Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December Highs and Lows

This was a busy, but not hectic, month. We did a lot, cooked a lot of delicious meals, (my daughter and I) took a few trips, and experienced the joy of the Christmas season. Germans really know how to do Advent and Christmas. I feel like Christmas in the U.S. is about sales, shopping, rushing around, and stress. The rushing around and stress were partly due to the fact that I was working full-time as well, of course. I haven't had any rushing or stress related to the holiday, and M has been able to stay out of the office for several days!

It's New Year's Eve now, and we're about to start preparations for our Raclette dinner. After that we'll watch "Dinner for One" and have our Bescherung (gift exchange) with my Schwiegermutter. Christmas has really lasted more than a month for me! I had Thanksgiving and Christmas with my parents and both kids in Wisconsin on November 26th, Christmas with M and my daughter on December 24th, and now tonight we combine Christmas and New Year's Eve with M's mother!

But without further ado, here are this month's highs and lows:


  • spending a few hours at the Tübingen Chocolate festival with my daughter

  • visiting Esslingen's Weihnachtsmarkt und Mittelaltermarkt

  • a bus trip to Bad Wimpfen with my daughter for its Weihnachtsmarkt

  • spending five days in Rome with my daughter - I was not as "wow-ed" as I thought I would be at the time, but as time has passed I have realized how glad I am we went there and had that experience. 

  • seeing Disney's musical Tarzan at the Apollo Theater in Stuttgart

  • going to Stuttgart's Weihnachtsmarkt and riding the Paternoster (open, constantly-moving elevator) in the Rathaus with my daughter's friend

  • interviewing an Esslingen author, two of whose books I have read and enjoyed; this was really my daughter's thing, which she arranged to aid in her senior project about Schwabenkrimis (Swabian crime novels), but I came along and enjoyed meeting and chatting with her!

  • several days of having no plans whatsoever where we just stayed home (and cleaned, read, did laundry, etc.)!

  • receiving ten Christmas cards and letters from family and friends in the U.S. I used to receive many more before I moved here, but the number sinks with every year. I hope it's not that Christmas cards are becoming a thing of the past, because I love them!

  • Christmas Eve with M and my daughter

  • getting an email from my son saying he earned a 3.692 GPA in his first semester at UW-Green Bay! That's three As and a B! (Ähm...better than his mother did most terms in college)

  • eating the sausage rolls Martin made

  • lamb Stew for dinner on Christmas Day - but we'd nibbled on sausage rolls and weren't even hungry for it!

  • making Maultaschen with my daughter on Christmas Day - we froze them to eat on the weekend

  • Sunday brunch at our favorite local restaurant

  • welcoming my Schwiegermutter, who will spend a few days with us around Silvester (New Year's Eve)

  • getting an email from a former student (although we teachers don't have favorites, he was definitely one of those!), whose cousin I happened to be sitting next to while flying from Frankfurt to Chicago in November! I usually don't chat on planes, but he was wearing a Wisconsin Badgers hat and I decided after several hours to ask him if he was from Wisconsin. Turns out he lives in the town where I lived for 17 years and had cousins who attended the school where I taught...

  • booking a week at one of Glengorm Castle's self-catering apartments on the Isle of Mull in Scotland for September, 2015. (This is where we got married in 2006.)  OMG!!!!

  • Watching "Dinner for One" on Silvester (New Year's Eve). It's tradition!


  • having to listen to a bunch of darn annoying, disruptive, unchaperoned teenagers during Tarzan

  • finishing preparing the meat filling for the Maultaschen and realizing I had not thawed the Nudelteig (pasta dough). It takes six hours to thaw.

  • saying good-bye to my daughter who is returning to college; I'll see her (and my son) again in June when she graduates from Lawrence University!

  • Realizing at 17:00 on Silvester (New Year's Eve) that I forgot to buy the Schweinebraten (pork roast) for our New Year's Day dinner. The store closed at 16:00 and will reopen on January 2nd. Oops. 

Questions of the Month:

  1. Why are there pairs of policemen and/or military personnel all over Rome? Does this mean the city is very dangerous, or that it's a safe place because armed cops & soldiers are all over??

  2. Why would parents or teachers allow a group of unruly young teenagers sit in a theater without supervision? And why, after both my daughter and then I "shushed" those kids and they got disparaging looks from others around us, did they not realize or care that they were disrupting other people?

  3. The fireworks are for 12:00 midnight. Why have people in our neighborhood set them off at 10:00 am, 17:00, and 17:40?

  4. How could I forget to buy the damn roast?!?

  5. "So, what do we have in the freezer?"  (Turns out we have four duck legs. Duck it is!)

Happy New Year, everyone!  Wir wünschen euch einen guten Rutsch ins Neujahr!  (We wish you a good slide into the New Year!)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Some Like It Cold

Let me first say that it is not cold in Germany, at least not where we are. I'm cold pretty much all the time from September to mid-June, but technically speaking, it doesn't get very cold here - at least not in relation to the artic chill of winter in Wisconsin.

I don't bother converting degrees Celcius into the Fahrenheit I'm used to because math formulas and I have never been friends. I just know that double-digits are pleasant, high 30s is blazing hot, single digit temperatures are manageable, and negative numbers are below freezing. Good enough.

We keep our house at about 20 Grad (68 °F) during the winter, and it usually stays around that in the summer, too. Each room has a radiator that can be adjusted as needed, or turned off altogether. We don't have air conditioning and don't need it because our walls inside and out are made of concrete. Our basement is always cooler, so on extraordinarily hot days I have the option of going down there and rearranging the storage shelves. We do have in-floor heating, which I must admit is quite nice in the winter. We're not sure why those who built the house put the in-floor heating in the living room and Wohndiele (foyer) and not the bedrooms or the bathroom, but oh well.

