"Could we live here?" trip: Berlin

December 19, 2012

Classic Berlin

We weren't even sure we would make it to Berlin. We didn't even book a place to stay until halfway through our Barcelona trip. It was our first trip there and if the drive was any indication, we were off to a bad start. Not only did the surroundings get increasingly grey, flat and run-down the further from our lush, picturesque Rheingau part of Germany we got, but traffic getting into the city was at a standstill upon our arrival, making for an hour-long trek from the outskirts of town to our Prenzlauer Berg apartment we were renting for the week. The flashbacks to Bay Area traffic was nearly enough to make us turn around and call the whole thing off. 

Old architecture

New architecture

But once we cleared the worst of it and began driving through the city to our destination, my hardened view of Berlin immediately began to soften. I'm not sure what I expected (high-rises? dirtier, perhaps?), but this was not it. Frankly, it reminded me of where we live now, but cooler. There were art installations in the middle of roundabouts, streets were wide with lots of trees and hip modern architecture was thrown in every now and then between the classic European buildings. Best of all, everything was in familiar (if not always understood) German and was clean - something I absolutely love about Germany.

Just look at that gigantic, juicy burger, pile of fries - and what's that? A DILL PICKLE!!

Scoring a table at The Bird, home of the best burgers in Europe, that first evening (where reservations in advance are always needed) didn't hurt Berlin's case either. My mind was reeling from all the choices, including bacon, cheese, guacamole and BBQ sauce, not to mention that the menu called out German patrons - both in English and German - to not eat their big messy burgers with a knife and fork (the German way), but with their hands (the American way). When our orders were set in front of us, I nearly cried. I hadn't had a good burger since I had In'N'Out back in the States fifteen months earlier, and everything on this plate blew me away. The burger was thick and juicy and all beef (not like German 'meatloaf' burgers), the fries were fresh, rustic and delicious, and holiest of holies - there was a dill pickle! Not slices for the burger and not those awful, rubbery, overly-vinegar-y things Germans think are proper dill pickles - no. This was the real deal. There were even bits of actual dill still stuck on it, leading me to believe these babies were homemade. 

To top it all off, the waitress forgot for some time to bring my husband his second beer in the midst of running around the packed restaurant like a madwoman, and upon realizing her mistake, she brought it right over, apologized profusely and said "shots on the house - what do you like?". We looked at each other, flabbergasted, and nearly had to pinch ourselves. Were we still in Germany? Receiving actual customer service?! Focused on what the customer wants?! We were blown away.

It appears Momofuku has made it to Berlin. So hip.

We left that first meal on cloud nine about Berlin. As I've stated countless times before, food in Germany is good, but coming from the spoiled land of San Francisco, we miss the abundance of any and all kinds of culinary greatness (French-Vietnamesegourmet ice cream of candied cornflakes and bourbon? I think not). Like only finding German beers in Germany (because why would anyone drink anything else?), I think Germans generally believe the only food worth splurging on when dining out is German (okay, occasionally Thai food too). It appeared already that food options in Berlin were on a whole new playing field, and we were just getting started.

Definitely the theme to our trip
(although I'm curious as to why this was censored...)

But it was definitely more than just the food. Even though everything was still clean and orderly, there was a different vibe walking around the neighborhoods. There was color, there was creativity and - gasp! - people didn't stand at a completely empty intersection waiting for the light to tell them it was safe to cross the street (something which in other parts of Germany will get you anything from a dirty look to a downright stern talking to - from other pedestrians - if you disobey). Sure, there were older people and families, but there were plenty of younger, hipper people too. Downright hipsters, even. Some of them even wore brightly-colored winter coats, as opposed to the ubiquitous German black, navy or olive green. Graphic design - creative, pertinent, good graphic design - was everywhere.

Color on playgrounds

Color on buildings

Color in graffiti

Color in graffiti on buildings

We were often greeted in English in restaurants and shops it seemed not because our appearance screamed 'American', but because they were hip and worldly and greeted everyone else the same way. We heard English most commonly amongst people who were not American, but were international and so English was the common language. We overheard people being introduced to each other with cool-sounding job titles I didn't even know existed and connecting in ways you just don't see in public in other parts of Germany. 

