“We’ve got a ticket to ride”

Moving around in one of the biggest cities in the world may be difficult and challenging. The everyday traffic is heavy and disorganized. It’s like the jungle, where the strongest and boldest will be the first. Maybe not the first to reach the waterhole, but the first to reach the other side of the crossing. That’s one of the reason why on the weekends, I enjoy taking the Metro to go downtown.

In one of my posts I told you about taking a cab (“Where to, señorita” in January 2015), and also mentioned the subway system in Mexico City.

This time, we took the Metro and got our senses full with sounds, colors and smells, that are not always nice…  It was early for our Mexican Saturday morning and therefore the booths with all kind of supplies in the Metro hallways and corridors were either closed or opening. Some of these hallways are on street level and can be very long with stairs going up and down, some electrical. This makes me wonder how older people or people with a handicap use the metro, the cheapest way to travel… And I really admire them the most.  We took the first train in a quiet station and had to make the first connection. We started walking one of the corridors and we noticed different offers on the sides of the corridors: coffee and ‘no name’ donuts, some “tortas” and “licuados”. Tortas are white bread buns filled with ham or cheese, avocado, tomato, salad, cream and jalapeño peppers. Licuados are milk shakes with fresh fruit.  We also saw some mini stores selling everything for making ourselves beautiful while on the train: mirrors, eyelash curlers, eyeliners, curlers, hair slides. Another shop was selling every gadget on earth for cellphones, but mostly ‘no name’ items and very cheap. For those who love pizza for breakfast, there were pizza slices from Domino’s close to the stairs. After a good walk we reached the next train and jumped in because there is almost no time to get in or out of the wagon.

We found two seats side by side and so we could enjoy the ride… if you are not very sensitive or picky. The cars and seats are not very clean, and as some are from the seventies and are a little bit shabby…

A Metro wagon

I remember the elegant U-Bahn (subway) in Munich and forgetting the colors and the elegant materials of the German counterpart, I personally find our version more practical. The wagons in the new Munich subway are like a long worm with almost no possibility of support. The only support rings are high up hanging down from the ceiling… This keeping in mind that the medium height for a German woman is 1.71 cm!  Some of the seats in the worm’s belly are light in a kind of triply wood in a long row (not in the picture), so that when the U-Bahn stops  the last person in the row starts sliding to the front of the car and remember, there is no halt. It’s a little bit like taking a ride in the fair. Sometime the rides are not nice, and I have to mention the bad smell of some U-Bahn (= Metro) users.  in Winter because they haven’t take a shower or washed their coats and in Summer because … I imagine you know what I mean.

ubahn- muc

The new U-Bahn in Munich

However, as I have mentioned before, Mexico is a very colorful country, and the Metro itself is orange with green, or blue seats while the station pictograms go from pink to dark brown. It’s a very good system with attractive designs and colors so that one can easily follow the lines. I imagine this is also very practical for people who cannot read. One of my favorite names of a Metro station is “Indios verdes” or Green indians… The native American folks were a lot more world and environment friendly, but I guess this is not the reason to name this station this way. Is it may be because some Indians turned green with the smell and the filth in the wagon? No, well, it’s because of the two sculptures depicting two Tlatoani or high political leaders in the Aztec empire standing in a big avenue in the Northern part of the city.

In Mexico the political situation, the economy and everything, according to Mexicans, is very bad… However, we don’t lose the good humor. I really had to laugh seeing the sign for the toilets in the Metro Station “Taxqueña”:

Public toilets in the Metro station

Continuing our trip, in the wagon, the first thing that caught my attention, was someone shouting “Fresas con creeeemaaaa” and then “con creeeeema las fresas”. I asked myself how can he manage to sell strawberries with cream in the subway?, and exchanged a surprise look with my daughter. When he got closer I understood, he was selling popsicles!  My daughter and I didn’t think that someone could possibly buy such a thing at 9:30 in the morning in the subway, but we were shown wrong. Two young ladies sitting in front of us bought one “strawberry and cream” and an “arroz con leche” ( rice pudding) one. Well, there are no rules for breakfast in Mexico…

During weekdays you can find all types of people using the subway, elegant businessmen or businesswomen, school children, students, policemen, doctors, nurses, tourists and more, all  representing many of the social classes in our city. Every single time I take the Subway to get to Palacio Nacional in the heart of our capital, I see women making themselves pretty for work. I’ve seen girls using their mascaras and eyeliners with perfection while being rocked and shaken by the Metro. I have never seen one getting down of the wagon like a Panda bear! They are really good at it. This last week I saw a mature women sitting in front of me, who took out a make up bag out of her purse between “Chabacano” and “San Antonio Abad”, two of the stations. With one finger she sustained the bag, with the other two she took out a make up brush and used it to brush creamy make up to her face. I was almost in awe at the procedure. I had to get out on the next station so I couldn’t see the last result, but I imagine it was flawless. Maybe next time I’ll take note of some beauty tips, without forgetting the young girl with the metal teaspoon curling her eyelashes!

