Everything is not okay all the time

Reichstag building, Berlin

You should always give bad news with a pretty picture: Reichstag building, Berlin

So, obviously on this blog we try to highlight awesome things we have seen, done, and eaten however this is a misrepresentation of long term travel. I’m here to tell you the truth.

Sometimes everything freaking sucks. A lot. Your 5-hour train ride is so full that you have to sit on the floor by the bathroom. You have a week transit pass and on your last day on your way to the train outta there a transit cop stops you and says your transit ticket expired yesterday. Here is your 40 Euro fine! That sight you wanted to see? Yeah, today is the one day of the week it is closed. In fact, today is the one day of the week EVERY sight is closed. (All of these things happened to us in the last week.) Everything that can go wrong does. And it stinks. And you want to call it quits and go home to your comfortable bed where everyone speaks your language, you know all of the rules, and no one is yelling at you in German.

How do I convince myself to keep going in a situation like this? Well there are a few things that do it. One: Onward travel. We have lots of onward travel already booked. Money spent months into the future that we would be wasting if we went home now. And I hate waste. Two: Places to see. Berlin may have ended with the crappiest morning that I have had in a long time, but the next places we are going all excite me. I cannot wait to discover their secrets. And if I quit, I may never get to these places. Ever. Three: Pride. This may be the dumbest reason, but possibly the most powerful. I said I was going to travel for 6 months, so I will be traveling for 6 months. I may never get to do this again. A bad day/week isn’t a good reason to give up on this amazing experience. Plus people will talk! Just kidding. Who cares what other people think? This is about not letting myself down. I can do this and I wanted to do this so badly. I just have to think back to those reasons and move forward.

And just ignore that Berlin S-Bahn fine. Right?

A lovely day trip to Bremen, Germany

“A week in Hamburg?? What are you going to do for a whole week in Hamburg?” was the response we heard from some people when we mentioned our travel plans. Well, part of what we were planning on doing for a week in Hamburg was to take day trips to smaller nearby cities. The second day trip we took was to Bremen, Germany.

Honestly, I had never heard of Bremen before Dan started doing some research into potential day trips from Hamburg. But once we decided we were going to go there, whenever I mentioned it to anyone they said “the musicians of Bremen?!”. I had no idea what they were talking about, but upon our arrival to Bremen I learned!

The Musicians of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen

This is a rooster on the back of a cat on the back of a dog on the back of a donkey. The story is a bit weird, but in the end the animals live happily ever after, and that’s a story I can get behind. See the Muppet version of the story (parts 1-6) here.

Anyway, Bremen is a short hour long train ride away from Hamburg. Once we got to Bremen, the walk to the old city was about 5 minutes. The old city, which no longer has any of its old walls or gates, is still exceptionally beautiful.

A Bremen windmill

A Bremen windmill

The old city is on an island, so we figured we would just walk around for a few hours. We had plans to watch the Bremen vs. Hamburg football match (that’s soccer to you American folks) at a beer garden somewhere in the city at 3 in the afternoon, so we have a bunch of hours to kill until then. Then, just 10 minutes into our walk we spotted these buildings across the river just outside of the old city:

Yes, that building says KABOOM! on it.

Yes, that building says KABOOM! on it.

We had to check it out. It looked like it was perhaps a comic book art exhibit, and guess what? It was! Plus, it was free admission, so we had ourselves a little bit of artsy fun! By the time we left it was after noon. Back across the river, in the old city, we spotted what looked like a craft fair.  This was no crappy NYC-style street fair, folks. People were actually making crafts right there next to the river. We saw two guys with lathes making little wooden objects. One guy was making wooden spindles for yarn. Weird and random, but fun to watch!

Then we saw a guy making rope! Actually making rope! What a nice change from the plastic stuff most people buy online, made by machines, for pennies.

Man twisting rope with his helpers while a crowd of people look on.

Man twisting rope with his helpers while a crowd of people look on.

Who knew rope-making was so fascinating??

We continued walking, Dan secretly wishing he could buy all of the awesome stuff for sale at the market, until we got to a tunnel taking you under the road back to one of the oldest parts of the city. It was about 5 minutes to 1 at that point. We walked between all of these old, beautiful buildings that have found new like as stores selling crafts and unique trinkets. Then we walked through a small square filled with people. I couldn’t figure out why they were all standing there until we heard the bells.

The Glockenspiel of Bremen.

The Glockenspiel of Bremen.

