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April 27, 2011

Perfect Berlin Day

A perfect day starts out with a balanced breakfast. We went to the café across the street from the palace we've been staying (thanks Jonathan!) and played the "I Have No Idea What This Means But I Hope It's Delicious" game when ordering from the menu. I got a plate with a hard-boiled egg, cheeses, meats, butter and amazing house-made marmalade, accompanied by a basket of baguettes and slices of hearty German bread. The Dude had the XL version, with smoked salmon, fruit slices and horseradish spread. This kept us full all the livelong day.

Next stop was Tacheles, recommended by my friend Jessica. Originally built in 1907 as a department store in Berlin's Jewish quarter, it has since housed a Nazi prison, the Free German Trade Union Federation, and a movie theater. Shortly after the wall fell (and right before the building was scheduled to be demolished), an artists' initiative took over the building. It has since been used as an art center and night club.

According to their website:
In the course of changes since the wall came down, Tacheles has been confronted with the difficult challenge of remaining true to its roots and ideals without becoming too sentimental about the old squatter times.

The building was partially bombed during WWII and it's completely covered inside with graffiti. Each room features work from different artists-- collages, paintings, photography-- and there's a sculpture garden out back. I thought of many of my Portland buddies who would drool at such a gnarly artist collective.

Next was the Neue Synagogue down the street, which was way overpriced for the amount of information. We went to the German Historic Museum on Monday and paid 4E for three hours' worth of moseying through their gigantic exhibit, and we paid 3E50 for two small rooms of info at the synagogue. Lame.

We were totally parched by this point, so we stopped at a local watering hole for my new favorite refreshment: apfel schorle. It's like fizzy apple juice. So delish. As we were sitting outside the sky opened and started thunderbooming, so we were forced to move inside and do shots of jägermeister. Those are the rules.

When the rain let up an hour or so later, on the recommendation of my buddy Kathryn we headed down to Bernauer Strasse, which has a couple of museums dedicated to my favorite subject: The Berlin Wall. The first had videos of the history of the wall (which left a German woman in the row in front of us in tears) and an explanation of the death strip, the 100-meter zone between walls on the East and West sides filled with sensor-triggered barb wire, patrol dogs, beds of nails, trip wire, and of course lots of lots of soldiers ready to shoot at anything that moves.

There was a park adjacent to the museum that had some old pieces of the wall on display, as well as informational panels about what had happened. It also had photos of the 136 people killed as they tried to cross the wall.

We arrived at the second museum 15 minutes before closing, so we only had time to climb up to the observation deck to see a preserved section of what the death strip actually looked like.

Minutes after we left we got caught in another thunderboom, so we hopped the streetcar to the grocery store to buy the fixings for a big dinner for Jonathan and his roommates.

Today is our last day in Berlin, and I have the sads. I can definitely see why so many people love it here so much.

April 26, 2011

Walking what's left of The Wall

I know I haven't been writing nearly as much about Berlin as I did Amsterdam, and that's because it's kind of hard for me to figure this city out. In French cities, you find layers upon layers of tangible history all bunched up on top of each other. A church from 1100 might be standing next to a house from 1650, which is next to a supermarché from 2003. In many cities it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to picture yourself bustling through the narrow streets with your petticoat a-rustling and the curls of your elaborately coiffed and powdered hair coming loose as you make your way to the ball (which is how I prefer to picture myself, always).

But Berlin was pretty much razed during the WWII bombings. And then, post-war, the GDR erected several concrete, prison-like structures and, you know, a huge WALL, much of which came tumbling down post-1989 as people tried to move on.

Everything feels so new here. The sidewalks are shockingly wide-- so unlike the two-foot pathways back in Diggy that usually have a parked car on them anyway. There's construction everywhere. And there are some neighborhoods we've been in that feel more like California than Europe.

As the Dude and I wander around the city, we often wonder if we are in what was East Berlin or West Berlin, since there are no real indicators either way. Which is why I was so pumped to visit the Eastside Gallery, a 1.3 km section of the wall that people from around the world made into a work of art in 1990. (In 2009 much of the work had to be restored due to erosion and grafitti.)

Finally, as we traversed the wall and I felt so small and powerless against its height, I was able to get a small inkling of what life must have been like in its shadow.

