Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Saturday in Berlin

Monday was a holiday here (and back home) so we spent the long weekend traveling. This time we decided to stay in Deutschland and make our way to Berlin. We also spiced things up a bit by driving rather than taking the train. This was a good idea in theory. I imagined us ambling through the beautiful German countryside, taking a scenic route from village to village. The reality was that we spent six harrowing hours in traffic on the Autobahn. My husband took this opportunity (as any red-blooded American would) to put the pedal to the metal and pretend he was at the Nurburgring.

We arrived in Berlin around 2:30pm Saturday. Our hotel was perfectly situated on the Spree river, a 2-minute walk to the train station, and a 5-minute walk to lovely Tiergarten. The friendly staff were knowledgeable and attentive. Parking and breakfast were free, bringing the grand total to 200 Euros for 3 nights-- a truly amazing value. We will be staying at Hotel Hansablick again.

Brandenburg Gate
After dropping off our luggage, we bought metro passes from the hotel (another invaluable convenience) and took the train to the Brandenburg Gate. The Pariser Platz (Paris Square) was overcrowded with tour guides wrangling their groups, jugglers, musicians, and what seemed like hundreds of amateur photographers seeking the best angle of the Brandenburg Gate.

On the long drive to Berlin, I recalled that it was the site of the infamous baby-dangling incident by Michael Jackson. I Googled the hotel and my husband exclaimed, "That's where our dinner reservations are tonight!" I immediately replied, "You made dinner reservations at a hotel where Michael Jackson was a guest? Did you check the prices? Can we afford it?!" He assured me that we were dining in the cafe portion of the hotel, purported to be the least expensive dining option at Hotel Adlon.

Our reservations were for 8pm and the day was quickly drawing to a close. We decided to walk back to Hotel Hansablick through Tiergarten. Tiergarten is the Central Park of Berlin. It's a lush, lovely sanctuary in the middle of the city. You don't have to walk too deep into the park before the noises of traffic fade, exchanged for chirping birds and the sound of runners' feet hitting the trails. The 40-minute walk was refreshing and pleasant.

Back at the hotel, we readied ourselves for dinner and hopped on the train to go back to Hotel Adlon. We were delighted to be sat outside, with the Brandenburg Gate looming in front of us and the American Embassy to our left. Menus were handed to us and the happy feeling I had quickly subsided. A glass of wine was 11 Euros. ONE glass! Other offerings on the menu didn't assuage my panic. Six oysters for 22 Euros, a cup of soup for 16 Euros, a cheese board for 30 Euros. Perhaps we should have expected this, but reviewers on TripAdvisor claimed that dinner was "reasonably priced." I think our definitions of "reasonably" differ dramatically.

Pariser Platz and Hotel Adlon
We reasoned that since we were saving so much by staying at Hotel Hansablick, a splurge dinner would be okay. We ordered a bottle of wine (39 Euros-- not too bad) and two small entrees. My husband had  tuna sashimi and I chose a pasta dish with salmon. Our food arrived quickly and it didn't take long to understand why. Five or six pieces of sashimi were centered on an enormous white platter for my husband. As for my dish, it had just come from the microwave. At least the wine was good.

The only way to justify the price of this food is the location: dining on the square facing Brandenburg Gate is a unique experience. And the scenery wasn't limited to historical monuments. At one point, a pristine Bentley cruised into the no-driving zone in front of the hotel. The driver, a sprightly white-haired gentleman, drove forward and then did a 3-point turn in front of the cafe in order to situate the car better (or, more likely, to make sure everyone noticed him and his transportation). I noticed a young woman sitting in the passenger seat and assumed it must be his daughter. She looked like a prettier version of Barbie. Once the car was "parked," the pair got out and began walking toward an unmarked entrance. Suddenly Barbie turned to the side and I caught a glimpse of her very-pregnant belly. It was perfect, like a little basketball. She was dressed in hot pink and her husband/boyfriend/sugar daddy had a pink cardigan tossed over his shoulders to match. By now, everyone at the restaurant was mesmerized by the scene. The couple stayed in the building for about 20 minutes. Their exit was also grand. Sugar Daddy gallantly opened the door for his trophy and they zoomed away from the Gate in the Bentley. Who lives like this? Who are these people?

