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17 Jun

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Rotterdam delivers!

June 17, 2016 | By |

Michelle and I were invited to speak at a ThingsCon Salon in Amsterdam. Our local host and good buddy Marcel would put us up with his family – in Rotterdam. I hadn’t been, had heard many good things and met many exceedingly nice folks from there, and couldn’t wait to see it.

Turns out, Rotterdam delivers! Between the lines, throughout easily a dozen or more conversations over the last couple of weeks, the picture emerges that Rotterdam used to be somewhere on the scale between boring and dead; and that gentrification or even just a livening up felt pretty out of reach even five years ago.

Today, I could not have gotten a more different picture. The city is super lively, there’s lots going on, and what is happening seems to be driven by a compact but super strong, active community.

The streets do look a lot more empty even though the difference in size between Rotterdam and Amsterdam isn’t that huge (some 800K for Amsterdam v some 600K for Rotterdam)—I’m assuming it’s the lack of tourists that make it look a lot more empty.

But that didn’t stop us. Quite the contrary. Our host Marcel picked us up at the airport, bright sunshine overhead on a lovely day. He got us bikes within minutes, because of course in the Netherlands there is a super quick and easy bike rental scheme that in Germany we could only dream of.

Off we were. This list of activities is in no particular order, but it might serve to give you an idea of the kind of thing you can expect in Rotterdam, especially with someone like Marcel as your local guide:

We went up The Stairs, a temporary large-scale installation. Literally stairs, outside of a historic building, that you walk up to enter the building via the rooftop. The sound the metal construction makes is entirely hypnotizing, the view great. Who would’ve thought that walking up stairs could be so much fun?

The Stairs
The Stairs

Once up the stairs we had a delicious lunch on the rooftop and got ourselves a bit of sun-time over conversations. (Of course, Marcel knew the owners of the café.)

Rooftop
Lovely weather for a snack at this rooftop café.

Then a quick dash into a little infinity room inside the train station. One of many spatial interventions all across Rotterdam which just makes it fun in a low level way to explore.

Kapsalon station
Rotterdam central station, affectionately called Kapsalon because it looks like a corner of an aluminum tray in which Kapsalon is served.

A shop of local designers’ products and artworks turned out to be a treasure trove not just for Dearsouvenir, but also just lovely to check out. We were on a strict no-shopping policy because this was just the first of many legs of this particular journey, but in the end I couldn’t resist a couple of bright green socks.

The Boijmans Museum had an exhibition going on that featured a number of local designers and artists, many of whom share the office building with Marcel; of course he knew them all. (You see a pattern emerging?) Particularly the works by David Derksen were most excellent.

Boijmans Museum
Boijman Museum’s cloak room is fun.

Boijmans Museum
Art by David Derksen.

Boijmans Museum
Art by David Derksen.

Noteworthy was also the museum itself. In true Dutch/Rotterdam fashion it was smartly designed and very playful. The cloak room was a construction of ropes and pullies and hangers in which you’d pull your clothes or bags up to the ceiling and lock them there, in full sight but out of reach. The backyard featured a round cage with a football in it; needless to say we couldn’t resist playing a bit.

Rotterdam seems to be the birthplace of the Kapsalon, a kind of take on the kebap that’s served in an aluminum tray and covered by baked cheese, or something along those lines. Incidentally, the train station looks like a corner of one such aluminum tray, wrinkles and all, and is henced referred to as Kapsalon as well.

Add to this the lower rent compared to (insanely high-rent) Amsterdam and an overall super green and quiet cityscape and you’ve got yourself an excellent place to live. Even working in Amsterdam isn’t a big issue: The train takes about 40min to Amsterdam Centraal (about 25 to Schiphol airport), and with an annual train pass it’s super cheap.

Amsterdam is certainly busier, fancier, and has more going on in absolute terms. But Rotterdam is quickly evolving, has a great community, and I’d say higher quality of life. It might just be the cooler of the ‘dams.

13 Jun

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Sintra, Portugal

June 13, 2016 | By |

Historically, Sintra has been a retreat for the rich. Just a short trip south of Lisbon, the small mountain town situated in cooling valleys and woods, was an obvious choice to reatreat from the sweltering heat of the city. It’s gorgeous. Long before that, around the 8th century, it also was an important strategic military site, of which the Castle of the Moors ruins still tell impressive tales.

Castle of the Moors, Sintra
Sintra: Castle of the Moors

Its main claim to fame—for me personally, that is—is that this made it also the architectural playground for a delightfully deranged billionaire if you will. There are plenty of Romantic architectural master pieces there, which is why the whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Sintra’s article on Wikipedia has the details).

