Berlin: Sanssouci Palace and a peek into East Germany

Day 15, 07.08.2009

sansoucciWe left the hotel quite early to catch the train to Sanssouci. Everyone else filed into the same car, but we three musketeers decided it’d be a great idea to steal all the space in the back and be separated from the rest of our group. Unfortunately, the train ride to Sanssouci is about an hour–and 6 stops in, the train was already packed. I struggled to catch glimpses of our group in the front. Fortunately, one of the guys is 6’6″, which made it easier to keep track. My paranoia set in after a while, so I joined the rest of the group in the front. The other two are lucky that I remembered they were in the back and shouted to them that we had arrived, otherwise they would’ve been lost in Berlin forever.

marble statuePalace Sanssouci was stunningly lavish. A conglomerate of courtyards, pavilions, marble and gold. The inside of the palace looked like it had been touched by Midas. There was a different color scheme to each room. The extravagance straddled gaudy and classy–including a beautiful “Chinese” dome that was anything but Chinese. I figured out how they managed to maintain these grounds when I had to use the restroom and paid a whopping €1.50.

After a couple hours of running amok on royal grounds, we took the train back to Potsdam. A lunch cruise down Wahnsee had been planned for us. While most of our group decided to hang around in the cafe waiting, the three musketeers made intelligent decision #2 of the day by spending the 20 minutes before the cruise exploring Potsdam. There sadly wasn’t much to explore. And then began a downpour so aggressive it could rival Niagara Falls. The wind lashed watery whips at our faces.

Scrambling to find shelter somewhere, we finally came across a child-sized picnic bench with a baby umbrella. Unfortunately not enough to cover 3 high schoolers. So we counted to 10 and sprinted back to the meeting place, where there was a restaurant. I was running blind: there was so much water hanging from my lashes.

sansoucci train stop

you can see the clouds moving in…

H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds greeted us with smug looks on their faces, joking about how warm and dry and comfortable they had been at the restaurant. But they made it up to us by sharing some french fries.

Ironically, it stopped raining about a minute after we reached the restaurant. I was drenched–a wet rag. There is nothing worse than wet undergarments and soggy, squishy socks. And I had to board the cruise 10 minutes later with sopping shoes.

Instead of sight-seeing, we played cards the entire cruise. So I have no idea what there was to be seen from the lake. I ordered some noodles with veggies for lunch, which were…okay. I won several games of president, and lost a lot of games of palace.

After the cruise, we all stopped at this fruit stand and bought fruit. The three of us split a basket of strawberries. I’ve seriously contemplated moving to Germany just for their amazingly sweet, juicy, and fragrant strawberries. They’re so tiny, but good things come in small packages!

berlin murals

some great art in East Berlin!

East Berlin was kind of a sketchy place. Gritty, adorned with graffiti, and home to all varieties of people. Our group split up from our chaperones and our German host siblings. After about 5 minutes of walking together, four of us decided we were interested in different things and split up further.

Three of us went one way and the other girl went off on her own. Our friend entertained us by claiming he could make up a song for any word we chose. One of us chose “rollerskates”, so he started singing something about an old man at a tree and if you skated to him you could see him fart–the actual song was a lot stranger if you could believe it. I chose banana hammock and the song went something like “oh please let me sprinkle cheese! some cheese!” and swinging in the banana hammock. I don’t think he knows what a banana hammock really is…

My friend wanted to buy a gas mask, so we stepped into this store that sold gas masks and Communist memorabilia. While fascinating, the other two of us wanted to keep exploring. So we moved on. East Berlin would be a scary place to get lost in if you were a young girl traveling without parents for the first time (me). Thankfully we didn’t get lost.

We went into the German dollar store to get some water. It was kind of frustrating that even though we’d speak to the cashiers in German, they’d only respond back in English. Just give us a chance!eastberlin

We also saw this giant condom ad–a phallic cardboard cutout–that was advertising vibrators and other unmentionables…And right across from it was a store for gay men with posters of naked men plastered over the display windows. Europeans are so open about sexuality. My friend took a bunch of photos of all this to show to H. Reynolds, because he hates anything that screams “I like men”.

After walking around East Berlin, we all met up and settled on this African restaurant for dinner. I ordered some fried rice dish with some salad and this strange flour-roll thing. It was so, so delicious. I really wish I had taken down the name of the place. There was zebra, crocodile, and impala steaks, just to name a few of the strange items on the menu.

africanrestaurant

amazing first experience with African food…anyone know where this is?!

We all split up after dinner because the host siblings wanted to go get a drink, one of the girls wanted to go back to the hotel, and the rest of us wanted to explore Berlin a bit more. H. Reynolds took us to the Holocaust memorial, which is something like 1000 blocks of cement rising out of the ground to symbolize the many who died.

holocaust memorial and berlin wall

so much awkward posing…

While a sobering concept, it was a total maze and kind of fun to just walk through. My friend was trying to take a picture, but another was standing in the middle, so he politely asked, “Could you please move?”.  She flipped her head around and yelled, “F*k off and DIE.” It was hilariously unwarranted and we all ended up cracking up–likely coming off as disrespectful, obnoxious teenagers to anyone else visiting the memorial.

