404 2013 December

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Thanksgiving abroad, done right

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. As an expat, though, it can be difficult. Work continues as normal, shops are open, and no one seems to care about turkey, black friday, or American traditions. Well, that is everyone except for other expats and some people in the city of Leiden, NL.

For a little background on how Thanksgiving, Leiden, the Travel Turtle family, and the Three Under family decided to hang out together check out my post from last Wednesday, The Most American Thanksgiving.

One thing you might not know reading that post is that I was nervous. Again, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I was really worried that the choices we made for last Thursday were going to leave me homesick for the U.S. I worried things might border on tacky, or exhausting, or a sad combination of both.

I’ve never been so wrong.

Pieterskirk Special Thanksgiving Service

It was like a dream. Here I was, an expat listening to a Thanksgiving service, in English, on Thanksgiving Day, surrounded by other Americans (and, at the very least, others who wanted to acknowledge a foreign holiday on a Thursday afternoon), while in the Netherlands, home of the Pilgrim’s first expat experience was pinch-me perfect. I think Farrah, from the Three Under, used the word camaraderie, and that was exactly what it was.

The kids surprised me. They did great.

For those with young children considering the Thanksgiving service in Leiden in the future, know this: it’s child friendly. It’s full, but it’s not crowded. When my one-year old was tired of sitting quietly, we headed to the very back of the church where she walked around quietly with other small kids.

After the service, the church offered cookies and drinks. Amongst the choices: snickerdoodles! turkey shaped frosted sugar cookies! speculoos!

 

Thanksgiving dinner at the Holiday Inn, Leiden

Most of my 30+ Thanksgiving dinners have been in the comfort of someone’s home. One exception was a trip I took to London in my 20s (so much fun!). Another was the year I visited my grandmother in Massachusetts and she opted to go out to eat instead of cook. That one did not go so well. The restaurant overbooked, we waited and waited, then felt rushed. The food was, well, boring. If you imagine the minimal items you need to make a Thanksgiving dinner, that’s what we had. On top of this, it was crowded and hard to enjoy each other because no one wanted to be there.

My nerves for Thanksgiving day mainly focused on dinner. The Holiday Inn’s Thanksgiving buffet was the only option I saw online for Leiden. (While walking through the city after church I saw at least one other restaurant had a Thanksgiving meal. My internet search prior to the trip found at least two in Amsterdam, which isn’t too far away. For future reference, those were at the Hard Rock Cafe and the American Book Store.)

Back to the Holiday Inn. I wondered, would it be crowded? Would the food be ok? Would it be cheesy? Would it make me homesick because it’s impossible to recreate the feeling of the holiday being far away from home?  How are the kids going to deal with sitting at a restaurant after a day of driving to Leiden, attending a church service, walking all over the city and the museums? Can the Dutch make Thanksgiving not only special to me as I know it to be, but to my kids as well?

My concerns were put to ease immediately.

A friendly host greeted us and walked us past a display of American flags, pumpkins, and other season-appropriate decorations. They brought us to our long table seating 9 people. The first thing I noticed was the space. We weren’t cramped so close to other tables that we had to whisper our conversation. There was a large group of about 18-20 people sitting next to us and we didn’t even notice them.

On the other side of the restaurant there was a small playroom for kids of all ages. In it was a ball pit, an indoor climbing and slide contraptions, and several playstations. Our kids alternated between hanging out at the table and running around in the playroom.

I had low expectations for the food. This particular Holiday Inn has a family buffet night once a week anyway. I worried that it would be a slightly nicer version of that, but still not very good.

I don’t know what their family buffet is like, but this Thanksgiving dinner buffet felt special. Someone took good care in making a bunch of expats feel like they were home. There was an assortment of appetizers (I had the crawfish), soups (clam chowder and pumpkin), a salad bar with a lot of choices (and the best waldorf salad I’ve ever had and can’t believe I didn’t get seconds), as well as all the traditional Thanksgiving fixings, plus sweet and sour chicken, steak, (and who knows what else, I stuck to tradition) and a large variety of Dutch and American desserts (including an ice cream bar).

