Four for the Road: Backpacks in Berlin!

berlin pergamon1

(At the start of spring, we spontaneously decided to take the kids on the road. For them, there is nothing more fantastic or fun than the thought of us four piling into car just for “an adventure”...)

berlin road

Although we’d passed briefly through Berlin before, today is our first time to get to really take in this iconic city.

We cruise into Germany’s historical capital, feeling like country mice entering the slick city. In awe at the flashing lights; dwarfed by dazzling skyscrapers; taken aback by throngs of people. Parking is another story, as cars are lined bumper to bumper along the streets of Kreuzberg, where we make our first pit stop.

We want to find wifi, in order to book a hotel, in orberlin streetder to sleep somewhere the night. At a bright and busy café, we park our backpacks and kids, order breakfast, brought by a woman speaking some kind of strange foreigner-German accent, and proceeded to Booking.com

The website has hardly ever failed us; we punch in the usual requirements:

2 adults, 2 kids, and an extra child’s bed.

We like to think we’re not that demanding as travelers.

And truth be told, the boys are easiest. Alex and I appreciate a little more comfort—private toilet and working shower at the top of the list. With a budget somewhere between 50-100 euros per night, we’re likely to almost always find something pretty decent.

berlin apartment

But today in Berlin, we strike gold! Smack in the city center, just on Checkpoint Charlie, we score a two-story luxury apartment with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, giant living, dining and kitchen for 70euros!

town apartments

Definitely, the best way to see a city, when you only have 24 hours to do so, is from the top.

So the next day, we ascend up the TV Tower, a 365 meter high monument, the tallest building in Berlin. Built by East German architects, it receives over 1 million visitors per year.

Adding to those figures, we become tourists for a day, lining up to get our tickets, before passing through a couple of security checks that feel like airport controls.

berlin tower2

“Ele-bator! Ele-bator!” Alexandra has been adding new words to her vocabulary at a dizzying rate.

Once piled into the lift, we zoom up 200 meters to the observation deck in 40 seconds.

Upstairs, the kids are in awe. Our birds’ eye view of Berlin and Brandenburg impresses them profoundly. The fun lasts all morning, as these little ones don’t want to leave, switching from one side of the tower to the next, and then back again, they peer through the tower’s windows and telescopes, observing life down below: miniature buildings, miniature cars, traffic and trains. All so fascinating!

berlin tower

Meanwhile, I am checking the menu at the Tower restaurant, supposedly a fantastic way to eat with a view—as the room rotates with a panoramic view of Berlin. But all the window view tables have been reserved; better luck next time.

After convincing the kids that it’s time to reward our tummies, we head back down and check out a newly opened sushi restaurant. I always feel an affinity for other Asians when travelling, but am suddenly confused when having to speak in a third language.

berlin sushi

In Berlin, we also wander through the Pergamon Museum, investigating the archaeological ruins of Persia. Ancient Babylon, at its peak of greatness.

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I am longing to see the famous bust of Egyptian “Sun Queen”, Nefitirti. And so excited am I, that I buy a magnet souvenir of her at the museum shop even before entering—only to find, hours later, that we were in the wrong museum the entire time!

She is apparently on display in the museum next door, for which we will have to pay another entry fee. And by now, the kids are restless, the husband wants (needs) a beer, and so I agree to save the date with her for another day…

It is not so easy to linger as long as you’d like in museums, when you’ve got two trailing kids (or running ahead of you). Especially when one, a toddler, has just learned to explore on her own. I am forever chasing after her, scolding her for attempting to touch precious artifacts, sitting on artworks or getting lost down some enticing corridor.

berlin pergamon2

A girlfriend from Manila happens to be studying in Berlin and we meet to catch up over the museum tour and later, for dinner at an Indian restaurant announcing Happy Hour all day.

berlin nights

We enjoy the spicy taste of Lamb curries, samosas and chicken Tikka, then, it’s back to our party apartment to enjoy each other.

