Canada has been on my mind a lot recently. Partially because of international media coverage after the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. Partially because Prime Minister Trudeau got weird amounts of attention for his poufy hair and fancy socks at the G7 in Cornwall. But mostly because I haven’t been on Canadian soil for a year and a half.
That’s a long absence for me.
As more people are fully vaccinated (in Switzerland and Canada) and COVID-19 infection rates are going down in both countries, travel is starting to re-open. But plotting a trip ‘home’ has been complicated by quarantine requirements, lack of flights, previous commitments, and, above all, so much uncertainty.
I used to think “How many rooms is your place?” had an easy answer. But living in Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland has made differing approaches on room calculus abundantly clear. And the lockdown in Switzerland to flatten the COVID-19 curve has changed the equation again.
For the last few days, lying down has felt like being swallowed up. I sink as if my body is resting on moss, compressing the springy fauna and becoming part of the forest floor. My brain surrenders to the fog of jet lag and gives my body no choice but to resign itself to sleep.
Having returned to Copenhagen from the west coast of Canada a few days ago, I’m still adjusting to the nine hour time shift and the long, sleepless trip home. I have never been able to fall asleep on planes or in stiff gate-side seats, which means the two long flights and aimless hours at airports did not leave me feeling rested!
I remember travelling in the opposite direction (from Europe to Canada’s west coast) some years ago and going to a restorative yoga class the evening I landed. I managed to keep conscious throughout most of the practice, but the moss rose up and claimed my wakefulness during savasana. I managed to re-awaken with the rest of the class after savasana, but the teacher (who is also a friend) whispered to me afterwards that a few gentle snores escaped!
Sometimes sleep is exactly what is required and it can’t be fought! Perhaps, I need to make time for a restorative practice before long.
But, for now, life will not wait for the jet lag to pass and I’m left to battle the tiredness – although I hope it will only be for a few more days. Thankfully, jet lag doesn’t last forever.
Before we left Munich, I visited the Jewish Museum and really enjoyed their collections. I probably have a greater interest in Jewish culture and history than the average person (my undergrad studies focused on Old Testament literature and its historical Judaic context), but I suspect travellers curious about Germany’s history would be able to spend an hour or two wandering this four-story institution.
The heart of the permanent collection (located in the basement) features artifacts from Jewish life – things like Torah scrolls, Seder plates, Tefilin (small wearable prayer boxes), and Shofars (horns) – along with replicas that visitors are welcome to touch. An interactive map of Munich shows important Jewish sites (many destroyed during WWII) and there’s a touching floor-to-ceiling graphic novella.
My favourite bits of the lower floor were the items selected from the vast Jewish Museum holdings by individuals; each piece gave its historical importance and provenance along with the reasons that person picked it. Stand outs were a gorgeous embellished Torah cover from Munich’s Nazi-destroyed synagogue and a section of a cupboard from a concentration camp survivor. It was very interesting to learn why the artifacts were selected and examine their respective intricacies.
The top two floors house temporary exhibits and a permanent library. The exhibit on Jews between the two world wars (entitled WAR! Jews between the fronts 1914-1918) spanned both floors and described how Jewish Germans fought for the German side in WWI, contributed to the war effort in general, and how Jewish veterans were treated in the lead up to WWII. It was eye-opening and moving and gave me insight into the anti-semitism that pre-dated Hitler’s rise to power.
Given my love of the written word and my Masters in Library and Information Studies, it’s no surprise that the library captivated me most of all. Despite being a relatively small collection (likely under a thousand volumes), it was very diverse; novels, old encyclopedias, art books, graphic novels, pamphlets, poetry, magazines… in a range of languages – German, English, Hebrew, French, Czech, Russian – even Arabic!
Rather than following a standard classification system, the library was arranged by subject matter (noted on the spine label by a letter) and then accessioned. This system made for great thematic browsing as all the works on a particular subject matter were clumped together regardless of format or language.
Perhaps because it was so academically interesting and well-curated, my visit to the Jewish Museum Munich was rewarding and enriching – not depressing or anger-inducing as I’ve found at some Holocaust-centric exhibits. If you’re in Munich and want a break from Bavarian culture and beer, Jewish Museum Munich offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s Jewish-ness.
