Monthly Archives: February 2012

A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck


Where: Waterton, Alberta, Canada

At the top of Bear's Hump for a view of Waterton Lake

Plate of food: This isn’t a plate of food; it isn’t even a complete meal, but it deserves a place here. It is a Bear Paw (sometimes known as a Bear Claw). Before I have animal rights activists lashing out at me with their non-leather shoes (oops), let me explain that this isn’t actually a bear’s paw. Us Canadians, we like to name our foods in a way that challenges the mind as well as the palate: each food is like a riddle. Those that are unaware ask themselves, “What am I actually eating?”, while the friendly Canadian chuckles and wryly shakes his head. Take, for example, the Beaver Tail or Cowboy Caviar or Moose Droppings….it is typical of our latent (albeit hokey) humour. Anyway…

A Bear Paw is a disc of caramel toffee coated with chocolate (obviously dark chocolate is the best, right? Right!). To complete the illusion of a real bear’s paw, cashew nuts are stuck into the caramel as claws. Aha! Genius!

No chocolate here, but a cast of a real paw. So scarily big that it made my butt cheeks clench. Yeah, you heard me right.

Culinary snobs might sneer at this being my memorable food from Waterton, which is home to many fine restaurants. The rest of us, however, will acknowledge that you cannot go wrong with caramel and chocolate and nuts – in the shape of a BEAR’S PAW.

When you go to Waterton (you really should), you take yourself straight to Welch’s Chocolate Shop and buy yourself some Bear Paws. Hopefully it is the closest encounter with a bear that you will have during your visit!

The best: A day hike to Bertha Lake (to work off those Bear Paws or, in my case, to justify eating 3 more of them). There are innumerable hiking paths around Waterton and we did a different hike each day we were there, but this was my favourite.

It was a beautiful sunny day. We climbed up from the townsite on a dirt path through pine forests. We often stopped along the way, where the trees parted and wildflowers bloomed, to gaze down at the valley. Despite being in Waterton at the height of summer, there were hardly any other hikers on the trail. It was quiet and peaceful, and satisfyingly hard work. We crossed clear, rushing streams with water so cold it made your fingers ache. Soon we moved further into the trees where it was darker and spongy underfoot with pine needles. Eventually we descended to Bertha Lake and saw a majestic sight:

Wow. Just, wow.

It was breathtaking to come across this perfect vignette of green trees, silver mountains, and blue sky, all mirrored in the crystal waters of the lake. The view made me want to burst into a moving rendition of “Oh, Canada” (even the French verses, that’s how touched I was by this). It was worth the effort of hiking for hours. Bertha Lake is not easily accessible and for that I am grateful – it can remain a hidden treasure, unspoilt and untouched.

We did not linger at the lake, despite its magnificence. As I communed with nature and made grand statements about spirituality, Mother Earth, and giving up eating Bear Paws just for this, Matt’s body suddenly went rigid next to me.

“I saw a bear”, he said.

“S**t”, I said.

Gone was the spirituality and the nature and the beauty. It was replaced with us frantically searching to see where the bear had gone, me hissing at Matt about whether he saw a black bear or a grizzly bear (really? Does it matter at this point?), and me maniacally clapping my hands like a deranged seal because we all know that that is how you scare off a bear. Either that or it is like a dinner gong to a bear – clap, clap, Bear! I am dumb enough to think this will scare you away. Come and get me!

Luckily we had lingered at many lovely spots along the way to Bertha Lake because our return trip was very hasty indeed. I went at a steady trot the entire way, still clapping intermittently which startled a group of Texans, but no doubt had no effect on bears in the vicinity. We made it back to Waterton without any problem, and promptly went and had a…beer (you didn’t think that a Bear Paw was going to cut it this time, did you?).

Story that needs to be told: One afternoon as we walked through town we came upon a house set amongst tall pine trees. It had a pleasant yard, but the owners had placed two plastic deer on their lawn. You’ve seen these before – a doe laying in the grass and a buck standing frozen with one hoof poised to take a step. They exist in the realm of duck ornaments stuck on the exterior of a house or macramé owls hung in the kitchen. That they exist at all confounds me.

It struck me as funny that people would have these lawn ornaments in a place where you regularly see wildlife, but it takes all sorts. I laughed, joking, “You should take a photo of me with that deer in a headlock. We could tell people it was real!”

Smiles still on our faces, we continued walking. As we crossed the street, the lawn ornaments suddenly got to their feet and stared at us. Now, I know that most of you knew that was going to happen, but I assure you, I did not. Blame it on the chocolate I had consumed, but it took some real brain work to figure out that the figurines had moved…no, wait…oh, they’re NOT figurines!

We stopped and waited as the deer delicately picked their way across the lawn and disappeared into the trees.

I then spent the rest of the evening (much to Matt’s delight) pondering what would have happened if I had tried to get my headlock photo. Play along with me, won’t you?

Imagine me cockily crossing the street and doing some body builder poses for Matt. Ha, so funny! Then, imagine me actually getting close enough to the doe (in my mind I had targeted the one laying on the ground) to get my hands on it. Warmer than I had expected! Imagine the deer being so bewildered by this giggling, show-boating girl that she would freeze rather than flee. Imagine me locking my arms around the deer’s neck while I try to arrange my face into an outdoorsy and fearless expression. Cor! Now imagine the look on my face as that deer rears up to her feet, fed up with this foolish girl trying to strangle her. What the..?

Imagine all of that caught on camera. I’m almost sorry we didn’t try.

All together now - "Oh, Canada...!"

“When I’m in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like.” Jane Fonda

Never spit at a German


Where: Düsseldorf, Germany

Let the eating begin!

