Saturday, December 31, 2016

Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep

Sometimes weird things happen when you travel abroad...

For example: two of your poems might get published in the Denver Quarterly and you don't even notice!

It's the first time I've ever had poems published, and I'm so proud of both of them--especially "Girls Look More," which, to be honest, I can't even believe came out of my brain. Can't thank the Denver Quarterly enough for selecting them and putting them alongside so many other wonderful authors. You should probably buy a copy (51.1)--not just because my poems are in there, but because you'll be supporting a great journal. Better yet, get a subscription!

It's so nice to receive good news on the final day of 2016. I suppose "receive" is a strong word--I only realized because I saw the two contributor copies my mom had thrown into the magazine basket. At any rate, 2016 has been a difficult year in many ways--President-Elect Trump (still feels wrong to type that), numerous celebrity deaths (I miss you every day, Bowie), deaths in the family (my grandmother and great-aunt died this year, within a week of each other). But many good things have happened to me this year as well, and it's important to remember them, to remember just how lucky I've been.

Therefore, in the spirit of one of my favorite songs from the 1954 classic White Christmas, I shall now recount some of the highlights of my 2016:
And that's just the big stuff! There were countless other joys, mostly because I have such amazing friends and family, for whom I am forever grateful. Thank you for being so good to me.

Let's keep the positive energy going! I'd love to hear about the high points of your 2016. Here's hoping 2017 is even better.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Belated Goodbyes

Dear me. It seems that I managed to complete my trip to Amsterdam, travel back to the United States, and celebrate Christmas--all without blogging even once.

In my defense, I was extremely busy, and then extremely jet-lagged.

Let's go over some of the highlights, shall we?

I had no intention of getting a tattoo in Amsterdam. It was not something I'd planned. But then, sometimes spontaneous tattoos are the best tattoos.
During my two months in the city, I practically lived at Volkshotel, drinking tea and using the free wifi in their giant Werkplaats. So when I saw that they were bringing in local tattoo artists for their Winter Market, I knew I had to have one. I decided on a small tulip behind my left ear. It's a classic Dutch souvenir that I simply carried out in an unusual way. 

I nearly convinced Erin to get one with me. Instead she became my official head-holder. 

Things really got weird when we returned to the apartment. Rembert--who is not a tattoo guy--saw that the artist had given me a signed copy of his biography. 

"Wait. Henk Schiffmacher gave you a tattoo?"

"Um...I guess?"

Turns out Henk Schiffmacher is quite famous in the Netherlands. He even had his own reality TV show at one point. In the past, he has tattooed the likes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Cobain, and Lady Gaga. So not only did I get a spontaneous tattoo--I got a spontaneous, famous-person tattoo. Such is my glamorous life. 

The next evening was the much-awaited celebration of pakjesavond, when Sinterklaas completes his whirlwind steamboat tour around the country and delivers presents to the Dutch children, complete with long, humorous poems about their lives.

Yes. Poems.

Rembert's brother and his wife hosted the party at their beautiful lakehouse, and much to my surprise, Sinterklaas brought me some presents, along with poems in both Dutch and English! I must have been very good this year.

And/or Rembert's family is far too kind.

On my last weekend in the city, one of Willem's friends invited him to a birthday party. Not wanting Henry to feel left out, Erin and I brought him and Matthijs to the Upstairs Pannekoekenhuis, a charming fire trap in which they sell delicious Dutch pancakes. Seriously--this place would not be allowed to exist in the United States.
The restaurant is on the second floor of a building that dates to 1539, and to access it, you have to climb what might be the steepest set of stairs I've ever seen. Once inside, you can dine at one of exactly four tables. Hundreds of teapots dangle from the ceiling.

The next evening we took a canal cruise to view the vivid sculptures of the Amsterdam Light Festival. With warm cups of glühwein in hand, we floated beneath arched bridges and past narrow canal houses, their windows glowing between brightly-colored shutters. I thought it was gorgeous, but the boys were not quite as entertained. They mostly just screamed and crawled beneath the table.

On my last day in Amsterdam, Erin and I had a nice lunch. I said goodbye to Rembert and the kiddos, who I miss very much. Especially Matthijs, who had essentially become my puppy over the course of the trip. Almost-two-year-olds and puppies are essentially the same.

