Sunday, April 29, 2012

Saturday, April 28, 2012

summer in April

It's summer in April! Or at least, it feels like it! Michael and I went to the market this morning, I planted some herbs out on the balcony, and it was starting to get HOT. Oh, it feels so good to have weekends like this after such a gray winter! (My Schwester knows what I'm talking about...)
When it hit 30 degrees (86 F) today, I was swimming laps in the outdoor pool in Kreuzberg, the "Prinzenbad." They have 3 pools there, two 50-meter pools and a big non-swimmer pool with a little slide and stuff for kids. It wasn't too busy, and there were a lot more serious swimmers there. I saw this one woman who looked like an Olympic athlete. Crazy fit.  I dipped my toe in the "Sportbecken," and couldn't believe how cold it was. I dove in and literally lost my breath. GLACIAL. 15 C (59F). I'm from Duluth, and I've swum in cold water...but I couldn't handle it.
The other pool wasn't too busy, and the temp was 25 C, so I swam in there. :) The cold pool had literally 5 people, including a guy with a neoprene wetsuit! I might have to tough up though if it starts to get busy. Today was the opening day for this particular outdoor pool, and for a couple others in Berlin. It's a 5 minute bike ride from home though, so really convenient, and 2,50 EUR for students. 
I took some pictures of the neighborhood this afternoon.  Almost all the leaves are out on the trees, and people were eating outside, lined up for ice cream, enjoying the weather.

kids getting wet, playing in some fountain

Friday, April 27, 2012

grillen und chillen

Friday evening we had our first grill party of the summer at Tempelhof. Michael and I got a little grill for 7 EUR at Kaisers (the grocery store) and some charcoal (cute Europe-sized: comes in little 3 Kilo bags). A bunch of our friends came out, contributed awesome salads, meat for the grill, and beverages. We made some veggie skewers and satay was delicious, and so warm and nice. Hopefully the beginning of a great Berlin summer!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

the bureaucratic machine thrives in Schöneberg

I actually found this online...don't even ask how...
[Disclaimer: this may be one of those complaints like when people complain about airports and travel stress...and after the fact it doesn't really interest anyone, but it feels like such a big deal in the moment...but I need a little rant anyways...]

Have you ever had an experience with customs outside of the airport? I hadn't until living in Berlin...and now I've been twice in four months. (I have dear friends in the US who have sent me packages! Thanks Jessica and Jennie!) My friends used the US post office customs sticker (that green thing), but apparently that is not clear enough for the Germans. The writing is admittedly pretty light, but it's so obviously a private package, not worth hundreds of dollars!! But I got a slip in my mailbox that I had a package at the customs, and had to bike 8 km to the Zollamt (customs office) in Schöneberg to pick it up.

It's on bar with other German bureaucracy, like city hall where you register, or the foreign office where you get your visa. First I waited in line to get a number (maybe 20 mins), and then waited in a second waiting area for my number to be called on one of those boards with light-up red numbers(about 45 mins). I went to the desk, had to open the package in front of someone, and they see it's obviously a private gift, and that's it (20 seconds). Seriously! So frustrating! And you often have to wait 2-3 hrs. When I think about the cost to have 3 employees help me (not to mention the people in the warehouse), and to store people's packages for 2 weeks...It's crazy!! And from what I understand, almost everything that's from the US (or not the EU) has to go through there. I guess it's mostly eBay packages, and other mail-order or internet-order stuff from out of the country. Does the US control this?! Has anyone had to pick up a package at customs?

Technically, unlike when you travel, you can only order things free-of-cost in the mail up to 22 EUR, or 45 EUR if it is a gift. So I suppose they do make some money on some people, through eBay purchases or something. I guess the US should stop using those green customs stickers that are un-readable!

By the way, if you read German and have gone through this experience, you may laugh at some of these posts "reviewing" the Zollamt.  Someone said it reminds them of the worst experiences of DDR (East German) bureaucracy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This week is looking up

I predict some more balcony-basking and perhaps some grilling in the park in our near future...I also heard on the radio it's supposed to be a hot summer this year. Bring it on!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Where I spend my days...