Plate of food: We went to Düsseldorf specifically for the Christmas markets. It was our first foray into these typically German festive events, but it started something in me that became a slight obsession. I discovered that Christmas markets combine twinkly lights, shopping, sausages, mulled wine, festive music and enough atmosphere to rival the North Pole itself. I ask you: how are the rest of us managing the holidays without all of this?

Before you even take a bite of food at a Christmas market, you are tempted by all the wonderful smells. There are sausages grilling, spiced wine simmering, chocolate melting, and dough frying. This is not a place to be picky about having your dressing on the side or having low-fat cheese or having less than, say, 3000 calories a day. It is best for everyone if you just surrender – trust me, it is not difficult.

To make it easy I have some step by step instructions for eating at a market:

  1. Go directly to one of the many Glühwein vendors and buy a mug of mulled wine. You’ll easily find these wooden huts because they are surrounded by jovial groups of Germans standing in the swirl of steam from the vats of wine.
  2. Don’t be alarmed that you were asked to pay 6 Euros for your drink. You just paid for the mug, too, and that is fantastic because then you have your very own specially designed souvenir with the name of the market and the year on it. This will spark some sort of kitsch collecting craze in you. Don’t worry.
  3. Sausage will be your main food group when at a market. There are quite a few sausages to choose from, just pick the best of the wurst (that’s in there for you, Dad). Try the long, thin ones (Thüringer Rostbratwurstgrilled over coals served in a fresh bread roll. Eat this with mustard.
  4. Admire the inventiveness of the rows of metal spikes upon which the rolls are skewered to create the perfect sausage-sized tunnel.
  5. Go back and refill your mug with Glühwein.
  6. Buy some honey roasted almonds in a paper cone. They will still be warm from the roaster. Yum!
  7. Buy a lebkuchen – an oversized gingerbread cookie usually in the shape of a heart. Don’t eat it. Wear it around your neck like the Germans do. It’s like a festive version of an 80s rapper.
  8. Walk to another market a few streets away and buy another mug (each market will have their own). It comes filled with Glühwein, so it would be rude not to partake.
  9. Eat a bretzel – a large, soft, salty pretzel.
  10. Repeat steps 1-9 for each meal.
  11. Surreptitiously unbutton the waistband of your pants.

The best: The whole Christmas market shebang is the best way to kick off the festive season. The markets transform a part of a city and the people in it, so that everyone is floating along on a happy cloud of goodwill, good cheer and Glühwein. An evening spent at a market is cozy in a Norman Rockwell way. The little wooden huts glitter with lights and garlands; each one offering something special: wooden decorations, glass candleholders, ceramic angels, and food, glorious food. Bands and choirs entertain the crowds with songs to which everyone knows the tune, no matter what your language. In the centre of the market usually stands an enormous Christmas tree, fresh and fragrant. The streets surrounding the market remain busy with traffic, alleys are dark and people are short-tempered, but once you pass under the market archway all is brightness and joy. That is a magical thing, even just for an hour or two. If only we could have such a reprieve from real life at other times during the year…with collector’s mugs, of course.

It was a struggle not to buy all of these for our tree.

Story that needs to be told: I’m just going to come right out and say that we stayed in the train station in Düsseldorf. In a hotel in the train station, but in the train station, nevertheless. This was my bright idea for affordable accommodation in a convenient location. Frankly, one cannot deny that it was both affordable AND convenient, but one could also argue that it is downright depressing to enter your hotel room without actually leaving the train station building. I felt as though I may need coins to operate the shower.

Oh, look! Even Santa stays at the train station! Photo by CharlesFred

On the flip side of our less than luxurious accommodation, Düsseldorf has certain streets that are lined with the most glamorous stores selling designer clothes, shoes, and bags. We walked down one of these fashion avenues one evening, rubbing elbows with German women who wore full length fur coats and looked sophisticated. I was wearing materials that promised to “insulate while wicking away perspiration” and I looked like…I was sleeping in the train station. The door to each glittering store was guarded by a severe looking gentleman in a dark suit. They sure didn’t have that sort of security at the train station.

I lingered over the window display at the Jil Sander store, wondering about the price of the items on the mannequin. Eventually I spotted a tiny card at the base of the mannequin, a discreet listing of the prices. I pressed my face closer and peered at the card as the guard shifted in his loafers and looked at me suspiciously. I was going to slink away, but then I felt defiant: I deserve to look at these fine clothes; who’s to say that I don’t shop here all the time?

With renewed determination, I squinted and the small text on the card came into focus. I saw the exorbitant prices. In disbelief, I blew out through my lips (as in “Pfft! A belt for 500 euros?”) and promptly spat on the window. The guard looked at me incredulously (bet he hasn’t seen that move before!) and then he gave me a look that said “You actually don’t deserve to look at these fine clothes”. Aaaaaand I had to agree with him.

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” James Michener

Business Trip


I just wanted to check in with you, my faithful travel companion, to say that I have not abandoned this blog mere weeks after beginning it. In fact, I am in Chile on a very important business trip. No, actually I am in Chile on a very pleasant holiday, but I am doing research. No, it’s not research; it’s actually just drinking very good Chilean wine. There, you forced it out of me! I am drinking my way through a week in Chile! I’m so glad we can be honest with each other.

So far I have this to report about my time here:

  • the red wine is very good
  • the white wine is equally good
  • the currency is crazy because prices are often in the thousands…for a pack of gum. There are just so many zeros on the price tags!
  • the mountain air is fresh and dry which means that my hair is back to being somewhat straight, but my lips are dangerously arid now. I would buy more lip balm, but it costs 2,500 Chilean Pesos.
  • a guy dressed as a clown was trying to earn some money from the lunch crowd at a restaurant, but his ploy was to point a frighteningly realistic toy gun at you and say “Give me money”. No juggling, no magic tricks, no balloon animals, just armed robbery. Wait, that was a TOY gun, wasn’t it? (Yes, Mom and Dad, it was.)