Postdamer Platz  was the next stop, where we took turns getting shots of pieces of the Berlin Wall. Then it was time to visit the Brandeburg Tor! My chance to finally get my own postcard-worthy shot of the famous landmark. I also wanted a shot of the Siegsäule [victory column], which sits in middle of the street with a golden figure on top, but that was a bit of a walk away.hitler's bunker

We then made our way to Hitler’s bunker, which is pretty much this small patch of grass with a sign that says “Führers Bunker” or something like that. We also walked down some of Unter den Linden: the upscale, upper class street of Berlin. Some of the guys needed to pinkeln, so they went down some small street and chose some bush. I wonder if public urination is a violation in Germany…

brandenburg gate

simply majestic

As we skipped under the streetlights and past the glimmering lights of Louis Vuitton, Zara, and various other brand names, we all sang “I Feel Pretty”. Very loudly.

My roomies and I had some girl when we were back in our room. We all picked out Breakfast Club-like stereotypes for the guys in our group: the nice one, the quiet one, the know-it-all, the diva, and the rebel.

Berlin: The Ultimate Gypsy Brass Rock Concert

Day 14, 07.07.2009

Disclaimer: This post is best read through the lens of a naive, goody-two-shoes junior in high school who liked [and still does!] to take notes of daily events in excruciating detail. ;)

freie universitatThere was too much excitement bubbling within me that first night in Berlin. I finally gave up on trying to fall asleep at 7am. My roomies and I went down to breakfast and were surprised by the scale of the breakfast buffet for such a tiny hotel. There was fresh bread, cookies, danishes, fresh fruits, a cold-cut and cheese platter, cereals, and Nutella everywhere. I snagged a flaky butter croissant and a cookie. One of my roommates was on a Nutella binge and if she had the time, she probably would have cleaned out the buffet’s supply of Nutella.

a gripping powerpoint on college in germanyAfter breakfast we rode the U-Bahn, then the S-Bahn with the rest of the group to Freie Universität, which I think is the largest university in Berlin (?). Or perhaps the most famous? We didn’t have a chance to tour the college at all; instead, we were all herded into this room where we sat and listened to the admissions people market the university to us for an impossibly long 3 hours. Powerpoints and all. I was bored to death and fell asleep a number of times, jerking myself awake every 15 seconds. My friend and I resorted to playing hangman in German and once we exhausted that option, we began drawing people from our group.

old vs new buildings

I thought the contrast between old and modern was interesting.

It really was a shame that they didn’t give us time to walk around Freie because it has a really pretty campus. By the time the presentation ended, it was time for lunch and all of us were forced to get into groups with at least 1 German host sibling because they had our lunch money. I stuck with Clara, of course. The cafeteria was huge and had a pretty good selection…if you weren’t vegetarian.

I chose a poor man’s minestrone soup and some antipasti veggies, neither of which was very good. The soup was like drinking needles in watered-down ketchup and the veggies were sour enough to be used as bug repellent. The mousse had too much cream and the cake was a bit too dry. The strawberry soda, however, was amazing. Strawberries in Germany are inexplicably delicious–each with the sweetness and juice of a hundred of the sweetest and juiciest. I ended up eating my friend’s french fries and they basically saved me from starvation.

KaDeWe: the premier department store

KaDeWe – the Harrods and LaFayette of Germany

There was a book sale outside the cafeteria, so all of us went to check it out. Lots of classics in German–I think I tried reading The Divine Comedy in German…which is about impossible. And then one of our comrades stole a giant, 1000-page book in Russian. I share the shame for being a silent witness–watching him stuff it into his backpack–but I was genuinely curious if he was serious about leaving the campus with a stolen book. But at 2 Euros, it wasn’t much of a steal anyway.

The reason our unscrupulous friend stole the book was so Herr Reynolds, who worked as a translator in the Army during WWII, could translate. We watched, eyes sparkling with admiration, as H. Reynolds translated the first page and taught us how to say “fight” [pronounced “boi”?] in Russian. He then somehow segued into a story of how he drank so much beer once that he scrambled to the restroom in desperation for bowel relief–only, the cleaning lady had just cleaned the toilets. And I quote, “the porcelain was sparkling…you could still smell the cleaner…and I painted that sucker brown“.

outside parliament

Parliament

A tour bus picked us up for a drive around the city. The tour guide was kind of a dud. She droned on and on and I felt like I was in a Charlie Brown short. So I turned my attention to snapping photos of the sights. We stopped at Parliament, which is totally gorgeous inside–doric columns, red carpets flowing down a grand set of stairs–only to be shown to a room where we were again subjected to powerpoints and grown-up talking.

Paintings of the fall of the Berlin wall stretched around the walls. I would have much rather walked over to the real Berlin Wall (which was more like 2 panels of it), that was right across the street. Most of the graffiti has been chipped off and sold by street vendors for 5 Euros per small piece. I’m a sucker for tchotchkes and caved into buying one.

parliament

As boring as our guide was, I must thank her for informing us of a 150-year old chocolate shop in Gendarmenmarkt: Fassbender. Our bus stopped at a random souvernir store for some odd reason; the only attraction there was this model of the entire city of Berlin. I bought a pretty pack of chocolates with the different castles around Berlin. We, including H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds, all ditched the boring lady after the store. I have no idea what she ended up doing. But we all took the U-Bahn to the last stop of the day: the Zitadelle.

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The Zitadelle used to be a fortress but is now used mainly for big events like concerts. My first non-classical concert! I was pumped. There was an hour or two to kill before they started letting people in, so my friend and I walked around the Zitadelle, while others went to sit by the river and just chill. It was on our walk that I learned that “pinkeln” is slang for “to pee”. Because my friend really needed to and there was no restroom in sight. That was probably TMI; a good word to know, nonetheless.

