Tuesday, December 30, 2008


For weeks now stands have been popping up all over the country tempting passers by with the most alluring smells. And until my sister came to town, I exercised the most amazing willpower I never knew I had, and resisted my desire to try a Dutch renowned oliebollen.

It is tradition here to eat oliebollen on the 31st and New Years day. But the Dutch, being the genius people that they are, decided there's no reason to limit yourself to only 2 days a year of savoring the delicious dessert. So, not only do they provide weeks worth of opportunites to eat them, they also provide limitless varieties... although original and raisin filled (no thank you) are the most popular. Ava and I decided not to follow the option of the masses, and shared the most delicious (and warm) apple filled oliebollen.

So, while the rest of you bring in the New Year by watching the ball drop, or setting off fireworks, I will be stuffing my face with balls of fried dough drenched in powdered sugar. Yum.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In the air, there's a feeling of Christmas

To immerse ourselves in the Christmas spirit, my sister, two friends of mine, and I took an extended weekend trip into Germany to visit a few Christmas markets. Nothing says Christmas better than food, hot chocolate, decorated Christmas stands, more food, Germany, and Christmas music being played as you wander around the markets, only to be topped off with even more food.

On Saturday we were on the road by 10:30 and made our first stop in Valkenburg, which is just within the Dutch border. Valkenburg is a tiny town famous for it's caves. The caves were made centuries ago as the rock was quarried out of the underground. In WWII it was used as a bomb shelter and today it's not only a tourist attraction, but is where they hold their annual Christmas markets. The market wasn't as impressive as I was expecting, but the caves themselves were quite neat to see.

Around 4pm we left for Aachen, Germany, about a 30 minute drive away. After checking into our hostel we spent the rest of our evening basking in the spirit of Christmas. The town was decked with Christmas ornaments, decorations and cheer. It appeared as though the markets never ended... what a shopper's delight!

The next morning we started off on the road right after a quick breakfast, to head for Koln (Cologne) to go to church. The Hertz navigation system lead us on quite the adventure the entire trip, but especially that morning. We drove in circles for about 20 minutes trying to find exactly where the church was to no avail. In the end we went to church in Bonn, where half the members are English speaking. Member after member invited us to their ward Christmas lunch right after church, to which we naturally obliged.

During lunch we were told to check out the medieval market in Siegburg on our way back to Koln. Our attention was immediately caught by a game of mouse roulette. We spent many suspenseful minutes waiting for people to bet on which archway the mouse would enter once placed on in the roulette board. Once all the bets were placed, the dealer brought out the mouse. (Which brought a quick shiver down my spine, due to recent events). The end turned out to be very anti-climactic. As soon as the furry thing was placed inside the game board he didn't even bother to circle around once. No more than 1.5 seconds went by before the mouse entered an archway, and the game was over. Worst of all, the winner didn't even get the money... he got a tiny toy mouse instead. Glad I didn't waste my money on that game.

An hour or so later we left for Koln, dropped our luggage in our hotel room and headed towards the city center. Driving over the bridge at night gives the most amazing view of the skyline, with it's gothic church being the crowning jewel. The church, which took about 600 years to build, was absolutely amazing. We spent the evening watching mass, not understanding a word, in the enormous building.

The next day we met up with more friends from Amsterdam in Koln. We all spent the first few hours of the day visiting one market to another. When it comes to variety and creativity, Koln, by far, has the best markets out of all the ones we visited. Each of the 7 markets in the city had entirely different themes and atmosphere. A gnome market, angel market, Grimm Brothers market, and the list goes on. Plus, Koln houses the Lindt chocolate factory. Now, what's better than that??

In the evening we drove up to Essen where our hostel room was booked. We had about 30 minutes to see the markets in the tiny town before they closed for the evening. The city was much newer, which didn't provide as nice an atmosphere while walking around the market as the other cities we had visited. But, that aside, it did have one thing going for it: a food stand that served fruit with melted German chocolate drizzled on top.

The final day was spent in Dusseldorf. All the Dutch rave over the markets there, so I was expecting something much better than what we found. Dusseldorf is quite a modern city, which didn't provide as great a backdrop. And although there were 6 markets, they were all quite tiny. Needless to say, I wasn't too impressed. But then again, nothing says Christmas better than a giant Christmas pyramid... which did make our trip complete!

Thinking about it, I'm sure all of us spent more money on food than we did anything else. Good thing cars don't have weight limits...
Yep, there's nothing better to put you in the Christmas spirit than by visiting the markets in Germany. This is one tradition I'm planning on keeping! Anyone want to join me next year?

