The Christmas experience in Europe.
I am not a very Christmassy person. Other than the gathering of family, which is always nice, my association with Christmas (because I am not religious) has been shopping centers and family feuds. I have never gotten into the decorations or the Christmas carols; although, it has start slowly growing on me with more and more of my siblings popping out children. Christmas seems far more exciting with all the magic children bring, but, even so, I was generally indifferent. I can’t believe I am about to say this, and I know my sister will be bursting with pride reading this being a Christmas fanatic herself…The Christmas experience in Europe has quite possibly converted me. They just seem to do it whole heartedly, you can’t not feel the Christmas spirit.
The Streets of Bremen
I was lucky enough to experience snow in the build up to Christmas. Although the fairytale of a white Christmas was not exactly met, it was close enough to Christmas for it to feel like part of the festivities; As I mentioned in the previous blogpost, (which you can read here: Fraternizing with the famous, snow!...) it was magical. Christmas really is celebrated thoroughly here… it is everywhere, which I would have assumed would have been my worst nightmare, but it really wasn’t; I watched the streets transform through the end of November and the beginning of December. Stars get placed in windows everywhere. Homes, businesses, and the streets of the city center get transformed with fairy lights, which go up everywhere, and I mean everywhere; the city gets lit up. It is nothing like I have ever seen. In Durban, we have one street (West street) that gets rows of Christmas bells or trees or some other Christmas imagery drawn out in neon lights, in duplication all along the street. It has become a little tradition to, at some point during the festive season, drive down the street; but, generally, and especially since I have gotten older, it’s a bit of a letdown. The lights are usually more sad than joyous, often very old looking and usually partly broken, but it’s fun none the less. In Bremen, they take it to a whole new level; it’s not just one street it’s the entire city center. Everything seemed so much classier too. Back home the more colourful and gaudy the better; kitsch is cool. But here, everything seems so tasteful. I did not see a single Christmas tree light up with those overly colourful Christmas lights that flash and change colours. The streets and outside trees (yes… I said outside trees) were decorated with tiny little plain fairy lights, but not sparingly like I’m familiar with; where you have a 30cm length of lights to wrap around 2 meters of tree, oh no, they seem to have hundreds of lights, making everything glow a pale golden colour. These lights hang on bushes, trees, gutters, stair railing, and ceilings of shopping districts everywhere. Often with a little greenery thrown in, some pine sprigs maybe. They go all out, even the robots (traffic lights) get Christmas themed.
All my life I have wondered why the fake Christmas trees everyone seems to have back home are designed the way they are? They usually look nothing like the fresh trees you can get in SA and are generally pretty sparse and sad, unless you can afford the more expensive, lush looking trees. Well, I finally understand why they look the way they do; the Christmas pine tree here looks exactly like the fake trees we have, except better (obviously), their branches stick out straight and are sturdy, the leaves are thin but solid. The tree is dark green and lush with a single strand at the top of the tree perfect for a star or angel (they really grow like this). The decorations seem to sit comfortably and don’t make the tree look droopy and sad. Lights are the main decoration and then some ornaments, very few trees had tinsel come to think of it. No one seemed to have fake trees, which makes sense since the real ones are perfect. The inside trees are mostly decorated with clip on lights that are shaped like candles, which are so lovely. I imagine these lights come from a tradition that used real candles. I can, however, understand why no one uses real candles anymore, talk about a fire hazard.
German Christmas market
Germany is known for its Christmas markets, which really adds to the Christmas buzz. The Bremen Christmas market, although not nearly the biggest, is apparently considered one of Germany’s most attractive; I assume this is because of its location. The market is nestled amongst beautiful historic buildings, such as the Town Hall and the Cathedral. The streets get filled with wooden cabins, trucks and trailers of Christmas goods and food. All the stands are decorated and, again, they go all out. The whole town square is buzzing. Most of the stalls are food or bars, which seem to really enhance the atmosphere. Its becomes less about shopping (like I know Christmas to be) and more about standing outside with your friends eating sausages and bretzel’s and drinking glühwien (warm red wine with spices). The stalls that sold goods where mainly warm clothing like scarves and beanies, some jewellery, and Christmas goods, like the paper stars that hang in all the windows. There was one hut, which was entirely dedicated to Christmas ornaments. Although it was really fabulous to be in the Christmas market; I went a few times as it was open for about 20 days. It did have some negatives; depending when you went it did get a little too full and very filled with tourists. These Christmas markets are a huge tourist attraction, you can literally go on a tour through Germany dedicated to stopping at all the markets, so It gets a little nuts. I know I am a tourist, but I can totally understand locals hating it.
