Monday, February 25, 2013

Week One on the Normandy Farm

"Come on! Help me get this down!" I urged Kyle to get our luggage from the overhead compartment to depart from the train.

"We still have at least 15 minutes before we even slow down.  Relax, would you?" he replied impatiently.

I was so excited to meet Alex, the French portion of the English-French couple we agreed to help out for the next three weeks, that I'd already been to the bathroom three times, once for its proper use, and the other two to smooth down my hair and moisturize my skin from a damaging day of travel.  When we finally unloaded, I started on slowly, not wanting to barge through the station searching the greeters' faces.  I had only seen a few pictures of Alex, but we spotted her rather quickly, smiling warmly and grasping a black leash attached to a giant black-colored collie.  We exchanged hellos, and she explained that Gin is their guard dog, understandably wary of strangers.  She thought she'd give us a chance to meet him outside his territory and give him a head start on becoming accustomed to us.  He glared at us through his chocolate brown eyes, then we headed for the car, a large black Land Rover.  I walked around the car a few times, trying to sort out which seat to take; the steering wheel was on the right side of the car.
After all the gray and cold, we were finally greeted by blue skies

 We chatted the 20 or so minutes back to the house, a huge stone building, once serving the village's manor family.  There are two huge stone barns, and several large fields.  As we pulled in, two other dogs barked and ran along the tires, anxious to see their owner's face behind the wheel.  Gin burst out of the trunk and continued eying us suspiciously.  The other two dogs leapt at our feet, tails wagging furiously.  Brigit, the fluffy mutt, took any rubs and pets she could extract.  Shadow, the husky-German shepherd mix, pranced around sniffing us down all the way to the door.

The sun was shining brightly, and we were happy to leave our heavy winter coats inside.  Ed came to greet us in the kitchen, just as warmly as Alex had.  His soft eyes and traditional English accent (and sense of sarcasm) won us both over immediately.  The couple showed us around the house first, then the grounds with the dogs sprinting to catch up to each new location.  The bottom floor is split into two main parts, the front half for daily living, the back half unfinished with paint cans, packed boxes, and other things necessary for finishing the house.  It was a shock at first to see the dogs covered in pond water and dirt traipsing through the house, but the house really doesn't feel dirty, so to speak.  The upstairs is finished, more or less, so no dogs allowed.  There's a kitchen Alex is constantly cursing about, as she doesn't yet have cabinet space and just recently got a stove.  She was using hot plates before.  The place is furnished with the neighbors’ hand-me-downs since they don't want to buy anything nice (or as they say, posh) until the big projects (floors, walls, etc) are completed.  The bottom floor is heated solely by a wood burning stove, which makes coming in from a cool day of work very inviting.  Especially when Ed has made, in his eyes, the only respectable brand of English Breakfast tea with a splash of milk.

The main house in Le Mesnil Veneron
 There are four horses in the large barn, all 12 years or older.  In the first stall resides Trilly, a large black female who is very well-trained and mild.  Next is Jack, who is 26-years-old and a pure New Forest breed.  During the day when the horses are in the field, Jack is kept in his own roped off area because he's known to be "a naughty monkey" with the other horses, in Ed's words.  Next is the patchy-haired giant Madison, who Alex says will follow just about anyone's instructions.  Finally, the youngest chestnut female Poppy has the largest stall and the largest personality.  She's very spry and active, always trying to escape or walk around to shove her bum in your face for a nice rub down.  Over the past week (has it really been an entire week?!), I've learned how to fill and hang the hay nets for their evening snacks, shovel out manure, sweep out the stalls, fill them with new straw and other materials for bedding, lead them out to the field or back into the stalls, clean mud out of their shoes, prepare their respective dinners, and brush them.  It's a lot of work, but having them around is pretty rewarding in many ways