Spring has come to the library. :)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Swimming Lessons

 Yesterday I went for a swim at one of the public pools near us, for the first time since September, and remembered why I haven't been swimming since September. I just don't get it, but Germans don't lap swim like we do, and it frustrates me beyond belief! On the pool schedule it very specifically said "Bahnenschwimmen", "lap swimming." So I pictured some kind of order for more serious swimmers. But no lane lines! And I was the only one swimming front crawl and/or doing flip turns. Everyone was swimming breast stroke. Which is not only slow, but you take up way more space and kick out towards the people next to you. So when there are no lane lines, and the whole ordeal involves swimming around people, it's even harder. I felt like I was doing open-water swimming, because I constantly had to poke my head up and make sure I wasn't going to get kicked by breast-strokers or ram anyone. Well, when I started doing my laps, and throwing in some butterfly, I think people moved away from me towards the other side of the pool. So I did end up getting some space and it was okay, but I wish there were some lanes and some circle swimming. Is that too much to ask?
This is what I am talking about: breast-stroke-swimming Germans
Once, a few years back, I was at a pool where a mom was teaching her kid how to swim. And she was teaching him breast stroke! I just thought it was so strange. I taught a lot of swim lessons, and in the US we teach kids front crawl first: making them put their head under and learn how to breathe, which they hate. I was thinking about it... I suppose breast stroke is easier to teach if your goal is just to stay on top of the water, not to swim efficiently. I wish someone could explain this breast stroke thing to me.
This photo above is the Stadtbad Neukölln, also not too far from me. I want to try to go this week. It looks so beautiful. It was built 1914 and is largely preserved how it looked then. They have a big and a small pool, at the time one for women and one for men. I was looking at the schedule and noticed something very German and very Neukölln/Kreuzberg: They have one special hour for women in the sauna, the rest are mixed. There is also one swimming time just for Muslim women. Also, note on the website to the right for a Kreuzberg pool, they allow "Burkinis" during the women's swim time. I had to google it to see what it looked like...
And...(here's the German bit) Neukölln they have 4.5 hrs a week for "FKK" swimming, or swimming in the nude. You'd never see that in the US in a public pool!
P.S. I signed up for the Berlin Triathlon (June 3), so now I have to start swimming again!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Slow Foods Wine Tasting

 This week I went to a Bordeaux wine tasting with a friend of mine. We got to taste 9 different wines, and they served Boeuf Bourguignon halfway through. It was really fun, and I did learn a lot about Bordeaux wine. As you can maybe see from the pictures, it was a chance to get out and meet some new people, and bring down the average age a little bit. :) This is the second time I have gone to a Slow Foods event in Berlin. I really enjoyed being a member of the local chapter in Ann Arbor, but I think Berlin is just too big to have the same kind of feel to it. But events like this are nice because you actually get to talk to people.
At one point this guy at our table was asking us about food traditions and culture in the US. This is always a tricky topic...The US doesn't have a "cuisine" like "Italian food" or "French food," or even "German food" (although many people wouldn't call that a "cuisine" either). And it's offensive when people say burgers and fast food are "American" food. That is not food. And aside from not really having a national cuisine, I feel like we don't even have as many regional and seasonal "specialties" as in old Europe. We have some, but not compared to here.

For example, in Germany people get excited about Asparagus season. Really excited. And the cafes all change their soup special according to what's available: in the fall it's pumpkin soup, everywhere, then potato soup and onion soup, in the spring wild ramp soup (Bärlauchcremesuppe) and then asparagus, Spargelsuppe. In this US, is there any one ingredient that is literally celebrated? I can't really think of anything. Sure, we have some regional things: walleye in Minnesota, wild rice, maple syrup. But in the grocery store we can often get things out of season, so you can get them even when they shouldn't really be there. Take asparagus. I bet you've had asparagus in the grocery store, even though it's from Peru or wherever. In Germany, I haven't seen asparagus in the grocery store until this week. For the first time.
So anyways, I was trying to be a bit defensive of this whole anti-US thing, and told this guy that although we may not have a "cuisine", we have some of the best chefs and restaurants in the world cooking "New American" food and I feel like home cooking is also on the rise. I read a lot of food blogs, and I get the sense that more and more people care about where their food comes from, whether it's local and/or seasonal, and how it tastes. They blend international flavors and ingredients when cooking. What is American? Nothing really, but also everything. When I read smitten kitchen or 101 cookbooks, or other blogs, I feel like there is a generation of people cooking really good, creative, modern food that is healthier and more tied to local/seasonal traditions. So it's hard to respond to the question about "What is 'American' food like?" "Do we have a national cuisine?" What do you think? How would you respond to this question?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sonne auf dem Balkon

We had our first lunch outside on the balcony today...It felt so good to feel the sun! Michael thinks summer is here. I'm a little more skeptical, but it sure felt good!

