Monday, February 28, 2011

Day 45-54: Berlin: Prenzlauer Berg pictures and the world is small

Only in a big city like Berlin do you realize how small the world actually is.

For example, I met somebody who on August 2, 2009 was at the Palace Square in St. Petersburg when I was there for Madonna's concert (she was there for The Hermitage).

I met here somebody who knows somebody that I went on a weekend trip with as far as back in 2005.

I met somebody who I was supposed to meet in Prague, but now by pure chance met in Berlin.

All of these situations left me bewildered each time. It’s a nice feeling. And a nice way to impress somebody during a conversation that is about to get boring.

Some more things about Berlin that might be of interest:

If you want to get lost, go to Hauptbahnhof. Seriously. It’s so huge and so clumsily planned out, I thought, that in a short time it’s not possible to find your way around. I was there twice, both times I was a bit short on time, and twice I had the misfortune of getting completely disoriented. The second time I was about to go see a Berlinale movie and I was supposed to change means of transport at the station, but I never found where I was supposed to make it happen, so I had to walk/run as fast as I could.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Day 43-44: Porto: pastéis de nata, catfish and rock

A few words about Porto, Portugal:

It is charming, cheap and warm. It’s also pretty, charismatic and a little bit village-like. And if you ever wondered if you should stop by and if it’s actually worth it, the answer is a resounding yes!

Portuguese did not sound similar to Spanish to me. It was more like a mix of Polish, Turkish and Armenian.

The city itself has a fantastic old town; the distances are not long, but there are a lot of hills, so you might consider wearing really comfortable tennis shoes or something along those lines.

Pastry is divine in Porto. It melts on your tongue and makes you look up to the sky in delight. I defy anyone who does not try pastéis de nata (it originally comes from Lisbon, but can be found anywhere in Portugal). Of course every restaurant will also offer you their musing on the topic of catfish, just as will any supermarket.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Day 39-42: Barcelona: English speakers, La Rambla, sunglasses and sleeping on the bench

I arrived in Barcelona after 4 hours of sleep in Paris (boy, am I always sleep-deprived or what?) and a slight hangover… after having half a bottle of moderately expensive French wine? That sounds weird to me as well, but maybe it was just something in the air.

In Paris I had my first Ryanair flight delay (by about 30 minutes only) as well as a carry-on size check. Luckily, I was somehow overlooked in the queue and safely got away with carrying my huge DSL in my hands (or rather… stuffed into my winter coat), but having to hide it was far from pleasant.

My little “project” of not reading anything on any destination backfired a little bit as I landed in Barcelona and wanted to go to the center with train only, even though bus was right out there and seemed like a good option. So I had to walk a long way to the train and finally hop on it at the last minute (not without some confusion with the ticket machine beforehand). I knew the airport is not far from the city itself and I saw people massively exiting the train at several stops, but I only realized that Barcelona had been left behind as the train entered some fields... I had to exist in the middle of nowhere and take the train back to town. Which brings me to my next point.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Berlin Special: Berlinale Palast!

The Berlin Film Festival is officially over as I write this. It's been a fine week with 7 films overall for myself. The two I saw today Ausente and Un Mundo Misterioso both had full houses and unfortunately no Q&A's as the people involved with the films have already departed.

Ausente deals with issues of breaking the law (namely having a relationship with an underage student), not giving in to feelings or emotions and finally blaming oneself for a bad outcome in a tragic situation. Nicely shot and not too tiring to watch, the public seemed to love it.

Un Mundo Misterioso, on the other hand, wasn't as popular as some people even walked out. It runs almost a full 2 hours and there's little plot development after premise has been set - the girlfriend thinks her boyfriend and her need some time apart. The dependent guy is thrown out of his comfort zone and the film shows his ministrations as he tries to lead his life on his own.

The good thing about the movie was that it was shown in the Berlinale Palast - La Citadelle de Berlinale. I arrived 20 minutes in advance hoping to score a really good seat and found myself queuing up after at least two hundred people, out in the cold of course. We were allowed to enter only 5 minutes after the showing was supposed to start and eventually started 10 minutes later. Somebody relaxed too early, me thinks. But anyway, here is a pictures galore from the inside of this beautiful building.

berlin film festival
berlin film festiva

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Berlin Special: Berlinale, the winners!

And so the cat is out of the bag, the Bears have been awarded and the full list of the Berlin Film Festival winners is to be found here.