Backpack stuffed with stroopwafel cookies (much to the amusement of airport security at Schiphol), I began my trip back to the United States. The first leg of my journey took me to Oslo. I arrived late at night and walked to the airport hotel, where I was met with a green glowing headboard. It looked like something out of a Kubrick film. Luckily I had the option of shutting it off and falling blissfully asleep.

I didn't have much time before my second flight the next day, but I did manage get my butt up early and squeeze in a trip to Oslo proper. I took the express train downtown. It was around 8 a.m., but the sun had still barely risen. I guess that's just life in the Arctic Circle. I had oatmeal and a tea at a little cafe, which cost 88 krone. I don't know whether Norway has high inflation or simply a strange way of doing things. The ATM wouldn't let me take out fewer than 500 krone, and the smallest denomination of coin that I noticed was 1--no fractions. Their coins have holes in the center.

I took a short walk, staying close to the train station. I stood at the edge of the sea, watched the gulls balance single-footed on the black ice. The opera house rose jagged and white at the water's edge like a giant glacier. Inside, women wearing white dresses and lights in their hair sang for St. Lucy's Day. My eyes matched the sky.

Had I known that my flight to Las Vegas would be delayed, I would have spent more time exploring the city. Unfortunately, I was unaware of that development. Instead I spent several hours in the Oslo airport, which looks like it was decorated exclusively with IKEA products. My flight took off almost three hours later than expected, and then I just sat back and tried to enjoy the next ten and a half hours in the air.

International travel is exhausting, but there's something fun about losing so many hours in the clouds, only to relive them once you reach your destination. It's a pleasant reminder that time as we know it is completely arbitrary.

Upon my arrival in the city where this blog began, I immediately ate an In-N-Out cheeseburger animal style, because America. Later I was able to reconnect with friends at good ol' Atomic Liquors--although I was so jet-lagged that I can't have been much fun. I'm not even sure I was making sense. I'm glad so many people came out and put up with me anyway. It was wonderful to see everyone. I'll have to make a much longer return trip next time.

I flew back to Chicago at 8:30 the next morning. When I arrived, the ground was snow-covered, brilliantly white. We do give the Arctic Circle a run for its money.

And now I need to figure out what comes next. New Zealand? Perhaps--but I don't have any nice cousins to put me up there, so if anyone has tips for inexpensive living in Middle Earth, please let me know. I need to go somewhere I can write. Babysitting three small children is fun, but not particularly conducive to finishing a novel, especially when you have to do other work on top of it. My goal is to have the novel ready to send to agents by next summer. Then I can look for another stable, boring-person job.

Or maybe not. You never know. This stage of my life is a bit unpredictable. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

8 Hours in Antwerp

Alas! My time in Amsterdam is swiftly coming to an end. I leave for the United States on the 12th, and my brain doesn't seem to be processing the deadline well--I spent most of today convinced that it was Wednesday instead of Thursday.

I was determined to squeeze in one more visit to another country before my departure, so I took the train to Antwerp last Saturday. There are few things that make me happier than a train ride in Europe--plenty of time to read and write, picturesque landscapes out the windows. Speaking of picturesque, Antwerpen Centraal is quite charming in and of itself.
Antwerpen Centraal Antwerp

I exited the station onto a large shopping street. Just your average stores--H&M, Zara, all that stuff. The buildings were lovely though--stately and dignified, like so much of Europe. (Of course, it's important to keep in mind that the "stately and dignified" appearance came from wealth plundered elsewhere. Colonialism is the worst.) I especially enjoyed this rooftop statue of a winged woman wielding thunderbolts, as though she were about to zap unsuspecting passersby.

My first stop was Theaterplein, where they hold the "Exotic Market" every Saturday. (Colonialism again.) There I found stall after stall after stall filled with delicacies from around the world--nuts and fruits, mussels, cheese and meats--as well as Belgian specialties. To stay the market was bustling would be an understatement; I had to push past all the people lining up to make their purchases. Several people had brought their dogs, and let me tell you: Belgium has some beautiful dogs! They were all large with glossy coats--it seemed like they were ready to compete for a blue ribbon. I pet as many as I could.

For lunch I grabbed a Moroccan wrap filled with feta and honey (sorry Tim--I skipped the olives), as well as some Vietnamese spring rolls, because food is delicious.

