Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Domesticity fail and acting like a weird American, rolled into one

I just couldn't help myself: I was making cupcakes for a party. I had already put on my awesome Dia De Los Muertos cooking apron when I realized that I had left the cupcake mix in the car. I didn't want to take the apron off, so I went outside to get the mix and kept the apron on. Since everyone is nosy around here, I'm quite sure that I had an audience. If anyone asks, I'll say I did it because I'm American, not weird. Around here, that pretty much means the same thing anyway. I just wish that I had on high heels and pearls to go with the apron and the t-shirt and shorts. It would be a typical "ATW is Trying to Be Domestic" outfit.

The back story is as such: I'm not a very domestic person, nor am I a girly girl. However, I feel that it's important to have a wide range of skills and knowledge, so I try my hand at cookery from time to time. Such aspirations have yielded varied results

My coworkers erupted in laughter one time when I told them that because I am not domestic, I decided to make up for that by wearing a (faux) pearl necklace and high heels with my shorts and t-shirt when I was baking cookies. I wanted to see how the housewives of the 1950s felt when they were cooking, minus the dress, conical bra and corset, of course.

The results? It was amusing for the time that I made the cookies. However, I wouldn't want to make a habit of it. Plus, I'm not fond of wearing any shoes in the house and I'm clumsy, so traipsing around in high heels and being overly domestic just isn't going to happen, never mind my clumsiness and the inherent danger of wearing anything other than flat soles.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Store review: Ethnico, Kaiserslautern

Richard-Wagner Strasse 78, Kaiserslautern
Monday-Friday 2-6; Saturday 11-3

Where can a person buy an African mask, Indian furniture, vintage Chuck Taylors, and oh yes, some lederhosen?

Perhaps the previous question sounds more like a joke, but it's a (somewhat) serious question for which I have an answer: Ethnico.

This store, just down the street from the Kaiserslautern Hauptbahnhof, is a perfect companion to Dhyan (reviewed here) for an interesting shopping trip. I had walked by this store and had been intrigued by it but never seemed to be around when it was open.

I finally visited and what a treat it was! This store is completely crazy in its offerings of new, used, and vintage clothing. The new clothing is mostly organic or hippie style but there are some screen printed t-shirts for those who are less adventurous. Vintage clothing includes items that hippies might have even worn in the 60s and 70s, as well as a large collection of used Chuck Taylor shoes.

Even crazier yet was a selection of preowned traditional German garb! There are dirndls, lederhosen, the popular blue checkered shirt like those worn at Oktoberfest, and more. Prices were reasonable; for example, boys' lederhosen were around 20 euros. For those looking to "blend in" at the touristville that is München's Oktoberfest, a visit to Ethnico would allow for some cheaper outfits to wear. For something at the opposite end of the spectrum, there is even some leatherwear and Renaissance fair garb available.

Ethnico also offers home accessories and furnishings. The African masks weren't so much to my taste, but I had to drag myself away from the Indian coffee tables and cabinets. Prices were moderate on those, as well.

The guy who runs the store was friendly and helpful, both to me and to other customers. For an eclectic and pleasant experience, I would definitely recommend a visit to Ethnico.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Store Review: Dhyan (books, jewelry, gifts), Kaiserslautern

Richard-Wagner-Str. 67, Kaiserslautern
Monday-Friday 10:00-6:00; Saturday 10:00-3:00

When walking home from the train station, I passed a store that really caught my eye: Dhyan. I was drawn in, attracted to the colorful display windows brimming with Indian jewelry boxes (a personal weak spot) and other beautiful gifts. The store is only open until 6 pm (which isn't horribly unusual around here) so it was quite a while before I could return to shop.

I finally got my act together and walked to the store. The store is really quite fascinating and has a variety of gifts. Basically, it's a hippie gift store at the core but is diverse in its offerings.

There is a large amount of jewelry, mostly in Indian designs. There are books on yoga and New Age type topics. The requisite incense and incense burners were present, as is to be expected in this type of store.

My personal favorites were the Indian jewelry boxes, painted in bright colors and patterns, and the sun catchers. I ended up buying one of each. I was tempted by the Indian textiles, such as pillow covers and scarves, but I needed to stop my shopping spree at some point.

If this weren't enough, there is even a clothing section. I wasn't surprised by the cotton trousers and other handmade clothing. However, I was surprised that the store even offers Renaissance fair garb.

Even for the more traditional, Dhyan is still a pleasant store and it's very possible to find a gift for almost anyone. For those who are the New Age type, this store would be highly of interest. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mannheim: farmers' market

A little while ago...okay, longer than that, I was on one of my many trips to Mannheim in April. I had some time to spend before meeting a friend, so I decided to check out the city's farmers' market ("Wochenmarkt") in the Marktplatz, located at G1.

Hours: Tuesday & Thursday 0800-1400 ; Saturday 0800-1500

The market is bigger than the one I visit in Kaiserslautern. Offerings were similar, but there were more vendors with a bigger selection. There were fruits, vegetables, fresh meats, baked goods, etc. for sale.

