BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
When I was a young girl in Munich, one of my favorite Christmas pleasures was to stroll with my grandmother through the winding streets and lanes of old neighborhoods and peer into festively decorated, brightly lit shop windows. The air was crisp and sometimes an early snow covered the ground. I particularly liked looking at mysterious and ancient houses, catching glimpses through half-drawn curtains of fresh green advent wreaths aglow with shimmering candles. Carolers from nearby mountain villages, looking fabulous in leather breeches and loden jankers (jackets), wandered about, singing and zither-playing traditional Weihnachtslieder (Christmas songs).
That memory stuck with me, and I go looking for it every year in Chicago’s neighborhoods far from the madding downtown crowd. I always find much joy and festive anticipation, charmingly decorated advent wreaths (though without real candles), Christmas trees in all sizes and shapes (both natural and artificial), cozy shops, twinkling windows, and wandering carolers in Edwardian attire. I think my grandmother would approve, though she might frown at the artificial pink trees.
The weather was mild enough to set out on my bike to find some of this year’s enchanting displays and, perchance, to do a little shopping, as well. On my way, I stopped at the nearby German International School, soon to move to Ravenswood, for a little Advent singing. The children were adorable in colorful Christmas costumes singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” I also had the pleasure to see some of their charming artwork. It certainly boosted my own Christmas spirit.
Whistling a happy holiday tune, I continued to Damen Avenue, where I made some inspiring discoveries.
Every one of these galleries and stores has something special to offer, be it great objects of interior design at District or fascinating ceramic and porcelain sculptures at Gallery 19. My favorites are Alapash and Sfizi.
I chatted with the most affable owner of Alapash, Marco Chavarry, about his vision for the store that ”proudly showcases products made with care, skill, and respect.” This intention is obvious when one spends time in his place full of great looking and well-crafted decorative accessories, rugs, alpaca throws from Peru, and exotic terrariums. I was particularly taken with his collection of Bangladeshi kanthas and embroidered quilts and pillowcases. Their sophisticated color palette—some muted, some brilliant—and fine workmanship are equally stunning. I just couldn’t resist and bought several pillowcases. I may return for more!
Next door, in a small and cozy space nestles the attractively cool Sfizi, an Italian fashion boutique. I love the meaning of sfizi, an Italian word for craving something unusual you desire. Let’s just say I had a very difficult time not giving in to my desires. I found their designer shoes and boots nearly irresistible. And an adorable little dog watches over their inventory!
The day was still young and sunny, so I pedaled on to other discoveries, this time in the Lincoln Square neighborhood that encompasses a much larger area than the well-known block between Lincoln and Western Avenues. Formerly a hub of German stores and restaurants, it has become an all-around friendly space for fun shops, a great Delicatessen, and restaurants with international flair. The last German “bastion,,” the Chicago Brauhaus, is closing its doors at the end of this year after 50 years of being the go-to place for polka dancing, Wiener schnitzel, and beer. The Brauhaus will certainly be missed.
But back to my Christmas roamings. I happened on a charming place called the Nomadic Ant on Western Avenue. The owner, Suzanne Miranda, hails from Colombia. She and her musician partner, Tim, travel the world in the winter months and bring home amazing objects, jewelry, textiles, bags, and leather goods—all in superb taste. I thought the intricate shell necklace from Borneo extraordinary but wondered when and where I might be able to wear it.
But I did find some sweet, if not as dramatic, items to fill various wish lists.
At the end of this happy day I returned to the original Lincoln Square to investigate those new shops across the street from the soon-to-disappear Brauhaus. What most intrigued me is a bodega-like establishment called Vom Fass (from the cask), an international (German) retailing franchise “known for its cask-aged vinegars, oils, and unique selection of wine and spirits—where customers are encouraged to sample at will . . . the company’s hallmark is its try-before-you-buy.”
I did not sample but nevertheless admired the slick display of casks and rows of elegantly shaped glass bottles that contain 1001 different and exotic spirits, from pink grapefruit liqueur to Caipirinha to Irish whiskey liqueur and many more.
Close by is a very cheerful and popular place that struck me as the ultimate forum for socks. Its walls are literally covered with hundreds of colorful socks of all sizes and styles. Most are decorated with different motifs, images, logos, or even literary quotes (I bought a Jane Austen-quoted pair). Very fun indeed.
I also stepped into Gene’s Sausage Shop, an upscale successor to the once-famous German/European Meyer’s Delikatessen. Here I experienced serious sfizi for the chocolate St. Nicks, the chocolate lollipops, the Luebecker marzipan, and the jolly little praline trolls. What’s to do but look and leave . . . or linger and follow the Vom Fass ideology: Try before you buy.
Exhausted from the fun and all the energy to withstand too many sfizi (I do like that word), I finally made my way home. The gorgeous Christmas tree in the square brought back those lovely early memories with my grandmother and with that in mind, I wish everyone wonderful Christmas memories and the happiest of New Years!