One of these estates is just too good to be true, though. Quinta da Regaleira has it all (Wikipedia):

The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions. The palace is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”, which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.

Wells, benches, fountains? Right. That only tells you the individual building blocks, though. It’s the way it’s all tied together that makes it well and truly hilarious (again, straight from Wikipedia):

Monteiro was eager to build a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies. With the assistance of the Italian architect Luigi Manini, he recreated the 4-hectare estate. In addition to other new features, he added enigmatic buildings that allegedly held symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. The architecture Manini designed evoked Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline styles. The construction of the current estate commenced in 1904 and much of it was completed by 1910.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra: Floor tiles at Quinta de Regaleira

There are two things here. First of all, this whole thing looks and feels like a giant prank, or maybe just some sort of outdoor man cave-slash-insider joke. Second, this was in 1904! This isn’t that long ago. I grew up in a house built in 1903, and at that time it was well and truly not unsual to build houses that didn’t have hidden tunnels for rites of passage and the like. That’s right, the whole park is built to reflect—or allow for, or initiate—a rite of passage:

The Initiation Wells (AKA initiatic wells or inverted towers) are two wells on the property that better resemble underground towers lined with stairs. These wells never served as water sources. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes that included Tarot initiation rites. The tunnels described above connect these wells to one another, in addition to various caves and other monuments located around the park.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra: Initiation Well at Quinta de Regaleira

So the place is jam-packed with pentagrams, hidden tunnels, underground features, Knights Templar and Masonry references, gargoyles, you name it. It’s a kind of giant exercise in mysticism, but at a time when I would have expected that kind of thing to be long gone.

Masons!
Sintra: Quinta de Regaleira

It’s so much fun to poke around there. In one of the caves I saw a dead end, fired up my phone’s flashlight and found a geo cache—of course, it’s the perfect kind of place for geo caching.

Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra
Sintra: Quinta de Regaleira. This is where the initiate emerges.

18 May

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Souvenirs of Lisbon

May 18, 2016 | By |

One of the particularly enjoyable duties/joys I have in my life, since launching Dearsouvenir magazine, is to scout for great souvenirs and souvenir shops wherever I go: Makers of traditional goods, local designers, haberdashers and the like.

Before they even make it to the magazine, here’s a few early finds after a day of roaming the streets of Lisbon:

Baixa/Chiado

The beauty of A Vida Portuguesa (link, map), a shop selling traditional local goods. An absolute must-see, and one of the most gorgeous & lovely stores I’ve ever set foot in. By the time I left I had (happily!) bought olive oil with piri piri (hot peppers), hand made notepads in bright yellow, tooth paste and hand cream, two types of conservas de peixe (canned fish). Admittedly, the latter mostly for the packaging, which is gorgeous (sorry, fish!).

Lisbon souvenirs
First haul of Portugal souvenirs. Success!

Portugal is huge on wool. Burel Factory (link, Rua Serpa Pinto, 15Bmap) makes contemporary designs out of wool. It’s all very high quality, great to the touch, just a pure joy. In terms of products pick up anything from scarves and blankets, from toys to boots, from jackets to baseball hats. Yes, all from wool.

Principe Real

The Entretanto indoor market (map) is the home to Stro (link), a young Portuguese fashion and design brand. Go here for a playful, fresh take on traditional Portuguese design.

You’ll also find many of these and some more pointers in this Dearsouvenir Jauntful map for Lisbon.

This post is going to be extended over the next couple of weeks.

18 May

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Arrived in Lisbon

May 18, 2016 | By |

Arrived in Lisbon. It’s 5am and I’m wide awake. The sky hasn’t quite begun to lighten up. It’s a quiet and windy night. As I’m standing on the balcony a single cab quietly drives by. The neighbors are drying dresses and blankets off the balcony. I wonder why I can’t smell the sea. (Only later would I realize that it was the Tagus River that I saw, just before it leads into the open sea. It is so wide there that I mistook it for the sea.)

**

First days are for wandering, so wander I did. M and I are in town to work, but work remotely: Different rules apply. We require desks and reliable wifi and coffee supplies, the things the nomadic knowledge worker needs. Where and how to best source those we haven’t yet sorted out. Most likely a mix of home office, coffee shops, coworking spaces and friends’ desks. Third places all around, and a context that allows to go with the flow, maybe even requires it.

Lisbon market
The (excellent) food court at Lisbon’s market halls.