In another thrilling wave of synchronicity, I savor this kind of encounter. You never know where in the world you end up, with whom, or at what day and hour. And yet, when things are meant to happen, they do…in strange and wonderful ways.

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Berlin brought out my childlike wonder once again, as travelling in strange and new places usually does.

After a good night’s sleep, we hit the road–this time, headed for the capital city of Saxony Anhalt, a dreamy destination along the Elbe river: Magdeburg!

…to be continued…

berlin mall

(Of course, if you are in Berlin longer, and have the time to see more, check out the suggested itinerary here, on Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Free Things to Do in Berlin.)

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A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt. 2: Nutcracker Men and Merry Cherubs!

saxon christmas 7True to his word, on the first Advent eve, Opa started putting up tiny decorations in special places around our home—or was it really the work of the Weihnachtsmann?

saxon christmas 1One by one, a miniature choir of chubby, wooden angels began to appear in the glass kitchen cabinet. Every day, a new one, each with a musical instrument—some playing a trumpet, or a harp, or an organ.

On the kitchen reading table now sat four deep red candles in a thick WeihnachtsKranz (Christmas wreath), to be lit one by one—one for every Sunday of the special Adventzeit.

And then there were the traditional, handgemacht (handmade) figurines of the Erzgebirge, little Raüchermanner (Smoking Men) who puff scented smoke when a Raücherkerze (incense cone) is lit inside, and wooden nutcrackers.

saxon christmas 2Now, the particular Nutcracker guy we have isn’t really a nutcracker at all, but a bushy-browed fellow on horseback, wearing brightly colored uniform! He’s always looking fierce, to represent those harsh German authorities of the Ore Mountain mines in the late 1800’s.

saxon christmas 8This region in East Germany bordering the Czech Republic, besides it’s delicious food, is also famous for its grand mountains, forests, and mining industry. It’s become my once-in-awhile-home since my son was born here in 2009.

An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony
An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony

The wooden figurines are well-known Erzgebirge handicrafts made by the local communities since hundreds of years. The ones that sit on our kitchen table now aren’t newly bought decorations; they’ve been in the family for years, sort of vintage artifacts—heirlooms—that resurface every December.

The little prune-men, with their bodies made of dried prunes, are some of my favorite. A family friend last week, added another artifact to our collection: a lucky prune chimney sweeper.

I’ll never forget the first time one I met a real chimney sweep, five years ago, in this house. My husband had told me that if the black-uniformed men ever came to your door, they were believed to bring good luck! I was pregnant at the time, and hoping for all the luck (blessings) in the world for my new baby who was on his way!

So when the doorbell rang one day, and a very tall, smiling man in a top hat and buttoned-down uniform cheerily appeared to sweep the soot off our chimney, I felt like a little child shaking hands with the Weihnachtsmann! (I only found out much later that he’d been hired, of course, to work that day.)

But innocence is bliss, and Christmas is for innocent children—and children at heart.

saxony christmas 6It’s what I love about my two kids’ ages right now (nearly 2 and nearly 5): they are still young enough to be whisked away in the mind to a place where wonderful things happen at Christmas!

We’ve read together, of course, the real story; they know about the angels and the Star, and the baby Jesus—but I do think a little of that other magic is fun too, when you mix traditions with culture and throw in a little of your own twists.

Yes, we can have real evergreens and traditional Saxon figurines…but we can cut out simple paper snowflakes and string them on the windows, too. We can tell stories about surprises and magic …but we do know that love is the biggest magic of it all.

And when Saint Nick leaves two gigantic chocolate men on the doorstep to eat, and more chocolate surprises in their winter boots (as he did last December 6)…

saxony christmas 4…or when you can write wish lists and be on your best behavior for the Weihnachtsmann, or when soft snowflakes flutter down, sprinkling everything in the village like the frosting on a birthday cake…

…and when you can enjoy all these simple pleasures with the wonder of a little child, then Christmas becomes, not a stressful occasion, but a lot of FUN.

