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.
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.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.
My friend Clark sent me this poem recently.
It was a timely delivery. My Dad and I have been discussing this very thing: the desire to live multiple lives simultaneously, our deep wish to be in more than one place at a time, the bittersweet frustration of the knowledge that we can do anything we want with this one, beautiful life, but not everything we want. Choices must be made.
And then… I found a paperback copy of Vagabond’s House laying on the end table at my friend Powell’s house, in Kailua, last week. I thumbed through the pages, ran my fingers over the ink drawing on the cover, and savoured the moment. It seemed a serendipity to receive the gift of the poem and find a copy of the book within days of landing back in North America, after 19 months away. Of course it’s just a swing through for a few months, but re-entry and time at home is always a period of rooting down in my soul and reflecting on the layers of life. Blanding’s poetry echoes so many of the conflicts that I find within myself. I thought that today I might share one with you, and perhaps you will find yourself in it, as I did:
by Don Blanding
How very simple life would be
If only there were two of me
A Restless Me to drift and roam
A Quiet Me to stay at home.
A Searching One to find his fill
Of varied skies and newfound thrill
While sane and homely things are done
By the domestic Other One.
And that’s just where the trouble lies;
There is a Restless Me that cries
For chancy risks and changing scene,
For arctic blue and tropic green,
For deserts with their mystic spell,
For lusty fun and raising Hell,
But shackled to that Restless Me
My Other Self rebelliously
Resists the frantic urge to move.
It seeks the old familiar groove
That habits make. It finds content
With hearth and home — dear prisonment,
With candlelight and well-loved books
And treasured loot in dusty nooks,
With puttering and garden things
And dreaming while a cricket sings
And all the while the Restless One
Insists on more exciting fun,
It wants to go with every tide,
No matter where…just for the ride.
Like yowling cats the two selves brawl
Until I have no peace at all.
One eye turns to the forward track,
The other eye looks sadly back.
I’m getting wall-eyed from the strain,
(It’s tough to have an idle brain)
But One says “Stay” and One says “Go”
And One says “Yes,” and One says “No,”
And One Self wants a home and wife
And One Self craves the drifter’s life.
The Restless Fellow always wins
I wish my folks had made me twins.
While traveling, have you been robbed, hurt, or suffered a loss? Did the experience make you want to return home defeated or were you able to push through it and keep moving forward?
In western civilization, we are often taught that the best way to recover from traumatic experiences is to hire a doctor and take medication. We sulk inside, in a room, away from natural light and air, we allow fear and depression to creep in, and we immobilize our senses. When we move away from our basic primal instincts, trauma becomes locked up inside, and we are unable to work through it. But if we experience trauma or something that triggers past trauma while on the road, how do we make sure that it doesn’t hinder us from continuing our journey?
I studied trauma release before relocating to Cozumel, Mexico, with my 2 small children, and hoped with desperation that I could slow down and heal there. As I began to study how animals worked through traumatic events, such as being chased by a predator or being wounded, I discovered that if their healing process is interrupted, they can remain stuck in the emotional distress of that event for the duration of their lives, just as a lot of humans do.
To illustrate, as a colorful bird flew through the sky, it flew too low, striking a window. The bird was stunned, but when left un-touched, he felt the warmth of the sun, breathed the air as it gently wisped over his body, and moved through his own trauma. He was temporarily immobilized, but once his senses kicked in, and he shook off the hit, the bird began to be reoriented with his environment. He felt his pain, moved through it, took a few moments, and flew off.
Another bird hit a window while flying a little too low, and he was picked up by a person. As the well-meaning person held the bird, he petted him, held his wings down, and tried to keep the bird still as he re-gained consciousness. Being restrained even after he woke up, the bird was unable to move through his traumatic experience. The bird was never allowed to use its senses and instincts to work through his trauma, so he never did.
