I mean, Berlin is nice and all, but the only reason we went there was for Harry Potter. The Harry Potter Film Exhibition has been touring the world for about 10 years, displaying costumes and props from the films and immersing visitors into the pages of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world. I had to move to Europe to see it.
We took the train from Berlin to Potsdam for the Harry Potter Film Exhibition. Tickets and audio guides in hand, we joined a mass of German fans and flooded the exhibit, transported to Platform 9 ¾ , the Great Hall, Gryffindor common room, Hagrid’s hut, and the Forbidden forest.
The exhibit opens with a sorting ceremony, with volunteers chosen from the audience. Afterwards, double doors open into a large room paneled with screens playing scenes from the films. With “Hedwig’s Theme” playing, we get a glimpse at the characters throughout the films, smiling and reminiscing, getting goosebumps remembering waiting in line at midnight for book releases and movie premieres. As nerdy as it might sound, it felt good to be back among friends.
A train whistle sounded and doors opened to reveal the Hogwarts Express at Hogsmead, leading us into the castle where more exhibits awaited.
I quickly realized that I didn’t need the audio guide because I already knew all the info. I abandoned my player and spent my time putting my nose way too close to the props and practically balancing half my body over the barriers to see the costumes as close as possible (the detail is insane!).
Props to the Prop Dept.
It’s one thing to see a film and applaud the artistry that goes into it, especially when the film is set in a fantasy world. But the props used to create Harry Potter and bring these books to life are simply, well, magical. The amount of work and detail that goes into making a simple prop book or a crystal ball (rubber) is true artistry and craftsmanship.
One of my favorite parts were the mini sets strewn through the exhibit. Using costumes, backdrops and props, visitors found themselves at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, dancing at the Yule Ball, in detention with Dolores Umbridge, and placing your bets at the Quidditch World Cup. Much like the props, the costumes were highly detailed, with pinstriping and stitching that I never noticed in the umpteenth times I had seen the films.
I had no idea that Snape’s costume was navy. I always thought he was in black!
The Wizarding World
The exhibit also featured a few costumes from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as well as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play. The Cursed Child is coming to Germany in Spring 2020, where it will begin shows–in German.
Until another midnight movie release or book launch (fingers crossed for Hogwarts, a History), I’ll continue re-reading and re-watching, making no noise and pretending I don’t exist.
This weekend, we took the DeutscheBahn from Bielefeld to Berlin for an unscheduled no-itinerary weekend in Berlin. We didn’t even know what we wanted to do, only that we wanted to eat good food (preferably Asian) and go to a museum (preferably history). We stayed outside of the historical section of the city, so we’re sorry to say we didn’t see the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and the only view we had of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) was from the train.
Berlin has a diverse history. As the epicenter of many important political events throughout history, Berlin does a good job of paying homage to its past through museums and memorials throughout the city. We wanted to go to Berlin like locals, exploring cafes and parks, and see a museum or two. We will definitely be back to see more of Berlin’s famous Museuminsel, but during our visit, we went to the Berlin Wall, which has a large memorial park, visitors center, and memorial museum.
The Wall Must Come Down
Apparently, I have a very weird perception of the Berlin Wall. My first introduction to it was at a restaurant, in the bathroom, where parts of the wall were used as decoration. Any films or mentions of the Wall growing up revolved around Rock and Roll, graffiti and people taking pieces of the wall as souvenirs. Friends or family who have visited Germany before me described it as “cool,” or “awesome,” and always in a positive tone.
There is nothing about the Berlin Wall that is cool.
The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is a somber, quiet memorial site that travels along a 1.4km strip of the former wall. The outdoor exhibit includes historical information on the events leading up to the building of the wall, and the city’s political context from 1961-1989. The park is littered with information on the border fortifications, how people escaped, watchtowers, and memorials for victims shot and killed by border guards.
What was most jarring for me about the Wall, was the fact that it ran right through neighborhoods, and directly cut people off from their families and neighbors. The Wall was literally right up against apartment buildings. Imagine that one day you look out your window and suddenly your fence separating you from your neighbor just keeps getting higher and higher.
And now, it’s in the street.
And now, you can’t see the end of it.
You go outside, and there’s an armed guard. They won’t let you past the fence…even though you work on the other side. Your school is on the other side. Your parents live on the other side. What would you do?
2,000 residents were displaced.
130 people were shot and killed while trying to escape.
Old and New
Berlin’s world famous Museum Island (Museumsinsel) does not disappoint. We went there with the intention of going to the Pergamon museum on someone’s recommendation, and ended up being drawn into another museum entirely. We spent a good chunk of time roaming the halls of Neues Museum, which had a collection classical antiquities and artifacts from ancient Egypt, including the bust of Nefertiti.