April 23, 2011

Life in the GDR appears to have been somewhat awesome

We got into Berlin on Wednesday afternoon, and approximately four curry- and bratwursts later, one of our first stops was an English-language bookstore. I have been STARVED for a good book in English since I got over here, once I discovered that my Nook doesn't want to cooperate in France. I picked two books, one called A Woman in Berlin, about Berlin-post-war, and one called Stasiland, about Berlin-post-wall.

Stasiland is full of harrowing tales of what life was like in East Germany under the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik): never trusting anyone (they may inform on you to the secret police), no privacy, and no room for free thought. So I was prepared for a somber experience inside the DDR Museum.

What we got instead was a gee-whiz, hands-on collection of DDR memorabilia, with placards touting the ingenuity of the East Germans and making things like group bathroom breaks (a first lesson in Communist brotherhood-- no one can get up from the row of potties until the last one has finished) look positively adorable. 

These fun little guys taught the young comrades to eat more fruit, conserve electricity and use resources responsibly.
Here I am practicing the Lipsi dance, specifically created by the DDR in 1959 to be void of any and all sexuality and to counter rock 'n roll. Watch the video below to see what it looked like.

This diorama was dedicated to the East German penchant for promenading au naturel at the beach.
My favorite exhibit let you create a "new socialist human" bit by bit. You were given points for how well your choices conformed to the socialist ideal. I did well with my shoe choice ("Sturdy footwear is important for creating initiative in productive labor. Both feet firmly on socialist ground!"), but not so much with what I put in my left hand ("You have an exemplary husband! But why are you bringing flowers to work? Has your admirer just brought them here? Has he no job?").

April 21, 2011

Amsterdam in a Bigger Nutshell

Amsterdam is beautiful, hilarious, delicious, bike-friendly and seedy. And I stand by my original assessment that Amsterdam is weird. Good-weird.

Amsterdam is beautiful 

We got into the city at about 8 a.m. on Sunday after an outrageously uncomfortable seven-hour night bus from Paris, a one-hour layover in the Amstel station where everything was cold and closed, and a 30-minute unsuccessful bathroom search in the Centraal station (everything was locked). I was predisposed to be very unhappy on my first day there.

But I was immediately charmed by the city's beauty. We had the streets practically to ourselves as we made our way to the Anne Frank House, surrounded by the blooming trees, placid canals and houses with gabled roofs. I hadn't realized just how much water there is in Amsterdam. The canals run in concentric circles around the city, the Amstel River runs through it, and the North Sea Canal borders it.

Amsterdam is hilarious

Dutch is the funniest language I have ever encountered. As the Dude noted, it sounds like German spoken with a Scottish accent. I knew from having a couple of Dutch students in France that Netherlanders had a facility for picking up other languages virtually accent-free, but it was still alarming to eavesdrop on a conversation and hear a phrase like, "One million dollars" thrown in there as if speaker was an American. (A Frenchy might do the same, but they'd pronounce it "meel-yohn do-lairz.")

Nearly everyone we met spoke perfect English. I asked our host Lucas if they learn it in school here, and he said they might in college, but it wasn't required in high school. The reason everyone speaks it so perfectly, he said, was because the majority of their TV comes from America... and none of it is dubbed. I was surprised when I started teaching in France that the students had had such a hard time with my American accent; I'd figured that enough of our culture had been exported to make the way I speak the norm. But it's actually kind of rare in France to find a program in V.O. (version originale), which is a topic for a future post.

Amsterdam is delicious

My guidebook told me I had to get a herring sandwich with pickles and raw onions. So I did. I couldn't look at it while I ate it because the fish was so durn slimy, but I made it through the whole thing. Pas mal.

Amsterdam is bike-friendly

Everyone, and I mean everyone, rides a bike in Amsterdam.  And I didn't see a single person wearing a helmet. There were dedicated bike lanes next to the sidewalk that I kept wandering into, and then I would get dinged at by a biker. Sorry bikers!

I personally don't choose a two-wheeled vehicle as my steed, but I thought about how much my buddies back home (like you, Anna!) would geek out about this city's bikeliciousness. 

