Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

The trains out of Paris were on strike for the second time in my travels over the last couple of years, so we were rerouted on a coach bus. There were several things that would come to light relatively quickly about this part of our adventure: the ride would be overnight into Milan, the seats could not recline if there was a normal-sized passenger behind you, and the bus would make frequent stops all night long. The stops ended up being roughly every two hours. Sleep was not really something any of us got much of that night.

When we arrived in Milan, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the train station. It was a pre-arranged deal, and I, a diabetic for nearly two decades, was taken aback by the amount of carbohydrates heaped onto my tray. There was a sugar donut, a ciabatta roll with olives nestled into the top, a giant croissant, and some other piece of bread. I nibbled on enough to get by, and we headed out to catch our train to Florence.

As we awaited the train, I looked to find one headed to Florence, but it was not on any boards. I quickly realized that the Italians do not spell Florence the way that we Americans do- it is Firenze in Italy. We boarded the train and that’s the last I remember. Sleep gripped me with the force of warriors.

I woke up and we were nearing the station in Firenze. Our luggage was picked up by a local company, and my pal Stephanie was dubbed the one who would go with the luggage carrier to make the drop off and meet us back. We put her location in our “WhatsApp” so we could track her and hit the ground- headed for our first stop which was at the Piazza Della Signoria. This square became a central meeting place for our time in Firenze. In the center of the square stands a giant statue of Cosimo de Medici- a statue of power that reminds everyone of the most powerful family in Florence history.

Whoever said that the best things in life are free must have visited this Piazza Della Signoria. This open-air, free museum in the heart of Florence is a bustling area of coffee shops, cafes, and art. There are all sorts of sculptures and statues around, including a replica of Michelangelo’s “David”. It was interesting to learn about Michaelangelo. He lived to be 89 years old, and he was a fascinating character. So fascinating, I think I will reread the Agony and the Ecstacy again soon. Apparently, the government felt that the nose on his famous statue was too big. When they were watching, but not carefully, he pretended to chop off parts of the nose, holding decoy scraps of marble in his hand, and dropping them on the ground to simulate the cutting back of the nose. When he was done, he asked the officials if it was better, and, low and behold, they said it was now perfect!

Running along one side of the Piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an area where there are a host of statues including “Perseo”, who is holding Medusa’s head, which I found to be really gripping.

From the center of town, we moved through a narrow street to the Leonardo Leather Works, where we watched and learned how leather products are made. I found it so interesting to learn about the process, and I now know how to tell the difference between real and imitation leather.

Just as the leather presentation was wrapping up, I was summoned by our tour guide, Simon. “Heidi!” He motioned. “I need to see you out here immediately.”

His tone was absolutely not the jocular wit I’d come to appreciate, and I rushed to meet him outside the shop.

“Have you heard from Stephanie?” He asked.

“No,” I answered. “I just tried to call her but I didn’t get an answer.”

“This is not good,” he said, frowning and looking intently at his phone screen. “I’m tracking her location and it seems that the driver is taking her miles outside the city! We must get in touch with her!”

At this point, the thoughts going through my mind were absolutely frantic. I envisioned her being kidnapped by the luggage handler- drugged unconscious, and headed for some sort of scary din that I couldn’t fathom. I texted her again… “Are you okay??” “Where are you?” Nothing.

Just when I thought we would need to call the authorities, Simon heard back from her. She had simply gone on a bit of a sightseeing route back to us. When she finally showed up, I hugged her with more relief than I’d care to admit!

We took a fantastic walking tour of the city next. We made our way through the streets, where our guide pointed out all sorts of interesting things. I was versed on the impact of the Medici family, and realized quickly that their “stamp” was all over the city. They have a family “crest” of sorts, that is adorned with six balls, known as the Medici balls. Five of them are red and one is blue. Once I saw one, I saw them everywhere. While numerous folklore exists about what those balls represented, the most acceptable story seems to be that they represent the medical background of the Medici family- they were doctors and the balls represent pills.

We saw large, cast iron loops along many of the buildings. These were places for people to tie up their horses when they came into the city.

We wandered to the Ponte Vecchio, otherwise known as the Old Bridge. This is the bridge that crosses over Firenze’s Arno River, and is the only bridge to survive the natzi’s during WWII. As we walked to the bridge, strolling through the shops, we learned that this place of expensive jewelers was once a street filled with tanners, meat venders, and smelly fish shops. In the early 1500s, Ferdinand I thought it was too smelly and said that the only shops he wanted in the area were goldsmiths and jewelers. The view from the bridge was lovely, and I knew staring out at the river, that I would have to return to this place of art and romance. One day…

After the walking tour we had a wonderful cheese fondue lunch at a local cafe. They delivered a basket of bread and Brooke, another traveler on the trip, was excited to share the mouth watering delight. Simon couldn’t believe the size of the bread basket, and asked, “do you think you have enough bread?” I told him I hoped so. I think he had to have been impressed with our fortitude when the basket was emptied!

