Saturday, December 28, 2013

Grey, rainy, windy days in Berlin

Maybe there is a reason for all those black overcoats and parkas that Germans wear: The color most likely reflects their mood. It's a mood that befits the weather, and the faces that accompany the mood speak volumes. Sunshine changes people's outlook, as do lit candles and glittery things that sparkle and reflect a child's smile. Well, I've seen fairly little of all that over the past week, since leaving Freising and Dortmund. Judging by their parkas and faces, Germans are a pathetically unhappy bunch.
Happiness has a different face

Sure, there was Christmas Eve, spent with most of my immediate family at my bother's first ex-wife's place. Since it was also my dad's 82nd birthday, it was a festive occasion, and there were those candles, and my 15-year-old nephew, who lives with Prader-Willi Syndrome, smiled a lot. We spent a harmonious evening, with a catered turkey that I first mistook for a small ostrich, and copious amounts of wine. The distribution of the gifts was interrupted at strategic times to allow the adults to take a smoke break in the kitchen—you can't just step outside when you live on the second floor of a Berlin Altbau without a balcony. Two smoke breaks equal lots of presents. It was a nice evening.
My nephew Jannick with some of his Christmas loot
The rest of the time that I have spent here has been fairly dull. Thanks to a heavy cold that I caught last week and that just now, finally, is starting to ease up, I limited my outdoor activities to daily walks around the neighborhood, mostly to escape the particulate-laden atmosphere in my dad's apartment. The stench of cheap cigarettes pervades everything, and when one has a cold, even a youth spent as a non-smoker in a smoking household won't make a difference. Sorry, but there is no diplomatic way around it: Staying with my dad for this one single reason is really a sacrifice. I hate this stench.
Dad and my brother (plus a friend, rolling a cig) in front of a Polish tobacco shop
Cigarettes are not cheap. I have no idea what they cost in the US, but last night I saw in the supermarket that a pack of 20 cigs costs a whopping 5 euro, or just a tiny bit shy of $7. Ouch. So my clever clan once in a while makes an excursion to nearby Poland (about 100 km, or 60 miles) to buy tobacco products as well as some of that well-seasoned polish sausage. Cigarettes cost less than half as in Germany, and since there is a limit to how many cartons one can bring back per person my presence was put to good use as I increased the customs-allowed limits. Oh well. Sightseeing was not part of our excursion, outside of the depressing market where live fish and inexpensive haircuts are other attractions.
Live trout, carp (a Christmas delicacy!) and other fresh fish
It's all in the display ...
A Polish barber shop
So, if my Christmas break comes across as a bit of a downer, well, you read this post correctly. But dad is 82, and I know that the opportunities to spend some time with him are dwindling rapidly. Berlin certainly is not the Caribbean (and most definitely not at this time of the year), and wrestling with a nasty cold is not going to help, either. Once again I realize how difficult, no, impossible it would be for me to return to this environment for not just long but forever. Nothing like a healthy dose of reality once in a while.
The x-mas trees haven't started to fall from the balconies yet, but this mattress did.
Viewed right in front of my dad's apartment in Neuk

One wouldn't think one's in the capital of one of the globe's most prosperous nations.
Alas, in 48 hours I will be back in the air, finishing off this year's flight mile # 100,000 while heading back to Lubbock, where my home is, thankfully. I am looking forward to 2014, which I will ring in with friends on Tuesday night. I certainly won't cry any big tears when 2013 is finally done. Happy New Year to you and yours!


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Snowflakes and a bit of Christmas spirit

December in Europe: If you have visions of Christmas markets,the sweet smell of mulled wine and freshly made cookies, and a dusting of snow—well, you've got it right, for once!
Munich's Marienplatz in Christmas splendor
When I flew through Helsinki on Tuesday on my way from Frankfurt to Munich (oh yes, there is a mileage-hog story behind that) I was pretty much disappointed when the Finnish capital was neither sparkling with cozy lights or hidden under a layer of snow. The outside temperature was 4 degrees Celsius, and it looked just like a dark, forgotten place. So much for running into Santa and the reindeer, I thought.
Approaching Helsinki—and no Santa in sight
When I finally got to Munich after 7,582 miles of flying, things were only marginally better—still no snow, but at least a hot mug of Glühwein, that red wine/rum/spices concoction that gives you a pleasant buzz while walking around a Weihnachtsmarkt. And that was what Sabine had planned for me immediately after my arrival: check out the local (i.e., Freising) Christmas fair where craftspeople brooded in their festively decorated hutlets, trying to sell Christmas ornaments, handmade pottery, or Nepalese hats and scarves. Just as the Freisinger Volksfest a few months back had been on a much smaller scale than its bigger brother, the Münchner Oktoberfest, this Weihnachtsmarkt was less populated yet more intimate than what we would see the next evening in the big city. Hey, Freising even featured an alphorn trio!
Crowded Weihnachtsmarkt in München
Last night, young Jonathan and I met up with Sabine at the Mariensäule in the dead center of Munich with plans for a stroll around the Christmas market, a relaxed dinner, and a concert for dessert. It seemed as if everybody in Munich was out last night, shopping and getting ready for the big celebration a week from now. It certainly was fun to play bumper cars with black-clad Germans out for a night on the town.
So many ornaments you can't see the tree!
Could that be Santa himself hiding behind the handicraft?
Munich is an expensive, posh place. All you have to do is look at the names adorning the various shops in the center of town, and you know that you can't afford to step in: Armani, Piaget, Louis Vuitton. But it sure is fun to stroll along and window-shop and wonder who will buy a quarter-million-dollar watch that's mere inches on the other side of that thick, bullet-proof show window. Good thing that we could afford dinner (barely) at Vapiano, a chique, hip, upscale pizza joint (located in the Fünf Höfe) that is one of Sabine and Jonathan's favorites. You can't beat a restaurant where you can pick your own fresh herbs from pots on your table.
PYOH at Vapiano—Pick Your Own Herbs
Does it get much better than that?
The concert was to take place in the Herkulessaal of the Residenz, the old royal palace. I had never been inside, and from what I saw I was a little disappointed by the lack of ornateness that similar palaces in other European metropolises display. But no worries, the concert was first-rate. Sabine had bought fabulous seats for the concert of the 39-member Moscow Cathedral Choir that was to perform traditional Russian Christmas songs as well as classical works. For all three of us it was the first time to attend a concert by a huge boys' choir, and I am still stunned by the beauty of their voices. To think that my old buddy Howard was a soloist of the choir in Winchester cathedral—I wish I could have heard that! The two hours went by much too fast, and even Jonathan begrudgingly gave his seal of approval—not easy for a 15-year-old.
The Moscow Cathedral Choir on stage in the Herkulessaal
By the time we made it back to Freising, it was after 11 p.m. Freezing fog had rolled in, and ice crystal were glimmering in the light of the street lamps. And this morning, when we looked out of the window, winter had arrived in the form of a 2-centimer dusting that left the city in a wintry-festive light. Enjoy these pics:

Later on this afternoon we will pack up our stuff and fly to Dortmund where Sabine's mom and brother live. We'll celebrate her bro's birthday on Saturday, and on Monday I will take the train to Berlin to spend my dad's birthday on the 24th with whatever family there is. Oh yeah, and it's Christmas, too!

Happy Holidays!