Find out about the move to Berlin, pending marriage, summer travel, and more!
(Y’all don’t see that lamp on the left, ;-p)
In April, I had the pleasure of taking my parents to Dublin for the first time. They’re not exactly the youngest kiddies on the block anymore, and my father is the type who’ll say “no” to an untried food, only to snag a bit of it from your plate when you order it. But despite the inevitable misunderstandings and temper flare-ups that happen when parents and their adult children travel together, the laughs and sense of mutual discovery outweigh any half-hour periods of silence or heavy sighs of exasperation. So the elder Whites and their eldest son will be hitting the Continent once again for ten days this June, swinging through a trifecta of capital cities – including one I’ve never been to before – that novices to Europe often erroneously overlook: Berlin, Stockholm, and Helsinki.
We’ll start our journey with a brief stopover in Frankfurt, where we’ll be celebrating my Fly Mother’s 76th birthday with some cake at Bitter & Zart, recommended by friend and foodie par excellence, Karin of Yum and More. Then, my parents will get their first experience on a high-speed train as we race toward Berlin on the ICE (ICE, baby), arriving in the German capital late that evening.
As I don’t want to bore them or wear them out, we’ll take in maybe three points of interest each day we’re there; on the must-do list: the stately Brandenburg Gate, the immense Pergamon Museum, Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, East German culture at the DDR Museum, and sunset at the Bundestag dome – probably the most striking parliamentary structure built since the Congresso Nacional in Brasília. On the must-eat menu: plenty of wurst, döner, and pho.
Next, we head north to my favoritest city in Europe – Stockholm! I curse you, capital of Sweden, for being cold and dark for six months of the year; that is your only flaw (well, along with being crazy expensive). The city is gorgeous, hip, and full of worldly, attractive people who are fun and welcoming, and I’m excited about having my parents experience the things I love about the ‘holm.
We’ll be staying right in the middle of the historic center – Gamla Stan – in an old postwar-era ferry anchored in the harbor. As lots of Stockholm’s charms lie in the architecture and atmosphere of the place, we may just do the hop-on/hop-off bus and water taxis to get the lay of the land, stopping for Swedish meatballs (called “meatballs” in Sweden) and shots of Gevalia espresso. Then, we’ll bone up on our Viking lore at the Historiska museum, maybe head out to see the royal residence at Drottningholm Palace, or soak up the general pre-Midsummer energy in one of the city’s cool, green parks. At night, since we’ll all still be jet-lagged anyway, jazz and blues at Stampen might be the perfect way to tire ourselves out and celebrate Father’s Day, especially if my girl Germaine Thomas is at the mic.
Finally, we’re all going to HEL. Helsinki’s not as large as Berlin or Stockholm, so we’ll only be spending two days there. Aside from visiting the big white church that dominates the skyline, we don’t have much on the itinerary yet. Still, this will be my first trip to Finland and I’m excited about being in the home country of one of my favorite architects (Eero Saarinen, who designed Dulles Airport, JFK’s iconic TWA Terminal, and the Gateway Arch), and one of my parents’ favorite composers (Jean Sibelius, whose magnum opus appeared in Die Hard 2…I will always remember watching it on HBO with my folks and my mom turning to my dad and asking, in her Southern accent, “Isn’t that Finlandia?” “Mmhm,” he replied. Classically trained, thank you very much).
So stay tuned for trip developments and (hopefully) some video. I’m trying to bring things into the 21st century, y’all. Lord, I hope they don’t put us out of Europe.
Sometimes, you end up someplace and don’t exactly know why. Obviously, a series of events happens that leads you somewhere, but it’s the existential why, rather than the literal how, which leaves you questioning the reason behind a move. Since repatriating at the beginning of the year, I’ve been wondering what the cosmos had in store for me back in the USA and, particularly, in Miami. Pleasant weather and an oft-fulfilling university teaching position had been the only identifiable high points in a place with soul-sucking traffic and a large proportion of plastic, soulless people. Throw American political asshattery and Trayvon/stop-and-frisk/Oscar Grant on top and all I could think was “why hast Thou banished me to this forsaken land, especially when there’s always Paris?”
A couple of weeks ago, the why revealed itself to me unexpectedly whilst visiting the fair capital city of the Republic of Ireland: Dublin.
At the beginning of October, I participated as a speaker at the world’s largest travel blogging conference, Travel Blog Exchange, or TBEX. Held twice a year – once in North America and once in Europe – TBEX brings together travel bloggers, journalists, entrepreneurs, tourism bureaus, travel tech companies, and the like. As with most professional conferences, TBEX attracts an odd combination of earnest, open-minded participants seeking useful knowledge and meaningful interaction, as well as navel-gazing, self-important douchebags who only crack their mouths or make eye-contact if they think there’s something to be gained materially by demonstrating even the scantest bit of home training, and everything in between. While the Dublin edition did have its share of the latter, I found the overwhelming majority of the participants to be pleasant and engaging, and at the close of every day, nay, every session, I felt all the more inspired and motivated to further develop Fly Brother as my brand and myself as a writer.
