Wednesday, April 30, 2014

west berlin

From East Berlin, we moved for the last few weeks to a apartment in the trendy Friedrichshain neighborhood in West Berlin. Our first impression was that it is a more well-kept neighborhood with a lot more typical German-looking things about (at least compared to the Turkish part of town we had just come from). Out place was a nice loft overlooking a very overgrown but cute courtyard.

This was taken as we were packing--though it's not like we're much neater than this usually.
Our first day exploring the new neighborhood we came across an old cemetery. It was much like the parks, very overgrown but well kept, and beautiful. It was such a contrast to American cemeteries that are so mowed and trimmed and devoid of plant life. This cemetery was teeming with growth, making it fell like a very peaceful place to have your eternal rest.

We also found a park by us where you could ride elephants - not real ones, but cement once. There are so many parks in Berlin, and not just sanctioned parks--there are a lot of open spaces where something used to be, but it's now gone, so it's just overgrown and you can use it like a park. The Germans seem to not prohibit things as much as we do. In the US, there would be a barbed wire fence around a vacant piece of land, making sure no one trespasses, but in in Germany it's just a de-facto park.

More drinking in public

In our neighborhood was a very popular bar/restaurant street, so we headed down there to see and be seen and catch a bite. We had been craving American food and Mexican food and this street was known for being quite international, so we ended up eating a burger one day and nachos another. At this point we had brats, kraut and strudel coming out of our ears so we felt like it was okay to depart from the German classics.

The major road on the way to the restaurant street, and Alexander Platz in the distance.

After a few days in the new place, we thought it was time to head out and see some more of the Berlin sights. We jumped on the subway, beer in hand because in Germany, drinking on the subways is allowed - so why wouldn't you. On the way, we passed by a park we had heard about. It was an old Nazi airport that after the war got turned into a park. And it looked like just that, an abandoned airport with people flying kites and riding their bikes.

Got to love Germany.

The airport park.
As we walked from the subway to our first destination we walked past an intersting memorial that took up an entire city block. It was for all of the Jews who were killed during WWII and was quite somber (for obvious reason) but interesting. At first it looked like it was made on a hill but as we walked into it, we realized it was actually a depression and the stone pillars just got taller. So it actually became a kind of labyrinth that you could get lost in. It was a very intering place to walk around.

One of the major tourist attractions is an arch in central Berlin. I'm not sure what it commemorates, but it is used in a lot of signage around town to show it's Berlin oriented.

From there we walked through the giant park that occupies the center of Berlin. On our way we walked past a funny monument that shows the crazy history of the area. It is a Soviet Monument commemorating the Soviet troops who died taking Berlin away from the Germans at the end of WWII. In the 90's it was handed over to the Germans and for some reason, they haven't torn it down. It says a lot about the type of place Germany is today - tolerant.

After seeing a bunch of naked sunbathing Germans in the park (just like public drinking, public nudity isn't a big deal) we headed to a Biergarten the was at the edge of the park for a little thirst quenching.

That evening we had a traditional German meal on the banks of the river. It was a fantastic meal that was supposedly a Berlin specialty: cabbage stuffed with sausage.

You can tell how much Andrew liked it by the look on his face.
When not going out and about around the city, we did a lot of picnicking at the parks, it was just too nice out not to.

Opening some champagne on the street.

On the way to an afternoon picnic.

Friday, April 18, 2014

east berlin

After sleeping in the airport in London, we took the early morning flight to our next destination: Berlin.

Boarding the plane via outside stairs still feels fancier, somehow.
Our first place was in the old East Germany, right off of Karl Marx Stasse - can't get much more East Berlin than that. This was the first place out of our many house sittings where we actually were taking care of a pet, and luckily for us, it was a cat. His name was Dino and we hit it off immediately.

Celebrating our largest place on the trip with a morning MoMo.
Dino tempting us with the oh-so-dangerous stomach pet.

Dino was no stranger to lounging.

But he didn't mind getting down to work when he had to.

 After settling in we headed out for a big day in Berlin. We were close enough to the center of Berlin (which seemed like the area around Alexander Platz) to just walk and enjoy the city. There are many canals running through Berlin and since it's a city where you can drink in public, we made stops to enjoy the sights.

