A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt. 2: Nutcracker Men and Merry Cherubs!

saxon christmas 7True to his word, on the first Advent eve, Opa started putting up tiny decorations in special places around our home—or was it really the work of the Weihnachtsmann?

saxon christmas 1One by one, a miniature choir of chubby, wooden angels began to appear in the glass kitchen cabinet. Every day, a new one, each with a musical instrument—some playing a trumpet, or a harp, or an organ.

On the kitchen reading table now sat four deep red candles in a thick WeihnachtsKranz (Christmas wreath), to be lit one by one—one for every Sunday of the special Adventzeit.

And then there were the traditional, handgemacht (handmade) figurines of the Erzgebirge, little Raüchermanner (Smoking Men) who puff scented smoke when a Raücherkerze (incense cone) is lit inside, and wooden nutcrackers.

saxon christmas 2Now, the particular Nutcracker guy we have isn’t really a nutcracker at all, but a bushy-browed fellow on horseback, wearing brightly colored uniform! He’s always looking fierce, to represent those harsh German authorities of the Ore Mountain mines in the late 1800’s.

saxon christmas 8This region in East Germany bordering the Czech Republic, besides it’s delicious food, is also famous for its grand mountains, forests, and mining industry. It’s become my once-in-awhile-home since my son was born here in 2009.

An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony
An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony

The wooden figurines are well-known Erzgebirge handicrafts made by the local communities since hundreds of years. The ones that sit on our kitchen table now aren’t newly bought decorations; they’ve been in the family for years, sort of vintage artifacts—heirlooms—that resurface every December.

The little prune-men, with their bodies made of dried prunes, are some of my favorite. A family friend last week, added another artifact to our collection: a lucky prune chimney sweeper.

I’ll never forget the first time one I met a real chimney sweep, five years ago, in this house. My husband had told me that if the black-uniformed men ever came to your door, they were believed to bring good luck! I was pregnant at the time, and hoping for all the luck (blessings) in the world for my new baby who was on his way!

So when the doorbell rang one day, and a very tall, smiling man in a top hat and buttoned-down uniform cheerily appeared to sweep the soot off our chimney, I felt like a little child shaking hands with the Weihnachtsmann! (I only found out much later that he’d been hired, of course, to work that day.)

But innocence is bliss, and Christmas is for innocent children—and children at heart.

saxony christmas 6It’s what I love about my two kids’ ages right now (nearly 2 and nearly 5): they are still young enough to be whisked away in the mind to a place where wonderful things happen at Christmas!

We’ve read together, of course, the real story; they know about the angels and the Star, and the baby Jesus—but I do think a little of that other magic is fun too, when you mix traditions with culture and throw in a little of your own twists.

Yes, we can have real evergreens and traditional Saxon figurines…but we can cut out simple paper snowflakes and string them on the windows, too. We can tell stories about surprises and magic …but we do know that love is the biggest magic of it all.

And when Saint Nick leaves two gigantic chocolate men on the doorstep to eat, and more chocolate surprises in their winter boots (as he did last December 6)…

saxony christmas 4…or when you can write wish lists and be on your best behavior for the Weihnachtsmann, or when soft snowflakes flutter down, sprinkling everything in the village like the frosting on a birthday cake…

…and when you can enjoy all these simple pleasures with the wonder of a little child, then Christmas becomes, not a stressful occasion, but a lot of FUN.

I know it won’t be long until they’ll be older, and perhaps jaded. So, while their little eyes are still wide with wonder and delight, I’ll be enjoying the season’s magic, too.

saxony christmas 3Yesterday, as the son and I skipped through a slushy path on the way home from school, he looked at me thoughtfully and then posed a very serious question.

“Mom, do you know who actually gives us the uberraschungs (surprise gifts) at Christmas?”

“Um…the Weihnachtsmann?” (I’m hoping he hasn’t found the secret stash of packages hiding in our cabinet.)

“Well, someone else, too! Do you know? There’s the Weihnachtsmann, and Niklaus, and…do you know who else?”

“Tell me!”

Splashing his boots through the half frozen mud, with an intelligent look that only a nearly-five-year-old can properly pull off, he said:

“The postman, of course.”

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Valchiavenna: Time Travel, Tots, Puddles and Paint

rainy6

In this village, they say that when the Leone mountain across us wears a grey cap—when the clouds sit low on its peak gathered like a hat—it means we will have rain tomorrow.

Apparently, it’s true.

Photo of Lake Como by Wikimedia
Photo of Lake Como by Wikimedia

Last weekend, on Saturday afternoon, even though the skies were bright blue, the mountain, our ever-present and glorious background, wore a cap.

The husband and I watched silvery flat clouds shifting around its head, gathering into a perfect hat shape—not hovering like a halo, but softly settling on its crown. The son peered out with his binoculars from the hillside Bellavista restaurant terrace in Vercana where we’d gone for pizza and house wine.

