We all love exploring new places and visiting cities we’ve never seen, but sometimes it is quite hard not to fall into the tourist trap of going only at the most popular attractions and overlook the beauty of your surroundings. For me it’s always been very important to enjoy each destination to its fullest, see what locals do, admire, or not, the way they talk and behave, their accents and habits. And what better time to do this than near the Christmas holidays?
Belgium is the perfect country for travelling; it’s strategically positioned in Europe, bordering Germany, the Netherlands and France. Thus, last weekend I chose as destination the beautiful city of Aachen! But, before taking a 2 hours train ride to Germany I made sure to text all my German and Austrian friends whom I’ve met on the on-arrival training and plan the trip together. I was the first to arrive and I had one hour before my friends were also there, few minutes to explore by my own the city. It was a weird thing hearing German everywhere knowing that only 2 hours previously, French was the standard language. I've felt lost and charmed at the same time, I believe that's one of the most pleasant feelings I experience when travelling alone (even if my friends were coming later). I had time to wander through the streets and appreciate Charlemagne's hometown. A dusty old shop caught my attention, I've entered the charming second hand shop with vintage clothing and when the seller greeted me in German, I replied and the next second we were having a nice conversation about fashion in the 70's. The moral of the story? This experience helped my self esteem and confidence in speaking with people in their native language. Small advice for language learners, and not only, don't be afraid to engage with locals in their natural environment! Most people love talking about their passion and appreciate when you make the effort to speak their language, even though not perfectly.
After about one hour of looking through quirky shops and being once again fascinated by the normal prices of the markets (Brussels’ prices will traumatise me forever), I've finally met with my lovely German and Austrian friends. We decided to explore the Christmas Market of Aachen, which is one of the most beautiful in Europe. And rightfully so, each year the market attracts 1.5 million visitors from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and many others countries according to the organisers.
The Christmas atmosphere is delightful, the squares and alleys near the central cathedral are decorated with festive lights and pine-trees, the smell of gluhwein and smiley faces of the Printen in the windows bring the city back to life. The story of the famous German Printen came into existence when Napoleon, after conquering Germany in the 18th century, cut mainland Europe from the rich spices of other continents. Thus, the locals had to sweetened the dough with sugar beet syrup, giving the Printen its distinctive heavenly flavour just for four ESCs volunteers to enjoy it some centuries later. I strongly believe that the concept of Christmas market was invented by the Germanic people to cope with the depressing darkness of the winter in the middle ages, and they totally succeeded. A whole new world of lights and multi-coloured sweets take over Aachen in the afternoon when daylight slowly fades away.
It is very difficult being away from home in this time of the year, when normally you would be surrounded by friends and family, but going out with young people who are in the same situation as you can help creating new and powerful connections. The Aachen trip not only has taught me a bit of European history and German culture, but it has also offered me the opportunity to create stronger relationships with others, which I think that’s what travelling should be about.