OK Travelers, Prague – Part 4
Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas day in a number of countries in Europe, and that is the case for Germany. Nevertheless, the Christmas market was open until 2 pm, as were a number of tourist shops around there. This was good news for us – because we had put off the majority of our ornament purchases until then.
We had breakfast at a crowded little bakery right next to a big collection of booths. Then we began our ornament hunt in earnest. This little guy? We’ll take him! That little thing? Yeah, two please! Goodbye money, hello stuff.
After purchasing some things we rounded a corner and looked up at a tower. There were people at the top, and it looked like an amazing place to take in a great view of the city. We walked to the entry, paid a few Euros, and up we began to climb at St. Peter’s Church (again, right off Marienplatz). Up, and up, and up. There were quite a few stairs to get to the top, and it was narrow enough that you’d occasionally have to step aside to let others go down. But I think after about halfway up a lot of people wished there were more reasons to step aside, because I saw some people looking pretty gassed. ‘I didn’t realize I was so unfit,’ was heard from at least one Brit. (A rhyme!)
At the top of the tower there were two or three people with brass instruments playing Christmas music. We were able to enjoy that while circling the tower, taking in the Alps and the city of Munich. Below us was also that giant beautiful Christmas tree and so many people and booths full of beautiful Christmas decorations. Yes, the tower was a bit of a climb, but it was definitely worth it.
In one store that was jam-packed full of tourists we were admiring the cuckoo clocks (like you do). A woman was waiting very excitedly for the bill to arrive for her to pay for one she had picked out. We talked with her some because she seemed a chatty lady, and she had an American accent. It turns out she had done her research and shared with us all kinds of cuckoo clock knowledge (like you do, part two). Also, she was from Sugar Land, Texas, which was a small world factoid as the wife knows that place well. We looked at a number of different cuckoo clocks with an employee at the store and we ended up picking the winner. Yes that’s right, we’ll be (when it arrives) proud owners of a cuckoo clock. Look out world! (Also, you can silence them at night.) It’s got two little rams that come out and butt heads on the hour, and it plays some song. The woman who helped us was delightful … she was funny and kind of nuts, very high-energy but without it being annoying.
One thing I really appreciated everywhere we went was how little store employees cared about our presence. If we asked for help, they happily helped. But you weren’t asked, “how are you?”, “how may I help you?”, “what’re you looking for today?” or any of that as soon as you entered a store. It really makes shopping much more enjoyable.
We ran to our hotel, dropped off our growing collection of stuff, gave our suitcases wary glances picturing traveling on the train the next day, and then we headed back to the Christmas market area. We had decided to have a carnival style lunch, getting a little of this, a little of that, from the different food booths. Except, unlike a carnival, this place smelled nice, the employees were friendly, cheerful, didn’t elicit fear, and sold good stuff. Like a carnival, it was a lunch of foods that are not at all good for you. Gluhwein, water, sausage sandwich, some sort of fried potato on a wafer with apple sauce on top (weird but delicious), french fries. Oh yes, it was tasty tasty.
After lunch we took it easy for a while. This was an easy decision because everything was closed. I wandered aimlessly for a bit snapping photos and trying to disguise my large tourist camera (my fancy new DSLR). We also watched a bit of TV which was delightful.
1 – The German Who Wants to be a Millionaire has incredibly difficult questions, I was rarely right (partially this is because I don’t speak German). They were cross-promoting another show, Winnetou, which is a cowboys and Indians show. It was odd to see the question asker wearing an Indian headdress, and then the guest shooting a toy bow and arrow … in the middle of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
2 – The championship of darts was on … oh my. What a show. During the snippets I watched on EuroSport (it was either darts, hockey, or downhill skiing on that channel) I was consistently amused by something so silly (like a lot of sports). A lot of yelling out numbers, and high drama, and two overweight, awful shirt wearing, usually English dudes, sweating and chucking dart after dart. I don’t know if I would’ve watched as much if it had been in English, I think the confusion and trying to pick out the occasional German word added to my enjoyment.
