26 July 2011


I found Berlin, a new European city for me this summer, to be quite fascinating. So new in so many ways, yet you’re immersed in its past as you traverse its streets. I learned that the world’s top architects have been shaping the city in the last 20 years. The result: amazing 21st century buildings all over the city. I was able to get around the city easily because of its fantastic public transportation, especially the S-bhan. I was really impressed by the bicycle lanes – wide, separate from car traffic, and present everywhere. Bicycle hire places were also everywhere. A city designed for the car free! I loved it! 

I haven’t travelled much in Germany. Years ago I had some memorable adventures (aren’t you dying to hear about them?) in Cologne and Munich, leaving me with a positive “I must return here for a good time” impression of the country. But somehow, I never managed to return to Germany until this summer. I went to Berlin to spend time with my Sydney brother and his family. Julia grew up in Germany – the former GDR - and visits her family every summer. Fabian, my nephew, turned 5 the day I arrived in Berlin. So my German visit started with a big birthday celebration!

It was a cloudless hot day on the French Riviera when I boarded the plane for Berlin. I landed in a drenching downpour. Despite the disappointing weather I had a lot of fun at the German style party. My brother, Max, warned me that hardly any of Julia’s relatives spoke English so I might get bored. But I sat next to Julia’s friend, Maraika, and her mom who were both fluent English speakers. They had traveled a lot in the US, and shared entertaining stories with me. Through them I learned more about what it had been like to live in the GDR. They told me about their move to the “west” – West Berlin- and how alienated they had felt. The materialistic west with no strong sense of community had shocked them. They had then moved to Florida where they found the warmth and friendliness more familiar to them. Yes, I do mean that penis shaped state (no offence!) between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Go figure!

Fabian’s party started in the middle of the afternoon. People sat around tables inside the tent. Coffee and cake – many, many types, all homemade and excellent – were served. Most delicious of all were the black cherries that had been purchased from a local farm that morning. These cherries were crisp, sweet, juicy, and hopelessly addictive.

As evening approached Monica, Julia’s mom, and Max opened up the champagne. This led to the next phase of the party. The barbecue was fired up for German wurst and other meats. We were served white asparagus soup to start. I can’t even begin to describe how incredible it was. Everyone was amused when they saw me raving about the soup. They told me they had this dish all the time during asparagus season (May and June). It was early July, pretty much the end of the season, so luck played a role here. To accompany the barbecued meat, there was a variety of salads, grilled vegetables, and an assortment of cheeses. Wow! 
The party went on to about midnight. 

The next day Max, Julia, Fabian, and I took the train from Julia’s family’s village into Berlin for a three day visit of the city. We stayed at the Scandic Hotel in Potsdamer Platz. This area used to be “no mans land” during the Cold War and was a derelict wasteland at the time. Now it is a ritzy, bustling area with glamorous skyscrapers and shopping centers. 

I began my official sightseeing on Museum Island. The collection of famous museums here and the breathtaking Berlin Dome make you fully aware that you are in the Old World. A sharp contrast to the 21st century Potsdamer Platz where our hotel was. It was a cold, rainy day so taking in the vast collection of antiquities at these museums was quite ideal. At the Pergamon Museum, I found the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate to be every bit as impressive as advertized. (Why are these treasures here rather than in the countries from where they were excavated? Why are the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone in the British Museum?) I saw the stunning Nefertiti’s bust at the Neues Museum, and got my fill of Greek and Roman sculptures at the Altes Museum. By the end of the day I felt completely saturated!

On my second day Max, Julia, Fabian, and I started the day at Hackescher Markt, a charming square with some terrific restaurants. At the 1840 Restaurant we had an absolutely amazing breakfast. We ordered three plates. Each came with a generous assortment of yummy things – bread rolls, fruit, eggs, cheeses, spreads, quark, croissant. We had a long, leisurely breakfast, catching up on family gossip and the stuff going on in our lives. 

After breakfast we went separate ways. I took Bus 200 to the Brandenburg Gate, the most iconic Berlin sight. Yes, it was quite special to see it in real life. I loved the sculpture at the top – a horse drawn chariot pulled by Victory. I then decided to look into a walking tour I’d heard about, which left from the Starbucks (Grrr!) across the square. It was a “free” tour to all the main Berlin sights. “Free” meant that the guide was paid by tips – whatever you thought the tour was worth. Since I hadn’t brought a guide book, I decided to join the tour. The tips based idea turned out to be a great concept. Our guide was most entertaining and informative.  We saw these highlights:

