Travel

This category contains 39 posts

Tell Me a Story, Sean

The bagpiper outside of Edinburgh’s Waverley train station dared me to write this post.

Me and my frozen hands, in 2 pair of gloves that weren’t helping and couldn’t even carry my inside-out umbrella properly, to keep the hail off my hat. I could’ve probably managed a brief text with my famous last words (spelled incorrectly), but not much else.

Going from 26C desert wind in Jordan to 6C winter gale in Scotland is not for the weak.

Don’t tell anyone, I was about to say.

Plain as day on the bagpiper’s face that any heartiness my Scottish ancestors might’ve demonstrated had clearly been lost to the generations and if you think this is cold, miss, you’re a bona fide wuss and need to head back to London or wherever you belong, because it’s not here.

Although, mind ya, you’re welcome. It’s a spot uh sumthin’ is called for, miss.

I settled for a spot of caffeine.

You’re going to say ‒ hey, I thought you were in Jordan! I am. There are just so many interesting stories to tell from elsewhere, since I wasn’t celebrating Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice, which would’ve required me to buy a newly headless sheep and take it home and cook mansaf for the whole neighborhood), nor was I doing Hajj, the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca once in a lifetime, nor was my presence required on Islamic New Year 1434 AH…

Instead, I’m eating a full Scottish breakfast ‒ full English breakfast minus the grilled tomatoes, no big loss ‒ at the Slug & Lettuce, overlooking the Firth of Forth, where my forefathers probably didn’t offer daily tourist cruises on the Royal Britannia.

(Firth of Forth, “Linne Foirthe” in Gaelic, is the estuary of the River Forth, where it flows into the North Sea.)

Speaking of family, my dad and I had this discussion once about who was the best James Bond, a subject about which frankly I was surprised he had an opinion…which I immediately disagreed with anyway.

For 3 reasons: Sean Connery Forever.

And coincidentally here I am in Edinburgh, the capital city of Sean-ville, on opening night of Skyfall, the 50th anniversary James Bond film.

With Daniel Craig.

With Scots queued up for 2 city blocks on a if-not-freezing-then-mighty-close Friday night, to see another offering by the Blonde Bond.

Yer brethren ‘r wastin’ no time butrayin’ ya, Sean, jus’so ya know.

The next day I’m at the International Storytelling Festival, at the Tell-a-Story Workshop.

It took me awhile to realize that while some people ‒ even some entire nations of people ‒ have this gift, storytelling is also a learned skill. There’s a structure to it. The trick is letting loose enough within the structure to make it fun to listen to.

More wacky tall tales; fewer Cliffs Notes. Pretend every story is a fish story.

Any storytelling student who laughs at his or her own story while telling it: A+

Storytelling teachers spend their mornings in storytelling seminars, including “The Box of Delights: A Multi-Sensory Workshop,” no doubt writing it off on their taxes as professional development…

…and later sharing the proceeds on stage at Live Storytelling sessions, a welcome break from scaring themselves ‒ and all of us ‒ to death while recounting Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Most of which, I’m tellin’ ya Sean, deserve an R rating for violence.

Note that this event in my case followed the “Double Dead Tour”: the Underground City of the Dead Tour + the Haunted Graveyard Tour, including the Mackenzie poltergeist.

What “Scariest Places on Earth” producers of American TV network Fox called “TERRIFYING” (caps theirs).

NOW who’s the wuss?

Right about when even non-believers would give pretty much anything to hear, in that familiar brogue, “Bond, James Bond.” Coming to save us.

So, that’s why on Skyfall premiere night, I’m just sitting in a nondescript café across the street from the theatre, sipping hot tea, watching the frozen queue inch along Princes Street.

Now, Sean: that’s loyalty.

Distant Land of Famine

I sit down at my favorite Ristorante Il Panino (FYI – you order panini only if you want 2 or more), which has undergone an impressive renovation since my last spaghetti alle cozze e vongole (spaghetti with clams and mussels), and say, “Hit me.”

When the waiter asked why he hadn’t seen me “in awhile” (note, not even in a long while), I explained I was living in Jordan (leaving out the countries in between). He waited to hear no more and brought me un quarto del vino rosso and asked me what he could get me – although he already knew what I would say – from the seafood menu.

(When I told him it was Ramadan, during which I thought I might have to write posts entitled “Cool Clear Water” and “Killing Me Softly” until friends in Rome rescued me with a house-sitting offer, he brought me an unnecessary basket of bread.)

Even the 20-minute drive from the Trieste airport is calming: surrounded by lush fields of green, along the marshes of the bird sanctuary, where le zanzare (the mosquitos) welcome me like I’ve never been away.

