Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kerst Moments

Our last Christmas (Kerstmis) season in Europe, Jon and I wanted to savor our time in the local area as much as possible during December. Knowing we would have Neil and his family for Christmas, I decided to go all out with the decorations. We have loved living in our house so much as it's the perfect place for entertaining and having company. We are really going to miss this house and know we will probably not find one as unique for quite some time. I wanted to document exactly how it looked for the holidays so we can always remember our last Christmas in Sittard.

Our real Christmas tree and greenery from the backyard to make our hanging wreath
Nativity and German village
More greenery from the backyard to "spruce" up the place
Due to the entire month of December swiftly booking up with various events and parties, we were unable to schedule our own holiday party, but did manage to have a few friends over for dinner. We are so grateful for this special group of friends and it's hard to believe that within a few short months, we'll all be scattered throughout the world. We will certainly cherish the memories spent with them during our GK days.

Dinner party with the Nortons, Zinneckers, and Cavanaughs
For the second year, we participated in the Kerstmannenloop, or Santa Claus run, in Maastricht. This was a highlight of our holiday season two years ago and we were eager to take part again on this "fun run" through the festively lit old town streets of Maastricht. 

Along the "race" course

Our Santa posse

On December 23rd our Clough Family Christmas kicked off with a trip to the Aachen Christmas market with Neil, Emily and the girls. The following day, we took part in a unique Christmas Eve service in the De Schark cave outside Maastricht. This service commemorates the midnight mass that took place here on December 24th, 1944, for over 300 U.S. soldiers assigned to the Maastricht area. For some, it was their last Christmas as many left to fight in the Battle of the Bulge the following day. 

Clough family at the entrance to the De Schark cave

Christmas Eve service in the cave

The service even included music
In addition to a mass and memorial service in the cave, you can actually view the wall that all attendees of that first mass in 1944, signed. This year was also a special treat as they had a letter from the last remaining survivor of that 1944 service. It was incredible to hear his account of the fear he had during that time and the peace that this service brought him and his fellow service members that Christmas Eve so many years ago. This was definitely one of the most unique Christmas experiences I've had yet in Europe and I'm so glad we were able to incorporate into our family Christmas.

Memorial wall with the signed names of the Dec. 24, 1944, service attendees

On Christmas morning, the house was quite lively as the girls were so eager to find their presents around the tree. We enjoyed lazing the morning away opening and playing with all the gifts. There's nothing like celebrating Christmas with kids! 

Taking in the spectacle of the gift opening frenzy

Showing off their gifts to each other - whisky and a ham (the smokes were a joke)

One of our Christmas gifts to Neil, Emily and the girls were tickets to the Kerst Circus (Christmas Circus) in Sittard. It actually doesn't have anything to do with Christmas, but it's tradition in this area to have a circus visit your town during the holidays. Jon and I went two years ago and loved it as adults, so we knew the girls would enjoy it too. I deemed the outing a great success when I saw that Sybil had posted on her Facebook page that the circus was her favorite part of Christmas. Score, Aunt Cat and Uncle Jon!

At the Kerst Circus
We had so many wonderful Kerst moments this year and I'm grateful we were able to share this holiday season with our friends and family. I will look back on this time fondly, cherishing our unique European Christmases!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt

After returning to Europe from Texas at the end of November, Christmas market season was in full swing once more. This being our last holiday season in Europe, we wanted to make the most of these wonderful markets, which can't help but put you in the Christmas spirit. After six years of living in/near Germany, we finally made it to the daddy of all Christmas markets - Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt.

Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt

Germany's largest Christmas market, more than 2 million visitors from around the world visit this famous market each year. Over 200 stall holders present their traditional wares: Nuremberg spicy gingerbread, fruit loaves, bakery goods, sweets and typical Christmas articles such as Christmas tree angels, nativity sets, ornaments, candles, toys and many arts and craft products.

One of the numerous candy/gingerbread stalls

When we arrived on a Friday night, the market certainly did not disappoint, despite the rain and bitterly cold temperatures. In fact, this helped to keep many of the crowds away and we were able to explore this festively lit market in a peaceful setting. While sipping gluwein and perusing the rows upon rows of stalls filled with traditional wares, I wanted to savor every moment of being surrounded by such wonderful smells and beautiful decoratives.

The famous Nürnberg angel

Other than eating all the delicious Christmas market goodies, such as Nürnberg sausages (yes, this is where they come from) and Reibekuchen (potato fritters), my main shopping priority was to purchase a Nürnberg angel. These angels are the symbol of the Nürnberg Christkindlesmarkt and ever since I first saw one in the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store, I knew I wanted to find one from where they are made in Nürnberg. They are traditionally made with wax faces and hands and flowing curled hair and rich fabric for the dress. After a long deliberation, I decided on one with a beautiful burgundy and gold dress. Every time I place her at the top of our tree, I will remember our wonderful and last Christmas market experience in Nürnberg.

