If my stories aren’t quite enough, here’s a quick video my husband put together from the last couple weeks. I think it’s one of his best so far!
“There’s a soccer game tonight!”
“Yes babe, there’s a soccer game every night.”
Not long ago, I had asked Jakob if he could maybe just follow two sports. I mistakenly assumed that would cut the spectating and fantasy drafts down to a reasonable number. It turns out even if Jakob were to commit his time to only soccer and ping pong he could still spend every evening for the rest of his life yelling at bad calls and mourning missed penalty shots. So don’t fault me for my disinterest when Jakob told me there was a “super important game” happening one Saturday night in Salzburg.
“Common Meghan, it’ll be like a warm up for the Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich game next week. Like a practice run.”
Really? I need practice watching a few hot heads chase a small white ball?
“It’s not like soccer in Canada, here it’s huge! It’s going to be a really good match. Maybe you will actually watch the game this time instead of the crowd.”
He had a point. I am a little too fascinated with the gender and class dynamics of soccer fans. Maybe a practice run will do me good, or at least give me more material for my forthcoming thesis on performed masculinity in soccer stadiums.
That evening we found out that even in my state of apathy, I was still a bigger Salzburg FC fan than 98% of the city’s population. Without a crowd to analyze, I had no choice but to track the journey of that little white ball. Turns out, it wasn’t so bad! I actually gasped when everyone else gasped and cheered when the right team scored. I can see how this could be fun.
Seventy-two hours later, I found my eyes following a similar distant dot. This time on a screen in a Irish/Australian pub tucked somewhere in a dark Munich back street. If I still had a sense of personal space in that moment, it would have been occupied by exactly 3.5 Canadians, and a lot of British dudes. It was the night before the big Arsenal-Bayern match. Yes, the one for which Jakob wanted me to “practice.” Well here I was practicing again, probably getting more practice than Arsenal’s entire defensive line.
The other Canadian and a half in that bar were Demetri (a Calgarian now living in London) and KC (a Londoner who once lived in Calgary…so he’s the half Canadian). The four of us held the only tickets for tomorrow’s match that were given to Canadian supporters.
KC’s voice boomed over the bar noise, “do you guys realize how special you are? No one just gets tickets like this. An away game. AN AWAY GAME! Arsenal fans in The UK have to wait for years for an opportunity like this.”
My mind flew into panic mode: what if there’s a loyalty quiz at the stadium entrance? What if they sense that I am a fraud?!
“Excuse me ma’am, can you name a player?”
“Say goodbye to your friends. You’ll have to come with us.”
Yikes. I checked my phone. Ok I’ve got 22 hours to become a real verifiable Arsenal fan.
Game day. It’s game day. Also Jakob’s birthday. Actually I was so concerned with trying not to be a fraud-fan that I totally forgot to put anything together for Jakob’s birthday. I glanced around the room.
“This is so unlike you Meghan, you’re supposed to be a planner!” I lectured myself.
While Jakob cooked his own birthday breakfast, I scribbled a cheesy note onto a scrap of paper and tucked it into his beloved jersey. Thankfully, Jakob was above disappointment on this most special of game days and I got a smile and a thank-you hug when he found my weak attempt at festivity.
After breakfast, the second task of game day was to gather our precious tickets from the top-secret pick-up location—the Arsenal team hotel. We entered the grand rotating doorway cautiously. In a mere mater of seconds, we might find ourselves face-to-face with some of the world’s best footballers.
Instead we were greeted by a cold receptionist. “I don’t know anything about these tickets everyone is asking about. You must have a contact number or something.”
A rock hit the bottom of my stomach. What if the ticket arrangements Jakob had made were all a fraud. The day flashed before my eyes and I saw us sitting in a bland pub watching the game go by on a screen instead of amongst 70 000 roaring fans.
We turned away from the dismissive receptionist and took in the room behind us. Every bench, chair, and stool was filled with middle aged men wearing Arsenal colours and worried grimaces. Ah looks like we found the right place after all.
