Last night, Christmas Eve, is known in Germany as Heiligabend (holy evening). For most of the day, I did nothing more than hang out at home, watch a bunch of movies and Graham Norton episodes, and crochet and recrochet a hat that just doesn't want to fit my head. However, come midnight I went down to the Aachener Dom for the Midnight Service.

I was sitting right next to this fancy-pants lectern!
Let me get this out of the way right now. I am not catholic. I have never been a member of a catholic church and only once gone to a catholic mass, and that was half my lifetime ago. Therefore, I felt pretty awkward going in. However, I was not going to pass up the chance to worship in a building as gorgeous as the cathedral. As I entered, I picked up a program and tried to spot a place where I could sit. I had arrived just a few minutes before 12, soaked through from the rain (Do you call that a blue Christmas?) Consequently, the place was pretty well full. I was going to content myself with standing when one of the ushers came by a couple standing in front of me and told them there were more seats in the front. I followed them. I am definitely glad I didn't try to find the seats on my own. You see, in the front did not means what I had thought it meant. In the front meant literally behind the altar where you'd expect the choir to sit. In an attempt to be nice to late-coming couples, I took a single seat right beside some candles and an eagle... I couldn't see anything but I didn't really care.

Waiting for the service to begin, I admired the music pouring down from above. Though I could not see them, a brass choir had taken up residence in the second story balcony. An organ built into the walls to half encompass the sanctuary accompanied them. They played a medley of Angles We Have Heard on High, Joy to the World, and other songs I could not quite place. Soon, a group of altar boys (Is there a term for that?) appeared and waved incense all about. To be quite frank, I held my breath as they passed. Incense and perfumes tend to make my head swim.

Then, whatever signal meant the congregation should rise occurred and I followed suit. The first song began, belted by the organ. I sang along, thankful for the notes printed there to help me with the completely unfamiliar melodies. It continued in this fashion until the time came for a brief sermon.

I am embarrassed to say that I found the sermon incredibly difficult to follow. Behind the altar as I was, I could not watch the priest's mouth, which almost always assists comprehension for me. Moreover, the echoes in the hall made me lose the endings of most of his words. I do believe though that the message had to do with Jesus being born. Pretty sure.

Nevertheless, the service ended the same way it always does at home: with Stille Nacht. That is my favorite Christmas song. Getting to sing it in its original language and in the country that it came from was glorious. At 2 am, I made it home and fell asleep still half humming it to myself.

Merry Christmas, and Frohe Weihnachten.

Break has Begun

Today was the last day of lectures until January 6th. My American readers may be thinking "What? Just 2 weeks of vacation? That can't be right." Well, thanks to the fact that Christmas and New Years occur during the lecture period rather than between semesters, a shorter break makes perfect sense. Personally, I'm glad the break won't last too long. Holidays have the one rather negative side-effect that everyone I know is going home.

Flying to America and back just for two weeks break was never really an option in my mind. The expenses, hassle, and frustration involved far outweigh any relaxation there is to be had at home. Even so, I can't say that I'm entirely enjoying the prospect of celebrating Christmas and New Years in an empty building...well empty except for the plants I've been asked to water.

I'll just have to make the most of it. I see crochet, yoga, and maybe even a tiny bit of the studying I've been procrastinating on in my future.

Medieval Market

Every year in the town of Siegburg, a medieval Christmas market is set up. As someone who plays dungeons and dragons and is learning to translate middle high German, I was more than a little curious. I made the 90 minute train ride to Siegburg. When I arrived, it struck me that I hadn't the foggiest where the market was. I decided to keep going straight and see what happened.

As luck would have it, I chose correctly, if not wisely. After a minute or so, I came across a sign indicating to keep going straight to reach the market. A few minute more and I could see the entrance before me. A banner exclaiming "Seyd Gegrüßt!" ("be greeted!") welcomed me to the collection of stalls. Although far smaller than any of the markets in Köln or the Christkindlmarkt in Chicago I grew up with, this market had a far friendlier feel. I could see a stage, though empty at the time, where hourly shows were put on. I passed a stall full of gorgeous candles where, for free, children could dip a plain white candle in pots of colored wax to dye it. Further on, a soap maker had set up a tent to display his wares. To my mind, the man in loose wool robes with a bushy grey beard and leaning a knobby wooden staff looked more versed in sorcery than saponification.

