Travel Diary: Berlin

Do you ever put off blogging because you want to write the perfect post—carefully researched, well-selected photos, thoughtfully written… then life just takes over and you never seem to find the time? This is the story of my life lately. It’s already summer, and I have yet to blog about my spring travels.

I’ve decided to say “So what?” to perfection, otherwise I’ll never get any blog posts written! Let’s go for something short, sweet and simple: a travel diary of my (already not-so-recent) trip to Berlin.

Berlin Soho House selfie with Alexanderplatz TV Tower

When I learned I would be sent to Berlin for a client shoot, I was thrilled. What began as a weekend fling years ago grew into a love affair with this captivating city. After being back several times, it has already begun to feel familiar—yet Berlin being Berlin, it will always be unknowable, a chameleon, constantly evolving.

To recognize parts of yourself in a place, yet be confronted with secrets to discover and enigmas to unravel —for me, that makes perfect travel alchemy.

Berlin Brandenburger Tor tattooed organ grinder

It’s no secret that I love food, and in Berlin good food is abundant, varied and best of all, affordable. The Diplomatic Wife and I pigged out on a massive brunch at Cabslam in Neukolln—including the best salted caramel cheesecake I’ve had in years… no, wait, ever—and our restaurant bill was ridiculously low, a fraction of what it would have been for a meal of the same quality in Amsterdam.

Berlin Cabslam salted caramel cheesecake

I love street art, too. In this facet of urban life, Berlin is a feast for the eyes…

Berlin street art girls dancing

a constantly evolving gallery.

Berlin street art JR paste remnants

I’m positive this used to be a huge mural by JR!

One of the press perks of my working visit was a private evening tour of the Alte Nationalgalerie. Led through a darkened museum by a bearded old art historian with thousands of tales to tell, I learned the secret story of why this innocent-looking painting by Manet caused a scandal in the 1800s, and had to be banned…

Auguste Renoir In Sommer Berlin National Galerie

and also recognized shades of my own domestic life, those too-familiar tantrums and tears, in this marble Venus and Cupid. Again, that fine line between discovery and familiarity, being transported and finding yourself at home.

Berlin National Galerie Venus and Cupid sculpture

My shoot was at Soho House on Torstrasse in Mitte, and I loved wandering around that area after work. From hipsters to hausfraus, iced lattes to hot latex, the diversity of cafes, shops, businesses and restaurants makes for fascinating window shopping.

Berlin old book frontispieces wallpaper store

A shop along Torstrasse beautifully wallpapered with antique front pages

Where else can seventeenth-century cemeteries coexist so closely with third wave coffee bars? That’s Berlin, where there’s always a dark undercurrent to all the energy, a poignant counterpoint to all the hipness.

Berlin Alter Garnisonsfriedhof

I’m tempted to say I feel something of Manila in Berlin, and in a way, being in Berlin relieves my homesickness a little bit. Okay, German efficiency and Filipino chaos seem universes apart. If you’ve been to both cities, maybe you can tell me if I’m on to something here, or if I’m just crazy.

Berlin U-Bahn

On your travels, have you ever felt that sweet spot between familiarity and discovery? Where does it happen for you? I’d love to know.

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Sorry, not sorry

I was about to sit down with my tail between my legs, and write a sheepish apology for having been away from the blog for so long.

But, after 4.5 years in the Netherlands, the land of confident directness and zero apologies, this exceedingly polite, too-eager-to-please Filipina has learned to distinguish between the apologies that are necessary, and those that aren’t.

So, as the hashtag goes, I’m #sorrynotsorry…

… that I’ve been traveling for work. In the last two months, work has taken me to two of my absolute, most favorite cities in Europe: Berlin…

Berlin Brandenburger Tor

and Barcelona.

El Born Barcelona plaza

As someone who tends to joke I’m just a WAHM who sits at the computer in my pajamas all day, it’s a thrill to realize that my work as a freelance writer and producer can actually be… glamorous. Backing up footage in a hotel room with floor-to-ceiling views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Ocean can do wonders for one’s perspective.

Barcelona beach view from the W Hotel

I’m sorry, not sorry… that I’ve been working a lot. Last year I had a Tim Gunn “make it work” moment, when I realized that I need to acquire more local clients in Amsterdam, and develop a network of contacts here as strong as the ones I left behind in Manila and Singapore. Because this is home now.