During the four-day conference, I spoke twice: once about cultural awareness in travel writing as part of a pre-conference writers workshop (with a powerhouse trifecta comprised of Christine Cantera, David Farley, and one of my longtime travel writing heroes, Leif Pettersen), and then all by my lonesome about the importance of fact-checking and sourcing. While my sessions involved imparting some level of expertise to the attendees, I feel that I gained much more in terms of positive feedback, constructive criticism, meaningful networking (including starting new and deepening old friendships), and, most importantly, the sense that I’m indeed on the right road to greater things.
On my way back to the USofA, I realized what I should have realized from the beginning, but was too paralyzed by reverse culture shock to recognize: that the cosmos brought me here to Miami, at this moment, for personal and professional growth.
The university job, aside from being a phenomenal résumé-builder, lets me use my talents as a communicator to show people desirous of growth how to break through self- and community-imposed barriers. The stability that the job provides allows me to undertake – and complete – my doctoral research studies. The geographical location of Miami puts me closer to my family and friends in the States, places me within a half-day’s journey to three continents, and lets me utilize my hard-won Spanish and Portuguese skills, all with the Atlantic Ocean a mere two blocks away from my apartment. But most importantly, Miami provides me a visible yet accessible base from which to launch Fly Brother as a business in a way that living in São Paulo and Berlin didn’t necessarily provide me, with those cities being exotic enough to render me out of sight, out of mind. From here, I can get to conferences, I can get to coffee meetings with editors, I can get to book signings, and I can get to after-church barbecues with my folks quickly and easily. In other words, I can get to it.
But despite a gang of friends and family members dutifully and repeatedly telling me these things over the last few months, it took going to Dublin and experiencing the tremendous friendliness of our Irish hosts, fellowshipping with a couple hundred amazing, like-minded travelers who think of little else, and soaking up collective inspiration to light the necessary fire.
So, thank you TBEX, Failte Ireland, and my TBEX cronies, old and new, for reminding me of why I’m here. See you next time!
Here’s a look at the opening night reception, thrown by Failte Ireland at the iconic Guinness Storehouse. Unauthorized candid at 0:29.
There’s not very much one can do on a weekend in Rome if one doesn’t have one’s itinerary planned before one steps off the plane. I was one who hadn’t planned my itinerary in advance, so I missed out on a few of the Eternal City’s eternal attractions: the Papal capital of Vatican City, the shabbily romantic warrens of Trastevere, the noble and numerous Spanish Steps (though I may have walked down them). What I did get to experience, however, was the delightfully unsettling buzz of being in a space so dominated – physically – by a history so pervasive in Western culture that I felt at once connected with a place I’d only seen in books and on film. But despite the easy connection, I had much left to discover in the Italian capital.
I discovered that speaking Spanish with an improvised “Italian” accent gets one through most interactions on the street, and people are generally friendly, except for most older men working in service positions, who are all kinds of surly. I discovered that one’s obvious reluctance to dart across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic pegs one squarely as a foreigner, if one’s looks and accent doesn’t give one away beforehand. I discovered that one can keep up with the renowned Roman sense of fashion with a dark gray blazer, jeans, button-down shirts, and black leather loafers – I got a few winks and smiles for the trouble. I discovered that the temperature need not be warm for Romans to gorge themselves (sexily) on gelato. I discovered the three-day Roma Pass, which was the absolute best 30 euros one could ever spend: free entry to two historical sites – including the gigantic Colosseum (Yowza! One really has no idea of its sheer size, name notwithstanding!), where one gets to skip all the other losers waiting in the hours-long line because they didn’t get the Roma Pass –, free and unlimited access to the public transportation system, and a rack of other deals and discounts one probably won’t end up using. I discovered that walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome, one feels suddenly urbane and energized, an exotic sophisticate surveying the latest great city to fall at one’s feet, until one’s feet begin to ache and one realizes that leather loafers were never meant for so much aimless walking.
Alas, my Roman holiday proved too short, though I managed to squeeze in a couple of brief, bright meet-ups with street art maven Jessica Stewart of RomePhotoBlog (at her book signing, no less!) and fly sister-slash-interior designer Arlene Gibbs, formerly of travel blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza. Still, the City of Seven Hills holds many secrets, and once Rome has whispered in one’s ear, one is obliged to return and discover the others as well.
Take a look at some of the admittedly boring pictures of Roman architecture and other random stuff that I like. If you don’t like, then go to Rome and take your own pictures of the stuff you like!!!!!
