My Christmas Vacation

Christmas is sort of a big deal for my family; we’ve spent the holidays together for the past 25 years (give or take a fews years being that I have two younger sisters).  My mom pulls out her Mary Poppins bag of Christmas decorations and transforms our house into a winter wonderland.  She sets out countless nativities, nutcrackers, wraps garland around the banisters, bakes like Betty Crocker, and my parents light up the front of the house like the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation.  (I say this all of this endearingly – I love Christmas at home and I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

Well, this year was my first Christmas ever away from home.  And for me, honestly, it’s sort of like Christmas didn’t really even happen.  Like this year is just going to be double the days between the winter holidays.  Strange.  Not sad necessarily, just different.  But I also realized how much I value that time with my family; it’s one of the few times where we all just get to sit and enjoy being together.  And I realized that in my “adult life,” spending the holiday together is a priority for me.  Not that it hasn’t been in the past, but we’ve all just conveniently been around for it.  But now I know, no matter where I go, I’ll always want to come home for Christmas.   

That said, I decided not to go home for the holidays this year since I’m only six months into my Peace Corps service and I think it would be hard to trek all the way home now with 18 months still awaiting me in Moldova.  Instead, I decided to travel a bit through Europe.  See some cities that I didn’t get to the last time around.  Hey, if I couldn’t be home, I did want to do something fun and exciting for the holidays!  And go where there would be LOTS of Christmas.  Everywhere.

So a friend and I embarked on what I like to call the “BAB.”  (I have to credit my position at ASU for this one, and my colleague Jill Johnson.  We were constantly coming up with funny acronyms for events.  If you’ve ever done event planning, saying/writing the entire event name gets old quickly.)  But “BAB” stands for Berlin, Amsterdam and Belgium. 

In order to find cheap enough tickets for our meager Peace Corps budget, we had to take an overnight train from the capital of Moldova to Bucharest, Romania.  It’s an old train, and they actually have to spend hours at the border changing the wheels because Romania’s tracks are more modern.  We learned that this train ride also has ample heat.  In fact, we were sweating by the end of it…we couldn’t shut our cabin door because it was so hot.  But, sweaty or not, we arrived at the train station in Bucharest, and we had to find the bus that takes us to the tiny little airport where the cost effective airlines fly out of.  When all was said and done, it probably took us a good 30 hours to finally get to Berlin.

But to avoid boring everyone with all the silly details, I’ll list some quick highlights below.  (Also, you can check out the album here.)

Berlin

  • Saw the Reichstag (Loved it – I’m a government NERD!)
  • Saw the Brandenburg Gate
  • Walked through the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and the museum below
  • Visited the Topography of Terror Museum about the Nazi regime in the place where the Gestapo HQ used to be
  • Visited three amazing Christmas markets with trinkets, food and hot wine!
  • Walked through the Pergamon Museum with reconstructed pieces from the gate to Babylon (SO cool)
  • Toured the Berlin Cathedral – all the way to the walkway at the top of the dome!
  • Strolled through the East Side Gallery where artists have painted the portions of the Berlin Wall still standing (amazing – the concept that )
  • Walked through the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, accidently from finish to start (oops, I think we came in through the exit, Andrea…)  Checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point between east and west Berlin.  It was the only crossing point that foreigners and Allied forces were allowed to use between the two sides.  Lots of cool stories here.

Amsterdam

  • Stopped off at the Anne Frank house, where she, her family and several friends hid until they were reported and taken away by the Nazis in 1944.  Only her father survived.
  • Took a 3-hour walking tour of Amsterdam through a company called NewEurope (would definitely recommend).  Learned a lot about the city itself and its history.
  • Visited the Van Gogh Museum (loved!!).  I’m fan of impressionist artwork, and I especially like some of the Van Gogh’s philosophies in choosing what he painted (depicting reality and the common people), so this was worth every penny.
  • Took a 2-hour “Cannibas” walking tour.  Our guide explained the policies on marijuana (which is actually illegal to buy/sell/smoke in Amsterdam, but is overlooked by authorities), the evolution of those policies, current controversies and industrial uses of cannibas (the industrial uses were fascinating – hemp can actually be used to produce biodegradable plastic).  Amsterdam is currently looking at making it’s “coffee shops” (stores where customers can buy/smoke marijuana) member-only establishments, prohibiting access to foreigners/tourists, who apparently make up most of their business. 
  • Walked through the Red Light District (honestly, this mostly just made me sad)
  • Got stuck in Amsterdam because of a 24-hour train strike in Belgium.  Found some quick accomodations near the train station, wandered around for an extra day, and left for Belgium a day late on an early train.

