Friday, December 21, 2012

Germany's Christmas Markets

We’ve had the opportunity to visit no less than seven Weihnachtsmarkts in different cities and towns in south Germany this year.  When we lived in Stuttgart 14 years ago, we loved its Christkindlmarkt, one of Germany’s largest, and also visited one other city.  This time around, we were determined to sample a wider variety of these outdoor winter festivals, and we were lucky to see some very choice examples.

Our first of the season was in Heidelberg, the charming tourist town every American visits.  We had visitors from the US that weekend, and we wanted to show them one of these markets.  Heidelberg’s was among the few to open before November 28 (when the vast majority opened).  The open squares strung along Heidelberg’s main street were filled with a small but satisfying selection of food and gift stalls, in the charming setting which Heidelberg does so uniquely well.  We heard lots of American voices during the afternoon but as evening came on, more and more locals came out to enjoy the Gluhwein and sausage together.

We happened to be visiting Saarbrucken a few days later and took the opportunity to see what its Christmas Market was like.  Saarbrucken has long been desirable to both France and Germany for its former coal and steel industries, but it’s not much of a tourist town.  The weather was terrible—rainy and chilly—and it was a weekday afternoon so the crowds were thin.  However, there were plenty of nice holiday stalls (we bought some “handmade” French sausages) as well as the most attractive rubbish bins I’ve ever seen.

On purpose to enjoy the Weihnachtsmarkt, we went to Nuremburg for the opening night.  So did all of Nuremburg, and probably every other American in Germany that day.  The place was mobbed.  The market was much larger than any we’d seen, and very beautiful in its Hauptmarkt (and other squares) setting.  For the opening ceremony, all the lights of the stalls were turned off, and children’s choirs sang familiar German carols.  A lovely young woman appeared dressed as the Christmas Angel (we of course couldn’t see her) and read a long poem about inviting Jesus and his mother Mary to come enjoy the Nuremburg Advent Market.  As soon as the last carol ended, the lights came back on and the crowds mobbed all the food and drink stalls.  In Nuremburg, we spent more than a day trying to see everything in the  amazingly extensive collection of the German National Museum, which showcases the history of the Germanic peoples of the area from 5,000 BC to the 20th Century.  While I loved eating the pork Shashlik in the Christkindlmarkt, I could have done without the crowds.

We also spent a day in Augsburg, an extremely old town south of Nuremburg and about 45 minutes west of Munich in Bavaria.  One of Germany’s oldest Christmasmarkts, documented back to over 500 years ago, Augsburg sets firm standards for the ratio of food and drink stalls to gift stalls (high) and the  percentage of goods handmade in Germany (also high, and high quality).   We timed our arrival so that we could view Augsburg’s Angel performance on a weekend evening at 6 o’clock.  Twenty-four girls with grace, beauty, and musical ability are chosen to wear angel costumes and blond wigs, and to appear at the windows in Augsburg’s fine Renaissance City Hall.  They mime playing musical instruments to the sacred music of (in this case) Bach, and the whole thing lasts about 10 minutes.  It was unique!  Plenty of locals came out to enjoy the performance and one another’s company over a mug of Gluhwein or Christmas Punch.  And the gifts for sale were so nice we bought quite a few to bring home with us.

We felt obligated to visit Karlsruhe’s Christkindlmarkt since we have enjoyed living there so much this year.  Our building managers were touchingly excited about the display of lights and the charm of the market stalls, and their excitement proved to be well-founded.  We went there on a weekend night, and it seemed the whole city was out there, hanging out in the Gluhwein areas, shopping, or ice-skating.  It reminded us of Munich’s Oktoberfest:  attractive to visitors, but really a city-wide outdoor party.  We found some unique gift items, as well as more reasons to love this livable city.