Fun fact: Approximately three milliseconds after I snapped this, the women in the center of this picture collided. If you zoom in on the pink shirt woman's face, it looks like she's having the time of her life. The woman in the white shirt was definitely not as pleased afterward.

Amsterdam is seedy

When we started wandering the streets of Amsterdam on Sunday we were immediately hit with the unmistakable stench of marijuana. The smell was ever-y-where. We also had to step over puddles of vomit and broken beer bottles. It's clear that tourists from all over the world, attracted by the marijuana and prostitution tolerance, come to take a big ol' dump on the city.

We went through the Red Light District a few different times to gawk at the ladies in the window. Most of them looked incredibly bored, smoking cigarettes and playing on their cell phones, nonplussed at all the tourists staring at them. I know that prostitutes in Amsterdam are a lot better off than in other places in the world-- because prostitution is legal, they can go to police without fear when shiz goes down, and the laws regulating them enforce strict hygiene standards-- but the whole thing just made me depressed. Then one of them made eyes at the Dude and I dragged him outta there immediately.

Final thoughts

I really liked Amsterdam. Unlike Paris and Rome, it had a more casual feel, so I wasn't embarrassed by how devastatingly uncool I am. The people were also incredibly friendly; everyone we approached for help responded kindly, and people even approached us to offer advice when it looked like we were struggling.

Of all the European cities I've visited thus far, Amsterdam is one of the few places I could see myself living long-term... though I'd want to stay far, far away from the touristy areas.

April 19, 2011

The NEW New Nutella

You guys. OMD, you guys. O.M.D. I have an announcement to make.


Since I first made my everlasting love for Speculoos known to the world, everyone I know who has been to Holland has been all, "Dude. Just you wait." I waited, dear readers. And this morning was the fated moment. It is everything I had dreamed of and more. The best way to describe it a paste made of graham crackers with little crunchy bits of graham cracker inside.

Crunchy Speculoos, Hagel Slag and Echte Luikse Siroop: all part of a balanced Dutch breakfast.

My major plan for this, my last day in Amsterdam, includes buying two, maybe three jars to take home. If you're lucky I'll give you a very small spoonful. 

My ghost had to write this post because I actually died of happy eating this.

April 18, 2011

Bibliophile's Paradise

Amsterdam is a weird city. But I like it.

One of my favorite parts so far is the Central Library, which the Dude and I visited with mouths agape yesterday upon the recommendation of EJ. It's sleek, modern and so totally well-designed. Like a seal using an iPad.

Here are some facts to make you drool:
  • The library has 10 floors, 1200 seats (600 of which have Internet-connected computers) and 2000 parking spaces for bicycles
  • The total area is 28,500 square meters
  • The Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (Amsterdam Public Library) system has more than 1.7 MILLION books available. 
And now, a photo essay about the way libraries could be in Amrika if we had €80 million to throw at them.

Look at all this glorious light! I could spend all day here... No seriously; I could: the library is open 10 a.m.-10 p.m., seven days a week.

These reading pods are totally conducive to doing your homework in peace. Especially if your homework involves pretending you're in a space pod.

How the Dutch organize their books: guns for murder mysteries, magic hats for fantasies, hearts for romance and giant thumbs hovering over tiny humans for... books about the man keeping you down? [click to enlarge]

That's what she said.

An aerial view of some of the 2,000 bike parking spaces.

April 17, 2011

Amsterdam in a Nutshell

Strolling along the canals and seeing all the pretty trees in bloom made me feel like that boy. Walking through the Red Light District made me feel like that girl.

April 14, 2011

You will get fat just looking at this

After another unbelievably scrumptious lunch chez mon patissier préféré (with courses of pâté en croûte; suprême de volaille with mushrooms, carrots and chicken quenelles; and a massive hunk of comté cheese), we were presented with this baba au rhum.

My stomach said, "There is not even a sliver of room in me." My head said, "If you eat something else you might actually explode and die." My heart said, "But it would be a happy death."

April 12, 2011

Try this; it's disgusting

I ride the bus to Charolles a few times a week to traîne with my main meuf Missy, and I often end up chatting with a philosphy professor from my lycée for the first part of the journey. This afternoon, after picking up a conversation we had started last week (yes, I still like grenouilles; no, I still have no interest  in trying boudin noir; eh, escargots are pas mal), he invited me to break off a small piece of a square of the hard black candy he had in his bag.

