Saturday, October 31, 2015

Day 79: Cross Country Halloween

Chris woke up early today (early for us) and went for a run with Tim. He was able to get a feel for the neighbourhood and see how beautiful this countryside is. Out here is very different from the city and it's really nice to be able to run in such a beautiful area straight from your door.

Tim and Annie (left), One of the many Windmills (middle), Chris and Annie (right)
Photos by Chris and Tim

The oldest daughter in the family has a cross country race today (the European finals) and was out the door to meet up with her teammates for the long day ahead. The rest of us took a lazy morning approach. Breakfast (we're excited because, as a family of 6, there is a lot of cereal to choose from!), getting dressed, and relaxed conversations.

100 MPH
After breakfast, we pile into two cars (we're nine people without the oldest daughter), and head out to the autobahn. On the way to the cross country race, we make a stop at Burg Lichtenberg. There are a few awesome facts about this castle. First, it is open to the public for no fee. We park and walk right through. Second, for better or for worse (of the well being of the castle), we are able to climb on the ruins. The kids had a BALL running around, climbing into the windows, and exploring all around. Third, you can climb the tower to get beautiful overhead views, without having to walk up 900 steps. It's only 2-3 flights of stairs, easy peasy!

And the views do not disappoint. The castle ruins, the grounds, the views. All beautiful.

The kids had a great time at Burg Lichtenberg, but it was time to head out. Back to the autobahn and on our way to the location of the cross country meet (a golf course). We arrived just in time to see the boys race line-up and start. Perfect!

The 5K course looped around the golf course 2.5 times, so we spectators could run from side to side to see the start, the middle, back to the start, etc. It was fun to see the friends and families of the runners so excited for their kids, cheering them on with great enthusiasm (I think some may be a little hoarse after today), and running back and forth to catch glimpses of their kids and fellow team members. Side note: these kids are fast! In the 15 minute range for their 5K!

After the start, a few spectators were asked to pull up the stakes from the starting line to help close the gap for the continuing lap. Chris helped for the boys race and I helped for the girls race. Yay us!

There were a few schools there offering food, snacks, and drinks. We even got served by Tigger at one of them (it is Halloween, afterall). Oh, and they take U.S. dollars, but thank goodness they also take Euros as we don't have any dollars. This brings me to one of the interesting things about the races. There was so much native-English spoken (most people were speaking English). I hadn't realised how much I have learned to tune out the conversations around me due to the fact that I can't understand what they're saying. But now, I'm back to eavesdropping, as I can understand all the conversations around me. Perk or not?

After the boys race, there is a bit of down time before the girls start. I'm not sure how they do it, all that waiting in the cold. There are a lot of girls hopping and jogging about, keeping muscles loose and warm. Us spectators aren't as bouncy, so we're a bit colder, I suppose. Darn weather, it was supposed to be warmer and sunnier today!

And, finally, it's the girls' race-time.

The start of the girls' race (top)
Holly in fourth (left, middle, right)

Holly did amazing. She came in fourth in all of Europe (and that's including all the divisions), if I'm understanding all the rules correctly. If you take out the two girls who are in a different division, she really came in second. Her team, did come in first in their division. It was a lot of fun to see her race, be a part of the sports atmosphere, and to see her get her awards. Side note: The results were supposed to be done at 2:15... however, it was closer to 4pm. So, we were all a bit frozen by the time we left. But it was a good day with friends and it was fun to get a glimpse of what their weekends are like (next weekend they are off to Amsterdam for another daughter's Irish Dancing competition).
On the way home, the car I'm in (the boys and me) makes a quick stop to pick up some döner for dinner. Yum! The car Venice is in (the girls) head to the airforce base to pick up runner-Holly. So, döner for us and Cinnabon for Venice (yes, THE Cinnabon!) Now I don't feel as guilty that we didn't get Venice her own food!

It is now time to get ready for Halloween. The kids dash off to get dressed. The adults get dressed.... and what the heck? My costume from Oktoberfest is too tight. How the heck did that happen? I swear. I think it's because I wash and dried it (I'm sticking to this explanation). And on top of a tight fit, I forgot to bring the pink ribbon that ties it all together (helping to take the stress off the zipper). When in dire straights, one must be creative, thus, I used dental floss to tie myself together.

Venice's pumpkin (top) and Xander's pumpkin (bottom)
With our Canadian host (middle)
Chris, Diana, Tim, Kristie (left and right)

Taking two cars, we headed to the Halloween party thrown by friends of Tim and Kristie. It's in a neighbourhood similar to ours in the U.S. A lot of houses, close by, and a ton of participating "candy-homes". As we approach, it's tough to get through the streets due to the masses of crowds walking the streets looking for treats. But we make it without running anyone over (great driving skills by our hosts).

Almost as soon as we enter the party destination, the kids are off trick-or-treating... without us! This is the first time they've gone trick-or-treating without us tagging along. Nice! It helps that (other than us) there really are not cars driving around the neighbourhood. Small streets. Lots of crowds. And a great sense of safety (either due to the high density of "base"-workers in the neighbourhood, or the regular "German-safeness" we've gotten used to).

The party is wonderful. Good eats. Nice people. Welcoming conversations. A great way to feel "at home" when "far from home". Thank you to our hosts and the party hosts for taking such good care of us. I know the kids were sad to miss our traditional Halloween and, I think, this evening filled their needs and wishes beyond what we could have thought possible. Thank you.