Near Karlsruhe is Durlach, a town whose founding predates that of Karlsruhe’s.  It’s full of half-timbered buildings, and retains fragments of the old town walls and gates.  Durlach’s Weihnachtsmarkt specializes in harking back to the Middle Ages and had a unique interest and charm of its own.  The stalls are mostly old-fashioned canvas tents, and the amusements are simpler and less glitzy than at “modern” Christmas Markets.  The gluhwein tent had skins on the benches for our greater warmth and comfort.  Stall holders all wore “period” outfits.  It all gave us an idea of what those early Advent markets 500 years ago were like.

Our final Christmas market was in Frankfurt.  Among Germany’s largest, it has a stunning setting in its old city center, and featured a huge, live, and fully illuminated Christmas Tree.  We visited on a Tuesday night, expecting a thin crowd.  Not so!  Although we heard a few American voices around us, mostly this was a German crowd, meeting friends after work and celebrating the season together.

By our seventh Weihnachtsmarkts, some truths had come home to me.  Germans do love to meet outdoors and party together in any season, and hot mulled wine makes this possible in cold temperatures.  Certain traditional celebrations have hundreds of years of history behind them, and Germans love repeating what was fun in the past.  But I think there’s something more meaningful behind their celebration of Advent, the season when Christians await and anticipate the birth of Christ. Germans have known more recent, and more prolonged, periods of privation than we Americans.  They’ve learned to find joy in just the anticipation of better times to come.  They work hard, save, and conserve, and take the time to build and deepen friendships.  We could all use more of that wisdom in our lives.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lyon "Plug"

I don’t think I’d ever have gone to Lyon on purpose, but my Dear Husband was drawn there by a shared research interest in a fine point in Materials Science with some physicists there, and so I went too.  It’s a trip I will never regret.  After months of dusting off my German, I had to dig deep for my inadequate French.   The kindly people of Lyon patiently heard me out, and then replied in charmingly accented English.  We got along just fine.

Lyon is either the second or the third largest city in France, depending on whom you ask.  Clearly, however, it is a sister city to Paris, and has been so for a very long time.  The pre-Christian Celts, according to archeological finds, settled at the useful conjunction of two strong rivers, the Saone and the Rhone, long before the Common Era.  Then the Roman empire came upon this site, and founded the city of Lugdunum in the first century B.C.  It soon became the principal city of Gaul (which students of Latin will remember was divided in three parts), and the Emperor Claudius promoted the distinction of full Roman citizenship for its wealthy male inhabitants.  As everywhere else, the Romans succeeded in holding this location for centuries because they brought civic organization and infrastructure in the form of roads that still survive, and aquaducts that brought water into the city.

But nothing lasts forever, and the Roman Empire fell apart.  Lugdunum forgot its Roman past, and built on top of the ruins of the amphitheater, residences, and civic buildings.  By the late Middle Ages, the inhabitants of what was now called Lyon were still occupying this great location and had achieved status with the Christian church of Rome.  Lyon was located on the road north from Italy’s silk producing towns that brought this rich textile industry to Lyon.  Banking, which developed in Europe during the Renaissance, also became a principal industry in Lyon, which during this period became the banking center of France, and had France’s first Stock Exchange.

These high points in the history of Lyon can still be enjoyed.  The Roman settlement was largely on the hillside above the Saone, just before it joins the Rhone.  Lyon’s Gallo-Roman Museum is filled with artifacts illustrating the life of that period in Lugdunum.  It’s located next door to the excavated amphitheater, which has been partially rebuilt so that it can be used for performances today.   (It was also poorly marked and very difficult to find!)  We took a funicular train up the incredibly steep hill to view the city and visit the 19th-century Notre Dame de Fourvieres.  From there we walked downhill to the museum and the amphitheater.  At the bottom of the hill is the old quarter where many Renaissance buildings have been saved and restored.

In Vieux Lyon, where the silk trade thrived in the 15th century, covered passageways called “traboules” allowed the delicate fabrics to be carried around town with minimal damage from bad weather.  These traboules are open to the public during daylight, and evoke the past powerfully.  Some are painted in soft, warm pastels; others are white.  Some pass through courtyards from which you can look up and see the arched porches of the houses above.  It was easy to imagine the silk workers and the inhabitants of the past bustling through here on their daily chores.