“Yep, bad weather tomorrow,” we both concluded, in-between the daughter’s incessant babbles.

We clinked our glasses and drank away the afternoon, because that is what you do here on a weekend after 2pm—whether sun or rain.

Chiavenna Valtellina

So the following day, despite the rains, we headed to Chiavenna, just 16 kilometers away.

The old town cultural center, still preserved, winded the way typical Italian towns do, with their renovated cobblestone streets, semi-uncluttered gutters and olive-green shutters decked with rose-red flower pots.

walk in chiavenna

Swiss and German tourists huddled under umbrellas, checking out the Saldi signs, but all was closed during siesta hours.

“It just can’t be SUN-day,” said my son aloud, “there’s only RAIN today!”

And he said this with an air of excitement. It was still a lot of fun to wear bright rubber boots and splash around.

Valchiavenna Valtellina

But it was Sunday, and also siesta, for that matter, which meant I and my wallet would not be parting—at least not for three hours.

rainy2

An aquarelle painting exhibition near the piazza by British artist Kim Sommerschield, was the perfect place to wait out the drizzle.

Beautiful sharp strokes of the familiar mountains in deep blue and sienna, the misty lake and its wildlife splashed in striking hues, and my favorite of the water-colored portraits, a Charlie Chaplain.

Kim Sommerschield Charlie

Next, we headed for the Palazzo Vertemate Franchi, where the daughter was far too noisy, so I excused her from the tour group and headed out to the hallways to walk amongst scary portraits of middle-aged plump women in way too much jewelry and ruffles.

chiavenna palazzo

When it was time for panini and aperitvi, we headed back to the historical center for snack under the now sparkling sun.

The weather here is like that, shifting from one second to the next.

Prosecco for me, succo de mela for Karsten, a birra media for the husband and latte fresco for Alex. (I found I never have to worry about bringing milk on outings, as one can always order it fresh from any bar.)

Chiavenna stroll

I also had bresaola, a kind of salty, dried meat from the plush Valtellina region, plated with steinpilz, a delicious wild mushroom, and sharp rucola salad.

Observing my two curious kids splashing in puddles, being fascinated by waterfalls and hidden corners, even the way they sat down on the side of a random street, just to…sit and watch the world go by, reminded me that life is for these tiny, treasured moments.

Chiavenna kids

Did they understand a word the tour guide was saying in the grand palace? No.

Did they care that it was rainy weather and not “suitable” for exploring? Of course not.

Did they whine that, during siesta no stores were open to browse? No, not these kids.

Chiavenna sidewalk

They simply enjoyed what life had to offer them in that moment: lots of muddy puddles, fascinating steep steps and cobblestones, giant door handles fabricated hundreds of years ago…

…and ripples of murky water in an old piazza fountain, reflecting their own mischievous smiles.

Chiavenna fountain

+++

Back at home, I continue painting my version of the Montana Leone, the forms I see in it, the colors that inspire…

…the daughter picks up my brush and messes up a corner.

I let her…

painting the mountain

No matter that the weather is grey, or how many clouds gather at its peak, that mountain will always be beautiful, and it is the daily view like this that makes me appreciate my own sense of sight.

painting colico

Every morning, we get to wake up and watch it shift forms, spreading out on the horizon “just like a volcano,” my son always says, excitedly.

We get to see it transform, and at times completely disappear into the fog…but it always returns, to welcome our days, or to say goodnight.

“It’s as if you’ve never seen it before,” my husband remarked yesterday, when I’d had an explodation mark about its current beauty.

But I agree with my Belgian neighbor, Cara, who says, “It’s the most beautiful mountain in the world!”

Montana Leone

And if you could see it, I bet you’d say so, too

New Year; New Home

Life has been good to me. I’ve traveled some pretty fantastic places around the world, wound up in adventurous terrain, been lost in enchanting and exotic locations, and called many of those destinations home.

But the latest has been by far, the best. The most beautiful.

Check out my new living room/terrace view:

evenings

To the left, I can see where my husband goes to work, where kitesurfers soar over the waters on windy days. In the center, the glistening lights of a little town across the lake sparkle even more in the evenings, when our living room couch doubles as a bed and we can sit/lie and and sip wine together–how’s that for romance? And to the right, the lake continues on southward, traversing through valleys that lie below a cluster of snow-capped mountains, its waters winding through towns and foothills, rippling silently into the distance.

We are still settling in, figuring out where the kids will go to school, how we will continue life in this tiny town, and attempting to learn the language.  But it’s a good start, and a wonderful place to wake up to every morning. We even have a little garden that our tiny gardener has been keeping well-watered.

garten1I thought it was timely that we got the keys to our new house on the same week that I turned 33. The day after my birthday, we moved in, began a new journey as a family. Another chapter closed; a new one begun.