In my studies, I discovered that the best thing a person can do when healing from trauma- whether the instance was one time or recurring, an injury, a loss, or a robbery- is to be outside, feeling natural light and air, soaking in nature’s colors and sounds. We need the freedom to stare at a vast ocean or an open sky, to listen to our surroundings, to bury our hands and feet in the earth, to note the sensations we feels, and to re-awaken our senses, while the mind, body, and soul reunite in harmony. Being alone indoors, medicated, or restricted in any way from using our natural senses can hinder us from moving forward. Shrinking back in fear or defeat may also discourage us from traveling further, and no vagabond wants that!
Traveling to an unfamiliar country can re-awaken deeper emotions and senses that we didn’t realize were inactive. We are exposed to sights, sounds, and feelings that can be triggers for negative instances that occurred during our childhoods or even during our travels. But if we allow ourselves to feel and respond to our senses, living and breathing in nature’s healing forces, then each experience can awaken us, heal us, and prepare us for new phases in our journey.
“One challenge for a foreign correspondent is to figure out how much of yourself to include: If the story is too self-centered, it becomes a tourist’s diary. These days, the general trend is to reduce the writer’s presence, often to the point of invisibility. This is the standard approach of newspapers, and it’s described as a way of maintaining focus and impartiality. But it can make the subject feel even more distant and foreign. When I wrote about people, I wanted to describe the ways we interacted, the things we shared and the things that separated us. Chinese sometimes responded to me in certain ways because I was a waiguoren, and it seemed important to let the reader know this. Mostly, though, I wanted to convey how things actually felt — the experience of living in a Beijing hutong, or driving on Chinese roads, or moving to a small town in rural Colorado. The joy of nonfiction is searching for a balance between storytelling and reporting, finding a way to be both loquacious and observant.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)
A journey is made of milestones. It has to. Without milestones, we would not be able to ponder our experiences, to stop and wonder about what we have accomplished during all this while.
One of the most shiny accomplishments of my 6 years stint on the road – on many roads, in many countries, with a particular deviancy for the shores of Southeast Asia – is to have become a published writer. And I would like to make it clear: I’m writing this post after I asked Rolf Potts whether or not he found such a display of self-promotion appropriate for Vagabonding. The answer was positive. Moreover, as my book’s not traditionally about the art of travel, he thought best to let me talk about it, instead of wait for a traditional review.
My debut novel titled Nazi Goreng has been published by Monsoon books from Singapore in mid October, and is slowly appearing online and distributed in bookstores across Southeast Asia, the USA, Australia and the UK. It’s a great accomplishment that makes the many hours spent honing the writing craft well worth. More than anything, it constitutes the greatest milestone of my past six years. And please consider: I’m not new to conquering experiences that few can boost to have under their belts. For example, hitchhiking from Singapore to Italy was one. Well, writing a book can be a similar process. It takes daily dedication to get you somewhere closer to reach your goal, your milestone that is. Chiseling a manuscript is a bit like hitching a ride: you never know what’s coming up next, nor when you will reach your destination.
Nazi Goreng talks about Malaysia in a way you never read before: it’s a fictional transposition of the racial tensions that one can only find in a country made up by different ethnic groups, where prayers are spelt to the sky in three languages, followed by wafts of sandalwood-scented smoke. It’s a dark assemblage of truths and fictional accounts based on my perplexing discovery of kuasa melayu (Malay power), a neo-Nazi group made up of brown skinned people. And most importantly, it’s a novel that doesn’t talk about the British or Japanese occupation of the country, a theme too often coupled with Malayan-based historical fiction. On the contrary, this book is the result of years of real-life observations, friendships, time spent scouring the dark halls of local underground music venues, trying to decipher the different habits and ways of thinking of three of the most diverse races of greater Asia who, somehow, had come to share the same turf. And I care to precise, mine are modern day observations. They are a patchwork of the fantastic and terrible experience that living in a country like Malaysia can be. It’s the apex of a personal trip to the inside of a particular Asian society, sung to the best of my mongrel minstrel’s abilities. It’s a way to keep myself sane after being on the road, on and off motion, for six long years.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if you are keen, some more information can be found here. What I would like to communicate is really quite simple: I believe that we must use travel to open up our minds in creative ways. We must elaborate on what we have seen, smelt, touched, experienced, otherwise the sense is lost. We must find that unique angle which is ours, and ours only, and just functions as an extension of our own selves. I believe that it is only in such a case that a voyage be well worth setting a milestone. It serves to remember a particular turning point, and grow to a different level.