While on the topic of garb, I was quite pleased with the clothes I saw worn and sold by vendors. For one thing, I did not see a single corset. I don't claim to be an expert on clothes of any era, even the ones I've lived through. However, I do know that the externally sported, boned corsets so popular at renaissance and medieval fairs did not exist then. I was glad not to come across one. The wares they did have gladdened me even more. Real leather boots, cotton and silk gowns, and fine, thick, full length pure wool cloaks. Had the cloaks been anywhere near my price range, I would have bought one in a heartbeat. Sadly, they had the disturbingly fair price of 130€. I cannot justify blowing 6 months worth of grocery money on a fancy cape.

The people working there seemed to appreciate all their woolen clothing. They had no trouble coping with the winter chill, though some had an advantage in the heating department. A blacksmith's stall had a mini forge where an apprentice tempered the tips of tools before grinding them at a whetstone. Among the items for sale there, I even got to see a pair of medieval style scissors, basically tongs with blades instead of grippers at the end.

At the stall across the way, a man and woman sold lighters from various periods and even allowed visitors to try their hand at fire starting. I was given a chunk of flint, a piece of charcloth, and a fire striker, which reminded me of brass knuckles. By striking the steel iron striker against the flint, sparks fell onto the charcloth to get it sizzling. At least, that's the theory. I made a lot of sparks, but they kept appearing on the bottom side of the flint, not the side with the combustible material. Eventually though, I got it going. I can now cross "Start a fire with flint and steel" off my bucket list. Yes, I have an odd bucket list.

Due to the market's size, I only needed about 2 hours to see everything there and enjoy a basket of falafel for lunch. However, those 2 hours were definitely worth the 3 hours of public transportation. My only regret is that I did not ask more questions of the craftsmen. I'll have to be a little bolder in the future.

Some of the Little Things

Here is a list of some of the differences I've experienced in everyday life in Germany versus America.

  • Buildings
    • Windows
      • The Germans seem to have a strange affinity for fresh air. Even now in December, I'll walk into the kitchen to find the window cracked. The windows themselves are rather differently constructed as those in most of America. They have a handle that can be set to three positions. Down is locked; parallel to the ground allows the window to hinge open like a little door; up keeps the bottom edge of the window in place while the rest tilts inwards slightly.
    • Light switches
      • This is an excessively small matter, but all the light switches I've seen have been large square "pads" that you tilt down to activate. 
      • While I know this is not the only type of switch used in Germany, I like the design. It's very easy to activate when you're groping around in the dark. Moreover, it doesn't hurt as much as the more angular designs when you bump into it.
    • Locks
      • I keep coming across doors which do not have a turn-able handle on the outside. Instead, the door automatically locks and you can only open it with a key (or a credit card...)
      • Moreover, I can only turn the deadbolt using my key, even when I'm on the inside. Therefore, someone could quite easily lock me into my room. Fortunately, climbing out of the window is no problem!
    • Water fountains
      • There are none. It is a tragic oversight.
    • Bathrooms
      • Many bathrooms require a fee to be used. The fee ranges from around 20 cents to a whole Euro! If you're broke and desperate I recommend that you find a Starbucks. They seem to always have open access bathrooms. I do not know what the case is for other restaurants and cafes.
  • Shopping
    • Pfand
      • Many plastic and glass bottles have a slight extra fee attached called Pfand. Upon returning the bottles at a Pfandstation, you're reimbursed for this amount. The returned bottles are either rewashed and reused or melted down and recycled.
    • Bagging
      • In grocery stores, the cashier will not bag your items for you. Nor are the bags free. You can either buy the sturdy, long lasting bags there (usually around 10 to 25 cents) or you can do what I do and bring a backpack and your own bags.
    • Shopping Carts
      • The shopping carts have coin activated locks. When you insert a Euro into a slot, the chain binding one cart to another will detach. The coin is freed when the cart is linked to another one once more. This is not really an anti-theft measure so much as an anti-laziness measure. People in Europe put their carts back in the right place, darn it!
  • Transportation
    • Bicycles
      • Germany is very bicycle friendly. Aachen in particular has numerous bike lanes on the road, a section of the sidewalk designated for cyclists, more bike racks than parking places, and even stop signals specifically for cyclists. If you're a pedestrian, keep your eyes peeled and don't play chicken on a crowded road. Not a good idea.
    • Traffic lights
      • The traffic lights, unlike in much of America, hang on the same side of the intersection as the cars they are directing. This makes it far more difficult as a pedestrian to see what light the cars have. Moreover, most of the stoplights for pedestrians do not have a countdown. They are either red or green. 
    • Jaywalking
      • These light setups may contribute slightly to the German aversion to jaywalking. At an empty intersection in the middle of the night with no cars in sight in any direction, pedestrians will still usually wait for the light to turn green for them.
    • Buses and Trains
      • Tickets for public transportation can be purchased online for longer trips or at the train station / bus stop. This is usually done via an automatic machine, not by going to a ticket window. Even with the buses, you buy your ticket before getting on. Very occasionally, someone will come through the bus or train to check that everyone has their ticket. This system makes loading buses much easier. You don't have to wait for each person to flash a pass or hunt for the right change. The disadvantage (or advantage depending on your moral compass) is that one can ride for free at rather low risk.

Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt

Today, I journeyed to Cologne yet again, this time to see what its Christmas market had to offer. The market actually consists of several locations. each with it's own unique feeling. The first one I visited lay next to the cathedral just outside the main train station. The short but windy and drizzly walk over to it made me glad to have worn a hat and winter coat. The cold became slightly less noticeable inside the market itself. There ovens, lights, and the crushing mass of tourists helped to warm things up.

The first market had quaint wooden booths with tented red roofs. They were arranged in a rectangle on the outside and a four pointed star inside, which surrounded a central stage. Lights strung from the stage to the corners of the star made a glowing web above it all. The stalls had everything from food to handcrafts to all the Glühwein you could ever want. Had I decided to stick around a little longer, I could have attended a brief concert on the stage.

However, it was noon and I was hungry. I wandered past most of the booths. Although I found a variety of offerings, the most common were sausage, waffles, french fries, grilled almonds, and Reibekuchen (fried potato pancakes with apple sauce).

In the end, I decided on a Weihnachtswurst, meaning Christmas sausage. I had no idea what that entailed, but the name intrigued me. The price of 3€ wasn't bad either. If my post-sausage research is to be believed, the Weihnachtswurst is a relatively new creation, by which I mean it hasn't been around since the beginning of time like other classics. It is essentially a bratwurst but with bits of apple and a hint of caramel added to the mix to create an incredibly juicy and sweet sausage. I would definitely recommend it.

Hoping to find a bit more space to breath, I moved on to the next locale. The historical district market had a heartier feel to it. The booths consisted of dark wood with decorative carvings along the bases. Instead of red fabric tents, the roofs were decked with garlands and the occasional porcelain gnome. The market was divvied up into Gassen (alleys) with themes ranging from grub to gold. Each alley has a sign with both its name and a cartoon gnome surrounded by the appropriate item.

Okay, what's with all the gnomes? It turns out, they are called Heinzels. As the story goes, Cologne used to be a utopia of laziness. No one ever had to work because as soon as they fell asleep, the hard working Heinzels would appear and do everything for them. It was only when the tailor's wife became curious and set out to catch the mysterious helpers that things went south. She covered the floor with peas to make the Heinzels trip. Well, it worked. Alas, they ran away and never returned, leaving the city's lazy inhabitants the dread task of doing their own jobs.

My favorite part of this second market, apart from the Heinzels, was a carving station. Enormous wood figures of angels, cats, and owls were arranged into a ring. In the center, the carver chipped away at a new project. I enjoyed watching him work even more than I liked the statues themselves. I could have stood there forever, but I still had half a market left to see.

The second half, separated from the first by a few short alleys, consisted of some jewelry stands, a bunch of food and drink stalls, and a substantial ice rink. It looped around a large statue of men on horses, narrowed a bit to fit under a bridge for pedestrians, and then bulged outwards again on the other side. Tucked into one side of the rink was a place for playing Eisstockschießen, otherwise known as Bavarian curling. As far as I could tell, it was a cross between curling and bocci ball. Pucks with a vertical stick on the top are slid across the ice with the goal of landing as close to a center pole as possible. While I did not participate in either the game or the skating, I was pleasantly surprised to discover their presence at the market.