Besides size of the markets, the other difference between farmers' markets for Mannheim and Kaiserslautern would probably be that Mannheim's market is overseen by some very perplexed looking male statues and some armpit-smelling angels at the St. Sebastian Church.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Food truck review: Napoli at military installations around Kaiserslautern

Various food trucks set up shop at the US military installations around Kaiserslautern. They tend to change weekly, but have the same rotating cast of "characters."

One such character is Napoli, which also has a takeout restaurant in Landstuhl. I've ordered from there before and was not impressed by their Chicago crust pizza. I decided to try their offerings again when I saw the food cart at one of the installations.

I was pleasantly surprised; the flammkuchen (regional pizza like dish) was quite tasty. I liked the saltiness of the pork on it, balanced with the rich smoothness of the cream-based sauce and savory onions.

I also tried some of their regular crust pizza and found it quite better than their Chicago crust pizza. After these experiences, I'd try their Landstuhl physical location again.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Restaurant Review: Tamarillo, Kaiserslautern

Restaurant Reviewed:
Pirmasenser Straße 59, Kaiserslautern

Tamarillo is a tapas bar and restaurant in a beautiful, historic building overlooking the Stadtpark in Kaiserslautern. I had heard good things about the restaurant so a friend and I had dinner there.

My dining partner ordered Pisto Manchego, which is basically some vegetables slathered in tasty Manchego cheese and baked in crockery. I tried a bite; it was decent, but then again, how can anything slathered in cheese not be?

I ordered Migas, which is a mixed green salad with fried bread, grapes, and chorizo sausage. I was actually disappointed in my meal. The lettuce and grapes weren't the freshest and the salad dressing that covered it really didn't have much flavor. It was also slathered in the dressing, which made the lettuce seem even more slick. The fried bread wasn't anything special; there was some sort of seasoning on it but it didn't have a strong taste. The chorizo was okay; it was similar, according to my dining partner, to a summer sausage. At almost 9 euros, it was a huge salad but didn't taste good enough to warrant such a price.

Migas: this salad looked better than what it tasted.

Our servers were average. They were pleasant when they realized that we spoke English and offered, unprompted, to give us menus in English. I made the mistake of asking for tap water and was told that they don't serve it. Ja, ja. That's not uncommon in Germany. Our waiters weren't super responsive and it did take a while to receive the bill when we asked for it.

The building itself really cool; it's quite beautiful. We didn't go inside, but enjoyed the facade of the building as we sat in the patio area, which was nice itself with umbrellas and trees and a great view over the Stadtpark.

I guess I would say that I'm undecided on Tamarillo. I have other acquaintances who've gone there and liked it quite a bit, but they ordered the tapas. I think that I'll give the restaurant another try in the future and actually order the tapas, just to be fair. I was definitely nonplussed by the salad and hope that that tapas experience will be tastier on a future visit.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

American food in Germany: Old El Paso brand in Rewe

Some of the German stores' take on American Mexican food (sounds complicated, eh?) really doesn't hit the mark. When manufacturers add Dorito-like coating to tortilla chips, for example, that totally ruins them for me. Tortilla chips should have salt on them, and nothing else.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Rewe, a supermarket chain, carries Old El Paso brand "Mexican" food. This is a common brand in the US for Gringas to make their own taco, burritos, etc. Is it authentic, as far as Mexican food goes? Maybe not so much, but it fits well enough for TexMex from the supermarket, I suppose.

Seen at Rewe!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Seen in Stuttgart: the Porsche tractor

Uh, I know that people in Germany drive Porsches; they have passed me at high rates of speed on the Autobahn.

However, someone who drove this Porsche parked near Marienplatz absolutely takes the cake.

It was a very educational visit to Stuttgart because I learned that Porsche made tractors; it's located in Stuttgart; and there are people who drive their tractors downtown! Note that the tractor even has a license plate. Crazy stuff. I guess I shouldn't be surprised; people drive ATVs around as if they're motorcycles.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hotel Review: Victory Galou, Paris, France

I think this review really should be called: Why It's Important to Either Book Ahead or to Spend More Time Looking for a Hotel Instead of Taking the First Available.

In February (! ha, it feels weird writing about a trip where we were so cold when it's hot now), friends and I took a trip to Paris. It was somewhat of a last-minute thing. The problem with last-minute trips is that they can be quite expensive and even difficult to book.

I was charged with finding us accommodations. I tried various hotel bookings sites and even tried Airbnb. I had about 3 days to find a place. Airbnb didn't work; all three people I tried said their places were not available, even though on their calendars noted that their places were available. I'm wondering if it was an issue that I was a new user on Airbnb and didn't have any references yet.

I then ended up booking a hotel. We wanted something close to the train station, where we'd be arriving via high speed train. I ended up booking at the Victory Galou.

Saggy bed, blankets of a questionable clealinesss.

Bathroom: complete with sewer smells and visible mold.

Hotel Reviewed: Victory Galou
15 Passage Industrie, Paris

The Victory Galou is indeed near gare l'Est, where our ICE high speed train from Germany arrived. It took about 10 minutes to walk to the hotel from the train station. Some other reviewers had commented that they felt uneasy about the route between the hotel and the train station. I didn't feel uneasy at all, but did find it to be hopping at 9 pm on a Friday. As in any place, I kept my head up and paid attention to the surroundings and I felt fine. It was kind of cool, in a way; there were a ton of hair and barber shops along the way and people were getting their hair done at 9 pm. Having lived in Germany for more than a month, I felt quite shocked to see people actually able to get stuff done after 8 pm (when most things usually close up in Germany).