In every trip you may jump at the opportunity to buy sweets, peanuts, combs, scissors, tools, books, even anatomy books and creepy legends of the city, maps, hairpins, ball-pens, colors and really everything you may need in your daily life… and maybe even more!  The merchants are also very flexible and sometimes with one hand they sell one thing and if no one is interested, they switch to another thing that they have hiding in their plastic bags or in their backpacks with the other hand.  There are other people who give everyone something, for example a bag of soft candy and a paper that explains why they want you to buy and contribute to their cause. Others simply sing to do something for a coin or two.

Reaching our goal, we got out of the subway system at the Zocalo, or Main Square in the Historical Center of the city. As usual, the wideness of the area and the monumental buildings surrounding it, amazed me. It’s quite a sight: the magnificent Cathedral, the Sagrario Metropolitano, that is the small church adjoining the cathedral, the Palacio Nacional and the huge Mexican flag in the middle of the square.  On one side of the Main Square or Zócalo, you see a very long Colonial building, The National Palace is the seat of the federal executive in Mexico.

We crossed the Zocalo to get to the Gran Hotel de la Ciudad the México to have breakfast on the terrace with one of the nicest views in downtown Mexico City and to exchange our impressions of this entertaining ride.

Zocalo y Palacio Nacional

The “Zócalo” or Main Square with the National Palace in the background

I hope you enjoyed the ride!

Where to, señorita?

One of the most challenging events in a huge city is to go from A to B. In the Mexico City Metropolitan Area you can take the bus, the subway, the tram, take a so called microbus, a minivan, called ‘pesera’ because they used to charge one peso for the ride, you can take a taxi or if you like strong emotions and are very brave you may even drive.

Mexico City

Mexico City from the plane

 

During my last stay in Mexico City, I noticed many changes in the streets. The main changes started in the eighties with the re-planning of streets and avenues. The so called ‘Ejes viales’ (something like traffic axis or road) were created by renaming, numbering and modifying the direction. The Ejes include the names of the old avenues and streets and for the not so young they are still called that way. In the modern DF, how the city is also called, there are also elevated roads which can be used by paying a fee. These elevated roads connect the south with the north and offer a faster way to move. The common people take the road below, at street level, and end up in a big traffic jam during the rush hour.

An easy way to get around is to use the subway system that was first built in 1969 and has been continuously expanded.

http://www.metrosdelmundo.com.ar/americadelnorte/mexico/metro-mexico-df.php

Although the ‘Metro’ is the cheapest and fastest way to move, it is also extremely crowded. If we remember that there are about 20 million people living in the Metropolitan Mexico City area, you can imagine how crowded the Metro will be between 7 and 9 in the morning, or even earlier.

In my last visit I decided to avoid the metro and to use the always available taxis. There are different types of taxis. The most common ones and the cheapest ones are painted in gold and dark red (bordeaux, not masala ;-)) They are all over the place and can be stopped everywhere just by raising your hand. A trip in one of these taxis is recommendable, if you more or less know where you are going, you speak at least a little Spanish and you are not dressed in light colors or elegant garments. I assure you that this can be a very colorful experience and you shouldn’t miss it, if you visit the city.

Taxi

Taxi!

 

I took several of these rides, being the shortest one of only 100 m long… I raised my hand, a taxi stopped, I got in and the driver asked me where I was going… I couldn’t even finish telling the driver the address because he suddenly stopped and told me: ‘Lo siento, seño, no es mi rumbo. Ya estoy terminando, mejor bájese.’ Something like, ‘Sorry, mam, it’s not my way. I’m finishing, so you better get down’ He was not unfriendly, but very clear. I took my handbag, got off the car and waited on the street side for the next one. This time I was lucky and the driver took me to my destination, in about 15 minutes.

