Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

How to Take Yourself on a Date

The Danube in Belgrade (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

1. Be surprised. Ideally, you’ll wake up one morning to an innocuous-looking email from Air Serbia informing you that your itinerary has been changed. You will skim it, expecting to see a flight number switched or a terminal swapped out. And instead, you will realize that your flight has been cancelled, and that your new flight leaves a whole day later than the flight you were supposed to take. And even though you will call Air Serbia and mention the unacceptability of the entire situation, you will hear their shoulders shrug on the other end of the shabby connection as they tell you there’s really nothing they can do, and you will say, “Well, I guess I’m going to Belgrade.”

2. Leave no stone unturned. Insist on being put up in a nice hotel that’s walking distance from the city and has a complimentary airport shuttle. And when you get to the hotel, open all the tiny bottles on the bathroom counter – the shampoo and conditioner, the body wash and lotion, the shower cap and lavender-scented pillow spray – and claim them as yours, as payment for accrued inconveniences.

3. Be brave. Don’t linger over the soaps. Leave. Sling your backpack over your shoulder and grab a map (yes, a paper map because chances are very good that your phone will be about to die) from the front desk along with verbal directions into the city. Listen and nod and understand the uselessness of this endeavor because you are already well-acquainted with your inability to hold more than two directional instructions in your head at one time.

Step through the revolving doors. You are responsible for you and only you. What is it that brings you joy? To pause on a bridge over the Danube, feeling the tenderness of the setting sun on your skin, the cool breeze of early spring with its promise of softer days? » Continue reading this post…

On Home and Other Gifts – A Visit to the Mercouri Estate

Mercouri Estate, Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Mainland Greece is dusty, like a sucked out sponge bristled with underbrush and spindly trees. There’s the whirr of cicadas screeching a constant soundtrack and the hot sun that broils the land and people on it with impunity. Olive groves shudder up from their sun-soaked torpor with the shake of an invisible breeze. Their silvery leaves are thick and strong, like hammered metal sheened in blowsy earth. Grape vines slither up stalks, their leaves looking wilted in this heat – but the clusters of grapes are crowded and plump like overperfect plastic fruit.

We are boat people, spilling out the mouths of our luxury cruise liners and crowding the tiny port towns for mere hours. We breeze along the rows of shops, buying linens and gold jewelry to take home as proof of our having been away. When you’re a boat person, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be on the other side. All you know is the heat and press of people, the frantic crush to buy a few souvenirs and snap pictures of the shattered vases in the local archaeology museum. But I remember what it was like to be in Stavanger, Norway when the boat people came. All week, the town felt sleepy and small, lethargic with its slowly chugging ferries and stone-paved streets arbored with flowers. One morning, there they were, Germans mostly, flocked into the little shops and even smaller streets. It felt like another city, a many-headed hydra roused and ready to devour you in any of its maws.

Sneaking cat (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Grecian grapes (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Olive tree in Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Mercouri family house, Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Here in Greece, we don’t know any better, so we just do the best we can. We try not to shove and we wait our turn in line to photograph the shards of vases and buy our linens and shrink-wrapped bags of olives and souvlaki spice. » Continue reading this post…

One Night in Venice

Sunset in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Venice is a sinking city. Its buildings slowly groan into the ground some one to two millimeters per year, the dark water lapping up lower staircases and sidewalks, consuming the city from the bottom up. “How many basements have water in them?” we ask our gondolier. “All of them,” he replies.

But Venice is also a city which begs you to sink into imagination. It’s not hard to picture it the way it was hundreds of years ago, full of merchants and nobles, beggars and peasants, reeking of silky sewage and stink. You can imagine the jostling crowds rummaging for room on the narrow paths, ducking beneath an archway where a dreamy girl looks out for her Casanova – or, more likely, chucks dishwater onto the street below.

Blue doorway in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Venetian canal (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Doorbells in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Doorbells, detail (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The city was once a world power – a hub of commerce and conquerors. It was the birthplace of many great minds and, through the years, a rite of passage for many others: Goethe, Mozart, Vivaldi, Marco Polo, and Thomas Mann all lived and worked within whispering distance of the dark green waterways.

Today, it seems to be a rite of passage only for the tourists, brandishing selfie sticks and Bermuda shorts and shopping bags full of leather-bound journals, carnival masks, and everything made of Murano glass. There are 60,000 people living in the historic city of Venice, but some 50,000 tourists thronging there per day. Walking along the winding streets, there are so many glossy glass windows filled to the brim with Murano glass, it makes you start to feel that you should decorate your whole house with it.

