Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Apocalypse: Best Diet Ever?

So here's the thing about eating after the apocalypse: the food is great. However, I've learned a very important thing about myself. If I can't order it or make it in a microwave, I rather just not eat.

It's not like these are complicated dishes to make. You just have to boil water and dump the stuff in the pot, stirring occassionally. I can cook, but much like work, I kind of have to be in the mood to make it happen. You'd be suprised how infrequently that happens. So aside from the bag of chocolates my mom sent me for Christmas that I DID NOT OPEN EARLY and the case of Diet Coke in my fridge, I haven't really had anything.

Last night I made broccoli cheese soup and today I made mashed potatoes, but seeing as I'll have to wash our one pot in order to make more provisions, I'm probably not going to make much else today. The freeze-dried broccoli and fruit is pretty good straight out of the can though.

Thanks for leaving me out in the cold, Twinkies. Apparently you were my only shot at survival. At least now I know that a month's worth of food will last me at least three months.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The End is Here!

Our doomsday supplies have arrived! We were starting to wonder if they would make it before disaster struck, but by the power of Fedex it looks like we’re going to be able to survive. It’s a Christmas miracle!

My adventure partner unloaded all 150 pounds of supplies into our house while I offered helpful suggestions such as “Be careful,” and “Don’t drop it!” Once middle management, always middle management.

We unwrapped the first box and stared at our supplies in all their majesty:

"Emergency Storage" just adds to the excitement!

The box proudly proclaims that unopened, they’re good for 30 years. I’m still under the impression that everything good in life dies when it turns 30 so it’s reassuring to see that a doomsday prepper company embraces my life view.

Upon inspecting the box, I quickly realized that I am unprepared for the apocalypse. Even after living in England, where I developed the glowing complexion of a pre-glittered vampire, I’m not white enough to be a part of this family:

All of our friends and loved ones are dead! Smile!

I can only assume they bathe in the dehydrated potato soup mix to be that pale. Also, what happened to the little girl in this picture? Is she actually bearing witness to the end of times during the photo op?

I brushed aside the inevitable nightmares that picture will bring while my adventure partner unpacked the goods in our bunker.

So many options!

We started off the day with potato cakes, which were surprisingly not bad. Also, they sit heavy in your stomach. One serving was more than filling, and once I drank my glass of Chocolate Morning Moo’s I immediately regretted cleaning my plate. But it’s the apocalypse, dammit! There’s no time for wasting food! Seriously though, I feel like a bird full of wedding rice.

At any rate, we’re off to a good start in our safe house and I’m going to work on a paper now, just in case the world doesn’t end.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Insight Meditation

One of the meditation styles I practice is insight meditation. “Insight” refers to looking into the true nature of reality, or seeing things as they really are. One way of doing this is to focus on your breath and the sensations in your body as you meditate.

One of the very first things you’ll notice is that everything is in a state of change. The breath changes, your mood changes, and random thoughts come and go. If you feel tension in your back muscles and bring your attention to it, the pain will shift and change. It will become a sensation of warmth, or it may move to another section of your body entirely. You are not your pain, or your thoughts, or your emotions. These are things that pass and change.

It was during one of these practice sessions that I had my favorite insight. Out of nowhere came one, clear thought: It doesn’t fucking matter. This thought may not seem very insightful, but it wouldn’t be my thought if it wasn’t slightly off-color.

We waste so much time focusing on things that don’t matter. Ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, wondering if we’re good enough or if we sounded stupid earlier.

Being stuck in the past leaves us depressed, and worrying about the future leaves us fearful. Take a moment to look around, and notice what’s happening right now, in this moment. Chances are you’re sitting comfortably at your computer, and nothing tragic is happening. Bask in the lack of chaos for a moment.

Yes, there is value in reflecting on the past and learning from your experiences, but there’s a limit. If you’re marinating yourself in old memories and past pain, you’re not opening yourself up to the present. Maybe you’d be better off today if things had been different in your childhood, but you can’t change that now. Work with what you have. You can’t grow if you’re continually rehashing the past. It’s like trying to drive while staring exclusively in the rear-view mirror. As someone who has driven her car into the back of a tow-truck, I can say with full authority that you should pay attention to what’s happening in front of you.

If we never thought about the future, we’d be wandering around aimlessly without goals. We’d also probably blow through our savings accounts by 3:00 pm. So I wholeheartedly agree that it’s important to plan for the future, but know that your best-laid plans might not pan out. Conversely, the worst-case scenarios that you replay over and over probably won’t work out that way either, so stop stressing about it so much.

Yes, there’s a chance you might blow that big project and everyone will think you’re a loser and you’ll get fired or kicked out of grad school and have to live in a cardboard box behind the truck stop where you’ll inevitably die friendless and alone, but it’s highly unlikely. Thinking that you’re going to fail can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nothing has ever turned out as badly as I have pictured it in my head, but that doesn’t stop me from panicking.

Now that we’re focusing on the present for a few minutes, here’s a few tips on how to relax and just enjoy today.

Someone, somewhere, doesn’t like you.

And that’s perfectly ok! If everyone loves you, you’ve either never stood up for anything in your life or you’re only associating with people who think just like you. Either way, you’re not going to grow or learn if you’re spending your time being a people pleaser. Vanilla is fine, but no one is passionate about vanilla the way they are about mint chocolate chip or rocky road. If you love vanilla, then love vanilla, but don’t get down on yourself if everyone else doesn’t agree with you. You’re not wrong for being different.

Some people will love you, some people won’t, and for the most part, people won’t even notice you. Everyone else is so wrapped up in their own lives that some minor mistake you made isn’t even likely to register on their radar.

Don’t be perfect.

No one is perfect, and if they were, they’d be exceptionally boring. Every bad decision can result in an awesomely funny story for later in life. Perfectionism is exhausting because it exists on a pinnacle. It's hard to balance on a point; one wobble and you'll fall to the bottom. Being "good enough" is a bell curve. There's plenty of room to move around and if you slip, you have space to catch yourself.

If you’re focused on being perfect, you’re less likely to take a chance at something new. If you take up a new hobby, you’re probably not going to be good at it right away. Success feels awesome, but you’ll learn more from your mistakes.

You have to make a lot of mistakes before you paint the next Picasso. I know how to destroy a painting, but because of that, I also know how to breathe so that my hands don’t shake the brush. I made a god-awful rosary before I learned how to correctly make a beading loop.

It's worse in person.

For the record, making a rosary is way worse than saying a rosary. If I’d had to make rosaries after every confession in Catholic school, I’d probably be a much more moral person.

Have weird interests.

And then be passionate about them. If you love Star Wars, by all means dress up and camp outside the theater for 4 days to buy tickets. I met some really interesting people that way, and I only had to stand in line for 12 hours. One of my friends has some of the most off-the-wall interests of anyone I’ve ever met, and I love him for it. If I ever have a question about Buffy fanfic, he’s the person I’ll turn to. If you love something, even if no one else does, own it. Life should be fun, and you’ll be a more interesting person for embracing whatever weirdness floats your boat.

Do something new, or do something differently.

If you want to gain insight into yourself, you’ve got to try new things. Nothing will change if you keep doing the same things the same way. Try a new restaurant, get lost, take up a new sport, or meet someone new. As I mentioned in a previous post, I signed up for fencing, because why not? (After I signed up for the class, I went back and read the class description just to make sure it wasn’t a class on how to put up fences. We are in farm country, after all.)

If you don’t know what you’re passionate about, you’re not going to find out by sitting on your couch. Get out there and try something new. Some new experiences will suck, but you’ll quickly learn that you hate (and I mean hate) hot yoga. Or you might find out that cranking the heat to 100+ degrees and trying not to pass out during downward dog is your new thing.

