10 Days of Christmas (Europe Road Trip)
Today started my road trip of a lifetime.
We plan to cross five borders in 10 days. I’ve once done a seven-city trip in 12 days around the Philippines. Now, we’re doing five countries in a little over a week. Let’s see how things work out.
The eight of us — my sister, brother-in-law, their recently-married couple friends, two of their siblings, myself, and a baby — left Apeldoorn around 10 AM today in great anticipation of what lay ahead. We got a van spacious enough for us, our 8-day suitcase, and food stock.
Our first stop was Cologne, where we visited the Dom (Cologne) Cathedral, a two-tower church of gothic black facade. The structure has pointy roofs as if aiming to launch for the sky, with seemingly dim dungeons in the top floors, reminiscent of Lord of the Rings settings or Harry Potter’s. Aside from its distinct coloured appearance, it is also famous for housing the relics of The Three Magi described in the Bible — a treasure transferred there centuries ago from Milan, something I learned from a one-euro leaflet I found inside which I did not buy (read: private reading).
We had sausage sandwiches for late lunch and Dunkin Donuts coffee and donuts for a take-away siesta inside the van, as we continued on towards the direction of Nuremberg, our next German city stop, four long hours off Cologne.
In the van, we entertained ourselves with singing Adele, Gotye, Bruno Mars, and Jennifer Lopez hits or recalling the events at the wedding the other day.
The rest of the time, we were either sleeping or could not feel our legs.
Finally, we reached Wohrdersee Hotel Mercure in Nuremberg. We are here just for the night, and tomorrow, we explore the city center, stop at Munich, then head towards Salzburg in Austria, where we’ll stay for two nights.
And then it’ll be Christmas.
History in German Cities
We went around as tourists, as usual, despite the rainy weather mostly in Nuremberg where we took pictures of traditional German houses. I thought there were ribbons around ’em. The edges were painted red.
We went into a church. Apparently there are a lot of churches in these German cities, even standing in the same complex. I think there are seven in Munich centrum alone.
I thought about why we’ve been visiting churches in this road trip, and if it’s impossible not to visit them when one travels. We started with all those enormous Roman churches in Italy, then Germany has a lot of them too.
In Nuremberg, this church we got into was simple, plain but high-ceilinged, and as expected, the service was in German. Whilst trying to pray with the rest of my group, I couldn’t help but be awed by the groups of people sharing the same religion, Christianity, which is the namesake of a man who lived in Israel centuries ago, and who was totally not from this part of the world.
So I wondered, how was Jesus marketed during His time, or after His death for that matter? There were no TVs or mass media then, so one can surmise that it’s all word-of-mouth.
This is probably the most successful word-of-mouth marketing case study in history.
His name and story spread across the world, that now, we are celebrating Christmas. A few hours from now, in fact.
Even our time-keeping is influenced by Him. It’s either B.C. or A.D.
All these tourist destinations that we’ve been visiting, there is not the absence of a Catholic church. Normally, these buildings date back hundreds of years ago, and you wonder how these churches have become part of history, or influenced history itself.
I wonder if the history of the Church is the history of the world.
The Sound of Music
Not only did we set out to see Europe in a short time, but also to travel on a shoestring.
We found ourselves in Salzburg — home to Mozart and the “Sound of Music” and both needed to be experienced.
First, we dealt with the latter.
No, we did not join a guided tour like in this photo:
But we made our own, and followed the trail of the different locations in the city where the movie was set. We did our research you know. Contrary to how it looks in the film, the Von Trapp family home was actually shot in different places in the city.
We hopped from one place to another, but definitely not on and off the bus.
The Mozart experience happened on Christmas eve.
Why you should spend Christmas in Salzburg
I didn’t realise that my 50th day in Europe would be the day before Christmas.
I think this was the best Christmas eve celebration I’ve ever witnessed.
We were two hours early in the queue. The eve mass was starting at 2330; we were there at 2100 waiting for the gates of the Salzburg Cathedral to open. We got a wrong information from the internet, so instead of going back to our hotel, a good 10-minute walk from the church, we just killed time at the steps of the cathedral as people crowded in groups, speaking in various tongues, looking all either cold or cozy clad in piles of winter clothes. We chatted with whomever was standing close-by; for one, there was a family from California — husband, wife, and only daughter — who initiated a conversation with us after recognising the familiar Tagalog we were speaking.
At 2300, the gates were opened; we were first in line, but the rest walked past us primarily because we were careful enough not to stir the sleeping baby in the stroller.
Once in, we were awed, openmouthed, amazed, enthralled, just speechless by the baroque beauty inside. Several enormous domes up there in the ceiling, all looking intricately carved and painted. And after looking up for what seemed like eternity, you’d wonder whether it was all just optical illusion, if, after all, the ceiling was just flat.
