The Berlin Experience

I’m back in Bath after a whirlwind 2.333 days spent in Berlin. It was my first visit to the city, a place that’s been eagerly waiting to be checked off my to-do list. Unfortunately, 2.333 days is nowhere near enough time to visit this city of controversy so alas, my checkbox can only be 1/3 marked off. I don’t know when I’m going back, but I assure you it will happen.

My first experiences of the city weren’t the greatest, as M and I ran into a little hiccup trying to get into the city centre. Here’s something strange about me: as much of a spontaneous person as I am, I’m totally a nutty planner if need be (organization, organization, organization!!!) and if things don’t go as planned, BEWARE! In this instance, I tried to plan my evening out to the exact degree. Arriving at Schonefeld at 5pm, I wanted to make sure that not a minute was spared during our short trip. Having researched the various transportation options to get into the city I knew it would take approx 45 minutes from getting on the train to arriving at our Airbnb.  I booked dinner reservations at a restaurant that’s gotten rave reviews via trip Advisor for 7pm. One may ask why I didn’t make later reservations. And it is here where I can gloat my willingness to compromise.

You see, I’d originally reserved a table for 8:30pm, which would have given us plenty of time to get to the restaurant. However, when I told M about my plans he immediate got huffy saying, “I had one request. To watch England vs. Uruguay. That’s the ONE thing I wanted to do, you knew that!” The game was due to start at 9pm. Ok, how is it possible that the FIRST time you go to Berlin your ONE must-do item is to see a &*^%$ World Cup match!?!

But as it is my lifelong duty to make M as happy as possible I requested an earlier reservation, thus leaving us 2 hrs to get from the airport to our accommodations to drop off our bags, and to the restaurant. Because the plane landed on time, the initial part of my plan went off without a hitch. It was after we stepped off the plane that things started to go awry:

– I always try to make a mad dash to the passport control counter because it takes me 20x longer to pass through passport check than it does for European citizens. I’m not even joking. Twenty EU citizens get through in the amount of time it takes for one non-EU citizen to get checked. So, imagine my dissatisfaction when someone who shall remain anonymous decided to go for a washroom break right after getting off the plane, BEFORE passport check. Let’s be clear here, I am a perfectly reasonable person and obviously if someone needs to go, they need to go. The thing that was irksome was that this anonymous person actually stated he needed to go before we actually took off…and for some reason he chose not to use the toilet during our 1.5 hour flight. We were row 7A and 7B, which means we were one of the first ones to get off the plane. Picture how gutted I looked/felt as I just watched streams and streams of people walk by me as I waited not-so-patiently for said-anonymous person to finish up in the washroom.

I felt like I was in some Hunger Games test and I just had 15 minutes of my two-hour life stripped away from me.

– When we got to the train station I was absolutely shocked at the number of people waiting to line up for train tickets. 6 ticket machines, all of them with minimum 30 minute wait times. I wish I had taken a picture of this ridiculous looking scene, but instead, I huffed my way to the back of the line and had M stand in a different line to see which one would be faster. I was a little concerned because the instructions given on the travel websites stated to take the ‘RB14’ into the city centre and there was no ‘RB14’ in sight. There was every other letter and number combination available but no RB14. After 10 min of waiting told M to save my spot (my line was shorter) while I went to investigate. One can only imagine my SHOCK as I turned around after looking up train information to see M STANDING RIGHT BESIDE ME! Somehow, he interpreted my ‘come over here and stand in line’ as ‘let’s give up our spot in line so I can keep you company while you look up train information’.

Back to the end of the line we went. Another 15 minutes of my life taken away. The kicker, and aspect that makes this scenario ever so drole, is the fact that as you go upstairs onto the platform, there are more ticket machines waiting for you. Empty, of course, or only occupied by people who know what they’re doing, as all the confused tourists are downstairs, waiting at what is reasonably expected to be the only machines available. Oh, another kicker – you don’t even need a ticket to get onto the train :/ Whomp whomp whomp…

I’m fairly certain I received pretty serious eye strain from my eyeballs going back and forth from my watch to the train map. I knew there was no way we’d make our reservations if I didn’t alter the plans a little bit, so once we reached Alexanderplatz at 6:35pm I made a decision that will stick with me for the rest of my life.

I suggested we take a taxi.

Another strange fact about me. I hate taking taxis. I don’t know where this hatred comes from and I do realize that it’s a tad bit strange. But I just really, really don’t like taxis and try to avoid them at all costs. Ah, cost. That’s probably the main perpetrator. I just find it absolutely bonkers to pay someone such an exorbitant amount for such a short distance. I’d rather take public transportation, walk, wait until the next public transportation is available if everything is shut for the night, than to take a taxi. It used to be a cause of stress between my friends and I because I was so stubborn back in the days I used to go out until the wee hours of the morning. “Please, Hazel, just take a cab home! I’ll pay for it!!!” “No!! That’s not the point!! It’s the PRINCIPAL!!!”

Anyway, knowing that it would normally take 10 minutes to get to our place from Alexanderplatz and another 20 minutes to get to the restaurant, I knew we were deadly pressed for time (*ahem* perhaps we wouldn’t have been if 25 min of ‘life’ hadn’t been stripped from me…)  so I decided to bite the bullet and hail a taxi. In the end we made it to the restaurant only 2 minutes late, at a cost of 15 euros, which may not seem like much but after ALL the trouble of purchasing a train ticket getting to the restaurant shouldn’t have cost anything extra!

Zur Letzten Instanz

This restaurant is reported to be the oldest restaurant in Berlin and has fed the likes of Napolean, Beethovan, and Angela Merkel. Ever since I was introduced to white sausages and mustard by my old German housemate in France I was drawn to homecooked, authentic German grub. The meatballs I ordered here were superb and the Berliner Pilsener I washed it all down with was top-notch! I’m still not sure what ‘typical’ German service is like but the service at this restaurant was sloooowwwww! I can understand why they couldn’t take reservations beyond 7pm. Because once you came in you were locked in for the night. We didn’t order until about 7:45 and our food arrived at 8:30pm. Maybe their way of trying to get us to buy more drinks?