The traboules also proved useful during World War II.  Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, ran a ruthless and barbaric Nazi administration, and the daring French Resistance members centered in Lyon used the traboules to evade capture whenever possible.  Unfortunately for me, the Museum of the Resistance in Lyon was closed for renovation during my visit.  However, I’ve watched Casablanca enough times to imagine the danger and the exploits of the Resistance for myself.

Lyon has continued its economic strength long past the Renaissance.  During the 19th century, the Lumiere family’s factory was the largest producer of photographic glass plates.  The sons of the founder pioneered the first moving picture which could be projected for viewing by more than one person (Edison’s kinetoscope could only be used by one person at a time), but more to record their family life than with any understanding of the artistic or business potential of this technology.  The family still made so much money that they built themselves large and beautiful homes around France, one of which is now the Lumiere Museum in Lyon.

But even if none of this very interesting history were there, the food alone is worth a visit to Lyon.  In the old quarter, the restaurants known as bouchons (“plugs”) are a great place to stuff your face, especially with hearty, savory meat dishes.  The “whole animal” notion of eating every part of an animal can be explored here, where I tasted a salad called “Head to Tail” involving braised, chopped and dressed pig parts with a few salad greens.  There are also plenty of more ordinary menus to choose from!

The French themselves consider Lyon as its gastronomic capital, perhaps because it is located near the wine regions of Beaujolais and Cote du Rhone.  The location may have drawn a number of France’s premier chefs, such as Paul Bocuse.  He has four brassieries in Lyon, and we dined almost by accident in one on our last night in Lyon.  L’Est is situated in an elegant former train station that influenced the train-travel décor.  We chose it partially because the prices were no more exorbitant than other restaurants in the area.  But the food!  Simple, delectable, and perfect.

Paul Bocuse’s Apple Tart

1 ¾ cups flour
1 stick softened butter, broken into pieces
1 pinch salt
3 tablespoons water
Butter and flour for the pan
1 ¾ pounds apples, peeled, cored, halved, and sliced
¼ cup granulated sugar
Black currant jelly, or raspberry or apricot jam (optional)

Make the dough by placing the flour, butter and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Pinch the mixture with your fingers until a crumbly texture forms.  Add water and knead lightly to make a smooth dough.  Form it into a ball, wrap in a clean, lightly floured towel and leave for one hour before baking.  Preheat oven to 400 F.  Roll out the dough onto a thing sheet on a lightly floured table.  Butter and flour a 10-inch pie pan, then line it with the dough.  Or, you can roll out the dough and place it on a buttered and floured baking sheet, crimping edges a bit with your fingers to make a slight border.  Prick the bottom in several places with a fork.  Lay in the slices of apples so that they slightly overlap each other, perhaps in concentric circles to make a flower pattern.  Sprinkle apples with sugar and back 35-40 minutes.  Spread jelly over apples when the tart is done, if you like.
Adapted from Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, 1987.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Berlin, Because We Love Her

Berlin was not a new exploration for us on this trip.  We’d visited Berlin in 1998, eight years after reunification.  Berlin was still a work in progress, with broad swathes of cleared land where the Wall had been, and construction projects everywhere.  Despite the mess, when we first saw the Brandenburg Gate, my Dear Husband and I were deeply moved.  The time when Berliners had suffered the division of their city, and the oppression of the citizens of the eastern part, was still so close. 

Back then, we traveled with our children, and stayed in a youth hostel so edgy it was actually unfinished.  The use of everyday objects was constantly under reexamination and re-purposing.  Theater seats could become a sofa!  Mangled street lamps were statues!  Prisons could be monuments to freedom!  And the remains of the Wall were an artist’s canvas.

During the early years of reunification, when the German government found itself owning all the residential and commercial buildings of the former East, bargains were to be had in real estate.  The task taken on by the former West Germany, of bringing the former East up to its standard of working and living, would have daunted any other country.  Being a landlord was not the business of a government struggling to unify two public transit systems, to train young and retrain older workers for viable jobs, and to win the hearts and minds of those eastern citizens who had actually kind of liked the old ways of socialism.