Chocolate is also delicious, and Belgium is famous for it. That's why I headed to The Chocolate Line next--one of the most popular chocolate shops in Antwerp, known for its bold flavor combinations. I watched the chefs at work in the kitchen, pouring the glorious gooey substance into intricate molds. I admired some chocolate robots. And of course, I bought a few treats for myself: The Marrakech (topped with mint), The Provence (filled with lavender), and an extra-dark chocolate piece.

After exercising impressive self-control and pulling myself away from the chocolate, I switched gears to more spiritual pursuits. Though I'm no longer religious, I love wandering through cathedrals--I can never quite believe that all that gothic architecture came together without modern technology. Plus, there's nothing like a good crypt. The single spire of The Cathedral of Our Lady looms above the buildings of Antwerp, and I was drawn to it immediately, an opulent beacon.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp

Amsterdam is great and everything, but the fact remains: nobody does over-the-top splendor better than Roman Catholics. (Mostly because they plundered the wealth of their poorest parishioners. I'm sensing a theme.) The features inside were wonderful--I especially enjoyed the elaborately carved wooden pulpit, adorned with peacocks and other non-European birds. Maybe it took inspiration from the Garden of Eden? The alcoves were painted with vivid colors--I'm always impressed by how little they fade throughout the centuries. I must say, however, that the crypt was only so-so. And I know my crypts.

Antwerp's Royal Museum of Fine Arts is currently being renovated, so they've moved several of the most famous works into The Cathedral of Our Lady. They're all Biblical scenes--which makes sense, based on where they've been relocated. But at least I was able to see some paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, who is The Artist You're Supposed To See While Visiting Antwerp. I can't say I loved his work, but he was clearly more talented than many of the other artists they displayed in the cathedral. I think his subjects look like puffy cloud people. Don't they look like puffy cloud people?

My views on art are so sophisticated, n'est-ce pas?

I'd heard about this famous medieval alley called Vlaeykensgang, tucked into the heart of the city, so that's what I tried to do next. Tried being the key word. I searched and I searched, but all I found were charming boutiques. I didn't realize this before I visited, but it turns out that Antwerp is a big fashion city. If you enjoy shopping, Antwerp's a good choice.

However, I do not particularly enjoy shopping--although I did pick up a nice notebook in a little store called Jules Unlimited, which only sells either vintage or handmade products. My notebook was handmade--with a Jesus Christ Superstar LP, no less.
Vlaeykensgang Antwerp

I did eventually find Vlaeykensgang. When they said "alley," they really meant it. It's not so much a small road as a nearly-enclosed path between a few buildings. To get there, I had to walk into what looked like a private residence--until I got through the door. Then it was just quiet and cobblestones, wobbly glass on the windows.

Jenever is a sort of proto-gin, a strong liquor made with juniper. I'd read that jenever tasting was a must for any visitor to Antwerp, and that De Vagant was the place to do it. When I sat down at the bar, the old gentleman behind the counter looked at me funny--I guess single women don't often pop in for a quick drink in the early afternoon. But he warmed up to me when I told him that I wanted to try the original kind of jenever, rather than its fruity cousin. I ended up with the jenever-of-the-week, from Brouwerij Verhofstede, which was made with hops. It was tasty, but fair warning: that stuff will knock you off your feet. Thank goodness they serve it in the tiniest of tiny glasses.
jenever Antwerp

From there I meandered down Kloosterstraat, famous for its exclusive fashion boutiques, its pop-up shops, and its antique stores. Antique stores in Europe are way better than antique stores in the United States. It's not uncommon to stumble across items from the 1700s--a history-lover's dream, even if they are in relatively poor condition. Obviously, I couldn't afford most of it--not that I could fit it in my suitcase anyway. My tipsy self was very nervous about breaking things, but all crises were happily averted. If I had to do it again, I'd do the jenever after the antique shopping.

I wound up in a trendy store called YOUR, which featured various international fashion brands. Again, I couldn't afford anything, but it was cold outside, and the clothes were pretty. At one point, I turned around to find a woman offering me a glass of champagne. I didn't really want champagne, but you know...carpe diem.

