Sunday, December 30, 2012

One Year Later: Essen Beer Festival

We've been very busy the past few weeks! We visited Antwerp again. It was the same as I remember: bustling, slightly gritty, and interesting. We've had some really good luck with restaurants during our visits to Antwerp. This time we had dinner at El Warda, a Moroccan restaurant. The atmosphere was relaxed and jovial, service was excellent, and our food was delicious. We began with a sampler of twelve dips for bread. Each one was unique and it was fun to experience all of the different flavors. We both had tagines for our main courses and then finished off with traditional mint tea and a small dessert.
Moroccan Sampler Dish

We spent the next day slogging through Antwerp's rainy streets. We were mainly just wasting time until our afternoon train to Essen, home of the annual Kerstbierfestival. We attended last year (Antwerp and a Beer Festival) and it remains one of the highlights of our travels. We stopped at two of Antwerp's Christmas markets and then settled at a cafe to get a jump-start on our Belgian beer tasting and fill our stomachs with a nice cushion of spaghetti bolognese.

Taking the train from Antwerp Central Station was fun. The station is beautiful and the regional train we took was a classic style that brought to mind scenes of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express. After a pleasant 40-minute ride through picturesque Belgian villages, we arrived in Essen and boarded the charter bus to take us to the high school gymnasium that houses the beer festival. 

Pulling into the parking lot was nostalgic and I thought of us at this time last year, fresh to Europe and still confused about lots of things. My sister was visiting and we had a great time sampling beers we'd never heard of and making friends with other festival attendees. 

O.B.E.R. Festival in Essen, Belgium
Our experience this year was mostly the same although we were more informed about the beers this time. Last year was more of a free-for-all because we hadn't had the time to cultivate our repertoire of Belgian beers yet. After getting our first samples, we wandered around searching for a place to sit among the long tables in the center of the gym. Finally someone left and we snagged a prime people-watching position. Before long, we were joined by a Dutchman and several of his friends on one side, and a Belgian and Englishman on the other. 

The usual questions were asked of us: "Are you here on holiday?" "Will you be staying long?" "What brings you to Europe?" "How did you find this festival in the middle of nowhere?"

With undisguised pride, we informed all of them, "Oh, you know, we were here last year. We're staying in Antwerp tonight. Lovely city. Good food."

Beer and cheese. Yes, please.
Once we established that we could hold our own (ground and beer), the conversation shifted easily between topics including other worthy beer festivals in the region, American television, Dutch and Belgian languages, marriage, and American gun laws. Where else but a beer festival in a high school gym could complete strangers discuss such riveting subjects? 

Last year we met some people who lived in the area. They were very kind and invited us to sit with them at their table. We spent several hours talking and laughing. One of the reasons we were excited to return this year is because of the possibility of seeing them again. We were disappointed when we didn't find them at their usual table as soon as we arrived. 

A few hours into it, my husband got up to retrieve a some more beers and he returned with some winter ales and one of our old friends. He had approached my husband and asked if we were the Americans who sat with him and his friends the past year. We were so happy to see him and he immediately joined us. We quickly noticed that he was without his group so we asked about his good friend and their wives. His expression darkened and he said, "Well, that's a very sad thing. He died a few months ago. Heart attack, completely unexpected." His eyes briefly filled with tears and he wiped them away quickly before taking a sip of his beer. 

It was a very sad thing to hear. We couldn't believe such a vibrant man had been taken before his time. It was almost absurd that he was there last year, in the same room, sitting with us and enjoying life and now he was gone. His friend told us it was too painful for their wives to attend this year because it's something they always did together. He had come to honor his memory and have a few beers in his name. It was a sobering reminder of how short life really is, of how you can be here one minute and gone the next. But it wasn't really his style to be mournful. He was soon telling us about his new grandson and how happy he is to be a grandfather-- another reminder, this time of how life goes on and there is joy for every sorrow. I was very happy to see our old friend, and very moved as well.

Soon it was time to bid adieu to the Objective Beer Drinkers of the Essen Region. We shook hands with our friend and told him we'll see him next year. Then we took the train back to Antwerp but this time we weren't alone, as our Belgian and English friends joined us. The ride back went by much faster and we were a little sad to part ways at Antwerp Central. 

We had a wonderful time in Antwerp and at the beer festival. I want to return every year because there are always new beers to try, new friends to meet, and old friends to see. 

You won't hear from me for several days but I hope you have a very Happy New Year! We'll begin 2013 Italian-style, in Milan! 

Frohes Neues Jahr!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Liege Christmas Village

We visited Liege earlier this year ('How do I describe you, Liege?'). We decided to return for the Christmas Village, the oldest and largest in Belgium.