I should point out - because that's the point of this post - that most of our house is kept at 20 Grad. M likes to sleep with the window open even in the gray dead of winter, so it's decidedly colder in our bedroom. I brought a thermometer in there today, and the mercury stopped falling at 11.9 Grad (53 °F). This was before the sun went down. The window stays open all day long because we're never in there during the day and it would therefore be silly to close it and turn on the heat.

Is this a crazy German thing? His mother does it, too, and she grew up in northern England. Do all Europeans do this? M says he gets headaches if he doesn't get fresh air while he sleeps, and I surely don't want that.

I can't believe I'm going to admit this, but despite the shock-freezing horror that has become what I used to call "getting into bed," I actually have grown to like sleeping with the window open. Our Federbetten, which I have written about before, are fabulous, and while mine is 55° when I first force myself in, it warms to the temperature of my skin 'round about the time I stop screaming and thrashing around. The thrashing probably helps to warm up the blanket; at least that's what I tell myself. And I've always liked cold pillows. It's the cold nose that I don't really enjoy.

Early this morning I woke up with my right hand sticking out of my blanket and dangling off the side of the bed like a piece of frozen meat. I dragged it back under the blanket to thaw and went back to sleep. But not before I noticed both of my husband's feet sticking out of the end of his blanket, toes pointed to the ceiling, like Pore Jud from "Oklahoma". He says this is how he regulates his body temperature and doesn't get too hot while he sleeps under his thick blanket.

As if this weren't enough, we also air out the house periodically. M does this daily when I'm gone. No matter how cold it is outside, we need to exchange the bad, stale air for fresh, by opening the damn windows. All of them. In every room. Naturally the Germans have a name for this madness - it's called Lüften. In the U.S., we just live with the bad air until Spring. But not here. We go to each room, open the window and turn off the radiator. I then retreat to the sofa under my warmest blanket and wait for M to say, "That's probably long enough, don't you think?" Then I dash from room to room closing the windows (except in our bedroom, of course - I just shut the door) and turning on the radiators again. He usually plans this for when I'm gone so he doesn't have to listen to my bitching.

This was my daughter today during our Lüften:

I guess cold is relative. My mom has mentioned a few times how cold our house is (she and my dad were here in the winter of 2012), and my Schwiegermutter just said today that she knows our house is cozily warm. When she slept at my parents' house a few winters ago, she was unable to close her bedroom window one morning because a foot of snow "got caught by the mosquito screen!"

Despite our arctic igloo bedroom and the periodic Lüften, M gladly makes me a fire in our Kachelofen whenever I ask him to, so I'm not really complaining. This is just another one of those charming differences between life in the northern U.S. and life in southern Germany. Or maybe it's life with my husband. Hard to say.  :-)

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


How do you spend Heiligabend (Christmas Eve)?

Our Weihnachtsbaum in the Wintergarten

When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was always the big celebration with extended family. My aunts, uncles, and cousins came from the Appleton and Minneapolis areas to my grandparents' home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and my parents, brother and I lived also in Sheboygan. There were 15 of us. I remember always starting, after everyone had arrived, with cheese and crackers and shrimp cocktail while final preparations were made in the kitchen. My grandfather said a lengthy, heartfelt prayer, and then we consumed a delicious dinner of ham (sometimes turkey) and a billion sides, salad, and several desserts. After dinner we had at the pile of presents under the tree, which ended up being somewhat of a rip-tear-"Thank you!" fest, but we paused every time someone came to a present with an attached poem. My grandparents were into writing cutesy rhyming poems for the special gifts, and they were usually funny or clever. After the carnage of gift opening was over, the wrapping paper was stuffed into garbage bags, ribbons, bows, and gift tags were put back in the box to be used the next year, and our presents were placed in neat piles, we headed off to church. After church the Appleton crew usually drove home and the Minneapolis contingent bunkered down to rest up for the 6-hour Christmas Day drive home.

I have lots of fond memories of family Christmases, which were often loud, full of energy (and definitely full of love), stressful at times, and truly special. It worked out nicely to have the extended family celebration on Christmas Eve, and then our private family Christmas was the next morning as soon as my brother and I could will our parents out of bed.

Our celebrations here in Germany are quite different, mainly because we are always a small group and there is absolutely no hustle, bustle, schedule, or stress. This year we have the fewest people ever - just my daughter, M, and I are celebrating together. My Schwiegermutter is spending Christmas with her daughter and her family this year in northern Germany, but she'll be back with us for Silvester (New Year's Eve).

This is how we're doing our quiet little Christmas Eve:

This morning I walked to the butcher to pick up our €100 order that will get us through 'til next Monday: soup meat & bones, beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin, ground beef & pork, leg of lamb (for Irish stew), and sausage meat (for Maultaschen and sausage rolls).

Then M started the beef soup for tonight's Fondue, which will boil on the stove for several hours. We usually do fondue on Silvester and Raclette on Heiligabend, but my daughter likes fondue better and she'll be back in the U.S. by Silvester.

While my daughter tended the soup M and I drove to the bakery at Norma to see if they had any fresh baguette and rolls left, and we were pleased to find that they did and weren't even busy! Mental note for next year: no need to buy the bakery the day before!