The oldest restaurant in Germany
German meatballs, washed down by a cool pint of Berliner Pilsener!

After a long day of travelling it was nice to get back to our accommodations and pass out. Most people are fully aware that I’m a huge advocate of Airbnb…such a huge advocate that, in fact, I’ve written a whole blog post dedicated to my love for Airbnb. The first time I used it was back in 2010 and since then I’ve stopped looking into hostels and hotels. To me, Airbnb is just a perfect solution to all my travelling woes:

-Cheaper than a hotel

-Get a local experience

-Meet interesting people

-Get rewarded for referring people to it (I’d do it regardless but it’s nice to feel appreciated for your efforts!)

The room I booked (£23 for three nights, thanks to the credit I built up from all my referrals!) was beauutiifful! It was exactly as it was shown in the picture, extremely clean and guide books were provided. Down side was we had to share the washroom with 3 other rooms so there was a wait every morning to use the shower.

 

Beautiful Airbnb room

Interesting rules...that kept our washroom clean!

Friday June 20, 2014

We started off the day bright and early (ie. we left the flat at 10am) to make it to the 11am free tour. The free tour concept is one I’m familiar with and one I believe works. Instead of paying a set price for a tour you get a guide and tip him at the end what you think the tour is worth (I use the term ‘worth’ loosely because a lot of people end up underpaying). These guides are generally younger, full of enthusiasm, have lived in the city for a few years and know the ins and outs of the city. The downside is that you’re herded along like a group of sheep and you can expect to be in a group of 50+ people. I love soaking in information during these tours so I became anti-social among the group of friends I was with and opted to be the Hermione browner and made sure I stayed near the front so I wouldn’t miss a thing.

We started off at Brandenburg Gate. I’ll be honest here, I really didn’t know much about Berlin’s history until I did massive research prior to the trip. While Canadian history does explore WWI and WWII it doesn’t go into it into great depth and our curriculum only covers the parts that Canada was directly involved in. While the Berlin Wall was always something I’d known about, I didn’t actually know anything about it. Well, that’s all changed now! With the combination of my research and the fascinating shotgun tour (a lot of history and information packed into 2.5 hrs) I am happy to say I feel a little less ignorant than one week ago.

Brandenburg Gate
Hotel Adlon - made famous when MJ dangled his baby from the balcony

Without going into too much detail, I discovered and learned about the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust, stood on the grounds of where Hitler’s bunker is still currently buried, visited the Memorial for Murdered Jews, saw the headquarters of the GDR, found out what made Checkpoint Charlie so famous and visited sites that have made historical history, such as Bebelplatz, where the initial Nazi-party bookburnings took place. Little interesting facts that I took away from the tour were things such as:

The Memorial for Murdered Jews, located in the former Death Strip that’s right around the corner from Brandenburg Gate, is a memorial for those who perished in the Holocaust. According to my guide it’s also a memorial to commemorate the Jews who have been persecuted even outside of the Holocaust but I haven’t found anything online to support that piece of info. The memorial was designed by Peter Eisenman and consists of concrete blocks in varying height that makes it feel like you’re walking through a graveyard. One thing people noticed was that not a single piece of slab was marked with graffiti, which is strange since the rest of the city is! It turns out that the concrete is covered in a chemical that prevents the graffiti spray from sticking, provided by a company called Degussa. It was discovered that Degesch, a subsidiary of Degussa, had prouced the Zyklon B gas used in the Holocaust’s gas chambers. What are your thoughts on that?

Memorial for Murdered Jews

-Other Nazi-supported companies included Hugo Boss, who supplied the uniforms for the Nazi party. Hugo Boss employed forced workers from occupied countries, usually prisoners of war. The working conditions he put his employees through were so horrendous that in 1999 the company agreed to contriubte to a fund that would compensate its former forced labourers.

-Before Hitler committed suicide he knew that his military party was soon going to collapse. One day before his suicide he married his long-term girlfriend, Eva Braun (such a romantic…), and together they plotted their suicide – to ingest cyanide capsules. Hitler believed his body was so powerful that taking the cyanide capsule on its own wouldn’t be sufficient. So he shot himself in the temple as well.

-There’s a plaque located in Bebelplatz, the square that is well-known for the Nazi Book Burning ceremony that took place on May 10, 1933. The book burnings were initiated by the nationalist German Student Association and 20 000 books that were seen to undermine the National Socialist administration were burned. The plaque states:

“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” -Heinrich Heine (in English: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”)

The book burning that took place was not the first time something of this nature happened. Although Heine’s work is displayed at the square his writings were originally in reference to the Qur’an being burned during the Spanish Inquisition. Point of the story: People didn’t think these demonstrations would lead to anything big. Look what happened. History repeats itself…not only is it important to learn history, but we also need to learn FROM history.

Heinrich Heine at Bebelplatz

After the tour ended we rested our sore feet (actually, mine were fine, thanks to my amazing TOM’S…I could walk around in those heavenly shoes all day. And I did.) and grabbed a bite to eat before heading over to the Jüdisches Museum. Entry is €8 for adults and an extra €3 for audioguides. I used to be too cheap/scratch frugal/scratch poor to afford audioguides but once you go guide, you can’t go back! The amount of extra information you can get from the guides is definitely worth the extra few euros and makes museums so much more interesting than just reading descriptions. You learn about more than just the Holocaust and get to learn about Judaism’s past, present, its foundation and what they have been through. I spent about 2 hrs in the museum but I could have easily spent more time in there. Unfortunately, there was an Italy vs. Costa Rica AND France vs. Switzerland match to catch so that’s where my night basically ended.

"Shalekhet" (Fallen leaves)

Sat June 21, 2014

We had another early morning start and started the day off with a quick breakfast pickup from Cafe Hilde, where I experienced one of the BEST coffees I’ve ever had in my life. The kind of coffee that transforms your life. I understand now why people develop an addiction to coffee, if that’s how the feel after every single hit.

