Sea of White

Sinking in over a foot of snow (if not more) and being tranformed from a living fuctional unit into a statue made of ice, winter in Minnesota can best be described as an odessy in itself. Fighting through drifts, digging out of the driveways that are buried three feet deep, and not seeing anything because of high winds picking up the snow and sending it flying around mother nature can show its true colors at her own convenience, as we end up locked in our homes, waiting until the coast is clear to go back out there and resume our lives as it was before the storm hit. That is, until the next storm comes and strands us somewhere where we don’t want to be stranded.  Winters can leave scars on the landscape just as much as the spring thaw, when the fields, once covered in drifts, become huge puddles that are just as deep as the snow. This is the beauty of winter in Minnesota; especially in the rural areas, where it is flat and is only dependent on agriculture.

During my last trip to my place of origin known as southern Minnesota, a place resembling a cross between Siberia and Schleswig-Holstein because of its sparse population and flatness, I had a chance to take some photos of one of the most brutal winters on record, and happen to meet some freaky encounters worth being put in the album to share with those who are interested. This is one that really caught my eye and not worth a miss. A small story accompanies the photos enclosed:

Going as far as the eye can see, for miles upon miles, it is a trip into the unknown where you are taking an awful risk, dealing with the waves that are white in color and grainy enough to suck you in if you go in too deep. It is just as bad as it is if you go through the fields covered in pools of water during the spring thaw, for you get sucked in by the really thick mud that accompanies the great flood. Wave upon wave, you cannot see any sight of land unless it is in a form of a line of road that is barely above water, a patch of land resembling a farm that has long since been abandoned, or a corn processing plant which produced toxic fumes one can smell for miles upon miles, while producing ethanol for cars in an attempt to cool down the Earth (which we’re doing the opposite, of course). With no help in site, you fight, on thinking about every step through the icy cold winds and bone-chilling temperatures that reddens you first before you turn to white and disappear together with the foot prints you leave behind by the wind, as you go through every drift thinking it is your last. Eventually you are rescued after a long journey, but not before facing the constant variable that is well known as you go through the walks of life to know about yourself until your end is near. And in the end, what you leave behind are the foot prints from your journey through the sea of white; not physically, as it disappears over time, but spiritually in the hearts and minds or those who must carry on your legacy through the waves and the wind.

From the files, until next time…

Going Home

Home is where your heart is. It is where the warmth and tenderness of love that you get from the people who care about you can be found. It is where you can reexamine your identity and who you are, while at the same time, either reacknowledge who you are and where you came from or reinvent yourself in order to become better than you were. It is where family and friends meet to either catch-up on what is going on, reminisce about the past, help each other in the present when it is badly needed, and guide you to your future and what you want to make of yourself.

For me apart from what is mentioned above, home is where I have an opportunity to look at the past while dealing with the present so that I can look forward to the future and make sure that my daughter has a prosperous future, mainly because of the experiences her father has gathered to date. This can all be done just by reconnecting with people from the past and connecting with people I don’t know now but will befriend in the future. Home for me serves as the crossroads because of the uncertainties that will occur, but can be regulated based on personal actions to myself and others.

The reason for my 3-week hiatus from the Files and its sister column the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles was because I indeed headed home for the holidays. Home for me was southern Minnesota in a small town located between Albert Lea and Sioux Falls with a population of just over 3,400 inhabitants. But before that, I had to get there, which was an odessy in itself, but looking back at my trip, it was well worth the money, time, and effort to do this. It started out with dealing with overcrowded trains that arrived an average of two hours late, to a plane trip that did not have a memorable landing because of the runways being slick and covered with snow, to plowing through drifts as high as my knees (and I’m 6 ft. 2 in. or 1.82 meters tall) with my rental sports utility vehicle, to all the maniacs who passed me while travelling on these trecherous roads, only to end up in the ditch, some kilometers later.