Our tree is up but not decorated yet (another difference to the way we did things in America - the tree went up at the end of November), so we'll do that next. M puts on the lights, and we girls will hang the ornaments under M's watchful scowl. He prefers just the traditional Weihnachtskugeln (Christmas balls, I like to call them), but I brought all my ornaments from the States - dogs, stars, mini picture frames, apples, sheep... and I love the wooden ornaments I keep buying at Weihnachtsmärkte.

Next M will make my daughter's favorite part of the fondue dinner - Sahnedip. This stuff goes on everything - fresh veggies, bread, meat, and sometimes just on the spoon. It's not exactly low-fat, but it's delicious! It's best to make this early because it has to sit for a bit to let the tastes blend.

We'll have a light lunch so as not to spoil our appetites for the fondue, and then we'll watch the sickeningly adorable film, Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, which has been a tradition in M's family since he was young. It's a 1970s Czech version of the Cinderella story dubbed into German with really, really terrible special effects. At one point Rosalie the friendly owl is supposed to be circling in the air, and one can't help but see the string to which the fake beast is tied as someone out of view swings it around in a circle. Through much of the film the prince and his pals cavort around in the snow wearing tights and shockingly short tunics. But it's part of Christmas, darn it, and we watch it every year. The theme song has burned itself into my brain, and I'm not at all creeped out by the look on the dashing prince's face on the DVD cover (yes, we own the DVD) as he gazes with unclean thoughts at the little peasant girl dressed in virginal white.

I'm thinking about introducing the cartoon version of the Grinch who stole Christmas as a possible alternative.

After our Christmas movie we'll take a nap and then start schnibbling vegetables for the fondue dinner and opening the jars of other nibblies to put in decorative dishes. We heat up the soup again, pour it into the fondue pot, put everything on the table, and the final step is to slice the tenderloin (beef and pork). Then the slow and leisurely feast begins, not to end until we can't fit in another spoonful of Sahnedip. We skewer bits of tenderloin and a mushroom, and the rule is, of course, that if anything falls off into the soup, it can't be fished out. We eat the soup and whatever bits have fallen into it the next day for lunch.

After dinner we'll have our Bescherung (gift opening), which we do slowly as well, one at a time. Following that we'll listen to David Sedaris's narration of the Dutch St. Nick tradition, which we've heard many times but it still makes us laugh like crazy people.

And that's it. We usually finish the evening browsing new books (Christmas in our family isn't Christmas without new books), and perhaps watching a little TV or a new movie if it's early enough.

Tomorrow we'll have another quiet and relaxing day. My daughter and I are planning to make Maultaschen from scratch, M will make sausage rolls, and we'll have Lamb Stew for dinner.

Lamb Stew
We wish you all frohe Weihnachten!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Treat Yourself to a Book

Oh. My. Goodness. Have you ever read a book that you don't want to put down, but you want to force yourself to put it down and finish it slowly, savoring every word because you know when you finish it, that's it? No sequel, not even any other books by the same author.  Yes I can re-read this one, but I will never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. This novel has made me gasp, laugh, cringe, nod in agreement, grab for my highlighter, and want to bitch slap someone - anyone.

Here it is: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

If you are a lover of books, reading, letters, and fictional characters you'd give nearly anything to meet in person, read this book.

I'm 33 pages from the end, and I'm procrastinating finishing it, though there's nothing I'd rather do this morning. I first tore myself away for a shower (it is nearly 10:00, after all), now I'm writing this, and next my daughter and I will be battling the fortified-by-the-impending-3-day-holiday-closure Monday crowds at the grocery store. After that I'll probably walk to the butcher, and then it will be lunch time. After lunch on Mondays I call my parents in the U.S. and we talk for an hour or two, so it does look like I'll manage to put off that "I've just finished the best book I've read in ages, and no other book on my pile will be as satisfying as this one" feeling for a while longer.

I should write a review, but I haven't written one of those since college, and I probably didn't even write one then. Hm. I'll ponder what I would write to honor this book, but in the mean time I can direct you to the person I owe thanks to for bringing the novel into my radar in the first place, who wrote a review of it in November, in her blog, Confuzzledom.

I have seen several blog recent posts by expats listing stocking stuffer gifts for travelers, most of which make me wonder if I've been missing the mark on stockings. I normally put in there an apple, an orange, a bunch of Christmasy chocolates, Gummibärchen, and a book. A book in my stocking when I was a child is responsible for my lifelong love of Collies and the amazing writer Albert Payson Terhune. I know our parents gave us other small gifts in our stockings along with the fruit and candy, and I'm sure I liked them all - but that is the only stocking gift I specifically recall, and I still have it on my shelves, tattered and worn though it is from being read so many times.

Anyway, treat yourself to a book this Christmas! Go to a bookstore if you're lucky enough to live somewhere near a real bookstore - every town worth a visit in Germany has at least one, though in the U.S. small family-owned bookstores (and any bookstores in small towns) are a thing of the past - and browse the shelves.

The book you need to read will find you.

"I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers." ~Juliet (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Closed for Christmas

Can you believe there are only three (or four, depending on when and how you celebrate) days until Christmas?!? Today is a quiet Sunday - remember all stores and businesses are closed on Sundays in Germany - and we've lit our fourth Advent candle on the Adventskranz (wreath). Although I did some cleaning and laundry this morning (shhh...don't tell anyone!), I've spent most of the afternoon alternately reading and napping.

This is how my daughter and I often spend part of Sunday afternoon...
You may not be able to see them, but the books we were just reading
are on the table.

