Thursday, November 30, 2017

NaNoWriMo winner!

Just wanted to do a brief post to confirm that I participated in - and finished! - National Novel Writing Month 2017! I got to 50K words on Monday and kept going. 

I plan on editing in January-February. It was a good experience, although I'm definitely glad to be done for a while. Writing that much fiction each day was getting to be a chore. I also feel like this novel went easier and was better written than my effort in 2009.

I won't do it again unless I have a good idea, as I had this year. But maybe someday!

Monday, October 30, 2017

October finished objects

I've been on a crochet kick lately - I am knitting things, but they're not done yet. So everything I've finished in October is crocheted.

First up is my lovely Sophie's Universe blanket, the second one I've made. The yarn is Scheepjes Softfun - the medium kit in the original pattern. 

It's a beautiful blanket. I finished it toward the beginning of the month and I still haven't blocked it. No matter how much the original author protests, the pattern (as well written as it is) will definitely bulge. It needs a redesign, and I'm sure that would be a pain in the butt and would mess with the existing kits out there. Still, this is my second Sophie's Universe afghan, I'm a veteran crocheter of 25 years, and I did as she suggested with changing needle sizes. Didn't stop the bulge. 

The next few things are all commissions for other people. I am happy to have gotten through them so that I can finally start on stuff for myself this winter!

The first commission was a baby gift for my friend from law school. I was able to use up a bunch of brightly colored scraps, and the balls jingle, too! The gift is for his newborn baby. Hopefully he likes it.

The next commission was for a coworker whose family was dressing up in a Star Wars theme for Halloween. Her husband was Darth Vader, kids were Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and a storm trooper, and my friend wanted to go as Yoda. There are a lot of patterns out there for Yoda hats, many of them very crappy indeed. I found a good one with nice, solid ears (worked in the round so that they are double thick and stiff) so that they stick out appropriately:

The next commission is for some stockings for the two children of one of my oldest friends from grade school. I had made them a "mom" and "dad" set of stockings for their baby shower, and a mini stocking for Jake. Now she has two kids and wanted them to have matching stockings. I got the stocking pattern from Ravelry but I improvised the decorations, including the letters:

I'm pretty happy with how those turned out! I will see her in December; she told me that she has already bought new hangers for them on the fireplace.

The last completed commission this month was for a set of octopi twins for a coworker that's having twins. Someone liked the giraffe I did for another coworker, but I said I'd rather not do any more giraffes just now. I think the octopi turned out super cute!

It was a busy month of commissions, but it feels good to have them done so that I can focus on my own stuff. I have like three shawls to make and I'm super excited about the yarn. Onward and upward!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Central Europe: Day 14 (Berlin)

For our last day in Berlin, we trekked out to Potsdam for a visit to Sanssouci Palace, Frederick the Great's version of Versailles.

It's a wonderful lemony confection of a Baroque palace. The rooms were uniquely decorated and beautiful, full of marble and interesting wall patterns. The exteriors were richly decorated, as well.

The gardens were elaborate and fun to walk through - and take pictures of!

Like Versailles, there are a few other buildings throughout the gardens that are worth a visit. We visited the little Chinese House, a tiny little jewel of a building that served as garden decoration and a cute spot for luncheons and other social events. We also visited the New Palace, which is another wonderful Baroque palace that was inhabited by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his family.

We didn't go inside because we didn't have time, but you can see it's equally as ornate as Sanssouci. We had a light lunch at Drachenhaus ("Dragon House" - an eentsy weentsy little pagoda restaurant on the palace grounds) and hit the road back to Berlin for some last beers and dinner.

The nameless spot that had been recommended to us by our wine pourer the previous night was Straßenbräu, a brewery in east Berlin near the Ostkreuz train station. We got a couple of flights to try everything they had!

It was a great spot. The beers were more innovative than you usually see in Germany - there was a sour, an IPA, and more! Big fans.

We took the S-Bahn uptown to Prater Garten, Berlin's oldest beer garden (dating from 1837). Of course, it was a bit chilly when we were there, so you can see it was fairly empty:

Still, the beers were good, local Berlin selections. (If Pilsner Urquell owns Prague, then Berliner Kindl owns Berlin.) I wish we had been there during nicer weather!