The most interesting part of the museum was the building itself, which was heavily destroyed in bombing raids during the war. It was left dilapidated and in ruins from the 1940s until the 1980s, when measures were taken to protect it. The building was refurbished in 2003 using any recovered original pieces, preserving the original structure. The interior and exteriors were preserved, leaving signs of damage. Many pillars still show scorch marks from the bombs. The museum reopened to the public in 2009 and is now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
I am (not) a Donut
Berlin is not a typical German city. For one thing, shops are open on Sundays. This city is the New York of Europe. It’s huge, disorderly, multicultural, and a little bit in-your-face. You could easily live here without learning German. In Bielefeld, everyone wears the same long black coats and Chelsea boots, in Berlin, street style and normcore add color to the yellow train cars and graffitied walkways.
Berlin has a pace that is aggressive and apathetic. Everyone is in a rush to get somewhere, zig-zagging through stations and across streets, yet no one knows how to use an escalator properly. Rechts stehen, links gehen. (Right stand, left go). There are also aspects about Berlin that make it very German. As disorganized as it is, they know how to throw a protest. Their cafe game is on point. People of every race, country, language live side-by-side. And the city has that typical cold, yet welcoming charm that I’ve only ever found in Germany.
I think the best way to visit Berlin is in short spurts, so you have time to recover. For an international visitor, the city is so huge, and there is so much to do it is impossible to even scratch the surface. It’s overwhelming. If you’re looking for a German vacation experience, this isn’t it. Go to Berlin like a tourist visiting any other major city (New York, Los Angeles, Paris, etc.) but in order to form a well-rounded opinion of this country, make sure to visit other places too. Might I suggest Bielefeld? I hear it’s nice there.
Our first visit to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office) was supposed to be a confident and hopeful one. Instead, I left frozen and terrified. With paperwork in hand, our goal was to apply for resident permits. Josh’s permit was easy. He had proof of employment within Germany. I, however, worked for a US company and couldn’t get residency just as a spouse, either. I needed to be able to have some reason to legally stay in Germany. Finally, we realized that my German language courses qualified and my application for residency was submitted.
But the fear had settled in my stomach like a rock and I had shut down. In my head, I was already planning my one-way ticket back to the states, packing my bags and figuring out who gets to be with Sherlock.
The Ausländerbehörde is the scariest place to be. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys going there. I think it stems from a paranoia of watching American news, because everything I know about going to the foreigners office includes the phrases “illegal aliens,” “build a wall,” or “bad hombres.” This place is filled with different people from around the world and I wonder if they are as scared as I am, double checking their paperwork and praying the government employees give them the benefit of the doubt.
We are all learning how to live in a new place with new rules and new culture. Sometimes it can feel like we’re fighting a battle just to stay, pleading our cases as if someone is looking for one good reason to kick us out. I know from experience that this is not the case, but I still can’t sleep at night before any appointment here.
I recognize that there are significant differences between an immigrant, a refugee, and an expat. I am not fleeing my country. I can travel freely. I get to go back one day.
But aren’t we all on the quest for a better life?
I was back at the Ausländerbehörde this week picking up residence permits, the waiting room filled to the brim with immigrants, expats and refugees. A group of people from the Middle East were talking to each other in their native language while waiting for their numbers to be called. An office door opened, and an older couple came out, excitedly waving their residence permit. They came back to the group sitting in the waiting area and showed off their permit to everyone. I made eye contact with another guy who was talking to the couple and he smiled wide and said “finally!” I gave the group the biggest teary smile.
The joy and relief of that moment has no language barrier. It’s universal.
I am reading Harry Potter again. While I kept most of my copies in the States, I brought 3 with me.* One I read on the plane (OotP, it’s my favorite, don’t @ me). And 2 versions Josh got me as a gift.
They’re not in English.
Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen and Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens.
For a while, I would open it up, read the first page and have no clue what I was reading. I knew from memory what it should say, but the language comprehension wasn’t there. It became a game. Every few weeks, I would open the book and see how far I could get. At first, it started with a sentence, then a page, then two pages. Now I am chapters in and craving more, even though I know how the story progresses. I have a system down (I know, very Ravenclaw of me):
Read the chapter.
Underline any unknown/repeated words.
Lookup the words and create a lexicon at the end of the chapter.
Re-read the chapter with the audiobook.