Out of the entire winners list (incl. special mentions) I saw Apflickorna, Stadt Land Fluss and tomorrow I'll be watching Ausente. The one movie I wanted to see and didn't was Tomboy (it went on to receive the Teddy Jury Award), it immediately sprang to my eye as I held the festival program in my hands, but it didn't work out with the showtimes for me.

As the winners were being announced next door, I was watching the Korean Ashamed (Chang-Pi-Hae). I must admit that I always have a hard time with Asian movies and that's exactly why I watch so few of them, but I once again decided to give oriental film industry a chance and try to expand my horizons.

As of a couple of days I have a flu, so maybe that would explain why I thought the film was supposed to start at 7.30pm instead of 7.00pm... [With all my vast movie-going experience, this has never happened to me before.] Of course I only realized that once I was on the bus and wanted to check if I still had the ticket (OCD) It was 6.50pm. Each ticket specifically says there's no late admittance, so I debated leaving the bus and going home, but that would mean I'd miss the Berlinale Nighttalk, so I continued the trip to Potsdamer Platz. At 7.15pm I was there and the two sweet guys at the entrance let me in. Surprisingly enough, I had the entire second row to myself. On a Saturday night, in a Berlinale film showing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Berlin Special: Berlinale Update 2!

Just half a day is left till the closing the Berlin Film Festival ceremony starts and all the bears are awarded to respective winners.

It has been fun. I saw Stadt Land Fluss and Apflickorna the other day, tomorrow I shall be seeing Un Mundo Misterioso and hopefully I'll get tickets for something tonight as well. Tonight Berlinale Nighttalk will the winners over, so I'm looking forward to this show.

Last night the charming Juliane Köhler (Aimee & Jaguar, Der Untergang) stopped by for an interview and proved to be not only a solid actress, but also an insightful person. This year she's part of the Amnesty Jury. She and Nina Hoss, member of the Competition Jury, starred together in Anonyma - Eine Frau in Berlin, so I'll be watching that one of these days.

Looking forward to the final two days of the grandness that is Berlinale!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Berlin Special: Berlinale Update!

I saw Miranda July's The Future at FriedrichstadtPalast yesterday and it was quite good. Facebook and Internet addicts will find something in common with the two protagonists. The Palast itself is actually a theater with great interior and disgustingly uncomfortable seats, I was reminded of that one drama theater in my hometown...

Later Miranda July (You and Me and Everyone We Know) was present at the night talk with Knut Elstermann and had a few things to say about this feature film where she also played the female protagonist. Turns out she's a performance artist and has a nice looking website, so I'm going to be seeing what else she does when she's not busy making films.

Nadja Uhl was the independent critic for an hour last night, too. I know her from Die Stille nach dem Schuss and turns out she won a Silver Bear for her performance and at the moment is not unpopular with the German film-going crowds, which means it was pretty full in the cafe on Potsdamer Platz, but only until she left. And the "fans" missed interviews with directors of The Forgiveness of Blood (the lovely-geeky globe-trotter Joshua Martson, known for Maria Full of Grace), A Separation, Our Grand Despair; Bombay Beach; Romeos.

It was amazing in the sense that it breaks the walls between Celebrity and the simple folk. Most of directors were sitting in the common area conversing with their friends and colleagues, the atmosphere was relaxed, also no fanatical behavior from anyone. Good times.

The one odd thing that happened was that... beer turned out to be expensive. Expensive for Berlin, anyway. I ordered a bottle for 3.5EUR having come from somewhere where I had it for 0.99EUR. But... I'll live with that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Berlin Special: Berlinale!

berlin film festival
It’s hardly a secret to anyone who knows me even a little bit that I am a film buff. I do love movies, screenplays, cinematography, good dialogue, the film-watching experience, the way I anticipate a release I think might be good, reading Roger Ebert’s reviews, the credits rolling. I can go on about movies forever and have a thing for actors and actresses (although that might change soon due to my red carpet experience described below - shock, horror!).

As my plan about coming to Berlin was set in stone, I immediately realized I’ll be around for Berlinale as well and the thought of that made me all warm and fuzzy inside. Now that it is ongoing, I realize it’s different than I expected, in both good and not so good ways. However, it still is a pleasure to witness all of it.

It all started with the Red Carpet. I’d only been once to a festival opening before and that was in Sochi, Russia. I traveled there specifically to see Catherine Deneuve. I saw her. And sat in a row right behind her. Trust me, it was worth the two sleepless nights, the fight with my mother and the 35C-heat dehydration. The red carpet itself was alright if you are interested in Russian celebrities (cross me out). Now, you would think Berlinale would by far surpass Faces of Love (that’s the corny name of the film festival in Sochi), however I can’t say I was delighted. Far from it, in fact.

