November 25, 2016
A dragon with scales still glowing from the brick kiln encircles Rostock’s Old Town. From the twin chimneys of his nostrils, smoke ravels across the sky, piling the city in thick fog. This brick-and-mortar dragon, the old city wall, sleeps late on November mornings, and already he is dreaming of Christmas. As the dragon dreams sugar-plums and licorice-mice, church bells chime ten. From cocoons of cotton candy clouds, the bells coo sweet and slow as new syrup.
Booths redolent of crisping doughnuts and spitted pigs clog the main arteries of the Old Town. This is the Weihnachtsmarkt, a city-within-a-city, miles of chocolate-brown booths with peppermint-stripe awnings. Wedding cake townhouses peer down over their balconies to gawk at this Christmas Market. There is a touch of Scandinavian lineage in the townhouses’ tiered roofs and bleached complexions. They huddle close to keep warm, sheltering the Weihnachtsmarkt from winds flung off the Baltic Sea.
Weihnachtsmarkt is a synesthetic fantasia in the key of Christmas. Lacquered in ruby-red sugar-gloss, candied apples glow in confectioners’ cases, genie-lamps to light December. It’s the season of food on a stick—festival-goers parade by with fistfuls of skewered meats, chocolate-smothered apples, bananas fried in rum-batter, exotic fruits sheathed in white candy-shells, and glasierte Weintrauben: grapes varnished in poison-red candy-glass, like a strand of cursed rubies. Checkered paper cones overflow with candied nuts or butterfly-sized flakes of fried dough—Mutzen—little lard doughnuts dusted in a flurry of powdered sugar. Snow drifts of whipped cream melt into mugs of hot chocolate, yolk-gold Eierpunsch churns in glass canisters on the bar, and the wind is so heavily spiced with Glühwein and Grog that I sip mulled wine with every breath. The air is so thick with feastly smells you hardly need to open your mouth to savor honey-roasting hazelnuts, milky chestnuts, gingered Lebkuchen, butter-mellow crepes, sizzling potato pancakes, griddled wild mushrooms, waffles light as snowflakes, and braided pretzels long enough to last the day.
A baby’s mouth opens wider and wider as she watches her father bury his teeth in a Bratwurst the size of her arm. A boy blows sugar-smoke off his cone of golden Mutzen. From a few booths, gifts glint shyly, naked without paper wrapping and yards of ribbon—homemade mustards in ceramic crocks, blown-glass ornaments suspended like soap bubbles, and hand-carved wooden spoons from toddler-sized to troll-sized.
My new-found Fulbright-sister Annie and I nibble our way through a flavorsome Friday. For second breakfast there is garlic-glistening lángos, Hungarian fry-bread as light as sea foam. At Warnemünde on the Baltic Sea, we sip salt-breezes and mint-cool winds that spill over the emerald waters.
The hickory-smoked afternoon dissolves in clouds of gingerbread and honeyed tea as the mist-quilted harbor is embroidered in gossamer fog-light. Electrified icicles light the supper-hour, an early extravagance of griddled and fried fancies. We have devoured the day whole, and there is chocolate for dessert.
Dusk drifts down around three and by four we are buried in the dark. The Weihnachtsmarkt at night is the morning market after a day of Glühwein and Eierpunsch. High on burnt sugar and the holiday fizz of a thousand Rostockians, the Weihnachtsmarkt glows. Fairylights charm away wrinkles and turn white hairs red. We are all Christmas children in the dragon’s dream.