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.)

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.”

A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt 1: Festive Fun and Pyramids

pyramid“Mom, do you know what day it is today?”

My nearly-five-year-old, who—if left to his own devices—would normally sleep until midday, is wide awake and smiling at 8am.

“No, I have no idea,” I feign.

“Today, we go to see the Pyramid! The peeeerahhhhhmeeeeed!” he is ecstatic, but as people are very proper around these parts, I tell him he will have to wait until exactly 4pm, the scheduled time to go.

He isn’t talking about taking a trip to Giza, of course. The Christmas Pyramids are part the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) traditions here in Saxony.

Saxon PyramidDelicately carved out of the finest wood and intricately handcrafted by local artisans, they are triangular in shape with several layers depicting Christmas scenes—angels, forest animals, nativity figures, or busy German coal miners of the famed Ore mountains near where we live.

The real magic happens when the base candles are lit and the heat from their flames spin the pyramid’s tiers round and round. Heat continues rising to the top, in turn spinning the crowning propeller.

Looking like a multi-layered carousel, the moving light and shadows dance. When winter dark wraps these snowy villages, the Erzgebirge Pyramid stands. Tall and bright like a bedecked Christmas tree, it glows with warmth. They can be miniature in size, or as huge as a house. In traditional Christmas markets, they’re the most popular purchase.

schwiboogen saxonyAlso in true Erzgebirge tradition, some place a wooden Schwiboogen  or floating arch (see photo above, from Waldiland Blog) candle-holder in their windows. Lit at dusk, it came from the tradition of the Ore Mountain miners, who would hang their lanterns at the mine or cave entrance, to find their way back out and home. In turn, villagers would hang lanterns in their windows, so that fathers, brothers and all the hard-working men would find their way back home.

Our house, as of this evening, has not a single Christmas decoration yet.

“We are very traditional,” explains Oma—Karsten’s grandma—later over lunch. “It came from his family’s side.” She gestures to the kids’ grandfather, who was born into a Saxon Protestant family.

“I remember learning it when I first married him. Christmas was a quiet, reflective time. Not a big noisy party. It was celebrated with deep meaning. No schmuck, no kitsch. Only proper wooden Christmas ornaments—and the Weihnachtsbaum only on Christmas Eve! Not a day earlier.”

“With real candles lit,” adds Opa.

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It takes us a good half hour to wrap up, layer upon layer, for our walk after 4pm. Already, the streets are dark, only lit with a few lamps, plus the wonderful Christmas candle arches in some house windows. We pass other pedestrians with the same destination.

Pretty cold, but the kids are too excited to complain. After all, the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) is also coming to light the giant Pyramid, and my son has brought his wunschzettel, or wish-list. (He’s also tried to be a very good boy lately.)

“Of course it has to be in German,” he’d told me this morning, as he sat penciling the most words at one time he’s ever tried to write—all on his own! “The Weihnachtsmann is definitely German!”

wunschzettelwunsch2

We follow the lights, and a kilometer later, the scent of brewing Glühwein and grilled Bratwurst smoking over a charcoal fire bring us to the Pyramid.

german christmasIts lighting celebration is being held outside the village’s fire station. Many folk are gathered, already sipping spicy winter wine. Children are bundled up from head to toe, and the Apple Queen, with her crown of flowers and apples, greets us. Fireman capped with red elf hats are serving up food and drinks.

bratwurst2Opa orders three Thüringer Bratwursts, the special spicy type from this region. The kids love the crunchy and delicious giant sausages, usually 20cm long. I take mine with mustard; they prefer ketchup. Then, we sip piping hot Glühwein, as you always must in winter.

“This is typical German,” he laughs, everyone leaves the warmth of their houses to stand in minus 3 degrees and eat.”

pyramid1Weihnachtsmann arrives, and my son disappears in the pile of kids; he must give the Christmas-man his wish-list!

When later, the crowd disperses back towards the food stalls for more eating and drinking, we are the few brave ones to request a photo with Father Christmas. People take pictures of us taking pictures with the jolly old white man…

weihnachtsmann1Soon it’s time to head home; again, we enjoy the stroll through streets lit by the warming glow of the floating arches. Some houses have more than one in their windows. Opa tells us more stories from his boyhood, how it was when they celebrated in December.

saxon pyramidSuddenly, we hear the jingling of bells and the clopping of hoofs. A horse-drawn carriage passes us by on the road, its driver waving merrily.

horses“It’s cold!” my son says, skipping to keep warm.

“It’s only minus 3 degrees,” Opa smiles. “Cold is minus 20 or more–and your mom has lived through that!”

He goes on to tell us about when he was a boy and they survived a very harsh winter—minus 30 or so, it was. When we reach the little footpath leading to our home, the son asks where our Christmas star and decorations are, why don’t we have a floating arch in our windows, or a pyramid?

“Tomorrow,” replies Opa, “Tomorrow is the First Advent. We’re doing Christmas very traditionally. Tomorrow will be something special!”

