My journey started with a delay, which is never ideal. But I had just had a killer breakfast at Il Sogno with exceptionally good company, walked around the Pearl in the crisp air and warm sunlight – Nothing was going to throw me off on the day I was heading home.
The United Airlines employee at the San Antonio International Airport rebooked my flight in the blink of an eye, a few clicks on my Flixbus app got me onto the next bus from Munich to Innsbruck, a few texts and my family in Austria was updated on my new arrival time – Ain’t it nice to live in the 21st century? Ain’t it also nice that I was more than fine with a little more downtime in San Antonio.
For those of you that don’t know me, I’m an Austrian-American dual citizen. I lived in Innsbruck from 1985-2004 and have been in San Antonio ever since. Growing up with two cultures in two fantastic places speaking two languages and scraps of a few more, I can honestly say I’ve always enjoyed the best of both worlds. And I don’t feel the need to pick between my two homes.
But going home for Christmas is special. I always have to reacclimate to the frosty weather, but I get to see my family, meet my new baby nephew, hang out with my childhood friends (one of whom is flying in from Paris, where she’s been living for nine years), and eat Kiachl and Schupfnudeln (more on that later). Then there are the mountains, which I used to take for granted – but damn, they are beautiful, especially when they’re snowcapped.
When people ask me what I like about Innsbruck, I say the public transportation, the health care (the Austrian government gets credit for that one), the architecture, the outdoors, my people, the food – not necessarily in that order.
In San Antonio, I love the affordable cost of living, the entertainment, the weather, being a little fish in a big pond that doesn’t feel so big most of the time, the food, my people – you get the picture.
I made it to Innsbruck just in time to catch the last day of the Christkindlmarkt, the Christmas market in the Old Town. Vendors sell handmade ornaments, soaps, liqueurs, garments, jewelry, and food – glorious food. I go straight for the Kiachlstandl, which has a line around the corner. A Kiachl is a slab of fried dough filled either with lingonberry (close to cranberry) sauce or sauerkraut; My parents both love to tell the story of how I’ve devoured the savory version with uninhibited gusto since I was 3 years old. Apparently that’s unusual, even for Austrian kids.
One of those, a mug of Glühwein (hot mulled wine), a rapid-fire catch up session with my friend of 19 years, and the very last bowl of Schupfnudeln – potato noodles topped with cheese sauce, fried onions, and more cheese – later, and I know I’m in Tyrol, my home state.
Another thing about being my kind of bicultural is that I’ve always gotten two Christmases. My parents divorced when I was young, but there was never an issue when it came to the holidays: Austrians celebrate on Christmas Eve, so my sister and I would spend it with my dad, and then go to my mom’s the next day for American Christmas. Win-win.
When all four of my parents – my Austrian dad and stepmom and my American mom and stepdad – are in Innsbruck for Christmas, we all meet up in the Old Town on Christmas Eve to hear the Turmbläser, the trumpet and horn players who share their rendition of Christmas songs from the balconies of the historic buildings. The culmination of the Advent season and by far the most traditional part of the holiday market, you have to experience it for yourself to feel its magic.
Standing under the massive Christmas tree in front of the city’s most recognizable landmark, the Golden Roof – Innsbruck’s Alamo, if you will – you’ll hear the sounds of trumpets coming at you from all directions. Three sets of musicians play from high up above the crowd, creating the oldest and most effective form of surround sound.
The Old Town is full of people, but it’s calm. The booths from the month-long market have all been removed, so the only thing you can purchase is select food and drink. Nobody is pushing, shoving, or hustling, people are softly speaking with one another, and when the musicians play the more popular songs, the crowd starts to sing along.
“Stille Nacht” – “Silent Night,” an Austrian original, by the way – always the last song of the evening, has hundreds of people singing its calming words in unison. For the duration of this song, I don’t have a worry in the world. I’m with the people who matter the most, honoring traditions that were created by our ancestors which continue to hold value and meaning for the residents of this incredible city.
A sense of unity washes over me, and I feel, even if just for a few minutes, that perhaps we can all get along. Perhaps we can do more than just get over our differences, perhaps we can embrace them and work toward common good and common goals together. For me, there is no better reminder of the true meaning of Christmas and no better example of how powerful people being present together can be.
“Für mi is des oanfach Weihnachten,” my stepmom said, and I agree. “For me, this is Christmas through and through.”