Do little things everyday that make you smile.

Sing in the car. Dance. Go out with friends. Watch a funny YouTube video. Get dessert. Read a book. Color a picture. Play on the swings. Go swimming. See a movie. Whatever you do, do it because you want to do it and it makes you happy. It’s your life. If you’re not enjoying it, find things you love and do them everyday.

When you listen, really listen.

There’s no point in having a conversation with someone if you’re not going to listen to what they’re saying. Listening is an art. You can’t listen if you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next or internally tearing apart their opinion. Just listen. Then, when it’s your turn, demand the same respect. This is how you learn about other people and in turn, learn about yourself.

Similarly, listen to your own thoughts. All of those odd thoughts that keep popping up are trying to tell you something. The more you try to ignore that inner voice, the louder it gets. It’s like telling yourself not to think about a white elephant. As soon as you say it, it’s all you can think about.

True insight comes from listening to yourself and being able to determine fact from fiction. Not every thought is going to helpful, but occasionally your mind will remind you that it doesn’t fucking matter, and you will smile. For every big catastrophe in life, there are a thousand other little successes. Delight in the small things, and the big things with fall into place.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Preparing for a Twinkie-less Apocalypse

In retaliation for making him watch Honey Boo Boo, HB talked me into watching a god-awful show about apocalyptic preparedness.

It was exactly what you'd expect.

As is the case in all good stories, one thing led to another and we decided to investigate these pails of freeze-dried food that will supposedly sustain a single person for an entire month. Bonus: they have a shelf life of 30 years unopened. Have you figured out where I’m going with this yet?

Yeah. We’ve ordered three pails. So, in honor of the Mayan apocalypse, our next adventure will involve trying to survive for 30 days on a 39-pound pail of freeze-dried meals. I guess “pail” isn’t the best word, as we researched several options and eventually voted on a version that comes in a box, because we’re classy like that. In the interest of full disclosure, when he sent me the link of options to choose from, I did utter the phrase, "This is going to be awesome!" My definition of "awesome" may be slightly skewed...

Honestly, I’d rather try to subsist on a 39-pound box of wine, but that would negate our other adventure. I’ll let you know when it arrives and will write up a full review then. This isn’t my first foray into vegetarianism, but it’s definitely the most unique attempt.

I should preface this by saying that I absolutely loved MRE’s, so I’m not anticipating too many complaints about the quality. However, I do predict that I’ll be experiencing palette fatigue after only a few days. I always assumed I’d be riding out the rapture with a crate of Twinkies, but this should be a close second. We've also signed up for a fencing class, because if I've learned anything from this show, it's that you can never be too prepared.

Friday, 23 November 2012

The Lake District

Sheep are ridiculously hard to catch. They seem all fluffy and tame, like giant cotton balls resting in the grass. But they have this habit of letting me get a foot away from them, and then running like there’s a crazed American chasing them across the field.


I tell you this not to discourage you from chasing sheep. By all means, do so, because it’s a helluva good time. I tell you this to illustrate why I love the English Lake District.

Last weekend, I attended a Nature in American Writing seminar, which focused mainly on Emerson and Thoreau. I loved it, but it kept reminding me of the Lake poets, whom I love even more. Then it occurred to me that I never wrote about the Lake District, which is a shame because it’s one of my favorite parts of England.

The Lake District is in the northwest section of the country. Gorgeous landscapes full of mountains, waterfalls, and of course, lakes.

Overlooking Grasmere

I first traveled up there to research a paper I was writing on the Lake Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey). We spent several days touring the countryside while visiting Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount. I got all the material I needed, as well as an 1889 8-volume set of Wordsworth’s complete works. I was one happy camper.

We returned to the Lake District because we loved everything about the area and wanted to see it one more time before returning home to the states. My favorite part of the area is Dora’s field, which you can visit via Rydal Mount. I can’t help but cry when I look at it, because I find it heart wrenchingly beautiful that her parents (while in their 70’s) planted a sea of daffodils in her memory after her death in 1847.

If you’re not a Lake Poet fanatic, you can still find lots to do. It’s the perfect area for rambling, and there’s plenty to do on the water. There’s also a fantastic falconry center, if you’re into birds of prey. The people of the Lake District were very accommodating, and we spent several days wandering around Grasmere, Ambleside, and Windermere.

Their sheep aren’t nearly as accommodating. You’ll inevitably have to pass through a sheep field if you’re going to explore the Lake District on foot. At some point while crossing the fields and taking pictures of the sheep, I got it into my head that I needed to pet one. I never succeeded in my goal, but I can say with good faith that I gave it my all. Next time I’m taking my Velcro gloves.

Turkey Day

Yesterday marked one of the greatest Thanksgivings in history for us. It started out rather stressful, but resulted in sweet, sweet victory. Winning tastes even better than homemade apple pie.

We agreed to be at the Thanksgiving party at 3 pm, but first we had to stop by HB’s house to 1) make the food and 2) bring HB and said food to the party. We needed to bring rolls, a green bean casserole, a pumpkin roll, and an apple pie. Simple. At 1:45 HB texted and asked us to bring a rolling pin and an apple corer. K immediately texted back, “You haven’t started baking anything yet?”

Then began a frenzied panic of buying groceries and assembling dishes. We made it to the party at 3:15, because we are awesome.

We celebrated Thanksgiving by mowing through an ungodly amount of food with some close friends. This was quickly followed by making shrinky dinks with the kids, and then watching some Family Guy while the kids were distracted with their new toys.

Still amused by the afternoon’s cooking session, we restarted a Words with Friends game with HB. K informed me that we were down by about 70 points. “Well,” I said, “there’s only one thing we can do. We’re going to cheat our asses off.” Sixteen hours and 300 points later, we were the clear victors.

This year I’m thankful for great friends, wonderful food, and Scrabble apps that let you enter in the best word combinations to crush your friends. I don’t even know what half these words mean, but I know I played one on a triple word score and it was glorious. Happy Turkey Day!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Into the Woods

Some people assume that I watch a lot of TV since I’m at home during the day. Seeing as I don’t have cable, that would get boring pretty quick. The truth is that I spend an inordinate amount of time in the forest. Granted, most of my day is spent at my computer (just like everyone else) but I’m drawn to the woods like a moth to a flame. I value my solitude more than most and I don’t typically get lonely. I enjoy the company of others, but I prefer to seek it out myself.

This photo is from my favorite spot in the forest. The city is just close enough to see it, but not close enough to hear. Perfect.

Although I don’t typically see many people in the forest, the woods themselves are full of activity. I can’t remember a time when I went into the woods and didn’t see an animal. Normally I run into deer, squirrels, snakes, and turkeys. They’ll disappear if they hear you, but if you sit long enough, they all come out in their own time. If you don’t move, the deer are especially tame. They’ll stare at you long enough to determine you’re not a threat, and then they’ll wander closer.

I’ve always enjoyed being outside by myself. The thing I like best about going home is being completely alone in the fields. I could spend hours out there, just walking and thinking. There are points on I-94 where you can park your car at night and not see a single light, from any car or house. It’s a little eerie, but absolutely awesome. Bonus points if you’re parked on a night with some Northern Lights.

I think everyone has a secret back up plan, should everything go completely awry. That fantasy where you pack everything up and move to the beach. My backup plan has always been to simply retire into the mountains of Colorado with my books.