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The Zitadelle, must have been an awfully secure fortress because it floats in the middle of a ginormous lake, with only one entrance. Our walk around the right side of the Zitadelle took only 20 minutes. So I went off by myself to explore the other side of the Zitadelle. I was bored, so I figured, why not? Let me pretend to be a ballerina and do grande jetés. Many stares and odd looks where shot my way from people walking on the bridge some 500ft away.

By the time I got back, H. Birkelbach was handing out the tickets and money for dinner, which was about 20 Euros! We had to go through security check and my Klean Kanteen gifted to me by a dear friend was temporarily confiscated :(. Thankfully, I could pick it up after the concert. As expected, there wasn’t anything I could eat. I wasn’t hungry though (or maybe I just convinced myself I wasn’t). I did, however, need to [pinkeln] and was forced to use a port-a-potty. As a germaphobe, I was sweating at the thought of not being able to rinse my scummy hands, in spite of the fact that I had hand sanitizer. So I spent an unfortunate 3 Euros on a cup of water to do so.

IMG_2466Not going to lie, the music was definitely an acquired taste. But incredibly energetic. I’d ballpark it as the strange lovechild of hard rock, polka, and dance/techno beats. No headline is long enough to fit the names of our fantastic headliners: Goran Bregovic and his Wedding & Funeral Band, and Shantel & Bucovina Club Orkestar. A couple of us stood in the back at first and even sat at a table for a bit, but finally decided to mingle with the raucous crowd. After pushing, burrowing, and squeezing our way through a sea of bodies, we made it to the rest of our group. And then everyone else besides 3 of us decided to go get drinks, leaving us to babysit our spot. Our group never came back.

[ At this point in the narrative, the focus shifts to detailed documentation of a first and close-up encounter of what drunk people are like. Feel free to read on, but I ran out of pictures to break up the text :P. ]

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On the road to Berlin

Day 13, 07.06.2009

spree river sunset

Sunset by the Spree Fluß

As my Gastvater [“host father”] was chanting in anticipation of our trip to Berlin with the AATG group, “Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin!”. Translation: “we’re going to Berlin!!!!!!!!!!!”. Our train was sometime after 10am, so Clara and I still had to go to school before we could head out. With all our luggage. Mine was especially cumbersome to be lugging up and down the 7 floors of the Gymnasium [“high school”]. It was a heavy, large, orange suitcase. Really quite silly in retrospect not to have brought a duffel bag or something collapsible for excursions. A wonderful friend of Clara’s helped carry both of our luggage while we were at school.

I would have hired him for the day’s help if I could. Needless to say, I had my first lesson in weight training heaving this monstrosity all over the streets of Nürnberg. Hungry from all the exercise and with the knowledge that no food would be sold on the train, I bought some fries at McDonald’s. Apparently condiments are sold separately in Europe, so I had to eat my fries dry and without ketchup. Ew.

ICE bahn

Double decker ICE!

It was an amazing experience to ride the ICE aka “Intercity Express” aka Germany’s bullet train. Frau Graunke, my high school German teacher, would always be singing praise about the ICE. And we did indeed ride in luxury. Really expensive, but I would do it again for the immense savings in time. It normally takes about 10 hours to travel from Nürnberg to Berlin, but with the ICE it’s only 3-4 hours.

The seats were big and comfy, and it was so clean and so new. The doors and bathroom facilities were automatic, which was simply mind-blowing 6 years ago. There were even tables for you to eat or do work on!

berlin train station

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof [“main train station”] was stunning

First thing my friends and I did was grab a table to play Kemps. I guess my beginner’s luck had run out since we lost miserably to the rest of our group. Our signals were all messed up and I couldn’t tell if she had Kemps and she couldn’t tell when I was signaling Kemps. Eventually we got tired of playing Kemps and our group broke up to do other stuff. I grew up without having played any card game other than “Go fish”: my time in Germany was like a class in card games, on steroids. Besides Kemps and Mao, I also learned “Spit” and “Egyptian Ratscrew”.

Then we started “Palace” and I legitimately had some curse on me for getting really terrible hands. So more losing. Then we started Mao again and I managed to win twice. However, I was unaware that the Chairman was allowed to make up ridiculous rules such as: requiring players to sing “Funkytown” and say “sandpeople eat little children” or “eat your cookies”. Kids are so weird, I know. That game lasted us until Berlin.

hotel ludwig van beethoven

Our hotel: Hotel Ludwig van Beethoven

After struggling up more flights of stairs to get out of the train station, we finally got on our bus to the hotel. And I realized I had lost my umbrella. Great.

Three of us snagged the triple-bed bedroom, which means none of us had to squeeze together on the same bed. We toasted ourselves with some Mineralwasser [“mineral water”] to a week of awesome that lay ahead. We all met at the lobby around 5pm for dinner. Herr Birkelbach took us to an Indian restaurant, which was…an interesting choice.

I don’t believe I ever had Indian before then and found it odd that they put cheese in curry. I absolutely love Indian food now, but I was not at a point in my life to try exotic things. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing for me to eat since I had cut cheese out of my diet (no paneer! :( ).

indian restaurant in berlinThe environment was nice and colorful, though. Service was helpful. I sat across from Jon and next to Mariette and Cory, near H. Birkelbach and to the left of the German kiddies. Everyone seemed to enjoy their meal, but I thoroughly did not. Herr Birkelbach ended up helping me finish, which made me feel like I was being too picky. But it was so incredibly salty and thick–like all they used was salt and corn starch.

