As clichéd as this may sound, it’s through travel that I have learnt the most about myself. In Cologne last December, I fell in love with Christmas all over again, something I thought to be impossible. I hadn’t loved or even liked Christmas for a very long time. I had become that cynical variety of grown up. Years of driving between up to five houses on Christmas Day, an arduous day sandwiched between a dinner on Christmas Eve and a lunch on Boxing Day, had me feeling as though I should decorate my car with Christmas parapernalia rather than my home. The myriad of presents to buy, the horrible Christmas ads on TV with people yelling at me to buy rubbish, the crowded shopping centres, the high present expectations – all leading to a short, few seconds where the present I bought had its moment in the sun and then was tossed aside for the next present to be opened. I was done with Christmas. Yet, last year, I found a place where Christmas felt like a very different affair. It was to be my last stop on my travels around northern Europe. I had my ticket home, but had to decide which city to depart from – Madrid, Copenhagen, London, Paris, Amsterdam. In the end, I chose Düsseldorf. A tiny, little, non-cynical, 8-year-old part of me wanted to see, just once, the famed Christmas markets of Germany.
As a child I loved the giant lead-up to what would be a three-day Christmas celebration for my family. Like most Europeans, we celebrated Christmas Eve, with either my father or one of my uncles dressing up as Santa in the tatty costume that reappeared year after year. Once dressed in one of the bedrooms of whomever’s house we were at that year, ‘Santa’ would make a dash for the front door and then bolt down the street while all of us children were conveniently taken to a back room of the house. At the precise moment that Santa was ready for us, we were told that Santa had been spotted down the street, and to the front door we would run, to catch a glimpse of this ‘Santa’ sauntering (or struggling, depending on how may presents were stuffed into the sack) up the street, much to the amusement of neighbours and us kids. Once Santa would take his place on his special chair in living room, we would each be called up to collect our presents, but not before taking a seat on Santa’s knee and giving him a kiss, quickly working out which uncle it was and having a cheesy photo taken with said uncle Santa.
Christmas Day meant a morning of opening more presents with my parents, sister and brother, then heading to my grandparents’ house for a Greek feast. The present opening was slightly different there. Much time was taken between each present being handed out, for all of us to see what each person had received, hear about the possibility of exchanging clothes for the right size, then waiting for the all-important fashion parade where each of us were made to try on all of our clothes, that day, in front of everyone. Once covered in all of our presents, we were then photographed. One such photo captured me in a floral bike-short and crop top number, with headphones on, holding my walkman in one hand and a basketball in another. A wonderful look!
So, back to Cologne. I arrived in Cologne on a cold afternoon with all of my luggage in tow, fresh from the vibrant city of Amsterdam. Feeling very much like a bag lady from hell, I negotiated my way through all of the good Kölner folk, nearly taking out an old lady and a highly intoxicated homeless guy while trying to get on the U-Bahn. All I wanted was a glimpse of the mighty Kölner Dom, the grand cathedral of Cologne, yet for all my bags and train-changing I couldn’t see what was only the one of the biggest cathedrals in Europe! By the time I got to my hotel, well within check-in time, I was asked to wait in the lobby while my room was made up. Half an hour later and I was finally in my room. It was now 4.30 p.m. and dark outside. For a moment I wondered why on earth I had dragged myself to a city I’d never been to, to a hotel (a very nice one, mind you) on the outskirts of town, with not a glimpse of anything lovely, for my very last stop in Europe. After a quick coffee, I rugged up, grabbed my bag and headed out into the streets of Cologne.
Initially, Cologne’s delights consisted of construction work, schools and shops selling oddities like cushion covers and door handles, with a few sex shops in between (there’s nothing discreet about these in Deutschland!). After a few minutes, the scenery began to change. The wide, modern street gave way to a narrow, cobble-stoned pathway leading to boutiques, food stands and department stores. I was suddenly surrounded by groups of jovial shoppers, inhaling smells of warm chestnuts, pretzels and glühwein, and there beyond the main thoroughfare, I spotted the twinkling red lights that signalled the entrance to one of Cologne’s six Christmas markets. I quickly walked over to the entrance and there before me, lay the most amazing Christmas scene I had ever seen in my life. A scene of red-rooved, traditional market stalls brimming with yummy delights and trinkets to buy, people huddled together around tables drinking glühwein, with cold air lingering around them as they talked and ate and laughed. And booming down over this lovely scene, was the majestic Kölner Dom. I think I actually let out a ‘wow’ as I took it all in.