Friday, December 19, 2008

caught on tape

My sister arrived yesterday to spend the Christmas holiday with me. While wandering around the city, my dad just happened to catch us on the DonnieCam (live video feed from one of the streets of Amsterdam). What are the odds?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Take nothing for granted...

... especially a nice warm shower.

In the past few weeks my showers have gone from the second most enjoyable part of my daily routine (1st being sleep), to my least enjoyable daily routine. Please note exhibit A.

exhibit A

This is the type of shower faucet that once graced my shower wall. The knob on the left turned on the water and the one on the right adjusted the water temperature. At least that's what it was supposed to do... and had done up until a few weeks ago. The past few weeks the water temperature in my shower has gone from reasonably warm to lukewarm. About two weeks ago, not only was it lukewarm, but it alternated between that and cold. I'd stand pleading with the shower water to warm so I could get the rest of the shampoo out of my hair.
Then, last Sunday was like the straw that broke the camel's back. The shower water was cold... the entire time. Now, if I were in some warm and exotic island, a cold shower wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. But, with the 32 degree weather outside, cold showers really aren't what I consider enjoyable.
So, after a number of emails back and forth with my landlord trying to figure out what could be causing the issue, we determined it was the faucet. He replaced the old faucet, with this wonderful, absolutely beautiful new one.

And today, taking a shower became the #1 enjoyable part of my day. I could have stayed in it for hours as the steam billowed upward, ... but I didn't. I did stay in it a bit longer than usual though, to make up for all the cold showers I've had the past week. I think the new faucet and I are going to be the best of friends throughout the rest of the winter months here in Amsterdam.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Three blind mice

"She cut off their tails with a carving knife, you've never seen such a sight in your life!"

The gruesome tale I'm about to tell not only created an underlying kinship between the farmers wife and myself, she then became my hero as well. She was calm, cool and collected. She didn't scream, jump on a chair and call for her husband (who obviously hadn't performed his "protector-like" duties by making sure there were no holes in the house... which is something that could lead to an entirely different discussion). No, this wonderful, quick thinking woman, who was being chased by three disgusting, albeit blind, mice grabbed the nearest deadly weapon in view and with such accurate precision cut off their tails. What an empowering story!

Although my tale didn't have as gory an ending, justice was just as sweet. About a month ago the seasonal cold was being passed around the office. I tried my hardest to hold my breath from the moment I walked through the doors in the morning, until the moment I walked out them at night to save me from the germs floating in the air. Needless to say, I was very unsuccessful at that. One of those evenings as I arrived home, my throat was a bit sore. "Here we go," I thought as I was cursing my co-workers, "guess it's my go round." So, as I was pouring a few drops of my grandmother's wonderful herbal remedy, thieves oil, into some water I noticed a bag of spaghetti noodles I had set on the counter had a hole in it. "Well that's a waste," I said as I threw away the bag. I then was off to bed.

My throat was on fire that night. I laid tossing and turning in my bed for hours, along with getting up frequently to try everything imaginable to coat my throat. Around 5am, as I laid awake in my bed, I heard a rustling noise which appeared to be coming from my kitchen. Three things ran through my head at that time. A) Who's in my house with me?, B) I did lock the door, right? and C) Man, I wish I had a bat.

I quietly tip-toed out of my bed, peered around my door, and quickly flipped on my light. To my horror I watched as a shocked mouse fled from the bag of cereal it was eating and hid behind two large jars that sit on the counter. "ARG!," I exclaimed. A nasty mouse was running with it's filthy feet all over my counters and eating the cereal I had laid out the night before to take with me to work! This meant war. A totally uninvited creature who was infecting my sanctuary with it's nasty body deserved to die, I reasoned. I thought of grabbing a knife, or a hammer, but decided against it since I didn't have the patience -or enough bottles of Lysol- to clean up mouse blood from my counters.

I grabbed a glass bottle, in hopes of trapping him in there. As I pushed aside the jars he was hiding behind I noticed I needed a spaghetti sauce bottle instead, since the opening would be a bit bigger. When I went to grab another bottle, the mouse made a mad dash to freedom - running across the counters, jumping over the sink, sprinting over the stove top and then was out of sight when he reached the washing machine. I was fuming- "I keep a clean house," I mumbled, "it has no right... my heart's beating a mile a minute... stupid mouse... how dare he... I feel like crap... why my house... one way or another he's going to die!" My lack of sleep didn't help the situation at all.

I set about sanitizing my counters and hopped on the internet in search of brutal home-made ways of killing a mouse that deserves such a death after what it put me through. Either there is no such way to kill a mouse, or people of the internet world are much nicer than I am, because all I could find were humane ways of disposing of such nasty creatures. "What is wrong with the world?," I thought, "What's next? Humane ways of disposing of roaches??" Unable to do much more without mouse traps or poison, I left for work.