It’s a slow process, but it’s rewarding, and I love seeing familiar and famous lines from the text pop out to me auf Deutsch:
Mr. H Potter
Im Schrank unter der Treppe
The biggest thing is that reading Harry Potter is getting me familiar with my new language and helping me feel more comfortable speaking like a local. It’s just one of the ways I am recognizing I am on the path to fluency.
Learning a new language is very difficult, especially for native English speakers. There are usually two different responses you get when people hear you attempting to speak another language:
They will be insulted.
They will switch to English.
Most of the time, people will just switch to English, which makes it more difficult to practice German. The best way to combat this is to ignore it and keep speaking in German. The best is going through an entire conversation and never switching to English.
I was able to speak with a florist, ask and answer questions, give compliments, make a payment, and say goodbye without switching to English! It was amazing!
I was riding a high when I left the shop, and on the way home, was stopped on the street by a girl who had a question. She spoke so fast and took me by surprise. Eyes wide, I sputtered and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German.” IN ENGLISH. I laughed nervously, she tossed her hands up and laughed, said “OK” and kept walking.
Well, there goes all the XP I earned at the flower shop.
Setbacks like these are expected, especially since I have only been learning German and living in Germany for about 5 months. Still, I am slowly recognizing fluency on my part, and am more determined than ever to turn this blog into a German language blog! Just kidding. Here’s what I’ve noticed:
My spelling in both German and English is now bad. This is mainly because I am still in between worlds in my head, and mixing things up or thinking in German when trying to write in English, or vice versa. I wrote cash as casch. I constantly swap ei and ie.
My native language lexicon is slowly disappearing. I don’t think it will ever go away, but the less I use the words, the further in my mind they are stored and the harder they are to find. I forgot what an ambulance was called, so I called it a Hospital Car, which, my brain probably already knew, is basically the literal translation of the German word for ambulance: Krankenwagen.
Anyone learning a second language is bound to fill in unknown words with their native tongue. It’s a natural step to fluency and a perfectly normal way to learn. It’s also normal to flip it and use the second language while speaking in their native tongue. When talking with my international friends, we usually speak in English and use German as a filler language for any words that we don’t know or can’t communicate the meaning properly in English.
Filling or Forgetting
When I first started learning German, I would unintentionally substitute unknown German words with the same word in Spanish. It acted as a filler word, because once I learned the word in German, it became more difficult for me to remember the word in Spanish. Just like Hospital Car, I know my Spanish is probably in there somewhere, but it’s getting buried under a new language.
Listening to people talk in another language can be quite relaxing when you have no idea what they’re saying. Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, German is not a harsh language. No one is spitting, screaming, or tossing up Nazi salutes when they talk. It’s soft, often quiet and can act as white noise…until you start to understand what they’re saying. Being able to listen to other people’s conversations is one of my favorite things. Walking past a group of people and having your mind go, “Hey! Those are words! I recognize that!” instead of it sounding like a teacher in a Charlie Brown movie is a good feeling.
I moved to Germany with a traveler’s vocabulary. Hallo, entschuldigung, danke, tschüss. While I tried to study the language back in the States, I found it boring and difficult. I wasn’t motivated, and I had no one to talk to. Instead, I put all my hope in learning by total immersion. There wasn’t any concrete goal, just this idea that if I was surrounded by Germans speaking German, I would just magically and passively pick it up. While that is a nice idea, that’s one step up from trying to learn a language in your sleep.
Now, I have attainable goals for 2019. Nothing too crazy, and goals with which I can easily see progress and change:
Read all 7 Harry Potter books in German.
Get a tandem speaking partner.
Wouldn’t it be great if one day, while traveling in Hungary or Italy, where I don’t speak the local language, I can ask, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and be able to comfortably converse?
10 bucks says they switch to English.
*I also have an Icelandic version, but who are we kidding? That’s never going to happen!
What are your experiences learning or speaking another language? Are there other aspects in life where the same ideas of fluency apply?
P.S. Congrats to Lisa and Steph C. the winners of the Bielefeld mugs! Your packages are in the mail! ☕
Germany does a lot of things right. It’s safe, clean, affordable, and efficient (German engineering is no joke!). Every day I see something so simple and common to life here that would make a big difference back in the States. Germany isn’t perfect. No place is. Here are 6 characteristics that make this country stand out for me.
When we lived in Ohio, we were a single-car household. Josh used his bike to commute or took the bus. It was difficult to do this where we lived because there were few designated bike lanes, and people didn’t know how to drive around cyclists. In Ohio, it was hard to even find sidewalks. If we could, we would walk everywhere and take Sherlock with us. That gets hard to do when you’re forced to walk in the street. When we lived in Ohio, my average mileage walked per month was 21. In Germany, I walk about 90 miles a month. Bielefeld prides itself on its trail system, with parks and greenspaces that wind through neighborhoods and connect to each other. Every trail eventually connects, and the one by our house even takes you all the way to Bad Salzulflen. I’ve taken trails out of curiosity and ended up at soccer fields, cafes, nature preserves, churches, lakes, and castles.