We made our way over to the Berlin Wall, an obvious must-do for all those who visit the city. The Berlin Wall Memorial located at Bernauer Straße was hands-down one of my favourite parts of the trip. This section of the wall contains the last piece of the wall that’s still in its preserved state. What makes this particular street especially fascinating is that many people used this street to attempt an escape. Because the Wall ran along this street people tried to jump out of their apartment buildings, located on the East side of the Wall, onto the street, which was on the West (free) side of the Wall. You get a true sense of the border ramifications and the memorial is dotted with info towers where you can learn more about its history. I learned about how the Wall came to be, read about people’s escape stories, and got the chance to touch and feel a part of history that shaped the way Germany is today.

Bernauer Straße

 

Berlin Wall

We made our way over to the East Side Gallery, which is 1.3 km of the Wall that is an international memorial for freedom. It is an AMAZING open air gallery that consists of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world. You can see from the photos below how the artists tried to convey their hopes for a better, equal, and more free future for all.

 

 

 

 

The city has done a spectacular job in ensuring residents and tourists alike remember their history, but the next time I go back I’d want to get out of the city centre and discover what else Berlin has to offer.

 

SkiBASH 2013

Hello, audience! It’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve returned from a magnificent and unforgettable trip to the Swiss/French/Italian Alps. While I would’ve loved nothing more than to begin writing about my snow-infused getaway the moment I stepped back on British mud, I had to let my entire body, fingers included, recover fully to ensure an optimal quality of writing.

I’m almost reaching my 4th year being abroad but I’m still in awe of how easy it is to travel around and how there’s so much diversity in what you can do within a 2 hour flight in any direction. I hope I never take these experiences for granted and if there’s one thing I can thank my parents for, it’s for instilling a sense of exploration, risk, and adventure in me.

Onto more important matters – how SkiBASH was born.

SkiBASH was discovered by friend A.

“The ultimate ski event…for young professionals between 21-39 (ya man, I’ve still got another decade of being young!)! An exhilarating experience packed full of great skiing, parties, group meals, fancy dress days, BBQ’s and tasteful après-ski. We create the group ski holiday you are looking for.”

The event looked amazing, the activities looked amazing, the location looked amazing…but you know what didn’t look so amazing? The price. At over £1000 a pop, I knew SkiBASH wasn’t going to happen. At least…SkiBASH with THEM. The wheels started to turn and we thought “heck, we’re young and fun! We’ll make our own SkiBASH!” And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how SkiBASH (our version) was born.

Trip preparations were quite flighty. Since travelling in Europe’s so simple and convenient we bought our plane tickets on a whim (“ooh cheap flights to Switzerland, why not!? We’ll figure out what to do when we get there!”) after being invited by friends. Return tickets to Basel, Switzerland in hand we only finalized the details of the trip one week prior to departure.

I get the feeling Brits are quite well organized. I get this sense because every time I was asked by colleagues if plans were finalized and I answered with an impassive “nah, not yet” they’d stare at me with shock and incredulation (ya I made up that word…it should be incredulity but I think incredulation sounds much more appropriate). “Hazel! Your trip is coming up in TWO months!!! How do you not know where you’re going!?!” Dude…calm down…

Our sole criterion was to find a place where we could go hit the slopes. With our base point being Basel, our options were to rent a car and a) stay in Switzerland, or go to b) Austria c) France d) Italy. So many options! Or so we thought…travel planning proved to be more arduous than anticipated, as prices in Switzerland were shockingly high (just switch to Euros already, dammit!) and the places in Austria weren’t as close as we thought they were. We all love a good road trip but an 8 hr drive there and back for only two days of skiing just couldn’t be justified. So you’re probably on the edge of your seat, white-knuckled, thinking “OMG the suspense is killing me!!! Where did you go!?!” (I’m good at reading minds, huh?) Well, with one of the group members having an aversion to Italy (bad experience, we’re working on her issues) the only country left was France. I’d heard rave reviews about Chamonix and since it was the first place ever to host the winter Olympics (Jan 25, 1924 – little history fact for ya) I thought “this place would be perfectly suited to my Olympic-level skiing capabilities.

Chamonix Winter Olympics 1924

Chamonix’s about a 3 hr drive from Basel airport. By Canadian standards that’s easy-peasy. I mean, 3 hrs is just a normal commute to work, really. But try telling a Brit you’re going to drive 3 hrs and they just look at you with incredulation, as though I’m landing in Basel but travelling slightly further to ski…in Nepal. Friend O got it right by telling his colleagues he was just flying into Switzerland and omitting the Basel part, letting people assume we were flying into Geneva, another airport in Switzerland that’s ONLY a 1.5 hr drive away. Apparently that’s acceptable. 3 hrs is not.

A couple AirBnB messages later and BOOM we got ourselves a sweet booking at Studio Freeride. Ya, studio. Two couples. Things were pretty cozy. Continuing on…

Being the ambitious folk that we are, we purchased the Mont Blanc unlimited ski pass, which gave us the freedom of exploring the ski hills of 3 countries. Not that we were planning to, but it was nice to know that we could. With 762 km of runs, we’d be lucky to cover even 1/15 of what was available.

Really, we only covered 5%

Itinerary:

Thursday Feb 7, 2013

1pm- Depart for Gatwick Airport

3:45pm- Arrive at Gatwick Airport

I have this thing about bringing water bottles to the airport with me and making sure I’m well hydrated prior to boarding a plane. I think it’s ridiculous how much low cost airlines charge for something that should really be free so I make a point to bring an empty water bottle (usually it’s my beloved SIGG) and fill up at the water fountain once we’ve passed security.

I may have gone a little OTT with the water purchase this time around. I had a single bottle of water with me but I thought M would be thirsty so I went to Poundland to pick up a bottle for him. They only had 750mL bottles. “That’s alright”, I thought. “He likes to drink.” But then I got to the checkout and the guy told me it was 2 for 1. Ah, bugger, you found my weakness. A good deal. I picked up another bottle. So I had two 750mL bottles and one 500mL bottle of water. We arrived at the airport and all 3 bottles were still full. M gave me the “You need to throw out your bottles” eye. I gave him the “ARE YOU F’N KIDDING!? I’M NOT JUST GOING TO POUR OUT PRECIOUS RESOURCES!” eye. It was quite the eye. Guess who won the eye fight? That’s right, the person who wins every fight. Two litres of H2O later, our water-logged bladders were ready to pass through security.

