The Never-ending Weekend

It took five days to realize that my sabbatical had started. In the repetition of “I’m going to yoga teacher training in Portugal and then I’ll travel for another month,” I forgot about the week of downtime beforehand. I mean, I knew it was happening, but I forgot it was part of the whole experience. In fact, moments of downtime were infrequent. I balanced my time with the required reading assignments for the yoga course, “last” time meetings with friends, being outside, and preparing to sublet my apartment. With the pinnacle experience fast approaching, I almost didn’t realize that I’m one week into my 19 week vacation. My detachment from work started immediately, and I subsequently created a lot of fascinating experiences and emotions for myself.

I very consciously chose to start this journey on my birthday, and in retrospect, know this was the right choice. Everyone deserves to treat themselves to things that bring them joy. If I owned a company, I’d make birthdays mandatory paid holidays for each employee. I focused on enjoying myself, with a mix of things I love to do, places I enjoy, and new experiences. Perhaps most importantly, I woke up and made a conscious decision to have a good day. With a boost from the change to warm, sunny weather, I had a great day. With the exception of one minor moment of anxiety – which I suspect I know the root of – I felt pure joy on my birthday, the first day of my sabbatical.

Hanging out in my favorite park on my birthday evening

The subsequent day was less of an emotional high, because I was a bit stressed preparing for a birthday picnic. At midnight, chocolate ice cream batter – the third of three varieties – boiled over on the stovetop. I went to yoga before noon, and suddenly felt the day was disappearing, then at 4pm, I fell asleep on a hillside in the park while waiting 3 hours for my apartment key to be copied. I reacted to those stressors by just trudging through and pretending I was fine. I was. In the end, I had a clean stove and a spare key, and lost nothing but energy along the way. Two days of naturally sliding into afternoon nap time tell me that my body needed this break, so I’m grateful for the timing and ability to process time as it comes and goes.

Oops…

I gathered a small group of friends at a park nearby my house for a cozy sunset picnic. Twelve of us snacked and chatted until we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. (It was dark! I’m in one of my frequent sobriety phases, anyway.) Robin and Peejay’s homemade Dutch apple pie paired especially well with my homemade ice creams. I definitely want you to teach me that recipe, boys! Despite the stress that I created (in my head) in my preparation, the company of so many loving humans reminded me how much our friends enrich our lives.

Impressive Dutch apple pie, handmade with a number 28
Ciao, friends!
Quite an impressive birthday cake candle, nah?

By Friday, I needed a break from my break… okay, kidding! I just needed to get some stuff done and balance the relaxation time. At this point, especially with Germany’s four-day Easter weekend, I lost track of the calendar days. I see no purpose in prescribing attitudes and ways of thinking with certain weekdays. Forget Sunday scaries, Monday doldrums, and celebrating Friday or the weekend. Every day has the same potential. To free up the rest of the weekend, when friends would be free and the forecast called for ideal outdoor weather, I spent Friday morning packing many of the things in my apartment, making space for a friend who will stay there. I felt liberated to sort through physical possessions and realize how much I don’t need, despite the relatively little I own, compared to my American peers.

With the warmth and sunshine continuing to grace all of Berlin, I ran to Volkspark Friedrichshain and met Selene for a few hours of relaxation … but no nap! I spent Friday night at home, procrastinating my yoga readings, and readying my mind for Saturday’s epic canoe adventure.

Sunday was Easter, and by then, I was definitely confused about the weekday. I biked across the river into Kreuzberg, passing many open-air clubs, where the spirit of Berlin still sounded strong at 10am, and met Cinzia at a brunch buffet on the canal. We enjoyed several hours of sunlight glistening off the water, discussing our respective evolutions in life activities and mindsets. As I ready myself for this immersive travel adventure, she prepares for a new job and heavily invests in evolving her world perspectives with admirable reading habits. From there, we cycled across the street to relax in the sun at another park. Yes, there’s a pattern here. Berlin has many green spaces, and Germans embrace time outdoors in most seasons.

I spent Sunday afternoon at another friend’s rooftop terrace, a sort of Easter soirée meets the benevolence of Mother Nature and friendship. Five of us ventured to an open-air club in the evening, where we embraced the vibrations of the sunset late into the night.

