Berlin Marathon Weekend is Here!

Finally! The Berlin Marathon is this Sunday. I’ve done the training with Maureen and Holly but now all sorts of pains – both real and phantom – have been creeping in. A course of Advil is helping as is thinking about this:

My dear Dad has been living with Parkinsons for over 12 years. David Olmsted, the strong Army Officer who was always in PT ready shape my whole growing up. Though he is resilient and still playing some respectable golf, there are many, and increasingly more, hard days. Recently he has been having trouble walking and more specifically, stopping. He tells his brain he wants to stop which causes his legs to slow to a shuffle but his upper body doesn’t seem to get the message, intent instead on keeping the forward motion. It’s like a freight truck discovering too late the brakes don’t work.

But as people who love you do, before I could swallow the latest devastation of his disease, he brightly told me he found a work around. He said as long as he tells his brain to “stride out” instead of “stop" his lower body keeps from shuffling and he is able to stay upright through a stop. This simple instruction to his brain has made a huge difference. It reminds me that our brain is a powerful thing with more connection to our bodies than we will ever understand.

If my heroic Dad can find a work around surely I can too. Conventional wisdom might suggest that short choppy steps of a shuffle might be more cautionary and appropriate when you see a road block ahead but the upper body – the residence of the head and heart – have other ideas. Whether it’s a progressive disease like Parkinsons, a task beyond your capability like a marathon, a dream with no discernible progress -- when stopping is all you want to do – the better thing to tell yourself (assuming you are not directly facing a brick wall – “the imaginary wall” does not count here) is to stride out. It just might be the difference between a graceful finish and a broken rib.

Thanks to all those who have supported me through donations for the awesome cause of World Vision, friendship runs and encouragement. It means so much! And Daddy, I’ll especially be thinking of you as I stride out those last miles on the pavement.


I'll be running with Team World Vision! 

So, Berlin

One of the great things about writing a personal blog is you have no deadlines.  One of the bad things about writing a personal blog is with enough procrastination you have no one to blame but yourself when you can’t remember the details of that thing you planned to write.  This is especially dangerous when trying to write travel advice with fuzzy details.

 So, Berlin. 

I had to check my calendar to remember exactly when I was there.  It was “this” month (refusing to believe to today is in fact May 1) so the statute of limited memory should allow for more or less accurate recall.  I was also there for a 3 day weekend - with a nasty head cold – back in September 2014.  Congested or breathing normally, the first trip was love at first sneeze so I decided to return “this” month for Spring Break solo with just the two little boys.  (The big boy with the map skills was with his Dad on the East Coast doing college visits which is hard for all of us – more accurately 4/5 of us – to believe.)

I don’t know if it’s the Seattle girl in me or my low threshold for Bavarian food overload, but Berlin wins for best German city in my book.  And I really, really like Munich.  (See my post on Munich.)  Berlin lacks the beauty of Munich but there is an energy about the rapidly changing city that you don’t have to be 21 years old to enjoy.  You are constantly surprised by the amount of cool tucked behind ugly exteriors.  And the city takes their coffee very, very seriously. 


[The two found favorite coffee spots in Berlin were The Barn and Bonanza Coffee Roasters.  Lucky for me, Bonanza was 50 feet from where we stayed and their flat whites were just about perfect.]

So how’d I do?  Totally nailed it.  Beyond being expertly caffeinated, here are a few tips for doing Berlin.

Tip 1: build confidence early by skipping public transportation on arrival and taxi to hotel.  Never mind the cost or the glory of saying you caught the Airport Express to the U-Bahn followed by a 10 minute walk with luggage.  No one will be greeting you at the hotel with a medal for it at 9:30am.   And when you find out the cab fare is only 22 euros, you’ll wonder how big a tip is too big before the taxi driver asks for your number.

[We stayed in a very reasonably priced apartment hotel called Brilliant Apartments in Prenzlauer Berg on what may be one of the best gentrified streets in the neighborhood.   It was a brilliant choice for what we needed never mind what my boys say about the wifi strength and the assaulting water pressure.   The apartment is in the former East Berlin so modernity expectations should be appropriately checked.   I wrote a review of it here if you are in the hunt for lodging while in Berlin.]

