The Onsen at the End of the Earth

Ryokan windows (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The onsen smelled of wood smoke and wet, salty heat. Our shoes we’d taken off inside the door, and they’d been quickly, quietly whisked away before we even realized they were gone. We let them go without much thought, mesmerized by the heavy stillness and dusky smoke. A man in a striped yukata walked past, skin shiny and red, a towel slung around his shoulders.

Hoshi Onsen sits in the midst of mountainous Gunma prefecture about two hours to the north of Tokyo. We’d been almost too cavalier with the directions, not realizing how lucky we were to have caught an earlier Tokyo-bound Shinkansen out of Kyoto until we were standing at an empty end-of-the-line bus stop in the middle of a sleepy mountain town where the Kanji-only schedule informed us that the next bus to Hoshi was the last bus of the day. It was 3:00 p.m.

To reach Hoshi, you take a Shinkansen north to the Jomo-Kogen station, a long and lonely building with just a few tracks, even fewer travelers, the ubiquitous convenience store, and a tiny, fluorescent-lit shop selling bowls of unadorned, yet excellent udon soup (which I know, because we ate some on the way out). From Jomo-Kogen, you catch an old white 30-seater bus that takes you up winding mountain roads, past small hamlets and mostly dense, dark trees, and then a wide slate-colored lake with a row of fluttering fish flags strung majestically across it from end to end. Half an hour gets you to the end of the line at Sarugakyo, and from there, you take an even smaller bus twenty minutes to the last stop on its line: Hoshi.

Hoshi Onsen (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Ferns in Minakami (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Tempura vegetables (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Broth with foraged greens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Wildflowers (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Trees in full bloom (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The Hoshi grounds (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Somehow, we’d expected something more modern and gleaming, since our online search back in Berlin for an onsen near Tokyo had been limited to tattoo-friendly establishments. » Continue reading this post…

Feel the Burn: Sun-dried Tomato Butter (Tomatenbutter)

Tomatenbutter (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

A few days after our apartment burned down, we went grilling in Tempelhof. “We don’t have to buy coals,” I said. “We can just shovel up the remains of the bedroom.”

Hey, I like a joke as much as anybody.

Nevertheless, we did buy a bag of non-homemade coals, and – after discovering that the grill I’d been storing in the damp basement was rusted beyond use – a new grill, too. The humor of a grill being the first household good replaced post-fire is not lost on me.

Tempelhof in the summer is a haze of smoke from the barbecues clustered in the two sections of the park where grilling is allowed. The air is scented with pork fat spitting from the paprika-spiked belly kebabs, sausages, steaks, and good char smell.

Not the toxic char smell that currently blankets the old apartment.

Our barbecue was smack-dab in the middle of the denial phase of my grief process, and it didn’t seem real to me that when the guards came around kicking people out of the closing park at dusk, we didn’t have a home to go to, didn’t have covers to crawl under, wouldn’t have a sleepy Sunday morning to lounge into.

But I also remember how deliriously happy I was, between scoops of salsa and a bratwurst dipped in mustard. I was so thankful to be alive, thankful I was living the life I’ve built for myself in Berlin, thankful for the people who surround me, so sappily thankful for the city itself and all the beautiful people in it.

Long ago and before there ever was a fire, one of those people gave me a recipe for a sun-dried tomato butter called, in German, Tomatenbutter. It’s a very simple thing, but sometimes it’s the simplest things that feel the most revelatory. » Continue reading this post…

Burned

Fire and ash (photo credit Daniel Stifler)

When I moved to Berlin, I moved here with a suitcase. Like Noah, I brought two of each: two sweaters, two pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, two shirts. On my first night in my new home, I neatly folded each item on the cleared-off top of a bookshelf and realized I’d never had so few things.

But things have a way of multiplying. It didn’t take long before I purchased a t-shirt here, was gifted a hand-me-down jacket there, went home for Christmas and brought back a few more pieces of jewelry. Eight years and three increasingly larger living spaces later, and I was complaining about the overflowing closet filled with clothes I don’t wear, my inability to get rid of things because it might just be useful someday, and the lack of storage space for all the stuff I have.

Had. For all the stuff I had. Because it turns out the most effective way to clean out your closet is to set it on fire.

Just about three weeks ago, our apartment caught fire. That thing that makes you grumble about overly cautious airline regulations happened in our bedroom, on our desk. The batteries in a pair of wireless headphones exploded, setting fire to the curtains, setting fire to the closet, sending noxious black smoke billowing out the balcony door. The neighbors called the fire department, they ran to get me at the office where I work downstairs, and I didn’t see the burn, but from what I heard, it was a surreal show from street-level: orange flames licking the ceiling, the manicured balcony plants blowing greenly in the breeze.

