Sunday, December 10, 2006

Escape from the Christmas Market of Doom

Christmas markets.

It's what you do when you're in Germany and it's, like, December, innit? I certainly did. Last weekend I headed into town and visited Aachen's bloated sprawl of a Christmas market, and I've just got back from visiting one in the much-cited picturesque town of Monschau. They're certainly popular. In both markets I found it difficult to move around in the crowd, and in both markets I ended up standing in a queue for an excessive amount of time when I decided that what I really wanted was something sweet and filling (Nutella crepe in the first case, waffle with cherries and cream in the second). Both markets also FUBARed the area's transport network. Take my advice if you're ever in Germany at this time of year: don't use the roads. If you can't get somewhere by walking/taking the train, don't go there at all. It is inordinately difficult.

Take today as an example. I got there just fine; it was getting back that was the problem. Conscious that there would be a lot of people trying to get out of the town when the market closed, I a) set off a little earlier and b) waited for nearly half an hour at the bus stop before the bus was due to come, so that if a queue formed it would form behind me. (This was a tactical error. I should really have remembered that Germans can't queue to save their lives. Instead they just mill around aimlessly and shove each other out of the way. Strange behaviour for a nation that's otherwise generally much more civilised than ours.)

Neither measure availed me. The problem was the park and ride service. Monschau, being a small town with very, very limited road access, decided this year to cut the town off entirely to normal traffic. This ban extended to all the tour buses that visit the town (and there were about 30 of them in the nearest car park up the hill). A park and ride service was being offered from several very large car parks just outside the town - and boy, was it necessary. During the time I was waiting there, despite a bendy bus coming about every five minutes, the number of people waiting for a park and ride bus back to the car park was never less than about 200. All well and good, I thought. They're waiting at a different bus stop. But when my bus finally came, about ten minutes late, it stopped at the park and ride bus stop - and people started getting on. About half of the people waiting for my bus ran across the road and piled on, while the rest, including me, kept standing there, thinking: It has to come to this stop. The stop it's supposed to come to. Right? Wrong... the bus drove off without me. Crap, I thought. There's only one bus left that goes back to Aachen, and it's in two hours' time, and it's bitterly cold. Plus, if this bus was bad, when the market hadn't even closed yet, what would the next one be like? The German word "sauer" is one that I'd never really understood before today, but standing there in the cold it was a shockingly accurate description of how I was feeling.

To cut a long story short, after briefly considering staying the night in Monschau and going back the next morning, I got a taxi home. It was the only other way. So I sat there, chatting to the taxi driver, watching a tour coach in front of me belonging to the unfortunately titled company "Bustouristik Fucker", and intermittently glancing at the ever-increasing kilometre count on the display. An expensive day out, all told. A large number of euros out of pocket, and entirely because of bad organisation. Gaaaah.

So, anyway. Christmas markets. The taxi driver couldn't really see the attraction, having lived in Germany all his life - and I could actually see his point. In fact, it's one I'd been considering since the previous weekend, in Aachen. Because what is a Christmas market, in essence?

There are little wooden booths. Some of them are fast food stalls. Big deal - we get those in the UK as well, and although the good quality stuff's probably better in Germany, the principle's still the same as at the dodgy fairground trailers in the UK. Not all of it's brilliantly original, although some is pretty special. In Aachen there was a lovely stall selling portions of fried mushrooms with a vast array of sauces. Admittedly I didn't feel like fried mushrooms at the time, and I can't really think of a situation where I would ever choose a portion of fried mushrooms on their own over just about any other type of food. But that's beside the point. It was an original and fun idea and put a smile on my face.

Some of the booths sell Glühwein. A lot of them, in fact. But what's Glühwein? And why do we persist in calling it Glühwein? It exists in the UK too, and is relatively common, and there it is called mulled wine. So I don't really understand why British people always call the German version Glühwein and get so obsessed with it. On the other hand, it is pretty nice, whether mulled or Glüh.

The vast majority of the booths, probably 60%, sell... trinkets. Made of glass, or wood, or plastic, or bone, or anything really, and ranging widely in quality. In the UK it's not so easy to get your hands on hand-crafted Christmas decorations, but they can be found, and in the same sort of qualities as in Germany. The German varieties seem to be bound by two main guidelines:

1. Items must be substantially overpriced for what they are.
2. Items must serve no useful function whatsoever.
(A less significant guideline is 3: Where possible, items should be of a consistency such that it is impossible to remove them to a distance of more than about 100 metres from the stall where you bought them without them breaking in your pocket/bag/hand/car).

The items are also very pretty, a lot of the time, too - and sometimes very kitsch. All in all, not a good enough reason to get a coach over to another country, in my view.

Finally, the remaining 10% of stalls tend to sell local produce. These are the ones that float my boat. I love seeing locally made wines, and honey, and mustard, and sausage, and lebkuchen, and all that... and if anything makes it worthwhile visiting a Christmas market, that's it. Because that's the sort of stuff that you can't find anywhere else, and is often really good to boot.

I'm probably being a little too nuts-and-bolts in my analysis of German christmas markets, here; but the fact is that I'm baffled as to why people come from abroad on coaches. Christmas markets are very nice, yes, but are they really THAT special? Judging by the fact that people keep on visiting them, I guess they are. Then again, I reckon at least two thirds of the voices I heard at the Christmas markets were speaking English, French, Dutch or some other language rather than German. Being so completely Europolitan, the Aachen area isn't a great example for this purpose - but it still shows that the vast majority of people visiting Christmas markets are foreigners. Maybe it's something you learn to take for granted. Maybe I'm in the process of learning to take it for granted - I have visited markets in Strasbourg, Freiburg and Munich as well as the two that I visited this year, after all. I don't doubt that I very much enjoyed my two afternoons out this weekend and last. But I enjoyed them in the same way as I enjoy a play or a film - and would the average person travel 1000 miles on a coach to see one of those? Perhaps so. The simple pleasures can't be underestimated, and the German Christmas markets certainly are a celebration of the fact that Life Is Good.

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