What To Do When the Food is Terrible

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As I mentioned in a post a little while ago, I recently went on a very secretive trip for a week.  I didn’t want to tell anyone because I genuinely didn’t want to feel obligated to bring things back for people or see various things that people think are a “must see.”  Instead, as this was a bit of a gift, trip-wise (I had a bunch of vacation time at work that I had to use before I lost it), I wanted to just go somewhere and have a nice, relaxing trip all by myself and just do whatever came to my mind, whether that meant sitting in a cafe all day every day, or renting a car and travelling all over the country.  Well, I decided to go to Amsterdam.  I had been through their airport countless times, as it’s usually the airport through which I have to travel in order to get to other destinations in Europe.  And over the years, I have seen pretty much all that there is to see in the airport, form the kiosks to the snack shops to pretty much every single bathroom.  So, I figured that it was about time to just stop by and actually the city to which the airport was attached.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but if you are like me, then you probably go to a place with at least some preconceived notions about it.  That could be something as simple as assuming that people in Spanish might not speak English on a reliable basis, to something more intriguing, such as wondering whether people in China wear pants.  No seriously, someone once asked me that question once.  So it was with me and Amsterdam.  Now, admittedly, I came to have this particular assumption based on prior experiences with travelling to countries that surround the Netherlands, including Belgium, Germany and France.  I have been now to all of those countries – Germany, several times – and have enjoyed the abundant and flavorful food that each of these countries has to offer.  Now, I know that Germany does have a lot of “heavy” foods, like bratwurst and potato dumplings, but I am part German, so I was used to these foods and still really enjoy them, albeit on a rare occasion.  France, well, if you don’t know how good the food in France is, just go there.  You will melt just staring at the breads on offer at the local boulangerie.  That’s not even mentioning the cheese, the wine, the pastries, the charcuterie and all of the other things that they are known for.  And Belgium, although known for its chocolate and beer, does a lot of other things very well, too, and shouldn’t be overlooked for it’s savory tarts and sandwiches.

Now, will all of that background in my memory, I had high hopes for the food in Amsterdam.  So it is with those memories in mind that I ask this completely honest question:  How is it that a country with miles of coastline, surrounded by three food-loving countries puts out what can only be described as spackle?  No, really.  I think that rice cakes might actually taste better than the food that I had in Amsterdam.  And that isn’t the tourist row version of Dutch food, either.  I make it a point to shop and eat from the supermarkets whenever I travel abroad, and this was certainly no exception. I tried some of the street foods, as well as what was in the supermarkets and it was all basically the same.  The traditional Dutch foods were just so bland that I could barely stand them.  And I was hard-pressed to find any decent seafood anywhere.

So, back to the title of this post:  What to do?  Well, you focus on the few things that the Dutch do well.  And I want to emphasize this especially, since I have eaten over 50 types of cheese that the French make while staying in Paris a few years ago.  The Dutch to two things (okay, if you count Genever, then three) *very* well:  Cheese and beer.  And I cannot understate the amazing array of cheese and beer that this country produces, nor the knowledge that the local Dutch have of each.  When I asked people at the supermarket which cheeses to try, they asked me “Do you prefer old or new?”  What?  This is a question that you would never hear here in the US.  Americans have just no concept of decent cheese.  And I blame Kraft for that.  But I digress.  Each day I made it a point to try at least two or three of their cheeses and never once was I disappointed.  Some were firm and pungent, others soft and creamy and more like Swiss.  All of them delectable.  Not one cheese did I try that I would not happily eat to my dying day.

And the beer.  Well, this is coming from a person that barely drinks a glass of any alcohol more than once every six months.  I tried a real Heineken at their brewery on the very first day and amazingly, liked it!  And I am not normally much of a beer person.  And then, every night thereafter, I spent at a local (apparently, the third oldest) pub / bar in the Spui district that made their own micro beers.  And each one, from the blond, to the stout, was just superb.  Rich, flavorful, not filling like they would sit as a brick in your stomach, but light and aromatic.  And each one in their own glass, too.  I would just sit there, nursing one every night (again, I am a lightweight, so I had to limit myself to one, or I will be legless and likely not be able to make it back to my hotel).  I was just in awe.

So, the answer is:  For a week, anyone, especially me, can survive on good cheese and beer.  And do so quite happily. And frankly, looking back on it, even if their other food never really gets any better, I would happily live in Amsterdam for the rest of my life and eat nothing but cheese and drink a beer every night.  And I would die a happy person.  Amsterdam, you might want to just take some notes from your neighbors in Europe, but in the meantime, never stop making your cheese and beer!!!