Eventually, with my energy drained to a minimum, I returned home to take a long and pleasant nap. I may return to visit some of the other market locations. I am particularly curious about one in particular: the Gay and Lesbian Christmas market. I have heard that the shops are all wrapped in pink tinsel and the goods often come in rainbow patterns. Why homosexual Christmas shoppers should want anything different from heterosexual shoppers is beyond me. It isn't as though the regular markets are full of straight porn or anti-gay paraphernalia. Moreover, I can't help but feel that decorating the homosexual market in glitz and glitter is just a teensy bit stereotypical. Then again, it's supposedly quite popular in the gay community. I'll have to reserve judgement until I can take a look around myself.


As I mentioned in my last post, Thursday I had a shift on bar duty for my floor's Sankt Nikolaus party. I arrived at 9 when the party technically began and asked what I could do to help set up. I received an assignment far better than I could ever have hoped for: Fancy napkin folding.

We required containers for salty snacks. To make things a little more festive, someone decided to use red napkins to make origami bowls. He hastily demonstrated how to fold one and set me to it. If you'd like directions, follow this link. I had not expected to be handed a necessary, creative, non-people oriented task. Score!

By the time I had more bowls than pretzels, a floormate told me I was needed at the bar. Oh boy. It's not that I have anything against bartenders. I just haven't a clue how to do it. I had to ask if rum and amaretto were the same or not. Fortunately, we only had a few options: beer, gluewein, and hot chocolate with the option to add a shot to any of those, along with soda in the fridge. Once I learned how much the drinks cost and where everything was, it became fairly simple. Loud, hectic, and cramped, but simple. Before I knew it, my shift was up.

Judging by how long the music continued after I had retired to bed, I'd say the party was a hit.

Saint Nicholas and Jelly Shots

As far as I can tell, German students breathe for the sake of parties. Practically every night, regardless of if there are classes the next day or no, you can find a party raging from 23:00 to 3:00, prime sleeping time in my mind. Then again, I did get up at 5 today for no reason...

Normally, I just don't go to parties. I dislike drunkenness, loud music, and trying to make small talk with strangers. However, our floor, in order to raise money for the building as a whole, is required to host one party per semester. We have decided to honor a tradition and put on a Niko-party this Thursday.

Niko refers to Saint Nicholas of Myra (or Nikolaus with the German spelling), a martyr who lived in present day Turkey around the beginning of the 4th century. A number of legends surrounded him, such as that he left small coins or treats in people's shoes in the middle of the night. Santa Claus and Father Christmas get a lot of their style from him.

The unofficial holiday takes place on the 6th of December. For the most part, only children and their parents take part. The children place their shoes and boots by their doorway the night before. In the morning, they find them filled with fruit and candy. Sometimes in schools or in families with the proper attire, someone dresses up in bishop clothes and a long beard and reads from a giant book whether the children have been good or bad. A man in a brown or black cowl sometimes accompanies him. He is known as Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert). To the good kids, Saint Nicholas gives presents, and to the bad...did I mention Ruprecht carries a switch? In some traditions, he leaves a switch in bad children's shoes as a warning. In others, whoever dresses up as the saint interrogates the children about their behavior and give them a (nowadays fake) switching if they aren't up to snuff.

What's more, in parts of Bavaria and a number of alpine countries, instead of a single Knecht Ruprecht, Saint Nick is accompanies by hordes of devil-like monsters called Krampus. They roam the streets on October 5th and threaten to beat or even kidnap naughty children.
Nightmare before Christmas anyone?

Sadly, the party we are planning won't have anything to do with dressing up as demons and running around outside. Instead, we will sell glühwein and hot chocolate, give out green and red jelly shots to anyone with a Santa hat, and put out strategically salty pretzels. (A thirsty crowd is a lucrative crowd.) Everyone on the floor who can make it has to take a two hours shift at the bar. That means that from 9 to 11, I get to be a bar tender. That ought to go well...

to be continued.