Christmas is a tricky holiday for me. My family always celebrated this time of year with gusto, and my mom made it really special.  The first year I spent Christmas with my German husband’s family I was hit with a bout of longing for America, for my dead mother, for all things beloved and familiar.
“I’m really, really homesick. God, I miss home at Christmas time,” I confessed to my mother-in-law.
“Well, this year you’re with us. This is your home now.” Her mouth was pinched. I had just royally offended (to say nothing of hurting the feelings of) my new husband’s mom.
I was on the brink: I was going to start crying and not be able to stop. “I think I’ll go for a walk,” I said. I put on my boots and coat, fast. I walked by myself through the snowy dark streets. Of course, on Christmas Eve the roads were silent and totally empty; everyone was in the lit-up homes, celebrating the birth of Christ with their families. I walked for probably forty minutes, until I was worn out and too cold to remain outside any longer.
And then I went back to the house and smiled.
I still get homesick this time of year, but after being here so long Uwe and I have our own traditions. Putting up a tree and decorating it always helps. We used to just walk up the street to a yard that sold trees, select one, and carry it home between us. Now Uwe purchases the tree at a shopping center parking lot, and I trim it with all kinds of ornaments.
The former Eastern Germany is known for wooden ornaments. I bought three in Leipzig, for both my sisters and one for my own tree. I also hang special ornaments that remind me of where I grew up.
About twenty-three years ago we spent the holidays in Sofia, Bulgaria, where my sister Pam was teaching. I bought some insanely delicate glass ornaments there.
I’ve never seen anything like them, before or since. When I sat down to write this post, I googled Bulgarian ornaments, hoping to get some info on where they were made. But instead I was directed to cheesy sites selling images of Bulgaria, probably mass-produced in China….
So I have no idea if these quirky (and highly breakable) ornaments are still being made in Bulgaria. I get them out each year, though. Aside from the kitty-cat missing an ear, they’re all intact.
Wishing everyone the blessings of the holiday season. Do whatever you need to in order to make the occasion joyous. Happy holidays, and see you all in 2019.
The rest of us will be enjoying Schadenfreude, the fine art of taking pleasure in someone else’s humiliation.
Anyone who follows Game of Thrones (if you haven’t heard of it, you live in a cave somewhere) knows about the infamous Walk of Shame. Cersei was forced to parade naked through the streets while the locals –always happy to take part in a public spectacle – threw hard objects and body fluids at her.  We watched in horrified fascination!
I thought that was a great scene and a nicely creative bit of Schadenfreude script writing. It seemed like a new version of the old tradition of locking up criminals in stocks for public shaming. Until, in the space of 24 hours, I visited not one but two places where the Walk of Shame really did occur as official ‘justice’…
In the Pfalz region of Germany, history is writ large for the little town of Schifferstadt. Let’s start with the Bronze Age. In 1835, the amazing 3,400-year-old Golden Hat of Schifferstadt was found by a farmer named Josef Eckrich. 
This Golden Hat is the oldest Bronze Age magical headdress ever found and was worn around 1400-1300 BC. Only four Golden Hats are known to exist, and this one was deliberately buried.
Schifferstadt’s local church St. Jacobus is over a thousand years old, dating back to 1101. It’s an imposing Romanesque sandstone edifice with a lovely wooden ceiling.
It contains an unusual crucifix, displaying three figures rather than only Christ, and includes a woman in the depiction.
Schifferstadt’s Town Hall is sweet, charming and historic. It was built in 1558 and is one of the oldest and most beautiful Rathäuser in the Rheinpfalz region.
But don’t let the beauty fool you. The Town Hall could be the site of gruesome cruelty. It served as the court of justice and trials took place upstairs. Conveniently, the building also contained a prison; a pillory and working dungeon were utilized under the stairs.
