Frohe Weihnachten aus Deutschland!

Merry Christmas from Germany!

Christmas 2013 was an untraditional one, to say the least.  Even though I’ve now been away from home for Easter five times, this was the first time in my life that I wasn’t with my family for Christmas.  It was sad to be apart from them, but the Stark family were such wonderful hosts that I couldn’t feel gloomy for long.

As I mentioned before, Christmas Eve is the day of holiday festivities in Germany, so Christmas Day is usually relaxing and relatively uneventful.

In typical form, Katharina had yet another fun surprise up her sleeve, so off we went to visit the beautiful Burg Hohenzollern, just a short drive from her parents’ home.  This is castle #3 of the trip, if you’re keeping track.  Katharina kept saying, “Now, I don’t want you to think that Germany is nothing but castles!” but then off we’d trot to another castle the next day.


Katharina described this as a true fairy tale castle.  Like the iconic castle in Disneyland, Burg Hohenzollern was created in the style of the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, meant to represent the ideal of a medieval castle.

Like so many others, Burg Hohenzollern has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over the years.  The original castle was built in the eleventh century, but the current structure is the third incarnation to stand on this spot.  (Is incarnation the right word?  I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who.  Wait, not possible.)


Timo met us in the parking lot and we decided to skip the shuttle bus in favor of walking up the steep woodsy path to the castle.  The huffing and puffing was worth it for the views!


We entered through the gates and spent a little time poking around on our own.  The castle is all spires and battlements and ivy-covered walls and is truly exactly what you think a castle should be.




There’s a walkway that follows the wall almost the entire way around the castle and which looks onto some amazing panoramas of the German countryside.  These are the kind of sights that make me really feel like I’m in a different country!  There’s something magical about looking on to a landscape that you’ve never ever seen before.



It started to mist a little bit, so we moved on to the interior parts of the castle and spied this secret little courtyard complete with spiral staircase and miniature Christmas tree.  It was the second time that month I felt like I was at Hogwarts at Christmas!


We took a guided tour of the interior of the castle, but no photos were allowed (that’s where I learned the phrase “Bitte nicht fotografieren,” actually).  The castle is so well preserved, including the original hardwood floors, that we all had to wear gigantic felt slippers over our shoes that made us look like clowns and shuffle along like penguins.

After our tour, the rain had picked up a bit, so we didn’t dawdle before skipping back down the mountain to the car.

We all spent a relaxed evening at Katharina’s house, enjoying dinner together and looking up places in the US and New Zealand in Katharina’s dad’s atlas.  After some more Christmas cookies and proper German beer, Timo, Katharina, her brother, Johannes, and I broke out the poker chips for a few good old fashioned rounds of cards.


Timo taught us all how to play Texas Hold’em and before we knew it, we’d whiled away nearly four hours at the kitchen table.  And guess who was the big winner?


Katharina brought it home!  I’m not destined to be a poker champ.  I’m too much of a risk-taker (or I’m just bad).

That night, Katharina, her mom, and I stayed up late chatting in the living room – about New Zealand, Germany, England, their cultural differences, recipes, and everything in between.  It was a lot of fun to get to know another culture and spend some time with such a wonderful German family.

The next morning, we made sure to snap a self-timer “family” photo before Katharina and I left for Stuttgart so I could catch my flight back to London.


I loved getting to learn more German during the trip, and I was especially touched when Katharina’s dad, who was not very comfortable with English and mostly relied on Katharina to translate for him during my visit, hugged me and said perfectly, “Goodbye, Julie, see you again!”  Saying goodbye to Katharina reminded me of how sad it was to do so in New Zealand, but we’re already planning on her visiting London sometime during the coming year, so hopefully our next reunion isn’t too far away!

My flight to London connected through Brussels, so it was a bit of a mindbender to switch so rapidly from using my tiny bit of broken German in the Stuttgart airport, to the French that I haven’t used in a few years in Belgium, and back to good ol’ English once I arrived in London.  It actually felt a bit odd to understand everybody I came across (and vice versa) back in England.

Even though it was a bit nerve-racking at first, I think it was a really valuable experience to visit a country where I didn’t speak the language.  English speakers especially tend to have it pretty easy in world travel, so I think it’s important to remember that we’re not the center of the world and that sometimes we’d do well to make an effort in learning the language and customs of other cultures.

Here’s to more of that in 2014!

Christmas Eve in Tübingen

On December 24th, I woke up to this beautiful sunrise out of Katharina’s window:


Not a bad incentive to get your day going, right?