But despite all the trials and tribulations, I ended up travelling for five hours through the fields covered in a sea of white drifts to my destination, where my family and friends were awaiting me and I had an opportunity to feast on everything in its path, from my mother’s almond bars (Marzipankuchen in German) to the traditional feast on Christmas Eve consisting of chili con carne, oyster stew, and all kinds of wonderful goodies. This was accompanied with a night on the town in a snowstorm which made the streets of the town’s business district look like the color of greenish yellow, which was the result of the street lamps lighting up the sky like fireflies. While touring the residential areas, oohing and ahhing over the colorful Christmas lights lining along the roofs of the houses, presenting various colorful expressions to those passing by, there were reunions to go to, where friends brought their loved ones over from Europe to show off to their families and friends, and it was capped off with some music and booze, quatsching (talking nonsense) and bickering, pondering and debating until three in the morning, when our minds were wondering off, as if we were off to see King Ludwig II. of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, the artwork where he emptied the entire treasury in order to complete it, when in all reality, we had to find our way back home in the cold and snow.

When there were no gatherings and reunions, there was the look of beauty as the result of the new fallen snow and the thirst for knowledge as I passed through each town and city that would result in me spending countless hours either with my camera or with a sheet of paper and a pen and collecting the impressions that were right before my eyes. Despite all the changes that have taken place in my hometown and the surrounding area, for the first time, I saw the beauty of the area that I once knew and grew up in, and it made me appreciate what I still have in my life and what I can do to ensure that the next generations, including my daughter will appreciate the nature and history of the region as I do, as many people have walked away from the places they grew up without appreciating what they gave them, only to find when the hardships hit them, they have no place to go and they end up like wandering nomads, walking through the cold white drifts of grainy snow, roaming from place to place until they either settle down or vanish forever. My trip home helped me look at  my origins and what I can do to make the coming year be better than the last. After all, regardless if you had a really horrible year or if you had a successful one, it always gets better the next year, but only if you take a look at yourself and who you are. This can only be done when you head home at a special time like Christmas.

After seeing my family and enjoying their laughs, reuniting with friends- many of whom I had not seen in over 15 years- and rediscovering myself through my travels, it was time for me to return to my current home in Germany, where the students wait for my arrival in the classroom, where my friends over there await my arrival in Erfurt to share their Christmas memories in their hometowns, and people I met along the way will write to me asking for a date over a cup of coffee at one of the fancy cafés serving Italian ice cream and other pastries. But most importantly, my laptop has been waiting for its author to type out some columns like this one, as one of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep providing readers like you with high quality columns on topics dealing with travelling, sports, culture and foreign languages (esp. when comparing Germany and the US), and some impressions and food for thought that will get you to think about and/or discuss about things at the dinner table.

SO WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, WELCOME TO 2011!

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NOTE: Some commentaries pertaining to my travels in Minnesota are in the works and will come when they are finished. This includes the tour of the German-named villages, where 12 of them will be profiled and compared to the German counterparts. They include the towns of Cologne, Hanover, Hamburg, New Germany, New Trier, New Ulm, Fulda, Bergen, Luxemburg, Geneva, New Munich and Flensburg. The facts about these towns will definitely take you by surprise. So stay tuned… Until next time….

German Christmas Market Pic 5: Frankfurt/Main

Despite having to put up with overcrowding trains as well as trains arriving two hours later, I did make it to the last Christmas market on my places to visit list- in Frankfurt am Main.  A couple of interesting points about Frankfurt that one should know about: First and foremost, there are two Frankfurts- one in the western half of Germany in the state of Hesse, and one in the far eastern part of the state on the border to Poland. When the Iron Curtain sliced the two Germanys into two resulting in 45 years of hostility between the Communists and the Westerners, the people in the eastern part of Germany (known at the time as the German Democratic Republic) could not imagine that region to not have a town called Frankfurt. Therefore, they fought to keep the name Frankfurt, which after the Reunification of 1990 became known as Frankfurt an der Oder.  Both Main and Oder are rivers that flow through the cities respectively.  Another point about Frankfurt am Main that is well-known is the fact that the city is the third largest in Germany (in terms of the population), is the headquarters of the European Central Bank and the German Stock Exchange (DAX), but yet despite being the largest city in Hesse with a population of over 600,000 (minus the metropolitan area), it is not the capital of the state. That honor goes to the one of the Twin Cities straddling the Main and Rhein Rivers, Wiesbaden (ironically, its sister on the other side of the rivers, Mainz is the capital of Rheinland Palatinate).