I am well aware of how I have dropped my 3 posts per week schedule and I will catch up when I get back to reality next week. Until then, I have some research to uncork…

All hail the King


Where: Rarotonga, Cook Islands, South Pacific (Look at that! You can click on the link to see where this is. Three cheers for me becoming more tech savvy!)

Lovely, tranquil Rarotonga

Plate of food: During our stay in Rarotonga, we ate at a fantastic restaurant, called The Flame Tree, which offered an eclectic mix of flavours on its menu. With fresh fish and seafood as the base, the dishes melded influences from Japan, India, New Zealand, Indonesia and beyond. I remember enjoying our dinner there, but after 12 years, the food has faded from memory. All that remains in my mind is the short drive to the restaurant.

I was perched on the back of a small motorbike (ubiquitous on the island), my skirt tucked in around my legs, as Matt drove along the one road that circles the island. On our right, I saw flashes of shimmering sea between small bungalows; on our left, there was only dense forest sloping up into the hills, all shadows and night noises. The wind rushing by my face was distinctly tropical: salty, warm, and scented with frangipani. It started to rain as we drove – large, heavy drops that seemed in no rush to fall. As they hit the asphalt it released its pent-up heat in small bursts of steam. After a drive like that, who cares about the food?

I do remember, however, the breakfasts that were delivered to our small hotel room each morning. A tray full of fruit, coffee, and pastries would appear and we would take it outside to the front stoop. There we would eat the most delicious papaya (locally known as pawpaw) – deep orange in colour and sweet as honey. We would sip our coffee and contemplate our next move: reading on the beach or snorkeling in the shallow lagoon? Hmm.

Wild chickens and roosters darted through the hedges and streaked across the grass, bobbing their heads at us. Our view of the white sand and the turquoise water was unobstructed, except for two tall palm trees. Any time I eat papaya now, I return ever so briefly (too briefly!) to that front porch.

The best: One evening near the end of our trip, we walked along the beach at sunset. The falling darkness was a relief after the heat of the day. The sand felt cool between our toes and the breeze blowing in off the sea was fresh and gentle. We sat at the edge of the palm trees to watch the moon rise and the stars blink. Behind us was a small community church hidden behind the bushes. We could hear the inflection of conversations drifting out to us. Suddenly low singing started and quickly gained strength. Soon many voices were singing in beautiful harmony in Rarotongan/Cook Islands Maori. The sound drifted out to us on the beach, accompanied by the rhythmic rolling of waves. We sat in silence and enjoyed this impromptu concert. The foreign words held no meaning, but the lyrical, uplifting sounds felt like a special celebration of Rarotonga. Best moment on the island!

I swear you can hear the singing if you listen hard enough...

Story that needs to be told: We briskly set off walking one day – to the local shop, I think – and soon the heat radiating up off the road and the sun beating down on our backs slowed our steps. We must have looked fairly pathetic/crazy/sad (take your pick) because a small pick up truck pulled over and the driver offered us a ride. Matt immediately said “Yes”, and vaulted into the back.

I hesitated; I don’t hitchhike. It’s not safe, we all know that, right? Matt looked at me questioningly and reached for my hand. “It’s Rarotonga”, he said. Good point, I thought. I sat down in the back and tried to look carefree and trusting, but in my head I conjured up images of us being kidnapped and dragged off to…somewhere scary in Rarotonga (a place, let me remind you, that has a man standing on a wooden crate at the tiny airport, playing the ukulele to welcome you). Still, hitchhiking is dangerous.

Luckily we survived the short trip and we thanked the kindly man who saved us from heat stroke. He then revealed with great pride that we had been picked up by none other than…the Coconut King! Um, who? It turns out that this man was Piri Purutu III (a name fit for a King, no?). He does performances around the island, showing off traditional fire making skills and scaling tall palm trees to retrieve coconuts. He offered us the chance for a private performance the next day at our hotel.

He appeared the following day in full Coconut King regalia, which consisted of a wig and a loin cloth, both made from coconut fibers. The wig was styled in a rather smart-looking bob. The loin cloth was, well, shorter than I would have liked.

This is going to take NY Fashion Week by storm.

Across the street from our hotel he regaled us with tales of the traditional island ways, then he stripped some fibers off of his loin cloth (easy, now!) and tied them in a figure eight. He put his feet through the loops and shimmied quickly up a tree. Quite amazing for a man in his 60s! Once at the top of the swaying palm tree he climbed through the fronds and stood on the very top. From this vantage point he plucked a coconut and threw it up in the air. The sickening smack of a coconut on the ground is not the sound you want to hear as you watch a man perform stunts at the top of a tree – it might be something he should consider changing for future shows…

At this point I was really hoping he was wearing something under that loin cloth.

Safely back on the ground, he showed us how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together and using the coconut fiber as a nest for the glowing sparks. The whole show was impressive, but mostly because of his enthusiasm and energy. By all accounts, the Coconut King still reigns in Rarotonga; you should find him if you ever go. Just promise me that you won’t hitchhike.

Photos: Just a note to say that these photos were taken, wait for it, on a camera that took FILM. Thus, the photos have been scanned and look as though they were taken in 1978, not in 2000. If there is anyone reading this blog who thinks 2000 might as well be 1978, then you probably listen to Ke$ha and we, unfortunately, can’t be friends.