The weirdest part about going back to working with other people will be the lack of privacy and time to just be alone. I might miss that more than not having to wear dress clothes. So no, I can’t tell you the first thing about daytime TV, but I can tell you everything about the woods.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Drive-Thru Won

My adventure partner and I decided that the best place for lunch today would be Don & Millie’s. We actually agreed on Chick-fil-A but their drive-thru was backing up traffic for two blocks, so I set aside my need for a hate sandwich and a Christian side hug. I’m kidding—I wanted a spicy chicken sandwich with no pickles, because pickles are nasty.

At any rate, I decided to get the Cheese Frenchee at Don & Millie’s, because I’ve lived here for years and never tried one. Essentially, it’s a deep-fried cheese sandwich, which checks every box on my must-try list.


As you can see from the picture, I went with the combo meal because really, if you’re going to eat a deep-fried cheese sandwich, why not get the fries too? It tastes exactly like you would expect. It’s brilliant in theory but awful in practice. I only made it 3/4 of the way through, and I like all kinds of weird food. I’ve been known to crave Easy Cheese on spicy pork rinds. One of my favorite meals is haggis followed by a deep-fried Mars bar (I love you, Scotland!) but the Cheese Frenchee won this battle.

The bread absorbs a lot of oil, so it tastes like a slice of American cheese (yum) layered between everything else they’ve fried that day (ew). As the cheese makes up comparatively little of the sandwich, there’s no way it can compensate.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Party Games for the Non-Drinker

As I round off two months of alcohol-free entertainment, I’ve noticed that I’ve become a drink counter. Not mine, mine are pretty easy to count. Always 0. Yours however, are becoming increasingly interesting to me.

I don’t do it to judge you or because I particularly care how many you have. It’s just one of the many games I play to occupy myself when I can’t come up with adequate conversation. I like to wander into a room, guess who’s going to hit the bar the hardest during a set period of time, and then wait to see how my prediction plays out.

If you’re new to this game, you might put your money on the guy who’s wearing fake boobs filled with liquor. These boobs conveniently have taps for nipples, so I could see why you might pick him. You would be mistaken though. Flexibility won’t allow the average drinker to suckle his own taps, and by the time he drains a boob, he’s going to be confused as to how to refill it. 

The key to winning this game is to think outside of the box. Unless that box happens to be a box of wine, in which case all bets are off. It’s a bit voyeuristic, but at least I’m putting my critical thinking skills to good use.

I prefer to play this game with complete strangers, as it adds an extra degree of difficulty and I don’t feel like an ass when I guess correctly. The best location is a restaurant at happy hour. Everybody loves a bargain.

Another game I like to play is trying to match you drink for drink with cans of soda (diet, I’m not crazy). I’m not as good at this game. Considering my years of intensive training, I thought this would be an easy one. Near as I can tell, the diuretic effect of alcohol gives you an advantage. My kidneys aren’t as motivated to process a 12-pack of Fresca.

After one party, I decided to investigate dealcoholized wine, which is not the same as grape juice. Dealcoholized wine is wine that has had the alcohol removed after the fact, so it retains the complexity of flavor.

There is a God and He loves me!

I think it’s pretty good, although I prefer the Merlot to the Chardonnay (which is not the case with “normal” wine). After his first sip my adventure partner said, “Mmmm….Manischewitz…” but he went back for thirds and found this article, so I assume he liked it.

One of our friends mixed his Chardonnay with Sugar-Free AMP and dubbed it a “ghetto sour” so I can vouch for its versatility. I prefer my Manischewitz/Merlot neat, partially for the flavor, but mostly because I still have standards. L’chaim! 

Thursday, 25 October 2012

For the Love of Reading

The man who won’t read has no advantage over the man who can’t. –Mark Twain

I’ve always been a reader. It’s one of my greatest pleasures in life. I read mostly nonfiction, but the genre honestly doesn’t matter that much to me. Fiction, nonfiction, technical manuals, magazine articles, blogs—if it’s out there, I’ll read it. Aside from the occasional fix at the office supply store (Damn you Office Max and your awesome supply of notebooks!), there’s no place I’d rather be than in a library. If "used book store" was a perfume, I'd wear it.

The written word can travel to every corner of the earth and more importantly, through time. There’s a special place in my heart for biographies, because it’s like interviewing the past. I may not be able to sit down for a day with the great thinkers of history, but I can still learn from their experiences. To quote Socrates: "Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for." I’m enough of a slacker to appreciate that idea.

I think that's why this article bothered me so much. The authors are proud to report that 8 in 10 Americans under the age of 30 have read a book in the last year, as compared to 7 in 10 of adults in general. I can't imagine not reading a single book in the last year. Hell, I can't imagine not reading a single book in the last week. It's such an important part of my life that I want to share it with everyone. I feel like an evangelical reader--I want to share the good news and save souls through books.

Words written centuries ago can reach through time and etch themselves in my mind. They can make me smile, or cry. They can change my opinions, expand my thinking to encompass another point of view, and educate me. I’ve traveled further and more intensely through a good book than by physically standing on another continent.

I can see the world through my own eyes, and by reading, see the same world from a completely different perspective. By opening myself up to a different way of thinking, even if it’s not one I agree with, I have instantly broadened my understanding.

For me, a good book is one that I finish with sigh. By reading it, I have affected my mind and grown as a person. Every now and then, I find a book I can get lost in. I care about the characters as though I personally know them, and when I finally look up from the pages, I’m startled to discover that hours have passed. That is the mark of great book.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Americana Awesome

There’s certain things about your neighborhood that you don’t notice until you’ve been away for awhile. Little tidbits of your surroundings that have always been there, but they no longer blend into the larger picture quite as easily.

I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of St. George's Cross when we were in England. It’s prominently featured outside the pubs, which makes sense. I, for one, have fallen out of many a pub door and wondered what country I was in. It wasn’t until I came home that I realized just how many American flags we fly. If we see an open space, we're going to put a flag on it.

We own the moon.

I drove past one house that was proudly flying the flag in the front yard. They also had a flag hanging from the door, which was partially blocked from view by the massive flag hanging from the deck. This impressive display of patriotism was enhanced by the two flags flanking the property, courtesy of the city. It was as though they were trying to protect their firstborn and ran out of lamb’s blood. Whatever their rationale, I can assure you the terrorists haven’t won at that house.

Another thing we love in this country is decorating our front lawns with animal statues. Cows, eagles, deer, flamingos; really, it doesn’t matter. We love our plastic wildlife. It reminds me of the tackiest thing my mom ever put in our front lawn: a Holstein cow with a tail that doubled as a sprinkler. As much as it pains me to say this, I loved that cow and if I found one at Menard’s, I’d totally buy it.

I did see one lawn that took this idea to a whole new level of awesome. Imagine a miniaturized Venus de Milo lawn ornament. Now imagine they've covered her with a T-shirt that reads “Keep it Cool.”

No tits on the front lawn! It's indecent!

I would say “Stay Classy, America,” but I love the fact that you’re not. It just adds to your charm.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Eight Days at Veggie Camp

I recently attended a meditation instructor course at a residential retreat. I showed up fully prepared for 14 hour days of intense personal development (or so I thought).  Instead, I quickly discovered how far out of my element I really was, and learned that it’s necessary to step out of my comfort zone if I want to experience positive change.

When I arrived, the retreat brochure assured me that I was in hippie heaven. I heard phrases like “peace and harmony,” “expanding awareness,” and “awakening the inner self” everywhere I turned. I was excited to see plenty of dreadlocks and tie-dyed ponchos, and felt instantly cooler by association.

I became slightly wary when I noticed an outhouse labeled “compost loo.” I began forming a mental list of dings against my certified hippie card:

1. Any place that composts their own shit is a step too far for me.

Little did I know, this would be the start of many new realizations.

