Monthly Archives: April 2011

Two Wheels are Better Than None…or Are They?

I would never consider myself a biker. Bicycling is something I love to do, but never really find the time or motivation to do it. When living in NYC I didn’t have a bike, (and was too terrified to try riding in Manhattan anyway,) and in Paraguay I only had one opportunity for a ride with friends out on muddied dirt paths and backroads, which ended up lasting a total of about 4 hours and I had to be pushed the last two hours since my legs could no longer function.

Needless to say, while I love a casual ride along the beach front in Florida, I can’t imagine being one of those commuters that ride their bikes all over Berlin to get from A to B. The adults are pros…even the kids. You see these little two year olds on “bikes” without pedals so they can practice balancing themselves on the two wheels, and I mean really, isn’t two wheels better than none? (I secretly might prefer just having a seat where I could casually drag my legs alongside to move around the city, sure beats walking!)

Pedal Frees the Way to Be!

So before I left New York, I had high hopes for my cycling future in a city of pros. My favorite father in the world (who also happens to be the best father in the world) bought me a beautiful new bike as a going away/happy birthday in June kind of deal. It is a gorgeous white Specialized bike screaming for a great rider, but unfortunately will be stuck with me. While my stuff is in transit (never to arrive, or err – meant to arrive sometime in June,) I decided to borrow a bike from my office, which is really quite an amazing thing that WWF would offer its employees the opportunity to cycle to a meeting rather than hail a cab or take a bus. So green. And now I have a bike for the next 5 days to use at my leisure!

My beautiful new bike that will arrive in a few short months!!

Before leaving the office today I will drastically understate that I was nervous. Having only ridden a handful of times in the last year, with months in between each venture, its completely nerve-wracking to get back on a bike, especially a bike you don’t know, where you have to learn the gears and the breaks and the speed and the weight of it. I had no idea how I would get the bike from the office to the apartment I had to see and then back home. So I made a bold statement and walked the bike all the way from the office to the S-Bahn (one of the subway systems here in Berlin) where I then waited 10 minutes for the elevator to go up to the platform, where me and my bike stood side by side watching other passengers.

Did I feel silly? Only a little…mostly since I couldn’t figure out how to balance both the bike and myself in the moving car, but honestly I was just grateful to have found a spot to stand without too many people crowding around me. When I arrived at the S-Bahn stop on the other end, I was dismayed to discover there would be no elevator from the platform up top…and so I carried my bike up. All without putting a foot on the pedal. Then I proceeded to walk my bike in the direction of the apartment. I watched all the Berliners actually riding their bikes and stared in awe while silently cursing them.

At the apartment it took only about 10 minutes to figure out how the hell to chain the bike to a pole. Most people here don’t even chain their bikes to anything, they have some flimsy lock that holds the back wheel to the frame, (“Oh sure, you can have the seat or front wheel if you want! Oh, are you feeling strong? Why not lift the entire bike into the back of your car!”) I don’t get it, but I’m from New York so that explains more than a few things! Besides, it’s my office’s bike so I’d feel horrible if I did a bad job locking it up and returned to find it missing. Needless to say I got it, one way or another, locked to a sturdy metal thing and headed upstairs. Unfortunately that was my biggest success in that hood, as the apartment was not worth applying for.

So then I realized THIS IS RIDICULOUS, that and the fact that you cannot bring bikes on the Tram which would take me directly to my apartment, so without a choice I realized I would have to attempt my first ride. I hopped on gingerly looking around every half a second to make sure no one was a) watching me and b) coming directly at me. I made it a block until I hit a red light, panicked, jumped off and stood next to my bike on a street corner for about 5 minutes before I coaxed myself to give it another shot. Who knew riding a bike could be so stressful??

Berlin Ampelman Demonstrating Proper Bike Crossing Etiquette

I walked the bike another block to get away from any onlookers who might be staring curiously or laughing at me by then (I don’t think I actually saw anyone, but I couldn’t take the risk!) and waited until there was not another biker or car in sight and hopped back on, finding my way behind a gentleman (or mentor, if you will) ahead of me. I followed him to a stop at a main stretch of road, and then continued to follow as the light turned green and we headed straight to…nowhere, really. I had wanted to turn left but didn’t know how to go about it, and since this guy seemed to have some sense of direction, I kept on behind him!