Tomorrow and Tuesday are our last days for making sure we have all the gifts, food, and drinks we need for the days of Christmas, and I'm already fearing the madness we'll face at the grocery store. Granted, many stores (including our grocery store and the local butcher) are open on Christmas Eve morning, but that is not the day I want to go shopping. I will walk to the butcher that morning to pick up our Christmas order with all the meat we'll need through Sunday, but that's not the same as shopping.

As of noon on Christmas Eve, stores here are closed. If I forgot an ingredient for any of our planned dishes, too bad for me. If we run out of something we didn't anticipate running out of, bad luck. Stores are closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day (that's December 26th, Americans), and Sunday the 28th. Can you imagine what the grocery store is going to be like on Saturday? Wild horses wouldn't lure me into that store or any other that day, and I love horses!

I am pretty sure my American readers cannot fathom living in a place where groceries are not readily available at least somewhere at any time of any day. "What if we run out of milk before we make the mashed potatoes because Aunt Ellen uses more than we expected for her coffee every morning?!" "What if Uncle Dan drinks all the beer on Christmas Eve and we've got none left for the football game on Christmas Day?!" Over here, you deal with it and do without. And there's no football (or any other sport I've aware of) on Christmas Day.

Why are stores closed on December 26th? For the same reason they're closed on Karfreitag (Good Friday), Ostermontag (Easter Monday), Dreikönigstag (Epiphany), Christi Himmelfahrt (Ascension Day), and five other religiously important days during the year in addition to January 1st, Labor Day, and Tag der Deutschen Einheit (the Day of German Unity).

Get this -- families in Germany are encouraged and able to spend Sundays and holidays together relaxing, celebrating, or doing whatever else they want to do without being tempted by big holiday sales promising life-changing savings on items one should not even consider trying to live without. Even the poor souls who work in retail and cashiers are able - downright forced - to have these days off to spend them as they will (as long as they're not doing noisy yard work, and in some communities their neighbors will talk if they are even hanging laundry outside to dry, since one really should not do work of any kind on Sundays or holidays!). Husbands cannot be sent to the store by their wives because an item on the grocery list was forgotten, which also means they also don't have an excuse to pick up an extra case of beer.

Those working in gastronomy tell a different tale, since restaurants are generally open on Sundays and holidays - and therefore most choose a different day of the week (often Mondays) to close for the evening. This is very helpful for the rest of us, who have little else to do on Sundays and holidays than go for a hike or bike ride followed by a nice meal out, but I do feel sad for them knowing they have less family time than the rest of us.

And here's the thing, though I've said it before: I love the fact that stores are closed on Sundays and holidays in the name of family ("Family Values", anyone? You know...that phrase that's thrown around passionately in U.S. politicians' campaign speeches and mud-flinging when it suits their purpose to use it?). That means we have to plan ahead and make sure we know exactly what we need for each meal during an extended period like this week. That's not exactly a hardship.

I think it's blinking ironic that in a country where so many give lip service to "family values" (the U.S., I mean), families are lured away from home on holidays into stores to fight (fist fight, in lots of cases, particularly on Black Friday) other shoppers for the lowest prices on the current season's most popular items. The insanity of Black Friday now begins the day before - on Thanksgiving. I suppose it doesn't make any difference. A third of the country is sitting in front of their TVs watching football, another third is fast asleep in a food coma from the Thanksgiving meal (this enormous and delicious multi-course meal is usually consumed in less time than it takes an Italian to enjoy a glass of wine), so what's wrong with the rest going to work and shopping?

I guess that's one way to do a holiday.

For me, I will continue to enjoy our enforced quiet holidays and the fact that our community is basically closed for Christmas.

Frohe Weihnachten from our house to yours!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beginner Tips for Rome

I do not claim to be an expert on Rome after one visit. However, I know how many blog posts and articles I read during the months before our trip, and I thought I'd let you all know what we learned during our five days there in case it can be of use to anyone.

Let me lay out a couple of financial facts so you can decide now if you want to read what I have to say or not.
  1. We stayed in a hotel for four nights. Total cost: €408 including Rome City Tax.
  2. We spent €128 on entrance fees for all the attractions we visited.
  3. We booked tickets to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatino as well as the Vatican online. The Vatican charges an online booking fee of €4 per person.
  4. We spent €34 total on transportation, including to and from the airport.
  5. We spent €210 on meals, snacks, and beverages during the five days, (four days, really, since days 1 and 5 were only partial days), so roughly €26 per person per day.
  6. We did not do any shopping beyond popping into 2 or 3 touristy shops. 
  7. We did not participate in the night life of Rome. After dinner we went to bed!
  8. Our total expenses for the two of us for five days, not including the hotel or flights, came to €395.
  9. The attractions we saw which required a fee to enter were: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel, Keats - Shelley House Museum, Capitoline Museums, Mamartine Prison, and the Protestant Cemetery (donation requested). 
  10. For us, room and board came to €77 ($95) per person, per day. Rick Steves says one can get by comfortably in Rome for €116 ($145) per person per day for R&B, and "students and tightwads can enjoy Rome for as little as €52 ($65) a day" - so I think we did pretty well.
Ok, so if all that sounds reasonable enough to you that you think we might be able to offer some good tips, read on.

Guide Books

Get yourself two good guide books! Honestly, I think Rick Steves became my new best friend during those days in Rome. We opted not to buy the audio guide for the Vatican Museum but read his chapter on it as we went through. He encourages travelers to browse beyond his comments, but he focuses on the highlights, which is really enough for the average tourist. We also downloaded his free audio guides for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Sistine Chapel, and the Pantheon, which we found very good! He's rather dorky at times, but truly helpful. It was Rick who recommended the restaurant where we had our best meal in Rome, not far from our hotel - Ristorante da Giovanni.

