July 13, 2014

Lessons from a tour guide, part I

This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.

plane image for blog

A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.

Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

A final goodbye to the group near the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.

The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.

Helping the group appreciate the elegant, historic decay of Venice is a challenge when the city is crowded and hot.

venice 1

Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”

Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.

The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.

If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.

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Category: Europe, Languages and Culture, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Case Studies, Vagabonding Life

June 22, 2014

Roadtrip: Czech Republic to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and back

I recently had the experience to travel by car from Czech Republic to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and back. I was in the company of my fiance and his mother, the latter speaking only Czech, while I speak almost only English. Our situation had an interesting dynamic, but we had a lovely week camping, walking around cities, passing time in the car, and trying out local food. Unfortunately the weather was colder and rainier that we had hoped for, and camping in thunderstorms and snow was quite an unexpected adventure.

We started in Prague, and headed south to Austria. We didn’t have much of a plan, just a week to spare for traveling, and our first night we wound up camping on the side of the road. We cooked a small meal and went to bed somewhat early to get a quick start the next day.

We stopped briefly in Mariazell, Austria, but other than that we were in a rush to get to Slovenia. We found a campsite in near Lake Bled that was really really nice. They had showers, a pub/restaurant, free wifi, and the grounds were well kept and clean. A few miles walk through the woods and along the road would lead you to Lake Bled. The weather was perfect.

Lake Bled was probably one of the most picturesque places I’ve been. There are swans, castles, a thick forest, and the sunset over the lake was perfect. The campsite near by was fun, but I can imagine that staying in a hotel right on the lake would be a very nice experience as well.

After a couple of days in Slovenia, we headed to Croatia. Our first stop was at the waterfalls in Plitvice. The entrance fee was around $30, but the views were worth it. We only had a couple of hours because we got there later in the day, but again, worth it. We camped in Plitvice for the night, where it stormed non-stop.
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Category: Europe, General

June 7, 2014

Slumming the Golden Arches

Golden Arches, Barstow Station

Image credit

This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.

European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.

Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.

Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.

I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.

(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)

Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.

Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.

Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.

Tip sheet: A few pointers regarding travel and fast-food
1) Street food is the true fast food.

Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.

Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.

Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice

May 18, 2014

Introducing travelers to Europe’s riches

This summer I’ll be spending several weeks helping to guide travelers through Europe’s best sights. A dream job to be sure, but the stakes are high; the task of introducing people to the richness of Europe can be a heavy burden. Being in charge of a group’s travel safety and general exposure to the rich cultural treasures of any place is a daunting responsibility.

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Curating a group’s travel experience is not for the faint of heart. The question is always how best to introduce people to the buzzing urban intensity of Rome, the humid, decadent decay of Venice and the vertigo-inducing heights of the chilly Swiss Alps. One person’s death march through the hot, crowded streets of Florence is another’s carnival of once-in-a-lifetime Renaissance sights. On the other hand, consider that same tour member’s restless boredom in an ancient half-timbered German hamlet. It’s another’s perfect medieval village vacation under the shadow of a ruined castle looming in the hills above.

Venice

Venice

The main task of any good tour guide is, of course, to help people connect to the history, the people and the culture of the place they’ve come so far to see. And different people connect to the culture in different ways. Some come for the food, while others could care less about the cuisine scene. Some just want to take in the sights, while still others need every historical detail you can offer them. One tour member’s Michelangelo is another’s gelato; it’s not right or wrong. It’s just different, because people are different.

Swiss Alps

Swiss Alps

A good guide can gently expose a conservative American mom to the permissive hedonism of canal-laced Amsterdam, and inspire her to think about the Dutch culture’s success in keeping drug abuse and teen pregnancy to record lows compared to our nation’s sad stats. Or bring the history of an otherwise lifeless site to life through a well-rendered story detailing the intense human drama it witnessed. The same guide can introduce the tired, indifferent sightseer to the majesty of the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and walk out with a convert to the flashy, fleshy vividness of Renaissance humanist art.

paris

So the tour guide’s other main challenge, then, is to help one connect to the place in their own way, on their terms. In other words, help them find what they’re looking for—and sometimes what they didn’t know they were looking for. Some come for enlightenment and some come for a good time. There is no reason they can’t leave with both, their bag filled with insights and fun memories that will last a lifetime.

