Peep

What’s the best way to avoid impending doom, i.e. winter? Escape to warmer climes! Which is what Toby and I did, and why you haven’t heard a peep from me until now. First we spent ten days playing in my beautiful home state. Then we had a few weeks to catch up on laundry and repack for some adventures in Thailand. Ah, life is good when you bank all your vacation until the end of the year….

Arizona was wonderful. We hung out with A every day. We celebrated Daddy’s 70th birthday and swam in his pool. We took Mom out for coffee and margaritas (not on the same day). We ate Mexican food and our one-year anniversary cake top. We went out with friends and shopped. We visited the Phoenix Oktoberfest and hiked in our favorite Phoenix-area mountains. We had a Grand Canyon adventure.

Thailand was an adventure of epic proportions and perfect for our long overdue honeymoon. There were temples, jungles, and beaches; mosquitoes, elephants, and monkeys; bicycles, rickshaws, and longboats; and lots of rice. It was a different world for us, and we had fun creating so many new memories together.

But, by definition, all good vacations must come to an end, and so now we’re back home. While it is definitely cold (gloves, beanie, and scarf are a must for bike riding now), at least the sun is shining. The piles of laundry are done, Toby is back at work, and I’m back to getting my fitness career up and running. Right before Christmas I take my test for my personal trainer certification; it’s time to take The Christina to the next level. And in January I start my very own Zumba class; I finally will be paid to shake my booty in front of a room of people.

Now, if that won’t keep the winter doldrums away…

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Roadtripping in the Netherlands

Düsseldorf is not only conveniently close to Berlin, but also to the Netherlands with the North Sea and Amsterdam. I somehow came up with the crazy brilliant idea to go mud flat walking in the Wadden Sea, so that’s what we did. Besides, road trips with Toby and A are historically known to provide a delightful combination of adventure and entertainment.

The Wadden Sea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the unique ecological area between the coasts of the Netherlands and Denmark and a series of islands in the North Sea. It lives off the ebb and flow of the North Sea, whose tides bring in sediment and plankton that support a community of fish, birds, and seals. Because the Wadden Sea is so shallow, you can walk across the mud flats at low tide to one of the many islands. We chose a tour from the town of Holwerd to the island of Ameland.

Mud walking, wadlopen in Dutch, is an amazing experience, even other-worldly if you’re used to the deserts of Arizona and southern Utah. You’re surrounded by nothing but mud, sea water, wind, and, in our case, rain (yes, we were that lucky). We spent four hours slogging through ankle-deep mud that tries to suck off  your shoes and belly-deep channel-crossings that lap at the dry clothes in your back pack. The near-constant rain got us as wet from the top down as the channels did from the bottom up. I think we loved every minute of it, despite the blue lips and goose bumps (the air was 13°C and the water was 16°C – even one of our tour guides commented on how bad the conditions were).

Once at the island, we caught a ride with a tractor-pulled trailer that brought us closer to the village of Nes and, to make sure our North Sea baptism was complete, sprayed us with beach sand (imagine a sugary snickerdoodle). At that point we could only laugh and shiver, but it was nothing a tomato soup and hot chocolate couldn’t cure (after a hike over a grassy hill and a deck change in the bathroom at the lifeguard station – do you know how hard it is to pull off sopping wet skivvies when you’ve lost practically all fine motor skills in your fingers due to frozeness?). I imagine the whole thing is quite lovely when the sun is shining. But, since it wasn’t, we caught a bus to the ferry station to get back to the mainland. By the time we got back to the car, the rain had stopped and the sun was coming out. Oh, the twisted ways of Mother Nature.

We’d had our fill of the North Sea though and were looking forward to Amsterdam. The weather wasn’t much better (we never left the hotel without our umbrellas), but the canals and quaint buildings provided an inspiring contrast to the wilderness from the day before. Did you know that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice and that the buildings were all built with a forward tilt to allow goods to be hoisted up to the attics without breaking any windows? A law dating from 1565 restricted this lean to 1:25 to help keep buildings from collapsing into the street.

After having been in Amsterdam, I don’t think I can legitimately complain about driving in Düsseldorf anymore. Not only are the streets extremely narrow, but there are something like half a million bicycles in Amsterdam and nearly every single one of them is driven by a crazy swift-maneuvering, don’t-believe-in-brakes-even-at-a-red-light person. We also tasted Dutch cheese, visited the floating flower market, and had famous Dutch pancakes. What more could you ask for from Holland? Maybe a little sunshine.

A tip from the locals – the weather in the Netherlands in August is drier. Good to know for the next time around.