From where we were seated, some 20 rows from the altar, we had an excellent view, if you looked up long enough, of what was there in the middle of the main dome — an angel or a white large-winged bird as if at the brink of flying down toward us any minute.
And then the Christmas eve programme started. (I like to call it “programme” because it was.)
A Catholic mass ceremony is a beauty to behold. The start of the eve mass was signaled by a bell ringing and that cued the people to stand up. An entire priesthood including altar boys slowly walked up, donned in perfectly ironed, impeccable white or gold-coloured clergy clothing, one of them clutching a gold-like staff, another swinging an incense lamp.
Not always as formal and wonderfully implemented as this, but a mass is a programme or an outline that every Catholic church in the world follows. Even the way we are “supposed” to say our prayers. It is typically recommended to start with words of praises, then of gratitude, then of petition for forgiveness of sins, and then of our plenty requests to have this and that, to get this and that. Whether or not we say our prayers in this sequence, it is almost definite that the core composition of our prayers is one of asking or requesting. We are always asking for something. There is always a purpose to praying. Is there such a thing as praying without doing anything? Praying by being still?
As the eve mass was said in German, naturally I couldn’t understand a thing. But having been raised a Catholic, I knew very well when it was my time to respond, to say Amen or Praise Be To God or to stand up or kneel when it was time to do so. All without understanding a word. Ceremonies, although sometimes followed blindly, are necessary. There is a time for everything.
More than the formal mass ceremony, the occasion was also free entertainment. Being home to Mozart, Salzburg boasts of these solo and duo opera-like singers who sang in between readings; even the priest presider sang most of what he said. Every thing was perfect — from the choir, to their conductor, to the soloists, pianist, and violinist who performed parts of the programme.
And when the part came when Jesus was supposedly born, the lights were turned off and voices from two sets of singers each standing at the pulpits, echoed in darkness and enveloped the cathedral like it was indeed that same night in Bethlehem, and the only lights you see were from those adorning the massive Christmas tree standing proud at the altar being one of only a few decorations around as the church was already in itself beautiful.
Then Silent Night was sung, in its original German version, in Austria where it was originally composed, and the guitar accompaniment with which it was originally played, on the eve of Christmas, just like how it was originally performed in 1818.
How more blessed could we get!
It was so indescribably beautiful. The strumming echoed through the domes, across the carpeted halls, in this darkened 17th century cathedral, in Salzburg, Austria, as Christmas day dawned. I have never witnessed such a thing in my life. And I bet I shared this feeling with the rest of the thousands attending this mass from all walks of life, all continents, all colours, all languages. We all made it here for one purpose, whether we be devote Catholics or plain tourists.
When the mass ended, the bishop, his entire array tailing him, went down, blessed the people, stopped particularly at little people, including my nephew, who was so peacefully sleeping in his stroller, totally innocent of the gesture given him.
When he grows up, he will be told this story for sure.
We spent most of Christmas day on the road. We traveled from 12 noon to 9 in the evening, with three stops in between, from Austria to Switzerland.
Our gas-station-stop-overs had the best view of the Alps. During the entire trip, we were surrounded by icy ranges of mountain after mountain.
Even the succeeding tunnels, which were in fact underneath the mountains on the way to Switzerland, were seemingly endless. One tunnel was actually more than 10 kilometres long.
The mountain ranges I only used to see on Alpine milk cans which my mom pairs with a hot bowl of Champorado, I saw for myself. For real.
Under the Swiss sun
To be burned by the Swiss sun. That’s bliss for the day.
Seated at a Starbucks cafe in Lucerne right now, I got a perfect chance to gaze at a historic bridge on my left, the sun on my face, and a snippet but none the less sufficient view of the enigmatic icy Alps on my 2 o’clock, and Swiss buildings running down to eternity on my right. Street lamps stand on perfect intervals on the cobblestone ground, tourists unmindful of the heat of the sun which we are given the chance to get our faces burnt with.
From a distance, the sounds of crackling noises of swans and ducks, white, black, and sometimes earth-coloured ones, can be heard, and bring the feeling of a city too good to be true.
If you look long enough, you’d realise how gigantic the Alps are, peering into the city from the sky where it stands, in this nicely warmed morning almost burning, and you wonder why those ice caps are not melting at all.
The lake in front sparkles in crystal-like playful waves, conducive to the frolicking swans and ducks, enjoying the day as the humans do.
I opened the window and there stood the Alps.
The Alps. This is what they call the Alps. The Alps who has been our loyal friend for several hours now, guiding, amusing, mystifying us since we left Austria.