I arrived at the hotel and found the staff to be very pleasant. I had called ahead of time to let them know that I would be coming in later; they have reception until 6 pm and if one will arrive after that time, one must call ahead to make arrangements. The lobby was cramped and the "front reception desk" was literally just a desk shoved into the lobby, with papers strewn all over it. The reservation was written in a book.

The room was, to be blunt, awful. It was very smoky and beneath that smell lingered the smell of mold. My eyes instantly started watering and the sneezing followed it. I aired out the room to no avail. The faux wood baseboards around the floor were made of some sort of cardboard material and at some points it looked spongy from moisture. The comforters on the beds didn't look particularly clean, either. I crossed my fingers and hoped there weren't any critters in the room.

As if the smell of cigarette smoke and mold wasn't bad enough, to add to the fun was the smell of sewer AND mold in the bathroom. The mold was actually visible in the shower. We kept the window cracked the whole time we were there.

The walls are also paper thin. We were treated to the sound of a couple arguing in the adjacent bedroom. In addition, the hotel lacks an elevator and has very narrow, winding stairs in which some of the treads seem spongy.

I would not recommend the hotel. I was dumb enough to book it and pay 100 euros a night (well, the three of us split the amount). This experience just goes to prove that it is better to book ahead for trips...or to be really good at finding a last minute deal, which I'm not. Thankfully, we didn't find any bedbugs, but my allergies were thrown into a tizzy with the mold and cigarette smoke. I'm just glad that we were out and about most of the time and spent very little time at the hotel.

 Talk about creeeeepy! This guy was staring out at us from the wardrobe.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cat toenail clipping in Germany: just say Nein!

Some of my expat friends and I have pets here in Germany. I personally have quickly learned that what one does with one's animal in the first country might not be common, or even allowed, in the next.

Take, for example, declawing cats. It is allowed (but sometimes controversial) in the US but is definitely not allowed in Germany. Imagine the weird looks when I told potential landlords during my apartment search that Moo was declawed. I kept getting these strange looks and thought that maybe it was a language barrier and I wasn't explaining it correctly. In the US, some apartments only allow declawed cats. I received Moo as an adult cat in the US and he had already been declawed. Once I realized that declawing was illegal in Germany, I stopped telling them that my cat had been (legally) "mutilated" in the US. Instead, I told them that he is a good cat and he doesn't ruin things. I figured that would cover all the basis, and it's true. I mean, once in a while, he does run around the apartment and bunches up a throw rug as a result, but that's easily fixed.

Here's another cultural difference: my friend was told that Germans don't clip their cats' toenails (usually). By clipping, I mean just using cat nail clippers to remove the extra tips of the nails that might grow too long into the cat's pads on its feet. I was curious if this is true, so I asked a German colleague. She said that she doesn't trim her cat's toenails, either, and she doesn't know anyone else who does. She has a scratching post and that keeps their nails short enough.

This was very interesting to me. In the US, it seems pretty common to use nail clippers on a cat, even with a scratching post. One of my friends has to do this because the cat's dewclaws, when grown too long, start to curl into the pads of the cat's feet. This is even a cat who uses the scratching post regularly.

In my own experience, I am a "bad" cat owner by US standards, but a "normal" cat owner by German standards. Moo was declawed on his front paws so he does still have back claws. I used to trim them but noticed that he would chew on them himself. I stopped trimming his toenails as a test and have not trimmed them since. He hasn't had any problems. I would imagine it depends on the cat; a friend in the US definitely has to trim her cat's toenails or the poor cat is uncomfortable because of the way they grow.

I asked about trimming dogs' toenails, and my colleague said that people do trim those.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Restaurant Review: Heller's, Mannheim, Germany

N 7, 13-15
(between Wasserturm and Hauptbahnhof)
68161 Mannheim

Oh my deliciousness. Seriously. I visited Heller's restaurant in March when visiting Mannheim with some friends.  I had heard good things about this vegetarian and vegan buffet restaurant where diners choose from an extensive buffet of hot and cold salads, mains, and side dishes and then pay by weight.

Half of the dishes available were a huge assortment of cold salads and the other half were cooked items and soups. There are global offerings with Middle Eastern, Indian, and other types of dishes on offer. There were desserts in the buffet and there is another section where there are cakes and other desserts available.

I filled two plates for around 11 euros and loved everything. My two friends, who are usually meat eaters, were really happy with their non-meat choices, too. The restaurant was jam-packed on a Saturday but we did find a seat. I can't wait to go back!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Moo takes further liberties

Moo has taken many liberties of helping himself to whatever he would like over the course of his life, including during the incident with my freshly laundered sheets.

I was organizing my reusable shopping bags (a must in Germany, those bags!) and left the room for a short time. When I returned, this is what I saw:

One day, I came home to this horrible sight:

I did NOT leave the rug looking like that. Apparently someone got a bad case of the "zips" and was running through the apartment.