A portion of the kids about to head out for trick-or-treating (left)
Tim and Chris (right)

And the kids come home. Check out their loot. Trade. Eat MORE than their fair share. It was a good day. A good evening.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Day 78: Travel to Kollweiler


We finish packing, eat a simple breakfast, and head to Hauptbahnhof to catch our ICE train to Frankfurt (with a transfer to Kaiserslautern). Our first train is approximately four hours (the second about an hour), so we’ll be hungry for lunch on the train. We’re guessing we’ll have options for food,but we aren’t 100% sure, so when we find our seats (Chris bought a Bahn card for the big discounts and ability to pick seats), Chris heads back into the station to get us a few items of food. He’s going alone because the train will leave in about 20 minutes and he’s racing the clock. Of course, as soon as he leaves, we find a sizeable menu indicating we’ll be able to order food. I text him right away, but the texts take some time, and then there is no reply.  I try to call, but the call doesn’t go through. I make two more failed attempts. Then he calls me, but when I pick up, he can’t hear me. I finally receive a text from Chris that he’ll just get a few pretzels. 

Side note: When we finally do order, the pretzels are twice as expensive on the train and the selection of food isn’t as large as I thought. So, Chris is wishing he had bought more at the stand in the station. But it all works out. Venice gets Flammkuchen (pizza with sour cream instead of red sauce), Xander orders a bowl of chilli, and Chris and I get a sandwich. Decent, but not stellar. It’ll do. 

Once again, we love traveling by train. Smooth. Freedom to stand up, walk around, use the bathroom whenever we want. This time, we are sitting in a compartment built for six. We have glass doors to shut out those walking by to the bathroom and getting off and on the train. We’re feeling pretty fancy or like we, ourselves, are headed to Hogwarts. With the Bahn card, the seats were very reasonable, so we’re pretty happy.

Venice on the computer and Xander on this iPod.

We are unable to “watch” our progress on the train as the schedule left in our car is the wrong one. I’m glad we figured this out, as it had me worried… our destination wasn’t on there… so a moment of panic (even though they had come through and checked our tickets… still a moment of panic). So, we’ll just have to listen carefully and watch the clock to help us get off at the correct station.

Here in First Class, there is free wifi! This is pretty exciting. Often, there are hot-spots around, made available by Telekom. You need to have some sort of account with Telekom to get a password and then you can sign into the many, many hot-spots around town or on trains. But, on this train, there is free wifi, no password needed, for those of us in First Class. Pretty special! So, we all log on. Xander plays games. Venice watches YouTube. Chris naps. And I get to blog while on the train! Side note: I did one blog… and felt a bit icky… darn motion sickness. 

View from the train (pardon the window reflections)

As the train proceeds, it becomes clear that we are delayed a few minutes. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue. BUT, our transfer time is only 12 minutes. So an 8 minute delay means we only have 4 minutes to find our new track and train. We are watching our progress carefully as we lose a minute, then gain a minute… At one point, our transfer time seemed to be less than 3 minutes. And, a short bit of confusion when we get into Frankfurt, stop, and then back out. I guess it's what they have to do, but it sure is disconcerting to go one way and then another instead of all in one direction. By the time we arrive at our connection stop, we had gained back a few and had a whopping 9 minutes to transfer…. and, of course, our next train… was delayed. So, we now wait.

After our lovely experience in our first class compartment, we became pampered. Now, mixed with other passengers, it's loud (I think our neighbour's phone rang at least 4-5 times, with a "whoo-hooo" style ring). As we get closer to our destination, the sunshine disappears and we enter the fog.

As we exit the platform, there's Tim! Friend from college, here to pick us up. Couldn't have timed out more perfectly. Let the memories and catching up begin!

Driving "home"

Once settled into our new home-base, we catch up more with Tim (we think it's been about 11 years since we last saw one another... and back then they had a young one and a baby, and we had a toddler... so I'm sure not much deep conversation went on back then!) Venice and Xander explored the outside trampoline. Beckett came down to keep our kids company. While dinner was cooking, Kristie arrived home and we were able to meet two of the four kids (one is at an overnight and one is out late with friends).

After an awesome dinner, our tummies full, it was time for some pumpkin carving. Thanks to our hosts for having pumpkins and carving tools ready for us. It's fun to get back into a little tradition.

Carving pumpkins

Venice's pumpkin: water, earth, fire, air - Avatar
Xander: Amplemann, Venice: Water, Levi and Tim: Bart Simpson

By now, its' pretty late. The kids are tired (falling asleep on the couch), the adults are tired, the dogs are tired. And there's a big day planned for tomorrow (our host's oldest has a cross country meet), so we must all get some good rest. It's great to be here. Our hosts are welcoming. We settle in for a comfortable night.

Annie (the dog) is ready for bed (left), Xander becomes a pumpkin, too (right)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Day 77: Everything Else

Chris worked late last night (at home), until after 2am. As a result, we began this morning on the later side of things. This leisurely start allowed us to investigate our options for travel back to the U.S.

We purchased round trip tickets when we began this trip. We have been told that paying a change fee is cheaper than buying one-way tickets on both ends. It works out in our favour, as we are not going to leave from Berlin, but from Edinburgh, Scotland. Over $1,000 in change fees later, we have tickets home (and yes, that’s cheaper than if we purchased one-way tickets in the first place).