The Frankfurt Christmas Market, which is located along the Main River at Römerplatz between the St. Paul’s and St. Nicolas Cathedrals was touted by many as the cream of the crop with regards to the Christmas markets in Germany- even more popular than the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt. Yet still, despite its size and various shops located in three different areas around the two churches, the market still offers the same goods as the ones in Nuremberg and Erfurt, which doesn’t really make it that spectacular to begin with. Furthermore, for those who are claustrophobic, most of the area is located in tight quarters, which does not provide for some breathing room to manoever; especially when it is on a Saturday, when most of the people do their Christmas shopping. It is even more depressing when the weather is gloomy, as it was the case when I visited the market. And finally, for those wanting to stay longer at the Christmas market- meaning beyond closing time for most shops- so that they can enjoy their last cup of Glühwein, they are more or less screwed for when the clock strikes 9:00 at night, the shops and food/drink areas close almost simultaneously! It is not like in Bayreuth, where Winterdorf is open longer than the shops, or in Erfurt where every food and beverage stand is open longer than the shops (even at Domplatz). This caused some considerable anger among those wanting to grab one more Glühwein or visit one more food stand only to find that the lights are shut off and the windows and doors hastily shut right before their eyes! I found the experience to be rather disappointing for someone who has visited the market for the first time but has seen other Christmas markets that were more flexible and relaxed than this one. I can imagine when the market is open and in full action that a person can get a considerable amount of aggression after a short time, which is easily comparable to the market in Nuremberg although the latter is more genuine than the one 3 hours to the west (by train, that is). For a person living in or near Frankfurt and does not like to travel that much, this market will provide people with a taste of typical German goods, although almost all of them originate from the south and far northwest of the city. However, if one wants to see a real market and find genuine goods, than they should look elsewhere as there are enough places to go around. It does not mean that a person should avoid the Frankfurt Christmas Market altogether. One could use the place as a venue for meetings over Glühwein and pretzels or other local specialties from Hesse and the surrounding area. The people at the stands would benefit from listening to all kinds of negotiations that take place in front of them, while at the same time, listen and learn the different languages, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, etc. It is also a place for any last minute Christmas shopping ideas, although you have to put up with some elbowing and some lectures on how to “be polite,” which is something that many in Frankfurt have forgotten about. But like the city itself, the Christmas market is something that you see only once and never again. It is like living in the city- you only live there for a short time and then you move on to greener pastures unless you are: 1. A naturally born city slicker, or 2. You were born and raised in Frankfurt and you would never trade it in for anything else.

With that said, I went back to the hotel where I could try and get a good night’s rest before taking off for home, which is in the great state of Minnesota. As I was going back by light rail and subway, I was thinking of the events that occurred earlier in the day, where I befriended a German police officer who originates from Saxony but works in Frankfurt, and her company I got while drinking a coffee and a Glühwein, while waiting for the next ICE Train to get us to where we wanted to be. I thought to myself that good company from someone you never met before can create paths that you never knew existed. Seeing the Christmas markets in Germany are only a side dish to having some good company from your family, friends, and people you meet along the way. There are times in your life that people come in and out and don’t think about who you really are until they’re gone. However there are some who come into your life and stay there because you are who you are and they like you for that. This was probably the most rewarding effects when you go to a certain event or place, like the Christmas market in Germany.

Entering the honey shop, only to get the lights turned off as they entered and shown the door a second later.

