Observant Thoughts From Mexico By Someone From Berlin

I have lost count of how many times I have used the sentence other countries, other customs  on this blog. I may have done that so many times that it is almost like a cliché by now.

On the other hand, at the end of my fourth week in Mexico City I notice that some things are really different from Berlin. In a good way. In a way I find so interesting that in today’s writing session I want to list some observations from living here. They are rather random and don’t appear in an order of preference. Just some things that make me realize I have really moved countries.

First of all, I am amazed at how open and friendly the mexican people are! It may be a matter of personality, but I find it much easier to approach people here than I did in Germany. I have heard a couple of times from other expats that the people in Germany are sometimes a bit distant. In Mexico I noticed how people greet each other randomly sometimes in the streets, sometimes in the elevators. I noticed that since I am here, I smile more often at strangers and they smile back, too. My Spanish is not yet at its best but my mexican peers keep speaking Spanish to me instead of English, bravely listening on to my mix-up of the different past tense forms and misplacement of adjectives in a sentence, not to mention my confusion with so-called false-friends words I get from my knowledge of English.

I sometimes come to think that different cities have different sounds. When I first got here and heard the calls of the street vendors, I first thought of prayer calls I am familiar with from muslim countries.  Beside the constant traffic noise, the sound of musical boxes strike me as very dominant in some parts of town. That way, a walk through the streets has a fun fair feeling to it.

Because I have been here for only a short period of time still, every trip to the supermarket for me is like a whole adventure. Currently, I am pretty much trying my way through all sorts of yoghurt, pastries and (american) junk food. I can’t fail to take note of how even the ssupposedly sugar-free things like Dr. Pepper or the non-alcoholic sangria drink I found are almost too much for me. It seems like the people in Mexico like sugar in general. I mean, I really love churros but with all the sugar on top I just can’t take it.

Speaking of food, as someone who spent most of her life in Europe, I am still in search of all sorts of american products and fast food chains I can find. The most exotic american thing that I have come across in Europe was the Taco Bell I found while in Madrid and even then I only acknowledged its existence instead of actually eating there. So generally speaking, things like Olive Garden, Hershey’s, IHOP etc are things I only know from movies or TV shows, which makes them seem like…I don’t even know…pop-culture items? Just imagine all the things I had to go through to get my hands on a can of shortening, not to mention the price. There’s a seven-eleven shop at nearly every corner here and they sell Reese’s flavored cappuccino. Yes, the USA are definitely somewhere near here. Am I the only one who thinks Life-Savers gummies taste very artificial?

But even if not all things I find in the supermarket are really my thing, I am super grateful for the people at the cash registers who pack the  groceries for you (I believe the actual word in english is “baggers”). I have never liked to do groceries on a big scale in Germany because there I always have to pack my items myself under the impatient stare of the other shoppers right after I have paid. Here in Mexico I get help with that and am always happy to leave a little tip for that kind of stress relief.

Street Food stands are constant part of the picture when walking around town. Pretty much anyone can open such a stand and the locals don’t seem to mind the food at all. In fact, I have sometimes seen people wait in line for their tacos or quesadillas before they sit down at the plastic tables. I haven’t tried any of that food and I probably shouldn’t for the sake of my sensitive, untrained stomach but I can at least take part by registering the scent of fried meat, hot fat and corn tortillas.

I have decided to visit Mexico after I had seen the movie Frida and since coming here I am really excited about how the people here seem to like art. From a european point of view, museum tickets are very affordable and there is a lot to see for art lovers. Museums here are always well visited, even on week days. If I am not mistaken, Mexico City has the highest number of museums on the american continent.

While in Germany it is common to go to parks during the summer months to grill, in Mexico do you not only find absolutely stunning green spaces but will also notice that they are always well visited on the weekends. Especially families like to spend their free days in parks and if you ever find yourself in this beautiful city, pay a visit to Bosque de Chapultepec! Do it.