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Why do you do it?

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It’s been awhile since I posted anything here, and for anything this is interested, for that I deeply apologize.  I haven’t honestly been really into showing my feelings about travel for a while  now and for a very good reason (or twenty).  Aside from the fact that I have been incredibly busy with my day-job and have been doing a lot of baking, I have been in a real mental hard place for me, hence the topic of this post.

Why do you travel?  Really, why do you do it?  Do you enjoy seeing the sites or trying all of the different and unique foods that you find?  Do you collect things, like clothes or books or antiques?  Do you just love to have (collect?) new experiences and capture new memories that only you and you alone will ever fully appreciate?

I used to think that I travelled more for the sake of it than anything else, and I think that, some part of me feels that way.  I travel as often as I can; as much as time and money will allow.  I used to think that, if I could, I would travel all the time, just collecting those experiences that no one else will ever have.  Like getting lost in Helsinki and walking into a suburb and on the way home, accidentally finding their amazing amusement park and riding on the Ferris wheel.  Or being the first white woman to set foot on a small island in the South Pacific and learn what it’s like to really be the odd one out, in every sense of the word.

As I get older, though, I realize more and more that those really aren’t the reasons that I travel.  Here’s the real reason, truly shown to me as I started to cry (in public) reading a passage in a book from a woman much like me, who was in search of the same thing:

I travel because I am looking for my home.  My real home.  Not that I don’t like the place that I live.  I love my little condo.  It’s a perfect size and a real haven for me (when the dog downstairs isn’t barking, that is).  I live very near to my parents, with whom I am very close, and I really treasure that.  But more and more, I realize that I am not meant to live here; that this isn’t my real home.  I think that that explains, more than anything else, why I haven’t dated anyone since I moved back to the US from Europe the last time.  I just don’t get American guys.  Or most Americans, for that matter.  Why?  I don’t fully know, but I just feel like the odd one out and as an outsider here.  I want to sit at a sidewalk cafe in the evenings with friends, and people here don’t really do that.  I want to go out and drink for the conversations with companions that happens, and Americans haven’t learned how to do that yet.  I don’t understand baseball caps, tennis shows, shouting at waiters or the need to photograph, tweet and post to facebook every single aspect of one’s life.

I don’t know why people don’t go out, but rather, stay at home, binge-watching shows on Netflix or On Demand.  I get lonely, because no one but my parents wants to go to the museums and then to a cafe and discuss what was on display.  No one wants to just take a leisurely time at a meal.  Talking.  Eating.  Enjoying the atmosphere.  That doesn’t happen here.  Buildings are too new.  People have to drive everywhere.  People, especially where I live, aren’t interested in meeting people and making new friends.  Not after high school or possibly college.  They will be nice to you, but never will that really translate into an invitation to join them for a meal or a trip to a movie or anything like that.

And more than that, there is something singularly intangible that I cannot even put into words, but that makes me cry in the US and smile broadly in Europe.  Call it atmosphere, call it whatever you will, but whenever I am in Europe I just become lighter.  Almost another person.  I stop more.  And I mean that in the sense that I don’t feel the incessant need to always be *doing* something.  No.  Instead, I stop.  I have a coffee at a cafe or a glass of wine somewhere and just watch the world.  Or I talk to people.  And there, they not only talk back, they start conversations, invite me to their homes or out with their friends or even into the backs of their restaurants to teach me to make real dumplings, in the case of my time in Shanghai, China.

I travel because I want to find the place where I really belong.  The place where I just naturally feel comfortable.  Peaceful.  Content.  Where people want to be my friends as much I want to be theirs.  The place where I would be happy to just ‘be.’

I have come very close on a number of occasions.  Germany was the first, when I visited my brother while he we stationed there.  Austria was even closer.  I spent a few days in Vienna, and on accident I had a last-minute issue that prevented me from going back to Hungary, so instead went back to Vienna and never regretted it.  Ireland was close, but somehow, not as much as Norway.  There was just a sense of total ease that I felt in these places.  Even Paris, not speaking any French or even really knowing the true Parisian culture, I felt it closely, though I knew all along that it wasn’t *quite* the place for me.  Close, but just not quite.