A half hour later, a ticket agent appeared and every set of shoulders relaxed. I was shocked to find my name actually printed on my ticket. Hopefully the personalized detail doesn’t mean that they have already looked into my personal fan history and black listed me.
The next few hours were a whirlwind of Munich beer halls. Each one was filled with long wooden tables and benches. So finding table for four was unheard of, and making friends with your tablemates was a necessity. First, we met Hans and Fritz (who knows what their real names were), who must have been twin brothers and both long-time Bayern fans. Despite the difference in our allegiances and languages, raised glasses were frequent and jokes were non-stop. By the time we parted ways I had seen photos of Hans’ most recent tropical vacation, his kids, and his dog. At the next beer hall we finally found some more Arsenal supporters from outside the UK including Austria, Macedonia, Belgium, and Russia.
As we left behind the warmth of the beer halls and began the hour long journey to the stadium we were engulfed in a sea of red jerseys (since Arsenal and Munich share the same colour scheme.) Much like during a religious war, the only way to tell friend from foe was by which songs they sang. I munched on a donut while KC filled me in on the horror stories of European fan rivalries gone wrong.
“People actually hate each other…people get beat up for wearing the wrong colours…people die.”
As the night progressed, I became increasingly certain that the same aggression that once fuelled Europe’s violent history is now poured out in to the football stadium. The similarities continued: The number of women I saw in line for the game must have matched the number of women who crossdressed as knights in the thirteenth century. The amount of land gained by each elbow jab in the entry line couldn’t be much less than that gained in World War I. The fury of the fans after a failed attempt on goal was certainly no different than the average round of heckling before an eighteenth century execution.
Most of all I couldn’t understand why everyone was so angry all the time. Sure our team lost 5-1 in the end. But foul language and hand gestures abounded, even while the score was tied! For a night so highly anticipated, it really seemed like everyone was having quite an awful time. I looked over at Jakob, who was still standing with his hands by his chin holding the last shreds of his birthday wish for a win. I hope he’s not regretting all the effort that it took to get into this game. One look at his face as we left and I knew that fleeting thought had been ridiculous.
“Can you believe how loud that crowd was? Wasn’t Arsenal’s goal amazing? It wasn’t a great goal. But that moment. That was amazing. I am so glad we came to this game. This was the best day of my life. The only day that will be better is the day I become a father.”
Ok one thing at a time honey. Let me just focus on becoming a soccer fan first, because I think I’ve almost got that figured out.
Now who were we playing again?
Except for one 10 minute wait to get into a palace in Vienna, we waltzed freely into every tourist trap or treasure with little to no wasted time!
The epic pre-walking tour bundle.
There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a medieval knight than spending half-an-hour layering pants, sweaters, scarves and mittens (yes, I even layer my mittens) before heading to the nearest castle.
No strangers in my pictures.
In the winter you can actually snap shots of iconic castles, famous graffitied walls, and beautiful bridges without Wanda World Traveler or Sandy Snap-Happy messing up your perfect shot.
Who visits northern Hungary in January? Only the bravest souls. So Airbnb hosts and hostels have to pay their guests to stay. We found a beautiful quiet room in the centre of Budapest (surrounded by more restaurants and bars than we could count) for €15 a night–that’s a quarter of the summer price! What a steal.
If you are traveling Europe in the winter, you will not get to choose when to take sightseeing breaks. No, you will be forced to seek refuge at your body’s discretion. The good news is there are more hot alcoholic drink options than you can count. My favourite, so far, is rum and Early Grey tea. I kid you not, the cup was so hot I had to set it on the floor for a bit while carrying it to my table.
Ever wondered what it feels like to be a medieval peasant? Take a three hour walking tour in minus fifteen degrees and helplessly watch as sleet begins to fall from the sky.
Window seat views.
Nothing is so beautiful as a snow capped Slovakian mountain or an ice crusted German forest, especially when they can be experienced from the warmth and comfort of a bus or train. Summer tourists may find public transport or travel days inconvenient, but winter travellers know how to count their blessings.