Much of what I’ve written about Italy is about this far NE region, Friuli Venezia-Giulia (F.V. Giulia to friends), where I’ve spent many happy summer days along the Adriatic Sea during, after, and long after Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

Proof positive: my 2-part series Prosecco Paradiso.

Prosecco notwithstanding, I would travel all this way just to see all 3 generations of the Tomaselli/dall’Oglio hotel family holding court on via Giuseppe Verdi.

Nonna doesn’t recognize me anymore; she’s getting up in her years now. But she hasn’t lost a bit of her charm, saying that even though she doesn’t remember my face, she knows I’m as beautiful as ever, to which I reply (truthfully in her case), “As are you.”

The family knows all about my humanitarian work over the years and would like me to consider, they said humorously, coming back for 2 months – basically the remainder of the tourist season – as they’re in need of some “humanitarian assistance” themselves. The European recession has hit them hard, although having been through the wars, literally, they’ve weathered the economic storm a bit better than their island peers.

Grado is far from its heyday in 2004, my first summer here. The good ol’ days when the Saturday night dinner rush began like clockwork, church bells + 15 minutes, and continued long into the night.

Ilene e Giorgio, nota bene: THE pre-dinner gelato place (for heathens) is BACK. Different owners, same great pesca e basilico!

Historically, the vast majority of the island’s clientele has been German and Austrian, exactly who’s been cutting back on beach holidays in recent years. But I see a new marketing strategy paying off: selling Friuli and its neighboring Slovenian province as one contiguous tourist destination, to – judging from languages heard on the street – French, British, Russian, even Arab travelers.

But the Tomasellis/dall’Oglios have been in the hotel business since the 1920s and despite its founder’s passing have, on balance, flourished through the generations, the 4th of which are are entertaining themselves in the children’s playroom: French-speaking preschoolers who call Bruxelles home.

This morning, Signore, after making sure I’d already had breakfast (proving that Italian fathers can be as bad as Italian mothers), suggests taking the early ferry to Isola di Barbana. (My café owner friends, subject of Our Lady dei Bambini, sadly were victims of the economic downturn.) He further suggests saying a “substantial” prayer to the Madonna before heading straight to the beach.

Which is exactly my plan. Except for the prayer part.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I’ve moved to Philadelphia. Or at least that’s what the Ancient Greeks used to call it.

Today it’s called Amman, Jordan.

Yes, that Jordan: where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth, where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt.

Where there’s some of the most scenic hiking, biking, and diving in the world, not to mention archeological exploring. If you secretly wanted to be Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia, Jordan is the country for you.

Although border configurations in this part of the Middle East have changed several times in the past several decades, the Land of Milk & Honey (or Canaan) was originally Jordanian territory. Nowadays, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan exists east of the Jordan River, in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods, bordering Israel/West Bank, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

That means I’m stuck out in part of the desert where God’s Chosen People wandered for 40 years.

Believe me, you have to put a LOT of effort into wandering for 40 years in deserts this small, even with a million or two travelers on foot. It’s like saying it took you 40 years to get from Rome to Florence.

Or Seattle to Portland.

So, you have to wonder why the Israelites wanted so badly not to arrive in the Promised Land in a timely fashion that they did pretty much everything possible to avoid it!

Even after 4 decades of meandering and backtracking and stalling, they finally arrived on Mount Nebo, where God had told Moses he could view the Promised Land from afar, but would not be allowed to enter. (Read why in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, Book of Numbers, Chapter 20.)

I’ll write a post from Mount Nebo later. And from the Dead Sea. And from Petra, the ancient pink city in the south of Jordan, which isn’t lost at all, contrary to what Indiana Jones keeps telling people.

The Middle East is the happening region on the planet right now and the Arab Spring is changing the political, social, and economic landscape of the 21st century.

Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is calm and it’s no mistake that’s where people in the region run to when there’s trouble. Consequently, of Jordan’s 6 million population, 2 million are Palestinians, who can have Jordanian citizenship if they choose. In fact, Jordan’s Queen Rania comes from a Palestinian family.

There are also 500,000 Iraqi refugees, self-professed short-timers awaiting stability back home, whose arrival jacked up all the real estate prices in Amman, as I discovered when I started looking for an apartment.

Then, King Abdullah recently stated in the press that Jordan is hosting 80,000 Syrian refugees so far.

Do the math and imagine for a moment what it would be like if your country, percentage-wise, hosted that many guests at once, predominantly at your expense.

Yes, you: the unemployed or underemployed taxpayer.

(Read one of the few books about the Middle East peace process that you don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to relate to, an autobiography of sorts written by a reigning monarch who’s only 50 years old (unlike many of those ancient guys in the region we have no clue about, and vice-versa): King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Our Last Best Chance: The Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril.)

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Wraps Up the Holidays at O’Donoghue’s, Dublin

A pox on you ‒ yes, you up there with the fake snow machine!

