A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge

A Winter Wonderland in the Erzgebirge

Today the lighting of the first of four candles in a wreath marks the first Sunday of Advent, the official opening of the Christmas season. We recently prepped for the season with a visit to Seiffen in the Erzgebirge, a mountain range far east in Germany near the Czech border.

Even before Advent, the quaint town of woodworking workshops was packed with tourists from all over Germany and beyond, as the finely handcrafted Christmas decorations are sold all over the world. You may recognize, for example, the Christmas pyramids, layered wooden towers with a circle of small paddles at the top that spin when candles are lit underneath. Particular to eastern Germany are also incense burners in the shape of men with pipes, and Schwibbogen: arched candleholders decorated with figures or silhouettes.

The boxy Seiffen church is a popular motif among the carved wooden items, as are woodpeckers, which must be abundant in the densely forested mountain range.

It was fascinating to explore one of the workshops in Seiffen to get an appreciation for the local trade. While more work is now accomplished with machines, there is still quite a bit done by hand or a combination of both. The man we saw chiseling into small wooden cones spun by a machine could churn out a perfectly formed pine tree in less than a minute. Each woodworker we saw was likewise concentrated on one meticulous and monotonous task: drilling a hole in the shoe pieces for the nutcrackers, painting eyes on angel figurines, gluing beards onto tiny dwarves. These woodworms complete a three-year apprenticeship program to become licensed woodworkers, a profession that nearly every family in this small but world-famous town seems to be involved in.

And, of course, these industrious little elves also make toys in addition to seasonal ornamentation. We visited the Seiffen Toy Museum for a further look into the evolution of crafted wooden toys. One display showed how wooden animal figures can be sliced off like cookies on a roll after the outline is carved around a cross section from a log. Various interactive toys and games interspersed among those behind glass keep the museum engaging for visitors of all ages.

The sleepy but studious town of Seiffen seemed to resemble its own candlelit wooden house miniatures more and more as the day wore on and turned to early night. As a memento of our time here, we bought our own Schwibbogen with a fastidiously adorned Christmas bakery set among a silhouetted forest scene, complete with two of its own tiny Schwibbogen decorations.

Looking forward to another season of Christmas markets, newly underway. Frohes Fest! / Happy Holidays!


European Feast

European Feast

In honor of not cooking this Thanksgiving, here are some of my all-time favorite food and drink pictures from all over Europe over the last three years. Guten Appetit & Happy Thanksgiving!

Note: I wasn’t too big on taking food pictures until recently. A few not pictured favorites include mussels in Belgium, Indonesian food in the Netherlands, Sacher torte (a kind of chocolate cake) in Austria, stuffed peppers in Romania, Scotch and shortbread in Scotland; Guinness in Ireland, fondue and Raclette in Switzerland, pasta-sauerkraut-cheese stir fry in the Czech Republic, smoked salmon in Sweden and Norway, and gelato, coffee, pizza, etc., etc. in Italy.

Coffee and Cake with the Frog Prince & a Peek into the World of Grimm

Coffee and Cake with the Frog Prince & a Peek into the World of Grimm

Beware of Frogs

That’s right, back on the Fairy Tale Route last weekend, this time we went to its very heart.

Near Kassel, former hometown of the Brothers Grimm, lies the sleepy rural town area of Witzenhausen. And this is where we began our journey, surrounded by frogs for coffee and cake (that 3 pm-ish German meal time). Zur Warte inn relishes the area’s spawning of the tale of the Frog Prince by hosting an extensive collection of knickknacks and garden ornaments. In summer, they even offer a frog cake (gummy frogs only) on Sundays.

Relaxed from our break, we headed next to the city where it all began. Kassel celebrates the lives and work of its two famous former inhabitants, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, with a very modern museum about history from long ago. Visitors to the museum Grimm Welt wind their way through a neon alphabet of exhibits each representing a one-word title for the artifacts at hand. It’s very multimedia: video clips of fairy tale-inspired films, a forest of audio-equipped “trees” telling stories in German and English, a magic mirror that comes to life, fairy tale houses to climb into, a wall of text to read with 3-D glasses, and so on. Many of the artifacts are items belonging to or handwritten by the Brothers Grimm themselves. Coming November 24: an exhibit about “The 8th Dwarf.”

In addition to fairy tales, part of the museum is dedicated to another life’s work of the famous brothers: the creation of an elaborate and seemingly unpractical dictionary. More like an encyclopedia, it was published in alphabetical installments. Exhaustive research went into understanding the German language and how it was used for the work, so much so that the Grimms’ competitors criticized their work for the convoluted notes they contained. The tedious nature of the books made them best suited for language specialists only. And the brothers never lived to see the dictionary completed. After over 20 years of work, by the time of their deaths the letter F had not yet been completed.