Truth be told, I don’t even know if I am a ‘traveler’ anymore. I feel more like I had dug up a hole in a tropical island, and had slowly covered myself under a mound of sand. But it is from the security of this new shelter, buried deep into the secrecy of another culture who seems less foreign every passing day, that I have chiseled my milestone. If you are interested in admiring its fine carvings, and see how much passion I reversed into the craft, please click here. And if you like what you see, consider giving some peanuts to the monkey, for it might keep the typewriter well oiled and always functional.
“Herodotus — who lived 2,500 years ago and left us his “History” — was the first reporter. He is the father, master and forerunner of a genre –reportage. Where does reportage come from? It has three sources, of which travel is the first. Not in the sense of a tourist trip or outing to get some rest. But travel as a hard, painstaking expedition of discovery that requires a decent preparation, careful planning and research in order to collect material out of talks, documents and your own observations on the spot. That’s just one of the methods Herodotus used to get to know the world. For years he would travel to the farthest corners of the world as the Greeks knew it. He went to Egypt and Libya, Persia and Babylon, the Black Sea and the Scythians of the north. In his times, the Earth was imagined to be a flat circle in the shape of a plate encircled by a great stream of water by the name of Oceanus. And it was Herodotus’ ambition to get to know that entire flat circle. Herodotus, however, besides being the first reporter, was also the first globalist. Fully aware how many cultures there were on Earth, he was eager to get to know all of them. Why? The way he put it, you can learn your own culture best only by familiarizing yourself with others. For your culture will best reveal its depth, value and sense only when you find its mirror reflection in other cultures, as they shed the best and most penetrating light on your own. …Thus Herodotus tried by means of his reportage to consolidate the most important message of Greek ethics: restraint, a sense of proportion and moderation.”
–Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Herodotus and the Art of Noticing,” Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech, October 4, 2003
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
“Good writers — travel writers or otherwise — make real and tangible a world that some readers have never inhabited. Just look at the great draw of the bizzaro worlds of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” What turns travel writing into an ethical question that sets it apart from sci-fi or literary fiction is that travel writers take real cultures and erect them for readers who trust them to be loyal and accurate. But the truth is, most travel writers are only passing through.”
–Alden Jones, “Is ‘Exoticism’ A Dirty Word?” WBUR Cognoscenti, August 30, 2013
I’m an avid reader. I’ve long made it a practice to choose books that followed my journeys. It’s a wonderful way to add depth and richness to my own experiences and observations, and to see the world through more eyes, more lives, than just my own.
Last summer I found myself on parade of bumpy bus rides across Vietnam and down the less traveled end of the Mekong River in Laos. With my legs folded on top of crates of fruit as the bus lumbered through the monsoon rutted mud roadways I paged my way, one country at a time, through Nelson Rand’s Conflict: Journeys through war and terror in Southeast Asia. This part of the continent has been, and in some places continues to be, a war ravaged corner of the world. It’s hard for me to imagine, shopping in the riverside markets and climbing through the gorgeous ruins of antiquity, planes flying over head, carpet bombing, families hiding out in the jungle, genocide, death, destruction. And yet, within my lifetime these have been realities in this part of the world. Instead of focusing on the big pictures and the official histories, Rand tells stories, first hand, of the people he’s met and the lives they’ve lived through war and terror, as the title suggests.
There is no shortage of interesting books to pick up on your travels through Southeast Asia, but if you’re looking for a well worn recommendation for a window into the heart of individual experiences across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, I heartily recommend this one.