Here’s how to lose the Christmas spirit yourself in 1 day, after advocating it to everybody else for 1 month.

Overly warm and windy weather has dogged me this entire 25,000 kilometer journey and caused all kinds of mechanical and morale problems this Christmas season. Strikes didn’t help, either, and elicited a common response from fellow citizens: derision, not sympathy.

(Case in point: London Tube operators who, due to holiday pay grievances, messed with the post-Christmas, annual-for-decades-if-not-centuries football matches. They already get 42 days of paid vacation per year, not counting national holidays, which is exorbitant even for Europe. They’re deservedly on everybody’s black list now, even Santa’s.)

Despite everything, on December 24 we ‒ Team North Pole ‒ were 99% on schedule, subtly delivering a few final gifts around Ireland while families were away from home attending Midnight Mass.

(Nine Lessons and Carols at St. Patrick’s, Dublin’s Anglican cathedral, is earlier, so if you traditionally open your gifts on Christmas Eve, folks, honestly that’s a time crunch for me.)

All in all, it was a stellar holiday season. If my customer satisfaction surveys come back positive, maybe I’ll be asked to reprise my role next year.

So, I rested on Christmas Day and let other people do the driving ‒ and the cooking ‒ for once.

But come December 26, I’m in a really bad mood. Some guy with a sick sense of humor sets up this dry ice machine right off Grafton Street, generating what looked at first glance like real snowflakes!

Except it was 10C and, strangely enough, wasn’t snowing on the next block over.

He was blowing this snow-like substance from this retail store ledge above the street (and was up to no good because when I tried to take his photo later, he ducked behind his truck), which made it seem so real that after-Christmas shoppers were looking up in the sky in confusion, even tasting the flakes to be sure.

Then, frowning, started looking around for the Candid Camera.

That’s aggravated holiday cruelty, getting our White après-Christmas hopes up like that!

Faiche Stiabhna, St. Stephen’s Green, runs along downtown between Grafton Street and Trinity College. St. Stephen’s Day ‒ called the Feast of Stephen in the King Wenceslas carol I wrote about from London ‒ in the Republic of Ireland, Boxing Day in the UK, and Day-After-Christmas in the USA are all the same thing.

And it used to be a day of fasting, although not for religious reasons.

On one unforgettable 1990s family trip around Great Britain over Christmas, we nearly starved to death Christmas Eve onward, not realizing that outside of London not even grocery stores would be open for most of the following week.

(Some Christmases, I give my brother-in-law a package of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a joke that to this day he does not appreciate.)

But times, and economies, are different now. St. Stephen’s Shopping Center’s floor-to-ceiling banner proclaims “OF COURSE we’ll be open!” on our namesake’s day, starting at 11:00am.

Sure doesn’t seem to me like there’s any recession in Ireland…ka-ching, ka-ching…and the newspaper headlines the next day screamed, “Holiday Spending Off The Charts.”

With this much consumer optimism, the Irish economy can’t be as bad off as France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel claim…unless the Irish government itself spends every day like it’s St. Stephen’s Day.

Smiling all the way, because “we’re a happy lot,” says Oliver O’Donoghue.

When I arrive at 15, Merrion Row, I call Carol O’Donoghue, Oliver’s daughter, on my mobile. Wait on the street, I’ll come down to you, she yells over the din. (The family lives in the building.)

I’m staying overnight 2 floors above one of the happening-est (and arguably loudest) pubs in Dublin, in my favorite neighborhood: right down the street from St. Stephen’s Green and the Shelbourne Hotel, which I didn’t realize was quite so lovely and expensive until Bill G. was no longer paying for me to stay there, with a steep corporate discount.

I’ve parked the sleigh at the airport for 5,50€ a day. Not bad for an “oversize vehicle.”

O’Donoghue’s is open on St. Stephens Day, too, lunchtime onward. Then it’s standing room only ‘til at least 2:00am the next morning, everyone letting their hair down after a day of family Christmas traditions, which I suppose can be heaven or hell, depending on your family.

“Oh, we had a few people ‘round,” says Oliver, 3rd-generation pub owner and master of the understatement.

“You’ll find the Irish don’t take much to pubs and when they do, they don’t stay long,” says a regular, ordering just “a cup of tea, please, and a slice of toast,” having rather over-enjoyed Christmas.

Another name for St. Stephen’s Day: the Morning-After Blues.

So, a little over a month after leaving the North Pole to bring holiday cheer halfway across the globe, I’m at 35,000 feet heading NW, with a tail wind for once.

The reindeer know the way to carry the sleigh, as another carol goes (kind of), and as we pass over Greenland, they pick up speed.

Because it’s starting to look like home.

Thanks for keeping me company during my 2011 Christmas travels. May the New Year 2012 bring you the best of everything!

