Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cupcakes in Different Countries

I'm not a "sugar" person. A bag of chocolate or sweets could sit unopened at my apt. for months (this requires no self-restraint). On my first birthday in Germany, everyone gave me sweets and chocolate. These remain unopened until 8 months later when I returned to the US and gave them to my family and friends. A bag of salty chips is a completely different story...*

With that said - on all recent trips, I somehow ended up at a cupcake shops. There is something about cupcakes that make them difficult to resist. The cupcakes (seen below) all received a 100% rating on the "yummy" scale.

From Candy Cakes in Covent Garden, London:

From Mercado de San Miguel, in Madrid:  

From The Hummingbird Bakery, Nottinghill, London:

*This is a huge joke amongst my friends in Germany.  A while ago, there was a dessert making contest between two German friends who both bragged that they were the better dessert maker.   They spent 3 days making 5 desserts each.  When the tasting happened - I ate the apples out the pie (leaving the crust), had a spoonful of something chocolatey, skipped the other desserts, and had some salty pretzels.  Because of my "torturing" of the apple pie and lack of appreciation for the other desserts, I'm no longer invited to dessert contests.  And whenever they hold dinner parties, they always bring out dessert for everyone else and a bag of something salty for me. :)  To my defense, I did mention to both of them not to make me a portion as I probably wouldn't eat it.  They are good chefs though!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Destination: London, England

London was my "city trip" of the summer.  As I live in a small town where there is suburbia and students (and not much in between), London is always a welcome change.  The goal of my weekend was to meet up with friends, to get away to a large city, and to have fun.  All were successfully accomplished.

Highlights from this trip:

1. Riding the London Eye at sunset. 
The London Eye is the gigantic (135m tall) ferris wheel on the River Thames.  Passengers ride in capsules. Sunset is my favorite time to go as you get to see London in daylight for the 1st half (15 min) and London lit-up by lights for the 1nd half (15 min).  If you're lucky, there is a gorgeous sunset. 
If you want to impress a date, take them here. But expect to share the capsule with many other people... this means waiting patiently for others to move so that you can take your pics, or elbowing them out of the way.

2. Visiting the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain.   
This fountain is a small, circular stream with twists, twirls, and some small rapids.  On warm days, hundreds of kids run in the stream.  This is my favorite place to rest after a long day of walking.   The water is reasonably chilled, which feels wonderful on tired feet.

Beware: Prepare to get wet if you're anywhere near the stream. Kids are running and splashing everywhere. A friend and I tried to walk the entire circular loop of the fountain (with our pants rolled up). Being very dry, some little girls decided to splash my friend... then their friends joined in the splashing... then they got cups for water and super-soakers. Apparantely these little girls really liked him. And they showed it by ensuring that he was drenched in water when exiting the stream.

3. Visiting Camden (Camden St., Camden Market, & Camden Lock).
Camden is an up & coming, edgier neighborhood in London.  Day or night, this place is packed.  Camden is made-up of 3 parts: Camden St, Camden Market and Camden Lock. Camden St. has great shopping.  Small boutiques, featuring soon-to-be up & coming designers line the streets.  At night, the street is alive with restaurants and bars. 

If you like flee markets, Camden Market is the place to go.  It has stalls with cheaply made trendy clothes (think Forever 21) and mass produced items (like t-shirts).   Only clothing, jewlerly, and shoes are sold here. The clothing selection here is better than many other flee markets that I've seen.  If you don't like flee markets, avoid this place.  The stalls are tightly packed and can make anyone clusterphobic.

Camden Lock is my favorite part of Camden.  It used to be a horse stable (hence the horse statues everywhere).  Now it's home to up & coming designer boutiques (selling very edgy and very Indy clothing), boutiques selling random clothing (think great place to shop for Halloween costumes), and tons of food stands (with every type of food).  At lunch, you can wander around, sampling different foods.  When you decide where to eat, you can purchase a large box for £3-4 and fill it with all food that you want from that food stand. 

4. Watching a football match at Wembley Stadium. 
One of my favorite things to do in when visiting a country is to watch a local, sports match. The crowd atmosphere at these matches tells a lot about the people in the country.  Knowing that I love football, a good friend got us tickets to the England v. Mexico.  As this was a pre-World Cup practice match, the atmosphere was even louder than normal.  Everyone was decked out in England or Mexico colors. Almost everyone attending the match is a die-hard fan of their team... they attend both home and away matches of their team.
It was during this match that I learned "Our Country Tis of Thee" was written to the tune of "God Save the Queen" (the British national anthem).  Apparantely the British do not like the US lyrics and don't appreciate someone singing the US lyrics during the playing of their national anthem... they consider it butchering it. 