This cat is absolutely incorrigible!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

American food in other countries: London, England

I saw these packages of Mint M&Ms for sale in London. They are £9.99 per bag. In the US they sell for about $3 per bag for the same size. Whoa! Super expensive M&Ms, Batman.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Keeping your cool when there is no air conditioning

One thing that I have missed since I moved to Germany is air conditioning. It doesn't get hot all the time, but when it does, it can be pretty miserable without air conditioning. There isn't much air conditioning around; even many stores and restaurants don't have it. A friend went to a concert and some people passed out from how hot it was in the concert venue, which not only was lacking air conditioning, but also seemed to have very little ventilation.

Apartments and houses usually don't have built-in air conditioning, either. Here are some hints for dealing with the heat:

-during the day, keep the rolladen closed (shutters); this helps to keep the sunlight out and the heat down;
-sit in front of a fan;
-at night, when it's cooler, open the windows wide to allow cool air to come in; putting a fan by the window pulls in the cooler air;
-go to the local swimming pool for a dip in the water. A friend and I went to the Warmfreibad and found that it was not warm, nor was it free, but it was certainly refreshing!;
-if you just can't stand it any more, there are portable, upright air conditioning units available for purchase. I haven't really seen any removable window units.

Moo demonstrates how to stay cool when it's hot: stay in a darkened room and lounge around in front of the fan. Laser beam eyes are optional.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I thought I moved out of the countryside

I was in downtown Stuttgart and saw a very strange sight:

Yes, there are ATVs in the city. I've seen people driving around on ATVs, just like they would ride a motorcycle. I've even seen them on the highway! They are actually street legal, provided they have the proper equipment, such as turn signals, etc.

Somehow, I feel as if I haven't left my previous home in the country behind; however, I never saw people riding ATVs on the main roads in the US.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

London Trip: Day 4 (July 7), heading back home

Our last day in London ended up being a relaxed day in which we gave ourselves plenty of time to arrive at the airport, which was a good thing! It was also a special day because we had breakfast with my British friend G., whom I had last seen thirteen years before.

It was a lovely reunion for us; the last time we had seen each other was when we went out for some goodbye drinks when I was leaving my semester of studying abroad in a suburb of London. G. and I had met when we were both vacationing in Paris and found out that we only lived 20 minutes from each other in the London suburbs. G. and I hung out some more when we both got back to England. I hadn't seen him since then, but we kept in touch despite his move to Asia and then back to England and my moves all over the place.

Thirteen years later, we are quintessentially the same people at heart, but we have definitely changed and grown up and learned so much more since we were in our early 20s when we first met. We had some laughs at some of the ridiculous adventures we had enjoyed, and also shared good conversation with C.

We enjoyed our lunch at The Olive Garden (not related to the American chain!) in Southfields, but all good things have to come to an end so we said goodbye to G. and boarded the Tube for the airport.

Here's where my travel advice comes in: always give yourself a lot of time to make connections and to get to the airport! I've missed a train once from Paris to Brussels (and had to pay what I call the "stupid tax," which was buying a new ticket -- very expensive!) and a flight to Seattle (thank you, Southwest, for just putting me on the next flight with no stupid tax). Therefore, I am a bit sensitive about arriving early.

C. and I were very lucky that we gave ourselves extra time to get back to Heathrow. The Tube has different stops for Heathrow's different terminals. We didn't remember which terminal we needed and ended up missing the stop for our terminal. We got out of the train and had to look at the listing at the station to see what terminals and air carriers were available at each stop. This wasn't listed inside the train, so it's important to look this up ahead of time; learn from our mistake! It took us about 10-15 minutes to get another train and make the circuit around to the correct stop.  Thank goodness that we had allowed extra time!

Our flight home was uneventful. I had a pleasant surprise when I turned on my phone. My friend D. had stayed at my apartment to watch Moo and he had texted some photos of Moo. They were super cute; Moo loves Mr. D. and I'm very glad he had such a great Moositter.

Mr. D and Moo had a guys' weekend when I was in London.

I took the ICE train home to Kaiserslautern from the airport and then walked home from the train station. It felt good to be back in my quiet, "small" German city after being in the hustle and bustle of London. The long weekend had been an enjoyable mix of art, culture, candy, Mexican food, and friends old and new.

Fastnacht...in July! Not really

I've been meaning write about this for eons, or at least, since February. Here are a few pictures from Sunday, February 10 in Wiesbaden when some friends and I drove up for the Fastnacht parade. I've been behind on writing about it because there is so much to the Karneval/Fasching/Fastnacht (the name varies depending on the region) season. Instead of trying to explain it extensively, I'll just post a little bit. All of these celebrations are part of the pre-Lenten season, which lasts from November 11 (the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour and minute usually marks the beginning) until the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. 
Our trip to Wiesbaden was my first celebration for this. Since I was still pretty new in the country at that point and was busy with apartment hunting and waiting for my car to arrive, it was the only parade I visited. Next year, I hope to go to more (and will dress up and act a bit silly at one, I hope).

Before the parade started, a guy pushed a pretzel cart along. The pretzels were available for purchase. Following him, people dressed in fake jail suits were pushing a bar made to look like a jail on wheels. Their booze was just for them ;)
 When the parade did get started, people in wild costumes walked by. Many people, bystanders and parade participants alike, were drinking a bit. However, it was actually a rather family friendly parade, for the most part. Drinking in public is more accepted here. In fact, these ladies dressed like wolves and pushing a baby carriage even had a few nips here and there.

