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Europe, soul searching, Uncategorized

Chasing Christmas

December 20, 2017 • By

It’s Christmas time. The streets are crowded with bumper to bumper traffic and stores swarm with frantic people, Starbucks offers eggnog and gingerbread lattes and red and green bows and decorations adorn entryways as fir trees fill homes and plazas everywhere. As Andy Williams says, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the hap-happiest season of all…” but sometimes it seems like a busy and lonely time for people and we forget the significance of the season.

Fantasy Aisle, Nuremberg Gingerbread, only place where it can be called "real"

Nuremberg Gingerbread, only place where it can be called “real”

I discovered the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas movies last fall when I was going through a difficult time personally and professionally. The movies deliver hope, promise, love and happy endings without violence, swearing, sex or drugs although the characters indulge in their share of wine. As I binge watched movie after movie for hours on end, my deepest desires came to the forefront and I was reminded of all the things missing from my life — no kids, no spouse, no cute little home with garland and the perfect Christmas tree shining through the front windows. I cried through the Christmas Blessing and Christmas with Holly and fantasized about the possibilities with a Princess for Christmas but realized I had my shot at moving to Buffalo years ago and much preferred the Palace at Castlebury. I sat on the edge of my seat with Christmas Incorporated only to roll my eyes through a Boyfriend for Christmas. Why couldn’t Douglas Firwood tell the truth?

Determined to work for the Hallmark Channel, I researched the company’s history and went so far as to Google every actor’s biography blurring the lines between reality and make believe. Most of Hallmark’s storylines revolve around a widow or career dominating women who must make an important decision during Christmastime. The characters are named Holly and Nick and scenes take place in New York or Chicago and quaint imaginary villages like Cookie Jar or in the mountains at Snow Valley Lodge. By a stroke of luck, a local do-gooder handsome man interacts with the desperate but dazzling attractive woman, steals her heart and the entire town rejoices in the Miracle of Christmas. The movies always end with a special kiss. What’s not to enjoy?

Fantasy Aisle, Friends at the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting in NYC

Friends at the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting in NYC

I wanted my own Christmas Miracle and I believed if I forced myself out into the world I could find it. The movie—my movie, Chasing Christmas would feature me as the lead actress, the successful career oriented woman who finds happiness and joy through Christmas. I kicked off my journey at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony in New York City with friends and then jumped on a plane to Germany where people celebrate the weeks leading up to Christmas with markets in the center of town or in front of iconic churches and museums.

Fantasy Aisle, The Medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The Christkindlmarkts in Germany offer visitors handmade arts and crafts like glass ornaments or winter gloves and hats, Advent wreaths, gingerbread and other local delicacies like sauerkraut and glühwein (hot mulled wine). Each market embodies its personal story filling colorful wooden decorative stalls with food and gifts representing its history and traditions. I braved the winter elements and wandered my way around medieval towns, large cities and Hallmark worthy villages. The warm glühwein served in keepsake mugs warmed my heart and soul, the schneebälle, a snowball-shaped ball of chocolate filled my belly but the sounds of carolers and people laughing embraced me in a tender hug. I wanted hugs.

Fantasy Aisle, My first Glühwein in Rothenburg

My first Glühwein in Rothenburg

People venture to the markets to spend time with family and friends and the entire community comes together to observe annual rituals, enjoy food and drink specialties and to buy gifts. Couples hold hands and kiss, generations of families gather around hot chocolate and punch stands to talk and share stories. Tourists delight in trying Spätzle, a cheese and egg noodle dish for the first time and Eierpunsch, a thick spiked eggnog liquor. It is a time to believe in magic.

