A Night (Half Marathon) in Rostock

Sometimes we end up doing quite stupid things on hindsight – ‘Well everything worked out fine’ – and last Saturday was exactly that.

I couldn’t get a day off for what was to be my second half marathon so I was (literally) up on my legs from 6:00 – 15:00. Just the night before, I was silently bothered to read the mail from the race organiser when I really should have been sleeping. That’s when I learned that the Rostock Half Marathon was not the breeze I was assuming it to be. The starting line was not that easy to reach on public transport, apparently. I had my bus from Berlin to Rostock booked at 16:00 and I would get there by 18:50  to make the run at 19:55. The optimist me said this was doable, everyone else said I should really have a Plan B.

A little negative influence later and my lack of real interest in the run, I thought I really wouldn’t make it. However, Saturday noon I decided to try my luck with BlaBlaCar. Within 2 hours, I got myself a ride who agreed to pick me up at Brandenburg Gate, and by the time I finished work at 15:00, it was a mad dash to find my driver. Stupidity aside, I learned what a Panzer was that afternoon as I met my driver in front of the Soviet Memorial.

I had never been to Rostock and did not do any research. I had no idea where to be dropped off and the man did not speak any English so I ended up bleeding out my German sentences. Just as things finally lightened up and I thought I could make it before 18:00, our car got stuck in Autobahn traffic, halfway along Berlin and Rostock, and there was nothing for me to do but nap.

After those agonising 20 minutes, the man just raced on the Autobahn. We must have driven over 200kph for the rest of the journey. So yes, I made it to Rostock just minutes before 18:00, and was asked to get off by the light and walk the final 200m to the port. I always thought my friend’s ramblings about his flying BlaBlaCar driver to Stuttgart was a joke but my first ride proved there was a fine line between that and reality.

Surely, you can’t be that stupid.

-BlaBla driver who wanted to get me to my destination at 18:00 when I didn’t even know where my destination was

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I managed to meet up with my friends Gaurav and Emilie to take the last ferry to the starting line and save me all the trouble of finding the place on public transport, only to learn that the great Omar was still nowhere near us. He had left Berlin 2 hrs before I did, but ended up stopping a little too many times along the way that it ended up becoming a 4 hour drive for him.

I had not eaten anything apart from my sandwich at 11am, and starving, I ended up eating most of Gaurav’s protein bar which he had procured for the run. I hate protein bars. They look like earth and if I know better, I’d say they taste like earth, but I must say if I didn’t have that protein bar, I’d have given up halfway through.

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On the 18:15 ferry to the starting point

I’ve learned a while ago that when it comes to certain people (especially Omar), worrying is pointless. The guy has this totally chill aura and always makes it. He showed up for his first half marathon five minutes before the start.

The weather was glum. It was windy and drizzled a bit, and it was very grey. Thankfully, the drizzling stopped by the time our run started and it stayed dry the whole evening. I would have said ‘all is well‘ except for the route.

My first half marathon, the Isle of Skye Half Marathon, had been a hilly challenge and I spent a good ten minutes walking. The Rostock Half Marathon was a kinder version of Skye. Instead of the hill at the starting point, it was a downhill run through the Warnow Tunnel leading to an agonising first climb. Only, after a loop around, you go through the downhill-uphill tunnel experience again.

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Despite the unwarranted ascents, badly-placed turns and poor crossings , the route kept me entertained – lots of greenery and even a bit of trail running. I had no music on for the whole run as my phone was running low and I had to save battery. To add insult to injury, my companions left me by the 3km mark. I managed to catch up to Omar by 8km and then refreshed by isotonic, sped on to leave him, banana in hand.

The sunset was beautiful that day and the wind nice and cool. It was cute how people had drawn with coloured chalks on the asphalt, listing names of people they were cheering for. There was even a quote that made me smile.

‘Lächle, du machst das freiwillig.’

Smile, you are doing that out of choice. 

By 18km, I was ready to stop any minute. I was not tracking my time and was always running behind the 4:00hr marathon pacer despite my best efforts. I was on the edge. I felt like I was really pushing myself to speed up but in reality, I was just barely keeping up with my pace. Luckily, I met 2 locals who suggested we run the last 3km together. They were also ready to stop but didn’t. They’d done the course before so they knew exactly what was up at the end.

The last 3km were agonizing, and the final steps to the finish line was awful. The ascent made me feel like crying. To make matters worse, they put two arches before the actual finish line. I was ready to stop by the first arch after the gruelling uphill climb but was cheered on by my running companions. ‘Almost there,’ he said for the third time.

We pushed through to the end without stopping and I made the finish line after 2:01:47.

What’s the best thing about running in Germany?

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Beer at the finish line.
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Quedlinburg: Germany’s First Capital

Germany is dotted with quaint little towns most people will never have heard of and will probably never visit. These towns are the stuff fairytales are made of: narrow cobblestone streets and colourful timber-framed houses dating as far back as the 16th century.

