Archive | May, 2016

Farewell to Europe

25 May

This is our last evening in Europe. Tomorrow we fly out of Frankfurt to Iceland and on to Toronto. I am sitting in the little apartment of the yellow house pictured above and nursing an injured neck–or at least a very painful stiff neck, the result, I think, of schlepping around these bags for the last month, and also from spending an entire day with my head up looking at beautiful frescoed ceilings. (The other photo is of the gorgeous garden across the street from the apartment in Muffendorf, Bonn.) My mood, then, is rather subdued. I will, of course, write more specific blog ruminations once we get home, but right now, I thought I should at least say a few words before departing after this 9-month journey.

We have lots of wonderful memories from this trip, and a tremendous amount of thanks to all of our generous people! We have made lots of new friends, revisited old friends, and seen so many places that were on our bucket list that we will have to make a new bucket list when we get home.  Except for the Great Robbery of Barcelona and few typically rude people in Berlin, we have enjoyed every single minute of the trip.  Part of the enjoyment has been that there has been something new to do nearly every day, and we haven’t had to deal with boredom much (I get bored easily). Another aspect is that we have been able to avoid thinking about what we are going to do with the rest of our lives, and with our precarious financial situation. (Do we sell the house that we can no longer afford? Do we move somewhere else? If so, where? What are we going to do to occupy ourselves every day when we don’t have another museum to visit or a train/plane to catch?)

While we have certainly learned that Europe has its great share of problems–rising right-wing governments, financial disasters in some countries, and xenophobia–we have also recognized even more strongly than before that we would like to live a European life. Leaving Vienna was really saddening! This may be an illusion, but the best reasons we are coming home are to see that beautiful new baby grandson, and to figure out what kind of situation we can arrange for our future. If it weren’t for these factors (i.e., kiddos and money), we would come back, sell up, and move here!

And if the unthinkable happens–of which I am not even going to mention his name–we have our exit strategy in place!  More on all of this later, but for now, wish us well on our journey home, and LOVE to all of our European friends!!! We couldn’t have done it without your support!


Mobiles, internet, and all things cyberish

19 May
This one's the best plan for you... No charges for roaming outside of your neighborhood and if you do lots of tricks, it includes over 1,000 sit, stay and rollover minutes.

This one’s the best plan for you… No charges for roaming outside of your neighborhood and if you do lots of tricks, it includes over 1,000 sit, stay and rollover minutes.

As our time in Europe comes to a close–we leave after nine months on May 26!–it behooves me to make an attempt at giving some advice–or perhaps just SOME guidelines–about the complexities of the cellular world on the continent. I have no claim whatsoever to knowing what system is correct, or if in our visits to 12 different countries, we did the phone/internet hookups the most efficient way, but I will recount our experiences, so you can all laugh at how silly we have been!

First of all, we realized that using our American cell phone plan wouldn’t work for such a long trip. We hadn’t yet realized that we would be able to make international phone calls for free with either Skype or Gmail’s Hangouts, so we really didn’t have to worry about the cost of international phone calls, but we did know that we would want to have some internet access on our phone while traveling, and sticking to our home phone plan would have cost enormous amounts in roaming fees. Everyone advised us to get a SIM card for the phone when we got to Europe, and buy a prepaid subscription for the amount of time we were in that country. OK! So when we got to London–our first long-term stop–we went and bought a cheap phone for George, and got a SIM card to install in my Android phone. Cool–we could call each other to know where we were, and could also get internet hookup in places that had WiFi.

But guess what?  EACH COUNTRY, whether in the EU or not, has different services, different rates, and really requires a different SIM card to get any kind of efficient service!  Otherwise you have the same problem as depending on your home plan, with big roaming charges. So began our rapid accumulation of SIM cards from every country we visited. In many cases, the plan sold to us required topping up when the initial card ran out by buying another card; sometimes there was a way to top up online, but in countries where we didn’t understand the language and the plan didn’t include an English translation, we were at a loss about how to do it. In some places, we could go in to the shop where we bought the original plan and have them top it up for us, but sometimes that wasn’t possible. Most of the plans did have phone helplines where people spoke English, but often, they weren’t very good at helping with complicated questions.

And here I must make a comment about the problems of depending on using GPS/Google Maps while driving in a foreign country. We did this once, from Berlin to Poland, using our German phone internet service (which was, by the way, the worst, least helpful,  of the many phone services we used!). First of all we ate up our €30 of phone service within 100 miles into the country, and of course, the phone also ran out of juice, so there we were, with out a map in a country whose language we didn’t understand. We had to stop at a gas station and buy a real road map! (Google Maps does give impressive and comprehensive travel information in each country we visited, however, from Poland to Greece to Croatia.) My advice, then:  use Google Maps to map out your route and print it out, and always have a hard-copy map with you as well!

'Talk to me as we walk.  I have a great roaming plan.'

‘Talk to me as we walk. I have a great roaming plan.’