He told me it was mint- and  réglisse-flavored. He tried to explain to me what réglisse was, but I ended up with the impression that it's a cigarette-shaped plant that he thinks Americans eat in sandwiches. No matter; I would just have to try it.

Imagine licking the elbow of an infirm old man who goes nuts with his mint-scented arthritis cream.

After he saw my grimace he offered me a tissue so I could spit it out. "Yeah, I don't like it either," he said.

April 11, 2011

Lazy Sundays

Sundays can be the worst day of the week for a lonely American in small-town France. The few shops and bakeries that deign to open on the Day of Rest have all closed their doors by noon, so if you've slept in you're pretty much SOL. The situation can get pretty dire if you were frolicking all day on Saturday only to awake on Sunday and find you have nothing but condiments (and no baguette to put them on).  That is, of course, unless you're lucky enough to be invited to join a French family for their weekly ritual of a gigantic lunch and post-lunch relaxation.

The dedication to family life is one of the things I love most about France. The 35-hour work week and the two-hour lunch breaks might seem to us like evidence of laziness, but their purpose is to allow people more time with their families. And on Sundays, there's literally nothing to do but just enjoy each others' company. I hope you like each other!

The Dude and I spent a wonderful weekend with fellow Broad Abroad Emily and her charming French boyfriend Nicolas at his apartment in Chatillon-sur-Seine. After some strolling and museum-ing and lots and lots of cooking on Saturday, on Sunday we headed to Nicolas' family home in Froidvent. His parents Bruno and Françoise prepared a delightful "French tagine" of chicken, lamb and potatoes, followed by a cheese course (bien sûr) and a tarte tatin.

Our hosts Emily and Nicolas, the latter of whom admitted to washing his mouth out with chocolate after eating peanut butter.

After the meal we decided to "profiter" from the glorious weather and enjoy coffee and chocolates en plein air. No one was in a hurry to check things off their list or run their errands--they couldn't if they wanted to. We were content just to talk, inhale the scent of pear blossom, enjoy the breeze, and listen to the snores of Tao, the Jack Russell terrier.


Tasty Sunday Lunch Recipe

Françoise started out our meal with a delicious and surprising avocado-cucumber-kiwi salad. I'm totally guessing on the proportions here, but I'm sure you can easily add a bit of this or that to get it tasting the way that pleases you.

-1 part cucumbers, diced
-1 part avocado, diced
-1 part kiwi, diced
-Mustard vinaigrette (1/4 cup white-wine vinegar, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 3/4 cup oil... whisk together everything but the oil, then add the oil slowly until it emulsifies)

Combine cucumbers, avocado and kiwi into a bowl. Add enough vinaigrette to coat all ingredients. Toss gently. Refrigerate until served.

April 10, 2011

Hee Hee Hee, Hon Hon Hon: Notes on Amusing the French

One of my early visits to France included a week-long home stay with a French family. During this first experience with total immersion I learned a number of things, chief among them: my humor did not translate.

Being an incredibly awkward human being, I was constantly knocking things over, spilling things, and being a general dunderhead. After each accident, my adopted family would assure me, "Ce n'est pas grave," (It's not a big deal) to which I replied with a very serious expression, "Si. C'est grave" (Yes. It is in fact a huge deal). Not understanding that I was trying to make a joke, they would repeat, "Mais non, ce n'est pas grave," (Seriously--don't worry about it) and then I would repeat, "Si c'est grave." (I'm totally worried about it). Their confusion and my deadpanning would continue until I backed slowly into my room, closed the door, and wept into my travel journal about how mizundastood I was.

So you don't have to go through the same shame cycle, I've listed some of my most and least successful jokes for you to consider before you encounter your next Frenchy.

Des Bonnes Blagues:

-When someone is cutting onions and nagging you about your love life, retort, "Occupes-toi de tes oignons!" (Literally: Occupy yourself with your onions! Colloquially: Mind your own business!) It's like hitting two birds with one stone; they chortle so much they forget to keep reminding you that he's just not that into you, and, bonus, they keep chopping the onions that will inevitably create a delicious dish.