2L of precious resources...not gone to waste.

5:45pm- Depart Gatwick Airport

I’ve been wanting a “travel buddy” for quite some time now. A toy or mascot of sorts to accompany me on my travels and to take fun pictures of/with. At first I was on the lookout for Domo…apparently Domo’s a hot commodity and I couldn’t justify the $65 price tag that came with the territory. A Canadian Hello Kitty was next on my list but she doesn’t appear to exist!!! If anyone happens to come across a Hello Kitty with a Canadian flag or carries any kind of Canadian representation please let me know!

Next candidate in line – Gulliver. Gulliver has been on my radar ever since I found out about the EasyJet competition. Gulliver’s a stuffed bear by EasyJet and if you submit travel pictures featuring Gulliver and send it in to EasyJet you get entered in for a draw to win two plane tickets! Considering how much I travel I figure it’s inevitable I’ll win a pair of tickets one day 😀

Gulliver, sitting 3842m high

8:20pm- Arrive Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Airport

12:30am- Arrive at Studio Freeride

Friday Feb 8, 2013

8am- WAKKKEEE UP, CHAMONIX!!!

9am- First ones at Skimium to pick up our equipment

10am- We be hittin’ da slopes, SON!

We had 6.5 hrs of pure, exhilarating fun. Fresh powder in sight, I was anxious to get my ski on and it wasn’t until I went down the first slope that I realized how much of a tune-up I required. As much as I tried to prevent the notorious beginners’ V stance from forming my scared legs formed a mind of its own and refused to listen to my mind screaming ‘yo girl, BE COOL!!!’. The stance remained put and my vision of swishing down the slopes like I did in my dreams the night before vaporized before my very eyes. Disappointing, Hazel. So disappointing.

By dusk all four of us were ready to call it quits and head to an anticipated part of SkiBASH – the après-ski. Après-ski is an actual term and refers to going out, having drinks, socializing, dancing, and recapping the day’s ski events. Hills usually close around 4:30-5pm (this isn’t Chicopee…there are no lights to illuminate the slopes so once the sun’s gone, ski time is over) and après-ski promptly starts at 4:31pm. I wasn’t aware that proper protocol was to go DIRECTLY to the bar with ski equipment in hand. Against A’s wishes, we went back to our studio to freshen up. Freshening up lost us 1.5 hours and by the time we got to the bars they were all completely packed. A wasn’t a happy camper…er…SkiBASHer. We did manage to find a bar but at that point people were starting to file out and head to dinner. Dang it, we just couldn’t seem to get anything right! But a few pitchers of beer and gin and tonics later at Elevation 1904 we stopped caring what was the ‘proper’ thing to do and just rolled with it.

After we satisfied ourselves with drinks we moved on to more important matters- dinner. I’m upset I can’t remember the name of the restaurant we went to. Because it was at this restaurant that I had one of the most satisfying French Onion soups of my life. If I was a sensible person I would’ve ended my meal right there, since I was fully satisfied after devouring the hearty soup. However, a sensible person I am not, so I continued to eat.

Since we were in France, and not just France, but in the Alps, I wanted to have some goooood ‘ol mountain food. That means:

Fondue and Raclette

Raclette- A Swiss dish based on heating cheese and scraping off (racler comes from the French word meaning “to scrape”) the melted part, eaten with potatoes and dried meats.

Tartiflette- A French dish from the Haute Savoie region, comprised of potatoes, roblochon cheese, lardons (like ham and bacon chunks…but amazing. I have two packs of lardons a week.), onions. Think of scalloped potatoes on steroids.

Fondue- Y’all know what this is, right!? I’ll tell you anyway. A Swiss, French, and Italian dish of melted cheese served in a communal pot over a portable stove and eaten by dipping bread into the cheese.

One thing O forewarned us about was the effect of ‘La Boule.’

La boule- A big massive ball of cheese forming in your stomach as a result of overconsumption of cheese and cold drinks mixed together. The result? Have you ever ejected a bowling ball out of your ass? Sorry to paint such a grim picture in your mind, but ‘la boule’ just can’t be described gently.

One would think that with all the cheese and potatoes we consumed we wouldn’t have room for anything else.

Please, we just arrived in France from England. We did not have any plans to stop eating. Bring on the dessert platter. Three crème brûlées? Don’t mind if I do. It was hard to pick a favourite between the pistachio, berry compote, and honey flavoured crème brûlées, but I think the pistachio one was slightly more favoured.

From left to right: honey, berry, pistachio crème brûlées

Here’s where I’ll admit that I was defeated. I don’t know if it was the gin, the 10lbs of potato and cheese I just inhaled or perhaps a mixture of the two and the startings of la boule, but I could barely stand. I just wanted to get back to the studio as quickly as possible and curl up into fetal position. I slept like a baby within two seconds of hitting the mattress.

Sat February 9, 2013

8:30am – WAAKKKEEE UP, CHAMONIX!!!

A breakfast fit for a king prevented us from leaving the studio when we went to, but you just don’t rush a petit déjeuner! Pain au chocolat, baguettes, marmalade, brie, chausson aux pommes…yummm carbohydrates are this girl’s best friend.

9:30am – depart for Aiguille du Midi

Aiguille du Midi is a mountain in the Chamonix Mont Blanc region and upon ascending 3842m it’s here where you can experience spectacular panoramic views of the French and Italian Alps. There’s an option to go down the Vallée Blanche, which is an off-piste (off-track) ski track down the largest glacial domain in the Alps. Had we had more time to organize it (it’s highly recommended you go with a guide) it would’ve definitely been something to stick on our to-do list. That’s alright though, it’s motivation to begin the planning phases of….SkiBASH 2.0!

