Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Les Vacances de Noël - New Years in Germany

Meike and I along the Kocher River in Schwäbisch Hall
With the Christmas portion of my winter break behind me, I boarded a train early on the morning of the 26th bound for my roommate Meike's house in Germany.  I always manage to get my fill of trains when I travel, and 7 hours later I arrived in Heilbronn, a short drive away from Öhringen, where Meike's family lives.  

Arriving at her house, I was greeted with lots of hugs, smiles, a champagne toast and even some German Christmas carols! How's that for a warm welcome?  Meike and I exchanged Christmas presents next to her real, life-size, nicely decorated Christmas tree (quite an upgrade from our drooping tree branch in Geneva!) and we spent the rest of the night relaxing and watching movies.

Here's a look at my "adoptive family" in Germany!

Meike's mom Heide and I in Waldenburg
Meike's dad, Jürgen, Meike, and her Opa (grandpa) in Rothenburg
Meike's younger brother Paddy
Meike's older brother Stefan
The weather was incredibly mild during my stay, so we were able to take advantage of the sunny days to get in quite a bit of sight-seeing.  We started off by checking out Öhringen, a town in the state of Baden-Württemberg in the southwestern part of the country.  Located on the site of an ancient Roman settlement known as Vicus Aurelii, the town is steeped in history, with buildings dating from Medieval and Renaissance periods, as well as an impressive Evangelical church.   Meike's dad works in the town hall, so we were even able to get an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the fancy rooms inside which escaped destruction during the war.

Some of my friends at the town zoo
The town is full of really cool old half-timbered buildings
Intricately carved wooden altarpiece inside Öhringen's huge church
The church's giant Christmas tree
Meike by the Oberes Tor, the gateway to the city dating from the 18th century
Pedestrian shopping zone...why can't Westfield have one of these??
Later on, Meike's parents took us to check out Schwäbisch Hall, a city located about half an hour from Öhringen.  Quite prosperous during the Middle Ages due to the city's link with local salt mines, Schwäbisch Hall provides an eclectic mix of ancient and modern architecture housing a wealth of shops and cafés.  Straddling the Kocher River, the city was a picturesque place to spend the afternoon.

Old houses along the banks of the Kocher
St. Michael's Church, consecrated in 1156 and completed during the early 16th century
We made a special stop at a museum to check out the city's most prized piece of art: the Holbein Madonna.  Painted nearly 500 years ago by Hans Holbein the Younger, "Madonna of the Lord Mayor Jacob Meyer zum Hasen" (more simply, the Holbein Madonna) the beautifully vivid painting is among the most important works by the Old Masters.  

The Holbein Madonna
Unfortunately, none of the art history classes I had taken in college focused too intensely on the Old Masters or many artists outside of France and Italy (which I find quite strange), but it was nice to discover a new artist and a beautiful work that I would have otherwise not known about. In the work, the Virgin Mary cradles the Christ child while her cloak spreads out around those kneeling below her, indicating that she is the "Virgin of Mercy."  The artist's great talent with oil paints is evident through the life-like details he gives to peoples' faces, the vibrant, billowing fabrics, and the ruffled carpet that you want to reach out and touch.  Purchased for the Würth Collection in 2012, the painting fetched a whopping $70 million (over 51  million) - the highest price ever paid in Germany for a piece of art.  Thankfully visitors can get nose-to-nose with the Virgin without shelling out that kind of money, as there is no charge to explore the museum's impressive collection of religious artwork.

Öhringen's also great because it has lots of green space and plenty of paths for scenic strolling.  We enjoyed numerous walks in the countryside, through orchards, fields, and copses of trees.  And as I love taking pictures, especially when there are puffy white clouds against a bright blue sky, it was the perfect opportunity for some nature shots of the German countryside...

Meike's mom took us up to the town of Waldenburg for some scenic views of the area - the town sits high atop a plateau overlooking the valley where they live.  

Waldenburg on its perch above the surrounding valley
The town of Waldenburg as seen from its hiking trails
We also went to the city of Heilbronn one night to catch the annual Weihnachtscircus, the Christmas Circus!  I don't think I had been to a "real" circus (besides Cirque du Soleil, but that's a whole different animal) since I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, so I was excited to compare my German circus experience to those I had seen in West Springfield as a kid.

It's Christmas Circus time!
No tacky red-and-yellow striped circus tents here! The show was inside a series of big white tents, including a Christmas market-like concession stand where you could buy everything from German beer to giant pretzels, roasted almonds and cotton candy.  Apparently people are very serious about being the first ones to pick their seats at the circus, because outside of a concert mosh pit, I don't think I've been squeezed and jostled around in a crowd quite like that before!