We caught snippets of conversation from the couple at the next table. I can't be entirely certain of their story, but I think they either made it big in the oil business in Texas or just won the lottery. After watching the couple leave, the man remarked, "Well, I just wonder who they might be! Did ya get a picture?"
His Texas-big-haired wife looked over her shoulder toward me and said, "Yeah, I betcha you can sell it to the Enquirer!" Her husband softly belched and patted his belly.

We all finished our dinners at the same time and enjoyed a polite exchange as we left.
"Well," said the man, "you can try to run the license plate and see who the driver of that Bentley is!"
"Maybe he owns this hotel?" I helpfully suggested.
"Well, who knows!" he said.

All four of us stood awkwardly for a few beats and then the new Powerball champion audaciously proclaimed, "Well kids, we'll be going inside. We're staying at this hotel." We moved aside as the Beverly Hillbillies went up to their room at the Hotel Adlon, no doubt hoping to run into Barack Obama or Madonna in the lobby.

During his research of Berlin, my husband found several unique things for us to do. One place he wanted to try was a hip little nightspot called Cookies and Cream. It was well-hidden. After a 5-minute walk, we found our way to the back entrance and stepped inside to a dark hallway illuminated by a smattering of neon lights.  We walked up some stairs to the bar and were impressed by the alcoves of smartly-upholstered booths and chic clientele. The bartenders were fun, interesting, and skilled. The drink menu was extensive and inventive; a perfect experience until an uninvited stranger crashed our party.

I smelled him before I saw him. The scent of patchouli and tobacco reached me before Norman took the stool right beside me. He proceeded to order a Becks and as soon as his friends left to find an ATM, he latched on to us. He proceeded to tell us how he went to Cookies and Cream before it was in its present location. "The old one was better!" he exclaimed. The bartenders rolled their eyes.

Norman rambled on about how he once was poor and now he's rich. He frequently goes to Thailand and dates lots of women there. I asked why he hasn't found the right woman and he incredulously replied, "Me? I am 36-years-old and I am still living the life! Why do I stop? I will just go to Thailand again."
"Have you ever visited America?"
"No, no. Why do I ever leave Berlin? BUT, if I did ever visit America... I know where I would want to go."
"Where? New York? Miami? Los Angeles?"
"No," Norman replied seriously. "I would go to the Burning Man. And there I'm sure I would find a woman."

At this point, I decided it was time for a bathroom break. To reach the facilities, you must walk all the way around the dimly-lit bar, find the staircase, and then descend into more darkness without a railing. I had already successfully accomplished this an hour before but now the bar was much more crowded and I was saturated by a few more drinks. I made my way past a group of people standing behind us and as I confidently stepped around the bar, I missed a crucial step where the floor dips. I began a slow-motion fall and flailed my arms out to grab onto the bar's counter. As I pulled myself up, a bartender who must have just started his shift shouted, "Way to make an entrance, girl!" Sheepishly, I laughed and said, "At least I recovered well, right!"
"For sure!" he said.

I didn't dare look back as I gingerly walked down the stairs. When it was time for me to begin the treacherous ascent, I took a deep breath and told myself that no one could have possibly been watching as I fell. Having restored my confidence, I bolted up the last few steps and began walking toward my husband. Suddenly an arm shot out from the darkness and a male voice said, "Hey, I saw you fall earlier."
I was sure I misheard the man and replied, "Oh... I didn't... fall...?"
"Yeah, I saw. I mean, you didn't fall fall, but you definitely stumbled."
To change the subject, I asked if he was American since his English was perfect. He told me he'd lived in America for ten years and was now back in Berlin permanently.
"Well, nice meeting you then," I said.
"You too," he replied.

