04 March 2017


Just days after our successful Galentine's Day, les vacances de février rolled around once more.  In university world, we only get one week off in October and February (compared to public schools, which get two weeks of vacation).  Tough life, I know, but I typically don't teach on Thursdays or Fridays, so I eked out a couple extra travel days.

Brussels to Berlin
What I failed to realize in booking my Brussels-Berlin plane ticket is that it's impossible to leave Lille in the morning and make it to the Brussels Zaventem airport for an 8am flight.  So at around 7pm Wednesday after being up since 5am and teaching all day, I had to leave for Brussels by BlaBlaCar and then take a bus to the airport, getting in around 10pm and settling in for a long night.  I can now attest that Brussels Zaventem is the Taj Mahal of overnight airports; I was very pleasantly surprised.  While I was traveling alone and didn't dare fall asleep, the departure hall is heated, clean, and comfortable - there are couches and, most importantly, a 24/7 Starbucks.  The airport was buzzing with people and activity by 3:30am, and just after 8am, I was Berlin-bound.

Berliner Dom
There will come a day when I visit Germany at a time of year besides February, but it was not this time around.  Despite running on zero sleep, I was energized for my day in Berlin by balmy weather, clear skies, and sunshine!  I spent most of the day walking, walking, and walking some more.  I had the opportunity to take pictures of a few classic monuments in the sunshine to replace the grey, abysmal photos I took two years ago, like the Brandenburger Tor and the Berliner Dom.

Brandenburger Tor
My first stop, though, after checking into my hostel, was Mustafa's, a bit outside of the center of Berlin, but - and I cannot stress this enough: if you visit Berlin, you must go and wait in line - rain or shine - probably 30-40 minutes - for their kebab.  You will never find a superior kebab anywhere.  Also on my "second visit" list were Caffè e Gelato, an Italian-inspired eiscafé (ice cream parlor) in the Potsdamer Platz mall, for Spaghetti eis: vanilla ice cream with strawberry syrup and white chocolate shavings, crafted to look like a spaghetti dish.  Finally, I returned to Fassbender & Rausch, my favorite chocolate shop in Berlin.

Spaghetti eis

I even made a couple of new discoveries during my short time in Berlin.  One was a small craft beer bar a short ways outside of the center of town called Hopfenreich; it has a nice variety of Berlin-based beers, which are often difficult to find in the center of town.  Another was the Hofbräu, right next to my hostel and on a street just off of Alexanderplatz, a traditional German restaurant complete with long tables and Currywurst that slid into the #1 spot on my "best ever" list, knocking Essen's down to second place.  Even better was the dinner ambiance provided by a live band.

Friday afternoon, it was already time to embark on new adventures in Germany.  I boarded a FlixBus, my new favorite mode of transportation; FlixBus is a budget European bus company that sometimes gets you from place to place quicker than the train (not the case in France, but Germany has the efficiency of the Autobahn on its side).  My bus from Berlin to Quedlinburg, for example, was direct, cost 13 Euros, and lasted just under three hours.  The train would have involved one connection, cost 40-50 Euros, and lasted at least three and a half hours.  FlixBuses are clean coach buses with free WiFi.  Definitely look them up for your next trip in Germany.

Friday afternoon, I arrived in Quedlinburg and was picked up by my friend Matthew, another Twin Cities native.  I'd never heard of the place before he moved here, but it is a small, cute, classic German town that draws plenty of tourists in the summer months thanks to its castle, signature architecture, and nearby Harz mountains which are swarming with witches, according to legend.  Matthew took me around to the main sights in town: the castle, the squares in the city center, the winding streets and small shops, and one particularly amusing street simply called "Word."

I gleaned several German Words of the Day from our walks in town.  I had previously learned

drücken - push


ziehen - pull

which conveniently let you know how a door should be opened.  After almost breaking the door to a mustard shop, I learned

schlittern -  slide


We later passed a toy shop, where Matthew explained the fun of certain German nouns, like

Spielzeug - toy, literally Spiel - play and zeug - thing.  So, with the same logic, we have

Flugzeug - plane, or "fly thing"

Fahrzeug - vehicle, or "drive thing"

Werkzeug - tool, or "work thing"

Similarly, I took my new word Angebot - offer/special, learned at a restaurant, and later deciphered the seemingly daunting Mittagsangebot - weekday special.

I met several of Matthew's friends over the weekend; Friday night, we met two of his German friends at a Greek restaurant.  Saturday, we had a fantastic time hosting dinner at his place for quite the international group: three French, one Italian, one Spaniard, and one German.

