Sunday, January 18, 2015

Christmas and a New Year in Berlin

Visitors at the Weihnachtsmarkt on Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin.

It was our first Christmas in Berlin. We were half-expecting a white Christmas, but der Schnee (snow) only teased us with a few errant flakes here and there until a few days after Christmas, when it finally blanketed the streets and coated the trees. Unfortunately, it only lasted for two days and then became gross muddy slush and was eventually washed away by the rain. One upside is that it's been a few degrees wärmer than most of December. So far, our first full winter in Germany hasn't been so bad, temperature-wise. We have been very happy with our flat - it's well insulated with new windows, so we've been able to keep very warm without using the heat excessively.

Ice skaters at Winterwelt on Potsdamer Platz
At the beginning of Dezember, Shannon's uncle Bernard came to town on business. He had planned a few days extra to spend with us. However, our cat Flash was still in the midst of his recovery from a major surgery, and caring for him took up most of our time and energy that week. But toward the end of Bernard's trip, we were able to have him over for dinner a couple of times, and get out a bit to see the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market together.

Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets) are a big deal here, and clearly the highlight of the season in this city. They are essentially Christmas-themed outdoor fairs, with entertainment, handmade crafts and goods for sale, and lots and lots of food, desserts, and hot boozy drinks. There are many different markets all around the city, from Potsdamer Platz with its giant manmade snow slide to careen down on rubber sleds, to Schloss Charlottenburg which had the Charlottenburg Palace as it's dramatic backdrop, to elegant Gendarmenmarkt nestled between the beautiful French and German cathedrals.

Uncle Bernard was the first to check out a few different markets, and he swore by the one at Gendarmenmarkt. Indeed, we ended up going back to that one multiple times, because of it's superior entertainment (there was a stage on the steps of the Konzerthaus constantly occupied by carolers, ballerinas, classical musicians, comedy acts, and more), cozy layout, great selection of local vendors with handmade stuff, and fantastic food and treats. Everything was better quality than the other markets, except for one particular wood-carving shop at Potsdamer Platz which had figurines unmatched by any vendor at Gendarmenmarkt or anywhere else. But otherwise, Gendarmenmarkt was the winner.

Gluhwein & hot chocolate on a chilly night in Charlottenburg
The first thing you must do when you arrive at a Weihnachtsmarkt is buy a mug of steaming Gluhwein. It's a cup of hot red wine, mulled with spices, and (sometimes at least) punched up with some other liquor, like brandy (judging by the flavor). Everyone - except Shannon - loves this drink, and it keeps you warm in the freezing December air. The next thing to do is to pick out some food to accompany you while you shop, like a nice bratwurst im brot (roast sausage in a baguette), mettwurst mit grunkohl (sausage with seasoned, creamed kale), or some mushrooms doused in creamy sauce. You could grab a bag of Mandeln (almonds) covered in toffee or chocolate, or some vegan gingerbread cakes. Other things we tried - donut-like round pastries dusted with powdered sugar, giant round shortbread cookies with various fillings called Schneeballen (snowballs), and big creamy marshmallow-like things surrounded with chocolate. There are also crepes, spatzle, potato pancakes with applesauce, and tons of other things we didn't get a chance to try.

A hand carved wooden Christmas pyramid
There are tons of different things to buy aside from food, from hats and scarves and handmade clothing to fine glass Christmas ornaments. We were most intrigued by the hand carved wooden toys and decorations. We bought a few wooden smoking men as gifts for family - they are these really quirky looking guys with big beards and pipes, who appear to smoke when you place a small bit of incense inside their legs. We also liked the traditional Weihnachtspyramiden: "Christmas pyramids" with a sort of windmill - powered by the heat of candles - that move figures and scenes arranged on the levels of the pyramid. There are also giant versions of these pyramids at many of the markets that serve drinks and food while the windmill spins slowly above them. These are very charming, and fit with the look of the booths, most of which are mocked up to look like little traditional German village houses.

We took turns going to Gendarmenmarkt with Bernard so that one of us could stay and take care of Flash, who was sick at the time. Later, we did our Christmas shopping there and at Potsdamer and Alexanderplatz. And on Christmas Day, we took Rahsan's mom to the market at Schloss Charlottenburg, braving the frigid air and icy wind.