Tip 2: pick a hotel next to a great café with pancakes in the AM and wine in the PM.  They don’t have to be good pancakes.  The pancakes will be the siren call you need to wake your kids for a 7am flight.  Be aware however that Europe is a place that loves bookings so even though you wouldn’t expect to need a booking for a weekend breakfast, build confidence and fill stomachs early by making one.  We got the last non-reserved table.  It was my day.

[Café Krone is the café affiliated with Brilliant Apartments.    As of today there are 6,279 restaurants in Berlin on Trip Advisor.  Café Krone is #13.  You will like it.  They have carrot cake.]

Tip 3: strategically select your neighborhood.   Berlin doesn’t really have a center and it’s massively spread out so it takes some planning (or a bike, see below) to pick the area you want to explore.  Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg are both popular, creative chic places for great eating and shopping and pervasive use of English.  Kreuzberg is gentrifying but more “edgy” and home to the live music scene.  If you want evidence there are actual children in Berlin, Suedstern is a cute family-friendly neighborhood.

[We stayed at the Casa Camper Berlin in Mitte last fall when it was only my husband and I.  It was a great location for a first visit to Berlin and the hotel was that perfect blend of down-to-earth but cool in a way that doesn’t require mood lighting and fruited water.  Unfortunately for my snotty nose, the toilet paper – as in the rest of Europe – was not up to USA standards.]

 Tip 4: pack biking shorts or your best biking dress.   Everyone knows Amsterdam as a biking city, but that’s really for the locals who know the rules.  Berlin (and Copenhagen) are better biking cities where you have a chance to blend in as a tourist and not be run over.   There are extensive bike lanes and few to zero hills to remind you that you aren’t in shape.  Also, finding a bike rental or guided bike tour in Berlin is as easy as finding a Starbucks in London.  Maybe even similarly priced.

 [On the first trip, we rented bikes from the hotel.  It was a fantastic way to see the city and also means you can more easily ride through the Tiergarten in route to visit Tempelhof Park – a “park” on the site of an old airfield.  There is something about seeing those wide empty runways that kick starts your brain.  And if you are lucky enough you might see men rollerblading in speedos in not warm September.   Now THAT I remembered.]

[On the second trip, we dared not speak of bikes.  We are having ongoing issues convincing our 8 year old that he will EVER learn to ride a bike.   This makes biking an uphill, downhill, and standstill battle with untied shoelaces.  This is the child who will flail his body into the air to save a goal but who fears any *potential* encounter with pavement.  Suggestions welcome.]

Tip 5:  mix in a little fun with all the history.  The history of Berlin is obviously something you can’t miss, but it’s also somber and best absorbed in doses.  There is a surprisingly number of alternative non-history related things to see and do in Berlin.

[You will no doubt go to see the Berlin Wall Memorial – an outdoor museum that is kid/pet/germ phobic friendly.   There is no better way to understand the barrier that divided a city than by traversing the ground where it was.  The signage along a long stretch of the wall on Bernauer Strasse is excellently done.  I wish I could say the same for Checkpoint Charlie.   The only bright spot around the Checkpoint Charlie circus is the Asisi Panometer, an admission-charged impactful panorama exhibit of a part of the Berlin Wall with lights and sound as well as a collective of photographs from the period of the Wall and before its fall in 1989.  Better yet is the The DDR Museum, a free interactive museum that shows what life was like in the first Socialist state in Germany.  An absolute must do.  Also on that must do list, but without young children, is the Topography of Terror – another free museum that shows an unforgiving look at the terror and persecution perpetrated by the Nazi institutions of the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office.  When things start to get too heavy, head over to the Game Science Center (also near Checkpoint Charlie) - a totally fun, small space with 20 exhibits showcasing future interactive technologies.  Good for all ages and for hands that like to touch things.  The Berlin Zoo (for those not overly sensitive to animals in small cages) is an also nice change of pace.]