Work on the dictionary project continued after they were gone, of course, and was eventually completed around 100 years after it had begun. Naturally, at this point, the earlier sections needed to be revised because they were becoming outdated. Language evolves over time, after all.

In the late 1990s, the dictionary even got with the times enough to go online – oddly in its original form. C’mon…

A few more fortuitous sights (as always!) awaited us along our journey. A rock-hurling giant with a scraggly beard ushered the way to his hiking trail by the side of the road. And once day had turned to dark chilly night, an eerie aura-encircled moon hung above bare winter tree branches as we watched over Kassel from the rooftop of Grimm Welt.

For more fairy tales:

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall about one of Snow White’s mirror-producing hometowns

Following the Footsteps of the Brothers Grimm gets to the source of the Pied Piper, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood. Plus a monstrous-sized cream puff from a gingerbread house.

Norway in a Fish Tale. My own fanciful tale about my favorite trip of all time.

11/11 at 11:11

11/11 at 11:11
Schillerplatz with Fastnacht fountain
Schillerplatz with Fasching fountain

Once again, we have officially entered the Fifth Season, aka Karneval. Remember my first week here in Germany back in November 2013? I looked outside to get a sense of the weather by what people outside were wearing and was confused to see guys dressed up in some kind of old-timey marching band uniforms on Veteran’s Day. Years later I learned that this is because Mainz, arguably the Karneval headquarters of Germany, holds a celebration to officially open the festive fool’s holiday season.

At exactly 11:11 on November 11, a proclamation of sorts, written in rhyme and read with heavy Meenzer accents, was read to a crowd of partyers packed into Schillerplatz. This town square is notable year-round for its whimsical Fastnacht fountain, depicting an assorted cascade of fools and merriment, as well as several other Fasching-related statues. (Fasching and Fastnacht are also Karneval-related terms. Mardi Gras, if you prefer.)

The cold drizzle and muddy garden areas around the square on Friday did not keep crowds away. On the contrary, people showed up in umbrella-toting masses to drink, rock out to live music, watch the opening ceremony parade, and shout “Helau!” Many, but not all, were already wearing Fasching costumes: goofy hats, cute animal onesies, elaborate face paint, often coordinated among groups of friends. Definitely nowhere near as raucous as the main festivities at the end of the season, but impressively attended and festive nonetheless.

We could only take about an hour of the weather and crammed standing quarters before we bid farewell to this grandiose Mainz tradition. But it and we will be back in full force when the main Fasching celebrations begin: Thursday, February 23 (Weiberfastnacht, the ladies’ day of Karneval) through Tuesday, February 28 (Faschingsdienstag, Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). As always, the biggest and wildest day of festivities will be Rosenmontag, the Monday in that time period, this year falling on February 27.

For more on Karneval/Fasching/Fastnacht, see:

What is Fasching All About? where I sum up my first impressions (still accurate) of what makes this holiday.

Into the Fifth Season with a little about costume shopping, our visit to the quaint Fastnacht Museum in Mainz, and pictures of Schillerplatz sans people.

Minding the Gap in London

Minding the Gap in London



Barbican Tube Station

(Apologising in advance for the use of British English in this post.)

On holiday at the weekend, I found myself under a light but constant sprinkle of chilly rain along rows of cosy brownstones. It was very much as expected, the first visit I had organised to London. Glad I had worn a thick jumper (sweater) under my winter coat, I looked right, left, right (repeatedly) trying to figure out which way cars and lorries would be coming from. I ducked into various places to stay dry as I acquainted myself with the city: Shops filled with elaborate rainy day activity books (England seems to have perfected this for obvious reasons!), a tiny sandwich shop called the Breadline Café (for chips [fries] and a paper-wrapped bacon sandwich on thin white bread), and the famous Tube stations.

Helpful signs on the street

London is a great city to visit from A to Zed: Vibrant, international, and full of culture, it reminds me of New York only with a more polite population. Except for the bloke I saw laying into his car horn for a solid minute or two because traffic happened to be moving slowly. Aside from that, the most frequently heard words are “pardon,” “sorry,” and, of course, “mind the gap.”

Near the Thames

As we had only got a long weekend in London, it was rather a whirlwind tour of a few of its many highlights. And while I don’t think I’d be keen on moving house to England, I would definitely fancy another visit.

Having wandered the city on foot and by Tube, our first sightseeing stop was to the famous Tower of London. One of the 37 tower warders/queen’s bodyguards, known as Yeomen or Beefeaters, gave us an extensive history of the tower, home of centuries of royal intrigues as well as the Crown Jewels. Dry British humour is still not my favourite, but the tour did occasionally make us chuckle.

Saturday happened to be the infamous 5th of November, celebrated as Bonfire Night in England to commemorate the foiling of an attempted attack on Parliament involving Guy Fawkes. From the banks of the Thames River, after fish and chips with mushy peas and a round of ales at a local pub, we could see distant fireworks from various points in the city. The Tower Bridge itself was lit with beautiful colours.