For our last dinner, we decided to try a North Vietnamese restaurant called Umami. Boy, am I glad we did. First off, I needed some vegetables and I couldn't take any more huge meat platters. Second, I have never been to a restaurant where I had to sit on cushions and take my shoes off. Third, there is a huge North Vietnamese population in Berlin because the Soviets sent them over as refugees during the Vietnam War.  We have some Vietnamese food in Chicago, but I knew I wanted to try whatever Umami had.

I got a delicious chicken, rice, and veggie dish called "The Golden Bird," and Dave got a dish with duck, rice, and veggies. It was OUTSTANDING. One of the best meals we had on the whole trip.

The dish was so utterly good that I am now convinced that I need to take a trip to Vietnam. (That and a few friends have recommended it.)

All in all, Berlin was my favorite city, followed by Budapest, then Prague and Vienna. Berlin and Budapest made you feel like you were really amongst the locals, and the food and culture were amazing. I am cursing my German ancestors who left the homeland in the early 1900s (and before that). I want to live in Berlin so badly now.

So that was my Europe trip; I hope you enjoyed traveling along with me, and hopefully you can go get some Vietnamese food right this second to quell the cravings that I'm sure you're having.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Central Europe: Day 13 (Berlin)

On our second to last day in Berlin, I decided to go for a morning run - I'd gone for a run in each city, so I wanted to check off this one, as well!

I decided to go for a little 3-4 mile jaunt around a local park, the Volkspark Friedrichshain. The entrance was grandiose:

"Yep, just a little run in a palatial garden..."

On the run, I saw people walking their dogs (which always makes you feel like you're really hanging out with the locals), lots of other runners, a bird sanctuary, soccer parks, hiking trails, statues (apparent Soviet relics), and lots more. It is obviously a well-loved park!

I think it was at this point in the trip that I also started smearing Nutella on the marbled Bundt cake in the breakfast buffet. Went a little European there...

To start the day, my travel book recommended that we "ponder the futility of war" at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It was not rebuilt after WWII as a reminder of the carnage, destruction, and sadness that remained after the fighting. You can see the open tower where it was bombed. (More awkward German history...)

At this point, we were feeling fairly confident in the Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn systems, and we headed out to Schloss Charlottenburg with no problem. 

The beautiful baroque palace, full of white and gold and pastels, was commissioned by some German nobles and eventually became one of the homes of Fredrick the Great. It's closer to the Berlin city center than his other Berlin home, Sanssouci (which we'll visit tomorrow), although back in the day I'm sure it was quite a journey on horseback.

The gardens and grounds were beautiful, definitely worth a walk. The tour of the castle was worth the trip, too. Of course, the castle was bombed - like everything else in Berlin - but they have reconstructed the rooms as well as possible. 

We also got to see some of Fredrick's silver service; it wasn't as extensive as the collection in Vienna's Hofburg, but if I remember correctly, this is where I learned that Fredrick would melt down his silver collection to pay for his wars, then he'd have it reconstructed after the wars were over. 

The New Wing was constructed at Frederick's direction and contains some truly spectacular gilded rooms. You could almost hear the harpsichord and flute!

After we'd had our fill of Fredrick's baroque wonderment, we took a friend's recommendation to visit the Hamburger Bahnhof modern art museum.

Like the Musée d'Orsay, the museum is constructed in an old train station. I love modern and contemporary art, and this museum boasted some beautiful and thought-provoking exhibits. 

I couldn't even tell you about all of the exhibits we saw. One room had an infinity mirror display, one room had rocks on the floor with projected images of water flowing over them; it was just a really visually stunning museum. And of course, because it's German contemporary art, some of it was rather bleak, including a black cross-shaped room within a room by Bruce Naumann entitled, "Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care." Wowza.
I'm not sure why, but all over the museum were these red balloons that were on motors to rise and fall on a string. 

They probably would have creeped me out anyway, but especially so because the remake of the movie "It" was about to be released in American theaters. You'd turn a corner and BAM, red balloon. Pennywise would approve.
After the mind-expanding experience at the art museum, we headed over to the Turkish area of Berlin (Kreuzberg) for some hedonistic food pleasure.