The salad was good though, so I ate more of that. My dinner buddy and I started arguing about whether being vegetarian was hypocritical (because “plants and bacteria are living things too”), which escalated to politics and it got heated really quickly. We shockingly finished our meal still on good terms, but neither satisfied with the answers we had provided each other. I also desperately needed to use the restroom halfway through our debate. Even worse, everyone finished dinner and I never got the chance to use the restroom. The next 1.5 hours were spent in extreme discomfort. Luckily my experience in China has led me to develop an iron bladder.

berliner dom

We walked along the Spree River [“Fluß” in German] and I absolutely fell in love with the Berliner Dom. The sun was setting and cast a warm glow on its otherwise dramatic features. There was also a DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the state of East Germany] Museum on the way, which would have been a fascinating stop if we had the time.

What took me most by surprise on our walking tour was how conspicuous bong shops were. One store in particular was selling glow-in-the-dark bongs–which I guess is cool, but literally the most indiscreet accessory you could have for cannabis-smoking habits.

snapshots of berlin

So we finally arrived at the Fernsehturm [“TV tower”: Fernseh + Turm], at which point I was finally able to relieve myself. Possibly TMI, but that is a memory that shaped my first experience in Berlin.

ice creamWith 20 minutes to kill, it seemed like everyone suddenly had a craving for ice cream. Others of us rode up 207m to the observation tower of the Fernsehturm. I was surprisingly not the one freaking out about heights this time!

We went downstairs after maybe 15 minutes and waited for the others. The guy running the elevator smugly asked one of the guys in our group, “Wollen Sie hier sitzen, eh?” (do you want to sit here?) while patting his knee. Jokingly, of course, and all in good fun.

After we all reconvened, H. Birkelbach treated all 20 of us to two enormous scoops of ice cream!! I got mango and strawberry.

NÜRNBERG: GEMEINDEFEST (II)

Day 12, 07.05.2009: More potlucks!

good company at the festival

I love how frequently these Gemeindefest [“community festivals”] pop-up in Germany! Such a happy place to live. If the opportunity arises to join one, you definitely should! Lovely people, fun activities, and best of all, delicious Kartoffelsalat–potato salad. This time around, there was more Kartoffelsalat that was vegetarian than last time. So I really indulged myself and probably disgusted my host family and all their neighborhood friends with how many helpings I had…

tasty cherry crumbleNot to say that stopped me from additional servings of some Nachtisch [“dessert”]. There was an open bar of cakes, custards, cookies, crumbles, crisps, and all other forms of captivating culinary sweets. After about 15 minutes of indecisively hovering over the desserts table and making others uncomfortable, I finally settled on a cherry crumble and raspberry yellow cake.

deliciously soft raspberry yellow cakeOne of the most unexpected and most interesting activities was the option to operate a tractor(?!?). There was a plot of land that everyone who wanted to learn how to use a tractor could continuously dig into and backfill. Totally fun and definitely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of games at a festival. I undeniable struggled with operating the claw and am grateful no one was hurt in the process.

me driving a tractor

That’s me!

Clara introduced me to a fellow exchange student from London. Both of us were rather shy, and after making some small talk, simply sat next to each other awkwardly and ate our food in mostly silence. My young, girlish dreams of meeting a charming Englishman and escaping to the English countryside were kind of dashed at that point. Chemistry can be so disappointing. I ran into another exchange student while we were there. They’re everywhere! He was also from California, which was a good starting point for a much less awkward conversation.

The musical and dance performances provided a clean segue for us to turn our attention to other activities. We were treated to traditional Bavarian folk dance and music by dancers bravely dressed in Dirndl dresses (for women) and Trachten (for men) in searing heat. The dance is called Mühlradl [“Miller’s Dance”], where people dance in a sort of ring-around-the-rosy fashion and bounce off from partner to partner.bavarianfolk

The rest of the day was spent at home packing for Berlin–the highlight of our month in Germany. I was oozing excitement out of every pore and hardly slept a wink that night. Either thankfully or unfortunately–I can’t decide–my enthusiasm was tempered by some sober reading of Grapes of Wrath for my AP English class.

Also, this seems like such a silly thing to note, but I had a fried egg for the first time in two weeks. Do Germans eat a lot of fried eggs? I feel like I should know that answer having lived there for a month, but perhaps it was just my host family that wasn’t big on fried eggs. In any case, if you ever get a hankering for some fried eggs, the magical term is “Spiegelei” or “mirror egg”. Spiegel = mirror and Ei = egg. :)

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, 2009

Day 11, 07.04.2009: Rothenburg

My Gastfamilie [host family] took me to Rothenburg: a quaint, medieval town along the Romantic Road. Or, as it arguably is better known as, the town that sells Christmas souvenirs 365 days a year. Since it was only an hour away from Roßtal, we took the train there instead of driving.

IMG_2242We had a 15 minute layover in Ansbach, which was enough time to check out the Hofgarten [court garden] there. There was a rather long building built by the prince so he could house his fruit trees, which I thought was awesome because I want my own orchard someday. My Gastmutter [host mum], who loves art, brought us to an art exhibit nearby and struck up a conversation with the artist herself. It was kind of mind-blowing how everyone in Germany is so amicable.

