Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like Weihnachten

     Well, dear readers, it's been a lovely, cold, cheery, Christmas-y week. Let me preface this entry by saying I am full to the brim with tea, cake, Lebkuchen, and Glühwein, so anything I say can and will be used against me in...what?

     Anyway, I apologize for skipping blithely over the last nine days of Christmas. If I know you, my dear readers, most of you have spent that intervening time crying over your computers, sobbing into your coffee,  and bemoaning your place in the universe that has someone caused you not to have been gifted with an update into the fascination of my life.

      Not to worry. I'm saving you. (I warned you about the Glühwein effects, did I not? Don't whine.)

      Skipping over the end of last week, which I frankly have very little recollection of, this past weekend brought a true Christmas treat (for this California girl, anyway): our first real snow! Though it "stuck" for only a couple days (and if I must be honest, only on the streets for about...two hours, but please, grant me this one?), it was way too exciting, and the promise of like a full week of snow starting this weekend has me more thrilled than I care to admit. Except I am admitting it. Thank me for my honestly later. See the sacrifices I'm making for the sake of this blog's verity?

      Okay, people from snowier climes than mine, hush your laughter. I can hear you all the way over the  Atlantic. I'll admit, it's not super impressive looking, but it's more the promise of snow to come that I'm excited about. And there's something magical about the first snowfall of the year. (I say this with the wisdom of someone who grew up having, on average, 0.33 snowfalls annually. Thus, I know.)

      About two hours into said snowfall, kids, parents and I bundled into the car to head into town. Anne and Michael were heading to a friend's party that evening, and it was far enough away they decided to get a hotel room for the night rather than drive back late, so the kids and I were scheduled for a whole night (plus following morning) together. I, of course, had to complicate this by having a choir concert that afternoon, so some juggling ensued, ending with the solution that the kids hang at Michael's sister's house until my concert was over, where I would collect them and take them home on the U-Bahn/bus. Fortunately Michael's sister and her husband live in an apartment only about an eight-minute walk from where my concert was, so all seemed to be working out well!

      I headed over to the church where my concert was (Damenstiftskirche St. Anna, in case you were wondering), thankfully in the grateful company of my umbrella, and arrived in perfect time. The church we sang in was lovely--quite small, with probably seating room for only about fifty, but beautifully decorated and resonant. One slightly odd feature was a life-sized sculpture of the last supper: ever sang a concert with 13 men staring at you from behind? Slightly unusual. The concert hall was also freezing--almost literally. I've never before sang a concert where I could actually see my breath whilst singing. My hands almost fell off. The concert went quite well, and definitely better than I'd expected, at any rate! There was quite a good audience turn-out, as well. For those interested, here was the program (with links, if you care to hear them. Not of us singing, though.):

     Rorate coeli desuper mit ne irascaris und consolamini (Listen here)
     Palestrina: Missa Gabriel Archangelus, Kyrie (sorry, not on youtube)
     Gregorianischer Choral: Gaudete in Domino, Dominus prope est (Listen! And yes, we sang off that manuscript)
     Palestrina: Missa Gabriel Archangelus, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei I & II

     Jakob Arcadelt: Ave Maria (More listen!)
     Palestrina: Alma redemptoris mater (Listen)
     Palestrina: Sicut lilium (listen here!)
     Max Reger: Und unser lieben Frauen Traum (Weihnachtslied) (listen!)

     Heinrich Isaac: Puer natus est nobis (starts at 2:50)
     Michael Praetorius: In dulci jubilo (AKA Good Christian Men, Rejoice)
     Praetorius: Es ist ein Ros entsprungen ( AKA Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming)

     Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ (here!)
     Zoltan Kodaly: Adventi enek (AKA O Come, O Come Emmanuel)

     Everything was very well received, and really a lot of fun! Unfortunately I was about to drop dead from the cold afterward, and the puddle I'd stepped in in my no-longer-waterproof boots didn't help. Struggling back to Michael's sister's apartment afterwards (in the rain, I might add) was quite a challenge. But I made it! Ulrike and her husband had made pizza for the kids and had me stay, of course, which was a nice chance to let my soaking wet socks dry on top of the radiator. The pizza was good too (though I had to surreptitiously pick the pepperoni off).  When the kids started getting in fights with their cousin Julian over who was hitting whose blocks (Julian is 18 months old, so you can get the picture), I knew it was time to go. Mentally preparing myself for the fifteen-minute trek to the U-bahn, and then the half an hour it would take to get home, I was more than thrilled when Ulrike told me her husband would drive us home. Given the snow that was now falling quite heavily, I was glad the opportunity came up.