I was extremely amused by a marching band. They actually all stopped playing so they could have take a few shots! That's so unlike the US. Everyone was enjoying themselves in a civil manner.
Part of the fun is shouting "helau!" It's kind of a cutesy way to say "hello" for Fastnacht/Fasching. People on the floats and the MC would shout it and everyone would shout it back, sometimes chanting it. I love carrying on and being silly so of course I loved hollering "helau!"

I've heard that in Ramstein, people yell "Ralau!," you know, with an R, for Ramstein, and Kaiserslautern has "Kalau!" I need to go and hear these things for myself next year.

Here's some "Helau"-ing but it's a bit hard to hear.

Dressing up in costumes is a big part of these parades and celebrations. Many of the costumes either are part of political satire or folklore. Some witches walked through the parade; their costumes are something about driving winter out, or evil, or whatever.

Either way, we froze our buns off, yelled ourselves almost hoarse with many "Helaus," and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. I'm looking forward to many more parades next year. Heck, the fun starts again in November, so I don't have that long to wait.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Seen in Paris

From our February trip to Paris:

You say tarte flambée; I say Flammkuchen. Seen at Lidl.

 Seen at a furniture store. Don't the footstools like like something out of a Dr. Seuss book? I half expected eyes to pop out through the fur and the stools to start running around.

Friday, July 12, 2013

London trip: Day 3 (July 6), Camden Market

Day three saw quite warm weather for us as we prepared to visit one of my favorite places in London: Camden Market. How it has grown since the last time I was in town! Camden Market is located at the Camden Town Tube stop. It's a combination of stores, outdoor market, and an indoor market hall over the span of quite a few city blocks.

It was absolutely packed and quite hot in the sun. As we walked down the road from the Tube stop, we visited some stores. There are mostly knockoff clothes and shoes, though some real versions exist. C. found a really cute shirt for 10 pounds in one store. We then stopped by the open air market, which had even more knockoffs of different brands. Many of the vendors were selling the same design of shirts. Don't let that dissuade you, though!

Cross a side street but stay on the same side of the road along a canal, and there are more stalls as well as some food vendors. We stopped by an adorable little hut  that contained Mimi's Cupcakes. I loved everything about the little hut; I liked the kitschy, homemade signs (that looked like something made for a school project); the super tasty cupcakes; and even the business model: it is family run! The guy behind the counter is the son of Mimi, who bakes all the cupcakes at home. How sweet (hehe) is that? He was super friendly and happy to tell us about the cupcakes. We also had a nice chat about travel. C. and I bought some of the "fairy cakes," which I would just call mini cupcakes. I especially enjoyed the lime cupcake. Totally delish. It made me think of a bake sale at home, except with gourmet cupcakes. It's worth a stop and it's always nice to support family-run businesses :)

Opposite from the stalls along the canal and just before the traffic bridge, there is another block that contains food vendors as well as a market hall. The food vendors are superb and offer just about any type of food a person could want, from Indian food to Ethiopian food and everywhere in between. Plus, prices are rather reasonable for what basically amounts to street vendor food.

The market hall has some great vendors; most are selling hand-crafted items, such as bent wire jewelry, which was quite nice.

View of the market hall.
We had been visiting the market for hours, enjoyed some cupcakes and a spot of lunch. However, it was so hot and the crowds were getting to us so we decided to move on to the Tate Britain. Just as we were leaving, I saw a really cool store: Namaste. I've been wanting to buy some Indian textiles for my apartment since I like the designs and colors. This store had some great, inexpensive items so I bought a bed cover and some pillow covers. I was all set to buy the stuffing for the pillows since it was so reasonably priced, but then C. reined me back into reality and asked me if I'd have room in my luggage. One bag travel is great...if one doesn't buy too many things!

We finally dragged ourselves away from Camden Town and visited the Tate Britain Museum. We did a lot of sitting to enjoy the art...and to try to rest our aching legs and feet. After 3 days of non-stop walking and adventures, we were so exhausted. We decided to call it an early evening so we practically crawled back to where we were staying, had a quick dinner, and an early evening.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Danger on Day 1 in London: The M&Ms store

There was only section that actually sold M&Ms; the rest of the store was souvenir junk.
On our first night of the London trip, we had a little time to kill after dinner and before seeing Spamalot. We were in Leceister Square and I suggested we check out the M&Ms store. I'm not sure why I thought that would be a good idea since it was this horrible, swirling mess of tourists/kids/tourists/kids.

It was actually rather creepy (to me, at least). When one walks in, there is a blast of "chocolatey" air. I have heard that some stores actually blast artificial scents and perfumes, both in the food and non-food areas. This blast of air was creepy because it was that total fake chocolate smell that really didn't smell like chocolate at all. Plus, the store was mostly toys and t-shirts so it wasn't even like there were that many chocolates there anyway.

Another creepy part was the tv monitors that one could look at and see what was going on all over the store. It was meant to be kitschy but it was a little bit too "Big Brother" for me.

