Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Brief Encounter with Leeds

Last weekend, we traveled to Leeds for Thought Bubble, a comics festival that had been highly recommended by some of our friends. We were nervous about leaving our kitty - this was the first trip away from home we'd taken since his health problems started this summer. Our cat-sitter is great with him and very responsible, but we still worried that he'd be stressed by our absence. However, we were excited to debut our new collaborative mini-comic, Flash & Bee: Best Friends, at the show - and to connect with fans and friends again after a while away from the comic convention circuit.

We flew into Manchester and took a train from there to Leeds. It was significantly cheaper to fly to Manchester - we've found that Europe in general has a lot of travel deals, perhaps because there are a lot of airlines, and the distances aren't too great so the train, bus, and air services are all competing for your business. Flying into Leeds from Berlin was quite expensive when we were looking, so we looked at a map for nearby cities, and then searched for airfare into those airports until we found the best deal. Combined with a super cheap advance train ticket online, we were able to travel for far less than a direct flight. And the hour-long train ride between the two cities was a great way to see the countryside in Northern England.

The disadvantage of flying on a budget is that you end up on carriers like Easyjet. They have amazing fares, but a very restrictive baggage allowance. You can only bring one bag onboard with you - not one bag and a laptop or purse as most airlines allow, really just one bag, and it absolutely can't exceed the size requirements. If it's too big, they put it below, and you have to pay pretty steep fees for hold luggage. So we spent a lot of time and energy on packing light. It was annoying, because working a comic con means bringing a lot of stuff. We really thought we'd done it though, until we got to the gate. The gate agent didn't like our overstuffed little suitcases (they didn't slide easily enough into their "your bag must fit in here" box thingy), and forced us to put them below, which meant we had to scramble to pull all of our valuables and electronics out in the middle of the airport. They did not ask us to pay a fee, though. We've flown on other budget airlines, like Air Berlin and Norwegian, and not had trouble with our luggage like on Easyjet. So we'd choose them over Easyjet if the fares were competitive. Also, sometimes the major carriers, like Air France, offer special deals that are on par with the budget airlines. So it's good to compare and not just assume Easyjet is the only option. Riding with Air France feels like first class after flying budget all the time.

Shannon had never been to the UK before, and it had been fourteen years since I was last there. After most of a year in Germany, we felt a little surprised to be surrounded by English signs again, and to not have to preface every conversation with "Sprechen sie Englisch?". We found right away that the British were very friendly. It's a misconception that Germans are unfriendly or rude - they can be more formal, and don't feel obligated to be friendly, but they are friendly if you have a good attitude. The cheerful hospitality of the British people we encountered is definitely a contrast with the frankness of Berliners. We found this right away on landing in Manchester - asking for advice at the train station, watching an older woman's bag while she got some tea, ordering a "flat white" coffee (coffee with milk) from the snack counter, and asking the conductor if we could change seats on the train.

The ride to Leeds was smooth and scenic. We watched the country roll by from our window seat. Low, grassy green hills were lined with stone walls and dotted with sheep, under gray skies and patchy spots of sun - when it managed to punch through the clouds. Clustered woods - tall and dark, damp and mossy - were broken up by brick villages with peaked roofs and spired churches.

Leeds is one of the biggest cities in the UK. It was a small market town until the Industrial Revolution transformed it into an important mill town. It suffered decay in the post-industrial era, but today it's the economic capital of the region. It's a hub of financial and legal services, has a very large shopping district, and is home to three universities (and thus, loads of students).

The train station was huge but easy to navigate. However, it took us a few minutes of bumbling around outside before we found the bus we needed (and no thanks to the snarky cop outside who basically made fun of us for asking where to buy bus tickets). From the window of the bus, we saw a very cute and very English downtown with historic character. Our hotel was on a more modern block of offices and stuff, though, on a broad avenue across from a cathedral. It was an Ibis budget hotel, so it was very spare and full of drunken weekenders, but it was clean and comfortable for a great price - £26 a night. The heater in our room was busted, though, and they never fixed it. They gave us a little electric space heater that worked just fine, however. The only other annoyance was that you have to pay for everything that's free at normal places - £1 for shampoo, £10 deposit (refundable) for a hair dryer, etc.

After the sun set, we took a walk past that cathedral and along The Calls. Around back of the church, we stumbled (literally) on these huge paving stones which were in fact old tombs, engraved with names and epitaphs of long dead patrons from past centuries. The stone was slick with rain and fallen leaves, lit dimly by orange lamps, and partly broken by tree roots, so we didn't even notice until we were standing right on top of them. Spooky. Very spooky.

The Calls is an old street that runs along the canal, and used to be industrial docks and warehouses and such. Then it was a slum, apparently, before now being redeveloped into a bar, office, and condo district. This leads into the center of the city. Our experience of the downtown center was of a small, very walkable city. The character of the architecture we saw varied between historic and modern. We loved the brick buildings and narrow cobblestone streets.

We ate dinner at a place called Cattle Grid near the Corn Exchange building. It had been well reviewed on Yelp, and we both liked the idea of a steak since we rarely eat meat. Unfortunately, the steaks here were pretty awful, and we regretted ordering them. Bland and chewy, really not worth the money at all. Maybe their burgers and sandwiches are better, but I definitely wouldn't return or recommend the place to anyone.