What an awesome coincidence! Bremen’s Glockenspiel played us 10 minutes of music and the tower bit on the left of the picture turns every 30 seconds or so the whole time with new images of famous Germans throughout history. It was so, so great. I especially liked that the chiming of the hour at the start of the music was actually the same exact tune that the bell at my university played every hour. Oh, nostalgia…

Then we headed north a few blocks which lead us into Bremen’s town square.

Bremen's Rathaus

Bremen’s Rathaus

This is where the Musicians of Bremen are located (just to the west of town hall), and the Rathaus (town hall), Bremen’s cathedral, and Bremen’s parliament building. We checked out all of the buildings, going into any that were open (and all that were open were free!), but then it was time to get some lunch!

We began walking east, and on our way off the island we spotted a beer garden and made a mental note to head back there for the football game! Eastward we walked until we reached our destination:

Tom and Karo!

Tom and Karo!

Tom and Karo is a vegetarian restaurant that is really vegan with a cow’s cheese option. It completely knocked our socks off!

Dan's vegan cheeseburger with fires and a hummus dipping sauce. Dan says this is the best vegan cheeseburger he has ever had.

Dan’s vegan cheeseburger with fires and a hummus dipping sauce. Dan says this is the best vegan cheeseburger he has ever had.

My vegan fish burger with fries and mango curry dipping sauce.

My vegan fish burger with fries and mango curry dipping sauce.

The food was so good that we ordered food to go for dinner later that night, which was great, too, even though we ate it about 8 hours later! Also, the decor is pretty eclectic and the bathrooms are covered in animal rights stickers, which was awesome.

On our walk back to the beer garden, we took a slight detour to the other super old, craft area of the old city of Bremen. It should be noted that the old city of Bremen is very small, it probably takes 15 minutes to walk across east-west, and 5 minutes north-south. It is perfectly sized for a day of exploring. Yet somehow the city of Bremen actually has about 550,000 people in it, so obviously the old city is not the entirety of the city. The tiny crafty area we were in was a perfect example of why cities in the middle ages tended to just go up in flames, though. Some of the side streets were as little as 3 feet wide. It would be pretty easy for fire to pass from house to house with all the houses that close together!

Then it was game time! We found a bench at the beer garden, each got a brew and a pretzel, and settled in to enjoy the game. I had a wheat beer and Dan had the beer garden’s original beer, which he enjoyed in a big ‘ole beer stein.

Beer and pretzels are made for each other.

Beer and pretzels are made for each other.

The game was Bremen vs. Hamburg, and actually took place in Hamburg while we were in Bremen! Woops! But this is apparently a big rivalry, so tickets were actually very expensive anyway. We though this was actually the perfect way to experience the game. It didn’t hurt that Bremen won 2-0 so everyone in the beer garden was singing songs and cheering their heads off. A good time was had by all.

Germany is really the first place that Dan and I have gotten to get out of the big cities to explore the smaller cities and towns, and we have really enjoyed it. We plan to do more small-town exploring as we head south!

Anywhere in Germany we should try to visit that you have been and loved?

A Cultural Day in Amsterdam

On Saturday, September 14th, Dan and I had plans to visit the Anne Frank house. Possibly the most famous thing in Amsterdam, other than the red light district and the “coffee”shops, it had been on our agenda for our week in Amsterdam but we had left it towards the end due to the fact that we knew the visit would be less than uplifting.

So at 4 in the afternoon on Saturday (they are open everyday until 9pm!) we headed over. And what do we see on the door but a “closed for Yom Kippur” sign. Now, I knew it was Yom Kippur, but seeing as they are open every Saturday, or the sabbath for Jews, I just assumed the museum would be open on Yom Kippur as well. In fact, later that night when we were back home the internet confirmed that Yom Kippur is the only day of the year that they are closed! Woops.

So to rescue the afternoon, we walked around the corner to the Old Church (or Oude Kerk in Dutch). When we got there we were handed a little booklet that did not explain anything about the church but instead explained that September 14th and 15th were “Heritage Amsterdam” days, which meant all kinds of cool buildings around the city were free and open to the public. We were running out of time on Saturday as all of the monuments close at 5 on these two days, so we made a plan to go and see some on Sunday as well, not wanting to miss out on such a cool event.

I will only highlight one “monument” and the Anne Frank house because 1) my mom asked me to write about them because she “may never get to see them” herself and 2) Yom Kippur had just passed the day before so it seems appropriate.

The morning of September 15th Dan and I headed out on a bright but blustery day to see the monuments. Our first stop was the Portuguese Synagogue.