The effects of the vegetarian diet showed me the second reason I can’t be a fully-fledged hippie: After a childhood full of Little Debbie cakes and Hamburger Helper, my body is ill-prepared to handle “all-natural.”

By Day 3, I was overcome by muscle cramps, an angry tummy, and a very unpredictable mood. I felt like I was dying, but death just wouldn’t come. I called my adventure partner and told him to pick me up. He declined the opportunity to drive another 7 hours to rescue me. When I called on Day 4 he agreed, but we would’ve been unprepared for the movers to pack up our house the following day. I was stuck.

Our instructor (who was amazing) assured us that any negative emotions or physical symptoms we might be experiencing were the result of our bodies resisting change. Change is new, and new is scary. He also helpfully added that it could be due to the detox process of adjusting to a healthy diet. I immediately understood what I had to do if I was going to survive this week: It was time to retox.

One trip to Tesco for vodka, a Cajun chicken wrap, and some peperami sticks later, I was back in business! For the record, I didn’t just spell “pepperoni” incorrectly. Peperami is a British snack stick that’s like pepperoni but with less meat and more ‘rami. It’s the third cousin of the Slim Jim. If you’re going to retox, you can’t go wrong with fake meat sticks and vodka.

It tastes about as good as you would expect.

Fully loaded with preservatives, liquor, and an ungodly amount of sodium, I attacked the week with new enthusiasm. My trip to Tesco wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of two wonderful women, which brings me to my next realization of the week:

3. You can survive anything if you have good friends.

I met some of the most interesting, warm, and welcoming people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing that week. They in turn introduced me to some of the strangest things I’ve ever heard of. Words like “chakra” and “aura” were thrown about with reckless abandon, and it seemed everyone had a more exciting past life than I did.

As a solid skeptic with an affinity for the scientific method, I found that I had nothing to add to conversations about souls, spiritual essences, or energy fields. I decided to suspend all judgments, and luckily for me, my fellow companions accepted me as I was.

At one point, one of the coolest chicks I met told me about bioenergy feedback sessions. The part of her explanation that stuck with me involved the removal of negative entities. As a former devout Catholic, the first thing that came to mind was exorcisms.

Sleep well!

Later that night as I slept in a 19th century stable block, I had a nightmare involving her pulling a demon out of my friend Magic Muskrat’s chest. The demon flew across the room and brushed against my leg, causing me to feel a cold chill. I awoke in a panic and realized that my leg was freezing in real life. I flipped out. Then I realized that I had my window open, it was a breezy 50 degrees Fahrenheit in my room, and my leg wasn’t under the duvet. In short, I’m an idiot.

In order to sleep the following night, I watched a live session. At no point did any demons appear, and I slept like a baby.

The rest of the week flew by, and my introverted self couldn’t help but be dragged into the enthusiasm of the group. I experienced every emotion under the sun. I laughed until I couldn’t stand and sobbed my eyes out on a new friend’s shoulder. I learned to trust people and not be so guarded. After two straight years of wanting to get the hell out of England, I finally had a reason to miss it.

I still have more requirements to complete before I become a fully certified meditation instructor, and I may not be as much of a hippie as I thought I was, but I can say with full conviction that my week at veggie camp has changed me for the better. So thank you, from the bottom of heart, to all of the wonderful people I met at this course. I’m blessed to have met each one of you.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Lessons Learned While Traveling (Part I)

I’ve always wanted to travel full time. I imagined it would finally happen when I retired. I would live the transient life of adventure and see the world. It was all very romantic in my head.

I’m glad we’re traveling now, because if there’s one thing that the last five weeks have taught me, it’s that there’s a lot of things I won’t want to do when I’m 70. Namely, climbing steep hills and scrambling over wet rocks.

If I hadn’t experimented with traveling this summer, there’s a good chance I would’ve wasted a lot of time and energy stressing over the fact that I wasn’t on the road. I would’ve overlooked the good things about home in favor of dreaming about traveling. It’s the “grass is always greener” syndrome.

I still love to travel, but I feel I should be completely honest about the pros and cons of traveling. With that, here’s four things I learned this summer while dragging around a backpack, washing my sweat-soaked clothes in a sink, and occasionally saying nasty things to my adventure partner.

1. Visiting historic sites is overrated. 

The first thing anyone does when they visit a new place is map out all of the sites of importance and make it their mission to see them. This makes sense. Why go to Athens if you’re not going to see the Parthenon?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go and see the leaning tower of Pisa if your heart desires, but here’s the thing: if you find yourself feeling disappointed or underwhelmed, that’s ok. It’s not a sign that you’re not “getting it” or that you’re unable to recognize greatness; it’s that you’re trying to appreciate the past by visiting a place in the present.

The reason we want to visit these amazing places is because they have historical significance. It’s not so much about where it happened as what happened. For centuries, the Roman Forum was the heart of the city. Everything of importance happened at the Forum. You can walk in the footsteps of Cato the Elder, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Marcus Tullius Cicero. That was the past. The footsteps surrounding you today are of less impressive men, and there's going to be lots of them.


If you’re visiting the Parthenon because you want to impress your friends with pictures on your Facebook wall, you’re going to be disappointed. You need to visit these places because they’re important to you, not because they’re important to someone else. If your heart’s not in it, you’ll be doubly pissed as you pour sweat and dodge aggressive salesmen trying to sell you overpriced stuff you don’t want.

Another reason you may find yourself wishing you’d saved your entrance fee for another round at the Irish pub is that we’ve been spoiled by technology. Thanks to the Internet, you’ve already seen every close up shot that any professional photographer could deliver. With a few simple clicks, you can see the individual brush strokes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You can take an HD virtual tour of some of the greatest monuments on Earth, and you’ll get to see more detail than you’ll ever see in person.

When you visit a monument in person, you’re going to be fighting through crowds of other tourists trying to get a picture that doesn’t have someone’s mullet in it. Additionally, most national treasures are roped off so that you can’t get anywhere near it, in the hopes that you won’t climb on it, write your name on it, or steal a part of it.

Take Stonehenge, for example. You can get an excellent view of Stonehenge from anywhere in the surrounding area. You can also pay £7.80/person (~$12/person) to visit Stonehenge. This visit gives you the chance to stand behind a rope and stare out into the distance at the circle, much like you can do in the parking lot for free. Your entrance fee also gets you an audio recording that explains how they still have no idea why/how it was built. Fascinating.

Some say it was aliens. Others disagree.

Museums are another place that can be a let down. As a nerd, I love a good museum, but I’m going to say the following in all honestly: once you’ve seen an exhibit’s worth of ancient Greek bowls, you really don’t have to see anymore of them. You can cross that one off your bucket list without feeling like an uncultured swine if you don’t want to see anymore.

After the first few hundred, you get the idea.

Everyone has their own personal list of must-see places. For me, it’s cathedrals and on a somewhat creepier note, grave sites. Yup, I like to visit the final resting places of historical figures. I have a weird obsession with pondering how a person can create a masterpiece, discover a scientific principle, or rise to greatness, and yet still end up in the same place that we all eventually find ourselves. It’s that whole “one life to live” concept personified.

I love cathedrals for a few reasons. They’re quiet, they’re usually the perfect mix of imposing yet beautiful, and the work that went into their construction is simply awe-inspiring. There’s nothing like standing in the echoing grandeur of a 12th-century building and marveling at how mere mortals were able to create such a massive, intricate structure without the aid of modern technology.

For me, nothing will be the same as visiting a grave or a cathedral in person. It’s up to you to define your own list, and that list might not include the Louvre or the Colosseum.  The important thing is that when you do visit your must-see places, you’ll know you’re visiting because they’re meaningful to you, and not just because they’re in a tourist guide.

