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A Christmas in Germany three decades hence

Every year starting in late November stands a market in Trier’s town center. The otherwise wide open pedestrian zone in the center of town hosts a village of what look like gypsy wagons draped in Christmas lights. The owners sell hand-made goods: candles, Christmas ornaments, toys, and other suitable holiday presents. Pretzels, brautwursts and currywursts, ham hocks, and French fries can all be had, along with assortments of baked goods and confections. At least one of the trailers dispenses beer and gluehwein—hot, spiced wine that warms the insides while a fire in the center of the trailer village warms the outside.

On a stage toward one side of the trailer village, musicians play classics on acoustic instruments. When their time is up, men and women in traditional German dress perform oompah-oompah music. Visitors dance in an open space near the carousel.

While many German towns host Weihnachtsmarkts—literally Christmas markets—Trier’s holds a special place in my memory and my heart. I was a young apprentice at the Episcopal Wineries in 1985. In the evening after work, I often walked from my tiny room in the attic of the apprentice’s training school down underneath the train tracks and through the expansive Palastgarten. Usually, I wandered around the park for a few minutes, savoring what I knew was going to be a brief but important time in my life. After making rounds of the park’s sculptures and taking in a view of the ancient Roman baths, I sauntered through the empty, narrow streets between warmly lit houses and glowing business fronts.

Palaststrasse was one of those intriguing old-town one-lane cobbled streets. Houses and apartments stood three and four stories on either side. I stopped to look at what the goldsmith displayed in the window and wandered down past the restaurants and bars just getting their evening crowds. Above, in the apartments, curtains let through the warm glow of family life.

The end of the street let out onto the pedestrian plaza near an ancient fountain and statue. Beyond the statue, the pedestrian plaza spread out wide like a river delta between department stores, bars, and restaurants, as well as the shops of artisan sliversmiths, clothing makers and retailers.

That season, I spent nearly evening and weekend at the Weihnachtsmarkt. Often, I only went for a cup of gluehvein and the feeling of being around other people. At the time, I had only a few acquaintances. Two of my mates, Carmel and Stephan were also interns. I worked with Carmel at the winery and Stephan was interning at a bank. I’m sure that I bothered Carmel a little too much. She was a Brit and the only person at the winery who spoke English. I realized at the time that she sometimes took great joy in my presence but other times merely felt sorry for me. I was grateful for both, I was so alone.

On the weekends, I met Carmel and Stephan at the market. Sometimes our friends Wolfgang, an intern I worked with in the vineyards, and Monika, a young woman who knew Wolfgang would join us. It was at the time that I began to fall in love with Monika. She had green eyes, the brightest green I had ever seen. Her tiny frame and long hands intrigued me. I looked forward to weekends not just that I would have real company for a few hours but also because I knew I’d be able to spend time with Monika.

As much as I had Monika on my mind, I also had a crush on the Weihnachtsmarkt’s candlemaker. He had long, soft brown hair and gentle features. I used to watch him in his trailer, wondering at the revelation that I had a homosexual in me. I admitted that I did, but when I imagined sex with him, I couldn’t see anything. Still, I looked forward to my time at the market so I could gaze upon this beautiful man illuminated by yellow candle light.

The time was magical. My first months in Trier—I arrived and began my internship in November—were some of the loneliest in my life. I’d settled in the town without contacts, without knowing one soul. My social life at the beginning revolved around work, which I loved. Working outside, first in the harvest and then in the pruning of the vines suited me.

The only other social outlet I had was a parent-like couple I made friends with early in my travels in Germany, Josef and Marlies Frick. They lived outside of Trier in a little, quiet and sleepy village called Wawern. In those first months in Trier, I spent a couple of weekends with them. There, I ate well, walked with Marlies often, and spent nights in a room they called my room in the attic of their 12th century house.

That fall and winter, I walked a lot in all kinds of weather. Weekends I sometimes spent eight to ten hours walking the streets of Trier, from where I lived in Petrisberg, up through the valley behind my room (Olewiger Tal) and back up over the plateau rising above the town, and then down the valley (Avelertal) where I worked in the vineyard. I walked out toward the Mosel and up the riverside paths through the old fishing village Zur Laube and then back through Trier Nord and the center of town. I spent hours walking the little streets and corners of the old town, down to the Roman baths called the Barbarathermen. I came to know the town intimately and can still navigate the streets and make my way around town when I return now thirty years hence. Sometimes I would take off down the Saarstrasse into Trier Sued all the way to Matthiaskirche and then past down the riverside toward the town of Konz and back.

