Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmastime in Germany

This post could have been titled "Germs Come from Germany," but that would have been unfair. I'm pretty sure I caught my bug in Ireland, and then I'm pretty sure Jenny caught whatever I had during the trip. We went to Germany for five days, and between us, I think we were some degree of sick for seven of them.

So when I say we had a most excellent trip, even with being sick, let that tell you something.

Some bits of the trip I will save for Jenny to detail (because Zach was half phlegmzombie for those parts, perhaps). Because this trip was her first time in Germany, so many of the wonders that to me had become more typical when I lived there were much more remarkable to her. (Also, she's kind of a crusader-history nerd. So I leave her the Aachen Cathedral.) But I'll give it the old heave-ho and get the chronicle started.

We left for Düsseldorf right after I got out of class on Friday, December 16. (Okay, we headed straight for Dublin Airport. But you know.) We arrived more or less on time, which was late in the evening, and my language abilities were put immediately to the test when I had to get both of us through immigration by explaining our residency status in Ireland. Whoo boy.

We headed straight for the train station end of the airport to catch the ten-minute-or-so train to the city proper. I had bragged to Jenny about German punctuality (like, for two years), about how German trains were more precise than Japanese watches, about how even the moon crashing to Earth could not delay the Deutsche Bahn.

The little sign said the first train was fifteen minutes late. Then twenty. Then twenty five. Then forty five. So we went to another platform. That little sign didn't even bother to guess how late its train would be.

So much for that. (To be fair, there was a snow storm trundling through Germany that night...which is apparently more catastrophic than a moon-crash.)

Finally we made it to D-dorf, where we got a nice extended nighttime stroll around the block looking for our hotel... which, as it turns out, was actually connected to the train station. But Jenny got to catch a glimpse of Germany!

We crashed pretty much right away. (Remember, I was feeling tickles in my throat!) In the morning, we were educated about/reminded of the glorious spread that is German breakfast. (Absolutely nothing like an Irish breakfast, and much better cold than its insular counterpart.) Brötchen, fruit, cheeses, yogurt...

We took the train to Hagen and transferred there to the Siegen-bound train. This route was my weekly regular for a year, and the first time I felt I was getting to introduce Jenny to the whole other world and time of my life that was living in Germany. And what a perfect day for the ride, too -- the snow grew ever thicker as we traveled south through the wooded hills and tiny towns that dot the rails.

Once we arrived in Siegen, I showed Jenny around a bit before we met some old friends. I showed her the vast expanse of the city center... about which there's not much else to say. We had coffee and tea at a cafe in one of the shopping galleries, again testing my linguistic capacity (Wie sagt man "lactose free milk" auf Deutsch, anyway?). Then we met Jochen, Petra, and Finn, who were my surrogate-German-family while I was there. Jochen and Petra looked precisely as they had three years ago, and Finn did, too... except for growing as boys will between being 4 and 7 years old.

We had coffee and snacks, then Jochen took us walking up the big hill in Siegen and to... the Weihnachtsmarkt! A fine and upstanding German Christmas market, complete with the traditional Christmas teepees. (Apparently they missed the boat on an ice skating rink this year.)

(Here's a video clip of the Dixie Santas, who plucked away the cold night charming everyone in the Christmas Market with their oompa-clink-clink sound!)

Then, after a tour of the rest of the hill, including the High Palace (the Lower Palace surrounds the Christmas market), we met Petra and Finn for dinner, along with some of the teachers from my old school -- Stephan (with his pregnant wife, Nadine) and Gaby (and her new husband, Rasim). We had glasses of Krombacher, the local beer, and Jenny and I both ordered plates of Siegerländer Krüstchen, the signature local meal. It's a schnitzel with a fried egg on top (translation: chicken-fried pork chop), served with fries and in this case (thank goodness) a salad. Yum.

That night, Jochen stayed up talking with us in his dining room for a good long while, telling us the history of his home and their plans for expanding into the neighboring unit. The house has belonged to the Haardt family since Jochen's grandfather bought it in the early 1900s. It survived heavy bombing in World War II, and when American and other Allied troops arrived in Siegen, they commandeered the building to house troops (first American, then Belgian) and store goods in the basement. (He remembers being a kid in the '60s or '70s and still seeing boxes in the basement labeled "US Army" and the like.) I'd never heard the history before, and it fascinated me.