Who knows what the future has in store? Who knows what’s waiting out there? I don’t, just yet.

But I’m excited to find out. Thrilled that, in this beautiful place I’ve been brought to, I find inspiration to paint, being surrounded by my loved ones–my children, my husband, and my friends…even though most of our connections are online these days.

There is beauty everywhere, and I will continue to discover it, though here in Italy one doesn’t have to look very far.

terrace1

Birthday Notes and Memories

Last Tuesday, I woke up 32 years old.

In those early morning hours, I wrote a little, reflecting on my past, present, and future. And I started counting the birthday gifts I have been given:

I am most thankful for MY CHILDREN. Seeing them every day, watching them grow, teaching them, and having all the time in the world to love them.

TIME is on my side. That is a huge gift. Time is at my disposal. Time to work; time to play; time to love; time to feel; time to create.

FREEDOM is mine. Another gift. No oppression; no riots, no civil or world wars where I live. Freedom to connect through the internet—something not possible years ago. Freedom to live life how I choose to create it.

…my son peeks over my shoulder as he wakes and sits up in bed with me. “Whoa,” he says, “That is a lot of words!”

WORDS. Another gift. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of words which you have given me. You have enabled me to speak, to write, to communicate with words. This gift is mine; let me use it for good.

HEALTH. I have never been hospitalized for an illness, nor have my children. No accidents, through all those years. And every day, I am given another 24 hours to enjoy living with a healthy, breathing body.

After these, there are others; the list could go on… TRAVEL…FRIENDS…A JOB…MONEY TO PAY THE GROWING BILLS…A HOUSE TO LIVE IN.

Lord, I thank you for all these birthday gifts, and ask you to guide me through another year. Keep me challenged, changing, growing, accepting of all that life has still to give.

Last year's birthday celebrations, I pigged out on German food with my boys!
Last year’s birthday celebrations, I pigged out on German food with my boys!

Year Highlights:

14 May—On my 31st birthday (after an early celebration in Stuttgart, Germany, we drove to Italy and arrived in our new home on Lake Como, possibly one of the prettiest places on earth.

The winding, still snowy road through the Alpine border into Northern Italy--our car was packed gypsy-style!
The winding, still snowy road through the Alpine border into Northern Italy–our car was packed gypsy-style!

In Italy, life was simple and good (Read about it here.) I got back into painting and even sold some of my work in this amazing, picture-perfect place. Every artist’s dream.

IMG_1279
Summer on Lake Como when my mermaid friend came for a visit 🙂

Even though my hands were full with a toddler, and I got pregnant (yes, Alexandra was made in Italy!), the desire of my heart to get back to paid-writing in some form was granted through work-from-home jobs for Philippine Airlines Inflight magazine and the Department of Tourism’s new website.

Growing belly in September
Growing belly in September

At this time, we also launched Lifestyle Planet, a start-up website magazine now growing rapidly! I’m so excited for the future of this 3rd baby of mine! (Go to the link now!)

My little man, always in awe
My little man, always in awe

By the time we got back to Saxony, vibrant Autumn colors had arrived—my absolute favorite European season. And then, we even got some early snow!

Snow in Sachsen
Snow in Sachsen

…but I’m really not a deep-in-winter kind of girl…thankfully, we made it back to sunny Southeast Asia in time to have a tropical Christmas. Reunited with my one dozen brothers and sisters, Karsten got to meet his very young aunties and uncles, and experience again the fun chaos that is Manila.

7 months pregnant in December--Karsten turned 3 on December 22!
7 months pregnant in December–Karsten turned 3 on December 22!

We kicked off 2013 outside the metro, where we now stay (again, temporarily), just a few minutes’ drive from the beach and bay. We came here to have the baby in a more tranquil place, and to ensure that our kids had clean, fresh air to breathe.

Boys at play
Boys at play

Alexandra was born on the 1st of March, 2013, by scheduled C-section, even heavier than her brother. Even though it was a surprise getting her, and not in any of our plans, I’m glad for our beautiful girl.

Picture taken at less than two months old
Picture taken at less than two months old

I don’t know now where the footprints in the sand will lead.

It seems that change is coming very soon again. Story of our life.

But as another year says hello, I am just thankful to have made it this far. I’m setting new goals, dreaming new dreams, but also trying to cherish the everyday simple. The 5pm walks through nature; the crazy screaming (newborns!) nights; the children; more time.

boat

Last year was not without its trials, tears and challenges. The roads were many, both literal and in my mind. And as my family grows, so do the daily obstacles. I’m hoping to keep taking this one day at a time, while still setting long term goals and reaching them. And I’m grateful for everyone who has been a part of this journey.

Sunsets by the bay
Sunsets by the bay

I can’t believe it’s been more than three decades! Can’t wait to see what’s around the corner. Cheers to new beginnings! New life, new love, new adventures!