Tip 6:  Prep the kids for grittiness.  As long as you know to expect open containers, abandoned buildings, and unmanicured parks – it won’t be a surprise when you bring a basketball to Mauerpark for the third day in a row and the court is littered with as many open beer bottles as people waiting to play.  (We did however have the court to ourselves plus one on the first cold morning.)


Tip 7: make a friend in the neighborhood.  Local suggestions from the right person within the right radius is one way to cut down on marathon walks to dinner.   

[Our friend was Sadie.  Sadie runs The Juicery in Prenzlauer Berg (PB), right across the street from Mauerpark, serving some of the tastiest super food smoothies & juices.  The boys were hooked and happy to follow Sadie’s suggestion by eating at two delicious restaurants on our street (Oderberger Strasse): the fancier Ky Sushi for Japanese/Korean and Vietnam Village for tasty eats with great outdoor seating.  PB is a great neighborhood for eating and several food blogs (the best of which was Berlin Food Stories) and careful reading of Trip Advisor rightly pointed us to: Maria Bonita for hole in the wall Mexican, The Bird for a ridiculously right on American burger, Fast Rabbit for vegan wraps and hard core rap, Kochu Karu for Korean/Spanish tapas – who knew?, and Pastificio Tosatti for homemade pasta for take-away or eat-in at two small tables.  Two places we wanted to try but ran out of time were Babel for Lebanese and Lecker Song for Chinese dumplings.]

Tip 8:  If you don’t know what you want to eat, head to Mitte.   It’s as central as you can get in Berlin and it has everything, including over 1,000 places to eat.   Auguststrasse is the street name to know and explore.

[Some good ones we enjoyed:  District Mot for Vietnamese street food (went there both trips), Cocolo Ramen for at-the-counter noodles, Mogg & Melzer Delicatessen – a modern deli in a former Jewish school with a fantastic rueben sandwich you’ll need help finishing, and Lokal for a high end, seasonal modern German dinner.  Lokal, recommended to me by my good Lux friend and fellow eater Angela, is definitely worth crossing town for.  Book ahead for sure.]

I asked my 8 year old what I should include about Berlin and he said:  “Tell them Berlin is cool.  The people have good English and most people are really nice and the zoo has animals you don’t see in every zoo and the Wall is cool and the Science Center is cool …

Like I said, cool. 

Munich Encounters

A First Date with Spaten

Ravenous from a 5 ½ hour drive from Luxembourg, food was the first order of business upon arriving in Munich early afternoon.  Though a Hofbrauhaus would do, some of us wanted better which sent us on a trek for Spatenhaus  a well-known brewery with above average food overlooking the Opera House.  Mingling with locals in their Sunday finest, we scored a prime table in a private nook provided we could finish in 90 minutes.  AS IF that would be a problem with this American crew of boy.  We devoured plates of typical Bavarian food:  goulash, spaetzle, wiener schnitzel, and cucumber salad washed down with an-always-the-right-time pint of the restaurant’s own beer, Spaten-Franziskaner-Bier and a budding notion that we very much liked Munich.

The Arrival of Krampus

Some people are lucky enough to win the lottery and some people land at the right place at the right time even when they have no idea what to make of it.  On our first night, we walked into Munich’s main Christkindlmarkt  just as a herd of costumed beasts – with polices escorts and a mob of camera carrying followers - came charging in our direction.  Adorned in stinky animal hide and carrying a switch, one of the masked beasts gently patted my youngest on the head as he blazed past and the crowd swell continued down market.   Too fast and too weird to make a lasting impression, we drowned our bewilderment in 150g of warm candied almonds.  Later that night, thanks to a serendipitous NY Times article, the mystery of the old and recently revived Bavarian tradition of Krampus (the anti- St. Nicolas) was solved.  The devilish goblins with masked costumes made exclusively from materials and animal hides in the Alps (hence the stink) only show up at the Christkindlmarkts on the second and third Sundays before Christmas.  Lottery-like timing.  [No photos of Krampus were snapped in time.]

