummy today!).  You can also find large quantities of eastern spices for a much more reasonable price and jasmin rice in bulk.  This is also the only place I have seen fresh bok choy and other asian vegetables (though not regularly).

My purchases today from Ngoc-Thao:

  • Fresh Coriander
  • Fresh Long Green Beans
  • Coconut Milk (in carton instead of can)
  • Glass Noodles (silver noodle)
  • large Hoisin sauce bottle
  • Tamari sauce
  • Tapioca flour
    Total price = 17euros
The second store is called BAO THY and is located behind the big Tcom building.  There is a big plaza behind the building that joins with the New Bielefeld Library.  There are sometimes markets here (though I have missed all of them somehow.) In any case, in the back corner is where you will find Bao Thy.Though many of the products are similar to Ngoc Thao, there are a few differences.  First this one has a much better selection of dried mushrooms and herbs for traditional dishes.  There is also a good selection of items to make kimchee and pre made kimchee.  They also have a much larger freezer section with a different selection of fish and dumplings.  I also love the mochi in taro or sesame flavor and some of the Indian products that they sell here too. And now they have a bubble tea bar (DH will like that!)

My purchases today from Bao Thy:

  • canned salted/fermented black beans
  • fresh birds eye chilies
  • fresh mint
  • taro mochi
  • pre-made Indian lunch boxes x3
    Total price = 12euros

Both places are fantastic for sauces and spices and the pricing is pretty similar.  I usually hit both for different reasons, but for me both are part of the required shopping for a properly stocked pantry.

Tonights menu:

Bruised Cucumber Salad
Spicy Black Bean with Spinach and Egg
Jasmin Rice
Chúc ngon miệng!

Luno Kino – The Artist

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Just a quick update on the outdoor cinema  in Ravensburger Park –  The Artist is playing on Friday, July 27th. Being a mostly silent movie – its perfect for those of us who haven’t mastered the german language yet 🙂


Afternoon Koffie and Carrot Cake


Coffee outside in the sun is also an option….

I admit I am not a big fan of cake.  When given the choice between ice cream and cake, or cake and luscious blueberry crumble, I will pick the crumble or ice cream every time!  However, there is one type of cake that makes me weak in the knees…so much so that Dear Husband (aka DH) and I made it our wedding cake back in the states.  I am, of course, talking about carrot cake.

In all its incarnations, I am a fan.  I like it with pineapple, I like it with nuts, I especially like it with cream cheese frosting.  And to my surprise, a sweet little café opened with a wonderful selection for cake lovers, as well as my favorite for me.

When you walk in to Koffie met Gebak, the homey atmosphere is apparent.  Cozy chairs, fresh cut flowers and sunshine streaming through the windows, all lend itself to a lazy afternoon drinking cappuccinos and trying a few choice desserts while chatting with a friend.

They serve some savory items like ciabatta with salami and cheese or soup, but the real reason to come is for the thick foamy cappuccinos (My sugar was still sitting on the foam 5 minutes later…now that is some good thick foam!) and the delicious carrot cake. Just look at it!!!


Rüblitorte, which roughly translates to turnip cake which I guess is in reference to the grated carrots, is every bit as good here as it is back home.  So moist and with hints of ginger and other spices and big pieces of walnut.  Mmmmmmm Heaven!

Okay I will stop gushing now.  But seriously, I am so happy to have found this little piece of home. Even after 7 years here, there are still some things I really miss and this is something that can bring me back to my childhood, flood me with feelings of love and family, and make me feel at home, even in a very foreign place.  It also just tastes really good!


Coffee time in Bielefeld


There are a lot of place you can go in Bielefeld to have a coffee and a chit chat with friends. Here a few coffee places among my favorites:

  • M Kaffee in the Altstadt has a great selection of coffee and tee and also some very yummy snacks. I usually order a Milchkaffee or a Tiger Chai Tee. I spend a lot of time there because they have wifi and well-placed power sockets. Also for the price of a coffee (2.70 € for a small one) I can spend as long as I want checking my emails, browsing the net or working on my personal projects. You need a password to access the wifi, which can be found at the counter (on the left side of the cashier).

  • Mocca Klatsch up near the Bahnhofstr. is a very nice alternative for a coffee place with wifi. They also have delicious breakfasts and the owner is really friendly. One of my friends once didn’t have enough cash to pay for his dinner (this is also a restaurant/bar in the evening) and told the owner he would just run to the ATM and come back to pay. The owner told him not to worry about it and to pay whenever he comes back :-).

  • Starbucks near Jahnplatz: I use it on Sunday morning f I want to be out of my place to work on my laptop because M Kaffee doesn’t open before 1pm on Sunday and Mocca Klatsch is too busy with people going for brunch.
  • Puro Coffee can also be found at Jahnplatz. It has no wifi but the coffee is very good.


Health and beauty


It took me time to get used to the health system in Germany and find professionals with whom I felt comfortable. I also struggled finding beauty or health products I was used to. So today I thought I will share some addresses and products I have used since I arrived in Bielefeld.

Health / Address:

  • Generalist: I highly recommend the office of Dr. Speitel in the Altstadt. The cabinet has a walk-in service every morning of the week from 9am to 12am and in the afternoon (Mo. 5pm-7pm, Tu.-Th. and Fr. 4pm-6pm). So basically you just show up and they will tell you how long you have to wait before seeing the doctor. And if you want to run some errands during the waiting time, they will just call you on your mobile phone when your turn is coming (in the next 15min). I was there twice and didn’t need to wait more than 10min but I love the flexibility it gives me. Note: for blood tests, etc. you need to make an appointment.
  • Gynecologist: I go to Dr. med. Anke Sklenarz. It is located near the university and easily reachable with S Bahn (line 4).
  • Pharmacy: I go to the Bahnhof Apotheke at Karstadt as they give good advices and have some beauty products I use. I also have their fidelity card.

Health / Product:

  • Flu: Here are 2 products which, taken together, have helped me a lot this winter:

  • Magnesium: I take this to avoid cramp during sport or menstruation. It takes effect very fast (within the next 30min) and you just take it when you need it.

  • Yeast infection: I use the soap (below) on a regular basis and when I have a little discomfort, I use this (magic) cream:

All these products can be found at the Bahnhof Apotheke without prescription.

Beauty / Address:

  • Hair: I go to Creativ Team near Babenhausen Süd. It is also easily reachable with S Bahn (line 3). Unfortunately I don’t think they speak English. My hairdresser is Sylvana. I ususally just ask for a cut (25 €) and I dry my hair myself. This  saves me some money and also I can see directly how good it looks without a professional- impossible-to-reproduce-at-home brushing.
  • Waxing: Wax in the City also has a walk-in service. If possible don’t arrive there after 5pm or on Saturday as they may not be able to take you.
  • Massage: I like this traditional thai massage place.

Beauty / Product:

  • Skin: Dr. Hauschka products are great natural products but you won’t find them everywhere. One place to look is the Bahnhof Apotheke.

  • Hand sanitizer can’t be found easily either and aren’t commonly used but I found some at Rossmann near Jahnplatz.
  • Other beauty products: I usually buy everything at Rossmann.