Monthly Archives: November 2012

Handle with care

Katie and I are packing up for our Monday flight home. Because the apartment came fully furnished, there really isn’t that much to get in order. We’re shipping one box home and the rest will come over with our checked baggage. One particular chunk of cargo, however, will remain by my side throughout the journey home. I’m not about to pack these prized possessions and chance that they might break.

You’ve heard us rave about the Weissbier over here — that delicious, pure, full-bodied wheat beer that defines Bavaria. Well, like many fine beers, there’s a specific glass you’re supposed to use when drinking Weissbier. Over the last several months I’ve collected a few of them so that I can enjoy my new favorite beer in the States in proper fashion. Below the picture I’ll post a note about each glass.

One glass for each day of the week (and three on Sunday).

One glass for each day of the week (and three on Sunday).

From left to right:

Maierbräu Landler Weisse — From the bar right around the corner from our apartment. Katie’s favorite Weissbier.

Schneider-Weisse — My co-favorite Weissbier. This glass is from the Weissen Bräuhaus in Munich’s Marienplatz.

Hofbräu — Naturally, this glass is from the famous Hofbräuhaus.

Ayinger — My other co-favorite Weissbier. This glass was a gift to us from our good friends at Dhaba, the Indian restaurant in Schwabing that Katie and I went to some two-dozen times. It was that good. (It didn’t hurt that they served one of my favorite beers.)

Paulaner — A name most of us back home are familiar with. I can’t remember where this glass came from. I must have had a lot of Weissbier that night.

Augustiner Bräu — Another one of Katie’s favorites. This glass came to us from Augustiner’s beer garden in Munich.

Herrnbräu — A delicious Weissbier that I had when we visited Rothenburg, Germany. It’s from Bürgerkeller restaurant, which also had some of the best German food we had this entire year. The owner of the restaurant was kind enough to give me the glass. (And a crazy story — I couldn’t remember where I got this glass at first. So I searched “what restaurants serve herrnbrau in munich” and one of the top search results that Google gave me was a link to my blog about Rothenburg, where I had mentioned the same story!)

Franziskaner — A beer I had never heard of before visiting Munich, but one that seems to only be rivaled by Hofbräu when it comes to local publicity. A very popular beer. This glass is from our Schwabing neighborhood restaurant Wassermann.

Fürstenberg — The only place we ever saw this beer was at Kun-Tuk, a fantastic Thai restaurant about a 20-minute walk from our apartment. They were kind enough to give us this glass.

Prost!

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Wroclaw, Poland

We made our final country visit of the year this past weekend, visiting a land that’s as much a part of our heritage as Germany. It was a fitting time to visit, given the Thanksgiving weekend. We were unable to be with family, but between living in Germany, a Thursday trip to Salzburg’s Christmas Market and the weekend trip to Poland, we were able to think of family as we traveled the same roads as our ancestors.

We chose Wroclaw for our trip to Poland because 1) the flight was affordable (we didn’t want to drive nine hours nor sit on a train for 14 hours, hence the flight) and 2) their annual Christmas Market began that Friday.

Katie and I had little expectations for Poland. We assumed it would be somewhat of a mixture of the German and Russian cultures, which it most definitely is, and we figured it would look and feel a little like the Czech Republic or Hungary, two nearby countries that we had been to. As for Wroclaw, we had absolutely no expectations. We didn’t even know it existed until searching for Christmas markets in the country. It’s actually the fourth-largest city in Poland and home to over 600,000 people. We learned that the name isn’t pronounced at all like it’s spelled, which is a common trait of the Polish language, actually. Phonetically spelled out it’s “va-roat-swaf” (or something like that). Even more interesting is the fact that it used to be a German city — just one of a handful of other countries or kingdoms that have claimed the city as their own at some point since its inception in the 10th century. Germans still refer to it by its German name — Breslau.

As for our trip, we left on Friday morning and had a quick flight directly to Wroclaw that took about 75 minutes. We flew on one of LOT Air’s smaller planes — so small that the baggage was stored in the front and the passengers entered from the back. Both wings had exposed and incredibly loud propellers that we were fortunate enough to sit right next to (both ways). And the seats had ashtrays. Awesome. But the thing still took off and landed like any other plane and before we knew it we were riding the bus into the city center. The 40-minute bus ride cost us 3 Polish zlotys each — or $1. Countries with their own currency can be either very expensive or very cheap. Poland proved to be the latter. (They were slated to adopt the Euro in 2014 but I think they’re going to wait even longer given the mess that the Euro currency is in right now.)