We made up for it by buying a bunch of cookies and snacks and stuff at a supermarket to take back to the hotel. It was fun to be in a supermarket where all the labels were in English. And this is another good budget travel tip - buy some groceries, like water and snacks, for your hotel room and you'll save a lot.

The convention started first thing in the morning. Thought Bubble is a smaller show, but distinct from most comic cons in that it focuses solely on comic books and creators, rather than media guests. So it has the flavor of a very large Artists Alley (the section reserved at most cons for artists and self-publishers). Next to our table was our good friend Christian Ward, so we had a great time catching up with him and meeting his wonderful fiancee Catherine. There were some big fans of Think Tank who came by, as well, and I was thrilled as always to meet them. Flash & Bee: Best Friends sold a good number of copies, too. Our favorite moment of the show, perhaps, was when a little boy dressed as Batman came by and made his dad buy a copy of Flash & Bee for him. He was so excited to hold and read it - we were both very happy to see that kind of reaction from a child!

On Saturday night, going to and from a convention party, we witnessed the weekend party scene in downtown Leeds. There's a big section of shopping centers and bars, and even by like 10:30 pm, it was filled with staggering, wasted clubbers and bar hoppers. Local college kids, out-of-towner Brits, and a few older people, none of whom seemed to be holding their liquor very well, were wandering the streets between clubs and molesting the fake plastic holiday reindeer.

We headed home on Sunday after an abbreviated day at the convention. We were going to take a water taxi from the convention center to the train station, but it was nowhere in sight, so we went to catch a bus down the street. The bus never showed up either, so we hoofed it across the river and made our train - just in the nick of time, as JRR would say. The train delivered us to the airport with plenty of time. However, we nearly got lost and trapped forever in the huge duty-free shop that is between security and the gates at Manchester Airport. It's as if they plopped down a massive Macy's in the middle of the airport, and there are no signs or arrows to help you navigate towards the terminal, so you have to walk through every section of perfume, booze, and clothing and get lost at least three times before you emerge bewildered at the gate area.

We got out and sat down in this middle lobby area. Our gate hadn't been announced yet, so we were looking at the departures board, waiting to find out. The signs said that gates 1-16 were to the right, and 17-32 were to the left. For some reason, we always end up having to walk to the very last gate, no matter what airport we're in. So we guessed that we'd probably be assigned to gate 32, inevitably. We even considered just starting to walk that way anyway, betting that we'd be down there somewhere. But we stayed put and were surprised to see that our flight wasn't at the far end, after all. Skipping along, enjoying our new-found freedom from our travel curse, we came to our gate number, confused by the arrow pointing downward. Unlike all of the other gates we could see, ours was, for some reason, downstairs on the tarmac level in a much colder, darker, and less pleasant sub-terminal dungeon. We laughed and looked at each other. "Of course."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Happy to Help

So I was at Kaiser's (one of the bigger grocery store chains in Berlin) this afternoon to pick up a few things, and I walked up to the meat counter looking for some hähnchenbrust (chicken breast). A woman in a powered wheelchair rolled up to my left, just a second ahead of me. She was probably around 60 years old, white-haired, and quite heavyset. The butcher behind the counter hadn't seen who came up first, and she asked who was next, so of course I politely gestured to the woman and encouraged her to order before me. She did so, and the butcher disappeared into the back to go get whatever it was.

Image © mfi management für immobilien AG
The woman then turned to me and asked me a question in German. I have begun to be able to pick out a few words here and there, but frankly - my German is awful. I told her as much, in a broken mix of German and English, and asked Sprechen Sie Englisch? She shook her head No, but gestured to a shopping bag hanging from her chair down between her feet. The bag had a few cans and other groceries in it, but it had collapsed and partially fallen through the foot rests of the wheelchair, and I realized that she was asking for help in picking it back up. Her mobility was very obviously impaired - she could not bend forward to pick the bag up herself.

I quickly gathered the bag up and got it unstuck from the bottom of the wheelchair, and handed it up to her with a smile. She was quite appreciative and did manage an English "Thank you!", to which I replied (properly) "Bitte Schôn!". The butcher returned with the woman's ground rindfleisch (beef) - or maybe it was schweinefleisch (pork) - and the woman went on her way.

Five minutes later, though, I came upon her again in the candy aisle. She was looking up at the top row of candies, far out of reach. No one was bothering to help her. She didn't see me, but I thought she probably wouldn't mind a helping hand again, so I walked up beside her and smiled once more. I don't know how to say "Can I help you with that?" in German, but she got the message. After I grabbed her "Tic Tacs, zwei" (two boxes of Tic Tacs) and deposited them in her shopping bag, she asked another question which I couldn't understand, and sort of pulled her bag up and gestured towards the back of her chair. Even though I couldn't make out the words, somehow I understood that she was asking me to hang the shopping bag over the back of the chair, most likely because it had become too heavy to hold between her feet. And it was full anyway, so she must have been preparing to go through the checkout. I put the bag up, she said "Thank you" again a few times, I smiled, and we parted ways.