By the time I left, the sun was already low in the sky. I walked back up the waterfront--which was difficult to see, thanks to the harbor full of cars. That is, it was difficult to see until I found a walkway above the Scheldt River. I imagine that it's pleasant and crowded during the summer, but it was practically deserted this late in the year. I watched the sunset, and then I went to Het Steen, the medieval fortress that is also Antwerp's oldest building. Now it hosts children's art classes. How adorable is that?

sunset Antwerp
I wanted to eat dinner before I caught my train back to Amsterdam, so I decided to try De Groote Witte Arend. It seemed so quaint and authentic. I suppose it was quaint--but authentic? Not so much. Unless authentic beef stew means literally nothing but beef in a salty sauce. At least they gave me a hearty helping of fries--with mayonnaise, as is the Belgian way.

I'm glad I left a decent amount of time to get back to the train station--it was a longer walk than I remembered. And then it was just a two-hour ride with only The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories to keep me company. I'm sure there's more I could have seen, but overall I think eight hours was the perfect amount of time to spend in Antwerp. I'll have to come back to Belgium, though. There's still Brussels and Bruges and Ghent and...

Thursday, December 1, 2016

48 Hours in Berlin

There are some cities where you need only a few days to get a good sense of the place. Berlin is not one of them. I spent about 48 hours wandering Germany's capital city (fewer than that, if I factor in sleeping), and I maybe covered an eighth of it? I imagine it would take at least a week to properly experience Berlin--but I had a wonderful time taking in as much as I could.

Our plane touched down at Schönefeld midday on Sunday, and our immediate thought was this: where can we get sausage? The answer, according to the internet, was Gasthaus Krombach, a traditional German restaurant that--aside from the plastic menus--appears to be stuck in the 1800's. It was somewhat touristy, but by no means a tourist trap--the prices were reasonable and the food was delicious. Erin and I each had a cup of soup, we split the three-sausage platter, and we washed it all down with some local beer.

Despite our culinary good fortune--or perhaps because of it--I made a strategic error: I did not eat enough of the sauerkraut. My stomach was not the same for the rest of the trip. I bravely soldiered on, eating all the German specialties I could manage, because I'm committed to tourism. Nevertheless, I must implore you: eat your sauerkraut, lest indigestion get the better of you.

Berlin church
Before we left Amsterdam, Erin and I read a few of those "two days in Berlin" articles to figure out what we couldn't miss. Funnily enough, we did several of them by accident within our first few hours. While trying to find our hotel, we ended up cutting through Bikini Berlin, a concept shopping mall that features local designers. We passed one of many Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) at the base of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a gorgeous gothic structure that suffered significant structural damage during World War II; no longer in use, its still-jagged steeple is said to resemble a broken tooth.

Later we tried to see the city lights from the top of a building in Potsdamer Platz (where there was another Christmas market), only to discover we had misread the closing time. Instead, we meandered over to Niederkirchnerstraße to see the some remains of the Berlin Wall. Its concrete slabs, still covered in faded graffiti, loomed out of the darkness beneath the yellow street lights.
Berlin Wall

To its great credit, Berlin doesn't shy away from the ugly events of its past. Remnants of the wall are scattered throughout the city, and there are several different memorials to those who died during the Holocaust. Behind the part of the wall we saw was the Topographie des Terrors, a museum dedicated to exposing the horrors of the Nazi regime, built on the very piece of land that once supported the SS headquarters. We browsed the somber exhibits in silence for a while; we decided that we couldn't stomach the special exhibition on mass shootings.

Through the cold night, we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate, perhaps the most famous landmark in Berlin. Naturally, a cousin selfie was required.
Brandenburg Gate

We finished our evening by seeking out the Eschenbräu Brewery, which turned into quite an adventure. What we didn't realize was that the brewery is located in the basement of a nondescript apartment complex in the farther-flung neighborhood of Wedding. To find it, we had to walk down a dark side street, cut through a small garden, zig-zag through a courtyard, and go down a flight of stairs. We made it to the cozy space eventually, and we both enjoyed our gigantic, malty beers, as well as a flammkuchen, which is essentially a pizza.

A word of warning: it is apparently impossible to order a small beer in Germany. Regardless of price, it will be served to you in a huge glass. And yes, they will laugh at you if you can't finish it.
Eschenbrau Brewery

Erin had to meet with clients on Monday, so I was on my own. Fortunately, I received many tips about places to visit from my friends (thanks, friends!), and I tried to see as many of them as I could.