We slept in said basement that night, and when we woke, the picturesque sliding glass door onto the back patio (they live on a hill) revealed the most beautiful and peaceful snowfall. It was not heavy or thick, but coated everything and continued to fall as we gazed out on it. Once we finally tore ourselves from the view, we enjoyed an even better German breakfast, quatsched for a couple hours, and then the family invited us on a hike through the woods. Jenny is better at describing scenery and landscape (and enormous deer) than I am, so I leave it to her!

Honestly, words like picturesque, pristine, winter wonderland all seem lame compared to what we actually experienced. So for just a moment, try to imagine you are the size of a pea, running around the powder-sugared paddocks of a minty mountain bundt cake! Snow sloshed up past our knees! Finn slithered, slipped, and dived in and out of snow-drifts like some kind of arctic seal! Zach forgot to mention Tara, Finn's dog! A cuddly-wiggly black labradoodle who also blasted in and out of the tundra like a black furr-dragon!

Jochen also made sure to lead us to the spring, or the source of the River Sieg (on which Siegen nestles). I was told to drink several cupped handfuls of the spring water because those who drink from the source are sure to come back one day. I made sure to get my fill of water fresher than life itself!

Our snow-strolling took us to the ranger's station-equivalent where there was a gingerbread-like cabin with a cafe inside. Like Hansel and Gretel, Zach and I ordered a heaping mound of oozy-warm pancakes drizzled in fruit and syrup. We guzzled hot coffee and thanked our hosts again and again for a magical day. But they would not accept our thanks...just yet, for around the back of the gingerbread cabin, there was a feeding station for the deer who inhabit the nearby wildlife preserve. Lucky for us, the deer were hungry that day. We stood on the observatory deck and marveled at the nonchalant creatures with their graceful legs and moose-like antlers. Okay, "marveled" is way more dignified than what actually happened: upon seeing the deer, I squealed out with toddler-like glee, "Reindeer!"

That evening -- later than intended, but well worth the delay -- we took the train over to Cologne. Jenny the Gothicist got to see the Cologne Cathedral for the first time, and they're still picking bits of her jaw out of the pavement. (Heethzz not kidding. My jaw theeriuzzly droppethd.)

We checked into our surprisingly nice B&B hotel and went to check out the first of many Christmas markets in Cologne. Where Siegen's is more quaint and traditional, this one (set right against the side of the Cathedral) is more modern and burns with the fury of millions of tiny lights. We enjoyed more glühwein and food, browsed the stalls, and left promptly when we were kicked out because it was Sunday and everything closes early on Sunday, if it's even open in the first place.

Monday morning, we met our friends Gabe and Leighanna at the main station. Not only was Gabe an old school chum from my sister's class, but also I tutored him and Leighanna in German this summer because they were moving to Hannover for Gabe's graduate school. They came down to visit us, and we had a heck of a good time! We explored the same market for a while, then ventured inside the cathedral to poke around. We climbed to the top of one of the spires, which is I don't even know how many hundreds of steps, and enjoyed the views over the Rhine and the rest of Cologne provided by the highest points in all the city.

In continuing our beer quest, we had to have the traditional Cologne brew, kölsch. It's served chilled in thin 2 cl glasses, and in theory they just keep serving it until you signify you're done. (I still don't know the proper etiquette for indicating your belly is full.) Our waiter was a bit put off by something, I think, and so we didn't receive the typical Cologne bar service. But the beer was still excellent.

The rest of the day was more or less Christmas-market-madness. We visited the market in the Altstadt (old city), which appears more rustic and has a theme of gnomes. (That's where Jenny and I tried roasted chestnuts for the first time, and I introduced her to Reibkuchen with applesauce!) (hashbrowns mit applesauce!) We walked along the river and visited a market on a boat (where we got our adorable ski-girl and ski-boy!). We had more kölsch in another brewery, and then went to yet another market in the Neustadt. By then, I think all of us were worn down and tired of market food...

