My health questions answered: A celiac disease diagnosis

August 20, 2014

Iron to be taken via infusion, the last resort for those who can't absorb it for themselves
iron for IV infusion

Oh 2014, you've really been kicking my ass. This was supposed to be one of the best years of my life: moving to one of the greatest cities in the world, exploring amazing restaurants and creating a new life in an exciting new place. But instead, almost every aspect of our move was disastrous, not to mention the construction crew continually trying to extort all this money we didn't owe (we rent, by the way). Then there was the whole tax mix-up where we were left to live on a fraction of what we were used to for months while it got sorted out. Then, there's been my health. While my overall well-being has felt rather lacking for a while, it was this year that it really kicked me to the curb. It put on gloves and smacked me straight in the kisser. Repeatedly.

Where I last left off, publicly-speaking, was that after my stint in the hospital a few months ago, my health seemed to be improving and I appeared to be getting stronger. Gastritis was the answer and I was on medication to help this condition. Only, it seems when I finally got confident that I was well down the road to recovery, I unexpectedly got booted back to start. Do not pass 'Go'. Do not collect $200. I just steadily started to decline again into fatigue, constant hunger and a strange haze in my brain that made it hard to think clearly. All this despite my medication and twice-a-day iron supplements. When I got scarily close to being sick and passing out immediately after having a burger, a beer and my favorite ice-cream-cookie sandwich (gluten, gluten, and hmm, more gluten), I knew something was still seriously wrong. After another trip for tests with my regular doctor and a last ditch HIV-test on her part to explain my puzzling declining health - which was, unsurprisingly, negative - I was sent to see yet another specialist. In the waiting room, I remained skeptical. I had already been looked over by no less than five doctors since this all began and each one ticked their boxes of questions to ask, always ending with the same quizzical look and a head shake. No idea. If one more doctor should ask if I like meat again, as if I was some secret burgeoning vegetarian, I might just scream.

But as soon as we sat down in his office and started going over my symptoms, I saw that he thought differently than other doctors. Instead of merely going down a checklist, asking all the same questions I had already been asked a dozen times before, he started linking all my symptoms together to offer an explanation: the persistent anemia, the elevated liver levels, the continued fatigue and stomach distress. He thought I had celiac disease. I sort of nodded in understanding, but really, all I knew was that it was some 'wheat allergy'. I was rather surprised since I never noticed any correlation between feeling bad and consuming gluten before, but listened when he went over the signs of celiac and how it pointed to this conclusion. So I had my blood drawn and went home to wait for an answer.

In the meantime, I did research. As I started pouring over celiac websites, my jaw dropped: my symptoms were right on for the disease. Everything from the more tangible headaches, bloating, unexplained liver problems and anemia to the less concrete inability to concentrate, depression and fatigue. I knew in my gut, pun intended, that this is what I had. I had thought this was merely an eat-bread-and-get-a-tummy-ache thing, but my relief at finally finding the answer to all my health problems quickly dissipated as the reality of it set in: this was serious. The Celiac Disease Foundation defines it as "an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine," but it goes deeper than that. That damage it does to the small intestine? Yeah, that means your body can't absorb nutrients, which essentially means that no matter how much nutritious food a celiac consumes, if gluten is still in the mix, those nutrients just pass right through, leaving your body - and your mind - deprived of the necessary vitamins and minerals it needs to function. If this deprivation continues unchecked, it can lead to things like osteoporosis, cancer and even MS. Scary stuff. Way scarier than the prospect of never eating another doughnut.

Since the tests had already been done*, I also spent the week cutting out the gluten to see how I felt without it. I read all these accounts from people who swore that they immediately felt better after making the change, but it seems I was to feel worse before I started to improve. The second full day without gluten, my body reacted in a most unfavourable way, beating me down with food-poisoning-like symptoms. Apparently, when gluten breaks down in one's damaged digestive system, the resulting peptides enter the bloodstream and bind with receptors in the brain that mimic opiates like heroin and morphine, so when you take that abruptly out of your system... well, a drug withdrawal-like experience can be what you get. At least when I got the test results confirming I did in fact have celiac, I was at least thankful I already had a head start in de-glutening my life.

Being the food-lover that I am and realizing the extent to which this would affect my life, this diagnosis came as quite a blow. All those burgers I chowed down on, the weekend brunch spots we had yet to discover, my beloved Krispy Kreme I planned to consume every time I would visit the US, I would have to say farewell to, for good. I admit, I cried over this a lot while waiting for the test results, then had myself a big sob session once the diagnosis was confirmed. Retail therapy as means of distraction has also played a big part. It seems silly, I know. It's just food. Food that was making me terribly, unknowingly sick. Perhaps it's a sentiment of the privileged, but food is a luxury of choice, not to mention a powerful tie to memories. There's a huge emotionality behind it. Thanksgiving at Grandma's, Mom's Christmas cookies, your favorite cake on your birthday. Hungry? Feel like fill-in-the-blank-here? It used to be I could go out and get it. Now, if I'm out and I get hungry, I'd better damn well hope I remembered to stash a gluten-free bar or piece of fruit in my bag or I'm S.O.L. Friends invite you over or out for dinner? That's where that purse stash comes in. Again. It's a complete and total game-changer for what was our usual way of life.