My colleagues laughed when I told them the story of my living nightmare. "Welcome to Amsterdam," they chimed. I heard things like, "it's common in winter for mice to come indoors, are you sure it's a mouse and not a rat, -and- you should get a cat." "It's not a rat!," I exclaimed, "and I'm allergic to cats."

My throat got worse during the course of the day, and within a 5 minute time period, my voice all but disappeared. Since I was virtually useless at work, due to no voice, I left a bit early. On my way home I bought 5 mouse traps at the pet store. The lady at the counter stated that it was the day of the mouse trap and that they were selling like wildfire. Then to add to the comforting words she already gave me, she smiled and stated "the mouse infestation is only going to get worse as it continues to get colder outside." Finding no humor in her words I thought "these better work... otherwise I'm buying a shotgun." Before arriving home I bought 2 more traps and a few boxes of poison at a general hardware store.

That night was just as sleepless, since my cold had worsened. Again, around 5am I heard noises, but I couldn't pinpoint where the sound was coming from. After a few minutes of listening, it dawned on me that the creature was inside my dresser drawer where I kept my food storage. I was beyond outraged at this point. I felt so violated. As I opened the bottom drawer where the food was kept the mouse scurried out and hid itself under my bed. I spent the next 30 minutes cleaning out my drawer, salvaging canned goods and whatever wasn't torn into.

Since I had left one of my drawers cracked open, it gave him easy access to the food. But he managed to leave feces all over my clothing in the process... which provided me with 2 days worth of laundry to take care of. Once I was done with the temporary mouse proofing of my food, it was nearly 7am. I was feeling tired, achy, and all around horrible so I called in sick. I grabbed the pillows from off my bed, wrapped myself in a blanket and fell asleep on the couch, because there was absolutely no way I was going to be in the same room as that... thing.

That afternoon I bought a tupperware tub and placed my food storage there, then piled heavy objects on top to make sure the mouse wouldn't be able to squeeze it's way between the lid and tub. I also learned that my upstairs neighbors were trying to get rid of not just one, but two mice in their house. My neighbor proceeded to tell me that he never had mice problems until my landlord bought cats, which chased the mice upstairs. "Why??," I thought "Why didn't my landlord tell me he had mouse infestation problems when I first moved in? I could have started mouse proofing the house then."

Later that evening as I was talking to my mom, who initially thought I was my little brother's friend due to my hoarse voice, I heard scratching noises coming from my bedroom. "I bet he's trying to dig a hole into your mattress," my mom quipped. "Not funny!" I replied while running into my bedroom to beat it out of my mattress if it actually happened to be in there. Gratefully, by the time I was ready for bed I saw it running along the baseboard of my kitchen, so I knew it was no longer in my bedroom.

The next morning I noticed he was eating the food off the traps without them detonating. This was one sneaky little bugger. When I related my dilemma to anyone who would listen, one of the missionaries said she had a mouse in her house when she lived in NYC. She told me they filled all their holes with insulation foam, and never saw the mouse again. Brilliant! I ran to the corner paint store and bought a can. I used up the can on what I thought were all the holes in my house. "There," I sighed, "if he's in, he can't get out and will die."

A few days went by and I hadn't seen him, although paranoia seemed to get the better of me and I was jumping at every sound I heard in my house. I knew he was in the house somewhere. One week from the first mouse spotting, one of my co-workers came to my house to install a light fixture in my bathroom. As I'd pause at times to focus on a noise I'd just heard, he'd insist: "Claire, it's not the mouse, calm down." But once he left I noticed one of the mouse traps had shifted. I knew neither my co-worker nor I was near the trap. It only meant one thing... I was not paranoid after all.

Not even 30 minutes later I heard the most blessed sound: SNAP! "JUSTICE," I cried, "sweet, sweet justice!" I could have shed tears of joy. I started dancing around my apartment in the sheer excitement of it all. After a few minutes, and once I was sure he was good and dead, I went to see my victim. It definitely wasn't the same mouse I had previously seen. The mouse I found dead in a trap was a baby. Which meant: there were more of them! Ugh. I had visions of my entire house filled with a mouse colony, soon to be unable to step on the floors because it'd be covered in mice.

