For some reason, Germany rarely features on my travel schedule. I'm happy enough to go to other European countries - France and Italy most often, though I am now dying to go to Spain - but somehow Germany poses little attraction. Even when I was a member of the India-EU Round Table and we held our meetings in many interesting locations (Sintra in Portugal, Vienna, Rome, Paris, London, Brussels etc) somehow we never quite got to Germany.
In fact, I've only been to Germany twice before. Once for a wine trip (very nice) and once very briefly for the Frankfurt Book Fair for the release of the German translation of India Then and Now, a picture book co-authored by Rudrangshu Mukherjee and myself.
So, when I was contracted to anchor an event organised by Mercedes Benz at their headquarters in Stuttgart, I accepted with alacrity. It was to be another rushed trip - just Stuttgart and Frankfurt - but at least it would give me a taste of Germany.
The first thing visitors to Germany notice is how organised everything - from the airports to the roads - is, at least in comparison to the chaos of Italy and the inconsistency of France. The German reputation for efficiency and organisation is well deserved.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the headquarters of Mercedes Benz. Most of us have grown up with the Mercedes as the symbol of luxury and class. When Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, he used a Mercedes gifted to him by King Hussein of Jordan. The President of India used a Mercedes as his official car. And rich people in our country have always bought Mercs to indicate that they have arrived.
What I hadn't realised was that most of the Mercs we see on Indian roads are not actually made in Stuttgart but put together in a factory in Pune. Mercedes has a long association with India (dating back to the Mercedes truck which the Tatas used to make) and the Pune plant is merely a continuation of that legacy.
Nor had I realised that the luxury car market in India is dominated by Germans. Mercedes Benz's chief rival in our market is another German car, the BMW. Also posing a threat (and this was a complete surprise to me - which will tell you how out of touch I am) is yet another German car, called Audi. While Audi is the Chinese commissars' car of choice, it succeeds in India on the basis of Bollywood brand ambassadors and a young, new money image.
And the reality is that the luxury car market in India has now spread to the tier two cities and to young Indian millionaires who've made money in real estate and such lucrative sectors. These are the people looking for fancy cars with which to show off.
Mercedes is probably at a disadvantage because all the factors that make it a strong brand in Europe (class, tradition, a luxury image) work against it when it comes to new money in small towns.
The traditional image of German food is meat and potatoes. I'm sure that at the very top end this is not true. But at the middle level, the image is entirely accurate. One of the good things about travelling to places you have only read about is that you discover how many of the stereotypes are founded on fact. For instance, I went to Vienna knowing nothing about Austrian food apart from wiener schnitzel and - guess what? - I found that nearly every restaurant served wiener schnitzel.
So it was with Germany. Not only was wiener schnitzel a menu regular (Austria and Germany are cousins) but everyone ate a lot of potatoes. They were also madly keen on sausages of all kinds: fresh, preserved, cooked, uncooked, served salami style, served with sauerkraut etc.
For all that, I ate well in Germany. There's only so much wiener schnitzel and sausage that anyone can eat - though I can live on potatoes - but the Germans make the most amazing bread. No matter how cheap the restaurant or how poor the rest of the food, the bread was always excellent. Nor was this restricted to the ethnic German breads (black bread and the like). Even ordinary breads were far better than in France.
The one discovery I did make while eating in Frankfurt was that Germans rival the Chinese as masters of the goose. The Italians and the French don't do very much with the goose (and these days the French make their foie gras with duck which is cheaper) but the Germans manage to extract the maximum flavour from it. Even Lufthansa (very good service, an excellent German-speaking Indian purser, not very comfortable seats, tiny screens in club class, and check-in staff at Delhi who greet you cheerily in Hindi and struggle with English) managed a wonderful goose for the inflight meal from Frankfurt to Delhi. (Very nice German white wine and terrific Austrian red on the plane, by the way.)
Obviously, there is more to German food than sausages, potatoes, schnitzel, cabbage, bread and goose (not to mention the very dodgy pasta-like spaetzle) but I'll have to go back one day to find out what that is. For this trip, I'll just remember the bread and goose.
One of the advantages of going to Germany in December is that you get to see the Christmas markets. These are a European phenomenon comprising stalls selling largely useless Christmas trinkets combined with other stalls selling such German delicacies as sausage, potatoes, more sausage and more potatoes. (I'm sorry but this is true.)
Stuttgart can be a bleak industrial city in the winter where the sun rises at 8.30 am and sets by 4.30 pm and if it is raining and windy as it was for most of my stay, this does not assist in an appreciation of the city's charms.
But the folks at Mercedes suggested I went off to the seasonal Christmas market and I was astonished by how charming and convivial everything was. Groups of Germans who should have been at work (don't ask me how they managed to skive off in the afternoon) went from stall to stall buying scarves, aromatic candles, woollen caps and the like while consuming warm rum-based drinks and eating lots of sausages and potatoes. (Yes, I know, but what can I do? It is the truth!)
The Christmas market in Frankfurt was larger and to my mind at least, much lovelier than the Stuttgart version. It was in the middle of the shopping area in the centre of town and you had the sense that roads and pavements had been taken over to make room for this phenomenon. There were huge crowds of people who were obviously enjoying themselves and if you had a large drink in your hand and forgot where you were then it was almost as though Christmas had come early.
The caricature of Germans as a super efficient people is accurate. But what the caricature conceals is that they are also a remarkably friendly and helpful people who enjoy having a good time. Throughout my stay in Germany, I was astonished by how nice people were and how much they went out of their way to help strangers. In this respect at least, they were better than the French and unlike the Italians who mean well, most of the Germans I came across spoke English.
One of the realities about travelling to many countries these days - and I'm going to be honest here - is that wherever you go, the streets are packed out with Indians. Familiarity has its advantages. But if your intention is to go somewhere completely different to experience a change of scene, then the Bollywoodisation of the world is not necessarily always a welcome phenomenon.
The wonderful thing about both Frankfurt and Stuttgart was that it all felt very different. At the Christmas markets I was the only Indian (a strange feeling in this Indian-dominated age) and the Germans I met knew little about our country. But they were nearly always warm and positive about India and curious to learn more.
Mercedes Benz had flown Ayaan and Amaan Ali Khan to Stuttgart to perfor