When I go to a pharmacy in Germany, most things sold are pretty much medicine related only, with the exception of some cosmetic products, teas and glucose candy. A pharmacy in Mexico City sells pretty much anything from medicines to corn flakes to chocolates to shaving supplies for men and hygienic items for women. Some pharmacies even have doctors on site that you can consult if you have any health complaints.

 

 

 

 

The Movies and Books That Inspire My Travels

As I grow older I realize how difficult it becomes for me to find a book that really fascinates me. One that I would read while waiting for the train instead of listening to music or that I would secretly get lost in,  the pages hidden under the desk, instead of listening to a lecture I find rather shallow in content.

With time it also becomes difficult to sit through a movie when watching it at home, which is one of the reasons I started learning how to crochet to keep myself in one spot while watching something.

But sometimes there are books and movies or sometimes even songs that just get to you and keep you captivated to the last page or the last scene. In my case books and movies, as early as since 2009, have inspired me to travel to certain places or at least put them on my “To- Do in a Lifetime” list. This is not to say that books and movies always describe places as they really are but at least they have the power to make us curious, which is what I love about them.

So today I have thought of putting together a list of these books and movies. I am not so great with content descriptions so I hope the links will be enough and that you might find something interesting for yourself among these.

Frida (Mexico City): I stumbled upon this film while looking for something autobiographical and based on a true story. I loved the portrayal of this artist’s life so much that at the age of 19, I had decided that one day I must save enough money to go to Mexico City and have a look at her paintings.  I even remember searching for an exhibition of Frida Kahlo art in Germany, only to discover that the last exhibit was in 2010. As it so happens, I seem to have won the lottery of destiny since I now get to live in Mexico City for the next 6 months.

The Fault in Our Stars (Amsterdam): The books of John Green became popular around my peers during my last year while studying in Kosovo. I was touched by this book so much that I felt affected by the events described in the book for the next few days after finishing  it. Since part of this book takes place in Amsterdam, it was an easy decision to choose between the capital of the Netherlands and the city of Prague for my first ever solo trip in Europe at the age of 18 (which has started a series of other solo trips around the world from then on). Too bad some of the places mentioned in the book were fictional. 🙂

The Millenium Trilogy (Stockholm):  Have you ever read a book whose content is actually kind of disgusting but it is that exact detailed description of gruesome things that makes it so irresistible (which is kind of how I feel about Game of Thrones)? I am not a fan of thriller literature by nature but Stieg Larsson definitely convinced me. Since I read this book in 2010, Sweden is on my list of places to visit, so I can follow the steps of my favorite protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

My Beautiful Country (Kosovo): I had seen this movie almost two years after I had left Pristina to return to Germany but I feel like having lived there and with the basic knowledge I had about this place’s history, I enjoyed this movie even more. This is the only movie about Kosovo I know of so far, so dear friends from the region, if you know another movie worth seeing, please let me know in the comments below!

Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo (Pristina, Kosovo): If dramatic war movies as mentioned above are not really your thing to get you interested in a place, try this memoir by Elizabeth Gowing. There is something about this writing style and the love of detail that makes me love this book, especially since the author writes about her encounters with the locals and her trips in the region. It’s such a shame I didn’t buy a  signed hard copy of this book when Mrs. Gowing was presenting her work at our school.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Trilogy (Barcelona): I have never read a book so vivid with such a variety of characters as the books of this series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This way of writing actually made me overthrow and start anew my own book writing project at the time. It tells a very beautiful story and once Barcelone ceases to be either too expensive or too hot for me, I am definitely off to see it!

Eat, Pray, Love (Italy): By the time I read this book and saw the movie, I had actually already been to Rome once. Especially since this seems to be a memoir sort of book, I found it to be very exciting to read about a woman starting life anew abroad and while this book mentions India and Indonesia as well, I was more inspired to get back to Rome once more especially since all of my photos from my first visit are gone. I wonder how much longer until I have the savings to take a language course in Italy!