Despite $5 bottles of water and grey, rainy weather for most of the weekend, Copenhagen proved a welcoming and interesting little city, with an outsized cultural scene and friendly people. I arrived into the Danish capital early on a Friday morning and zipped quickly through the stylish and efficient airport terminal only to have my spirits dampened by the uninspiring currency exchange rate and the uninspiring gloomy skies (underscored by an uninspiring high temperature in the low 40s). With the excitement of getting to know a new place somewhat tempered by my aversion to the cold and my fear overspending—hell, of spending any money, really—I caught the bus from the airport to my friend’s house, passing alongside the blue-gray expanse of the Oresund and coursing through quaint little Danish neighborhoods with quaint little Danish houses, all with quaint little Danish flags flying on flagpoles in each yard. My friend Naomi is in Denmark with her son working on a Master’s degree and she was one of the first friends I made in Brasília when I moved there a few years ago. I was hyped about seeing her and speaking Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen. And speak Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen we did, with people looking curiously, then smiling at the three of us as we took advantage of the one sunny day that weekend and toured the historic canals by boat, wafted through legal weed smoke in the independent little burg of Christiania, and took in a couple of the offerings at the documentary film festival happening that weekend (specifically, we saw Paul Simon: Under African Skies and Tropicália). There’s something to be said for the way people respond to families with children, as opposed to single (and large) men on the street.
While Naomi and filho were at school, I took to the city alone, marveling at the seemingly large number of brown and black people in town (including several city bus drivers) and hitting up a few quirky coffee shops and eateries in search of what the Danes call hygge, which is roughly translated in English as “coziness.” I had a trio of delicious “smushis” (traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches served in sushi-sized chunks) at The Royal Café, proceeded to choke on the prices for curios at the nearby Royal Copenhagen porcelain store, then warmed up with one of the richest cups of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in life at La Glace, an old school confectionary with enough enticing sweet stuff to warrant an extra hour on the treadmill.
At night, Naomi and I met up with a couple of her school mates at the National Gallery of Denmark and had engaging political debate (Obama vs. Romney, Greece vs. Germany, McDonald’s vs. Burger King) while the DJ spun Scandinavian downtempo and people just sat and watched the light display and drank beer. After chicken curry and shawarmas (at two different places), we ended up at a surprisingly amazing and intimate concert by Alcoholic Faith Mission (had never heard of them); we were being told the happening party we’d stumbled upon was “ladies only” and the concert’s sound guy randomly intervened and invited us upstairs, where the set was already half over. I didn’t get a chance to say it at the time, but cheers, Random Sound Guy!
The weekend ended all too quickly, but I never got around to seeing the Little Mermaid and accidentally left a sweater at Naomi’s house—all the more reason to head back. Copenhagen, you were indeed wonderful. I’ll see you again soon. Save a smushi for me! More photos!
And special thanks, Henrik at Wonderful Copenhagen, for your humorous and insightful pointers on getting along in “The Kingdom!”
As mentioned in a previous post extolling the virtues of having a hub in Europe, you can get everywhere for a decent price. My round-trip plane ticket from Berlin to Copenhagen two weeks out? 59 Euro (US$76)! Granted, the flight’s only an hour long, but it’s to a whole different country!
That said, I’m looking forward to celebrating the big 3-5 with one of my best friends from Brazil who’s studying (and freezing her tassels off) in the Danish capital. We’ll geek out at a few museums, take pics of The Little Mermaid, catch a couple of screenings at the documentary film festival, maybe hit the Meatpacking District (tee-hee!) for a li’l two-step or whatnot.
I head up to Denmark from November 2-5, so stay tuned for trip details. I’m excited to see what kind of welcome I get from the good people of “Wonderful Copenhagen.”
Image by Alatryste
Need to get around Germany but don’t want to cough up a hundred Euros for a one-way plane or train ticket? Get Mitfahrgelegenheit! Meaning “carpool” in German, Mitfahrgelegenheit (roughly pronounced meet-far-guh-LEG-gun-hite) is popular and simple to use, thanks to the website (and Google Translate, considering I have no clue what I’m reading in German 90% of the time). It’s just a matter of searching for a ride between two places at a time that best suits you, comparing options based on the driver’s bio and rating as a reliable user (or not), then meeting at the designated point with cash in-hand and hitting the road. Yes, some measure of blind faith is required, and who knows how likely I’d be to use the system if I were a solo female traveler, but since you usually meet your driver and fellow passengers in a public place, you can address any immediate trepidation by just deciding not to get into the vehicle.
