Back in BXL

I have been back in Brussels for nearly one week, and I’m already itching to leave.

My visa problems are not going away any time soon, though. After two trips to two different communes, I have realized that I am probably not going to obtain my official Belgian ID card for at least two months. The paperwork is all done, of course, but the waiting game persists.

This is disconcerting.

It’s not that I need to start traveling again, but the freedom I felt on the road this winter has been unmatched in my lifetime. Little tastes of independence, small dosages of other cultures and memorable encounters with new people are always going to tempt me now. Even with these issues of legality, and even with ISA telling me “No, No, No,” all I want to do is hop the next train out of Belgium.

Maybe one quick trip will help slowly flush the travel bug out of my system.

Maybe. Or maybe I’m infected forever!

But in the mean time, I’m enjoying my surroundings. I’ve moved into a new home-stay in Watermael-Boitsfort, a gorgeous and quiet commune far from the city center. It’s convenient for my daily trips to class, and the strip of student bars by cimetière d’ixelles is real close as well. If I walk three minutes I’m surrounded by everything I need — supermarkets, a butchers’ shop, a fancy patisserie, restaurants, a hyper-organic cafe and artisan ice cream.

Even better, I’m surrounded by trees.

Half of Watermael-Boitsfort is covered by the Forêt de Soignes (Sonian Forest), 12.9 kilometers of life that I’ll likely only skim the surface of.

And there are garden cities — public spaces that I wish I could explain further, but I really need to see with my own eyes first — and normal gardens. The Tournay-Solvay park, for example, is a beautiful stretch of growth and polished orchards, with an old castle sitting in the center. Rumor has it that roses dot the park each spring, and I’m sure the entire commune will radiate color.

Maybe I needn’t go far to escape my city woes after all.

Angoulême: surrounded by walls, cartoons and cartoon walls

People really paying attention to my blog and travel plans might have noticed a gap in between my farming experience and my time in Bordeaux.

It’s true! While I spent a week in the Atlantic Coast region, it was not all spend in Bordeaux. My first two nights were in Angoulême, a small city about thirty minutes north of Bordeaux.

Angoulême has two main attractions: its unusual urban layout and its top-notch cartoon culture.

In the medieval days, cities were contained in walls. Once you walked on the other side of a wall, you were elsewhere. As time passed and cities expanded, walls were knocked down.

But in Angoulême, the city center is still walled off and the inner-district’s little streets feel trapped in time. In terms of streets and architecture, it’s as if nothing has changed. Everything feels medieval and nothing feels quite real, and yet, it is very much an active city with attractive bakeries, restaurants and museums, and not a sleepy town.

Boulevards have been built above these walls, and walking along them provides a spectacular 360 of the elevated city, with its old church spires jutting out and the Charente River and surrounding suburbs below.

Juxtaposed against charming old homes are the ultra-contemporary cartoon murals present all over the city. Brussels has these as well, and the two cities are fighting for the title of Cartoon Capital of Europe. Except, the average person has never heard of Angoulême, so Brussels is likely winning the battle.

However, Angoulême is definitely the Cartoon Capital of France, and the pride is evident every year at its International Comics Festival. The four-day event, which is actually this weekend, draws some 200,000 to its workshops and expos. And even apart from the festival, many come to Angoulême purely for its comic strip museum.

Most Americans think of comic strips as something for children, a small section in the daily newspaper meant for amusement. But in Europe, the comic strip is gaining popularity as an art form. It’s not the mainstream, formalist works like Tin Tin, but a new underground scene that cool college-aged kids read on the bus.

My couchsurfing host worked at la Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (the cartoon museum), which meant a free private tour and lots of perspective on emerging styles. It’s easy to appreciate the artists and these works — the books are hefty, where illustration and storyline hold equal significance.

After leaving Angoulême, I began to notice small comic strip shops, and massive comic sections in larger bookstores, all over Bordeaux. I noticed cartoons being consumed on the trams and even a small collection in my German host’s home.

It’ll inevitably spread the states as well, so if you are looking for some way to beat your local hipsters, getting into la bande dessinée is not a bad idea.