My Life in France (Paris):  I have started reading this book just yesterday after watching the movie Julie & Julia but by the looks of it, the writing style of Julia Child might get me even closer to my plans of re-visiting Paris. Likewise, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter should be equally inspiring although I must admit that I have not read it yet.

The Museum of Innocence (Istanbul): I have read that book only months after I had already visited Istanbul and this long, tedious and yet captivating novel by Orhan Pamuk made me regret that I had not read it sooner. Had I read it before going to Istanbul, I may have known to visit the actual museum of innocence. What’s most interesting about it is that the museum was based on the book and not the other way around.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution (Havana): While the “sequel” to Dirty Dancing gave me a visual inspiration to visit Havana, the memoir by Alma Guillermoprieto gave me something to imagine and think about so I am very excited that Cuba is only three hours by plane from here.

 

If there are any books or movies that have inspired you to travel, feel free to share them with me in the comments. I am always happy to receive suggestions and make new discoveries.

 

Happy Halloween

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Photo by: Toa Heftiba

For the last couple of days, on the news feeds of my social media accounts, Halloween jokes have been shared and costumes and make-up presented with a pinch of pride.

Growing up in Berlin and never having been anywhere near the United States or Canada, this holiday had always appeared to me as something…let’s just say “rather American”.

Even though one can find tons of decorations for this theme, I have never seen carved pumpkins lightening up the porches of houses or the windows of apartments in Berlin. Just like there are tons of Halloween decorations for one’s home, there are probably as many parties around here, where it’s all about looking spooky (or at least being dressed up as something) and having fun to ear-shattering music and expensive booze.

The only children dress ups I have ever known and been part of, were the ones we had in elementary school every once in a while but I have never, not even when I used to live in a house, come across groups of excited children roaming the streets in search of candy.

Therefore I have always assumed that Halloween was just another reason for us Germans to throw a party when (or because) there is no time to invade Mallorca on a short notice. I didn’t think much when I spotted a little girl dressed up as a witch, waiting in line at the supermarket next to her father today. But a few minutes ago, I heard someone ring my doorbell three times. After a few seconds of confusion I realized that the whole “trick or treat” thing was actually happening. In my apartment building, in a far, far away part of Berlin that even some locals  know from legends only without ever having been here. Who else would be standing at my door at this hour and weather?

I had no choice but to remain silent until I heard the muttering of children’s voices and tiny steps becoming more and more silent with the increasing amount of stairs walked. I have never felt so bad about not having any child- appropriate candy in the house. I really hope they had more luck elsewhere.

So even if Halloween is not such a big deal here, no matter where you are from,  I guess it is always good to have candy at hand. You never know.

Germans and Small Talk

I started watching a vlog by a charming American woman who lives in Munich with her German husband. In her cheerful voice full of positive energy, she talks about living in Germany, explaining different aspects of the daily life here to those from abroad while also addressing habits and the lifestyle in the United States.

In one of her  videos she talked about how small talk is not really a thing here in Germany compared to the U.S. and that got me thinking.

I thought to have noticed that difference, too especially after having met some Americans and Canadians during my time at international schools but until now I somehow thought that maybe this had something to do with my own attitude untl I heard other Americans share the same thoughts with me.

I don’t want to generalize. Berlin is such a multicultural place that it is often impossible for me to tell if someone is German or maybe has foreign roots just by plain first sight. What I did notice by living here is that strangers don’t talk to each other very much, especially not spontaneously, unless the situation requires it; with some exceptions of course.

I used to have the urge to have random conversations just to be nice and maybe make new friends but as time passed I noticed that whenever I approached someone spontaneously to have small talk, people wondered what I actually needed from them. In Germany, so I felt, you talk to people with a particular purpose, at least most of the time. If you talk just for the hell of it, the other person might feel like you are wasting their time or be generally surprised about why you are talking to them.