By now, Norman's friends had returned from the ATM and things were getting more and more ridiculous. He was trying to tell us where Berliners go to sunbathe naked and the best places to purchase/use hardcore drugs. We made our clandestine exit while his back was turned and this time I didn't fall.

We found ourselves in the quiet alley behind the club. We looked back one last time at the inconspicuous Cookies and Cream sign and left behind a very strange club experience.

More fun was scheduled for the next day, beginning with a free walking tour of the city and ending with a picnic in Mauerpark.

Berlin definitely had more surprises in store for us.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hasta Luego, Mallorca

We awoke early on our final day in Mallorca. We enjoyed a nice breakfast and then donned our bathing suits for a few hours of swimming. Our relaxed morning was complete with luxuriant massages on our private terrace. After the massage therapist left, we lounged on the chaises sipping cava, listening to the soundtrack of birds chirping and feeling the ocean breeze.

We dragged ourselves up from our chairs and put our bathing suits on once again. We were determined to swim in the cove since it was our last day. We tentatively tested the sparkling water and to our surprise, it seemed a little warmer. We slowly waded out to waist-deep water and finally took the plunge. The water was definitely cold but not as frigid as I imagined. It was unbelievably clear and I could see schools of fish skimming the bottom. We swam far and deep and it was amazing. Yachts both small and big were anchored within reach and we briefly considered swimming to one that was flying an American flag. On second thought, we decided it might look strange for two random people to swim a great distance to the boat and announce, "We're also Americans! Let us aboard!" 

After we got our fill of swimming in the cove, we returned to the hotel and jumped back into the pool. I swam and swam, knowing that we had to wake up early the next day and trade this paradise in for unpredictable weather and much less sunshine. 

We ate dinner at the hotel later. The fish stew was delicious. When we gave our room number to the waiter he remarked, "Oh, you are leaving tomorrow?" 
"Yes," we sadly replied.
"And did you enjoy your stay?" he asked.
"Yes! It was one of the best vacations we've ever had!"
"Oh, good. I'm glad to hear this."

As we were eating dessert, he brought us two glasses of champagne and told us to enjoy them on the house, as this was our last night. I thought that was a very nice touch!

Our wake-up time for departure was 5am so we took one last walk around the property and went back to our room to pack. Once our bags were filled, we retreated to the terrace for a final look at Mallorca at night. A lightning storm in the distance illuminated both sea and sky.

5am came early and our ride to the airport was right on time. Boarding the plane home was sad not only for us but also our fellow passengers. Our sun-kissed faces were forlorn and the flight back home was much quieter than the one we had taken several days ago to reach Mallorca. 

The weather upon arrival in Eindhoven was no surprise: overcast and windy. All of us reluctantly put on our sweaters and coats and trudged to baggage claim, the faint smell of sunscreen being left behind on the tarmac.

The days we spent in Mallorca were incredible. I know there are many places left for us to see but I would go back there in a heartbeat. I can't imagine a more relaxing, beautiful place. With the unavoidable adjustment to dreary German weather, my newly-acquired freckles have faded and Mallorca is a wistful memory longing to be relived.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Our First Full Day in Mallorca

The sun begins shining in Mallorca at around 6:30 in the morning. It's difficult to sleep in after that because you want to take advantage of the full day. We were up and moving by 7:30, enjoying breakfast on another oceanfront terrace at the hotel. The buffet was distinctly German: brotchen, cold cuts of meat, smoked salmon, and lots of stuffed pastries. But I suppose we are accustomed to this by now and the coffee was strong, the fresh-squeezed orange juice mouth-watering, and the sunshine was endless so who could complain?

After breakfast we walked over to the nearby cove. It was still too early for the crowds and the turquoise water was calm and inviting. My husband walked to the edge and tentatively tested the water with his toes. His eyes bulged out of his head as he hopped back onto the sand and shouted, "COLD! IT'S SO COLD!!" Wanting to see for myself, I knelt down and ran my fingers through the water and he was right. It was frigid. We stood at the cove's edge for a few moments, contemplating our need for adventure and, conversely, the probability of hypothermia. Eventually I backed away in defeat. My brave husband psyched himself up and dipped into the water, his screams echoing off the rocks as he ran back to shore. 
"There," he gasped. "I did it." 

