Sunday, September 5, 2010

Berlin ist für die Vögel

Early summer was filled with work and in mid-July we headed to the US for (gasp, sigh) almost a whole month of vacation. Three days in New York were much too short and I never feel like I really get to spend enough time with anyone, but there was great Mexican food, cocktails below the High Line, sweatshop work, a mechanical bull accident (not mine), and a speed walk through my beloved Union Square Greenmarket. A week in Nelson County was perfect: a cabin tucked right next to a mountain with just enough space for a creek to run between. Terriers and husband spent much time with their feet in the water (looking for mischief and reading American history, respectively). We hiked, kakayed the James River, picked blackberries (cobbler), heard bluegrass, ate our weight in barbecue, and got attacked (well, surprised, anyway) by a bat in the bedroom). Coming back to Berlin after being gone for so many nice weeks was downright strange. The dictionary lists 31 entries for the word home, but doesn't begin to explain the complexity of this word for me.

I never realized how much I like summer weather until I lived in a place without it (actually Berlin did have a few (as in, like 3) hot days this year). Stepping off the plane in Berlin there was a noticeable chill in the air (mid-August, mind you) we've tried to make the most of the pre-winter season.
We've been dodging the rain drops and have been canoeing again in beautiul Feldberg and finally took a day-trip to Leipzig, where we wandered the historic center, lunched on wild boar at the much-better-than-expected Auerbachs Keller, which dates to 1530 (Goethe ate here!), and hung out with these birds during a rainstorm. In other bird-related news, we've been waiting all year for a bird to discover our feeder and this week it finally happened. Unfortunately, we've been found out by the pigeon who lives in the tree across the street. Is this supposed to make me less home-sick for New York?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Drausen und auf den Beinen

Despite the less than stellar weather we've had this spring, we've been out and about and on the move a lot. The German May is packed with holidays like Tag der Arbeit (or May Day, as I like to call it), Himmelfart (aka Ascension and here I need to add that the word ascension (especially in Spanish, but even in comely English) sounds like the ascent to heaven. Himmelfart sounds like a scabby disease: You wouldn't believe how bad my Himmelfart is these days....)) and Pfingesten (aka Pentecost), which turn into long weekends, perfect for escaping the city. I can be pretty grumpy about Berlin, but I will say that one of the best things about this place is how easy it is to get out of here without a car. (I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to what it means that my favorite thing about this place is how easy it is to get out of it.)

Anyway, to celebrate (or cure our) Himmelfart, we biked north to Usedom. Or tried. Things went pretty well for the first two days. The weather was unwaveringly gray and chilly, but the scenery was lovely (lots of canola fields and blossoming apple trees), and those of us about 20 years out of bike practice were really appreciating how flat things are between Berlin and the Baltic Sea. Because of the weather, we decided not to camp, but to stay in the hotel in whichever small town we ended up in at the end of the day. The first was the Hotel Panorama, which lived up to its name if you consider a construction site with a pink crane outside your window to be a panorama (defined by as: an unobstructed and wide view of an extensive area in all directions.) The food on the trip, aside from our picnic lunches, of course, was nothing to write home about, but the Panorama (which had some odd delusions of grandeur), did have a pretty decent breakfast spread, including pumpkin seed butter, which I'd never seen before (although pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil are typical products from this corner of Germany) and was quite good. We spend the second night in a totally unremarkable hotel in the town of Pasewalk and woke up to pouring rain. There was nothing to do but take the train back to Berlin (and the 10-minute bike ride to the train station was pretty miserable), where we discovered the best (by far) Doener Kebab in Berlin (and I wrote my Masters thesis on Doener, so I'm definitely qualified to make this proclamation), rented videos, and spent the rest of the weekend on the couch under a pile of blankets.