Since we were in Vienna for a long period, and the apartment didn’t have WiFi attached, we had to find a service provider for internet as well as get a SIM card for the phone. After struggling with mediocre WiFi hookups, we finally gave up and paid €100 for a 3A Cube–essentially, a router–and then paid a monthly amount for internet access. We also bought a portable WiFi device (TP-Link), which ALSO required a SIM card,  and which we found very useful in places such as Greece and Croatia, where our WiFi hookups were not always reliable. The Cube stays in Vienna, however, since we couldn’t use it in other countries!

When our phones were stolen in the Great Robbery of Barcelona, we had to buy new phones and new services there. That is easily, and relatively cheaply, done in The Phone Store (where nobody spoke English, but we had enough Spanish to communicate, and by this time we kind of understood what the process entailed). This pattern of buying a new SIM card and plan was repeated in every country we visited. In Greece, because of the financial strictures, we had to have our friend sign as the responsible party before we could buy the plan–don’t ask me why. To re-charge the subscription they accepted George’s passport.  While most of these plans would have relatively cheap overseas rates, it was still more economical to buy new plans everywhere. Right now we are still using the Slovenian plan and hope it will see us through Germany and on to the plane in Frankfurt!

Isn’t this just ridiculous? If membership in the EU can’t provide a single unified mobile phone plan that makes it possible to use your phone throughout the EU, then what is it good for? Apparently legislation is in the works that is supposed to address this issue and be in play by next year, so perhaps these issues will be resolved before we return.

If you are trying to save every penny while traveling in several countries, then there are probably much more efficient ways to do this. But for us, we just wanted internet service that worked, and we wanted it everywhere. The phone became essentially a vehicle for accessing the internet (and taking photos sometimes). WiFi was available in nearly every cafe we found, and if our phones didn’t work we took our laptops with us.

And thank God for the innovation of Skype and other video call systems! When I think of how complicated and expensive it was to make international calls when I first came to Europe (in 1966!), I am just amazed. We had to go to the Post Office, wait until a booth was open, and have the operator dial the number for us. Now we have only to turn on the computer, and bring up the video call device, and for NO COST, we call home!  I don’t think we could have stood being here so long while our first grandchild was arriving if it hadn’t been possible to see him and even talk to all the family so easily. And so I leave you with a totally gratuitous little video of our grandbaby, eating the toy that we just sent him from Barcelona!


Stuff for dinner

17 May

In the Sigmundsgasse kitchen in Vienna.


Dinner.  It’s lovely to eat, but the ratio of time is about 4 to 1 of preparation and table.  The pleasure needs to be in the kitchen.  What are we doing in the kitchen?  Fiddling with groceries on their way to the table.  So I’ll talk mostly about groceries here, since that’s what I like best.  So there!

We’ve been here fall, winter and spring.  Unlike our experience a couple of dozen years ago, the fruit has been various throughout the seasons — apples, oranges, bananas always pretty good, berries variable, melons very good, and the cost of all seasonal.  If you’d rather buy an avocado than a car, it’s yours. The same is true of veggies — zukes are somehow always good, lots of them coming from Africa in the winter, I guess.  The local spring greens of a surprising variety start to arrive in the south from February or March and northward from March and April.  The affordable winter lettuce must come from greenhouses.  Arugula hits the shelves like a spring rain.  Radicchio and endive are a bit expensive, but still worth it to my mind.

One of the Bosnian markets.

One of the Bosnian markets.

Let me get some order in this.  Salad, done.  Standard vegetables:  everything is like the U.S.  Frozen peas and beans are great.  Onions, potatoes, shallots (!), mushrooms (watch for forest-picked mushrooms usually from stands on the roadside), carrots, and cabbage are routine and good.  I may have mentioned the asparagus arriving in a flurry.  They’re really keen about produce as it comes to market through the season for good reason.

Because I can’t speak the language, I look for my meat in packages.  Our butcher in Lisbon, whose shop was literally on the ground floor of our apartment building,  insisted that he could speak enough English that we could get what we wanted.  It had never occurred to me that ground beef for hamburgers might be different from ground beef for meatballs. He had the best cheap wine too.



In the enormous Kaufland supermarket, East Berlin.

Similarly, the fish mongers were wonderful.  I was astonished watching a woman in a normal store cleaning whole squid.  Sorry to say, but I was too timid to venture beyond recognizable fish.  Once you get to a fish market here, you’ll understand what I mean by “normal” fish.  That said, I had a squid ink risotto that I know I could make if I could get the ingredients.

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”Our” wonderful fishmonger in Barcelona.









Sliced meats of a million sorts are usually sold in 100 gram portions.  The same goes for dips and olives and dozens of other treats.  Again,  look up the local phrase “one hundred grams” in Google Translate and point.  They will understand when you gesture for more.


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Bread is a fraught topic.  In fact, it’s not an issue.  Outside of the German-speaking countries the bread is mediocre.  We didn’t even find very good Italian bread in Trieste. You can pick from bins or cello-wrapped loaves if you want.  The women (truly, always women) behind the bakery counter will halve most loaves for you and often slice them, too.  It’s a matter of point and nod or ask for a bit of English.  I’ve never had an uncomfortable interaction, but I have sometimes ended up accepting what didn’t surprise me to be not quite what I’d hoped for.

