Four for the Road: Backpacks in Berlin!

berlin pergamon1

(At the start of spring, we spontaneously decided to take the kids on the road. For them, there is nothing more fantastic or fun than the thought of us four piling into car just for “an adventure”...)

berlin road

Although we’d passed briefly through Berlin before, today is our first time to get to really take in this iconic city.

We cruise into Germany’s historical capital, feeling like country mice entering the slick city. In awe at the flashing lights; dwarfed by dazzling skyscrapers; taken aback by throngs of people. Parking is another story, as cars are lined bumper to bumper along the streets of Kreuzberg, where we make our first pit stop.

We want to find wifi, in order to book a hotel, in orberlin streetder to sleep somewhere the night. At a bright and busy café, we park our backpacks and kids, order breakfast, brought by a woman speaking some kind of strange foreigner-German accent, and proceeded to Booking.com

The website has hardly ever failed us; we punch in the usual requirements:

2 adults, 2 kids, and an extra child’s bed.

We like to think we’re not that demanding as travelers.

And truth be told, the boys are easiest. Alex and I appreciate a little more comfort—private toilet and working shower at the top of the list. With a budget somewhere between 50-100 euros per night, we’re likely to almost always find something pretty decent.

berlin apartment

But today in Berlin, we strike gold! Smack in the city center, just on Checkpoint Charlie, we score a two-story luxury apartment with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, giant living, dining and kitchen for 70euros!

town apartments

Definitely, the best way to see a city, when you only have 24 hours to do so, is from the top.

So the next day, we ascend up the TV Tower, a 365 meter high monument, the tallest building in Berlin. Built by East German architects, it receives over 1 million visitors per year.

Adding to those figures, we become tourists for a day, lining up to get our tickets, before passing through a couple of security checks that feel like airport controls.

berlin tower2

“Ele-bator! Ele-bator!” Alexandra has been adding new words to her vocabulary at a dizzying rate.

Once piled into the lift, we zoom up 200 meters to the observation deck in 40 seconds.

Upstairs, the kids are in awe. Our birds’ eye view of Berlin and Brandenburg impresses them profoundly. The fun lasts all morning, as these little ones don’t want to leave, switching from one side of the tower to the next, and then back again, they peer through the tower’s windows and telescopes, observing life down below: miniature buildings, miniature cars, traffic and trains. All so fascinating!

berlin tower

Meanwhile, I am checking the menu at the Tower restaurant, supposedly a fantastic way to eat with a view—as the room rotates with a panoramic view of Berlin. But all the window view tables have been reserved; better luck next time.

After convincing the kids that it’s time to reward our tummies, we head back down and check out a newly opened sushi restaurant. I always feel an affinity for other Asians when travelling, but am suddenly confused when having to speak in a third language.

berlin sushi

In Berlin, we also wander through the Pergamon Museum, investigating the archaeological ruins of Persia. Ancient Babylon, at its peak of greatness.

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I am longing to see the famous bust of Egyptian “Sun Queen”, Nefitirti. And so excited am I, that I buy a magnet souvenir of her at the museum shop even before entering—only to find, hours later, that we were in the wrong museum the entire time!

She is apparently on display in the museum next door, for which we will have to pay another entry fee. And by now, the kids are restless, the husband wants (needs) a beer, and so I agree to save the date with her for another day…

It is not so easy to linger as long as you’d like in museums, when you’ve got two trailing kids (or running ahead of you). Especially when one, a toddler, has just learned to explore on her own. I am forever chasing after her, scolding her for attempting to touch precious artifacts, sitting on artworks or getting lost down some enticing corridor.

berlin pergamon2

A girlfriend from Manila happens to be studying in Berlin and we meet to catch up over the museum tour and later, for dinner at an Indian restaurant announcing Happy Hour all day.

berlin nights

We enjoy the spicy taste of Lamb curries, samosas and chicken Tikka, then, it’s back to our party apartment to enjoy each other.

In another thrilling wave of synchronicity, I savor this kind of encounter. You never know where in the world you end up, with whom, or at what day and hour. And yet, when things are meant to happen, they do…in strange and wonderful ways.

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Berlin brought out my childlike wonder once again, as travelling in strange and new places usually does.