At this time, we also schedule our final walk-through to return keys with the building manager. The end of our time in Berlin becomes more evident.

Chris goes to work, as do we. Our jobs today, EVERYTHING. My list is to do everything we’ve been putting off until the last minute and now we’re set for a very busy day. 

First, we need to send one more box. A box of books. But, it’s heavy. I’ve been wanting Chris to help me out (I’m nervous to go to the Deutsch Postbank alone to send an international package). Once again, if the tram outside our apartment wasn’t under construction, I could take it one stop. But, as it is diverted, and by the time I find the temporary stop, I could probably just have walked the “one stop” worth of city blocks and gotten to my destination. 

And so, I’m coupling one errand with another. We want to donate our broken luggage bag, a pair of shoes, and a pair of shorts. We’ve been told that there is a place to donate at the Hauptbahnhof. So, I put the box of books into the bag so we can roll it down our hill. 

Ahhhh! I’m foiled on my plan. With the broken wheel, I am unable to angle it as I wheel it (due to the excessive weight of books) and I have to carry the entire set of objects. Ugh. At least the kids keep my brain distracted so I don’t cry over how heavy it is, how hot I get, and how tired I’m feeling already! 

We get to the post office and, miracles, there are only a few people in line, a much shorter line than the other day! But, I have to fill out a form. It took me three forms to get it right. Oy.  I put the city name in the postal code box (they do it backwards here), then I put the telephone number on the wrong line and started to put my address instead of HotelTonight’s address (as a return address). By the third time, I got it right and got in line. 

The package weighed 8 kg and cost 49€ to ship “slowly”. We just might beat it home. 

Now, with the travel bag much lighter, I can wheel it or carry it without much effort. We head to the main Bahn station to hunt for the donation centre. And I do mean hunt. We get there and Google shows that it’s in the main station (which is over 4-5 floors, if you remember), near a Starbucks. But we hunt and hunt and I just don’t have to energy to hunt all over. Venice and I have a hunch it’s on the next floor up, but we can’t see if from where we stand and if it’s not there, how do we go about searching the entire place? I see an Information booth and we get in line to ask for directions.

Hauptbahnhof from the outside.

Guess, what? It IS on the second floor, just about where Venice and I suspected. Of course. It’s between a Starbucks and a Dunkin’ Donuts. The door, to our credit, is down a hall that’s all but hidden from plain view. Side note: This was one of those times where I say, in German, “Wo bist Bahnhofsmission.?” (Where is Bahnhofsmission?) To be fair, I say, “Mission” with an American accent, so it comes out, “Mish-un”. The woman at the help desk is blank. I show her the word on my phone, and she says, “Oh, Bahnhofsmissoin” with her German accent (so it sounds like, “Miss-ee-own.” Yeah, whatever, just point me in the direction, bitte!

We have to press a buzzer to get in. Congratulations, they buzz us in! I begin with my normal German phrase of, “Excuse me, my German is so bad, do you speak English?” To which the woman behind the counter replies, “My English isn’t so good either.” I ask her if I can donate my bag here. She says, “No, the Bahn is there.” Or something like this. I’m not sure if she thinks we’re trying to check a bag, find a bag, or whatever. But we’re at a stand still.

Xander's bagel mit falaffel
At this point, I’m crying on the inside. I’m imagining having to do our entire “rest of the day” while carrying this bag. I just want to get rid of it. I threatened, earlier to the kids, that I was just going to throw it all into the Spree river. So, I open Google translate and search the word for “donate” and I say, “Spenden.” “Ahhhh, spenden? Ja, ja.” Now she’s a little embarrassed that she didn’t understand what I wanted to do and she comes around the counter to take the bag from me. Phew!

By this time, it’s lunch time. Time to hunt for food at Potsdamer Platz.

Venice picks lasagna from a counter on the first floor. Xander would like a bagel from the second floor. No problem. Or so we thought. The bagel shop was slammed. We waited over 10 minutes to place our order. It took over 15 minutes for our food to come. And then we had to eat it. I spent most of my lunch time trying to find my “Zen-Zone”. 

We make a stop at the Amplemann store. We’re headed out of town tomorrow and we think it’s a good idea to bring a gift to our hosts. They are driving us around all weekend and putting us up in their home, so a gift is a nice thing to do. But, just having spent 50€ to ship books, I don’t wan to bring something they have to ship or keep. So, we settle for Amplemann gummies for the kids and Amplemann Beer for the adults. We hope it’s not crappy beer, it’s the best we can do having thought of it at the last minute. But now, I get to carry around 4 large bottles of beer (they’re heavy). 

Now, off to one of the last items on Xander’s Bingo list. We head to the Kollhof tower, which is nearby (which is why we’re at Potsdamer Platz). We have VIP tickets, which means we get to cut the line and get on the elevator first. There is a line, so it’s good for us, since we’re running out of time. However, the elevator is the fastest elevator in Europe, 8.5 sec/m (approximately) so the entire ride from floor 0-24 is over in 20 sec (this seems to include the doors closing and opening). So, how long would we have had to wait if we didn’t have VIP tickets? Probably not long. But, we get squeezed in with several others and head on up to the viewing platform (after turning in my receipt for actual tickets).

