Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pepper Pot

 Many of you know that our little Zuma never goes on a walk anymore (for the last several years) without her stylish Italian muzzle.  This makes her look like a vicious killer, but it is really about food.  Left to her own devices, she eats every edible morsel on the sidewalks and beyond, and in our neighborhood, with a junior high school and high school all within a couple of blocks, that can be a major issue.  The streets abound with pizza crusts, twinkies, chips, chewed gum, spilled popcorn, discarded sandwiches, and so much more, when school is on.  A few years ago we had a MAJOR vet bill when Zuma's appetites nearly took her out.  Since then we've been extra careful.

But last night we went to Bookshop SC to hear a wonderful author (Donia Bijan) talk about her delicious new book (Maman's Homesick Pie), about growing up in a Persian household and ultimately becoming a professional chef.  When we came home, we noticed immediately that the lovely arrangement of gorgeous fall peppers that had been in the center of our dining room table was completely trashed.  Chewed up peppers were everywhere, and literally every single pepper had been tasted.  Some had been mostly devoured!  We knew immediately that Zuma had taken advantage of being un-muzzled. Peppers!  Who knew??!  All I can say is that when we go on our walk this morning, I'm taking two plastic baggies, just to be on the safe side!

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Schuusss, that's what they say in Hamburg for bye-bye. It is almost sung in a high pitched, melodic way, two long syllables, and we have grown used to hearing that, along with many other memorable and sweet phrases here. Now we have had to say Schuuusss to our dear host family, and return to Santa Cruz.

It rained on Tuesday, and we spent some time packing up and getting organized. Kerstin drove us into the windy and grey center of town. We went to the Kunstmiele and saw a fantastic retrospective of the painter Max Lieberman.

We loved these wonderful paintings, drawings, pastels, and portraits, what a rich body of work they displayed.

After a yummy lunch, featuring something so delicious and utterly surprising, fresh rhubarb juice, we drove around and saw some of the sights, the Elbe River that winds through the town center, the new and enormous half-billion dollar opera house and arts complex being constructed in the dock area (middle photo), and some other new construction projects that are taking shape and transforming the old downtown streets into a vibrant new area for arts and culture.

Kerstin dropped us off at a big shopping mall so that we could have one last chance to drop a few Euros before heading home. Actually we have hardly shopped at all on this whole trip, so we had fun browsing all the stylish stores.

Heinz took great care to prepare the "grand finale" dinner for us, with champagne and a wonderful selection of cold meats, brown breads, and also assorted varieties of pickled herring and salmon. We topped it off with gingerbread cookies, all covered in chocolate or flavored icings. And so ended our last evening with this amazing family. It is difficult to convey the breadth of their kindness and generosity towards us. They spared nothing in making sure that we were treated like honored and cherished guests, every day, in every way. We had hours of laughter and great conversation. We played with their children. They drove us around and arranged numerous excursions and entertainments to please us. We were bathed in their kind attentions for almost an entire week. We hope they enjoyed it even a fraction of how much we did, and we are happy to know that Kerstin can once again focus on her painting and Heinz on his business without having the two American grannies hanging out in the background. They get the medal for tolerance, that is certain!

Our flight back to the US was long and pretty uneventful. We had time to shop in the magnificent Copenhagen airport stores. We stared at the grey and sour landscape in Iceland, we passed through the easiest customs checkpoint ever in Seattle, and we arrived home at about midnight last night, to the wild welcome of our two waggy little dogs. Today we are clearly jet lagged, but glad to be home, and happy to have the memories of the last 3 weeks to savor. Thank you, dear European friends, for all of it!!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Heart of the City

We hadn't even seen downtown Hamburg yet, so yesterday Kerstin took us into the center of the city, where we wandered around little shops and galleries (many closed on Monday, alas), and had a lovely tea break in an old cafe. I should say tea and pastry break, because here the bakeries are unbelievably tempting and delicious. Today we each ordered a different kind of fruit strudel and then shared.

Later she dropped us at a very lovely shopping mall, where we spent some enjoyable time exploring what the Europeans are selling. It was quite a lot of fun.