Taxi drivers in the city are mostly men, if I dare say, I have never seen a woman. They are from a very young age… I didn’t ask the youngest one I got how old he was because I was afraid he might have said sixteen… Ooops! The oldest one was sixty five and was planning on retiring soon and enjoying family life, with his wife, children and grandchildren. However, he was not very sure, if he could afford leaving the job. I didn’t ask him, what kind of retirement plan he had because not everyone has one.

In one of my other trips I was asked very kindly where I was going: ‘Damita, ¿para dónde va?’ Or something like ‘Little lady, where are you going?’ As I have been living many years in other countries I was surprised by the word choice of my driver and on first thought I imagined that he was referring to my being short… ‘Little lady’ I thought, very funny. However, I noticed that some of the taxi drivers use that term to refer to us, women. I simply didn’t like it and didn’t get used to it.

I had to take a plane to travel to Cancún and called one of the other popular taxi services, the so called ‘taxi de sitio’ or official taxi stands. These are usually safer because they register your name and pick up address and give you the number of the taxi and sometimes the car brand of the car that is going to pick you up. These taxis should be in better conditions and the drivers are also a little bit better… But this is a rule with exceptions. I once got a car that was almost losing parts during the trip…

On my way back home from the airport, I took a taxi from the official services in the airport. They are more expensive, but better. This time I had a newer car and a friendly driver who asked me ‘¿a dónde la llevo, señorita? More or less, ‘where shall I take you, miss?’ I noticed that he wasn’t the only one calling me miss or señorita… I got suspicious and thought that it was maybe the same way we used to call our older, unmarried teachers in school… I’m now single again or for Mexican taxi drivers, maybe simply unmarried, and of course I am a teacher… I have to give this more thoughts 😉 The courteous driver showed me his new tablet attached to the front part of the car and started playing some Mexican music videos from the seventies, asking me if I remembered this and that. I was returning from a very relaxing short trip in the beach, but started doubting of the relaxing effect. I must look really old because he then asked me about my grandchildren! And I’m not a grandma yet. Time doesn’t make us younger 😉

Another one of my trips took me about an hour because it was Friday and a longer trip. Fridays in the city are usually chaotic, and the worst ones are every 2 weeks, when people get paid. Most people get their salary or money twice a month, on the first and on the fifteen with the previously mentioned consequences in the streets.

mexico streets

From A to B in Mexico City

This driver was also friendly and chatty. He started talking about his teenage daughter who wanted to get a piercing asking me my opinion, and if I had children. He then changed the subject to his problems at home, his wife had left him and asked me if I was married. I was too slow or maybe too honest and answered that I wasn’t married anymore. He then wanted to have all kind of advice on how to cope with loneliness and asked me if I thought he should ask his wife to go back for the third time… It was like a telenovela! The nice thing about this trip was that I almost forgot the traffic jam.

Two other trips were unforgettable, the one with the almost completely broken and dirty taxi with a dirty driver who reminded me of Charlie Brown and Snoopy and their friend who walks with a dust cloud on top… Yuk! To my disgrace I was in a hurry and had to get on time to an appointment and this was the only taxi available. The two other ‘exciting’ trips were one from the airport with a driver who thought he had a Formula 1 car and had me jumping form one side of the back seat to the other with every curve he took. Of course, the belts in the back almost never worked! The other one was with a driver who was really mad about everything: other drivers, other cars, people, buses, the country and especially the politicians! I remembered some of the bad words and curses that I hadn’t heard in a loooong time.

In the many trips I took I also noticed that Mexican taxi drivers love either tropical and lively cumbias or dramatic rancheras where everyone has lost the love of his or her life and has decided to get drunk with mezcal to forget the pain…

After some of those trips I also thought of getting some tequila or mezcal to recover from the shock. However, I managed and can recommend taking a taxi to get to know some of the real Mexico.

Bye, have a nice ride home!

Mexico and its food

Mexico’s cuisine has a very long tradition and an immense variety of dishes influenced by history and its geographical situation.

The very basic ingredients all over the country are corn, beans and chili peppers in all their varieties. There are many vegetables, fruits, herbs and animals that can only be found in traditional dishes in the country. Because of that mosaic of flavors and colors Mexican cuisine has been declared by UNESCO as one of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

Although all Mexicans are more or less familiar with their specialties, there are dishes that are almost exclusive to one of the 31 federal states and can only be found there.

I can also say that there are the brave Mexicans, who eat almost everything and are used to eating very spicy or very hot food. There is also the not so brave kind… I have to confess that I belong to the second one because I don’t like chilies and I’m not used to eating very typical food.