Madison, Trilly, and Poppy

Jack in his separate pen, along with some gorgeous oaks
 After a few hours of touring the grounds and moving into our new room, we sat down for a late dinner prepared by Alex.  It was their light meal for the day, so we had a couple slices of a delicious leek and onion quiche with a large basket of sliced baguette.  Over the meal we discussed our plan for the workaway.  You're probably wondering what that is.  Upon researching ways to travel cheaply or even free, we found Workaway, a program throughout the world where farmers agree to host travelers in exchange for their work.  You pay a small fee for a membership (to keep the less committed and crazies out, I suppose), then have freedom to roam the site for places to visit.  Different families offer different things, but typically you get room and board for about 25 hours of work a week.  We contacted a few families in France, and Alex and Ed responded first.  They said they needed help with wood during this time of the year.  At the backside of one field, there's a giant hedge needing trimmed.  Not a hedge in the American front lawn sense, but a large line of trees, bushes, brambles, and overgrowth separating Alex and Ed's land from the neighboring dairy farmer.  Every seven years or so, hedges should be stripped down, which somehow encourages the hedge to grow more orderly down the center again.  What's large enough is saved for firewood, and the rest is burned.  The hedge we were to confront hadn't been cut in over twenty years.

Alex and Ed needed to drive their daughter Roxanne to the airport on Monday, which happened to be near a very interesting city they thought we might like to see.  We agreed to take advantage of the opportunity and exchanged Saturday for having Monday off.  We planned to meet for breakfast at 8:00, then headed to bed.

Four hens who have been providing fresh eggs for the quiches
 The next morning was quite surprising because we learned that in French tradition, and particularly in this village, families still sit down together for every meal.  People aren't grabbing a bagel on their way out the door or having a bowl of cereal over the morning newspaper.  We helped set the table, then all sat down to eat. Breakfast has been the same every morning: a basket of baguette slices with a collection of spreads and a pot of coffee.  We tested Alex’s homemade apricot and rhubarb jams and their individual slabs of cream cheese.  Then the four of us headed to the barn to collect the necessary tools for cutting the hedge, a chainsaw, handsaw, loppers, and fuel.  Gin, Brigit, and Shadow tagged along, weaving between our legs and splashing happily through the mud.  Brigit is 15-years-old, so she usually just barks at the other two wrestling and chasing each other all day through the fresh air. 

As close to a photo of Brigit I could get with a camera; she's bashful in her old age
We spent the morning working our muscles, dragging sawed trees to be trimmed down, sawing smaller trunks by hand, and sorting the wood for keeping and burning.  What would have been a hard job turned into quite a trying one because the entire field is under water.  The horses have stomped through it enough to make it one big mud puddle.  Thankfully there were plenty of Wellies to spare; I can’t imagine any pair of shoes in that mess.  In some spots we sank, others suctioned to our boots so we’d pause and tug for a while, but most just clung to us like giant globs of glue.  After a few hours we headed back to the house for a lunch break.  The daughter Roxanne was in from England for the weekend staying with her boyfriend, the farmer next door.  They were coming for lunch, so Alex hurriedly prepared the fixings.  Because the boyfriend Eric is French, Alex felt it necessary to have a proper French lunch, the biggest meal of the day in most households. 

Still working on capturing Gin, but Shadow is more than happy to pose

Very happy to pose
We started with an aperitif, a drink to get the hunger juices flowing, along with some pretzels.  Next came the starter with another aperitif.  The starter consisted of dried duck breast, bread, and marinated, grated carrots.  We ate this slowly and sipped our tiny glasses of strong and sweet red wine.  After everyone had finished, we moved on to the main meal, beef bourguignon cooked in local cider overknepfle (or spaetzle).  We ate this with our small glasses filled with the same cider.  After the main dish, we ate the salad, traditionally after the main meal in France.  A platter of delicious cheeses was shared following the salad course, along with more bread.  Last came crepes with apple filling and a rum sauce.  After this large meal, the French head back out for a few more hours of work.  I sat there with my head buzzing a bit from the alcohol and my stomach bulging.  I dragged my feet to the garage and slowly pulled my once green, now brown boots over my feet.  We stumbled through the field with two extra helpers, Roxanne and Eric.  Like I said, Eric is a real farmer, so he handled the chainsaw like a professional while most of us just dragged the wood around.  After a couple more hours, it was time to call it a day.