Although I spent the majority of the build up to Christmas in Bremen, I was lucky enough to see a little more outside of Germany and spent a few days over Christmas in Denmark with some family. This was wonderful for so many reasons. One, I didn’t have to spend Christmas alone. Two, I got to be around, speak to, and have physical contact with other humans, without language barriers (don’t get me wrong I speak to many people in Germany, but it’s often very shallow interactions. Some family time was really appreciated.). Three, Dane (the person, more specifically my other half, not the Danish person) had flown in from home to spend Christmas with me and his family. Four I got to experience a Danish Christmas!!! It was so fun. I have been brought up on a rather traditional English, I think, Christmas. The main festivities happen on the 25th December. The morning usually dedicated to gift giving leading to a Christmas lunch, which usually consists of: some delicious starter (this seems to change most years), for mains a roast Gammon and Chicken, sometimes a lamb, mixed roast veg, some roast potatoes, apple sauce and gravy (I am probably forgetting things here) and it usually ends off with pudding; on a hot Christmas a pavlova, but there will always be Christmas cake (fruit cake) sometimes warm Christmas pudding with custard and mince pies. The Danes do it slightly differently; they celebrate with the main meal, gathering and gift giving happening on Christmas Eve, 24th December. This is really great, the fact that it happens in the evening, the date is much of a muchness. Its great because it allows you the whole day to slowly and calmly prepare the meal. I had the privilege of being part of the meal preparation from start to finish.
What they eat, or rather what we ate: The meal consisted of a roast Duck (biggest Duck I had ever seen), a roast gammon (this wasn’t done according to Danish tradition), and a roast pork (this part is reasonably normal, it’s the sides that get interesting). They have baby potatoes that are boiled, the skin is removed and then they are browned by frying in white sugar and butter. Because they are baby potatoes and they seem to be the most prized part of the meal, we had to make a lot of them. This means peeling what seems to be hundreds of potatoes. It would have been terrible, but sitting around a table with a big bowl of potatoes and a few family members laughing and joking makes tedious work fun. Cooking these is a pretty hairy task; for the most part it looks like everything is going wrong, the butter looks like its burning and the sugar gets lumpy and doesn’t appear to stick to the potatoes, but, they sit in there long enough and it all turns out in the end. They also traditionally have cooked red cabbage, I wasn’t part of this preparation, but apparently, it has apple, vinegar, cranberry juice and sugar in it. For dessert: ‘ris ala mande‘ (a cream rice pudding); you start off by boiling rice in milk and vanilla. Blanch almonds to peal the skins off of them, so you end up back around the table this time popping hundreds of almonds out their skin. The rice is mixed with the now ground almonds, sugar, lots of whipped cream and sherry. It is usually served with jarred cherries. Delicious, but the juice from the cherries does make the pudding look like brains, not so appetizing. Traditionally, and we did this, there is one whole almond hidden in the bowl of pudding; The aim of the game is to find the almond in the bowl you dish up. Should you find the almond you have to keep it on the down low until the end of the meal, you can then announce your victory and get rewarded with a little gift (the almond prize). After the meal is complete: there is some singing of Christmas carols, which are sung holding hands around the Christmas tree (we did not do this part). We did, however, try sing one Danish Christmas carol and one English one, though not very successfully. I am sure most would have cringed at our attempt. But, there was a lot of laughter and fun and I enjoyed the attempt none the less. Finally, the evening is finished off with gift giving. It was all wonderful.
The Street Gallery
Seeing as it was Christmas and I went away to Denmark, I took a small break from art making. But I most definitely did not take a break from art viewing. Whilst I was in Denmark, I managed to catch a train to a nearby town call Næstved. We went to this town with a very specific purpose, to see street art. Næstved is apparently Denmark’s unofficial capital for Street Art, well according to the towns website, I am sure this can be debated. One bus ride and two trains later we arrive in this funny little town and started our adventure. I titled this section the street gallery, because that is exactly how it felt. The town has commissioned a number of big murals around the city, painted by street artists from around the world. There was some normal, traditional vandal style, graffiti, but it was mostly these very specific, huge, finished artworks, painted on the side of buildings. The shape of the building framed the mural like any canvas or frame would contain a traditional artwork. The experience of moving from one mural to the next gives the same feeling as walking to the next artwork in a gallery. But on a much, much larger scale, both in the scale of the art and the gallery. They have managed to, in my opinion, successfully, transform the entire little town into one huge gallery. In many ways, it is much better than a gallery. Viewing the work is an adventure. It was a treasure hunt. On the towns website, they had a, not so up to date, list of all the walls painted and the addresses but, there was no specific map. Finding the walls was truly a treasure hunt, and tremendously rewarding. We spent an entire day walking around the town finding murals. It was a brilliant way to not only experience art but experience the town. I know I have said it before, but I think that it is my top art view experience thus far. It may not have been viewing a Michelangelo or a Picasso, but was a completely interactive experience that was more than viewing art in a white cube. The surrounding, seeing context to the artwork, breathed life into them, even not so good murals where still enjoyable. Find out more about the murals in this little Town here: Nastved
Right now, I am back in Germany at my artist residency and have got back to making new work. I have a small exhibition coming up soon in the Parliament building (part funders of the residency). So, I will be working towards that, and selecting works that will be on view there for a few days. I will be sure to let you know more about that next time.
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