Well, I’m doing just that. Work has begun to trickle in from local businesses and entrepreneurs, some of whom are doing design-led, inspiring work that excites me (even if the pay doesn’t always).

These days, work takes up most of my writing time and brain. With what’s left over, I’m sorry, not sorry… that I’ve sought (and found) new things to love about Amsterdam.

WWIM11 2015 Amsterdam

I joined the 11th Worldwide InstaMeet hosted by the local Instagram community in another effort to bring my online life offline. I met like-minded explorers, discovered postcard-perfect spots in my own city, and became more addicted to Instagram than ever. Hmm, time to revive Instagramsterdam?

I’m sorry, not sorry… that I’ve blown off work to go on weekday dates with my husband. Marlon has had a few weekdays off, and after dropping off Tala at the gastouder, we date like giddy teenagers. Shedding the mom-and-dad routine for a day, we get high on the bliss of afternoon movie matinees. We talk about our pipe dreams. We try “that place” we’ve been wanting to try (there’s always a long list).

ArtDeli Amsterdam

Then toss back a glass or two of wine before cycling back to reality, back to the daughter who runs squealing into our arms, and back to the household we have to keep running.

I’m sorry, not sorry… that I’ve been cementing our life with traditions and routines. Friday lattes with my mommy friends at the new cafe with the awesome play corner. Afternoons at the playground and Saturday mornings at the farmer’s market. The food trucks of Rollende Keukens and the orange fever of King’s Day.

King's Day for kids at Westerpark

All of that takes time, effort, and energy—all of which goes into solidifying one’s sense of home in a foreign land. And I can’t do any of that from behind the computer!

Finally, and it should go without saying, that the one thing I’ll never be sorry for… is that I’ve simply been away being Tala’s mom.

Reading her books upon books, and singing her Filipino folk songs. Choosing her outfits in the morning (a power I won’t be holding for long), and searching for wooden legs for her new desk on Etsy. Wiping her hands of chalk after she’s gone wild drawing “polka dots” on her bedroom wall, and brushing her hair despite her toddlerrific efforts to resist.

Tala chalkboard wall closeup

Trying to act normal and ignore her throughout Hulk-sized fits of rage (quickest way to end it), researching her school options in our neighborhood, and worrying about why she suddenly seems to hate the babies at her daycare. Marveling at how quickly she falls asleep after a good long cuddle from me, at how much she needs Mama’s touch to feel calm, safe and loved. And so much more.

This is my life lately, a life that has enticed me away from the computer. I have nothing to apologize for, and everything to celebrate. What are you #sorrynotsorry for?

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Cooking class in Tuscany: Lessons from an Italian kitchen

To end our Tuscan trip, I had planned a special treat for Marlon: a one-day cooking class in Tuscany, in a real Italian kitchen.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany

It’s no secret that in our home, Marlon rules the kitchen and I am mostly useless merely his lowly assistant. I knew he would love learning the secrets of a real Italian kitchen hands-on, from a real Italian mama. I may be bad at cooking, but I’m great at finding things online! So, after searching for a one-day class that would fit our schedule and budget, I found Max&Me: Tuscany Cooking, run by Eugenia and Massimo from their home in Sesto Fiorentino near Florence.

The plan was for me to babysit Tala in Eugenia’s lush herb garden—which by the way contains the happiest, healthiest rosemary I’ve ever seen in someone’s home—and keep her entertained…

Cooking class in Tuscany Tala in the herb garden

not to mention happily fed with the occasional snack of prosciutto…

Tala eating prosciutto

while Eugenia and Marlon worked on our four-course lunch.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany near Florence

And, boy, did Marlon work. “I’m a little scared of her,” he whispered to me before I took Tala out for a walk. Well, if there’s anyone who can intimidate a big man like this, it’s an Italian mama who is the queen of her kitchen! You should have seen his face when she told him that the onions he’d been furiously dicing just weren’t diced finely enough.

But that’s precisely the great thing about doing a cooking class like this. While Eugenia has generously made her recipes available on her blog, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning. How a ball of pasta dough feels in your hands when it’s just right; how long to let the flavor of a ragu develop (or even what “fully developed” flavor is); what the freshest, top-quality ingredients really taste like; the little hacks and tricks picked up over a lifetime of cooking—these are things you just can’t pick up from a Youtube video or blog post.