"No," I demanded, "this has to stop here and now!" Now actually turned into 2 days later, which was the first time I could get more insulation foam. The following night, however, my upstairs neighbor and her two boys came down to chat. I asked her about their mouse problem, and told her I had bought insulation foam which in the end I was hoping would work. She agreed it was a smart idea, but said the mice didn't bother her since she wasn't scared of them. (Oh, I wasn't scared of them either... but they sure as heck bothered me!) She said she grew up in Amsterdam, so was used to them at a young age. She said she remembers her parents pointing to a mouse under the table and saying "oh look honey, there's a mouse eating the crumbs you dropped, now we don't have to vacuum." I choked back a gasp and forced out a laugh instead. Although, I'm sure my facial expression said it all.

It's now been a few weeks since I went over my house the second time with insulation foam. I discovered that there was a few inch gap between the back of my cabinets and the wall, so I made sure to fill it up nice and tight. I haven't seen a mouse since then. Granted, I'm still a bit paranoid, running into the kitchen when I hear a sound. Or waking up with a start at 2am, like today, when I heard scratching noises... which ended up being hail tapping the window.

My hope is that he's gone forever, and that the insulation foam is doing it's job at keeping the mice at bay. But I'm not about to test it by leaving anything out on the counter, that's for sure!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sinterklaas poems

Since my poem really wasn't anonymous at work, I've decided to share it with the blog-o-sphere. Children write poems to Sinterklaas when they're young. Adults write the poems as if they're letters written by Sinterklaas. The colleague of mine who pulled my name wrote the poem in English as well. It wasn't hard to figure out who it was, since out of everyone, he knows the least amout of English. Poor guy had no luck this year.

Poem written by me:


Sinterklaas was trying to find his way through a cloud of smoke...unable to see where he was going, he ran into a bloke.
"Hello, my name is Willem" said the deep voiced man,"Where is it you're headed?" he asked, "I'll help you if I can."
"I was heading to your house," Sinterklaas said with a smile.
Although trying to be polite, he was coughing all the while.
"Funny thing is," said Sinterklaas, "a while ago I could see.""But around here it's all cloudy,... now, how could that be?"
Willem answered: "Oh, it's just my cigarette,no need to dispair --
Actually, if you would like one, I have more right over there."
"No, no," replied Sinterklaas, "they're not good for me.
--But,since you have one extra, you can give it to Zwarte Piet."

- Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Poem written to me, with a picture to boot!

Piep, Piep,.......

There is a mouse in the house of Claire.
Even he is thick or fast, Claire will catch him at last.


-- stay tuned for the story behind that poem.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's in a name?

"That which we call Sinterklaas, By any other name would be as Jolly." Although 'Santa Claus' derived from 'Sinterklaas' by the Dutch immigrants who were living in New Amsterdam (now New York), all the Dutch here say that he is two and completely separate individuals. Either way, he/they started out as the same person: Saint Nicholas. He was a generous Greek Bishop, born in what is now Turkey. His legend has lived on, but before he turned into Santa Claus, he was... and still is, known as Sinterklaas.

Being from German heritage, we celebrated Saint Nicholas day (December 6th) growing up. As kids we'd stick our shoes outside the night before, and received candy in the morning. Later on, Saint Nicholas would stick the candy inside our stockings (a. they were much cleaner, and b. they were MUCH bigger!). The Dutch go one step farther.
In the middle of November, Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain with his helpers named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). In the days of Saint Nicholas, three small boys were sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit. Bishop Nicholas saved them all, and they decided to stay with him, helping him go down the chimney and jumping on rooftops to deliver presents. It's said that the reason his helpers are black is because of the soot from the chimneys, so no, there are no racial connotations.

From then on, the country is abuzz with Sinterklaas activities, all building up for the 5th, which is Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas Eve). Many children today still stick their shoes by the fireplace the night of the 5th, which is the only part of the tradition I'm used to, and receive presents on the 6th. However, the more common tradition is a bit different. After the singing Sinterklaas songs on the evening of the 5th, there will be a loud knock on the door or the window, and a sack full of presents is found on the doorstep, or next to the chimney.
Many families only exchange presents on Sinterklaasavond in place of Christmas... others do both. Adults join in on the fun by writing poems about each other which poke a bit of fun of the person they're writing about. That's exactly what my team did at work. In November we drew names, since the poems are supposed to be anonymous, and read them aloud today. Obviously the one I wrote wasn't anonymous since it was in English, but I'm still not admitting I'm the one who wrote it.

I'm sure I gained a few pounds today after eating all the pepernoten (Sinterklaas cookies), chocolate covered shortbread cookies, and gingerbread cupcakes that were part of the celebration. Plus, Sinterklaas had stopped by my managers house and dropped off chocolate letters for us all, which we received after reading aloud the poems which were written for us.