 

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Category: Europe, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Working Abroad

April 16, 2014

Vagabonding field report: London,UK

Cost/day: ~$40 USD (we had free lodging)

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

I don’t know that I would say anything was particularly strange, but London has a lot of quirkiness, especially when it comes to street art. The East End is likely the most notable area for street art, and you’ll find examples all over the place. In terms of art installations, anyone is pretty much welcome to add to the collection, so you’ll find art of all kinds adorning buildings and signs, from the small to the gargantuan.

East End street artHuge street art
Some of the older buildings have been declared as heritage sites, so their facade has to remain intact. You’ll also find many buildings with the windows bricked over. This is because at one time they used to tax people according to how many windows they had. So some people simply bricked them over to pay less tax.

This is the front of someone's apartment. It's a heritage site, so they can't change the exterior.

This is the front of someone’s apartment. It’s a heritage site, so they can’t change the exterior.

Window tax evasion

Describe a typical day:

As is often the case, London is best explored on foot or bicycle. There is an extremely robust (and expensive) transportation system. We usually would take the tube (the underground metro) to a spot and walk around from there. Once you’re in central London or a large neighborhood (like the East End), it’s really quite easy to see a lot of things by walking around.

In fact, you can see most of the major iconic landmarks without wearing holes in your shoes. Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower Bridge, and the London Bridge are all within reasonable distances of each other.

London from the London Eye

Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

We didn’t really have that many chats with people. Most of our experience was asking people for directions. For being in quite a large city, I was surprised at how friendly Londoners were, and they were always seemingly happy to help. We did do a rather wonderful food tour, however, which was run by a local. We learned a lot about local history and culture as well as some of the historical buildings in the area. We even stood near the site where Jack the Ripper’s first victim was found. Quirky is a big theme here.

In that tour we learned why proper English tea is black. They used to drink only green tea, but people started just adding colors to it to make more money. The dyes were making people sick, so they switched from green to black tea, and it’s been that way ever since.

What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

I loved London’s quirky side, but the history was a big winner for me. Almost everywhere you turn is a building or site that has some historical renown. It was quite impressive to walk among buildings dating back hundreds of years and see them still in use. For example, the huge Victoria Tower is actually now an archive for Parliament.

London has so much to see and experience, and I also loved the rather plentiful ethnic diversity.

London's Chinatown

Describe a challenge you faced:

The biggest challenge was financial. If your bank account uses the US dollar, you’re at a major economic disadvantage in the UK. We were lucky that we had a friend who lives in London and was on holiday, so we were able to stay in their flat at no charge. Otherwise, I doubt we could’ve afforded to stay a week in the city. There are definitely ways to make a visit cheaper, but it’s still a hit on the wallet.

What new lesson did you learn?

I can’t say it’s totally new, but I learned that it really is valuable to see a city for yourself and not just rely on the experiences of others. London had never really been high on my list of places to see. In fact, I had absolutely no plans on visiting it, but my son was eager to see the Tower of London and ride the London Eye. Since were flying into London on our way to a house sit in North Yorkshire, I figured why not stop. I’m so glad we did because London ended up being one of my favorite cities.

The Thames

Where next?

Brasov, Romania

You can follow along or learn more about our adventures on our blog and by connecting with us via Facebook.

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Category: Destinations, Europe

April 13, 2014

An Introduction to the Budapest Bath Experience at Széchenyi

Finding yourself tired and achy after a long day’s sightseeing in Budapest? That can be easily fixed by indulging in one of the city’s great experiences—a long soak in the healing waters that residents and visitors have been availing themselves of since Ottoman times. Blessed by its location—it sits above numerous natural springs spouting warm water fortified with minerals—the Hungarian capital offers visitors some of the world’s great public bath experiences.

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, Budapest

With over fifty baths, spas and public pools, Budapest wisely takes full advantage of the waters burbling up from its sediment. The experience of the spa/bath has become a way of life in this city, and integral part of its social fabric. Some baths date to the sixteenth century when the Ottomans first indulged in the bath craze, and others date from the early twentieth century. It is not unusual for a Hungarian physician to prescribe a visit to the baths, such is the strength of Hungarians’ belief in the restorative powers of the experience.

szechenyi_baths 3

There are dozens of great thermal baths to choose from, but for the first-time visitor the popular Széchenyi offers a fine look into a top-notch Budapest bath experience. Housed in a grand old yellow building situated in the City Park, the enormous complex with the Baroque copper dome looks like every bit the grand nineteenth-century retreat it is; a recent renovation has given the historic building a fresh coat of gleam.