It was a very frigid day. The sun never shone and the wind was biting but all sorts of food and beverage vendors were on hand to warm the cockles of our hearts. In fact, the lasting impression I have of Liege's Christmas Village is the food and drink. We've come to expect delicious vittles and amazing beer when we go to Belgium and we certainly weren't disappointed. There were stalls touting bratwurst, pommes frites slathered in mayonnaise, hot chocolate made with the finest Belgian varieties, foie gras, and delicious winter ales and fruit beers.

Some stalls were conveniently set up outside of the parking garage, on the route to the main Christmas village. The vendors at these stalls were a little more aggressive since they were off the beaten path. My husband's new obsession these days is sausage. He spends a lot of time wending his way from stall to stall, happily plucking samples off the tips of knives and always offering appreciative, "Mmmmms" and, "Wow, this is the best sausage I've ever tasted." After these endorsements, I see the sausage sellers' eyes grow large and they look at us expectantly, practically bursting at the seams and waiting to shout, "The whole lot can be yours! For a million Euros!"

Most of the time we just walk away, leaving behind very disappointed people who probably don't understand why we were so enthusiastic but didn't purchase anything.

So I wasn't surprised when my husband wandered off and tasted a sample from a boisterous man who insisted I also try some. "Yum," I said, as I prepared to continue our stroll. But it was too late. My husband had already began nodding his head enthusiastically and exclaiming, "Delicious! Incredible!"

The salesman quickly began his pitch in rapid-fire French. I could make out a few words but then had to politely say, "Je ne comprends pas." He only slightly paused before he said, "Ahhhhh... d'accord." Then he continued to speak in French as he described the different kinds of meat used to make his sausages. When we failed to nod or feign competency, he resorted to making animal noises. He pointed at one bundle. "Heehaw, heehaw!" he brayed. "Donkey!" I shouted. "Oui, oui!" he said, even though I'm not sure he understood the word donkey. "Baaaah, baaaaah," he yelled. "Sheep!" we cried in unison.

It went on like this for a few more animals before my husband pointed to one and the man said, "Originale!"

"Ok!" exclaimed my husband. "We'll take it!"

I whipped my head toward him and motioned to the sign clearly stating: 37.75 Euros per kilo. I saw the fear pass quickly on his face and he motioned to Monsieur Sausage that we only wanted a small portion of the log.

"Ahhhh... non, non, monsieur. Demi?" I knew demi meant half and I realized that the sausage could only be purchased as a whole or a half.

"That's fine!" said my husband.
I furtively whispered, "Look at it! Half of that is still going to be almost a kilo. This will be nearly 30 Euros."
"Nah, it won't be that much," he said assuredly.

After a lot of fancy cutting, folding, wrapping, and tying with twine, Monsieur produced our package of sausage and the receipt. 27 Euros.

I saw my husband cringe as he handed over 30 Euros. "Au revoir!" called the man, as he gave us our whopping 3 Euros in change.

We vowed to be more conservative with our money for the rest of the day.

A pleasant 5-minute walk brought us to the Christmas Village. It looked much the same as all of the other markets we've been to in the past month. Rows of stalls lined the Place Saint-Lambert. Wafts of street food filled the air and small bands marched through the village blaring holiday tunes from their trumpets and clarinets.

Liege Christmas Village Band
All the sausage talk had whet our appetites and our first snacks were crusty baguettes with four different melted goat cheeses, and homemade garlic pesto topped with sliced tomatoes. It was absolutely divine and provided the perfect cushion for our first beers.

We chose wisely with a sampler from the Brasserie des Geants. My favorite was the Ducassis, a fruity beer made from real blackcurrant berries. I'm not typically a big fan of fruit beers because they're usually too sweet but Ducassis is an exception. This is the best fruit beer I've ever had.

The perfect snack and most delicious fruit beer!
After quenching our appetites and thirst, we made our way around the village. All of the usual suspects were for sale. Candies, ornaments, wind chimes, scarves, and hats beckoned to us as we passed. It was all interesting but I must admit, we were mostly taken by the food and beer. We took a few more cursory laps to justify another stop. This time it was for chocolate-covered marshmallows.

We came to terms with the fact that we were just going to spend the rest of our time in Liege being gluttons. I think the sausage is what started it.

From the chocolate we moved onto more beer. Val-Dieu is an Abbey beer. I enjoyed the brown while my husband had the Christmas beer. We certainly needed them to wash down the cheesy concoction we ordered from the monk inside the Val-Dieu stall. The best way I can describe it is scalloped potatoes with chunks of ham slathered with gooey swiss-type cheese. Healthy, it was not. But we were already long past the point of return.

The sun sets early here during the winter and we only had time for one more stop at the Brasseri des Geants stall for another Ducassis. Why not?

So what did we take away from the Christmas Village in Liege? Full bellies and a nice, clean buzz from all of the delicious Belgian beer. It's certainly worth the trip.