Let me revise my assertion that only German-speaking bakers are any good.  We were in Greece on a special bread-making day (“a special bread-making day”? yeah, sure, why not?) that featured an incredible big thin loaf of white bread with lots of sesame seeds sprinkled on it that sustained us for days.  We found a loaf full of seeds and nuts at Veritas, an organic shop in Barcelona, so good that I mourned when we’d finished eating it.


In an Athens bakery on the special bread day. 

Wassa Brot crackers are usually available.  I love the British cracker Tucs,  but sadly it uses palm oil, so I shouldn’t eat them.

Sweets and baked goods are fantastic and dependent on their origin.  Honestly, although everyone says that they are traveling for high cultural experiences, they’re really in Europe to eat.  The reason to eat lunch and dinner late in Barcelona is to snack at 11 and 4.  Sure, visit the Temple of Hephaestos in Athens, so you can cross over for something in the cafes adjacent to the site.  I don’t mean some modest cookie; order a small plate of grilled sardines and a glass of wine or a couple of chicken and spinach filo pastries to tide you over until dinner several hours later.  The Viennese museums all have cafes.  My suggestion is that you are visually tired after an hour or so, but a snack can give you a second hour of viewing.  You can pretend to pretend to come to the cultural site for the coffee but really come for the coffee.

What else?

Our soups are usually based on chicken broth from inexpensive parts — backs and wings, boiled for a short while with onion and carrot, cooled, cleaned, the bones returned to the pot and the bits of flesh set aside and usually used in a chicken stew.

The electric mixing wand we bought in Barcelona has saved its cost three times a week making vegetable soups.

All up, as usual success is in the planning.  One bowl for salad and pasta?  Make the salad and move it to the salad plates.  One element boils, the others only warm?  Use the tea kettle to boil the water for the peas. And one time I ended up boiling eggs in the tea kettle!

Oh, here’s something.

What we traveled with (or here’s pretty strong evidence that my suggestions are not particularly sensible after all) as we went from one kitchen to another:

Small French press, bag of coffee, bag of black tea, some packets of herb tea, carton of goat’s milk, small cheese grater, head of garlic, bottle of olive oil, usually a chunk of pecarino cheese and a bit of butter (there’s a dangerous substance to carry around–I once had a pat of butter melt into my shirt pocket!), measuring spoons, packets of oregano, basil, whole black peppers and sugar, a lemon, a couple of empty plastic bags, and as snacks on the road a couple of mandarin oranges, some peanuts, some digestives biscuits (McVite’s were the favorite).

What we found at our destination apartments:

Dish soap, liquid bath soap, salt, pepper (not always), pasta (often), sugar, one beer and one wine (not always), coffee, tea, herb tea, tp (two rolls usually)

[EE:  this may be the last of George’s missives on fun in the kitchen in Europe! Laundry tips may follow!]

KP : Kitchen Patrol? Not really.

15 May

[George continues his recounting of life on the road and in the kitchen….ee]

Right now we’re staying in Hans and Edith’s Vienna apartment.  Its kitchen is spacious, well equipped, and, with a big window, well lit — a trifecta shared by only Evy’s Andros apartment once we gave it a microwave.  (Yes, yes, I know, they’re superfluous, but if you freeze much broth or drink your morning coffee slowly, a microwave comes in handy.  I wish I’d learn how to cook veggies in one.)


Stoves and ovens.

The local technology in each country has provided us with simple, usually flawed electric stove tops with pretty good ovens, and when our stars shine (in Vienna and Portugal), gas stoves.  I sent the following description of the weird elements on a see-through stove that was a bit worse than normal to the owners of our apartment in Barcelona:

I use a gas stove top, so the electrical stove top is a real  novelty for me.  I thought that a rheostat would make it possible to vary the heat of the elements.  Here they are either on or off, but serially and not very conveniently.  The stove has right and left top and right and left bottom elements.
At 1, in the 1st and 2nd minute, only the top right element works, it is bright red.
At 2, in the 1st minute, the top left element is hot, the top right element is bright red, in the 2nd minute the top right element alternates off and on.

At 3, in the 1st minute, the top left is bright red on but usually off, the top right element is usually on but sometimes alternating.  The lower left element is bright red.

At 4, the top left element is on and off bright red, the top right element is usually bright red but also sometimes off, the bottom left element is bright red for the first minute and on and off bright red for the second minute.
The lower right element never turned on.

In short, the clever cook will spend a few minutes in the first evening checking which elements can boil water and what settings will simmer.  Keep notes and plan your cooking accordingly.  If you’re not used to electric cooking, keep in mind that the element is brilliantly hot for a few moments, then off for a few moments.  Someone will make a fortune when they re-introduce the rheostat. [EE: As you can tell, we do not like electric cooking, and George always assumes that everyone else feels the same way, and that no one in America has had to deal with electric cooking!]