The next morning, after an absurdly fatty (hardy?) English breakfast and a proper cuppa tea, we set off to 221B Baker Street, home to fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Today these apartments are a well-touristed museum, though we skipped that and just popped into the ground floor gift shop for a peek inside.

And in the afternoon, after a delicious vegetarian Indian lunch buffet from Chutneys (one of many choices near the Euston Square underground station), we had got just enough time to explore the amazing ancient Egyptian and Assyrian exhibition at the British Museum. Colossal busts of pharaohs in amazingly good condition tower over visitors, even accompanied by the famed Rosetta Stone that led to the ability to decipher ancient hieroglyphics. The incredible donations-only museum is massive, and several more days in
London could easily be dedicated to visiting here alone.

Lunch from Chutneys

A few of the more mundane aspects that give character to London deserve mention as well:

Cabs. They’re clunky and old-fashioned in design from boot to bonnet (trunk to hood), like a scene out of a Dick Tracy movie.

Taxi cabs

Phone boxes. Today these throwbacks stand as monuments to a bygone pre-mobile era, as well as unintentional rubbish bins. Some of them are even marked as WiFi hotspots. I saw one stacked with fresh, still-wrapped sandwiches and another… well, let’s just say it had been used as a loo.

Phone boxes

Ghosts. As briefly mentioned, England has a long and bloody history. And because of this we were able to enjoy a ghost tour through the streets of London led by a fantastic storyteller. Too much to retell all of it here, but suffice it to say it was full of suspense and stories of unhappy Brits buried with the heart of their murdered spouse, buried alive and brought back to their senses by grave robbers, and so on.

Haunted pub

Charming train stations. Many of which we know from British literature, including Paddington Station, home to the practically dressed Paddington Bear. A teddy bear wearing the note “Please look after this bear” left at a station seems like it would be a different story today, what with the modern station messages of “See it, say it, sort it” in reference to unattended belongings.

I hope you enjoyed the Queen’s English and learnt a bit on this quick tour around London. Cheers & cheerio!

Tube station

Untold Stories from Year 1

Travels in Europe so far

November 8, 2016 marks the anniversary of our third year in Germany already. As I’ve said countless times, we’re beyond thankful for the opportunities we’ve had to experience culture and history, travel, and get to know people from all over the world.

For the first year everything was new: festivals, travels, adjusting to a new culture, and establishing new circles of friends. The second year found us feeling settled, and was filled with many visitors that we got to show our new home to. In our third year, we began to think outside of the box: We helped to restore a castle, finally explored Scandinavia, and I started learning Romanian after my experience teaching there the summer before. Somehow along my German language-learning journey I went from learning to order in a restaurant to reading Goethe’s Faust.

I’ve tried to capture most of our adventures both in travel and in discovering numerous cultural differences in this blog. But, of course, not everything has made it in. Here are a few “scenes” from the first year I recently came across that didn’t make it online but capture some different kinds of first impressions.

First Round of Seasons on the Rhein – June 2014

There’s nothing exotic about the Rhein. There are rivers all over the world, after all.  And with a handful of well-trafficked bridges spanning it to connect two major cities, two state capitals with only the river dividing them, it almost seems like no big deal. Almost.

I’ve crossed the Rhein just about every day for the past six or so months. And even though I usually see it through the thick window of an abnormally warm and stuffy bus filled with other commuters, it never fails to take my breath away. Whether it’s one of the fifty percent of cold winter mornings when the river itself is almost invisible beneath a thick white wall of fog, at sunset when the last pink and gold rays of daylight shimmer on top of its rippling surface, or on late spring afternoons when families and neighbors bike and stroll along its banks – it is simply stunning.

The warm summer weekends Rhein-side are my favorite way to experience the river.  On the Mainz-Kastel bank (not actually part of Mainz, but of its rival Wiesbaden), the sweet gritty smell of weed-strewn grass and tiny charcoal grills fill the air along with the sounds of children playing, friends laughing, foam spars clashing, and Frisbees, soccer balls, footballs, and wooden Kubb pegs being thrown through the air and across the grass. Everyone is in line at Tony’s ice cream truck, the white van that can’t possibly hold enough gelato for everyone enjoying the refreshingly sunny afternoon but somehow does.

It’s nostalgia incarnate, but the year is 2014.

XXX: First Trip to Amsterdam in August 2014

The rest of the details of this trip have been simmering in my head like the homemade pea soup that I sipped out of a small Dutch oven on my first of several overcast and scattered rain-filled days in Amsterdam.

The capital of the Netherlands is a horseshoe-shaped city that fills out the spaces between a complex system of canals.  I would say that tourists go there for one of two reasons: to experience history and beautiful scenery or to indulge their socially questionable vices.