Most days have followed this same routine.  We meet for a breakfast of baguettes and spreads at 8:00 then head out around 9 or 9:30 depending on the frost covering the ground.  We work on the hedge for two hours then come in to do work in the stables for another hour.  We relax for a bit until our massive lunch, then head back out to the hedge for two more solid hours.  We come in and change out of our mud-covered clothing, hang it to dry for the next day, then relax.  Ed usually makes a cup of tea with cookies, excuse me biscuits, and we all enjoy the evening with a book or laptop.  Later at around 8:00 we eat a lighter meal, again at the table, then make our way to bed.    

After one day on the hedge - can you see the line where his Wellies stop?
It feels incredible to be physically exhausted when we finally collapse into bed at night, and it’s really enjoyable sitting down properly for each meal.  We are forced to converse, no matter the situation, which has made us all get to know one another quite quickly.  Every meal Alex has prepared has been remarkable.  We’ve had pumpkin apple ginger soup, bacon and onion quiche, veal casserole, sausage and sauerkraut, roasted cheesy potatoes, veal polpette (delicious!), and many other creations.  The cheese platter has quickly become our favorite part of the meal, with blue cheese, the region’s famous Camembert, goat cheese, munster, and on and on it goes.  Some mornings when Alex stops at the bakery, we have a treat of croissants with chocolate or raisins.  She’s made apple cake, rice pudding, and flamed bananas as dessert.  It’s really amazing how she works part-time as a Marketing instructor, works almost as many hours as we do on the land (about 25), and does all the cooking and cleaning in a week.  Not only that - every day she turns out two fabulous meals.  She’s very focused and motivated, speaking quickly through a think French accent despite having lived in England for 20+ years.  She readily gives orders and tells you bluntly what she expects.  She’s very pleased to have found someone to indulge in dessert with (me) and two people who ravenously enjoy her food.  Ed, in a completely different manner, is a complete pleasure to be around.   His witty sense of humor always catches you off guard.  He has an encyclopedia of knowledge running through his mind at any given moment.  He’s informed us all about the region of Normandy and jumps into just about any conversation with a sage view.  He takes plenty of time and effort in explaining any new job to us, often getting off-topic and onto some tangent for quite some time.  He’s patient, easy to laugh, and always congratulating us after our work, always saying, “Well done!”  He’s retired, but happily involved in the village by playing table tennis twice a week and golf another day.  I think he very easily could be the funniest person I’ve ever met, half the time without meaning to be. I really can’t believe how lucky we are, having contacted a few farms on a website, then committing to the first couple that responded, and getting on so well with these complete strangers with whom we’d only exchanged a few e-mails. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Kyle's Birthday in Strasbourg, France

The glass latticework of the train station in Strasbourg, France surrounded us, and as we strained our necks, following the signs for Tram C, we were suddenly aware of the daunting officers pacing with what appeared to be machine guns clutched against their torsos.  It wasn't the most welcoming first sight of France, but we carried on. 

To our relief, with each stop on the tram, our surroundings became more and more picturesque.  The road split to accommodate a wide median with tram tracks perfectly aligned and cutting straight through the center.  On either side of the tracks, trees appeared with branches that resembled an arthritic hand and clusters of giant spikes shooting from each final knob, looking like arrows stopped mid-air.  The cheap storefronts and dirty sidewalks transformed into stoic sandstone and white and black timber-frames.

The view from our window

We used airbnb again to rent a flat for the week, and as Strasbourg is more of a spring-summer tourist destination, we got a fair deal on a perfectly located, large, and clean apartment overlooking a canal.  Per our usual luck, the weather was miserably cold upon arrival, so we bundled up for a stroll around our new, temporary neighborhood.  The flat owner was kind enough to stock the cupboards with some basics and some not-so-basics, so we didn't have a pressing objective.  Like all our previously visited cities, we walked around, rubbernecking.  Before coming to Europe, I thought surely all the movies and books that depict quaint European villages must be an exaggeration, some fairy tale.  From what I've seen so far, they really don't.  We crossed foot and cycle bridges onto cobblestone walkways spread along cozy cafes, fresh bakeries, and other specialty trades.  Hand-holding couples walked by with baguettes laid across their arms. Children trotted along the canals, arms stretched out hoping to snatch a swan or duck.