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Sings Carols with the Philharmonic, London

My invitation must have been lost in the mail.

To Wills and Kate’s first royal Christmas party as a married couple, of course.

This mix-up is understandable, since I haven’t been home, wherever that is, in over a month. But you’d think that Kate’s American Bridesmaid ‒ read my Royal Wedding Week coverage here ‒ deserved at least a follow-up phone call from the Wales’ social secretary!

No worries. Happy Christmas and let’s meet for tea after New Year’s.

So, rather than judging best-dressed royal party guests, I’ve been invited to judge the “Best-Dressed Shop Windows” in Cambridge!

In the categories of Originality, Festivity, Visual Impact, and Coherence, from a field of 8 semi-finalists chosen by “local experts.” So I’m not the only judge with “credentials unspecified.”

Now, I don’t know much about English decorative sensibilities, but it doesn’t take a Diplôme from Le Cordon Bleu to guess that the top prize is going to a food-related window display.

Bellina Chocolate House has taken 1st or 2nd place every year the contest has been held. Emporium 61 goes for vintage Christmas scenery, which will get the nostalgia vote. Origin8 makes way-out-there gingerbread houses and outdid themselves a few years ago with a…

meringue iceberg?

But my money, in more ways than one, is on last year’s winner: the kitchen store, Clement Joscelyne.

However, it’s time to do some bigger-time holiday shopping and that can only mean Harrods, the London department store so huge that it employs a Chief Giver of Directions.

I did take a taxi home later, but not because I had too many shopping bags to carry. My driver, initials K. L. according to my receipt, is a career military man who went right back to work after retirement to “keep exercising the grey matter” by driving around his home city, talking to “delightful young ladies like yourself.”

Why, thank you! I know this compliment had nothing to do with the orange-praline chocolates I just gave you.

Mr. K. L. and his wife have 5 children ‒ 1 son will be absent this Christmas due to his military service in Afghanistan ‒ and many grandchildren. He’s been married longer than I’ve been alive.

I asked him if he had a secret for a lasting marriage. “No, luv, but my wife does.”

And what might that be?

“On each wedding anniversary, she says to me, ‘It seems like yesterday, but if it were tomorrow, I’d say cancel it.'”

Evening comes early this time of year and, along with London’s non-royal best-dressed, I’m in the first row of the Circle balcony at Royal Albert Hall.

For the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir annual concert of Christmas carols old and new. Serious and secular. European and American. I know for a fact that nobody here was responsible for “Jingle Bell Rock.” (We have country singer Bobby Helms to thank for that holiday gem.)

Much less, “I’ve been an angel all year, Santa Baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.”

Since the Middle East is never far from my mind, I read the following Facebook posts at intermission. About refugees, including children, from the Idleb province (closest to the Turkish border) of Syria, who’d been trapped in valleys, then hunted down and massacred by Assad regime forces.

“OH GOD!!!! Weeping!!!!”

(In the last few days, more than 200 men, women, and children have been killed like this, just in time for Arab League monitors to be told it was the work of “terrorists.”)

“The displaced people who have fled into the mountains from the villages of Jabal Al Zawiyeh district in the fog and rain of yesterday. The little boy laying on the ground was shot… The videographer, God bless him, sharing the danger the displaced are in from Regime forces… he asks the children, “where are your families?” they answer, “we don’t know, but we are very hungry.” Oh God, what will it take for this world to help these people?”

“PLEASE SHARE…PLEASE HELP GET THIS ON EVERY NGO AND GOVERNMENT AND EMBASSY WALL… CHILD REFUGEES, WOMEN AND CHILDREN in the mountains in winter, not even coats”

“In our hearts and in our prayers tonight, the displaced children of Idleb terrified of being found by the Regime soldiers who make no allowance for age or gender…and we just don’t understand how a Regime could be so cruel, and a world so cold hearted that these children have no rescue”

Then, in the first carol in Part 2 of the concert, our cast of 5,000 voices rang out: “Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care…”

As Dr. Ibrahim Othman and Hakam Al-Siba’i and Giath Mattar would tell us if they were alive, echoing the words of King Wenceslas on another cruel winter night long ago:

“Mark my footsteps, my good page, tread thou in them boldly…”

…and Syrians from neighboring districts took Wenceslas at his word.

News unfolding hour by hour on YouTube and Facebook:

How the gifts of love mounted for the people of Zawiya district as the Christian world prepares for Christmas (which we fear will be used as a time of great massacre by the murderer Assad, who well knows when the people of the west and the media aren’t looking), the people of Jobas and Idleb show us the real meaning of Christmas, giving to those in great need from full hearts, even when their own pockets are empty, and even bread and fuel not in their reach.”