We had a 30-minute walk from the bus station to our hotel, a walk that took us right through the Christkindlmarkt (that’s the term for the Christmas Market’s out here — it literally means “Christ Child Market”). Katie kept averting her eyes because she didn’t want to see any of the market until we dropped off our bags. But I couldn’t resist sniffing out a kielbasa stand for a quick lunch. I’m a huge fan of Polish sausage and had previously said the offerings in Munich’s Marienplatz were the best I had ever had in my entire life. That’s no longer true. Meet the new title holder:

No mustard or ketchup needed.

It looks like your average Polish sausage, but the flavors told a different story. And the consistency of the sausage was unlike anything I had ever experienced, either. The casing wasn’t that tough and the meat itself was chewier. Delicious. (Katie’s very proud of my in-depth food review of the Polish sausage.)

After scarfing that down and checking into the Art Hotel, located just off the Market Square (where the Christmas Market was taking place), we set out to explore our second Christkindlmarkt in as many days and countries (we were at the market in Salzburg, Austria on Thanksgiving). Knowing that we’d be back the following days, we decided to just take the entire spectacle in as we walked from stand to stand. There were plenty of ornaments and other Christmas decorations to be found, as well as delicious treats like olsypek (bread-bites filled with smoked-cheese — very much like Wisconsin cheese curds) and roasted nuts. Of course, we had a couple of mugs of gluhwein, too. Our favorite was the original recipe with a touch of rum added to it.

The market itself spans the eastern and southern sides of Wroclaw’s iconic and massive Market Square (the only European city with a bigger central plaza is Krakow). It then continues along the eastern side beyond Market Square for a couple of blocks. It’s about as big as Salzburg’s was, but more spread out and arguably better decorated.

A very patient man spent five minutes taking this picture for us.

That night we ate at jaDka (yes, I typed that right) and feasted on an appetizer of authentic pierogi — Polish dumpings filled with meat and cheese — and entrees of wild boar with cranberry sauce and halibut with an orange-saffron risotto. The only thing missing was a nice, big horn of mead. (I settled for wine.) After dinner we visited a couple of bars to sample the local Polish beer (nothing too great — but we’re spoiled in Germany) and the chilled vodka (we did it just to do it — neither one of us much enjoys sipping vodka). We continued to enjoy the low prices in Wroclaw, paying about $1.50 per beer.

The following day we set out for the Raclawice Panorama — a famous panoramic painting of Poland’s legendary Battle of Raclawice. The massive painting is 15 meters high by 114 meters long and sits in a specially-designed room to give visitors a full panoramic view of the artists’ work. What’s more impressive is how the artists incorporated real objects at the base of the painting to give the entire work a 3D feel to it.

Can you see where the painting and floor meet?

Tours take place every half hour for the nominal price of $8 (or $6 if you’re a student). We loved it and would recommend it to anyone passing through Wroclaw.

From there we wandered into Wroclaw’s “Cathedral Isle,” one of several islands just north of the city center that sit in the Oder river. It’s the oldest part of the city and features several churches, including the impressive St. John’s Cathedral. The streets in this part of the city are all cobblestone and are lit only by old-fashioned oil lamps. It supposedly makes for quite a romantic setting in the evening, though we were passing through it during the daytime. On the western side of the island we crossed the popular Tumski bridge — which features hundreds of pad locks chained to the bridge by couples from past and present (and the keys to each lock are sitting at the bottom of the river) — before circling our way back into town.

Wroclaw’s Cathedral Isle.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking where we could and enjoying a not-too-cold Saturday. But with a Christkindlmarkt so close to us, it was only a matter of time before we were sucked back in and we spent a few pre-dinner hours wandering Market Square once again. During the daytime we could see the colorful buildings that line all sides of the square, the same buildings featured on many Wroclaw postcards. They reminded us of several German cities we’ve been to and even the Nyhavn boardwalk in Copenhagen.

Look at all the pretty colors.

We also stopped for a pre-dinner dessert (naturally) and grabbed a sekacz pyramid cake. Katie had read about these and really wanted to try them. So we waited in line for 30 minutes at the Christkindlmarkt (they’re a popular item) to get one. The entire thing is a hollow cylinder of dough that’s wrapped in a spiral to make it easy to eat. You can get all sorts of toppings. We went with chocolate and peanuts. It was very good. Katie — ever the entrepreneur — wanted to go back and buy more of them and turn around and sell them to people at the back of the line for a dollar more. (That’s why I love her.) (No, we did not end up doing that.)

Mmmmmm.

Dinner the second night was at a casual place called Kurna Chata, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in the city. The decor was very rustic and the menu featured old-fashioned, authentic Polish fare that’s still making my stomach growl. We both jumped at the chance to try the restaurant’s goulash (which we’ve both become obsessed with this year — particularly during the winter months). Katie’s came complete with baked cheese on top and a burning ring of sugar around the bowl. Mine had more of a Hungarian spin to it with crispy potato pancakes underneath. We enjoyed every bite. We stopped in a place next door for a couple of after-dinner drinks before calling it a night.