Dave is a big fan of Döner kebabs, and my coworker had given me an article of the best spots in Berlin. We visited the granddaddy of them all, Hasir, where we got kebab platters and delicious beer. It was so good not to feel any guilt over stuffing my face because of how much we walked around on the trip.

I found a yarn store in the Turkish area, then we visited the Jewish Museum for, yes, more awkward German history.

The building itself is stunning - it's an angular precipice with swaths of empty lines that seem to be tearing the building apart. We later read that the empty spaces represent the murdered Jews of Germany (or those that emigrated to avoid the oppression).

The history in the museum was so interesting and new to me, but the museum building itself was the most impressionistic experience. 

You start by choosing three paths - emigration, annihilation, or life forward. The museum shows you what happened to the Jews that took each of these paths in the years before the Holocaust. Obviously, it was a very emotional and moving experience.

After that, you had to meander around through the exhibits, seeing the missing sections of humanity that should be filled by generations of Jews that died in the Holocaust or earlier pogroms. We stayed in the museum almost to closing time; it was so full, like the Deutsches Historisches Museum, that you could spend a whole day and not really take it all in.

We had reservations at a Turkish restaurant, Defne, where I had delicious spinach manti and Dave had stuffed eggplant. If anyone can rival Indian cuisine for miraculous transformations of vegetables, it's the Turks.

In the area, there was a bar I kind of wanted to visit, but we had a little trouble finding it because the guidebook actually had it switched with another bar on the map. At any rate, we eventually stopped at Otto Rink for a flight of German wines!

We had whites and reds, none of which we had tried before. The pourer was a very nice German-Hungarian Berliner who told us about a great brewery to try on our last day. Yay for networking about booze!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Central Europe: Day 12 (Berlin)

Looking back at my pictures for this day, it was kind of a gray day full of awkward German history. But that's OK, it was still amazing.

First off was the culmination of a dream 10+ years in the making - I got a tour inside the Reichstag building!!

When I studied abroad in 2003, I didn't have tickets and I couldn't wait in the hours-long line. This time, I planned ahead; I ordered tickets online and we got in first thing. We stopped for a few snaps at the Brandenburg Gate and then got our tour.

The tour was SO COOL. You go up this ramp that gives you an audio tour all about German history and the building. The dome is all glass and has a hole in the top to have natural heating and cooling. The mirrors in the center of the dome move with the sun and help with energy savings, too. (Plus it's really pretty.) 

From the Reichstag, we clutched our umbrellas during a walk through the corner of the Tiergarten - basically Berlin's version of Central Park - to the Holocaust Memorial, which was installed later in the same year that I visited Berlin, so I didn't get to see it last time. 

It is a visually stunning and emotional display of different-sized concrete blocks that give you a feel for the breadth of the loss. Also, walking through it, it feels bleak and disorienting.

From there, we walked to the Gemäldegalerie, basically the museum of the old masters in Europe. Dave really likes Rembrandt and Vermeer, and they had some along those lines. 

Speaking of awkward history, on our way to the gallery, we saw a line of bricks in the ground that I realized is where the old Berlin Wall stood. It goes for miles throughout the city and reminds you of the intrusion of the wall on German life.

We also walked by the Berlin Philharmonic, which we didn't visit. I wish I had gotten a show there. Oh well.

We walked over to Potsdamer Platz, an energetic commercial hub of Berlin. Without realizing it, we walked right to the Spy Museum, which was included on our museum pass! Giggity giggity!

The museum was full of fun tidbits of spy history, particularly during the Soviet occupation, and even included some relics (or potentially replicas) of real gadgets that spies used. 

OK, and obviously the museum's curators love James Bond, too...

On the way to lunch, we walked by Checkpoint Charlie, which was a weird area. I thought that it was going to be more of a relic of the old Soviet way-station, but I didn't see any old buildings at all. There was a display with placards about the history of the station, but it was so full of tourists that we just wanted to get the hell out of there. 

Our next stop was Fassbender & Rausch for some delicious chocolates. We got some truffles and different tasting-size samples of chocolate bars from around the world. The displays were mouth-watering.