We’re kicking off the new year with big changes. On 1 January, we’re leaving Germany and returning to Canada. Our grown-up gap year adventure is wrapping up… and a new adventure is beginning.
Instead of returning to beautiful Vancouver or taking on Canada’s biggest metropolis (Toronto), we’re going to mix familiar and foreign (although far less foreign than Germany!) by settling in Calgary.
While neither of us have lived in Calgary before, my husband’s sister and her family live there and much of their extended family is in the province. We both lived in Edmonton (a 2 1/2 hour drive north) when we met and I’ve lived through four Albertan winters (my Northern-born husband has been through many more!), which is proof that I can survive -40º Celsius temperatures, deep snow drifts, and blinding mid-winter sun.
Gulp. That’s much more winter than I’m used to!
Mannheim is trying to help us get ready for Calgary’s winters by sending us off with snow. We woke to a wonderland of the white stuff, which made Sofie super happy. She loves the snow… and I suspect there will be lots of it waiting for us in Calgary!
There’s good reason for Strasbourg to bill itself as the Christmas Capital (capital de Noël). Starting in late November every year, the city is taken over by holiday decorations, almost a dozen different markets, and millions of visitors.
We arrived in Strasbourg on the first weekend the markets were open and made the mistake of starting at the busiest and biggest market on our first night. It was overwhelming. People pressed shoulder to shoulder, jostling each others’ vin chaud (hot spiced wine), competing to purchase Alsatian snacks, and craning to peer at the variety of Christmas trinkets for sale.
Crowded with competing noises and lights and smells, there was definitely no sense of holiday ‘peace and goodwill’ at Place Broglie!
After a round of vin chaud and a quick bite, we retreated from the Christkindelsmärik and stumbled on the light show at Place Kléber, Strasbourg’s largest square. We struggled to follow the story behind the show, but the lights and sounds were sufficiently impressive for the plot to be entirely unnecessary. The press of the people continued, however, and we called it a night.
We returned to our accommodations somewhat disillusioned, slightly agoraphobic, and more than a little worried that the markets might overwhelm Strasbourg’s charm.
Why did it seem like a good idea to join the more than 2 million tourists who visit la Capitale de Noël over a five week span? What were we thinking becoming part of the holiday hordes? Could this be Christmas overdose?
Thankfully, a late night dog walk that first night revealed a quieter, less frantic side to Strasbourg at Christmastime. The markets close relatively early (8pm on weekdays/9pm on weekends) and the city quickly emptied leaving only a few pedestrians and lots of glittering lights.
We found what may be the prettiest, glittery-est little street in the world between Temple Neuf and the Cathedral; strolled along the Ill River while watching the lights flicker on the water; enjoyed the unimpeded views of the half timbered houses of Petite France; and reveled in the peaceful quiet of the decorations.
This was the magic I had hoped for!
On subsequent days, we sought out a few of the quieter markets and Strasbourg’s charm returned. Without the overcrowding, we were able to linger over locally-produced goodies and intricate toys, chat with vendors, and enjoy our drinks without fearing that some stranger’s misplaced elbow would spill them.
Strasbourg proved itself worthy of its self-anointed ‘Christmas Capital’ title, but it was only by getting a little off the beaten path (or the worn cobblestones – ha!) that we were able to really enjoy what the city has to offer.
Ten Capitale de Noël Tips
Get out of the main tourist areas
Move beyond the Cathedral and Christkindelsmärik and explore the further flung, less crowded markets – which really aren’t that far! The official program has a map of all the markets.
Sample a few beverages
There are so many options! (Including many non-alcoholic possibilities.) Try vin chaud blanc, the local specialty, with its white wine-base and citrus/spice flavours. The hot beverages also have the added bonus of making everything seem a little warmer 😉
Likewise, explore the food options
Strasbourg has a fabulous mix of French- and German-inspired chow and there are likely a few things you haven’t eaten before.
Sauerkraut (choucroute in Alsace) with bacon (lardons) and pasta-like dumplings (schupfnudeln)? Yum!
Chestnuts – roasted or candied (marron chaud or glacé)? Not my favourite, but I’m glad to have tried them!
Fresh bread with a large smear of foie gras? Ohhh yes!
Try out your language skills
No matter how rusty you think your French is, give it a go! The vendors seemed to really happy to start a conversation in French, although almost all of them quickly switched to English.