IMG_2230I feel like in America, it’s far and few in between that you meet, say, a cashier at the supermarket who’d be willing to make eye contact, let alone small talk. And everyone is so busy getting somewhere. My host mum, however, strikes up hearty conversations with any clerk or cashier she meets, all the time. Not a grumpy face since I left the U.S.  It’s actually pretty heart-warming to see people take the time to slow down and have a chat.

rothenburg-copyright-melody-linStepping into Rothenburg was like a walking into a pop-up fairytale book set in the Middle Ages. The city wall, if I remember correctly, is the only city wall in Germany that’s still standing and complete. And you get to climb the wall! Going up the stairs was slightly terrifying because the steps were so small and so steep. But I didn’t want to be a party pooper, so I muscled my way through.

We strolled along the skirts of Rothenburg before getting off the wall. The stairs down were even worse! They were slanted downwards at a 15-degree angle. How did people climb this in the winter?!

As our tummies started grumbling, we stumbled into this random cafe. The only thing vegetarian option was Spätzle…literally just the cooked noodles. Because meat gravy. Not going to lie, it was pretty damn bland. I probably had 3 days’ worth of salt just to bring out an inkling of flavor. After downing most of the salted noodles, Clara offered to finish it for me. She said it was good with the gravy. Welp.

rothenburg-apfel

Thankfully, we ordered dessert and I got ApfelStrudel mit Vanilla Eis [apple strudel with vanilla ice cream). Like wow. I don’t know if it was because my entree was so unsatisfying, but 6 years later, and I still salivate at the thought of that Apfelstrudel with ice cream–you can’t not have the ice cream. The strudel was warm and the apples still crispy but coated in ooey-gooey cinnamon and sugar. The vanilla ice cream was like eating a vanilla bean. So pure and creamy: slowly melting and flooding the nooks and crannies of my strudel.

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My host mother also convinced me to try a Schneeball [literally, “snowball”], which kind of looks like a yarn ball. Layers of flour, deep fried, and dipped in chocolate or sprinkled with powdered sugar, nuts…etc. It was pretty good but difficult to eat because I got one dipped in chocolate and the chocolate was melting as I ate it. Messy eater problems.

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No photos allowed, so I could only get the truck outside!

As my host mum went off to visit bookstores, Clara took me to the infamous, all-year round Christmas stores in Rothenburg. They have such tiny storefronts, but as you go deeper into the store it unfolds into a 2-3 story building! It’s bigger on the inside! (Doctor Who, anyone?)

Delicate and intricately handcrafted wooden ornaments. I wanted all the pretty things. And there was a huge, fully-decorated and lit Christmas tree in the middle of the store that reached all the way up to the ceiling. I wanted to take a picture so badly but it was prohibited and there were people watching.

There were also snowflakes made just from wood shavings (?!) and carved windmills that run on rising hot air from candles that you light from within it. Sooo cool. I bought this really cute ornament with a snowman, reindeer, and Christmas tree on it. It cost around €9, which was like USD $12 at the time, but who cares? I was in Germany!

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平溪 Pingxi, Taipei, 2012

sky lanternsThe famous host village of the Sky Lantern Festival–Pingxi 平溪. Another quaint village that developed during the Japanese Colonial Era. A typical recommendation is to stop and sightsee at all the towns along the Pingxi Railway as a day trip (such as Shifen 十分), but my mom and I unfortunately didn’t have time.

on the way to pingxiDaylight is short in the mountains, even in the summertime, so after spending some time at Houtong and taking the train, we had only an hour or two before dark to return to Taipei. Also, the weather was just not picking up. I would definitely advise going to any of these small towns in better weather and even maybe on the weekend–despite the fact that you would have to elbow your way through a thick forest of people. Most of the shops are closed on the weekday, and as soothing as the calm and quiet is, there’s not much to see.

Pingxi old streetWe did do our part as tourists and walk down 平溪老街 [ping xi lao jie], or Pingxi Old Street, though. Sparse sustenance for our rumbling bellies in these parts.

sky lantern shopAnd while our regrettably short visit left me feeling unfulfilled and with a lot of 遺憾 [yi han], or “regrets”, we did find a lonely sky lantern 天燈 [tian deng] shop! My mom wasn’t up for decorating a big one, so we bought a couple of souvenir sky lanterns to take home with good wishes on them. She was particularly interested in the one with 學業進步 [xue ye jing bu], or “may your studies improve”. Chinese parents, go figure.

Til next time, Pingxi!

猴硐貓村 Houtong Cat Village, 2012

sleeping cat

If you’re not a cat person or are even slightly allergic to cats, this place is not for you. This is cat heaven and your worst nightmare.

Houtong train station greetingsBut I like cats. They’re derpy, sometimes jerks, and maybe even adorable. And there really is no better place to see them in their natural habitat than at Houtong  猴硐貓村 [hou dong mao cun]. 貓村 literally means “cat village”. Houtong is a tiny village in the Ruifang 瑞芳 District of Taipei nestled between the numerous mountain ranges of Taiwan; you can get there by the Mountain Line and it’s about an hour’s train ride from Taipei Main Station.

Houtong 猴硐 actually means “monkey cave” in Chinese. It was named so because there used to be a cave inhabited by monkeys. Houtong was a rich, small mining town during Japanese rule, and I’m guessing that it’s because of all the development in the area that there are no longer any monkeys left.

mountain line train

The mountain line

When the mining industry died out, a cat lover organized volunteers to provide abandoned cats in the village with a better life. The response from cat lovers all over Taiwan was so overwhelmingly positive, that Houtong has now developed into a cat haven and popular tourist destination.