For dinner we had made reservations at a place around the corner from our hotel. It was Christmas Eve which meant not many places were open, and tourists like us probably had booked up a lot of those seats. When we had made our reservation they asked if we would be ok if we ended up sitting by other people, and we said yes.
Our dinner companion, seated at the same table, arrived a little late. He lived there in the Munich area, but he was originally from the German speaking portion of Switzerland (he also spoke French, and English). Next to us was a German (?) family, and on the other side an English couple. The man seemed delighted with the idea of chatting with us, his wife less so (in the end, they chatted with us very little).
When our Swiss pal sat down we asked if he spoke English, he hesitated and then said, “a little.” Pft. Yeah, ok. “A little” English by European standards appears to mean fluent. I think there were two times he struggled to find the right word. In contrast, I think there were five times I struggled to find the right word and all I speak is English.
Our Swiss buddy, it turns out, was eating alone because his wife had died the year prior. He did not want to eat at home and so began driving around the city looking for a place where he could eat. The ball and chain and I were happy that we were able to provide a little social activity for him during a painful time of year, thinking of his recently deceased wife.
One funny note: Our Swiss pal talked about how his job was delighted to learn he spoke French so that he could do work there. He then said he wasn’t thrilled about this, because he doesn’t care for the French. He had experiences in Italy and France where things ended up being unnecessarily delayed when he got there. In France, this drove him nuts and he voiced a couple times during dinner that he did not particularly care for the French. In Italy, somehow, this was delightful. An Italian would pull up a chair, tell him to relax, pour him some coffee, and they’d chit chat. What is striking about this is we heard the same story about Italians from a couple in Switzerland we chatted with, and a fella from Prague. Italy has an artistry when it comes to delaying people.
The English couple did end up chatting with us at the end of dinner, telling us that they found it funny, everywhere they went they ran across Brits apologizing for Brexit, and Americans apologizing for Trump.
Recently the old ball and chain and I made our way to Europe for a two week trip (11 sightseeing days). It had its ups and downs, and I’d like to share some of our adventuring about because it’s fun for me to recall the trip.
We flew from Denver to Munich, via Toronto, on Air Canada. Air Canada was nice and I packed in a lot of movies – Suicide Squad (awful), Batman v Superman (not good but not as bad as the anti-hype train painted it), Deadpool (enjoyed it but a little awkward to watch on an airplane), the latest Jason Bourne movie (enjoyable mindless action) and Sarah Prefere Le Course (French Canadian movie … enjoyable but the ending was one of those that just happens). Maybe others? I don’t know. I also have no idea which ones I watched on the way there vs the way back, it all sort of blends together.
Two days before our trip began the incident in Berlin where a man drove a truck into a Christmas market happened. That was an awful event and some families will forever live with grief because of it, and some people’s lives have been brutally cut short. On a selfish note, this led to heightened concerns and worries for my wife and I. I don’t think I tend to be an unaware traveler, but I took screen shots of all the embassy locations before we left, and tried to stay very aware and think of how I would exit any place as quickly as possible. My wife was worried about Christmas markets (something we wanted to see as part of our trip) and I was worried about trains (they are just so easy to get on and off with however many bags you can carry and no checks of baggage contents).
Thankfully, our worries amounted to nothing and we had no death threats that panned out.
We left on December 21 in the morning and arrived on December 22 in the morning (hello confused bodies). We made our way to our hotel (ignoring my fears above, I love how prevalent and easy to use trains can be) and promptly took a much longer than we meant to nap. We woke up hungry, tired, and excited to see a little bit of Munich. But mostly hungry. And tired.
Our coats donned we headed to a coffee shop we had noticed while walking from the train station to the hotel – Coffee Fellows. I was all prepared in my head, “zwei kaffee, bitte, und uh … zwei … brot?” We wanted coffee and bagels but I had no idea how to say bagels, pointing is an international language, but also English is fairly international. My American brain can appreciate that.
