Groupon Recap – Martial Arts, Ballet, and Photography

groupon_logo

After my recap at the end of January (read more here), much has happened in the world of Groupons and Living Social Deals. As you may recall, I had granted myself a few early Christmas presents and bought some bargains last year (read more here). Now, about half a year later, I’ve gotten to try out even more splendid activities.

1) 10 Hapkido Classes with World Martial Arts Center

One day in March I walked into what was to be my very first self-defense class in my adult life. The World Martial Arts Center is conveniently located near the Barclay’s Center and right off Atlantic Ave. Although it was hard to find at first, I somehow managed to open up the door right next to the clinic, press the elevator button, and stumble into a whole new world. The first eminent sign you are not in a normal class? Shoes off right when you enter! The second sign? The heps and hahs going on in the background. The instructor warmly greeted me and looked for a uniform in my size. Yes, you actually start with a uniform during your first class!

While my belt was still white, other people had different colors, so I’m sure advancement can be a solid thing. The 45-minute Hapkido class was originally with two other guys but another instructor pulled me out of the lot as soon as he noticed that I had zero pre-knowledge. So I got a 1-on-1 when fine-tuning the basics of the first moves. What I did not like so much was that I had to “yell” with almost every move I made. This is supposed to ensure correct breathing when you attack. It’s quite awkward in the beginning but I suppose you get used to it.

In 45 minutes I learned a lot and I was certainly planning on taking full advantage of this Groupon, but unfortunately I never fully recovered returned for another round, as the trip to Germany was in between. I once peeked in again a week after my initial experience, but there was some black belt competition going on and no regular classes held. Overall, from the one time I went, I had a really positive impression and I can recommend this Groupon to anyone living in the Brooklyn area and trying to self-defend themselves. $29 for 10 classes – a true bargain!

picture courtesy of www.samingersoll.com
picture courtesy of http://www.samingersoll.com

2) Cohen’s Fashion Optical

At the end of February my eye glasses broke and I was in dire need of a new pair. Unfortunately, my regular health care did not cover another exam for the eyes so I was forced to look for a solution online. “Just get a Groupon, they have them starting at $30 and upwards” my friend suggested. Oh how right she was!

After searching and reviewing a few of the places, I decided to go for a bargain with Cohen’s Fashion Optical: For only 35 bucks I got an eye exam and a nice frame of glasses, all worth $200. Because of my strength, I paid an additional $35, so a total of 70 bucks. Not too bad for American optometrists. I highly recommend going to the store at 14th St and 5th Ave, as the salespeople are really nice and the optician was a great fit. For less than $100 I now have a fashionable pair of glasses which fit, are the right strength (unlike my old ones) and which I wear during traveling and laptop work. Thumbs up for that!

3) Photography Class with Brooklyn Central

In January, I also started a photography class with Brooklyn Central, located in Dumbo. 6 hours of education for $59 – not bad I’d say! For this bargain I decided to go with the unknown which meant a guide to THE STUDIO. Lightning, affordable gear, and right positioning of accessories was the gist of this class.

Overall, about 20 people attended and in the first hour or so we introduced ourselves while the instructor gave some more information on him and the course. The course was split in half: Three hours the first night and three hours a week later. This I liked, as we were able to digest what we had learned and turn the concept into action during an entire week of waiting time. I now know more about the studio than I did before and am especially thrilled with the lighting techniques we got to test. The teacher tried to engage the class by having various students hold light meters, strobes, and reflectors into position, which gave them hands-on experience.

After the class, a few of us grouped up and even went for a bite to a bar close-by. It was a great way to socialize with other amateur and professional photographers and to get to know their part of the story.
Redeeming this deal was a great way to support and get to know a local school. I am planning on taking their flash course at some point in time.

4) Brooklyn Ballet on three different days

At some point, I stumbled across a dancing deal with Living Social: 5 ballet classes for only $19! And close to where I live! After having joined the YMCA (read more here) and becoming a hobby ballerina, I was stoked to have finally found a school in my new neighborhood. So on a Thursday evening I made my way over there and started Beginner’s Ballet with an animated teacher from New Zealand. I was at first irritated by how improvised the hall looked but quickly got used to it. If you’ve never been, I’d recommend already coming in your ballet gear, as there aren’t any real changing rooms.

picture courtesy of http://www.theaterseatstore.com/ballet-theater
picture courtesy of http://www.theaterseatstore.com/ballet-theater

Due to the deal, the class was packed with about 20 people, but over the course of the next weeks it did become less crowded. The Thursday course was fun but almost too easy for me, so I went for another day and ended up in the hardest “Beginner’s Class” they offered on Wednesday: After half an hour of bar practice, the instructor took the lesson to the floor and I felt like taking off. I’d recommend this for more advanced ballerinas. The instructor seemed nice, though, and applauded me for not giving up.

Finally I found a medium, with Inna on Tuesdays and so far I’ve stuck to it. She does half an hour of bar and half an hour of floor practice. What is really great is that she divides the class up into two groups, so those that are further advanced can dance in Group 2 while the less experienced ones are in Group 1. On top of the 1-hour-class, there is an additional 30 minutes of freestyle/pointe practice after the regular course. I managed to stay for this one and was baffled at how much you can actually learn in addition to that.