In the quaint little neighborhood called Petite France in Strasbourg

 At one time the largest building in Europe, we used the spires of Notre Dame de Strasbourg as our beacon.  Finally we came upon the base of the great Gothic church after weaving through the narrow streets, barely wide enough for one car.  Giant mismatched stones of the gray family made up the bulk of the structure and stacked up to the bases of the cathedral's peaks, which reminded me of the drip castles I used to make with sand.  The only inconsistency of the stonework was the giant wooden door.  Dozens of gargoyles stretched out from the sides.  A stained glass window with a giant spiral of tight petals decorated the church's face.  The bustle of activity outside the enormous church (I can't wait to see the Notre Dame de Paris!) was practically silenced when we passed through the front doors.  One corner was lit by tables of votive candles.  Another corner held the enormous crucifix, where putting one Euro into the slot lit the spotlights for 2 or 3 minutes.  The ceilings were so high it was easy to miss the sculpted heads jutting out where the peaks met.  The pulpit was enormous, though it looked small being so far away from the entrance.  Along one side, a gorgeous, ornate pipe organ took up the entire space.  Hundreds of simple wooden chairs were arranged in precise rows.  We took seats smack in the center and just gazed around for awhile, knowing it was impossible to get a grasp on the massive interior.

Notre Dame de Strasbourg

Notre Dame de Strasbourg
 We spent a few more days like this, running an errand or two per day, but mostly just doing exactly what we felt like doing during each part of the day.  When Kyle's birthday came around, I decided to let him plan the day.  We woke up around 8:00 AM and headed straight out the door.  Stopping at the first bakery we came to, we grabbed a couple of croissants and a coffee each.  We walked with our breakfast to the cathedral, where we sat waking up and quietly talking.  Next we strolled along the canals in the crisp air.  After awhile, we just so happened to find a bookstore.  It was organized in the most interesting way - the bottom floor was all literature arranged by country (French authors, English, German, etc).  The second floor was for children, and the top floor held the science, philosophy, art, and business sections.  The consistent white shelves contrasted quite nicely against the solid wood flooring.  The flashy best sellers and new releases of Barnes and Noble were nowhere to be found.  Everything was clean, organized, and scholarly looking.  In other words, it was Kyle's ideal.  Everything was in French, but this didn't stop Kyle from buying.  After we had picked through everything, we headed back to the apartment for lunch.  I made some elaborate egg sandwiches with fresh French mayonnaise, tomato, thick-sliced bacon, and avocado, then we polished off the chocolate chip cookies from the day before.  I got started on the cake of Kyle's choosing, peanut butter cake with salted chocolate ganache, while Kyle reveled in the quiet time with his Kindle.

A birthday smirk

Inside the enormous cathedral

Cookies and milk after a birthday brunch

His excitement over his new purchase is palpable
The canals of Strasbourg

Our brightly colored apartment
While the cake cooled, we cracked open a few beers, courtesy of our kind host, and started playing some music.  We spent a couple hours sipping, talking, and making song requests on YouTube.  For dinner, we walked down a few blocks to an Indian restaurant.  We started with Riesling and samosas, then dived into some of the best quality Indian we've had.  A creamy sauce of butter and tomatoes with chunks of tender chicken made up my meal, and Kyle dined on a thick spinach sauce with lamb.  We tore through the flat garlicky naan and inhaled the savory aroma of saffron basmati rice.  Stuffed to the gills, loopy on beer and wine, we conquered the cold again intent on finding a warm bar.  We quickly found a place of interest, and as we entered, old 90's American pop was pulsing through the speakers.  We ordered a couple of beers and slid into one of the wooden booths.  We laughed and watched groups of 20-year-olds flirting awkwardly and one group of middle-aged men drinking brightly colored drinks with umbrellas at the bar.  After a couple of beers, we took to the streets again, this time in search of dessert.  I performed a solo of "Happy Birthday" in Kyle's honor, then we cut the cake.  A few more YouTube requests later, we collapsed happily into bed.

