Christmas Markets of Berlin

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Gendarmenmarkt in BerlinA pleasurable experience to try when living in Berlin or Europe in general are the many Christmas Markets that set up and open their stalls beginning the second or third week in November and lasting until after Christmas.   Here is a list of links beginning with six of the most popular:

  1. Alexanderplatz Christmas Market
  2. Christmas Market at Charlottenburg Palace
  3. Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt h
  4. Lucia Christmas Market at the Kulturbrauerei
  5. Winterdream at Alexa – The Big Berlin Christmas Market
  6. Winterworld on Potsdamer Platz

Most are just opening this week, so by the end of the week I hope to have some personal photos and information to post.

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Preparing to Become An Expatriate

passportcurrencyThis post is intended for readers who are about to set out for the first time as an Expatriate.  Although, it is stated from a U.S. citizen’s perspective, similar information should be available in the Consular Section of most embassy websites.

If you are traveling as an employee for an international company you may have already engaged in some sort of orientation process to prepare for your life abroad.  If you are making this step on your own, or you haven’t had the luxury of an orientation, the United States Department of State has already done the homework and you can access most of the information you need here.

The Traveler’s Checklist you will find on this website allows you to research the country  you will be traveling to or living in and provides the following information:

  • Passport Requirements
  • Vaccination Requirements
  • Currency Restrictions
  • Visa Requirements
  • Local Embassy Address & Contact Information
  • Facts About the Country
  • Safety & Security
  • Criminal Activity & Reporting Instructions
  • Health, Medical Care & Facilities
  • Travel & Transportation

Another service offered by the U. S. Department of State is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  Expats and travelers can register for this free service to inform the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate of your stay in the country.  In return applicants will be informed of safety conditions, natural disasters, and civil unrest within that country.  In addition, the embassy will have a way to contact you in the event of a family emergency.  It is also an easy way for family and friends to contact or find you.

If you are expatriated from another country similar information should be available at your national embassy website.  To list a few:

French http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/

German http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Startseite_node.html

Italian http://embassyrome.com/italian/

Spanish http://www.spanishembassy.net/

United Kingdom http://www.embassy.org/embassies/gb.html

Pokémon GO! What’s the fuss?

Even in Germany I’ve heard all the Hoopla about Pokémon GO, but it never occurred to me that I was witnessing the ongoing phenomenon on a daily basis while just out walking in the city.  The first couple of times I saw this happening I thought, “These people are acting really strange. What are they up to?”  Then I realized this behavior of walking around not looking where you are going, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk with no warning, looking all around and then screeching out “I caught a Charizard!” was Pokémon GO in action.  One group even stopped in the middle of a busy intersection to hunt for the elusive critters.  Well, being the curious cat I am I decided to download the app to my phone to find out what all the fuss was about, and to my great surprise I found out a neat feature about the game.  Here in Germany at least, there is a fantastic photo opportunity at every Pokéstop.  Below are a few examples of what I mean:

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Now I’ve Gotta Catchém All!

Glögi: Finnish Mulled Wine

glogiTo experience an international treat for the holidays this year consider trying Glögi,  or Finnish mulled wine.  This warm rich drink is enjoyed best served in a mug with orange peels, raisins and almonds with a side of ginger snap cookies.  Share with friends by the fireside, and may it bring smiles and friendly conversation to brighten your holidays.  For the recipe click here.

Helsinki: An Eclectic Wonderland

Of all the cities I have lived or visited, Helsinki, Finland has the most eclectic surroundings within the smallest land area.