A few blocks down the line I finally got up the courage to turn left and headed across yet another big intersection to go back in the direction I originally intended to go. I found my way to a cozy bike path that runs along the road and decided I didn’t care in the least if someone wanted to pass me or was behind me, I would be brave and continue on my journey. It wasn’t until some ways down a guy turned into my lane (don’t know where the cozy path had turned at that point) and I angrily rang my bell to while he put a hand up in apology, that’s when I decided to stick to the sidewalks until a path reappeared. I ventured on and at another street when I couldn’t figure out how to go left I kept going straight and ended up at my grocery store…where I had been too lazy to walk for a few days now. It was quite convenient, really!

So I locked the bike to another metal pole, picked up some food, (including cornichons and a kitkat, yum!) and placed it all in the adorable basket on the back of the bike (adorable.) Then I rode the two blocks to my apartment carried my goods, and then the bike up yet another set of stairs and applauded myself at a job well done! I had made it alive from Friedrichshain to Prenzlauer Berg and feel empowered to try it all over again tomorrow! Or maybe the next day – I’ll see how sore my butt and legs are from today’s introductory ride before making any decisions on the matter!

Lets just pretend this was me

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Get Your Stuff Here Extravaganza

Now Entering Mauer Park

If you ever want to see a lot of junk, and I mean in complete and total excess, wander over to the Mauer Park Flea Market in Berlin on a Sunday. It is by far the most massive flea market I have ever seen filled with such goodies as “vintage” SLR cameras, old jelly jars, buttons of every variety, and old-school typewriters. Not all was so excessively retro, as there were a ton of stands selling original photographs and bags and t-shirts, but it was such a bizarre collection of stuff that after walking around for 45 minutes the crowds started to weigh down on me and I felt the instant need to flee as far and fast as I could!

This is quite a collection they've assembled!

After all, where else can you purchase things in Berlin on a Sunday but a flea market? I will definitely return again, this time more prepared for the massive amounts of people and wearing my patience hat, if not to purchase someone else’s used goods, (I used the term “good” loosely here,) than to listen to the supposedly amazing karaoke competition that takes place in the same location!

Endless amounts of valuable items for sale!

Good way to start the day

A nice hot cup a tea with a delicious German berry pastry in Prenzlauer Berg at a small cafe across from Anna Blume… mmmmm

Tea and Pastries in the Sunshine, yes please!

Department Store Gourmet-ery

There is a well-known high-end luxury “shopping mall” in Berlin called KaDeWe. Until yesterday I had only heard rumors of its existence and offerings. Finally the curiosity got the best of me, (after having heard a story about the best lobster in town being served at there,) and I had to go check it out.

Imagine, if you will, Harrod’s in London, only higher end and more pretentious. (Is that possible?) Then take the escalator or glass encased elevator all the way up to floors 6 and 7 and you will discover gourmet food like you have never seen it before. The 6th floor is filled with a wide variety of the highest end meats, cheeses, olives, cakes, fruits, and only the best quality packaged food items. And it is not even KaDeWe branded, but individual butchers and cheese sellers who have fantastic stalls in this space. It’s like going into the Bloomingdale’s on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and walking around the make up counters, only with brand-name food.

You walk away from the food counters to the other section of the floor which is designed in much the same fashion, only now the little food stalls don’t just offer you the option to purchase and carry out, but also have seating for 10-20 people around counters were you watch the freshest and highest quality foods prepared before your very eyes, (and for a very hefty pricetag! Though I suspect not too high in the scheme of European eateries, only Berlin ones.) You can sit and eat a cooked to order lobster, (if you’re into that kind of thing,) have sushi, fresh made pastas, steak, etc. Then you step a little to the right and lo-and-behold there is chocolate – everywhere you turn. You can only imagine how my mind whirled as I debated for a half hour on where to sit, what to do, what to do!

I finally decided to head up to the 7th floor, remembering seeing some people sitting and eating happily just one floor above, to see what more they could possible offer. Here is where I found the KaDeWe Buffet. With all the freshest handpicked ingredients, you have your options between German fare, Japanese, Italian, or Seafood…(and probably others). There is also an antipasti bar, a pasta bar, a salad bar, and a dessert bar. I opted for the Pasta eatery where you collect all of the ingredients you wish to be mixed into your pasta in a small bowl and hand it to a woman with a giant wok. She cooks the vegetables to perfection, then asks you, “Green or White?” and you pick your pasta color and then your desired sauce and watch as magic happens before your very eyes.

