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.

berlin2

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.”

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.

rainy2

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

Sketchbook Assignment #1: Same Picture/ Different Views

I recently signed up for the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) by CalArts, entitled Live!: A History of Art for Artists, Animators and Gamers with Jeannene Przyblyski, Ph.D. I’m so excited to learn about so much that I don’t know yet! I am also inspired by the fact that there are thousands of students around the world taking this course for free, made possible by Coursera.

Our first assignment in this eight-week course is to make two sketches: one, that stands for what I think art really should be, and the other, what I think people in the world think art should be.

That seems so broad, with so many possibilities about what other people think it should be. I felt stuck…I tried to sketch but could not capture it in just one picture. It ended up being a whole lot of written words in my sketchbook!

But it got me thinking, about one tiny aspect of this, and recalling a personal story…

If we talk about “the art world”, what comes to my mind are galleries, exhibitions, art collectors, auctions, and artists trying to make it up the ladder of “success”. And in that world, there are many intellectual people, many sincere artists, but also probably many that just go see art for the sake of the status, the crowd they want to be associated with—I come from the Philippines, and this was often the case, in a country where art is not “as accessible” to everyone.

I remember, as a young teenager, though I loved going to art exhibits to see the works, I didn’t really enjoy “that crowd” so much. I did not understand the mind of an art critic (definitely something I hope to learn more about in this course!), or the mind of an art collector, for that matter. I only knew that I loved to create, and wanted to learn more about creating. Plus, many of my friends were artists and it was something we did together, for fun.

Years later, in 2005, I held my own solo exhibition at the Sheraton hotel of Kamapla, Uganda. I’ll tell you that story some other time, but the particular moment that this assignment led me to think about, was when—as a result of that exhibition—the Kabaka (King of Buganda) purchased my painting. What an honor and experience.

Here is a photo of that artwork, entitled “My People”:

MY PEOPLEAs it became public knowledge that the king himself owned my art, I was soon getting more phone calls, and people wanted to buy “that painting”. Of course they couldn’t have the original; only a duplicate.

And I made sure to tell them, “It won’t be exactly like the picture—it will be similar, as I can never reproduce one exactly like that one.”

No one seemed to mind. Sometimes, they didn’t even know what the picture was. They’d never even seen it, or a picture of it. They’d say, “Just paint me the one the king bought.”

I ended up selling reproductions of that painting eight more times.

Although I love this particular piece of art, only I know what inspired me to paint it, and the moment I came in contact with this tribe. Those who paid to own the artwork itself will never really feel what I felt at the time, a respect and sadness/concern for the community where this nearly-forgotten tribe lived, way up on the mountains.

So I use this picture in my assignment, not because I think art SHOULD be like my art, but to represent what the process of art means to me.

To me, the picture was a symbol of:

  • Exploration (both the long journey to reach the tribe, as well as the process of creating this with pastels on felt paper)
  • Expression (The personal process of creating something)
  • The power to change one’s circumstance, or one’s outlook
  • Communication
  • Life (Art should be vibrant, exciting, striking, I often use deep colors)
  • Awareness (Hardly anyone knew that this tribe, called the “Ik”, existed. I wanted my portraits of them to tell their story, to show their faces, fears, and dreams)
  • Bridging cultures (too much to say on that!)
  • A personal experience we can (and sometimes, should) share

I know what the painting meant to me at the time…but it became valuable to others for an entirely different reason. So if I am allowed to do so, I’d like to use this picture for both illustrations.

Thanks for reading! I’ll update about the new things I’m learning from this exciting course as we go along.

Do You Ever Miss that Sound?

Potato seller in Kampala. Photo by Robin Yamaguchi

After living on Lake Como for five months, I realize how truly blessed I am to be in one of the most amazing, beautiful places on earth.

I also realize I miss chaos.

Growing up in chaotic Asian cities like Bombay, Bangkok and Manila, I knew what it was like to walk through crowded places, throngs of jam-packed people on trains and buses, questionable street food, smells and sights and sounds whizzing by, tickling every one of your senses—or clogging it.