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Diversity starts with the quaint atmosphere of a fishing village on the East Harbor Yacht Basin, branching out to the promenade of ferry boats and cruise liners on the South & West Harbors. A traveler can enjoy street markets and the fresh catch of the day, before hopping aboard a short cruise to one of the other Baltic Nations.  Within 1 to 3 days of embarking on your journey from Helsinki, you can visit cities in Estonia, Sweden, Norway, Russia and beyond.

aleksanterinkatu-plazaMoving inland, Helsinki is a bustling metropolis hosting popular shopping venues with contemporary fashion, and the latest in electronics. For its minimalist techniques in fashion, art, and architecture it received distinction as Design Capital of the World in 2012.  Along streets and byways you will find easy access to handmade local crafts in woodwork, leather, linens, woolens, fine glassware, and ceramics.  You will love the winter markets, and the festivals that take place throughout the year.  They host an annual Sardine Festival in the fall, and the Flow Festival of Lights during the winter months to name a few.  Multiple museums are dispersed throughout the city and many of them offer days with free admittance.  Many churches and buildings with historical significance are open for daily tours as well.

There are numerous activities to take in during the spring and summer months also, with Seurasaari Island Open Air Museum, and Suomenlinna Sea Fortress a short distance away which can be reached by water taxi or ferry boat.  Mid-Summer’s night is celebrated in late June with bonfires and merrymaking.

Many people take time out to visit summer cottages, and enjoy saunas, sun bathing and kayaking on the archipelago.  The Finnish take pride in green living and Everyman’s Rights Law which allows access to any property within 100 meters of the primary residence to enjoy what nature has to offer.  They are heavy consumers of herring, salmon, smoked white fish, mushrooms, cherries, and berries of every description.  Reindeer steak is also a staple in the Finnish diet.  My favorite food discoveries in Helsinki were cardamom bread and almond pastries.

helsinki-central-railway-station-14helsinki_central_railway_station_by_emil_wikstrom_-_dsc03428The Central Train Station is a true wonder all its own.  Weekend trips to the interior and the countryside are a short train ride away offering access to Christmas tree farms, dog sledding, sleigh riding, reindeer ranches, and cross country skiing.

If you are up for a longer journey by train, a jaunt to Lapland on the Artic Express might suit your fancy.  There you may visit the Santa Claus village, the Ice Hotel, or the Igloo Villas while spending time with the family enjoying the snow and ice sculptures, and taking in the Northern Lights.  The Laps are known for their fine workmanship in handcrafted knives.

My Personal Experience

My life in Finland as an expat included a daily stroll to work past the very seat of the government including the city hall, the presidential palace, and the senate square before catching a tram along the South Harbor and Olympia Terminal in full view of the comings and goings of cruise ships before reaching my destination on embassy row.  Such is the life of the everyday citizen because Helsinki is a coastal seaport and almost everyone who visits there traverses this route at one time or another.

helsinki-june-202012-004helsinki-june-202012-003I found it easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a nutritious diet of fresh fruits and vegetables found in markets on almost every street corner.  Helsinki is fairly safe with a population of 629,512.  The overall crime rate is 27.87% with a safety index of 72.13%.  Of course it is always wise to use caution and be alert to your surroundings wherever you travel because crime rates on are the rise worldwide.

Expat Daily Life

As I said previously, green living is a priority so recycling is strongly encouraged.  Grocery stores have recycling stations which pay back the deposit to consumers for plastic and glass bottles.  As most other countries in Europe, stores charge a fee for shopping bags, so it is wise to bring your own or recycle the ones you buy.

For expats with children  International schools in Helsinki are in high demand, and they are prominent in neighborhoods throughout the city.  Parks and recreational facilities abound for families to enjoy natural surroundings and engage in sports of every kind.  The Helsinki Tram System is the only one still in operation in Finland.  It is very reliable and easy to use as are buses and trains, so getting around is no problem.  Since Helsinki is a fairly small city, many places can be reached by walking or biking, which is another popular activity in warmer months.  Dogs are welcome residents in Helsinki and are seen accompanying their masters wherever they go, from the shopping mall, to the grocery store and in restaurants.

