Wednesday, December 17, 2003

When you live someplace really special, it's easy to forget about the fabulous locale and get bogged down in the minutiae of daily living. I first noticed this in Hawaii: I'd get busy with work or with food (shopping for it, cooking it, cleaning up the scraps), or with getting the kids to their various activities. One day I would wake up and it would hit me--we hadn't been to the beach in weeks!

I came to Germany with a determination to remain mindful of this and to refuse to let daily life get in the way of our European vacation. I have found that it's easier said than done.

Take Christmas, for example . . . please. We've mailed the bulk of our cards and gifts. We've hosted the office holiday party. We've decorated the tree and even managed to string up some lights. But let's face it--none of these activities exactly screams "Christmas in Germany."

On Wednesday morning I woke up determined to go out and find us some German Christmas. And what better place to start than at the Mannheim Weihnachtsmarkt?

The kids and I spent a little time that morning on math and then headed downtown for our first field trip in a long time. We started off at the library, where I had books to turn in (there's that daily life thing again!), but we quickly hustled ourselves over to the market at the base of the water tower.

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas markets is the piping hot Glühwein (say "glue-vine" and think of hot sangria). So even though it was barely noon yet, that's where we started! You can either drink right there in front of the stand and return your cup for a refund on the deposit, or you can buy the special boot-shaped souvenir mug and take it with you. I opted to do the latter, and I hope that it's simply the first of many such mugs I collect between now and Christmas.

We strolled through the aisles lined with vendors of all sorts of goodies. We stopped at one booth that featured toys, and Annabelle fell in love with a small stuffed sea turtle that she just had to have.

I was drawn to a pair of wooden dice: one is red and has a German pronoun on each side; the other is covered with German verbs (to eat, to drink, to sleep, to party, etc.). I thought they might give the kids a chance to practice their verb conjugations, so I grabbed a pair. The shopkeeper told me that those dice are really for adults (perhaps some sort of German truth-or-dare or drinking game?) and suggested that I take instead the one designed for children (to go to bed, to make music, etc.). I took all 3. Kids need to know how to talk about drinking and sleeping as much as the next person.

After stopping at a food stand for a gyro to share, we found a nice stretch of curb and settled in to enjoy the first course of our lunch. As we were sitting there happily munching away on our communal sandwich, I noticed a trio of little girls watching us. They would approach and then back away. Approach. Back away. Finally, the middle girl got brave. She walked straight up to Annabelle and handed her a token for the nearby merry-go-round. Then the 3 of them ran off to their mothers and were gone. As we walked over to the merry-go-round so Annabelle could take her turn, she wondered why they had chosen her to receive their extra token. We wound up deciding that it's because little blondie girls with no front teeth have to stick together.

After the merry-go-round, we looked at more of the wares: candles, knit goods, wood carvings, . . . . We wound up being drawn back to the food, however, and finished off our first Christmas market trip with a pile of potato pancakes with garlic sauce.

On Friday, we went with friends to explore the Heidelberg Christmas market and go out for sushi. When Mike first heard that we were going to yet another Christmas market and--worse yet!--that we were going there on the dreaded streetcar (dreaded by the kids; personally, I could spend all day on it), he groaned. I offered to let him stay at home and even volunteered to make sure he had plenty of fraction problems to work on. He perked right up and decided that a Christmas market would, in fact, be a most enjoyable way to pass our last day of school before Christmas vacation, even with the streetcar. I'm sure the prospect of a sushi lunch also helped to boost his enthusiasm.

We had a lovely time at the market, though I really was more impressed by the one right here in Mannheim. That strikes me as odd, because Mannheim is not a traditionally pretty town like Heidelberg. Perhaps it was the fact that Mannheim's market is concentrated in one place, while Heidelberg's is actually several clumps of vendors that stretch all along the pedestrian zone.

The sushi was quite good but incredibly expensive. Annabelle, of course, craves the priciest item on the menu: the salmon roe. But the euros are so colorful and so pretty that it hardly feels like spending "real" money. I don't think we'll be making a regular habit of it though.

I enjoyed yet another mug of Glühwein as we walked back down the pedestrian zone. Good thing I was wearing leather gloves--that stuff is really hot!

Tomorrow we plan on heading out for yet another Christmas market, perhaps the one in Michelstadt. Fred went there "forever ago" with his landlord and landlady back in his Darmstadt days. Whichever one we choose, you can be sure of one thing: I will be drinking some Glühwein and working on my collection of souvenir mugs!

We just returned from the Boy Scouts' Christmas party. Here's a shot of Mike in his uniform:

Mike is looking forward to going to Switzerland with his fellow Scouts in January for the Klondike Derby.

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