German Christmas Market Pics 4: Bayreuth

Overview with the Christmas tree Photo taken in December 2010

After putting up with the overcrowding visitors at one of the most popular Christmas markets in Germany, the next stop on the Christmas market tour is an hour to the north in a small and quiet town of Bayreuth. The capital of the region Oberfranken (Upper Franconia) is located not far from the source of the Main River, which slithers its way for over 400 kilometers down to the mouth of the Rhein River in the twin cities of Wiesbaden and Mainz (both are west of Frankfurt/Main).  Like Jena, Bayreuth is one of those forgotten cities where people pass through enroute to either Berlin or Munich along the North-South corridor A9, and there is a good reason for that. Bayreuth is one of the biggest sleeper towns in Germany with most of the recreational possibilities located in the Fichtel Mountain region to the north and east. Its population consists mainly of those ages 40 and up and even though its main attractions include the university and the places associated with Jean Paul and Richard Wagner, the town almost always sleeps early every night of the year. That means after 7:00pm, when the stores close their doors for the evening, the whole city center becomes silent in a fashion resembling Steven King’s “The Langoliers”- the silence when walking through its main street Maximilianstrasse is as eerie as it gets.

However, not all of Bayreuth is as silent as the airport where the passengers were stranded in, like in the film “The Langoliers.” There are two time periods in the year where the city of 70,000 inhabitants is the liveliest (that is, if you subtract the basketball season in the winter time and the professional basketball team BBC Bayreuth). The first one is in July, when the Wagner Festival takes place at the Festspielhaus, located on the hill overlooking most of the city. The second one is the Bayreuther Weihnachtsmarkt, which takes place the same time as the market in Nürnberg. Like the lighted garland which runs along the Maxmilianstrasse through the city center, the Christmas market consists of booths running along the main street beginning at the west end where the Hugendubel book store and the Karstadt department store are located and ending at Sternplatz on the east end, where the bar complex Winterdorf is located. While most of the booths close up early at 7:00pm every night, the Winterdorf part of the Christmas market is open until late into the night- far later than the Glühwein booths at the Christmas market in Erfurt, which really took me by surprise given the fact that Erfurt is three times as big as its Franconian counterpart and has a very stark contrast in terms of its liveliness as a whole. If one wants to try all the concoctions in the world, ranging from Feuerzangenbowle in a cup to Winter Dream, to Nürnberger Glühwein (see the attached links for the recipes of each) then Winterdorf is the place to be, where the female  bar attendants are nice looking and customer friendly, and the reunions with old friends and colleagues take place. I had the opportunity to meet up with my friends and former students at the Winterdorf, as I taught for two years at the university and they were my regular customers in all the English classes I taught there. It was a fun time as we talked about our lives in English and provided each other with some laughs and memories of the times together in the classroom, drinking all the beverages possible. Many of them I still keep in touch with through all forms of communication, as I made a difference in their lives during my two years in Bayreuth, and they made my stay a memorable one.

But aside from all the memories, another reason for nominating Bayreuth as one of the pics is its improvement with regards to city planning. In the past five years, the Maximilianstrasse was converted from an underground bus station with through traffic on the surface to one which presents some unique lighting and sculptural designs with two thirds of the street now being converted into a pedestrian and bicycle zone. The bus station is now located just off the bypass Hollernzollern Ring, which runs along the Main River. During the time I was in Bayreuth, much of the street was ripped apart for the beautification process, and most of the small shops at the Christmas market were relocated along the side streets. The entire stretch of shops between the west and east ends was completely blocked off. When I visited the market this time around, it was a whole different story. New lighting, new trees lining up along the streets, and the stretch of small shops was reestablished, making the Bayreuth Christmas one of the most hidden treasures that a person has to take a couple hours to see. While many students have claimed that Bayreuth has only Richard Wagner to offer and that the city should do more to improve its image, they are only half right. Little do they realize is that Bayreuth does offer one thing that will make their stay a wonderful one, which is its Christmas market. After all, it is the place where friends meet and/or reunite and for those without a partner, one might get lucky there….