“So much of who we are is where we have been.”  William Langewiesche

How to discover you are claustrophobic in Cairo


Where: Cairo, Egypt

Cairo skyline

Plate of food: Kushari – a dish of lentils, rice, and macaroni (unexpected, I know), topped with fried onions and a spicy tomato sauce.

I discovered this vegetarian delight one afternoon as we rattled along in a van with the rest of our small tour group. We had been on the go all day and had not yet stopped for lunch. Suddenly our tour guide, Waleed, passed small styrofoam containers back to us; I peeled back the lid to reveal Kushari.

My hunger may have clouded my reasoning, but this simple food tasted so delicious. It was warm, filling, scented with garlic, and rich with fried onion flavour. We ate voraciously as we watched minarets whizz past our windows in a blur.

If Cairo is frenetic (and it is without a doubt), Kushari is serene: a dish of well-balanced, comforting flavours. Relax, eat, enjoy. And then get out of the way of oncoming traffic.

The best: I nearly wrote about the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities because it is a building straight out of Indiana Jones and it houses incredible artifacts like Tutankhamun’s death mask, plus it has the word antiquities in it (can’t go wrong with that, I reckon).

But it seems crazy to choose anything other than the Pyramids of Giza, which are awe-inspiring. They are a sight so familiar from books and movies, but nothing compares to seeing them in all their glory. Despite what you might think, the Pyramids are very close to the city; they suddenly rise up out of the sand just past shabby looking shops and bustling streets. It is stunning to catch that first glimpse of them.

We walked around the base of the Pyramids, craning our necks to see the apex which disappeared in a blaze of sunshine. The four sides of the Pyramids are not smooth, but terraced with stacks of huge weathered stones, each taller than a man. The outer casing stones (highly polished limestone) are, for the most part, missing; only one Pyramid has a cap of smooth stones, like snow on a peak.

This photo is deceptive because the stones look small...and I look as though I am wearing capri pants and a cardigan...oh, wait, never mind.

We could enter one of the Pyramids through a tunnel originally used by workmen. We queued up in the hot sun until it was our turn to slip into the dark mouth of the tunnel. There were wooden planks under foot and dim lighting stretched along the roof of the tunnel. We were forced into single file in the narrow passageway and we had to hunch over due to the low ceiling (it was designed so that anyone who entered had to bow before the King). After descending through a long passageway, we then climbed steeply up to the inner chamber. People were impatient and pushed from behind, urgently trying to get to the chamber where one can finally stand up straight.

On our ascent, a few people were overcome by the stale air, the sweltering heat, and the dreaded awareness of thousands of stones above them. A woman started shrieking which brought all of us to a sudden halt, stumbling ahead like dominoes. She turned and tried to come back the way she had come. It was too narrow, but we all knew she had to get out. Her panic brought our own fears to the surface. Whose idea was it to come in here, anyway?

The endless line of people pressed themselves against the stone wall to allow the woman to pass. It was a hasty, fumbling retreat. As she disappeared down the tunnel, we all stared at one another. We didn’t need to speak the same language to know the thoughts that were running through our heads: “on the count of 3, let’s all just turn around and leave”, “I’ll buy you a beer if you let me pass”, “this chamber can’t be worth it”, “I won’t tell anyone that we held hands”….

But on we went. And truth be told, the chamber is not worth it. It is worth it, though, to be in the presence of these great structures, and to imagine the hands that placed each stone all those centuries ago, and to think of all the people who have gazed at those Pyramids through history.

In the end, we stumbled back out into the blinding sunlight and stretched our stiff backs and legs. There may or may not have been some hand holding…I am not saying anything.

Pyramids at Giza

Story that needs to be told: We decided to take a taxi to some spots within Cairo. In an attempt to be prepared, we had someone translate the place names to help the taxi driver understand where we wanted to go. He nodded in recognition as we showed him the slip of paper, so we clambered into the back seat.

He took off at a great speed only to veer wildly over to the curb after 500 metres. He had pulled up alongside a petrol station…to ask directions.

Turns out he had no idea where we wanted to go. The numerous staff members at the petrol station were sitting in the shade having their morning tea break, but they helpfully crowded around the car and tried to guess at our desired destination.

It did not take long, however, for some of them to realize that they had a captive audience; a captive audience with money (probably). They proceeded to try every international greeting they knew: “G’day!”, “Ni hao!”, “Howzit?”, “Guten tag!”, and amazingly “Kia ora” (the New Zealand Maori greeting, which justifiably impressed the socks off of us). They also tried to sell us what they had on hand; pushing half drunk cups of tea and crumbly hunks of cake through the taxi window. Tempting, but no. You have to admire their ability to spot an opportunity, though!

We did make it, eventually, to the places we had on our piece of paper, but those first 10 minutes in the taxi made a more lasting impression. It was Cairo in all its fast-paced, confusing, opportunistic, friendly glory.

An approximation of our directions for the taxi driver

“People don’t take trips – trips take people.”  John Steinbeck

Hot soup, please, with extra rat


Where: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

My, what tall towers you have!

Plate of food: Laksa – a noodle soup with flavours of coconut, curry, lemongrass and ginger. You can find Laksa everywhere in Malaysia from trendy restaurants to street vendors. The delight, for me, was that there were so many variations of this soup. Depending on my mood I could have it with shrimp, bean sprouts, lots of chilli, tofu, not much chilli, chicken, carrots, mushrooms and on and on. No matter what I chose I was always presented with a visually pleasing, heaped bowlful of steaming soup. The fragrance that wafts up from it is nothing less than intoxicating. As you eat it, the chilli warms your throat and belly, while the lime and tamarind refresh and excite your mouth. When was the last time a spoonful of food did that for you?