But you can't keep us down for long. Last weekend we headed out again, this time with a few friends, to camp-canoe in Müritz. Somehow, even though the weather was again mostly gray and chilly (and soggy at times), I still managed to get a little sunburn. I also managed to flip my very stable canoe and end up in the water, but that's another story. We did some very good picnicking and campfire cooking this trip, including a giant muffuletta sandwich, marinated sausages, and grilled asparagus. I also continued my crusade to persuade Germans of the absolute deliciousness of s'mores and I think I made some headway this trip, although I can't seem to get the Germans to understand that bar cookies are not all called brownies. They also seem to think I invented oatmeal chocolate chip bars.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Schöneberg ist Schön

We haven't been on any big adventures lately (although the intermittent spring weather has allowed for a few nice outings (a long walk from train station in Potsdam through the woods to Albert Einstein's summer house in Caputh with BR & co. with well-earned Spargel (if all Spargel was this good, I would understand what all the fuss is about), a very nice walk from my apartment past the zoo (great view of lounging kangaroos through the fence) to the western end of the Landwehr Kanal concluding with a delicious picnic with egg salad and homegrown cress, and a long-awaited visit to the Holländische Viertel (Dutch Quarter) in Potsdam (no idea what all the fuss is about) and a lovely stroll through Babelsberg Park.)) While we are gearing up for upcoming adventures (Return to Barcelona (will it be as magical as I remember it? Do I still speak Spanish? How much ham will I be able to eat in three days?) and The Effect of DC Summer Weather on a Certain German (aka almost an entire month on the East Coast!!!), I will leave you with a few cool things in my neighborhood:

1. There is a saddle shop around the corner. I'm not a horse person at all, but I love the fact that two minutes from my front door, I can buy handmade reins and a saddle and other leather horse paraphernalia.

2. A few doors down is a little Italian coffee place, mostly selling expensive espresso machines and other overpriced kitchen equipment, but they also make espresso and capuccino (no Milchkaffee here!) and the like. The store is owned and staffed by real Italians with a good understanding of what coffee can be (it's hit or miss when it comes to good coffee in this town). By now I can usually tell by looking which places will have undrinkable coffee, but so many seemingly nice places have just average coffee. It's discouraging, but a good reason to grind my own and drink at home or patronize our very local businesses). My favorite thing about the shop, though, is their mascot, this funny French bulldog who can always be found lounging on the rug inside the shop or (in nicer weather) keeping watch near the door.

3. A few streets away, over the S-Bahn tracks is The Museum of Unheard of Things (Museum der Unerhörten Dinge), which is about the size of my pantry (another thing I like about my neighborhood is that I have a pantry). This free museum is the pet project of Roland Albrecht and he displays small objects, such as a plastic bird representing the canary of Fraxern, a crystallized rose similar to the one Goethe had, and other totally random things on the shelf and walls lining the tiny room. My completely unfair beef with the museum is that the description for each object is a full page, single-spaced, back and front in German. I am a very, very slow and unhappy reader of German and so I must admit I didn't understand a lot of what I saw, but I really like the spirit of the museum and the fact that I can pop in on my way to the grocery store.

4. I grocery shop a lot. Sometimes six times a week. I love to grocery shop and while I do find food shopping in Berlin not quite up to what is was in the other cities I've lived in (oh the covered markets in Barcelona! or the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC!), things have improved since we moved. I've shopped at more than my share of the organic markets in Berlin and I can say only good things about the Bio Company (at least the one on Hauptstrasse). The produce is fresher than in any of the other organic markets I've used, the quality of the meat is truly impressive, they make a real effort to stock local products (it's not perfect, but I have to take what I can get) and the service is practically American. A good grocery store may not make or break your neighborhood, but it makes a huge difference in my life.

5. One of my main gripes about Berlin is that you can't go out for ice cream after 8 pm. I guess there must be a few exceptions, but most ice cream places close at 8, which means that if you go for an after-dinner stroll or want to grab a cone after an evening movie, you're out of luck. Germans eat a lot of ice cream and according to my observations, most of it is eaten in the late afternoon. This doesn't work for me because it ruins my American dinner (not the case for the Germans who are happy to eat some cheese and bread and wurst (aka Abendbrot) whenever they get hungry. Anyway, once in a while I decide I need an ice cream in the afternoon (early enough not to spoil my supper, of course) and my favorite place is Inka Eis. The ice cream is good if not great and they specialize in Latin American flavors, most of which I know and miss from my former life as a Latin Americanist. I always get lúcuma, which takes me back to my junior year abroad in Santiago de Chile. Lúcuma is a subtropical Andean fruit - I've never seen it fresh and have also never had it outside of Latin America (maybe it has followed açaí to New York?) - it's delicious in ice creams and mousses with a flavor that is something of a cross between caramel, maple syrup, and sweet potato. Who knew I would rediscover this treat in Berlin?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Nördlich für Ostern