Stranded

Bordeaux was supposed to be an easy, relaxed, three night detour. I didn’t even bother leaving the city, not wanting to put the burden on myself to board a bus to the coast or explore any nearby vineyards. I figured I’d just chill. I deserved a break after nearly three weeks of backpacking and two weeks of farm work. I deserved cheap grocery store wine and even cheaper baguettes and cheese.

It was going to be a fabulous end to my fabulous winter break. Stress-free. Inexpensive. Easy.

How did it go so terribly, terribly wrong?

This is partially my fault, but I choose to put most of the blame on mongo-corporate-sheep herders Ryanair and grossly inefficient, rightfully teased Belgium. RYANAIR! I AM NEVER FLYING YOU AGAIN! BELGIUM! I UNFORTUNATELY HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO EMBRACE YOU IN FULL BUT I WON’T BE HAPPY ABOUT IT FOR AT LEAST A WEEK!

My trip to Bordeaux was already longer than intended, simply because Ryanair wasn’t flying from this region of France to Brussels more than twice a week. Unless I wanted to return to Brussels immediately after the farm, I had to spend five nights in the area. Unless I wanted to spent 100 euro on 6 hours on trains as opposed to Ryanair’s cool 30 euro, 1.5 hour flight.

Alas, I am still in Bordeaux as I write this. I have spent nearly a full week in the Atlantic Coast and I am out hundreds of euros from trying to get back to Brussels. It takes great effort not to think about all the glasses of Rochefort beer this could buy me in Brussels — at 11.3 percent, my gosh, it could hold me in constant bliss for weeks.

After excellent planning and over an hour on multiple buses to get from the Bordeaux suburbs to the airport, I arrived at the Ryanair check-in desk 1.5 hours early.

The woman at the desk stared at my passport. I got nervous. I have had zero problems flying around Europe thus far.

“Your visa is — how do you say — no good?”

It’s true. My visa is no good. It has expired long ago. But it’s not my fault. For Americans studying in Belgium, the Belgian consulate only issues a three-month visa. After these three months, I am supposed to be a Belgian resident, no longer an American tourist.

That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s another issue when Belgium takes five months to make this residency thing official. I went to the appropriate offices in Brussels to get my resident permit, waiting in line for more than two hours every visit, three times since the first week of September. Does it really need to be my problem when Brussels feels no urgency to legalize its residents? The paperwork is all done. It’s been done for over two months. I’ve waited and waited, and I was told traveling within Shengen countries (European Union countries under an agreement with minimal border controls, which includes France) would present zero problems.

I explain this all to Ryanair. I show my Belgian student identification card. I say that I have classes in the morning!

Calls are made to management. The passport is passed around. The ultimate and final answer is no, I can’t board the plane, and I am lucky to not be deported back the USA.

I am upset, to say the least. But I also realize the luck in the situation: if this had happened in another country, in another language, I would have far greater problems navigating the city and its transportation options. Plus, I had an awesome couchsurfing host who welcomed me back immediately with laughs, a bed, hot soup and a night of painting.

Things could be a lot worse.

Then I had to print my train ticket for the next day, and after an all too enjoyable and leisurely breakfast at my host’s house, I got out a bit later than I should have. And the hotel that the tourist office directed me to for free printing had a small paper jam. And then my bus to the train station was a bit late. And all added up, I missed my train.

That also meant missing my connection train from Paris to Brussels. And this is where it all got even more expensive to change.

But once I make it to Belgium, I am probably not leaving for a good long while. I can’t afford these trips much longer and I’m surely not flying anywhere until my residency is 100 percent finalized.

This means adopting a bit of the French mentality that I’ve picked up this week in Bordeaux. In Brussels, I’ll make rituals of splendor out of meals and walks, fully focusing on simple pleasures like quality fig jam on hearty bread or a little extra sea salt on a buttery potato.

I met an incredibly passionate French student a few days ago in a patisserie, and during subsequent philosophizing over coffee, she said that people must take risks and must challenge themselves in order to stay alive. To be comfortable, to settle, is to no longer be human.

I am definitely not comfortable, so at least I still have some soul.

Bordeaux for gastronomes

I spent Friday night at a small birthday party full of European exchange students, mostly from Germany and all studying in Bordeaux. The girls were posh, blending into their bourgeoisie setting nicely, with glitter around their eyes and red wine in their hands.

