Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas in Europe

I love Christmas markets. Sometimes when I mention this to friends in the states they nod, completely understanding what I'm talking about. Other times, I get confused looks: "What's a Christmas market?"

Christmas markets, or Weihnachtsmärkte, are basically outdoor festivals with stalls offering handcrafted wares, delicious food and drink, and local specialities. The biggest markets are open from the beginning of December all the way through Christmas, but smaller towns often host their own markets for one or two weekends of advent. 

Several European countries have them, but without a doubt they are most popular in Germany. I grew up going to Weihnachtsmärkte with my family. Mom would endlessly browse the wares, and Charlie and I would do our best to be patient while our fingers froze. The hours were punctuated by edible treats - chocolate-covered fruit, crepes, and bratwurst. We would sip mugs of Kinderpunsch - the non-alcoholic version of Glühwein, a mulled wine that is a staple at German Christmas festivities. (This year I upgraded to Glühwein, and it is sooooooo good.)

I'm used to there being one, maybe two, Weihnachtsmärkte per town. Munich however, is the third largest city in Germany and has more than a dozen. A friend of mine found this map of the Weihnachtsmärkte (also often called Christkindlmärkte) in Germany according to the nearest subway stations, which was super helpful. 

I only managed to visit five of the ones in Munich, but I also went to the one in Nürnberg, several in Innsbruck (that Austrian ski resort has six), and two in Budapest when I met Charlie there a few weeks ago. Am I through? Nope. Tonight my family is hitting the Mainz Markt, and also possibly one in a town on the Rhine river. I thought about waiting to write this post until after the last two, but that would entail writing a blog post on Christmas Eve, and, let's be real, I'm not about to do that. 

I tried to remember to take lots of pictures to share a sliver of the Weihnachtsmarkt experience with y'all, though sadly I can't share the smells and tastes over the internet. 


The Nürnberg Christkindlmarkt is by far the most famous Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany. With around 200 stalls, the heart of the market is in the center of Nurnberg's old town, though it spills out into the surrounding streets as well. This is the one my family went to almost every year when I was growing up, and going back there a few weeks ago was a trip down memory lane. 

In addition to sipping Glühwein and munching on Bratwurst, I love window-shopping at all the different stalls. 

Prune dolls are a local Nürnberg specialty. 

There are stalls where you can totally outfit a miniature home, complete with washing machine and dryer.


I loved popping into different Munich Weihnachtsmärkte on my way home from work this month. Maybe the coolest one was the medieval market, complete with roasted pig:

The Munich markets also have a lot of wonderful wares for sale.

Maroni are roasted chestnuts. In spite of the ubiquitous Christmas song, I have never seen these in the states, but they are all over the place in Germany during the winter. They are an acquired taste, but I have learned to love the earthy flavor and the welcome warmth.

The mistletoe vendor reads when business is slow...

These are potato pancakes with jam sandwiched in between. So yummy. 

I have to mention, while on the whole I have been soul-satisfied with the food at the Weihnachtsmarkt  fare, there is one dish I really miss: mushrooms soaked in a creamy garlic sauce. We used to get them at the Heidelberg market, and I thought that they were standard fare, but perhaps they were a local specialty. Sad day.

In addition to the traditional markets, Munich also has a couple of alternative markets. They are not my favorite, but this one is worth mentioning. It's the Tollwood festival, held on Theresienwiese, the same place that Oktoberfest is held.  Vegetarian fare, charms, and new agey stalls are standard here, while the tents are venues for concerts and talk shows. Though it isn't my favorite, I did enjoy getting a taste of a market with a very different vibe than usual. 

Innsbruck, Austria

Nestled in a valley in the Austrian alps, Innsbruck is a perfect location for a Weihnachtsmarkt.

There's a live brass band playing under the golden roof. It adds the perfect finishing touch to the evening ambiance of the market.

I love gnomes.

Kids take a virtual sleigh ride down a mountain.

Each market has its own special Glühwein mugs. When you purchase the Glühwein, you pay a deposit for the mug. Then you can choose whether to return it or keep it as a souvenir. I haven't kept any so far, but my parents have a burgeoning collection.

