Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Berlin weekend trip, day one: We Did Not Eat the Very Wurst Curry

As Yannick and I had left New Zealand for our travels in June 2015, it's understandable that I was missing my family and friends, and vice-versa. My dad took advantage of some very reasonably-priced airline tickets to come and visit us in the UK. It would be a double-whammy trip: to see Yannick and me, but also to explore Europe a little as he had never been before.
Working full time, Yannick only had weekends available in which to travel, so we decided that a couple of whirlwind weekend trips were just the ticket! Paris was a must, as dad wanted to visit the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, so we scheduled that in for the end of November. I picked Berlin as our first European jaunt because my dad is half-German, and it was a city that I had been intending to visit for quite some time.

Berlin, Germany (Berlin, Deutschland)
19 November 2016
The most sensible way for us to arrive in the Land of Deutsch was by air - though in order to catch our early morning flight we were rendered insensible.
Needing to make up as much sleep as possible, I assumed the fly-catching position in my plane seat and dozed until the wheels touched down in Germany's capital city.

We quickly found the train station where dad sampled his first German bretzel, and we set off for our hotel to drop off our cumbersome bags. Dad enjoyed the ride, as we were able to look out over some lovely sights from the window (such as the river and the Berliner Dom) and were regaled with jolly songs from a number of buskers. An unusual sight for all of us was several passengers who had brought beers on the train and were proceeding to drink them before noon! Alcohol on public transport sounds like a recipe for disaster and destruction to public property to me. 

The area in which we were accommodating was in close proximity to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, a church that had been heavily damaged in WWII. Though mostly restored, the spire was left in its ruined state as a reminder of the war. The church was surrounded by a Christmas market that was still being set up. A month after leaving Berlin, I read a news story (by which date the market was fully operational and very popular) in which a lorry driver ploughed through the market, leaving twelve people dead and numerous injured. It's terrifying to think that had we been in that exact same place just a few weeks before the attack.

After leaving our bags at the hotel, we went out in search of lunch and chose a well-reviewed Vietnamese restaurant. The sights and sounds of Berlin were new to each of us and we gazed about in wonder. Dad was using all the cameras he had brought along, including his DSLR, point-and-click, GoPro, and iPhone camera. You can never be too prepared.

Having taken a university paper on German History many years ago, I was rather excited to see the Ampelmann in real life. The story goes that before the German reunification in 1989, West Germany had a generic "green man" on their pedestrian crossing lights, whereas East Germany had the Ampelmann, with a fetching hat and pointy shoes. Now you can see is popular figure on lights across the city, including in the West, as well as on an array of souvenir items. 

After our early morning flight and preliminary explorations, dad decided to rest in our hotel room for the evening, while Yannick and I popped out for a walk. We began by entering the Großer Tiergarten, Berlin's largest park.

Dare I say that the overcast sky threatening rain, tall spindly trees and signs written in faintly Gothic script had me feeling like a lost child in an old fairytale.

At one stage, the pleasant wooded path we were following spit us out onto a wide and busy road that led to an impressive monument with a golden lady at the top. This is the Victory Column, erected in celebration of Prussian success in the Danish-Prussian War in 1864.

Returning to the depths of the forest, we followed another leaf-strewn path for a time before leaving the park to visit the Kulturforum. Right before we reached the forum, we photographed the front of this old house, which featured bullet holes. The Kulturforum is a series of buildings designed in the modernist fashion, and to be honest we found them all exceedingly ugly. As we had no interest at the time in entering and of its museums, libraries, or musical centres, we hurried onwards. I'm sure, given a few more days in the city, we would have appreciated this collection of cultural offerings.

Moving further towards the centre of Berlin, we visited the Christmas market at Potsdamer Platz, which wasn't yet in full swing (apparently most of the markets properly take off in December). Though many of the stalls were not open, the market was decorated in a cute yet traditional way and all lit up.

Shielded from the drizzle, we sipped at a very strong-tasting glühwein (German mulled wine seems to be more spicy and less sweet than its French counterpart) and nibbled on fried apple rings. Then we passed by a few currywurst shacks, hoping not to catch a whiff of the dreaded specialty: bratwurst smothered in curry ketchup! Blech.

