Saturday, January 05, 2008

Christmastime for Virginia in Germany

Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season . . .

. . . I got to go to Germany for mine!

I’ve always associated Christmas with Germany: a lot of my family’s Christmas decorations are German; the Germans wrote “O Tannenbaum”; it’s snowy and pretty there, etc. I’ve always wanted to see Germany at Christmastime, and to pick up some pretty Christmas decorations for myself, and I decided that living in Eastern Europe was the perfect excuse to go! My friend Mary from home agreed to meet me there, to stay in Heidelberg for a week.

Traveling there, I only experienced one crisis – in the Zurich airport, searching for my connecting flight. I followed the crowd to the security gate for Terminal B, even though my flight wasn’t on the screen, thinking (perhaps with a Ukrainian mentality) that it would appear on the screen at the last minute, so I might as well go now. I couldn’t see a screen for any another terminal, so I assumed I was with everyone else. The wait to go through the metal detector was very long, and I didn’t realize I was in the wrong place until my flight was boarding. Turns out, I was supposed to divine the presence of another screen, down the hall in the other direction, where my flight’s information waited for me. It was the first time I’ve ever had to run through an airport to catch a flight, but I made it (even though I had to go through security again) . . .

When I got to Frankfurt, I felt like I had pressed the magic Easy Button from Staples (or Office Depot, or wherever). Everything made sense. I didn’t even have to leave the airport to get a train – they were downstairs. After Kyiv, where it took Clara and me the better part of a day just to drop our bags off at our hotel, Western Europe seemed pretty nice. I had another moment of mild panic when I missed my connecting train to Heidelberg, only to be told that it didn’t matter – I could just get on the next one, with the same ticket. No problem.

It helped that most people spoke English – because I hardly speak a word of German. Here’s evidence of how clueless I am: when I thought I was approaching the “Neckar,” my hotel, I was disappointed to see a sign for “Eingang Hotel” instead. It turns out “eingang” means “lobby.”

The next day, I caught a train to Stuttgart, to go to the Christmas market there. This is where my ignorance of German, and complete lack of any sense of direction, caught up with me. It may be the most lost I’ve ever gotten myself . . . and it was bad enough that I’ve sworn never to trust myself with directions again, ever, and to take taxis whenever I’m not one hundred percent sure where I’m going, always, and I ask you all to help hold me to that promise in the future . . .

Once I had found my way out of the train station (harder than you might think), I didn’t know how to find the Christmas market. I asked a taxi driver, and he wouldn’t drive me – he said it was just a five minute walk “that way.” At least, that’s what I think he said. Yes, I was attempting to understand German: mistake number one. I understood “funf minut,” but I must have missed something crucial, afterwards. I was supposed to meet Mary at the station later in the day, so I thought it would be smart to figure out how to walk to the market and back. He pointed, and I followed, and soon realized that there was no obvious path to walk on, that would take me in the direction I wanted to go. There was only a tunnel, for cars. There was a sidewalk for pedestrians inside the tunnel, so I decided to go ahead and take that. Mistake number two. Walking through the dark tunnel, with cars speeding by, I was starting to get nervous, but there were reassuring green signs every couple yards that told me how many meters were left to walk. At least, that’s what I thought they were telling me. Turns out they were counting down the 300 meters to a door, where another set of signs began. I didn’t want to be in the dark tunnel anymore, so I chose the door. Mistake number three. I saw something about an alarm written on a sign, but I took a chance, and no alarm went off. However, the door did not open onto daylight, as I had hoped.

It opened to a dark stairwell with a large green light flashing above yet another door. I decided to go for it, and ran for the door, hoping not to set off the alarm. On the other side of that door, was a white cement tunnel, lit by fluorescent lights, with a dead-end to my left and no visible end to my right. It was then that I started to feel like a victim in a horror movie, or suspense thriller. Yelling “No!” didn’t help any more than it does in the movies, so I turned right and started walking quickly, with rising panic. Thankfully, there were more little green signs telling me how far I had to walk – without those signs I really might have lost it. I finally reached the end, and daylight, but I was pretty traumatized.

It didn’t get worse after that, but it didn’t get much better. It seemed like I was approaching the old part of town, because of how pretty and traditional the buildings looked. Trusting appearances (or my ability to judge them): mistake number four. When I realized that I had gone way more than five minutes in the wrong direction, there were no taxis, so I kept walking. It was pretty deserted, most of the shops were closed, and I walked for about an hour. Finally someone helped me to a bus stop where I caught a bus right back to where I had started. I went back to the line of taxis and asked again for the Christmas market. When the taxi driver started to point in the direction I should go, I refused, and sat down in the backseat, planning to tell Mary to just catch a cab when she came.