I am not going to pretend to be hardcore and tell you that I found the best Laksa joint in a back alley of KL somewhere. Truth be told, I enjoyed Laksa in a food court…in a mall…at the base of the famous Petronas Towers. Can’t get more mainstream than that. What can I say – it was air-conditioned. In KL, air conditioning becomes a necessity, like breathing or checking for celebrity gossip. (Who? Me?) The irony, of course, is that I ordered a hot, spicy soup to enjoy in my refreshing air-conditioned environment. I can’t explain the logic, it is just the appeal of Laksa.

The best: Batu Caves, just north of Kuala Lumpur, is the site of an important Hindu temple. Inside 3 naturally formed caves, there are beautiful shrines to various Hindu gods. To reach the main cave you must climb 272 steps past seemingly harmless monkeys (they will cheekily avail you of any food you have on you, though).

Just some light 98% humidity. Get cracking!

Once you have sweated off half of your body weight and reached the top, you enter the Temple Cave. The air is dank and filled with whispered prayers of devotees. Above you, through a tangle of vines and moss is a patch of blue sky in stark contrast to the dark, dripping interior of the cave.

The Art Gallery Cave at the base of the steps contains wild, technicolour statues and displays. I found myself squinting in the glare of such vivid colours. It was so foreign to me, being more familiar with sedate, solemn church interiors. These displays struck me as a celebration, as joyful and pleasing.

Bright colours in the caves

Story that needs to be told: After having exhausted all possible angles for photographs at the base of the Petronas Towers, on the skybridge 41 floors up, and from vantage points in the park surrounding the towers; we decided we needed to get some distance from them to really capture their dominating size.

We took the light rail transit out to a station that offered us a better view. The area was just outside of the CBD of the city. Gone were the shiny, modern skyscrapers and in their place were dismal, concrete apartment buildings. These identical blocks were maybe 15 stories high, and squeezed in tight next to each other. Tumbling out of each window were bright bits of laundry, hanging limp in the muggy air; satellite dishes precariously bolted to the wall; and people leaning out into the evening, looking hot and tired.

We walked a short way to the next station along the crumbling sidewalk at the base of one of these buildings. In the dusky light, I saw something move at the edge of the grass. I thought it was a dog at first, but I squinted and the shock of recognition made me stop in my tracks.

It was a rat. A BIG rat. One you could have saddled and ridden in a rodeo, if you were so inclined. (I, personally, would pay money to watch that.)

It paused and looked at us, then continued its lumbering trek across the sidewalk towards the building. I shuddered and my buttocks clenched (don’t pretend that doesn’t happen to you, too).

As we zoomed back on the railway to the clean and tidy area around the towers, I felt uneasy. The people living in those apartment blocks look out their windows and see hundreds of identical windows staring back at them. They look out and see rats big enough to need their own postcode. They look out and see the beacon of the twin towers, glowing on the horizon. It just reminded me how so often places have dual personalities: one for the privileged visitors and one for the people residing there. I felt lucky for where I lived and how I lived, and lucky to be a visitor.

I hope you look out your window and like what you see. I hope you give thanks for the way you get to live. I hope you last the 8 seconds on that rat in the rodeo.

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Aldous Huxley

Darling, let’s go to Tuscany


Where: Massaciuccoli (pronounced Massa-chi-kolee, if that’s at all helpful), Tuscany, Italy

Bustling metropolis...or blissfully not.

Plate of Food/Story that needs to be told: First, let me say that Italians prepare their food with love and respect for the ingredients, the process, and the bellies they will feed. That passion creates some truly fantastic dishes (I must remember that the next time I cook something that comes with the instruction “Add water”).

On our final day in Massaciuccoli, our hosts at our holiday home kindly made us a reservation at their favourite restaurant in the nearby town of Viareggio. Massimo (all was right with the world when I learnt his name) had been a champion rally car driver and he was a bit of a local celebrity. They made the reservation under his name to ensure us a table at this popular spot.

We arrived at Buonamico, but we were told there was no reservation for us. The restaurant was so busy, they told us sternly, that we would have to wait until 10pm for a table (2 hours away). We felt so deflated and confused – how could Massimo let us down? As we wondered what to do, I spotted his name in the hostess’ book, so I helpfully pointed to it and repeated the name. She gasped and checked the book, corrected my atrocious pronunciation of his name (the cause of all the confusion, it seems) and promptly turned on the charm. As we were ushered directly to our table, whispers of Massimo’s surname flitted through the restaurant. Man, he must have been some kind of a driver!

The owner of the restaurant waved away the waiter who was bringing menus and instead suggested that we let him “take care of it”. We saw no reason to argue, so we sat back and allowed the meal to unfold in the way that he saw fit. This was the best decision of our lives.

We began with velvety chestnut soup topped with crispy Parma ham. Then came a selection of fish starters: fried fish with caramelized onions in a smooth red wine sauce, stuffed mussels, and a delicately grilled filet of white fish. Our Primi Piatti (first course) was squares of pasta – the size of a stamp – with sole, sea bass, and squid, all enveloped by a light white wine and herb sauce. I had turbot with olives for my Secondi Piatti (you are smart enough for this) which was so fresh and flavourful, yet so simple. Our entire conversation over dinner consisted of “Mmm” and “Aah”.

Surprisingly, dessert was melon sorbet with chilli, which confused both our minds and our tastebuds. Never had I eaten a frozen food that actually made me sweat.

We sat back at the end of the evening, sipping deliciously icy Limoncello (a lemon liqueur), and contentedly grinning. No dish that we ate had more than 5 or 6 ingredients, but the sum of the parts was incredible. We felt like we had been witness to some sort of wonderful culinary magic.