“Special!” my daughter, who barely talks, has been repeating her new word since yesterday.

“But now, it’s time for you kids to get a good night’s sleep, and for your mommy and I to drink a hot grog,” Opa concludes, as we reach our front door.

“What a good idea!” I reply.

We’ve spent Christmas both in Asia and in Europe, plus I’ve enjoyed a few in Africa. Now, with children of my own, my favorite season sparks new meaning and magic.

saxon christmasAnd yes…everything is more special at Christmas—especially in Saxony!

On Possibility

como sundown

My son’s second question after meeting anyone for the first time has become the standard, “And what language do you speak?”

It’s no wonder that he’s gotta sort this one out from the start. From the Philippines to Germany and now northern Italy, he’s interacted—and reacted—in several languages.

We are raising bi-lingual children, observing how effortlessly they learn and form words, phrases, and sentences to communicate. I say “observe” because the truth is, we don’t have to “teach” much at all. It’s simply always German with their father; always English with me, consistently.

Karsten can switch, translate, and go from one language to the next in the same conversation with the two of us parents, without even thinking about it. His sister, although she doesn’t talk yet, makes it clear that she understands every word—in either language—and will soon catch up verbally.

Exploring the monastery at Piona
Exploring the monastery at Piona

I am also constantly amazed at the fearless way they will start communicating with random strangers. When going for walks, my son always tries to listen for the sound of other languages.

If it’s German, he’ll be so pleased: “Sie sprechen auch Deutsch!” (They also speak German!)

If English, he’ll talk about superheroes and space. “Do you watch Futurama and LEGO movie Batman?”

If Italian, he’ll use what little he knows: “Giocare con me!”(Play with me!)

He can recognize the sound of Dutch, but not how to speak it—only that his friend Anna, went back home to Amsterdam last month, and she is Dutch.

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He’s quick at translating one word to the next, one meaning to another in an entirely different language.

But usually, we have to explain the bigger words and their definitions. Kinda keeps me on my toes—or in my thinking head.

Yesterday, he asked me: “What does “Possibility mean?”

I had to pause and ponder a moment.

Possibility…

“When something is possible, it’s doable. It could happen. You could make it happen,” I replied.

spielplatz

He spun contentedly on the swing while digesting in his busy brain, this new, five-syllable word. It sounds nearly the same in Italian: Possibile…yet very different in German: Möglichkeit

For me, the word POSSIBILITY carries so much hope.

It’s probable…it’s achievable. It’s reachable.

And I do believe it is important to teach our children to achieve, to reach, to do, and to dream.

Possibility starts with a dream, doesn’t it? When it’s possible, you don’t give up hoping. You don’t give up that dream.

Are you carrying possibility in your heart today?

Are you letting yourself reach for something you never thought possible before?

Are you doing, daring, and defying the odds?

And are you working at it with faith in your heart?

Well then, it WILL be possible for you!

…and speaking of possibilities, this week, my son begins his fifth school in a new country. With a new sprache/ lingua/language.

For sure it will be a challenge at first, but later, a guaranteed asset. Soon his world may be as diverse as the languages his tongue can speak. We’ll make it happen, one day at a time.

“tutti è possibile!”

 vercana

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.” –John Lennon

 

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”—Emily Dickinson

…so tell me, what does the word “POSSIBILITY” mean to you?

 

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

For Alexandra

journal alexandraMy one and only daughter turns one year old today.

I haven’t considered buying her a material gift, first off because she’s too young to appreciate anything that isn’t edible—and second, because she’ll be getting a whole lot of presents from relatives at the big party in a few hours (she shares the same birth date as her German grandfather).

But I have decided to do one thing, starting now: I’ve begun a journal, just for her.

My thoughts, notes and musings to her. I want to record these memories, our times together, what she knew,journal2 what she loved, what she did, what she said (and how she said it), what she attempted, and what she accomplished…how she cried, how she touched my heart, how she frustrated me, and angered me, and loved me

…and how enormously I loved her.

baby girlOf course it will be many years till she reads it, but it’s important to start recording these moments now.

As I began to write in this journal, I realized it was also what I wanted as a child. I wanted to know my mother’s reflections…I never knew of her hopes or dreams—whether for myself or for her—and some of the early years of my life are lost with no record of those times (my mom and dad split up when I was five).

But it’s okay.

I have made my way through life with experience for a teacher, and I know now that my parents both love me unconditionally. Still, sometimes, I wish there were more of my mom (in those faraway moments of 1981) to remember.

So, I am gifting my daughter something I never had—insight to her mother’s feelings, dreams, and desires.

…unspoken thoughts, meant only for her.

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Whether she is 13 or 31, or 50 or past then, she will know that her imperfect mom still found a way to pursue a perfect love—the one she found with her.

And perhaps she will realize then, the incredible gift of life to my soul that she, my Alexandra, gave me.

alexandra