The Harz region, a mountain range that lies about 200km from Berlin is strewn with these little towns. An unplanned drive with my visiting uncle led to our discovery of Quedlinburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site along the Romanesque Road.

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Timber-framed houses in the historic Altstadt

The name Quedlinburg comes from a villa that belonged to a nobleman name Quitilo. His name stemmed from the Old German ‘quit’ which meant ‘to speak/converse’. Thus, Quito was somebody who could speak well and Quitilo was used to refer to the young Quito. Quitilo and his descendants lived here and the town was refered to in documents as Quitlingen or Quitlinga.

Quedlinburg is dubbed as Germany’s First Capital, having been the place where Heinrich der Vogler (Henry the Fowler) was offered the German crown in 919 by Franconian nobles. Henry’s son, Otto I (Otto the Great) became king of the Holy Roman Empire. After Henry’s death, his widow, Saint Matilda founded a religious community, Quedlinburg Abbey, for women on the castle hill where daughters of the higher nobility were educated. The main task of this  foundation was to pray for the memory of King Henry and the rulers who came after him.

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Quedlinburg Castle Hill

For some time, Quedlinburg was ruled by women as abbesses without ‘taking the veil’, and they were free to marry. The last of these women was Sophia Albertina, a Swedish-Prussian princess who founded a school for poor children, established the first theatre in the city, and increased the salary of the clergy. Her rule was a popular one and gossip pointed out Quedlinburg as a place where noblewomen went to give birth to their illegitimate children in secret.

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Interior of the collegiate church
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Nazi-style eagle

During the Third Reich, the memory of Henry I became a cult as Heinrich Himmler saw himself as a reincarnation of who he believed was ‘the most German of all German rulers’.

He wanted the church and castle to be a shrine for Nazi Germany and create a new religion for the Nazi Party. The local crematorium was kept busy burning bodies of prisoners from the nearby concentration camp.

After liberation in 1945, the Nazi-style eagle was taken down and the Protestant bishop was allowed to return. The churchbells were also returned to the towers.

During the DDR era, Polish specialists were brought in to restore the timber-framed houses in Quedlinburg and today it is a center of restoration of Fachwerk (timber-framed) houses.

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‘Visiting Quedlinburg makes you realise how much of Germany’s quaint little towns you bypass.’ -Stefan

The old town of Quedlinburg as well as the church and castle complex have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. It’s a town with friendly locals, where nothing much seems to be happening outside of day to day lives. Occasionally, you’ll come by gaudy houses sticking out from its medieval neighbours that will make you wonder how they even got the building permit. Fortunately, there are very few of these around.

What more can you ask for on such a beautiful day while sitting outside in the mild summer sun, eating a German cheesecake in a quaint fairytale town you didn’t know existed until today?

Latte Macchiato

I never liked the feel of foam on my lips,
And the minuscule air packets that went with the sips.
I always insisted coffee be black and bitter-
As the nights that dragged after all the evanescent glitter.

Sitting on an armchair alone in the dim room,
While everyone else chose to sit where the flowers bloom,
I fell as low as one could go,
Yet the darkness kept stretching endlessly below.

There had never been a hand to pull me up.
I only ever got sips of life in another cup.
My dark bitter drug – I’ve learned to mellow you down,
Learned to appreciate the gentleness in town.

Café Knorke is one of my favourite cafés in Berlin. Located in a quiet neighbourhood in Friedrichshain, time seems to stand still here. The wooden floors and East German furnishings certainly evoke nostalgia (or Ostalgie for some people). Wi-Fi is very fast and reliable and I almost always have the whole place to myself in the early afternoon. It has become a living room to me- very gemütlich. And as a bonus, you can practice your German with the owner.

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Café Knorke
Bötzowstraße 18,
10407 Berlin
http://www.cafe-knorke-bar.de/

Spargelzeit Alarm

 

If you rank the spring vegetables by how eagerly the Germans anticipate them, the asparagus or ‘Spargel‘ (pronounced shpar-gl) in German would occupy the top pedestal without contest. Spargel is so beloved by Germans that it is considered the Queen of the Vegetables.

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Every year, with the coming of spring comes the German newspaper reports on the first spargel shoots and forecasts when the first harvests will occur. Spargelzeit (asparagus season) begins sometime between mid- April or early May and ends in late June.

It’s easy to tell it’s Spargelzeit: Almost all restaurants and even takeaway places will offer an asparagus dish. There is hardly a menu board that won’t have ‘spargel’ written on it. Supermarkets and kiosks will start selling them at pretty reasonable prices.

It used to be that asparagus was grown only in the warmer areas of Germany and left to grow as it would. This meant a harvest season of early May to late June. Farmers looking to make more money, started covering the fields with black foil so the sun heats up the soil much quicker resulting in earlier harvests. Thus, these days you can find spargel already around Easter.

But what makes asparagus so special in Germany?

IMG_0903Asparagus is very popular in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Poland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Italy, and Switzerland, and is almost exclusively white; if not, it is specified by the local language term for “green asparagus”.