Hamburg is a remarkably green city. There are so many trees and green parks and rivers that you cannot believe you are. In the center of a major city. It is very restful to walk in such an elegant place.

We were struck by the hundreds of brass markers in the sidewalks commemorating the Jewish families who were taken away during the Holocaust. In front of each house where people were taken (often whole streets of very elegant homes) these little markers name each person who lived there, their ages, and what became of them, for example "taken to Auschwitz, killed".

It is very moving to walk along these places and imagine those days when whole families were torn from their homes and taken away to the camps, never to return. It must feel strange to the people now occupying those houses to have that daily reminder just underfoot.

Last night we drove once again into the city, for dinner out in a very old and traditional northern German restaurant, again in the slaughterhouse district. This was the Schlachterboerse, a meat specialty place, where they warn that vegetarians should not even think about coming in. Heinz has a made sure that we experience the true cultural delicacies of food here. Last night was a highlight. He ordered crab soup for me and Daniella, and steak tartar (raw top-ground beef, flavored with spices and served on little brown bread squares). We drank dark German beer, and waited for the next courses. Finally they arrived (we are talking about 10 pm), and Madonna! They were not kidding about serious meat eating. At our table we had "gentleman's steak", pepper steak, calves liver with onions and apple slices, and a huge smoked pork loin with sauerkraut. On the side we had baked potato, mashed potato, roasted potato, and French fries, along with some sautéed mushrooms and a small bit of spinach. We all shared everything, and were so full at the end we could barely move. The restaurant was small and crowded and had the atmosphere of intimacy, gemütlichkeit, and long historic roots.

For a girl who leans heavily towards mostly vegetarian food, this trip has been quite a culture shock. Here it is traditional to have a huge plate of cold cuts on the table at nearly every meal. This includes liverwurst, many kinds of Italian and German ham slices, salamis, baloney-type things, and packets of raw steak tartar, sold here in tubes. There are also meat salads, marinated shrimps, and cheese platters. Heinz has also given us pigs knuckle, and a variety of meats from Bavaria, his native area. One evening he prepared an appetizer that was four kinds of fat (goose, duck, pork and?) each one served as a 1/2 inch thick spread on brown bread. There is not much poultry, but fish is also abundant here, and delicious. We have note yet had a single wurst, and last night was our first beer, but we have had an amazing quantity and quality of wine and champagne. I hate to imagine how hard it will be to get moving in the gym again once we return, which is coming up tomorrow.

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Quiet Sunday at Home with the Family

This lovely family has a tradition of staying home together on Sundays and slowing down the pace, doing things together, and resting. We were happy to join them! After a lovely breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruits, and fresh rolls from the bakery,

we took a long walk through a park that runs along a river in this neighborhood. Young Jonathan led the way through wooded trails and local streets, and we loved the dappled sunlight and shimmering water along the way.

When we came back, Daniella taught everyone how to make paper boats. This kicked off many hours of boat-folding, first out on the patio

up in Kerstin's spacious studio. The children then painted all of the boats with wax and encaustic paint to waterproof them.

After dinner, we all went out to the pond in the back yard, where the kids put a tea candle into each boat, then lit them and launched a glimmering flotilla into the darkness. It was magical for everyone!

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Flea Market, Art, and a Dinner Party

On Saturday morning Kerstin took us into town to explore the Hamburg flea market, a bustling street scene that sprawls throughout one area of the city. She knows that we have a Saturday yard-sale habit, and wanted to make us feel at home. It was fun to see all the junk they have for sale here. Somebody had one of those old-fashioned photo booths where you squeeze into the booth together, pull the curtain shut, then drop your coin into the slot and wait to make crazy faces together. We three squeezed in together for this strip of fun photos.

We had lunch in the meat-packing area in a place called the Bulleria, where there is a floor to ceiling window from the restaurant floor into the meat locker, where hangs a half-carcass of a huge pig, along with some other choice cuts of meat! I ordered some chicken dish, roasted in a casserole, and it was something like a stew of chicken, vegetables, and huge chunks of salt-pork in a soupy broth. Pretty good, if a little fat for my tastes.