      Staying the night alone with the kids was more nerve-wracking than I would have anticipated. I was supposed to set up the baby monitor so I could hear them in the night/morning, but I couldn't find it, so I figured I'd just leave my door open and it'd be fine. But the thought of them waking up and me not being up, or freaking out in the middle of the night really got to me, and I tossed and turned most of the night, dreaming about child abductions and such things. I finally went up to lie on the couch at about six, and then Kilian snuck down at about 6:30, and thus the day was started. Anne and Michael had assured the kids they'd be home "in the morning," but Kilian's five-year-old brain translates "morning" as "when we eat breakfast." Thus, he was a nervous wreck by the time his parents came home at about 10:30. I gratefully escaped back down to my room to shower and recuperate before my second concert. 

     The second concert also went very well. It was at a church within a senior care center, so most of the attendees were elderly people in their wheelchairs, who were incredibly appreciative. My family was also sweet enough to come for the first half hour (which was sadly the hardest-to-appreciate half), which was really fun for me. After the concert I headed into the city center to meet my family at one of the Christmas markets so they could buy me a glühwein (I love Germany and Christmas). Then I headed off to meet a friend at the nearby Medieval Christmas market in Wittelsbacher Platz. 

     I sadly didn't take any pictures, so I'll be sure to go back so I don't let you down. But basically picture a Christmas version of the Renaissance Faire! There were booths selling bows and arrows, belt knives, suits of armor, Renaissance dresses, homemade fruit wine (free samples!), and lots of other fun stuff, even fire-eaters up on top of one of the booths. The food was even more exciting: lots of delicious concoctions like cheese breads, Kaiserschmarren, noodles, Bratwurst, skewers of grilled meat wrapped in dough, and even a booth roasting an entire pig. Like, as in its little face looked at you as it turned over the fire. Eww. The highlight were the Feuerzangenbowlen. It's your typical glühwein, but with a sugar cube on the side and rum poured over the whole thing, then lit on fire. NOM. SO NOM. 

     The rest of the week was fairly more low-key. Tuesday night I went out to Tollwood, the huge Christmas market/festival on the Theresienwiese, the meadow where Oktoberfest takes place. The huge tents from Oktoberfest are present, but instead of being filled with drunken, beer-sodden maniacs, they're full of shopping booths! It's very similar to the huge trade show areas at county fairs. There were booths of everything: children's toys, weird clothes, handmade slippers, jam, a huge booth of mustard, pesto (one was called Li-Bi-Do, for Man and Woman. Aphrodisiac pesto=awkward?), picture frames, smelly soaps, and basically everything imaginable. A particularly memorable one was the booth of rare sausages: zebra, eland, gnu, and wild boar. 


German version of Teavana


     Yesterday and today were the kids' Christmas celebrations at the Kindergarten.  Any traditional kids' class ends before Christmas with a play, and this rule follows in Germany as well. Cliona's party on Thursday began with a cute play called "Ein Märchen im Schnee (A Fairytale in Snow)." Basically, man goes for a walk with his dog, drops his glove, animals use it for a bed. Very hard to follow with loud kids shrieking and not saying their lines, but very cute! Cliona, being one of the youngest, was a snowflake, and did a very cute little snowflake dance (that being spinning in a circle with some cotton in her hands). They then all sang a song, for which Cliona stood front in center with her hands up to her mouth giggling hysterically. Perhaps acting is not in her future.  Play is followed by salads and goodies and treats (and of course, the ubiquitous glühwein).

     Today was Kilian's play, the "Concert of the Animals." The kids were all dressed like different animals (from rabbit to sheep to mouse to cat to rooster to bird to elephant), and the little groups came out, played their instrument, the older kid in the group said a little poem, then they danced a little animal dance. Kilian was a bear, and he said his poem and danced super well. I was very proud.

Kilian's the tall one!
All the kids
Bears playing their tambourines 
Kilian in the middle. Note the little nose-picker on the left.
     And what did we do after the play? You guessed it. Ate goodies and drank glühwein. There are days when being an au pair can be tough, but my friends, today was not one of them! Unfortunately this batch was a little burnt, so it tasted a bit like someone had left coffee in the pot with the wine...