Most of the ovens have had convection fans, believe it or not.  I understand that there’s a terrific benefit, but I only ever made biscuits and roast chicken.

Our Meals.

Breakfast.  We traveled with a French press, coffee, and a mixing wand.     Several of our apartments had single-shot fancy coffee makers, but we never used them.  I can barely boil water before a cup of coffee, so the press worked perfectly.  One-cup filters would work well, too.  The filters are routinely available in the grocery stores.

My breakfast was usually coffee, soft-boiled eggs, and some version of toast.  Toasters are rare;  jaffa-makers don’t really work, but if you use only a bit of oil and butter, you can toast bread in a frying pan pretty well.  Eventually I got so I would tolerate plain bread.  Erika had coffee and sometimes a smoothie — goat or sheep yogurt, berries or pear, and banana (have I mentioned that I despise this perfect  fruit — portable, cheap, routinely available, tidy as, healthy, tasty if you don’t mind banana — that I had as a snack nearly daily for years).  Otherwise, she had muesli.

It takes some looking to find unsweetened juice, so we often just juiced our own oranges.  The goat or sheep’s milk products for Erika’s wonky stomach are usually in the better stores and easily found the farther south you travel.  Eggs sell half and full dozen, but you can get them singly at the markets — what a pleasure to take a small paper bag full of eggs home nestled amidst the lettuce and spinach!


Lunch.  When I could, I’d shop for both lunch and dinner in the morning.  We’d have a substantial lunch and a light dinner.  Often we were out and about starting at about 10:00 and would have lunch in a cafe or restaurant.  When we did, we generally shared a first course and a salad.

Dinner.  Served next Tues.  I need some photos of the markets.


12 May


The first thing we noticed about Ljubljana–the capital and only big city in Slovenia–is that practically everyone in the entire town seemed to be under 30!  Streams and streams of energetic, good-looking young folks appeared everywhere we went. It looked as if once the Balkan Wars were over and Slovenia was an independent state, they all started having babies.  With a well-ranked university and its current (succesful) drive to be named the Green Capital of Europe, Ljubljana now has a real ”scene” and is a magnet for young folks from all over the Balkans, and, indeed, the world. Oneof the big plusses for us about this situation is that all of them speak perfect English!  The older folks, if you can find them, not so much.

I have two anecdotes that explain why we came here for a short visit (for a write-up of our previous positive time in Slovenia, see my blog, 10 April). When we lived in Vienna in the 1980s, our landlady (who had been an exchange student at Bryn Mawr in the 1950s) introduced us to her father, a fine old gent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When we went on any trips, he regaled us with historical information about all the places we visited, and always used the German names for the cities now in other Eastern European countries. At some point, he began talking affectionately about one of his favorite towns in the old Empire, which he called Laibach.  For a long time, I had no idea that Laibach referred to Ljubljana! Now we have learned that Laibach in contemporary hip circles is the name of Slovenia’s hottest band.

Anecdote no. 2: When we were living in Australia, we were sometimes invited to events at the Austrian Embassy. On one of these evenings, we met a delightful woman who was the cultural attache from Slovenia. She gave us the hard sell on Ljubljana, telling us about all the extremely avant-garde art events taking place there. This was in about 1998, and I have been intrigued about the place ever since. Since we had a gap of three days between our time in Trieste and our last week in Vienna, we decided to stop over in Ljubljana, only an hour’s drive from Trieste.

I was already aware that the town (its population is about 200,000, which means it’s in between being a big town and a small city) had some extraordinary examples of Sezession architecture, and was delighted to find that these buildings exceeded my expectations in number and quality. My favorite was the extraordinarily colorful Cooperative Bank Building (1921), now a governmental law office across from the Grand Hotel Union, that was designed by Ivan Vurnik, student in Vienna of Max Fabiani and founding head of the University of Ljubljana’s architecture department. He, along with his Viennese wife


Ivan and Helena Vurnik.

Helena, worked to create a Slovenian national style–it was Helena who incorporated these brightly decorative folk motifs into the facade and painted the entire interior with similar colors and designs. (The current inhabitants of the building would not allow interior photos).


This building is just one of many in the Art Nouveau quarter, most of which has been made into a pedestrian zone and which runs down to the main square, Prešeren Square, named for Slovenia’s national poet France Prešeren (1800-1849). The center of town was bustling with cafes, bars, shops (mostly franchises), and a very with-it atmosphere.

It was on the street leading up from the square that we found our most folkloric moment. A street musician in traditional Slovenian dress was playing a little pan pipe kind of flute. We threw some coins into his bag, which made him so happy that he wanted to  pose with George–because, as he pointed to it, they shared the same kind of mustache! He then began playing his single-stringed instrument. The folklorist meets the folklore!