Fabrica Coffee Rosters is a definite keeper, their cold brews have been helping me kickstart the day since we arrived. A massive market hall food court (run, bizarrely, by Time Out magazine) is great for dinners. Cafés to write in are widely available. Our balcony overlooks the city, we can see the see and Bairro Alto while working in the shade.

**

Our neighborhood may not have a name: It’s residential, cute, lively in a non-touristy way. Sandwiched kind of between and a bit to the north of Bairro Alto and Alfama it doesn’t show up in any guide books – it seems like it might be called Estefania, but we can’t be sure. Sitting squat between not two but three hospitals it feels like we’re in the safest place you could possible be in case of an emergency. Why there are three hospitals so closely together will forever be a mystery to me. There’s also a gelato place; I haven’t been but it looks great.

**

The first day I compiled a whole bunch of shops I wanted to scout out for Dearsouvenir. I started the tour on day 2 with Baixa & Chiado, two neighborhoods smack in the center, full of shops and throngs of tourists; in my mind both of them blend together as I don’t yet have an understanding of where neighborhoods start and end.

It made for a nice stroll in the afternoon sun. Two things struck me as odd, though.

First, many of the shops seem to have moved or closed: One, by a famous Portuguese fashion designer, had been replaced by a New Balance store. There’s this beautiful, very old store front, all creaky old dark wood and glass, it screams traditional architecture, and it’s full with New Balance’s take on athleisure. Others were boarded up or dusty and under renovation: Just the regular turnover? The shop’s moved? Or the lasting impact of the economic crisis which hit Portugal especially hard?

Second, Google Maps data was often a block off, even smack in the city. There it shows me the house number on this block while really it’s on that one over there. It’s not something we’re really used to these days, is it? On rural roads I wasn’t too surprised to experience this, but in Lisbon itself I was a little shocked. Is it possible that Google just bought very mediocre map data for all of Portugal and never mapped out the country themselves?

**

Looking for a good flow through the day – spots to write at, take calls from, etc. – led us to LX Factory, a re-developed former industrial site that’s not, for lack of a better word, a creative-industrial site.

And what a gorgeous place it is. The local coworking space seemed a bit crammed and busy when we swung by, but the cafés and local designer shops are just lovely. Make sure to stop by Wish Café for a filter coffee and a muffin.

18 May

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Portugal travel log – Algarve

May 18, 2016 | By |

I try to write down first impressions while they’re fresh: There’s a day or two in which the colors, the noises, the smells of a place are new and unusual; then the brain adjusts and it becomes a regular place. Those early days are the best to take photos, too: Things you notice as standing out still do stand out. Wait for a couple of days and they’ll blend in as the mind adjusts.

**

Arriving at Lisbon airport is quite lovely: It’s a tiny airport given the size of the city it serves. (Cue Berlin airport jokes.) A few minutes later we pick up our little rental car, happily surprised by just how well the car rental staff speak English, and are on our way south.

**

Stork nests. There are so many stork nests. An unbelievable number of stork nests.

When I grew up, one of the most exciting things on our loooong drive to our summer vacations at the North Sea was to see a couple of stork nests – if we were lucky! – during the last couple of hours drive up in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northern-most state. Occasionaly throughout my life I saw them elsewhere; mostly in or around zoos.

Yet here we are, surrounded by stork nests left, right and center. The electricity poles along the highway are packed with them. It’s like rats in the cities only, you know, with storks. Unbelievable. I can’t tell why that strikes me as unfair or even unexpected, but somehow it does.

**

The blue and white of Portugal. It’s maybe the most ubiquitous and most traditional of color combinations, and found wherever your eyes might wander. Tiles, table cloth, tiles on floors, restaurant signs, tiles of walls, tiles at souvenir stalls… come to think of it, maybe the tiles are even more ubiquitous than the blue and white.

Tiles
Portugal is all tiled, mostly in blue and white.

**

When I visited the Algarve a few years ago for some surfing with a friend, we stayed in a tiny village by the name of Odeceixe. It had two restaurants we went to frequently: The very traditional, top-notch Taberna do Gabao, which excelled in seafood and meats and was great for all-night group dinners with new friends we met along the way. And a more modern, slightly fusion-y place that made light and most excellent mediterranean meals: I wanted to go there just about every day. (I drove by that town on the way back up to Lisbon and it looks like the latter place has closed.)

What I somehow failed to realize at the time is that this sample of two did not reflect the state of eating in Portugal. The seafood here is amazing; meats are a treat. Yet, the style of preparation seems to be very traditional, bordering on formulaic: Grill the fish/meat item, serve with rice or fries. Sauces are rare, marinated things are rare. Salads are (very) basic, vegetarian options are sparse. Olive oil is fantastic – if I dip my bread into the oil here I’m in heaven – as are the olives you’ll inevitable be served as a little starter.

