Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

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…

Coming to Terms with History – A Trip to Greece

A view from Poros (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Your humble author, with ruins (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
A boat on the Greek islands (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Family, sightseeing in Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Growing up in the US, you have no real concept of history. Old is Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and ancient is the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. In Greece, old is the founding of Western civilization and ancient is a Neolithic human making pottery some 8,000 years ago on a rocky outcrop by the sea. Take that, George.

At the site of ancient Corinth, a city famous for getting some letters, you see the layers of history. You can walk along the centuries-old road, slick with pinkish rocks from 2,000 years of sandaled feet scraping it smooth. There’s a Bronze Age grave and over that the Greek marketplace. The Romans built a fountain, and as BC chanced to AD, a little Byzantine church appeared. The city was razed a few times, and each time built back up again, always a little bit higher, the new burying the old.

Temple of Apollo in Corinth (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The ruins of Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Sightseeing in Greece (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Iced lemonade for hot days (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Today, the materials we use for construction are too lasting for this archaeological strata effect. Our new cities aren’t built on top of old ones, but integrated into them. Concrete has leveled out history. In Greece, too, it seems like history stops in ancient days. Unlike in Berlin, where the story starts with WWII and pummels into the East-West German divide, in Greece, the thread goes dark with the Byzantines. Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, modern Athens was born, as if a tired Zeus had spilled a shimmering pile of white Legos inside a ring of dusty green mountains.

Temple ruins in Athens (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
Brother at the Acropolis (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
An ionic column (Eat Me. Drink Me.)
The Greek flag (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Modern-day Greece is not without its real problems. On the way home from our tour to Delphi, the bus driver asked us if we could skip the bathroom break and just head straight to Athens. There was a demonstration planned, and she wanted to get us back before the roads closed. » Continue reading this post…

Tuscan Summer

Italian gelato (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Back when I used to lead backpacking trips, we had this saying: Finish with style. It meant ending the hike with as much aplomb as you had when you started. It meant neatly packing your bag on your last morning and calmly, strongly walking into the valley rather than slopping down the slope to civilization and a warm blueberry pie.

Let me tell you how our vacation ended, and you can tell me how much style we finished with: For lunch, we passed a yogurt bucket full of cold cooked chicken in tomato sauce around the car and piled it on Saltines with our fingers. The car was cramped, and at least one of us always had to sit in the so-called “dungeon” back seat, named for the lack of leg room and the pile of luggage towering up the left side. We were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours as the Alps softly unfolded outside the windows, and a drizzly rain sent slim sheets of mist through the crags. The dog, fur filled with nubby burrs, sent white and black hair tufting through the car.

http://ellenkaufman.wordpress.com

And here’s how we started the week: A rose and peach sun set over dusty olive trees and yellow sunflowers, heads heavy with seeds. The red sand city of Arezzo shimmering beyond the hills. Behind us, the villa cool and impassive; stones worn by 14th century nobles and servants scurrying with firewood and food, and later, the soft pad of praying nuns. For dinner that night, we walked down the gravel path to the nearby hilltop restaurant, where the only thing to think about was how many the grill platter should serve and when to uncork the wine already sitting on the table.

There was very little waiting to begin, as the waitress brought out platters of food. » Continue reading this post…

On the Beaches of Barcelona

Raw oysters (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

The best part of Vilassar de Mar was the blue. In the mornings, we woke to the bright glare of the ocean pinching sunlight from the sky and pitching it in through our window. The early hours were cool and dry, lulled by the soft crash of waves and shattered by the Renfe searing down the tracks with a load of commuters headed for the city center. In Barcelona, the merchants in La Boqueria would already be unrolling the shutters from their stands to reveal hanging hocks of jamón and stacked fruit, and the bleary-eyed tourists would be marching down Las Ramblas with bulky black Canons strapped to their chests. But in Vilassar de Mar, there was only ocean, a multi-hued blue dotted with sailboats and solitary paddle boarders cutting the surf.

Balcony, Villasar de Mar (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

What we couldn’t figure out in Vilassar de Mar was when things were open. On the day that we arrived, just after lunchtime, the little town was shuttered. We wandered uphill from the shore, the only direction to wander, and passed cafés and shops, all closed. Even the grocery store participated in the afternoon siesta hours, only opening again late in the evening. We were still hesitant of ourselves, the only tourists on the deserted streets, slow in our Spanish, when what we should really have been speaking was Catalan.

Fresh mussels (Eat Me. Drink Me.)

Choosing somewhere to eat is hard when you’re so fresh to a new place, when you want so badly to make the best decision, but are too hungry to decide. At least there weren’t that many options. Halfway up the hill, we found a small bakery that was still open. One lazy couple sat beneath a yellow umbrella, slowly picking at fish bones. The tables were covered in clean white cloths and inside the windows, glazed pastries billowed beneath the glass. » Continue reading this post…

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