“IDLIB: JOBAS: Gifts and donations from Children and adults for our people of Jabal Al Zawiyeh makes you cry, these dear hearts”

Children gathering donations for other children, knowing that the adults, maybe from their own families, who will make the precarious journey to deliver this lifesaving assistance, will risk all their lives.

Over 4600 kilometers and a world away, we sing with the London Philharmonic what the people of Jobas already know:

“Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”

Happy Christmas.

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Dances “The Nutcracker” with Polski Balet, Warsaw

You can file this post in “Jeanette’s Future Careers.”

Under “Least Likely.”

The home of the Polski Balet Narodowy (Polish National Ballet) is the lovely Teatr Wielki, filled with parents, grandparents, and kids, many of whom will be begging for ballet lessons after tonight.

Now, I love kids. I’ve spent the past week with various toddlers, happily attending pre-school Christmas parties and decorating gingerbread people (and animals).

But you don’t have to be a parent to appreciate the value of a good babysitter.

So, it’s date night and the grownups are in Balkon 1, Loźe E for “The Nutcracker.”

This “Nutcracker” version is different than any other I’ve seen before because choreographer Toer van Schayk changed the setting to 19th century Warsaw.

Warsaw being Stop #4 on Santa’s Sub-Contractor’s 2011 route, with the sleigh parked on Wierzbowa Street.

Awaiting snow!

(December in Poland with no snow is all the confirmation I need that global warming is real.)

The night before, we’d been sitting in a 2nd-floor café overlooking the lights of Stare Miasto, drinking winter tea ‒ with mango syrup and slices of citrus fruit, a huge carafe per person ‒ and playing the board game “In the Footsteps of the Pope.”

It’s something like Monopoly, with routes of the pope’s real worldwide travels during his time in office. Whoever travels as much as he did, more than any pope before him, wins (and gets lifetime 1K status on Star Alliance).

We’re talking about Pope Jan Pawel II, of course. John Paul II, the “Polish Pope,” whose influence cannot be overstated in this country.

But imagine my surprise when, here in the “Nutcracker” audience, I look down at the balcony below us and see nuns. Real nuns, wearing habits.

Uh, sisters, should you even BE here? Men in tights and all.

Maybe you took a wrong turn? Archikatedra św. Jana w Warszawie (St. John’s Archcathedral) is a few blocks back.

On a more secular note, as we see dolls, fairies, and tin soldiers flit across the stage, I remember the worst news I’d heard all week:

ToysRUs has arrived in Poland.

To parents at the Sunday brunch: long before next Christmas, you’ll come to regret how excited you are about this.

(I don’t meant to brag, but there’s a reason I got Santa’s sub-contracting job and ToysRUs didn’t.)

OK, part of the deal is that you have to learn the ToysRUs advertising theme song, which is as far from Tchaikovsky as you can get and hasn’t changed since I was a kid.

To prove how catchy that song is, remember that a) I’m writing it from memory, and b) for the majority of my life, my family didn’t even own a television!

“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a ToysRUs kid
They’ve got a million toys at ToysRUs that I can play with!
From bikes to trains to video games,
It’s the biggest toy store there is!
I don’t wanna grow up, ‘cause maybe if I did…

I wouldn’t be a ToysRUs kid!”

So, with a quick stop at the Ostrogski Palace, which houses the new Muzeum Chopina, to listen to timeless music from master pianist Frédéric Chopin and to see some of his instruments and handwritten manuscripts, we travel west to the home of composer Benjamin Britten…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Meets with Demanding Customers, Stuttgart

You were just in Germany, they said. Why are those people getting twice as many gifts?

Because they’re 2 years old. TWINS.

Most of us don’t remember being 2, but our parents definitely remember. The “terrible twos,” as that phase of child development is commonly called in English, and most of us lived up to that title pretty spectacularly.

Then imagine if there had been twice as many of you.

Oy.

Let’s call them Twin A (her real first initial) and Twin B (who’s actually the oldest, and never lets you forget it) ‒ are their grandparents’ only, and long-awaited, grandchildren.

That’s what I call a gift “situation.”

Since 2-year-olds are demanding about everything, especially about doing everything “by myself,” it’s not surprising that they’d be really opinionated about their Christmas lists. While 2-year-olds don’t write lists, they carry them in their heads and point to items as they see them.

“I want that one.” If the answer is no, then we try “Siiiiiiiiii!” or “Jaaaaaaaaaa,” experimenting with the volume.

Fortunately for the twins, but unfortunately for everybody else, they can demand things multiple languages. Their parents come from different countries and up until recently the family lived in yet another country…complete with a local “grandma” who adored the twins and satisfied their every whim.

Then you move home, just in time for Christmas, to twice as many adoring grandparents.