5. Visiting Hyde park.  When the weather gets warm, Londoners spend all day in parks. They're a great place to meet friends.  It's completely common to see many groups still in the park at 9pm (the sun is still out at 9pm in summer). On another note, it's also completely common to see (almost) naked people, specifically guys, in the parks during hot weather.   Many Londoners like to strip down when it's sunny with the purpose of getting a tan.   This can be a scary sight, depending on the person with their clothes off. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The blog where I explain why I have traveled so much lately...

May & early June is the perfect time to travel if you live in Germany.  Germany is cold & rainy at this time and every other weekend is a 3 or 4-day weekend (love those German holidays!) when stores/shops/restaurants are all closed.* 

My first year in Germany, I didn't know about all these holidays.  As a result, I was stuck inside (rain + cold + shops closed + friends all travelling home = me sitting inside all weekend) on perfectly good long-weekends.  Now I've learned my lesson and make plans in advance to travel on these weekends.   Additionally, summer has started in Europe.  And summer is the best time to travel.  Many ex-pats don't travel during the winter, thereby saving money & vacation days for summer travel.  Hence the reason for all the recent (and upcoming) travel posts.  Plus cheap (and quick) travel within Europe is one of the perks of being an ex-pat!

If you have any suggestions for places to visit (especially those off the beaten path) - I'm happy to hear them!

*Note to travellers planning trips to Germany in May/June - this is a bad time to visit Germany due to the rain & holidays.
*Note to recent transplants to Germany - plan trips in advance for the holiday weekends, or you'll be stuck inside wasting a great chance to travel.

Heidelberg's Witch Festival

The city of Heidelberg (HD) loves it's cult-related rituals.  In fall, there is a Vampire ball where people dress in extravagant Vampire costumes (think "Interview with a Vampire" outfits).  And in spring there is Walpurgisnächt, more commonly known as "witch night."

Witch night happens on the last night in April.  According to Wikipedia, this holiday originated by witches holding large celebrations with bonfires to celebrate the arrival of spring. Many in Heidelberg (HD) continue to celebrate the witch tradition.

On the top of the hill opposite of HD are monastery ruins and a Nazi amphitheatre.  These were all built on top of druid ruins.  On the last night in April, people (mostly hippies and students) hike the mountain - in darkness - and go to the ampitheatre.  Hiking at night to the ampitheatre is no problem... there is a constant stream of people walking up the forest trails to the mountain (as one friend put it "follow the dreadlocks, drum beats, and smell of pot"). 

At the top of the mountain (which we made without injury!), we encountered 2 parking lots with 30+ ambulances.  Seeing this was slightly alarming.

The ampitheatre (a short distance from the parking lot) was easy to find as there were loud drum noises coming from it.  In the ampitheatre, there were 3,000+ people, many bonfires (1 big bonfire, many small BBQs turned into bonfires), loud drums, people dancing (hippie style) everywhere, and random fireworks.   In the 30 min which we were there, 2 people were carried out of the ampitheatre by paramedics.  Many of the people in the ampitheatre were set to camp there overnight. 

The walk down was much easier than the walk up.  The path was filled with (drunk) people sitting and some (stupidely) attempting to walk in not-so-straight lines (this was done in a crooked path with frequent crashes into the trees and fences on either side of the path).  All in all, we hiked about 5km that night. 

Next year, we decided that we're going to have a cart next to the ampitheatre where we sell ice cream, water, and hamburgers/hot dogs.  None were there and we're sure many people would buy them.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

German BBQs are Baffling

A German friend is holding a BBQ tomorrow at which the Germany v. Australia World Cup match will be shown.  On the invite was the request "Please bring your own meat to cook + condiment/buns + $5.  We will provide drinks and salad for the $5."  Likewise, at a German-hosted BBQ in Silicon Valley, a group of us non-Germans showed up to the BBQ, and then had to leave, go to the grocery store and buy our dinner, before returning. 

At BBQs with Germans, normally everyone is expected to bring everything (meat, salad, chips, drinks) which they would want to consume.*  This completely baffles me.  BBQs are a chance to get together, share good food, and enjoy the companies of others.  I understand keeping the costs/expectations for each guest to a reasonable amount by having everyone bring "normal" BBQ foods/drinks. So anyone wanting something extravavagant - like Champagne, or expensive - like a steak, or out of the norm - like gluten free/veggie burgers needs to bring them themselves.  But otherwise, sharing is a good lesson to learn and a BBQ is a great place to practice sharing.  With that said, I'm not a fan of the German BBQ approach as it doesn't promote sharing. 

After my first German BBQ in Silicon Valley, my non-German friends and I made BBQ rules (for our BBQs) that everyone was expected to bring 1 drink or dish to share with the entire BBQ group.  It was met with resistance at first, but over time I've learned that everyone actually appreciates it.

*Some of my German friends (usually those who've lived outside of Germany) now prefer the sharing approach to a BBQ (or so I've been told) and hold sharing BBQs.