Our other one was perfect for us because we did so much of Rome on foot. It's pictured above: National Geographic's Walking Rome, the Best of the City: a Step-by-Step Guide. That book is divided by neighborhood and directs readers from one highlight to the next within each area. Both books give helpful general travel tips and included maps and guides to buses, trams, and the Metro.

Getting to and from the Airport

Unless you have money to burn or are very short on time, take the Terravision Bus. It costs €8 per person round trip and it takes an hour from Fiumicino airport to Termini Station even in crazy, heavy traffic. We bought a one-way ticket to the City Center for €5 because we weren't sure about our return trip, then ended up paying €6 for the return trip, buying the ticket at Termini Station. Taking the Leonardo Express train saves you half an hour but costs €14 per person per trip.


We stayed at the Bailey's Hotel on Via Flavia, which is an easy  10- to15-minute walk to the Spanish Steps and the same to or from Termini Station. It was a modest hotel with very friendly personnel, an absolutely fine breakfast buffet, a nice room, an elevator if you need that, and it was quiet. I read that some rooms don't have windows or windows that don't open, but ours did. We stayed in a twin deluxe room, to which we had been upgraded for free by booking directly with the hotel and simply asking if they had any special offers when we booked a few months ago. 

On the day we left there was a transportation strike which pushed our flight later, and the concierge on duty early in the morning was very helpful in making some phone calls for me and helping assure me that we would be able to get to the airport in time. They also stored our suitcases after check-out so that we could do some more exploring without having to drag them around with us.

Bailey's is located far enough away from main attractions that the price is reasonable (but close enough that walking is totally manageable) and it's quiet enough, there are several decent restaurants and pizzerias nearby, and the neighborhood felt safe to me.

Rome City Tax

As I understand it, this is a tax charged to all hotel guests staying in Rome ("to help pay for repairs and maintenance to the city" - see link below) and is NOT included on the prices hotels list on their websites although they collect it when you check out. When I booked the hotel a few months ago, the tax was €3 per person per night. On  September 1st, apparently, the tax doubled to €6 per person per night. So €48 of the €408 we paid was this Rome City Tax. It's not the hotel's fault that this tax exists, so don't get upset with them when you check out. You want to figure that in to your anticipated expenses, though, and perhaps ask when you check in what the current tax is in case it has increased again.

a view from the Gianicolo Hill

Roma Pass

We opted not to get the 3-day Roma Pass for €36, and with that decision we nearly broke even. We paid an additional €12 for bus/metro tickets, but we visited none of the attractions covered by the Roma Pass beyond the Colosseum and the Capitoline Museums (which, according to the terms of the Roma Pass, would have been free for us). The Vatican is not included in the Roma Pass, nor is transportation to and from the airport.

By no means am I poo-pooing the Roma Pass! Just make sure you check into what attractions it covers and make sure those are on your list of things you want to see before buying it thinking you'll save money on entrance fees. If you plan to do most of your in-city traveling by overcrowded buses, trams, and trains, it may also be worth it. We took four rides - one bus ride from which we fled at the second stop and gladly walked the rest of the way to where we were going - and three Metro rides (passing on two trains and waiting for the next because they were just too full). Yes, we were tired from miles and miles of walking, but so what? We saw more on foot than we would have on buses and the Metro.
Circus Maximo (Ben Hur!) and the Palatine Hill

Getting around in Rome

Explore  Rome on foot. You will see more, and there is something to enjoy and/or photograph around every corner and down every street. To get to the main attractions at the time when you have an appointment, take the Metro. A ticket costs €1,50 for buses, trams, and the Metro for as many transfers as you need within 90 minutes from validating, and you can buy these tickets in most tobacco shops and kiosks. Always validate your ticket by sticking it into a machine (on entering the Metro station, on every bus - and probably on every tram as well, though we didn't take any trams). Avoid Bus # 64 like the plague - it's a touristy bus which Rick Steves warns is also a haven for pickpockets, and it's so crowded you will never stand as close to strangers anywhere else in your life.

Road signs (identifying which road you're standing on) are stone plaques on the corners of buildings at about first-floor level. It took us an embarrassing four hours or so to figure this out.

Being a Pedestrian in Rome

Mopeds don't have to obey any traffic lights, signs or rules that I am aware of. Pedestrians who wait for the light indicating it's safe to cross are visitors. Cars and buses will usually stop for pedestrians crossing streets to avoid messing up their cars and delaying their mad dash to wherever the hell it is they're going, but it's generally a good idea to cross at the pedestrian crossings (Zebrastreifen, in German). Don't wait for the vehicles to stop - just step into the crossing, make eye contact with the approaching drivers if possible (they're less likely to bash into people who look into their eyes), and stride confidently - and quickly - to the opposite sidewalk. 

Good luck and be careful.

Private Tours

In front of the main attractions you will find lots of tour guides vying for your attention and business, offering personal tours providing lots more information than you will want to read on the posted signs throughout the attractions. We did not bite, so I cannot speak to the quality of these tours. I can tell you that in the Vatican Museum, where we walked through rooms skipping some displays and stopping to read about others (on signs or in our Rick Steves book), one of these tour guides went zooming past us with a family stopping here and there to explain something and then saying, "Ok, can we move on now?" They went through even faster than we did, and we only looked at the highlights. My suspicion is that they want to go through quickly because that allows them to find another group to hire them. Logically, the more tours they do in a day, the more money they make.