It’s a cuisine I thorougly enjoy indulging in every now and then. On an everyday basis it can be daunting, especially for a vegetarian like M, but even for meat eaters.

Between croissants and pastel del nata, between all the rice and fries and bread, the trick seems to be to temporarily forget just about all you ever learned about carbs and just roll with it. In the meantime both M and I were quite excited to have discovered a great vegetarian place around the corner.

**

It’s easy to forget these days how much we’re used to having navigation data at our fingertips at any time: Google Maps plus GPS means we never really need maps. I still remember road trips meant packing a big-ass map or atlas of sorts: I’m not nostalgic for it, if anything it tells you my age.

But data is not distributed evenly, and not all data is created equal.

Trying to swing by a restaurant on a cliff for a dinner over sunset, Google took us offroad in a way I hadn’t been in a while. Turns out that Google’s map data for rural Portugal is very, very flimsy.

Navigating
Google’s road map data in rural Portugal seems patchy at best. This is the kinda-sorta real road we returned to after a long stint on an extremely poor mud road.

The road Google Maps took us on was distinctly 2-3 level beyond the one pictured above: I took that photo only after we were back on an actual road. Before (and before turning around and very slowly backtracking) we were on a gravel road. Before that, on a dirt road. Before that on a dirt road with ruts so deep I’m tempted to call it a rutty cow path: For hiking it would have been acceptable just so. For anything on wheels, absolutely not.

**

Sagres Point is the most South-western point of continental Europe. It’s from around here that the Portuguese maritime exploration of the world was launched.

Today, a food truck offering (in German) “Die letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika” – the last bratwurst until America added a bit of a sad touch to an otherwise beautiful scene.

Sagres
“Last bratworst until America”, the sad food truck announced.

Truth be told, though, the view from the cliff inside the fort (Fortaleza de Sagres) about a kilometer down the road feels more like the real deal. (The fort is totally worth it.) It’s not technically the most South-western point, but because the view is totally unobstructed (there’s no fenced off lighthouse in the way and you can roam freely) means you can stand at the edge of the cliff and look West and let your imagination roam freely. If you have to choose, go there instead!

Sagres
Fort Sagres may not be technically the very most south-western point of contintental Europe, but with its unobstructed views it feels like the real deal compared to Sagres Point up the road.

**

This trip is another chance to test our Prototype Pants, this time in both warmer and (very!) wet climate. M now has her’s too, for the first time. I’m curious to learn how they hold up in warmer climate: Will they be as comfortable as in the cooler climates of Helsinki, Berlin, London?

Portugal
Testing both prototype pants under extreme conditions, aka a couch break.

On a hike we finally did manage to get them soaked through; to be fair, so were our rain jackets. The Algarve has had a record bad weather for months: The dive center hadn’t been out in the water for two months straight, almost every day of our stay had a severe weather warning.

So far, so good: Still convinced by the prototypes.

**

The last two days the weather let up, from severe weather warnings to lovely and sunny. I celebrated with a day of surfing, Michelle went to scuba dive. As we drove up to Lisbon we headed into the summer.

17 May

By

The network provides: Lisbon

May 17, 2016 | By |

As we’re setting up shop in Lisbon, Portugal for a few weeks, I did what has become a beloved and much appreciated – really, priceless – ritual: I took to Twitter and asked for recommendations.

It’s a deliberately open question so as not to artificially restrict the kind of pointers coming in: A personal recommendation for a restaurant, an experience not to be missed, a memory shared – all is welcome!

Read More

19 Apr

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Milan during Fuori Salone

April 19, 2016 | By |

So, Milan, eh? Turns out I had never been to Milan. To be honest it had never really occured to me, actively, that I hadn’t been: It’s such a household name of a city when you live in Europe that surely I must have been there, right? In all those years, throughout the many trips I’ve taken to Italy both as an adult and as a kid with my family?

After all, I grew up in south Germany, from where Italy is just a long drive across the Alps. When I was a kid, before the Euro was introduced, traveling in Europe meant stopping at border stops with little border control guard houses where you stopped and then bought gas and maybe a vignette, the road tax disc for countries like Austria. While you stopped you also changed money, deutschmark for lira, as a kid that was super exciting: Look at these different bills. In Italy they had so many 000s: 1.000 Lira was the smallest bill. I don’t remember if coins were even used then. But drive to Italy we did – not super often, but every few years: to Florence, Rome, the Lago Maggiore. It was great.