Beer, anyone??
Beer, anyone??

My Girl

Scanning blank pages on this new morning. White space to fill—not mine, but my daughter’s. This new life which has yet to be lived; days and milestones yet to be celebrated.

Moments yet to be realized and treasured.

A brand new start, for something that hasn’t existed yet. How do you capture innocence? How do you celebrate life so pure, so angelic, so vulnerable?

SAMSUNG

We begin a new journey together, my love. And as we do, I hold your hand, but hope to not hold you back.

Life is for learning, exploring, making mistakes, and trying again.

Life is for love, and loss, and living again.

You must write in the pages of your own book—I can guide you, but not write them for you. You will learn with time, grow with the moments; intuition will guide you, and love will always bring you back home.

You were born into a family of travelers, wanderers, explorers, adventures. We will give you the experiences which will be yours to keep, the boat to set sail and launch out to new horizons. But what you find there and where you decide to anchor will be up to you and your choices.

I can hold you and nurture you only for a little while. I can be your strength just a few years.

When you finally go out on your own, when you finally know what it means to follow your heart, I trust that you will hear it beating in all the right directions.

I trust you will find your way.

Just as you found your way to us.

alexandra

Alexandra, born March 1, 2013

What I Learned Living in Italy without Internet

lake como italy 1From May till September of this year, my small family lived on Lake Como in Northern Italy, where my husband worked at a water-sports center for the summer season.

The tiny apartment we were blessed to call home for those few months was charming in an old-fashioned way. It was a bright yellow centuries-old flat, on the corner of a narrow cobblestone street, so close to my neighbor’s window that not only could they see our underwear hanging out to dry; we could also hear their every whisper, laugh and (all too often) shouting marital disputes at 3am.

living in italy houseWe, like any normal people, wanted to buy a super-fast wifi connection for our temporary home. But in order to do that, we would have to sign a whole year’s lease. Knowing we weren’t going to stay in the country that long, we opted to not have it. (When we finally purchased a plug-in Internet device, it was so slow that it was worse than having none.)

This made for daily trips to the wifi-friendly Bar Pace café across the street, where we sipped creamy cappuccino, ate fresh, fluffy croissants, and checked our emails for half an hour.

Weekends on the lake got a little more active, with parachuters dropping down from the Alpine slopes, kitesurfers plowing through the rippled waters, sailboats in regattas, and dozens of sunbathers enjoying summer.

living in italy juneBut most of the time, life in Como was mostly uneventful; night-life was non-existent.

And after those slow-paced months, the realization hit me:

I didn’t miss not having Internet.

I didn’t miss not being “socially” connected.

I didn’t even miss texting!

I had a Twitter account, and a Facebook Page, and even a LinkedIn, yet never felt the urge to check my friends’ updates—never knew what was going on in half a thousand other people’s lives.

Here’s what I did do: life in italy beach

Ate chocolate gelato every day

Swam every day with my son

Read more books

Saw more sunsets

Did a lot of people-watching

Did a lot of listening

Went running every morning

Used my telephone only to book occasional dinners at restaurants, doctor appointments, and reach my husbandGera Lario painted by Nyx Martinez

Painted more 

Drank lots of prosecco and vino rosso with girlfriends, without distractions

Read more stories to my son

Fed swans and ducks every day

Watched Futurama episodes as a family on our laptop, every night

Learned a little Italian (“Bambini! Attentione! Macchina!”)

Got off my butt to exercise and lost 16 lbs

 

For those few months, I also did more dishes, laundry and house chores than I’ve ever done in my short history of being married and being a mom. It was exhausting, since I also spent every moment with my son. life in italy gravedonna

I spent every moment with my son.

And my husband, when he came home from work, did, too.

Today, I’m reminding myself of what life was like without an Internet connection there in Italy, because in a day or so, my world will change.

I’m buying a Smartphone.

Because of new changes, lifestyle moves, new work, travel and just plain Real Life, I’m getting back to being universally connected. I don’t want to be unrealistic about new business start-ups, career and family, and it’s essential that I strive for a balance (Main point: STRIVE.).

Yes, I’ll suddenly be ever-present in the online world, able to see all my updates and send out messages on the fly.

But I don’t ever want to forget the sweet life, the real Dolce Vita.

And that was, dear readers, being ever-present for my son, for my husband, and for myself—without distractions of modern living.

It was being able to hear myself think.

It was being able to hear both of my boys laugh, play, and even snore.

It was being able to silently pray, without static.

I’m making this note today so that maybe, even when Amazon delivers my brand new gadget, I can still find a balance-point–somewhere in-between real life, and the sweet life.

Maybe I can keep in mind what really matters.

life in italy lake comoIf you have helpful tips on parenting while still being realistic about other obligations, work, etc, I’d love to hear from you 🙂