Along with all these charming buildings and comfortable pedestrian zones, Ljubljana also makes much of its native son, Jože Plečnik, an architect who I always associated with Prague but who actually worked in the latter part of his career in Slovenia. He created here some extraordinarily interesting structures. His National and University Library, built between 1936 and 1941, looks nearly Post Modern to me, with its facade surface of varying textures and colors of stones, and its elaborate interior iconography using light symbolically to depict the idea of ”Knowledge overcoming Ignorance.”

As late as the 1950s, by which time Slovenia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia, Plečnik took on the restoration and renovation of the Križanke complex, a monastery and church group belonging since the 13th century to the Teutonic Knights. I have never seen such an integration of old structures with new as Plečnik carried out here. He kept as many of the original features of the complex as possible–the Church is now home to the Ljubljana Festival which runs all summer. The architect then added new carvings and bridging elements. And since this was Tito’s era, the very Catholic Plečnik was obliged to include at least one hammer-and-sickle motif.

Ljubljana also has one of the most stunning urban parks we have seen: Park Tivoli, which is big and beautiful, and filled with interesting buildings and gardens. We had here in the Palace building, which is now the International Center for Graphic Arts, one of the best cakes we have had on this entire trip.

And the city is GREEN!!! When one thinks of the fact that as little as 20 years ago, the place was only recovering from war and years as a rather neglected part of the old Yugoslavia, its transformation into a vibrant, completely up-to-date, indeed ultra-hip and friendly town, is more than impressive. Here’s how the city explained its change when it won the Green Capital Award:

Since Ljubljana’s most beloved monument is its Dragon Bridge (see above), the Green Dragon image has now been incorporated into all of its marketing and advertising. But with their forthright and sardonic attitudes, the Slovenians don’t overdo the kitsch, so we found the dragon symbol rather charming.

The Slovenian character may best be explained as the outcome of their tumultuous past. This placard, found at a display in the City Museum, sums it up best, I think:


With that kind of history, one has to take a rather sardonic view of life.


A heron on Ljubljana’s river. We saw it every day outside our apartment window.

From each according to his abilities…

12 May

(George has now written an entire tome of Helpful Hints for shopping, cooking, and cleaning in Europe. This will be the first of many installments, I’m sure.–ee)


Those of you who have followed this blog will know that Erika is in charge of museums, travel arrangements, accommodations, finances, community/police relations, photography, reportage, and the like.  That is all well and good, but I should point out that, in addition to eating lunch with her, my principal roles have been to carry heavy things and look after the kitchen.


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In Evy’s house on Andros Island.


Usually, the apartments you find on AirBnB or HomeAway (we need a generic term for these private services) have been meant for just-married couples, young people in the first jobs, aged grandparents, or as vacation homes.  That is to say, the kitchens will be rudimentary, but there will be plenty of cleaning products.  Tourists are supposed to eat in local restaurants.  Of course, the reason to book privately rather than take a room in a hotel is to cut prices.  I can cook a dinner of baked chicken thighs and legs, braised zucchini, rice with saffron, and a salad, with drinks for less than €10.  This would cost €60 at a restaurant.  Speaking honestly, we do not much like to be out in the evenings or for breakfast (less than €5 in, maybe €20 out).  When we were out and about, we ate lunch at restaurants.

Shopping:  “Excuse me, do you speak a little English?”

Shopkeepers have, without fail, been kind to me.  I have rarely known how much they should charge, and have often offered a palm full of change for them to pick out what I owed.

Once a woman in a market in Bosnia took a €2 piece for about 100 Marka’s worth of early spring pot herbs ($2 for $1 worth), but it was worth the price for the deadly look she got from the woman I had just spent €5 with for a good-sized bag of several veggies.

The open-air and central markets are the most fun.  Sometimes the stall-holders are unhappy if you help yourself, but accepting if you simply load handfuls of produce into your bag.  They simply don’t want you picking through or handling the fruit and veggies.


Boqueria Market, Barcelona.

The fish mongers will not allow you to pick up and hand them a fish.  They will clean, scale, and fillet what you buy.  More precisely, they will ask you questions you won’t understand.  When you say, “Yes,” they will do what is usually done with the fish in question.


Fish stall, Borough Market, London.


It saves a lot of anxiety if you allow the locals to do what they expect you to want done even if that turns a pork loin into pork stew meat or sends you home with a cut-up rather than whole chicken.  I was surprised several times to see how a butcher’s cut varied from my expectations.

Standing in line:  watch for local custom when queuing.  If I needed to speak to the stall-holder, I would aim for the end of the line.  It’s difficult to ask the woman selling you €8 worth of fish if she has some heads and bones for you to make fish broth with, but  I usually ended up with about a kilo of them for free.  (Barely cover with water and boil them with some onion, celery, and pepper corns for only about 30-45 minutes.)

People try to be accommodating.  Routinely, when I needed a little parsley, not a bouquet of it, the grocer would throw in  several sprigs for free.

Grocery stores.  Go ahead, Google the location of the local grocery store.  Oops, better figure out what the local term for market or grocery store is. In most places, we found supermarkets everywhere, usually German companies, but we did our best to find local shops as well.