Along the glistening streets we strolled, finally reaching Checkpoint Charlie (one of the crossing points between West Berlin and East Berlin in the Cold War). We could see an old-fashioned army outpost with two actors dressed up like American soldiers who were posing for photos with tourists. By this time we too were growing weary, so we hopped onto the metro and found our way back to the hotel where we relaxed for a while before heading out to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. We all slept very well that night.

Today's post was almost called: Golden Ladies, Green Men, and Colourful Things You Should Not Do To Sausages

Thursday, 23 February 2017

October 2016 Abridgment

October marked the beginning of a series of shorter house sits, which we took for lack of more long-term options. 
The first was a flat in Leytonstone, east London, where we looked after a gentleman thug cat named Bowie. He was the sweetest boy with us, but apparently would regularly come into the house after a day's exploring with a limp or scratch (or even once a chunk of his ear missing).

Leytonstone is in close proximity to Epping Forest, so one day we went for a stroll. Though referred to as a "forest", I dare say that it was far from the tree-infested spaces that normally accompany such a word. While some areas of the forest contained semi-dense foliage, much of the park was open fields with the occasional tree or shrub popping up. Nevertheless, we had a good time catching imaginary creatures with the Pokemon GO app, and finding legit holly bushes - with berries! (These were something I had previously never seen in real life, hence the overly excited face.)

With only a week in Leytonstone, we didn't manage to get to know the suburb very well, but I was impressed with the café selection from the two I visited: The Wild Goose Bakery whipped up a mean soy chai latte, and it paired nicely with a decadent mini vegan chocolate cake; I had gone into All You Read is Love on the last day of the house sit, and felt immediately cosy with the book-lined walls and mismatching furniture - they even had vegan brownies and a large choice of teas (and Nabokov and Murakami novels)!

Our second house sit was in Highgate, north London, for Chutney the fluffy cat. He liked to sleep between us in the middle of the bed, and would often bring small leaves inside in his fur.

Just before starting this house sit, Yannick and I had taken a trip down to the Covent Garden Apple Store and picked up an iPhone SE for me! I was enraptured, and went about playing Pokemon GO (I had to use Yannick's phone to do so before, so usually only got a chance on weekends) and taking many photos. This one was from a bridge near the Highgate flat which has been nicknamed 'Suicide Bridge'. Sadly, many people have taken their lives here, and there have been efforts to stop this with tall spiked fencing. On the positive side, the bridge has a lovely view of the city!

A combination of Pokemon GO and being in an interesting area meant that I walked around a lot while in Highgate, sometimes up to four hours a day. I especially liked the nearby Waterlow Park, brimming with stunning autumn colours, where many a Jigglypuff was caught and I once spotted a Charizard. The neighbouring Highgate Cemetery is home to the tomb of Karl Marx, which FYI is a Poke-Gym.

Annoyingly, the cemetery has a ticket booth and costs £4 to enter. I was outraged when I found this out. Even cemeteries in Paris are free, and they have a much higher proportion of famous people than Highgate. We refused to pay the admission, and instead walked around the perimeter fence and snapped some photos.

I had never been able to donate blood in New Zealand due to the weight restrictions (you have to weigh at least 50kg and I am very short). In the UK, they don't have set restrictions and I wanted to do a good deed, so went to the West End Donor Centre. I prepared by drinking plenty of water and treating myself to many cookies from Cookies and Scream. I'm not squeamish of needles or blood, and the whole extraction process was over fairly quickly, however after I stood up and was being walked to the waiting room, my vision started to grow dark around the edges and I told the nurse escorting me that I might pass out. She acted very fast and before I knew it, she had lowered me to the ground, took my scarf off, called over another nurse, and propped up my legs with a foam block. I felt quite silly, as everyone waiting to give blood were sat there, staring at me lying in the corridor, but at least I didn't faint. A couple of weeks later I received a text telling me that my blood had been used in the hospital, and I found out that I have blood type O+. 

Our third and final house sit in October was in Crouch End for an elderly cat called Freddie. In a stroke of good fortune, Crouch End is just down the road from Highgate, so we didn't have to trek cross-city like we have to for many new house sits. 