Mirror (Eat Me. Drink Me.)Mirror (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Burned journals (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Slightly burned books (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have been through all the stages of grief. As they clunked out of the building in their heavy gear, a fireman pressed a sheet of guidelines into my hand and said some things that in my shock I don’t recall. » Continue reading this post…

Three Meals in Lisbon: Chickpea Salad with Bacalhau & Hard-Boiled Eggs

Chickpea salad with bacalhau (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I. Prado

We have not made a reservation. Two other restaurants will not have us, because they are full, so Prado is just a place that I read about that someone else really liked and it’s nearby and we’re not famished just yet. They don’t have a table available, but do we mind waiting? We can order a drink at the bar. And since we are not famished just yet, and there are lots of plants inside the lofty space and because we like plants, we say, okay, and order the kombucha that’s on tap. We’ve taken perhaps one, perhaps two sips of the slightly sour and tingly drink before our table is ready. And maybe it’s because service in Germany is so far removed from this level of consideration, but I fall a little bit in love with the kindness of the waitstaff, their friendliness and clear knowledge about the menu and what to order, their patience and solicitude, the way they make us feel like we are at home, like there is no right or wrong way to be or eat.

So it is a wonderful thing when the food is remarkable. We order cockles – because – cockles! They’re minuscule and translucent and poised within a sweet, creamy broth tempered by the mineral dampness of spinach. We soak up every last bit of sauce with the bread, honey-brown and crusty, served with both a whipped, garlicky lard and a smoky goat’s milk butter. It is a good tartar, because it comes from a good and confident cut of beef. There are beautiful ceps with swaths of creamy pimiento and sprinkles of crunchy buckwheat and a lovely fish. And then there is the mushroom ice cream, which we have to order – because – mushroom ice cream! And oh, it is earthy and cold and just sweet enough, and there is the rustic chew of pearl barley and a swirl of balm-like caramel. » Continue reading this post…

Another Year, Another Berlinale: Quark Beignets

Quark Beignets (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Yes, yes, yes, February feels like a distant dream of long-ago coats and scarves, fur-lined gloves and wind so cold it creaks inside the wet, warm inside of your cheeks. But for the most part, none of the films I saw at this year’s Berlinale will be out for another twelve months anyway, so this post is mostly just as relevant as it might have been when it was maybe a little more relevant.

What was it about this year’s Berlinale that made us drop like flies? Every single one of us was sick by the end. I left my last film and went straight to bed for two days, waking in a feverish twilight and wanting the covers, a bowl of popcorn dusted with Old Bay, and the Game of Thrones opening sequence jauntily humming from my laptop speakers. Ugh, art films! it made me want to say and mouth a silent scream. Ugh, to the obscenity-strewn pointlessness of Mid-90s. Ugh, to the questionable metaphors of Flatland. Ugh, to the black-and-white smugness of Elisa y Marcela, which was so bad I had to leave the theater.

Some of our posse were more pleased with their choices, but I felt like I’d mostly picked a bunch of duds. Though there were films I really did enjoy, even now, looking back on it a month later, there wasn’t anything that left a sear in my heart like last year’s Tinta Bruta or Call Me By Your Name from the year before that.

What can I recommend of the twenty films I saw? VICE was excellent, incisive, timely – and terrifying. Systemsprenger, about kids who fall through the system’s cracks, was haunting and heart-wrenching and so well-acted. And Waiting for the Carnival was a beautiful documentary that did an excellent job of withholding judgment on a story that could so easily have been a lecture on the evils of industrialization. » Continue reading this post…

It’s a German Thing: Glühwein

Homemade Glühwein and Zimtsterne (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Every country that suffers from a dearth of winter daylight and an overabundance of ice has a favorite hot and alcoholic drink to get its residents through to warmer months. The Swedish have Glogg, the English mulled wine, and I’m sure somebody else has something (who gets the hot toddy?). In Germany, no December is complete without a few too many mugs of Glühwein clutched in a gloved hand and tightly held against the jostle of the Christmas market crowd.

On that note, no December in Berlin is complete without multiple visits to each of the different markets, effused with the scent of candied almonds and grilled bratwursts spitting fat. Each has its own character – Gendarmenmarkt is always overly packed, but you’ve got that post-Christmas-shopping vibe inspiring you to purchase just another bag of Baumkuchen bites. The market at Schloss Charlottenburg is expansive and twisting, filled with people selling suckling pig and potato pancakes, custom jewelry and chocolate-covered fruit. There, the Glühwein bar is a giant wooden windmill, one of those classic German Christmas decorations where the heat of candles sends the manger scene spinning.

