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November in Mainz is for leaves falling, gray skies, and Christmas markets

Oh how cold it is. November is typically when the skies turn gray, it gets dark quite early, and Christmas lights begin to slowly appear. One of my favorite memories when we lived in Washington, was the swirling leaves falling all around in fall. Although the trees here look bare by the end of the month, it's rare to see unraked piles of leaves on the ground -- this is true German efficiency. As soon as the leaves fall to the ground, they're whisked away by city services. It's quite a sight to watch how quickly the ground is cleared!

It's a good time to pull out board games, light some candles, and get ready for baking lebkuchen. And towards the end of the month, time for the most festive activity of all: Christmas markets! As cold and dark as it may be, the glow of the lights and warmth of the hot drinks and people all around have a magical way of brightening up a dark month. In Mainz, it traditionally begins the Thursday before the first advent - this year it's qu…

October in Mainz is for a Golden Fall

Can you believe it's already November? Neither can I. Let's talk about October for a minute...

Goldene Herbst is one of my favorite times of the year. This year, we've had one of the best. Mid-October and the average daily weather has been in the mid-20s (celsius) with nonstop sunshine. The leaves have started changing colors and falling, the ivy climbing up stone buildings looks more elegant than ever, and the first Arctic blast is on its way.

After a festival-filled September, October tends to be a little quieter. Federweisser stands at the market mark the month, and a day of Sunday shopping (MantelSonntag) at the end of the month is the only major activity.

Mid-October also marks the time the cranes fly south for the winter, and Mainz is one of the few German cities where you can really hear them prepare for a few days before, and then fly over the city on their way to Spain. There must be thousands as they take over the skies for an hour, flying in formation and avoiding…

September in Mainz is for Festivals

September in Mainz is a wonder. It's sometimes a late summer (warm, late golden sun in the evenings), and sometimes gloomy and gray (great days for cuddling with a blanket and tea). It's always got a lot going on - just about every weekend, there's a festival of some kind. Here, below,  my personal faves...

The first weekend in September (and last weekend in August)
Annual Weinmarkt. Every year, the Volkspark is filled with wine stands and food areas, and an artists' market. There's even a kids' corner - but it gets crowded early. You can get there by bus, best by bike, or attempt to park somewhere nearby.Another great option is the Ziegelei Fest - a small festival at a neighborhood kindergarten in Bretzenheim, featuring course work from the VHS. Some fun dance and music performances accompanied by a local honey stand, cake table, and tacos!  The second weekend September is even busier:
Appel Happel has several festivals around apple picking - including a night p…

4 Perfect Days in Krakow

I have to admit, when S suggested Poland for a summer break, I was less than enthused. Upon reading about Krakow and then seeing for myself, I could not recommend it enough for a family holiday. It was great! Budget-friendly, walker-friendly, tourist-friendly, and there's so much to absorb just by wandering around.

We spent 5 days and 4 nights, and didn't run out of activities. And there were so many things I wanted to go back to!

Day 1:
We arrived late in the evening with a shuttle (they were great & even brought car seats!), so took it easy during our first morning at the lovely vrbo we stayed at (ahhh, glorious central a/c!). We took a meandering midday stroll to the Cloth Hall in search of trinkets - and found a few pretty Polish pottery pieces while taking in the beauty of the Krakow old town. We picked up a very salty Obwarzanek pretzel for the little ones as we searched for lunch at the Milkbar Tomasza. We ordered way too much food but it was no problem - the restaur…

Airbnb, we're done. For real.

Oh, the community. Uber, Lyft, Yelp, Airbnb... all of these platforms meant to facilitate business transactions across an organically-grown "community" of people, who may otherwise not have the opportunity to realize their dream of being a driver on-demand.... a small-time bed and breakfast host... a travel writer.

The idea of these services has turned into a multibillion dollar industry. And as a semi-urbanite who *should* love the disruption they create for traditional hotels, taxis, and concierge services, I swiftly reject them as fast as I would an Amazon Echo.