After a good night’s sleep, we hit the road–this time, headed for the capital city of Saxony Anhalt, a dreamy destination along the Elbe river: Magdeburg!

…to be continued…

berlin mall

(Of course, if you are in Berlin longer, and have the time to see more, check out the suggested itinerary here, on Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Free Things to Do in Berlin.)

A Tree for Alex

We are the Trees.

Our dark and leafy glade

Bands the bright earth with softer mysteries. Beneath us changed

and tamed the seasons run:

In burning zones, we build against the sun

Long centuries of shade.

–Mary Colborne-Veel, Song of the Trees

Alex Tree

On a windy afternoon in mid-March, we gathered in the grandfather’s garden. Spring was in the air, casting a glow on violet krokusse blooms and clusters of snowy-white schneeglöckchen.

Opa had readied shovels, the wheelbarrow, and a couple of cold beers.

Plus, a potted fruit tree, bought yesterday.

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Four years ago, he had planted an apple tree for our son, Karsten.

“All of the children born in this town,” he explained, “get an apple tree planted in their honor, following an old tradition.”

And although Karsten’s younger sister (now two years old) was born a world away, in the Philippines, he’d decided that she should also have her own tree in the garden now.

Well, Alex had decided it in fact, that she should have one, as she pestered Opa last week: “A tree for Alex?? …a tree for Alex!”

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Karsten’s Apfelbaum, now with sturdy trunk and young branches shooting high into the sky, was not bearing fruit yet. It would still be a couple of years, Opa said.

Still, it seemed to me that time had flown so quickly. What was before, just a thin, scrawny stick, had grown into an entire life-giving creation. With its tiny lime-green leaves and branches curving upwards, it climbed gracefully, silently. Higher, higher into the sky. Standing quite a lot taller than Karsten now.

The kids joined in on the tree-planting—even Alex, with her miniature shovel and toy wheelbarrow. Not complaining of the biting wind, because she knew, today was something special.

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An hour later, the new sapling was in, secured by firm and fertile soil all around; held in place by a second upright log.

Robuster Pfirsich—a peach tree!

A few years from now, if our adventures bring us back to celebrate another spring together, Alex’s tree will perhaps have blossomed, and we’ll be enjoying plump, juicy peaches. Together with ripe red apples from her brother’s tree.

Two lives–growing simultaneously, yet individually. Two trees, someday bearing fruit, someday greater than we now know.

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here

–Emily Dickinson

My Birthday Boy!

kbday2The melted butter schmalz blends in perfectly with rich, dark cacao powder. I stir carefully before adding in the condensed milk, vanilla-butter extract, and beating it to a glossy shine.

Then, with the joy of smearing acrylic paint all over a new canvas, I excitedly frost this homemade two-layered cake. It’s shaped like a number 5, of course–for my son’s fifth birthday today.

kbday4It’s only a couple of days before Christmas, so celebrating his birth is like adding an extra punctuation mark into the already colorful paragraph that reads as the story of our festive Christmas in Saxony.

We’d baked the chocolate cake (his request) together last night—it turned out heavier and denser than I’d expected—nothing that a topping of gooey, chocolatey frosting covered in colored crispy sprinkles won’t fix!

And while he’s in Kita (German Kindergarten) now, I take the opportunity to blow up balloons, arrange the gifts on the kitchen table, and add the final touches to this cake.

Opa and Oma arrive with more giant presents, a bouquet of flowers “Für Geburtstags Kind!”, and I take a moment to contemplate my son’s life so far.

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k6…Where does time go?

Five years ago today, the end of an excruciatingly painful 48 hours had finally come. After unsuccessful trying for a natural delivery, I was ready and nearly begging for the doctors to operate—and “get that giant baby out!”

It’s not true, as some say, that you forget the pain of labor once you see your child. And five years on, the memory of that intense experience is still there.

But what does happen, is that the new life, which now has grown, grown up, and become an individual—the new love that you now have—all of that covers the pains of the past. All of that makes it worth it. And maybe that’s the biggest magic of it all—the miracle that life can be.

italy3Since my son was born on 22nd of December, Christmastime always has a deeper meaning. I do get all nostalgic, my heart swells with pride as I look upon my son…

Contemplating the life I lived before and after becoming a mother, makes me grateful for every experience.