After lunch, we had free time to wander the city. I opted to hit the shopping market and the Duomo. The markets were literally brimming with leather goods. Leather is to Italy what lobsters are to Maine. The vendors were all willing to make deals, and it felt like stepping back in time to be there. One market we strolled through, the Mercato Nuovo, housed a very special sculpture- one that I was thrilled to discover because it was sure to bring me luck. It was a replica of the “Il Porcellino”, which means “the little pig”. The original bronze boar was sculpted in 1634 by an Italian named Pietro Tacca. The pig, according to legend, brings good luck to those who rub his snout. If you put a coin in the boar’s mouth, and the coin makes it to the drain below, it means you will return to Firenze. (Apparently the money collected is donated to a homeless shelter for children.) I am pleased to announce that my luck should be good and I’ll be returning to Firenze!

Stephanie and I decided to spend our last hours at the Piazza del Duomo, home to Il Duomo Firenze, which translates to the Cathedral of St. Mary the Flower.This towering cathedral, the Duomo for short, was built in 1206 and designed by Filipino Brunelleschi. It is the longest Christian church in the world, and the third largest. The grandeur of the dome can be seen all over the city, which makes it, according to Simon, “very difficult to get lost.”

The outside of the church is a mix of pink, white, and green marble. The pink, a light shade of red, stands for charity, the white stands for faith,and the green is hope; all of the marble colors are also the colors of the Italian flag. It is possible to climb the 476 steps into the Duomo for only 8 euros, but we didn’t have the time or the gumption with only a couple hours of sleep the night before. I would love, another time, to attempt these steps to get a closer look at the amazing frescos at the top by the artist Giorgio Vasari.

It is free to enter the Duomo, but the line an be up to two hours. We got lucky and made it in with only a thirty minute wait. Outside, there were plenty of scarf peddlers for those who forgot to cover their shoulders. The Italian churches demand the covering of skin for those entering their holy places.

Our evening ended with a dinner in a little back street at a place called Osteria dei Baroncelli. The food was good, but the tiramisu was devine! The Italians know how to please a palate. Back at the hotel, sleep took over until I awoke to our next day, which had us on the road to Rome…

Finding Shakespeare: London 2018

There are times in life when we find things we don’t even realize we are seeking. This happened to me just a few days ago- in London. I found The Bard- the most famous of all writers. He was living in a tiny metal shop owned by a wheeling and dealing Asian man in Covent Garden. I saw Little Willy Shakespeare and knew at once that I would have to take him home…

I arrived in London after an overnight flight on Virgin Atlantic airways. As a first-time passenger on Branson’s renowned fleet, I was impressed from the time I stepped on board. The music piping through the speakers was reminiscent of my teen years in the 1980s. The Violent Femmes and the Clash were just a few of the “boarding tunes” we enjoyed as we found our way to our seats.

On the bus ride into the city center, I enjoyed the scenery as we hugged “the embankment ” which runs along the Thames River. We drove past Cheyne Walk, a place where many famous people, including Mick Jagger, have lived. The houses of the rich and famous in the area are marked with blue circle plaques baring their name.

We stopped in Westminster for lunch, and took our sandwiches to the Victoria Embankment Gardens, where we sat and enjoyed lunch with the locals. Thankful to be able to eat wheat and dairy again, I enjoyed my tomato and cheese sandwich, which I picked up at a local sandwich shop just around the corner.

The park was an interesting array of untouchable green space- with signs warning visitors to stay off the grass… and sloped, shaded areas where sitting was permitted. There were areas with deck-chairs, but they were all occupied. The literary nerd in me was also thrilled to notice a Robert Burns Memorial in the park. (Burns is the “To a Mouse” poet perhaps most famous for one line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley”).

After our relaxing lunch we found free bathrooms in a McDonald’s, and continued our sightseeing. We passed a bank called Coutts, which is London’s oldest bank. This bank is the very keeper of the royal money, so I’ve learned… often referred to locally as “the queen’s bank”. My mouth dropped when Simon, our tour guide, told us that one must have a $1.5 million minimum deposit to open an account at Coutts. WOW!  I’m sure the service must be simply impeccable…

We also stopped to gawk at the 1600 seat Odeon cinema, which is allegedly the largest in the country. The Odeon is where all the major premiers take place- box office smashes including the likes of Harry Potter and Avatar.

Trafalgar Square, named such in 1830, was next on the agenda. This famous square located outside of the National Gallery, named for Admiral Nelson’s Victory in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, boasts Nelson’s Column, a famous fountain, numerous statues, and four lions set to guard the column.  We wandered past the giant lions, which were brought to the square in 1868. They were designed by an artist named Edwin Landseer, who allegedly took great care to make them as true to life as possible. According to “The Londonist”, however, there was an error to his work. “In real life, lion’s backs are convex, and not concave, when lying down.” (londonist.com) This faux pas is certainly not an error that the average Joe would notice.