To get a cart, you have to put a Euro into a little slot to release a small tongue of metal attached to a chain.  You get the Euro back when you plug the tongue back in.  A similar arrangement is at the lockers in museum cloak rooms.  The trick is to have a Euro available.

The layout in most supermarkets is not a challenge, but you’ll have no idea where anything is.



The enormous Kaufland supermarket in Berlin.


In many stores you are required to weigh and label your fresh veggies and fruit, and sometimes fresh bread, either identifying it by picture or number.  Again, with a little preparation (write down what Google Translate says is goat’s milk yogurt or baking powder and be ready to show it to the shelf stocker), some hand signals, and a lot of goodwill on everyone’s part, I was usually able to get what I wanted.  Of course bread crumbs are with bread, not with flour and baking; peanuts are with junk food.  By the way, the €1 box of red wine is much better than any bottle for less than €10.  Wine that’s more expensive than €10 is uncharted territory for me. Sorry, wine connoisseurs!



An exception to the admonition to routinely agree with what you’ve been asked comes at the check-out.  I’m pretty sure that the first question in the markets translates to “Do you have a store card?”(most supermarkets in Europe have fallen into the same lamentable promo systems as in the U.S.), followed by “Would you like to buy a carry bag?” (you are expected to bring your own, but can purchase bags, both plastic and paper, in most shops), and “Do you need your parking voucher stamped?”  A vague smile and a gentle “No thanks” conveys that you are mentally incompetent but not a threat.  Try to give the smallest bill you can and change if possible.  There is usually a little tray where you can dump a pocket-full of coins to let them pick out what they need.

So ends my first installment….

Food I: Dining out plus George in the kitchen

6 May

(Above are just some of the many images I have of George in the various kitchens he has worked in on this trip: Trieste, a fish in Dubrovnik/Mlini, singing happy birthday to me on Andros Island, and Barcelona. Since he has been the one to do almost all of the cooking on this trip, I’ll let him write about the delights of markets, and working in some very tiny kitchen spaces….)


George’s first real meal cooked in thee Vienna kitchen.


Two days later:   Well, George is writing out his lengthy blog by hand, taking it very seriously, and will eventually get it up on this site. In the meantime, let me just make some comments about our favorite topic, food.  While we would have liked to dine out all the time while on this trip, we would never have been able to afford to do this for as long as we have been travelling. We have found restaurants to be relatively expensive everywhere we have been, and in some places like London, prohibitively so. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many real steals anymore in Europe unless you really, really search, or end up in very tiny, out of the way places. When we do eat out, we usually have gone at lunch time, we don’t drink alcohol (G. has occasionally had a glass of wine or two if at dinner), and we share the appetizer and usually one salad. In every place we have been, we have been averaging about €30 as a minimum, €65-70 as a maximum. We have splurged a couple times and gone as high as €80-100. We have tried to find authentic modest places, and have sometimes been very happy with what we have found, and other times rather disappointed.  We have had some plates of the day–the ”menus”–that have been less than €30, especially in Barcelona, where we had the most consistently good food. In other words, daily menus are rarely under €10. One of our biggest surprises was that fish in the Southern countries–even in Portugal–was not cheap, indeed was quite expensive. We had to pay €20 for one medium-sized fish in Andros, for example, that we took home to cook ourselves. What was reasonable in restaurants in all these countries–Portugal, Spain, and Greece (and now Italy)–was shellfish:  mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid.

Restaurant times:  I have already mentioned this in other blogs, I think, but it has been fascinating to learn the variations in eating times in all these places. We never bothered with restaurants for breakfast, since most Europeans aren’t too big on early breakfast, except for a croissant or Semmel and coffee. In Vienna, we did run down to the corner bakery for fresh Semmel, but otherwise, we had all our breakfasts at home.

Lunchtime in the North:  noon to 2, at which time many restaurants usually stop serving. Then there’s the South:  in Portugal it was possible to find restaurants open for lunch as early as 12:30 SOMETIMES, but they really preferred 1 to 3.  In Spain, nothing was even open for lunch until 1:30, and most Spaniards don’t eat until at least 2, and some as late as 4 p.m.  Greece is like Spain, although they usually eat before 4. Then in Croatia, it was back to lunch 1-2:30, and in Italy, lunch starts at noon until 3 or perhaps 4.  (Why the Italians are back to Northern times, I don’t know, but perhaps it’s because we are so far north in Italy!).  You can imagine how worried George became about lunch.

We never ate out for dinner in Spain or Greece, since we were in bed by the time they started getting around to dinner. Really!  You cannot find a restaurant open in Barcelona for dinner before 8:30, and that’s considered childishly early to eat.  And our friend Evy in Greece was often preparing dinner for her family at 10:30!  We are just too old to adjust to these different times, although we did get used to having lunch at 2 and dinner at home at 8. We also got used to little coffee stops at mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon with pastries or sandwiches–this is certainly the way Southerners eat, kind of snacking a lot all day. We saw Barcelonans having sandwiches, tortas, at 10 a.m., and even drinking wine then.