In my last trip to Mexico I started the gourmet tour in a very well known restaurant called “El Cardenal” in the south of Mexico City. The cardenal, in English cardinal, is a red bird found in North and South America, and just to remind some of my European readers, Mexico is in North America, neither in Central nor “Middle” nor South America, and this last one is not to be confused with Latin America.

We were celebrating three birthdays on the same day and had a very large table. The friendly waiters shared their seasonal specialties and we ordered some starters and a small tequila shot with lemon slices and salt.

I was very excited to have my first Mexican dinner and looked expectantly to the plates that they were serving. They brought some guacamole, the very typical one only with creamy avocados, coriander, lemon juice and green chili peppers. This type of guacamole is usually used as a sauce for either quesadillas or chicharrón, which is pork rinds fried till it gets golden and crusty. Not the best dish for a cholesterol reduced diet 😉  And just to clarify the term quesadillas, those are corn tortillas filled with cheese. If they are hand made and the dough is a little bit thicker they can be filled with potatoes, or squash blossoms (flor de calabaza).

I knew these two starters and enjoyed them with white cheese and warm corn tortillas. Following these two, they brought two nicely decorated stoneware plates with some white stuff with herbs. I didn’t know what it was, but got a little bit suspicious asking my sister what it was. “Mmmm… escamoles”, was her answer rolling her tortilla ready to serve herself a big portion. I started unwinding my Mexican memory and remembered what it really was, saying aloud: “ Oh, my goodness. Those are ants’ eggs! I think I’ll pass!” Some of the guests were delighted and attacked the plate with lots of tortillas while I watched thinking, well, it’s like insect caviar. However, I was a coward and didn’t try them.

IMG_1369

Escamoles

The next dare was served in another stoneware dish called cazuela. In this case I had no doubt, they were what they looked like: worms! They served the specialty of the months of May and June in Central Mexico, the worm that only grows in the agave plant or maguey. They are called Maguey worms. One of the agave plants, the agave tequilana form the Tequila region in Mexico is used to produce tequila.
I could sit next to the escamoles and continue eating my tortilla with guacamole. However, the sight of this dish, was too much to bear for me, so I asked the Maguey worm fans to take them to their side of the table. I was saying that I’m a “bad” Mexican because I don’t like exotic things and I really admired our Russian guests that night who really tried and even liked the worms… not with vodka, but with tequila.

IMG_1370

Maguey worms

There were a lot of spicy dishes to my right and left, but as I had just arrived to Mexico, I ordered a medium beef steak with some beans and it was delicious. For dessert we had some tequila strawberries and guanabana sherbet. Guanabana is a fruit that tastes as a combination of strawberry and pineapple, with some coconut and banana. Simply refreshing and delicious!

237px-guanabana

Guanabana, it’s not a mango.

My next culinary highlight was in Acapulco in the Mexican Pacific Coast. The day we got there we were served a delicious white fish steak in an Aztec marinade… This marinade is prepared with achiote (Bixa orellana) which is a small tree originating from the tropical region of the Americas. The name derives from the Nahuatl word ( language spoken by the aztects) for the shrub, āchiotl.  

Achiote can be found in the market or supermarket as a paste that is usually diluted in vinegar and some orange juice. It is a delicious marinade for fish, pork or white meat.

Another traditional recipe we had in Acapulco was “Pescado a la veracruzana” very similar to the “Pescado a la vizcaína”. It’s not scientifically proven ;-), but I dare to say that the style “ a la veracruzana” is quite hot and includes a lot of chiles of the chilaca sort. If you want to know more about chile you can read here http://www.eatmorechiles.com/chilaca.html

This dish was also delicious though it left my lips and tongue burning!

On our small boat trip surrounding the Acapulco bay we were served ceviche, or in other countries cebiche, made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chili peppers. Additional seasonings, such as chopped onions, salt, and coriander, may also be added.

I was mentioning that the Mexican cuisine was influenced by its history. Before the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, there were no big animals such as cows, pigs, horses, etc. and therefore the native cultures covered their protein intake with insects, smaller animals and lots of fish and seafood. Nowadays we can also eat a lot of seafood in modern combinations such as the carpaccio of almeja (clam or mussel) that we had on our second day. The clam meat was very thinly sliced seasoned with a sweet, sour and spicy balsamico vinaigrette. Simply marvelous!