Rixdorf feels like a neighborhood market where your friends are selling arts and crafts, while the market at Alexanderplatz is full of bored-looking vendors pouring just another glass of swill to the tourists who’ll be charmed by anything. This year, I even made it to the market in Braunschweig, where the Glühwein is served with a shot of Mumme, a thick malt extract that tempers the sugar.

Christmas tree (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Orange slices (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Christmas amaryllis (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Gingersnaps (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Glühwein accoutrements (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

This year, I made Glühwein at home for the first time – and wondered why I’d never done it before. There’s something so wonderful about a pot of hot beverage perfuming the kitchen with spice while you stand at the counter rolling out dough for Zimtsterne – German Christmas cookies rich with cinnamon and almond and glazed with meringue – then taking your Glühwein to the living room and stretching out on the carpet in front of the little, live tree to write Christmas cards, even though you said you weren’t going to write any this year. » Continue reading this post…

Belgrade In Media Res

Typical Belgrade building (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I have never seen the particular appeal of Soviet architecture. In Berlin, the rundown prewar buildings wilt, but the Communist-era bastions endure with grim and solid fortitude. They are the housing projects on the outskirts of the city with a bad reputation for neo-Nazis, they’re the anonymous gray lengths of Frankfurter Allee or the blocky rows of balconies made of prickled concrete that only ever seem to be decorated with dying red geraniums.

In Belgrade, these buildings of a bygone time are almost whimsical. The ones capping corners curve, leaning in at odd angles. They feature functional-looking, yet utterly superfluous girding or iron-work, and even when they’re geometric, there’s something just slightly off about them – they’re too long or too squat, every apartment has a different set of windows, or there’s a sudden shock of glass in a surprising location. Plenty of these buildings are deserted – many don’t look architecturally sound – and there’s something eerie about the alien-looking metals and alloys butted up against gracefully swirling slabs of concrete that house nothing on the inside.

It was mesmerizing to walk around Belgrade’s crumbling streets and stumble upon these concrete treasures wedged between the small, 19th century Neoclassical buildings in the city center and the newer facades going up all over the place. It seems that all of Belgrade is under construction – whole streets are being ripped out, clusters of girders yawn to the sky wherever you look, and the skyline itself is marred by endless rows of cranes. Nowhere is the divide between this new construction and the old Belgrade more visually striking than along the waterfront, where a bird’s eye view shows the surreal discrepancy.

Old Belgrade/New Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Tower building, Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Belgrade architecture (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Unfinished concrete structures, Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Long and lonely streets, Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Daniel and I had just finished a fifteen-mile walk down the Danube – from our hotel near the city center through the Bloks of New Belgrade and nearly all the way to Zemun. » Continue reading this post…

A Story about Not Making Lemonade: Lemon & Sesame Seed Cupcakes

Lemon-Sesame Cupcakes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Winter is officially here – at least that’s what the size of my jacket says. I can’t say that I’m terribly upset. Fall was luxuriously long – an anomaly in Berlin – and I made good use of the weather to go on walks and eat more ice cream. But it’s been a strange fall as well. I feel a little bit like I’m swimming underwater, like life is drifting by just somewhere over my left ear.

I haven’t been a particularly good friend; I’ve been flaky and unreliable. Work-wise, it’s been hard to focus; as evidenced by the two months that have gone by without a new post. My temper has been short, decisions seem more complex than they really are, and I feel self-conscious in social situations, cringing at every flat joke I make. I feel like I’m behind on everything, and putting out one fire only means the forest behind me is ablaze.

My therapist says: Why are you so afraid of disappointing people? And I think that includes myself.

Lemons on a countertop (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Lemon zest for cupcakes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Cutting the rinds off lemons (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Lemons in a row (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Last night, talking to my dad on the phone, it struck me that though my overall feeling was one of being overwhelmed, of having too much to do and too little to show for it, the stories I most wanted to tell were of wonderful experiences or bits of good news. Like how I won’t need nose surgery after all, or of how the weekend’s project was to paint the walls in truly gorgeous geometric blues and grays. How mom and I had not long ago been to San Sebastian for a food vacation capped by a swooningly good meal at the three-Michelin-starred Martín Berasategui, or how Daniel and I had just jetted to Belgrade for a long weekend. Even little things – like how this new apartment stays so cozy and warm, how investing in real pots makes the plants look so much happier, how I finally bought myself a new phone to replace the one that’s been cracked to pieces. » Continue reading this post…

Privacy Preference Center

Close your account?

Your account will be closed and all data will be permanently deleted and cannot be recovered. Are you sure?