Many people in the region also speak German, so if Sie sprechen Deutsch, that also works.
Order quickly and clearly when the markets are busy
Know what you want beforehand (generally the offerings are well-posted), hold off on the small talk, and save your broken French for later. When the lines are 30 people deep, efficiency is key!
Be prepared to walk a lot
Strasbourg is flat and all the markets but one are within reasonable walking distance. The easiest, cheapest, and often quickest method of transportation is hoofing it. At least you can take a warm mug of wine for the journey!
It’s winter. The markets are all outside. Hot wine can only keep you toasty for so long.
Many of the high-end stalls selling clothing, art, and decorations take international credit cards (and European bank cards), but food is pretty much a cash only exchange. The vendors really appreciate getting coins or exact change early in the day, but most are fine with breaking 50 € notes later in the day.
Strasbourg has lots to see beyond the markets: historical churches, chic department stores (Galeries Lafayette and Printemps), EU institutions, and a wine cellar at the City Hospital (link in French). In addition to escaping the crowds, these can be great places to warm up as well!
Stay out late
Strasbourg was at its most magical after the markets closed. Take an after dinner walk through Petite France to the picturesque Ponts Couverts; stroll under the huge chandeliers on Rue des Hallebardes; or enjoy the changing multicoloured lights that illuminate the buildings on Rue des Grandes Arcades.
The holiday lights in Strasbourg are fantastic and some of my favourite moments in the Capital de Noël were after market hours.
And a bonus tip: You can return the reusable cups to any drink stall to get your 1 € deposit back; no need to seek out the stall you bought your beverage from. Feel free to stroll between markets with your beverage without worrying that you’ll need to backtrack to return your glass.
The Strasbourg Christmas Markets
Listed in my highly-subjective order of preference 🙂
Le village belge – Belgian Village
Belgium is the featured region at this uncrowded market on place Gutenberg. The beer, chocolates, waffles, and fries are all as delicious as expected and the square lights up beautifully with changing colours at night.
Le marché des délices de Noël d’Alsace– Market of Alsatian Christmas Delights
Located outside the dense historical centre of Strasbourg on the place d’Austerlitz, this market features regional meats (like foie gras and sausage), baked goods (so many cookies!), and wine – including fantastic vin chaud blanc.
Le marché des irréductibles petits producteurs d’Alsace– Market of the Invincible Small Producers of Alsace
Tucked alongside the Petit France region of the city on place des meuniers, this rustic market has local producers promoting their own edible delicacies. The pride the sellers felt in their wares was evident and it was reflected in the quality of the food and beverages. And who doesn’t want to support ‘invincible’ artisans!?!
Le marché du Carré d’or
A lovely smaller market at place du Temple neuf with the standard market fare (vin chaud, sausages, trinkets, toys) along with a large tea stall and the only marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) I saw in Strasbourg.
Le Village du partage – The Village of Sharing
These few stalls next to the giant Christmas tree on the place Kléber are the feelgood section. Home-baked goods and charitable organizations make this a great do-gooder stop.
Le marché des Rois mages – Market of the Three Magi
Perhaps the smallest market, these stalls in place Benjamin-Zix offer gifts, toys, and other mostly non-edible purchases. Great to tie together with a visit to the Market of Invincible Small Producers.
Le marché de Noël de la Cathédrale– The Cathedral Christmas Market
Set up around Strasbourg’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame on the place de la Cathédrale is a fairly standard Christmas market with beautifully lit streets leading up to it and the towering Cathedral spires above.
Le marché du Corbeau
A small market with at place du Corbeau with mostly ornament and decoration stalls. A nice stop on the walk between the Market of Alsatian Christmas delights at Austerlitz and the Belgian Village or Cathedral Market.
Le Village des enfants – The children’s village
Just for kids, this market on place Saint Thomas seemed to really be a tent for holiday crafts. It was closed when we were there so it’s hard to tell what it was liked when filled with children. Cool wooden carvings around the tent, though.
Christkindelsmärik On the place Broglie, this is the largest (and most overwhelming) of Strasbourg’s markets. There’s the standard assortment of food and beverage sellers along with many stalls hawking souvenirs, art, housewares, and gifts.
Le marché de la Gare – Train station market
We didn’t actually make it to place de la Gare for what is apparently the least-toursity market in Strasbourg.