But yeah, turns out Milan had been a white spot on my personal travel map all these years. So boy was it time to change that.

Glorious view of the Alps
The Alps looked gorgeous from the plane.

And what a better occasion than to bring one of our projects there: The Good Home was to exhibit at Fuori Salone, the city-wide satellite program of the Milan Design Week. This occasion also had a second advantage – our tour guide would be good friend and former Milan resident Alex DS, so we knew we’d be in great hands.

So M and I set out with our exhibits in tow and over-sized checked bags (when exhibiting something it’s silly to travel too light: there’s always hardware to shuttle back and forth) and headed on south via Schönefeld (SXF). Air travel to and from Berlin these days is impossible without constantly pondering airports: Which one is it going to be today (please let it be Tegel!), and why isn’t the under-construction BER anywhere near finished after all these years? But alas, Easyjet means Schönefeld, so off we went into the special hell that is SXF where budget air travel truly feels like a cheap experience.

Arrivi
Arrivi!

Berlin of course isn’t the only multi-airport city: Milan also boasts two functional airports, Linate and Malpensa. Once we arrived in cute little ruggedy Malpensa (MXP) and found our way into the city we set up shop in our local Airbnb. The hotel and rental situation was in line with the universal rule of expo cities during the main annual convention: Everything’s booked out, demand is huge, so whoever can do so will rent out their homes temporarily and make a killing doing it. During those couple of weeks a year you can easily make a few months’ worth of rent. It was all pleasant enough, though, so why complain!

And so we made sure to adjust ourselves by quickly popping into a neighborhood pizza place before the kitchen would close (sharp!) at 2:30pm.

Hello there Milan
Welcome pizza.

A local friend further hooked us up with local prosecco and this Sartorelli cake from Verese, which turned out to be delicious and a bit of a life saver when you come home late at night and haven’t had a chance to eat.
Local noms
Lovely baked specialties from Verese, apparently invented in the 1960s as a marketing ploy. And oh boy what a delicious marketing ploy.

But of course Milan isn’t just quick sugar hits and delicious pizza.

It’s also the home of the grand tradition of the aperitivo. Every late afternoon, usually around 5pm, many bars will offer aperitivo: Drinks, slightly more expensive than usual, and a buffet of snacks. The idea is that between end-of-work around 5 and dinner around 8 or 9 there are a few hours in which to socialize and hang out, and to eat a little. You can guess that for students this is brilliant. But it’s also a lovely tradition in its own right, especially now that the weather allows for beautiful sunset aperitivos.

Alas, the air quality in Milan is notoriously bad, with near-ridiculous standards of pollution (for European standards). And while there are a number of gorgeous parks, overall the city isn’t very green. The canals that bring fresh water into and out of the system, once designed by no lesser than Leanardi da Vinci, have long since been built over to they’re invisible and won’t bring any refreshment to the dry, dusty air…

On the other hand, there is of course the duomo, the big cathedral that dominates the central square in all its glamour. And boy is Milan a glamorous city, especially during the design week: The world’s design and fashion scene invade the city and fill it with sharp suits and designer specs, with hyper trendy handbags and rad haircuts. It’s not for the easily intimidated to be in a city full of Italian style at its strongest.

We were there exactly for this design fair, and whenever we weren’t hosting at our own exhibition we went out to explore what else was on display. Now Italy is of course well known for its long and deep tradition of interior design: Kitchens, furniture, you name it. But, boy oh boy, did I underestimate just how much so. I saw so many chairs, and sofas, and room setups, and high-end sinks that I lost track. Everything at the Milan Design Week seemed ot be framed from the perspective of interior design. Even the connected things we were primarily in town for: Look it’s a kitchen with connectivity, but mostly it’s gorgeous. Everything’s built to be gorgeous bordering on decadent, and clearly it’s not a minimalist form follows function world there.

Milanese breakfast
Milanese breakfast at its best

There’s certainly enough to see, though, and if you ever get tired of looking at chairs, it’s an amazing place for people watching. Grab a coffee and a croissant at a street café and you won’t be bored. Promise.

Navigli
The Navigli neighborhood of Milan

So if the pollution and the over-the-top glamour don’t faze you, though, you can have the loveliest of times, though. Take an aperitivo with friends, then head down to the Navigli, the part of town where the old canals are open and where all of Milan and seemingly half the universe gather for a stroll, a lengthy dinner, and a cone of gelato artigianale (hand-crafted gelato). The streets and sidewalks are packed to the rim, laughter and intense conversations echo across town, and it’s a delight to be alive and in this place.