A super-cool, rentable office space made out of shipping containers

In addition to all the new, the colorful and the creative, there are astounding amounts of powerful history in Berlin as well. We've been to countless German cities with all kinds of history, but often it can make the place feel dragged down and stuck in the past, especially considering the kind of history it holds. Somehow, Berlin has become the ultimate city of past, present and the promise of the future. I couldn't help but wax poetic about what this city might hold for us.

The Brandenburg gate, once a gate to the city, is now a symbol of freedom after the fall of The Wall

The abandoned Tempelhof airport, where Deutsche Luft Hansa (now Lufthansa) was founded in 1926, is now a public park

The sometimes controversial but still affecting Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe

In a weird way, walking around Berlin gave us a feeling of home. It reminded us a little of San Francisco (fog, food, hip factor), a little of Wiesbaden (architecture, language) and a lot of what we wanted out of life. We didn't even bother with a pro-con list. We felt like we were home. 

So until we make it back, we will be dreaming of:

Chilaquiles at Santa Maria

(a dish apparently so exotic, it confused the heck out of my auto-correct - what the hell is 'chula quilted'?!)

Banh Mis at Babanbè

The ramen at Yam Yam

The friendliness of expats in Berlin, who invited us to two separate Thanksgiving feasts before we'd even met them

Cool coffee shops

Even cooler street art

A Three Musketeers mentality (all for one and one for all)

Lovely apartment buildings (& maybe one to call our very own someday..)

The countless city parks (Bailey would rejoice!)

Farewell, Berlin! We'll be back, perhaps with a moving van...

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische

"Could we live here?" trip: Barcelona

December 11, 2012

The sea, the sun & Gaudi.... paradise

Back in November, fresh off my husband's new work-from-home status and looking at two weeks of vacation booked nearly a year ago with nowhere to go, we figured we'd use the time to check out some places that topped our dream list for cities to live in. For a long while, we just floundered whenever the idea of moving came up. We now have pretty much all of Europe to choose from (and maybe even a bit of Northern Africa) with his new job status. How could one possibly narrow down all the choices?

Churros (from Xurreria), flavored chocolate (my favorite is the mint) and the best coffee I've ever had (at La Granja, a few doors down)

Well, we figured we would start with what we know. Our belated honeymoon trip a few years back took us to Barcelona and we absolutely loved it. The sea, the chocolate and churros, the culture... I always think about the cultural differences between the Spanish and the Germans in terms of shoe shopping (no surprise to those who know me, I'm sure). My shoe size is rather large, even by German standards, apparently, and very hard to find. Coming from America, where you can get anything at anytime - and possibly at a discount if you complain loud enough - the shoe finding missions I've been on in Europe have been eye-opening and mostly disappointing.

My first shoe shopping experience in Germany was indicative of the service we would receive here, in pretty much any retail situation, in the years that followed. Lucky for me, I was with my German friend and she did the communicating. The conversation went something like this:

"Do you have this shoe in a 42" [e-gads, huge, right?]
"No we do not."
"Can it be ordered?"
"No. Only shoes from the new, full-priced collection can be ordered."
(She relayed this information to me and I say maybe I should just try the 41 to see)
"Do you have it in size 41?"
(checks computer) "Yes."
"Can my friend try that one on?"

Ahh, Germans and their directness. No offering up of any alternatives, no tips for what is obviously a hard-to-come-by size. Just answering what's asked of them and no more. It's no wonder why most Americans find them rude.

In Spain, my experience was polar opposite. I went into a shoe shop with my husband (who speaks Spanish) and offered up my choice for her to see and said a timid and questioning "cuarenta y dos?", one of the few Spanish words I knew - my shoe size. She exchanged a few words with my husband in Spanish, and after seeing him relay that they didn't have this size to me in English - and my resulting disappointment - she took my arm and held it as a mother might, saying in a very saddened tone "your size, it's complicated...".  After experiences that ranged from typical German bluntness to downright flabbergasted expressions and incredulously repeating my shoe size back to me as a question, I wanted to hug this Spanish stranger. She got it. It's complicated.