European children don’t typically watch TV, so advertisers don’t have the same opportunity to create demand for everything from ant farms to alien robots. But there are still plenty of temptations in every store, just at 2-year-old eyeball level, where somebody in Marketing got straight As in product placement.

But 2-year-olds have a big weakness that cagey adults can, and do, exploit: they’re very easily distracted.

They’re also easily distracted by things that are FREE, like Christmas lights, trees, and ornaments. (But only from a distance; you break it, you buy it.)

Then there’s chocolate, which has its very own category.

My first afternoon in Stuttgart, the twins came back from the nanny…each carrying a burlap sack, a miniature version of what Santa gave me to deliver gifts, filled with chocolates.

They just weren’t interested in hearing that it was a gift and thus you’re supposed to wait until Christmas to open it. Come on, that makes no sense. Nikolaus would never say something like that.

The burlap sacks mysteriously disappeared after the twins went to bed that night, but the next day, on a completely different topic, the grownups mentioned c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e. Immediately, the twins said, ”Schokolade!”

2-year-olds who don’t speak English and can’t spell in any language know exactly what we’re talking about, proving that adults are fooling themselves and should’ve given up on that spelling thing long ago.

We’re careful not to mention our plan to visit the Ritter Sport Schokoladenmuseum in Waldenbuch, at which I bought 4000g of premium chocolate, including 75% Cacao baking chocolate (note to readers who live nearby), for a grant total of 20€.

Well, 20 Euros 54 centimes, to be precise.

There are ever so many sweets in Germany anytime, but especially at Christmastime. You can’t get away from them, even if you tried. The airlines pass out chocolate bars. Twice on every flight. Hotels leave little packages of Gummi bears on your pillow, then ask you if you left them behind on purpose.

And there’s nothing that motivates 2-year-olds more than repetition…and repetitive success.

If it works on Mom & Dad once, great, but it might be a coincidence. If it works twice, the idea has definite promise. If it works on grandparents and honorary aunts, too ‒ ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The parental decision at hand: do we want a war now or later? Two toddlers amp’d up on sugar and hanging from the chandeliers at 23:00 when you’re dead-tired and will agree to anything, or two toddlers having a daytime screaming fit outdoors, where they have to compete with football fans and accordion music?

We’ll take Option 2, with Glühwein to go. (Since this is probably the last Christmas we might be able to convince the twins that dates are also in fact candy, that’s worth a try, too.)

For Twin A & B’s parents, who didn’t ask for the 2-for-1 family plan but after getting over the shock are really good sports about their double stroller life (and admit to having twice as much fun, on some days anyway), make it “mit Schuss” (with a shot).

So, with a “Vielen Dank” to the pilot of flight LH 1773 from Istanbul, who not only found my Blackberry, but also answered my incoming calls on his way to the airport lost & found, we’re off on the next leg of our journey, 1200 kilometers and 5 degrees Celcius away…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Finds Holiday Wisdom at Ayasofya, Istanbul

“Your church is back that way.”

Istanbul, like San Francisco, is a city where you often can see exactly where you need to go, but can’t figure out how to get there. A city where every street is Lombard Street and road construction is epic (and traffic has its own TV station, channel 21).

I wasn’t asking for directions because I planned to attend the Blue Mosque (although I did visit it later); I just needed to know whether the road went all the way through to the palm trees and the viewing benches in the distance.

Because that’s where I needed to turn left then left then left again, then right, to get to my guest house at 6, Akbiyik Street.

It was pure coincidence that I asked this question at the same time as the afternoon call to prayer, and they knew it. Just a little welcoming joke.

“My church” they were referring to is Ayasofya (in Turkish) or Haghia Sophia (in English). An icon of the Christian faith in these parts for the past thousand and a half years, it became a museum in the 1930s under Atatürk.

(Atatürk wasn’t his given name; it means “Father of the Turks.” Mustafa Kemal Paşa led the Turkish army to victory in Gallipoli in 1915, then after World War I got rid of the sultanate and created the modern ‒ and secular ‒ Turkish state, including women’s rights and mandatory public education, and famously not including derviç magic! Nearly every important building and institution in Istanbul is named after Atatürk.)

Ayasofya is across Sultanahmet Parki from the Blue Mosque, a bit like the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial are on opposite ends of the National Mall in Washington, DC, all 4 monuments magically illuminated at night.

Having just come from the Christmas-crazy capital of majority Catholic Bavaria, suddenly seeing no immediate signs of Noël, except little leprechaun-green plastic trees at Starbucks, was oddly calming. In 16C weather, a ferry ride ‒ rather than a sleigh ride ‒ seemed in order.

(But, as in Munich, suddenly out of nowhere it’s 6C and pouring rain.)

