Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Motorcycle Diaries

(Written 4/29/2011 from Tel Aviv, Israel)

If I didn’t know any better (which I’m pretty sure I don’t) I just saw an Israeli mafia transaction go down.  Okay…not really.  But it amused me as Roy, the owner of the hostel I'm staying at, was giving me a tour of Tel Aviv and we had to make a pit stop at the bank to pay the landlord of his new building…in cash. 
View from the bank on the 19th floor
The good news is there is so much security and military presence here that I feel completely secure and safe (even though I'm traipsing around like Tony Soprano's sidekick).  Riding around on the back of his motor scooter, however, is a different story.  I do realize that in many foreign countries motorcycles or scooters are in fact a mode of transportation and have less connotation of being for "bad asses”, but it still terrifies me to put my life in the hands of somebody else...let alone on something that moves while only balanced on 2 wheels.  (Maybe if it had training wheels I would feel safer?  Or handle bars with the streamers down the sides...) 

It doesn’t help that the first time I witnessed any sort of “wild and crazy” memories of my parents was when they returned from Tahiti and had to be airlifted to a hospital because they crashed a motor scooter and ended up temporarily in a wheelchair and the other pushing it one handed with a sling on the other arm.   
My Ma and Pa - Circa 1997
After a few devastating experiences on the motor scooter (probably only to me)...we stopped at the Wine and Dine festival looking out over the Tel Aviv port.  A great first night and introduction to Israel.

Day 2:  Began with sleeping in (finally!) and a trip to the beach.  I also explored the fascinating shuks (markets) in the city, and then settled into another night of empanada making.  Apparently this has become a fave of mine and although the prep time is long and laborious, it’s always fun to hang around with new friends while putting together the delicious little concoctions. 
Shuk Ha'Carmel in Tel Aviv

Of course this was too tempting that I couldn't NOT get one!
Bread with cheese?  Yes....duh....obviously.
Add to that the experience of shopping for all the ingredients and it’s a great way to immerse myself a little more into the culture.  I loved the myriad of markets and street stalls that have dried fruits, nuts, grains, etc. in big bins where you can pick out what you want.  Right there you can sample a dried mango (my favorite!) or any other type of delectable treat.  And instead of going to a big box retailer that supplies everything I had to go to a butcher, an olive guy, a raisin guy, a flour guy, etc.  I'm pretty sure Safeway and QFC wouldn't be too keen on me ripping open a can of peanuts on aisle 6 to "try" them.

While I slaved away at a pile of golden crisp, meat stuffed, sweet and savory carb critters I chatted with the hostel owner and the other guests.  I must admit that while people are waiting in the kitchen, coaxed out of their rooms by the promising aroma of meat and dough frying in oil, there is a tone of friendship.  We welcome in everybody to join in the eating and we talked for hours as we sipped wine and shared stories from around the globe.
Roy and Lucy with the bowl of empanadas!
Clearly I have a passion for food and about what happens around the table…a sharing of more than just the food itself.  My request for you today is to open up a relationship – and consider doing it with food.  Who is it that you want to get to know?  Is it the high powered exec at a local company whose brain you’d love to pick?  Why not take them out for lunch?  Or maybe it’s an old friend that you’ve lost touch with…how about making dinner at your place?  Or perhaps it’s the homeless guy who sits on Main street all day long…what about a sack lunch in exchange for a smile? 
After all…sharing a meal is more than just the food.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fiddling on a Greek Roof

(Written on 4/25/2011 from Paros, Greece)

“The wind rushed over the tall wispy grass as he gently swept her hair away from her face.  They were enveloped in joy as they stared over the glistening water and the sun dipped beyond the mountains in the distance.  The birds sang as they dined on a big fat, garlicky, oniony, roasted lamb which had been painstakingly skewered and turned on a spit for 5 hours alongside its insides…and accompanied by potatoes slathered in juicy, rich, buttery sauce.” 
That’s what I imagine a love novel set in Greece around Easter time would sound like…harmonious and peaceful and then overwhelmingly, spectacularly gluttonous.

Sunset in Santorini
Alex and I met up in Santorini to spend a few days gasping at the beauty of the island, picking our way through little bakeries and shops and restaurants, and hiding from the cold and rain in our hotel room while sipping local wine and (admittedly) watching Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.  When we embarrassingly asked the guy at the DVD store if we could rent the movie, he retorted that the DVD was scratched because so many people rented it.   I assume by “so many people” he was referring to college girls studying abroad.  And me.

Fried zucchini and fried tomato balls with tzatziki
Swinging by the port in Oia for lunch

A few days before Easter we hopped on a crowded ferry to the island of Paros where Alex’s friend Eleni and her family have a house.  Before arriving I was forewarned that this was a real Greek family…and that shouting was their way of speaking.  Perfect.
I think loud and boisterous is a general stereotype of Greeks… and since that’s reminiscent of my own family I think I could blend in.  Besides, my obnoxious yelling over the TV or stomping like an elephant (as my brothers call it when I walk...anywhere) might not be as noticeable here. 

