Thursday, 10 December 2015

Clara's Travel Tales: The Christmas Edition and Conclusive Post

Hello everyone, happy December. Can you believe it's now only just over two weeks until Christmas?!?! As for me, I'm enjoying the chocolatey countdown this year with my first ever advent calendar from the mother-in-law. Advent isn't a big deal in Nigeria or England, but it is HUGE in Germany, and I get to celebrate it like the Germans now, thanks to the boy's family. This for me, is one of the best things about having a multicultural lifestyle. Honestly, living as an expat, being from two countries and dating a guy from yet another country/culture has greatly enriched my life. Anyway all that sugar has inspired me to write a short post about three of the important Christmasy feast days celebrated in Europe, which are not really big in either of my two home countries.

First there's Saint Nicholas which is celebrated in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and a few other  countries. According to Wikipedia, 

"Saint Nicholas' Day, observed on December 6 (in Western Christian countries) and 19 December (in Eastern Christian countries), is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. It is celebrated as a Christian festival with particular regard to his reputation as a bringer of gifts. In Germany and Poland, boys would dress as bishops begging alms for the poor, while in Ukraine, children wait for St. Nicholas to come and to put a present under their pillows provided that the children were good during the year. Children who behaved badly may expect to find a twig or a piece of coal under their pillows. 
The American Santa Claus, as well as the British Father Christmas, derive from Saint Nicholas. "Santa Claus" is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas, the saint's name in that language. However the gift giving associated with these descendant figures is associated with Christmas Day rather than Saint Nicholas Day itself."

Then there's advent which as the name implies, celebrates the advent and anticipation of Jesus' birth. A sort of countdown to Christmas, it begins on the 4th Sunday before, and continues all the way to the 24th of December. It is usually celebrated with the lighting of advent Candles each Sunday, as well as a special Calendar with windows, which are opened each day and which contain little presents or sweets.

My first ever advent calendar!

And finally, Epiphany feted on the 6th of January, which marks the visit of the three wise men to the baby Jesus. Again Wiki to the rescue for a more detailed explanation. 

"In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and neighbouring Germany, children in groups of three (symbolising the three kings) proceed in costume from house to house while singing songs typical for the occasion, and receiving a coin or some sweets at each door. 
In Belgium people eat the galette des Rois, a round, flat, and golden cake made with flake pastry and often filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate. The cake usually containing a charm (a porcelain or plastic figurine, called a fève (bean in French)) is cut by the youngest (and therefore most innocent) person at the table to assure that the recipient of the bean is random. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes "king" or "queen" and wears a paper crown provided with the cake. This person has a choice between offering a beverage to everyone around the table (usually a sparkling wine or champagne), or volunteering to host the next king cake at their home. This can extend the festivities through all of January!"
Last year's Galette des Rois at work

As you can see the children in these countries have it made, they can rake in the goodies from all these fetes, as well as from good old Santa Claus. The parents on the other hand, not so much! Now imagine being a half British-Nigerian, half German child growing up in Belgium with long-distance but involved and loving grandparents, with all those feast days. That particular child has hit the presents-jackpot niyen! 

This post brings me to the end of the 15-for-15 Challenge and thankfully it's a far cheerier one than my last update. It's also a fitting topic with which to close the year. I am so happy I decided to participate in the process, because it kept me blogging and kept my blog alive.  I am also proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, especially because I had periods where I was particularly stressed in my normal life and struggled to keep up. So I'd like to thank Janyl for the idea, Duru, Oyinda and all my other readers who encouraged and cajoled me to keep going, and everyone who supported by reading and/or leaving comments. Sometimes I was too busy/stressed to respond, but I loved having that interaction with my readers. 

There will likely be at least one more post before the end of the year, but just in case life happens and I don't get round to posting again, I'd like to wish everyone a wonderful holiday season. Have a merry Christmas, and a happy new year. May all your wishes come true in 2016! 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Clara's Travel Tales: The November Edition

This month's edition isn't very cheery, but the world seems to be going to hell in a hand-basket, so I have no choice but to be real and write about current affairs.