The government may have lost a few euros in selling off properties back then, but it gained much in the way of livability and excitement.  We found a hotel in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the former East Berlin still in reconstruction, but starting to seem almost bourgeois.  Of course, there are still bars of every description, and art is everywhere, but the best nightclubs and parties are in other, less reclaimed, parts of the city.

We had to visit the fragments of the Wall, of course, although we have little comprehension of the art that decorates them now.  Near the longest section, along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, we found a “beach” club, created in what was perhaps an old train station or storage lot.  The remaining buildings had been repurposed as stages, volleyball courts, and Jamaican food stalls, or whatever was necessary for all-night, outdoor dancing and partying.  We saw posters urging fans to lobby city officials not to close down the club and take possession of the property.  It’s not just club for fun, it’s a communal expression by a minority, whose rights are sacred in Germany.  Berlin may be becoming accustomed to reunification but the kinks haven’t yet been worked out.

But it’s still not like any other city.  For one thing, its museums are simply stunning.  History buffs like us are just floored by the Temple of Pergamon and the Ashtar Gate of Meospotamia, recreated inside the Pergamon Museum.  The Altes Museum’s collection of antiquities was top quality.  The Picture Gallery at the Kulturforum had world-class paintings.  And monuments, like the relatively new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, provoke both thoughtful and emotional responses.  There was no way we could visit every one of Berlin’s museums and sights, or even a quarter of them.  You’d have to spend a month in Berlin to see them all, and have better shoes than we did.

You’d also have to have better health!  I’d come down with a severe sore throat on our way to Berlin, so I had the opportunity to experience German health care.  A pharmacist near our hotel gave us the address of a local doctor who spoke English; we waited less than half an hour to see him.  After a brief examination, and patiently listening to all the home treatments I’d tried, the doctor wrote a prescription for penicillin, and charged me about 25 Euros.  The prescription cost me about 12 Euros.  Altogether, it took about an hour, and cost less than 40 Euros.  Beat that, American Health Care.

I was more able to enjoy the city after seeing the doctor, but stuck to soft foods for most of our stay.  We were in Berlin during the annual Reunification Day holiday, and enjoyed people-watching from a picnic table at the city’s party in the Tiergarten.  Usually, festival food is sausages, but this was Berlin!  So I enjoyed my first bowl of German split pea soup (with sausage) at the festival.

Germans we’ve met outside Berlin are always curious to know what we thought of it, and pleased (and a little surprised) to learn that we LOVED it.  To us, it’s a highly livable and beautiful city, trams and cafes everywhere, with a compelling history and the museums to beat those of any two other cities.  For non-Berliner Germans, it’s an important city, now the capital, but bringing it back to life reunified has been and will continue being very expensive.  I guess when foreigners express their appreciation, the cost is easier to bear.

German Split Pea Soup

Soak one pound dried green or yellow split peas in water overnight.  Next day, render the fat from 1/2 thinly sliced bacon, and soften a minced medium onion in the fat.  Add the softened peas with their fat, and a smoked ham hock, or leftover meaty hambone, and bring to a simmer.  Add a teaspoon of dried marjoram or basil, or both, and 3-4 peeled and chopped potatoes. To improve the vitamin content, include a minced carrot, some celery and a chopped leek with the peas and meat.  Simmer about 45 minutes until the peas are softened.  Remove the meat and bones.  Mash or puree the soup, but leave about half the peas whole.  Chop the meat from the bones, and return to the soup.  Add about half a pound of smoked sausage, cut in bite-sized pieces.  Garnish with chopped parsley.  Serve piping hot with crusty bread.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Leipzig, City of Heroes

Leipzig became a destination for me while I was trying to understand how the peaceful revolution came about which ended East Germany just as the Soviet Union collapsed.  It seemed miraculous at the time.  Those of us born not too long after World War II ended never knew a time when Germany was not divided, and hardly remembered when West Berlin was not surrounded by a wall and armed soldiers.  Word leaked out of East Germany during my early adulthood of the oppression and atrocities of the East German secret police, the Stasi.  Many desperate attempts, so often deadly, to escape into West Berlin, bore witness to the ham-fisted terror used to maintain Communist control over East Germany.

