It took me a long time to get into the Christmas spirit this year. I listened to Christmas music (not until December, mind you). I visited Christmas markets in three different countries. I watched Christmas movies. I sang English carols with a choir for an advent service at the church I attend. I drank hot chocolate spiked with peppermint schnapps. Still no cigar. It was strange and confusing, and suddenly, Christmas was a day away. I thought, "I'm not prepared for this. I'm not emotionally or spiritually ready." Part of the reason was definitely due to missing family. I figured that the second year being away during the holidays would be easier, but truth be told, I've missed my family a lot more this year. We'd had a brief glimmer of hope that they might be able to come visit over Christmas, but it didn't work out, which was disappointing. I'd kept my schedule open in the event that they could come, so I was without plans, which probably didn't help my lack of Christmas spirit.
But as usual, God provided, and I had the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve with my roommate, Shelly, at the home of our office secretary and her family. We ate cabbage soup, potato salad, fried chicken schnitzel, and possibly the best salmon I've ever sampled. Traditionally, Czechs eat carp instead of salmon, but the secretary's husband and son don't like it. From what I hear, it's a very bony fish. We sang Czech Christmas carols around the table and had conversations in Czechlish. Then we opened presents and relaxed in the living room with mandarins, Czech Christmas cookies, peanut butter fudge (courtesy of my roommate), and silly youtube videos. It was wonderful. Shelly and I spent the night and we all went to church together in the morning. After the service, a group of about 9 young people from church (including myself) joined the pastor and his family for Christmas lunch in their home (conveniently located inside the church building). We ate way too much food and talked about various Christmas traditions in our families and different parts of the world.
Shelly and I in front of the Christmas tree at our host's house on Christmas Eve.
The next day, I started a holiday adventure, beginning with a 7.5 hour journey by train to Cheb (a small city on the other side of the Czech Republic) with Shelly to see a mutual friend who lives and teaches there, also with ESI. The following day, we went on a trip to Nuremberg, Germany together, as it was only about 2 hours away by train. It was a beautiful place, and of course, I took the opportunity to delight in a caramel macchiato from Starbucks, which you can see in the photo above.
The next day, we took yet another trip. This time, we went to the famous spa-town of Karlovy Vary. Wow oh wow, this place was just breathtaking. Now, if you're not familiar with spa towns, these are places where of course, you can get various spa treatments done. But, the main thrills here are the many natural hot springs, which supposedly have numerous health benefits if you drink the water. The water is free and there are plenty of places to buy specially decorated "sippy cups" for consumption of the water. Since I was the newbie on the trip, the girls let me pick out a cup, which they purchased for me. Of course, there was a catch: I had to try the water from all the springs. Let me just tell you, it was...something. The best way to describe the taste is like a warm liquid penny. Just delicious. My friends captured this magical moment on video, but I don't currently have access to it, so I will upload it at a later date. Until then, here is a picture of us on one of the bridges in the city.
One sip of each spring was quite enough, and my roommate was sure to take a picture of every drinking point. By the time we reached the last spring, I decided that it might be the best out of all the ones I'd tried, so I decided to get a cup-full for any potential health benefits. As we left, I took a big gulp, of which my taste buds instantly rejected. Sorry Karlovy Vary, but I will not be coming back to visit for the sake of drinking your water. I would however come back to enjoy the scenery and giggle at the name of Grand Hotel Pupp (pronounced "poop").
Before leaving Ostrava, I'd contacted a good friend in Germany to see if it would be possible to see each other after the trip in Cheb, while we would be somewhat closer in proximity. I packed extra clothes on the off chance that it would work out, and let me tell you, my backpack was stuffed to the max. (Packing light is not my strength, so I was quite proud.) During the course of the time in Cheb, I found out that it was indeed possible. So on the 29th, I left my friends in Cheb and traveled 6 hours by train to Berlin to visit Claudia Weigel. Oh my goodness. Berlin is amazing. If you ever have a chance to travel anywhere in Europe, go to Berlin. It is an amazingly historical and modern city at the same time. And if you're addicted to American coffee, you'll be right at home. I've never seen more Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts shops in my life. Seriously, it was almost comical. And yes, I did partake in some other Starbucks favorites during my stay :-) I've gotta say, it was nice to not miss out on their gingerbread latte this year.
Claudia showed me around Berlin, took me to the 34th European meeting of Taize (literally thousands upon thousands of young people gathered to worship and pray in multiple languages), and then we got to spend New Year's Eve together. It was a wonderful time with such a great friend, and it was amazing to experience such a vibrant city. I was half tempted to just stay there forever. Unfortunately, I don't speak a lick of German... I headed home to Ostrava on the 1st, and for a 9-hour journey, it wasn't too bad. I spent the first 6 hours with two Australian guys who were on holiday between their first and second year in university, and it was great to have someone to talk to. We even played cards for awhile. Such foreigners :-)
Claudia and I with one of the Berlin bears stationed around the city. This one was inside the train station.
And now it's 2012. How crazy is that? And so I leave you with this quote from Grey's Anatomy: "We're adults. When did that happen? And how do we make it stop?"