Monday… another holiday! I finished packing my bag, read at the park, saw more friends… Tuesday: rinse and repeat, plus some errands, since retail stores finally re-opened. And Wednesday, today, I arrived in Portugal after an only mildly hectic morning of last minute things at home. (Read mildly hectic as: calm, cool, and collected on the outside, but mentally panicking and physically rushing…)

In the constant flux between nothing and everything, relaxation and productivity, being and doing, I gained awareness about my competing calm and chaotic minds. I like the calm one better. I think I won’t have another to-do list for months, and I’m ready to focus on my being, to slow down time, to be where I am, and not to worry about where I’m not nor what I’m not getting “done.”

Lacy, Adam, and Lorelay Explore the Spreewald

Judging by my kitchen windowsill now adorned with a stuffed pink flamingo, blue bunny ears, two books, grow-it-yourself flowers in a wooden box, and countless types of Easter chocolate, I could have insisted more forcefully that I didn’t want birthday gifts. I’d written to the group before our picnic: “Oh! And, really don’t need/want object presents… I have a lot of material goods. Your presence is a present!” Most importantly, my friends did bring their loving company when we celebrated my existence this past week. Two of them thoughtfully made plans to continue the adventure and invited me for a canoe trip in the nearby Spreewald on Saturday.

Under a clear, blue sky, I walked down the street to meet Robin and Peejay at their place shortly after nine. The boys reserved a carshare for the day, through BMW’s DriveNow service, and “Lacy,” our spunky black convertible basked in the warm spring air, ready for our departure.

With the top down, we zoomed along the autobahn, escaping the city-state of Berlin into the backwoods of post-DDR Brandenburg. The crisp wind massaged our pale, winter skin, and the waves of the radio tuned out the sounds of spring nearby. Robin earned an A+ for his driving, even at the top speed of 190 kph (~120 mph). While trains are a preference for many travelers, Germany’s famous no-speed-limit highways are also a real means of transportation for inter-city transit. Germans take their cars, their roads, and their driving seriously.

After an hour of laughter, sing-a-longs, and feeling spoiled by the Easter weekend weather, grumpy, commanding attendants greeted us at the village parking lot and demonstrated excellence in German customer service (the lowest of low standards, from what I’ve seen in the world) at the peak of Easter weekend.

I knew where we were traveling but didn’t bother to do any research beforehand. The quaint town of Lübbenau seems to be known for its little waterways, its pickles, and for its ability to advertise said waterways and pickles. Wikipedia seems to verify my impression. Wooden market stands offered the local varieties of gurken in the touristic town center, and on the nearby riverbanks, the captains prepared their tour boats, called punts (in English). I’ve never been to Venice, but I’d say that Robin’s mom was right to wish us fun in the “Venice of Germany”.

We meandered around the islands and bridges and rented a two-person and a one-person wooden canoe from Bootshaus Kaupen. The attendant – this one was actually friendly and helpful – directed us where we could explore and how to enter and exit the canoe, and we entered the river “highway” with the other canoes, kayaks, and punts.

Robin solo-navigated with his sturdy steed, Adam, while I took the front of Lorelay and Peejay steered from the back. We canoed about 200 meters then tied our boats to the edge of a family restaurant/café. We changed into our swimwear, enjoyed some warm beverages in the sunlight, and applied sunscreen, all the while enjoying the sight of the other tourists (mostly locals, we presumed) passing by as they lounged and drank beer (at 11 am!) in their punts.

Back in our canoes, no more than a kilometer passed before we were out of the village and surrounded by scenic forests and meadows. The trees’ greenery is coming to life this month, and the contrast of their tall, dark trunks reflected beautifully as we glided across the water. I explained my mild fear of small water craft while we navigated the meandering waterways. Again, I find conscious fear to be a great source of motivation. As we approached the next village, Leipe, we paddled into a lock, which was graciously operated by some local volunteers. What a sensation to slowly rise up with the force of water while sitting still!

