Monday, December 13, 2004

Three Markets

When we last saw our hero, he was ascending the steps of the Hausvogteiplatz subway station with his friend the dancer, on his way to the Weihnachtsmarkt in the Gendarmemarkt with her, only to get distracted by the monument to the garment district at the top of the stairs.

Which only took a moment, because as many of you know, there's no power as strong as a woman determined to shop. So we headed off on a side-street, and in a block or so, the Gendarmenmarkt came into view. This Weihnachtsmarkt is unique in my experience, because it costs money to get in. I figured there must be some pretty good stuff in there if they relieve you of a Euro before you can even spend money on what's on offer, not to mention the fact that the whole thing is surrounded by a chain-link fence with decorative plastic blocking the view.

So we surrendered our tickets to a guy dressed as -- what else? -- a Gendarme, and went in. The first thing she wanted was a cup of Glühwein, which was fine with me: I'll gladly watch someone else drink it, while I stand there and smell the odor, but I'm damned if I'm going to touch the stuff. Earlier, I'd passed a huge container of empty bottles of the stuff (you don't think they mull it on the premises, do you?) and noted the ingredients: wine, sugar, cinnamon. Jeez, not very sophisticated.

The more we wandered, the more it became apparent that this wasn't all that special. Outright schlock was missing, but other than that, it was the usual suspects. There were a couple of interesting stands: one, indoors, promised jewelry made from fosslized mammoths, which I found curious; another offered candy bonbons in all manner of the odd herbal flavors Germans like, such as sage and woodruff. One was labelled "breast bonbons," but didn't taste like breasts: they were concocted from a mixture supposed to clear congestion.

About the only notable thing in the Gendarmenmarkt market was the food. There was lots of it, provided by a very upscale selection of restaurants and shops: Lutter & Wegner, Trader Vic's (yup, Berlin now has a Trader Vic's), and Vau, for instance. All I can say is, if I want to eat at any of those places, at those prices, I'm damn sure going to do it indoors.

Some of my friend's desire to buy was sated by a four-Euro block of nougat with hazelnuts, a sort of very uptown version of Nutella, I guess (my local supermarket is currently offering a two-kilo jar of Nutella), but after the same overpriced Stollens appeared for the third time, we realized how small this place was, so we headed towards Unter den Linden and the market at the Opernpalais next to the City Opera. I have sort of a sentimental attachment to this one, since it's the first one I ever attended, and was the source of the Erzgebirge Rauchermännchen I used to buy for a friend's kid each year. It's still got that East German flair, to some extent, but it's become somewhat less proletarian over the years. There's a coach service this year which sells rides in a yellow-painted stagecoach between Christmas markets, and so the smell of horseshit greeted us, combined with the odor of grilling sausages at the sausage stand that's been here every year. A good place to stop, but I was still fixated on the sausages I'd already bought from the Thuringian lady earlier, which would turn into red beans and rice later, so I was determined not to sabotage my appetite.

The Opernpalais market has more, and smaller, stands than the Gendarmenmarkt, with a huge range of stuff, all of which has in common that it's affordable and overpriced for what it is. There are a couple of notable places to stop: a Swiss spice company sets up here each year, and they're famous for the high quality of their goods. My friend was very impressed with the Thuringian lady's sausage selection, and bought herself a big piece of Presskopf, which you probably call headcheese (or, in Ohio, souse). As she negotiated the sale, I watched the other woman at the stand, a grandmotherly sort, smear lard on pieces of bread: mmmm, Schmalzbrot! Yes, people here really do eat that. If it makes you feel any better, this is Griebenschmalz, with little bits of toasted cracking in it. Okay, I didn't think that'd make you feel better.

But mostly it was the same old stuff: decorations, winter clothing, wooden toys, and the sort of gimmicks you always wind up sorry you bought, like salt crystals with candles in the middle. Here, you could not only get Glühwein, but also a drink called Feuerzungebowle ("fire-tongue bowl," approximately), which smelled exactly like Glühwein, but was, I was told, connected to a film in which a beloved actor played a 19th Century chemistry student who specialized in blowing up his lab experiments. The film was even playing on a TV at one stand. I must admit, I was getting Christmas fatigue by the time we finished this part up, but there was a third market to go to, and it was just down the street.

This one was set up in front of the Palast der Republik, the former government building of the DDR, right on the banks of the Spree River. The Palast's future is in some question, since it occupies some of the same land as the old Hohenzollern Palace, which the city has voted to rebuild, but for which, of course, it lacks funds. The Palast was supposedly too infested with asbestos to keep up, but someone did an analysis of the ICC, the big conference center in the far west of the city (where PopKomm was this year) and discovered it had exactly the same amount of asbestos, so the city de-asbestified both of them. The Palast remains, and recently hosted an exhibition of the Xian pottery warriors.

Anyway, the Christmas market there is more like a carnival, with really hard-core carnies operating rides and ring-toss, lottery, and other games. There was a Wild Mouse ride, which I hadn't seen since the one at Rye Playland in New York killed a bunch of people in my youth. Lots of lights, lots of drunken guys with suspiciously short hair, lots of Peruvians selling crafts (interesting: why Peruvians?), and the smell of burnt-sugar almonds everywhere. (I don't know what it is about burnt-sugar almonds. When I went to Oktoberfest in Munich years ago, I expected lots of salty snacks, but it was the almonds that people went for. Maybe I'm crazy, but they don't seem like something I'd want with my beer).

A nice way of seeing the differences between these three markets was the stage each of them had. In the Gendarmenmarkt, a brass quartet was tootling Christmas music as we walked in, and was soon replaced by a magician. He had a kid up on the stage and was bantering with him while holding a rope, but unfortunately he wasn't going to garotte or hang the kid, so I lost interest. The Opernpalais had a Bavarian gentleman on stage with a zither when we got there, playing the "Third Man Theme," which is apparently the only piece of music that machine can play. From the comments he was making to the audience, I gather he was also not feeling any pain. At the Palast, a guy dressed as Santa Claus (excuse me, Weihnachtsmann) and another in a top-hat were forcing a bunch of volunteer kids to sing some song about snow, and once they got going, a bunch of fake snow blew out of a duct somewhere, much to the annoyance of some of the kids, who kept brushing it off their clothes. When they finished singing, nobody clapped. Since I figure most of the people in front of the stage were the kids' parents, I see a thriving psychiatric practice in the making.

The insane wattage of the Palast carnival lights notwithstanding, I noticed it was quite dark, but it was only 4:45. Still, it was time to call it a day; lurking around these things, subliminally on guard for pickpockets, is exhausting, so we walked down Unter den Linden towards Friedrichstrasse station and our respective homes. It was good to have a native along to clarify some of this stuff, like the Feuerzungebowle and the posters for a show featuring Frau Holle, a fairy tale that, unlike many German fairy tales, never got translated into American culture. She lives in the heavens and in the winter, she shakes out her bedding, the feathers falling as snow. And, although it was damn cold, it appears that so far this year Frau Holle's asleep at the switch. Fine with me; it'll come. I can wait.

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