Making due with the only dish that would accommodate our peanut butter cake (recipe here by the way - mine is so flat because though I found baking powder (levuvre) in the store, it was definitely yeast...)

Last but not least, I obnoxiously documented most of the day. Clearly, we've spent too much time together and are in dire need of some new company.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Final Week in Germany

I know you're all excited to hear of this farming stint, but bear with me, I've got a few chronologically correct items to share first.  Trust me, I'm bursting at the seams, ready to note every detail of this place to you.  For now, I'll tell you this much: we adore everything so far!

Where did we leave off? I guess it was Berlin.  After such a fantastic start to our journey, it was difficult to leave.  We'd found favorite cafes and restaurants and felt relatively comfortable getting around the city.  There seemed to be so much more to see.  However, we had a commitment to stay with a friend in Ludwigshafen, Germany, so we bought our train tickets, stuffed our bags, and took off.  Austin, Kyle's friend and my acquaintance from high school, is a chemical engineer with a 6-month post at BASF in Mannheim.  He kindly met us at the train station, where we commuted to the neighbor city of Ludwigshafen, which according to the Germans, is an embarrassing trash heap of a city that they're not so keen on claiming.  To us, it looked like any old, slightly run down city in the U.S.  I mean, we lived in Toledo for four years...

The week was quite uneventful, but pleasurable nonetheless.  Austin's company sent him to intensive German language lessons for the week, so we had mornings and afternoons to ourselves, then reconvened in the evenings together.  We visited a few grungy, dark bars, continued our binge of German beer, and also tried some of the region's famous wines.  Austin made us feel completely at home, and with his fully stocked kitchen, I lost myself in preparing a few old favorite recipes for the two hungry men.  We explored the city in our favored fashion, taking long walks, getting lost, then finding ourselves again.  It was relaxing after the flurry of activity we found in Berlin, and I know I don't speak only for myself when I say it sure was nice to have someone outside of our couple to converse with, especially an engineer, a close enough relation to the family of physics.

Kyle on the Rhein which separates Ludwigshafen and Mannheim

One day we woke up and hopped on a train to Heidelberg, the next biggest city.  During WWII, the U.S. Army used this city as a garrison, so it went mostly unscathed considering what damage was done to the rest of the country.  As such, it has many of the oldest buildings in the country, such as the oldest library.   We walked up and down the cobblestone streets, gawking at the beautiful old buildings.  This all happened after I threw a mild hissy fit about it being so damn cold.  The air felt chilly but reasonable when we left Mannheim, you see, but Heidelberg is in the foothills of some decent-sized mountains.  Plus is started sleeting rather ferociously which made my umbrella useless.  After I pouted for awhile, Kyle found us a cafe and grumbled about my mood, then after some caffeine and nutrients, we both became much more agreeable.  We walked through the city a bit more before heading back to Mannheim.

The Church of the Holy Spirit in Heidelberg

All smiles after the sleet stopped

The city square in Heidelberg with what remains of the city's castle in the distance

Searching through the fog for a girl whose mood isn't so dependent upon her stomach

The streets of Heidelberg

After several nights in Austin's flat, we had our first adventure as Couch Surfers.  Have you heard of this?  The website may explain more clearly, but basically, people lend out their couches for a night or two to travelers looking to save money.  There is no cost for the couch; it's a community of people who have couch-surfed themselves and are looking to give back. Maybe they plan to surf in the future.  We contacted some potential hosts in Berlin, but as we have no experience and thus no references/reviews with the organization, nothing worked out.  A kind-looking girl called Jacqui contacted us when she saw from our profile that we'd be near Mannheim.  She commutes to Mannheim, she told us, and would be happy to host us in her small village of Goennheim.  We checked out her profile and, although we had a place to stay with Austin, decided it would be a good first trial.