Up until here in Switzerland, just outside our hotel window in Lucerne, we had a full view of the icy mountain ranges. We could just stay there, just there in the hotel, maybe take a pause from this week-long road trip, and satisfy our insatiable desire for sceneries.
Just when we thought we had enough, we drove up, literally going up, to where the ice were. We found ourselves in Grindelwald, a famous winter resort — my first encounter of such a phrase and a place — where people do all these winter sports like skiing and sledding. We didn’t try any of these; we didn’t have time.
We dined in a restaurant backdropped by the Alps itself. And when you look out the window, you see nothing else but icy mountains and for a moment, you fear of an avalanche, but you really just have to get used to the fact that there is such a place on Earth as this!
A few Swiss chocolates and Swiss watches later, we played in the snow. I couldn’t describe the feeling because there was nothing in my nearly 28 years of existence to compare this to. It’s not even close to touching blocks of ice used for halo-halo during summer, as to do so is to sound pathetic. It was… hmm… how do I explain it…. er… icy. It’s not as friendly or gentle as it looks. You better not mistake it for a soft white cotton either. The ice was hard you can even sit on it like a furniture. But you don’t assume it’s steady either. You got to wear a special pair of boots so as to minimise the chances of slipping.
So that was snow.
World-famous Filipino hospitality
This morning, we had a failed attempt at enjoying the view of Lake Geneva. It was raining. Winter plus rain equals major gloom.
So after a quick breakfast at a humble cafe, we started moving again. Today, we had an important appointment, a casual meet-up feigning to be a business one, with a good friend of mine who happens to be a Philippine official to Geneva. She was an indirect boss of mine at one of my first jobs. She was Marketing Manager there, the same level as my direct boss, who told me those words that would later on linger in my mind, actually up until now. Her advice?
“Joie, make things happen.”
I didn’t understand it then, I was only 20, fresh from college, and already in my second job, the first being in a call centre where I was kicked out because I couldn’t improve my AHT or average handling time. I thought I was supposed to help customers over the phone to fix their internet connection. I didn’t know I was supposed to end the call as soon as possible, whether or not I helped them.
Eight years in time, that failed first job does not matter now, although it did aid me fake an accent I never had before. Thanks to that job, I am often mistaken to have studied in the US, which I never did, but do wish I did. I’d like to believe I took my former boss’s advice to heart. The fact that I am in Europe makes me think that I probably learned how to make things happen. I hope she’s proud of me.
So yeah, we made it to my friend’s house place in Geneva. We were served rice (oh how we missed it!) and Filipino dishes like Sinigang na hipon, Lechon kawali, Kaldereta, and Leche flan and cakes for dessert. That was her first deployment as Commercial Attaché. Her only son and parents joined her, being without a husband who passed on very early in their marriage. We learned how her son, now in secondary school, is coping with the culture and the French language in school.
I thought moving to Geneva for that job deployment was a milestone in their lives, but a relative one to each of them — to my friend, a widow 10 years my senior; to her son who had to leave his friends behind in Manila; and to her parents, retired and settling in a foreign place probably for the first time.
We were there only for lunch, passing through only from Switzerland to France, our next country in the itinerary. We were accommodated the Filipino way however briefly. I could tell they were pleased, more than bothered or hassled, to have had kababayans visit them. I hope they were delighted as we were.
What is Paris?
There was so much to write about Paris…
… and so little too.
Much of what we know — the Sacred Heart cathedral, the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Obelisk, all other famous tourist spots, ones that one is obliged to see, we saw. If anything, I thought it was overrated. Some streets stank.
That is such a negative lead paragraph.
I liked the lit Eiffel Tower though — we found a spot, supposedly only so we could park the van, but from that corner in the road, we had a full view of the tower, one that we marvelled at. We helped ourselves with taking endless photos of the tower with ourselves, individually and as group, as the foreground, wondering “Is this actually the Eiffel Tower?”
I liked the view of Paris from the Arc de Triomphe too. I was informed that Napoleon would stand on top of the structure to view his entire city, to monitor if there were riots brewing in the city or rallies on the streets. From the top, you could see a perfectly-lined web-like view of Paris. It must have been hard for an ordinary Parisian during this leader’s time to be idling on the road at night and not be caught.
I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
I woke up too grumpy to take pictures. I didn’t see the point. Why did we have to stop at a spot with a very nice background, smile, wait for the click of the camera, turn 45 degrees to capture another backdrop, then another angle, another shot, one more, and another, and a last one? As if we were modelling these places.
