March 19, 2016

Christmas around Birmingham

Ah, Christmas. It is my favorite holiday season by far for a bunch of reasons that I won't even get into, but let's just go ahead and state the fact that Christmas in the middle of Birmingham's city centre is less than desirable. Hear me out.

Before we get into the local big-wig Christmas event, let's talk about the holiday aesthetic in Birmingham at large. This city is the second largest city in the UK, making it absolutely nothing like the quaint small towns surrounding it, and it's worlds different from London. It doesn't feel quintessentially English by any means as it's rather impersonal and definitely a multicultural hub. 

There are no "neighborhoods" in city centre, just random areas with apartment buildings, so there are no streets lined with houses decorated in Christmas lights, no Christmas wreaths or red bows adorning the front doors of homes. The only place to see real Christmas decor is at the German Market in Victoria Square and down New Street, and we'll get to why that doesn't fill my every Christmas desire in a bit. 

Additionally, businesses start pushing Christmas far earlier than I ever thought possible. Because there is no Thanksgiving holiday to separate the fall and winter seasons, it's easy for that to get pushed earlier and earlier as commercialism creeps into the hearts and pockets of large corporations. Upon our arrival in Birmingham, we saw posters at pubs and restaurants advertising their Christmas agenda. In the beginning of September they were telling people to book their holiday parties. They even had their Christmas menus out on the tables. A tad bit early, don't you think? 

Alright, moving on to the biggy. Birmingham is famous for holding its Frankfurt Christmas Market - the largest German market in the UK, claimed to be the largest authentic German market outside Germany and Austria.

"Each winter, the smell of Glühwein and sizzling Bratwurst fills the city centre air. Rows of wooden huts selling festive trinkets, sweets and gifts snake the route from the Bullring towards Victoria Square, where large crowds can be found tucking into pretzels, cakes and countless sausages. The Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market, to use its proper title, has become, for many, the city's premier yearly tradition since it began in 1997." [BBC]

It's true - there is enough Glühwein and bratwurst to fill you to your heart's content. It sounds so lovely, and we were thrilled for it to come to town, but that excitement quickly turned to dread. The market runs straight through the heart of city centre - through the exact route that takes Patrick to college and me to my favorite local coffee shop. It extends down the length of New Street all the way to the Bull Ring shopping center and the entrance of the mall, but there are two rows of booths the entire way. That means that the number of people visiting this heavily populated shopping area increases exponentially while the room in which to walk decreases to about a third of the size that it normally is. For someone who loathes crowds and hates being stuck in the midst of drunk shoppers trying to get from point A to point B, it is an absolute nightmare. And it goes on for six whole weeks. There is also a ferris wheel and a covered ice skating rink that sets up shop right in front of the library; they were up until about New Year's.

At first glance, the shopping appears to be adorable and authentic with rows and rows of craft booths to satisfy all your shopping needs while you munch on an overpriced pretzel sandwich or a three-foot frankfurter. All is not as it seems, though. The booths repeat themselves three times over with the same exact vendors, so the experience is a bit less exciting and varied than it claims to be. 

There's a large bar area where a radio station hosts nightly gatherings, but I can probably count the number of times I heard them playing Christmas music on one hand. It more resembled an outdoor club as the DJs tried to get the drunk crowd amped up. Talk about disappointing. The music is one of the best parts about the holiday season in my book.

If you don't look or listen too closely, grab some mulled wine and a bratwurst, and set out to do a bit of prime people watching, though, you're in for a good time. Just make sure to go during the week when you will actually have enough room to exist as the out-of-towners flood the city streets during the weekend. It was kind of a nightmare.

The season wasn't all bad, though, despite my grouchiness at the presence of the market and all those people. Our anniversary falls on December 12th, so we took the opportunity to do a few things that we hadn't yet done: a wander around the market for a bit of gift shopping while the crowds were away, a stroll through the local museum (which is both free and wonderful), a quick and quiet break for coffee at our favorite local haunt, a delicious and romantic dinner, and drinks with a good friend at our favorite local pub. We continued our celebrations the following week in London, spending an entire day wandering around that magnificent city before picking up Kathryn and Brandon at the airport for their week-long visit.