I asked one tour guide in front of the Vatican Museum what the cost was, and he said €20 (I assume per person, but didn't ask). If you don't have a good guide book, don't want to buy the cheaper audio guide provided by the museum, and/or want a more personal tour with someone who can answer your questions, then give them a try. I don't like pushy salespeople and I don't like people getting in my face when I've decided for myself how I'm going to do something. Just know that there will be tour guides trying to get your business, and they can smell hesitance. If you make eye contact and sound unsure with your "No, thanks," you'll have a hard time shaking them.

inside the Pantheon


Here's my daughter's advice about the peddlers on every street and piazza selling whatever is currently hot - this year selfie sticks, portable chargers, and scarves: Do not make eye contact, and do not answer them in any way if you do not want to buy what they are selling. Have a stern (or downright nasty) look on your face, and if they don't go away continue to ignore them and do not, for the love of all that's holy, smile politely. I sucked at all of that, though I did wonder what went through their heads as they approached me while I was taking a photo with my Canon DSLR. Uh...this camera won't fit on that stick. I actually said that to one of them, which elicited a reproachful "MOM!" from my daughter.

What to See

Of course you want to see the main attractions on your first visit. But don't miss the free stuff and the lesser-known churches. That's where your guidebooks will help you. And here's something I wish I had done - when you go into a church (and I swear, every one is beautiful inside), make sure you know what it's called before you leave, and write it down including the time when you were there (to compare with your camera's data). Then you won't have pictures later on with captions like "a pretty church in Rome." There are more churches in Rome than days of the year, and you probably won't be able to find out after your trip the name of the churches you took pictures of if you don't make note of them right away.

a pretty church in Rome
(See what I mean?)


As I wrote above, we spent €210 on food and drinks during those five days (call it four because we only needed dinner on the first day and lunch on the last). On the first day we bought a six-pack of water bottles and took one with us each day. We were able to sit outside during the day and even one evening, which was nice for us in December! 

We always looked for a restaurant at least a few blocks away from tourist attractions, and went in where we saw & heard locals. Per a tip I read, we avoided places with lots of English outside and especially with pictures of menu items displayed near the door. We found the prices reasonable. My daughter stuck to Coca-Cola, and I had one or two glasses of wine in a day plus sparkling water.

We were not blown away by the deliciousness of the food, but we tried all the dishes we'd intended to - Spaghetti Pomodoro, Gnocchi, Pizza, Calzone, Spaghetti Carbonara, Tortellini, and Tiramisu - and the meals were good. My favorite meal, at Ristorante da Giovanni, was Abbacchio romano arrosto (roast lamb), my daughter had Saltimbocca ala Roma (veal with prosciutto and sage), and we shared a piece of Tiramisu. With drinks that bill still only came to €38 ($47). It is definitely possible to eat good and filling meals in Rome without breaking your wallet.

Neopolitan-style Pizza
with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil

Abbacchio romano arrosto
Food noises were heard...


You'll read in most tour books that Italians don't tip and it's not expected in restaurants in Rome. We found this to be true. Several times we were able to give an extra Euro, but most often, even when I handed the waiter the check and the money, smiled and said "Grazie!", he gave back the extra Euro or two. We always strove to avoid the touristy restaurants and find ones off the beaten path with local-sounding people in them, so it's possible the ones that lure tourists expect tips.

I think that covers what I would tell first-time visitors to Rome based on our experience. If I think of anything else, I'll post an addendum.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Impressions of Rome daughter and I returned on  Friday after five days in Rome. Three full days, really (nearly four because a transportation strike delayed our return home by five hours), and two partial days. If you love Rome, this is probably not the post for you. I thought Rome was absolutely fine, I'm  glad we went, I enjoyed our mother-daughter trip, it was a good experience, and I'm glad - really glad - to be back home in Germany. I just didn't return with the "WOW!" feeling, which makes me feel somewhat of a blasphemer.

Future founders of Rome Romulus and Remus
being nursed by the she-wolf
We did most of the city center on foot after a horrifying bus ride on our first full day - we fled the bus after one stop - and my leg muscles gave up complaining by Friday morning. We both agree that exploring a city on foot is the way to go - there's just way too much you miss on public transportation. The food we ate was ok (with the exception of our last dinner, which was fabulous!), we saw all the major sites one should see in Rome, we stayed in a modest but nice hotel which met all our needs, we only encountered friendly people, we have lots of good photos, and we came away unrobbed despite the many warnings about pickpockets and unkilled by the crazy Italian drivers. I'm glad we went, but I'm not burning to return.

St. Peter's Cathedral
My original plan was to save money by eating sensibly - grabbing a sandwich for lunch, trying the Aperitivo (buy a drink and enjoy whatever appetizers the restaurant provides), having one nice dinner, eating at a pizzeria - but for lunch we were usually ready to sit in a restaurant rather than just eating out of the hand. We didn't spend a ton on meals, but we could have been more thrifty.
I found the city dirty, with garbage everywhere and overflowing dumpsters on most street corners not directly at tourist attractions. My daughter said that's just how it is in big cities, but I don't remember that standing out in my mind from my weekend with her in Berlin last year. Road rules are crazy. Mopeds don't have to heed traffic lights, stop signs, or anything else except that they shouldn't bash into pedestrians, lane lines seem to be suggestions as do the Ampelmännchen that tell pedestrians whether they may cross a street safely or not, and where there is no crossing light, pedestrians just step into the road (preferrably at a marked crossing, though in practice that doesn't really matter either) and vehicles are required to give way. Most likely they do so just to keep pedestrian goo off their cars. The honking is nearly constant, and whenever Italians are talking to each other whether in person or on cell phones, it sounds like they are about to come to blows.
Foro Romano (Roman Forum)

Crowds and lines are not at all bad in December, but we're still glad we paid a little extra and reserved "skip-the-line" tickets online. On the days in which we headed to main attractions, we got up early and arrived before opening time - also a good idea because we were able to get some pictures with few or no other tourists on them. We took the Metro to the Colosseum and to the Vatican and found it very easy to navigate - or rather my daughter did, and I just had to follow her - as well as inexpensive (€1,50 per person for a ride on any bus, tram, or the Metro within 90 minutes). I am glad we didn't buy the RomaPass since we did so much on foot and just didn't need public transportation often. Yes, we were achy by late afternoon, but since neither one of us is interested in the night life, we were in bed early anyway and had time to recuperate for the next day.