In Poland, Christmas cheer stretches on into January. So if you haven’t had enough of Christmas carols and evergreen boughs you will find plenty of both in most town squares and some restaurants.
Ice skating and sledding.
Choose an iconic building and then instead of paying the entrance fee, go skating or sledding in front of it!Here are just a few of the winter fun locations we noticed or experienced:
Warsaw, Poland – Palace of Art and Science and old town square both have picture perfect rinks.
Krakow – Galeria Krakowska near the old town.
Prague – Any one of these eight great options.
Kassel, Germany – Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (Here I speak from experience)
Slovakia – A short walk off of almost any roadway in the beautiful High Tatras mountains
Pat yourself on the back, you could be laying on a beach in Thailand, trying to surf in Australia, or tasting exotic food in India, but instead you are carrying a feather light backpack (since you are wearing every piece of your clothing) and wondering if these castle grounds would be prettier in the summer. You have chosen the road less travelled (at least this time of year) and for that you should be proud! Locals will smile and thank-you for gracing them with your off-season presence. Every restaurant server will forgive your inability to speak their language (due to your incessant shivering). Congratulations, you have earned yourself a travel badge…now get yourself to Istanbul.
Sometimes Germany can be disorienting. On our first morning in the country, Jakob rolled over, put his arm around me and said “where’s Meghan?” I paused for a moment…do I really need to tell him that I am Meghan? Wait, who does he think is sharing his bed?!?! I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, “um, babe, I am Meghan.” Groggily he replied, “haha oh ya, I know” and rolled back over. I didn’t press the issue any further.
The following six days were a whirlwind of delicious food, chocolate, sight-seeing, chocolate, drinks, chocolate, and best of all, quality time with our German ‘relatives.’ It was over eight years ago when we first met the occasionally awkward and always eager Jakob Peter (from here on spelled Yakob to avoid confusion). We were in grade 11 and he was an exchange student living at Jakob’s house. Since then, we have always known that we have a second home in central Germany.
For our first day, the entire family took time off from their tree nursery and apple juice business to show us around the region. As we hiked a 7 km trail along Germany’s second largest lake and up to an imposing castle, there was much discussion amongst the Peter family. While exploring the castle the debate continued. When we were waiting for our schnitzel and flammkuchen at the local brew pub—more deliberation. Finally Yakob sighed and switched into English for our convenience. “Your hot potato salad is causing a lot of problems.” Yakob’s mom, Ulrich immediately shook her head and insisted “No, no, it is not a problem!” I was momentarily confused. Potato salad? The pieces came together in my brain: that morning, over a luxurious breakfast, I had mentioned that the delicious hot potato salad his grandmother had made six years ago still regularly appeared in my daydreams. Clearly, that was not taken as a casual compliment, but as a mandate for tomorrow night’s dinner.
The issue arose again when Yakob, Jakob, and I were perched on the heated window seat in Oma and Opa Potato Salad’s home later that evening. We had already stuffed ourselves at the brew pub, but that didn’t stop them from bringing out a ceaseless flow of champagne, cheese, munchies, and did I mention chocolate? While Yakob effortlessly translated stories of war, immigration, and travel, Oma and Opa bridged the language barrier with a raised champagne glass and a hearty “Auf Canada!” Brimming with champagne, the potato salad popped into my mind again. I turned to Yakob with enthusiasm, “you should tell your Oma how much I love her potato salad!” Any sign of laughter disappeared from his face and his voice dropped to a serious tone “No, do NOT tell her that. She will start making it right now. She will work on that potato salad all night if she knows that you want it.” I took another swig of champagne and kept my mouth shut. That night I slept very well and dreamt of forbidden potato salad.
The next day, we woke up with a clear plan: massive breakfast, drive to Kassel, art museum, Grimm’s Fairy Tale museum, drive home, massive dinner. Simple, straight forward and clearly designed to keep both the foodie (Jakob) and the historian (me) quiet and happy. The plan hit an unexpected high point just after the art museum when Yakob put his glowing smile to work and managed to snag an empty garbage bag from a server at the museum coffee shop. Then we hustled out to the massive icy hill bridging the halls of culture with the chilly parking lot. A few minutes later, we were hurtling down the hill squealing and trying to keep our butts on the insufficient bag. Jakob’s portion turned into something shaped more like a thong, and we lost Yakob half way down the hill, but my ride was reasonably comfortable.