Outside, the corner of this charming building was put to use for punishments of a more public nature. Once found guilty of a crime, you were paraded in disgrace through the streets. When you arrived at the Rathaus, you perched on the stone pediment/platform (ingeniously constructed right on the building) to endure the jeers and abuse of your fellow townspeople.
In my next post I’ll tell you about another glorious spot known for its Walk of Shame. God, I love history….
NOTES:  Body fluids. Yuck.  Josef Eckrich sold the Golden Hat for 570 Gulden. 120 of these Gulden were paid in a reward from König Ludwig I, who wanted it for his Staatssammlung (collection). For more information on these astonishing magical hats go to Jaunting Jen, Ancient History Et Cetera, or Wikipedia: Golden Hat
At the end of August I made a visit to the Pfalz region of Germany with friends. We went to visit friends of my friends (if you follow). The couple I’ll call Josef and Beate showed us around the historic city of Speyer. The Speyer Cathedral is the most important Romanesque church on the planet.
A bold boast, but true. For starters, it contains the world’s largest Romanesque crypt. The crypt has been described as ‘the most sublime monument on German ground.”  Speyer is the last resting place of both kings and emperors. The Pope had to crown a king (always men, natch) for him to be officially titled Holy Roman Emperor. Depending on political conditions, the Pope might – or might not – name the ruler “Imperator Romanum”.
The oldest grave belongs to Emperor Conrad II, who died in 1039. Take that date in for a moment. This church was consecrated almost a millenium ago. And it’s built on the site of an older church, founded hundreds of years earlier. Speyer is the heart of ancient Germany.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl came from the Pfalz and is memorialized with a plaque in front of the cathedral. Kohl was notorious for bringing dignitaries to admire the cathedral and then making them eat Saumagen for lunch. 
Speyer’s Cathedral was placed on the UNESCOWorld Heritage List in 1981. Yes, the breathtaking and harmonious proportions make this a site and sight to see. But what really blew my mind was the story of Josef, which he told me as he showed me around the cathedral and the crypt.
He spent much of his childhood in a boys’ home run by nuns, just around the corner from the church. The sisters had plans for him to become a priest. Each Sunday he served as altar boy, taking part in the church services.  Then he met Beate, the woman who has been his wife for 52 years, and that took care of that.
As we stood at the high altar Josef talked about the years after his mother died and he came to live as part of the religious community. I looked out over the vast interior of the Cathedral and almost felt dizzy. Yikes. This wasn’t some great monument for him. He wasn’t describing a thousand of years of history; he’s literally at home here. This grand space helped formed him as a human being. Josef, his story, and the soaring church are beautiful.
NOTES:  – German poet Reinhold Schneider.  Saumagen is the German version of Scottish haggis. Instead of suet and sausage in a sheep’s intestine, the Pfalz version uses pig’s stomach. I’ve tried it, and it’s not bad. Tasty, even.  Josef is 74 years old, so the services would have been conducted in Latin.
November 11th, or 11/11, is an odd German holiday known as St. Martin’s Day (Martinstag). St. Martin of Tours (316 – 297 CE) is a saint associated with modesty and altruism (aren’t they all?). Legend has it that St. Martin slashed his cloak in half to save a homeless person from freezing. His holiday used to be followed by a fast that lasted a long, hungry period of weeks, stretching out to Christmas. 
But St. Martin’s Day is celebrated here in southern Germany by eating a special dish of duck or goose (Martinsgans), accompanied by red cabbage cooked with apple, and homemade dumplings known as knödel.
When it gets dark, nighttime glows with candles from lantern processions (Martinsumzüge or Laternenumzüge). The streets fill with adults, accompanying children who carry hand-made lanterns. In our village the procession is led by an actor dressed up as the saint. In some areas the parade follows behind an actor dressed up as a Roman soldier on horseback. 
The tradition to eat a goose (today usually replaced by a duck) on St. Martin’s Day is believed to go back the medieval tax system. November 11th was one of the days when medieval vassals had to pay taxes, and peasants often paid with a goose.  Another popular story is that a gaggle of honking geese betrayed Martin’s hiding place: he hid in a goose pen from the people of Tours when they wanted to make him a bishop. 