While my heart is still heavy with its recent adieu to gluten, I'm trying to stay thankful that this disease is totally manageable. My focus for now is being kind to my body. Not wanting to risk any possible cross-contamination, eating out is off the table, so to speak, for the time being. Alcohol, coffee and milk are also on hiatus in an attempt to be as gentle and non-irritating on my digestion as possible. You see, once the gluten has been cut out, the body still needs another one-two years to get back to normal. Normal takes time for such a damaged system. So while my gut slowly repairs itself, I am still desperately in need of nutrition and am being hooked up to an IV once a week for iron infusions, since like even the most nutritious food, my iron pills remain mostly unabsorbed. It's been a real test to my aversion to needles, the first session resulting in me passed out cold within the first two minutes of starting the infusion. Thankfully, the second week I managed to stay conscious, with the nurse continually popping her head in with a worried expression, undoubtedly anxious to find me slumped over in the chair. Two weeks down, three more to go. As a good friend said to me, I am facing my fears head on and expect to be a pro with needles by the end of this. Perhaps this warrants another tattoo to celebrate...

first iron IV infusion was tough outpatient iron IV infusions improving

So I am doing all I can to move forward. I'm reading (and translating) labels with a fine-tooth comb, researching, cooking three meals a day, searching for hard-to-find ingredients/GF products online. Needless to say, it's been exhausting on my already taxed system and I still have a bit of an uphill battle ahead. I still have much to learn and even more to understand about where gluten is still hiding in our home. I still have days where my mind seems unable to handle much more than zoning out to a television series and my body can't quite handle the trek to the grocery store. But I have good days too. Days when I realize one of my favorite meals to cook is naturally gluten-free or when I find a recipe for baked goods that has a plethora of comments about how it's just as good as 'the real thing'. I am so thankful for the online resources and community that have already been a lifesaver during this period of adjusting to living with celiac and all its required day-to-day changes.

My hope is that I can share some equally useful information that might help someone who has just been diagnosed feel not so alone, not to mention delicious recipes that are gluten-free - and restores a deep enjoyment of food without any inkling of deprivation. It is my new road, one that I know I will stumble on and perhaps take a wrong turn here and there, but one that I am committed to for the health and well-being of my body and mind. It will get better.

*Changing one's gluten intake before a celiac test can alter the results and provide a false negative. If you think you might have celiac disease, talk to your doctor about what you need to do to be tested.

My first Berlin tattoo

July 25, 2014

esto fortis latin script forearm tattoo_ black and white background Ever since I was a young girl, I knew I wanted to be tattooed. Perhaps it was the influence of my artistic mother, but I always appreciated beautiful things and the idea of having something beautiful on my body forever held a strong pull. I spent my childhood going through all kinds of temporary tattoos while I waited until I was old enough for the more permanent variety. I got two small ones during my college years and while I always wanted more, I never got further than creating a ample Pinterest board of body art inspiration. In recent years, especially once I learned we were moving to Berlin, capitol of some of the world's most talented tattoo artists, I felt the intense desire to add to my collection.

A few years ago, a good friend complimented my strength at a time when I was filled with self-doubt and I knew this was a reassuring reminder that I wanted to carry with me in a permanent way. I had played around with ideas and different languages for a tattoo of words, but nothing felt quite right. It wasn't until I was in the hospital earlier this year, that I was reminded again by someone that we are braver than we think we are. Laying there, looking at my bandaged and IV-clad arm, I was struck with what I wanted. So often we are told to 'be strong' when things are bad, but bravery isn't something that we call upon only when confronted with an obstacle, it's something we harness in a proactive pursuit of the things we want in life as well. It has an almost heroic connotation. It's more than just strength during the hard times, but optimism that we will succeed in the good times as well.

While I liked the word 'brave', English lacks the romance and timelessness that I wanted, so I looked to the language that is the foundation for so many others: Latin. 'Fortis' can be used to mean both 'strong' and 'brave', which seemed to fit perfectly. Antsy to make it happen, I quickly booked an appointment with an artist recommended to me by a Berliner who has script tattoos that I admire.

esto fortis latin tattoo font samples esto fortis latin tattoo font sample on foreaarm

In the more than a month until I was set to be permanently inked in the most visible place I had been tattooed yet, I agonized over exactly what I wanted it to look like. The words themselves are only one piece of the puzzle. This was art, very permanent art, that needed to look as good as how strongly I felt about the words themselves. After many hours of font research, writing samples and several test runs with a black semi-permanent marker, I finally felt I had hit on something. I had taken a font that I liked, reworked the elements I didn't like, linked the words together and extended the beginning and end for that linear look I was going for... and came up with something I thought I would be happy to look at every day for the rest of my life. It was pretty when I looked at it directly, but I almost loved it even more when looking down my arm at it. Seemingly compressed, the rise and fall of the script almost resembled a heartbeat. The way it wrapped around when I twisted my arm gave it beautiful movement.