I enjoyed the local entertainment from the musicians to the chalk artists. The floating Yodas were still hanging around, reminding me of my last visit with my family who were fascinated by these guys.

With a bustle the likes of Time’s Square, Piccadilly Circus was our next stop. Stephanie, one of my travel buds, got a kick out of “Mr. UK” who was boogie dancing in the entrance to the largest souvenir shop in the area…

Our next stop was at the historical Covent Gardens, on London’s West End, where we had time to snack and shop. The shopping and eating mecca actually came to be back in 1654, and thrives today as a popular place for tourists and locals.

Walking past the flower carts, I imagined Eliza Doolittle holding a bouquet, trying to earn a tuppence… and the crabby and arrogant Professor Higgins muttering, “I have created this thing [Eliza] out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden…”  As a veteran British Lit teacher, I was delighted to be in this place.

As I wandered across the cobblestone piazza, I stopped to watch some street performers acting out a dramatic “chase scene” in front of St. Paul’s.  I stepped into the famed “Apple Market” and enjoyed checking out the wares of local vendors- jewelry, crafts, and art.  I wandered my way to the Far Eastern edge of the area to a market area called Jubilee Hall Market. It was here that I found my trip’s treasure, tucked high on the shelf of a tiny booth run by an ancient Asian man. The three inch Bard is made of solid brass. I was thrilled to talk the seller down from twenty to twelve pounds. Little Willy was the perfect size to fit in my pocket, and I walked away knowing that he would be happy in his new home in America…

img_5208.jpg

There was some great entertainment inside the covered area of Covent Gardens… and I stopped to enjoy for a little while… I talked to a local guy about the performance, and learned that the people who perform in the gardens actually have to audition- it is not just a free for all!

London is such an entertaining place in which to wander. The humor of the Brits plays out all over the place- a wit I never tire of…

One of our dinners in London was at a Turkish restaurant called Bistro 1, where I had a delicious Falafel and hummus dish…  Another dinner was at an Indian restaurant called Salt’n Pepper. According to our guide Simon, the Brits thrive on Indian cuisine- it is very much a part of the British culture. The food was set up buffet style and was mild and tasty- there was a curry chicken dish and a spinach vegetarian dish- both with rice. I couldn’t stop looking at the beautiful lights decorating the place. I would really love to have one of these beautiful lanterns…

Our second day in London kicked off with a visit to the Tower of London. I was excited to get a chance to return to this place after neglecting to purchase a medieval goblet whence I was here last. I thought about that goblet for two years. As luck had it, the goblet, a replica of King Theobald’s actual chalice, was still available in the Tower Shop, and will now be enjoyed by me for years…

The Tower of London is a fascinating place to explore. This time, I spent time reading about the torture chambers and checking out the prudent armor worn during the reign of King Henry the VIII… (I think the photo speaks for itself).

We ate lunch outside at a place called Argeant’s, next to the Tower Bridge along the Thames. Last time I was in London, I enjoyed their fish and chips and mushy peas, and the quality hadn’t changed a bit!

After lunch, we were scheduled to enjoy a walking tour. Blimey! Our guide for this was a local chap who seemed to have forgotten that we had head sets on so he could easily share all sorts of Interesting tidbits. Much of the walking tour was spent just walking- and listening to air!? Where were the interesting stories? Where was the trivia??

Once the underwhelming walking tour was completed, we continued walking with our far more knowledgeable Simon, who pointed out some interesting morsels including China town, the flag-laden route of the queen, the bird keepers cottage, and the home of Prince Charles and Camilla… which is behind the iron fence in the photo…

I was impressed with the traffic lights in London… in honor of Pride Week, the city had some of the lights portraying two little green men!

Abbey Road was our first stop on our last day in London. Fans flock to the crosswalk where the Beatles photographed their studio album- Abbey Road- and I, a Beatles fan myself, was thrilled to have the opportunity! The road is a busy street, and there is no way to get a photo other than to wait for a lull in the traffic. Once the opportunity strikes, the “crosser” must act fast and hope that whoever takes the photo was accurate. I enjoyed tracing the steps of George, Ringo, Paul, and John, as well as seeing their recording studio.

““And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”- Paul McCartney, The End (Abbey Road)

We walked to Buckingham Palace next, to watch the changing of the guards. On our way there, we had the incredible luck of seeing the Queen drive past us in her maroon Bentley! She was dressed in a hot pink suit with a matching hat.

Just before my time in London was up, I got the opportunity to wander through the National Gallery. I enjoyed the impressionist exhibits and especially enjoyed post- impressionist Van Gogh’s work. (If you ever want to read an amazing account of Van Gogh’s life, check out Lust For Life by Irving Stone!)

London was exciting and it was bittersweet boarding the Eurostar train. I was, however, excited to visit my favorite city in the world next: PARIS!

-HC

Fear and loathing on the “allergic to everything” trail…

I’ve finished off almost two weeks. In two weeks, I’ve tried to navigate a diet course that has thrown my life an abrupt curve ball. I believe I am moving into a new stage in this “meat, wheat, egg, and milk free” diet: acceptance.

