Once again, Aer Lingus managed to surprise me by delivering relatively low (I say low in so far as the prices fluctuated wildly by around â‚¬50 from one day to the next) fares to Germany for travel over the weekend so with that, I decided to accompany Anna on her way home for Christmas. Needless to say, before that came a mountain load of work that meant no blog updates before getting away – in fact at one point at least, even the getting away was looking sketchy. But we managed it and we stood, once again, in Dublin Airport’s crowded Pier A on Thursday evening, the line of passengers for just our flight snaking its way around the little coffee stand in Pier A and on out back into the main concourse. The flight itself was relatively uneventful, bar of course from my near heart-attack that the price of drinks is still staying at skyway robbery levels – how can anyone possibly still be charging â‚¬4 for a small can of Heineken when my local off-licence is only charging â‚¬1 for a normal sized can? I can’t imagine the ‘Sky Shopping’ element of Aer Lingus’ poor efforts at making money is too successful with such over-inflated prices. Fast forward by an hour or two and we came out into the German winter; and it has to be said, Ireland now seems relatively tropical by comparison to the icy, dry cold that pretty much smacked me in the face as soon as the doors opened leading out of the airport. And as we drove the near 2-hour drive to Ochtrup, the snow levels gradually increased with each passing kilometre as we continued steaming down the autobahn.
In Ireland, we’ve got an almost certain ‘knack’ for buying and then proudly displaying some of the world’s most garish Christmas lights and decorations – and I’m sure there’s an element of that too somewhere in Germany – but each and every house we seemed to pass as we drove into the town was done up like the windows of Brown Thomas when they still put effort into dressing up their windows for Christmas. The following day, I came to realise why they all look so good – in our house, what must have been close to hours were spent labouring over the construction (and I really do mean construction) of the crib, its accompanying figures and so on. Then, the placement of the lights. Then, the baubles. And so on. By comparison, our Christmas tree in Shankill is decorated on an annual basis with a view to setting a new speed record for the whole event. One of the evenings, I can’t remember which but I’m quietly confident it was the coldest one, we all collectively indulged in what seems to be a bit of a German winter time tradition – the ‘winter walk’. The idea basically, from what I gathered, was that you grab every thermos flask in the house, cook up a load of mulled wine, ‘GlÃ¼hwein’, and then head out for what is essentially high-class knacker drinking; the act of occupying roadsides and fields and enjoying a few tipples before moving on to another roadside or field, as appropriate.
It sounds like something nobody should want to do when the temperatures start dipping well below 0 and to be honest, it isn’t. But surprisingly, walking along in the freezing cold with no street lights in the middle of nowhere can actually become quite amusing – and of course, if nothing else, it provides you with an opportunity to look forward to the next wine break, if just for the heat of it. The next evening, we decided to make one of our regular detours across the border to the Netherlands to see what they had in store for us. So we drove for the 20 or so minutes and were doing pretty well, just having crossed the border when something most unwanted occurred. We were pulled over by border police who had decided, in their wisdom, to set up a temporary check well inside the Dutch border. Needless to say, there’s a penalty (financial, which is the worst kind for me) for not carrying proper identification when travelling across borders, which I needless to say had completely forgotten about, as we were pulled in off the road. The man went along asking for everyone’s ID and while I was momentarily tempted to threaten to call Brian Cowen on this diplomatic matter, I realised before I could make the threat that I didn’t have his number and he probably wouldn’t know who I was anyway. Thankfully, Anna too hadn’t brought her ID and whatever about my efforts at initiating some form of diplomatic warfare, her method of just explaining she’d forgotten it, oops and sorry about that, seemed to get us off the hook. Thank God, because the Dutch would’ve been a long time waiting for any sort of financial penalty to be paid from my bank account at the moment.
The town itself, Enschede, was beautiful as always, if a little crazy. The deal seems to be that the best place to park is basically by a bunch of pretty awful-looking apartments; I always half-expect the car not to be there when we get back. Then there’s a huge square in the town that fills right up during market days but on this wintry December night, was just big and empty. There was however an ice rink about the size of my living room on which a small number of Dutch teens were doing their best to impress with their tight turns – necessitated, as I say, by the minimalist sizing of the ice rink in the first place. Then there was also a big wheel, that we all had a go on. Now, I think it’s something to do with more than sufficient visits to Funderland as a child, but big wheels at least for the first few minutes, always manage to scary the holy crap out of me, no matter what where or how high. I remember anxiously standing backed up against the opposite side to the doors on the London Eye a few years back and that was on a good day. I can take roller coasters, funfair rides and everything else; just not big wheels. And, I realised as soon as I was comfortably established inside the little seat, I particularly don’t trust any big wheel that’s being operated by a bunch of potentially hash-smoking Dutch people, mostly younger than myself. After a few goes though and once I had come to the conclusion that nobody was smoking drugs there and then, things settled down a bit and with the impending frostbite nipping at my hands, I was torn between the incredible view of a snow and ice-covered city with the fact that I was freezing to death.
One of the greatest things though that I saw and the one I most wish we could even try to emulate a bit more realistically was the Christmas markets. They’re supposed to be magical and while I don’t know if ‘magical’ is the word I’d use, they’re definitely something everyone should see. One of the markets we went to see was basically in a forest and you have to park your car and then walk (or take a bus) into the forest to go to the market. Needless to say it continued to be absolutely punishingly cold while we were at it and that left us with pretty much no choice other than to continue on the mass consumption of mulled wine, interspersed with hefty (and cheap) feeds of bratwurst, steak fillets and anything else we could lay our hands on. In MÃ¼nster meanwhile, the Christmas market was even brighter, like a huge Funderland except with no rides and nothing being overpriced. And compared to the Dublin market I wrote about a week or two ago, the stuff on sale was cheap and it was really cool stuff – whole log cabins dedicated to some of the most ornate and beautifully-made candles I’ve ever seen, or perhaps vases, or Christmas decorations. The list goes on. Certainly the markets were one of the coolest things I’ve seen in any country in quite a while and if you’re in Ireland, well worth the cheap Aer Lingus fare (if they’re not bust by next year) to go and see.
As for me, it’s now time for a mulled wine detox…