I’ve already used up my Living Social deal but have bought an 8-class ticket for $100 and I am inclined to replenish it once I run out of classes. Brooklyn Ballet – a great school to learn the basics and advance!

5) BonStar Fitness

Starting next month, I will begin my first outdoor boot camp. BonStar Fitness is to be held in Dumbo, so not outrageously far from where I live. I plan on taking the subway to the water and then see what it’s all about. My friend told me about this Groupon(she lives in Dumbo) and this is the first course I’ll be doing with her together. I am excited as to how it will turn out but am also slightly nervous as the only boot camp I took before was a complete disaster. This might be a perfect way to improve my condition and to exercise during the summer. For $39 I am going for 14 classes. We will see!

#BllPhotoaday for June: Simplicity

Unlike other times I participated in a photo challenge, I am announcing this one ahead of time. That’s right, this girl is doing another picture show during the month of June. And because I like her topics so very much (and actively suggested 3 of them! *proud-be*), I am being part of Belovelive’s A Picture a Day.
The idea is the same it was with the other four challenges: Take a picture every day, post, and enjoy other people’s ideas.

Theme for this month is Simplicity, as, I quote from Liz, “we can choose to live simply and to simply live.”
Since June also happens to be my birthday month, I think I’ll find a ton of simple, awe-inspiring things to photograph. I also like how she describes this challenge as an actual “journey” – 30 days out of the year to realistically venture out and see something else, be someone else, and do something else.

blllphotoaday june 2013

So, if you’re in, be part of something great that is becoming greater as we speak! Over 1,100 pictures have already been tagged with her picture challenge since December and figures are rising. Get your iPhone, your Android, your digi cam and snap away. Don’t forget to share, either.

Hashtag is #bllphotoaday and photos will be posted via blog and Instagram. But really mostly on Instagram, since that is where all the action is going down.

Peace, let’s stay simple!

The UFC Hosts its Opening Night at John Street

UFC event John Street1

Great opportunities presented themselves to me when I got back from my trip to Germany. One of them was snagging the photographer role for an event held in the Financial District. The UFC stands for the “Ultimate Fighting Championship” and can be seen in the same league NASCAR is for racing sports. It includes Mixed Martial Arts, Kickboxing, and other Self-Defense mechanisms. The UFC owns gyms which are dispersed throughout this country. Even though it’s originally from California, it has made its way over to the East Coast. And April 24 happened to be a big day for this industry: The new UFC gym in John Street was celebrating its grand opening!

Now, you might have gathered from previous posts throughout the past 2 years or so that nowhere do I mention any particular experience in this industry. Indeed, aside from redeeming a Groupon at a Martial Arts school in Brooklyn, I’ve never even come in touch with the side of sports. So, about a week after arriving in New York, I got the surprising call that the UFC was looking for a photographer for this particular event. My interest was awakened and my enthusiasm heightened as I arrived at the location in Lower Manhattan. The opening gala was scheduled to go for some solid 4 hours starting at 5:30 PM. A mouth-watering buffet had been built up and boxing sacks were aligned in the back of the gym. The DJ and his helper were mixing the beats and everyone was ready for the guests and celebrities to drip in. Some motivated fans already stood around, taking in the food and discussing recent fight strategies.

Mouthwatering Buffett
Mouthwatering Buffett

Of course the word was out that one huge star cannot be amiss (as it is during these opening events). In this case the big VIP scheduled to arrive later-on was Ronda Rousey, a current champion of Women’s Bantamweight and owner of an Olympic Medal.

But before her eccentric entrance, a crowd of important-looking suit people, further guests, and more fans dropped by. The martial arts wrestler Cody McKenzie was standing around in a group, goofing off. I caught him when eating food and he felt slightly embarrassed of me having taken a picture of that. He tried to overshadow previous pictures by looking into the camera with a boxer-like demeanor.

Cody McKenzie
Cody McKenzie

More people relevant to the industry were there, signing photographs and pretending to be present making connections. For example, Uriah Hall was quite fun to look at when interviewed by Bloomberg News. He even showed the crew some tricks and motivated them to participate in his headlock moves. Altogether, the vibes at this even were splendid and the people in such a great mood.

A Californian radio station named Impact Syndicate broadcast the event live to its listeners on the West Coast. As I found out later-on, this particular show was also meant to be on AFN, which is the Armed Forces Network. Since my parents overseas are well aware of this station, it was a weirdly abstract idea for me to think how people in my home town would be listening to the show I was currently present at.

The Team of Impact Syndicate
The Team of Impact Syndicate

And then, halfway in but not too late, she finally arrived: Ronda Rousey with her own camera man and body guard. After being called into the ring, where she was announced by the CEO of the UFC, she gave her introductory speech. Then lots of posing and fake fighter moves with fans happened on the ground. She went on to signing an oversized poster of herself that was hung on the gym wall and her picture was taken with the soon-to-be owner of the UFC in Philly. Keep an eye out for Larry Mays and his future project only 2 hours from here, as it’s scheduled to open up in September.