Big city Berlin

For our big city adventure, A and I chose Berlin. Neither of us had ever been, and it seems like one of those places you should go, especially if you’re already this close. So we packed ourselves into a train and arrived in Germany’s vibrant capital a little over four hours later.

We spent our first afternoon getting to know the city on a Fat Tire Bike Tour. This is a great way to explore a new place – not only do you cover a lot of ground, but you also hear its stories from a person passionate enough to want to lead tourists around on bikes all day. The pace was very relaxed as we cruised from point to point, always learning more about the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany, and the reunified Germany. We saw places like Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz, and Brandenburg Gate; Red City Hall and the Reichstag building (Parliament); Checkpoint Charlie, parts of the Berlin wall, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; Berlin’s Cathedral, Museum Island, and Humboldt University; and a beer garden in the Tiergarten.

What left a lasting impression on me was how the face of Berlin had changed over the course of its recent history. Sure, like many other European cities in the 20th century, many buildings had been bombed or burned down, either in full or part. But it was interesting to learn that some of them had been exactly rebuilt, but in a different location, or that parts of buildings had been kept and integrated into new buildings. Kind of like a way for the city to remember pieces of its history while still moving forward.

A bike tour can make you hungry, so we settled into a cafe on Gendarmenmarkt for dinner. We enjoyed an open-air jazz concert that ended with an impressive show of fireworks followed immediately by a crazy downpour. We were outside but under the roof and had the perfect vantage point from which to watch the concert-goers scrambling for cover. The rain gave us a good excuse to stay a little longer with some hot beverages. It was a nice way to spend our only evening in Berlin.

On our last day we explored on our own. We started with a visit to the Ritter Sport chocolate store. We’re girls. That’s what we do. Our second visit to Checkpoint Charlie provided a great photo opportunity with its popsicle-eating ‘guards.’ We ate what must be the best waffle on the face of the planet as we wandered past old Trabant cars repurposed into tour cars. We read our way through Topography of Terror (a free museum about the history of repression under the Nazis). We took a short subway ride to Charlottenburg Palace to see a different part of Berlin and treated ourselves to afternoon coffee and hot chocolate in the palace gardens. And then it was time to head back to the train station.

It was a fun two days for the traveling sisters!

Tank tops and miniskirts and flip flops, oh my

Barcelona in June is good for a Düsseldorf girl – they actually have summer there. I did nothing but run around in all of the above for three days and two nights, relishing in the feel of bare knees and bare toes. It was Fabulous. Yes, with a capital F!

Three days doesn’t sound like a lot of time for a city like Barcelona, which has so much to offer, but we achieved a very satisfying combination of playing tourists and just bumming around. I have decided I am in love with the city. I love its warmth. I love its vibe. I love its heart. Barcelona is to Düsseldorf what San Diego is to Phoenix – the perfect weekend getaway for a change of scenery.

Our hotel in the heart of the Barri Gotic served as the ideal place from which to base our explorations. On our first afternoon we wandered aimlessly and happily toward Port Vell, soaking in the sun and the sights. We stopped for an afternoon snack in the shade of Plaça Reial before meeting a friend (and Barcelona local) to watch some German soccer in one of the bars near La Rambla (yes, there’s always soccer). Unfortunately neither Toby nor I are big fans of Spanish food (we’re too near-vegetarian and anti-fish for that), but the Tinto de Verano, a summer red wine specialty, goes down easily. We also got a taste of the Spanish lifestyle – the city and its people really come alive once the sun goes down.

Barcelona – Port Vell

Barcelona – La Rambla

The next day started off a little later than planned (also part of the Spanish lifestyle) with a visit to the Mercat off La Rambla. I love marketplaces even more than I love grocery stores – they’re so colorful and lively.

Barcelona – Mercat

Barcelona – Mercat

After a slice of fresh pizza and some freshly pressed fruit juice, we headed to Park Güell for our first taste of Gaudí architecture. Here’s a free tip – take the subway (a pleasant experience in Barcelona, regardless) to Vallcarca. From there you can ride a series of escalators up the hill of El Carmel, a sweat-saving plan for a hot summer day. While you don’t walk through the park’s main entrance, you are immediately rewarded with vistas of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea.

Barcelona – escalators up El Carmel – trust me on this!

Barcelona – view from the top of El Carmel

As we walked along the meandering paths, I couldn’t help but feel at home – it was probably the dirt between my toes and the park’s agaves and bougainvilleas. The Gran Plaça Circular, with its reputedly longest bench in the world, was the perfect place to take photos, people-watch, and soak in the splendor of the day. And, as the daughter of an architect, I appreciated Gaudí’s unique style and attention to detail, visible in the concrete forms of the Hall of a Hundred Columns and the many ceramic and glass mosaics.