All the local restaurants and beer gardens have duck and goose dishes on their menus. Reserve your table now! they cajole.
In all the years I lived in San Francisco, I never ordered or willingly ate duck. Bizarrely shiny, glistening, reddish shellacked duck carcasses hang on meat hooks in the front windows of Chinese restaurants throughout the city. And hang. And hang. And hang. Just the idea of the oldness and congealed fat covered with flies of this ‘special dish’ turned my stomach. Strongly flavored meat that’s been aging for probably as long as the restaurant’s been in business? Yuck! I’ll take a pass…
But I recall with glee the Peking duck Uwe and I ate in Beijing. The restaurant specialized in only Peking duck, along with all the pomp and circumstance such a dish demands.
Our Chinese friend Weiyu orders for us, but every single table wants the same meal. Waiters are formally dressed, complete with chefs’ toques, mouth masks and protective gloves. By the end of the evening they carve hundreds of plates of duck.
May November 11th bring you flights of fancy and a visit from the Bluebird of Happiness. By now the ducks and geese, indeed, all migrating birds have already left for warmer climates. Despite the record-breaking warm days here in Germany, winter is coming (yes, we hear you John Snow).
We’re enchanted with bodies of water. Yes, the Amazon River is definitely on our wish list…. We love them all, from the impossibly old cultures and antiquities found along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt to the remote beauty and haunting calls of loons on the back trails of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks, to the ever changing scenery along the Mekong.
The Mekong River defines Laos in many ways. Laos is a landlocked country, but visitors forget this fact because the river runs the length of the land. When it reaches the southernmost border to Cambodia, the Mekong River divides up into a landscape of fast-running parallel streams.
It’s a quiet region, frequented mostly by nature lovers and stoners (see the first half of this post for some details on thataspect of travel).
Locals still go fishing in what looked like awkward and probably highly dangerous but effective fashion.
The Mekong River is wide and sleepy in places up north. Here, though, the river definitely rolls and tumbles. This method of fishing is surely the smartest way to work with the force of the waters and guarantee a good catch.
Here are some reasons why you should visit Southern Laos: the sweetness of a part of the world that isn’t in a hurry and has spectacular scenery.
The chance to get into areas that are still relatively untouched by mass tourism.
The natural world: biologists and botanists continue to discover new species. And the flora and fauna that Laos contains are beautiful.
Plus you never know when you’ll sail into the middle of a local festival. We literally did just that as we headed down river from Pakse to reach 4,000 Islands. A long boat race was going on, and Uwe and I didn’t need to be asked twice if we wanted to stay for a while and watch.
We booked our trip with a gentle young guide and a variety of boats. The infrastructure is simple compared to Germany or Hong Kong, but with cell phones and patience it all went smoothly. When you’re in a place as lovely as Laos is, it’s all good.
On our last trip to Laos we headed south to the quiet little city of Pakse in the Chapasak province. We wanted to see old ruins – and really spectacular waterfalls!
For the latter we booked a guide to reach the Bolaven Plateau. Hiking in to some of the waterfalls was a gloriously steep, wet walk.
Later, with the same guide (and boats) we were carried to 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don). I was beyond amused to notice the signs on some of the guesthouses in 4,000 Islands, announcing that special, magical pancakes were available for breakfast…. My German husband missed the inference and asked why I was laughing. “Guests can get their pancakes laced with the noble herb,” I informed him.  Sure enough, plenty of tourists in the 4,000 Islands region spent all their time literally hanging out in hammocks. They were all way too relaxed – or something – to be ambitious. They were in no hurry to explore.
The Mekong River splits into branches at this end of Laos and tumbles over boulders and channels cut through rock.