Berlin is not a beautiful city--at least not in the classical sense. All the wrought iron and carved stone medieval glamor of most major European cities was bombed away by the Allies during WWII, and it was replaced largely with concrete, Soviet-esque monoliths. That said, Berlin is not lacking in character. I loved exploring the different neighborhoods, buildings scrawled over in colorful street art, crosswalks dutifully monitored by the red-and-green flashing Ampelmännchen, oddly cheerful souvenirs of the once-divided city. Berlin's public transit system is also excellent; the stubby yellow carriages of the U-Bahn whisked me everywhere I needed to go.

I began my day at KaDeWe, a famous department store where the sixth floor reportedly holds "two football fields" of food. European football, I presume? It was indeed impressive--basically an upscale grocery store with food from all over the world. The USA section featured squeezable cheese and barbecue sauce. They know us too well.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Next I headed to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Completed in 2004, this grave reminder of the Holocaust consists of gray stone slabs that cover almost four acres of sloping land. When you stand on the edge, you can see above the blocks, but when you walk between the rows, they subsume you, diminishing the light.

On my way to the Reichstag building (or Bundestag, though it seems that Reichstag is still the more common name?), I passed the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, as well as the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Like I said earlier, reminders of the past are everywhere in Berlin.

Then, as I was taking a selfie with the giant German flag in front of the Bundestag, a woman tried to pickpocket me. She appeared from nowhere, kissed me on the cheek, and shoved a petition in my face. Shocked at the suddenness of it all, I clumsily refused and backed away. Later I saw the police flyers warning of that specific scam, and I thanked my lucky stars for zipper pockets. Ah, the perils of tourism.

I stopped for lunch at the ultra-hip Westberlin--white walls, white tables, white chairs, broken only by the art magazines on white shelves, the equipment behind the white bar, and the people sipping their coffee and tea. It's right by Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known crossing point between East and West Berlin when the wall was in place. The YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN/SOVIET SECTOR sign is still there--or maybe it's a replica.

One of the "two days in Berlin" articles had recommended Hard Wax Records, a staple of Berlin's electronic music scene. EDM's not my thing, and I didn't have room in my backpack to return with a record anyway, but as a music-lover I decided I should see it.

And so I encountered my second difficult-to-find location in Berlin. I wandered back and forth on the street where it was supposed to be for a few minutes, until I spotted a small plaque indicating that I needed to enter the courtyard of one of the apartment complexes. With some unease, I walked down an abandoned alley until I came to a doorway with a paper sign: HARD WAX RECORDS, THIRD FLOOR.

Hard Wax Records
There were no lights in the stairwell behind the door. The windows and walls were almost completely covered in stickers, and empty bottles were shattered on the floor. Oh good, I thought. I'm about to get murdered on my way to some random record store where I don't even plan on buying anything. Happily, there were no killers lurking in the shadows. I found the store--smaller than I expected, stark and industrial--and browsed records while loud bass bumped through the speakers above.

I hopped on the U-Bahn to Alexanderplatz, a large public square in what was once the heart of East Berlin. I watched the sun set over the Fernsehturm, and I had an obligatory glühwein (mulled wine) at yet another Christmas market. I must say, having visited several authentic ones, the Chicago Christkindlmarket is remarkably accurate.
Alexanderplatz

After that I went north to Prenzlauer Berg, which is apparently where all the hip people move when they want to settle down and have kids. This part of town escaped the war architecturally unscathed--the buildings are much more quaint. I looked at some chic clothes I couldn't afford, and then, with my feet aching, my phone nearly dead, and the night growing ever colder, I grabbed a table in a cafe called Kapitalist. I picked it thanks to the cheeky humor of its name, and my instincts served me well. I suspect I'd be a regular there if I lived in Berlin--it's cozy, quiet, and dark, with a Bohemian edge. But not forced Bohemian--more like Bohemian because they'd rather not spend the money to make it nicer.

Erin finally met me there after her day was done, and we selected a restaurant for dinner using Open Table. That's how we ended up at Fabisch in Rosenthaler Platz. The food wasn't exactly mind-blowing, but then, you can't go wrong with cheese-and-mushroom-slathered schnitzel.

We stopped at a nearby microbrewery, The Circus Hostel Brewing Company, for a nightcap. "Microbrewery" is an overstatement. They brew precisely one beer. However, that one beer was just dandy--albeit giant. We couldn't finish them.

Now that I think about it, that last drink was the perfect metaphor for our entire trip. Like the glasses of beer, Berlin is enormous and flavorful--but like the capacity of our stomachs, our time in the city was far too limited. It certainly warrants another visit.