Sunday, February 24, 2008

I do NOT have a good feeling about this!

Baking over here in Berlin has been challenging. For starters, my apartment did not come equipped with any measuring cups or spoons. Also, the standard ingredients needed when baking are not as "standard" as you might assume. For instance, vanilla is apparently a powder, not a liquid! ...and when I tried to find baking powder, the helpful grocery assistant led me to the refrigerated section and handed me a one-inch cube, which on examination seemed to be a dryer form of shortening (I was never brave enough to test it out).

Then there's the oven. Not only is the temperature measured in centigrade - easy enough to overcome, thanks to the internet. But it's also a fan-assisted oven. So even after converting, I have to use my "judgment" (something auditors are all to familiar with) and reduce the temperature to account for the efficiency of the fan.

During the first half of my time here, my only baking venture was pumpkin bread. And that was only because I had brought the spices and canned pumpkin with me from the States. I only had to add flour, eggs, and water. Even that was a challenge as I used a cheaply purchased measuring cup for liters and converted to cups.

Coming back after Christmas, I thought I'd taken adequate corrective measures. I came back armed with good ol' American measuring cups and spoons along with vanilla, baking powder and baking soda. Surely this would solve my baking issues (no smart remarks from the peanut gallery need be added here!).

Embolded by last week's success with the sugar cookies, I wanted to satisfy my long-unfulfilled craving for good, chewy, oatmeal cookies this weekend. And what better brain food to give my team for the big week ahead. Pretty simple, one of your basic cookie recipes, and the only new ingredient it required was brown sugar - no problem. HA! The grocery store's baking aisle revealed nothing that looked like brown sugar as I know it. The only "brauner zucker" was granulated in crystals - like white sugar. Oh well, how different can it be? Tonight, as I began to mix together the cookies (BTW, creaming butter and sugar - not so easy without a mixer!), I quickly googled "granulated brown sugar" to see if there was a difference in proportions. I didn't exactly find an answer. The only thing I found were sites saying explicitly do not substitute granulated brown sugar for regular because it didn't have the same moisture... hmm... Despite the warnings, I decided to go ahead and hope for the best. I was craving these cookies! My first tray didn't turn out so well.....

....Flatter than a pancake is a pretty accurate description! How obnoxiously frustrating. These cookies didn't seem to lack any moisture. I started experiementing with adding flour and tweaking the oven temp and only cooking a couple cookies at a time. In between each new iteration, Berlin citizens may have seen a girl hanging outside her 15th floor apartment window shaking a cookie sheet in the cold air to cool it down quickly (these cookies are becoming more trouble than they're worth!). *sigh* After several tries and reviewing the recipe a couple times (yep, I put the right portions in), I finally arrived at a decent-looking cookie. It won't win any contests, but at least it's edible.

One thing I'm looking forward to about coming home: baking on my home turf!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Movie Recommendation

I just finished watching "The Lives of Others," the 2007 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film and it was excellent. It's set in East Berlin in the mid-80's and is a portrayal of life and government in the GDR. The basic plot is a Stasi agent starts monitoring the life of an artist for suspicious behaviour. But the longer he observes, the more he starts questioning his life and loyalties. It's gripping and a tear-jerker at moments, and especially interesting because I recognized a few of the Berlin landmarks. Here's a New Yorker article describing the movie. As a disclaimer, it's rated R, so viewer beware.

Speaking of movies, the Berlin Film Festival, Berlinale, was in town a couple weeks ago. For 2 weeks the city was overrun by film makers, actors and viewers. I didn't run into anyone famous, but a couple of my friends saw the Rolling Stones (who performed on the opening night... when we were in Istanbul), and Scarlett Johanson. The offices of the Berlinale are in the PwC building, so the sleepy building was bustling with activity during the festival. The ticketing process for the films was rather confusing. Tickets went on sale 3 days ahead of time, and were frequently sold out within a day. A group of us did manage to get tickets for one film, "To Verdener" (or "Worlds Apart"). It was a Danish film about a family of Jehovah's Witnesses. The oldest girl falls in love with an atheist and it's about her struggle between family, faith and love. It was a touching movie and I liked more than I expected. Even Rens admitted he enjoyed it!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Web 2.0

Can someone explain to me what Web 2.0 is? I've talked with a couple people in GP and they've tried to describe it to me, but I'm not getting it. Here's what I think I know:
-The "2.0" doesn't mean its update technology... it's more a different way of using the existing technology.
-It's somehow about content superceding form.
-The difference from the orginal web has something to do with user manipulated content and interaction (like facebook, wikis, or SecondLife).

That's about all I know. I don't know what it looks like or how I'll know when I see it (maybe I already have).

There's a creative clip about it on YouTube:

Just wanted to share one of the interesting topics we've been talking about.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!!!

What a great time to do a little something extra for the people you care about! Yesterday Kirsten recruited me to help make cookies for our class. It didn't take much convincing, anything involving cooking or baking and I'm there! We also recruited Ozlem to help because she loves doing things for people and has the biggest kitchen. Mike, who sits near us, overheard enough of our conversations to know we're up to something, but couldn't figure out exactly what and it was killing him. Of course, I can't keep a secret to save my life, so whenever he asks me I just have to smile and look away (don't ever entrust me with State secrets).