I have also noticed that over the past years, if I actually ever had engaged in small talk, then it was with middle-aged or elderly people. It is more likely that you will spontaneously be discussing the surprisingly low price of strawberries at the Turkish store with a middle-aged customer who just happens to be standing near you, than with someone in their 20s.

I remember how I stood in an immense crowd on the 25 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few years back, watching as the balloon barrier was released into the night sky. There was an older lady next to me and somehow we started talking and she told me all about where she was on that historical date 25 years ago. How her family and her were sitting in front of the TV, not able to believe what was happening. Of course she was obviously able to relate to the historical situation but I guess that if I were to chat up a person my age at lets say the yearly gay pride parade, my chances of engaging in a conversation would be lower in Germany than maybe somewhere else.

And somehow that anti small talk attitude got me, too. Not that I don’t like it but the few times it did actually happen to me with people my own age, I was very much taken by surprise.

I was doing groceries one night and got in line behind a group of young people who were definitely travelers. One of them turned around, looked at me and smiled. He asked me something. I don’t exactly know what he said. Maybe something like how I was doing and what I was up to. Whatever it was,  I felt as if the situation was just like I would imagine it in a grocery store in America after all that I have heard. I was so surprised. I was standing there thinking: “Are you talking to me? Just like that?Out of nowhere?  Why?” I needed too long to say anything back and just smiled. He didn’t expect that response I guess and asked me if I did not understand English. 🙂

It does not stop at travellers though. I have met an exception to the rule only a few months ago. I was reading a book by a bus stop when a young woman with blonde hair sat next to me. She looked at the cover of the book I was reading (Fabian- The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner) and asked whether it was a war book. I looked up in surprise. Was she talking to me? Just like that? Without knowing me or wanting anything specific like asking what time it was or when the next bus was coming? Why was that? I told her it was a historical novel set shortly before WWII. She asked if it was okay if she smoked, lighted a cigarette and started talking about this one book she was reading, too and how this actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad was playing in a new movie based on some other book (maybe even the one she was reading. I can’t remember today).

So maybe attitudes are slowly coming to a change but in general small talk is not such a big thing here in Germany. People like to mind their own business but who knows when you will meet an exception to the rule?

Torn Between Home and Elsewhere

When I walked the narrow, nostalgic streets of Lisbon, listening to the sounds of Portuguese TV programmes escaping through open windows and watching the yellow streetcars pass by, I thought to myself: “This would be a great place for a honeymoon”. When I visited Madrid two summers ago, I started thinking about what a nice idea it would be to come back  for an ERASMUS semester.

How come I rarely experience such fascination with my own hometown? Many other travelers get just as excited about Berlin, as I can get about Vienna, Valletta or Havana but many other travelers surely have made the experience that foreign soil is much more fascinating than the one you have walked on all your life.

It is during my last few hours in Vienna, in front of the state opera that I see the answer in front of my inner eye as clear as day.

Elsewhere gives me a break from everyday life. In Berlin I have responsibilities. I have to keep my flat clean, my fridge full and my table set for meals. I have to be available to other people on the phone and through E-Mail. I have to tend to the content of my mailbox and listen to tired employees of our bureaucratic system complain about how much they have to do.

When I am away from home, I am away from all these things and there is nothing I can do about not being available. I can spend my days getting lost in the streets of a new place, writing about anything that comes to mind and read one book after the other without feeling in the least unproductive.

Maybe the reason why foreign places are so attractive is the way they set us free from our routine like obligations. Saying something like: “I couldn’t answer your E-Mail because I was travelling”, sounds more legitimate than saying “I just didn’t feel like it”.

On the other hand, in the context of travel, everyday-life things can reveal their charming sides like they have never before. While at home, I don’t take meals very seriously. Although I mostly prepare them myself, I try to finish them quickly, using as little cutlery and plates as possible so I can move on to my next task and turn on the dishwasher once a week only to save water and electricity. One morning in Vienna however, I finally discovered how beautiful it is to have breakfast in the early morning with nowhere to be at a certain time and with nothing important to think about other than the sound of ringing churchbells. I had no idea how delicious a sandwich made with butter, some jam, a slice of cheese and a handful of grapes on the side can be until that morning.

