Monday, December 14, 2009

Starting Anew - Deutsch to Dutch

It's been over three weeks since we've packed up the car and drove the 2.5 hours from Wiesbaden to our new base in Geilenkirchen. Only three weeks and 2.5 hours, but yet it feels continents away from our previous life. I thought that moving from a base in Germany to another base in Germany would be a much simpler transition especially with the added bonus of having both cars with us and a ton of stuff we could carry along. What I wasn't counting on was the night and day difference of a NATO base and the rural countryside. The closest cities are both 35-40 minutes away, and other than two large towns, most of the communities are small farm villages.

We have been staying in a guest house in Gangelt, a charming historically medieval village about 10 minutes from the base and 400 meters from the Dutch border. The town is surrounded by wonderful trails and farmland and we've enjoyed running in the forests each morning just across the border. We especially look forward to passing one very interesting farmhouse along our route. Of course there are the usual animals; horses, cows, sheep and dogs, but in the front yard, there are also swans, geese, gunea pigs and wallabies. Yes, that's right, the small kangaroos. Now, on a Texas ranch, I would expect this wacky combination of animals, but in the Netherlands? Where it's cold? The other day we ran past and they had new residents - camels.

It is extremely quiet around here and unless there is an event, such as a Christmas market or soemthing else taking place, the villages pretty much shut down at 7:00 p.m., save for the two token restaurants. Gangelt is an exception, becuase they have five restaurants. The guest house we are staying in is great and the family that owns it lives on the second floor. They are very hospitable and have had us over a couple times already. Needless to say, it is quite a different experience from our urban Wiesbaden where everything was right there, a mere four flights of stairs beneath us.
The house-hunting has been extremely frustrating and as we've already lived in Germany for three years, we hoped to find a home in the Netherlands in order to have a new experience (even if it is just minutes from Germany). What we didn't realize is that the homes in the Netherlands are generally more expensive and smaller. After two weeks of intense emotional roller coasters getting excited about a house and then realizing it wasn't for rent, etc., we found it. The perfect place. It's located in the Dutch town of Sittard, about 20 minutes from base. The town has a plethora of restaurants, bars, a pedestrian area with shopping and a beautiful market square. Although it's not nearly as big as Wiesbaden, it's also not a farm village. From the first moment we walked around Sittard, I knew I wanted it to be home. We found a superb house at a great deal that is far larger than what we need, but will be perfect for visitors. The catch is, we can't move in until January 4th. This means that we must spend the next two weeks chillin' at the guest house before we head home for the holidays.

With so much time on our hands and not much to do, we've explored the area in it's entiretly including all three nearby bases, and every city, town and village in a 30-minute radius. And as it's the Christmas season, we've enjoyed visiting every Christmas market nearby as well. Although the Kristkindlmarkt is mostly a Germany tradition, the towns close to the German border in the Netherlands and Belgium also have similar markets. The first one we visited in this area was in the Dutch town of Valkenburg. It is a charming town with a beautiful castle (now in ruins) that sits atop a hill towering over the city. We attended the opening of their Kerstmarkt, complete with a parade, dancing elves, angels, Father Christmas and fireworks.

The most unique aspect of this city's market is that it's in a cave. The tunnels in this cave once served as a back entrance to the caste or an escape route. Today, it is open to visitors and during Christmas time, they have a market in the tunnels. All the vendors line up along the sides of the tunnel selling their products, with Christmas music playing through the loudspeakers.
They even have a restaurant halfway through and places to get gluwein (hot red wine). It was an incredible experience!
Our favorite nearby city is Maastricht. I had been there twice before, both times visiting Baylor professors that teach there for our Baylor program. As it is only 20 minutes from Sittard, we are looking forward to visiting this Dutch city much more often. The pedestrian area is enormous with beautiful cafes, wonderful shopping and an amazing history. I'm not sure why it's not in more guidebooks, as it has so much to offer! We returned again last week to see the Winter Festival in the main square. Much like a Christmas market, they do have vendors selling things, however not as many as the German markets. It is more like a Christmas carnival with several rides, an ice-skating rink, and festively decorated outdoor huts to grab a snack or drink in.

The next day, we went to the famous Aachen Christmas market, known for being one of the largest markets in Germany. It was extremely crowded, but I could see why it is such a popular market. This being the first time to this historic city, I was in awe of the beautiful churches, squares and old part of town.
The garland and wreaths hanging across the cobbled streets were so picturesque, and although I didn't get to shop too much due to the crowds, the number of vendors was quite impressive.
This past weekend, we attended the Bastogne historic walk in Belgium (blog entry of event to follow). On our way back to Germany, we stopped at the Christmas market in Liege in order to round out our tri-country Christmas market tour. Although we saw a repeat of items sold at all the markets, it was interesting to discover the subtle differences. Liege had their market divided in two main areas - each in a historic square. This was my first time exploring the city and I was surprised at how large it is. We look forward to returning during the day time and visiting the sites.

Although we never imagined we would still be in a guest house three weeks after arriving here, we have only one more week before we board a plane headed for home. We are gradually adjusting to life here and I think it will come more naturally once we are moved into our house. We already have found a church, are re-connecting with acquaintences Jon knew at previous bases, and are learning about things we want to be involved with. Although I may only be a mere 2.5 hours from my previous home and life, this is indeed a different world. Although this realization makes me somewhat wary, it is also exciting, as it will no doubt be a completely unique experience, and not simply a continuation of the past three years.