You have to hand it to the Germans for stretching Easter into a four-day holiday (even the Italians cram it into three days). But, when in Rome, as they say, and so we packed our bags and headed north to visit mein Mann's godmother at her country cottage in Bergenhusen. It was a little chilly (Bergenhusen is way up north, almost at the Danish border), but even so, it is one of the prettiest parts of Germany I've seen so far (although I may be subconsciously biased as two of my ancestors hail from the region of Schleswig-Holstein where Bergenhusen is located). The land is above all else, flat (think: lots of storks (who appreciate the flatness b/c it enables them to see for long distances) and windmills). There are lots of farms and many, many sheep, including, these days the tiniest of lambs. Traditional houses have straw roofs, which you might be able to see next to the stork nest here. We spent most of the mini-vacation in the village, but did manage to take two excursions. One to visit a friend of mein Manns who hails from a nearby village and looks strikingly like a distant cousin (a lost lost relative perhaps?!). We also drove out to the Hamburger Hallig, a low-lying area, which floods twice a day so that all buildings (there were only a few) must be built on man-made hills (Warften). Because of the frequent (salt water) flooding, the sheep that graze in these areas (I guess they know to go up on the hills when the tide comes in?) are pre-salted and supposedly quite delicious. Unfortunately, we didn't have lamb for Easter dinner (many Germans, including our hosts, claim not to like lamb (they usually associate it with the scary southern and/or "immigrant cuisines" that deal in (gasp) garlic and/or have only had grocery store lamb, which, at least in Germany, is pretty bad), but I did manage to have a lamb patty (Frikadelle) at the little restaurant at Hamburger Hallig and it was quite tasty.
(Culinary side-story: Germans sometimes give Easter presents, which I don't quite understand, but willingly accept. This year Mein Mann (who arrived a day ahead of me, which happened to be market day, got me lamb ham (a la turkey bacon (tastes like corned beef), really excellent regular pig ham, and some tiny locally harvested (?) shrimp, which my godmother-in-law made into a delicious Abendbrot or evening bread, the German dinner of open-faced sandwiches. (They do look a bit like worms, though....) We also stopped to wander through the town of Husum, which has a fairly standard Schloss surrounded by a breathtaking field of purple crocuses. I was particularly taken by these napping ducks.

And finally, a few of my own Easter creations: Easter egg nest cupcakes for some of my most annoying clients to date. And, marbelized Easter eggs (thanks, Martha). I am in love with my egg holder, it definitely lives on the bar of at least one of the imaginary restaurants in my head.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ausflug nach Dresden

A recent visitor took pity on me and left behind a copy of the New Yorker (an international subscription costs $120), which happened to contain a really interesting (although, not without serious faults that I won't go on about here) article on the city of Dresden. Dresden is only a little over an hour from Berlin by car, but somehow despite our wandering ways, we had never made the trek. A few weeks later, my Schwiegervater (aka father-in-law) made an unexpected visit to Berlin and suggested a day-trip, which, of course, we had to accept. We only got a taste of the city (along with a tiny sampling of Meissen, the nearby town, which you probably know for it's porcelain manufacture). I can, however, recommend the Residenzschloss, which houses the Grünes Gewölbe (or, Green Vault), an exhibition of the collections of the Wettin rulers. These Wettins were serious collectors and you can check out such treasures as a cherry pit with 185 faces carved into it, a massive and extremely ornate diorama of the Royal Household of the Grand Mogul, and about 1,078 other beautiful, but useless items.