Gabe and Leighanna left for home, and we left for crashing into bed. But first -- well, we might have thrown a pebble or two into an old suspended boat to see how many pigeons were nested inside it. The answer: A TON OF PIGEONS.

Tuesday we got out of Cologne for a while and visited Aachen, over by the Belgian border. We traveled there on a high-speed ICE (inter-city express) train, just to experience the luxury of nice seats and a smooooooth ride. We both wanted to see the cathedral there, but particularly Jenny, because she's so well-versed in the religious and political history of the area.

Just like raw oysters, I am convinced Crusader history is an acquired taste. So for those who do not savor it as I do, suffice it to say that the cathedral in Aachen is the epitome of the kind of elegance and splendor that inspired, girded, provoked, and bolstered the barbarous Crusaders who ventured out of modern day France (mostly) and went all the way to Jerusalem thinking they could liberate it from Muslim control. The effect is like this: let's say the fanciest place you've ever seen is a Hilton hotel. Then you travel far away from home and you wander into the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. Yeah...that's what it was like for the Crusaders when they went from their Gothic cathedrals to the Byzantine-inspired cathedrals of the east and farther east. Check out these videos we took while inside the Aachen Cathedral and tell you don't get a little dizzy from all the jeweled and gemmed mosaics! Just don't get so dizzy you go off and pillage some faraway land... 

Last fun-fact about Aachen: it is the final resting place of Charlemagne, or Karl der Grosse!

Jenny by this point had started to morph into a phlegmzombie too, so we began the next and greatest linguistic challenge yet: describing symptoms and understanding medications in a foreign language. (Fun fact: mucus = Schleim. Sounds like "slime." Sounds about right.) That evening, back in Cologne, we went to a very fun little restaurant/cafe/bar around the corner from our place, where we got to enjoy the Käsespätzle, which is like German mac and cheese. I don't know what it was about the little place, but we really enjoyed the vibe of it. (That is, once I could decipher the hand-written menus.) (And, and, let's not forget that after days of being surrounded by a foreign language I did not speak, I managed to order my meal and drink in German! Proof: Zach is one of the best German tutors you can get!)

The next morning, Wednesday, was the beginning of our day of departure from Düsseldorf Airport. So naturally, we decided to visit Bonn.

They had another cathedral, which felt more provincial than Aachen's (though that's not saying much) which we wanted to visit. We took a walk through their Christmas market, though I think we were still too sausaged-out to have anything more than pretzels. We decided, because why the heck not, to find Beethoven's birth house and give it a gander. Yeah, that didn't go so well. (Not our fault. The signs guiding us that way pointed in some very inaccurate, and im-Germanly-precise, directions!!) At least we saw the exterior... after we re-emerged from the 1970s!

We caught the train then to Düsseldorf, and because we had several hours still to burn before our flight, we took a walk around the town. We saw a bit of the Altstadt, which is probably the more beautiful part of D-dorf, but honestly, by this point we neither one were feeling up to much. We of course had to have dinner, and of course with it we had to sample the Düsseldorf brewing specialty: altbier, the antithesis of kölsch.

But the real discovery came, ironically enough, in an Irish pub. We wanted something warm to drink, mostly for our throats. So we ducked into this place, and the Englishman behind the counter said he could cook us up a mean hot toddy. Changed our lives.

And that was more or less the end of that. We flew back to Dublin, took a bus back to Sandycove, and fell immediately and soundly into bed. We walked through the land that is, ultimately, Christmas and made it back again, just in time to celebrate the real holiday together. I'm pretty sure we plan to do so with hot toddies in hand.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Candy Eggs?

Yes, you read that correctly. While taking a jolly sojourn through the Temple Bar district with our friend and fellow Trinitite, Jess, we came across an old fashioned Sweet Shop called Aunty Nellie's. It had a full-front window full of row upon row of glittering jars full of sugary delights!

In we went without a second thought. (Hey, we're stressed grad students nearing the end of a tough semester away from home, facing a wall of succulent candy. What's there to think about?)

For the Harry Potter fans out there, let me just say that we basically walked into Honeydukes Sweet Shop! We were in a palace of pasties, grotto of gummies, a citadel of suckers, a bastion of bars! Hang it, we were in heaven!