Back in the city… Two other excellent restaurants in Mexico City are “El Bajío” which can be found in different locations and where they don’t use chemical additives, such as artificial chicken broth, to their dishes. I had a mole enchilada, being mole one of the most traditional Mexican dishes with fried beans puree and rice cooked with tomatoes.  The word “mole” is also from the Nahuatl and it simply means sauce. We can find many different types of mole and in many colors according to the main ingredients. One of the best known, even out of Mexico, is a brown or reddish brown thick sauce that contains chocolate as a main ingredient. If we go back in history, one of the versions says that the word chocolate comes from the nahuatl word xocolatl, meaning “bitter water”. Xocolatl was a bitter beverage made from the cacao beans, not the creamy and sweet paste we know as chocolate. Other ingredients for mole are nuts, such as peanuts, almonds, and many spices such as cinnamon without forgetting the different types of dried chilies.   For more on mole, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mole_(sauce)

If you cannot visit one of the very extense Mexican coasts you can go and eat or dine in the fish restaurant “ Los Arcos” in the Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City. I had the best fish taco ever! It was fish “al pastor” or shepherd’s style. Its like the Greek gyros or turkish döner. You’d be disappointed if it weren’t spicy. So, yes, it was spicy, but not very hot. Tacos al pastor are usually of pork meat marinated with “adobo” which includes a red dry type of chili peppers called chile ancho. They serve it in corn tortillas with pineapple dices, raw onions and coriander. In this case instead of pork they used fish and it was a complete success.

IMG_1475

A fish taco

I also had the best shrimps ever! They were coated in flour, eggs and coconut, fried and served with a freshly made mango sauce. My father had a fish stuffed with shrimps in a hummer sauce.

I could tell you for hours about Mexican food, its origins, exotic ingredients and family recipes such as the chicken in cilantro sauce or the white fish in green sauce…and… and… and… as you may have noticed, Mexican food is not chili con carne, nor nachos nor tortilla chips with sweet tomato sauce, nor any kind of salad with kidney beans, red paprika, sweet corn or yellow cheese…

Frankly speaking, after describing all these dishes I got hungry and will go to the kitchen to serve dinner.
Buen provecho! Guten Appetit! Bon appétit! Buon appetito!

 

Another country, another home?

Some of us like to travel more than others. New places, the sound of other languages, the smell of exotic food, the colors of other skies may have an intense attraction on our senses. But it is another thing to leave the country you were born or the place you grew up, pack your things and move to a foreign country.

Kalimero

Kalimero

Maybe many of you have had the opportunity of studying abroad and have experienced what it is to be confronted everyday with another culture, another way of life. The shock is even bigger, if you move to a country where you first have to learn to speak the language or where you know that you’ll never learn it.

 

What could be the reasons for such a big step?

The one I mentioned above is a very common one, though studying abroad is not really emigrating. Most of the students living somewhere else have the idea of going back to their countries when they finish their studies. I’m sure that we all know somebody who stayed abroad and without planning it from the beginning, they ended up moving to a third country.

The film “L’auberge espagnol”, a French comedy on the life of an Erasmus student living in Barcelona for a year is worth watching.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0283900/?ref_=nv_sr_1

A very frequent and romantic reason to emigrate is: love. You move to another country because your sweetheart (… maybe not always that sweet ;-)) is a “foreigner”. Are you willing to become a “foreigner” because of love? In my case, you may know the answer: yes, I was. Although I was already very familiar with the German culture, I experienced some cultural shocks, some bigger some smaller, but read the word again: …shock…    I think one of the things I disliked the most were the opening hours. Everything, from a big supermarket to the small stationary store around the corner closed weekdays at six o’clock and on Saturdays at 12:00 o’clock! Coming from a big city such as Mexico City and being used to the USA, where you could find everything anytime, I was shocked and had to plan ahead what I could need past six o’clock or at the weekend. Staying with the topic of “opening hours” the funniest and weirdest thing I found was the newspaper stand at the U-Bahn station (underground train) that closed from 12 – 13:30 for lunch. The funny thing is that they also had sandwiches and beverages, but not at noon. We have now everything open till eight o’clock.

Another shocking, really shocking thing was the first time I went to a lake in Summer. In the smaller ones there were no changing cabins. Most of the people used to change into their bathing suits using a towel to cover their bodies. However, others were not that shy and changed their bathing trunks (mostly men) just in front of you, which left you just… speechless!  Even during a nice walk through the English Garden, the biggest park in the middle of Munich, you could find some sunbathers who weren’t shy… Some couples were like Adam and Eve without the leaf… or many of the female sunbathers were topless. If you come from a culture, where nakedness is not for all audiences, well, then you really have to get used to it. Nowadays, there aren’t as many “FKK” or “Freie Körper Kultur” = nudist fans as there were then, and “sadly” the ones left are not the youngest…

As you may imagine, I could go on and on telling you about my experiences here, but that is not my intention, don’t worry.