This warmth and friendliness isn't the only thing we love about the Spanish culture. Their passion, their value of time off and enjoying life - hello? daily siesta! - put them on the other end of the spectrum from Germans, culturally-speaking. It was nice to vacation in this land where perfect strangers would console you with both a physical and emotional closeness most Germans reserve for behind closed doors, but could we live here..?

One night we went from cava bar (El Rincón del Cava) on one side of the city...

... to absinthe bar (Bar Marsella) on the other

For our nearly week-long, budget trip to Barcelona, we took our first (and last) Ryanair flight (I'll let you draw your own conclusions there) and booked an affordable Airbnb apartment in the Poblenou neighborhood right by the sea. Since we'd already seen the sights and we just wanted to get a feel for life in this city, we spent the bulk of our time just wandering around. We walked through neighborhoods we had heard were desirable to live - including our beautiful spot where we could hear the waves crashing from our apartment - and even met with expat Jessica, blogger at ¡Hola Yessica!, to talk Barcelona living. She walked us through what some consider the scary part of the city (the Raval), where we felt safer than we did in the Tenderloin, and let's face it, parts of the Mission in SF, and we were able to treat her to her first Michelada, one of my favorite drinks made of Mexican beer, lime juice and hot sauce, at the loveliest outdoor bar she took us to.

One of our new friends, met through a mutual love of Warby Parker glasses
(me in my Zaggs, he in the Beckett)

We went to a cheap (€4 a bottle!) and lively cava bar on the other side of the city, we picnicked in the warm November sunshine at Park Güell with what Mark Bittman, food writer for the NYT, declares the best sandwich in the world (it isn't, our ham and cheese from De Kaaskamer in Amsterdam was the best we've ever eaten), we drank fresh fruit cocktails at a beach bar (in Novemeber!), we closed down the famous absinthe bar Marsella at 3a.m. with some new American friends we met because I recognized the Warby Parkers one of them was wearing (what a small world!), and we spent a very late morning (ahem, afternoon) nursing our hangovers from the previous night's (ahem, that morning's) bar hopping with knock-off Cheetos and Donettes overlooking the Mediterranean. Certainly not a bad life here in Barcelona!

Knowing that we were still falling prey to the whole 'vacation mentality', we wanted to wrap our heads around the harsh realities of Barcelona life. So we sat down on our last evening there and made a pro/con list.


The food

A caramelized goat cheese salad with pears and croutons at Petra

Coming from San Francisco, this is a big one for us. We love good food and we love diverse food. German food is pretty much one note and the lack of options can be downright depressing. We have pretty good food at home, but we have yet to have a truly astounding culinary experience there. Sometimes we really crave those fresh, creative options that big city dining is known for - and Barcelona does not disappoint. Not only are we talking traditional Spanish tapas, but any number of gourmet options as well. We even passed a restaurant - yes, a sit-down, whole restaurant, not a cafe - dedicated solely to a couple several-course dessert menus (I'm still sad that we didn't go in)! Our favorite, Santa Maria, started by one of the guys from the once best-restaurant-in-the-world and now defunct El Bulli and site of my birthday dinner three years ago, was unfortunately closed while we were there, but we were not short on other options.

Also at Petra, roast beef with pumpkin puree

Even just the everyday food was pleasantly surprising. So many little things we found there that we lack in Wiesbaden (Haagen-Dazs flavors, Doritos tortilla chips, delicious Spanish beers - because Germans think the only beer worth drinking is their own) were there in abundance, not to mention produce galore! It felt like we were back in California where one was not bound to months of only what was in season (Spargelzeit? yeah, I'll pass on that one), but all kinds of fruits and veg were at any one of the ubiquitous produce shops that populate the city, and all beautiful, fresh and delicious. I still have yet to find a decent apple at a grocery in Germany (known for its love of all things apple!). The first and only little neighborhood pizza place we got take-out from was ten times better than any pizza I've had in Germany. My tummy is pining to get back there already...

Produce shops like this were on nearly every corner

A delicious Fuji the size of a small child's head - now we're talking!