The township itself was very quaint, and Yannick and I both decided it was a good place. Though small, there were several supermarkets and useful high street shops, as well as a clocktower that made use of three different architectural styles. The one thing that was less than ideal about Crouch End was the lack of a Tube station - we had to catch a bus to the nearest Tube, which was ten minutes away, and go from there. It wasn't terribly inconvenient, but we were accustomed to easy walking access to the underground. 

Freddie was adorable, and would sometimes sit on our laps. One day he snuggled up into the crook of my arm! When he was hungry, though, he would meow very loudly until he got what he wanted. He also had a heart condition which meant that he required a pill every day which we hid in some food. We've never had to give medication to pets before, but it generally went smoothly. 

As the temperature was dropping and rain increasing, I never went out to enjoy the garden. One day I came downstairs in the late morning and started preparing a snack. Half-way through, something niggled at me from the corner of my eye and I gave it a closer look. Foxes! In the garden! They had curled up atop a brick structure and evidently gone to sleep. Very excited, as I had never seen a fox so close before, I got Yannick's camera and went up the the second floor for a better angle. As I was taking photos, however, I began to worry. Where was Freddie? I searched the house but he was no where to be found, and I thought that the presence of the foxes might mean that he was avoiding the garden and therefore couldn't get back inside. Not knowing what to do, I rang Jemma to ask for advice, figuring that as someone from the UK she would know more about foxes than I. She helped to calm me down, and though we hadn't decided on a firm course of action, as soon as I unlocked the door to the garden, they were off in a flash! Shortly after, Freddie returned and I breathed a sigh of relief. 

The weekend of the 22nd marked the much-anticipated Vegfest London, an annual event in which a large venue is filled to the brim with awesome vegan food, clothing and product stalls. I ate way too much and had to sit down for a bit, but regardless of the comfort of my belly, I had a wonderful time. We tried many free samples, I was given a free pack of VeganEgg, and I fawned over the Nākd stall where they had laid out every flavour of their bars and I had to physically restrain myself from buying the lot (I did buy a few though, including the only flavour I hadn't tried yet: mocha).

Marc, a Belgian I had met at the Brixton Vegan Fayre, was in town for VegFest and had never experienced Cookies and Scream, so I took him and some friends to Camden Lock Market where we loaded up on Mexican and Colombian food as well as cookies, doughnut icecream sandwiches and milkshakes. Bliddy amazing.

I also met up for lunch with Yannick a couple of times, and one weekend we ate koshari in Covent Garden from Koshari Street. This is Egypt's national dish, and is served in little roadside stalls all over Egypt. With a base of lentils, rice and pasta, it's very filling. Atop that is a spicy tomato sauce, chickpeas, fried onions and a nutty spice mix. Koshari is both hearty and moreish, and I can't get enough of the stuff. 

Savouring my new-found love of walking, I got around a fair amount. Above you can see Kenwood House, an estate in the north of Hampstead Heath. (Side note: whenever I try to think of the name 'Hampstead Heath', I always say 'Heathrow' instead. It confuses everyone including myself. It's so bad that whenever referencing it to Yannick, I just say "the park that I think is called Heathrow" and he knows what I mean.) Apparently there's a lovely collection of art inside Kenwood House (Vermeers and all!), which is free to enter. 

My wanderings lead me far and wide, and I caught many Pokemon along the way. I revelled in the colourful autumn trees, which all seemed to be at a different stage of losing their foliage. One day I caught a Charmander and then sat at the riverfront admiring Cleopatra's Needle, which is a genuine Egyptian obelisk. Interestingly, the obelisk actually has nothing to do with the famous Queen Cleopatra, and was already over a millennia old when she was born. How crazy is it that this monument, chilling beside the Thames, is over 3,000 years old?! To really highlight the fusion of ancient and modern, Cleopatra's Needle is a Poke-Stop.

One not-so-fun part of October was voting in the US presidential election. The voting process was actually fairly painless, even as an overseas voter - it was the result that stung. We'll say no more about it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

September 2016 Summation

Ahhh, September. I remember it well, for 'twas the end of summer and therefore a sad time. Just kidding, it was still brilliant! 
On the first Thursday of every month, the Regents Place Good Food Market is held in Fitzrovia. There are quite a number of stalls to choose from, as well as plenty of improvised seating. I opted for the falafel stall, and was rewarded with a delicious pot of goodness that included falafel (duh), fresh and pickled veggies, hummus and tahini sauce. This was one of the last times I was seen out-of-doors in 2016 without a cardigan, and I would look back on those late summer days with longing in the coming months.