To top off our experience, I tripped going UP the stairs and scraped my foot. Sigh. After all of that, we didn't buy any M&Ms. In fact, I don't really even like them, so I'm not sure why we went into the store at all! It was a trip doomed from the start.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A little bit of my old hood! Yay!

Saw this new Google ad. Usually I'm all like, no thank you, ads. This time, I was all like, yay! It's set in Detroit and I'm thrilled that it showed some of the non-NY Times-reviewed type places of Detroit, too. Well, Lafayette Coney Island is on the lists, but it's also a small place so I don't mind it being included.

London trip: Day 2 (July 5)

Friday was the big day of our trip. By the end of it, we were dragging our feet; it was the typical American vacation in which we crammed as much into the day as we could and we were tired.

C. and I started our day by visiting one of my favorite London museums, the Tate Modern. Admission is free to most of the museum (as it is with many of the museums in London) and we were treated to a free tour of the "Transformed Visions" gallery, as well. Many of the museums in town offer free or cheap tours of the collections, so it's a great way to get to know the art better. The tour was very good; the guide was extremely knowledgeable as he highlighted some works from the collection.

After the tour, we crossed the river via the Millennium Bridge. The last time I saw this bridge, it wasn't actually usable because the new millennium had just occurred, the bridge was new, and it swayed too much as pedestrians walked across it. Since then, the bridge has been fixed and it has since reopened to the public. We decided to stroll along and see where our adventures took us.

The next thing we knew, we were inside Hardy's Original Sweet Shop and were oohing and ahhing over the huge selection of English, and even American, candies. C. had been looking for some jelly babies, which are gummi sweets, which she found there. Wine gums were also available; they remind me of Jujubes, those chewy, gummi-esque candies that always threaten to pull out fillings. The clerk gave us a trial of rhubarb/custard hard candies. I was hooked and bought some of those as well as some cherry cola bon bons and some other interesting flavors. I bought a small bag of candies for about two pounds. Prices were reasonable and I would have chosen some more of the interesting flavors but a line was developing and I'm sure my teeth appreciate a limit on the candy.

From there we continued on toward Kensington Park and were totally distracted by the Urban Outfitters store. I wanted to stop in to look at their gag gifts. Well, we got sucked into the vortex of the interesting books they had. After some time passed, we realized that it was very close to the time on our tickets for entry into the David Bowie exhibit at the V&A so we pried ourselves away from the books.

The exhibit, David Bowie Is, was very interesting, and quite busy, as well. It was necessary to pre-purchase tickets because of the crowds; we purchased our tickets the day before. I really didn't know much about Bowie except for some ancillary "knowledge" gained through listening to songs from Flight of the Conchords. I found the exhibit fascinating and I wanted to listen to more of his music. It's so strange to me that Bowie is a contemporary of my mom; I was joking with C. and said that they were about the same age but my mom hasn't done half the cool stuff that Bowie has done. We wandered through the exhibit for about two hours.

After that, we limped on toward the South Bank (we had just about walked our legs off!) for dinner and some cabaret at the London Wonderground, part of the Udderbelly Festival. We were tired and didn't feel like walking far, so we ate dinner at EAT, which is somewhat of a cross between a deli, a small bakery, and a coffee shop. Most of the food was in the cold deli section but some warm meals were available, too. I ordered sweet potato chili soup, which was smooth and filling with a hint of spice. C. ordered mashed potatoes with gravy and a steak pie. She said both were delicious.

With sore legs but full tummies, we hobbled over to the Udder Belly Festival for that evening's entertainment, the London Wonderground. I asked for some directions and was told to walk through the "dodgems." I was completely confused until I saw the area being referenced; the show was set up in what looked like a carnival tent in the middle of a wooden floor with (what I would call) bumper cars. The bumper cars, or dodgems, were actually seating for the bar area. How clever!  I love the set up of the whole thing; it was very old timey looking with wooden floors and old fashioned posters.

The cabaret show, Friday Night Freakshow, was fun. The MC started the show by singing Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana in a lounge act style, which actually sounded quite good. We were then entertained by international comics, a hula hooper, bawdy singers, and more. C. had suggested the show because she knew how much I enjoyed the Detroit arts and entertainment scene, which has many performances like this. I definitely appreciated her suggestion.

It had been a very long, but enjoyable day. We were quite tired and sore so after the show we took the Tube back to the homestay.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

London trip: Day 1 (July 4), continued

After we dropped our bags off and giggled at the motorcycle with the piece of paper for a license plate, we left for our adventures that afternoon.

The main purpose of this trip was to see the David Bowie exhibit at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum. It has been a very popular exhibit and sometimes the tickets sell out. On Thursday afternoon, we were able to purchase tickets for entry on Friday evening, when the museum had late opening hours. It's not a bad idea to either pre-purchase tickets before one's trip or buy them several days before while on the ground for popular events; it would be very disappointing to travel all that way to see something special and then be turned away because of the crowds!
That's SOME pig, Harrod's!

We then walked down to Harrod's, which is a famous luxury department store and the biggest in Europe, just down the road. I've spent a lot of time in London when I was studying abroad in college, and I've been to the store several times, but it's always nice to make a stop and enjoy the opulence and the diversity of fine products, from department store offerings to restaurants and delis with gourmet food.