We spent our final morning in Wroclaw by attending Mass at St. Elizabeth’s church, located just steps from our hotel. Hearing a Mass in Polish was even more foreign-sounding that hearing a Mass in German. To the right of the altar was a large plaque dedicated to Pope John Paul II whom, as you might imagine, the Polish are just a wee bit proud of. We also had a rather bizarre experience just after the homily ended. The old woman sitting to Katie’s left had apparently dozed off. A younger woman (we assume the old woman’s daughter) sitting to her left was slapping her hands, trying to wake her up. The slapping became more intense and the young woman’s urges grew louder, and soon Katie and I realized that this older woman wasn’t waking up. She even started to drop her head. Her glasses fell off and the color was draining from her face. The younger woman called Poland’s equivalent of 9-1-1 and Katie and I were convinced this woman was dying. A man sitting on the other side of the two women leaned in to offer assistance. Together, he and I positioned the old woman so that she was laying down on the pew. It was rather awkward because I spoke no Polish and no one in this crowd of people spoke any English (mind you, the Mass was still going on). So it took a while for the man to communicate to me that he wanted me to help him carry the woman out. I didn’t have time (or the language skills) to question that decision, so I obliged. And just as we were lifting her up off the pew, she woke up. She then sat up, looked around and then left with the younger woman. When we left church after Mass we saw the younger woman talking to the driver of an ambulance.

We have no idea what happened. Either she fainted (very gradually), fell asleep (very soundly), took too many pills of some kind or, perhaps, she actually started dying and then decided she wanted to live. Who knows. It was all very strange. I’m just glad that she ended up walking out on her own power.

All of that life-saving work made me hungry. So we went straight from Mass back to the Christkindlmarkt so I could have one more kielbasa before packing up and heading home. While I stuffed my face with the most delicious sausage of all time, Katie chowed down on a shish kabob-like spear of chicken, bacon, onions and green peppers. We burned off the calories with one final walk around the market where we made a few purchases for people back home. Then we went back to the hotel, packed and walked to the bus for our $1 ride to the airport.

So there you have it. Poland. Our 16th and final country of the year. More pictures are on our Flickr page. We both thought a lot about our Polish relatives while in Wroclaw. It seemed to be a fitting end to our travels. Now we’re back in Munich and winding down life as Germans. We fly back to the States next Monday.

Look for some fun recap-type blogs in the days ahead! In the meantime, we hope you’re all enjoy the Christmas and holiday season!

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A day to remember

Truth be told, this year has been full of days to remember. Living in Europe for a year kind of has that effect. But the day I’m writing about today — the day my family and I remember today — is the day my dad died. No matter how many times I’ve talked about it or written about it over the past few weeks, it still seems unreal that 15 years have passed since November 23, 1997. And come next year I’ll reach that unavoidable milestone in which I will have lived as many years without him as I did with him (I was 16 when he passed away). In so many ways it seems like just yesterday. And at the same time it seems like forever ago …

Every year on this day my family and I come together in some way to remember my father. It’s always something different, but it’s always something. Often times we’ll gather together for dinner. We visit his grave. Emails usually get passed around in the days leading up to today. One year I made ‘care packages’ in honor of my dad, complete with all of his favorite sweets (and a small bottle of rum, of course). As many of you know, I’ve been known to share some sort of tribute to him in writing on my music website. (A few of which can be read here, here and here.) My brothers have also both written about him in the past. Ben shared this essay with us in 2008 and went on to write an entire book about him. Mike posted this on his blog this past April.

Obviously, with my being in Germany this year, I won’t be able to physically be with my family today (which usually isn’t a problem since it falls right around the Thanksgiving holiday). It won’t be the first time I’m out of town on this day (I remember being on a Bucks road trip or two), but it’s the first time I’ll be out of the country. And as it turns out, I won’t even be in Germany. This morning Katie and I will hop on a plane and head to Wroclaw, Poland. We’re going to spend the weekend there and enjoy one final country visit before this wonderful year (and blog) comes to an end. It’s a chance to put a 16th notch in our “Countries Visited” belt, but more importantly, it’s a chance to connect with the Polish roots that we both have. Having lost both my grandparents in the past year, I’m especially looking forward to the trip (my grandpa was a proud, proud Polish man).

But as we leave Munich and fly to Poland, I assure you that my thoughts will be of my father, from whom I have my German heritage and of whom I’ve thought about often while exploring the wonderful state of Bavaria during what I can now say has been the greatest year of my life. I spent the early part of this year doing some family research on the Wessel side. My goal was to trace us back to a city where I might be able to visit and look up some family records. Alas, I was only able to trace us back to the area of Baden-Baden, but nothing more specific — and even that could be wrong. (Still, I felt mighty proud when we stopped in Baden-Baden on our way back from Basel in September.)