On my way home from work I watched as a mom pointed to the window of their home for her son to see Zwarte Piet's hat caught on the windowsill. The boy looked at the window incredulously, his eyes as wide as saucers. Then this evening my upstairs neighbors came down to visit. They said that Sinterklaas had left a present for me in the sack Zwarte Piet dropped off to them. So they brought me the present (another chocolate letter) along with homemade pepernoten. Yummy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving, Dutch style

Ten points for anyone who can name where a large majority of the pilgrims first settled. Any takers? ---- No, it wasn't in the US, otherwise I wouldn't have asked that question. And your answer has to be more specific than 'The Netherlands'.

The very fist place the pilgrims fled was to Amsterdam. But, if that was your answer, you'd be wrong. They lived in Amsterdam for 6 months, but didn't settle there.

The correct answer is: Leiden. They settled in Leiden for 11 years before making their pilgrimage to the US. Leiden is about an hour away by train, and just north of Den Haag, in western Holland. Obviously the pilgrims didn't take the train there, but I wasn’t keen on renting a horse and buggy to provide the official travel time.

On Saturday I was invited to go to the English speaking branch of my church to have dinner with them. Which means, I was lucky enough to have two Thanksgivings this year. (Thursday I shared it with 14 other Americans here in Amsterdam.) Since the branch meets in Leiden, I went early with two friends to tour the town and get us in the Thanksgiving mood.

Leiden looks like a smaller version of Amsterdam, but with a lot more breathing room. It wasn't hard to see why the pilgrims wanted to call Leiden home. We wandered around town for a while, toured a few churches and stopped at the pilgrim's museum. For 3 Euros we received a phenomenal hour long history lesson of pilgrim life. The museum volunteer was originally from Oregon. Thirty years ago he just ‘happened’ to move to Leiden, then decided to get his masters degree in the history of the city from 1550-1650. Now that he is retired, he volunteers at the museum, willing and ready to answer any question you can throw at him.

The main reason the pilgrims moved to Leiden, which was the 2nd largest city in Holland at the time, was because there were many opportunities for work. However, after 11 years, work wasn't as plentiful and they began to worry that their children were being corrupted by the Dutch. So they made their voyage across the wide blue sea, making a slight detour in the UK to board the Mayflower.

If you and I are on the same wavelength, you may think, "wait…, ‘corrupted’ by the Dutch?" In response to your brilliant question, I’ll tell you what I learned. The pilgrims were quite orthodox in their religion. They had 3 meetings every Sunday. The 2nd meeting was mainly a discussion between men, and the women and children had to sit silently and listen. -Albeit, at times women were permitted to contribute to the discussion.- During this 2nd meeting, their children would get restless as they heard the little Dutch kids playing outside in the afternoon sun. And that was how the Dutch were corrupting the children of the British religionists.

After the lesson we stopped next door at an antique shop, which housed artifacts of the pilgrim era. It was a labyrinth of items to walk through, and quite neat to say the least. I'm not sure what anyone would do with half the items they had, such as a broken church spire. Although, I’m sure it would make for a good conversation piece.

Our last stop before dinner was to visit the city's fort. I was in awe that there was a hill, and such a large one at that, in the Netherlands. ...Until we discovered it was man made. The view from the top of the fort was beautiful, and again confirmed why the pilgrims chose Leiden to settle in for so long.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Day 20: and so [we] face the final curtain

What I'm about to say is said with a heavy heart. This is the last of my posts on my "mommy and me" vacation. Please try to hold back the tears. Heck, you can go back and read the posts of our 20 day adventure as often as you'd like.

So, how, you may ask, did we end up spending the last day of our trip together in Rothenburg? Honestly, I'm having a hard time remembering.

Now that 5 minutes have gone by, and since my 28 year old mind hasn't succumbed to Alzheimer’s yet, our last day is vaguely coming into view. We had a delicious German breakfast at the hotel. Rolls, cheeses, warm hard boiled eggs, honey, fruit, juices... the works. We parked our luggage in the breakfast/make-shift storage room and made our way over to the medieval torture museum.

We admired all the creativity used "back in the day" and chose the items that would be nice to use on my brothers from time to time. Well over an hour and a half went by and we still hadn't gone through the entire museum. But we felt we gained a sufficient amount of knowledge on how to torture those who require more than just the usual types of punishment known in our day and age.

So, we left and got a bratwurst for lunch. We only had a few more hours to pick up our last souvenirs in Germany so we set about buying a few items. Number one requirement on my list was to buy more schneeballs in a large variety for myself... and a few miniature ones for my colleagues. We went to 3 different schneeball shops to gather the perfect varieties, but it was well worth the search. (For those of you who are wondering, the caramel and chocolate filled varieties were my two favorites).

