Thursday, December 19, 2013

Walk this Way - Christmas Time in Europe

I know I keep saying it, but this year has just flown by. I'm not sure what it is, but when you are a kid, the holidays can't come fast enough and the days seem to drag forever. As an adult, however, the days just don't have enough hours in them and the to-do list never ends. In any case, we are just a couple of days away from the start of the winter holiday and our venture back to the US! Time is ticking!

Galeries Lafayette
This month has been crazy busy as always. Thanksgiving was a blur of a week. We hosted several families, most of whom had never had an American Thanksgiving meal before. Though it is always a tremendous amount of work, it really is wonderful to share the day with others. The boys were in school on Thanksgiving day, but we celebrated that evening. Since Joe's company celebrates American holidays, we took advantage of his long weekend and headed to Paris the following day to kick start the Christmas season. Paris, as always, didn't disappoint. The lights and decorations along the Champs Élysée were amazing, as was the tree in Galeries Lafayette and the windows at Au Printemps. It almost felt like New York at Christmas - including the crowds! We spent our days shopping the Christmas markets and checking out the department stores. Nights were for great dinners out. Our first night we enjoyed a lovely Italian meal at Il Sorrentino near the Eiffel Tour. The boys enjoyed the homemade ravioli, while I tried the truly wicked specialty of the house, tagliolini fromaggi, a lovely pasta dish flambéed right inside the wheel of tagliolini cheese, with a dash of grappa. It was heavenly! The following night the boys were craving steak frites. After a quick flip through Trip Advisor, we headed our way to the St. Germain area of town where we stood in line at Le Relais de l'Entrecote. The reviews were spot on - the line seemed long at first, but moved quite quickly. The restaurant does not except reservations, but did say that folks are seated relatively quickly. Once inside, we were escorted to our table which happened to be located next to a party of Brits who had been in line right before us. No menus for this establishment - waitresses come by and ask how you wish to have your steak prepared and what you would like to drink. The steaks are served at table side along with a tossed salad and bowls of french fries. The sauce the steak is served in is as addictive as the reviewers on Trip Advisor state. It is definitely a form of pesto sauce, but the butter is very apparent! We passed on dessert there, but did stop by our favorite gelato place, Amorino, just a few short blocks away. Even in winter the blossom-shaped cones are a definite winner with the boys!

Gluhwein in Aachen

The holiday season here in Europe is an amazing time of the year. The leaves may have fallen and the skies may be grey, but the Christmas markets that pop up everywhere are a sure-fired way of getting into the holiday spirit. Most larger cities in Europe have markets, most with more than one. I have been to quite a few of them after spending 3 holiday seasons here, and Cologne still remains one of my favorites. There are three markets within walking distance of the Cathedral, each with it's own theme. The shopping is fantastic, the quality of the items are top notch, and the crowds are pleasant and friendly. Most folks go to the markets to enjoy the Gluhwein, a hot wine served in cute little glass cups that you can either keep as a souvenir or return for a small deposit.  Though I am not a huge fan of the wine, some markets have other local drinks they serve - hot chocolate with amaretto, a hot orange juice infused with spices, or an apple wine/calvados drink to name a few. New to the Luxembourg market this year was the flaming Gluhwein. This concoction is served in a special cup with a metal tab holding a cone-shaped piece of sugar, doused in rum, and lit aflame. Needless to say, it's a popular novelty this year, though it is still just Gluhwein with a clever presentation :) This year I visited several new markets - Strasbourg (France), Aachen, Monschau, and Trier (all in Germany). All of them had clever themes (including a witch-themed one in Aachen), and their own unique personalities. Some have certain products they are known for, such as the Printen cookies in Aachen or local liquors. Now that I am closing in on the last week before Christmas, I can honestly say I am marketed-out! All of them were well worth the effort and I would easily do them again - next year!

Folks do sometimes ask me how celebrating the holidays differs here in Lux, as well as what I miss from the US. There are so many little nuances that make the holidays different, but the first one that comes to mind is the lack of Black Friday. Though we may not have the rush of crazy consumers at the Walmart (there are no Walmarts here), it is nice to have the stores open for a few hours on Sundays. Yes, this is a big novelty for us since there are very few times throughout the year when stores are open on Sundays. The rules may have changed years ago in the US, but Sundays in Europe are still considered sacred for family time. With exception to a couple of sales weekends and the first Sunday of each month for those stores in the city center, stores are closed, as are many restaurants. I can't say I miss the stores being open very much. I do make a mad dash to the local Del Haize for groceries on many Sunday mornings, but otherwise have managed just fine without. You just get used to it. As for what I miss from the US this time of year? I miss the food and the tacky light tours. Europeans do not really decorate the outside of their houses, much to my son's frustration. We used to go crazy stringing lights outside, so that has taken some getting used to. Instead, we decorate a lot inside and hit the markets to enjoy the decorations. As for the food, it really is no different than any other time - I miss Tex Mex and the occasional fast food. Meals can take up to 2 hours here (yes, that's for lunch), so there are times when a Chick-Fil-A or Panera's would be wonderful here! Rumor has it, we are finally getting a Dunkin Donuts next year - needless to say, the boys are thrilled!

Finally, just a pet peeve to vent about. Now that the crowds are out in full force for those last minute shopping trips and Gluhwein, certain habits do start getting on my nerves. The main one - the unspoken rule of walking on the right. I have had this conversation so many times with other Americans, and it is inevitably something that everyone notices, especially this time of year. The expected act of moving to the right when you are walking down a sidewalk just does not exist here! You can be walking along the right side of a 15 foot wide section of the Champs Élysée, heading right towards someone and that person will expect you to move to the left! I have literally ran directly in to people who down right refuse to move over!. If you are ever in a crowded area of a European city, just watch the foot traffic. There is really no rhyme or reason as to how the crowd moves. Perhaps there might be a difference in the UK, though there you would expect people to walk on the left and move to the left as necessary, no differently than how they drive. Here, it is just plain chaos!

Anyway, we head to Texas in just a few short days. We can't wait to spend some time with family and friends in some slightly warmer weather! Here's wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season!

Merry Christmas from Lux!