The two chaps working behind the counter were extraordinarily helpful and cheery (obviously sampling the goods). As the greatest show tunes hits of Julie Andrews warbled over the speakers, they tweezed little samples for us to try and answered our many questions about the unfamiliar sweets we might never have seen before. 

For example, I was struck by a bin full of white chocolate goodies that seemed to have been shaped like urns and crinkled up last-wills-and testaments. I asked about the need for funeral candy, which they explained, after a lot of laughter, was actually fish (what I thought were urns) and chips (the crinkled wills). In another example, Jess noted the huge glass jars of candy lining the shelves behind the counter. She ran to one like an eight-year-old with her own allowance and said with glee, "Are these big jars really just one euro and sixty cents?!" (She was ready to buy in bulk for that kind of bargain.) Unfortunately no, the price on the jar represented how much you could pay for a big handful of the treats inside. 

Jess selected her favorites: watermelon gummy candies dusted with sugar. Zach found oddly shaped citrus gummies--also dusted in sugar--which packed enough zing to make your left foot kick up! I was about to make my selection when I saw them: candy eggs! Apparently, fried egg candies are a big hit in Ireland! We were obliged with a sample, and I went home with a bag full! The eggs, trust me, are super delicious! Creamy, and the yolk is like a sweet sort of jam on top!

But this was not a post meant to taunt our dear readers with dreams about delicious candy! It actually got me thinking about how we've learned a lot about Irish culture through our experiences of its food.

These discoveries go beyond the differences you might see at your typical tourist-fare restaurant, where one might think that the Irish eat nothing but stews with soda bread or fish and chips with mushy peas. No, it was actually outside of the restaurants where Zach and I have seen the telling differences between Irish and American food culture. 

For example, at the grocery store, here are some of the things we have found (or not found):

Rather than chocolate syrup, there is "festive chocolate juice" or sometimes "dessert sauce,"

Jell-o comes pre-made in boxes. Yes, you can squeeze the little jell-o box and feel it all squish in side, 

Cookies are biscuits,

Potato chips are "crisps,"

Bread comes in half-loaves and is about two inches taller than bread back home, 

They. do. not. have. chocolate. chips. 

Granola bars are called flap-jacks,

There is something called pancakes, and they come pre-mixed in big jars but the picture on the label looks nothing like a pancake....

Eggs are not refrigerated at the store,

Bacon is called "rashers" and it comes in slices as big as pork chops,

Peanut butter comes in a teeny-tiny jar and costs about $7.00,

Eggplants are called aubergines,

Zucchinis are called courgettes,

Spaghetti sauce is always called pasta pomodoro sauce,

Marshmallows exist, but they do not puff when heated...they disintegrate into sugary bits (this was an issue for our Thanksgiving dinner when we tried to make yams with marshmallows on top).

And none of this is meant to sound like complaints. The differences are fascinating to us. And when we can't find something we're used to back home, it entices us to be more creative in our meal-planning and more adventurous in our sampling of foreign food, or learning to appreciate it beyond the typical American expectation.

It all comes down to attitudes. One the one hand, what I can tell you from grocery shopping is that the Irish feel very strongly about buying from local providers. Items grown or made in Ireland are clearly marked and we are darndest to help support the local economy! (Plus, nothing tastes as good as Irish butter!) I would love to see a much more aggressive campaign for shopping local back home (in actual grocery stores, and not just in the Sunflower Markets or farmers markets). 

On the other hand, they do not feel the same do-it-yourself zeal that Americans have when it comes to baking or cooking. In relation to that DIY attitude to food, I find that our deli sections are huge, and so are the aisles with baking goods and spices. 

Here, there are entire aisles of Uncle Ben's pre-made rice bags and meal-boxes. The frozen food section is full of pre-made meals and lots of what we call TV dinners. The baking aisle is relatively sparse, and does not have the same kind of Betty Crocker section of quick-mix goodies. I might conjecture--as just a tourist passing through--that perhaps the Irish approach meals with a sense of convenience, but what I have learned living here is that kitchens in America are different from those in Ireland and across much of Europe. On average, they are small. We have an oven the size and height of a kindergartner! There are meals I simply cannot even attempt like I would back home.

