There is a great moment in the TV show “Gavin and Stacey” that seems fairly inconsequential at the time but runs throughout the two series. It is when Gavin’s Mum, played by the great Alison Steadman (above), declares herself vegetarian to cover up the fact that she may have not considered the fact that her new in-laws might be vegetarians on their arrival for dinner. They are not, she is not- no one cares. Yet, she has already told the lie, and so she doesn't back down.
Throughout the two series, whenever her daughter in law, or her family are around she keeps up the pretence. She even starts to pretend she's quite militant about it, even though she'll hide in the kitchen eating a slice of ham, when no-one's around. You just know that if Gavin and Stacey remain married for life, Mum will keep up the act. For no other reason than to avoid a small amount of social embarrassment.
I once declared myself vegetarian and unlike Gavin’s Mum, I was actually serious about it. Mostly. But I lapsed often and eventually gave up my “wee carry on,” as I believe my Gran called it, about three years after I’d started it.
This was when I was a student and, unfortunately, one of those three veggie years happened when I was in my study year in Germany. Germany is well known as being the third worst place in the world to be a vegetarian.*
Like Gavin’s Mum I got myself into a veggie related pickle. I was a student teacher in a well-to-do German high school, and within my first week there I was asked on a school trip to some place where they found remnants of Early Man that wasn’t Neanderthal. I hadn’t been paid my first wage yet and had spent all of the money I had brought into the country within the walls of a new thing I’d discovered called the Bier Halle.
So, on the day of the trip I frugally packed some cheese sandwiches in my handbag. Lunchtime came and I tried to wander away from the teachers, to have my packed lunch with the students. The group of four teachers, who consisted of the Headmaster, the Assistant Headmaster and two other near retirement, pipe-smoking, teaching gents insisted I come with them. They knew a great little restaurant. I was to go with them. No argument.
I had only about fifteen deutschmarks to my name. That was just over five pounds. Social embarrassment was just around the corner.
“But I’m a vegetarian” I said.
And I’m not joking folks when I say, they looked at each other with incredulity.
“You don’t eat meat?”
I thought saying I was vegetarian would be better than saying, “But, I’ve got no money” to get out of going the restaurant.
I was wrong.
I was practically frog-marched to the restaurant by the guffawing teachers (guffawing at my lack of meat intake, mainly). Once there I was presented with a menu that was, on first look, 100% flesh.
The waiter appeared.
“What do you have for vegetarians?” I said, meekly.
Chorus of laughter. “I just can’t believe you don’t eat meat!” and one phrase that they would say repeatedly to me, “Wie kannst du uberleben?” (How can you SURVIVE?) The headmaster even made a definitive pronouncement, “Man kann nicht uberleben ohne Fleisch” (One cannot survive without meat).
If I hadn’t pronounced myself veggie to start with, I would have silently ordered some chicken and eaten it quietly faced with no alternative. But I had announced my life choice to a group of middle-aged German professionals and had to carry it through. I couldn’t U-turn on my so-called principles, which for all they knew, were deeply held.
“Omelette?” said the waiter.
I bargained for a cheese omelette. My lunch companions ordered a side of boar and a haunch of venison, sprinkled with veal cutlets, sweetmeats and deep-fried songbirds.
When the platter arrived, they dug in heartily, talking about me not being able to uberleben and what a feast I was missing.
My omelette arrived. It was the size of a fried egg. In fact, they must’ve used only one egg in its manufacture.
There was much laughter, and offers of meat to supplement my meagre portion
I ate the omelette slowly but after I'd finished it, I was still starving.
After ten more minutes of watching the men tuck into the fruits of the forest, I went to the ladies loos, locked the door, sat on the toilet and ate my cheese sandwiches from my handbag.
News of my vegetarianism hit the staff room in a matter of hours, like news of an incurable disease.
*Germany comes third to France, which comes second to my Gran’s kitchen