I can also recommend stopping for snacks at the self-proclaimed "most beautiful dairy (store) in the world," Pfunds Molkerei. It is a bit touristy, but the dairy products were actually pretty tasty (I seem to be making a habit of visiting dairies of late, so I'm definitely qualified here). We shared an east German cheese plate (which made me wonder what the store was like during the GDR, when as I understand it, there were only a couple types of cheese available) and glasses of fresh milk/buttermilk.

In other news, it seems to have finally stopped snowing here (knock on wood): once last week I went out without a coat (!) and there are even little buds on all the trees! It's exciting. To inaugurate the change of seasons, we S-Bahned out to the Pfaueninsel where we strolled among fake ruins (very cartoonish in appearance and just plain odd) and real live peacocks (also odd, but quite nice), all of which I neglected to document, alas. There was actually a Meierei (dairy) there, too, but it was closed....luckily, we had packed our own cheese sandwiches (with pickled pepper for me and extra mustard for mein Mann) for the first official picnic of the year!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Waffeln und mehr

In our new (maybe not so new) role as Jetsetters, mein Mann and I spent the weekend in Brussels. I was there several years ago with my sister on our European Backpacking Adventure and remember rainy weather and discovering real Belgian waffles (gaufre de Liège to be specific) purchased from a stand in the subway or train station (I also remember that for some reason we (both non-French speakers) found the word gaufre quite hysterical). It was, for me, a waffle epiphany: the waffles sold all over Brussels from snack shops and carts are similar only in shape to what they call Belgian waffles in the States. These taste like caramelized brioche and there is no need for maple syrup. Actually, here I'm a purist - you can order them with whipped cream and chocolate sauce, but this only detracts from the basic deliciousness. Anyway, the flavor remained with me over the years (in my head), so I was very excited at the chance to sample them again. I think mein Mann was already sick of waffles by the time we got there as I had been talking about them so much. The waffles were every bit as good as I remembered and I'm determined to make them at home soon. But, if I'm lucky, mein Mann (who I left behind so he could hang out at NATO for a couple days) will return with one more for me... (I know they're best hot off the waffle iron, but they're really pretty good at room temperature, too.)

We did manage to eat a few things besides waffles: We started the weekend off with moules-frites and a healthy serving of Belgian customer service - when we tried to order 1.5 kilos of mussels to share (plus the frites and beers), we were told this was not acceptable and we would both have to order our own kilo, which is not exactly obscene, but is a lot of mussels (especially when you have the frites and beer and impending waffle binge to consider). Usually I try to go with the local customs, but this just struck me as too stupid so we put our foot down (sort of). They agreed to let us share if we also ordered a salad, which was mostly Belgian endive as it turned out and quite delicious.

Someone else wrote about the delicious Moroccan crepe-like wraps that you can buy at the Marche du Midi on Sunday mornings. The market itself was not all that spectacular - the kind of place you can buy your underwear, a toaster, and a case of avocados for a Euro - but the Moroccan "crepes" were really delicious and the sun came out so we could sit at the wooden tables on the side of market eating while we scarfed (the only way with these messy treats) and sipped fresh mint tea. Sorry for the bad documentation of this snack - the mob around the stand was a testament to how good they were, but posed a challenge to the tourist-photographer, and once you're holding it, there's nothing to do but eat.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Haben Sie Wien schon bei Nacht gesehen?

