Thursday, May 26, 2011

Berlin :: Weeks 9 & 10 (final days...)

The last few weeks were spent jaunting around town with Dave's sister Sarah, followed by Sam and Heather from Toronto as well. Soaking up the city, taking advantage of the benefits of not working by working on our own projects (more patterns up at, enjoying the sun and food and trying to not be sad that it was almost over.

We finally ventured into Tiergarten and upon entrance, wished we hadn't waited so long. It's a massive park in the middle of the city and it's beautiful! It was green on green on green, and there were lakes in the park, often surrounded by lilac bushes so it was just the most picturesque scenery ever. It was so lovely.

On our final Saturday, we went on an epic bikeride and ended up in Friedrichshain, which is somewhere we'd be interested in staying if we decide to do another stint in Berlin. It was kind of mind boggling to me when we first got into the neighbourhood... everything was on a such a massive scale and just made you feel really small. The main street, Karl-Marx-Allee is a monumental socialist boulevard built by the GDR between 1952 and 1960 and is like 90m wide... huge. And the architecture was totally crazy. Apparently the huge buidings were built after the war and were coined 'workers' palaces' and were supposed to be large luxurious apartments for working class people. But to me, they just looked really minimal and huge and very Soviet. There are still some statues of workers at the entrances to the buildings. A very cool neighbourhood though, despite how intimidating I'm making it sound.

We went to Berlin Templehof, a Nazi-built airport that has halted operations as of a few years ago. It was a crucial airport during the Berlin Airlift, when soviet authorities halted all traffic to West Berlin by land and water. So the only way to get Berliners the supplies they needed was to fly them in, into this airport. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) And now, the airport itself is used for events and things, and the runway areas surrounding it is used as parkland. You walk into the area and all you can smell is barbecue, and the place is packed with people bbq'ing, chilling out, riding bikes, partying. It was really awesome against a totally bizarre backdrop. It struck me that this probably wouldn't happen in Canada.

We went into a Humana, which is Berlin's answer to the goodwill and in keeping with the neighbourhood, it was the grandest thrift store I have ever been in. It was incredible. It was six floors of stuff, united by a spiral staircase and still had it's original lighting fixtures and hand-drawn signs. Amazing place.

Our last few days in Berlin were sombre ones. Tried to keep our spirits up but it was really hard to fathom leaving such an amazing place. But we made the most of it, and stayed out till the wee hours of the morning on our final Saturday night and it was light out when we got home the next morning. And when we left the bars were still packed. Truly the city that never sleeps.

The next day we went to Mauerpark where I reluctantly sold the bike I had come to love and hung out for the last time.

Had some final meals that we had to have just one more time, including german fare the Prater Biergarten (one of our favourite places to hang out), burgers at The Bird (amaaaaaazing) and some Wiener Schnitzel at the Schnitzelei.

And then it was time to go. We flew to London, stayed in a cheap hotel, and flew home the next day. Apparently just missing Iceland's take two on the volcanic ash disaster. And now the adjustment to home begins...

:::::::::::::: SEE MY FINAL BERLIN PICTURES HERE ::::::::::::::

Saturday, May 14, 2011

BERLIN :: Week Eight

First off, just wanted to say that I'm glad so many of you are reading and enjoying my blog. Glad I could share all this crazy stuff with you guys. And if any of you are considering getting up and taking a sabbatical in a new place -- DO IT!! It's been awesome.

Hard to believe that we will back in Toronto in less than two weeks time now. I'm equally bummed and excited to be coming home. It's been so so so amazing to travel and while it's made me pretty frustrated by Toronto and Canada at times, it's also made me realize some of the good things that I take for granted. I'm working on a list which I'll share at the end of the trip!

So, the big excitement this week has been visitors. Michael came over from London last weekend and we had a blast. We rented bikes (Boo sucked it up and rode a big ol' honkin' bike -- not his usual slick single speed), booted it around the city and visited some Berlin essentials.

We ate some apfelstrudel and it was alright but I suspect there is better strudel to be had... So naturally, what with us not being quitting types, we tried it at another place the next day, along with Topfenstrudel (a strudel with with sweet soft quark cheese), and while it's pretty, well... the search continues.

We also had drinks at one of the beach bars which are a Berlin phenonmenon. Beach bars are a wonderful idea -- they set up lounge chairs all along the Spree river (some aren't on the water but they recreate a beach scene with palm trees and sand) and if it weren't for the live DJs they have playing awful techno music, they would be the perfect way to spend a sunny day. Super fun weekend!

I saw a billboard this week that had been graffitied and it was a case of how context is everything. Someone went around putting little Hitler moustaches on billboards (not with marker, actual fuzzy sticker moustaches) and I saw this little girl with a moustache and it kinda made me laugh a bit. And then I realized where I was and it made me think about it differently. It's kind of a different thing to use a Hitler moustache as graffiti in Germany. Needless to say, the billboard was not up when I walked by the next day.