Our stomachs stopped us for lunch in Leipe at a riverside restaurant, Froschkönig (Frog King), where we enjoyed more sunshine. Lunch tasted like fried and pickled herring, bratwurst, different preparations of potatoes (mashed, roasted, boiled), sauerkraut, cucumbers in dill and cream sauce, a real beer for Robin, a Radler (half beer, half lemonade) for Peejay, and an alcohol-free beer for me. That’s a sample of east German cuisine, if I say so! (With a side serving of more excellence in German customer service…)

After lunch, we ventured further off the beaten path, well out of the way of the larger tourist boats. Sunlight trickled through the canopy above, and mosquitoes quietly buzzed on the riverbanks, sometimes to our chagrin and their demise. At times, we practiced paddling stronger, with Peejay setting pace in front and me playing steering wheel in the back. My past trauma with canoes, kayaks, and electronics triggers my fear of rocking the boat, but I like to challenge my instincts. We had the river mostly to ourselves, and playfully pulled ahead of Robin or played hide and seek from behind.

At the height of the afternoon, we came across a second, unattended lock. I imagined we would lift the canoes and carry them to the other side, but Peejay didn’t skip a beat in exiting our canoe and figuring out how to operate the lock. “He probably learned it in high school,” Robin said, quite casually. “We have a lot of locks in the Netherlands.” I guess I was the only one impressed by this…?

As the evening arrived, we rejoined the parade of touristic punt boats and passed through the adjoining town of Lehde before reaching Lübbenau. Although we were traveling on water, it felt like a casual Saturday drive through suburbia, with families working in their gardens, preparing barbecues, doing work on the house, etc.

In Lübbenau, we returned Adam and Lorelay to the boat house, then changed clothes and walked back to the town center. A day without ice cream wouldn’t be a day with Stephen, and you guessed it… Robin and I snagged some scoops at a local shop. Ordering in German – proud moment! – I sampled their strawberry sorbet first. While I’m not usually a fan of strawberry-flavored “things,” some signage and my knowledge of the German strawberry quality led me to the truth: it was delicious and paired nicely with the cherry-yogurt ice cream. Peejay ate two fresh gurkens, and I’m still working on forgiving him for skipping ice cream.

We returned to Lacy, waiting patiently by herself in the parking lot, and took the scenic route home. While it’s less than 100 km, we enjoyed two hours of back roads, flowering fields of green, forests silhouetted against the setting sun, and even a hot air balloon flying overhead. With Lacy’s top back on, we grabbed some giant authentic Italian pizzas in our neighborhood, then walked homeward with full stomachs, sunkissed arms, and warm hearts.

One thing that I take away from this thoughtful gift-adventure is that adventure is often waiting just outside our “comfort” zone. In the almost two years that I’ve spent in Berlin, I never knew or thought to explore the Spreewald. Canoeing the waterways was an easy, relaxing, and fun day trip that I’d recommend to most friends. Thanks for the memories, boys.

Comparing Apples to Äpfeln

At the beginning of 2015, I started tracking all of my grocery expenses. While checking out at the grocery store, I started saying “yes,” when asked if I want to receipt. I take the slip home and sum each item into a category: bakery, fruit, vegetables, dairy and eggs, meat and seafood, dry and canned goods, prepared foods, juices, sweets and junk, flowers, and household goods. I also list the grocery store. And I add the items mentally, because brains need exercise, too.

Yes, in this digital age, I track paper receipts in a spreadsheet. (You’re hearing from the guy who tallied his coins, his cash, and his savings on three separate pieces of paper through his teenage years. Yes, his coins.) Why the paper receipts? Truth be told, I drank a lot of orange juice. I wanted to know how much money I spent on orange juice compared to other groceries. The answer: consistently 8-10% of my monthly grocery expenses were orange juice (until I overdosed on sugar in October 2015, but that’s a story for another post.) I also felt that I was losing conscience awareness of my spending habits when declining the receipt, swiping my card, and walking away. Despite using mint.com to track my finances, I wanted more granularity. Not “how much do I spend on groceries each month?” but “how much do I spend on vegetables compared to bread?”

I continued with my pile of receipts and my spreadsheet through 2016, building 24 months of records. Having answered my question, I took a break in 2017.

Earlier this year, a new question surfaced: is Berlin really less expensive with regard to cost of living than Boston? Anecdotally, the answer is an inarguable “yes.” You can get a whole meal – a döner – for 3-4 €. Paying more than 20 € for a meal is kinda “woah!” A beer costs just a few Euro. Rent is far more affordable. But what about Stephen’s groceries? I needed data.