There was no mistaking when I had entered Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. No sooner had I wandered in, before even glimpsing one of the many storefronts filled with freaky sex props or women on display, I was greeted by a different sort of spectacle: A large middle-aged man lay sprawled face down across the width of a narrow cobblestone street, hands clasped behind his back in handcuffs. A small circle of police officers prompted him to stand and steadied him as they guided him into a waiting ambulance. As soon as he lifted his head, I could see that his face was covered in blood.

I should note that this scene took place in the late afternoon in virtual silence. Many passersby slowed to gawk but many passed through the remaining puddle of blood apparently unaware that anything had happened.

My disturbing introduction to the area, however, seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The Red Light District is actually pretty orderly – an open but regulated neighborhood of the oldest profession with a buzzed celebratory feel similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The district lives up to its (for many, morally shady) reputation: sex stores, lady entrepreneurs showcasing themselves in display windows, not to mention the drug shops and coffee shops (all of which have marijuana for sale as well as typical café fare) that can be found throughout Amsterdam.

Halloween: Leipzig 2014

Gemütlichkeit. A feeling of comfort that you feel, particularly, I would say when sharing an autumn evening, a fire, and a kettle of Glühwein with a close-knit circle of neighbors. So spent James and I our first Halloween in Germany, back in Leipzig with the cousins we had visited earlier in the year.

After driving through many green-turning-yellow-turning-orange lined kilometers of the Autobahn, we began the evening sipping homemade pumpkin soup at their kitchen table. Interrupted every few minutes, of course, by bands of little ghosts, witches, and monsters trick-or-treating (or rather, “Süβes oder Saures”-ing). One or two in each batch – usually the smallest – would rattle off one of several carefully rehearsed poems in exchange for the whole group to receive their treats. Halloween has become more popular in Germany with children every year for the last several years. But because it’s not a tradition the candy givers grew up with, it still has a foreign feel for the adults.

Down the block with a basket of Wursts, sauces, and mugs from the kitchen, we huddled around small fires on benches and folding chairs carefully arranged in a large circle. All the neighbors who didn’t have children to put to bed or who weren’t out partying at the Disko stayed late into the night. Grilling meats, chatting, and occasionally singing along to the German and American pop songs that played on a radio in the background. The main fire crackled in a washing machine drum, periodically fueled by the dull dry thud of an added chunk of wood or the rustle of a handful of dry pinecones.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed planning, living, and writing about them so far! We plan to continue to enjoy the time we have left in Europe to the fullest: learning, eating/drinking, and castle- and festival-hunting our way through some new cities and countries and a few old favorites.

Click here to read more about the Rhein, Amsterdam, and Leipzig.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in front of the Spessart Museum

…who’s the fairest/scariest/most erotic of them all? (…?!)

Never has a place been more in love with a theme than Lohr am Main, the hometown of Maria Sophia von Erthal, daughter of an 18th century Prince Elector of Mainz, whose life story helped to inspire the Brothers Grimm Snow White tale.

You may remember that we recently completed a round of fairy tale travels and found yet another town – Berg Freiheit of Bad Wildungen – that also claims to have originated the fairy tale of Snow White. Both have a history of mining under the local mountains and a young noble lady with a tragic tale. (Hikers can retrace the 35 kilometer flight route of Maria Sophia in Lohr.) But present-day Lohr, unlike Bad Wildungen, has really let its fairy tale history run amok in town.

Everything has a connection to the beloved story here – from dwarf signs around town to artistic souvenirs. We happened to arrive during a festival and even found homemade apple cider, apple crafts, and wild boar bratwurst. The local beer is called Keiler, the German word for boar.

The Franconian castle of the Erthal noble family has become the Spessart Museum, largely dedicated to local history and fairy tale legacy. Glass and mirror production have historically been major industries here, which should come as no surprise to story enthusiasts. The mirror belonging to Maria Sophia’s stepmother is naturally the main attraction on display. I listened to the famous “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” quote in so many German dialects (including numerous different dialects from the Franconian region alone) and foreign languages that I can’t get it out of my head.

And from here the good name of Snow White takes a weird turn… Sure, several quirky film interpretations of the story are exhibited in the museum along with various toys and dolls. But the most unique ramble from the fairy tale is a sensual representation of a young lady putting her hand out for a suggestively placed red apple…or something like that. Also, remember the glass production? Glass eyes are displayed alongside mugs and decorations.

Even in front of the Lohr Town Hall, Horrorwittchen (a play on Snow White’s German name, Schneewittchen) draws confused attention from crowds. A guy asked me if I thought the bizarro statue was worth taking a picture of, to which I’d have to wonder what he was there gawking at…

Horrorwittchen statue

My favorite representation of Horrorwittchen – photo from http://www.lohr.de tourism page