Ronda in the ring...
Ronda in the ring…
... and interviewed by Bloomberg News
… and interviewed by Bloomberg News

Ronda went on to being interviewed by first Bloomberg News and then an independent blogger network (with Latin background). As an observing fan told me while we stood to the side she is known for “trash” talking her opponents during such interviews (but it appeared rather harmless to me). While she was busy looking serious in front of the camera answering questions, Rob McCullough called in a short work-out session with other animated fans. About ten people were jumping across up and down the floor at first. The second step was kicking the sandbags. Rob corrected some participants’ moves and coached for a good half hour.

Rob coaching fans
Rob coaching fans
Rob coaching fans
Rob coaching fans

At around 8 PM the place started to feel empty and people were gathering for one last picture in front of the UFC canvas. Some more goofy poses from Uriah Hall with the corporate staff of the UFC and then the party continued at the Gansevoort Hotel. A successful opening night to the new gym at John Street!

Uriah once again goofing off!
Uriah once again goofing off!

[For more pictures on this event go to
UFC EVENT AT JOHN STREET (1)
UFC EVENT AT JOHN STREET (2)
UFC EVENT AT JOHN STREET (3)]

Ups and Downs Katie: A Shout-Out to Bipolarism

About 6 years ago I woke up in a gutter.When you wake up in a gutter… Well, I say when but I hope it never does happen to you, so let’s say if, if you wake up in a gutter, you will know something is seriously wrong.

-Katie from Ups and Downs Katie

This is the entry post of Katie’s blog, a 31-year old female from Melbourne, Australia. She has been diagnosed with a mental condition called Bipolar Disorder for the past few years. It must have caused and still causes her great dis-ease and she describes how 2012 has so far been her worst year ever.

Do I know her? Yes, I do!

I met Katie about two years ago when we were both staying in the same hostel in DC. Back then, I saw in her a really cool girl who was fun to talk to and hang out with. We haven’t stayed in touch after this trip. I just know that she was studying in New Paltz/ NY for a year and that she must have briefly lived in New York for a few months during the summer. I have come across her blog just a few days ago. After reading through a few of her insightful and honest posts, I want to share her site and story with you.

Ups and Downs Katie - The Blog
Ups and Downs Katie – The Blog


Ups and Downs Katie
is a great approach to document how she deals with her mental breakdown and breakthrough. She writes on all the things that are going on in her life currently, such as medication, side effects, plans, a trip back to the US, and therapy.

This is one of the BEST BLOGS I’ve read this year and, although heart-breaking at times, makes me feel courage towards everyone going through a similar situation. Had I known what she is going through, perhaps I would have seen her life from a different angle.

Many hugs from New York, Katie!

Kicking off Memorial Day Weekend…..

Fleet Week in 2011
Fleet Week in 2011

Today is a good day! Today is the start of Memorial Day Weekend. Three days filled with hectic plans, brunches, and leisure time for most people in the US.

This last weekend of May usually marks the start of the summer season. The beaches are officially open and lifeguards take on their duties. People grab their party gear and head on to BBQs on a rooftop. Friends come together in the park for drinks and food. I’ve so far had three Memorial Day Weekends in the past and each of them have been memorable (word pun not intended) in their own little way. My first year when exploring the crowds at Brighton Beach (and lying next to trash in the sand). My second year when watching the events going on during Fleet Week and petting my first snake at Coney Island. My third year when finally exploring a Navy ship and being part of a BBQ on my friend’s balcony. Yup, Memorial Day has always been tons of fun. Sunshine, hotness, and humidity – that’s what I remember the most.

But this weekend has not really started off that great weather-wise. Today as in yesterday it is rainy, bleary, and cold. All week long we were having some blissful 80 degrees (26 Celsius) but now we’re down to the 50ies (13 C) at daytime. Summer just cannot make up its mind. And while next week it is supposed to be warm once again, the one weekend during which it really matters will not be spent on the beach. Perhaps the first time in ages, at least since I moved here.

On top of some crappy weather, another occurrence will not happen: Fleet Week! That’s right, my beloved sea military week was cancelled soon after I came back from Germany! Bloomberg passed on to the news that the Navy and Marines had already announced they wouldn’t be able to make it. The Coast Guard by itself never made it out here, either. Due to budget cuts, the military was unable to host its annual week full of fun, family time, and great history gadgets. This year there will be no ships to visit, no concerts to watch, no funky uniforms to take pictures of when wandering through the streets. Somehow it has become a tradition for me to look forward to those 7 days in May that are always quite out of the ordinary. And give New York a special vibe.

So I devote this post to what turns out to be a rather awkward beginning into a usually great summer weekend: To Fleet Week, to BBQs, to the beach. But most of all to better weather…

Not seeing this here in 2013...!
Not seeing this here in 2013…!

Have a Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

To see what last year’s Fleet Week was made of, go here.
And to see what 2011 showed during the exact same week, here.
Let’s kick these Fleet Week blues farewell!

Sad Far Rockaway – A Trip to Former Beach Culture

Far Rockaway birds flying over beach

A few weeks ago I was out in the Far Rockaways on a blissful and hot April afternoon. It was a Sunday, perhaps not the best day of the week to take public transit (as it’s much slower and trains have longer waiting times than during week days). I hadn’t been out ever since I stopped by last summer, for the lovely beach and some fish tacos (read more on this adventure here). I had spent some peaceful days in June, July and August hanging out at the shore – simply being happy not having to go through the crowds at both Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

But as so many other places close to the water, the Rockaways were hit hard when Sandy came and went. And now, seven months after the devastating hurricane, they are still nowhere close to what they used to be.