Spanish Steps by night (8:20 pm, actually)
Although this was my first time in a country where I didn't speak the local language at all (I've been to the Alsace in France, but that doesn't really count since the locals do reluctantly speak German), language was not an issue. We got by just fine in German or English and never had a bad experience due to not knowing Italian. In fact, my favorite dining experience was in a restaurant where our charming waiter spoke very little English!
Inside Mamartine Prison, where Sts. Peter and Paul
are said to have been imprisoned

We would have been fine having one less day in Rome. We were exhausted from walking anyway, so we probably should have just planned on doing the Vatican one morning followed by wandering on our own, and the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine the next morning followed by more exploring. The way we did it, we spent all of our first full day walking with no appointments at any attractions. We did enjoy that and saw a lot. As it turns out, leaving on Thursday would have meant not being delayed five hours due to a transportation strike. Buses, trains, the Metro, air traffic control... I got an email on Thursday evening saying our 14:40 flight for Friday was bumped to 19:15 (actually 20:25 after more delays), so although we had seen and done everything we wanted to already, we had a bunch of extra hours to visit a few more churches. No one got excited about the strike - apparently they're as common as pigeon shit in Italy. When we had absolutely nothing else to do, we picked up our suitcases at the hotel and dragged them to Termini station, got on the Terravision bus (€6 each - €4 if you buy the ticket online) which takes an hour to get from Termini to Fiumicino, and arrived at the airport four hours early.

Arch of Constantine
I'd have to say that I enjoyed the trip with my daughter and am glad we saw Rome (though it had never been on the bucket list I don't have), but it did not leave me with a burning desire to see other big cities of the world outside of Germany. Perhaps I love Germany just a little too much.

Inside the Protestant Cemetery - grave of John Keats (on left)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Day Trip 5: Bad Wimpfen

Bad Wimpfen is a lovely little town worth a visit even without the Christmas Market. It's a little awkward to get to by train from Horb and takes three hours with two or three transfers and a 15-minute walk, apparently (not a problem, but good to know). I decided to reserve two seats for my daughter and me on a bus day trip instead with the travel/bus company Schweizer. The drive took 2 1/2 hours to get there because of some traffic issues, but just 2 hours to return, and it cost €25 each. Had we gone by train we could have got there with the MetropolTagesTicket Stuttgart for a total of €24. The bus driver dropped us off right at the main bus parking lot and picked us up there five hours later. Granted, my daughter (21) was the youngest in the group and I was the second or third youngest, but that didn't matter. Funnily, I think we were the only ones who napped on the way to Bad Wimpfen!

Our bus driver gave us the following warning after he'd picked everyone up:
"The bus will be in the lot and we will depart at 19:30. If you are five minutes late, you have to sing a song. If you are ten minutes late, you will sing two songs. If you are fifteen minutes late, you can sing a song where the bus was." No one was late!

I never get tired of Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered houses)

In the background is the Blauer Turm (Blue Tower),
the landmark of Bad Wimpfen

We got sucked into the Weihnachtsmarkt right away, but what we should have done was stop in the Stadtinfo (Hauptstraße 45) to get a guide book and start a self-guided walking tour of the town while it was still light out. One doesn't really need five hours only for one Christmas Market. I did climb the Blauer Turm, which costs €1,50 and is very easy. Unlike many church and castle towers I've climbed, the steps leading up are wide and straight rather than a spiral, and I wasn't even winded when I got to the top.

Evangelische Stadtkirche
Protestant Municipal Church
Salzgasse, leading from Hauptstraße up to the Marktplatz,
with Christmas Market booths along the way

One thing to know about Bad Wimpfen's Weihnachtsmarkt that is different from others is that there is no Pfand (deposit) for the cups - which means you pay for your cup (only €1,50), reuse it if you want another beverage, and in the end it's yours. You may also bring your own cup from home if you know this ahead of time. We saw lots of people with their own cups.

The rest of the time we wandered around, sampled the delicious food, bought a few items, and took lots of photos.

After you choose a snack and beverage, you find a spot at one of
these standing tables, perhaps sharing with a stranger or two.

It's true that one tends to find the same types of stands at each Weihnachtsmarkt - nutcrackers, wooden smoking men, roasted nuts, ornaments and home decorations, wool hats and mittens, scarves, Lebkuchenherzen (gingerbread hearts), wooden ornaments, candles and candle holders, products made with honey, flavored mustards or spreads, and gifts appealing to children - but each Christmas Market also has its own character. You will always find stands selling rote Würste ("red sausages") and other sausages on buns, waffles, crepes, and usually Schnitzel (breaded pork cutlet). Keep a look out for any food you haven't seen before, and try it! The first new food we saw were small donuts, which were made fresh with each order and served warm with powered sugar, sugar & cinnamon, vanilla sauce or chocolate. They were fabulously delicious!

Schnitzel mit Brot and Glühwein
The Schnitzel was good - nice and crispy, but the meat
was tender and juicy.

Crepe with vanilla sauce and some sugar & cinnamon,
heiße Schokolade mit Sahne, and Glühwein
I'm glad we had this experience - the whole bus trip to a new (for us) town far enough away that we made a full day of it with a lovely Christmas Market. If I return I will definitely plan for a tour of the town to learn more about its buildings and history, and I think I would also go for two days and include either Heidelberg or Heilbronn.

Thus endeth our three-day marathon of day trips, and we plan to enjoy a quiet weekend with M, resting up for Rome. My daughter got out of bed 90 minutes ago and she's already napping on the sofa under a thick blanket...

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Esslingen's Christmas Market and Medieval Market

"Seid gegrüßt, edle Damen!"

If you're not a new reader, you know I love the town of Esslingen am Neckar. It's like a second home to me and visiting never gets old. It's a beautiful town no matter the season, but the Christmas and Medieval Market is truly something special. I don't need to go into all the special exhibits, activities, features, programs, booths, and entertainers, because there is a very thorough website explaining everything you could want to know about what there is to see and do there. My Schwiegermutter and I did the English translations of the updated version of the site earlier this year!

When my daughter and I arrived this morning we met my Schwiegermutter and headed straight to the Weihnachtsmarkt with a brief stop at the bank and Karstadt (Esslingen is GREAT for shopping in general!). We meandered through the Christmas Market seeing many familiar stalls and making mental note of where we would return later.

Räucherhäuser - smoking houses
(incense cones go inside and the fragrant smoke comes out the chimney)

handmade soaps

decorations for your home

candle holders

products made from honey
Then we went to the Mittelaltermarkt, which is good splendid fun! The vendors and entertainers are all in costume, and I know it's early in the season, but every one of them seemed to be thoroughly enjoying their roles. They speak a combination of the local Schwäbisch dialect mixed with old German (but switch to oldish English when they hear the American or English accent so common among visitors). Don't neglect to pick up a brochure, which includes not only a map and guide, but also a language chart translating common phrases from Hochdeutsch into Mittelalter-Deutsch. It even gives you phrases you can and should use with the vendors!

Those who interacted with groups of children did so expertly, drawing them in and explaining town life in the Middle Ages, getting them involved in games, and demonstrating various crafts.
He's saying good-bye to a group of children, reminding them
to return their cups to the stand and to be careful that they don't drop and break them!

This man on stilts enchanted children with soap bubble balloons
and general theatrics
Ok, I'm sorry - I know the following picture isn't great, but the scene was so gorgeous I had to include it. This is a very old ferris wheel for small children. They sit in pairs in the little baskets, and for the pairs that don't weigh enough to keep the wheel turning smoothly, the attendants put sacks of sand in the basket with them. I nearly died from the cuteness.

Entering the Hafenmarkt I was accosted by a charming woman selling Pflaumentoffelglühwein (mulled spiced plum-flavored wine?), who lured me to her stand with a free sample, which of course I gladly accepted. It was sweeter than I prefer, but tasty enough, so I paid for a full cup and promptly burned the tip of my tongue. My Schwiegermutter had a cup of her Zimtapfelsaft (warmed cinnamon apple cider), which she enjoyed.

Then we went on through the Mittelaltermarkt to explore the booths.

more Met (pronounced "mate") - it's wine/beer made from honey

This is the public bath. Although we didn't see anyone in it today,
it's real! One can pay to sit in the big barrel of hot water for a
middle ages-style bath.

herbs and spices

I love this old-style pottery

a booth of all things sharp - and he'll even sharpen your knives the old-fashioned way.
There's a little sign that reads "Thieves will have their fingers cut off!"

And because I love dogs...

In the Mittelaltermarkt there are craftsman who demonstrate their talents, show visitors how to do things like shooting arrows and weaving ropes, and of course, prepare delicious food.

the Zundermacher - tinder maker, who has boiled a sponge
and is shaving off pieces to work as flints.

Bogenschiessen lessons

This chap is preparing the Kässpätzle I ordered for lunch.
Kässpätzle = Swabian noodles and cheese

One thing we did for the first time this year is play Mäuseroulette. The woman in charge of the game was sweet, funny, very enthusiastic, and convinced us as we strolled by that we would love this game for only zwei Taler (medieval coins, Euro today)! I readily admit I enjoyed it, and I will play it again when I return. This is a picture of Karamelle the mouse (the caramel-colored blur) running into a house upon which my Edelstein is not. The lady standing next to me won, though.

So I have some advice for those of you who are close enough to Esslingen this year or some year in the future in December:

  1. Go to Esslingen's Christmas Market and Medieval Market.
  2. Be aware that the Medieval Market continues around the Rathaus (city hall) down a side street to the Hafenmarkt!
  3. Participate in everything possible - Mäuseroulette, archery lessons, rope-twisting, the medieval bath... If someone in costume asks if you want to participate in something, don't be a putz! Say yes!! You'll spend some money, but you won't be sorry.
  4. Go with an empty stomach and sample every dish that looks or sounds tempting.
  5. Split the servings with a friend - the Kässpätzle, for instance, is too much for one person. That way you can also try twice as many different foods!
  6. Be careful with your first sip of Glühwein. There's no warning on the cup, Americans, but it's hot!
  7. Don't forget your camera!

Tomorrow we're off on a bus trip to Bad Wimpfen, where we've never been before. The highlight of our Christmas season is always the Esslingen Christmas and Medieval Market, but we're looking forward to Bad Wimpfen as well. Stay tuned!