One day, I spent ten hours, literally from morning into the evening dark along paths through the vineyards south of town. It was bitterly cold and snowing. I brought nothing to eat or drink. I felt the steep hills in my legs and back. The chill shot through me from my hands to the nape of my neck and into my chest. I kept on and didn’t turn back toward home. I had to keep moving to keep the cold out of my bones but also because I was driven. I had determined to walk all the way to Konz and back through the vineyards, not taking one street or sidewalk along the way. I stopped once for a long time late in the afternoon and watched the towns of Trier and Konz in the valley, separated from me by hundreds of rows of vines falling steeply to the highway below.

Besides walking, I spent a good deal of time in my room writing and reading. When there was nowhere to go, or I had gone everywhere where I could go—when I’d walked myself out—the room where I lived seemed really lonely. I stood for hours at the window in my room, looking out on the quiet neighborhood along the Egbertstrasse—which was once one long side of Trier’s Roman Circus where horsemen in the Gaulish outpost would run chariots. I watched the lights come on in the houses as the sun set. Lone walkers clattered up the cobblestone. Somewhere, a dog barked. I often looked up past the houses toward Petrisberg, a large volcanic mound behind my neighborhood. On the other side of the hallway from my room, I looked out on the roofs of the town, down toward the Roman basilica and the churches rising up above the town. Besides the traffic on the Weimarer Allee that ran parallel to the train tracks, the bells of the churches echoed through the valley.

I remember the time fondly for a couple of reasons. I was more alone than any other time in my life and had to come to terms with myself. I could not whine or cry about being alone—I had put myself into this situation. Settling down after spending two months on the road, where travel keeps loneliness from setting in, I had to get used to being still. When I needed, I walked. And sometimes, after a day of walking, I took and nap and walked again into the evening and then night. I witnessed the rhythms of  a town waking up and going to sleep. The warm glow of houses, their unknowable secrets, the ways in which I imagined life in those houses all kept me going, kept me walking, kept me company.

I also recall the time alone as one of growth. I had to come to terms with myself. Nothing and no one stood between me and myself. I was learning a new language. I was making friends, albeit slowly. My skills in the vineyard moved from clumsy to practiced. I was falling in love.

I have experienced other times in life when I was alone. None of them have the poignant sweetness of that time in Trier. Since that time, I am rarely lonesome.

But mostly, I was at the bottom, making a new start. One other time in life have I made a new start, and that when I quit drinking and found myself with no friends. I’d driven them all away. I had long weeks that revolved around school and study. But on weekends, I walked and came to know the streets of Midtown Kansas City as well as I knew those of Trier.

It was during this time that I experienced one of my greatest disappointments. I had visited with Monika, Carmel, and Stephan in the Weihnachtsmarkt over the weekend before Christmas. I spent the evening Monday, December 23, walking through the vineyards. The weather that week was cloudy and cold but no wind or rain. Tuesday, Christmas Eve, we had the day off. I read and wrote most of the day, taken about as much nap as one can take, and then headed out toward the city center after dark.

This time, I walked quickly. I looked forward to my last glance at the candlemaker and a cup of gluehwein. I knew that Christmas Day would be a lonely one for me. I had nowhere to go and no one to visit. It would be my first Christmas completely alone. I entered the Palaststrasse and with some anticipation anxiously awaited turning the corner and seeing the warmly lit Weihnachtsmarkt. I remember stopping for a minute to look at a statue of St. Nick in the goldsmith’s shop and being thankful that German Christmas was not a consumer-drenched holiday. In fact, that Santa was the only one I saw in Trier that season.

I rounded the corner into an empty square. The plaza spread out before me swept clean. No evidence of the Weihnachtsmarkt remained. I wandered around a while in the place where the trailer village stood just a few days before. I started to cry. I sobbed my way home. When I opened the door to the school the dark stairwell that climbed five stories to my room was quiet but for my footsteps. I sat down on the steps and cried again, my sobs echoing up the stairwell. I never felt so lonely in my life nor have I since.

Memory makes those times in Trier seem better and worse than they were at the time. It selects the details and arranges them in a context. But those details and contexts change over time, over the course of one recollection and another. Sometimes the memory of the Weihnachtsmarkt and that season seem so sad—a lonely American kid with nothing to do in a strange town. Other times, I feel the growth, long for the lonesomeness, feel the city turn on its lights as the dark thickens. I don’t regret the time or desire to return to it. I sometimes miss the sweet sting of loneliness and the poems it bred. But I know now, after a couple of trips back to Trier, that I can never return to that time of discovery.

As I write about this, I think that those times of learning about myself, learning a new language, and feeling the topographies of a new town show me that while I can’t return to those times, I can keep interpreting them in context of a lively life. A Weihnachtsmarkt would never match my memory of that particular one in that particular year three decades ago. It can, however, spur me to discovery, to get off my butt when I have nothing to do, and to walk and keep walking.

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