Barcelona – main entrance of Park Guell

I could have stayed if I hadn’t been so hungry. We spent the afternoon coffee housing and window shopping in the Barri Gotic, the towers of La Catedral sneaking in and out of the background as we curved our way through the jumbled, narrow streets. The sheer number of shoe stores we ran across, each with a unique and clever way of displaying their goods, tells me that the Spanish love their shoes. We even stumbled upon what must be ballerina heaven (yes, I bought a new pair in Barcelona).

Barcelona – Bari Gotic

Barcelona – Catedral

Barcelona – ballerina heaven

We happened to be in Barcelona for the much-anticipated annual celebration of Sant Joan. We started the night off with a delicious dinner that renewed our faith in Spanish food – an appetizer of spinach sautéed in olive oil with raisins and pine nuts followed by vegetable paella. Then we headed out into the crowded streets to join the revelers. There was laughing, dancing, and firecrackers everywhere. I heard the party was still going when the sun came up.

Barcelona – Sant Joan celebration

But we had plans for our last day in Barcelona – a visit to the famous La Sagrada Família, another one of Gaudí’s works, still under construction since 1882. This place was awesome! From the outside it seems dirty and strange with its many brown-colored façades covered in sculptures, some more friendly than others. The inside is completely different – cool, crisp, and flooded with a grayish blue light, pierced by points of color from the many stained glass windows. The central nave is a forest of columns whose face changes with every few steps you take. I was truly mesmerized. It was a nice last impression to have of Barcelona.

Barcelona – a La Sagrada Familia facade

Barcelona – La Sagrada Familia’s forest

Barcelona – La Sagrada Familia

I hope we return to Barcelona. The city is interesting, and the sunshine made my soul smile. I guess you can take the girl out of Arizona, but you just can’t take Arizona out of the girl!

Pokraine

This is the nickname we gave to the destination for the celebration of our first wedding anniversary. Poland and Ukraine – the two countries that hosted the 2012 European Soccer Cup this summer. Yes, we celebrated our first wedding anniversary in a soccer stadium fevering along with other crazed European soccer fans. This might not sound like every girl’s dream, but we couldn’t forego the opportunity to combine adventure with family and soccer. Besides, it makes for a good story.

We landed in Kattowice, Poland on a Friday afternoon and were picked up by Toby’s brother B in his Mini Cooper for the drive to Krakow where we met B’s girlfriend C. Just the fact that we were traveling with B and C was special – we also drove through South Africa with them right after we got engaged (I see a pattern emerging…). We didn’t spend much time there, but it was enough to see that Krakow is a beautiful city with very friendly residents. Its narrow streets and large central plaza offer the typical European city sights that I never tire of. A short ramble up to Wawel Castle and the old city center provides great views over the city. The blue skies, warm air, and joggers along the Vistula River made for the summer feel we’d been craving.

Krakow’s central Grand Square, Rynek Glowny

Krakow’s old city center

But our true destination was Lviv, Ukraine, so on Saturday the four of us plus luggage jammed into the Mini. The German flag in the back window revealed our loyalties to the other soccer fans making the same trek. Thanks to an unfinished freeway, we were forced enjoyed the opportunity to really soak in the Polish countryside and all its villages, pedestrian crossings, and horse-drawn carts. The border crossing into Ukraine was slow but uneventful. After six hours in the car, we were more than ready to hit the streets of Lviv and join the masses of Danish and German soccer fans.

Lviv’s fan mile

We spent Sunday exploring Lviv’s city center, building in frequent stops for a cold beverage in the shade (it was a hot, humid day). We of course wore German soccer jerseys, but it was the crazy fans completely decked out in jerseys, face paint, wigs, and accessories that really drew the attention of the locals, who were always asking for pictures with them. It was sweet because you could tell that the locals were excited to share their city with us.

Lviv from above

Although the organization of the whole thing would have benefited from a little more attention to detail, we managed to find and squeeze (literally) onto a bus to the stadium. While I’ve watched a lot of soccer on tv over the past year, I’m glad I got the chance to experience it live in the stadium. The air is absolutely electric. I found myself torn between watching the action on the field and the fans in the stands, who had been transformed into two giant amoebas (a Danish one and a German one) that alternately held their breath, cheered, or sighed depending on the action on the field.

Opening ceremony at the game

A late-night, death-defying taxi ride back to the hotel made sure we maintained a post-game adrenaline high before collapsing into bed. On Monday morning we headed back through the Polish countryside for our flights to Germany.

