Thursday, December 31, 2009


Ampelmännchen, little traffic light men, are a Berlin phenomenon. In 1961, a traffic psychologist introduced the first pedestrian signals in East Berlin. The desgin was created because road-users react more quickly to appealing symbols.

Prior to German reunification in 1990, the two Germanys had different Ampelmännchen. It's a generic human figure in West Germany while in East Germany the figure wears a hat.

After unification in 1990 there were attempts to standardise all traffic signs to the West German standard. The East German lights were dismantled and replaced. This led to calls to save the East German Ampelmännchen as a part of East German culture. In 2005, the little man in the hat made his return to East Berlin.

The Ampelmännchen is one of the few features of communist East Germany to have survived the Iron Curtain. Ampelmännchen has acquired cult status and is a popular souvenir item in Ampelmännchen stores.

There are currently three Ampelmännchen variations in Germany. The old East German version, the old West German version, and a pan-German Ampelmännchen that was introduced in 1992. Every German state gets to decide which version to use.

Update: In Dresden, they also have Ampelfrauen.

Berlin, Germany

On the 28th, Marcus and I took a sleeper train to Berlin. We got on the train at around 1 AM and arrived at the new Berlin station at 9 AM. Claudia met us at the platform and we immediately started checking out the sights.

We stayed with Claudia's family in East Berlin. This was very surreal for me. I mean, I grew up during the Cold War. When I enlisted in the Air Force, the Berlin Wall was still up and East Germany was a separate country. Now I live in the Czech Republic and go on vacation to East Berlin. It's amazing what 20 years can do.

Berlin is Germany's capital and has about 3.4 million people. There is so much so see and do here that in 6 days we only got through about 1/3rd of our list. But most of the tourist stuff was closed for two days for New Year's. I can't wait to go back again this year. This is a city I would not mind living in one day.
I'll have to make lots of separate blog entries for Berlin. I've loaded up almost 950 pictures on Flickr but it will take a while before I get all of the descriptions added. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights.

The Brandenburg Gate is one of the main symbols of Berlin and Germany. It was built between 1788 - 1791. There used to be 18 city gates but this is the only remaining one. On top of the gate is the Quadriga sculpture, a horse-drawn chariot piloted by the winged goddess of victory. During the Cold War it sat in no-man's land between West and East Germany.

KaDeWe – or "Kaufhaus Des Westens" is the most famous shopping center in Berlin. It is over 100 years old and with 7 floors it is the 2nd largest in Europe (after Harrods in London).

The Berliner Dom is an ornate Protestant cathedral located on the river Spree.

Nicholas Quarter, Nikolaivertel, is Berlin's oldest quarter and dates back to 1237. It is named after St. Nicholas Church which stands in the center of the neighborhood.
The Gendarmenmarkt is a very cool square. It was named after Gens d'Armes, a Prussian regiment consisting of French Huguenot immigrants. Local Huguenots worshipped at the Französischer Dom (French Cathedral). On the opposite side is the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral) [in the picture]. Between the two cathedrals is the Berlin Konzerthaus. Here was one of the only Christmas markets open after December 24th.
The Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall) is in the center of the city. It was built in 1860 and is the office of the mayor and senators.

The Cathedral of St. Hedwig is Berlin's Roman Catholic cathedral on the Bebelplatz. It was built in the 18th century as the first Catholic church in Prussia after the Protestant Reformation. Across the Bebelplatz is where the Nazis burned books in 1938 on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).

The Fernsehturm (TV Tower), built in 1969, is the tallest structure in Germany at 368 meters (1,207 feet).

At Alexanderplatz is the World Time Clock. It weighs over 16 tons and features the world's 24 time zones. On top of the clock is a model of the solar system that revolves once per minute.

The Reichstag has been the seat of the Bundestag (German parliament). In 1999, the 1894 building was completely renovated and a glass dome was added.

On the other side of the Tiergarten is the Holocaust Memorial. "Stelen" is made up of 2,711 gray stone slabs. Across the street is the Gay Holocaust Memorial.

This building, the Stasi Museum, was one of the most hated in East Germany. The State Security Service, or Stasi, was responsible for intelligence gathering abroad and at home by spying on its own citizens.

The Checkpoint Charlie Museum focuses on the history surrounding the Berlin Wall, including an exhibit of instruments people used to escape. Again, very interesting for an ex-military "cold war kid".

The East Side Gallery is a mile-long stretch of the Berlin Wall. It's one of the largest remaining portions of the former divide between East and West Germany.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saint Stephen's Day

December 26th is Saint Stephen's Day (the 2nd day of Christmas) here.

It commemorates Sv. Štěpán - the first Christian martyr. He was the first to exclaim Christ as the Messiah and, as a result, was stoned to death.

St. Stephen's Day is celebrated as Boxing Day in the UK and Canada.

Today's the day when children, students, teachers, and the poor would go around to people's homes singing Christmas carols. The caroling would last until January 6th, the Feast of the Three Kings, which is the end of the Christmas season. That's when the Christmas trees and decorations are taken down until the following year.

Nowadays, families relax at home or visit friends and relatives.

The popular Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" is about a king who goes out to give alms to the poor on St. Stephen's Day. The legend is based on St. Václav I.  Here's a video I found of the carol on YouTube.

The city has been kind of a ghost town the last couple of days. Everything, including grocery stores, has been closed. On the 24th, Inter-Spar was the only market open. Today, most everything is still closed but you could start to see some people out on the streets. Inter-Spar and Billa were the only markets open today.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day

Today is what I'd call Christmas Day.  In the Czech Republic, Christmas runs over 24 December (vánoce), 25 December (první vánoční svátek),  and 26 December (druhý vánoční svátek) - respectively Christmas, then the first and second Christmas holidays.