Art, architecture & creativity

One of the countless ornate facades of Barcelona

It seemed like everywhere we looked, there was a beautiful building, beautiful Gaudis and even beautiful graffiti. This was such a welcome change from the German ideas against frivolity. That artistic and free vibe - with a little more creativity and a little less hippy feel - was all around.

Even graffiti was art, not just tagging

... or it had something to say

The language

It might sound crazy that having to learn not just one, but two entirely new languages sounded appealing, but it did. Not only do Spanish and Catalan sound unbelievably beautiful, but I honestly felt like I understood more of what I read and what was being said than I often do in Germany (which is a sad admission about the state of my German competency, but nonetheless..). Catalan is so close to French, I found I could understand things even my Spanish-speaking husband couldn't. It all just seemed so much more accessible. German will now and forever be 'The Awful German Language' and I'm quite certain I will never master it, whether we stay in Germany or not.

The sea (not to mention palm trees and sunshine)

Ahh, the Med...

Pretty self-explanitory, right?

Can't beat tropical palm trees & warm sunshine in November

City life

While one of the main ways we appreciate this is in the cuisine, there are many positive ways this manifests itself - concerts, museums, cultural events, shopping. There's always something going on, someone new to meet (see above for our new friends from Brooklyn) and a new hot spot to try out - and a metro to get you there at almost any hour of the day. We waited no more than five minutes for a train at nearly 4a.m. after a night out, whereas going out where we live now means carefully watching the clock so we can get a train home by midnight, lest we be stranded across the river overnight. Wiesbaden is basically akin to the American suburbs, choc full of families, old people and decent, if not rather boring restaurants. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful, but for people like us, it leaves a little something to be desired - things a big city has in spades.


City life

The door of our apartment, with no fewer than five major locks. Hmm...

For every great opportunity city life offers, there are downfalls as well. It's dirtier, noisier and way more crowded (not to mention the constant throngs of tourists). Apartments are more expensive and we would have to downsize our life, significantly. We've been told a few times that there is next to no violent crime in Barcelona, but the fortress-like door of the apartment where we stayed told another story...

We also have to wonder what city life would be like in Spain, a country who's economy is in a state of collapse also give us a moments pause. What could happen to city services, tax rates - or worse, our health care? Yikes.

Dogs are everywhere - but are allowed nowhere

At a grocery, understandable. But at a cafe..?

We were worried about making Bailey even more of a city dog than she's already become, but we were pleasantly surprised to see dogs literally running wild (not wild dogs, but people's pets, off-leash, roaming around yet behaving) in the neighborhood where we stayed. It seems the Spanish loved dogs even more than the Germans - that is, until we started seeing the 'no dogs allowed' signs. They were everywhere. Not only at groceries like in Germany, but every shop, restaurant, cafe, the beach, public lawns, the metro... how was your dog supposed to be a part of your life if she wasn't allowed anywhere? How could we get her to a vet if we couldn't even take her on the subway? Most Spanish ignore the beach rules in the winter (or frankly, most of the rules most of the time), but come summer, Bailey would expected to be sidewalk- and home-bound. How sad.

Lack of green spaces

Admittedly, the trees along the Rambla de Poblenou are very nice

Germans LOVE their parks. Even in big cities, it seems like a premium is put on accessibility to parks and forests and just land. But Park Güell is about as green as it gets in Barcelona. We would see all kinds of little green squares on the city maps and excitedly head there to see what Bailey would think of it... only to find a concrete plaza with a couple of trees planted around the perimeter. That qualifies as a green space? Sure, there's the sea, but being surrounded with so much concrete, I think parks - true parks, where you can lost in the trees and frolic on never-ending grass - are a necessary respite within the city.

We are left with still so much to think about, but the realities of life in Barcelona is something we are taking very seriously. Moving across two countries and the cost of doing so, not to mention taking on a whole new language - two new languages for me! - and culture with its own set of red tape for expats, requires some serious thought. So whether or not we return one day to Barcelona as residents or just as visitors, we will most definitely be back!

That's right - sunglasses in November! Unheard of where we live.
(granted, that day was mostly due to a hangover)

Next up: Could we live here trip, Berlin style!

Daily Drop Cap by Jessica Hische