But the differences are what we came here for, when you think about it. Otherwise, we would have picked a grad program back home in the States, where the marshmallows puff and the ovens are as big as NFL full-backs.

So as we come across these differences, we can revel in them knowing that not only do they help us to learn about cultures and attitudes other than our own, but also remind us of what we have to look forward to when we go home.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Music and Language Lessons continued...

Well, Jenny pretty well covered much of the weekend's entertainment. Filling in the very few gaps I can think of before moving on to the evening's top billing...

Running along the very full and rapid Garavogue River in the heart of Sligo town (and it is a town--half an hour's steady walking takes you clear through) was the very popular French market, featuring a dozen or so booths with food and crafts and food and more food. We probably could have eaten all our meals at these stands. We had one crepe (pronounced "creepy," at least by us) with Nutella and bananas, and then our dinner Saturday evening was a savory crepe filled with cheese, spinach, cheese, mushrooms, and cheese. Yum.

Then, with our bellies full of cheese and our ears full of fantastic traditional Irish session music, we set off to find the Sligo Institute of Technology, a venue name that ought to set music lovers' hearts a'flutter. (What, you've never heard of it?) It rests outside what one could call the proper "town" part of Sligo, and we had a bit of an adventure finding the place, despite our best map-reading skills. But thanks to a friendly cabbie, who didn't even charge us for the short lift he gave us to the venue's front door, we made it well before showtime.

Now, all the hype surrounding Sligo IT Arena as a musical wonderland made perfect sense. The arena (no, seriously, they called it an "arena") was a basketball court with fewer bleacher seats than my high school gym. Of course, the floor itself was filled with folding chairs and a stage. Seats were unassigned, so we were able to grab two aisle chairs in the second row, just stage right. (If you are ever going to see a guitarist up close, shoot for stage right--audience left--as that provides the best view of the guitar and, consequently, the musician.)

The opening act was a Scottish woman we had never heard of. (I think I'm allowed to call her a girl, seeing as she's younger than me. That's the rule, right?) Her name is Rachel Sermanni, and she simply blew us away. She played some songs solo, then brought out her friends and bandmates -- three fiddlers and a keyboard player -- to finish off the set. We were entranced. Her voice is at once soulful and soft, airy and earthy. She could sing you lullabies and then wake you up by challenging the moon at midnight.

During the between-set break, we bought Rachel's CD (tragically, it has only four songs). Her bandmates stood talking at the front of the "arena." Jenny walked right up to them, told them how much we enjoyed the show, and got them to sign our CD envelope. They told her they all thought the show was rubbish and that the audience was bored by them -- to which Jenny said "Nonsense!" The audience had been blown away, we both thought, not knowing what to expect from this unknown artist. Then Jenny went back out to the merch table to meet Rachel herself. Tres cool!

Then the lights went down and Elvis Costello ran on stage. He is, if nothing else, an inveterate showman. Whether his songs were rocking or crooning, the man was high-energy. He played a one-man concert, which I gather is somewhat a rarity for him, and he did a stellar job at it. (Jenny and I both wondered if he had been influenced by Neil Young's solo Twisted Road tour. It's not every day you see a man on stage alone with an electric guitar.)

I'll link to some videos below and let them speak for themselves. But some of the highlights were his medley of a song we didn't know with the Depression-era "Brother Can You Spare A Dime," his rendition of "Good Year for the Roses" which we had just heard done by the Irish band that evening, and his slowed-down and mellow version of "Alison." I could go on... but then I'd just be giving a set-list.

When Elvis wrapped up for the night, we walked by the stage and one of the roadies tossed me a pick. Not bad, huh?

Outside, all the cabs had been claimed by people apparently more desperate to avoid the walk home than we were. So we undertook the late-night stroll through dark and wooded roads, until in the distance we saw the lights of the city. We were not out of the woods yet, though, so to speak. We still had to make it past the hordes of vampire hookers and zombie athletes.

It was the Saturday night of Halloween weekend, after all.