Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas in Germany

Celebrating Christmas together as a family in Berlin has been a dream of Erwin and mine since our first visit to Berlin during the first week of December in 2002. We fell in love with the city and the familiarity of many of the Christmas sights and sounds that we remembered from our early childhood. We knew that we just had to one day share this with our kids, show them how Germans “do” Christmas. That year has finally come.

Germany does Christmas right.

I know that is a bold assertion, and being German I may be biased, but it just feels right. Even though I was born and raised in Canada, my parents maintained many of the traditions that they grew up with in Germany, passed them on their children and grandchildren. Erwin’s family celebrated a unique blend of Canadian (from his mom) and German (from his dad.)

In North America, we get steamrollered by the season long before anyone wants it to begin. In Germany the Christmas season officially begins with the opening of the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in early December. There are dozens of them throughout Berlin, probably thousands throughout Germany and the countries that border it. It is the place to buy exquisite handmade crafts and ornaments, or try the local seasonal delicacies, or just mix and mingle and people watch. Christmas markets are best seen at night. It causes the makeshift wooden stalls adorned with lights and garlands to look enchanted and adds to the magic of Christmas.

The first thing you notice is that, despite a lot of North American influence, it still maintains a semblance of “the reason for the season.” Saying “Frohe Weihnachten” (Merry Christmas), isn’t considered politically incorrect. Somehow it all seems less commercial too. From the toned down decorations (no plastic Rudolph’s and neon garlands etc.), to the use of the advent wreath to celebrate the four Sundays before Christmas, to the windows draped in greenery with glass ornaments shimmering in moonlight. Look up and there’s always a towering fir tree covered in sparkling lights. Speaking of trees, real candles on real tress is still the way to go here. I’m not joking. I bought a package of the holders and the candles that go with them for use on our tree at home next Christmas (don’t tell our insurance agent.)

The smell of Christmas is a combination of incense from the Raüchermänner (an incense cone placed inside a wooden figure which billows out perfumed coils of smoke) and the peppery-cinnamon smell of Glühwein (mulled wine, a mug of which you can walk around freely with) mixed with the aroma of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) baking. Traditional treats include Marzipanstollen (Germany’s answer to fruitcake, and people actually like it), Gebranntemandeln (cinnamon toasted almonds), Dominosteine (bite sized squares layered with gingerbread, almond paste and currant jam, covered in chocolate, yummm my fav.) and of course goose for Christmas dinner instead of turkey.

No stockings are hung by the chimney with care, however, there still is hope that St. Nicholas soon will be there. Except…. his arrival is eagerly anticipated on Christmas Eve… after it gets dark out. He comes to the door and knocks asking to be let in. He enters with a sack slung over his shoulder and distributes gifts if you've been good…or nothing if you've been bad. Santa, or der Weihnachtesmann, even looks different here, less jolly old St. Nick and more old-world charm or even a little scary at times.

As for dreaming of a white Christmas…this year that’s probably all it will be, a dream. Although we've had some snow here it’s mostly gone or turned to icy slush. I’m ok with that, it just means will have to be careful as we walk to the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) for Christmas Eve service, or take one last look around the sights of Christmas in Germany as a family.

Frohe Weihnachten from Sylvia and Erwin

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Nürnberg Visit

This week we travelled to Nürnberg to visit the traditional "Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt".

Originating in the 16th century, it is one of the oldest in Germany, and the most famous, drawing over two million visitors from all over the world every year. Tour buses and packed trains descend on this otherwise sleepy little German town during the month of December on mass. But is a must-do for visitors to the area during the Christmas season. A quintessential experience in the lead up to Christmas.

Once we had fortified ourselves with Beer and Glühwein (you figure out who ordered what) we wandered along the various stalls or more accurately were moved along with the throng, stopping here and there to gaze at the beautifully crafted ornaments/decorations, snap some photos, listen to musicians and inhale the strange but intoxicating smells that are a combination of the fore mentioned Glühwein, frying sausages, roasted nuts, and the fuels needed to make these items edible. There is actually a smoky haze that hangs over the stalls from all the cooking and incense burners, and with all the Christmas lights twinkling through it’s delightful.


But Christkindlesmarkt isn’t the only reason we went to Nürnberg. Always the academic, Erwin planned for us to have some more cerebral activities too. The next day we toured the Dürer Haus; the residence and workplace of famous artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Erwin teaches about him in his Italy in the German Imagination course, and I’ve written a 3500 word research paper on him. So yes, we had to do this. It was very interesting to see first hand the materials he worked with and where.

 We also went to see the Kaiserburg Nürnberg. In the Middle Ages this huge complex castle was one of the most important imperial castles of the Holy Roman Empire with parts of it such as the defensive tower dating back to the 1200s still standing. We climbed the narrow twisty stairs to the top for a terrific 360° view over the city and area.