The good news is that I’ve found there ARE plenty of good (albeit expensive and harder to find) alternatives for me to make at home. I’ve found dairy-free cheese that melts and some that doesn’t. I’ve found dairy free sour cream that is completely acceptable.  I’ve found gluten and egg-free pasta, crackers, and even (dry) bagels with dairy free cream cheese. As long as I plan ahead and cook at home, my food life is completely sustainable, and some of the alternatives, I am shocked to admit, are remarkably good!

cheeses.PNG

The bad news, the part that makes me tear up nearly daily no matter how strong I appear, is that I just can’t go to my favorite places and order my favorite things anymore. Einstein Bagels is out… they do not have gluten free bagels, and their “smear” is dripping with dairy. My favorite pizza place does not have any sort of option either for this dietary predicament.  I have to just forget about these places I’ve enjoyed for more than 20 years. When I think about not eating real cheese and wheat and eggs it feels like I’ve lost a best friend…

But today, I woke up with a sharper sense of acceptance. I woke up with conviction in my belly. Conviction screamed at my psyche insisting, “Enough! This is minor compared to what many people are dealing with…” I am truly a lover of breads and cheeses, but I need to find comfort in new foods. That’s all.

As I flipped through social media, I read a post from a beloved student I taught years ago. Her son is a tiny toddler who is fighting a brain tumor right now. The pain, worry, terror that she and her husband are experiencing right now are unimaginable. I saw another friend who has been crushed by the loss of a loved one. There are families who have lost everything to natural disasters.  And I have the audacity to tear up over the loss of a few food groups? I’m going to focus on perspective this week. Try to be positive and count my blessings. No. More. Tears.

I thought I’d share some of my new findings this week for anyone looking for ideas who share these dietary restrictions.

Eating out. I am an absolute lover of Mexican food. I ate out at Chili’s this week. (I know- that’s Tex-Mex). At Chili’s, where I spent years as a server and bartender, I nibbled on corn tortilla chips and salsa. I ordered fajitas without the cheese and sour cream. I was able to eat the guacamole, pico, peppers, onions, mushrooms, black beans and a little shrimp with the CORN tortilla option that they offer! This was tasty and made me feel almost normal! Yeah for Chili’s!

Breakfasts. This week I left behind the luxury of the Vans waffles for some cereal and almond milk- even quicker in the ridiculously early mornings of a High School English teacher. I bought the unsweetened almond milk from SPROUTS, where I found an excellent variety of options for peeps on this diet plan. (I got unsweetened because I want to get the milk that most tastes like milk- the less it tastes like coconut or almonds the better to me!) I selected Van’s Honey Crunch cereal, which is gluten, egg, and dairy free. This cereal, with some added blueberries and almond milk, was really quite good once I got over the pasty-like consistency it turns into if you let it soak in the milk for too long. Overall, though, it was pretty okay. It is low in sugar with no high fructose corn syrup, to boot!

On Friday, I treated thawed out one of my new finds: a gluten, egg, and dairy free bagel with dairy free cream cheese. The cream cheese gets a thumbs up from me. A bit of a pasty consistency, but the feeling that I’m eating cream cheese is at least imaginable. The bagel… well, what can I say. I give it a 4. A bit dry. Oh, Einstein Bagels, how you spoiled me all these years…

cereal

bagels

Lunches: My school cafeteria does a pretty good job of having healthy options at lunch. Unfortunately, however, they can’t possibly find much to meet my needs, so I’m back to bringing my lunch box. (If only I had kept the one with Shaun Cassidy on the front). This week, I made what I call “happy salads”. I get bored with salads, which I eat once or twice daily and have for YEARS. The salads that make me happiest have the most colors. So- this week, I made dark green and purple lettuce salads with orange and red peppers, blueberries, raspberries, and cucumbers. I used vegan raspberry vinaigrette dressing.  My “sandwich” was half a gluten-free tortilla wrapped with about two tablespoons of tuna. (I also had celery and carrots depending on the day.)  These were pretty good, but be aware the gluten free tortillas have to be eaten with a fork. They don’t hold together well enough to pick up and eat like a proper roll-up.

lunches

Dinners: I found some tasty options this week. One day I made vegan, wheat-free pasta alfredo and veggie dogs (with a salad). The pasta was actually REALLY good- even passed the taste-test of my 13-year old! The consistency was good and it didn’t have the pastiness I’ve tended to find in these alternative foods.  The veggie dogs were mediocre… a little too mushy for my tastes. I will try them on the grill next time instead of boiling them. But when you cut them up and add enough ketchup, they end up okay…

I also tried my first wheat, dairy, and egg free pizza this week. This was interesting. I ate 2 slices of the 10 inch little pizza with salad. I kept looking in the oven to watch the cheese melt, but it never happened. I gave my first try a 3 because of the icky cheese.  When I heated up another piece later in the week, I sprinkled some vegan mozzarella cheese that I found over the top. It melted! This was a MASSIVE improvement! So, I will buy this again sometime.