When you’ve been through a painful birth, you hold that child closer. When your children get sick or are hospitalized, you know just how wonderful all the days of being well truly are. When there are obstacles to overcome, long journeys to make, things to give up just to do the best and be the best for your children, love becomes greater, deeper, forever.

K3With joy, I sing Happy Birthday to my son today, showering him with gifts and love…but he’ll never really comprehend that the painful experience it was for me, 5 years ago!

No matter. To him, it is a joyous occasion, and for all of us, too.

The challenges of parenting, the hurdles, the costs…everything is worth it when you look at your child and know that (for those who make the choice to become parents) there is hardly anything greater, no deeper love.

monteIt’s a journey on its own, to bring a child into the world, the “trials and tribulations”, the sleepless nights, the excessive worrying, the plain hard work it is, this parenting business, endless movement, constant growth and change.

Yet what a fantastic adventure! One that keeps on going, a thrill that never stops; joy that is replenished and renewed (just as a parent’s patience must be) every day.

kbday13Happy Birthday, to my 5-year-old Superhero!

A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt. 2: Nutcracker Men and Merry Cherubs!

saxon christmas 7True to his word, on the first Advent eve, Opa started putting up tiny decorations in special places around our home—or was it really the work of the Weihnachtsmann?

saxon christmas 1One by one, a miniature choir of chubby, wooden angels began to appear in the glass kitchen cabinet. Every day, a new one, each with a musical instrument—some playing a trumpet, or a harp, or an organ.

On the kitchen reading table now sat four deep red candles in a thick WeihnachtsKranz (Christmas wreath), to be lit one by one—one for every Sunday of the special Adventzeit.

And then there were the traditional, handgemacht (handmade) figurines of the Erzgebirge, little Raüchermanner (Smoking Men) who puff scented smoke when a Raücherkerze (incense cone) is lit inside, and wooden nutcrackers.

saxon christmas 2Now, the particular Nutcracker guy we have isn’t really a nutcracker at all, but a bushy-browed fellow on horseback, wearing brightly colored uniform! He’s always looking fierce, to represent those harsh German authorities of the Ore Mountain mines in the late 1800’s.

saxon christmas 8This region in East Germany bordering the Czech Republic, besides it’s delicious food, is also famous for its grand mountains, forests, and mining industry. It’s become my once-in-awhile-home since my son was born here in 2009.

An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony
An artisan hand-paints the nutcrackers in Saxony

The wooden figurines are well-known Erzgebirge handicrafts made by the local communities since hundreds of years. The ones that sit on our kitchen table now aren’t newly bought decorations; they’ve been in the family for years, sort of vintage artifacts—heirlooms—that resurface every December.

The little prune-men, with their bodies made of dried prunes, are some of my favorite. A family friend last week, added another artifact to our collection: a lucky prune chimney sweeper.

I’ll never forget the first time one I met a real chimney sweep, five years ago, in this house. My husband had told me that if the black-uniformed men ever came to your door, they were believed to bring good luck! I was pregnant at the time, and hoping for all the luck (blessings) in the world for my new baby who was on his way!

So when the doorbell rang one day, and a very tall, smiling man in a top hat and buttoned-down uniform cheerily appeared to sweep the soot off our chimney, I felt like a little child shaking hands with the Weihnachtsmann! (I only found out much later that he’d been hired, of course, to work that day.)

But innocence is bliss, and Christmas is for innocent children—and children at heart.

saxony christmas 6It’s what I love about my two kids’ ages right now (nearly 2 and nearly 5): they are still young enough to be whisked away in the mind to a place where wonderful things happen at Christmas!

We’ve read together, of course, the real story; they know about the angels and the Star, and the baby Jesus—but I do think a little of that other magic is fun too, when you mix traditions with culture and throw in a little of your own twists.

Yes, we can have real evergreens and traditional Saxon figurines…but we can cut out simple paper snowflakes and string them on the windows, too. We can tell stories about surprises and magic …but we do know that love is the biggest magic of it all.