    Following the play, we headed briefly over to a friend of Anne's who was participating in an Adventskalendar party. The idea is that a neighborhood agrees on doing the party, and every night of Advent a different house hosts a gathering. Very low-key, just out in front of the house in the driveway/street, with glühwein and Kinderpunsch and perhaps some cookies. So we stood out in the bitter cold for half an hour or so, drinking glühwein and talking to people, while children ran pell-mell all around us. There were even chestnuts roasting (on a barbecue though. Rats.)! Alas, they always tasted better in my head. Then, full and freezing, we headed home.

     And here I am! The weekend holds not a lot of excitement--babysitting both Friday and Saturday nights, Sunday morning my choir is singing for mass at Alterpeter, the big church in the city center, and there's a caroling afternoon at the American church, so should be fairly relaxing! And then Monday Nate flies in from Sofia for two weeks, my family departs for Ireland on Wednesday, and Christmas joy really begins!


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fröhlichen Nikolaus! and some more Christmas Traditions (Part 2 of ?)

     Happy Nikolaus day!

     Don't worry, I had no idea before I came here either. But today I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up to a boot full of goodies outside my door!


     St. Nikolaus was far better to me than he was to the kids. Chocolate-cinnamon covered almonds and Lindt chocolate with rum filling = LOVE. As well as my Milka snowman, of course. Who now exists only in this photo. I was hungry.

Skip down to next bolded section to avoid cultural lesson

      I'm slowly catching on to how Christmas works here. St. Nikolaus, unlike our St. Nick, is not Santa Claus. He comes on December 6, his saint day, and fills boots with goodies, as well as being the one who fills up the advent calendar every night. He does not come down the chimney, he just sneaks in a door or window. He does dress in a Santa outfit, however. He also kindly visits kindergartens and fills up boots there as well! Busy guy!  Traditional Nikolaus treats are chocolate, fruit, and nuts (though bad children may find a rod or switch in their boot!) As my host mom was telling me, there are families who get big ol' presents from Nikolaus on the 6th, but I think that would take away from Christmas itself, wouldn't it? Apparently the reason St. Nikolaus Tag exists as it does is because of the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther sought to sever the connection between saints and gift-giving, because it glorified saints inappropriately, and therefore St. Nikolaus couldn't be the one bringing gifts on Christmas Day. The Catholic response was to just switch his celebration to the 6th instead! 

      On Christmas itself, the present-bringer varies based on location. In Northern Germany it's Weihnachtsmann (literally, Christmas Man), who is basically just Santa Claus. In Southern Germany, gifts are brought by the Christkindl: the Christ child. (In case you were wondering, it's the butchering of this German word that gives us the name Kris Kringle.)  Germans scoff at separation of church and state. Seriously. 

      The primary Christmas celebration takes place not on the 25th but on the 24th: our Christmas Eve, the Germans' Heiliger Abend (Holy Evening). Presents are brought and put under the tree (in a locked room) at nightfall on the 24th (and bear in mind that this far north, that's like 4 PM by that time of year). All the presents are opened that night, and the 25th is a day for the Christmas feast and going to church. 

End informative section

      Okay, I'm done lecturing on German Christmas traditions now. I'm sort of sad my host family will be out of town for Christmas, because it would be really exciting to see all this first hand with little kids who still believe in Santa, but I'm sure Christmas will be amazing nonetheless. Nikolaustag was fun enough though. And the Advent calendar (a giant cloth hanging one on the wall, with little pouches for each day) is a kick--I put Kilian to bed the other night, and before we went up he insisted on puffing open the pouch for the next day, to make it easier for Nikolaus to get the treat in. As we headed up the stairs, he confided, "Laura, sometimes when I am already in bed I sneak out to the stairs to see if I can see Nikolaus sneaking in the window with treats!" Precious! 

      My kiddos are turning my hair grey, I think, but continue to be adorable and hilarious and a lot of fun. I swear, Cliona enjoys the trouble she gets into when she refuses to eat her dinner, but it's pathetically easy to get them to do what I want. For example:
      Me:        Cliona, I need you to eat five more forks.
      Cliona:  No! I want not that! I want not to eat!
      Me:       Okay, I guess we're going to your room to go to bed now!
      Cliona:  No! I eat! I eat!
As I said, pathetically easy. 