There is always a dense humidity in the air, and the constant buzz of people.

Out here, in Western Europe, there isn’t much of that. There is peace, and quiet, there is amazing nature, there is untouched beauty. And there is so much to love about it.

But there is also a longing in my heart to get back to a little bit of the craziness of living, the things that may be not so tranquil, but force you to find a balance inside. I remember that feeling when shifting my way through the markets of Kampala, and once while watching a sunset on a busy beach in Colombo.

Some cities and towns in Italy do seem to have a nice mixture of both the unexpected, and the sublime.

Visiting Merano in the Spring

Have you ever found anywhere in the world during your travels that has a good balance—just enough stimulation, yet just enough silence?

Notes on Trading Security for Freedom

Being in the right place at the right time has nothing to do with luck.

I believe it’s all about the choices you made getting there which allowed you to be in that moment, to experience that miracle.

Getting together with another traveler is one decision I made that I don’t regret. But staying married at the cost of a literal lifetime journey, and raising a child through multiple countries and contrasting cultures in every continent has its challenges.

Last year, I left a well-paid job in the city to come out here to Lake Como and live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I miss my nanny, my friends back home, my chicken adobo, soya sauce and rice. I miss my regular paychecks and that feeling of security.

But in place of that, I get to sit on this amazing lake and paint, and teach my son the importance of a global perspective, openness and acceptance of other people, nurturing relationships and embracing new experiences.

At two years old, he learns to not be tied down to any one set of regulations, or become stuck in a rut. We are constantly packing our bags for the next destination, letting go of things and physical attachments, saying our goodbyes, and—always—following the wind.

When this season is over, we will journey again…it’s not quite clear yet where that might be, and sometimes I get a bit anxious thinking about the future.

And then, I choose to just live in the happiness of today.

Because that’s what makes travel so magical: you don’t know what’s round the next corner, the next bend, or at the end of the tunnel. You’re not following a pre-programmed GPS device.

Choose your reality by taking risks, even if it means sometimes changing course. And when you let life surprise you, it usually does.

More on Life in Lake Como

Let me tell you a little more about life here in Como:

We live just a couple steps from the town piazza, behind the local church, the bakery, and Gelateria. Across the street are two café bars, my husband’s work place (watersports school) and a giant, grassy playground with a tennis court, basketball court, trampoline and swimming pool.

The atmosphere here is a typically relaxed one, where people stroll unhurried, and whole families play together—or sometimes with total strangers, and children learn to love Nature. Out on the beachfront, kitesurfers pump up their kites to air out, while parachuters glide down the mountain side’s cool air, the wind powering them just enough for an early morning sail.

It’s a place where locals greet you by name, and always a smile. Unlike Germany (our previous home), where the conversation ends at “Good day”, before walking quickly on one’s way, here they will continue chatting—regardless of long queues at the checkout, schedules, or working hours. You learn to not get impatient, but rather, appreciate the fact that people are taking the time to listen, and converse, and communicate—face to face.

Besides, siesta will come soon, and then it will last at least three hours.

And when you live in Italy, you learn to embrace this laidback style. You sip cappuccino, eat gelato, and have a midday Prosecco—as you please. You take your time. You smile more. You stay up late, and sleep in long hours. You chat long minutes because you bask in the presence of another human being, you share life stories as the sun sets in front of you, and you swim naked in the lake, because water is for nurturing.

After a long day’s work (and yes, sometimes just being a stay-at-home-mom is quite a lot of plain hard work with no paycheck at the end of the month) if you get to kiss your son goodnight and say, “I love you, and when you wake up, we’ll go swimming together at the beach,” that’s something to not take for granted.

So you can manage those disputes that sometimes happen in the shadows of your home; those misunderstandings, the trivialities of life. You can look forward to greeting the next Summer day, because as long as there is someone to share it with, and good health to enjoy it a little bit longer, then life is quite delicious.