mush pizza

Probably my favorite dinner was my Mexican dinner, which I enjoyed for a couple meals.  I used peppers, onions, mushrooms, corn, black beans, and salsa and sizzled them up in a pan. I put the mix on my gluten free tortilla, topped it with guacamole, added vegan cheddar and (later in the week) vegan sour cream, and had a really tasty dinner. I had to chop it up and mix it all together because, once again, these tortillas do NOT hold together well at all…

Ingredients:

mexi dinner

On the plate before and after:

One more family- meal I made this week was a wheat & dairy-free pasta marinara w/ vegan meatballs.  This was delicious and the entire family loved it! Coupled with a salad, it is a definite staple in the Campbell house.

 

I hope that some of my findings might be helpful to others dealing with these dietary restrictions. I continue to read articles about how a 46 year old person can suddenly accumulate such a laundry list of allergies, and why they have to be so destructive to my kidneys. As I find answers, I will share them. I’ve read a LOT of articles about the possibility of all of this stemming from TICKS… stay tuned.

-HC

46 years old and suddenly allergic wheat, eggs, AND milk? Whaaaat???

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last few days about food allergies, after getting word from recent blood tests that I’m now highly allergic to wheat, egg whites, and milk, and moderately allergic to peanuts and soy. As a diabetic pescatarian with a kidney disease known as Focal Segmental Glomerulonephritis, https://nephcure.org/livingwithkidneydisease/understanding-glomerular-disease/understanding-fsgs/ )  this news felt like a sucker punch in the gut. For the sake of my health issues I’ve already thrown meat, sugar, and white-flour, carby-foods to the curb. How can I possibly live with all these additional food restrictions? French blood courses through my veins; bread and cheese are my go-to foods! I love bagels with cream cheese. And sub sandwiches on whole wheat. And eggs. And butter. And yogurt. I mourn for my palate, who now needs to enroll in a new graduate program…

Of course, I began reading. I’ve read scores of helpful blogs that reveal positive experiences and recipes with these dietary restrictions. Often in my life I’ve thought about how glad I was to grow up in a time without today’s modern technology, but what I’ve found online has actually made me thankful to live in this digital age- where we can access such a wealth of information. I’m amazed by the resources I’ve found and how many others in the world live gluten, meat, dairy, egg, soy, and peanut-free.

With tears freshly dried, I went to the “healthy” section of the local grocery store to explore the possibilities of my new food life. There are options aplenty for gluten free foods, but those options significantly decrease when one needs to be sure they are also dairy, soy, and egg free.  I did find, however, several products that I can eat, and I checked out with hope that these new morsels would not taste too horrific.

I’ve tried some of the items that I purchased, and I’ve not been as underwhelmed as I feared. I made myself lunch using a dairy & wheat free tuna tortilla, which was pretty good. The “mission” brand, gluten-free tortillas do not hold together well, but cut into quarters and used as a top and bottom to the tuna, it was not bad at all. With an apple and some celery sticks, my lunch was portable, filling, and tasty.

tuna-on-gluten-free-tort.jpg

For a weekend breakfast option, I’m really impressed with Vans gluten-free and dairy-free waffles with dairy free (Earth Balance) butter spread and blueberries. I used syrup with no added sugar or corn-syrup, and it was quite tasty! It was odd to crunch down on some sesame seeds, but my palate said, “yes, ma’am.”

vans waffle with syrup and blueberries

I made a dinner using the ONE loaf of bread that I found that did NOT have egg whites, wheat, dairy, or soy. It is a brand called “Ener-G”, and the slices are the size of playing cards. I used the dairy free butter and I found some vegan “chao” cheese (this DOES contain tofu, so I’m not sure I can eat much of this one- but the tests showed the soy allergy to be moderate- I’ll learn more in the coming weeks about what that really means).  I made a tiny little grilled cheese sandwich to accompany my beans and blueberries. I was impressed that the butter melted and the texture of the bread was not crumbly- it held together quite nicely. While this new diet requires very specific shopping and planning, at least I can see ways to appease my cranky palate.

grilled cheese

Today, I used the Gluten and dairy-free tortillas to make a pizza. I doubled the flimsy tortillas together to make a more sturdy pizza crust. I spread tomato sauce over it and covered it with the vegan cheese. I baked it in the oven for 15 minutes, then took it out and ate it. While the cheese didn’t melt into that mozzarella melt that strings for miles, it was warm and mixed well with the sauce.

pizza possibilities

I’m on my way to figuring out how to replace my comfort foods. I eat plenty of greens which I’ve not bothered to talk about here; my broccoli crowns, asparagus spears, and salads are not going anywhere. They are just now betrothed to new partners.

I hope that by blogging about these dietary discoveries, others in similar situations might find some new ideas or suggestions. If you are reading this and have ideas or suggestions- please leave comments for others to see! If you are reading this and know anyone who might benefit from any of this- please share it!