December felt like we were quite a bit more adjusted to living life in a foreign country, and with it brought many nights of good times with great friends. The school term was winding down, too, which meant that everyone was somewhat hyper and just a little bit crazy (hence the hysterical videos below). Those are some good memories!

We were definitely ready to see the German Market get packed up, and it has been so nice having Victoria Square and New Street back in its normal state.

As for the Christmas holiday itself, it was spent with our wonderful Oklahoman friends (they're definitely Okies through and through) as they flew in to spend the week with us. Our itinerary for their stay with us was jam-packed with travel: Birmingham, Stratford upon Avon, Dublin, Warwick, and London filled up our holiday with Kathryn and Brandon. We wouldn't have had it any other way. Talk about a trip to remember! 

Thanksgiving Abroad

2015 Womack Thanksgiving in Brum was a double feast - first in the house of friends of friends, then a private feast held in the bedroom of our flat (because our desk is larger than the "dining room" table that we share with our three additional roommates).

On November 22nd, the day after we ventured to Stokesay Castle, we were planning to go to Wolverhampton with Will and Nila, our fellow American couple at our church. They were sweet enough to invite us to the Thanksgiving celebrations hosted by some of their other American friends who they work with, and we were glad to accept the invitation.

After church, we hopped in their car (the first time we'd been in a car that wasn't a taxi in nearly three months!) and headed to Wolverhampton. It was a bit strange being on the wrong side of the motorway, but mostly because it felt oddly similar to freeways back home. While we were a bit nervous to eat a lengthy meal in a house of people we had never met, it was also a little bit exciting to be in an actual house - again, we hadn't been in a house since we left the States. Oh, the glory of space! And this house used to belong to people who owned a catering company so it actually had two kitchens. It was fantastic!

Our fears were soon dispelled as we got to chat with our lovely hosts and the other guests. The evening was filled with great conversation, wonderful company, fantastic food and wine - and plenty of it, and even some American football. It was the weirdest and best thing to be in a room with more Americans than I could count on one hand, and we all had some bonding moments after we recounted story after story of the woes of living in the West Midlands, accompanied by other nightmarish stories about the process of moving overseas. Ah, the camaraderie between expats - it's a glorious thing! There weren't only Americans in the house, though, and there were at least four nationalities that Thanksgiving feast in England. Pretty neat if you ask me. When Will and Nila dropped us off back at our flat, we came home with full bellies and full hearts. If that doesn't make you feel at home in a foreign place, I don't know what will.

That next week was a bit rough for me. I explained it in more detail a while back, but both anxiety and physical illness nearly prevented my preparing a Thanksgiving feast altogether. On Wednesday, though, I got up the strength and the courage to go to the grocery store and get the things we would need (that I could find, anyway) for a two-person Thanksgiving feast in England.

Turkey from the deli, croissant rolls, homemade cranberry sauce, roasted veggies, and baked sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows (we ended up roasting them in the over for the finishing touch) decorated our bedroom desk. I never ever buy soda, but I couldn't resist the taste of home in the form of Coca-Cola that day.

We ate nearly everything in glorious Thanksgiving Day fashion, and we were so full that we changed into our pajama pants before dessert - just the way it should be. Homemade pumpkin pie (with canned pumpkin that was far too expensive) was consumed with vanilla ice cream (we miss Blue Bell!) because Cool Whip doesn't exist here, and I don't own a beater or mixer with which to whip (say that ten times fast); Lord knows I was not whipping cream by hand... no sir.