I know it won’t be long until they’ll be older, and perhaps jaded. So, while their little eyes are still wide with wonder and delight, I’ll be enjoying the season’s magic, too.

saxony christmas 3Yesterday, as the son and I skipped through a slushy path on the way home from school, he looked at me thoughtfully and then posed a very serious question.

“Mom, do you know who actually gives us the uberraschungs (surprise gifts) at Christmas?”

“Um…the Weihnachtsmann?” (I’m hoping he hasn’t found the secret stash of packages hiding in our cabinet.)

“Well, someone else, too! Do you know? There’s the Weihnachtsmann, and Niklaus, and…do you know who else?”

“Tell me!”

Splashing his boots through the half frozen mud, with an intelligent look that only a nearly-five-year-old can properly pull off, he said:

“The postman, of course.”

The truth about road trips

roadtrip
Road to Everywhere. Cruising our way through the cloudy Splügen Pass, a mountain border made nearly invisible by the misty weather that day.

We’ve been offline for a week: Drove through 4 countries in one day, wandered through legendary castles, forests and sped through heart-stopping autobahns…celebrated the great-grandfather’s 87th, visited a UNESCO Heritage City, hunted for Steinpilz and ate half a roasted duck, got hooked on Leberknödelsüppe, had our very own Oktoberfest with an accordion player. Drank even more.

Taught my kids that seasons change, and so does the view in different countries, the cultures, the schnapps, the language, the weather—but never the need to say thank-you.

We passed over the Alpine range twice and stopped to smell the bright yellow flowers at the top.

Splügen

Here, we took a break from the 8 hour drive to enjoy the sunlight atop Splügenpass, the mountain border which divides Italy and Switzerland. Going there was a drive through thick fog and rainy weather.

Truth be told, I was scared to venture on the invisible path which climbed higher into the clouds, but still I trusted my husband’s good driving skills. The return trip a week later was much easier—sunshine and bright green illuminating the now-visible zig-zag path, making it more of a joyride.

In a way, I loved the fact that we were disconnected (from the internet), and free to just enjoy each other. With no social media access, there was no news from other continents, no updates to share, no other lives to compare with, but the joy of our own special moments, and our fun-loving kids.

Time for hugs at "Mittelpunkt", the exact middle point of Germany
Time for hugs at “Mittelpunkt”, the exact middle point of Germany

In the car, of course the husband and I bickered (8 hours a day is a long way to drive!)…but we also made up, played Who Am I games, read novels (me reading aloud because it was less scary to look down at the book than through the windshield while racing down the autobahn…) and listened to really corny music on the radio.

wandern
I’m addicted to mushroom hunting! So are the kids 😉 In search of steinpilz (funghi porcini) behind an old castle in Germany.

And the truth about long-distance road trips with family is that they do test your parenting patience, your marriage, your endurance and tolerance. They leave you with those rugged memories of both adventures and misadventures.

on the road again
Leaving Switzerland. After a week of being on the road, still all smiles. And what gorgeous weather we were welcomed back to in Italy!

Travel is EXHAUSTING when you’re a mom—but I am grateful for the chance to show my kids that the world expands, and home is where the LOVE is—wherever we may camp.

Valchiavenna: Time Travel, Tots, Puddles and Paint

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In this village, they say that when the Leone mountain across us wears a grey cap—when the clouds sit low on its peak gathered like a hat—it means we will have rain tomorrow.

Apparently, it’s true.

Photo of Lake Como by Wikimedia
Photo of Lake Como by Wikimedia

Last weekend, on Saturday afternoon, even though the skies were bright blue, the mountain, our ever-present and glorious background, wore a cap.

The husband and I watched silvery flat clouds shifting around its head, gathering into a perfect hat shape—not hovering like a halo, but softly settling on its crown. The son peered out with his binoculars from the hillside Bellavista restaurant terrace in Vercana where we’d gone for pizza and house wine.