Nürnberg Kinder (Children's) Christkindlesmarkt

On Saturday, we spent the morning exploring the city of Nürnberg. We were amazed at how large this city was and the fact that like Rothenburg, the old town is completely surrounded by a wall with several towers. Unfortunately, we were not able to walk entirely around the wall, but we enjoyed walking a portion of it.

Walking along the town wall of Nürnberg

We made our way through the Old Town to the Nürnberg castle which provided a great overlook of the city. The more we explored of the city, the more we were impressed of all that it had to offer and couldn't believe we hadn't made it to this jewel of a city sooner. That's the problem with Bavaria, there are simply too many wonderful cities and towns to visit, that it's quite easy to overlook some along the way. 

View from Nürnberg Castle

Nürnberg Castle

We kept circling along the wall inside the old town and enjoyed beautiful views of the river that cut right through the center crossed with many bridges. 

Nürnberg old town

We couldn't help comparing Nürnberg to Rothenburg, but simply on a much grander scale. Like in Rothenburg, Nürnberg also had a wood covered bridge perfect for a photo op. 

Nürnberg old town

Nürnberg old town

Other than enjoying the beauty of the town itself, we did make it to one historical site; Memoriam Nuremberg Trials - Courtroom 600. This courtroom gained worldwide fame as the venue of the "Nuremberg Trials" where the top Nazis were prosecuted and sentenced at the end of WWII. These trials were held in front of an International Military Tribunal (IMT) between November 20, 1945 and October 1, 1946. Other than viewing the actual courtroom (still in use today) there is also an excellent exhibition that outlines the various Nazis who were on trial, the members of the IMT, opening and closing statements and other details of the trial. 

Memoriam Nuremberg Trials - Courtroom 600

During our time in Germany, we have visited numerous destinations significant to the build-up of WWII, its tragic consequences, and many memorials to those who have lost their lives. It seems only fitting to visit this site at the end of our time in Europe, which provides a sense of closure and justice to the terrible Nazi movement which tore across Europe in such a destructive, unforgettable way. I will always remember the image below of the courtroom which sentenced these Nazi leaders to their punishment and know that justice will always prevail. 

Memoriam Nuremberg Trials - Courtroom 600

I am so grateful we finally made it to this incredible city which would be a destination to visit any time of the year. But, experiencing the Christmas market here was definitely the icing on our final Christmas-in-Europe cake!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Thanksgiving in Texas

Knowing we wanted to spend our last Christmas holiday in Europe, we opted to cross the pond for a Thanksgiving in Texas. This is one of the best times to be in the Lone Star State, as the weather is usually beautiful with lots of sunshine and warm temps. We arrived a week before Thanksgiving in order to attend the wedding of our GK friends, Brandon and Margaret, who have since moved to San Antonio. I was so glad the timing worked out for us to attend their beautiful wedding in San Antonio with a reception on the River Walk.

Along the River Walk
The beaming bride and groom

Engaged in Spain, they decided to incorporate a lot of Spanish influences into their wedding. They had beautiful fan-shaped programs for the ceremony, did a surprise Spanish dance at their reception, served Spanish food, and decorated each table with pics of their engagement trip. It was an absolutely beautiful wedding, and the best part was that we were able to have a mini-GK reunion with both Margaret and Brandon, Jill and the Cook family.

Their excellently choreographed Spanish dance. The facial expressions were the best!
A pic before we all got a little too disheveled from the heavy dancing on the dance floor

Our last reunion pic from the day-after wedding brunch

The day after the wedding, we enjoyed our morning in San Antonio visiting the iconic Alamo and perusing the shops of the Mercado with Jill. It was so surreal to be in Texas with our friends from GK and I'm so grateful we managed to attend this special event and re-connect with our friends who we miss dearly. 

Shopping at the Mercado
After returning to Austin for a couple days with the Blue family (which now includes my newest nephew Boulan, born on Oct. 8th), we trekked to the ranch for Thanksgiving week. Jon relished the opportunity to do lots of outdoor manual labor and I enjoyed spending lots of quality time with my adorable nephews, sisters, parents and grandmother. My cousins Janet, Jenny and her family also joined us for Thanksgiving and it made for a lot of activity around the ranch. 

Catlin family photo on Thanksgiving Day

At our engagement spot on the ranch with a 17-week bump.
Cousin pic! Enjoying smores and a bonfire on Thanksgiving night
Me and Braxton (in his late-night smore coma)
Though we did make a few trips into town, we loved simply being on the ranch and enjoying its beauty at this perfect weather time of year. Our days included lots of patio time, exploring the ranch in the 4-wheeler and mule, feeding the donkeys and horses and being outdoors as much as possible.