When the French colonized Laos they came up with a bold (and ultimately quixotic) plan to build a railway through the region. They wanted to go around the waterfalls and create a faster, easier way to travel and ship goods either to the north, or to the southern Vietnam port of Saigon. The result is what a CNN article wryly refered to as “Laos’ first railway: 14 km of rust” .
The Mekong defeated the engineers, and 4,000 Islands is a beautiful sleepy area.
But the waterfalls on the Bolaven Plateau. We hiked in to as many as our young guide was willing to take us to.
I’ve written before about travel karma.  You know, that sense of crushing inevitability when the tour bus arrives late because of the traffic, and it’s crowded, and the guy in the seat behind you won’t stop whining, and you’re about to turn around and open your mouth and give him something to really complain about. Travel karma is a bitch.
It can also be awesome. Uwe and I spent a too-short week on Gran Canaria, and we ate twice with Guillermo Ramirez. But let me back up.
Eating is a major aspect of traveling with my spousal unit. If you see us poring over the guide books, we’re probably checking out the historic, cultural, and Nature highlights of wherever we are.
I can guarantee you we’ve already scoped out all the good places to eat! Gran Canaria was no exception, and Uwe found a highly praised locale kitty-corner to our hotel. Hungry, on Thursday we headed over to Restaurante de Cuchara and entered a small family restaurant, probably 12 tables max. The owners greeted guests like old friends (most of them were) and only the owners’ handsome son Guillermo spoke English. He took it upon himself to serve us each course – which he was also cooking – and explained each dish with pride. The meal was great. I’ve retained a little of my high school and college Spanish (moving to Germany and having to learn Deutsch highjacked most of the foreign language area of my brain). But I could read the flier on our table that said Restaurante de Cuchara was serving a special six-course menu on Saturday.
Even before we finished dinner, we’d made a reservation for the coming Saturday. We got the last free table.
On Saturday night Guillermo again brought each course to our table and told us how he’d prepared them. Our meals cost a grand 30€ apiece.
Here are some of the dishes we ate those nights: A fermented, champagne-style gazpacho. Rabbit in a roll that you ate with your hands. Melt-in-your-mouth croquettes of suckling lamb. Grilled Canarian cheese with tomato jam. Quail stew with chickpeas. Cod fish Bras style. Canarian pork cheeks stew. Duck breasts. Pickled cucumber on edamame purée.
I was dying to ask him a question. When he came with our desserts I said, “We’ve been wondering if we might ask you, where did you train as a chef?” He smiled. “NOMA, in Copenhagen. I worked for a while in Bangkok, too.” NOMA! We knew NOMA has been repeatedly rated the best restaurant in the world. 
Guillermo was back on Gran Canaria for a few months, helping out in his parents’ restaurant. This particular dining experience was a way to show off what he could do with local ingredients and creativity. I told him that I blog and would be writing about him. I added, with absolute certainty, that I think he’ll be famous someday. His cooking is that good.
No, I didn’t receive a discount for saying I’d write a rave review. And yeah, travel karma. Sometimes you hit it just right.
NOTES:  I wrote about travel karma in a post I unimaginatively titled Travel Karma  NOMA was rated the Best Restaurant in the World in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
I have no idea if Señor Guillermo Ramirez is still in the kitchen, but here’s the contact info for this tasty restaurant. Restaurante de Cuchara, C/. Alfredo L. Jones, 37; Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Tel: 928 26 55 09. Their website: Restaurante de Cuchara
6 October 2018 update… Note to anyone lucky enough to be heading to Gran Canaria: Guillermo informed me that he’s opened a new restaurant named Picaro. Here is the link: Restaurante PicaroIf you are in Las Palmas, go!
NOTE: I first published this post 5 years ago. I reprint it as a prayer for our world. —Jadi
The anniversary of 9/11 is just a few days away.