After lunch we visited the studio of a a lovely artist friend of Kerstin's, Tita de Rogo Silva. She makes wood blocks and then prints the most whimsical and magical art, huge pieces about 14 feet tall! I think any child would be enchanted by them, and they are very fabulous for adults too.

We came home at about 4 pm to prepare for a dinner party. Heinz had done all the shopping, and Kerstin set a gorgeous table. They kindly invited a group of friends who all agreed to speak English for the evening. There were three doctors, two attorneys, and us, feasting on salad, goulash, and noodles, with a great trifle dessert prepared by Kerstin. The champagne flowed freely, along with many beautiful wines. Heinz keeps a great wine cellar, and he jokes that we will start the evening with a "Golf"' then move on to a "Mercedes" and often we end up with a "Rolls Royce" or a "Bentley" from his cellar. He is a magnetic and charming host who makes sure that everyone feels comfortable, cared for, and appreciated, punctuating the evening with many heartfelt toasts. This memorable party went until 1 am, with much laughter and good conversation.

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Location:Hamburg, Germany

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Excursions to the Baltic Sea

Our second day in Hamburg was planned as a big excursion day. Kerstin and Heinz drove us to the beautiful old city of Lubeck, which sits almost on the Baltic Sea, near the channel to Denmark. This old red brick town was the home of Kerstin's maternal grandparents, as well as the home of Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass, and many other famous German artists and writers. We wandered around the old streets, went up into an old church sttple to look at the view, then sat in the Ratthaus Square for tea time.

This city is also famous for marzipan, and there is a well-known store in the town center which has everything imaginable made of Marzipan, including many of the twins buildings reproduced in the windows of the store completely made of Marzipan!

We took lunch at a place that was a shipping guild hall since about 1400 a.d., and it was a venerable spot, with hand hewn beam ceilings, painted murals from the middle ages, and long wooden benches with brass fittings. The ancient atmosphere complemented the great food we tried, schnitzel, rutabaga soup, wild mushrooms in butter, and delectable green salad.

We visited Gunther Grass's house, and were amazed that not only was he an extraordinary writer, but also an amazing sculptor and painter. His collection is breathtaking, and made me want to re-read his books after so many decades.

At about 4 pm we took off driving again, about an hour away, to the weekend home of some friends of theirs in a village right on the Baltic, where we were invited to a dinner party. But first, we had time for another walk in the woods! (Daniella and Kerstin went to an art galleries instead). But I went off with the men and the teenage daughter, Anna, along a wooded road deep into a forest, where we were assured we would see some game animals. Sure enough, about 20 minutes along the road we heard some noises. At first I thought it was a wild boar, as they saw one of those the day before. But it became apparent that it was elk, up on the ridge above us. We could see two males with big racks of antlers, and they were snorting loudly and making almost a loud purring sound. The men immediately set out up the hill, into the brush, to get closer. We were trying to move silently, and got into some deeply swampy places, but we were able to get up close enough to see them clearly against the meadow and the setting sun. We watched them for a long time, then circled around up the hill above them, and took another trail back to the house. On the walk back we encountered a herd of female elk, about 20 in all, grazing in another meadow. It was all very exhilarating, and invigorating, and we arrived back in pitch darkness with a good appetite for the dinner ahead.

Our hostess had made a big roaring fire in the fireplace, and she served "raclette", something I've never had before. It is a Swiss dish, a cousin of fondue, with a special brazier on the table. Each person gets a personal little frying pan, which we filled with boiled new potatoes, sliced meat, and slices of raclette cheese. Then we put our little pans under the brazier and waited for the cheese to melt all over everything. We did this over and over, and also garnished our raclette with various pickled veggies, another delicious items, and a great selection of wines and local brewed beers. YUM!!

We did not get back to Hamburg until nearly midnight after that, and once again crashed against our pillows like a couple of sinking ships. But oh it was great fun!