I think only twice in the whole trip did I stumble through German (Munich, Lucerne in Switzerland and Vienna in Austria all speak German). I knew that I probably didn’t need to worry about learning German, I assumed I would need my 2 year old vocabulary at least a handful of times, but I didn’t even need it that much.
Our hotel was not far from Marienplatz, where a big Christmas market, Chriskindlmarkt, was located. We left from our quick meal and headed there. It was beautiful. St. Michael’s Church (St. Michael Kirche) with a huge, beautiful tree dominated the view. In front of them were temporary booths – nice looking, wooden temporary booths (a leap above the carny kind of temporary booth). I took picture after picture trying to capture how beautiful it all was – the shining ornaments hanging from booths, the smell of the gluhwein (a spiced, warm wine – sounds gross, tastes warm and occasionally delicious), the beautiful buildings, the upbeat and happy and kind mood that surrounded us.
We wandered from stand to stand, taking in the sights, picking out items to come back and buy later (a more difficult task than we realized, because finding the same booth was not always easy). (For more pictures of the beauty of the stands, go here to a previous post.)
For dinner we popped in a restaurant, Ratskeller, and enjoyed some incredibly delicious traditional German food. Oh yes, my friends, I miss that. And the beer. Oh such tasty beer.
We slept in late, later than we intended, and ended up getting coffee, juice, and a breakfast on the go from the train station. (I had a vanilla croissant … all the little bakeries there are wonderful – I don’t want to stereotype, but I think Europeans have bread at a higher level of deliciousness than most.) We boarded a train and headed to Dachau. From the Dachau main station we hopped on a bus to get to the site of the concentration camp (for future travelers – basic tip, follow the tourists).
I won’t spend much time recapping the visit to the concentration site because I don’t think I could do it justice. I will say two things, though.
One is that it wasn’t as depressing as I thought it would be. We arrived and walked into a building which has large poster after large poster full of facts. By the time you finish walking through that building your brain is inundated with information. To me, the Holocaust Memorial in Boston is more moving and depressing (the glass cubes with the numbers on them and a few quotes) because it is so stark. I think that creating a museum that is both informational and impactful is challenging, but I felt like the amount of data took away from the sadness of the place and what it was once used for. After walking through that building we walked around the grounds and you can easily visualize just how many buildings were there, stuffed with people suffering such incomprehensible cruelty, and that was powerful.
Thought two came before the trip. I began thinking about how Germany has concentration camps that are internationally known places to visit, to wonder at, to be disgusted by, and to learn from. I can’t think of an equivalently known slavery museum in the United States. It seems like that could be a museum that would be powerful, and important in teaching people about history. This could be my own ignorance and there very well may be a museum that serves just such a purpose, I just know that I have toured an old plantation or two and it was not built around showing slavery but the architecture of the plantation itself.
After the Dachau tour we had lunch at a little café in town and then I wanted us to walk to a castle. We got there at 4:05 pm to discover that it had closed at 4 pm. Dagnabit. It was a foggy day that was ripe for mystery laying behind every corner, which made the walk back to the train station seem a little more discombobulating.
Back in Munich, we rested at the hotel for a bit before heading out to once again marvel at the Christmas markets (talk about a switch from Dachau). This time we went along a different route to see different booths, and we stumbled on a beautiful decoration which ended up causing us countless grief (a large wooden scene – trip lesson #1 – when you buy a whole bunch of stuff at the first destination of your trip, MAIL IT HOME! Instead we lugged it around which was less than delightful). Somehow, the wooden decoration appeared to survive the trip, so that is good.
We had dinner at a Pizzeria, which was actually a very upscale looking Italian restaurant. I guess the word pizzeria does not mean chill pizza joint like it does here. The food? Ok. The beer? Oh you know it was delicious.