Storybook Christmas

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The alpine town of Mittenwald

Christmas in Bavaria is something straight out of a storybook. Majestic mountain peeks are blanketed in sparkling white snow, the countryside is peppered with little German hamlets draped in garland and decorated in twinkling lights, and even Munich, the big city, dons its holiday best that would even inspire Mr. Scrooge himself to feel the cheer.
This is the Christmas scene straight out of movies, postcards, and paintings of yesteryear. You can’t help but let the nostalgia whisk you away to another time, another place.

Perhaps what Germany is most famous for during this time of year is its Christmas markets. It seems you can drive just a few kilometers in any one direction and stumble upon a little wooden “village” nestled in the woods or right smack in the middle of town. Wherever you might find them, the Christmas market is an icon of German holiday culture. Local artisans set up shop in small wooden booths to sell their seasonal goods. From woven woolen hats to homemade jams to traditional wooden handicrafts, there’s something available for every taste.

And speaking of taste, there’s no shortage of seasonal goodies to snack on or sip while you shop. Feeling chilled? Try a piping hot mug of Gluwein, spiced mulled wine that goes down smooth to the last drop. But be warned! An extra shot of rum may warm you to the core, but a little goes a long way. If a snack is what you’re after, there’s nothing like a hearty German sausage to satisfy even the slightest appetite. Next, find a table, cradle your mug of Gluwein for extra warmth for your hands, and savor the scene. A true local from Munich proper browses the stands in her finest furs. She’s out to see and to be seen. A family dressed in traditional tracht; to see a man wearing lederhosen or a woman in her dirndl is to see a true Bavarian. Children, resembling the Michelin Man in their snowsuits, boots, and tasseled hats, frolic about to the yuletide tunes filling the air in the background.

Finishing off my second mug of Gluwein (no extra rum!), I consider the moment. I’ve been to these markets before, and each time it’s something special. The spirit of the season is alive here. Stress? Forgotten. My to-do list can wait another day. For now I’m a character in the Christmas storybook of yesteryear or that carefree ice skater on a frozen pond gliding across a classic winter scene painting. This is one of the few times when an idealized moment is exactly what I wished for. I celebrate with a third round of Gluwein, this time with just a splash of extra rum.

Me sipping Gluwein
What’s Germany without beer?

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

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First off, apologies are in order. Here we are only a month and a half into this blog and already we are falling behind. There are so many stories to share with all of you…it doesn’t seem that there is any shortage of excitement! Many things have happened since our last post, but our most recent adventure is one that takes the cake. I have to warn you that this post is lengthy. I recommend grabbing a snack and kicking your feet up for this one!

As most of you know, I am working at an American school here in Barcelona. It has it’s many perks…English is the primary language, its view of the sea is breathtaking, and of course holidays! This not only means Spanish holidays (there are 22 Catalonian holidays in the calendar year) but also American holidays…not to mention summer vacation…WOO! Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to celebrate in Europe because no one is traveling, airfare is cheap, and the roadways aren’t crowded. The dreaded, or much anticipated, Black Friday isn’t even a glimpse in the European mind! We decided to take advantage of this low-key long weekend and travel to Munich to see Nathan and Shonda. It was perfect…Jeff had only started informal training at Rucker and I already had Thursday and Friday off. We left for the airport Wednesday evening and were in flight by 7:30. The brief flight was full of anticipation to see family, especially since Shonda was carrying our niece. 2 hours later we had arrived…was Germany ready for 2 more Kohlhoffs??

Nathan and Shonda met us in the airport after retrieving our bags, and we were soon on our way to the car. Little did we know our ride would be a brand new 7 series BMW that has not yet been released…you can imagine Jeff’s reaction. It’s amazing to watch him transform as his giddiness takes over and he is suddenly spouting off specs that only car-savvy individuals like himself would understand. I think we’ve all witnessed it at least once! Nonetheless, after posing for a few pics and looking over the car once, then twice, then a third time we were finally on our way to Hallbergmoos…otherwise known as Home Sweet Home.

Hallbergmoos is a charming little town. Being that Christmas is just around the corner, the streets were illuminated with sparkling white lights and buildings were adorned with wreaths and greenery. Snow blanketed the fields and the distant snow capped Alps made the perfect background for a true winter wonderland scene. Nathan and Shonda’s home somehow fit the landscape more than perfectly…a butter-yellow house complete with a tree swing and a glistening white field. Baby Kohlhoff couldn’t be luckier.

Wednesday night didn’t last long. After a guided tour and introductions with the cats, it wasn’t long before we said goodnight. We knew we needed rest as the next few days were going to be busy. Thursday greeted us with bright sunshine, although it was quite frigid outside. Nathan and Jeff decided to take the BMW for a joy ride on the Autobahn (they managed to reach 150 mph) while Shonda and I culled through Christmas decorations, made a very pitiful cornbread, and simply gabbed as girls often do. Once the Brothers Kohlhoff returned from their adrenaline high, we loaded the car and headed south on winding country roads. Our destination was a small town about an hour south of Munich where we would be joining some friends for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant called Niba.

