This Christmas we were invited to spend the holidays with our daughter who lives near Cologne. We had taken a decision last year to move near the channel tunnel as both our children live in Germany.
Came the day and taking far too many clothes with us, we drove to Dover, boarded the train (a double decker) and within 35 minutes we emerged from the tunnel under the sea and were in France, what a difference from those seasick journeys by boat.
In France we drove through the old British battlefields, first one is Dunkirk and I still can't help thinking of those poor tired soldiers of 1940 who were being pushed back to the sea. Flat farm land here and not much cover. As history tells us the British didn't lose their army but were saved by the small fishing vessels and week-end sailing boats who sailed over from England and rescued over 333,000 from the beaches. The road led us through the First World War battlefields of Mons in Belgium and then on to the straight motorway into Germany.
The first day we went for a walk down to the River Rhine, my daughter lives half a mile away; we walked along the river path and admired the great international modern barges using the river. The next day the Rhine was in flood and the path and all the grass had disappeared under the water.
On to the bright Christmas market at Cologne, the Germans celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve so there was last minute panic buying but the small stalls in the market were selling high quality wooden toys, beautiful candles and aromatic hot wine. I am looking around this well dressed crowd and am surprised to see a number of women in fur coats (they wouldn't last long in England) there is a great anti animal fur lobby there, they would end up having eggs thrown at them.
My eye is caught by a man standing at a stall looking at toys, he is alone, people look at him but say nothing - he is an orthodox Jew with long black coat and flat hat. He is the first Jew I have seen dressed this way in Germany and I have something akin to admiration for him, I still feel that Germany's terrible past sometimes hangs like a shadow over people and places.
While in Cologne we visit the magnificent Cologne cathedral, the approach to this wonderful building is now traffic free so it can be admired from afar. The amazing windows in this cathedral are radiant and they warm the heart on such a cold day.
On Christmas Day we eat unfamiliar food (in England it is always Turkey) and try to go for a walk but a gale is blowing and the next day much rain. We decide to go to Dusseldorf to visit our son, this is quite a sophisticated town with a more international population, lots of Japanese banks and finance houses operating here.
We have been loaned an apartment during our stay but unfortunately the heating system goes wrong and there is a ring of hot tiles in the middle of the floor - where we have our mattress - and freezing cold on the outer limits of the floor. The flat has three enormous windows and the wind howls around these with a dismal echo. The heating engineer has been called as two other apartments are cold but nothing will get done over Christmas.
We take a walk around the local graveyard; German graves are very ornate with beautiful marble and candles on the grave. We come to a part holding the military graves and feel sorrowful that the first grave is for an 18 year old soldier, the next one is aged 16 but the next three leave us staring in disbelief, one grave for a soldier aged 12, the next one for his brother aged 13 and the next one for their mother aged 36 - what a story there must be on this day of death, all died in 1945.
We say our goodbyes to our daughter and look again at our grandson's face, how I envy those women who have their grandchildren just round the corner, maybe I will see him again in a few months.
We drive home through the German countryside, no problems here but when we get to Belgium and France the flat fields are under water and the farms marooned. Said to my husband "I am glad the motorway is elevated". It is getting colder now and we stop at a motorway restaurant. It is minus 3 degrees. Because the car is loaded with clothes and presents, one of us stays behind. Hank comes back from his coffee and says, "Look at that man behind you". I said, "No I have had a nice Christmas and I don't want it spoilt" but curiosity wins. I turn round and there is a middle-aged man kneeling on the grass in this freezing weather, shoes and socks off and praying to Mecca.
We drive through France in pouring rain with the wind howling around the car, we learned later that there were many deaths in France from falling trees and because of the flooding much of northern France was without electrity and heating.
Here comes Calais, we drive into the train and after 35 minutes the white cliffs of Dover are visible through the windows.
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