After a recent trip to Sopot, where our only viable options for staying were airbnb (though after our trip, I'd now suggest to other people: find another city where you have more than airbnb to choose from), I'm done. Our host was fine, the flat was not. The cost was absurd for what we got, especially once you add in the unexplained fees and inconsistent experiences across different hosts. But the market p…

3 Truly Perfect Days in Amsterdam

I recently came back from a business trip to Amsterdam. Since I was all alone, and had a whole Sunday to enjoy a sunny day in the city, it was really more like a vacation. I filled my free time with long runs, eating ice cream, and people-watching; the work days were long but enjoyable too.

We stayed at the phenomenal Hotel Okura. We had a corporate rate of 205 euros / night excluding breakfast - and the location was in the heart of de Pijp. By way of comparison, I'd booked a single night in a different hotel for 160/ night, also excluding breakfast, on the east side of the city. The difference (for 45 euros!) was truly night and day. The Okura felt luxurious (and it was air conditioned! The other hotel was not), the staff was wonderful, and it was very easy to walk around from the hotel.

Sunday afternoon, I wandered towards Albert Cuypmarkt (closed Sundays) in search of food. I stopped by Mana Mana for an early dinner and the wild mushrooms with garlic was deliciously fresh. Topp…

A Perfect Day Trip to Gdansk

During our 10-day holiday to Poland, we escaped the hot beaches for a city day in Gdansk. What a lovely city! We explored the city on foot, wandering through the old town and a few key areas I'd earmarked for entertaining kids. Here's what we saw:

We arrived by train and walked about 10 minutes into the city center. Near the KFC at the train station, we found the underground tunnel to safely cross the busy main road. With our Lonely Planet in hand, we headed first to the Golden Gate, happening upon the lovely Millenium Tree on our way there.

The gate itself wasn't much to look at, but the Ulica Dluga was gorgeous. The history - and how it was completely rebuilt, stone by stone - was fascinating. We went on a perfectly sunny Tuesday, where it also happened that the Dom Uphagena was free that day.

After wandering inside to see how the wealthy lived, learning how the original items inside had been kept away but the original building destroyed & later rebuilt, we headed to …

Tips for Visiting: Sopot, Baltic Sea, Poland

Summer break! After weeks of feeling burned out at work and exhausted by hot, long summer days and 2 little boys with seemingly boundless energy, I was so looking forward to a break.

We flew to Gdansk for a 10-day summer break, starting with 5 days at the beach (Sopot) and 5 days in the city (Krakow - post to follow). Despite previous frustrations with airbnb, there was not much else to choose from for apartments in the area, so we were stuck with it. Furthermore, googling Sopot hadn't turned up much; it was a place you had to sort of figure out while you were there.

Good thing I'm here to help and share our 'lessons learned'...

General tips for Sopot:
Stay on the west side, as close to the beach as possible. It's much quieter, shadier, and kid-friendlier. There's a huge beach playground and park playground, both on the west side of the Sheraton. This was a looooong walk from our airbnb. Mix it up. We didn't want to spend every day at the beach, so we coordin…

Furniture Store Daycare and Other Wonders

After years of wanting to try it out, we finally got a taste of free furniture store daycare. It was magical! Kinderparadies at Moebel Martin in Mainz, conveniently located next to the cafe (we literally ran into friends from daycare whose grandparents brought the kids to play while they got a coffee), entertained Navin for a good 2+ hours.

As far as I'm aware, daycares at furnitures is not a thing in the US except for Ikea. But boy is it ever here. Ikea offers it, therefore so do all other furniture stores. Here's how it works:
Kids must be 3+.There is a time limit - usually 2 hours.Trained caregivers will watch your kids and even provide snacks / drinks.You can bring house shoes for your kiddos - they likely won't be able to wear outside shoes in the play area. That's pretty much it! The only disappointing part was that Nayan couldn't go too - but we will be going back when he turns 3 in a few months! The staff will call you once the time is up or if your child re…

Just in Time for the World Cup - a World Cup Birthday Party!