The trail to Bad Salzuflen
Nordpark trail includes a cafe, mini golf, play park, and pond.
Public transportation in most communities in the US takes forever, doesn’t connect well to other cities, and smells bad. Take everything you know about public transport and toss it out, because that is not the case in Germany. The busses and trains are clean, people are quiet and polite, fares are paid, and no one is trying to sell you anything (looking at you, New York). Coming from cities with little to no public transportation system, and having a place where we can use the Stadtbahn, busses, and regional trains to get around, we haven’t felt the need to get a car. The funny thing is, ask around and locals will tell you the Bielefeld transport system isn’t even that good compared to other cities in Germany.
I’ve talked about Germany’s café culture before, and I think it is something to be admired. No restaurant will succeed in Germany unless it has a patio and outdoor seating. Germans love sitting outside for hours on end with their coffee and pastries. Bonus points if the café is in a busy thoroughfare or park and they can people watch while they sip. I enjoy eating out, but I hate feeling rushed by the waitstaff. This will never happen in Germany. Instead, I can relax, enjoy my food and my company without feeling the urge to pre-bus the table and calculate the tip. I always felt guilty in the US, that I was preventing the server from making money. Here, that is not a problem because the staff are paid a living wage and don’t rely on tips. In fact, tipping in Germany isn’t really a thing, you just sort of round up.
When the church bells start ringing Sunday morning, that’s when I usually smack myself in the forehead and remember something I forgot to buy at the Markt. Mist. Can’t get it until Monday, because everything is closed on Sundays (except for cafes and bakeries).
While the shops are closed for religious observance, a law since the 1900s, most Germans aren’t using the time for church. A Pew Research Center survey found that while 71 percent of Germans identified as Christians, most are non-practicing (attend services no more than a few times per year).
The church bells ringing remind Germans that Sunday is less a day of worship, but rather one of leisure, spending it in parks, at cafes, or with family. Having a day where most things are closed forces people to slow down and gives everyone a mini-holiday. No one is thinking about running errands, doing last-minute shopping, or waiting in line. It acts as a soft reset and helps start the next week off right.
Like Sundays, everything is closed on holidays. And this can be a little crazy. For example, Christmas this year was on a Tuesday. The shops were closed that Sunday, then open on Monday (Christmas Eve) until 1 p.m. Then they were closed for Christmas, and what’s called Second Christmas (Boxing Day). That’s pretty much 4 days of closed shops. Luckily, we bought enough toilet paper.
But the locals need all those days off to recover from the hardcore partying they do (not a joke).
On Christmas Eve, our neighbors invited us over for drinks and singing (unfortunately, we couldn’t go, because Josh had the flu). The whole building was up and about singing carols until the early hours of Christmas morning. I don’t think we saw anyone until late that afternoon. New Year’s Eve is even crazier. People stay out all night, shooting fireworks for hours. I have never seen such an amazing firework display than midnight in Germany.
We haven’t been here that long to experience a lot of the holidays, or go on any major vacations, but from what I can tell, Germans take their holiday and leisure time seriously.
Sorry, Cash Only
In the US, we used our credit card for everything. We made a profit with that thing and rarely paid for a flight. Working in optical, I often worked with money, but rarely with cash. In Ohio, people used cash a bit more frequently than card, and debit more frequently than credit. In Germany, credit cards are not a thing and cash reigns supreme. The only place I used my card is at the grocery store, and every time, I get the stink eye. There are a thousand reasons for it, but the main reasons are:
The credit card processing machine takes forever, and it slows down the line.
The cashier never has a pen and has to go find one.
The cashier will inspect your signature and your card to make sure it matches.
I’m pretty sure they can smell my Auslander everytime I whip it out.
Is Dave Ramsey German?
No retail store offers a store credit card like they would in the US. Not even the bank offered credit cards when we signed up for an account. Germany doesn’t encourage buying things with money you don’t have and Germans, as a culture, hate debt. In fact, the word for debt in German is Schuld, which translates to guilt or fault. Most places do not accept credit cards. All payments for phones, internet, etc. must be done through a bank account and cannot be paid with a credit card. We couldn’t even get phones without a German bank account.