For the next few weeks, I plan to keep myself busy so that I don’t sulk and think about all the foods I’m going to miss… I’m saying my silent farewell to my guilty pleasures: macaroni and cheese, Collossus pizza, REAL cheese, and whole wheat anything. I will miss all of you like a lost friend. But, as they say in show business… “the show must go on!”

-Heidi

 

Last day in Berlin 2018

As I sit down to think about my last day in Berlin, I’m already on the plane home. One sentiment continues to resonate for me- some of the first words that our tour guide Daniel uttered when we arrived: “Berlin isn’t a beautiful city, but it’s an interesting city.” After spending three full days touring the city, I have to say I agree.

And while on the subject of our tour guide- Daniel was phenomenal. He was a perfect blend of historical knowledge mixed with wit and high energy. When pronouncing the names of the train stops we would need to remember he would say, in his heavy German twang, “you will get off at the Gesundbrunnen stop. That is G-E-S-U-N-D… and more letters!” A clever way to shorten the long names that the Germans seem to attribute to most things.

After breakfast and a final training workshop, we had all afternoon to explore on our own!

I made plans to go up to the top of the TV Tower with two buddies I’d met on the tour- Tim- a special ed teacher from New Mexico and David-an art teacher from south Chicago. These guys wanted to do all the stuff I wanted to do- which was the tower and a half day of what David called an “urban hike”. Several other groups were going shopping and trying to stay out of the below freezing temps, but I wanted to explore and see more of what Berlin had to offer!

We ordered tickets in advance for the tower tour, and made our way to the subway. The Berlin subway, by the way, is called the U-Bahn when it runs underground or the S-Bahn when it comes up for air.

We got on the train that was supposed to be headed for the famous Alexanderplatz… Tim asked what the “Platz” stood for and David responded “you know- Platz [pronounced PLAYTZ]. Like you eat dinner off your Platz!” (Just a small example of loads of laughs in the day!)

The train we were on, totally going in the direction we needed, had other plans. It actually stopped in between stations and reversed directions! We backtracked to the previous station, where we got off to figure out how else to get to our destination in time to meet our 1:00pm tour time! We were down to seventeen minutes!

Tim found a train that we could take that was leaving in ONE minute, so, once again- in Amazing Race-style- we ran down the stairs to the lower level and met the train just as the doors opened!

We successfully made it to the Alexanderplatz stop and headed straight for the TV Tower… known locally as Fernsehturn. There were strict guidelines about bringing food and water in, so David had to scarf down the sandwich he smuggled out of the hotel breakfast and gulp down one of two water bottles. He hid his second, unopened water bottle behind a bench, hoping to retrieve it when we came out of the tower.

The lines to get in to the tower were long and we couldn’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. We had “fast track” tickets, so we managed to move past the non-moving masses.

We got in the elevator, with more people than a fire code would appreciate, and headed up. We went up so high my ears popped. The tower observation deck is 207 meters up, which calculates to about 680 feet. (The actual structure, including the needle, soars a whopping 368 meters: 1207 feet. Taller than the Eiffel Tower!) In fact, our guide told us that it is the highest building in Europe that is open to the public!

Once at the top, we were able to wander around the circular observation area and look down on the entire city. There were excellent markers in front of each window that described landmarks and where to find them. It was exciting to note the places we had already seen and take note of the places we wanted to hit whilst wandering through the city.

I was excited to see that St Mary’s Church was an easy walk from the tower- I was eager to see the inside.

The white building with the mural all around it is a building called the Haus des Lehrers, which, Daniel explained, means ‘house of teachers.’ The building, he said, was built in the early 1960s by the GDR- the German Democratic Republic, and the architecture resembles all the other buildings built in the same time. Daniel described these buildings as “LEGO block buildings all over the city.” The mural, which is actually a mosaic that encompasses close to a million tiles, is a symbol of the New Berlin- the future of the city.

The tower was a great experience. It allowed me to really get a perspective of the scope and area of the city, and where things were. I recommend doing this after you have been in the city a couple of days, as it’s exciting to spot the places you’ve seen!

After making our way back out of the tower, David walked over to where he hid his water bottle… just as a man with a backpack had scooped it up. He somehow managed to communicate with the local man enough to get the man to reach into his backpack and hand back the water bottle. Point for David!

Our first stop was at St. Mary’s Church. We had walked past this on our first day, but had not gone in. We walked in and completely missed the glassed in exhibit showcasing the “Dance with Death” , a fresco painted in 1485. Inside, I was confused because there was a three panel mosaic that had skeletons dancing with people… but Then I remembered it was a fresco. We toured the church, and admired the pipe organ and the ornate pulpit.

On the way out, we were looking for stairs to see if the famous mural was upstairs, and that’s when we realized that the mural was right there- just inside the front doors! This church, a Catholic turned Protestant Church, is the second oldest church in Berlin.