Berlin Film Festival opened in the evening of February 10 this year. Earlier the same day I was reading an interview with the project manager who is in charge of the Red Carpet at Berlinale, apparently he has been doing this job for 20 years and he’s never had any faux pas or bad experiences in his position. Maybe it was his first time, I don’t know, but I was mightily disappointed with the organization: my biggest complaint was the long pauses between arriving celebrities (and “celebrities”), sometimes breaks reached almost 10 minutes. And if you think that the Red Carpet ceremony normally spans 60-90 minutes, it’s already too much. It was a bit boring, too. There’s nothing interesting in watching people in evening dresses strike poses for 15 minutes to a crowd of photographers, really. I wouldn’t have thought it, but now that I saw it and it just happens so that it made me want to yawn.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Day 37-38: Paris, is it really the city of love?

The first time around I stopped by at Paris back in 2007 and the impression of the city was not great. It was a sunny day in October, it was warm, trees had a beautiful color to their leafage and yet it didn’t work for me. It was too dirty and too much-ado-about-nothing. This trip, however, was on a cold winter weekend and the trees weren’t colorful, it was only partially sunny and yet I had a fantastic time and I believe I was able to get the city’s vibe. Because this time I involuntarily was able to get over the fact that it’s “Paris, the city of love” and just discover it for myself without looking back at this stereotype. In other words, the weather/season doesn't matter much in the end, plus winter has less tourists flocking to typically touristic places.

Also, I must say I like this two-days-per-city thing that I had going on, I was 4 days in Barcelona and it was somehow too long for me, to be honest. While during 2 days I do extensive sightseeing and walking around and I can freely cover everything I want without going somewhere where I feel I don’t have to go, but do because I’m staying longer than necessary.

I took a flight from Oslo where the night before I’d met my friend with whom I couchsurfed in Stockholm which resulted in me having exactly one hour of sleep at night and leaving for the airport bus at 4.40am. The good thing was that the flight wasn’t full and I had a chance to lie down and take a series of short naps.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Day 35-36: Oslo, Norway: expensive and cold, but nice

Oslo is the capital of Norway. That’s where most people’s knowledge of the country mostly ends. It’s not Europe’s most popular destination as Ryanair’s ¾ empty flight from Berlin shows, however it is a pleasant place to visit for a couple of days.

The journey begins with amazing views from the airplane as you approach the airport (Rygge), a lot of half-frozen islands will present themselves to your view and it might be one of the best landscapes I’ve seen from a plane apart from maybe only the Alps.

Weather: Norway is not a warm country by any means, however what you should know is that Oslo’s dry and sunny -15C actually feels better than Berlin’s cloudy chilly 0C. There is no wind, or at least there wasn’t any when I was there, and I could easily afford walking for 5-6 hours straight without actually even being cold. Of course the usual winter set of a hat, scarf and gloves is required, however you might be surprised how comfortable this weather feels.

Expenses: be prepared to cash out. Coffee and a muffin to go will cost you at least 4.5EUR. My trip to the grocery store saw me empty my wallet for 13EUR and all I bought was 0.5kg mushrooms, some grated cheese and crisps. But I suppose it doesn’t hurt to remember that also is the world’s most expensive city before you book those plane tickets.

Transport: a 24-hour transport pass will cost you about 9EUR. But I wouldn’t recommend splurging on it, because you can freely walk in Oslo from point A to point B without even starting to get tired. That’s why I didn’t really understand why the transport network had to be so extensive in the downtown area as the city is flat and the distances are not long.

The main street of Oslo is Karl Johans gate, it starts directly at the main train/bus station and leads up to the Royal Palace, which, by the way, is the most boring Palace that I have ever seen in my life (I won’t be bothered to even post a picture of it). The exterior doesn’t make it different from any other building in the city, it’s just big, so maybe that’s why they call it a Palace. Akershus Festning, on the other hand, is a location worth stopping by: it is an old fortress that is partially used by the Ministry of Defense at the present time (you'll be amazed by the shabby old buildings that they are based in) and is not only interesting looking itself, but it also presents some great views of the Oslofjord bay.

The Opera House is an interesting building that you can actually walk on. The roof starts at the ground and goes up to the level of the ceiling over the stage. Not far from the central station you can see the Oslo Cathedral, but blink and you won't notice it, it's a small church that looks very tame.

I went to Oslo without reading any travel guides or information about the city and in the end I was glad I didn't, you don't really have to know a lot before you get it, everything is out there in the center, at the airport you should just pick up a free map and you're ready to explore.