I still get a bit sad thinking about that tumultuous time period. Thanksgiving was really tough to get through for a lot of reasons, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that something so near and dear to us doesn't even exist here. To the UK, that was just another Thursday. Patrick had rehearsal until 7:00pm that night, meanwhile all our friends and family had been celebrating together - without us. Of course without us. It's not a bitter feeling of being left out, but a sadness that seeps in knowing that you're missing out, knowing that life and traditions still go on without you. Some of our wonderful friends and family sent us pictures and videos all day long, which actually eased the pain quite a bit - we were able to be "involved" in their celebrations even from so far away. In the end, though, our little UK celebrations were enough to satisfy our wary and homesick hearts for the time being.

March 18, 2016

Stokesay Castle

November 21, 2015

November was quickly coming to a close, and with it the season providing good weather for adventures. We embarked on one last adventure before winter closed in on us completely, and another English Heritage site was calling our name - after all, we have to put those passes of ours to good use!

Stokesay Castle is in Craven Arms, about an hour and a half train ride straight west of Birmingham, almost to the border of Wales. The country looks completely different here, and it is extraordinary. As we got close, my heart lightened at the sight of snow-topped mountains and sheep grazing the land. It was as pretty as a postcard. 

This place was fabulous, seriously. We spent all day wandering around this medieval fortified manor (AKA small castle) and were completely content doing so. Walking around in a place that was built in the 1200s is still so unreal. It was a beautifully sunny day, but it was awfully blustery and bitterly cold. Winter had definitely arrived in England!

The first place you walk through before entering the manor house is the gatehouse. It was added to Stokesay in 1641 - that's 135 years before we became a country; the castle had been around for 350 years before the gatehouse built. I'm not so hot at mathematics, but that's a lot of years. Hence why I will forever be ruined for our "old" architecture back home.

The wind blew through the ancient windows and doors, the chill rather harsh on our faces as we stood in the great hall of Stokesay Castle. It's no wonder their fireplaces were so large. As it was built in the 13th century, I was impressed to find out that some of the windows had glass. Not all of the windows had glass, mind you; only the top portion of the windows in the great hall contained glass, and the bottom portion only had wooden shutters. Brr! The roof of the hall employed a rather new construction technique using naturally curved tree trunks, and it is most impressive even today. The stairs leading from the hall to the upper level were kind of scary to walk on, too - who knows how long they've been there!

This was the second of five hot beverages that day. SECOND OF FIVE. It was so cold!

Roses in bloom during literally freezing weather. That's the magic of England.

The gatehouse. Love that half-timbered look!

Standing in the great hall. Those bottom windows only had wooden shutters back in the day!

The great hall. Those stairs were a bit scary, but that door is awesome!

A view into the great hall.

Those tiles would have originally been brightly colored. You can barely see the patterns now!

Daisies in freezing temperatures bringing life to a medieval castle.

Personal quarters. The wooden paneling was only added in the 1700s, but look at the detail in the wooden mantle!

To give a bit of perspective on the size of that fireplace... was ginormous!

Castle lighting is rather beautiful.

It was really cold and extremely windy. Brr!

The view from the top of the castle. Talk about beautiful!

The castle had a teeny cafe. We got hot chocolate just because we were frozen stiff!

Public footpaths are the best thing ever. We walk everywhere around Birmingham and when we got on explorations, but we don't really get tired of the walking part. We always complained that it wasn't feasible to walk places back home, so we have really come to kind of love relying on our own two feet. That has probably only encouraged our love for the public walking paths here. They're something that I will truly miss, no matter how much I love or hate living in England on any given day.

We also don't take blue skies for granted over here. It's a lovely thing to see the sky as we adventure outside city centre, even if we were freezing our tails off. We embraced it whole heartedly! 

Just along the public footpath near Onny River.

I made a Scottish pun... something about the bonny Onny river.

Leaves trodden black.

His name is Smudge, and he was so sweet that I just wanted to pick him up and squeeze him.

The worse "latte" I've ever had, but it was hot and we were sitting in comfy leather chairs by a fireplace, so I was happy.

Winter skies over a house by the train stop.

We were extremely cold and tired by the time we got back to our flat, but getting out of Birmingham means we come home happy. When that day involves medieval castles, it's pretty darn fantastic!