The 25th is also referred to as the Christmas Feast (Boží hod vánoční) and the 26th is also known as St. Stephen's Day (Sv. Štěpán).

Traditionally, both days are characterized by family visits and festive meals. The customary meal is baked goose or duck with cabbage and dumplings. Although turkey is becoming a popular substitute here.

At the Christmas Day meal, a place is left empty in case the Christ Child arrives for dinner.

It has snowed here for the last few weeks. Go figure, that on the 23rd, it warmed up enough for all of the snow to melt. So much for having a white Christmas. Dang it!

I didn't feel like dealing with a tree this year. Pine needles all over the floor would drive me crazy. So add some stars, lights and a tree skirt to existing home decor and presto...I have my very own Czech "Charlie Brown Christmas tree."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

In Czech Republic, and Slovakia, there are three distinct days to the holidays over here. The 24th is Christmas Eve (Štědrý den), the 25th is Christmas Day (první vánoční svátek), and the 26th is St. Stephen's Day (druhý vánoční svátek).

Today is the last day of the Christmas market.

Czechs decorate the Christmas tree during the day (December 24th) or the day before. The tree will stay up until January 6th for the Feast of the Three Kings.

Many families choose to fast until evening. Children are told that if they are able to wait until the evening meal that they will see a golden pig on the wall, which brings luck.

After dark, families sit down to a traditional dinner of fish soup and fried carp with potato salad (made with carrots, peas, pickles, celery, onion, eggs and mayonnaise).

A few days before Christmas Eve, huge barrels, with live carp swimming around in them, showed up in town. The buyer points to the fish he/she wants and takes it home. Most often the carp is taken home alive and allowed to swim in the bathtub until the morning of the 24th. I think I would freak out if I went to someone's house and saw a fish swimming around in the bathtub.
A common tradition here is to put a fish scale under the dinner plate, or in one's wallet, in order to have enough money in the upcoming year.

After Christmas Eve dinner comes the unwrapping of the presents. According to tradition, the presents were put silently under the tree by Ježíšek, the little baby Jesus.

It used to be St. Nicholas who distributed the presents. But during the 19th century the German tradition of the little baby Jesus was adopted by the Czechs. Today, Czech kids take advantage of both traditions by receiving gifts from both Ježíšek and Mikuláš.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Markets

What's cool about this time of year in Europe are all of the Christmas markets. Most of the big cities have some sort of market that runs from the end of November until December 24th.

There are lots of stalls with vendors selling all kinds of Christmas ornaments, ceramics, candles, toys, jewelry, clothes, & handmade crafts. There are also nativity scenes and normally some kind of train for the kids. This is a great way to do a little bit of shopping without stepping foot in the stores.

There are also lots of food stalls with people selling candy, gingerbread, sausages, bramborák (potato and garlic fried as a flat cake) and trdelník (soft yeast dough which is wrapped around a hot metal pin and fried into a cylinder, then rolled in ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar.)

And believe it or not...Czechs don't drink beer at the market. It's easy to warm up in the cold weather with some vánoční punč (Christmas punch), svařak (hot mulled wine) or medovina (a hot honey wine). The vánoční punč and svařak are my favorites. I'm not a big fan of the medovina. Since the cold will be here until February, I think the punč and svařak should stick around too!
I made it to see the Christmas markets in Brno, Prague, Milan, Vienna and Bratislava. For some reason Berlin is the only place where the market runs until January so I'll get to see that one as well before New Year's. Vienna's was the best. Austria has pumped millions of euros in to the market this year and it was absolutely incredible. Prague's was nice too. Brno's was cool beacause it had things going on in three different squares. Plus it never got so crowded that you couldn't stand it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday Card

You can't purchase boxes of holiday cards here like you can in the U.S.
You have to purchase each card individually (and then there's the $1 per card for air mail). So this year, everyone is getting a "green" holiday e-card.

Click to play this Smilebox greeting: Czech Holiday Card

Monday, December 21, 2009


On Saturday night, Claudia and I went to see Louskáček (The Nutcracker) at Janáčkovo divadlo - Brno's largest theater.

Claudia's friend Helena is a friend of the principle dancer's mom. So we were able to score some great tickets...second row, center.

The performance was incredible! This is a very international troupe with dancers from Czech Republic, Australia, Serbia, Korea, Brazil and Japan. People regularly come from Vienna just to see the performances here and I can see why. This was one of the best performances I'd ever seen.

It was also a lot of fun getting all dressed up and going out. I can't wait for mid-January when the theater will put on a production of Carmen - my favorite opera.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Secret Santa

On Wednesday, we had a little "secret santa" gift exchange at work. You were given a random name and had to give a gift with a 100 Kč (~$5.50) maximum value.

It was fun to see what everyone got. I have no idea of who got my name but he or she did great! Someone either knows, or found out, that I can cook and got me an apron. I wonder if this was a hint to cook more or just to be sure to bring food to work more often? Either way, I really like my apron. Thanks!!

Friday, December 18, 2009

1st Snow

While at work on Wednesday I got my first Czech snow. It had actually already snowed one day in Brno back in November but I missed it while I was in England.

Here are some pictures taken from my balcony on Thursday morning. Thursday got down to -6° C (21 ° F). The snow looks really pretty and it is already more than cold enough for me. I've been told that this is nothing compared to what it will be like here in January and February. I hope that I survive the cold!!!