Tattoo artist Ela Pour at work latin esto fortis tattooing at Pech und Schwefel Berlin

My artist, Ela Pour at Pech & Schwefel, was very patient as we finalized the design details in my less-than-stellar German at my appointment. She was careful not to push me in any direction with the decisions, but was very diplomatic in offering her artistic opinion as we worked on finalizing the design. The last time I had been tattooed was over a decade ago and I admit when we first got started, I had forgotten how painful it was. In all fairness, during my research I had read that the inner arm is among the most sensitive places to get tattooed, so I wasn't too hard on myself about it. Though my latest piece is still relatively small, I did start to feel what I have heard from many who have had much larger pieces done, in that after awhile, you almost 'zone out' from the pain and become rather numb to it. Even so, I'm definitely going to need to channel the reassuring mantra that is now forever in my skin whenever I decide on my next piece of permanent art.

esto fortis latin script forearm tattoo_ from above kate wirth latin esto fortis script forearm tattoo and warby parker burke eyeglasses in shadow Pech und Schwefel tattoo store front Berlin Kreuzberg

Pech & Schwefel Tätowierungen
Mehringdamm 81
10965, Berlin-Kreuzberg
U6/U7 Mehringdamm
030 22509264

Top 10 German Drugstore Beauty Buys

July 22, 2014

Top 10 German Drugstore Beauty Buys

It's funny how when you move to another country, you are so focused on the big stuff - visas, residence permits, communicating day-to-day in a new language - that you can forget about the little things you have to adapt until you're standing in front of a drugstore shelf, tirelessly translating the key words on the fronts of bottles until something sounds like what you are looking for. That face wash you depended on since your teens may not be available in your new home, or as I found out, your skin has changed so much in a new climate, it has a whole new set of requirements.

It can be daunting to embark a major journey for new products that will work for you, let alone in a language you are still working to master, but I've compiled a list of my favorites after nearly five years here from the German equivalents of CVS or Walgreens to help. So if you're unsure of what's worth grabbing at your local dm, Rossmann and the like, take a look at these recommendations to see if there's something that might help fill a need in your beauty line-up.

Essie nail polish

Essie polish is one of the few US treats that don't pass the high cost of importing onto its customers. Bottles of OPI are an ungodly 16€ here, while Essie remains at a reasonable 8€. Still relatively new to the drugstore scene, the color selection is not comprehensive and the displays often go unreplenished for long periods of time, but at least it's quality polish at a good price. This perfect urban grey, Chinchilly, is one of my favorites, but it's hard to go wrong with other classics like Sugar Daddy or Wicked.

Essie apricot cuticle oil

Yes, another buy from Essie, but this is my new favorite product find. It doesn't soften my cuticles as much as I would like, but it makes my nails - especially manicured - glossy and beautiful. Plus, it smells deliciously like apricots.

Neutrogena Norwedische Handcreme

A long-time staple for me in the States, I was thrilled to discover this was sold here in Germany as well. Super thick and rich, this is a must for dry German winters, though my dry skin drinks it up year-round. The regular formula's scent is quite pleasant, but I stock up on the perfume-free version to have at our bathroom sink, my bedside table and in my bag at all times.

Loreal Elnett Haarspray

This European stylist favorite had been smuggled into the US for years before some retailers started to wise up and worked out a deal to sell it to us Americans directly - at a price. Now living in the glorious European Union, where this hair magic hails from, I can get it at a fraction of what they charged to import it in the States (for some reason, it's also much cheaper in Germany than it is in France). Even better, it comes in a multitude of variations - dry hair, colored hair, extra volume, extra strong hold - so you can pick just the right one for you. If you have used it, you love it. It's everything a hairspray should be (soft, lasting hold) and nothing it's not (hard, sticky or gross).

Syoss classic hair color

For the few years that I was a redhead, I relied on Syoss hair color for frequent color refreshes and root touchups. It's super cheap and I found the color was surprisingly better than more expensive hues. When I changed things up to a darker brown, I was equally impressed by the color performance. While I now leave my new platinum locks up to the professionals, if I ever go back to the auburn or brown shades, this will be my go-to.

Alverde NATURKOSMETIK AugenBrauengel

Strangely enough, I discovered this German beauty brand product through a French fashion and beauty blogger. A huge fan of her style, not to mention any beauty recommendation that really works and doesn't break the bank, I was floored to see someone in France importing a drugstore product from Germany because it was that good. I was never a big user of eyebrow product as I always found it either streaky or crunchy or fake-looking, but this product was a game-changer. It's the perfect balance of subtle color and gentle hold that takes your brows to the next level - without looking like you tried too hard.