To be continued…

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Long Trip Home

The final days of our European Adventure were spent in Dubrovnik and Montenegro. I’d been looking forward to Dubrovnik as I had heard nothing but good things about the city. I loved everything about Croatia, so I didn’t think there was any way that this city could be disappointing. Our arrival was everything I had hoped it would be. The walled city looked amazing and I loved watching the cruise ships pull into the harbor.

The main street in the Old City

I was over my love of the city by the second day. It didn’t occur to me how many tourists were on each of those cruise ships until they swarmed into Old City. I’m not a fan of crowds to begin with, and there were two massive ships each day. The overpriced kitsch mixed with hoards of people and hot, sticky air was overwhelming. Our landlord asked what I thought of the city and when I responded that it was “ok,” he laughed and said that he won’t go anywhere near the Old City unless it’s the off-season.

On the fourth day, we hopped on a bus and headed south. Our bus was a few hours late, which wasn’t a big deal, but then we blew a tire on the Croatia-Montenegro border. Changing a tire on a bus is much more difficult than our crew expected, but luckily a truck driver helped out and it only took a few hours. Meanwhile, the border guards were trying to contain 60 people from various countries, none of whom wanted to stay in the designated space. Herding cats is an understatement.

We made it to Hercig-Novi, were we found a driver who was happy to take us the rest of the way to Tivat. He started the engine of his glorified van, moved two parking spots to the left, and then walked away. Not a good start…

Eventually he came back and took us an hour further down the road. Air conditioning consisted of leaving the door open. Then he parked on the side of the road and gestured for us to join him in another van, which we did because really, what other option did we have?

We finally made it to Tivat and began the long hike to our hostel, which did not have the AC we so desperately needed at that point. After spending 9 hours traveling 65 miles, I was in no mood for a rickety fan, wasps, and a flooded bathroom. Surprisingly, we ended up meeting some great people and had a really good time that night, even with the less-than-stellar accommodations.

We booked into a different hotel that advertised AC the next day. They warned us that the hotel was still “under construction” but we underestimated what they meant by that. We literally stayed on a construction site.

Four stars?

Always an adventure, but at least they had AC! Their work ethic was insane; they ran that jackhammer from 7 am until 9 pm.

We flew home the following day. I have never been so relieved to drop a bag down on my kitchen floor. I’ve always thought that I wanted to travel full time, but I had no idea how exhausting traveling can be. After a month of lugging a 45 pound bag around the Mediterranean, I was done for awhile. By “awhile” I mean 2 days, because that’s how long we had before our next big adventure: flying home to visit the family for a week!

Friday, 29 June 2012

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) IV

Part 4 of K's Series

Before I go to SoIL and stay at a place that doesn’t have internet and barely a cell phone signal, I thought I’d finish this four part series. I may not take on four part stuff again because I never got around to finishing them. It isn’t like my job got in the way...since I don’t do that anymore :P

Well, on with the show! I’m sure the 12 of you just have to know why Brits are better drunk. :)

Our “light” lunch was at the beautiful farm of Corte d’Aibo. It is located about 13 miles (20 km) outside of Bologna, Italy. The views were simply breathtaking. We were on the top of a hill with vineyards as far as the eye could see. You just knew you were in Italian wine country. Corte d’Aibo was not only a restaurant, but a winery, and guesthouse. They even had an old farm dog named Mortadella. She did share the color with the baloney-like meat...and was very round.

View from Corte d'Aibo

There was bread waiting for us on the table with some wonderful EVOO and balsamic condiment. Then the all-organic wine began to flow. I suppose in a way it was fitting that we went to an organic winery for lunch. The entire day was focused on understanding where food came from and the ingredients involved. So when we started with Pignoletto Frizzante, made with 100% pigneletto grapes, I knew exactly what I was drinking. And, as the name suggests, it was slightly fizzy. Wonderful! Throughout the meal we actually had a taste of almost every wine on offer, plus one without a label. That’s how you know it’s good! N was closer to the wine bottle carnage and the corks seemed to be piled up in front of her. She wasn’t the one consuming the lion’s share though. She was sitting next a pair of British couples traveling together. They seemed to dominate the wine pouring extravaganza.

The beginning of the “light” lunch.

Our first course, after the bread, was juicy mellon topped with prosciutto. Alessandro recommended balsamic condiment drizzled on top. While I didn’t much care for prosciutto while at the factory, this combo was wonderful.

The second course was a small piece of lasagna. I knew this was going to be wonderful because I was having the dish where it was created. Something that I’ve noticed in the States is that many folks use cottage cheese in lasagna. The Italians use that fresh ricotta from the parmigiano-reggiano factories. I am not completely sure, but I think the noodles were made with spinach as well. Yummy!

The third dish was spaghetti with white truffle carbonara. Truffles aren’t a fungi that I often enjoy because of the cost and white truffles are the crème de la crème of the  subterranean mushroom. Of course white truffles come from northern Italy, so I was actually not only having a treat, but a local food as well. Since I was at an organic farmhouse, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were grown on the property. N doesn’t normally like mushrooms, but when mixed with the wonderful carbonara she was in spaghetti bliss.

I don't beg, I just wait for the third course

I should mention at this point that we are pretty full. The portions have been small, but our hosts continued to refill our plates to ensure they had no extras at the end of the meal. It was like going to grandma’s house. The Aussie sitting across from me physically covered her wine glass throughout the meal so that it wouldn’t keep being magically refilled. I didn’t mind since that should have meant more for me...except the Brits were monopolizing the wine refills!

The fourth course was a simple risotto dish cooked in the local Le Borre wine, which is made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This gave the dish a very rich color with the flavor to match. We were instructed that a little bit of parmigiano-reggiano on top was a good idea. I knew from prior research on Italy that unless they offer you the cheese, the dish probably isn’t meant to have it on top. This one didn’t disappoint.

The fifth course was...ummm, it was...no idea. After having so many dishes, I don’t think I would have remembered even if I wrote this sooner. N and I agree there was a fifth course, but we have no idea what it was. It was good though. :)

The sixth, and final course was chicken thighs in the same Le Borre sauce as the risotto. The sides were local roasted veggies. While I really wanted to enjoy this dish, I was too full to have more than a bite. I wanted to take a break and have some wine but the bottles were all in front of the Brits. Damn!

After lunch we were offered coffee, which means espresso, and a small plate of bite-sized desserts. There were strawberries, brownies, and some type of wonderful lemon cake thing. This dish was small and delicate and I was able to have a few pieces of fruit.

It was time to be returned to the hotel. We were in the van with the Brits. They were a really lively bunch. The gentleman I was talking to kept dropping the F-bomb, which is friends commented that he only does when he was drunk. On the drive out and between locations there were probably five words spoken in the van. The way back was completely different. Once Brits have some alcohol, they completely open up. As a side note, I met a Croatian tennis player on a ferry in Croatia that used to live in London. She commented to us about her experience that the British weren’t very warm to outsiders. I suppose she just didn’t see enough of them drunk.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) III

Part 3 of K's Series

I have been reminded a few times that I haven’t completed this series. I apologize for that, but there were some interwebz difficulties while staying in Bol, Island of Brač, Croatia. Simply put they didn’t work so well from my working area. But I am now in Dubrovnik, Croatia and I have the capability to finish my series.

Our third (and final) stop before lunch on our Food Experience was a prosciutto ham factory. Much like parmigiano-reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar of Modena, there is a consortium that oversees the quality of DOP prosciutto.

property of blog.voicekey.org
Seriously, it just sits there!