No dogs signThe first sign you encounter stepping off the train is a map of the village, and cute cartoons of cats holding signs. A particularly prominent one is: “不建議帶狗來訪 [bu jian yi dai gou lai fang”, or “bringing dogs (狗 [gou] ) is not recommended”.

Houtong villageIt was a rainy weekday, so a lot of shops were shuttered close and the typically bustling place was rather deserted.

Did you say dog? Shhh....just go back to sleep.

Did you say dog? Shhh….just go back to sleep.

The entrance to the rest of the village was lazily guarded by security cats as well.

cat housesWe wandered onto a small platform overlooking the river, and found the local cat condo community. Cozy, wooden cat houses with aprons for doors, built on a brick platform. Luxury. They even had a great view of the railway bridge! The rain started to pour at this point, so we squatted in the center of the community, getting acquainted with our new hairy friends.

houtong_7But people live here too! We stopped at a food stall on wheels to browse through their wares.

Village lifeI was still battling a rather persistent stomach bug from our trip through China’s Silk Road, where we were a few days prior, but you only live once. So I shakily hiked up several flights of stairs in cold sweat with my mom to reach an overlook of the village and catch a glimpse of village life.

every town should have this

every town should have this

We probably didn’t spend any more than an hour at Houtong, unfortunately, since we had to hit the road and I needed to find some facilities to purge the bug (TMI? maybe). But I’d definitely visit again on a sunnier and busier day and spend more time exploring, just not with a  stomach bug.

永和豆漿, a journey through Taiwanese breakfast food

yonghe

before it closed down…

Whilst traveling through Taiwan, you’ll notice a ton of Taiwanese food stalls under the name “永和豆漿” [Yong He Dou Jiang]. I think–but could be utterly wrong–that the breakfast scene really picked up starting in the district of 永和 (near Taipei), which is why now all breakfast places use that name. Do you know the origins of  永和豆漿?

Every store is owned by a different family. The menu is generally the same, but the recipes can vary widely. Some stores make particularly good 飯糰 [fan tuan, or sticky rice roll], while others are better known for their 油條 [you tiao, or Chinese fried breadstick].

My mom and I tend to alternate between two specific 永和豆漿 locations, depending on how much time we have. The one on 光復南路 [guang fu nan lu, or Guangfu South Rd] at the intersection of 仁愛路 [ren ai lu, or Ren’ai Rd], right across from the 國父紀念館 [guo fu ji nian guan, or Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall], used to be one of our favorites. It has, unfortunately, been replaced by another store as of 2015. :'(

One of the more famous breakfast spots that doesn’t fall under the 永和豆漿 umbrella is 阜杭豆漿[fu hang dou jiang], which is located near Exit 6 from the Shandao Temple [善導寺 shan dao si] station, a couple blocks from the Huashan 1914 Creative Park. We tried out this place several years ago (in 2008-9?), waited in a decently long line to get our food, and thought it was good, but not spectacular. It’s definitely still hugely popular, though. So go check it out and let me know what you think of it! ;)

yonghe_2This brings me to our favorite 永和豆漿 place: the one on Fuxing South Rd, Section 2 [復興南路段 fuxing nan lu er duan]. Easy to remember, since it’s right next to the Taipei City Fire Department and Fuxing Rd has the Brown Metro Line running right over it. The cross-street is 瑞安街 [rui an jie, Rui’an St]. I cannot say this enough: get there early. The line is long, the seats few, and the food so damn delicious. Forget about sleeping in, because most Taiwanese breakfast places have sold out by 11am and tend to stop serving around then as well.

The sacrifices we make.

fuxingruian_4Breakfast item #1:  燒餅油條 [shao bing you tiao]. 燒餅 translated is “fire-roasted bun”–a flaky flatbread typically decorated with white sesame seeds on top. Traditional 燒餅 is baked in a tandoor-like oven: stuck to the sides of thick, metal cylinders and dug out with a long hook. They can be either savory or sweet, stuffed with anything from red bean paste to braised beef.

But in Taiwan, they are most commonly paired with a stick of 油條, literally meaning “oil stick”. 油條 is a 12-16″ long piece of dough, deep-fried. And we all know how tasty fried things are. The best 油條 is one that is not greasy (in spite of being deep-fried), crunches like Parmesan crisps, and slightly glutinous and chewy on the inside. Many places tend to fry it until it’s hollow on the inside. Big no-no. They taste delicious with soy milk or 稀飯 [xi fan, or congee], too.

fuxingruianBreakfast item #2: 鹹豆漿 [xian dou jiang]. “Salty soy milk”. Strange? Maybe. Yummy? Oh yes. 鹹豆漿 is served as a hot bowl of fresh soy milk with dried shrimp, pickled radish, sesame oil, green onion, and/or pork sung [肉鬆 rou song]. Thrown in with a dash of vinegar to balance the savory. Vegetarian versions are eaten with  油條 [fried breadstick] crumbs, veggie pork sung, sesame oil, and/or green onion. I love it, but I grew up on it. What were your first impressions of 鹹豆漿?

fuxingruian_3Breakfast item #3:  飯糰 [fan tuan], Chinese “sushi” or rice roll. 油條 [fried breadstick], 肉鬆 [pork sung], and 榨菜 [za cai, or pickled mustard] are tightly bundled in a sticky rice blanket. Mmm. Good 飯糰/rice rolls don’t have too thick a layer of rice–just like good sushi–and filled to the brim with tasty stuffing.

fuxingruian_2Breakfast item #4: 蛋餅 [dan bing] is a scallion-flavored Taiwanese pancake with scrambled egg. Taiwanese pancake is thin like a crepe, but its texture is closer to an ‘al dente’ tortilla. The best 蛋餅皮[dan bing pi, or egg pancake skin], is QQ: chewy, crispy, and tender all in one pancake. 義美 Yi-Mei makes pretty good frozen 蛋餅皮 (which you can usually find in the frozen aisles of your Chinese supermarket!), but local Taiwanese food stalls still do it best. 