This elevator is faster than the Fernsehturm, reaching only 90m in less than 20 seconds. I think they include closing the doors and slowing down time, as the elevator moves at over 8.5 seconds per meter at its fastest time. Our ears definitely popped on the way to the 24th floor. Unlike the Fernsehturm, there is an open air viewing area. You can walk up one more flight of stairs to get to the 25th floor and get an even higher view.

The top floor (25th) of the Kollhof Tower.

I wanted to go because it had the fastest elevator in Europe. When we were looking for things to put on our Bingo lists, I found this on the internet. It goes 8.5 meters per second. This is almost twice as fast as the Fernsehturm. 

The lower level was fine because it had bars and a ledge on the outside of the bars. But on the upper level it had the bars but no ledge. If the fence wasn’t there, you would be able to walk right off, which, of course, wouldn’t be smart. I liked the bottom floor. 

The view was pretty cool. I like the Kollhof tower better because if felt higher and it has a really fast elevator. 

Views of The Sony Center, the DB building and the Tiergarten.

There is a bathroom on the top floor. Venice and I used it… I giggled thinking of it flushing all the way down to the bottom floor. 

In the photo on the left, the Kollhof tour is on the right.

Remember, we’re trying to fit in all our last minute “stuff”. So, we head BACK to Hauptbahnhof to see the “Horse”. We should have done this when we were there donating, but I forgot (I was just so happy to be able to finally deliver the darn stuff, that I only remembered the “Horse” as we pulled away from the station. Doh.

On our way back, we passed through Potsdamer Platz and could see a new festival going up. Germans really like to celebrate any time they can. Chris mentioned that there is only one national holiday, but each city or region definitely takes as many opportunities to have a festival. I’m not sure if this is a Christmas festival, winter festival, or something else. It is definitely themed for colder weather. Someone has built a giant ramp (we saw this going up a week ago) that has steps on the side and then it’s now a giant “hill”. They have put hoses pumping water into snow blowers on the sides. We can see a few piles of snow building up. This ramp is going to be an awesome sledding hill! Maybe we can try it Tuesday before we leave but I don’t know. Pretty cool. 

Back at Hauptbahnhof, we find the “Horse”. As we approach it, I realise I was actually thinking of another statue (of human forms that are located closer to the river). But, we are here, and this is something I wanted to see.. just not what I was planning on. Doh, again! The “Horse” is actually built of old materials from the old station before it was renovated, so it is pretty impressive and fun to see. 

The Horse.

Next item on our list, the Aqua Dom and Sea Life. 

The Fernsehturm.
I bought tickets online, as it was promoted as a cheaper price. I thought we’d get to get in a separate line as well, but we had to wait in line with everyone else. Bummer. Good thing it moved somewhat quickly, but you can tell already that this is definitely a tourist kind of place, not a “regular” aquarium, like the one at the Tiergarten we went to a few weeks ago. 

A photographer is greeting people as they move through the line. He has a box filled with Halloween props and is taking everyone’s photo as they come in. The kids do NOT want to do it (not that we’d buy the photo anyway), so we skip it when it’s our turn. Once you pass through the ticket area, they ask you to go into a closed room with a video screen where you watch a movie on how the aquarium helps injured animals and return them to the wild. If the animals are not able to go back to their natural habitat, the aquarium finds them new homes, either here or at another facility. I’m not sure of the real reason for us to watch this video, other than it seems to space the patrons out from coming into the aquarium all at once. 

Now inside the aquarium, it becomes clear that you do not just wander around looking where ever you like. No, you walk along a path and mostly move in a forward direction. They have tanks representing different oceans, lakes, and such (Atlantic, Pacific, etc.). All the while you are viewing the fish, there is overly dramatic music playing in the background. This establishment is run by the same people who do Legoland Discovery, here, The Wax Museum, and a few others. Disneyland, anyone? 

Fish, Octopus, Venice

In the middle of the tour, there is a small movie theatre showing a cartoon (have no idea what it was about, as it was not subtitled like the intro movie). But, I do know there was popcorn, candy, and Pringles dispensers for your pleasure. There was also a random mirror maze (with the title of Neptune, so it's all making sense).

One aquarium to look like the River Spree (left), feels like Legoland, yes?
Pringles dispenser (right)

Glow in the Dark kids (left), Jellies (middle), Ray (right)

Neptune's Play Labyrinth 

At the end of the tour, you walk across to a hotel and are able to use your ticket to go into a two-story glass elevator that ascends through an aquarium. As cool as it sounds, you can see through the tank and over to all the balconies of the hotel guests. It’s still cool, but all the views and photos are somewhat “disturbed” by “the other side”. Gimmick. Disneyland. If you can only go to one aquarium, I definitely suggest the one at the Tiergarten. 

The Aqua Dom

Buddy Bears from the day

The Aqua Dom is close to Hackescher Markt, which is where Venice’s Bubble Tea is located. She gets a bonus treat as we go there to buy the kids pork buns for dinner. We take our detour route home and the kids are ready to make their own dinner (reheat the buns) and I’m ready to go out and meet Chris and his coworkers for dinner. 

Early evening darkness (5:30pm).
This dinner is planned as a going away dinner for Chris. One of his coworkers had sent me an email asking when we’d be available for dinner. Of course, then I asked Chris, which night would work best, not realising this was supposed to be a surprise (in fact, I didn’t know this for a week, that it was a surprise… whoops). So, I’m ready to head out to the surprise dinner for Chris (who knows I’m coming and knows to say he has “no plans” when his coworkers ask if he can come out that night). 