We gathered our things and went back to our hotel's pool. It was also chilly but nowhere near as cold as the cove. We swam for hours and lazed around the pool reading books and gazing at the sea.

Soon hunger set in and we began the trek to nearby Paguera. The walk is a little more than a mile. As we wound our way up to the village, the sea was on our right and beautiful villas nestled into the cliffs were on our left. We came to La Gran Tortuga before we reached Paguera. We followed some steps down to the restaurant and the magnificent views from the terrace convinced us to stay and eat some tapas. 

We took our seats and waited for service. Then we waited longer. Eventually a gruff-looking man emerged from the main building. He trudged over to our table and said, "Guten tag." We sheepishly replied, "Hello... sorry, we speak English." He paused for a beat, taking us in, and then said, "Hola. What you want to drink?"

The most logical beverage choice for a late lunch in Spain is sangria, of course. We gave our order and he ambled back to the kitchen. While he was gone we made our tapas selections: bacon-wrapped dates, grilled peppers, and grilled mushrooms. The waiter eventually returned with our pitcher of sangria and after he set our glasses on the table, he began walking back to the kitchen.

"Ummm, por favor?" we said. "We would like to make an order of food, please?"
He dropped his tray, sighed heavily, and said, "Yes? What would you like?"
Thinking he would be impressed by our selections, we energetically ordered the tapas and smiled broadly as we returned the menus. He walked away, glancing back once with his steely eyes.

The cool sea breeze was a nice complement to the bright sun beating down on us as we sipped sangria. Lots of yachts were anchored in the bay and we saw people jumping into the water from diving boards. We wondered what their lives are like and, more importantly, how possible it would be to casually run into them in Paguera and be invited onto their yachts. Ah, dreams.

Our waiter, who we now believed to be either in the middle of watching a good soap opera inside, or a member of the Mallorcan mafia, brought our food and plunked it down in front of us. "This looks amazing!" we exclaimed. His face and body gave no reaction as he sauntered back to the kitchen. 

The food was delicious but I'm not sure if it's ever a wise idea to eat 12 bacon-wrapped dates in one sitting. We waited a long time for our elusive garcon to reappear. We asked for the check and waited another 10 minutes. Finally he returned with our bill. We left a generous tip, hoping this might placate him. If he noticed, he didn't show it. As we left La Gran Tortuga, we wondered if the real staff were locked somewhere inside the property, horrified to know that their brusque kidnapper was the one representing their fine establishment. More likely, he was just put off by the fact that we weren't German. I can imagine him thinking to himself, "What do these people expect? I learn German for all the tourists and now here come these Americans who want me to speak English. Ay dios mio!"

Walking to Paguera
Paguera was only a few minutes' walk from La Gran Tortuga. It was bustling with German tourists and lots of restaurants featuring curry wurst and Bitburger. The main street was typical of any seaside resort: souvenir shops, ice cream stands, and tiki bars. We were overwhelmed by the commercialism and thankful that our little hotel was off the beaten path.

Back at the Hotel Petit Cala Fornells, we swam a little more and then enjoyed fabulous Mallorcan wine with our dinner of fresh salmon. 

It was an amazing end to our second evening and we looked forward to more of the same for Sunday, our last full day in Mallorca.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Magnificent Mallorca

We spent the past few days basking in sunshine, dining on tapas, and being mesmerized by a cerulean sea. Mallorca is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been and it was very difficult to climb aboard our homebound plane yesterday.

As you know, the weather here is unpredictably pleasant at its best and atrociously gloomy at its worst. Days can pass without feeling the sun's rays and an umbrella and light jacket are always on hand. I knew Mallorca would be a great place for us to escape. It was difficult to decide on a region because there are so many choices. You can stay in Palma and fully experience the vibrant beat and bright lights of the city. A less raucous atmosphere awaits in resorts perched atop majestic mountains. If solitude and nature are what you seek, why not stay on a finca (farm)? The possibilities are endless and I spent several thoughtful days scanning reviews and recommendations before deciding on the tiny resort of Cala Fornells.