Culture

You are likely to see people engaging in many unfamiliar activities when you first arrive only to learn later they are very common occurrences, such as, nudes running from a public sauna to a hole in the ice in the Baltic Sea, Nordic in-line skaters along the quay, or people having a carpet washing picnic on a carpet laundering barge.  The Finnish people are a hardy breed who do not let the weather dictate their movements, and treat the bitter winter weather as just a mild inconvenience.  I’ve heard it said that there is “no wrong weather, just wrong clothing.” If I can relay one piece of helpful advice it would be to prepare yourself for the cold.  Spend the extra money for a good pair of waterproof insulated snow boots preferably with ice tracks, wool socks, long underwear, a warm hat, gloves, and a good parka.  Prepare to dress in layers because you will be in and out of your clothing every time you enter or leave a building.

Finns are taught to speak English starting in the 2nd grade, so usually someone in the vicinity speaks English well enough to help if needed, but don’t neglect to learn some of the basic phrases of the Finnish Language.  They may correct you, but the Finns appreciate your efforts, and often times will help you learn.  Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are good sources for learning Finnish.  Google Translate is also a life saver.

An interesting piece of trivia about Finland is their coffee consumption.  Finns drinks more coffee than anywhere else in the world.  According to BartenderPHD  and “the International Coffee Association, each Finn consumes 12 kilograms, or 608 litres of coffee per year, that means almost one of every 100 coffee beans in the world is imported to Finland.”  Three coffee breaks per day are written into most union labor agreements.

For my Finnish friends who may be reading this I say with all due respect most of them seemed very reserved at first introductions.  If you are a goofy American like me who smiles and says hello to every stranger on the street the Finns may wonder if you have a screw loose.  One man told me it is because I appear amused for no reason in particular, or I may be perceived as laughing at someone rudely.  However, I do believe the Finnish appreciate a genuine personality and once they decide to like you, you are a friend for life.  When that happens their demeanor changes toward you and you are accepted into the fold. Helsinki in winter is dark almost 22 hours of the day, in northern latitudes 24 hours.  The sun barely peeks above the horizon during the daylight hours.  In summer it is daylight around the clock, so blackout blinds are a Godsend unless you can sleep during the day.  Don’t neglect your social life because when the land of the midnight sun goes dark in the winter you will value the connections you’ve made.  This is only a brief introduction to Expat Life in Helsinki.  There is so much more to discover and learn in your life there.  Don’t be afraid to venture out and experience as much as you can.

 

 

 

Prague Trivia: Learn 7 Fun Facts about Prague

Want to check your knowledge of the city of Prague?

 

See if you know the answer to these 7 trivia questions.  Click on the link at the end for the answers.

  1. What famous musician and singer never visited the city of Prague, but has a Graffiti Wall dedicated to his memory?
  2. What is the name of the famous Bridge in Prague commissioned by a notoriously superstitious king who was into astrology and numerology, and what is the significance of the date on which its corner stone was laid (July 9, 1357 at 5:31 a.m.)?
  3. What are the things crawling up the sides of the Prague TV Tower and what is strange about their features?
  4. What area in Prague was preserved from destruction by Adolf Hitler for his retirement years?
  5. What famous modern monument of architecture was named in honor of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?
  6. What iconic Rock n Roll group paid to have electric lights added to the Prague Castle?
  7. What beverage is drank more of per capita in Prague than any other country in the world at almost half a liter daily for every man, woman and child?

 

Click here for the answers

Prague the Capital City of Bohemia (Czech Republic): A Culture Rich in Creativity


Fellow Traveler does your heart long for the sound of Mozart as you thumb through the literature of Franz Kafka while strolling through Royal Gardens among dwellings of serfdoms past?