Portuguese Synagogue interior

Portuguese Synagogue interior

The brief background that I’ll give about the synagogue is that it was built in the 17th century during the Dutch “golden age” by Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the inquisition. The Netherlands was known for allowing freedom of religion, which is why so many Jews migrated there. At the time of its construction, it was the biggest synagogue in the world, and I can confirm that it is very big. More info can be found on the Wikipeidia page. We particularly liked the high, barrel-like wooden ceilings. Many of the benches are also original to the synagogue, dating to the 1670’s. It was amazing to think that the previous day this synagogue had been filled with hungry, repentant Jews. It was so quiet when we were there!

I was certainly glad to have seen the synagogue, but I am especially glad that it was on that day where many famous spots in the city were free. Admission to the Portuguese Synagogue is normally 12 euros. In my opinion, that is ridiculous. In fact, the sticker prices on most monuments and museums in continental Europe are insane. It means I have to choose museums carefully so I don’t leave the place feeling stupid that I just spend $20 to see nothing of value. Okay, end rant.

After the Portuguese Synagogue we walked clockwise along the Prinsengracht canal to the Anne Frank House. For those of you who have not read Anne’s book, you should. I was – when I read the book in middle school – and still am amazed that a 13-15 year old could have written so eloquently about a time and experience that my 27 year old brain cannot really comprehend.

The museum and house itself were interesting, but not new to anyone who has read the book. In 1960 Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only person in the family who survived the war, turned the house into a living monument to what World War II did to a family from Amsterdam. He decided to keep the actual “secret annex” where the Frank family and 4 others lived empty so a visitor can experience the loss as well. Dan and I understand why that choice was made, but in a way it made it harder to immerse yourself in the story while walking around empty rooms. The part that touched me the most was after you walked through the annex, you went to a museum of Anne and her family, their deaths at many different concentration camps, and a room dedicated to Anne’s actual diary. Seeing her words written in her handwriting (though, I couldn’t understand it as it was written in Dutch! Luckily, the museum added English translations next to each page) really moved me. It was the physical diary that made her real to me.

The last thing Dan and I really like in the museum part of the house was the room where they give you examples of various situations happening around the world relating to racism and extremism and you have to pick what the “right” thing to do is. Often these relate to first amendment rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Do people have the right to express hatred of others, or say things that could incite violence? Where do we draw the line on our freedoms? Germany has many anti-antisemitic laws on the books, including a law making it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust. But Germany also has laws meant to suppress neo-Nazism, such as that certain combat boots with white laces are illegal. Where do we draw the line on freedom of expression? It was an interesting debate and I appreciated it being there.

Sorry for the lack of pictures from the Anne Frank House. They do not allow pictures inside, so I will leave you with a picture Dan took of me while we were waiting on line to get in.

It's a little windy out. Anne Frank House Museum in the background.

It’s a little windy out. Anne Frank House Museum in the background.

And on that note… We will be back soon with some more travel posts!

Seeing September 11th From a Distance

Most of you, my dear readers, know that I am a lifelong New Yorker. I was born in lower Manhattan, lived my whole childhood in upper Manhattan, and went to high school in the Bronx. I only left my beloved New York City for 4 years to go to college in upstate New York. I left because I knew I would live the rest of my life in NYC and I thought it would be healthy to get a different perspective for a few years. So naturally, I have lived in New York since graduating college. New York City is part of who I am and I carry my city with me everywhere I go. When people ask Dan and I where we are from, I am proud to be able to answer “New York City”.

12 years ago today my city was broken. I did not know how to deal with it then, and I’m not sure I know how even now, as I have never been good with tragedy. And that’s what it was. A tragedy. We lost an icon of our skyline that I can still see in my mind’s eye. We lost so many people who were simply off to work on a brilliantly beautiful September Tuesday morning. And we lost trust in each other and the world. We Americans, at least. Maybe it only seemed that way to me, since I was only 14 at the time.

But our actions since that day 12 years ago have really changed more than the day itself, I believe. We have started wars. Many, many wars. So many people – Americans and non-Americans – have died. Many, many more people than were killed on that horrible day. And I don’t feel safer because of it. I felt safer before. Before September 11th, 2001, obviously, and before America started this current string of wars.

It couldn’t be any more evident to me than since I have been traveling. I haven’t personally feel unsafe anywhere, but walking by the US Consulate in the Hague or the US Embassy here in Amsterdam it is clear that the people working inside of those buildings don’t feel safe. They are both surrounded by high fences and many guard towers. Even here, in the Netherlands. And then you walk down the block and pass the German Embassy, for example, it just looks like a building. If it weren’t for the plaque and flag, you would never know it was special.

US Embassy, Amsterdam

US Embassy, Amsterdam

So far on our trip, our experiences talking with foreigners have all been wonderful. The cultural exchange has made us feel part of a global community. We may speak different native languages, we may live very different lifestyles, we may eat differently. We are all different, but we are all the same.