We've been putting our heads down and working on the projects we had our hearts set on when we came here -- Dave with his music and me with my drawing stuff. But we've also been getting out of the house and there's something new around every corner in Berlin. One of the things I love most about Berlin is that they have these sort of hidden courtyards behind all of the buildings. You can wander down one of these alleys and discover little clusters of lovely shops or parks or restaurants or just some crazy wacky architecture you couldn't see from the street. It's a city full of surprises. Here are a few pics from a walk we took a few nights ago.

There are also just so many old buildings with so much character, many of them untouched, or touched but left as is (so you can visibly see the decay or age or even battle wounds). Dave's sister Sarah arrived yesterday and we went for lunch at this outdoor biergarten called Clarchen's Ballhaus and could see that there was some really wacky decor going on inside so we wandered in and there was an old beautiful banquet hall, just covered in reflective streamers. And then upstairs we wandered into this other empty hall that was incredible. Ornate but decaying old mirrors, paint that had seemingly lost it's pigment over the years and had become this gorgeous shade of grey, piles and piles of rich brown Thonet chairs, an intricate old glass chandalier untouched by time. That's the kind of thing I'm going to miss about Berlin. I hate to say it but in Toronto, you'd wander down an alley and you'd probably just find a dumpster.

When we came to Berlin, I kept saying I wanted to just see what would happen if I had 3 months with no real work responsibilities, to see what would happen. To see what I could produce, or if I was inspired to do anything creatively, other than straight up graphic design. I've been focusing on patterns, which I have always been obsessed with, but taking them in a new direction. Here are a few of my faves so far. These and a whole lot of others are online too.

:::::::::::::: SEE MY BERLIN WEEK EIGHT PICTURES HERE ::::::::::::::

Thursday, May 5, 2011

BUDAPEST! (Berlin Week Seven)

I looooooved Budapest. It was partly because Budapest is just a really awesome city, partially because the food was incredible, and partly because of our totally awesome hosts Amanda and Laszlo. It was a blast!

Since we hit Eastern Europe, we have been going through what Dave calls Meatox. It's been all meat all the time. Honestly, I would not be eating a fraction as well if I weren't eating meat, it's pretty meatcentric but totally delicious! It was no different in Budapest, so naturally, we bought some sausage and it would blow your mind.

As is the Hungarian tradition, we went to the baths. Amanda took us to the Szczesny baths and they were incredible. 'Baths' is a scary word, it sounds like everyone is going to wash themselves in a communal bathtub, but it's actually more like going to a spa at the fraction of the cost. Szczesny was a series of pools at different temperatures infused with minerals or green tea or sulfur salt (relieving to know because the smell of bad eggs near a pool is a bit disconcerting), plus a minty steam room, a sauna, a lazy river (!!!) and a whirlpool, all set in and outside of these amazing old Roman buildings.

We did all of this while Amanda's fiancée Laszlo was at home slaving away in the kitchen making us goulash. The real deal. It was heaven. Absolute heaven. I thought it tasted like Meat Butter. AND you get to eat it with pickles. Laszlo is an amazing cook!

Other fun food that we tried:

Lángos, a deep fried flat bread made of a dough served warm, topped with sour cream and grated cheese (or a million other toppings but Laszlo insisted this was the real deal and after that goulash, I will never question anything that he says about food) and the best cabbage rolls I've ever tasted.

Kürtőskalács, a thin yeast pastry ribbon wound around a wooden cylinder, sprinkled with sugar so it gets kind of crispy and then topped with sweet spices like cinnamon and is delicious, as you can see here as demonstrated by our model Amanda.

Pogácsa, little puffy bread pops that were almost like buttery little mini croissants. And Körözött, a super delicious cheese spread made with paprika and onions (and many more ingredients I'm sure I don't know about).

What with my love for folk art, Budapest was a magical place for me. Handcrafted textiles, matryoshka dolls, embroidered dresses. It was hard to walk through without buying everything I wanted, but in the end I settled on a tablecloth. And of course, I picked up some paprika, in this gorgeous little tin.

The old metro lines were beautiful, in that it was super old and seemed like it came from a time when beauty actually played a role in public transportation.

The architecture in Budapest is a really eclectic mix of styles -- art nouveau, romanesque, gothic, turkish. The result is pretty amazing and totally beautiful. And to me, it still really felt quiet and still relatively untouched by tourism. It's still got that well-worn gritty feeling like people actually live there, versus the Disneyland feeling we got in Prague. Mind you, we had locals showing us around so we had the advantage of not going to overly touristy places and got a unique look at the city. Here are a bunch of things that, together, kind of sum up what Budapest looked like to me.

There are a ton of photos and I have honestly edited them way down. It was just too nice.

:::::::::::::: SEE WAY MORE BUDAPEST PICTURES HERE ::::::::::::::

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

PRAGUE! (Berlin Week Seven)

We took the train to Prague in the morning and I wish I had pictures to share just how incredibly lovely the countryside was on the way there. All through Germany and into the Czech Republic was so pretty and picturesque. Think rocky hills with cute little cottages and bavarian houses at the bottom. Horses in fields or drinking from small little rivers that run through the green landscapes. Little rowboats on little docks. So incredible. And as we got further into the Czech Republic, mustard fields that were electric yellow.

We arrived in Prague and hit the ground running with a few Czech beers. Pilsner Urquell to be specific because as we were told by the server VERY matter-of-factly, It Is The Best Beer! It was all Pilsner Urquell, everywhere we went but it's not like at home where Molson Canadian ads are everywhere but nobody really likes the stuff -- people here really seem to believe in Pilsner Urquell.

The city is full of majestic and elaborately decorated, colourful buildings. Elaborate bridges, beautiful gothic spires shooting into the sky, buildings that look like they're illustrations until you get get closer to them. Straight out of a fairy tale at points. But the place was absolutely swarming with tourists and it seemed as though the city had been fixed up accordingly. It sort of seemed to me that going to Prague is like stepping into a fairy tale on many levels. There are the beautiful buildings, which you're happy to admire (so much art deco!), but then you walk 10 minutes out and there you see the ugly step sister buildings that haven't had an abundance of money poured into restoration. And honestly, that's what gave this city some character, because it was just a bit too picture perfect otherwise. Those underdog buildings gave the city some grit and some real spirit, and made it feel more believable. But truth be told, I do LOVE a beautiful building so of course, I have tons of pictures of beautiful buildings...

Many of the bars and restaurants we went into seemed relatively untouched by time. Old school, traditional czech restaurants that weren't trying to be anything but an unpretentious place that served home cooking. They were really charming. While we, apparently, were not. We tried to speak to people with some basic czech words (please, thankyou, hello, two beers please) but our charms and 'sorry we don't speak your language' looks were certainly lost on them. In fact, at points it felt as though we were actually met with some downright hostility. By the time we left, I considered it a really positive exchange when I smiled at someone and they stared back blankly. (With a few exceptions, like the great dudes at Alternatif bar, and the man at the delicious restaurant Pivnice u Pivrnce, and a few other people along the way). As much as I would love to know it, the Czech language is super hard to just kinda pick up for a 3-day trip, you know?

But of course, we had some excellent experiences in Prague. The food was kind of crazy... in flavour, and as an until-recently vegetarian, in the total lack of vegetable matter. The food is based around meat, dumplings and gravy. And when I say it's based around those things, I mean that's it -- you get a plate and it's just meat + bread + gravy, and you're done. Oh, one night I got potatoes instead of dumplings. But that said, it was totally delicious. Just not exactly a well-balanced meal.

Interesting food we tried:
Pivní sýr (Beer Cheese) which is a soft cheese, mixed with raw onions and mustard, and spread on toasted bread (or in our case, "toast" turned out to be deep fried bread).

Trdelník, a traditional cake and sweet pastry, made from rolled dough, wrapped around a stick then grilled and topped with sugar.

Roasted pork knuckle, the picture speaks for itself. It's just like a GIANT pork knuckle. And a knife. With horseradish and mustard. It was Dave's meal but I helped him out a few times.

Three kinds of knedliky (dumplings) including potato dumplings, bohemian dumplings (kind of reminded me of just plain white bread) and bacon dumplings (a little bit little bread balls meet stuffing with bacon).

We also went to Kutna Hora, a small church decorated with the bones of 40 000 people, about an hour away from Prague by train. It was incredible. I kept walking through thinking I was in some kind of halloween haunted house with fake skeletons, and then would realize that they were actually real bones of real people. A pretty crazy place.

Lots of awesome folky art around town too, which I adored. Like this mammoth painted egg.

And I saw these awesome doughnuts in the grocery store and they were too cute.

We went to the Old Jewish Cemetery, and the Loreto (an outlandish baroque church which hosts statues of saints like St. Wilgefortis, the patron saint of unhappily married women who grew a beard as a tactic to avoid marriage to a heathen, and St. Agatha the Unfortunate who is seen carrying her severed breasts on a platter. Pretty dark stuff! I would have taken photos except that on top of the overpriced admission they CHARGE you to take photos!

And one more picture for the road... we found a really lovely café one day when the sun wouldn't shine, and it was just so nice and had tons of character. Felt like you were in France, which is a feeling I love.

Other than that we just walked and walked and saw and saw and ate and drank and ate. Overall, it was a lovely time but truthfully, I wasn't sad to leave the, at times, chilly Prague.

:::::::::::::: SEE MY PRAGUE PICTURES HERE ::::::::::::::