Last week, I mitfahred from Frankfurt to Berlin in a dusty, grey Mercedes minivan with driver and five college students (They looked college age, anyway. We barely spoke beyond initial pleasantries as we were all plugged up to our individual MP3 players). Dude hauled-ass down the autobahn, clocking in at five hours for a normally six-hour drive, with a ten-minute pee/cigarette break. We drove through leafy forests, underneath monstrous industrial windmills, and past Russian-built cargo planes at the Leipzig Airport. We plowed through fog banks and down steep hills and almost sideswiped an 18-wheeler. Halfway to Berlin, the driver stuck his hand back towards us and said in accented English, “Give me my money now, please.” I’m thinking, “Naw, potna. Not until I see a ‘Wilkommen in Berlin’ sign.”
Needless to say, we made it safely, and I’m open to giving Mitfahrgelegenheit another whirl. I just need to memorize the German phrase for “slow the hell down, mannn!” Or am I just getting old?
Often in my travels, people ask me which of my two home bases I prefer—Berlin or São Paulo. Like any place, each has its pros and cons and sometimes, at different times, I might need more of what one has to offer than the other. No two cities could be more unalike or more enthralling to my sensibilities as a lover of urban spaces, and I’ve identified three factors about each place that speak to why I spend much of my year there.
- History at the heart of Europe: Having been the biggest prize to be won during World War II, a pawn between superpowers during the Cold War, and the capital of a centuries-old nation, Berlin’s history is vivid and palpable on every street. All the museums help, too. And with all the convenient air and rail links to the rest of Europe—Madrid, Istanbul, or London in two hours or less—Berlin’s my undisputed access point to the Continent, past and present.
- Cheap and easy culture: On any given afternoon, you can hear Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring played by buck nekkid musicians, then grab a doner kebab en route to an exhibition about Pac Man at the Video Game Museum before dancing under a bridge until the sun comes up. And all for about five euro or less.
- My circle of black American expat friends: Whereas in São Paulo, I know maybe two black Americans, I know a rack of ‘em in Berlin. We get together at restaurants where people give us funny looks for being loud and raucous, and we just ignore them, loudly and raucously reenacting scenes from Coming to America like we were at some Saturday afternoon barbecue in Atlanta. There’s no place like “home.”
- My friends, period: Brazilian, non-Brazilian, wherever they come from, I’ve been blessed with some of the coolest, warmest, most open-hearted, dynamic, interesting friends on the planet, all in São Paulo. Whenever I’m in town, even if schedules don’t allow for a lengthy reunion, I still get a hearty welcome and the humbling feeling of being appreciated and loved. That’s what friends are for!
- Brazilian affability: São Paulo might be the “New York of Brazil,” but paulistanos have all the friendliness and affability of the rest of the country, easily offering directions and assistance when needed, quick to smile and generally polite. In a metro area of 20 million people, it’s shocking that anyone’s nice at all, but here, I just feel at home. Included.
- The skyline: New York’s skyline is iconic but finite. Hong Kong’s skyline is dramatic but hemmed-in. São Paulo’s skyline is forever—forever expanding, forever changing, forever mesmerizing me for hours on end, regardless of the angle or point of view.
Are you torn between two cities? If so, which ones?
Berlin is known for being a hotbed of experimentation—in art, in music, even in hotel accommodations. In the edgy Neukölln district, intrepid travelers can capture the spirit of the open road at Hüttenpalast. Literally “hut palace,” this innovative little inn is housed inside an old vacuum cleaner factory, with throwback trailers (called caravans) and customized bungalows (called huts) arranged in a large, glass-enclosed “campground.” The small, but aerodynamic trailers harken back to family road trips in postwar Germany, while the bungalows—one shaped like a church altar, another like a house made of wooden blocks—evoke children’s toys. The vast common area features a library of hip coffee table books and art magazines, as well as the shared bathroom facilities (very common in European budget hotels). Traditional hotel rooms are also on offer for those wanting a more conventional experience or a little more wiggle room, but it’s sleeping in a retro-futuristic aluminum trailer that’s half the fun. After all, no one ever says “If the hotel room’s rockin’, don’t come knockin’.”
Inside the larger confines of the factory is a much-lauded garden, a summertime respite of flowers and trees where guests can eat, drink, and make merry. In colder seasons, the action moves inside, but the atmosphere is all about fostering social interaction among visiting guests and the surrounding neighborhood, which is why the hotel facilitates activities and requires Friday night guests to book Saturday night as well and make a weekend out of it. Breakfast is not included in the nightly rate for the hotel rooms, but the café serves up tasty, inexpensive fare. Also, like many places in Berlin, credit cards are not accepted, so be prepared to pay cash for all services.
For a uniquely Berlinesque hotel experience at a reasonable price, check in to the Hüttenpalast, and don’t forget to hang that “…don’t come ‘knockin’” sign up on the trailer door.
tel. +49 (0)30-37 30 58 06
Rates (July 2012):
caravans/huts – 45€ single/65€ double – croissant + coffee included
hotel rooms – from 65€ single/85€ double