We had a lovely time in Wien. It was a touch too cold, but that only helped us appreciate the museums and stellar cafes. Why doesn't Berlin have cafes like these? Why doesn't Berlin shovel the sidewalks like they seem to have done in Vienna? Sigh. (On the other hand, why does everyone smoke so much there? Way worse than Berlin.) I spent lots of time wandering while mein Mann was saving the world. Vienna (or at least the Innere Stadt) is full of so many beautiful buildings (lots of cute old ladies in fur coats and good hats, too!), even in the cold it was lots of fun just to walk and look. A few noteworthy bits: I loved the Dorotheum, an old auction house where you can wander around and admire the very cool things that are coming up to auction - jewelry, furniture, old weapons, you name it. The tiny sandwiches at Trezniewski were a lot of fun. The apple strudel at Demel was great (although, in my humble opinion, such good strudel should be served warm. And the surly waitress wouldn't bring me any Schlagobers (aka: whipped cream): hmmph). Tafelspitz is basically brisket served in beef broth, but in Vienna they do it up. First one eats the deliciously flavorful broth with the veggies. Second, you are to spread the marrow (you get a marrow bone in the broth) on toasted bread, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and eat it with your fingers. Finally, you get to the meat, which is served with bread sauce, horseradish, applesauce, fried potatoes, creamed spinach, and creamed cabbage (way better than it sounds). The whole thing was spread out on the table in a secession of beautiful copper pots. The Austrian cheese selection at Meierei was good if not life-changing, but it was served with some of the best bread I've had in ages (Looking back, that bread may have been the best thing I ate in Vienna) and it was fun to sit by the water and watch the people (and dogs pass by). I tried twice to visit the Secession. I semi-succeeded on my second attempt, but the floor with Klimpt's Beethoven Frieze was closed due to the opening of a new exhibit, which consisted of a lump of concrete, a book of squiggles, and a pile of 20,000 ugly posters. I did, however, see this cool older lady with polka dot hair.The art in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is world class, but the building itself is so amazing, I kept wanting to leave the galleries to admire the entry hall and amazing dome. I only wish I'd had a chance to visit more cafes and eat more cakes. In hindsight, I was a bit too focused on strudel...though I suppose there are worse things to obsess over.

Now, another response to another mystery reader! I'm very sad to hear of your brownie woes. You should most definitely try again because brownies are pretty easy to master and (especially in Berlin) people can't seem to get enough of them. (For work, I make brownies more often than any dessert.) As I wasn't in your kitchen, I can't say for sure what went wrong, but if you didn't forget any ingredients it sounds like you might have underbaked them? (Underbaked brownies are not-so-secretly one of my favorite things - in high school, we would half-bake a pan of brownies and dump ice cream into the warm pan. yum.) I can see, however, that you might actually want to cut squares and serve them to civilized people. For brownies, the flour you use shouldn't make a huge difference, but I use 550 for most dessert-baking and 1050 when I make bread. I seem to get better results when I don't use a cheap brand (such as Ja!), although I tend toward the Bio, so I haven't experimented enough to say if this is real and I don't think Ja!-type flour would ruin brownies either. I admit to running out of one or the other from time to time, though, and substituting without too much catastrophe. In terms of substituting the German granulated brown sugar for white sugar, that shouldn't have made a huge difference either. Try again and bake them until a toothpick or the point of a knife comes out fairly clean with just a few crumbs clinging to it. Or send the pan my way....I have a new freezer (!) so I can even add ice cream now!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Valentinstagschenken aus einem Karton

Lest you think I had forgotten, heart-shaped food is still my favorite part of Valentine's Day. I managed to score a box of avocados while working my latest random job: making finger food for a Dutch fruit-importing company during the recent Fruit Logistica trade show. (Oddly enough, they did not want any fruit in the finger food???) If you've ever been to a big trade show, you're familiar with the stands that the presenters set up to show case their wares. The Dutch fruit importers build a little kitchen of sorts (no stove or oven...) in the back of their stand. This was basically a box without a top in the middle of a giant room without any windows. I spent three days in said box constantly shooing the hostesses (these girls in tiny dresses who make espressos and giggle at the offensive comments made by fruit (or other) business men are a way-outdated trend that needs to be retired) out of my way. Anyway, Dutch fruit importers pay really well, as it turns out, so it was well worth it, though I wasn't too sad when the job ended and I could come out of the box. Anyway, by the time I had a chance to make the rounds, most of the fruit that was up for grabs had been distributed (they do sell fruit here, but it's so much more fun to score things for free), but I did manage to snag a bunch of American pears (the American pear people had a poster of Obama in their stand and I saw one group of fruit people taking their picture with it...heehee) and a box of avocados, which we enjoyed in a variety of preparations (I've discovered that the big Turkish grocery store near us sells very decent, almost Sonoran-style flour torillas (who knew?) so quesadillas and burritos were on the menu). The most picturesque, however, was our Valentine's Day breakfast: heart-shaped avocado on a roll pretending to be a bagel with cream cheese and lox.