After what seems like no time at all, we have a 5 year old! It happened so fast, and he has become very opinionated lately. Especially when it came to birthday party planning. For the first time, he didn't want a pinata, but did want a World Cup theme. He also wanted a treasure hunt - this is really popular with the kids here and pretty much every party we attend has some kind of treasure hunt component. There's been a police-finding-a-robber hunt, a photo-based treasure hunt around the university, and (the coolest) a treasure hunt through the forest.
Naturally, we obliged. Google turned up a wonderful resource for themed birthday parties: We acquired plates, cups, balloons, trinkets for the goody bags, and (the most popular) cake decorations, all with a soccer theme. Navin helped me make his red velvet sheet cake - it tasted so good! One trick we learned was to use the red food coloring from the Asian grocery store (powder form) - the red color was much rich…

A Quick Overnight in London

A perfect day in London. That was the plan, and we managed just about everything, even good weather, for a trip to see Hamilton and celebrate 10 years of marriage.

For the first time in a while, I successfully convinced S to plan everything well ahead of time. Well, except our flights - we ended up paying a bit more than expected since I waited until 6 weeks in advance to book... The theatre tickets were booked as soon as I found out (via Facebook) that they were released for the London show. When Harry & Meghan got engaged, I rushed to book the Taj St James Hotel near Buckingham Palace, and a convenient 7 minute walk to the theatre, just in case there was a rush on hotel bookings. Finally, for all I'd heard (and enjoyed for dinner) about Dishoom's breakfast, I booked a breakfast table for Saturday morning.

Day 1: 
So our plans for Friday were set - after setting up our tag-team of babysitters and village of neighbors to look after the boys, dropping them off at daycare and …

Three Disappointing Days in Stuttgart

Not every traveling experience is perfect, and traveling with young kids can be especially challenging. Stuttgart brought out more than the usual challenges for me.

Although we spent 3 days in the city, we could have spent 1 and returned home via the comfortable train. That's because my biggest takeaway was that hotels in Stuttgart are expensive! I looked for a while before settling on the Hotel Unger - mostly for location, breakfast, and the four-star rating. At 161 euros / night, it wasn't exactly cheap. Although the staff and breakfast were great, it was more in line with a 2-star Ibis hotel in any other city - older interior, poor ventilation in the rooms (and importantly, no air conditioning until the outside temp was 24C. I was melting at night), and near a bar which got very noisy between 12-4 am. Our experience at the Ibis Styles in Nice (still my favorite) far outranked this one, at nearly half the cost - in Nice, no less! Our friends stayed at the Schlossgarten hote…

At the Gym in Germany

One of the first things I do when I move somewhere, is find a gym. Even though I've never been one to make friends with people I meet through the gym, it somehow feels familiar, and helps me get into my familiar routine of being able to regularly work out, no matter the weather.

When I moved to San Francisco 14 years ago, as an AmeriCorps volunteer on an extremely tight budget, I did monthly trials for nearly every gym in the city (this could warrant its own blog post). No matter the neighborhood - if I could take a bus there, I would try it out for a month. It worked for a while, until I eventually convinced my boyfriend (now husband) to sponsor membership to a place near my apartment until I could afford it myself. What a guy.

Flash forward to moving to Mainz, and I learned my company had a fitness reimbursement plan and discounts already available, with Fitness First. There was one within running / bus distance to our flat, so I tried it out and quickly signed a contract. At th…

A Perfect Easter Break in the Black Forest

The streak of travel continues! Although we hadn't planned our Easter trip until the very last minute (just 2 weeks before), we managed to hook up with friends living in Lausanne to meet in the middle of the Black Forest, which was also right in the middle of our two cities. We booked a bauernhof urlaub - our second attempt at a farmstay holiday - just outside the town of Wolfach.

I would say the two best lessons learned were (1) book early for the best price on accommodation and food. We definitely overpaid due to late booking, and could have probably negotiated a better price on meals; and (2) have a backup plan for bad weather. We had a full rainy/gray day and could only find outdoor or open-air activities nearby. Luckily the other days were sunny and warm-ish, but alternate options would have been good. Oh yeah and (3) when hiking to a vesperstube, make sure they're open! We walked for over an hour up a steep hill to one, only to discover they were closed. We were starving,…