1. From the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the guide pointed out the American Consulate (it was the 4th of July, though nothing seemed to be going on), the Frank Gehry building next to it, and beside it, the Hotel Adlon. 
2. The Holocaust Memorial designed by Peter Eisenmann – 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights in rows. Walking through this felt spooky!
3. The site of Hitler’s bunker, now a nondescript carpark
4. The Disneyfied Checkpoint Charlie
5. Remnants of the wall – nothing special, like an old, old high garden wall. 
6. Gendarmenmarkt – a beautiful square with a pair of identical domed cathedrals (French and German) and the Koncerthaus.
7. Berliner Dom – this renaissance style building, the most prominent in the city, was like a magnet to me. I couldn’t stop staring at it. I kept clicking my camera in an attempt to capture it and embed it in my mind. So hard to believe that it had been completely destroyed and rebuilt as recently 1973.
8. Lastly, the guide pointed to the TV tower, another prominent feature of Berlin’s skyline. He told us some story about it being built by the East Germans to prove their technological prowess. But the shadow of the cross from the Berliner Dom was visible on the building every afternoon which caused some embarrassment to the atheistic East Germans! (I think I have this story right!)

At the end of the day I joined Max and Julia at the hotel. We drank some German red wine, which was surprisingly really good. Julia was tired and didn’t want to go out to dinner. So Max and I went off for a night out. We returned to Hackescher Markt, an area that seemed certain to have a good atmosphere even in the cool drizzle. We sat out on the terrace, shielded from rain by awnings, and enjoyed a pretty decent meal. I’d ordered a leek tart and was surprised to see a pizza like dish appear. It wasn’t bad though. 

As Max and I sipped wine in this beautiful Berlin square, waiting for our tomato soup, I had to smile as I thought about the journey that brought us to this point in our lives. Here we were, so at home in a European city, at a restaurant that we selected based on how pleasurable it would be rather than our budget, and discussing the possibility of me retiring in the South of France. How far we’ve come. Max is living his dream. He has a successful business, a beautiful home, and a loving family. I am so proud of him.  

We had to break through a lot of prison walls to get to where we are in our lives. The prison of poverty. The prison of our poorly educated, conservative community. The prison of Ladysmith, an intellectual wasteland. And of course, the prison of apartheid South Africa. Poor and black (technically Indian) in apartheid South Africa. 

I remember a conversation Max and I once had when we were both dirt poor university students. We were at Durban’s beachfront waiting for the rest of our family who had gone off to see something. The heat beat down on us and on a wild impulse I suggested we get ice creams from the Carvel that happened to be right next to us. Oh god, I recall how sensational the ice-cream was. Then Max said, “Something tells me this was an extravagance.” Too true! Every guilt-ridden lick reminded us of how little money we’d had. But we were earning degrees and someday we would be middle class. I said, “I can’t wait to not have to count pennies.” His response was, “I want to have enough money so that I will never have to look at price tags.” And that summed up the difference between us!

The next day, my third day in the city, we had breakfast at a bakery near the hotel. German bakeries are a feast for the senses. Everything looks homemade, fresh, and irresistible. Breads of different shapes are studded with seeds and grains. Pastries are filled with fresh fruit and creamy things like quark and custard. The variety, catering to every need and taste, is staggering. I had an apple filled pastry which, though tasty, tasted more like a dessert than a breakfast bread. The coffee was strong and good. Julia and Max said they’d go sightseeing with me for the day. First on my list for the day was the ornate Reichstag, the great building where the bundestag meets. We hoped to go up the dome for the famous views, but after standing in a long line for a while we found out that only people who had prebooked a tour online could go in. Darn! Well, at least I got a close up view of the beautiful building. The modern glass dome – designed by Norman Foster – is supposed to be a must-see from the interior.

Next on my list was the “Memory Wall”, aka the East Side Gallery. This is a section of the Berlin Wall with a series of political paintings by famous artists. I enjoyed seeing the paintings and got some good photos. At this point Fabian had done enough sightseeing so we went separate ways for lunch. I had a fine Vietnamese dish at a vegetarian restaurant called Samadhi. This restaurant had a huge variety of Asian food and is a great example of Berlin’s international food scene.
After lunch I strolled along the Unter den Linden – the Champs Elysees of Berlin – and admired the graceful buildings along it.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the pedestrianized lanes of the Nikolaiviertel area, then wandered over to Alexanderplatz, where I had coffee and cake at a really nice bakery. I should say, finding a really nice bakery in Berlin is never a challenge!. The day was sunny and warm and Berlin had a friendly, uplifting ambience. In the evening I went for a beer and light dinner at a restaurant in Potsdamer Platz. It pretended to be a beachside cafĂ© with beach type chairs set up facing an artificial lake. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it!

My day ended with babysitting Fabian, while his parents went out for a night in the town. I told him stories about the Greek Heroes to put him to sleep. Turned out he had quite an insatiable appetite for stories, leading me to create highly embellished versions of the Labors of Hercules! 

And so by sheer coincidence I began and concluded my Berlin visit with Ancient Greece as the subject!

