Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

bring on the new year...it's okay, I can handle it

Hello 2017!

I know I'm early...this being Europe and not Australia, but I just can't wait. And judging by the constant social media feeds, news bulletins and my friends' incessant whining, I think everyone else is also ready for a new year.


I'm not really a new year's resolutions type of girl, so no worries, this post is not going to be a list of all the ways in which I want to lose weight or quit smoking (if I smoked). Mostly it's because I'm not very disciplined (I type as my unfinished book stares at me from the shelf above me) and after 3 weeks, 3 hours, 3 minutes, I usually bail on my resolutions thinking that they'll still be around for me to try next week, next month, or next year.

But, what I do want to tell you (on the one hand for accountability, and on the other, hopefully for inspiration) is what I hope to be in 2017, and to quote Oprah, I want to be the best me. Don't click away now! Stay with me....please...just a few more words.

What I mean is, that I don't want to waste time and energy anymore. Life just feels too fleeting. I want to be the best person that I can be, meaning that;

1) I want to make the lives of the people around me as good as I possibly can, in whatever little ways I can do that.

2) I want to live to my full potential...creatively, professionally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Just not wasting time.

(And don't get me wrong, there is a reason that I need to write this down. I'm inherently lazy. I can easily netflix all day and do nothing but eat and talk to my puppy. This message is really first and foremost for me.)

3) I want to be a benefit to my community, my partner, said puppy, to myself, my loved ones, etc, etc.

And yes, you're reading this correctly, there is an annoying amount of I-language here. But, that's actually the way it should be, because the power to do these things lie solely with me (and if you're going to jump on the bandwagon, then the power is with you!). The power to affect change for the better, to be a positive and beneficial creature, lies within each of us.

I do have the power to change things around me for the better...in my workplace, my community, my home. We all do....and yet so many people go through life acting like things only affect them, like it's a one-way street.

When I look back on 2016, this is the most influential quality which I see. The attitude of blame was (and is) affecting change like nothing I have experienced so far. The movement of pointing fingers as THE reason for umemployment, inflation, crime, housing prices, poor-quality education levels, and the list goes on and on, created Brexit and Trump and who knows what else to come. But, it has to stop.

We need to look at ourselves and take stock of how the decisions that we've made have effected the paths we are on, the jobs we have or can't have, how connected to the community we feel or don't.

And then, we need to make positive changes for ourselves and for those around us. Not everyone's voice is heard, but everyone has a voice. It's selfish really. If I spend a lot of time and energy making myself into a healthy, well-adjusted, happy person, then those around me will benefit much more than if I'm an angry, mean-spirited, resentful person who feels like crap all the time because of my bag-o'-chips-a-day diet.

If I try to get to know my neighbours, invite people over once in a while, bring someone a cake or just smile (in a normal, non creepy way) the community will benefit. Getting to know each other usually creates security.

How can we make use of our time and energy in the best ways? Can you imagine what the world would look like if everyone seriously was just trying to be a positive impact on those around them, and themselves?

I once heard a celebrity answer the question to why his Hollywood marriage was so successful (not sure if he's still married) and he said that his daily motto was, 'Be kind.' Those two little words stuck with me. Let's just all be kind to each other, okay?

That's going to be my 2017 goal...kindness, positive choices, and a better me.

I'm excited and inspired for the new year, and I hope you are too. Wishing you and yours a peaceful and positive 2017!
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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

a meatier kind of Christmas market...be our guest.

If you like meat, the Budapest Christmas market is the place to be! Located just steps away from the Danube, in the old city, the market is intimate and delicious and ever so inviting.


Every Christmas market visit, whether you're in Germany, France, Hungary or Finland, starts with Glüwein, Glögg, or Forralt Bor...whatever it's called, it's always a yummy must! Mulled wine (in Hungarian it's called forralt bor = boiled wine) is very common in pretty much all northern European countries during the cold winter.

Personally, I love it, and it makes standing in the cold just plum wonderful. It is usually made by warming red wine, along with a mixture of cloves, sugar, sticks of cinnamon and slices of oranges. In Hungary, it is most commonly made using Egri Bikavér, a popular locally-made red wine.