Maybelline Eyestudio Lasting Drama Gel Liner

Admittedly, I'm not usually a fan of drugstore cosmetics, mascara aside, as I find they under-perform so drastically compared to more expensive brands. So when I picked this stuff up on a whim to replace some of my favorite dried out Bobbi Brown gel liners, I didn't have very high hopes. Boy, was I surprised. Not only is the color strong and easy to apply, but it stays on all day like its more expensive counterparts without fading or flaking.


I originally picked up this reparative oil for my legs that are overly sensitive and irritated from my shift from waxing to shaving last year, but then discovered that it works wonders on my face. Granted, my daily sunscreen routine since my teens has left me with only minor wrinkles thus far, but this stuff seems to smooth and repair what damage my facial skin has endured. I use a couple of drops around my eyes and on my forehead under my face moisturizer and at night, but my skin has shown definite improvement for the year or so that I've been using this. Better yet, it doesn't irritate my sensitive skin the way almost every anti-age product I've ever tried has.

Nivea honey & oil creme seife

Basic, creamy, superb-smelling soap. I rarely will use anything else and even my mother stocks her suitcase with these bars every time she comes to visit.

Garnier Ambre Solaire Sonnenschutz-Milch

A faithful Neutrogena sunscreen-wearer in the States, I quickly learned that Garnier was the European drugstore gold standard for sun protection. Great formulas and range of protection options, I always have a bottle of this stuff with me when I'm headed out in the sun.

How about you? Are there any German or European drugstore products you can't live without?

Stay tuned, as I will be showcasing more beauty buys I count on from the Apoteke (think high-end drugstore) and department/specialty stores...

A little piece of doggy heaven in Berlin: Grunewaldsee

July 16, 2014

Grunewaldsee Berlin_ shores at the dog lake

I had been hearing about the merits of Grunewaldsee for some time, but it wasn't until überlin wrote this post that I made up my mind we had to go - and soon. So once the weather finally looked like* it might be amenable for such a trip, we packed into the car and headed across town with the hopes of giving Bailey something to replace the swimming pool and great big ocean we left behind in California.

After a brief rainstorm upon arrival that threatened our commitment to this outing, we headed into the forest under relatively clear skies in search of this oft-talked about dog lake. But first, we encountered a retriever hell-bent on retrieving - a 'stick' that was actually more of a small tree. We watched and laughed at his determination for awhile, Bailey thoroughly confused since in her mind sticks are made for whittling down to toothpicks rather than carrying proudly. After what we had just witnessed, we continued on, eager to see Bailey's excitement at this new place so clearly dominated by all that makes dogs happy.

Upon first seeing the beach, Bailey raced ahead of us, straight down to the water where a large group of dogs were already running, swimming and playing with each another. It was like a doggy playground, a secluded forest and lake just for them. Bailey eagerly resumed her favorite water game of fetching the stick - which she only does in water, on dry land, forget about it - her eyes gleaming in anticipation of every throw that meant she got to dive back out into the water.

In addition to watching our dog have the time of her life, Grunewald was a treat for us as well. Like so many other green spaces in Berlin, it's a place to get lost in the trees and the quiet, forgetting that the big city lay just outside of its borders. On a hot day, it's a paradise of shade and cool water for both its two-legged and four-legged visitors.

Grunewald Berlin_ forest path entrance Grunewald Berlin_ determined dog with tree branch Grunewald Berlin_ dog with tree branch and confused Bailey Grunewald Berlin_ dog on forest path with tree stick Grunewald Berlin_ forest path Grunewald Berlin_ Bailey dog on forest path in the sunshine
Grunewald Berlin_ bench in the shade of trees Grunewald Berlin_ house fence and excited dog
Grunewaldsee Berlin_ dogs running on beach at lake Grunewaldsee Berlin_ dog coming out of lake with stick Grunewaldsee Berlin_ dog jumping into lake after stick Grunewaldsee Berlin_ dog swimming in lake Grunewaldsee Berlin_ dogs on lake shore after swim Grunewaldsee Berlin_ dog sitting in lake water Grunewaldsee Berlin_ stormy sky weather Grunewaldsee Berlin_ shores at the dog lake

* This is almost always impossible, as Yahoo weather will say overcast while it's bright and sunny outside or even leaving one's apartment in decent weather doesn't guarantee that alternating rain, pounding hail and hot sunshine won't confound the weather report for the length of the journey, as it did for us the day of this outing. Oh, Berlin weather...

Latest Germany home decor discovery: Urbanara

July 10, 2014

Urbanara shop collage home decor linens lighting bedding

Coming from the US, trying to create a home in Germany is hard. The whole install-your-own-kitchen (and lighting and window coverings and bathroom cabinets...) way of doing things can be a shock to an American renter's system, not to mention bank account. But it was the lack of a middle ground in home furnishings that really challenged my interior design sensibilities. It was either that ubiquitous Swedish superstore or specialty shops where light fixtures could run in the four-figures. Where were the German equivalents to retailers like West Elm and Crate and Barrel? As far as I could see, there weren't any. Or at least, any with designs worth putting in a stylish home. There's a reason so many European apartments are filled with Ikea.