My friend Katherine and I were pleasantly surprised to receive two giant Bratwurst for the price of one. No complaints there.

Most of the Weihnachtsmärkte have at least one large nativity. They also have stalls chock full of nativity sets in different sizes and styles. You could spend hours choosing the perfect figures for your own nativity scene.

I wasn't planning to get one, but when I saw this Holy Family I knew instantly that this would be my Christmas present to myself. I look forward to displaying this for years to come.

Budapest, Hungary

I met up with Charlie in Budapest a few weeks ago, and we had fun exploring the Budapest Christmas markets. While many of the stalls sold goods that were familiar from the German markets, there was also a distinctly Hungarian vibe to the markets that I enjoyed. 

In particular, the food was distinctive. In addition to sausages, the Hungarian markets had a lot of fried dough dishes that would be smothered in goulash, vegetables, or powdered sugar for dessert. 

We were a fan of chimney cakes. A classic Hungarian street food, they are made of dough wrapped around a stake and roasted, then covered with cinnamon sugar. Once pulled off the stake and wrapped in plastic, steam rises up from the top, hence earning the name chimney cakes. 

What a treat to get to sample so many Weihnachtsmärkte - definitely one of my favorite things about spending Christmas in Europe.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Things I Learned This Month | November 2017

You guys. 

Advent starts tomorrow. 

I am so excited. I have been restraining myself from peeking at the pictures on my Advent Calendar and starting The Greatest Gift for a week. (I exercise no such restraint when it comes to Christmas music - I've been listening to that for a solid month.) I love Advent so much - the anticipation of Christmas Day is such a good reminder that we are waiting for Jesus to come again.

But I get ahead of myself. Advent starts tomorrow, but today it's still November. Which means it's time for me to follow Emily Freeman's lead and share a handful of things I learned this month. 

1. The thought process behind The Lumineers' song "Ophelia" is fascinating. 

I've always been curious about what the lyrics to that song mean, so I was intrigued to listen to Song Exploder's episode about it. I particularly enjoyed hearing the songwriters talk about why it had to be "Ophelia"   instead of something else. (It's probably not the reason you think it is.)

2. Real Chinese food is spicy (!). 

My roommate is Chinese, and I've picked up some interesting facts on China from her. I was totally surprised to learn that food in China is very spicy - that's totally not my concept of Chinese food based on Chinese takeout. Bonus fact: in northern China people eat noodles, and in southern China rice is the staple. 

3. On the topic of food: tossing a generous tablespoon of freshly minced ginger into your generic pumpkin pie batter (filling? whatever...) takes the classic dessert to a sassy new level of deliciousness. 

4. The 75th anniversary of Casablanca was November 26th. 

Since finding that out last week, rewatching that classic has been high on my to-do list. My dad sent me this fascinating article unpacking why Casablanca is such a spectacular film. “The film needs Rick to stick his neck out and commit to the Allied cause at the same time it needs to respect the sanctity of the bonds of matrimony. […] One reason Casablanca endures in the popular movie memory is the aberrational decisiveness of its climax, which tackled and resolved the question of dual loyalties head on.”

5. Czeslaw Milosz is one of my new favorite poets. 

I'm slowly working my way through his collected works and I'm captivated. Excerpts from his poems will probably show up in the poetry corner of the blog at some point, but until then I will leave you with this line from his poem "The Song":

Children throw balls, they dance on the meadow by threesomes,
Women wash linen at streamside and fish for the moon.

Friday, November 17, 2017

my go-to panacea

"At first glance the formula is very simple: tea leaves from a plant from the camellia family + hot water = tea. This sum summarizes quickly the most beloved drink worldwide - tea. 

"As much as tea is a staple of daily life, it is anything but boring or mundane. For it was tea that inspired poets and prompted the invention of porcelain. 

"Tea makes every morning brighter, refreshes and revives in the afternoon, and warms the coldest nights. Tea soothes strained nerves, but also awakes fresh vigor. 

