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.

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“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.

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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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The truth about road trips

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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.

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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

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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

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

Notes on Twitter and Trains

wb2Did you know that, as a boy, Jack Dorsey, was fascinated—no, obsessed—with trains? And that, his interest in the dispatch center and the way they communicated eventually led to his invention of the popular social media tool, Twitter? It’s been told that as a kid, he often hung out at the train track with his brother, waiting to capture them zooming by on camera.

Yesterday, for something different and fun, we travelled old-school style, in a very old, original steam locomotive engine!

photo of our train track by wikimedia
photo of our train track by wikimedia

The Weisseritz Valley Railway, or Weißeritztalbahn dates back to 1881. Although the track has been reconstructed due to severe damage with the 2002 flooding, its locomotive and cars are the original, basic design. It’s a great way to see the Erzgebirge mountain views here in Saxony.

And today, it wasn’t about getting to any destination at all. This was purely for the excitement and enjoyment of our transportation vehicle. Winding through all that nature, I couldn’t help but feel like we’d time-traveled back hundreds of years ago. (Interesting read: What nature does for your productivity.)

wb1We simply took the train to the very last station (about 45 minutes one way), stopped for lunch at a Greek restaurant, ate way too much Suvlaki, and then rode the steam engine  right back.

My son was fascinated, as usual. My daughter, her first time to ride the train, watched just as intensively as we chugged up the trail that followed the Weißeritz river, and waved to everyone who stopped just to see the steam engine go rolling by. I’ll bet they were also surprised to see three Asians waving back at them from inside the locomotive!

wb4We’ve ridden countless trains since Karsten was born, been to the German train museums numerous times, and when there is an opportunity to watch one pass, we do so with all the hurrah and excitement. Aren’t kids a great reason to start doing things “just for fun” in your adult years?

I hope that, as we greet the first few days of 2014, if you have made new goals for yourself, mapped out and marked destinations you’d like to reach, that you remember to enjoy the getting there, too.

Happy new year; happy journeys!

wb3http://www.weisseritztalbahn.de/

wb6P.S. Speaking of Twitter, you can find (or connect and follow) me here. 😉

Waking up in Wonderland

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Sleep-ins, as all moms know, become something of a distant memory once a baby is born.

But today, I welcome my 8-month old’s wake up call, her whining to go outside.

Because today we are in the “City of Pines”—that lovely, cool climate escape called Baguio. I slip into some comfy strolling clothes, and then push her out into the sweet-scented open.

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The breakfast buffet at the hotel’s restaurant smells of buttery croissants, homemade jams, and finely brewed coffee. That, mixed with Asian aromas from the giant spread: garlic-spiced longganisa, honey soy chicken, fish fillets and a large pot of steaming congee. I spy salted egg, banggus and ampalaya ensalada…

But we’re not up this early to eat—not just yet. We’ll wait for the sleeping boys and then pig out later. I’ve packed my camera, so we’ll go revel in this morning hour.

We catch mist rising; cascading streaks of early light. Hints of a perfect day awaiting us, its sun-showers spraying through a forest of impossibly tall pines.

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More pretty things on the pathway: beds of flowers, decked with frosty Christmas beads and giant glass baubles, a wishing pond with dancing kois and invisible water nymphs. At its bottom, a thousand coins glisten.

Dare I make a wish?

And still more pretty things: Paved up-hills and down-hills, winding roads to travel on foot. Further on, we overlook a silent lake. There’s a sprawling golf course in the distance, nestled in this carpeted playground of vibrant green.

Baguio city, tucked away in the Cordillera mountain ranges,  was once the recreation destination for US soldiers, when they held bases around the country. Because of its high altitude, the temperature is always pleasantly cool. Today, it’s just 17 degrees, a refreshing change from the usual humidity we’re used to.

My baby basks.

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She is silent, enjoying, taking in the peace and stillness of this wonderland. Every now and then, she coos a little, and when the hotel staff greets her with a good morning, she eyes them suspiciously before breaking just a half smile from an upturned, pouty lip.

She’s a bit suplada like that.

I scold her for being unfriendly, but maybe she just needs to get out more. We turn down towards an open road, continuing our stroll until it’s time to sleep again.

And this time, I welcome her dreamy midday slumber with a nap myself.

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As partial payment for a project I did for the Philippines Dept. of Tourism this year, I was given a four-day complimentary stay at The Manor. This charming luxury hotel is located at Camp John Hay and—besides other delicious things—serves the most amazing gourmet salads.

http://www.campjohnhay.ph/

Not Quite a Tsunami

Pundaquit, San Antonio, Zambales

Pundaquit

Somewhere between multiple typhoons, floods, and other seasonal September weather, we tripped to Pundaquit beach in Zambales.

From a distance, the son and I watched giant, forceful waves rushing, clashing, thrashing at the shore.  But my husband, he had to swim right in.

“Is it a tsunami, mom??” gasped my son, as he teetered on tiptoe, behind a bamboo fence which stood between the beach from the bar.

“No, not quite,” I reassured him, and we watched his dad grow smaller and smaller as he ventured further out.

Securing a spot at the bar, I could oversee both my little boy as he played in the sand, and my big boy, as he maneuvered a surfboard through the reckless ocean. Stealing photographs of him from afar (he doesn’t like his photo taken at all), I was content enough to meet new friends over a couple of cold San Mig Lights and Thai prawn soup.

When it looks this dramatic and beautiful, I can stare at the shore all day. Have you seen some awesome forces of nature lately?

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How to get to Pundaquit beach