We enjoyed a meat-centric lunch at Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt, which I had been super excited about because the Augustiner brewery had a location in Salzburg, where I studied abroad. The beer was solid and the meat, well...

We needed a good walk after all that delicious meat, so we headed over to the expansive Deutsches Historisches Museum, a comprehensive history of the German people from ancient times to the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

We walked around for hours in there; I saw Frederick the Great's uniform, tons of suits of armor, lots of World War I and II propaganda, and even a section of the Berlin Wall. Dave and I got a little lost, but it was one of my favorite museums.

Very near the museum, too, was Bebelplatz, the site where the Nazis famously burned books in the 1930s. The eerie Heinrich Heine quote in the plaque embedded in the plaza famously reads: "It was foreplay only, for where man burns books, in the end he will also burn people." [Chills] 

To finish out our day of awkward German history, we visited the Berlin Wall Memorial, which is located in a small park not far from our hotel. 

The memorial park had a section of the wall, some pieces of the original street and cemetery that lay here, and showed how the "no man's land" spanned between the inner and outer walls. It also had a memorial with photos of people who died trying to flee East Germany.

After that sobering visit - and a sobering day overall - we just ate a simple dinner of wine, some sandwich wraps, and fruit in the hotel. We picked a nice German red wine from a local shop, too. I think that German wine gets a bad rap in the United States because they only export the sweetest crap to us. In fact, they have a nice variety, and many complex reds.

Two more days of the trip, and both contain a fun castle! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Central Europe: Day 11 (Berlin)

First day in Berlin!

We took a very early train from Prague to Berlin, arriving around 11 a.m. I had lunch reservations at a fancy restaurant, so we made fast tracks to our hotel, the Motel One Berlin Hackescher Markt. It was a great location and ended up having an even better lunch buffet - one of my favorite places we stayed at the whole trip!

We were a bit early for lunch, so we went around the corner to Knit Knit Berlin, an adorable little shop. They specialize in mohair yarns and had tons of different colors. I picked two - a gray and a chartreuse - for a lacey, light office cowl.

Lunch was at the Michelin Star Pauly Saal, and it was probably the most delicious and intense meal we had in Europe. We had the four-course menu, with amuse-bouche, of course!

After lunch, we headed to Museum Island to buy our museum passes and try to fit in as much viewing time as possible.

The museum pass is actually pretty reasonable, about 30 euros, and we were able to see a TON of museums while we were in Berlin! And the island is beautiful. It's all Greek columns and fancy domes.

First stop was the Neues Museum, where we looked at collections of antiquities from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and more. The Nefertiti bust was a huge highlight.

The building itself was fascinating, too. It was bombed in WWII and laid in a state of disrepair during the Soviet occupation of East Berlin. (In fact, the Soviets sort of plundered the museum, taking the Troy collection back to Moscow - a fact the museum points out with some indignance.) It has now been reconstructed with the pieces that remained, making it a sort of artifact of its own.

Next stop was the Pergamon Museum, which was probably my favorite museum of the whole trip even though it was only partially open during renovation of the Pergamon Altar.

You walk in to the beauty of the cobalt Ishtar Gate, then you see this massive Greek market facade. It was so hard to take pictures; I just tried to take it all in.

Somehow we fit in a stroll through the Alte Nationalgalerie, a collection of German masters. Maybe it didn't compare favorably since we had just seen Neues and Pergamon, but I'm glad we didn't try to spend too much time there. It was maybe my least favorite of the museums we saw in Berlin. 

We stopped for a visit and climb up the Berliner Dom - if you have been reading the whole trip this far, you know that Dave and I cannot resist a 300+ climb up church steps.

The view was pretty cool; it was a clear evening and we saw pretty far into Berlin in all directions as the sun set.

The Dom isn't included in the museum pass, but what are you gonna do.

Dinner was had at allegedly Berlin's oldest restaurant, Zur Letzten Instanz. The food and beer were classically German, and allegedly some other diners in this restaurant's history included Beethoven, Napoleon, and more! I had the lamb sausage with salad, and Dave had the meatballs. We both had beer!