The plan hit an unexpected low point about twenty minutes later when Yakob’s overly enthusiastic parking job put a sizable gash in the front right tire of Oma Potato Salad’s car. I bit my tongue as The Men set to work figuring out if there was a spare tire. I continued to stay out of the way for the next forty minutes as they attempted to insert tire sealant into the hole using a combination of thigh squeezing, pen poking, and blowing…yes all those things…I am not going to give any more details. Finally, they got tired of having an audience and urged me to go ahead into the Grimm’s museum. With little protest, I obliged. Later as we trekked through the snowy darkness from a deserted train platform to the distant lights of home (reminder: the plan was the DRIVE home) images of Hansel and Grettle played in my mind. Even if our foolproof plan had been derailed as least we weren’t going to get turned into witch’s stew.
We didn’t get into hot water until a couple of days later when we reached the big city: Berlin. It was our first day of sight seeing and I could barely contain my enthusiasm (inner dialogue: wall, wall, wall, we are going to see the wall)! A few stops into our transit ride, a couple of big men wearing fur hats entered the metro. They were tourists just like us and they asked Yakob for some directions in heavily accented English (were they Russian? Or Polish maybe? No definitely Russian). The friendly interaction was interrupted when a man looking for spare change wandered to our side of the metro car. Most of our fellow commuters averted their eyes, but one of the Russian tourists didn’t follow suit. He aggressively approached the panhandler and began a loud lecture in Russian, well one word was in English and it started with an “F.” His tone quieted again and he placed a coin in the man’s cup. Strange. Then, out of no where, he became angry once more, lunging at the man and pushing him with both hands. I inhaled quickly, bracing myself for escape. Yakob, who was positioned almost between the two men, moved slightly as if to intervene, but after reassessing the size of the Russian, he remained frozen in his seat. Just as my fight-or-flight response was kicking into high gear, the transit police arrived, and calmly diffused the situation. Fewf, I would much rather learn about international confrontations and aggressions from the safety of a memorial panel and accompanying video.
Later that night (or I guess early the next morning to be more precise) we found ourselves once again in a Hansel and Gretel situation. Yakob had insisted that German currywurst can only be properly enjoyed at 6 or 7 am after a successful night out getting to know Berlin’s wilder side. We were eager to appear less married and boring than we really are, but realistically we knew that this could only end one way. Yes, it ended with us on a street corner somewhere on the East side. Our coats smelled like cigarettes, my hair smelled like cigarettes, oh barf, I just needed to get home and take a shower. It was 3 am and the familiar metro lines had stopped running two hours ago. After a discussion about the pros and cons of walking the 7km back to our apartment (possible mugging on unknown streets vs. guaranteed health benefits of a brisk nighttime hike) we managed to stumble into a wifi zone where the internet fairies found us a bus that magically arrived in 5 minutes whisking us to our destination with no transfers and barely a 10 minute walk on the other side. We were more than happy to indulge in a currywurst later that day (after a long nap) at the respectable hour of 6pm.
Before you end up thinking that we spent all of our days in Germany fending off witches’ cauldrons and flat tires, I must emphasize the overwhelming hospitality of Yakob’s family. His parents, Ulrich and Heinrich and sister Eva treated us to all of the best German foods. There were no fewer than six cheeses to choose from at breakfast and an even greater number of jams/spreads. Our parting dinner might not have been potato salad, but we did get to try the amazing German dish: rouladen (rolled beef stuffed with pickles, onions, and mustard). In Berlin, we enjoyed a luxurious stay at Yakob’s aunt’s condo in the French quarter. We can’t thank our German family enough for their hospitality and warmth. So glad that awkward eager boy walked into our grade eleven class 8 years ago…now let’s see if Jakob and I can manage to travel without him.