Kirsten and I dashed home during lunch to mix up the batter so it would have enough time to chill. Then last night we gathered at Ozlem's. She first fed us and provided us with Turkish coffee to fortify us for the evening.
Thankfully the untried sugar cookie recipe turned out brilliantly (thank you Simply Recipes, my favorite food blog) and the cookies were really easy to roll and cut.
We had to improvise a little along the way, like using a wine bottle as our rolling pin, or using jam instead of food coloring for the icing.
Once the baking was well underway, Kirsten and I started on the decorating.
For me, I'm always happy to decorate the first 2 or 3... then I get impatient and just want them all to be done and creativity goes out the door.
Of course, there's one easy way to cut down on the number of cookies to decorate....
...but I was good and stuck with it until the end. Ozlem helped us with our final decorating push after all the baking was finished.
In the end, they turned out quite well and we had a so much fun making them!

Valentine's Day isn't the huge commercial event that it is in the US, but many people do celebrate by spending extra time together.

"I have loved you with an everlasting love." ~ Jer 31:3


Istanbul (...not Constantinople)

Ozlem organized a fantastic trip for us to her home in Instanbul this past weekend. Almost everyone in the group came on the trip and several spouses came as well, so there were about 25 of us. Having everyone together, in and of itself, meant we were going to have a blast.
We experienced true Turkish hospitality (they're practically obsessive about it). Every restaurant had food on the table practically before you had taken a seat! On Friday evening we had dinner at a traditional kabob place, and then on Saturday at another traditional Turkish restaurant - such wonderful food and different spices and combinations that we're used to in the western culture. Sunday afternoon after a boat tour on the Bosphorus, Ozlem took us to a casual fish restaurant where we enjoyed some of the fresh catch.
Saturday was the main sightseeing day. We saw Topkapi Palace which was home to all of the sultans and twice the size of the Vatican. Within the palace, we also toured the Harem. On the tour they emphasize how beneficial it was for girls to be in the Harem because they received good educations and then had better marriage prospects.... not sure I buy it completely. We also visited the Blue Mosque, the most famous mosque in the city, and the Haghia Sophia which had been a Christian church until the Turks conquered the city and turned it into a mosque. The day finished up in the Grand Bazaar where we practiced our haggling skills (or got ripped off, as the case may be). I bought a couple scarves and some beautiful, hand-painted bowls.
Istanbul is a huge city! It has about 10 million people and is (I was told) 150 kms wide. Everything is pretty crowded and tight and traffic was a beast no matter what time of day it was. You also have to be pretty savvy with the taxi drivers because they'll rip you off in a heart beat. The city, especially along the water, has quite a Mediterranean feel to it with the brightly colored houses overlooking the water. It was cold and rainy the whole weekend, so I'd love to go back some day and experience it during the summer. I've posted a bunch of pictures so you can get a feel for the city.
The only down side to the trip was that air flights between Berlin and Istanbul are not too frequent, so our return trip didn't leave Istanbul until 3:30am, putting us in our beds around 6:00am. It was rather hard to drag myself into work my 9 and work for the day. But thankfully I think I've caught up now.
Another hightlight of the trip is that it was my first time in ASIA! Most of the time we stayed on the European side of the city, but Sunday night we crashed at Ozlem's house before our flight and she lives on the Asian side. So I've now added another continent to my list.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


It turns out Berlin isn't as safe as it seemed. Last Sunday afternoon, three people in my apartment building discovered they had been robbed - two of them were friends from Genesis Park. The burglar was pretty thorough taking computers, cameras, cell phones, Blackberries and jewelry. We were all pretty shocked because it has seemed like such a safe area. Unfortunately, that complacency meant that most of us never locked the deadbolt of our door. Since the deadbolt wasn't locked, the apartment's insurance carrier isn't going to cover any of the losses. It's unknown whether the burglar actually had a key, or jimmied the lock.

Finding that out last week was unsettling and pretty freaky. But yesterday, it got worse.... I couldn't find my iPod Shuffle or my Blackberry. I don't use either of those items too frequently here, and it had been over a week since I remembered using them. They weren't in the cabinet where I always kept them and I immediately wondered, "could they have been stolen too? Surely not!" But after turning my apartment completely upside down (and there aren't too many places to look) I decided I had been robbed too! It must have happened last Sunday when I was at church. I'm very puzzled why they didn't take my computer and camera too, but I'm thankful at least that I still have the electronics I use all the time. So I reported the robbery to the apartment and visited the local police station to file a report (more for insurance purposes than anything else). By God's grace, I'm remarkably calm about the event - I was more freaked out last week - so that's a huge blessing!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Look out, Kasey Kahne!

On Friday evening the Berlin Tax partners invited our GP class to go Karting, which is their favorite hobby. It's essentially the same as what we call Go Karting. With the prior class, they split into two teams, GP and Tax, and thoroughly whooped the GP class. This time, whether from a belated sense of fairness or because we're 3x the size of the prior class, they split the teams based on individual racing times. We each had 10 minutes to get the feel for the track and then we were split into 10 teams of 3 people and raced for the next hour, swapping out drivers every 10 to 15 minutes. While my team didn't exactly win (though we did beat out 3 other teams), we had Kirsten's husband, Sascha, as our pit crew. The Tax partners were really friendly and fun to hang out with and it was great to connect with some of the people from the Berlin office. After the race, they then took us out to a traditional German dinner at a restaurant in one of the really pretty, historic parts of Berlin (Gendarmenmarkt). I've posted a few other pictures from the evening. It was a great outing and I'm ready to go again!