      The newest fight (well, the new version of an old fight) is about who gets to sit on my knee (not lap, that's American). I've settled with the rule of both or none (picking one leads to more screaming than my ears care for), so now they fight over who gets what leg. My favorite pair of jeans has holes in it (intentional ones; thanks, American Eagle, I really needed that breath of fresh air on my thigh when it's 25 degrees out), so they fight over who gets to sit on the leg with the bigger hole. Seriously? 

      Cliona has been very into her baby doll recently, and it's the most hilarious thing to sneakily listen to her play with it. Conversations usually revolve around her disciplining Baby, who I'm glad isn't real, as she frequently bites and hits Cliona. It is seriously the funniest thing. 

      We got our first real snow today! Didn't stick, as the temperature's hovering right around freezing and so the precipitation has a lot of trouble making up its mind whether it's snow or rain, but it was beautiful anyway. I'm really hoping we get a real snow before Christmas! California me would be incredibly excited. 

      I have my first choir concerts this weekend! We for some reason just started singing the Christmas music like three weeks ago, so it seems pretty shaky at this point, but I was assured things always come together at the concerts. It's fun being Christmasy!

     I went this Sunday to a sing-along Messiah at the local Episcopal church, about 40 minutes from my house. It was a real piece of home, with basically all English speakers there, and it was really a lot of fun, despite being coldy and therefore probably sounding pretty bad. The same church hosts a carol singing evening a couple of weeks from now, so I'll more than likely go to that as well! It's just not Christmas without Messiah. The soloists were all pretty impressive (with the notable exception of the soprano singing the recits......ouch). There was also a raffle for gift baskets, and I was arm-twisted into buying a ticket for the "American basket," temptingly loaded to the brim with PopSecret, Oreos, marshmallow whip, and other goodies I miss a sad amount.  

      After the Messiah, I scurried home to help out my family with their glühwein party. Consisting of about 20 people and their cumulative 20 children, chili, tabouleh (made by yours truly), a lot of cookies and crackers, and a truly incredible amount of homemade glühwein, it was really a lot of fun. Though I was technically there "working," my family is super cool and my mug of glühwein was refilled every time it got slightly empty. And really, working consisted of making sure no kids fell down the stairs and feeding them pasta at about 6 PM. I finished off the Christmasy day by watching "The Santa Clause" online. 

      And that's about it! The rest of the week continues as normal; Anne and Michael are out overnight this weekend so I get to have the kids all night and the next morning as well (which I guess means I get to fill up the Advent calendar? YES!), then next week consists of a lot of kid's christmas plays/parties/shows. This time of year is way too much fun! I apologize for the major scattered-ness of this blog entry!

Silly kids eating Nikolaus chocolate after kindergarten

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas in Germany (Part 1 of ?)

     Yesssss, another November blog! By about 26 minutes...phew! This is mostly a photo blog, I'll warn now: there's really no way to accurately describe the wonder of Christmas markets with words, so pictures will have to do the trick. These are of the famous Christkindlmarkt in Marienplatz. Happy December :)

      Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmärkte) are basically just one big Christmas ornament + food sale. But it's magical. There are glühwein stands about every three feets and Christmas-y goodies everywhere. The glühwein is even served in real mugs (for which you pay a mere 3 euro deposit...making it way too tempting to take home with you. Okay. I took my mug home. It's cute!) I'm really hoping we get some snow soon so I can really get into the Christmas spirit.

      And just to really set the scene for you, following photo expedition was carried out with me wearing such wintry accoutrements as scarf, hat, elbow-length gloves, undershirt, leg warmers, boots, coat, und so weiter. It was super awesome. I'm enjoying "winter" thus far!

      And apologies for the blurriness of the pictures. My camera stinks.


My delicious apple-cinnamon crepe. NOM.

Even something as boring as a list of drinks looks cool in Germany.

Display in the Galleria Kaufhof (department store) window. In America this would be kitschy but here it's just cool.

Hahaha, funny story. This guy was playing his didgeridoo outside the Christmas market. Weird, right? So I stopped, a courteous 30 feet or so away, to take a photo. The guy saw me, jumped up, hid behind this pillar, and flipped me off. Umm, friend, if you're going to be a street musician, people may occasionally try to take your photo. Just a thought.

Organic wurst FTW.

Bye Christmas market!

Ice skating rink at Karlsplatz

Even the U-Bahn is decorated!

Festive trashcan

City version of a Christmas tree farm