Opera House

Breathtaking view from the Opera House


City Hall overlooking the bay

Akershus Festning


Norwegians plug their electric cars into sockets on parking lots, otherwise they won't start

Oslo has some of the fattest and biggest seagulls I have ever seen, they particularly enjoy crowding up on top of the Opera House

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cheap flights or is traveling expensive?

I do love calculating expenses and it makes me inexplicably happy if I eventually end up spending less than originally budgeted. When I go over my budget even a little bit, not so much.

I think it’s essential for successful travel to keep track of expenses. Because the less you spend on one trip, the more trips you’ll be able to have as a long-term result. At least that’s a philosophy that has been working fairly well for me.

I divide my travel and expat life expenses into several categories, namely:

accommodation – typically the lowest of all when traveling as I mostly use Couchsurfing. I couldn’t praise it more, it doesn’t cost you anything AND you meet the most amazing, generous and evolved people AND you are able to share some great experiences with them

food – this includes my trips to the supermarket and all things grocery

entertainment – this is an umbrella term for a lot of things and could include: movie tickets, coffee&cake at a café, entrance fees and the like

transport – all expenses for transport excluding airfare, typically the category that brings me metaphorical headache as I find most means of public transport severely overpriced

airfare – flight tickets

IT– all things computer and cell phone related, like hours spent at Internet cafes and money spent on text messages

clothes – it used to be the major spending category, however in the recent months I have found myself to start thinking material possessions like clothing are exuberant and not as important as my travel experiences (although it doesn’t mean I wear shabby clothes, I just don’t shop for the sake of shopping)

other – anything that couldn’t fit into the above category, might include things like shampoo, toothpaste, books, etc.

And now the breakdown for my 10-day trip to Norway, France, Spain and Portugal in EUR:

accommodation 0
food 54,44
entertainment 6,25
transport 92,25
airfare 114 (previously thought to be 93EUR, but I used a calculator this time around…)
IT 3
clothes 28
other 5,6

Which brings the grand total to 303,54EUR.

Now, I actually think it could have been lower, but I mentioned this some to a couple of friends and they were amazed at the cost. Just a couple of comments:

I feel it's worth mentioning that out of this sum, I spent 70EUR on my first day in Oslo (including return bus transfer from the airport for 29 EUR) on nearly nothing, be careful with this place, it's a destination for oil tycoons.

114EUR is the price of 7 flights with Ryanair, I actually took 6 of them, because the first two I bought back in December were Berlin-Oslo and Oslo-Berlin, but I didn’t take the latter one as I eventually moved to Paris from the Norwegian capital. I do believe it’s an amazing price. That being said, Ryanair is controversial, Michael O’Leary, the CEO, is as well, the environmental policy seems good to me, I don’t necessarily agree with O’Leary on the fact that the global warming doesn’t exist, but he has interesting opinions and a sense of humor. He’s probably impossible as a boss/partner though.

But back to my expenses. Transportation is the one category that I feel discontent about, of course most of that money is the airport transfers and that’s the price you pay for Ryanair’s cheap flights, what I could suggest though is that the EU lowers its insane prices on subway/bus/tram.

But overall, I think it's an okay amount of money spent on a trip covering 4 cities in 4 different countries.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How to pack a carry-on for 10 days (and 4 countries)?

I just returned from my extensive and eventful 10-day trip around 4 popular destinations in Europe, namely

Oslo, Norway
Paris, France
Barcelona, Spain
Porto, Portugal

and will be posting reports on those locations shortly, however first things first.

A 10-day trip is not an overnight stay or a even a weekend somewhere else, it’s a full-on trip. Especially if it includes so much shifting between climate zones. For example, when I stopped by Oslo, the average temperature there was -15C, Paris was already warmer with -2-0C, Barcelona was almost shocking with its palms and 14-16C and Porto completely knocked my socks off with 18-20C during the day.

It was easier to navigate through such weather changes than one might think though and overall it was an extremely pleasant itinerary for me, except maybe I would’ve taken one day off Barcelona and spent it in Porto instead.

Now, straight to the facts. I own a standard suitcase and a regular-size Puma backpack, regular in this case means 40x30x20cm, so it’s even smaller than Ryanair’s permitted 55x40x20cm and I managed to travel with that for 10 days. It is similar to this backpack here. Looking back, it doesn’t look plausible to me anymore, but indeed that’s all I had for 10 days.

