Africa Over Christmas and Into 2018

There comes a point in life in Germany where you start dreaming of someplace well…warmer. Sunnier. Cheerier. I like to joke that a sun-smoked vacation in the middle of winter is my condition for continuing to live in these cold Northern climes, but honestly? It’s no joke. To get our doctor-prescribed vitamin D, we scheduled this year’s trip to straddle 2017 and 2018 as far south as we could go and still remain in the same time zone: a three-week adventure through South Africa and Namibia. We learned a lot about both countries, cultures, foods, animals, landscapes and government’s commitments to maintaining the roads. And Tim learned about my secret ability to quote lengthy passages of Disney’s The Lion King unprompted and with an accuracy that greatly disturbed him.

We designed the self-drive trip so that Tim could share some of his favorite South Africa stops with me, and added in just shy of a week’s time in Namibia, to explore some new ground for both of us. Anyone who’s been to Namibia will tell you that’s an aggressive timeline (and now, in hindsight, I’m one of them), but for the most part, it worked out well.

Departing Flight: December 24

We got an amazing deal on round-trip flights (600USD/550EUR), but it requires flying on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day. We spent the bulk of Christmas Eve on the road, leaving Berlin at 7:00 am to get to Hamburg in time for our flight. (Long story short, we live in Berlin now, but booked the flights before the life swerve).

Return Flight: January 13

We left the evening of Saturday, January 13 and arrived back in Berlin on Sunday afternoon, perfectly positioning us to (unfortunately) return to work on Monday.

We divided our trip into three different legs over the course of the three weeks.

Leg 1: Johannesburg to Cape Town (and stay in Cape Town)

The cheapest flights were in and out of Johannesburg. We rented a Volkswagen Polo, nicknamed the Off-Road Polo for all the things we put it through, in Jo-Berg and mapped a route from O.R. Tambo to Cape Town over the course of three days. We stayed Christmas night at a private game reserve and lodge near Vredefort and then cut through the interior of the country to Cape Town over the next days, with a day-long stop at Karoo National Park. Then we spent a week exploring Cape Town.

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Leg 2: Namibia

Our original idea was to drive the whole route, but it soon became clear that we’d need more time than we had to attempt that. We opted instead to fly to Walvis Bay, Namibia (on the coast near Swakopmund) from Cape Town. There, we rented a Toyota Fortuner (4×4 strongly advised) and did a big loop of the southern part of Namibia, including the famous Sossusvlei Dunes, the Namib desert, Lüderitz, and the ghost town Kolmanskop, before flying out of Walvis Bay back to Johannesburg.

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Leg 3: Johannesburg Area

We actually didn’t spend any real time in the city itself. Once we landed, we rented another Volkswagen Polo, nicknamed Off-Road Polo Remix (since it was a flashy red), and did a small loop of the surrounding area. We spent two nights around Pilanesberg National Park and two nights in Parys with Tim’s family friends before heading back home.

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Guten Truthahn Tag!

“Is this your first Thanksgiving?” asked my creative director, when I introduced her to Tim at our office Thanksgiving celebration.

“Oh, no,” he replied cheekily. “I’ve had 27. I just didn’t know it was a holiday then.” Smart-assery aside, Germans obviously don’t celebrate the quintessential American holiday. It’s a little strange to treat such a major holiday as any other workday—last year I took the day off in solidarity, and ate all my homesick feelings at the Christmas market. This year, however, we decided to go all in and host our own Friendsgiving / housewarming. It surprised us by not being as difficult as we thought it’d be, but it did have some challenges. Mainly…finding where to buy a turkey.

Challenge: Where to Buy a Turkey

Germans love their turkey—as parcel meat, it’s as common as chicken in the grocery aisles (so common, in fact, that friends encouraged me to double-check my chicken when I first arrived, so that I didn’t purchase the wrong bird by accident). But finding a whole one wasn’t so simple. The trick? Foresight. Many butchers have turkeys, but you’ll need to call ahead and let them know you want it whole. We got an amazing turkey from Ullrich’s Putenhof—an organic farm that sold us a 6kg (12 lb) bird for 11/kg, and delivered it to us to boot. Other butcher shops in Berlin also had birds, but they were either sold out when we called a week ahead, or they were much more expensive (averaging about 14/kg). Call us crazy, but we believe you can really taste the “happy life” in these free-range turkeys.

The two local butcheries I contacted were:

  • Fleischerei Uwe Bünger in Wedding sells free-range Neuland turkeys whose
    living conditions are carefully monitored. Order by November 17th at the
    latest.
  • Fleischerei Gottschlich in Prenzlauerberg sell turkeys, and have also accomodated
    requests for turducken and short ribs. Order by November 20th at the
    latest.