White asparagus is the result of a blanching technique applied when the shoots are growing. Soil is piled over young shoots as they grow, and tarps ensure that no sunlight reaches them. Without photosynthesis, the stalks remain white. The result is an asparagus that is less bitter, more tender and thicker than its green counterpart.

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Spargel Home Dinner. Can spring get any more German?

The classic way to eat spargel is boiled, with boiled potatoes, hollandaise, and meat. It becomes the ultimate German food when it’s prepared by your Bavarian flatmate who learned to perfect the art from his parents. Yes, spargel is a serious art in this part of the world. If the Italians have al dente for pasta, I’m guessing the Germans have something for a perfectly boiled spargel too.


Spargel 101:

  • to store fresh spargel stalks, wrap them with a clean cloth (‘einwickeln‘) and put them in the vegetable compartment of your fridge. Your spargel is guaranteed to stay fresh for a few days.
  • the head is the best part of an asparagus
  • Beelitz, a town in southwest of Berlin has a long history of growing spargel (about 150 years and counting). The sandy soil of the Brandenburg region makes it an ideal place for growing spargel. The town thrives so much on spargel that it celebrates an annual asparagus festival on the last weekend of May.
  • The spargel in Beelitz is shorter than in other regions, and since the head is the best part of the spargel, you get more taste for less. You’re welcome!

Enjoy the warm and longer days and eat spargel! Spring can’t get any more German.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sakura Campaign

Every year, sections of the path where the Berlin Wall once stood (Berliner Mauerweg) turn pink with the blossoms of the cherry trees or sakura.

IMG_3980In 1990, the Japanese set up The Sakura Campaign and managed to come up with enough funds to donate around 9,000 cherry trees in celebration of German reunification. It has been almost 16 years since the first trees were planted by the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, and today little remains of the ugliness of the Cold War years.

There are hanami events in Berlin every spring but I managed to miss it again this year. Hanami is a traditional Japanese custom of gathering around for picnics to appreciate the transient beauty of cherry blossoms, and less popularly, plum blossoms. The blossoms usually last for just two weeks, so I was very glad that I managed to catch it mid-season. There are some trees that haven’t blossomed yet so I’m keeping my fingers crossed on seeing them again next week. Spring rolls in way too fast for my liking yet the temperatures take too long to warm up.

I visited the section of the Mauerweg just beside S-Bahnhof Bornholmer Straße. It’s a small stretch with just about 200 trees but it’s one of the popular ones out there.

 

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Chilling by the Cherry Trees: the Japanese believe sakura bring people inner peace and serenity

The Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and Environment has a detailed list of the trees planted by The Sakura Campaign which you can find here. You can also check out the last page of The Sakura Campaign flyer for a map of where the cherry trees are located.

Whether you’re going alone or with company, Happy Hanami!

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The Box

There is a big sharing community in Berlin, evident in all the facebook groups around.

My favorite has always been Free Your Stuff Berlin – which I joined back in January 2015. I got a lucky clover, a corkboard, and some German novels out of it, but it’s been ages since I’ve been active on it.

Yesterday, Gaurav sent me a photo of a box he was going to pick up, and naïve as I am, I ended up agreeing to slavery and went along with him.

It was a beautiful bright spring day with only the gentlest breeze every now and then. I completely missed spring last year (a.k.a. The Year of Two Autumns), and this year was my first chance to fully experience spring. I’ve been watching the trees closely, and I am still at awe at the speed the leaves are sprouting. They just started growing out yesterday, today it already feels like it will be completely out tomorrow.

It was quite a lovely neighbourhood, a little stretch from U-Bahnhof Moritzplatz, but nice and quiet and dotted with park patches all around. We came back home with a box of books in four languages: English, German, French, and Spanish.

The best part of the day was finding out that I finally got my hands on one of Kerri Smith’s books to wreck – for free! And there is no one to challenge its being mine because Gaurav doesn’t speak German.

 

 

 

 

The Winter Mess: An Album

It’s spring in Berlin now.

I sincerely hope so.

Time to get busy and shed off those extra winter pounds. Time to clean the closet. Time to make use of all the winter pictures that have been sitting dormant and useless in my drive. I am not a winter person – two winters have made that clear. I like the snow, but winter in Berlin is 91 % the greyness and dullness and 9% the snow-blanketed winter wonderland. So here’s the 9% good part of winter.

 

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Let’s pretend those are Salzstange
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Gloveless and playing with snow in below zero temp: bad idea I can tell you

Here’s a list of my favourite places in Berlin in winter (when there is snow):

  • Drachenberg
  • Neuer See at Tiergarten (It’s an all-season favourite.)
  • Schlosspark Charlottenburg (quiet and regal)
  • Volkspark PBerg (because it’s five minutes away)

I don’t go out much in winter because it’s too cold, it’s too damn cold, it’s just too goddamn cold. After New Year’s Eve, I just start the depressingly long countdown to warmer days and greenery.