Schwarzfahren - Riding without a Ticket
During the entire week that my family was here, we rode trains daily and were never checked ("controlled") for a ticket. Granted our trips were usually pretty short and on local trains (you always get checked on the high-speed, expensive ICE and IC trains). And it was on and after Easter, so maybe people were on vacation. Also when my friend Jessica was in Berlin, around New Years, she got a week-long ticket and never got controlled.

But it still surprised me a bit, so I thought I would do a little post on it. In Germany you don't show a ticket to get on the trains (to compare: on Amtrack it wouldn't be possible to board without a ticket, and on many subway systems like New York and Chicago there are barriers before you enter the subway system, you have to have a ticket to get in), so it is possible to ride without paying a ticket and risk getting caught. (I think the Minneapolis rail system functions similarly.) In German, it's called schwarzfahren, literally "riding black" (in the sense of "black market," illegal behavior).

If you are caught, it's a 40 EUR fee in Berlin. A one-way ticket costs 2,30 EUR. So if you can ride 18 times without getting caught it's worth it. But it is stressful when you don't have a ticket and you have to look around and make sure the controllers aren't coming. Usually you can see them coming. But I was on the train the other day and they were waiting outside the train, getting people as they were coming off and checking to make sure they had a ticket. The guy next to me was flipping out, "What? Now they're controlling out of the train? I can't believe it! I haven't paid for a ticket in two years..."
some funny ads in the trains trying to encourage people to buy tickets

I just heard on the news this week that in Berlin about 6% of passengers ride without buying a ticket. The BVG website (Berlin Transport) says that this costs them millions of Euros a year. Another news source says that German transport loses 350 Million a year because of Schwarzfahrer. In Berlin they are talking about raising the fee to 60 EUR to discourage schwarzfahrenIn Hamburg they started making all passengers get on on the front of the bus, so they have to show or buy a ticket from the driver.  In Berlin, there is a Facebook page Schwarzfahren Berlin with 13,871 "fans." People riding the U-Bahn or S-Bahn with a smart phone can put in where they are controlling. They also have discussions about what happens if you get caught a second time, or whether it's legal to control outside of the train. Kinda funny.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Auf Wiedersehen!

 Today we dropped off mormor and my mom at the airport and then took the train back to Berlin. It was such a nice trip, thanks for coming to visit! Here are some last pictures, highlights of the trip, and hopefully memories we'll always have!

1. Castles!
2. The Ferry :)

3. Wine and Flammkuchen, Kaffee und Kuchen, Apple Strudel and Schnitzel...

4. Riesling Vineyards

5. Half-Timbered Houses

Friday, April 13, 2012

Day 6 - Frankfurt am Main

 Another busy day! We got up and took the train from Mainz to Frankfurt (about 30 mins). My mom got up earlier and got us a bag of pastries to share for breakfast. :) We dropped our luggage off and walked along the Main River. Frankfurt's full name is "Frankfurt am Main" (lots of German towns add the river they're on to their name). It's a little bit of big-city shock after being on the quiet Rhine valley for a few days. Mainz was a bigger city, but Frankfurt is huge. So it's louder and dirtier, and not as scenic. We walked along the river, through Alt Sachsenhausen, and then took a bus to this bookstore my mom wanted to visit. Then we went to the main square of town, with the Römer, the city hall, and the half-timbered houses. We sat on a bench on the main square for a while, and watched a wedding celebration outside of city hall.

Frankfurt was badly destroyed during the war, so whatever looks old was rebuilt to look old, and a lot of it is modern, or post-WWII modern (ie not that beautiful). We met a friend of mine for lunch, who took us to a place with some Frankfurt specialities. Mom and mormor had Schupfnudeln and Michael and I had Grie Soß with eggs and fried potatoes (picture below). We kept chatting for a while and mom and mormor went through an art exhibit of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. In the evening we went to the Opera to see the Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).
 On this one bridge across the Main River there were all these padlocks, a tradition of "love locks", couples have their names inscribed on padlocks and put them on bridges. I don't really know anything about the tradition, but I've seen it in Berlin, too, but not like in Frankfurt!

Frankfurt am Main is sometimes called "Main-hattan" because of its skyscrapers

Alt Sachsenhausen

taking the tram

children's bookstore we went to

Grie Soß, or "grüne Soße", a Frankfurt specialty, fresh herb sauce with eggs, potatoes

The Occupy movement in Frankfurt, still camped out in front of the banking district

For our last night, we went to the Frankfurt Opera to see Mozart's Zauberflöte, in the original German... I think we all really enjoyed the performance, and it was a nice relaxing thing to do at the end of a busy week!
Oper Frankfurt