Our Ryanair tickets were unbelievably priced at 89 Euros for both of us, round trip. Flight crew and fellow passengers were in celebratory moods as we lifted up and away from Eindhoven. A cheerful stewardess announced, "The crew on this flight are very happy to serve you as we make our way to Mallorca. We will be selling alcohol for one and a half hours, so get ready!" Shouts of joy echoed through the plane as passengers dusted off long-forgotten bottles of tanning lotion and slipped on flip flops.

We landed on time and were greeted in the arrivals lobby by our pre-arranged driver, a gregarious and easygoing man who provided wonderful commentary as we made our way to the hotel. As we buckled up he said, "There are two ways to go to your hotel. One is on the highway and one is by the water. I take you by the water because it is much beautiful!" Originally from Uruguay, he moved to Mallorca with his family several years ago and never looked back. As we rode, he talked about everything from the history of Mallorca to the best place to get "the most beautiful" ice cream. As we passed some yachts docked in Palma, he jovially exclaimed, "There is my boat over there!" We looked out of the window and said, "Wow, really?!"
"No," he replied, as he laughed easily. "But I wish it was so!"

We told him we're Americans living in Germany and he remarked, "Oh, well there are a lot of Germans here. In fact, Cala Fornells is one of their major hubs." During my research, it was evident that Mallorca is a favored vacation spot for Germans. Lots of online reviewers made comments like, "The resort was nice but everything was in German. They served schitzel!" My favorite one was something like, "Lovely place to stay but you must get outside very early if you want to reserve a good lounger. Lots of Germans at this resort." I felt I was well-prepared for the brotchen and bratwurst.

We drove through the charming village of Paguera and as we rounded a corner, our driver pointed out our destination. The Hotel Petit Cala Fornells was perched on a cliff, overlooking a glorious cove on one side and the endless sea on the other. A collective gasp was shared between us and I knew I would never want to leave this place. 

We (somewhat sadly) bid adieu to the driver and eagerly made our way to the front desk.
"Guten tag," said the manager.
"Hello..." we haltingly replied.
"Ah, English? Okay, good day. Do you have a reservation?"

Being greeted in German was very strange. I think it was the first time we have truly been mistaken for German. After we checked in, our luggage was brought to us by a young man who said, "Danke," as he accepted our tip. 

Our room was impressive. All rooms at this hotel are suites and since there are only 26 altogether, each one has an ocean view with a balcony or terrace, and plenty of space for relaxing. 

We enjoyed a quick lunch and some cava on the hotel's rooftop terrace and then quickly made our way down to the magnificent saltwater swimming pools. 

We spent the next few hours swimming, going to the cove, and walking to Paguera. It was one of the best afternoons of my life. 

I have much more to say about Mallorca but I think I'll wait until manana. In Spain, everything can wait until manana. Ahhh, how I miss it!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

May Day Recollections

We've experienced our first German May Day! Interestingly, I'm no stranger to this holiday. My hometown is tiny and rural. The school celebrated May Day up until the time I entered maybe 7th or 8th grade. Looking back, I'm not sure our "tradition" made any sense except that we did have a May Pole. 

Each May Day, grades Kindergarten through sixth grade would be dismissed from our usual duties and retreat to the football field. For weeks leading up to this, we had all been practicing the dances we would perform for our parents and peers. Each grade was assigned a different dance/theme. When I was in Kindergarten, we dressed up in hula skirts and swayed our hips to a song I remember being called "The Rockin' Hula." Then we grabbed some bubbles and blew them to the beat of Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles." I didn't know until years later that the song wasn't referring to the soap bubbles coming out of our wands. Instead, all of us five-year-olds were performing to a song about the tiny bubbles that form in a glass of wine. Strange.