Then one night in 1989, the gates burst open, the people poured through, cheering and crying, and the wall fell.  To those of us outside Germany, it was almost unbelievable.  We didn’t know that communism was secretly failing throughout the Soviet bloc, that the funds to keep that iron fist clenched were running dry, or that the dream of freedom still lived in the hearts of those oppressed by tyranny.  One of the ways this dream of freedom found expression was in Leipzig’s Church of Saint Nikolas, where weekly prayers for peace over a period of about seven years drew increasing numbers.  In October 1989, participation at those peaceful prayers grew into the tens of thousands.  Berliners took heart from Leipzig and began demonstrating.  Even the Stasi couldn’t face the bloodbath required to shoot all those peaceful demonstrators back into submission.  Without support from Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet troops, the East German government simply gave up, and Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate opened in November 1989 for the first time in nearly 30 years.

And who were these people whose quiet faith broke the tyrant?  Leipzig is an old city, long known as the center of German publishing.  It was the first in Germany, and possibly in Europe, to have a coffee-shop!  Leipzig’s university is over 600 years old.  Many great talents have lived there: Leibniz (arguably the inventor of calculus), Goethe (who wrote part of Faust in his favorite watering-hole), and Johann Sebastian Bach (choir-director in two Leipzig churches including St. Nikolas for some 25 years) to name a few!  Wagner was born there, and Schumann, Mendolsohn, and Mahler all worked there.  So Leipzig has a long and deep tradition of music, literature, and philosophy.  I was pretty anxious to experience this city.

Leipzig wasn’t attacked with the incendiary bombs used by the Allies in World War II to flatten Dresden.  Ordinary bombing did plenty of damage, but the city wasn’t devastated.  The city was rebuilt under the aegis of the East German government, which is to say, lovely Baroque buildings were replaced with Soviet Bloc(k)s.  After reunification in 1990, what had been West Germany turned its attention to the decline revealed in the former East. 

When we arrived at Leipzig’s central train station, amid the construction we saw lots of evidence of the city’s revival.  Graceful 18th-century buildings have been converted into busy shopping malls. By the Nikolaikirche, where armed Stasi once faced off against the candlelit faithful, outdoor café tables were surrounded by displays of—and stalls selling—harvest bounty.    Naturally, since it was a lovely autumn day, there was an outdoor festival in the central plaza complete with entertainment by a tuxedoed crooner.   Leipzigers did nothing to deserve the oppression they suffered during 40 years of Communist rule, and they didn’t lose their spirit.  Like all Germans, they work hard, value art and beauty, and love to sit in the sunshine on holidays enjoying the fruits of their labor.  And on any given Sunday, they can attend services at the Thomaskirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach was Organist and Choirmaster for over 25 years, and hear his music performed in the same space where Bach himself first heard it.

When the Secret Police gave up control in 1989, the citizens of Leipzig didn’t go into a destructive frenzy of the Stasi workplace.  Instead, they preserved what they found inside as a museum and a reminder of how minutely, sadistically, and mundanely the Communist government spied on and persecuted their citizens.   

The average Secret Policeman didn’t work in luxury, but he did have the very latest in miniature microphones, disguise kits, and envelope-resealing technology.  

The Stasi infiltrated every schoolroom, office, and living room.  Perhaps the only way such a cruelly invasive bureaucracy would be overthrown was by peaceful demonstration and overwhelming numbers.  Courage and faith were the only weapons Leipzigers had to stand up against armed soldiers, and their bravery inspired other East Germany citizens to do the same.  The people spoke with one voice, and November 9, 1989, the tyrannical government and its wall crumbled.