December 20th, 2014.
During one of our days in Germany, we took a day trip to Dusseldorf to explore the city, visit their Christmas markets, and claim some more Christmas cups.
Our first impression when boarding the train bound to Dusseldorf was that it was incredibly quiet, clean, and comfortable. Maybe too quiet, clean, and comfortable? I decided that we must have boarded the first-class carriage, so I made us walk to the next. Three carriages later, I was starting to wonder how many first-class carriages there could possibly be when Stephen hissed, “Just sit down already. Can’t you see that this must be the regular carriage?” Slightly miffed at his tone, I sat down and saw the two girls in front of us turn around and smirk before quickly averting their eyes when they saw me looking. I later heard them whisper that they had basically done the same thing a week earlier, so that made me a feel better about my own confusion.
Once we arrived and exited the train station, we were greeted by a huge Christmas pyramid. Our first market of the day! We strolled over to a stand and ordered a cup of glühwein to warm us up as we walked. We smiled at the attendant and ordered in German, and as he was handing us our glasses, he said “You know, I speak English. We all speak English. You really don’t have to order in German.” We were mortified that our German might have been bad enough for him to wish we hadn’t even attempted it. He must have sensed our embarrassment because he gave us suggestions on what treats to try and a few samples before we walked away.
The markets in Dusseldorf focused much more on handmade items. Booths were set up so you could see woodworkers actually making the wooden toys, Christmas pyramids, and ornaments. We had so much fun browsing these stalls and watching the craftsmen at work.
A few hours later at the next stall, remembering our earlier embarrassment, we ordered right away in English, only to have the cashier look not only affronted but also confused. He obviously did not speak English. We repeated our request in German, and that mollified him somewhat, but he still wasn’t too pleased with us. This marked the last time we ordered anything in English. Thanks a lot, other stall guy.
We spent the rest of the day hopping from one market to the next and exploring the quaint and picturesque town. At one point, we walked down to the Rhein river, where we could see sheep grazing along the other bank.
At one of these markets, Stephen put some change in his pocket, and while he was extracting his hand, a receipt fell out onto the sidewalk. I kid you not, it felt like everyone in the vicinity came to a stand-still. Dozens of eyes darted between Stephen and the piece of paper, no, the piece of litter, that he had dared to let drop on their clean, immaculate street. People walking beside us slowed down. A shopkeeper hanging out in a doorway in front of us even took a step closer as if to pick up the offending item himself before it caused any more distress. Stephen slowly bent down and, in a manner more befitting to disposing of grenades than tree pulp, picked up the paper, and made a show of depositing it in the trash bin nearby. I swear there was a communal sigh of relief. The shopkeeper spared us a quick nod (of respect?) before going back to his post.
I couldn’t help but feel that this had been some sort of test, and that we had passed. This was also the first and last time I have ever seen rubbernecking over a wadded up piece of paper. If this sort of public litter-shaming were commonplace all over Europe, the street-sweepers in London would be out of a job. These Dusseldorf-ians were a people after my own heart. There is nothing I despise more than a mess. Although we laughed over this incident at the time, I filed it away for later. Would the same glare work when Stephen dropped his dirty socks on the floor at home? I resolved then and there to try it sometime. Disappointingly, I have to admit the experiment was unsuccessful. One glaring wife does not have the same effect as a dozen glaring Germans.
I can’t write my last post about the Christmas markets without mentioning the salmon. Most people I know get sausage after sausage at these Christmas markets. They are doing it wrong. I know that sausages seem like a safe bet- no, a requirement- in Germany, but, again, this is wrong. Let everyone else stand for half an hour in the sausage line to get a heart-clogging brat. In fact, encourage them. More salmon for you! You can do much better than a currywurst. Make your way to the line-free salmon stand and watch while they slide a big chunk of flame-licked salmon off of a cedar plank right into a soft white roll and top it all off with creamy dill sauce. Your stomach and your arteries will thank you. I have never had such delicious fish in my life. In fact, I will go so far as to say it was the best thing I have ever eaten. In my entire life. We were in Germany for 4 days, and I had the salmon for every single meal. If I lived in some sort of fantasy world in which there were Christmas markets all year long, I would move to Germany and never eat any other food again.
On the way back, we boarded the first train bound for Cologne. We entered a small hallway, and to our surprise and delight, it was lined with compartments that had sliding doors and looked like a very clean, ultra modern, and less charming version of the Hogwarts Express. Am I the only one who thought this set-up was a thing of the past, relegated to nostalgic luxury steam trains, along with velvet seats and gas lamps? I’ve never seen such a thing in the UK, although the Fab Four do ride in one in A Hard Day’s Night, but again, that was filmed a long time ago. Either way, I am happy to report this setup is alive and well in Germany.
A few minutes after we finished geeking out over this development and exclaiming over how nice all German trains are, the ticket inspector came around to check our tickets. He gave us a stern look and informed us that our tickets were not valid on this service and traveling without a valid ticket incurred a fine. He said all of this in German first, of course, and when we stared at him uncomprehendingly, he switched to English. When we continued to stare and look confused, he explained the different tickets and train lines. We were on a nicer, faster train for which you must purchase a more expensive ticket. We had bought the cheapest train ticket, so our ticket was only valid on the slower, more basic train service, and he repeated that this violation warranted a fine. We started asking confused questions again, trying to figure out exactly what train we should have taken, and at this point he must have either decided that dealing with such inquisitiveness at 11 pm wasn’t worth his salary, or he recognized that we were woefully ill–informed and decided to cut us some slack. Either way, he rolled his eyes, threw up his hands, and walked out (some evidence for the first interpretation?), leaving us to enjoy our fancy compartment in peace for the rest of the journey.
Two days later, we headed back to England with one gnome, one Christmas pyramid, and seven very festive mugs. Any time one of us is feeling cold, down, or under-the-weather, we make a cup of tea in one of those cups, and it brings a little cheer into our day.
Have you ever been to a Christmas market? Do you have any markets that you particularly recommend, or any souvenirs that you still cherish?