-When you're in someone else's home for Sunday lunch, and they ask you if it's alright if they light up a cigar, reply, "Faites comme chez vous..." (Roughly: Do as you would if you were in your very own home) as magnanimously as possible, accompanied by a sweeping hand motion.

-For some reason, the phrases, "Pas mal" (not bad) and "Mais SI!" (that's not TRUE!) get laughs-a-minute when said with a deep voice and a slight sneer. Try to interject them whenever possible. When presented with a glass of water, hold it up to the light, swirl it a bit, take a deep whiff, sip and then pronounce, "Pas mal..." with the corners of your mouth turned down. When someone pronounces that Sarkozy isn't that great of a president, slap your knee, widen your eyes and yell menacingly, "Mais SI!" and then refuse to defend your answer. They'll love it.

-It takes a LOT of time and explanation, and you may not want to make the investment, but the pay-offs of teaching a French person about "that's what she said" can be huge. (That's what she said.)

Des Mauvaises Blagues...

-"Ta mère" (your mother) jokes are taken far, far, FAR more seriously on this side of the pond. When you say "ta mère," the person to whom you are speaking has a tendency to believe you are actually talking about their actual mother. So if someone says, "Beurk, cette clementine est dégeulasse," (Yuck, this clementine is disgusting) do NOT reply, "Oui, dégeulasse comme ta mère" (Yes, disgusting like your mother).  Trust me on that one. 

-For your own good, just avoid the subjects of cats (les chats) in all situations. It's far too easy to mistakenly make the masculine article feminine, and to pronounce the "t" at the end of the word. Before you know it, you're not talking about cats at all, but rather a vulgar name for female anatomy. For example: if your host is joking that the rabbit you're enjoying for lunch was actually the neighbor's pet, but she had made him so mad that he shot and cooked it, do NOT reply, "What are you going to eat next week, her cat?" Choose bird. Or fish. Or some other innocuous creature. Leave cats out of it.

April 6, 2011

Circle of life

Cluny used to be the center of Christendom. The papacy was headquartered here, and the church was the biggest church in all the land until St. Peter's in Rome was constructed. Then the French Revolution came along and people were all, "Boo, Church! Boo!" and they dissembled it stone by stone, leaving only a bell tower and change.

Now Cluny is a quaint little village clinging to its not-so-quaint Medieval past of grandeur and glory for the benefit of all the abbey-hopping tourists. They have some sort of institution of higher learning there that apparently encourages its students to decorate and wear their own quidditch uniforms.

We also saw a cat eat a lizard.


April 3, 2011

Joke's on me

April Fools Day has traditionally been the time for me to announce a fake pregnancy to my mother, who always believes me for a least a little bit, no matter how many times I've done it (which is what makes it so fun!). Since that perennial parental heart attack has become trite with overuse, in the past couple of years I've graduated to playing games with her heart in a different way. Last year I uploaded a series of pictures featuring my left hand sporting the various engagement rings of my coworkers. I never actually said I was engaged; people just drew their own conclusions.*

This year, the only natural thing to do was to break off my now real engagement-- at least for 24 hours. The time zone difference between France and the States gave us a major advantage, since at the time I posted it it was still March 31 on the West Coast. I immediately received a heartfelt message from my friend Ryan, who pledged to be there for me despite the ocean between us. But as the afternoon wore on people across the pond woke up and wised up, and within a few hours I had a number of comments on my changed relationship status from friends warning others that I was a big ol' liarpants.

Har har, hon hon hon, no harm no foul. Except here in France people don't seem to be as cruel to their mothers on April 1, beyond perhaps slyly taping a fish to her back (yeah, I don't get it either... but this is the same country where a flying bell delivers Easter gifts). So when my students saw my changed relationship status on Facebook, they believed it. And then they told their teachers, and their teachers believed it. One of my students confirmed to me this morning that I am the talk of the teachers' lounge, and when I poke my head in there Monday to get my mail I should expect a lot of sympathetic looks.

Thank goodness I decided against another pregnancy...

*The Dude ended up popping the question for realsies a few weeks later, and I had to swear up and down that it was da troof.