Four for the Road: Backpacks in Berlin!

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(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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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

My Beautifuls

Yes, it’s much more fun dressing up (and shopping for) a baby GIRL. 🙂

juni3Four month goes–and grows–so fast!

juni1Her she is rocking her Mohawk…

alexandra.juni2And last week, getting her used to riding in local shuttle vans, trikes, jeepneys and buses–we did it all! (Here we are at the Victory Liner bus stop in Pasay, Manila, getting ready for a four-hour bus ride!)

pasay road2The last week was a mix of frustration, exhaustion, exhilaration, and success.

The short story is that we succeeded in getting our daughter’s German passport from the German embassy in Manila. The long story involved a whole lot of papers, shuttling back and forth for hours of bus rides, jeepney rides, tricycle rides and traffic, through flooded cities while dodging typhoons.

But at the end of crazy days, smiles from your children make everything worth it. And waking up to them, too!

morningHappy Weekend!

Two Week Wonder

SAMSUNG

Life has been on pause for the last two weeks, as I’ve slowly recovered from the surgery. I’ve had to depend on others to do things for me, accept that time must move slowly these days, and stay awake at nights for my tiny one.

It’s taken a new turn, this twist in adventures—and yet somehow, it doesn’t seem strange; just the natural flow of things.

It was my son who first broke the news to me. “I have a baby sister!” he declared, one sunny day in Lake Como, nine months ago.

“No you don’t,” I half-frowned at him.

But he did, already. I just didn’t know it.

Trusting his instincts, I asked him, shortly before the birth, “What color is your baby sister’s hair? Is it blonde, like yours?”

“No,” he stated matter-of-factly, without looking up from his puzzle. “It’s black. Schwarz. Like yours.”

And so it is.

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Now, she’s here, the little lady bug, who sleeps so much I am secretly hoping she stays this quiet and lets me do my work. Her features already take on quite a mature look, though she is just weeks old.

And when she smiles in her sleep, it is the most beautiful thing on earth.

I told you, this is my journey.

Yes, I miss the days of past, of ziplining across gorges while travelling provincial terrains; of backpacking with just my partner, before there were babies; the days of going on a whim, and risking a lot without a second thought.

with orphans

I know someday, I’ll return to Africa, to the tribal regions of the Philippines, to the vineyards of Tuscany, to intoxicating India. But by then, I’ll have my new travelers with me, little feet marking their own path.

And by then, the journeys—as a family—will be even better.

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Now, something for smiles: Tina Fey’s A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter

Olympic Gold For Uganda!

Global triumph. National Pride. Euphoria.

Uganda has so much to celebrate—finally!

My son Karsten has been engrossed in every Olympic game, calling out the name of each sport as he watches it on television, cheering for the names he knew (like a German runner also named Karsten) and applauding those who took home medals.

During the men’s marathon final, we watched together as Ugandan athlete Stephen Kiprotich ran all the way to the finish line, never quitting or tiring all. Sweet victory!

I remembered how, when I lived in Kampala nine years ago, we would sometimes make relief trips to remote mountain regions in the North border. Those were some of the best, most memorable journeys ever—but definitely not the most comfortable! We’d usually be roughing it with no running water or toilets, and travelling for a week meant bringing that much in food and drink rations.

On one unforgettable occasion, our truck ran out of gas. With no phone signal in the bush, there was no way of calling for help. Some of the locals were riding with us, and one of them volunteered to RUN all the way back to the nearest gas station (we hadn’t seen anything resembling a town or city for hours).

And, run he did!

While the rest of the team waited under the shade of an acacia tree, that Ugandan ran for hours, and a long time later, he was back—with another truck delivering the diesel.

So, while I was ecstatic for Uganda’s Olympic win, I wasn’t completely surprised. They are an amazing people, who have endured untold hardships. In the face of adversity, poverty and war, many keep going. They may struggle, but their spirits survive.

The whole nation is now experiencing a historic moment of sweet victory, which they truly deserve. A race well run!

(Uganda was my home for 3 and a half years, and I really did leave my heart there. Here’s pictures of the dusty road trails, the tribes, and a Rotary meeting where I was guest speaker.)