When I think of all things Bohemian, I think of the romantic city of Prague  or Praha as spoken in the native tongue.  Prague is a cultural plethora of past and present royals, peasants, composers, musicians, writers, and artists.  Kings and legends were born there and Saints were martyred in its streets.  Prague is an entity unto itself where dragons were slain, wars raged, musical masterpieces were composed, classic literature was penned, and grand works of art painted.  Today the lanes and byways are peopled with souls seeking inspiration and kindred spirits.  If you have a yin for creative influences, diverse populations and cultures, Prague is sure to satisfy.  Visit here for more information.

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To get a feel for the city. start by taking in the Old Town Square and the wealth of museums and galleries throughout.

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Restaurants offer anything from pizza and burgers to authentic Czech food, and there are many opportunities to find just the right souvenir for your loved one back home.  Make time to enjoy the markets, vendors and street food.  You may pick up an item you really love for an awesome bargain.

Trdelnik is an interesting pastry that you may like.  Click here to learn how to pronounce it.  Click here to learn the history of and how to make it.

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Check out the street musicians and artist along the way.

My adventure to Prague began on an express train from Berlin along the Elba River in full appreciation of the breathtaking scenery leading into the Czech Republic.  From the Prague Central Station to our hotel the cab driver, in his best broken English, kindly gave an unsolicited guided tour of the city starting with the Dancing House, Wenceslaus Square (Named after Good King Wenceslaus), and Old Town Praha.

Great Hotels Throughout the City

We stayed in the Aria Hotel at the heart of Prague.  The Aria is a wonder all its own with each of its 51 rooms is decorated in honor of a different composer or musical artist.  The Chief Concierge welcomed us with a tour of the four star hotel, featuring accommodations like a music library and concierge service, a private cinema, a fitness center, a private entrance to the Vrtba Gardens , a baroque garden and historical hidden treasure where one may enjoy a romantic private dining experience upon request.

The Winter Atrium at the Aria Hotel serves high tea every afternoon for guests to wind down to live music after a long day of site seeing.  The Coda Restaurant with an award winning chef, provides fine dining in, as well as on the rooftop terrace for intimate dining under the stars with a panoramic view of the old city.  For a cosy ending of a perfect day guest may enjoy the Fireplace lounge.  It was such welcoming and comfortable accommodations I almost didn’t want to leave the hotel, but the streets of Prague were calling to my adventurous side.

If you are a shutterbug you are in for a real treat on the streets of Prague.

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Just a short walk from the hotel is the Charles Bridge  leading into Old Town Prague.  The Charles is usually a bustle with tourist walking to and fro, so it is usually best for photographers to set out early in the morning for the best light and for time to get just the right angle without someone in the way or pushing you from all sides.

Both sides of the bridge feature statues  of historical personages throughout the history of Prague, the oldest of which is St. John of Nepomuk  who was thrown from the bridge and drowned in the Vitava River for refusing to divulge the Queen’s confessional to King Wenceslaus (Not the Good One).  His martyrdom began the Seal of the Confessional and he was canonized as the Saint against defamation of character, protector from floods and drownings.  It is considered good luck to rub the brass relief at the base of his statue as shown below.

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Continuing your journey to the west side of the Charles Bridge into Old Town Prague you will be able to visit sites like the Powder Tower, The Astronomical Clock, Kinsky Palace, The Franz Kafka museum, The Bertramka Villa and museum where Mozart composed the famous Don Giovanni opera, and other sightseeing attractions.

 Get a Royal View

On east side of the Charles Bridge in the lesser city you can take a short hike up the hill to visit Prague Castle.  Within its walls are the many adventures waiting to be explored.  To name a few:

Prague Royal Gardens

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St. Vitus Cathedral 

Golden Lane

Franz Kafka actually lived on Golden Lane and wrote many of his literary works there.  This small Medieval period village has been historically preserved to show the everyday way of life of the serfs and vassals who lived within the castle gates during that era.

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St. George Basilica — Yes, the one who slew the dragon.

I’ve only brushed the surface of what there is to discover in Prague.  You may learn more by visiting prague.net .