Ayasofya, the Church of Holy Wisdom, dates back to the year 360 AD. Unfortunately, the church that Roman Emperor Konstantinos lovingly built was burned down by an angry public. Emperor Theodosios II tried again in the 5th century, with the same result.

Third time’s the charm, thought Emperor Justinanus (Justinian), who in less than 5 years built one of the architectural wonders of the world, religious or not.

And there Ayasofya has stood since 537 AD, unchanged, despite countless wars, famines, natural disasters, and changes in government. Which, said Justinian, was exactly the point.

In Constantinople, as Istanbul was called back then, Christmas was a relatively new concept ‒ 150 years new. But Christians living in those precarious times made pilgrimages to Ayasofya ‒ to its Weeping Pillar, if healing was required ‒ and, in the spirit of the season, all seemed light and right after all.

Which even among the poor, who were much poorer than most people who consider themselves poor in December 2011, inspired acts of charity, rather than inspiring overwrought decorations and competitive gift exchanges that seem to have hijacked Christmas holidays in our era.

But since Ayasofya is going to be around for another thousand years anyway, no-one will mind if I duck across the street to the Pudding Shop for some aşure (Noah’s Pudding) while the line dies down.

The story goes that Noah’s wife made this pudding with all the food left over in the Ark, after the waters of the Great Flood receded and the Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, located east of here (near the borders of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran).

Aşure is a chef’s dream menu item: how else could you clean out the restaurant fridge, put all kinds of aging, random fruit into the same pudding, and legitimately sell it to customers for full price?

Don’t be put off by the idea, though. Noah’s Pudding tastes really good…and I bet it did to Noah’s post-Flood family, too.

Anyway, the Pudding Shop used to be a place where, if you were a hippy backpacker, you could eat cheaply but well and leave messages for friends, lovers, or fellow travelers. After 15 tram stops on the T1 from the airport, being squeezed in like…the Pudding Shops’s lamb and green hot-pepper kebaps (the Turkish spelling)…but thankful it’s December and not July, right in front of the Sultanahmet station appears that oasis of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.

And who needs TV when you can people-watch on Divanyolu Caddesi over a white bean salad? Or fries with ketçap and mayonez?

Scooters veering on and off the sidewalk, giving a whole new meaning to “texting while driving.” Tourists from the Gulf veiled head-to-toe in black walking alongside nightclub-bound locals in stiletto heels and leather boleros. Crowds of football fans in red and yellow singing boisterously on their way to the Galatasaray (“Cim Bom”) vs. Barça match.

Today I’m wearing red and green, colors of Team North Pole.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” blares Starbucks, although bowing to local preference sells carrot cake without the rooftop snow-like cream cheese frosting. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”

That’s my cue.

It’s 5:00am when urban roosters start calling us to prayer, but God waits until 5:08am. Even though “my church” lets me go back to sleep for another hour or so, I decide not to.

Watching the sunrise over the Sea of Marmara, I’m starting to see the wisdom in that.

So, after getting some great gift ideas at Oyuncak Müzesi, the Toy Museum on the Asian side of Istanbul, but being very disappointed to find out that I just missed their kids wooden toy-making and -painting class…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Sips Glühwein at Christkindlmarkt, Munich

Like I tell all my genius friends: don’t be an idiot.

In Germany in December, it tends to snow. At a minimum, wind or rain or both. Pretty much count on it. What you shouldn’t count on is the freak 13C forecast you saw on weather.com lasting for your whole trip.

(Definitely don’t take any guidance from what I’m wearing, since anything above freezing feels like summer to me, compared to -20F at the North Pole last week.)

So, it’s not terribly insightful to check all your cold weather and rain gear ‒ in fact, all your gear, period ‒ in your suitcase, only to have the airline send it to Chicago. I know it’s inconvenient, but go ahead and use 4 bins at the security checkpoint and you’ll thank me later.

In Alaska, we call it “dressing to walk home.”

That’s how I end up sharing a late-night cab from the Munich airport with some guys from a global IT consulting firm, who actually travel quite a bit, but in parts of the world where leaving your swim trunks behind is the more pressing problem.

So, in this taxi we have a combined IQ of 550 and not one suit jacket for the keynote speech.

Lufthansa gave them each a few hundred Euros as compensation for the untimely Chicago reroute, one of many great reasons to fly Lufthansa (raves this uncompensated spokesperson), so they needed to do some impromptu Christmas shopping.

Legitimately buying gifts for themselves, unlike what you get caught doing every year.

Knowing Munich pretty well, I can help, but not literally. My generous holiday spirit doesn’t extend to sitting outside dressing rooms at department stores. But I’d be happy to meet you later.

And there’s only one place to meet in December in Munich and that’s under the Glockenspiel.