Ok, the kids are set to be alone. Food, drinks, and Skype. All the essentials. 

Funny story: When I got the official invite from Google, I thought the coworker made a mistake, because it said the party was from 11am-2pm. I thought, perhaps, there was a cultural miscommunication as to what "dinner" is. Was she really talking about lunch? Oh boy, that would have thrown my whole day off. But she verified, no, I should show up at 7pm. It took me a while to realise myGoogle calendar, which I don't use, has not been changed to local time, so it was 11am Pacific time, while is 7pm local time. So, no miscommunication, just a glitch in my applications.

I tram to Chris’ work. Side note, it’s dark already! Even before our time change last week, you could tell it was getting dark earlier, but now, with the time change, it’s all over. It feels like winter as I head over in complete darkness to dinner at 6:45pm. 

I cross paths with one of Chris’ coworkers who gives me her keys (I was wondering how I was going to get into the building without buzzing or calling Chris to let me in). I “surprise” Chris with my presence and we head out to dinner at an authentic-German restaurant, Das Lokal. It was a nice evening with good people, good food, and no karaoke (Chris’ nightmare of a surprise). 

After dinner, we head back to HotelTonight to pick up Chris’ bag. On the way, I finally, to Chris’ delight, spoke a little Russian to one of the Russian coworkers. I was actually have to have a 3 way exchange. Me. Him. Me. But then he said one more thing and it was over for me… but, not bad for it being over almost 18 years since I’ve spoken Russian! 

And now it’s time to pack, pack, pack. We’re traveling again!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Day 76: The Underground Tour

Today I'm not walking home after walking with Chris to work. I'm headed back to the Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds) to buy tickets for today's M Tour. There are four underground tours, Tour 1, Tour 2, Tour 3, and The M tour. We found out later that the M represents the word "Mauer" which means "wall". And this tour is all about the escape attempts, failures, and successes under the Berlin Wall.

So, I walk. I could take a tram, except for two problems. One, a direct route doesn't exist, and due to the construction, by the time I take a route that works, I might as well just walk there. Two, and more importantly, I do not have my Bahn ticket with me. I forgot this fact at one point and thought, maybe I'll take a train home, after I buy the tickets... but then remembered I didn't bring my ticket. I'm stuck walking all the way. Guess I'm getting my steps in today!

But, kismet never fails to surprise me. As I'm walking across town, I happen to walk by a second hand store! Yay! I have tried searching for used clothing, but haven't found anything. I don't know the words in German to search, but now I've found it by accident. I walk in, taking a chance, to look for a costume solution for Venice. I find a costume rack, find a red dress that might work (but looks like it could be a little itchy) and a red shirt to go underneath (so it won't be itchy) and get out of the store for less than €10. Perfect! I'm feeling pretty good about myself, right about now.

No problem on the tickets. Not sold out at 10:30am (they start selling at 10am), phew. Now to walk home and "start" my day.

By the time I'm home, it's practically lunch time. I cook meatballs and noodles. I get to use the quiche dish I bought (to cook the meatballs) for the first time. I'm pretty happy about this. Since I bought it to make a quiche, but then never did make one.. it was a sad, but really nice, dish that was just sitting there. Side note: We purchased a lot of little items for the apartment (including hangars, desk fans, measuring cups, extra bowls, glass water-bottles, a bathroom rug, a desk, two chairs, etc.) that we're going to be leaving behind. Chris asked if we could leave behind all these items in the apartment and in return, the landlord would not require us to settle up our bill (our last payment was about €80 short due to conversion rates) or to pay the standard cleaning fee (about €200). So, that's a win-win!

Anyway, I cook the meatballs and the noodles. The packaging on the noodles (Asian dried "lo mein" style noodles) instruct me to "add some broth" and fry for 3-5 minutes. What is "some"? I added over two cups of water and more soy sauce... AND I had to cook them for almost 30 minutes. Maybe you need to have a wok to get them right. Lunch was a little late.

Not much time for anything else.

The kids stuck with their decision to not accompany us on the M Tour. I gave the kids €15 and a house key. I told them a few stores they could venture to, in order to buy a snack or two, while they were alone. And then I left to meet Chris at the Bahn.

The tour we are scheduled to take is the only M Tour in English (once a day), which I find out is great, because 90% of this tour is lecture-informational style. I'm instantly glad the kids didn't come, I think they'd be bored most of the time. And, I'm glad it's in English because I can understand all the history and facts our guide is giving us.

The beginning of Tour M.

Our guide. A Dutchman who MUST be an actor. He is fantastic in his delivery of history and facts. He has a knack for storytelling with a sense of humour. "Do you want to dig a tunnel here? Forget about it. There's too much water." "They needed to have 30 people on a team to dig this tunnel. Forget about it. It's going to be betrayed by one." He apologised up front for his English and his accent, but he spoke a mile a minute in a non-native language. I'm impressed.

Interestingly, a lot of the items on the tour are from private collections, thus we are not allowed to take photos in most of the areas. But, there were two places we could snap photos. The first is when we were exploring the second of three underground-escape methods. Here's a quick explanation of the three methods:

1) Existing subway tunnels. This method was quickly shut down, within months of the Wall. Train tunnels were walled up and tracks were taken away (so no hijacking a train into the West). The few railways that remained open would go from West to West, crossing a part of the East in the middle. The trains would not stop at the, now, "ghost" stations in the East. The guards on duty began with three. If one went to the bathroom, and one fell asleep, the third one would often jump into a tunnel and run for it. So, more guards on duty and a "mattress" of nails implemented so that one could no longer get into the tunnel.