The brainchild of a Budapest mining engineer, Széchenyi was the first thermal bath on the Pest side of the city, with records showing that an artisanal bath existed on the spot by 1881. By 2014 a full panoply of options existed, including an outpatient physiotherapy department.

Upon entering, you’ll choose the options you want (children under 2 are free and there is a special student discount), rent your towel, and hit the locker room to change. If you get lost in the complex or just plain overwhelmed by the choices, attendants in white will try their best to assist, though many do not speak English. This being Europe, there are some swimsuit-optional areas, but the American visitor will be happy to know that most patrons are covered—minimally, by severely strained Speedos—but still covered.

szechenyi_baths 4

Settling into the hundred-degree water, stress tends to melt away like an ice cube under a blazing summer sun. There is nothing to do but watch the other visitors, a great European pastime. An observant guest will find a feast of people-watching opportunities such as blissed-out regulars playing chess in their Speedos and local big shots discussing weighty political matters while struggling to stay awake in the relaxing water, their eyelids heavy as steam swirls around them. Don’t worry; you almost certainly be the only tourist there.

There are older, more historic spas and thermal baths in town (some of the Ottoman-era spas) and swankier spas (the Gellert Baths are justifiably popular) but for a locally-loved and affordable introduction to Budapest’s water wonders, spending a lazy afternoon relaxing under Széchenyi’s glimmering domes is a great way to start.

For a trove of information on spas and bath experiences around the world, visit http://findmesauna.com/ run by spa connoisseur and world traveler Sandra Hunacker.

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Category: Destinations, Europe, Images from the road, On The Road, Travel Health

February 6, 2014

Giving free travel talks—A great way to share knowledge and ignite travel dreams

Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.

I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.

globe--flags

Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.

Tiber River in Rome

Tiber River in Rome

So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.

chateaux

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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, Europe, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

December 25, 2013

Christmas in England: music, food and decoration

In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.

Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.

But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.

Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.

The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.

As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.

A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.

Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.

 

 

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Category: Europe, Expat Life, Food and Drink, General, Notes from the collective travel mind

December 19, 2013

Christmas in France–delicious and traditional

One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.

This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.

Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.

Christmas in Alsace.

Christmas in Alsace.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.

french xmas

In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).

Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

Small towns do Christmas right.

Small towns do Christmas right.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

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Category: Europe, Family Travel, Food and Drink, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life, Youth Travel

December 10, 2013

Christmas magic in Germany

Christmas in Germany 3

One of the many great things about Europe is the magnificent way it celebrates the Christmas season. Throughout the continent, a spirit of festivity can be felt in the wintertime air. The traditions of the season are still strong in this thoroughly modern part of the world, where bustling Christmas markets fill the main square of big cities and bucolic, half-timbered villages alike. In the cathedrals, choirs singing the great medieval Christmas hymns fill the cavernous spaces with angelic harmonies.

With that said, this is the first in a series of posts on the various ways Christmas is celebrated in Europe. While each country has its own festive quirks, many of them share the greatest of the ancient traditions and it’s a joy to be enveloped by it.

Germany, for example, is one of the most magical places to experience the season. This seems ironic, as it’s arguably Europe’s most progressive, twenty-first century nation. But old traditions die hard and Germany reaches far into its medieval past to embrace and celebrate the season. From the Austrian border to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Forrest to Berlin, Germany comes alive at the holidays. Its people break out the gingerbread recipes, the carols, and the colors of the season.

Christmas in Germany 2

The sprawling Christkindle Markets fill the squares of communities across the country, bursting with music and food and seasonal décor. Traditional favorites such as gingerbread and sweet prune-and-fig candies are served at stalls under a kaleidoscope of Christmas colors. It’s not unusual for a small chorus to be serenading the bundled-up shoppers and sightseers with classic old Germanic carols, their puffs of visible breath ascending into the sky on the frosty air.

Performances of the Nutcracker are to be found in theatres across the country, while well-built manger scenes adorn the cobbled public spaces of both the predominantly Catholic South and Protestant North (this, after all the birthplace of Luther and Protestantism). Jolly St. Nicholas looms in the dreams of children eager for the big day to arrive.

It’s a good reminder that there is more to Germany that Oktoberfest and the Autobahn. They keep the best of their ancient traditions very much alive as they indulge in the classic sights, sounds and tastes of Christmas festivity.

Christmas in Germany 1

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Category: Europe, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life
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