I slowly stepped into the market, losing myself amongst a crowd of parkas and beanies. I was in 8-year-old heaven. This was Christmas! As I wandered and took in all that was around me, observing the happy families and loved-up couples, I suddenly began to miss my loved ones and wished I could teleport them all to where I was, to share this magical experience with me. So, I did as a lonely traveller should and consoled myself with glühwein and seriously rich, Deutsch Christmas food. I bought my cute little Christmas mug for 2 euro (by the end of my four days I realised I wasn’t meant to keep this mug – you return it at the end of your drinking eve and get your money back!), filled with steaming glühwein, and made for the raclette baguette queue. I ate the sinfully good oozy cheese while chatting to a couple who lived locally and spoke little English. We pieced together a pleasant conversation about Christmas and our families, and missing mine even more, I headed off in search of the next hit.
Kartoffelpuffer, potato cakes served with apple sauce, were next. Served in threes to the local folks, the lady looked at my rather strangely when I asked for just one. After all that queuing and with the speed at which I attacked the fried dough, it was no wonder they bought these things in threes! Next it was a hot bowl of garlicky mushrooms, covered with a goulash-style gravy and topped with sour cream. A-mazing! While I tucked into my mushrooms, I wandered from stall to stall, surveying the goods that I might buy over the next few days. On a stage placed in the centre of the market, a band began to play German Christmas songs. I had no idea what they were singing about, but loved that everyone knew the words and were unashamedly and enthusiastically joining in. After one last glühwein, I wandered back to the hotel, full of Christmas warmth.
The next day I received a message from my friend, Ricardo, whom I met in the common room of a hostel in Stockholm. He was now journeying back there a month later, via Germany, from Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Another one of the joys of travelling – making new friends from all over the world. He had made the long trek from Frankfurt to hang out with me at the markets for one night, arriving just in time for dinner. Now that I was an old hand after my one night of Christmas marketing, I showed him around my hood. Ricardo (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this) was a little dubious about the German men folk’s willingness to chat. We found ourselves a table upon which to perch with our glühwein, and I listened to the conversation of the two older men sharing the table with us. They soon caught me eavesdropping, and Man Number 1, whom I shall call Gunther, asked where I had learnt German. We were soon chatting away, and Gunther made the declaration that I would be the perfect Weihnachtsengel (Christmas Angel) for next year’s markets. Ricardo could be Sinterklaas, he added. Gunther was quite convinced we would be perfect mascots and became so excited with the idea that Man Number 2, whom I’ve decided was more of a Helmut, had to drag him away. For the rest of the night we called each other Weihnachtsengel and Sinterklaas as we wandered through the less-touristy Alter Markt, in the heart of the old town. This was by far, my favourite among the four I had explored. We ate delicious pork brochettes, bratwurst with spinach and goulash, and then headed to one of the charming old pubs for a beer, followed by delicious Apfelstrudel. After chatting away about travel and Christmas and life, I farewelled my friend, Sinterklaas, and wished him plenty of snow during his trip to Stockholm (muy important for a Spaniard living off the coast of Africa). I was one happy Weihnachtsengel!
The next day I headed back to the market to make some purchases, sampling fudge and candied peanuts and meeting lovely people at each of the stalls. I stood by and listened to a lady who sold traditional German pottery, who switched effortlessly from German to Spanish to French to English, depending on her customer. She told me about her life in Goa, India, where she spent 6 months each year, followed by a few months in her native Spain, and then time at the markets in Germany. We talked for about an hour about her travels. I found her to be quite inspiring, as she told me how happy she was with her nomadic life. Ironic that she sold little houses. I bought one and then went on my merry way to traverse the Hohenzollern Bridge that crossed the Rhine and is famous for its ‘love’ padlocks. I slowly crossed, taking in the sight of all of these padlocks with names of lovers clasped to the fence separating the train line from the pathway. From the other side of the Rhine, I took in the magical old town and made a little vow to come back with my own love padlock and perhaps some Engel wings.