There was also time for fun and games so to speak at the Spielzeugmuseum or toy museum. It is housed in a medieval building on four floors and shows toys from the Middle Ages to the present. Fun because there were quite a few interactive displays, which of course I had to try out. Still a kid at heart. Besides I’ll never see these people again anyway. I convinced Erwin to try a game and even beat him at a magnetic table hockey type game. Yay me! I especially liked the century old beautiful and intricate doll houses. The unsettling part was finding toys that I played with as a child.Too bad photographing wasn't allowed at this museum.

Next morning we were thrilled to discover that St. Nicholas visits hotels too. Actually I knew he did, since we’ve previously spent the night of December 5-6 in German hotels and discovered treats by our door then. We’re delighted that this tradition continues.

One more thing to note, no paper cups are used for any of the beverages served at any of the stalls. You pay a 2.50€ deposit on a ceramic mug, and get a refund if/when you bring it back. My inner tree-hugger likes that. But, my Glühwein mug somehow ended up in my coat pocket. I wonder how that happened? I guess I’ll just have to keep it as a souvenir of our visit to the Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Day in Our Life

Our life in Berlin has definitely settled into a sort of routine, or about as close as we’re going to get to routine.

 Erwin still gets up as early as he usually does back home, about 6ish, while I sleep for two more hours. He says he writes his best at that time of day. A practice he started while in grad school with little ones in the house. We breakfast together (or rather, Erwin has breakfast and I have my usual coffee & cookie(s), and then Erwin goes back to his writing and I usually head out to explore, or visit, or shop, or bike ride, on my own for a couple of hours. There is just soooo much to see and do in Berlin and I’m afraid of missing out or not making the most out of our time here.

Even though I am what can be described as directionally or cartographically impaired, I haven’t once gotten lost here...yet. Yay me! It helps that there is this ginormous television tower visible from much of Berlin a block from our house to guide my way, plus a major subway/tram/bus/streetcar station a five minute walk away. I’ve become comfortable with various forms of public transit. Which ones go where and how long it takes. Learned how to avoid the hordes of tourists that are ever present. Learned the best times to go see what. Gained a lot more confidence in my spoken German and move between English and German with ease. Sometimes not even conscious about which language I’m speaking. Other times speaking one or the other depending on my purpose, and then gleefully watching the look on the face of the listener change, because they can’t figure out where I belong. What I hope I haven’t lost though is my Canadianess (is that a word?). I’ve been accused of being too polite, too Canadian. Germans and especially Berliners are often criticized for being brash, abrupt and abrasive….”saying it like it is” type of people. I don’t find it so, but then maybe that’s because I was raised by German parents, while living in Canada.

Anyways….back to our day. By early afternoon Erwin has usually read, researched, written enough for a day that his brain needs a break. We frequently head out for a bite to eat and do some more exploring together. What happens more often than not is that we’ll decide to see a specific exhibit, or a particular attraction and wind up stumbling across other points of interest. There’s always something new. I’m convinced that on our last day here, we’ll find something right around the corner that we never even knew was there.

Evenings, depending on the night of the week, are various. Sometimes it’s a quiet evening in to watch/catch up on American television (mostly HBO) that Erwin has “found” on the internet, or reading, or merely recounting the day's adventures and figuring out what to do next time. Other evenings we've gone to the theater, the opera, and concerts. We've attended art history lectures and gone for moon-light walks. All good. Soaked it all up.

Weekends or extended weekends are for trips. We've been to Berne, Paris, Hamburg and smaller towns closer in. We've also had visitors; friends and family who live here in Germany or near-by (hey Weeds) come for a few nights saving them or us the trip across the pond to spend time together. Another Sunday habit that Erwin has taken up is an early morning (as in 7ish) trip to the bakery to bring home fresh warm rolls, or other delightful bakery treats. There are no less than half dozen bakeries in our immediate area and some open as early as seven in the morning, seven days a week. That I know I will miss when we go home.

It’s now December and we have two months to go in Berlin. After that we move on to another city (most likely in Germany). I try not to dwell on the fact that it’s only two months to go, because the last three have flown by in a flash. There is much to look forward to this month. A trip to Nürnberg, where the Christkindlemarkt  is thought to have originated, a visit from more relatives, but most of all Christmas or Weihnachten with all my babies (2+1) together for the first time in six years. I'm a little sad that I don’t have any of our Christmas decorations, which we've accumulated over 30+ years. Or, the utensils to bake and prepare goodies the way I would on “The Rock.” But, and I know it sounds clichéd, it’s Christmas, so I’m allowed, we’ll be together.