My day improved after that! I had some glühwein right away, and started looking around the market. There was an ice skating rink, and some rides for kids, and many many stands, stretching through the center. Each stand had a tent with a display on the top: a big nativity scene, or Santa in his sled, or angels, etc. There were organ grinders, and people playing Christmas carols on trumpets and flutes. There was also a lot of food: crepes with nutella; waffles with everything; sausages; various kinds of “wurst”; gingerbread; candy and caramel apples; nuts; etc. etc. It was pretty great. I shopped for ornaments all day, going up and down the stands to see where the prettiest things were. I realized that not just some of my family’s Christmas decorations come from Germany . . . but almost all. Everything I saw there I recognized, which was nice, and made me less inclined to buy absolutely everything in sight – not only do I have it at home, but I have first-hand experience in how tiring it can be to glue the little man back onto the rocking horse for the millionth time, so I decided I only needed so many little wooden ornaments.

By mid-afternoon, I hadn’t heard from Mary and her supposedly international phone, so I decided to return to the train station. This time, a man showed me how to take the metro – literally one stop away. Sigh. It took me a little longer to find the central part of the train station – I swear, I don’t know why Stuttgart confused me so much – but I did, and got a ticket back to Heidelberg. I was wasting time before catching my train, when my phone rang (programmed to “Good King Wenceslaus” . . . yes, I win at Christmas spirit). It was Mary’s step-dad, calling to tell me that she was at The Body Shop in the station! Her plane was delayed and her phone hadn’t worked, so she called my sister to tell her where she was, accidentally calling collect and subsequently identifying herself as “Dammit, dammit, not collect.” I found her, we got another ticket, and we were on our way!

The next day we went to the Christmas market in Nuremburg! It was very nice, and the selection was even better than Stuttgart’s. Mev got to experience the fabulous market food, and I took off on a mission to find a nativity set. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with nativity sets, and ours at home is German, so I thought I’d get one of my own. I finally found a stand with beautiful sets, and in a corner I found one as pretty as the one we have, hand-carved, etc. Turns out – nice sets like that now cost over 1,000 euros!!! It took me a second to snap out of my Ukrainian mindset where 1,000 isn’t all that much ($1 = 5 UAH, one euro is a little more), but I came to my senses. Later, I found out that my grandparents bought ours in East Germany – before the wall fell. Yeah, not going to find that price again. However, with five minutes to go before the market closed at 2, I did buy a nice, simpler set, substantially cheaper – the figures are hand-carved, but not painted, just blonde wood.

That day was Christmas Eve, and I was worried about finding a place to eat when we got back to Heidelberg. We wanted to go to the old town, so we could find the candlelit Jesuit service a friend of Mary’s told her about. For some reason, I led the way, and we crossed the bridge into what we thought was old town. I know, I hadn’t quite learned my lesson. However, this time, even though we weren’t where we wanted to be, it worked out in our favor! We walked by a very nice restaurant, poked our heads in, and there was one table left for two people! Afterwards we found a church having a candlelit service, though not the one we were looking for, and we sat in the back and sang “Stille Nacht.” When it was over, someone told us we were on the wrong side of the river, and we found a taxi back . . .

We got to see two more services, including one in the Jesuit church. German churches are beautiful at Christmas: they have enormous Christmas trees in the front, by the altar, usually decorated just with white lights and hand-made straw ornaments. There were simple Christmas trees like that everywhere: in squares, restaurants, everywhere you looked. (There was even an advent wreath in the Hard Rock Café.) I loved it, but, as I told Mary, I didn’t really feel surprised at how many decorations there were, because my holiday-obsessed brain registered it as the way things ought to be.

On Christmas Day, I was nervous again that nothing would be open. Again, I was wrong! There were cafes open, and in Karlsplatz there was a little ice skating rink, with stands selling hot chocolate, crepes, etc.! We went skating and I found out how bad I am at skating in “ice hockey skates.” Afterwards, we decided to walk up Philosofenwegen, a path that crisscrosses up a steep hill across the river from the old town, at the top of which is a beautiful view of Heidelberg. It was a fairly difficult hike, at least for us, but it was fun to see everything from up high.

The next day we stayed in Heidelberg to see the castle, which you must ride a funicular to get to. It was snowing, and very pretty, though there’s not much left of the castle. The castle boasts a massive wine barrel – as in, it takes up a very large, two-story room built specifically to house it. We also found the footprint outside that Mary’s friend told her to look for – legend has it that a knight leapt from a high window to save a princess when the building was on fire, and the stone was so hot that his foot left a dent. We then took the funicular to the top of the mountain, where we hiked around more, and had a pretty view of Heidelberg in the snow.