Though the days were growing chillier, they weren't yet cold enough for me to avoid ice cream. Gelupo is one of the best gelaterias in London and they always have a great selection of sorbets. On this particular occasion (and there were many) I had mango, peach and plum. Some other places we enjoyed for gelato and sorbet were Snowflake, La Gelateria and Venchi.

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, a fiery event was held on 4 September. A very long miniature model of the City of London had been crafted out of wood and set afloat on a barge, only to be struck alight after the sun went down.

It was incredibly difficult to see much of anything, as there was such a crowd lined up along the Thames. I clambered up atop Yannick's shoulders at one stage, and then Yannick Assasin's Creeded his way up the side of a lamppost only to be told off by a passing policeman for health and safety reasons. What we could see was a blazing fire in the middle of the river, which I suppose is exactly what we had expected to see. I did feel a little bit bad for the sculptors of the model, but hopefully he knew what the fate of his handiwork would be. Before the blaze, we had gone to the so-called Fire Food Market, but disappointingly there wasn't much in the way of wood-fired or char-grilled anything and it was a typical food market. Nonetheless, I was introduced to a food stall called SpiceBox who gave me last of their fare for free (they asked if I really did want it, as they were scraping the bottom of their pots and pans) and invited me to visit them at a later date for a discount. I was completely happy with what they had given me as it was so tasty (and free!) but wouldn't pass up a discount.

Lo and behold! More SpiceBox, this time from Kerb Market behind King's Cross Station. Though very filling, after meeting up with Yannick for lunch I got dessert with Adam from Mildred's, a well-regarded vegetarian and vegan restaurant with branches in King's Cross, Soho and Camden. The dessert was excellent, but what I remember most was their Turkish Rose mocktail - exquisite!

For most of September we house sat for a Jack Russel Terrier named Ben in North Finchley. He was such a good dog, and only barked when we were visited by the postman. It was hilarious to watch him run around with his doughnut toy, which squeaked if you bit it in just the right place, and dash about in the garden marking his territory in fifty different places.

Though we had been to North Finchley before when we house sat for Kevin and Keeno, we hadn't explored the village much due to limited time. We found the area exceedingly charming, and thought that out of all the places in London we had been thus far, North Finchley would be a place we would strongly consider living full-time; this is due to a number of reasons including travel time to the city, the fact that you have all the shops you'd need on the high street and yet it still has a village feel, and the well-stocked Ari Foods: a grocery with amazing dates, Turkish delight, bulgur wheat, dolmades and other usually difficult to find or overpriced foods.
The photo above shows the Tally Ho pub, a high street institution named for the nearby Tally Ho Corner, which housed a coach company in the early 1800's where horses were used for mail services. Some other interesting facts: the first British soldier to be killed during WWI, Private John Parr, was a resident of North Finchley; and Charles Dickens stayed in Finchley for a time when he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit. 

Outside the large Sainsbury's supermarket is a memorial bench for the local character Horace White. Horace was well-known by residents as he would sit for much of the day on the footpaths along the main road and draw with crayons, wishing every passerby "the best of luck!" After three decades of this, he sadly passed away in 2012 but was honoured with a well-attended funeral. His sister, who cared for him, asked the public to refrain from wearing black to the service. From what I've read, he was a cheery figure who made Finchley folk smile. 

Our house sit host was a woman of many talents, one being brewing up flavoured alcohols. She took me on a walk one day to a nearby stable where we picked blackberries from the brambles (though the season was as its end and our efforts bore little fruit) and she showed me where she picked sloe berries. She made her own blackberry sorbet and sloe gin. As well as the gin, which I was to stir once a day to get everything properly mixed, she was in the process of preparing Rumtoph: a traditional German drink/dessert sauce that is begun in spring and consumed in winter.

From Ari Foods and other supreme groceries and supermarkets in North Finchley, I made the most of the season and procured vibrant summer fruits for platters and fruit salads. Looking at those beautiful raspberries inflicts physical pain in me - I neeeeed them!

While on our Greek holiday in July, we had noticed the prevalence of something called "dild", a herb most spellcheckers refer to as 'dill' (I prefer dild - it's more inuendous).