The circus tent
View from our seats
The circus was much more professional than the Big E circuses I had been to years before, and even the tent was nicer - no bad animal smells and you didn't feel like you were sitting in a barnyard.  They had lots of acts with animals - prancing ponies, zebras, lions & tigers; acrobats, tightrope walkers, and even the Ball of Death!  One thing that did surprise me was the lack of clowns, as there was no clown car full of goofy looking people with lots of make-up, red noses and colorful wigs.  Instead, there was a lone guy who did funny things to entertain the kids in between acts.  And another surprise: a live band provided the music! As it was a Christmas circus, after all, there were plenty of Christmas songs being played, and they sure sounded a lot better than the tinny, piped-in music you hear at the circus in the States.  The only downfall was my lack of understanding every time the ringmaster came out to introduce the acts in German - but I guess that comes with the territory!

Meike and I enjoying the show
The next thing I knew, it was already New Year's Eve (or Silvester, as it's called in Germany)!  Meike called up some of her friends and we had a little gathering at her house, complete with a gourmet dinner: raclette!

Meike, Corinna and I all dolled up for New Years
As far as I am aware, raclette doesn't really exist in the US - which is quite a shame because it is so delicious.  Basically, it's a community meal where you have this cheese-melting, grill-like contraption in the center of the table, and everyone roasts up their choice of ingredients and tops their plate off with a big bubbling chunk of raclette cheese. YUM!! 

New-school raclette
The world "raclette" is both the name of the dish and the type of cheese you use to make it.  Originating from the French verb racler (to scrape), and before the days of these fancy grill contraptions, a giant wheel of cheese would be heated up and then the outermost melty layer would be scraped off onto a plate of roasted potatoes, deli meats and veggies. 

Old-school raclette
Not only did we stuff ourselves with a delicious cheesy dinner, we also gathered in front of the TV to catch a German New Year special: a short comedy sketch from 1963 called "Dinner For One."  Much like Americans don't consider it to be Christmas without watching "A Christmas Story" on TV, here in Germany this skit is a must-see on New Year's Eve.  Although it's a British comedy sketch, and apparently relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, Germans have adopted it as part of their yearly festivities - consequently "Dinner For One" holds the Guiness World Record for the most frequently aired TV show in history.

Dinner for One's famous tagline: "The same procedure as every year..."
Basically, it's Miss Sophie's 90th birthday, and just as she has every year, she's hosting a dinner party for her four friends (all of whom she has outlived, yet she continues to invite them).  It's up to her manservant James to serve the food and drinks for each course, and then go from seat to seat impersonating each guest...and drinking all of their drinks.  While it's a bit corny at times, I've included this 10-minute long German cult classic below so you can see what all the fuss is about!  

Another German New Year's tradition: using molten lead to predict your future! Bleigießen (pronounced BLYE-ghee-sen, and meaning "lead pouring") is a New Year's activity where you melt a small amount of lead on a spoon over a flame, then dump the molten metal into a bucket of water. Once the metal is cool, you fish it out of the water and decide what it looks like; shapes correspond to a chart with attached fortunes.  For example, if the lead forms a ball, luck will roll your way.  Does it look like a cross? Then you'll probably die!  To my untrained eye, my lead blob looked like a whale - unfortunately, that wasn't one of the possible options, so I guess I'll just have to wait and see what the coming year has in store for me!

My piece of lead, pre-melting
During the melting process...
The finished product!
But wait, there's more! We can't forget about Feuerwerk! Fireworks are an integral part of many celebrations, and New Year's in Germany is no different! Just as you can buy children's games involving lead in the supermarket, you can also buy kick-ass fireworks to set off just as the clock strikes 12. We all bundled up and headed over to the city center just in time to catch all the hoopla (and add to it ourselves!).

Happy New Year!!

You can never be too old for sparklers!
After our fireworks show, we ended the night dancing our feet off at a local bar-turned-club, where the cover charge included champagne - score! They had a really good DJ and it made for a fun end to an enjoyable night.  

Post-New Year's recovery, Meike, her brother Paddy and I took a day trip to Stuttgart for some shopping and a visit to the Porsche Museum.  While it was a rather dreary day, I had a great time checking out the city and it was nice to do some leisurely sight-seeing.  

Stuttgart's main pedestrian zone, as seen from the top of a look-out tower
Schlossplatz and Stuttgart's castle
The Porsche Museum is an impressive work of art in itself.  Super modern on the outside and incredibly streamlined on the inside, the museum is conveniently located right across the street from a Porsche dealership, just in case you see a car inside that's a must-have!  While I was really impressed looking at all the cars, I feel like my brother and a bunch of my guy friends would have been in heaven drooling over engine specs and other information that was posted, yet means nothing to me!  For a virtual tour, and to see some of the cars on display, click here!