Challenge: Defining the Menu

One of the most interesting parts of our Friendsgiving meal was defining what, exactly, are Thanksgiving foods. I grew up in a bi-racial family, which meant that our Thanksgiving was chock full of Filipino favorites like lumpia, pancit, adobo, and rice. I spent several years in the South, where I was introduced to mac n’ cheese as a side dish staple (and all the more grateful for that). We never had the “typical” foods of sweet potatoes and marshmallow or cranberry sauce that didn’t come from a can, and we rarely had stuffing. Non-Americans who were invited know Thanksgiving mostly from the infamous Friends episode, so we wanted to straddle the line of embracing the traditional model while also honoring America’s multi-culturalism (my own included). So our menu was planned to include (among others) : turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, mac n’ cheese, roasted veggies, lumpia, feijoada, and rice. *We ended up having the pare down the selection due to time and the desire to preserve mental fortitude.

Challenge: Ingredients and Supplies

Germans love cakes and tarts and cookies and doughnuts—and all of this is reflected in their bakeware aisle. Plenty of shallow pans and springform cake molds, but no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find a classic, deep pie dish. Thankfully we live in 2017, where the internet provides all we cannot find ourselves in-store: pie pans, pumpkin puree, serving dishes, cranberries, liquor, and of course, the turkey.

And so it came to pass, that on the fourth Saturday of November, people from all races, cultures, and countries joined together on a biergarten bench and an Ikea couch to enjoy food, friendship, and a tankards of Fireball, in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Thanks, danke, obrigado all.

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From Hamburg to the Haupstadt

The other day I looked at the calendar and realized it’s been a month since I moved to Berlin. In that month, a ton of things have happened. To whit:


Another move.
Since I was 17, I’ve moved 17 times. Which is kind of staggering. But it also makes the moving process a bit ritualistic. My mom used to tell me the story of how quickly her mom (an Army wife) could reassemble the old stuff in the new house and make it feel like home—a process I’ve come to pride myself on too. But this move (we hope) is the last for at least a few years. We’ve got a guest room, a roof deck, and plenty of space to grow. So this time around, Tim and I are trying to slow the settling into more of a process, and less of an act. The apartment is roughly the size of a small house, which makes this move feel strangely grown up.

Another year older. Speaking of grown up: my birthday was a week after we moved in, but getting older in Berlin feels ironically like getting younger. I’ve been drinking the city in like a Red Bull (or maybe a Mate, if we want to be very trendy). The pace, energy, vibe, and people are such a marked departure from the Hamburg scene; the weirdness, diversity, and originality make me feel like I’ve come back to San Francisco. There’s just something about a proper city that makes you feel like you’ve got a new lease on life—which was a great way to enter the final year of my twenties.

Another All Hallows. My second year of Halloween in Germany. Luckily, Berlin has enough Americans to bring the art of the spook to life. This Halloween also happened to coincide with the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther (the OG, not King) nailing his 99 Thesis to the door, which meant it was a public holiday throughout Germany. This was awesome for two reasons: one, you could party during the day and still be able to function the following one (which was my first day of work), and two, there were plenty of trick-or-treaters enjoying the time off of school.

Another agency. If you missed it, the reason we moved to Berlin was so I could take a new job with an old standard. I worked at AKQA San Francisco before moving to Germany, so in some ways, taking a job with AKQA Berlin completes a circle. I’m lucky that I got to take my partner-soul brother with me—making this fresh start feel comfortingly familiar on multiple counts. We’re working on a newly-won client pretty ferociously; it feels good to be busy.

This Saturday we’re finishing our kick-off month by warming the house with friends for a Thanksgiving feast. Lots of change, but lots to be thankful for too. Namely, that they sell turkeys in Berlin. 😉

Culture Shock #6: History is Live

“Ja, Hamburg is full of bombs.”

Three sets of eyes turned towards the voice. It was Ingo, one of our freelance copywriters. He sat, completely relaxed, behind his computer, as the three expats discussed the latest breaking headline: a bomb threat had closed the subway. Only this wasn’t an ISIS threat or a domestic terror attack. It was a (potential) blast from the past.

 


It turns out that we had translated the headline wrong. When the line read, “bomb found”, they literally meant “found”—as in, discovered in a construction site. According to a Guardian article, back in World War II, the British and American Allies pounded Germany with 1.5 million tons of bombs. Officials estimate that 15% of the bombs failed to explode—which means that throughout this country, thousands of live bombs are hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found.

Luckily, this being Germany, there is a system in place for when such a bomb is found. This past weekend, for example, we were returning from a visit to see Tim’s family only to find out that a massive evacuation was taking place in Frankfurt, where we had to change trains. In the largest evacuation since the war, 60,000 people were ordered to leave their homes for the day as experts came in to defuse what’s known as a “blockbuster”—a bomb large enough to flatten a whole city block. Over beers and a pizza at the central station (which was outside of the potential detonation radius, don’t worry Mom), we watched the coverage of the evacuation. Uniformed officers went door to door, ringing every bell and ensuring that everyone had properly exited the area. (The Guardian also tells me they used helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to make sure nobody was left behind). Then a team of police explosive experts came in and defused the bomb—and by the evening, everyone was back at home again. Like clockwork.

This type of occurrence is regular. So regular that Ingo didn’t even bat an eye when he heard what we were talking about. But in America, the bombs that fell in Europe in WWII are just lines on a history page. It’s hard to imagine that this type of Frankfurt bomb fell with a legion of others—and harder to imagine the type of flattening damage the bombs unleashed when they did explode on impact.