The restaurant owner tried his hand at preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal…keep in mind he’s German. Dinner started with a pumpkin soup that was quite delicious. The main course was appetizing to the eyes and tongue…turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, spiced chestnut stuffing, and green beans to boot…yum! Dessert was interesting, however. We were served a variation of pumpkin pie and we all had our guesses as to how it was prepared. Raw grated pumpkin mixed with ricotta cheese and powdered sugar filled a sugar cookie crust…also raw. I’m not one to spring for the traditional pumpkin pie myself, but at least it smells appetizing. This pie was downright gross. The looks on our faces were classic, all looking confused yet curious yet disgusted. The look spoke of “Are we supposed to eat this?” One small bite was enough for me, but leave it to Jeff and Nathan to eat the whole thing. They were the only 2 out of 20 guests who could stomach the “pie”. Maybe introduce it to the oven next time?

That night we spent the night at Sebastian and Carol’s house. Thank you for your generosity! The Kohlhoffs can really put away the bread. ;o) Friday morning we continued south, driving along the Alps as we made our way to one of the most famous castles in the world. But first, Nathan’s determination to stop at an alm (farm) landed us in the middle of nowhere on a farm where fresh cheeses are made. The smell certainly hit us in the face as soon as we got out of the car, but the panoramic views made it easy to ignore. We dined on fresh cheeses, sparkling apple juice, fresh milk, fresh baked bread, and cured ham. Delicious! We set forth to our final destination, but once again we managed to get distracted. This time our travels brought us to a Baroque cathedral in Bavaria. First impressions of the interior were of pure awe. There were simply no words to describe the vision of the most ornate and intricately detailed marble, wood carvings, and plaster encrusted with gold and jewel-toned painted images. The white-washed walls made the bursts of color even more impressive. It’s moments like these that make you realize jut how old this part of the world is.

Onward! We finally reach Schwangua, home of Neuschwanstein Castle. Neuschwanstein served as one of 4 homes built by King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a peculiar man who led a very private and secretive life. He wasn’t considered to be very social, and he was not well liked by his kingdom. Why? His spending habits were out of control. An extraordinary amount of money was spent on his incredibly extravagant lifestyle. Neuschwanstein is the most famous example of his notoriously lavish life, but you may recognize it for another reason. Does the architecture look familiar? Walt Disney, after visiting the castle, decided it was the perfect fairy tale castle. Thus, Cinderella’s Castle is modeled after this Bavarian masterpiece. I would agree with Walt Disney. The setting was truly that of a fairy tale…a quaint little town, snow capped mountains, a horse and carriage ride, panoramic views…certainly the things dreams are made of. Too bad King Ludwig only spent about 170 days in the castle. He died “mysteriously” and was found in the lake just beyond the castle. The strangest thing of all was that this castle was built in the 19th century! It was built to replicate the medieval Romanesque period…a testament to King Ludwig’s egocentrism.

Our journey back to Munich was interrupted by a visit to a traditional Christmas Market. The market was a whimsical event complete with a Bavarian Oompa band, traditional food, homemade goods, and gluvine! Gluvine is a deliciously warm drink made from sweetened red wine that is spiced. It’s the perfect drink to warm you to the core. You can probably guess my ultimate satisfaction after several cups of the heavenly drink…mmm. After a few hours of roaming the different stands, we had finally had enough of the cold weather and returned home. Somehow we still had enough energy to watch “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, a Thanksgiving classic.

Think the surprises are over? Don’t be fooled…the ultimate surprise came early Saturday morning. Our peaceful slumber was disturbed at around 3am by a very excited Nathan informing us that Shonda’s water had broken. What?!? This wasn’t supposed to happen for at least 2 more weeks! We were out of bed in a flash, but despite the frantic excitement, the process of getting ready for the hospital was calm and orderly. Thank goodness for all those lists! Soon Nathan and Shonda were on their way to the hospital…ready or not, a fifth Kohlhoff was on the way. Look out Germany! Jeff and I stayed behind, and somehow we managed to go back to sleep. Nathan called a few hours later to say that Baby Kohlhoff had made her grand entrance. Jeff and I made our way to the hospital, anxious to meet our newborn niece. When we arrived, our hearts were filled with happiness and pride…she was so beautiful. We stayed at the hospital for a few hours, then decided to head back to the house. Jeff and I proceeded to make a disaster of the kitchen as we fumbled our way through making a Thanksgiving dinner (this was our original plan for Saturday). We used every dish, fork, knife, and spoon you could imagine…thank goodness they had a dishwasher! We packaged the meal in several containers and returned to the hospital where the 5 of us found new meaning in the holiday celebration. Welcome Brianna Lynn!

In looking back on the weekend, I couldn’t help but think that all of this was somehow meant to be. There were too many signs to be passed off as coincidence…that nagging feeling that this was the right decision was clearly confirmed. Being there with Nathan and Shonda for the birth of their first child was indescribable, overwhelming, truly a blessing. If I’ve been taught anything, it’s that there’s no better time than now to seize the moment. Listen to tht voice in your head. You have no idea what you could be missing.