Jacqui picked us up after work near the train station and drove us to her apartment.  She lives in the small village of 1000 or so residents with her husband and two cats (!!).  Along the drive, we discovered the only place she's visited within the U.S. is Columbus, OH.  She asked, with a very hopeful tone, if the old bookstore in German village still stands.  It was quite interesting to imagine a real German spending a few weeks in the German village of Columbus that we so adored when we lived there.  She wrestled a bit with her GPS system -- despite having lived in the area her whole life -- and pulled a basket of groceries out of the trunk when we arrived.  She seemed genuinely interested in sharing her little town's stories as she guided us up to her second floor flat.  It was situated in a large building with a Turkish man living below her, some of his relatives in the flat across the driveway, and her father's carpentry shop below them.  It was an adorable little village, with matching architecture throughout.  Jacqui and Christoph prepared pizza while I stalked the 2 year-old tigers.  We laughed over dinner, comparing our respective experiences with German and American TV, films, and books.  The apartment was decorated exclusively by Jacqui, who enjoys finding old furniture then reconditioning it.  The TV was propped on a set of old, painted crates.  The dishes and silverware were housed in a very old pushcart.   

Christoph and Jacqui thought it was ridiculous, but they truly wanted to give us a tour of their town.  It was rather dark after dinner, so they toted a spot light, with Christoph lighting up the appropriate building or doorway as Jacqui narrated.  There was one bakery, one salon, a handful of restaurants, a library that only opens on Friday evenings, and a convenience store that also serves as a bank and post office.  It was really wonderful seeing the more traditional life of German people.  The next morning Jacqui laid out practically an entire continental breakfast then made several sandwiches to take on our train ride to Strasbourg. I patted Peanut (who's said to have a brain the size of his namesake) and Pumpkin's heads one last time, as they simply refused to be squirreled away in my luggage.  We nodded hello to Jacqui's father in his workshop, then drove through the gorgeous mountainsides of western Germany to the train station. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Ich bin in Berlin

Can traveling purge the negativity and cynicism out of a person? I'm not sure, but if it can, I think that might be happening to me.  Every time we enter a new city, move to new lodging, or take a new tour, I feel my perspective being let out a few inches.  Better than my waistband, although that's heading in a similar direction. 

One definite area of growth stems from being an outsider for so long.  I know now very deeply what it feels like to be out of place, and as a result, I've often thought of my residents in International House at UT, poring over bus timetables to get to a grocery store to hopefully find comfort in familiar food and spices from home.  Or the European travelers I'd serve at First Watch in Naples, who would peer up at me over their menus, smiling sheepishly as they pointed to items they couldn't pronounce.  There are so many different levels of being an outsider, from traveling to a new city in your home country to immigrating alone across an entire ocean.  Though perhaps a bit minor, I've promised myself a hundred times over that I will never roll my eyes or huff at someone because they don't speak English or they are having a hard time getting around.  With a wider gaze, I've been making a conscious effort to think further than my first impressions or attitude towards people. 

Uncomfortable and awkward interactions have caused me to reconsider my actions or analyze different aspects of the exchange after it has taken place.  When twice in a row servers who were genuinely kind and genial throughout our meals stared at our payment a moment too long, then gave the slightest raised eyebrow in confusion, I rushed home to research German restaurant etiquette. (You're supposed to read the total, round it up to a whole number that includes your tip, then hand it over to the server who stands waiting, in case you were wondering).  In the past I would have shaken it off as a coincidence.  Maybe people are rude because they're rude people, or maybe you've done something that offends them without realizing.  Or maybe they're just having a bad day.  Whatever the explanation, giving people the benefit of the doubt or even just a second thought isn't a waste of time.  Even better, I learn a little more about myself and my emotions through this type of analysis.

Even though I don't always behave with the most sanguine disposition, my perspective now includes acknowledging what proper social behavior entails.  Perhaps not proper behavior, but that which leads to desired responses.  I guess what I'm saying is, at age 24, I'm finally truly feeling the value of the Golden Rule. For instance, when Kyle and I bought train tickets from a French attendant instead of a multi-lingual machine, I prodded etiquette tips into his ribs when the woman's loss of patience started getting the best of him.  When I miscounted and handed her too many bills, she gave a you-idiot-just-standing-there-watching-your-boyfriend-do-all-the-work-speaking-French-then-you-can't-even-count-out-the-right-amount-of-money look, I really wanted to glare at her.  I really did.  Instead, I laughed and slipped the bill into my wallet, silly me.  You know what she did? She smiled! Then she smiled again as she handed us the receipt.  Meanwhile, I spent the 20 minute walk home cursing over an e-mail I'd received only hours before... it's a slow road of progress.

