Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent in Germany

Note: all my relevant pictures are on a different computer, and only Sasha knows the password, and he's gone birding along the North Sea with his brothers, so I will update this post as soon as I can with photos.
 I write this with a bit of hesitation, since I think a full 1/3 of my normal blog audience is now here in Germany with me, but for friends and family still stateside (or Asia), here are some thoughts on Christmas time in Germany.

The short version: it's awesome.  

That about sums it up, but since nobody turns to a blog for a 2-second diversion, I'll give you the long version, too.
Germany (and Germans, as a whole) LOVE Christmas. This is a good time to note, for those of you unfamiliar with German politics, etc. that that whole separation of church and state thing that makes the US a (hypothetically) tolerant place for Muslims and Buddhists, etc. isn't at all a policy here.  When you move to Germany (or within Germany) and go to the Stadtsbüro to register, in addition to asking where you live, your name, etc. there's a box where you fill in your religion, and if you put in one, money is taken out of your paycheck.  This "church tax" goes to the regional/national organization of the religion of your choosing, which mostly means the Evangelical (aka Protestant) or Catholic church, and then gets divied out to the local churches based on number of people in the geographical area aassociated with that church. Also, there are lots more religious pre-schools, I think there can be religion classes in the schools, etc. They are making a push to become more friendly to the sizable Muslim minority, but all things considered, this is still a Christian country, even if many (most??) people don't actually go to church regularly.

That is just a long-winded way of saying that there are no pan-religious "Happy holidays" signs around here, it's "Frohe Weihnachten" and manger scenes aren't uncommon, even in public places. Holiday parties for the MCB department at Harvard tended towards the awkward, but the one here at the MPI was pretty awesome, with plenty of bratwurst, Glühwein, and games and other entertainment: 
Who says scientists can't dance?

Just like in the US, there's a steady summer-ward creep of Christmas.  Around Halloween, we started seeing advent calendars, special christmas cookies (including Lebkuchen and Spekulatius. Yummy!) but things get serious when Advent officially starts.

That's when many towns set up a Christmas market with lots of little stands/tents selling all sorts of fabulous Christmas food: roasted candied nuts, bratwursts, and mulled wine (aka Glühwein) at a minimum, and if you're lucky, things like roast chestnuts, potato pancakes, cookies, etc.  There are also stands selling all sorts of arts, crafts and "gifts" of varying qualities and types.

I have been to 3 different Christmas markets this year and they were each vastly different experiences.  We had great plans to go to Nürnberg, one of the most famous, but in the end, we have to wait until next year for that one.

First up was Groβseelheim, a small village just outside of Marburg.  Their Advent market lasts only one afternoon/evening of the year, and it was great.  Unfortunately, I don't have the photos on this computer, but I'll add them as soon as I can.  As far as we could tell, their market was really a community affair; all the farms and stores and clubs had tents or openned up a room of their barn or yard to sell food or crafts, and it was clear that most if not all of the crafts were made by hand, and that some of the foods were things like the cheese from that farm, or that family's favorite goulash and polenta recipes (which were yummy).  

Even the gas pumps showed the holiday spirit, dressing up like Santa.  The entertainment was also more interesting, including a fire dancer and a variety of musical acts.  The one that probably was the most emblematic was a group of, ehem, "musicians of a certain age" dressed more or less in Santa suits who, when we first walked by were doing a German version of "Rudolph the red nosed reindeer" (or something similar) and then switched to a heavily accented English version of "How many roads must a man walk down".  Awesome.  I felt a little rude, I started laughing so loudly when they started that second song, but it was just such a strange combination of awesome, I couldn't help myself.

Next, we took a brief tour of the markets here in Marburg (ahem, merely scouting in preparation for our family's visit....).  There are actually 2 small Christmas markets here, one up in the "Oberstadt" (the old part of town that's up on a hill) and one around the Elizabeth's Church.  These are much more commercial than Groβseelheim, but have just a handful of stands, and it seems like it's still mostly locals hanging out, drinking Glühwein, and listening alternatively (at least as I've been passing through) to surprisingly talented kids, or to the local brass band, who also were quite good, I have to say. 

Today, while Sasha was out birding with his brothers, I hit up the market in Frankfurt as I went to meet my family.  It was HUGE in comparison to the others, and had pretty much all of the foods I listed above and more: nuts, cookies, candies, bratwurst, pretzels, crepes, waffles, potato pancakes, dunplings of various types, and of course, Glühwein and other hot beverages.  In good McLoon fashion, we munched our way through the market, trying one of, well, if not each, at least many of the options.  There also were tons and tons of stands selling all sorts of stuff, some cheap, some nice. Do you want a stuffed Santa climbing a ladder to hang from your window? We could have gotten you one.  What about lovely ornaments made of glass or straw? Those were available, too.  We heard a LOT of languages being spoken, so I definitely felt like this was more touristy than the others two markets, but then again, we were out in the early afternoon, and I did see flocks of German teenagers, so while there were plenty of tourists, I didn't feel like it was -just- a tourist trap.  Besides, who doesn't want an awesome bicycle cookie cutter?