And now the last stop on the Christmas Market tour, which requires a good 400km trip down along the Main River in one of the most popular metropolises in Europe, Frankfurt am Main. But before that, here are some recipes of beverage mixes worth trying for the holidays….

Feuerzangenbowle:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feuerzangenbowle

Winter Dream:

http://www.channels.com/episodes/show/12678283/How-To-Make-The-Amaretto-Sunset

Glühwein (EN: Mulled or Spiced Wine):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulled_wine

Reference to the Langoliers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Langoliers

More pics:

West end overlooking the book store and old town hall.
Winterdorf at Sternplatz on the east end of the market
Inside Winterdorf, where the drinks run wild and the guest are even wilder.
Ah yes, the Feuerzangenbowle!

German Christmas Market Holiday Pics 3: Nuremberg

Frauenkirche view of the Main Market Photo taken in 2010

After enjoying some music over a Glühwein and listening to people talking about how Carl Zeiss Jena and Erfurt are struggling to make a name for themselves in the 3rd League of the German professional soccer league (DFB), the next stop on the Christmas market tour is Nuremberg (Germ.:  Nürnberg).  A brief overview of the city itself, the city of over 500,000 is the second largest city in Bavaria, behind Munich, and is the capital of Franconia. The city has a colorful history both positive as well as bad (and I believe we all know about the bad part, so I will not mention it here). It is the birthplace of the railroad in Germany, where the first rail line was created in 1835, and it is home to the German railroad museum. Furthermore, the FC Nürnberg from the German Premier League (1st Bundesliga) is a regional favorite as despite the fact that it does some league hopping between the 1st and 2nd leagues, it can be a royal pain in the butt to some of the elite teams, like Munich, Bremen, and Berlin, just to name a few.

But the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt is perhaps the most popular and one of the largest Christmas markets in all of Germany. Located in the heart of the city in the old town, the Christmas market ties together tradition, multiculture, and fun for the more than 5 million people who visit the place in the 1 ½ months that it is open, ending on Christmas Eve. The Christmas market is divided up into four parts. There is the main market, where every square meter of over 300 booths fill up the 350+ square meter market square, located in front of  Frauenkirche (a catholic church). To the right of the main market is the Kindermarkt, located behind the church on the east side, where all the children’s rides and booths are located. There is the food market, located along Maximilianplatz, parallel to the Pegnitz River, where different varieties of food are served. And finally there is the Markt der Partnerstädte located in front of City Hall at Rathausplatz, where each of Nürnberg’s 16 sister cities from around the world display their own products for sale. This includes some from Greece, Romania, France, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Cuba. There is also one from Cordoba (Spain), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Atlanta (USA). Even Gera, which is located in eastern Thuringia (about two hours east of Erfurt), is a sister city to Nuremberg and offers its local specialties at the market every year, including the typical Thuringian Bratwurst.

Children's section of the Christmas market

But there is more to the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt than just the types of markets that are worth seeing. Since its first inception in 1610, the Christmas market in Nürnberg offers a wide array of  homemade products which one will not find elsewhere, except at some of the other Christmas markets in Germany. In particular, handcraft products made of wood are very popular as Christmas decorations, Räucherhäuser (incense houses), and even mini toy products for the doll house, such as furniture, appliances, and mini-food products can be bought at the stands. Even alphabet trains are common to pick up and even  my daughter has a set which resembles her name plus the locomotive and caboose. Another tradition that you will find in Nürnberg is the famous “Lebkuchen”, which are gingerbread cookies covered with a coating and whose bottom side is covered with a disk-like white sugar covering. All assortments of Lebkuchen can be found here as well as the other Christmas markets in Germany, at the booths throughout the Christmas market. However, if you want something rather warm and hearty, then the two products you should definitely try at the Nuremberg Christmas market are the Pfannkuchen and the Glühwein. The Pfannkuchen is a dough resembling a cross between a pizza and a tortilla but is filled with toppings at your request, and baked in the oven so that in the end, you can have it hot and crispy. Most of them consist of vegetables, cheese, and meat slices, but there are some with fruit and chocolate should you have a sweet tooth but want to forego the Lebkuchen and another specialty well-known to the Christmas market, the fruitcake. The Glühwein (a.k.a. spiced or mulled wine) from Nuremberg is the most popular throughout all of Germany and parts of Europe. There are different types of Glühwein that one can try, whether it is homemade, or if it is combined with other forms of liquour. This includes one with a shot of tequilla, which I tried at the stand representing one of Nuremberg’s sister cities, Cordoba, Spain. This is probably the most lethal as despite the taste (which was really good), it can put you out until the next week, even if you don’t feel the effects of it at first. This was the case with yours truly, as he suffered a hangover for a couple days, although admittedly, it was well worth the experiment.