There are fabulous Christmas markets all around Europe, but it doesn’t get much better than Münchner Christkindlmarkt at sundown. Losing your luggage on an international trip is one way to turn into the Grinch, but starting out my Christmas-spirit-promoting job in Marienplatz feels almost like cheating.

So, after a few hours of speed shopping ‒ something like speed dating, but a lot more expensive and you’re stuck with the results for longer ‒ they drop their combined 550 bags at the hotel and we head out again into the brisk wind.

With slightly less complaining this time.

“Hot chocolate?” asked one guy, hopefully. Oh, Señor: we can do so much better than that.

Glūhwein is hot mulled wine, usually red, although you can use fruit wines, white wine, or even beer.

The classic German glūhwein spices are cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and citrus, optionally “mit Schuss” (with a shot of hard liquor). Elsewhere ‒ in Scandinavia, Russia, the UK, throughout Europe ‒ you’ll find a host of other flavors, including apple, nutmeg, honey, currant, even black pepper!

Whether you’ve been calling it vin chaud, grzane wino, glögg, vin fiert, Глинтвейн, sıcak şarap, or karstvīns for the past 600 years, glūhwein puts the cheer back in “Holiday Cheer” and beats back colder Decembers than this, all for a mere 3€ a glass.

Although it might take quite a few glasses to test that theory.

There are lots of good glūhwein recipes on the Web, but I have one objection to almost all of them: never use cheap red wine! Use the same quality red wine as you would to drink at room temperature in a wine glass.

When I mentioned this, we happen to be sharing a table with the one demographic that couldn’t care less: rowdy football fans excited about a match between 2 teams we’d never heard of.

My paternal ancestors immigrated from Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany and undoubtedly brought a glūhwein recipe with them to South Dakota. One of the great-grandmas was apparently known to store bottles under the bed and, look-y here: we have a nice fermented beverage for…medicinal purposes!

Favorite glūhwein of the day? “Glūhwein nach Oma’s Rezept.”

Grandma’s Special Recipe.

So, with a wave to good friends on the Italian/Slovenian border, who are really disappointed we don’t have time to stop by for dinner and the night (in their 4-star hotel), we continue flying SE to…

Santa’s Sub-Contractor Clocks In at Christmas Headquarters, Alaska

Ironically, I took this job for the short commute.

Over the next month, I’ll travel over 15,000 miles/25,000 kilometers, helping Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Noel Baba, Święty Mikołaj, Chris Kringle, Père Noël, Daidí na Nollag, Babbo Natale, Agios Vassilis, Der Weihnachtsmann, and Father Christmas deliver delightful gifts to the people who’ve been very good all year and lumps of coal to the procrastinators and wishful thinkers ‒ you know who you are ‒ who’ve been very bad all year and are frantically trying to make up for it all in the last 4 weeks.

Good luck with that, say my North Pole colleagues.

This year’s gifts came off the elf assembly line days or weeks ago and are being loaded onto the sleigh as we speak. Next year, think ahead.

Although we all know Santa Claus normally delivers all his gifts on Christmas Eve, this year hit the North Pole hard financially ‒ hoping to “go green” this Christmas, Santa invested heavily in Solyndra ‒ and as a result had to lay off some of his toy-making and request management staff and was forced to outsource his distribution.

I outbid FedEx and ToysRUs and won the contract for 2011 holiday season, in part because I was already in Alaska for Thanksgiving and Santa didn’t have to pay for my relocation.

Bonjour! Jeanette here, newly hired Chief Transportation Officer and porte-parole du Père Noël. I’m Santa’s press secretary and ambassador-at-large for this holiday season.

And do I ever have my work cut out for me.

It’s painfully obvious that people have lost the Christmas spirit, and I’m not just talking about Christians. This black-hole world economy and world conflicts brewing far and near have made for a world-record-miserable year…

…and did I really sign up to get everybody back in the groove by December 25? I may have to give back my signing bonus.

But in what’s most likely blissful ignorance, I’m waxing the sleigh anyway, saddling up Rudolph ‒ that’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for those of you who had perfectly happy childhoods without ever wearing battery-operated red blinking noses in school holiday music programs ‒ and ready to embark on a 6-country, 3-continent delivery route, trying to cover in 1 month just a small part of what Santa does in 1 night…or I’d try to pass over Nairobi, Auckland, and Santiago, too.

If this Christmas works out, maybe I’ll bid for a Southern Hemisphere route next year.

To any grownups who will admit to still believing that Santa is real, but especially pilot and engineer fans of this blog: we’ll have on board the latest stealth sleigh technology and top-flight, GPS-enabled reindeer. If and when we pass over your city, we’ll happily give you a test drive.

On the North Pole expense account.

So, with a quick stop at Union Square in San Francisco, California to light the Christmas tree and pick up some of those little blue boxes at Tiffany, we fly across the Atlantic to…