“Yep, bad weather tomorrow,” we both concluded, in-between the daughter’s incessant babbles.

We clinked our glasses and drank away the afternoon, because that is what you do here on a weekend after 2pm—whether sun or rain.

Chiavenna Valtellina

So the following day, despite the rains, we headed to Chiavenna, just 16 kilometers away.

The old town cultural center, still preserved, winded the way typical Italian towns do, with their renovated cobblestone streets, semi-uncluttered gutters and olive-green shutters decked with rose-red flower pots.

walk in chiavenna

Swiss and German tourists huddled under umbrellas, checking out the Saldi signs, but all was closed during siesta hours.

“It just can’t be SUN-day,” said my son aloud, “there’s only RAIN today!”

And he said this with an air of excitement. It was still a lot of fun to wear bright rubber boots and splash around.

Valchiavenna Valtellina

But it was Sunday, and also siesta, for that matter, which meant I and my wallet would not be parting—at least not for three hours.

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An aquarelle painting exhibition near the piazza by British artist Kim Sommerschield, was the perfect place to wait out the drizzle.

Beautiful sharp strokes of the familiar mountains in deep blue and sienna, the misty lake and its wildlife splashed in striking hues, and my favorite of the water-colored portraits, a Charlie Chaplain.

Kim Sommerschield Charlie

Next, we headed for the Palazzo Vertemate Franchi, where the daughter was far too noisy, so I excused her from the tour group and headed out to the hallways to walk amongst scary portraits of middle-aged plump women in way too much jewelry and ruffles.

chiavenna palazzo

When it was time for panini and aperitvi, we headed back to the historical center for snack under the now sparkling sun.

The weather here is like that, shifting from one second to the next.

Prosecco for me, succo de mela for Karsten, a birra media for the husband and latte fresco for Alex. (I found I never have to worry about bringing milk on outings, as one can always order it fresh from any bar.)

Chiavenna stroll

I also had bresaola, a kind of salty, dried meat from the plush Valtellina region, plated with steinpilz, a delicious wild mushroom, and sharp rucola salad.

Observing my two curious kids splashing in puddles, being fascinated by waterfalls and hidden corners, even the way they sat down on the side of a random street, just to…sit and watch the world go by, reminded me that life is for these tiny, treasured moments.

Chiavenna kids

Did they understand a word the tour guide was saying in the grand palace? No.

Did they care that it was rainy weather and not “suitable” for exploring? Of course not.

Did they whine that, during siesta no stores were open to browse? No, not these kids.

Chiavenna sidewalk

They simply enjoyed what life had to offer them in that moment: lots of muddy puddles, fascinating steep steps and cobblestones, giant door handles fabricated hundreds of years ago…

…and ripples of murky water in an old piazza fountain, reflecting their own mischievous smiles.

Chiavenna fountain

+++

Back at home, I continue painting my version of the Montana Leone, the forms I see in it, the colors that inspire…

…the daughter picks up my brush and messes up a corner.

I let her…

painting the mountain

No matter that the weather is grey, or how many clouds gather at its peak, that mountain will always be beautiful, and it is the daily view like this that makes me appreciate my own sense of sight.

painting colico

Every morning, we get to wake up and watch it shift forms, spreading out on the horizon “just like a volcano,” my son always says, excitedly.

We get to see it transform, and at times completely disappear into the fog…but it always returns, to welcome our days, or to say goodnight.

“It’s as if you’ve never seen it before,” my husband remarked yesterday, when I’d had an explodation mark about its current beauty.

But I agree with my Belgian neighbor, Cara, who says, “It’s the most beautiful mountain in the world!”

Montana Leone

And if you could see it, I bet you’d say so, too

The Explodation Mark

thunderstorm

When was the last time you felt truly excited about being alive?