We left St. Mary’s and began walking in the direction of the Neptunbrunnen, otherwise known as the “Neptune Fountain”, which is in a piazza (not sure what the Germans call this open area?) around the corner from Alexanderplatz.

This turned out to be a rather intense area, as there was a group of Syrian demonstrators who were highly charged. They all waved flags from their country and they had draped additional flags around the necks of some of Neptune’s women. They set up a jail cell, and they brutally threw two men inside the cell- both wearing masks. I could only see one of the masks but it was a Putin mask. Running around the outskirts of the demonstration were three men dressed in white clothes and head bands smeared in blood. I wasn’t sure what their role was. Although tempted to stay and watch a little longer, the German SWAT team arrived, and I knew it was a good time to keep on moving!

Our next stop was at the oldest church in Berlin- Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas’ church. The experience at this church perhaps started a downward trend of how the locals responded to us… the woman at the door glared at us. We went in, and another man glared at us. We saw that if we wanted to enter and take photos it would be 16.00 euros. I wasn’t up for spending that, and neither were my pals. David tried to head out a side door and got yelled at by the eagle-eyed man. We left in a bit of a hurry.

We ventured back out into the absolute biting wind, but were still eager to fill our time until dinner. (Did I mention the temps were in the twenties??)

We found our way across a very busy street and wandered around the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche Ruins. This was once a church, built in 1250, that was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in 1945. There were giant blue pipes built inside that seemed to serve no purpose, so I’m guessing it was some sort of modern art. I felt like it really took away from the beauty of the ruins, if I’m being honest. It was, modern art aside, a good visual of the destruction that truly flattened the city… and what remained.

At this point in the day, we decided to find a pub to warm up and have a rest. We had passed what we thought seemed the quintessential German pub, so we decided to find it, since we had an hour and a half to kill before meeting the group for dinner.

We passed a few other interesting sites on our trek to the pub…

Once we got into the toasty warm pub, we were told to stand, as the waiter pointed to a tiny chair-less table. We ordered pints and stood, enjoying the warmth. After a few minutes, a tiny little booth in the corner opened up, so we carried our drinks to the table to relax for a minute. Well, this was apparently a sin of monstrous proportions, as the woman behind the bar began flapping her arms, rolling her eyes, and glaring at us. Since we had no idea what she was saying, although I certainly could have guessed, we just stayed where we were until we had finished our drinks. I may have also quietly rung the little bell that was on my table on the way out. While the service was rather alarming, the company and the pub feel made it a great stop!

We met the large group back at Alexanderplatz and headed out on a ten minute walk to dinner. On the way to dinner, we passed through the Kreuzberg neighborhood. This was a Jewish neighborhood before the war. Daniel explained to us that the church in the area was where many Jewish people were captured and taken to the concentration camps for being 1/2 Jewish or a 1/4 Jewish. They were actually worshipping in a Christian Church, but Hitler, with murder and hatred literally seething from his pores, found them and killed them.

We stopped to look at the ground outside the church and saw many “Stolperstein” (translates to stumbling) stones. These are stones that are mini monuments, with brass plates on each one that name the victim and the dates of their lives. Hitler murdered these people, and the modern Germans want visitors to honor them and never forget these innocent human beings.

Dinner was in this historic Jewish neighborhood at a place called the Grand Bar, and it was delicious! My vegetarian option was a delicious breaded goat cheese with veggies marinated in something wonderful. After dinner, we returned to the hotel to pack. Our wake-up call came at 2:30am! Ouch!

What a trip. Thanks to EF Tours for providing this amazing opportunity for the forty teachers who were on the tour!

-HC

Highlights of Berlin: Day One

I arrived in Berlin today and we literally dropped our bags at the hotel, The Estrel Berlin, and hit the ground running. We took the short subway ride to the city center- a place that was 70% bombed out and flattened in WWII. This is a city of rebuilding… there is literally construction everywhere!

Our first landmark was the Old Church known as the “Marienkirche” at Alexanderplatz. This place is not only beautiful, it is also the second oldest church in Berlin. It houses a very famous fresco done by Totentanz called “The Dance of Death” which, according to my tour guide “reminds all of us that we are all going down!” There is a skeleton who dances with everyone from the lowly teacher to the emperor! Hopefully I will get in to see this when I have some free time!?

Our next stop was at the Rosenstrasse sculptures in East Berlin. These dramatic sculptures were carved by a woman named Igeborg Hunziger, who wanted to honor the brave Jewish WOMEN who put their lives on the line to defy the Natzis and wait for their husbands outside the detention center. 1000 women stood in waiting. The craziest part? The Nazis actually DID give them their husbands back!?

Along the way we saw bear sculptures that were really cute and lively! (Not to mention that the city flag has a bear on it!) This bear is known locally as “Buddy Bear” and he was originally, according to tour guide Daniel, “created by a bunch of Berlin marketing people in the 1990s”. The idea stuck and the Bears were sold to places around town to raise money for the city. Originally solid colors, people who bought them began to individualize them… there’s even a camo-clad buddy bear hiding in the bushes in front of the Dept of Defense building! I can’t wait to spot more of these guys tomorrow!

