Monday, January 12, 2015

Christmas in Germany Part 2: Berlin & Aachen!

Part 1 can be found here!

We would soon have to leave for the softball tournament in Aachen for the weekend, where I would also see my friend and former room mate in Armenia, Lili! But first, Steve would come to Berlin for a visit!

Mona's friend Steve had come to Armenia and visited her in 2012 and by extension became my friend, and we all planned to walk to the old abandoned airport in the center (Berlin Tempelhof Airport), visit a community garden, and eat sushi--something I had specifically requested.
Steve in Artsakh!
Steve arrived, we caught up for a bit and he showed me that he still had a scar from hitting his head in Armenia, and the 2% optimistic side of me convinced him it would always serve as a reminder to the good times. We made our way to the airport which was huge and had a softball field and a perfect running track. Mona and I planned to run there one morning but it never worked out--next time! We soon came to the very cool community garden and I saw a familiar sign: Food not Bombs! I had worked with the Toronto chapter so it was very cool to the Berlin version. It was a very chilly, windy, and rainy evening, so we were not surprised that no else besides us was there. We still enjoyed it, of course!
Bring me all of the chocolate in Germany!
We then headed to a sushi place Mona had been to and recommended, and I was still skeptical that they would even have the avocado/cucumber ones I missed so much. Of course they did, and I added a seaweed salad to my order and enjoyed every bite of it.
On the way back, I mentioned that I would love to finally drink a beer other than Kilikia or Kotayk (Armenian brands), so Steve and Mona looked at some options and settled on this particular one for me:
I just can't seem to believe it's not Kilikia!
We decided to sleep early since the following day we had a lot to do to organize for the softball trip and we would be on the road from 9pm - 5am, so we would not really get any sleep.

We woke up and planned to first go the Turkish markets, like the shugas in Armenia, to get the food we needed to make the snacks for the trip. Mona had two bikes so we decided to bike there and I excitingly exclaimed to her that "Since it is not Armenia, no one will stare at me for biking!". Oh dear, how can such a simple statement be so very wrong. The bike seat was way too high and could not be brought down and I still attempted to make it work and ended up going off the bike lane into the roads essentially flapping my hands in a panic, so yes, people started staring of course. Some older man even came and gave me advice about riding a bike but was sweet about it. In my defense, while I can ride a bike like a pro, I hadn't biked for a while, and was nervous about biking on the street (even though there were beautifully separate and marked bike lanes), and also the damn seat was way too high to have any confidence. We switched bikes when we realized the one Mona was on had a seat that could be lowered, and Mona rode ahead to lead the way, always sweetly looking back to make sure I didn't die. She said I had a perma-excited expression on my face for the rest of the ride and I do remember feeling a little psychotically happy for some reason.

The Turkish markets had a great variety of spices, fruits, vegetables, and actual food. It was raining (it was always raining) so it had a different atmosphere, but it was still interesting and enjoyable. We bought 10 small avocados for one euro and I fantasized about them for the rest of the day. Mona showed me off to some of the vendors and told them I could speak some Turkish, but I became too nervous and resorted to saying cok guzel to everything on their stands like a common fool. I would still report to Mona any conversations I overheard that I could understand, which still makes me feel like a spy for some reason.

Mona found one stand that was selling spices, and the vendor offered to let us try "real cinnamon". I pretentiously prepared to not be very impressed as I thought I had tasted pretty fresh cinnamon before, but it was the best thing I had ever tasted and all other versions should lower their heads in collective shame. He told us that cinnamon was often 15 years old and that's why this fresh one had an alarmingly different taste. Mona bought some for her brother and I thought about breaking my "no-spice" rule since all I had was a carry-on, but paranoia killed those ideas.

We decided when we got home we would make a delicious and packed green smoothie for dinner, with loads of spinach, apples, avocado and mandarins. We made it so we would feel good and have some nutrients in us during a weekend where we did not know what to expect. As assumed, it made us pee a lot and I feared it would not be over in time for the ride there.
Classy chicks.
Mona made amazing granola bars that were loved by all who tried them, as well as sweet potato chips with rosemary that didn't come out as planned, but were still baked sweet potatoes so they were still delicious.

We took turns showering, then packed, and around 9pm left for Lili's house. Lili was my room mate in Armenia in 2014 and we were put in touch by Mona. She plays softball while being adorable:
Lili & Mon!
We met Lili's parents, chatted for a bit, and made our way to her car for the journey. I noticed I already felt super-tired and thought maybe the scheduling and flight insomnia were finally catching up with me. I met Anika and Maren, who rode with us, and who were super sweet and became my official translators when the language would switch (rarely) back to German. We arrived around 5am with two well-timed pee breaks, and met the lovely Caro who let us sleep in her house. Soon we all got into our respective sleeping bags and slept until the alarm clock dared to wake us up at 8am.

I must note that on the way to where the softball game would be held, I remembered having asked Mona if the game would be competitive back when we were in Berlin. She had answered, "There will be some laughter", which was very German of her. It did not give me comfort and I realized I was becoming nervous as the game was approaching, even though everyone else was excited and seemed pretty casual about it. I warmed up with the only other newbie, Sabrina, by practicing some catching, batting and then going for a quick round on the track outside.