Pizza shop in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
House in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
View from a gondola (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Gondola ride in Venice (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Even the famous gondolas are now reserved for strictly charged and strictly timed pleasure rides. And the gondoliers no longer sing, though they still wear striped shirts and pole those long, flat-bottomed boats through the shallow canals like slithering eels. » Continue reading this post…

In the Land of the Midnight Sun

Window to another world (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I spent the week reading Murakami. It was a little joke, to read Norwegian Wood in the Norwegian woods. But a fitting one – Murakami’s dreamlike writing, a story within a story within a story, was like a murky mirror to the feeling that I myself had been dropped into another world, off the grid and off the beaten path. Living another life in another story I could tell myself later on.

I woke in the mornings to the persistent, endless sun streaming through the cracked slat of the wooden tipi’s window. I’d nestle deeper into the stack of reindeer hides that was my bed, the gentle tickle of soft fur brushing my skin. Eyes open, I rested, feeling the cool breeze from outside across my face, breathing in the scent of ashes and wood smoke lingering from last night’s fire.

Grazing sheep (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Coffee and a homemade granola bar (Eat Me. Drink me.)
Farmhouse and sheep (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

90s album cover with sheep (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

I took my time getting ready. Brushing my teeth with water from a bottle, scattering spit foam in the gravel stones outside my hut. I’d walk to the spigot down the road and bathe in the ice cold water, splashing it first on my face to shock the sleep out of it. I’d dry off briskly with a towel, the cool morning wind sweeping like silk over my clean-scrubbed arms. I’d dress in the hut, make up my bed, and tidy my things, then step out for a day in the bright and green Norwegian woods.

There were two paths up to the farmhouse café – one through the woods, up a dirt and stone trail lined with thick green undergrowth and shaded by tall trees, the other along the gravel road, where sheep grazed nimbly, bells clanging around their necks, baas distinct enough to recognize them all by sound by the time the week was through. There were sheep everywhere it seemed, the mothers newly slim with bleating babes still suckling fiercely at their teats. » Continue reading this post…

Dublin – City of Superlatives

The streets of Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Everything in Dublin was simply the best, and I know this, because all the signs in Dublin told me so. There was the best Irish dancing at the best dinner show. The best deals on souvenirs, the best pub in which to drink Guinness, the best breakfast in all Ireland. There was the best walking tour and the best little shop for all your cake decorating needs. There was even the best poem about a cat in the best book written by monks in the early 9th century: “I and Pangur Bán my cat / ‘Tis a like task we are at…”

Though beset by a bad case of the bests, Dublin is a sweet little city – a street-smart ruffian with a heart of gold, all dressed up in a bright new suit. I imagine him as an impish fellow: a pint in one hand and a ready joke in the other. He reads poetry on the sly, but always has a dirty tale to tell his mates hanging around a table in the back corner of a smoky pub.

The Guinness bird (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A Dublin pub (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A little building in Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Just another pub in Dublin (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The city has a good energy, when you get away from the places where the tourists cluster like flocks of drunk ducks. (We paid Temple Bar homage, reluctantly, and briefly, and never again.) On Friday night, we joined an after work crowd at John Kehoe’s. Early in the evening, the pub was already packed with people sitting around tables and crowding into nooks to chat. The weather was holding steady, and the sidewalks were full of overflow from inside. As dusk dimmed into night, the conversations flowed, washed down with pints of dark and creamy Guinness and Smithwick’s Pale Ale. And the atmosphere stayed convivial.

Of course we made the round of pubs. We spent our last evening at The Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (another of those superlatives), built in 1198, but burned down and built up again who knows how many times. » Continue reading this post…

The Other Georgia, Part II – Stepantsminda

Stepantsminda, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The morning dawned weakly and dull the day we embarked for Stepantsminda – a village lying at the base of Mount Kazbek, the seventh-highest peak in the Caucuses. The riders in the subway were half asleep, and we ourselves only jerked awake outside the Didube station to the shouts of vendors hawking small lemons and nuts, hot khachapuri and coffee. Marshrutka drivers were looking for passengers to fill their vans. They shouted out destinations – Kakheti, Gori, Mtskheta – places we had seen the day before and places we had not.