My first experience with a war cemetery was last January while driving from Antwerp to Bruges. We had taken a minor highway and stumbled across the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery. I was unprepared for the emotions that came up while walking along the rows of grave markers.
My heart swelled with pride, my stomach clenched with horror, my throat choked with the sense of loss, and my eyes welled with tears. I thought of all the people who fought against fascism and Nazism. All the people that didn’t make it home to their families. All the people injured and traumatized. All the grave markers without names. All the freedoms granted to subsequent generations.
We came across many war memorials during the three weeks we spent in a camper travelling across France. Every memorial, marker, and cemetery brought on that same convoluted gut-punch, choked-up sadness tinged with appreciation.
And it wasn’t just the Canadian memorials that were emotional.
We stopped at a war cemetery in Normandy (Mont-de-Huisnes) that houses almost 12,000 German dead – from both the First and Second World Wars. I didn’t feel the sense of pride that Canadian or Commonwealth memorials bring on, but the feeling of loss and futility was certainly there.
So many dead. So many families broken. So many loved ones lost. So many stories untold.
War cemeteries are light on context. There might be a plaque explaining the battle or operations that precipitated needing such mournful grounds, but generally the tombstones are left to speak for themselves. Memories of high school humanities and Wikipedia searches filled in some of the details for us, but often emotion took precedence over history.
Visiting the Juno Beach Centre, at the site of the Canadian D-Day landing in Normandy, and the privately funded Canada War Museum (which also had a Polish contingent) near Adegem provided some necessary background. As did the small info centre at the Vimy Ridge Memorial.
The magnitude of the operation was clear as marker after marker gave the same date of death – 19 August, 1942. A few pairs of brothers were buried beside each other and there were a number of dual graves with Air Force members who must have gone down in the same place.
Imagining the process of sorting out human remains and respectfully interring them brings up that stomach clench of reality again.
How horrible must that have been. How awful to see your comrades fall. How tortuous to identify the dead. And how dreadful to convey the news to their families.
After Dieppe, we stopped at Vimy – the site of a major Canadian battle in World War I, which has since come to symbolize Canada’s coming of age as a nation. In addition to the giant limestone monument honouring Canadians who risked or gave their lives in the First World War, the Vimy Ridge site contains graveyards, smaller memorials, and preserved tunnels, trenches, and craters from frontline fighting.
Seeing the proximity of the trenches and the deep craters from shells, bombs, and mines was a harrowing sight, but that distress was trumped when we reached the giant limestone monument erected in the mid-1930s (and pictured on the back of Canadian $20 bills).
The lower walls of the monument are inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France whose final resting place was unknown. Thousands of unidentified bodies buried in nameless graves. Not being able to identify soldiers after their deaths (for whatever reason… all the scenarios I can imagine are simply awful) deeply troubled me.
One of the cemeteries at Vimy has a plaque inscribed “Their Names Liveth Evermore.” But many of the tombstones have no names; they read “A Soldier of the Great War | Known Unto God.” Sometimes a regiment name as well, but often just a country – and occasionally not even that basic detail.
I was more upset leaving Vimy than after any previous war memorial or cemetery. The monument eloquently expresses the grief and sadness felt after the First World War, but yet the Second World War arose out of the reparations of what was presumed to be the only Great War. The sheer volume of tombstones inscribed with ‘Known Unto God’ clearly reflects the chaos and horror of war, but we are unable to stop repeating it.
The scope of all the cemeteries, all the memorials, all the monuments shakes me. It’s one thing to hear the figures (more than 17 million civilian and military deaths in WWI and an astonishing 22-25 million military deaths and 38-55 million civilian deaths in WWII) and quite another to stand amongst the rows of gravestones commemorating the real human sacrifice. The white stones carved with maple leaves mark the final resting places of some of my countrymen – 61,000 Canadian soldiers killed in WWI and more than 42,000 in WWII. Part of the over 118,000 Canadians who have died while serving our country in uniform.
Visiting war memorials, monuments, and cemeteries has really driven home the enormity and incredible loss of war for me. The quiet moments spent walking along the aisles of white stones are among the most profound I’ve experienced in the last year.
Remembrance. Sorrow. Gratitude. Pride. And above all, the fervent hope that war will be no more.