From Mine to Massage

We began our experience of the world of science and technology in a fantastic, not-as-claustrophobic-as-feared replica Mine in the basement of the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest science museum.  From there we barely skimmed the surface of 50 (!) exhibits covering 50,000 square meters in four hours.  One of the children rightly surmised that we’d be wicked smart if could live there.  Landing on the top floor unable to process another scientific fact, we dropped a 2 euro coin in a Motel 6 style massage chair and divvied up the ten minutes between us.  As far as we can tell, no new brain cells resulted from the massage.

Typically Munich

Inspired by the Deutsches Museum, we rolled the dice for a second museum the next day –  the Munich City Museum (Munich Stadtmuseum.)   We toured the “Typically Munich” permanent exhibit, a cultural history of Munich from the beginnings of the city to the present – understood best by those already living in Munich, who unfortunately weren’t there to offer us any explanation of what we were seeing.  Disjointed and not very interesting, we redirected to the National Socialism Exhibit which was better.  Either the excellent City Museum in Amsterdam has ruined us with unrealistic expectations or the much too quiet museum told us that we weren’t all together wrong.

A Trio of Party Santas

Nothing says Christmas spirit like a chorus singing carols from the balcony the Neues Rathaus high above a gazillion wooden stalls selling Christmas wares and crepes with Nutella.    Zigzagging through crowds of people balancing two gluhweins and a kinder punch, I came upon my waiting children just as a trio of party Santas were passing.   More interested in Santa than kinder punch, my youngest shouted Santa’s name.  Clearly in a hurry to a Christmas kid-free bash but obliged by their chosen attire, they stopped, straightened their beards, and offered the young lad a photo.   [One Santa not photoed.]      


Meeting up with Americans

On the U-Bahn (the old but superefficient, not oversubscribed subway) five stops north of Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, given away by voices that carry a youngish retired couple in tennis shoes inquires, “So where in the US are you from?”  Without wanting to overcomplicate, we answer “Seattle, and you?”  “Illinois. Joliet.” “Oh,” we politely respond, “We went to school in Illinois.  Wheaton.”  “Sure.  Wheaton.  We know it.”  Not knowing where to go from there, they quicken their pace and we follow in silence, until they peel off for the Marriot and us for the Melia.

Outdoor Livin’

If ever you wondered how Germans are able to walk in any weather condition, happen upon a German Outdoor Store and be ready to have choice overload and a keyed up husband.   Choosing a down jacket in Germany is like choosing a college in the US.  Way too many options for anyone without a plan or decisive wife.  Except of course when you ask for a snow boot in men, size 14.  Then you have two choices.  Both in black.  (For non sports shopping,  check out Reichenbachstrasse near the Deutsches Museum for some great boutiques.)

Bah Humbug

On a crowded sidewalk in the center of Munich four days before Christmas, as can happen on forced Christmas shopping marches, a brotherly spat broke out.  A fist or two might have been involved.  Obvious immediate parental action was taken diffusing any further altercation while a well-dressed German Grandma - not even in the fray – took it upon herself to shout her angriest German at my already scolded children.  Too bad she wasn’t looking 50 meters later when brotherly love broke out.  [Photo not available.]

German Surfers & Burritos

Sausaged out by the month of December, we bee lined to the neighborhood of Maxvorstadt for lunch at a place called Burrito Company.  With a  total California vibe down to the ordering system,  hot sauce in brown bags on the table, recycling bins, avocados for sale and surfboard in the corner we learned the place was opened by a couple of Germans who spent a few years surfing in California.  They then came back to Munich with an idea to spread burrito goodness.   It worked.


We made it out to the Allianz Arena for the last tour on the last day before the holiday.  The last English tour was hours before so we settled for the German version, figuring that Football was universal and Dad and Colin’s limited bi/tri-lingualism might suffice.  Dad’s German skills were enough to react to the “I assume everyone here speaks German” that afforded us a bonus, condensed English version at the end of each section of the tour.  We saw the team shower rooms, the tunnel to the field, and learned lots of fun facts about Bayern Munich (team of Lawton's goalie hero.)  We even scored 45 minutes before the start of the tour in an excellent, modern, and interactive team museum.  The boys were in football heaven.