Berlin really blew me away with its grandiosity - it reminded me of Rome in that way. And even though we were going to some of the most touristy museums, it didn't feel touristy. It feels like a vibrant city where you are running around amid the normal folks. I was a big fan right from the start.

Onward and upward! 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Central Europe: Day 10 (Prague)

Our last day in Prague was a great one; we saw national monuments but somehow managed to avoid the throngs of crowds that we saw on our first day. We also learned about communist rule in the Czech Republic. Read on!

Here's a photo of our metro stop; I loved the strangely Dr. Who subway decor in Prague.

After breakfast at our hotel as usual, we mailed some postcards - we made it a point to do that at every city to our parents and my grandma - and we made our final visit to a nearby location of Bakeshop Praha. We had already had breakfast, so we bought pastries for the next day's breakfast, since we were catching an early train.

First stop was Wenceslas Square, which wasn't really photogenic in and of itself, but there were some neat hotels on the side. Apparently the square figures heavily in medieval Prague history, WWII, and the overthrow of the communist regime.

Off of the square was a little courtyard with, according to my book, the world's only cubist lamp post. The idea of visiting a cubist lamp post pretty much overwhelmed us, so we stopped by for a quick photo op.

Afterward, we headed to Vyšehrad to visit the castle complex, church, and cemetery. It was so wonderfully free of tourists that we wanted to linger longer. It felt almost like a park, with ancient walls, buildings, and other wonderful things to look at.

For example, the cute little rotunda at left is the Rotunda of St. Martin, one of the oldest standing buildings in Prague. it was built in the 11th century!

The complex gave great views of the surrounding city, and it was nice to have a leisurely walk around a green area without a ton of tourists. (I know, I know, I was a tourist, too, but still. This is why people like getting off of the beaten path.)

Walnut, my friends' dog, loved seeing the castle complex, too. He pranced around the streets like he owned them, and he got to sit atop a city wall like some majestic lion statue, gazing over his realm.

The castle had a wonderful cemetery that reminded me of Père Lachaise in Paris, both in terms of the number of famous Czechs buried there and in the raised vault-style graves.

After having our fill of the castle complex, we bid adieu to our ex-pat friends, who had to catch a flight back to Switzerland. We walked down the hill and up the river, where we took a walk around Slav Island. Our book recommended taking a paddleboat tour around the river here, but it was a bit chilly for that.

I did enjoy a fantastically placed octopus statue in the river, though! Just look at those buildings. Painted Ladies, eat your heart out.

After we took mandatory photos of the Dancing House, we kept walking up the river to a commercial area of Prague where I thought there was a yarn store (it's not, it's just fabric) and we checked out another David Cerny sculpture (he also did the Proudy peeing guys in my previous post). We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Room, where we split some ham & béchamel croquettes.

We split a beer flight after lunch at the recommended Pivovarský dům, loosely translated as "brewery house!" Most of the beers were good, some were...not. I liked almost everything, including the green nettle beer, but the Banana Weizen tasted like rotten bananas and Pepto Bismol. 

Keep on leveling up that Czech badge!!

Next stop was back to the Wenceslas Square area to visit the Museum of Communism, a historical trek through the Soviet occupation of then-Czechoslovakia. It was so interesting!

The museum gave some background on the roots of communism in Russia, then the exhibits began at the end of WWII, when Soviet rule began. There were artifacts, posters, videos, and more to describe the types of projects that the Czech citizens had to assist with. The most inspiring parts of the museum were the ones at the end that detailed the fall of communism in the Czech Republic after protests and calls for action.

By the end of the museum, you definitely got the impression that the Czechs do not dig communism. 

At the end of the day, we visited the Jewish Quarter's location of Kolkovna for dinner. Dave got the biggest damn pork knuckle in the world - a Czech specialty he'd been lusting after for days - and I got goulash again. Mmm.

After dinner, we tried to find the other location of the Prague Beer Museum, but we settled for a delicious Czech wine tasting room called Bokovka. The pourer recommended J. Novak 2015, which we were very happy with!

That's all the Prague that's fit to print - follow more tomorrow for the start of Berlin, the last leg of the journey!