Chris is the shadow on the right helping to
replace the manhole cover, as quietly as possible.
2) Sewer tunnels. This method, was also shut down quickly. But before this problem was "fixed", refugee helpers would help open manhole covers to allow refugees to climb in, then replace the manhole cover. All in the dead of night, as quietly as possible. The "gates" that were in the sewers only went to from ceiling to "water" levels, so that "bigger items" could flow through. So refugees had to duck under these gates into the muck to get to the other side. Eventually the gates were extended to the bottom so that no one could pass, however, now "bigger items" couldn't get through and muck would build up on these gates. Trustworthy East German Stasi would be in charge of cleaning up this muck (which gave our guide a chuckle to think about).

3) Hand-dug tunnels. This method, also was shut down somewhat quickly. At least, a lot sooner than I thought. I figured tunnels were always being attempted, but in reality, they were mostly in the first 1-2 years. Then, countermeasures (walls going down into the ground, Stasi collapsing tunnels, an environment of betrayers, etc.) were in place and tunnels were too dangerous to attempt.

The tour was all underground (duh!) So, as our guide was talking, he would periodically raise his voice to be heard over the trains going overhead. The trains felt like they were right there, but we are told that we are at least 10-12 meters underground.

Of course, there are no authentic tunnels available for viewing. But the organisation has recreated two tunnels. The first tunnel was over 100 meters in length (I want to say 125m) but never completed, by a West Berliner man who wanted to help his girlfriend and newborn baby to escape from the East. But, at 125m, the West Berlin polizei knocked on his door and said his tunnel was betrayed, he should stop digging. Side note: The man was able to bring his girlfriend and child over the border through legal means (which translates into time and a LOT of money) later. This man is still alive today. The organisation brought him to see "his" tunnel and he checked it out and gave his stamp of approval, saying, "But did you know we had a phone down there?" So the organisation installed a phone into their recreation!

Recreation of one tunnel (left and middle) and of a second, successful, tunnel (right)

Original plaque martyring Egon Schultz. 
One of the sadder stories we heard was about an escape attempt that was succesfful, albeit with a few casualties. All of the refugees and helpers made it out ok, but an East German soldier was killed. The East reported it as murder by one of the Western refugee helpers (in the beginning, escape attempts were peaceful with only arrests, but as time went on, refugees were fired upon causing them to arm themselves with guns and thus as escalation in violence). The Western refugee battled depression for his whole life with the knowledge of killing the young soldier, Egon Schultz, who was martyred by the Eastern-controlled press. Years later, but after the Western refugee had died, the truth came out that the Westerner only had struck Egon Shultz in the shoulder, and that the critical shots came from "friendly" fire. And thus ended our tour, on somewhat of a sad note. Sounds funny, maybe, as the entire tour was filled with sadness, oppression, and frustration. But this last story felt more personal in the injustice and seemed to embody the entire era of misinformation and treachery.

We're very glad to have been able to do this tour and very glad that the kids chose to skip it.

Time to change modes.

Dinner time! Decision time.

A restaurant Chris and I want to go to, or one that the kids will enjoy... they've been alone all afternoon, perhaps we can allow them to choose. But when we get back to the apartment, they were very successful in their adventure out on their own. They are full of soda, pudding, and candy. In the end, Chris and I decide to go to the restaurant we choose. It's Rôu, the one with the yummiest Pho Curry that's just downstairs. And when the kids are done eating their few appetisers, they head back to the apartment on their own and Chris and I are able to enjoy a quiet (no one else is in the restaurant... weird!) alone. I don't know if the owner recognises us, or if it's because we're the only ones there (again, why?) but he gives us a free dessert. I don't know what it was, but it was yummy. Some sort of rice-tapioca-sweet pudding in a soup of sweet cream. Delicious.

Before bed, Xander tries on his costume to see how it will feel. Looks pretty good, my cute little sushi!

Xander Sushi

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Day 75: Halloween Costumes

With time running out, I think of regrets. What didn't I get to do that I wanted to do? I know I've talked about our Bingo lists and that we've done most of what we wanted to do. This is still true. But there are little things that will bug me, little things I feel "I should have done." For example, there is a really cute way the teachers take little kids out on walks (to the park or a field trip, I don't know).  Really little kids. I'm guessing taking ten three-year olds to the park could be a nightmare with the fast traffic and wondering nature of the little ones.

Bicycle, with front cart, for sale.
There are two things that I see them doing to make it feasible to take the little kids out and about. First, they put a yellow vest on each kid. I have seen this up through first grade, perhaps. This makes them easy to spot by the teachers and drivers. What I don't know, is if several groups end up at the same park, how do the know which yellow kids are theirs? I suppose schools in the U.S. do this in their own manner. I've seen field trips where the kids are all wearing the same school t-shirt.  But this means each kid has to remember to bring their shirt, parents might have to buy a shirt, or something like this to ensure each kid has one on the day of the outing. The yellow vests are perfect. There is always one for each kid, parents and kids don't have to remember to bring anything, and they're probably one size fits all.