For U.S. expats in Prague the U.S. embassy  is only 50 meters from the Aria Hotel.  The embassy is currently under renovation, but still in operation.  For insight on what expats are doing in Prague consider downloading the Meetups app on your smart phone to join an Expats meetup group, or go online to Internations.org to join the expat association for Prague.   To learn more about Bohemia and the Czech Republic visit here.

Finally I’ve included a link to the following video of Old Town Square for your viewing enjoyment.

Amsterdam: The City of Freedom

Amsterdam is a city where you are likely to see and experience things you’ve never imagined.

 

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Our waitress at the popular Grasshopper Restaurant (no longer Coffee Shop) describes it as The City of Freedom.  Freedom to come and go, do and be as you please, with no oppression.  I asked her how she came to live there from her home country (she was actually from Brazil), and she said that she’d followed her heart.  First with a man, then because she fell in love with the city.  I can’t say that I was totally in my comfort zone or feeling totally free on my visit; however, others younger or less inhibited than me might feel right at home. Although, I can say, it was an experience I will never forget, and parts of it were fun and entertaining.

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Besides the popular Red Light District that you hear about so much, with open and legal access to prostitution and drugs, were lovely historic homes and architecture, beautiful canals, numerous houseboats, and cyclists galore.

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Bikes in Amsterdam

My first impression of walking down the street in Amsterdam was that my immediate safety may be in peril from all of the bicycles and motorcycles along the way from the Central Train Station to our lodging just across the street.   In fact, 40% of all vehicle traffic in Amsterdam is bike traffic.  Just after we arrived we stopped at a convenience store to buy drinking water, and while paying the shop owner we heard the shriek of tires on pavement just outside the front of the shop.  On further investigation we saw that a biker had ran a red light and been hit by a car.  The shop owner told us this happens about once or twice a day at that corner; so safety tip, watch out for bikes.

Amsterdam is where I first experienced a number of new favorites:

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Bitterballen, now my favorite Dutch Appetizer. Here is a link to find some of the best places to eat it in Amsterdam.

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Cheese shops are numerous in the city of Amsterdam.  Here is a link to some of the finest shops in Amsterdam.

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Canal Cruises and houseboats wherever you look.  Here are some great locations to book houseboat rental or cruise.

Our first full day in Amsterdam was devoted to a cruise on the canals.  Instead of going with one of the larger commercial cruise lines we decided to go small with Boat Amsterdam, a one hour cruise including all you can drink and a personal guide to the city for 15€.  It is an open air vessel so blankets were provided for warmth against the chill Autumn air.  Our tour guide was a young lady from Seattle Washington, go figure.  She transferred her citizenship to Amsterdam over a series of visits throughout her young life and finally decided it is where she needs to live and work.  She seemed very well adjusted to life in The Netherlands, and was fairly knowledgeable about the city and historic sights.

 

On this cruise we saw the home of Anne Frank next door to Westerkirk, the church whose bells she describes hearing from her hiding place in the book “Anne Frank’s Diary”.

We also saw the home of the mayor of the city, many beautiful buildings, and were told the history of our own hotel.

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The Victoria Hotel built in the 1970’s surrounds a smaller house whose owner refused to sell out.  The family is still in residence to this day.

We only spent a night and a day in Amsterdam before moving on to another leg of our journey, but it was eye opening and entertaining.  There is much more to see and do there than time permitted, and I hope to go back again for a longer stay.

To create your own itinerary for a day or longer in Amsterdam you can visit the following website http://www.visitacity.com/en/amsterdam/itineraries/amsterdam-in-one-day–easy-going-day-1 .  Happy travels!