There really was too much to watch at the ham factory because it is mostly just waiting. I had always wrongfully assumed that prosciutto was smoked or heat treated in some way. Nope. Cold, salt, and pig are the core ingredients needed to make this delicious treat. It really was a food education!

I didn’t really enjoy the ham while at the factory with all the pork shoulders hanging around me, but I must admit that it was very sweet. Given the right temperature and proper care the sweetness of the pork really came out. It really makes me wonder why most American pork products end up with sugar in them. I suppose it is because we don’t want to wait...

Back to the process. The prosciutto factory receives fresh pork shoulders each week from a local butcher. There are very specific requirements on how old the pig is, what type of food it has received, and the type of conditions that it grew up in. If there is one thing I learned about DOP products, it is that everything is traceable from the field to the factory so that you know exactly what you are putting in your body. When the butcher drops off the shoulders, the delivery driver waits until each one is individually inspected to ensure it meets the standards of DOP prosciutto. The ones that don’t make the cut are sent back to the butcher and used for other products.

Once the shoulders are in the warehouse they are salted and then lots of time goes by. They are moved to different temperature-controlled rooms during the process, but that’s how it works: salt, wait, salt, wait, then wait some more! Unlike DOP parmigiano-reggiano cheese, which is certified by sound, a horse bone needle is poked into specific spots and the aroma is how the certification is made.

You have probably figured out that I haven’t mentioned the Brits in the post. That is because there really was nothing spectacular about this part of the trip. We didn’t even get very much wine! Part IV will fully explain the story when I talk about the “light” lunch we were served. :)

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

No one in Croatia says “the best thing since sliced bread.” This is because they don’t have sliced bread. K says that we could make a fortune by bringing over sliced bread, fitted sheets, brooms, and peanut butter.

Tell me a swiffer wouldn't blow their minds.

It’s not that we’re bashing on Croatia, because we love this place. However, if there’s one thing traveling will do, it’s remind you of everything you miss from home.

I should start by saying that I’m suffering from some overwhelming homesickness at the moment, as I missed an important family event last weekend. Additionally, I’m taking an upcoming trip to my adventure partner’s home of origin, and the excitement of seeing our friends and family is about to kill me.

I feel incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to travel and see the world through the lens of other cultures. There’s nothing quite as cool as experiencing the way another country navigates through life.  I can also appreciate the things that other countries have embraced that I wish America had (roundabouts, open air markets, and free healthcare, anyone?) However, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten all of things that make my home special.

With that in mind, I dedicate this post to things that I miss about America.

1. Convenience. This doesn’t just mean the convenience of being able to buy ammo, a pregnancy test, bacon, and a lawn mower at two in the morning. Convenience is an all-encompassing phenomenon in the states. I can get anything I need, at any time, and I can probably get it from a drive-thru.

The biggest convenience I miss at this point is a washer and dryer. A full-size washer and dryer, not that 2-gallon combination piece of shit that Europe has embraced. I don’t want to say that I’m tired of washing my clothes in a mop bucket and stringing them around the room, but there’s probably more artistic ways to decorate a kitchen.

2. Grocery stores. Yes, every country has grocery stores, but not in the way that we know and love. This goes along with my comments on convenience. Grocery stores are not open at a time that would be conducive to anyone with a job. Even the ones that boast “24 hours” are only open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. This means that everyone is trying to cram into the dairy aisle on Saturdays, and no one is enjoying themselves. Tesco is the most hostile place I’ve ever been.

Additionally, each country organizes their store in a different way, and it never makes sense. For example, you would think that cinnamon sticks would be in the aisle with the rest of the spices, right? No. Cinnamon sticks are located next to the flour, which is near the bakery, which is on the other side of the store.

Eggs should be in the refrigerated section next to the milk and butter, but instead you’ll find them on the shelf next to the canned hot dogs, because why the hell not? As an aside, canned hot dogs are surprisingly delicious. Desperation is an ugly animal.

3. Street signs. The first step to getting where you need to go is knowing where you are right now. I’m not even trying to be cute and metaphorical there; I seriously have no idea where the hell I am most of the time. You know those green signs with clearly printed white letters that tell you what street you’re on? Yeah, no one else does that.

Roads that are wide enough to accommodate two cars simultaneously are also a bit of an oddity. It’s much easier to build one lane, label it as 60 mph, and then put up a warning sign. Problem solved!

I could probably create an entirely separate blog about roads and all things automotive related, so I’ll limit this rant to one more thing: grid patterned streets. Miss your turn? That’s cool! Take the next one.

I understand that most of the roads in England are older than my country, so it makes sense that they would follow whatever plan was laid out centuries ago. However, they continue their eclectic patterns of squiggles and loops in their new developments, presumably so that it will blend with the rest of the area.

4. Familiar foods. I can’t belittle the culinary delights of the places I’ve visited. Every country has its own amazing dishes, from sushi in Japan to fresh feta in Greece. I love food, LOVE it, and the variety of flavors has been one of the most rewarding things about living and traveling abroad.

I wouldn’t trade the delicious food experiences I’ve had for anything, but everyone has their favorite foods from home. I make a list of specific things I have to eat each time I visit the states, and none of them could be considered culinary masterpieces. Red Lobster cheesy biscuits, Dairy Queen’s chicken strip basket (God help you if doesn’t have the country gravy), eggs benedict, and that bowl thing from KFC that has their entire menu swimming in mashed potatoes. Don’t act like you don’t know which one I’m talking about! None of these things could hold a candle to the homemade ricotta and balsamic vinegar I had in Italy, but I still miss them!

I miss them because they taste like home. They taste like happy memories at familiar places, and no amount of moussaka in Crete can make up for that (although God knows I’ve tried!) Which brings me to the most important thing I miss about home…

5. Friends and family (and friends that ARE family).
It doesn’t matter how many wonderful people I meet on my travels, no one will compare to my friends and family back home. Yes, you make look around at your family and think they’re all bat shit crazy (because they probably are) but they made you who you are today. They’re irreplaceable.

One of the driving forces behind a love of travel is the fact that you can be anyone you want during your trip. No one knows who you are. They don’t know your history or the fact that you still sucked your thumb all the way through kindergarten and are hopelessly uncoordinated. For all they know, you’re whoever (and whatever) you say you are.

At home, there are people who watched you puke all over your desk in Mr. B’s freshman science class, and they love you just the same. As cool as it is to be whoever you want to be for a week, there’s nothing quite the same as knowing that there’s people out there who love you unconditionally. No matter how much I see and how far I travel, these are the people that make me want to come home.

But I seriously need a washer and dryer.

When Life Gives You Lemons

…buy a liter of vodka. Wait, is that not how the saying goes? I guess I should start at the beginning.

We made it to Croatia! This is a feat to be celebrated, as we took a ferry across the Adriatic. The walls were so thin that when our neighboring cabin turned on their lights, our room had a nice ambient glow as well. In the end, the ship stayed afloat and we landed at Zadar.

The most exciting thing we did in Zadar was visit the sea organ. The sea organ is basically a musical instrument that crafts sounds based on the way the waves pump air into its pipes. It’s a massive concrete structure with holes drilled into it, each set to different notes. As the tides and waves change, the air blows through in different ways and creates a variety of sounds. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe. I sat and believed for quite some time, as can be evidenced by my sunburn.

We spent four lovely days at our apartment in Bibinje (Ba-bin-ya), which is just south of Zadar. Bibinje was a quiet village, but very laid-back and hospitable. I’ve never met such a welcoming group of people. Our landlady was kind enough to make us two different types of cake: one chocolate banana cream, and one cherry cheese. If there’s a way into my skeptical heart, it’s probably cake. In fact, her cake is the reason we’ll be leaving such a high review of her apartment.