I asked one about the lifestyle adjustment. She took a long drag from her cigarette and smiled dreamily.

“I love the mentality here. The French take their time and enjoy life. They are passionate about eating and drinking and make meals a special occasion,” she said in what sounded to my foreign ears like perfect French. “I never before thought lunch could really take two hours, but here it’s easy.”

Ah, the French and their two-hour lunch breaks. Basically every international student I’ve met in Bordeaux — a glamorous university town of 500,000 — has commented on this eating ritual. What’s not to love about a luxurious dining experience in the middle of the day, accompanied by a glass of some cheap local nectar, which just happens to be some of the best wine in the world?

Bordeaux is a gastronome’s playground, with every narrow, winding street packed with specialty shops — wine, cheese, pastries, organics, cured meats, oils, fancy sauces, and even macarons, exclusively.

M Le Macaron is a fashion boutique of macarons, those positively perfect French cookies that don’t make any logical sense. How can such a small, brightly colored dollop of meringue have such an intense flavor and so much texture? And at M Le Macaron, the little gems are treated with the care they deserve — shining displays in engagement ring boxes and the works. The flavors, too, are real special. The sweets range from lavender peach to litchi ginger to nutella, while the salty varieties move from chocolate foie gras to salmon spinach.

Pastries in general are a force in Bordeaux. The patisseries are dangerously glamorous and chic, with the edibles themselves acting as works of art. Take the Mont Blanc, a tower of pureed chestnuts on top of whipped cream, meringue and flaky pastry.

And of course, there’s lunch.

I had the pleasure of being escorted to Les 4 Saisons d’Estelle, a popular neighborhood spot in the Chartrons district and an impressive one-woman show. The owner, presumably Estelle, does all the prep, all the cooking, all the serving, all the bussing, all the assembling, all the cleaning…

And the results are phenomenal. Two of us arrived at about 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and all 22 seats at the three community tables were full. We lingered, though, and lucked out. The small restaurant was cozy and inviting, yet chic, just like Bordeaux.

When it came to order, the menu started shrinking, rapidly. The chalkboard contained a single starter, four quiche options, two special plates and four desserts. I planned for the tartiflette — a rendition of potatoes au gratin with bacon and reblochon cheese — but the option was crossed off. Then I decided on a quiche with leeks and a fancy, local cheese. Estelle crossed it off. Then I said I’d just get what my host was getting — a quiche with salmon, spinach and ricotta. But no! There was only one left. Desserts were disappearing too!

We ended up with last two soups of the day, a creamy and surprisingly complex velouté of celery and carrots. Crusty bread, from the neighborhood bakery, was dished out for dipping. My quiche, with tangy goat cheese and chives, was possibly the best quiche I’ve ever had, tall and light with a perfect buttery crust.

The excellent eating didn’t end. There was an elegant crêpe dinner at a charming hole-in-the-wall, where I filled up on another fabulous velouté and ended with a simple buttered crêpe below a small scoop of speculoos ice cream. Of course, it was all washed down with a bottle of organic Bordeaux.

In between feasts, the city itself is built for strolling, boasting one of the largest pedestrian zones in the world and offering free bikes to those who prefer a little speed. The cobblestones and towering old mansions invite wanderers to lose themselves until they hit the Garonne river, or, at least until it’s time for dinner.

Lessons from the farm

After shoveling rabbit shit out of ten cages, my arms were throbbing. Rabbits are amazing creatures. They procreate like no other — mothers are sent on honeymoons every six weeks to keep the babies coming. After four weeks, a bunny is fattened up and ready for slaughter. This is assuming, of course, a certain farm volunteer doesn’t accidentally let them out of their cages.

I brought a monster of a black male down from the farm to the house. Kim took him with her bloody hands and told me to leave. She couldn’t do what she was about to do with me in the room.

I was called back in. Then I learned how to skin a rabbit.

It’s my final night on Eglantine Farm. The past week has flown by. Now that I (kind of) know what I’m doing, the work days are more enjoyable and the mistakes are few. Another helper arrived as well, all the way from Australia, and we’ve spent our nights talking about food and laughing about this bizarre situation we’ve gotten ourselves into.