I wished we had more time. But there was no time to observe, to feel the cold breeze brushing my cheeks, to keenly gaze at the gilded arcs of a church and wonder how come it still stands here after all these years. There was no time to look at people and tourists and ask what brings them here? What are their tragedies and conveniences and luxuries in life that they’re here? And what will Paris do to their soul? There was no time to care, no time to blink for a normal tourist like me who chases all the famous spots, when there was always something beautiful to see at every corner, to notice some girl who wears a black-knitted bonnet and wonder why she chose that colour that day. There was no more time at all, but only to daydream of a kiss, a French kiss, maybe in the future, in Paris when I go back here, the most romantic city of all.
Portrait of a Filipino family in Paris
I met a Filipino couple who’s been here more than 20 years, with two kids, 11 and 8, both speaking fluent French, as if there was no trace of Filipino in their tongues.
I don’t want to be 50 when my kid is 10. I don’t want to be telling them to stop using the iPad whilst there are visitors around when I don’t even understand how an iPad works — an analogy of how the gap would make it harder for me to connect with my child because of the pace of our times. I wondered too when they would start enjoying their life. The kids still have a long way to go before school is over for them. How old will their parents be by then? This is not what I envisioned overseas Filipino families to look like in Europe, let alone Paris.
Before meeting them, we had a good laugh whilst trying to park the van along the street. It happened like this:
Obviously we had to park the van near the apartment of the couple. While the driver, a friend of my sister’s, was parking the van carefully, there was an Asian guy gesturing to us as if to direct us where and how to park properly. Then my brother in law blurted out nonchalantly, “Who’s this Chinese guy assisting us as if we were eating at his Chinese restaurant?”
Then one of us responded, “Eh tito ko yan eh.” (That’s my uncle!)
We laughed so hard our chests would explode, guffawing to over our hearts’ content! It was horribly good!
Then we opened the van to meet face to face this “Chinese” uncle, and imagine how we struggled trying to contain ourselves!
On the way up the apartment, we could already smell sinigang na baboy. The couple spoke (the husband is the “Chinese”) in Ilokano.
This was Paris but their humble abode was a Filipino home no doubt — Christmas tree adorned, little stuff that clutter the sala, Hello Kitty items lying around, framed photos of family members, floral lacy curtains, even Sony VHS players seemingly accumulating dusts but nonetheless displayed.
It’s heartwarming and delightful to see families reunite. You could feel they were excited to have visitors they didn’t want this time to end because, well, no one knows of the next time.
Epitome of quaint
Talk about quaint. Brugge is the place.
Belgium was brief for us, we were just passing through from France to Holland. But we enjoyed so much. It was almost the end of our road trip. But we could not complain. It would have been a taboo to complain. We already had enough to last us for the new year. Memories to remember all these 365 days ahead.
End of 10 days on the road
I run, I travel. I use my legs a lot.
I collect things both tangible and intangible when I travel:
I don’t mean per se, but the experience. While there is a toilet in Utrecht where the seat is covered with plastic and you turn it around when you want a new plastic cover altogether to sit on, or a toilet in Amsterdam where the seat turns and as it does, it gets sanitised somewhere where you can’t see it but you smell isopropyl alcohol in the air after pressing a button, I think the Japanese toilets are still the best in the world, never mind the accidental facial wash the first time I tried the bidet.
Christmas tree sightings
Specifically, how Christmas trees are decorated — with gigantic red balls, tinsels, and even dried lemon slices.
Sometimes it’s ridiculous how much money and time tourists spend buying souvenirs, as if the entire experience and magic of the place can be contained in one ref magnet, snow ball, post card or a picture. Even taking pictures of themselves in front of a tourist spot, an old church or a historical landmark is an act of collecting. Sometimes that’s all they do, failing to stop and breathe-in whatever is in front of them, failing to engage in a talk with locals around them.
That goes without saying I’m not one of them. I totally am. Especially that we were guided by an itinerary. All the last 10 days.
Some people collect things, and when they go back home, they’d place the souvenirs in a pedestal to remind them and others around them that they’ve been in another place other than home, or keep them in a safe only to throw away next time they encounter them when they find the time to clean the closet. It’s pathetic sometimes how we are controlled by capitalism buying these souvenirs, and attaching an illusory significance to them in our lives.
What I really want to say is, what’s the point of collecting?
But what I really really want to say is, I gave up, just after acquiring my first piece from Rome, my snowball collection.
First it was expensive (some as expensive as 45 euros each).
Second, it was heavy.
I felt bad, yes, but it’s a form of letting go — a way to teach oneself to detach oneself from things of this world.
Collect memories and experiences and relationships. After all, we bring here nothing. We bring with us nothing. ###
*This is part of a 68-Day Travel Diary called Reflections of a Nearly Thirty. Read the full Reflections Series here.
This sounds like an amazing road trip! I was just in Cologne two weeks ago. It was beautiful! Did you get a chance to visit the Christmas markets?
Yes we did. They were amazing!
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