Now, I’m not saying that Germany doesn’t have credit cards, or debt. They do. But it’s less than the average American’s $38,000. Having less debt is helped along by the fact that Germans pay no medical bills or tuition.
Since moving to Germany, we have spent less money in general. Unlike the US, Germany doesn’t put an emphasis on things. People dress for the weather, not the latest trends. Black Friday sales exist, but it’s stampede-free. People are community focused instead of commodity focused and it shows in what they value: time, leisure, family, food.
Have you been impressed by cultural differences in a country you visited? What do you think they “got right” that made you want to bring it home with you? What do you think your home country gets right? Let me know in the comments.
P.S. Are you jonesing for a Bielefeld mug? There’s still time to enter the raffle. Just pop your name in the subscription box. (Update: the raffle is now closed! I hope the winners like their mugs!)
(Update: The raffle is now closed. I hope the winners enjoy the mugs! ☕)
My mom always treats holidays and birthdays as “just another day” and while I find that enticing and often easy to do, I don’t think it’s the healthiest mentality. We need a reason to celebrate. It doesn’t have to be a big reason or even a big holiday. You don’t have to celebrate in the streets with thousands of your closest friends. But you can find meaning and joy in telling stories, sharing congratulations and spending time in fellowship.
Most of 2018 didn’t end up being just “another day” for me. It might have been a bit crazier than the average year, considering some major life changes like, I don’t know, uprooting our entire family and moving to another country. 2018 was made up of little moments that made this year pretty great.
Maybe start with coffee with friends. These Bielefeld Weihnachtsmarkt mugs should help. I’m giving away a limited edition 2018 Bielefeld mug to 2 random subscribers.
Subscribe to the blog via email to be entered into the raffle to win a mug. Raffle ends Jan. 7, 2019. Don’t worry, I will pay the shipping. ☕
Feel free to leave a comment to let me know you entered.
May your New Year’s resolution be for more joy in 2019. Cheers. Prost.
Miles walked December 2017: 20.75 (Kent, OH) vs. December 2018: 89.62 miles and still counting (Germany).
A note on subscribing: I’m not doing this to make money, so popping your email in the doobly-doo below isn’t going to do anything except let me know I need to add your name to a hat for the raffle. There’s no fancy newsletter, no cool shills or “influencing.” You’re just going to get an email when I upload a new post, and if you don’t want that, then unsubscribe. It won’t hurt my feelings, I promise. A wise woman once told me to write for myself, so that’s what I do here. If you like it, that’s just icing on the cake. 🍰
In true German fashion, I haven’t seen the sun for weeks. It’s currently raining, and if I didn’t have a clock, I would assume that it was nearing night and not the middle of the day. Welcome to winter in Germany. It’s good Christmas weather though. Unlike the constant 80 degrees I grew up with in California, at least here when you get a sweater for Christmas you can wear it without sweating. Even when it’s not raining here, it’s still cold, colder than Colorado or even Ohio. The cold here is damp and sinks into your skin. The wind whips through the empty trees, smacks you on the back of your neck, and finds every microscopic hole in your pants.
I think the Christmas markets started as a way for people to keep warm in the winter. The combination of Glühwein and bodies comfortably oozing from stand to stand is the only way we can stay warm outside.
What is a Weihnachtsmarkt?
The German Christmas Market, or Weihnachtsmarkt, begins the last weekend in November and lasts until Christmas Eve. While some markets attract thousands of tourists each year for their unique Christmas traditions (looking at you, Aachen), most markets typically have the same elements: stands hawking food, selling handmade goods, Ferris wheels, and the occasional puppet play or choir. The big draw to the Weihnachtsmarkt is the food: Glühwein, Eierpunsch, Bratwurst, Currywurst, Crepes, and Lebkuchen. Winter staples like hot cocoa and Germany’s other water, beer, are also available.
In Bielefeld, the city center is littered with food stands and seating areas all for the Christmas market. Keep walking and they continue, meandering down the alleys and main streets, meeting again in large huddles in the Altstadt and in the church square. While during the day the Weihnachtsmarkt is sparsely populated, at night it flourishes. Lights twinkling and glasses clinking, lines for crepes and Currywurst get crisscrossed and tables are so crowded it’s not unusual to share the top of a trashcan with a group of strangers.
Josh and I experienced this in Bonn, when we visited their Weihnachtsmarkt on a cold Friday night. Bundled in jackets, beanies, scarves and mittens, about five minutes in, my mittens were off and I was sweating through my jacket. We tried some Glühwein, hot mulled wine that reminded us of spiced cider. Like all beverages at these events, it came in a ceramic cup, not a paper one (I have rarely, if ever, been given a paper cup). The drink was €3, and then you pay a €2 pfand, or a deposit for the cup. If you bring the cup back, you get the deposit back.
