Tag Archives: Christmas

Travel Guide: Berlin

One sibling loved every moment while the other did not speak highly of the experience. Friends have visited multiple times, reportedly always leaving with a desire to return. I once heard a comment that it felt wrong for a European capital to be new and modern rather than old and charming. As for me, I’ve been reading a lot and the reading has helped put Berlin into context. It is a very complicated place.

Throughout my time in Berlin, I was in awe at its history, taken in by its spirit, and curious about what I would find around the next corner. There was an unpredictability to Berlin that I had not expected, an element of surprise that makes complete sense considering the significance and history of this city. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I was there in this place, which, not long ago, was a completely different place. People make a place and the people who made this one are amazing to me.

This is why I started my visit to Berlin in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood known today for its art scene but a neighbourhood with a much grittier history than that.

I stopped first at the Berlin Wall Museum (expensive but worth every penny) and the East Side Gallery. I wanted to understand the people who call Berlin home and the people who stood together to rebuild it. I wanted to understand the stories that people around the world want to tell about Berlin and what its separation and reunification symbolize to them. More than anything, I felt that Berlin reflected an attitude of deliberate commitment to a very clear choice, and I think the world could use more of that.

I recently read Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29 and it gave me a great deal of background information that I would not have otherwise had. Walking along Bernauer Straße and coming to the corner of Ackerstraße left me standing a little straighter, full of hope for the future, and deeply moved by thoughts of what it must have been like for the world to completely and utterly change over the course of a single night.

With that, it was time to find out more about the longer history of Berlin and follow a very knowledgeable guide through Mitte, the central district.

The stops that struck a particular chord with me were the memorial to the Nazi era book burnings . . .

. . . the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie (be aware that the Disneyland-like environment around it is just really strange) . . .

. . . the carpark area built over Hitler’s bunker . . .

. . . and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The guide suggested walking through it individually and in silence, which was a powerful experience. Part confusion and isolation, part a sense of losing direction, and part a feeling of being trapped with no place to go.

I retraced some of our steps the following day to consider Germany today and its role on the world stage. When I first told friends I was moving to Germany one of them asked, “How does it feel to be going to a country led by a woman?” I have to say, it felt pretty good.

As I wandered, I paused at two quiet memorials. I’ve written about memorials before and at the very least, these made me pause. It was evident that the same was true for others. (I also really like the German word for memorial, das Denkmal. Denken means “to think” and I don’t need to say any more than that.)

My last night in Berlin, with much warmer weather than when I arrived, I happened upon a Christmas Market as I walked along the Ku’damm to take in the lights and designer shops. Christmas Markets are scattered throughout the city and are normally all over Germany, but this year is not a normal year. Clear entry points with masks and vaccine proof, but it’s a small price to pay. I was glad to spend a little time there and glad for the energy of those around.

There’s so much more to see and do in Berlin, and I admit this post is a selection of highlights. I’ll certainly be back, hopefully next time without icy wind blowing down from the north. I left Berlin having gained a new sense of respect for this city and this country, a heightened awareness of what it means to work towards something important. I am very aware that I am a guest here in Germany, and truly grateful for the opportunity to know, to learn, and to try to understand.

Travel Guide: Salzburg, Vienna, Leoben

Before dawn on New Year’s Day after a week in Switzerland, my parents and I took the train from Zurich to Salzburg. The trip itself was beautiful and everything I had hoped train travel through Europe would be. We journeyed through mountains, hills, trees and through increasing amounts of snow, but there was sunshine and blue skies the whole way.

Salzburg

I really, really enjoyed our afternoon in Salzburg and would have loved more time there to walk up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, or drive to Schloss Hellbrunn in the countryside. But now I have a reason to go back!

Salzburg was surrounded by water and, surprisingly to me, great stone cliffs that seemed to come up out of nowhere when we were walking through the old town.

As before, the walk through the old town took us past beautifully painted buildings and intricate architecture that just don’t exist anymore. I know that real people don’t live in these old towns, but they certainly are pretty. The narrow streets leading to large open squares in Salzburg are hilly, which means that church towers and other buildings just sort of peek out at you around corners.

But there are other parts of Salzburg that remind you that this is a real place where people live and I was glad to see that, too.

Mozart made his home in Salzburg and we visited Mozart Geburtshaus, Mozart’s birthplace, which is considered the more informative of the two Mozart houses. We learned a great deal about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his family (including a very talented sister!), and Austrian musical tradition and I was really impressed with the collection of artifacts and family papers. Music is a really important part of heritage here and classical music was playing through speakers throughout the old town in Salzburg, prompting a surprising amount of waltzing in the streets and in the squares. I kept expecting to see a live orchestra around each corner!

Like we’d seen across Switzerland, there were little Christmas markets and stands set up across the city.

We also stopped by the university church . . .

. . . and the Dom zu Salzburg, where we stopped to visit the church and to drink glühwein.

Vienna

The next morning was equally bright and sunny and we left fairly early for Vienna. We could have easily stayed another day in Salzburg and left for Vienna that night but something told me I’d want the time in Vienna. This turned out to be accurate and again, I really need to go back!

Vienna is beautiful. It’s beautiful and grand and opulent with wide streets and specially painted bike lanes. As soon as we saw the bike lanes next to the opera house, I knew that I would like Vienna very, very much. It was pretty at night, too.

The first thing we did, however, was walk a little ways out of the old town to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest food market. It’s part restaurants . . .

