Embracing Butter

Berlin

“Expat Burnout” and when it might be time to go home

marcus-zymmer-189542

I’ve been living abroad for seven years now. Make that seven years and five months, but hey – who’s counting? At this point, I am. For the most part, I love living outside America. I’m a bit of a wanderer by nature (I blame my Aquarius start sign as well as my nomadic upbringing for this), but at some point there comes a time when even the most adventuresome of us want to put down roots somewhere. After the better part of a decade here in Germany, I think I’ve reached that point.

All expat experiences are challenging. Moving to a new country with a different language, a different climate, different way of doing life, is not easy. My experience was also a bit more challenging than most – in addition to raising three kids alone here in Berlin for the most of our time here, I also went though one of the nastiest divorces ever, which included a child kidnapping case (google my full name and you’ll see ALL the details of this misadventure, thanks to the US government and their sharing of public records).

That life-draining and life-altering experience is I believe what made me go from crazy-in-love with Berlin and never wanting to leave, to the point where I am now. Which is some days is get-me-out-of-here-ASAP! Of course there are still good days – days when I don’t want to leave my life here in Europe, in all it’s cappuccino-fueled and wine-soaked Old World beauty. Those days though are few and far between. Most days I’m griping about how little personal space there is, how rude Germans can be (yes, the Germans I used to love!), and how I just can’t be bothered with the difficult German language or endless bureaucracy any longer.

Apparently I am not alone in feeling this way. A quick Google search last night showed me that things like “expat burnout” and “expat depression” are real things that people face at times when living abroad. Especially when they have been abroad for a long time and are kind of done with their life abroad. Of the several interesting articles I found written on the topic, my favorite – and the most applicable to my experience – is one posted on a website called Expat Info Desk. They give four signs it’s time to leave your life abroad, and what do you know – I can relate to all four. It’s as if I wrote the article myself – or rather, a neutral, honest bystander saw my life from the outside and wrote about where I am.

In short, as much as I love so many things about living abroad – I love the culture one is exposed do, I love the different languages you hear at any given time, I love love love the wonderful foods and desserts and travel and clear water of the Med that you don’t have in the US. But you know what? There are things that I love about and miss where I come from. For example – there is space enough for everyone so you don’t get mauled while waiting in line at the bakery or supermarket, because people generally know how to stand in lines and wait their turns; the bureaucracy isn’t time-sucking and mind-numbing as here. There is a also general sense of responsibility and caring for others in America that I’ve not found here in Europe.

Beyond the lovely parts of life in Europe and the easier living that can be found stateside, another and even more important factor is people. Since we’ve been abroad, I’ve missed two funerals, three weddings, and countless other celebrations and birthdays. This is not to make myself sound pitiful, as I had a reason for moving here and I take full ownership of that decision and I do not regret it. But at some point you realize that once you’ve reached the goals you set out to reach, you no longer have a reason for being where you are. Continuing to miss the lives of those closest to you and yours is not something you are willing to sacrifice any longer, which means it might just be time to start packing bags. Or at least starting on a game plan for the near future.

Let’s talk about Berliners

Berlin

Berliners. They’re an interesting breed. I’ve lived here for seven years now,and I still can’t figure them out. They can drive you insane some days, but then they can turn around and surprise you on others.

So what are Berliners like? They’re direct. They’re a bit rough. They’re bossy. They lack grace and joie de vivre. At their worst, they’re brash control freaks who bump into you on the streets because they don’t look where they are going (although here in Berlin it’s your job to stay out of their way). At their best, they’re efficient get-it-doners pay attention to detail and who make sure things are done right (which is why I love the medical field here, for example). But kind, relaxed, and friendly they are not.

To be fair, it’s not entirely their fault that they are the way they are. This is Northern Europe – we’re actually further north than London. In this part of the world winter can last a good half of the year or more. And by winter, I mean days that darken around 4 p.m. and in which grey skys with rain or snow prevail.

At the very least, the majority of the population is likely Vitamin D deficient – the stuff isn’t added to milk here, six months of winter means six months of too little warm rays. And it’s common knowledge now that too little sunlight/Vitamin D leads to depression. So really, how happy can you be long-term in a place without enough sunlight? Not very happy. And it’s no wonder there are so many grumps here.

Beyond the weather, look at the history of this area. As my father pointed out ages ago (in response to one of my rants about how difficult Berliners can be), this part of Germany was Prussia. And the Prussians were bred and raised to be warriors. Apparently they were good at it, and if you’re familiar with military types, you’ll see a bit of soldier in many Berliners. I was both a military brat and married to a US Marine, so I know the characteristics and I see it here quite often. At times I swear people here are marching rather than walking.

Beyond the Prussian-era, Germany has two long and rough world wars under its belt which decimated country economically, culturally, and spiritually. Then slap a few decade of part of the country living behind the Iron Curtain with a wall dividing its capitol, and WOW – you have a lot of years of heavy. And the burden of history does take a toll on a population. 

Add it all up and it’s a bit easier to understand how the general population here in Berlin is not the most carefree of people. Of course there are exceptions – there always are – but in general this is not the lightest of crowds. As a happy-people-loving Southern girl who loves sun and living as carefree as possible, I have to ask myself some days what I am doing here and now much longer I can stay. But that, my friends, is a topic for another day. ;)

For anyone reading this, I’m curious to know what your experience with Berliners has been. Are Berliners as tough as I make them out to be? Am I exaggerating? On point? Do tell!

Fun food outing: Eat-the-World tour Neukölln

bakery sign edited

It’s no secret that I love food. And I love exploring new places almost as much as I love food. So when the folks at Eat-the-World invited me to bring a friend to join one of their tours through the Neukölln district of Berlin, of course I said yes. Eat-the-World gives food tours throughout Germany, and here in Berlin they have tours through seven of the city’s districts.

I’ll be honest with you - Neukölln has never been my favorite part of town. In fact, I like it about as much as I like Kreuzberg, which is not at all. However, my sister just moved to that part of town, and I can’t say no to a food offer, so I dragged her along with me.  I was so excited about the tour invitation that I even told my local café owner all about it while stopping by for my morning Cappuccino. He wasn’t as excited about it was I was, but regardless. The chance to eat my way through a part of Berlin had me pretty thrilled.

And I was not disappointed. The day ended up being a long and lovely afternoon of walking (lots of it!), history (you will know all about Neukölln after this tour), and food (we stopped at 7 different places, sampling food at each stop!). I can’t tell you each and every stop we made, but I will tell you about a few of my favorites.

Zuckerbaby

Zuckerbaby is a cozy, cute café owned and operated by two American/German sisters, who focus on the combining tasty treats – both savory and sweet – from Germany and the US. We got to sample their Lemon Gugelhupf cake, which was a miniature version of the traditional German bundt cake. It was light, lemony, and moist, which we loved (German cakes can be dry so this one may have been more of an American recipe baked in the German shape).  According to Jill and Tanya, the owners, weekends are the best time to visit their place, as they have a larger cake assortment. So will we be checking that out? We most certainly will be.

Kønigliche Backstube

The second stop on the tour was a bakery I’d heard of but had never visited before. The Koenigliche Backstube is an artisan bakery with a limited but delicious menu of organice breads and pastries. Everything here is baked the Old World style – meaning with a sour dough starter instead of yeast. The place smelled amazing, and we sampled their baguette and a walnut bread. Both were delicious, and had we not had such a long trip back home and more stops to make, I’d have bought and taken home some of the baguette and the orange cookies they had for sale too.

Prachtwerk

This was my abolutely most favorite place on the tour. Prachtwerk is another well-known Berlin establishment that I’d been curious about for some time. And with good reason. While there are some famous Berlin places that you visit and end up disappointed by (seriously – some places are just dives and you wonder why they are popular), this is not one of them. Prachtwerk has it all: a bar, delicious baked treats, style, a stage for open-mic nights, great atmosphere, and friendly service. We tried the Carrot Cake and the Cheesecake, and I can’t wait to go back and sample their cookies and their Coffee Martini. An added bonus is that the café is located next to the Statdbad Neukölln, so can swim in a stately, turn-of-the-century pool and refresh afterwards with coffee and dessert. So yes, we’ll be going back there too!

In all, the Eat-the-World a tour I would go on again. It’s something you can do that is off the very beaten Berlin track, you learn a lot about the city by a local (our tour guide is an opera singer originally from Berlin who seems to know the city like the back of her hand), and you walk so much that you burn off a good deal of what you eat on the tour. Which I think is a very good thing. So highly recommended if you’re new to Berlin, visiting Berlin, or you’re like me and have lived here for a while and need a breath of fresh air and to visit a new part of town.

My sis, our tour guide, and me

My sis, our tour guide, and me

The only thing we didn’t love was that we weren’t stuffed by the time the tour was over. Mind you, we certainly weren’t starving, and everyone else on the tour seemed to be full. But in my somewhat gluttonous world, by the end of a food tour you should be rolling, not walking away. ;)

p.s. If you’re a food lover like we are and would like to try out Berlin on foot with lots of munchies, go sign up for one of the Eat-the-World tours.

 

Street food in West Berlin

Street food is all the rage in Berlin right now. I have mixed feelings about the street food trend. Often times is not much more than over-priced food that you can find anywhere. But sometimes you can find some really. GOOD. food and drinks, and a variety of choices you would have a hard time finding all in one place.

When the weather is good, you can find street food events in a few different corners of the city. In Prenzlauer Berg there is the Street Food auf Achse event happening weekly – until winter temporarily shuts it down. Here you can get some great eats – they have tasty sweet Macarons, Pulled Port (that looks like the real thing!), decent burgers, and my favorite – the Wiener Schnitzel Truck, which a sandwich made of Schnitzel and very delicious Austrian wines. And lucky for me, this place is about ten minutes away from our home, making it an easy place to pop by on Sunday evenings when I’m too busy – uh, or lazy – too cook.

But last week we ventured out a bit further to Charlottenburg – in the ritzier West – and went to the Bikini Berlin Street Food event. Which, I have to say, was nice – but not amazing. But it could have been that we went very un-hungry, as we’d had a massive dinner the night before and a decent sized German breakfast (complete with Nutella, of course!) right before.

In any case, it was nice to get out, and here are a few images from the day … enjoy!

Starbucks Zoo Station

Apparently my daughter and friend couldn’t start out the afternoon without a coffee and a chai latte from The Bucks … 
Talya Katy Zoo Station

I, on the other hand, held out for yummier coffee from one of the food trucks at the event. The smiles shows I was happy I did!
Gedächnis KircheThe Gedächtniskirche – the church that was bombed in WWII and never fully repaired and which is now one of the most popular symbols of West Berlin – and of survival and freedom – or something along those lines. Impressive building nonetheless, and my favorite theologian – Dietrich Bonhoeffer even spoke there.

Bite Club Bikini Berlin

On top of the world! Or on top of West Berlin – this is the roof of Bikini Berlin

My favorite Berlin cafés

 

Few places on earth that are as lovely as a nice café. I can – and do – while away many an hour at a nice café. And yes, I could wax poetic about how charming the cafés are in Paris, how much I love drinking cappuccino in Italy in the summer when it’s almost too hot for coffee, or how you can almost skip the coffee at some places in Vienna, because if you order Sachertorte with fresh whipped cream, you won’t have room for a beverage with it. Yes, I do love a good café.

I’m quite sure that love began long before ever even stepped foot in one. Cafés have long since been gathering places for creatives and revolutionaries, both of which I am fond of. Think Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Parisian coffee shops. And cafés are a decidedly European thing, which of course added to my interest in them – I do love many things about this continent, and their appreciation for taking time to enjoy life includes centuries of coffee indulgence (yes, inhabitants of the Old World were sipping coffee and tea in cafés and coffeehouses long before we Americans had even wrangled independence from the British).

But back to the Berlin cafés I would like to tell you about – there are quite a few here in Berlin, but three are my favorites. Here they are:

Spreegold

Spreegold

Spreegold is, in a word, fantastic. You get good service almost all the time (which is not the norm for Berlin), excellent coffee, great food and wine, and lots of space to spread out and make yourself at home. Now that I work remotely, Spreegold is seeing a lot of me. The only drawback is the wi-fi which is slow some days, and the bees – which there seems to be hordes of – and they will attack you if you dare sit outside with anything that might like to sample. I highly recommend both the pancakes (covered in berry sauce) and the porridge with hot fruits (also covered in berry sauce). Delicious, filling breakfast items that will keep you full for a while.

Wo der Bär den Honig Holt

Wo der Bär den Honig Holt

Der Bär, my nickname for this cute little place, is right around the corner from my apartment, and how happy that does make me. It opened about two years ago, and was the third café to make its way to Flora Strasse, one of the nicer shop-lined streets in Pankow. The owners of Der Bär are one of the friendlies couples you will ever meet, and they’ve created a cozy little space offering yummy coffee, teas, homemade sodas (“Brause,” in German), and some excellent cakes. Their chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting (topped with a layer of chocolate ganache) is to die for – believe me. The only drawback here is that they are closed on Saturdays, which took some getting used to. But they are open on Sundays, making it a great place for a Sunday afternoon cake and coffee. The other catch? No wifi, so this is a place of enjoyment, not work.

Café Anna Blume

Cafe Anna Blume

Café Anna Blume is close Kollwitz Platz in Prenzlauer Berg, which is one of the prettiest little quiet corners of the city. Think broad streets lined with tall trees, bunting hanging from the windows, ice cream shops, florists, restaurants, and weekend markets, and that’s what you have in this little area. The café itself is also a flower shop and bakery,so you get beauty and sweets all around. Their cakes are freshly baked in-house and taste amazing, as do their many different coffee offerings. On my birthday or if I’m having a really bad day and needing happiness, I come here for Sachertorte – a semi-sweet Viennese cake and one of the best things you can eat this side of heaven) and coffee. And not just any coffee, but one flavoured with Cointreau (orange liqueur) and topped with whipped cream.

Anna Blume also serves a great breakfast you can order all day, but if you’re planning to brunch here on a weekend, be sure to reserve a table in advance. This place gets full fast. And I don’t think there is wi-fi, so don’t plan to work here. It’s too pretty a place to want to bother with work anyway, believe me.

 

Summer afternoons at Lake Weissensee

Lake

You’re not always guaranteed a hot summer in Berlin. In fact, some years it seems you don’t get a summer at all. It can feel cool to downright cold some days, and it can be rainy and dreary too. A particularly low point for me this summer was when I wore a turtleneck sweater and boots to work one day in June, because it was just that cold. In June. Yes, I’d rather not talk too much about that dreary day.

After spending the better part of half my life in hot, humid south Georgia, I appreciate that Berlin does not reach sweltering temps and that humidity is very rarely high. Because sweating as soon as you step out the door, like you do in the hotter-than-hot Southeast is really not fun. On the flip side, with the 6-month winters you get in this part of the world, you really really really want summer to come. Trust me.

But occasionally we get lucky and have days that are sunny and warm just as summer should be – like this week when temperatures reached at hot 100 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is!). Yes, it was hot. And no, most places here do not have AC. However, after a few years of long cold winders, I’ve grown to enjoy the days when it’s actually hot here, because you (a) get to break out that bikini that gets way to seldom worn here, and (b) you get COLOR – maybe not Cali beach tan, but you can at least get rid of the winter pale and look alive again, which is of course good!

My favorite place to escape to when it’s hot – and when I don’t have my kids with me, as they’ve turned into city kids in the meantime and don’t love the mucky mud at the bottom of the lakes or the bugs – is one of the many lakes here in Berlin. I won’t list them all here because I’m much to lazy to do so, when a quick Google search show them to you. But my personal favorites up to now are Weißensee (pictured above and which I’ll tell you more about) and Krumme Lanke (which will have to wait for another time, because all this writing about the lake is making me want to head that direction!).

Bike Wiese

Weißensee is about a twenty-minute bike ride from my place, so it’s easy to reach without the hassle of public transport. It’s in the former East – meaning it’s a tiny bit run-down is (see photos below), and there is lots of graffiti and some of the rougher folk you tend to mostly see most here on the East side. But it’s also quaint and inexpensive. You can rent a paddle boat for an hour for about 3 Euros, and there is food and drink available for sale at the Strand (beach) bar that is not too pricey either. And somehow, unlike more popular places like Wannsee, you can find a quite little spot to sunbathe even when it’s crowded. In short, I love Weißensee. There is even one of those swings you can jump in the water from (see below!), although I’m not sure you can reach it unless your the better part of six feet tall.

Lake Swing Weissensee

If you live in Berlin and haven’t been to Weissensee, head that way for an afternoon for a nice, unpretentious place to cool off. You won’t be bored – I heard no less than six languages spoken there yesterday (yes, I counted! Among others were French and Arabic, two of my favourites). And with paddle boats, a playground by the “beach,” food and a bar – you’ve got just about everything you need to make a day great.

Berlin: home, semi-sweet home

Berlin Mitte

Monbijou Park, Berlin Mitte

Berlin has been home for me and my kids for over five years now. Five. It’s the first year that I wasn’t excited about celebrating another year in this craziest of crazy cites. To be fair, part of my lack in enthusiasm is because the past two years have been spent fighting my ex-husband over custody over our three children, so it’s probably not Berlin’s fault that I was not in the mood to party about spending another year here.

My long-standing love affair with Berlin started the summer after ninth grade, when, as a fresh-faced 15-year-old I spent three weeks in the former American sector of the city hosted by family friends who were contracting for the US military at the time. They’d heard that I had taken German that first year of high school and invited me to spend a few weeks with them to practice my newly-acquired language skills and see some of Europe.

Those three weeks were magical – not only did I get to spendtime exploring Berlin, but my hosts also took me on a trip through Bavaria and part of Austria too. We spent time in Munich touring the city, visiting beer gardens and venturing beyond the city to see the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein as well as the gruesome concentration camp of Dachau. We also crossed the border into lovely Austria, where I am no-longer-ashamed to admit that, in addition to eating way too much Apfelstrudel, I went on the touristy Sound of Music tour. So yes – it’s safe to say that those three weeks were when I fell in love with Germany – and Austria took a little bit of my heart too.

That trip left a strong impression on me, and I knew after that sunny summer in interesting Germany and beautiful Austria, I’d have to return. I’m not sure what it was exactly – if it was the food (Schnitzel, German bread, and the sweets here are pretty hard to beat), the language (which I somehow picked up easily and quickly), or the old world charm (palaces, markets, cobblestoned streets). I suspect it was a combination of all of it that captured me and lured me to return.

And return I did. Several times in fact. A few times to visit friends – exchange students we’d hosted while I was in high school. And a longer stay when I worked as an au pair near Stuttgart in between studies. But those weren’t enough, and the desire to live in Berlin stayed strong until several years later, when – as a married mom of three, I got offered a job in Berlin by a long-time friend who was from the Berlin area and had his own company. He needed a native English speaker to handle communications and PR for him, so I jumped – almost literally – on the opportunity, and within two months of being offered the job, we had packed away our most precious belongs, sold or gave away what we didn’t need, and packed our necessities and kids to move to Berlin.

That brings us to the present. Five years and counting – five years of expat life and all its ups and downs. These five years have included introducing my children to the world of international life, a new language that all three have mastered to native level (my youngest even speaks more German than English some days), culture galore, and friends from all over the world, quite literally. For me, these years in Berlin have been a time of stretching and growing – yes, we still mature after reaching adulthood – both professionally and personally. And on a very personal level, these years in Berlin have been full of loss, pain joy, love and hope all mixed together.

What does the future look like? I’m not sure, but for now we’re here. Most definitely NOT forever, because although I like Berlin, it’s not amazing enough to keep me here forever, and there is no beach which is a definite deal-breaker for long-term living. And as much as I adore living in Europe, I don’t love the idea of my kids spending their entire childhood so far away from the family and friends who are stateside.

So we’ll see – I’m dreaming of a beautiful house somewhere by the beach, but in the meantime I’m trying to make the most of life here – so focusing on the good and trying my best to ignore the bad, both of which I’ll share in another post …

 

 

 

Holmes Place – my great but rarely visited gym

Holmes Place Gym and Spa

Holmes Place Potsdamer Platz

Once in a very rare blue moon, I actually make it to the gym which I am spending too much money on to not be visiting more often. That’s what happens when you get sucked in by a good deal and sign on a dotted German contract line that essentially commits you to lifelong membership. So yes, I am locked into a membership at a spa-like gym that I can’t really afford and that I don’t take advantage of as I should.

But back to the gym itself. Holmes Place is appropriately called a Health Club, as it is definitely not just a gym. Combine gym and spa and you get Holmes Place, or HP, as I like to call it. In a word, it’s awesome, and I am not one to go crazy about places to work out. Which means this place must be pretty amazing, and it is. It’s my little haven of peace and quiet in the middle of the city, and next to my favorite cafés, it’s one of the best spots to recharge.

Which brings me to yesterday’s visit, which was the first in quite some time. Maybe even the first this year. Luckily for me, however, limiting cake since Christmas and doing the occasional Pop Sugar workout via YouTube resulted in a fairly easy twenty minutes on the treadmill, which would have normally been difficult. Making things even better, the scale outside the sauna reported that I am down exactly 2.3 kilos, putting me very close to my best personal weight ever. Numbers don’t lie, do they? What a great afternoon!

Between the easier-than-expected run and a lighter body,  I was impressed that one can skip the gym for months and still see results. So I packed my things to leave, and with that healthy post work-out and sauna glow I smugly thought to myself that you didn’t need regular gym outings to get fit and look great. And hey, while I’m at it, why not play cool and act as though I’m here all the time. Who would know?

So I pranced out of the dressing room, bag and wet towels in tow (you are expected to put away your used towels at HP). All was good until I realized that the towel bin was no longer where it had been before. Hmm. Walking around a bit lost, one of the employees asked what I was looking for and then informed me that the towel bin was now downstairs. Of course I couldn’t just thank him and leave, so we started chatting. The following conversation ensued, and my bluff was called:

“But wasn’t the bin here?” I asked, pointing to the area where it had been.

“A long time ago it was!” Said Mitch, who had introduced himself – a very friendly older black American man with a sense of humor. “Are you a member here?” He looked at the trainer he had been speaking to, and both were smiling.

“Yes! But it’s been a while,” I answered and we all laughed. Then I switched to excuse-mode, saying, “I have kids, it’s hard to find time to work out. But I do ten minute Pop Sugar workouts sometimes!” Both men looked confused.

Mitch asked, “Pop Sugar workouts, are those high intensity?”

I stuttered, “Um, I’m not sure I’d call them high intensity … but I just stepped on the scales and I’m almost my ideal weight!”

“What was your name again?” Mitch asked, still chuckling. I told him my name, a tiny bit nervous as this point.

“Well, young lady – if I don’t see you check in here at least twice a week to train, I’m going to put you on the bad girls list, and then Sergeant Mitch is going to give you a call to ask where you’ve been!”

That was pretty much the end of the conversation, and yes, the towel bin was right at the bottom of the stairs, as Mitch had said. The obvious takeway is that you can’t really fool anyone but yourself about something that isn’t reality. Pop Sugar Fitness and less cake may mean lighter weight, but if you aren’t making regular trips to the gym, you better just keep your mouth shut.

(p.s. My plan is to make Saturday afternoons a regular HP workout day as long as my three kiddos are with their dad, but even if that does happen it’s still only once a week, so in the meantime I’ll be ready to hear from Sergeant Mitch!)