Nearly a week later, we've only managed to make a small dent in that 30-Euro sausage. C'est la vie, as I'm sure Monsieur Sausage would say.

On the menu at the 'American Trip' stall.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Saga of the Snowmen

Winter is officially upon us! Last year it didn't snow here until very late in the season and even then it was just a dusting. I was very surprised when it began snowing last week! I was even more surprised when the snow stayed on the ground and piled up enough to build a snowman!

My husband grew up in the Midwest so he's an expert at skiing, shoveling, and snowmen. I spent all of my life (before Germany) in the South where I became an expert at swatting mosquitoes, driving Four Wheelers, and eating boiled peanuts. To make up for lost time, I was determined to build my first snowman on my own. My husband stood back on the sidewalk and shouted helpful instructions and encouraging words. We even had carrots and coal handy for the nose, eyes, and mouth. I named him Maxwell.

Maxwell, My First Snowman
I was very proud of the finished product and I posed beside it in a photo shoot in front of the house. I patted myself on the back for a job well done and went inside to warm up and email all of my family and friends back home to brag about my accomplishment.

Less than ten minutes later, my husband opened the curtains facing the front yard to look out at Maxwell. He gasped and said in a low voice, "Someone knocked him over."

I thought he was joking and I was still smiling when I reached the window. Then I saw it: a crumpled, snowy mass with the imprint of the perpetrators' boots. Luckily his face was still mostly intact. I was able to identify Maxwell by his carrot.

Maxwell's Crumpled Face
We stood at the window, our shocked faces reflecting back at us. Ridiculously, I felt the urge to cry since I'd waited so long to build my first snowman and it had been viciously murdered in a few moments. My husband comfortingly put his arm around me and said, "Let's rebuild it."

"No," I almost sobbed. "I've already gotten warm and my toes almost fell off the first time because it's so cold. I can't... I don't have the strength."

He nodded sympathetically and turned back to the sight of the massacre. Suddenly his gaze turned from solemnity to anger and he raised one fist in the air and yelled, "WE SHALL REBUILD HIM!!!" Okay, those weren't his exact words but it was definitely a rallying cry.

He bolted from the room, threw on his coat and gloves, and marched outside to begin Maxwell 2.0. It all happened so fast and I was still standing at the window when I saw him emerge from a corner of the house, pushing a huge pile of snow that was quickly becoming the size of a boulder. I got dressed and stepped outside gingerly as he passed me again, the base growing larger and larger. After another push he turned to me and said gravely, "Get another carrot."

I chose the best carrot we had. By the time I made it back outside, the base was up and it was mighty. He was already working on the middle and colorfully narrating.
"Those little punks will learn not to mess with us! They're amateurs! They don't know I grew up in Chicago!!"

We were huffing and puffing with such gusto that several of our neighbors slowed their cars to watch the spectacle. As each car passed, we eyed them suspiciously and wondered if they (or their punk kids) were the culprits.

I cheered and clapped when Maxwell 2.0 was finally finished. My husband wiped a snowy, gloved hand across his sweating brow and said, "I'm not done yet."

Maxwell 2.0

He erected a "pedestal" beside the new snowman and placed Maxwell's head on top of it. As he hoisted the head on top, he said, "When they walk by, I want to make sure they see what they've done!"

As a final touch, he sprinkled everything with water and declared, "I want this to be here when everything else has melted. It will be a testament to our perseverance in this neighborhood!"

We kept vigil for the remainder of the evening. My husband had his running shoes ready at the door and he was prepared to chase down anyone who attempted to sabotage our snowmen. The night passed uneventfully, except for all of the cars slowing down so the passengers could stare.

After living here for over a year, most of our neighbors will acknowledge us. I wouldn't say they're particularly friendly but at least most of them nod as we pass each other while walking or driving. It took over half a year to even reach this point. Everyone keeps their yards meticulously trimmed and landscaped, and we really do try our best. I don't sweep the sidewalks or wash the windows like a good German hausfrau but our little corner of the neighborhood is presentable.

Oftentimes, people allow their dogs to relieve themselves in our yard and we also discover trash tossed into our yard and on the pathway leading to our door. We try to tell ourselves that it isn't because we're American but sometimes it's hard to think of any other reason  because no one else's yard is disrespected in those ways.

I treasure the experience we have in this country and I feel very fortunate to call Germany my host home. But  I know that even if we lived here forever, we would always be "the Americans" in the neighborhood. I must admit that it felt amazing to finally have a way to say, "You can let your dogs poop in our yard and you can even throw your candy wrappers in front of our door, but you WILL NOT tear down our snowman!"

The spirit of America is alive and well within us!

Incidentally, the original Maxwell fell off the pedestal on his own the next day. All of the snow melted a few days later but Maxwell 2.0 lorded over the yard, tall and white... in a blanket of verdant grass.