We had a leisurely breakfast and multiple rounds of tea and coffee for everyone.  Katharina normally lives a couple hours south of her parents, where she has a teaching job, and her brother and sister were also home from their university studies in other cities.  I could tell that Katharina’s parents loved having their three children home again, and meals were fun, chatty family affairs.  They are all pretty good English speakers and made me feel right at home.  I would never expect them to speak English just for me (I was the one visiting their country, after all), but it was really thoughtful that they made the effort, and it allowed them to teach me a bit of German along the way!

After breakfast, Katharina and I drove just a few miles away from her parents’ little village to the main town centre of Tübingen.  We walked over the bridge that crosses the River Neckar, the same river that flows through Heidelberg.  Katharina told me that they have punting races around this bend in the river every year!


One of the loveliest sights in Tübingen is this row of brightly painted houses right along the river.  It reminded me of Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina (I’ve never actually been there, but my grandparents have a cross-stitch of it that I always liked to look at when I was younger).


Tübingen is such a quintessentially old-European town.  Apparently, the Alstadt (old town) is one of the only completely intact historic old towns in Germany.  The winding cobbled streets are lined by tall, narrow timber-frame houses and on Christmas Eve, the village centre was still packed with Christmas markets and fresh produce stalls.

Satsumas are a type of mandarin orange that are extremely popular in Europe, especially during the winter (they’re also called Christmas oranges).  I love how markets always leave the dark green leaves on the fruit like this – it’s such a pretty contrast.


Tübingen is a university town, and since most of the students were home for the holidays at that point, the markets weren’t too crowded and it was easy to wander around without getting stuck.  We walked up to the highest point in the village to see the castle, Schloß Hohentübingen, that’s now part of the local university.  I’ve definitely been racking up my tally of castle views lately!



The castle looked out over the village and river valley, and to the forested hills in the distance.


We walked through the main courtyard of the castle, which now serves as art and history museums, research labs, and a few classroom spaces for the university.  It’s also home to the famous “Wild Horse” sculpture, which is one of the oldest man-made artifacts ever found.


I thought that giant head looked like Grawp.


The clouds scampered away as we continued exploring the castle and found our way to some of the castle wall walks and gardens.


I wanted to live here!  Look at that beautiful river in the background.


After our wander through the Alstadt of Tübingen, Katharina and I drove back to Wurmlingen and stopped by her grandmother’s house to visit with her family for awhile.  Another of her uncles was there along with his three-year-old son who was entertaining everybody with chocolate-fueled antics.  Some of her family spoke English and some didn’t, but regardless of the language barrier, everyone was so sweet and welcoming.

That evening, Katharina and I went to the Christmas Eve service at the local church with her father and sister.  I could actually follow along with most of the service, and I even knew the German words to “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”)!  I knew there must’ve been a reason we had to practice that growing up.


After church, we returned to Katharina’s parents’ house for a big family dinner.  And this was when something very, very beautiful happened.  I was introduced to raclette.  It’s apparently very popular in Europe, especially around the holidays, but I had never heard of it!  There’s basically a big two-tier griddle that goes in the middle of the table (the big black thing in the photos), and everyone picks their favourites from a wide selection of raw meat and seafood that’s laid out in bite-size chunks.


We had pork, beef, lamb, chicken, salmon, tuna… and yep, that’s octopus.  There are veggies and potatoes that are served as side dishes, but my favourite part was the cheese.  See those little black things with handles that sort of look like sand shovels?  You pile yours up with olives, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and whatever else you feel like, then fold this big slab of raclette cheese over the top and stick it in the side of the raclette grill, underneath the top level where all the meat is browning.


Everyone throws their meat on the grill and starts melting their cheese all at once, so it’s a very interactive, communal way of eating – I loved it!  It was fun, too – you’re guaranteed to run into some shenanigans when someone accidentally grabs somebody else’s meat from the grill, or some squidgy octopus goes bouncing out of reach of your fork.

After dinner, Katharina and I Skyped our friend Erika to wish her a happy birthday, and our dynamic trio from the roadtrip we took around the South Island of NZ was (almost) reunited!



It was so much fun to all talk together again, reminisce about our past adventures, and daydream about a real reunion someday!  We also called our other NZ mate (and one of my flatmates) Chelsea, before cutting it short as the rest of the family began to wander back in for Christmas festivities.


In Germany, the main day of celebration is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.  We all gathered around their pretty Christmas tree with coffee and Christmas cookies and prepared to open presents.