As we left the restaurant, we were given Buonamico t-shirts by the owner (what ever happened to giving out breath mints?). He gave me size L. Rather than be offended, I took it as an invitation to eat so well that I will end up filling out that shirt. I could be persuaded…

This is what you will see before you walk in and have the meal of a lifetime. Take note.

The best: If ever I have a day that I need to mentally escape (not often…just the days ending in “y”), I can conjure up the view from my bedroom window in Massaciuccoli and the relief is immediate.

Imagine a two-story stone house, painted a glowing egg yolk yellow, sitting amongst olive trees on a hill above a lake. The house is from the 17th century, but has been lovingly restored. Outside, the terrace is baked by the Mediterranean sun, but within the 4′ thick walls, the rooms are cool and dark. The bedroom windows have wooden shutters on the inside to block out the moonlight as you sleep. In the morning, you unlatch the shutters and swing them open wide to reveal a scene for which it is worth getting up.

As the sun creeps across the flat plains, it chases the morning mist away. The lake is as still as glass, holding its breath before the birds emerge from the reeds and disturb its peace. Beyond the lake is the shimmering line of the sea. The fields are golden and expansive, only punctuated by a few exclamation points of cyprus trees. To your left, in the distant haze, is a cluster of white buildings: Pisa. To your right, much closer, is the small steeple of the village church. Its bells mournfully signaling the passing of every half hour. Your eyes linger over the view – all is muted and soft, nothing harsh or severe. You breathe in air that is tinged with saltwater, damp earth and wood smoke.

Good morning, Tuscany.

Places like this exist. And thank goodness for that.

I realized half way through this post that I could write pages and pages about my stay in this one tiny village. I didn’t even mention that I played charades with a lifeguard, that I saw a bridge the Devil himself helped make, or that I drove through a 1125m tunnel that was dug by HAND – great, now you’ll be wishing I did. A small dose is enough for now. We can always return to Tuscany – Lord knows I have – and it won’t take much prodding to get me to talk about it again, ad nauseam.

What about you? What are your memories of Tuscany, if you’ve been? Where do you mentally escape to on any given day? Do you know anyone named Massimo?

You may have the universe if I may have Italy.  Giuseppe Verdi

Go on, put yourself in that chair.

Gin and fish heads, and a side of mud


Where: Reykjavik, Iceland

Plate of food: Looking back on my trip to Iceland, I don’t recall the food as a highlight. In fact, I don’t recall the food at all. This may or may not be due, in part, to the fact that we usually went to dinner slightly inebriated. I’m going to ask you to hear me out on this….

We had been told on good authority that alcohol is very expensive in Iceland. We had also been told that most locals drink at home before they go out, as a money-saving technique, you see. With this in mind we came through duty free with a bottle of gin and a bottle of Bailey’s. Let our trip begin!

I am going to tell you now that drinking a number of gin and tonics in your hotel room before heading out to dinner feels very, very depressing, particularly when that hotel room is as welcoming and luxurious as a shoe box. But at least we were thrifty!

My point is that I don’t remember the food we ate, however, I remember a food that I couldn’t bring myself to eat: dried fish heads. These are considered a snack food in Iceland – think of that the next time you reach for your pretzels. They are found in every lunch box, gym bag, briefcase and on every party platter…..or at least that is what I like to imagine. Truth be told, fish head snacks have fallen on hard times and are not as popular as they once were. How strange.

Just outside of Reykjavik, we saw the fish heads drying on open-air racks; all tethered together in long clusters dangling from wooden beams. The odor surrounding these racks was so powerful it brought tears to our eyes. I was desperate for a photo, but as soon as I cracked the car door open, I recoiled as if I had been struck…by a fish head. Not be deterred, I sent my husband out to take the photo. What I hadn’t considered is that in the time it took for him to sprint to the racks, take the photos and dash back (all while holding his breath), his clothes and his hair had rapidly absorbed the stench. I might as well have piled bunches of half-dried fish heads in the back seat. Just imagine for a moment being a car rental company in Reykjavik: “Ragnar, this one drove past the racks. Better put an extra air freshener in!”

Feeling peckish?

The best: Without a doubt, Þingvellir National Park is the best of the best. This is the birthplace of the world’s first parliament, where, as early as the 10th century, Vikings met to discuss laws. The park also contains a huge rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. I am not normally an avid fan of geology (I spend too much time drinking in my hotel room to care), but this is a truly wondrous sight.

From our vantage point we gazed out across a massive lead coloured lake to snowy mountains, shrouded in low clouds. Nearer to us were flat plains, mossy and barren, with a cluster of simple timber buildings marking the sacred site of the Viking parliament. Behind us was the rift: enormous, stunning, and unsettling in a way . There was something odd about walking through a gap between two of the Earth’s plates – plates that normally should be out of sight far below ground. It was as foreign as seeing the bones in a compound fracture.

Why am I standing like that? Never mind. Look at that rift!

Þingvellir’s beauty is derived from its powerful history and its imposing natural setting. It is a place to reflect and to be reminded that our moment in time is really very small, very impermanent. Nothing like Continental Drift to really put things in perspective.

The beauty of Þingvellir

Story that needs to be told: We decided to visit the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, near Reykjavik. The photos on the brochure showed exceptionally fresh-faced Icelandic couples blissfully soaking in the naturally therapeutic waters, their blue eyes all the more striking because of the Blue Lagoon signature mud masks they had smoothed on their skin. That would be us, we decided.

It turns out we are neither fresh-faced nor striking.