Once we broke the bank on souvenirs, we took the opportunity to walk the rest of the wall, since we hadn't walked the entire thing the prior day. During the war, part of R.o.d.T was bombed, because there were Nazi soldiers stationed there. The US Assistant Secretary of War's mother had a painting of the town displayed in his childhood home, and it left a lasting impression on him. So, when he discovered that it was in the process of being destroyed, he commanded the US army general to not use artillery in taking over the city. It was eventually handed over by the local militia, due to the German commander not following Hitler's orders in fighting to the end.
After the war, residents of the town set about repairing the damaged part of the city. When people from around the world, who had previously fallen in love with Rottenburg, got word of the destruction they gave donations for the reconstruction of the town. Now the names and hometowns of the donators grace the wall. It's quite a beautiful site to see.
We had an amazing trip, granted it had it's up's and down's, but there was no better way to spend our birthdays than traveling Europe together.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day 19: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

We couldn't have ended the trip in a better place. Rothenburg ob der Tauber was number one in my book of all the cities/villages we visited. Nothing beats a quaint walled-in medieval city to end a trip on a relaxing note.

My mom wanted to arrive there early, which meant we had to leave even earlier. I mean, up at 3:45 to catch the 4:30 train, early. The 4:30 train turned into the 5:15 train, and our 7:00 connection turned into our nearly 9:00 connection. In a nutshell, we woke up at 3:45 to wait at train stations, only to arrive in R.o.d.T. around lunch time, which was hours after my mom's desired early arrival.
We checked into our hotel, which looked like your typical medieval styled German home, and went in search of food. Lunch was absolutely excellent, except for the elderly waiter/owner who asked my mom to leave me in the city. That was slightly uncomfortable... .

We climbed the tower of the Town Hall, which was built between the 1300-1400’s, and overlooked the city. I was paralyzed up at the top, my fear of heights took over... and I was freaking out. Hang gliding was nothing compared to that tower. I tried playing cool, but my mom called my bluff as I was clinging to the wall, trying to stay as far away from the ledge as possible.

After making our way back down, we decided to check out the Christmas shops, which are what put R.o.d.T on the map in our day. By the time we made our way down to the end of the road, we were all Christmas-ed out. So, we decided to walk a part of the wall that surrounded the city.
The view was amazing, and the walk was so relaxing. We ended at the city gardens, which used to be where the royal family's castle was. My mom and I spent a good part of an hour sitting on the wall, absorbing the view. Then rain clouds started rolling in.
We made our way back to the hotel, stopping at any remaining store that was open... which weren't many. However, there was one shop I was excited to find still open. In the medieval era, women used to make a dessert called a "Schneeball" or snowball, which is a ball of dough pieces that taste somewhat like a donut. The tradition has been kept alive for the past 600 years, and is another famous trademark of the city. So, we popped into the store to buy a chocolate covered (and filled) schneeball. My mom didn't like it as much as I did, so I was the "unfortunate" one to finish it off.
We hid from the rain for a while inside our hotel room, but didn't let the rain stop us from taking the Night Watchman tour. We were led through the streets by the local "night watchman" who told us stories about life in the days when the city was in it's prime. We both agreed it's an absolute necessity to take the evening tour if visiting the city. And the rain only helped set the mood.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day 18: Walk like an Egyptian

My mom is first generation American, her parents both came from Germany after the 2nd World War. My grandmother lived in the heart of Berlin and at a certain point during the war, the house she and my great grandfather lived in was taken over and turned into a hospital. Unfortunately my mom couldn't remember where the house was located exactly. Even though the house is no longer in the family, it still would have been nice to see. However, we still own land in a small town just outside of Berlin.

My mom had emailed my aunt to get the exact address of our family's land. We were both looking forward to seeing it. So we arrived at the the train station rather early to catch the train. But then after checking and double checking, plus speaking to customer service, we found out it would take us over half the day to see the property. The train would drop us off nearby, but then we'd have to wait around for a bus that runs 3 times a day to take us to our land. Quite a shame. But we hadn't given up hope. We decided to check out how much renting a car would cost,... and then gave up hope.

Since visiting our property was out of the picture we went back to the hostel to eat breakfast and regroup. When we had arrived the day before, I noticed a half bombed church while passing by on the train. Since I had a desire to see it up close, we went there after breakfast. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was built in the late 1800's and bombed in 1943. Thankfully it was preserved -as is- to serve as a memorial of what happened, since the majority of the city was rebuilt. Although, in the early 60's two other buildings were constructed for worship, which look completely out of place, but have become famous themselves.