A couple stands down a crowd of people stood eating Pommes mit Mayo and Bratwurst, the warm diner smell hitting my stomach at full force. Euros in hand, I ordered the Currywurst (I’m obsessed) and Pommes mit Mayo, because Josh wasn’t there to tell me otherwise, and boy was that a mistake. The Currywurst was great as usual. But I will never understand why Germans love mayonnaise on everything. Just straight-up plain mayo on fries. Don’t worry we washed it down with a waffle.
Mixed in with the food stands are local creators selling handmade goods from toys, Christmas decor, little villages, and handmade hats. It’s traditional, yet diverse and eclectic. While the toy stands might be fun for the kids, the big draw is the Riesenrad (Ferris wheel), which in my experience, is the centerpiece of the Weihnachtsmarkt. For kids the Weihnachtsmarkt is a mini-carnival, with goofy Christmas-themed rides scattered throughout the city. Bumper cars, swings, and carousels are popular with families.
Christmas with Community
It’s rare to find these types of Christmas markets in the US. Sure, there are craft fairs and makers markets. But the difficult thing is to find something specifically for Christmas without the flashing lights and inflatable kitsch that makes the States so great. Oddly enough, when we lived in Colorado, we went to Denver’s German Christmas market. It’s pretty accurate. The biggest difference between Christmas in the US and Christmas in Germany is the intention behind it. Here, there is less advertising, less pressure, less stuff. It’s about family and Advent, and togetherness.
It’s raining tonight, the winds are strong, and the temperature is low. But the crowds in the city center are thick, the Glühwein is steaming, and conversation is flowing. Grab a crepe and settle in among the crowd. Germany gets a reputation of having cold people, but that’s just the weather. The people here are warm. They are friendly. The wine helps. Like everyone else, Germans crave community and togetherness. What better way to promote that than with a Weihnachtsmarkt.
What does your community do to celebrate the holidays? Have you been to a Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany or another country? Let me know about it by leaving a comment 👇
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In Germany, Christmas is a big deal. Christmas markets spring up in town centers with stands selling anything from currywurst (my favorite) to crepes. There are Ferris wheels and carnival rides for the children, and spiked eggnog for the adults. Scattered through the Altermarkt, stands selling handmade décor offer a bit of Christmas cheer to bring home. Christmas in Germany feels less flashy than in the US. Sure, people probably have similar things on their Wunschliste, the newest iPhone or gadget. But there is also a charm and simplicity that I find lacking in the malls in the States.
Here are 5 gift ideas inspired by popular Christmas items in Germany
For this mostly Christian country, Advent is a huge deal. Along with the candles and special tea-times on Sundays, Advent is celebrated with the good old-fashioned Adventskalender. But these are not your typical chocolate-a-day you get from Trader Joe’s. The calendars are themed and can be found at any store. From beauty supplies, food, tea, toys, clothes, you name it, people hunt down the type they want and give them throughout the holiday season. (The funniest one I saw was a playboy advent calendar. I was laughing too hard to find out what was inside).
Since our homes are usually flats in shared buildings, nobody has Christmas lights on display outside. Instead, windows are lit with white or red Herrnhut, or Moravian stars. These stars symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and come in a variety of styles, each as stunning as the rest.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever played Catan. 🙋♀️ You can thank (or curse) Germany for that creation. Some of the best board games come out of this country, thanks in part to their obsession with clubs (everyone is in a club), and SPIEL, the largest board game convention in the world which takes place in Essen every year. This year, games like Azul and die Quacksalber (not available in English…yet!) took home the top prize for game of the year.
Teddy Bears and cuddly creatures
For the Kinder (children) or collector, Germany’s oldest toy maker creates cuddle-inducing cheer. Steiff, world-famous for the creation of the teddy bear, draws children and adults into their Christmas window displays. While in Bonn, I nearly missed this experience walking past a massive crowd of people glued to 100 meters of glass. Three people deep and over the heads of little ones was a fantastical forest of animals come to life, all Steiff creatures pushing carts, playing on swings, hiding among trees. The feeling of childlike wonder in the air was palpable as we all hoped that glass would disappear so we could get our hands on that cute little fox.
Not American football, but the real football the rest of the world plays. Or as it’s called here, Fußball. Support your local Bundesliga or the national team even when we haven’t won a game (but we tied twice, so that counts, right?). In the US, you wear your Cavs t-shirts, here, we have Arminia. Or Paderborn, or Dortmund, or Germany. The kit gives people something to be proud of, even if the national team gets knocked out of the world cup in the first round, or the city team hasn’t technically won a game. There’s a sense of community and togetherness that comes on gameday, when the stadium is full and the whole city is wearing blue, white, and black.