Ceiling tile in Harrod's

We were oohing and ahhing a bit too much over the fine deli selections and realized we were hungry so it was off to dinner. I suggested one of my favorite restaurants from my study abroad time in London: Chiquito, in Leicester Square (pronounced "Lester"). It's a TexMex restaurant. After having German "Mexican" food with Pakistani spices, I was excited to move onto the British version, which at least tastes closer to the American take on Mexican food (if any of that makes sense!).

The food there was good, as I had remembered it; I ordered some enchiladas, with two filled with a bean mix (beans that were whole) and one with pulled BBQ pork. Neither filling is super authentic, but it tasted really good, including the pulled pork. Normally I don't eat meat, but once in a while I'll eat pork, and this was quite delicious, with full flavor and roasted perfectly. C. ordered something with chorizo and said that it was good as well, and the chorizo actually tasted like chorizo. I know that may sound strange, but we've found that how we know something to taste in the US doesn't necessarily taste the same in other countries. She even had some corn on the cob! It's so refreshing to see corn ON the cob and not IN weird places (that I feel it doesn't belong), such as on top of pizza or on a lettuce salad, as the Germans do it.

My enchiladas even had flags to mark the way!

The only downside to our dinner was that the service was quite bad. It seemed that our waiter kept changing and everyone was confused. My friend received the incorrect drink and the waiter had to take it back and get her the correct one. Waiters tried to bring us the wrong food and when we asked for a refill on the water (oh, glorious, free tap water!), it never came so we had to ask again. Service had never been bad like this when I came here in my college days, so I wonder if they had mostly new staff. We heard diners at another table also comment that the food was good but the service was bad. It didn't ruin the meal by any means, but it was a bit of a mess.

After dinner, we decided to take in a show. We saw Monty Python's Spamalot, which is a derivative of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, at the Playhouse Theater. The play was very amusing, and was a condensed version of the movie and included some songs from other Monty Python movies. The actors even ad libbed a bit; the Knights Who Say Ni stopped saying Ni and started singing the Star Spangled Banner instead at one point. The audience joined in and, judging by how many people knew the song, there must have been a good number of Americans in the crowd. We were all wished a happy fourth of July and then the play continued. 

The Playhouse Theater, built in 1882, was quite crazy. We bought our tickets for 25 pounds in the "nosebleed" section, the upper circle. However, I think it would have been more accurately called the "feel like you're going to fall to your death" section! Maybe that's a bit dramatic, but the seating was extremely steep and narrow. The rows of seating were so narrow that I'm not sure how easy it would have been to climb over people to get to one's seat; C and I actually went to the empty row behind where we were sitting and climbed over the seats to get in. Our knees were almost touching the heads of the people in front of us. I can't even imagine how women in their big hoop skirts of the 1800s would have been able to get to their seats (though the seating has probably changed over the century, I would assume). When we first sat down, I had to fight some feelings of vertigo; the seats are so steep that it felt as if I were leaning over a ledge and looking down. When I got home, I read reviews and saw that other sections weren't so bad. I just wouldn't recommend the upper circle. Anyone afraid of heights or not as physically able would find it difficult to get around there. Also, it was quite hot and there was very little to no air circulation, even though it hadn't been a hot day.

We made it through the play, laughing all the way. I commented that it was a bit ironic that we celebrated our country's independence by visiting the country from which it gained the independence. It was definitely a funny and delicious evening, and walking to the Tube stop was a good way to cool off after sitting in the hot theater.

Monday, July 8, 2013

London trip: Day 1 (July 4): Getting and staying there

My friend C. invited me along for a trip to London for a long weekend. I love trips and I love London, so I immediately agreed.

I was charged with finding us lodging since my friend found us a good flight, and was that ever an undertaking! I usually travel on the off season so it really didn't dawn on me that it could be difficult to find a place to stay during the height of tourist season. I spent about three hours on the weekend collecting information on places to stay and I spent an hour calling places. Out of the 15 places I had identified as possibilities, only one hotel had a vacancy and one bed and breakfast knew of a possible homestay situation, which is similar to a bed and breakfast but not as commercial; someone rents out space in her home.

We ended up at the homestay and paid 85 pounds a night with a continental breakfast included for both of us. For last minute accommodation, it was an okay price for a twin room, and it was two stops on the Tube to Wimbledon. Somehow, we chose the Wimbledon weekend so we we were lucky to have found a place as everything was a madhouse. One of these days, I will actually plan a trip out farther ahead so there's not a mad scramble at the end to find places.

We flew with British Airways from Frankfurt. The flight there was awesome; we had center seats and there were only two of them per row so it was quite comfortable. We were even given the little packet of a sleeping mask, a toothbrush, and socks. I felt so posh.

From the Heathrow Airport, we were able to take the Tube, or the London Underground (subway), into central London. If one plans to ride the Tube multiple times per day, it usually makes the most sense, cost wise, to buy a travel card. They are available for one, seven, or thirty days of travel. I did the math and because we were going to be there for four days, it was the most cost effective to buy a travel card for seven days instead of buying it per individual day for four days. We also had to buy a ticket to get from Heathrow (zone 6) to where we were staying in zone 3. It made no sense to buy a more expensive travel card for zones 1-6 for the whole weekend when we'd only be using zone 6 for two journeys on the tube.