"Tea accompanies meals, lets words flow, and always stands for hospitality. 

"Tea prompts merchant ships to circumnavigate the globe and stands even today as a meeting point between religion, medicine, and art."

~from Lust auf Tee, my translation

This post was bound to come someday. I blog about things that make me tick, and tea is right up there with books and friends on my list of things that I couldn't possibly do without. So it was never a matter of if I would author a blog post about tea, but when. So settle back, because this is going to be a long post dedicated to my favorite beverage.

As I started this post, I was about to write something cosy along the lines of:

The days are getting shorter and colder, and I've started living in sweaters and scarves and slippers and wrapping myself in fuzzy blankets to keep warm. It's the time of year that I start to consume large quantities of tea.

But who am I kidding? I drink large quantities of tea regardless of the time of year. If it's cold outside I drink hot tea, and if it's hot outside I drink iced tea. That covers my bases: there is no time of year that tea isn't an important part of my life.

Hot or iced; black, green or herbal; loose leaf or in a bag; with company or by myself; at home or out and about; as an excuse for a tea party or as accompaniment to whatever I happen to be doing; it is always the right time for tea.

On one of my first days in Munich I was hanging out in a biergarten with some of the other Fulbrighters. Beer or tea? Is that even a question? Tea. Always.

I love offering hospitality, and if you've ever visited me, chances are that one of the first things I said was "I'm just making tea. Would you like some?" In my first couple of years of college, my dorm room ended up being a regular gathering hub for a large group of friends - and tea was always involved. I even had what I jokingly called my "tea shrine":

When I was in London a couple of years ago, I stumbled into this amazing tea shop called T2, where they have bowls of loose leaf tea all over the shop for customers to see and smell. I ended up chatting with an employee who said something along the lines of: "Tea isn't just a beverage: it's a means of bringing people together." Yes! 

"Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company" ~Anynomous

Of course, I drink tea alone frequently as well, and with great contentment. Perhaps one of the funniest memories I have of drinking tea by myself was when I was in Joliet very early on a Saturday morning. I had driven a friend there to take the GRE and drove downtown to hang out in a coffee shop while I waited. Not only was the coffee shop randomly closed, but the entire town seemed to be shut down. The only place that was open was a very large casino with a Starbucks inside. So I snuck in - feeling extremely out of place - got my London Fog, and hunkered down in a corner to do my morning Bible reading and count the minutes until the public library opened. 

I'm pretty sure that the baristas had never seen a college student come into the casino Starbucks to read her Bible at 8 on a Saturday morning. The moral of the story: tea can make a very awkward situation much more bearable. 

Speaking of morals and stories, tea books have their own little niche in the book market. It stands to reason: book-lovers are often tea-lovers. It's so much fun to flip through books on how comforting tea is, the social history of tea time, and those sorts of things. 

It's also fun to google quotes about tea and see what the internet comes up with. This page has many delightful quotes - both serious and silly - having to do with tea. 

And of course there are those great British tweets, like the following: 

If you don't like tea, we can still be friends. I just might be at a loss as to what to offer you to drink if you come to visit.

(An aside: entire books could be written about the Brits and their tea habits. I once heard an entire BBC radio segment where a panel discussed whether one should put milk into the mug before or after one pours the tea.)

I could spend hundreds more words rhapsodizing about tea, giving anecdotes, and telling you about my favorite tea shops in three different countries. But instead I'll wrap up by sharing some choice quotes, accompanied by photos. (Is tea photography a thing? Because if it is, I'm a tea photographer - there are dozens and dozens of pictures of tea in my photos. It's almost embarrassing...)

"There is no trouble so great or grave [for example, a disastrous round of Settlers of Catan] that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea." ~Bernard-Paul Heroux

"Tea is instant wisdom - just add water!" ~Terri Guillemets

"Coffee is not my cup of tea." ~Samuel Goldwyn

"Never concentrating so hard than when manoeuvring a full cup of tea whilst lying down." ~Rob Temple, @SoVeryBritish 

"Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." ~Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, 1880