Everything was delicious. The ham, as always seems to be the case in the Netherlands, was amazing. The only complaint I heard, and agree with, is the stuffing had way too much gizzard and the pieces were way too big.

The buffet started at 6:00 and ended at 9:30. Your table was your table for the night. There was no rush, no lines of people looking in waiting for you to get up so they could sit down. You could do the one thing Thanksgiving is known for – graze. It was, without exaggeration, what Thanksgiving should feel like without all the family drama, loads of dishes, and rush to Target’s Thanksgiving day sales… it was perfect.

Would I do it again? I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

Tips

  • If  you’re an American and anywhere near Leiden for Thanksgiving, please go to the service and this dinner. It’s a really nice way to keep traditions alive while abroad and you’ll still get a cultural experience you would not get at home.
  • The doors to the Pieterskirk open at least an hour before the service starts. Obviously, the earlier you get there, the more choice of seating you get.
  • Our GPS was not working properly in Leiden. In a first for us, there were multiple times we were told to turn onto a street that no longer existed. Thus, the city streets then seemed really confusing.
  • Reserve your table for dinner at the Holiday Inn in advance. We booked at least 2 weeks ahead of time and I noticed that all the tables were reserved.
  • Get the pumpkin pie early. I overheard someone say it’s the first dessert to run out every year. I didn’t go back to check if it was there later, but I wouldn’t take any chances with pumpkin pie.
  • Book a night at the Holiday Inn Leiden. It’s a nice place. Then you can relax before and after your meal without having to drive anywhere.
  • Take Friday off. Part of what helps make Thanksgiving feel like Thanksgiving is the three-day work week.
  • There is an American Pilgrim museum in Leiden that we missed. We didn’t want to push our luck with our kid’s patience and it didn’t seem to be too double stroller friendly. If you don’t have those limitations, go.
  • For more tips on what to do during the day, check out the Three Under for their review of Thanksgiving in Leiden and on instagram: #amostAmericanTgiving

This post is part of the Instagram Travel Thursday linky hosted by Skimbaco LifestyleDestination UnknownChild ModeHines Sight BlogLive.Do.Grow.House of AnaïsLuxury Travel Mom. Click on any of those links to access all Instagram travel posts.car cover porsche 996 4snews release servicesDefender Discovery MS-630 Black-blue

Christmas Markets with young kids

‘ Tis the season for… CHRISTMAS MARKETS!

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Now that we’re in our fourth Christmas season in Germany, we’ve come to look forward to the Christmas markets. We try to see as many as possible. It means a lot of advance planning to get the perfect combination of big city, small city, big market, and small market experiences. I usually rely on recommendations from friends and the information on the major markets on the German Christmas Market website. Don’t worry, my own family-friendly recommendations will be at the end of the post. (Also, updated 9 Dec 2013: I added a chart rating some of the German Christmas markets I’ve been to at the bottom of this post.)

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The wonderful thing about Christmas markets is that there is a little something for everyone. Matching stalls and twinkling lights, selling anything from handmade items to antique treasures to mass-produced decorations, fill the city centers. There’s usually at least one carousel ride for the kids, someone selling large balloons, and maybe even a ferris wheel to see the city from a new perspective. German festival food staples, such as bratwurst, mushrooms in garlic sauce, and fresh waffles and crepes are plentiful. Some markets include food stalls from other countries making it easy to try a variety of food in one place. Then there’s the drinks: beer, glühwein (hot mulled wine), hot chocolate, and kid punch – usually in some cute souvenir cup that’s worth collecting.

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Plus, it’s really inexpensive overall.

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The hardest part, especially for families with young kids, is the crowds.