. . . and part food stalls . . .

. . . and part other goods.

My family loves markets and food, and we ate and drank and tasted and smelled for a good couple hours. I can only imagine how much busier it would have been on the weekend when the flea market is open, but I was really glad to have the chance to see some of the art painted on the closed stall fronts.

From there, we basically followed the streets brightly lit by Christmas lights. We wandered into a couple of Christmas markets and did some window shopping before stopping at the Austrian National Library. To warm up, we joined the long queue waiting to get inside. We were greeted by everything that creates the idea of a library – wooden bookshelves with the upper levels accessible by ladders, old books, vaulted painted ceilings. It was still cold inside, likely to keep the books in good condition, but so pretty that it didn’t matter.

We were also lucky to see an exhibit of Beethoven’s personal papers, including the program and score of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which I have actually seen!

The next morning we followed a guided walk around Old Vienna and it took us down narrow, quiet streets to tiny squares with old, quiet churches.

There were also busy shopping streets and grand squares with opulent buildings and statues.

My dad and I climbed one of the towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and although it was cloudy, I was glad to see the view of Vienna from above. My spatial skills are mediocre so I appreciate actually being able to see the expanse of a city.

Fun fact: Vienna used to be a walled city! Our walking tour took us past the remnants of the old city walls.

This was the coldest day we’d had (it had actually snowed!) and we decided to spend the afternoon indoors. Along with many other visitors, we took shelter in the Leopold Museum to learn about Viennese art of the 1900s. The exhibition included painting, sculpture, furniture, and jewellery and I enjoyed learning about artists who were completely new to me. I also didn’t know anything about the impact World War I had had on Vienna; I think it’s important to understand the place where you are and I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it. The importance of art was clear outside of the museum, as well.

That evening we went to a concert in St. Charles Church in which we were treated to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and what I can only assume were other works by Vivaldi because nothing was actually explained. An opera singer featured for certain parts of the performance, too. The church was beautiful but one thing that didn’t occur to me when I bought tickets is that churches are not heated. I learned an important lesson when the ushers passed out blankets at the door!

Leoben

Mum and Dad flew back to Toronto the next day and I left Vienna to pick up the car I’d be driving for the next week. This was the point at which I had no plans. I knew where I’d be staying for the first two nights but the rest of the week was wide open and I was really excited for the adventure.

For example, I thought it might be fun to try cross-country skiing for the first time and planned to stay near a national park. The lack of snow meant I would hike instead, after getting over the initial delightful surprise of finding myself at a bed-and-breakfast up a goat track run by an elderly couple in what I think is their farmhouse. My German was almost as good as their English but everything went just fine.

Going from grand Vienna to the country was a drastic change but I was so glad to experience a small Austrian town.

I’ve been in a number of odd towns over time and Leoben certainly fit. It appeared that part of the old town had been torn down and a multiplex had been built instead to comprise the town’s entertainment. It contains a kebab shop, pizzeria that doubles as a bar, sushi restaurant, and movie theatre. Other than that, the town has five different grocery chains, a euro shop, three discount clothing stores, a couple furniture stores, a café/bar that did not sell food, and a sex shop. Gösser beer operations are located in Leoben, too. An adventure indeed!

The drizzle let up by the next morning, perfect weather for a drive to Slovenia!

‘Tis the Season

Celebrations in all cultures take place throughout the year, but we are particularly aware of that in December. My family joins about 8% of the US population in not celebrating Christmas, but we do have our own traditions over that holiday that are as stereotypical as one can imagine.

Like most of my friends growing up, we eat Asian takeout (Thai on Christmas Eve and Chinese on Christmas Day) and go to the movies. Sometimes we go bowling. We look forward to it and are excited about it. However, since Judaism follows a lunar calendar and our holidays move around it is also always exciting when Chanukah coincides with Christmas. Chanukah began on Christmas Eve this year, which is only the eighth time this has happen in the last century!

In my family, that meant a lot of traditions at once. Thai food, the new Star Wars movie, and opening the usual first night gifts of a holiday themed tissue box and a box of Chanukah candles. Unfortunately, I missed it. I leave tomorrow to spend my week of school break visiting friends who I haven’t seen in a while and I’m very much looking forward to it!

Our week off started yesterday (not a day too soon, considering the number of students and teachers out sick) and one of my best girls from Singapore who is visiting her family came into Manhattan for a day and a night. The weather yesterday was beautiful and sunny so we spent most of the day wandering around downtown and stopping for shakshuka, coffee, mulled wine, and Mexican food. I love the parts of Manhattan that don’t match the glitter that makes Manhattan a tourist destination.

And then there’s my ongoing obsession with street art like this one on the Lower East Side . . .

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. . . and these in Little Italy. . . .

Today is day two of school break and it has been equally delightful. As is any day that begins with bagels.

I passed by this church in the East Village today that reminded me what actually matters not only during the holidays, but on especially on the holidays:

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At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to make a living in the best ways that we can. My holiday wish for all is that it gets easier.

To the cashier at Trader Joe’s today who folded my receipt into a paper airplane and zoomed it into my shopping bag;
to the Nepalese woman I met this evening who told me about the devastation last year’s earthquakes wreaked on her family;
to the baristas who made my hot chocolate, asked about my day, and told me that holiday overtime pay doesn’t exist in New York City;
to people everywhere putting one foot in front of the other, day after day:
Happy holidays, from my home to yours.

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