Some Christmas Spirit
Maybe this year you can skip the typical consumables and gift cards, and go for a little Christmas charm from Abroad. Choose gifts that promote togetherness and simplicity; encourage laughter and cuddles, and help bring a little Christmas spirit back into the flashy malls of the States.
What’s on your wishlist? And more importantly, what’s on your givelist?
This was my first time leaving Bielefeld by train and traveling by myself. I left Sherlock with a dog sitter (he was in heaven) and took the roughly two hour train ride to Bonn.
Bonn is roughly the same size as Bielefeld in population, with about 325,000 people. The first capital city after the second world war, Bonn was instrumental in rebuilding and reunifying the country and Europe in general. Because of this, the city is both very German and very international at the same time.
In Bielefeld, it’s a struggle to hear anyone speak English, whereas in Bonn, English is spoken freely, along with French, Turkish, and plenty more languages. It made me more comfortable to speak German knowing that if I didn’t know the right word, I could switch to English with no problem and little judgement.
The Local’s Perspective
Our weekend in Bonn wasn’t meant to be one of sightseeing and tourist traps, so I’m sorry to report I don’t have much to tell you on that front. We mostly walked around. Everywhere. The afternoon I arrived, we picked up Falafel from a stand under the train station, then walked down Poppelsdorfer Allee back to Josh’s apartment.
Poppelsdorfer Allee reminds me of Manhattan, only much quieter. There’s a large grassy park with gravel walkways and tall trees lining the edge. One-way streets make up the Allee, with unique and historical townhouses running down both sides. At the end of the Allee sits the Poppelsdorf Castle, now home to the Bonn Botanical Gardens and part of Universität Bonn (how cool would it be to go to class in a castle?!?).
We spent the evening exploring our first Weihnachtsmarkt, but that’s a story for another day.
Bellies full of Currywurst and waffles, we were ready to head back to the apartment, but first needed to stop at Haribo for rations for our journey. Haribo, the world famous gummy bear maker, has its headquarters and factory in Bonn. Walking by the factory store draws you in with the smell of sweets and bright colors. You can’t not go in. They have an entire section devoted to licorice and it smells amazing. There’s a wall of colored gummy bears, à la the M&M store. Choose your flavor. And right across the street is the Lindt store. So basically, I was on a sugar high all weekend. Let’s just be grateful Ritter is in Berlin.
One of my favorite things about living in Europe is the café culture. In the city center are large areas filled with shops and restaurants, and noticeably void of cars. The only noise pollution is from other people’s conversations lingering in the air. Café tables, umbrellas, and benches line the walkways, and on the weekend its impossible to find an empty spot, even in the winter.
People will sit for hours, nursing their cappuccino and nibbling on their pastry, enjoying conversation with their bodies facing those walking by instead of their tablemate. Europeans make people watching an art.
In Bonn, we participated in this centuries-long tradition, and I felt like I was finally beginning to blend in. We spent time in two cafes, taking our time, sipping our drinks and eating our pastries. We watched the people walking by, shared our food, talked, and relaxed. The best thing about café culture is that there is no rush to it. You order, you get your food, and eventually at one point or another, you get your bill. No one is urging you out. You will need to flag someone down if you want anything.
We probably spent an hour eating and even that was too short for Europeans. In fact, a neighboring table of two arrived shortly after we did and was still at the café when we walked past almost 2 hours later!
A Walking Tour
I know I said that I didn’t want my visit to Bonn to be touristy, but there were two things that I really wanted to do when I was there.
See Beethoven’s house and
See the Rhine.
I didn’t even want to go inside Beethoven’s house, I just wanted to see it. So that’s what we did. Traipsing through the Altstadt on a Saturday afternoon, we dodged people at the farmer’s market hawking their fresh Obst und Gemüse on the hunt for Beethoven’s birthplace.
Farmer’s Market in Bonn
Farmer’s Market in Bonn
Beethoven’s house itself can be toured and has his original piano plus some sheet music. Next door is a gift shop featuring every Beethoven CD imaginable, sheet music, and more. You can also purchase tickets to tour the home. Bonn is proud of their connection to the musician, who was born in the city and lived there through his teens.
Stop #1 on the Beethoven Walk
The city has a Beethoven Walk, a self-guided walking tour that takes you throughout the city to notable landmarks connected to Beethoven. We accidentally ended up on this walking tour when we found ourselves at these landmarks by coincidence. Beethoven’s house, the Poppelsdorf Electoral Palace, the cathedral, the old cemetery, and the Beethoven statue in the market square all ended up being part of the tour.