This is the first time I have ever been out of the country on September 11th. I thought it would be hard for me. But I honestly think it has been an easier day than I ever had in New York City on September 11th over the last 12 years. Not because I got to avoid the day and the subject (I have wifi and my lovely facebook family to remind me of it), but because I got to experience how different, but exactly the same we all are. And I am looking forward to getting to do it for the next 4 months or so as well. Travel can take you to beautiful places, but it can also renew your faith in humanity. And I am so grateful for having the opportunity. Today more than ever.

Our Time in Paris

So we have been in Paris for almost a week, and I have spent a lot of this week thinking about what to write about Paris. I have conflicting feelings about it. I think the way I feel about our time in Paris can be summed up by making an analogy:

Dan and I heard about Boutique Maille and instantly wanted to go. We love mustard. (Don’t judge!) This is real French mustard, originally from Dijon, France. You know, like Dijon mustard… They have only two physical locations, one in Dijon and one in a super ritzy part of Paris. They have three signature mustards on tap. ON TAP people!

Boutique Maille mustards on tap!

Boutique Maille mustard taps!

So we went to taste some awesome mustards. A word of warning to vegans, brush up on your french words for cheese, because some of the mustards have cheese in them. The ingredients are all clearly listed (in French) though, so you should just check if you aren’t sure. So, while we were perusing our mustard options, I go to read some ingredients and what do I see on the back of the label. A big ‘ole Unilever stamp. Unilever, if you do not know, is the world’s third-largest consumer goods company that owns over 400 brands and tests on animals. What a disappointment it was to see that on the back of the Maille mustards. Even though it is still exceptionally tasty mustard, it isn’t everything I hoped it would be.

So in some weird way, my engineering brain thinks that that outing is an analogy to our time in Paris. We love it here. It is beautiful and romantic. It is a great walking city, with something fantastic to see on every corner.

Notre Dame Tower Tour -  Paris Gargoyle

Notre Dame Tower Tour – Paris Gargoyle

And yet.

For one thing, the vegan food is (generally) expensive and sub-par. We ate at about 5 places that were more expensive than any restaurant we went to in London and not a single place matched our worst food experience in London. And that was disappointing to me. I expected more. These are Parisian chefs, after all! All they do is talk about food, and cook food, and eat food here, no? You will not starve in Paris, vegans, so fear not. You just will probably not have the outstanding food experience you expected. I’d even go so far as to say that if you have access to a kitchen you should use it. At the health food chain here, Naturalia, we found bottled vegan ravioli in sauce. We are it for dinner 3 nights here. It is tasty and cheap!

Naturalia ravioli filled with vegetables

Naturalia ravioli filled with vegetables – great with a splash of French wine added during the cooking process.

We had one food exception. It was the French onion soup at Le Potager du Marais. The rest of the meal was expensive and disappointing, but this soup was delicious. Whatever vegan cheese they use on top is super tasty and the soup itself is delectable and filled with yummy croutons. Savory and fulfilling. We wanted to go back and have the soup again but the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday. And sometimes other days when they feel like it. Seriously.

Vegan French onion soup from Le Potager du Marais

Vegan French onion soup from Le Potager du Marais

Another problem with Paris is that everything else is very expensive, too! No museums are free (except on the first Sunday of every month when they are all free. We lucked out – date-wise – and went to 3 museums on our free day. Exhausting, but it saved us a bundle). They are super sticklers for checking ID’s, too. Here to get discounted admission, you have to be between 18-25, no exceptions. In the UK, we just showed our old student IDs from undergrad and no one batted an eye.

I guess I expected more. It’s Paris, after all!

And yet this makes it sound like I didn’t have an amazing time in Paris. And that would be a lie. Dan and I probably walked 10 miles a day through the winding Parisian streets. And somehow, they are all beautiful. And historic. And interesting. Our experiences with locals, contrary to popular opinion, have always been lovely. They are kind and helpful. I can’t wait to come back here again someday. Somehow Paris adds up to more than the sum of its parts. And we love it here despite the negatives.

All smiles in front of Sacre Coeur in Montmarte

All smiles in front of Sacre Coeur in Montmarte

On a completely unrelated note, happy (day before) Rosh Hashanah, (Molly’s) mom. We did go to the Marais today and checked out the art nouveau synagogue designed by Agoudas Hakehilos. Proof:

A bad picture of the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue. Sorry! Happy Rosh Hashanah from Paris!

A bad picture of the Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue. Sorry! Happy Rosh Hashanah from Paris!