Fantasy Aisle, Checking our my families Christmas Market in Karlsruhe

Checking out my families Christmas Market in Karlsruhe

After visiting several markets, I joined my German cousins in Karlsruhe. My family proudly and lovingly showed me around their town square and we toasted the season with glühwein and Nutella crepes. We modeled Santa hats and took pictures smiling and laughing before the cold chased us away. There were fun conversations of politics and catching up on the children’s school and music activities. In Mannheim, I joined forces with my German-American friend Frank who showed me around his hometown forcing me to indulge in Kartoffelpuffer, a type of potato latke with applesauce. Frank provided all the translations I had missed and explained the significance of spices and sugar cookies. He also informed me that gingerbread is more for decoration than eating, which could have spared my teeth in Nuremberg. We also conquered the six markets in the Old Town of Heidelberg and hiked breathlessly to the castle gate before ending the night posing with several Santa impersonators. I met up with my dear friend Annette in her hometown of Flensburg, a picture perfect village on the Baltic Sea near the Danish border. They served hot Bailey’s and Grünkohl, a stewed kale and sausage dish unique to Flensburg. Annette and I celebrated our upcoming birthdays with a special dinner and vowed to make a habit of seeing each other somewhere in the world yearly. Lastly, I reunited with my adorable friend Corinna in Hamburg who ushered me from the train station to her apartment. We visited several of the city’s markets clinking glasses and spilling glühwein onto our gloves and coats while taking selfies and talking about life, love and travel. The City of Hamburg is bold and bright and buzzing with an electric energy.

Fantasy Aisle, Toasting the season in Flensburg, Germany

Toasting the season in Flensburg, Germany

The people of Germany are affectionate, spirited and disciplined. That is how I describe myself.   As I talked with Annette and Corinna about why I wanted to see the Christmas markets and why I had this urge to live a Hallmark movie they empathized with my mission. But the more I talked, the more I realized I don’t actually want to compare myself to “Holly and Nick” on television because I never wanted children. Most spouses cause grief at some time or another and if I really wanted a Christmas tree in my house I could pick one up on any street corner and cover its branches with a lifetime of collected ornaments. What I wanted and what I found in Germany was love—not the romantic kind but the fill my heart bring a smile to my face love. The early morning snowfall on the cobblestone streets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the surprise serenade by a musician in the Old City of Nuremberg, the rock hard gingerbread treat I nearly lost my tooth biting, the bond between Frank and his mother, the generosity and welcome hugs from my cousins, the conversations and shared experiences between friends who keep in contact despite time changes and long plane rides. This is the magic of Christmas. This is what allows people to be present in life. It’s the connection to people –contact with friends and family.

Fantasy Aisle, Celebrating Christmas with my friend Corinna in Hamburg

Celebrating Christmas with my friend Corinna in Hamburg

I still adore the Hallmark Channel and I am thankful for a Countdown to Christmas to remind me of the meaning of Christmas. It’s about coming to together, delivering hope and determination, experiencing love from the heart, family, tradition and even cookies, and angels.  It’s not about the shopping malls and gifts under the tree.

 


Culture, Destinations, North America, Travel Tips

A Day in the Park

October 26, 2017 • By

I’ve lived in New York City the greater part of 16 years and I never tire walking through Central Park. It’s my favorite spot to seek solace and tranquility in an otherwise hectic environment.

Fantasy Aisle, Central Park, the heart of New York City

Central Park, the heart of New York City

A few weeks ago with summer bleeding into fall, I explored the park as if it was my first time. I entered 72nd Street on the east side (off limits to cars on weekends) and joined the hoards of runners and bicyclists moving uptown along their respective paths. It was hot and humid and I admired the fitness levels of those zipping past me. People dressed in sponsored training attire, fathers and mothers pushing strollers, friends talking to friends and others like me making the most of a morning in the park.

Fantasy Aisle, Early morning runners and walkers

Early morning runners and walkers

The falling leaves signal the change in seasons as shady areas succumb to open patches of golden yellow and blazing red. The squirrels don’t mind because this is their territory and they out number people. They move quickly popping in and out of pathways diving into the leaves–they are not shy.

I venture off the crowded pathway into the “Ramble” where winding walkways lead to a man-made forest within a city. The sounds of fire engines and traffic disappear and I weave around huffing and puffing in silence until I spy a couple kissing passionately. I startle them. How long have they been hiding? This is the perfect place to seek shade, read a book, grab a pair of binoculars and bird watch. I hesitate but then continue with my goal to make the 6.02-mile loop around the park.

Next, I take in an adult soccer game on the Great Lawn. They see me lurking and put on a good performance before I find myself zig-zagging on another walkway to reach the Shuman Running Path bordering the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. The direction for runners and walkers remains unchanged year after year and I make a mental note to voice my opinion.

Fantasy Aisle, The pesky Central Park squirrel

The pesky Central Park squirrel

At the north end of the reservoir, the city skyline comes into view. There is a slight fog obscuring the tallest skyscrapers but it provides a simple backdrop to the simplicity of the calming water and the fall foliage. I walk half of the 1.58 mile-loop and exit to a bridge I’ve crossed a hundred times. It’s an antique straight out of the chalk drawing in the “Mary Poppins” Jolly Holiday scene.