Let me get back on track…

Emigrating to another country looking for a better job and consequently a better life is a reason that has motivated millions of people to move or emigrate all along history. If we think of our ancestors, in the very early history, they firstly migrated from the African continent to spread almost all over the world. We also know that there were others later on in time with that special restless gene who crossed the icy and frozen Bering Sea to conquer an empty continent.

All along history there have been many many groups who have conquered their neighbors and have got very far away from their original homes. I can think of the Mongols, the Romans, the Arabic-speaking peoples, the Vikings…    And as one of my favorite teachers of Spanish Literature and Language used to say: “ where the sword goes, goes the tongue” (en español with a nice Castilian accent, because she was from Spain,“a donde va la espada, va la lengua”) .  This phenomenon is of interest because of the influence of one language to the other, for example in vocabulary and phonetics.

Mentioning all of the huge human movements in history would be an impossible task. If you’re interested in taking a look at the first raids of the vikings in Britain you can watch “Vikings” a very well documented and realistic TV show on the beginnings of their expansion.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2306299/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Hägar

Hägar the Horrible

 

Coming back to our era, some people decide to emigrate hoping for a better future.

Some may have to move because of their companies. Their positions have been moved to another subsidiary and, in this case either you move or you lose your job.

This makes me think of the film, “Outsourced” about an American salesman moving to India to train the customer service department. It’s a hilarious movie with a little bit of a love story.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0425326/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

Other employees move to work in another country for a limited period of time, let’s say for two or three years. They are considered expats. Some are expats their whole life not having really accepted the culture of the country they moved to.

I experienced what it is to live as an expat somewhere else. For me it was a different feeling, than when I moved to Germany, because I knew it was for a certain amount of time. It was a highly interesting experience and I learned not only about a different culture and another language. I had the opportunity to get to know very nice people in Sāo Paulo. I really like Brazil and love their people!

In our modern world, lots of people move some where else for economic or life threatening reasons. Most of them do not move with comfort and welfare. They leave their precarious lives with the little possessions they have and hope to get financial help in the countries they move to. Sometimes they are war refugees and sometimes they have to enter the target country illegally.

About this topics you may have watched a lot of films or read books that deal with this topic. I remember one that is in a sense cruel, but one that tells the story of a Mexican wetback couple with irony and humor. If you’re interested, it’s “The Tortilla Curtain” a novel by T.C. Boyle.

As I prefer to point out the humorous side of life I’ll finish this post with the film I watched last weekend. It’s called “Casse-Tête chinois” or Chinese puzzle and it’s about the the French student Xavier, the one in L’Auberge espagnol, who 20 years later decides to move to New York to follow his children.  The film shows in a very naive way this guy emigrating to the US and his French view of life in Manhattan. I didn’t find it as good as the first one, but I laughed a couple of times 🙂

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1937118/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Till next week from abroad!

 

 

 

 

Flammekueche or tarte flambée?

On Friday morning, my daughter and I started our Easter holidays short trip to France. We took the S-Bahn to the Munich Main Train Station and from there the ICE train to Stuttgart, our first stop. We were a little bit nervous because the time we had to change to the next train, the TGV, was exactly 8 minutes… The TGV was leaving at 12:55, sharp!  I can almost see your smile, if you are not used to the German (or French) time concept. But, yes, the train leaves at exactly that time. On the train they even warned us that the TGV closes its doors two minutes before departure… Oh, 8 minus 2… only 6 minutes to find the right platform and jump into the right train.

As you may see looking at the picture below, we made it! We got on time 🙂 and found our hotel at a walking distance from the Main Train Station. The city we visited was a fortress or a fortified settlement by the road or at the crossing of the roads. This beautiful city is very close to the river Rhine and is situated on the Ill river.

It’s been part of the European heritage since the beginning of human occupation and celts, romans, huns, francs and allemani lived in the region leaving not only their genes, but a big influence in the language.

medieval towers

Medieval towers, entrance to “Petite France”

During the last centuries Strasbourg ( as you may have already guessed…) has changed sides very often; it has been French, than German, than French again, etc.  It’s the main city of the Alsace, it’s the capital of the Bas-Rhine department and is the seat of many European institutions.