The day after that, we took a train to Cologne, or Köln, to see the pretty cathedral. It was indeed very pretty, and difficult to fit into one shot when taking a picture. We saw the Rheine, and discovered that there was a chocolate museum nearby, which, of course, we went to. It was sort of like the tours I took of the Guinness and Jameson factories while studying in Ireland – lots of detailed explanation of how the product is made, all of which went over my head, and a free sample at the end. Still not clear on whether cocoa beans are fermented or not, and why.

Funny note on “German English”: I thought I had left the land of strange translations, but there are some to be found in Germany as well. Trains instruct you to “alight in the direction of travel."

Our last day in Germany, we traveled all the way down near the Swiss border to Neuschwanstein, or, the “Disney castle.” It’s the castle that the Disney castle is based on! Whee!! It’s beautiful, especially when everything’s covered in snow. Neuschwanstein (which I slowly learned to pronounce “noi-shvan-shtine,” with Mary’s help) means New Swan Stone, and was built by Ludwig Something, a few meters away from his parents’ castle, Hohenschwangau, overlooking Swan Lake. We got a package tour of both castles, which were very interesting. The castles were used recently enough to have plumbing and heating systems, albeit primitive ones (though I’m certainly not in any position to judge, right now). It took Ludwig seventeen years to finish Neuschwanstein, and he lived in it only a few months before mysteriously drowning. It was open to the public as a museum within a year.

So, that was my last day in Germany! Very early the next morning, I shouldered my souvenirs and started the all-day trip back to Bratslav, where I arrived around 9:30 that night. It was a wonderful, wonderful trip, fulfilling a life-long dream to see Germany at Christmastime, and it was especially great to see Mary! So thank you to Mary for coming, and thank you to my family for helping to send me there!!

I’ve been taking it easy here in Ukraine, where the holiday season has just begun. On the day before New Year’s Eve, my baba Nina took me to the square in Bratslav to see the New Year’s shindig there. There was a tree, and what appeared to be traveling entertainers who performed various songs, and played games with the kids. They had dance contests, etc., and Did Moroz (Father Frost) and his granddaughter passed out prizes. And what would a New Year’s celebration be without a celebrity cross-dresser impersonator? Vira Seduchka is a popular singer, and one of the 10 Ukrainian celebrities that you see on TV for every single thing that ever happens. He/she also did well in this year’s Eurovision contest, I hear. Anyhow, the impersonator pranced and sang, and shrieked “Bratslav! Ah!!” every five seconds, to everyone’s delight (men dressed as women is big humor here).

For New Year’s Eve, I was wined and dined at three different houses, which ended up being way too much food, but I made it through. When I went to drop off a gift with my old neighbors, they insisted I stay for vodka and dinner, after which I came home to holubtsi (cabbage rolls) with Nina. At 10:30, my coordinator, Lyudmila, and her husband and daughter, Yana, came to pick me up for the party at their house. There was a large spread of food, as well as wine and champagne, and I quickly began to feel so full I could barely move. The TV was on, showcasing the aforementioned 10 celebrities and various others, who performed songs and skits to celebrate New Year’s. The strangest part was when a man and woman sang Gershwin’s “Summertime” . . . except not. The man, a large guy with white hair in a pony-tail, walked on stage and sang “Summertiiiime . . . I’m a super-heroooo,” and was then joined by a tiny, glittery woman who sang that she was “a beautiful lady.” They would occasionally get close to the original lyrics – “So hush, little baby” – but then go back to singing bizarre nonsense – “And come kiss me now!” Very, very strange. Lyudmila decided that we should go to a café for ice cream, at 3:30 in the morning, but I convinced her that I really was full, and managed to make it home without exploding.

That’s about it! Thank you very much to Kristen, Aunt Archer, Dan S., Aunt Mary, Rebecca B. and Mrs. Keeley for their wonderful Christmas cards! They’re decorating my desk now. Thanks again to my family for the wonderful Christmas trip, and to my travel-buddy Mary. She pointed out that every time she’s come to visit me somewhere, it’s been freezing cold. She’s right. So, if anyone wants to invite us someplace really warm, it would be appreciated . . .

Happy 2008 to everyone, and keep in touch!!

Love, Virginia


At January 10, 2008 10:04 PM, Blogger Mary said...

Yaaaaaay, Germany! I finally ran into Jeannette today and told her how awesome her notes on Heidelberg were - she seemed pleased.
What do you think is the best way for us to exchange pictures? Obvi I will send you hard copies of whatever good comes out of the disposable (haven't bothered to develop those yet).
I'm so glad we went, and everyone is mad jealous of us - whee!


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