We paid our money and were directed to locker rooms to change. Being a good Canadian girl, I looked for a curtain or a stall or a broom cupboard as a place to change into my swimsuit. There was nothing but plastic benches and tiny metal lockers. What now? Apparently the generously proportioned German lady beside me saw no issue with the set up. Well, when in Reykjavik…

Amongst the women and children in my locker room, there was great confusion: when do we shower, where do we get the mandatory flip flops, how do we lock our things away, and so on. It was less spa-like and more ‘your first day of swimming lessons when you are 11’. I followed everyone through the glass doors out into the freezing cold. My instinct was to rush toward the warm waters for relief, but no one is allowed to rush for fear of slipping on the wooden boardwalk around the natural pool. So we were all reduced to slowly shuffling in our one-size-fits-all flip flops while braving subzero temperatures and wearing the heartiest of fabrics – nylon. Once we reached the warmth of the pool, though, we could appreciate the scene around us. Steam rose in wisps above the milky water making people and voices disappear. It felt otherworldly and mysterious which is really the best way to describe Iceland as a whole.

Plunked at various points around the pool were mud stations, buckets of geothermal mud that you could apply to your skin to cleanse and rejuvenate. I tried some on my face and hands, but I must report that I did not end up looking even vaguely Icelandic (although it felt lovely). As I watched men and women come through the mist, like ghoulish apparitions, their faces smeared with white mud that was dripping pitifully off their chins and earlobes, it suddenly dawned on me: this must be a great source of entertainment for the Icelanders. “Ragnar! When you’re done airing out the car, you should come see what these loons are doing with the mud!”

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.  Susan Sontag

For whom the bell tolls


Where: Breitenbach, Alsace, France (otherwise known as “the quaintest village in the most spectacular setting”, but Breitenbach works, too)

Plate of food: So, France overheard that Sicily was allowed two foods in this category. You can imagine the trouble. In the spirit of fairness and equality, I have two heart healthy foods to share with you about Alsace. That’s not true – nothing about French cuisine is heart healthy, unless you count the joy you feel within your heart as you savour every indulgent mouthful.

First, we have Tart Flambée d’Alsace or Flammkuchen (Alsace is a wonderful mix of French and German culture and language). This is a flat bread topped with onions, bacon, and sour cream. I love the simplicity of it all. Why complicate it with anything else? Onions and bacon and cream love each other, and more importantly, I love them together. We enjoyed Tart Flambée courtesy of our hosts at the holiday home we were renting for the week. One evening we were invited to the main house for dinner which consisted of Tart Flambée and….Tart Flambée. Perfection! Our jolly, rosy-cheeked host cranked out these delicious flat breads from his wood fired oven. It was all washed down with Alsatian white wine in the customary green stemmed wine glasses. Ah. We didn’t have to eat for the rest of the month.

Who are you calling a tart?

The next food that fueled my entire week in Breitenbach is not specifically Alsatian, but it is where I first discovered it. This little gem is called Rillette de  Porc -shredded, slow cooked pork mixed with pork fat and herbs to make a sort of pâté. We would buy it in the supermarket in little glass jars and eat it on crusty bread. I soon realized that rillette had something special about it, that is to say, it had pork fat. I unapologetically ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don’t judge, just go buy some rillette.

The best: Breitenbach was my first introduction to France, although the region has such a unique identity that it cannot be compared to the rest of the country. I fell deeply in love with the hills, the half-timbered houses, the church steeples, the wine, the food….all of it. It was the perfect package. We spent our days walking in the quiet hills, eating wonderful food, and drinking lovely wine. I started to wonder why you ever need to do anything else. The village itself had no tourist attractions, being just a cluster of houses on a few cobbled streets. Surrounding the quiet village were hills green with fir trees and valleys quilted with vineyards. We were lucky enough for it to snow during our stay (we were there after Christmas one year). The snowflakes made the silence more profound and I felt even more insulated from the world. Bliss.

Alsatian tranquility

Story that needs to be told: My husband and I enjoyed early morning walks in the local area for most of the week. Towards the end of our stay we decided to do a more serious hike through the hills to one of the “peaks”. We woke early, before our friends had even stirred, and crept down from our attic room (we had drawn the short straw) to make sandwiches and fill a thermos with tea. Armed with our hand drawn map, we were off.

It had snowed the day before, so we set off in ankle-deep powder. The morning was still and peaceful. To me, there are few sweeter sounds than footsteps in snow  – I am Canadian after all. We lapsed into a silent, meditative pace as we headed uphill. We followed wide paths through the forest of pine trees. On either side, the trees loomed high above us; their trunks were solid and straight. Every so often a light dusting of snow would fall from the highest boughs, dislodged from its perch by a squirrel or a bird, and slowly descend in a swirling shimmer.

Beautiful snow

We reached the top of the hill and celebrated by sharing our tea and snacks. I kicked myself for not packing rillette. Feeling rested and refueled, we trudged off in the snow to complete our loop. It turns out that our hand drawn map was very approximate in its distances and landmarks…really in anything that would make it a map. We soon realized that we were not on the right track. We came across a ski field that was not expected and a village that was equally surprising, but the situation was never dire.

The only vague concern was that our sandwiches and tea were long gone, and we were poorly dressed for the weather conditions. We had ample coats, scarves and hats, but we were both wearing jeans. I appreciate that my choice of denim as hiking gear will forever alter your view of me, but then, come to think of it, that may have happened already with the Lithuania and Sicily posts…. So be it!

My jeans had not adapted well to their 3 hours in the snow. The hems had accumulated so much snow that I estimate I was carrying around an extra 2 kilograms…on each leg. As I soldiered on, my body heat would partially melt the snow cuffs, only to have them quickly refreeze. This vicious cycle continued until, eventually, my feet had disappeared under a layer of ice and mounds of sodden snow. Then, the melting/freezing madness migrated up my pant legs to knee height. In the final hour of walking, my jeans were rigid and the bottoms swung like enormous bells with each step. Dong. Dong.