And when Saint Nick leaves two gigantic chocolate men on the doorstep to eat, and more chocolate surprises in their winter boots (as he did last December 6)…

saxony christmas 4…or when you can write wish lists and be on your best behavior for the Weihnachtsmann, or when soft snowflakes flutter down, sprinkling everything in the village like the frosting on a birthday cake…

…and when you can enjoy all these simple pleasures with the wonder of a little child, then Christmas becomes, not a stressful occasion, but a lot of FUN.

I know it won’t be long until they’ll be older, and perhaps jaded. So, while their little eyes are still wide with wonder and delight, I’ll be enjoying the season’s magic, too.

saxony christmas 3Yesterday, as the son and I skipped through a slushy path on the way home from school, he looked at me thoughtfully and then posed a very serious question.

“Mom, do you know who actually gives us the uberraschungs (surprise gifts) at Christmas?”

“Um…the Weihnachtsmann?” (I’m hoping he hasn’t found the secret stash of packages hiding in our cabinet.)

“Well, someone else, too! Do you know? There’s the Weihnachtsmann, and Niklaus, and…do you know who else?”

“Tell me!”

Splashing his boots through the half frozen mud, with an intelligent look that only a nearly-five-year-old can properly pull off, he said:

“The postman, of course.”

A Proper Saxon Christmas Pt 1: Festive Fun and Pyramids

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

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

“No, I have no idea,” I feign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With real candles lit,” adds Opa.

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

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

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

wunschzettelwunsch2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What a good idea!” I reply.

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

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

The truth about road trips

roadtrip
Road to Everywhere. Cruising our way through the cloudy Splügen Pass, a mountain border made nearly invisible by the misty weather that day.

We’ve been offline for a week: Drove through 4 countries in one day, wandered through legendary castles, forests and sped through heart-stopping autobahns…celebrated the great-grandfather’s 87th, visited a UNESCO Heritage City, hunted for Steinpilz and ate half a roasted duck, got hooked on Leberknödelsüppe, had our very own Oktoberfest with an accordion player. Drank even more.

Taught my kids that seasons change, and so does the view in different countries, the cultures, the schnapps, the language, the weather—but never the need to say thank-you.

We passed over the Alpine range twice and stopped to smell the bright yellow flowers at the top.

Splügen

Here, we took a break from the 8 hour drive to enjoy the sunlight atop Splügenpass, the mountain border which divides Italy and Switzerland. Going there was a drive through thick fog and rainy weather.

Truth be told, I was scared to venture on the invisible path which climbed higher into the clouds, but still I trusted my husband’s good driving skills. The return trip a week later was much easier—sunshine and bright green illuminating the now-visible zig-zag path, making it more of a joyride.

In a way, I loved the fact that we were disconnected (from the internet), and free to just enjoy each other. With no social media access, there was no news from other continents, no updates to share, no other lives to compare with, but the joy of our own special moments, and our fun-loving kids.

Time for hugs at "Mittelpunkt", the exact middle point of Germany
Time for hugs at “Mittelpunkt”, the exact middle point of Germany

In the car, of course the husband and I bickered (8 hours a day is a long way to drive!)…but we also made up, played Who Am I games, read novels (me reading aloud because it was less scary to look down at the book than through the windshield while racing down the autobahn…) and listened to really corny music on the radio.

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I’m addicted to mushroom hunting! So are the kids ;) In search of steinpilz (funghi porcini) behind an old castle in Germany.

And the truth about long-distance road trips with family is that they do test your parenting patience, your marriage, your endurance and tolerance. They leave you with those rugged memories of both adventures and misadventures.

on the road again
Leaving Switzerland. After a week of being on the road, still all smiles. And what gorgeous weather we were welcomed back to in Italy!

Travel is EXHAUSTING when you’re a mom—but I am grateful for the chance to show my kids that the world expands, and home is where the LOVE is—wherever we may camp.

On Possibility

como sundown

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

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

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

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

Exploring the monastery at Piona
Exploring the monastery at Piona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to pause and ponder a moment.

Possibility…

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

spielplatz

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

For me, the word POSSIBILITY carries so much hope.

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

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

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

Are you carrying possibility in your heart today?

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

Are you doing, daring, and defying the odds?

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

Well then, it WILL be possible for you!

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

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

“tutti è possibile!”

 vercana

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

 

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

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