I hope this first anniversary celebration, complete with adventure, excitement, and new experiences, sets the tone for future ones!

PS – Germany beat Denmark then Greece, but lost to Italy in the semi-final, who then lost to Spain in the final.

The trappings of a culture

Our summer travels have provided some interesting food for thought. What is it that gives a culture its defining characteristics? Sure there’s music, art, architecture, and religion, but I think there are other things that provide hints about a people and their world.

Street signs – I don’t know why, but I get a kick out of street signs in other places. Take for example the level of detail on some ‘watch out for pedestrians/school children crossing’ signs – the graphic artists went all out and included briefcases, purses, and ponytails. That’s just cute. I also like the Polish ‘car shower’ sign. The ‘residential area’ signs in Barcelona paint a picture of familial bliss. And I swear the cows on American ‘watch out for cows’ signs are way fatter than the cows on Polish signs. The logical follow-up question – are the cows themselves fatter too, and what kind of conclusions might be drawn from the answer?

Taxis – The taxis, taxi drivers, and taxi rides in a place reveal a lot about city planning, economics, energy policies, and general satisfaction with life. Are the taxis big or small? Well taken care of or rather dilapidated? Human-powered or engine-powered? Are the drivers controlled or fearless (or potentially suicidal)? Most of the taxi rides in my life have been unworthy of a story, but there were two times when I could appreciate the ‘skills’ of our driver only after I was safely standing on my own two feet again – once in Miami, Florida and once in Lviv, Ukraine.

Grocery stores – I like to eat. By extension, I like grocery stores. And because I also like to travel, I like grocery stores in other places. What people eat and how they package and present their foods says a lot about how they treat their bodies. Is food revered, or is it merely an annoying necessity? Are there more fresh or pre-packaged foods? How big are the stores and packages? The typical grocery stores in Düsseldorf are definitely smaller than back in Arizona. Thankfully the packages are too – I already have to work hard enough to cart everything back home on my bike.

Bakeries – Following the same logic about grocery stores, and considering the fact that I could be classified as a bread addict (or carb whore, as Toby likes to lovingly call me), I love checking out the bakeries in other places. Everything about a bakery appeals to me – the warm, doughy smell, the carefully arranged assortment of breads and sweets, the bustle of people coming in and out to buy their daily bread or just a snack for in between. It’s hard for me to leave without something in the hand. An added bonus at nearly every bakery in Germany – you can almost always get a fresh sandwich to go. Fast food, but better.

Escape

We all need an escape from the everyday world. For the past decade (wow, that sounds old), the wilderness of southern Utah, with its red rocks, blue skies, and endless vistas, was my place of solace. There’s nothing like carrying your own food and water around all day and then camping out of the back of your car to help you regain some perspective on what you really need to be happy. I loved everything about those trips – the planning, the prep, the drive, the companionship, the sweat and dust, the pictures and stories. It was finally time to find my (our – Toby has also learned to love a good hiking/camping trip) southern Utah of Germany, or at least get away from the city life for a little bit.

Hiking opportunities in Germany are plenty. I decided on Eifel National Park, a two-hour drive from Düsseldorf that takes you past the historic Nürburgring (a highlight on its own).

The two days of hiking were thoroughly enjoyable, and the fresh air was good for us, but the phrase ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ kept running through my head. First of all, there’s way more green than I’m used to. While the desert is also green, it’s of a very different quality – leaves are often smaller, with a grayish hue or are covered in tiny hairs. The green here is so intense. It even smells different; there are more layers to it. Desert air is simple and crisp. And warm and dry. We hiked with beanies and rain gear just in case the gray clouds dancing overhead dropped their load (only a few drops ever came down).

The sights along our trails were also of a different quality. In the desert you have wide open vistas of a landscape etched by water and rimmed by buttes and mesas. Here it’s like looking out over the green section of the big Crayola box. Sometimes, for a real euro feel, there’s even a castle or a fort, or ruins thereof.

Which highlights another difference.  Deep in the deserts of the Southwest, it’s you and nature. You might not see another person for hours and miles. In Germany, you’re never far from civilization. Along with said castles and forts, some trails take you through entire towns. And it’s not totally unusual to find a Hütte (German for cabin) along the trail where you can buy a beer and some lunch or a coffee and a piece of cake – quite a nice addition to our wilderness experiences.

While it was an overnight trip, there was no camping for us. I wasn’t ready to be that adventurous – there’s too much rain and probably lots of weird bugs in all that green. Instead, we found a hotel in nearby Koblenz and enjoyed Italian food and gelato. If only there were a way to combine gelato with a long day of desert hiking….