I grabbed my last few items, paid, and headed out into the hallway of the shopping center. I was happy to have had a friendly interaction with a type of person - that is, a non-English speaking German senior - that I rarely have a chance to speak with. I liked that the two of us, from completely different worlds in more ways than one, managed to communicate and share a simple experience together. It was gratifying.


As I walked down the long hall leading to the street, I saw the woman ahead of me again, rolling quickly towards the automatic doors, her bulging shopping bag slung from the back of the chair exactly where I'd left it.

That's odd, I thought. I don't remember seeing her in the checkout line, and I think I would have been there ahead of her anyway. I only remember seeing one checker - all the other lines were closed. Was there another checker that I didn't notice? Could she have paid somewhere without me seeing?

Did I just help an old woman shoplift her groceries?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

An October Sunday's Triumph

Exhausted after two late nights out in a row, I woke up this Sunday at half past noon, and spent the next two hours warming up my mind, joints, and muscles. We haven't been leaving the house much, for many reasons. Agoraphobia, fatigue, nausea, an ill pet, loads of work, and needed relaxation after many vet visits and doctors appointments.

Today there were many things to do at home. Many projects that need to be completed. But as the sun crawled onto the bed and grew only more alluring, Rahsan suggested we go out to the cafe, and I jumped on board. Every little piece of me needed what happened today.

First there was a sort of compromise. We were going to just pop across the street and work on some of our various projects, so we grabbed the laptop and headed out. But first, we decided to take our first trip to the city's glass recycling bins a couple of blocks away. This was one of those small tasks with a much larger significance. See, we moved into this apartment in March. Our building does not have glass recycling. We are able to recycle things like our beer bottles at the grocery store (8 cents a bottle - woohoo!) but wine bottles and most other glass needs to be taken to our neighborhood recycling bins. We've never done this. These bottles have been stacking up inside of our huge blue ikea bag since March, carefully placed so that we use up every square centimeter. It's been one of the thousands of goals that weighs on me. Every day I would look at that bag and think of all of the things I have yet to complete, all of the dreams I have yet to set free to the physical world. Well, today, we recycled our glass.

Today's magical fall afternoon was the perfect setting for this seemingly monumental feat. The sun was out and the temperature was around 21 C (70 F), as if Berlin's summer had come back for one last goodbye. It was so warm that we took off our sweaters after only a block. The streets were golden with a carpet of fallen leaves. The recycling bins are beside a little square with trees, benches, a playground, and one of the city's free outdoor public gyms. We first saw this gym - comprised of stationary recumbent bikes, sit-up benches, and some kind of elliptical-type thing - on one of our walks around the area a few months ago. It was the middle of a weekday back then, and there were a handful of older ladies lazily moving about on their piece of equipment. I giggled and thought, "Who would do this?" while also thinking, "Okay, that's a pretty cool use of public space". Well, today there were no ladies occupying the exercise machines, and Rahsan and I thought that meant we should keep the equipment company. That was a damn good decision. The sun shone on our faces as we laughed and took photos to commemorate our silly half hour. And thirty minutes is really the maximum amount of time needed to play on six pieces of equipment.

Instead of heading to our original destination, the cafe - which was also the way home - Rahsan suggested we walk in the opposite direction. Off we went, exploring the streets, forging a path into the depths of Neukölln, a path that we will surely use in the future. We walked by Ban Ban Kitchen, a Korean street food restaurant that Rahsan had heard of, which wasn't yet open (we returned later and it was delicious). We passed street after street and then agreed to cross over Hermannstrasse and wander the Tempelhof side of our neighborhood. Our tummies began to rumble, which was perfect timing because we were near Zio Felix, which makes the yummiest pizza I've had here in Berlin. There was a small crowd when we arrived; everyone joined in a sort of chorus of relaxed contentment. We sat at the window counter and expressed for the twentieth time that it was such a lovely day.

When we finished our margherita pizza and apfelschorle (sparkling mineral water mixed with apple juice) the place was full. We walked out and looked to the left, toward Tempelhof. The sun was a bindingly bright orange, and it drew us in. We walked like zombies past the various cafes, stopping only for a brief moment to take a picture and to buy a bottle of beer at the Spätkauf (corner store). The air was still warm and we hurried to the park.

Wow. The scene took my breath away. We have yet to visit Tempelhofer Feld for sunset, and it was everything we thought it would be. The huge abandoned airfield, now an undeveloped and fiercely protected sanctuary in the middle of Berlin, was filled with people watching the sun sink toward the horizon. Groups had gathered all along the ridge of the hill, and each minute that passed, everyone seemed to get quieter and quieter. We all stared at the sun as it disappeared, and stayed entranced by the changing colors of the sky.

Immediately upon sitting down, I began to cry a soft cry. Just watery eyes from a sense of great joy and amazement at the moment. Rahsan and I said what we say quite often to each other: "I can't believe we live here". We both felt overpoweringly lucky and affirmed in our great effort to move here. We worked really hard to get to this point, in the last year and in the last few hours.

I'm so glad I got out of bed today.

More photos!