The Porsche Museum opened in 2009 and cost over 100 million Euro to build

More than 80 different vehicles are on display inside this ultra-modern exhibition hall
Meike, Paddy and I with the Pig Car, divided up into all the different cuts of pork
From race cars to sports cars to SUVs, this museum has it all
Taking Paddy for a spin in the 911
A final day trip to the Bavarian city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber rounded out the sight-seeing portion of my visit to Germany.  Meike's dad and grandpa were more than happy to show us around this neat little medieval town.  To enter Rothenburg, you must pass through ancient gateways in the city's fortified walls. Once inside, a quaint German village awaits, complete with cobblestone streets and multicolored pastel buildings - from the American point of view, it's everything you'd imagine the stereotypical cute little German town to be like.    
Just inside Rothenburg
We made a stop at St. Jakob's (English: St. James') Lutheran church to marvel at its two intricate altars.  This church was one of the many stops along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St. James' grave is located (Santiago = Saint Iago (Spanish)  = Saint James).  Saint James can always be spotted in religious artwork, as he clutches a pilgrim's staff and wears a scallop, the symbol of pilgrimage, on his hat.  Churches containing the scallop symbol were visibly marked as pilgrimage sites, helping the often illiterate faithful during the Middle Ages to find their way along famous pilgrimage routes. (See, I did pay attention during my Medieval Art & Architecture lectures!)  Dating from 1466, the High Altar features some very impressively carved figures detailed in vibrant colors and gold leaf. Depicting Christ and the Twelve Apostles, the Crucifixion, various angels and saints, and even the Legend of St. James, this altarpiece impresses the modern viewer and would have surely helped its medieval admirers to better understand some of the Biblical tales.

The High Altar at St. Jakob's
The Altar of the Holy Blood is also a wonder to behold.  Suspended above the carved wooden panels is a reliquary made of rock crystal which is said to contain a sample of Christ's blood.  The rare relic has been drawing pilgrims to Rothenburg since the Middle Ages, and with them, their money.  Pilgrims would pay money to the church in order to pray for blessings before the holy relics, and even today, visitors to the church must leave a "donation" of 3 Euro in order to view the art inside its walls.

The Altar of the Holy Blood
We stopped by the town's Christmas Museum to see the vast collection of European Christmas ornaments and decorations on display.  While it was a bit kitschy, I still got quite an education on things like Krampus, the Christmas Monster.  Pretty much the anti-Santa, Krampus is a legendary creature of Alpine folklore who would sneak around punishing naughty kids during the Christmas season - if you were bad enough, he'd even kidnap you and take you to his lair. But fear not: I'm pretty sure Krampus is too busy abducting children in Europe to worry about kids in the US!

Our visit to Rothenburg was rounded out with some delicious mugs of Glühwein (pronounced "GLU-vine," meaning 'mulled wine'), piping hot bratwursts, and some Schneeballen for dessert.  Famous in Rothenburg and meaning "snowball" in German, these pastries are made from strips of shortcrust pastry wound together into a ball shape, deep-fried, and coated with a variety of toppings.  I picked out an amaretto flavored one which had a rich marzipan center and was coated with almond-flavored white chocolate, then rolled in chocolate sprinkles. You can find them dusted with powdered sugar, rolled in dark chocolate and nuts, filled with pistachios, Cointreau...you name it, they've got it!

Delicious, sugary Schneeballen
One last thing about my trip I want to comment on: language!  I was extremely impressed with Meike's friends' and family's knowledge of English and their willingness to talk to me about everything and anything.  In Germany, everyone learns English in school, and sometimes even a second foreign language on top of that - why can't we have awesome foreign language requirements like that in the US?! I think it would make for a much more well-rounded population...but that's just me...  

It was really strange when I arrived the first day and we were all speaking English - here in Forbach, Meike and I only ever speak French together, so it seemed almost unnatural to be using English! As I don't speak German (although I definitely expanded my lexicon during my stay!) and only Meike's dad and older brother know some French, English was our go-to choice for communication.  Consequently, a few things got "lost in translation" and made for a good laugh all around...

One of a few humorous examples:

During one of our many dinnertime discussions, conversation turned to wild animals.  Meike's dad started telling a story about how one of his friends has this animal which lives in his yard and comes right up to the house every morning to eat the food he leaves out for his cat.  I asked what type of animal it was, and he told me it was an eagle!  I laughed because I had this crazy mental image of an eagle swooping down and eating cat food off some guy's porch every morning and expressed how strange this was to me - not at all, they said!  Her dad then went on to tell me that one day, when he was in the backyard taking care of the family's pet rabbit, he reached down into a box to pull out some hay and there was and eagle hiding inside in the hay!  This really made me laugh, because I had no idea that eagles liked to burrow underneath piles of hay...so I did my best eagle impersonation, complete with flapping arms and eagle-screech, and everyone laughed...but they had no idea why I was pretending to be a bird! 

After some confused looks, we grabbed a dictionary and discovered that the English word eagle is pronounced exactly the same way as the German word Igel - meaning "hedgehog" and definitely not denoting a large bird of prey!  Apparently wild hedgehogs are native to Germany - much in the same way that we'd find squirrels and chipmunks in our backyards, they have hedgehogs.  Commence the laughter!  "False friends" are words in one language that sound the same as words that exist in another language, but don't mean the same thing at all - unfortunately eagle and Igel are both animals and both pronounced exactly the same way, leading to our little mix-up!  I'm pretty sure none of us will ever forget the difference between these words ever again!

The German Flag
All in all, I had a really great time in Germany - got to spend some time with Meike's awesome and super welcoming family, ring in the New Year, do some sight-seeing, partying, and most importantly, relaxing!  Can't wait for our return visit in February - but for now, it's back to the grind!  

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