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Ukrainian refugee sells food and horseradish schnapps at a German Christmas market


OK. I've been guest hosting MORNING EDITION all week. I normally cover Central Europe for NPR, and I brought back a little sample of what life is like there. This time of year, Christmas markets are everywhere.


SCHMITZ: On the edge of Berlin, there's an 18th-century Baroque palace. It was once the summer residence of Prussian kings, but today, it's filled with the scents of grilled bratwurst, mulled wine and the sound of a small brass band.


SCHMITZ: This is the Charlottenburg Palace Christmas market. It's one of dozens of so-called Weihnachtsmarkts that are sprinkled throughout Berlin. This time of year, low, dark clouds obscure a sun that sets in the midafternoon. These neighborhood markets are like splashes of bright color on an otherwise film noir canvas.

WANRIY WOLF: (Through interpreter) When it starts to snow and it gets cold and dark, these markets lift my mood.

SCHMITZ: Wanriy Wolf is here to catch up with an old co-worker. For years, they worked at Tropical Islands, an indoor water park outside Berlin. It used to be a Zeppelin hangar used by the Nazis 85 years ago. Now it's a family resort with palm trees where the thermostat is always set to 80 degrees. Wolf grew up in Thailand. The tropical heat and man-made beaches of the water park made her feel at home during Berlin winters. The pandemic impacted business, and Wolf changed jobs this year. Like many here, she's re-emerging from lockdown. This is one of the first Christmas markets she's been to in years, and it's accompanied by a little sticker shock.

WOLF: (Through interpreter) When I used to come here, the new wine was always 4 1/2 euros, but now it's seven. The whole world has suddenly become expensive because of the war. Everything has changed.

SCHMITZ: Christmas market vendor Anastasia Benkovska knows this better than most here.

ANASTASIA BENKOVSKA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: She's making borscht inside her hut. It's built to look like a gingerbread house. A sign behind her reads Ukrainian kitchen. Benkovska arrived to Berlin Central Station after a three-day journey from Kyiv. She came by foot, bus, car and train last February, shortly after Russia invaded. She studied German for years and is now using it daily to sell Ukrainian goodies, sending the proceeds back home.

BENKOVSKA: And then I'm writing to all my family. Hello, how are you? Check, check, check, you know?

SCHMITZ: This is her morning routine, checking on each family member back home to see if they're still alive.

BENKOVSKA: Anastasia, everything OK. We are here. Don't worry.

SCHMITZ: That sounds really stressful to me.

BENKOVSKA: It is. It is. But Ukraine will win. Goodness will win, you know?

SCHMITZ: And you're fighting with food.


SCHMITZ: And Benkovska's hut is filled with food.

That looks really good to me. What is that?

BENKOVSKA: This is a meat like shashlik.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BENKOVSKA: This is special Ukrainian dumplings, I would say, with potato.

SCHMITZ: What is this called in Ukrainian?

BENKOVSKA: Vareniki.


BENKOVSKA: And also, we have some schnapps. This is grilled (ph). This is hot. And we make it with chili or with honey or with - I don't know - it's like meerrettich in German, meerrettich.

SCHMITZ: Horseradish - you actually have a horseradish schnapps?

BENKOVSKA: Yeah. According to Ukrainians, some drink to burn.

SCHMITZ: So if the schnapps doesn't burn you enough, the horseradish will just make sure that it finishes the job.

BENKOVSKA: (Laughter).

SCHMITZ: One must follow Ukrainian tradition, so I drink the horseradish schnapps.

All right. Cheers.





And as advertised, it burns.

Whoa. OK. That's a - wow. That's actually - I kind of like that.

The fire in my gut slowly fizzles, but the gentle warmth of its embers remains. It's an antidote to the cold, just like this Berlin Christmas market. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.