Here’s the breakdown of the things I managed to stuff into the backpack:
  • passport
  • insurance
  • 6 boarding passes
  • Couchsurfing print outs
  • paper+pen
  • underwear
  • socks
  • jeans
  • 2 T-shirts
  • light sweater
  • shirt
  • light and flat sneakers
  • additional pair of glasses
  • ziplock bag: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, shower gel
  • hairbrush
  • cell phone
  • cell phone charger
  • mp3 player and cable
  • sleeping bag (!)

At the same time, I was also wearing
  • pants
  • tights
  • t-shirt
  • woolen sweater
  • scarf-o-hat
  • winter jacket
  • winter boots
and I had a wallet in my pocket and a watch on my wrist.

Overall, the weight was 5-6kg and 1.5kg of it was the sleeping bag. Honestly, I could’ve taken many more things with me if it wasn’t for the bag, it took most of the space and I used it only for 4 days, however it proved to be absolutely necessary. As it appears, most apartment buildings in Barcelona do not have central heating and it can be quite chilly at night.

Of course it was always an adventure closing my backpack, I couldn’t sit on it because of its size, but I was squeezing it alright. Things got a little bit worse when I for some reason bought a replacement pair of jeans and 2 shirts in Oslo, which was right after my first flight, so I had 5 more to take. Obviously, there was no more space at all. The old pair of jeans had to go and I had to put even more layers on, even as I went south and I had to have my DSLR camera outside the bag. That could’ve proved to be a problem with Ryanair as they are quite strict on their one-bag rule (you can take up to 10kg worth of stuff, but it has to fit in one bag), so I had to hide it in my huge scarf or dissemble it and put the two parts into the pockets of my jacket… It could have been fun if it wasn’t so stressful. But I made all boardings safely and peacefully.

However, I see this incident as one more reason to sell the DSLR and get a regular camera that fits easily into the palm of a hand or pocket, it makes things easier.

And while I am on the topics of electronics, I should also highlight the fact that I didn’t take my laptop with me. Mostly for the sole reason of lacking space for it whatsoever, not because I wanted to be cut off Internet for a while. But it was a very liberating experience, my time online was limited to about an hour or two on the Internet (which is next to nothing, obviously) and once I even survived the day without being online and that let me enjoy the cities in a much more convenient way, I didn’t have to tear myself away from the screen as I always have to do when I get too absorbed. That said, I don’t think I’ll be brave enough again to leave my laptop behind. It feels strangely weird without the surfing.

To sum it up, I'd say that the answer to the question how to pack a carry-on for 10 days is, just take the stuff you need, no excessive clothing, material or books you won't read, cosmetics you won't use, just take the basics and wear layers if necessary.

And before I forget:

10 Days in a Carry-on - a photo guide to packing the right way, I'll adopt some of the techniques next time I do a similar trip

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Day 29-35: Friedrichshain, Falafel, Flammkuchen, Madonna party

Everything revolves around food, everywhere.

I had my first taste of a falafel here in Neukölln one night as I was coming from some party. It was very good, but would’ve been better without the cheese, so I’ll know better the next time.

A fellow couchsurfer and now a buddy of mine that I regularly hang out with out went for dinner at Friedrichshain the other night and ended up eating Flammkuchen. I was really looking forward to it, because I remember eating that in a little restaurant in Alsace and it was finger-licking good. Berlin’s version of a Flammkucken is a thick pizza without tomato sauce. This is not to say it was bad and I refused to eat it (duh!), but it wasn’t authentic, I like the combination of onions and feta cheese though. It was a place next to a movie theater called Intimes Kino on Boxhagener str., if I recall correctly. They also had no toilet paper available. The demons!

And while I am on the topic of food, I would appreciate it if somebody could recommend one or several places in Berlin where I could have a good tiramisu, I’m a big, big fan.

This weekend also saw me not going to the Madonna party that I’d been waiting for for a while. I burned out a little bit, probably. And also nobody wanted to go all that much. Maybe because the entrance was 9EUR?.. Which seems extreme for Berlin’s usual damping prices. Instead of that, my Polish buddy and I did a mini pub crawl of our own that lasted again until the wee hours of the morning. Prior to that, the same evening I stopped by another Couchsurfer’s meet-up dedicated to Russendisko, a party I promised to myself I will not attend anymore. But the couchsurfers as usual are great people, in my 1.5 hours there I met an admirer of the Russian language who I will meet one of the these days, a Persian guy who seems to like a good conversation and a Mexican guy who brought "real tequila", I’m not knowledgeable enough to be able to tell how real and unreal tequilas are different from each other, but the shot itself was nice. The snack was fried grasshoppers, but I passed. For now. I’ll save that for my stint on Fear Factor.
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