Sure, after moving to Berlin, a whole world of opportunity opened up with the plethora of shops, boutiques and flea markets, but the abundance of choice, and time needed to scour said choices, can feel overwhelming. So after nearly five years of unfinished home projects, I've been eager to find a one-stop-shop to fill the remaining holes left in my interior design plans. Something modern, clean, homey. Something not Ikea. Enter Urbanara.

I happened upon its pop-up booth inside Bikini Berlin while exploring with a friend the other week and was immediately drawn to some of the light fixtures hung inside. Just what I had been looking for. A look at the price tag left me slack-jawed. This stuff was affordable. No 500€ light fixtures here. As if I needed to be further sold, the woman there told me everything was online and that my first purchase could be had at a 10% discount. I left with a brochure and visions of Tom Dixon-esque copper lights and graphic throw pillows dancing in my head. Making our home everything I had hoped it would be finally feels within reach - without sacrificing the rest of our lifestyle.

The best of summer sale: shoe edition

July 8, 2014

The best of summer shoe sales

What is a good summer sale binge if new summer shoes are not part of the deal? While I'm quite loyal to my Birks this year, it wouldn't hurt to add some other styles into the mix. These are a few of my favorites, some of which I've been stalking since they first came out, others I only just discovered with the onset of the sales. From simple flats to sexy wedges, there's something for every summer occasion.

Here's to warm weather, bare toes and shoes affordable enough to properly celebrate the season!

The best of summer sale

July 3, 2014

My summer sale picks

The great thing about fashion is its early jump on the coming season. What that means for summer - at least here in Berlin - is that right when things are finally starting to warm up a bit, ice cream shops start to stay open a little later and daydreams about sitting on a beach sipping piña coladas persist with a vengeance, all the great stuff to help you look your best while indulging in the gloriousness of summer are going on sale. These perfect pieces are all 25-50% off right now, taking much of the guilt out of indulging in some new things for the season, just because. With all this savings, there's got to be some budget leftover for at least a little summer getaway, right...?

Faux-leather shorts | Part tough, part playful, I'm loving the idea of the leather short. This faux version with understated, monochromatic details makes the trend attainable for less.

Hair slides | Whether you're growing your hair out like I am or just want to tuck stray strands back from sticky to your sweaty summertime forehead, you can't go wrong with simple bobby pins. Less fussy than barrettes and a step up from drugstore bobbies, these will make even a hasty summer 'do look pulled together.

Marled coat | I've had my eye on this Isabel Marant-wannabe since it came out. So now that it's half-price, it's hard to fight the pull any longer. Light enough for chilly summer nights, it'll also be a transition piece for autumn.

Pleated top | Not usually one for peplum tops (does anyone else feel like a human flower in them, or is that just me?), the higher cinching and longer drape on this one has a much more flattering shape. Plus, the delicate straps and breezy pleats are picture-perfect summertime.

Tropical print bikini top and bottom | Printed swimsuits can so often look tacky or chintzy, but this classy, tonal print is just the ticket for a summer holiday. Now to decide on a destination...

Ripped white jeans | After buying my first pair of white jeans a few months back since oh, sometime in the '90s, and miraculously not spilling red wine on them yet, my confidence level in the quintessential summer pant has vastly improved. I think a ripped pair for a little more edge would be the perfect next step.

Picnic blanket | Even if you can't get away to a tropical island, taking this palm-print blanket to a nearby park to bask in some summer sun might be the next best thing.

Striped knit scarf | This massive, cozy-like-your-favorite-t-shirt scarf would be the perfect summer travel companion. Wrap it up for a neck-warming scarf when it's downright cold, or drape it around bare shoulders to fight the evening chill.

Leather clutch | Sold as a clutch, it's also the perfect size to act as a travel wallet for money, passports and boarding passes. From plane ride to beachside evening bag. What a coincidence.

My (reluctant) journey back to the Birkenstock

July 1, 2014

birkenstock collage_ modern legacy kaitlyn ham_ we the people jessie bush_ jcrew lookbook_ afterdrk Sabrina Meijer The whole 'ugly shoe' phenomenon in high fashion and the subsequent resurgence of Birkenstocks is no longer new (after all, the informal kick-off with Celine's fur-lined pool slides was spring 2013), but it wasn't until a year later that I have finally come over to the dark side - also knows as, the Arizona sandal. Yes, I had the 'training-wheel' Gizeh Birks for years, but thinking back to those thick, two-strapped, black suede monstrosities I wore in high school with ill-fitting acid-washed denim and flannel shirts à la Kurt Cobain had me ready to break out in hives. Really? Were we going back there? Funny thing is, the more I saw these fashion bloggers and cool Europeans rocking them (see above) in ways that felt nothing like the Birkenstocks I once knew, I started to wonder why I was fighting so hard. These ladies actually looked pretty darn chic, so who's to say I wouldn't as well?