No, we do not travel to other places because we don’t like home. We travel so we can remember the simple pleasures of life. We travel so that we can let go just for a little bit and allow ourselves to find fulfillment in doing nothing in particular.

More travel stories here. Thanks for stopping by!

Have a Problem With the ‘Burqa’? Then Read This!

I have been living in Berlin for most of my life now and as I got older, I heard more and more from those around me about how they were bothered by Muslim women. By that they mostly referred to those who choose to wear a face veil additionally to their black coats and headscarves.

Before I proceed with today’s post, there is one thing that I would like to point out about the dress code for women in Islam, for the sake of information.

Burqa and abaya in Berlin

I think it is time to point out that a burqa is, based on my research and my own awkward confusion of the two while living in Riyadh, a cover for women that is made of one single piece and covers a woman from head to toe, with a net in the eyes area. It is mostly worn in Afghanistan. The abaya on the other hand, is a coat or dress like garment that is usually black. The headscarf (hijab) and the face veil (niqab) that has a slit for the eyes are two separate pieces that are worn with it. In my 16 years of living in Berlin I have never seen an Afghan burqa. Those women that you see here, wearing a black coat and a black face cover, are wearing an abaya, not a burqa.

—————- end of info section—————

Although there can be as many different reasons as there are people for why some are against the full cover, most people have pointed out to me that “they were simply bothered by the sight of women wearing all black with no face to be seen. They did not like to look at something like that.”

I have spent many months thinking about this and now that the conservative AfD party has become a member of the Landtag in three states recently , I would like, with this post, to address those people who are bothered by the sight of women in full cover.

I would like to point out to you all the things that for example I  (and maybe some others) “don’t like the sight of” in Germany although for some reason the majority of people doesn’t care. Oh, and before you start criticizing me, which you are welcome to do in the comments, keep in mind that I am NOT Muslim myself so please go find another argument.

I don’t like to see men walking around shirtless in the summer with their enormous beer guts showing. They don’t just walk around here. They also take the train and the bus and sometimes other people have to sit next to them. I think shirtless people belong to the beach, not the city. I think having to look at a shirtless man who is not even in good shape, in a public place is somewhat disgusting and yet no one else seems bothered and I see it every year again.

I don’t like it when I have to watch  (young) people showing off how much they like each other in public. Here, if you look closely, young people kiss and hug passionately on trains, in busses, parks, in the corners of supermarkets, public swimming pools and not to mention saunas.

In fact, I have come across and article today which gives suggestions for the best places where one can have undisturbed sex in public. I am still trying to figure out if maybe this was just a joke.

It bothers me to see how some 12 year olds dress today. Nowadays they show off more than is good for the human eye. I am bothered by how in the middle of the night some guys like to get drunk around Alexanderplatz, turn on the music and get (all) their pants down. People just keep walking. No one says anything. No one calls the police or tells them to stop. Like nothing ever happened.

Yes, I know that in theory indecent public behavior is against the law in Germany and yet I have never seen that law being enforced. While growing up, I was never made to believe by society that doing the things mentioned above is not okay. I have never seen any political or other discussions about how such behavior should be stopped like I see discussions on banning conservative Islamic clothing because people consider it “indecent”. Instead, it has constantly come to my attention how unacceptable it is if a woman decides to dress according to her religious believes.

I like the freedom I have here. I like my short skirts and my strapless dresses. I like to go out with my friends no matter what gender they are. I appreciate the fact that I can write this post and many others without having to fear for the police to come and get me at any moment for what I have just said. Yet I think that before we start criticizing other people from other cultures, we should get some order into our own. I don’t see why we should tolerate indecency and punish modesty.