It has been bizarre, alright. It has probably been the most bizarre thing I have ever done.

Eglantine Farm is not a normal farm. It’s one woman’s project. It’s Kim’s world.

It’s a woman who came under mental illness, shed city life and created a habitat for her own happiness. It’s self-sufficiency in survival-mode. It’s waves of knowledge, learning and teaching. It’s resourcefulness, sure, but it’s a whole lot more.

On my final night, Kim had a coincidental dinner party. We had freshly killed rabbit, roasted in five-spice, with butternut squash and potatoes. There was kale, which I had picked as the rich orange sun set. There were stewed apples for dessert, with custard, and wine, and tea, and coffee, and homemade cherry vodka.

Kim said I did a good job on this farm, considering my youth and naivety. I know she wasn’t just saying that to be nice — she never says things to be nice — and I’m relieved. I worked harder these past two weeks than I have in ages. There were lots of odd jobs, like moving furniture or painting hallways or burning garbage. But there was some exhausting physical labor, and some exhausting pig, rabbit, goat and dog chases. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so unsure of myself, second guessing every little action, and under so much deserved criticism.

“So, what did you learn?” Kim asked.

“Oh goodness,” I answered. “Everything.”

I learned a lot of little things: Pigs will eat just about everything, except lemons. Rabbits only need a few moments alone together before the action begins. A lot of English people live in France, and a lot of English people fear what England is becoming. I learned how to start a roaring fire and how to keep it going. I learned how to best peel the shell off of a six-minute egg. I learned how to prepare a chicken roulade, cauliflower cheese, rabbit stew…

I learned a lot of big things: Do things for you. Advancing in your career could mean unexpected moves, moving to seemingly lower positions, but don’t fear staying on the move. If you’re unhappy, make a change, don’t wait for things to get better. People can come into your life for short periods, and make  impressions deeper than those who have been around for years — let it happen.

And if your children are too needy and you need to get away… There are worse ideas than moving to rural France and starting your own farm.

Farmville, in real life

The rabbits, chickens and pigs were all fed, and it was time to lock the barn up. I hollered to the dogs that had followed me in, as well as the goat that thinks it’s a dog.

The dogs filed out — but not that goat, that damn goat.

I walked outside and started to push the sliding steel door closed, when I realized the goat had halted mid-exit. I stared at him.

“Really?”

I started to move forward, and he moved backwards. I resumed my post at the door, and he stuck his head outside, and once again, halted mid-exit. As soon as I’d shift, he’d shift back.

“Really?”

Damn. Stubborn. Goat.

After about three minutes of this, I grab both of his horns and drag him outside, slamming the door shut with my body. As soon as I let go, the goat merely walks away.

This has been my life for exactly one week, and it will continue to be for one more.

After spending a lovely New Years in Brussels with friends, I trained down to the Poitu-Charentes region of France for a little real-world Farmville.

My boss for these weeks, Kim, owns a small farm in a tiny village of 100 people. The houses are out of a storybook, and the farm is a continual work in progress. Kim moved here from England five years ago and she’s got big dreams for her land. What started out as plains of tall grass and rickety tin shacks have already grown to a sturdy farm, with goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks as well as loads of fruit and veggies. Now she’s building a smoker and a second greenhouse, all the while keeping her farm running and working as head chef at a nearby restaurant.

She’s busy, all right. I’m amazed she can still stand up. She works full days on the farm and full nights at the restaurant, with zero days off. She can’t afford to take time off, she says. There’s always work to be done and money doesn’t go too far in this part of France.

So, where am I in this equation?

I’m doing a help exchange through helpx.net. It’s similar to WWOOFing, or Workaway, where I give Kim a day’s work and she feeds and houses me. There are people who travel the world this way, and Kim says she’s had some truly amazing people walk through her door.

“Some people nicknamed it, ‘Survival Farm.’ You either survive, or you don’t,” she said on my second day on the job. She was cackling in between sips of tea.

“People really don’t survive?”

She looked at me gravely and shook her head.

Apparently some people can’t take it, and they leave. Perhaps the work is too demanding, or it’s not the traditional farm labor they were expecting. Maybe they thought the village would be livelier, with a cafe or bar to head to in the evenings, instead of a television with 12 British stations.