I was back in the States when the attack occurred. When I returned to Germany a few weeks later, I was in turmoil. I felt all the contradictions of my life. I’m a resident alien on another continent. I’ve been the target of instant hate when someone found out I’m American. This only has to happen once to convince you that prejudice is awful. What the hell was I doing so far away from my own country? What was going on in the world, and could anywhere feel safe? It seemed like everything was getting sucked into a swirling vortex. My identity as a US citizen, as a foreigner, as a human being, came crashing down.
A few months later my epidemiologist friend Elena came to Europe for a conference. I took an unplanned trip to Amsterdam with her. Maybe 2 days away would give me a break from how heavy life felt. Below is the account from those 2 days and how they affected me:
“I people-watch as we travel to Holland. On a German train near the border, the train car is full of local residents heading home. An African couple talk over their baby. Another young couple sit by me with their own child. The wife’s exquisite black scarf frames her face. Her husband reads from a small leather bound Koran. Both of them keep an eye on the baby carriage. The rest of the car is full with the usual students, professionals, commuters.
An old man goes into the WC. Later the door slides open without his realizing it. He stands helpless, then fumbles at the door. We all see the prosthetic leg strapped to his upper thigh. Everyone looks away. The door slides open again and he looks up, stricken. I rise and go to the door and close it. When the door inevitably opens again a few minutes later, the man with the Koran closes it for him.
A cell phone rings. The African man pulls out his phone and answers, then switches to English. I realize they’ve understood every word of the conversations Elena and I have been having about global health issues, world politics, and travel.
The woman in the headscarf looks at me steadily. When she finally catches my eye she holds me in a gaze of tenderness and our connectedness as human beings. We see one another for a few minutes, and then the train stops and they detrain.
The train reaches Amsterdam. I’ve been here before and always feel as if I’m coming home to an old friend. We walk along the canal streets, and brick building facades reflect in the Amstel as it flows under the bridges. The Egyptian bellhop at the hotel asks where we’re from. “I love this city! You meet people from all over the world,” he declares.
In 2 days Elena flies back to the US. Later that morning I stand waiting to catch the tram from our hotel. A dark-haired woman at the street bus stop carries a backpack. I offer her my tram pass; I won’t need it beyond the central train station. She thanks me, but says she’s heading home. She’s an Israeli airline stewardess, in Amsterdam for a few days’ holiday.
“I live in Tel Aviv, and I’m afraid to go out of my house,” she tells me. “Everyone is scared of more terrorist attacks there. The situation is out of control.” I listen to her and say, “The rest of the world says, ‘just make peace!’ If only it were so easy.”
Once I’m on board my train I read a Newsweek, then dive back into a novel. The quiet man next to me asks in English if this train stops at the Frankfurt airport. I offer him the magazine. We begin to talk: he is Iranian, in Germany for an international banking and finance conference. He lectures at the University of Cardiff. His wife is a dentist, he tells me. They live in Britain and go back to Iran, to their home in the northeast by the mountains at the Afghani border, each summer for vacation.
He lifts the suitcase at his feet and sets it on his lap. Opening it, he pulls out framed photographs of 2 smiling boys. “These are my children.” We discuss their names, their ages, their personalities. At the airport station he leaves for his flight, and I wish him a safe trip home.
The woman sitting across from us changes trains with me in Mannheim. We stand shivering in the evening air on the platform. She is a Dutch physical therapist, doing an apprenticeship in Munich. She asks what I think of Holland. We talk about the coffee shops. I mention the small scale that guides decision-making in her country. I give her my leftover Dutch coins and she buys the tram pass from me.
Late that night I finally arrive home. In the space of 48 hours I touched on what seemed to be the entire planet. And I didn’t learn the names of any of the people who talked to me.
Travel isn’t just seeing and exploring other countries and cultures or the threads that weave those peoples’ histories with the present. Travel is the journey we make every day into other people, other lives, other ways of being and thinking and feeling.
Travel is about the interconnectedness of us all. Each person with whom we interact leaves behind traces that can change the world. Travel is about holding onto hope.
