The Joy of Cooking & the Internet

My appreciation for both cooking & the internet have increased dramatically since we moved overseas.
Up until ~2.5 years ago I did not know how to cook at all – sorry, Mom.  I had a very busy extracurricular schedule growing up which didn’t leave much time for cooking lessons.  I also had little to no interest in learning.  This feeling continued through my college years (why cook when there is a cafeteria full of mostly edible food?) until I met Alex.  Alex loves to cook and to explore new cuisines – he will eat anything once, probably twice, even if he didn’t like it.  Turns out I was marrying into a whole family of amateur chefs.  My then future brothers-in-law used to make fun of me for having zero culinary skills.  Alex did most of the cooking for us until last summer when we got married and I quit my job for a few months.  Suddenly, I found myself in charge of finding recipes, shopping for ingredients, and doing most of the dinner preparation.
Faced with this new challenge I quickly became addicted to recipe apps (Yummly & Epicurious in particular) and food blogs, especially my favorite dailies from Saveur.com.  I have always loved eating food but now I have a new love for preparing food.

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I now spend a considerably amount of time every week browsing online for new recipes, ingredients, and techniques to try.  Naturally, these endeavors result in many successes and the inevitable failures.  There are some challenges with trying to explore cuisines and ingredients when living in Germany.  This is probably more so for me because of the cuisines that I prefer (Asian and Mexican, most notably); if I were trying to master French or Italian cooking things might be easier.  Unfortunately, I seem to always make things difficult for myself and choose recipes that involve ingredients not often found in German markets.  Thank goodness we live in Berlin.  There are a surprising number of large, well stocked Asian markets here (we just discovered one down our block!!) which have really made my life in Berlin wonderful.  They not only provide me with my weekly jar of peanut butter but also have enough sauces & ramen varieties to keep us satisfied for years!  However, Mexican ingredients are much more challenging.  I previously mentioned my failed attempt to make mole verde without tomatillos…  The other day I wanted to make black bean burritos but discovered that a can of frijoles negros cost 3.50 euro.  So obviously that was out of the question.  These difficulties force me to be a little more creative and usually involve me searching online for ingredient substitutions.

Other than enabling my new culinary adventures, I have started appreciating the internet in other new ways, mostly relating to communication.
For example, the other day I was able to watch some of my dearest friends graduate from our alma mater live online.  After we finished watching the ceremony, Alex mentioned that he felt like we had “been somewhere else” for a few hours.  I agreed – it really had seemed like we were back in Ohio watching the ceremony in the student center.  It is pretty incredible that we can get some of what we are missing even when we are far away.
I have the same feeling every time I text people back in the States.  I still “talk” to them just as much as I did when we were living in the same country.  Thirty minutes, two hours, 4,170 miles – it doesn’t matter the distance now that our cell phones are hooked up to the internet!

Alex and I often talk about how crazy it is that our parents lived abroad in the Stone Age before any of these technologies were available to average folks.  I would feel so much more cut off from my family & friends if I couldn’t shoot them a text or send a funny Snapchat.  I haven’t even mentioned video chatting, which really puts you in the action no matter where you’re calling from.  Last summer we were able to video chat with our parents from a tiny island in Croatia!  Which, by the way, had amazing internet speeds.  It is a huge advantage for us to be able to communicate with everyone so quickly and easily.  Especially for me, being unemployed and spending most of my days alone, it is really great to be able to chat with my friends easy-peasy.  Sometimes I think maybe we are spoiled by such wonderful technology…  Maybe we are missing some of the grand adventure that our parents had when they moved abroad because we are still so connected to the States.  But, as they say, if you got it, flaunt it.

Below are some of my recent culinary experiments and links to the recipes!

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Above: Pork vermicelli is one of our go-to dinners.  We use a recipe from Helen’s Kitchen on YouTube (she has tons of  Vietnamese recipes).  Alex made this meal – vermicelli has kind of  become “his thing”.

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Above: Chicken with a lime & coconut milk sauce.  The recipe can be found here.

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Above: Carnitas tacos w/ pseudo-guac (aka what you make when you only have avocado and tomatoes).  Homemade corn tortillas are the bomb and are much more affordable here in Germany than buying tortillas at the market.

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Above: The “before” of the previous photo.  I used this recipe I found on Pinterest.

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Above: Mango pico de gallo – soooooo gooood!  No recipe, I just throw things in until it tastes awesome.

 

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Photo Potpourri – Week 4

We were pretty busy last week because we were moving out of our old short-term rental apartment into our new long-er term apartment!  Between cleaning the old apartment and repacking and preparing to move there wasn’t much time for fun but we made up for it on the weekend.  We are loving the location of our new apartment (where we’ll be until September).  It’s only 15 minutes from where we were before, but the neighborhood is much more lively and we are just down the street from a subway stop!  The apartment itself isn’t ideal; the furniture is all quite retro and crappy and it’s lacking any kind of decor.  To be fair, the family who we are subletting from only lived here for a few months before they went on assignment in China, and during that time they had a baby.  But the apartment is large and has some nice attributes like a “winter garden” porch and a lot of large windows.  There’s some work to be done to make it feel more homey but it’s good enough for now!
Here are some pictures from last week’s moving & weekend craziness!