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But, this isn’t the Black-Friday-snatch-the-last-barbie-doll-before-someone-else-gets-it type of crowd. It’s a community crowd. Young and old, it’s rare to find people who don’t want to be at the Christmas market. It can easily be an all day adventure. People stroll. They grab a small bite, stand at one of the benches, and chat. Check out the vendors, maybe grab a gift or two, and repeat. They keep warm with the drinks. The children ride the carousel. Young kids, snuggled up in their stroller, will likely fall asleep. There’s no rush. So, don’t let the thought of crowds deter you!

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If you’re thinking of going to Germany around Christmastime, it will be almost impossible to avoid the Christmas Market scene. Here are some tips to keep in mind when planning:

  • Though most, if not all, of Germany’s neighboring countries have their own Christmas Markets, German markets are extra special. Markets along the border can get busier during the day and on weekends because of the influx of day-trippers from other countries. There can be smaller crowds at night at those markets.
  • Most markets are located near big shopping areas. Most shopping areas are closed on Sunday.
  • While some vendors accept credit cards, most food and drink vendors do not. Bring plenty of cash.
  • For all drinks there is a deposit, or pfand, on the glass or mug. It’s a fun game to try to figure out which vendor has the best mug at each market. You can keep the mugs, or return them and get your money back.
  • Big cities will usually have multiple markets running at the same time. One that is always fun is the medieval market. The market doesn’t rely on electricity in their stalls for lighting or cooking.
  • If at all possible, stay at a hotel that offers a view of the city.
  • Most markets are free. For those that do charge an entrance fee, it is usually small. The only Christmas Market I remember paying an entrance fee for was the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. It was completely worth it. The white stalls and twinkle lights are beautiful. The market is small compared to others, but with the atmosphere of the grand buildings, the orchestra playing, and the most amazing food I’ve had at any market, it’s a place I want to return to every year.
  • Erfurt’s Christmas Markets are another place worth visiting year after year. There are many markets between the New Town, over the quaint Merchant’s bridge with permanent shops set up on both sides, then down to the very large Domplatz in front of St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus. Erfurt is beautiful throughout the year, but there is definitely magic in the air in December.
  • German Christmas Market season ends December 23. Many neighboring countries will continue their markets until the first week of January. See as much within Germany before they end, then venture to other countries. My favorites are in Antwerp and Edinburgh.
  • Holiday Nomad has a great comprehensive list of specific European markets visited and loved by other travel bloggers. Check it out.

Here’s a photo of my son looking down into Erfurt’s Christmas Market from our room at the Radisson Blu a few years ago.

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Wherever you live, do you have a favorite Christmas celebration?

Updated 9 Dec 2013: I’m including a table rating different Christmas markets I’ve visited on different aspects that I like looking for personally when traveling with my kids. In regards to the column “Stuff for kids” – any high score means that there’s a few rides for kids. Lower scores indicate there are no rides, but it’s possibly still child friendly. A score of 10 would mean that there’s rides as well as a children’s program that we attended.

[table caption=”German Christmas Markets” ]
City, Market Name, Time of Visit, Crowd, Food, Souvenir Mug, Quality of Goods, Atmosphere, Stuff for Kids
Berlin, Gendarmen Markt, Night, 9, 7, 10, 8, 10, 2
Berlin, Gendarmen Markt, Afternoon, 2, 7, 10, 8, 8, 2
Essen, Multiple in the City Center, Afternoon, 5, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7
Essen, Multiple in the City, Night, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 7
Erfurt, Multiple in the City Center, Night, 7, 8, 10, 8, 10, 7
Oberhausen, Centr”O” area, Afternoon, 7, 8, 5, 7, 8, 10*
Düsseldorf, Altstadt and Kö area, Afternoon, 7, 7, 8, 8, 7, 7
Köln, Zentrum/Dom area, Afternoon, 9, 10, 8, 9, 9, 4
[/table]

*Oberhausen’s Centr”O” area has a Sea Life Aquarium and Adventure Park, plus a Legoland Discovery Center. So within the vicinity of the Christmas market there are lots of activities for kids anyway. (But, I do believe they have Christmas market season-only activities for kids, too.)

 G808 JADE