Toltott kaposzta or Cabbage Rolls, to all of us English speakers, is a mainstay of most homes and restaurants in Hungary, and there's a reason why...they are delish.


Almost every stand at the market had heaps of meat, grilled, boiled, skewered. A true meat-lover's paradise.


And there were almost as many goulash soup booths, scooped out of heavy ceramic cauldrons and served in sourdough bread bowls. Goulash soup is the most popular Hungarian dish made outside of Hungary, and on this night, it was the perfect warm meal for us.



A Classical Hungarian Goulash Recipe (Alföldi Gulyás)

Ingredients (for 4 persons)
  • 600 g beef shin or shoulder, or any tender part of the beef cut into 2 x 2 cm cubes
  • 2 tablespoons oil or lard
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1-2 carrots, diced
  • 1 parsnip, diced
  • 1-2 celery leaves
  • 2 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1 tbs. tomato paste
  • 2 fresh green peppers
  • 2-3 medium potatoes, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon Hungarian paprika powder (sweet)
  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway seed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ground black pepper and salt according to taste
  • water
  •  
    (Recipe source: Budapest by Locals)


The pig-on-a-spit is a Christmas market staple throughout Europe, but in Hungary this is the meaning of BBQ. The meat is served alongside grilled vegetables or inbetween two sides of a bun.



What I found most interesting was the beautiful presentation of the food. Large flat ceramic dishes were filled with freshly grilled or sliced meats, vibrant paprikas and other veggies sauteed on long open grills and huge pots sat waiting with steaming hearty soups, stews or wine.




Everything is displayed directly in front of the visitors' noses, homemade and fresh to be as enticing as possible. It is like being a guest in the cook's kitchen.


And of course, in Budapest, instead of ornaments, sausages hang on the tree (well, on this one anyways.). Merry Christmas and all the best for the coming year!


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Monday, October 31, 2016

germany's wine tavern tradition...plus some golf

I often search for English vocabulary that convey the same meaning as what can be easily expressed in German. In German there are so many specific words which you need a sentence for in English to describe.


The situation where I most often find myself failing to find the correct wording, is when it comes to Germany's unique and wonderful wine tradition. There are similarities across Europe, but nowhere in North America have I seen something equivalent – and possibly that’s why I find the vocabulary lacking.


Words like, ‚schlemmen‘, ‚Genuss‘, ‚Strausswirtschaft‘ have no fair English translation. Words like 'feast', 'enjoy' or 'wine tavern' convey much different images than what in fact you will find in Rheinhessen, Germany. You see, in Germany’s largest wine region most wineries are family-owned and operated.  Okay, that’s not surprising, and definitely not only a German-thing.


But, what I think is unique, is the Straußwirtschaft. These are the small taverns which the family-run vineyard opens two or three times a year, often only a few nights a week, serving simple German fare to go along with their own wines. They open only when they are not busy with harvest or with bottling, basically whenever it suits the family business. And, the townfolk just have to wait...and eagerly wait they do.

Weingut Röder in Mettenheim

These places are cozy! They have such a wonderful, intimate, casual atmosphere that it’s a treat to be there…and we’ve been to quite a few. Often these wineries host interesting, low-key events to get people involved in their wines and their operation - the best way to sell wine is to let people taste it!


This past weekend, we joined some friends for Weingut Golf...mini-golfing through the winery while wine-tasting! 

Weingut Böhm

I'm not a golfer at all, and as the wine started to settle in, let's just say that I became increasingly uninterested in trying to keep my strokes down. I'm much happier behind a camera, than behind a golf ball.


One highlight, or rather an interesting moment was when Stefan Böhm opened the tap of his newest Riesling tank and let us taste the fermenting wine, just harvested a few weeks ago. To avoid having to drink more of this non-wine I peppered him with questions about the process. Along with a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo, which I could not follow in my current state of mind, he mentioned that he goes to his tanks and tastes the wines every week to check in on them and monitor their progress.


On the following hole, we were treated to a glass of the current bottled Riesling from 2015 and it was delish!


Rheinhessen really is a beautiful area, full of rolling vineyards, endless bike paths and quaint small towns. It is made up of 26,300 hectares of vines - now that is what I call devotion to wine!