Our hotel was in the middle of the Medieval neighborhood, called “Petite France” which is surrounded by water. Walking through the Medieval streets you can really imagine the towns in the Dark Ages.  During our visit the weather was also kind of dark, cold, and windy. Brrr!

Some streets in the Petite France have very old traditional names dedicated to medieval occupations such as the Rue des Dentelles (= lace, fabric), Rue des Tonneliers (cooper), Rue des Charpentiers (= carpenters) or Rue des Serruriers (locksmiths) and other townsmen like Rue des Juifs (= judes), Rue des Frères (= brothers).  Another funny name that caught our attention was the Place of the Suckling Pigs’ Market?!, where you can find many traditional restaurants, gourmet shops and a weekly market.

One of the main attractions on the “Grand Ile”, as downtown is called, is the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  Why are so many churches called that way? Indeed, they are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady.  The construction of the cathedral began in the 12 century, was completed in 1439 and became one of the World’s Tallest Buildings.

A good reading to get an idea of what it took to build such a magnificent building is “Pillars of Earth” by Ken Follet. Another historical novel on that topic is  “La Catedral y el Mar” by Ildefonso Falcones. The former was filmed as a coproduction of German, French, Canada and other film studios.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1453159/?ref_=fn_al_tt_7

Although the cathedral is very impressive, we found another excellent example of Gothic art, the church of “Saint-Pierre-Le-jeune” or the Young Saint Peter. This smaller church is now a protestant church which shows that Strasbourg is one of the cities where you can find catholic and protestant churches hand in hand.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune_Protestant_Church

gothic church

Saint-Pierre-Le-jeune

The church is located in a small quiet street with a tiny garden in front of it and it’s only open in the afternoons. We went into the building and were captivated by the quiet atmosphere, the colored  light penetrating the stained glass windows and, very special, the paintings on the walls. The oldest part of the church was built in the 7th century!

 

wall paintings

Murals all over the walls

The organ is dividing the nave and is beautifully carved. It is placed in the middle of the church and is decorated in blue and red as are most of the walls.

At the end of the nave, there are two chapels, one with the baptismal font and wooden figures and the other one with a wooden angel with wide dark wings. The floor in both chapels is authentic and beautiful.

We went out to the cloister with a water well in the center and a very old stone cross.

stone cross

Old cross

It was getting dark outside, distant gregorian chants were playing and almost all visitors had left. In spite of being in a church, we were almost creeped out, so we decided to leave and have a nice dinner with live music.   No, no brass bands or Oktoberfest songs, we decided to go the Irish pub that is close to the cathedral, on the “Street of the Old Fish Market”.  Thank god, it didn’t smell of old fish 😉

On our last day we visited the cathedral and listened for a while to the Sunday Mass  (sorry we didn’t stay longer…) Afterwards we went to the Historical Museum of the City on the same street as the Irish pub.  The museum is located in Strasbourg’s former slaughterhouse built in 1588, in an area town butchers had occupied since the end of the 13th century… it sounds creepier as it was 😉

http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/index.php?page=histoire-historique-en

It was a very interesting visit, especially considering the divided story of Strasbourg and the Alsace. The museum is interactive and you can touch, listen, watch and read. We had big fun trying on knight helmets and trying to carry a stone bomb.  We also got a good grasp of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries with its World Wars and their effect on the region.

Leaving the museum, we took a long walk along the river and decided to try a typical menu in the evening. Walking through the narrow streets we came across a small restaurant quite hidden from the tourists. It is called “Au sanglier”. Can you guess the name of the street?  Yes, right, Rue du sanglier (= wild boar). Exactly, this time like Asterix and Obelix.  However, as alsacienne specialties are not known for being light, we decided to skip the wild pig 😉

We made a reservation for 7 p.m. and got there on time… We first had a Kir as an apero. We chose different salads from the salad bar for the first course and a Flammekueche with crispy, thin sliced bacon, onions and sour cream on a very thin flat crust, almost like pizza, for the main course. I had a cold, fruity, but not sweet glass of white wine, called “gentil” with my meal. The name “gentil” or kind and gentle really matched the wine, which was excellent.

As a dessert, included in the menu, (Really, I promise 😉 ) we had a compote of rhubarb with some vanilla ice. I usually don’t like that vegetable in any combination, but I was delighted and enjoyed it very much.

The restaurant “To the wild boar ” is decorated in a traditional style that reminded us of typical German restaurants in Bavaria. It was a little bit macabre because of the wild boar’s head hanging on one of the wall and looking at us. The oddest part of it was, as it was during Easter time,  that some Easter eggs were hanging of nice colored ribbons from its tusks…

We felt transported to the Middle Ages, but we could finish our meal.