In about a week, I am taking another trip.  I have chosen to keep it a secret to everyone bu my parents and two trusted friends, so forgive me for not mentioning it here.  I will say this, though.  I feel as though I am getting messages from the universe that this might be “it.”  The one.  I don’t want to jinx it, and I don’t really want to get my hopes up, at least any more than they already are.  But at night, and when I am having a rough day at work, I let myself say “maybe” a few times, and I dream.  Maybe I will meet a friend that I can stay in contact with.  Maybe I will meet someone “special” as my mother and grandmother would say.

Maybe I will, this time, not use my return ticket.  Maybe I will, but immediately file for a visa.  Or maybe this isn’t it, and I will check it off my list and start trying to find time and money to make another trip somewhere else to try it again; getting ever closer each time until I finally find it; sigh to myself, and make that call to my parents letting them know that I won’t be needing them to come and fetch me from the airport.

For anyone out there reading this – especially those that might feel the same way – wish me good luck.  And I wish all of you out there in the same position the same good luck.  I hope that we all manage to find our respective homes, wherever they may be.

How do you say Merry Christmas in German? Or, how I spent a lot of down-time in Germany

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I love my parents.  I really do.  They always mean well, even when things don’t go quite as I think that they plan.  Case in point, the time that I spend a Christmas (sort-of) with my older brother in Germany.

I wanted to spend some time in Italy over the holidays with my friends that I had met while in Ireland, and in order to do that, my parents said that perhaps I spend Christmas itself with my brother, while he was stationed in Germany in the military.  Again, I am sure that they had the best intentions.  I am sure that they thought that he and I would spend a of lot quality time together bonding and driving around the countryside and generally having a lovely holiday, and for the most part, they were right.  They did, however, not take into account a couple of key factors:

1.  They gave the money for the trip to my brother, the person who thinks that if he has check blanks then he has money.  By the time that he picked me up in the rental car, I saw where most of that money went – the backseat, in the form of a few CD’s that he had recently purchased. And,

2.  No self-respecting 20-something guy wants to spend a ton of time with their kid-sister.  Ever.  No matter what the circumstances.  But especially not when they have a reputation of coolness to protect in the military.  I mean, honestly, I get it, and I agree and can’t blame him a bit. But,

That means that, after we spend some really harrowing hours driving on the autobahn (and by we, I mean that he was driving and I was praying that I would survive the trip in Germany and make it to Italy alive – he likes to use the accelerator, that’s for sure) and visiting a few of the really great highlights of Bavaria (including Neuschwanstein Castle and the Nurnberg Christmas Market) he would drop me off at my teeny hotel in a teeny village that had only one hotel.  Usually by five in the evening.

This village, by the way, was so small that there was nothing to do, especially since it was the Christmas season and everything was closed.  Not to mention that I didn’t have my own transportation to travel around in the evening and didn’t speak enough German to really get along.  This means that I spend a *lot* of time in the hotel, and specifically my hotel room, itself.  What did I do for that time?  Well, not a lot, really.  You see, back when Kindles weren’t around and people actually read real books, I wanted to save space in my luggage for souvenirs, so I brought only one book.  And this was the start of my trip, so I didn’t want to read the whole thing in the first few days.  So, i tried to ration it out and instead watch TV.  Except that the television only got about four channels, all of them in German.  Including MTV.

Did you know that apparently, even in Europe, MTV only rotates about five videos all day and night?  Yup, that means that I saw the same five videos (including J-Lo’s “Jennie from the Block” and something repulsive from Brittany Spears) about a thousand times.  I finally got a break by watching Evita (yeah, that one.  The one with Madonna), only because since it was a musical, it wasn’t dubbed into German.

It’s truly amazing how long a few hours can seem when you are sitting in a tiny room, as the lone guest in a hotel in the middle of nowhere in southern Germany with nothing to read and nothing to listen to (I left my CD player in Ireland) and nothing to really watch on TV either.  But, if you really want to make sure that you get your vacation time’s worth, I suppose that the fact that it feels like forever means that your vacation might seem longer?  Sigh.  Well, not better, right?  Just longer.

Meanwhile, I know that my brother was back at the base having a lot of fun with his friends, while I was stuck in the hotel.  I was still in Germany, which in and of itself was great, and while I was with my brother, I had a great time.  Walking in the woods around the castle, eating great sausages in the local restaurant nearby and walking around Nurnberg in the evening light.  Simply amazing (more on those parts later, I am sure).  But still, it was a little lonely in that hotel room.  Just sayin’.