Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas in the foreign: Brussels and Maastricht

We came back from New Zealand on a late Eurostar, arriving at Midi in the dark, laden with baggage. It was cold. It was early December. We’d been eating asparagus and drinking chilled white wine in the sun only a couple of days before. But, jetlagged as we were, there was something which perked me up on the taxi ride home: the Christmas lights. Brussels, I salute you, you Continental types do know how to decorate. Each area seems to have its own designs. All white, all quite understated, but all the central area, the major streets, and quite a few others, had lights up. It made the fact that it got dark at 4pm a little easier.

Two visitors – my friend A and my mum – also made the pre-Christmas-weeks fun, as we shopped for Christmas presents together and did the touristy things which the Dutchman and I don’t do on our own. Last year, before I was living here, I had a brilliant weekend trip with H, drinking hot chocolate and laughing at the Christmas market (one of my abiding memories is the looks we got for opening a bottle of Prosecco on the Eurostar on the way over…!). The Brussels Christmas market was a little disappointing. There was not much that one would actually want to buy. I think we were all expecting the kind of German market that gets shipped over to Oxford and most other English cities, with pretty little wooden huts and nice artisanal products. Eh, not so much. A shame. I enjoyed walking through the streets and just looking, A drinking mulled wine and I warm spiced calvados to stave off the cold. Next year I think I would like to go to Frankfurt or Cologne.

The other Christmassy thing which I loved here was the crèches in the Cathedral. All created by different ethnic groups or associations, dotted around the Cathedral by various chapels. There were some really beautiful, well-made ones, some amateur some crafted by artists, and most kept their identity as a focus – the Nativity in China, in Africa, in Haiti…

To inject a bit of Englishness into the proceedings, I made many mince pies, with the mincemeat my mother and I made back in October. We gave some to our landlady, took some to the Dutchman’s parents for Christmas Day, I will make more as our contribution to the annual Rotterdam Christmas meal with the Dutchman and his friends, and of course I ate a fair few. We still have the boozy, fruit-packed, darkly crumbly Christmas cake too, again made back in October and fed by my mum right up until the week before, but it doesn’t photograph well, especially sans marzipan and icing, at the Dutchman’s request.

We were in the UK before Christmas, briefly, for my PhD graduation (on my birthday!) and to see family. We woke up together on Christmas morning, had our stockings (delivered by Father Christmas, even though one of us had already had a visit from Sinterklaas in early December), went to church, had a delicious lunch of spiced apple and parsnip soup, and then travelled to Maastricht. The Dutchman’s father made a simply outstanding meal (five courses, very nouvelle cuisine, all well-executed) and we exchanged presents. On Boxing Day (the reason behind the name of which I have explained to many, many people) we had coffee with the Dutchman’s very sprightly 94-year-old grandmother and then came back to Brussels. I can’t deny that I missed my parents and our family traditions, but I was happy to have had Christmas together.

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