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Location:Hamburg, Germany

A Big Change of Scene

Our train arrived like clockwork in Hamburg, and Kerstin, Heinz and one son, Jonathan, were waiting on the platform to scoop us up and take us away to their lovely home here. They fed us a quick lunch, and then we headed out to the countryside for a long and beautiful walk through a protected area which is a wildlife sanctuary, bird reserve, and all-around gorgeous spot for walking.

There was a long, loop trail, and even a section that was a raised dam built in prehistoric times, with an ancient trail across the top. We saw a sea eagle in the top of a tree, and two red foxes playing at the edge of a meadow. Kerstin's boys are budding naturalists. The oldest boy, Nicola, loves nothing better than fishing and being out in the wild.

We stopped for ice cream on the way home. Did you ever see two more adorable boys than these?

That first evening here we were treated to a typical German dinner, with great bread and many dishes of cheeses, cold cuts, salads, pickles, and an especially yummy dish of black lentils with creamy barrata cheese on top. Between the not-so-much-sleep on the train, and the vigorous hike, we were quite ready to crash when dinner was through, and we slept, amazingly, until nearly 9 the next morning. Our accommodations are the best here, so comfortable, and our hosts are the prince and princess of generosity and hospitality!

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Location:Hamburg, Germany

On the Rails

This post finds us 3/4 of the way along our rail journey from Bari to Hamburg, Germany. This little adventure is 24 hours long and so far has featured an extended (read breakdown) trip from Bari to Rome, where we missed our connection for the next leg of the journey. We were a little freaked, but the clever Italian conductors put us onto a super-speed train to Bologna, where we arrived a half hour earlier than the train we had missed! So we caught up with our reserved sleeper car, had a few hours sleep in our nifty cabin/bathroom. And now we are having tea in Munich, waiting for our last connection up to Hamburg, where we will visit our dear friend Kerstin and her family. Here is a very poor photo of Daniella about to climb the ladder to her bunk in the sleeper car, and another of our train breakfast!

European train travel is so civilized and comfortable. We are traveling first-class on a Eurail pass. We have spacious reserved seats each time, and stewards bring free drinks and snacks ( even champagne or wine if you are so inclined). There are dining cars for more substantial fare. It is so relaxing to sit back and watch the beautiful countryside slide by, even though we are often going 150 mph. Some trains even are equipped with free wifi. I'm a convert. I wish we had good trains in the U.S.

We are especially taking note of what a Green country Germany is. Even the tiniest hamlets have solar panels everywhere. There are wind turbines all along the way. And there are miles of lush green forest throughout the country. Every thing is spic and span, clean as a whistle, not a dot of litter or trash or anything out of place.

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Location:Muenchen hauptbahnhof

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Last day in Italy

Somehow this post got completely lost in the crazy stuck-ness of the internet over the last few days, so I'm recreating it now. We left our beautiful Italy behind us on the 12th of October. We felt so sad to leave Marina and Lello, the wonderful couple who cared for us so lovingly and cooked us the most startlingly delicious meals every day. We felt truly connected with them at the heart, and know we will see them again! Thank you both for every sweet and spicy thing!!

We drove to our next location along many winding back roads, where we feasted on the sights of the Puglian countryside, such as this amazing pink villa.

Our last night was spent at this gorgeous Masseria of Santa Teresa, something we found on the Internet for the crazy last-minute price of €68 which included a deluxe room, this infinity pool, and a huge and varied buffet breakfast in the vaulted room below. This place sits on a hillside a few miles inland from the Adriatic, and looks out to the sea and to the small seaside town of Monopoli. It was spectacular, but the atmosphere lacked the warmth and happiness of the Masseria Della Zingara.

The next morning we spent a bit of time walking around in the old seaside town of Polignano al Mare, enjoying the lovely weather and the sights and sounds of ordinary life here. Everyone was a hanging out laundry, shopping, sitting on chairs outside their doors, shouting from balcony to balcony, a regular little real-life operetta. The sign below advertises a horse-meat butcher shop.

Finally at about noon we dropped our rental car in Bari and headed for the train station for the ride north.