The next morning we had a late breakfast and waited for our train to leave this nice city at 13:47 😉

I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour and the reading as much as we enjoyed our trip.

 

 

Berlin, Berlin…

Last November I spent two weeks in Berlin. For some of you Berlin may be of no interest or it may offer less compared to Paris or London. For others, Berlin as the capital of Germany may have a difficult or bad reputation.
 
I’ve been living in Germany for more than twenty years and had the opportunity of experiencing the Fall of the Wall here. Before those years I had only been once in West Berlin. The city was very crowded and the Wall was impressive. In the West part of the city there were observation points where you could take a look over the Wall at the East part. The German Democratic Republic was really another country although everybody was German. To be able to get an idea of this period in time there are some locations in Berlin to visit. First of all, Checkpoint Charlie which was the official point to cross from West to east Berlin during the Cold War and which has some old pieces of the wall left. 
 
Another interesting place to visit is the DDR Museum that offers a vivid view of every aspect of life in the German Democratic Republic. It is interactive and some products of the old DDR can be bought there, too.  A nice film to watch, Goodbye, Lenin.
Leaving the Cold War era, Berlin has experienced a fast modernization and is a proud example of modern architecture. Nice buildings are in and surrounding the Potsdamer Platz. One of the most famous is the Sony Center finished in the year 2000. It has place for restaurants, cinemas, offices and some living area. Next to the Sony Center there is a very big complex with more restaurants, cinemas, a new shopping mall, a theater and some first class hotels. 
If modern life with all its glamour gets to be too loud and “schrill” or jarring in about 15 walking minutes distance you can find a cultural oasis called the Kultur Forum. The famous Berliner Philharmonic is the first building that will attract your attention. If you cannot visit a concert there, take a tour and enjoy the building. Another idea would be to go on Wednesday afternoon to the small conference room where they show cultural films and other cultural events. And don’t forget that there are also “lunch concerts” to enjoy.
 
 
Next to the concert hall is the Gemäldegalerie or Picture Gallery where you can find the Old Masters of the European painting. The Gallery also offers special exhibitions like last year’s ‘ Picasso, women and animals’.  Funny title, but I loved the pictures.
Crossing the Matthiasplatz in front of the gallery, is the New National Gallery in an impressive modern building with glass walls and almost no columns to sustain the roof. It is dedicated to the twentieth century masters.
 
If you rather prefer to enjoy fresh air and green areas, very close to Potsdamer Platz you can visit the zoo or simply take a walk through the many paths along the water behind the zoo. You can smell the animals and can take a short look at some birds and lamas without having to pay an entrance 😉  If the weather is sunny and more or less warm, you can enjoy the hidden Biergarten close to the zoo. 
 
Berlin has many green areas and parks. The Spree river and its affluents offer idillic views that you can admire  taking the U-Bahn line, German for subway,  that goes to the Main Train Station. If you take one of the S-Bahn trains and leave the city for a while you will be surprised by the many lakes and woods that surround the capital. Very beautiful!
 
Going back in time and reviewing history, there is a very special area that you shouldn’t miss, the old Jewish Quarter with the New Synagogue and a lot of jewish shops and cafés. There is a building complex called Hackesche Höfe that has been modernized keeping the fashionable architecture of older times.
To handle this difficult topic, it is a good idea to visit the Jewish Museum from Daniel Libeskind. I found the building very impressive because it makes you feel the tragedy with only walking through the long aisles.  After the visit and to get you moods up a nice hot-chocolate in the coffee is the best.
 
 
Last but not least, the nightlife in this extraordinary city. Every neighborhood has something to offer:  the alternative bars in Prenzlauer Berg, the Turkish and Arab coffee shops in Neu-Kölln, elegant and classy restaurants in Berlin Mitte or nice places in other bourgeois neighborhoods like Charlottenburg or Steglitz.
Berlin is a very open minded city and you can find the best gay cafés, shops and clubs in Schöneberg ever since the 1920’s.  This makes me think  of Marlene Dietrich and her unforgettable “Blauer Engel”  and of “Cabaret” with Liza Minelli. 
 
 
 
The city hasn’t changed that much. There is fun for everyone: men and women, men and men, only women or all together… Why don’t you dare visiting a club where not only the doors swing? That would be another side of the wonderful city, Berlin. 😉