Many towns, including Bingen am Rhein, were once hubs of wine activity, with trains running through all-day, picking up wine and transporting it throughout Germany and Europe. Nowadays, the transportation methods have changed, and many of the larger wine-making companies have moved to bigger centres. But the wine families remain...


In a Straußwirtschaft or Weingut (family-run winery restaurant) you can really enjoy and savour (geniessen) time spent with friends, indulging in tasty wines from vineyards right around the corner, and taking pleasure in feasting (schlemmen) on straightforward, homemade German food.

Weingut Annenhof - Büdesheim

One thing that I love about the European mentality (or tradition) of dining, is that, firstly, people eat together at the same table. In most of these restaurants the tables are long and heavy and wooden, and strangers sit where there is room. People say 'hi' to fellow diners when they enter the locale, and they say 'good-bye' (Tchuss!) when they leave. This I’ve experienced across Germany, in France, Austria, Italy, Spain and Romania. I have never, ever experienced either of these things in Canada or the US, unless people already know each other.
 

The third and fourth major dining differences that I’ve noticed are, that the owner is almost always on-site, making him/herself visible and greeting guests at some point during the evening. And, that no matter how popular or booked-solid a place is, in Europe they don’t feel the need to super-size. Restaurants stay quaint and intimate and full – that’s just the way it is. No need to make everything huge and impersonal, where nobody knows your name.

Weingut Neus in Ingelheim

Now, back to the small pub-like, family-run wine restaurants. These have all of the above-mentioned lovely qualities, plus more. I think, because the families plant, grow, care-for, harvest and then create their grapes and wines, making them essentially farmers, they have  a wonderful down-to-earth, uncomplicated air about them. These are not pretentious oenologists, who take half an hour to describe a wine list to you.

Weinzeit in der Vinothek in Bingen

The moment the weather turns warmer, the wine tasting and drinking, the 'schlemming' and 'geniessen' takes place outdoors and long into the evenings. 


And sometimes you stumble upon these Weingüter located in a spectacular location, savouring its place in the world, nestled along the banks of the Rhine River.


Thank you to the many, many families who work hard all year round, to grow, cultivate, harvest and produce that which most of us like to sip. Dankeschön! 

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Friday, September 30, 2016

budapest's curious train station.

There is a tall door, a tall green door to be exact, in Budapest's western train station. Every day hundreds of people walk past it, but only a very special few ever get to go inside. It leads to a very special room, one could even go far as calling it a secret room. For, only a few know that it even exists. With the Latin, 'Viribus Unitis' (meaning, with forces united) inscribed in marble above the door, the man for whom this secret room was built, wanted, at the very least, his life's motto to be visible for all.


Budapest's Nyugati Railway Station anchors the Grand Boulevard, a wide thoroughfare surrounded by fabulous buildings and impressive architectural design.


The station itself was built by the Eiffel Company in 1877, twelve years before it would become an iconic name,due to the construction of an inconspicuous little tower in the heart of Paris.


The building is an interesting, generous mix of brick, glass and steel. While the main train hall is run-down and shabby now, it still bears clear signs of who and what is was built for. But noone, including yours truly, could imagine the opolence that still lies behind these walls.


The station was namely, built for royalty. The King and Queen of Hungary, the Emperor pair of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Habsburg royalty, Franz Joseph and Sissi. Sissi, Empress Elizabeth loved Budapest and traveled here frequently, spending many months at a time in Hungary, abandoning her responsibilities in Vienna.


Behind the green door, which is firmly locked most of the time, is a room built specifically for Sissi. It was her lounge upon arrival, and where she would wait and relax before her journey would take away again from this beloved country of hers. It is the Royal Waiting Room. She might even have endured heartwrenching goodbyes in this room, when leaving her rumoured lover, Count Gyula Andrássy. Now, this room is used sparingly, for special gatherings, and is not open to the public.

Source: mavnosztalgia.hu
Along with its secret room, the Nyugati Station also houses what is widely known to be the world's most elegant McDonalds. It really is a beautiful location to eat a Big Mac.


I have visited Budapest twice now, and will be back again in a month. It is a city with a fascinating history, and telltale signs of former grandeur, making me constantly wish that buildings could tell stories...like stories I can actually hear.