The apartment itself was a bit lacking. To start, I chose that particular place because it boasted laundry facilities. “Facilities” simply met that she had a line strung in the front lawn, and a tub for hand washing our clothes. This really wasn’t much of a problem, since we’ve been hand washing our clothes for the last few weeks. Oh the things I would do for a full size washer and dryer!!

The real downside was that the place didn’t offer air conditioning. As I’ve mentioned before, this isn’t that uncommon. However, there wasn’t even a fan. We spent four fairly miserable, sticky nights with the windows open. Opening the windows meant we invited in a variety of critters, from bugs to lizards, and we also got to experience the sounds of the Croatian nightlife. I learned that a cat fight and a chorus of barking dogs sound the same in every country, and that midnight is the best time to use a table saw.

That being said, Croatia is my new favorite country. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, as well as being the most friendly.  Everyone is willing to lend a hand, whether it be directions to the beach or the best way to get from one island to another.

We’re currently staying in an awesome apartment on the Croatian island of Brac. It has lemon, orange, and olive trees growing right outside our door. Our landlord said he only grows them so his guests can enjoy them, and we have definitely obliged his request. I’ve never seen a lemon tree, let alone picked fresh lemons with my own hands. They are amazing! They’re sun ripened and warm, and they have this incredibly sweet yet tangy scent.

I picked that with my bare hands!

The first time my adventure partner set one in my palm, I thought “vodka tonic,” and we walked straight to the corner store. I don’t want to say too readily that I’ve found heaven, but if it exists on earth, it might just be in Croatia.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) II

Part 2 of K's Series

I started off the first post with a teaser about how you’ve probably never had real balsamic vinegar. This is actually the post where I explain that view. Real balsamic vinegar is the “balsamico di Modena” which is a region near Tuscany. Unlike the parmigiano-reggiano cheese, balsamic vinegar can be translated. Similar to the wonderful cheese though it is regulated by the same consortium and the real stuff holds the “DOP” seal of approval. You know you’ve got the real thing because there is a special 100ml bottle that holds the tasty black gold. And it’s slightly expensive. The 12 year old (youngest allowed) will set you back around €40 with the extravecchio (25 years and older) running into the €100s.

the only difference between makers is the label

Taking a step back a bit, I’d like to show you how balsamic is made. I have always thought that oil and vinegar with bread was wonderful. The flavor of balsamic vinegar mixed with the EVOO just made so much sense in my mouth. I figured that balsamic vinegar was a byproduct of making wine. You make wine and then you have the left over grape musk which makes the vinegar. I was only partially correct. Proper balsamic isn’t a byproduct, it is the product. Traditional, DOP approved, balsamic vinegar has one ingredient: cooked grape musk. The grapes can vary (slightly), but that’s it. That’s all true balsamic vinegar is.

The pink bunny has nothing on this!

Now it really doesn’t matter too much, which is why I never knew that fact, but it is amazing. To make the balsamico di Modena they put the cooked grape musk into a set of five or more successfully smaller barrels, known as a battery. Then they wait. Each year they take liquid from the larger barrels to refill the smaller and repeat for 12 years. Then, with DOP approval, they can produce 1L per battery. Ninety percent of that can be bottled and sold and ten percent is kept by the consortium, no doubt as “quality control.” Just like Her Majesty's Custom Service quality controlled my ornamental Japanese sword, no doubt.

There are other options of course, if they wait 25 years they have a different type, it’s the extra special (name of old stuff). The “factory,” which was actually just a villa, that we went to was Villa San Donnino and they supplement their income with balsamico condimento (balsamic condiment) which is a six year vintage mixed with wine vinegar. By law they aren’t allowed to call it balsamic vinegar because it isn’t, not really. Their particular one is called “nerone” and it is going to be great on some salad!

The Brits.

My title would have you believe that there is a story behind the British reference and now I will start threading that story. The finale, of course, will be in part four. :) Our tour group of the food experience consisted of 14 people, mostly old couples...and us. There were minorities of Americans and Australians with the core group being English. I’m pretty sure that the Brit next to us had not only never had true balsamic vinegar, but never had vinegar in the first place. Which is strange considering the Brits invented “brown sauce” which is a vinegar-based bbq sauce. I didn’t see it first-hand but my adventure partner assures me that her face was priceless. She hated every one of the samples we tried. We had commercial balsamic vinegar with more ingredients that are pronounceable, a white balsamic condiment, balsamic condiment, 12 year old balsamic, and a 45 year balsamic. I felt like I was at a Scotch tasting. The Brit was having none of it...poor woman.

Something unexpected.

Do you remember the ricotta I mentioned in the first part of this series? Alessandro bought some of the fresh stuff and served it at the balsamic villa. We had ricotta with balsamic jelly on top. This was simply wonderful and I’m not sure if having the same thing from store-bought would have the same flavor (when I try I’ll let you know). For dessert we had gelato with the nerone drizzled on top. I had no idea that gelato and balsamic vinegar could be so wonderful!


Many Italians in the region make balsamic vinegar but don’t go through the pain of having it certified for sale. It’s for family use. The traditional model is that a battery is made on the birth of each child by a special group of coopers in the region. I say special because there are actually openings in the barrels because the evaporation each year plays an important role in the process. So how did the folks at Villa San Domnino get involved in actually being one of the 100ish families that actually sell the product? When the current owner’s family bought the 1900s villa in the 40s, they discovered a few balsamic batteries in the attic. They now sell 50 bottles of year of the 100 year old balsamic. I couldn’t afford it, but the 45 year old looked like molasses, so I can only guess the brilliant flavor of the kingpin of their operation.

Next up: the prosciutto farm

Odds and Ends from Bologna

K found us an unbelievable deal on the hotel we’ve been staying at for the last six days. I have no idea what kind of voodoo magic website he went to when he booked this place, but hats off to him. The only catch is that they charge for Internet, which is why you haven’t seen many posts this week. In fact, they charge for everything, so I’ve been making good use of my laundry on the road skills.

I have to add that this hotel has the weirdest toilet I’ve ever seen. It’s some kind of suction powered thing, but you have to punch this big button somewhere between 4 and 25 times before it finally “powers up” and flushes. It’s like cranking a generator, which is pretty much the last thing I want to do in the middle of the night. I’m going to have freakishly muscular thumbs by the time we leave this place. I take consolation in the fact that our neighbors appear to be having a worse time of it than we are, based on the number of times I can hear them pushing the button and yelling in their bathroom.

In other news, we’ve been exploring the local grocery stores, trying out a variety of foods and discount beverages. This afternoon we bought a bottle of 1 euro “champagne” which was so classy it decided to open itself while sitting on the desk. It was like an alcoholic shotgun went off in our room. Scared the ever-loving bejeebus out of me, which was evidenced by the screaming of “Oh holy shit!” and diving for cover.

I'll take a mimosa!

Tonight we finally went to the dive restaurant down the street from our hotel. I don’t know why this is, but in every country one rule seems to hold true: The dodgier the exterior, the better the food. This place was no exception. Their pasta rocked and they topped it off with freshly grated Parmesan. I heart Italy. I’m glad I didn’t find this gem of a restaurant until tonight, or I would have been there for every meal.

The next place we’re staying at in Croatia doesn’t have Internet either, but I imagine we’ll be able to find a café somewhere to indulge our blogging and Cracked reading needs. Thanks for reading and we’ll see you on the other side of the Adriatic!