The extra exertion of carrying an Abominable Snowman on each ankle meant that I was sweating, so I had disrobed as much as I could on my top half (within reason, I know we were in France, but c’mon). Suddenly and surprisingly, we found ourselves close to home. We traipsed down the street past all of the quaint cottages, their windows twinkling with Christmas decorations. And behind those decorations were the villagers peering out, no doubt, at the woman stomping along, each step going well wide of centre to accommodate the girth of her *gasp* jeans. Her face was flushed, her hair plastered to her forehead, various clothing layers were tied around her waist, and her scarf was dragging out behind. Dong. Dong. 

Fabulous hike, though.

Peaceful winter valley

Photo: You’ve probably noticed that I have integrated the photos into the rest of the post, rather than set them apart. It’s better that way, don’t you think? I knew you would!

Well, with this post, we have completed our first three trips together. It went well, I think. You were awfully kind and gracious. Thank you! I can see that this will be great fun as our adventures continue. Where to next, I wonder?

By the way, the place we stayed at in Breitenbach is still available as a holiday home. Book your own week of bliss here. Leave your jeans at home.

Half the fun of the travel is the esthetic of lostness.  Ray Bradbury

Take a knee


Where: Vilnius, Lithuania

Plate of food: Vilnius is a place of contrasts – rich and poor, modern and medieval, understated and opulent. The food is the same. There were plenty of hip, edgy restaurants serving artistic plates of food in Vilnius, but we wanted something more…authentic. Being in a place that still showed wounds from Soviet occupation made us want simple, rustic food. Meat! Potatoes! Nothing more! It may surprise you, but it turns out that this was an incredibly stodgy choice. Who woulda thunk?

One meal was memorable as much for the setting as for the food. We entered the restaurant and were taken down a narrow, winding stone staircase to the “bowels” of the building. The ceiling was roughly hewn out of rock and solid wooden tables were nestled in nooks and crannies. Candlelight flickered and voices were hushed. It was like dining in a bunker. We gamely looked at the menu and decided to start with a traditional appetizer of a selection of meats and accompaniments. The waiter soon came back bearing a wooden board upon which the chef had arranged sausage, cured ham, gherkins and such. In the dim light, though, it was difficult to see each item on the platter. We brought the candle closer and we discovered a pile of raw fat slices nestled next to half a dozen fresh garlic cloves. Rustic, you say? Simple, you query? Well, I didn’t mean that rustic and simple. I tried everything except the fat which reclined in soft, glistening, white folds on the wood, brazenly judging me for not eating it: “In the Soviets’ time, I was a delicacy!!”

Sorry, that is clearly the paraffin fumes and raw garlic messing with my mind…

The best: It has to be the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, in all of its Vegas splendor. There are many churches in Vilnius with stunning interiors, but this one in particular was so over-the-top and fabulous. The bright green altar featured pink marble columns and huge, hulking gold chandeliers. Every surface was covered in colourful embellishments, as if an angel had run riot with a Bedazzler. On either side of the altar were two words spelled out with bright light bulbs, blinking and flashing to some frenetic rhythm. In contrast to all of this bright grandeur, there was also a glass coffin in the centre of the church which contained the bodies of three Christian martyrs. They were covered with a blanket, so all you could see were their slippered feet peeking out at the bottom. Slightly creepy, but completely in line with the dichotomy of Vilnius.

Story that needs to be told: The Gate of Dawn, and the shrine within, attracts many tourists and religious pilgrims to Vilnius. Its painting of Mary depicts her with dark skin and it is said to have miraculous powers. The room containing the shrine is small, so we waited our turn with a crowd of other people to ascend the steep stairs. As we tumbled through the narrow doorway, everyone fell silent. The walls are covered with silver amulets – shiny hearts, legs, and arms.  We all shuffled over to let everyone in until we were finally shoulder to shoulder, all staring at the Virgin Mary. Then, in one fluid synchronized motion every person dropped to their knees in prayer.

Everyone, except us.

Being more tourists than pilgrims meant that we had naively and dumbly neglected to consider the protocol. I turned, wild-eyed, to my husband and saw that he was just as horrified to be the only 2 people standing in the room. I started to kneel, but quickly realized that it was possible. The reason everyone had knelt at precisely the same moment was because that was the only way it would work in a crowded room. Once everyone was down there was no space to bend our knees. I turned, wild-eyed, again to my husband who I saw was trying to abandon me and find a route to the door. There was no easy escape. I slouched and crouched, trying desperately to not look like a disrespectful oaf. No luck. After a decade of praying (it may have been mere moments in reality, but you try keeping time whilst in a semi-squat), everyone simply stood again and filed out. With that, we were swept down the stairs and out into the street with the crowd.

Later that evening as we drank luridly coloured cocktails with strobe light ice cubes floating in them (yes, you read that correctly. That’s Vilnius for you!), we comforted ourselves with the thought that everyone was so deep in prayer with their eyes downcast that it’s possible the only person who saw our embarrassing debacle was the Virgin Mary. We are relying on her forgiveness for this one….

Photo: 3 again – I see a trend beginning…. I hope you enjoyed exploring Vilnius. It is a truly lovely place, like a best kept secret of Europe. If you are lucky enough to visit, don’t forget your kneepads in case of any sudden mass kneeling that occurs. Let my mistakes be your lessons.

“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.”  Hilaire Belloc


Fancy some fat?

Interior of church

Location of synchronized kneeling