So three Fridays ago, my sister was supposed to go to Paris to give a talk at a conference as part of her PhD work, but she decided at the last minute to go on the Saturday because for some weird reason, she didn't feel like staying for two nights. Thank God, because the Paris attacks happened that same Friday and she was luckily still in England and therefore protected from the danger. Not knowing that she'd changed her plans, I woke up Saturday morning at 5am for work and saw the tweets about attacks on Paris. You can imagine how scared and worried I was when I got to work and and got more information from the news. I immediately started calling my sister and my parents repeatedly, then not getting through to either party, called T and told him to keep trying. I only calmed down when he told me he'd spoken to my sister and that she was only leaving for Paris that morning. 

One week later, in this climate of fear and uncertainty, I took the very early 6.25am train to Cologne to see the parents-in-law as planned. However, having left the house at 6am without checking news, I was completely unaware of the fact that Brussels had been effectively shut down because of serious threats of terrorist attacks. I arrived in Cologne as planned and spent the day having fun and hanging out with J without realising that my phone (which wasn't online) was going off with messages and calls from my family and friends. Everyone was worried about me especially because I wasn't responding, and because no one knew where I was (I had forgotten to tell my family I was travelling🙈). In the end I went home to T's parents who told me they'd also been worried about me and that they'd even wondered if I'd be able to come after all. I had a lovely time as usual, spending the weekend alternating between sleeping, eating good food and (window)shopping. I also got my first advent's calendar, chose my own Christmas present and got to see the first snow of the season. After such a wonderful weekend, on Monday, it was time to decide if and when I'd be going back to Brussels. 

My mum wanted me to stay until Brussels was safe, and so did T's parents who even offered to buy me a new ticket. I was tempted too, but I knew I'd have to go back to Brussels soon, especially since I was already scheduled to fly on the Friday to Prague for T's birthday. The Belgian authorities didn't make the decision easy either, because they kept giving updates that contained no new information. In the end I stayed glued to the TV, watching until the last minute possible, trying to get to some sort of decision. Around 4pm, they gave an update which stated that the city would remain at high alert for another week, and seeing that I couldn't stay in Germany for that long, I decided to take the plunge and go back home. At Euskirchen a man got on the train, left his bag on one of the seats and walked away for about 5minutes, during which time all manner of thoughts had gone through my head! Then once in Cologne, the Thalys (normally almost always late) arrives 15mins early, everyone gets on and we leave on time! Apart from being the only girl in my entire carriage, the journey itself was uneventful journey until we got to the eerily empty Brussels Midi station. No metros and none of my buses were running, all the taxis had been taken, and they were heavily armed police everywhere. I even saw an army tank on the streets of Brussels!!! In the end I walked the 20mins home with my many bags, all the while bitterly cursing the terrorists for making my life stressful.
The eerily empty Gare du Midi

Once home, the alert level remained at the highest level of 4 for a few more days with disruptions to public transport, and schools/universities/some businesses closed until Thursday when they finally brought it down to a 3. The next day when I got to the smaller, usually-very-busy-on-Fridays airport, it was empty. Now I'm not sure if this was linked to the threats or not, but I personally found it weird. In Prague we were received by (friendly) police officers who checked our passports. It made me wonder if the internal borders were slowly being brought back into the Schengen area...? Hopefully not! And this weekend, I found out that my friends who were supposed to visit this week from Paris have decided to cancel their plans because of the attacks and threats. It made me really sad because of course this means I have to wait a while longer before seeing my friends. It also makes me very angry, because apart from killing people and sowing fear and mistrust among them, the terrorists also seem to be winning by limiting our freedom and taking away our civil liberties.

Anyways I think I'll stop here before I start ranting. Here are a few pictures to lighten the mood, they were all taken during this month's travels...


The lovely J!

 Watching snow fall from the comfort of a warm room

A weekend of good food; celebrating the boy's birthday in Prague
 The best Mexican food I've ever had

This Italian restaurant was pretty good too