Relaxing in Bologna

If you’ve been reading K’s four part special on our Italian food tour, you know that we had to get up crazy early to stand outside and wait for our ride (who was late). The single gulp of coffee I was able to choke down before running out the door was scalding hot on the back of my throat, and I was in a fairly pissy mood.

As we drove to our destination, I noticed all of the angry drivers laying on their horns and realized that it was a Monday morning. Glancing at my watch, I saw that only two weeks before, I would’ve been driving to work. Now I was watching the sunrise over the Tuscan countryside on a highway to Milan. I continued to stare out the window, seeing the tiny villages give way to vineyards dotting the hills, and couldn’t help but smile. Never again will I start off my week with that commute.

We originally decided that we would stay in Bologna and day trip out to Florence and Pisa. On the day we wanted to go to Florence, we stood in four different lines at the train station, looking for a ticket machine that would accept cash since our American credit cards are pretty much useless here. After 30 frustrating minutes, I turned to my adventure partner and said, “I’m just going to throw an idea out here, and you can throw it right back. What if we just said ‘fuck it’ and stayed in Bologna for the day?”

He quickly agreed and after a few minutes of walking, we ended up at this amazing park over looking the city. I was surprised how many people were in the park, considering it was a Tuesday morning. For the most part, they were sitting around on the benches, chatting with each other, and smoking cigarettes.

The scene reminded me of Spain. Our tour guide in Barcelona had explained that unemployment amongst young adults in the city is at 52%, so they have some free time on their hands.

Whether in Barcelona or Bologna, no one seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere. After an hour or so, we wandered from one end of the city to the other, and ended up at a different park. Same story. Loads of people sleeping in the sun, picnicking, and chain-smoking their way through another long afternoon.

I thought to myself, ‘When in Bologna,’ and sat down next to the pond. I watched turtles, fish of all sizes, ducks, and geese splash in the water. I played 15 games of Sudoku (the difficult ones, IN PEN!!). I drank two cups of espresso and ate some salami from the co-op. I spent another hour people-watching. Pleather is making a huge comeback here.

I returned to the park today, where I read a book for an hour and drank a beer in the sun. Then I lay in the grass and watched the clouds for a while. I think the last time I watched the clouds was when I was a child, and I’ve been missing out. When I was kid, I would think to myself, ‘That one looks like a marshmallow!’ My adult brain is much more creative. ‘That one looks like a three-legged Welsh Corgi laying on a throw pillow next to Charlie Sheen!’

My brain can only focus on cute things now.

My ever-pragmatic adventure partner says that the last two days should’ve demonstrated to me why the European economy is in the toilet. For now, I’m choosing to ignore that fact. Maybe it’s the sun or that I’m just not as stressed out from continually hating my job, but my time in the park has been some of the most relaxing few days of my life. I’ve finally had a few hours to simply sit in the grass and think. I didn’t worry about what I had to do next, and for once I wasn’t in a hurry.

I might not be able to maintain this lifestyle forever, but I hope that when I return to “normal” I’ll still take the time to watch the clouds, if only to see what shapes emerge. Most of all, I hope I can cling to my newfound ability to slow down and (literally) smell the roses.

When in Bologna...(or how Brits are more fun drunk) I

The first part of K's four part series. Enjoy!

You’ve probably never had real balsamic vinegar. I didn’t realize that was true for me until a few days ago when I had the opportunity to have the real stuff! Let me tell you about what I’ve learned. Read on with this four part series on our food experience.

To start things off, I should give you some history. As I’m writing this I’m sitting in my hotel room in Bologna, Italy. Bologna is a really fun city to explore and it doesn’t take that long. Most of the main streets are arcaded which makes even the hottest day enjoyable. It holds Europe’s oldest university (est. 1088) and is a must for any culinary adventure. I bet when you think of “ragu,” you probably think of a brand of spaghetti sauce. Ragù is actually the name of the local bolognese sauce which is exactly what you think it is (expect there isn’t added sugar). Additionally tortellini and lasagna have their origins in the region. I’ve been in love with this region and I didn’t even know it! If pasta isn’t your thing, they also created mortadella, which we know as baloney. In my opinion, this makes Bologna the culinary equivalent to a Roman forum.

The city is not very touristy, which is really nice, and most of the things worth seeing in the city center are actually free. We did find a tour that did look very interesting though. It’s called Italian Days Food Experience and it offers “culinary adventure and food education.” I had no idea how true that was going to be.

You always have to wonder about a tour you can only research online, but when we looked at the reviews on TripAdvisor we found over 300 reviews which were all five stars. This just doesn’t happen online. The last time that happened was when I found a five star cat heating pad on Amazon. The cats loved it! But back to the story...we knew we were in a for a treat. The tour is run by a wonderful couple, Alessandro and Barbara. Barbara handled all of the emailing and scheduling and Alessandro actually conducted the tour. On our chosen day we had to get up crazy early and be outside our hotel at 7:25am. The driver was 10 minutes late, but Alessandro gave us a call to let us know they were running late. Once we got picked up we were driven about 25 miles outside the city in a quiet, unmarked van. Luckily, the driver was wearing an Italian suit and aviators, so we knew it was legit.

The first stop on our food experience was a parmigiano-reggiano cheese factory. The surrounding area smelled of cow manure, which told me the place made fresh cheese. Since the outside of the building was so nondescript, I can only tell you that it was the factory that stamps their cheese 2552. So if you ever see that on a wheel of cheese, we’ve been there! We got out of the van to be greeted by an energetic man named Alessandro. He was wearing a pair of Keds that were colored to look like an Italian flag and a T-shirt of Rembrandt in a beret drinking a coffee from a straw. Very classy! :)

We quickly learned about what real parmigiano-reggiano cheese is and how it is actually controlled by an consortium that holds regulating authority. I’ll spare you the details but the important part is that Denominazione di origine controllata, controlled designation of origin, or simply DOP is the all powerful authority. I learned why we were at the cheese factory so early, they actually start to make the cheese around 5am. We missed the cooking part, but were able to watch them pull the cheese out of the massive 110 gallon copper cooking vats.

Pulling the curd

They began pulling the massive blocks of cheese out and the head chef (I guess you could call him the big cheese) cut them into what would become the cheese wheel. We were slightly shocked by the lack of hairnet and tank top, but with cheese this tasty, what are you to do?

The big cheese

Following this, we toured the rest of the cheese factory to learn about the rest of the process and how much waiting is involved. Before I give you the quick version, I wanted to point out that we also go to see ricotta being made. It’s actually just recooked milk/water/salt and a little steam. It’s a byproduct of the process of making parmigiano-reggiano. The factory sells the fresh stuff to make some extra money. Back to the real cheese.

Cheese vault

Parmigiano-reggiano cheese must be aged at least 12 months and then be individually certified by the DOP to actually be called parmigiano-reggiano. The cheese comes in three grades, parmigiano-reggiano first grade, second grade, and simply “cheese.” Third grade doesn’t get to be called parmigiano-reggiano. In the US if the name is translated, then it isn’t the real thing. If you see a wedge of cheese you can tell the difference because each piece has been labeled, if you can read the parmigiano-reggiano, then it’s first grade. If it has lines in it, second grade. Can’t see any writing? Cheese. Oh and the DOP actually uses sound alone to determine the grade the cheese receives. Uniform sound is the good stuff. :)

Seal of approval

After the tour we were given some Lambrusco, which is a local fizzy red wine. There was also some 14 and 24 month samples of cheese. The older the cheese the more “crystals” that are in it. I had always assumed this was the salt in the cheese, but I learned that it is actually the free amino acids that have been created in the process. Already one fourth finished with my culinary adventure and I received a food education.

Next up: the balsamic vinegar “factory” and why Brits are better drunk

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