If I could go back in time, I would have chosen to relax a bit and just enjoy myself instead of being anxious, but even with that, it was a great time and I had flashbacks of really liking baseball back in high school.
Who wears short shorts!
The guys by the wall are too cool for this!
Afterwards we headed back to Caro's house to change and celebrate by going to dinner with most of the people who participated. They opened a bottle of champagne before heading out as we talked about how sore we would be the following day:
Maren aka the official translator!
We headed to the restaurant, hungry and tired, and had pretty mediocre meals with large beers. My tiredness was kicking in and finishing one beer (albeit a large one) proved too much for me. After dinner some of us headed back to Caro's place to sleep, and others went to a friend's house to drink the hot wine and chat some more. I fell asleep the minute I hit the sleeping bag and did not wake up when the rest came home during the wee hours of the night.

We woke up, complained about our varying degrees of soreness, and decided to go someplace for a light lunch with some of the people from the softball game, and then check out the Christmas markets before heading back to Berlin. On the drive back we were able to see the Cologne dome and the rhine since this time it was during the day.

We arrived back in Berlin around 9pm or so, had a late dinner of a delicious avocado salad Mona quickly made, and went straight to bed. Soon we would be heading to Hamburg and Budelsdorf!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Christmas in Germany Part 1: The Journey There!

Remember my Christmas in Armenia article for The Armenian Weekly? Well, this year I spent it with my friend/manager/platonic wifey Mona and her family, and had my first Christmas in Germany. Like in Armenia, it was fun, busy, and included a lot of food, but unlike Armenia, it was organized, efficient, and everyone was on time to everything all of the time. Mona's mom would even let us know when there was a 5 minute countdown when we had to leave. In Armenia, "5 minutes" is code for "shower time!".
Christmas in Germany is celebrated on the 24th of December, and I arrived in Berlin on the 17th. Mona and I had talked about some "musts" in terms of things to do and we aimed to fit it all within the time frame that included being in four different cities. We would be in Berlin until the 19th, and in the evening take a road trip to Aachen, one of the country's most western cities and about six hours away from Berlin, stay there for a softball tournament on Saturday, and leave in the afternoon on Sunday back to Berlin. Then on Tuesday we would head to Hamburg by bus, approximately a three hour drive, and from there another hour or so to get to Budelsdorf, where Mona's parents lived.

I went via Tbilisi to Germany since plane tickets tend to be much cheaper than going directly from Armenia, and it was a hell of a journey there and back. I left around 5pm on the 16th and was in a mini-van (nicer version of a mashootka), and only one other passenger joined us, which has never happened before. They both made an effort to smoke outside of the car when we took breaks which was a nice change. Both the driver and passenger were Georgians who spoke almost fluent Armenian, so luckily we could communicate after they tried Russian with me to no avail. The other passenger was super friendly and very excited to get back to Georgia, making myself and the driver excited too. He gave me his number and told me if I ever needed anything to call him and that he could show me around the city. They played Rihanna on repeat. My plan was to go directly to the airport and just wait for my flight there. I regret this.

I arrived to the airport much earlier than expected since the driver was super-fast, and got there around 10pm, with my flight being at 6:20am. The waiting area in the Tbilisi airport had a sketchy vibe to it, and I was kicked in the head by a drunk person attempting to sleep beside me and then again awoken by the sketchiest person ever trying to convince me to change my flight and go to New York with him. I moved locations more times than I could count, but could not avoid this particular person until about an hour before my flight. Still, I would see him again on my way back. My "I will sleep in the airport" plan did not pan out as planned.

I finally boarded my flight, was happy to have gotten the window seat and we went to Istanbul for the five hour stop-over. I bought water and sat separately from the main area to be anti-social, and felt like a spy picking up on simple conversations in Turkish: "Ask this girl to watch our luggage", "We don't even know who she is!", etc. It was entertaining/distracting enough--thanks mom! The customer service there during boarding was nice too, and one particular man was super friendly and chatty, and about 30 seconds after I passed him I realized my shirt buttons at the top had unbuttoned. The next flight would be the final one to Berlin, and I would get there around 1:30pm. My undereyes were beginning to sink to the point of no return but I was getting closer and closer.

I arrived in Berlin to a super friendly airport staff and when the guy at customs asked me why I was there I became super nervous and tried to be all diplomatic and then realized he was asking in a friendly way and not out of suspicion (thank you Armenia). It put me in such a good mood and I finally went to greet Mona who was worried I would end up falling asleep in the airport lounges and missing my flight(s) because when I sleep, it's deeper than the fire pit in Lord of the Rings.

Mona said the magic words soon after we saw each other: we would go directly to eat. There was a small Lebanese restaurant by her house with legit meneyish, hmoz, pickles and pita. Everything in my life was leading up to this. We got there and ordered two meneyishes, olives, pickles, and of course hmoz and everything was amazing. We then asked one of the adorable dancing workers where they were buying their zataar from and it was just next door so we went to get Mona some zataar she missed so much before heading to her house.
Trying to eat everything at the same time.
We went home, I admired her beautiful apartment and her cool room, dropped my things down, and washed my face so good. The airplane-dirt pimples were coming, but that didn't mean I wouldn't at least try to destroy them. We then tried the zataar and there had been many to choose from but we got a very coarse and thyme-centric one, so had some fun mixing in some more sumac in there and then got carried away:
We went to a close-by trendy bar and we decided to share a glass of hot wine, called gluhwein in German. I liked the IDEA of there being cloves and cinnamon in there but I had mixed feelings about the actual taste of hot wine. Normal wine is usually 50/50 with me and only if it's red and not sweet. New experiences, though!

Day one was put to an end the second I crawled into the warm inviting bed.