Yes, I  believe that in a democratic country everyone should be able to do whatever the hell he or she wants to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but if we want to play this card of freedom and tolerance, then this concept should work both ways.

If we consider it okay to be half-naked in public, we should then (even more) consider it okay if someone chooses to dress modestly. Those people who are demanding an actual ban on the face veil should demand an equally strong ban on indecent behavior.

Those women walking around all in black do so because it matters to them. It makes them feel like they are doing the right thing. It makes them feel closer to God and comfortable about themselves (among other things I presume) and as long as they don’t make other people follow their example (which I have never seen happening), we should absolutely leave them alone and mind our own business!

In comparison to that, there is NOTHING fulfilling, meaningful or right about making out in public or showing off your muscles which aren’t even there. Learn the difference before you decide what bothers your eye-sight and why.

————- ——end of rant—————–

Christmas in Germany

christmas deco

Over the last two days I found out that Russian Orthodox Christians actually don’t care very much about Christmas. I listened to the Russian radio online and noticed that none of the wishes that people sent to each other and had the radio hosts read out loud on air were about Christmas or Christmas Eve, instead everyone was congratulating the rest on the upcoming new year.

Some people may wonder, upon reading this, how someone who is baptized and has Russian Orthodox Christian relatives does not know such a simple thing. I thought about that, too. How come this became clear to me just now?

The answer might be very simple. The more I observe my surroundings and the way Christmas is celebrated today, the more I come to think that Christmas is not what it used to be, or what it was originally intended to be for that matter.

I got into the habit of wishing people a merry Christmas without spending much thought on their religious believes. In my eyes, especially in German society, Christmas has mainly become a holiday dedicated to family and friends rather than a holiday that revolves around the birth of Christ exclusively.

Of course there are still many practicing Christians out there. Those that have a ceramic nativity scene in their living room and who go to mass on Christmas Eve. They are still around of course and so are the beautiful Christmas concerts at church but I don’t think that it would be correct nowadays to apply that religious concept on German society as a whole.

To me it seems like the religious aspect of Christmas slowly got lost among all the Christmas markets and special sales. Maybe even due to the fusion of different opinions and believes. But that is not a bad thing, if you think about it. The generalization of this holiday, in my opinion made it more available to everyone, regardless of their religious background.

One does not have to be Christian in order to appreciate beautiful holiday decorations, choirs singing Christmas songs, the sweet taste of roasted almonds, the fun of baking cinnamon and vanilla cookies or the time one spends with his family over a delicious dinner. In many cases, if it weren’t for the Christmas holidays, many people here would barely ever see their families at all.

To me, after so many years in Berlin, Christmas is about exactly that, being with family and friends at one festive table and making the best out of each others company. That is the image of Christmas that I grew  up with and none of my relatives with different religious views, Jewish, Christian or Agnostic, not even my Muslim friends, have ever tried to convince me otherwise. I am pretty sure that it won’t be any different for my own children. Christmas should be for everyone to be reminded once again of how much we love or at least appreciate  those who are close to us.

Interestingly enough, I don’t seem to be the only one who has made that observation. The kebab stand at Spandau old town has put up (Christmas) lights in its small windows and many bakeries here in Berlin owned by Muslims have “happy holidays” written on their windows, too.

The beauty parlor that I go to is owned by an Asian family. A small shrine and various incense sticks in the corner of the room suggest that they are probably not Christian but nevertheless there is a marvellous Christmas tree standing by the reception desk.

Maybe it all has been a result of assimilation. Maybe some people have just decided to join the crowd and acknowledge the holidays because everyone else does, who knows? I am about to go visit family members who are Agnostics and still, my aunt makes the most delicious Christmas dinner that I have ever had.

And with that, whatever it is you believe in, I wish you a merry Christmas and if you strictly refuse to belive into the religious background of this day, then I hope that at least the cheerful atmosphere will make it a nice day for you!