A driver hustled our direction and asked where we were going. “Stepantsminda,” we replied, and he gestured toward his weathered red van. That was just the route he was taking, he said. “Are the roads safe?” I asked. It had been unseasonably warm in Tbilisi, but this was February after all, and there was no telling what conditions were like at higher altitudes. “I am from there,” he said. And while I couldn’t have known it at the time, I later found out that what he meant by this was, “No, but I’m used to it.”

We bought a quick breakfast from a nearby stand – crescent-shaped khachapuri stuffed with hard-boiled egg – and ate it as the van hobbled along the highway out of Tbilisi. We were tired and fell asleep, but soon woke to the jolt of the road, littered with potholes and dirty slush.

The road up the mountain, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Monastery on the road to Stepantsminda (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

At a monastery, we scrambled out to take pictures. Snow patched the ground, and wet drizzle chilled my bare hands. Below us, the river sluggishly plowed along the banks, freezing in the shallows. The road continued to climb, and the next time we stopped, there were old women wrapped in headscarves and wool selling fruit leather and churchkhela hanging in long, burgundy rows. » Continue reading this post…

The Other Georgia, Part I – Tbilisi

Tbilisi, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Tbilisi is a city of crumble and construction. The gondola sways up over the river, over close, claustrophobic streets seeming to fold in on themselves. Here, dented tin and red-tiled roofs cover haphazard buildings slouching into gray courtyards. There, a stunning twist of ultramodern architecture sits wrapped in glass. Bruised and dented cars give guttural chugs around tight corners, slipping past pedestrians who hug the sides of buildings where there is no sidewalk.

Tbilisi, Georgia (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

From above, it seems convoluted, but calm. A sleepy city, settling with dust. On street level, there’s clamor, construction sites and bridge beggars, vendors hawking homemade sour plum sauce and dark purple churchkhela – walnuts strung together and dipped in thickened grape paste. There are wine shops on every corner and little grocery stores with bins of fresh herbs, potatoes, and fruit.

But David and I are hungry. We curl down the twisted streets from our Airbnb apartment to the river and find a restaurant with big glass windows overlooking the water. It’s simple inside – rows of wooden tables and big picture menus, a TV playing an advertising reel in the corner, a case displaying sweets. But all around us, people are tucking into big plates of food – dumplings and stews, warm bread and parsley-laden salads.

Narikala Fortress, Tbilisi (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Flame-grilled kebab (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Cold stew with eggplant and potato (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

We order khachapuri – hot, chewy bread baked with rich, slightly sour cheese. It’s still bubbling when it arrives. David orders fire-grilled pork kebabs covered in slivers of sweet raw onion, and for me there’s a cold stew of eggplant, potato, pepper, tomato, and herbs.

Reinvigorated, we explore the city from the top down. Narikala Fortress is a well-kept ruin stretching along a low-lying ridge. Weather-worn stone steps turn into scraggly gravel and rock, which we climb to get a better view. To our left, Mother Georgia – silent and strong. » Continue reading this post…

Norwegian Wood… and Waffles

Lysefjord, Norway (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

People who worry should not eat wild berries in the woods. Even if those woods are in Norway and the little fruits looks like blueberries and taste like blueberries, they may not be blueberries. There’s a certain euphoria that comes from hiking down a mountain after you’ve just stood on the precipice of a very big cliff towering over a fjord that slices between the mountains like a blue seam. It makes you braver, maybe, than you should be.

I’d been scanning the undergrowth for blueberry bushes. The last time I was in Norway, I told Elli, as we clambered down the rough stone trail from the top of the Preikestolen, I remembered picking tiny wild blueberries and greedily stripping the bushes bare as I ate them one by one. The surviving berries were baked into pies we ate for dessert in the little wooden house perched on the edge of a cliff, a gem-green fjord flowing down below.

Yellow flowers on a stormy day (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

When I found three tenacious berries peeking out beneath the green, I snapped them up and popped them in my mouth. It wasn’t until a few paces later that I wondered whether what I’d eaten really was a blueberry. Maybe it was a poisonous berry, and I’d just committed unintentional suicide on a Norwegian mountain trail, far from hospital or help. My stomach began to feel queasy. I felt dizzy, weak. It was a blueberry, Elli said. Tell me when 15 minutes are up, I said. If I’m not dead by then, I think I’ll continue living.

Purple flowers (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Sverd i fjell (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Rock by the sea (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Burst of white flowers (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

We’d flown in to Stavanger the night before, and spent the evening wandering around the little city, marveling at its emptiness. For a Friday night, the streets were dead. We peered into dark shops, our footsteps the only ones echoing over the clean cobbled stones. » Continue reading this post…