As luck would have it, there was a street market going on and we were granted free time to wander. Interesting things I saw- particularly the record painter!

I also enjoyed a personal favorite- a crepe with Nutella!

Our next stop was at the largest Protestant Church in Berlin. It was so huge, in fact, that most believe it was built to serve as a Protestant version of the Vatican!

This church is called Vecaka Belines Baznick.

The Berlin Wall was next. I got to see portions that are on display… and I learned that they have built bricks into the street, with placards, to mark the entire length of this wall…

Check point Charlie was next, which was a famous crossing point between east and west Germany.

We oohed and aaahed over the Brandenburger Gate… and saw a comical old dude in a white sweat suit jogging with an iPod blasting tunes from his fanny pack. Can’t believe I didn’t get his photo!

This is a photo of perhaps the most famous hotel in Berlin. The Hotel Adlon. One of its claims to fame is that it is the hotel where Michael Jackson was staying when he dangled his kid off the balcony!

Before I close with what I consider to be the most moving part of the day, I had fun capturing some of the interesting things I saw!

The Holocaust memorial was really the most moving part of the day. The monuments that make up the 2711 stones are completely blank. Daniel, our guide, told us that the artist deemed this place a “place without meaning”. It is a place that you don’t even begin to take in until you walk among the stones. Only there do you feel the weight of the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust. This was really powerful…

We had a nice dinner, even got to try German wine and beer, then headed back to the hotel!

I can’t wait to see why tomorrow brings!

Teachers need a rebirth between school years

Last week, a friend said, “with the majority of women now in the work force, schools will probably move to a year round model, don’t you think?”

Year-round school. When I really let that sink in, it makes me queasy… the same queasy I get on one of  those spinning rides at a small-town pop-up carnival. It starts off as a little gurgle, then progresses into more of a dizzy, green, sweating, ear-ringing cry. Teachers do not get in to the profession because of summer, yet, once we are in, these precious eight weeks become our necessary rebirth each year.

I use the term rebirth with purpose. No matter how bad a school year is, the summer has a way of washing away the memories of the difficult days, weeks, and months spent with those out of control students, those hundreds of punctuation-less essays, and that annoying, self-promoting co-worker. A mother, for instance, can suffer for hours and hours in excruciating childbirth pain, but the smile of her offspring washes away most memory of the suffering. (If it didn’t, women would never have multiple children!) Summer does this for teachers. It allows us to forget the bad and focus on the hope of the future. We forget the perpetual eleven hour days, mandatory state testing, and stacks of essays. We sleep. We remember moments of laughter and inspiration. We are reborn and ready for the new year.

Teachers need summer. Yes, I said NEED. I say this not because I don’t enjoy my job- quite the contrary!  My students and co-workers are truly remarkable. I anticipate these breaks because teaching is, honestly, an exhausting profession. The only people who truly understand this need for the eight week respite are teachers themselves. Often times, a teacher is shunned when they refer to a “needed break”. Naysayers roll their eyes and utter “must be nice” comments about “getting the whole summer off.”  Make no mistake, we often do not “get the whole summer off”. We are asked to return to school for staff development, new teacher orientations, coaching responsibilities, summer school, and meetings to plan for the coming year, a year in which we inevitably teach something new. Most teachers bring home a bin of books and materials to read in preparing for the next year. These aren’t your average beach reads- these are books about content and curriculum.

If summer break was to become a mere memory, the teacher retention crisis would be elevated to the catastrophe level. I already see young teachers leaving the profession in droves because they don’t get enough time with their families. The workload doesn’t just end when the bell rings. In fact, I work longer hours in the current educational arena than I did 22 years ago, mostly because of the 3 D’s: documentation, differentiation, and disruptions. The 3 D’s require time, energy, and a constant ability to recreate the proverbial wheel, and I’m not sure any other professions require this kind of after-hours time. In essence, we get paid in the summer for all the extra hours we work during the school year. (Our summer pay is not some sort of additional bonus, by the way. Our contractual, yearly salary is simply divided by twelve months.)

As I look to the months of “unnecessary” laundry that never made it to the top of the priority basket, I realize that I do have some time now to complete these tasks. This is time I am owed, since I donated that time earlier in my year. I plan to spend a big chunk of my summer hours creating a new class, reading some potential literature that might encourage my students to enjoy something other than twitter, and looking at my pacing charts and calendars for the fall. Of course, I’ll also clean out the garage, a few closets, and the laundry room. I refuse, however, to feel guilty when I just sit and stare peacefully at the rising tide. Summer is the time to collect for hours already worked.

The idea of year-round school needs to go away. I understand that teachers would still get several weeks of vacation sprinkled throughout the year, but a couple weeks is not enough time for teachers to wash the previous year out of their hair. We need the time to plan, prepare, and forget.

Maybe another day I’ll write a part two to this titled: “Students need summer, too”.