Maggie enjoying some vino on the canal on a warm-ish day.
Since drinking is allowed in public, you see a lot of things you would never see anywhere else. Like a mobile bar where the bar-patrons are the peddle-power that keeps the bar moving. We saw a few of these things--this was not a one-time occurrence.

On our way we passed by the old Berlin Wall on our way into West Germany. So we had to stop and take a photo-op with the famous wall. There are only a few segments of the wall left--the rest of it has been covered over by streets or buildings. We got the feeling that in Germany, they prefer to look forward rather than backward. The site of Hitler's death is now a parking lot.

The wall looked like a larger version of a highway divider. We were kind of expecting more.
While Germany is not known for its wine, we found it to be fairly good and cheap, so once we made it to Alexander Platz, we celebrated with a nice refreshing can of champagne - because we could. Alexander Platz is a very nice part of Berlin with lots of public areas to hang out in and many stores and seasonal outdoor shops. It is probably the best place in Berlin to people watch and put your thumb on the pulse of the city.

Drinking a champagne can and surreptitiously watching all the punk kids' antics in the background. 
People blowing bubbles in Alexander Platz.
We were staying in what we heard was the up-and-coming trendy neighborhood of East Berlin so we did a fair amount of exploring around it. Just a few blocks away we found a nice little Biergarten that we went to a few times - because you haven't done Germany until you go to a Biergarten.

We also had a nice park just a few blocks away that we would take picnics to. It was a very popular park and showed the diversity of the area. We would have Turks on one side of us, Hipsters on another, Punks over in the corner and Hippies in the center smoking joints. It really was a diverse part of the city. As a rule Germany didn't seem as diverse of an area as some other parts of West Europe we had been to, but the Neukoelln area of East Berlin is an exception.

The park on a chilly--and therefore less crowded--day.
We also had a very overgrown park a little further away from us. I mention it because an interesting aspect of Berlin was how they kept most of their parks. Unlike a majority of the world, the parks in Berlin were very wild and overgrown. It might be because they had so many or because it was such a green place, but we really found it interesting to see how vegetated the town was and how unkempt and wild most of it felt (in a good way--the city was beautiful).

We happened to be in Berlin for Easter and like most of Europe, everything shuts down for the whole weekend. So it gave us a nice opportunity to have a nice Easter picnic in yet another park. The sun was shining, the flowers were blooming and the mimosas were flowing - it was a good Easter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

jolly ol' london

From Morocco we headed back to the first world - the very first world, London. Maggie had been there before but it was Andrew's first time. It was everything he imagined: old timey taxi cabs, double-decker buses, quaint pubs, and very polite people, but the one thing that blew him away was the shear multi-culturalness of London. There were as many woman in head scarves in London as there were in Morocco (maybe not completely, but close enough).

So many nice pubs in London. Many are called something's arms due to their Union origins.
All the cabs in London looks like this.

Would it hurt to get some double-decker buses in the US?

We started off staying with one of Andrew's friends who is going to grad school in London. She lived in the Isle of Dogs, right by an Asda which is the British Walmart (it actually is owned by Walmart). Her place had a great view of the River Thames and was the nicest place we had stayed in quite some time. The Isle of Dogs used to be known as a wretched place filled with sailors and whores, but times have changed and now it's a nice suburban part of London full of condos and apartment buildings.

One view from Andrew's friend's flat over the River Thames.

The other view from the flat over the River Thames.
 After a few days of exploring the new neighborhood, we decided to head out to the city proper and see the sites of London. First stop, Big Ben. London has a very good subway system and bus system-- just a very slow subway and bus system. The buses are understandable, it's a busy city, but the subways go at like thirty miles an hour it feels like. I know it's an old subway system, but they could but some nitrous or something in there to hurry them up - old ladies with walkers were passng our subway car.

Andrew, Big Ben and Parliament - everything is right with the world.

The most British picture ever - hands down.
From Big Ben we walked through St. James Park towards the Queen's house--or as Maggie insisted on calling it, Buckingham Palace. On the way we ran into almost half of France's middle school students - seriously. The sidewalks were bursting at the seams with packs of French school children. It was like the whole of France sent their kids to London for the weekend.

Despite the French invasion, we enjoyed St. James park. Such a peaceful place right in the center of busy London. It's quite the treat. Lots of unusual birds hanging about as well (at least unusual to an American).

A black swan, and Natalie Portman nowhere in sight.