Mini-toy pieces for the doll house
Nürnberger Pfannkuchen

Finally, one has to look at the origin of the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt. Christkind, when translated into English means Christ Child, and every two years, a girl is nominated to represent the Christ Child at the Christmas market. The girl must be between the ages of 16 and 19 years and must have a “clean record,” meaning the girl must be pure and rid of all the giddiness. She is responsible for opening the Christmas market with a processional, which attracts thousands of people, plus other events throughout the season, which usually starts at the end of November and ends on Christmas Eve.

Despite all this excitement involving the Christmas Market in Nuremberg, it does have an Achilles heel which may be fatal if the issue is not settled in the future. Despite the fact that over 5 million people visit the market every year, there is the problem of overcrowding , as many people push and shove their way through the markets, making the experience of visiting one of the most famous markets in Germany (and to a certain degree, Europe) rather uncomfortable. The worst time is during the weekend and especially on a Saturday, when people don’t work over the weekend and use this time to do the Christmas shopping. Whenever there is crowding in a public place, it is almost certain that there will be tempers flying from those who are impatient and sometimes inconsiderate towards others.  It is worse after a few rounds of Glühwein or other warm drinks, because that is when most of the mischiefs happen. While we will never have the incident like we had with the Love Parade Dance in Duisburg (east of Cologne), where overcrowding resulted in a stampede and the deaths of 144 people and hundreds of injuries in July of this year, the overcrowding may have a potential of becoming dangerous in the future unless the city of Nuremberg either controls the flow of people going through the market through entrance fees, or enlarges the market to include other areas even outside the old town. However, until this problem is resolved, the author here can offer you some tips to make sure that your experience at the Nürnberger Christkindlsmarkt is a wonderful one and not a nightmare. These tips are based in my experiences visiting the market twice within a span of a year and whether they are useful or not will all depend on when you visit it and how you like it.

Overcrowding at the Main Market. Note: The Lorenz Church is in the background

So without further ado, here are some useful tips to consider:

1. The best time to visit the Christmas market in Nuremberg is either on a weekday or weeknight, as this is when the activity is lightest.

2. The worst time to visit the Christmas market is on a Saturday; especially because many department stores and other permanent shops are open at the same time, many people like to push their way through to get to their goods they want. Plus one has to be aware of the overcrowding that is involved.

3. If you insist on visiting the Christmas market on a Saturday, you may want to consider lodging the night before so that you have enough time to spend the next day.

4. Always make sure you have enough money in your possession so that you don’t come up short and have to fight through the crowd just to get to an ATM machine

5. Make sure you be polite to others when getting through and show an example to the rest of the bunch so that it is known that pushing and shoving are just simply not allowed.

6. If it is too crowded and you cannot get through, always remember: the Christmas market is not going anywhere. It’ll be there the next time you visit Nuremberg.

7. Never rush through the Christmas market. Take your time, enjoy the booths, buy some things for your loved ones, and have some fun, and lastly,

8. Never try Glühwein with tequila unless you are man enough to take it and the hangover that accompanies it.

Keeping those points in mind and after trying some goodies, my next trip is north to another Christmas market, where I have friends waiting for me. Until next time folks and friends, enjoy the flicks provided by the author of the Files.