When did you last laugh out loud for no reason at all, but just because something made you really happy?

Let’s admit, these are not every day emotions. For many people, they can be more the exception rather than the norm.

And yet, why shouldn’t we be excited every day?

What really holds us back from joy?

I’m gonna guess it’s just being adults. Grown-ups don’t or shouldn’t get too excited, we think. Focus on the tasks at hand…over-think the problems…groan about what isn’t right in our world.

But kids know best that happiness and excitement just can’t be contained. My son calls it, having  an Explodation Mark. (I didn’t bother telling him the punctuation sign is actually called an EXCLAMation mark!)

It usually happens just before his favorite LEGO DVD starts…he jumps around…cheers and gets all crazy…

“Settle down,” I’ll say.

“But mom! I’m just having an Explodation Mark!”

Or upon me announcing that it’s time to go to the gelato bar now—

Uncontrollable excitement.

“Settle down now!”

“But mom—I’m just having an Explodation Mark!”

Or when someone—anyone—scores in the football match…

“Yeeahhh! TOR!”

“Settle down!”

“But it’s just my Explodation Mark!”

zirkus2

Well, this week, I have been having a few explodation marks of my own—and they weren’t even the kind that begin with stress and end in tears (usual for us moms, you know!)

They were the happy kind, the blissful kind, and even the jump-up-and-down kind, like my son has at times.

And I realized, it was because, recently, I have made up my mind to get more excited about life.

No matter how stressed I feel…

No matter how uninspired home chores can be…(No matter that my daughter just plopped my phone in the mop bucket and killed it.)

No matter what life surprises with or the challenges each day brings.

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Explodation Marks can even be just bursts of gratitude.

Or, they can be moments of peaceful silence.

Explodation Marks can be that serene feeling, watching a sunrise

Or a fantastic thunderstorm.

Explodation Marks can be long hugs between you and your partner

Or of course they can be more than just hugs.

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Explodation Marks are really saying, what my other kid has learned to say over and over again, her first actual English word:

“WOW!”

When I hear her say it, I am reminded to always see the wow, and say it—even if only silently, in my heart and mind…but sometimes, out loud, too:

Wow, Life, I am grateful for these moments with you.

Wow, Problems, you sure know how to challenge me!

Wow, Stress, you again?

Wow, Fear, you really think you are going to win?

Wow, Nature, let me never forget your beauty.

Wow, Universe—you continue to surprise me.

Wow, dear God, you are truly amazing.

kite

And you know what?

The more I see and say wow, the more explodation marks I allow myself, the more Real, True and Authentic, meaningful experiences come into my life.

More magic happens. More amazing people cross my paths. More serendipity. More Wow.

If you want your world to come alive, allow yourself some childlike awe, some Explodation Marks. Have more fun, and you will feel more alive, guaranteed.

New Year; New Home

Life has been good to me. I’ve traveled some pretty fantastic places around the world, wound up in adventurous terrain, been lost in enchanting and exotic locations, and called many of those destinations home.

But the latest has been by far, the best. The most beautiful.

Check out my new living room/terrace view:

evenings

To the left, I can see where my husband goes to work, where kitesurfers soar over the waters on windy days. In the center, the glistening lights of a little town across the lake sparkle even more in the evenings, when our living room couch doubles as a bed and we can sit/lie and and sip wine together–how’s that for romance? And to the right, the lake continues on southward, traversing through valleys that lie below a cluster of snow-capped mountains, its waters winding through towns and foothills, rippling silently into the distance.

We are still settling in, figuring out where the kids will go to school, how we will continue life in this tiny town, and attempting to learn the language.  But it’s a good start, and a wonderful place to wake up to every morning. We even have a little garden that our tiny gardener has been keeping well-watered.

garten1I thought it was timely that we got the keys to our new house on the same week that I turned 33. The day after my birthday, we moved in, began a new journey as a family. Another chapter closed; a new one begun.