Sure, they're not the most attractive, slimming shoe in the footwear universe, but there's something distinctly European (in a good way) about them and these days, they seem more often paired with a Celine handbag and leather shorts than gypsy skirts and dreadlocks. I mean, how cool does this girl look? It's fashion without trying so hard. Add to that the comfort factor for all the urban trekking I do and the comparatively easy-on-the-wallet price tag here in Deutschland, I figured it was a bandwagon worth jumping on.

Not that I was ready to go all in right away. I spent some time fighting hard against the original ugly shoe - the Birkenstock - by trying a myriad of possibilities that might spare me any associations with their previous life, at least in the US, as a schleppy, hippie shoe. First up was Zara's all-black, patent leather version with pretty buckles.

zara black patent leather two strap sandal
The look was all-right, but everything else was all wrong. The fit was terribly small and the stiff, sharp edges cut into the skin of my foot just walking around my apartment. At 69€, it was just too much for such an under-performing shoe. I'm young enough to want fashionable footwear, but too old to settle for shoes that require adhesive bandages just to keep from looking like an Edward Scissorhands victim. Back they went.

And so I tried again, this time with an & Other Stories chic and simple pair.

and other stories black leather two strap sandal
Once again, they fell short of my inflated hopes. They looked OK, but as far as style went, I just couldn't shake the Calvin Klein ca. 1992 vibe, so I felt rather dated in this version. Ultimately, the deciding factor was quality. They smelled so strongly of chemical rubber and squeaked horribly with every step I took. So, I struck out again.

After more online photo stalking to convince myself and receiving a generous coupon for an online shoe store, I was won over by the pull of the masses and conceded in trying a pair of the original, throwing caution into the wind and opting for the white that is trending right now.

birkenstock white birko flor arizona
At first, I couldn't get past the vast amounts of white surrounding my not-so-small feet and the resemblance to medical professionals' footwear. But the more I tried them on - and after some very crucial adjustments to bring in the width from Fred Flintstone-esque to a more reasonable and nearly feminine silhouette - the more I started to feel these were what I had been looking for all along. It didn't hurt that they were half the price of the previous ones I tried, not to mention a mere fraction of what these are going for in the US right now (tip for those in Germany: avoid the inflated prices of fashion website and stores, these can be scored for much less elsewhere).

Much like Chucks or Vans, I think these are comfortable classics that, no matter if they're trending in the fashion world, they will always have staying power. Now that I'm 100% on board, I'm ready to dive in with some black pairs as well... (I can practically see my mom shaking her head from halfway around the world already)

If, like me, you are apprehensive about the trend, there are all kinds of variations and knock-offs that can help ease the transition...

black ugly shoe sandal collage_ vagabond clarks UK whistles sam edelman

Vagabond Erie slides | Clarks Romantic Moon sandal | Whistles Holly sandal | Sam Edelman Adora sandal

Here's to the summer of the Birkenstock and comfortable feet!

top image credits (clockwise):
Kaitlyn Ham of Modern Legacy
Jessie Bush of We The People
Sabrina Meijer of AfterDRK
J.Crew spring lookbook

My Top 5 Mexican Restaurants in Berlin

June 26, 2014

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Santa Maria_margaritas and salsa A lot like a good burger, authentic Mexican food in Germany is often as elusive as the chupacabra, especially outside of culturally-diverse Berlin. So often done wrong by well-meaning restauranteurs, one begins to understand what to look for when seeking out the real deal: Spanish-speaking - both in menu and cooking staff, spicy dishes not compromised to appease the more sedate German palate, and of course, good word of mouth. The catch with word of mouth though, is it's all about perspective and expectations. I have so often overheard people bad-mouthing some of our favorite Mexican spots or been disappointed by a place highly recommended, and have come to learn that food is so subjective, it's nearly impossible to declare something 'the best' across the board. There will always be someone who disagrees, or values other aspects of said cuisine. This makes seeking out and declaring 'the best' of anything in a culinarily-blessed city like Berlin a difficult, albeit delicious, task.

So after several months of criss-crossing Berlin in search of some of the best Mexican food, I have come up with what I consider to be a pretty solid list of places to get your fix. Let's be honest, some days you really want great tacos, while others, you're just in it to get your drank on. So rather than rank them overall, I have broken down what I think each does best, as well as put some of my favorite aspects of Mexican restaurants - like great chips and margaritas - to the test. Who am I to make these grand declarations about Berlin's Mexican food, you might be asking. Well, I'm a born-and-raised Californian with a lifetime of experience eating good Mexican food, from our family-run neighborhood restaurant that had been a favorite of my family for generations, to family friends bringing up homemade tamales directly from Mexico. College eating meant frequent stops for giant, greasy breakfast burritos after a long night of drinking, with regular burritos in between for good measure. Before leaving California, we had a regular weekend brunch spot that consisted of creative Cal-Mex fare and the most potent and delicious frozen margarita concoctions known to man (nothing says 'breakfast' quite like a mimosa-margarita, am I right?). So, Mexican food and I, we go way back.