Well, this is getting long, but that brings me to the next great thing that Christmas means in Germany: FAMILY!!  We are feeling the family love after many months of only Skype contact since my mom, dad and sister, and Sasha's mom, brothers, aunt and grandfather have joined us here.  Together, we'll do some serious exploring of Marburg and surroundings, and of course, some serious cooking and eating, so stay tuned for more about Christmas in Germany.

And, since I may not post again until after the holiday itself, "Frohe Weihnachten".

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lacrosse in Germany!

OK, friends, I know what you're thinking; "aren't you a swimmer/skier/runner/rower/cyclist/paddler"? and the answer is, well, yes, I love all those sports to varying degrees, but Marburg is not a great ski area, my road bike hasn't made it to our house yet, and besides, the perpetual mud/drizzle and the fact that I am effectively in lab for all daylight hours makes riding a bit depressing. But what better way to meet people when arriving in a new place than doing some sports with them, right? So I decided to take a class through "unisport" (like rec sports at a US university).  There was this great little booklet that appeared on the lunch table with all the class offerings, and I tried to decide which would be the most fun. Soccer sounded good, but the women's classes were too early in the day, so that was out.  I didn't want to do strength training, and couldn't picture myself doing Zumba or Spinning, and it seemed like team sports would be something new and exciting.  So, I settled on Lacrosse.  You know, that team sport derived from Native American games, where each player has a little basket on the end of a stick and you use that basket to try to throw a ball into a goal.

Now, if I were you, the next questions I'd ask would be: "wait, you went to Germany and are learning a sport invented in North America??"  And the answer is, well, why not?  and then, "Wait, aren't you just like one big slow twitch muscle from all those endurance sports?" and the answer is, well, yes. I think I'm about as good at sprinting as I was in high school, and back then, the splits in my 2-mile were the same speed as when I tried to do any shorter distances....(needless to say, my coach back then never had me do any short races).  And, I'm probably the oldest person in the class by almost a decade, and I'm the only one whose German is decidedly not that of a native speaker.  But all that is OK because I'm having So Much Fun.  Class is on an artificial turf field in the evenings on Thursday, and happens rain or shine (or snow).

SO, last weekend, we went to Münster for a tournament.  Awesome.  Keep in mind, we are all total beginners, and have been playing once a week for almost 2 months.  Two months really isn't much when the first few practices probably looked more like broomball than like Lacrosse (you have you use your stick to pick up the ball, and that's harder than it sounds). And most of the opposing teams actually knew what they were doing.  Oh, and instead of outside on the field, it was inside a gym with this bizarrely bouncy rubber-ish floor.  But I am serious about the awesome.
Marburg (the club, not our UniSport team) vs. Münster, I think. 
 It was a low-key sort of tournament; the teams kept borrowing each other's goalies, and the coaches and players doubled as refs and scorekeepers, but it all worked out.
Maggie (right, #33), one of our class instructors/coaches in action. She's also on the German National team. 

The first game was a bit miserable.  I drew the short straw and was stuck in goal, and while my teammates were trying to figure out how to pick up the ball off the bouncy floor and how to not have the ball snatched away from them immediately, I was being pummeled as time after time the opponents made it to the goal and took shot after shot.  I have to say, that's not a sports experience I am used to...half the time I couldn't even  
see the ball before it went past me into the goal.

The next games were more fun.  Partly because I got to run around more (One of my other teammates was in goal next and then found she actually liked it) and partly because we actually figured out how to deal with the ball some.  Although to be completely clear, our coach congratulated us after one of the early games for actually getting in 3 passes in a I'm not talking true expertise here.

Friday night, we camped out in a gym with all of the visiting teams for lacrosse and all of the other sports playing at the same time (it was a crazy multisport tournament, taking over all the gyms across Münster's campus and beyond).  It was a strange experience seeing hundreds of sleeping bags laid out in every configuration in a gym, but people were amazingly quiet and respectful of each other.  The partying went on outside and in the giant cafeteria building.  To that, I can only say that I am about as old and boring as I'd feared.  Oh well.  I am sure the "extra" sleep gave me a leg up the next day...
Some groups still hadn't shown up yet, but you get the was better than it looks

Saturday, we played the other teams that had lost most of their games the previous day, so we were less out-matched.  In fact, for the last game, we played a team from Osnabrück, and they were also beginners, so it actually looked like a game.  They scored a few points more than us, but due to some bad calls from the refs, they decided a few of those goals were invalid, so we went into sudden death overtime, and I actually scored a goal (?!?!?!) so we ended up winning and coming in 7th out of 8 teams!!  I can't remember when I've ever done that poorly (excluding some of the times I've raced with the men), but it's kind of refreshing to admit that you are going to be really bad at something and do it anyway.
Marburg UniSport team after the last game
It's actually fun playing a team sport (yes, crew and cycling kind of count, but in very different ways), and I think it will be better when we actually figure out how to catch balls.  Right now, our strategy leans towards "get the ball and run as fast as you can to the goal and shoot", and I think the game can be a lot more nuanced than that with passing and stuff.  Give us a few more months. We play Giessen tomorrow; we'll see how that goes!