When I wandered out on this particular Sunday afternoon, I was under the impression that at least the beaches had been rebuilt and that I was able to walk around, taking in life before the summer season. I hadn’t expected the train not to be working, the people still rebuilding their houses and the Far Rockaway taco shack cleaning up the shards in front of their doorstep.

Improvised MTA station
Improvised MTA station

The first obstacle I was to encounter was when taking the A-train towards Queens: It harshly stopped at Howard Beach/ JFK (which is usually not the last stop). I already wondered what to do next until I saw the signs directing me towards a shuttle bus to Far Rockaway. When stepping out of the train station, there was an improvised MTA station for those who needed help to get around and buy tickets. A small bus transported us from the JFK stop towards our destination – over land, past hideous Queens malls and KFC joints, until finally we were in the middle of the Rockaways: Mott Avenue. Never having seen the town center before, I was left to wander around. Past some run-down houses and dubious food joints, dollar stores and delis, all concerningly low in foot traffic. The rockaways are not known to be high class but I’m sure Sandy didn’t help in destroying a perfectly poor area.

Shuttle Bus to Queens
Shuttle Bus to Queens

After being blabbed at by random hoodlums and feeling a bit doubtful about my adventure, I walked off to the H-Train, which, I can confirm, truly exists. The H-Train is now what the A-train used to be back then: It extends over the “island” from Mott Avenue to Beach 90th Street and takes less than 20 minutes to ride from one end to another. It’s the only means public transport that has been rebuilt only weeks after the hurricane but, so far, its progress has most likely stayed the same. Of course buses are also active but I didn’t have the patience to look up their current schedule. At B 80th Street I hopped off and walked towards the promenade.

The H-Train!
The H-Train!

An empty KeyFoods glared at me, with boards nailed to the doors and windows, probably never to be in service again. I had to think about how tough it must have been for businesses to sustain themselves throughout the winter. In April, a few shops here and there were open, even a nail salon and bar were back to business. However, after turning the corner at 95th Street, Giovanni’s Ice Cream and my beloved Far Rockaway Taco were tightly closed. A few guys were balancing on the joint’s roof and doing construction work. I believe this is a good sign that come June they could be open again. After taking in all of this damage around me, I was ready to get away and see a clean beach.

Unfinished Promenade at Far Rockaway
Unfinished Promenade at Far Rockaway

But arriving at the promenade, or rather what was left of it, was more than depressing. Wooden stumps semi-finished in the sand. A homeless pillow left alone on the beach. Construction debris close to the sand. Only the sea, the sea had stayed the same. I felt like just taking that pillow and taking a nap, to escape this crude nightmare. The same nightmare the residents must have experienced for the past 8 months. I really have no clue as to how and when Far Rockaway Beach will be up and running but so far it did not feel like anytime soon. The demotivation and exhaustion reeked from every turned up stone I saw on my way back. A broken doll extended her arms towards me. I wonder who lost it and how it ended up in the sewage.

Doll in sewage
Doll in sewage

A trip to the Rockaways – a shock in every bit. Whatever has been damaged will take months to come to repair. Has a summer gone to waste?

Current damage at Far Rockaway
Current damage at Far Rockaway

Germany: A Smoker’s Paradise

picture from telegraph.co.uk
picture from telegraph.co.uk

[This post was inspired by Sherbet and Sparkles Thoughts on Smoking!]

After living in New York for over 3 years and not visiting my home country for one full year, coming back to Germany was a surprise in many ways. And, to be frank, more negative than positive ones.

For one, vegetarianism really isn’t as pronounced as I had remembered it to be. Being a veggie from 8 years of age and on, I’ve found that, for the most part, my homeland only offers one or two meager options a la carte when eating out. If even. Once we wanted to grab lunch at a Greek place in a small Eifel town. We literally had to leave the place after 5 minutes because their entire menu contained meat. Even after inquiring if there were meatless options, the owner of the joint denied, without even offering a half-hearted attempt of accommodating his vegetarian customers.

Then, the people on the Autobahn can become really freaking annoying. I mean, being legally allowed to drive 240 km/h should make some people fell less agitated about having to slow down occasionally before they hit a traffic jam or heavily populated area. But no, just in order to do that 10km/h over the speed limit, they almost collide with every fellow driver in front of them and try to drive them off the road. Not enough that they are already honking their horns and wildly gesticulating for the driver ahead to see in his rear mirror. Nope, they have to get real close and almost cause an accident, so that he will fearfully move out of the way.

Finally, among a few more things, smoking in public has become a great nuisance. After getting used to not being surrounded by second-hand smoke for what felt like an eternity, it was almost a shock to experience smoking culture in a typical German bar. In New York, it’s been the law for a decade to take your cigarette outside (not in an outdoor food area, though). No one even complains about this anymore; perhaps only when it’s really cold outside, but that makes the people want to smoke less, which is a healthy side effect considering that smoking can kill, right?! Experiencing how American youth and culture thinks about smoking nowadays was a true eye opener in the beginning. I am pretty sure that the smoking rates here are not as high as they are in Europe, especially when it comes to countries such as France, Austria, and Germany. Not to mention Eastern Europe… Now, I know Europe can be behind in some things. Smoking might be one of these.