It’s no coincidence I ordered the cheapest option in the place, a vegetarian pasta dish for 9.95 Eur. But I couldn’t help but think of the hole in the wall shnitzel eatery I was sure was waiting just around the corner to take all of 4 Euros for the same meal as offered inside the monstrosity.

Feast your eyes, (and then grab a snack from the kitchen)!

Pick your ingredients!

Fully Veg - they were all calling out to me!

Then watch as magic happens and the nice lady who said "NO PEOPLE" as I snapped a few photos mixes it all up!

And voila! Mealtime!

Breathe Easy, Berlin

Sitting in a coffee shop on the border of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg offers a vantage point not found in many other neighborhoods of this city. You have the young parents with their strollers mixed in with the crowds of tourists and hipstamatic twenty-somethings all paying for a hot coffee and a spot in the sunshine. New life has been breathed in to Berlin. At long last the long, hard days of winter are behind and the sun shines with a breeze in the air. Just cool enough so that you don’t burn under the glare of the sun, but still warm enough to feel your skin soaking up the rays.

Berlin in the springtime is probably the greatest place to people watch. Everyone comes out of their winter shells, smiles are seen and laughter heard from great distances as pale skin is kissed with a touch of pink from long walks in the park or through the flea markets. Every restaurant, bar, or ice cream shop has chairs on the sidewalk out front and every spot is taken as people are so grateful to feel the warmth of the spring air.

It makes you wonder how is it possible that just two months before the harsh winds were cutting through the air whipping you in its tracks. Gray skies were endless for days or even weeks at a time and bitter cold rains pounded the sidewalks and anyone who dared step in its path. Is it really possible that this is the same city? Where once people walked with their heads ducked avoiding contact with those around with their only urgency to seek shelter from the hard winter, they now beam with happiness, holding their ice cream cones or sipping their lattes with a new life force.

A new life is rushing through the city and where it once was so dark and dreary, it now feels beautiful and refreshing. For all the spring has to offer Berlin, I can only wait patiently for the glory of summer.

White Spargal (Asparagus)

Here is something new I’ve never seen until arriving in Berlin, white asparagus. And not just your ordinary stalks of asparagus, but rather asparagus on steroids and devoid of all color. I don’t know much about it, except that it is grown below ground so never has the opportunity to go through photosynthesis and turn green, but how the hell it grows so large is still a mystery to me. But, any day of the week you can head to a food market and buy this albino veggie in abundance and are guaranteed to love it’s sweet flavor and tender texture.

White Gold (thanks to Google Images)

The Perfect Search

The apartment hunt is on, and while it is difficult enough in a language and city you know well, it is quite another story in a new city among native speakers of a foreign language who sometimes do and sometimes don’t know what you are saying.

And as easy as it may have seemed just 4 months ago to find the perfect 3 room (2 bedroom) apartment with a balcony facing the sun for around 700 Euros, it seems now to be quite impossible in an ever-changing real estate landscape. And not only is it a challenge in itself to find a this steal, but very often the apartments are missing what would be fundamental in any other country I know of, a kitchen…and a closet.

How can that be? you may ask…well really I don’t know, but Berliners are used to having to put in their own kitchens to tailor them to their individuals wants and needs, (which very frequently consist of an IKEA butcher block, a 25 year old stove, and a standard sink that looks from about 1995.) They pick their own fridge, dishwasher, washer/dryer should they choose, and hell, sometimes even their own floor! While this concept seems crazy to an American who is not used to having choice and very frequently is not even allowed to paint the space they are in, the renters in Germany are given total freedom to renovate and update as they see fit for “their” home, at their own expense.

I think some of it has to do with the idea that once you move into a place, you expect to stay for many many years, (I’ve heard stories of Germans living in the same home for 25 years, always paying their landlords on time,) so you really want to make it your own. And while it’s a nice concept, life happens and I can think of only a million circumstances in which you would need to move out before you’re on your deathbed…all of which would not make it worthwhile for me to buy and build my own kitchen.

And so the search continues for my perfect apartment with 2 or 3 rooms, a balcony facing south in a trendy neighborhood, with a fully fitted kitchen, a bathroom with a tub, and an elevator… Finger’s crossed the search pays off!