I may be as loud as a Greek but I don't drink cofee like them...too fast
On Good Friday we headed to the church with the rest of the small town.  And after the service at midnight they carried a decorated bier symbolic of Jesus’ death in a procession through the town as we all followed with candles.  I walked amongst the locals counting my own blessings for an incredible experience…being part of a local tradition that is still upheld in modern Greece as families all return to the islands where they are from.  And kids, parents, aunts & uncles, and grandparents reunite to spend the holiday together.

The decorated bier being carried out of the church
Saturday evening we went back to the church to light candles and at midnight we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The intention is for everybody to bring the holy flame back to their houses and bless the doorway.  Candles are given to the children (and I got one too!) as gifts that are lit on this holy night.  Unfortunately the wind was gusting and as soon as people brought the flame out from the church it would blow out.  We were one of the few families who managed to cover it and get it all the way back to the house…and then we opened the car door…and it went out.
Eleni, Alex and me on the way to church with our candles

Although we didn’t have the flame we still celebrated with a traditional Greek dinner at about 1 AM…a bit different than my typical eating hours in the U.S.  We had miyiritsa soup…boiled from the insides of the lamb.  It wasn’t my fave but with lemon and spices it wasn’t horrible either.  Not a traumatic experience like the stomach in South Africa. 

We also took turns bumping the dyed eggs to see whose would break.  It felt like a March Madness tournament as we challenged each other until ultimately there was a “winner” who was crowned with the title of “the lucky one” - who will receive blessings and good fortune.  I had a run going for a while and made it to the Final Four until Eleni’s brother cracked my egg and shattered my dreams of this year’s championship.

Alex, Eleni's mom, Eleni's brother, and his girlfriend Olga
A little game of what we like to call "spot the carcass"

THERE it is!!!
Eleni is still at the ripe age of 21 and she made me feel like I’ve aged 50 years in the last 5.  She returned from her restaurant job at 3 AM and tried to coax Alex and me into hitting the few bars in town (which I’m pretty sure is half of the revenue for the island…locals like to party.)  Alex and I were quite content lying around the house in our sweats.  Since when did I become the “Sorry, I’m too tired” girl?! 
Eventually the “old ones” caved and the 3 of us girls trotted into town.  At the local bars 20-somethings and 30-somethings who returned for Easter with their families gathered.  Greek music blared through the speakers and Eleni was in her element as she danced and sang and saluted familiar faces.
The next morning I awoke to the whole lamb being roasted on the spit outside.  Over lots of wine and coffee the Easter feast was prepared.  I even ventured to have lungs, cheek, liver, and brain.  The brain was actually “very stomachable” as I would rate on my scale of cooked animal insides.  But I steered clear of the stomach…

Eleni's mom prepping the spit

Hours of roasting...
Eleni's beautiful house

Poor little guy...his tongue is even sticking out

Brain...not so bad
Amid all the eating, Eleni pulled out the gorgeous new pair of salmon colored wedges that her mom got her…and I almost fainted.  You know how most people get clammy hands and excited when they see a cute guy/girl or have to make a public speech?  That happens to me with food (obviously)…and shoes (my other love).  And Eleni’s new shoes made me swoon.  Then I compared them to my blech, gross, worn them for too many days in a row “safari shoes” and deep envy set in.  Okay…so I’m still a bit materialistic.  
Feeling like Cinderella...they even fit!
To mend my broken heart I did the only thing that made sense…drowned it in food.  Alex and I made deviled eggs to share a bit of our U.S. Easter traditions with the Greeks.  And I’m fairly certain between the two of us we ate the majority of them…there’s nothing like a good deviled egg.

Easter in Greece with a beautiful and sweet family was one of the most memorable experiences of my trip.  It makes me think of all the important holidays that I have with my family and the traditions that bond us together year after year.  I’m known in my family for being the stubborn one who refuses to abandon tradition.  I don’t care that my brothers and I are all grown…I still demand that every Christmas Eve we write Santa letters and leave them out by the stockings with cookies, carrots and milk.  Yes, I’m a loser…but it’s important to me to carry on my family’s traditions.  (I can hear my mom’s voice emulating Tevye, “Tradition!”) 
Wikipedia says that, “the English word "tradition" comes from the Latin traditio, the noun from the verb traderere or tradere (to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping); it was originally used in Roman law to refer to the concept of legal transfers and inheritance.” 
My question for you today is…what traditions do you cherish?  What are the memories that endure when you protect your traditions?  How can you meaningfully share the traditions that were handed down to you?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Luckiest Girl