What I mean to say, we've reached the fourth city on our list, and I'm beginning to notice myself unraveling.  In a good way.  It's as if I've been coiled up like a spring but this freedom is relaxing the tight, symmetrical curves into a loosely flowing ribbon.  I'd hoped a year abroad would change me in such a way, and though it's taken time, I'm very pleased with the direction I'm headed.

Is all of Europe this beautiful or have we had beginner's luck in our choice of stops?  Berlin was maybe the most fantastic city I've seen.  The last week we spent renting a room of an apartment in a neighborhood called Schöneberg.   We came across a website - airbnb, a fantastic discovery - which allows users to rent apartments or put apartments up for rent.  You can rent private rooms, entire apartments, or entire houses.  Sometimes people have a spare room and are looking to make a few extra bucks.  Other times people have multiple residences and rent one of them when they're staying elsewhere.  We found a great price on a place in Schöneberg and snatched it up.  We spent a couple weeks boarding with a strange middle-aged man from New Zealand.  

Our extravagant rented private room that folded up into a living room each day.
The opportunity to take in such a diverse city over a period of weeks was rare.  It's not often you get to gain a 'feel' for a place; usually after a week it's time to pack up and head home.  A few of my favorite parts were:

1.  Sandeman's Walking Tour (info here): A trained free-lance tour guide walked us around the center of the city, filling our minds with history and facts, culture and folklore.  She was a fast-talking Brit who took one step in Berlin and decided immediately to move there.  We stood over the bunker where Hitler hid and eventually bit down on rat poison.  You'll be happy to hear there is no marking or sign on this spot; it is literally a dirt parking lot covered in litter.

Our guide pointed out the hotel where much to the public's horror, Michael Jackson dangled his newborn out the window. 

Apparently it costs upward of $15,000 a night to stay in this hotel, not including breakfast!

Our guide also wound us through the Jewish Memorial, where several thousand cold, gray concrete blocks of varying heights stand.  Narrow, gridlike paths cut past the blocks, which grow in height as you reach the center.  Curiously, the paths are wide enough for only one person, and with giant blocks every few steps, it's quite easy to lose your companion.  Just like it was easy to lose your friends and family members as the Jews were rounded up throughout Germany.  Through the pathways, you never know who will be around the next corner.  It's easy to run into complete strangers without hearing their approach.  As you head to the center, the walls build up around you, making the paths seem thinner and thinner, and you desperately seek an exit.  The designer was purposely very vague in his explanation of the memorial, which I think is a great idea.  Without having the meaning laid out for me, I've spent a lot more time thinking about what the memorial means, thus thinking of those Jews who died during the Holocaust.

We walked by Checkpoint Charlie, walked along Museum Island, and saw the few remaining portions of the Berlin Wall.  The tour concluded with an amazing tale about Günter Schabowski and his silly mistake which quickly led to the wall being torn down. If you haven't heard about this before, I encourage you to check it out!

A few slabs of the wall reconditioned into pieces of art

In front of one of the only remaining strips of the infamous Berlin Wall

2. The Irish Harp restaurant:  We sought out live music throughout the trip but only came up lucky with a night spent at this Irish restaurant.  A band called Murphy's Law belted out covers of a few of our favorite Mumford and Sons' songs, along with gems we'd forgotten and traditional Irish tunes.  Kyle filled his belly with Guinness while I sipped on Snakebites - a drink of equal parts cider and lager.  I also doused our platter of French fries with vinegar, just like I used to at Geauga Lake.

3. C/O Gallery (info here): I made my first visit to a modern art museum, and this one specialized in photography.  We walked through a disturbing collection by Ulrich Seidl, who depicted three stories of love, hope, and faith through his photographs.  Another collection by Christer Strömholm was displayed including provocative photos from Paris, Tokyo, and the U.S. during the mid 1900's.  The museum was the perfect size for an evening, and I was only sorry that there weren't any prints to take as souvenirs.