Dad, Jason and Jon - so proud of the rock fence they repaired
Braxton and his sly smile

Braxton and his Aunt Cat on a walk
Me and Goldie - the horse that walked me down the aisle
Leaving the ranch - see you this summer!
After five glorious days in the Texas hill country, we drove to Dallas with Mandy for our final night in Texas. Jon was able to connect with his college buddy, Aaron, and finally eat some delicious Texas BBQ. It was an incredible trip filled with lots of family memories in the most special place on earth to me - the Hix Ranch. Though it was sad to leave Texas and my family yet again, it is a comfort to know that we will only be one state away come this summer and I am already looking forward to numerous trips down to Texas in the next year. 

We snapped the photo below while out on the 4-wheeler our final day at the ranch when we were trying to savor every minute of being in this beautiful place. In birthing class, they tell you to have a relaxation tactic, or peaceful image to focus on. This will be mine, looking out at the rock-fence lined creek and blue hills in the horizon. Part of our family for over 150 years, it is a comfort to know that generations before me have seen this same view and I hope many generations after me will continue to gaze upon my family's heritage. A Texas tradition I can't wait for our baby to be a part of!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Very Spencer Visit

Today is January 22nd, and there is a beautiful blanket of snow covering the ground. Somehow the past couple months have flown by so quickly and before I delve into the exciting happenings 2013 has already brought, I want to touch on some of the highlights of 2012 that occurred in the final two months of the year. One of them being the long-awaited visit from the Spencers! Kelly is my oldest and dearest childhood friend, more of a third sister actually, who I've shared so many memories with over the years; from our childhood play dates, to summer visits in our teenage years, trips to our universities during our college years and now transcontinental visits in our adulthood. Ever since we knew we were moving to Europe in 2007, Kelly has been promising to come visit. Now in our final year here, 5.5 years later, she and her husband Nick finally made it over.... just in time! We were thrilled to host them at our house and give them a taste of Europe with trips to nearby destinations.

On November 2nd, they arrived in Amsterdam where we spent that day and night exploring this most famous Dutch city. Between roaming the canals, and visits to some of the most famous sites, we simply enjoyed experiencing this lively city with two of our favorite friends.

The Prinsengracht Canal, Amsterdam, on Spencer arrival day

Touring the Heineken Brewery, Amsterdam

On our way to Sittard the following day, we stopped at the Kinderdijk for a photo op with these famous windmills as our background. 

We spent the next couple days in Sittard, showing off our quaint Dutch town and doing as the Dutch do - biking everywhere. We also visited nearby Maastricht, Aachen, the Dreilandenpunt, and the American Cemetery in Margraten. 

Kelly and Nick on the Sittard square

Our super cool bike gang
Standing in 3 countries at once
We planned an overnight trip to our favorite Belgian destination, Bruges, which turned out to be the highlight of the trip for the Spencers. There's something to be said about visiting these smaller European towns that have so much ambiance and beauty. And it helped that we were visiting during the middle of the week of a non-touristy season, where we truly had the city to ourselves (along with the locals, of course).

Bruges by night
The Bruges Square
The Bruges Square

Bruges by night

Prepping for our canal trip of Bruges

Atop the De Halve Maan Brewery 
The finale of their week-long visit was a trip to Paris for their final two nights. Nick, Kelly and I train-ed to the City of Light together and hit the ground running, touring the Notre Dame, Latin Quarter, St. Germain, Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Tuileries and of course my favorite, Angelina's Tea Room. They managed to see a lot on their own (Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, Arc de Triomphe) while I spent some time shopping at some of my favorite haunts.

 Jardin du Luxembourg

Jon met up with us on their last night in Paris, which also happened to be his 33rd birthday. We had a fantastic dinner with our Parisian friends, Thomas and Clemence, before hitting up some tres local nightspots. At 3:00 a.m. we said our adieus to Nick and Kelly and they headed for the airport, after a lively send-off from Paris.

The following day and night, we spent Jon's birthday visiting the Montmartre arrondissement. We began at the St. Ouen flea market followed by lunch at the over-the-top French locale bistro, Chez Louisette. Afterward, we walked to the Sacre Cour before wandering through the artist-filled Place du Tertre. That evening, we enjoyed the City of Light in all it's nighttime glory by wandering through the Latin Quarter, and across the Pont des Arts bridge to the Lourve. It's hard to believe that out of my 11 trips to Paris, this was only my second time with Jon. The city can truly become such a romantic place with your love, and I am so happy we were able to spend his birthday in this incredible setting.

Sacre Cour
Place du Tertre

Pont des Arts

Lovers' locks lining the Pont des Arts

The Lourve

All in all it was an incredible week of many memories made during our travels with the Spencers, which culminated in a fantastic Parisian birthday celebration for my main squeeze. Thank you, Spencers (aka, Frank and Marissa) for making the effort to come visit us in Europe. We will cherish these memories spent with you forever and look forward to many more get-togethers with you in the near future stateside. Dank je wel, Danke schön and Merci!