Germany’s indoor smoking ban came into effect in 2007 in some states and was mostly implemented by the end of 2008 in most states. What was the result of not being legally allowed to smoke indoors? Two options when it came to night life establishments: 1) Smoking outdoors on the street; 2) Having a disclosed area in a restaurant or bar, in which smokers can peacefully smoke and not bother non-smokers. Or so was the idea. And what has become of it? A complete disaster!

Lots of memories are connected to how things used to be. For example, I used to reek of smoke whenever I was a teenager and came home from a party. It wasn’t possible to go to bed until I’ve taken a shower or somehow deposited the clothes far away from me. Yes, second-hand smoke always had some unpleasant side effects.

picture from www.thelocal.de
picture from http://www.thelocal.de

But nowadays, because of these so-called smoking rooms, the smoke is even more confined to a small area. Sometimes it’s not even completely isolated from the rest of the establishment, as I found out the hard way. When going out in Schwetzingen with my dear friend, we ended up at a bar with life music. It was not until we had the desire to use their restroom that we noticed the pitfall: People were standing in the corridor leading from the main bar room to the toilets and smoking their lungs out. Needless to say that just going through that thing once or twice a night was a torture by itself. Now, instead of having the smoke float through an entire room, it was restricted to a small area, making it almost unbearable to pass through. And it was not the only bar with such a “high-end” solution when it came to self-serviced smoking rooms. Why can Germans not just go outside instead of ruining an entire nightlife experience? It certainly ticked me off that night.

Berlin was slightly better in the sense of most people smoking outdoors. But Berlin is really close to Eastern Europe and a transit point when flying through the city. Just while waiting at the airport on my very last day, I was pretty annoyed by the amount of smokers surrounding me. It was one of those beautifully warm days and my flight wasn’t going until another two hours or so. All I wanted to do is sit outside and take in my last moments in the Hauptstadt. Propped on a small chair, I saw one smoker after another exiting Tegel, deliciously inhaling their cancer sticks while they were waiting for their taxi or catching a bus. I just didn’t get it. Was it not possible for these people to go without their beloved cigarettes for just one day? I couldn’t help but think about all the money spent on useless packs of cigarettes. Money that could be invested elsewhere, be it a nice dinner, clothes, or cosmetics.

For once, smoking in Germany really bothered me when being back and I’ve come to notice how little people do it elsewhere, especially in the US. If only my home country could reach a similar mentality when it comes to this subject… It made me sick to see 40-year-old women tightly gripping their cigarette while their skin in their face was making them look 10 years older. Or the smokers’ cough I occasionally heard when strolling down the streets. Really, people? They’re killing you, but you still won’t let go of your beloved cigs!

Blog Anniversary! 2 years already?!

Bloggiversary No. 2!
Bloggiversary No. 2!

UFF! After turning my computer on yesterday and logging into WordPress at the end of the day, I was KINDLY reminded that I almost missed out on yet another milestone since this blog has come into existence.

MY ANNIVERSARY! My TWO-year-anniversary, to be specific!

That’s right, folks, on May 9, 2011 this site has been created and I’ve had the pleasure to write my first post on the reasons why I intended to start German-American Abroad. Topics such as Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and the never-ending charade of New York were soon to follow.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.

Finding the time to blog. Finding the motivation to write. Finding priority to set everything else aside and devote a few hours of computer time for yet another post that other people could stumble upon. I still consider this great exercise for writing out my thoughts and experiences. Somehow, I cannot believe that it’s been two years already. In the meantime, stats have gone up and down, clicks have reached new heights and depths and I’ve learned a lot about other people’s lives. True, blogging has not been my top priority lately. Photography has been. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy hitting that keyboard and creating a new post.

And no matter what, at the end of the day it boils down to one word: Creativity! Reaching other people out there who are enriched by my posts and communicating with new bloggers who I would have never met otherwise if it weren’t for the www.

I’m really surprised at how fast time has flown by. I raise my glass and say: Cheers to your two, five, or ten years of blogging. I will never regret having ever started and I hope you don’t either!

blog year 2

[To read my post on my first-year-anniversary go to Bloggiversary!]

Berlin – City of Cities (Part III)

berliner dom und tango tanz

Of course the weather was crappy, no surprise there. But in the very last days it finally turned better – much better. For two days Berlin was as warm as 20 centigrade (70 Fahrenheit) and that made it all worthwhile. But even walking around in the rain slush the first two days wasn’t that bad. I had truly expected worse from so far up north, especially after being hit by snow the first week I was back home!

So by the time we got to the dome, it was peacefully sunny and people were bathing right next to the fountain, which had mysteriously turned on. We even got to see a pair of tango dancers performing right beneath the dome with a group of friends. Berlin certainly withholds creativity, so much to that. When strolling through the streets, we passed landmarks such as the Rote Rathaus and the Marienkirche – a well-known church with a clashing history of Catholicism and Lutheranism.

Alexanderplatz in action
Alexanderplatz in action

And then, finally, we stood in East Berlin: At the Alexanderplatz, where trains come together, trams meet, and subways emerge. It was a bustling center of eager shoppers, street kids with dogs, and tourists snapping pictures of the World Clock. Certainly one of the busier spots in the city, I would say. After this, we dropped by the Radisson Blu Hotel to view the Aquadom – a gigantic aquarium my friend had always wanted to view on her trip to Berlin.