Old Traditions in New Places

Our holiday tradition in Seattle is to go to the Pike's Place Market every Christmas Eve morning with our extended family to hunt and gather for the evening's meal.   We brought that tradition to Munich by doing a similar thing in a fabulous outdoor and indoor market (Schrannenhalle) before driving back to Luxembourg loaded down with goodies for Christmas Eve.   If only we could have transported the extended family. 


Christmas Markets, Cologne

Weekend in Cologne (2.5 hours by car) from Lux to enjoy the best Christmas markets Germany has to offer. We hit the four large Christmas Markets - the main one at the Cathedral, the Angel Market, the Market of Fairy Tales, and the Gnome Market plus a 5th one called the Harbor Market. (There are 7 Christmas markets in total.) There are special themed gluhwein mugs for each market. I collected many of them. Hopefully you get a sense of how festive and well done these markets are.


Panorama doesn't always get the job done


This is me taking the Panorama feature on my iPhone one photo too far.   Too close, dimly lit, after a German beer or two.  I may have captured the moment, but I certainly didn’t capture  everyone’s face.  

This moment was two Saturdays ago in Speyer, Germany .  My sister Beth and brother in law Matt were on the front end of a two week kid-less vacation through Europe.   Flying from Seattle to Frankfurt, they decided to make their first stop Germany.  As many people do, they assumed they’d be able to catch the tail end of Oktoberfest – only to soon realize that the real Oktoberfest is 8 hours away in Munich.   However, German beer is good (the Schnaps, not so much) wherever you are, and especially good in a place where people know your name.

Speyer is the oldest town in Germany (many towns seem to make this claim), and currently the home to my older cousin Andre.  Andre runs the US Defense Department’s largest distribution facility (nearby in Germersheim) on the European continent supplying materials to warfighters serving through Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  It’s kind of a big job.   He didn’t tell us that.  We only know that because we saw the acres and acres that the distribution center covers.  What Andre however has never been shy about sharing is that Beth is his favorite cousin.  I get it though.  She’s pretty awesome.

Speyer is equidistant between Heidelberg and Mannheim, and two hours and fifteen minutes away from Luxembourg.  Brett and I left the kids at home alone for an overnight for the first time to meet up with “the blood” for the weekend.  (I don’t know if “the blood” is an Italian expression or a family one, but is oozes out of the mouths of all Baldanzas.)   We do most all travel together as a family, but we rightly reasoned that a return journey with seven people in our small car on the Autobahn would not be advisable.  (The boys, though crazy about their Aunt and Uncle, were naturally over the moon about this home alone plan.)

One of the parts Andre loves about his job is that his distribution center is staffed by German civilians, making him the lone US serviceman living in the charming town of Speyer.  It’s a good gig if you’re willing to speak the language and embrace the culture.  Andre is willing, and it was a treat for all of us to see him in his element.   He loves his little town, and they love him.   Never before had our shared Italian Poppop who was the ultimate connector been more obvious.  He took us around Speyer.  He took us to Heidelberg to see the Castle which is home to a pharmacy/drug museum and the largest wine barrel in the world.  And, he didn’t let us ruin our Wurst with ketchup. 

The highlight of the weekend was getting to meet Andre’s local friends.  Three of his friends joined us for dinner at Andre’s favorite hangout -- the Domhof Hausbrauerei.  Delightful and warm, we were especially mesmerized by one of his friends who learned perfect, unaccented English in the bars while living in California for a few years.  His friends explained how best to eat pork knuckle (whatever works), how Bavaria is like the Texas of Germany, and what may or may not happen on most Thursday nights.     

It was like this little window into our cousin’s life.  A window that can’t be accessed over the Internet.  Pictures, even bad ones, may capture a moment but they’ll never be able to pan around the fullness of life enjoyed together.

Xxxxoooo because I’m sure the Italians made that shorthand up.