The second thing I see are their wagons. They can fit 8-10 kids in one wagon. They are all sitting upright and facing forwards. The teacher pulls the wagon or "drives" the wagon, much like a stroller, but big. This is awesome! I wanted to take a photo, but felt creepy photographing small children without their consent or knowledge. I've tried looking online for photos of these wagons and I can't find any. I must not be using the correct terms. So, this is one regret I have. No photo of these cool wagons.

I do have a photo of a single "cart" that is popular over here. You ride your bicycle and the kid sits in front with a 5 pt. harness and enjoys their front view (see photo). But, the wagons or carts that holds lots of kids are impressive and I wish I had a photo to share.

This morning, it's all about making sure we don't have more regrets. So, I spend most of the morning researching and buying tickets to the last few places we'll visit while here. A second aquarium and another tall building with the fastest elevator in Europe. One will allow me to share my confirmation number on my phone, the other I send a pdf to Chris and ask that he print them out for me.

We meet up with Chris at Tin Tan for our last (lots of "lasts" coming up) lunch there. Mexican street food. Yum.

After lunch, we head to HotelTonight with Chris. I need the printed tickets from Chris... and hey, why not use the bathroom while we're there? As we head over, we jaywalk... right in front of the polizei (whoops!) We've read that they frown upon jaywalking (they like their rules, remember?) But, the polizei doesn't do anything, I don't even know if he gave us a dirty look (I figure, if I don't look at him, he can't see me, right?) Side note: The other day, Chris saw a polizei tell a bicyclist to walk their bike on the sidewalk (they were riding it on the sidewalk). But, other than that time, we haven't seen anyone be bothered about their bicycles or jaywalking.... which we do all the time here.

The pillar in the front area is "chalkboard" on all sides. Looks like they have fun with it.

We are now ready to run some errands. The kids need Halloween costumes. They have both finally decided on what they'd like to be for Halloween and we need to go acquire some items. Xander has chosen to be "sushi" and Venice has chosen to be "Azula (a character from the Avatar series".

We can't get to the Galleria the way we want to... you guessed it! More construction on a different tram line. I'm glad all these cancelled or diverted routes are happening now and not at the beginning of our trip. We know this part of town pretty well now. We make mistakes and have to turn around sometimes, but we are comfortable understanding the different lines and how to circumvent these "outages" with relative ease. It's mostly a pain in that it takes longer to get somewhere as we are sometimes transferring 1-2 times instead of taking a tram directly there. I suppose there might be some more direct routes... if only we could read the German signs.

While waiting at this Bahn stop, we noticed that the Blue Man Group (yes, they're here!)
is hitting his drum with the top of the Fernsehturm. Cool.

We make it to the Galleria and spend the next few hours looking inside for things we need to create their costumes. We begin with Xander. White-fuzzy jacket (rice), check. Red pillow (fish), check. Black scarf (seaweed), check. Xander is done. Venice's costume is harder. She would like a red robe, but not a terry cloth robe and not a jacket that is over €200. So, we search for along time and come up empty.

There are other errands we need to do, so we must abandon Venice's costume hunt for now. We are off to Ritter Sport for the last time to get chocolate to bring home. Chris and I counted our Nespresso capsules the other day. There are just enough to get us through to the end, so the kids and I can walk by the Nespresso Boutique. Although, as we do, I am silently worried we have miscounted and that we'll run out of caffeine, which would truly stink.

Another pretty Bahn station (left) and a cool building (right)

As we walk to Ritter Sport, we pass by a store that has a Harrods section. The window has the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, a double-decker-red bus and other things "London". I asked the kids to pose in front of the window, telling them that we'd be there, at the real Harrods, NEXT WEEK! They obliged and smile for me.

Harrods (left) and a Buddy Bear (right)

You can se the Fernsehturm behind
Hackescher Markt's construction.
Oh, the amounts of chocolate we bought. Don't tell Chris. I'm going to have to box it up quickly and ship it along quickly. The weight can add up... We're pretty excited, though, because they had their advent calendars and the kids each got to pick one for themselves. So much better than the chocolate you find in the U.S. advent calendars!

Then off to another errand. We needed to get to Hackescher Markt. But our trams don't go there anymore. So we get there circuitously. There definitely was a lot of construction going on in that area. Now we can visually see why the trams don't come here.... giant holes in the street. Side note: some construction has begun on our street, too. I guess, because it's winter, we haven't heard any construction noises through our closed windows. It's a bit surprising to see how far they've gotten (a big hole, when did they make that?)

Anyway, Venice gets one last Bubble Tea from her favourite place. Xander and I waited outside while Venice went in an ordered by herself. Something she noticed is that the people behind the counter have name tags with flags on them. The flags seem to represent the languages spoken by the worker. So, she ordered someone with a British Flag on their name tag. Easy peasy!

Finally, it's time to return to our apartment. We take a Bahn, then run for a bus and we make it home to finally rest our feet. I take this time to call our bank because they think there is fraudulent behaviour on my account. This is something that we're grateful for (a watchful bank) and yet it's been frustrating and interesting on what gets flagged. I have been taking cash out of the ATM, here, for months... but only two times did they flag my account. And not in the first two months. Weird. Also, I have used our Credit Card several times over here, some on line and some in person, but today I was denied. They flag the account and I have to call and say the transactions are valid, then I can try again. Again, we've been here for so long and only now certain transactions are showing up as possible fraud. I think they need to update their algorithms!