So now that you know where I'm coming from, I would like to introduce you to my favorite places to get Mexican food in this wonderful new city of ours. Obviously, main courses are the most important considerations, but margaritas, guacamole and chips (notoriously terrible in Germany) rank pretty high in importance as well, not to mention other factors like ambiance, location and staff.* I'm certain some will disagree with this list, or even want to contest me on a few (we foodies can be a passionate bunch), but my hope is that whether you are a Berliner or just visiting, you will find something here to enjoy. After all, that's what good food is about.

Maria Bonita

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Maria Bonita_quesadillas tinga de pollo
Discovering some of the city's best Mexican food was mere blocks from our new Berlin apartment felt like hitting the foodie jackpot. While the proximity is a definite plus, it's really the food that has us frequenting this spot on a regular basis. The simple menu of a few kinds of tacos, burritos and quesadillas, with a couple specialty items like heuevos rancheros, might make choosing easier if only everything weren't so damn good. Think taco truck meets your favorite neighborhood dive.

The quesadilla de pollo especial, with its juicy and flavourful chicken was my mainstay for a long time, until I discovered the simple perfection that is the carnitas taco: just tortillas and slow-cooked pork, that is then fried until golden and crispy. If I'm feeling crazy, I might add a little salsa or guacamole, but mostly I just stick with a squeeze of lime and enjoy the salty crispness in its purest form. One of my other favorites, ordered almost every visit, is the 'plato' of chips with guacamole and the best refried beans I can remember having in I don't know how long. The frozen Mezcal margaritas are another favorite, what I might even say is the best in the city. It was during our first visit here on an apartment-scouting trip in the dead of winter that I discovered the Berlin holy grail of my favorite cocktail, enjoying it so much, I ordered a second one to-go. In the snow.

So while the food is the clear star here, the charmingly chipped enamelware your order arrives on and the colorful lucha libre figures that line the window sill helps make this one of our go-to spots. Though the seating area is small and can get crowded during peak times, I've found that turnover is fairly quick at this casual eatery and we have never waited very long for a place to sit and enjoy our meal. The staff is friendly and mostly fluent in German and English, and often Spanish as well.

chips & salsa/guacamole: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
margaritas: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
spiciness: 🔥 🔥 🔥
can't miss: carnitas

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Maria Bonita_chips beans guacamole margaritas Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Maria Bonita_sign eat more tacos

Maria Bonita
Danziger Straße 33
10435 Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg)
U2 Eberswalder Straße / M10 Husemanstraße
open 7 days a week 12:00-23:00 in summer | Monday-Sunday the rest of the year
specials & updates on Twitter or Facebook

Ta'Cabrón Taqueria

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Ta'Cabron Taqueria_jalapeno and cheese tamales
The first time we visited Ta'Cabrón, I looked at the menu almost entirely in Spanish and the offering of not just one, but two kinds of my-very-favorite-yet-incredibly-elusive-in-Germany Mexican specialty - the tamale - and knew we had found a potential winner. With my first sip of its perfectly mixed, chili-salt rimmed margarita, I knew this would be a regular stop for us.

Ta'Cabrón is perhaps the most authentic Mexican on this list. Its intense, rich and belly-burning flavors satiate an expat's need for Mexican food like nothing else. Phenomenal margaritas, delicious chips and guacamole, and never-disappointing entrees are always a reminder that we need to get out to Kreuzberg to eat more often. Definitely the place with the spiciest options we've come across, the heat never overpowers the amazing flavors of cornmeal or rich, chocolatey mole. The simple beans that come with most plates also do not disappoint.

The colorful, cozy interior is perfect for getting warm in the cold months, while the ample outdoor seating is most enjoyable when the weather gets warmer. Additionally, I have probably heard the most English and Spanish from patrons here than any other place on this list, if that is at all telling of who values its cuisine.

chips & salsa/guacamole: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
margaritas: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
spiciness: 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥
can't miss: tamales, anything with mole sauce

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Ta'Cabron Taqueria_chicken mole tacos
Ta'Cabrón Taqueria
Skalitzer Straße 60
10997 Berlin (Kreuzberg)
U1 Schlesisches Tor
open 7 days a week, 13:00-23:00 (Fri & Sat until 24:00)

Santa Maria

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Santa Maria_carnitas pork tacos
Perhaps it's a bit unfair to have Santa Maria on this list, seeing as it is owned by the same folks as Maria Bonita, but I think the offerings and the vibe are different enough to call it a separate entry. Much bigger than its little sister Maria Bonita, this location is still always packed. We have been for lunch, for dinner and for Taco Tuesday and pretty much had to wait for a table every time. All that space and yet no reservations when trying to plan a night out can be a bit frustrating. That being said, it is worth the wait.