The scrambled egg skin that is layered on top of the pancake is critical to a good 蛋餅 dish as well. It should be fluffy. Eat the egg pancake [蛋餅] with some thickened sweet soy sauce and Huy Fong “Rooster” chili garlic sauce, and I guarantee you’ll be hooked.

fuxingruian_5Breakfast item #5: 米漿 [mi jiang], sweet rice peanut milk. Also a strange-sounding food, but by golly, is it one of my favorite drinks to get in Taiwan. I’ve seen it very seldom in the US, so I drink gallons of this when I’m in Taiwan. It’s thick, still slightly granular, and has this toasty aroma from the roasted peanuts. Basically like a peanut smoothie. Mm.

Breakfast item #6: 黑豆漿 [hei dou jiang]. Black soybean milk. I don’t really have a clear picture of this, but a quick Google search gives a pretty good idea of what it looks like ;). Different kind of sweetness from regular soy milk. Just take my word that you’ll dig it. Mmm.

Did I miss any? These are just some of the foods I eat. What are your favorite Taiwanese breakfast foods? :)

穗科 Hoshina Udon, Taipei

hoshina_1

A cursory search of “Hoshina Taipei” yields a number of reviews for Hoshina by various bloggers, with the general consensus being that Hoshina makes some freakin’ amazing udon. While I am by no means as eloquent as other writers, I’m hoping that with the plethora of positive feedback on Hoshina’s food that ya’ll will go out and take some good slurps from their udon.

My mom and I discovered Hoshina [穗科 sui ke] while on our unforgiving search for vegetarian ramen in Taiwan–which has ultimately been unsuccessful. It wasn’t until our 3rd time eating at Hoshina that we realized how popular and well-known of a noodle place it is! Beginner’s luck was what we had when we walked into Hoshina the first two times and were seated immediately. The line moves relatively fast, but it is by no means short. There is limited seating in the waiting area: a few wooden benches by the  zen garden complete with bubbling brook, bonsai, and koi fish.

hoshinaThe front left of the restaurant is a giant glass enclosure in which udon masters stretch, roll, pound, pull, and slice udon dough like taffy machines. Watching induces salivation, making the wait all the more unbearable. And then you’re finally seated. Prompt and generally attentive service keeps your tea cup filled with Genmaicha [玄米茶 xun mi cha, or brown rice tea] the whole time.

A perfectly-sized menu of Japanese appetizers, entrees, and dessert, but with a modern Taiwanese twist. We start with the steamed kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) with toasted walnuts sprinkled on top, followed with some 龍鬚菜 [long xu cai, “dragon whisker vegetable” or chayote shoots] marinating in Japanese sesame sauce. My mom particularly likes the 卷 [bai yu fu pi tang juan, “white jade tofu roll in soup”]: soft napa cabbage leaves stewed in a light broth, wrapped around delicate layers of tofu skin. A pinch of shichimi togarashi [七味唐辛子, Japanese 7-spiced chili] to give the mellow flavors a kick.

hoshina_2Then the moment of truth: the udon. There truly is no better way to describe it other than saying “太Q了” [so Q!!]! In Taiwanese culture, achieving QQ texture is one of hallmarks of a great food establishment. Call it al dente, “chewy”, bite, or tender…that springiness of perfectly made noodle where the edges stick to your teeth for a fleeting nanosecond before snapping back onto your chopsticks. Perfection. 

hoshina_4You must try the 麵 [oo long leng mian, “udon cold noodles”]. I believe this is where you get a strong whiff of the finesse the udon chefs here have. Several whiskers of nori, a dash of sesame seeds, and a drizzle of dashi, but no more. Cold, glassy udon. Ecstasy.

hoshina_3The soup udon  龍湯麵 [oo long tang mian] is fantastic as well. There are no obvious weaknesses. Whether light, rich and thick, or spicy, the broth is almost as good as the udon (but a further almost). Toppings are a mix of aburaage [油揚げ, deep-fried tofu pouches], seaweed, and various vegetables. My recommended add-on item: the 蛋 [wen quan dan], soft-poached egg, to top off your udon. Break the yolk and good heavens–there is nothing more delicious than noodles coated in liquid gold. 

Still not full? Try the 腐 [hei zi ma dou fu, “black sesame tofu” for dessert. ごま豆腐 Goma tofu in Japanese. Goma tofu is not actually made from tofu; it’s made from kudzu powder, but has the silky texture of tofu when cooked. The kudzu is mixed with water and finely-ground black sesame. Envelope your taste buds in a velvet blanket of nutty and sweet flavors. 