So we did a lot of cooking and a lot of visiting markets throughout Europe!  Or let me correct that: GEORGE did a lot of cooking!  He just kind of commandeered the kitchen from the start, and since it seems to make him happy, who am I to protest? (I did keep my hand in with ”my” dishes: dressing salad, making pesto, Haselnusstorte, pies, and Thanksgiving dinner!) He loves going to the markets, especially the open markets, and he has found it a challenge dealing usually with less than optimum cooking arrangements. What a guy!  On that note, I will end this first of what will probably be several notes on foodways, and hope George gets around to writing his thought son the subject soon.




2 May


No less a literary personage than Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, has asserted that James Joyce’s writings are informed more by Mitteleuropa than Ireland. The reason he would make such a seemingly sacrilegious claim is that Joyce wrote nearly all of his masterpieces–The Dubliners,  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and most of Ulysses–while living in what was then the port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste. It is said that Leopold Bloom in Ulysses is based largely on Joyce’s Triestine Jewish student Ettore Schmitz, who would, with Joyce’s encouragement, become, as Italo Svevo, a beloved writer himself.  As Burgess wrote, ”’Ulysses’… is a product of that huge culture whose center was Vienna but whose extremities touched the Adriatic. ‘Ulysses’ may be about Ireland, but only turbulent and cosmopolitan Trieste could have given Joyce the impetus to start setting it down.”


At the statue of Italo Svevo, outside the Municipal Library on Piazza Hortis.

People keep asking me why we have come to Trieste, that most non-Italian of Italian cities. And I say it is precisely because of stories like this, these literary conundrums that blend so many ethnicities and cultural directions. Trieste has been an ethnic melting-pot since the 18th century, when the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II declared that all nationalities and religions could settle here free of restrictions or pressures to assimilate or convert.  I have wanted to come to Trieste ever since I read Triestine Claudio Magris’s magisterial book on the Danube, and then, most urgently, after devouring Jan Morris’s delightful homage, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, her last book written about the time when she, as a he, was a young soldier stationed in this port city after the War. Finally, our old friend Giorgio Perissinotto grew up here, and we were always intrigued to know more about this place that has fallen under so many ”nations” and that most people don’t even know is now in Italy.

We drove here up the Adriatic coast from Dubrovnik, having had a relatively sunny time during our stay in Croatia. As soon as we crossed over into Italy, we were hit by a forceful and cold wind with rain. We have since come to learn that we have been

experiencing the Bora, Trieste’s legendary Alpine winds that can blow as hard as 180 km/hour for days on end and lead to Trieste’s reputation for melancholia.  So much for sunny Italia! We have now had some sunny days, but the winds always return.

But within 15 minutes of crossing the border into Italy, we were already eating the most splendid grilled food in a wonderful restaurant filled with happily chattering families, while we food@toni_triestewaited to figure out where our sweet little apartment was (it turns out it was about 10 meters from where the restaurant is located). I had never thought of grilled meat when I thought of Italian food. Thus began our introduction to this fascinating place, an amalgam of the three great European cultures: Germanic, Latin, and Slavic. Slovenia is about 20 km. away, and Croatia is just over the other end of that border.







Along with being a literary town, Trieste is also known as a Jewish city.  As Jan Morris describes it: ”In my mind Jews and Trieste go together, and the long and fruitful association of the two has made the city what it is—or at least, what it seems to me to be… In Habsburg times people in Vienna considered Trieste a Jewish city, and in a way I still do.” At its boomtime height in the early 20th century, the city had 6,000 Jews, some of them extremely prominent, having established the insurance companies and shipping firms that brought about Trieste’s riches. The community built one of the biggest and most opulent synagogues in Europe, and the city’s most fashionable cafes served kosher food. When the troubles began for Jews in Europe, Trieste was the port from which those who could escape boarded ships for Israel and America. But Triestine Jews didn’t think they would need to flee their tolerant city; by the time the exterminators came, it was too late to escape. At the end of the War, only about 600 Jews were left in the region. But the synagogue remains, with services in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, as does a first-rate museum, located in what was the synagogue for those in transit while awaiting ships to depart for their new lives.

We have spent most of our time here so far  wandering in the streets of the Old Town, P1120197which is easily walkable, albeit disorienting because the streets are a tangle once you leave the broad piazzas. The main piazza, the Piazza Unita d’Italia, has what must be Europe’s most ill-conceived public monument, an incomprehensible fountain representing the Four Continents, with an angel hovering peculiarly over an allegorical figure of Trieste talking to an Oriental merchant sitting on–what? A pile of rocks? Truly baffling and badly designed to boot. A friend of mine posits that perhaps it was commissioned when Trieste wasn’t that important (it was built in the 1750s) so couldn’t afford a good sculptor to make it. Once the town became prosperous, the merchants and other citizens kept it on out of nostalgic affection. Or something like that.