Now we're are off to Vienna for a long weekend. Alas, mein Mann, has to work for two of those days, but I intend to devote my attention to the strudel, Tafelspitz, schnitzel, and other delights (maybe a museum or two, as well)!

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Berlin always has winter (sometimes even in summer), but this is the first year we've had significant snow. I really enjoy the snow - I think I have a Pavlovian reaction and associate it with the excitement of a day off school. Snow spices things up a bit - it's like a decoration for the chilly weather. I chose to go to college in central Maine, so don't get me wrong: I like snow. But things are getting out of hand here: we have a healthy amount of snow on the ground (and it is snow again as I type, but nobody here shovels the sidewalks and only the most central of streets are plowed. Temperatures haven't gone above freezing and the sun hasn't even peaked through the clouds in the two weeks we've been back so the snow is just accumulating, lingering on the sidewalks, tripping old ladies and making a short walk to the grocery store feel like a long jog on the beach. I have personally witnessed how different locales with varying climates handle snow successfully, from snow-panicky DC to unphasable central Maine: I know snow can be dealt with! (On a semi-related note, in Barcelona they literally hosed the city down every night.) With snow (and not a single ray of sunshine, I might add) forecast on and off for the next ten days, I fear that the situation is getting a little out of control. Do I need to invest in a nice pair of waders?

There is one thing that almost makes up for this barbarity (I know, I touched on this last year, too, but I'm trying not to be 100% negative): small children are now pulled everywhere on toboggans (some of them have little seats to strap in toddlers)! It's really the cutest thing ever and so delightfully old Europe, don't you think? (I do have to add that the picture to the left where there is obviously a bit of sunshine, is from last year. We have had no sunshine at all in 2010.) Check out these toboggans locked up in front of an elementary school (where you would normally find bikes). Is that not charming?! The other day I saw two guys pick up a huge package from the post office and take it home on their toboggan! If only someone would pull me around town....

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wunsch abgeleistet

We actually walked by a cab with this sign on top just before we left for our American holiday.

It was great to be home. Even the things that drive me crazy about the US feel comfortingly familiar. My three-year anniversary in Berlin is fast-approaching (when did this happen?!), which means I've lived outside the US for about 4 years now. I am certainly used to Berlin at this point and it is also home, but it still lacks the familiarity of the US.

To answer my mystery reader's question, (side note: why do people keep trying to sell things in the comment section here? I think I have about 13 regular readers...) considering that I didn't speak any German upon moving here (words like Bier and Bratwurst and Radio aside), I have learned a lot of German. It was actually easier to learn than I had been led to expect: the whole deal with putting the verb at the end of the sentence is really not such a big thing to master. I tend to be quick to gain comprehension in foreign languages (although my sample size is pretty small) and I can follow most any conversation (unless it's very technical), watch movies without subtitles, talk on the phone, etc. I can also mostly always say what I need to say in social situations, as well as more formal settings like the doctor or the bank, but I struggle a lot with expressing complex or subtle concepts and I'm still not at the point where I really feel like my personality gets across 100%. In case you're wondering, yes this is frustrating if you are trying to market your small business auf Deutsch. Of course more immersion would do wonders, but I work alone most of the time and mein Mann and I have only in the last few months really started speaking German together at home. If I had a Euro for every person who told me/us that we should have spoken German together from the start, I could buy something of consequence, but they were wrong (and I'm not a good consumer anyway (except at the grocery store)). Of course I wish my German were better today, but I didn't move to the Fatherland to learn German, I moved here to get to know a German and 2.5 weddings (to the same person, of course...) later, I think I did OK. So that was probably way more on learning German that you, mysterious reader, wanted, but there you have it...

Anyway, it was great to be stateside: the food (dungenness crab, broccoli rabe (why in this land of Italy-worshippers and bitter green-eaters, do they not sell this here?), eggnog, multiple Mexican meals, late-night dumplings in Chinatown, olive oil-poached squid, early birthday cake), the people who care about food, the in-house cookbook library, the over-the-top Christmas decorations, having most of my favorite people in one timezone, the tangible New York Times, top sheets, blue skies, snow in Central Park, 2xTerriers....