Now, I'm sorry to say, I've come to the point where I'm at a loss as to the exact details of our day. My notes ran out on the beginning of day 16, and try as I might, I just can't remember all that we had done... except through pictures.

That being said, at some point after visiting the church we went to the history museum for one purpose only: my dad. There are many things he says that, being completely honest, go in one ear and out the other. But I'm sure he knows that. There are other things he says, though, that I don't forget... because I am a good daughter after all. One of the things that stuck was the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts he spoke of. One of his passions include the Egyptian culture. Knowing the large collection he spoke of was within walking distance, we couldn't not go into the history museum. Granted, I couldn't appreciate the collection like he could, so I took over a hundred pictures which will allow him to admire it second hand. (Merry Christmas Dad!)

At some point after the trip to the museum we stopped at, what we learned the day before to be, one of the best cafe's in all of Berlin. They serve 30 different types of cake daily. (No pictures were needed to remind me of going there). And boy, did they serve THE best hot chocolate. Mmmm....

We didn't end up staying out too much later that night. My mom's arm started to swell and hurt. We had stopped at an ice cream parlor for her to put ice on it for a few minutes before deciding to go back to the hostel early. An early night let us plan for our last two days that way... and allowed us much needed rest, since we really hadn't stopped moving since Venice.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Day 17: Ich ben ein Berliner

The train ride up to Berlin was horrible. The couchette was sweltering hot, and the two other people we were sharing with had 2 oversized bags a piece. There was no room to move and too hot to sleep. Worst part of all though was that all the chocolates I had bought were all melted. What a bummer. We were kicked off the train early and were told we needed to take a different connection than planned. When we finally arrived in Berlin, nearly half the day was gone.

I had made reservations at the same hostel chain that we had stayed at in Austria. Who would have thought a chain hostel would be drastically different from one place to the next. Upon entering our room we found what looked like a tornado had passed through. It was worse than my teenaged brother's bedrooms and bathroom which, anyone in my family can attest, is saying something. We took the opportunity to change clothes, then took our suitcases with us back over to the front desk. 'There's no way we're staying in that room', we told the receptionist. She made us take her back to the room so she could see for herself. 'I guess the room hasn't been cleaned yet', came her response, as if we were too dumb to figure that one out on our own. After talking it over, we put our luggage into the storage area, since there was no other available room. My mom and I decided we'd look for another place to stay later, because we were on a time crunch.
But then after greater hesitation we decided to quickly look online and found a much better hostel to stay with. We had enough time to check into the other hostel before our tour of Berlin started. Just as I was getting my money back from the hostel, a herd of young people piled into the reception area. We managed to squeeze our way through the teenagers and their luggage to find that the elevator down to the storage area was blocked by the herd as well. So we took the stairs, which unbeknown to us had been mopped within the 5 minutes we had stored our suitcases. My poor little mom, not knowing the floors were wet, started down the stairs, slipped and landed on her arm. It immediately started to swell and bruise. I grabbed the suitcases, and helped her carry hers up the stairs and left the hole of a hostel as quickly as we could through the back door.

The metro dropped us off at the doorstep of the hostel we changed to, which was located in once was East Berlin. It also happened to be a stones throw from most every place we wanted to visit, which made the change even more convenient. Gratefully we entered our private and wonderfully clean room, dropped off our things and left for the designated spot for our tour. On the way we stopped at a pharmacy for my mom to get pain and swelling reducing medicine. When she returned home she found out her arm wasn't broken like we suspected, she had a blood clot instead.
We made it to our tour, and even had time to get doner kebabs to eat along the way. The tour was fantastic. The guide was an expat studying German history at the University of Berlin, and was a plethora of knowledge. For nearly 4 hours she led us on a journey through the history of East Berlin. We stood at the river and learned of the city's beginnings as port, we went to the museum island and learned of the history of the Kaisers, we walked down Unter den Linden street where Hitler had cut down all the trees to have a better view during his dictatorship.
We walked by a free standing piece of the wall, she explained to us stories about Checkpoint Charlie as we stood in front of it, we walked through the Jewish Memorial, and stood on Hitler's rightfully deserved memorial... a parking lot.

After the tour ended, we loaded up on more delicious chocolates at a gormet chocolate shop, before going over to the Opera House. As we entered the concert hall, we looked like homeless people among the rich. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday finest, except for us. We soon discovered that the concert had to be a school run production when the first 30 minutes faculty were being thanked, and 2 minutes of clapping followed each name that was read aloud. We stayed for the next hour listening to the symphony and left after the intermission when more speeches began.
When we finally made it to the hostel I was famished. So my mom and I ate a curry worst and fries at the downstairs restaurant of the hostel and finally crashed for the night.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Saint Martin's Day

Never did I imagine that my vacation postings would go well into the middle of November. No, I'm not done yet, as I have a few days left to go. So, I'm making a brief interruption.