I was just really enjoying being in such a cozy family atmosphere and was happy to watch them all exchange gifts, but Katharina and her mom had gone way overboard, and I had almost as many gifts sprinkled under the tree as anybody else!  It was wholly unnecessary but still really, really sweet of them.

The absolute best were these two calendars with are now hanging side by side next to my desk:


The one on the right is from Katharina’s mom, and it has lovely scenes of Tübingen for every month of the year (including punting next to the rainbow row on the front!).  The calendar on the left is handmade by Katharina and it’s packed with photos of us during our time in New Zealand – some of which I’d never even seen before!  It was especially sweet because Katharina and her brother and sister make a calendar of like this of family photos for their parents every Christmas, and it was really touching to be included in their family tradition.

Between these two and my amazing Geneseo photo calendar, I don’t think I’m in any danger of a lack of beautiful scenes to gaze upon… or of forgetting what month it is.

Christmas in London

Since the Brits don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, the Christmas season feels like it started a long time ago here.  There’s none of that silly “wait until December 1st” nonsense about when you can start listening to Christmas music, and the city has been decorated for weeks.  Christmastime in the big city, regardless of which big city it is, is always so festive and energizing, and London is no exception!


Covent Garden market is all decked out in gigantic Christmas baubles, with a few other holiday staples in place as well…


Like a twenty-foot Rudolph topiary, of course.

The shop windows are decked out in fake frost and holly garlands, and the pubs are advertising Christmas high tea and mulled & spiced everything (yes please!).  Stacks of old-fashioned sweets are piled up in storefronts (although somehow I’ve yet to find those chalky peppermint sticks, which I love).


There’s a pub right near school that has adorned the sidewalk in both directions with archways of live winter greenery!


Everything is bright & glittering and even the mannequins are being friendly!


A few weeks ago, some friends and I wandered over to Oxford Street after class to watch them ceremonially switch on the Christmas lights.  We stopped to admire the giant Christmas tree in Covent Garden (a teeny tiny baby compared to Rockefeller Center, but still quite nice).


I personally loved the icicle lights that are strung all throughout Covent Garden and down King’s Way.  They twinkle very subtly and are supposed to look sort of like snow falling… it’s a nice effect.

covent garden

We carried on down to the main event, which was taking place outside Selfridges, one of London’s big department stores.  In retrospect, it might have been better to watch from a bit farther away, because the streets were packed with everyone trying to see Jessie J perform before she switched on the lights (they always have a guest celebrity do it, but she wasn’t really a draw for us).

Now, this is a £2 million light display that they’ve been assembling since June and which stretches nearly a full mile through central London… but it still just takes a little flip of a switch and was a wee bit anticlimactic in the end.


Again, these lights are snow-themed, and they don’t look that exciting in these photos, but it really is a wonderful effect when you stand in Oxford Street and get a straight view down the entire way.


We hung about for a bit before heading back the way we came.  We all wished the switch-on celebration had included hot chocolate or roasted chestnut stands because our fingers and toes were pretty chilly by that point.


… don’t worry, hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts abound elsewhere in London town.

Somerset House, which is right on my quick walk from the tube station to campus, is another spot all dolled up in its Christmas finest.  I haven’t gone ice skating there yet, but I did duck in one day last week to take a peek.


Luckily, I got there right in time for the best part: the zamboni man!  I even got to teach someone the word “zamboni.”  Just spreading the wealth, folks.


Amity and I had another Christmas-y jaunt just last night, when we took a quick break from schoolwork and took the tube a few stops to Sloane Square.  I take the bus home once in a while, and ever since the holiday decorations have gone up in Sloane Square, I’ve been wanting to go see them!


I just love the huge sparkly snowflakes floating in the trees that are lit up blue from within.


We walked around for a while and discovered the best festive window display I’ve seen yet.  I think it was Peter Jones, who had a whole herd of cold-weather critters made entirely out of homegoods from the store!  Some of the cutest were these red squirrels made out of tea sets and the reindeer made out of vacuums.


There were also hand towel turkeys, kitchen utensil eagles, and a life size Wii polar bear.  It was pretty darn creative.

We took a last look around and headed back to the tube station.


Narnia!  No sorry, there I go with the lamp posts again.  It doesn’t even make sense; it’s always winter but never Christmas in Narnia.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first little tour of London at Christmas – I’m sure there will be more festive features to come!  I’m going to go take it easy for the rest of the night because I’m gunning for some theatre tickets that are going to be released in the morning and I need to have my wits about me.  Last week I got a ticket for the Monty Python Live show next summer which apparently sold out in 43 seconds, so my reflexes are pretty hot right now, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Stay tuned…

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