Beautiful view at Aiguille du Midi
Skiers getting ready to go down la Vallée Blanche

12pm – depart for Courmayeur, Italy

I really wanted to make use of our multi-country lift passes so even though we had a happy-go-lucky time in France we decided to shake things up a little and hit the Alps…Italiano style. One 25-minute drive later M was pretty ecstatic to be back in his motherland. I could see a wave of relaxation wash over him as familiarity surrounded him: hands waving around, glossy puffy coats, people decked out in Armani-clad ski outfits, and Mario and Luigi making pizza.

French border getting into Italy

The biggest pro of being on the Italian side was that we got a lot more sun. I think the France side was 10x chillier because the mountain blocked the sun, leaving the warmth solely for the Italians.

Beautiful Courmayeur
M cruising

But with every pro there lays a con and the con in this case was a big con indeed. More sun not only meant warmth, it also meant slicker slopes and terrains that resembled slushy ice rinks rather than the powdered hills I’d gotten so accustomed to the day before. I was definitely kept on guard, but didn’t venture into any ‘red’ territory and stuck with the blue hills.

The fact that it was a Saturday meant that the hills were packed with ski schools, meaning children under 10 represented 80% of the skiers out that day. I’d like to complain that the little buggers got in my way, but seeing as they were basically all Olympians-in-training that would just be a big fat lie.

We ended off our Italian escapade by hitting up the best pizza joint in Courmayeur. Well, the only one that was open at 5pm anyway. I think A’s esteem in Italy went up a few notches after watching her down her Peroni and scarf down her pizza. But as someone who’s not the BIGGEST fan of pizza (gimme sushi, pho, galbi, congee anyday!) I must admit that my spicy sausage and porcini mushroom pizza was amazeBALLS!

When in Italy...eat pizza!

We left Italy with our stomachs full, ready to get our après-ski on. We decided we were gonna get it right this time, and right we did!!! Thank you, beer. Thank you, gin and tonics. Thank you, shots. Thank you, old DJ rockin’ out the Jamaican tunes. Thank you, Polish 30-year old guy – you were the focus of our entertainment that night. Bet you didn’t know. Thank you, Chamonix, for making it acceptable (and the norm) to dance the night away wearing snowpants and Sorels!

*Just a quick FYI – I bought my Sorels (snowboots, if you will) the day we left. The BEST spontaneous purchase of my life and at 50% off, quite a steal as well! M made fun of me because they look like ‘duck shoes’ and wondered why on earth I’d ever want such funny-looking boots. Little did he know the joke would be on him…my feet were toasty warm in boots that keep you insulated at up to -32 degrees Celsius and I’m pretty sure 80% of the Italians were wearing them…he’s not quite with the Italian high fashion society!

A and I crunking
Can you tell the Canadians from the Italian? We're clad in winter gear and Sorels. CHAMACHAV!!

Sunday February 10, 2013 – Departure day ALREADY??

Departure day was bittersweet. As nice as it was knowing we soon wouldn’t need to turn up the music so people could go to the bathroom in peace without worrying about others ‘hearing things’ (like I said, one studio, two couples, very cozy quarters) l wasn’t ready to abandon my skibunny lifestyle…something reminiscent of my Jasper days. Yes, we were only there two days but I adapt very quickly!

11am – Au revoir, Chamonix…a plus! Nous allons se revoir…j’espère.

French snacks in hand, our drive back to the airport took 7 hrs. Why so long, you ask? Just because, you know, we decided to make a pit stop…in Germany. M had never been before and seeing we took O to Italy for his first time we thought we’d do M the same courtesy.

In case you're wondering how it's possible to hit up so many countries in such a short period of time...

We had the GPS take us to the nearest German city by the airport, which happened to be the lovely town of Lörrach. We drove into what inherently looked like a deserted town and thought we’d made a huge mistake choosing that as our destination, but our interested escalated slightly when we saw a couple of oddballs walking down the street. They were kind of dressed like hick-ish roughnecks: leather pants, hat, and jackets with strips of leather flowing behind them. Weird. The car locks were enabled. Then we saw others dressed like clowns. And others dressed like animals. We thought “what the hell is going on???” We parked the car and followed the costumed folk and were amazed by what unfolded before our eyes.

Confetti COVERED the streets. I kid you not, there was at least one inch of confetti covering the main streets and square of Lörrach. If only my camera battery hadn’t died on me after two days of use (Thanks, Lumix) I’d have pictures as proof, but there was enough confetti so that I could scoop it up with my hands and throw it up like snow…which O did. There were multiple marching bands flowing through the streets and there didn’t seem to be any sense of order whatsoever. The group of us represented about 10% of the town’s population NOT dressed up in costume and I never thought I’d feel so out of place wearing normal clothing.

I think we lucked out HUGE and randomly came to town when it just so happened to be Karneval/Fasching.

*History lesson

Carnival, just in case you’ve never heard of it, is a festive season which occurs immediately before Lent. It often involves public celebrations, parades, street parties, masquerades, marking an overturning of daily life. It’s been traditionally held in areas with a large Catholic population. The first time I’d ever experienced Carnival was when I lived in Nice, France, where they hold a massive celebration – the event still remains as one of my all-time favourite memories. It’s just one week of pure fun and celebration. I was surprised I’d never heard of it back in Canada but quick research tells me that our equivalent is Caribana. While it should be celebrated in February, due to climatic problems it’s held in August instead, when people can parade in typical Caribana costumes more comfortably!

History lesson over*

A trip to Germany wouldn’t be complete without Gluhwein (hot wine) and wurst so I went a huntin’. There were wursts everywhere…currywurst, longwurst, bratwurst. I was surrounded by sausages of all sizes…I was in heaven.

This trip was a gastronomic experience indeed, but as much as I keep on saying I wish it was longer I think my waistline’s thankful for keeping it short and sweet! Um…I think I’ll end things here…thanks for making it to the end 😉

It’s time for Drivers Ed. UK edition

I’d like to make a statement: I am a good driver.