I like to think Marlon absorbed some of Eugenia’s personal standards and stories that day. All of it just inspired him to cook even more. Some of the techniques he learned have found their way into the other things he makes at home, even dishes like Indian curry or Filipino kaldereta.

Oh, and our onions are really, really finely diced now. They’re practically invisible.

But enough about that. You want to see the food, right?

Cooking lesson in Tuscany roast pork with guanciale and potatoes

Let’s begin. Buon appetito!

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Day trip to Lucca

After spending most of our recent Tuscan trip in charming little towns, doing a day trip to Lucca was a refreshing change. It’s a city, but nothing as big and complex as Florence, making it manageable for families like ours, who are traveling with a baby. Renaissance-era walls enclose the Cittadella, the historic heart of Lucca, marking an easy target for day-trippers and reminding me strongly of Manila’s own Intramuros.

The real highlight for us was getting to take a walk along Lucca’s city walls. If you imagine treading carefully along a narrow, crumbling brick wall, take a look at this picture and think again.

Lucca city walls park

Lucca’s formidable walls have been transformed into a wide, tree-lined city park for walking, running, cycling, and just relaxing in the Tuscan sun.

Lucca rooftops from city park

Taking a long afternoon stroll with Tala here made me feel as if we had slipped into the real, day-to-day life of the city—even for just a little while. It’s also a unique vantage point from which to see Lucca—peering into gardens, walking by laundry lines, looking out over rooftops.

Lucca Torre Guinigi

Speaking of rooftop views, all the guide books will tell you to climb Torre Guinigi for the best city views. But we discovered something better…

Lucca rooftops from Sant’Alessandro Maggiore

… which is to climb the tower of the Chiesa e Battistero de San Giovanni e Santa Reparata. (Try saying that 10 times fast.) With 110 steps, it’s an easier climb than the Torre Guinigi’s 230 steps. Plus, you actually get to see the Torre Guinigi from here. Kinda like going to the Top of the Rock, not the Empire State Building, for the best views of New York.

Lucca Sant’Alessandro Maggiore archaeological site

San Giovanni also has ornate ceilings, a small chapel to St Ignatius (of interest if you’re Jesuit-educated, like myself) and a multilayered history. This 12th century church was built on top of a church from the earliest days of Christianity, which was then built on top of a Roman temple, which was then built on top of even older Roman houses. Still with me? The entire archaeological excavation is on display for your viewing pleasure.

Here are a few other highlights from our day in Lucca, the walled city.

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San Miniato: Tuscany’s truffle town

If you’re driving from Pisa to Florence (or vice versa) and looking for a pit stop in between, may I interest you in the lovely hilltop town of San Miniato?

Because, truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany pasta with black truffle

San Miniato is the center of Tuscany’s truffle-producing belt, an area responsible for a whopping 25% of all of Italy’s truffles. That alone should tell you this little town shouldn’t be missed.

Marlon and I stopped here for lunch on our way to K and J’s Tuscan wedding; because we liked it so much, we dropped by again on our way back to Pisa airport. We had truffle everything. I’m not talking about that nasty chemical impostor, truffle oil, either. In San Miniato, generous shavings of the town’s signature product make even the simplest lunch—from fried eggs to a parmesan-and-olive-oil pasta—a sublime stopover.

San Miniato Tuscany white truffle

You can also buy San Miniato’s precious white truffles to take home. At 90 Euro cents per gram, or about €100-135 per piece, white truffles are a bargain right here at the source. But beware: truffles must be used up within four days from the date of purchase. That’s not a whole lot of time!

By the way, San Miniato hosts a white truffle fair during the last three weekends of November. Too bad we were a few months too early.

San Miniato Tuscany black truffles

Black truffles are a more affordable alternative. But they also have the same use-by time frame as white truffles.

San Miniato Tuscany truffle salsa

We decided to go for bottled truffle products, such as truffle oil, salt, butter, honey, salsa and more. Although they have a longer shelf life, they must be consumed within 10 days of opening (even with refrigeration). It makes more sense to buy multiple smaller jars instead of one or two big ones, so that’s just what we did.

Once we got our truffle fix, it was time to turn our attention to the rest of San Miniato. Yep, there’s more to this town than just truffles.

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