The infamous Aquadom!
The infamous Aquadom!

Saturday night was party time and my first disappointment since my arrival: No glamour in Berlin! Just when I was about to sort through my party dresses and look for fancy high heels, my friend mischievously pointed out that no one dresses up in Berlin but rather tries to dress down. Meaning Sneakers, Shirt and Jeans time. I couldn’t believe it. A city without glamour? Well, it truly exists and it’s called the German capital. I still wore fancy things and was one of the only ones when we went to a house party in Friedrichshain (not without spending 2 hours in the Berlin subway and being distracted successfully by an array of things).

The new in-drink of Berlin? Mate – a common drink made from dried herbal leaf from South America, mixed with anything alcoholic. So after a few Vodka Mates I couldn’t think too clearly but we certainly went to an “underground” club in the middle of nowhere called Rummelsbucht. It was here that we needed a password to be let in and spent over an hour waiting for the doors to open. Since it was supposedly very crowded inside, they only let the crowd in slowly (and a good amount of people were denied access). We weren’t a big fan of neither the audience nor the music and after an hour we simply gave up. Partying in Berlin – so far my impressions are rather mixed. And I am not sure I like the no-glamour thing they have going on!

Kreuzberg
Kreuzberg

Then, on one of my last days, I got to see Kreuzberg – the former hood which has now been converted into a nicer area (at least in some parts). My friend from Berlin claims that in other parts it still is pretty dangerous but where I met up it was more like a hipsterized version of a nice neighborhood. The sun was shining, people were strolling along the small creek called the Spree, and we dropped in for a coffee at a café whose bare existence oddly reminded me of Park Slope or Williamsburg or anywhere else in the world. Except for the prices, these were still pretty low. But then we turned a corner and all of a sudden there were 6 police cars parked in front of an apartment building. The traffic had come to a standstill. There was surely something wrong going on but what it was remains a mystery to me.

Overall, I have to say that Berlin does not appear to be as international as other European cities. Compared to Paris and London, the only foreign people I saw were Russian and Easter European tourists mixed with French, Dutch, and British folks when standing in line for yet another sightseeing highlight. True, we did stop by at this coffee shop where the waitress only spoke English. But I had somehow imagined it to be more crowded with an underground scene of starving artists coming from everywhere, especially New York. Where were all of those Hipsters who moved from Wburg to Germany just to make a living off of under-the-table-work? It certainly felt more like a German city to me than anything but perhaps my expectations where mildly exaggerated…

On top of this, I encountered a few Neo-Nazis who were walking through subway cars. I didn’t like this – at all. Up to that date, I’d only had the pleasure of seeing the skinheads on German news whenever there was yet another political demonstration. So close to Eastern Germany it was just a matter of time to witness them in action.

Other than the aforementioned knicks and knacks, Berlin seems to be a creative city, no sweet talking here. Be it students filming a project for their school or street musicians performing art underground and above – I can only imagine what artistic vibes will ring through the city once summer comes around. Collecting bottles out of trash cans seemed to be yet another hype throughout Germany but especially Berlin. Heck, for 25 cents a bottle I think I’d start doing the same if I needed money. And all this behavior kinda fits the general casualty you witness throughout the city.

And that was it, my time in Berlin. Short, necessary, and mind-enhancing by all means!

Bye bye Berlin
Bye bye Berlin


[For more pictures on Berlin, go to Days Spent in Berlin (3).]

Berlin – City of Cities! (Part II)

At some point during this trip I visited my friend in the Oranienburger Street, which is a quarter that still has some milestones of German history. He pointed out to me that there were certain stones called Stolpersteine (roughly translates to “stumbling blocks”). Engraved on these stones were names of former Jewish citizens, their DOB as well as their reason and date of death. Hadn’t he pointed these out to me, I would have most likely just walked past them without knowing much about them. He also showed me how at many corners you will just find a blank piece of land and told me these were once corner houses. The buildings standing on the corner of a street were common targets of air bombs during WWII and ever since then some corners have not been rebuilt.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial
Jewish Holocaust Memorial

Berlin has a pretty interesting history, come to think about it, and I am glad that I was able to take in so much of it. Such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe, which we visited the other day: An entire field with nameless gray stones of different heights dedicated to the Jewish homicide. I find the idea great but was appalled by the amount of disrespect people showed by just climbing the stones and posing for good pictures on top of the memorial. I would have found it better to personalize the memorial with names of the deceased but of course this must be an impossible project so I find the concept of nameless stones good in a way but also unimpressive at the same time. Such is the case sometimes with modern art – and the Holocaust Memorial has only existed for the past 8 years.

Back to my first day: After visiting the museum, we went on to snap pictures of the Wall, which consisted of two walls with a narrow walk way in between (some things you have to see until you believe them!). I heard there is a great piece in a different part of Berlin and Liz from JustBe.LoveAll.LiveLife has artfully captured the Wall from this part of town in her post out & about in Berlin (see the very last picture!). You can see how it is artfully decorated by graffiti and paintings from famous artists of the city. My local friend told me later-on that the city wants to build a huge mall on the spot where this remnant of the Berlin Wall stands. She has even joined a protestor’s group to prevent this from happening. In any case, the Wall would be hopelessly destroyed – a piece of history never to return. Small chunks of the Berlin Wall are still sold throughout the city, so I was glad to snag a few for friends overseas (the price is relatively cheap compared to the kind of history you are paying for).