Anyway, while I'm on the phone fixing my card, Chris begins to text that he's available for dinner with us. It's Tuesday, and normally he has to work fairly late. We had planned to eat without him. But, yay, we get to have dinner together. We meet at Tommie's Burger (our last time to get their yummy food and shakes), at which point, Chris said he's available for dinner because the U.S. hasn't changed from Daylight's Savings yet. So, instead of having their cross-continent company meeting at 7pm, they were able to have it at 6pm. Awesome! Too bad it's only good for one week. I think the U.S. changes next week? Or shortly thereafter. In any case, we only get to enjoy this early meeting once. We'll take it.

Time for bed.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Day 74: Shipping and Friends

This morning, Chris and I took our two big luggage bags to the Mailboxes Etc. store.

Filling out the many papers for customs (left)
The two big bags (right)
Again, it's one of those mind games we play. We went in with a price point in mind (which took a lot of debate.. do we, do we not... what is our time worth... what is a ridiculous amount to spend... but we don't want to carry the bags all over...). But you come to decision you feel good about, so you move forward.

Then you get there, and the guy behind the counter gives you a number (what he thinks it's going to cost) and you gulp. It's 50% more than what you came up with in your mind game. But, you're somewhat committed. You move forward trepidatiously. And, phew. When the final price is revealed, it's a lot less than the guy's estimate, but more than you previously thought it would be. But by now, you're so relieved it isn't the huge number that scared you, so you just say, "Do it!"

And then you run home and email your family member you're sending it to that it'll be there faster than you thought, and oh by the way, is it ok that we sent it to you? THANKS, Paul and Tori!

With our wallets empty, Chris heads to work and I head back to the apartment. I have big things on our to-do list today. HAIR and SHOWERS. The kids must take showers. I will cut Xander's hair. I will dye my own roots. This takes all morning and a bit of the early afternoon. But, it's worth it (the kids may not agree, but it is so).

Machine rim (left) and the lint I extracted (right)
The kids eat re-heated pancakes from the other morning (yay for microwaves!) I do more laundry. Side note: there is no lint screen that I can find. Chris once asked a coworker about this and her reply was, "Yeah, that's something you have to be careful of with these machines." She mentioned how sometimes the machine won't work as long as it's supposed to and you can help with its lifespan if you take care to remove the lint. But again, there is no lint screen. So, for each load, I'm scraping, by hand, the soggy lint from the rim of the machine.

There is the main part of the rim, which is easy to access and then there is "inside". Look at the photo above and see the slight gap in the rubber seal? One must pry this apart and stick their fingers inside, swipe, and try to get all the lint that has accumulated in there. If it's slightly damp, it's easier to gather it up. If it's dryer, then you tend to slide over the lint and can't make it bunch up, making it near impossible to grab. It's a battle. I will be very grateful to have a lint screen again where it's super easy to grab all the lint and toss it in the trash. Ahhh, the little things in life.

Our plans for this evening are to head to dinner with an old friend, Barry (we knew him BK - before kids). He is in town on business, as he comes to Berlin about once a quarter. Chris is carving pumpkins at work this evening, so we'll have to meet him there as well. Side note: Of the 10 or so HotelTonight employees staying to carve pumpkins, Chris is the ONLY one who has ever done this before. So, by default, he is their instructor of tips and hints. I asked if anyone's lid fell in, but Chris replied that his first instruction was to carve at an angle to avoid a "falling lid". Good job, Chris!

Their pumpkins turned out great!

Chris' pumpkin is the second row, one in from the left (it has an "H-bed" on the lid.

Funny story: Whoever was in charge of getting the pumpkins and carving utensils, didn't get candles! So they could not light them up at first. However, the next day when we visited, someone had picked up a bunch of tea-lights, so, phew, they'll get to enjoy them fully before they mould over!

So, last minute, we decided to meet Chris in front of his work so we can walk a few blocks together. We head to the restaurant, where Barry is already enjoying a beer. Barry tries to settle his bill, but they say to just bring his beer to the table. This is very common. Your drinks and food follow you where ever you go and you settle your bill at the end of the night. In tonight's scenario, all is added onto one bill. But in other situations, if you have a large group, you might just walk up to the register and tell them what you had and pay your bill (so no need for them to split a large bill into "who-had-what"). Pretty handy! Another great example of how the culture is honest and people follow the rules of paying for what they got.

Xander (and his newly cut hair)
at the restaurant.
It was a nice evening catching up with Barry. The kids might disagree (and I've never heard them so quiet before!) They were bored, bored, bored, with the adult conversations about work, family, and stuff. Good thing it's a weeknight and everyone has to go to work tomorrow. The evening wasn't too long and before we know it, it's time to say good-night/good-bye to Barry.

We're off to find a bus (to take instead of a tram, due to construction). Here's the thing.... bus drivers here are cray-cray. They are double-long with super-serious turning radius. So, the "front" bus will point angle towards the curb, close behind a parked vehicle, to pick people up at a stop. Chris says, "No way he gets out without hitting the parked car." But he does! And, he goes through chicanes of barriers and other cars like he's on a motorcycle instead of a double-long bus. I wish I had a video. At one point, I had to stop looking out the front window as I was gasping at every turn. Phew!

Phew! Another day ends safely.

P.S. This checks off one of my "Bingo" items (to see someone we know in a foreign country! Yay!