On the grounds of the Buda Castle, high above the Danube River, I found not just the perfect place for a coffee, but a view unlike any other. I like the rough edges of Budapest - it doesn't have the fresh-painted shine of cities, such as Prague, where you can smell the money that has been thrown at it in recent decades.


One can feel the turbulence, see the resilience, and sense the relief of peace, within the grooves and cracks, along the faded facades, and among the tarnished structures. For me this defines beauty.


And speaking of beautiful, the bath houses in Budapest are a sight to behold, and the perfect place to plunge. As I had limited time on my last visit, I only made it to the Széchenyi Bath. Every facet from the outside window coverings, the sculptures standing as greeting, to the inside entrance hall...and the glorious pools. I was taken in by every gorgeous chunk.


I local told me recently that an even better option to bathe in, is the Lukács Bath, which is less crowded and half the price. Really, what is needed is the time to just go to all of them. Did you know that Budapest has more natural thermal springs than any other capital city in the world (according to budapest.com)? There are a 118 springs providing 70 million litres of water a day, with temperatures between 21 and 78 degrees Celsius!


There are many beguiling corners to visit. One neighbourhood that shouldn't be missed is the Jewish Quarter, where free walking tours take you through the Gozsdu Courtyard, a series of connected arcades and past the 2nd largest synagogue in the world.


I opted to take a coffee break at the New York Café because I was told that it's the Most Beautiful Café in the World - so, how could I not go and see what it looks like? 'Ornate', would be one word to use to describe it, 'tourist-filled' is another word. But, that shouldn't take away from the fact that it is a stunning café, where you can absolutely enjoy a real good, really expensive cup 'o joe. Trivia: The café was built in 1894 and was actually a hub of Hungarian literature and poetry, where the creative types gathered to exchange and write and discuss. The luxurious bits came much later.


One of the locations which I get to call 'my office' when I'm in Budapest, is the Pesti Vigadó, a concert hall whose name translates into 'a place of merriment'. This building, which lies on the eastern banks of the Danube River, in my experience, breathes energy into its visitors...it just has something.


Maybe it's because it was originally built in 1833 to house public balls and large, happy folk festivals, or maybe it's because its walls have heard the likes of  Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss and Ferenc Liszt perform. But, it also has a dark past, as so many beautiful buildlings do. Destroyed by numerous wars, its most recent reincarnation came just two years ago.


Also lying on the shores of the Danube, are the spectacular, gothic revival, Hungarian Parliament buildings. Looking like part catherdral, part iceberg, and all parts amazing, it is called, 'The House of the Country' in Hungarian - this I find incredibly endearing. It brings to mind a different white house which should possibly reinvent itself with a name change like this.


Directly at the parliament, is the most profound, gut-wrenching monument I have experienced up to now. It depicts the murder of Jewish men, women and children in 1944 by Hungarian fascist militiamen. The victims were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot. They fell into the river and were carried away by the current. It is unspeakable, unthinkable, to imagine the horror these people experienced. A row of many, many scattered shoes, cast in bronze, lay abandoned - a baby shoe which someone has placed a tealight inside, a dried-out rose which lies beside a ruined woman's pump in bronze.

 
Since 1989, as the east was opened up to the west, not all roads have been easy...for Hungarians this is no exception. There are many complicated and complex issues which are difficult for all the European countries to negotiate. But, the people who I have dealings with in Budapest, the places and experiences which I have visited and heard about, politics aside, have left me with a feelling that I want to continue to visit this stunning city, and I encourage everyone else who has the opportunity to do so also.


I can't write about Budapest and not mention its most popular landmark, and rightfully so, the Chain Bridge.


On my last trip, I had the incredible good fortune to find myself standing all alone in the middle of the bridge - which was closed to traffic due to a sporting event taking place on the Buda side. It was seriously cool. How many times do you get to have a Unesco World Heritage Site all to yourself?



There are very many reasons to visit Budapest, and it being one of my new favourite cities, is surely the most important reason! I doubt that Budapest will disappoint. So, go to Prague sure, but don't miss out on Budapest.


It will impress the socks off ya!

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