Belgium

  • Started our tour with a quick, 4-hour visit to Antwerp.  Saw the Het Steen Castle, which is apparently the oldest building in Antwerp, and (of course) hit the Christmas markets.  Ate a delicious macaroon at one.
  • Headed to Brussels, left our luggage at the train station, and booked it to the European Parliament before it closed.  Wished I had more time there to do more reading (again, government NERD!).
  • Visited Christmas markets in Brussels, saw the holiday light show in Grand Place, bought chocolate, ate chocolate, and ate some more chocolate.  Got lost trying to get to our hotel (chocolate-induced coma?).
  • Took a day trip to Brugge on Christmas Eve.  Saw Michelangelo’s statue depiciton of Madonna and Child, created out of marble in the 1500s.  Amazing.  Beautiful architecture, Christmas markets, and best hot cocoa/Christmas cupcakes around!
  •  I did get to Skype with my family on Christmas (three cheers for video chatting!), and that was great.  I watched my sisters open some gifts, watched our dog open a new squeaky squirrel (yep, even Toby gets gifts!), and watched them do some cooking in the kitchen.  It was great.

Returning to Moldova was a whole other experience.  We had to take the tram to the train station, where we had to find the unmarked bus that will drive us an hour outside Brussels to the little airport where our flight was departing.  Upon arrival in Bucharest, Romania, we had about an hour an a half to get to the train station if we wanted to take the spacious, overnight train instead of the overnight bus.  Well, we step off the plane into the bus that will take us to customs and baggage claim.  That bus waits there for 20 minutes because someone has left a backpack on the plane.  We finally get to customs, sure we’ll have to take the bus, but then we speedily manage to flash our passports, our luggage comes out in the first three minutes, and we snake through the crowds outside, hoping to find a taxi that will get us to the train station quickly.  Taxi driver tells us he can have us thee in 15 minutes.  Let’s give it a go!  So we hop in and arrive to the train station 30 minutes ahead of our departure.  Window 1 sends us to another window, where the cashier tells us to go outside and to the right, where another cashier tells us we have to go to window 1.  Well, we finally get there, get our tickets, and the train leaves a half hour later than we thought.  Regardless, we’re just happy to have some room to spread out and sleep.  Back to the capital, back to my site on a bus, back to Moldova.

A wonderful winter bazaar

Usually on Saturdays I sleep in and have a pretty slow, relaxed morning.  But last Saturday, there was a Christmas bazaar at the capital’s convention center, and I was not about to miss that.  To explain…one of the things I enjoy about the holidays is hitting the early morning sales with my mom on Black Friday and the day after Christmas.  I fill up my travel coffee mug, grab a quick bite of delicious leftovers, and then we rustle through crafty knick-knacks at the stores.  I love just looking through the decorative items that go on sale.  So, when I heard about this Christmas bazaar happening in the capital city, I looked at it like a Moldovan Black Friday.

That Moldovan Black Friday got me up early last Saturday.  I filled up my travel coffee mug (thanks mom & dad for sending that!) with instant coffee and boarded the bus into the city center.  There, I met my friend Andrea, and we strolled down the street to the trolleybus stop where we waited for our ride to MoldExpo, the convention center where the bazaar was being held.  I had looked up directions the night before on the only transportation website I know of in Moldova, and wrote down directions based on the map (the bus will turn left at a big park, then right…when the road starts to turn, get off at the next intersection…).  I tried, but we still got off the bus way too early.  Whoops!  We weren’t really sure which direction to go when got off the bus, so we asked someone (he didn’t know) and then we just started walking looking for one of the streets I had written down.  Then a woman driving a sedan came to an abrupt stop and yelled to us, “Excuse me, where’s MoldExpo?”  Her teenage son was in the front passenger seat.  I told her I didn’t know, but we were heading there too, all we needed to do was find the intersecting street I had written down.  She said, “Why don’t you just come with us?”   My friend and I looked at each other.  “Okay!” we said, and we hopped in.  (Cultural note: hitchiking is a very common practice in Moldova.  Many Moldovans hitchike between villages and into the capital city because it is often easier and faster than using public transportation.  That said, had it been two grown men, we probably would’ve declined the offer…).  But we got to have a short conversation with the woman and explain that we were volunteers with the Peace Corps living her for two years, and she was excited that we both spoke Romanian so well.  In the end, we were thankful she stopped – we were a lot farther away from the expo center than we thought!

The bazaar was great.  There was a stage set up at one end, and the rest of the area was filled with booths.  Many of the booths were from international embassies, and they were all serving their national foods for a small price.  Other booths were being run by NGO’s in Moldova and were selling handmade crafts to help support their respective organizations. We browsed the different stations, indulged in delicious foods from around the world, and admired the hand-crafted items.

Two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers working a booth at the bazaar. See the cards to the left? The kids at the organization made them!

There was also some great entertainment, and I thought I’d share a clip of it below.  Here is a group performing traditional Moldvan dances to traditional Moldovan music in traditional Moldovan garb: