Weihnachtsmärkte in Köln – like Christmas in England, but with more umlauts

My mother and I tend to buy joint experiences as mutual Christmas presents, as we don’t see each other as often as we would like, and we figure it’s more fun to have some shared memories than something to unwrap. This tradition started with a massage in Luton (don’t ask) and has now escalated to a long weekend in Cologne. For the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking that there seem to be so many German Christmas markets in England that there can’t be any left in Germany. This does not however seem to be true – Cologne at any rate has no fewer than six, and we visited every one. And had a glühwein at each of them, except the one that seemed a bit bargain-basement. Highlights of the weekend include: heavy snowfall making the whole place look almost impossibly festive; a bunch of people dressed as pirates for no obvious reason (‘Are they English pirates?’ my stepdad wanted to know), buying a beautiful hand-made notebook bound in red leather (the more decorative the notebook, the better the writing); and a drink with the jaw-crunching name of feuerzangenbowle. It’s a kind of über-glühwein involving rum, sugar, and fire. It’s both delicious and dangerous – especially in a crowded bar.

It wasn’t all drinking though – we also ate plenty of food. I sampled the Cologne speciality ‘Himmel und Äd’ – ie, blutwurst with fried onions, mashed potatoes and apple sauce. The name means ‘heaven and hell’ although I’m not sure which bit is supposed to be the heaven and which the hell. Never mind, I enjoyed it – on a freezing cold day you can’t beat a plate of good German stodge. And of course, we spent lots of money at the markets on the usual stuff: lebkuchen, stollen, Christmas decorations, various gifts… We also wandered into the Dom to try to absorb some culture, but every time we went in they were inconsiderately having a church service and wouldn’t let us go beyond the end of the nave.

In a happy coincidence, no sooner had I tweeted ‘Cologne Weinachtsmarkt in the snow is the most Christmassy thing ever. Fact.’ than I noticed that a friend I hadn’t seen in many years had set his Facebook status to ‘Snowy Köln! Once again I have totally inappropriate footwear….’ It was too good a chance to pass up. Never mind that we could have seen each other at any time over the last five years but hadn’t managed to get round to it, thanks to the miracle of social networking we had found out that we were both in Cologne on the same weekend, so we had to do coffee. Anyway, it was great to catch up and see what different paths we had taken – me a job in industry and writing fantasy when I can, him a Master’s in Comparative Linguistics followed by a D.Phil in Ancient Greek. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite such a miserable monoglot than when hearing him talk about noun cases in a dozen different tongues. It made me think I should really get around to learning another language – the sticking point as ever is finding the time. Can I really perfect my English prose and learn vocab in French or German or Spanish as well?

At least now I have agreed with my boss that I can try out compressed hours – ie, working 5 days in 4, giving me Fridays off. I’m hoping it’ll allow me to write more – the only problems will be coping with the longer hours Monday to Thursday, and making sure I use my day off wisely. But I’m not going to worry about that until the New Year – in the mean time, having got in the festive mood, I’m taking a break from writing for a bit. So, Fröhliche Weihnachten all!

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