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1. All of our worldly possession – at least for now.  Unfortunately, it will be another few weeks until our big shipment from the USA arrives, so for now we’re living out of our very large suitcases.  It did make moving easy, though!

2. Alex immediately got to work when we first moved into the new place.  This is a pic of his new habitat: the office.

3. One of the many beautiful buildings in our new ‘hood.  Our building is, sadly, not pretty like this one but we hope someday we can find a flat in a pretty place like this!

4. The Nowkoelln Flowmarkt (a play on words on the name of the neighborhood, Neukölln) is a popular market along the canal near our new apartment.  It’s fairly large with mostly flea-market stands selling used clothing, housewares, etc.  It was packed last weekend because of the nice weather.

5. Paella!  We got this plate of chicken & shrimp paella at the Flowmarkt and it was delicious.  Spanish food isn’t super common here so it was a treat to see it at the market!  Look carefully and you can see the shrimp’s head… 😉

6. Some loser I met by the canal at the Flowmarkt who stole all of the paella.

In the Throes of Apartment Hunting

Finding the perfect apartment in any city can be difficult. It’s nearly impossible to find “the perfect apartment” that we all envision. Where are the spacious but cozy rooms always brightly lit by sunbeams streaming through crystal clear windows that flow into a large kitchen with a gas range and enough space for a breakfast table, easily accessible from the bedroom with a wide closet, across from the bathroom with storage, down the hall from the already equipped washer (I wouldn’t dare to dream of a dryer), situated near a bustling street with cafes and shops, that we dream of?
We got lucky last time: we found an apartment that was perfect despite it’s flaws in a small city that we loved. So maybe we’re a little spoiled, but still, apartment hunting in Berlin is notoriously difficult for new residents. The challenges of renting in Berlin are in part due to the steady population growth since the 90s and also to the very “German-ness” of the system.

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Rents in Berlin are lower than in other major German cities and lower than most other European capitals. However, the influx of new residents over the past few years, especially those from other EU countries and North America, is being blamed for causing a rise in the average rental costs.  Kreuzberg (where we are staying for the next few weeks) used to be the ‘up and coming’ neighborhood. It was a hub for ‘artsy-types’ and low rents but the real Bohemians have since moved on to more Southern neighborhoods after the German equivalent of yuppies started moving in. Someone told us the other day that the flow of people into a Berlin neighborhood goes like this: Artists > Students > Yuppies > Families.
Once the former artists or students start having kids the area is definitely not cool anymore and those seeking a more ‘fringe’ lifestyle must move on. The result is that rents in Berlin are cheap-er than most places but not as cheap as the longtime citizens remember. A 1 bedroom apartment ranges between about 700-850 Euro ($950-1100). Not too bad, right? Except that there are fees out the wazoo! To rent an apartment, most landlords require 3 things: the first month’s rent, 2-3 months of rent as a security deposit, and a realtor’s fee of ~2 monthly rents. Sometimes you might get lucky and find a flat rented out by the owner directly which eliminates the last fee, but that’s somewhat rare. So, in order to begin a new lease (which are typically open-ended) for an apartment that costs 1000 Euro/month you need approximately 6,000 Euro to fork over all at once. That is a potential problem for obvious reasons.

Another issue with renting as a Berlin newcomer are the many applications, references, credit checks, etc. that the landlords generally require. One realtor who I spoke with told me that because Alex has only been working here for a few weeks we would need to pay the entire first year of rent up-front. What. I don’t think that policy is necessarily normal, it could have been specific to that real estate company, but many Berlin landlords are real sticklers about their requirements. Most want you to provide proof of income (in Germany) for the last 3 months, your credit score through a Germany-specific company, a letter from your last landlord stating that you’re all paid up, and of course your passport/visa.  If you have been living in Germany for a while those requirements are fine but as new citizens here we just don’t have those documents available. There is some method to this madness – we have been told that in Germany the laws regarding rentals make it much more difficult to evict tenants than in most other countries. I’m guessing that this is especially true in Berlin because it seems like hardly anyone actually owns their apartment. Which doesn’t make sense to us land-owning-lovin’ Americans, but whatever… The result is that the deposits and fees for rentals are super high, making is less risky for the landlords.
Fine, I get it, but what’s a new expat to do?

What I discovered after some Googling and blog reading is that many new expats start with a long-ish term sublet. Subletting here seems to come with significantly fewer fees and required documents. Plus, having a furnished apartment when you first move is awesome. Sublet rents are about the same as a normal lease, furnished flats cost a little more, but the fees are generally much, much lower.  The norm seems to be a deposit of only one month’s rent and the realtor commissions, if applicable, are lower as well.  So this is the route we are now exploring.
We have a few appointments set up this week to check out some sublets so hopefully something will finally work out! I’m optimistic that as long as we put aside that ideal image in our minds (at least for now) we can find something to suit our needs for the next few months.
In the summer or fall we can restart our search for a long-term apartment with renewed spirits, bank accounts & documents. Who knows, maybe “the perfect apartment” is just around the corner…