Berlin loves cash and loves to hate card payments. EC (debit) card? Maybe. Credit card? In your dreams! (Germans are rather risk averse, and why accept money that may not exist.) So, in this city, cash is king, and carrying cash is my first point of advice to anyone who visits Berlin. Though groceries can often be bought mit karte, my card payments are few and far between. Most of my expenses are cash, and it’s hard to track any sort of categorical expenses without the complete digital data.

Behold, my “grocery expenses” spreadsheet has returned to life. I started saying “ja, bitte” I wanted my receipt. (I still don’t know the word for receipt, but I know when to say “yes, please.” (Bitte is actually “you’re welcome,” but the fact that Germans say “you’re welcome” as another form of “please” is another situation for another post.))

So, in the spring, I decided to collect my own data, and I have monthly grocery totals for May, July, July, and September of 2018.

Grocery Minimum Grocery Maximum Grocery Average
2015 $171 $348 $250
2016 $142 $271 $183
2018 153 € ($176) 213 € ($245) 179 € ($205)

A few considerations:

  • In each year, I’ve had lunch provided at work on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
  • I’ve excluded calendar months which I traveled for more than one week.
  • 2018’s bakery (bread) tracking is off, because I willingly go downstairs to the bakery in my building for fresh bread/rolls on many weekend mornings. I’ll pay 0,60 € for a fresh Kartoffelbrotchen every day, because yes, potato bread! (I’ll also buy you one if you come visit :).
  • In 2015 and 2016, I know my average expenses allocated to restaurants were $170 and $133, respectively. I have no clue how I spent significantly less on both groceries and in restaurants in 2016, compared to 2015. Maybe I mooched more. Maybe I was more fiscally efficient with food. I don’t have restaurant expenses tracked for 2018.

So, how much did I spend on orange juice compared to other groceries, prior to October 2015? 8-10% Is Berlin more affordable to live than Boston? My grocery expenses would argue “no, the cost of living is the same.” Perhaps I’ve upped my standards… doubtful, because I did most of my Boston grocery shopping at Whole Foods (hey! I could literally see it from my bedroom windows! and I totally don’t endorse/support them after the Amazon buyout) and I shop at a variety of Berlin supermarkets from low-end to mid-range.

I really can’t explain why my grocery bills average and range similarly. I need to compare the categorical breakdown between countries and months and years, because I don’t know where the money has shifted. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m surprised at how much food – especially fresh product – I can get for so little money. e.g. today I purchased a three pound pumpkin, fresh ginger, a package of fresh plums, an avocado, blackberries, 3 fresh figs, a jug of multivitamin juice (I’ve been sick!), and a half-dozen eggs for a whopping 8,96 € ($10.37). So, yes, Berlin is cheap, but I’m still figuring out what’s eating my juice budget.

More research is in order. Perhaps I’ll make the same recipe in Berlin and a future visit to Boston, and we can compare apples to äpfeln.

Welcome, Home.

“So, here are the keys: two for the door, one for the mailbox, and three for the cellar storage.”

Nope, I didn’t buy a house. Yep, I’m renting my own flat in Berlin now.

When I moved here in October, I settled into a WG (a shared flat) with a lovely couple of guys and their yippy Dachshund. I experienced far better luck – or better strategy? – than most in the Berlin housing market. Within a week of my arrival in late October, I enjoyed my own large room with a balcony overlooking the park. We shared two toilets and an average size kitchen. When a friend occasionally visited, the guys let me borrow the spare “Schlafzimmer” (sleeping room), which functions as a guest room when needed. While it wasn’t my home, it was home for the time being, and I’m grateful for the soft and welcoming landing pad.

When the Formlabs office was slated to move to the far east side of Berlin at the end of May, I started eyeing other neighborhoods and considering a place for myself. While I thrived in a social home with 3-6 roommates in Boston, my first months in Berlin demonstrated that I valued alone time more than I realized, and a single-room or studio apartment is within my budget in Berlin.

Many newcomers and long-time Berliners have horror stories of the weeks and months that they jump between short-term rentals and desperately pursue a place where they can settle in.Can you imagine what my colleague endured, with this many people viewing a single apartment? Honestly, I’m not sure what made my search different, but I’m fortunate that I didn’t struggle. The WG where I lived for the first seven months was the first and only flat I visited on my arrival, and my recent search was nearly as simple.