When we finally got to the Queen's house, Andrew was disappointed that the Queen wasn't shuffling about in a bathrobe with a cup of coffee. We didn't sit around long enough to see the changing of the guard, but did see a lot of funny looking blokes in big furry hats.

The obligatory Buckingham Palace selfie.
Another person we had headed to London to see was Maggie's Uncle Marshall Jean, who you might remember from this Kuala Lumpur post. He lives in London and was nice enough to lets us stay at his amazing place in Bethnal Green while he was on a cruise in the Spain / Morocco area. We arrived before he left town so we had time to meet up with him a few times and have him show us around his neighborhood. Of course the first place we went was the local pub, because in England, that is the neighborhood.

Ye ol' local watering hole.
It was a Sunday afternoon and he told us that a famous flower market took place a few blocks away, so we finished our pints and walked over.

After a grand send off full of wine and Indian food, he was gone and we had a lovely, homey, well-located place to stay. We got seriously lucky.

Andrew working in front of Uncle Jean's great Lamb's Navy Rum bookshelf
We were only a few blocks away from the gargantuan Queen Victoria Park, so we headed over there often for picnics during the nice London afternoons.

London is so multicultural that they put a Chinese pagoda in a park named for the Queen.
London has so many touristy sites that we broke our usual mode of living like locals and decided to head out for some more touristy stuff. We started by riding in the second story of a double-decker bus (which is actually something the locals do) as we headed to some super nerdy London sites.

Front row seat on the second story of a double-decker bus - ain't nothing better.
Our first super geeky London tourist stop was of course Platform 9 3/4 from Harry Potter. We thought we'd be the only people there since it was a random Tuesday afternoon, but oh no, there was a line to get your picture taken with the cart half submerged in the wall. I guess we aren't the geeky elite.

We also didn't stand in line. We snuck in a picture while the next person in line was putting on their Hogwarts scarf.

The next stop was Abbey Road for the customary shot walking across the street. The funny thing is that Abbey Road is a fairly busy street. So there are cars whizzing by as tourists try to slowly stroll across. Many times, the traffic just has to stop as a entitled tourist stops in the middle of the road to get the optimal shot. Andrew didn't feel that entitled and waited for a break in traffic before he made his jaunt across the famous crosswalk.

Where's John, Paul, George and the other one when you need them.
Making our way to Abbey Road, we noticed that one of the roads that crosses Abbey Road was Hall Road. I guess it really shouldn't have been a surprise since us Halls are always associating ourselves with only the classiest of people/roads.

Our next stop was a quick snack at McDonalds, but not just any snack. This is England, the land of Cadburry Cream Eggs, and it was Easter time, so our snack was a Cadburry Cream Egg McFlurry. Maggie was ecstatic.

Our next touristy destination was the British Museum, which like all London Museums, was free. It was the Museum that put Museums on the map, so we had to go.

Quick pit-stop at a quaint park by the Museum.
The Rosetta Stone.

A three thousand year old Egyptian door.

Assyrian Frescoes.

Old Alexander the Great himself.
The amazing atrium in the British Museum.


Finally we headed to Trafalgar Square, known as the center of London. We showed up right after some gigantic pillow fight must had gone on because the whole area was covered in pillow feathers and we even saw a few people walking around with intact pillows.

Despite all of our touristy adventures, we still spent a fair amount of time exploring Bethnal Green and Hackney. There are a ton of canals that run through London that have walking paths along them. It is a great way to get around and see some beautiful sights. There are many house boats that park on the banks of the canals and walking them gives you are great look at the river folk of London - who seem to be somewhere between homeless and hipsters.

Our flight out of London was at 6:30 in the morning and it took an hour by bus to get to the airport, so we made the executive decision to just sleep in the airport. We had done it in Taipei and it wasn't bad at all--what could go wrong? Well, what we didn't know is that the Stansted airport at night becomes one of the largest hotels in London. Hundreds of people were trying to sleep in the maybe fifty seats available in the entire airport. It was a madhouse. Lucky for us, we got there early enough to get a few of those fifty seats so we could stretch out, not on a tile floor, for the night. Even though we were the lucky few, it was still a pretty shoddy night's sleep and come morning, we were pretty out of it.

Protecting our territory at Camp Stansted.

Breakfast of champions. Can you tell how good of a night sleep Andrew got?