Regardless, Kim says she’d never throw anyone out, so long as they weren’t completely awful people.

So I don’t think I’ll get thrown out — I’m mild enough, and I make her coffee each morning and clean the kitchen every night. That means survival is on me — I can’t bail out early just because I am dreadful at farm work.

Five bunnies are on the loose, somehow. It takes me about ten minutes to saw through the rope around a hay barrel. And I’m small and weak. And I’m awkward. And I’m not exactly picking fruit out here. It’s winter work — it’s feeding, weeding, cleaning, moving, lifting, building and destroying.

There are moments where I stop and think, why am I even here? I’m pushing a wheelbarrow of dirt from one end of a farm to the other end. I could be exploring a new city, trekking through wine country, or cuddling up in my bed in Brussels, finally getting around to watching “Breaking Bad.”

But then there are other moments — pressing my weight against a log while Kim hacks away with various power tools, walking three dogs through the never-ending countryside, gathering fire wood while the stars shine brilliantly — where I remember that there is too much to learn here to become jaded. Even if I couldn’t live forever in Kim’s world of quiet self-sufficiency, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it.

Winter break: Vienna

I had been told that there is no more magical place to be in the wintertime than in Vienna. As I flew into Vienna from Brussels a week before Christmas, I made it a point to power walk through the inner city before returning two weeks later. I wanted to hit the main markets and gain some understanding as to why Vienna has such a reputation.

I understand.

I also understand why others say Vienna is a commercial nightmare around the holidays. Because it is. It’s a beautiful commercial nightmare.

Vienna’s main markets have surely become too touristy and buy-sell-oriented, but they’re still the most picturesque I’ve ever seen. Vienna knows how to decorate, and its main streets throughout the inner city are draped with everything from ornate chandeliers to crown-shaped twinkle lights. However, the decor is never gaudy — Vienna is all class, all the time.

Take the city’s world-famous coffee culture, for instance. Forget Paris for cafes (okay, don’t forget Parisian cafes), the traditional “kaffeehaus” is a social ritual. The cafes have excellent coffee of course, but also international newspapers and fine Austrian pastries. Most importantly is the atmosphere — elegant and potentially over-the-top, with service that makes Parisian waiters look friendly. Well, maybe not friendly

Lastly, it is normal and expected for a customer to linger for hours and hours, alone, to read, enjoy the intellectual vibe, and simply be.

If I had one more day in Vienna, you can be assured that it would have been spent in several different coffee houses. Since Vienna’s cafes provide a glass of cold water with each beverage, I wouldn’t have to worry about dehydration!

But, I only had two nights, and I wanted to soak up more than just Vienna’s coffee culture. Vienna has lots of culture to offer. Too much, really, to adequately assess in a mere few days. There’s so much history, so much art — capitals across Europe pale in comparison.

Plus there’s the simple joy of wandering the inner-city, an UNESCO World Heritage site, and being transported back in time. At night, without the throngs of people, the quiet streets are tinged with a warm glow, and it’s all just too pretty for its own good.

Plus there’s the food. Wonderful, enormously portioned Viennese food.

Most famous is Wiener Schnitzel (Vienna is “Wien” in the local tongue), super-thin veal escalope, bread crumbed and fried with lemon slices. Ideally, the schnitzel should be hanging off the serving plate on all sides. Don’t forget the side dish, which almost upstages the veal — Erdäpfel Salat a vinegary, cold potato salad with onion.

Then there are all the sugary confections. The infamous Sachertorte was born in Vienna, with its thin layer of apricot jam engulfed by chocolate. In my humble opinion, and in the humble opinion of every local I spoke with, the Sachertorte is a wee-bit overrated and usually a wee-bit dry.

Apfelstrudel is a local favorite, as is Kaiserschmarrn, a dessert of shredded pancakes and stewed fruit that I unfortunately never got the chance to try.

Just be prepared to take in a bit of ash with your edibles. Smoking is permitted, and common, in cafes, bars and restaurants.

Winter break: Bratislava

I am looking into the eyes of a woman in her early 60’s. She’s 100 percent Slovak, and she’s never left the country in her life. Her glasses cover half her face and her pink sweater wears a gold broach. She’s eating a pork and chive dumpling that I had steamed a few moments earlier.