I limited my online search to Friedrichshain, and contacted a handful of landlords whose listing descriptions and photos I liked. I visited one ground floor flat; though described as luxury and probably above my ideal budget, I applied and was rejected. The second flat I liked was nearby. I arrived on Thursday evening for the group viewing. Fear not, reputation of Berlin, I was ready to compete with dozens of people mingling on the sidewalk to see a flat. To my surprise and delight, me and one other guy waited outside until the English-speaking (lucky me!) landlord’s agent came to the street to let us in. Within a few seconds, I could see the apartment was exactly as described and shown: – a main room – a bathroom – an “equipped” kitchen – all clean and well-maintained – on the second (third, by an American perspective) floor – not on the street and not with a balcony – with decently-sized windows overlooking the garden courtyard.

The other prospective tenant looked around, asked for the application, and went on his way. Without much more to explore, I figured I was interested and may as well introduce myself. Hell, if it’s just me and him with equal credibility in our applications and paperwork, I automatically win by saying hello to the landlord. So, I talked with Frau Schroeder for a few minutes to explain who I was and what I was looking for. Then I was on my way “home” to compile the paperwork.

By now, the process has come and gone. They offered me the contract, and I accepted. I arranged to move my belongings on a Saturday morning. Friends referred me, and i contacted a guy with a moving van. With immense gratitude to a handful of close friends who helped me, we carried boxes, bags, and dismantled furniture up and down flights of stairs. We loaded the van, drove 10 minutes, and unpacked the van. Within an hour and a half, I was home again.

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Homemaking is a craft that takes time and patience. After a week, I received my refrigerator and washing machine by home delivery. I needed several weeks to make time to purchase a table and chairs. I’ve yet to procure a wardrobe, relying instead on two perfectly good clothing racks and a less ideal assortment of clothes piled into open duffel bags. Sure, there’s appeal to move into a fully furnished flat. I’m happy to accept the challenge to make my own home, especially when the doors sits between a bakery and a plant shop.

Still Here & Holidays

When I blogged in Denmark, I aimed to write a post every or every other week, and I succeeded. That’s the life of a student, I guess. You deal with assignments, and it’s easy to assign yourself one extra piece of prose, especially when the rest are optional engineering problem sets.

Fast forward six years, as a working man, the pace of life is a little different. I have plenty of writing and communication to do at work. With traveling and spending time with loved ones at Christmas, I don’t prioritize blogging, though it’s good for me. So, I figured I’d list a few discoveries through my life in Berlin at the holidays.

  1. Christmas pickles probably aren’t really German. Several years ago, my mom bought me and my siblings each a pickle-shaped ornament. Other than looking like a pickle, it’s a normal, beautiful ornament. Oh, and it was complete with a story about the tradition of German Christmas pickles. The parents hide it in the tree and the first kid to find it gets an extra gift. Years ago, I mentioned this to a German friend. He gave me a puzzled look, and a quick Google search led me to believe this is a fabricated tradition. I can confirm that it is perpetuated in Germany. You will find Christmas pickle ornaments in the German Christmas markets – Weinachtsmarkt or Cristkindlmarkt – but most Germans do not know about this German “tradition.”
  2. New Years Eve is not for the faint-of-fireworks. Berliners have permission to ignite fireworks on New Years Eve and New Years Day. Stores – including grocery stores – sell the pyrotechnics a few days beforehand, then the people light them off as much as they please. New Years Eve was on a Sunday. I heard the first firework on Friday evening. They were steadily lit starting midday Sunday. At midnight on my balcony, the sky was illuminated in every direction. I went for a run on Monday afternoon, still saw or heard several going off and the sidewalks were littered with debris. One site suggests that the tradition of fireworks on New Years Eve goes back to the medieval ages, when they wanted to ward off evil spirits. Assuming this is true, with the number of fireworks in Berlin, it will be a long time before Trump’s spirit reaches Germany. 😉 (His behavior is understood to be both childish and inhumane by the general populous that I’ve witnessed.)
  3. Christmas trees are for the curbs. In the days following Christmas, especially after Epiphany / Three Kings’ Day “Dreikönigstag,” everyone tosses their pine trees to the streets. Eventually, the trees disappear. I guess they get picked up by the city. (I’m not sure why, but I also noticed that my own Christmas tree lasted longer without needles dropping, even once it was on the street without water.)

Now that you’ve enjoyed my memories from last month, please enjoy some semi-related photos of my life in the Christmas season: