December 19, 2014
Let's face it, it's always nice to give, but it's pretty damn awesome to receive too. I can't stop coveting all things warm and fuzzy and sparkly and shiny, especially this time of year. And a shoegirl can never go wrong with shoes, of course. Whether it's swanky headphones (I've been testing a lot, and let me tell you, these German ones are the best sound) or simple, inexpensive little studs, something coveted is always something appreciated. Even if you don't get everything you want, there are always after-Christmas sales...
Here's to a season full of things you love, from presents to family to food!
November 26, 2014
There's a joke that here in Berlin there are only two seasons: summer and winter. And to an extent, it's true. The winter is long and cold and dark. The moment the sun peeks out with any semblance of accompanying warmth, Berliners have shed their coats, taken up sunbathing and moved their lives to a Biergarten. Then a few short months later, it's time to pull out that heavy outerwear once again.
For those of us that hail autumn as the best season of the year, there is thankfully a respite, albeit blink-and-you'll-miss-it short, that is the most gorgeous and glorious fall here. The trees are adorned with multi-hued, autumnal splendor and the weather is just so that you don't need to break out the down coats, insulated boots and woolen hats quite yet. Sometimes, there's even sunshine. It's the kind of day that back in California we would take for granted, it would be just another day. But here in Berlin, it is something to savored and celebrated.
We had one such day earlier this month, before the temperatures dipped closer to freezing and the sun had begun its decent towards the earth at a painfully early hour every evening, that all but insisted we get out in nature and make the most of it. The sun felt warm on our faces. The leaves crunched beneath our feet. Bailey was like a crazed animal, running, fetching and splashing as if it was her last chance before the world iced over. We spent a few hours at one of our new favorite spots in the city: Jungfernheide Forest along the banks of Lake Tegel.
If Grunewald is the spot for rambunctious pups to gallivant and families to hike, Tegeler See is where older couples stroll hand-in-hand and younger people sit on blankets and hammocks at the water's edge, reading or just quietly taking in all in. This large body of water (second largest in Berlin), with substantial forests - Jungfernheide and Tegel - on either side, stretches out serenely before you. Stately sailboats and two-person rowboats soundlessly glide across the water, completing the picturesque scene. It reminds me a lot of where we spent our honeymoon on Lake George, in upstate New York, in all its peaceful, autumnal glory. Even the planes from nearby Tegel seem to be muffled by the forest and its unspoken treaty with the city to keep all of hustle and bustle outside its leafy confines. In all, the perfect spot to enjoy the last throes of autumn.
So it is with some reluctance that I say farewell to my favorite season. Sure, the winter solstice is still several weeks away, but we Berliners know that silly seasonal rules don't apply here. The trees on our street have shed all but a few of their golden leaves, trips outside require bundling with all manner of winter accoutrements and the Christmas markets have already begun. For us, winter is here.
Here's to a spectacular close to autumn, wherever you are, a happy Thanksgiving to my American friends and a magical start to the holiday season!
November 20, 2014
As soon as I even start to daydream about a travel destination, my mind immediately goes to: but what am I going to pack? Just as important as what I put in my suitcase is what I'm going to take with me on the plane. There are so many things to consider: comfort, entertainment, food, all those bulky items you don't want to cram into your suitcase. For those who fly often or if you're just like me and hate the fly in general, having the right things with you can help make your experience in transit as pleasurable as possible.
In an effort to make travel over the holidays - especially for those of us trekking halfway around the world - a little more bearable, I've compiled a list of what I think makes for an improved travel experience:
A nice carry-on | Even if you're stuck back in the cheap seats, you can help yourself feel a little chicer when you invest in a nicer carry-on. Not too nice, as you never know you'll be late to a connecting flight and they insist there's only room underneath the plane for your precious investment bag, but nice enough to make you smile and stand up a little straighter when you de-board alongside ratty old duffles and student backpacks. Right now, I'm loving this new print from Herschel.
A change of clothes | If like me, you've experienced a travel snag that meant unexpectedly spending a night somewhere or lost luggage (Heathrow Terminal 5, I'm looking at you), you've learned the valuable lesson that you always, always, put a change of clothes - if not a few, plus multiple underthings - in your carry-on. While you're at it, throw in a travel-sized deodorant, face wash and mascara, so when airlines do throw a wrench in your travel plans, you don't have to look as disheveled as you might feel.
Multi-purpose personal bag | Just the thought of one of my nice handbags in those dingy x-ray bins has always kept me from carrying an actual purse as my 'personal item'. A much better idea? Stow that nicer bag inside a larger, more durable bag so that when it does fall out on the x-ray belt or you end up deplaning on the tarmac to a bus in the middle of a rainstorm, you won't be any worse for the wear. At your destination, you can use this for mini-trips or carrying home market finds. I've been using my large foldable Longchamp tote for this for years and it never lets me down.
Passport organizer | While it might seem unnecessary, I love to have all my documents and papers all in one place when I travel to reduce stress in what can so often be a stressful experience. I love all the paperless solutions our technology provides us these days, but I'm very much a plan B kind of girl: if your phone can run out of juice/not connect right when you need to pull up a reservation, it probably will. Why not have all this info, along with all your IDs and information in a dedicated place, just in case. Ahhh, don't you feel better already?
Small items bag | With so much you want to have at your fingertips while living in a tiny seat for half a day or more, the more organized you are, the more tranquil and easy your travel will be. Some may call bags within bags overkill, but I call it a Type A's travel dream. Plus, I'm always dying to get all my creams and lip balms out of that heinous ziploc bag ASAP. A travel-themed bag makes it all the more apropos.
Layers | Why try to cram even more into your over-filled luggage when instead you can wear more on the plane? Layering up with things like this poncho, even over your coat, means you get more precious space in your checked baggage, more outfit possibilities at your destination and an option to curl up with in your seat beyond those yucky airplane blankets.
Large scarf | Unless you're headed somewhere tropical for the holidays, you're gonna need a scarf when you get there. So why not take your largest, fluffiest one on your person and it can double as a pillow/blanket/personal entertainment tent. I'm obsessed with this one from Zara right now. Ridiculously large and ridiculously soft.
Your bulkiest/easy-on/off shoes | Those people who can go on vacation with one pair - or, hell, even two - of shoes have my admiration for self-control. My handle isn't 'shoegirl' for nothing. Any good holiday will include multiple kinds of excursions, which of course, require multiple kinds of footwear. Travel in the winter means bulky boots, which can take up half your precious clothes space if they go in your luggage. Instead, wear a pair of cozy, yet put-together-looking boots (you're not shuffling around your living room, after all) that will be easy to slip on and off for security checks, keep you warm and comfy in transit and be great at your destination. My favorite are UGGs, of the non-elephant-feet persuasion, of course.
Cozy socks | Let's be honest, you can't possibly get comfortable enough to sleep with your shoes on. Well, I can't sleep on planes, period, but I do like to make myself a little comfortable on long flights. I'm not talking breaking out the flannel pants and facial masks (people, this isn't a pyjama party), just comfortable enough to stretch my toes in what little room my super long limbs are allowed. I've stolen a pair of these Wigwam ones from my husband because they are the ultimate in warmth and cushiness. It's the sock equivalent of a slipper. Just remember to slip your shoes back on if you head the lavatory. Eww.
Earplugs and eyemask | If you are one of those lucky folks you can sleep on a plane, you might as well make it as restful as possible. Blocking out the light and noise around you is often the only way. Sweet dreams, traveler.
Snacks | While it's true you don't really work up an appetite being sedentary for hours and hours on end, it helps to get some food at some point in your travels. There might be meals or snacks for purchase, but if you have food restrictions, like myself, there's never a guarantee. After reading several accounts of folks requesting GF meals but never getting them, not to mention the thought of multiple layovers with perhaps one terminal restaurant serving a safe option for me on the opposite end of the airport, I figured I'd better be safe rather than starving and bring my own food. These bars have been a staple in my bag at all times, the solid fruit and nuts packing a serious filling and nutritious punch. Plus, they are super delicious. Find what what fills you and slip a few in your carry-on.
Facial mist | It may seem like something only those pampered folks up in first class would do, but for good reason. Airplane air is devoid of moisture, which does the same for your skin. Slathering on layer after layer of creams can just turn your face into a greasy mess, so I like to live as the better half do and bring a travel size bottle of this stuff in my carry-on for a little bit moisture whenever I'm feeling parched. Just don't forget to do touch-ups if you're wearing make up to save yourself from looking like an Alice Cooper wannabe.
Noise-cancelling headphones | Those slightly-inhebriated guys that think they're hilarious. That baby crying. The deafening whir of massive engines keeping you thousands of feet in the air, hurtling along at hundreds of miles per hour. Sometimes, amidst a plane full of people, all with different ideas of how to spend their time, you don't want to be reminded you are captive for an unnatural amount of time with all these strangers. Some good noise-cancelling headphones are worth their weight in gold on the long hauls to restore your sanity. Santa, you wanna hook me up with these beauties for my return flight..?
Back-up battery | Too many hours and too few connections with time to scout power outlets to recharge before the next leg of your journey can mean the technology you so greatly depend on to keep you busy during your travels can fail you. Having a back-up power source to save you when the on-flight entertainment is a disappointment can be a lifesaver.
Before boarding, I always buy a large bottle of water (do you really want to be that person who keeps flagging down the flight attendants for constant refills for your Saharan-like insides?), as well as some magazines that feel like a treat and can distract you from turbulence when concentrating on a book is out of the question.
How about you? What are your go-tos for traveling?
November 18, 2014
I was one of those kids in grade school who, while all my classmates were getting called 'four-eyes' and suffering through orthodontia pain, actually wanted to have glasses and braces. Perhaps it was because I knew I was a true nerd at heart, or perhaps I just liked the idea of looking smart, but I eventually got my wish - in spades. The braces I had for five long years, all the way through my first year at university (*ugh*), and my vision has gotten progressively worse, making day-to-day functioning without glasses an impossibility. My overly-sensitive eyes are grateful that glasses are still trending in a big way and that marketplace for affordable frames is growing larger all the time.
Like Warby Parker and Jimmy Fairly before it, Ace & Tate is the newest kid on the block selling on-trend, affordable frames and donating to those in need with each pair sold. Based out of Amsterdam, this eyewear is available in Netherlands, Germany and UK. Similar to Warby, it offers home try-ons free of charge and a few locations at which to try on a sampling of frames in person. What particularly attracted me to the company was its positioning, not just as affordable eyewear, but as a stylish brand that understands that us fashion-loving folk enjoy changing up our glasses as much as our shoes or bags. Finally, a company that gets it!
After my last attempt at getting Warby frames over here - via my mom in the US - which was a shipping (looked as though they had run over the package, repeatedly) and customs nightmare (interrogated me, made me wait an hour, then charged me an arm and a leg), I realized I should try to find affordable frames offered in my own country. Since I hadn't bought a new pair of glasses myself for a year and half, I figured it might be time to start looking again. So I began with Ace & Tate.
Since my visit to the Voo Store, which stocks some of Ace & Tate frames to try-on, left me wanting to see more colors and styles in the light of day, I placed my order for a home-try on box. There's just something about being able to stare critically at yourself in the mirror (or in my case, having to take selfie after selfie because my vision is so poor, I can't actually see myself in the mirror without my glasses on) without a store-full of people watching you. Needless to say, having five days to try out frames in one's daily life is ideal, and thankfully, Ace & Tate lets you do just that.
I placed my order - free, with a credit card hold - and five business days later, they arrived. The slim, paper-covered package felt special, but I realized the brilliance of it when I unwrapped it to uncover the pre-posted return label on the box underneath. All I had to do after my five-day trial was simply seal it up and drop it off in a mailbox. Easy-peasy. Furthermore, when I opened the box, I was seriously impressed with quality of the frames. Designed in its Amsterdam studio, frames hand-crafted at a family-run factory in northern Italy (save a few of the sunglasses styles, which are made in China) and lenses custom cut in a Dutch lab, these are a Europhile's dream. These felt surprisingly sturdy and well-made for such affordable frames.
Getting to live in these for a couple of days is eye-opening. The Art frames in greyhound grey were at the top of my list, but after trying them on, they felt a little uninspiring and falling too on the taupe side of grey for me. The George was a very nice shape and color, but similarly did not wow me. The more feminine Jane frame, which isn't my usual style, was surprisingly flattering, though the color available for home try-on was not the one I would choose. The Dustin in bio black felt like another possible winner, bold and black to match most of my current sartorial choices. With this experience surprising as it was, I might just order another home-try to see if there are more styles that might be just what I am looking for.
How about you? Which ones do you like?
While I may wait to try on some Warby Parkers while I'm in the States next month before making a decision on new eyeglasses, I have definite plans to purchase some sunnies from Ace & Tate. Unlike some other companies, Ace & Tate does not charge more for prescription sunglasses, nor for thinner, high-index lenses (very generous for someone with stronger vision needs, like myself), making them the most affordable prescription sunwear I've seen yet. I think I'm leaning towards the Robin or maybe the Bradock... Decisions, decisions.
*Update: Ace and Tate will have a pop-up shop in Berlin until December 23 at Torsrasse 66 in Mitte. It's a great space and they've got it all for you to try on!
All the opinions are my own, I have not been compensated or paid in any way. I only write about products or companies I believe in.
November 14, 2014
The Berlin Wall came down when I was 10 years old. Living in California, we had just experienced the Loma Prieta quake and were still cleaning up, rebuilding and a bit shell-shocked ourselves when Berlin had it's own life-changing event. I vaguely remember seeing news footage of The Wall being broken down and people celebrating, but world events weren't high on my list of interests in the fifth grade. Even so, I was too young to understand what had happened before to make a simple city wall coming down such a momentous occurrence. It wasn't until I was living here in Berlin, and until this anniversary celebration that I began to witness the impact for myself.
Last weekend, Berlin put up the art-installation Lichtgrenze (light border) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of The Wall and the success of the Peaceful Revolution - 8,000 white balloons lining 15km of its former path through the middle of Berlin - which lit up in the night. The balloons, which had personal wishes and messages attached, were released into the air on the evening of November 9th, the same night that marked the beginning of the end of The Wall. But it was not only the continuous line of lights that really drove home the city's divide, but the stories that reminded us of all the people who lived - and those who lost their lives - during this tumultuous time. The 80-year-old woman who leapt out of her apartment window right where the wall was starting to go up, but broke her back in the attempt to flee. The man who was shot when caught as part of a group escaping the East through underground tunnels, the truth of which only came out after the fall of The Wall. The young soldier who took a chance trying to get a little girl back to her family, separated in the chaos and haste with which The Wall was going up.
These 'Wall Stories', stationed every 150 meters along the Lichtgrenze, were telling of the way of life around The Wall. The oppression. The violence. The sadness. Rare video footage from the time was also shown on large screens at several notable locations along the path as well, showing everything from politicians to soldiers to sobbing children saying goodbye to family that ended up on the other side. At once upsetting and uplifting, experiencing these reminders of The Berlin Wall brought to life this time in history and just how monumental The Wall coming down was for the people of Berlin back then. Without this moment in history, I'm almost sure we never would have ended up living in this city and it certainly wouldn't be the amazing place that it is today. We were very lucky to have been a part of the celebration, 25 years later.
November 6, 2014
Being diagnosed with celiac whilst living in the land of beer and pretzels almost seems like a cruel joke. But as I've discovered with the ample baking I've been doing of late, being gluten-free doesn't mean giving up all the good stuff, or even the things traditionally made with gluten. While my first try with gluten-free beer was a bit of a bust (made me terribly ill), I've been a pretzel-lover long before I called Germany my home and was committed to finding a good gluten-free option. And so I set off on a taste-testing mission to find a safe version to satisfy not only my snack cravings, but my rather high food standards as well.
I will say up front that I did not include Schär pretzels, the ubiquitous brand for the gluten-free in Germany, because frankly, I think they suck and refused to buy them again solely for the purpose of this review. They belong in that category that I so often hear other celiacs refer to as "it's not horrible...", but that's not how I want to eat. I want to enjoy all my food, regardless of what it's made of. Gluten is not the answer to good food, as so many people are lead to believe with sad options like this. Amongst the first processed GF foods I tasted, these pretzels made me nearly cry with disappointment and I swore to never again feel so let-down by gluten-free foods. Thankfully, there are much better options out there.
I found an assortment of stick pretzels at a gluten-free online retailer I order from regularly and set to work over lunch one day last week. I had my husband weigh in for a second opinion, but as our dog wolfed down pretty much every one we let her try with no discerning preference, alas, there was no tie-breaker vote for the best ones. We ate them plain and dipped in our favorite lemon-coriander hummus, for different taste experiences. Good news for those with other allergies: these are all lactose-free and the first two claim to be safe from nut contamination as well.
Here is what I found...
Balviten Paluszki z solą (Salty Sticks)
These long, thin pretzels from Poland seemed most like 'regular', made-with-gluten pretzels we had tasted before. The salt was not overwhelming and because of it's super-slim shape, it was more of the light, crispy outer part than the denser, more starchy consistency of heftier pretzels. My husband declared these his favorites, but there was something a bit chewy about the insides, almost as if they were a bit past their expiration date (they weren't), that turned me off. But I'm a big texture nut, which is often times just as important to me as the taste. I'm also partial to a snack that feels a bit more substantial, not making one down the whole bag in order to feel satiated. That said, these corn-based sticks are a good option for a light pretzel that makes you wonder why you ever ate gluten in the first place.
Buy them here
3 Pauly Mais Salzstangen
These were the thickest and saltiest sticks of the bunch, with a slightly more airy consistency than the others. The light, nutty taste balanced well with the salt, but something inexplicable fell a little short for both of us on this one. On their own, they were a little lackluster, but it was as a dipping pretzel that these seemed to shine for their thickness, consistency and flavor. These seemed the most like a GF option trying to replace a gluten-filled one, rather than standing on its own as a good pretzel, regardless. While called 'corn salt-sticks', they are made from both corn and potato. With a flavorful dip, these are a solid option.
Buy them here
Seitz Glutenfrei Salzsticks
Perhaps because I was a die-hard fan of Newman's Own thick pretzel sticks in the States (pre-diagnosis, of course), these sticks with their solid crunch quickly became my favorite. They are the heartiest of the bunch, harder with a more distinct, browned outer flavor that I just love. These had the least salt of them all and the strongest flavor, which is why I thought they stood up well on their own as well as with dips. These corn and rice pretzels are now regulars on my gluten-free online orders, but for those looking for a more traditional, lighter pretzel experience, you might be happiest with the Polish brand.
Buy them here
And if you can get your hands on this fantastic hummus, that made me change my entire stance on hummus, I would highly recommend adding this to your GF pretzel, or other cracker/chip, routine. (We found it at denn's Biomarkt)
November 4, 2014
After hemming and hawing over the dates - and waiting for my husband's frequent-flier miles to get high enough - it's finally happening: I'm headed to the States for the holidays. It has been over three years since I've been back in my home country and five since I've spent a Christmas outside of Germany. At this rate, I wonder if what used to be reverse-culture shock during my trips 'home' will now just be culture shock from the way of life that is now so foreign to me.
What has me particularly excited is that I will be spending a month at my parent's new home in Portland, a city I have never been to, so it will feel like a real holiday. Consistently voted one of the best cities to live in, both in US and internationally, Portland is clearly more than just the hippie-vibed ridiculousness of Portlandia. Apparently, it reminds my mom a lot of her previous laid-back home on the California coast, just without all the drug problems and weekly stabbings. It also gives Berlin's lush green spaces and waterfronts a run for their money. Add to that a West Elm and a Target, and I'm already a fan.
But really, aside from seeing my family for Christmas, one of the things I'm anticipating most is the food. More importantly, all the gluten-free food. Ever since my celiac diagnosis, travel as a way of life for us has taken a major hit. Everything from jetting to to far-off lands where they don't understand what gluten even is to just staying with friends whose entire kitchens are contaminated with the stuff, eating safely away from home has seemed a dangerous prospect. But Portland, oh wonderful Portland, has countless restaurants and food trucks - and even a brewery, for goodness sakes - that are 100% gluten-free. That means I can eat out at any number of spots without hounding the wait staff for every details of their food preparation or risking accidental glutening from an unknowing kitchen and set my already glacially-slow recovery back even further. Compared to the few Berlin spots I can eat at worry-free, it seems Portland is a celiac's paradise.
Of course, somewhat begrudgingly, I will have to do more than eat. I am greatly looking forward to exploring this beautiful city and hopefully some of the surrounding areas. So if anyone has any recommendations of great things to see and do, or great gluten-free restaurants, please let me know in the comments. In the meantime, will be counting the days until I get there, watching Portlandia and planning my tour of GF baked goods and food trucks.
*Thanks Mom, for the lovely photo.
October 31, 2014
It only seemed right that on All Hallows' Eve I recognize a place that, amongst all the gluten-filled packaged candy mocking me with their tasty-yet-dangerous promises, is an oasis of gluten-free options for sweets in Berlin: Herr Nilsson Godis. I discovered this Scandinavian candy shop, conveniently located right in our neighborhood (with a second location in Friedrichshain), through a fellow Berliner who Instagrammed it's sugary goodness, beckoning me to make a beeline there immediately. The charming Swedish name - 'godis' means candy, adorably close to the word 'goodies' - made me love it even more.
Inside the small shop, one wall is lined with all manner of fruity and sugar-coated treats, while the other is composed of mostly chocolate and liquorice. Then there are all of the jars of larger, sugar-coated tubes, candy necklaces and specialty Scandinavian imports. You can choose your bag, large or small, and fill it up till your heart's content. There are even logo-emblazened goods like tote bags and glass jars to be filled with treats and given as the best gift ever. That smiling, hopped-up-on-sugar monkey logo dares you to make your choices without breaking the bank or falling into a sugar coma before you get to the end of the block. Even adults will have a hard time not feeling like a literal kid in a candy store, resisting the urge to run around as if in Wonka's wonderland, tasting everything on display. Now if only they had a giant gummy bear tree...
The best bit? Not only do they have tons of gluten-free options, but all the candies are labeled for any food allergies or preferences you may have: contains gluten, may contain gluten, contains nuts, vegan, etc. It is a merciful beacon in a landscape of all the places I could no longer enjoy post-celiac diagnosis. It is often hard not to feel left out when seeking out goodies for special food needs, but Herr Nilsson Godis lets everyone get their sugar rush on without relegating us sensitive types to the unsavory world of carob and the like, which really only masquerade as real sweets.
So it is on this sugar-centric holiday that I pack my little bags full of sour watermelons and cinnamon-dusted chocolate-covered almonds, my Herr Nilsson favorites, and head off to my first-ever big-screen viewing of the original classic "Halloween" later tonight. Who says Halloween is just for kids?
Herr Nilsson Godis
Stargarder Strasse 58
10437 Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg
S Prenzlauer Allee / Tram 12 Stargarder Strasse
Tel: 030 604 086 86
Additional location on Wühlischstraße