Ex-Pat Living: I’ll Be Home For Christmas… If Only In My Dreams
Family, travel and culture. These are a few of my favorite things. Winter holidays just add to the excitement.
But… What do you do when you’re thousands of miles away and can’t be home for the holidays? How do expats overcome the ache we feel when missing out on family gatherings and traditions?
My first year away, I wasn’t able to go home. I felt lonely and isolated as other expats left for home leave and local friends began to prepare for the New Year (no Christmas in post-Soviet Muslim Azerbaijan.)
Fortunately, with a lot of planning, we were able to meet halfway for a unique blend of holidays together and adventure. We were able to arrange do-able flights to Germany.
It’s probably no coincidence that when I think of the holidays, my favorite memories always lead me back to Germany.
From the Christmas markets to the historic towns, Germany just seems to have it all together. We had an exchange student from Germany stay with us during my daughter’s junior year in high school and when the holidays arrived so did 15 pounds of German chocolate in the form of toy soldiers, nut crackers, reindeer, angels, and, of course, Father Christmas. Julie told us about the Wiehnachtsmarkt and Christkindlemarkts, the centuries-old traditions and food that are part and parcel of German holiday celebrations.
[Here's a great list of many of the larger Christkindlemarkts in Germany for those of you who might be close enough to visit this year.]
Did you known that Dresden has the oldest Christmas market in Germany – the “Striezel (Stollen) Markt,” which first took place in 1434? Mmmm, I love stollen!
Because I was in Baku, my daughter Caryn took over the holiday travel planning for us. As a student of German throughout high school, this was a natural (I thought… She says not so much!). At first, she was nervous about getting on the phone (no internet to some of the small hotels at the time) to ask about rooms, but in the end she worked out a great itinerary and we had a fun time- chilly but fun!
We were reunited in Frankfurt and drove together to Berlin with our first stop being a visit with Julie and her family who had invited us to meet them at their home in Zeuthen, a small suburb of Berlin dating back to at least 1375.
Julie’s parents, Detleff and Birgitte, arranged for us to stay in a lovely little Czech inn just outside town. (I’ve since tried to find it on a map with no luck. My only clue is that it was tucked away in a forest and exceedingly charming.)
The arrangements were perfect! So welcoming were they that when we walked in the musicians broke into a fun rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” They wanted to play any American music for us, but we asked them to play some of their music for us instead. We went through polka, gypsy, Bavarian, and other rhythms and melodies over dinner with Julie and her parents.
We spent a couple days there with Julie as guide, taking the S-Bahn (train) into Berlin, seeing the art and history museums, before heading south to the Munich Christkindlmarkt that was Caryn’s holiday treat. It’s one of Germany’s most popular markets.
Throughout our trip, Caryn planned for us to stay in quirky pensions and tiny inns, avoiding the American and Euro chains that can be found anywhere.
If you’ve never been to Germany during a festival holiday, you’re in for a treat when you do. Everything is alive and moving, from clocks with pop-out dancers twirling on the hour, to the mulled wine specialty known as Glühwein, and all manner of sausages and nuts being roasted. Oh, and did I mention chocolate? Spicy cookies and handmade candies- it’s like the Nutcracker story come to life!
We walked in the lightly falling snow, visiting each stall and talking with any vendor we could. It was delightful, people could not have been more welcoming, as they are used to having international guests and are happy to share it all with us. For homesick expats, it’s a gift to blend in with other strangers, each one glad just to be together.
We also managed to catch a visit to Nymphenburg Palace, one of Munich’s most famous sights and the Munich OlympiaPark, taking in the memorial to the 1972 Olympics.
From Munich we headed west to catch the German Romantischstrasse, the Romantic Road, with its walled medieval cities, towers, half-timbered houses, then driving north we crossed the Tauber river into Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
We spent Christmas Eve there, the only guests in the inn. (The innkeepers let us know that they would be “closed” for Christmas Day, but we could have the run of the kitchen and make ourselves breakfast. They would be back the day after to check us out. Try that in America!)
Under a full moon and fresh snow, we went out walking on Christmas Eve, looking for a church with a candlelight service. Angels were good to us that night.
Caryn translated the message until we realized it was the story of the Christ child- same story, different language- then we just sat back and took it all in, as spectators, yes, but at the same time, as family, united in celebration of the nativity.
Following the Christmas day solitude of Rothenburg, we found the “Kriminalmuseum” – a ‘unique‘ way to spend the holidays of peace!
When you are told, “A visit to our town cannot be complete without visiting the Medieval Crime Museum,” you get the feeling that you may want to heed the advice! (smile)
It was fascinating, I must say, but it was jarring to think of people who preach the gospel of peace, putting the screws to people who nodded off in church. These folks are serious about love and joy!
Fortunately, Germans are also serious about their tasty treats.
This video clip is about Aachen, just north and west of Frankfurt, the town famous as the “sweet capital” of Germany. Printen is their famous gingerbread-like treat. (The Printen hyperlink has a story and a recipe, if you want to try it yourself this season.)
We took a slight eastern detour from all the “romance and sweets” to take in the history of Bamberg, an important town in the political development of Germany. What can I say… I like history and especially where it intersects cultural development- call me a wonk, but there you have it. I’m always the one asking, “Why?”
Though this clip shows the beauty of the town in spring weather when the Regnitz river is in full flow, it’s equally inviting in the winter when snow falls.
In this clip you’ll notice one of Bamberg’s most notable sights, the Altes Rathaus (Old City Hall). Sometime in the late 14th century, the residents couldn’t get the Bishop of Bamberg to give them land for a town hall, so they decided to build it on the river. The original structure was destroyed in 1444, but was rebuilt. Walk through it on the bridge to see both sides.
This later building has exteriors that were added there between 1744-1756. Be sure to look for the cherub’s leg sticking out from the east fresco (at about 1:44 on the video)!
Besides the Altes Rathaus, there is plenty to see with Bamberg’s 4-spired Cathedral (established around 1004), the statue of Der Bamberger Reiter (the Bamberg Rider) which became the symbol of the city, as well as beautiful abbey gardens and fountains. Its historic city center is also a listed UNESCO world heritage site, so well-preserved and intact is it.
For those not interested in sweets, history or rose gardens, you might be interested in gardens of another variety… the Biergarten! Bamberg is known for its smoked Rauchbier and is home to more than a half-dozen breweries, each with its own recipe for the smoky hops and barley taste of Rauchbier, said to have been created when a fire burned the granary at the Benedictine abbey.
Definitely a lot to see and take in (literally, and figuratively)!
Nowadays, since I am back in the United States, my daughter is only a 7 hour drive away and we always make time to be together for Christmas. Is it strange, that even with all this, I find myself “homesick,” wishing for Christmas across the pond, where traditions date back thousands of years, where the festivals in the market square bring family and friends together?
(Wouldn’t it be nice just to have a town square instead of strip malls and mega-shopping?)
Well, as the song says, I’ll be there for Christmas, if only in my dreams.
Where will you be this year? (How many are celebrating south of the equator in 28°C weather instead of snow?) However you ring in the New Year, joy to you and yours!
I hope you enjoyed this little visit to Germany.