And indeed, while training myself to become a Greek cuisine master, I became a big fan of the dild. There's something incredibly Greek-tasting about it, and it transformed my stuffed capsicum into high quality foodstuffs. We paired the capsicum with Afghan bread from the Afghan grocery (we could find no freshly prepared pita), fried courgette, roast cherry tomatoes, dolmades, hummus, and muhammara (a spicy red pepper and walnut dip originating from Aleppo, Syria).

On many Tuesday and Thursday nights, Yannick would participate in basketball games through meetup.com. Strangely enough, they began quite late in the evening and instead of coming all the way back home and then having to head out again, we would often meet for dinner after work and then wander about a bit. On several such nights, we patronised My Village Cafe in Camden. Yannick really liked the halloumi wraps, and I would get one of the meals with rice, veggies, dolmades and salad. The house wines and fresh squeezed juices were also top notch. 

For a spot of fun, we took a trip down to the Clapham Common tube station one weekend to see the latest ad installments: cats! The Citizens Advertising Takeover Service (CATS for short) fundraised to provide a "relaxing, fun and light-hearted" space for two weeks instead of the usual advertising bombardment. A nice gesture, I think, and rather cute. 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

August 2016 Review

After my excellent socialising in May, I turned the flat into a hermit cave and retreated for the duration of June, only leaving my deep state of introversion to buy food (though I used the self checkouts, so no conversation was needed) and to vote in the Brexit Referendum. As Commonwealth citizens residing in the UK, Yannick and I were eligible to vote and did so with sangfroid, only to be struck down in shock when the results came out. 
Following that, we went on a rather terrific trip to Greece in July for which I made daily posts (see the first one here).
Upon returning from Greece in August, we continued to house sit for Wanda. By this stage, her three-legged ginger friend Tim was a common visitor to the cement garden (we gave him that name as we were not privy to his real one). I love how grouchy Wanda looks in that photo.

Shoreditch is a happening area, and was fairly close to Bethnal Green. I attended the grand opening of What the Pitta, a vegan doner kebab and baklava stall. A food blogger, Fat Gay Vegan, had paired up with them to offer attendees a special meal deal and I couldn't pass it up! Not only did I meet a celebrity (FGV has over 25k followers on Instagram) but I chowed down on an amazing kebab for cheap! It was very filling, so I ate the baklava much later at home and can confirm that What the Pitta deserve all their 5-star reviews.

August was cherry season, and you'd better believe I didn't let that pass me by. A small grocery around the corner was selling 1kg crates for much more reasonable rates than the supermarkets so I loaded up. I mostly just ate them by themselves as they were perfectly ripe and juicy, but I did make a semi-successful clafoutis, and added some to porridge. I did feel like a bit of a cherry murderer after cutting all the stones out, though, as they stained my fingernails deep red.

Though I've had no previous modelling experience, I was roped into going on a photo shoot for my friend Adam's company, Thou Should Eat to Live. His shirt poses the question that vegans get asked all too often: "Where do you get your protein from?" Why, plants of course! Just like where cows and gorillas and other herbivores get their protein. The photographer had a handy light reflector that we used to combat shadows, which helped make us look flawless and modelly. Ka-pow! Ker-splat! Shadow be gone!

When Fabienne returned to London for a few days, we cooked up a Greek feast that included roasted cherry tomatoes and capsicum, hummus, grilled courgette, baked feta, hand-crafted pita bread and a summery rosé. Memories of light sea breezes on Mediterranean islands came flooding back.

With cherry season came spectacular weather. Unseasonably warm for London, I tagged along to several picnics. One was on Primrose Hill, a park near Camden that provides a nice vantage point to see the city skyline. Over the months, I had become good friends with Adam, Jemma, Shane (all pictured above) and Katie.

Katie (the girl in the glasses) was the uniting force of this little group, but sadly she was to be flying off to new lands. After travelling out to Walkern by train to partake in her birthday picnic, she flew to Thailand to take a diving course and then galavant around Southeast Asia having a lovely time. We miss her dearly, but keep in touch and know we'll meet up again somewhere in the world. 

To wrap up the month we spent a Sunday at the Notting Hill Carnival which was full of dancers and performers in dazzling costumes.