Martinsdag, or St. Martin's Day, is a celebration of Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier in early 300 AD. Legend has it, he was at the gates of a city with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the beggar. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away. He heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me."

Soon after, he was baptized. He served in the military for another two years until, just before a battle in 336, Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight."

He realized he was in the wrong vocation, and went to the city of Tours to become a monk, then a bishop and after his death on November 11th, he became a saint. From the late 4th century to the late Middle Ages much of Western Europe began a 40 day fast the day after November 11th, which was called "the forty days of Saint Martin", ironically enough. On November 11th, St. Martin's Eve, a giant feast was held before the fast began.

Today little children celebrate the holiday by decorating lanterns and going door to door singing songs about Saint Martin and November 11th, receiving candy in return. Riding home this evening it looked a bit like kids were trick-or-treating, with the exception of not wearing a costume and carrying a home-made lantern instead.

My adorable upstairs neighbor boys came by my home with their lanterns later in the evening and sang me some songs. In a way, I found it to be even nicer than seeing children in their clever costumes, which may be because they had to work for their candy by singing.

Fun fact: Martin Luther was named after St. Martin, as he was baptized on November 11 (St. Martin's Day), 1483.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Day 16: The Hills Are Alive

Ah... The Sound of Music. I've seen the movie a handful of times, but I've only seen the ending once. And I'm not sure I even watched the movie in its entirety when I finally saw the Van Trapp family hiding from the Nazi's as they were fleeing the country.

But even though I'm no die hard fan, I still had a desire to visit the city where the movie was filmed and the real story took place. Plus, we had an extra day to use since we only went to Prague for 1 day instead of two.

Another fact I'll disclose about myself is that oftentimes my attitude is based on the amount of food that is in my stomach. Yes, it is quite sad, but I'm usually good about satisfying its needs... which is probably why it's so hard for me to lose even 5 pounds. But that's beside the point. When we arrived in Salzburg around 11 am, not having eaten, all I was focused on was food. I'm sure I wasn't the most pleasant person to be around, but my mom's an amazing woman, and took it in stride.

So, food is what we went in search of... after we locked up our luggage, and bought tickets to see the Sound of Music musical. We ate outside at a cozy little restaurant. Sticking to the theme of the day, I ordered schnitzel with noodles, since they are one of Maria's favorite things. My mom, however, didn't play the game and had a giant meatball instead.

We walked down the main streets, filled with unique signs that hung over each shop. It's something which has been passed down since the medieval era since most people couldn't read at that time. We both really enjoyed Salzburg. It is a beautiful city, with houses built right out of the mountains, crystal clear rivers, and extremely clean streets. My favorite part of it all though, had to be the women who kept tradition alive by wearing dirndl dresses. Tourists even took part in the tradition, spending more than 700 Euros for a dress. Question is, when will they use them once they leave Salzburg? Because 700 euros is quite a lot to spend on a Halloween costume. But then again, nothing beats seeing an Asian lady in a dirndl.
We paused in front of Mozart's house, entered a cathedral which I deemed my favorite so far on the trip, and then climbed every mountain. Ok... we didn't climb EVERY mountain, but we climbed the one that lead to the famous Salzburg castle. Not feeling like paying a fee to enter the castle, we continued onward and upward until we reached a tower with bagpipe music escaping from the one window the tower had. I'm sure the city, or at least their family members, were grateful they chose the tower to practice in since it sounded like they just started learning to play the instrument.

Wanting to keep with the theme of the day, the next item on our list -after "herbal tea time"- was to see the gardens my mom said were in the movie. Although made famous through the movie, I can't seem to remember the name of the specific gardens we went to. But what I do remember is singing Edelweiss as we walked through them. We could have spent hours relaxing amongst the flowers, but then again we did have a musical to see.

And what a musical it was. Absolutely horrible. We spent as much money on that excruciating experience as we did the night before for an absolutely wonderful concert. It felt like we were back in elementary school... or Disney Land where you can see things like that for free. My mom and I grimaced throughout the whole thing, but stayed since it was later in the evening and everything besides restaurants were closed. The best part of the entire musical was when we could say "so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, GOOD BYE!"

By that point we had about 30 minutes before we had to take a bus back over to the station, so we took one last small walk around the city streets. The city is even more beautiful lit up, although hard to capture on camera at that time of night. Then we had to say good night to the city and walked onto the train to face yet another frustrating couchette experience. And to think, we were no longer in Italy...