“When you visit Europe, you must shop at a Christmas market!”
I’ve heard that suggestion at least a thousand times after I told my friends that I would be studying abroad in England during the fall semester and it proved to be within good reason. Markets are a staple of the European Christmas tradition and large American cities have even tried to follow suit.
My experiences with Christmas markets in Europe began in Oxford and ended at Blenheim Palace. There were carousel rides at the latter, seemingly strange and out-of-place when not in the context of a massive amusement park. Christmas lights circled around the Roman style pillars. Lion statues surrounded the grounds creating a sense of grand yet false protection from some unseen force. The Grand Bridge stood against the horizon, holding up high above a man-made lake.
My first visit to Blenheim Palace was during the summer months so it was a vastly different scene. I traded sunshine for a light rain that wasn’t able to dampen my Christmas cheer. The usual crowd of tourists were nowhere to be seen, probably avoiding the brittle winds. It felt strange to not hear any carolers but instead only the sound of people’s boots crunching against the cobblestone road.
Vendors sold everything from penguin sculptures to hand-woven wrist warmers that were somehow softer than they looked. Even the strangest kinds of gifts and snacks felt perfectly in place here. How did churros become so popular at Christmas markets? Hot chocolate seems more appropriate at face value.
Nothing piqued my interest beyond simple browsing until my teacher showed us a shop that she originally found in Paddington. The chocolates sold here mimicked the appearance of household items from screwdrivers to cheese graters to bottle openers. Some were even painted to appear rusty as if they hadn’t been pulled out of a garage cupboard in months.
I tried to wrap my head around eating them. My instincts kicked in, telling me over and over that those items were genuine to their appearance and I would become very sick if I tried to consume any. The shopkeeper even broke one of the items in half and showed me that it was, indeed, chocolate.
I bought one piece of chocolate that was pretending to be a blue stanley knife. A sense of dread washed over me when I tried to take a nibble. I had to close my eyes while taking the first bite, bracing the idea of breaking my teeth against metal. But the fear was false and I met with a delicious taste. Eating the rest of the stanley knife became easier and my snack was gone in a few moments.
Every other shop seemed to pale in comparison and I kept wanting to go back to the shop that played with my personal perception of what could and could not be eaten. On the ride back to Oxford, I couldn’t help but daydream about eating more of that chocolate that took on the appearance of paint brushes and hammers and corkscrews.