The weather was on-and-off rainy all weekend, but Sunday morning was particularly nice and Matthew took me to the Teufelsmauer, or "Devil's Wall".  It is made up of several unusually-shaped rocks tainted black chained together and, in some cases, incredibly still standing.  I was mesmerized by the eerie colors of the rocks combined with the color of the sky (which reminded me of the purply-blue colors of the sky in Alsace), the yellowish colors of the winter grass, and the orange rooftops of the small towns surrounding the rocks.  Walking up and down the rocks felt like walking through a painting, color-wise, at least.

Afterwards, we went back to Quedlinburg and took shelter from the rain inside the brauhaus (brewery).  We sampled Quedlinburg's locally-brewed beer, Lüdde, and had the bierfleisch for dinner, an incredible local meat, dumpling, and cabbage plate.

More useful German vocab:

vom Fass - on tap

Not a brand of German beer.

I enjoy traveling solo, but it was wonderful to stay with a friend and fantastic host for a bit.  Seeing a familiar face here in Europe is also refreshing from time to time.  Quedlinburg, though small, has two thumbs up from me if you're looking for a day or two of relaxation before you hop on another FlixBus to your next destination!

03 March 2017

'Tis the Season

Thanksgiving.  It always seems to be the bane and the joy of the expat's existence.  We love putting on a delicious and authentic dinner for our local friends, but we always have to get creative when it comes to ingredients and recipes.

This year was no exception, but I had a bit more support living with two other Americans.  We also had a few more guests than I was accustomed to: a group of around fifteen, which was incredible and often scary considering the state of our moody kitchen appliances and the tiny size of our dining room.  We put in an order of "authentic" food and ingredients from, and successfully whinged the rest of it.  Our French friends Paul and Amandine took care of the "turkey", which was actually...

French Word of the Day
un chapon - a capon

...which I had never heard of before, but it was delicious and turkey-like, so I say it counts.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so mishaps and authenticity (or lack thereof) aside, it's always heartwarming to be able to share a meal with wonderful people, wherever I find myself.

At the same time, it was the dawn of marché de Noël (Christmas market) season in Europe.  Lille actually has a pretty puny market, but redeems itself with a gigantic ferris wheel in the Grand Place.  The first photo I published in my post about Lille comes from the top of that ferris wheel during the one moment I wasn't whimpering and cowering due to my fear of heights.  Safe on the ground, there are also festive Christmas trees and decorations for kids to visit.

Along the Champs-Elysées
Lille wasn't my only Christmas market experience this year.  After seeing Notre-Dame de Paris (in Paris), Dana and I hit the market on the Champs-Elysées.  Glitzy and glamorous and completely over-crowded, with delicious waffles and unique yearly vin chaud cups, it's a must-see.  Here is a video of the twinkling lights along the part closest to the Arc de Triomphe.

Another weekend, I went with a group of friends to the largest Christmas market in the north of France in a city called Arras.  Arras is known for its unique architecture (see the lined Flemish-Baroque-style buildings in the photo to the left).  It was also a hotspot during WWI, only a few kilometers from the battles of Vimy Ridge and others.  During WWII, Arras was occupied by the Germans for a time before being liberated by British forces.

Arras has a massive square in the city center called the Place des Héros, perfect for a spacious market.  Later in the day, the market filled with people and it was difficult to move around, but the early afternoon was a perfect time to meander and enjoy.  We ate typical Alsatian specialties and perused the hundreds of stands in the square.
Dana and me in Arras

Jeff, me, Paul, Amandine, and Dana
Chandelier at the Opéra
Noël was celebrated back in the Minnesotan polar vortex, but upon returning to Lille, I did get to enjoy a lovely Christmas gift from Dana: tickets to the Opéra de Lille.  We went to see the Handel opera Il Trionfo del Tempo, which was lovely music-wise but the interpretation was very modern.  Our seats were in a small box up on the top story with a Canadian couple who were kind enough to explain to us what was generally happening.  Either way, it was a relaxing Saturday evening, and we got to admire the beautiful architecture and art of the Opéra building itself.

I was jetlagged and slept through le nouvel an 2017, so the next major holiday to note was Galentine's Day, celebrated a day late on Valentine's Day, with my two guy roommates.  After work, Jeff and Dimitri and I made a delicious American-style breakfast for dinner before snacking on fine chocolate and watching Parks and Recreation and Mean Girls all evening, as Americans do.

Galentine's Day breakfast for dinner
The months are flying by.  Next up:  St. Paddy's Day?