Week 13-14: Christmas in Berlin and Vienna

Ah, can you smell that? Yes, that’s the overwhelming odor of sugar, cinnamon, and beer. Can you hear that? No, not random German chatter! The music! The bells, Michael Buble! Yes, Christmas has undoubtedly arrived, and not-so-coincidently, we find ourselves in the country with the best Christmas markets in the world—Germany!

We arrived in Berlin on December 17th, eager to soak up the history of the city and enjoy the Christmas season in Europe. We were staying with Mike’s cousin Lolo and her family. Although they were quite busy getting ready to see family for the holidays, we were still able to spend some quality time together drinking champagne and getting owned in Frozen-themed memory card games by Mike’s 4-year old cousin, Valentine.

We started our exploration of the city at the first place anyone thinks of when they think of Berlin: the Berlin Wall. We visited the East Gallery and let our eyes study the variety of murals that decorate what once helped to define the oppression and violence seen in post-war Germany. We wondered what it must have felt like to be one of the artists whose work was displayed on the Wall. How does one decide how to artistically express themselves when the canvas upon which the work will be featured holds so much cultural significance? We also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which, in the above-ground, displayed a wide expanse of concrete rectangles of varying heights that evoked tombs or coffins and in the below-ground, contained the facts and information surrounding the Holocaust and the treatment of Jews throughout the World War II-era. We learned about the different concentration camps and ghettos, the attempts at escape and uprising, and the ruthless and inhuman ways that Jewish people were murdered. One of the most impactful elements of the memorial was an exhibit that projected onto the ground of the room contemporary accounts of Jewish people in this era describing their reality. There was one letter from a young girl to her father asserting that her death was imminent and telling him goodbye and that she loved him. The letter was succinct and matter-of-fact, and that somehow made it all the more heartbreaking to read. We were unable imagine the bravery it must have required to look death square in the eye at such a young age and not let fear overwhelm.

One of our favorites – walls, walls, walls
Memorial to the Murdered Jews – a somber reminder of the horrors of the past

Another, lesser known museum we visited was Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt, a former brush-making workshop run by Otto Weidt that employed blind and deaf Jewish people to make brushes in the 1940’s. Otto’s efforts in protecting his workers and their families was described in detail as well as the stories of the employees. We were amazed by how small moments were in some cases the difference between life and death during this time. A tip-off by a neighbor, a bribe of an official, or a complaint from an associate in some cases gave his employees enough time to hide or in other cases were the reason they were discovered. In the back of the workshop, behind a cabinet, was a windowless room left in its original condition where Otto sheltered his workers during the Nazi regime. It was deeply powerful to see this with our own eyes and try to imagine even in the slightest what the reality of chronic life-or-death fear felt like. This museum was a testament to the selflessness and sacrifice of some of the Berliners unwilling to stand-by while their Jewish compatriots were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

A recreation of the backroom in Otto Weidt’s workshop. Behind this “cabinet” is a hidden room.

While our days were spent learning about the history of the area, we spent our evenings at the various Christmas markets and zero-waste shops in the city. We tried some German beers and vegan currywurst. The evenings were jovial and festive as throngs of people gathered to share a steaming mug of glogg and a hearty laugh. The largest market we visited was Gendarmenmarkt, one of the most popular and sprawling in the city. While we enjoyed stopping by each and every stall to see the lovely gifts and wares of the artisans, this market was a bit too crowded for us, so we didn’t stay more than an hour. We enjoyed some of the smaller markets and picked out some gifts for our families, such as a to-go coffee cup for Mike’s dad made of used coffee grinds and a plantable calendar for Amanda’s parents, where each calendar page could be planted in the ground to yield a year’s worth of flowers and herbs.

Christmas markets are nice and festive, but boy are they packed!

On December 22nd, we took the night train from Berlin to Vienna. Again, we had an interesting experience while on the train. We shared a 6-seat train-car with a mother and her five young children. Needless to say, we were extremely cramped and sleep evaded us.

Vienna was full of the Christmas spirit when we arrived and after resting and getting settled in, we visited another Christmas market, the Viennese Christmas Market in front of the Rathaus (city hall). We indulged in some yummy treats and warm honey wine and picked out more unique gifts. We picked out a candle for Mike’s sister Julia that had a little bottle of Jaeger suspended in it, where she had to burn the candle in order to retrieve the alcohol. It seemed like a unique and humorous purchase at the time, but we later found out that the candle emitted a thick black smoke when burned and smelled awful. Welp, we tried. We then went to a smaller Christmas market and picked out a little hand-carved wooden box for Amanda’s brother Drew. Afterwards, we stole a small evergreen tree branch with a single bulb from the window-box of a nearby restaurant to act as our Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Rathaus Christmas market, featuring Amanda’s Christmas smile
Our very own (stolen) Charlie Brown Christmas tree

The following day was Christmas eve and Mike’s family arrived in the early afternoon to spend Christmas with us! Having Mike’s family there made it truly start to feel like Christmas was upon us. We spent a relaxing day grocery shopping, going to the Christmas market, and exploring the city. In the evening, we hung up our stockings in our Airbnb and watched The Grinch, as is tradition in Amanda’s household.

On Christmas morning, we woke up and made a breakfast frittata for Mike’s mom for her birthday. We all exchanged gifts and spent the day leisurely, as one should on Christmas. Mike’s mom made us a yummy dinner and in the evening we all dressed up and ventured to a Christmas concert at the Mozart House, where Mozart once lived. We had thought we would be watching an orchestral performance of his works, but upon arriving and realizing how small of a space we were in, it became clear that the performance would be much more intimate. Indeed, with a total audience of roughly three dozen in a stunningly ornate baroque-style room, we listened as a quartet of strikingly talented string players performed a selection of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, and Corelli. The most exceptional part of the performance, apart from being only about 15 feet from the performers, was how the quartet didn’t hold back at all and really left us with the impression that they were expressing the limits of what the instruments could do. It was a beautiful way to end our Christmas day in Vienna.

Our attempt at culture and fanciness

The following day we rented a car and traveled to Salzburg, where the ladies and gents split up in another full day of peaceful enjoyment. Mike and his Dad went off exploring and hiking in Berchtesgaden, Germany. Amanda, Julia and Mike’s Mom went on a Sound of Music tour. Although our group went separate directions, everyone got to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Alps, the lovely architecture of the region, and the charming small villages that surrounded Salzburg.

Got some Austrian Alps for ya

The next day, our group split again, this time the parents to the small town of Milch, Austria, while we properly explored Vienna with Julia. We went to the Freud museum and learned about Sigmund’s life and thought process in understanding the human mind. The museum was under renovations, so we had to enjoy a smaller version, but this somehow made it more enjoyable. Perhaps it was that there was less information to absorb, perhaps it was just the Christmas mood, or perhaps it was Sigmund himself, performing experiments on his guests post-mortem. Eventually we met up with Mike’s parents and got convinced to do a Vienna tour on a decorative and fancy golf cart…thing. Unfortunately, the guide was not quite so helpful, but at least we got a nice ride around the city and laugh at all the silly pedestrians walking. What peasants.

The fancy golf cart thing. Takeway – underwhelming.

Our time ended with Amanda flying back home for a quick spell to New Years with her family in Montreal, while Mike went back to Lyon for New Years. The plan to meet up was to both fly back to Vienna to meet up, and then head east to Turkey! Our 2019 was full of family, friends, fun and adventure and as we all know now, 2020 was going to be quite…interesting.

Until next time,

The Seagles

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