You can find Hoshina not too far from the SOGO in Taipei. There are two branches, but I’ve only been to the one on Zhongxiao East Rd. Let me know how the other Hoshina is! :)

Hoshina Zhongxiao East:
Address: 台北市忠孝東路四段216巷27弄3號 // Zhongxiao East Road, Section 4, Lane 216, Alley 27 No. 3
Phone: 02-2778-3737
Hours: (Lunch) M-F 11:30 ~ 14:00, (Lunch)Sa-Su 11:30 ~ 15:00, (Dinner) 17:30 ~ 21:00

Hoshina Fuxing:
Address: 台北市復興北路313巷32號 // Fuxing North Road, Lane 313 No. 32
Phone: 02-27171518
Hours: same as above

楊媽媽素食, Mama Yang’s Vegetarian, Taipei

yangmamaDining in Taiwan can either be very expensive (but delicious) or unbelievably cheap (still delicious). In either case, you’ll leave the country spoiled and nothing will ever taste quite like it does at that tiny hole-in-the-wall, family-run eatery, off that big street and around the corner from that Ikari coffee and a couple blocks before Ellie bakery. The only way I’ve ever been able to navigate to this place for the past several years was, 1) by blindly following my mom and 2) taking mental pictures of the stores we pass on the way from my grandpa’s home. The beauty of this tiny veggie stand is that it was no more than a 5 minute walk from us. (Although we sold my grandpa’s home the year before :( ).

If you’re in any way familiar with the triangular park on 路135巷 [AnHe Rd, Lane 135] off of 信義 [Xinyi Rd]–which you might if you live in Taipei and shop at 哈肯舖手感烘焙 [Hogan Bakery,手感 shou gan meaning ‘handmade’ and  烘焙 hong pei meaning ‘baked’] in the mornings–Mama Yang’s is right in this area! Trace the back (aka non-pointy) end of the triangular park, and keep going along the same road until you hit the fork between 街 [Yanji St] and 愛路四段300巷 [Ren Ai Rd, Section 4, Lane 300]. Take Ren Ai Rd straight down. Mama Yang’s is one of the several food stands before you reach the main road/end of the lane. You’ll know when you’ve gone too far by seeing the Ikari Coffee shop. 

yangmama2

-salivating-

On the off chance that you don’t want vegetarian food (and I’ve no clue why you wouldn’t), there’s plenty of selection on this section of Ren Ai Rd. You’ll pass an Ellie bakery, dumpling and ramen stands, teppanyaki, and a fresh juice stand. And if you’re like me–vegetarian and unable to eat anything from these other places–you’ll find yourself shoving elbows to get one of 3 tray tables at Mama Yang’s.

Word of advice: avoid the lunch hour rush. Don’t underestimate its appeal as a 100% vegetarian place, because it is busy and surprisingly popular for such a small place. The owners also tend to (not) be the friendliest. But damn, is their food good. This is a no frills, just-like-mom-used-to-make place. You could even argue that you could make these dishes yourself, but why bother? They do it so well for so cheap.

Look at those prices!

Look at those prices!

I don’t think my mom and I have spent more than $6 USD eating here, which is cheap considering we typically order 3-4 items. As creatures of habit, my mom and I don’t stray far from the usual. So I’ll leave it up to all of you to try the other stuff for me and let me know if it’s good or not ;). We always stick with getting the 飯 [pai gu fan], or “spare ribs” with rice. Perhaps you find fake meat strange, but I think it’s tasty. The spare ribs are deep fried til crispy like tonkatsu, and have fresh black pepper cracked over them. There’s an umami sort of taste to it that I enjoy. The spare ribs come with rice, Taiwanese cabbage, 雪菜毛豆[xue cai mao dou] pickled mustard greens with soy beans, and stewed bean curd with fresh bamboo shoots. 

yangmama

Taiwanese cabbage 菜 [gao li cai] is in its own league of delicious vegetable. They’re grown up in the high mountains of Taiwan, such as at 武陵農場[wu ling rong chang, or Wuling Farm], which sits by 雪山 [xue shan, or snow mountain]. Insert some plant chemistry–possibly something to do with cold mountain air and different minerals in the soil–and you have a species of cabbage exponentially more delicious than all other cabbage. The crunch of the cabbage rings as crystal an apple just picked off the tree. There is sweetness to match, too. What  I like about Mama Yang’s cabbage is that the cabbage is mostly untreated: lightly stir-fried with some carrots, salt, and oil. 

Dish #2: 關東煮 [guan dong zhu], or oden. Oden is essentially hot pot; it’s a Japanese winter dish where eggs, daikon, konjac, fishcakes, and other tasty delights are stewed together in a simmering pot. The 子 [wan zi], or fish balls made at Mama Yang’s are very QQ. Their vegetarian dashi broth is light and flavorful, perfect for hot summer days or cold winter nights. And they top it off with slices of 糕 [zhi cai gao, or seaweed rice cake], which is one of my favorite Taiwanese foods.

Dish #3: 乾&帶 [lu dou gan / lu hai dai], which are stewed bean curd and stewed seaweed. The bean curd and seaweed are slow-cooked in a soy sauce (+ other magical ingredients unbeknownst to me, otherwise I’d make this all the time) stew for hours until all the flavors are absorbed into every pore. We call this 入味 [ru wei] in Chinese: 入 meaning”into”, and 味 meaning “flavor”. When something is not 入味 enough, it means the flavors haven’t set in yet. 

All foodgasms aside, I implore you all to check this place out and support them so they can stay in business for more generations to come! And remember to let me know how the other menu items taste :P.