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie was right around the corner and with it huge amounts of tourists. I thought this picture to be very funny and moment-capturing: A group of Turkish tourists posing with costumed soldiers re-enacting American and German militants. What was especially humorous was that at first it was only two people taking a picture but when the posers said it’s €1 for one picture, the entire family moved in (what a great way to get your money’s worth). There is a Checkpoint Charlie museum which we successfully avoided we found a bit too overpriced for what we were getting out of it. Plus the tourist masses in front weren’t really inviting in terms of waiting time.

After a coffee break and waiting out the rain inside, we ended up at a beautiful, peaceful spot: The Gendarmenmarkt in the middle of Berlin. It is here that you see several different churches all at once in addition to small tourist groups, street performers, and kids performing bike tricks.

Gendarmenmarkt
Gendarmenmarkt

And finally we got the see the Brandenburger Tor, which is pretty much the epitome of Berliner tourism and a symbol worth checking out. Just as we were in front and contemplating which way to go next, a random car stopped in front of us and a party of 12 people exited, carrying a Meditarrenean bride along. She was dressed in a lovely white dress – obviously belonging to a wedding party performing some sort of ritual. Someone turned on the music in the car and the group began dancing in a circle for the length of one song. Until now we have no idea which country this group originated from and what tradition exactly they displayed but if anyone can come up with anything, please let me know. Regardless, this tradition is simply lovely and must be one of the highlights of a wedding when marrying in Berlin.

Brandenburger Tor
Brandenburger Tor
Wedding in front of Brandenburger Tor
Wedding in front of Brandenburger Tor

The next day we made our round towards the one and only Reichstag right next to the Gate. Then back towards the Museum Island, while walking along a street called “Unter den Linden”. With fancy souvenir shops, a great Nivea crème store, and lots of embassies on our way.

[For more pictures on Berlin, go to Days Spent in Berlin (II)]

Berlin – City of Cities! (Part I)

Berlin Brandenburger Tor
Berlin Brandenburger Tor

My urge to see Berlin had been strongly manifested in the past 5 years. Ever since I’ve visited Paris, New York, and London, I’ve been yearning to check out what my OWN capital is up to. Not enough that living in New York brought with many, well, err embarrassing revelations. “Oh, I love Germany. Berlin is such an awesome city” was the phrase of most Americans I talked to during dinner parties or normal bar chats. New Yorkers love to find something in common with you as soon as they find out where you are from. “Berlin? Yeah, I’ve never been there. How is it?” was my usual response to it in the beginning. As the time went by, I merely swallowed this last remark and played it simple by smiling and nodding whenever Berlin came up. After being back home for two times already and not being able to scoop in a trip to the Hauptstadt, I just knew that this time was the trip of all trips: Time for some Berlin fanciness and me bathing in it!

I was ready to devote 4 full days to my capital and chose those to be at the very end of my trip. So after taking a train up to Cologne and then flying over to Tegel, here I stood: Among the bustling vibes of one of the most notable airports in the German country. From Tegel I went on to Charlottenburg, which is a district that stands for new extravaganza, hipster restaurants, and the one and only Charlottenburg Castle (which unfortunately I did not get to see during my trip! Booh!).

Our first night out was a culinary experience at a simply delicious Vietnamese restaurant. SaiGon Today offered an array of healthy looking dishes and a variety of even healthier fruit drinks. Cocktail-inspired drinks containing no alcohol – they were yummy to say at the very least. And this is where the first surprise came in handy (or rather, no surprise, as I’ve heard of it before): Berlin is cheap! Dirt cheap! Food, drinks, necessities – you name it! Especially if you are into Döners (Turkish delicatessen with lamb meat), you can get these for as cheap as 2 Euros in Germany’s capital. Everywhere else in Germany you’d be paying 3 Euro and up (Trier’s infamous Kepabhouse sold its stuffed bread for a whopping €4.50 on a Saturday night). For a dinner with drinks we paid less than €10 – not bad, folks, not bad at all!

Saigon Today - worth checking out!
Saigon Today – worth checking out!

Saigon Today Berlin healthy drinks

My first full day in Berlin was devoted to catching up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in almost 5 years. The main reason this city was so much fun was because I got to see so many people I hadn’t met in ages – exactly what I needed at the end of my trip to Deutschland. Together we went sightseeing for the first two days or so. And our first stop? Breakfast at the Cafeteria Skyline right around the corner from the Tiergarten. It belongs to the Technical University of Berlin (TU) and goes all the way up to the 20th floor, where you have a great view over the entire city. What else is there to wish for than an excellent panorama showing it all? Thanks to my local friend, I’ve discovered this hidden gem and can only encourage you to go check it out and have a rockstar breakfast for €5 only (coffee and bottled water included).

View from the cafeteria from high above
View from the cafeteria from high above
5 Euro breakfast!
5 Euro breakfast!

We then continued our tourist day and visited the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), which is a rather posh store, reminding me of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s with a touch of Saks Fifth Avenue, right in the middle of the city. Of course we also had to walk up and down the Kurfürstendamm – the most popular street in Berlin as it hosts tons of souvenir stores for tourists but not much else, as I am disappointed to point out.