A part of me remains in every place I’ve ever stood. My image was impressed in a snow angel I made up in the Arctic Circle, which vanished years ago. But who can say if some part of my spirit still wavers there like the Northern Lights? Or in my interactions with all those people on the trains between Stuttgart and Amsterdam? I don’t know…. but we should live as if every act matters, as if choosing to love and be open to the rest of the world and each other can transform us.”
Somewhere my father is grinning with approval at my never-ending blog thread for him! I present installment #26 describing what to call groups of animals … See how many you can guess. Answers listed at the bottom of the page.
“Don’t put the lies on me!” Margaret began, but Lou refused to let her interrupt him now that he was finally describing the truth.
“Oh, come on. Admit it, Margaret. Thinking I had some tragic event in my past, or wait, even better, a tragic flaw somewhere in my own genes that a dead twin inherited and lived out to the bitter tragic end, rather than me – thinking those things made you look at me twice. Three times. But when you get down to it, the human condition is the same for everybody. We’re all either hit and run victims or slowly dying of chronic mortality.
“After the first story it just got harder and harder to tell the truth. I was going to cop to it, the very next time we met for a date, but you were so insistent on hearing about Joey. Suddenly you were interested in him, and really by extension, in me. The tragic survivor who’d lost the identical twin he was nothing like but boy were they close.”
“The factoids about twins and genetics?”
“Googled,” he admitted. “But the postcards are real. I did actually collect them in the dreams of making a Grand Tour.”
“You, not Joey,” she spat the words.
“Me, Joey, it’s the same thing, you mean you still don’t get it? Whatever you want to name Joey’s hopes and dreams: if I made them up, I realized something over the course of doing that. They’re all mine. My dreams, my hopes, my wishes for a life I didn’t have. You helped me see what I really wanted to be, but never had the courage to go after. Margaret, I changed my life because of you and because of Joey both! I even planned on buying us tickets for a Europe trip, the one I told you Joey always planned to go on, but more importantly the one I might have liked, too!
“Fuck me,” he cursed violently. “I’ve gone along being so content to be safe in a normal, middle class life. I like this life. I want a decent paying, steady job, and a partner to love. The house with the white picket fence. A shaggy dog, and the tire swing for the kids strung up in the back yard. All of it.
“I want all those things,” Lou repeated. “But thinking about Joey made me think about all the other things that might be out there, too.”
“He doesn’t even exist!” Margaret shrieked. “He’s a figment of your imagination! Worse, he’s based on a stuffed elephant.” She stuffed her keys back into her coat pocket and grabbed her purse. “I’m going to Ginny’s. Pack your things while I’m gone. I don’t think I want to talk to you or see you for a while.” Margaret made a wide circle around the part of the room where Lou stood, and the door clicked shut.
Lou crouched, picking up the fallen postcards on the floor. Carefully Lou collected the images. What he’d told her was true. In the course of constructing a more and more elaborate lie about an identical twin, who died, Lou had listed all of the qualities and personality traits he secretly wished were his. Oh, not the tragic genetic defects, of course; but even those had become precious. They had set his imaginary doppelgänger apart and made him special.
In the embroidering of their story, his and Joey’s, Lou had slowly inhabited that figure. At first he’d worried about convincing Margaret, afraid the deception would be noted. But she fell in love with him as the surviving, desolate half. Little by little, Lou did more than imagine himself in the role. Lou dug around in the dirt of his nonexistent twin’s grave. Out of the Petrie dish of that humus he rewrote his DNA code, twisting the strands anew.
What would you be if you could be anything? If you could rebuild your past, your family, the developmental arc of your genetic arrangement, what would it look like? Lou had dived into the conundrum and slowly constructed a human being who was still himself, boring, dull, predictable, good enough but not spectacular; and yet, so much more than the sum of his parts.
Lou retrieved the last postcard from underneath the coffee table. Lost in thought and regret, Lou shuffled them together and dropped them in a pile. God and Adam looked up at him, hands stretching out to meet.