She says something to her daughter, Katarina, in Slovak. Katarina laughs.

“It is good. You can marry now.”

I laugh, although slightly puzzled. Katarina explains that in Slovakia, people say this when someone becomes a solid enough cook to provide for a family. I laugh — it’s way too early for me to start thinking about a family. Katarina laughs. She was married at age 19, as was her mother.

That dinner, in a cozy flat in a quiet suburb 30 minutes from downtown Bratislava, was a fascinating one. I had offered to cook for my hosts, a couple in their 30’s and their young children, since they were housing me for free and all. Katarina invited her parents, because her parents don’t get to taste “exotic” food often. Suddenly, I was cooking for three generations.

Grandma and Grandpa didn’t speak any English, and neither did the little ones, so Katarina (an aspiring professional translator) got a whole lot of practice.

But she tried to leave some things lost in translation.

“I’m not even going to bother,” she said, aggravated. She responded to her mother in Slovak. She sighed. I had asked her mom about her feelings when communism fell in Slovakia.

“She says life was better back when there was communism. But she has no idea. She wasn’t allowed to leave the country. She never left her village. Sometimes she couldn’t feed her kids because there just wasn’t enough food. Then communism fell, and she was free to start a business and now she doesn’t have to worry about money for the rest of her life.”

The duo argued a bit in Slovak but ultimately gave up — their thought processes existed in two separate worlds. Grandma switched the subject.

“Are your parents living in Belgium as well?”

Ha. No, I tell her. I won’t see them until March when they visit.

Grandma was horrified. She could never be away from her children that long. And we were apart on Christmas! Ghastly, indeed.

I learned a lot about Slovakia in that little flat, where I spent the vast majority of my two days, eating leftover poppy seed cake from Christmas, drinking coffee and fielding questions about America and its stereotypes.

That left only a few hours in the center of Bratislava, which was really all that I needed. For a capital, Bratislava is tiny, with a population of half a million. And the historic inner city, where all the charm and interest lies, can be traversed in 15 minutes.

The main tourist attraction is the Bratislava Castle. The hike up to its grounds yields a magnificent view of the city’s medieval center, the Danube river and the Communist-era blocks of concrete on the other side.

The Church of St. Elisabeth is definitely worth seeing. Its facade is quirky, in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style. It is nicknamed the “Blue Church,” because, well, that’s obvious.

And like any city located on a river, walks at sunset cannot be beat — especially when there is a castle involved.

Throughout my stay in Slovakia, I was struck with the contrast between old and new — the old world charm and the new EU-directed developments, the old and new ideologies. Sure enough, my host said Slovakia is changing fast, and once the older generations die out (as morbid as that sounds), Bratislava may feel like a more typical European capital.

Winter Break: A Czech Christmas

Maybe I should have been more concerned when I missed my bus to Prague, surely an omen of bad things to come. Maybe I should have freaked out a bit more when I finally arrived at my metro stop, 30 minutes outside the city center, and found myself in the middle of fields, with a sketchy cellular signal and my friend, who was supposed to meet me, nowhere in sight. Maybe I should have been more on guard when a little Czech lady I had never met whispered, “Janelle?” and told me to get in her car. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so relaxed when my friend and I were later pulled over by the Czech police, at 5 a.m. the morning after Christmas, for reasons we still can only guess.

Somehow complete calm engulfed me throughout my three days in Prague, where I spent the holiday with a friend-of-a-friend’s adorable Czech family.

Adorable cannot even begin to describe my Czech Mom for the weekend. In self-taught careful English, she said gems like, [on the Internet] “This is ‘Google.’ I think it’s international,” or [on feeling sick] “Twice every winter. It’s the fucking… genes? Is it ‘genes’?”

In all seriousness, this woman is the sweetest thing, and clever, too. Each morning she drove to the flat where she was kindly hosting us, and delivered breakfast. Then she drove us back to her flat, where she made us lunch. There were coffee, tea and Czech beer tasting interludes too, of course.

Christmas itself was a magical affair, and while the family said it wasn’t very traditional, it was far more traditional than anything I have ever experienced before. We had the honor of decorating the tiny Charlie-Brown-esque Christmas tree, which was later surrounded by presents for everyone — even us orphans.

