23 December, 2011

2011, AKA "The Rollercoaster"

I can’t believe that Christmas is upon us.  In a couple of days I’ll be sitting down to feast after feast, coming down from a post present opening frenzy.  I received a gorgeous letter from my great aunt today, with all the news of her year, and it made me reflect on everything that has happened in my own life this year.

It’s been a year of the lowest lows and the highest possible highs.  I’ve been to places I never thought I would get to and seen some of the most spectacular sights imaginable. Here’s how it panned out...

I welcomed in the new year with Maarten and friends, watching the neighbourhood fireworks display (as it’s legal to buy fireworks in the weeks leading up to New Year), then on New Year’s Day, Maarten braved the infamous New Year’s Dive.  This year they had cut a hole in the ice and he had to jump in and climb out of the frozen swimming pool.  We then went home and celebrated with the family by eating Oliebollen and Boerenkool and I made my epic “Ik kom klaar”   comment to the grandparents.
The hole in the ice for the New Year's Dive
 January marked the first of our new years resolution trips abroad - to Ghent which I loved and then February we made the trip to Berlin.  I was lucky enough to visit the Berlin Zoo and see poor Knut only a few weeks before he died.  March was Carnaval in Maastricht and a trip of a lifetime to Prague.

The three towers of Ghent

Prague city skyline
Through all of this I was noticing some strange happenings within my body, so went to have a check up in Early April, only to find out that I returned a very serious result in a PAP smear, which in turn resulted in an even more serious outcome after a biopsy - severe dysplaysia and surgery pretty much ASAP.  This was the absolute low point for me this year (perhaps even my life so far).  Before I knew what was going on I was terrified.  Of course when confronted with cancer it’s perfectly normal to freak out somewhat, but I think it was the shock that was the hardest to deal with.  Once I had all the information and knew the worst case scenario (a hysterectomy), I could manage and get on with it.

Then, not only was I dealing with the fallout of this news, literally the day before my scheduled surgery, I found out that I was pregnant with Inky.  We then had to dash to the doctor to find out what happens next, and the specialist and oncologist were adamant that the surgery had to progress, it just wasn’t safe to put it off until after the baby was born.  So, we rescheduled, and I went under the knife in August.  

Our first look at Inky
In the mean time, we were still persisting with our monthly trips abroad.  In May we went to Madrid and Segovia, which was probably one of the best trips we made this year.  Segovia was magical with its startling skyline and Madrid was just one of the most amazing cities in Europe.

Stunning Segovia
June took us to Normandy and the stunning Mont St Michel via Le Somme World War I battlefields, Vainstream and Hurricane music festivals and the pregnancy bombshell.

Mont St Michel

In July we (and I mean Maarten’s dad) renovated our bathroom.  It was such a tiring time.  All I wanted to do was sleep, but had to push through and at least pretend I was contributing to the effort!  Our trip abroad was also a bit half-arsed.  We didn’t have the time or the spare money, so we dashed across the border to Aachen for a schnitzel before celebrating a friend’s birthday in Maastricht.  So it still counted!

August saw me taking the train to Paris to meet my oldest friend Fleur, which was just the coolest day ever.  Two girls from Avenue Range living it up in Paris, munching on macarons and sipping champagne.  It was such a highlight.  The day after I came home from Paris I checked into the hospital for the surgery and then a couple of weeks later was given the all-clear.  No cancer and they had been able to cut it all out.

September was holiday month.  We booked a ten day trip to Crete and it was just wonderful.  We stayed just outside Hersonissos and made the island our own.  Maarten surprised me with an early Christmas present on the second last day - a trip to Santorini!  Sadly one day just isn’t enough to appreciate it and I just can’t wait to go back.  

The view from our hotel, Crete
The beach at Agios Pavlos, Crete
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
By the time October rolled around I was really starting to feel my pregnancy.  Tiring easily and trying not to be too much of a dragon (that is sometimes a losing battle!).  For our weekendje weg, we went to Antwerpen, which is a beautiful city, just an absolute bitch to get around/into.  Driving the ring road is like running a gauntlet, you just never know when your number’s up.  Getting into the city itself is just as big a nightmare.  A maze of one way systems and no parking (obviously an exaggeration).  Once you’re in, it’s wonderful though.  The train station is listed as one of the top five most beautiful stations in the world and the city is just lovely to try and get lost in.  But the traffic was just way too stressful for me, and I don’t want to go back.

In November I realised that my pregnancy was just flying by - I cracked the third trimester!  Inky has been growing and making herself known all the time.  Our second last trip was to Barcelona - an absolute flying city visit.  We saw the high points and enjoyed Siesta and then came home again.  It was a taster really, but enough for me to well and truly fall in love with the city and start dreaming of a return trip.

It was also about this time that my body started to pack up on me.  A mad dash to the hospital (seriously, I’ve been there so often this year I must be on their Christmas card list) saw me kept in for a couple of days for observation and the decision was made by the doctors that I had to stop working, the stress was just too much and I was at risk of going into premature labour.  At twenty nine weeks, was the last thing I wanted to hear, so since then I’ve been ensconced on my couch day in day out, with only the occasional trip out the door to run errands.  