Who knows what the future has in store? Who knows what’s waiting out there? I don’t, just yet.

But I’m excited to find out. Thrilled that, in this beautiful place I’ve been brought to, I find inspiration to paint, being surrounded by my loved ones–my children, my husband, and my friends…even though most of our connections are online these days.

There is beauty everywhere, and I will continue to discover it, though here in Italy one doesn’t have to look very far.

terrace1

Wide Awake in Winter

winter2Do you know how snow-dust sparkles? I never knew—until yesterday.

If it is a sunny day, like the ones we’ve been having lately, then winter dances and pierces and sweeps through the senses.

Those snowflakes didn’t just flutter down. They swirled and twirled and whirled like magic. Crisp. Gleaming. White.

Pure white—but sometimes, when the sun’s reflection bounces off of icicles and snow-dust, suddenly, one sees vibrant colors. It is ten degrees below freezing point—and yet, walking through the woods, I feel warmth.

winter walk

This month, the start of the New Year, I am doing lots of celebrating—a magical winter spell sets off the perfect mood; I gaze at the way sharp shadows of light strike the snow at 11 o’clock.

Did you get to celebrate something today?

Celebration isn’t always fireworks, candles and cake. Sometimes, celebration is simply being thankful. It’s acknowledging. It’s saying, “Yes, this is where I am meant to be, and I’m going to make the most of it.”

schnee3Celebration can also be commemorating: observing, honoring, and remembering.

I am honoring my daughter’s first babbles, her awkward “dance” (bouncing) every time she hears the sound of music, and the murmuring exhale she grunts when I tell her she’s eaten quite enough today.

schnee12I am remembering the squishy sound of my son’s gummistiefels as he sloshes through every muddy pile of melting ice.

schnee11And the way his concerned four-year-old voice pierces my train of thought loudly:

“Mom, the baby’s alive!”

(He means, she’s woken up—I must get back to mommy-work.)

schnee5So I’ll be realistic too. Not every moment is met with joy. There is the mundane, day to day that being a mother requires: endless nappy changes, dishes to wash and little people to keep happy and well-fed. Trips to the doctor’s office, meeting with the school principal, laundry to sort, hang, and fold. And always, a floor of toys to sweep.

And maybe, that’s why we need to celebrate the special moments more. Even the ones we think aren’t quite that special.

I take this 3-kilometer walk every day to pick up my son from school. The same routine. My fingers are frozen as we trudge through the show. But I try to make each day on the same route a new experience.

snowy walkThe sunlight’s glint is never exactly as it was yesterday; the village sounds are never just the same. On some days, I find horse-riders trotting through the streets; other times, snow-sweeping tractors plowing through the neighbor’s gardens.

I’ll admit, it wasn’t always so for me. With my first pregnancy, I was also in this same village, and I felt cold, and isolated, and bored.

narnia1It was a new experience in a foreign country (a new continent!), and I’d had all the usual moods a pregnant woman goes through. Not used to eat cold herring and schwarzbrot for dinner, I craved the warmth of tropical islands, the chaotic mess of the city. And oh, yes, I missed speaking English with other people!

It wasn’t easy, that first long winter, before my son was born. And of course, the days following, as a new mom, were even tougher.

But this time around, I’m getting a second chance at choosing: choosing joy over self-absorbedness, artistic expression over boredom. Choosing to see the sun through the shadows, to notice the way nature unfolds, envelops, and captivates. Choosing to appreciate and reciprocate the love of my family here, who care for us so well.

snowy walk3As I walk the same snow-swept paths along the edge of this Eastern German forest trail, I’m glad to be just where I am today.

Sometimes, my daughter is fast asleep in her stroller, and other times, she is wide awake.

Wide awake, I’ve realized, is how I want to be.

Exploring the world with the senses I’ve had all these years, but now finding new ways to use them.

Finding new ways to come alive.

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Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.
Oscar Wilde