17 July 2011

Summer Vacation - Part 2

I get enormous pleasure from riding high speed trains in Europe. We took the TGV from Paris to Nice early Saturday morning (at the end of June). I found it so relaxing to sit in comfort and absorb the pretty French countryside. Alighting at the Nice station we were immediately enveloped in Riviera warmth and bright sunshine. (Paris was pleasantly cool.) We picked up our rental car, programmed our GPS and drove along the bass corniche to Antibes, our base for the week.

We know the French Riviera pretty well now. It's become our favorite place for a holiday. The place has all the ingredients for enjoyable days - produce markets, excellent cheeses, wines, warm, sunny days, the inviting Med., cafes, scenic drives, beauty, quaint villages, etc., etc. We were joined by two families: Daryl's sister's family and my sister's family. Because there were so many of us we rented two gites right in the old town of Antibes.

Antibes is such a charming place. I love strolling through the old town. The beaches, the port, and the walk down to Cap d'Antibes are all quite enjoyable.

We cooked lots of delicious food, drank gallons of champagne and wine, pigged out on cheeses, swam in the delightful Med. everyday, and savored the company of our families. On one of the days Daryl and I had a free morning together so we drove into the mountains and explored a few villages. In the stunning, perched village of Gourdon we found the perfect place for lunch. We sat on the terrace, and over warm goat cheese salad and crusty bread, enjoyed jaw dropping views of mountain slopes and valleys.

After a luxurious week of sun, sea, and sand, we all went off to different destinations. Pam and family went to see our cousins in Amsterdam. Daryl went to England to see his brother. And I flew to Berlin to go to Fabian's birthday party.

08 July 2011

Halfway through Europe Holiday

I'm at a bed and breakfast - optimistically called Sunnyside B&B - in Yatton, a village just outside Bristol. It's currently home to close to half the Cooper clan, so we're having a good old time hanging out with rellies. Last night we met Saffs' partner, Gwen, for the first time and over a great dinner prepared by Saffs (quinoa salad and soya patties) we got better acquainted with her. It's been quite a jolt to see the kids towering over us and having adult conversations. How did that happen? Everyone seems to be making smart choices regarding their education and the future, which we found quite reassuring.

It's been an action packed two weeks in Europe. A couple days in Paris, then a week on the Riviera, four days in Berlin, and now in England. Having seen Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS a couple days before arriving in Paris I was all primed for a romantic experience. I was not disappointed. Pam and family met us at our hotel on the first day. We stayed at the Hotel Beaugency near charming Rue Cler and fairly close to the Eiffel Tower. A good choice of hotel, though not terribly central to the main sites.
Taking in Paris with kids presented a different way to enjoy the city. Kimi (aged 7) and Keayen (aged 11) are pretty easy kids to travel with. They'd just had 3 full days of Disneyland and were ready for something different! We strolled along the left bank of the River Seine and got on to the Isle de la Cite where we showed them Notre Dames. They loved looking at the gargoyles. From here we sauntered to the Pompidou Center, took the escalators to the top and enjoyed the views of Paris. We had an excellent pasta and pizza dinner at an Italian restaurant close to the Pompidou Center.

On my first morning in Paris I loved exploring the neighborhood around our hotel in search of the perfect cafe for coffee and croissant. We had almost instant success since Rue Cler, a narrow, cobbled lane was a two minute walk from us. There's a daily market on this road and the cafes lining the road were all delightful. After a rather satisfying cafe creme and croissant we equipped ourselves with French SIM cards and went off to the Eiffel Tower. It was a thrilling experience for Keayen and Kimi, despite the endless line. Afterwards we had a sumptuous picnic lunch at the nearby park. White nectarines, cherries, baguette, cheeses - hmmm ...

In the afternoon Pam's family dutifully braved the Louvre, hyping up the Mona Lisa to the kids. Daryl and I walked around the left bank and made a few cafe stops. First we stopped for an espresso at a modern 21st century cafe. Everyone around us spoke English. Turned out the owner was a young Australian lad who told us all about how it's so hard to find good coffee in Paris and how he was trying to change this! We nodded and smiled politely.

We all met up again at Place Concorde, metro-ed to the Arc de Triomphe and strolled along the Champs Elysees. Pam and Indrasen enjoyed looking at the shiny, expensive shops. The kids were happy to lick their gelatos while their parents dreamed of the day they could shop on this boulevard!

We ate another fine dinner (Thai) in the Latin Quarter to finish up the day. Daryl and I usually research restaurants when we are traveling. We'e learned not to be random about this. This time, however, we decided to be relaxed about this. So we were pleasantly surprised that both meals, randomly chosen, turned out to be pretty decent.

And that ended our short Paris visit. Daryl will return to this inriguing city for the first 3 months of 2012. I'll join him for a week when I have my spring break.

In my next entry I'll tell you all about our week on the French Riviera.