I’d like to amend my previous statement: I am a good driver in Canada.

I finally picked up the courage to do something I’ve been putting off ever since moving to England. The ever feared DRIVING ON THE OTHER (aka WRONG) SIDE OF THE ROAD. I didn’t enter the situation with arrogance or overconfidence. I was honest with both myself and M in stating to expect some pretty shit driving. And shit driving we got. I fit all the stereotypes of a female driver. And not only that, but a female Asian driver…stereotypically (bolding is necessary so I don’t have people biting my head off) a deadly combination. The rental car was returned with a chip and scratch that wasn’t initially there, but since my psychic skills predicted this happening I made sure to get full comprehensive insurance. *Whew* That saved some sweat under the armpits.

Anyhow, I believe I have the potential to be a…decent…driver here but there are definitely a few things I need to brush up on:

1. Figure out how to read traffic lights. This isn’t a joke. This may be a problem that lays solely with the City of Bath, but the traffic lights here can only be deciphered by geniuses. I mean….I’ve been to Vietnam. I know crazy traffic.

Driving in Vietnam

The insanity of the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t compare anywhere near to the insanity experienced in Bath. I mean, take a look at this:

I spy with my little eye...7 traffic lights

How do you know which lights to follow??? There are 6 lights you need to focus on. So my dilemma was how to go straight-ish and then bear right. I had no idea which light to follow…either the green light with the straight arrow or the red light. Since I was going right-ish I didn’t want to assume that the straight green arrow was meant for me. My pride did not show itself in the slightest when I asked M which traffic light it was I was supposed to follow. I did experience some relief when he himself admitted he had no idea. Since I was the first in line I decided to just stay put. I figured I’d rather have cars honk at me for not moving than to go and a) get a ticket for running a red light b) get t-boned by a car. Would you have done the same? Take a wild guess whether I made the wrong or right move. Come on…50/50 chance of getting it correct. Ok, I did the wrong thing, which was evidently made, without haste, when the line of cars behind me blared their horns. Oops!

2. Learn the road signs. There’s signage here I’ve never seen in my life! The UK does a lot to keep its drivers on their toes, such as having incoming and oncoming traffic merge into ONE lane. If you see a car heading your way you stop, unless you want to experience a head-on collision. To my non-UK (and non-Australian…non-HK) readers, would you know what to do here?

Hmm...what to do, what to do...

Would you just go? Or would you sit and ponder for a bit and see whether it’s safe/legal to go? Well, just in case you’re ever faced with this dilemma here’s what you need to know. If you find yourself facing a sign with a big black arrow (that so happens to say “Give way to oncoming cars”) that means you need to hang tight and let the other cars go first. If you see it empty like this then you’re free to go. If, on the other hand, you find yourself facing this:

Sit back and wait

Then you have to hang tight until the coast is clear. The signs appear and alternate frequently. You know you have the right of way if the red arrow is big and bold.

3. Gage my distance properly. I incurred some perception problems when I got behind the wheel which I’m attributing either to old age or lack of experience. I’m hoping it’s the latter but only time will tell. I drove a typical North American sized car (Toyota Auris FYI It’s a pretty sweet ride and I vouch the hybrid), which would’ve been fine if I drove on typical North American sized roads. I swear, the roads here are fit for Power Wheels, not adult cars. There were a few times where I found myself PRE-TTY close to cars in the incoming lane (to my right) so I went more to the left to slow down my racing heart. Sometimes when I moved to the left I found the car scraping things it shouldn’t be scraping. Just…hedges and stuff…I would never hit scrape a car and drive away…

4. 2 in 1 roads. Usually I’m a big fan of 2 for 1’s. This doesn’t apply when it comes to roads. In the countryside they often converge 2 lanes (I’m guessing because there aren’t enough drivers to justify making 2 lanes??) into one and every so often there will be more of an open space to pull over in case you find yourself facing an oncoming car. If/when you find yourself face-to-face with a car you’re supposed to play a game of chicken and see who moves first. I’m not sure what the courtesy rule is but basically, one car needs to back all the way up to the nearest open space, pull over, and let the other car (aka the winner) pass by. I think whoever has one closer to them is supposed to back up but some people can be pretty stubborn and refuse to back up. M’s aunt had a showcase showdown with a driver once…things got nasty. Someone had to get out of the car to “exchange some words”. M’s aunt ended up losing L I was told that someone actually petitioned to have a sign put up saying “Only enter if you are capable of reversing” on some of the roads but it didn’t pass. I actually think that would’ve been a good idea because reversing on those kinds of roads is definitely a mandatory skill. The picture below is an attempt to capture the size of the road but dark and rainy conditions prevented me from taking a decent picture. At this point I pulled off to the open space/pull over area to let a car pass, but do you get a sense of how narrow it is?

A nightmare of a drive

Well, one thing’s for sure, I’ll never take my wide Canadian roads for granted ever again! Let’s just say that driving on Fischer-Hallman is to UK roads what 1200-thread count Egyptian cotton is to…sandpaper.

PROST to a fantastic time in Germany!

I’ve just returned from a MAGNIFICENT (and that’s putting it lightly) trip around Germany. I’ve been to Germany before but the reason for going this time was a little more special than just a regular ‘ol sight-seeing trip around Europe. Have you heard of Oktoberfest? Lemme tell you a little something about Oktoberfest. It is one of my most FAVOURITE times of the year. Better than birthday time, better than New Year’s, and definitely better than Valentine’s Day! Why? Because it’s a period of no expectations (i.e. no presents and reasons to make the day “special” like you  need to do for the aforementioned days). It’s just a period in October where you get together with friends, wear whatever the heck you wanna wear (God knows I can’t be bothered to dress up and do the whole make-up bit) and dance, sing, and eat to your heart’s desire. It’s the one time of the year I can stand drinking beer (something I’m working on since this appears to be a problem with the Brits) and my love for frankfurters and schnitzels grows to overwhelming heights.

So you may be asking why someone like me enjoys this German festival so much. Even if you’re not I’ll tell you why. You see, I come from a small(ish) town called Waterloo. Conjoined with our neighbouring city, Kitchener, we make up the KW twin cities. Due to the large German settlement in KW we celebrate Oktoberfest like none other. None other than the actual Germans themselves, that is. According to Wikipedia, the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany is Canada. And not just Canada, but KW!!! So just picture the excitement that electrified my body when I found out I’d be able to attend the REAL thing. After 10 years of Oktoberfesting in KW I’d finally be able to hit up the real thing, bier stein in one hand, frankfurter in the other, in Bavaria.

So off to Munich I went and let me tell ya, my expectations DID NOT disappoint! The weather wasn’t too cooperative but did that dampen our spirits? Of course bloody not! Back in Canada the only way you can get into Oktoberfest events is if you purchase a ticket beforehand. At the real Oktoberfest it’s every man for themself and entrance works on a first-come-first-serve basis. I was with my ex-roommate, an experienced Oktoberfester, and her efficient German ways got me out of bed at 8AM and into the beer tents by 10AM. In Munich Oktoberfest takes place on fair grounds and there are 10 tents you can choose from, each offering their own kind of beer (e.g. Paulaner, Augustiner, Löwenbrau). Even at 10AM the tents were already packed with Oktoberfesters and I looked around, awed and wide-eyed, at the scene that lay before me. Fortunately for us, we were two cute girls, adorning darling dirndls so grabbing two seats at a table didn’t prove to be TOO problematic 😉

Stein holding competition. My trembling, weak arms couldn't take it. I lost :(

I had my first “maß” (pronounced by combining mass and moss together), a 1 litre beer stein, in hand by 10:30AM. My roommate taught me how to hold my stein properly to avoid looking like a tourist (in case my lack of German didn’t already give that away) and I sipped that baby for a good 2.5 hrs to avoid getting the rosy cheeks I’ve become notorious for and to also avoid passing out on the table in fatigue. Good plan, no?

Right hand=right way. Left hand= no-no!

It wasn’t just about the beer though. We explored the fair grounds and I made sure to try all the specialty Oktoberfest foods as well.

Some of my favourites include:

Kartoffelknödel- German potato dumplings

Weißwurst- Traditional Bavarian white sausage that tastes amazing with sweet mustard and pretzel

Spätzle – Traditional noodles/pasta that’s usually eaten with meat

I think I had bratwurst every single day I was in Munich and I’ve gotta admit, nothing beats a good German sausage. But I think I’m all sausaged out until…next October.

You’d think that with the huge international attendance I would’ve wanted to meet travellers from all over the globe, but as the day went on I found myself craving North Americans! More specifically, Canadians, but they were so far and few that I was even willing to settle for Americans. I discovered that Europeans really aren’t that friendly! I met Germans, Swiss, Italians and they were so exclusive and into themselves. I mean…it’s Oktoberfest! I’m used to cheer and open-arms, dancing and switching partners but I didn’t get any of that with them. I made it my mission to find some friendly drinking companions and we finally accomplished our mission by the time we hit up the last tent. A table filled with Americans, Canadians, South Africans, and Australians. *sigh* it was marvelous 😀 My day started at 10:30AM.  12 hrs and 3.5 litres of beer later, I found my life slightly more complete. I took out my notepad and crossed off item 36 – Oktoberfesting in Munich – off my bucket list.

But you’ll be happy to hear that there was more to the trip than just beer drinking. Munich, in case you’ve never been, is a beautiful city, rich with history and culture. It’s one of my favourite European cities (I think I say that about every place I visit, but I really mean it this time) because it has maintained its feel of authenticity. I took a tour around Munich and learned everything you need to know about Munich in just 3 hrs 😉 Here are some highlights…

Frauenkirche cathedral– The tallest structure in Old City Munich. No other building can surpass the towers of the cathedral, making it a beautiful landmark and symbol of the Bavarian capital city.

Marienplatz

The New Town Hall in Marienplatz

 

this is the central square in Munich and where you can find the gorgeous New Town Hall, complete with the Glockenspiel, a carillon that chimes at 11AM and noon, everyday. Well, it’s supposed to…I think the clock’s a little out of whack and is a few minutes off so don’t count on it on being a reliable source of telling time. Just around the corner from Marienplatz is the AWESOME…

 

 

Viktualienmarkt – I went to this market every single day to eat…drumroll…yup, that’s right, bratwurst!!! This market is amazing for getting yummy fresh Bavarian food. I bought cheese, chocolate, and different kinds of sausage. Going there just to browse proved to be very difficult and temptation got the best of me. I ended up buying something each time I went L The vendors there are very persuasive and they did a good job luring me in with samples and guilting me into buying their products. I’m a vendor’s dream come true…damn me and my inability to resist samples!

BMW Police cars – Policemen get to drive around in BMWs in Munich! The BMW HQ is located in Munich and apparently they’ve struck up some kind of deal or partnership. Pretty sweet deal huh? I mean, the Ford Taurus the Canadian police get to drive around is obviously pretty swanky too, but it ain’t no BMW…

BMW Police cars

Hofbräuhaus (pronounced Hofbroyhouse) –

Inside Hofbrauhaus

Ok every tourist gets told to come here, but there’s a reason why! It’s one of Munich’s oldest beer halls and was originally founded as the brewery to the old Royal Residence. Just to give you a glimpse of just how important beer is to Bavarian history, let me share a story with you. King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden invaded Bavaria during the thirty years’ war in 1632 and threatened to burn the entire city of Munich. The citizens of Munich tried to bargain with the King and offered gold, but that wasn’t good enough. You know what type of bribery worked? Yup, beer! The King agreed to leave the city in peace in exchange for 600 000 barrels of Hofbräuhaus beer. The hall is now used for massive, massive, MASSIVE feasting and I guarantee you will indulge in some fine Bavarian bevies and munchies upon entrance.

Englischer Garten (English Garden) – This park is located in Munich and apparently it’s even bigger than Central Park! It’s so pretty and serene and a perfect place to jog, read, hit up a beer tent or even surf on the Eisbach. The Eisbach (meaning “ice brook”) is a man-made river located in the park and a man-made wave was created in one section where surfers can go for a quick thrill. Bring your board, bring your wetsuit, and bring your skills because it’s in a pretty public area and you’ll definitely have people gawking at you as you do your thang.

Surfing the waves in the Eisbach

Viscardigasse

Remembering the Resistance

The Nazi movement initially started in Bavaria so I learned a lot about the rise of Hitler, a truly eye-opening experience. Viscardigasse is a little alley behind a big square called Odeonsplatz. In the square is a monument called “Feldherrnhalle”. During the rise of Hitler, he ordered that everyone passing the Feldherrnhalle had to give the Nazi salute as they walked by. Many people practiced a passive resistance by avoiding the walk past the monument and taking a detour through Viscardigasse instead. Needless to say, Nazi officials were not happy with this and anyone who took the detour without a legitimate excuse had their names recorded and would be punished accordingly. In the mid-90’s a gold wavy strip of pavement stones was placed in Viscardigasse to commemorate the civil resistance. Pretty cool huh?

There’s soooo much more to talk about but I’m an avid believer in maintaining reader interest so for your benefit I shall stop.

I did manage a few days in Frankfurt but truth be told, after seeing such nice sights in Munich it’s hard to find anything nice to say about Frankfurt. My time there was spent catching up with the old French crew and it was more of a hangout session than a sight-seeing tour. So instead, I leave you with some travel tips!

  1. If you need to get from Munich to Frankfurt I highly recommend taking the bus. Deinbus is great for those looking for a economical (aka cheap) way of travelling from one city to another, as long as you’re not too tight on time. You’ll be on a large comfortable coach bus, but prepare yourself for a 5.5 hr journey (or more if there’s traffic).
  2. When you get to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) you can count on getting lost. Very lost. You can also count on no one helping you out. You’d think people at the information desk would be willing to assist a young damsel in distress but the people I encountered were less than eager to give me any information or point me in the right direction. They were downright assholes. Maybe I should’ve offered them a pretzel. Anyway, if you need to get anywhere in the city go DOWNSTAIRS for the U-Bahn. All the trains upstairs are to take you to other national destinations and it’s downstairs you need to go to for the local metro. I bought a ticket but anyone can get on the train and ticket checkers are far and few …just sayin…
  3. PROST needs to be part of your everyday lingo. If you’re only capable of memorizing one German word let it be PROST!
  4. RyanAir offers great flight deals but be aware that their airports are often extremely far from the city centre and you’ll need to allow yourself a good 2 hrs of travel time to get into the city. i.e. I flew into “Memmingen (Munich West) Airport”. This is nowhere near Munich and the tiny airport is located in a small village about 110 km away (1.5 hrs by train). I flew out of “Frankfurt Hahn” which again, is nowhere near Frankfurt. 150 km away and a 1h 45 min bus ride away. Take the Bohr bus from Hauptbahnhof for €14 (you have to pay the driver, you can’t buy your ticket in advance) but make sure you get there at least a half an hour early to ensure a seat on the bus. I got there 10 minutes before the bus was due to depart and the bus was packed. Fortunately, there were enough of us waiting to warrant them calling in another bus, otherwise I would’ve had to wait 2 hrs for the next one!
  5. Food and drinks in Germany is dirt cheap. If you’re anything like me you will look at everything with greedy eyes and buy everything in sight without a second thought. So here’s my last tip to you – bring baggy clothes. You may not need it at first but you can bet a maß you’ll be wearing the baggy clothing in relief as you see the first signs of a beer belly starting to protrude.

That’s all folks! So until my next travel adventure…CIAO! (Germans stole it from the Italians and say it all the time)

Ah wait, one more thing…I just tweeted this little piece of advice and should probably share it with you as well: FYI “double fisting” means something different in the UK than it does in Canada. Don’t use it to answer how you spent your week in Germany.

Check out Urban Dictionary for the meaning in case you don’t already know. I meant definition #1. Definition #3 is what’s used in the UK.

 

Arrivederci summer, it was nice to see you…

The bad: Packed summers and empty the rest of the year

Sardinia’s a full-fledged tourist destination which means that when I first arrived here 3 weeks ago the island was packed with people. This isn’t the greatest situation for someone who’s not a huge fan of crowds and kishy tourist things…that someone being yours truly.

Finding parking spots are akin to a 3m board of Where’s Waldo, people on beaches are packed together like sardines, and ironically, I find the mega yachts that people are so attracted to here a part of the reason of the island’s loss of charm. There are a lot of great activities to do here that include underwater discoveries, exploring the countryside, and going to local eateries, but a lot of the focus tends to be on all the rich and famous people who populate Sardinia during the summer, especially the Costa Smeralda area.

87m long super yacht "ACE"

 

115m long "Pelorus" (previously owned by Roman Abramovich, currently owned by David Geffen)

However, as of last weekend the summer has basically been declared officially over. Many of the tourists who come are mainland Italians and I’ve witnessed a steady stream of departures, with the majority of mainlanders boarding ferries to take them all back to reality. It’s only been 3 days since the weekend and already restaurants are closing at 11PM vs 3AM, streets are deserted by 8PM and much of the livelihood I’d become accustomed to has now disappeared. Even the weather gods decided to give us a not-so-friendly reminder that summer’s over by gracing us with 4 straight days of cold and wet weather. I mean…I know this is something I should be used to living in England and all, but when I’m in Sardinia I expect certain things…sun is one of them. Needless to say, the 10-15 degree drop in temperature has left me slightly disgruntled…*sigh* I guess I can look at the positive side of things and be grateful I won’t be shocked back into reality when I return to the UK on Saturday!

hehe and on another positive note, the dreary temperature has also meant I don’t need to prance around in my bikini any longer. Sadly, the plan to control my eating and try to maintain some sense of portion control didn’t work out and the beach-ready body I had 3 weeks ago is no longer the case. At least I don’t need to feel TOO guilty about hitting up another agriturismo 😉