At first I thought I would go a bit mad, but now I’m used to it and am starting to like it.  You’d think that because I’m home all day the house would be spotless, the washing and ironing would be done and I’d be well up to date on current affairs, but no!  Inky’s bedroom however, is ready for its new tenant and I spend quite a bit of time in there just marvelling at the idea of a baby moving in in about seven weeks from today.  Seven weeks!

Today I’m sitting down preparing for Christmas.  All the presents are wrapped and under the tree and I’m menu planning for our Boxing Day feast.  It’s also our last child-free Christmas and I just know that Christmases from now on are going to be so different and much more fun.

I can’t wait for 2012 to get cracking.  One of my dearest friends is coming from Australia and will celebrate New Year with us, my mum arrives in about three weeks time and Inky could appear at any moment.  Then my dad is coming in March.  2012 is going to be the best year ever.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Tell me about your highs and lows in 2011.  Has it been the rollercoaster ride I’ve had?

11 December, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Christmas Markets, Cologne

I can’t believe that it’s December already?  Where did this year go?

We’ve just come home from our very last Weekendje Weg for the year.  That makes it twelve, yes twelve planned trips abroad this year, one a month (actually it worked out to be more, but we’ll stick to twelve for the purposes of this post) every month since January.  Needless to say, I’m pretty chuffed with the achievement.

This month is Christmas Market month in Germany and it’s basically compulsory that we visit at least one every year.  In the past we have been to Muenster, Essen and Aachen, and this year we decided to brave Cologne.  So did the rest of the free world, apparently.

Getting to Cologne was a breeze.  Couple of hours on the freeway and traffic (for a change) was quite reasonable, plus the weather was perfect.  We found a park within minutes and were in amongst it almost straight away.

What I hadn’t counted on was the crowds.  Obviously I expected the city to be busy, it’s the lead up to Christmas after all, but oh my goodness.  There was a couple of protest groups on the Dom square and just getting into the market at the Dom was a nightmare.  Shoving, pushing, shuffling, and just general antisocial behaviour.  Before I had even looked at a stall I was fed up.

We took some time out by visiting the Dom.  The Cologne cathedral is reportedly the tallest gothic structure in the world and wow!  I had to crane my neck to see the top, and couldn’t fit it all into one frame on my camera.  And inside, it was just as impressive.  Although it was almost as busy in there as it was outside in the Christmas markets!  Still, well worth the visit.  Next time I’ll make sure I go in January when it’s very cold and on a Monday.  Just to appreciate it better!

The Cologne Cathedral.  Massive.

Couldn't even get half of it in the frame!
Purely by coincidence a big group of my friends were also visiting Cologne for the Christmas Markets, so we had big plans to meet up somewhere, but after being shoved around at the third market (as they’re dotted all over the city centre) I had had enough.  I shouted at a French guy who took the levels of crowd etiquette too far and realised that it was time to go. We never did find a place to rendezvous, but I'm sure they had a fabulous time!

We decided to head back to our hotel in Neuss for some relaxation time and brave the Christmas market there later in the evening instead.  We booked a room at the Mecure Hotel in Neuss via our new favourite booking site, hotelspecials.nl for the princely sum of 59 euros for two including breakfast.  I like to reflect on how we’ve progressed this year, beginning in Ghent at a Formule 1 Hotel and ending in Neuss in a Mecure.

The hotel itself was really comfortable.  We were in a bed that was actually one bed, rather than two pushed together (which is something very common in Germany and the Netherlands I find) and although the room was small, it wasn’t Barcelona small and it had all the necessary trimmings.  Breakfast was fabulous, with a huge selection of food on offer.  I managed to gorge myself, as usual!

In the evening we headed into Neuss, which incidentally claims the title of “Germany’s oldest city,” as it’s built on a former Roman settlement to have some dinner and check out the Christmas market there.  The market was so much more civilised.  There were less stalls though, but more food.  And the people were all really enjoying their gluhwein and the live music.  The scene fit the definition of “Gezellig” in my eyes perfectly.  

We ate at the Haus am Markt, which was very busy and the food and service was really very good.  Even though it seemed to be booked out (Christmas parties), they managed to squeeze us in without any trouble  The table next to us all ordered steaks (out with Grandma, who was most likely paying the bill!) that looked so good my mouth watered.  I’m now counting the days until I have my baby, just so I can have a mammouth piece of steak with a glass of Coonawarra Cabernet.  I could have ordered steak, but I couldn’t face ruining it by having it served well done.

So, back to the Christmas market, and the entire point of this particular weekendje weg.  What did I think, really?  Well, Cologne is much too big and there are just too many tourists there for my liking.  I find at smaller markets (like Muenster or Essen), the crowds are mostly German, and incredibly polite.  There is sometimes a bit of pushing, but it’s usually just at the entrances and exits.  Inside, everyone knows the rules (stay to the right, don’t push and don’t stop without stepping out of the way a bit first).  However, at Cologne it was one big free-for-all and really not enjoyable for me.  I enjoyed it so little, I did not spend one cent.  Nothing (lunch and gluhwein for Maarten doesn’t count, obviously).

If I decide to go back to a market next Christmas, it will most definitely be to a smaller city.  Maybe back to Aachen (my favourite German city).  Or perhaps we’ll brave Dortmund (with Europe’s tallest Christmas tree).  It’s even more likely that I’ll be chained to the house with a nine month old child...!

Have you been to the German Christmas markets in Cologne or somewhere else?  What did you think?  Where’s a location that you would recommend?

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