Below, the black-white map of north Germany was growing smaller. Here and there a village or small town glittered with lights. The carol singers would be out, knocking on the holly-studded doors to sing Stille Nacht and collect pfennigs for charity. The Westphalian housewives would be preparing hams and geese.
Four hundred miles ahead of me the story would be the same, the carols in my own language but many of the tunes the same, and it would be turkey instead of goose. But whether you call it Weihnacht or Christmas, it’s the same all over the Christian world, and it was good to be going home.
— The Shepherd, Frederick Forsyth
In Frederick Forsyth’s tiny novel, a young pilot flies his De Havilland Vampire jet fighter home on Christmas Eve. Set in 1957, the year I was born, it is a haunting yet endearing tale.
Forsyth’s pilot flies from Celle, Germany, to RAF Lakenheath, England. When I first read The Shepherd in 1976, I was entranced by Forsyth’s description of Christmas Eve over northern Europe.
Swinging over Celle airfield at 5,000 feet, I straightened up and watched the needle on my electric compass settle happily down on a course of 265 degrees. The nose was pointing toward the black freezing vault of the night sky, studded with stars so brilliant they flickered their white fire against the eyeballs. Below, the black-ad-white map of north Germany was growing smaller, the dark masses of the pine forests blending into the white expanses of the fields.
It made me want to visit Germany in Christmas time. I have no ties there, no relatives. I just wanted to see the famous Christmas Markets, try the traditional Wesphalian hams and geese.
Now, 34 years later, … .
It was snowing when I stepped out of Cologne’s Hauptbahnhof. Outside the train station, famous Köln Cathedral loomed up into the snowfall. Pure magic.
This was the only building in Cologne that survived World War II. The Christmas Market nearby had live bands under the tallest tree in all of Rhineland.
Then there was the ham.
Westphalian schinken was everything I wanted! Crisp, juicy, just short of being sharply salty. I wolfed serving after serving. The bread went to the birds.
Forsyth didn’t write about glühwein! Mulled red wine, steaming with spices, cinnamon, cloves, vanilla.
Glühwein made me glow with warmth, as advertised!
Each Christmas Market had its own unique glühwein mug — the twin-spired one of the Weihnachtsmarkt at the famous Cologne cathedral; the white Engel mug from Cologne’s Neumarkt; the round fat pot from Bonn, the embossed classic from the Heurmarkt in Köln Altstadt; and Berlin’s lavishly decorated mug from the Gendarmenmarkt.
Christmas crafts were on sale everywhere. Most amazing were the glass globes decorated inside with magical winter and Christmas scenes. How do they do that?!
Cologne had not one Weihnachtsmarkt, but five. My favorite was the Heurmarkt, in the old town, Köln Altstadt.
Cologne was minus 5 Celsius that night, and snowing.
Bonn is only 10 minutes away from Cologne by train. Of course I had to see John Le Carre’s Small Town in Germany. It had a petite, quaint Christmas Market.
I hurried through Bonn’s Weihnachtsmarkt, buffeted by heavy snow.
I did get a few mementos, including a tin airplane carousel.
Then there was Berlin. I am entranced with Berlin, its history, its ghosts and the line of bricks that run across the city — the trace of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt was upscale and brutally cold. Copious amounts of glühwein and Euro bills solved both problems.
Scratch two more items off my Bucket List. Westphalian ham, a white Christmas (well, a week before) and Germany’s Christmas Markets.
Traveling across frozen Germany by train was a fortuitous choice. Airliners were grounded, but I rode in a Deutsch Bahn carriage with uninterrupted cell phone and wireless internet … at over 200 kilometers an hour.
Magical as northern Europe was, “Eurowinter” and its sub-zero temperatures is certainly not home. As I write this, now on home leave with my sons, a dear pilot friend is prepping a new Airbus A320 in Toulouse for a ferry flight home. He was stranded for two days in Schipol and Charles de Gaulle due to severe winter weather, and will barely make the ferry flight home by Christmas Eve.
To Windwalker – my flying mentor and ‘Shepherd’ — and to all our other readers and contributors, come home safely to a blessed and safe Christmas.
Posted from Manila, December 23, 2010