Some of you might be wondering where I've been....well, I am in fact back to my humble abode (or as my father ever so quickly reminds me...his humble abode.)  So...yes, I have completed my trip.  And yes, I was neglecting my blog.  But no, it wasn't entirely my fault.  There was an unfortunate food poisioning incident (I'll spare you the details), and then an inability to access Blogger in China.  Therefore...I am now back to the blog world and will continue to post about my travels until I get you all the way through China and my new recipes.  :)

(Written on 4/17/2011 from Crete, Greece)

In addition to my Zulu name “The only girl”, I think I should get a Greek name “The luckiest girl.”  I can hardly believe that my travels continue to get better and better.
When I arrived in Crete, Tony sent me to Costis, who was crazy busy renovating his cafĂ©/bar, but didn’t spare anytime to show me around the small town of Chania.  After strolling through his place about 6 hours before the re-grand opening I wasn’t sure if they would ever make it.  The furniture was just arriving and they were putting final touches on the paint.  After offering to help I was promptly “shooed” away…clearly they could tell I don’t have a “handy” bone in my body.
Instead I stopped to flex my eating muscles…something that I’m much more gifted at than any work with a hammer, paintbrush or (insert any tool).  

Key Cafe - mid renovation

After asking the waiter to bring me whatever he liked most I was given Ntakos – a dried bread covered with fresh pureed tomatoes and mizithura cheese, kalamata olives, Italian spices, and topped with Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  Man….how the Greeks love their tomato, cheese and olives.  And man…how I love the Greeks for loving their tomato, cheese and olives. 

The Ntakos was followed by my first ever plate of snails.  I got a quick lesson on pulling and twisting them out of their little shells which made me think of Pretty Woman’s restaurant scene… “slippery little suckers.”  And although I had mixed feelings about the texture, I couldn’t help but enjoy slurping them down since they had a rich flavor from being fried with olive oil, rosemary, vinegar, and rock salt.  On a more morbid note I was having flash backs to salting slugs in Mom’s garden as a child…a rather cruel (yet effective) method of protecting Mom’s precious flowers.

After stuffing myself full of local cuisine I strolled back to Costis’ bar that was surprisingly ready, paint dried, and overflowing with locals.  His friend (and now my friend) Tassos, showed me around.  Little did I know that after pinning him as a “chef” (I could tell since he arrived late to the party and was from Athens and only in the islands for the summer) that he would also become my temporary roommate.  After Tassos learned I was trying to escape my overpriced, overrepresented, and under delivered hotel, he graciously offered me a place to stay in his new apartment. 

Check out how cool Tassos' toaster is!  It even sings the Micky Mouse song when the toast pops!!

I felt like Tassos was an answer to my prayers.  Not only did he offer me refuge from my hotel, but he and his cousin own Karnagio, a popular local restaurant that has been around for over 20 years. 

Day after day Tassos took me to the restaurant with him, where I sat and read, and was treated to the local cuisine…dish upon dish upon dish of wonderful food.  Stuffed vegetables with rice and rosemary, pie with zucchini and cheese, avocado spreads, eggplant spreads, cheese pies with herbs…and the list goes on.

Making cheese pies at Karnagio
After bonding over our love for watermelon Tassos gave me a Watermelon Pie recipe that I’ll surely make for my pops (a true watermelon fan) when I get home.  It’s not quite watermelon season here so that will be my first test…

Tassos was a blessing…not even in disguise…just a blessing.  I couldn’t have picked a better friend for myself during my stay in Crete.  His spirit and positive attitude made me inspired to continue spreading his warmth and energy on the rest of my trip.  Before I left he wrote me a note…. “Most people come and go but some stay.”  Tassos will definitely stay.
My thought for you today is to pick somebody in your life whose spirit is infectious.  Think of that person, imagine that person, and try to embody them today.  Take from them their energy and positivity and spread it in your work, your fun, and your life.

Tassos tried to teach me how to surf...and in the Mediterranean nonetheless!

Goofing around at the restaurant

The beautiful town of Chania

Watermelon Pie (from Greece)

2 kg watermelon (deseeded) (or about 4.5 lbs.)
2 glasses (250 ml each) of sugar
800-900 grams of self-rising flour (or about 28 to 32 ounces)
1 tsp. vanilla
½ cup of honey
A little bit of oil for baking
And a little more honey

Drain the watermelon and mash it.  Mix in a bowl the watermelon, sugar, flour, cinnamon, vanilla, and ½ cup of honey.  Stir.
Oil a tray and sprinkle some sesame on the bottom.  Put the mixture in and sprinkle more sesame and a little bit of oil over the top.
Bake at 350 degrees (or 180 Celsius) for about 3 hours.  When you take it out of the oven and it’s still warm drizzle more honey over the top and let it absorb.
And if you make it before I do…let me know how it goes!  Enjoy!
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