Sunsong, Rahsan's mom, came to stay with us for about five days. We had a very relaxed and cozy long holiday weekend with her, watching movies and cooking. We spent Christmas morning around our lovely tree - which we bought down the street from a jolly and suspiciously white-bearded old man. We created a great new Christmas tradition by wrapping up a bunch of different silly gifts from the 1 Euro store, so that our tree was encircled by heaps of presents. We don't place a great deal of importance on material possessions, but it's so much fun to unwrap lots of gifts. And since most of them cost only a euro there we had the added satisfaction of knowing we hadn't spent much money.

We also took Sunsong to the New National Gallery, which has been on our list of things to do for a while. We managed to see it, at last, only days before it closed for major renovations. The website now says that it will be shut for "several years". So it was good timing on our part. The museum in its old incarnation had a good (if a bit small) collection of modern and contemporary art, with the highlights (for us) being paintings by Magritte, Klee, Dali, and Richter. The building itself is quite interesting, built by Mies van der Rohe. The upper story is the entrance hall and special exhibition space, and was currently showcasing an installation of 144 stripped tree trunks, by the artist David Chipperfield. It created a very dramatic experience upon walking through the doors, and a bold contrast with the hard glass and steel of the structure. The lower story, underground, contains the permanent collection and other exhibits. The renovation will probably be a welcome improvement to these rooms - they certainly could use better lighting and more benches for sitting and appreciating the excellent works on display.

After Sunsong flew back to England, we got back to work for a few days before New Year's Eve. Berlin is famous - or perhaps infamous - for it's New Year's Eve celebrations, known as Silvester. People here are especially fond of fireworks, and even in the days leading up to the New Year, we began hearing random booms on the street. Back in California, a sound like that usually meant a gunshot and might be followed by sirens and helicopters. But here it was just the sound of 2015, incoming. It was hard not to flinch every time another one went off, though. However, it was nothing to what was waiting for us on New Year's Eve itself.

We've been fortunate to befriend a circle of expats during our first year here. They are a wonderful group, from Canada, Denmark, France, the US, and beyond. Everyone who wasn't away for the holidays got together at one friend's flat near Hermannplatz for food, drinks, laughs... and drinks. A few hours before midnight, people were already throwing fireworks randomly on to the street. But when the clock hit 12:00 AM, the city exploded. It's hard to describe the sound without comparing it to a war zone. With the windows open, it was deafening. Firecrackers were tossed out of windows at an insane rate. It was intimidating and exciting at the same time. I think if we had been down on the street there would have been lost limbs. But from four stories up, it was a quite a spectacle. It went on for most of an hour, and went we finally did go back to the street to make our way home, the sidewalks were covered in the debris of used fireworks, as thick as fallen leaves.

Life in Berlin is exciting and full of surprises, full of firsts. Our first winter here has been a mix of struggle and joy, cold but beautiful. We wouldn't trade this experience for anything.

Photo by Flora Amalie Pedersen

More pictures below...

Uncle Bernard enjoying some gluhwein

Flash invading Bernard's sitting space (he's the black mass in the shadow)

Bernard took Shannon to the famous Fassbender & Rausch chocolatier in Mitte
This was made from chocolate

Also made from chocolate



Performers with an audience volunteer at the Gendarmenmarkt christmas market

Which of these doesn't belong and will kill you while you sleep?

This woman was weaving on a loom in her booth at the Gendarmenmarkt

SCHNEEBALLEN. So many schneeballen.

Smoking forest Santas - delightful.

A life size Christmas pyramid, with drinks being served from the ground level (just below the camera)

Everything made of chocolate!

Father Christmas among the crowd

The snow slope at Potsdamer Platz, with careening sledder

Glass ornaments for sale

A miniature Christmas village scene inside of a vintage TV

Rahsan, Sunsong, and Shannon at the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz 

Enjoying some hot food at Schloss Charlottenburg

The Schloss (palace)

Hot chocolate with Bailey's!

The entrance to the market at Schloss Charlottenburg

At the New National Gallery, among David Chipperfield's tree trunk installation

Cooking Christmas dinner

Picking a christmas tree


The first snowflakes of winter!

Snow on Hermannstrasse

Beautiful Berlin, blanketed in white.

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