Fantasy Aisle, Gothic bridge, connecting the Reservoir to the Tennis Courts at 94th Street

Gothic bridge, connecting the Reservoir to the Tennis Courts at 94th Street

I take a quick bathroom break at the tennis courts and watch a match in progress. The courts both clay and hard are filled with people of all ages and levels. If only I brought my racquet, I could practice my serve.

My feet ache for a timeout but I push myself through the Conservatory Garden. A beckoning bench reads, “Take time to sit and smell the flowers,” useful and timely advice.

Fantasy Aisle, Conservatory Garden located on the Upper East Side of the park

Conservatory Garden located on the Upper East Side of the park

Now on the West Side of the park and the sun bearing down on me, I wipe my sweat and duck into the North Meadow walking briskly to Belvedere Castle and the Shakespeare Garden. The tourists are awake and occupy the castle’s landing with cameras and tripods. I check to make sure the turtles are still roaming freely at Turtle Pond and remember my first performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” during the 2014 season of Shakespeare in the Park.

Fantasy Aisle, Empty swings await

Empty swings await

Fatigue sets in and I’m counting the 40+ blocks I need to finish the 6.02-mile loop. The joy has vanished from my face and my walk transformed from a leisurely activity into a mission of sorts. I notice a woman on a swing and move to take her picture but pause. We exchange pleasantries and I admit I haven’t sat on a swing in ages. She tells me to give it a try and I do. I’m kicking my legs faster and faster and soaring into the air. We swing together but not in unison. She is in her 60s I guess and loves the park for the swings. She stops, waves and bids me a good day. I let my hair blow in the wind and push higher and higher until I am scared and slow my pace. A child inhabited my body and I jump off the swing making a skittish landing on the sand. I recover. That was fun.

Fantasy Aisle, A beautiful bride poses at Bethesda Terrace and Fountain (lower passage) in Central Park

A beautiful bride poses at Bethesda Terrace and Fountain (lower passage) in Central Park

Central Park serves as an open-air museum and events center to New Yorkers and its guests. There is something for everyone whether it’s catching rays of sun in Sheep Meadow, paddling a rowboat on the pond near the Loeb Boat House, pledging wedding vows at the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain or listening to the talented musicians scattered along Literary Walk, a day in the park is only the beginning.

When I bought a park map from Karina, a 24-year-old student from the Bronx, I asked her what she enjoyed most about the park and she answered, “Literary Walkduh. I finished my adventure along the Mall admiring the statues of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and talking with Shayneh Starks, a native of Newport Beach, CA who has been visiting Central Park for the last 20 some years. She sits and listens to the magical music of Ralph U. Williams who is a talent on the saxophone. We discuss her first visit to the park with her mother when she was 21-years-old and I tell her I love zooming around the park on my bike but early on weekends before the tourists arrive. I ask her what she likes most.  She pauses and with passion and a smile answers, “The best part of Central Park is the fireflies.”

Fantasy Aisle, The Mall and Literary Walk, a favorite of many in Central Park

The Mall and Literary Walk, a favorite of many in Central Park

I agree. I thank Shayneh for the conversation and hunt for an empty bench in front of Kerbs Boathouse. The next few hours I bask in the sun reading my book and forgetting I live in a city with 8.5 million people.

My Favorite Spots in Central Park

The Pond at sunrise.  Take in the view of the Gapstow Bridge and a glimpse of the city’s skyline

 

Sip a coffee or a grab a drink at Kerbs Boathouse/Conservatory Water

Walk/Run the 1.58 mile loop around the Reservoir

Fancy a game of tennis?

Camp out all night for free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater (I usually cheat and become a member of the public theater)

Take a break at Strawberry Fields and listen to the Beatles greatest hits played by visiting musicians

Enjoy paddle boating at the Loeb Boathouse

Read a book and fall asleep in Sheep Meadow

Enjoy an outdoor lunch at Tavern on the Green

Let someone else do the driving on a romantic Horse Carriage Ride through the park

Breathe in the sounds and sights of Literary Walk/the Mall

Catch a free movie night in the Park

Plan for a Concert in the Park

Snap pictures of the Boathouse and people getting married at the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain

Fun for kids and parents

Make some figure eights at the Wollman Rink

Get dizzy on the Carousel

Pet an animal or two at the Tisch Children’s Zoo

Go paddle boating at the Loeb Boathouse and take in city views