Mexican Hat Dance
In second grade, we performed the Mexican Hat Dance. My teacher allowed the girls to choose their own partners. I had my eye on someone but right before selection time, my "best friend" waltzed over to me and sneered, "If you pick him, I'll never be your friend again." Astonished, I watched helplessly as she sauntered over to my longtime (since first grade) crush and staked her claim. Girls are so mean to each other! Fortunately, the guy I ended up with was debonair in his own right. Who can argue with how great he looks in a sombrero?

I can't remember why, but May Day was canceled during my third grade year. It's too bad because if it had happened, my class would have dressed in a weird kind of boy-girl peasant garb and trotted around the football field to the raucous tune of "Little Brown Jug."

In fourth grade, it was a traditional square dance. The boys swung their partners 'round and 'round and of course we all dosey-doed. Fifth grade was similar. Everyone was dressed as "mountain folk" and we performed a strange, galloping dance to Alabama's "Mountain Music." 

May Court
Sixth grade was the big year. All of your elementary life was spent leading up to this May Day. Most of the sixth graders were responsible for stringing the May Pole. But six lucky girls and boys were chosen by their peers to be on the May Court. These veterans of the May Field wore huge, flowing gowns and svelte suits. They were the first ones to perform and they waltzed to Cinderella's "Once Upon a Dream." It was an awkward experience because, well, it's an awkward age. Practices often resulted in nervous fits of laughter as we avoided eye contact while we were instructed to hold onto each other. 

After we performed the dance, we were ushered off to a corner of the field where we "presided" over all of the performances. Looking back, I am both amused and befuddled by my little school's interpretation of May Day.

It's safe to say that Germany's May Day bears no resemblance to the one of my youth. Traditionally, boys spend the night before drinking and riding around in trailers pulled by tractors. Loud music blares from speakers as the guys gear up to profess their love for a lucky girl. Throughout the night, birch trees disappear  from forests. They are festooned with streamers and propped against the girls' homes. Some guys prefer instead to use beautiful heart wreaths specially-ordered from florists. 

Our Lucky Neighbor's House
I wasn't sure if I'd be able to see any of these declarations of love up close. All night long, I could hear the distant thump of music and a chorus of adolescent laughter echoing through the village. I kept looking out the window to see if there were any birch trees walking around in the darkness. Finally I decided that there must be no young girls living in our neighborhood and I went to sleep. Several hours later, lights and shadows playing over the wall awakened me. I jumped out of bed and looked out the window. I was delighted when I saw a gaggle of boys swigging Bitburgers and propping a ladder on the house across the street! I woke up my husband and we watched Romeo and his friends hang a lovely heart wreath on Juliet's house.

I continued to hear music and laughter throughout the night and when May Day morning arrived, we were once again delighted by the sights and sounds of another love-struck boy positioning his wreath on a house in our neighborhood. By now it was obvious that these suitors had spent the entire night drinking. As the tractor pulled over to let them out, I saw some stumbling around and relieving themselves on various shrubbery. Their ringleader stayed in the trailer and sang along to classic hits such as "My Heart Will Go On," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and "How Do I Live Without You." It was hilarious. 

The Love Tractor
May Day Boys

Later we went to Geilenkirchen to find the May Pole. We were disappointed to discover that the big celebration happened the previous night. We did locate the May Pole and from the looks of all the debris  cluttering the ground, it was a great party. At least we know the drill for next year.

Geilenkirchen May Pole
When we arrived home, we hopped on our bicycles and set off to find other adorned houses in our neighborhood. 

I think the entire thing is very charming. I can't imagine anything like this happening in America; an age-old tradition coupled with sanctioned underage drinking would never be permitted. If these boys were caught attaching trees or wreaths to houses in a typical American suburb, they might be met by an angry father wielding a shotgun. Here in Germany, the youth are given the green-light to profess their blossoming love. As I took photos, one mother came outside and was happy as she gazed at her daughter's birch tree. Perhaps she was fondly remembering the May Day that her husband sought out the perfect tree with which to proclaim that his heart belonged to her.

There is no contest between May Day in my hometown and May Day here. Hula skirts and square dances? No. I'd much rather have tractors and birch trees.