Amid all of the recent controversy about race and history in the States, I’ve found it so fascinating to see how Germans deal with their blemished past. I think part of it helps that the history is still alive for people to experience. You can still see the signage in Berlin that routed the trains to their different concentration camps. You can visit the camps. Theoretically, you could even be blown up by an active munition. It’s hard to glorify a history that weighs so heavy on you—and that’s one thing that should be appreciated about the German approach to history. They not only allow, but insist on that weight. They refuse to forget. And so history—its evil, its beauty, its danger—doesn’t die. It lives, breathes, and demands to be remembered.

Things We Are Not Taller Than

“Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture? We have a little tradition we do—just hold on and we’ll get into place.”

It started as a little gag—Tim had once put me on his shoulders and I said I was taller than anything else around. When I came to Aachen to visit him, I found a stat on how the Aachen Cathedral, when built in 798, was the tallest and largest structure north of the Alps. “I want a photo of me sitting on your shoulders next to it. It can be something we are not taller than.”

Tim paid it back to me on his visit to San Francisco in December. We drove up to Hawk’s Hill and walked the viewpoint to the Golden Gate Bridge. Onlookers laughed as I springboarded off a nearby log and scrambled onto his shoulder, whacking him in the face with my gloved hands.

And thus came the tradition. Every vacation we go on, we try to find one thing that we are organically not taller than—and someone kind enough to wait while we struggle into position.

For two years and ten countries, this guy has walked beside me, driven me crazy, swept me off my feet, and yes, carried me on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively. We’ve both got road left in our shoes…I can’t wait to see where we end up.

 

Postcard from Edinburgh

A few nights ago, sitting on the couch on a gloomy Saturday night, Tim poured us two glasses of whiskey and we settled in to watch a movie. He’d gotten Glencairn whisky glasses for his birthday; they are specially-designed with a tapered mouth to let you catch the nuanced smells of each pour. While he sipped American bourbon, I’d opted for Jura, a Scotch whisky we’d purchased on our November trip. As I brought the glass to my mouth, the smell instantly transported me to Scotland. This particular Jura is known for its peatiness—the smoky smell and taste that makes many whiskey novices turn their heads (or stomachs).

But this smokiness is exactly what makes me think of Scotland. It reminds me of a roaring fire, a sleeping dog, thick, felty tartan blankets, rain-lashed windows. The crunch of cobblestones. A fine mist dancing across your face and settling on an upturned collar.

I’ve visited Scotland twice now, once with Tim last November on a trip through the Highlands, and back to Edinburgh in April with my friend Alex. Both times the weather was sunny but cold—I kept my coat buttoned to the throat and a flask of whisky in the pocket to ward off the chill. Alex and I didn’t have much of an itinerary (it’s what makes us such good travel companions). We wandered the Prince Streets Garden while munching on buttery, oven-fresh shortbread; flipped through thick books of fabric swatches as she contemplated getting a custom-made kilt skirt; admired the arches and colorful glass windows at St. Giles Cathedral; took tea breaks whenever it struck our fancy.

We finally ended up at Edinburgh Castle and slipped in right before the close, meandering through the sprawling keep in search of the shiny stuff. We found it in a high tower, where bejeweled swords and crowns lay in a thick glass case besides what appeared to be a massive rock.

“What is the rock for?” Alex asked the security guard. He appeared surprised.

“That’s no rock—that’s the Stone of Destiny,” he said. This epically-christened oblong piece of sandstone is also called the Stone of Scone (or in Scottish Celtic, An Lia Fàil). It’s the coronation stone used for centuries by the Scottish kings and now the British monarchs. According to the guard, when Charles ascends the throne, he will sit on the throne chair—but beneath it will be this very rock, brought down from Scotland.

On our last day, we woke early and headed to the base of Arthur’s Seat—a different rock named (according to legend) for a different king. Arthur’s Seat is often mentioned as one of the possible locations for Camelot, the legendary castle and court of King Arthur. At a height of 250.5 m (822 ft), it’s a relatively easy hike that offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. We took our time, chatting and picking our way over the grassy knolls. Shortly before the crest sat a man playing lilting Celtic songs on an acoustic guitar. We paused to savor the moment.

“Do you ever think these moments are our rewards for doing good in this world?” Alex asks me. “The ways that karma manifests for us?” The sun was bright on our faces, the wind crisp and strong. The city of Edinburgh unrolled at our feet, and the roughness of the mountain was cloaked in freshly-sweet heather. I replied with the only answer that occurred to me. “God…I hope so.”

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Everyone is Welcome in LA

With the U.S. currently gaffe-ing about matters both diplomatic and domestic, it’s little wonder the sentiment outside of the States is so wary—especially when it comes to booking travel. But count on California to do something to change that. I love this colorful, bright-eyed ad from LA Tourism, that both says and shows that #everyoneiswelcome. And to be honest—since we’ve acknowledged the population is so varied, I’d love to see such a diverse cast in a “normal” ad too. #goals