I had often said to myself that I should find a way to rise above my excuses about a tight budget and simply travel more around Germany. Dresden, Munich, Cologne, Leipzig, Munster … The list of German cities that I wanted to visit was growing each week. ‘I am in Berlin for fuksake, this is what money should be spent on.’
Dreams of weekend excursion around the country remained dreams and it came to pass that I was to first leave Berlin after arriving there almost four months earlier on the 23rd December, heading towards Oldenburg which was close to Bremen in the North West of the country. In a flurry I packed my things that morning and left Red smoking in a pile of wrapping paper. Once past Alex, the S7 is a beautiful route over the city, in to Charlottenburg which feels like a foreign place, and any trip there for whatever reason has the air of an excursion. It was a bright and clear afternoon, and I was buoyed by the feeling that I was going on holiday. I was to spend a week with my friend and her family. We would stay with her mother who lived with their dear old dog, deaf and mournful looking. Seeing this old dog seemed to be the principal (if not sole) aspect of the trip that my friend was looking forward to. She was still going home though, and being with her, I revelled in the joy of travelling home for Christmas.
Over the next the week I met what appeared the entirety of my friend’s extended family as well teems of her friends from school and charming neighbours. Despite the success with the funny man at the Alexanderplatz Weihanchtmarkt, my German was still very shaky, so there was a lot of smiling on my part, in an attempt to make up for my lack of comprehension. Eventually the mother resorted to her own English. This at first upset me, but it evidently made sense.
Out in the county I was fired up by the landscape. It felt that I had finally reached the real Germany. Germania, if you will. Not somewhere I had really intended to go, but somewhere that I felt a nagging compulsion visit, seeing as I was living in Berlin. When it rained here I smiled at is as the face of a northern European winter, the elements racing across the land; it was not the damp drudge of spitting rain in the city. And when it was fine, under the clear sky, the fields we drove past, and the cows that grazed in them, joyed my heart as much as the kookiest Berlin bar ever had, or the silkiest cobbles of a Neukölln street.
This was real life. Hedges before my eyes, whereas before there had been screens; children and old people when usually there was hipsters; hearty food and tea, where there had been Sternies and weed.
As there should be at the best Christmases, there was a lot of eating. I am not sure if my friend’s family were putting on a special effort in the name of hospitality, or it was standard practise, but each morning I came down and saw breakfast laid out like a banquet. A wide assortment of cold meats laid out on plates, cheese on wooden board, buns, rolls and croissants piled high in wicker baskets. There were bananas, grapes and slices apple, hardboiled eggs, cereals and little ellies and sauces in dainty little porcelain dishes. Despite my attempts to rise as my friend did, I always found the three of them around the table before me, sitting patiently and smiling. Once I sat down no one held back, so I had no fear of over stepping the mark when I piled up another meat and cheese sandwich on my plate, another couple of Brötchen smeared with cream cheese and blackberry jam, another hard-boiled egg with salt and pepper. Let the Italians keep their espressos, the French their pain-au-chocolate and the English their greasy fry ups – I am for the Nordic way, cold hearty meets, plenty of bread and cup after cup of thick flowing coffee. Indeed, these meals seemed to me more extensive than the meals on either Heiligabend (Christmas Eve) or indeed the two days of Christmas that followed which were sweet but muted affairs.
We ate very well outside my friend’s childhood house too. We had a boozy brunch one day at a friend of hers farmhouse in honour of one of the daughter’s 30th. It was a beautiful old farmhouse with a large kitchen at its centre, with a great wooden table in the centre and other rooms sprouting off from it at each corner. It was a party house and full of people from all ages, passing around plates of hash browns and quiche, quails eggs, muffins, cookies, Scotch pancakes, Mediterranean salad, and all other sorts of delicacies and stomach liners. Champagne was poured out freely, as were mimosa, Irish coffees and glasses of particularly fine bourbon.
After the first plate of food, a full tour of the farm commenced. Smelling the shit and visiting the cows I was pushed to think that I really did need to leave the city. My mother always said that she was a country girl at heart and I thought then that maybe I really was a country boy, most at ease amongst the fields and the mud and views. The idea to work on a farm seemed particularly attractive. To be away from screens and working towards something constructive, something you can see and hold and eat, using the strength of my body and working in accordance with nature. Where bad does not stop play, but does define the rules. To fulfil the hole inside my body I must return to the land, and begin truly responding to the seasons.
It was bitterly outside though, and at one point I slipped on some cow shit and fell to the floor my hand splashing into a mucky puddle. By the time the tour was through I was content to return to the warmth inside and try some of that fine whiskey.
One day we went up to the North Sea, wet and grey and windy and completely captivating. Unfortunately the shack that usually sells fresh Krebb im Brot was closed, but we had a nice time nonetheless, wandering up the grey beach and up on to the bank where the rain spat in our ace and the wind tried to pull us up and throw us down on the stretching, puddled beach. Both that day, and another we drove through Eat Frisia, which sounded like somewhere from the Dark Ages, though looked as beautiful as any Victorian pastoral scene. The second time we drove through East Frisia her father was driving us to Groningen, in Holland, for the day. One of the clearest days after Christmas her father took us to Groningen, and then walking along the curling alley ways and colourful ships, over the cobbles and under low hanging ceiling and windows, we are Frisch Herring im Brot, and Belgium chips with heavy dollops of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. On the way back her father suggested Currywurst. We laughed off the suggestion of more food, and he was happy to let it go until it came out that I had never actually had Currywurst before.
The matter was settled, and in a small little kiosk off the main road, hot and sthick with the smell of grease and curry, I had my first Currywurst. No turkey, no sprouts, no chestnuts, no Quality Streets
…. But I didn’t begrudge that at all. In fact I didn’t even consider it so much.
God it was nice to be out of Berlin. But eating the curry wurst, I smiled. The warmth I felt for my new home of Berlin, had come about from being away from it, as is so often the case. And the gut warmth I felt for it in my mind, was both a little surprise, and the course for a yet greater overwhelming sense of hope, generosity, and Christmas cheer.
Bertie Digby Alexander