It is necessary to decide what zones you'll be traveling in; the more zones you cross, the more the card will be. We stayed in zone 3 but planned to sight see in zones 1-2, but to get home at the end of the day, we needed to include zone 3. The problem is that when we bought the travel cards, the guy at the counter didn't ask us what zones we wanted and only gave us zones 1-2. We realized the mistake later when a negative balance appeared on the gates as we were leaving the Tube after we had entered zone 3. We rectified that by going to the customer service window the next morning and the clerk sorted everything out and we paid for the additional zone. So, when getting transportation tickets, make sure they're for the correct zones! The London Transport website has great maps and information about fares to figure this all out and it's really quite easier than I'm making it sound. I recommend figuring it out before arriving to allow for a less stressful commute.

It took more than an hour to take the Tube from Heathrow to the stop near Wimbledon, where we were staying. It isn't that far of a distance but the journey requires changing lines and there are many stops along the way. Once we arrived at the homestay, we met the owner, dropped off our luggage, received the key, and were on our way.

We saw this motorcycle parked on the road and had a laugh. It was missing its license plate so the owner scribbled the plate number on a piece of paper and stuck it on! I'm not sure that the police would be too amused by that one.

German bachelor and bachelorette parties

When walking around a bigger city on the weekend, it's not uncommon to see German bachelor and bachelorette parties descending upon the city. They are quite a sight to behold! I've seen women dressed in matching white shirts with pink ties; women in matching coats; men in matching shirts that reference the upcoming loss of freedom; and other silly get-ups.

The night is all about teasing the bride and groom to be, but separately, of course. When I was in Heidelberg, I came across a bachelorette/hen party, or, in German, a Junggesellinnenabschied (JGA). I was trying not to giggle like crazy because the bride to be was dressed up in a silly costume. She had to sell items to those passing by. I was told that the money she made from that was used to buy drinks later in the night.

The future groom isn't spared from embarrassment, either, during his Junggesellenabschied (JGA). When I was in Stuttgart, I saw a group of men encouraging bystanders to pay to kick a soccer ball through the groom's costume in order to win a prize. Unfortunately, sometimes the kicker missed, to the groom's discomfort. I've also seen a grown man dressed in a bunny suit, handing out carrots. It's quite funny to see such things!

Anger & dirndls: Angermaier, Stuttgart


No, no one's angry yet, or at least, not until one realizes just how expensive the clothes can be. I was visiting Stuttgart and was surprised to see a store, Angermaier, featuring dirndls and lederhosen. My travel companion R. made a good point: Stuttgart has a large Oktoberfest, so it's not that surprising that there would be a store featuring such traditional wear. The pieces were beautiful and well-made. Don't expect some cheap knock-off costumes; items in the store range from several hundred dollars to the thousand dollar range.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dining in the Ikea showroom: is this a test?

After I finally found my apartment, I started making the almost requisite trips to Ikea to finish kitting out my apartment. During one trip to the Ikea in Saarlouis, my travel partner B and I came across a strange sight: in the middle of the display of kitchen tables, there was a buffet set up with a sign encouraging people to eat dinner! I'm not talking about this being near the cafe, where people often dine in Ikea; this was actually in the showroom.

A couple was sitting at the table, dining on some pasta. When we passed by again later, the table was empty and we were tempted to try some of the pasta because the sign there suggested it. However, it seemed just too weird to us so we chickened out. I was wondering if it were some sort of experiment or if there was a hidden camera. B. wondered so too.

Of course, it could have just been a customer appreciation thing, but I'm too mistrustful to believe that. If you've seen this or know more about it, be sure to comment!

Friday, July 5, 2013

The water, he does that

I had to call a maintenance person to fix the sink at work. A German gentleman turned up so I showed him the leaky sink. He explained the problem, and as he was describing it in English, he'd say things like, "the water, when he comes out of the tap, he does..."

Every time the maintenance guy said "he," referring to the water, I had to try to keep from twitching my lips into a smile. I had this image of a stream of water with eyes and arms, bopping around in the sink, since it was a "he" and not an inanimate "it." It was all I could do to keep from giggling (my dang imagination was getting me into trouble again!).

Luckily enough, I kept it together to finish talking and not start giggling uncontrollably. I also know exactly why the guy was calling the water "he;" in German, all words have a gender, even for things that aren't alive. When a person uses a pronoun in place of the noun he had been using, he would need to match the pronoun to the gender of the word. So, for example, if one were talking about "die Lampe" (the lamp, feminine), and then went to refer to the lamp using the pronoun in German, it would be "sie," which is "she," instead of just calling the lamp an "it." For English speakers, myself definitely included, this can seem a little strange at first.

The odd thing about the conversation with this man was that he called the water a "he." In German, it's "das Wasser," which is neuter. I'm not sure why he did that, but he did seem a bit rattled to have to talk to me in English so maybe he just mixed it up a bit.

Ich bin Wasser!

This is my extremely talented rendition of what I somewhat envisioned of Mr. Wasser. I created it on an online drawing website because I was feeling lazy. Someone commented on it in German, saying that he thought it was "ein blauer Baum," a blue tree. I found that rather amusing.