After buying a few souvenirs, we hopped on the subway, not without difficulty when searching for an ATM for my friend, who has an account with one of the biggest banks in Germany. For some reason, all of the bank ATMs were underground and looked rather shabby than trustworthy. At the Potsdamer Platz we were able to snap a picture of the oldest clock in that spot (probably from the 60ies, since the entire area is relatively new) before we took off to the Topography of Terror. This is a museum-like building right next to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. It shows the history of the Nazi-terror during WWII and the prosecution of the Nazis after the war. It also has some bits and pieces on the Roma & Sinti and other groups who were persecuted by the Nazi regime.

After spending an hour staring at the pictures and descriptions beneath and listening to tour guides discussing this dark piece of German history, I simply had enough. I think we certainly entered overkill mode on this topic when looking at the endless amount of outrageous and brutal pictures which were exhibited. Which made me come to the conclusion that Berlin is most likely the only city in Germany that displays this part of history so accurately. It has an array of museums, history pieces, and other exhibitions on Nazis and Jewish culture during WWII, an era seemingly forgotten in other cities of the country. Since 90 percent of the city was destroyed during the war, Berlin also has a relatively new flair, including buildings and culture. Other tourists consider this city very hip whereas I found it at times rather bland and unappealing than attractive.

Clock at the Potsdamer Platz
Clock at the Potsdamer Platz


[For more pictures on Berlin go to Days Spent in Berlin (I)]

Trier – Old Roman Home

Trier Altstadt
Trier Altstadt

I do have to say that during this trip, I’ve seen many facets of my old home I wouldn’t have considered to be particularly exciting as they turned out to be. Aside from living close to Belgium and Luxembourg, we also live close to Treve or Trier: Officially the oldest city in Germany – built by Romans and severely influenced by the old Roman culture.

Trier has come into existence as early 2000 years ago – as a city NOT just a settlement. Its per capita rate has been up and down, but remains at a steady 100,000 citizen rate for the past decades.
Now, aside from Trier having some shopping opportunities, bars, and clubs, there is much more to see culturally speaking.

The most striking feature about it is the Porta Nigra, roughly translating to “Black Gate.” The Porta used to be light grey when it was built around 200 AC but over the years it has turned into its distinct black color. Built by the Romans, it has been modified over the years and been fully reconstructed by Napoleon in the 19th century. Since the medieval ages it is officially called “Black Gate” and it has gone through centuries of history one cannot fully comprehend. Among other landmarks of Trier, the Porta was designated a World Heritage Site.

Porta Nigra with a cute sightseeing car in front of it
Porta Nigra with a cute sightseeing car in front of it

The Amphitheater was built around 100 AD and used to host 18,000 crowd-hungry people in the past. It still stands nowadays and is a common place for the so-called Brot & Spiele (Bread & Circuses) during the summer. This is the biggest Roman-inspired festival in Germany, showing gladiator fights and showcasing old Roman stories. Sometimes well-known German actors and actresses participate in these shows, which makes for an even bigger audience.

The Imperial Roman baths were built around 400 AD and show the Roman bathing culture back in the days. Visitors are able to see the different pools, to learn more about its history and to walk around the grounds. It’s an interesting concept, albeit I dare say a bit overpriced (such as most cultural sights in Trier).

Bikes close to the Dom
Bikes close to the Dom

Then you have the Dom of Trier, which is a beauty to look at once you stop by. During the winter months leading up to the holidays you will find a neat Holiday Market around it and the city’s market place. It’s pretty large and vendors come from as far as Luxembourg and Belgium.

During the summer, the city hosts its annual Altstadtfest (Old City fest), which starts at the Porta Nigra and goes all the way through the pedestrian zone until it ends at the Viehmarkt. It’s humongous and you can find many good vendors during the day as well as great wines in the evening. Since it’s usually in June, the weather is warm enough to be walking around outside and taking in the activities. There are bands, entertainers, an amusement park, and much more, meaning you can either go there by yourself or with the entire family.
In addition to this, you will also find many smaller wine fests in the town surrounding Trier, as it lies on the river Moselle, which is a well-known vine region throughout the world. The most striking feature (aside from the red wall when you enter the city) are the amount of vineyards you see once you walk along the Moselle river. Vine fests usually take place in July and August. Trier’s Weinfest is in the beginning of August and if you are really into vine, you should certainly check it out!

Among the Moselle River
Among the Moselle River

Other than the cultural sights and annual events going on, I have to say that Trier is pretty boring. I am not a big fan of their night life, as I’ve already pointed out in Deutschland: The First Few Days back in 2011. True, you can walk past the Karl-Marx-House on your way to bars, but really, who wants that? Most of the time, the places are rather deserted (at least throughout fall to spring) or don’t host a quality audience I can connect to. And the clubs have rather crappy than great music. I guess I am simply over the fact of going out close to home but I also find this to be for a good reason. While I was there in April, I enjoyed taking some good shots and walking in and out of stores but at the same time, I was essentially bored in this city. Trier – worth the visit but move on after!

[For more pictures on Trier, go to Trier – Old Roman Home (I) and Trier – Old Roman Home (II).]