Like everything else in Trieste, its architecture shows evidence of the cultural mixture of its past, with everything from Roman ruins to early Austrian Empire to Jugendstil. Looming over the town is the Castello di San Giusto, on the hill of the same name. Along with displaying remnants of Roman occupation, the hill is also the site of the Cathedral of San Giusto, Trieste’s patron saint. Even in Romanesque times, Triestine artists appropriated at will:  the builders of the Cathedral incorporated two Roman funeral stele into the doors of the church, trying to make the figures into saints by adding a halo or two! The city contains as well a myriad of churches for every religion–the picture below is inside the Greek Orthodox Church–as well as amusing reuses of Austrian Imperial buildings (the K.u.K. Gymnasium is now a Nautical Institute). And the massive and beautiful old fish market building on the harbor is now a museum space (currently displaying a somber exhibition on Trieste’s tragic fate during World War I).

For us, the two most fascinating and enjoyable examples of Trieste’s polyglot, multi-ethnic culture are its cuisine and its literary legacy. Food here mixes elements of Italian, Slovenian, and Austrian cooking, with a bit of Greek thrown in as well. While seafood understandably dominates, grilled meat and heavier kinds of Nordic and Slavic dishes have also been assimilated into the Triestine diet. When we first knew Giorgio, he made for us a fantastic sauerkraut and bean soup that we have never forgotten. He told us it was peasant fare, and that his mother would be aghast that he was making it for guests. We now learn that this was his version of the Triestine staple called Jota, made with a particular kind of delicate sauerkraut. We haven’t been able to find it here yet–it is essentially a winter dish–but we have eaten the delicate sauerkraut. And what food!

Combinations I have never thought of, such as squid and polenta. Restaurants tend often to be either strictly seafood or meat restaurants, but so far we haven’t had a bad meal anywhere.

Food also began our journey into Trieste’s literary life. The tourist office–which provides excellent information without the hype of the more touristy cities–hands out brochures for walks to see places related to James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and even my poetic hero Rilke, who wrote his Duino Elegies at the Castle in Duino not far from here. While I have never been a fan of the drunken womanizer Joyce as a person, this kind of walking tour seemed a good way to get to know the city. The first place we found on the Joyce tour was the Pasticceria Pirona, above which the author lived in 1910, and where he ate presnitz–a little fig-and-nut pastry–every morning for breakfast. We have now become avid customers! This shop is still making pastries that no longer appear in Vienna, but are as Austrian as they can be: little apple-filled tarts, almond cakes, and the presnitz, which Pirona himself made for the Empress Elizabeth, the famous Sissi. The atmosphere is delightful–one stands at the counter to eat the pastries and drink coffee. Pirona is worth the trip to Trieste and they are justly proud of their magnificent products.

The literary pamphlets also introduced us to other Triestine writers who are now lionized in their own town, and hardly known outside of it. Preeminent among these is the Jewish poet and bibliophile Umberto Saba (1883-1957), whose works have been compiled in a famous Songbook collection. Saba was part of the intellectual circles that Joyce and Svevo frequented, and became best known for having run a rare-book shop for years. The shop is still there, run by the son of Saba’s partner Carletto Cerne. We had to make a pilgrimage here, where the owner was more than pleased to arrange for the photo of Saba’s poster with the reflection of the bookshop sign visible in the glass. We also were able, in very fractured Italian, to lament with him on the precarious fate of rare books in this modern world.

Given its proximity to Venice–only an hour away–it may be understandable that Trieste has never been an enormous center for art, but even here, we found some fascinating treasures at the Museo Revoltella’s Gallery of Modern Art. The Museum is like the Soane or the Wallace Collection, in that it grew out of the private art purchases and the villa of Pasquale Revoltella, a self-made merchant who was involved in the building of the Suez Canal. When he died, he left his house and collection and a generous endowment for the purchase of ”modern art” to the city. We were impressed to find here a work in progress, in which the curators have looked at all the art by local painters in storage and have begun to exhibit as much of it as possible. While there may be few masterpieces among the works displayed (a very early Morandi is an exception), this experiment allows the viewer to see Triestine artists of the 19th and 20th centuries that, together, create a picture of a lively art scene. Our favorite discovery was a Viennese-born, Trieste-raised Vito Timmel (1886-1958), whose paintings look like they should have been the posters for a sci fi movie. In true romantic style, Timmel went insane and spent the last years of his life in a mental institution.


Vito Timmel, Fiochi (Fireworks), 1924. 

I hope that this verbosity conveys why we wanted to come here, and why we have found Trieste very much to our liking (except for the Bora, which would drive me insane in the winter!). We have found the people dignified and tolerant, open but not intrusive, more introspective than even we expected. Trieste is benign but complex, disorienting but calm. It is a place that makes you recognize the illusion of ”nationality” and even ethnicity. So let me end this essay with Jan Morris’s summary of what she meant by Trieste and ”nowhere”:

“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to believe that its natural capital is Trieste.”

And, of course, an Italian cat.