Being a tourist is fun, but nothing lets you experience local culture like living with natives. That’s why I am incredibly grateful to have spent the last 5 days of my trip with a host family in a small village in Bavaria.
Again – pics posted at http://www.alisonphotoland.wordpress.com
For those of you who don’t know, my first trip to Germany (and first trip outside of North America, incidentally) was in 2009 when I did the GAPP program (German-American Partnership Program) with a group of high school students and our German teacher. In this exchange program, we were in Germany for a month: Two weeks traveling along the eastern side of the country from Berlin to Dresden to some small towns in Saxony, day trips to the Polish city Bolesławiec and the Czech city Krumlov, then two weeks placed with host families in and around Vilshofen, a small town on the Danube near the Czech and Austrian borders.
I wouldn’t say I kept in close contact with my exchange student over the past 3 years, but we did exchange postcards whenever we traveled somewhere cool and e-mails on occasion. I was extremely grateful, then, that they invited me to spend Christmas with them. Christmas in Germany, especially in small-town Bavaria where traditional culture reigns strong over modern commercialism, has always been a dream of mine. It was also nice to just “live” at a house, sleeping in one place and knowing where my next meal was coming from, after a week of traveling. Relaxing.
Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th, not the 25th. Christmas Eve is called Heiligabend (Holy Evening) and the 25th onwards are known as the first/second/etc… days of Christmas. I went into town with my exchange student, Luise, the morning of Christmas Eve, for some last-minute shopping. Surprisingly, the shops were open – she explained to me that they were open in the morning for last-minute shoppers like us, but would be closed in the afternoon and for the next few days for the holidays.
That evening Luise’s family and I went over to her aunt’s house on the other side of the village for their traditional Christmas family get-together. The main course for Christmas dinner consisted of three types of sausage with mustard and curry-ketchup – no goose/turkey/chicken/ham, just sausage. There was also bread, bruschetta and a few other side dishes for the vegetarians. It was delicious, but not quite the event that I’d been expecting for a major holiday and family get-together. I guess everything is bigger in America.
After dinner we made a traditional drink called Feuerzangbowle. How it works is you have a drink similar to wine in a pot, you put a little grill over the pot and set a sugar pyramid on it, then you soak the sugar in rum that’s at least 15% alcohol. Then you light it on fire! The rum causes the sugar to burn and melt, caramelizing it, and it drips down into the wine, giving it a sweet, caramel flavor. What a spectacle to watch! Worth noting, though – one pyramid of sugar for one bottle of wine is VERY sweet. We had to mix it with orange juice to make it drinkable.
Then we lit the Christmas tree with REAL CANDLES, which is I guess what they did before electric lights were invented and is still popular in Germany today. All Americans ask, “But isn’t that dangerous?” And of course it is, but Germans are not stupid – they don’t put candles right under branches and they only put them on fresh trees, not old, dried-out, crispy ones that are more likely to burn. Many German houses are made of brick and stone, not wood and plaster like in America, so even if it does catch on fire it’s not QUITE the catastrophe it could be. And smart people keep a fire extinguisher handy, just in case. If you’re wondering, neither the tree at my host family’s house, nor at Luise’s aunt’s house caught on fire this year.
With the lights out, everyone took turns reading stories and singing hymns. I had a hard time following along – I think about the only song I already knew the tune to was “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) although I only knew the German words to the first verse. And with stories I understood bits and pieces here and there, but the overall meaning was usually lost on me. It was still nice, though – being together as a “family” by the light of the Christmas tree, singing and reading out loud.
Next came the presents. I had been nervous that my small gifts of bath salts for Luise and flavored liqueur for her parents would not be sufficient, but it turns out everyone got each other small, useful gifts, so I was relieved. It seems that Christmas is not so commercial in Germany, for which I was grateful – not only did it save me the money of having to buy big exorbitant gifts for her family, it was much lower stress, too. It seems that the “true meaning of Christmas” has not been replaced by consumerism and capitalistic greed, at least not yet. The idea of little plastic made-in-China stocking stuffers seemed unknown in Germany – no real loss, in my opinion. And no one in her family received anything expensive like an iPad or a snowmobile for Christmas.
We stuck around a few more hours and played games with her whole family. One of my favorites was the game “Wer bin ich?” or “Who am I?” where you have the name of a famous person or character pasted to your forehead, and you have to ask the group yes or no questions to figure out who you are. It’s really quite fun. I got Alice in Wonderland and Abraham Lincoln. The best, though, was Luise’s brother Frannz – I wrote “Die Oma” (Grandma) on his sticky note. It took him forever to guess! Another hard one was when Luise got Luigi (from Mario brothers) – she was like, “So I’m not a real person, but I wasn’t on TV or in a movie or from a book. How do people know who I am?”
The next day was a chill day spent at home. In the evening we lit the candles on the tree at Luise’s house and her dad read stories aloud from a book. Luise and I stayed up late into the night talking.
The day after Christmas, I spent all morning trying to make my stuff fit into my suitcase, then looking up baggage limits for the airline I was flying with. Turns out the absolute heaviest you were allowed to take on a plane was 32kg, and my large pack appeared to be just about 31kg according to the family’s old-fashioned mechanical scale. Resolved to pay the $100, Luise’s family loaned me another bag I could pack half of my stuff into at the airport if need be – if my bag was over 32kg I’d have to pack my stuff into two 23kg bags. Fortunately, I didn’t need to.
That afternoon Luise and I took a train to Munich and she showed me around the city center. That city has more churches in one spot than any town could possibly have use for. Welcome to Bavaria, I guess – most Catholic place in Europe, second only to Rome. (I made that statistic up, but it seems likely enough.) We saw lots of beautiful old buildings, mostly churches but also the city hall, and walked down the main shopping street. Sadly the Christmas market was already closed, but the city still had an air of holiday spirit about it.
We ate dinner at the Hofbräuhaus, which I believe used to be the biggest brewery in Germany (now the biggest is in Berlin). They don’t sell beer by anything smaller than the liter there, so Luise and I shared a Radler – beer mixed with Sprite, popular among the teenagers because it’s a bit sweeter. In true German style, we shared a couple of after-dinner shots of fruit and vegetable (herb?) liqueur. It’s supposed to help with digestion, you know. Needless to say, we were feeling quite cheery afterwards. The Oktoberfest atmosphere, Lederhosen, and oom-pah Bavarian music which had seemed so annoying at first suddenly felt much more “gemütlich,” or cozy.
The Hofbräuhaus was exactly what I expected – loud, touristy and expensive. Definitely worth going, though, if you’ve never been to an Oktoberfest celebration, if only for the experience. Although there were some tables reserved for Germans (mostly older, heavier men in Lederhosen), the people at our table were American and our waiter, we decided, was Italian.
Later we went to the Jugendstil Bad, or the public swimming pool that was built in the Art Noveau style. Unfortunately we got there right before they closed so we couldn’t go swimming, and when we asked to go inside to take pictures the woman at the desk practically screamed at us that photographing an art museum was strictly forbidden, and if we wanted pictures we could go buy postcards. I’m of the strong opinion that forbidding photographs defeats the purpose of public art, but nobody asked me. So we walked home.
We spent the night at Luise’s apartment – she studies at the Technical Museum of Munich and lived pretty close to the city center. The next morning she took me to the airport, and after a harrowing 24 hours of waiting, going through security, flying, being delayed, and repeating the process, I finally made it home. As my parents were driving me home from the airport around 11 p.m., the alarm on my German cell phone went off – time to wake up.