While the Rhine wasn’t part of the walking tour, I am sure Beethoven visited it—and probably even traveled on it—in his lifetime, so let’s just add that one in there just for fun.
Freude. Joy. Joie. Bonn.
It’s difficult to imagine that at one point people really thought Beethoven would lose popularity and be forgotten in time. With the changes this city has gone through, as a birthplace of music and modern democracy for Europe, Bonn grasps onto Beethoven and his legacy to make sure that this little city on the Rhine isn’t forgotten.
There’s a pretty well-known work of Beethoven’s: Symphony No. 9. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? There’s a little ditty tucked in there called “Ode to Joy.”
That song is Bonn.
It starts quiet, it draws you in, and before you know it the horns are full blast and the strings are going like crazy. It’s a crescendo of color and history and smells and vibrancy of people. Then you spin around, and the villagers are singing like you’ve stepped back in time.
It is Freude. Joy. Joie. The perfect slogan for Bonn.
Miles walked: 20.48🚶♀️
Kölsch consumed: 3🍻
Pastries eaten: 2🥐
Candies consumed: Too many.🤷♀️
What’s your favorite thing about traveling without an agenda? Where do you want me to go next?
When you go searching on the internet for useful information on Bielefeld, good luck finding real answers. Hop on any forum, thread or discussion board asking for things to do while visiting Bielefeld, or god forbid if you needed urgent information, don’t be surprised if all the answers say:
“Bielefeld? That place doesn’t exist.”
“I think I saw a sign for it once, but nothing was there.”
“I have never met anyone from Bielefeld.”
“Have you ever been to Bielefeld?”
“Bielefeld? You must be one of Them.”
Let me introduce you to the Bielefeld Conspiracy (and in turn, what Germans call humor).
It’s the longest running joke in Germany, and even the city of Bielefeld is in on it.
The Bielefeld Conspiracy could be considered the first meme, born on a forum in the early days of the Internet, when someone posted they were from Bielefeld and was told, “Das gibt’s doch gar nicht” which literally translated as “it doesn’t exist.” Since then, this idea of a city of 300,000 people not existing has become one of the biggest jokes in Germany, centered around an overblown, joke conspiracy of SIE (THEM), which asks three questions:
Do you know anyone from Bielefeld?
Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
Do you know anybody who has been to Bielefeld?
Some people go so far as to jokingly claim that They include Elvis, John F. Kennedy, the CIA, or aliens, who use Universität Bielefeld as their spaceship (I can see that, the building looks weird).
One of Them
What makes the Bielefeld Conspiracy so compelling is that overall, Bielefeld is not a well-known city even within Germany.
Bielefeld has a castle, but in terms of castles in Germany, it’s not particularly marvelous and awe-inspiring (sorry, Sparrenburg, I love you, but you’re not Disney-worthy). There are no major natural features like oceans, mountains, or rivers. Bielefeld is home to some major institutions, however. Universität Bielefeld, Dr. Oetker, Bethel, and um…. Ya that’s pretty much it. But let’s not forget our world class football team! DSC Arminia! Oh, what’s that? We haven’t won a game all season? 🤦♀️
“I had the impression that I was there,” Angela Merkel
But sometimes, it’s nice to have a reputation of not existing. You go in without any preconceived notions, without any expectations or opinions of a place you have yet to see for yourself. The idea of Bielefeld not existing has allowed for me to explore it and watch it form in front of me.
Existence is Overrated
It’s great to know that our 800+ year old castle doesn’t exist, with its underground tunnels and tower looking over the city. We’ll keep that secret to ourselves. The tourists can have the Black Forest; we have the Teutoburg Forest that snakes along the edge of Bielefeld, where the Germans held off Roman invaders centuries ago. We’re keeping Bethel a secret too, one of the finest institutions for special needs care and public health in Europe. Although, it becomes difficult to say Bielefeld doesn’t exist on game day, when Schüco Arena is sold out and the chants are loud enough to hear across the city. And even when Arminia loses (because it’s inevitable), fans in blue, white, and black walk home singing and chanting.
If this is what it means to not exist, I’m in.
But to all the Germans that joke “das gibt es nicht,” I must ask you one of the three questions:
Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
Because I think you might really like it.
Then again, I am one of them.
What do you think about the Bielefeld Conspiracy? What conspiracies or jokes does your country have? Do you think Germans could find a better way to help people interested in Bielefeld, or is it best that the city stays a mystery?