My efforts to trace our German starting point were coupled with separate efforts to learn more about my father from his two brothers, Dan and Bill, and his sister, Mary. We exchanged several emails — me asking questions and them sharing answers. It was funny when their answers contradicted one another, but for the most part they were able to give me some insight into Tom Wessel that I had never before had. I have my memories, my mom’s memories and the memories of my siblings, but until earlier this year I had never really tapped into the memories of my dad’s siblings, at least not collectively. I learned that he began his college career at IU-Jeffersonville before transferring to Indiana University (he’d love the fact that the Hoosiers are ranked #1 this year). I learned that he didn’t learn to play the guitar until after college (a wise hobby to pick up as it helped him meet my mom). I learned that, when he was young, my grandma used to tie one end of a piece of rope around his waist and the other around a tree so he could play in the backyard without running away. I learned that his best subject was math. I learned that he was usually optimistic (but sometimes frustrated) when talking to his siblings about his cancer battle. I learned a lot.

I guess all of this is to say that my coming to Germany was more than just a chance for Katie and I to see the world. It was a chance for me to spend some quality time with thoughts about my dad and to dig a little deeper into the life of a man who continues to shape who I am today, even 15 years after saying good-bye. Even though I wasn’t able to consult him as to whether or not we should make this move, I always imagined he would have told me to go for it. (I also like to think he would have loved this blog.)

I miss you, dad. I’ll be thinking of you today, like every day.

The proudest dad in the world.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like … you know

When we emerged from the subway station last Friday after our flight back to Munich, we noticed that the trees were significantly more bare and the weather significantly more frigid than when we left in late October. But that wasn’t the only change. We also noticed that Munich is gearing up for the Christmas season. Just like back home, most of the shops in Germany carry some sort of Christmas theme throughout the store and in the windows. Christmas lights are visible throughout the city and the Marienplatz adds a few more wooden stalls each day — stalls that will house the many retailers who hope to peddle their goods when the infamous Christkindlmarkt opens up on November 30.

These star-shaped lights are spread throughout the Marienplatz.

All of the sights and sounds of the season led to an interesting conversation yesterday. We were talking about how none of the decorations or lights gave us the impression of being “up too early.” In the States, we see holiday commercials and store displays as soon as Halloween is over. Despite the warm-and-fuzzy feelings we can’t help but feel upon seeing our first glimpse of the holiday season, parts of us are more or less wired to comment about how disgusting it is that retailers and the like have all but forgotten Thanksgiving and are “already” promoting Christmas. We write it off as greed and we call it inappropriate.

But here we are in Germany — the same time of year with the same influx of commercial holiday-ness — and we’re not at all bothered by it. In fact, we’re going out of our way to immerse ourselves in it. We’re seeking out glühwein (the delicious, hot, spiced wine that’s sold during the winter months), shopping for Christmas gifts and stopping to admire (not bemoan) the beautiful, animated storefronts. We’re even planning our final two weekends around which Christmas markets to attend (the current plan has us going to five of them before we leave — including two in different countries).

We couldn’t help but feel somewhat envious that Germans don’t have Thanksgiving to keep them from celebrating Christmas — or at least feeling bad about celebrating Christmas — too early. That sounds terrible to say, but it’s the truth. Perhaps one month simply isn’t enough time to celebrate “the most wonderful time of the year.” Perhaps we ought to be thankful that the commercial aspect of the holiday season means we get to jump into it earlier than we otherwise would (although I would still like to see Black Friday banned). If we look through a more optimistic lens and embrace having two months of Christmas instead of one, would that really be a bad thing?

Germans don’t have the guilt trip that we do of celebrating Christmas too early. Once November hits, it’s time to focus on the holiday season. And considering that 90% of our American Christmas traditions (both how we celebrate it and depict it) comes from the German culture, perhaps we should be more forgiving when it comes to starting the celebration a few weeks earlier.

Thanksgiving will always have its place. It’s one of mine and Katie’s favorite holidays because of its intent focus on family time, the idea of “sharing a meal,” and, of course, the delicious food (and football). But can’t we celebrate Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving and celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday on either side of it?

I think so. And when I grow up and have a house, I just might put my Christmas lights up BEFORE Thanksgiving (and even turn them on!).

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One last leg

Katie and I fly back to Munich tonight for the final leg of our European adventure. We’ll be there for a few weeks before packing up shop and coming back to the States for good in early December. It’s mind-boggling to think about how fast this year went.

Look for a few more posts along the way. We’re hoping to get to one final country (hopefully Poland) and several of the Bavarian Christmas markets (which start in late November).

Blessings to all of you. Stay tuned!

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