Perhaps this little stand will put an end to the dogs and litter in our yard. At the very least, the rest of the neighborhood now thinks we're crazy and that kind of thinking can inspire a kind of fear of its own. All I know is that there will now be a dark spot on that grass and it will forever remind us of December 7, 2012: The day the Americans took back their yard.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christmas Market Madness

Christmas market season is upon us! I love everything about the markets: the lights, decorations, food, and gluhwein. In fact, I was so excited about the markets that I somehow convinced myself (and then my husband) that the market in Aachen opened Thanksgiving weekend. That Sunday, we drove over to Aachen with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads.

The streets were mostly empty and we passed a lone vendor selling roasted chestnuts before we came upon the city center. All of the booths were in position but we were a week early. Oops. We stood there in the cold rain as I sheepishly looked at the ground. Suddenly I remembered another market!

"Okay, so maybe I got Aachen wrong. But I know the Valkenburg markets opened today!" I exclaimed proudly.
"What makes you so sure? Did you read about that one, just like you supposedly read about this one?" asked my husband.
"Yes... well, I'm about 78% sure. I was 100% sure but now I don't feel comfortable with my odds. Anyway, we have to pass by the exit on the way home so we might as well check."

With renewed optimism (on my part), we hopped back into the car and made our way to Valkenburg. Signs on the highway pointed toward the Kerstmarkt and I felt as if I'd saved the day!

Peter Pan and Captain Hook made their
way into the decorations.
The tiny village's streets were difficult to navigate because of all of the people. At least we knew we were in the right place. After we finally found parking, we paid admission to go into the first cave market. We'd been in the caves before for the guided tours but it was really interesting to see the marlstone walls lit up by Christmas lights and festooned with decorations. I must be honest and admit I wasn't very impressed with most of the wares. I expected handmade Christmas ornaments and unique Dutch items. Instead, there were a lot of vendors offering kitschy jewelry and overpriced (and imported) scarves and hats. Compared to the German markets, it was a little disappointing but the unique setting was a fair compensation.

I certainly never thought I'd be drinking gluhwein in a cave.

Cafe in a cave.
There are two caves in Valkenburg and both have markets for Christmas. We paid to go into the second one to make sure we experienced everything. The second market boasted the same vendors as the first. My advice would be to choose one cave and stick with it, especially since both charge admission. Unless of course you want to continue drinking gluhwein among the marlstone. It's not a bad idea.

The next weekend was the opening of the Aachen Christmas market-- I checked and double-checked to be absolutely sure. We decided to go on Saturday and fight our way through the throngs of people.

Aachen Christmas Market
Everything was exactly as I remembered. The Aachener Dom provided a breathtaking backdrop for the colorful stalls. Handmade ornaments and children's toys, wooden boxes and leather wallets, lace doilies and dainty earrings, a partridge in a pear tree... anything you could possibly imagine was for sale. We spent several hours wandering around and warming ourselves with gluhwein.

Even after a year, Aachen is still one of my favorite cities here.

Before we knew it, the next weekend (this past one) was upon us. Because of my market hysteria, I can't let a weekend pass without visiting one. We loved Monschau so much that we decided to return for its market. We were enthralled once again by the half-timbered houses and gurgling creeks. This is what a German village is supposed to look like.

We managed to complete most of our Christmas shopping in Monschau. The wares were basically the same as in Aachen-- except for the mustard. I'm not ashamed to say that we greedily re-stocked our supply of Monschau mustard. We bought with abandon, as if we expect a mustard shortage and can't bear the thought of naked bratwursts. Speaking of bratwurst, we stopped at a tiny station with just one man at the helm of the grill. With fanfare, he produced two perfectly-grilled bratwursts carefully decorated with mustard and said, "This is the best bratwurst at the market!" It was the best bratwurst I've ever tasted. Bratwurst are typically served inside a brotchen (roll). I usually don't like the brotchen because it's too hard and difficult to gnaw through, but this brotchen was slightly heated and it crumbled deliciously. That bratwurst alone is almost reason enough to go to the Monschau market.
Roasted Chestnuts!

I also ate my first roasted chestnuts! They were very meaty. Jack Frost was nipping at my nose as I nibbled on the chestnuts roasting on an open fire. My visions of a Bing Crosby Christmas have been fulfilled.

Our next stop on the whirlwind Christmas market tour will be somewhere in Belgium. I feel the need to experience Christmas in the tri-border area thoroughly. And now that we are well into December, I know for sure that all of the markets will be open.

We had our first dusting of snow here on Monday. It didn't stick but it was lovely as it fell. This week the weather has been mostly unpleasant: freezing rain, dark clouds, and cold wind. Fortunately the Christmas markets are lovely despite rain, snow, and clouds. By the end of the season I'll have had my fill of bratwurst and gluhwein. Until then, onto the next market!

Monschau Market, from above.