Bitterballen: A Dutch Masterpiece

Okay, okay! Food doesn’t necessarily conform to the genre of a Dutch Master, but this tasty treat is definitely a work of art all on its own. Bitterballen is a type of meatball or kroket with a piping hot gooey center, and one of the best appetizers to be found in The Netherlands. Here is a link including a short history lesson of this well-known Dutch treat along with the recipe to try it out and form your own opinion. Bitterballen is served on canal cruises, in restaurants and bars throughout The Netherlands along with these other 10 Dutch Foods You Should Try Once. I can’t vouch for them all, but they are pretty popular. Gouda Cheese is especially prevalent in The Netherlands, there you will find many shops which offer cheese tasting opportunities to find what suits you best before you buy. All in all, Bitterballen was the winner for me. I hope you enjoy it too!

Hoppengarten: Brandenburg Day 2016

Germany is known for its many street markets and festivals throughout the year.  Next month I will begin my exploration of the Christmas Markets.  I can hardly wait for them to begin on November 30th, but in the summer and fall several beer festivals and of course Oktoberfest celebrations take place starting in August through October.  German Unity Day is a national holiday observed on October 3rd which celebrates the Reunification of East and West Germany dating back to October 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down.  It is common to hear the sound of celebrations and fireworks all around the city especially near the Brandenburg Gate during that time of year.

hoppengarten-band Today I am featuring one of my favorite festivals so far, the Hoppengarten, Germany Brandenburg Day Festival 2016  which takes place on or around September 3rd and 4th.  If you enjoy watching horse races, perusing stalls in search of authentic craftsmanship, trying out local food, and listening to great music, this is a fine place to indulge.

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Hoppengarten is about a 45 minute train ride east of Berlin’s City Center.  Upon arrival at the station you hear the sounds of classic Rock-n-Roll and Pop Tunes, accompanied by the delicious aroma of currywurst, sausages, schnitzel, baking pretzels, and fresh bread.  Anthony Bordain I am not, but smoked horse meat and jerky are also available for the adventurous eater.

 

 

Once you have your fill of browsing among the local vendors you can sit in the shade at the beer garden next to the Windmill for a quick refreshment before moving on to the concert area which is in the middle of the Rennbahn Hoppengarten racetrack.

 

The Rennbahn Hoppengarten is a 148 year old racetrack larger than Churchill Downs in both size and pageantry.  With a 207 Hectares land area, it is the largest and best land-based racetrack and training center in Germany.  The racing patrons put on their finest attire for a day at the races with women wearing Gucci and Prada and sporting the popular Fascinator hats.   Men dress in the styles of Tom Ford and others to compliment whatever the ladies are wearing.  Of course, the typical festival patron is not required to adhere to this dress code, so casual dress is common and acceptable.  Races take place throughout the day until concert time with local singing artist and musicians performing on the middle green during racing intervals.

The main concert featured artist such as Rock n Roll entertainer Mongo Jerry who covered many classic hits (German and American) and got the crowd out of their seats dancing to familiar tunes.  Another noteworthy artist was Frida Gold, an up and coming German Pop Singer.  Last, but not least was Tim Bendzko.  Tim is a Hoppengarten local resident, and also a huge Pop star in Germany.  The crowd went wild as he sang his greatest hits.  Even though I didn’t understand the words very well because I don’t speak fluent German, I had a great time dancing along with my German and Latvian friends.

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The evening ended at midnight with a fantastic combination of fireworks and laser light show. You may be wondering about the entry fee to such a delightful and fun-filled day.  I am pleased to report that the entry to the festival and concert are both free to the public, so take only enough money for food, refreshments, and the treasures you find at the vendor kiosks.

If you choose to visit Hoppengarten’s Brandenburg Day Celebration in the future, be sure to bring a light jacket since the nights tend to get a little chilly this time of year, and bring a blanket or lawn chair if you would like to be near the stage since seating is limited to the grandstand area.

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Large viewing screens are set up on either side of the stage for watching the musicians on video opposed to being up close and personal.  Binoculars are also an option if you have a pair.  If you get a chance to attend Brandenburg Day 2017 in Hoppengarten, I hope you will enjoy your time there as much as I did.