Smoking Man, typical German wooden Christmas toy, bought at the Mannheim Christmas Market
A few weeks ago our friends Wolfgang and Sabine invited us to come visit them in Germany and share a goose dinner to celebrate Saint Martinmas. Wolfgang ordered a goose from a well-reputed organic producer in the Northern Germany. Mannheim, where they live, is not too far over the French border and there is a direct high speed train from Paris which normally takes only three hours. We have had many clients invite us to come visit them but Wolfgang is the only one who really made a very specific proposal. How could we refuse? We were very happy to visit this family that we had grown so fond of, and to see them in their native habitat! Besides, going to Germany at Christmas time, the cradle of many of our holiday traditions, has always been a dream of mine.
Of course, when we made this plan a few weeks ago, Europe was not yet plunged into a temporary ice age. Our host family also had some last minute complications. Roderick, their five year old son, developed an angry skin infection just days before we were due to arrive and had to spend several nights in hospital. It was touch and go right up until Friday morning when we boarded the train in Paris, but in the end Roddy had improved, the trains were running, and so we headed off on our next big adventure.
At the Gare de l'Est in Paris, passengers huddled around electric heaters to keep warm. Temperatures hovered around 0º. Trains were delayed as everything in the high speed system was required to slow down considerably. In Paris there was no snow, but the further east we traveled, the whiter the landscape became.
Mannheim was covered with a fairly thick blanket of snow, which more or less scotched plans to visit Heidelberg castle and university (where Rick's grandfather once taught). Someone also had to stay at home and wait for the goose to arrive via UPS, so Wolfgang and Sabine took turns making forays out into the wintery world. We followed along.
We didn't mind at all staying at home. Our hosts have a lovely big house with large windows, allowing us to look out on the Mannheim cityscape and enjoy the warm, Christmasy atmosphere indoors. Wolfgang is the chef de cuisine of the family and he made sure we were well-fed all weekend.
The house is right on the tram line that leads into the heart of the city. We took it into town one morning with Sabine and the children.
Victoria is ten. Both of the children are lovely and intelligent. They don't speak much English yet, and I have no German whatsoever. What German Rick had from studying it in school has mostly vanished. This did not seem to be too great a disadvantage when talking with the children. We became very fond of them. We had our ways of communicating that did not require language.
Roddy was feeling very well indeed. After his hospital stay he was definitely ready for a little fun and activity.
Mannheim, like many big cities in Germany, was pretty much flattened in the war, though a few very beautiful buildings do remain. The center of town is dominated by the biggest contiguous group of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. They are in red brick with grand arched promenades encircling a large park. Since everything was dressed in snow, it was a little difficult to see it all.
The old water tower is very beautiful.
Mannheim is also known as the city where the first automobile was built by Karl Benz.
I was anxious to visit the Christmas market, as Mannheim has one of the celebrated ones. In fact there are two of them. One is large with lots of crafts from all over the world, the other is small with just traditional German craftsmen participating. We visited them both.
The bigger, but less traditional market
bird houses made by hand
One of the things that bonds Wolfgang and Rick is their shared love of great coffee. Wolfgang has a state-of-the-art espresso machine and a very fancy grinder. Morning, afternoon and evening coffees were on the agenda.
By Saturday morning the goose still had not arrived, and more guests were due to come to enjoy the evening feast. Rumors of closed freeways, treacherous roadways and canceled flights made its arrival uncertain. No one could be reached to confirm one way or the other. We headed to the local fresh air market with Sabine and the children to gather some supplies, even though we didn't know what the menu would ultimately include. The day was crystal blue and beautiful, but bitterly cold.
By the afternoon the goose still had not arrived, so the menu was changed to beef roast. Side dishes were organized and in a flash a whole new plan was put into production. We helped a little, and then waited in the living room for the other guests to arrive and played a game with Roddy.
I don't have any photos of our very convivial meal together. Frankly, I didn't miss the goose at all. We had a beautiful and tender beef roast in delicious gravy, sliced thickly and served generously. Side dishes included oven-fried potatoes, mashed celery root and parsnips with carrots and parsley. Everything was lovely. Another couple joined us and we enjoyed getting to know them. Almost all Germans speak English, which is fortunate for us.
I was a bit nervous about getting back to Paris as I watched the snow coming down hard on Saturday evening. The train was a bit late and again had to travel at reduced speed, but in the end our return journey was smooth. Again, the further west we went, the less snow blanketed the ground.
We picked up James and Adric in Paris and arrived home yesterday afternoon. When we came into town there was no snow at all, skies were blue and our house was quickly warmed up again.
This morning was a different story. We woke up to several inches of freshly fallen snow. I was happy to be safe and sound with nowhere to travel for the foreseeable future. Snow is beautiful, but best enjoyed from the comfort of one's own windows. As soon as Emily, Jos and Quinn arrive we can begin to celebrate Christmas in earnest. Once everyone is at home for the holidays we'll be able to more happily sing "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."