Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss

I gently giggled when the woman in front of me proudly announced to the German border police: “I’m here with my son to see the Christmas markets.” Doesn’t she know that Germans aren’t so forward or friendly?

“Oh, really,” he smiled. “Do you not have the same markets and shopping in the US?”

“No, we don’t,” she responded. “We’ve been planning this trip for five years.”

While Mom told me that mothers have eyes in the back of their head, it was this mother’s smile that I could see from behind.

The elderly couple in front of me shuffled their feet toward the counter next.

“Das ist meine Frau, und wir sind hier für die Weinachtsmarktes.” (This is my wife, and we’re here for the Christmas markets.) They continued the conversation, split between the husband’s German and his wife’s broken English.

With my turn to show my passport, I wondered if I needed to announce to the border agent that I was merely returning to work after spending Thanksgiving in the States and I was not entering Germany for the Christmas markets like everyone else (apparently). This pattern gave me pause: maybe I shouldn’t take for granted the multitude of Christmas celebrations while I live in Germany. I generally feel that outside of work I live a cozy life with minimal rush to explore the quintessential cultural and touristic sites, and I like the fact that foreign discoveries fold into my day-to-day rather than separated as distinct experiences.

While it’s not the best known in Germany by any measure – I’m looking at you, Nürnberg – Berlin hosts dozens of Christmas markets. Some last the duration of advent, others only weekends, and still others pop up just for one weekend. Many of the markets in the center of town – Alexanderplatz has two – host a kitschy flavor of Christmas with vendors that repeat a similar mix of Christmas decoration, alternating with stalls selling glühwein, savory bites including sausages, and sweet treats like Lebkuchen (a gingerbread-esque cookie). Some specialty markets focus on local artisans and designers, and these events are more sensible places to shop for legitimate Christmas gifts. And then you have your one-of-a-kind markets that cultivate a special nostalgia for Christmases past.

Enter: Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss, the “Christmasmarket in the hunting palace”

While glühwein warms the heart regardless of quality, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the actual market – the things to buy. Knowing full well that the best way to experience the Christmas markets is to make plans with friends, one colleague mentioned a market in the forest that would only take place this weekend. Weiwei and I browsed a few markets together last year, so I suggested that for this year’s date we should be atypical and leave the city center.

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Grunewald is the “green forest” (literal translation) in the lakes region bordering Berlin’s west side (not West Berlin ;). When the weather is warm enough, I favor cycling the journey along Berlin’s central promenades and into the forest, yet I didn’t know the forest played host to a castle or a Christmas Market.

See for yourself: this Sunday afternoon adventure was a one-of-a-kind part of the Christmas season. Combined with the commercial nature of many markets, Berlin is a rather grungy city, so finding a warm, cozy atmosphere in a Christmas market was a truly special discovery.

We enjoyed a variety of snacks: a fish cake, caramel cheesecake, glühwein (the quintessential mulled wine), freshly roasted chestnuts, and bratwurst. Actors entertained the kids with a live rendition of Hansel & Gretel. Does it get more German fairy tale than watching the Brothers Grimm in the forest? When dusk fell and the sky faded to black, we stepped into the central house, where the state maintains a museum of antique hunting art and trophies from the time when the property was a Prussian hunting lodge.

After a few hours, with our stomachs full, we followed a cloaked man carrying a lantern back to the bus, on to the train, and returned to the bustle of the concrete jungle. Next time I hear an American announce to the German border police that they came for the Christmas markets, the sparkle in my eye will mark a new appreciation for this special tradition.

The World’s Best Butter?

Germany loves its dairy. Cheeses, creams, ice creams, milk, yogurt, quark… the quality standards sit stubbornly high in the Alps.

While I’m a firm believer in eating ice cream on the coldest days of the year, over the course of the summer, I especially pursued an exploration of Berlin’s many ice cream parlors. Almost always, two scoops in a waffle cone. The winner is a tie between Vanille & Marille and Rosa Canina, though Eis Piraten earns an honorable mention for its appropriately large servings. Vanille & Marille serve regional flavors with season flare,  while Rosa Canina takes a more eclectic approach to its creamy offerings.

Mostly though, you need the privilege to savor a top butter brand, Le Président Meersalz (Sea salt) Butter, which originates from France. The Germans love it, too. When I noted the strange packaging in the office refrigerator, a colleague mentioned that it was probably the best butter in the world. I tried it – yea, quite good. I had friends coming for dinner, so naturally I bought some of this famous butter to go with our bread. Suffice to say that we caught Daniel putting little slivers of salted butter on the cucumber slices in our salad, because he couldn’t get enough when we finished the bread.

Le President Meersalz Butter
Can you see the waves of salty oil tucked inside the mound of butter?

 

 

 

Since finishing the first package that I bought in July, I’ve bought it again, and I will keep buying it again and again. This funny-shaped butter is the best you can get, and other people agree.