There was a classic dinner table setting, with holiday cookies, dates, chocolate, bread, wine, apples, a bell and other necessities. After a nontraditional spread of endless potato salad — unbelievably good — and schnitzel, some traditions emerged. One at a time, each person at the table cut an apple in half, and if the core made a star (spoiler: the core will always make a star), that person would have good luck in the coming year. After that, each person made little “boats” with candles, and set sail in a big bowl of water. The candles symbolized our future journeys.

We orphans whispered the same phrase to one another a lot that weekend: “Is this real?”

This uttering occurred frequently post-celebration as well. That night, December 24, we explored Prague by night and understood why so many fall in love with this city. With all its regal monuments lit up, and the old and stately main square bustling with the wonder-struck, and the castle glowing across the Charles Bridge…

The views from Vsehrad were also breathtaking from every angle.

But otherwise, I didn’t see a whole lot of Prague or see any of the sights in daylight. There simply wasn’t the time, not when there was family time!

On Christmas day, my friend and I trekked across the city to a couchsurfing event — a party for the temporarily homeless. There were local surfers, and travelers from as far as Brazil. There were middle-aged hippies and freethinkers, and American expats who said things like, “Love brought me to Sweden. George Bush kept me there.”

There was wine-induced merriment, and ride and couch offers all around. There was dancing into the wee hours of the morning. On Christmas! Queue the recurrent question, “Is this real?”

Obviously, the unreal was real. The unreal beauty of Prague is real, as everyone knows and as we expected. But the absolutely unreal kindness and generosity we experienced, and the spontaneous community of freethinkers …

Well, maybe I still need to be pinched.

Winter break: Munich

The sheer number of Christmas markets in Munich was staggering.

There was the uber-commercial market at Marienplatz, stretching oddly all down the main shopping street, with real live Christmas carolers every evening. There was the crazy Decemberfest at Tollwood, in the same tents used for Oktoberfest, with a food tent, shopping tent, culture tent and drinking tent. The drinking tent had concerts each evening, too, with a power-folk group and a salsa band playing during my two nights in Munich.

Then there was a lovely, woodsy market in the vast Englischer Garten, and a medieval market by Odeonsplatz selling swords. And, hell, there were small markets in just about every “platz” all over the city!

In between markets, I made the effort to see some sights as well. The Schloss Nymphenburg palace was enormous, its grounds covered in snow pushing past the horizon. And I wish I had more time to fully explore The Deutsches Museum, the largest museum of technology and science in the world. I had to selectively nerd out before getting thrown out at closing, which meant an afternoon of robots, cameras, telecommunication tools, biotechnologies and good old-fashioned computers.

But my favorite moments in Munich were surely my snack breaks, where I hid for hours from the wintry mix falling from the sky. Cafe Münchner Freiheit was a beautiful find in Schwabings, where locals filed in and out all afternoon for holiday cookies and other pastries to nibble on, and old ladies lingered with newspapers and cakes.

I happily copied the old ladies, though deciding which treat to take was excruciating. I opted for a slice of creamy walnut cake and took my time breathing it in.

Other highlights were thanks to the butchers. I wandered into one small shop at the Viktualienmarkt — a heavenly and huge open-air market in the city center, selling meats, produce, wines, nuts and basically everything edible — and bumped elbows with graying Bavarian men. We were all eating leberkäse, which translates to “liver cheese” and doesn’t contain liver or cheese. Instead, it’s similar to bologna, but thicker and juicier, consisting of corned beef, pork, bacon and onions. I got mine hot, slathered with mustard, on a semmel, for under 2 euro.

And my last day in Munich, I woke up at 7 a.m. in order to run to the butcher down the street and pick up the first weißwurst of the morning. It’s not that my host needed the first white sausages, rather, I insisted on trying the quintessential Bavarian breakfast before leaving and he agreed to make them for me, before heading off to work at 8. It was worth it, though. Those wurst, a mix of veal and bacon, were absolute lush. Simply prepared in hot water and served with grainy, sweet mustard, I can think of no better way to start a day. Except later in the morning, and with a weissbier.