What Santa Maria lacks in the small-time charm of Maria Bonita, it makes up for it in menu offerings. You will find similarities in the basics like tacos, burritos and quesadillas, but in many more variations, including more vegetarian, seafood and spicy chorizo options. It is with the ample offerings that I think this restaurant really wins: tostadas, enchiladas, soup, salad and a wonderfully spicy and heart-attack-worthy cheese fondue with tortillas. The drink menu is equally impressive with everything from micheladas (not so impressive) and a frozen mango-jalapeno margarita (spicy and delicious!), to the classics like bloody marys and caipirinhas.

If you're looking for a budget meal, then Taco Tuesdays can't be beat: 1€ tacos and tequila shots all day. If you happen to be a bit of a culinary snob, like myself, it's worth springing for regular menu items, as the special-priced tacos on Tuesday can be a bit lackluster compared to what you can get for just a couple euros more. Every time I am here, I struggle with the plethora of options and mentally file away all the things I want to order on my next visit (like all those offerings of pumpkin with chipotle and caramelized red onion...). Solid chips and guacamole, with great basic margaritas on the rocks, it's definitely worth a visit for any Mexican food connoisseur. Just arrive early to ensure you get a table.

chips & salsa/guacamole: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
margaritas: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
spiciness: 🔥 🔥
can't miss: mango-jalapeno margarita

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Santa Maria_choriqueso chorizo cheese fondue
Santa Maria
Oranienstraße 170
10999 Berlin (Kreuzberg)
U1 Kottbusser Tor
open 7 days a week 12:00-late

La Tortilla Atomica

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_La Tortilla Atomica_potato tacos
It didn't take us long on our first visit to Street Food Thursday to hone in on the tacos booth. Often with one of the longest lines at the weekly food festival, we quickly discovered why. The owner hails from Mexico City and has clearly brought the flavors and spice with him. Their usual pork offering is juicy and delicious, but it's when they make something special like al pastor - chunks of pork marinated with spices and pineapple pieces - that you become a die-hard fan. And don't be fooled by the almost German-looking potato option, with its onions, peppers and slow burn in your belly, it's all Mexican. Those averse to mouth-burning heat would be advised against even touching the salsa.

Even with long lines, no margaritas and somewhat disappointing tortilla chips (of the German grocery persuasion), the excellent guacamole and stellar tacos makes it a must on Thursdays. But beware, like many Street Food Thursday vendors, they are not there every week, which means scoring some of their tacos becomes even more covetable a task. Now if only they would open a store front so I could get my taco fix on a more regular basis...

chips & salsa/guacamole: ⭐ ⭐
margaritas: n/a
spiciness: 🔥 🔥 🔥 🔥
can't miss: um, the tacos!

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_La Tortilla Atomica_chips and guacamole
La Tortilla Atomica
At Street Food Thursday | 17:00-22:00 | Markthalle Neun
Eisenbahnstraße 42, 10997 Berlin (Kreuzberg)
U1 Görtlizter Bahnhof
check Facebook for schedule and specials

Agüevo Taqueria Cantina

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Aguevo Taqueria Cantina_tacos dorados de pollo
Our most recent discovery on Berlin's Mexican food circuit, we were rather surprised at how Agüevo Taqueria has eluded us for so long. Our first visit, we were immediately struck by the great outdoor seating at colorfully painted tables. When the super sweet waitress, who seemed right at home taking our orders in Spanish from my husband, brought our on-the-rocks margaritas, we believed we had found the place in Berlin for this signature Mexican cocktail. When the chips and guacamole arrived, we started to get even more excited for our entrees. The guacamole was good, though not quite on par with some others on this list, but it was the perfectly crisp tortilla chips that became our new favorite.

After eating here a few times, we have come to the conclusion that it is the more specialty items - the chicken enchiladas smothered in a spicy mole sauce or the fat little rolled and filled tortillas, fried to perfect crispness - that is where they really shine. The tacos are good, but I think better can be had elsewhere in the city. I am looking forward to trying more off their diverse and ample menu, like their tasty-looking soups, on future visits. Or perhaps just make a meal out of the amazing chips and margaritas.

chips & salsa/guacamole: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
margaritas: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
spiciness: 🔥 🔥
can't miss: enmoladas

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Aguevo Taqueria Cantina_chips salsa guacamole
Agüevo Taqueria Cantina
Wühlischerstraße 12
10245 Berlin (Friedrichshain)
S Berlin Ostkreuz / M13 Boxhagenerstr./Holteistr.
open 7 days a week 12:00-23:00 (Fri & Sat until late) | Sunday brunch 10:00-16:00

Best Mexican Food in Berlin_Dolores_burrito bowl chips guacamole
Honorable mentions go to Dolores for its tasty and filling burritos - not to mention the best tortilla chips in Berlin (see above) - and to Tacos de Mexico, which lost some points for lackluster chips and margaritas, as well as its rather remote location, but has some really flavourful and authentic tacos.

* These are solely my opinions and my impressions can only be applied to what I have actually eaten. There may be spicier items on the menu or a better margarita somewhere else, but I can only comment on what I have experienced. That said, if you think you have found something better, please do not hesitate to share it in the comments. Nothing would make me happier than doing further 'research' on this topic!