It is that time of the year! Little surprise here, but Christmas is one of my favorite festivals of all time, and my favorite time of the year. I can’t remember when and how exactly my fascination for the festival grew, but it’s been a childhood obsession and has continued steadily into the grown years.
As a child, I would concoct up ways of celebrating this festival, as it was foreign to me and my family and none of us knew exactly how to celebrate it. I made many an ugly tree out of chart paper, wrote many a letter to Santa and wasted kilos of cotton for want of fluffy beards and snow that was otherwise a foreign element.
My closest brush with anything I related to as legitimately Christmas came with our interactions with Issy Sanderson, my father's friend and the wife of the Director of British Council, Chennai in the 90's. She was a British woman and she had the coolest green-framed glasses. Every Christmas season, she created pantomimes for children, in which my father would play a role and my mother would help with sewing costumes. One such year, my father played the role of a priest who comes to bless baby Sleeping Beauty- he would reach into his basket and throw at the audience handfuls of candy in a celebratory gesture. My sister and I went all three days of the showing, just so we could catch those flying candies when the moment came!
The same year, I think, Issy invited us over to her home for a Christmas party. We were to catch a train that evening, possibly to Calcutta, so we made a quick stopover, with baggage et al. I remember being utterly bedazzled when I stepped in and saw a huge, very real Christmas tree in her living room. Next to it was a long table brimming with sweets, candies and everything I ever dreamed of (!) I had never seen such exquisite goodies in my life- only in books that my Uncle brought me from the US, maybe. "Don't be shy, take whatever you like", she said. After much deliberation, I picked up a beautiful little Christmas-tree shaped cookie covered in delicate pastel-coloured icing. I reached for a paper napkin only to be enamoured by it too. It had Victorian-style butterflies illustrated with hints of gold. It was so soft, so delicate and as I placed my cookie on it, and then both on my little palm, I felt like I had the most precious thing in the world. I saved the napkin without using it, and at a later point kept it safely in a book to preserve it. It's still probably there somewhere.
It's funny how impeccably clear these memories seem in the mind, but when I put pen on paper to visualise them, I am at a loss. I drew a blank after many attempts of trying to put a face on these memories. But there lies the beauty. They're like blurry video tapes- mostly faded, but just enough to make your imagination fly.
It's my first Christmas season here in Berlin and a cookie lured me again with the same sense of wonder. The Zimtsterne. There is something so deceptively simple yet whimsical about these cookies. I tried one for the first time at the Weinachtmarkt at the Kulturbrauerei. The star had a thick slab of white on top, which at first I assumed was powdered sugar stacked really neatly, but once I took a bite, it crumbled delicately like freshly fallen snow! Clever meringue. I’m not sure if it's intentional, but these cookies are like little pieces of earth covered in snow. Or as a friend put it, I had caught a falling star. Eitherways, I had to go back and get another.
This Christmas, there is more on my mind. In about a week, I would have finished a year of being in Berlin. What
started out a highly improbable possibility, slowly and steadily became real even as I kept myself in denial until I arrived here just to not get my hopes up. It's been such an adventure that I am so grateful for.
When I first came, I wanted to keep a sketchbook to record all the new and fascinating things I would see. But time flew quickly, with lots happening along the way, and while I drew a thing or two now and then, I hardly found an opportunity to do it regularly.
As a year of Berlin comes to a close, I have been thinking of all those things again. And while I don't have that sketchbook to show, I wanted to remember the excitement this change inspired and to say my thanks. What better way for a year's souvenir than something to enjoy with friends?
Here is my little thank you to Berlin. Moving here has pushed me, pulled, stretched and moved me in ways I did not anticipate- big and small, for work, for play, for everyday. To all the wonderful people I have met so far, who have made me feel at home, extended their warmth and friendship and have made this year unforgettable, ending with a beautiful Christmas. Thank you.
Thanks to Thomas Küber who was the one to tell me about the Zimtsterne and the lovely Carla Gröppel-Wegener who helped me with the perfect recipe to create this.
While the Zimsterne is the only latest and greatest to capture my imagination, here's recalling a few of the things that amused, inspired and continue to amaze me since coming here. I hope I never forget these first-time fascinations, but hopefully revisit them as the seasons cycle in again with bookmarks from the first year.
First things first. The seasons. No month is the same and it amazes me to no end that there is unique energy and wonder in each, which I never had the opportunity to experience before.
Hospitality. I have received incredible hospitality from everyone I have crossed paths with, and I am infinitely grateful for it. People who literally only knew my name went above and beyond to make me comfortable. Right from my first colleagues to people I met at random public events.
Ice cream is as seasonal as produce. The eis frenzy in the summer is unprecedented. Eis-stained faces of kids form a Hansel and Gretel-esque trail that will lead you to the closest eis shop, guaranteed.
The produce. Cooking and related activities really blossomed for me in Berlin and discovering at least a few unfamiliar vegetables and fruits every month has me excited like a child.
The doors. It may be just me, but Berlin seems to have the heaviest doors for restaurants and shops in the world. I almost didn’t go to a few places because I thought they were closed. Now I know to summon up my strength and push harder.
The little kid who seemed to appear out of nowhere with an unbelievably tall pointy elf-like red hat in the stuffy U2 (train) on a dark February morning. Amidst the packed compartment, his lips broke out into a sweet smile as he studied one elephant after another on my elephant-printed blouse.
I have had the privilege of meeting the politest, most considerate and well-mannered people here. Both inspiring and heart warming.
The little local Backereis seem to have a consistent orange-red gradient-like visual language. Why?
The gorgeous winter menswear fashion (and men. Sorry, had to say it- German men are gorgeous). It’s all an eyeful.
The sun is the VIP. Sunset and sunrise timings change every month. The sun is much too cheerful in your face as early as 4.30 AM or just ridiculously elusive at other times. I enjoy the hide and seek.
I am perpetually on holiday mode thanks to my fascination with the baked goods here and have shied away from precisely zero cakes. And I need a better resolution for next year…
A bunch of breads, butter and cheese for breakfast. What I thought was way too basic for my predominately Indian and occasionally American palette, had me quickly warmed up to the subtleties, and begging for more.
The little boy with glasses who hilariously shamed me at the counter of my neighborhood grocery story for responding Danke Schön to a Danke Schön.
Last, but not the least, Berlin’s awe-inspiring spirit- I think this needs little elaboration, although when I first came, I was completely and shamelessly uninformed. I am happy I experienced this first hand as a result, with no expectations and on a blank slate.
Finally, here's my sister, Sudeshna and I on Christmas from the Calcutta trip that year, ready to "cut a Christmas cake".
Signing off with the warmest regards and best wishes for a merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to you all!